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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Some of the images sit there unmoving for too long, but that very same stasis also helps create and enforce the underlying tension, the tormented…

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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Monsieur Hire

Patrice Leconte's "Monsieur Hire" is a tragedy about loneliness and erotomania, told about two solitary people who have nothing else in common. It involves a…

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Opening Shots: 'The Big Animal'

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I can't think of another movie that makes me laugh and cry within the course of its opening shot. This is "The Big Animal" (2000), a feature directed by and starring Jerzy Stuhr, based on an early screenplay by Krzysztof Kieslowski. You may know Stuhr from Kieslowski's first feature, "Camera Buff" ("Amator"), "Three Colors: White," "Dekalog: 10" ("Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's goods") and other films by Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi and Angieszka Holland.

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This shot could serve as an introduction -- perhaps an encapsulation -- of a certain Polish sensibility dear to my heart that is both absurd and poignant. It begins in the fog -- at least, we think it's fog, but the way it's blowing it looks more like smoke. Turns out it is smoke, from a pair of circus vans, and as they move past the camera and roll off into the distance, the right side of the frame clears and... there's a camel standing there.

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Why is there a camel standing there? We don't know. It appears to have been left behind for some reason. The image is comical, incongruous, absurd. But if you think about it, it's rather sad. Poor camel. It just stands there. It looks around. It reverses direction. And just at the end of the shot, the two circus trucks in the background appear to be perched on top of its humps. (Camel fanciers will know that this is a Bactrian camel, not an Arabian dromedary, because it has two humps.)

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The mild existential shock of this opening image sets us up for the satire -- of bureaucracy and toleration of individuality -- that is to come. A man and his wife adopt the stray camel. At first, everyone is happy. A camel is a novelty in this village, and it becomes the man's pride and joy. He is no longer ordinary, but exceptional. He has a camel!

But then man-made socio-political reality begins to set in. How do you license a camel? Surely pets must be licensed, but there is no such thing as a camel license (shades of Monty Python's fish license sketch). A dog license is not sufficient -- possibly even illegal -- because, clearly, this creature is not a dog. It's not a horse, either. But do you need a license for a horse?

And then there are the townspeople, who begin to wonder: "Why should this man get away with breaking the rules for a camel? Who does he think he is? Why does he need to stand out and flaunt his special status? Such things should not be allowed. Or should they not, at least, be properly taxed?"

Kieslowski's screenplay, from the story "The Camel" by Kazimierz Orlos, was written in 1973 as a fable about life in the Soviet bloc. But the 1994 "Bart Gets an Elephant" episode of "The Simpsons," where Homer exploits Stampy to pay the mammoth food bills, provides a capitalistic counterpoint. I love this "Big Animal."

"The Big Animal" is available on DVD from our friends Amy Heller and Dennis Doros at Milestone Film & Video.

[This is a contribution to the Krzysztof Kieslowski Blog-a-Thon at Quiet Bubble.]

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Toronto fest signals the opening of Good Movie Season

After Cannes, the Toronto Film Festival is the most important in the world. Last year's festival was ripped in two on Sept. 11. I walked out of a screening, heard the news, and the world had changed. Now comes the 27th annual festival, opening today. Are movies important in the new world we occupy? Yes, I think they are, because they are the most powerful artistic device for creating empathy--for helping us understand the lives of others.

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A 'Silence' sweep?

Conventional wisdom has it that the Motion Picture Academy likes to honor Feel Good films with its Oscars. Gritty and violent movies may be nominated for the best picture award, but the winner will be a movie that embraces traditional values and leaves us with a warm glow. That theory has certainly held true over the past 10 years, during which the only really Feel Bad movie that won as best picture was "Platoon." I do not count such Feel Good About Feeling Bad movies as "Terms of Endearment."

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