Letter Never Sent is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen and I had never even heard of it before Criterion announced it for release. It is a semi-lost gem of Russian filmmaking that I am still thinking about.
The film follows four Russian geologists who get dumped in Siberia to find diamonds for the government. As they spend more time together we learn more about their relationships with each other. The titular letter is something I won’t spoil. Immediately following their discovery they become trapped by an enormous fire and have to survive to get the information back to Moscow. The plot is fairly simple but the interaction between the geologists is incredibly realistic and touching. In fact, the entire thing is extremely realistic.
The fire is almost its own character. Before the geologists become trapped there is a raging fire superimposed over them. The camera work is also practically its own character. The shots are either close or distant and at times it almost seems like a documentary. The acting is so flawless it seems like everything was done in one single take and the actors are really trying to survive the Siberian wilderness. Letter Never Sent is unrelenting as a tale of survival.
Writing about Letter Never Sent truly makes me want to watch the film again and also find more films by the director and cinematographer, Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergei Urusevsky, respectively. Although the film is from the early 60s there is really no Russian propaganda to speak of, other than the devotion of these four geologists to their homeland.
The Red Riding Trilogy starts off in 1974 and loosely follows a fictionalized take on real murder cases. I had been interested in watching this for quite some time but was left mostly unimpressed.
Red Riding 1974 follows a reporter, Eddie Dunford (played by Andrew Garfield) looking for information about missing young girls. As Dunford keeps digging, corruption and other crimes are uncovered and Dunford becomes a target. That is a highly simplified version of the plot, but I found the details hard to follow. There are lots of supporting characters and the timeline of events seemed sketchy to me, I had a hard time understanding exactly what was happening most of the film. I’m not sure if this is a fault on my part or on the film’s.
Originally a UK Channel 4 miniseries, the Red Riding Trilogy has a different director for each film and each film was shot using different techniques. 1974 was shot on 16mm and directed by Julian Jarrod. 1980 was shot on 35mm and directed by James Marsh. Lastly, 1983 was shot digitally and directed by Anand Tucker. The idea was to give each film a truly unique feel, both visually and professionally, while still maintaining an overarching story. I look forward to finishing the trilogy to see what comes of things.
Red Riding 1974 features terrific acting and I was especially impressed with Andrew Garfield. The overall look and feel of the mid 70s is captured quite well. I had a bit of a hard time understanding some of the dialogue but I’m not sure if that’s due to accents, mumbling, lack of Netflix Instant Watch subtitles, or just my own brain. Overall, I would hesitantly recommend watching Red Riding 1974, if only because the trilogy is supposed to be quite good on a whole. If I really like 1980 and 1983 I may go back and watch this again to catch anything I may have missed.
Persona is film by Ingmar Bergman that was strongly recommended to me. It is an intimate minimalistic film that is also quite powerful.
The film opens with footage of a camera projector and seemingly random images but the plot centers around two women, Alma and Elisabet, played by Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman respectively. Alma is a nurse under the care of Elisabet, who has become mute despite no seemingly medical reason for this. Since Elisabet is mute, Alma talks throughout nearly the entire movie and the more she speaks the more she divulges. The lines between the two women begin to blur as the film progresses.
Both women give great performances though they have completely different roles. Andersson’s performance is especially touching. As with other Bergman films, the cinematography and sets are simple but beautiful. Also like other Bergman films, it most likely requires several viewings to fully understand. I know I had to wait to even write this short review due to my not being sure I could write about what happened with any detail. I’m still not sure I could say exactly what happened in the film but I enjoyed it immensely.
In writing about Persona I am inclined to watch it again. Not only because it is a great film but also because I know it has many secrets left to divulge. This is not a film I would recommend to everybody, it is a slow but deliberate film that deals primarily between the relationship of two women.
Allow me to give a brief history lesson to set up this post…
I am from the greater Chicagoland area and have been a movie lover for as long as I can remember. Growing up, my family would watch Siskel and Ebert At the Movies religiously. My father wouldn’t see a movie without hearing the opinions of both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I have literally grown up with Roger Ebert as the film critic and I’ve enjoyed reading his work my entire life.
For those of you unfamiliar with Ebertfest, here is the official site, here is the Wikipedia page. It pretty much exactly what it sounds like, a film festival helmed by Mr. Ebert. It is held near the University of Illinois campus and unlike other film festivals where submissions are welcome, Ebertfest choices are handpicked.
I am incredibly excited to get to be going this year and a good friend of mine is flying up from North Carolina to share the experience. It’s my first time going, but hopefully not my last.
