Thursday, June 30, 2011

#345: Red Desert

1964, TSPDT Rank #284

Antonioni, as a director, is one of the great transmitters of emotions. Often the themes he deals in are alienation and neurosis, but his films are always very subtle and nuanced in the way they portray these themes. This was Antonioni's first color film, and he wastes no available resources in creating a stifling but harshly beautiful industrial wasteland. Red Desert is a perfect example of what I think people find difficult about Antonioni's films: there's never a lot going on on the surface - it's all about the atmosphere and feeling you get from the whole thing. In this movie, by observing the colors, the landscape, the sounds (and letting your senses do the work); you come to understand the plight of the main character (Monica Vitti, Antonioni's cinematic muse in the early to mid '60s) indirectly. The plot, on a basic level, is one of alienation, infidelity, and a struggle to connect with one's surroundings - which, in typical Antonioni, says a lot about human nature and relationships in general underneath the surface. Red Desert is classic Antonioni, not his best film, but a great example of what his statement to the world was with his work, and an ideal extension or introduction to his style.

(Rating: 8/10)

#344: Faust

Directed by: F.W. MURNAU
1926, TSPDT Rank #438

As F.W. Murnau's last German film, and his film preceding the masterpiece Sunrise, Faust comes as a significantly disappointing experience. The visuals in this film are fantastic, and are why it is watchable enough for two hours. However the other elements of this film are both heavyhanded and too minimal. It feels as if Murnau is grasping for something grand and spectacular, and giving it to us with the visuals, but backing it up with thin drama and bad pacing. I personally think that the story of Faust in the way that it was approached was too much for Murnau, and he actually reached much higher heights with the smaller scale story of Sunrise in Hollywood (of all places) the following year. Basically, the difference between the quality of those two films is that Sunrise is a lasting and masterful work of art, and Faust relies too much on grand visuals and ambitions that may have been enough to carry the film in the 1926, but today it feels overbearing and unsatisfying. Not a bad film by any means, but it was disappointing based on my expectations.

(Rating: 6/10)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

#343: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

1975, TSPDT Rank #157

Jeanne Dielman has to be one of the greatest films I've ever seen. Period. It's been a few weeks since I first watched it. I watched it basically in one sitting, and when it was over I felt mystified and stunned. Weeks later I still feel that way. This is a film that will get under your skin and into your mind. It's pretty long, yet very minimalist. You can't watch this film unless you're in the right mood for it, and for most people, it will be either hard or impossible to get into that mood. It takes patience, concentration, and deep thought to enjoy the movie. I don't even want to say much about it so that I don't ruin it for others. Suffice it to say this: you see an isolated housewife (and part-time prostitute) perform her daily chores for three days, in exacting detail. That's basically the plot. If you can handle that, and handle the length, then watch it, and read between the lines. I did. It blew me away. Difficult, but a sure masterpiece.

(Rating: 10/10)

#342: The Best Years of Our Lives

Directed by: WILLIAM WYLER
1946, TSPDT Rank #130

To think that a director who would some years later make the eternal blunder that is Ben-Hur could make a film as moving, emotional, and engrossing as this one is the real marvel. But this is really one of the great films of the '40s, a profound and dead-on appropriation of what life on the homefront was like once our gallant soldiers returned home from World War II. Some films around this length (ahem, Ben-Hur) can tend to be strained or reliant on sensational scenes. This film is nothing of the sort, and is the rare bird that is a three-hour movie that keeps your attention and emotions focused for the whole duration. It feels like a film half its length, and I think this is due to the absolutely fantastic dialogue. It comes out flowing smooth and realistically - you buy every minute of this movie, every word the characters speak. It's effect was potent back when it was first released, and it has proved to be quite durable through the years. A movie very worthy of acclaim.

(Rating: 9/10)

Friday, June 17, 2011

#341: Ivan the Terrible, Part One

1944, TSDPT Rank #174

If you were to watch Battleship Potemkin and Ivan the Terrible (both Eisenstein films) back to back, you would be in for quite a surprise. The two films are shot and edited in near completely opposite styles, almost as if Eisenstein was rejecting his old montage theories that made his name for him and made Potemkin one of the greatest masterpieces in film history. This historical epic is nonetheless visually astounding - the entire feel of the proceedings is otherworldly. It reminded me of Fritz Lang's silent epic Die Nibelungen (also released as two films) for its ability to replicate transportation to another time and place - another world. Even if you were not able to follow what is going on in the plot (and it's a little difficult at times), I'd still say it's a film worth watching for the visual splendor. Despite his name of Ivan the Terrible, Ivan is portrayed in this first film as somewhat of a tragic figure. Nearly everyone hates him and is out to kill/destroy him or the few that are close to him. The first film leaves off in preparation for the second, so my review of Ivan the Terrible is incomplete as of now, since I have not yet seen Part Two (also on the 1,000 Greatest Films, of course). That review soon to come.

