Foreign Language Thursday: Battleship Potemkin (1925)

20 07 2011

Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 masterpiece remains as one of the most influential films ever made. It tells the simple, yet powerful, story of the Russian naval mutiny which led to protests onshore. It is based on a true event and that comes through in the very natural progression of the films events. This classic is quite well deserving of it’s constant high regard due to its intense nature, flowing construction, and iconic scenes.

Many dramatic films of the silent era are enhanced by an orchestrated soundtrack that goes along with them and “Battleship Potemkin” is perhaps supported the best by it’s. Music often highlights atmosphere and tone within a scene but here is helps to parallel to actual film. “Battleship Potemkin” plays out like an operatic piece with sweeping highs and tip-toeing intermediary scenes. This gives the film great flow and unravels like a story from another age, partially because it is.

“Battleship Potemkin” has several standout scenes and these parts are truly the highlights of the film. The mutiny, the scene along the steps, and the finale are all outstanding pieces of cinema. They are intense, wonderfully shot, and full of emotion. These are moments that are not just amazing achievement by themselves but stress the effectiveness of the entire film that Eisenstein was able to create. With a runtime of just 75 minutes, to build up these scenes in such a short period of time is nothing more than exceptional.

This will be a short review because “Battleship Potemkin” is a complex work that should be studied. Consequently I do not feel the urge to go too in-depth since that will be a long and arduous rabbit hole that I don’t care to put to paper right now. Nevertheless it is a tremendous work that is nothing short of essential to any lover of cinema

Score: 96/100


Foreign Language Thursday: Ran (1985)

2 06 2011

Today we visit Kurosawa’s take on a Shakespeare classic. “Ran” is obviously based upon King Lear, but actually resembles quite little outside of the general premise. We begin on a beautiful hilltop as Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) of the powerful Ichimonji family is dining with his three sons and allies. He decides that it is time to step aside and pass on his legacy to his sons, he gives the First castle and leadership of his house to his eldest and the Second and Third castles to the other two. While the two eldest sons, Taro and Jiro, have nothing but sweet words for their father, Saburo calls him foolish and that Hidetora should not trust the other two. Hidetora obviously takes this as an insult and banishes Saburo and well as his adviser Tango who agrees him. Of course they end up being correct as Taro and Jiro turn on their father and one another. Ran is one of Akira Kurosawa’s largest films, taking place on a huge scale with castles, vast armies, and wide landscapes but at the same time it is really about the characters like most of his movies are.

“Only the birds and the beasts live in solitude.”

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a Kurosawa film would not be the colorful settings, yet that is what stands out the most in his final classic. Many scenes take place in locales that accentuate the green hilltops which rustle in the wind and the crystal clear blue skies. Armies feature distinct flags or red, yellow, blue, and white. Even during battle the red flames and great splashes of blood help make every scene vibrant. It all makes for a very unlikely setting considering how much death and destruction occur throughout “Ran”.

“Men prefer sorrow over joy… suffering over peace!”

Ultimately “Ran” is about chaos and violence bred from our own desires. Hidetora was a merciless ruler in his time; he murdered, mutilated, and burnt down entire castles. Taro, the eldest, loves his new found power and would do anything to hold it while Jiro believes Taro to be a fool and that he should rule in his place. Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede, soon becomes the power behind the throne as she pulls the strings of war and violence in revenge for what was done to her family. In “Ran” everyone gets pulls into the violence, those responsible all have different goals and motivations but produce the same result while those ranging from completely innocent to only a little innocent get caught up in the aftermath. “Ran” primarily invokes pity, pity for all and on many different levels.

“Ran” is a beautiful, provoking piece of work from one of the greatest directors of all time. The colors play off one another strikingly well and although it is a visual treat, “Ran” has the depth within it’s characters to be more than just a war drama but also an intense look at the individual’s motivations and drives.

Score: 96/100

Foreign Language Thursday: Pather Panchali (1955)

26 05 2011

Today we examine the poetic and emotional “Pather Panchali”, directed by the legendary Satyajit Ray in his very first film making this, without a doubt, one of the finest directorial debuts ever. “Pather Panchali” revolves around the newly born Apu and his family over several years as they struggle with life; from the weather to their neighbors to even one another. The incredibly well formed characters give the movie a very natural feel allowing for more impact in every scene. It is easy to recognize one-self within these characters as they each have a distinct personality and outlook, and despite the regular situations presented on screen they never allow it to never feel worn.

“Whatever God does is for the best.” 

The biggest strength of “Pather Panchali” is the characters. The plot revolves around Apu’s family which includes his sister, Durga, as well as his mother, father, and auntie. Apu is the looking glass in which we observe everything that happens, he acts like a child but is enough of a blank slate that the viewer can associate themselves with him as someone who is a passenger and can do little in regards to the events surrounding him. His mother acts as the strict hand watching over the children. She worries about money, what her children are up to, and what other people think about her. Her husband on the other hand is very much the opposite; he has a strong sense of duty yet has a more playful sense of responsibility. He quotes the above line “Whatever God does is for the best” often and lets life come to him, nevertheless both of them obviously love their children very much and would do anything for them but show it in two separate ways, he will give them anything while she is consciously thinking of what is best for them and the entire family. His older sister really is a mix of the two. She shares her mother’s stubbornness while also being adventurous and fun-loving like her father. Finally, his aunt is older and nearing the end of her life so she is a little more care-free and encourages Durga is her misadventures, not to mention frequently clashing with the children’s mother over several issues. All of these people are so well formed and play off one another extremely well giving the movie a natural and riveting dynamic.

“… we’ll go and look at the trains again. We’ll get a good look this time.” 