Now, onto the film choices…
Kind Hearts and Coronets – Not only is this a great movie, but Patton Oswalt (Young Adult) picked it and will be the host for the night. Alec Guiness is simply amazing in this.
Big Fan – Another great movie, starring Patton Oswalt as a rabid NY Jets fan. Obviously Oswalt will join for this
Joe Versus the Volcano – An seemingly odd choice but one of Ebert’s favorites. I’m always up for classic Tom Hanks movies.
Phunny Business: A Black Comedy – Totally unaware of this documentary but it is about an all black night club and the owner. The owner of the club, Raymond Lambert, will be joining us.
The Truth About Beauty and Blogs – Short film, hadn’t heard of it before but it looks like it will tie into Phunny Business. Joined by Kelichi Ezie, the comedienne and filmmaker. Joined by the writer-director, actors and some crew.
Kinyarwanda – I have heard many things about this and if it’s as heart-wrenching as it sounds it will be mesmerizing.
On Borrowed Time – A documentary about the past two years of Paul Cox’s life after getting a life-saving kidney transplant. Should be a fascinating watch. Cox and Nate Kohn will join.
A short film collection accompanied by The Alloy Orchestra including Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, which you may recognize from Hugo. Alloy Orchestra members will join the discussion.
A Separation – This Iranian film (and Oscar winner!) is something I regret not having already seen so I greatly look forward to it. Director, Asghar Farhadi, is hoping to join.
Special effects techniques from the wizards that worked on The Tree of Life.
Higher Ground – Not the stoner comedy that its name makes it out to be, this is a film about how religion shapes a woman’s life. Screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs will join.
Patang – I don’t believe I had heard of this film before. The director’s father was one of Ebert’s old film students. Director Prashant Bhargava will join along with his father and assorted cast and crew.
Take Shelter – A movie that has ranked very high on my ‘to-watch’ list and I couldn’t be more excited that Michael Shannon will be there along with director, Jeff Nichols. So very excited for this one.
Citizen Kane – Not only is this one of the best movies ever, but Ebert recorded a commentary track for the DVD release some years ago and that will be playing along with the movie. It is a fantastic commentary to go along with an incredible film.
More details can obviously found in the source link at the top of this post but I must say again…I am EXTREMELY excited for this. I will be posting from the event, so expect more to come!
I saw The Skin I Live In with very little background as to the story since I knew that would ruin some of the intended effect. I’m very glad the plot wasn’t spoiled and when it was over I was finally able to breath and say “wow”.
I will not go into details about the plot but I will say the film begins with a plastic surgeon (Antonio Banderas) researching a new skin with a patient (Elena Anaya). The plot is a bit like a painting. We see the beautiful finished product first, but then get to see the artist masterfully put each piece together. The plot unravels bit by bit and things make start making sense all the way to conclusion.
Watching Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya on screen is an absolute treat. Both actors give outstanding performances, Anaya especially. Banderas’ inconsistent film career had me a bit worried at first, but he does a remarkable job in the role. Director Pedro Almodóvar’s work is fairly new to me, but after watching The Skin I Live In I will be watching more. The score intensifies and descends perfectly, creating a tension that rarely ceases and the cinematography is a wonder. It truly is a hauntingly beautiful film.
While The Skin I Live In is certainly not for everyone, those willing to get a bit grossed out may love the film as much as I did. Spanish cinema does not seem to receive very much attention, but films such as this should really push the boundaries.
I really struggled to like Valhalla Rising and, truth be told, there is a lot to like. However, the idea seems to be far stronger than the execution.
Valhalla Rising is from Nicolas Winding Refn, director of a favorite of mine, Drive. I had high hopes for the film as a result, but the similarities between them are few. They both share strong, silent, unnamed protagonists and feature very little dialog in general but have strong driving soundtracks. The colors are vivid and the surrounding landscapes feel very alive. Oh, and they are both also intensely violent at times.
One key difference in Valhalla Rising are the ‘acid flashback’ scenes which are fairly numerous. This caused some confusion for me as far as the narrative is concerned as well.
The plot follows a prisoner (Mads Mikkelsen) than is very adept at fighting and killing and he is forced into this for sport. He breaks away from his captors and kills them all except for a young boy, whom he befriends. Together the two travel and meet up with a group of Christians. They then travel…Somewhere…But end up in a dense fog and believe to be cursed. They arrive in an unknown land that ends up being North America.
Apparently the idea for the film is based around a viking runestone Refn saw while in Delaware and frankly, that makes for an excellent idea for a movie. Valhalla Rising simply doesn’t deliver on that premise. It’s confusing, jumbled, trippy (not in a good way), and fairly directionless. Still, I didn’t hate it, I was just left disappointed.
