Chico & Rita (2010). Like most everyone else, we first caught wind of this musically inclined Spanish production when it became a surprise nominee for the Best Animated Feature Oscar award earlier this year. In telling a sweet and energetic story that spans Cuba and the U.S. across several decades, the filmmakers contributed a lot of beautifully staged shots accented with terrific salsa/mambo music (which was by and large newly recorded). The story follows an aged musician, Chico, as he recalls his years with Rita, a beautiful singer whom he falls for in 1940s Havana. She joins his jazz combo and shares his bed, but before you can say A Star Is Born, she is swept away to New York City and groomed to be a recording star and big-time actress. As Chico and his band-mates follow her to the U.S., she lets it be known that she no longer carries a torch for him – but their loyalty towards each other often says otherwise. This was such an interesting feature with several awe-inspiring scenes (usually involving characters moving from place to place in a detailed landscape) – definitely deserving of the nomination, although its simplistic (OK, trite) story puts it a notch below stuff like The Secret of Kells or Persopolis. It does have a striking, graphical look with fluid animation that was accomplished via a digital version of rotoscoping. The characters have a unique, thick-lined and colorful design (although we wondered why Rita had full frontal nudity while Chico was modestly clad in long pants), perhaps not quite as facially expressive as they should have been, but tenderly drawn. And the soundtrack was wonderful.
Death Race 2000 (1975). Cheesy fun. In the year 2000, five teams of hotshot racers aim to complete a heavily hyped televised cross-country race, scoring points for running over people and eliminating the competition along the way. But wait, a renegade band of subversives is trying to stop them! Not too sci-fi in tone, very drive-in downmarket, and there are some annoying characters – yet Roger Corman did right by emphasizing the comic aspects of the story. I enjoyed Sylvester Stallone and Mary Woronov as particularly obnoxious participants in this groovy ride.
Lonesome (1928) and The Last Performance (1929). Criterion’s recent blu ray of the visually daring part talkie Lonesome (1928) came along as a special birthday gift to myself. One of the main reasons why I grabbed it for my collection – besides the allure of that transitional period in Hollywood, of course – is that the disc actually contains three films by its director, Paul Fejos. Probably the only anthropologist in history to have dabbled in film directing, Fejos certainly is an intriguing figure worthy of Criterion’s examination. This deluxe edition of Lonesome serves as a nifty little portrait of silent-to-sound transitional film, as well! The film Lonesome is quite charming, detailing a pair of young people as they meet-cute at Coney Island, share a memorable evening together, then get separated within the garish mass of humanity surrounding them. It seems like a slighter version of The Crowd or Sunrise, but the main performers (Glenn Tryon and Barbara Kent) were appealing and Fejos’s technique brims with playfulness and invention (the color-tinted sequences are a wow). Not quite the revelation that film fans have been trumpeting, perhaps, but sweet and definitely worth seeking out. Fejos’ previous effort, The Last Performance, is a more conventional melodrama with a notably intense Conrad Veidt as a magician who is crestfallen to find that his assistant (Mary Philbin) has fallen for the petty thief (Fred MacKaye) that Veidt hired to help out with the act. The main attraction for this one is Veidt’s creepy performance, but there is some interest as well with the Fejos touch of double exposures and other disorienting effects. This disc contains a third feature, 1929′s lavishly mounted talkie musical Broadway, which will appear in next week’s F.C.