Worth Watching November 2010
- The Karate Kid (1984), John G. Avildsen – Now this is a family movie, not the tripe that passes for one these days. Pat Morita has created one of cinema’s most beloved iconic characters in Mr Miyagi & his central relationship with Ralph Macchio’s Daniel is genuinely affecting.
- Niagara Falls (1897), The Lumiere Brothers – Yep, made 113 years ago. I found it on youtube and was transfixed, watching it over and over again. The Lumiere’s were two of cinemas founding fathers and it is fantastic that these wonderful images are so readily available online. Check it out here friends, pretty incredible stuff:
- Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (1997), Thomas Jahn – This life affirming German road flick about two terminally ill men is imbued with more spirit than just about any film I’ve seen. Concerns the fact we are all going to die and the way we should live in the face of that.
- The Town (2010), Ben Affleck – Really authentic crime flick taking place in Affleck’s Boston. Well made, violent and gritty film about a life of crime, and how hard it is to escape alive.
- Lucky Country (2009), Kriv Stenders – Interesting early Australia set gothic tale. Wonderful scenery provides the backdrop for a tale that whilst not always completely satisfying still packs enough of a punch to make it worth your while.
- The Frozen North (1922), Edward F. Cline & Buster Keaton – Hilarious North Pole set short sees Keaton playing against type as a bit of a cad. Really nice Western/pioneer spirit to the film. And typical Keaton hilarity of course. Here it is:
- Love You Too (2010), Daina Reid – I am a fan of both Brendan Cowell & Peter Helier so had hopes for this gentle comedy. The inclusion of the fantastic Peter Dinklage really makes this worth a look. Plenty of spirit, quite a few laughs, and an emotional kick at the end to the sounds of what is probably my favourite song of all time all impress.
Not Worth Watching:
- Jackass 3D (2010), Jeff Tremaine – These guys are at their best when they are good-naturedly hurting the shit outta each other. Unfortunately they’ve moved towards stunts featuring bodily fluids and more concerningly animals. I can’t, even in my own small way, endorse a film whose credits state the American Humane Society monitored some scenes & no animals were hurt in those scenes.
- The Last Sunset (1961), Robert Aldrich – In which Kirk Douglas and his hair venture to the ol’ West. Not even his supreme talents coupled with Joseph Cotten’s can elevate this abysmal clichéd Western with unpalatable themes of incest. Cotten, brilliant as always is on screen far too little. He and Douglas only share one scene – the film’s best.
- The Tailor of Panama (2001), John Boorman – Cerebral tale featuring Geoffrey Rush on fine form. Let down by a bland and at times nonsensical narrative and the attempts to make Pierce Brosnan’s character look sleazy, which simply serve to portray all women as utterly stupid.
- The American (2010), Anton Corbijn – Stupid name for a movie really, and for me it was a bit of a nothing film. Confuses nothing really happening for arthouse chops. Entire movie hinged on Clooney’s main character, but I just did not buy him.
If you only have time to watch one Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door
Avoid at all costs The Tailor of Panama
Paul Auster is (along with Dennis Lehane) my favourite living author. I am tempted to say he’s the greatest author still writing, but really who reads enough to be able to make such a sweeping statement. Just as since the start of the film industry literature has inspired film, the opposite is also true. Film has inspired some fantastic works of writing. Auster’s The Book of Illusions (2002) is one of these, and it features some spectacular and detailed descriptions of made up silent films and a storyline with a lot of similarities to the life of Fatty Arbuckle. The book, whilst I don’t think it is Auster’s best, is well worth a read, especially for film buffs. But now to the reason for this piece. As a reward for finishing the uni year, I splurged and bought myself a hardcover copy of Auster’s latest book Sunset Park (2010). According to the dust jacket, one of the focuses of the book is William Wyler’s film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a film I had only vaguely heard of and discovered was on the 1001 list. Later, reading a review of Auster’s book it mentioned that a couple of characters in it go and see Robert Bresson’s film A Man Escaped (1956), a film I had not heard of but that is also on the list. So, before I get cracking on my favourite author’s new one, I thought I would take a look at these two films which clearly inspired him. I’m not sure how widely available they are at the moment. I managed to hire both of them from Electric Shadows here in Canberra, only on VHS though.
