Wednesday, December 26, 2018

#679: Chimes at Midnight

Directed by: ORSON WELLES
1965, TSPDT Rank #157

Shakespeare has always been a popular wellspring of cinematic source material for film adaptations, but the resulting films have tended to fall into two categories: those that attempt to be faithful to Shakespeare's language and theatrical style (i.e. the films of Lawrence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh), and those that attempt to update their general themes and narrative structure into a contemporary style (i.e. Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet). But Orson Welles' Shakespeare adaptations fall into an entirely different category - and this is especially true when it comes to Chimes at Midnight.

First, it should be noted that, since this is an Orson Welles film, the cinematic technique on display in Chimes at Midnight is breathtaking and full of unpolished mastery. But despite being from an era of social upheaval and the death of the old Hollywood, the film seems to exist in a time and place all its own. The cinematography is in striking black and white, full of depth and beguiling visual patterns. The world of old England is portrayed with more imagination and realistic detail than most of the Shakespeare purists have been able to manage. A dream of Welles' since childhood, this combination of multiple Shakespeare plays (all featuring the rogue drunkard Sir John Falstaff) exists in a world that had lived in his mind for decades - making it feel more vibrant and believable than the most closely studied of traditional adaptations.

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Welles' love for Shakespeare's language is plainly evident in Chimes at Midnight as well. Preserving the poetry and rhythm of Shakespeare, along with lifting much of the language verbatim from the original plays, clearly took precedence over any concern about the audience's ability to easily follow the film. Watching Chimes at Midnight requires an attention to the language on multiple levels - which is no mean feat when faced with the overwhelming visual power of Welles' imagery. This makes the Criterion edition of the film a must-have, allowing for multiple viewings to absorb both the rich visuals and the poetic language.

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Welles also preserved the narrative structure of a Shakespeare play, despite using pieces of five different plays to construct it. Of particular note is the incredibly visceral battle scene that comes exactly halfway through the film - just as the climax of a Shakespeare play would traditionally come in the third of five acts. Likewise, the film's most potent emotional moment is saved for the final act, leaving the viewer with a profound feeling of melancholy and bittersweet loss. Welles worked on numerous projects after Chimes at Midnight, despite only a few of them being released in his lifetime, but this monumental project feels like the perfect swan song regardless. The technical imperfections that resulted from its low-budget production in Spain might keep it from being Welles' magnum opus (Citizen Kane will always remained the rightful recipient of that title), but it's the defining work of his later years, as well as one which brought his career full circle - back to the Shakespearean aspirations of his youth.

Chimes at Midnight is available here on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD:

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

#678: Two English Girls

1971, TSPDT Rank #842

With Two English Girls, François Truffaut returned to the fertile territory that he had mined almost a decade earlier with one of his best films, Jules and Jim. Like that masterpiece, Two English Girls tells the story of three friends whose relationship becomes fractured by the development of a love triangle. It was also adapted by the only other complete novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, the author of the novel that Jules and Jim was based on, and ostensibly the prototype for both Claude and Jim. So it's impossible to keep from comparing the two films, but their approaches are different in more than ways than one. For one thing, Two English Girls inverts the characters' genders: instead of two male friends and their ideal woman, we have two sisters and a man caught between them. Maybe because of this, there is less room in this story for the peaceful menage a trois situation seen in Jules and Jim. This relationship is much more fraught and tenuous, each side struggling to get off the ground, with one side sent crashing down to earth whenever the other begins to take flight.

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This film also trades the poignant immediacy of Jules and Jim for a more reserved and nostalgic sense of melancholia. Truffaut set the film at the turn of the 20th century, conjuring a lost era and a forgotten set of moral and romantic attitudes. The only slightly later setting of Jules and Jim is belied by its energetic New Wave style and the youthful rendering of its characters, whereas here Truffaut was more successful in conveying the perspective of an older man looking back wistfully on a painful youth. The visuals are some of the most sumptuous ever captured by Truffaut - together with cinematographer Nester Alamandros, he created an impressionistic world which makes watching the film feel like stepping into a painting -  the colors more vivid than life and the action onscreen unfolding like a distant dream. However, like in Jules and Jim, the feeling that love and pain are tied together is inescapable. For Truffaut, the memories of youth can be as painful as they are beautiful.

