AFTER LIFE. Hirokazu Kore-eda, 1998. 118min.
As much a comment upon filmmaking as upon the next world, Kore-eda's imagined afterlife as a weigh station through which you pass only after choosing one memory to recreate and live with for eternity borders upon the magical. While lacking the formal grace of Maborosi (1996), Afterlife is still breathtakingly assured, making use of a hand-held camera in order to capture the stories as they unfold on the set. Culling 15 people from over 500 interviewed, he allows people to tell their own stories, unscripted; even the actors were encouraged to improvise, and only half of their lines were written beforehand. It's amazing that Kore-eda was able to follow so many disparate stories and work them into a coherent whole, commenting upon the way in which we live our lives, the way in which we remember them, and the way in which we want to be remembered. It's rare that such a quiet film can so adeptly wrestle with such large questions. It is a true gem. If art is supposed to make you look at the world differently, Afterlife manages to surpasses that qualification; it makes you look at your own life differently. 03.11.01
ALIEN. Ridley Scott, 1979. 117min.
Perhaps the most suspensful of the four films, this introduction to the series is notable for its amazingly detailed set design, courtesy of H.R. Geiger. The silent opening belies the thrills to come as the character of Ripley is first imagined by Sigourney Weaver. It's hard to look at this film without thinking of what comes after, and it's interesting to note how the character has come into her own. While not as inventive as Blade Runner (1982), Alien still has the ability to make you jump. And seeing those sets in widescreen reminds you how grand a sci-fi movie can still be.
ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN. Alan J. Pakula, 1976. 138min.
In light of the recent Times article extolling the virtues of this film, I finally tracked down a copy that wasn't rented. It's every bit as well-crafted as Mr. Soderberg contends. Following the investigation of Watergate by Messrs. Woodward and Bernstein (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) the film incredibly manages to build suspense from information we already know. Held together by Pakula's tight direction and excellent compositions, this history lesson becomes a taut little thriller whose two hour running time is over before you know it. Unfortunately, it's almost over a little too quickly as the conclusion and denoument speed headlong towards the end, destroying the carefully rendered story and pacing that had built up to it.
A MAN AND A WOMAN (Un Homme et une Femme). Claude Lelouch, 1966. 102min.
Not much happens in this French new wave film. A man and a woman, each with a child, meet at the boarding school to which they've sent their children. He offers her a ride, they talk about their past, they fall in love. But from such meagre plot, the film offers gorgeous cinematography, a great soundtrack, surprising insight into its characters, and the glib approach to moviemaking that proves a hallmark of the French new wave. From the opening scenes I found myself surprisingly engrossed through to the end as we learn first about the history of one character and then that of the other, and how personal history affects the present.
AYNEH, aka THE MIRROR. Jafar Panahi, 1997. 94min.
It may be strange that I recommend this movie having not recommended The White Balloon (1995), but in retrospect, I am liking White Balloon more and more. Panahi's second film, The Mirror begins much as White Balloon (throughout, similarities abound), with the actress Mina Mohammad Khani wanting for something; instead of a goldfish however, in Mirror, it is home. Midway through the film, it reveals its twist, as the main actress decides she no longer wants to be in a film and actually does want to go home. The film crew, uncertain what to do, decides to follow her, and the film then becomes documentary. Comparing the two halves, the similarities become apparent, and the old question of art imitating life rears its head. However, as we follow the girl in her actual pursuit of home, we begin to realize that art is life, and vice versa, out on the street, before our very eyes. Interesting as well are the way in which women are portrayed through the eyes of the little girl, observing as we are the ways in which women are subjected in Iranian society. [Note, the opening shot as it revolves around a square, setting scene, is an amazingly well thought-out and executed. Also interesting to note is that as the film follows a younger protagonist, all shots originate from her prespective; it is as though we are watching the world from our navels, offering a new way of looking around us.] 03.24.01
APARAJITO. Satyajit Ray, 1956. 127min.
