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Reviews

Churchill and the Movie Mogul
(2019)

As Reifenstahl was to Hitler, Korda was to Churchill
It was intriguing to learn about the symbiotic relationship between Winston Churchill and Alexander Korda in the 1930's, and at a high-level this documentary summarizes it reasonably well, with old film footage and interviews. Churchill was unpopular for his views criticizing the soft treatment of the rising Nazi threat but understood how cinema could be used to sway public opinion, and Korda would make a series of historical dramas with clear messages about Britain's need to militarize and stand up for itself. As one person in the film aptly put it, as Reifenstahl was to Hitler, Korda was to Churchill. Meanwhile, isn't it ironic that America, the land of free speech, would haul Korda before an un-American activities committee and grill him over the messages in his films, which they and J. Edgar Hoover viewed as dangerous propaganda? The documentary falls short in not going in to enough depth in many of its areas, such as how the rest of those interviews went and what Korda's answers were. It also tends to fall into hero worship over the two men, without asking any of the harder questions about them, Churchill in particular. To be truly satisfactory it would have needed to be fleshed out more, but as it is, it taught me a few things, and it was worth an hour.

Aparajito
(1956)

Brilliant
A film that so completely immersed me into India that in a small way, I felt like I had travelled there. The cinematography from Subrata Mitra is gorgeous, and I found both artistry and great humanism in Satyajit Ray's direction. He continues the story of Apu and his family with his coming of age and going off to college, wanting to do more than follow in his father's footsteps as a local priest. It's always heartwarming to see someone craving knowledge, especially when they've got to work so hard to get an opportunity rather than having it handed to them, and that's the case with Apu. Tension comes from his mother, who supports him but is devastated by the 'empty nest,' and both Ray and the two primary actors (Karuna Banerjee as mom and Smaran Ghosal as the older Apu) do a fantastic job of bringing out emotions that are poignant and universal. On top of everything he's learned in school, Apu learns an important lesson in life in scenes that hit like a hammer. Great film.

Los lobos
(2019)

Fantastic
This film had me in an emotional puddle for most of its runtime; it's simply devastating, and a work of art besides. The cinematography from Octavio Arauz is gorgeous, including still images of people looking into the camera which would rival those of the finest photographers. The creative little bits of animation sprinkled in fit the mood perfectly, that of childhood dreams threatened by the very hard conditions of trying to make it as immigrants in America, with a single mom working two jobs forced to leave her small boys alone in a rundown apartment all day. Danger lurks everywhere, but director Samuel Kishi wisely exercises restraint, giving the film a haunting realism. He got fantastic performances out of the child actors, and Martha Reyes Arias is pitch perfect as the mother. It's certainly not all grim either; the elderly Chinese-American couple add a lovely bit of humanism, and the soundtrack is wonderful too. It fires on all cylinders, and is one to seek out.

Minari
(2020)

Touching
I loved how Minari shows us a unique immigrant experience, one that doesn't rely on a lot of the usual things we see in this kind of film. We feel the family's otherness, but at the same time, they aren't subjected to hatred or racism; in fact, it's the opposite. It's a story of struggle in so many ways though - the hard life of making a farm work in rural Arkansas of all places, of keeping a marriage together despite goals shifting over time, and dealing with serious health issues in the young and old. At the same time, director Lee Isaac Chung is wonderfully restrained in how he presents this story. The relationship the little boy (Alan Kim) has with his grandmother (Youn Yuh-jung) is funny and touching as it evolves, but it's never cloying. There is great authenticity in these characters, and in scenes like the cruel chick sorting of the poultry industry. Loved the performances from the cast as well, with Steven Yeun standing out for me. Just a lovely film, and it's nice to see all of the recognition it got.

Danton
(1983)

When revolutionaries become tyrants
"In the name of the principles of the revolution, they have forgotten the revolution itself! They've established a dictatorship more ferocious than the aristocracy! Fearing the return of tyrants, they turned into tyrants! Fouquier, you were the one who said that the people wanted blood. That was a lie, that was lie, that was a lie. It's not the people, it's you who want blood. The people want only one thing and that's to live in peace."

With its wonderful costumes and period details, this film from Andrzej Wajda has high production value. (though avoid the English-dubbed version! It's awful.) Gerard Depardieu (Danton) and Wojciech Pszoniak (Robespierre) turn in strong performances as their characters try to out-maneuver one another during the Reign of Terror, the year after the French Revolution. Robespierre has been deciding who "enemies of the revolution" are and having them beheaded; Danton, one of the original revolutionaries and popular with the people, is alarmed and openly criticizes the direction the National Convention has taken. It's a simplified account and criticized for its inaccuracies, but despite those things, it's a little slice of history that's compelling on its own, and even more so since aspects of it have recurred in other times and places.

