SPRING SUMMER FALL WINTER… AND SPRING
“Go and find all the animals and release them from the stones. Then I will release you too. But if any of the animals, the fish, the frog or the snake is dead… you will carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life.” – Master to Protégé
The first time I watched it, I thought, “Wow, this is beautiful. But I don’t think I can last all the way through if there isn’t a story to support it.” Months of contemplation after I saw it, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003, South Korea) became, for me, the Greatest Film Ever Made. A feat that bumps works by Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles and the Coen Bros. to runners-up. On my best days, it is a film I can talk about uninterrupted for hours. But only so much can be said in an essay to reach those who are unacquainted (which face it, is almost all of you readers). With those I know, I rhapsodically crave to share conversation over it. I want to discuss it with people who know more than I do, with people that know less than me, and with people who know way less. What’s it about? It’s about nothing less than spiritual birth and the renewal of the human soul.
In a beautiful locale that is the epitome of solace, a Buddhist pagoda floats on a lake that is, in every direction seen, removed from civilization. The Master (Yeong-su Oh), who has chosen a life of celibacy and prayer, cares after a young boy (Jong-ho Kim) whom he raises to be a monk like him. Their whole life centers around isolation and prayer – which sounds too inhibiting to the possibilities of a human life until you begin to admire the purity of it. What astounds me, as an aside, is the performance by Yeong-su whom I don’t see as an actor but as a genuine spiritual presence.
All boys demonstrate mischief at one time or another. The boy ties a stone to a fish, a frog and a snake to watch them suffer and giggles while he’s doing it. He awakes the next morning to find a heavy rock on his back, tightly bound, that his master has calculated. Untie the animals is the command. “You will carry the stone in your heart for the rest of your life,” the Master pronounces if the animals are dead. That’s the first 15 minutes of the film.
The film leap years ahead with each passage representing a new season. In the summer, we see the boy has now become a young monk (Seo Jae-kyung). The master and monk welcome the arrival of a mother (Kim Jung-young) and her young teenage girl (Ha Yeo-jin) who is sick, although we never learn what her illness is. It could be many things, and because there is no bodily damage or sign of cancer, we can assume that this is a spiritual sickness that stems from trauma.
The young protégé and girl like each other. Celibacy is broken, and the film is not shy about sex. But observe with wonder – here’s a boy who has discovered sex naturally without the aid of pornography, the jade of social media, the influence of puerile schoolboys. I envy how sex is discovered naturally as well as absolutely. Sex for the girl feels positive as well. It is implied to be a cure for whatever she is going through.
Up until now, we observe change in attitudes of a young man in reconsidering his devout life. We have observed daily rituals and then we see broken rituals, moments of the boy rebelling. We witness the faults of the young boy and then the transgressions of him later as a young man. We witness the joys of sex, the clarity of solitude, and the disconnect of those two that cause inner conflict. To explain practically: I sometimes want something else from my life, but then destiny kicks in and urges me to continue with my life’s work. I had wished to alter my identity, but destiny has already been decided.
I have sometimes acted out in fury in my lifetime as well, and have struggled to return to my calm center. The young boy deserts his master and upbringing, leaving for a decade. He returns as a grown-up (now played by Young Min-Kim) who is possessed by inconsumable rage. What does it really take for a man of anger to return to a calm center? The Fall segment of the film depicts his penance, which calls for humility as well as concentration. Accepting beatings is part of his rehabilitation.
I would find it negligent to not mention yoga for the Winter segment. This discipline is a means to restoration of the pure spiritual practices the character grew up on. New visitors come, a mother and a baby which become a new responsibility. It’s evident that the protégé has now become master because he has accepted this as his identity. He has attained likeness to his Master – whom has passed. And yet something tells us he has reincarnated into the vessel of an animal. It could feel like a throwaway shot but somehow the animal of choice seems to move with purpose, with an acute awareness. I wonder how many shots it required to achieve this.
The final “…and Spring” is the briefest segment. We have come to witness the circle of life, all in a 95 minute film. The directing is always highly conscious, relevant, and visually strong.
The filmmaker is Kim Ki-Duk who has been lucky enough to make 18 films with hardly one of them pandering to commercialism. In his twenties, he traveled to Paris to become a painter, selling art on the streets. He was not a film aficionado, he attests. But in that year of 1991 he saw three films that made him want to become a filmmaker: “Lovers on the Bridge,” “The Lover” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” When you see Ki-Duk’s films, you will notice many murals in the background which he draws himself. Also the oldest version of the character in “Spring Summer Fall Winter… and Spring” is the only time Ki-Duk has acted in himself.
There is a lack of conventionality and formula in Ki-Duk’s films, perhaps because he did not grow up indoctrinated by formula films since he saw so few. Let me list in order my favorite films of his: “3-Iron” (2005) is a beautiful and spiritually deep love story that is also among the very best films ever made; “The Isle” (2000) is a mind-bending allegory on controlling others through sex; “The Bow” (2005) is as upsetting film I’ve seen about the lengths a man will go through to possess a young girl; “Time” (2006) is the most haunting toxic relationship movie I’ve seen – it almost cuts too close to the bone.
Ki-Duk’s other films are equally uncompromising. “Samaritan Girl” (2004) contains audacious material of a teen needlessly prostituting herself when she has a caring father and a decent middle class home; “Address Unknown” (2001) is one of the most despairing movies I’ve ever seen, examining Korean citizen poverty set in a region outside of a U.S. army base; “Birdcage Inn” (1998) about a family so poor they send their daughter to school by day and prostitute her at night; “The Coast Guard” (2002) is of a soldier’s guilt after the accidental killing of a local citizen, an interesting and worthy drama until the protagonist becomes a symbolic abstraction. Accumulatively, and overall, these films have changed what I’m looking for when I watch film.
