World Cinema Wonderland 3
Once Upon a Time In America: Forget the spaghetti westerns for which Sergio Leone is famous. This (along with his Once Upon a Time in the West – see below) is his masterpiece. A big flop when it was first released as the studio had chopped up the film into an incoherent mess the film’s reputation was restored when the original director’s cut was subsequently released. It is a slow but beautiful film underscored by the haunting score of Morricone that deals with the consequences of memory, betrayal, loyalty and loss. Finely nuanced performances by De Niro and James Woods add to the moody nostalgia of the film. The city of New York in which the film is set in is in itself a major character of the film whose growth and problems mirror those of the film’s characters. If you like Leone’s Westerns then do not miss this. Also marks the debut of the luminous Jennifer Connelly.
Once Upon a Time in the West: As mentioned above another of the masterpieces directed by Leone. An epic western starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards it forms the beginning of a loose trilogy which ended with the above film. Featuring yet another masterful and melodic score by Morricone this film like the one above slowly grows on you with each passing minute. It examines at leisure with slow tracking shots that lack much dialog life on the edge of civilization and the choices men make in those circumstances. The painstakingly choreographed gun fights are a sight to watch even if they are over in a flash.
Diarios de Motocicleta (The Motorcycle Diaries): A moving and inspiring film about the epic journey made by Che Guevara and his friend on a motorcycle across South America and how the journey played a major role in the awakening of political consciousness in the young medical student.
The Conversation: In some ways this is the best film made by Coppola. More intimate than his Godfather and Vietnam War epics this little film about a quiet and intensely private man who spies on other people works on so many levels. Suffused with an intense sense of paranoia in keeping with the subject matter of the film and the conspiracy riddled time it was released in (just after the Watergate scandal broke) the film is still hugely relevant today with its themes of erosion of privacy with increasing technology and personal responsibility. Gene Hackman is pitch perfect as the audio surveillance expert.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest: One of my favorite films. Milos Forman stayed mostly true to Kesey’s novel and in the process crafted a fine jewel about non-conformism and its effect on rigid authority. The film works because of some excellent performances by the lead actors. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher deserved their Oscars for the roles of McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, which they made their own so well that you cannot imagine anyone else in their roles.
La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers): A landmark film based on the Algerian War against French rule that has been highly influential. Gillo Pontecorvo’s fiercely independent film refuses to take sides and in that process exposes the cruelty that both sides resorted to in the name of freedom and colonization. The film’s semi-documentary style lends it an authenticity and rawness that very few films dealing with a historical topic manage to achieve.
Solyaris (Solaris): Often termed as the Russian answer to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey this Tarkovsky film is a masterpiece in its own right. Based on a novella by the Czech writer Stanislaw Lem the film is an exploration of the hubris of man and his overconfident dependence on science and technology as the answer to everything even when it utterly fails when confronted with an alien intelligence. Deliberately paced and at times irritatingly slow (the car driving sequence) this is not a typical science fiction film as there are no epic space battles or spectacular spaceships to feast your eyes on. On the contrary the film is a psychologically intense examination of man and the alienating effects technology and space exploration has on him as well as the resulting loneliness. (The film was recently remade by Steven Soderbergh as Solaris with George Clooney in the lead which although better than most Hollywood science fiction and featuring an intensely moody score still falls short of Tarkovsky’s version).
Earth: The second part in Deepa Mehta’s elemental trilogy is based on Bapsi Sidhwa’s novel Ice Candy Man (later published as Cracking India). Set during the turbulent times of India’s partition and the subsequent Hindu-Muslim riots that engulfed many parts of India as seen through the eyes of a young Parsi girl. A fine film if a little rough around the edges. It somehow lacks the edge that Fire, the first part of the trilogy, had even though it deals with a horrific period in India’s history. The somewhat tepid nature of the film is redeemed by the intense performance of Aamir Khan.
Baise Moi (Fuck Me): A highly controversial film, co-directed by a former pornographic actress and a former massage parlor employee turned writer, that was banned in many countries upon initial release. It divided Western media over whether the film was blatantly exploitative or had a genuine point to make. The film is highly graphic in its depiction of sex and violence and most of the actors come from a pornographic background. In spite of its often exploitative nature the film I felt had a point in its depiction of two women who after being exposed to the brutality of men and society embark upon a killing spree. Shot on grainy digital video using available light the film seems more like an amateurish porn video than an actual film but the look of the film somehow suits its subject matter very well. While it is debatable whether their actions are justified or not one should at least commend the directors for offering an unflinching view of the ghettoized nature of modern French society in all its stark hypocrisy. But it never comes close to the masterful restraint and finesse shown by La Haine which dealt with some of the same issues although from a more obviously masculine perspective.
The Shawshank Redemption: Another of my favorite films, Frank Darabont’s almost perfect adaptation of Stephen King’s novella is a modern masterpiece. It is a film that revels in the simple joy of telling a good story. Criminally ignored upon its initial release this film has developed a huge fan following after its DVD release and rightly so. It even managed to creep up to the #2 position in IMDB’s list of top 250 films of all time. A simple, warm and touching story set in an American prison the film is above all about one man’s hope. A hope that he will never let die. Morgan Freeman is simply brilliant and disappears into his character with his warm voice overs (that actually started an irritating trend for using his voice for narration in many other films) and gentle smile. This is a film you will keep coming back to over and over again and in the process find something new to like every time.