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We'll Always Have Casablanca
Spoilers ahead, but then again, who isn't familiar with Casablanca, even if one hasn't seen it?
I've been watching 'Casablanca' over and over again since I bought the Special Edition DVD, and is there any film out there one can watch again and again without ever being tired of it? And does any film appeal to a broader audience? Just everything about it seems to be as close to perfection as it only can be.
But what exactly is so special about it? Is it its great genre mix, never equaled by another film? When we think of 'Casablanca' first, we remember it as a romantic film (well, most of us do). But then again, its also a drama involving terror, murder and flight. One can call it a character study, centering on Rick. And there are quite a few moments of comedic delight, just think of the pickpocket ("This place is full of vultures, vultures everywhere!") or the elderly couple on the last evening before their emigration to the US ("What watch?").
But 'Casablanca' is not only great as a whole, it still stands on top if we break it apart and look at single lines of dialog, scenes or performances alone. Is there any other film which has more quotable dialog than 'Casablanca'? 'Pulp Fiction' is on my mind here, and 'All About Eve' and 'Sunset Blvd.' come close, too, but still I think 'Casablanca' tops everything else. And not only is the dialog great, it's unforgettably delivered, especially by Humphrey Bogart ("I was misinformed.") and Claude Rains ("I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here"). Many of scenes have become a part of film history; the duel of 'Die Wacht am Rhein' and 'La Marseillaise' is probably one of the greatest scenes ever shot (the only I can think of that would rival it for the #1 spot is Hynkel and the globe from Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator'), and the last scene is probably even familiar to the few people who've never seen 'Casablanca'. Am I the only one who is absolutely convinced that the film wouldn't have become what it is today if Rick and Ilsa would have ended up as the lucky couple?
About the performances: So much has been said about the uniqueness of Humphrey Bogart's and Ingrid Bergman's chemistry as Rick and Ilsa, about Claude Rains' terrific turn as Renault, about the scene-stealing performances by Peter Lorre (one of the 10 all-time greatest actors) as Ugarte and Sydney Greenstreet as Ferrari and about Dooley Wilson stopping the show as Sam. I'd love to emphasize here two other performances, one that is not mentioned quite as often and one which is blatantly overlooked: Conrad Veidt as Major Strasser had a really difficult task here, as his character is the only evil one, but still Strasser is not a one-dimensional character, and it took more than 50 years until another actor gave an equally (maybe even more) impressive performance as a Nazi, Ralph Fiennes in 'Schindler's List'. But why no one ever mentions S. K. Sakall, who plays Carl, the jolly waiter at Rick's Café Américain, is beyond me. He has definitely more screen time than Lorre, Greenstreet and Wilson, and probably about as much as Veidt, and he's a joy whenever he's on the screen. I simply love his reaction when the pickpocket ("Vultures everywhere!") accidentally bumps into him, or the reaction to the "What watch"-dialog. Or how he says he gave Strasser the best table, "being a German, he would have taken it anyway". His performance is simply criminally overlooked.
So is there a weakest link in 'Casablanca'? Every film, no matter how close to perfection, has a minor flaw or two, so one can find them in 'Casablanca', too, if one really tries hard. So yes, one might ask how much sense the entire mumbo jumbo about the letters of transit makes. One might point out that Paul Henreid, although his performance is certainly good, doesn't come close to the greatness of any of his co-stars. However, the film is so close to perfection that I'm almost ashamed that I'm so desperately trying to find less-than-perfect elements.
So whatever films will come, how many sequels will overflow the screen, and how much junk we will have to sit through, one thing is certain if we're desperate to see a great film: We'll always have Casablanca!
Moby Dick (2000)
Great acting, but boring for the eye
In this one, Orson Welles proves, more than anything else, that he was not only a directing genius but also a terrific actor. He plays all roles himself, and he's doing an excellent job. However, it suffers from being acted on a blank set and filmed almost entirely in closeups.
Very short and very moving
This short bit is the last footage of Welles before he died. He already looks rather ill, but his reading of a passage from Charles Lindbergh's diary, dedicated to a friend of his, is really moving. A last great look at one of the greatest!
Sentimental at first, then hilariously funny
Orson Welles wandering through Vienna, remembering "The Third Man" and talking about a city he apparently loves - and then, aided by Senta Berger and Mickey Rooney, he suddenly stumbles into a spy satire and finally performs a magic trick - this sounds maybe somewhat strange, but it's simply hilariously funny.
