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Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #151-175

Welcome back to my ongoing and ultimately futile effort to review every single Criterion Collection film before they are retconned off of Netflix Instant Watch. After last week’s frankly lackluster reviews of some truly spectacular films, I have decided to put the boot to my own ass and try to write this column with the passion and insight that I know I am capable of. Apologies to anyone who’s first encounter with this site was my last piece. I think you’ll find this one to be far more entertaining and, just maybe, somewhat enlightening.

-151. Traffic (Steven Soderburgh, 2000) [Unavailable]

I haven’t seen this film since it came out, but if memory serves, it was just a boilerplate drugs ‘n’ guns story with some semi-innovative cinematography from a director who had already made the best films of his career. Remember when the War on Drugs was America’s biggest threat? I’m reasonably willing to bet that, in the wake of 9/11, two (three?) actual wars and the horrifying explosion of drug-related violence in Mexico, this film comes across today as an unbearably outdated and quaint cautionary tale to a world that hadn’t seen anything yet.

-152. George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000) [Unavailable]

This is one of those movies that I’ve been hearing people rave about for years but never bothered looking into. Wish I could say otherwise, but there it is.

-153. General Idi Amin Dada (Barbet Schroeder, 1974)

In 1974, documentarian Barbet Schroeder secured unparalleled access to one of the most enigmatic dictators of the 20th century: Ugandan President Idi Amin. The resulting film is an unabashed look at what happens when an honest-to-god madman walks the halls of power. The film follows Amin, who clearly saw the project as propaganda piece, through a plethora of staged meet-and-greets, military inspections and candid conversations with the dictator his early life, Israel and the responsibilities of ruling a once-prosperous African nation.

Whatever Amin’s intentions for the film may have been, the camera’s unblinking eye captured many moments where the usually charming and urbane General would talk himself off-message and briefly pull back the curtain on his delusional worldview and unhinged emotional status. Amin is so charming that, were it not for Schroeder’s constant off-camera reminders that the man was responsible for genocide-level slayings of his own people, he could have easily managed to come off as merely a somewhat backward, but ultimately harmless, man-child playing at being President. The fact that we live in a political climate that often finds itself dominated by the whichever candidate is the most congenial rather than the one who is the most capable, makes this film a powerful shot across the bow of the modern voting public.

-154. The Horse’s Mouth (Ronald Neame, 1958) [Unavailable]

Haven’t heard of it before but: a dark, British comedy written by and starring a young Alec Guinness? Sign me up.
Side Note: Available online at Criterion.com

-155. Tokyo Olympiad ( Kon Ichikawa, 1965) [Unavailable]

While this film is supposed to feature some really groundbreaking cinematography, I just can’t help but feel underwhelmed by the prospect of watching a nearly 3 hour long film about the 1964 Olympics. Hell, I don’t even spend that much time watching the Olympics when they’re happening live on TV.

-156. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)

Pieced together from various interviews with military brass, discharged soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, newsreel presidential addresses and on-the-ground camera work, Hearts and Minds is THE documentary on the Vietnam War. Released in 1974, less than a year before the war would end, the film pulled all the disparate feelings towards the conflict that had been building up in the American consciousness for two decades and laid everything out in a vicious and visceral knockout punch aimed squarely at anyone who might still be on the fence. In fact, the movie was so controversial, that it’s original release was impeded and litigated against until all it received was a one week run in Los Angeles. And the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

While the film does use interviews with people on both sides of the famously divisive war’s opinion gulf, it’s impossible to ignore it’s underlying message when you see a sobbing relative of a dead Vietnamese soldier throwing herself onto his coffin while then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. William Westmoreland intones, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient.” Utterly unflinching in it’s depiction of one of our worst military disasters, Hearts and Minds blazed the trail and set the example that would later make documentaries like No End in Sight and Restrepo shining examples of how patriotism and unthinking compliance with a government’s agenda are not the same thing.

