Saturday, February 28, 2015

Before I Die #540: The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922)

This is the 540th I've now watched of the 1,162 films to see "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Director: Germaine Dulac

It's a short, sharp little tale, and it's one that features a ton of early innovative film techniques.

The Beudets: one miserable wife and one oblivious husband.
If it weren't so short, this film would be a chore to watch for
most modern viewers. 
Clocking in at a very spare 26 minutes, The Smiling Madame Beudet tells the story of an intelligent middle-aged woman stuck in a loveless marriage. She escapes the drudgery of life with her boorish husband by daydreaming of a more glamorous life. Her husband is fond of playing a trite gag in which he will put an empty pistol to his head and pretend to be suicidal. One day, his wife puts a bullet in the gun, hoping for her husband to unwittingly kill himself. The story goes more from here, with a tragic twist.

The movie is far too short to become boring, and it is an interesting piece of early cinema. One reason is that it uses several early techniques such as overlap dissolve and other editing tricks to offer visuals which were rather novel for their day. A modern viewer will likely not be impressed, but it helps to keep in mind when the film was made.

Some research reveals that The Smiling Madame Beudet is also credited with being one of the earliest feminist films. Feminism in movies has evolved by leaps and bounds since 1922, especially within the last thirty to forty years, so this 93-year-old movie will not offer you anything new on that front. Still, this fact does cement its place in film history.

It's hardly a "must watch" movie, though real film history buffs will certainly appreciate much of it.

Thanks to the marvel of public domain, you can even watch it, legally, for free:

That's 540 films down. Only 622 to go before I can die...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Before I Die #539: Within Our Gates (1920) [Plus a few Oscar Thoughts]

Director: Oscar Micheaux

A powerful film, though challenging and controversial in several ways.

Within Our Gates tells several connected stories of individual African Americans striving to find success in various parts of the United States around 1920. Some are chasing far-reaching and noble goals such as eduation and social improvement. Others are far more concerned with personal wealth, financial gain, or the favor of powerful, racist white people.

The character most focused upon is Sylvia, a young woman in Boston who loses her fiancee through nefarious machinations of an associate. She then heads down to the South, where she becomes a teacher in a school for poor African American children. The school has extreme difficulty maintaining its funds, so Sylvia eventually returns to Boston to try and raise the money to keep the school open. Around all of this, several other African American and white characters come into play, most of them for their own ignorant, short-sighted and racist gains, but a handful exhibit a noble desire to help Sylvia.

The movie is most fascinating for the wide array of characters included, most of whom are meant to represent archetypes within U.S. society during the 1920s. We have several African American characters who make great effort to uplift themselves and others through education, while others prey on the fears and insecurities of their fellow blacks through scams, thievery, and self-interested pandering. The same panorama is seen of the whites in the movie - some seek to assist African Americans while others work to keep them as low as possible. There are even several characters who learn, grow, and change their thinking about race and race relations through the course of the film.

For a 95-year old silent film that takes on such a momentous subject, this movie holds up rather well. It stands out as a more circumspect and humanist counterpoint to D.W. Griffith's massive and sometimes misguided epic The Birth of a Nation from five years prior. One would still need to be able to embrace the silent film era a bit, due to its technical limitations, but it's not at all difficult to see why this is considered an all-time great movie.

You've got to love the "public domain" category. Due to it, you can legally watch this entire movie for free:

So that's 539 films seen. Only 623 to go before I can die...

The Oscars (a few quick thoughts)

The Oscars were last Sunday, and Birdman took home the main prize. I thought that it was completely worthy of it, being a singular work of artistic achievement. While Boyhood was also a brilliant and unique film, I felt that Birdman had a leg up in terms of the technical mastery it displayed, with the sustained shots and overall choreography of all of the actors and scenes.

Some seem to find that the ceremony was dull, but I hardly found it such. Neil Patrick Harris was excellent, and only a few of the comedy bits were duds (there are always at least a few). Harris is a do-it-all kind of host, and I hope he returns in the future.

It was also good to see more than a few thoughtful, meaningful speeches given upon acceptances of awards. Most notable was the speech given by Common (with John Legend looking on) while accepting the award for Best Original Song for Selma. While recipients have, for years, used the spotlight to raise awareness of social and political goals, I though he utilized it particularly well. You can watch it here:

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Oscar Run-Down (an incomplete review)

So here is my run-down of the six of the eight Best Picture nominees.

