Movie Review: Run Lola Run (1998)

Title: Lola rennt
Release Date: 20 August 1998
Director: Tom Tykwer
Production Company: X-Filme Creative Pool | WDR | Arte

In the summer of 1999, everyone was agog over The Blair Witch Project.  So one night I met up with some friends at the cinema, waited in a long line, and when we got to the front learned that all showings of The Blair Witch Project were sold out.  So we ended up seeing a German art film, Run Lola Run, instead. Run Lola Run quickly became one of my all time favorite movies, while I still haven’t seen The Blair Witch Project.

Set in Berlin (and incorporating the city as a character), the movie stars Franka Potente as Lola, a young woman who must find 100,000 Deutschmarks in 20 minutes.  Her doofy boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) is a bagman for a mob boss and lost the bag of money he was supposed to deliver and will meet certain execution if the money is not replaced.  As the title implies, Lola runs through the streets of Berlin trying to find the money, primarily from her estranged father who is a banker (Herbert Knaup).

What makes the movie unique is that the story is told three times with Lola’s split-second decisions affecting the outcome of her story and of the people she comes in contact with.  It’s basically the hip version of Sliding Doors which came out the same year.  People have compared it to a video game where one can start over after dying and keep trying to get it right.  The movie features a lot of innovative camera techniques for the time it was released, although they may seem clichéd after a few decades of overuse. In addition to the great visuals the film is expertly scored to a techno soundtrack on which Potente provides many of the vocals.

The movie is an exercise in efficiency getting across the basic plot points swiftly but still bearing emotional heft.  I’d completely forgotten that the movie also intercuts animation with the live action sequences that makes it a fun touch.  There are probably some deep philosophical issues that can be discussed in regard to this movie.  But I like it just for the pure energy it brings to telling a story about love and fate.

Rating: ****1/2

Documentary Movie Review: Koyaanisqatsi (1983) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter K that I have previously reviewed include: 

Title: Koyaanisqatsi
Release Date: April 27, 1983
Director: Godfrey Reggio
Production Company: Institute for Regional Education | American Zoetrope

Koyaanisqatsi is less a documentary than a collection of shots of various landscapes expertly edited together with a score by Philip Glass.  The film works in roughly three parts with the first being shots of natural landscapes, followed by footage of industrial structures and machines, and finishing with crowds of humanity.  Almost every shot is either played in slow motion or in timelapse.

I knew going into this movie that there was no narrative or narration (and in fact there’s no sound to the movie other than Glass’ score), but I did expect it to say something.  Instead Reggio claims to have deliberately made it to be open to interpretations, which is fine, I guess.  It’s definitely beautiful to look at and would be worth seeing on a big screen should the opportunity arrive.  I think it’s comparable with films like Man With a Movie Camera and Sans Soleil, but I didn’t like it as much as either of those films.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Marathon: Ganja & Hess (1973)

Title: Ganja & Hess
Release Date: April 20, 1973
Director: Bill Gunn
Production Company: Kelly-Jordan Enterprises

As a film made in the 1970s by a Black filmmaker with a Black cast, I’ve seen Ganja & Hess filed under the Blaxploitation label.  I think this is a mistake as this movie is an experimental, art house film in the horror genre. In Ganja & Hess, the craving for blood serves as a metaphor for substance abuse. It also deals with issues of religion, Black assimilation, and relationships.  Pretty heavy stuff.

Dr. Hess Green (Duane Jones, Night of the Living Dead) is a wealthy anthropologist who lives in a mansion in the Hudson River Valley.  He hires a live-in assistant, George Meda (Bill Gunn) who suffers from mental illness, and in an altercation stabs Dr. Green with an ancient artifact. The infection on the blade grants him powers over death and an insatiable craving for human blood.  Later, Meda’s wife Ganja (Marlene Clark) comes looking for her husband, but instead develops a romance with Hess and eventually is also turned into a vampire.

