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Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray

Glowing praise and a stark warning
I won't argue with nearly every other reviewer who has called this film "beautiful". But I wish someone had warned me as I'm warning you; this film will NOT make you feel "beautiful" about the state of the world. In other words, if you happen to be teetering on the brink of a depressed misanthropic existentialist crisis, uh... you might wanna skip this movie for now and stick with Singin in the Rain.

Not that I know anyone like that.

*shoves copy of Camus "The Stranger" in back pocket*

"Les dimanges de Ville d'Avray" is a the story of a soldier who's suffering from PTSD-induced amnesia as he strikes up a magical friendship with a young girl. That's the story, but the film is a painfully merciless skewering of human society and its penchant for judging and persecuting those who do not conform to society's norms.

If you know what I'm talking about--or worse, if you have *experienced* what I'm talking about--then you might want to... like I said, go with Gene Kelly. If, on the other hand, you're ok with films that stab and pick at the ugly blisters of humanity--films such as "A Clockwork Orange", "Brazil", "House of Sand and Fog", "Land of Plenty" or "Crash" (all great films but dear lord hide the sharp metal objects), then pop this in for an experience you'll never forget.

Identificazione di una donna

Ouch dude my brain hurts
First the good. The fog scene. OMG. Incredible. Even if you decide to skip this movie, you should try to find that scene and watch it. Next the bad: ouch dude my brain hurts.

"Identification of a Woman" was the last feature film by master director Michelangelo Antonioni before he suffered a debilitating stroke and lost his ability to communicate. It was also his long-awaited, eagerly-anticipated salivatorily-received return to the cinema of his native Italy after some 15 years making films in the UK & USA. This is a landmark for the fans, and as far as that goes I am... how does one say "fanboi" in Italian?

But wow, this is a difficult film.

Although the story is easy enough to follow (a director searches for the perfect female character for his latest movie whilst personally going through several women in his life), the plot is not the main focus of the movie. Rather, the main focus is on Antonioni's style of storytelling which has always been cryptic and deliberately confounding.

In this case it can be outright frustrating or even infuriating. This is because, unlike Antonioni's earlier Italian works that you probably love him for ("L'avventura", "La notte", "L'eclisse", "Red Desert"), here of course we don't have the wonderfully human Monica Vitti or any of the other interesting characters such as L;eclisse's boy-faced charmer Alain Delon or Red Desert's broodingly introspective Richard Harris. Here the characters are all deliberately wooden personifications of social tiers and personality types. While, yes, that successfully shifts focus to the theme of the film, it makes for a difficult movie watching experience.

Further complicating the experience are some explicit sexual scenes which can be disturbing to watch (a scene of a man aggressively pleasuring a woman with his hand, leaving nothing to the imagination) which was undoubtedly Antonioni's deliberate embracing of the new sexually explicit cinematic style of the 80s. Indeed, a prominent theme in many of his works is that new ways must be forcefully embraced even at the expense of losing our traditions.

So it all fits with what he's saying here. I won't argue with his presentation. I'll just say, wow that was difficult. Other reviewers have noted that you really have to watch this film twice. I'm sure I'll give it another go soon enough. I just need to rest my brain first.

Le mirage

A polished movie that's suffers from a disturbing flaw
Production-wise, acting-wise, visually, and with regard to the music soundtrack, "Le mirage" is well made. My huge criticism is with the way the film attempts to justify sexual assault.

The film uses several groan worthy devices to make us feel sympathy & affinity for the sexual assaulter while trying to make it look like the victims overreacted. The cartoonish mother-in-law scene was totally unnecessary and as subtle as the Hindenburg where suddenly in the final act a new character is introduced (a sour faced, profanity-spewing mother in law) whose only role is to lambast the sexual assaulter while the assaulter clings to crying children for maximum tear jerking effect. Dude, you lost me right there.

We realize that this entire story is a pity party for a scumbag who never shows a conscience except when caught. That's all I'll say, except that the otherwise excellent director Ricardo Trogi shouldn't be judged by this film alone (he didn't write the story, only directed it). My strong suggestion is to skip this flick and instead check out Trogi's excellent autobiographical quirky comedy "1987".


The intersection of fear, sadness and beauty
"Fear and sadness are two sides of the same coin" said Kiyoshi Ogasawara, assistant director of this film. That simple statement gives us a lot to think about. Is it because our greatest fear is being eternally sad? Or is there a scientific reason such as the brain's amygdala (primitive emotion) playing a role in both fear & sadness? In any case, this association is prevalent in "Kwaidan" (literal translation "strange told stories"). And in this stunning visual telling, the filmmakers introduce the idea of a 3rd unlikely link: beauty.

Enough heady gobbledygook; the rest of my review will talk about the movie. "Kwaidan" is a collection of 4 supernatural stories selected from the works of Greek-Irish author Lafcadio Hearn who settled in Japan and decided to translate Japanese folk tales into English. So if you're following the trail, what we have here is a strange re-adaptation into Japanese of an English work that had been adapted from Japanese. Did I lose you? The point is, before the movie even begins, we are already immersed in a surreal nonexistent reality.

The rest of the film is no less surreal. Filmed almost entirely in an enormous 3600ft by 300ft airplane hangar which was entirely decorated to recreate enormous outdoor sets including a very prominent sky, this movie dunks us into a world that can't possibly exist anywhere but in the imagination, and that is where it succeeds at being one of the greatest surrealist works of cinema. Colors are eye-popping, wonderfully balanced and carefully chosen as a painter would carefully choose each color on a canvas. It should be noted that director Kobayashi's first career choice had been to become an art historian but, due to the war he figured he'd be dead before he could achieve that, so he decided to make a living in cinema. But he still retained that strict adherence to the art form (painting) and even kept a scrapbook of famous art pieces whose colors he wished to recreate in this film.

The 4 stories are: (1) "The Black Hair" - a supernatural morality tale about a selfish Samurai who abandons his wife to pursue success far away; (2) "The Woman of the Snow" - the story of a young man who encounters a Yuki-onna, sort of like an ancient Japanese snow vampire (huh??); (3) "Hoichi the Earless" - a lavish, epic tale of a singing storyteller who is conscripted by a legion of ghosts to entertain them; and (4) "In a Cup of Tea" - a powerful closing story about a writer trying to meet the deadline on his latest tale, a segment which pulls together the recurring themes of storytelling and the supernatural.

"Kwaidan" is the first color film done by director Kobayashi, with an enormous budget of 350 million yen ($3.2 million) which was huge back then but still nearly bankrupted the filmmakers. I guess making an airplane hangar look like forests & wheatfields & lakes & temples aint exactly cheap. To say Kwaidan is worth the price of admission is the understatement of the century. Definitely check out this work of art, and to anyone who says "I want my money back", may you be forever haunted by the ancient Japanese ghost of cinema, the Dônin-forontu!

Get it? Down in front. Gawd I really need to stop.


A magic trick within a magic trick ...WITHIN A MAGIC TRICK.
To appreciate this film, or any film for that matter, you have to *want* to believe in it. If you approach "The Magician" as a cynic, like the archetypical cynic and chilling antagonist "Dr. Vergerus" in the story, you'll be left unimpressed by your own design. If on the other hand you approach it as "Sara" the wide-eyed romantic servant girl, or even as the magician Vogler himself--who is aware of the trickery but still desperately wants to believe in himself--then this may end up being your favorite movie of all time.

