Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Red Balloon

I remember as a child being fascinated by silent passages in movies. I am still to this day intrigued by completely visual film making. I think this all started with French director Albert Lamorisse's sweet 1956 masterpiece The Red Balloon. It was shown throughout American elementary schools from the 60's to the early 90's (and should still be shown to kids today, if you ask me), and I was one of the many children that the movie made a huge impression on. It's the story of a young kid, played by the director's son Pascal, who finds a balloon caught on a light post on his walk to school. He frees it and soon finds out the balloon has a mind of its own, which it uses to follow him to school and play games with him and be the friend that he so desperately needs.
Of course, one of the calling cards of the movie is its script. It won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, despite having lines of dialog in the single digits. It's nearly silent (and could've been completely had Lamorisse wanted to do so), and is all the more magical for it. It's a simple movie, but one that plays to our recollections of childhood and the feelings of finding a new friend. My favorite sequence is the one in which Pascal and the balloon walk past a little girl carrying a blue balloon, causing the balloon to do its version of a double take, getting a little crush on the pretty blue balloon. However, the movie also doesn't let us forget that bullies exist in our world, as Pascal runs through the streets of Paris with the balloon as a big group of jealous kids seek to take it away from him. But a perfectly wonderful and uplifting ending gives us hope and a childlike glee in our hearts.
So, The Red Balloon is one of the great gifts of cinema. I've been meaning to revisit it for a while, ever since I saw Hou Hsiao-Hsien's homage The Flight of the Red Balloon with Juliette Binoche, about a year ago. I finally made it back to the original, and am glad I did. Its magic realism and understated brilliance will keep me coming back to it over and over again through the years. It gives me that wonderful fuzzy feeling inside that you just get from so few movies. Or, as critic Owen Gleiberman so wonderfully put it, "More than any other children's film, The Red Balloon turns me into a kid again whenever I see it...to see The Red Balloon is to laugh, and cry, at the impossible joy of being a child again."

Saturday, October 16, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon

Dreamworks animation has had a spotty career. It started out decently with Antz in 1998, which was overshadowed by Pixar's vastly superior A Bug's Life, they found huge success with the Shrek series, then again with Madagascar, again with Over the Hedge (which I actually liked a lot), but didn't really hit a home run artistically, I think, until 2008's Kung Fu Panda. Then came '09's delightful Monsters vs. Aliens, and 2010 gives us their magnum opus, How to Train Your Dragon. It's a wonderful movie with astounding animation, terrific characters, and a good (if predictable) story. They create a world of Vikings and dragons and ships and battles, and imbue it with heart, artistry, and the kind of soul we're used to seeing from Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Maybe we can start expecting that from Dreamworks now too, as Kung Fu Panda had the same kind of care given to it.

The story is the cliche of a kid not living up to the expectations given to him by his dad and the society they live in. He's different and hasn't found his place, although we know he will, otherwise it's unlikely he'd be the hero of the story. Director Chris Sanders had previously directed Lilo and Stitch, which was a surprisingly good modern Disney movie. He'd also done work on a quirkily ambitious project called American Dog, though he was later removed from the project, which was eventually heavily reworked into Bolt. I like Bolt a lot, but after seeing some American Dog concept photos, and seeing what Sanders (and his co-writer/director on all three projects, Dean DeBlois) did with this movie, I'd love to have seen what American Dog would've turned out like.

But back to How to Train Your Dragon, the animators really created some extraordinary shots and sequences in the movie. Apparently the filmmakers hired cinematographer Roger Deakins to advise on lighting the movie to give things more weight and to add a live-action feel. Deakins, responsible as regular director of photography for the Coen Brothers for some of the most interestingly shot movies of recent years, and an 8 time Oscar nominee, must've worked some good magic. The animation is tremendous, beautiful in many cases, and would alone make the movie worth watching. But the voice cast adds some nice work as well, especially lead Jay Baruchel (a favorite of mine dating back to Judd Apatow's Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared), with his inherent awkwardness extending to our outcast hero.

