20 movies, 20 days – the list

There was no rhyme or reason to my list of 20 movies. I chose them randomly from movies I’ve really liked. What I found interesting about doing this — a movie every day for twenty days (excluding weekends) — was how in doing it I found myself wanting to see them all again. Perhaps more interesting was the feeling I didn’t necessarily agree with what I had written when I had originally reviewed them.

I wanted to re-watch them and re-review many of them. One day I may do that. Here is the list:

I’m thinking of doing this again soon though maybe with some more specific criteria. We’ll see.

20 Movies: The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

I love stories like this. By “this” I mean stories within stories within stories. It’s really quite an accomplishment to achieve something like this on film. But The Saragossa Manuscript manages it.

I don’t recall when I first heard of this movie but it would have been about ten years ago, more or less. When I did, I tracked down a DVD copy. Believe me, I was glad I did.

In a number of ways, this is the perfect movie to wrap up my list of 20 movies.

The Saragossa Manuscript (1965)
directed by Wojciech Has

I won’t even attempt to summarize the plot of The Saragossa Manuscript (Rekpois Znaleziony w Saragossie). (See IMDB for a brief summary.) Rather, I’ll simply say I loved this movie and here’s why: narrative style.

The Saragossa Manuscript, set during the Napoleonic Wars, is told in the manner of and, to a lesser extent, The Canterbury Tales.

It is a story about stories that themselves contain stories (which also contain stories). In some ways, it’s a celebration of storytelling. In the world of written literature, this kind of narrative has a long history. Cinema, however, is a bit different.

Movies are less like novels than they are like short stories and novellas. In other words, a movie story needs to be told all at once (rather than over several days like a TV series or a book you set aside between chapters). Audiences simply can’t (and won’t) sit through 6 or 7 hours (or longer) of film. Nor would budgets allow for the creation of such a monster (Lord of the Rings aside). So films are more compressed (at least when they try to replicate a novel cinematically). Or, with an original script, less wide-ranging and more tightly focused.

Director Wojciech Has achieves a remarkable accomplishment, then, by giving us an engaging film that is wide-ranging and broad. Based on the novel of the same name, and definitely abridged (for the reasons mentioned above), his movie layers story upon story, each somehow touching upon the others, sometimes echoing them, sometimes growing out of and into them.

The result is a delight and, at a running time of 3 hours, one that never flags and loses our attention. Sometimes dark, sometimes bawdy, sometimes funny and sometimes dramatic, in a single film we’re taken into the strange and wonderful world of storytelling.

If there is a theme to it all (beyond the joy of telling stories), it may be the liberating power of fantasy and imagination.

The main character, very focused, disciplined and rigid (on the surface at least), and in denial of anything that doesn’t conform to empirical reality, goes on a journey that transforms him if only by opening him up to possibilities.

Admired by such names as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and (oddly) Jerry Garcia, The Saragossa Manuscript DVD is a clean, crisp version (taken in the context of its age and the fact it had to be restored).

Filled with stunning images and moving from the strange to the lascivious to the dramatic, this is a fabulous film and a definite must for anyone who loves stories and wishes to see how film is simply another branch of literature (albiet one with its own rules and traditions).

(Originally posted in 2003.)

See: 20 Movies – The List

20 Movies: Topper (1937)

This was a movie I knew absolutely nothing about when I picked it up. I watched it and found it was one of the funniest movies I had seen in ages. This surprised me because of its age. There are a lot of movies that amuse me but not many that actually make me laugh.

Comedy, of course, is a pretty subjective thing and what I find funny may not be shared by someone else. Still, it’s hard for me to imagine someone not laughing when they see Roland Young comes down those hotel stairs with ghostly assistance.

Poster for the movie Topper (1937).Topper (1937)
directed by Norman Z. McLeod

Fun, light and funny, the movie Topper is a delightful screwball comedy. It shares the style of, and comes a year or two after, the classic My Man Godfrey. Though not as good as that film, it excels in many ways, not the least of which is a very good cast.

