Must-Sees: August 2011

My five recommendations for this month all come from the earliest years of cinema.  Typical moviegoers make it a point to avoid silent films because they assume that they will be hopelessly boring without dialogue.  Film buffs will have seen these titles, but if you are among the group of skeptics, here are five movies to consider.  They can all be watched on Netflix instant:

Metropolis (1927)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most expensive silent film ever made involves huge sets, captivating storytelling, and fantastic futuristic vision.  The plot of Metropolis incorporates an underground factory, rebellious workers, and a robot that looks a lot like an early prototype of Star Wars‘ C3-PO.  This is the grandfather of The Matrix, Dark City, Blade Runner, and Alien, so any science fiction fan interested in the roots of the genre should not miss Lang’s masterpiece.

The General (1927)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Everyone knows of Charlie Chaplin, but few know of his equal, Buster Keaton.  Chaplin and Keaton were the two best film comedians of their day.  However, for years, Keaton’s movies were lost.  After being rediscovered in the 1960s, only a few years before the actor’s death, Keaton was hailed a master of his art.  The General is his best film.  It is very funny, exciting, and fast-paced, making for the perfect hour-long adventure movie.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not only is this flawless tragedy one of the greatest silent films, it is also one of the greatest films, period.  It gets its power from the strong leading performances as well as director Dreyer’s straightforward storytelling and innovative close-ups.  Emotionally, it is nearly overwhelming, ensuring that viewers will never forget it.  The Passion of Joan of Arc is perfect in every aspect.

Nosferatu (1922)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This very well may be the best movie made about vampires.  Even ninety years after Nosferatu‘s release, it still is a genuinely chilling experience.  F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece of horror was the first among many films to explore the blood-sucking creatures, so any fan of Twilight owes a lot to this movie.  Unlike the better known Dracula (1933), Nosferatu will not be received as corny by any audience.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During the 1940s and 1950s, Sergei Einstein’s Battleship Potemkin was considered the world’s greatest film by the most respected critics and filmmakers.  Today, few would agree, but this is nonetheless, a great movie.  It moves at a great pace, painting a portrait of merciless tyranny and a search for freedom.  The result is inspiring, and ends up speaking to viewers in a way that only silent films can.

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Film Review: L’Avventura (1960)

Most movies unfold before the audience while Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura evolves.  After the first hour, a jumbled mystery becomes a disturbed romance.  Audiences meet Claudia, Anna, Sandro, and their friends, all taking the day off on the shore of a barren rock island.  They swim, they flirt, they argue, and then Anna goes missing.

The island is not home to any animal life, and its only residents are thousands of rough-edged boulders.  Claudia and Sandro, Anna’s best friend and Anna’s boyfriend, both refuse to do anything until Anna is found.  But after days of searching the island and towns close to the coast, what the two are really searching for becomes more obvious.

Most would say that it is love, but in all actuality, it is really just a search for something to do.  They are searching for the sake of searching.  Along the way, Claudia falls for the charms of Sandro, but neither lover is in love with the other, whether they realize it or not.  And as both fail to do anything worth-while, we find that they seem incapable of genuinely loving anyone.

Antonioni’s skill in making this intriguing film can be caught in one shot.  When Sandro and Claudia continue their search to an abandoned town, the camera is positioned in a view that seems to be peeking out of the shadows of a hotel.  Are we perhaps, seeing the view of Anna?  Is she hiding, never to be found by her seekers?  Then we move, as their car moves out of the city, we watch longingly, but careful enough to not show ourselves.  That one, single shot may be the answer to the film’s most compelling question.

Rating: 4.5/5

Please comment.  I’d like to know your thoughts on the movie and the review…

Film Review: The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

The power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s riveting masterpiece doesn’t come from beautiful scenery or a sweeping score.  Instead, The Passion of Joan of Arc is nothing but the bare bones of a historical epic.  It is interesting to take note of the smooth, barren walls and ceilings in which the indoor scenes are filmed.  The costumes as well, though authentic, are equally boring to look at, establishing the film as the complete, polar opposite of the visual delight, Gone With the Wind.  Even without intricate wallpaper designs and fancy props, it is captured in innovative close-ups that show more detailed faces and expressions than one is ever likely to see again.

All of the elements in Dreyer’s film add up to exactly what he set out to make: a documentation of an essential event in the history of France.  Anything that should distract from its purpose (movie stars, special effects, extravagant sets, etc.) was not included.  Dreyer’s refusal to dress up his story not only makes The Passion stand out, it elevates it to the status of an all time great.  Anyone who knows anything about silent films should be familiar with the face of Maria Falconetti.  Her incredible performance as Joan of Arc, a Frenchwoman executed for claiming to be called by God to save France, is one of the most powerful ever put to film.  When considering how silent films had to resort to images alone to express emotion, the success of such a plain film as Joan of Arc may seem like a mystery… until one looks into the eyes of Maria Falconetti and finds all the reasons why.

Rating: 5/5

Must-Sees: July 2011

Sometimes we see movies that we wish that we could tell the whole world about.  Well, these are five such films that I think are all gems.  I suggest that you make it a point to see these by the end of the month since they are all completely worth your time.  Picnic at Hanging Rock and Black Narcissus are available for instant streaming on Netflix and Buried is probably offered in your local Redbox.

La Jetee (1962)

La Jetee or The Pier is said to be the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s time-traveling sci-fi, 12 Monkeys.  It is a heart-pounding short film of about thirty minutes that will only show the core of its brilliance in the final seconds.  The rest of the movie incorporates sound effects in a frightening, fantastic way.  Those who love classic sci-fi and/or great surprise endings will enjoy Chris Marker’s masterpiece to the full.  La Jetee is a must-see for every film enthusiast.

