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Three Women (1977)
Mind blown. Gotta watch it again.
6 June 2021
For the 1st half of the film I was alternately confused, underwhelmed, and distracted by my dog who seemed to be having one of those dreams like she was running from Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. We aren't given any clear plot to grasp, other than the routine day-to-day of 2 mismatched roommates who seem to be coldly despised by everyone they meet, But then suddenly around the half way point, a sudden shocking event occurs which changes the entire tone of the film and reels us into a powerful psychological thriller. By the end of the film I was on the edge of my seat and my dog was like "dude what are you watching, looks intense."

I'm tempted to leave it at that because this film is best experienced knowing nothing about it. I'll just say that it's a perception-bending masterpiece which I don't doubt was heavily inspired by Kurosawa's "Rashomon". Director Robert Altman has talked about how he loves the way Rashomon broke cinematic boundaries by messing with our concept of visual truth. If Rashomon broke the truth, then 3 Women took the pieces and stepped on them and threw them in a blender and glued them back together in the wrong order. Then challenged us to figure it out. Plan on watching this movie twice. You'll need to.
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Ugetsu (1953)
All is (un)fair in love & war
6 June 2021
In one unforgettable scene, a man enters through the front door of a dark, abandoned shack. The camera follows him to the right, then to the left, then to a back door which he exits to walk around the outside while the camera, still inside, traces his steps back to the front door which he again enters. Only this time the shack isn't empty; it has changed dramatically. All this is done in 1 graceful camera shot, no edits.

This scene sums up everything that this subtle yet powerful film is about. "Ugetsu monogatari" ("Tales of Moon and Rain") is a landmark in cinematic storytelling, every bit as important as Kurosawa's truth-bending "Rashomon" (1950) except that here in 1953 perhaps even in response to his 'rival' Kurosawa, director Mizoguchi gives us a mind-bending interweaving of reality and fantasy. Presented at first as a film rooted in neorealism (much like the Italian classics that defined the postwar 1940s "Bicycle Thieves" and "Germany Year Zero"), this film centers around the hardships of a peasant family alternately surviving and profiting from a war, some time around the 1500s. This part is realistic and almost mundane though shot on an epic level with sweeping landscapes and graceful cinematography. But as the story deepens, we are slowly, almost imperceptibly (as with the opening example I gave you) pulled into a shadowy fantasy world where surreal, supernatural things happen. Reality and fantasy exist alongside each other, often in the same camera shot.

This film was inspired by 3 different short stories but brought together by Mizoguchi and his writers in a way that's unrecognizable and completely original. The 3 short stories are "The House in the Thicket" and "Lust of the Serpent" written by Ueda Akinari in 1776 and, hopping over to 19th century French literature, "How He Got the Legion of Honor" by Maupassant. The 3 stories are blended together and spread between 4 main protagonists (2 husbands and 2 wives) in one epic cautionary tale about the temptations of money, prestige and lust of the flesh during turbulent (war) times. At first the characters are struggling but mostly content, but as they are slowly seduced by the idea of profiteering from the war, they enter into deep moral and emotional conflicts--as well as the prominent conflict of reality vs the supernatural.

But ultimately what makes this film a masterpiece is Mizoguchi's lucid and even-handed approach. This isn't a simple morality play with good vs evil (although it's clearly implied which path is right vs wrong), but even the malevolent forces are shown somewhat sympathetically. Comparing the film to the original written stories, we see that this was Mizoguchi's touch. For example in the "Lust of the Serpent" segment, the original story presented a vindictive, terrifying snake-demon as the antagonist, but in this cinematic telling we are led to feel pity and sympathy for the spirit who, like any of the other characters, is also suffering a tragedy due to the madness of men.

The power of this film is in its imperceptible blending of opposing ideas: reality vs fantasy, death vs desire, and "moon vs rain". All of this is presented in seamless, graceful shots (the camera is constantly moving and flowing along with the action and landscapes), bringing to mind what Mizoguchi said he wanted his films to be: like picture scrolls that tell a continuous rolling story.
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When Steven met Stanley (or E.T. meets HAL9000?!)
1 June 2021
The short review: if you're in the mood for E. T. then you will LOVE this flick. If you're in the mood for 2001: A Space Odyssey then you'll HATE it.

Steven Spielberg, the director who brought us family-friendly scifi/fantasy hits like "E. T.", Amazing Stories, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, inherited a project that was originally headed by chillingly cold scifi master Stanley Kubrick (2001 A Space Odyssey, Clockwork Orange). Spielberg delivered, 2 years after Kubrick's death, "A. I." The familiar two-letter acronym title ought to spell out for us the direction Spielberg chose to take with Kubrick's material. The result, as you might guess, is a very mixed bag of creepy disturbing brilliance and groan worthy Disney type stuff all jumbled together. Much like putting m&ms on a pizza, some elements should never be mixed.

Plot: An artificially created robot child navigates the gauntlet of human cruelty while slipping into a Disney-esque subplot (literally Disney) of trying to find the Blue Fairy from the fable Pinocchio so she'll turn him into a real boy. You can practically skip the first half hour of this 2 1/2 hour movie because it amounts to a very predictable and irritating parade of scenes where the robot child is bullied for being a robot, despised by his apathetic 'father' and erratically loved/hated by his weak willed 'mother'. You can literally skip the whole string of clichés and you won't be missing anything. The movie starts to pick up after the 30 min mark when the child finds himself on the run.

It picks up due to the excellent performance of Jude Law as "Gigolo Joe" a suave, charming, not-too-bright but very loveable cyborg prostitute. Jude plays the character with a very interesting spin: not a soulless hunk of lumbering metal like we've seen in all of our Hollywood robots but as an animated, cat-like, Gene-Kelley-Singin-In-The-Rain street dancer with a ton of personality and some great dance moves. I don't know if Jude won any awards for this performance but he really should have.

Accompanying Jude's entry into the film, the story becomes considerably darker but not in a predictably melodramatic way like the first part of the film. Rather, we are immersed into a wonderfully nightmarish, satirical portrayal of human cruelty as we witness the renegade robots being subjected to a sickening carnival show in which they are mutilated in horrific ways to the rapturous applause of human crowds. Yes, it's disturbing but it's done with an air of dark comedy like in Terry Gilliam's masterpiece "Brazil" or in Veerhoven's "Robocop" or even Kubrick's own "Clockwork Orange".

