La Grande Illusion (1937)

Movie Review

Grand Illusion poster

La Grande Illusion, directed by Jean Renoir, is a must-see film for anyone who is a serious film lover. It is considered to be Renoir’s masterpiece and has made many critic’s lists of best films ever made, including mine.

The film is about a group of French prisoners of war in two German camps during World War I. There are officers in the group that includes an aristocrat, a wealthy Jewish banker, a music hall actor and a mechanic. Pretty much a cross section of French society.

La Grande Illusion

These officers make several escape attempts. Their last attempt to tunnel out is interrupted when they are transferred out to another camp before they can complete the tunnel. They are sent to a fortress called Winterborn from which no one has ever escaped. This camp is run by a German aristocrat named Captain von Rauffenstein (Eric von Stroheim).

The French aristocrat de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) forms a bond with Captain Rauffenstein but sacrifices his life in order to help his fellow officers, working-class Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and the wealthy Jewish banker Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) finally escape. These class distinctions are essential to the story and are part of the overall theme of the illusion of class barriers which artificially separate men in society. The themes of race and ethnicity are also explored. The men are rescued by a German widow, Elsa (Dita Parlo), and eventually make it across the border to Switzerland.

Two other famous movies were directly influenced by La Grande Illusion: The Great Escape and Casablanca. The digging of the tunnel in The Great Escape is performed in the same way as in La Grande Illusion including the way the prisoners hide the dirt from the tunnel in their pants and shake it out on the ground during their exercises period. The singing of the “Marseilles” to enrage the Germans in Casablanca can also be found in La Grande Illusion.

La Grande Illusion is an anti-war film in which the main thesis is the futility of war. It relies heavily on ideas from the book The Great Illusion by Norman Angell published in 1909. Angell argued that the cost of war was so great that no one would risk starting a war because the result would be disastrous. Of course, this proved to be illusory.

The title of the movie seems to have multiple layers of meaning. The futility of war, the artificial boundaries between men in class distinctions and even the artificial and invisible borders between countries. In the last scene of the movie as Maréchal and Rosenthal make their escape into Switzerland across a snowy mountainside a German patrol spots the men and fires shots at them. The order is given to stop shooting as the prisoners are over the border into Switzerland. The camera pans down the mountain side to the two men. Marechal asks, “Are you sure we are in Switzerland, it’s so alike?” Rosenthal, who has a map, says, “Of course. You can’t see frontiers. They were invented by men. Nature doesn’t care.”

This is a movie that has definitely stood the test of time in every way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Detour (1945)

Movie Review

Detour

Detour, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, is a classic “B” movie in the Film Noir genre straight out of Pulp Fiction Hell. Shot on the cheap in four weeks it packs a wallop! This Criterion edition film is beautifully restored in glorious black and white. It is worth seeing just for the visuals alone. The story is as cheap as the characters it portrays. The writing is a little weak but the performances of the unknown actors more than compensate.

The story is told in flashbacks from an opening scene in a diner somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

The main character, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), is an out of work down on his luck pianist from New York City. He hitchhikes out to Hollywood to join up with his girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) who is a chanteuse, also from New York City, who went out west earlier to find her fame and fortune. Along the way he is picked up by a guy named Haskell (Edmund McDonald). Haskell tells him about another hitchhiker he had picked up earlier. A young female who turns out to be a real hell cat who put some deep scratches in his hand when he had tried to make advances on her. “There oughta be a law against dames with claws,” he says. Later he dies of a heart attack. Al panics as he thinks the cops will think he killed the guy. He hides the body and takes Haskell’s clothes, money, identification and drives away in his car.

He meets a girl at a gas station and offers her a ride. She falls asleep in the car then suddenly sits bolt upright and demands, “Where’d you leave his body? Where did you leave the owner of this car? Your name’s not Haskell!” About this time Al realizes he has picked up the same girl that Haskell had picked up and she turns out to be the femme fatale of all femme fatales. She berates him all the way to Los Angeles.

When they get to Los Angeles, they cook up a scheme for Al to impersonate Haskell, the long-lost son of the elderly rich father who they read about in a newspaper is dying. They plan to inherit his estate when he dies. Waiting to execute their plan, they sit around in an apartment, drinking, playing cards and fighting. Al’s not playing ball to suit the drunken Vera and she threatens to call the cops. She runs to another room with the phone and slams the door. Al grabs the phone cord and pulls on it. He pulls and pulls. Finally, the line goes slack. He goes in the room to find Vera has become entangled in the cord and is accidentally strangled on it. Now Al has another corpse on his hands that just might point to murder.

That’s when he heads back east and we find him in the diner. In the final scene he is walking out on the desert highway and gets picked up by the cops. His last line is delivered in a voice over, “Fate, for some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me, for no good reason at all.”

