07 September 2014

The Films That Sustained During Recent Tribulations (Actually it Wasn't So Much Tribulations as Ten Days off From Work)

It's not that all I ever do is watch movies, it just seems that way to my family, friends and anyone with whom I have a passing acquaintance. With ten full days off from my labors and no trip to take, I was left pretty much at home to write, read, make trips to the gym and watch films. Not one to waste an opportunity, I managed to squeeze in 14 films. If you look very carefully you will find below a few comments on each of these movies.

The Departed (2006) This was my third time watching, I was showing it to youngest daughter whose cinematic tastes have greatly improved of late. I like it well enough but it represents a problem I have with the great director Martin Scorsese. Among his earlier work are some of the classic films of American cinema. Among his later work are some pretty good films but nothing to match the brilliance that was on display in Raging Bull (1980), Taxi Driver (1975) or Goodfellas (1990). The Departed is an example of how his raw, powerful and innovative story-telling power has given way to sometimes bloated over done star studded spectaculars. Departed has a big star or two or three in every scene and I believe that's part of the problem. There's Matt Damon, oh look it's Leo, now here's Nicholson, and Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen, Mark Whalberg. What Clark Gable wasn't available? They all fill up the screen with big star performances. The Departed is too much of what it is. Just watch Scorsese's first major film, Mean Streets (1973) and you'll see how story telling has given way to the kind of excess that made The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) an overly long mediocrity.

Adaptation (2002). I really like Charlie Kaufman the screenwriter. He doesn't just think outside the box he builds a new damn box and goes in there to think. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which he wrote, is a brilliant film. Adaptation is the very clever story of a screenwriter struggling with a script and then becoming a character in it and yes of course Kaufman based it on his struggles with the screenplay. Although here he has a twin brother/doppelganger. Nicholas Cage plays the boys and Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Tilda Swinton head the rest of the gang. It's all a lot of fun and thought provoking and clever but in a way that just feels too obvious for me. I like the film and appreciate the effort but I'm not gaga.

The Strawberry Statement (1970) This is the worst film that I love. While it is a generally shoddy bit of film making it also manages to encapsulate the campus unrest of the late Sixties/Early Seventies. It makes me damn nostalgic is what it does. The music, which includes songs from Neil Young, Buffy Saint Marie and those one hit wonders, Thunderclap Newman, is the perfect accompaniment to this story about a young man who falls into his university protest and falls in love in the process. There is every bit of the feel of that time and I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the time period and what the protest movement was like. I would not however recommend it to anyone studying cinema. Look for a very young Bob Balaban in the cast and a pre Harold and Maude (1971) Bud Cort. Kim Darby (I had a crush on her at the time) is the love interest and Bruce Davison the star. Seeing this film upon its release was de rigueur in my circle and I reveled in it. All these years later it has a different but not less powerful meaning. Yup, those were the days.

Hearts and Minds (1974) Speaking of those times, if you want to understand American involvement in Vietnam you could do a lot worse than starting with Hearts and Mind which I consider the best documentary of all time. There is so much here about the experience of the US soldier in Vietnam, about the attitudes of the generals and political "minds" who crafted the war, about the feelings of those back home and most importantly about the impact of U.S. involvement on the Vietnamese people. An important historical document that of course our leaders haven't learned a wit from.

Blade Runner (1982). I not only love the look of this film from director Ridley Scott, but Harrison Ford's performance as the oh-so-vulnerable titular character. His name is actually Deckard but he is a blade runner, those brave souls of the future who go about terminating cyborgs who wonder back to the planet to potentially cause trouble. Deckard essentially gets bested by them all in battle but wins out by luck, help from his friends and his foes' cockiness. Rutger Hauer is brilliant as public enemy number one and good gosh but I wish they still made Sci Fi films like this.

Inglourious Basterds (2009). What is most striking after repeat viewings of Tarantino's masterpiece is the theme of deception and pretending. The opening scene -- one of the greats in all of film -- sets the tone with the evil Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz) pretending he doesn't suspect there is a family of Nazis cowering below the floorboards. Meanwhile the interrogated farmer must likewise pretend there's no one below. In this film people pretend to be Nazis, Italians, gentiles, you name it. In the famous rendezvous bar scene people are playing a game in which they don't know who they are but everyone else does. We all pretend to be someone else except when we're the only one who doesn't know who we are. Most everyone pays for their lies including that evil Col. Landa. Brad Pitt's performance as Aldo Raines gets better with each viewing and director/screenwriter Quentin Tarantino's script is more brilliant with each viewing.

The Silence (1963). I mentioned The Silence in a post a few days ago and have written an entire piece about it as well. Ingmar Bergman is my favorite director and this film ranks in my personal top ten of his works. The child, the porter, the sisters the unnamed Eastern European country, the heat, the looming war, the sex. Sex. Sex and heat. The lack of communication. The symbolism. Oh yes and the circus troupe of midgets. I would never dare try to make sense of it all. Just bits of for me. Bits at a time are such a feast.

