Decalogue I (10/14/12)

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The Decalogue is a series of ten films loosely based on the ten commandments.

At a glance, it would be easy to write off Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue as religious propaganda or something similar, but that does not seem to be the intention. This is not a heavy handed approach to religion, or even morality. Though there are ten films in the series, each film does not explicitly follow a single commandment. In fact, the series focuses more on people than religion. The films are simple but powerful and though originally shot for Polish television, they are shot beautifully. The quality of the picture is not amazing and the translation seems a bit loose at times, but once you find yourself wrapped up in the story, you likely won’t even notice these things.

Decalogue I

A young boy named Pawel lives with his father,Krzysztof, a professor, and together, the two have a very analytical way of thinking. They have computer programs to do calculations for physics problems,  including the thickness of the ice in a nearby pond and how much weight it should be able to hold. After finding a dead dog, Pawel decides he wants to go to religious lessons as a way to cope with his father’s views on there not being an afterlife.

Decalogue I really starts the series off with a bang, and it hooked me almost instantly. The beauty is that the characters are realistic and believable. When tragedy strikes, it is a punch to the gut and even though we were only just introduced to these characters in less than an hour’s time, we feel connected to them. This humanism is the magic of Kieslowski’s filmmaking and these “short” films are testaments to his genius. Decalogue I is one of the best films I’ve seen, and easily ranks among my favorites from Kieslowski

I give it 5 out of 5.

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What movies do you usually watch around Halloween? (Friday Question Fun)

Previous Friday Question Fun entries

It’s the last Friday before Halloween and I know so many of you have been doing horror themed segments all month and I’ve enjoyed reading them. I used to be a huge horror movie buff but I’ve pushed my love of horror movies aside for the most part. I still love them but I just don’t watch them like I used to. Still, like every other holiday, I have my movies that I gravitate towards every year around this time which brings me to my question..

What movie(s) do you usually watch around Halloween?

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Ikiru (10/13/12)

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A bureaucrat finds out he has terminal cancer and reevaluates his life, looking for meaning before dying in Ikiru.

After working as bureaucrat for over 30 years, Kenji Watanbe (Takashi Shimura) finds out he has inoperable stomach cancer and less than a year to live. He tries various ways of “living” like partying at night clubs, but gets no satisfaction from it. Finally, he is inspired by a young woman and decides to help people. He helps turn an small pool that residents have been complaining about into a nice playground. After Watanabe’s death, the film continues at his wake with his colleagues deciding to follow Watanabe’s lead and change their own lives, but have difficulty doing so.

When people think of Akira Kurosawa’s films, they likely think of samurai films starring Toshiro Mifune. Ikiru is a drastic departure from that, but still a wonderful little film. I was concerned that Ikiru (which means “To Live”) would be kind of a downer, but it was more comparable to It’s a Wonderful Life than anything droll and too serious. There’s a nice mix of comedy to lighten the mood and the takeaway of the film is entirely positive. The ending of the film was not sad, per se, I found it uplifting.

The film presentation of Ikiru is actually not that great for a Criterion Collection release, which is kind of surprising. There are lots of scratches and noise throughout most of the scenes and the soundtrack had a soft buzzing constantly. I’m assuming these are inherited from the best master available, which is a shame. It would be fantastic to have pristine master that a film that is so beautiful would look beautiful to match. I’m not deriding the Criterion release, Ikiru probably hasn’t looked better, but it’s still a bit disappointing.

I struggle having more to say about Ikiru without going in depth about the meaning of life and how one best lives. The film is about life but it’s also about doing what makes you happy and if helping others in that process works for you, all the better. Ikiru is a touching story and it’s the type of film that seems straightforward but each viewer may have slightly different reactions to the story. For that, I recommend Ikiru, especially for people that think Kurosawa only made samurai films.

I give it 4 Gondola No Utas out of 5.

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Primal Fear (10/13/12)

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After an altar boy is accused of murder, a defense attorney struggles with winning the case and finding the truth in Primal Fear.

Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is a hotshot Chicago defense attorney that will do anything to be in the public eye and also to get his high-paying clients acquitted. Vail sees that an altar boy named Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) has been accused of brutally killing an archbishop and is on the run from police. Vail decides to take up Stampler’s case pro-bono, knowing the publicity will be worth it. Aaron, a soft spoken southern boy seems completely incapable of murder and says he had nothing to do with the archbishop’s killing, despite being found covered in his blood. He is adamant that there was a third man in the room with them that committed the crime. After interviews with a psychologist (Frances McDormand), it’s discovered that Aaron has a second personality named Roy and that Roy is who really killed the archbishop. It’s up to Vail to win the case and also find out what is really going on with Aaron/Roy.

The reason for my wanting to watch Primal Fear again came about from browsing the Internet for memorable endings to films. Primal Fear happens to be on a number of these lists and with good reason. I remembered the ending but had forgotten most of the actual plot leading up to that point and decided to rewatch this gripping thriller.

Primal Fear is the movie that brought us the enormous talent of Edward Norton front and center, it was his first major acting gig. As far as I’m concerned, Norton blows the role out of the water. He does such a tremendous job, basically shifting between two completely opposing characters, sometimes in the same scene and doesn’t miss a beat. It seems like Norton doesn’t get much praise but he’s one of the best actors in the business in my mind. I’ve always been lukewarm about Gere (though I do love me some Mothman Prophecies), but he didn’t bug me too much. Laura Linney, who plays the prosecuting attorney, is fantastic as always.