Plot summary: A rather dismal and uninspired magician, who earns an equally dismal and uninspired living by traveling from town to town with his small troupe of misfits, is commandeered by the chief of police and forced to put on a private performance for a bunch of snobby and powerful elite, presumably for the sole purpose of the magician's own humiliation. What follows is the magician's attempt to pull off the greatest and perhaps the last trick of his life.

That's all I'll say about the plot. "The Magician" (original Swedish title "Ansiktet" which means "The Face" or "The Mask") is a masterpiece of a film which springs from the same universe as Bergman's earlier masterpiece "The Seventh Seal". Although it's set a few centuries later, it features the same brand of dark, morbid themes mixed with provincial humor, powerful symbolism, gorgeous cinematography and a familiar set of actors led by the imposing Max Von Sydow. (Oon a random side note, this is the film that gives you a real appreciation for how damn TALL the guy was! Notice how he has to duck every time he passes through a doorway.) Von Sydow plays a mute character, but I swear his performance is so stunning he doesn't need words. Half a glance is enough to give you the shakes.

In 1967 director Ingmar Bergman was asked what was the meaning of "The Magician" and he responded by telling a story which I'll paraphrase here:

In medieval times, a Chinese woodworker was hired to carve the bells for a temple. He set about his task, dreaming of all the money he'll make, and ended up doing a lousy job. So he threw that away, cleared his head and tried again. 2nd try, he started dreaming of how everyone would love him. Another lousy job. Trashed it. 3rd time he started with a fresh head but soon began dreaming of how this work would immortalize him. Utter rubbish once again. Threw it in the trash. Finally, in a fury, the woodworker started carving again but this time his only goal was to carve a set of bells. Masterpiece. And in the end that's how he won money, love and immortality.

Back to the film. Much like in "The Seventh Seal" where Max Von Sydow is a faithless knight wandering the countryside (and limbo) searching for 1 pure act of goodness to restore his faith in the world, here we have Max Von Sydow as the jaded entertainer/magician who is wandering the countryside (and symbolically limbo) with no satisfaction in life, until he sets out to pull off 1 perfect magic trick.

This theme weaves brilliantly with subject of faith--not necessarily religious faith but as one character says, " 'If only once?' That's what they all say, non believers and believers alike." And that's what I mean in my opening paragraph & the title of this review. The magician character needs to validate his existence by pulling off 1 perfect trick, for no other incentive than the act of performing trick (and appeasing the rage that drives him to the obsession); but suddenly you realize that this film is itself Ingmar Bergman's own magic trick for the viewer. He is the magician immersing us in his cinematic illusion. And furthermore the experience becomes your own magic trick when you realize that the suspension of disbelief required to understand and enjoy this experience falls on your own shoulders.

So if you watch this movie, don't try to rip open the curtain and search for mechanical contraptions. Don't look for "plot holes" or "continuity errors" because those are red herrings deliberately put in place. As one character says in the beginning, a trick that has no explanation isn't in style. Vogler is a magician who uses wires and props and false bottoms, and so is any filmmaker as Bergman wants us to realize. At one critical part of the film, Bergman deliberately turns a torrential downpour into a bright sunny day within seconds, not a drop to be seen on the ground or in anyone's hair. At that precise moment you'll know if you've understood the trick. If it gives you a smile then you'll know you got it. If you hurl your popcorn at the screen, then try another shot of "Granny's love potion" and watch the movie again. "The Magician" is one of the rare films I rate 10/10 stars.

Dai-bosatsu tôge

You'll never chop broccoli the same way again
"Sword of Doom" is an adaptation of a famous, looong-running serial novel "Dai-bosatsu tôge" ("The Great Bodhisattva Pass") which thrilled Japanese readers in weekly installments for some 30 years, 1913-1941. As you might guess, the scope of the original work was epic, bouncing between dozens of characters and plots, and many filmmakers have attempted to bring it to life with varying degrees of success. But here we have what many agree is the greatest cinematic telling. That's because director Kihachi Okamoto doesn't attempt to give us the full serial but instead he focuses almost obsessively on 1 aspect: the portrait of a serial killer.

"Ryunosuke" (EXCELLENTLY played by Tatsuya Nakadai) is a ronin, a disgraced, masterless samurai who, if you think about it, amounts to a glorified contract killer. We quickly learn that Ryunosuke isn't even motivated by money or status, but he is just fascinated with killing. What makes this a fantastic and chilling portrayal is that we watch him change, at first just curious, then intrigued, then thrilled, obsessed, and ultimately consumed by the "drug" of slaughter. Tatsuya Nakadai is perfectly cast for this role as his cryptic gaze and handsomely plastic looks present someone who is full of conflict inside but reveals almost nothing on the surface. When he kills his first victim in the beginning... what is that emotion that passes over his face? Thrill? Or could it be a hint of disgust? Or regret at knowing he has begun a dark journey that can't end well for anyone?

The plot of this film can be very tricky, due to the scope of the source material. At times it can feel disorienting and outright confusing, especially if you're not up on your 19th century Japanese history and politics (many of the characters in the story are based on historical fact), but I think that disorienting nature works to the film's triumph. Our "protagonist" Ryunosuke doesn't care about politics, even though he gets himself enmeshed deeply in political assassinations and ideological movements. He doesn't give a hoot. We never even see him get paid. As long as he gets to kill someone at the end of the day, all is well. And that's why, for us viewers, it's not important to follow the political intrigue, and in fact maybe we're supposed to not care. Because the film takes us subjectively into the singularly obsessed mind of Ryunosuke as he explores this darkest side of human depravity: the need to kill and harm others (yes, including rape - in a disturbing yet tastefully shot scene early on).

Now let's talk about the action. This is a Samurai flick, 2 hours long, and surprisingly there are only 3 real battle scenes. But oh, are they amazing. Each extremely memorable, artistic, and brilliantly shot in a unique way, they aren't just there for the sake of swords & carnage. Each of the 3 scenes is a successive descent into madness for our main character. The first battle is set in the misty forest, all filmed in 1 shot, a long tracking scene that shows us Ryunosuke from a distance, moving in 1 direction with almost a mechanical, unfeeling purpose like the camera. The 2nd battle scene is set in the snow and has him observing from outside--but in his mind immersed within--a more chaotic, cluttered swordfight featuring the incomparable Toshiro Mifune against a legion of shadowy attackers. And the 3rd battle scene... wow. I won't spoil it. You just gotta see it for yourself. Talk about shadowy attackers. We get the long anticipated psychological climax + physical climax where you realize how the serial killer's entire world is full of demons.

The psychosis of a serial killer has been explored in many films in recent years (I suppose due to serial killers being household fixtures these days), but for my money it's the early b&w films that are so affecting, such as Orson Welles' "The Stranger", Hitchcock's "The Lodger", and of course the greatest of them all Fritz Lang's "M". Maybe it's the artistic use of visual contrasts, possible only with b&w, that allows the filmmakers to really exaggerate the bipolar conflict in the mind of the violent lunatic. "Sword of Doom" absolutely takes its place alongside the others and may even be a more indepth portrait because it shows us the evolution/devolution of a psychopath from his own subjective perspective. If you watch it, note how the camera literally adopts Ryunosuke's viewpoint and puts us inside his head. So as he descends into alcoholism, depravity and delusion, we feel it on almost a sympathetic level. Yes, this is a thrilling action violence flick, but if you're paying attention to the message, you may decide to throw out all the sharp metal objects and stick a cork on the end of your fork.