Prairie Love is a very odd, very subdued film. Though it takes place in North Dakota, it is nothing like Fargo.
The plot of Prairie Love is about a guy that seems to live in his car. We first see him pulling a frozen dead deer towards his car. As he’s driving he finds a guy that is practically frozen solid but apparently alive. He brings him into the car and thaws him out. While waiting for him to thaw, he goes through the frozen man’s belongings and finds love letters to a female prison inmate. The men are both obviously lonely in the frozen tundra of North Dakota, but the first man decides to do away with the now thawed frozen man and pretend to be him for the female inmate’s affections.
The entire film is extremely slow paced and there are long stretches of silence. There are lots of subtle funny moments and I did chuckle a few times, but the pacing is frustrating. I would either be laughing or falling asleep.
One thing I’d like to mention is Film Movement, where I got Prairie Love from. I found out about the site through Groupon, oddly enough, but the basic premise is they send these independent movies out before their actual release. It’s a neat way for me to stay on top of some movies that I would otherwise have no access to and I recommend checking it out.
Also included on the Prairie Love disc was a short animated film called A Family Portrait.
A Family Portrait is about a family getting their portrait taken but their expressions change based on the conflicts they are enduring. The animation reminded me very much of Ralph Steadman’s work. I quite admire short films since they have to tell an entire story in such a small space, but I enjoyed watching A Family Portrait.
Let me make one thing clear about Microcosmos: There are absolutely no praying mantises wearing sunglasses. It also has no dinosaurs, so I’m not sure why there’s a tie-in to Jurassic Park.
Microcosmos, despite the weird cover art, is a documentary-type film with closeup shots of all sorts of insects. There is no real narrative, and the soundtrack is a mix of actual sounds and ambient music. Whereas Baraka shot different events worldwide, Microcosmos seems be worldwide but only covers insects.
The film itself is fairly short and entirely enjoyable. It came out years before Planet Earth, but the idea behind it is essentially the same. If David Attenborough decided to narrate Microcosmos, it would pretty much be identical to an episode from that miniseries.
There isn’t much to say beyond what I have already said. Microcosmos is a very enjoyable film, but I am a sucker for these nature documentary shows. Considering it came out in 1996, the visuals are quite impressive and the subject matter is timeless, though the soundtrack is kind of weird.
David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly is both incredibly engrossing and incredibly gross.
I have never seen Vincent Price’s original version of The Fly but from what I understand, only the basic plot idea survived the trip through Cronenberg’s mind. The Fly is about a scientist named Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) that has unlocked the secrets of teleportation. He meets a reporter (Geena Davis) and shows off his breakthrough discovery, however, the technology only works on nonliving things. After some tweaks and too much alcohol, Brundle decides to test teleporting himself and is met with…Success! Well, sort of. A fly made the trip across the loft with him and as a result their DNA has been fused. This leads to a disgusting transformation into part man, part fly: Brundlefly.
As with other Cronenberg films, the special effects are very organic but also quite revolting. Brundlefly’s transformation is, at times, hard to look at. There is a particular scene that has scarred me for life (spoiler: all I will say is ‘fingernails’).
Regardless of the gore, The Fly is a movie I couldn’t tear my eyes away from. The story is actually fairly believable science-fiction and the morality of the teleportation is an underlying message throughout the film. If you can stay with it through all the gross parts, it is more than just a horror movie.
Fargo is one of the sharpest Coen Brothers movies. In fact, it’s one of the sharpest dark comedies ever.
The movie begins saying it is based on a true story. This is not true, but the red herring fooled even police officers at the time. At its core, Fargo is a story about money. A weaselly car salesman, played by fantastic William H. Macy, has a scheme to fake the kidnapping of his wife to get her rich father to pay the ransom. He pays two criminals, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare, to accomplish this task. Then, everything goes pear shaped; innocent people get killed and nothing is going to plan. Enter a pregnant officer, Frances McDormand, to put the pieces together.
Of course there is much more to the meandering plot that is both hilarious and brutally violent, sometimes simultaneously. While the Coens had made fantastic movies before Fargo, making Fargo was their first truly great film in my opinion. The characters, dialogue, setting, plot, noir sensibilities, and humor we have come to expect from their films are all present and in full bloom. The Minnesotan accents and cheeriness make for a lighthearted backdrop on what is a decidedly dark film.
As with the best films, multiple viewings of Fargo unearth new secrets with each successful viewing. Fargo‘s plot is fairly simple at a high level, but close up is quite complex. Fargo is a fantastic film, my second favorite Coen movie only to The Big Lebowski. But more on that later…