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The Horse in Focus (1956)
A perfunctory movie about an odd Olympic event
The 1956 Summer Olympics were held in Melbourne Australia, but due to their animal quarantine laws (the same ones that were to get Johnny Depp in trouble decades later) the equestrian events could not be held there. So a mini Olympics featuring just the events involving horses were held months earlier in Stockholm. This short Swedish film is the document of those events. I suppose it is theoretically possible to make an interesting movie about equestrian sports, but this isn't that movie. The main problem with it is that the narrator talks non-stop through it. If the viewer can understand Swedish, this might not me a problem, but for everyone else, it means non-stop subtitles, which make it hard to ever take in the visuals. Snippets of the events are presented but they are so brief that it is hard to feel engaged with anything that is happening.
Vertigine bianca (1956)
Slightly above average Olympics documentary
There are a few Olympics documentaries that are the gold standard for the genre (notably Olympiad and Tokyo Olympiad.) And there are some that are just adequate, being nothing more than just filmed recordings of the events. White Vertigo, the documentary about the 1956 Winter Olympics held in Cortina d'Ampezzo Italy, falls solidly between those two camps. The color cinematography is flat out gorgeous and the movie takes some interesting looks behind the scenes. But the coverage itself is fairly rote with little suspense generated--with the exception of the downhill ski racing event near the end of the movie, which is expertly handled. In short, there is little reason to seek this movie out, but if it presented to you, there is no reason not to watch it either.
The Above (2015)
Eye in the Sky
The Above is about a mysterious American military blimp that floats above Kabul in Afghanistan. The first three fourths of this short movie are taken up with either shots of it or of bird's eye shots (presumably taken by drone) of everyday life in Kabul. But then the setting changes...There are some intertitles that raise questions about the purpose of the blimp without giving any definitive answers. A strikingly beautiful and ominous experience.
Heavy handed adaptation of a great play
This is the first of apparently many movie adaptations of Georg Buchner's classic play Woyzeck, which is about a poor soldier who is driven insane by the people around him. Made in East Germany shortly after World War II, the movie seems heavily infused with the Communist party line. In this movie, it is more society's obsession with money than anything that causes Wozzeck to lose his sanity. And in case there was anyone who didn't get the point, the movie added the author Buchner as a character in his own story to hammer away at this theme during various times during the movie. There are a few evocative scenes (particularly the ones at a fair and by a swampy lake) but many of the scenes are dull and overlong and the movie rarely matches the deliriousness of the play.
Fight Without Hate (1948)
Proof that not all Olympics documentaries are created equal
Fight Without Hate is a documentary about the 5th Winter Olympics, held in St. Moritz Switzerland in 1948. Historically, this was a significant event as they were the first Olympic games held in 12 years. Tensions were still high from World War II and as a result, Germany and Japan were not invited to participate and Russia sat it out.
One would think that the makers of the film would capitalize on this subtext but it is barely referenced at all other than a bit of narration at the end of the movie (which is where the movie's title comes from.) In fact, the makers of the movie seem strangely uninterested in anything related to the games. Most of the events are indifferently filmed, with the athletes sometimes seemingly randomly selected. (There are a couple exceptions to this, the most notable ones being a couple hockey games and the men's ski jump.) This problem is aggravated by the utterly bizarre narration. It would appear that the film makers were worried that the viewers would find the games as boring as they apparently did, so they added multiple bits of "comedy relief." The narrator is frequently interrupted by his wife who is constantly hectoring him for money to buy clothes with and another man who has wandered into the booth to flirt with the wife. The result is that the narrator spends half of the movie making jokes about the fickleness of women. When he does get around to describing the events, he is prone to make comments on the appearances of the female athletes.
Some of the material is thrilling despite the way it is presented, but mostly the movie is flat. One notable exception is the treatment of figure skating near the end of the movie which uses trick photography and editing to turn the event into abstract art. You won't learn too much about the competitors, but it is pleasing to the eyes.
