After writing about very few movies in the last two weeks, I wondered whether I should really stop watching films as often as I did, and thus I decided that if I feel I’ve done all the work I needed to do that day, I’d reward myself with a film; if not, then no extra film. I believe that keeps me busy when I’m not out or anything similar and it helps me get to know more about cinema as long as I’m studying it from literary methods.
I also replaced my shot-by-shot analysis of this week by a film marathon of directors I decided would take me an extra time that I didn’t have (considering that I return to Penn in August). I decided as well that I would explore some various films before proceeding to directors I haven’t fully explored: the first director for the month of February is Tarkovsky, cinema’s most poetic filmmaker. Thus here is a much longer list, because movie lists should always be big and rich of material and joy.
The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)
Stephen Frears’ The Queen is quite an interesting period piece: while it plays safe in its approach to the incidents following the death of Diana with solid arguments, devoidance of tension and not so subtle points of view on the matter, it also offers a fresh, conscious perspective of the popularity and the modernization of the monarchy in the United Kingdom. Lead by many pieces of footage from the Princess, Helen Mirren’s delicate performance, Michael Sheen’s fine but unimpressive performance as Tony Blair and James Cromwell as an annoying Prince Philip, The Queen, more than anything, feels like a docudrama, a retelling of a much known story in dramatic, theatrical terms. It’s a cold film, but one worth watching.
Kadosh (Amos Gitai, 1999)
Rivka (Yaël Abecassis) is married to Meir (Yoram Hattab), a Yeshiva student, and they haven’t had a children in an otherwise dedicated and loving marriage of 10 years. Malka (Meital Barda), Rivka’s younger sister, is in love with Yaakov (Sami Huri), but is bound to marry another man whom her family accepts and sympathizes with. Both sisters are stuck in an unbalanced situation in the rough conditions for women in a Haredi society, a stream of Orthodox Judaism that sets them as child bearers and housewives. As shown by director Amos Gitai, they don’t exactly think critically of the traditions that surround them, yet such traditions put them into complex situations: one is trapped because she’s in love with her husband and sees this love crumbling down, the other because she wants to embrace her fate but can’t.
Confidently slow and quiet, Kadosh is a slow burner with great performances and a very moving story, never melodramatic in spite of its particular subjects. It’s told with slow zooms, very delicate pans and tilts and masterful, effortless long takes that barely call attention to themselves, and as a result, the film manages to be as spiritual and humble as the characters depicted. I believe it may not be for everyone, but it’s certainly a great film.
Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)
Borat, Sasha Baron Cohen’s most iconic and most acclaimed creation, is the king in the castle of risky comedies, brave and respected (it has a score of 89 on Metacritic, a critic’s score of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and a top critics score of 98%) for standing astonishingly close to the division between satire/parody and gross-out exploitation and remaining on the former side. It’s movie with a very interesting resulting reaction from audiences and critics: most people who hated the movie did so much less because of some of its uglier jokes (most of the too scatological ones… and that naked fight before the final act) than because it’s “shamelessly prejudiced and politically incorrect”, when in fact it isn’t. Some could say that it goes too far (and it does sometimes), and that it creates too big a contrast between the uneducated interviewees of this mockumentary and the film’s viewers (some of them probably deceiving themselves by feeling superior to the others on the screen), but the thing is, this film is still hilarious and it certainly does not defend the racial and social stereotypes it depicts.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Borat (the film) is the mafia film from inside the institution and its fellow insider films: it shows us through the words of those confronted with prejudice the prejudice in themselves – and in ourselves as well. The way Sasha/Borat and the film do it is enough reason to understand that this is a film far above some of the attributions given to them. It’s sort of a trap for those who take political correctness for granted: often you’ll laugh before you can ask yourself whether you should.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (Terry Jones, 1983)
The Meaning of Life was one of my first reviews (now updated, as I did with Casablanca), and returning to this film is a pleasure and a reminder that such comedy doesn’t exist in such a strong form as this one. Borat here is an exception, and still it doesn’t feel as universal and artistically brave (one of the reasons is Borat’s deliberate documentary style, but there are others). This is why we’ll always need some Monty Python in our lives, and that’s putting it mildly, since the Meaning of Life doesn’t come near the heights of Holy Grail and Life of Brian.