While Cary Grant is in it (and playing an earlier version of a comedic type he would use later in His Girl Friday -– a self-involved man with the proverbial “heart of gold”), the real star is Constance Bennett.

The female lead in screwball comedies, like Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey, is usually wealthy and ditzy (though not unintelligent). She’s generally completely unconcerned with everything around her except for whatever her wandering imagination has focused on. In the case of Topper, Bennett plays this role though it’s complemented by Grant, as her husband, who is equally wealthy and ditzy.

In contrast to this, there is always the serious role – in this case Corso Topper, played by Roland Young. He’s a banker – dull, pining for a more exciting life, and under his wife’s thumb (played by Billie Burke – Glinda, the Good Witch of the North in The Wizard of Oz).

Cary Grant, Roland Young and Constance Bennett in scene from Topper (1937).It’s a traditional contrast – trickster characters (Bennett, Grant) and the dull oaf that needs to lighten up (a bit like Malvolio in Twelfth Night).

The conceit behind Topper is that the wealthy couple George and Marion Kirby are killed in a car accident (caused by Grant’s fun-loving foolishness). They become ghosts. As such, they determine they are stuck on earth, unable to move on to Heaven, until they have done a good deed. They decide Topper will be their good deed. They will take him out of his formal, proper shell and introduce him to life.

And so the fun begins.

There are a lot of wonderful moments in the film, including numerous sexually suggestive jokes that would likely not be allowed in later years. They are not overt, brazen moments (as you would likely get today), but deliciously suggestive – making them funnier and more sexy. Bennett plays her role with delightful coyness and flirtatiousness. The interaction with Roland Young as the hide-bound banker is great fun to watch.

(It’s a bit surprising some of this got past the Hays Code.)

Scene from Topper (1937).In Topper, you get to see Corso Topper come out of his shell and develop into the man he wants to be. (One of the best scenes, howlingly funny, is a drunk Topper being helped down stairs through a hotel lobby by invisible ghosts.)

You also see his wife develop from icy social climber to a more loving woman.

Screwball comedies are one of my favourite kinds of movies and Topper is a wonderful example of the genre. Recommended.

See: 20 Movies — The List

20 Movies: Kagemusha (1980)

This is a review I wrote a few years ago when I first picked up the DVD of Kagemusha and saw it for the second time, some twenty years after first seeing it. I think I might write something quite different today.

Somewhere on my computer I have a post about old black and white movies and “foreign” films and how, in certain ways, they involve cognitive barriers we have to get past to enjoy the movie. In the case of Kagemusha, it would be the language, Japanese (unless, of course, you speak Japanese). You don’t understand the language; you follow subtitles. That creates a barrier of sorts that you have to adjust to.

Kagemusha is one of the first movies of the subtitles kind that I saw and probably the first where the adjusting was almost non-existent. It was so visually brilliant I was enthralled from the start. Prior to Kagemusha, my movie experience was almost exclusively Hollywood. I’m still essentially a Hollywood formed viewer but it is probably Akira Kurosawa more than any other director that brought me into a world of film beyond the restrictive Hollywood definition.

Kagemusha (1980)
directed by Akira Kurosawa

I probably saw the movie Kagemusha first back in 1980 or 1981, when it was first released in North America with 20 minutes removed from the film Akira Kurosawa made. At the time, it knocked me for a loop.

It was the first Kurosawa movie I had seen. It was also the first samurai film I had seen. I don’t recall many other movies that so impressed me visually. Also, back then, my cinematic references were almost entirely western, as in Hollywood, with maybe a few Fellini films tossed in the mix.

So here was a colourful samurai movie in Japanese with English subtitles. Going in, I was a bit trepidatious. Going out, I was ga-ga.

That was more than twenty years ago. I’ve not seen Kagemusha since, not till last night when I watched the Criterion DVD – Kurosawa’s fully restored, 180 minute version in a transfer that is outstanding.

In those intervening twenty odd years I’ve seen many more kinds of film, many more samurai films and many more Akira Kurosawa films, including some of his non-samurai movies like Ikiru.