A nonsensical but sometimes eerie ghost story
I'm not that familiar with Asian ghost movies so I may not be the most reliable source. A Bloodthirsty Killer, aka A Devilish Homicide, aka A Devilish Murder is the story of a family of who are being terrorized by a vengeful ghost. Why? Well, you can read that in IMDB's plot description but as the reason is not revealed until the last third of the movie that seems like a spoiler to me. The budget of the movie looks like it was pretty low, although the special effects look pretty decent for their time. But the sets are sparsely decorated giving the movie a rather threadbare look. The ghost seems omnipotent, which makes the struggle seem pretty one-sided, but then most of the things she does seem pretty pointless, so overall there is not a lot of suspense in the movie. The movie does have a couple creepy moments. It reminded me of the 70s Japanese horror movie House but without the camp. If you're a fan of that movie you should add a couple stars to my rating, but overall I wasn't impressed.
Man chu (1982)
Mystery woman meets mystery man
First of all, if you care about spoilers at all, DO NOT read IMDB's summary for the movie. As short as it is, it gives away nearly everything about the movie.
I watched this movie on YouTube knowing next to nothing about it, so I may not be the best person to review it. The plot is about a very sad and quiet woman who is going on a long train ride to the countryside. She attracts the attention of a rather loud and brash man. Even though she does nothing to encourage him and even seems completely disinterested in him, he won't leave her alone and he even gets off the train to follow her. Of course, as they get to know each other, secrets get revealed.
This is a sad but touching movie, with some nice directorial touches. There are some sudden, jarring cuts where you don't expect them, and the movie sometimes fools you into thinking one thing happens and then you find out that something else did. There is also effective use of sound, especially in the use of silence. The two lead actors are very good. I am not familiar with the actor, but fans of the 2009 Korean movie Mother might enjoy seeing the actress Hye-ja Kim in her first movie (according to IMDB anyway.) My only complaints about the movie is that it is a little slow and the music at times is really annoying, especially the 80s synthesizer tracks.
The Hypnotist (2001)
Short, campy and fun
The Hypnotist is a short (a little less than half the length of a feature film) movie about three estranged siblings who are forced to live together in order to collect their inheritance. Things come to a head when one of them hires a doctor to treat their mother. The Hypnotist is not a good movie, but neither is it exactly a bad movie. The plot and dialogue are ludicrous and the acting is egregiously over the top but all of that lends the movie a great deal of charm. Wikipedia defines camp as a style that "that regards something as appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value." And that is what this movie does in spades. As long as you don't attempt to take it seriously, The Hypnotist is a lot of fun. But if you're wanting a "straight" movie, you would best be served looking elsewhere.
Verbotene Filme (2014)
An interesting look at the dark side of movie making
Of the over 1000 movies made in Germany during the Nazi era, 40 of them are still banned from public showing in that country, except under special circumstances. (Or, at least, that was the case in 2014, when this documentary was made.) Forbidden Films is a look at these movies and the ethical dilemmas they create. Clips from various of the more egregious propaganda movies are shown, alternating with talking head shots of scholars and film makers who discuss their merits, or lack thereof. There are also shot of audience members' reactions at selected screenings of the movies. And then there is the interview with two neo-Nazis who discuss how the movies are still being used as recruitment tools. Among the issues raised are whether it will ever be safe to allow unfettered access to the movies, wouldn't controlled showings be useful as an educational tool and whether by censoring the movies, the German government isn't actually enhancing interest in them. Lots of food for thought with no easy answers.
We're Going to the Zoo (2006)
Amateurish but charming
We're Going to the Zoo is a nearly plotless, and seemingly mostly improvised, short movie about a young woman and her little brother who are on a long road trip to a zoo. Along the way they pick up a hitchhiker who helps them pass the time. I'm assuming this was a student film because of the production values. The camera is shaky and the sound quality is poor with the dialogue being nearly inaudible at times. But the cast is engaging and the movie exudes a certain charm. There are certainly worse ways of spending 15 minutes of your life than by watching this film.
An Olympics documentary that plays like an extended newsreel
There are some Olympics documentaries made by world class directors that feel like artistic statements. The directors use their skill to heighten tension and to emphasize the spectacle of the event. This is not one of those movies.