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Thursday, November 1, 2018

#677: The Devils

Directed by: KEN RUSSELL
1971, TSPDT Rank #527

Ken Russell's most acclaimed and most controversial film opens with the claim that it is based on "historical fact" and then quickly descends into a delirious imagining of the depths of 17th century religious hypocrisy. France has been devastated by wars between Catholics and Protestants, the Catholics have won, but the king is a debauched homosexual unconcerned with anything besides satisfying his own whims. In the small village of Loudon, a non-conformist Jesuit priest (Oliver Reed) has affairs with young women and declares them part of his quest to become one with God, while a power-hungry Cardinal schemes to have the independent town under his control and a sexually-frustrated nun (Vanessa Redgrave) suffers depraved fantasies about Grandier, eventually declaring him an agent of the devil sent to possess her.

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At least this is what Russell would have us believe. Beneath the claims of historical accuracy, however, The Devils is an extremely impressionistic film, with almost futuristic set designs by a young Derek Jarman and campy characters which often seem to pave the way for The Rocky Horror Picture Show rather than invoke 17th century France. And the extreme debauchery and cruelty on display here, well known as some of the most shockingly obscene imagery ever seen in a mainstream studio film, often crosses the line into lurid, melodramatic exploitation.

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However, whatever redeeming value this movie might have can only be found by reading between the lines. Russell often seems to bombard the viewer with exploitative imagery, but what the film really shows beneath the surface is the variety of ways that people find to convince themselves and others that they are acting in God's name - when their actions precisely imitate the evil forces they claim to fight. Russell's portrayal of these themes might be seen as over the top, but it is in this way that we can see the true depths that people will sink to to protect their own delusion of religious piety - a statement that is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s or the 1630s. Make no mistake, The Devils is not a film about historical events, it is a feverishly surreal rendering of religious hypocrisy and human depravity allowed to run rampant.

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Friday, October 26, 2018

#676: Early Summer

Directed by: YASUJIRO OZU
1951, TSPDT Rank #416

Throughout his career, but especially in his postwar films, Yasujiro Ozu tended to mine similar themes from one film to the next. Like his previous film, Late Spring, Early Summer is about a young single woman (Setsuko Hara in a practically identical role) whose family wants her to get married before it's too late. However, while the plot initially seems simple and even banal, the film becomes increasingly expansive as it progresses. In comparison, Late Spring is much more confined - a father-daughter story - whereas this film takes the woman's extended family and social circle into consideration. This gives the film an almost sweeping quality, along with a number of great comic scenes along the way which highlight Ozu's unique sense of humor.

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The sublime beauty and balance of Ozu's compositions is also stunning throughout. There seem to be entire worlds contained within the ordered confines of the film's simple interior settings, and when Ozu shifts his view to the outside world for a moment, the effect is breathtaking. His timing and pacing are, as always, impeccable in this film. The feeling of intimately knowing a few people within a vast, awe-inspiring world creeps up on you just like Hara's realization that she loves her childhood friend. The last few sequences are particularly powerful, a view of a family in all their imperfections sharing one last fleeting moment before their lives change irrevocably. It was his ability to evoke such powerful and universal emotions that made Ozu one of the great cinematic masters.

#675: Sawdust and Tinsel

1953, TSPDT Rank #962

Life is a carnival, or so they say. Many of the great European directors born before World War II seem to have been heavily influenced by seeing traveling circuses or carnivals pass through their towns, and in Sawdust and Tinsel, Ingmar Bergman made this influence clear. However, unlike people like Fellini, who used the circus as a metaphor for the rollicking energy and myriad idiosyncracies of everyday life, Bergman's view is predictably more misanthropic.

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The film follows the breakdown of a relationship between an old, surly circus owner (Åke Grönberg) and a young, beautiful carnival performer (Harriet Andersson), as they experience boredom with circus life and each other. Like many of Bergman's early films, the basic storyline is pure melodrama, but it is used as a springboard for more lofty concerns, particularly the unending drudgery which seems to envelop people in all walks of life. The circus is portrayed as a group of people whose members regularly make fools of themselves in front of uncaring audiences, while living an undignified and unending life on the road. Infidelity is the final straw for a number of film's characters, who find it impossible to cope after losing the one sure thing in their lives.