Le samouraï

A Frenchman's magnificent failure at making an American movie
Director Jean-Pierre Melville was smitten with American culture. He adopted the name of an American author, wore a.big white cowboy hat, and drove a gas guzzling Camaro through the narrow streets of Paris. It's no surprise that Melville's gangster film "Le Samouraï" would be drenched in American clichés of early Hollywood, such as emotionlessly masculine characters, equally emotionless and sultry females, grimy hotel rooms and of course so many trenchcoats you'd think Humphrey Bogart's wardrobe closet just exploded. And yet, here I present to you Melville's triumphant failure at making an "American" film.

The opening scene begins with a meticulously symmetrical shot of a musty hotel room so cluttered with shadows that it takes us a minute to realize a man is lying on the bed smoking a cigarette. The man gives us absolutely no clues as to what he's feeling, who he is, or why he's there. This continues for nearly 3 minutes with no dialogue or movement other than the reflections of passing cars on the ceiling and a small caged bird in the center of the room. Instant American fail, right? Because one defining characteristic of early American films was that the audience isn't left hanging; even though the characters may be tight lipped and emotionless, the audience is almost always aware of their motivations.

It's this sublime lack of audience awareness that defines this Melville film, and indeed most of his work. And thus, this film presents a 4th wall mystery. By that I mean the audience is the most clueless character in the drama, and we must work to keep up with the characters who, themselves, aren't divulging a thing.

With that in mind, I won't say much about the plot except that this is a tense crime drama with a really stylish cat-and-mouse relationship between all the characters involved. We never quite know who's the cat and who's the mouse. And that's the part that goes against all the rules of early American cinema. While Melville certainly pulled stylistic & visual tricks straight out of Hollywood's film noir closet, his storytelling approach was completely French, and that's what made "Le samouraï" a true original--so much that it would, in turn, influence the next crop of American directors such as William Friedkin ("The French Connection", "The Exorcist") and Jim Jarmusch ("Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai").

So dim the lights, turn up the collar on your trenchcoat and settle in for a thick movie watching experience. And if anyone asks you what you're watching, just stare at them with icy blue eyes and say "I never talk to a man who's holding a gun" (even if it's your wife and she's holding a bowl of popcorn).


Pretty good documentary. A bit heavy on Peter Paul & Mary while cutting others short
The strength of this documentary is in its intimacy. We get really up close & personal with the musicians as well as the audience. The Newport Folk Festival was huge, as conveyed in the opening credit scene with a seemingly endless river of people flowing onto the grounds, but for the most part the camera stays tight with the subjects, whether it's Joan Baez signing autographs (and later hi-fiving fans through the window of her car as we ride in the back seat), or eavesdropping on fans camped out, or even on stage during performances where the camera seemed to be within a few feet. Rarely have I seen this approach to filming an event of this magnitude. That's the good.

The bad, or at least the frustrating part, is as I mentioned in my title. While the initial performance (Peter, Paul & Mary) gives us a full song uninterrupted, thus whetting our whistle for more like that, the other acts are cut short. With other big stars like Donovan and Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, we sometimes get only 1 verse and the ending of a song. Then we cut back to another performance by Peter, Paul & Mary. I can only guess that there simply wasn't enough footage taken of the other acts. But it's a noticeable flaw in this otherwise all-encompassing taste of what the Festival was like. So if you came here for the music, I'm afraid you won't get your fill. But if you approach it as a talky type documentary with a few clips of performances interspersed, that's what you'll get.

The Uninvited

Ghouls just wanna have fun
In 1997 three years before he died, director Lewis Allen was asked how he managed to create one of the most enduring ghost stories ever put to film. He answered: "I think the whole point when you're making a scary movie is to try and be honest and as straightforward as you can. And not be a phony. I treated The Uninvited as though I believed in it."

Indeed, you won't find any false scares, fakeouts and felines flying at the camera here. "The Uninvited" was Allen's first time directing a film, following a successful string of stage productions, and perhaps it's his stage background that kept him away from doing schlocky horror flick tricks. And I gotta agree with Allen's strategy; while this film probably won't make you spill your popcorn, it's one of the most *believable* ghost stories I've seen.

This is a classic haunted house tale, one of the earliest films to present the subject as a credible, "rational", ghost story from the outset. It doesn't have hysterical victims screaming half their lines, nor does it have the narrative pull back the curtain to reveal someone who "would've gotten away with it, if it weren't for you meddling kids" nor does it waste our time with the now-standard cliché of setting up the story with 30 mins of is-it-real-or-imagination. In that regard, the film does 2 things very early which are absolutely brilliant. 1) It shows to the audience--but not to the characters--an invisible sinister hand wilting a bouquet of roses, so that there's no question in our minds about the supernatural premise; and 2) When the protagonist "Rick" gets his first introduction to the ghost, we learn that his sister has already been experiencing the phenomenon for weeks, wanting to investigate it rationally. And thus, the idea of a ghost is firmly established for the characters as well as the audience without wasting anyone's time.

What follows is a suspenseful unraveling of why. More of a clever mystery than a visceral horror story, its tone is reminiscent of Hitchcock's "Rebecca" (1940) but with one charming difference. There are tons of funny moments and witty jokes peppered throughout that give "The Uninvited" a unique personality of its own. This is largely due to the fun-loving, wisecracking performance of Ray Milland as "Rick" who begrudgingly accepts what we knew from the rose scene: thar be ghosts here. Milland's charmingly clownish portrayal is balanced by Ruth Hussey in the role of "Pam" his more intelligent sister (or less "half witted" as Milland jokes).

Further complimenting Milland's performance is Gail Russell who plays "Stella" the young, sheltered girl at the center of this intrigue. This film was Gail's starring debut and I can't praise it highly enough. Despite her taking a lot of heat and resentment from Hollywood at the time for being so young, inexperienced and unworthy of being thrust into such a prominent role at the age of 19, she shows a tremendous range of acting. In her opening scenes she is somewhat cold and reserved, almost creepy or otherworldly like Jennifer Jones would play in "Portrait of Jennie" a few years later. But as Stella opens up to Rick her personality warms, and the film splits into a classic romance tale. Also notable are Gail's wordless scenes where she is shown reacting to events and information without any dialogue. It's all in the eyes.

The cinematography and especially the LIGHTING is fantastic here. In the story the old house is completely without electricity, so everyone walks around with lamps & candles constantly. You can guess how dramatic this makes things and how it opens the entire field of view up with movement (such as shadows on walls and the ceiling).

And the music ("Stella by Starlight") is wonderful even if you've never heard the song before, although I'm sure you have. One of the changes they made for the film is that Rick is a composer, not a playwright like in the book, and there's a great scene where he is sitting at a candlelit piano playing "Stella by Starlight" for Stella when suddenly a malicious chill sweeps through the room, the candles flicker low, and he inexplicably shifts to a minor key. Stella is suddenly panicked and asks why the song changed like that, to which he replies with an almost evil look in his eye "It just came out that way."

