The Third Man (9/11/12)

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In The Third Man, a pulp novelist travels to Vienna to visit an old friend but winds up investigating his mysterious death.

Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp fiction writer, travels to Vienna, Austria to visit his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) who has offered Martins a job. Upon arrival, Martins finds out that Lime was killed by a car while crossing the street. Martins attends Lime’s funeral and meets some policemen and a man named Baron Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch) who says that he and another man carried Lime across the street after the accident.Lime’s apparent dying wish was for them to take care of Martins and Lime’s girlfriend, Anna (Alida Valli). After visiting Anna, Martins begins to suspect something is amiss with Lime’s death as the doorman tells him that Lime died instantly and that three men carried the body, not two. Martins then digs deeper into Lime’s supposed death to find the truth about Lime and the identity of the third man.

I have never quite seen a film quite like The Third Man before or since watching it. The film follows many great pulp/noir films but what really sets The Third Man apart is the score. Composed by Anton Karas, the entire score is made by a zither, which almost adds a comical whimsy to the serious nature of the film. If you’ve seen an episode of the cartoon Spongebob Squarepants, the soundtrack is almost reminiscent of that. The first time I watched The Third Man I was highly distracted by the soundtrack while watching but after the film had ended and I was still putting all the pieces together, I really appreciated the story. The second time through the music wasn’t distracting, but it still made me smile which seems almost morbid.

The plot of The Third Man was a bit confusing to me since it deals with crossing paths and deception, but that also plays into the film’s strengths. We don’t know Lime’s secrets and as we learn them it almost makes it unsure what is real and what is fabricated by Lime. Welles is perfect for the role, though he has minimal screentime for the high billing he receives. All the other actors shine just as bright, but Welles just has such charisma.

While I have the Criterion version of The Third Man pictured, it has lamentably been discontinued and publishing duties have been given to Studio Canal. The reason I point this out is because even on blu-ray, Studio Canal’s treatment of The Third Man is not great on a whole. The soundtrack is uneven, there were times when it was like the zither was on full-blast, but for the most part it was OK. I wish I had the gumption to get the Criterion, but I don’t feel like spending over $100 on one. I wouldn’t dissuade buying Studio Canal’s treatment, but I wouldn’t fully recommend it either.

The Third Man is a film that doesn’t fall neatly into just one bucket. It is mostly a pulp/noir mystery, but the score lightens the tone of the film and gives it a life all its own. With a different score, The Third Man wouldn’t be the same movie, I’m not sure for better or worse. If you haven’t seen The Third Man by now, I strongly recommend it. In fact, I recommend watching it a few times if you find the soundtrack too jarring at first.

I give it 5 Third Man themes out of 5.

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Down By Law (9/2/12)

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In Down By Law, three men are arrested and convicted of separate crimes and decide to escape from prison.

One summer in New Orleans, Zack (Tom Waits), Jack (John Lurie), and Roberto (Roberto Benigni) are arrested for three separate crimes. Zack, an out of work radio DJ, is given money to drive a car across town. The car ends up not only be stolen but with a body in the trunk. Jack, a pimp, is caught entering a hotel room based on a tip from a “friend” where an underage girl (and the cops) were waiting. The two men become cell mates and eventually meet their third cellmate, Roberto, a zany immigrant that apparently killed a man. Soon, Roberto tells Jack and Zack that he knows a way to escape from prison and the men break out.

Jim Jarmusch films have a history of being hit or miss with me. There have been some films that I can appreciate but never really end up liking, and others, like Down By Law, that I’m smitten with almost instantly. Down By Law is a film with very little plot, but with great characters and dialogue. The relationships between the three men are all unique but we know what they are thinking even if they are not speaking. Roberto is the wild card of the bunch, adding a mostly comedic twist to an otherwise fairly serious movie. Waits and Lurie both play the role of guys that are too cool to act like they care about anyone else, but actually end up depending on each other.