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Bergman paints a bleak picture all right, especially with the help of master cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who took over from Bergman's regular collaborator Gunnar Fischer on this film, and would go on to provide the cinematographer for virtually all of Bergman's films from the 1960s onward. The film's look is so different from Bergman's previous film, the Fischer-shot Summer with Monika, that it's hard to believe that the two films were made by the same director, much less in the same year. But while Nykvist may have been the perfect choice to pursue the look that Bergman was after (one that is alternately grotesque, dreamlike, and stark), Sawdust and Tinsel doesn't pack the same dramatic punch that Summer with Monika did. In that film, Bergman was focused on achieving lyrical realism, whereas with this film, he took a sharp turn towards a more abstract and psychological approach. As a result, Sawdust and Tinsel could easily be described as the start of Bergman's mature period - the decade in which he would make his most acclaimed work and become a figurehead of the international art house cinema movement.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

#674: Nostalghia

1983, TSPDT Rank #365

I saw Nostalghia for the first time at an all-night Tarkovsky marathon at a Tokyo cinema (along with Solaris and Mirror). I had seen the first two films before (you can find my post on these films here), so having only Japanese subtitles for these was not a problem, but for Nostalghia, often described as one of Tarkovsky's most opaque films to begin with, I initially missed a lot of nuance and subtext as a result of my limited understanding of the dialogue. However, what I got from it is this: a Russian poet goes to Italy but is quickly overcome by nostalgia for his home country and the urge to sacrifice himself for the greater good of mankind (or maybe for merely personal reasons). Along the way, Tarkovsky ties melds this story with themes of faith, family, cultural philosophy and dream-like imagery to form a powerful, hypnotic whole.

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When I watched the film later, with English subtitles, I was able to catch many of the deeper resonances suggested by the dialogue and, with considerable irony, the idea that art is inherently untranslatable. Eugenia, Andrei's traveling companion, translator and foil in the film, suggests that music is an exception to this. Many of the readers of this might also feel, like I do, that film is another artistic medium with the potential to "abolish the frontiers" between countries and languages. I think that my experience at a one-screen repertory theater hidden in a narrow Tokyo alley is a perfect example of this. Without the aid of my native language, I was able to watch films presented in foreign languages that I understood little to nothing of and come away with a greatly enhanced appreciation of their director and his uniquely poetic visuals and themes.

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#673: Branded to Kill

Directed by: SEIJUN SUZUKI
1967, TSPDT Rank #821

Seijun Suzuki spent the most of the '60s making low-budget yakuza films and erotic thrillers for the Nikkatsu studio, the foremost producer of Japanese B-movies at the time. As the decade went on, his films became progressively more experimental, with less focus on plot coherency and more on stylistic flights of fancy, as Suzuki seemingly became increasingly bored with his material. Suzuki always insisted that his movies were made solely with entertainment, not art, in mind, but critics looking back at his work in recent decades usually conclude otherwise, due to Suzuki's meticulous approach to developing a unique visual style for each of his films.

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But while each of Suzuki's films are distinctive in their own way, Branded To Kill is possibly his most famous, as it is the film that got him fired from Nikkatsu and blacklisted from the Japanese film industry for ten years after he decided to sue his former studio. Filmed in black and white, ostensibly an attempt by Nikkatsu to reign in Suzuki's wild use of color, Branded To Kill starts out as a film about intrigue in the world of assassins, but soon becomes a bizarre examination of the masculine urge for power and the intertwining nature of sex and violence. Suzuki follows Japan's No. 3 assassin (Jô Shishido) into a downward spiral of madness and identity crisis, as his desire to become No. 1 consumes him.

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Much has been made of the main character's rice fetish (which Suzuki said was conceived as a way to make the character more quintessentially "Japanese") and the incoherent plot turns, but at its core, this is an early example of a psychological thriller. Pacing and storytelling were not talents of Suzuki's, but Branded to Kill is still a fascinating and exhilarating watch, even if it's uneven at times. However, for those interested in Suzuki's other work, I recommend Gate of Flesh and Fighting Elegy over this one. I suppose it's fitting that Branded to Kill would be my No. 3 Suzuki film.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

#672: 2046

Directed by: WONG KAR-WAI
2004, TSPDT Rank #875

Many great directors have continually recycled the same themes over the course of their careers, but few have made films like 2046, which is essentially a pastiche of Wong Kar-Wai's past work made by Wong himself. The two of his films referenced most heavily here are Days of Being Wild and In the Mood For Love. Many of the main characters and visual tropes from these two films resurface in this film, although it is as if they are being viewed through a new lens. This is partly due to the film's strange science fiction sequences, which are scattered throughout the film at intervals, but that is not the only reason. More important is the way that characters and themes from Wong's previous films are recontextualized, altering the way that they are remembered and expanding upon the ideas proposed in those earlier movies.

