Monk with a Camera

The documentary Monk with a Camera chronicles the spiritual journey of Nicholas Vreeland, whose grandmother was famed Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Early in his life Nicky was a stylish, well-heeled, privileged boy. He became fascinated by photography in high school and after graduating college became a professional. While traveling the world he photographed the Dalai Lama and became fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism. At the age of 31 Nicky went to India, knowing no Tibetan, where he joined a Tibetan monastery. 

The 2014 film recounts his life with interviews of Nicky and of his family, old photos and film of his monastery and trips around the world. Richard Here pops up a lot with commentary. He went from jet setting youth to an abbot of a Tibetan monastery. Much of the film concentrates on his effort to raise money to build a new monastery since the community had grown and was bursting at its seams. Reluctantly, Nicky decides to fund the building by selling his photos in world capitals.

I enjoyed the colorful landscapes and the beautiful photos. Nicky, his mentor and his family were insightful and kept my interest. I do wish the film delved more into the details of Tibetan Buddhism. I was left with questions about the daily life of Tibetan monks. I wondered if Nicky had any “dark nights” of the soul and if so, how’d he overcome them. Unconsciously, I guess I wanted a Buddhist Seven Story Mountain. Still I enjoyed and recommend this documentary. 

Masculin Féminin

In general I don’t like Jean-Luc Godard’s films, yet there’s always something in them that intrigues.

Jean-Pierre Léaud (best known for 400 Blows) plays Paul, the kind of lost guy Léaud plays. Paul is an activist, who likes to spray paint his views on Vietnam on cars and walls. He’s in search of love, but awkward and unsure as he pursues Madeleine, a cute singer he meets in a café. Madeleine is also naive and unsure about Paul or love in general. Her main interest is the release of her new record. 

The best part of Masculin Féminin is the dialog between Paul and his hooligan pal, Madeline and her friends as they answer questions about sexuality, love and the issues of the late 1960s. Godard presents these kids as the generation that embraces Coca-Cola and Marxism. 

The Criterion Collection DVD has some good supplements including two interviews — one from 1966 and the other from 2005 — with Chantal Goya, who played Madeleine. 

The film has stuck with me for its look at the innocence of young people who were experiencing a changing society and the film’s abrupt ending. I like how different it felt but also found it very unsettling. Major events aren’t shown or predictable in the least, which seemed like a bit of a con.

Solaris (2002)

Solaris (2002): A weak adaptation/remake

From the first scenes, Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris was a weak film compared with Andrei Tarkovsky’s. The 2002 film begins with the hero Chris (George Clooney) preparing for his space mission. Chris’ environment on earth mimics living in a spaceship. His apartment is cramped and heavy on metallics — metallic counters, cabinets, we see no soft furnishings. Flashbacks show Chris meeting his wife Rheya. It’s a glib, slick encounter showing two attractive people getting together because they’re both good looking and a little clever. I’m not a fan of these superficial matches. This relationship is central to the story so I want their marriage to be built on more than looks. 

Chris is charged with going to the spaceship orbiting Solaris, a liquid planet with bizarre qualities including the ability to influence the astronaut’s perceptions and thoughts. Crew members have died and someone needs to find out what’s going wrong. Both of the remaining crew members are cryptic and nervous about their experience. Chris isn’t going to get a clear answer from either the hyper Snow or the fearful Gordon, who hint at the weirdness that Chris soon experiences when Rheya, whom we learn through flashbacks killed herself, begins to visit him. The first visit freaks Chris out and he tricks Rheya into getting locked inside a vehicle that he releases out into space to get rid of her. Yet that fails because Rheya returns revealing how bizarre Solaris is. Moreover, Rheya and the other crew members’ visitors aren’t human. They aren’t really who they seem to be, but rather they’re non-human creatures conjured up through each person’s consciousness. 

The complexities of Solaris worked with Tarkovsky, but not with Soderbergh who offers less weirdness (e.g. no library scene where everything floats around), no frame set in the countryside of earth, which offers great contrast and thus substance and insight. None of the performances had much warmth or humanity. None pulled me in. This Solaris was a filmmaking exercise rather than a journey to a new psychological world, 

Even if I hadn’t seen Tarkovsky’s earlier film, I don’t think the this version would leave much of a mark on me. It’s certainly not one of Soderbergh’s better films. 

