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Ten Greatest Films Of All Time
I must I need to make a listing of the Ten Greatest Films of All Time, my first vow is to make the list for myself, not for anybody else. I am sure than Eisenstein’s “The Battleship Potemkin” is a good film, but it’s not going on my list simply so I can impress people. Nor will I avoid “Casablanca” just because it is so popular: I love it all the identical.
If I have a criterion for choosing the greatest films, it is an emotional one. These are films that moved me deeply in a technique or another. The cinema is the greatest organic hair mask for dry hair art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That is what it does best. (For those who argue instead for dance or music, drama or painting, I will reply that the cinema incorporates all of those arts). That is where the Marxists were wrong. If a movie changes your vote or your mind, it does so by appealing to your emotions, not your reason. And so my greatest films should be films that had me sitting transfixed before the screen, involved, committed, and feeling.
After seeing this film many times, I believe I finally understand why I love it so much. It is not due to the romance, or the humor, or the intrigue, although those elements are masterful. It’s because it makes me happy with the characters. These will not be heroes — not apart from Paul Heinreid’s resistance fighter, who in some ways is the most predictable character within the film. These are realists, pragmatists, survivors: Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine, who sticks his neck out for nobody, and Claude Rains’ police inspector, who follows rules and tries to remain out of trouble. At the tip of the film, after they rise to heroism, it’s so moving because heroism is just not of their makeup. Their better nature simply informs them what they must do.
The sheer beauty of the film can also be compelling. The black-and-white closeups of Ingrid Bergman, probably the most bravely vulnerable woman in movie history. Bogart together with his cigarette and his bottle. Greenstreet and Lorre. Dooley Wilson at the piano, looking up with pain when he sees Bergman enter the room. The shadows. “As Time Goes By.” If there is ever a time after they decide that some movies ought to be spelled with an upper-case M, “Casablanca” should be voted first on the list of Movies.
I have just seen it again, a shot at a time, analyzing it frame-by-frame out on the University of Colorado at Boulder. We took 10 hours and really looked at this film, which is routinely named one of the best film of all time, almost by default, in list after list. Maybe it is. It’s some movie. It tells of all of the seasons of a man’s life, shows his weaknesses and hurts, surrounds him with witnesses who remember him but don’t know the way to explain him. It ends its search for “Rosebud,” his dying word, with a final image that explains everything and nothing, and although some critics say the image is superficial, I say it is extremely deep indeed, because it illustrates the way that human happiness and pain just isn’t found in big ideas but in the little victories or defeats of childhood. Orson Welles, together with his radio background, was capable of segue from one scene to a different using sound as his connecting link. In one sustained stretch, he covers 20 years between “Merry Christmas” and “A really happy New Year.” The piano playing of Kane’s young friend Susan leads into their relationship, his applause leads into his campaign, where applause is the bridge again to a political rally that leads to his downfall, when his relationship with Susan is unmasked. We get a 3-part miniseries in five minutes.
I do not expect many readers to have heard of this film, or of Yasujiro Ozu, who directed it, but this Japanese master, who lived from 1903 to 1963 and whose prolific career bridged the silent and sound eras, saw things through his films in a way that no one else saw. Audiences never stop to think, after they go to the movies, how they understand what an in depth-up is, or a reaction shot. They learned that language in childhood, and it was codified and popularized by D. W. Griffith, whose films were studied everywhere on the earth — except in Japan, where for a time a distinctively different visual style seemed to be developing. Ozu fashioned his style by himself, and never changed it, and to see his films is to be inside a totally alternative cinematic language.
“Floating Weeds,” like lots of his films, is deceptively simple. It tells of a troupe of traveling actors who return to an isolated village where their leader left a woman behind many years ago — and, we discover, he also left a son. Ozu weaves an atmosphere of peaceful tranquility, of music and processions and leisurely conversations, and then explodes his emotional secrets, which cause people to discover their true natures. It is all done with hypnotic visual beauty. After years of being available only in a shabby, beaten-up version usually often known as “Drifting Weeds,” this film has now been re-released in superb videotape and laserdisc editions. Made in the late 1970s by Errol Morris, it might look like a documentary about some people involved in a couple of pet cemeteries in Northern California. Oh, it is factual enough: The people on this film really exist, and so does the pet cemetery. But Morris shouldn’t be concerned with his apparent subject. He has made a film about life and death, pride and shame, deception and betrayal, and the stubborn quirkiness of human nature.
He points his camera at his subjects and lets them talk. But he points it for hours on end, patiently until finally they use the language in ways that reveal their most hidden parts. I’m moved by the son who speaks of success but cannot grasp it, the old man whose childhood pet was killed, the cocky guy who runs the tallow plant, the woman who speaks of her dead pet and says, “There’s your dog, and your dog’s dead. But there must be something that made it move. Isn’t there ” In those words is the central question of every religion. After which, within the extraordinary centerpiece of the film, there’s the old woman Florence Rasmussen, sitting within the doorway of her home, delivering a spontaneous monolog that Faulkner would have killed to have written.
“La Dolce Vita”
Fellini’s 1960 film has grown passe in some circles, I’m afraid, but I love it more than ever. Forget about its message, in regards to the “sweet life” along Rome’s Via Veneto, or concerning the contrasts between the sacred and the profane. Simply look at Fellini’s ballet of movement and sound, the graceful way he choreographs the camera, the way the actors move. He never made a more “Felliniesque” film, or a greater one.
