Monday, May 6, 2013

May Film Challenge: Foreign Films

"Challenge" sounds so much better than "sitting around watching a bunch of movies." But even the word 'challenge' got questioned as I was throwing around ideas with some friends who were lucky enough to be stuck in a car with me. "Challenge is too over used", someone said, "It makes me not want to do something when it's a 'challenge.'" So a little subtitle got added:

May Film Challenge: a stupendous extravaganza super fun not to be missed adventure into the cinematic arts. Put that on a button and wear it.

Movies, films, cinema and the such, have always intrigued me. Not just for their entertainment value but also for the layers of storytelling within them. They have not only the story that the viewers see, but also the whole movie making process. There are a lot of credits at the end every single movie, every one of them must mean something. It begs to ask, is the "art" of film the final product or the process of creating that final product? So . . . who wants to get stuck in a car and discuss "art" with me now?

I have a sister that went to film school and works in the business, so I frequently put that hard earned education to use and rope her into giving me a list of movies to watch, especially now that I finally have taken the low road and signed up for Nextflix again. But sometimes scrolling through Netflix makes me anxious, I WANT TO WATCH ALL THE MOVIES. Except Gone with the Wind. Yuck.  

This past weekend, my expert and I worked on coming up a with a couple different  pretty broad categories of films  and a manageable amount of movies within those categories (5-7) that I could watch in a month's time and wear a beret and feel all cultured and stuff. 

The first catagory is foreign films, which I feel that I already have a pretty good foundation with, I mean, I do own Amelie. I love American films and give them my money and time quite regularly, but sometimes I love to see how the rest of the world tells their story.  I wanted movies from a range of countries and time periods, but also wanted a couple that in some, or any, way changed cinema.  Film is a pretty fast evolving medium. If you think about the special effects you grew up with versus the ones we have now, wow. What films were the earlier adapters, which ones took that jump to the next big thing in movie making? But above everything else, I want good stories. I'm pretty demanding. 

Sigh. Long introduction, here the movies I picked for May, in no particular order:

1. The Hidden Fortress (1958, Japanese)
Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa

Quick and dirty summary: Lured by gold, two greedy peasants escort a man and woman across enemy lines. However, they do not realize that their companions are actually a princess and her general.

Why I am watching it: I am already a big fan of Akira Kurosawa and his samurai movies, but I haven't seen The Hidden Fortress. There is a remarkable relationship between American western movies and Japanese samurai movies. Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was adapted into The Magnificent Seven. A Fist Full of Dollars staring Clint Eastwood? Yeah, that is basically a remake of Yojimbo, my favorite Kurosawa film. But it doesn't stop there. George Lucas has acknowledged that Stars Wars was highly influenced by The Hidden Fortress. Yoda's robes and  moves make better sense now, huh? 

2. Man with a Movie Camera (1929, Russian)

Written and directed by Dziga Vertov

Quick and dirty summary: A cameraman travels around a city with a camera slung over his shoulder, documenting urban life with dazzling inventiveness.

Why I am watching it: While the Russians didn't invent film editing, they took it to a new level, demonstrating, with movies such as Man with a Movie Camera, that the story really takes shape after you stop shooting and you start putting it all together. 

3. M (1931, German)

Written and directed by Fritz Lang

Quick and dirty summary: When the police in a German city are unable to catch a child-murderer, other criminals join in the manhunt.

Why I am watching it: This movie was a transition between silent and talkie films. I really love silent films, especially suspenseful ones, which this one sounds like. Sounds likes . . .silent films . . .I am hilarious.  I am also curious, curious to see how  silent scenes and not so silent scenes mix together. 

4. The Bicycle Thieves (or The Bicycle Thief) (1948, Italian)

Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Written by Cesare Zavattini

Quick and dirty summary: A man and his son search for a stolen bicycle vital for his job.

Why I watching it: I was a little worried that my sister would suggest Fellini for the Italian slot in my list. I try, try, try to like Fellini, but I fall asleep during La Dolce Vita, every time. So, Bicylce Thieves, even though I know it is going to sad, is kind of a relief. This movie is probably one of the most recognizable examples of post World War II Italian neo-realism and the trend to show the realities of life on film instead of the glossy epic Hollywood life.  

5. The Grand Illusion (1937, French)

Written and director by Jean Renior

Quick and dirty summary: During the First World War, two French soldiers are captured and imprisoned in a German POW camp. Several escape attempts follow until they are sent to a seemingly impenetrable fortress which seems impossible to escape from.

Why I am watching it:   Most of my foreign film experience is with French films, so with this challenge, basically I was looking for work by someone other than Truffaut.  Grand Illusion was controversial when it came out because it showed people on all sides of the war as people. Germans as people in a French film? The nerve. And fun trivia fact; the director Jean Renior was the son of the famous painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

6.  The Seventh Seal (1957, Swedish)

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman

Quick and dirty summary: A man seeks answers about life, death, and the existence of God as he plays chess against the Grim Reaper during the Black Plague.

Why I am watching it: I have only seen one Ingmar Bergman movie, Through a Glass Darkly, years ago and I had no idea what was going on and this somewhat confusing/traumatic event led me to pass on all of his work. But what is life without second chances?  My sister sold me on the Seventh Seal, when she told me that the scene in Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey when our two heroes play chess with death is based on a scene in this film. Bill and Ted forever. 

7. The Passion of Joan of Arch (1928, French)

Written and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Quick and dirty summary: A chronicle of the trial of Jeanne d'Arc on charges of heresy, and the efforts of her ecclesiastical jurists to force Jeanne to recant her claims of holy visions.

Why I am watching it: I didn't want to have more than one film from the same country, but how can you pass up a silent film about Joan of Arc? It is most notably famed for being filmed almost entirely in close up. Which means in silent films terms, that the weight of story is all facial expression.  Body language to the max.

*All quick and dirty summaries come from

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