Friday, April 30, 2010

Pather Panchalli (1955)

Pather Panchali (1955)

What comes to mind when you first think of India? Let me guess, caste systems, jungles, elephants, and snake charmers. You can argue that these are little more than antiquated stereotypes, but the film Pather Panchali actually has a lot of these in there. Pather Panchali is primarily a series of philosophical and moral questions. The amazing part is that the film answers these questions without any discernable plot, and limited action. All in all, this film is slow, because of the lack of story, but also very engaging, taking a page out of Di Seca’s Bicycle Thieves with real life shots.
The film is about a family of Brahmins who have fallen on hard times. They live in a shack in the middle of the jungle, and appear to be living on the edge of starvation. What’s more, their extended family, who live very close by and are considerably better off, are reluctant to help their family, and at points even seem to despise that part of their family. The family is composed of a father Harihar Ray, mother Sarbajaya, daughter, Durga, son, Apu, and grandmother Indir Thakrun. Harihar is a noble priest, who aspires to more in his life, dreaming of becoming a famous playwright. For the entire movie, he is largely stepped on, as he is too ashamed to ask his boss for his paycheck. The family places most of it’s faith on their son, who they send to school, in the hope that he will someday make a living to support the family. Aside from that, there really isn’t much of a story, it just shows their lives through the years, demonstrating a few key moments.
Despite this, the film is very moving, especially its very tragic end, which in some ways mirrors the ending of Citizen Kane, and which I don’t want to ruin for those who haven’t seen it. The performances of the actors and actresses are very good. The mother, played by Karuna Banerjee is especially good, and I also liked the grandmother, played by Chunibala Devi. The children also give tremendous performances. The most important part of this film, however, are the themes. Among the most important include the importance and role of family, the nobility, but also cruelty of poverty, the moral justification of theft, and modernization in a very traditional community. The film provides very poignant answers to these, and it really is one of those films in which, upon its completion, you find yourself sitting down and having extended discussions about. The film features many very powerful shots. My personal favorites included the scene where Durga goes to wake her brother. She pries open his eyes, and you see them suddenly shoot forward. Another great shot is when Durga and Apu discover the electrical tower. The final shot was the one where the grandmother asks Sarbajaya for assistance, and she refuses, leading to a long scene in which the frail, hunched over grandmother hobbles over, it’s a powerful scene that brought me to tears the first time I saw it.
This movie is on the list for a number of reasons. Firstly, it features the great Indian director Satyajit Ray. Another notable “star” of this film is a very young Ravi Shankar (perhaps you’ve heard of him?), who provided the incredible music of this film. Honestly, I loved the music from this film, and could probably write several pages just on how incredible the music itself was. Ray seems to be well aware of how good the music was, featuring many scenes with no dialogue, just the actors and the music. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this film is on the list for what it accomplished. This film was done on a budget that was absolutely miniscule, 3,000 USD by wikipedia’s standards. Despite this, the film is a masterpiece, and I really think this is what makes the film so great. It tells aspiring filmmakers that you don’t need a big budget, you don’t need the best editing equipment, the greatest of A-list actors, nor Hollywood sets to make a great film, great films come from dedication, vision, and passion, not from money, a tip I think today’s filmmakers should definitely take to heart.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)

The Earrings of Madame de… (1953)

