Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Battle of Algiers (1966)


A semi-documentary reconstruction of the National Liberation Front's revolt against the French government in Algiers in the mid-to-late 1950s.
It's a problematic movie, to be sure. A great amount of art has gone into its impeccably convincing veneer of artlessness. Its documentary techniques, along with the opportunity granted to you to follow the narrative from both the FLN and French military perspectives could very easily trick you into mistaking it for an objective account of a complex, tumultuous conflict. If there is the most minuscule shred of a leftist impulse in you, you won't be able to resist its message.
And I don't mean to sound as if I could. Pontecorvo's mastery of the mournful journalist aesthetic and the unrelenting dramatic urgency he musters up from the opening minutes won me over very quickly. And I am convinced (as was the Pentagon in 2003) that its political power and relevance is yet to wear off.

dir: Gillo Pontecorvo
wr: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
ph: Marcello Gati
ed: Mario Morra, Mario Serandrei
m: Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo
cast: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin, Yasef Saadi, Samia Kerbash, Ugo Paletti, Fusia El Kader, Omar

The Cranes Are Flying (1957)


One of the great Soviet films as well as one of the great movie love stories, this increasingly overlooked Khrushchev-era Palme d'or winner tells of two swooning lovers separated and gradually destroyed by WWII. With some exquisite photography, a grand old-fashioned orchestral score and several astonishing impressionistic sequences, director Mikhail Kalatozishvili (who nearly three decades earlier helmed the similarly brilliant though forgotten Salt for Svanetia) amplifies the already-heightened romanticism of the story in a way that, rather than soapy, becomes intensely affecting.

dir: Mikhail Kalatozishvili (aka Mikhail Kalatozov)
wr: Viktor Rozov
ph: Sergei Urusevsky
ed: Mariya Timofeyeva
m: Moisey Vaynberg
cast: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov, Vasili Merkuryev, Aleksandr Shvorin, Svetlana Kharitonova, Konstantin Nikitin, Valentin Zubkov, Antonina Bogdanova


The Bad Sleep Well (1960)


Although somewhat heavier-going than Kurosawa would allow when in top form, this tale of corporate corruption and revenge politics (with vague allusions to Hamlet in its plotting) has several things worth recommending: its stately, noirish visual style; its play on the notion of evil having a grandfatherly face; its escalating tension; as well as its disconcerting strands of cynicism and pessimism, which position it in stark contrast to the humanism that shapes much of Kurosawa's work.

dir: Akira Kurosawa
ph: Yuzuru Aizawa
m: Masaru Satô
cast: Toshirô Mifune, Masayuki Mori, Kyôko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Takashi Shimura, Kô Nishimura, Takeshi Katô

The Wild, Wild Rose (1960)

Hong Kong

An awkward early case of crudely Westernised Hong Kong cinema. Bizet's Carmen is transmuted into a sultry nightclub performer and her story is filtered through Hollywood noir iconography and early 60s Japanese pop. The curiosity value wears off early, with two hours still to go.

dir: Wang Tian-lin
cast: Grace Chang, Lei Da, Liu Enjia, Ma Li, Ma Xianogong, Ouyang Sha-fei, Shen Yun, Su Feng

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Raging Bull (1980)


Probably the most hosannaed of Scorsese's pictures, his biography of prizefighter Jake La Motta is an indictment of male values founded on aggression from a man who has made a career of gawking at such values with the awe of a schoolboy. A tension persists throughout the movie between the raw tragedy of La Motta's self-destruction and Scorsese's infatuation with the movie gangster. It's that much more uncomfortable to witness the patently despicable acts that define La Motta's persona, filtered as they are through the cinematic codes of on-screen machismo which for decades have sneakily rendered such behaviour acceptable. The committed rawness of the performances and dialogue and the slow-mo extreme-close-up brutality of the violence play off the glamourising movie-ness of Scorsese's orchestration, charging La Motta's tale of damage and devolution into the realm of the operatic. It's a shame therefore that in the crucial moments Scorsese hurtles it into the realm of the redundant: he taints the final, visceral impact of his movie with some undergrad-level solemn posturing, capping things off as he does with no less than a quote from the Bible.

dir: Martin Scorsese
wr: Paul Schrader, Mardik Martin
ph: Michael Chapman
ed: Thelma Schoonmaker
cast: Robert de Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Frank Vincent, Nicholas Colasanto


Superstar (1999)


Molly Shannon plays a high school outcast who french-kisses things like trees and stop signs, has a secret crush on the football team captain (played by Will Ferrell, no less) and in order to win him becomes determined to win the school's upcoming talent competition. Like every SNL-alumnus-vehicle, this one is broad, crass and hit-and-miss. That it hits as often as it does has everything to do with Shannon's blistering conviction.

dir: Bruce McCulloch
cast: Molly Shannon, Will Ferrell, Elaine Hendrix, Harlan Williams

Ugetsu monogatari (1953)


The post-Rashomon era was a terrific one for Japanese cinema in that not only did it bring forth several of the greatest films ever made, but these masterpieces were also assured of the international exposure that would have eluded them just a few years earlier. One of the major beneficiaries of Kurosawa's success was Kenji Mizoguchi's rich, serene ghost story/morality tale, which cleaned up at international film festivals before making it into many highly respected top tens.
Adapted from two stories by Akinari Ueda (a staple of 18th Century Japanese literature), it concerns the vacillating fortunes of two peasant couples during the feudal wars of the 1860s. The plot has the makings of a vast, sweeping saga, but the film's most arresting sequences are its most intimate. Mizoguchi intersperses his wise observations on human fundamentals like greed, desire and patriarchy with the utmost elegance, taking great care not to interrupt the dreamy flow and poetry you'd expect of a piece titled "Tales of a Pale and Mysterious Moon After the Rain".