Thus, don't expect chainsaws, blood and bile-spewing zombies or any of the modern definitions of horror. But if you want to see a classic Victorian ghost story then you've come to the right place. "The Uninvited" has the perfect blend of creepiness, atmosphere, romance, mystery ...and don't forget the witty humor. I swear when Ray Milland says that line about his "landing gear not being what it used to be" he must be talking about his...(!) Watch for it and you be the judge.

Mommie Dearest

The film Faye Dunaway regrets most, and this is why...
After the premiere of this movie in 1981, Roger Ebert wrote: "I can't imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie ... unremittingly depressing, not to any purpose of drama or entertainment, but just to depress. It left me feeling creepy."

He punctuated it with the lowest mark, a 1 star review.

"Mommie Dearest" is a cartoonishly exaggerated smear against Hollywood icon Joan Crawford based on the debunked memoir of Crawford's estranged daughter whom we shall not name here. Or as Crawford's own arch rival Bette Davis put it: "I was not Miss Crawford's biggest fan, but she did not deserve that detestable book written by her daughter. I've forgotten her name. Horrible." The memoir was categorically denied by Crawford's other children as well as everyone else in Crawford's orbit; not a single soul backed up the outlandish catty claims by the delusional daughter whats-her-name. But fresh blood is too good for Hollywood to pass up so it was made into a movie.

Aside from the daughter's cheap shots at her mother who had conveniently died of cancer months prior to publication and was thus somewhat unavailable to offer rebuttal, this movie is, as Ebert pointed out, nothing but an exercise in making you feel bad with no real point, using manufactured fiction and a ridiculously 2-dimensional portrayal of the wicked stepmom Joan, as if the daughter had watched Cinderella too many times and decided to plagiarize and spice it up with things like WIRE HANGERS! NO WIRE HANGERS EVER!!! (a scene which is rivaled only by Nicolas Cage's "OH NO NOT THE BEES" in the Wicker Man remake).

This film was deservedly trounced in 1981 with the Golden Raspberry Award for worst picture (only the 2nd time a Razzie was ever given), worst screenplay and worst actress for Faye Dunaway.

A note on that, since Faye Dunaway is one of my favorite actors. When any film is made, the director dictates how the actors must play a scene. Thus, the quality of an actor is not determined by how well they play the scene but how well they do it *as the director says to*. In other words, Dunaway might play a scene with perfect subtlety and class much like the real Joan Crawford even when being a heartless villain, but if the director yells "Cut! Let's do it again only this time play it like Nic Cage in the Wicker Man bees scene!" and if that take is used, then congratulations director: an otherwise great actor looks like a fool. Faye Dunaway, was for decades tight lipped about this film, but she finally opened up in 2016 to voice her regret. Dunaway corroborated our assumptions, that the director was inexperienced and didn't know how to use his actors. She lamented that the absurdly exaggerated freakout scenes took a heavy toll on her physically and spiritually: "At night, I would go home ... and felt Crawford in the room with me, this tragic, haunted soul just hanging around...It was as if she couldn't rest."

Skip this film as if it were a toxic creek. Instead go find the deleted scenes of The Wicker Man and watch the bees scene for 90 mins over & over. It's just as bad, but at least you'll be entertained without desecrating the reputation of a soul who isn't here to defend herself.

Mildred Pierce

Film noir meets chick flick (huh??)
Back in the 40s they didn't call them chick ficks; they called them "women's films"--stories with female protagonists meant to explore the issues of being female. Hm, you'd think 50% of movies should be that way anyhow, but that's Hollywood. The point I'm making with my title is that in the 40s and certainly earlier, there was a hard distinction between women's films (often sentimental romance) and film noir (often hard edged violent crime stories). Along comes "Mildred Pierce" which is both.

The story begins with a murder, shot in sharp dramatic shadowy darkness, then proceeds to a dark wet night on a lonely pier where a lone individual seems intent on suicide. The setup is film noir to the max with director Michael Curtiz, best known for "Casablanca" 3 years prior, pulling out every noir trick in the book. It has a powerful effect immersing us in immediate tension and suspense which doesn't let up for the next 3 scenes. Then we get to the interview in a police station where Mildred (Joan Crawford) tells her story, and this narration becomes the vehicle for a series of flashbacks which make up the bulk of the film.

The narrated flashbacks contrast sharply with the shadowy introduction, being set in bright daylight and focusing on the comparatively mundane--yet just as dramatic--story of a woman who is attempting to raise her 2 children by herself, first by selling cakes & pies, then by waiting tables at a restaurant, then making some slick business deals which, we quickly assume, is what turned her from a domestic housewife to the emotionless femme fatale we met in the opening scenes. Thus 2 movies are brilliantly woven together with the mystery of the opening crime adding suspense on top of the fascinating story of a woman who transforms.

Joan Crawford earned herself a well deserved Oscar for her leading performance. But equally important are the roles of the supporting actors: Ann Blyth playing the spoiled daughter who herself becomes a femme fatale in training, Jack Carson as the fast talking "friend" who would sell his own grandmother's rollerskates, and a wonderful comedic role for Eve Arden as the sassy restaurant manager who has the perfect comeback for everything. When Eve crosses swords with Jack, the result is delightful. However, humor is mostly sparse in this dark, seedy tale. As we get into the final act and certain surprises reveal themselves, we wonder how the censors of 1945 let some of the scandalous elements pass.

Definitely a film ahead of its time in story as well as style, it's no wonder that "Mildred Pierce" rocked the box office and re-invigorated the career of Joan Crawford whom MGM had been slowly phasing out in the years prior. When MGM and Crawford mutually terminated her contract, it was said that she went into a dark place. I don't doubt that she drew upon that darkness when Warner Brothers picked her up for "Mildred Pierce". Truly one of the best comebacks in Hollywood history. Watch it for her performance, for the story, for the excellent cinematography, or just for the experience of a film like none other. Who says chick flicks can't be AWESOME.

Brief Encounter

75 years later, it's still the most REAL romance ever put to film
How many times have you been caught in a love triangle in the middle of a civil war while you lose your plantation home? How many times have you wandered into a bar in Morocco and gotten caught up in a lost love who is now married to a resistance fighter? If your answer is anything more than zero, then what the heck are you doing watching movies. "Brief Encounter" is a 1945 British film that shook the world of romance because the story is essentially so boring that real people immediately felt it in the core of their hearts. And 75 years later, I'm willing to bet that it'll grip you the same way.

Plot summary: two strangers meet briefly on a railway platform and soon realize that they are both there every Thursday at the same time. Over the course of several Thursdays, recognition becomes familiarity, familiarity becomes friendship, friendship eventually becomes love. But the problem is that they are both taken.

THIS, my romantic friends, is how love happens in the real world. It's not planned, not necessarily elegant, and in most cases it's not opportune. In a word, it's imperfect. The power of this film lies in the way this theme is brought to life. We are immersed in a world of mundane details. We eavesdrop on random conversations at the railway station, miniature dramas of everyday life, until we settle on the 2 protagonists and become interested in their story. The camera continues to remind us of how ordinary the world is, taking detours to sideshows and unrelated plots involving nonessential characters. But it's not boring because we know that this is how real life works. And before you know it, you are swallowed up in this world as if it's your own.

"Brief Encounter" is the sort of film that can make you feel like you're falling in love even if you've never been in love. Or it can remind you of that "what if" scenario you left in your own past. Excellent cinematography and lighting, along with the excellent acting, are icing on the cake. If you want to feel--or remember--what love is like, then this is your ticket.