Most reviewers of Detour take Al’s story at face value. But I have a different view. Al is an unreliable narrator and tell us what he wants us to hear to make himself  look good. He more likely is a psychopath who has committed both murders and is caught by circumstance or fate as he likes to say.

Famed film maker Errol Morris said of Detour, “It has an unparalleled quality of despair, totally unrelieved by hope.” A pretty apt description.

 

The Maids (1975)

Review

The maids Poster

The Maids (1975)

Glenda Jackson and Susanna York

The maids Susanna York

Susanna York

The Maids is a film based on the Gene Genet play of the same name. It is a film about a sad-masochistic relationship between the maids and their employer. It is about role playing, the nature of reality, and class distinctions. It is one of those things that to fully appreciate you had to be there. In other words, to see the live performance of the actors Glenda Jackson and Susanna York, which were electrifying. The whole thing seemed a bit dated and stultifying to me as time has eroded some of its shock value. Still a valuable contribution to the cinema.

Yojimbo (1961)

Movie Review

Yojimbo Poster

Before there was Kevin Costner there was Toshiro Mifune, who stars in Akira Kurasawa’s Yojimbo (Bodyguard). Kurasawa intentionally made his film using all the western tropes of the Western. Then Sergio Leone copied Kurasawa and made A Fist Full of Dollars starring the man with no name, Clint Eastwood. Walter Hill had a go at it too with his Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis. But this is the original and is Kurasawa’s masterpiece.

Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune as Sanjuro, the Ronin Samuari

Dog Yojimbo

The first thing the ronin samurai Sanjuro sees when he arrives in town is a dog trotting down the main street with a human hand in its mouth. This sets the tone of the movie. I have seen this image before. Once in the David Lynch film, Wild at Heart, and once at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in a medieval painting from Europe. The images are too strikingly similar to be coincidental.

yojimbo

Sanjuro learns from the innkeeper that the town is divided between two gangsters, he hires on as a body guard first to one then the other of the gangs and plays one side off against the other in order to ultimately free the town from their malignant influence.

Yojimbo gang 1

Yojimbo gang 2

Beautifully photographed in his inimitable style in glorious black and white. Two thumbs way up!

The Act of Killing (2012)

The act of Killing

Movie Review

The Act of Killing is a documentary type of film that depicts former Indonesian death squad members reenacting their real life mass killings from the 1960’s. These older gangsters were encouraged to choose their own film genre in which to reenact these murders. The film was directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous.  I found it very interesting that much of the rest of the crew was listed as Anonymous. The executive producers of the film were Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.

Act of Killing Fish

The resulting effect of the multiple genres chosen by the older gangsters was quite surreal and jarring. These gang members were common thugs who were influenced by American movies like Scarface and The Godfather. They imitated their movie heroes such as Al Pacino and Marlon Brando. The word “gangster” was said to be the Indonesian word for “free man.”

Act of kilking tiger

Many of the gangsters admitted the killings were wrong and some suffered from gruesome nightmares from the past killings. But some did not think what they did was wrong since they were never held accountable and were even praised for what they did and still receive praise to this day. They killed with impunity Chinese, communists, and whoever opposed the authoritarian regime of General Suharto. In one particularly chilling scene, a gang member describes destroying a village and raping its inhabitants, saying 14 year old girls were the best.

act of killing heads

A riveting and telling documentary some are calling a masterpiece is a must see film about events most people have either forgotten or have never heard about: the genocide of upwards of 1,000,000 people in Indonesia on the 1960’s.  This film is a grim reminder of the evil that lurks in men’s hearts and of the banality of evil that allows such horrific events to occur.

 

 

The Battle of Algiers

Movie Review

Battle of Algiers

 

The Battle of Algiers is an Italian film directed by Gillo Pontecorvco, which was produced in 1966. It depicts true events which occurred during the Algerian war of independence from France, which was fought from 1955 – 1962. The events depicted in the movie occurred during the Battle of Algiers which took place from 1954-1957.

This film has been ranked in the top 100 films ever made. It was banned in France for five years where it was finally released in 1974. The Battle of Algiers is an important commentary on guerrilla warfare.  Revolutionary guerrilla fighters holed up and grouped together in cells in the Casbah section of Algiers. French paratroopers attempted to wipe them out. The movie is about this struggle and the methods used by both sides.

The tactics of the National Liberation Front (FLN) guerrilla insurgency and the French counter-insurgency are shown in the film. The French colonial power committed atrocities against the civilian population of their Algerian colony and the colonized insurgents committed atrocities against the civilian population of their oppressors in a spiraling escalation of violence. The FLN engaged in acts of terrorism by placing bombs in public places such as restaurants, nightclubs, and airports, indiscriminately killing civilians in the European Quarter.  The French paratroopers tortured, intimidated, and murdered members of the FLN. The use of waterboarding as an interrogation technique is depicted.  Algeria eventually won its independence in 1962.