Kim Ki-Duk’s euphoric film is to be carried with you in your heart and mind, day to day, for now and for the future, from birth to old age. Mesmerizing is not a word I’ve used often. I had trouble writing this essay because my eyes are glued to the screen. To get the words printed here I’d have to put it on pause even though I’ve seen it ten times already. With no sound on, it still transports me into a realm of altered states.
Click here to read feature on best films of the decade article.
95 Minutes. Rated R.
“The Last Temptation of Christ” (1988); “Orlando” (1993); “Chunhyang” (2000, South Korea); “Waking Life” (2001); “3-Iron” (2005, South Korea); “The Master” (2012).
THE BAND WAGON
“She was scared. Scared as a turkey in November.” – Tony Hunter
“Singin’ in the Rain” is supposed to be my all-time favorite musical, and everybody else says it too, but after awhile I knew it by heart so well I was happy to stumble upon a new favorite. The Band Wagon (1953) a dozen viewings later is something of a miracle to me in which I never cease to find something else to delight in. Fred Astaire starred in it just before he was sliding into the twilight of his career, and he happened to play a fallen star named Tony Hunter, a one-time matinee idol and hoofer (that’s a tap-dance man), who has hit a brick wall in his career and goes to Broadway to revitalize himself. Just as 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain” was a backstage musical comedy about Hollywood, 1953’s “The Band Wagon” was a backstage musical comedy about Broadway. They happen to be from the same writers, Betty Comdon and Adolph Green.
It wasn’t “Singin’s” Stanley Donen but Vincente Minnelli directed this one, coming off the heels of his Oscar-winning “An American in Paris,” but while that one had exquisite numbers it was pageant overkill, his work is more cool and spry here. An example would be “Shine On Your Shoes,” the first musical number where Tony Hunter, flummoxed for being out of work, dances his troubles away at a penny arcade, and memorably squares off with a black shoeshine man – and some perplexed onlookers. The scene is jolly in the way he engages with some of the carnival games while he does his shimmy at the same time.
With the help of some friends (Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant – she spat on his awful prima donna behavior in real life), Tony enlists the services of Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanon), a jack of all trades Orson Welles type with ginormous ego intact, to be the director of his next would-be Broadway hit. Cyd Charisse is a dream of a ballet dancer who is brought in to be Tony’s co-star, and before there is love there is competitive jealousy. But the hiccup is that this musical project turns into Cordova’s update of Faust, alas, a pretentious mess. On the rebound, Tony rallies everybody to bounce back with a musical revue. Sounds like the plot of any given “Muppets” movie that would happen years later, but it is well-worn plot of many years before this too. Just the same, only better.
Romance is personified in the “Dancing in the Dark” number set in an idealized Central Park. You will take great notice in the carriage ride that employs subtle black & white back projection that gives it a misty look, then the costumes (Charisse’s fit-and-flair cost $1,000 to make), then the actual dancing which is as enchanting and pitch-perfect as they come. After the Faustian debacle, the subsequent musical show numbers are a hoot, and particularly I get giddy over the bizarre “Triplets” which has Astaire, Cordova, and Fabray all appearing as midgets dressed as babies. Actually, they were dancing on their knees while strap-on artificial legs dangled before them. This required many takes because at least one of them would have trouble not falling over.
But has there ever been a musical sequence as avante-garde as the climactic “Girl Hunt?” This prolonged and elaborate number contains phantasmagoric lighting, exaggeratingly baroque sets, glittering costumes, surreal play-acting on jazz and noir themes, and flat-out audacity. Ultimately, it epitomizes the kind of old Hollywood elegance that is out of commission in today’s times. Alright, there was one before it even more audacious: the centerpiece ballet number in 1948’s “The Red Shoes” by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
What you also don’t find today, outside of tentpole Disney films, is this kind of unabashed corniness which is demonstrated all too blatantly especially in the final “That’s Entertainment!” scene (the now ubiquitous song was written for this film). There’s a glee to “The Band Wagon” though, that says, all of our old clichéd ideas works just as fabulous as the new avante-garde experiments – nobody among them is going to apologize for entertaining the pants off you. “Singin’ in the Rain” will always remain as the signature representation of what classic Hollywood was, and truly it is a godsend, but “The Band Wagon” – well, these days I can’t get enough of it, even the stuff in it that’s old hat.
112 Minutes. Unrated.
MUSICAL COMEDY / ALL AGES / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Easter Parade” (1948); “An American in Paris” (1951); “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952); “Funny Face” (1957).
“If I take the money I’m lost. I’ll just be a rich ambulance chaser.” – Frank Galvin
Read it here, this is the all-time best courtroom drama ever made. The Verdict (1982) is from the autumn part of Paul Newman’s career after he had distinguished himself as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. He was allowed, and game at this point in his career, to play damaged characters. The film, by director Sidney Lumet (“Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon”), transcends the genre not because it has concocted the mother of all court cases, but because it depicts how the real truth can be neutered by tampered evidence and the human individual discounted within the mechanics of a courtroom.
This is Newman’s finest hour, as a Boston boozehound lawyer Frank Galvin (so croaky he has to grind out his speech) whose track record is so haphazard that he has lost familiarity within a courtroom. An open-and-shut malpractice suit falls into Galvin’s lap, but instead of collecting easy money from a settlement, he wants to fight to win it all. He’s out to prove that negligent doctors at a Catholic hospital carelessly turned a young woman into a vegetable. Galvin more than just wants to win a settlement, he wants to win within a courtroom so that he can test his lawyer skills once again. The clients he represents are furious when they learn he turned down an offer without consulting them.
