Favorite Films: Part 4

I love small films —films that are more likely to stay true to the original intent of the writer and closer in execution to the director’s wider vision. Lower budget films have smaller box office expectations so they have greater freedom to explore themes, visual accents and unusual character portrayals. There are no fancy special effects or thundering musical scores. Only stories and characters. Much like real life. They are less contrived and less patronizing but not necessarily less creative or fantastical. After all, real life is filled with unbelievable drama. And the lack of formulas and big management involvement make these films tastefully textural and personal — flavorful ingredients much needed in the broadened global conformity that has enveloped Hollywood. Most of these films exist only because of the love an idea or for the pure love of the craft.

Dead Man (directed by Jim Jarmusch)

Directed by auteur filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man is a bizarre yet encapsulating story of a regular man, caught in irregular times — a time of violence, lack of honor, and cold, hard industry. Thinly disguised as a western black comedy, this tale of a city accountant turned gunfighter is really a story about personal discovery and destiny. Life is simply what it is and it’s up to us personally to find out why we’re here on this earth. Starring Johnny Depp — one of the best silent actors of our generation — as the “every man” with no name, his character takes on the identity of poet William Blake, the visionary artist who’s famous for his literary devotion to beauty, innocence and integrity — things obliterated by the Westerner’s capitalistic invasion of native America. In his spiritual journey, Blake makes a new friend, an half-blood native called Nobody (Gary Farmer) who aids him in becoming the hero against all evil and, in so doing, finds his identity and frees his soul. Dead Man is an unusual physical and spiritual adventure, but one that is artistic and strangely entertaining. This little film is sure to stir the emotions of any viewer;  garnering deep admiration or alarming confusion (some of the scenes are quite shocking). Shot in gorgeous black and white, the cinematography is stunning, and to me, the film as a whole is a cold yet gorgeous presentation of the deeper themes at play; it’s poetry unlikely to be seen in front of audiences today.

The Wrestler (directed by Darren Aronofsky)

Darren Aronofsky’s beautiful yet tragic film, is a marvelous viewing experience. Watching it, I find myself gaining much respect for so called “professional wrestlers.” Used in an industry to profit from nationalistic pride and as an outlet for people’s inhibited individual expression, pro wrestlers share a strange seat in American culture and history. Like the gladiators of ancient Rome, these “live” performers of good versus evil, act more as a distraction from the bigger issues of life than as a cure for suppressed freedom or symbol of unified identity. But in Aronfsky’s film, we see the other side, the inside — where the actors in the show reveal their true personal selves; these are real men behind all the lights and cameras. In fact, they’re painfully real — they wear glasses, take drugs for their aches and pains, and get old, fat, and wrinkly. More importantly, each of them struggle, as we do, to survive and to find happiness in this game called life. In Aronofsky’s sincere exposé, we witness the hardships and sacrifices each man has made and how wrestling has damaged those who make this “sport” their vocation. Mickey Rourke — an actor no producer wanted save for director Aronofsky, who persistently fought for his inclusion — delivers the performance of his career; he’s soulful, physically believable and fully engaged. Rourke’s vulnerability enlists the audience’s empathy, as he struggles to find love —with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei) a stripper by night and mother by day — and redemption, as he reaches out in hopes of repairing the damaged relationship with his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Ward). But at this stage of his life, living off his past glory as the once famous Randy “The Ram” Robinson, our protagonist is doomed to fail. He’s simply unprepared for reality — a place more challenging and much crueler than the physical violence he’s subjected to inside of the ring.

Dead Poet’s Society (directed by Peter Weir)

In Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society we enter the world of elite education, where the future leaders of society are formed and made. Here, John Keating (Robin Williams) returns to his old-school stomping grounds as a literature teacher of young boys, each of whom are as confused as they are excited about becoming men. Under the subtle guidance and provocation by Keating, the boys  form their own mysterious  club — the “Dead Poets Society” — a secret place for personal exploration, comraderie and of course, poetry. Here, the boys discover freedom, individuality, and even love. But in their excitement, they battle against conformity and rigid doctrine that makes the very elite institution they reside in famous. Discipline is the order of the day, and the preaching and teaching style of Keating, who favors poets like William Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, are viewed as anarchist. Dangerous drama unfolds, but not without Keating’s impact as a teacher changing each and every one of these young men. Williams is incredible here; he invites, intrigues and inspires. In fact, his Keating is a huge personal inspiration for myself as a teacher. If we are each to live as real men, we must reach for things far greater than what has been given. We must live with courage. Dead Poet’s Society is a film that dares to exhibit its values to its audience, and that makes it a bold and powerful statement of art.