So the virgin quality of my first experience of Kagemusha is gone; it’s visual impact has been lessened in that sense. On the other hand, while no expert I’m still a bit more visually conversant than I was then, a bit more attentive and aware, not so impressed by something that looks “cool.” In that sense, the visual impact of the movie has been heightened.

The movie is about a thief, one condemned to die by crucifixion, but is spared because he looks so much like the leader of the Takeda clan, Shingen. It is Shingen’s brother who has discovered the thief’s resemblance, the same brother who has also been acting as Shingen’s double (a kagemusha) as a strategic tool in their conflict with other clans.

The thief does become a kagemusha for the Takeda leader but then Shingen is mortally wounded by a sniper. Before he dies, Shingen makes his final wish known – to not reveal the fact of his death until three years after he has died and to use that time to pull back and consolidate the Takeda position.

The thief then becomes a kagemusha for Shingen in earnest. He does it so well, he fools almost all and thus makes the other clans uncertain – fearful of Shingen and confused about his intentions.

As the film evolves, it becomes a meditation on the nature of power and of leaders while at the same time moving forward with a tragic, inexorable determination.

I’m struck by several things about Kagemusha (including how long the movie is). I suppose more than anything I’m taken by how controlled and deliberate it seems, how managed each shot is.

It begins with the very first scene. It’s a fairly lengthy one where the warrior Shingen and his brother (who has acted as Shingen’s double in the past) first meet the kagemusha (“double” or “shadow” – hence the film’s title sometimes being referred to as Kagemusha: the Shadow Warrior).

The scene is a single, static shot – no cuts, no camera movement. The actors sit Japanese style on the floor and are exactingly positioned to compose the shot. They make a set of three elements placed deliberately in the foreground – two (the brothers) are centre and left. Of the two, one (Shingen, in the middle) is slightly above. The third characer or element, the kagemusha, is off to the right, also below the middle element, Shingen.

This composition of three, or variations of it, occurs over and over throughout the movie. (If I recall correctly, we also see it used in the opening of his next movie, Ran.)

Other than simply liking this kind of composition, I’m not sure what significance it has for Kurosawa. For me, however, it communicates order and a sense of control, or at least its illusion.

It contrasts starkly with where Kurosawa’s film ends up taking us – the disorder of the battlefield after the conflict, and perhaps even the movie’s final image of the kagemusha being carried off by a current in the sea, that image composed in such a way as to severe the “canvas” against which the compositions of three were placed. (Alright, that last bit may be a stretch.)

In his later samurai movies (Kagemusha and Ran), Kurosawa takes a very painterly approach, and also a very deliberate one. As mentioned, the film struck me by its length. This is partly because it is long – three hours – but also because it begins slowly and (to repeat myself) deliberately as the beginning goes through a lengthy exposition.

But it’s not simply story exposition. It’s visual exposition too, those brilliant compositions of order. Interestingly, contrasted against the structural order of the way each scene is composed is the content, or story itself, which is somewhat confusing as we have several people playing, to some degree, one character – Shingen, the brother and the kagemusha. In the first half hour, it’s not difficult to get these confused.

For me, Kagemusha is a wonderful, if somewhat difficult movie. I think Ran is the better film. Kagemusha, however, is a film Kurosawa needed to make in order to get to Ran. Many of the visual ideas about composition and colour are first explored here. The movie is also an initial iteration of the theme of chaos and order, their roots and the illusions that attend the ideas of power, control and position.

Finally, Kagemusha is well worth seeing if only to sit back and let absolutely stunning images wash over you. This is one of the best looking movies I’ve seen.

See: 20 Movies — The List

20 Movies: His Girl Friday (1940)

I’ve always liked Howard Hawks and this movie, His Girl Friday, is one of my favourites from his long list of films. Apart from being a famously funny movie, it’s known for the incredibly rapid fire dialogue between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.

His Girl Friday (1940)
directed by Howard Hawks

It occurs to me that the best movies are one of two types. They are visually compelling, like the recent Hero, where there almost seems to be no need for dialogue. The images communicate almost everything.