Some of the scenes that really struck me were the incidents of waterboarding by the French Paratroopers, the men of the FLN covering themselves in burqas like women to disguise themselves and escape detection,  FLN women dressing like European women and carrying bombs in baskets, and in the end the women ululating in victory when Algeria won its independence.

The Battle Algiers is as relevant today as it was in 1965.The film was screened by the Pentagon in August 2003 as a field guide to fighting terrorism. Former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brezezinski, said: “If you want to understand what is happening right now in Iraq, I recommend The Battle of Algiers.” This film was also used by the Black Panthers as a training film. I am sure there are other terrorists groups that have been influenced by the film as well. The Boson Bombing suspects come immediately to mind.

The film, shot in black and white, is a triumph of realistic production values and heavily influence by Italian Neorealism of the 1950’s. It was filmed on location in Algiers using the real locations in the European quarters and the Casbah. It was so realistic that Pontecorvo had to issue a disclaimer that not one foot of documentary or newsreel footage was used in his two hours of film. Everything was shot live.

The film was nominated  for Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, Best Screen Play, and Best Director. It was the winner of the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion Award.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Suspiria (2018) Movie Review

Suspiria 2

Not really a horror fan but every once in a while one will catch my fancy. Suspiria (2018) is just such a film. It is, I would say, a notch above the rest. Maybe two notches. It has everything going for it. Great writing, directing, acting, music, dance, costuming, art direction, and social consciousness. It has been described as an extraordinary work of art, grotesque, and savagely beautiful. Others have called it pretentious drivel. But, hey, it’s horror film. What do you want? At least it’s very artsy drivel!

Directed by Luca Guadagnino, it is a reimagined version of the original Suspiria (1977), a horror film cult classic, directed by Dario Argentento, which I must say I haven’t as yet seen, but I plan too as soon as possible. This version, at 152 minutes, is 54 minutes longer than the original. So, it is not only reimagined it is also greatly expanded as well. Coming in at just under three hours is pretty long for a movie, but I must confess, I didn’t notice it at all, as I was totally engrossed for the entire time.

Suspiria

The setting of the film is in divided Berlin in 1977, when the Baader-Meinhof Group was perpetrating terrorist acts all over the city. Rain drenched Berlin and the memory of the Third Reich hang over the Markos Dance Academy which is ruled by artistic director Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton) and the grand dame Helena Markos. Patricia, a young student at the academy is convinced that the place is being run by a coven of witches. She tries to convince her psychoanalyst, Dr. Klemperer, who thinks she is delusional and so writes in his notebook. She disappears. Another dancer, Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives on the scene fresh off a farm in Ohio. She auditions for a place in the Academy and greatly impresses Madame Blanc who immediately slates her as lead performer in her masterwork, “Volk.” During her audition, another dancer (Olga) who stormed out over a disagreement is trapped on a floor below in a mirrored rehearsal hall and is banged around and contorted with each dance move Susie makes until she is a pile of broken bones and a puddle of urine and saliva. One of the more horrible set pieces.

Dakota

This film is a feminist manifesto after a fashion about the empowerment of women. Other than the two cops who are sent to investigate the disappearance of Patricia, there are no other male actors in the movie, Lutz Ebersdorf not withstanding. If you are not in on the joke, I won’t spoil it for you here. The women cast a spell on the detectives and humiliate them unsparingly while at the Academy, then wipe their memories once they return to the station.

Thom Yorke from Radiohead provides a hauntingly throbbing soundtrack to the horror which accompanies the dance routines. The film incorporates stylized dance sequences choreographed by Damien Jalet. Volk is a dance created at the Academy that featured Blanc in the original role of the protagonist, the part Susie was auditioning for when she turned Olga into a human pretzel earlier in the film. And it’s actually based on a performance Jalet choreographed in 2013, called Les Meduses, that was staged at the Louvre.

The title of the film Suspiria, means sigh, as in the sighing of pain, or suffering.

Tilda Swinton alone is cause enough to want to see this remarkable film. She plays three characters each of which represents an aspect of the human psyche – the id, the ego, and the superego.

Tilda

This movie is not for everyone. Not for the squeamish nor the faint of heart. But if you like a good horror show, one that makes you think, and is well crafted, and beautiful to look at and listen to, then I recommend Suspiria.