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

What appears on the surface as another chick flick about a girls boarding school soon becomes a rather ominous thriller.  So ominous that it establishes a rare, supernatural feeling that is hard to come by even in many sci-fi and horror films.  Weir and company have created something beautiful with scenic photography and seductive elegance.  Its innocence is marvelously disturbed by haunting danger.  The music is also a large part in the experience, building suspense and expressing the desires of its characters.  Hanging Rock is just too delightfully eerie to miss out on.

Buried (2010)

If Alfred Hitchcock was alive today, this is the type of films he’d be making.  It’s thrilling and intense, full of eye-opening suspense, and while boasting an incredible amount of varying camera angles.  The whole picture takes place underground in the coffin in which an innocent truck driver (Ryan Reynolds) is buried with nothing more than a phone and a lighter.  Reynolds is excellent in this darkly claustrophobic thriller.  Though it is contained in a very limited space, this film is intriguing and never boring for one second.

Black Narcissus (1947)

Black Narcissus is a picture of enchanting beauty and innocence disrupted by evil temptations.  It’s the story of five nuns struggling to keep their vows in the midst of servitude in the Himalayan mountains.  Excellent filmmaking is combined with director Michael Powell’s masterful cast.  Scenic beauty is captured in one of the most intoxicating ways in the history of film.  Deborah Kerr is superb in this colorful classic.

Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)

I would argue that this film contains Richard Dreyfuss’ finest performance to date.  His character is an inspired musician who fills his free time with composing… until he becomes the new music teacher at the local high school.  This one might be most special to me because my mother is also a high school music teacher.  Nonetheless, Mr. Holland’s Opus blends humor, great acting, and an unforgettably touching finale to create wonderful entertainment.

Film Review: The Illusionist (2010)

The screenplay for Sylvain Chomet’s wistful second feature was written by the legendary French film comedian, Jacques Tati, in 1956.  Tati composed amusing comedies such as Mr. Hulot’s Holiday, filled them with gags, and avoided inserting dialogue.  His comedic methods resembled those of the silent film greats, Chaplin and Keaton, and he was more pleasant than funny.

Tati intended for The Illusionist to be live action, but the tall Frenchman died in 1983 without making any more steps toward starting the project.  Nearly 30 years later, director Chomet has developed an animated film from Tati’s script.  I doubt very much that the result is what the comedian himself had in mind while writing it, yet The Illusionist still has all the richness and charm of a Tati film made in the ’50s.  There is minimal dialogue, there is a clumsy, lovable main character, and best of all, he greatly resembles Tati.

Sadly though, this film could fail to satisfy most audiences looking for something as story-driven as a Pixar film.  It comes off shy and unimportant, but one of its strengths lies in the masterful animation.  The story is not one of intrigue, nonetheless, the movie is totally atmospheric.  It does not use the bright, flashy colors of Pixar’s features, resorting to a darker variety that creates a more mature feel.  Both characters and settings are detailed and attractive, and the best moments are those when we see city lights from high above.  Because of the great artwork and score, I regret that I missed out on seeing The Illusionist in theaters.

There is so much visual and emotional mastery just in the short time of one hour and twenty minutes that I feel that I didn’t soak it all up.  Nevertheless, it left me with too somber of a mood to make me want to watch it a second time.  Perhaps if the end would feature the Illusionist finding his rightful place in society while the wonderfully jazzy theme plays in the background.  Maybe then would it feel completely satisfying.  Instead, Tati insists on reminding viewers that he is dead.  He will bring no more laughs.  He tells us that we must enjoy what life we have before it is taken away.  With that final entry, Tati’s life’s work at last seems fully complete.

Rating: 3.5/5

Film Review: The Red Balloon (1956)

For most American audiences the short film is a lost art form that was never found to begin with.  Though films festivals around the world as well as the Academy Awards recognize numerous films in this category each year, the general public hasn’t quite caught on.  But aspiring filmmakers of the craft need not worry, for their time is nearing.

With the invention of the Internet came several resources that made short films a more accessible art.  YouTube is one, users are provided with thousands of videos ranging from home-made movies to the pictures of Hollywood, and independent short films are among them.  (I myself have vitalized the site many times, the first of which I watched Vincent, a six-minute animated short which was Tim Burton’s first movie to direct).  iTunes as well, sells the latest and most successful of these pictures, available for a price around two or three dollars.

So while they may not receive the same amount of commercial success or popularity that feature-length movies enjoy, based on my experiences with both, the average short film out does the average Hollywood picture.  A short feature such as The Red Balloon is one of the best examples of this statement (others are La Jettee, Un Chien Andalou, and even Burton’s Vincent).  This one in particular though, is built quite simply on even simpler ground.

It shows a young, Parisian boy who lives in an apartment with his mother, treks through the city to school each day by himself, and stumbles onto a bright, shiny balloon one morning.  The balloon soon becomes a trusty companion to the boy, so much so that it doesn’t float away when the youth loses hold of the orb’s hanging string.  But unlike many family-oriented films made today, director Lamorisse does not make his film overly sympathetic.  None-the-less, it achieves something like movie magic.

There is some sense of energetic fun buried within the core of the movie, which can only be accounted for by the human-like, care-free movements of the balloon.  The ending, the highlight of the whole half-hour, is a joyous and triumphant sight to behold, but I won’t spoil it for you.  Lamorisse wisely uses as little dialogue as possible, giving it a naive tone that matches its protagonist.  The Red Balloon is light-hearted yet emotional, but above all, it is fully enjoyable and magically transports the audience to the gritty streets of Paris.

Rating: 4/5