As funny as Monty Python
Despite his funny performance in "Catch-22", I never quite considered Orson Welles a comedian. "London", which consists of five segments, changed my mind. It opens with a compilation of quotes by Winston Churchill. Very funny, but nothing compared to the rest, as the other episodes would make Monty Python go green with envy. The funniest segment is 'Swinging London'. Can you imagine Orson Welles as a dancing bobby, a one-man-band or the Chinese owner of a strip club? Well, 'Swinging London' has him not only in these three roles, but also in drag: as a disgruntled housewife and as a woman selling violets - and filthy postcards. It's just plain hilarious. Too bad that the sound of the middle segment ('Four Clubmen', all played by Welles, of course) is lost, but that one looks funny, too.
Orson Welles' Magic Show (1985)
Yepp, he would make a good magician.
What does it take to make a good magician? A bunch of good illusions an a lot of charisma. Orson Welles knows a few tricks, and his charisma is incredible! Did you ever feel an actor is pushing you into your seat only by his sheer performance? Welles did so, especially during his first trick.
La nuit américaine (1973)
Simply the greatest film about making a film ever made!
"Shooting a movie is like a stagecoach trip. At first you hope for a nice ride. Then you just hope to reach your destination."
Early in the film, director Ferrand, played by François Truffaut, says this in a voice-over of 'Day for Night'. A lot of the film illustrates that this is a very true sentence.
In his legendary Hitchcock book, Truffaut says at one point that it would be a nice idea to make a film about making a film, and Hitchcock agrees. Luckily Truffaut liked that idea enough to actually make this film, as 'Day for Night' is probably the best film ever made about making a film.
We are on the set of 'Meet Pamela'. 'Meet Pamela' is a love and revenge story, about a man falling in love with daughter-in-law. It looks very much like a pretty mediocre film. I doubt I would like it. But that's good, as it doesn't distract us from what's happening on the set, from the many characters.
We get to know the cast and crew of 'Meet Pamela': Julie Baker, a second generation Hollywood star whose nervous breakdown she's recovering from causes insurance problems; Alphonse, a very jealous, very neurotic French actor who's so madly in love with a girl he organizes the job of the script girl for her just to have her near; Alexandre, a veteran actor who played many lovers in his life, but is actually a closet homosexual; Severine, an Italian actress with an alcohol problem who used to play opposite Alexandre frequently in her career, but hasn't talked to him in years, maybe because she found out she had no chance to become his real-life lover. From the crew, we especially remember Joelle, the production assistant who almost seems to be more involved in the making of the film than director Ferrand (it is her who has the film's most often quoted line: "I'd drop a guy for a film, but I'd never drop a film for a guy"), Liliane, the girl who got the job as a script girl only because Alphonse wanted to have her around him, who doesn't really seem to be interested in the film - or in Alphonse; Odile, the makeup girl who also got a bit part in the film; Bernard, the prop man, who gives us with his every day work a look behind the scenes of a film; and the unit manager Lajoie, whose wife is always around and at one point shouts at the cast and crew because she just can't understand their 'immoral' behavior.
The film doesn't have a plot of it's own, but it shows us all these characters and their problems, trying to get a film made and getting over one catastrophe after the next, sometimes something as harmless as a kitten refusing to drink milk or Stacey, a supporting actress causing scheduling problems because of her pregnancy, sometimes something more serious as Alphonse refusing to go on acting after Liliane leaves the set with a stunt man, with even more complications to follow when Julie tries to cure Alphonse's neurosis. But not even a lethal car accident can stop the making of the film.
'Day for Night' also has brilliant performances, but three stand out: Nathalie Baye in her first notable performance as the omni-competent Joelle and Jean-Pierre Léaud, who never was better in his life than here as Alphonse, would make it a worthwhile film alone. But it is Valentina Cortese who steals the show as the fading actress Severine. Her scene opposite Alexandre in which she can't remember her dialog and suggests just saying numbers (she did the same when she worked with "Federico") is priceless.
At one point Ferrand says that a director is a man who is constantly asked many questions and sometimes knows the answer, and it is sort of a surprise that the one man who "invented" the auteur theory, which more or less says that a film is the director's work, makes a film that shows how many people's work is involved in the making of a film. But it is not only a film about people making films: Many of the characters (most notably Ferrand, Alphonse and Joelle) are film enthusiasts, and the entire film is a film from a film lover about film lovers for film lovers. It's Truffaut's best and shouldn't be missed by cinephiles.
8 femmes (2002)
These ladies kick ass!
'8 Women' is a rather unique film. On the surface it is the probably only entry in the genre of the grotesque whodunit-musical. But actually, it's a huge playground - for the actresses who get the chance to play with the stereotypes attached to them, and for director François Ozon to toy with the clichés of the whodunit.
