19
Apr
15

La Grande Illusion

b3_d__0_GrandIllusionI knew that Phil Jackson would show Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion  (1937) to his players before every season, but I wasn’t sure why. (I’m still uncertain as to what he wanted his team to learn, though the film has plenty of insights.)

I didn’t know what to expect. The DVD package promised a war film, which I’m never in the mood for, but if 3:10 to Yuma was good, perhaps this would be too. Starring Jean Gabin (whom I saw in Touchez Pas au Grisbi) La Grande Illusion tells the story of French POWs in World War I. Of course, if the main characters are stuck in prison, the film’s objective must be to get them out, n’est pas? Bien sur.

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The three central characters are Gabin’s working class Maréchal, Pierre Fresnay’s blue blooded Capt. de Boeldieu and Marcel Dalio’s Lt. Rosenthal. When Maréchal is captured he’s put in a cell with de Boeldieu and Rosenthal, who shares the delicacies his family send him from France with all his comrades. Maréchal soon learns that the men have been digging a tunnel to get out. While other escapees get caught and shot, these men’s plan is thwarted as they are all moved to another prison camp just before they plan to use the tunnel.

de Boeldieu et von Rauffenstein

de Boeldieu et von Rauffenstein

The three are transferred and try to escape repeatedly till they’re sent to Capt. von Rauffenstein’s camp. Played by Eric von Stroheim, von Rauffenstein is a compelling character. Throughout the film, von Rauffenstein wears a full body cast and wears white gloves to hide his burned hands. He lives in a gothic chapel that he’s oddly decorated and made into an apartment. He prides himself on running a civilized prisoner of war camp for officers, whom he treats almost like guests.

Von Rauffenstein most connects with de Boeldieu as their family trees are most on par. While de Boedleu has come to see that the old social order is dying, von Rauffenstein’s blind to that. He also can’t fathom how de Boedieu can seen any value in the working class or nouveau riche, that’s his downfall.

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From critic Peter Cowie’s essay on the Criterion Collection website:

Made just three years before World War II, it gazes back to a different era, and to a war, in the words of the director, “based on fair play, a war without atom bombs or torture.” Hitler had not appeared. “Nor,” says Renoir, “had the Nazis, who almost succeeded in making people forget that the Germans are also human beings.”

The film is simple, but compelling with fascinating characters I won’t soon forget. It unfolds effortlessly and haunts me days after I’ve seen it. I can’t wait to watch it again, next time with the commentary.

11
Apr
15

3:10 to Yuma

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I’m normally not a fan of Westerns, but if the Criterion Collection saw fit to offer Delmar Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957), maybe this Western was worth a look. It sure was. Starring Glen Ford, whom I associate with TV sitcoms if anything, 3:10 to Yuma is a psychologically compelling game of cat and mouse. Ford plays Ben Wade, a slick, charming head of a gang of stagecoach robbers. After his gang kills a stagecoach driver while robbing the coach, his gang disperses to hide out. Ford miscalculates and allows a little romance to detain him and so he gets nabbed.

He’s in hick country and doubts the locals can keep his gang from him from breaking loose or getting rescued. Surely, he can outsmart these poor yokels. The central yokel, is a small rancher Dan Evans, who agrees to escort Wade to a town where a train to Yuma will take Wade to the nearest judge. Evans needs the $200 reward to save his cattle. Just as desperately Evans heeds his wife and sons’ esteem. That they seem to see him as a man who always plays it safe is getting to him.

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Some of the tensest moments are in a hotel room where these two character kill time till the train’s about to leave. The film’s strength is the psychology of the characters, that and the remarkable cinematography of the desolate Western landscape.

Good quote:

Bisbee Marshal: Do I have two volunteers?
First Posse Member: We gotta know what we’re gettin’ ourselves into.
Second Posse Member: Sure… might not be safe.
Bisbee Marshal: Safe! Who knows what’s safe? I knew a man dropped dead from lookin’ at his wife. My own grandmother fought the Indians for sixty years… then choked to death on lemon pie. Do I have two volunteers?