I hadn't expected to love How to Train Your Dragon, despite 98% positive reviews from critics, and being liked enough by audiences to rake in nearly $500 million. But it really is a terrific movie, one of the best of the year, even if I can't quite figure out why the Vikings have Scottish accents. I'm glad I finally got around to checking it out, and I'm sure I'll end up shelling out the cash to add it to my permanent collection.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Noir, round 3

#9 Clash by Night (directed by Fritz Lang)
So, this was supposed to be an entry into the noir quest. It was in one of my noir box sets, and "directed by Fritz Lang" got me excited (since he directed the all-time classics Metropolis and M), seeing that it was based on a play by Clifford Odets piqued my interest, and after seeing the cast of Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Ryan, Paul Douglas, and Marilyn Monroe, I was sold. But what the hell?!? This isn't a noir, it's just a bullsh-t relationship melodrama (and not a very good one in my eyes) with some occasionally noir-ish lighting. Lame.

#10 Act of Violence (directed by Fred Zinnemann)
So, I'll go ahead and count this as #10 in the series. And we're back on track with some serious noir. Actually, some interestingly serious noir. Act of Violence concerns itself with the guilt and anger felt by two soldiers who survived the horror of a Nazi P.O.W. camp. One of the soldiers, Van Heflin's Frank, was the leader of the group that'd been shot down by the Germans. Robert Ryan plays Joe, the only other man to make it out of the camp alive. Joe blames Frank for the deaths of the other men, and has tracked him down relentlessly in a bid to right the thing he feels has been wronged. Frank moved his family from Syracuse, New York all the way to southern California just to get away from Joe's vengeful quest, assuring himself that Joe won't continue following.

Frank's survivor's guilt must've been mirrored by that of legendary director Fred Zinnemann, who'd escaped the dangers of WWII with his brother just 10 years previous to Act of Violence, but lost both of his parents in concentration camps. Van Heflin's wonderfully layered performance carries the movie, especially in the scene where he explains to his wife Edith (Janet Leigh, in her first role of significance) exactly why Joe blames him for the soldiers' deaths, and what he's been carrying around with him since then. Robert Ryan is creepily effective as Joe, single minded in his pursuit, to the point that he tells his girlfriend he just doesn't love her enough to care what she thinks about his intent of violence retribution.

We're blessed again with some terrific cinematography (probably the biggest reason I love noir), this time courtesy of 16 time Oscar nominee Robert Surtees. Heflin is often bathed in shadow, with only a single ray of light across his eyes or face. The scene of he and Janet Leigh in the hotel, where he painfully explains his actions, is a masterfully shot bit of noir, with shadows and light playing off one another in many different ways. Another beautifully done sequence in when Frank contemplates suicide by standing in front of a train, Helfin's pain playing out on his face, Zinnemann ratcheting up the tension, and Surtees shining the light from the front of the train in contrast to the oppressive darkness all around. It's not the brilliant grittier photography of He Walked by Night, but it's very noir, and terrifically done.

#11 On Dangerous Ground (directed by Nicholas Ray)
After a nice round 10 movies, I returned to the first director on the list, Nicholas Ray, and his movie On Dangerous Ground. It stars Robert Ryan (of course it has Robert Ryan in it, it's a noir!) as Jim Wilson, a cop on the edge of losing his job after he continually gets too rough with suspects. He gets results, as he's quick to point out, but is also anti-social with his fellow policemen, insubordinate to his Chief, and decaying on the inside as a person. "Garbage, that's all we handle, garbage!" he shouts to another cop. He's sent away from the city into the wintry countryside to help investigate a murder and meets Mary, a blind woman played by Ida Lupino. Mary becomes a kind of beacon of salvation for Jim, but the situation may not play out in a way that allows him to have his redemption.

Ryan gives one of his better performances, giving Jim the nasty underbelly, but also believably paying out the quest for rebirth for his disillusioned cop. Ida Lupino is terrific as the blind woman, tenderly offering much needed hope, and not just for Jim. Ward Bond as the father of the country victim is a little too over-the-top and obnoxious, but I think that's kind of the point for his character.

The photography, by noir veteran George E. Diskant, isn't as iconic as some of the other noirs I've been watching. But I got a nice Fargo-esque vibe from the snowy countryside setting, and some decent city work as well. The hand-held work, however, is far inferior to the tremendous job Diskant did on The Narrow Margin, released the same year (also filmed the same year, although that was 2 years prior to its release). Ray's handling of the angsty storyline of looking for redemption through possible romance is handled with typical aplomb, even if it doesn't have the more noirish ending he originally intended. The change in setting, which some have apparently felt jarring, I felt Ray managed perfectly. We have to have our protagonist set up before we can care what happens to him. Ray is much more interested in his characters than in having a more narrow or traditional plot structure, and the movie is better off for it.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The ten most beautiful actresses of all time

