Posts Tagged “History”


December 19, 2010
Netflix Criterion DVD
Soviet Union
Russian / Italian / Tatar
205 Minutes
Biography / Drama / History / War
Andrey Tarkovskiy

#43 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

Imaginary episodes from the life of a 15th-century icon painter.

“A superb recreation of medieval life dramatizes the eternal problem of the artist, whether to take part in the life around him or merely comment on it” — **** — Halliwell’s

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

First things, first. Yes, it’s a butt-numbing 205 minutes. It’s in black and white, has no “normal” narrative, and is mostly in Russian. This is the only DVD in my 10-year Netflix history, that I’ve mailed back unwatched, and then put back on my queue at the top position. The first time the length just seemed too daunting. But, there must be a reason that it’s number 43 on THE LIST. It deserved another chance.

With older, less mainstream films like this one, I sometimes like to read about them before watching. What I learned was not to expect a linear style of storytelling, with plot point A leading to plot point B. I wasn’t to expect the title character, Russian painter Andrei Rublev, to be on screen very often–in fact, there are several long scenes where a character takes the attention of the camera for an extended period of time, never to be seen again. The man on the balloon in the first vignette is a perfect example. Who is he and what are the circumstances of his balloon flight? And what does this have to do with painting or faith or being a monk? We are never told.

I was instructed in these essays to be aware of the movement of the camera, the brutality of the images, and most importantly, the background of each scene. This proved to be the best advice I could get before viewing ANDREI RUBLEV.

The film may, in fact, be about the struggle to find beauty in the harsh Russian winters (and summers for that matter). Or it may be about artistic motivation–how a painter sees the world and his faith and incorporates that into the icons he paints. It could be about the pettiness and jealousy that humans–including the most holy monks–struggle with on a daily basis. I have no idea.

It’s the story of a famous real-life painter with no scenes of painting. It is divided into a half-dozen chapters, some of which have no relationship to each other. Our main character isn’t in every chapter, and even when he is, he is dressed exactly like the other monks, making his identification difficult, if not impossible. “Which guy is that, again?” For the last hour, our hero is wordless, because he is punishing himself for a sin any of us would have likewise committed.

I can’t tell you if the acting is good or not. If the actors are dressed in authentic costumes or speak as they should. But what I can tell you is Tarkovskiy has composed shots, the likes of which I’ll never forget. Everything I marveled at in Kurosawa’s RAN–the horses and flags and the burning temple–are done better in this film. And horses? Oh my goodness, the horses. Every broken horse in the USSR must have had a cameo in this film. Horses are inside churches, falling down steps (in a famous, brutal, and real scene), running into battle, rolling on the ground, frolicking in the water, and eaten as a treat. To simply marshal this number of horses and riders is grounds for celebration.

An early scene has three monks traveling the Russian countryside, through mud and rain. (I was chilly for the entire 3 plus running time–never has a landscape looked less hospitable.) They enter a tavern (or is it just a barn) to take shelter. A jester is performing some sort of anti-governmental song and dance as the drunk patrons laugh along with him. When he’s finished, long after another director would go to some sort of conversation amongst the monks, Tarkovskiy instead does a slow 360 degree spin of the inside of the room. We see every face looking at us–the monks, the peasants, the drunk guys in the corner, some children in the shadows. He does two spins, I think. Most of the film is in wide shot, but on a few occasions we see close-ups of naturalistic Russian faces.

There are what appear to be throw-away scenes of nature–a water snake, a man covered in ants, a dead bird, a cat walking amongst a pile of dead bodies.

The outdoor shots are where the film really shines. The first scene, involving the balloon, has the camera follow the “pilot” as he walks around a church, enters it, climbs some stairs, climbs out a window, and reaches for the ropes which are keeping the balloon from flying away. We have somehow gotten outside with the pilot and in the background, perfectly framed, is a rapidly approaching group of men in canoes paddling towards the church to stop his flight. Both the ropes, the balloon, the man, and the distant background are in focus.

There are countless outdoor scenes involving hundreds of people and horses, where you’ll scratch your head wondering how everyone ended up in the right place at the right time. An attack on a village where the action takes place on four levels, a raiding army whose horses gallop on both sides of a lake, and in a part of the film rightly heralded, an entire village helps to create a huge church bell for the town.

This bell scene involves a boy who claims that his dead father left the secrets to bell-making in his hands only. This boy has not been seen by the audience in the first 2 1/2 hours of the film, but at this point he becomes the protagonist. He has little actual skill at this craft, but he does have some sort of natural bell-making ability. He orders workers around, discovers the right molding clay by literally sliding in it, and does not show the Tsar the respect he usually gets. The digging and melting of metal and pouring of the mold and the fire and sparks is thrilling. In a scene I’ll never forget, the men begin chipping away at the clay to reveal the smooth and huge bell beneath. It takes the whole of the village to lift it out of its hole and as the Prince and other royalty ride up to see it, we all know that if that bell doesn’t ring, the boy will lose his head.