As with all the Criterion films I’ve seen, the extras were well worth my time. One was an interview with Glen Ford’s son, who’s written his father’s biography. The other was an interview with Elmore Leonard, who wrote the short story the film’s based on. I’ve heard Leonard’s name and associated him with short stories, but the interview was inspiring and insightful for writers. The power of this spare film, stuck with me for days. I’d definitely check out more of Daves’ films. [categorie film, review, New Years’ Resolution Film Challenge]

20
Mar
15

Chronicle of a Summer

chronicle-of-a-summer

chronicle-of-a-summer

I’d heard the term “cinema verite” and like many wrongly thought that referred to a film that’s extremely realistic. It turns out that’s not exactly right. For my classic movie resolution, I watched Chronicle of a Summer by the inventors of cinema verite, two French sociologists. Cinema verite is a sociological film that forces people to come to the truth. Released in 1961, captured on black and white film, which adds a filter of reality that color couldn’t strangely enough, Chronicle of a Summer sets out to prompt real people to come in contact with truth through interviews and discussions that begin with the simple question: Are you happy? The directors behind the film are Jean Rouch, an engineer turned ethnological filmmaker who mainly worked in Africa and Edgar Morin, a sociologist based in Paris.

With two directors, the film does have two distinct moods. Viewers can feel when the somber, analytical Morin is in charge or when the more playful Rouch has the reins. The film begins with a woman agreeing to interview people on the street asking subjects whether they’re happy. It turns out that in Paris in 1960 few were. Still the film gets under your skin. Though neither director has gone to film school, the creative shots grabbed me and did feel very real. At times the film just shows people, working in a factory, eating lunch, walking down a street. They’re shown in their individualism in a way that’s compelling and fresh. I liked some of the subjects more than others. For the most part, the subjects came off as sincere and they presented a snapshot of life in 1960. I found the ending simple and powerful. Rouch and Morin gather their subjects for a screening of the film followed by a discussion. We hear their reactions whether they thought some people were exhibitionists or authentic, whether the whole endeavor was true to life or indecent. People were honest and through this scene were elevated beyond just being “performers” or “subjects” to being co-creators. Chronicle of a Summer is a Criterion Collection film and as usual features some worthwhile bonuses. The best was an insightful interview with Faye Ginsberg, who worked with Jean Rouch after he made this film.

10
Mar
15

A Touch of Sin

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A Touch of Sin , directed by Jian Zhangke, blew me away.

I think I was expecting a movie about love affairs or something with a touch, i.e. a little corruption.

The film could be called A Massive Dose of Sin as it dramatizes four true events in modern China. True events, my mind still swirls.

The film features four stories that overlap a tad. First we see a villager who’s fed up with the corrupt village chief who promised that proceeds from the sale of a mine would be shared with the villagers. While the chief travels by private jet and owns a luxury sedan, the villagers have netted zero. When trying to speak to the chief gets him no where, the villager turns to violence — in a big way.

A Touch of Sin - Stills - Lian Rong (Li Meng) 02 Copyright Xstream Pictures (Beijing)

Later we meet a professional thief who returns to his village for his mother’s 70th birthday, a mistress who gives her lover an ultimatum and a factory worker who heads to a bigger city, with brighter lights and more action. None of these characters fare well. They get caught in the wheels of the greed of modern China. There’s plenty of violence and blood in each story, which I still am stunned that they’re all true. The cinematography is outstanding and the dialog spare. Jia shows us these tales and leaves us with little commentary or preaching on what to think about the brutality. The scenes all feel so real, so real that it’s scary.

A Touch of Sin won for best screenplay at Cannes in 2013.

I’m glad I saw it, but watching a second time would be too much for me.

06
Mar
15

Lots of Reviews to Post, but . . .

I’m back in China and happy to be in a climate where spring seems right around the corner.

Yet my VPN service no longer works in China. It’s a shame since I’ve got lots to write and photos to share, but I can only post via email and that doesn’t always work. I’m too much of a zombie due to jet lag to really grapple with a technology problem such as this. Tomorrow I’ll see if I can get service at a cafe with their wifi.

I had read news stories indicating that many VPN services were cut off in China. I’d hoped that the problem was temporary. Boy, am I glad I decided not to take an online class. I’m sure I’d miss the live classes and couldn’t access the library.

