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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: The Ascent

The Ascent

I'm going to steal from this movie. I don't think there's a higher compliment. That doesn't mean it's my new Criterion favorite, Alambrista and An Angel at My Table still hold that honor. But this one is up there. And it has a few elements that are incredible and one moment that impressed me so much that I know I'm going to use it; somehow, some way.

The Ascent is a 1977 film made in the then Soviet Union by Larisa Shepitko who tragically died shortly after making this film. It tells the story of two Russian partisan fighters during World War II who get cut off from the rest of their unit. They are captured and each makes a critical choice.

As I said there are some elements that are outstanding. In the early going, the shots of the Russian countryside in winter are astonishing. This is a black and white film and the stark white backdrop is used to great effect. Often the two characters Sotnikov and Rybak look like they are lost in some kind of limbo. And in a way they are.

Early on Rybak seems like the stronger character. Sotnikov is sick and later wounded. Rybak is healthy and pretty clever. That changes after they are captured. Sotnikov stays resolute and endures tortures that even impress his captors. Rybak keeps trying to weasel out of his predicament. He keeps telling Sotnikov that if they tell the Germans and their collaborator friends what they want to hear, they'll let their guard down and they can escape.

This leads to the next great moment. Sotnikov refuses to compromise. There are several innocent people in the cell with them who will be executed along with them. Sotnikov confesses to killing a German soldier and asks that he be killed and the others released. The Germans refuse. Rybak finally breaks down and asks to join the "police" a group of Russian collaborators. The Germans accept. And then we come to the Ascent of the title. Sotnikov and the other prisoners are lead up to the place of execution. The scene has almost a religious feel to it. Sotnikov is a committed communist but his eventual execution is treated as a martyrdom. It's incredible how deeply religious this film and Andrei Rublev are even though they were made in the Soviet Union.

Then we come to the scene that I am going to steal. Sotnikov and the other prisoners are executed. Rybak joins the rest of the police as they return to the barracks. In the final scene Rybak sees the gate to the barracks is open. Freedom is beckoning him. But he can't move. Then it becomes clear, he was never waiting to escape. He was just trying to live another day. And now he can never be free because he will never risk his life to chance freedom. His moral decision to value his own skin over everything else now has him trapped. It is a brilliant piece of film making and also a keen observation on the human character. That's another thing that reminds me of Andrei Rublev.

Obviously I think this film would be a great template for filmmakers to study both as directors and writers. The story is morally complex yet simple, direct and riveting. The movie has tremendous style and it's a shame the director died after making this one.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Arrest Bulldog Drummond

Arrest Bulldog Drummond

And we're at another series. This one from Britain and later Paramount. Arrest Bulldog Drummond is one of the middle adventures in the series. It centers around Drummond, a wealthy World War I veteran who takes on the enemies of Britain with the help of his manservant Tenny and his friend Algy.

I was a little surprised to see the Bulldog Drummond series in the Criterion Collection. Unlike Zatoichi this series doesn't have the same level of craft. Zatoichi may be a programmer but it was always a gorgeous programmer. The Drummond series, especially this entry is a B picture through and through. It clocks in at under an hour in length and it's clear the studio didn't put a lot of money into it.

On a previous review I mentioned a show called Matinee at the Bijou, a PBS series that recreated the old movie going experience of the 1930s, somewhat similar to what TV Land does when they recreate blocks of TV from a '70s or '80s complete with commercials. Matinee would recreate the experience of going to the theater and catching a cartoon, a short subject, a B movie and a main feature. The B movies were a lot like Arrest Bulldog Drummond, short, cheap and full of energy. In many ways these B movies were the forerunners of the hour long TV series.