The opposing defense is headed by snooty lawyer Ed Concannon (James Mason, superb) who is chummy with the judge (Milo O’Shea). More than them, Galvin is up against an over-powerful establishment, the Catholic Church diocese. Once the trial is underway it goes sour in a myriad of ways, one of them is how Galvin asks impertinent questions that drum up favor to the opposing team.
In the midst of this, Newman in one scene punches the lights out on a woman. We who are gentlemen are taught in youth never to strike a woman. The striking of this woman is justified, just see for yourself and you will understand. It could have been the first scene of the film, and everything else could have been flashback, and it would have been an interesting drama deconstructing this event. But oh my God is this shocking moment earned, because she was ever so treacherous with other peoples’ lives at stake. Also powerful is Newman’s final summation speech to the jury and you will see just about the best acting you will ever come across. Only Newman’s Galvin – arrived at the brink of ruin, at the limits of shame, pleading for mercy – could have delivered a speech so soulful, and regardless of any legal outcome, he has at the least, redeemed himself.
Few films have so rigorously downplayed their color palette for stark dramatic effect. This is a triumph for Lumet and Newman in bringing this anguished character study to authentic life, both assisted by a brilliant David Mamet screenplay.
129 Minutes. Rated R.
COURTROOM DRAMA / ADULTS / LATE NIGHT FOOD FOR THOUGHT
“I love humanity, I trust humanity, but humanity has a way of disillusioning me.” — Director Vittorio de Sica
Looks old and crumbly just like the title character, but give it ten minutes and you are drawn into its uncompromising, compassionate gaze. Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952, Italy) is as emotionally awakening and touching films you are ever likely to see. It has a persuasive black & white seediness to it, yet the camera is always upfront and direct. Carlo Battisti, in the title role, plays a retired civil servant with an insufficient pension and mounting debt. He dresses with dignity. But perhaps that hides the truth of his dire situation. How quickly this becomes the story of an old man who loses his home, and is booted out onto the streets with only his plucky dog Flike as his companion.
Hanging on the best he can, he scrounges up money. But nobody needs to buy his watch when there are a thousand other watches that can be bought. Umberto’s only friend is a young housekeeper named Maria (Maria Pia Casilio) who is pregnant and destined to be a single mother. She can listen to Umberto’s plans of rummaging up money with a caring heart but she cannot solve his problems. Umberto’s unsympathetic landlady, however, doesn’t really want Umberto to catch up with the back rent. The landlady wants him out so she can spike the cost of the rental. And if there is an ant infestation problem, she would prefer Umberto to be bothered by it.
Inevitably, he loses the place. With no other family or friends to turn to, Umberto has only homelessness ahead of him. But despite his age he has a tough survivalist mentality. He checks into a hospital for an interim, but needs back out to care for his dog Flike who is in other care. Following the hospital dismissal he learns that Flike has been taken by one of the city’s animal shelters with a termination policy. We hold our breath that Umberto can track Flike down in time. The subsequent dog pound scene is rife with tormenting suspense.
If that’s not enough, we reach the gaspingly suspenseful railroad finale with Umberto tucking himself in humbly, hoping his fate goes unnoticed. We have spent time with a man who never bemoaned the cruel social structure that caused his befallen circumstances. We saw him imitate a beggar on the street but couldn’t succumb to the embarrassment. Flike had more luck begging on their behalf.
De Sica was more famous for his previous world class tearjerker “The Bicycle Thief” (1948), which was a distinguishable beginning of the neorealist movement – no formula story, no studio, but a production that hinged on authentic street locations and naturalistic actors. I love that film, too, but I feel in my bones that “Umberto D.” is simply one of the twenty best films ever made. In regards to the casting, Battisti was a 70-year old university lecturer who had never been in a film before, and he is not only immaculate but transcendent of anything peddling for film awards.
Every time I’ve seen it in a theater setting women weep and men gulp in shame. But it goes home with you, to the home of your heart and unforgettably so.
89 Minutes. Unrated.
FOREIGN DRAMA / MATURE TEENS / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
THE ELEPHANT MAN
“It makes me uncomfortable to talk about meanings and things. It’s better not to know so much about what things mean. Because the meaning, it’s a very personal thing, and the meaning for me is different than the meaning for somebody else.”
– David Lynch, director
Supreme filmmaking. The Elephant Man (1980) is a peerless look at 1880’s London, the high society and the low where John Merrick dwelled as a circus freak before being saved, and plays like a window into history. John Hurt is the actor who disappears without a trace under the makeup to play the extremely facially deformed Merrick, said to be the ugliest man who ever lived. Anthony Hopkins brings intelligence and a decent conscience to his role as Doctor Frederick Treves who plucks Merrick from the abusive sideshow.
This was David Lynch’s second film – as much a masterpiece as the underground masterpiece “Eraserhead” (1977) he made by raising his own money – and this was his first within a studio system. Artistic passion is evident in every single frame. “The Elephant Man” is perhaps the finest black & white cinematography you will ever see. “Raging Bull” came out the same year, and I think the lighting, shadowing, framing is more accomplished here. I don’t think it’s out of line to say it is as rich and immersive a visual experience as “Citizen Kane,” maybe more.
Freddie Francis is the credited cinematographer, and together with Lynch, they create a foggy gaslights London, old century hospital made of bare elements, hallucinatory dream sequences of industrial age claustrophobia. The opening and closing scenes have been debatable, suggesting a rape of the mother by Merrick by elephants and an apparition drifting into outer space. Lynch has said in interviews that this is surrealism, for he was less interested in fact than he was with inciting gut emotion in his viewers.