Unfortunately for the final 2 acts of the film we return to Disney territory as the robot child becomes obsessively (and quite stupidly, for an advanced computerized intelligence) rapt in chasing down the imaginary character from a Disney fable, that Blue Fairy. Complicating our enjoyment, there are at least 3 false endings where you feel like the story could've wrapped up on a poetic note, but it keeps going. By the time the real ending happens we're too emotionally exhausted to feel it.

While being a failure on these levels, "A. I." is an absolute triumph in terms of special effects. The visuals were way ahead of their time in 2001, and they still hold up better than most big budget scifi films today, 20 years later. Unfortunately the delivery screams 1980s Spielberg (E. T.) and might leave you feeling very skeptical about the whole experience. Unless, like I said up front, you're in the mood for E. T. - in that case you'll have a wonderful time. But in either case we can only imagine how Stanley Kubrick had intended to approach his story as originally planned: an evolution of the deeply philosophical & abstract theme presented in "2001" about the newborn lifeform finding its footing in a dark and hostile human world.
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La Vérité (1960)
The heart's take on Rashomon
30 May 2021
If "Rashomon" blew your mind, "La vérité" will blow your heart. In 1950, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa blew our minds with his unforgettable "Rashomon", a murder mystery that exposed the chimerical nature of truth as it is perverted by the flawed perception of each observer. We visualized the events surrounding a murder, via the conflicting testimonies of witnesses in court, never being told what's truth and what is not. Here in 1960 French director Henri-Georges Clouzot hits us with "La vérité", a murder mystery similarly visualized via testimonies in a courtroom drama, but in this case the facts are not disputed. In this case what's being subjectively perverted is the emotion behind the crime.

Brigitte Bardot is a young girl on trial for the murder of her lover. The prosecution perceives her as a cold-hearted, calculating killer. The defense sees her as a heartbroken, confused young girl pushed to a desperate act. What we get is a suspenseful peeling of the truth, but not the truth in terms of facts. We get to the root of the truth in terms of feelings. I imagine if you were to hook electrodes to your brain and study which areas light up when watching these films, "Rashomon" would light up your frontal lobe (logic center) while "La vérité" would light up that tiny peanut at the core of your head, the amygdala (emotional center).

The point being made, and unforgettably expressed in a passionate monologue by Ms. Bardot, is that hard facts aren't the only component of truth. She roars: "You sit up there, in your ridiculous robes, and you want to judge but you have never lived! Never loved! You hate me because you are dead! Dead!"

I challenge anyone to watch that scene and tell me that Brigitte Bardot isn't one of the finest actors. Even at the young age of 25, thrust into an intimidating arena alongside theatrically trained, veterand actors and one of the most notoriously perfectionist directors of cinema, she really carries the show. The role had originally been written for respected actor Sophia Loren, but Clouzot rewrote the entire story for Bardot after she was cast. Indeed she seemed to be made for this role and vice versa; the role was written for her (literally). In interviews Bardot stated that with no formal acting training she had to rely on convincing herself that she actually was the character Dominique. And this itself leads to a bizarre case of life imitating art (or the other way around?) where, feeling judged and persecuted by the press, Brigitte had a severe breakdown and shocking incident on her birthday in 1960 just weeks before the film's release. Google it after you watch the movie. Funny how even the press's & haters' reaction to the incident mirrored the prosecution's reaction to similar incidents in the tale of Dominique.

This film is a landmark with regard to emotional storytelling. And it's a landmark with regard to our human experience, attempting to understand this misshapen thing called reality. If you learned something from "Rashomon" then don't consider your education complete until you watch this essential companion film.
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If a tree falls in space, does it make a sound?
29 May 2021
My title might sound like a joke, but the philosophy is provocative, puzzling and profoundly poignant. It's this Zen question that we explore in "Silent Running", a film that was way ahead of its time and still is, on many levels. Or as lead actor Bruce Dern said in a recent interview: "It'll continue to be relevant until somebody cleans this place up, and no one has done that yet."

Plot summary: Some time in the "next millennium" (i.e. THIS millennium for those keeping time), humans have ruined the planet to the point that all of earth's forests, wildlife and cute bunnies are reduced to a handful of habitats kept alive in orbital biodomes, more of a curiosity--or as we learn, a nuisance--than anything else. Our hero "Lowell" (Bruce Dern) is among a team of glorified warehouse workers keeping the domes operational. Then one day the management announces without explanation that it's time to close shop, jettison Earth's last forests, nuke them, and terminate the mission. Everyone is selfishly overjoyed at ending their long shift in space, but Lowell decides to... shall we say... resist.

It's a fabulous premise which is very lucidly and realistically presented, even though cynics may have dismissed it as a fantasy "eco-thriller" alongside other great 70s films like "The China Syndrome", "The Andromeda Strain", "Logan's Run" and even "Planet of the Apes". But for my money, "Silent Running" hits closest to home because the story is chillingly practical. It's a very minimalistic film, forsaking the heart pounding action of the aforementioned films for a quieter, more claustrophobic & personal story of 1 human engaged in silent running (the submarine practice of playing dead in order to throw pursuers off the trail). Here we get basically 90 minutes of Bruce Dern talking to himself and to inanimate objects in essentially 1 long, passionate monologue that will burn itself into your brain.


is all it took. Well, that plus a load of creativity and a labor of love. Directed by Douglas Trumbull who did the special effects for "2001 A Space Odyssey", "Close Encounters" and "Blade Runner" but no film directing prior to this, this movie was part of a financial experiment by Universal Studios: give 5 young filmmakers a tiny amount of money each ($1 million - not even 1/10th the budget of Star Wars) and let them do whatever they wanted, without studio interference or oversight, as long as they stayed under budget. The 4 other films in this experimental group were George Lucas's "American Graffiti", Peter Fonda's "The Hired Hand", Dennis Hopper's "Last Movie", and Milos Forman's "Taking Off". Personally I think "Silent Running" was the best of the crop, certainly the most ambitious, and alongside the others it proved the experiment an artistic success (though a commercial meh).