“Pather Panchali” has often been described as poetic and with good reason, the cinematography is just outstanding. Subrata Mitra works on his very first movie at only 21 when filming started and is able to bring the country to life. As great as the characters are, it is in his work in which the movie really comes into its own. Mitra uses wide shots and natural lighting to excellent effect and takes full advantage of nature when it presents itself. The shots during the monsoon rain scenes will particularly stay with me for some time.

Overall “Pather Panchali” is a familiar yet absorbing  film. In the beginning it is quite easy to relate to these characters in what seems to be a standard family drama, yet little does the viewer know that this familiarity will only greatly intensify what is going to happen later. The plot moves along surprisingly well and it is always a treat to look at. It is very hard to overstate how good “Pather Panchali” is because it truly is one of the best films ever made.

Score: 100/100

Foreign Language Thursday: Sansho the Baliff (1954)

19 05 2011

Was supposed to do the Apu trilogy today but that will have to wait once again, so for now it is Kenji Mizoguchi’s “Sansho the Baliff”.

This beautifully shot movie is about a governor’s family and what becomes of it when he is forced into exile.  His wife Tamaki (Kinuyo Tanaka) and their two children travel follow him years later after temporarily staying with her brother. They get tricked along the way and then separately sold into slavery . Their children, Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) and Anju (Kyoko Kagawa), get sent to a private manor under the care of the strict and malicious Sansho. Mizoguchi’s tale touches on themes of human rights, politics and bureaucracy, and morality.

“What a horrible world.”

Zushio and Anju are definitely transported to such a place once they are abducted except that Mizoguchi contrasts it wonderfully with great cinematography done by Kazuo Miyagawa. Japan is such a gorgeous country and many of the shots in “Sansho the Baliff” make full use of the landscapes; from the shores to mountainsides Japan is on full display. Inside Sansho’s manor it is dark and depressing, the life seemingly sucked out and the gloomy atmosphere stapled on screen by just the setting. Outside of the setting, many of the shots are complicated from either using a large amount of people in the frame or just very carefully constructed scenes which give many of the crucial scenes in the film the appropriate tension and emotion which in a film that relies on emotion so much is crucial.

“Without mercy, man is like a beast.”

One of the biggest themes of “Sansho the Baliff” is morality. We are early on exposed to two extremes of views on human decency: the children’s father who actually gets exiled for standing up for his people and whom the above quote it from, and Sansho who uses inhumane techniques and has absolutely no regard for the well-being of his slaves. Throughout the movie we are shown many characters who struggle with his issue including Sansho’s son, many government officials, and even Zushio himself. Zushio, although good and honorable in nature, struggles with his new home and what happens there. He is torn, like everyone else, between doing what is morally right and what is the logical thing to do in a socio-economic sense. The film tells a message that many have told, the choosing what is right over what is profitable, but it I don’t know if it has ever been done so emotionally and effectively.

“Sansho the Baliff” is definitely a classic. Kenji Mizoguchi is an often overlooked classical Japanese director since he unfortunately made movies in the same period as Kurosawa and Ozu, nevertheless movies like Sansho and a couple of his other acclaimed works prove that he was just as talented as his contemporaries.

Score 95/100

Foreign Language Thursday: Pickpocket (1959)

5 05 2011

The cold, expressionless face of Martin LaSalle controls much of the screen time of Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. Under the surface burns emotions such as fear, anticipation, joy, and exhilaration but LaSalle’s character, Michel, never gives the audience a hint of it outside of his narration of events. Michel lives the life of a thief, beginning the movie working alone and sloppy although he soon begins to expand, using more people and becomes more confident in his ability. Pickpocket is a movie about compulsion and greed, not so much greed of wealth but greed of power. Michel’s story is only 75 minutes long but Bresson shows us a very full character and his compelling arc.

Tell No One

Robert Bresson treats Pickpocket like a piece of art, he consistently shows us images and allows us to make what we will out of it but at the same time never holding anything back, never trying to mislead or deceive the viewer. We are let in on all of Michel’s secrets and see exactly how he steals from people, sometimes inspired and other times more obvious. Michel also narrates the whole movie as he describes his feelings and what he is doing. A large part of what makes Pickpocket so compelling is hearing what Michel has to say while seeing him in action; we are hearing someone’s recollection of events as we are watching them occur in real time making a compelling contrast. Adding in Bresson’s cinematography makes Pickpocket an exceptionally engaging film to watch.


What drives the film is Michel and how much of a “real” character he is. It is such a common compliment for a writer to produce a “real” character but at this juncture I can think of no better way to describe him. The real genius behind it is being able to not only have our impression of Michel but Michel’s opinion of himself as well. At the beginning of the film he tells us how scared he was about to steal a woman’s purse and we see him attempting to act normal; not acting normal, attempting to. This fades as Michel becomes more confident in his abilities and more ambitious working with more people. Intriguingly we are never really given a reason why Michel is a thief. He and the people he works with are not a group a lowlifes, on the contrary, they seem quite adept and fairly intelligent. They steal because they can, and as Michel gets better he becomes more concentrated on it and more involved. Of course he finally hits rock bottom and eventually finds salvation in a friend. Michel is a great character not only because of how he acts but because of the arc his character goes through, especially in such a short period of time.

Bresson has been called a very Christian director and many of his movies carry religious themes but at the same time they are also very human themes. These undertones are there, but never overbearing allowing the viewer to take the film as they will. Nevertheless Pickpocket is inspiring, relatable, and a treat to watch. Just be weary, although it is officially a 75 minute film the urge to immediately re-watch it afterwards has inflated that number for me.

Score: 96/100