Shot entirely in black and white on a fairly miniscule budget, Down By Law is an indie film lover’s dream. Toss in Lurie and Waits and I would watch it even if it wasn’t a very good movie. I had procrastinated watching Down By Law because I wasn’t entirely sold on Jarmusch as a writer/director but now I need to rectify my indifference and get caught up on the man’s filmography. Writing about Down By Law doesn’t seem to do it any justice; and nothing I had read about it made it seem all that special. Upon viewing, however, I was instantly absorbed in the story and characters.  The black and white makes New Orleans seem dirty, prison seem dire, and even the swamp seem claustrophobic.

The Criterion Collection treatment of Down By Law is superb. The picture is so clear that the film looks like it was shot using the highest tech possible, though it likely was not. The film not only looks and sounds amazing but the special features were specially designed for the release. Fans of Jarmusch or Down By Law will not regret picking this one up.

I give it 5 Tom Waits makes the best DJ out of 5.

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Wages of Fear (8/6/12)

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A group of men are hired by an oil company to transport truckloads of nitroglycerin across rough terrain in The Wages of Fear.

In Las Piedras, a sleepy town in South America, work is hard to come by outside of the Southern Oil Company (SOC), which looms eerily in the background of the desolate town. After Mr. Jo (Charles Vanel) rolls into town, acting like a bigshot, Mario (Yves Montand) develops a close bond with his fellow Frenchman. Mr. Jo rubs the rest of the inhabitants the wrong way with his arrogance and attitude, including Mario’s former roommate, Luigi (Folco Lucci), and Bimba (Peter van Eyck). After an explosion at an SOC site several hundred miles away, the company decides to send trucks loaded with nitroglycerin to extinguish the fire. It’s too dangerous for unionized workers, so they gather up the best men from Las Piedras to make the harrowing journey for $2,000 apiece.

To call The Wages of Fear anything less than exhilarating and tense would be an understatement. From the moment Mr. Jo arrives, the tension begins to build. First, between the folks in town and then they set off for a journey none of the men expect to come back from. Be prepared because once those trucks full of the highly combustible material leave the SOC, the tension will likely make you sweat.

I had long heard of The Wages of Fear but had doubted the impact that it would have on me. A group of men driving trucks slowly across the South American landscape didn’t seem all that interesting or tense to me but the way that Clouzot sets up the story and characters is truly amazing. There are no “good guys” here, the men chosen have some likable traits but are, for the most part, jerks. They have become stuck in Las Piedras despite their differing nationalities and the money would go a long way for them.

The Wages of Fear also has an interesting censorship history outside of France. In several countries (the US included), the film was mauled by censors who deemed much of the film to be anti-American and even parts of the film were admonished for glorifying homosexuality. It should be noted that I picked up on neither of those themes throughout the film. The Criterion release of The Wages of Fear has some extras that detail the cuts made and the history behind this. They offer the film uncut as it was meant to be seen, and the release is amazing, as expected.

Few films have kept me on the edge of my seat the way that The Wages of Fear has, and it manages to keep the viewer firmly gripped by suspense for the entire second half of the film. This is a film I wish I had watched much sooner so I could keep revisiting it. Luckily, I will be reviewing The Wages of Fear‘s remake, Sorcerer, shortly.

I give it 5 loaded trucks on a rotting wooden platform out of 5.

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Yi Yi (8/4/12)

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Yi Yi is a film about life as shown through three generations of the Jian family.

The main players of the Jian family, from youngest to oldest are young son, Yang-Yang (Johnathan Chang), teenage daughter, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee), father, NJ (Nien-Jen Wu). NJ’s wife, mother-in-law, and brother-in-law are also involved. Yang-Yang, who gets teased by a group of girls at school receives a camera and takes pictures of the world from his perspective but also of the things people cannot see for themselves, like the back of their head. Ting-Ting finds herself in a love triangle with her best friend and her boyfriend. She also blames herself for her grandmother being a coma. NJ is involved in trying to save his company by dealing with a Japanese videogame developer. He also runs into a former love and has to deal with the reasons of why he left her.

