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A Letter to Momo

Even scenes that work, such as a climax on a rain-soaked bridge, feel like they could have been trimmed by a few hand-drawn frames. Maybe…

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Cannibal

Visually striking and confident but frustratingly hollow in terms of character and narrative.

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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: 'Cutter's Way'

From Robert Horton, film critic, The Herald, Everett, WA:

How technical do you want to get about "opening shot"? Is the opening shot literally the very first thing that appears onscreen? Or is it the first shot proper, the thing that tells the people behind you to stop talking and pay attention? In the 1931 "Dracula," the former is a wonderfully archaic credits plate with an art-deco bat, accompanied by a scratchy, mood-setting snippet of "Swan Lake" (without that bat and the music the movie that follows would somehow not be the same); the latter is the post-credits shot of a lusciously suggestive Transylvanian crossroads. Both count in "Dracula."

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Most movies now begin with credits over a shot, making it hard to define the beginning-proper (and making it hard for the people behind you to know when to shut up already). The credits play over the opening shot of the 1981 film "Cutter's Way" (aka "Cutter and Bone"), a film very people have heard of, let alone seen, but which is nevertheless one of the key American films of the 1980s (a crucial film in connecting the post-sixties hangover and the corporate runamuck of the eighties).

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The opening shot is dreamlike, stylized, drained of color—quite the opposite of the remainder of the film—and looks dead-center down a warm Santa Barbara street as an Old Spanish Days parade approaches the camera. It begins in black-and-white and bleeds slowly into color, and it's in slow motion; the odd music by the late great Jack Nitszche seems to be running in slow motion, too. A band marches, banners wave, and front and center is a blonde in a white dress, like a bride, dancing in the Fiesta. Nothing really unusual about a blonde in a small-city parade, but when you watch the movie, you realize that this might be the kind of pretty girl who could end up dropped in a dumpster on a side street in the middle of the night because she made a bad decision about which rich guy to blow.

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The camera has watched this, panning finally to accommodate the blonde's sideways movement. The whole thing has the drowsy long-lens shimmer of midsummer. The blonde has gotten close enough to the camera to pass out of the frame, but as we peer at the people in the distance, now coming into focus, she abruptly passes by again—and as her white ruffled dress rustles by, the image in the background is wiped away and replaced by a whole new shot…if you like, the first shot proper of the story: an exterior, in the magic hour of dusk, of the outside of an unmistakably Southern California hotel.

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Starting out at 2 a.m. with Paul Schrader after a Toronto premiere

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TORONTO, Canada - There is a time when a film festival looks just like a convention of hardware dealers, and that time is at 2 in the morning in the hotel hospitality suite when everyone has collapsed exhausted onto the couches and started to contemplate the possibility of dawn. Into the gloom that was enveloping him, the film director Paul Schrader poured a glass of Canadian whiskey. He was scheduled to have breakfast with me at 8:30 a.m., but now he thought it over and said it might be better if we just went ahead and talked now, because he doubted that he would make any sense in the morning.

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