This shot is spectacular. We are up a hill, on top of the bell and in one cut, we pan from the miles away village and its protective wall, follow a line of horses as they cross a river on a bridge, see the ropes that have helped to hoist the bell, pan over to men winching the bell out of the ground, look down on the boy, and finally straight down on the bell itself. Fantastic.

Was ANDREI RUBLEV exciting from start to finish? No. Do I have any idea what it’s about? No. I took a two-hour break in the middle to gather myself and, frankly, to wake myself up a bit. Plot-wise, there’s a lot of talk about the wickedness of man, along with some examples (the raiding Mongol army, the pagans who strip naked to run though the forest, the rapists, the guy who pokes out the eyes of artists so that they can never recreate what they’ve already produced.) But the shots are just superb. There are things happening in the background of every shot. There is choreography of hundreds of extras that left me speechless.

Am I in a hurry to see it again? Not exactly. But I’m glad I did.

8.2 IMDB


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June 27, 2009
Netflix DVD
Ireland / UK / Germany / Italy / Spain / France
English / Irish Gaelic
127 Minutes — March 16, 2007
Drama / History / War
Ken Loach [Ladybird Ladybird]

In 1920, a radical young Irish doctor cancels his plans to practice medicine in London when he witnesses British troops brutalizing Irish volunteers waging a guerrilla campaign.

Not sure about its historical accuracy, but this film sure makes the British look like total dicks. ROB ROY and BRAVEHEART and BLOODY SUNDAY and to a lesser extent, GANDHI, did the same thing. But this seemed somehow more brutal. Because it’s Ireland, there are, of course, two brothers, one of whom is about to become a highly-paid doctor in England and the other is becoming something of a leader in the Irish resistance. I’ve since done a bit of reading on the subject and the film followed pretty closely the Declaration of Irish Independence and the different battles and skirmishes they had. The film is supposed to show us a reluctant man, forced into taking up arms after all that he witnesses. It’s hard to dispute his actions, but I’d like to see a film from a reluctant English occupier some day. Several powerful scenes involve torture by the British on the Irish leader in a dank jail cell. Perhaps more morally horrifying is the way that the “good guys” have to deal with their own men who may have been forced to tell secrets under fear of that same torture. If someone tells the opposing army, and it results in the death of some of your men, what do you do to the young man who let the cat out of the bag?

You’ll need the subtitles, by the way.

Winner of 2006 Palme D’or

8.2 Metacritic
7.6 IMDB
** Halliwells

The Wind That Shakes the Barley @ Amazon


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March 22, 2009
Netflix Criterion DVD
Silent (Optional “Voices Of Light” Musical Track)
82 Minutes
Biography / Drama / History
Carl Theodor Dreyer
#17 They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1000 Films Of All Time

“Solo Filmschool” movies are those on the big list of the 1000 best films of all time, which the crew over at TSPDT keeps track of and updates from time to time. The current version is from January 2010. My plan is to work my way down the list, watching all of them on DVD (if available), regardless of how slow-moving, or out of date they might appear at first. If a highly-regarded and serious film class is not available where you live, you could do a lot worse than using this list as a jumping off point.

On her last day on Earth, Joan of Arc is subjected to five increasingly threatening interrogations before being burned alive at the stake.

Most of the reviews mention that this may be the best example of silent film acting ever committed to film. I wasn’t sure what they meant until I saw this movie. I now find myself wholeheartedly agreeing. Maria Falconetti has this big, round, expressive face with huge eyes. Somehow, in a silent film with French title cards, she conveys everything we need to know about a character. She can cry with the best of them. She is typically filmed looking up at someone or something. It’s hard to describe. I thought I’d be bored senseless, but my attention was captured as I watched it twice. And I don’t know too much about the actual story. I was watching more as an exercise in filmmaking back in the 20s. The commentary track will tell you that this film had substantially more edits than any other for its time. The torture scenes are scary, the burning stake scene seems pretty realistic, and we even see real life human bloodletting. The actors were told to be available for the entirety of the long shoot. No makeup was allowed. Maria’s hair was actually shaved–she’s really crying while it happens.

The fact that this film even exists is amazing. The master print was destroyed after shooting. The director then used alternate takes to complete the film. Banned immediately upon its release in several countries, it was thought lost to fire and decay decades ago. Then a pristine print appears in the closet of an insane asylum in Oslo. It is translated back to French and cleaned up by the geniuses at Criterion.