Wong also tackled a difficult concept in 2046 - following a writer's creative process and the connection of their work to their personal life. A few films, like Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, have managed to do so in a way that is vivid and exciting, but most of the time this is a concept which misses the mark. Wong does some very interesting things with it though, building the film's narrative around the concept of a man trying to forget his one true love, the one that got away, while writing a science-fiction story as an allegory for his own struggle. The two main characters from In the Mood for Love are reprised here - the writer, Mr. Chow (Tony Leung) and his lost love, Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) - but neither appear exactly as they did in that film. Instead, the characters are reinvented, each are occasionally replaced by surrogates (played by Takuya Kimura and Gong Li, respectively), and Mr. Chow's story expands to include casual relationships with a number of different women (played Zhang Ziyi, Carina Lau and Faye Wong).

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If this sounds complicated, that's because it is. But for most of the film, Wong's winding, fractured approach works quite well. It isn't until the final section of the film, when he begins indulging in turgid repetition and attempts at profound poetic statements that the film's precarious sense of balance begins to fall apart. As with most of Wong's work, 2046 is most notable for taking chances and going places that most other films don't go. However, with this quality comes a lack of restraint and structure, which ultimately causes 2046 to collapse under its own weight. But before this happens, the film manages to be an effective summary of Wong Kar-Wai's career as well as a daring exploration of new territory.

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Thursday, April 5, 2018

#671: Happy Together

Directed by: WONG KAR-WAI
1997, TSPDT Rank #343

By the time he got to Happy Together, his sixth feature film, Wong Kar-Wai had the mystical epic Ashes of Time, the internationally successful Chungking Express and Fallen Angels, its darkly comic companion piece, behind him. Viewed alongside these other films, Happy Together seems to have been Wong's attempt to reset his stylistic agenda and move away from these previous works. Although it continued his collaboration with virtuoso cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film's look is initially rough and unpolished, even amateur at times - especially compared to the visual grandeur of Wong and Doyle's previous collaborations. But as the film unfolds, this grimy visual style gives way to a psychological intensity that had not been so nakedly present in any of Wong's previous films - even Days of Being Wild. The story, with Wong's typically loose touch, follows two men (played by Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung) who cycle through variations on their mutually destructive relationship over the course of an extended trip to Argentina. The feelings here are raw and intimate, and also instantly relatable.

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Like Days of Being Wild, Happy Together features one haunting central image which exists outside of the characters and represents something larger than them. The image in Days of Being Wild was that of a thick, overpowering jungle in the Philippines - lush green in color and symbolic of the characters' imprisonment by their respective desires. In that film, this crucial image is shown in an extended shot following the opening sequence, and again in the final section of the film. In Happy Together, the same technique is used, but this time the image is a distorted vision of the Iguazu waterfall on the border between Argentina and Brazil, the lovers' original destination upon their arrival in the country. For the characters, it is a dream kept alive by a lamp with the waterfall's image, which Tony Leung's character keeps in his Buenos Aires apartment.

The image of the falls, shown once early in the film and in another extended shot at the end of the film, takes the viewer away from the central storyline and magnifies the scope of the characters' feelings. This technique creates a meditative atmosphere in which the story and themes expressed in the film become symbolic and universal. In this way, the falls are a classic Wong Kar-Wai image. Simultaneously beautiful and terrifying, this image is perfect for a film about a torrential relationship which destroys both participants while simultaneously providing them with the companionship they crave in each other's absence.

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Sunday, April 1, 2018

#670: Days of Being Wild

Directed by: WONG KAR-WAI
1990, TSPDT Rank #373

Days of Being Wild begins in an arresting fashion, showing a series of encounters between a brash young man (Leslie Cheung) and a shy young woman (Maggie Cheung) at the deserted shop counter where the woman works in early 1960s Hong Kong. As with much of the film, these scenes seem to occur in a theatrical dream world where the real world rarely seeps in. The man, York, unloads his rage towards his adoptive aunt and the mother he never knew by seducing women with his rough charm and then degrading and dismissing them once he has them on the hook. A number of other characters gradually enter the picture, although the feeling of confinement and emptiness persists.