It sounds like a simple plot, but it’s hard to describe what’s so different about this movie.  The cinematography, the lighting, themusic, and the acting all create an atmosphere of the ordinary world turned akilter.  It’s definitely worth checking out, even as I can’t say I totally “get” it.

Rating: ****

Silent Movie Day Movie Reviews

In honor of National Silent Movie Day I watched several silent shorts:


Title: The Great Train Robbery 
Release Date: December 1903
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Production Company: Edison Manufacturing Company
Summary/Review: This 12-minute film was perhaps the first blockbuster motion picture. In latter days it was credited with lots of innovations that weren’t actually true, but it is undeniable that it was a big hit.  And the basic imagery of outlaws holding up a train is quite persistent. The version I watched had hand-colored segments that make it feel painterly.  And of course, who can ever forget the iconic shot of Justus D. Barnes firing his gun at the camera!
Rating:  ***1/2

Title:The Immigrant
Release Date: June 18, 1917
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: Mutual Film Corporation
Summary/Review: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp joins the tired  poor, huddled masses immigrating to America.  There’s not so much of a plot as a series of set pieces, first aboard a ship sailing to New York, and then in a New York restaurant where the broke Tramp struggles to pay for a meal.  In both scenes, he tries to charm a fellow immigrant (Edna Purviance).  Eric Campbell plays a big and tough waiter.  There are a lot of good gags in this movie with a warm and sympathetic portrayal of the travails of the immigrant experience.
Rating: ***1/2

TitleThere It Is
Release Date: 1928
Director: Harold L. Muller
Production Company: Educational Pictures
Summary/Review:  Charles Bowers is not as well-remembered as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd but work in the same genre of slapstick comedy during the silent film era.  This movie is almost entirely visual jokes and hard to summarize without spoiling the gags.  Suffice to say, a family in New York finds strange things happening in their house due to the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” (Buster Brodie) and decide that the police will not be good enough so they call Scotland Yard.  In this case, it is an actual yard in Scotland where men in full kilts roam around. Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) is sent to investigate with his partner MacGregor, a stop-motion animated bug.  So many weird things happen in 19 minutes.  The primary Black character spends the entire film trying to leave which plays into the stereotype of easily-spooked African Americans, but then again getting out of that house seems wise.  MacNeesha is also extremely cheap, so more cultural stereotypes.  This movie is fun to watch to see absurdists humor from a century ago that seems to anticipate Monty Python.
Rating: ***

Title: The Cameraman’s Revenge
Release Date: October 27, 1912
Director: Władysław Starewicz
Production Company: Khanzhonkov
Summary/Review: If MacGregor stirred your passion for stop-motion animated bugs, then this movie is for you!  All the characters in this 12-minute short are animated insect specimens.  Mr. and Mrs. Beetle each are having affairs with other insects.  An angry grasshopper, who is a camera operator and projectionist, films it all.  So if a movie where insects canoodle while a voyeur watches them through a keyhole is your jam, then this movie has been there for you for almost 110 years!  This one is delightfully weird.
Rating: ****

Title: New York 1911
Release Date: 1911
Production Company: Svenska Biografteatern
Summary/Review: My grandmother was born in New York on May 1, 1911.  Sometime in the same year a Swedish production company filmed this travelogue of Lower Manhattan.  As travelers on this journey, we arrive by ferry and then travel around the city streets, sometimes by streetcar.  Despite the constant change in New York, the bridges and many buildings are very recognizable.  The absence of automobiles is the best part of this vision of New York where the streets are dominated by pedestrians and streetcars.  Although we do spend some time observing a white family packed into an open-air motorcar with a Black driver.  This film is only 9 minutes long but it’s a remarkable document of a place and time.
Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Sans Soleil (1983)

Title: Sans Soleil
Release Date: March 2, 1983
Director: Chris Marker
Production Company: Argos Films

