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Do The Locomotion: 22 Great Train Films

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 11, 2010 at 6:54AM

Films and trains: they go way back. Take the Lumière brothers' pioneering their new cinématographe invention in 1895 with “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” or 1903’s “The Great Train Robbery,” widely considered to be the foundation for all narrative cinema; it seems that back then, anyone holding a movie camera could think of nothing better to do with it than point it at a train. The two were, of course, born of similar mechanical, pre-electronic technology; cogs and spokes and sprockets keep a locomotive on its tracks, even as their tinier counterparts spool celluloid through a projector.
5

“Café Lumière” (2003)
Sandwiched between the charming "Millennium Mambo" and the ambitious triple-threat of love stories chronicled in "Three Times," the studio-funded ode to Ozu and composer Jiang Wen-Ye also functioned as a love letter the locomotive. Yoko (Yo Hitoto) finds romantic interest in Hajime (Tadanobu Asano, of "Ichi the Killer") while researching the life of the deceased songwriter. As a man that's obsessed with trains and devotes much of his time to sound recording various different lines (even constructing a deftly detailed art piece involving trains and himself, fetus-like, in the middle), he's fairly emotionally distant and Yoko's interest goes deftly unnoticed. Throwing his own style and Ozu's in a blender proves to be unmoving, as Ozu's tone is drained of charm and in turn the picture feels haphazard. The focus on trains is equally aimless; it never feels particularly special or affecting no matter how much director Hou Hsiao-hsien drives it home, despite the lengthy duration of attention it is given. The scene in which Hajime shares his train picture with Yoko is the biggest offender, and instead of being intimate the insistence of the director is blatant. Consequently, the tone becomes rather silly and the rest of the film a chore. [D+]

"The Lady Vanishes" (1938)
Alfred Hitchcock's early British mysteries are marked by wit, humor and a positively romping pace, and "The Lady Vanishes" is no exception -- in fact, it's one of his most exceptional early films and one of the last he made in England before packing it up for Hollywood. The picture is a classic psychological mystery, and another Hitch-confines-himself-to-a-single-setting exercise in suspense. It's also totally absurd and hilarious; an outright comedy from the master of suspense, concerning a group of British travelers in the fictional country Bandrika (but why do the locals have Italian accents?), who are tossed together in a local inn when their train is delayed by an avalanche. Young Iris (Margaret Lockwood) gets brained by the ol’ falling flower pot maneuver while waiting on the platform, pushed by a pair of hands intending the pot for governess Miss Froy. Iris dozes off on board the train and awakens to find seatmate Miss Froy gone, and no one willing to even admit they saw her, or believe Iris herself. She and fellow traveler Gilbert (Michael Redgrave) set off to search, and a wild-goose chase set within the confines of the train ensues, revealing a plot of international espionage, a subsequent action-packed shootout, and of course, a bit of romance. The film itself never goes off the rails (see what I did there?) and Hitch keeps the plot racing, but leaves some breathing room for the funnier supporting characters to riff. "The Lady Vanishes" is a rollicking good time in the hands of the master suspense-man, and a fun, lighthearted entry into his canon. [B+]

“The Darjeeling Limited” (2007)
As Wes Anderson’s most grown-up picture, “The Darjeeling Limited” is still chock-full of the twee flourishes that define a director who popularized a hipster-friendly, sophisticated and permanent adolescence a good decade before Judd Apatow’s weed-fueled, pot-bellied, man-children scored with starlets far beyond their reach. But that’s straying beyond our focus -- those looking for an insightful take on the most recent Anderson contribution to the Criterion Collection can read Jamie Rich’s excellent piece over at his blog Criterion Confessions

.The titular train plays a definite supporting role, lensed by enduring collaborator Robert Yeoman in typical Anderson fashion with a Bollywood twist -- colors pop off the screen and a pleasant saturation of orange and teal provide for soothing compositions. As Francis (Owen Wilson), Peter (Adrien Brody) and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) ritualistically build up and define their spaces in a roomy compartment and proceed to bicker across the changing landscape of the film, the decorated vehicle snaking across the Indian countryside is the only unchanging element in an otherwise chaotic spiritual journey the brothers are proceeding on. Though they invite trouble with a pet snake and continuously invite the ire of the chief steward (the largely mute but awfully expressive Waris Ahluwalia), the boys’ journey doesn’t really begin until they are thrown off the train -- in the meantime, they enjoy the comforts afforded by a wealthy lifestyle, and we drink in Indian culture from the point of view of one representative vehicle. [B+]

“Closely Watched Trains” (1966)
Czechoslovakian filmmaker Jiří Menzel’s 1966 coming-of-age debut feature is one of those foreign films we just don’t get. Or rather, it’s one of those highly lauded foreign films -- it won the 1967 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it’s on Criterion, it won a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, etc. -- that sort of gives foreign language films a bad name. Or at least, it’s a very poor entry point choice for any semi-intolerable American film student who’s looking to dip their toe into international cinema. Let’s admit it, it’s slow and rather boring. Vaclav Neckar plays a Czech railroad worker during the Nazi occupation, who is so green and pathetic in matters of love he attempts suicide after he has a premature ejaculation with the one woman who will give him a free toss (dude, calm down, no one’s super in control of their junk in their teens). Eventually the naive kid becomes part of the Czech underground and volunteers for a suicide mission for the greater good. He dies. Menzel was asked by the Czech Communist authorities to return his Oscar, but he refused. Or maybe we just need to watch it again. But hell, there’s simply other things to do too, like watch TV. [C]

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