Monday, December 18, 2006

La Terra Trema (1947) ***1/2

La Terra Trema, the legendary Italian film that launched the career of director Luchino Visconti (who would later direct such classics as Rocco e sei Fratelli and The Leopard with Burt Lancaster) is a decidedly simple film. It moves at a farily slow pace and sustains a running time of nearly 3 hours. All the actors in it are non actors, actual Sicillian fishermen Visconti picked for the movie. This is a mixed blessing: some of the performances are heartbreakingly real, most of them are plain terrible. Gorgeously photographed by Aldo Graziati (credited in the movie as G.R. Aldo) and wonderfully scored by Willy Ferrero, Visconti weaves a beautiful tragedy of the life of the poor. The narration is a stark reminder for the audience members who try to escape from putting themselves in the main character's shoes.

La Terra Trema takes us through the ups and downs of a poor Italian fishing family in a small coastal village where their hard work is exploited by greedy fish merchants. The narrator tells us: They don't even earn enough money to keep from starving. But when they came in from the sea, their nets were full. One day, Ntoni, who of his family seems to be the only one who opposes injustice, comes up with an idea: his family will mortgage the house, buy a boat, and sell their fish themselves in the city.

It takes some convincing, but eventually his family agrees, setting in motion a sad chain of events.

Many of the actor's terribly wooden acting and a strangely abandoned plotline involving Ntoni's brother Cola (what happens to him again?) weighs the film down, but somehow it perseveres. We remember this film because somehow, although we are not Sicilian fishermen, this story seems very real to us, and we can feel their pain, their anguish and humiliation, their anger, their despair, and their final acceptance of defeat. The film's message is told, like most of the film, bluntly, straight out: until the working class unites to oppose injustice, injustice will continue to subdue the working class.

I notice one detail: in the first "haggling" scene we see, the camera floats back and forth dreamily in an especially beautiful shot I felt like mentioning. There are, actually, quite a few gorgeous visuals presented in this film.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Mad Max (1980) *

Two hours of my life. Wasted.

That's all I have to say.

Princess Mononoke (1999) ****

The forest sprites.

Why animation?

Nowadays, you can do just about anything with visual effects. Of course, many filmmakers will never realize the fatal flaw in this strategy: in using visual effects, they are making the audience aware of the fact that the 300 ft. tall giant elephants are CGI (after all, we know they're not real) and distracting them, and pulling them away from the film. When you see a 300 ft. tall elephant in a film, no matter how real it looks you think "oooh, what good CGI" and are seperated, in a way, from the film.

In an animated film, of course, no one has to worry about this, because everything is animated in the first place, and, interestingly enough, it seems more "real." I personally believe the whole point of animation should be to portray all that would be impossible with live action. That said, this is exactly why Princess Mononoke should be on anyone's top 100 movies list.

Like all Miyazaki films its quite sentimental, yet this one is also surprisingly dark. There would be no other way, of course, to portray mankind's destruction of nature.

Princess Mononoke tells the story of an epic war between man and nature, that, as we come upon it (during 14th century Japan) appears to be coming to a close.

We hardly have time to admire the beautiful watercolor painted landscapes before the film attacks us. An alarm is sounding around a small village and surrounding countryside. Our protagonist, Prince Ashitaka (who rides an elk named Yakkuru, who acts a lot like a dog) spies from a watchtower something strange moving in the woods. There is a brief suspensful moment before out bursts a mass of thousands of purplish worms that seem to surround a large animal. I add, if there is any part of the film that specifically gets it a PG-13 besides the violence...well, those worms are unsettling, to say the least. Make sure you aren't eating when they come on.