-157. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) [Unavailable]

Wait, it’s been TEN YEARS since this film came out?! I am so old right now…

-158. The Importance of Being Earnest (Anthony Asquith, 1952)

Based on Oscar Wilde’s most popular work, the film recounts the efforts of Jack Worthing (Michael Redgrave) to secure the hand of young Gwendolyn (Joan Greenwood) in marriage. Problem is, she is under the impression that his name is really Earnest, which is the only name that will do for her prospective husband. The confusion stems from the fact that Jack lives two lives, one as Jack when in London and one as Earnest when he is at his country manor taking care of his young ward, Cecily (Dorothy Tutin). He tells Cecily that Earnest is his screw-up brother who he must constantly bail out of trouble, in order to avoid the constant pressure of being her legal guardian. Further complicating matters is Jack’s ne’er-do-well friend, Algernon (Michael Denison) who, upon hearing of Cecily’s wit and beauty, shows up at Jack’s manor in the guise of Earnest in the hopes of wooing the girl.

Witty and wry humor abound in this pointed critique of Victorian culture, which was so predominant at the time Wilde wrote it. While I’m not a huge fan of Victorian romances, this one comes off at a rather breezy clip and is over before any of the characters get too huffy and overbearing. Watch it with your mom. You know you forgot to call her, anyways.

-159. Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965) [Unavailable]

Bwah-huh? A Kurosawa flick that’s not available for streaming? It’s like I’m doing penance for that single, solitary Bergman film I got to stream last week.

-160. A Nous la Liberte (Rene Clair, 1931) [Unavailable]

As early French comedies are not my cinematic forte, I have no comment with which to, er, comment.

-161. Under the Roofs of Paris (Rene Clair, 1930) [Unavailable]

Same statement as the above film, only swap “comedy” for “ romance” and multiply the sentiment by a damn sight.

-162. Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsey, 1999)

Set in the public housing projects of Glasgow, Scotland during the infamous garbage strike of 1973, Ratcatcher follows 12-year-old James as he grows up in some of the worst living conditions in the Western World. Living with his alcoholic father (Tommy Flanagan), beleaguered mother and two sisters, James must wrestle with his guilt after the inadvertent drowning of his friend as well as his burgeoning adolescence. Despite being a tough little kid, his hopes for the future seem on the verge of being swallowed the the ever-deepening morass of crime, filth and poverty that surrounds his daily life.

This film has the distinction of being one of the few English language films I’ve ever seen that I’m glad featured subtitles. Most of the characters, many of whom were portrayed by non-actors, sport Glaswegian accents that are so thick a slang-heavy, that even my Anglophile ears could hardly pick out what was being said. Luckily, Ramsey decided to eschew an overabundance of dialog in favor of long, haunting shots of the rust-and-concrete hell that she sends her characters to. Though much of it is filmed outdoors, the camera sticks close to it’s subjects, be they human or merely man-made, and enhances the sickening feeling of being a rat trapped in maze with no exits.

-163. Hopscotch (Ronald Neame, 1980)

The late, great Walter Matthau plays Walter Kendig, the CIA’s most talented field agent, who’s waging an ever-warming Cold War. After Kendig lets his KGB counterpart off the hook, he is called back to Washington and informed that he is being busted down to desk duty for the rest of his career. He becomes infuriated by his demotion and flees to his lover (Glenda Jackson) in Austria, where he proceeds to write his “memoirs” of all the CIA, KGB and (especially) former boss, Myerson’s (Ned Beatty) dirty secrets for the enjoyment of the reading public. Anxious to avoid his impending embarrassment, Myerson charges Kendig’s former protege, Cutter (Sam Waterson) to find and eliminate Kendig before his book goes to press.