Tempest (1982)

I got the this movie by accident. When I read Shakespeare’s The Tempest for my book club, I wanted to watch it performed. I got this film which is a loose version. I put this aside as I wanted Shakespeare’s language. This weekend I watched this 1982 version with John Cassavetes and Gina Rowlands. 

The story of a midlife crisis, in Tempest acclaimed architect Philip Dimitrius is dissatisfied with his work and his marriage to a lesser extent. His wife Antonia and daughter Miranda (Molly Ringwald) try to give him support and space, but he can’t find meaning with his life and gets more and more irascible. No red Ferrari is going to help this man though a good philosophy course could. He has nothing to give anyone though he does offer a bit of encouragement to his wife when she announces that she’s returning to the stage.

The film jumps back and forth between the New York Park Avenue and a desolate Greek isle inhabited by goats and a crazy guy named Kalabani (Raul Julia) where Philip and Miranda and Philip’s girlfriend Aretha (Susan Sarandon) wind up.

Philip’s search for meaning has him consulting his father, his client, an uber weathy business man. Nothing helps. He kvetches, gets drunk, embarrasses his wife and yells at Miranda. I had no sympathy for him whatsoever — until he sees his wife out with his client Mr. Big Bucks. When he confronts Antonia, she asks for a divorce. Off Philip goes to Greece with Miranda in tow. In Athens he meets a Aretha, a singer. Romance ensues. When Antonia and Mr. Big Bucks track him down, he takes Miranda and to a desolate island. 

The film has many parallels to the Shakespearean play. The deserted island, the betrayal is Philip and Antonia’s divorce (though Philip played a role too), rather than immersing himself in alchemy, in exile, Philip immerses himself in baseball statistics. Kalabani, like Calaban, shows the hero how to live on the island, and in turn the newcomer shares life off the island with him. 

For much of the film, the story jumps in time and from New York to Greece. Cassavetes, Rowland and Sarandon were dynamic and engaging, yet the story often drags and my attention waned particularly when I got to much of the noisy, neurotic, upper crust world. The complaints about marriage were very much like those in Woody Allen films and got tedious. 

The island was beautiful and the main characters were rather compelling, but I wouldn’t say this is a must-see film. At 2 hours 20 minutes, an edit would have improved the film.

Whisper of the Heart

From M’s famed Studio Ghilbli, Whisper of the Heart begins with the much loved John Denver tune, “Country Road.” The Japanese love “Country Road” and you’ll hear it in schools, businesses, hummed by people walking around. (The Carpenters and Beatles are also BIG.) 

Spunky, bookworm and middle schooler Shizuku wants to write some new “Country Road” lyrics for her junior high graduation, but this perfectionist can’t get it quite right. Her high school entrance exams, which are super important to the future of all Japanese students in determining their options in life, loom, but Shizuku has other priorities and shrugs off test prep. Her best friend Yūko Harada leans on Shizuku for advice in dealing with a love triangle, while also offering understanding.

While delivering her father’s lunch, Shizuku follows a fat cat (literally a cat that’s too well-fed) and discovers an intriguing antique shop where there’s a seemingly enchanted cat figurine called the Baron, who longs for his love. The shop owner is a wise old man, i.e. mentor, who helps Shizuku with her search for understanding and direction.

A patron of a library that still has a card catalog and check out cards where you can see the names of previous checkouts Shizuku notices a weird coincidence that a mysterious reader has borrowed exactly the same books she checks out. Who is this person? Shizuku imagines a paragon, but when she learns his identity is infuriated that it’s a boy who annoys her to no end. To make matters worse he loves her. 

Could things be more aggravating for this girl?

Whisper of the Heart shows so much of Japanese culture from the junior high where entrance exams hang over everyone’s head, teasing is rampant, yet kids do want the best for their classmates, in a way only kids who’ve known each other since kindergarten and belong to a culture that prioritizes group belonging can. 

I was struck by how upset Shizuku was because as a third year middle school student (probably 14 or 15 years old) she hadn’t yet figured out her career direction. I liked how assertive she was no matter whom she was dealing with and how reasonable the adults were. Parents, the teacher in the lunchroom, the antique shop owner, all had some wisdom and insight to share. There was a teacher who reprimanded students who weren’t studying or ready to answer a question, but isn’t that okay? Isn’t that his job? 

In Japan high school is optional, though well over 90% of students do go to high school, thus this was why Shizuku and Amasawa consider foregoing high school. I was impressed with Amasawa’s dedication to crafting top quality violins and actually working towards that end. That’s another very Japanese quality of the film — dedicating long hours to excelling in a field. 