As you're watching this movie you'll be blown away by the enormous sets and staging, undoubtedly the most authentic spaceship interiors we've ever seen because guess what, it wasn't fake. The space station "Valley Forge" shown in the movie was actually the abandoned aircraft carrier "Valley Forge" which Trumbull rented for a paltry $2000/week. (Seriously! Imagine for the cost of renting a nice beach house you can vacation on a freakin aircraft carrier). And the whole thing was shot with just 1 or 2 takes for each scene to save on film, processing & time. That meant Bruce Dern had to get his acting right, the camera had to capture all the action, and the cinematography had to work like a charm which it apparently did because I couldn't find a single flaw. 32 days of shooting, with virtually zero post production is all it took. And last but not least we have the incredible "robotics" which you will never forget...

Actually wait. I don't want to ruin it for you, so I won't tell you how they did the adorable robots Huey, Dewey and Louie. I'll just say the whole time I was watching the movie, I was bouncing between the powerfully sentimental charm of these characters vs utter confoundment at how they created such realistic mechanical lifeforms that look like television sets propped up on penguin flippers. Trumbull's vision of technology was not supposed to be sterile and lifeless, as with every robot in scifi history up to that point, but he wanted to create something instantly personable without looking anything like a human. He succeeded brilliantly, and the robots in this film directly inspired a new face of robotics in cinema such as R2D2 in Star Wars. I leave you with the mystery of how Trumbull & his crew pulled it off. Google the answer after the movie ends.

Innovative designs and cinematic creativity aside, this story is just plan powerful. If you have kids, please show this to them immediately. Or if you're a grownup who still has the idealism of a child, then pop yourself a huge bowl of organic popcorn (avoid that synthetic butter sludge) and settle in for a life altering experience. This is the kind of film that keeps dreamers alive in our increasingly terrifying technological swamp. Whether you're a tree hugger or just someone who can appreciate the beauty of things that most people disregard, as well as the importance of fighting to preserve these things, "Silent Running" will leave you speechless.
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It took me decades to appreciate this film, so I hope this review might save you a few years
26 May 2021
We open on a warm, orange sunrise over the colossal radio dishes in New Mexico where our hero, the American scientist George Floyd, is high up on a dish scaffold. A jovial but mysterious Russian scientist appears below shouting a few words of mocking admiration. Floyd responds from his perch, "Who the hell are you?" The Russian continues chatting as he slowly lumbers up the steps, and the two strangers trade witty jabs at each other, carefully maneuvering around the subject of the original Jupiter Mission which ended in tragic failure 9 years earlier. The Russian pauses barely halfway up the first flight of steps and says, "This is very bad for my asthma. You think you could meet me halfway?" Floyd utters a noncommittal "Maybe" but doesn't budge. The conversation turns political as they chat about some "very bad" events happening between America and Russia. Then abruptly the Russian says "Let's play a game called The Truth. For two minutes, I will tell only the truth. And so will you." Floyd counters with: "Make it a minute and a half". The Russian offers: "A minute and three quarters." The whole time as we're witnessing this bizarre, comical New Mexican standoff, the camera periodically cuts to a wide shot showing exactly how far apart the two are (physically as well as politically), and how each adversary bargains his way closer to the other on the stairs of this enormous white satellite dish in the middle of the desert.

"We are scientists, you and I, Dr. Floyd. Our governments are enemies. We are not."

This is the greatest "cold war" opening of any film I've ever seen. And make no mistake, "2010" is a film about the Cold War even though it may have spaceships and extraterrestrials and possibly a psycho killer robot or two. In 1984 master director Peter Hyams ("Capricorn One", "Outland") teamed up with the iconic scifi author Arthur C. Clarke ("Childhood's End", "Fountains of Paradise" and the original "2001: A Space Odyssey") to bring to the screen a companion film to the amazing "2001". If you're a fan of Hyams' style, then don't even bother reading the rest of my review; just go watch the movie. Much like "Capricorn One" this movie is a really cool blend of scifi and political thriller. But you shouldn't expect "Star Wars" nor should you expect "The Manchurian Candidate" because it's not that sort of scifi or political thriller. Like all Hyams films it focuses on individuals, and on that level it succeeds brilliantly. More about that in a sec, first here's the basic plot.

The derelict ship The USS Discovery has been spinning wildly around Jupiter's moon Io for 9 years since its mission was abruptly terminated in the 1st movie. There's also this business about a creepy 6-mile high monolith in the general vicinity. Both America & Russia want to get there first and unlock the secrets of what happened, but guess what, the only way anyone can reach it is if the 2 antagonistic countries form a joint mission. And they gotta do it fast because The Discovery's orbit is decaying and it'll burn up with all its secrets.

Back to the theme of individuals which Hyams is great at presenting. "2010" is a very human film. In that respect it presents a great contrast against the original "2001" which Kubrick presented as a very sterile, inhuman experience. In the 1st film nobody showed any emotion, none of the characters really had a soul except, ironically, the ship's computer. Here we get a wonderful array of very human, very warm and interesting characters. The script is full of comedic banter, full of genuine connections between people--whether friendly or adversarial or both, like in that powerful 1st scene. And that's the real magic of this story.

Sure, you can watch it for the story alone because that's really intelligent as well as suspensefully presented (tell me your heart doesn't go through the roof during the Europa probe scene. Or the aero-braking scene. Or HAL's "I think we should abort the countdown" scene. Double-check the batteries in your pacemakers, folks!). But for my money, I love this film for way it fleshes out each quirky character in this tight, claustrophobic mission to reach the derelict ship. Everyone will pick their own favorite, but my money goes to Bob Balaban who plays Dr Chandra, the socially awkward genius who built--and is responsible for resurrecting--the psycho robot HAL9000. But there's also John Lithgow playing the "everyman" engineer Curnow who can't take 2 steps in space without puking but who, along with his Russian counterpart Max, gives us some great human moments and comedic spice. Again, this movie is all about humanity against the coldness of space.