The story concerns enemy agents who have stolen a ray gun that can cause explosives and ammunition to spontaneously combust. This isn't as far fetched as some of the other devices of the time period. Microwaves make it almost feasible. Even for a 56 minute long movie there's a lot of padding, much of it having to do with some cheap laughs at the expense of Tenny and Algy or some romance concerning Drummon's long suffering girlfriend Phyllis. Most of the budget and fight scenes are saved for the very end. The finale is exciting. Tenny and Algy are suspended above a slime pit while the bad guys prepare to blow up Bulldog in a lighthouse full of explosive. It has a good comic book feel to it. That's because Bulldog Drummond and his pulp fiction ilk eventually became the comic book heroes like Batman. The only difference was Batman wears a cape and mask and he's still a viable movie property. The reason is Bulldog's world was every bit as fanciful as Batman's. But with Batman the creators were able to embrace the fantasy and turn it into a strength.

I should also mention that the Drummond series, especially the original pulp novels, are notorious for being anti-foreigner and antisemitic. Fortunately This entry is mostly free of such sentiments.

Overall it was a fun experience. The ending had some excitement and even some of the humor was funny. I can only recommend it for people who are truly interested in 1930s B pictures. The Zatoichi series I can recommend as movies. This one is more of a historical curiosity.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: The Army

The Army

Now here's an experience. The Army is a Japanese propaganda film from 1944. If you're a film buff or you watch TCM a lot you've probably seen plenty of American movies from the '40s that were overflowing with patriotism. That didn't always stop the makers from producing entertaining and thoughtful films. They Were Expendable is a classic through and through. But a lot of movies from that period weren't that deft and a lot of them are too heavy handed for audiences. And we're not just talking about today's PC obsessed world. Many of these films fell into obscurity immediately after the war ended.

Then there are the films made by the Axis powers. Triumph of the Will is well known. I knew the Japanese film industry continued to function during the war but I'd never seen films from that era until I started this project. I rather enjoyed the 47 Ronin made in 1941. It is a classic tale that can be enjoyed today if you're a fan of Mizoguchi. The Army is of a different stripe. For most of it's run time it is a tub thumping endorsement of the militarist government of Japan. The film pleads with its audience to resist the Allies to the last man. Unfortunately that policy would have a great impact on the decision to unleash the atomic bomb.It's hard to watch this film without feeling a twinge. It's like seeing a drunk getting behind the wheel of a car knowing that he's going to kill himself in a crash.

The story follows three generations of the same family as Japan moves from a isolated feudal country to a modern nation at war with Britain, America and the Soviet Union. The story's main focus is on a father and his sickly and weak son. The mother and mother try to toughen up their son so he can be a soldier in the army. This is portrayed as being the highest honor. The mother states in the film that parents only watch over their children for the Emperor until they are ready to "give them back" as in send them off to fight and die in the wars. It's a chilling idea.

The film constantly uses Japanese history and tradition as an excuse for war. The father is a rabid chauvinist who insists that Japanese fighting spirit will over come all odds. That's the default message when a country is losing a war as Japan clearly was in 1944. The odd thing is the film manages to get some humor out of this character. The father is too combative and gets into arguments with his friends and coworkers about history.

What's fascinating is that this film was made by Keisuke Kinoshita who would make Apostasy just four years later. There it's Japan's tradition that are the problem, not the unquestioned truth as they are in this movie.

Despite the heavy handed propaganda the movie does end with a powerful sequence. The mother has stayed behind to care for the shop. But when she hears the music she rushes out into the street. The army is marching through the streets on its way to the front lines. The mother desperately searches for her son. She sees him at the very last and they exchange a look. There is no doubt that this will be the last time they will see each other. Somehow Kinoshita got that shot in there.

I really recommend The Army unless you're interested in propaganda films, Japanese film history or the career of Keisuke Kinoshita. The film has some great moments both as a film and a story but it was made to deliver a message. And the message drowns out the rest of the film.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Ariel


With this we head into the Great White North...of Europe...which would be Finland. 1988's Ariel is by Aki Kaurismaki. This is the first film of his we've come across in the Criterion Collection. He has a signature style that is evident from the first few scenes. To me, watching this film was like revisiting the late '80s early '90s film world. It wasn't just the fashions and music though that was a large part of it. There's a style to the films of that period. This is when pop culture really started to become pervasive and I think that had a lot to do with the visual style. The main hero in Ariel dresses like one of the Reservoir Dogs even though the two films are nothing alike. But both Kaurismaki and Tarantino were looking back at old movie stories. They both approached this material from a different angle.