It’s interesting to think that, despite the countless differences between Bicycle Thieves, and this film, The Earrings of Madame de…, the general point of the two films is essentially the same: the idea that one, mundane little object – in bicycle thieves, a bicycle, and in this film a pair of earrings – can be the cause of the destruction of a person’s life. Everything else about the two films are completely different; one takes place in Rome immediately following WWII, the other in Vienna just prior to the outbreak of the Great War, one deals with the lowest of the low, the other, the highest of the high, one centers around a man, and the other centers around a woman. It all just goes to show the commonality of life.
The film opens with a shot of some fur coats, a woman is speaking off camera. The camera flows from the coats to jewelry. All the while, the woman appears to be trying to choose some item or another. In the end, she chooses a pair of earrings. We are presented with the main character, the Madame de…, played by Danielle Darrieux, a woman of dazzling beauty. She first travels to a church, where she prays for her plan, whatever it may be, to succeed. She then travels to a pawn shop, where she sells the earrings to pay off mounting debts. It turns out that the earrings were a wedding gift to her from her husband. To avoid suspicion, she pretends, later that night, to lose her earrings. The scene quickly turns comical, however, when the jeweler returns the earrings to the husband, and the husband actually ends up buying the earrings back. He then gives the earrings to his mistress as a farewell gift, who he is sending away to Istanbul. When she arrives at the city, she starts to gamble, and is eventually forced to pawn the earrings herself to pay off her gambling debts. The earrings are then bought by one Baron Fabrizio Donati, played by Vittorio di Seca, who was the director of Bicycle Thieves (the connections just keep coming). He is an Italian ambassador, and while he is getting on a train to return home, he sees the Madame de…, and falls desperately in love with her. Later on, they meet up again, and thus begins a courtship in which Madame de…, who is an incorrigible flirt, falls madly in love with him. The Baron eventually gifts her the earrings, and the rest of the film is about Madame de… trying to cover this up, and the consequences of such, right down to its very tragic ending.
The acting in this film, is once again spectacular. Danielle Darrieux started acting in films in 1931, and 23 years later she looks absolutely spectacular. She plays opulence incredibly, and despite her character’s extreme materialistic sentiments, and her initial heartlessness, she’s still a very likeable character. Vittorio di Seca proves to be just as good at acting as he is at directing. Charles Boyer, who plays the husband, is just as likely. Despite the fact that he would be considered the “bad guy” in this film, you can’t help but feel sympathy for him as well. This film is directed by renowned filmmaker Max Ophüls, who is known for his “moving camera” – he liked to have his camera never stop moving during a shot. The viewer gets to see many examples of this during the film, and the result is many spectacular shots throughout the film. The first of these is the very first shot of the film, which features the camera moving from one cabinet of jewelry to another. Another, and perhaps the most famous of them, is the montage of Darrieux and di Seca falling in love. This is done through a series of ballroom shots, each segueing into the next. It’s hard to explain, but very well done. Another great scene, is at the climatic end of the film, first with the duel, and then with its dramatic result. The great part of this film lies in the tragedy. It’s one of those films where you know it isn’t going to work out in the end. However, by the end, you really find yourself hoping it will.
This film is on the list, firstly for the camera work. The shots, as I said are spectacular. I also felt the film was on the list for the dazzling beauty of Danielle Darrieux, who to this day is still acting. I also feel the film is on the list for its story. It’s an amazing investigation into just how connected people can be, and, as I said previously, how one object can upend not just the life of the Madame, but everyone else connected to her. This gets to such a point, that the film starts making fun of itself with the jeweler, who ends up selling the earrings back to the husband on three independent occasions, with the husband not agreeing to buy it back on the fourth time. This film is a great one to see, and I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

