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The Kennel Murder Case (1933)
The debonair William Powell plays detective Philo Vance, who immediately gets off a boat to Italy when he hears that a rich guy has killed himself. He's just seen the guy at a dog show the day before and can't believe the assessment that it was suicide - and we can't either, since it was made in about ten seconds without anyone even examining the body. Of course it's murder, and suspects abound, seven in total, and to the film's credit, it's not hard to follow each and their possible motives.
Director Michael Curtiz does a good job keeping the film moving, telling some of the stories in flashback, and with quick cuts between scenes. The cast is strong too, and I loved seeing Mary Astor, though her part is small and she's upstaged by Helen Vinson, who plays the lover across the street and gets to wear several beautiful dresses. Eugene Pallette is a treat as always, and watch for that funny little moment when his character isn't introduced to someone else by Powell's; the annoyed look that briefly passes over his face is priceless. Pallette plays the detective who isn't quite as talented, and the little sparring that he and Powell do throughout the film is amusing. There are a couple of nice dogs in this, a Doberman pinscher and a Scottish terrier named Captain McTavish as well (another great name for a future dog :).
As the film is only 73 minutes long, however, it can't really expand on all the characters or ways the crime could have been committed. I have to say, any murder mystery that depends on someone not noticing something that he definitely should have (being vague on purpose) is hanging on a thread, and it's all explained just a little too neatly. It's always fun watching Powell though, and this film delivers on entertainment value.
This film explores the emotions of love affairs that are ultimately doomed, hopeless dreams if you will, in a pair of interwoven stories. In one, the owner of a modeling agency (Eva Dahlbeck) has been dumped by the married man she's had an affair with for a year, but finds she can't give him up and keeps pursuing him. In the other, one of her models (Harriet Andersson), freshly after having broken things off with her boyfriend, is approached by a man old enough to be her father (Gunnar Björnstrand), who begins showering her with presents. There is something very sad in the characters of Dahlbeck and Björnstrand - she's a strong woman who is reduced to practically begging for crumbs of affection from a man who's decided to stay with his wife, and he's an affluent man who deludes himself into thinking he's young enough to start a relationship with a young woman. They are both touching and yet pathetic, and they begin to realize this through the eyes of others who confront them - in Dahlbeck's case, the man's wife, and in Björnstrand's, his estranged daughter.
Ingmar Bergman was 37 when he made this film, on his third marriage and just transitioning from an affair with Harriet Andersson to one with Bibi Andersson. Just as in the films that sandwich it, A Lesson in Love (1954) and Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), it deals with themes of love, marriage, and longing. It seems likely that he drew on his own experiences, and while the confrontation with the wife in this film seems staged, the dialogue and emotions of these characters is incredibly honest and authentic. Dahlbeck and Andersson are both terrific, perfectly capturing their characters, and they lead a strong cast. Dahlbeck's scene on the train, where she opens up the window and puts her head out into the rain, stands out, and I liked the playfulness of seeing Andersson on the rides at the amusement park. Andersson played a variety of roles for Bergman, e.g. young lover, tomboy, bombshell, schizophrenic, model, and maid all come to mind, and I love how she seems to effortlessly slip into all of them, while at the same time, projecting a certain spark and great screen presence. Bergman balances the playfulness and magnetism with weighty themes of pathos, and it's a combination I find irresistible.
Tsubaki Sanjûrô (1962)
A film about peace
Toshiro Mifune is back as the ronin with no name, who once again finds himself immersed in a struggle for power which seems senseless. He decides to lead a group of nine inexperienced young men trying to rescue the elderly chamberlain of their clan, after first correcting their misperception as to a superintendent's motives. They're heavily outnumbered by an army of men led by a skilled fighter (Tatsuya Nakadai), and we get both the chess match between the leaders, and well as comedic moments from novices ("We can't move like this! We look like a centipede!"). It's a film which may not have quite the same powerhouse images of its predecessor Yojimbo, but feels lighter, more balanced, and more tightly told, so the two films make a nice pair.