A roller coaster ride in space! (wait... wouldn't a roller coaster in space just sit there? um...)
"Gravity" launches right into the action in the opening scene and doesn't let up. In that respect it's the most straightforward, no-nonsense, nothing-about-politicians-or-shady-corporations space thriller out there. If you want to watch a straightforward, realistic flick about survival without any contrived plot twists then look no further.

Sandra Bullock plays "Ryan", an inexperienced but intelligent scientist on her first mission when things go horribly awry. Her character also has a very pessimistic spin, very unusual for a protagonist in a survival flick, in that she's a real gloomy, self-defeating nihilist. So, if not fighting against the icy vaccuum of space with occasional killer projectiles and exploding things, half the battle is Ryan fighting against her own nature to give up. That's what gives this film depth, even though you can choose to watch it as a straightforward action type story.

George Clooney plays "Matt", the commander of the mission and the upbeat, gabby antithesis to Ryan's relative hopelessness. This balances the ratio of pessimism to optimism, giving the audience an interesting contrast to ponder in the face of disaster. Although this is really Sandra Bullock's flick, Clooney's presence is memorable. It should be noted that, action & special effects aside, this is a very minimalistic film with Bullock & Clooney being pretty much the only actors.

Which brings us to the action & special effects. Fantastic. Visuals are believable, even though I'm sure a lot of the physics was exaggerated for dramatic effect; we never feel like this is a cheesy Hollywood crowd pleaser with pew-pew "laser" guns (did you catch the Austin Powers finger quotes?). As long as you don't watch this flick sitting next to an actual rocket scientist (or some uptight date who is too busy worrying about the parking meter that he can't lose himself in magic of movies) then you ought to have an enjoyable experience.

I would compare this flick to the classics "2010: The Year We Make Contact" and "Apollo 13" in its approach. The minimalism reminded me of the excellent film "Moon" (2009) the way a single character can carry an entire story. The pacing of action is something like you'd see in "Sunshine" (2007). For anyone who thinks modern scifi is overrun by Transformers cheese and pew-pew "laser" beams, check out this film as well as the others I mentioned. Gravity won't LET YOU DOWN! (insert groans)

Classic Albums: The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds
Episode 5, Season 9

Great series, great album, but this is the laziest of the C.A. episodes I've seen
My weak 6/10 rating is NOT for the album, the band, or the music. It's for the way this episode is put together. Compared to the other excellent Classic Albums episodes which dissect each song often down to the most infinitesimal instrument, "Classic Albums: Pet Sounds" amounts to 30 mins of people fanboying on Brian Wilson, 15 mins of Beach Boys nostalgia, 10 mins of wordless photo montages over Beach Boys music, and only 5 mins, at best, of what we've come here for: actual quantitative information about the album.

We are shown copious interviews with the band and with Brain, but they all seem to be saying the same thing: that Brian is "genius", "visionary", all the superlatives in the book without explaing exactly why they think so. They do often mention that Brian could hear all the parts in his head, but that's what every composer should be able to do, so I'm not sure why they dote on this quality so much. We all know Brian is quite talented, but how exactly? You won't find that answer here. Beyond that noticeable oversight, there is another glaring omission: everyone seems to be carefully, deliberately dancing around the subject of Brian's mental health issues and the (autistic? We don't know) eccentricities that made him such an unusual person and unique musician. Furthermore, there are virtually no allusions to the inter-band clashes and tension that we all know existed. Aside from a brief mention that Mike Love didn't agree with Brian experimenting with LSD and that they sharply disagreed on the drug fueled lyrics to "Hang on to your Ego" (later changed to "I Know There's an Answer"), the gang acts like they were one big happy family which we know they were not. Thus, if you came here after watching the excellent Beach Boys biopic "Love & Mercy" hoping to learn more, you'll be very disappointed. In this documentary everyone seems to be walking on eggshells, painting a rosy picture, almost as if Beach Boys management was heavily censoring anything that could possibly be interpreted as anything but wholesome good time fun and a deification of Brian Wilson.

Oddly, the best part of this entire production is not included in the 60 min episode but can be found in the bonus menu of the DVD. It's the segment about the song "Good Vibrations" which did not appear on the album but was written, recorded and produced in the 6 months after the album sessions ended. In the "Good Vibrations" segment we get generous portions of mix engineer Mark Linett, Brian Wilson and others in the studio talking about exactly how the song was recorded, how the Theramin was used with cellos, pianos, and of course the magical layered harmonies that made "Good Vibrations" such a great song and an indication of Brian Wilson's true visionary nature. Finally they explain something of substance: that Brian used, in this song, a modular approach of writing the sections piece by piece and assembling them after the fact.

If you're new to the Classic Albums series, I would suggest that you start elsewhere to get a taste of what this otherwise excellent show does. The episode "Black Sabbath: Paranoid" is wonderful because it breaks down each track, talking about the parts as well as what the lyrics mean and how they applied (and still apply) to society. Band members play their individual parts for us live so we can see exactly what went onto tape. And the control room scenes show us exactly how it came together. That's a great episode for everyone, regardless of if you're a Sabbath fan. "Beach Boys: Pet Sounds" by comparison is just plain lazy. Still a worthwhile watch, but not nearly as good as it should have been.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind

Too... awesome... to put... into... words...
"Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" won't necessarily wow everyone, as its anemic 7 star imdb rating would indicate. But I would highly recommend this film to anyone who loves movie plots that make you go "WTF".

Fine examples of movie plots that make you go "WTF" include "Being John Malkovich" (screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman), "Synecdoche NY" (screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman) and "Adaptation" (screenwriter: Charlie Kaufman). I'll give you 1 guess who was the screenwriter for "Confessions"

Here we get a wickedly dark comedy that blends humor, intrigue, dysfunctional romance, historical fact, and preposterous delusion all wrapped up in a visual feast for the eyes. George Clooney directed this film and instantly jumped to the top of the class of actors-turned-directors alongside the excellent debuts of Michael Keaton ("The Merry Gentleman"), Dennis Hopper ("Easy Rider") and Rob Reiner ("Spinal Tap"). The visual and storytelling style is reminiscent of Clooney's mentors the Coen Brothers, with perhaps a dash of Spike Jonze. But there are also moments of intensely serious drama, excellently brought to the screen by Sam Rockwell (who, while snubbed by the Oscars, won the coveted Silver Bear award for best actor in Berlin.

At the heart of the story is an outlandish claim made by popular game show icon Chuck Barris who wrote in his 1984 memoir that while he was doing the crowd pleasing hit shows "The Newlywed Game", "The Gong Show" and "The Dating Game" on the side he was a contract killer for the CIA whacking a few dozen political targets. I won't spoil how much of it is true (do your research AFTER the movie!), but I'll just say things get crazy. But the film carries a wonderful surreal vibe, bordering on satirical but not quite Spinal Tap territory, that immerse you in a world where anything is possible, believable and true. I gotta hand it to George Clooney for striking this delicate balance. The story seems on the level, but just as it tips into ridiculous territory there are some wonderful spots of bizarre humor that remind us not to take anything too seriously. Julia Roberts' makeout scene had me HOWLING even though the another director might've presented it as erotic, instead Clooney delievers a spectacle that could only be compared to an adolescent teen's first kiss after watching 48 hours of porn.