What is known by fact is that Merrick was given his own quarters within a hospital care system to be studied, and was trained to elevate his slurs into better speech (the film alludes to this in a minor way). Dr. Treves gives Merrick friends to interact with, but there are doubts of whether letting Merrick mingle with high society gentry is in fact turning him into a different kind of sideshow attraction amongst the rich. Hopkins plays the perceptive doctor as a man burdened with guilt with his own decision-making.
Not everything is grim. There are kind people, too, like theater artist Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) who befriends him with sobering intentions. There is true love for Merrick there, and delicately implied among a few others, too, left for you to find.
It’s also impossible to deter the inevitable depression of Merrick, being chosen as life’s unlucky one, and Hurt in the role brings a peerless poignancy to his sensitive nature.
This is one of the most emotional experiences of film you can have, but it is indescribable why it is that way. I feel different things while watching it, tapping different relative associations scene to scene. This is a narrative film, that’s actually usual for the very avante-garde David Lynch, but viewing after viewing I still find my responses to it to be a mystery. And I keep pondering over it, with sadness and self-examination all the same. And that cinematography keeps stirring things inside me. There are more than a hundred stupendous images in the film.
Currently, Bradley Cooper is winning raves on Broadway for his lead role in the reprisal for “The Elephant Man,” and has said it was the film that got him interested in acting.
124 Minutes. Rated PG.
DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / LATE NIGHT TEARJERKER
Film Cousins: “The Miracle Worker” (1962); “The Wild Child” (1969, France); “Mask” (1985); “Crumb” (1995).
THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST
“The dual substance of Christ – the yearning, so human, so superhuman, of man to attain God… has always been a deep inscrutable mystery to me. My principle anguish and source for all my joys and sorrows from my youth onward has been the incessant, merciless battle between the spirit and the flesh… and my soul is the arena where these two armies have clashed and met.”
– Nikos Kazantzakis, author of the book “The Last Temptation of Christ”
This quote arrives in the pre-titles to The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), adapted by Martin Scorsese (“GoodFellas, Raging Bull”) who struggled through most of the 1980’s in order to get it made. It is well-known that Scorsese himself is a lifelong dedicated Italian Catholic who had considered priesthood before he went into filmmaking. When Scorsese found the Kazantzakis novel it was a not a traditional Jesus biopic but instead a unique exploration of the divinity of Jesus. Controversy on the film existed before shooting began. In fact, in 1983 the $20 million dollar production green-lit by Paramount Pictures went into turnaround after right-wing fundamentalist Christian groups conducted an unceasing series of petitions and protests to have it stopped.
Scorsese plundered himself unto other projects, them being “After Hours” (1985) and “The Color of Money” (1986) – terrific, if relatively safe, genre pictures – until he was able to find alternative investors for the film. Universal Pictures agreed to be the financial backers of the film in late 1987 but only contributed to an $8 budget to the film. In 1983, Jesus was to be played by Aidan Quinn and filmed in Israel but was now replaced by Willem Dafoe and filmed in Morocco with a minimalist sparseness on harsh locations.
“The Last Temptation of Christ” respects the Gospels, anybody with intelligence can see that. The final third steers in a controversial new direction, for that’s what offended. If Jesus was more than a deity but a man, then he had to have both wisdom and self-doubt, both strength and fragility. Here’s the touchy part: Scorsese portrays Jesus as a coward and conflicted man before he chooses the right path. This is more compelling to us as not just viewers, but as human beings, to consider Jesus this way instead of as some kind of invincible divinity.
In depiction of his early cowardice, Jesus assists in the crucifixion of a fellow Jew who is guilty of sedition. Rome is a place occupied by hatred and persecution, and its fellowship is comprised of conformists that act upon the word of Pontius Pilate (David Bowie). Jesus is consumed by following society’s orders because he fears the penalty of heresy administered by Rome. He has a calling to go to the desert to await his Father’s message where after forty days he is beckoned to be the Messiah of the people. He does so, but remains conflicted. He wishes he was not the chosen one.
Harvey Keitel as Judas, is the most confrontational of the Apostles and yet the most loyal and confiding to Jesus. Barbara Hershey as Mary Magdalene is a tattoo-adorned prostitute marked by change when she pays witness to the miracles of Jesus, yet there remains skepticism between them – is her son a fraud? The fact that these characterizations are not representations of Sunday school postcards upset conservative groups that want to see Jesus as a perfect sage of wisdom as well as being impervious to pain.
The harrowing crucifixion scene of Jesus is not induced by the hands of Satan but by the hands of Rome. Satan has made several appearances, but the most important time is when he disguises himself in goodness. It’s Satan that tempts to free Jesus from his martyrdom. So here, Kazantzakis and Scorsese (again, controversially) explore a what-if: If Jesus had not died on the cross and become our Savior, it’s likely he would have married and settled with his family. In the film, his temptation is to be an ordinary man.
Of course, Scorsese’s point of the film, the revelation he wants you to see, is if Jesus had not died for his followers that we are able to articulate the depth of importance of what his death meant. But it is recalled that his big monologue scene with Jerusalem burning in the background at the end, the usually ecstatic Scorsese went up to him after the first couple of takes and grumbled, “Is there anything more you can give?” On a subsequent take, Dafoe realizing he was disappointing his director, delivered a magnificent take that found depths of great sorrow and remorse, one that has to be considered one of the great actor moments. Dafoe in the scene and film entire astonishing as the self-tortured Jesus.
Just as powerful as the lead performance is Peter Gabriel’s music, particularly the “It is accomplished” theme. Mournful music as it should be, but somehow it connects emotions of two thousand years ago with how we feel about Jesus dying for our sins today. After genuine filmmaking burrowed in bleakness, Gabriel’s main theme serves as catharsis.