Kurosawa shows us that dividing into two sides and fighting seems tragically inevitable - aside from the two leaders who vie to be on top of the clan, when the ronin leaves his group of acolytes, they soon divide into factions and argue over what his intentions were, and even when the outcome seems finished, the two samurai fight out of a pointless sense of honor. I loved how the final battle is not elongated or glorified - its brevity amplifies the sense of how idiotic it is.
Kurosawa also seems to be saying that strong men with a will to power are drawn to warfare, and weaker men who follow them are often cowardly and easily fooled. It's not a flattering portrait of humanity, or should I say men - because it's ultimately the way of two women, who seem so impractical when we first see them, who provide the only non-tactical intelligence in the film, with the elder one advocating as little violence as possible and saying "the best sword is kept in its sheath." Ironically, for a film with such cool swordplay and fighting scenes, it's about peace, and it seems to say that only in this gentle way that we can survive.
Iconic and influential
Toshiro Mifune is cool and perfectly understated here - his character is a samurai who can dispatch a circle of guys around him in about ten seconds and everyone knows it, but he doesn't flaunt it, and is the ultimate tough guy. As many have commented, the debt that Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood owe to Kurosawa and Mifune can't be overstated, and at the time, I don't believe that was adequately understood despite the plagiarism lawsuit that resulted.
If I'm honest, though I loved this film I thought its first half was too slow, in particular after it became apparent that Mifune's character was going to watch the townsfolk and rival gang members through a window and drive up a bidding war for his services. It builds to a glorious second half though, with some nice turns to a plot which was seeming to be all too linear, and iconic imagery. Seeing Mifune standing out on that street in the distance, the dust swirling around him, as a row of guys start advancing toward him, is an indelible image.
Most of all, I love the complexity in Mifune's character, which seems other-worldly. He's the man with no name, a wandering samurai at a time when Japan was modernizing and they would soon be gone. He seems to have no sense of morality or honor, and yet we don't know what he would have done had he not overheard the clan he first pledged himself to talking about betraying him, and later he's an angel of mercy to a family, at the risk of his own peril. He's a man of the world, often seeming to care most about getting his next meal and some sake, and yet he also seems to have been destined by a higher power to come to the town to cleanse it of evil elements, of which there are many. The scene where he's in the cemetery and looks beat up and absolutely ghoulish amplifies this feeling for me. It's a remarkable character and performance.
My only regrets for the film are its pace in the first half, as I mentioned, and in how cartoonish the gang members are. We see a lot of cowardice, calling for "mommy," and idiotic behavior. Maybe the buffoonish character with the unibrow and moronic expression exemplifies this most, and I would have preferred it if it had skipped the comedy. There is certainly a comment on humanity or the modern, dishonorable world here, which instead of being happy to live in peace are endlessly fighting over material possessions, but it undercuts some of the menace facing the ronin. I loved how one of the characters (Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to town with a gun, truly upping the arms race and representing the new world, and he's very effective. There's another who is very tall and wields a huge mallet, played by 6'7" wrestler (Namigoro Rashomon), and I wish that weapon had been used in battle.
As it is, though, that final showdown is brilliant. The moment with the gun towards the end is as well, as the ronin's action defies the expectations of the audience, and could be interpreted as supreme courage, world-weary indifference, or prescience. Maybe the film is saying there are very few truly kind or brave people in the world, and they are destined (or perhaps blessed) to remain somehow apart from it.
The Florida Project (2017)
The vicious cycle
This film immerses us into the world of lower-class people in Florida who ironically are staying in a cheap hotel next to of Disneyworld, where a set of four magic band bracelet tickets goes for $1600. There are excellent performances all around, especially from Brooklynn Prince, who plays a tough, mouthy, and yet sweet little girl with an arresting honesty. The character is just six but in many ways seems older, growing up too quickly while left mostly on her own to roam around with her friends.