Glengarry Glen Ross (directed by James Foley)

James Foley’s film adaption of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is absolutely fabulous entertainment. Seldom does dialogue have such bite to it. Boasting a cast of superior talents (including Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon,  Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey and Jonathan Pryce) the characters explode on screen.  Despite grossing a measly $10 million dollars at the domestic box office, the film will sit in history as perhaps the best and harshest presentation of the life of a salesman. Playing the lead character Shelley Levene, Jack Lemmon is old, vulnerable and behind in his sales numbers. With the pressure to keep his job and support his chronically-ill daughter, he’s forced to lower his principles as a man, making attempts to charm the new manager Williamson (Kevin Spacey) and even consider bribery, for he is THAT desperate. As the story unfolds, the audience gets a true sense of the dissasociation that capitalism brings to daily existence. Revered or discarded based only on a “what have you done for us lately” attitude, it symbolizes the Darwin-esque society that we’ve come to accept. There’s no sympathy for any “loser” — circumstances be damned. “Good father? Fuck you, go home and play with your kids” says Blake (Alec Baldwin), the superstar salesman sent from “downtown” to add pressure to all the men in the suburban sales office, by noting emphatically that only the two strongest performers of the month will keep their jobs. The contrast created by the events surrounding the current top sales dog, Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) and the antics of Blake, as well as the dubious tactics exercised by all the other salesmen in the office, make Levine, who was once a very successful salesman himself, a sympathetic character. We forget that he too, was once a lying and deceitful trickster. The film is worth watching for the acting alone. Alec Baldwin’s cameo is legendary. Taking place mostly within the confines of a small, unspectacular office space, Glengarry Glen Ross, despite being a profanity-laced film, is one that delights the ears.

History of Violence (directed by David Cronenberg)

History of Violence is a tiny film taking place in a tiny town. But what figures in it are the deepest and most profound of questions; are we defined by our pre-determined makeup (our genes and upbringing)? Or are we able to re-define our lives by our conscious choices? If we come from a family of monsters are we not monsters? Or are we only monsters if we behave like one? In Cronenberg’s film, the central character Tom Stall (Viggo Mortenson), is a shy man with a unique secret, a hidden history of violence. Until a unique set of events occur in his home town, he’s living life happily, honorably and peacefully. The arrival of some colorful characters from his past changes everything. Sought out by the Eastern mob from Philadelphia, Tom’s hidden identity is ultimately revealed, turning his and his family’s life completely upside down. In a soulful yet fierce performance by Viggo Mortenson, Tom’s character is both sympathetic and frightening — he’s both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. We’re not sure what to make of him or how he’ll respond to each challenge that surfaces. Surrounded by an excellent supporting cast, Cronenberg’s History of Violence sucks you into a world of monsters, and in this case, the scariest of them all turns out to be the one we’ve been living with all along. Do we root for him because he’s the protagonist? Does he not deserve the chance to prove himself, just as we hope to be given the opportunity to prove ourselves? The final scenes of the film reveal the piercing impact the events have on its characters. The look on the eyes of Tom Stall, the eyes of his adversary Ritchie (William Hurt) and that of his wife (Mario Bello) speak louder than any words can possibly say. This is the power of film regardless of its size.

Courage

The reverential Walt Whitman was a poet who lived the way he wrote — richly, personally and courageously.

What does it mean to be brave? Is courage action in the absence of fear or is it action in spite of it? And what does it have to do with being an artist?

“All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without benefit of experience.” — Henry Miller, Writer

Humbly put, courage has EVERYTHING to do with being an artist because making art — making a statement as a free individual human being— is the most outlandish thing one can do in the face of fear, conformity, pain or oppression.

As creatives, we live with fear daily, sometimes even in the smallest  of moments. Why? Because we’re always trying to do something new. We’re trying to break new ground and discover things. We want things to change. All of that entails risks. Risks imply the reality that we’re most likely to fail. And with failure, we know for sure that we’ll experience pain and suffering of all kinds including, but not exclusively, that of embarrassment, personal disappointment and loss (of energy, capital or respect).

Daffy Duck is accosted by The Abominable Snowman, in Chuck Jones’ 1961 short “The Abominable Snow Rabbit.”