American Sniper

Director: Clint Eastwood

After the recent weeks of controversy and debate over this film, I finally saw it. I find it to be a very good movie about one singular man's experience with war, though it's not exactly a flawless masterpiece of cinema.

The story is that of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. Kyle was a man driven to enlist by patriotism and a strong urge to fight very real terrorism. As such, he did four separate tours in Iraq during the 2000s, distinguishing himself mostly through his unmatched skill in long-range shooting, which gave much-needed cover to ground troops. Also depicted are Kyle's struggles to reacclimate to life away from combat and back with his wife and children.

Most things are done quite well in the film, and they speak to Eastwood's deftness as a director. The battle scenes are intense without being gratuitously violent. Kyle's subdued intestity and levity feel extremely authentic, thanks to Bradley Cooper's understated yet nuanced performance. My main problems with the movie come from two places: one is that Kyle's wife, Taya, becomes a one-note refrain of "Don't go." It's an important sentiment, to be sure, but the film never does much to innovate on the theme.

The other, larger, problem I have is that there was clearly some manipulation of the facts in order to present a more exciting film narrative. In fact, I have even heard Cooper himself say that they had always pitched the film to be a "Western in the desert." This is fine in a work of fiction, but when you are telling the tale of a real man and the effects he felt of war, then artificial elements come off as a bit cheap and disrespectful to the subject. It doesn't help that some of these fictional manipulations can be seen as nationalistic propaganda, even if this was not the filmmakers' express intent.

My general feeling about the controversy around the movie is that both sides are blowing things a bit out of proportion, in order to support their pre-existing beliefs. One could perhaps make an argument that there is a hint of propaganda about the film, but it's certainly not clear-cut. However, I really didn't get the sense that the filmmakers were trying to make any kind of grand political or social statement about war. It's simply a well-done look at a gifted soldier and war's brutal effects on him.

Will it win Best Picture? I seriouly doubt it. Eastwood has done better movies, and the flaws are a little too glaring.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Director: Alejandro Inarritu

I just watched this one, and it's certainly a trip. Using a heavy dose of Stedicam cinematography and extremely clever editing, Birdman follows Riggan Thompson, a once-immensely popular star whose best-known role as the titular superhero has become an anchor on his soul. Seeking to legitimize himself as a serious artist, Thompson burns through his remaining finances and emotions to try and pull off a successful production on Broadway. It is, of course, no acident that Thompson is played by Michael Keaton, whose "biggest" role was as Batman in the two massively successful Tim Burton movies in 1989 and 1992. Keaton is great as the celebrity going through a very serious mental and professional crisis, and his performance is worthy of the Best Actor nomination that he's received.

The film has a lot ot absorb, and I  must admit to feeling a tad burned out during the last 30 minutes or so. Still, it's mostly an engaging look at a few intense days in the life of a man whose sanity is fraying more with every passing hour. There is plenty of magical realism to be had, and the performances are as impressive as they come. It can be a bit tough to glean an ultimate point through all of the criticism that Inarritu hurls in nearly every direction: celebrities, self-absorbed actors, theater critics, the public, and basically anyone involved with theater or film. Regardless, it's absolutely worthy of the 9 Oscar nomination it got, and it certainly should take home at least a few of the technical awards.

Will it win Best Picture? I doubt it, since the film takes so many pot-shots at every aspect of showbusiness, though it's a highly creative and worthy contender.


Director: Richard Linklater

An excellent film, in keeping with Richard Linklater’s naturalistic style while being a rather new achievement.

Boyhood follows the twelve formative years of a child named Mason, from ages 6 through 18. It is a tapestry of moments, of varying intensity, that leave an imprint on him as he grows towards adulthood. Similar to Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and other films, there is no particular “story” here, other than a single American boy experiencing a rather typical childhood in Texas between 2001 and 2013. He has an older sister; a single, working mother; and a wayward father who is periodically involved in his life. Mason has to deal with his mother’s sometimes strict, alcoholic boyfriends/husbands, his nagging sister, and the attempts to find any sort of purpose in life.