Sounds like some good, old-fashioned 80’s cloak and dagger stuff, right? Wrong! This film is a manic and somewhat screwball comedy that pokes good-natured fun at the Cold War paranoia that had been rapidly slackening for the previous decade. Matthau is his typical, schlubby self as he leads his incompetent adversaries on a merry chase across the globe. A true product of the post-Nixon era, which gave birth to both the scathing documentary and wry political comedy genres in America. While lots of lightweight fun, I’m not entirely sure what it’s doing in the Collection.

-164. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis) is a psychologist set to evaluate the conditions on a space station that is orbiting the distant ocean planet of Solaris. While scientists have been studying the planet for many years, the research close to the surface has proven hazardous and so the sprawling space station now only supports a three man crew. Upon arrival, Kris discovers that one of the scientists is dead and the other two are evasive and uncooperative. While walking through the empty halls of the half deserted station, Kris begins to suspect that they are not the only people on board. Sure enough, his suspicions are confirmed when he wakes up one morning to the sight of his wife, Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who has been dead for ten years.

Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, this film is a beautiful and quiet at space itself. While the film’s set design and contemplative manner owe an undeniable debt to Stanley Kubrick’s take on 2001, it stands on it’s own two feet as a meditation of the complexities of human interaction, emotion and, most importantly, communication. Tarkovsy was a master of narrative tone, which he proved here beyond a shadow of a doubt. Where a lesser director would have opted for sudden musical cues and bombastic set pieces to drive their point home, Tarkovsy uses a nearly inaudible aria, the tinkling of wind chimes or even just a shift in film coloration to enchant, provoke and unnerve at the slightest whim.

(Side Note: The 2002 remake is garbage. Don’t take my word for it, though. When speaking about the original film, Salman Rushdie said that it “needs to be seen as widely as possible before it’s transformed by Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron into what they ludicrously threaten will be ‘2001 meets Last Tango in Paris in space’. What, sex in space with floating butter? Tarkovsky must be turning over in his grave.” Moral: You just don’t piss off a man who’s had a jihad called down on his head.)

-165. Man Bites Dog (Remy Belvaux, Andre Bonzei and Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992)

This mockumentary about two Belgian documentarians following around an urbane and charismatic serial killer, stars the film’s co-directors acting under their real names. Remy and Andre are the filmmakers who have taken it upon themselves to uncover the psyche of a madman, played by Benoit. As they are shown the tools of the trade, as well as it’s “occupational hazards” by an eager-to-please Benoit, the line between the subject and the observers becomes increasingly blurred and soon the documentarians begin to take a supporting role in their own film and Benoit’s rapidly increasing body count.

Originally released under the more provocative title of C’est Arrive Pres de Chez Vous (“It Happened in Your Neighborhood“) this is one of the all-time blackest of black comedies. The genius of the film lies in it’s portrayal of Benoit: he is intelligent, artistic and kind toward those he considers to be his friends and family, but turns into a cavalier and unfeeling murderer at the drop of a hat. In this, his character is not so far removed from the real life madness that is on display in General Idi Amin Dada. Even though Benoit is the central character, it is the film crew’s actions that provide the movie’s most devastating sucker punch. While at first unsettled by what they see, soon become fascinated with Benoit’s macabre profession, much in the same way we see the modern explosion of interest in reality shows and videos of all stripes. In never turning the camera off when the possibility of a good shot presents itself, Man Bites Dog dares to confront filmmakers, producers and especially the viewers with the notion that, by their continued production and consumption of this horrible parade of the worst aspects of humanity, they themselves become complicit in the perpetuation of that which they claim to abhor. Well recommended for anyone who likes their social commentary with teeth.

-166. Down By Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986) [Tragically Unavailable]

My absolute favorite films from one of my all-time favorite directors starring one of my unquestionably favorite musicians. See this movie by any means necessary.