Here's the setup: 1950s. A beautiful mansion. A man is found lying in his bed with a knife in his back. The possible suspects: His wife, his two daughters, his sister, his mother-in-law, his sister-in-law, the chambermaid and the cook. As these eight women can't leave the estate or call the police, they try to find the murderer themselves. We know this situation from countless Agatha Christie-stories.
But what Ozon makes of this situation is just incredible. It already begins with the casting: Who else could play the gentrified Gaby if not Catherine Deneuve? Is there any actress who would fit more perfectly for the role of the spinsterish sister than Isabelle Huppert? Who else would you want to walk around in that dress of a chambermaid than the most desirable Emmanuelle Béart? The actresses are eagerly playing with the stereotypes that surround them because of both, the roles they played and their private lives.
Then there's the story: All whodunits have those obligatory scenes where the motives of all characters are revealed. '8 Women' takes that formula and deliberately goes over the top with it, it's characters are unfaithful, pregnant, lesbian, poisoners and many things more. And as a final twist, the film stops eight times to give each of its protagonists a chance to reveal her true character in a scene entirely devoted to them - singing and dancing. There is also another scene worth mentioning that is entirely dedicated to the actresses: A scene with a lot of dialog that entirely consists of nothing but a series of closeups - and that for about three minutes.
Cinephiles can enjoy this film on even another level: The film is filled with references to beloved classics. Consider Fanny Ardant's musical number, which pays homage to Rita Hayworth's glove-strip in 'Gilda', and another Rita Hayworth-moment so wonderful I won't reveal it here. Consider Emmanuelle Béarts hairstyle that echoes Kim Novak in 'Vertigo'. Consider the fact that the late husband of the Dannielle Darrieux character was a general, reminding us of 'Madame de...'. Or consider the painting of the young Catherine Deneuve hanging in one room - a replica of a 'Belle de jour'-poster. All this is supported by the rich, colorful cinematography, the art direction and the costumes, that give the entire film a 1950s look.
But attention: If you give this film a chance, don't expect it to be logically consistent. It isn't. But that doesn't matter at all. The murder mystery story is replaceable. The film is entirely devoted to its brilliant actresses and the wonderful, bitchy dialog they exchange. It's great fun and it is getting better with every viewing.
Angst essen Seele auf (1974)
Sad. True. Beautiful.
Munich, in the mid-70s: She enters the exotic bar because it's raining and maybe because she's a little curious what this place with that strange music is like. He asks her for a dance because his friends tell him to do so. He accompanies her home. He stays for the night. The fall in love. They marry.
All that sounds like your average Hollywood romance. But that's only half the story of 'Fear Eats the Soul'. Here's the other half: She, Emmi Kurowski, is a 60 year old, widowed cleaner, mother of three married children. He, Ali, is a black foreign worker from Morocco, 20 years younger than her, speaking a rather bad German (a more faithful translation of the German original title 'Angst essen Seele auf', a quote from Ali, would be 'Fear Eat Soul'). This film is not a cheesy romance, it is the story of two people who love each other and struggle with the rest of the world to be accepted.
But the people around them have problems. The neighbors are talking about them, Emmi's colleagues ignore her, the merchant refuses to serve them, and Emmi's children don't want to understand it - her son Bruno even destroys the TV set in his anger.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder is arguably the greatest German director ever, and with more than 40 films, TV series, TV films plus 16 theater plays he wrote, directed and often also (co-)starred in in a career that lasted only a mere 15 years, he is certainly one of the most efficient directors in film history. His best films are a criticism of German society after World War II by simple, but memorable stories with very well observed characters. And 'Fear Eats the Soul' displays Fassbinder's qualities best. In very simple shots (facial expressions, the use doors to stress the loneliness of his characters), he makes this films very emotional.
The film is sometimes described as naive. That's wrong. Maybe it is naive to believe that a 60 year old widow and a black 40 year old worker will fall in love. But the rest is as well-observed as a film can be: The fact that people's reactions change when they realize that it's easier to accept them and take advantage of them. That Emmi eagerly joins her colleagues as soon as they have found a new victim. That Ali goes to the waitress of his bar to get the two things Emmi can't give him - sex and his favorite dish.
And then the film has some amazing acting. But from the entire cast, Brigitte Mira as Emmi Kurowski stands out. Actually a comedic actress, she shines in this drama as a woman who struggles for acceptance. Her speech outside a restaurant, when all the waiters stare at them but don't serve them, is heartbreaking, her entire performance is unforgettable.