“It’s a simple matter of logic. I’m not like other people, I can’t stand pain, it hurts me.” — Daffy Duck

If being an artist is so wrought with stories of failure and accompanied by statistics that “prove” that being an artist is foolish, then why do art? Why behave so irrationally? Because the alternative is unimaginable. Artists MUST create art. And, just because you might take the safe route and fail anyways.

This small excerpt from Jim Carrey’s commencement speech at Maharishi Unversity is an inspiring message about taking risks.

There is only one direction in life and that is forward. We can’t be held back by fear. We must never think that we’re ever too young or too old, too weak or too poor. I’ve personally struggled with this for much of my life, despite the illusion of bravery that my friends see. Every time I jumped into an operating room, each time I took a new direction in my career, whenever I moved to a new city or simply strayed from the popular path, I was scared. My logically-oriented brain would always fight me and come up with reasons to justifying remaining with the status quo. That’s what the brain does. It thinks, calculates, and reasons. It does this to protect us from using up our energy, our resources and risks to our physical well-being. It desires guaranteed safety. But there are no guarantees in life except for the fact that if we don’t ever take any steps toward our dreams, we’ve 100% guaranteed that we’ll never ever achieve any one of them.

“Woe to that man who does not put his trust in life.” — Henry James, Writer

The thing is we’re no long homo-sapiens hiding in a cave with big-toothed cats dying to eat us. We’re also more than are our brains. We’re creatures a hundred-thousand years in the making that have also developed instincts, creativity and courage — things that live deep within every cell of our bodies. There is a great and broad intelligence there, a subconscious even unconscious brilliance that we call intuition. When we follow our intuition we say we’re “following our heart” — shoving aside logic in favor of a deeper drive or calling. It’s a true act of bravery. Is it any wonder why it’s the heart —the mighty muscle that pumps life giving blood into our veins — that is used as a symbol for strength and courage?

Even as cavemen, we were driven to capture the world around us and tell our stories. This beautiful cave art took memory, intelligence, creativity and resourcefulness. All acts of bravery live beyond the time required to execute them.

Every so often I have to remind myself to “lead with the heart, create with the mind, and act with the body.” In other words; let the heart decide on which choices to make, allow the mind to find the solutions and make the body do the work.

“Separate thinking from doing. Man is a thinking reed but his greatest works are done when he is not calculating and thinking.” — Suzuki Daisetsu, Zen Master

Now, even as the heart is the driving force behind any meaning to our existence —because without purpose both mental or physical activity would feel empty — we must also remember that without mental and physical support, the dreams we have will not become realities. We need to take a comprehensive approach to living. We must invest wholeheartedly with mind, body, and spirit.

“When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for better understanding.” —Robert Henri

We must also remember that there are only two natural fears that we are born with: the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds. All other fears are learned.

Tom Cruise stars as Ethan Hunt in John Woo’s  Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. We’re all born with the physical fear of falling which makes death-defying stunts so fun to watch. Unfortunately, a lot of us extend this fear of falling to other things, and stop our dreams from ever taking flight.

So how do we overcome our fears? Unlearning our fears, like our learning of them, takes both time and effort.  We cannot expect to all this indoctrination or influence that have taken so many years to accumulate with a small commitment to its elimination. Both practice and patience are requirements. This is when we must apply our intelligence. The brain is the “how-to” center of our being. If it doesn’t know the answer, it’ll guide you to where you can find the answer, be it in the form of books, formal education, or genuine mentorship/guidance.

It won’t be easy. Nothing good ever is. There’s no shortcuts to achieving real knowledge/mastery just as there aren’t any for love. We have to earn it and we have to fight for it. Because when we don’t fight for ourselves, we’ll succumb to chance and we’ll give in to entropy (laziness) and emptiness. Sustained emptiness leads to apathy and anger. Complaint, criticism and condemnation soon follows that. Those who stay “there” too long, stop fighting their fears and begin to fight with others. That frustrated energy has to go somewhere.

Nina Paley’s marvelous little short “This Land is Mine” is a perfect summary of the violent stupidity of men. When we don’t kill the demons from within, we mistake others for our demons.

Now, all this leading with the heart and suspension of rationality may seem silly, irrational and utopian to some, but life’s a personal decision that’s ours and ours alone to make. Fact is, all great leaps in history, whether it be in the arts, sciences or social justice were met with ridicule and opposition. It takes great courage to fight the impediments to growth, both internally and externally. Man cannot survive without the opportunity to explore and act out his individual personal expression. Neither can he live without a connection with life outside of himself (the very definition of spirituality and love). It’s the absence of these “ingredients to conscious living” that lead to neurosis, and subsequently, unfortunate behavior.

