Thursday, October 31, 2019


1920 Halloween Triple Feature!

John Barrymore and his great profile
as Dr. Jekyll

Today's super scary Halloween triple feature features films that were made about 100 years ago as I look at the old Gregorian calendar on the wall. Isn't that pretty scary in itself?

The first film is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring screen legend John Barrymore. The film is of course based on the 1886 Robert Lewis Stevenson book of the same name. Barrymore plays the good Dr. Jekyll who helps out the poor when he isn't doing experiments that may give him answers to questions that may be left unanswered. He is egged on by his future father-in-law to search for the dual nature of good and evil in man, and boy does he find it! He finds a potion that turns his saintly doctor Jekyll into the wicked Mr. Hyde. (Granted, Mr. Hyde might be more fun than Jekyll at the right type of party). Then the fun begins as Mr. Hyde causes havoc much to the consternation of his better half. You know this isn't going to end well.

The special effects aren't too bad, especially the shots of the difference between Dr. Jekyll's skilled doctor hand and the claws of Mr. Hyde. I also like Hyde's distorted looks, which are grotesque but clearly still human and quite the contrast to the actor known as "The Great Profile."

John Barrymore as the hideous Mr. Hyde!

Lon Chaney as Blizzard in The Penalty

The Penalty, directed by Wallace Worsley, is a melodramatic but involving tale of a boy who has the lower part of his legs removed by doctors he overhears saying afterward that the removal may not have been necessary. He grows up and takes the name Blizzard and becomes a bitter criminal mastermind who wants to get revenge on the man who took his legs.

The film ends with his blackmail of the doctor to give him legs, but the doc operates on his head instead. Blizzard's mind is now cleared of evils thoughts and he tries to do good, but is shot down by an associate, the ultimate paying of the penalty.

Blizzard is played by Lon Chaney, who was and is one of the most admired stars of the silent era. His ability to get into a role physically as well as mentally is renowned. The Man of 1,000 Faces uses his own face for The Penalty, it's his body that is the distortion here. For this role, he had his legs strapped as his knees sat in buckets to mimic being an amputee.

Chaney also starred in an adaptation of another
Gouverneur Morris story
called  Ace of Hearts  in 1921.

The unveiling of the somnambulist Cesare by
Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari


The alliteration of those names helped me to remember them all for my History of Film class I took in the 80's when we went over silent films, expressionism and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in particular. But what are the importance of these names? Herman Warm designed the delightfully expressionistic sets for the movie. Rohrig and Weinmann painted these sets. And Robert Weine was the director of this tale of madness...exploitation...and SONAMBULISM!!

But the film offers more than it's unusual design. It is the forerunner of films that try to throw the viewer narrative curve balls. Is the story we think we are seeing, the real story? Is the narrator reliable? Is the one we see as evil, really good? Or is the narrator the only one who sees that he isn't good? What are the hints that what we are seeing isn't what we may think it is at first?

I think of Caligari when I see films like A Beautiful MindThe Sixth Sense and most recently Shutter Island (I'm sure Martin Scorcese is a student of Caligari). Even if you've seen variations on the themes of Caligari done many times since, any student of film should see the original. 

And don't forget those names...Warm...Rohrig...Weinmann...Weine...Warm...Rohrig...Weinmann...Weine...I am calling you...I am your master...awaken for a moment from your dark night!

I had the privilege of re-watching Caligari this month at the local Crescent Theater featuring the live band The Invisible Czars playing along with the film. Great job, guys!

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2019


A Chinese Ghost Story

Young roving debt collector goes from town town to collect money, usually unsuccessfully. He spends the night in a temple and meets a beautiful young lady. He falls in love with her, only trouble is she turns out to be a ghost. 

A Chinese Ghost Story could be looked at as having a little something for everyone. A rather sweet romance between the two leads, though hampered slightly by the fact that she is a ghost. Lots of fighting scenes, many involving the un-dead are here as well. It's an interestingly shot film with lots of blue background, shadowy images and wind driven special affects that are appropriate to the story. The highlight of the film is probably the final fight scene involving the tree demoness and Yin, the priest.