“Austerely moving drama, using close-ups to give intense scrutiny to Joan and her accusers, drawing in the audience to become involved in the action.” **** — Halliwell’s Film Guide 2008

“One of the greatest of all movies…Falconetti’s Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film” — Pauline Kael

“Dreyer’s most universally acclaimed masterpiece remains one of the most staggeringly intense films ever made. It deals with only the final stages of Joan’s trial and her execution, and is composed almost exclusively of closeups: hands, robes, crosses, metal bars, and (most of all) faces. The face we see most is, naturally, Falconetti’s as Joan, and it’s hard to imagine a performer evincing physical anguish and spiritual exaltation more palpably. Dreyer encloses this stark, infinitely expressive face with other characters and sets that are equally devoid of decoration and equally direct in conveying both material and metaphysical essences. The entire film is less molded in light than carved in stone: it’s magisterial cinema, and almost unbearably moving.” — Time Out Film Guide 2007

“Masterfully directed, with groundbreaking use of closeups; Falconetti glows in the title role” — **** Maltin

8.1 IMDB

The Passion of Joan of Arc @ Amazon


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January 29, 2009
USA / UK / France
122 Minutes — December 5, 2008
Biography / Drama / History
Ron Howard [Grand Theft Auto; Nightshift; Splash; Cocoon; Gung Ho; Willow; Parenthood; Backdraft; Far And Away; The Paper; Apollo 13; Ransom; Edtv; A Beautiful Mind; The Missing; Cinderella Man]

400 Million People Were Waiting For The Truth.

I’m a huge fan of political films. I watch THE WEST WING continuously–often with tears in my eyes. I love the pageantry of the office of the President, the customs of the US Government–to the point of watching a particularly close Congressional vote on CSPAN. For god’s sake, I teach High School Government. So I should be the guy this film is trying to reach.

But I waited a long time to see it and now that I have, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about. No matter how you slice it–how exciting you make the edits and music–you simply cannot make a sit-down interview as exciting as a boxing match, which is exactly what director Ron Howard is trying to do here.

I’m not old enough to remember Nixon or what he stood for or how much people hated him. And for people younger than I, whose only exposure has been through history classes, this film will probably cause them to have more sympathy for an old man who made a few mistakes, but was basically good. That fact must infuriate people who were in their politically aware 20s at the time Tricky Dick held office. There simply isn’t enough backstory in this film to tell the uninformed viewer the gravity of his crimes. I’m not saying that this film is the place for a complete review of the Watergate break-in, but depending on your age, this film will be a piece of negative nostalgia, or the story of people with funny haircuts sitting down for an interview back when you were allowed to smoke wherever you wanted. (The “aggressive” 70s product placement is one of the problems with this film–the famous Iron-Eyes Cody PSA is seen on the TV while people drink TAB).

As with most Ron Howard films, his one or two main themes are spelled out, heightened with music, repeated again, and then paused after for effect. One of these themes was something that actually was “achieved” by David Frost during these interviews, when Nixon admitted that no matter what he did as president, it wasn’t illegal because it’s impossible for the president to do anything illegal. This statement obviously has more weight in a post-Bush United States where the former president never met a signing statement he wouldn’t make or found a way to put the office of the President above the law in the name of “The War On Terror.”

The parallels between 1974 and 2008 are not lost on us (and with Howard at the helm, we have no choice but to think about them).

The other theme is that Nixon was a lonely man who wasn’t good with people. Boo hoo.

Setting aside the facts of the case, the film tries to make the high-pressure world of presidential interviews something of a sporting event. In this corner, David Frost, a man who drinks, smokes, bangs models, and hosts the 1970s equivalent of America’s Got Talent. In this corner, a disgraced president, who somehow thinks that if he says just the right thing during a one-on-one interview that he’ll be invited back to DC and receive a hero’s welcome. In 30 years, we might see David Hasselhoff v. Bush II.

Nixon thought he’d wipe the floor with Frost. How could a limey from across the pond hope to match his intellect? Frost thought he’d show all those naysayers by finally getting the secretive Nixon to admit to the whole business.

The performances are good. Unfortunately for Oscar-nominee Frank Langella, Nixon has been played by so many people by now that we scarcely remember the real man. The supporting cast is good: Rockwell, Oliver Platt, Kevin Bacon, and Rebecca Hall is a very sexy woman who’s only purpose in the screenplay is to stop the sausage-fest.

Here’s your one-sentence review: A film about an interview. Really, how exciting can that be?

Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director Ron Howard, Actor Frank Langella, Screenplay, Editing

8.0 Metacritic
7.9 Critical Consensus
8.1 IMDB #242 All Time

Frost/Nixon [Theatrical Release] @ Amazon


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July 9, 2008
Campbell CA — Camera 7
Germany / Kazakhstan / Russia
126 Minutes — June 6, 2008
Biography / Drama / History / Romance
Sergei Bodrov

Greatness Comes To Those Who Take It

AAN: Foreign Language

7.4 Metacritic
7.5 IMDB

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Written by Michael W. Cummins