Or, the movie relies heavily on great dialogue, the kind that is fun to hear and is engaging, and reveals everything about the characters.

A movie like 1995’s Get Shorty is a good example.

An older and better example, from 1940, is His Girl Friday, directed by Howard Hawks and starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It’s correctly considered a classic with its rapid fire dialogue and frenetic pace.

Based on the play The Front Page, director Hawks had his screenwriter Charles Lederer make some changes. The biggest change was to make one of the two main characters, Hildy Johnson, a woman (played by Russell) – the ex-wife of editor Walter Burns (Grant).

This created an added dimension to the dynamic of two newspaper people – one wanting to leave the business (Johnson) and the other trying to get her to stay.

It was no longer just a struggle between editor and reporter; it was a battle of the sexes, which Hawks loved putting on film.

Hildy is not only leaving the newspaper business; she’s engaged to be married the next day to her new beau, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy), a rather dull insurance guy. He’s the complete opposite of Grant’s flamboyant (and not to be trusted) Walter.

And Walter is determined to get Hildy back – both as his wife and as his reporter. He determines to do this by appealing to the journalist in her. Through guile and deceit, he’s going to try to hook her like a fish and reel her in. Fortunately for him, there is an execution scheduled at the prison of convicted murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen) who, Walter casually mentions to Hildy, may be innocent.

Being based on a play, His Girl Friday only has about three sets and, with the exception of the opening which uses a moving camera, most shots are static, the scenes occurring in sets where characters enter and leave like a train station platform.

But given the simplicity of the sets and the static nature of the cameras, it’s really quite amazing how fast everything is and how much energy is generated.

What’s marvellous about watching the give and take between Grant and Russell, apart from the speed, the quick witted lines and great, comic takes (particularly by Grant) is how, as we see them battle, we also see how clearly they are suited for each other and meant to be together.

Ralph Bellamy’s Bruce never has a chance.

65 years later, His Girl Friday still stands up. It’s as fast and funny today as it was then.

And with the world of recent comedies, it’s something of a relief to see characters who are smart and a film that can make us laugh without dropping its pants.

(This review was written around 2002-2003.)

See: 20 Movies – The List

20 Movies: Ben-Hur (1959)

Let’s go big; really big. Before the world of CGI, big spectacular stuff had to be done the hard way. (No, I’m not saying CGI is easy.) It had to be done on sets, on location and with real people in the scenes.

Watch Ben-Hur and try to imagine what was involved. Now try to imagine doing that and making a movie that was actually good, one with an interesting story and captivating characters, while you’re also trying to figure out how to manage all the extras, the technical end and all the other hoo-hah that must have gone into this.

It’s really quite remarkable. Ben-Hur is an example of Hollywood doing what Hollywood tends to do, big and bloated, and actually pulling it off.

Ben-Hur (1959)
directed by William Wyler

If ever a movie deserved the term “Hollywood spectacle,” it’s 1959’s Ben-Hur from director William Wyler. More than a few dollars went into the making of this one and, to a large extent, you see those dollars on the screen.

Remarkably, it manages to be a pretty good movie too.

Ben-Hur was made in late 50s early 60s period when spectacle was the big thing in for studios. The movies arrived with an air of their own importance, a degree of pomposity that is a little hard to take today. (It may have been hard to handle back then too.)

But Ben-Hur, despite a few slip-ups, largely justifies its pretentious elements.

Like many of those “important” movies of the period, it is quite long. Part of the length is due to beginning the film with an “overture,” an image held on screen for a few minutes while loud and stirring music plays. When finished, they finally start the opening credits.

Later, after a normal film would have concluded, it pauses again a few minutes for the “entre acte,” then proceeds for another hour or so to its finish.

Today, particularly on the home editions of the film, these are historical curiosities that do little else than clog the film.

At the time, they had some purpose but for the most part were elements of the period’s pretentiousness – they served to signal the artistic importance of the movie by suggesting they were to be viewed on the artistic level of opera and symphonies.