Yi Yi is a film nearly impossible to summarize without running through the entire course of the 173 minute movie. The film is about many things but also very few things. It’s about life. The film begins with a wedding and ends with a funeral and everything between but it is not exactly a standard narrative. Since the story revolves around a family, everything is connected and each member does have their own story but the overall story involves the family. As I said, it’s difficult to put into words but it is beautiful.

Much like an Ozu film, Yi Yi focuses on a family at a specific time of their lives in a very personal manner. The performances are nothing short of incredible and the dialogue and interactions are all totally realistic and grounded. Each Jian family member can be connected with on some level, even though they are different ages, sexes, and maybe even cultures than us. It gives Yi Yi a touching presentation regardless of these factors and even though there is no action, the drama of daily life is enough here.

Yang-Yang is my favorite family member and I almost wish Yi Yi was solely about him. Every time that cute little kid was on screen I didn’t want the scene to end. Every time the scene did end, however, I was not disappointed by what was now happening, I was completely gripped by it. While not a film I would recommend to everyone due to its length and lack of conventional narrative, but if the premise sounds interesting, I think you will find a lot to love in Yi Yi.

I give it 4 Yang-Yang taking pictures of out 5.

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Harold and Maude (8/3/12)

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Harold and Maude is the story of a young, death-obsessed man and an older, free-spirited woman becoming close.

Harold (Bud Cort) comes from a very well-to-do family and goes to elaborate lengths to stage his own death to get a rise out of people, usually his mother (Vivian Pickles), drives a hearse, and attends random funerals. At one of the funerals, he meets a plucky older woman named Maude (Ruth Gordon) who is about to turn 80 but acts like a carefree young child. The two instantly hit it off despite Harold’s love for the morbid and Maude’s love for life. While Harold’s mother continuously tries to set him up on dates (where he usually fakes his own suicide), Harold announces that he is going to marry Maude instead, who has shown him more about life than he ever imagined.

To put it bluntly, Harold and Maude is a very dark comedy but it is a comedy if you have kind of a sick sense of humor. It’s hard to describe the style of humor but it’s either very morbid and dry most of the time. Certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you do find it humorous then you’ll likely be laughing throughout most of the film. For the most part, Harold and Maude is meant to be taken lightly and it does not try to bring you down, some people simply may not find the humor in suicide the film revels in.

One thing I need to point out about Harold and Maude is the terrific original soundtrack by Cat Stevens. Even if you aren’t a fan of his music, it fits the film so well. You may even recognize the songs without knowing they originated from this film. Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon have surprising chemistry too, not in a sexual manner, necessarily, the two just seem very comfortable with each other. Bud Cort’s deadpan deliveries cracked me up and Ruth Gordon just lights up the screen.

Another great release by the Criterion Collection and a marked improvement over the DVD copy we had. I am in love with the cover art, which captures the mood of Harold and Maude so well. The extras are entertaining as well, but I didn’t dive into them very much. Picture and sound are above average, as one would expect from Criterion.

If you like your comedies dark and haven’t seen Harold and Maude then I think you’ll really be in for a treat. The unusual pairing makes such a wonderful story of love and friendship and the whole thing is made doubly unusual with the staged suicides and deathly humor. There is literally no other film quite like Harold and Maude.

I give it 4 Jaguar hearses out of 5.

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Gomorrah (8/3/12)

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Gomorrah presents an unflinching, realistic view of modern organized crime.

The film begins with several gangsters being killed while in a tanning salon which begins a feud between the DiLaurio syndicate and the separatists. There are five intertwining tales of people affected by the Camorra: Totó is young a delivery boy who is taken in by a gang. Marco and Sweet Pea are two kids looking to rise to power on their own and steal some guns from gang members. Don Ciro is a money runner for families with imprisoned members. Pasquale is a tailor and designer that works for a gang member and takes another job with some competition. Roberto works in waste management while his boss, Franco, does shady dealings.