Sans Soleil is classified as a documentary but it’s really more of a series of vignettes and video essays arranged in an experimental matter.  It is the work of Chris Marker, creator of the equally experimental La Jetée, who presents himself as a fictional traveler who has sent his film to be described by the narrator (Alexandra Stewart). The original footage is largely from Japan, with a loose discussion of Japanese culture and customs, but also includes filmed in Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco.  The San Francisco segment is from a sequence that feels like a non-sequitur as the filmmaker visits sites from Vertigo.   I was up too late watching this film and started drifting off to sleep which I think only helped to accentuate the dreamlike qualities of this strange and wonderful film.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: La Jetée (1962)

Title: La Jetée
Release Date: February 16, 1962
Director: Chris Marker
Production Company: Argos Films

Working my through lists of all-time greatest movies means watching lots of very long movies, so I was relieved that this one is only 28 minutes. The joke was on me though, because this is an intense 28 minutes of experimental film set in a post-nuclear war Paris. The movie is almost entirely made up of a montage of still images.

The plot involves scientists researching time travel and finding a man (Davos Hanich) who has a strong memory from his childhood of a young woman (Hélène Châtelain) standing on the observation platform (“la jetée”) at Orly Airport.  The post-apocalyptic setting, time travel, and even the significance of an airport reminded me of the 1995 movie 12 Monkeys, so it was no surprise to find out that La Jetée was a credited inspiration for that movie.

La Jetée is a chilling but surprisingly beautiful film, with sound effects and music carrying a heavy load and Hanich and Châtelain expressing a lot of emotion and nuance in their acting (or perhaps more accurately, “posing”).

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Fantasia (1940)

Title: Fantasia
Release Date: November 13, 1940
Director: Samuel Armstrong, James Algar, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Ben Sharpsteen, David D. Hand, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson, and Wilfred Jackson
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions

When I was a kid, my family never bought prerecorded VHS tapes of movies, and yet we somehow ended up with a copy of Fantasia.  And with no urgency to return it to the rental store, it sat on the shelf unwatched for years. Still, somewhere along the way I saw portions of Fantasia elsewhere, particularly The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  This was my first time watching the movie in full.

The movie features the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski, performing on a backlit stage so that the various instrumentalists appear as large shadows as they perform.  This blends into the first animated segment Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which builds on the music with abstract imagery.

The remaining segments include:

  • The Nutcracker Suite – a ballet performed by various plants and animals.  Amazingly, master of ceremonies Deems Taylor introduces this piece as “rarely performed.” The Nutcracker being popularized by Disney is even more amazing than “Aquarela do Brasil” being made popular by Saludos Amigos.
  • The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – the most famous segment stars Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice whose attempt to use magic to avoid doing his cleaning work leads to a comic disaster.
  • Rite of Spring – a depiction of the primeval world from the first single-cell organisms to the dinosaurs.
  • The Pastoral Symphony – Unicorns, pegasus, fauns, centaurs, and cherubs frolic about in scenes from a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper come to life (albeit with more bare breasts than you’d expect from an animated movie made in 1940).  Bacchus tries to celebrate but Zeus disrupts the proceedings by throwing lightning bolts.
  • Dance of the Hours – perhaps the other most famous sequence, this is a comedic ballet featuring ostriches, hippopotamuses, elephants, and alligators.  And then it gets weird.
  • Night on Bald Mountain and Ave Maria – just a wild party featuring various demons, followed by a peaceful lantern-lit procession.

For what it is, an experimental combination of music, movement, color, and imagination, Fantasia is fantastic.  What it isn’t is a family movie you can watch with your kids, although individual segments may be worth watching alone if you’re introducing your kids to music appreciation.  The movie is on the long side and Deems Taylor’s lengthy introductions don’t help it move along.  Fantasia may have worked better as a shorter feature with fewer segments, or even just short films, that carried on as anthology series as Walt Disney intended.  Nevertheless, it remains a spectacular combination of sight and sound.

Rating: ****