It’s amazing at times to think of the fragility of life. The difference between a sweet, comfortable life and absolute poverty and despair is a razor’s edge. This is what the 1948 film Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) is about. The film takes a look at how easily a person’s world can come crashing down around his ears, as a man has his bicycle stolen, a bicycle pivotal not only to his livelihood, but his very happiness. The rest of the film follows the man through the streets of Rome as he tries desperately to recover his bicycle.
The film opens with scenes of the city of Rome. It then carries down to a group of poor, presumably unemployed men standing around. Another man comes out of a building their all standing around, and calls out a name: Antonio Ricci. Ricci answers, and we are introduced to our main character. The man is calling for Ricci because he has a job for him, a job which requires a bicycle. Ricci reveals that he doesn’t have a bicycle, but is so desperate for work, that he claims he can get one. He then leaves, and walks to where his wife is. Here we learn that the bicycle they did own was sold to pay for food. The two walk home together. His wife takes their bedsheets – a wedding present – and gives them to Antonio to be pawned. With this money, Antonio gets his bicycle back, and, the next day, sets off for work. After being briefed on how to do his job, he sets off into the city to begin his work. It isn’t long, however, before his bike is stolen while he is working, and, despite Antonio’s best efforts, the thief gets away. After this, Antonio spends the next day running all over the city of Rome trying to track down his bicycle.
The acting in this film is quite spectacular. Lamberto Maggiorani (Antonio Ricci) gives a very powerful performance. You can really feel his desperation, and later on, his insanity. Even as he descends further into madness, however, you still like him, still are rooting for him. Enzo Staiola, who plays Antonio’s son, also gives a very strong performance, despite his young age. He was my favorite character in the film. You can really see the love he has for his father, and the emotions he displays throughout the film are very moving. The shooting of the film is also very well done. This film is notable for its shots featuring real life, and real scenery, rather than Hollywood sets. You see a lot of normal people operating in the background. A lot of the scenes feel very manic, which is very appropriate for the film’s content. The real shots also make the film a lot more believable. The other thing the film makes use of, is the close up shot of the actor’s face. These shots serve to show off the acting talent of the entire cast.
There are a few shots in particular that I found astounding. The first is when Antonio pawns the sheets. The scene shows the sheets being given to a man, who climbs these massive shelves, bearing what appears to be thousands of other sheets. This film takes place in post-war (WWII) Italy, and this really shows the poverty of the country at the time. The other shot I liked was when Antonio asks his son to wait by a bridge while he went on his own to look for the bike. The shot stays on Antonio’s face, and after about 30 seconds, you hear off-screen someone shouting a little boy has jumped into the river. Antonio turns and slowly walks back, eventually breaking into a sprint as the woman’s voice off screen gets more desperate. This scene (which I’m opting not to give away) is one of the most powerful I have ever seen in my life. The last of my favorite scenes was at the very end, which is just too powerful to be explained on paper (not to mention my reluctance to give away plot spoilers), and really just must be seen.
I believe that this film is on the list for a number of reasons. The first is the way the film is shot. As I said before, this film uses a lot of shots featuring real life, rather than actors. This was truly revolutionary for the time, and is a technique still used to this day. I also felt this film is on the list for its numerous powerful themes and concepts, such as the moral argument behind stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family, and keeping things in perspective. This film, which I hadn’t heard of until I started this list, is truly a must see, and frankly I’m surprised this isn’t commonly included when people list off the great films (Citizen Kane, Psycho, Casablanca, etc.).

Friday, April 23, 2010

Dirty Harry (1971)

Dirty Harry (1971)