First time I saw this movie I thought it was good but "boring" (hey I was like 9 years old). I watched it a few years later and liked it a lot. Then I bought the book and read it. Then watched the movie again and loved it. Now, a decade or 2 after my initial introduction to this film, a decade or 2 since I've been exploring cinema and not just Hollywood stuff but obscure gems from all over the world and every decade, I keep coming back to "2010" as one of the greatest scifi flicks out there. Here's hoping your odyssey doesn't take as long. There's so much more to this film than meets the eye. Like that opening scene, you can practically write an entire essay on that alone. Egads I think I just did.
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"An entire city will be lifted off the earth and will fall back in ashes."
25 May 2021
Following Alain Resnais' stunning film "Night and Fog" (1956) about the Holocaust, he was commissioned to do a 45 min documentary on the atomic bomb. After a few months of reviewing existing Japanese documentaries on the subject (such as the work of Hideo Sekigawa: "Hiroshima" and "Children of Hiroshima"), Resnais quit the project, saying that a new documentary couldn't add anything to what has already been said and shown. That's when the producers floated the idea of hiring a screenwriter and turning the documentary into a feature length drama. Resnais accepted, and the result is far better than the sum of documentary + drama. "Hiroshima mon amour" is a powerful film on the subject of tragedy, the persistence of memory, and the hope--if there is any--of recovering from something so horrible that your mind does everything in its power to block it out.

The story follows 2 lovers, a nameless French woman and a nameless Japanese man, over the course of 24 hours. We open on them parting on the morning after their casual but passionate affair, and the film takes us through the day, evening and night to the following morning as they each wrestle with the inability to say goodbye because they realize they are hopelessly bound together by the same haunting demons. The man was a Japanese soldier who had returned to find his home incinerated, while the woman has her own wartime trauma to reckon with, something she refuses to confront at first but slowly reveals piece by piece to this strange man who is oddly the most kindred soul she has met in the 14 years since the war.

Although there's no real "action" here, the storytelling is suspenseful and gripping as the woman's story foams to the surface, and the man becomes a surrogate for the voice of her past, gently leading her deeper into her own suppressed memories with an almost hypnotic tone. It should be noted that the man (Eiji Okada whom you might recognize from the Brando flick "The Ugly American" or the Teshigahara masterpiece "Woman in the Dunes") didn't speak a word of French before filming, so his dialogue is wonderfully slow, careful and childlike. It reminded me of Ron Perlman's charming monosyllabic French in "City of Lost Children".

The woman is fantastically played by Emmanuelle Riva in her first (of many) starring roles. Her slowly evolving performance gives us one of the most realistic, most intimate portraits of a person who is repressing a painful secret, on the surface completely normal and happy-go-lucky but, as we soon realize, deeply tormented and empty inside.

Relating all of this back to the original intent of this "atom bomb documentary", it gives us a subject far more deeply personal than any historical recounting of facts and images. If we're paying attention, we realize that this nameless French woman's story is the story of every victim of war. More than that, it's the story of the human race struggling to recover from its own foolish penchant for self-destruction.
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You'll never listen to Billy Idol the same way again
24 May 2021
Yes, in case you were wondering, Billy Idol's iconic 80s creepy-ballad "Eyes Without a Face" was directly influenced by this film (the haunting female vocals in the chorus are singing "les yeux sans visage", something I never noticed until I googled the lyrics just now). And this isn't just a passing association I'm mentioning for the sake of getting the attention of any 80s music fans out there; it actually relates to why this is such a great creepy-ballad of a film.

"Les yeux sans visage" is only the 2nd feature film of director Georges Franju, but already he showed an absolute mastery of the craft, if not the creation of a whole new genre. This is broadly a horror story, but it's a horror story in the same sense that 2001: A Space Odyssey is a scifi flick. That is, it uses a certain fantasy genre but only as a backdrop to tell a deeper, universal, timeless story about the human condition. In particular, here we focus on the striking contrast between beauty and cruelty. And when I say "cruelty" I don't mean some cartoonish villain with a handlebar mustache cackling as he ties women to railroad tracks. No, here the "cruelty" is scientific, emotionless and in the literal sense of the word: amoral.

Our villain "The Professor" (who doesn't have a handlebar mustache but is sporting a very Satanic goatee) is excellently played by Pierre Brasseur as a man who has no emotions. He has neither malice nor benevolence, even though on the surface we want to interpret his actions as such. We assume there's malice because he abducts and does nasty things to pretty young women for his medical experiments. We assume an ironic wisp of benevolence because these experiments are presumably to save the person closest to him, his daughter. But neither assumption is correct. The Professor is pure, unemotional science ("intellect"). He is intelligence without a heart. Balancing this character wonderfully is his daughter who is at first equally amoral--literally without morals like a newborn child--but with a strong, tender, emotional side ("soul") and an inclination to learn and evolve. What we get is a painful and beautiful contrast between the intellect and the soul.

Which brings me to the soul half of the equation, and this is what elevates this far above and beyond any horror flick I've ever seen. The daughter is played by newcomer Edith Scob who spends half the film hiding behind a mask but whose graceful charms transcend facial expressions. Almost like a ballet dancer, she uses her body gracefully to convey every feeling we need to know. In fact it's her lack of facial expression that forces us to focus on her body language: movement and form instead. Further highlighting this expression of the human form, we get excellent cinematography, lighting, wardrobe (notice how she is dressed like a human doll) and ESPECIALLY the magical soundtrack giving her a themesong that sounds almost like a music box playing a lullaby.

This brings me back to Billy Idol. You thought I forgot. Billy Idol's 1983 "Eyes Without a Face" was a soft, melodic lullaby ballad but with a very menacing edge to the lyrics and instrumentation when the guitars kick in. Just like this film does, it contrasted cruelty against beauty, something which hadn't been explored much in 80s pop music--as well as 50s/60s horror flicks.