I have to believe this is why the story was compelling to Wajda. The parallel to the Soviet state not having lived up to the ideals of its revolution couldn't be clearer. Human rights were brutally abused, and millions killed during Stalin's terror, which lasted much longer. At the time the film was made, the solidarity movement for the workers of Poland was being suppressed by Soviet government, one that had been theoretically founded for the proletariat. The blatant hypocrisy we see in Robespierre, who becomes a tyrant, is a stand-in for the Soviets and Jaruzelski, and it's easy to think of world leaders who became dictators after overthrowing someone and gaining power themselves. There's a depressing truth about humanity at the bottom of this.

On the other hand, when Danton essentially says you cannot simply destroy newspaper presses, stifle courtroom reporters, and execute opponents to silence the truth, I was reminded of the line from Bulgakov, "Manuscripts don't burn." It's a view that ultimately the truth will come out, and optimism that dictatorships will fall. There is something empowering and inspirational about people caught up in a period of great change, and sticking to their ideals.

Wajda includes many moments where the leaders of the two factions are espousing their views in the ways you might expect, and also lots of little things, like Robespierre standing on this tip-toes behind the podium to appear taller. It helps keep the 136 film from ever lagging, and I was so engaged I found the time going by quickly. He saves his best moment for last, though, with the little child reciting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. If nothing else, the people of tomorrow and history will judge us, he seems to say. Worth seeing.

Umi yori mo mada fukaku
(2016)

That gentle Kore-eda magic
Such a gentle, sad film. It's a story of letting a good life slip away not through a single bad decision, but by a succession of small ones, something we learn about a guy (Hiroshi Abe) only gradually. He's quite a deadbeat, gambling away money when he gets his hands on it, not paying his child support or rent, and stealing things from his widowed mother (Kirin Kiki) to take to the pawn shop. He's a hard guy to like or sympathize with, and a disappointment to everyone around him, most touchingly his ex-wife (Yoko Maki) and son.

Kore-eda wisely doesn't turn the film into a melodrama by trying to explain everything that's happened in these people's lives, but we can connect some of the dots with what he shows us. I wondered if the main character had known that his father was secretly proud of the book he had written, whether that would have made a difference in how he turned out. Maybe that's one of the saddest things, being aware of failure but seemingly unable (or unwilling) to take control and start taking positive steps again.

Kiki is wonderful in her part, shining especially in a flash of emotion where she wonders how things could have ended up this way. The moment where his son innocently asks him "are you who you wanted to be?" hits pretty hard too. And yet, none of them demonize him, and I'm pretty sure I judged him more than they did, even if his ex-wife stood up to all his BS pretty well. That's part of Kore-eda's magic, to be so incredibly gentle and accepting despite dealing with dark subjects. He also doesn't offer any excuses or a flimsy feel-good resolution. We can decide for ourselves what will happen with these characters, much as we have control over at least some of the decisions in our lives.

Ordet
(1955)

Heavy-handed
Oof. Such a heavy-handed, deeply religious film was not for me. There are some bits which show its heart was in the right place, such as the two pig-headed old men eventually understanding that they should set aside their squabbling over which one understands the "true" faith, but there is never a doubt about God's existence, or the importance of Christianity. The film emphasizes it again and again as it slowly lumbers through its 125 minute run time.

The protagonist of the film to me is the daughter-in-law, who smiles beatifically at those around her, including her husband who has lost faith, and his grumpy father. She radiates compassion but also the smugness of "knowing" that God is all around us, and that little miracles are taking place all the time because of Him. She's a nice, gentle person but her views are condescending, which is irritating.

There are two characters who represent possible challenges to this view, but they're woefully underdeveloped, or perhaps better put, are never really given a chance to articulate a different view. She assures her husband that his faith will come because he has goodness in his heart (hmm I wonder what will happen?), and he's quite weak in moments of crisis, because he doesn't walk "holding God's hand" as his father does. The film plays on the tired stereotype that the atheist is weak, and while sniveling under duress, will turn to God. Meanwhile after a life-threatening birthing, a doctor is allowed to ask "Which helped more this evening - your prayers, or my skill?" before driving off, but he's mistaken in his pride for what he believes the outcome to be. Neither character asks those who are religious about the contradiction between an all-powerful being in the sky who is still involved in the world, and all of its horrific suffering and cruelty, or any other hard question for that matter.