A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990)
A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991)
A Chinese Ghost Story (2011)

Once Upon a Time in China

There is a lot of impressive fight scenes in Once Upon a Time in China, led by martial-arts legend Jet Li. 
Different political factions within China have their conflicts, as well as the outside forces of England and the United States. The plot itself is interesting most of the time, but at times hard to keep up with in the context of all the wall to wall frantic action. The success of this film also led to a slew of sequels:

Once Upon a Time in China II (1992)
Once Upon a Time in China III (1993)
Once Upon a Time in China IV (1993)
Once Upon a Time in China V (1994)
Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997)

Sunday, October 27, 2019


A poacher confronts the title character
in Mouchette

(On Mouchette) "Robert Bresson has made several films of such sobriety that while some people find them awesomely beautiful, other people find sitting through the like taking a whipping and watching every stroke coming."-Pauline Kael,  5001 Nights at the Movies

And I understand both points of view stated above. When I first saw a Bresson film (Pickpocket) I kept thinking that I missed something. It took me awhile to adapt to Bresson's subtle form of cinema. He just will not tell a story in a conventional way! He also seems to skip important plot points, which have made me go back and see if there was a scene I missed (I did it for Mouchette and L'Argnet) more than once. I didn't miss a scene, it's just M. Bresson's way.

Mouchette is sort of a coming of age story of a teenage girl...if you can consider a coming of age story that will certainly end in tragedy a coming of age story. It is a pretty rich character study of this young girl and we see Mouchette awaken to adult experiences in subtle ways and in other ways not so subtle. I like this film, but it really helps to watch Bresson films more than once. (Which I did).

The title character gets passed around
in L'Argent

"Bresson films, which look and sound like no other filmmaker, alive or dead, are austere, limpid morality tales, photographed with almost scientific clarity...Bresson creates a kind of cinema in which characters are not seen but represented, as dramatically and effectively as they would be by actors wearing masks." -Vincent Canby, New York Times, October 2, 1983.

I honestly thought that L'Argent was going to be a heist film. Silly me, I forgot this was a Robert Bresson movie! What we see is how a counterfeit bill effects several people's lives in negative ways. At least several people initially. The ensemble nature of the film eventually breaks down into the study of a driver named Tyvon, who passes one of the bills off innocently enough and begins to lose everything. He loses his job, his wife, his daughter and eventually any sense of morality, leading to a horrific conclusion for everyone.

Is money the root of all evil? It certainly does make people do some pretty awful things. Bresson's last film and might be a good one to start with for those uninitiated with the director.

Thursday, October 24, 2019


Alex (Daniel Bruhl) and his real mother (Kathrin Sass)
in fake surroundings in Goodbye, Lenin

Goodbye, Lenin is a comedy with many dramatic elements about a young man (Alex), who during the time of the unification of Germany in the late 80's witnesses his mother (Christiane) have a near fatal heart attack and lapse into a coma. When she comes out of it a few months later, Alex tries to keep it a secret from his mother that Germany is now unified, afraid the shock might kill her. The lengths that Alex goes to keep this false narrative going reminded me of one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show.

The Truman Show is the story of Truman Burbank, an insurance salesman with a wife living a seemingly normal life in a seaside community called Seaview. Except the only thing real about Truman's life is Truman himself. All that goes on around him is part of a TV show called The Truman Show, with everyone in Truman's life being actors, all under the control of a producer named Christof.

There are a lot of similarities and a few differences in both films.
Here are ten off the top of my head.

1. Both films rely on a lot of coincidences. Goodbye, Lenin has Alex coincidentally having the nurse (Lara) of his sick mother be a woman he was separated with during a street demonstration earlier and later becoming his girlfriend. In the The Truman Show (TV show). Truman meets his future wife by her hurting her ankle and landing in his lap. This of course, was manipulated by the show's script writers.

2. The show within the movie of The  Truman Show is watched by millions of people. The special show put on for Christiane in Goodbye, Lenin is for her only.

3. The desire to become a Magellan-like explorer is a recurring theme in The Truman Show. Looking up to East German space explorer Sigmund Jahn is a recurring theme in Goodbye, Lenin.

3. Alex and Truman are both separated from their father when they are young. Both are reunited with him later, discovering the disappearances of both dads were caused by factors other than what they first thought.