The brilliance of the movie is just how organic and subtle everything is. While there are a handful of shocking and traumatic moments, none of them is the stuff of high cinematic drama. Most of the movie is given over to the little moments that slowly shape Mason: the discovery of female bodies through lingerie catalogues; a casual conversation with his father that alters their relationship ever-so-slightly; a brief shove from a pair of bullies; a stern talk with his photography teacher. These and many more moments tell the tale of a boy who becomes sullen but hopeful that life does have something to offer a young person who is never completely sure of his footing. It’s a long movie, in terms of time (2 hours and 45 minutes), but it never feels it as we smoothly transition through Mason’s childhood years.

I may not feel the need to watch Boyhood again any time soon, but it is clearly an outstanding film achievement.

Will it win Best Picture? Perhaps, given Linklater’s place in American film history and the fact that he hasn’t been honored in such a way before. It is certainly one of the strongest contenders in the field.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Director: Wes Anderson

It's a Wes Anderson movie, alright.

Told with several chronological jumps and a ridiculously talented cast, we follow the adventures of Gustave H., the legendary concierge at the title Hotel. He's a curious character, who lives to be the very best at his prestigious job, while bedding wealthy women of advanced age. Gustave is sold to us by the hilarious performace of Ralph Fiennes, who completely nails the shifts in register required by Anderson's ever-quirky script. The story is rather ridiculous, as have been all of Anderson's movies to varying degrees, but there is always a unity to each movie that allows us to accept the strange ways in which they work.

I'm of two minds these days about Anderson. He's clearly a unique filmmaker, and I still find his movies amusing and impressive for their exacting detail and singular blend of childlike glee and more universal and profound human sentiment. However, I can't shake the question of whether he's capable of doing something truly outside of the clear niche he's created for himself. In Grand Budapest, we even see the first marks of self-referential narcissism with a montage of other concierges across the globe, with each one being an actor who is an Anderson movie mainstay: Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and others. The joke is only remotely funny if you know Anderson's films. Such egotism is a bit annoying, in my view.

Will it win Best Picture? No way. Though it might be another tiny step towards the "Life-Time Achievement Award" that Anderson will win 20 years from now.

The Imitation Game

Director: Morten Tyldum

An otherwise very good film made excellent by an outstanding acting performance.

This film, in keeping with the unoffical "biopic" theme of 2014, looks at key moments in the life of British mathematician Alan Turing. Turing is the father of modern computer science, and the film mostly traces his enlistment by the British military to crack the Enigma Code - Nazi Germany's code for military transmission used in World War II. The code was considered unbreakable until Turing and his small team put all of their mental efforts towards cracking it.

The Enigma Code puzzle is the intellectual meat of the plot, given its greater place in world history, but the film takes a close look at Turing himself, who was himself a cipher to many who knew him. Awkward with people and a closeted homosexual (homosexual acts were illegal in England during Turing's life), his struggles with himself are almost as fascinating as his desire to solve logical puzzles. The more personal elements explored in the film wouldn't have had nearly the power that they do if not for a spellbinding performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. Like most in the U.S., I first knew of Cumberbatch through the incredible Sherlock series on the BBC. What I saw in The Imitation Game was an actor going well beyond the norm to bring a singular historic person to life on screen. I have to think Cumberbtach a serious contender for Best Actor.

Will it win Best Picture? There's a very good chance, given how solid the movie is, in all respects.


Director: Damien Chazelle

This is a fantastic movie about obsession, drive, and the question of how far people will go to find and inspire greatness, either in themselves or in others.

The story follows Andrew Neimann, a freshman drummer at a highly prestigious music conservatory in New York City. Andrew's presence, skill, and determination are noticed by the school's most accomplished instructor, Mr. Fletcher, who quickly invites Neimann to try playing with the school's elite jazz ensemble. Neimann's excitement is soon burned away by Fletcher's unrelenting, scathing style of discipline and verbal abuse towards his pupils, especially Neimann. The young percussionist's drive to excel is driven by his own passion for greatness as well as his growing hatred for Fletcher.

The movie is uncomfortable in many places, as we watch Fletcher abuse Neimann in every way imaginable: physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Fletcher's rationale is that only through such manipulation and pressure can a musician become one of "The Greats." To support his theory, he often cites a famous anecdote about legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie "The Bird" Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head. We viewers are left plenty to ponder this notion of artistic acheivement and whether it is worth the cost. The cost, in Neimann's case, is his relationships with family, friends, and other musicians.