It doesn't take long to feel sorry for the children in this situation, with no structure or guidance, and horrible role models. In ten years we can easily imagine the little girl grown up to be a similar mother, and ten years ago we can imagine how the mother must have grown up. Without even a hint of this message from director Sean Baker, who shows masterful restraint, we see how hard it is for someone to rise out of the lower class or a difficult upbringing - not impossible, but not easy. The film may be an ink blot test though, because I can also imagine the response of them getting what they deserve, since the mom doesn't get a job as others around her do, runs scams, and resorts to prostituting herself, and I have to say, feeling empathy for her is a real test. Just watching how poorly she behaves is one of the turn-offs to the film, even if it's honest.
The little girl is easy to feel sorry for because she's still just six; this is what happens with awful parents. But the mother was also likely brought up in a difficult environment, so the film begs the question of what to do about vicious cycles like this while wisely not attempting to answer it. Instead it just gives us reality, as cringe-inducing as it may be at times.
I loved how it was edited, with cuts tending to shorten scenes. I think that was a wise move, since a lot of the film is simply showing us a series of vignettes without the machinations of a big plot, and this kept it from lagging. I also loved the character Willem Dafoe played - what a tough job he has, and yet he's a model of empathy and kindness, an absolute angel under the façade of a grizzled hotel manager, never judging anyone. He plays the part perfectly too, without embellishing it with sweetness or anything that doesn't feel completely authentic. How it resolves is great too, because you can see both the tragedy and the need for it, after everything we've seen.
One of my favorite Satyajit Ray movies, this is the story of a wife and mother (Madhabi Mukherjee) who goes out and gets a job despite the reproaches of her traditional family. I love the feminism and how balanced and layered it was. All of the characters are nuanced, and because the film isn't aggressive in pushing a message, it's more powerful as a result. In addition to exploring the patriarchy, there are themes of aging, workplace dynamics, racism, supporting one another in marriage, and helping others out when they're down, all in a world that's changing and modernizing. There are some fantastic scenes as the husband (Anil Chatterjee) deals with his wife's success - you can just see his bruised ego in his eyes - and then grapples with the path forward, given the economic reality. Mukherjee and Chatterjee are both brilliant, it's an excellent script, and Ray delivers a masterstroke on every level as director. What a fantastic period this was for Ray and Mukherjee, soon to be followed by Charulata (1964) and The Coward (1965), films I also adore. This is one to seek out.
Ryan's Daughter (1970)
For me, the highlight of this film is the absolutely gorgeous and rugged scenery of the Dingle peninsula, out on the west coast of Ireland. David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young give us extraordinary shots on sunny days, during a violent storm, at sunset and at night, in the small town and along the shore - it's all simply beautiful. I liked the concept of the story too - a young woman (Sarah Miles) gets married to an older man (Robert Mitchum), but finds herself disappointed, and begins an affair with a British officer, there to keep the locals in line (Christopher Jones). The officer has just returned from the front lines of WW1 and is suffering from PTSD, adding another dimension to his character, and the scene where he sits receiving information from the man he's replacing, a shell of a man, is fantastically understated. The speed with which the and the young woman begin their affair is laughable, but the scene when they arrange to ride their horses out into the woods to be together is erotically charged, and Lean films it beautifully, putting the camera up on the light coming between trees, but also showing us their hunger. We contrast him reaching for her a second time and her expression with the earlier scene of her and her husband on their wedding night, having a perfunctory (and brief) bit of lovemaking.
Just as this woman is trying to play both sides between having a husband and a lover, so it turns out her father plays both sides between supporting the Irish nationals and helping the British army, and I thought that was a nice parallel. The fact that both are playing with fire and likely to get burned is pretty clear, but it plays out in an interesting way, and the film kept my attention in part because Lean got me invested in the characters and the dilemmas they faced, mostly of their own doing.