As a result, Hong Kong is shown in a completely different light from its usual cinematic image. Despite a few brief outbursts of violence (also in confined settings), there is little kinetic energy, no bustling street life - just a subdued landscape populated by characters invested in their own solitary emotional angst. Although it's sometimes difficult to become invested in the emotions of these flawed and insecure characters, the film was the first collaboration between Wong and master cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who also worked on later Wong films like Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love), and as such it is always visually stunning. The color palette is lush and cool, while the textures convey a general atmosphere of grimy and stifling humidity. There's also a feeling of the characters existing on a lone outpost at the edge of the world, which is amplified in the final section of the film, as York and ex-policeman Andy Lau as embark on a doomed train ride through the Philippines' tropical jungle that feels like a journey to nowhere.

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THE ENDING (spoilers)

While the majority of the film is fairly straightforward despite the strange theatrical atmosphere and  lack of closure or resolution between the characters, the ending section provides a template for Wong's later experimentation with time and narrative structure. Glimpses of the two women seduced by York earlier in the film (Maggie Cheung and Carina Lau) are interspersed with shots of a clock and a ringing phone. But the two male characters are suddenly replaced by a third, a well-dressed man played by Tony Leung (who would later star with Maggie Cheung in In the Mood for Love), shown in dressing for a night out in a cramped apartment. This scene plays out in one long dramatic long take, and the musical theme seems to connect this unknown character to York and Lau, suggesting some type of connection between the three - maybe even some type of transfiguration.

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This unexpected and mysterious ending is reminiscent of the sudden gear-shift at the end of In the Mood for Love, which casts everything that came before in a new light. Here the intended meaning is less clear, but the effect is no less beguiling. In any case, while Days of Being Wild is not as satisfying as Chungking Express or In the Mood for Love as a whole, Wong and Doyle's visual mastery was already on full display in this early work, and many of Wong's later themes and narrative devices can be traced back to this film (which has been said to form an informal trilogy with In the Mood for Love and 2046, Wong and Doyle's last collaboration to date).

Saturday, March 31, 2018

#669: Y tu mamá también

2001, TSPDT Rank #659

Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón had already made it in Hollywood when he came back to Mexico to make this personal road movie about two teenagers who take a road trip with the older wife of one of the boys' cousins at the tail end of their adolescence. On the surface, Y tu mamá también is a movie about sexual discovery and the innocence of youth - incorporating all of the good times and rude awakenings that this journey entails. But Cuarón frequently lets hints of political unrest and corruption among the powers-that-be seep into the frame, seemingly unnoticed by the main characters, making for an uncomfortable blend of sexual comedy and political commentary reminiscent of the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini. The film also emerges as a bittersweet celebration of the fleeting nature of the present, those times when the past and future don't matter, and the search for unrestricted pleasure and freedom is able to block out the chaos and harsh realities of modern life.

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Monday, March 26, 2018

#668: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

1943, TSPDT Rank #173

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp immediately dispels all preconceived notions of a stoic wartime epic with its madcap opening sequence, which shows a group of British Home Guard officers rushing into a simulated battle for London with reckless abandon. This opening sequence is manic and fragmented to the point of absurdity, but the film soon coalesces into brilliantly-told story of a young British officer who distinguishes himself in the Boer War and World War I, only to become an outmoded symbol of the old guard by the time World War II breaks out. Along the way, Colonel Blimp explores themes like the role of generation gaps, nationalism, military honor, romance, and friendship. The final section of the film reveals it as a subtly-structured piece of propaganda, albeit one which never betrays its multi-faceted view of human nature and pure entertainment value in the process. Since the wartime era in Britain called for more blatantly nationalistic entertainment, Winston Churchill attempted to have the film suppressed, but thankfully it has survived - a unique and unfairly overlooked classic.

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Through the cracks

When I counted the number of films that I have seen from the new version of the 1,000 Greatest Films last month, I found a number of films which I had seen over the past few years but had forgotten to right a post on for one reason or another. As a result, I have compiled them into a list of short reviews as a way of catching up and filling in the gaps.


