Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

PICKPOCKET (1959)
Tense and direct film by Robert Bresson about a man who lives by picking pockets. The actual sequences of picking pockets are breathtaking, especially when the man works with a team on a train; their precision is like a ballet. The main character personifies an interesting kind of dichotomy; morally, he at once considers himself outside the law (he openly argues that it's beneficial for society if exceptional people are allowed to operate outside conventional morality), but he also seems to really want punishment, perhaps because he worries that he's really not better than others the way he tells himself he is. He is in love (with the very beautiful Marika Green), but avoids her because of her goodness. This is only the second Bresson film I've ever seen; what I find interesting about him is the way he uses non-actors and simply observes them rather than making moral judgments or telling us what to think. People behave, and we are confronted with their realities and free to make our own choices. It's quite powerful. ****

MAMA (2013)
Bizarre horror fantasy that doesn't really make much sense but works on its own emotional logic. I think there are some mistakes of tone, and it doesn't help that the lead actress is Jessica Chastain (I get that even less than Jennifer Lawrence), but as a ghost story it's a surprisingly compelling ride on an October Saturday night. ***

O SOLE MINNIE (2013)
This is my favorite of the new Mickey Mouse cartoons since Bad Ear Day; it's just a surprisingly sweet cartoon about gondolier Mickey trying to romance waitress Minnie in Venice. Extra points for the cameo by Willie, the Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met. ****

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966)
Stunning 205-minute Tarkovsky opus about one of Russia's greatest painters. I'm glad to have seen the restored version. It's an episodic film, each chapter reflecting on both Rublev's life and the nature of creativity. Two sequences especially stood out for me: a visceral raid on a monastery, and an incredible scene, set after Rublev has given up his work, in which a peasant casts a gigantic church bell, restoring Rublev's faith in himself and in creativity. I've seen a few other Tarkovsky movies (Ivan's Childhood, Solaris), but this is the one that's really captured me. There's a lot to say about life and how we relate to ourselves and the world and our faith through art. ****

I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) (1967)
I see the reactions to this film are surprisingly polarizing. Everything I've heard about this film is about its reputation as basically porno, and though the sex scenes are graphic, the film--a movie within a movie--is more concerned with the philosophy of nonviolent protest, gender equality, conscientious objection, social class, and living an ethical life. There's even an interview with Martin Luther King Jr. The main character, Lena, is starring in a film, attending protests, and after running from a new lover who confuses her, attempting to live an ascetic life. It's interesting how the film portrays her as idealistic, but also admits that her ideals can often be untenable in modern civilization. I also like the way the film presents all aspects of life--politics, art, sex, ideals, ethics--as inseparable parts of ourselves that inform the way we live. It messes around with its structure and form in a way I found surprisingly modern. ****

I AM CUBA (1964)
Soviet propaganda film that got really overpraised in the nineties. The camera work is really innovative; it's a very good-looking, well-shot film (mostly; sometimes it's overshot and lurid for propaganda shock value), but it's also often puerile and heavily stereotyped in its depiction of pre-revolutionary Cuba that is really only there to laud Castro. Yeah, it's a good-looking, well-edited movie, but so is Triumph of the Will, and like Triumph of the Will, I find its naked manipulations offensive. The obviously Russian actors playing the evil, decadent Americans are ridiculous. But, yes, the camera work is justly praised. It's worth seeing just for that. **1/2

THE HOUSE IS BLACK (1963)
Fascinating Iranian documentary short about a leper colony, punctuated by passages from the Bible, the Qu'ran, and the director's own poetry, all focusing on the beauty of creation and the human condition. Some of the imagery on display is a little unsettling, but I like how director Forough Farrokzhad doesn't shy away from adults and children afflicted with leprosy. Just watching the people of a leper colony work and play together with the readings the director chooses emphasizes their humanity. I can't stop thinking about it. ****

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