To be fair, the idea of making a movie like that probably did not even enter the head of the director and he probably didn't have the resources to do it if it had. And from the looks of things, this probably was not the type of event to inspire such lofty ambitions. From the footage captured here, the event had a very low key atmosphere. There were not that many events, nor that many athletes competing. The spectators appear to be either locals or other people associated with the games. It would appear that there was not a lot of significance placed on the games (it was not even declared to be an Olympic event until the next year) and the approach of the movie reflects that. The cameras are placed at a distance, so that the hockey players, long distance jumpers and the marathoners all make rather small figures on the screen. Only the figure skaters get somewhat more intimate treatment, and that is by comparison. The only close ups are of athletes after their competitions are over. Also, the movie is haphazard with its information. The athletes shown on the screen are often not identified, and while the viewer is usually informed who won the events shown, no indication is given of who won the silver or bronze. Still, there is always some pleasure in seeing events from the past and this movie definitely has some, albeit limited, historical interest.
Side note: in my review of The White Stadium, the movie about the second Winter Olympics (and a great example of how to do an Olympics documentary right) I speculated that it had the first movie appearance of Norwegian skater and future Hollywood star, Sonja Henie. I think that honor may belong to this movie. There is a very young skater shown struggling with her routine. Given that Henie came in last in her competition in this Olympic, I suspect that this skater may have been her. But unfortunately, the movie neither reveals the skater's name nor nationality.
Das weiße Stadion (1928)
Beautiful Olympics documentary from the silent era
The White Stadium is a documentary about the second Winter Olympics, held in St. Moritz Switzerland in 1928. As such, it is an important historical document. But it is also a great artistic statement and proved to be an enormous influence on many later movies. Most of the movie's success can be attributed to its co-director, Arnold Fanck, who was the creator of the German "mountain movie" genre (yes, that really was a thing.) Not content to merely record the athletic events, the camera often cuts away to the surrounding scenery. While some people may be bored by this, the cinematography is so gorgeous I was rarely less than enthralled.
The movie has an interesting structure. Almost a half hour goes by before the Olympics even begin. (BTW, the IMDB listed runtime is incorrect. The movie is actually about 123 minutes long.) The first part is just about the town and the athletes getting ready for the event. There is even an odd interlude featuring a mostly nude couple skiing through the mountains. Then, there is the opening ceremonies which took place in a blizzard. The rest of the movie is, naturally, filled up with the competitions. Highlights include what may be the first movie appearance of Sonja Henie, an absolutely brutal hockey game between Canada and Switerzland and the only Olympic appearance of skijoring, a horse race across a frozen lake where the riders are on skis behind the horses. The cinematography is uniformly excellent (if sometimes a bit distant)with lots of use of slow motion and even some trick photography. And there is even some sly humor from time to time.
An interesting side note: the next year Fanck would direct Leni Riefenstahl in The White Hell of Pitz Palu. Reifenstahl must have been paying attention to what Fanck was doing. Not only would she go on to direct a mountain movie of her own but also Olympiad, which has long been held to be the first great Olympics documentary. With the reappearance of The White Stadium (it was considered to be a lost movie until 2011) it may be time to reconsider that claim and to reevaluate Fanck's influence on Reifenstahl.
Not a documentary about Luther Campbell. Or is it?
The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke is a short movie that purports to tell the life of Luther Campbell, aka Luke Skyywalker, from 2 Live Crew. Since the movie is so short, it is hard to describe what happens in it without revealing any spoilers. However, the opening credits state that the movie is based off of Chris Marker's La Jetee, so if you're familiar with that movie, or its remake 12 Monkeys, you should have a good idea what happens. Basically, the movie is about how Campbell witnessed a tragic event as a child and how it affected his life much later. This movie is more tongue in cheek than the original however, with one improbable event happening after another. Adding to the zaniness is the movie's embrace of its low budget, with cardboard cutouts representing buildings, cars and even body parts. A lot of fun.
La grande olimpiade (1961)
Beautiful looking documentary about the 1960 Summer Olympics
The Grand Olympics is the official documentary about the 1960 Summer Olympics held in Rome. I have only seen two other Olympic documentaries, Olympiad and Tokyo Olympiad, which I believe are considered to be the gold standard when it comes to this very narrow sub-genre. And while The Grand Olympics may not quite reach the heights of those two movies, it is still very much worth watching. The color cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, and the music, which ranges from vaguely avant-garde to outright cheesy, is mostly pretty effective. The movie covers a wide range of events, and as a result, very few of them are covered in depth. The final rounds events are usually what is shown, with very brief backgrounds given of the top contenders. (The notable exception to this is the marathon race which occurs near the end of the movie and goes on for a good 15 minutes.) And there is a slight preference given to the Italian athletes. The events are all photographed beautifully and the shots of the settings and the surrounding parts of Rome are fascinating. The only part that has dated is the sometimes sexist narration when it comes to the female athletes.
