BABETTE'S FEAST. Gabriel Axel, 1987. 102 min.
Winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film of 1987, this fable tells the story of two Danish sisters and the French cook (Babette) who comes to them in her time of need. A quietly moving film, the understated plot takes its form from an Isak Denisson short story. After each sister turns down offers of advancement to live at home, those who surround them realize what life can be about. And then Babette reveals her secret in cooking a dinner they will not soon forget. In some ways, the film shares lineage with Like Water for Chocolate (1992, Alfonso Arau) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994, Ang Lee), in which food becomes the catalyst through which greater truths are shared and relationships are renewed. While not a great film (I don't know what else was up for a best foreign film oscar that year), it is pleasant, sharing with us quiet observations of the human condition. 4.4.00
BAND OF OUTSIDERS. Jean-Luc Godard, 1964. 95min.
A quintessential French New Wave film, Band of Outsiders somehow seems to embody everything that was great about them. An energetic film that stands American film genres on their heads and makes merry throughout until the bitter end, Band of Outsiders not only features a grey Paris and its environs beautifully captured by Raoul Coutard, but also, perhaps, Michel Legrand's last film score. Easily one of my favorite films. What more can I say? See it.
THE BAND WAGON. Vincente Minnelli, 1953. 111min.
Set in the 50s, during a transition in tastes, The Bandwagon tells the story of a washed out hoofer who is lured into making another go at it onstage with a theatre impressario supposedly connected with the modern audience. Scripted by the same team that wrote Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952), the film lacks the jubliance that film, but boasts one of the most sublime duets Astaire ever performed, playing off of Cyd Charisse. Interestingly, the film's plot echoes that of real life, as Astaire's character's staisis reflects his own at the time, and Charisse was too tall for him. While not the best Astaire film [his on-screen dancing is somewhat limited in this role, although the conclusion shows a different approach than was usual for him--the work of Michael Kidd who had just choreographed Guys and DOlls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955)], it is worth seeing for the duet with Charisse alone and a glimpse into the theatre world as the performers must struggle with new material and the weeks of previews on the road. 02.26.03
BATTLE ROYALE. Kinji Fukasaku, 2000. 114min.
Perhaps one of the most violent film I've ever seen, Battle Royale is set in the not-too-distant future where children are out of control and drastic measures are taken in order to rein them in. Every year, a school class is randomly chosen and taken to a deserted island where they must participate in the Battle Royale, killing each other until one person is left standing in an attempt to teach them respect. What could easily have degenerated into a celebration of violence proves to be a biting satire akin to Series7: The Contenders (Daniel Minahan, 2001), where the social cliques and conflicts are played out in blood. Groups form and are quickly rent asunder by suspicion, the popular people suddenly realize how tenuous their bonds of friendship are, and best friends are torn apart by their need for survival. Practically banned in the States, the film manages to explore the small trusts upon which society is predicated in an explosive way; the outre violence serves to drive the points home in a way I've never before experienced.
LA BELLE ET LA BETE. Jean Cocteau, 1946. 93min.
Opening with a chraming prologue that invites the viewer to see the film as the fairy tale it is, Cocteau's La Belle et la Bete unspools the now familiar tale of Beauty and the Beast. Beautifully filmed and realized (while the special effects are extremely low-tech, they're more effective than many of the computer explosions of today's films), the film suffers a strangely ambiguous ending. 4.15.00
BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM. Gurinder Chadha, 2002. 112min. The feel good movie of the summer! While the plot remains fairly unsurprising, when wrapped around the cultural barriers a Sikh girl encounters while attempting to play football behind her parents back, the script somehow takes on a deeper signifcance. The climax is a foregone conclusion, but the director has a good time reaching the end, and one can't help but cheer for the irrepressible Parminder Nagra as Jess. 8.03
BETTER LUCK TOMORROW. Justin Lin, 2002. 101min.