At first sight, 'Fear Eats the Soul' is a small, simple romantic film. But look closer and you'll see it is so much more, it is a comment on subliminal prejudices and selfishness. It shows what a film can do, even if its budget is tiny, if it only believes in the power of its story.
That's what comes from too much alcohol and too few mutual respect
'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' tells the story of two couples that are quite different at first sight - one used to each other for years, the other one rather freshly wed in comparison. Actually it doesn't tell their story, but it displays their relationships.
The film begins on a Sunday morning at 2 o'clock, right after a party, and ends just after the sun rises. In these few hours we get to know these four people better then we might possibly want.
George and Martha are the older couple. He is a history professor, she is the daughter of the head of the university. Their relationship seems to be from hell, full of mutual disgust and humiliation. Their guests are Nick and Honey. He is the new, ambitious biology professor, she is his naive young wive. As all these four characters are more or less drunk throughout the entire film, alcohol works as a catalyst, and we quickly see the different kind of character traits they have: George is a cynic, Martha loves to torment her husband, Nick is an opportunist and Honey is very much a stupid blonde.
The two relationships deserve closer examination: We wonder why Martha and George married in the first place. They keep swearing at each other. Martha can't stop humiliating George, when they are alone as well as when Nick and Honey are there. Maybe there is still a rest of love in them, but there mutual respect has vanished completely. And then there is the strange story of their son, who is supposed to visit on his birthday. They way George and Martha talk about him make us feel that there is something peculiar about him. At the end we get to know more about him, and we can only guess how important the son is for their relationship.
Nick and Honey, on the other hand, seem to be quite the opposite. But, being used as weapons by the older couple, we see that their relationship isn't as perfect as it seems to be, either. Nick didn't marry Honey because he loved her, but because he thought she was pregnant and because of her money. And when Martha tries to seduce him to tease George, he plays the game with her, always in mind that this woman's father is the head of the university. Honey, on the other hand, is much more emotional than her husband, but she also is the most passive character, and the one most affected by the alcohol.
Mike Nichols assembled an outstanding cast for his film. Casting Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Martha and George is a stroke of genius - not only are they terrific actors, but it also heats the imagination of the viewer how much their real-life-marriage resembled the relationship they had in this film. Elizabeth Taylor outshines her co-stars a little. Never was she any better than in this one; although her character is the meanest in the film, she manages that we still feel compassion for her at the end. But Richard Burton, George Segal and especially Sandy Dennis deliver memorable performances, too.
'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf' succeeds at something rather difficult: It makes us care for characters we wouldn't want to have anything to do with in real life. And although it actually consist of nothing but four people talking for two hours, it never bored us for a second.
Rosemary's Baby (1968)
Psychological Horror at its very best
One might argue Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby is not a horror film, since it lacks almost everything you'll find in almost all of them: shock moments, vampires, werewolf, serial killers, even blood. The most graphic scene is a nightmare sequence that displays a rape scene so stylized it isn't actually disturbing. But one might also argue that Rosemary's Baby is a horror film in its purest form, since it doesn't depend on all those gimmicks to create its atmosphere. I prefer the latter point of view.
So what is happening in this film? Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move to a new apartment. Their neighbors are Roman and Minnie Castevet, an elderly couple. Although they are very friendly, there is something strange about them - the sounds that come from their apartment, the fact they remove all the pictures from their walls when the Woodhouses visit and other things like that. While Rosemary tries to keep a certain distance from them, Guy is very fond of the relationship to his new neighbors, and especially Minnie becomes more and more obtrusive, especially when Rosemary finds out she's pregnant - she recommends her another (better, as she says) gynecologist's and mixes a (healthy, as she says) herbal drink for her every day.
The pregnancy, however, develops rather unpleasant: Rosemary keeps feeling pain in her stomach and she becomes thinner (Pregnant women are supposed to gain, not lose weight, a visiting friend observes), and when the pain doesn't stop after several months, she begins to believe that her neighbors, her gynecologist's and even her husband conspired against her and want to harm the baby she's carrying.
All this is told by Roman Polanski in the perfect tone; the mood for the entire film is already set during the opening credits when we hear that weird lullaby, sung by Mia Farrow. And a lot of strange things happen throughout the entire film: Guy and Rosemary are told by Hutch, a friend of theirs, about the horrific past of the house they're now living in, a young girl that lives with the Castevets commits suicide (really a suicide?), Guy, an actor, gets the role he wanted so badly after the contestant who was originally supposed to play it turns blind, and Hutch, who might have found something out that would help Rosemary, suddenly is in a coma and dies three months later; all these (and a few other) events are precisely dosed by Polanski to draw us more and more into the film, while he makes sure on the other hand that the film doesn't become absurd. And he manages to give the film an ending that works, makes sense and is observant, slightly (but only slightly) funny and very disturbing, all at once.
