Pather Panchali (1955)


Summary: A young boy and his family live in poverty, which is only made more challenging when his father leaves for five months to search for a job somewhere else.

Thoughts: As the plain summary reveals, this film isn’t strongly plot driven, like most modern American films.  It’s one of those slower-paced episodic look-at-life sort of films, the sort you see when exploring older foreign films or indie films.  (Which is not to say the film is without a plot, only that the plot is more thematic in nature.  That is, it’s the themes that run through the various “episodes” that unite them.)  One particular theme is easy to pick up on: The film shows how mean-spiritedness can spread from one person to another as characters take out their frustrations on undeserving victims.  But this is always portrayed in a naturalistic distant non-judgmental fashion, allowing the audience to empathize with the characters even when their mean-spiritedness is aggravating.  And, of course, the story ends in naturalistic tragedy, not uncommon in these sorts of films.  The film is sorely in need of restoration, but after you get used to the old film artifacts (scratches and dust and shaky frames, etc.), it’s a pretty engaging film.  (At least, if you like these sort of slow-paced episodic films.)

Trivia: According to this article, Francois Truffaut said of the film: “I don’t want to see a movie of peasants eating with their hands.”  Thankfully he didn’t remain a film critic.  Though I vaguely recall hearing on a DVD bonus feature that Truffaut didn’t like seeing people eat in films at all, so I guess people eating with their hands was extra torture for him?

Also, at least one kitten was harmed in the making of this film.  But don’t worry, the character who throws the animal gets her comeuppance!

Man of Tai Chi (2013)


Link: Man of Tai Chi

Summary: When a student of Tai Chi is recruited and paid by a mysterious man to fight seemingly random opponents, he finds the new source of income quite nice, until he realizes his boss also wants him to start killing his opponents.

Thoughts: The film featured some excellent fighting sequences, camera work, and cinematography.  The story itself was rather unexciting, but the first half, despite featuring many plot points that felt very forced, wasn’t that bad.  The plot developments of the second half were rather baffling, and when the villain’s plan is revealed near the film’s end, it’s hard to make much sense of it.  Overall, we have a film featuring some amazingly talented martial artists ruined by a problematic screenplay.

About: This film is Keanu Reeves’s directorial debut; he directed this film for a chance to allow talented stuntman Tiger Chen, who worked with Reeves on the Matrix films, to star in a film of his own.

Side By Side (2012)


Link: Side by Side

Summary: This documentary explores the emergence of digital film, as opposed to celluloid film, comparing their technologies’ histories, impact on the industry, and the variety of opinions surrounding them from some of the film industry’s most successful directors and cinematographers.

Thoughts: Overall, I thought this was a very interesting exploration of the subject.  I would’ve liked to have seen more examples of the differences two technologies, more demos, more inside looks at how filmmakers use the technologies differently (or similarly), while seeing less talking heads.  Talking heads are so boring; you could at least throw something in there for audiences to watch while listening to a voice-over.  I think the documentary gives both technologies a fair assessment; it doesn’t seem to try to put one on a higher pedestal.  Both technologies seem to have their advantages and disadvantages.  Most audiences probably won’t notice or care about the differences anyway; it’s the story that matters most.  (Personally, if I were a director, the advantages of digital surpass the advantages of celluloid, so that’s the direction I’d go.)

It was strange to see so many filmmakers disparaging 3D though.  I don’t understand what they dislike so much about it, especially when they talk about wanting their films to be projected onto a big screen to be immersive.  3D only helps with that!  And now that thick-rimmed glasses are hip again, 3D glasses are the bee’s knees!

Here’s an interesting excerpt from the bonus features:

5 Centimeters Per Second (2007)


Summary: Presented as a series of three short stories with an overarching theme, this tells the story of two young lovers who’s connection to each other is strained by the distances of time and space as they grow older and lose touch.

Thoughts: After the first act, I didn’t much care for this film.  It seemed to be asking me to be empathetic with the main characters’ mutual love for each other, even though I didn’t know them at all as characters.  Of course I couldn’t empathize with them; I didn’t know them.  Their love for each other meant nothing to me.  It was too generic.