[admin. note: In a fit of unseen synchronicity, IOC recently ran a Great Scenes post from Down By Law here]

-167. The Complete Monterey Pop Festival (Various, 1967) [Unavailable]

You know, it really irks me that Criterion gave individual spine numbers to box sets and then continued on numbering the films contained in said box set. How is the obsessive-compulsive in me supposed to arrange that on my shelf in numerical spine order? Apparently it irked IMDB too, because they don’t have a listing for it.

-168. Monterey Pop (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) [Unavailable]

See above. Or below for that matter.

-169. Jimi Plays Monterey & Shake! Otis at Monterey (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967) [Unavailable]

Companion pieces to the hippie music documentary in the entry above, that is bundled together in the box set featured in the entry above that. Marks the point in history when Monterey first became associated with insufferable douchebags.

-170. Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) [Unavailable]

Remember what I said earlier about French comedies and romances from the 30’s? Let’s bundle American romantic comedies from the 30’s in with them.

-171. Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963) [Unavailable]

Was really looking forward to reviewing this. Never fear! It’s made it’s way to the top of my DVD queue and will be getting a full treatment in the near future.

-172. Pepe Le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937) [Unavailable]

Remember what I said about French comedies and romances from the 30’s? I am the exact opposite with French gangster films of that same era, or any era, really. This film cut the path that the likes of Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai would later tread to stunning effect.

-173. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)

A sprawling, comedic effort from The Archers, this film follows the military career of Gen. Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) through the Boer War and First and Second World Wars. Candy starts and unlikely friendship with a German army officer (Anton Walbrook) and has various romantic inclinations toward three different women, all played by Deborah Kerr, over the course of his life as he watches the world and it’s notion of how to fight warfare, leave him in the pages of forgotten history.

What. A. Slog. Right from the start it’s all zany musical cues, scenery-chewing line delivery and “Pip Pip Cherrio I Dare Say Wot Wot” to the point where I found it hard to believe that this film was made by actual Brits. Everyone in it is such an over-the-top caricature that it felt like I was spending three hours (yeah, never getting that time back) inside the brain of some hick from Arkansas who had been asked to describe forty years of British military actions without having ever met an Englishman and only a rudimentary grasp European history. While it was considered highly subversive and critical of the military establishment when it was released as well as having helped pioneer the Technicolor era, I found literally every other aspect of this film to be unbearably grating. And yet? No less a cinematic luminary that David Mamet claims it as his favorite film! What the hell is going on?! Perhaps one day I will finally realize why all these incredibly talented directors, for whom I have so much respect, are so enamored with what I consider to be some of Powell and Pressburger’s most unwatchable films. Wether or not I do, one thing is for certain, that enlightenment won’t come from watching this film again.

-174. Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Goddard, 1964) [Unavailable]

Portrait of a Netflix: loves Kurosawa and Michael Powell; hates Bergman, Goddard and Hitchcock. What an asshole.

-175. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

Based on the semi-autobiographical, cult classic book by the inventor of Gonzo journalism himself, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. The story, such as it is, follows Raul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) as they take a trip to Las Vegas where they are to report on a motorcycle race. Due to the inclusion of “two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine…a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls” the assignment takes a very forgone and brain-melting detour into the depths of the American psyche in the early 70’s.

The film, like the book, is howlingly funny mainly due to the fact that Gilliam allows Thompson’s original, razor-sharp prose to dominate the film. Depp and Del Toro share a magically abusive on-screen chemistry that brings the two characters (which are in fact hyper-embellished stand-in’s for Thompson and his friend, Oscar Zeta Acosta) to sweaty, wild-eyed life. Adding to this is Gilliam’s notorious, madman directorial style which produced wildfire-caliber sparks when played against Thompson’s narcotic agitprop. The camera zooms through hellish hallucinations and even-more hellish realities to leave the viewer dumped out at the end of the film with the same exhausted feeling you get when you spend a day riding rollercoasters at an amusement park.