The Best Years of Our Lives was released in the year after the end of World War II and deals explicitly with the plight of returning servicemen attempting to reintegrate into a society they’d been outside of for a number of years. The three servicemen are Fred (air force), Al (army) and Homer (navy). They meet up whilst trying to find a flight back to their fictional all-American hometown of Boone City. The characterisation is extraordinary, with so much delightful detail in the individuals and their interplay. Fred was the highest ranking at War, but class-wise back in civilian life is the bottom of the three. Al, a rank and file soldier in the War is a white collar banker back at home. Their personal situations likewise add interest. Fred had only been married 20 odd days before shipping out, so barely knows his wife. Al has been married twenty years and has missed very important years in his teenage children’s lives. Homer had a sweetheart called Wilma before he left, but having lost both his hands in the war, he is frightened at how she will react to his newfound appearance. Just as he is about to leave the other two to see his family and Wilma, Homer basically begs that they all go back to his Uncle’s bar and have a beer. It is a wonderful scene, and the loving forcefulness with which Al and Fred force him out the door firmly establishes their mateship. All three of these romantic relationships evolve over the course of the film wonderfully. The most nuanced of these involves Al and the love of his life, as he attempts to feel at home in his own home again and she struggles to deal with the man who has returned. The man she loves but one who has clearly picked up some demons at the front. This may all sound a bit forced, but believe me it is not. It also may sound like a lot of detail to provide the necessary elaboration for. And you would be right on that one. But the film runs a whopping two hours and fifty minutes, and it is because it tells all three of these men’s stories in great (but not unnecessary) detail. It is nice also that the interactions between the three do not seem forced or just thrown together for the sake of it. They feel natural, and as a viewer I found my interest piqued when they got together after time apart. I don’t really feel more elaboration on the narrative is particularly necessary. Like I have said this is a film about servicemen reintegrating into society, about the worries that face them upon their return – jobs, women and people trying to “rehabilitate” them.
If you consider melodrama to be synonymous with bad, then sit down and watch the three scenes where these soldiers return to their families and eat your words. Yes they are over the top emotionally and in the acting delivery, but they pack a hell of a punch. You can almost feel the joy of Al’s children when he surprises them, or the awkwardness of Homer’s families when faced with the claws that have replaced his hands (should I stare at them? should I not look at them at all?). This is a war film, but there is not one battle scene in the almost three hours of the film. But the phenomenal script is able to evoke war brilliantly without them, see Homer recounting the sinking of his ship for example. Why show something with a tame re-enactment when you can have it related to you by a character who was there? For a film released in 1946 The Best Years of our Lives pulls no punches. There are frank depictions of drunkenness (not in a merry way, more a pissing away all of life’s problems way) and likewise a rather frank, although brief, exposition of the adultery servicemen resorted to ease the pain of overseas service. Add to this the obvious sexual tension between the married Fred and Al’s daughter Peggy and you have morally a pretty forward film. The film is also rich in social commentary. One of the earliest scenes sees Fred trying desperately to find a commercial flight, a returned hero in full uniform trying to get home to see his wife after years away. A rich fat-cat saunters up to the desk, rudely pushes in front of Fred and talks rudely to the lady on the counter. He then pays for the 16 pounds of excess baggage he feels the need to carry with him. Surely we would prefer Fred get the flight than this rich wanker. Fred can’t get a flight home under any circumstances, but this guy can afford the massive excess baggage as well as his ticket. Also an issue is the lack of respect shown by the businessman toward Fred the returned serviceman. This is echoed throughout the film with the disgruntlement shown towards war returnees as they seek to re-enter the labour market. Fred eventually has to take a job as an assistant to the guy who used to be his assistant, one of those who resents the returning soldiers. As someone (possibly Fred) remarks, “last year it was kill Japs, this year it’s make money.” This readjustment is hellishly hard for the three protagonists. Just as they need to reintegrate into society and the job market, these men also have to reintegrate in the same way into their home situations. Their situation is incomprehensible to me, the world has gone on without them, now need to find their way back into it. This is brilliantly evoked by Wyler and the script through Al’s situation. Not only has he missed the formative teenage years of his kids, he has even forgotten that his wife of 20 years does not smoke. These difficulties rear their head on their first night back home in Boone City. A night that began with so much promise concludes with them all ending up pissed in the same bar, Fred and Homer sans their lady friends. At least the bar owner (and Homer’s Uncle) Butch reassures them it will all be ok “unless there’s another war and we’ll all be blown to bits on the first day”.