What happens when overachievers go bad? From a strong, very Lynchian opening, Lin's film seems to become an almost made-for-tv film about getting good grades for college until the second half explodes into an Asian Goodfellas (1990, Martin Scorcese) set in a southern California high school. Unfortunately, this compelling feature suffers from a somewhat schizophrenic story arc as pieces drop in and out until it settles down for the inevitable conclusion. Still, Better Luck Tomorrow proves an exciting and accomplished film that could have been great (and is really quite good), offering insight into the world of of privledged teens while playing with the stereotyped roles of Asians in America. 02.19.03
BETTER OFF DEAD. Savage Steve Holland, 1985. 97min.
A classic 80's film, Better Off Dead takes the geeky John Cusak and grooms him for Say Anything (Crowe, 1989). As an outsider wanting to fit in, if only to get the girl, Cusak will learn from a French exchange student how to succeed and then, four years later, will instill that outsider role with coolness. Strange characters and situations populate the film, emerging again and again like leitmotifs, as Cusak is repeatedly challenged to race or asked to pay up his two dollars. A crazy feature with the thinnest of plots, I nevertheless found myself laughing out loud. 1.28.04
BLIND SHAFT. Yang Li, 2003. 92min.
Li's film follows two mineworkers in northern China as they scheme to make enough money to send back to their families; one so that his son can go to school, the other to support his wife. A cynical look at the new Chinese economy, where everything and anything can be bought, the crux of the film lies in the relationship between the main characters and the mark they pick as their target. New relationships inevitably are formed to take the place of displaced ones, as the film winds towards its bleak conclusion. Dark in many more ways than one, the film was banned in China for its harsh look at the emerging Chinese landscape. 03.04
BOB LE FLAMBEUR. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1955. 98min.
An aging high-stakes gambler and one-time bank robber, Bob decides to pull one last heist to pay off his debts and set himself up for the rest of his life. Like Touchez Pas au Grisbi [Jacques Becker, 1953], the film plays more as a character study of its lead rather than a heist film, and in fact the heist isn't even considered until almost halfway into the film. An oddly upbeat ending seems to seal the friendship between the police chief and Bob, but seems to strike an odd chord given all that has preceded the closing meeting. 9.11.03
BREWSTER'S MILLIONS. Allan Dwan, 1945. 79 min.
One of Dwan's favorites, this comedy tells the story of a man who will inherit 7 million dollars if he spends 1 million in 2 months with nothing to show for it. Without telling anyone he's doing it. What ensues is madcap comedy; while Brewster tries desperately to sink his money into anything that will, well, sink, his friends are desperately trying to save him. His finance is stretched to the limit. Jokes fly. Dwan (who started making movies the same year as Griffith and who was a major technical innovator) loved the comedys and faces he was making at the time because he knew they were going overseas to the military men fighting the war. He wanted to lift their spirits, and this is a very engaging film does just that. Not a top tier (if you want great screwball comedy there's always His Girl Friday and Bringing Up Baby--two of Hawk's greatest) but fun.
BLACK NARCISSUS. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947. 100min.
If you've ever read A Passage to India you know where this film is going. Telling the tale of a group of nuns sent to a remote area of Tibet in order to attempt to open a school, the film details their encounters with the "orient" and how dis-orienting it can be for westerners. Advertised as the most beautiful color film to have been shot up to that point, the deep views into the chasms that surround the plot of land upon which they work serve to echo the inner hollows that the nuns must come to terms with. Unfortunately, the portrayal of the other tends towards characture (in my book) which undermines the forcefulness of the narrative. Still, the film is very effecting and remains a sight to behold. Incidentally, this film is brought to you by the "Archers," who were also responsible for the wonderful films The Red Shoes (1948), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and I Know Where I'm Going (1945), all previously reviewed here.
BLACK RAIN [aka KUROI AME]. Shohei Imamura, 1989. 123min.
