How Loving Vincent was Made

See how this beautiful film was made.

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The Salt of the Earth

Another great recommendation from the Skokie Public Library’s Fall Movie Challenge, The Salt of the Earth introduced me to the photographer Sebastião Salgado, who traveled the world capturing beautiful images of cultures in every corner of the world.

The beginning covers Salgado’s early life when he left economics and became a photographer, a risky career change for a married man with a young son. His photos are breathtaking and his books show events like the famine in Ethiopia and the war in Bosnia. This Wim Wenders film, contains lots of Salgado’s images as well as his observations.

The last third of the film presents Salgado’s efforts to take his father’s drought-ridden farm and restore it to a forest. The land was parched and most plants and trees had died from poor management. Salgado’s wife, Leila suggested they return the land to how it had been before the farm existed. As wild an idea as that was, knowing little about forestry, the pair began to plant trees. Decades later it’s a rain forest with waterfalls and creeks. This land had looked like Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. Astounding.

All in all, The Salt of the Earth is a change of pace. There were times when I couldn’t take much more of the photos of famine victims, but there’s plenty of captivating photos that aren’t of such dire situations. So I do recommend The Salt of the Earth.

Boy

A Sundance film, Boy tells the story of the kid whose name is Boy. Set in New Zealand, Boy’s grandmother has to leave town to attend a funeral and leaves Boy, age 12 or so, in charge of his brother and 4 cousins. Its plot is like The Cat in the Hat. Once the grandma’s gone, things go out of hand. At first just a little bit as Boy makes weird dinners for his charges.

Soon his father, who’s just gotten out of jail. Boy idolizes his dad, who’s promised to take him to see Michael Jackson and who impresses him with his fantastic stories.

The story has lots of charm and delights with special effects and child-like animation. I enjoyed all the Kiwi characters and getting glimpse into a slice of New Zealand. The ending wasn’t particularly strong, but all in all, Boy is a fun film with lots of heart and a touch of sadness.

Beauty and the Beast

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From the library, I received a Fall Movie Challenge recommendation of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). It’s a terrific movie that portrays a dream world better than any film I’ve ever seen. This live-action film offers an atmosphere that surpasses most animated films, which are easier to make other-worldly.

Cocteau follows the original fairytale’s plot more closely than the Disney version. He shows a father with financial troubles, two complaining, selfish daughters, one filial, hardworking daughter and a lazy, wastrel of a son. The dynamics of the siblings was key to the drama, I think. From the start we see the brother’s ne’er’do-well pal wooing Belle, with no luck.

After some financial ups and downs, the father on a journey through the forest and stay at a bizarre castle where the statues seem alive as do the arms holding the candles along the wall, mistakenly picks a rose for Belle unleashing the Beast’s anger. Soon Belle agrees to return with the Beast to his castle in lieu of his taking her father’s life.

The castle is one of the best parts of the film. The plants that grow wildly throughout the home and the living statues and lights are freaky and enchanting.

This film is intriguing because in large part to how wild the environment and Beast seem.. Thus while the story is a fairytale, it will appeal to adults with imagination. It would scare young children, but they can enjoy the Disney film. Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is a wild, imaginative trip for classic film buffs.

Women’s Balcony

Women’s Balcony took me into a new world, to an old neighborhood in Jerusalem where during a bar mitzvah the balcony where the women worship crashes to the ground. The temple is closed leaving the community lost spiritually. The old rabbi is so upset about his wife who’s fallen and in the hospital. Since he can’t lead them, the community is in flux.

After finding their temple chained up and unsafe for use, the men are at a loss about where to pray each day. They doubt they’ll find the 10 men required to hold their daily prayers. Fate sends a young rabbi who soon brings plenty of men to pray. He’s soon seen as their rescuer.

However, when this rabbi shares his very traditional ideas about women’s deportment and takes over the plans for reconstruction, he drives a wedge between the men and women. Furthermore, he divides the women as some take his chastising to heart and start to observe by covering their hair and dressing more modestly. The more liberal women feel betrayed.

The rabbi’s reconstructed temple is completely unacceptable to the women, who feel they’ve been given a second class space.

The story was compelling and took me into new territory. I loved how the characters were portrayed. There were no one dimensional stereotypes. All were shown with understanding and everyone was acting from strongly held beliefs so they had my sympathy. I also loved how sweetly relationships like marriages and neighbors were shown. Woman’s Balcony is an absorbing film that has universal appeal.

