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.