The Thin Blue Line
Directed by: ERROL MORRIS
1988, TSPDT Rank #247

After years of dormancy, The Thin Blue Line finally delivered on the promise shown by Errol Morris' 1978 debut feature, Gates of Heaven (an incomparable portrait of pet cemetery owners and their clients). This time, Morris gave birth to the modern true-crime documentary, employing extensive reenactments of the 1976 Dallas police shooting which sent an innocent man, Randall Adams, to prison for life. Combined with this staged footage are extended interviews with Adams (11 years into his sentence at the time) and David Harris (the man who was likely the actual murderer), along with many others involved with the crime and/or the trial. Morris' film gives the viewer an exhaustive view of this miscarriage of justice - a view so revealing that Adams was pardoned shortly after the film's release.

Directed by: TODD HAYNES
1995, TSPDT Rank #478

Safe has been described as an allegory for the AIDS crisis of the '80s and '90s, but it also functions as a withering critique of the lucrative self-help movement that was booming during that era. It is a very unsettling and challenging film, aided by Julianne Moore's incredible performance as an extremely ineffectual upper-class housewife who eventually becomes convinced that she suffers from "environmental disease". Moore went to considerable lengths to transform herself into the character - starving herself to the point that she was actually living her character's descent into weakness and helplessness in real-life. A great breakthrough film for Todd Haynes, and a classic evocation of post-modern dread.

Le Samouraï
1967, TSPDT Rank #204

Iconic French director Jean-Pierre Melville may not have known much about Japanese warrior code when he made up a quote from the "Book of the Samurai" (Bushido) to open his film about a solitary hitman (played by the equally iconic Alain Delon), and this thriller about the isolated life of a lone gunman ended up revealing more about the French tendency for stoic fatalism than the similarity between French gunmen and samurai from Japan's feudal era. It might have been more effective if it had focused more on Delon's Jef Costello, instead of highlighting the investigative methods used by the police in their attempts to prove his guilt. Still, Le Samouraï is a prime example of icy late-'60s French cool, despite its tedious procedural sequences and relative lack of substance.

Woman in the Dunes
1964, TSPDT Rank #359

Hiroshi Teshigahara's masterpiece begins with shots of a man walking alone across a barren wasteland of sand, a perfect example of the visual emptiness commonly found in Japanese art. However, the man soon happens upon a remote village hidden within a sand pit, eventually becoming trapped in a waking nightmare which is possibly the most effective portrayal of Sisyphean struggle ever put onto film. Equal parts erotic thriller and philosophical meditation, it is easy to see how Teshigahara's blend of the exotic and the familiar struck a chord with the international art house circuit upon its original release - and it has lost none of its disturbing allegorical power over time.

Ugetsu monogatari
1953, TSPDT Rank #50

This historical fable from Japanese master Kenji Mizoguchi is usually categorized as a ghost story, but at its core is a profound meditation on the human cost of war and the effects on those who survive. Set during the 16th century at the tail end of an extended period of civil war in Japan, Ugetsu monogatari employs deliberately placed supernatural elements along with atmospheric black and white cinematography to convey the central concept that "success always comes at the cost of suffering" - especially in wartime. It is exquisite in its structure and subtle in its delivery, and its careful blend of historical and spiritual elements makes it one of the most quintessentially Japanese films of all time.

Breaking the Waves
Directed by: LARS VON TRIER
1996, TSPDT Rank #211

Breaking the Waves was the film that catapulted Lars von Trier to worldwide stardom, while also introducing first-time actress Emily Watson in an intensely emotional performance as a pious woman who struggles with her paralyzed husband's instruction that she sleep with other men in his place. Von Trier's work is always stylistically interesting, but as Watson herself has pointed out, this film emphasizes "the extremes of human experience," making for an overwrought viewing experience that gives the viewer little room to breath and contemplate the spiritual dilemma at the center of the film. As a result, the film's ending, which many have described as powerful and breathtaking, ultimately collapses under the weight of the sensationalism which pervades the rest of the film and further confuses the spiritual issues at hand.

La région centrale
Directed by: MICHAEL SNOW
1971, TSPDT Rank #483

Michael Snow's three-hour examination of a remote Quebec mountain top is an endurance-testing experimental epic which turns into a whirlwind dismantling of time and space in its final hour if watched under the right conditions (total darkness and no interruptions). Snow's concept for the film involved programming a camera to zoom and pan around the aforementioned landscape at intervals over the course of a 24-hour period. The addition of monotonous electronic bleeps throughout the course of the film will further try most viewers' patience, but the end result is that of seeing Earth from an alien's point of view, resulting in many eerie and surprisingly transcendent moments along the way. For those who can stand it, La région centrale is a one-of-a-kind experience - a landmark of structuralist cinema.