Then sneak up on the topic from inside. Forget what made this film trendy and scandalous more than 30 years ago. Ask what it really says. It’s a few man (Marcello Mastroianni in his definitive performance) driven to distraction by his hunger for love, and driven to despair by his complete inability to be able to love. He seeks love from the neurosis of his fiancee, through the fleshy carnality of a movie goddess, from prostitutes and princesses. He seeks it in miracles and drunkenness, at night and at dawn. He thinks he can glimpse it within the life of his friend Steiner, who has a wife and kids and a house where music is played and poetry read. But Steiner is as despairing as he is. And eventually Marcello gives up and sells out and at dawn sees a pale young girl who wants to remind him of the novel he meant to put in writing someday, but he is hung over and cannot hear her shouting across the waves, and so the message is lost. He made movies that don’t date, that fascinate and amuse, that everybody enjoys and that shout out in every frame that they’re by Hitchcock. On the earth of film he was known simply because the Master. But what was he the Master of What was his philosophy, his belief, his message It appears that he had none. His purpose was simply to pluck the strings of human emotion — to play the audience, he said, like a piano. Hitchcock was always hidden behind the genre of the suspense film, but as you see his movies time and again, the greatness stays after the suspense becomes familiar. He made pure movies.
“Notorious” is my favorite Hitchcock, a pairing of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, with Claude Rains the tragic third corner of the triangle. Because she loves Grant, she agrees to seduce Rains, a Nazi spy. Grant takes her act of pure love as a tawdry thing, proving she is a notorious woman. And when Bergman is being poisoned, he misreads her confusion as drunkenness. While the hero plays a rat, however, the villain (Rains) becomes an object of sympathy. He does love this woman. He would throw over all of Nazi Germany for her, probably — if he weren’t under the spell of his domineering mother, who pulls his strings until they choke him.
Ten years ago, Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” was on my list of the ten best films. I think “Raging Bull” addresses a few of the identical obsessions, and is a deeper and more confident film. Scorsese used the identical actor, Robert De Niro, and the same screenwriter, Paul Schrader, for both films, and they’ve the same buried themes: A man’s jealousy about a woman, made painful by his own impotence, and expressed through violence.
Some day if you want to see movie acting nearly as good as any ever placed on the screen, look at a scene two-thirds of the best way through “Raging Bull.” It takes place in the living room of Jake LaMotta, the boxing champion played by De Niro. He’s fiddling with a TV set. His wife comes in, says hello, kisses his brother, and goes upstairs. This begins to bother LaMotta. He begins to quiz his brother (Joe Pesci). The brother says he don’t know nothin’. De Niro says maybe he does not know what he knows. The way in which the dialog expresses the inner twisting logic of his jealousy is insidious. De Niro keeps talking, and Pesci tries to run but can’t hide. And step by step, word by word, we witness a man helpless to stop himself from destroying everyone who loves him. I saw it for the first time in a little bit fleabox of a theater on the Left Bank in Paris, in 1962, during my first $5 a day trip to Europe. It was so sad, so beautiful, so romantic, that it became without delay a organic hair mask for dry hair part of my own memories — as if it had happened to me. There’s infinite poignancy in the love that the failed writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) feels for the woman (Alida Valli) who loves the “dead” Harry Lime (Orson Welles). Harry treats her horribly, but she loves her idea of him, he neither he nor Holly can ever change that. Other than the story, look at the visuals! The tense conversation on the enormous ferris wheel. The large, looming shadows at night. The carnivorous faces of individuals seen within the bombed-out streets of postwar Vienna, where the movie was shot on location. The chase through the sewers. And naturally the moment when the cat rubs against a shoe in a doorway, and Orson Welles makes essentially the most dramatic entrance within the history of the cinema. All done to the music of a single zither.
I have very particular reasons for including this film, which is the least familiar title on my list but one which I defy anyone to observe without fascination. No other film I have ever seen does a better job of illustrating the mysterious and haunting way during which the cinema bridges time. The movies themselves play with time, condensing days or years into minutes or hours. Then going to old movies defies time, because we see and hear people who are actually dead, sounding and looking out exactly the same. Then the movies toy with our personal time, after we revisit them, by recreating for us precisely the identical experience we had before. Then look what Michael Apted does with time on this documentary, which he began more than 30 years ago. He made a movie called “7-Up” for British television. It was about a gaggle of British 7-year-olds, their dreams, fears, ambitions, families, prospects. Fair enough. Then, seven years later, he made “14 Up,” revisiting them. Then came “21 Up” and, in 1985. “28 Up,” and next year, just in time for the Sight & Sound list, will come “35 Up.” And so the film will continue to grow… 42… 49… 56… 63… until Apted or his subjects are dead.
The miracle of the film is that it shows us that the seeds of the man are indeed in the child. In a sense, the destinies of all of those people might be guessed in their eyes, the first time we see them. Some do better than we expect, some worse, one seems completely bewildered. But the secret and mystery of human personality is there from the first. This ongoing film is an experiment unlike the rest in film history.
“2001: A space Odyssey”
Film can take us where we cannot go. It also can take our minds outside their shells, and this film by Stanley Kubrick is one among the good visionary experiences within the cinema. Yes, it was a landmark of special effects, so convincing that years later the astronauts, faced with the truth of outer space, compared it to “2001.” But it was also a landmark of non-narrative, poetic filmmaking, through which the connections were made by images, not dialog or plot. An ape uses to learn a bone as a weapon, and this tool, flung into the air, transforms itself into a space ship–the tool that can free us from the bondage of this planet. After which the spaceship takes man on a voyage into the interior of what will be the mind of another species. Surely the whole point of the film is that it’s beyond meaning, that it takes its character to a place he is so incapable of understanding that a special room–kind of a hotel room–needs to be prepared for him there, so that he is not going to go mad. The movie lyrically and brutally challenges us to break out of the illusion that everyday mundane concerns are what must preoccupy us. It argues that surely man did not learn to think and dream, only to deaden himself with provincialism and selfishness. “2001” is a spiritual experience. But then all good movies are.
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