Ariel opens with a mine in the north of Finland being blown up and sealed. That means a lot of jobs are vanishing from this small town. The main character Taisto is told by his father, just before the man commits suicide in a diner restroom, to get out of town and find his fortune. The only thing left to Taisto is a convertible with a top that he doesn't know how to operate. So Taisto drives to the big city, with the top down, in Finland in winter. Here is where Kaurismaki's style really shines. Everything is muted and underplayed. There's no histrionics. The scenes are filmed in long takes. The actors barely emote. They're almost stereotypes of the depressed, stoic Scandinavian. What Kaurismaki is doing is contrasting that stoicism with situations that demand an emotional outburst; like for example driving with top down through a snowstorm. I know I'd be a lot more animated.

Taisto's arrives in the big city but is promptly robbed. He manages to shack up with a single mother and her son but then gets thrown in jail for ironically mugging the man who robbed him. Inside he teams up with a convicted murderer. Together they bust out of prison. But in order to get the money they need to escape the country they have to pull off a a robbery for two very untrustworthy crooks. okay maybe this is a lot more like Reservoir Dogs than I let on. Through it all Taisto and those around him stay subdued. Taisto doesn't even show emotion when he tosses a prison guard off a walkway. There are also bits of dark humor, like the solution to the convertible's top. Finally Taisto and his new family sail away to freedom as a Finnish version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow plays over the end credits.

Ariel was a wild ride and a great discovery. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of Kaurismaki's films. They are worth while studying for any directing student. The script as you might guess is a little too subdued. It's very execution dependent and that's something beginning writers should avoid.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Apostasy


Staying in Japan, Apostasy is by director Keisuke Kinoshita and like Apart From You it's about the struggles of the common man rather than the samurai. But those struggles are no less heroic.

This film is really fascinating compared with another Kinoshita film we'll be visiting in just a little while, The Army. That one, made during World War II treats Japanese tradition as sacred and unquestionable. Apostasy made just three years after the war ended takes the opposite approach. Here it's those traditions that are at the root of the problem.

The story takes place in 1901 shortly after Japan's government had done away with the centuries old cast system. But the caste system remains ingrained in the hearts of many. The lowest of the castes is called "villagers" in the movie though it seems like it's closer to the untouchables caste of India. The hero is a teacher at a school who hides his own lower caste origins. He begins to hate himself, especially after meeting a fearless reformer who doesn't hide his humble origins. The story ends with an emotional confession. The teacher leaves his position and heads to the city to try and keep the flame of reform alive.

I have to admit the story didn't captivate me at first. There is now of near half century of films with similar themes from all over the world. Some good. Some bad. But this is a very early example. And it has some incredible moments. There's a scene where the hero collapses in his room consumed with self loathing. He glances at this own hands. No words are spoken but the meaning is very clear.

The movie has some great tracking shots. One of the stand outs is when the teacher is led to the town meeting that will determine his fate. The camera looks down on the characters as they come out of an inn and move down the street. The angle is high. The teacher is small in the frame and looks powerless. The tracking shot goes on for a while extending the journey. It creates a sense of impending doom for the character. The camera switches to a medium shot of the teacher and his friend. He clutches his friend's hand for support.

Japan is proving to be a treasure trove for the film student. Directors can study the technique and style of this film. Writers can look at how to write a story about social issues without losing the central character and his dilemma.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Apart From You

Apart From You

This is the first silent movie we've come across. Apart From You was made in 1933 when most American films had fully converted to talking pictures and had conquered a few of the technical problems that had made early talkies so stiff. Apart From You was clearly intended to be a silent film unlike 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front which was released in both silent and sound versions. There are some techniques that simply wouldn't work with the addition of sound. Sound conversion was still a new technology so it's not that unusual for some artists to hold out.

This film is directed by Mikio Naruse. I first encountered him in college and I've grown to appreciate his work more. Whereas the samurai movie focuses on the warrior class of Japan, Naruse chronicled the plight of the underclass and particularly women. The story this time concerns Kikue, an aging geisha whose teenage son acts out because he's ashamed of his mother's profession.