Fun fact: I have seen this film more times than any other film ever made. When I was 18 and fresh out of my parents house, I embraced the drug culture with open, eager arms. This film became something of a mantra for me and my roommates who would rush home from work nearly every day for months on end to absorb every scrap of it’s twisted, cynical and yet, strangely hopeful account of two men searching for truth, justice and the American Way with the aid of a laundry list of illicit substances. I found this film at a time when I was in the process of rejecting the suburban, Christian fundaments of my upbringing and searching for something, anything at all, to latch on to. At first the film seemed to be a simple, amoral glorification of all things drug-induced. Upon further repeated viewings, however, I began to feel the full impact of Thompson’s words. The drugs, while taking somewhat of a top billing in the film, were simply the fuel for his quest, not the destination. It’s not a celebration of getting fucked up, but rather a eulogy for the decency, honesty and, incredibly enough, morality that Thompson perceived as lacking in the post-hippie-Watergate-Vietnam hellscape that was his understanding of America at that time. Further delving into Thompson’s serious journalistic efforts, in fact, was one of the strongest of my motivations to become a writer. While I have since outgrown both my druggy phase and this film’s somewhat juvenile world-view, the best I can sum up my continued love for it is by paraphrasing the Good Doctor himself: I wouldn’t recommend films that glorify sex, drugs or insanity to everyone, but they’ve always worked for me.

Well that was an interesting little block. I like how the whole thing was bookended by such polar opposites as Traffic and Fear and Loathing. While I do hope for less whackadoo British comedies in the future, any week I get to re-watch three films that are in my all time top 50 (Solaris, Man Bites Dog, Fear and Loathing) is a good week in my book.

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May 16, 2011   2 Comments

Instant Classics: Criterion on Netflix #126-150

I hate to start things off with an apology, but I feel it’s somewhat necessary. The past two weeks of my life have been assaulted by a trifecta of distractions in the form of new job responsibilities, the NBA playoffs (RIP CITY!) and the glorious onset of springtime in New York City. I don’t know about you but when the weather and people outside are so damn beautiful, keeping myself focused on obscure Czech films from half a century ago becomes somewhat of a chore. That being said, I have reviews for you! Enjoy! And hopefully next week I’ll be back with more.

-126-127. Ordet; Gertrude (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1955; 1964) [Unavailable]

Two films by Dreyer that portray the various and sundry ways a family can rip itself apart. Not exactly summer reading.

-128. Carl Th. Dreyer: My Metier (Torben Skjodt Jensen, 1995) [Unavailable]

A documentary on the life and times of one of the most unstreamed directors in Netflix’s catalogue.

-129. Le Trou (Jacques Becker, 1960) [Unavailable]

Fantastic jailbreak movie from one of the most overlooked directors in French cinema. If people such as Francois Truffaut and Jean Renoir like a guy’s films, it goes without saying that they are worth looking into.

-130. The Shop on Main Street (Jan Kadar and Elmar Klos, 1965) [Unavailable]

Is there such a thing as “too much” Nazi/Soviet-bashing? Probably not, but Czech New Wave Cinema definitely did it’s damnedest to find out and this film is no exception.

-131. Closely Watched Trains (Jiri Menzel, 1966)

Milos Hrma comes from a long line of malingerers who have been adept at one thing: profitably avoiding hard work. The family is proud and the neighbors are jealous when young Milos takes a position as an apprentice at a small railway station in Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. While he excels at his mindlessly easy job, he has yet to succeed in the matters of love and thus his coworker takes it upon himself to tutor young Milos in the manly art of carousing.

The verdict is in (and it rhymes!): Czechs love sex. Seriously, a ton of the books and films coming out of soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia in the 60’s were transfixed by the freeing powers of some good, old copulatin’. This film, along with the rest of the Czech New Wave, is subtle, wry and subversive. The Germans are a clear stand-in for the Soviet oppressors of the time and the cast do their level best to constantly question and impede the efforts of the occupying force and it’s collaborators. When one takes into account the country’s political climate at the time, it’s rather amazing that Menzel, Milos Foreman or any of the other Czech directors were able to get away with this type of blatant, political jabbing but I’m nonetheless thankful that they did.