I have to admit, the first time I watched this movie I didn't really appreciate it the way I should have, much like the first time I heard Billy Idol's tune on the radio. But maybe this review has given you a head start; if you watch this film, keep this stuff in mind and maybe you'll appreciate it right away. "Les yeux sans visage" is not a horror story nor is it a battle between good vs evil. It's a study of beauty vs cruelty, both presented in the vacuum of amorality. This film defies all genres. I guess you could say you can't quite put a face to it. Ha. Seriously folks, you'll never forget it. (Get it? Never forget a FACE). Ok enough lame puns. I'll just close by mentioning that Edith Scob is gorgeous. Her face is really easy on the eyes.
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Panique (1946)
Welp. Good thing humans aren't really like this (chokes on sarcasm)
22 May 2021
Quick note for context: I'm writing this review in 2021, a full 75 years since this film was made. On this morning the news headlines scream of lynchings & mob violence in Israel/Palestine as well as pandemic-fueled hate crimes in the USA and gawd knows what else because I really need to shut off the news and go back to watching the Teletubbies.

"Panique" is a magnificently shot, suspensefully told, expertly acted, and powerfully poignant tale about the absolute folly of the human race. Brought to us by master director Julien Duvivier, France's favorite cynic, it's a merciless caricature of humankind which was doubtlessly inspired by the postwar paranoia and righteous rage of the time--itself a vigilante backlash to the insanity of fascism that had dunked Europe into its darkest decade.

That's a mouthful, but if you're going to watch this movie, it's pretty important to realize that the story isn't so much a straightforward crime thriller as much as it's a dark fable, a grotesque portrait of humanity at its worst. Almost every character is detestable, with the fascinating exception of our protagonist "Hire" whom we initially dislike for his coldness but who gradually becomes one of the most endearing & charming characters since Quasimodo. Major props to lead actor Michel Simon for his nuanced performance which leads us through this transformation in our own minds.

Plot overview: Hire is an outsider in his own world. Nobody likes him because he's so distant, unapproachable and worst of all, intelligent. Then one day a beautiful woman rolls into town, the mistress of a criminal who's hiding out there. Hire falls for this dark haired beauty, and as you might guess, this gets him into deep bouillabaisse.

What we get next is a slow, relentless buildup of the plight of the lone individual vs the entire human race. One can't help but feel as if this film is Duvivier's greatest autobiographical work, expressing in no uncertain terms how disappointed he was at society for its less-than-kind reception of his works and himself (Duviver was at one point accused of being a traitor for escaping to the USA during the Nazi occupation). This film begins innocently enough but slowly reels us into one of the most cynical portrayals of human society since Night of the Living Dead. But what keeps this flick entertaining rather than outright depressing is the darkly humorous way in which it's presented. For example:

One scene shows a carnival attraction in a cramped tent: a bunch of female wrestlers preparing to pummel each other for a packed audience's thrill. Over the din of the crowd, someone yells to someone else, "They found the murderer!" to which someone else shouts "What? There's a murderer in here?!" to which someone else shouts "A fire! There's a fire!" to which the whole crowd erupts in "FIRE! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!"

This is just one example of Duvivier's many satirical skewerings of society's idiocy and mob mentality. Images, faces and lighting are wonderfully exaggerated. As you're watching this film, the name Hitchcock will cross your mind dozens of times, but make note that this film was made in 1946 predating many of Hitchcock's masterpieces. You can't help but wonder if the master Hitch himself lifted a few tools from Duvivier's toolbox which he would use in films like "Strangers on a Train" (the carnival scenes), "Rear Window" (the impotent voyeur), and "Vertigo" (a stunning climactic scene which I won't spoil).

"Panique" is sure to burn an imprint on your mind. You definitely don't need to be following this with cable news. Now if I can only find my nephew's Teletubbies DVDs all will be well in the world.
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Alas, poor Yorick!
19 May 2021
"She's always happy. She desires nothing, envies no one, is curious about nothing. You can't surprise her. She doesn't notice the humiliations, though they happen to her every day. It all rolls off her back like some waterproof material. Yesterday and tomorrow don't exist for her. Even living for today would mean too much planning, so she lives for the moment."

ADRIANA: "Is that what I'm like? Some sort of dimwit?"

"On the contrary, you may be the wisest of all."

The irony of this pivotal scene is that even this seemingly accurate observation of the character Andrianna barely scratches the surface. Ultimately nobody knows her well, not even the audience, until the final few minutes of the film when we realize we missed something all along. Then we go back and watch the film again and really get to know her.

"I knew her well" is a film from Italy's powerful cinematic renaissance of the 1960s alongside landmarks like Antonioni's "L'Avventura" ("The Adventure"), Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" ("The Easy Life"), and Risi's "Il Sorpasso" (coincidentally, "The Easy Life"). Of those 3 comparisons it's most similar to "Il Sorpasso" in the way it takes the form of a breezy, episodic comedy. In fact "I knew her well" is almost like a road movie itself, except that everything happens in the vicinity of Rome, and instead of the typical windblown convertible used in all road movies Adriana drives a comically tiny clown car. As with the other films, here we get the backdrop of Italy's postwar economic prosperity to immerse us in an almost surreal fantasy world where people seem to have no obligations other than having a good time. But as with all these great films, there's a haunting spectre of what may lie outside, or in this case, behind the carefree façade.

Adriana (played by the wonderfully expressive and cute as a button Stefania Sandrelli) is an aspiring actress with a cheerful disposition like a 1960s Italian Amélie. She's unstoppable and nothing seems to get her down. Even when she is jilted by a lover and left with a large hotel bill, she admires him for his ingenuity and ultimately laughs as she hopes he'll elude the police. As my opening quote implies, she doesn't seem to notice the humiliations though they happen to her every day. And in that respect, we the audience are lulled into an entertaining romp about the catastrophe of life even though in a parallel universe a Neorealist director like De Sica ("Bicycle Thieves") would make us feel the stab of each humiliation. But no, here we become Adriana. We quickly adopt the attitude that life is too short to dwell on the past, or the future, or anything. Right?

Don't expect a plot because this is mostly a series of vignettes over the course of a few days (? We can't be sure as events are deliberately fragmented) in Adriana's life. Around 20 vignettes in total--ok, 19, but I didn't want to seem like a nerd for counting--are presented to us, each full of its own magic. My favorite is a wonderful scene where she befriends a slow-witted but humorous boxer who has just suffered a humiliating defeat in the ring and jokes about his opponent being smart to pick a weak opponent. (See the parallel between him and Andrianna?)