Unfortunately, the film also has several problems, starting with its length. It has no business being 3 hours and 15 minutes long. It tries to be a film about PTSD, guerilla warfare during the Irish nationalist movement, and adultery. All of these threads come together in the plot and there are moments of brilliance in each, but it unfortunately can't go very deep in the first two (or even in the third) and comes across as needing focus. Throughout the film we see a mentally challenged character, apparently in there to attempt comedy as well, but this fails miserably; he's very annoying and like the Jar Jar Binks of this film. The soundtrack is also awful, committing both the sins of being far too intrusive and not matching the film's tone. It's jaunty and would seem more suited to a circus act, and many of the big moments in the film were spoiled by it. Lastly, the heroic character of the priest (Trevor Howard) was irritating to me - feeling it's his place to talk about all aspects of marriage to the young woman before she becomes a bride, slapping her in the face when she confesses that her marriage isn't as exciting as she thought it would be, and interrogating her in her house about whether she's carrying on with another man. This may be the reality of the power of the Catholic church in small towns like this (especially at that time), but he's made a saint and it all feels very patriarchal in its treatment of this woman, the adulterer who may as well have had a scarlet letter emblazoned on her.
This is a rare film when I could see myself rounding my review score up based on the visuals and the interesting story, but I could also see myself rounding it down based on its sprawl and the annoying things I mentioned. I can see why some would love it and others would hate it, and for me, I wouldn't be able to recommend it without reservations.
Minority Report (2002)
Great concept, one with themes of predeterminism vs. free will, as well as the use of advanced technology to fight crime with the drawbacks of loss of privacy and potential for abuse. There are some pretty cool moments, but overall it's flawed in execution; you'll have to suspend disbelief too many times, and there are lots of groan-inducing moments. Maybe the biggest one for me is Tom Cruise's character weepily saying "I want him back so bad" in a scene about his son, and there are several others where Spielberg should have trusted his actors to deliver emotions nonverbally, instead of having them say cheesy lines.
For my taste, the film would have been better pared down and darker both visually and in tone. Think of what it could have been if it had focused more on the weightier philosophical or police state aspects, as opposed to settling for the sentimentality of a personal story amidst an excessive number of plot twists. Think of the possibilities for an ending with either a skyrocketing murder rate or an injustice, something ambiguous or chilling. Think of what it might have been like delivered ala Blade Runner (1982), which was also based on a Philip K. Dick story.
With that said, Spielberg targets a blockbuster popcorn movie and there's a certain appeal to that, and it's reasonably entertaining. I also loved seeing 73-year-old Max von Sydow.
Lots of fun
An update of the werewolf story with lots to like, including creativity in the scary moments, special effects, dream sequences, little bits of personality in the supporting characters, and the filming on location out on the moor and in places like the London tube. The film goes for it all - horror, comedy, and romance - which may have been a little bit of a stretch as there are occasional moments that are less successful, but overall the combination makes it quite entertaining. I also liked the pace of the film and its length. This one's lots of fun.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Camp appeal only
Nice effects, but no story, ridiculous characters, and godawful acting. This is more of a comedy than a horror movie because of how stupid everything is. There's camp appeal in what seems like a school project but no tension, and aside from occasionally laughing at it, it was boring. The rape by a demonized tree is pretty bad too.
La vie du Christ (1906)
One of the earliest epics
You have to give this film credit for having been made in 1906, and it seems to me it was one of the earliest epics, predating D.W. Griffith by almost a decade in big productions. Director Alice Guy-Blaché had beautiful sets crafted, a very large cast, and delivered some nice special effects via double exposures. By far the most impressive shot is when the dead Christ rises from the sepulcher, done apparently by slowly dropping the camera on the superimposed image, with an effect that is ethereal and miraculous. The indoor stage scenes feature pretty arches and action over a wide area (and depth of field), and the outdoor scenes of Christ carrying the cross include a panning shot.