This is a silent movie that often doesn't look or feel like a silent film. Most of the silent movies remembered today are a bit more stylized. There were realistic silent films in both America and other countries. This is one of the realistic ones. The lower class apartments look like lower class apartments. The son at one point hides the holes in his socks by painting his toes black. The performances are also very subdued and realistic. Kikue's son is introduced in a very simple manner. The character and the performance feel ahead of their time. Except for the lack of sound the scene would still work today.

There are, as I stated, some techniques that could only be used in a silent movie. The most obvious is the use of the camera zoom to emphasize characters in conflict with each other. It's used every time two characters give each other a hard look. It's a little bit like tension lines in a manga.

This is a very good, short film that clocks in at just over an hour. Naruse is a director worth studying and his stories are simple but emotionally effective.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Antonio Gaudi

Antonio Gaudi

Another documentary. This one a bit unusual. Antonio Gaudi is largely free of any dialogue or voice overs. There are only a few stray bits here and there. Mostly the camera just moves through Gaudi's buildings that look ultra modern even by today's standards. It's hard to imagine the impact they made when they were built.

Gaudi's work is magical. There's no other word for it. Looking at some of his buildings I saw giant kaiju monsters from Japan and armorer warriors from Middle Earth. But Gaudi pre-dates all of that. Today we have art inspired by fantasy. Gaudi's work is art that inspired fantasy.

There's not much else to say here. This an almost purely visual and cinematic experience. It's much more unusual documentary than And the Pursuit of Happiness.

The director is Hiroshi Teshigahara and the few spoken words not in Spanish are in Japanese. This proves art, especially great art is a universal language that can excite and inspire people from across the globe. I think this is one of the best documentaries around. Directors should see this and learn that there are alternatives to the "talking heads" style.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Anne-Marie


Well you can't please everyone. I'm sure there's some reason Anne-Marie was included in the Criterion Collection but that reason isn't apparent to me. This is my least favorite of the Criterion Collection that I've seen so far. I'd watch Age of the Medici again before I sat through this one.

Part of the reason is I did have some expectations here. I'd never heard of director Raymond Bernard before and I'm not that excited about checking out his other work. But the screenplay was by Antoine de Saint-Exupery who wrote The Little Prince. You'd expect something more than just a programmer from a guy like that. But that's what Anne-Marie is, a programmer.

Anne-Marie tells the story of a young female engineer who wants to become a pilot. A group of experienced pilots take her under their wing. But when her romance with an inventor gets in the way of her studies, her mentors devise a way to pry the two apart. It's a real accomplishment to take an idea that inherently feminist and still manage to come across as sexist. Anne-Marie can do anything the boys can do as long as it isn't really hard. At least that's the impression I took away. But the problem isn't just the sexual politics. I called it a programmer and that's what it is. Years and years ago my local PBS station used to run something Matinee at the Bijou. They used to play movies from the 1930s that even TCM stayed away from them. You could count the number of sets on one hand with fingers to spare. And the stories were tame. As bad as things got everything would be right with the world in little over an hour. Maybe I'm being a little unfair to this movie but that's what this is in its heart and soul.

The lead is played by Annabella who would costar with James Cagney a decade later in 13 Rue Madeleine and she is radiant in this film. That's really the only thing I can recommend about this one.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina

Here is the first piece of classic literature (not counting the 47 Ronin which is a classic but doesn't show up on most high school reading lists), Anna Karenina is from 1948 and features Vivien Leigh as Anna.

Leigh is the main attraction here. This film came nearly a decade after Gone With the Wind and she still has that undeniable "it" factor about her. This is perfect for the character since Anna is supposed to be so beguiling that she instantly captures the attention of her lover Count Vronsky.

The other main reason to watch this movie is Ralph Richardson, one of the best actors of the '40s as Karenin. Richardson was amazing in The Heiress made just a year later and he brings the same intensity to the role here. It's not an easy part to play. Karenin is technically the antagonist but the story is a lot more complicated than that. Richardson gives the character the needed humanity.