Acting wise this is a great ensemble piece. No one really stands out, but by the same token you don’t really notice anyone’s shortcomings. People have bagged the acting abilities of the Peter Lorre-esque (in looks rather than acting), real-life amputee Harold Russell in the role of Homer, but I think he does an excellent job. I certainly found him believable, and more importantly natural. He expertly conveys the plight of a man who has withdrawn into his shell, intent on proving to the world that he is still an able man. The performance does not have the staidness that often afflicts those put in films for reasons other then their pure acting ability. Any shortcomings he does have as an actor are drowned out by the incredible dexterity he shows with the hooks that have replaced his hands throughout the film, such as being able to light and smoke a cigarette with ease. And to this day, Russell remains the only person to receive two Oscars for the same performance. He was nominated for best supporting actor in 1947, but was considered such an outsider to win the Academy awarded him a special Oscar for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans”, before he went on to win the other gong as well. Although the film is centred around the three male protagonists, the women give able support. Teresa Wright plays Al’s daughter Peggy and is excellent, just as she is in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Her character goes on a wonderful emotional and romantic journey that matches those of any of the male characters on the film. She switches from determined home wrecker, to a woman refusing to allow her heartbreak to manifest externally with aplomb and believability. Her mother in the film played by Myrna Loy is similarly fantastic in a more traditional support role (with Wright’s Peggy at times borders on being a lead character). The sound design and music on the film also really stood out for me, which is strange because it is the kind of element that I do not generally notice in a film. It really accentuates the action, and not just in bombastic moments. It is fantastic in the scene where Al wakes up with a brutal hangover after the first night back home for example.
I have mentioned a couple of times throughout this piece just how long this film is. Don’t let that put you off the film is measured, taking its necessary time to get where it is going but does not drag. I always thought that the soldiers attempting to reintegrate into society subgenre was borne out of the Vietnam conflict, but this film and Key Largo (1948) have convinced me that this is far from the case, and it was clearly a major issue far earlier. This film is an all-time classic. The script is beyond belief, and surely has very few peers in film history. It is a tale of friendship that that manages to be both serious and uplifting, combining a whole bunch of characters and storylines into borderline perfection.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped is renowned as a minimalist, realist masterpiece. This actually made me a bit wary in approaching this film as I often find films that aim for stringent realism to feel forced, confusing boredom with realism. Our real lives are a little mundane which is why we attempt to lose ourselves in the fantasy world of cinema, no need to recreate it on screen. Early on A Man Escaped threatens to fall victim to this with a scene in a car with extremely shaky camerawork, and silence the belies the fact that cars generally make some noise. Thankfully though the realism throughout the film became more subtle as it went on.
Based on a true story, the film chronicles the attempts of Lieutenant Fontaine to escape Nazi custody. When he is imprisoned at the start of the film Fontaine is shocked and confused as to why his life was spared after he attempted to escape whilst being transported. Soon after incarceration he begins plotting his next escape by digging at his wooden door using a spoon. Bresson, through the early part of the film establishes a neat dichotomy, the men are kept in solitary cells so are essentially on their own, yet a camaraderie springs up between them. This is achieved through communication by tapping on cell walls and over the sink as they clean themselves. The body of the film comes in the form of Fontaine’s small victories in his quest. Managing to pick the lock on his handcuffs, getting out his door, to the hallway, the skylight – a gradual progression that is really well paced. Knowing that the only way to escape his fate is to escape the prison, Fontaine’s determination never wavers. It is given impetus when he is advised that he will soon face execution as the investigation (definitely not trial) into his circumstance has been completed. When he returns to his cell after hearing the news, Fontaine has a cellmate for the first time in the film. At this stage he is very suspicious of the new arrival, believing he may be a spy. The conundrum of whether to take the newcomer with him on his escape is expertly built up. Take him or kill him is the question Fontaine agonises over. Actually the overall tension builds up very slowly throughout the whole film, culminating in the lengthy final escape sequence.