“Something you gotta ask yourself. Do you feel lucky? Well do ya, punk?” This is what everyone thinks of when Dirty Harry is mentioned. It really is a cool line, so cool in fact that Dirty Harry Calhoun (Clint Eastwood) says it twice during the course of the film. This film is truly a guy’s film: a beat-em-up shoot-em-up Eastwood western which is taken and transplanted into the modern day. This film is more than just a mindless action film though, this film sends a message about law vs. need, and if there are situations in which torture is acceptable (sounds quite relevant, doesn’t it?)
The film opens to a woman taking a dip in a rooftop pool. It then cuts to a sniper scope whose crosshairs are trained on the woman, before she is eventually shot. Cut to our main character, Harry Calhoun, played by Clint Eastwood, who arrives at the scene to look for any evidence. From the beginning, it is quite obvious that Calhoun is what one would describe as a badass. It’s the same character Eastwood plays every time, and the same character I will be reviewing several more times to come throughout this list. He’s a soft-spoken, quick drawing, shoot first ask questions later kind of guy. This is made obvious from the start where he is sitting in a hot dog stand when a bank robbery brakes out across the street. In lieu of any police nearby, Harry goes out on his own, and single handedly takes out all of the bank robbers, leaving one alive, who is reaching for his shotgun, leading to the famous line of the movie. Harry brings the remaining robber in, and we are introduced to the story: the man who shot the woman is threatening to shoot more unless he gets paid a ransom. Calhoun gets put on the case, and is given a new partner because all his standard partners are hurt. The rest of the film is a wild ride to try to bring the bad guy in, that goes through several interesting twists and turns through the picturesque city of San Francisco.
The acting in this movie is quite good, especially from Eastwood, who by this time, certainly knows how to deliver them. The performance of the antagonist Andrew Robinson is equally good. He doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time until the end of the movie, but what he does is very good. You really do end up hating him, and are happy when Eastwood, inevitably catches him. The action is also very good. There are several of them, and the director Siegel does a good job with them. For every single one of them I found myself on the edge of my seat. The best of these was the one in which the little girl was taken hostage, and the antagonist Scorpio had Harry running all over San Francisco with limited time to get from checkpoint to checkpoint.
The shooting was equally incredible. The film already does itself a plus by setting the film in San Francisco, which is my favorite city. The filming takes place all over the city, and a lot of it looks like a tourism advertisement for San Francisco, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are also a lot of very cool shots, such as the one with the scope zeroing in on the woman, the shots done where Harry is running all over San Francisco, and the chase scenes which cut to the face of the shooter, followed by a quick show of the effect, which does a good job of creating tension in the shootouts.
The film is more than just a mindless action film, however, the film also has an important message, and a couple interesting references. The fact that the film takes place in 1971 San Francisco and the central antagonist is named Scorpio is an interesting reference to the Zodiac Killer. Additionally, the film has a very poignant message firstly about getting the job done versus doing things by the book, and secondly about torture. This occurs late into the film where Calhoun manages to pin down Scorpio, and gets a confession out of him, but does it by torturing him. Because of this, the evidence is thrown out, and Scorpio gets off scot-free. Naturally, Scorpio goes back to his life of crime, and Harry is forced to catch the man a second time. With all of today’s talk about water boarding, torture, and treatment of POWs today, this makes the film even more relevant today.
So why is this film on the list? There are several reasons, actually. Firstly, this is a Clint Eastwood film. Clint Eastwood is so archetypal, so titanic in his defining of the action film genre, that it would be a major crime to leave the big Clint Eastwood films (this one, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, for example) would be a crime as bad as leaving out a Hitchcock film. Additionally, this film is on the list because it established what a good cop film is. This film paved the way for such films as Die Hard (also on the list). This film really is a must-see for any lover of action films!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Duck Soup (1933)

Duck Soup (1933)

It is surprising to me that when I asked my friends if they wanted to watch Duck Soup with me, they had to ask what it was. When I told them it was a Marx Brothers film, they looked at me as if I was some loony trying to indoctrinate them into my communist ideology. To put it more succinctly, it surprised me that these people had never heard of the Marx Brothers before. I had grown up with the Marx Brothers. I still have fond memories as a kid watching a Night at the Opera (which is also on the list). To me, that’s almost as bad as not knowing who The Beatles are in music. In many ways, it’s similar, for the Marx Brothers truly were trailblazers in comic cinema, helping to shape how comedies were made for decades to come. All three of the Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, were comic geniuses, and this film, in many regards is their absolute best.

This movie doesn’t have much of a story, and for the most part, this is completely irrelevant. It’s less of a story, and more of a situation, or argument, from which the three brothers can begin their jokes. The central situation, takes place in the fictional nation of Freedonia, who is in trouble because they lack a president. They decide to appoint Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) as the president. Meanwhile, the neighboring country of Sylvania is aiming to take over Freedonia, and attempts to do so through several nefarious actions. As I said previously, however, this is little more than a front from which the Brothers can tell their jokes. There are many points where the characters digress entirely from the story, and you begin to forget entirely what the story is. However, this is a good thing, as the movie isn’t about a story, it is about making you laugh, and make you laugh it will. From the very first scene, where Groucho shows up late to his own inauguration, to the end when the movie descends into a massive flashing of 3 second clips, the movie will have you rolling on the floor.