The music is the film is great, as you would expect, and the sound and film editing enhance it to a great degree. The highlight is clearly the performance of J. K. Simmons as Fletcher, who brings the sadistic music instructor to frightening life. Simmons will likely win Best Supporting Actor for the role, and he alone is worth watching, even if it can be difficult to witness the maelstrom of torment that he heaps upon Neimann.

Will it win Best Picture? I'm skeptical, due to how specialized the topic is, but it is clearly an all-time great "music" movie.

Selma & The Theory of Everything (and a few final thoughts)

I wasn't able to see either of these movies, try as I might. Based on the buzz, though, it sounds like we can expect Selma to completely get the shaft, while The Theory of Everything may merit little more than a Best Actor award for Eddie Redmayne.

Overall, I have to say that this year's crop of Best Picture nominees is a fairly solid one, though not exactly a year that will be seen as a historically great year. When we look back at these eight films twenty years from now, I don't know that more than one or two of them will have acheived "all-time great movie" status.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Before I Die #538: The Vampires (1915-1916)

This is the 538th of the 1,162 films placed on the "Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through...

Director: Louis Feuillade

Original French Title: Les Vampires

I've watched dozens of silent films. While I'm no expert or enthusiast of the era, there are plenty of movies from that time period that I quite enjoy. However, no silent film (or series of films, as it were) has been as tiresome to sit through as the 1915 French series Les Vampires.

The innovations of the series do not escape me. A modest amount of research reveals that this series was perhaps the very first to construct a longer, serialized crime story in film. For this, along with the decent production values, it was immensely popular. Later film geniuses like Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock even adopted some of the techniques used in the series. Such latter-day filmmakers, however, advanced and evolved those techniques light years beyond how they were being used by Feuillade.

However, no silent film that I've seen has aged so horribly. Firstly, the collective series is 10 episodes and 412 minutes long. That's 6 hours and 52 minutes, which was, to me, about 6 hours and 22 minutes too long. Obsessive completist that I am, I sat through every minute of it. The whole tiresome collection tells the tale of a championing young journalist - Phillipe Guerande - and his attempts to root out and bring down a ruthless and shadowy crime syndicate known as "The Vampires."

A man checks out an advertisement for the actress Irma Vep,
which any 8-year old can see is an anagram for "vampire."
Sadly, this is about as complex as any of the endless plot
points or twists get through the entire series. 
Probably the greatest problem is how simplistic nearly everything is about the film. The story is thoroughly plot-driven, without a single scrap of character development. Not one. Each and every character, from the noble and heroic reporter to the nefarious masterminds of The Vampires, is as one-dimensional and cartoonish as they come. Without any emotional ties, we are only left to follow the criminal pursuit of the tale, which is equally disappointing.

The plot points, twists, and turns could possibly have been engaging 100 years ago, when the series was released. Now, however, they insult the intelligence. Some of this is not the fault of the film. The procedural crime thriller has become such a tremendous presence in modern storytelling that century-old prototypes are bound to get outpaced. However, there are some elements that were simply dumb, no matter what time period you are watching them in. Anyone who gives the slightest amount of critical thought to many of the plot points will find gaping holes throughout the tale.

In short, this film was a major chore to watch. I can only recommend it to the most dedicated and passionate fans of film and film history, though even many of them may find it a gruelling task. One would have to have a very special place in one's heart for silent film to gain much entertainment out of The Vampires.

That's 538 films down. Only 624 to go before I die...

Friday, February 13, 2015

Before I Die #537: The King of New York (1990)

This is the 537th that I've watched of the 1,162 films suggested on the "Before You Die" list that I am gradually working through.

Director: Abel Ferrara

Everything you would hope for, once you read the synopsis and the see the cast.

The King of New York stars Christopher Walken as Frank White, a boss of the New York criminal underworld who is just being released from prison after several years inside. Once out, White immediately starts to make moves against his competition, in order to regain control of the drug trafficking on the streets. While equally ruthless and brutal as other bosses, two things set Frank apart from the rest: he employs many African-American gangsters into his crew; and he has aspirations to use his considerable finances and muscle to improve the poor neighborhoods in his area.