Right-wing fundamentals groups opposed the film after its release in August of 1988. At a Parisian movie theater, there were Molotov cocktails thrown inside the theater which injured thirteen people, four of them permanently left with major burn scars for life. Evangelist Bill Bright offered to buy the prints from Universal so that he could destroy them all permanently. How very Christian of these people!
Scorsese has made more thrilling films to my eyes, but “The Last Temptation of Christ” will always be one of the most important of all films to my soul. It made me wake up and realize that the times of Jesus wasn’t made up of treacly miracles the way my Sunday school books were lamely teaching us. Scorsese makes us comprehend Jesus’ sacrifice was far more significant because choices back then were far more cruel. It would take more than ten years, but “Last Temptation” would change the standards in Hollywood’s Biblical epics.
164 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / LIBERAL MINDS / WEEKEND FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Film Cousins: “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964, Italy); “Kundun” (1997); “Passion of the Christ” (2004); “Exodus: Gods and Kings” (2014).
“$10,000. I probably won’t even need it. I just need to know if I can count on you in case I do.” – Axel
The great film about a gambling junkie and the biggest crime of all is that is doesn’t have a stronger reputation. The Gambler (1974) urgent opening scene has Axel Freed (James Caan) in the hole for $44,000. Axel’s friend Hips (Paul Sorvino), an associate with a bookie, says consolingly he has never seen such a string of bad cards. Axel wants another thousand to bet. Another thousand in order to win back $44,000? Crazy, Hips says. “That’s six El Dorados. $44,000, Axel. It ain’t just numbers!” Axel is a university professor who teaches Dostoevsky, but his income ends there. He has a wealthy family to fall back on supposedly, but he can only dip into that well so many times.
While in debt with bookies Axel is completely aware of what they can do to him. He explains to his mother, “For $10,000 they break your arms. For twenty, your legs. For fifty, you get a whole new face.”
Caan, in the best performance of his career, called this film his favorite. “It’s not easy to make people care about a guy who steals from his mother to pay gambling debts.” Axel doesn’t literally steal from his mother, he asks her for the money. Son escorts his mother to go into the bank together, and afterwards they have one of those long shameful talks about how at this moment this is going to be the end of his gambling. He’s on the way to the bookie, but he’s unavailable. So he takes the $44,000 on him to Vegas with his hot girlfriend (Lauren Hutton) to gamble with. (Now it feels like stealing.) For a few minutes in Vegas, he’s a stud. But a compulsive gambler never knows how to go a week without gambling.
This is a portrait of a man who bets with the excitement of losing, or just barely evading the risks and consequences that come with losing. Addiction to gambling and addiction to the danger of it all is one and the same. He treats his relationship with his lusty girlfriend likewise, he seems to be driven at putting himself in situations of nearly losing her. Both ways for him and her, they don’t seem to have a healthy relationship. They seem to be living in a shallow world where they both get turned on by high drama. If she had any sense, she would quit him.
None of this is played with clichés. The film dodges stereotyping and simple psychology and is instead very uncompromising in portraying tunnel vision. Axel has become a man who ruins any chance of cleaning up his debts when he can. Instead, he has taken that money and parlayed it. As a result, Axel is rounded up by collectors and thrown into a basement to await a punishment from a Mafioso. He is terrified, but even then, he is probably considering how he could throw himself into other danger if he happens to find a way to talk his way out of that one. He does think he’s smart enough to out-negotiate the Mafioso and that he’s gonna get out of there. He certainly has the overstuffed ego to think he will.
I fear the new remake with Mark Wahlberg, coming out in December 2014, will turn the character’s dark predicaments into an exciting lark. Maybe it will still work as entertainment, but I doubt it will fascinate the way this 1974 film does. In recent years, “Rounders” with Matt Damon and Edward Norton was a guilty pleasure movie about betting your way out of the gutter. “Owning Mahowny” was a much more serious accomplishment of gambling with money one doesn’t have, with Philip Seymour Hoffman in a masterful performance of a schlub who likes the gambling tables and nothing else. What I admire about 1974’s “The Gambler” is that Caan is already a stud trying to be superstud because being anything less is boring. He stops being cognizant of how unreal the high stakes really are.
The film was written by James Toback (the remarkably gritty crime drama “Fingers” in 1978 became his directorial debut) who says he based it upon personal experiences. Karel Reisz was the director.
111 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / ADDICTION / LATE NIGHT CHILLS
I have never been so wrong about a film in my entire life. Viewing Cloud Atlas again I can see why I had some early initial problems that stemmed doubts. There are six stories that range from 1849 to 2346, and God help me that I couldn’t find instant connections and validity between the cross-cutting of them during the first half hour. What co-directors Andy and Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer do, is plant ideas and let them germinate as the episodes develop. Actors Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturges, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant and Doona Bae inhabit multiple characters from different strands of time. The more you see the film, and look deeply, the more touching the performances are. Especially of Hanks, who plays weasels, conflicted geniuses, and a wise old man in the far away future who is the embodiment of inner peace.
Yes, and the more you view “Cloud Atlas,” the more you can see the Hanks of 1849, the Hanks of 2012, and the Hanks of 2346 are all the same person. The thematic idea of reincarnation was always there, but it becomes more fitted once you philosophically link the connections. Hanks is an angry soul over time who finds difficulty in finding inner goodness. Sturges is always destined for privilege but campaigns against intolerance time after time, and in frustration of his fragile intellectual soul, he decides to transform into a great physical fighter for his cause. Weaving is evil in every incarnation, and because he loses, he becomes not another human in the far away future scenes, but an evil specter to do his worst harm.