The 39 Steps
1935, TSPDT Rank #606

Many have hailed The 39 Steps as Alfred Hitchcock's first "masterpiece," the first of his many films about good men wrongly accused of murder, with a bit of romantic comedy thrown in along the way. When it comes to the work of a consummate master like Hitchcock, which includes so many masterpieces, it's clearly tempting to nail down the point at which that director's mastery was first present. However, The 39 Steps might be said to be the first Hitchcock film where everything really came together, as it lacks the unevenness of earlier works such as Blackmail and The Man Who Knew Too Much and features many elements which would later become Hitchcock trademarks.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

#619: Meet Me in St. Louis

1944, TSPDT Rank #213

I've never been a fan of Vincente Minelli, Judy Garland, or musicals in general, so Meet Me in St. Louis was never high on my watch list. However, I finally watched it today and was pleasantly surprised. It's an early example of what we know as the classic Hollywood musical, something that it pulls off with great warmth and feel-good charm in its portrait of a St. Louis family in the year before the 1904 World's Fair. There is really no more of a story than that - Meet Me in St. Louis is unique in its essentially plotless nature, instead using a loose series of vignettes based upon the seasons to convey the Smith family's connection to their hometown and each other. The film also incorporates an extraordinary degree of period detail in its costumes and sets, which are all tailor-made for Technicolor, creating a perfect vision of a more innocent time in American history. Furthermore, Judy Garland is effortlessly radiant here, possibly even more at her peak than she was in The Wizard of Oz.

If you're resistant to musicals like I am, or have just never gotten around to seeing this classic film, I recommend putting aside your reservations and giving Meet Me in St. Louis a try. It sits comfortably alongside films like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz as a prime example of Technicolor's eye-popping potential, and its brilliant ensemble cast (including Lucille Bremer, Mary Astor, Margaret O'Brian, Marjorie Main and Henry Davenport) and endearing script make it much more than a Judy Garland feature.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

#618: In the Mood for Love

Directed by: WONG KAR-WAI
2000, TSPDT Rank #45

Wong Kar-Wai's most acclaimed film, In the Mood for Love, builds upon the feelings of unrequited longing which laid at the root of his playful international success Chungking Express, albeit in a way that is much more somber and meditative than that film was. The film follows a man (Tony Leung) and a woman (Maggie Cheung), neighbors in 1960s Hong Kong, who learn that their respective spouses are carrying on an adulterous affair with each other, leading them to commiserate and become intimate friends as a result. Despite the simplicity of the plot, In the Mood for Love is a master class in the limitless possibilities of interior cinematography. There are hardly any exterior shots - most of the film is confined to the characters' apartments and office buildings, with Wong making liberal use of pans, deep focus shots and slow motion to create a visual atmosphere that is incredibly layered and dreamlike.

Those looking for an erotic tale of infidelity will likely be disappointed by the film's deliberate pacing and elliptical storytelling style, while those who like their films meditative and slow-moving will not be. This is a film that gets under the skin, leaving the viewer with haunting thoughts on love, memory, time and the infinite emptiness that often comes with freedom. It is one of the standout films of the 21st century so far, so visually rich and stylistically unique that it is bound to retain its already towering reputation as the years go by.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

#617: Marketa Lazarová

1967, TSPDT Rank #422

Marketa Lazarová, often named as the greatest Czech film ever made, begins with a narrator introducing a story based on "old tales of foolish deeds ... told at the behest of a wandering echo, and because even the most ancient things lie in the web of present time." This tantalizing prelude sets the stage for a historical epic that is like no other. Set in the Czech kingdom at some point during the Middle Ages, Marketa Lazarová presents a story of people and customs that might seem completely foreign to 21st century viewers at first glance. However, as the story unfolds, it seems to hold an eerie resonance with our contemporary world. The landscape often looks quite familiar, and the themes of human cruelty, violence, religious hypocrisy and forbidden love are even more recognizable. At the same time, Marketa Lazarová is a film which seems to emerge from out of the mists of time. Its arresting use of deep-focus widescreen black-and-white cinematography creates a dense web of visual detail and a mood of hyper-reality, which the filmmakers used to create an imaginative rendering of a distant past that is nevertheless completely believable. The result is a film of strange and mystifying beauty, with many layers of complexity that are sure to reward multiple viewings immensely.