RAN. Akira Kurosawa, 1985. 160min.
There's something oddly theatrical about a number of Kurosawa's films, and in RAN it is everywhere evident. A retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, the film charts the fall of a king and his kingdom as a result of his misguided attempts to bestow power upon his eldest son. It's a sweeping film, detailing power struggles and the subtext of revenge, which culminates in a large, slightly confusing battle. While not my favourite Kurosawa film, it is a very well done adaptation, providing some spectacular scenes between Jinpachi Nezu and Mieko Harada, playing Lady Kaede, out to revenge past wrongs against her family. 03.30.01
RAISING VICTOR VARGAS. Peter Sollett, 2002. 88min.
Like OUR SONG (Jim McKay, 2000) and GEORGE WASHINGTON (David Gordon Green, 2000), RAISING VICTOR VARGAS uses non-professional actors to play out a story of growing up and the friendships and relationships that form and break over the course of a summer. Focusing on a Dominican family in New York's lower east side, the film is concerned less with perils of the street than with the difficulty of holding a family together. The characters shift and change in subtle ways as the one character learns the distinction between bravado and charm, and another learns to believe in relationships as something other than sheilds against others. Shot for half a million dollars the film feels much richer than its low budget, a feat owing to its screenplay and also its cinematographer Tim Orr (who also shot GEORGE WASHINGTON).
RASHOMON. Akria Kurosawa, 1950. 88min.
Perhaps it's because for too long I have been steeped in the formal elegance of Mizoguchi, but I found this Kurasowa to be a bit overbearing, beginning with the somewhat over the top performance of Mifune (who I loved in films such as RED BEARD and YOJIMBO). That said, the film is notable for its complex story lines, involving the same episode (a rape and murder) retold from four different perspectives. And while there are some beautiful sequences of edits and composition, in the end it lacks the restraint that would have made this a transcendent work. Note particuarly the editing during the ghost's retelling. Perhaps the single best cut appears in those scenes.
REBECCA. Alfred Hitchcock, 1940. 133min.
In a film that would have echos of a sort in VERTIGO (1958), Hitchcock crafted a thriller in which Lawrence Olivier is a man possessed with the memory of his dead wife. He finds a soulmate in Joan Fontaine (who Olivier harassed on the set), marries her, and then she becomes embroiled in the mystery of his past. Stunningly photographed (it won an oscar for cinematogrpahy), the film suffers somewhat from strange casting. Fontaine is wonderful (to obtain her nervous manner, HItchcock told her the entire cast hated her) as the second Mrs. de Winter (first name unknown), but Olivier seems stiff as her husband, and George Sanders (so brilliantly sharp in ALL ABOUT EVE ) seems too much a cad. Still, if you dare tread these dark waters, the film offers some well-drawn characters, and follows them through to their conclusions. The opening shot of Mandalay, seen through overgrown trees and bushes (along with the voiceover narration) is wonderfully done. 4.13.00
RIFIFI. Jules Dassin, 1955. 115min.
The heist film that begat them all, this beautifully shot noir features a 30 minute heist sequence sans dialogue and a brilliantly edited conclusion that brings to mind that of BONNIE AND CLYDE (Arthur Penn, 1967) in its inventiveness. In what could be an allegory for the MacCarthy trials, a perfectly planned and executed crime is undone by human frailty. Blacklisted in America for being a Communist sympathizer and unable to make films for five years, Dassin left the States for Paris to make this film, perhaps his finest, and perhaps as influential in breaking the blacklist as SPARTACUS (Stanley Kubrick, 1960). Ironically, it was his very status as a blacklisted director that lead him to direct and script film, as the French producer saw him capable of writing the script, changing the North African villians of the the novel into Americans. Dassin suggested the entire cast be French (interestingly, a thought that never occurred to the producer) and so the collaboration began to create this incredibly influential masterpiece. 1.6.02
THE RIGHT STUFF. Philip Kaufman, 1983. 193 min.
An epic historical film documenting the American space program, THE RIGHT STUFF lionizes John Glenn and the crew of the Mercury Seven space program. At the same time, it seeks to lift the other members of the program into the collective conscious, and gives Chuck Yaeger his due as an early pioneer in the race to be faster and go further than anyone else on the planet. However, as historical epics will do, the film occassionally lags, and the cross cutting between Yaeger (as the soul of the film) and the rest of the astronauts, sometimes seems forced. Interestingly, the unspoken code between pilots ignoring the threat of death echoes from Hawks' ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939), another film centered around daring aviators, and while watching the film I couldn't help but wonder if the type of men who volunteer for these missions aren't decended from the same stock.
RINGU. Hideo Nakata, 1998. 96min.
More eerily creepy than truly terrifying, Nakata impressively manages to sustain the atmosphere of the film throughout its entire running time, save for an unfortunate decision to show the cause of the mysterious deaths towards the end of the picture. Opening with a scene that plays like that of Wes Craven's SCREAM , one girl tells her friend of a mysterious video she has seen that supposedly kills all those who watch it seven days after viewing it. When she dies, an aunt of hers who is a reporter sets out to investigate, enlisting her ex-husband, and attempting to protect her son. While not a great film, it's notable for the way in which it sets off a slow burn sense of dread that runs throughout, past that unfortunate miscalculation mentioned earlier, and up to a nice twist right at the end.