So, fellow blogger Iza Larize inspired this post. You can check out her list here: http://depthsofcinema.blogspot.com/2010/10/most-beautiful-actresses-of-all-timeso.html, she is somehow always able to find some tremendous photos. We share a couple of actresses in our entry, but not too many. Although the women on the list have many distinctions from each other in their shared beauty, all have in common that their eyes are my favorite feature. I have always been drawn to dark eyes, and it seems that only two of the women has a lighter eye color. Anyway, without further delay, here we go, in no particular order, and this is based solely on beauty and not acting ability, that'd be a different list:

Salma Hayek

Salma starts off the list, because she's the most attractive actress of all time, in my book. Now, I don't necessarily think she's the most beautiful, just the most attractive. But still, this is a "most beautiful" list so she wouldn't be on here if I didn't think she was pretty. She has the same dark features that many women of her heritage (Spanish and Lebanese, although she is actually from Mexico) have, in the best way possible. Her severe eyebrows and dark eyes offset wonderfully against a smile that lights up her whole face. I think it's this contrast that has always attracted her to me.

Audrey Hepburn

Now, here is Salma Hayek's opposite. To me, Audrey Hepburn is the most beautiful actress I've ever seen, but would not be anywhere near a "most attractive" top ten list, simply because she doesn't have anything in the way of sensuality. Still, her smile could lighten even the darkest of hearts, and you could get lost in her eyes. Her almost impossible beauty couldn't not be on this list.

Aishwarya Rai

Ahh, Aishwarya Rai. She has the qualities that both Hayek and Hepburn have, but at the same time. Like Hayek, she bears the features of her heritage (Indian), namely in her prominent nose. However, her nose fits her face perfectly, and her smile, her eyes, her lips, she has beauty everywhere I look.

Halle Berry

Halle Berry may have the best smile in all of Hollywood. She has perfect teeth and impeccable cheekbones. She's also one of the few actresses that I will ever prefer with short hair.

Ingrid Bergman

Now, Bergman would certainly end up on a list of my top ten actresses, but she deserves a place on my most beautiful list as well. Although she had a severe nose, she had a luminous smile and incredibly contemplative eyes that I have loved watching on screen over and over again.

Rachel Weisz

When I first saw Rachel Weisz in The Mummy many years ago, her beauty hit me like a ton of bricks. Her eyes, her lips, her smile, she was amazing in her every feature. I'm still captivated whenever I see her, and it doesn't hurt either that she turned out to be a tremendous talent.

Gong Li

Gong Li was another one that bowled me over, this time when seeing the Zhang Yimou movie Raise the Red Lantern. That was in 1991 (when the movie was made, not when I saw it), and yet when I see things like Memoirs of a Geisha, Gong still out beauties her co-stars well into her 40's. There are many beautiful Asian women, but to me it doesn't get any better than Gong Li.

Claudia Cardinale

Continuing the theme, when I saw Claudia Cardinale in The Pink Panther, she ruined the movie for me. Every time the storyline went away from her, I stopped caring because it was going away from one of the most fascinatingly gorgeous women I'd ever seen in a movie. I found out later that the actresses Italian accent was so thick that they had to overdub her voice, but that didn't matter to me. Her dark eyes and perfect nose and mouth were all I wanted to see.

Marisa Tomei

Marisa Tomei, a strange case in that if I was making this list 15 years ago she wouldn't be on here. She has grown more attractive and more beautiful as she's gotten older, to where she is now easily one of the 5 sexiest actresses working today. I don't know how she does it, but she improves with age like wine. Her smile and her eyes pull me into her and are what help make her such a terrific actress. But they're also what get her onto this list of the most beautiful actresses.

Elizabeth Taylor

And finishing the theme of the list, Elizabeth Taylor's eyes are the most famous on the list. I have to admit that I'm not immune from the spell that they cast on so many others. I think, for me, it's not just the eyes, but the dark beauty that surrounds them (you'll notice no blondes on the list, although a couple just missed out).

Of course, there will be some arguments with my list "Where's Grace Kelly?" "Where's Catherine Deneuve?" and all that, but they always struck me very cold. They never really did anything for me. There are plenty of actresses who're beautiful enough to have been on the list, but just missed out. But you want Grace Kelly on there, make your damn own list. This is mine.