Rosemary's Baby also contains two of the most memorable performances ever: Mia Farrow is haunting as Rosemary Woodhouse. She looks like she is physically suffering from her pregnancy and close to complete despair. And Ruth Gordon is amazing as the curious Minnie Castevet, always friendly, but also giving you the feeling that, hidden behind her generosity, she actually follows her own, obscure motives. If you have a helpful elderly female neighbor, you'll see her with other eyes once you've encountered Minnie Castevet. So, if you think a real horror film needs shock moments, vampires, werewolf, serial killers or at least blood - watch Rosemary's Baby and you'll change your mind.
The Mother of Modern Science Fiction *Spoiler*
This review contains Spoilers. But since the story is by far the least reason to watch Metropolis, feel free to still read it, even if you haven't watched it yet.
Metropolis is a film that was far ahead of it's time. It influenced a great lot of science-fiction films, and how The Blade Runner, Batman or Dark City would look like if there wasn't Metropolis - who knows. Even The Matrix Reloaded is heavily inspired by this classic that is as old as my grandmother.
Now what is it all about? About Freder, the son of the head of the city of Metropolis, a Christ-like figure who falls in love with the preacher of the working class, a saintlike woman who happens to be named Maria. When a robot who is modeled to look like Maria makes the workers almost extinguish their city and their children, Maria and Freder save the children, and in the end Freder makes his father and the workers cooperate for a brighter future.
Sounds silly to you? Yes, and that's exactly what the story is: silly. That's also the reason why, still today, Metropolis isn't accepted as the masterpiece it is by a few film buffs. But these people don't understand one thing: A good film does more than only tell a story. A film can be great even without a story at all, and a silly story combined with amazing visuals can make you forget all the other weaknesses a film has.
And wow, what amazing images Metropolis offers. What an art direction! What wonderful special effects! And remember, as I already said, this film is as old as my grandmother! Just have a look at the workers. They hardly ever seem to be individuals. In the mass scenes they look like one big creature moving forward or backwards. When they are working they look more like machines than like human beings, whereas the machines resemble monsters more than they do technical devices (best seen in the moments when Freder hallucinates and sees the big machine as a worker-eating Moloch). We also see a worker (and later, Freder) work on a machine that looks like a clock with 100 blinking light bulbs, doing some that looks as exhausting as it looks senseless. Or think of Rotwang, the mad inventor who lives in a little hut that looks in this film like it was from another world. He has a black prosthesis for his right hand (it's not a coincidence that Stanley Kubrick gave his mad scientist/inventor Dr. Strangelove a prosthesis for his right hand, too). He builds the robot that he makes to look like Maria, and that transformation scene is one of the most magnificent scenes ever and looks more convincing than some scenes of modern sci-fi flicks.
I also have to mention Brigitte Helm, who plays Maria and the robot - and the look in her eyes would already be enough to tell which of her characters is on screen at the moment. If something like awards already would have been given in the 1920s, she sure would have walked home with quite a bunch of them. And just look at her sexy dance! It is just as memorable as the shot of the many eyes watching her dance - or the many faces watching her preach just a few minutes later.
Metropolis is a film no sci-fi-fan should miss. I had the good luck that my first viewing of Metropolis one year ago was in a cinema (when it was a re-released after its restoration). I can only recommend you to watch it in a cinema if you have the possibility to, as Metropolis is, just as 2001 - A Space Odyssey one of those rare films that are masterpieces on your TV set, but a revelation on the big screen.
"I just don't understand this story"
These are the opening words of Rashômon, and in a way that's also a summary of the entire film. It is the story of four testimonies of the same event that couldn't differ more. It is told by a priest and a woodcutter to a commoner, as they seek shelter from the rain under the Rashomon gate. The priest and the woodcutter were witnesses in a trial, and what they heard there made them puzzled, and after they told everything, the viewer is just as puzzled as these two.
What happened? Takehiro, a samurai has been murdered and Masako, his wife has been raped, the suspect is Tajômaru. And indeed, in court he confesses to have raped the woman and to have killed the samurai in duel. Masako however tells quite a different story: After Tajômaru took advantage of her, he left and despair and pity made her kill her husband, but to commit suicide, just as she originally planned, she's to weak. Then the murdered samurai speaks, through the voice of a medium. In his story, he committed suicide because of disgust at his wife, who asked Tajomaru to kill him in order to accompany the robber. At the end, we hear even another story from the woodcutter, who was, as he reveals, an eyewitnesses. In his version, Tajômaru killed the samurai in a duel (or rather: in a brawl) that was demanded by his wife.