It's that cheeky, unexpected humor, juxtaposed against some incredibly sobering dramatic themes that makes this an experience like none other... well none other since the last Charlie Kaufman flick. Oh, also be on the lookout for some hilarious A-list extras who grace the screen for a few flashes here & there. Yes, that is Brad Pitt & Matt Damon on the dating game, but of course the girl picks the slob. LMAO.

Europa Europa

A really interesting spin on the Holocaust
"Europa Europa" (original title "Hitler Youth Soloman") is the story of a Jewish boy who is separated from his family and ends up assuming different identities (including, yes, a Nazi) to stay alive. What makes this film different from all the Holocaust movies I've seen is that it shows the perspective of the other side. This is NOT done in a sympathetic way but in a way that simply shows what was going on amongst the brainwashed youth and how ordinary humans were coerced into doing the most inhuman things.

Our protagonist Soloman (Marco Hofschneider) is played with a wide-eyed innocence, almost like an objective observer, as he navigates the Nazi heirarchy inadvertently making friends wherever he goes. Thus the interesting spin is that the Nazis are shown with more personality than the stone-faced butchers we've come to expect from Holocaust flicks. In fact there is very little Jewish persecution and violence shown since most of the story is set behind the ranks where Soloman is fed the same propaganda and brotherhood that the Hitler youth were fed.

The brutality is clear, and as Soloman rises through the ranks he starts to peel away the truth that, no, Jews are not simply being "relocated to Madagascar". In addition he falls for a girl (Julie Delpy) who is a rabid anti-Semite. So the film ends up posing a very interesting point that's applicable to all our lives, regardless of the WW2 context: What do we do if it turns out that our friends & adoptive family turn out to be vile monsters?

I highly recommend this movie even if you're not interested in war flicks. It's more like a coming of age story but set in the most horrifying chapter of human history.

The Iris Effect

A Maternal Thriller
As the old Polish proverb goes: "The greatest love is a mother's, then a dog's, then a sweetheart's."

In the history of storytelling, what greater motivation is there for a protagonist than the maternal drive? Very few films have delved into this territory, but a few great ones to check out are "The Changeling" (Angelina Jolie) and "The Others" (Nicole Kidman). Dog protagonists, unfortunately, get even fewer films, but for that you might want to check out Lasse Hallström's "Hachi" (2009).

Here in "The Iris Effect" we get a strong maternal thriller--probably more so than the others I mentioned--which sets the stage for a deeply emotional story. Plot summary: a mother who has been obsessively searching for her runaway son for over a decade, ends up in Russia where she thinks she recognizes his paintings in an art gallery. Strange things start happening, pushing the limits of her sanity which is already pushed to the limit by her decade long delusional obsession. Is she seeing supernatural visions, or is she just plain nuts?

The setup is magnificent because we instantly recognize and accept her obsessive motivation, even though it has ruined her life, and everyone including her therapist is telling her that she's crazy to keep at it. The "crazy" angle also figures in wonderfully as she starts having hallucinations that blur the line between delusion, reality and the supernatural.

What follows is an intriguing breadcrumb trail of a mystery that requires some patience and intelligence to figure out. This isn't a simple "oh he's hiding in Russia" story, and it isn't a linear "run from the bad guys" type thriller either, but it's a complex interweaving of stories that involve a creepy art curator (the sultry Mia Kurshner), the director of a lunatic asylum (Gregory Hlady), and a suicidal young woman who knows something she's not telling (Agnes Bruckner). The performances are very nuanced; there aren't any big melodramatic freakouts like we've come to expect from Hollywood flicks. This production is a Russian-American collaboration with a distinctly somber European air. Yet each actor has a chance to shine in their own moment of reckoning (don't miss Mia Kurshner's scene, it's amazing).

This brings me to the lead: Anne Archer whom we may recognize as the tortured wife in "Fatal Attraction" (1987) where she earned an Academy Award nomination. Here she nails the mother role perfectly, with sentimentality as well as that fierce maternal drive which makes the audience take her seriously even though none of the characters in the film seem to. But despite being gaslit from all directions, Anne's character never wavers from her purpose. And that's where the interesting part comes in:

She never doubts her quest, making her a strong heroic figure driving the story foreward, but internally she doubts her past actions and is consumed by guilt and regret over losing her son in the first place. This is what gives the film color. It's a very psychological thriller in the sense that it all hinges on what's going on inside the protagonist's mind. The story itself is very interesting with some surprising twists & revelations, but don't expect shootouts and car chases because it's not that kind of thriller.

Gorgeously lit and shot amid the imposing, otherworldly architecture of St. Petersburg, this film won't necessarily make you spill your popcorn, but the cinematic eye candy alone is worth the price of admission. Go into this with no expectations other than experiencing a deeply human story and you won't be disappointed.

Le dernier combat

By far, the most realistic post-apocalyptic flick ever
This movie is probably unlike anything you've ever seen. In mood and style it's reminiscent of the groundbreaking 1962 "La Jetée" (which was the basis for the American adaptation "12 Monkeys"). Plot wise, it's a bit like the obscure "A Boy and His Dog" (1975) with a setting similar to "Mad Max" (1979). Thematically, it reminded me a lot of the classic "Papillon" (1973) the way it focuses on 1 individual's tireless efforts and ingenuity against an impossible environment. I might also mention the Jeunet-Caro "Delicatessen" (1991), minus the humor, or their short film "Bunker of the Last Gunshots" (1993). But overall "The Last Battle" is a one-of-a-kind, hard to compare.

Shot in crisp, antiseptic black & white, despite the grimy setting of the story, the entire film is without any dialogue (we are led to believe that in this post apocalyptic future, there's something wrong with people's vocal cords). As a result, this is a challenging film to piece together solely from images, actions and facial expressions. But once we start to grasp what's going on, who's who, and why's why, it's a deeply rewarding experience.

I won't say much about the plot because the fun part is figuring it out. I'll just say that the story is set in the future, in a ruined world full of shattered buildings, endless deserts, and every-man-for-himself savagery amongst the few survivors. No one seems to have any purpose other than surviving the moment, although there are interesting clusters of gangs with their own hierarchy and rituals. Our protagonist is a complete loner, but midway he meets a mysterious recluse who is still attached to the old world civility, humanity and an ironic appreciation for the arts in this barren wasteland. At the same time, another character enters the story: a formidable antagonist who will stop at nothing to get what he wants (and what he wants, we ultimately learn, is extremely disturbing).

A lot of post-apocalyptic films, and scifi in general, suffer from trying to over-explain the situation, and they inadvertently become less believable because of it. How many times has a silly discussion of the "space time continuum" ruined an otherwise credible plot? Not here. Here we see how a futuristic story should be done to achieve realism. Keep it to a bare minimum, leave the backstory to the imagination of the audience, focus exclusively on the characters and their actions without the distraction of dialogue; that's all we need. As a result, this 80s futuristic flick is more believable than any modern scifi, and it will stand the test of time for decades if not centuries to come. If people are still around to see it.

RoboCop 2

lol Robocop's new themesong has a choir singing "ROBO!! COP!!!"
I kid you not. If you want a hearty laugh, stick around as the end credits roll and listen to the full Robocop themesong which has about 2.5 minutes of people singing ROBO-COPPPPP!!! Fine, you say, maybe this is a tongue-in-cheek satire like the 60s Batman tv show? Not quite. This flick takes itself pretty seriously, which is where it fails.