The 2144 scenes in Neo Seoul, Korea are intended to be the most disturbing. This is a portrait of society degenerated to its worst impulses. It is a world of concrete, lit up by artificial colorful holograms. Bae is a clone whose purpose is of a work around the clock server at a vulgar commercial eatery, and she as well as her contemporary clones are given to shortened lifespans. This is a form of slavery that is linked up with other demonstrations of slavery throughout the film, most obviously the 1849 scenes of white masters and slaves. Most comically, Jim Broadbent is a nebbish book publisher named Timothy Cavendish who ends up captive against his will at an old folks’ home. His predicament inspires a comic movie on his life, which is seen by two clones in the future, who begin – to think more expansively about their existence.
I have seen “Cloud Atlas” at least three times now and I still find certain things confusing or baffling. The feral dialect of the far future is not entirely decipherable. But it has not kept me from trying to follow it a little better with each time I see it. I am only vaguely knowing as to why Berry needs to climb a mountain to reset certain power, but I have found other purpose in those scenes, like, the importance is not so much the turn-on of the generator as much as how necessary her appearance is to change Hanks’ destiny. The episode also takes place “106 Years After the Fall,” and is significant for portraying disparate societies rebuilding on Earth following in an unspecific catastrophe that has cut down on most of the world’s population. It’s inevitable. Every few centuries it’s likely the Earth will undergo vast evolution. This is a film with the ambition to imagine such changes.
There is too much action in the film as if to try to meet “Star Wars” type of commercial appeal, or as I first thought, but the film never lingers on gratuitous action. I now find it sensational but in the best way. The action compliments the noble idealizations of its best characters and underlines the inexhaustible evil of its worst characters. The film never puts action “extravaganza” ahead of its ideas.
When the film hits its stride, and it starts making its more significant connections between time, that’s when the film really impacts. More than the action, the renewed spiritual quests are the most sensational aspects of all. I love the music of “Cloud Atlas,” its glorious and triumphant theme by Tykwer, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil. But the film as whole is a symphony of itself. You respond emotionally to things that cannot be described by words.
The still missing lack of description is why “Cloud Atlas” wasn’t hailed as an instant masterpiece, and maybe explains why I was still in a ponderous mode when I first saw it. I had to see it twice. Then three times. Then four. I will see it many more times than that. There is not a boring scene nor a boring shot in the film. The camerawork itself is more expertise than any contemporary Hollywood film today.
I hope the film represents the best of what film can do in the future. Films that are not bound by conventions, by single time periods, by simple themes. Here is one film too vast and beyond the simplistic. “Cloud Atlas” has an unrivaled grandeur and new kind of epic form. Only “The Tree of Life” has reached higher with ambition in recent years. Malick’s film held me faithfully for a couple years. However, I’m currently obsessed with “Cloud Atlas.”
The original novel is by David Mitchell.
172 Minutes. Rated R.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / THINKING MAN’S THRILLER / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
“Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” – Queen Elizabeth I
Of all costume pictures, this is one of the most beautiful and enchanting. Orlando opens as one of the most difficult and challenging films for at least the first twenty minutes – based on the 1928 Virginia Woolf novel, the message and theme are opaque. Until then, your eyes are on fixated on director Sally Potter’s images. Startlingly beautiful it is from frame one, and I mean startling not just stunning. When we talk startling it means that we’re discovering original images of an unparalleled nature that we have not seen like before. Arrangements of candlelight and fog, glass windows and frost, textile patterns and hedge mazes, are presented in ways we haven’t seen. Throw out all expectation for story and surrender to abstract ideas and visual voluptuousness.
Tilda Swinton depicts an English nobleman, androgynous and omnisexual, who flourishes after granted blessings from Queen Elizabeth I in this lavish and picaresque costume epic. Orlando is an ever-transforming character whom changes definition, as well as social title, during a series of episodic exploits.
In the grand realms of the open possibilities of avante-garde cinema this is the costume picture that avoids the usual genre formalities and pigeonholing. What really if you had an extraordinary life with the flexibility that allowed you to wholly indulge in Politics, Romance, Sex and Poetry – at your chosen disposal – when most single lives have time for one true solitary pursuit? I don’t think we really do have time to conquer everything we dream on doing in this lifetime, that’s why I admire this character and this film so unabashedly.
Swinton conveys utmost regality and nimble elegance to her historical set role. Conversely, she has proven through the course of her career that she can play contemporary just as well, whether they are merciless, cold-hearted characters (“Julia,” “Michael Clayton”) or benign, gentle people trapped in difficult circumstances (“The Deep End,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). But this early film of her career really defines how arty and imaginative she is as a performer.
Billy Zane (“Titanic”) appears as a dashing romantic hero. One of the great images of the film is a simple one: Swinton and Zane side by side in bed, arms entangled, torsos pressed against each other, and Potter’s lithe, supple light on her actors. Somehow Potter creates sensual power out of a commonly staged scene. Love doesn’t last forever – this isn’t a movie about finding ultimate love. But while it does happen it’s stronger in its briefness than most movies ever amount to in full.
“Orlando” is meant for filmgoers who seek out vanguard works that play with experimental and innovative tactics. Its splendidness also lies in landscapes, costumes, art direction as well as the spellbinding creations of mood. To describe the film in matters of specific plot development would be to spoil one of cinema’s most splendid surprises. It passes over 400-plus years ultimately, and ends quite exuberantly, into the future.
93 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
COSTUME DRAMA / PERIOD PIECE / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW
“Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother.”
Has old-movie musk for about five minutes, but then it grabs you. Make Way for Tomorrow(1937), examines an elderly couple that has to be split up, one of them inevitably headed to an old folks home and the other across the country to California to live with estranged family. It’s about their final day out, after fifty years of marriage, the last hours of togetherness they will be left to have. Director Leo McCarey suggests the Great Depression as a cause to the woes without ever mentioning Great Depression of liberal social injustices. Politics aside, it builds to a heart-shattering conclusion, one fraught of powerful emotion that is incomparable to other films from that time period.