Music plays significantly in this film as Adrianna spends most of her free time dancing, singing and listening to an old record player which she has to kick to make it work. As the music becomes more prominent, we realize that, if anything, the music is the key to "knowing her well". Don't miss the unforgettable final 10 min sequence featuring Gilbert Becaud's "Toi".

A perfectly written, perfectly shot, and perfectly titled film, "I knew her well" rings of the famous line in Hamlet where the prince finds the bones of his childhood pal, the court jester Yorick "of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy ... Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick..."
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1981 (2009)
Stand by Me + Amélie = success
18 May 2021
"1981" is director Ricardo Trogi's 1st installment of an autobiographical trilogy "1981, 1987, 1991" ambitiously filmed over a 10-year span using the same actors. That alone makes the trilogy monumental, as we see him and his family literally growing up across a decade. Here we have Trogi (narrating the story himself) depicted as an 11-year old boy who has just moved to a new town and seizes upon the opportunity as the mysterious newcomer to fabricate a lie-laden identity for himself. As you might guess, this frequently gets him into deep trouble.

But what's really interesting about this presentation is that our protagonist is so oddly amoral, even though he's a cute kid who's mostly harmless. When he gets caught in a lie, instead of coming clean and atoning for his sins he digs a deeper lie, as if that's what you're supposed to do. Thus this becomes a really funny, quirky sort of dark comedy that explores the origins of an innocently "criminal mind" (check out the follow up film "1987" to see where he is 6 years later).

There's also a strong yet subtle current of deep sentimentality that we witness mostly in the interaction between the boy and his father. The father, like his son, is very intelligent but not necessarily educated. So there's almost a peer-to-peer relationship in their banter, although the father always manages to outwit the kid.

The presentation is snappy, vivid and quirky, a lot like the style & pace of "Amélie" with frequent dives into fantasy sequences, such as the boy imagining a strange Nazi commander whom he must outwit. Other scenes become lucid, poetic & nostalgic, as in the interactions he has with other kids at school that feel like something out of "Stand By Me". But this flick is a true original. Along with its follow ups 1987 & 1991, this work presents one of the best portraits of Gen X growing pains ever put to film.
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Blow-Up (1966)
The movie that broke my brain
18 May 2021
Watching "Blowup" is like inhaling a mentholyptus cough drop up your nose and directly into your skull. Visually it's exhilerating. And it will leave a lasting, if not slightly painful, imprint on your medulla oblongata.

The plot is very suspenseful, but that's not the primary focus here. The plot is about a hip fashion photographer of the trendy London elite who one day, purely by chance, snaps a picture of a possible murder. He investigates the crime by--as the title suggests--blowing up the photo. But this seemingly simple act leads him into a labyrinthine tangle of reality, illusion and perception. As director Michelangelo Antonioni commented:

"He wants to see something more closely. But when he enlarges the object it breaks up and disappears. So there's a moment when one grasps reality, but the next moment it eludes us. This is roughly the meaning of Blow-Up."

That quote is the real story. And even if you don't fully grasp what he meant, if you keep it in mind as you're watching the film then certain cryptic things will fall into place. The mysterious obnoxious mimes running through the city are deeply symbolic of an alternate fantasy that carves its way right through the middle of regular urban life. The very cool concert scene featuring the Yarbirds (Jeff Beck and a young Jimmy Page in his pre-Led Zeppelin days) is confounding but again deeply symbolic with the audience lulled into a bizarre mob reality bordering on a zombie apocalypse. And of course there is our protagonist's entire career of molding and manipulating human dolls (fashion models) to suit his own artistic reality. But the murder mystery throws a severe psychological wrench into things, because suddenly he loses control of his own perception, instead being led deeper and deeper into the abstract grainy forms of the blown up picture. Whose reality is he in now?

This movie is Antonioni's 2nd color film following the excellent "Red Desert". He tells the story through vivid colors, often physically manipulated by painting streets, houses and even trees to bring out a palette that fits his own artistic narrative. He did this in "Red Desert" also, but while that film presented almost an otherworldy scifi look, here in "Blowup" he manipulates colors in order to recreate a vivid but believable reality. So if you see what's going on here, you realize that this movie itself--as well as YOU the viewer--is all part of the story. We're watching a movie that manipulates reality in order to tell the story of an artist who manipulates reality but ultimately loses control of what he is seeing.

Did I just lose you? Good because I think I just lost myself. "Blowup" is the kind of flick you can watch over & over, each time seeing, feeling and imagining something different. Like the main character in the story unraveling the mystery of images. And when that happens you'll know that Antonioni's little magic trick was a stunning success.
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Ya gotta love movies about living in your parents' shed
15 May 2021
I can think of 2 fun comedies that involve characters who live in a shed: "Almost Sharkproof" (2014) and this one "Adult Life Skills". Well then there's also Silence of the Lambs but that's something uh different.

As you might guess from the premise, "Adult Life Skills" is about a 30 year old woman who doesn't know what to do with her life. Socially and emotionally stunted for reasons you will learn early in the flick, "Anna" (Jodie Whitaker) is an overgrown adolescent who spends her days talking to her thumbs and who can't manage to put on a bra without severely embarrassing herself. With her 30th birthday looming, her mom gives her an ultimatum which is basically the entire plot of the film: move out of the shed. Get a life. And she has about 1 week to do it.

What we get is a cute, quirky, at times tragic, at times magical story about her reluctant attempted transformation into an adult. The film is very minimal, consisting of a shed, the bottom floor of a house, a childrens camp where she works, and the landscape of a tiny rural town where nothing seems to happen except that people occasionally die off. The whole production is marvelously carried by a witty script and some rapid fire banter in funny accents (I dunno, are they "accents"? Being from America I figure everything outside of Connecticut is an accent). The film's narrow scope works tremendously to its advantage as we are forced to scrutinize small details of everyday life rather than epic dramas of wars and romance. Although there are tragic themes, it's handled off camera so we see only how it affects the characters in an unspoken way. And although there is a slight romance angle here, it's done in a hilariously awkward way (the snogging scene had me in stitches).