Unfortunately, despite all of these notable achievements, the film was not very interesting to me. With a single exception, the entire story is told with long shots, which severely limits the actors and feeling the emotions of the moment. It's as if we're in the 30th row at the theater and looking at a stage play, one with no dialogue or intertitle equivalents, and a static view. The selected 25 scenes from Christ's life are introduced and rather dryly marched past us one by one, each taking about a minute. And even worse, the chosen scenes miss the most profound and moving aspects of Christ's teachings, e.g. the Sermon on the Mount, his advocating pacifism and nonviolence, his views on forgiveness, loving one's enemies, and fighting for the poor. This is the meat of the story of Christ, and instead we're given the bare bones of events, which seems to me to be missing the point entirely. This would have been much better had some of that been included, but instead it takes the safe, dogmatic path, which is where I was most disappointed. Guy-Blaché was not simply the first woman director, she was an innovative pioneer, so for film historians it wouldn't be a bad idea to check this one out though.
Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913)
I like how the guy lays down in front of the car and motions for it to run him over near the end, when he believes he's not going to succeed in his quest to marry by noon to collect an inheritance. It's cool that it's the woman (Marian Swayne) who actually has the money in this relationship and is pulling the strings, and the guy is somewhat "steamrolled" into marriage, which director Alice Guy-Blaché cleverly shows us symbolically. She's a little heavy-handed in how often she shows us the clock, and there's also an unfortunate joke where as he searches desperately for any woman to marry him, he taps on a veiled woman's back, only to discover she's black, and then immediately reacts by running away. It's a small moment but reflects the miscegenation laws and widespread view of white superiority of the period, and is repugnant.
I'm not sure who first came up with the concept for the story line, whether that was Guy-Blaché or someone earlier, but it would certainly be repeated afterwards, e.g. just three weeks later, in the short 'Jane Marries,' and then in countless others over the years. You may also recognize it from Buster Keaton's film 'Seven Chances' in 1925, based on a play from 1916 - though it's sadly ironic that Keaton would also include a touch of racism with a stupid character in blackface. Just as in that film, if you can look past those painful moments, this is an amusing little short.
Algie, the Miner (1912)
Fascinating to interpret
It's interesting to watch this "sissy" get challenged by his prospective father-in-law to prove himself in "becoming a man" by going out west for a year before he can marry the man's daughter, and then to try to interpret it. The guy kisses a couple of cowboys when he meets them at the train station, dresses like a fop, and carries a teeny weeny gun that the "real men" have a big laugh over. As he develops a friendship with one of them, it's hard not to see gay overtones in all this and wonder what producer (and possibly director) Alice Guy-Blaché's intention was.
Is he gay or bisexual and out of conformity to the times going to marry a woman? Or is he just a wimpy guy from the east who has to prove himself to his would-be father-in-law and a bunch of masculine cowboys? Regardless, the characterization is ultimately positive - this effeminate misfit of a man saves another's life in more ways than one and "makes good," rather than not being able to cut it. Is it saying we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, and be tolerant to different ways of being a man? Or is it saying that effeminate weaklings can and should be toughened up?
It may be a Rorschach test or another example of the old saying, "we see things not as they are but as we are," especially 108 years later. Anyway, the story is linear and simple which is a little unfortunate, but in the vignette of the male characters (even exaggerated as they are), and in their relationship to one another, it's fascinating.
Long overdue recognition
An ambitious film about pioneering film producer, director, and screenwriter Alice Guy-Blaché, and I have to say, the long overdue light that director Pamela B. Green shines on her is heartwarming. It's clearly a labor of love, and the number of people Green brings in and how worldwide this project was is impressive. The documentary sometimes ventures a little bit too far into the backstory of how all of the information was collected, and that's occasionally interesting too, but I would have preferred it to stick to Guy-Blaché, her films, and the direct influence she had with others in the industry. It also goes a little overboard with all of the graphic animations and overlays perhaps meant to bring life to the story, which wasn't necessary.
With that said, the film does get across enough of this fantastic woman's work and her personal life to be compelling. We see great clips showing her brilliant approach to directing actors ("Be Natural"), her humanism and sense of comedic timing, and her scene compositions and some special effects, which made me want to seek out more from her. I also liked the bits showing the influence on Eisenstein, the quote from Hitchcock, and how some of it was related to movies and comedy from the recent past, e.g. Juno and Andy Samberg from Saturday Night live. And by telling the story as Green did, we see not only how difficult it was to unearth the truth, but also the monstrous injustice that took place in the writing Guy-Blaché out of history by men over the decades that followed her career. It's quite infuriating, and a reminder of how important it is to scrutinize those who are writing history.