-132. The Ruling Class (Peter Medak, 1972)

When his father dies in an unfortunate autoerotic accident, Jack Gurney (Peter O’Toole) finds that he is now the 14th Earl of Gurney. Trouble is, he’s already got a job: being God. Mortified by Jack’s delusion that he is Jesus Christ, his conniving uncle decides he must marry Jack off so that he may produce an heir to the Earldom and be committed once and for all. All is going to plan until Jack’s doctor makes a shocking breakthrough at the last moment, and sanity seems to have been restored to the House of Gurney. Or has it?

Utterly scathing social commentary of the highest order. This film attacks every aspect of and preconceived notion held by the British aristocracy and religious establishment with gusto and razor sharp wit. O’Toole plays a strangely loony straight-man to the rest of the cast’s crumbling stiff upper lips. The dialog is so quick and dry, you may miss the delicately delivered punch-lines until a few beats after they’ve been spoken (and their full, satirical intent until even later).

-133. The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988) [Unavailable]

This film is a truly haunting experience. Too many “missing persons” movies turn to improbable terrorist/serial killer cliches (I’m looking at you, Liam Neeson’s Current Career Choices) to satisfy the audience’s need for a defeatable antagonist. This is probably much closer to the real thing. Really bummed it’s not streaming on Netflix but it IS online for $5 at Criterion.com.

-134. Häxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922) [Unavailable]

This awesomely creepy witchcraft movie is right up there with Nosferatu as one of my favorite silent horror films.

-135-137. Rebecca; Spellbound; Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940; 1945; 1946) [Unavailable] target=”_blank”>


OK, I’m overreacting a little bit, but I mean, come on. I can stream The Lady Vanishes but none of these? What’s your GAME, Netflix?

-138. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)

This is, hands down, my absolute favorite Kurosawa film. While I love pretty much everything the legendary director brought to the table, this is one of those films where even the most uninitiated viewer can grasp just how revolutionary the man was. The film opens on three men seeking shelter from a downpour in the ruins of the titular city gate. Two of them have just come from a murder trial where they heard three wildly differing testimonies of the crime: one from the criminal (Toshiro Mifune) who is the chief suspect, one from the raped wife of the victim, and one from the ghost of the victim himself as related through a medium. The extraordinary thing is, each person takes the responsibility of the murder upon themselves. As the stories are told, it becomes clear that no one is telling the truth about the events and, as such, the truth may never be known.

Just in looking at the central storytelling method, you can tell that this is not your average movie. While Kurosawa did not come up with the multiple POV plot (the movie is based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa), the way he perfectly captures the multiple, varying stories was something that had never been done before. He pioneered not only the concept of multiple shots to further increase the dynamism of his action pieces but also made use almost entirely of ambient, outdoor light. Not only do both of these concepts see heavy use in contemporary cinema to this day, but the multiple POV storytelling technique has been aped so many times in such films as Hero, Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects and a veritable litany of TV episodes, that it is now referred to as “The Rashomon Effect”.

-139. Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)

What’s this? A Bergman film? Streaming? On Netflix?! Such things are unheard of! Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjostrom, one of the founders of Swedish Cinema who had a profound influence on Bergman) is a crotchety old man who has severed most of his personal connections to the outside world. On the day he is to be awarded for his 50 years as a doctor and a scientist, he takes a long car ride from his isolated home accompanied by his daughter-in-law. Along the way he encounters several people and a series of dreams that make him reevaluate his choices that have made him and empty, lonely old man.

Chock full of beautiful imagery and camerawork, Wild Strawberries finds Bergman at his surrealist best. The dream sequences are both haunting and profound and the presence of one of Sweden’s cinematic luminaries in the lead role no doubt went a long way to making this film nigh on perfect. When I was first introduced to this filmmaker’s work, I was struck by his delicate yet powerful grasp of humanity’s fear of a meaningless life being bookended by a meaningless death. If anything, this film proves that Bergman should have had no such fears when his own time came.