There aren't too many films like this, but I might compare it to the excellent 2017 indie film "Izzy Gets the F* Across Town" which is entirely about a young woman trying to ...get the f* across town. Here we have a story that could've had the alternate title "Anna Moves the F* Out Of Her Shed". You've probably never seen a movie quite like this, so don't miss it.
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Eddie rollerskates o_0
14 May 2021
I think my title sums up everything that's awesome and everything that's horrible with this movie. Yes in one memorably-wtf scene Eddie Wilson, the dirty Jersey rock n roller who in the 1st movie was a mix of James Dean, Sid Vicious and Batman, in this movie straps on a pair of rollerskates and gets lateral. If you're an obsessed fan of the 1st movie, then just the thought is enough to make you change your name to Toby Tyler and run off to join Cirque du Soleil.

But if you're ok with the image of Eddie on rollerskates (pause to stare blankly in space for 2 mins), and if you're ok with the thought of a home grown Jersey rocker turning Canadian and using synthesizers on his music, and if you're ok with the idea that Wordman was conspicuously edited out of history (replacing him with a bizarre cross cut of Sal instead, on the sacred "words & music" speech from the original film), then "Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives!" can be a fun flick. Consider it as sorta the Robocop 2 of cult movies.

Enough slamming. I actually loved this flick in a nostalgic I-love-the-80s way. It has every 80s cliché in the book. Lots of random freakout arguments that are resolved 20 seconds later. Lots of music montages with incongruous editing, like random crying clips to snowball fights to sax players playing on a mountaintop. Lots of big hair. But seriously folks, there are at least 2 or 3 scenes that are worth the price of admission, full of poetry and artistic wisdom, such as the scene where Eddie shows the young shredder guitarist how to play a real solo, or another short but profound talk about how each musician's playing style is like a fingerprint that he can't escape from (awesome metaphor for a person's identity). Those scenes are the real takeaway of this film, not the plot.

The plot itself goes something like this: We learn in the opening scene that Eddie has been hiding out in Montreal piddling around with some song ideas but too pissed off at the world to make a serious attempt at music. By chance he crosses paths with a young hotshot guitarist who irritates Eddie enough that Eddie decides to teach the kid a thing or two. Will this lead to a comeback? Or will Eddie--self destructive as always--torpedo the whole effort and sink the band even as their big break is looming? Meanwhile another(!) set of lost studio tapes surfaces, and it turns into an international mystery as to when they were recorded and who played on the tapes (and the answer comes to us with a surprise cameo from none other than...).

It's actually a pretty great setup, and it flirts with some really deep themes. Unfortunately the director Jean-Claude Lord, who's better known for directing Canadian soap operas, didn't seem to give this effort the royal treatment it required to stack up to the original. I wonder if the director even bothered watching the 1st. As such, you can expect a lot of unnecessary filler scenes such as music montages. If you can ignore this fluff, or perhaps even see it as part of the film's nostalgic 80s wtf charm, then you'll have a blast.

If not... well you may find yourself driving your chevy toward the Raritan bridge at unsafe speeds.

Ultimately, this flick is a guilty pleasure of mine. I rate it "NOT BAD". To borrow a great line from this film: "Not bad means not bad. If I was in a bar and I watched this, it'd be nice being in there. Then I'd go home and I'd forget all about it. That's what not bad means."

Just kidding. Love it or hate it, you will not forget this movie.
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Phoenix (II) (2014)
Film noir meets "Face/Off" ...and the result is incredible
14 May 2021
The story is deliberately preposterous. In fact, it *must* be preposterous in order for the metaphor to work. A disfigured concentration camp survivor "Nelly" undergoes facial reconstruction which makes her so unrecognizable that her own husband doesn't recognize her; instead he insists that his wife is dead. But he wants to use Nelly as an imposter so he can collect her inheritance.

If this brings to mind the idea of Nicolas Cage and John Travolta swapping faces in the awesomely bad "Face/Off", then you're not far off the mark. But listen up, here's why it works perfectly.

The theme of "Phoenix" involves how people face an unacceptable past. There are 3 main characters who each personify a particular, extreme response. It has to be extreme, it has to be preposterous, and most importantly we have to accept it. Either that or just walk out of the theater after 5 minutes and watch Monday night football instead. Our 3 characers are: 1) Nelly - she cannot let go of her traumatic past, and at the same time she has no past because she has no identity, figuratively and literally. 2) The husband "Johnny" - he utterly rejects the past, for reasons you'll figure out soon enough, and so he refuses to recognize his wife. In fact, we get the feeling that even if she were the spitting image of herself, he would still refuse truth. Such is the nature of psychological denial. And 3) We have Nelly's only friend "Lena" who has become a tireless political activist, saving survivors and trying to keep the past "alive" even though she is confronted with a society that has already moved on.

So you see how this story isn't supposed to be taken as a literal drama but rather as a very creative metaphor to illustrate how psychology works in 3 vastly different personality types. Further driving the surreal nature home, we have gorgeously shot, vividly composed visuals. If you ever wondered how Film Noir would look in color, then look no further. There have been a few contemporary classics which sought to bring Film Noir into the modern age, such as 2005's "Sin City" with its introduction of red to the crisp b&w palette, or before that was 1994's "The Crow" with its use of extreme darkness and "dead" colors. Here in 2014's is the next decade's evolution. In this case there is bold use of colors, but they are distinctly and "impossibly" presented: a dark alley is illuminated with a ghostly red light even though there are no red light sources to be seen, or a dark scene of bombed out ruins has unrealistic islands of light illuminating patches of rubble, all in vivid color but with stark contrast against the black spaces. The cinematography and lighting is as purposely unrealistic as the plot.

Ultimately if you grasp all of this, or if you just decide to go along with it for the sake of seeing how everything turns out, your suspension of disbelief will be amply rewarded. As nearly every other reviewer has noted, the ending is fantastic. Beyond fantastic, it's the whole point of the movie. In an interview, director Christian Petzold says the entire story comes down to the last 3 minutes, and that's where it will either come together or utterly fall apart. For my money, it's a total winner. "Phoenix" definitely does NOT crash & burn.
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The Soft Skin (1964)
Truffaut's biggest flop is one of the greatest achievements in cinema
13 May 2021
Imagine how director François Truffaut felt at the Cannes premiere of this film as more than half the audience walked out. In terms of audience approval, "La peau douce" was Truffaut's big disaster. Why did audiences hate it so much? For the exact reasons that it is a landmark film.