The biggest drive that Primal Fear has, however, is the story. At times it gets a bit bogged down by the legal side of things as well as some of Vail’s narcissism, but for the most part there is a driving force towards the end of the trail and the truth behind the case. It’s a film that keeps you guessing until the very end and the payoff is worth every minute. Even knowing the ending of Primal Fear doesn’t spoil the experience but it does make the slow parts of the film seem slower. If you haven’t seen Primal Fear yet and miraculously haven’t ran afoul of spoilers, check it out.

I give it 4 slackjawed Edward Nortons out of 5.

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Oslo, August 31 (10/13/12)

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In Oslo, August 31, Anders is a recovering drug addict that takes leave from a treatment facility and heads home where his recovery is tested.

Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie) has been living in a treatment facility for drug addiction rehabilitation. On August 31st, he is given day leave for a job interview. Before the interview, he stops by his old friend, Thomas’ (Hans Olav Brenner) house. He also meets with his sister’s girlfriend, Rebecca (Ingrid Olava) and learns that his sister is frightened of him and blames him for their parents sale of their house. During the job interview, Anders lashes out when pressed about his past and storms out. He wanders around Oslo and eventually runs into old acquaintances and old habits.

Oslo, August 31 is a striking film on several levels but perhaps the most striking to me is that it so closely resembles a documentary at times. Visually, Oslo, August 31 is stunning and the film gives an incredibly intimate look into the life of Anders, but we still don’t know much about him outside of his drug addiction. As the film progresses, we learn bits and pieces about his past through conversations with people he grew up with and we learn about his personality in the way that he carries himself. We also learn about his struggle with drugs and alcohol and see that his self-image is shredded so far gone that his addiction has replaced most of what makes Anders himself. We don’t know Anders outside what happens on that day and yet we learn so much.

Throughout Oslo, August 31, I was wondering where exactly the film was headed and why and when the credits began to roll I immediately wanted to start the film over and fill in the pieces and small nuances I may have missed. I refrained from doing this, largely due to the time that would eat up, but also because I felt it would have destroyed some of the magic behind a film where nothing really happens in terms of plot, but there is still so much going on, whether it be unspoken or assumed.

While it’s not a film I would outright recommend to everyone, Oslo, August 31 was very profound to me. I really adore a well crafted, character-driven film and Oslo, August 31 is a film that seemingly does everything right. Much like Umberto D., I never thought the camera was trying to gain sympathy in a manipulative fashion, which really pushes the intensity of the actors through. I wish more films were made these days that felt they could focus on just a character and still be captivating. Many indie movies try this but fail to be very interesting other than a quirk of the character or rely too much on humor. Oslo, August 31 is a very touching, human story of a young man and doesn’t try to be anything else.

I give it 4 swimming in the Frognerbadet out of 5.

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Umberto D. (10/10/12)

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Umberto D. is a film about an aging man trying to make ends meet to stay in his rented room.

Umberto Domenico Ferrari (Carlo Battisti) is a retired government worker reliant on his pension to make ends meet. He lives in a rented room with his dog, Flike, his only companion. The maid, Maria (Maria Pia Casilio), of building he lives in has a fondness for Umberto, but his landlady, Antonia (Lina Gennari) wants him out of the room so she can rent it by the hour to amorous couples. Antonia gives Umberto one last chance to stay, but requires all the back rent at once. Umberto has to sell all of his possessions and ultimately falls ill. Unable to bring himself to panhandling, Umberto seeks an alternative to his suffering.

Umberto D. is a film I have heard much about but never seen until now and while the plot is simple, it’s a touching look at a man’s life. At first, Umberto seems a bit of a scoundrel, trying to sell a watch of his to men he seems to know on the street or in a soup kitchen. At first, we don’t understand his reasons for needing to sell the watch and the change in heart we have for Umberto is even more drastic once we realize the truth. Umberto is not a bad guy, in fact, he seems like a genuinely good person that is just trying to get by. His landlady on the other hand, seems quite vile.

One thing I may have mentioned before is that movies with animals always get to me, and I was so concerned that something would happen to Flike while watching Umberto D. that the film had a tone of dread surrounding that poor little dog. I won’t spoil anything about Flike, but I will say that Flike is a truly effective character in the film. Also, since this was a Criterion Collection blu-ray, I will say that the presentation is the kind of perfection expected from Criterion but Umberto D. is a bit light on extra material this time around.

Shot with non-actors, Umberto D. isn’t an emotional punch in the gut nor is it manipulative. The camera lends a sympathetic view of poor Umberto trying to make his way in life, but the tone of the film is fairly neutral for most of the duration. Maybe its the indifference in the presentation that makes Umberto D. such a striking film or perhaps its simply one of the best character-driven films around.

I give it 4 begging Flikes out of 5.

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DVD Court: Oct 23

The Cinematic Katzenjammer has put up this week’s releases against the *cue music* DVD Court.

The movies this time around:

  • Magic Mike
  • Madea’s Witness Protection
  • Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
  • Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
  • Take This Waltz

See what the Court decides here!

Also, we have two more spots on the jury left open, if you’d like to join us just let Nick know in the comments over there.