A moving black and white film set five years after the bombing of Hiroshima, Black Rain concerns itself with the stigma familes had to endure as potential victims of the after-effects of the radiation. Yasuko and her family are survivors of the bomb, but must live with the knowledge that within them is the potential ticking timebomb of radiation sickness. As a result, her family is tainted [Yasuko is literally tainted in the fallout from the bomb by a black rain that falls over the harbor], and her father is unable to find a suitable husband for her. Opening with stark images of the immediate aftermath of the bomb, the film soon delves into the lasting effects it had on its victims beyond the initial horror, and the poor way in which future potential victims were treated by their fellow Japanese. In the end, the devestation wrought by the bomb proved to continue far beyond its initial explosion, taking more lives and ruining many more.
THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR (Bai fa mo nu zhuan). Ronnie Yu, 1993. 92 min.
Brigette Lin and Leslie Cheung star in this fantastic sweeping Hong Kong swords and sorcery martial arts film. Operatic in its scope and Shakespearian in its tragedy, Bride with White Hair tells the story of star crossed lovers (he the heir-apparent of the upright Wu Tang clan and she the wolf girl adopted by the evil clan to be their killing machine). Shot on constructed sets, the film has a theatrical feeling that enhances the mystical (almost mythical) storytelling. Adapted from a novel, there is a depth to the characters missing in many such martial arts epics. Between the battles (and even during them), the characters are allowed time to develop, leading to the eventual destructive ending. As a side note, if you've never seen it, Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time (1994) reunites Lin and Cheung in another beautiful (and similar) work.
BULLET IN THE head (Die xue jie tou). John Woo, 1990. 126 min.
A sprawling epic, the film follows three friends from their small-time gangster camraderie in Hong Kong to their mercenary quest for riches as smugglers in war-torn Vietnam. A brutal and relentless film, Bullet in the Head explores quintessential Woo themes of friendship and brotherhood, and what violence and greed can do to these bonds. Containing many disturbing scenes (not the least of which set in a Vietnamese prison camp) Woo never lets up once the three cross the border, and the violence is never glorified. Not an easy film to watch, it leaves a sour distaste for gunplay or violence of any sort after the final curtain. Apparently, a full uncut version runs 136 minutes, and the US release (at 126) does have some strange edits and a tacked-on feeling to the ending. Various versions have circulated and some may include better endings or a true finale. Well worth watching, though prepare yourself, I would still rank Woo's The Killer (1989) as my favorite and his best.
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. George Roy Hill, 1969. 110 min.
Paul Newman and Robert Redford are perfectly cast (originally Newman was cast as Sundance and Redford as Butch, but Redford suggested they switch--the results are fantastic) and used in this biopic of the famous bank robbers. Comparisons abound with Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn) and the similarities are so obvious I won't go into them. What makes this film work (the entire first act is more or less just a drawn out chase scene) is the witty bantering and chemistry between its two leads. It is a film so well cast that I couldn't imagine anyone else playing the two leads. Newman and Redford don't play their parts, they embody them. As such, the story needs but a 5 minute sequence in the begining to establish their characters. It's a brilliant bit of scriptwriting. One scene and we already know everything the characters know about each other. For the rest of the film we follow along because we like them so much. Technically, there's an interesting "intermission" in the middle of the film and its use of still photographs and tinted frames is particuarly effective (the film won an oscar for best cinematography). Also, the opening credit sequence is a bit of inspired design.
BEAU trAVAIL. Claire Denis, 1999. 90 min.
Beautiful bodies (male) basking on the African coast--comparisons to the cinematography of Three Kings (1999, David O. Russel) wouldn't be inappropriate for the arid geography and the blues and sharp contours of geography--but in the end, the story doesn't quite seem to support the running time. Loosely based upon Melville's "Billy Budd," the film waters down the story, eventually undermining it by drawing its characters definitively from the start and leaving them to stroll through the somewhat overindulgent landscape of the film. Filmed (I think) on location in Djibouti, the movie offers some very good cinematography and some fantastic composition (note particularly the scene of the soldiers stretching). And as a study of looking at the male body, the film suceeds on some level (there is a sense of the soldiers as outsiders to this land and shots of local citizens watching them seems to counterpoint the way we are looking at them, but to what point at the end is uncertain). But then, that's what photography is for. 04.06.00
BEFORE SUNRISE. Richard Linklater, 1995. 105 min.