Doing art — creating and sharing — is the only way to provide the psychological sustenance required for complete human living.

Besides, at the end of the day, our lives are short:

A scene featuring one of my favorite characters of all time, Robin William’s John Keating in Peter Wier’s marvelous film Dead Poet’s Society.

“Still we live meanly, like ants: though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and inevitable wretchedness. Our life frittered away by detail… Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! … let your affairs be two or three, not a hundred or a thousand.” — Henry David Thoreau, Philosopher

Favorite Films: Part 3

Comedies are the hardest films to take seriously. But perhaps that’s exactly why they’re so darn fun and why we can’t resist watching them. Still, because of our innate love for them and the release they give us from the strains of living, the craft is often compromised. It’s not surprising that there are hardly any comedies listed in the top 100 lists. It’s REALLY hard to make a great comedy. Most are compromised. Nonetheless, there are exceptions. Here are my faves that I like to turn to for a good laugh and smile.

Annie Hall (directed by Woody Allen)

Woody Allen’s most famous film Annie Hall was groundbreaking when it arrived on the silver screen. It still is; it’s as fresh, real and funny as when I first saw it. Here, Allen set out his trademark one liners that ignite laughter at every turn. Intelligent and thoughtful, but without being snooty or overly cerebral, Annie Hall evokes nostalgia while exposing our most basic human frailties. The visuals highlight Allen’s excellent sense for physical comedy, all captured brilliantly by Gordon Willis’ superb photography. With love and relationships the core theme here, Alvie Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) are a perfect match in comedy heaven. Falling in and out of love continuously, the two characters weave their way through ambitions and insecurities in truly fantastic fashion. The screenplay here is so fun that it’s near impossible to count all the great lines of dialogue. Some viewers might be turned off by the bittersweet ending, but I don’t think it could’ve ended any other way without it losing its purity. Winner of Allen’s first  Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, some would argue that Annie Hall is not only his best movie, but the best and most original comedy ever written. There is literally no film like it out there before or since.

The Big Lebowski (directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)

The Coen brothers make great films. All kinds too. But my absolute favorite of theirs remains their brilliant, yet absurd comedy about nothing, The Big Lebowski. It’s been hard for the magnificent Jeff Bridges to be thought of as anyone else but the “Dude” after his iconic contribution here. In typical Coen style, Joel and Ethan Coen crafted an absolutely unique comedy, with a character that’s essentially an easy-going bum; Jeffrey Lebowski is literally the laziest man we’ve ever come to love on screen. With standout performances from supporting cast members John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, and Julianne Moore, the viewer finds himself laughing at one ridiculous scenario after another. The exploration of topics include nihilism, ransom etiquette, the Sabbath, sex/pornography, the First Amendment, and modern art. And the visuals and music are perfect compliments. All this, and bowling too. What more can a movie fan ask for?

When Harry Met Sally (directed by Rob Reiner)

The late Nora Ephron made a big name for herself with When Harry Met Sally and she deserves the acclaim. Seldom do we find popular romantic comedies so well written. Along with the deft hand by director Rob Reiner, we find ourselves watching the actors at their very best — both Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan shine here  — as neither has been able to top or even duplicate their performances here. Set in New York City, it captures a time and place that anyone who’s lived through it can totally understand. The scenery, humor, and the scenarios— they’re all reminiscent of the way American men and women thought and talked in the 1980’s. And even now, we are just as anxious and uncertain about love as these characters were then. I loved how, unlike other romance movies, love wasn’t found at the end of the film, but instead it was something that occurred during a long relationship; the characters didn’t court each other, they learned to love each other. It just so happens that they took a long time to realize that they’ve been giving each other love and companionship the whole time they were friends. What a great and unforced view of love! That this happens with great dialogue, laughter and silliness makes this a perfect little romantic comedy.