A House Divided (1913)
In this 13 minute short from pioneering director Alice Guy-Blaché, a married couple stop talking to one another because they each mistakenly think the other is carrying on with someone else, based on the slimmest of evidence. It's a fun premise, something you'd see decades later on TV sitcoms, and seeing the notes they exchange is amusing (e.g. "I need a new hat" / "Keep needing it"). The mannerisms of the actors, including the one playing a secretary, are very cute as well, and probably the best part of the film. It's pretty simple and the story or characters are not at all fleshed out, but I see that as a limitation of the film's length. Consider it a light little amuse-bouche.
Canned Harmony (1912)
Simple little short
It's pretty cool to see the old phonograph in this 13 minute short from Alice Guy-Blaché, and I liked how she used it in both the plot, where the suitor uses it to feign musical ability, as well as to suggest sound in the movie theater, where violin music was also played. The split screen shot used during a phone call was nice too, but there's not too much to get excited about relative to the comedy or the romance. I think a lot of her other work showcases more of her ability and/or deals with weightier subjects, but this is not a bad way to spend 13 minutes.
Interesting, but could have been better
An intricate plot keeps this drama interesting for a film that almost seems to be preying on every parent's worst fear, that their children will be abducted. It's tense, has several brutally tough moments, and it's tough to guess exactly where it's going. I liked the intensity of the performances as well as the filming location, which takes us to this small town, though I was surprised it was done in Georgia instead of Pennsylvania, where the story is set.
My reservations were around the film feeling a little too Hollywood, if that makes any sense. The details in the setup invariably factoring in, the vigilante dad, the black neighbors present but subordinate, and the cop who repeatedly breaks the law in how he pursues the case leading up to the big, canned moments towards the end - it all feels a little produced. It was also hard for me to like the out of control behavior from the dad and cop (Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal) given all the things they do. That's of course one of the points, that anger and frustration can turn people into demons, but the film wants it both ways, with the cop being a hero and the father really being a good guy at heart, praying to God often, and just doing everything he can for his kids. It should have picked one side or the other, and probably should have been pared down as well. It's entertaining if you're looking for a wild ride and a good popcorn drama, but just kind of standard stuff, and could have been better.
Krótki film o milosci (1988)
Touching, but a little backward
As touching as the feelings of loneliness are in this young man who spies on a woman with a telescope are, there is too much of a violation here, and her reaction, to respond to him despite all his creepy behavior, seemed pretty strange to me. As organic as the film seems, with a sense of realism in the male character and his surroundings, the female character seems pretty unreal. There is certainly a mood created of loneliness and the desperation of trying to find someone to love, and the film may be asking questions about what love is after all - e.g. does studying someone so closely for a year in their most private moments allow you to know them at some level where you can truly love them for what they are? - but I guess I just couldn't get past the point that the woman reacts to him this way. He's shown to be a sympathetic, lonely guy; she actually questions whether she's "right" or good enough for him because of her involvement with multiple men. It seems pretty backward in that way, and I didn't see all that much that was profound in the filmmaking or script either. Not awful, but not for me.
Jamaica Inn (1939)
This film starts strong enough, with a motley crew of scoundrels running a business of causing shipwrecks along a stormy coast, killing everyone aboard (one whistling while he works), and plundering everything they can. A young woman (Maureen O'Hara) comes to the inn they're staying at to see her aunt, and between being ogled by a creepy aristocrat (Charles Laughton), and the glowering threat of her uncle who leads the bandits, finds herself in a delicate situation. The film has a nice little scene satirizing the wealthy, who appear at a dinner ignorant and overstuffed in all of their opulence, and we soon see that it's Laughton's character who secretly pulls the strings on the criminal enterprise, which seemed like an apt metaphor.