ROMA, CITTA APERTA (OPEN CITY). Roberto Rossellini, 1946. 105 min.
I have never seen a more devastating anti-war film (barring documentaries). Cited as the first Italian Neorealist film (it isn't strictly speaking neorealist but you can see how it influenced the neorealists), the film follows two leaders of the National Liberation army, their lovers, and a priest who aids them in their fight against the fascists. More than that I will not tell, for one of the wonders of the film is how it treats these characters, what they go through, and how the story develops. At times filled with the joyous celebration of life possible, counterpointed with . . . well. Moments of this film were almost unbelieveable, only one of which I will reference. Towards the end, a German officer deplores their own plight in the face of another who believes still they are fighting the good fight. And suddenly you realize that the oppressors can be people too. But that is a small light in a much darker picture of Hitler's Germany and their occupation of Rome. The Italian heros are all extremely heroic in seemingly small ways, but oh at what cost. When it was over, I sat still, mouth agape, staring at the screen as a lone piano played after the final fade until the film ran out and then . . . silence. 4.4.00
RUNNING OUT OF TIME. Johnny To, 1999. 93min.
An entertaining thriller that seems at first be a Hong Kong THE NEGOTIATOR (F. Gary Gray, 1998), but becomes less about two people talking than acting. We follow a police officer as he attempts to unravel the plot of a strange terrorist who at first holds a building hostage but without demands, which starts a three day game between the officer and the criminal (played by Andy Lau). Their relationship becomes similar to that of the cop and killer in THE KILLER (1989, John Woo), and as the audience following the cop, we are as baffled as he as the plot makes wide twists and turns until all is eventually revealed. Some usless film manipulation involving speeding up of action, but otherwise a diverting Hong Kong action film that, in the end, trounces THE NEGOTIATOR as entertainment.
READ MY LIPS (aka Sur Mes Levres). Jacques Audiard, 2001. 115min.
This film boasts a great idea, but does nothing with it until it's almost too late, and its use of that idea is much less than it could have been. A deaf woman hires an ex-con as her assistant in an office that continually takes advantage of her skill at negotiating contracts, then steals them out for under her. When she learns of the ex-con's past, she uses his former skills to wrest back a job; he in turn learns she can read lips and enlists her help in a scheme of his own. The final third becomes a thriller, and the pace picks up, but the first two thirds suffer from not being certain in their intent. In the end, if you're looking for a clever and stylish thriller, I'd recommend Bound (Andy and Larry Machowski, 1996).
RED PLANET. Antony Hoffman, 2000. 106min.
A fairly dull sci-fi film about Mars. In the future, the earth is becoming uninhabitable due to overcrowding. In an attempt to find new lands to colonize, efforts are made to make Mars habitable; by growing algae on the surface and releasing the water and CO2 frozen on the surface, they hope to create atmosphere. When something goes wrong, a crack team of scientists and astronauts are sent to see what's going on. While this could be a good premise, the film follows the buildup with nothing new to say, and no great suggestions as to the answers of the great unknowns in the universe even as it poses them (Terrence Stamp spends a lot of time looking grim and positing questions about God vs. Science with little to no result except to make him sound constipated). In the end, the biggest menace is a robot dog that looks like the great grandson of the Aibo. With echoes of ALIEN (Ridley Scott, 1979), and even 2001 (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), it's the technology they brought that attempts to undo them. But that's giving the movie too much credit. It's paint by numbers, and even then, it seems as though there's only one, producing a flat canvas. 03.20.01
RUSHMORE. Wes Anderson, 1998. 93min.
Its quirky sensibility, while being very droll, seems merely a cover for a fairly common storyline involving a love triangle where the short leg ends up helping the other two come back together. A wonderful Bill Murray lends a strong support to a capable Jason Schwartzman as a the lead character Max Fischer, playing a role that Mathew Broderick probably would have played some 10-15 years ago. Unfortunately, this film suffers for me in the same way that THE WHITE BALLOON suffers (1995, Jafar Panahi) in that I found the main character overly childish and unlikeable. Again your mileage will vary considerably with how you view the main character. With a very good British Invasion soundtrack, visions of HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971, Hal Ashby) danced through my head--a film that I felt was much more successful with a similarly off-kilter character sense.
RUSSIAN ARK. Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002. 96min.
A stunning technical achievement, Russian Ark takes the viewer on a 98 minute virtual tour of 33 rooms of the Hermitage, through 300 years of Russian history, all in one unbroken take. The film boasts a cast of thousands (literally), and three live orchestras, playing out their parts as the camera wanders through the rooms, following a "European" as he tours the different times in history. The director serves as the tourist, voicing comments on the action and the de facto tourguide. For all it's achivement, however, the film drags. People wander in and out of space and time, creating a dreamlike quality that ufnortunately doesn't sustain much drama. If anything, the tension comes from worrying that an actor will miss his or her cue. (n.b. In 1948, Hitchcock shot Rope, which was conceived to also be shot in one take. However, the limitations on the length of film that could be shot were such that he had to move the camera to dark spots at the end and beginning of each shot in order to edit each long take together. Russian Ark circumvents this by being shot digitally, and is noted as the first uncompressed high definition film.) 10/04