The movie was directed by Julien Duviver who also made the classic French movie Pepe le Moko. The movie has fine cinematography and editing. The beautiful production design is probably attributable to the film's producer Alexander Korda. Korda is a fascinating figure. He's seems very modern now in the way he crafted big budget pictures that either entertained and/or garnered critical praise.

Korda's films always fit their material, Four Feathers was sweeping and romantic, Thief of Baghdad and The Jungle Book were magical, and this version of Anna Karenina is taut and very intimate. Tolstoy's novel is an epic but it's an epic about ordinary people. It opens with one of the most famous lines in history "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Anna is not some romanticized heroine and Karenin is not some beastly villain. This story is the exact opposite of Titanic. Karenin truly loves Anna in his own way and at several points tries to find a way to make her happy. He only turns on her after he's been, in his opinion, used. And Anna very realistically becomes more paranoid and unstable after she finds herself adrift. In the end she is utterly alone with no prospects left for love or happiness.

This contrasts greatly with the recent adaptation starring Keira Knightley which had a very flamboyant and stylized presentation. I haven't seen it so I can't comment fully. But watching this version makes me wonder how it would work. The essence of the story is realism.

The directing is tight and very classical as is the story. It's an excellent template for those looking to adapt novels. Tolstoy's original is very long and this film clocks in at under two hours.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: An Angel at My Table

An Angel at My Table

This one along with Alambrista! is one of my new absolute favorites. I had heard of An Angel at My Table before. I'd seen the excellent trailer at a college movie society. But I'd never seen it before and I probably never would have seen it if I hadn't undertaken this little blogging challenge. This is one of those movies that make the whole experience worth it.

An Angel at My Table was directed in 1990 by Jane Campion and retells the life story of author Janet Frame. Right from the start the movie captured my attention and my heart. I love everything about this film starting with the infectious theme music based on Robert Burns' Duncan Gray. The film opens with Janet (or Jean) as a pudgy child with a shock of curly red hair. She is incredibly shy and nervous around other people. In the very first scenes she steals some money from her dad's pocket so she can buy gum. But she doesn't keep it for herself. She's gives it all away to the kids in her class. You quickly understand this is a desperate attempt to make friends. The scheme is ruined by an uncaring teacher and poor Janet goes from Ms Popular to Ms Pariah instantly. But Janet has a natural gift for word play and even as a youngster she attracts praise for her writing.

Janet grows to become awkward teenager and later and awkward woman. Her social anxiety is misdiagnosed as schizophrenia and she spends 8 years getting electric shocks! She's about to have a brain operation but fortunately recognition of her writing saves her. She then spends years putting her life back together, a process that takes her far and wide. In the end she's with her family and has found a safe place where she can be herself.

This brief description doesn't do the story justice. It's a deep and rich story. One element I'll touch on is Janet's relationship with her sisters. For a person with as much social anxiety as Janet, family is one of the few safe havens. Janet is fortunate to have three sisters whose closeness is summarized in a brilliant scene where they are all sharing a bed. That's what makes losing her sisters all the more tragic. Her older sister Myrtle drowns in the town swimming pool. Immediately getting the news Janet's younger sister Isabel arrives still damp. The family hugs her. The scene is naturalistic but it becomes a chilling foreshadow of Isabel's own drowning years later.

Janet is played by three different actresses. Kerry Fox, deservedly garnered much of the attention but the other actresses who played Janet Alexia Keogh and Karen Fergusson also deserve heaps of praise. As for Fox she was amazing. It's stunning to see her in this and realize that this movie was made four years before she costarred with Chris Eccleston and Ewan McGregor in Shallow Grave.

This is a film that should be devoured by up and coming directors. It is a marvelous accomplishment. The writing is a little episodic but what I love about this story and what I hope other writers pick up on is how this film treats artistic accomplishment. Perhaps Janet's writing saved her from having a bit of brain removed but throughout this film she remains pretty ambivalent about her life as an artist. She gets published which is a big deal to some people but she doesn't really feel different herself. It doesn't help at all with her personal troubles. And when a publisher does start throwing compliments at her she doesn't know how to receive it. Writing is what she does. She doesn't do it for the money or ride through town in a Rolls Royce. This script is very wise about art. It is important but it's not the only thing.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: And the Pursuit of Happiness

And the Pursuit of Happiness

And this is the first documentary on the list. And the Pursuit of Happiness is directed by Louis Malle, the famed French director.