There is no real soul-searching here, and to me despite its message of healing over the schisms in religion which prevent the understanding of Christ's words and basic human kindness, the film is really quite shallow in exploring faith itself. To a tragedy, the father says "There must be some purpose in it, or it would have never happened," the ultimate non-debatable answer of a believer, not that the film tries to debate it. Unlike Bergman, Dreyer has no doubt, and presents a film that has no doubt, which in the best case is weak artistically and in the worse perpetuates a mythology that has done far more harm in the world than good. The ending is ludicrous, and I think would have been more powerful with ambiguity, or without the miracle.

Easy Living
(1937)

Zany screwball comedy
"Oh, go soak your head in a bucket."

Jean Arthur and Ray Milland are adorable in this, and the two dogs certainly are too, almost enough to give the film a slightly higher rating. I just wish it had focused a little more on sweet little romantic moments, instead of all of the slapstick and men shouting. There is great potential in the cast, which is pretty deep, and I loved little things like the cafeteria automat complete with a security camera, but scenes like Edward Arnold falling down the stairs and the riot over food didn't do much for me. The film has a lot of life to it, but it was just a little too silly for me.

It's a screwball comedy so I didn't really expect much, but the film had an opportunity to say at least a little something about class during the Depression, and instead just gave us the common theme of a working-class woman striking it rich. Jean Arthur's character hits the quadfecta - a sable coat worth $58,000 (over $1M in today's dollars) literally plops down on her from the sky, she's given an incredibly lavish and huge "Imperial suite" at a swank hotel, she meets the scion of a wealthy businessmen, and unwittingly makes a bundle on the stock market. It's nice when she rejects all that out of honor, but it was hard to feel too excited when Milland's character tells her he has a job for her "making my breakfast," meaning she'll get to settle down in the role of a housewife, not just because of how dated that is (after all, it was 1937), but not enough time was spent between the two of them.

Overall, worth seeing for Jean Arthur and Ray Milland, and if you like zany films, you'll probably like this one more than I did.

Hachi-gatsu no rapusodi
(1991)

A heartfelt look at human tragedy
Such a touching, heartfelt film. The image of the grandma walking in the driving rain with that umbrella is one of the best Kurosawa ever put on the screen, and always makes me emotional. The film has several other scenes that make me tingly, especially early on, when the grandchildren of a survivor of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki begin probing and internalizing the past. The middle section is not quite as strong and I'm not sure how I feel about Richard Gere, but the biggest issue could be that Kurosawa doesn't comment on the broader context of the war and then uses a heavy hand in telling the story of this family's suffering.

Two grandmothers in our family passed away in the last few years, and I can just hear them howling at the grandmother in this film. One of them lost her brother on his 18th birthday to a kamikaze attack in the Philippines. The other had to flee with her family to escape the marauding Japanese army as it committed horrific atrocities in her country. To them and to many others, empathy is hard, and I understand that. And yet thinking about the 110,000 to 210,000 civilians killed from the two bombs, a staggering number regardless of which estimate you believe, it's beyond heartbreaking.

Sometimes I think the heaviness of an artist's message is proportional to their frustration with it not having been heard. It seems to me Kurosawa wanted to remind people of this enormous loss of life and its effect to the present day, human tragedies which were (and are) independent of Japan's militarism and the atrocities they committed that brought it on. With patriotism and a cavalier attitude toward the world soaring in America 45 years later, to some that threatened the narrative defending the decision to drop the bombs, which to me is unfortunate and I think misses the point.

To get the most out of this film, I think it's best seen with an open mind, and open heart. I cry thinking about what all of these grandmothers went through. May it never happen again. But how can we possibly have a chance of preventing that, if we don't acknowledge the truth, from all sides?

Real Life
(1979)

Clever, prescient satire
Quirky, clever comedy from Albert Brooks, and one ahead of its time in showing the possibility of a real family being filmed for entertainment, and how unreal such a depiction of "real life" would turn out to be. Brooks is great as the narcissistic director of the film, which is meant to capture the life of a family over a year, but he gets too personally involved with his subjects and they soon crumble under the pressure, part of which includes a media circus.

The technical needs of the project are high, so the film conjures up futuristic technology like the 'Graphicon 8000,' which does a primitive rendering of a 3D model of a person's face to determine their screen presence (after giving its technical report, its next screen "Thank you, pick up your shoes at the desk" was pretty funny). The Ettinauer 226XL cameras that fit over their operators' heads and record digitally onto integrated circuit chips and then upload later for processing were prescient technically, on top of being funny in use, the cameramen circling around their subjects.

Not all of the scenes which follow work completely, but there are enough good ones to keep it amusing, such as the black doctor (J. A. Preston) calling Brook's character out for his subtle racism and Charles Grodin, playing a veterinarian, making a serious gaffe while being filmed operating on a horse. The meetings with the studio, the executive calling in from his vacation, are quite funny too, because the situation seems so absurd and yet the dialogue and characterization so real.

The real satire is in Brooks's character and the concept of reality entertainment in the first place, the latter effectively mocking the content we would regularly only see decades later. Brooks shows us that such a film can't possibly capture "real life" because people feel the pressure of a camera, and so to observe is to disturb, as the maxim goes. Driven by someone always looking out for himself more than the well-being of the family, and by someone looking to entertain instead of the doctors who are ignored, the project is doomed in more ways than one. Funny, sometimes dark, intelligent stuff.

Le souffle au coeur
(1971)

Unpleasant characters
Great filmmaker, nauseating film - and not just because of its incestual content. It tells the story of a rich, entitled 14 year old who likes jazz, existential literature, and fantasizing about his mother. The boy is seriously repelling, speaking impudently to adults, treating waiters rudely, harassing the servants, and trying to force himself on girls. And he's the protagonist; Malle contrasts him to his older brothers who are even more obnoxious, as well as a snob with conservative political views. Kids say and do dumb things and I admire a film which tries to be honest about what they get up to while coming of age, but these kids are so spoiled as to be revolting, and it's troubling that Malle doesn't seem to be aware of it. He wants us to laugh along with their repugnant antics.

Meanwhile, the mother (Lea Massari) knows no boundaries, which we see from the opening scene where she's playing around half-dressed with her sons. Malle builds the framework for what ultimately happens between them by having one of the characters referring to childhood no longer existing, and the mother admitting that she has no modesty. Unfortunately, while Massari's performance is pretty good, the boy's (Benoît Ferreux) is weak, lacking any kind of range and consisting mostly of a blank, serious stare.

Aside from just how self-absorbed and unpleasant this family is - man, their laughter at the end was seriously grating - another problem is that Malle doesn't exercise any restraint at all in his script. The boy compares the length of his cock with his brothers, guzzles bottles of expensive wine, visits a brothel, narrowly avoids being molested by a priest, masturbates to the crime novel "J'irai cracher sur vos tombes" with a cat placed between his legs, and spies on his mother having sex and bathing. When one girl turns him down in her hotel room, he tells her he'll go knock on another's door and does, and of course ends up successful. It's too much, and any kind of subtlety in the warmth between the mother and son is drowned out. The idea that they can just forget what happened and all be happy is ridiculous, and the fact that the film condones the cruelty to those in social classes lower than theirs is maddening. Overall, an unpleasant film with unlikeable characters.

Stage Fright
(1950)

Commits an unforgivable error
This film was already heading for a mediocre review score from me, and then it committed an egregiously bad, unforgiveable error at the end. It's a plot twist that informs us that the flashback sequence at the start of the film was a narrative lie - and Dietrich's dialogue can't be construed in any other way ("I didn't mean, I didn't mean it...we had a terrible quarrel about you. Oh he was vile ... he started to hit me. I grabbed something. I was out of my mind with fear ... what will they do to me? Etc). This isn't a subtle POV trick or something deeper relating to the truth being subjective or elusive ala Rashomon, it's just an enormous mistake from Hitchcock, and he knew it. It tanks an already average film.

I say average because the plot that leads up to this point is weak as well. It asks far too much of Jane Wyman's character, first helping the "wrong man" (Richard Todd), then getting involved with a detective (Michael Wilding, and why would she do this?), and going undercover as a maid to the femme fatale (Marlene Dietrich). On top of that, Wyman was poorly cast and too wide-eyed and breathless in the part, and Dietrich was too stiff, as if she were going through the motions. There's a man on the run (improbably getting away from the police more than once) and yet the film feels incredibly constrained, wandering through little moments of blackmail and Dietrich performing on-stage. Some of them are cute, like Alastair Sim's comic frustration with the carnival game, the real maid conniving to make the most out her situation, or Patricia Hitchcock briefly appearing as "Chubby" Bannister, so the film is not entirely without charm. It just doesn't have the tension of a suspense film or the menace of a noir film, despite a good beginning. There was a lot of potential here, but it just didn't gel, and then committed its cardinal sin.