I loved the details in the animation, which includes rust on stoplight poles, lace curtains, dingy concrete walls and a myriad of perfect details. 

I highly recommend this charming film which will transport you to Tokyo and introduce you to a delightful girl. 

Stalker (1979)

If you give it a chance, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker mesmerizes and baffles. Made in the USSR in 1979, the Stalker takes place in a decaying, post-apocalyptic world that’s both repulsive and dripping in sludge yet hypnotic. 

Plot: In a dystopian city, two men, the Writer and the Professor, pay the Stalker to lead them into the forbidden Zone. If they can make it into the Zone into the inner sanctum, the Room the Stalker tells them their deepest desire will be fulfilled. Don’t worry the Writer is sharp enough to call the Stalker into question.

Every step of the way, they face danger. Violence? Imprisonment? It’s unspecified and you never see the who or what is the actual foe, which makes the tension all the higher. 

Thoughts:The dialog is poetic and philosophical. Throughout the story the men bicker, cheat and challenge each other. I did admire them for at least trying for more, for betterment despite being surrounded by the ugly and hopeless.

Writer (left), Stalker, Professor

Drenched, oily, dark, craggy the setting is incredible. Even in the Zone, the paradise they aimed for, the verdant fields are overgrown and look like Chernobyl 20 years after the nuclear disaster. There isn’t one inch of space that’s clean or inviting. And this atmosphere will haunt me and intrigue me.

I doubt this film could be remade by any other nationality. Every aspect is just so modern Russian. It visualizes what an oppressive, corrupt kleptocracy is: toxic, neglected, fetid, bleak.  

While the story is oblique and the characters, while sympathetic, are unlikeable, Stalker intrigued me so much that I’m sure I’ll watch it again and again. The visuals get inside your head, but not in a bad way.

Stalker is a challenging film. It often moves slowly, but the camera work of these slow scenes is tremendous. The frame of the story, particularly with Stalker’s mutant daughter who may have paranormal powers, mystifies rather than enlightens, but Tarkovsky makes it work. Few could.

Topaz (1969)

Topaz trailer

Although a Cold War drama should still have impact, Alfred Hitchcock’s Topaz didn’t. Based on a novel by Leon Uris, Topaz plods along telling the story of a French spy André Devereaux who agrees to go to Cuba to get top secret documents outlining the transport of Russian missiles to Cuba. This mission was instigated based on intel from a Russian official who defects to America and spills the beans to a NATO official Mike Nordstrom, who tapped André to work for the US. André has a network of agents from New York to Havana who risk their lives to help him.

After nearly getting caught in an operation in New York, despite the pleas of his wife to mind his own business and not help the Americans — or to rendezvous with his Cuban lover Juanita, André flies to Havana. Juanita gets her servants to take pictures of the missiles while pretending to be on a picnic. The couple are arrested for espionage, but do manage to hide the film so that André can get it later.

After a couple love scenes with Juanita, who’s as pretty and as superficially developed as his wife, André obtains and hides the film. But before he leaves, his nemesis Parra, a Castro surrogate, storms into Juanita’s mansion. A fiery, jealous argument ensues, and Parra shoots Juanita to save her from inevitable torture, the sort that’s in store for her servants and that Parra no doubt employs regularly. André escapes back to DC where he meets Mike and the Russian defector.

Here he learns that the French government and intelligence office is full of corrupt officials who’re in bed with Russia. André also faces his wife who’s moved out and his grown daughter, who knows about the affair.

The plot moves to a climax where André and his son-in-law work to bring down and expose the French no-goodniks. The ending seen on the DVD is a whimper rather than a bang. The DVD included the two other endings and both, for my money, outperform the “Airport” ending. The fact that there are three endings indicates that the film’s production was troubled.

Indeed Topaz had three screenwriters and while Topaz was being shot the script was getting rewrites. That’s often the case and doesn’t always spell trouble, but in this instance it does.

At 127 minutes, the film plods along, It’s hard to believe but originally While there are some twists and turns, the characters seemed wooden and poorly developed. Everyone seemed to be wearing a mask and authentic reactions to betrayal, jealousy and infidelity were missing. Even an underlying emotion was missing.

Topaz isn’t one of Hitchcock’s greats and I recommend films like Rear Window, Vertigo or even Torn Curtain over it.