Barkley (Victor Moore) and his wife Lucy (Beulah Bondi) gather their children for a reunion to let them know they have lost their home to the bank. They have a humble plan, which they don’t really share. The children have families of their own, but say they can accommodate them for a short while. Dad will sleep on one of his son’s couches. Mom will sleep on her granddaughter’s bed in another’s son’s home, both addresses divided by distance.
Lucy interrupts her daughter-in-law’s bridge game, simply by having a presence in the home. The granddaughter takes her to the movies and then deserts her there, and leaves her waiting until afterwards. Lucy is yelled at later for lying on behalf of the granddaughter who was sneaking away with boys. It’s only been a short while, but Lucy is already wearing out her welcome.
The quarters aren’t too swell for Barkley either. It’s a cramped space, he catches pneumonia and must recover, and damn it all, is decided by his son that it’s just not working out. Barkley still believes he can rebound, get a job after being jobless for four years, and let his wife move back in with him somewhere. He knows his skills are outmoded, but he tries his best.
In both cases, Barkley and Lucy are a burden to their children who are much too busy to take care of them “properly.” The inevitability comes that one of them will have to move to California to be looked after by a daughter (one of the children we never see). The kids prepare a farewell dinner for their folks, but nary comprehend they want their own privacy. Barkley and Lucy find themselves on a fine day out in New York City, a reminiscence of their honeymoon, and become not so certain they want to share this day with their children.
They have some luck. A car dealer accommodates them to a ride in a fancy automobile after he mistakes them for rich. When the dealer realizes they have no money, he doesn’t get surly but is glad to have fulfilled a special moment for them. Barkley and Lucy recall the Vogard Hotel from years back, and ask to be dropped off there. They are pleased it’s still standing, and go in for cocktails. A little buzzed, they are at ease away from their kids. They recount the history of their love story, speak of regrets, define their love for one another. All these moments are so touching to see them respond to each other in the way they do.
These are great performances for not only the 1930’s but for all-time, and the shock is that Moore and Bondi are playing characters in their 70’s, but were younger actually. Moore was 61, while Bondi was not yet 50, both of them craggily embodying their characters. I suppose I’m more touched by Bondi in a number of her nuances, if I had to pick one over the other. Here’s Lucy, her character, who is older than 70 but still remembers what it’s like to be 25. It’s her body that has defeated her. The Great Depression, the hard times and struggles of not enough food or substantial exercise, would be one cause for accelerating old age.
“The Wizard of Oz” is the greatest film of the 1930’s, and while I love “City Lights,” “Trouble in Paradise” and King Kong,” the long forgotten “Make Way for Tomorrow” would be my number two selection. For one, the uncompromising ending which McCarey refused to re-shoot despite studio executives desire to change it. Barkley is catching the train, he must say his goodbyes, but to hide it they say to each other this is all just for now. The versatile McCarey won a Best Director Oscar in 1937 but it was for his screwball comedy “The Awful Truth.” When he went up to the podium he said, “I would like to thank the Academy, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.”
92 Minutes. Unrated.
DRAMA / YOUNG TEENS AND UP / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Umberto D.” (1952, Italy); “Tokyo Story” (1953, Japan); “On Golden Pond” (1981); “Amour” (2012, Austria).
“I just wanna be like everybody else. I just want a decent job. I want a decent place to live. I want somebody to love me, I want some clothes on my back.” – Max Dembo
The great Dustin Hoffman performance you’ve never seen playing convict on parole Max Dembo, actually it’s one of the best performances ever period. Straight Time (1978) is as obscure a masterpiece you will find, it was brushed under the rug with such disregard that Hoffman sued Warner Bros. over the treatment of the film. Hoffman found the book “No Beast So Fierce” written by Edward Bunker, an actual San Quentin convict still serving, and exhaustively researched the part. Hoffman began directing the film, but decidedly could not handle double duties. He called Ulu Grosbard, the man who gave Hoffman the book to read, to replace him in the director’s chair. The character Dembo refuses a halfway house, finds his own dirt-cheap living quarters, acquires a job at a can factory – but his own parole officer, played by the pernickety and strident M. Emmit Walsh, actually loses him that job (“Over nothing, man!”), and after a blown temper and irreversible outburst of attacking of him, Dembo finds himself a fugitive of the law once again.
Reverting back to his old ways, Dembo finds a liquor store, a poker game holdup, and a bank robbery as scores to live off. Dembo never really had a chance to go straight anyway, because all his contacts are criminals working the angles 24/7. Bunker told Hoffman the key to the performance is to find nothing morally wrong in robbery, murder and malfeasance. Hoffman, diminutive in stature, is able to come off as a threat because he is so convincingly sociopathic. Harry Dean Stanton, Gary Busey and Corey Rand play moonlight thieves that partner in crime. Stanton’s best line: “I’m telling you it’s very un-f***ing-professional, all right!”
The hardest thing for the movie to pull off is Dembo’s relationship with Jenny Mercer (Theresa Russell), a contact at a job placement agency who becomes his girlfriend. Jenny has no good reason to keep seeing Dembo after he admits he has broken the law. But she’s one of these girls that’s attracted to helping and abetting bad guys. I’ve accepted Russell in this role after seeing “Straight Time” several times, but it occurred to me in this last viewing, that if it had been any other actress the whole character would have been malarkey. I see Jenny as a bored, limited experienced girl who is blind to danger, and pitying. I also guess that her unseen parents have bought her the house she lives in, and she basically cruises through life feeling she is consequence-free.