The movie itself (subtitled A Tale of the Christ) is drawn from an earlier film (1926’s Ben-Hur) and the original 1880 novel by Lew Wallace.

The Christ reference is due to the presence of the life of Christ as part of the story’s background – it occurs at the time of Jesus, who appears as a character a few times in the film and has an influence on Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur.

If you’ve seen Ridley Scott’s Gladiator then you have a good sense for what the story is about. Ben-Hur is a kind of well-off, aristocratic Jew at time they are living under the rule of Rome (the time of Christ). His best friend as a child was a young Roman, Messala (Stephen Boyd). The movie opens with the two boys as men, Messala returning as a Roman legionnaire to rule for Caesar over the Jews.

While still friends who love one another, the division between them of Jew and Roman quickly sets them against each other. Ben-Hur feels compelled to stand up for his people while Messala, somewhat drunk with the power Rome represents, is determined to impose his will on the Jews.

The acrimony between them leads Messala to use Ben-Hur as an example. Charges are brought against Ben-Hur and his family which Messala knows to be false. But he sees an opportunity to impose his will be using his friend.

Ben-Hur soon finds himself a prisoner of Rome, banished to the galleys of the Roman fleet.

He spends years as a galley slave until he saves the life of a Roman general, Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), who in gratitude takes him under his wing. Ben-Hur goes to Rome where he races in the arena as a charioteer.

He excels and wins honours. Arrius even adopts Ben-Hur as a son.

His freedom won, his position secured again, Ben-Hur returns home. He is focused on finding his mother and sister, and getting revenge on Messala. This leads to the great chariot race the movie is famous for, but the movie does not end there.

The final portion of the film is about Ben-Hur finding his family and struggling with his hatred of Messala and Rome within the context of the influence of Christ, particularly Christ’s final days (leading to the crucifixion).

It’s a sprawling story with numerous characters and threads. But by and large it hold together. Wyler manages an enormous task. If nothing else, Ben-Hur is a testimony and tribute to project management (as opposed to the later fiasco, Cleopatra).

Being large, it’s many movies at once: an historical costume drama, an action adventure, and a religious film. And each succeeds. Heston is perfect as Ben-Hur. With his granite face, he manages to communicate his character’s simmering rage at the injustice he has suffered.

In fact, the only real flaw in the film is the pretentiousness mentioned earlier. The movie probably could also us some editing to cut down its length but like a novel by Doestoyevsky, in some ways its charm is its lengthy, meandering narrative.

When people speak of movies and say such things as, “…That’s not how they use to make ’em,” Ben-Hur is an example of how Hollywood use to make them: big and large and visually riveting by virtue of its scope.

It’s worth bearing in mind when seeing Ben-Hur that there are no computers used here. What is on screen is what was on the set, including the great chariot race.

20 Movies: Destry Rides Again (1939)

I love movies that surprise me. When I picked up this one a few years ago I really had no idea what to expect. I had never even heard of it. What a fabulous surprise it was!

It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is: an entertaining western and comedy. But it succeeds wonderfully and is great fun to watch.

Destry Rides Again (1939)
directed by George Marshall

I think the best word to describe this movie is fun. Following the disappointment a few weeks ago of Five Card Stud, this western, Destry Rides Again, was a real treat.

Made in 1939, this is both a traditional Hollywood western in some respects, and in others a great spoof of those movies. At heart, it’s a comedy but, despite this, it also throws in the requisite western scenes. Often, however, there’s a certain tongue in cheek quality to them.

The story is pure western: the town of Bottleneck (great name!) is lawless. There’s a nasty land baron trying to seize the necessary lands to complete his control of the area. Once his, he can charge others inflated prices to cross those lands.

The town sheriff, trying to impose some law, is shot and killed, his body disposed of in such a way that it won’t be found. The corrupt town mayor then appoints the town drunk as sheriff.

Now there is no law in Bottleneck. But … The town drunk sobers up.

He takes his bogus position seriously and therefore sends for Destry (Jimmy Stewart), the son of another famous lawman.