The movie features all of the gang violence and excitement that you would expect and perhaps desire in such a movie made in 1990. As Frank White moves against the Italian mafia and the Chinese mob, he stops at nothing to get what he wants, including bald-faced public executions and massacres. These scenes provide plenty of gunfire and action, to be sure. However, the strength of the movie comes much more from the slower, one-on-one interactions that White has with others, whether they be city District Attorneys, mafia dons, or even his own henchmen. Through these exchanges, we ge to see a much more complicated and unhinged man.

Laurence Fishburn as Jimmy Jump. Next
to Walken's Frank White, Fishburn turns
in the most memorable performance as
the motormouthed, buck-wild trigger man.
It's these latter elements that seemingly set The King of New York apart from others of its ilk. White would appear, in the early parts of the movie, to be a fairly typical "wild man" criminal. Rather soon after his release, we learn that he is behind two brutal killings of rivals, and then we soon see him brazenly execute another, first-hand. Still, we also hear White genuinly explain how he wants to improve the conditions of the most run-down areas in New York City's slums. He even seems to have the grand delusion of becoming mayor. There's an odd yet somehow authentic compassion for the downtrodden in White that inspires loyalty in most of his followers, many of whom are from disenfranchised groups like African-Americans.

The story itself is interesting, though hardly novel. What makes this movie far more gripping are the performances of the tremendous cast. There are plenty of known quantities - Walken, Laurence Fishburn, Wesley Snipes, and more. But there are plenty of other recognizable, if not exactly A-list, actors who accent the movie incredibly well.

What a viewer comes away with is the crazy violence, which is probably why the movie has a strong following among the same loyalists to movies like Brian DePalma's Scarface (which, to me, lost its luster over the years). The torrent of bullets and memorable smart-aleck, tough-guy one-liners leaves an impression. While there is certainly more to the movie, the time given to bloodletting can drown out the more thoughtful elements.

It's a good flick, but not one that I'll feel the need to see again.

That's 537 movies seen. Only 625 more to see before I can die...

Monday, February 9, 2015

Retro Trio: Better Off Dead (1985); Kingpin (1996); Tristram Shandy (2005)

Better Off Dead... (1985)
One of the many classic scenes which, though having nothing
to do with the plot, speak to the silly fun of the entire film.

Director: "Savage" Steve Holland

At this point, I'll just assume that you've all seen this movie. If you haven't, it's probably because you're either under 25 or over 75 years old.

For those of my generation who haven't watched the movie in a long while, you may be wondering if it's still funny. Unequivocally, the answer is, "Yes." Nearly every bizarre segment and skewed sketch in this absurdist take on teen angst is still hilarious. There are a few scenes that are dated, such as the stop-motion hamburger "Van Halen" segment, but these are very few and far between. The vast majority of the movie holds up extremely well.

The key element to why this movie works is just how deadpan everyone is, most obviously John Cusack as the heartbroken and suicidal protagonist. But we should not discount the many other denizens of director Steve Holland's bizarre world, nor should we overlook just how effective their own dry approach to everything is. One need look no further than Lane Meyers's father, played by David Ogden Stiers. Stiers's stone-faced delivery of his lines had me rolling just as hard one week ago as they did two decades ago.

There are so many quirky little things in the movie that I hadn't thought of in long time, such as how enraptured the math class students are. Or the street-racing, Japanese brothers and adversaries of Lane. Or the basketball team members who are caricatured ogres. This is all great stuff, and the result of a fertile comic mind. 

It's always great to see that a key movie from one's childhood still had the goods. 

Kingpin (1996)

Director: Bobby & Peter Farrelly

I feel Kingpin to be the Farrelly Brothers' oft-forgotten masterpiece. Their highest grossing and probably best-known film is There's Something About Mary. Their first major film, Dumb and Dumber is a classic of idiotic comedy. I love the latter, and thought the former was funny but overrated. Kingpin, somehow, doesn't seem to register with nearly as many people, though, and I'm not really sure why. It's hilarious.