The second in Ray's Apu trilogy, the film picks up what's left over from the family at the end of Pather Panchali (1955), finding them in the city for which they had left their village. Continuing to evoke India beautifully, the black and white cinematography is second to none, and the camera is always perfectly placed to underline an emotion, or to record the bare expressions of the film's actions. While it doesn't have the amazing resonance of the first film, Aparajito quietly stages the inevitable separation of Apu from his mother, and explores the maternal conflicts that ensue with immense compassion. An accomplished sequel to the masterpiece that is Pather Panchali. 02.24.01
APUR SANSAR aka THE WORLD OF APU. Satyajit Ray, 1959. 117min.
The conclusion of Ray's epic trilogy completes one of the most wonderful filmed cycles I have ever seen. Taken together, the Apu trilogy embodies life itself; that they can all be so well crafted and so perfectly composed bespeaks genius. If Ray never shot another frame of film, he would be one of my favorite directors; if these three films were one, it could very well be my favorite film of all time. The scenes between Apu, his wife, and his child, are filled with all the pathos of humanity. A truly grand achievement, I can think of no other set of films that have moved me as much. -- A technical aside, note the unbelievable composition and blocking of the end, how the characters move across the screen in the final scenes, their relative distances from each other always, somehow, pefectly balanced. A bravura performance that brings the opening of Ford's The Searchers (1956) to mind. 03.02.01
L'AVVENTURA. Michelangelo Antonionini, 1960. 145min.
Ostensibly the search for a missing friend, this spectacularly shot film explores the relationships (or lack thereof) between the friends who have lost her and, ultimately, the disconnection within themselves. One of the first modern films, exploring the dis-humanity between people, the characters wander about a barren landscape (finding their friend--who has already said she wants only to be alone--gone while stopped on what appears to be a small deserted island), the islands and empty spaces illustrate without what is found within. Focusing on two characters, the best friend and the fiancee, it follows them as they continue their search through Italy. Again, the cinematography is brilliant. From the initial shot following Maria--the woman who eventually is found missing--the camerawork is impeccable. [As an aside, the scenes in which Maria is discovered missing seemed to find an echo in Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975).]
ADAPTATION. Spike Jonze, 2002. 114min.
Using an overly-mastubatory post-modern device, Adaptation plays as a film about the adaptation of a novel which in turn fuels the film itself. The device becomes grating after a time, and Nicholas Cage is unable to keep the film afloat. While there are interesting themes regarding the nature of adaptation and also the relative interest of the subject one is adapting to one's own interest, the film unspools somewhat predictably until an over-the-top ending that wraps things up a little too nicely as it brings the story lines together. It does, however, manage to again use real-life touchstones to arresting effect. Perhaps the best moments of the film are the most ridiculous, as Kaufman, the serious screenwriter, must debate his twin brother (and altar ego), Kaufman, the screenwriter who wants to write a popular whammy. 12.02
AKIRA. Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988. 124min.
Notable as the film that sparked a worldwide interest in anime, the film unfortunately is an overlong, somewhat bloated effort. Adapted from a long running comic, it seems that there were too many elements to include, resulting in a slightly confusing abbreviated text. While the final explosions and initial chase sequences rock, the social critique and ultimate message get a little lost in the debris and verbal attacks the characters lay on each other. And the violence, while limited to cartoon characters, is enough to make one wince. 04.01.01
ALL THE REAL GIRLS. David Gordon Green, 2003. 108min.
For his second film, writer/director David Gordon Green returns to the small towns of the south with which he is familiar. All the Real Girls is effectively a character sketch of a cad who's slept with everyone in the small town he lives in. When his best friend's sister comes back from college, he finds himself falling in love and regretting his past. While similar in tone to George Washington, there's less going on between the characters, and each of their lives seem less fleshed out. With children, it could be that there's less life to express, but in All the Real Girls, the film begins to feel somewhat hollow; that the episodes don't add up to as much as they are supposed to. And it's too bad, since there are some great scenes and real honesty tossed in among the filler. Tim Orr does another fine job as cinematographer. 11.04
AMARCORD. Federico Fellini, 1974. 127min.