But over the course of the next two acts, I began to understand that this really isn’t so much a typical character-centered film.  This film is more about the ideas, the themes that carry through a series of vignettes.  We never really come to empathize with the characters for who they are.  In fact, they remain rather generic throughout all three acts.  But we do come to relate to the emotions they go through, the ideas their situations illustrate.  Those include the feelings of a relationship fading, the longing and searching, trying to recreate the experiences of that relationship, trying to find new beginnings, the realization that your desires may be forever unfulfilled, etc.  The theme of speed is comes a lot, how fast things are moving and its inevitability.  (The title comes from the speed at which cherry blossoms fall.)  In the end, though it’s far from a traditional sort of story-driven film, it is rather poetic.

Jobs (2013)


Link: Jobs

Summary: The story of how Steve Jobs founded the computer company Apple.

Thoughts: This film suffered from two main problems.  Firstly, there was no over-arching theme, at least none that I could find, so it feels more like a dramatized documentary than a self-contained film.  Secondly, it seems Steve Jobs was too much of an arrogant jerk to be the inspiring figure he’s simultaneously attempted to be portrayed as.  His character in this film was almost completely unlikeable.  He treats his friends like dirt, and puts so much pressure on them to succeed it’s a miraculous wonder anyone continued to offer their services.  Meanwhile, what work did Jobs do?  In the film, mainly badger potential business partners, making it again seem miraculous his company was ever successful.  So when the sentimental music swells up in the background and Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs starts speaking in vague general abstractions about being nobly creative and changing the world, it feels like the forced empty sort of speech it is.  I have no idea how well the film reflects the true story of the man and the company, but as a film, this just doesn’t work.

About: Interestingly, part of the film was shot at Jobs’s actual childhood home in California, where his stepmother still lives.

Jobsmovie Los Altos

Apple Cofounder Steve Wozniak was approached by the filmmakers, but he turned down the opportunity to consult on the film after finding the script “was crap.”  Instead, he’s consulting on another Steve Jobs biopic, one being written by Aaron Sorkin, the writer behind The Social Network, based on Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography.  So we’ll probably get a much more decent Steve Jobs biopic sometime in the next few years.  It would be interesting, though I suppose quite unlikely, to have Ashton Kutcher reprise his role as Jobs; he does look like Steve Jobs, in a way.

Pelle the Conqueror (1987)

Summary: A father and son from Sweden immigrate to Denmark where they struggle to start a new life for themselves on a farm where immigrants are not made to feel very welcome.

Thoughts: For some reason, I have a particular interest in father-son relationship stories, and the relationship between this older widower father and his young son is considerably tested through the course of the film by their new surroundings.  Pelle’s father, played by Max von Sydow, wants to get remarried for practical purposes; he’s older and he wants someone to look after him.  But his search in an already prejudiced anti-immigrant environment does nothing to help Pelle, whose peers consistently bully him and his poor pathetic father.  Pelle’s only friends, if they can even be called that, are other outcasts.  When the father promises to beat up those who bullied his son, Pelle looks forward to it, but when confronted, his father does not in fact have the backbone for it.  Later, when a lead for a new wife comes to a dead end, the father searches for relief from his grief in drink, leaving his son to come home to find his father drunk and stumbling about.  Still, the father resolves to carry on for the sake of his son, to whom he promises that the world can be conquered.  Max von Sydow gives a great performance in this film.  Unfortunately, though, the story just seems to fizzle out at the end, leaving us in a rather dramatically ambiguous place, probably feeling emotionally empty.  In retrospect, it didn’t seem the overall story was about anything in particular, just a series of related episodic conflicts.  That is, I’m having trouble understanding what, if anything, Pelle learned through the course of the film, or if the whole things was just about torturing the poor characters.

About: The film is based on the first part of the novel Pelle Erobreren by Danish writer Martin Andersen Nexø (1869-1954), which was published in four parts from 1906 to 1910.  (An English translation is available from Project Gutenberg.)  Perhaps that is why the story feels so incomplete; it is based on just the first part of a much larger story.  Interestingly, the actor who played young Pelle was himself named Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard), named after the character from the original book.

The film won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.  The film also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; the year before, another Danish film had won the award—Babette’s Feast.

Yikes, what bad TV graphics they had in the late 80’s.  Looks like Pelle had some interesting contenders.  A psychic Nazi film?

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Summary: An old man recalls the friendships of his mobster past as he searches for some final answers.