Back To The Future (directed by Robert Zemeckis)

Who didn’t want a stainless steel DeLorean after watching Back To The Future? Robert Zemeckis made one of the funnest films of all time here. Time travel has always been a difficult topic to present in movies, but here, the execution is perfect. I always had a soft spot for Michael J. Fox (we’re from the same hometown after all), and his performance as Marty McFly was perfect. So too, was the supporting cast. Christopher Lloyd will likely always be remembered for being Doc Brown, the crazy scientist who invents time travel with his flux capacitor. And though there’s fun action and adventure here, it’s those moments of character interactions that provide all the fun: Marty’s mom (Lea Thompson) having the hots for her future son; the son realizing that Biff’s bullying of his father goes way back;  Marty finally getting the chance to take the musical stage uninhibited. Many films have aped a lot of the ideas first presented here, but none have been able to duplicate its sincerity. Despite being a film with science fiction elements, VFX plays only a small but effective part here, complementing the wonder of the moments and the acting of its stars. Two sequels were made of Back To The Future, the third being pretty decent. In each, the actors reprise their roles in a fun and unique manner. But it’s the original that’s the gem — it’s the one worth going back to future for.

L.A. Story (directed by Mick Jackson)

I love LA. And I love L.A. Story. In a city full of sunshine, urban sprawl, and absurd materialism, what could make for a more ridiculous setting for love than Los Angeles? Steve Martin is a genius. Renown for his physical comedy and stand-up performances on stage, Martin is also an intelligent, whimsical and philosophical innovator. The screenplay, which he also wrote, captures all those little goofy nuances and caricatures that make LA  what it is. Having lived there for a significant portion of my life, it brings back memories of all the little perks and hideouts that make the city so unbelievably fun and strange. And Martin makes it all shine. Every scene is visually hilarious and the dialogue is filled with wit and charm as Martin plays wacky weatherman Harris K. Telemacher, a man who finds himself dating one woman, “SanDeE” (yes, that’s how it’s spelled!) played by Sarah Jessica Parker with star-turning charm, while falling in love with another, Sara McDowell, played by Victoria Tennant. Like a tourist traveling through the inroads of Los Angeles, the viewer is taken on a fantastical ride that has a magical Hollywood twist; a signpost that talks to people in distress. The set up gives Martin ample opportunity for visual chaos and sharp tasteful dialogue. L.A. Story is so fun yet so smart, I never get tired of watching it.

Jerry MaGuire (directed by Cameron Crowe)

It’s hard to make a popular mainstream movie that’s both entertaining and inspiring without it feeling cliché, forced or patronizing. Cameron Crowe’s Jerry MaGuire is one of the few films able to pull it off successfully. He also made it funny. In a screenplay that moves swiftly, you can’t help but feel for Tom Cruise’s character, Jerry, even if he’s that smooth-looking guy with the smarmy smile typical of untrustworthy sales people. The set up of man rediscovering who he can be is a hopeful one, and one that sends a truly inspiring message to all who listen. Cruise is fantastic here; at times confident and charming, at other times, he’s a complete and vulnerable mess as his character goes through the whipsaw of personal emotions that’s familiar with all men who are honest with themselves. Disguised as a sports movie, it’s really a character development piece wrapped around again by love and friendship. Cast members Rene Zellwegger and Cuba Gooding Jr (who won Best Supporting Actor) illuminate here in support. With some tasteful Bruce Springsteen music, great lines, and playful turn of events, Jerry MaGuire is a moving gem that always makes me smile at the end.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (directed by Stanley Kubrick)

Stanley Kubrick was a pioneer in many aspects of the film medium. In Dr. Strangelove, he invented the black comedy with perhaps the darkest (and probably sickest) joke of all time — nuclear annihilation of the entire human race. The movies serves as a warning as to our obsession for land, power, and bragging rights to selfish ideology. Boasting a sensational cast — the primary characters all except one played by the amazing Peter Sellers who’s renown for his Inspector Clouseau character in the Pink Panther — the film resonates with brilliant humor and ludicrousness. Here, Sellers takes on the role of US president, the English Colonel Mandrake, and the bizarre ex-Nazi scientist, Dr. Strangelove himself. (He was scheduled to play the Texan bomber pilot too, but a broken leg prevented the actor from climbing into the cockpit of the plane.) Shot in black and white, the stage of the drama that unfolds feels classic, but at the same time profound despite the comical demeanor of the players involved. With nuclear war being triggered by a US General who’s lost his mind, America’s military leaders are left with the choice of going with the flow and bombing Russian Communists to hell with the head start or call in the Russians for clarification and a unified approach to stop the planes from completing their bombing missions. The potential triggering of a Doomsday machine — an automatic response defense mechanism set up by the Russians in the event of a sneak attack — pushes up the stakes significantly. The famous “War Room” and detailed bomber cockpit were inventions of Kubrick himself, exemplifying the creativity of its director. The fact the nuclear war has been started because of a man experiencing a bad sexual episode makes this joke all the more funny and typically believable as to the stupidity of men.