Aside from some awesome campy tv news and commercial cutaways, exactly as in the original, this installment of Robocop lacks the cheeky wit and dark humor of its predecessor. Also gone are the characteristic, personable (lovable?) villains and the deep sociopolitical skewering that made the first Robo a timeless classic. Instead here we get a straightforward plot based bang-em-up showcase which can be entertaining in its own right, but it's not a true Robocop experience. The most noticeable failure is that the bad guys are entirely cardboard: a mysterious but never fleshed out messiah character, a little kid who is wonderfully cold-hearted at first but his character turns sappy, and a ditzy tagalong who is a groan worthy stereotype of the 80s token female sidekick, right down to the hysterical crying (yes I'm describing one of the villains).

Peter Weller does a great job within his limitations, but here the script really kneecapped him. It gave Weller a few promising themes of emotional conflict but barely a taste before moving on, never a good central theme for Weller and the audience to grasp. A dozen appetizers but no main course. Similarly, the story itself is a pastiche of episodic subplots which introduce themselves and are quickly resolved before moving on to the next. For example, the intriguing subplot of Robo stalking his widow is introduced at the outset but hastily resolved and never revisited. 5 minutes, move on. The excellent subplot of Robo being reprogrammed--literally his personality changed--by the corporate suits is really powerful but also hastily resolved and never touched again. 5 minutes, move on. The result is a sort of Readers Digest version of a complete film, with good bits to whet our appetite but without giving us a full course. Watch it if you just want to see a vanilla 80s action flick, but that's all it really offers.

In closing... *sings* ROBO--COPPP!! ROBOOOO--COPPPP!!!! ROOOOBOOOO--aw stuff a sock innit already.


...and that, kiddies, is how the church got built!
"The Virgin Spring" is Ingmar Bergman's screen adaptation of a 13th century Swedish ballad "Töre's daughters in Vänge". It's based on a local legend that tells of a chain of brutal events and a miracle that led to the construction of a church at Kärna. Bergman's version stays true to the main gist but changes several points, adding much more brutality (rape) as well as several very interesting characters (the jealous servant, the supernatural bridge keeper, the young boy caught up in the carnage), resulting in far more than a simple legend. What we get here is an epic morality tale that touches on themes of pride, vengeance, remorse and penance.

The film opens on the jealous servant praying to Odin, cursing the beautiful young daughter of the house. Odin later grants the curse much to the servant's sudden horror. Matters quickly escalate, and when the father of the house Töre (Max Von Sydow) weighs in, we get a chilling depiction of a man with a righteous vendetta.

There is a ton of symbolism in this film which is what makes it so powerful. You may not catch some of it particularly if you're not versed in the local folklore, such as the bridge keeper being Odin, or as another reviewer keenly noted that each character represents one of the 7 deadly sins. There's a ton going on, not to mention the excellent cinematography and lighting in the shadowy cottage where much of the story takes place. And Max Von Sydow's range of acting from stoic husband, to kind hearted father, to wrathful avenger is riveting to watch. Unlike Bergman's earlier works, there is very little humor here if at all. Be prepared for a heavy experience.

M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder

A Long Film about Killing (aye, that's a reference to Kieslowski)
Until I saw "M" I thought the greatest film on the subject of crime & punishment was Kieslowski's "A Short Film About Killing". But, apologies to Mr. K, I'm gonna demote that film a notch because "M" just took the cake.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, plot summary: A series of child murders (rape implied?) terrorizes a city and causes an upheaval in the very structure of policing, criminal justice, and even the criminal underworld whose organizations realize that this "outsider" is disrupting their business. That theme itself would be plenty for any feature length film, but hold on to your hat because the last act of the film hits us with the real guts of the story which is about, as my 1st paragraph implies, the fine line between justice and judicial revenge.

Peter Lorre is absolutely perfect here in his starring debut, not just in terms of acting but physically he's the man for the part. Lorre plays the role of "Beckert" whom we learn in the opening scene is the child killer. Our chilling introduction to Beckert is done without showing his face, only his shadowy silhouette and his ambiguous form from a distance. When we finally see Beckert's face for the first time nearly 45 mins into the film, we are surprised by Lorre's boyish looks and expressionless eyes which immediately clash with our idea of what a depraved, calculating serial killer would look like. I'm sure this was very deliberate.

The bulk of the film focuses on a slow tightening of the noose around our "protagonist" (yes the child killer is the protagonist) as the story splits into 2 parallel stories, often intertwined with criss cross edits: 1 story shows the cops conducting a proper investigation, and the 2nd story shows the criminal gangs organizing an equally methodical but chillingly amoral manhunt of their own. The fantastic climax comes when the 2 parallel stories converge and intersect on their target.

The story alone is thrilling enough that you can watch "M" as a straightforward crime drama, but you can also dive deeper into the message Lang is conveying about how the criminal justice system isn't far from mob justice. Or you can watch this on a purely artistic level as we get a groundbreaking showcase of director Fritz Lang's excellent use of stillness and silence to convey terror--the sort of terror that Hollywood can never duplicate with its gore and cacophonous soundtracks. The production here is elaborate, but the images are almost minimalistic: We don't see ANY violence here, and there is NO music. In fact, certain sections of the film are completely without sound, or with just 1 voice talking, or with just 1 prominent sound effect being used. This film is the greatest example I've seen of "less is more".

This was Fritz Lang's first talkie film, after he had established himself as a master of silent cinema with epic fantasy films like "Metropolis" and "Nibelungen". Here Lang goes full tilt in the opposite direction with a chillingly realistic view of the world that we're in. No scifi robots or fire breathing dragons here; society's greatest monster is itself.

Il deserto rosso

Drab skies & industrial waste never looked so good
"Red Desert" is director Michelangelo Antonioni's first color film, and he doesn't hold back. Much like Bergman's "Cries & Whispers" this film proves that a master of b&w medium can be just as impressive and innovative with all the wavelengths between b and w. But I'm getting ahead, first let's have a plot summary:

A woman who is suffering from a nonspecific mental disorder (or as her husband flippantly describes "her gears don't quite mesh") attempts to navigate an increasingly conflicted existence against the backdrop of a town which itself is suffering a conflict of nature vs industrialism. Like Antonioni's 3 prior films with Monica Vitti (L'avventura, La notte, L'eclisse), there are prominent sexual themes but NOT 'sexual' meaning 'erotic' or even 'romantic'. The themes explored are more about the dysfunctional ways in which men and women--primarily the male characters--use sexual attraction as a failed proxy for real human connections.

That's a mouthful, hard to describe in half a paragraph. You'll see it almost immediately in an early scene where Monica's character "Giuliana" is having a terrifying anxiety attack in the middle of the night and her husband initially tries to comfort her with a hug but quickly overshoots the runway and starts making sexual advances on the poor woman. This is something to watch for later in the film when the scenario repeats itself in a different way. Giuliana's reaction is chilling to watch, particularly if you look at her hands as she silently contorts herself in a way that conveys not simply her revulsion at the male's approach but perhaps more of a deep conflict within herself, fighting the very concept of intimacy.

