PATHER PANCHALI. Satyajit Ray, 1955. 115min.
If Emile Zola were born an India film director, he would be making movies like these. The first of the Apu trilogy, it follows his birth and his early years in a Bengal village. Breathtakingly beautiful, the film explores the day to day life and relationships of a family living on the edge of poverty, his sister forever stealing magoes from a neighbor's orchard, his old aunt who lives with them, his father a poet and priest who is searching for a way to keep his family going. With music by Ravi Shankar, this is a film that lingers in the mind long after its viewing. Satyajit Ray has delivered a masterpiece, a gift to filmgoers everywhere. I have heard said that the second movie is as good if not better. It's definitely on my must see list.
PEKING OPERA BLUES. Tsui Hark, 1986. 104min.
A rolicking frolic through the imagination, this film offers comedy and action in equal measure. Revolving around a Chinese opera house, various adventures link the potagonists as they work towards bettering their country or their own personal wealth. While often painting in broad strokes, it is a film that manages to deal with a number of issues, including family loyalty, gender roles, and, of course, how to escape in the most picturesque way possible when surrounded by bad guys. With respect to the latter, note the clam shell costume that floats to the stage, opening to reveal its empty cavity as the protagonists manage their narrow escape. Perhaps not Hark's best, but certainly a jolly good time. 03.14.01
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN. Herbert Ross, 1981. 108min.
A surprisingly moving movie musical starring Steve Martin as a down on his luck sheet music salesman in the Chicago of the Great Depression. A forerunner to films such as Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark (2000), Heaven uses musical sequences not only to pay homage to such luminaries as Busby Berkeley and Fred Astaire, but to enhance the character and his fantasy sequences to the beat of popular Tin Pan Alley songs. It is rare that a film offers such pathos, let alone a musical, and the film is remarkable for the way in which the characters lurch in Badlands (Terrence Malick, 1973) fashion towards their eventual end. The song and dance numbers are assured, and not since the golden age have there been such elegantly and lavishly constructed sequences of dash and pizazz. At one point, the Martin character almost sums up the allure of movie musicals as he turns to Bernadette Peters (whose casting seems an obvious nod to the survival of musical theatre) and moans, "I just wanna live in a world where the songs come true!" Upon leaving the theatre don't we all? 04.20.01
PORCCO ROSSO. Hayao Miyazaki, 1992. 94min.
In effect, an anime b-movie that boasts amazingly beautiful aereal animation, Porco Rosso tells the story of an aviator pig caught between sides in an Italy on the verge of war. Part Casablanca [1942, Michael Curtiz] and part Only Angels Have Wings [1939, Howard Hawks], the film's magic lies in the fact that you soon forget the protagonist is a pig, and the story flows easily into that of an outsider trying to do good in a world quickly giving itself over to evil. Which is not to say the film is heavy-handed. Often amusing, the animation surpasses anything that Disney has done in recent years. In fact, most of the best animation seems to be coming from Japan these days, and much of it from Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli. And if you've not yet seen his Spirited Away , run, don't walk, to your nearest theater.
POSTMAN. He Yi, 1995. 101min.
An ambiguous study of China's youth, Ppostman follows the ascension of a young postal worker who graduates from installing mailboxes to delivering the mail. Soon, he succumbs to the temptation of taking work home with him; he begins to read other people's mail. This act, echoing that of the older postal worker who he had replaced, leads to completely different results. Not content to merely be a passive observer, the main character begins to take some action in the lives of the people he intercepts. It is, oddly for him, a way of making sense of the world, even as he attempts to understand his relationship with his sister. In the end, however, the film raises more questions than it answers, and the ultimate promotion the character receives makes me wonder what comment He Yi is making of China and its generation gap.
PRINCESS YWEI FEI. Kenji Mizoguchi, 1955.
While not my favourite Mizoguchi, this film continues his tradition of telling thoughtful sensitive stories centered around women. Here, Mizoguchi ruminates upon beauty, as a King marries a peasant woman who reminds him of his past queen; his faithfulness to her leading to his eventual downfall. Mizoguchi again demonstrates his feeling for his characters as innocent people are caught up in the events around them, sometimes unable to stop them, sometimes unwilling. Told in flashback, as The Life of Oharu (1952), we follow the king in captivity as he remembers the past that has lead to his imprisonment, the court intrigues and power struggles that erupted due to his new infatuation. Throughout, Ywei Fei remains graceful and supportive, trying to appease as many friends and family as she can, eventually ensnaring herself and her king in the trecherous webs they weave.
POINT BREAK. Kathryn Bigelow, 1991. 122min.
It's hard to imagine that Keanu Reeves isn't a surfer dude in this somewhat long investigative thriller. He's a new recruit assigned to help a terrible Gary Buesy in the investigation of a series of bank robberies in southern California. In order to do so, he goes undercover to investigate the surfers who live by the shore. The first hour of the film is dedicated to an obvious red herring, as any film of this vintage that has Patrick Swayze in it isn't going to use him in a small supporting role, and the second half just serves to prove what you've known all along. That said, there are some thrilling scenes towards the end involving sky-diving that are almost worth the price of a rental. But you have to get past the excrutiating first ten minutes where all the actors seem eager to outdo each other in the over-acting scene chewing department.
PRINCESS MONONOKE [aka MONONOKE HIME]. Hayao Miyazaki, 1997. 133min.
I never thought I would see a Miyazaki film I wouldn't recommend, but this rather heavy-handed film about the fight between humans and nature suffers from the somewhat leaden way in which his environmental themes, usually so subtly integrated into his films, is treated. The indifferent english dubbing unfortunately adds to its woes. On the bright side, the opening and ending sequences offer some of the most superb animation I have ever seen, and I found myself rewinding one 30 second sequence over and over again to watch it develop frame by frame. In the long run, however, it's not worth two hours to get to that bit at the end. You'd be much better off seeing SPIRITED AWAY  or MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO , each of which contain similar messages subtly integrated into a larger, much more engaging, story.
THE PRINCIPAL. Christopher Cain, 1987. 109min.
It was a moment of weakness. James Belushi plays the Joe Clark character in what appears to be a supposed send-up of Lean on Me [John G. Avildsen, 1989]. What results is a sorry affair that shouldn't even have been made for TV. The laughs, if there are any, are strained, and the scenes of violence (an attempted rape of a teacher and murder of the principal) too shocking for a comedy(?) that at times seems to want to be taken seriously.