Ethan Hawke is on a train to Prague where he is to return to America the next day. Julie Delpy is a Frenchwoman on her way back to Paris. He gets off and convinces her to spend the day with him. The elements are in place for a wonderful romantic comedy [Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler), anyone?]. Instead, they talk and talk and talk in a postmodern way and I quickly realized that if I wanted to watch these conversations take place I could invite some of my friends to dinner and actually be able to interact with the people in front of me. While there are some engaging scenes, it's not worth wading through the film to find them. Still, kudos to the open-ended An Affair to Remember-esque (1957, Leo McCarey) ending.
A BETTER TOMORROW 2. John Woo, 1987. 105min.
After the success of the first film, Woo had intended to move on to The Killer (1989) or Bullet in the Head, but producer Tsui Hark had other plans. And so, Woo reluctantly came to this project and it shows. The plot doesn't even begin to approach the depth of the first, and the entire film suffers for the somewhat shallow story that brings Chow Yun-Fat back to life as his twin brother from the first film out to help a triad boss gone insane. While there are two action sequences that will appeal to fans, it's difficult sometimes to understand whose chasing who, and it's not worth sitting through the running time to get to them.
BLADE trINITY. David S. Goyer, 2004. 113min.
For an action film, Blade Trinity suffers from severe anemia in the action department. The film opens well, introducing Blade with bang, sporting new silver toys. Unfortunately, that's the last we see of him in ass-kicking mode until the end (and what about those wonderful new toys?), but by then it's too little too late. In-between we get introduced to band of unspectacular vampires (save for one hairdo notable for how retrobad it looks--spectacular in all the wrong ways) and a band of Blade cohorts. The plot centers around the re-awakening of the original vampire. Why? It's not all that clear, though it's suggested that the bad vampires are trying to create a new strand of vampire from his DNA; coincidentally, Blade's crew has developed a virus that could destroy all vampires using the same DNA! Serendipity? Coincidence? Plot contrivance? Questions like this wouldn't bother me as much if there were cool action sequences to distract me, but they are so few and far between that I start wondering what's going on. And that's where the film gets into trouble. It needs to offer more eye candy to numb the brain to the other possibilities.
BLAZING SADDLES. Mel Brooks, 1974. 93min.
A dull send-up of the western genre, the film's high points feature a laid back Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid, the fastest draw in the west with a bad case of the shakes, and a brief cameo by Count Basie. The film itself is a shiftless mess that attempts to channel the likes of Groucho Marx and Bugs Bunny without the charisma of half. The second word of this review says it all, and that's probably the worst criticism you can give a supposed comedy.
BOILER ROOM. Ben Younger, 2000. 119 min.
*Such* potential, wasted away in a meandering script, uneven pacing, and terrible editing (during a monologue where a character tells another a life story do we really need 20 edits to show reaction?) which may be the same thing. While elements of the script are excellent, the screenplay feels the need to make its points numerous times and, failing that, adds a voiceover narration in case you missed it. The problem is, while the film uses the first person narration as a pretext, occasionally, the film cuts to other characters to show how they are acting--perhaps for color--but it's jarring and, ultimately, unnecessary. Some good acting, the but film can't support the actors or edit them to the best advantage. Energy is lost and so, too, was I. The trailer is better edited for pacing than the film. And that's something that seems all too often the case today. (As a side note, it's interesting how this film portrays the white suburban appropriation of urban black culture. Interesting not perhaps in the portrayal itself, but interesting in the fact of this phenomenon.)