The Big Lebowski (1998). What a great re-discovery this has been for me. I've written about this one a couple of times recently and probably will again soon. My appreciation for the Coen Brothers has skyrocketed since I recently re-watched all their films and yes I should soon be writing a lengthy post about them. They of course write and direct as so many of the greats do. They write great parts too, sometimes for the wonderful John Goodman, as here. Jeff Bridges and Steve Buscemi and for that matter the rest of the cast got some juicy roles too and dove write in. The Coens, also like many of the greats, know how to use music not as part of the background to the story but as an integral part of it. But its the dialogue that keeps you coming back. The Dude: "Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not "Mr. Lebowski". You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm the Dude. So that's what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing." You've got to love a movie with lines like that.

Synecdoche, New York (2008). Once again kudos to Charlie Kaufman in this case not only for writing but directing. Many people greatly admire this film, the late great Roger Ebert named it the best of the decade. Ebert argued that the film was about life itself. Well I for one admire the hell out of the movie but don't particularly love it. It's about as subtle as an electric guitar solo. While Bergman carefully crafted his stories with messages aplenty for viewers to wonder about and contemplate, this is one loud shout. Its a most worthy endeavor and I have no quarrel with those who love it. Just not my thing.

The Man Without a Past (2002). This was the first film from the great Finnish director, Aki Kaurismaki that I ever watched. I have since seen all that are available and he has become one of my favorites and no not just because I am a fellow Finn. This is a good place to start with Aki. Like all his films it steers away from any kind of excess. The characters are placed in situations and work there way through. There is no glamour just honest stories with subtle humor but void of overt sentimentality. Understatement can be a most powerful kind of statement.

Joan of Paris (1942). This is one of a slew of propaganda pieces Hollywood churned out during the war. Some of them were great films like Casablanca (1942), some of them stunk to high heaven like So Proudly We Hail (1943) and many more were pretty good films like this one in which Paul Henreid and Michele Morgan star. Henreid was no stranger to such movies having featured in the aforementioned Casablanca. Morgan is best known for her role in Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows (1938). Henreid is nice enough but in Port she played upset the great Jean Gabin. Here she is a woman named Joan who is living in Paris (hence the title!) and she falls in love with Henreid and helps him and his fellow flyers escape from the evil Nazis. The Gestapo co stars as the evilest of the evil. Not a bad film.

Melancholia (2011) The apocalypse never looked so beautiful. Another of my favorite films of all time. It is so rich in themes and moods and talking points. Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are sisters and the world is about to go kablooey. Although no one is certain that the planet heading in their direction will really wipe out Earth until the day the feared event happens. Dunst struggles mightily with sanity but then becomes both calm and omniscient and it is sis who is cracking up. Lars von Trier directed and did a superb job.

On Dangerous Ground (1951) We now live in a world in which too many people have never heard of Robert Ryan or Ida Lupino. The two star in this fine film from RKO, labeled a noir but not so easily classified. Lupino also did a bit of directing including filling in for Nicholas Ray on this one. This is one of those films from the time period which were short and sweet and for my money too short. It clocked in at 81 minutes and is a taut interesting story about a big city police detective (Ryan) struggling with the reality of his job and the lowlifes he sees everyday and his lonely home life. He's sent up into the snowy country to help with a murder investigation where he encounters the killer's sister (Lupino) who has her own struggles. Ward Bond plays the victim's dad and is quite good. But this is a movie that could have done with some fleshing out. Sitting through another 20 minutes or so wouldn't have killed anybody and in return the characters could have been more fully realized and the film so much better.

Where Eagles Dare (1968). This was my first ever viewing of the only collaboration between Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. There's a screen odd couple for you. Speaking of odd this is an odd one in that it has surprising  plot twists that can cause momentary confusion but make for a compelling storyline. But at the same time the action scenes are ridiculously excessive with stupid Nazis charging like Indians at a stagecoach in earlier film and getting gunned down ever so easily. Meanwhile our heroes seem impervious to bullets save one that nicks Burton's hand. I tell ya I would have loved this movie as a kid and can't believe I never saw it. While there is plenty of shooting and explosions and chasing there is an interesting story to boot. The locale is magnificent with all but a few scenes set in the the gorgeous Austrian Alps. Our plucky heroes are sent to a Nazi mountain stronghold for reasons that shift from time to time. This shifting is a good thing as it keeps this from being just another run of the mill World War II action/adventure flick as were so many in the Fifties and Sixties. It was a long film at nearly two and half hours but there's nary a yawn in it. A favorite of the Coen brothers and Steven Spielberg.

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