Now what did really happen? Why did at least three of these four people lie? The reason cannot be (as the commoner says at one point) that everyone told what was useful for him, since, except for the woodcutter, everyone told a story in which he was the killer. So do they all think their story is true? Do they all feel guilty for a reason or another? These questions will cause endless discussions once you watch this film.
And the end, Kurosawa raises another question: If man keeps lying (to others as well as to himself), does that mean he is evil? This question is underlined by the crying baby the three men find in the Rashômon gate. Kurosawa's answer to this question is clearly a no: the woodcutter takes the baby to raise him and the priest realizes that he is a good man, even although he's a lier and a thief.
But if Kurosawa had only raised these questions, Rashômon wouldn't have become such a classic as it is considered today. He is telling his story with breathtaking images, as when he's holding his camera directly into the sun, when he uses the wood, light and shadow to create a dense atmosphere, or when he shows the trial scenes, where he makes the witnesses talk to the viewers to make them feel like the judges. The fight scenes are all terrifically shot, and the scene before Masako kills Takehiro can move you to tears. Rashômon also has some good acting, especially the breathtaking Toshirô Mifune in one of film history's most unforgettable performances as the wild robber Tajômaru, always jumping around and seemingly untamable and unafraid. All this makes Rashômon a mind-boggling experience, that had me talk all night through with friends of mine, and still stirs me whenever i watch it.
Great, weird plot - and everything else is even better
Today, most films have a structure so simple, you can abstract it in one mere sentence. Diva is not such a film, it has so much plot that I don't know where to begin. Maybe I'll begin with the two tapes the film is all about. Tape one is the bootleg record of the beautiful aria Ebben ne andro lontana from Alfredo Catalani's opera La Wally, taped during the recital of the famous opera singer Cynthia Hawkins. On tape, two Nadja, a prostitute, discloses who is the man behind a prostitution ring. The man who possesses these two tapes is Jules, a postman; tape one because he's the one who recorded it (for private use only, of course), tape two because Nadja slipped it into his bag just seconds before she's killed. Not really knowing why, Jules finds himself fleeing from the police and from the mob because of the latter tape - and since Cynthia Hawkins always refused to make tape recordings of her voice, two guys from the Taiwanese mafia, who sat just behind Jules when he recorded his bootleg, see their chance to make a fortune with it, try to get it and blackmail the diva.
Meanwhile, Jule becomes friends with Cynthia Hawkins when he brings her back a dress he stole after her recital (but not after having sex with a hooker wearing it) and they spend a day together. He also encounters Alba, a nice, glib girl with a talent for shoplifting (she developed a technique that makes you wish you're the guy behind the counter) and Gorodish, the man she lives with, two people who will help him a lot in the course of the film. All this is handled by director Jean-Jacques Beineix with virtuosity. But I'm only talking about the twisted plot here, whereas Diva is so much more.
It is its pop-art style, it is its unique genre-mix of Thriller and Romance, it is Jules' apartment, which looks like combination of a studio and a garage, it is its two killers who look like they escaped a Jeunet-film (and indeed Dominique Pinon, who plays one of the two killers, went on to star in Delicatessen, La cité des enfants perdus and Amélie), it is that wonderful chase scene where Jules drives down the stairs and takes the Métro with his moped, it is that absurdly funny scene with the blue Beethoven bust, it is Thuy An Luu, playing Alba as a cheerful girl that makes you wish you had a girlfriend like that, it is Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez, a real-life opera singer in her only film role, playing a wonderful Cynthia Hawkins (how I love that look she gives when someone reminds her of her age), it is Gorodish ingeniously solving two problems at once, it is its wonderful ending I will not reveal her with the perfect last words (Shhhh, listen...)... I could go on with this list forever. With its hilarious story, its beautiful images, its weird characters and its joyous direction, Diva could open the door to the cinema of the rest of the world for those whose Top 10 list consist only of films as Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Usual Suspects or The Godfather. It is a film I immensely love and could watch over and over again.