And all the while we see unsettling--but gorgeous--images of nature fighting and losing to industrialism. We see nature replaced with a new "tree line" of smoke stacks and commercial silos. But this is the interesting part: Antonioni doesn't merely bash us over the head with the bumper sticker mentality of "factories suck" but these images are beautiful in their own way, and we are also shown majestic images of radio towers aimed at the sky. "What are those for?" Giuliana asks a worker who is high up on a tower. "So we can listen to the stars," the man joyfully answers. "Can I listen?" Giuliana asks. "Sure, but you have to climb up here." To which she laughs and shakes her head as if that's never gonna happen.

And thus Antonioni paints for us a complex intersection between the old world and the new, or nature vs. science, or tradition vs. progress. There's no simple answer. It's a tangle of complications that makes you start to realize how our protagonist Giuliana--perhaps a representation of humankind itself--may lose her mind under the strain.

White Rabbit

Required vieweing for (self-)tortured artists.
Any mildly neurotic to severely psychotic artists out there? Hm, yes, the target audience for this one is going to be tight. But if my title fits you, or if you're somehow trying to figure out how to deal with one of those types, then this will be a real treat.

"White Rabbit" follows 2 weeks in the life of "Sophia" (Vivian Bang) who is a freelance performance artist in LA. Or as she explains to her mother, "I make things you can't sell." Over the course of 2 weeks we witness her professional crisis, relationship crisis, and an overall life crisis in a very quirky and personal way. Although imdb lists this as a comedy drama, don't expect any gags, punchlines and LOLs because it's not that kind of comedy. It's more like the comedy of real life where there's no laugh track to our disasters, but objectively looking at it, it's just bizarre enough to be funny.

The interesting angle is that Sophia is a 1st generation Korean American who is trying her hardest to spin a racial discussion even though none exists. For example, one of her routines is a dramatic monologue about the LA riots and the media's coverage of black-on-Korean violence. Yes, 15 years prior. As such, her audience (strangers in the park) react with a mix of lukewarm politeness and complete disregard.

As the story unfolds, we see a similar attitude she has in her relationships (fabricating drama that doesn't necessarily apply). And ultimately we realize that Sophia is the perfect personification of passion without direction, or perhaps the Shakesperean "sound and fury signifying nothing". Still, we are instantly hooked, wondering if this girl will pull herself together or if it'll end in "the way to dusty death."

I thought the acting was fantastic all around, with real world type dialogue (such as people talking over each other, or not necessarily finishing sentences), giving this film a very personal and familiar flavor, as if we're hanging out with friends.

There aren't too many flicks like this, but I might group it alongside other quirky dramas like "Punch Drunk Love" or an obscure 2009 gem about misdirected artists & musicians called "(untitled)".

L'armée des ombres

A firestorm of repressed conflicts... And I'm talking about the filming
"Army of Shadows" is a masterpiece of tension, repression and muffled fury. It has to be the quietest war flick I've ever seen (even though it's not a war flick). Although it is extremely brutal, there is practically zero violence shown on screen; all the violence is conveyed through the reactions of the actors watching it, and I gotta tell you, that approach makes it more emotionally disturbing than all the Saw movies put together.

The plot in a sentence: In 1943 France under the Nazi occupation, a small but highly efficient team of the Resistance gets itself into a heap of trouble, and it pushes their loyalties and morality to the breaking point.

The quiet, repressed presentation is perfect for a story like this because we're not dealing with bombs & glory but rather with covert operations and espionage type missions that require razor precision & cold hearts. This is not a rousing, glamorous portrayal of war. This is the kind of film where characters go quietly to their death as they coldly accept the deaths of their comrades without tears or angry outbursts--but that doesn't mean they are emotionless. On the contrary, we sense that each person, in particular our hero "Gerbier" (Lino Ventura), is a raging tangle of emotions that aren't allowed to come out.

And that leads me to the title of this review. Director Jean-Pierre Melville was notorious for pushing people's buttons. He would deliberately antagonize his actors in order to get the perfect tense mood for a scene. It got so bad that his lead actor Ventura openly hated Melville, and the two never spoke on set. All communication was conducted, ridiculously, through Ventura's assistant standing 3 feet away. Why is this worth mentioning? Because you'll immediately notice it in Ventura's incredible performance. You can feel how much is brewing in his head even though he remains emotionless. In one very memorable scene, where they must brutally deal with a traitor, we get an intense shot of Ventura's face, and it's as if he's struggling to fly a kite in a tsunami but without a trace of emotion on display.

It's been said that Melville adored American films, particularly the movies of William Wyler (Ben Hur, The Big Country). Driving to the set in his big white Camaro, wearing a cowboy hat and aviator shades, Melville set out to imitate the American style for this movie. I would say he failed triumphantly. "Army of Shadows" does not feel like any American movie of the time, and in fact the closest American director I can think of would be William Friedkin several years later (The French Connection, The Exorcist). "Army of Shadows" has such an original vibe, neither American nor European, that it's guaranteed to stick in your head for a long time. Don't pass it by.


Like a mystery without a crime
The movie opens on a man and woman who are as silent, lifeless and hard as the furniture. They say nothing for a painfully long time. Then finally: "We need to make a decision." "About what?" "About everything we talked about all night." And just like that we figure out, if we hadn't already, that this is a breakup. Not a melodramatic Hollywood breakup with perfectly rehearsed monologues and torrents of emotion, but a real world breakup: awkward, uncomfortable, excruciatingly long, and ice cold.

"L'eclisse" is Michelangelo Antonioni's 3rd film in his 1960-1962 trilogy about the dysfunction of love and human connections (L'avventura, La Notte, L'eclisse). But although it's a thematic trilogy, the plots and characters are unrelated so you can jump in at any point. "L'avventura" is generally the favorite because the plot has the most going on. "La Notte" is somewhat darker, dehumanized and subdued. Here in "L'eclisse" we have a return to expressive human characters but presented in a detached way; that is, interrupted with frequent random episodes that upset the plot and force us to think beyond the story. Our main protagonist Vittoria (Monica Vitti) is dealing with a tense breakup and a possibly psycho stalker, but then randomly she is invited to a friend's house, and from there randomly a dog runs away prompting them to chase through the night, only for her to be randomly distracted by a skyline of flagpoles clanging in the wind. It's this unconventional presentation which may confuse, frustrate, or outright anger a lot of viewers, but it's also what makes this such a memorable film. These episodic fragments unsettle us as if they don't belong, and yet we recognize how everything is undeniably related, and we are challenged to figure out exactly how and why.

If I just made this sound like a dry & irritatingly artsy flick, then good. Even though I don't think it is, that's a good expectation to have as you go into it. But despite its cryptic presentation, I'll tell you what keeps it engaging and entertaining throughout. Our 2 lead actors, Monica Vitti and Alain Delon, are wonderfully human and entertaining to watch. Unlike the 2 emotionless characters in "La Notte", here we have 2 very animated and dynamic individuals. Even when they're not saying anything, their faces are intriguing because they are so expressive and at times even humorous.

Particularly it's Monica Vitti who pulls us into the story even though there isn't much of a "story" to grasp; she is just delightful to watch, even though she plays the role of a mostly sad and alienated individual who doesn't have much to say. We feel her yearning to find happiness, and we sympathize deeply. Alain Delon plays her antithesis: an energetic stock broker who is *too* connected to the world. As we see the contrasts between his world and hers, we wonder if they can ever come together. As with the other 2 films in the trilogy, "L'eclisse" is about opposites, contrasts and conflicts, all marvelously told through the silent character that occupies all 3 films: the architecture of postwar Italy.

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