(Rating: 8/10)

#340: Amelie

2001, TSPDT Rank #964

Amelie is a very good film. But does it belong in the 1,000 Greatest Films [of all time]? That's the big question to ask for the 21st century films on the list. You can debate over its quality all you want, but it's pretty low on the list, and as a representation of 21st century film (for there need to be some), it fits well. I think it's one of the most original romantic films to be made in the last decade. Not to say there haven't been weirder or more boundary-pushing films that could be lumped into the "romantic" genre, but I'm talking about the actual sweet, charming, witty, genuinely romantic films. Great characters, the plot works really well, Audrey Tautou is especially fantastic, and the romantic aspect is very satisfying. It's strange of course; not unsuitably weird, but refreshingly strange. There's not a whole lot else for me to say about it other than that it is a very good and enjoyable modern film, it's worth seeing, and there are definitely reasons why it's one of the most popular and well-liked foreign movies today. I'd strongly recommend it to those who are looking for a way to get into foreign films, and I think many others would enjoy it as well.

(Rating: 7/10)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

#339: Ben-Hur

Directed by: WILLIAM WYLER
1959, TSDPT Rank #359

This tepid, stilted blunder of a film is probably in my bottom five for those of the 1,000 Greatest Films that I've seen so far. It's highly overrated, pointless, stupid, and a poor excuse for epic drama. Furthermore, I'm of the opinion that its revered position in film history comes from the famous chariot race scene. Yes, this scene is very good, the best in the film. But the film is 3 1/2 hours long; what comes before the chariot race is bad, and what follows it is even worse. Besides having terrible acting and pacing, the plot is inexcusably ridiculous. It masquerades as "A Tale of the Christ", and tries to be, but is definitely no such thing. After a misplaced and unnecessary filler of a nativity prologue, Jesus appears two or three times in the film, is clumsily referred to a few times, and his death is presented as a horrible anticlimax, after which all of the characters are inexplicably and suddenly redeemed. The film doesn't have any idea what it is, or should be, instead unsatisfactorily detailing the exploits of a wronged Jewish prince (Charlton Heston), whose character is never anything other than a thundering but unconvincing soggy cardboard cutout (that Heston won an award for his acting is an outrage). This awful film has some big cinematography and one good scene, which has earned it its awards and reputation, but save your time - don't believe the hype.

(Rating: 2/10)

#338: Kiss Me Deadly

1955, TSDPT Rank #302

Out of all the film noirs I've seen, this is the only one that has felt truly dangerous. It's violent, lurid, cryptic, intense, dark, and extremely rough around the edges. Not to mention apocalyptic. This is a film that truly needs to be seen to be believed, however, I will say one thing about it. It's not perfect, I won't give it a perfect rating (yet), and I think to claim it to be perfect might even diminish its raw, gritty power somewhat. But knowing that this jolting and crazy "whatsit" crawled out from the underbelly of the 1950s Hollywood system sends a pitch black bolt of joy rollicking straight into my soul.

(Rating: 9/10)

#337: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Directed by: FRANK CAPRA
1939, TSPDT Rank #387

This genuinely inspiring film by the great Frank Capra seems at first glance that it would be way too sentimental to bear - but it's not. It's about the idealistic leader of a nationwide group called the Boy Rangers (played by James Stewart) who is brought into Washington, expected to play by the rules of the corrupt government officials, but instead stands up for what he believes in. It is actually just as sentimental as it sounds, but the subtle trick of the script (which imitators of the film have usually failed to use in their efforts) in the underlying tone of cynicism and sarcasm which counters the sentimentality and gives the film a much-needed balance of tone. The other element that makes this film work all these years later is James Stewart, whose performance is one of the most sincere and impassioned of all time. It's hard to imagine this movie still being held in such high esteem if Gary Cooper, the first choice to play the title role, had been cast. But as it is, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a true classic that still feels fresh and watchable, despite its faults (i.e. the annoying kids), as well as a perfect summation of all of Capra's main cinematic trademarks up to this point in his career.

(Rating: 8/10)