-140. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1963)

Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) is a famous director who is stricken with a crippling case of “director’s block” while filming his wildly ambitious and semi-autobiographical science fiction masterpiece. The root of his troubles seems to be the multiple demands and distractions placed upon him by his wife, mistress and producers but a series of flashbacks (dreams? alternate realities?) begin to unearth a different story.

Those of you who have been reading this column for a while may want to sit down: I really like this film. I know that I have been highly critical and dismissive of Fellini’s other works and I still stand by those statements. Prior comments notwithstanding, Fellini crafted a gorgeous, hypnotic and highly metaphysical nesting doll of a movie here. Starting with the title, which is self-referential to this being his “8 1/2th” directorial effort, through to the film’s plot mirroring Fellini’s own life at that time, the layers of symbolism and allegory are piled on like an infinitely skinned onion. Just try to walk through this in your head: Fellini was suffering writer’s block and marital problems while working on a film, so he changed the script to reflect what was going on in his personal life and ended up with a film about a director who was suffering from writer’s block and marital issues while working on a film, so then THAT director starts making a film about *fizzle pop burn nosebleed*. On every level, this film is a revolutionary triumph of the art of cinema.

-141. Children of Paradise (Marcel Carne, 1945)

Set in the bustling theater district of early 19th century Paris, a beautiful young courtesan named Garance (Arletty) finds herself on the receiving end of four very different men’s very different ideas of love. An actor, a mime, a thief and an aristocrat all covet her affections but none of them want her to be as she is. On a more esoteric level, the film is using the trappings of theater’s past to tell the story of cinema’s present and future.While fighting for Garance’s attention, the four men are all drawn into the plot as players, writers and patrons.

I can’t really delve into the plot much deeper than those few sentences without giving away enough of the plot to spoil some really spectacular moments in the film. Suffice it to say, this film, at 3+ hours in length and spanning nearly a decade of storytelling, is epic in every way. All four of the men are based on real historical figures of the time and the set pieces have a fantastically accurate ramshackle quality about them that calls to mind The Gangs of New York. While it is a bit of chore to sit all the way through, Children of Paradise will reward the attentive viewer with a touching story of love, duplicity and the fine art of acting.

-142. The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977) [Unavailable]

OK so Peter Weir really shot himself in the foot with the whole Master and Commander debacle. Still and all, this movie is outstanding and can you really hate on a guy who managed to elicit genuinely target=”_blank”>watchable performances out of both Robin Williams AND Ethan Hawke?

-143. That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel, 1977)

As recounted to his fellow passengers on a Paris-bound train, Mathieu (frequent Buñuel collaborator Fernando Rey) falls in love with a beautiful young maid named Conchita (played by Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina. We’ll get to that later.). While Mathieu is obsessed with seducing the girl, Conchita holds his satisfaction tantalizingly out of reach. While her constant coquettishness keeps drives Mathieu away, it also has the power to keep luring him back to her, until he reaches what he thinks is the final straw.

Like many of Buñuel’s films, this is all about the destruction we wreak upon ourselves in the name of pursuing our desires. Mathieu comes from a privileged background and so feels secure in his right to possess what ever it is that he wants, in this case, Conchita. Conchita comes from an impoverished background in an oppressive country (Franco’s Spain) and so feels that she must fight off anything or anybody who would impede her absolute sense of freedom, in this case, Mathieu. While both of them love one another, their desire to behave just as they always have and never compromise ultimately trumps their desire for each other. Conchita is especially conflicted, and Buñuel uses his two actresses to further outline a single woman’s hot and cold tendencies in his typically surrealist fashion.