A series of fantastic episodes, Amacord (which translates into English as "I remember") is the semi-autobiographical film Fellini made about growing up in a small seaside town. While the cinematography is very fine, and the scenes that take as its subject the denizens of the town are enchanting, the bulk of the film concerns itself with an overly puerile memory of his family; too often obsessed with bathroom humor, these scenes ultimately undermine the film. The film proves less than the sum of its parts, often shifting its focus in bewildering ways. A dramatic undercurrent of the father's involvement in the resistance movement against the Fascists surfaces when he is taken in for questioning, and then forgotten. A narrator appears on occasion in an apparent attempt to bridge the sections and introduce us to the town itself, but his asides do little to further the film or enhance our understanding of his surroundings. However, when he choreographs his actors and their expressions in vignettes that explore the simple pleasures and confusions of growing up, Amarcord shines (for example, a scene in a theatre, the boy's confession, the meeting with a cruise ship). Unfortunately, there are not enough such scenes, nor are they connected well enough to justify the over two-hour running length. And while it can be argued that a child's memory of his past may twist and turn, and will often be derailed by prurient interests, it seldom makes for terribly compelling viewing, especially when there is no discernable narrative arc towards which such recollections build. It is something like a grandfather rambling on, leaving one new thread unexplored for another just because it comes along. Barring a straight narrative thread, the film takes as its framing device four seasons of youth, culminating in a happy wedding as the guests bid us adieu. It's a touching conclusion, there is something uncertain about it, as if yet another dark corner is left unexplored. And now that I've said this, I'm sure there are a lot of people who are going to throw up their hands in consternation. :-) [01.24.02]
ANGEL DUST (Enjeru dasuto). Sogo Ishii, 1994. 117min.
While a beautiful film (the shots of Tokyo bring the awesome, but strangely distant photographs of Andreas Gursky to mind) the story unfortunately begins to unravel halfway through the film, and this serial/psycho thriller loses its tension and grip. Still, there are those scenes that return to the mind, in particular the first shot where you get a glimpse of the killer. It's unfortunate the story couldn't be as tight as the cinematography. Otherwise, it could have been just the antidote we need to such drivel as Hannibal (2001, Ridley Scott), and which could even have outclassed Silence of the Lambs (1991, Jonathan Demme).
AS TEARS GO BY. Wong Kar-Wai, 1988. 102min.
A fairly run-of-the-mill Hong Kong action film detailing the underworld life of a tough gangster who wants out, but is forced to come to the rescue of his "little brother". Wong Kar-Wai's first film, it's interesting to see where he got his start, but lacking the brilliance of his later work.
AUDITION [aka ODISHON]. Takashi Miike, 1999. 115min.
Unfortunately, for much of its running length, Audition seems uncertain what it wants to be. At times veering into comedy, the creepiness the film is known for doesn't really start to seep in until over an hour into the film. Soon after, a montage that calls to mind bad a Paul Auster film (Lulu on the Bridge ) attempts to grapple with more serious themes and ideas from seemingly nowhere, and the film takes a very gratuitously sadistic turn. Are the darker themes present somewhere in the first 2/3 of the film? Yes, but they're buried beneath the schitzophrenic direction, and the eventual conclusion doesn't seem entirely warranted by the main character's actions. A widower at the behest of his son decides to look for a new wife; his friend, a TV producer suggests they set up an audition for a show he's working with the secondary motive of allowing the man to interview potential wives. From this premise (treated humorously) the film veers into Fatal Attraction [1987, Adrian Lyne] territory before settling into misanthropic last half hour. Not for the squeamish. 10.28.02