Sound is employed incredibly well by Bresson throughout the film. Generally there is no music. Just silence overlaid with the sounds of Fontaine working – chiselling at the door or manipulating cloth into rope. With many realist features there is not much to talk about regarding technique. And for the most part A Man Escaped fits this mould. It is generally pretty simply shot. The film does make fantastic use of close-ups though. Much of the film consists of close-ups of Fontaine at work, especially when he is digging away at the door to his cell with a spoon. For a POW film there is remarkably little violence, and what there is is generally shown off-screen, with the bloody aftermath shown. However not even this is seen after the film’s most harrowing violent outbursts. These come when bursts of machine gun fire signal that yet another execution has taken place. The effect of this is quite startling, with the loud cacophony exploding against the preceding silence for maximum effect. Thematically the film has a real existential bent to it. The notions of solitude and community are contrasted with one another. One of the prisoners is a priest who copies out bible versus for Fontaine. Fontaine himself appears to have a quiet faith but is more than willing to take things into his own hands, remarking that “it would be too easy if God did it all.”
The great triumph of the film for me was its handling of realism. It brings authenticity to the film rather than boredom. The film is something of a restrained masterpiece. Contrasts between silence and sound are used for emphasis, and Bresson appears to be in total control of his art form. This is a wonderfully textured film and in many ways has restored my faith in the value of realism on screen.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
The Phantom of the Opera
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version is probably the best known version these days, but the Carl Laemmle directed film version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) was an early classic that has stood the test of time reasonably well. It is most notable now because it features ‘the man of 1000 faces’ Lon Chaney in the titular role. I will soon be putting up a review of The Wolfman (1941) which stars his son Lon Chaney Jr who delivers what I think is one of the top 5-10 performances of all time in that film. The attraction of seeing his dad in this film was one of the main reasons I chose to check it out.
The story concerns the Phantom who lurks deep below the opera house in Paris, and Christine, the woman he has fallen for. This film has a lot of bland, flat narrative bits. Nothing is really happening, the direction is uninspiring and the acting outside of Chaney (who is excellent) is serviceable but nothing to write home at. Running 93 minutes, the film feels far too long. A prevalence of shadows, black cats and spiderwebs mean it opens quite atmospherically but this for some reason is lost quite early on in and is not regained. But interspersed throughout this flatness are some absolutely stunning moments. The Phantom causing a massive chandelier to fall to the ground during a performance causing widespread panic, the first time we see his masked face, and the film’s surprising shift into Technicolour where the Phantom appears at a masquerade ball as death dressed in stark red. Without a doubt though the film’s high point is the stunning first unmasking of the Phantom. After warning his muse Christine never to remove his mask, she cannot control her curiosity. She pulls off his mask, with Chaney sitting front on to the camera as the Phantom’s hideous facial features are revealed for the first time. The shock on his face is mirrored by the audiences. The makeup (apparently done by Chaney himself) still looks spectacular even by today’s standards.
In fact a lot of the design elements of this film are top-notch, helping to compensate for the narrative shortcomings. The costumes are opulent and excellent. The Phantom’s aforementioned facial appearance is incredible, as are the two masks he wears throughout the film. When dressed as red death in the ballroom sequence the skull mask he wears is chilling. Likewise the mask he wears for a lot of the film is creepy even today, much more so than the style popularised by Lloyd Webber’s Phantom. Stark white, almost skinlike, with it just hanging off the bottom of his face. Don’t know if it was because I watched this alone after midnight the other night, but I was well and truly creeped out by it. The main opera house set is also incredible. It is massive and ornate, the scale of set is something that you would not really expect from a mid 1920s film and having it bustling with extras adds to a wonderful sense of Parisian excess. The sewer-like underground lair of the Phantom is also monumentally constructed, including vast water sources which need to be crossed in a boat.
This film is worth a watch, just to see such an early rendering of this story. And the high points are really really high. But the flatness of much of the storyline mean it is not the wholly enchanting experience it threatened to be. Check it our here, and let me know if you agree:
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
Stop Your Rambling #2
My earlier blog titled Stop Your Rambling proved relatively popular. So I thought I would make it a semi-regular feature. Three films from the 1001 list, one thousand words. Here we go.
Goodfellas (1990) – The film that sends Scorsese fanboys all around the world into fits of delirium. Don’t even get them started on the Coco Cabana tracking shot please.