Unfortunately it starts unraveling around the 40 minute mark or so during an escape sequence, and never really recovers, despite its star power. The film suffers from a weak script, with an already melodramatic story tortured by highly questionable character motivations, as well as poor direction, with scenes often playing out with a wooden staginess completely lacking in darkness or tension. It seems as though Hitchcock was phoning this one in, and from of all of what's been written about his difficulties with Laughton, perhaps that explains it. Regardless, while it has a certain draw to it because of Hitchcock, O'Hara, Laughton, and the author Du Maurier, this is one you could skip.
The Window (1949)
A simple little thriller that probably would have been better in the hands of a better director, but it's got some nice moments of suspense towards the end, and at 73 minutes doesn't wear out its welcome. The basic concept for the story is spoon fed to us too methodically, with Aesop's tale of the boy who cried wolf quoted at the beginning, and the setup proceeding to show a 12-year-old who stretches the truth to his friends and parents. While trying to sleep out on a fire escape on a hot night, he witnesses his upstairs neighbors killing someone, and of course no one believes him. Bobby Driscoll plays the part of the boy well, and the scenes in the abandoned building are well done, elevating the movie despite a linear story and lackluster ending. How tragic to find that Driscoll would die a broken man 19 years later, also in an abandoned building in New York.
Freedom on My Mind (1994)
Powerful and inspiring
An absolutely brilliant look back at the 1963 Mississippi black voter registration drive, with excellent footage from the time and interviews with key figures three decades later, in 1994. Even if you're aware of this period of history, this is a very worthwhile documentary, and whether we admit or not, still relevant today. It made me emotional to see the combination of the viciousness of most of the white Mississippians (who ironically say the country is for whites because they're civilized and other races savage), the lack of recourse since it pervaded society (including the police and state politicians all the way up to the Governor), the absolute unfairness of it all, and yet, the heroic bravery of black and white Americans who risked their lives to force progress. This should be shown be shown in U.S. history courses in high schools everywhere.
I liked how the film doesn't glorify or unfairly weight the involvement of mostly northern college students from liberal arts schools, who while courageous and inspiring, by their own admission could have flown home anytime, unlike the African-Americans they were helping. The leadership and eloquence of Bob Moses is truly inspiring, as is the thoughtful commentary of those who joined the movement. The arc of Endesha Ida Mae Holland, raped by her white employer on her 11th birthday (which she says was commonplace), and speaking of harsh truths in her life through a smile, is delightful. Curtis Hayes speaks with soulful intensity, Marshall Ganz from Bakersfield, California is insightful, and Fannie Lou Hamer's televised testimony is stirring, standing out among many others. In contrast, the documentary also gives us a glimpse into some of the soul-crushing politics within the Democratic Party, which, even if evolving at the time, was still trying to save itself from southern white voters switching parties.
Mississippi was a particularly onerous example of backwardness, with a cruel apartheid system, violence perpetuated for the slightest of offenses (e.g. lynchings for "eye rape", a black man looking at a white woman in what was deemed an offensive way), and black people denied the right for 90+ years after the 15th amendment had been passed. The documentary is focused here, and appropriately so, but it should be realized that the problem was by no means localized to the recalcitrant south. Racism and the belief in white superiority was widespread, revisionist history was still being taught, and white supremacists like J. Edgar Hoover were in positions of great power. It's also easy to think of this problem as now "solved," and the needle has certainly moved considerably in Mississippi and the rest of America since the early 1960's, but as Cleve Sellars in the documentary points out, "things are not the best that they could be," which is still true today. As the documentary shows, it takes active involvement though, because those in positions of privilege or power aren't simply going to relinquish it on their own. Powerful stuff.
Tian xia di yi quan (1972)
Kung fu classic
Very enjoyable and solid kung fu film which centers around battles between rival martial arts schools. Lo Lieh is iconic in the lead role, and there are several great villains as well. It's pretty clear how this one is ultimately going to go, but there are enough surprises and fun moments along the way that it really doesn't matter. Love the virtues of humility, slowness to anger, and honor amidst the violence, and love the kinetic energy and choreography in the fighting. This film was clearly influential in everything from Kill Bill to Karate Kid, and while it's got some technical flaws, it's a good one.