The film is on DVD, but I saw it on Kanopy, a new streaming service that my library offers. The one problem was Kanopy had some buffering issues, so if you can, get the DVD.

Yojimbo

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I didn’t expect to like Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) as I knew it was a samurai film and fighting’s not my thing, but since I’m on a Kurosawa roll, I figured I should see it anyway. Boy, am I glad I did. The film offers unexpected wit and an unforgettable, surly hero, named Sanjuro.

Sanjuro wanders about the country after his master and retinue have lost. He comes to a town caught in the crossfire of two gangs. The townspeople live cowering in fear. After Sanjuro displays his swordsmanship with finesse the gang leaders try to lure him with money so he’ll play for their side. Ever cagey, Sanjuro’s wise to their game and trickery and double-crossing follow. There is no good side to join.

Sanjuro’s irascible but not evil. He does save a family knowing that’ll cost him. He gives them his gold coins to flee, but when they try to thank him he shouts that he hates anyone who’s pathetic and if they cry he’ll kill them. It’s all tongue in cheek and such humor in the context is a poke at the Western or samurai genre movies.

Also, the soundtrack is pure 1960s Western music, which adds a layer of fun as it winks at Hollywood and films in general. Another aspect of humor is the buffoonery of the other characters one gang’s nincompoops are just as inept as the other’s. Sanjuro operates on a whole different plane.

Toshio Mifune plays Sanjuro masterfully. He shows more with a glance or flick of a toothpick than most award-winning actors of any era. If he can convince a Western/fighting movie anti-fan like me to eagerly desire to watch the three other films, his performance must be stellar. Kurosawa made a lot of movies with Mifune and once said that:

Mifune had a kind of talent I had never encountered before in the Japanese film world. It was, above all, the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding. The ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression; Mifune needed only three. The speed of his movements was such that he said in a single action what took ordinary actors three separate movements to express. He put forth everything directly and boldly, and his sense of timing was the keenest I had ever seen in a Japanese actor. And yet with all his quickness, he also had surprisingly fine sensibilities. – Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography.

Tatsuya Nakadai, who starred in Human Condition, Ran, and several other classics, appears as a loyal member of one of the gangs. He’s set apart as the one gangster with a gun, which he shoots with precision as a counter to Sanjuro’s very traditional swordsmanship. His character is threatening and probably the sharpest of the bunch though no match for Sanjuro.

This film inspired Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, in fact it’s said to be almost a carbon copy. I may just watch that too, but I’ve become such a Mifune fan, I doubt anyone can fill his shoes.

Shoot the Piano Player

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Charlie & Léna, the waitress

Inspired by American B movies, Shoot the Piano Player begins with Chico, a ne’er-do-well tracking down Charlie, his brother who’s a classic concert pianist turned bar room piano player. Two thugs are chasing Chico who’s run off with the whole pot that they ripped off in some heist. Charlie wants no part of Chico and his other brother’s two bit crimes. Along the way Charlie recalls his first marriage and early fame as a concert pianist, woos a beautiful, young waitress, evades the two thugs, murders his boss in self-defense, and runs off to the woods to join his brothers.

An adaptation of a novel by David Goodis, whom I’d never heard of, Shoot the Piano Player is a noir story, which beautiful and often clever cinematography. Though it was made in 1960, it seem fresher than many films made today. The love scenes are so beautifully done in a way that is totally lost with modern filmmakers. I wonder whether the black and white film of that day are part of the reason. There is plenty of visual wit and intelligent repartee.

Shoot the Piano Player was not a success when it first came out, but later was rediscovered and loved. People who know Charles Aznavour, the star, think of him as a singer, but actually his first goal was to act. When he couldn’t get acting roles, he’d sing.

This film, Truffaut’s second after the successful The 400 Blows, features a couple actors from his first film. Charlie’s impish little brother and Chico were both in The 400 Blows.

Shoot the Piano Player has plenty of surprises and twists and turns, that it’s sure to delight with its sensitivity, innovation and humor. I know I’ll watch this again and again.

I watched with the commentary on so I could hear all about the filmmaking. Get the Criterion Collection edition with interviews with Truffaut and Aznavour.