An early meeting between Big Ern and Roy. In this 2-minute scene, Murray
fires off no fewer than a half dozen classic lines and gags as he casually
denegrates everyone who gets within arm's length of him.
It boils down to two things: the writing and the cast. Curiously, it is one of the very few movies directed by the Farrellys that they didn't write themselves. Instead, it was written by a couple of veteran 1980s sitcom writers, Bobby Fanaro and Mort Nathan, who wrote for Benson and The Golden Girls. Knowing this, you might not expect the raunchy, sly, biting humor of Kingpin, but it's there in all its glory. There's a wealth of fantastically quotable lines throughout, and there's more than a few great dialectic and visual nods to classic films like The NaturalThe Hustler, The Color of Money, The Graduate, and more. The entire world of Kingpin is a skewed alternate reality in which bowling is wildly popular, so there's plenty of fodder for spoofing athletics.

The cast is perfect. Woody Harrelson plays naive bowling prodigy-turned alcoholic degenerate Roy Munson, who incurs the wrath of veteran bowling champion Ernie "Big Ern" McCracken by daring to actually beat him. Big Ern is played by a Bill Murray at the absolute top of his comedy game. He's deadpan. He's ruthless. He's a womanizing, supremely arrogant dirtbag who lures Munson into hustling the wrong kinds of gamblers and having his bowling hand cut off. That's right. Harrelson plays a one-handed bowler the rest of the way, leading right up to his revenge showdown with Big Ern 17 years later. If you don't see the comedy in that, then this movie isn't for you.

Kingpin is another movie that's easy to recommend giving a shot. Just like Bad Santa, you can pick up the tone and humor within the first 10 minutes, and you can tell whether you'll like it or not. Unlike a lot of comedies, it doesn't lose steam at any point, and the last 15 minutes are just as funny as the first. 

Coogan's passive annoyance in the foreground is a steady
theme when he's paired up with the loquoacious Brydon.
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

Director: Michael Winterbottom

I watched this for the same reason probably anybody would go back and watch it - I loved The Trip and The Trip to Italy. The semi-scripted, ad lib chemistry between comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon is phenomenal, especially to those who like rapid-fire British humor.

Tristram Shandy is funny, and it's a good film, but I didn't find it as consistently funny as the "Trip" duology.

This movie is a different animal, in nearly every way. It is very much in the vein as films like Day for Night  and Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 - two films about making a film. In the case of Tristram, it focuses most on the star actor (Coogan, in this case) trying to exert his star status as the title character of a famously unadaptable work of classic English literature. The dryer forms of humor come from Coogan's passive aggressive attempts to belittle his co-stars, no one moreso than the affable Rob Brydon.  Of course, Coogan is made to look a fool often enough, whether by his own arrogance or by the wild demands of the Tristram script

Those looking for the great back-and-forth between Coogan and Brydon in the Trip movies might be a bit disappointed. While they have several scenes together, Brydon is not nearly as prominent as Coogan, whose larger celebrity is the target for humor here. The overarching theme is the madness of moviemaking, with its writes and rewrites, casting and recasting, the short-lived passions that flair up between crew members, the egos, and plenty more. From that perspective, a cinephile like myself appreciates these peaks behind the curtain of movie show business. Those who are less interested are likely to find the film a bit dull. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Before I Die #536: El Topo (1970)

This is the 536th I've seen of the 1,162 films listed in the "Before You Die" series that I am gradually working my way through.

Director: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Surreal. Bizarre. Violent. Occasionally upsetting. And completely engaging.

The name Alejandro Jodorowsky became known to me a few months ago, when I watched the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune. From the descriptions of his earliest films, I knew I was in for a wild ride with El Topo, his first feature movie.

My main fear was that the movie would be so bizarre and incoherent that I would simply write it off as incomprehensible nonsense and struggle to get through it. Such was far from the case.

The movie follows the story of the title character, El Topo (meaning "The Mole" in Spanish), a stoic man in black leather who at first is wandering the Mexican desert with his young son, righting the brutal injustices that he finds on his journeys. He eventually abandons his son to Christian monks, swapping him for an adult female companion, and goes on a quest to impress her by slaying the four most feared gunfighters in the desert. What follows is a literal and figurative trip of self-discovery, violence, death, and rebirth that defies simple description.

I  have to give credit to my video store guy, Miguel, who summed up much when I returned the movie and we talked about the meaning of it. Miguel said, "I'm not totally sure of everything Jodorowsky meant with the movie, but it clearly meant a lot to him." Perfectly stated. Through a dense and sometimes confounding tapestry of surreal imagery and allegory, there is a certain skewed coherence to it all. There is a grand, mythical quality that speaks to the creator's vision.