When We Lived in Miami (2013)
Impressionist view of a family in crisis
When We lived in Miami is a short film about a young couple and their daughter who looks to be about 4-5 years old. The father seems to be mostly absent while the mother struggles with loneliness, trying to find a job and keeping her daughter entertained. Not much happens (it is not even 15 minutes long) but there is a strong sense of events and emotions occurring just under the surface. The movie's POV seems to be that of the daughter's, and as a result, the chronology is disjointed and the characters' actions sometimes seem vague and inexplicable. A fine and moody piece.
Alain Mimoun (1959)
A brief look at an athlete's crowning achievement
Alain Mimoun was an Algerian runner who competed for France in various international competitions during the 1940s to the 1960s. He competed in two Olympic games before the Melbourne games in 1956, but only received silver medals, as he was constantly bested by his friend/rival Emil Zatopek. For the 1956 games, he decided to participate in the marathon, a race he had never officially competed in. Since it is a matter of historical record, I don't suppose it is a spoiler to say that he won. His success made him one of the biggest celebrities in France and there are numerous stadiums named after him there.
This movie is a short account of his victory. It uses footage from the race itself, intercut with reenactments of events from his life. The movie does a good job of showing how grueling the race was and the various twists and turns of his life that led him to that point. Plus, it has a nice jazz-inflected soundtrack.
Interestingly, even though Mimoun continued to compete (he even ran the marathon again in the next Olympics), he never again came in first place in a major competition. But that did not diminish the love his countrymen had for him. In 1999, a magazine poll named him France's greatest 20th century athlete.
A lonely man's night out on the town
If this isn't a student film then it is its next door neighbor. There is no plot to speak--just a string of incidents. A lonely man named John is wandering around and ends up hanging around a gas station with the slightly crazy attendant. That's it. The movie was obviously made on a budget of a dollar and a song. The sound is horrible and the camera keeps shaking. Still, the movie has a certain charm and there are a couple laughs near the end. It's not great, but it's agreeable enough and it's interesting to see how the Safdie brothers started their career.
Fádní odpoledne (1964)
A short slice of life
A Boring Afternoon is a short trifle of a movie that is as long in charm as it is short on plot. The action takes place in a bar while elsewhere in town there is a big football match. The locals in the bar are waiting to hear the results of the game while passing the time talking, drinking and generally getting on each others nerves. A genial short movie with a little poignancy thrown in.
Ikari no machi (1950)
Seamy story of two conmen in post WWII Japan
Many characters in Mikio Naruse's movies are consumed with money but I don't think any of them have gone to the lengths that the two lead characters here do. Jûkichi Uno and Yasumi Hara star as two veterans who are enrolled in college. To make ends meet they fleece pretty young women from the rising middle class. Less a crime story (although there is plenty of that) and more of a character study of two people who seem to have lost their moral bearings because of their experiences during the war. In fact, all of Tokyo seems to be suffering from the same dilemma, as the two lead characters, black marketers and drug dealers are contrasted with the honest and hard working poor who are reduced to long hours and menial work. Starker than many of Naruse's movies but not one without hope.
Un soir de rafle (1931)
An old story told well
Dragnet Night is an early French talkie primarily known today as being one of the first movies written by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who would go on to create such classics as Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. It is the story of Georget, a recently discharged soldier who quickly acquires a girlfriend and a career as a boxer. Can he hold on to both, or are the two mutually exclusive? It's a common story and i suspect it was an old one even in 1931, but this time around it is told with considerable charm. As it is an early talkie, the movie does seem a little creaky at times, but it mostly zips along, with lots of shots that wryly comment on the action. The cast is extremely fine, with both Albert Prejean and Annabella giving engaging performances. I particularly enjoyed bit player Jacques Lerner, who must have started in show business as a clown and who found lots of ways to include small comedic bits to incorporate into his role as assistant trainer.
A once popular children's film that has not aged well.