Thoughts: I’m not really sure what to say about this film.  It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen.  It was three hours and forty-some minutes, but it pulled me in and the time flew by, like being pulled into a wonderful symphony; the pacing was just perfect.  This is definitely Sergio Leone’s masterpiece.  My only complaint is that I didn’t think it had to be so dirty; I guess Leone was going for the “gritty” dirtiness that tries to make you feel dirty as a viewer.  It’s all unnecessary and doesn’t add anything to the story.  That complaint aside, the overall film is just brilliant.  It starts out a bit confusing, because you get these seemingly random scenes and you’re not sure how they relate to each other.  But as the film continues, it all becomes clear, and in a way that makes the chronological shuffling somehow work wonderfully.  At its heart, the film is about the relationship between two guys played by Robert De Niro and James Woods.  We see their friendship begin as teenagers, continue into adulthood, take some wild twists, and end in an unexpected powerful tragic poetic awesome way.  Gah!  It was so good!  I can’t write anything very intelligent-sounding about it, because the emotion of it was just so perfect.  Tragic, but . . . I don’t know how to describe it.  It’s not like a “someone dies” sort of tragedy, it’s like the whole story, the whole arc of the main characters’ relationship just somehow comes together . . . I really don’t know what it is.  It just left me overwhelmed with emotion.  The film also features one of Ennio Morricone’s most beautiful musical scores, and some beautiful use of the song Yesterday.

It seems the blu-ray is currently out of print, but it seems there’s an extended cut in the works that will add an additional twenty minutes (I think) of footage to the film, bringing the film’s running time over the four hour mark.  Whew!  But I’ll definitely be on the look out for it.  Brilliant, epic, wonderful film.

The Way Way Back (2013)

Link: The Way, Way Back

Summary: A teenager tries to survive a summer vacation with his divorced mother’s new evil jerk boyfriend.

Thoughts: I’m not sure I really understand these awkward comedies; it’s like they want you to laugh at the main character’s dorky awkwardness and feel sorry for him at the same time, like you’re supposed to identify with him and then laugh at yourself.  And while I think dealing with an annoying jerk is universally relatable (as played to perfection by Steve Carell in his most loathsome role yet as the divorced mother’s new evil Candy Land Nazi boyfriend), relating to an overly self-conscious brooding teenager is not the most interesting or enjoyable mental exercise, at least not for me.  The film centers around the main character’s search for self-confidence, but he seems to mostly miraculously gain it externally, mostly by hanging around with the bizarre outgoing-funny-charming-immature adult character played by Sam Rockwell, who’s ready and eager to push a random awkward teenager out of his comfort zone and into the zone of self-confidence-building socially awkward situations, just like the friend I’m sure every awkward teenager daydreams of meeting.  I didn’t understand this film at all.

Sanjuro (1962)

Link: Yojimbo & Sanjuro

Summary: The nameless ronin from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) helps nine samurai defend against some kind of plot by scheming officials.

Thoughts: As you might guess based on my summary, I found this film I bit confusing.  I wasn’t quite sure what exactly the villains were plotting, so I wasn’t quite sure what the entire conflict was all about.  Still, even without understanding the intricacies of the overall plot, the main character’s clever counter-schemes were engaging, at times hilarious, while the nine samurai’s torment over whether or not to trust this nameless samurai kept things interesting.  The swordfights were well choreographed, but the comedy of the overall plot drained them of some of their dramatic power.  The film features some more of Kurosawa’s great cinematographic style, and it was nice to hear the musical themes from Yojimbo revisited.  Overall, though, the film is no match for Yojimbo, which remains my favorite Kurosawa film (of the ones I’ve seen).  Perhaps the overall conflict, being of a more political-scheming nature, just feels too light-hearted or abstract for me.  Still, I found it to be an enjoyable film.

The Wolverine (2013)

Link: The Wolverine

Summary: Taking place after the events of X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the Wolverine is pulled into a conflict in Japan, where he must protect an old acquaintance’s granddaughter while trying to figure out why his self-healing powers have mysteriously vanished.

Thoughts: While I thought Wolverine’s constantly brooding moodiness got tiring very quickly, I actually enjoyed this film more than any other X-Men film so far.  Of course, I’m not sure that’s really saying much; I’m not much of a comics-based superhero movie fan in general.  Anyway, the Japanese setting was refreshing, the action was fun, and I thought the villains were intriguing enough, but overall the film seemed to be a rather standard action flick.

Black Sunday (1977)

Link: Black Sunday

Summary: A terrorist plans to attack the US by blowing up a Goodyear blimp at the Super Bowl.  Why, of all the crazy schemes!  Can they be stopped in time?