Favorite Films: Part 2

We continue our introduction/re-introduction to influential films. As noted earlier, it’s difficult to pick and choose one film over another in terms of their excellence or originality, for art is ultimately a matter of personal preference, but here are a few more. These are foreign titles:

Ran (directed by Akira Kurosawa)

Akira Kurosawa is clearly one of the most prolific filmmakers of the 20th century. With films like The Seven Samurai, Ikuru, Rashomon, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, High and Low, and Kagemusha, his work, like Hitchcock’s, is mandatory viewing for every aspiring filmmaker. Ran, produced when the director was 75, is my favorite of his. The reason lies not only in the stunning imagery and powerful acting (Tatsuya Nakadai is absolutely amazing as the manic emperor), but in the maturity of the film-making. Kurosawa’s creative choices in his version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, show a depth to it that is almost unexplainable — it feels like a movie created by a man who has actually lived life thoroughly and not just conjured it out of one’s imagination. As I age, the film itself seems to come with newer meaning and empathy every time that I view it. Beautifully balanced between moments of deep family drama and stunning battle sequences (no one does a battle sequence better than Kurosawa), Ran pulls you right inside the world of feudal Japan with its gorgeous costumes, make up and sets. The story maybe Shakespeare, but the film is definitively Japanese.

To Live (directed by Zhang Yimou)

What a film To Live is. Zhang Yimou’s penetrating movie about the history of the 20th century Chinese experience is one of those films that covers a massive amount of living. Portraying life in post WWII China, it’s a film that follows the hardships of a strong yet very real woman in Jiazhen, played with immeasurable depth and beauty by Gong Li. In the journey, we witness both her’s and her husband’s battle for survival during immense cultural and social change, as they experience the transfer of power from the Nationalist Party of China to that of a Communist regime. In their travails, there are a moments of hope and sadness, advancements and setbacks — all played out with dutiful honestly. Even as it avoids political statements, it demonstrates the director’s high level of sophistication and respect for the life of the ordinary citizen during the rule of the Red Guards. Still, Zhang Yimou was banned from directing for two years after the film’s release, even as it triumphed in international festivals. I believe To Live is a film that young people today, both in China and around the world, need to see or revisit. History has been captured here, and captured with dignity, sincerity and frankness.

Spring Summer Fall Winter and Spring (directed by Kim Ki Duk)

Kim Ki Duk’s simple yet profound movie Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring is one I return to seasonally. Buddhist in theme but universal in application, it captures the cyclical and karmic wonder of life as we follow the journey of a young boy who lives with a Buddhist monk on a floating temple in the middle of a remote lake. It’s a film that tells a tale of discovery, innocence, and suffering. We witness the coming of age of a young man, how he turns away from simplicity to complication, from peace to desire (for lust and passion), and how this ultimately pulls him away from a life of harmony. It’s too hard for any young man to understand the peace and wisdom that surrounds him, and hence we witness the inevitable display of karma and the lessons that the universe is here to tell (or in this case show) us. The film is light and almost ethereal in nature — it captures nature’s innate healing power. The sets, costumes and the atmosphere feel handmade; you can almost touch and even smell it. This beautiful yet philosophical movie moves me deeply each time I see it.

Cinema Paradiso (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore)

Giuseppe Tornatore made two very beautiful films, Cinema Paradiso (1988) and Malena (1990), both of which are paired to the perfect music of Ennio Morricone. Malena is richer (and sadder), and possibly more beautiful with its throwback to Fellini. But it’s Tornatore’s earlier film that has that enigmatic quality to it that holds onto you more deeply. It’s a nostalgic film that captures the innocence and curiosity of boyhood better than a lot of films that have come before and after it. Everything is simple and small scale but like childhood, everything that happens while you’re living it feels so grand and dramatic. Both the main characters’ (Salvatore and Alfredo) and the townspeople’s joys and frustrations revolves around the love of movies, and more specifically the tiny village theater. Watching it is like experiencing the past all over again, revisiting a time and place that no longer exists. Along the way, we find deep friendship and romance — the two things that matter more than anything else in the world for its protagonist and, by default, the viewer. Cinema Paradiso expresses itself as a simple story carried by beautiful imagery and music but at heart it’s a film about love and a film for people who love movies.