dir: Kenji Mizoguchi
ph: Kazuo Miyagawa
m: Fumio Hayasaka, Tamekichi Mochizuki, Ichirô Saitô
cast: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyô, Kinuyo Tanaka, Eitarô Ozawa, Mitsuko Mito, Ikio Sawamura, Kikue Môri, Ryosuke Kagawa

The Last Detail (1973)


Hal Ashby directed, off a Robert Towne script, Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as two foul-mouthed sailors detailed to transport gawky, naive Randy Quaid to prison, where he is to serve eight years for [not] stealing $40 from the charity box. Five minutes into the movie, you accept that the two veterans will soon bond with their innocuous cohort before teaching him a thing or two about drinking, brawling and whoring, all of it leading to the final revelation that the world is cruel and unjust. So all you can do is sit back, watch them get on with it and try get as much as you can out of the famously colourful dialogue and finely tuned performances.

dir: Hal Ashby
wr: Robert Towne
ph: Michael Chapman
cast: Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid, Clifton James, Michael Moriarty, Carol Kane, Luana Anders, Nancy Allen

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The General (1927)


Decades before CGI, Buster Keaton assembled some of cinema's most startling action sequences and strung them together with his inspired deadpan lunacy into a lean, exhilarating 79 minutes.

dir: Buster Keaton, Clyde Bruckman
ph: Bert Hains, Dev Jennings
ed: Buster Keaton, Sherman Kell
cast: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Joe Keaton, Charles Smith, Frank Barnes

Stalker (1979)


Andrei Tarkovsky's second unconventional foray into science fiction concerns a mysterious 'Zone' in an unnamed small country, which scores of villagers have entered, never to be seen again. A superstition persists however, that the Zone contains an inner chamber referred to as the Room, which holds the power to grant the committed pilgrim's deepest wish. So a trained 'Stalker' can make a living by dodging the heavily armed patrol that guards the Zone (though is too terrified to enter it) and serve as tour guide to the faithful and sceptical alike as long as they are eager to brave the threat of doom in their committed search of things like inspiration and Truth. This is a dense, often oblique, sometimes awkward but never less than fascinating meditation on matters of what the viewer is encouraged to independently interpret as either faith or superstition. It's easy enough to infer that Tarkovsky himself is certain that God exists and the fault behind everything that is wrong with your life lies with You and not with Him. But he gives you ample room to participate in his dialectic even as you doubt his convictions. He ends the piece on an atypically trite note, but along the way, he offers up regularly entrancing imagery as well as enlightening pointers into some of the darker, more desperate impulses lodged in humanity's core.

dir: Andrei Tarkovsky
wr: Arkadi Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky, Andrei Tarkovsky
ph: Aleksandr Knyazhinsky
cast: Aleksandr Kajdanovsky, Anatoli Solonitsyn, Nikolai Grinko, Alisa Frejndlikh, Natasha Abramova

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)


Considering it arrived at international screens precisely around the time that Walt Disney animation hit its nadir, cinemagoers hungry for an imaginative cartoon would have done well to turn to Hayao Miyazaki's first feature (which he adapted from his own . It's far from perfect, featuring as it does some hilariously misguided 80s' J-pop synth scoring. But it's conceived on a grand scale, with rich and wondrous imagery. Try however, hard as you can, to avoid the Hollywood dub with its glitzy big-name voices, in favour of the original Japanese one.

wr/dir: Hayao Miyazaki

The Sword of Doom (1966)


Them wonderful folks at Criterion deemed the DVD edition of this relatively little-seen samurai picture worthy of their prestigious stamp.
It follows (and half-tries to patch together into a coherent plot) the dozens upon dozens of cold slayings committed by an unsmiling masterless swordsman in feudal Japan. The crafting is highly sophisticated: the (Tohoscope) compositions are elegant, the lighting painterly and the cutting often imaginative. But the anti-hero, as portrayed by blank-faced Tatsuya Nakadai, comes off as hollow rather than mysterious and at several points throughout the film it becomes difficult to care about what's going to happen next. Upon further viewings however, I might be more patient with the earnest brooding that takes up at least half the film's running time, knowing as I do now that it all eventually builds up to a hallucinatory, enthralling final showdown.

dir: Kihachi Okamoto
ph: Hiroshi Murai
ed: Yoshitami Kuroiwa
cast: Tatsuya Nakadai, Yuzo Kayama, Michiyo Aratama, Toshiro Mifune, Yoko Naito, Tadao Nakamaru, Ichiro Nakaya, Ko Nishimura

The Grim Reaper (1962)


Opening his first film with some of the most effortlessly evocative imagery since Orson Welles' debut, Bernardo Bertolucci appears to have wasted no time in asserting that genius sense for tone and atmosphere that marked his earlier and most enduring films. In this breezy, bracing whodunnit, several lowlifes are interrogated by an invisible commissioner in relation to the dead body of a prostitute discovered in a city park at dawn. As the suspects/witnesses recount their alibis Rashomon-style, you get a strong feel for their variously relaxed though discontented lives lived at society's edges. Bertolucci's as-yet-unmarred maverick spirit permeates the picture, as does an affecting sense of mourning over the young woman's cruelly casual death.

dir: Bernardo Bertolucci
wr: Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Citti, Pier Paolo Pasolini
ph: Giovanni Narzisi
ed: Nino Baragli
m: Piero Piccioni, Carlo Rustichelli
cast: Carlotta Barilli, Lorenza Benedetti, Clorinda Celani, Vincenzo Ciccora, Alvaro D'Ercole, Giancarlo De Rosa, Gabriella Giorgelli