4. Product placement in The Truman Show (TV show) is ubiquitous. Product placement (aka evil Western influence) in Goodbye, Lenin is something to be hidden from Christiane at all costs.

5. Alex's friend Denis utilizes old news footage and fake reports for Christiane to watch. It is amateurish, but it works. Christof the producer of The Truman Show (TV show) runs the most elaborate and expensive television show ever created.

6. Christiane finds out the truth late in Goodbye, Lenin and turns out to be okay with it. She acknowledges her love for her family before dying a couple of days later. Truman finds out the truth at the end of the movie, moons Christof and goes to the outside world.

7. You can look at The Truman Show (movie) as an indictment of capitalism (By what ratings and chasing profit makes them do to poor Truman) or of religion (The manipulative omnipresent producer is named Christof for goodness sake!) Goodbye, Lenin's politics seem to be more pro-Capitalism, (the East German stuff wasn't nearly as good as the new stuff) but that is debatable.

8. Both have fine comic moments drawn from the absurdities of their situations and make you wanna cry at other moments.

9. At the end of Goodbye, Lenin, Alex recounts that the country his mother thought she lived in never really existed the way she imagined. At the end of The Truman Show (movie), Truman realizes that the only part of the life he led that was real was himself.

10. At the end of Goodbye, Lenin, Alex's family shoots the mother's ashes into the sky and wonder whether or not she is looking down on them.  At the end of The Truman Show (movie), two of Truman's fans search for something else to watch on TV.
Truman (Jim Carrey) and his fake wife (Laura Linney)
 in fake surroundings in The Truman Show

Monday, October 21, 2019


The Cloud-Capped Star

Director Ritwik Ghatak's The Cloud-Capped Star and Subarnarekha are interesting films to watch as a double feature. The first film is one of sacrifice. Nita, the daughter of a poor Bengali refugee family uses her strength to hold her family up. This sacrifice eventually does manage to keep the family going, but at the cost of her dreams, her mind and her health. Her brother is a dreamy artist who seems like a bit of a no-account, so it is interesting that he is the one who does understand what Nita has done for them at the end.


Subarnarekha is a film I liked even more than The Cloud-Capped Star. It is an intense drama that runs from about the time of the assassination of Gandhi until the early 1960's. This film has a great deal to say about the caste system, refugees, how we treat others, marrying the one you love, pride and honor. There is a scene at the end of the film in a brothel that is one of the most heartbreaking I've ever seen on film.

One of the good things about going through the films in the 1001 book is watching films about different cultures actually made by filmmakers that live in that culture and can bring that unique perspective to it.


Friday, October 18, 2019


The Cool World

The Cool World, Shirley Clarke's 1963 film about life in a gang on the streets of Harlem comes across so realistically at times that it has the feel of a documentary where we are following around the characters in the film and just observing whatever they do. It makes you feel that this is happening right in front of you and we are just voyeurs peeking into their tragic lives. The dialogue seems real in fact that we miss a lot of it. But that's kind of the point, isn't it? The whole drama comes across as a giant jazz riff to me and due to the setting and portrayals of the film, that is also on point. No need for stylized Hollywood product here. 

Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep certainly isn't anything close to stylized Hollywood product either. The main character named Stan (Henry G. Sanders) has a thankless job working at a slaughterhouse in Watts. We see the events of his life unfold with his wife and kids, shady friends, the law and no easy paths to anything that he really wants.The film has no great tragedy to propel the plot. The tragedy is the futility and hopelessness of the lives of many of the characters. This is summed up for me in the scene where Stan and a friend struggle to carry down a motor down a flight of steps to load up in his truck to take it to resell. When he starts the truck, the motor falls off the back, breaking it. Kids playing in makeshift playgrounds where buildings are being put up (or torn down) seem to be the freest and happiest in this somber but moving movie.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019


"You're very sexy Maud, but what I really want
to know is how you feel about existentialism."