The worm-beast-thing (identified as a demon) attacks the village and Ashitaka kills it. In doing so, however, the demon puts a curse on him that will, over a period of time, eat away at his soul and kill him. As a village tradition, he cuts off his top knot and leaves his village, never to return. His goal is to find where the demon came from and how a ball of iron might have found its way inside it. He eventually arrives at Irontown, a very literally named fortress which produces the majority of iron used in Japan. Irontown is waging a war against a band of gods serving the Great Forest Spirit to protect the surrounding forest form logging and mining. Interesting how the only animals we see in the film are the ones who might be able to survive the longest. You have the wolves and the giant boars, who can fight, the apes, who can climb trees, and tiny forest sprites who rattle their heads as a friendly greeting. Well, they can just disappear at will.

Irontown is winning the war against the environment, but they soon also have to fight the emperor's samurai for their iron. The 'town is run by Lady Hiboshi, who seems generally cold and cruel, but has human touches here and there. She is willing to use her own fighters, who worship her, as human bait and drops bombs on their heads as a stampede of boars attack. On the other hand, she is one of the few people willing to take care of lepers, and employs them in her gunworks. She also helped buy women out of city brothels to help run the town. Ashitaka takes a tour of Irontown, then later a tour of the forest, whose representative in this case is a girl named "San," who is called "Princess Mononoke" by the Irontown residence (that's "Princess of the Beasts" to you). San was raised by wolves and seems drawn to the idea of putting a spear in Lady Hiboshi. It also happens she is around Ashitaka age. a-HEM.

Ashitaka runs back and forth: Why can't we all just get along? He makes quite an impression with all but his efforts are futile and make no difference in the long run.

This is Hayao Miyazaki's masterpiece. The man's trademark involves sequences of stunning imagination and visual beauty, and there's plenty to go around here. I particularily remember one scene where "The Great Forest Spirit" turning into a giant by moonlight and striding past the mountains, as millions of little forest sprites, sitting in the tops of the trees, rattle their heads as he passes by.

Princess Mononoke is a violent film. It aint The Wild Bunch but there are decapitations, limb losses, scenes that if adapted into live action would not look out of place in a Tarantino film. These scenes are, however, are brief, few, and scattered throughout the film. Don't take your kids to this film. It is not a kiddie film. I'm just sayin'!

The Japanese language version is considerably better than the English one - the Americans tend to overdramatize it Shakespeareanly, especially Minnie Driver, who makes something hilarious out of just saying "Fire!" (In a British accent: "Fiyahhhhhh!").

The music is by Joe Hisaishi, who has done all of Miyazaki's work since Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. He scores the film near perfectly. 'Nuff said.

If you are a human being, you will leave this film stunned. It is, in my ever so humble opinion, the greatest film of 1999, and one of the greatest films ever made.

P.S. I know its hard to take the anime fans seriously when they call this one of the greatest films ever made. Just ignore them and see this. You will be impressed.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Sunset Boulevard (1950) ****


Sunset Boulevard is the ancestor of all films David Lynch.

It's impossible to watch it without thinking of Lynch and realizing it must have inspired many of his films. In many Lynch films, a character who seems innocent is pulled into a dark vortex, while the entrance they came through seems to get further and further away.

Joe Gillis (William Holden) isn't innocent, but that's where the differences are left behind. As soon as he parks his car in what appears to be an abandoned building he steps into a quicksand pit of darkness, delusion, eventually insanity, and eventually death.

I guess I don't really need to tell you about how great this film is, or what great acting it has. I don't need to tell you how Gloria Swanson's career mirrored her characters (she is even watching one of her own silent films in one scene - if I remember correctly, it was Queen Kelly). I don't need to tell you than Von Stroheim was in real life a legendary director of the 10's and 20's who in fact directed many of Swanson's most famous movies, inlcuding Queen Kelly. I don't need to tell you what a brilliant script this film has. I guess I don't need to tell you the plot either - I assume you know it since you got past the spoiler warning.

Instead, I want to focus on a few details that make the movie brilliant for me.

For instance, take when Joe first "escapes" from Norma's house on New Years Eve. Somehow the scene doesn't relieve us at all, and the reason why is a subtle touch by legendary director Billy Wilder - Joe is still wearing his black suit. He looks completely out of place. He tried to escape the mansion and it came with him.