Beauty and the Beast / La Belle et la Bête (Jean Cocteau, 1946)
Strange that a film would have to argue that we must embrace the imaginative vision of children before we watch it, and yet how wonderful it is that it asks us to do so and bravely answers with a beautiful portrayal of fairy-tale storytelling. Beauty and the Beast, in its ultimate version of utmost superiority, is one of the most gorgeous and magical tales and certainly one of the most visually poetic. It precedes the Disney version of the story by 45 years, but it still feels like an art-house reconstruction of the story through practical effects, bold symbolism and smooth, almost fantasy-like camera movements, like the eyes of a poet passing through the universe created. Pure and simply a masterpiece.
Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984)
The best film of the week (and the best film out of the 30 I saw in January – you can check the list here), Once Upon a Time in America is an all-time greatest, a masterpiece in every possible level that embodies the emotions of a lifetime of art and storytelling on the outside and a lifetime of characters on the inside, thus creating a powerful drama worth every second of its 251 minutes, probably the largest number the film’s going to get. Sergio Leone’s final film, a gangster city epic opposed to its countless masterful Westerns, started at 269 minutes, then edited by Leone to 229 minutes, then butchered by American distributors to 139 minutes, then restored to its original release length and finally to the 251 minutes currently available. It’s a lesson that lengthy efforts should be respected for what they are and what they can be to others.
The film tells the story of Noodles (Robert De Niro), a Jewish New Yorker who emerged as a mobster from a tough, reckless childhood and, along with his friends and acquaintances, rose to uncertain (and perhaps partially unwanted) power and luxury. As the film flashes back and fort through his memories, there’s a sense of friendship, betrayal, loss, violence, greed, and ultimately that of an emotional scar so painful and so moving words cannot describe it. There’s glorious nostalgia and compassion in this film, supported by a fistful of great performances (De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, a young Jennifer Connelly and whoever else you want to pick), a beautiful partnership between Leone and Ennio Morricone (which, I believe, tops Spielberg and Williams, because Morricone wins the race by a nose, and Leone by many more), an indescribable collection of close-ups and some of the most beautiful shots of New York you will ever see. Perfection finds a home here.
Yojimbo (Kurosawa Akira, 1961)
Yojimbo, Sanjuro‘s twin brother, tells the story of a nameless ronin (a samurai without a master) who ends up by fate in a hell hole of a provincial city lead by two rival clans in the end of the Tokugawa period and decides to have them fight against each other for the good of the city. While Sanjuro is lighthearted in its humor and more explicit in its criticism of violence, Yojimbo is far darker and more adventurous on the matter (for starters, I think of the iconic entrance of the samurai in town, and his reaction to the passing dog). It’s cleverly arranged in simple but beautiful horizontal and vertical lines (according to Kurosawa scholar Donald Richie, it’s his most beautifully shot film), and Mifune does a classic performance as the good people’s devil in a city where everything is drenched in greed and self-interests. It doesn’t beat the lesser-known Sanjuro and its haunting finale, though.
The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002)
A man is found floating adrift in the Mediterranean in the brink of death. He wakes up with no memory of who he is, what he does for a living or what brought him there. After he returns to land, he finds out that he is unconsciously a master of martial arts, a target from local and American police and a highly trained escape artist. He also learns that he has a chip under his skin with a laser that indicates the number of a bank account in Switzerland, full of multiple passports, 4 digits worth of cash and guns. Still, he never even tries to guess who he is, because, after all, there are so many possibilities, including even a spy and an assassin – who knows?
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) hasn’t watched many action movies, but most people certainly have, and I have too. Still, the movie with the most orange-and-blue poster in movie history (curiously, the movie looks more than fine) is well above average in what comes to aesthetics and authenticity, and although it doesn’t crave for much, it’s thoroughly watchable and exciting in many ways. It feels like an exercise for the sequels (which I haven’t seen yet) in its simple-minded action sequences and thrills, but these thrills are well executed and driven by entertaining characters, mainly Bourne and his CIA counterpart, played by Chris Cooper (who would win the Oscar for another 2002 performance in Adaptation). Plus, you get the cinephiliac thrill of watching Jason Bourne AND Franka Potente from Run Lola Run together on the same mission.
That’s it for the month of January! February should be more much exciting, though: short paragraphs for all films from Andrei Tarkovsky (with the exception of Solaris), a generous load of silent films, full reviews for the five remaining Best Picture nominees (I can tell from my first viewing of Boyhood that it’s probably the best film Brazil has seen in 2014), and the eight usual full reviews (two parallel special themes, four reviews each).
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