Destry arrives and the fun really gets going. He’s not what anyone expects.

He’s calm, relatively mild-mannered, doesn’t wear guns … doesn’t even like guns. And of course, this sets up the final scenes when (as we can expect) he finally is pushed to a point where he does put on guns (a similar situation to Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider).

In the meantime, the filmmakers and the audience have loads of fun, including a cat fight between an angry wife and the town floozy, Marlene Dietrich.

In Destry Rides Again, Jimmy Stewart is perfect – he is so Jimmy Stewart. His famous halting pattern of speech is used comedically to suggest a kind of slyness. It shows the awareness and intelligence behind his character’s meek exterior so we know this quality is part of the character’s act.

As an audience, we realize there is more to him than the meek exterior we see.

Dietrich is also good, though the name Frenchy doesn’t quite fit her German accent … but I suppose that’s quibbling.

Unlike some parodies that simply mock a style, films that choose to take a kind of “looking down the nose” approach, Destry Rides Again seems to love westerns and love using the style to have fun. And it works brilliantly. It’s a movie that succeeds as a western and as a comedy. Ultimately, it is simply a lot of fun to watch.

Highly recommended. (See also: Along Came Jones)

See: 20 Movies – The List

Destry Rides Again (bar scene)

20 Movies: Ikiru (1952)

I know people who can’t watch a movie like Ikiru because it’s in black and white and because it is “foreign.” I confess I have to bite my tongue when I hear such things because, while on one hand I understand what they are saying, I find it frustrating that they allow themselves to miss something as wonderful as this movie simply because they can’t give it a chance.

Ikiru isn’t fast paced. It isn’t a spectacle of colour. It isn’t in English; it’s sub-titled. It’s a slow paced meditation in black and white and in Japanese.

It is also one of the best movies ever made.

Ikiru (1952)
directed by Akira Kurosawa

You would think a movie about someone dying of cancer would be a tremendously depressing film but as Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru shows, it needn’t be.

This is because he is not at all concerned with dying. His theme is life, just as the more recent movie by Denys Arcand is – Les Invasions Barbares (The Barbarian Invasions). But this isn’t to say Kurosawa backs away from the unpleasant fact of cancer.

Not only does he not back away from it, he embraces it – almost gleefully as he sets up the story of his main character, Kanji Watanabe (Shinichi Himori).

The movie opens with a shot of Watanabe’s x-ray and an almost officious narrator describing Watanabe’s condition – his current life (which is pretty much nonexistent) and medical condition (dying of stomach cancer).

It opens almost as if God were telling the story of Job.

We’re then shown the pathetic life of Watanabe. He’s a government bureaucrat lost amid the bureaucracy, his goal, like the system’s goal, to do nothing. He has been living this way for thirty years.

Then it’s revealed to him he has cancer and has less than a year to live. It’s interesting that, just as Watanabe in his job attempts to do nothing and keep everything steady and status quo, the doctors refuse to tell him the truth of his condition. Why disturb the waters when there is nothing he can do about it? Better he remain ignorant of his condition.

But he does find out, from another patient, and panics.

In an almost frightened stupor, he stumbles out into the street in what I found to be one of the most striking moments in the movie. It is very quiet as Watanabe enters the street. Then, just as a truck goes by, a cacophony of street sounds erupts.

It suggests that the grim news he’s received has wakened the slumbering Watanabe and he is suddenly aware of life – chaotic and noisy and endlessly vibrant.

His fear now begins to coalesce from a general, instinctive fear of death to something more specific – a fear of never having lived.

Watanabe’s journey is now underway as he tries to discover what it means to live and how this is done. Initially he meets his first guide on his journey, a writer who sees the poetry in Watanabe and his situation. He leads him through a night journey that focuses on the superficial aspects of life – drink, sex, partying – but none of this really resonates for Watanabe, at least not in a profound way. It simply opens his eyes more to the essence of living he has missed.

His next guide is a young, vibrant woman flush with excitement of youth. She takes him on more of a daylight journey where Watanabe finally begins coming out of his depressed stupor. He begins to laugh and enjoy being alive.