Each of the three characters has their own comedic style: Harpo is the pure slapstick comedian. He doesn’t talk, but through his incredible pantomime skills, is still able to get his point across, in very funny ways. Chico is sort of a blend of Harpo’s slapstick, and the fast-talking style of Groucho. A lot of his jokes make use of puns:

Groucho: “So what kind of army should we have?” Chico: “Well boss, I think we should have a standing army.” Groucho: “Oh? Why is that?” Chico: “We’ll save money on chairs that way.”

Groucho’s comedy, on the other hand, comes entirely from his speech. He truly is a master of delivery and timing. You have to pay careful attention to what he’s saying, or else you will miss his joke entirely. In my opinion, he is the funniest of them all.

The film is really just a progression of scenes, in which the overall goal is to get you laughing to the point where you cannot breathe. For the most part, the film succeeds. Every scene outdoes itself, as the film gets zanier and zanier up until its hilarious climax. There are a few scenes which are truly notable, however. One example is Chico and Harpo’s experience with the peanut salesman, which turns into a sort of three card monty ultimately resulting in the salesman’s hat, as well as his sanity getting destroyed. Another notable scene, and perhaps the most famous in the entire film, is the mirror scene. In this scene, Harpo dresses up as Groucho, and through a turn of events, has to act as Groucho’s mirror image. This scene is absolutely incredible, and nearly flawless. It shows the amazing skill of the Marx Brothers, further proven by the fact that it is imitated so much in film and television. Duck Soup also features many instances of advances in visual effects, such as when Harpo shows off a tattoo of a dog house, out of which jumps a real dog.

So why is this film on the list? This film was not a box office smash, it didn’t win any Oscars; it wasn’t even liked in its time. However this film still deserves to be on the list, because, simply, it is comedy in its purest form. There is no story, no romantic interest to get in its way. There is no action to distract it. The only thing there is comedy; three guys trying to the best of their ability to get you laugh, and in this regard, it is perhaps the most successful comedy of all time.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Citizen Kane (1941)

What can be said about Citizen Kane that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over? The Orson Welles classic about a rich newspaper mogul’s life is on the top of most movie best lists, and the cinematography and storytelling are still mimicked even to this day. The hype of this movie is big, and it was one of my major inspirations for starting this little mission of mine. And, I’m glad to say, the movie certainly lives up to the hype.
The movie opens up to an old Kane (Welles) sitting in a chair, holding a snowglobe. A servant walks in, and Welles utters one word, “rosebud”, before letting the snowglobe fall out of his hand. The camera follows the snowglobe as it rolls along the floor. From this we see a newsreel giving an overview of Kane’s life: how he begins by investing his fortune into a newspaper, which eventually spans to cover the US, and expands into radio as well. From here, he goes into politics, but a series of scandals prevents him from attaining his goals. Finally, the reel shows us his last years which he spent as a recluse in his massive manor, the aptly named Xanadu. The reel then shuts down, and we now see that the reel was being previewed to a series of journalists. The editor states that the reel is good, but doesn’t go far enough. He then starts questioning the meaning of Kane’s last word, and so sends one of the reporters on a mission to find out what rosebud means. For the rest of the story, we the audience follow the reporter as he interviews key figures in Kane’s life, essentially reliving his life through the eyes of his friends, all to unearth the meaning of rosebud.
I found the story to be quite engaging, but it does seem to drag at times. To anyone planning on watching this film, I recommend you at least google/Wikipedia William Randalf Hearst, who Citizen Kane the character is based off of. The characters are complex and well played, and Welles does an extremely good job with Kane, a character you will come to simultaneously love and despise. His character is an enigma until the end, with the stunning revelation onto the meaning of rosebud. That point, now a movie cliché, serves as the tying end, the final explanation of the lynchpin of Kane’s character. Suddenly, everything Kane does makes perfect sense. Most viewers will know the ending of Citizen Kane, which has spoiled for more people than the ending of “Of Men and Mice”, but if you haven’t been told the meaning of rosebud, you are in for a treat.
The real meat to Citizen Kane, however, lies in the cinematography. There are so many memorable and powerful shots in the movie, which still to this day feel edgy and innovative. There were many occasions where I found myself just saying “wow”, as that’s all that can be said about the incredible shots in that movie. From the entry into the cantina, to the mirror room shot, to the powerful long shots with the imposing, broad-shouldered Kane/Welles in the distance, every shot one-ups itself, culminating in the long, rapidly moving shot of the end.
So why exactly is Citizen Kane on the list? Well that’s a stupid question, but I’ll answer it anyways. This movie was made in 1941, and was hated and derided at the time, because it was different, it was new, and it was innovative. At the Oscars that year, it was nominated for a number of awards, including best cinematography, best director, and best film. Surprisingly, it only won one singular award, that of best screenplay. The film lives on, however. Its techniques, story, and style have been copied hundreds of times over. Its extreme influence on how films are made and seen is one of the major reasons why this film is made, also the fact that this film, now approaching 70 years in age, still feels new, still feels relevant, and will most likely continue to do so through the generations is why this film is on this list, and will be on similar lists 50, 100, or even 200 years from now.