Based on a true story the film charts the rise of young Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta, through the ranks of the mob. Especially it focuses on his relationship with the utterly psycho Tommy, played by Joe Pesci who is very good, and Robert De Niro’s James Conway. Strangely when Henry and Tommy are meant to be young, early twenties up and comers they are played by actors who are, and look somewhere between 40-50. Usually I let these things slide in a film, but it jars for me in this. Especially because the film covers a lot of time (20-30 years) and there are really no signs of ageing, except De Niro whacking some more grey in his hair. Initially there is great camaraderie between these characters and their mob brethren. It is amazing how quickly though loyalty goes out the window though when someone ends up in jail or there is more money to be made from disloyalty. Money is king to these men, and they’ll forsake anyone to get a little more. They also enjoy killing people for very little reason and treating women (generally their wives) like utter shit. Eventually, like any golden-age gangster flick, these guys all get what’s coming to them.
This is a film clearly made by an expert, its very pretty to look at. Scorsese is extremely proficient, mixing up the straightforward shooting with point of view and tracking shots. And as far as late gangster flicks go it’s generally regarded as the pick of the pack. It’s just not a real personal favourite of mine and for me never reaches the heights of a great film. I don’t find it particularly exciting and I don’t relate to these characters at all.
Verdict: Stubby of Reschs
Thelma and Louise (1991) directed by Ridley Scott before he felt the need to make every film with Russel Crowe, in many ways turned the road film on its head. Geena Davis’ Thelma and Susan Sarandon’s Louise are two Arkansas ladies looking to escape the shitty men in their lives for a few days. After Louise shoots a would-be rapist they end up on the run, with Thelma dabbling in armed robbery to finance proceedings.
I am a massive fan of Geena Davis, she is an outstanding actress. And the journey of her character carries this film, ably supported by Sarandon in a less flashy role. Actually the acting in this film in general is superb. Harvey Keitel is wonderful as a caring cop as is Michael Madsen as Louise’s man, gradually managing to be less of an asshole. Their brief onscreen relationship is really nicely done. Finishing second only to Davis in the acting stakes is Christopher McDonald as her hilariously deadbeat husband. Shooter McGavin from the classic Happy Gilmore (1996) is so smarmy I lost count of the times I wanted to smack that moustache right off his face.
The fleeing of the women across the states allows Scott to pile on the gorgeous widescreen shots of the American countryside, always under impossibly blue skies. The confronting attempted rape of Thelma triggers an increasingly out of control chain of events including numerous crimes perpetrated by the two ladies. Witnessing Davis’ Thelma grow from timid housewife to an utter badass who doesn’t take shit from anyone is terrific fun. And the ending. Wow. I won’t give it away, but if you have seen in let me know what you think of it. I’m a little torn by it, but I do appreciate the fact that Scott avoids any level of tweeness in his conclusion, which is where I thought the film was heading.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
Dersu Uzala (1974) is the first Kurosawa film I’ve seen. Best known for The Seven Samurai (1954) Kurosawa is probably the most famous ‘world’ cinema director in history. Set in the early 1900s this is possibly the strangest ‘buddy’ film I’ve ever seen. It chronicles the relationship between the leader of a Russian military surveying team and an elderly woodsman. The woodsman, named Dersu and played by Maksim Mumzuk is one of the great characters of cinema. This compact man is at first mocked by the soldiers for his strange, in their eyes primitive ways. However gradually all the soldiers learn to love and respect Dersu, which sounds a bit lacklustre in theory, but the delivery is anything but. The Captain, played by Yuri Solomin who is incredible, recognises the wisdom of Dersu very early on and rightfully places a great deal of trust in his elderly colleague. These two are backed by a support cast of really interesting characters.
A number of set-pieces including Dersu saving the captain’s life by building a makeshift shelter as the night closes in and one involving a raft took my breath away. In some ways this film is reminiscent of Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) but I personally think it is superior. It is shot in a very naturalistic style which reflects the themes of civilisation vs wilderness perfectly. The film was shot over two years in Siberia, and the result is one of the most scenic films I have ever witnessed. The shots of a wilderness probably none of us will ever witness in person are a gift. The sound effects of nature are turned right up, so bird calls, wind and rustling of leaves punctuate the action.
A lot of the notes I took while watching this film were just single words – philosophical, beguiling, metaphorical. This is one of those films that cannot be adequately described by words. It has immediately become one of my absolute favourite films and I would encourage you all to check it out. But make sure you watch it with subtitles, not the infernal dubbing.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter