Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Films re-watched 2014

Each year is a year of film discoveries; some new, some old. But too each year there are films I re-watch because I enjoy them or because I want to see them again.
Here are some of the films I saw again in 2014.

Downhill Racer - I grew up in Colorado and I love skiing so it fits the bill every time. This is really one of the best sports movies ever made because it cuts through the rah-rah-rah.

The Ruling Class - As wicked and clever as ever. Peter O'Toole is terrific.

Casablanca - I'd forgotten how good this film was. Curtiz is often underrated.

Flirt - A forgotten Hal Hartley, which is saying something. Still, a good film.

Nostalgia -  I hadn't seen this Andrei Tarkovsky film in years; and always on the big screen. The images on the small screen are still powerful and the ending just as harrowing and mysterious.

Badlands - Leaning towards Malick's best because each scene doesn't stay vacant for long.

The Train - Burt Lancaster commandeering a Nazi train full of art. What's not to love?

Hiroshima mon amour - One remembers the beauty of the images rather than the tragedy, which makes it all the more powerful when you see it again.

Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud - Claude Sautet's last film and still a solid, effective love story.

Peking Opera Blues - I watch this Hong Kong classic every few years. It's ridiculous but fun. Or is that ridiculous AND fun?

Pursued - When they made psychological westerns.

Miller's Crossing - Man, I forgot how good this was. I liked it better this time around.

Pascali's Island - No one remembers this film but it's got fine performances by Ben Kingsley and Helen Mirren

The Long Day Closes - Terence Davies' beautiful, personal and nostalgic film is one for the ages.

Life and Nothing But - Bertrand Tavernier's film about World War I and the effect on two people; one an officer and one the wife of a lost soldier - is a film I watch every few years.

Red River - Is this the best Western ever made? Maybe. Still entertaining.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul - Has any director ever continually cut as deep and as sharp as Fassbinder did film after film? This film is still so darn good.

Excalibur - I put this in to test my Blu-ray player and decided there was nothing better to watch at that moment. Fun film.

The Yakuza - Robert Mitchum doing his thing; only as an older man in the 1970's. Better than I remembered it. 

3 Women - Robert Altman's Persona made at the height of his artistic powers - when zooming was all the rage and people still ate patty melts.

Sunday, October 19, 2014



Some would say Whiplash is about a music conservatory student drummer who - with the help of a sadistic teacher - achieves success. But really the film is about a student who has to endure the abuse and manipulative tactics from the teacher on the way to achieving success.

The teacher - played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons - tells a story to the kid about how Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker's head and it made Parker practice harder until he achieved his legendary success. The story is apocryphal but it sets the stage for the lesson the teacher wants the student [Miles Teller] to understand, which is that abuse and intimidation will bring out the best in someone with talent.

I don't think the filmmaker - Damien Chazelle, believes this method works. But he teases it out enough to make us at least believe the student thinks it has some merit. However, by the end, he finds that the only real way to achieve success with this teacher is to fight back - and hard.

It's a terrific film; entertaining, intense and rather unpredictable. Especially the final scene when the student gets humiliated and then turns the tables - all on stage for the world to see. He finally finds a way to achieve the success he would have achieved earlier with a better teacher. But sometimes you have to overcome hurdles to win.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Horses and Men in Iceland

Of Horses and Men is an entertaining, fresh and unique tale about men and horses in modern day Iceland.

It's all the more remarkable because the director Benedikt Erlingsson is a first time filmmaker who manages to capture the story visually better than many seasoned directors. Through editing juxtapositions, close-ups as well as the majestic use of horses in many different scenarios, he keeps the tale going strong for its 86 minute running time.

The film takes place in and around a quirky small Icelandic community where everyone knows one another and no one holds a secret from anyone. The film unfolds much like a series of short stories; each one loosely connected to the others and all in one way another involving horses and the various characters of the region.

Both the horses and the men [and women] live off the loamy, windy, fjords that surround them. And the only thing that separates man from beast is that the men attempt to be a bit more formal in their proceedings - although barely. The film's first scene is indicative of this. A man rides his horse to call on a lady friend. He is dressed in formal attire. She greets him with - who we assume - is her mother and her young son. They have tea and commence with small talk and laughter. Meanwhile his horse has drawn the attention of a stallion who begins to go wild. As the gentleman leaves the wild stallion managers to break through the fence holding him and he rushes to the mare to mate with her. What ensues is a major embarrassment for the gentleman and a good hearty laugh for everyone else.

One thing Erlingsson does really well is present each story in such a unique way that you don't exactly know what's happening. Many times I found myself surprised by unpredictable [but subtle] narrative twists.  Each story has its own delight or shock or revelation and all of them have moments of exhilaration, which are helped along by the amazing cinematography of Bergsteinn Bjoergulfsson and a terrific score by David Thor Jonsson.

Movies like 'Of Horses and Men' is one of the reasons I go to movies. I hope it finds a distributor.

UPDATE: It has been picked up by Music Box Films.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Jodorowsky's Reality

The Dance of Reality is everything cinema should be; Daring, bold, controversial, theatrical, raw, surreal, cathartic. In short, a balancing act that threatens to tip over yet maintain its equilibrium all along carrying the audience through the ups and downs and conflicts and vicissitudes of its main characters.

Make no mistake, this is a Alejandro Jodorowsky film through and through. It is not a compromised, mainstream film put together by studio producers or marketing hacks. It's not safe and easy yet it's not too outrageous to scare away the timid. For every bit of harsh or clunky mise-en-scene it segues into confident narrative structure and the assurance of faith or a mother's love.

As in most of Jodorowsky the narrative is a bit messy - yet one is never confused. It is both a coming-of-age tale about a young boy [the young Jodorowsky] and a coming-to-Jesus tale about the boy's father who is a bully and a tyrant. He's also Jewish in the 1930's, which puts him one wrung down in the mind of everyone in the small Chilean village he lives in.

This is entertainment that astonishes and pushes us; from scenes like the mother urinating [for real] on her ailing husband, to dancing naked with her son both blackened with shoe polish, to the craziness of not one but a dozen crippled one [or no] armed men drinking themselves into despairing drunkenness. It's a world that not only embraces atheism and faith, but cornball sincerity [the mother sings every line as if in an opera] with outrageous sadistic madness [the father hurts the child early on to gain his respect].

It's a film about the cruelty of dictatorships and economic difficulties but a one of hope too. Ultimately, it's a film about the rebirth of both a man and his country.

It's tough to recount the plot. And since I saw it with no knowledge of the plot I'll leave it there.

See it. It's a great, unforgettable film.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Chair de poule

Chair de poule - 1963

Julien Duvivier is best known in the United States for 'Pépé le moko'. But he had quite a distinguished career that lasted from 1919 to 1967 and included over 70 films. Jean Renoir is noted to have said: "If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of [Julien] Duvivier above the entrance….This great technician, this rigorist, was a poet."

I've seen few Duvivier films but each film I have seen is impressive in one way or another. Even if he was just knocking off a genre picture. One such film is Chair de poule [translates as Goosebumps but was also known as 'Highway Pickup']

It's a French film noir and the plot is rather typical. A criminal named Daniel [Robert Hossein] after being caught robbing a safe escapes from a train on the way to prison, finds himself in a remote location where he is befriended by a man, Thomas [Georges Wilson], and his wife, Maria [Catherine Rouvel] who run a roadside restaurant and gas station. It's evident rather quickly that the young wife is not interested in her older husband. The only reason she hangs around is because he has a fortune of money stashed away in a safe. Daniel, it turns out, is a safe cracker. Once Maria finds out this convenient fact she decides to double-cross her husband with this handsome criminal. However, Daniel wants nothing to do with her.

Enter Paul [Jean Sorel] Daniel's partner in crime who in the we saw in the movies first scene manage to escape and avoid Daniel's prison fate.

The plot thickens.

I don't want to recount the plot or give anything away but suffice it to say the film fits into that niche we might call cynical noir.  It builds to a very satisfying conclusion. The story is not Duvivier's. It is based on a novel by James Hadley Chase titled Come Easy Go Easy. But it is well directed and it's terrifically entertaining.

The reason the film is not well know is most likely because it has no big movie stars we can associate with. The biggest being Jean Sorel who was in 'Belle de Jour' and 'The Day of the Jackal'. But it's got big talent behind the lens. The cinematography is by Léonce-Henri Burel who shot Abel Gance's Napolean as many Robert Bresson films. The score is done by Georges Delerue. It would be nice to see this film get the Criterion treatment at some point. Or just any old release will do. Look for it.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Resnais from memory

This will be possibly the worst reviews you will read of any of Alain Resnais' films. I will attempt in his honor to write memories I have of some his films without actually re-watching them. Some I haven't seen for 10 or 15 years.

Hiroshima mon amour
He’s an Asian architect

She’s a French actress
Love making and crying
Breakfast on a rooftop
Flashback in a cellar
Contemplation of life and death
And love...

Last Year at Marienbad
Everyone’s at a party in a castle.
People walk around in a quiet black & white world.
Some guy is doing card tricks.
Did any of it ever happen?
Even their shadows don't show up sometimes.

Muted colors.
The Algerian war is in the past
Or is it the present?
A young man.
A woman.
The memory of war = depressed characters

La guerre est finie
A revolutionary has many girlfriends.
He attempts to drive across the border.
At one point a woman walking down the stairs suddenly becomes many women.

Je t'aime, je t'aime
Man in a bean bag looking contraption.
Spun through fragments of time.
Mouse on the beach.
Scenes repeat until he goes mad and the machine breaks.

John Gielgud as a misanthrope with hemorrhoids.
Ellyn Bursten talks in a man’s voice sometimes.
Violence. Anger.
Expensive chateau. 

Political scandal
Belamondo in 20’s style
Wears nice suits
Drives a nice car
People talk a lot

Mon oncle d'Amérique
Human and animal behavior
French actors
A beating heart

Wild Grass
A woman dentist
An older man
A handbag
A shared love of aviation
A promise of romance.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Older Film Discoveries 2013

I watched more old movies last year than any year since I've been tallying up the movies I watch. Here are a few of the highlights that were discoveries for me.

An Enemy of the People [Satyajit Ray, 1989] - An adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play about a doctor who believes the holy water at the nearby temple is contaminated. He faces a lot of opposition including from his brother who is determined not to let the news out.

The Earthling [Peter Collinson, 1980] - The dying journey of a dreamer who meets a young boy lost in the wilderness after the death of his parents. A movie that is both tough and touching but without being sappy. [I wrote it about it here].

Hard Times [Walter Hill, 1975] - Charles Bronson plays Cheney a drifter who travels around the south during The Great Depression earning money by prize fighting and beating just about everyone in sight. A streamlined tale directed by Walter Hill [his first] with no frills just solid action.

Heidiko The Bus Conductor [Mikio Naruse, 1941] - My discovery of Naruse continued last year and this fun short film about a young woman who comes up with the idea of a starting a bus travel guide business on in her small town. A delightful comedy romance.

Justin De Marseille [Maurice Tourneur, 1935] - A French gangster film set in Marseille about a suave but likable gangster who attempts to set the black market business right. A film that captures a particular locale with color and mood and characters in ways that are purely French - but not Parisian.

The Last Valley [James Clavell, 1971] - Novelist James Clavell directed this historical drama set in the 17th century that pits a captain who leads his group of rough shod soldiers into a quiet valley where they consider their next move. Surprisingly good considering it's B-movie trapping.

Millions Like Us [Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launde, 1943]  This is one of best British propaganda films made during the war. Tightly scripted, well acted and directed it combines humor, drama, tragedy and the characteristic positive British attitude.

A New Leaf [Elaine May, 1971] - Elaine May's first and possibly best film about a rich man who is soon to lose his fortune and decides to marry a very naive woman whom he plans to kill for the insurance money. A comedy and while not always politically correct or comfortable full of many laughs.
Quatorze Juillet [Rene Clair, 1933] - Clair is best known for Le Million and À nous la liberté but, in fact, this movie is more in the classic tradition of French films of the 1930's. And in my view certainly as good.