Thoughts: This was awful.  The writing was just silly, with characters talking to each other as if they had to make sure third graders could understand their dialog, yet trying to sound really cool.  The plot was completely bloated; the film is two hours and twenty minutes, yet only has maybe an hour and a half of real story.  The rest is just bad bland writing that takes too long to move the story forward.  The special effects were just disastrous.  Not even charmingly cheesy, just sad, especially the fake explosions that leave you laughing rather than caring about any of the characters you just watched perish.  Ridiculous film.  Not the worst film ever; it leaves you more with a good laugh than feeling sad for humanity and overly self-conscious about your own art, but still, pretty ridiculous.

Alien (1979)

Link: Alien Anthology

Summary: After exploring a strange planet where another spaceship crashed, a crew returns to space with an extra passenger onboard, and not a friendly one.

Thoughts: Here’s another classic sci-fi film that I finally watched for the first time.  However, this one is so classic that I basically knew almost all the storyline before watching the film.  (Especially as a fan of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! books, the titles of which refer to a plot device used in this film, in which the main character saves a cat to help make her character likeable.)  The special effects are terribly outdated (charmingly cheesy, perhaps I should say), but otherwise the look and feel of the film is awesome, and it looks fantastic on blu-ray.  I love the design of the spaceship, how things look used and the spaces looked lived in.  The plot itself was classic a “monster in the house” plot, and, along with Jaws and Jurassic Park, is one of the best films of this sort, in my opinion.  (They don’t seem nearly as popular these days, do they?  I don’t recall seeing a very modern one lately.)  The plot and pacing were tight.

I didn’t notice it until listening to some of the commentary, but none of the characters have backstories.  Yet they all have very unique easy-to-recognize personalities.  I wouldn’t have even noticed if someone had mentioned this on the commentary, but it’s rather brilliant, isn’t it?  We never see one of those cheesy moments when someone looks a picture or watches a recording of some loved one they’ve left behind.  We never get hints that characters had romantic flings before the film began.  I can easily imagine a novice writer (myself included) wanting to put such things in naturally, taking them for granted.  Yet this films cleverly avoids all that, magnifying the jeopardy of the situation.

Really fun film.  Very easy to see why it’s such a classic.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Link: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Summary: After a man sees a small group of UFOs, he become obsessed with trying to understand a mysterious vision of a mountain.

Thoughts: I had never seen this classic Spielberg film before.  Although the effects are quite obviously dated, the film looked great on blu-ray.  I especially loved the look of the mothership UFO at the end, along with John Williams’s classic well-known score for this film.  The filmmaking was masterful; it’s very easy to get drawn into the mysteriousness of what the UFOs are doing as different characters take different approaches to trying to figure it out, our poor main character driven to the edges of his sanity in the process.

Overall, though, I’m not quite sure I understand what it’s all about.  Why exactly did these aliens come?  What are they doing?  What is the government trying to do with them?  What are the main character’s intentions as he walks onto the spaceship at the end?  I didn’t understand the film’s ending at all.

Still, it’s a fun film.  It was easy to get drawn into, and there’s something very engaging about the pacing and tempo of the whole thing, it just sucks you in like a catchy piece of music.  Which only makes the bizarre answer-less ending all the more annoying.

56 Up (2012)


Link: The Complete Up Series

Summary: This film catches up on the ordinary lives of some random British citizens.  Their lives have been chronicled every seven years since they were seven years old; they are now 56 years old.

Thoughts: I started watching this series with the last installment, 49 Up.  I love these films.  Even though we only see very brief glimpses into these people’s lives, as many of the subjects themselves are quick to remind us, it is fascinating to see both how they change every seven years, how they adapt to the changes that are forced upon them, and yet how they, in some ways, remain the same.  Though I’m sure different fans of these films find them fascinating for different reasons, with this latest installment I was mostly reminded that the important things in a person’s life are not his potential for fame and fortune, but his relationships both with other people and with himself, and that there is always hope; all struggles are temporary.  Yeah, that might sound like a cheesy theme to find, but that’s what I thought about as I watched how these various people progressed through their various stages of life in the span of minutes or seconds.  The worldly stuff gets left behind and forgotten; meanwhile, the self changes what it needs to, and perseveres.

I hope they will continue with another installment.  If something happens to director Michael Apted before then, I hope someone else will take it over.  It would also be fascinating to see something like this in the USA.  I know there have been attempts, but I’ve not come across them; I guess they are not nearly as popular.  In any case, this is perhaps the most fascinating documentary series of all time.