Raiders of the Lost Ark
(1981)

Great popcorn flick
Harrison Ford is iconic as Indiana Jones, Karen Allen is great as his tough sidekick/love interest, and the film literally gets Biblical on us to melt Nazis. Along the way there is suspense, great stunt work, good fight scenes, lots of one-liners, and many gruesome ways the bad guys die. It's all a very Hollywood production and to be honest, I could have used a little more cool archaeology stuff and less of the action which seemed to go on a bit long, but this is a classic blockbuster for a reason. My understanding is one of the original inspirations was a James Bond like character, and you can certainly see that. Unfortunately that inspiration brings along some baggage, and you'll have to ignore the white hero leading frightened natives to plunder treasures and suspend disbelief over his ability to take on entire armies on his own. Overall, it's an enjoyable popcorn film though, so much so that the artistry of its brilliant ending stands out all the more.

Island in the Sun
(1957)

Flawed but fascinating, and worth seeing
What an odd, fascinating film this is. To start with, it's visually very appealing, filmed in the Caribbean with its beautiful people, and having quite a photogenic cast - Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, Michael Rennie, Stephen Boyd, and Patricia Owens. The film touches on interracial relationships and does a few good things there, but it's flawed, holding back because of the Production Code and also out of fear of conservative audiences particularly in the south, which is of course a shame. It allows Belafonte's character to make some fantastic comments about colonialism, slavery, and how people of color in the area are viewed to the present day, but it keeps these in a minor key, and toes the line about whether "these people" can self-govern, with a British official giving another (and audience members) a knowing, doubtful smirk early on about that. On the other hand, the scion of a plantation (Mason) is shown to be an entitled asshole, nearly killing people with his sports car and forcing himself on his wife early on - so the contrast to Belafonte's, dignified, intelligent character couldn't be clearer.

Caution, spoilers from here on.

The film lightly explores a couple of mixed relationships (Belafonte with Fontaine, and Dandridge with Rennie), but it steers well clear of showing them kiss, or even developing the characters, Dandridge's in particular. It's much more comfortable with her relationship (white man/black woman) than the other way around though, and that's true all the way up until the ending, which is pretty telling. Despite it holding back, I was still impressed by how Dandridge and Belafonte's characters are given to us without stereotypes, and the fact that the relationships they get into are serious, approaching marriage. Dandridge isn't given much to do but she made the most of it, doing things like lightly mocking her boyfriend and imitating his boss. Belafonte meanwhile does it all, exuding charm and getting a chance to sing on top of his political commentary. Well ok, he does it all except get to embrace and kiss his white girlfriend.

Regardless, the film unfortunately spends more time on Mason's character's fear that his wife (Owens) is having an affair, and his sister (Collins) being romanced by a wealthy future MP (Body). I was less interested in those relationships, but I have to say, I really did not see the twists that arise in either of them. The former veers off into Crime and Punishment territory, with good old John Williams playing the polite policeman (slash Porfiry Petrovich), which was quite surprising. It also becomes complicated when it's revealed that both Mason and Collins are a teeny fraction black, which they're horrified over. Mason's character tries to capitalize on it, thinking he can run for office since he's "one of the people" now, and it's a great moment when Belafonte calls him on this. Meanwhile Collins isn't sure she should marry and go off to London, because she fears her children may be black, and it was hard not to think of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry and the racism they encountered during this bit.

Where the film disappoints on this front is in first assuring us that Collins (who becomes pregnant) can easily give up the child for adoption, and you can just feel Joseph Breen's fingerprints on those lines in the script, as abortion is never considered. It takes a further downward turn when we find out that - guess what, Collins' mother had an affair so she's not a teeny bit black after all! Yay, she can now safely go off and get married, phew what a relief! Meanwhile her brother who is of 'tainted blood' is pretty unbalanced, and one kind of wonders if there was a linkage there, though the older brother he alludes to apparently did all right for himself. Anyway, while I liked the idea of owning up to adultery, I thought the film chose a pretty convenient 'out' for Collins' character, rather than confronting the idiocy of racism. The film is a bit of mess with these various plot lines, but it was always an interesting mess to me, maybe a guilty pleasure.

And, to its credit, it does come back to Dandridge's and Belafonte's romances, and allows her the path forward (albeit in kind of a meek way), and allows him some power in the path he chooses (even if forced by the studio). It's not something that's going to be completely satisfactory, flawed as it is especially by today's standards, but I was surprised by how much I enjoyed watching it, and thinking about it.