Happiness is about the immigrant experience in America circa 1986. Malle himself was an immigrant. The biggest impression I received was how little things had changed since the late '80s. The same problems still plague us. In many ways this looks like it was made recently with the exception of the '80s fashions.

There's one telling moment when an illegal Mexican immigrant meets an official at the border as he's being sent back. They shake hands, talk. The man says he will cross the border again. At this moment the immigrant question is larger than ever. There are scenes of Muslim immigrants and their adjustments. Seeing these scenes one has to wonder what we've learned in the last two decades plus. Has anything changed?

One of the immigrants featured is the family of the former dictator of Nicaragua, General Samosa. In a weird scene the General's nephew plays with his kids in an American suburb. He looks just like any other dad in America flying a kite with his son.

Malle doesn't put any stylish flourishes in this script. The director's style in this case is present through the choices he makes. Malle lets the humanity of his subjects shine through. It's refreshing to see this old school documentary, back before everyone want to be a reality star or a youtube sensation. These people simply say how they feel. There's no marketing strategy behind it.

But times have changed and documentary reflects the time it was made. Still this movie is worth checking out to see how things have changed. And how they haven't.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Androcles and the Lion

Androcles and the Lion

And we're in Geroge Bernard Shaw territory. I confess I know less about Shaw than I should and I've only ever seen his work as movies, most notably Major Barbara which we'll get to eventually. At first I found it hard to get into Androcles and the Lion but it won me over by the end.

The story follows the famous tale of Androcles who was thrown to the lions. Fortunately it was a lion whom he had helped previously by taking a thorn out of its paw. At first this movie is all over the place. In the beginning it's a lot like other DeMille inspired epics like Quo Vadis, full of piety and short on real history. But then it switches gears to wacky comedy with Alan Young as Androcles. Young would go on to play Wilbur on Mr. Ed and would voice Scrooge McDuck on Duck Tales.

The film also stars Victor Mature who often acts like he's in an entirely different movie.

There's also Thurston Howell III, Jim Backus in this one playing a Roman centurion and the Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lancaster playing Androcles' shrewish wife. Robert Newton steals the show as he often does. The actor best known for playing Long John Silver in Disney's Treasure Island was also in Major Barbara and he has a stand out role here.

Jean Simmons rounds out the famous faces as the beautiful Christian who falls for Mature's Roman officer.

At first it seems like this will be another sword and sandal, faith affirming movie like The Ten Commandments but that's not where it ends up. I should have known from Major Barbara but Shaw has some very different ideas when it comes to faith and God. And those get expressed. The Christians aren't all holy martyrs. Simmons' character has some moments of profound doubt about everything she believes in. Robert Newton's character is a holy mad man. He has some great scenes with Young.

The ending has a lot of surprises and some very funny slapstick. It would be a shame to ruin all the surprises. This isn't a great movie. Often it look like a TV set from the 1950s. But writers should have a field day analyzing this script. So many characters and ideas ping pong off each other in the second and third acts. This was a an unexpected bit of fun.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: Andrei Rublev

Andrei Rublev

One of the benefits of doing this project is that you get to see how different films tackle the same or similar subject matter. A while ago I saw Age of the Medici by Rossellini. I wouldn't call it my favorite of the Criterion Collection. Now I come to Andrei Rublev by Andrei Trakovsky. The two projects cover similar subject matter and time periods. Medici was about the city of Florence in the 15th Century as it became a base for the Renaissance and the Humanist movement. Andrei Rublev is about the 15th Century Russian religious painter of the same name. Like Age of the Medici, Andre Rublev has a strong theme of the human spirit and how artistic expression is vital to that spirit. Unlike Medici, which had some strengths but some obvious flaws, Andrei Rublev was fascinating from beginning to end. This movie has a beating human herat at it's center.