Or what about that moment when Max von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim, who directed the classic silent film Greed) picks up Norma's veil while she and Joe Gillis are dancing - watch his face! Watch how his eyes are cast downward in an expression that suggests not only jelousy but also guilt, shame, and regret.

And what about the music? Most people who have only seen the film once only think of those corny, melodramatic DUN DUNNNNNS whenever a twist is revealed, but it's better than that. Take the scene where Joe wakes up after his first night at Norma's and crosses the lawn to her house to ask why his things have been moved. Or at the party when he learns she tried to commit suicide - the tune suddenly turns dark and foreboding - yet the party music plays as loudly as ever in the backround, creating a swirl of insane, indistinguishable sound. And when Joe arrives at her house Mayerling insists: "The musicians musn't know what's happened!" And on they play, as Joe confronts her upstairs, a sort of elevator music party waltz quartet.

Or what about the sets? The brilliant Art Decorators and Set Decorators who gave the house a personality to imply...a dead monkey.

And what about Swanson! I said I wouldn't discuss the performances, but hers is something else entirely. Rarely do film characters intimidate the audience, and make them afraid with simply their presence. She does this and more - she doesn't just think of herself as a movie star, she thinks of herself as a godess, someone who is above everything and more. Watch her face when she first sees Joe packing - she's out of focus, and in the back of the shot - but we can see her face crumple. Her voice is a bizzare contrast to her perfectly graceful, silent-movie tuned body.

And what of the legendary, beautiful final shot? Norma Desmond descends the staircase as an awestruck audience seems frozen in time watching her. She doesn't just walk, she flows through the air. And the camera descends dreamily, flowing with her, until she at last advances towards it and shields her eyes with a flourish of her wrists.

Yes, David Lynch clearly takes much inspiration from this movie, especially in the character of Nancy Olson, the most innocent of all who's presence simply does not seem to make sense in this film. How can she co exist with this darkness? She is very much Laura Dern in Blue Velvet.

How many times can I watch this film and find yet more to discover in every strange detail, details that expand the frame to surround the vision and engulf the senses. If we could smell detailed films then I think I could smell this one, and I nearly can. In fact, I can detect just the slightest whiff of peeling paint...

NEW RELEASES - An Inconvenient Truth ***1/2

Short Review -

An Inconvenient Truth follows Al Gore from city to city giving a slide show on Global Warming. The facts presented may or may not be surprising, but the idea of the film isn't so much about the facts, which we already may know. It's about probing our minds to see what will make us wake up and REACT to the facts, which generally, most of the population push to the back of our heads. Interesting pieces of Al Gore's life are thrown in, especially interesting a story about how his older sister died of lung cancer and how uncannily it ties into the message he is trying to get to the next audience. And Al Gore...who knew he could be...witty? And...interesting? It doesn't take a genius to figure out he could have won the election if he had talked like this during the campaign.

Director David Guggenheim brings a sort of beauty to the proceedings, so he should be credited as well.

Reds (1981) ****

The two films most often compared to Reds are Chariots of Fire and Gone With the Wind, for obvious enough reasons. I think I can safely say Reds is solidly, infinetely superior to both. Are there flaws? Yes. Do they affect the film? No. Was I crying at the end? Yes. Do I normally cry at the end of films? Almost never.

Beatty's decidedly old fashioned tale of doomed love just doesn't seem like the 80's. Perhaps because it was the last film to have an intermission, or perhaps just the perfect atmosphere of the period which is captured. In most modern period pieces the films always never really take you there, and we never really feel like we're in 17th century whatever. Reds makes us feel like we have lived the lives of its protagonists, the way it sifts through their lives and never pauses too long on the ups and never seems short enough on the downs. Life, it seems, moves too quickly, for us and them.