The Story of Little Mook is an East German fantasy movie from the 1950s. It tells the story of a little hunchback boy who has a series of magical adventures as he seeks to find his fortune after his father's death. The sets and the color cinematography are very nice, bit those are about the only positive things I can say about the movie. To be fair, the version I saw had the most egregious dubbing which may have made the movie seem worse than it really was. But the story seemed simplistic and dull while the comedy was overly broad.
Even though it was made behind the Iron Curtain, it was exported all over the world, and according to the East German Cinema Blog, it was East Germany's highest grossing film. But it's hard to imagine any child sitting still for it now.
Ma cousine de Varsovie (1931)
A love triangle just got more complicated
My Cousin From Warsaw is a 1931 adaptation of a hit play about a banker who takes the summer off from his job to stay at home, much to the chagrin of his wife and her lover. The ensuing truce is strained when the wife's cousin (or is she the hushand's cousin? the movie is vague on this point) shows up. Sonia, the Polish cousin, is played by Elvire Popesco who played the same role during the play's first run, and who would revive it continuously over the years. And therein lies part of the problem of this movie: all of the men in the movie find her irresistible, while I found her more than a little annoying. Much of the humor of the movie is strained, although there are some amusing touches here and there, particularly when it comes to the musical scenes. This movie was probably a big hit during its time, but it does not hold up particularly well.
La terreur des Batignolles (1931)
The equivalent of a student work by a future master
The Terror of Batignolles is a short comedy that is of interest today only because it is the directorial debut of Henri-Georges Clouzot, one of France's greatest directors. However, seeing as how it was made 11 years before he directed his first feature, one ought to approach this movie with some caution. While this is not a great movie, it is at least an agreeable trifle. It starts out creakily enough. A burglar, the possibly self-proclaimed Terror of Batignolles (Batignolles is a Neighborhood in Paris -- thanks Wikipedia!), is seen breaking into an apartment. He is nervous and is spooked by various objects inside and outside the apartment. The gags here are pretty weak and as there is no dialogue, it comes across like a silent two reeler with synchronized music and sound effects. Things improve as a couple (identified only as He and She in the imdb credits) enter the apartment. Now finally there is some dialogue and a couple genuine laughs.
A contemporary watching this film would not have known that the director was destined for greatness, but Clouzot handles his duties competently enough and it is a mystery why it took so long for him to be allowed to start making features.
Onna no za (1962)
A somewhat lighter touch for Naruse, but still somewhat dark
A Woman's Place is about a large family: an elderly couple who run a small market and their six adult children, all of whom except for one are women. The parents look on in bemused consternation as their offspring stumble through life. Three of the children are unmarried and are looking to change that with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The three oldest offspring are married but the stresses of employment and philandering don't make for the strongest case for matrimony. And then there is Yoshiko (played by Hideko Takamine) who was married to a son who has died before the movie begins. The parents treat her like another daughter while many of the other family members take her for granted and treat her almost like a servant. Add to this a number of other in-laws, grandchildren and other relatives and you have a pretty large cast of characters to keep track of.
The movie is fairly plotless, as most of the movie is taken up with just keeping track of the characters as they go about their lives. The tone is lighter than most of the other Naruse movies I have seen but it doesn't stay that way as an element of sadness takes hold by the end. Overall, this almost feels more like an Ozu movie than a Naruse one, but that is not a complaint. It is a melding of the best of both directors.
An interesting documentary about a fascinating woman
Shirley Collins is a little known name (at least here in the States) but she is a seminal figure in the worlds of both English and American folk music. This documentary is an attempt help her reclaim her place in music history. Rather than a straightforward biography, this movie takes a three prong approach to its subject: showing her talking with friends and admirers about her life, reenacting a trip she took in the 1950's to record American folk music with Alan Lomax, and filming her attempt to record her first new album in decades.
The movie is short, but some of the scenes linger a little too long and make the movie feel longer. But the music and cinematography are both beautiful. My main quibble is this: the movie spends way more time on Collins's trip with Lomax than it does on her singing career. Her recordings with Lomax are incredibly important, but that was only one part of her life (and it only lasted a couple years). Her singing career lasted over twenty years, and it was directed by her (and her sister), and it helped shape all English folk music that was to come after. So it is odd that it got such short shift here. But maybe they are saving it for a sequel...