1. The main character is not very likeable; he's almost completely expressionless even though this is a love story. 2. Certain events happen in a way that isn't exactly realistic: an elevator takes nearly 2 minutes to travel up 5 floors but only 15 seconds on the way down. 3. Certain events happen without any dialogue or explanation, just a succession of close ups showing objects and activity. But these 3 points are very deliberate, and they are what make "La peau douce" such a tremendous work of art.

1. Why is the main character not likeable? As Truffaut said, this film is "an autopsy of adultery". The story is about a respectable man with a meticulously perfect life who engages in a very imperfect affair. Truffaut wanted to present everything as objectively as possible so that we can analyze all the elements without the prejudice of sentimentality. So he made the lead actor Jean Desailly play the role of "Lachenay" with neutrality; we sense deep emotion, but there are no melodramatic scenes of outward expression as we've come to expect in love stories. If you think about it, isn't that how most people's love lives are? We don't usually get dramatic closeups with soft lighting and complimentary filters. An objective observer woudn't necessarily sympathize with what we're feeling but rather would scrutinize our actions & choices. And as far as that goes. Lachenay makes some pretty bad ones.

2. How realistic is the storytelling? At times, not very. But this style is one of the greatest examples of "hyper realism" which is something Truffaut learned from his mentor and idol Alfred Hitchcock. For example in the elevator scene, time is stretched on the way up, intensifying the first meeting between Lachenay and Nicole (excellently played by Françoise Dorléac, the carefree, outgoing sister of Catherine Deneuve). Only a handful of words are said, but in true Hitchcockian form it's a very suspenseful and portentous scene that deserves its full 2 minutes. The same elevator ride down, with Lachenay alone, is designed to give us contrast and return us to the realistic world as the 5-floor descent is shown in real time, only 15 seconds.

3. Dude where's the dialogue? It's there, but sometimes it's conspicuously absent like in the entire seduction scene which consists of a wordless walk down a hotel hallway, a fumbling for some keys, a lingering stare, hands touching as a door is opened, one hand turning on the light while another hand turns it off, and finally a magnificent dark silhouette of 2 people facing each other. Fade to black. Did we really need any dialogue to understand exactly what was going on in their heads? No, we didn't even need any facial expressions. Again drawing an idea from his hero Hitchcock, even taking the idea into new territory, Truffaut fully embraced the idea of image based storytelling. (In his letter of introduction to Hitch, Truffaut closed by saying that if all movies were suddenly silent again, then Hitchcock would prove himself the greatest storyteller of all time.)

A quick note about the ending (NO SPOILERS) because half a dozen other reviewers seem to have a problem with it: Um you guys realize that the ending was taken from an event that actually happened in real life, right? Look it up (AFTER the film)!

There are so many other gems in this film worth mentioning, but my review would drag on for hours, and that time is better spent with you experiencing this flick firsthand. Audiences of 1964 hated it, but now looking back some 70 years, we realize that "La peau douce" is a masterpiece.
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Best time travel movie that doesn't have a time machine
12 May 2021
No, this isn't scifi and there aren't any time machines in this movie (although there may be a spaceship and 1 or 2 laser guns...), but "Clouds of Sils Maria" gives us one of the most complex and striking themes of time travel ever put to film.

Juliet Binoche plays "Maria", a middle-aged acting legend who reluctantly accepts a part in the revival of a play she did twenty years prior when she was 18. The catch is that now she's playing a different character: the older, tragic role in the story opposite the young character that had originally made her famous. So immediately you can see how this explores the idea of revisiting specific feelings and events--literally playing them out again--but this time from the perspective of the older you. Time travel, right?

Further challenging us is the whole inter-dimensional parallel universe thing (stick with me, this is going somewhere). Just as the play's script explores her volatile relationship with a younger actor, Maria herself is exploring a volatile relationship with her young assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart). As we get the complex intersection of fiction vs reality, as well as the clashing of different generations (young actress vs old actress), we realize that this is perhaps the most mindbending, inter-dimensional time travel story since "12 Monkeys".

"Clouds of Sils Maria" takes its title and underlying theme from a strange phenomenon in the Swiss Alps where a thick "snake" of clouds weaves its way through the valley. And yes, we get gorgeous shots of this phenomenon from both today's perspective as well as an archival film from 1924, shown in a short scene. As writer/director Olivier Assayas explains in a commentary: the landscape of Sils Maria is the same as it was 100 years ago, but the archival film, with its b&w grainy look, adds the distance of time. (The character of Maria echos this thought in that scene.)

Acting is fantastic all around and perfectly cast. Juliet Binoche brings to life the frustrated actress who is witnessing her career's slow fade as the younger, flamboyant stars hijack the screen and the tabloid hype. Kristen Stewart almost steals the show in her role as the frustrated voice of youth trying to compete with a slightly arrogant older generation. And Chloë Grace Moretz plays a 3rd major character: a saucy, shameless antagonist who is ironically a representation of who Maria was 20 years earlier.

This film can be really tricky, much like the perspective-warping "Synecdoche NY" (2000) or some of the Antonioni classics which explore the painful confrontation between old ways and new, like "Red Desert" (1964). So don't be afraid to watch it twice, like I had to do, before it really sinks in. Just strap on your flux capacitor and get set for a powerful experience.
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Glowing praise and a stark warning
7 May 2021
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.
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Ouch dude my brain hurts
7 May 2021
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.
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The Mirage (2015)
A polished movie that's suffers from a disturbing flaw
7 May 2021
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".
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Kwaidan (1964)
The intersection of fear, sadness and beauty
7 May 2021
"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.
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The Magician (1958)
A magic trick within a magic trick ...WITHIN A MAGIC TRICK.
2 May 2021
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.
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You'll never chop broccoli the same way again
29 April 2021
"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.
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Le Samouraï (1967)
A Frenchman's magnificent failure at making an American movie
25 April 2021
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).
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Festival (1967)
Pretty good documentary. A bit heavy on Peter Paul & Mary while cutting others short
24 April 2021
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.
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