How this blog came about

The Story
I’ve always really liked movies, but it was only until very recently that I began going outside of the general “action or fantasy flick” genres. I used to hate black and white, and positively abhorred the horror genre. These last few years, however, I’ve discovered film. Now we come to the story of how this blog came about. It all started about 4 months ago. I was watching the film “(500) Days of Summer” with my friends when we started talking about the classic films “Citizen Kane” and “Vertigo”, and their endings. I had never before seen either of those films, and was wholly confused. I had entertained for some time the idea of watching the classic films I hadn’t yet seen such as “The Maltese Falcon” and “Citizen Kane”, but after that discussion, I was absolutely resolved to formulate a list of movies I needed to see.
Lacking the creativity and film breadth to formulate my own list, I decided to Google “1001 movies you must see before you die”. Google showed the results, and my quest began. Finally, I found a list I liked, and, being the meticulous person I tend to be, I transcribed the list to a word document, all the while checking to see if the movie was available on Netflix. After some time, however, I discovered the list’s 1 flaw – it only went to the year 2003. I was not satisfied with that, but for the most part I enjoyed the rest of the list. So I turned geneticist and decided to take a best of 2000-2009 list, and graft it onto my own bourgeoning list. The list I had featured about 100 films per 10 years, so I set that as my parameter. I found a list from forums, designed by a user over there named Dracula, and used that. That brought my list to about 1059. I added a few movies of my own that I felt deserved mention, and so arrived at my final number of 1081.
The Mission
After having completed the list, I decided that it would be interesting to document my thoughts for posterity, progression, and practice. I initially thought of doing this via YouTube, but quickly realized that I possessed neither the equipment nor the knowhow to do this. So, I decided instead to turn to blogging. A number of my friends had blogs, and I realized that a blog would suit my needs perfectly. But no mission would be complete without a mission statement, and here’s mine
The Mission Statement
1. I will watch 1081 films documented on a list I have drawn up.
2. I will aim to watch 3 films off the list a week
3. After each film, I will write up my thoughts, giving a brief outline of the plot, followed by my thoughts on the film, as well as why I felt it deserved to be on the list.
4. Films from the list watched on television (commercial interruption, edited for content) do not count as having been seen. (Films on channels such as TCM, FMC, HBO, and Showtime do count)
5. The list shall not be changed from this point forward (no addendums for new movies)
This document signed, April 19th, 2010
Owen Frederick