A STAR IS BORN

A Stra is Born

Who needs another remake? It turns out we do. As a rule, I generally eschew remakes. In this case I made an exception. The trailer looked good so I gave it a chance. And friends, I am glad I did. This film is fresh and original in its interpretation. Bradley Cooper proves himself an adept director and makes a lot of smart choices in the presentation of this material. Lady Gaga is a wonder. The thing about Gaga for me has been she always wears a mask and we never get to see the real person behind the persona. Here we do. A very satisfying portrayal of an insecure character with a lot of personality and a load of talent.

Bradley Cooper is very good as the alcoholic country rock star who is in decline and fighting his own demons. The chemistry between the stars is palpable and their love story believable.

I liked the camera work and the production values are superb. It’s not an unqualified success, but Bradley Cooper hits this one out of the ball park. Two thumbs way up!

BlacKkKlanasman (2018)

Movie Blurb

Blackkklansman

This has been a pretty good year for black filmmakers with Sorry to Bother You and Blindspotting coming out of Oakland, both very fresh, very original, and entertaining, each packed with a powerful punch. Here comes along a Spike Lee Joint. It is Spike’s best effort in years. The brother is back in full form and he has plenty of mojo to boot!

This brilliant film is based on the true story of a black police officer who infiltrated the KKK. It is very timely in its theme of white supremacists who want to take America back and to make America great again.

It is a reminder that White House is currently inhabited by white supremist racists and backed by David Duke and the KKK. Trump and Duke both make cameo appearances in the film as well as stock footage of the riots in Charlottesville where Trump smugly says there were some very fine people on both sides. Ha ha! Ho Ho!

This is a must see for everyone in America. Spike’s practiced hand is at the tiller of this skillfully wrought movie. It jumps immediately to my top 10 list and as of now it sits on top.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Movie Review

Joan of Arc poster

La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (original title) is a silent film that was directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. I was motivated to watch this film as it was referenced by Paul Schrader as an example of transcendental film style in his book, Transcendental Style in Film:  Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and in recent interviews he has given about his latest film, First Reformed (2017). I wanted to see first-hand what this style of film looked like.

Joan of arc 4

In 1431, Jeanne d’Arc was placed on trial on charges of heresy. The church attempted to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions. They tried various forms of coercion and threatened her with torture. Finally, in a moment of weakness, she confesses, but later in her jail cell she recants her confession and is then burned at the stake as a witch.

Joan og arc 2

There is transcendence here as Jeanne is in touch with God or rather He her. She has been sent on a mission by God to run the British out of France. Jeanne hears the voice of God talking to her but this not believed by the clergy who accuse her heresy.

Joan of arc 1

Jeanne d’Arc was a peasant girl living in medieval France who believed that God had chosen her to lead France to a victory in its long running (100 years) war with England. She convinced Prince Charles, who was later to be crowned King Charles of France, to allow her to lead a French army to the besieged city of Orleans where she won a decisive victory over the British. She was later captured by British forces and tried for witchcraft and heresy and subsequently sentenced to be burned at the stake. She was 19. From that moment on she was known as the Maid of Orleans. Jeanne d’Arc was canonized as a saint in 1920. In all there were 70 charges lodged against Jeanne for witchcraft, heresy, and dressing like a man. She was burned for dressing like a man, the most unpardonable sin of all, which according to the Bible was an abomination to the Lord.

Joan of arc 3

The film is considered to be a masterpiece of the cinema and I readily agree. It is shot largely in close-ups in crisp black and white against stark gray background. It is silent but the version I saw was accompanied by a musical score that was created for the movie in 1994 called Voices of Light composed by Richard Einhorn. It is an astonishing piece of work and is very effective in driving the action and setting the mood. I would, however, like to watch the movie sometime in silence as that is the way Dreyer intended it to be seen.

Joan of arc 5

The story is mainly told through the range of expressions on the faces of the characters as Jeanne suffers the agony of the trial. The camera work consists of low angle shots and high contrast lighting which made the faces priests and other interrogators look all the more grotesque. Jeanne, in contrast, was shot in soft even lighting. The character of Jeanne was played by Renee Jeanne Falconetti. Roger Ebert said in his review, “You cannot know the history of silent films unless you know the face of Renee Jeanne Falconetti.”

Joan 6

Based on the actual record of the trial of Jeanne d’Arc the entire film was shot in continuity. It depicts the suffering of Jeanne as she is tormented, humiliated and finally burned alive at the stake. This is the Passion of Jeanne which mirrors the passion of the Christ. Jeanne screams out in agony at the end of the film, “Jesus!”

Dryer presents this film as the triumph of the human spirit over the trials and tribulations of life experience.  He strives for new forms of expressionism as he focuses on the visual expressions of the human face.

My original motivation, as I stated earlier, was to view this film from an academic point of view in order to learn more about transcendental style, but I came away more enriched for having had the experience.