It’s such a vexing problem since online connections have become an important part of expat life. I wanted to review Broadchurch, the Downton Abbey finale, and a couple films.

Fingers crossed tomorrow I can get the VPN to work.

25
Feb
15

Downton Abbey Season 5.6-7

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The last two Downton Abbey episodes have really moved along. I’m delighted that the pace picked up. In episode 6 Cora discovered that Edith is Marigold’s mother and she made Violet and Rosamund take her to the hotel where they had fled to. As usual, Cora was quite composed, though disappointed that she’d been kept in the dark about Edith’s pregnancy as any good mother would. She cooked up the scheme to bring Marigold into Downton’s nursery under the pretext that the farmers couldn’t afford to keep her and Edith would adopt her. By the end of episode 7, Robert guessed that Marigold isn’t really adopted.

I was surprised that Rose’s engagement was so short. Suddenly, at episode 7’s start everyone’s preparing for her wedding. The only problem is that Atticus’ is Jewish and both his father and her mother don’t approve of mixed marriages. Rose’s mom, the ultimate sourpuss Susan goes as far as setting up Atticus by having a floozie take suggestive photos with him. Fortunately, the ruse doesn’t work. Nor does Susan’s announcement that she and Rose’s father Shrimpy are divorcing stop the wedding, although Atticus’ dad disapproves of divorce. We don’t know that much about Atticus, but he’s good looking and seems nice. I just hope he doesn’t die. Mary, Edith, Tom and Rose’s generation does not have a good track record for marriages. I suppose someone’s spouse bound to live. (I’ll count Edith in this list though she didn’t get a chance to marry her beloved.)

The Lord Gillingham/Mary relationship has been over and it seems he’s moved on. He’s realized that his former fiancée suits him best. Nothing’s moved forward with Mary and Blake and since Mary’s so critical and aloof, I think he can do better. The energy they shared when they saved the pigs has cooled.

The police investigation has slowly moved along.  In episode 6 the police seemed to have Mr. Bates in their crosshairs, but by episode 7, they brought Anna in for a line up and then arrested her. Anna! She can’t have done it, though she had a reason. It seems way out of character.

Tom is seriously considering going with his daughter to Boston to start a new life. I really hope he doesn’t. He adds a down-to-earth perspective to the family and I doubt life in Boston would be preferable. It’s good for Tom to bond with Sybil’s family and he can find love in the village, he just needs to seek out someone with similar values and decent manners. He has valuable work at Downton and couldn’t be replaced.

The episode ended very much like season one of The Village did, with the ceremony for the unveiling of the WWI memorial.

23
Feb
15

Jeux Interdict, Forbidden Games

Forbidden-Games-22168_9

Set in WWII, Jeux Inderdict (Forbidden Games) follows Paulette, a girl of maybe 5, who’s fleeing Paris with her parents. Refugees run along a country road as I suppose they do now in the Middle East. As war planes bomb a bridge, refugees seek cover. Paulette gets separated from her parents as she runs after her little dog. Soon, both parents and her dog are killed by German bullets. Paulette’s left to wander amongst the refugees.

Eventually, Paulette crosses paths with Michel Dollé, an older farm boy who’s searching for a cow that’s scared by the bombs and shooting. Michel brings Paulette to his poor family and they take her in. There’s no other place for her to go, other than to the neighbors, whom they view as snobs. The father does not want the neighbors to get a good write up in the local paper for taking in a war orphan.

Though he’s probably about 9 or 10, Michel’s the most educated of his family. He knows all the prayers by heart and regales Paulette with facts about animals and religion.

forbidden-owl2

Paulette’s been carrying around her dead puppy and Michel convinces her to bury it. When Paulette sees a cross in the Dollé’s house, she’s curious. She never knew what they were for. Thus Michel leads Paulette to build their own private cemetery in a deserted mill and they begin to steal crosses from wherever they can get them–graves, churches, hearses.

The adults can’t understand who’s taking the crosses and the rivalry between the neighbors grows.

All in all, Forbidden Games  is a natural, haunting film that mixes innocence, war, poverty, generosity and faith. It’s a simple, yet profound film, one I doubt anyone could make today.




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