This is the longest single film in the Criterion Collection I've reviewed so far yet every minutes held my attention. The story starts with a man taking a hot air balloon ride in the 15th Century. This is a wild and incredible sequence. It has nothing to do with the plot but it expresses the theme of man escaping from the boundaries set by society. The film then follows the career of Andrei Rublev one of Russia's great religious painters. He rises to prominence and expresses a very humanist view of the bible and the role art should play in people's lives. His faith is shattered when an army sacks the city's he's in. He becomes a recluse but finally is inspired by a young bell maker to return to art.

As I said this film isn't just about ideas it's about people. Early on Andrei and his fellow monks come upon a jester entertaining the peasants with a bawdy song, a frenetic tune that sounds almost modern. But the man is soon arrested by soldiers after being denounced by Kiril one of Andrei's fellow monks. Kiril is a fascinating character. His jealousy of Andrei leads him to abandon the monastery. Years later after confessing all of his misdeeds Kiril still smirks when Andrei remains silent. Another fantastic is Boriska the young bell maker who sets out to create a magnificent bell despite a lack of experience. At first he is obsessive, driven and arrogant. But as the project nears completion he shrinks. Finally he breaks down in Andrei's arms. He had been faking his knowledge of the craft all this time. Even his success can't wash away all the tension he's felt up until that moment. It's a wonderful scene.

Andrei Rublev is also alive visually. It's black and white but some of the images are stunning in their detail. Grass, branches and sea plants are seen through water. The attack on the city of Vladimir is horrific. There's a pagan ritual in the woods where dozens of naked people dash out into the river holding torches. The whole film is a visual feast to go along with its incredible characters and powerful ideas. It's alive in a way Age of the Medici isn't.

This film is a must see for young directors. Writers should be warned that the story is a little too episodic. But the fine characters, especially Kiril and Boriska are worth studying.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Blogging the Hulu Plus Criterion Collection: ...And God Created Woman

...And God Created Woman

This is an odd entry for the Criterion Collection. It is significant in the history of popular culture but as a movie And Created Woman hasn't enjoyed the best reputation among film snobs. At best it's a guilty pleasure.

The plot is pretty simple. Juliete Hardy (played by Brigitte Bardot) is a vivacious and sexy 19 year old living on the coast of France. She drives all the local men wild including millionaire developer Carradine (played by Stromberg himself Curt Jurgens.) Juliete is in love with the dashing Antoine, but he only sees her as a one night stand. Juliete is an orphan and her foster parents threaten to send her back to the orphanage. Desperately in love Antoine's brother Michel offers to marry Juliete so she can stay in the town she loves. She accepts though she has her doubts.

Juliete makes the effort and finds herself falling in love Michel. But a deal with Carradine brings Antoine back to town and things take a turn for the... well a little odd really. The ending involves Juliete dancing a mambo. From the look on Michel's face you'd think she was attending a Larry Flynt pool party.

Strangely enough I found something of value in the much maligned story. I think I get what director Roger Vadim was going for. All the character types of a typical romance are present. Juliete is the heroine who is helpless before fate. The dashing true love, Antoine. The sinister villain Carradine and the brother who marries the girl but can't win her love. At least that's how it's supposed to go. But here everything is twisted around. Antoine, if anything is the villain here. This all starts because he sees Juliete as a one night stand instead of a serious relationship. Even when he comes back he never treats her any better. Michel has a few noble moments but ultimately he can't deal with the fact that Juliete is a sexual creature with her own desires. If there's a good guy in all of this it's Carradine. He has the ability to deal with Juliete as she is. At one point he even calls out Antoine on his sexist BS. And finally Juliete is far from helpless. She has her own will and her own desires. In the end she stays with Michel because deep down she wants to. There is no scene where Michel breaks the wild girl. If anything the wild girl has broken Michel. This movie came out around the time the Kinsey Report was turning the ideas of sex all around. The sexual revolution was just around the corner. Vadim was giving the world a taste of what was to come.

The film has gorgeous visuals. The story is an historical oddity. This could only work back then.

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