My limited two movie experience with Eric Rohmer films (A Tale of Winter being the other one) leads me to believe Rohmer likes films about relationships. Pretty complex relationships. Felicie in A Tale of Winter has a long lost love that she still pines for despite having two present relationships that are semi-successful.
My Night With Maud also presents lead character Jean-Louis with a choice. He has spotted the girl he wants to marry, but ends up spending the night with Maud, the girlfriend of his Marxist pal, Vidal. By spending the night, I don't mean sex. Not exactly. Jean-Louis keeps his clothes on...but Maud's naked...I think. Vidal has gone. Meanwhile, after leaving Maud's place, Jean-Louis runs into the girl he wants to marry again. Her name is Francoise. They eventually do get married and have kids and run into Maud on the beach about five years later. It's interesting in Rohmer's films (I'm only going by the two) how the characters talk a great deal about literature and philosophy. I've never seen a movie with a romantic plot have the characters discuss Pascal's Wager in such detail! But I rather like that about these films. The dialogue doesn't do as much for plot as it does form character. I think they succeed in that way. However, not everyone agrees...

...One example for someone who disagrees be might  be Alan Sharpe, the screenwriter of the 1975 American film Night MovesNight Moves is a quirky thriller with lots of twists (and not a lot of talk about French philosophers from what I remember). There is a scene in Night Moves, where Gene Hackman is talking to his ex-wife Susan Clark. He actually brings up Eric Rohmer films! But not in a good way. He says something to the effect that watching a Rohmer film is like watching paint dry. The Hackman character seems to want to emphasize this point so much that he even repeats how much he hates Rohmer! I'm attributing this line to Sharpe, but for all I know it was added in by director Arthur Penn or ad-libbed by Hackman himself.

Interestingly, both My Night with Maud and Night Moves have achieved a certain cult status...and my personal celluloid version of Pascal's wager is that I like both films....just in case I'm wrong about one of them.

Blaise Pascal

Thursday, October 10, 2019


Renato Salvatori and Alain Delon 
in Rocco and His Brothers

Rocco and His Brothers is Luchino Visconti's contemporary drama about five brothers who move from poor Southern Italy to the North with their widowed mother and attempt to find some measure of success in life there. The movie is divided under five chapters, named for each of the brothers. The primary fraternal relationship of the story does seem to revolve around the hot-tempered second brother, Simone Parondi (Renato Salvatori) and the almost saintly third brother Rocco Parondi (Alain Delon). This is an epic and beautifully layered film that develops the relationships quite compellingly. It  is most deserving of being on a must-watch list and is quite gripping throughout its three hour running time.

Claudia Cardinale in Rocco and His Brothers

Claudia Cardinale Alert: Earlier in the life of this blog, I pointed out that Claudia Cardinale had appeared in many more "1001 movies" than her more famous contemporary, Sophia Loren. I actually missed that Claudia had a supporting role as the wife of the eldest brother in Rocco and His Brothers. I'll remember never to sell Claudia short again.

Nino Rota musical alert: Composer Nino Rota is most famous to many of us for his Godfather score. I can hear occasional reminders of the music of that film in Rota's score for Rocco and His Brothers.

Phillipe Noiret (Raffaele) and Michele Placido (Nicola)
in Three Brothers

We are also dealing with three Italian siblilngs in Francesco Rosi's Three Brothers (I prefer the Italian title, Tre Fratelli). Unlike, Rocco and His Brothers, the storyline for Three Brothers begins with the death of the matriarch, not the patriarch of the family. The tre fratelli come to be there for their father. We have the older Raffaele, who is an important judge presiding over a terrorism case. The younger brother Nicola, is a militant factory worker coming off a divorce. The middle son is named Rocco (And ode to the earlier film perhaps?). Rocco is the most enigmatic of the three and runs a boy's correctional institute. The relationship between the three is the heart of the film. Raffaele is a reluctant public figure, in that his dealings with prosecuting certain criminal figures may be putting his life in danger. Nicola is the emotional one, who holds nothing back and often suffers in his personal relationships. Rocco is the most reserved of the three. Nicola grills Rocco at one point in the film as to why he never has seems to have a girlfriend, naturally implying that he may be homosexual. This is a strong family drama and I think it makes a pretty good double feature with Rocco and His Brothers...
Brothers Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo (Alessio Boni) 
look after mental patient Giorgia (Jasmine Trinca)

...Check that...We're going to have to make that a triple feature! The Best of Youth is an Italian drama from 2003 that was originally made as a mini-series, but did have a theatrical release at the time in two parts. The six-plus hour running time is honestly the main reason I put this one off until now. The main focus of the story is...two brothers! The story begins in 1966 and runs all the way until 2003. This big story does not lend itself to a concise plot summary, but the story of Matteo, Nicholas, their family, friends, loves, a mentally ill woman, politics and coping with death justifies its running time and was well worth my time.