The Killers (1964)

I had to watch the 1964 version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. After all, it was in the same DVD set. I didn’t have great expectations, but this powerful film captivated me.

Starring Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson, with Ronald Reagan in a smaller role, The Killers begins at a school for the blind. Two hit men enter looking for Johnny North (John Cassavetes). The rough up the blind secretary and plow their way into North’s class for mechanics. They shoot North dead and make their escape. The contrast between a school for the blind and ruthless criminals is powerful.

After killing North, Charlie Storm (Marvin) and Lee (Clu Gulager) are on a training Charlie can’t help ruminating over why Johnny didn’t try to evade his murder. He completely accepted it. Johnny was so unlike every other victim. Why?

Another question is Who? Who paid Charlie and Lee $25K when they’d never been paid more than $10K for a hit. Again, why? Why so much?

killers 675

So Charlie and Lee switch trains in Chicago and go down to Miami and begin to find out all they can about Johnny North. They soon learn that Johnny was a race car driver, that he fell head over heels for Sheila (Dickinson), a beauty who loves racing and Johnny. She keeps her sugar daddy Micky Farmer. Wining and dining Sheila leaves Johnny ill prepared for the big race. Not only that Micky is in the stands and is not pleased with what he sees with his binoculars. Disaster strikes when Johnny loses control of his car and winds up losing.

It’s clear that Johnny should avoid Sheila at all costs, but he just can’t and she winds up entangling him in Micky’s plan to rob a mail truck that’s carrying a million bucks.

Though the story’s been told before and it’s all done in flashback, The Killer’s kept my attention. The characters are cold blooded, yet passionate. Not one is able to walk away from danger. They have to play the game out to the bloody end. This film has 1960’s cool and a gripping plot. I do recommend seeing both the 1946 and 1964 versions. While you’re at it check on the Tarkovsky short.

Fun Facts

  • The Killers (1964) was supposed to be a TV film, but it had too much violence and sex so it was released in theaters.
  • It was the only film with Ronald Reagan as a bad guy and he hated the film.
  • The director Don Siegel was supposed to direct the 1946 one.
  • Siegel wanted to call the film Johnny North, but the bean counters at Universal said no film with a direction like “North” ever made much money.
  • They shot the last scene first as was usual for a Universal film. Lee Marvin was dead drunk and came 5 hours late. Despite his state, he nailed the scene.
  • This version doesn’t contain a single line of dialog from the short story.

 

The Killers (1956)

As a student, Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky collaborated on a short film based on Hemingway’s The Killers, which I found on YouTube. At 19 minutes long it packs a punch just as the 1946 version does.

Tarkovsky directed the first and third scenes. He also plays a customer who whistles a tune while he’s in the diner. According to a Criterion Collection essay that tune was common on Voice of America and in Russia came to represent freedom.The Killers is a good introduction to Tarkovsky whose masterpiece Andrei Rublev is over 3 hours long.

The Killers (1946)

Based on the 1927 short story by Ernest Hemingway, The Killers is straight up film noir. Directed by Robert Siodmak, he film begins with two hit men entering a sleepy small town and terrorizing the staff at the dinner. When they find out where the “Old Swede” (Burt Lancaster) lives, they complete their job. The odd thing is the Old Swede expects and accepts his fate.”

Reardon, An insurance investigator, is called in to find the Swede’s beneficiary. As the investigation progresses we learn about the Swede’s life and how he went from a failing boxer, to a robber, and how his love for a femme fatal named Kitty (Ava Gardner) was his downfall.

The insurance company doesn’t see the worth of pursuing the Swede’s decline or the big heist of $250,000 as it will minimally impact the ledger balance, but Reardon persuades his boss for a few days leeway. The story mainly consists of flashbacks, which are taboo in Hollywood, at least according to most screenwriting books, but they work. Each old acquaintance or lady friend has insight into the Swede.

the killers 1946 5

The Criterion Collection DVD comes with bonus commentaries and I recommend watching the one with award winning master writer, Stuart M. Kaminsky who explains the birth of film noir, which was brought over to the US from German directors who emigrated here and how the films got darker and darker with time. Then the New Wave French became enamored of the style and coined the term Film Noir. Kaminsky offers his insights into the success of the story and both the 1946 and 1964 film versions. The DVD set has both of these versions and next I’ll watch the 1964 film with Lee Marvin and Angie Dickinson.