Mononoke-hime
(1997)

Beautiful and nuanced
There's so much to love about this Studio Ghibli production, with its beautiful animation and messages of environmentalism and co-existence. It starts off seeming like it will be another fantasy involving a young man going off to fight essentially as good vs. Evil, but we soon see it's not as simple as that. In fact, the character is more often a mediator, so much in the middle that others wonder whose side he's on, which I thought was a nice touch. There are two strong female characters on each side of the conflict, and I loved the nuance in that of Lady Eboshi, the leader of an iron works. She rescues girls from slavery and gives lepers jobs, seemingly a virtuous character defending her operation from the animals which threaten it, but we find that she's also ambitious and her campaign of deforestation is done with ultimate goal of power. She's doing what people do but it's destroying the ecosystem, which is then reacting. Meanwhile there are conflicts within both sides, e.g. Samurai vs. Ironworkers, and apes vs. Wolves vs. Boars. That makes the plot probably a little messier than it should have been, and a film with more action scenes (and associated carnage) than necessary, but it underscores the message that conflict is inevitable, and that mediation is critical to allow both sides to live in harmony. It's all wrapped up in creative visuals done with a wonderful aesthetic, making for an appealing film.

Four Weddings and a Funeral
(1994)

Love this one
"A toast before we go into battle. True love. In whatever shape or form it may come. May we all in our dotage be proud to say, 'I was adored once too.'"

Ah, I have a soft spot for this one. I just love the ensemble and their performances - Hugh Grant is so awkward and endearing, Andie MacDowell is wonderfully liberated (33 partners and the film doesn't judge her for it), John Hannah ranges from humor to reading that W. H. Auden poem, Simon Callow and Charlotte Coleman are so full of life and joy, and Kristin Scott Thomas displays her emotions with such subtlety. I could go on and on too, the cast is so deep and even in scenes with crowds, watch the acting, it's marvelous. In addition to the gay couple, the inclusion of a deaf character (David Bower) who is a real person like everyone else was a nice touch. There are many wonderfully British bits of humor sprinkled into the script, and the film is charming in how it shows the rituals of life and the silly things we find ourselves doing. It's a rom-com so it has the familiar tropes of the genre, but the framework was creative, many characters are allowed to shine, and I liked the pathos in the film - both with the titular funeral, and the sad aspects of how the romance plays out. For the genre, this is a real standout, and always makes me smile.

Thelma & Louise
(1991)

Iconic and meaningful
A feminist manifesto. So many bitter truths. Not being able to report an attempted rape because they won't be believed. The rape that Sarandon's character carries inside her for the rest of her life. The abusive, self-important, controlling husband. The ridiculous harassment out on the road. The film went from 0 to dark mighty quickly out in that parking lot, which is an extraordinary moment. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are brilliant in this, and Brad Pitt's breakout role is memorable as well. The film goes a little awry at times e.g. The Jamaican bicyclist smoking pot (ugh), but it shines in its quieter moments, such as when Sarandon's character catches the eye of two old women looking despondently out the window. In addition to the beautiful relationship the two main characters have, the one that Sarandon has with her boyfriend (Michael Madsen) is a nice touch. Loved the beautiful wide open spaces too. Not a perfect film, but iconic and meaningful.

Madadayo
(1993)

Heartfelt
A touching farewell, Kurosawa saying "Madadayo" ("Not yet!) to death, but knowing that death is inevitable. The compassion his students show for him after he retires at 60, with him thinking that that's when he's an "old man," is heartfelt. There are some very lovely, natural scenes here - the husband and wife in their small shack through the changing seasons, the birthday party at 60 with the beer chugging and toasts (such brilliant, organic acting all around!), and the older man at 77 telling the young kids to "find something you really like" when it comes time to choose a path in life. Unfortunately, the second half of the film labors through an awfully long subplot involving a lost cat, and too much of the film is spent in gatherings, drinking and singing old songs. Its heart is in the right place and it gives a perspective on old age and the value of maintaining lifelong camaraderie, but it just got a little tedious to watch at times. I absolutely loved the final scene, dreaming back to youth, and wish the film had had more flashbacks to explain this man's life as a teacher. Certainly worth seeing because it's Kurosawa's last film and it touches the heartstrings, but it's not one I'd reach for again.