And this leads him to his final stage where he reconciles with his condition and decides what it is he must do in order to feel he has lived.

This is where Kurosawa suddenly shifts his focus. He cuts to a later time, after Watanabe’s death, where we see others recalling him and trying to come to an understanding of his final days.

Characters have a range of interpretations, many of which are self-serving, but as this part of the film progresses an image of Watanabe begins to cohere until we are finally left with the essence of Watanabe, the essence of life (which the word ikiru means, “to live”).

While the film’s focus is on Watanabe, Kurosawa does one of the things he loved to do which is to show story from different perspectives (such as in Rashoman). We see Watanabe but we also see how others perceive him, usually erroneously, usually from a self-centred perspective – such as his son and daughter-in-law, or his fellow workers.

Kurosawa also uses sound to great effect in Ikiru, associating life with a cacophony of vibrancy (such as the entering the street scene mentioned earlier). There is also the song Watanabe sings and occurs several times in the film, beginning, “Life is brief …”

The song is sung twice by Watanabe – first in a bar in a gloomy scene where the theme of “life is brief” negatively presented, as a reason for sorrow. The second time is toward the end of the film, after he has accomplished what he set out to do and he’s seen on a swing set. Here, there is a sense of joy to the song. The contrasting versions of the same song suggests life involves making choices and those choices determine whether the quality of life.

Ikiru is a tremendously life affirming movie made by one of cinema’s great masters, Akira Kurosawa. It makes a stark contrast to some of the tremendous samurai films he made. It has a gentleness to it that is disarming while at the same time maintaining the unflinching quality of vision constant through Kurosawa’s films.

As others have mentioned, this is a movie that should be seen every few years or so. Like the best stories, it prompts us to look at the world around us and assess our own lives and, perhaps as we get older, speculate on how much of Watanabe is within us.

20 Movies: Chinatown (1974)

The problem with listing these 20 movies is that I’m building a list of movies I want to see again. But I guess that’s not such a bad thing.

With Chinatown, we get an enthralling mystery and one of the best examples of what a strong script will do for a movie.

Chinatown (1974)
directed by Roman Polanski

Chinatown, a wonderful movie, is an example of what a script can do for a film.

It’s like finding the right music at a party. Someone feels compelled to dance, then another and another.

Soon, everyone’s up dancing. And dancing well.

In Chinatown, just about every artist is dancing their damnedest because the script has pulled them onto the floor. Director, actors, lighting people, costume designers … they’re all performing at their highest level.

It’s Robert Towne’s script that has done this.

One of Roman Polanski’s great talents is creating mood and few films do it so well and so quickly as the opening of Chinatown. I can’t think of many movies I would watch simply to see the opening credits but the look and the marvellous music of the introductory credit sequence is just so good with its period lettering and sepia tone (which carries through the movie), that you’re hooked even before the movie has presented its opening shot.

Modelling itself on the film noir style (particularly films like Howard Hawks’ movie The Big Sleep), the film’s mystery is created by presenting the story through the eyes of detective Jake Gittes, the Jack Nicholson character. We know what he knows, we’re puzzled by what he’s puzzled by, we’re misled by what misleads him. In fact, just as Bogart was in just about every scene of The Big Sleep, Nicholson is in just about every scene in Chinatown, either as a participant or as an observer.

But the film isn’t dependent on Nicholson. Faye Dunaway is perfectly cast as the enigmatic, and troubled, Evelyn Mulwray. It’s hard to imagine anyone else but Dunaway in that role. The movie is also bolstered by brilliant supporting performances, particularly John Huston as Noah Cross.

I also love the leisurely way the movie unfolds. Unlike the quick cuts and thrumming soundtrack of most current movies, Polanski takes his time. And it works so well. This may be the reason why it works. You’re seduced by the mood, and become involved with the characters, and thus the story.

Chinatown is a great, fascinating movie that illustrates the importance of beginning with a great script.

See: 20 Movies – The List

Chinatown (the trailer)