A Pig Across Paris [aka Four Bags Full] [Claude Autant-Lara, 1956] - A terrific French comedy set during the Occupation in which Jean Gabin - an erstwhile artist - decides to help [or maybe it's hinder?] his new found friend get pork delivered around Paris. A true classic that deserves to be discovered.
Rome Ore 11 [Giuseppe De Santi, 1952] - Italian drama about a group of women searching for a job in a tough market who experience an accident while waiting in line for an interview. A film right on the heels of Italian neorealism but with a romantic twist.

Here were a few I knew about and finally caught up with.

Applause [Rouben Mamoulian, 1929] - Classic early talkie that used sound in novel ways.

The Blue Lamp [Basil Dearden, 1950] - Awesome British crime drama.

Breakfast at Tiffanies - [Blake Edwards, 1961] Yeah, I know, I hadn't seen this until last year.

The Breaking Point - [Michael Curtz, 1950] John Garfield in a noir classic version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not.

Contraband - [Michael Powell, 1940] World War II drama with Conrad Veidt as a Danish sea captain who uncovers a Nazi spy ring.

The Lady and the Beard [Yasujiro Ozu, 1931] I had a chance to see this twenty years ago at an Ozu retrospective but passed up the chance. Glad I finally saw it.

Witchfinder General [Michael Reeves,1968] - Terrific British horror drama featuring one of Vincent Price's best roles.

Zoo in Budapest [Rowland Young, 1933] - Always loved the title. And Loretta Young just shines.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Best Movies 2013

I watched more movies in 2013 than I have ever watched and I still feel like there are great films I missed. Nonetheless, it's time to make the annual list. Here are the top ten films I saw in 2013.

1) Inside Llewyn Davis - The movie that stayed with me longer than any other this holiday season. Melancholic, melodic and humorous it's a film that shows the Coen Brothers at the top of their game. It's also nice to see one of their characters garner our sympathy a bit. [Some say he is unsympathetic but in my view he simply makes bad choices and knows when he screws up].
2) Gravity - Hollywood - with the talents of Alfonso Cuarón - found how to use IMAX 3D without overdoing the 3D and yet immerse us in an awesome story of survival.
3) Upstream Color - Shane Carruth jumbles his narrative in such a way that is at once perplexing and impressive. At the heart is a movie about doubts and loneliness that just happens to push the narrative envelope a bit so we pay attention.
4) Short Term 12 - If there was justice in the big bad film world then this SWSX winning film by Destin Cretton would be nominated for best picture and Brie Larson would win best actress.
5) Hannah Arendt - This movies dares to tread where few movies do; into the world of intellectual battles. At the heart this movie, by Margarethe von Trotta, is a woman who chose to defend a common
sense idea over common sense.
6) Stories We Tell - Sarah Polley went in search of the mom she
never knew and in the process she found herself.
What else are documentaries supposed to do?
7) All Is Lost - Robert Redford lost at sea for a couple hours, working hard to survive but doomed to sink all without saying anything except 'Fuuuuuuuckkkk!'. What's not to love? J.C. Chandor shows with only two films he has considerable range.
8) Tim's Vermeer - Penn & Teller take on Vermeer. Or more exactly Vermeer art historians in this fascinating, engaging documentary. The theory is certainly debatable but the process of creating a Vermeer is undeniable.
9) The Past - Asghar Farhadi makes films about the complexity of human relations. This is his second film about the effects of divorce and while it may not be as rich as his last film it still offers much more than the average 'divorce picture'.
10) Becoming Traviata - I know what you're saying; What is Becoming Traviata? It's a behind the scenes documentary about a staging of Traviata at the Aix-en-Provence Festival. Presented by Philippe Béziat as a fly on the wall approach it avoids all the reality TV b.s and just shows us professional singers and a director doing what they do best. I was riveted.

The next twenty [alphabetical]:
American Hustle
The Attack
Blue Jasmine
The Company You Keep
Computer Chess
Drinking Buddies
Fill the Void
Frances Ha
The Great Beauty
Mother of George
Museum Hours
Pacific Rim
Something in the Air
A Touch of Sin
The World's End