-144. Loves of a Blonde (Milos Forman, 1965)

After the communist government has forced a large number of women to relocate to a remote town in the Czech countryside and work in it’s shoe factory, the city officials and factory bosses notice that the number of women now greatly outweighs the number of men. This problem is affecting the women’s happiness and productivity, so the government relocates and army base to the town in the hopes of fixing the problem they have made. Andula, one of the women at the factory attends a state-sponsered mixer for the soldiers and factory workers and falls for Milda, the pianist at the event. The two end up spending the night together but when Milda returns to his home in Prague, Andula feels compelled to follow.

It’s hard to write a compelling synopsis of this film because its plot is so deceptively simple. Underneath the skin of the standard girl-meets-boy proceedings are many veiled jabs at the Soviet-backed government that was in power when Milos Forman directed this film. Andula and Milda find themselves in an artificial relationship because of the failed social engineering practices of their government, but one that is still as tender and real as any other, no matter how temporary it may be. Many films in Czech cinema’s New Wave championed the notion that sex was the one freedom that totalitarianism could never conquer, and this film is no different, conveying that notion with all the sentiment and vulnerability of a teenage crush.

-145. The Fireman’s Ball (Milos Forman, 1967) [Unavailable]

I watched this many years back and all I can remember about it is getting to the end and thinking, “Meh.” Then again, I used to like Fight Club back then, so it’s a bit of a toss-up.

-146. The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957) [Unavailable]

Art House film from Soviet Russia. Leave the Yakov Smirnoff jokes at the door, people.

[admin. note: pardon the interruption but I am compelled to let you know that Kalatozov’s 1964 film, I Am Cuba – a historic bit of Soviet propaganda and a fantastic example of film direction at it’s finest – is available on Netflix streaming, and is highly recommended. A review is pending]

-147. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000) [Unavailable]

This was JUST available on Netflix Instant and I’m mildly pissed that I didn’t get to it in time because, like everything else the man does, it’s unspeakably beautiful.

-148. Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai, 1959)

After a singular display of bravery on WWII’s Eastern Front a young soldier named Alexei is given six days of leave to go visit his mother. Along with several other discharged soldiers and a young woman, Alexei begins his tightly scheduled journey home. On the way, he finds his progressed blocked by obstacles both natural and manmade, but his spirit never wavers.

While the dynamic and rapid-fire camera work are call-backs to the work of Sergei Eisenstein, the storytelling is pure post-Stalin “New Soviet Cinema”. At a time when the French were aggressively slashing and burning as much entrenched cinematic dogma as they could get their hands on, their Russian counterparts were just beginning to explore the newfound freedoms available in the wake of one of the world’s worst despots. Where previous Russian war films had sought to glorify the achievements of the Soviet military at large, this film takes a closer look at the personal cost of the individuals.

-149. Juliet of the Spirits (Federico Fellini, 1965) [Unavailable]

I’d call this film “plodding” but that would infer a mistaken sense of forward thrust that is almost completely absent here.

-150. Bob Le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1956)

Bob (Roger Duchesne) is an aging gambler and ex-con who’s luck and money have almost run dry. Desperate for cash, Bob joins several other hoods in planning to rob a casino vault. Everything is going according to plan until Anne, the young woman that Bob is taking care of, accidently divulges the details of the heist to the wrong person and puts the whole operation at risk.

Awash in indecipherable French slang and atmospheric set pieces, Bob Le Flambeur is classic noir cinema to the bone, and yet still boasts a proto-New Wave pedigree. The seedy, neon-washed streets of Paris’ Montmartre district provide just as much atmosphere to the back-room plots and back-alley double crosses as LA ever did. In this film, not only did Melville betrays his passion for old-school American Crime dramas, but elevated the genre with the type of hand-held camerawork and a solitary jump cut that presaged the impending French film revolution by several years.

What an all around excellent selection of films! I seriously loved every single one that I saw. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some springtime to soak up.

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May 3, 2011   No Comments

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