Herr Tartüff
(1925)

A film within a film
Two stories, presented as a film within a film, complement each other beautifully. In the outer one, a housekeeper (Rosa Valetti) is slowly poisoning her employer (Hermann Picha) after convincing him to disinherit his grandson. In the inner, a pared down telling of Molière's play, a religious zealot (Emil Jannings) is duping a rich man (Werner Krauss) out of his money, to the horror of his wife (Lil Dagover). She hatches a plan to expose him by tempting him with her cleavage and ankles, and one of the interesting little footnotes is that Camilla Horn was used as a "foot double" for her.

I love how Murnau puts the camera on the actors, and their performances, Jannings and Dagover in particular. The lighting and Expressionist set designs are fantastic, and the satire of religious hypocrisy is brilliant for all ages - 1664, 1925, and today. The stories are straightforward, but I thought 65 minutes was a good length, and that this focused the film into a very satisfying narrative. Definitely worth checking out.

The Last Command
(1928)

Fantastic
Three outstanding performances here - Emil Jannings, Evelyn Brent, and William Powell are all brilliant - and the direction from Josef von Sternberg is superb. Jannings plays a Russian General trying to quash the Revolution, and Brent and Powell are revolutionaries in the guise of actors. That part of the story is told in an extended flashback, because a decade later Jannings and Powell have improbably found themselves in Hollywood. Crowd scenes in both periods are very well done, as extras mash against each other in the present, and the combat gets bloody in the past - but it's the story of the revolution that shines.

Evelyn Brent is simply transcendent, and the way that von Sternberg captures her is as good as almost anything he ever did with Marlene Dietrich. It's too bad her character weakens somewhat in a crucial moment, but it gave an extra layer of bittersweetness to the story. The fact that both Brent and Powell's characters' both ultimately see the honorable aspect of a man who loved his country is touching, and while the outer story is a little weaker, the ending is quite good.

Von Sternberg's use of lighting and close-ups, how he draws the emotion out of his cast and the big scenes, gives this old film a feeling of vibrancy and life, unlike many others from the era. Oh and lastly, the intertitles from Herman J. Mankiewicz were some of the best I've seen, a couple examples of which were:

"And so, with the flames of war crackling along a two-thousand mile front, troops bitterly needed to defend Russia played parade for the Czar."

And: "After a week - after thousands of men had spilled their blood to defend a few inches of earth - there came a lull between storms."

Overall, great film, and one to seek out.

Frau im Mond
(1929)

Wonderful science fiction
Oh my goodness, I loved geeking out on this one. It tickled me so much. It takes a little while to get to the point that the rocket ship blasts off, but it's worth it. I loved how the motivation behind the espionage was a handful of rich businessmen who wanted to make sure the world's supply of gold was under their control, so they send out the guy with the Hitler haircut to subvert the scientists. There are so many wonderful little moments on the journey and then on the moon, one of which is a weightless effect. The film is prescient in a lot of ways, including the flight path, multistage rocket, and that Earthrise-like scene. Other bits are just hilarious, like the boy stowaway with all his wild sci-fi comic books, cognac being served to calm the nerves, and a divining rod being whipped out to locate water. Tension comes from several places, in addition to the technical challenge and the rocket being damaged; there's a love triangle, one guy cracks up, and there's also greed over that gold. Just a lovely, lovely film from Fritz Lang, visually stunning, and with a fantastic ending. The fact that 40 years later mankind would go from this kind of speculation, fed in part by the scientific theories of the day, to actually landing on the moon boggles the mind.

Die Nibelungen: Kriemhilds Rache
(1924)

Epic
This film has some amazing costumes and set designs that dazzle the eyes with their patterns and textures. It's got all the makings of an epic with how lush it is, the cast of thousands, and a palace fire scene that looked pretty damn dangerous for the actors. Margarete Schön is well-cast as Kriemhild, though in thinking back, her performance which consisted of an austere gaze is pretty one-note. I loved the look of Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Etzel/Attila and the Huns are suitably barbaric in their revelry, but there seems to be some racial subtext in this, as it compares to the steely Germanic characters who have all the actual power. The bigger issue is the plot, however; the completion to the story just never truly engaged me, or kept up with all the wonderful visuals. The fantasy elements from the first part (Siegfried), such as the dragon and invisibility cloak, give way here to lengthy battle sequences that weren't as meaningful to me. Watch it for the grandeur and spectacle of it all though.