This early scene in the film speaks of the prevalent violence,
but also the careful construction of the sets, shots, and use
of brilliant colors to tell the story.
The more obvious symbolism comes early in the film, when I took some of the cartoonishly brutal and evil villains to represent the social ills of Mexico (or maybe Chile, Jodorowsky's home country), either in the 19th century or even 1970. As the tale moves forward (and backwards and sideways), the mystical metaphors and images, as well as the social commentary, become more elusive and open to many interpretations. This is where I found enjoyment in the viewing experience, and where I ultimately agree with Miguel - I can't say that I was always able to glean just what Jodorowsky was trying to say, but it is quite clear that he was saying something. Those messages that I did receive were interesting and thought-provoking, at the very least.

One of the most pleasant surprises of the film was the beauty of the images. Even during the very visceral, violent parts of the movie, the framing and editing speaks of a director who was well-steeped in the techniques of masters like Sergio Leone (a highly appropriate influence, given the gritty Western setting). Employing a variety of creative angles, strange and vibrant constumes, and atypically gnarled and scarred actors, the movie is a feast for the eyes.

El Topo truly is unlike anything else I've ever seen. While this can often be a non-commital response to a piece of art, with this film I mean it as the highest complement.

And so, 536 films seen. 626 to go before I can die...

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Before I Die #535*: Russian Ark (2002)

The heady quotes on the movie poster are
not, I assume you, overblown. 
*This is the 535th film I've watched from the 1,162 films listed in the "Before You Die" publications (the editors recently added another 13 movies to the list, 10 of which I've already seen). Hence the jump from my previous entry on The English Patient, film #525 based on old list. And now...

Original Russian Title: Russkiy kovcheg

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov

It's an amazing film, if more for its technical feats and setting than the actual "story" that is told.

Russian Ark is told from the perspective of an unseen, first-person narrator who we assume is a ghost roaming through the famous Winter Palace in the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. From this view, we soon meet a European "traveller," who seems to also be a wandering ghost of sorts, one who is highly cultured and lived in the 19th century. These two characters make their way through the Museum's many rooms, with each room being inhabited by various peoples from different time periods within the Museum's 250-year history.

For the first ten or fifteen minutes of the movie, part of the fun is puzzling out who the narrator and "The Traveller" are and why they are on this journey. Once that game is over, though, it's really all about the museum and the people we come across. The Museum is, truly, a marvel of architecture and lavish design. If you've ever taken pleasure from simply strolling through a large, classically-designed building, then this movie has plenty to offer you.

The chronology of the movie can be dizzying, as it is far from linear. As the travellers go from room to room, time may jump forward 200 years, backward 20 years, or any span in between. The result is an engaging mental exercise of piecing together which time frame we viewers are in, either from the people's clothing or speech. This does, alas, only hold the attention for so long, which is where the lack of a single clear narrative can be a bit of a weakness.

"The European," marvelling at the Hermitage Museum. There
is far more where this comes from, and the ceaselessly but
gently moving camera guides us through it all.
It is clear, though, that a single clear narrative was not Sokurov's intention. His subject was not the story of any single person or even groups of people, but rather the Museum itself and how it embodies nearly three centuries of Russian people's ideals and history. And more than any single costume, piece of art, or work of architecture, the way the film is shot and presented is the true marvel. The entire 99-minute work was done with one - one, mind you - sustained Steadicam shot. No pauses. No breaks. No little tricks of editing, such as the ones used by Hitchcock in Rope. When you think about the planning and choreography that must have gone into such a feat, it truly is astounding.

When one asks whether this single-shot approach was a choice of style or greater purpose. I think a bit of both, but more the latter. Since time is a major element of the presentation, it is reasonable to assume that the unbroken flow of the shot is reflective of the unbroken flow of time itself. The journey from room to room is, as would be the case during a real museum tour, a non-linear look at history. Whatever the case, it can be marvelous to simply watch how the lone camera leads us through the ever-morphing cast and setting.

Some will certainly find the movie rather dull, or at least too nebulous to penetrate. I can't completely dismiss this, but I would suggest that anyone even somewhat passionate about the art of film itself ought to check this one out.

535 movies down. 627 movies to see before I die...