Featuring a variety of fantastic supporting performances including Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neil, Maureen Stapleton as legendary anarchist/feminist Emma Goldman, Edward Herrman, Jerzy Kosinsky, and Paul Sorvino, Reds takes us from conversation to conversation at in the transition from the 1910's to the 20's. The country's leading socialist, communist, anarchist, and feminist intellectuals converge in small apartments and beachouses, laugh, drink, trade women, and organize I.W.W. meeting and opposition to the war. John Reed (Beatty) is a journalist who starts living with a writer, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton, absolutely gorgeous...) who feels he pays more attention to his politics than his personal life.

Indeed, Reed doesn't seem very good at balancing politics and art, the world's problems and his problems, his public and personal life. He only seems to realize this in the film when it's too late.

On the technical aspect, the film features a very witty screenplay (Emma Goldman, who is wisely not overused, gets all the best lines and steals all her scenes) and wonderful cinematography by legendary Italian DOP Vitorrio Storatio, who uses still, mostly undramatic shots to suggest a 19th century painting.

The turning point in this film is the Bolshevik revolution, and we can feel the ecstacy of the characters - finally, it's really happening, even as we dread what comes next, as it becomes painfully clear to them Russia will not be the dream country of neighborly socialism they had imagined. Emma Goldman, who has been deported to Russia because of her political activism (yes, they could do that back then) realizes it first. We think Reed will never be able to accept it - he's just been fighting too hard for it - but it appears towards the last scene he does, when he breaks down in front of his Russian superiors: "You suppresed dissent, and when you killed dissent, you killed the revolution!"

Let's talk of Diane Keaton, who has never seemed more achingly beautiful. Her performance is incredible. Through the first third she pretends to not be attached to men, but she keeps coming back to John Reed. She speaks so much without speaking, and watching her become a quiet, subservient housewife in the scenes following the intermission is more than we can bear. She regains her spirit when her husband is imprisoned in Finland and stowaways to Europe, travelling hundreds of miles on foot, much of it through snowy, unhospitable terrain. Because fate is cruel, Beatty has been rebought into heavily guarded Russia by the time she gets there. And when she gets into Russia, he is away on a trip to the Middle East. And of course his train will be attacked on the wey back.

The choice made by director, writer, producer and star Warren Beatty that makes this film incredible is to intersperse the scenes with interviews with real life people who knew John Reed. Their testimony goes clearly against one another and occaisonally against common sense - one woman with a blue hat insists: not a soul was against the war! Not one! Instead of seeming to interrupt the movie, the interviews flow together with the film, and they seem to narrate the story. And they further enhance the feeling these are real people, and not just that, people we have met and shared so much time with. Didn't we have a great time?

The final scene is devastating, especially with the use of a speechless small child - you will see what I mean. Ah, but what a romantic movie this is! Tragedy is what truly seems to bring couples together - even more so then comedy. It applies to the audience and the characters. It's too much to watch poor Louise weeping over her husbands body in the final shot. It's too much...

Monday, December 11, 2006

Meet Me in Saint Louis (1944) ****

Wow. I was never expecting something that brilliant when I decided to start watching it, but I couldn't take my eyes off. I hadn't heard terrific things about Meet Me in Saint Louis.

The film, sappy as I admit it is, is unlike most musicals in there doesn't seem to be a single musical number that is wasted. It had a terrifically witty and Oscar worthy screenplay and some of the most priceless moments in the history of cinema itself. Gorgeously photographed in vibrant color.

Judy Garland has an excellent voice. Listening her sing "The Trolley Song" or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is orgasmic, BUT the standout moment was a duet of Mary Astor and Leon Ames.

Wonderful performances by (especially) Harry Davenport and Margaret O'Brien. Garland overacts a little at times.

Vincente Minnelli's direction is what makes this timeless. Take a scene where everyone at the dinner table is so tense they snap to attention when the patriarch bites into a vegetable. You just have to smile your way through this one. Even when the cliches thrum in they manage to leave an emotional impact worthy of study.