Marnie
(1964)

Problematic yet compelling
This is a tough film to evaluate, because it's got so many great things about it, but also some deeply repelling misogyny. It's beautifully shot, has a fine cast, and Hitchcock gives us several fantastically tense scenes - Hedren's character stealing from the safe when she thinks no one is in the office, Connery's desperately searching for her on the ship when she's tried to do away with herself, and that flashback at the end with the mother (Louise Latham) and sailor (Bruce Dern). Hitchcock was at the top of his game in terms of filmmaking, and the production value is high.

Where the film missteps is not in Connery's character raping Hedren's, as that in itself is a profoundly dark scene, certainly one of the darkest I think Hitchcock ever put on the screen. Early on Connery's character is alluded to as a predator, just as the animals he likes studying, and the idea of this predator taking advantage of a woman who is vulnerable psychologically and legally is incredibly discomforting. Where it errs, however, is in ultimately making him the protagonist. He wants to root out her psychological issues, reading up on the matter ("Sexual Aberrations and the Criminal Female", lol) and forcing her to confront them, mainly because he wants to "solve" her frigidity so that she'll want to have sex with him as his wife, you see. The film could have been a true masterpiece had Connery's character been a malevolent force, some other character used to figure it all out, and a more pessimistic ending as to the future of these people together. Hitch clearly did not see Connery's character as problematic, which is off-putting to say the least.

For those reasons I feel I'm rounding up a bit in my review score, but the truth is that even when I was recoiling, I was always interested in what I was seeing. The concept behind the film - this childhood trauma manifesting itself in anxiety, criminal behavior, and fear of men - is compelling, even if some of the psychological aspects are a bit forced. There are also so many little touches here, and as always in a Hitchcock film, I found myself drawn to the smart, secondary female character (Diane Baker). In interrogating my own feelings about it, it's as if I didn't really like this film, but liked watching it, if that makes any sense.

The Dumb Girl of Portici
(1916)

An epic, 1916-style
In early 17th century Italy, Spain rules with an iron hand, imposing heavy taxes on the poor. The playboy son of Viceroy, betrothed to a noblewoman, becomes attracted to a mute peasant woman who is light and lively on her feet (Ann Pavlova). He seduces her, then ravages her out in the woods. His lust slaked, he leaves her, and to make matters worse, his father seeks to permanently remove her from the picture by having her thrown in prison, where she's flogged. Gosh, that sounds more interesting as I type it than how it seemed on the screen.

No expense appears to have been spared on costumes or set design, and the look and feel of the film is that of an epic, 1916-style. The Italian revolt that follows excessive taxation and the ill treatment of the young woman has what seems like hundreds of people swarming in the streets. Unfortunately those scenes go on for too long and are rather monotonous, though in one moment we see the heads of the Spanish on pikes in the square which was rather macabre.

Anna Pavlova, the world-renowned ballerina and future namesake of the cloyingly sweet dessert, makes her only screen appearance here, which on its own probably makes it worth taking a look. We do get some glimpses of her dancing and grace with her body, but unfortunately, the film is dominated by the big action scenes. Perhaps tightened up (it's 112 minutes long) or with more work put in on the characters it would have held my interest more.

Xala
(1975)

Interesting satire
"You mighty of this world should be like a mother cat, her eyes and heart working together. When there's no milk, she still finds food for her little ones, her noble heart always on the lookout."

A silver-haired Senegalese businessman decides to take a third wife, but finds himself impotent on his wedding night. He has the "Xala," or the "curse," and seeks traditional healers to cure himself.

As remarked upon by many, there is clearly symbolism at play here, with the Senegalese having gained their independence from France, but still speaking its language and drinking Evian, and more importantly, struggling with corruption under their own rule. In one of the film's more powerful moments, a group of disfigured beggars is rounded up because men in suits think they are "human rubbish" who are "bad for tourism." It's this disregard for common people that is what make those newly in charge of Senegal impotent as leaders, Sembène seems to be saying.

The film is also an interesting window into the culture, especially as it relates to women. The old man insists on polygamy as a part of his "religious heritage," and important to assert in the post-colonial era. We see the mother of the third bride tell her that her "husband is master" and that she must be "available to him at all times" as she strips and prepares her for the consummation of the marriage. As wives number one and two are resigned to the patriarchy and simply vie for their rightful rank and position within it, it's refreshing that the voice of reason is an adult daughter. "A man with two wives is a liar and a hypocrite," she says, "with three, he's even worse." She's a fantastic character and seems to represent something about the need for progress, and I wish we had seen more of her.

The film goes on probably a half hour too long, and suffers with a slow pace. I have to say, its final scene was also very unpleasant, and in a way which seemed unnecessary. Overall, it's a satire worth seeing though.

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