Fireworks (directed by Takeshi Kitano)

As writer, director, editor and actor of most of his movies, there’s little that Takeshi Kitano doesn’t understand about the film-making process. He’s internationally famous for his flock of Yakuza stories and facial twitch as a performer. His films, which are characterized by long sustained moments of silence and brief bursts of intense violence, signal an assured directing hand that controls every element of the pacing and energy. In Fireworks (Hana-bi), the creator is at his best — the movie explodes with emotion across the screen. Playing a character Nishi, who’s faced with the paralysis of his best friend and the impending death of his wife, Kitano carries a quiet but brutal power. His scenes with Miyuki (Kayoko Kishimoto) are tender and balanced with delicate humor. Each sequence has a fresh feel completely unique in the world of cinema — they hold you, make you wait and then stun you. Afterwards, you find yourself releasing that slow breath that echos the gravity of situation just experienced. The creative mix of cutting and imagery also make the film visually tactile, even as it reveals a deep undercurrent of pain and pending violence throughout. The winner of the  Gold Lion Award for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, Fireworks is bound to leave an impression on anyone who sees it.

In the Mood For Love (directed by Wong Kar-Wai)

Auteur Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai is famous for his eclectic manner of movie-making. Like a Miesner actor, who reacts to the immediacy of the opposing actor, Wong seems to direct on instinct, working his magic with the sets and actors almost unscripted. Perhaps that is why his films have such a dreamy, free-flowing quality to them, yet at the same time what results is a product that couldn’t be more perfectly melded together in sight and sound. In The Mood For Love is Wong at his best. Paired with the hypnotic music of Shigeru Umebayashi, the viewer succumbs to the director’s spell as he travels along with the camera, peeking inside hidden worlds and carefully constructed images containing intimately guarded secrets. Acted with flawless subtlety by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung with few words spoken, it’s a film that expresses very loudly our longing for love and connection even as we all live with loneliness and do so mostly in secrecy. While the film displays no overt physical intimacy, the love that emerges between the two characters is rich, stirring and unforced even as it feels prohibited. In The Mood For Love, like its stars, is hypnotically beautiful and the emotions that run through you as you watch can only be described as a deep sort of aching that can’t be fulfilled, much like the romance between its characters.

Old Boy (directed by Chan Woo Park)

Chan Woo Park’s mind-blowing film about a man who appears wrongfully imprisoned for reasons beyond his or the audience’s understanding is truly original in both theme and execution. From the opening scene to the last, the viewer is powerlessly sucked into a ride that is non-stop, hypnotic and terrifying. In Park’s Old Boy, it’s near impossible to predict what may come next. In each scene, we frenetically yet methodically wander along with its protragonist Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-Sik) to find out what this story — his story — is about, and, along the way, we empathize with his confusion, his anger, his hope and his tragedy. Buoyed by an astounding physical and emotional performance by Choi Min-Sik, and fantastic scene after fantastic scene, Park has made an incredible film so unique and so creative, that it makes you ponder hard about it as soon as it’s over even as you feel drained from your viewing experience. The film is in many ways absurd, masochistic and gory. But it’s also a wildly entertaining ride that’s perfectly bound together by its kinetic score and eclectic visual imagery. Old Boy won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, and deservedly so — it’s a stunner. It’s the kind of film being made today (although more and more so in the East than in the West) that gives me hope as a lover of cinema in the midst of the standard fare of Hollywood remakes and superhero sequels.

Favorite Films, Part 1

I’m an art and film nut. I own over a thousand films and seen many more. And then there’s the countless hours spent studying them for the writing, cinematography, and acting. So, for fun, I wanted to share a small selection of some of my favorites.  They’re not necessarily the best films ever made, but rather, they represent films that have had a huge influence on me as an artist and as a person, and carry with them a quality that makes me come back to them over and over again. Some are groundbreaking in theme or execution, while others have incredibly memorable moments characterized by superb acting or indescribable choreoraphic beauty. All of them carry with them a resonating quality that I believe will never be replicated ever again. You might be familiar with these titles but I suggest re-visiting them as they get better with each viewing.

Since there are just far too many excellent films to share, this series will be split over several posts.