Our Town (1940)
Slow but meaningful, with a good payoff
This might be the slowest of all slow-burners, so if you're going to watch it, brace yourself and be very, very patient. The first hour in this small turn of the century town is for the most part quaint and frankly pretty boring, as we are introduced to various characters and follow them in their everyday lives. There are flashes of a larger meaning in an omniscient narrator, who points out when some of them are going to die, but mostly we seem to be watching simple, mundane events, and a romance completely devoid of spark or chemistry. The production quality is not very high either; even if one takes into account the desire to keep some semblance of Thornton Wilder's lean aesthetic from the stage, there is not enough life in these characters (at least to my modern eyes), the quality of the film stock seems to have deteriorated, and William Holden is both poorly cast and quite wooden.
However, it's all a buildup to that last half hour, and this is where the film really shines, starting with going into the thoughts of the characters at the wedding, and continuing on when the narrator strolls through the cemetery. Wilder's play was both existential and deeply humanistic, and its power comes forth, even with the alteration to the ending, something I'd normally hate. It puts our humble lives into a skeletal framework, and then with its cosmic perspective, forces us to see how brief they are, and how we should treasure every moment, even the simple ones.
Playwright and professor Donald Margulies said that Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life' owes a great deal to 'Our Town', and while he didn't expand on that too much, it's a great point. They ask some of the same questions, such as what's the meaning of this life and do we make a difference being here, but while Capra's answers are positive and joyful and sentimental, Wilder is a little more on the fence, or at least, he lets us interpret (and perhaps this is where the changes in the film were a mistake). In both works the point is made that we need to open our eyes to appreciate what we have and the people around us, but Wilder shows us that our lives are going to be all-too-brief and all-too-small in the grand scheme of things regardless. And yet, he says, "There's something way down deep that's eternal about every human being." We are both meaningful and meaningless at the same time. This is not 'Our Town', it's 'Our Lives', or 'Our Humanity'.
The film's incredibly reserved, staid approach is something that doesn't necessarily work 80 years later, in a world that's much faster paced. As a result, it may be hard to appreciate just how groundbreaking and touching it was at the time. In many cases, audience members at the play responded by openly weeping at the end, and as early critic Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times put it, the play "transmuted the simple events of human life into universal reverie" which contained nothing less than "a fragment of the immortal truth." It's pretty hard to translate such a quiet, introspective play to film or to the present world, and as with Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot', it may evoke the reaction that "not enough happens," but I think there's actually quite a bit here, if you wait for it.
Such a lovely movie, and a wonderful companion piece to Summer with Monika (1953). As in that film, the focus is a look back at those wonderful days of first love, and the cinematography out on the Swedish archipelago is truly gorgeous. Maj-Britt Nilsson and Birger Malmsten are touching as the young lovers, told in flashback and with refreshing honesty about the physical side of their relationship. There is also depth to the film, with Bergman referencing the transience of these fleeting moments, kind of like the sunlight he shows us shimmering on the water, the meaning of it all, and God's existence. At the same time, there are playful bits like an animation that came as a nice surprise. He also gets a few jabs in at the fragile male ego and creepy behavior in an older "uncle", as well as some nice shots at the ballet. It seemed to drag out a teeny bit towards the end with her involvement with a newspaper reporter (Alf Kjellin), but I think that allows us to think about what may be behind a person's wariness in life, to compare relationships at an older age, and to see that there is a path to overcoming melancholy. Oh, and I must remember to name my next dog "Gruffman," as he's quite a pooch. Perhaps the last reference to him in the film is the saddest bit of all.
After Hours (1985)
I didn't really connect with this one. It's mildly entertaining with all of the misadventures this guy finds himself going through one very strange night, but to me it just kinda felt like a B movie, with a script that never really went anywhere interesting, marginal acting, and cheesy soundtrack. It's a Kafkaesque nightmare and yet it manages comedy elements and the offbeat mood of New York in the wee hours, which is something though.