Harold and Maude (1971)
Beautiful, funny, insightful
Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude is probably one of the strangest romantic comedies that was ever made, and indeed the term romantic comedy seems to be inappropriate to describe this film. To begin with, it has two protagonists that couldn't be more different - and I'm not only talking about the age difference of almost 60 years. Harold is a 20 year old, introverted, neurotic boy who suffers from a dominant mother and drives around in a hearse. His favorite hobby is faking his own suicide, something he did already roughly 15 times (at least that's what he's telling to his psychiatrist; we see six staged suicides (including drowning and self-incineration) and as a bonus one scene when he pretends to chop of his hand. Maude, on the other hand, is an extroverted lady just days before her 80th birthday who still tries something new each days - we see her singing songs by Cat Stevens, posing to nude to a painter and many things more, but her favorite hobby is stealing cars, something she's quite good at - especially if you consider she doesn't even have a license. But there's one hobby they share: They both frequently go to funerals. While Harold is wearing a trenchcoat and sunglasses, Maude is the one with bright dress and the yellow umbrella. When Maude one day offers Harold to drive him home (in his hearse she just stole), the are becoming friends. Maude teaches him to enjoy life (her lessons consist of playing banjo, dancing, smoking weed, saving a tree or stealing a police motorcycle), and meanwhile Harold begins to fall in love with her. She also helps him to escape military school in scene so funny it is worth the price of rental alone.
But the film also shows Harold's (non-)relationship to his bourgeois mother and his militarist uncle (a very farcical parody of a right-wing conservative). His mother is rather indifferent towards her son (something which is shown best during his various 'suicides'), and she's almost completely unemotional to him. After she decides that Harold should marry, she fills in the questionnaire that she ordered from the marriage bureau herself, not caring whether her son agrees with the statements - or whether he wants to find a wife at all. After Harold tells her he's in love with Maude, she has him take counsel, and the photos on the wall demonstrate what institutions she believes in: president Nixon, Sigmund Freud and the pope (the scene with the catholic priest is only one minute long but one of the funniest parodies of the catholic church I've ever seen).
The film is a masterpiece of character development and of secretly hidden hints to understand the characters (consider a scene where the observant viewer becomes aware of the fact that Maude is holocaust survivor). It is also a film of terrific acting. Ruth Gordon's Maude is one of the most memorable, most lovable and most unique characters in film history, Vivian Pickles is wonderful as Harold's mother, and if Robert Altman hadn't recommended to Bud Cort to turn down that offer to star in that film named One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where would he be now?
There's another reason why the term romantic comedy seems inappropriate: its ending. I won't reveal it to those who haven't watched this wonderful film yet, but I assure you it isn't your average 'And they lived happily ever after'-endings. It is a more or less open end, an optimistic end, maybe even a happy end, but one that you'll never find in your Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts loves Hugh Grant or Ben Affleck films.
Mein letzter Film (2002)
A Breathtaking One-Woman-Show
This must be the role an actress would kill for. Especially if that actress reached the age when good roles become rarer and rarer. Hannelore Elsner has reached that age, but that doesn't prevent her from triumphing in those roles most of her fellow actresses can only dream about: after (justly) receiving all important film awards Germany has to offer for her brilliant performance in 'Die Unberührbare' (aka 'No Place to Go'), playing a disillusioned writer after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Oliver Hirschbiegel, director of 'Das Experiment', offers her the chance to play an aging actress explaining herself into a camera.
One would think that a movie which basically shows nothing but an actress packing a suitcase and talking about her life, her men, her career would become boring after some time. But no, we become more and more interested in that woman standing there talking to (and about) the people who were the center of her life: the director she was married to for a long time and she is still working with on a TV series, the football trainer whose love she was and the politician whose secret affair she was. During all these revelations she's packing a few things together to leave (where she wants to go is one of the few things she doesn't talk about), and when the 90 minutes are over and the tape is full, we feel a little sad because we wanted that woman to go on talking.
As the film (i.e. the film-in-film) is not supposed to be shown to the public she's telling very intimate details of her life: Her concerns about growing older or her relationship with Bess, a girl she knows already from school, belong to that category. The story of her daughter is so private that not even the young cameraman (the only other person seen in the film) is supposed to hear it. But as, on the other hand, she's convinced someone will pass it to the public, she tries to keep it entertaining: When she's mocking the clichés, she's forced to go through again and again for her TV series or when she's showing the awards she won (Elsner's awards, of course),when she's reading fantail, when she's showing pictures from the time when she was younger.
Of course you need a terrific actress to dare to make such a film, and Hannelore Elsner is the right choice. She's always hits the perfect note and knows how to handle the material to keep the audience interested; there's a good chance that she will win once again several awards for this stunning performance.
As Hirschbiegel's 'Das Experiment' was quite successful in the rest of the world, there's a good chance this movie will be shown out of Germany at least on festivals. I don't know how it works with subtitles, as the lines of Elsner's monologue are the heart of the film, but everyone who speaks German should not miss this film!