The Godfather 1 & 2 (directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

In my humble opinion, Francis Ford Coppola’s two Godfather epics are the greatest films ever made. Based on Mario Puzo’s deeply penetrating novel about the rise and fall of the Corleone’s ascension to the throne as America’s most powerful Mafia family, the film is a complex and involving web of action, dialogue and scenery that pulls the audience deep inside the closed world of crime and the world inside the mind of its main character, Michael Corleone, played with immense power and restraint by Al Pacino. Along the way, we witness the erosion of a man who seems helplessly pulled towards evil and the consequences it has on his family and his soul. Despite riding along with the violence, tragedy and “bad men,” the film sucks you in, as you helplessly sympathize and even root for its characters. Loaded with standout performances (including that of Marlon Brando, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Robert DeNiro and Diane Keaton) and numerous iconic moments, The Godfather is film-making at its absolute best. Complemented by the masterful cinematography of Gordon Willis and Nina Rota’s simple yet mesmerizing score, it’s a film that never grows old.

Vertigo (directed by Alfred Hitchcock)

When one thinks of Alfred Hitchcock, one thinks of consistency and excellence. There are so many films to like: Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, Rebecca, Rope, To Catch A Thief, Notorious. But my all-time favorite remains his remarkable 1958 love-story/tragedy, Vertigo. Set in the backdrop of the most visually-cultural city of America (San Francisco), the story is one filled with mystery, beauty and sadness. It’s also a film that is both visually and emotionally enveloped by madness, as depicted perfectly by one of America’s most beloved actors, Jimmy Stewart (who plays Scottie, a retired cop). Falling is the theme here; to fall for a con, to fall in love, to fall to one’s death. Complemented by a beautifully subdued performance by the lovely Kim Novak (who plays the mysterious Madelaine), the storytelling is as hypnotic to the viewer as Madelaine is to Scottie. You find yourself riding along with Stewart’s character, as he turns from honorable man of humor, kindness and nobility to one who is filled with lust, obsession and control. No one does suspense like Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann’s chilling score complements the mood perfectly.

Chariots of Fire (directed by Hugh Hudson)

When I need to be inspired, I watch Hugh Hudson’s 1981 classic, Chariots of Fire, a film about Britain’s participation in the running events of the 1924 Paris Olympic games. It’s a seemingly simple film but one that makes a huge statement about human nature and the power of will. The main characters Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross) and Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson) create a wonderfully contrasting pair — two men in their physical prime who carry opposing beliefs and personalities but have an identical goal; to be the fastest man on the planet. Buoyed by Vangelis Papathanassiou’s magnificent score and a marvelously sincere and subdued performance by Ian Holms, the story that unfolds grabs you tightly across the heart; you find yourself cheering wholeheartedly for both protagonists. There are many films that show characters that try to prove themselves and define their worth but few do it as convincingly as Chariots of Fire.

The Thin Red Line (directed by Terence Malick)

There have been some really great war movies made in Hollywood each one worthy of the heavy weight title for the category: Oliver Stone’s Platoon is a harrowing account of the director’s own personal experience during the Vietnam War; Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket captures, what my Marine Sargent friend tells me as, “the most accurate portrayal of military training ever depicted”; Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan, is the most visceral and spellbinding experience of real military combat I’ve ever witnessed on film. But it is Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line that captivates me over and over again. There are no good guys or bad guys here — only the inescapable and wholly encapsulating experience of living inside of war. The contrast of the senselessness of war in the backdrop of the incredible beauty of nature make the point of the film remarkably clear. In the midst of both sensually depicted memories and beautiful abstractions of reality, we slide effortlessly inside the mind of the soldier trying to make sense of our actions and our very existence. Complemented by Jim Caviezel’s soulful performance and Hans Zimmer’s poetic score, the film is fine art dissecting the horrors of man’s violent intrusion over nature and his own soul.

Jaws (directed by Steven Spielberg)

Like many of the directors listed here, Spielberg has made many fantastic, even iconic films: Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Jurassic Park, E.T., The Color Purple, Munich, etc. But Jaws, made when the director was only 27 years of age, still holds for me a most special place among his legacy of films. In his hands, the classic “monster in the house” story becomes something much more than just a film about a very large shark. It’s a character study of men; our need to protect those we love, to live up to our word, and to face the demons that haunt us. In this case, we have three richly developed characters in Brody (Roy Schneider), Quint (Robert Shaw) and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who not only have to battle the shark but each other. The visuals and editing are inventive and many sequences marked what would become Spielberg’s trademark as a filmmaker — excellent pacing complemented by moments of brilliant imagery and careful character development. Nothing is rushed and always more is hinted at than what is seen. I love Jaws. There’s a reason why it scared everyone from going to the beach when it first came out in theaters. Unlike the films of today, special effects are not the star here. Instead, the spotlight belongs to the actors and a story whose mood is perfectly augmented by John Williams’ renown piano score.

Stay tuned for more!