Matteo and Nicola with their shared love 
Mirella (Maya Sansa)

Da questo giorno in poi fino alla fine dei tempi, senza che ci si ricordi: noi pochi, noi pochi felici, siamo una...banda di fratelli.
-William Shakespeare

Saturday, October 5, 2019


 Amarcord's resident tobacconist about to give an
awkward lesson in love

Lovesick Uncle Teo goes up a tree
to declare his needs (Voglio una donna!) to anyone who will listen
in Amarcord

The comical likeness of Mussolini in Amarcord

It has been thirty-four years since I last saw Fellini's Amarcord during a college course in film comedy before watching it today. I don't think of Fellini as a comedy filmmaker, though many of his other films certainly have funny moments. Amarcord is Fellini's nostalgic reminiscence of the Italian village where he grew up. Amarcord has many of Fellini's offbeat characters which he is know for and they are drawn out well. It's a lovely film with many comic highlights as well as some not-so-funny scenes of political oppression. I do have to admit the scene with the teenage boy and the ample-bosomed tobacconist is still my favorite. Crazy Uncle Teo is good for some laughs as well.

 Young Alfredo and Olmo tempt
fate in 1900

The adult Olmo and Alfredo in 1900

Olmo and Alfredo as grumpy old men
in 1900

Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 is an epic story of growing up in twentieth century Italy seen through the eyes of two friends named Alfredo and Olmo, played by Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu. De Niro comes from the rich and influential family and Depardieu comes from the poor one. This multi-generational epic is a tale well told that has a lot to say about politics, changing of fortunes and loyalty. The version I watched was about four hours long, but the story was more than big enough to warrant the running time.

 Young Toto with his projectionist mentor Alfredo

 Teenage Toto falls in love with Elena

Older Toto reunited with Elena thirty years later

Cinema Paradiso is simply one of the most charming films ever made. A small boy named Toto in a small Sicilian town spends a lot of  his free time with Alfredo, the projectionist at the local movie theater. We also see Toto during his teen years when he is the Cinema projectionist and falls in love with a local girl named Elena. The final part has the grown up successful filmmaker Toto returning to his village thirty years later for Alfredo's funeral and concludes with his reuniting with Elena all those years later. The film works as nostalgia, a romance and as a film for anyone who has a love of cinema. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2019


The Garden of the Finzi-Contitis

Vittorio de Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Contitis shows the slow descent of the lives of some affluent Italian Jews during the coming of Fascism before World War II. They learn that they may not be first on the list, but the oppressors will eventually come for them and even if they do have the ability to hide behind a wall for the time being.

We would like to reach up to the screen and shake them (the family) by the shoulders, even though there's reason to think that they were warned often enough...(They felt) Anti-Semitism,  like bad taste could never hurt them if it were thoroughly avoided.-David Denby, New York Times, January 2, 1972

Christ Stopped at Eboli

Christ Stopped at Eboli is the story of a doctor who is exiled to a small town. He eventually forms a bit of a bond with some of the citizens there who need his services as a doctor. We see the doctor originally by his situation forced to be an outsider and then how he comes to be needed by the people of the town. He also realizes how his situation is forced by powers out of his control, but manages hints of self determination and individuality despite the limitation put on him by his captors.

This is director Francesco Rosi's masterpiece, and seeing it, in either its two or three and a half hour version, is a cathartic experience, with unforgettable moments. M. Owen Lee, The Best Films of Our Years, 2007

Night of the Shooting Stars

During the last stages of World War II, a group of citizens try to escape a small village and meet up with Allied soldiers. Night of the Shooting Stars is interesting in that by necessity the villagers have to leave their home and seek freedom elsewhere. The village is not the houses and the stores and the church. It's the people.

The full fresco treatment that the directors give to the event of that summer is based on their own wartime experiences as adolescents, and on the accounts of others; it's this teeming, fecund mixture, fermenting in their heads for almost 40 years, that produces the film's giddy, hallucinated realism.-Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies, 1985