Det sjunde inseglet (1957)
Grim, but not entirely hopeless
Middle Ages: Antonius Blok, a Swedish knight, returns from the Crusades only to find his country dying of the plague, religious fundamentalists taking over and Death himself wanting him to come along. Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess and is meanwhile driven to desperation because of the absence of God. This description sounds like a very serious, philosophical and dour film, and actually it is serious, philosophical and dour; but there is also a little warmth, hope and humor, maybe not for Antonius, but for the viewer.
When Blok and Death interrupt their game of chess (due to the plague, Death is very busy), he meets two actors, Jof and Mia, with their little son, the most human characters of the film, and I don't think it's a coincidence that there names sound very much like Joseph and Mary. These people may be a little dim, but they are good at heart and you can see the happiness in Antonius' eyes when he is together with them for the first time.
But the main aspect of Ingmar Bergman's arguably best film are Antonius Blok's grim encounters, as the young girl about to be burnt at the stake, as a scapegoat for the plague. And the haunting image of a huge crowd of flagellants interrupting a play of Jof and Mia and trying to convince the crowd thery are doomed; hardly any other film is that direct in asking controversial and essential questions about God, religion and mankind as The Seventh Seal.
Another reason for the impact this almost 50-year-old film has still today is the acting: Max von Sydow's face always seems to reflect what Antonius Blok is thinking, Nils Poppe's performance as the naive actor and caring father is priceless and Bengt Ekerot's Death became a part of film history and survived all its spoofs (the best one being in Woody Allen's tremendously funny "Love and Death"). But the best performance is done by Gunnar Björnstrand as Antonios Blok's misogynist squire, dryly commenting all their encounters even in the face of death.
The Seventh Seal is not subtle in raising it's questions, that's for sure. But it makes you think about these questions nevertheless. It's disturbing and grim most of the time, but at the end it gives you the hope that it might become better.
11'09''01 - September 11 (2002)
The best kind of movie that can be made about 9/11
It was clear right from the beginning that 9/11 would inspire about as many films as World War II and Vietnam combined; however, there is certainly a big danger that most of these films to come are about as good (or rather: bad) as Pearl Harbor. It is a great luck that the first international release about 9/11 is not a cheesy love story starring a bunch of pretty faces, but a collective work of 11 directors from the entire world.
I'm not intending to say that all 11 episodes are great (Youssef Chahine's, for example, has a needless prologue with too many cuts and Shohei Imamura's has a really bizarre ending) or that the segments are in the right order (Imamura's, being the only one not referring directly to the Twin Towers, should open the film, not end it, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's should be the last one instead, as it's the most impressive one). But it is an impressing effort and an interesting portrayal of the way other parts of the world react to the collapse of the twin towers.
Consider Samira Makhmalbaf's opening segment, in which an Afghan teachers tries to explain to her pupils what happened in New York and unsuccessfully suggests a one-minute silence. Or Idrissa Ouedraogo's part (which features a bin Laden-double so much resembling the real one that you'll be shocked when you see him, I promise), in which 5 boys muse about good things that can be done with the reward put out on Laden.
There's a surprisingly good (and extremely angry) segment by Ken Loach about a man from Chile talking about what he calls "our Tuesday September 11" - that September 11 in 1973 when their elected president Allende was killed and Pinochet installed his dictatorship - with the generous help from Henry Kissinger and the CIA. This could have become a terrible effort in Anti-Americanism, but it did become a sad tale and shares my recognition for the best segment with Inarritu's (mainly sound impressions and phone calls from the hijacked planes to a black screen, sometimes a few pictures of people falling down the WTC and finally a collapsing tower, ending with the screen brightening up and one question appearing) and Amos Gitai's about a hysterical reporter trying desperatly to get on air after a car bomb exploded in Tel Aviv (hard to recognize, but this one is a masterpiece of choreography).
All these different segments (I haven't mentioned yet Claude Lelouch's about a deaf girl, Danis Tanovic's about a demonstration of the Women of Srebrenica, Mira Nair's - strange, but it takes an Indian director to make the part that is probably most appealing to Western tastes - about a Muslim family whose son is under a terrible suspicion after 9/11 and Sean Penn's with Ernest Borgnine (yes, Ernest Borgnine) as a widower leading the most depressive life one can imagine) add up to a unique film not easy to watch and hard to forget. I am sure this film will be a classic known to everyone thirty years from now. I hope it will be remembered for starting a long tradition of world cinema movies. But, alas, it's far more probable it will be remembered as a one-film-only effort. And as the one of the few 9/11 movies made by then that don't reduce this terrible event to a love story with a happy end just to please the audience.