If the plot points of Gomorrah sound confusing, well, they are. This isn’t like Pulp Fiction where all the stories end up overlapping and tying up together, it’s more like Traffic in that they are stories under the same umbrella of events. The film, which is based on the book of the same name (Gomorra, in Italian), is rooted in fact and it’s easy to see that the film is a realistic portrayal of the dealings with the Camorra syndicate. What is not evident, however, was some of the history behind the feud going on and there is a level of understanding needed that the film doesn’t really provide on its own.

Even without fully understanding the motivation for some of the stories, or even what was happening at certain points, Gomorrah is truly gripping. This is not the mafia we have come to expect from other films, there are no fancy suits and mansions for all the members, most of the film takes place in what are essentially projects in what can only be called a ghetto.

Most of the actors in Gomorrah seem to be non-actors which helps give the film a sense of realism. While the opening scene in the tanning salon is bright and the techno music is thrumming, the rest of the film is mostly gray or brown with no soundtrack. It doesn’t feel like a documentary, it feels like a film, but it’s an interesting and realistic approach to presenting the stories. Of course, the Criterion Collection treatment is well above average, as always. Now that I have seen the film (I should really watch it again now that I understand it better), I would like to go back and see if any of the special features expand on the film’s premise. While I am interested in reading the book, I likely won’t be any time soon, but any knowledge would be helpful.

Gomorrah is a unique film that is unflinching in its portrayal of modern-day organized crime in Italy. Since the thread that ties all the stories together is something based in reality, it may be better to do a bit of homework on the Camorra beforehand to fully appreciate some of the finer details of Gomorrah that were no doubt lost on me.

I give it 4 shootings in a tanning salon out of 5.

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The Only Son (7/27/12)

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The Only Son is a film about a mother who sacrifices everything for her son’s education and visits him as an adult.

In a small rural Japanese town, widow Tsune (Chôko Iida) is raising her young son Ryosuke. When Ryosuke wants to continue his education into middle school, Tsune is persuaded by teacher, Ookubo (Chishû Ryû), to let him continue. Tsune sacrifices everything financially in order for Ryosuke to make his way through college. In return, all she asks is that Ryosuke grow to be a great man. Years later, Tsune visits Ryosuke (Shin’ichi Himori), who has a family of his own but struggles financially as a night-school teacher, much to his mother’s disappointment.

Earlier this year, I watched a film by Yasujirô Ozu that many consider his finest work, Tokyo Story. That was my first foray into Ozu’s work and I was blown away by the simple story could be so captivating and heart-wrenching. I am pleased to say that The Only Son is also a great film that seems entirely too simple but is so finely crafted that it accomplishes more with very little than most movies could ever hope to. With only a handful of actors, realistic dialog and totally static cameras, The Only Son almost feels like a documentary of a family that doesn’t know they are being filmed.

The magic of Ozu’s films is their simplicity and the emotions they are able to convey. The Only Son makes you want Ryosuke to succeed. You sympathize that this poor woman has literally given up everything to her name in order for Ryosuke to have success in life and while he has a loving wife and young baby, he is not doing the best of his ability in his career. Some of you may be wondering why the importance is placed on a financially successful career being the marker for having a successful life, and I would agree to a point but you have to put yourself in Tsune’s shoes. She is a widowed single mother who becomes homeless, scrubbing floors in a factory, all so her only son can become something great.

I’m sure there are many cultural meanings in The Only Son that I am not picking up on since I am not Japanese, nor do I know what their culture was like in 1936. The film gives little insight into these aspects, but it largely makes no difference since the family themes are universal and timeless. Since I am still new to Ozu, I feel compelled to watch as many of his films as possible because they are so moving and human. The Only Son is his first talkie, but it has held up incredibly well.

I give it 4 scenes from the cover art out of 5.

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