The movie builds to a smash-and-grab jewelry store robbery that is terrifically suspenseful, especially when the getaway car doesn’t go as planned, and the thieves run through the houses and alleys of the neighborhood (Kathryn Bigelow’s “Point Break” would later take this scenario to the next level). Dembo comes to realize that his acts of larceny aren’t going to last forever, that he’s bound to get caught, so he might as well act out his crimes in bigger and bolder style anyway. This is inevitable when someone like Dembo has spent the majority of life as a criminal and convict. The final droll montage of Dembo through the years sums that up – someone this scary, doomed material has elicited a big laugh.
Hoffman has boasted that “Straight Time” is the proudest performance of his career, with “Tootsie” and “Stranger than Fiction” as two other proudest ones if you can believe it. “Straight Time” got no Oscar nominations, that means no love for the picture or directing, the acting, or for the screenplay. Hoffman’s Max Dembo is just about the greatest performance to ever get snubbed. Obscured from audiences during its release, now it’s up to you to make your discovery of this hidden treasure.
114 Minutes. Rated R.>
STREET DRAMA / CRIME STORY / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Blue Collar” (1978); “Carlito’s Way” (1993); “Heat” (1995); “Jackie Brown” (1997).
ALL THAT JAZZ
Anger. Denial. Bargaining. Depression. Acceptance. – Five stages of death
One of the ten best films ever made. All That Jazz (1979), the wild hyper-sexual movie musical, is to my adult senses the most sheer exhilarating movie time and time again. I get a buzz and tingles from it that builds to an ecstasy. Bob Fosse would have been regarded as one of the greatest directors of all-time if he hadn’t succumbed to a premature heart attack in 1987, but he only made five films: “Sweet Charity” (1969) the square but ebullient musical, “Cabaret” (1972) the Nazi-era musical drama that won Fosse a Best Director Oscar, “Lenny” (1974) on the pioneer of foul-mouthed stand-up comedy Lenny Bruce, “All That Jazz” which took off inspiration from Felllini’s “8½,” and his final film “Star 80” (1983) about the tragic murder of Dorothy Stratten. Fosse, an established stage dancer who fostered into a prominent choreographer, soundly knew about the following: Showbiz, glitz, lust, sex, excess, carnality, how to photograph tableaus of bodies, the highs of womanizing, the pangs of being a workaholic, egomania, drugs and chain-smoking. All of that on display in “Jazz.”
It’s the egomania and womanizing that will put off some people from “All That Jazz,” that’s inevitable. If you’re not offended, then you’re bound to be dazzled – and maybe like me find it to be the sexiest movie you’ve seen. And best dance movie, too.
Roy Scheider is Joe Gideon, a Broadway theatre and film director, working on auditions for a new show (the flash montages of dancers! Wow!) and editing a little film that he treats like it was an epic. He has a main girlfriend (Ann Reinking) and a series of lovers on the side (Deborah Geffner as Victoria Porter is my favorite), and an ex-wife (Leland Palmer) who still idolizes him. What sucks about most real-life womanizers as that they lie about it, but here’s Joe Gideon, truthful and straight-forward that he’s a womanizer. He has the energy for it, he’s an open opportunity lover, he is honest about who he is, and as a reward for it, is loved endlessly by all. If only life for the rest of us were that easy.
Gideon makes things complicated for himself though, for he is dependent on a daily dose of Visine, Alka-Seltzer, Dexedrine and sex. Directing an innovative musical number for Broadway is what drives him, nonetheless. “Take Off with Us” is one of the numbers in his latest show, and early rehearsals reveal it to be a limp and tedious number, and slowly, it becomes a body-contortionist , sex-mad number that I’d say emits an orgiastic pulse. These sequences are probably the best I’ve ever seen about the artistic process, starting with how humdrum number develops through rehearsal into genius. During off-hours, Gideon has an adoring daughter (Erzsebet Foli), a young teen budding ballet artist, who puts on another showstopper: “Everything Old is New Again,” a simple living room number that is irresistible, and a favorite of mine.
The story seeps into fantasy with unapologetic grandiosity – especially the last third. The critics that didn’t declare “Jazz” a bold masterpiece upon its’ release were typically irked that it stole from Fellini’s “8½” which was basically about a film director, a la artiste, who lives life according to his own terms of imagination. I’m sorry, but as visually astounding and thematically daring (if uneven, it steers into solipsism for a few minutes here and there) as Fellini’s film was, “Jazz” outdoes it with pulsating bravado and nerve.
Undergoing a massive coronary brought on by exhaustion and physical abuse of his body, Gideon – and the film – goes into a dream state that is topped off by the climactic “Bye Bye Life” with song-and-dance man Ben Vereen as Gideon’s collaborator, and it turns out to really be his death song. If you’ve got to go out, Fosse is saying, an artist imagines an artistic way to go out. Jessica Lange is the exquisite Angel of Death of “Jazz,” the embodiment of perfect beauty who is isolated away from every other woman in the film. Nobody can have the Angel of Death but him, all to himself.
Minus the tangents into death and fantasy, Fosse asserted in interviews that “Jazz” was semi-autobiographical. The idea for the story sprung to life, Fosse says, while he was editing “Lenny” while simultaneously staging “Chicago” for Broadway during 1974. Scheider had the perfect no-bullsh** bluster and panache to stand-in as his mirror image. Warren Beatty and Paul Newman were names pushed by the studio, but nixed by Fosse. Richard Dreyfus actually won the part but dropped out just before filming, perhaps from the stress of living up to the physical demands of the part (he would have also come across too kvetchy in that trademark way of his). So Scheider, known for thrillers with “The French Connection” and “Jaws” among them, filled in Fosse’s shoes with surprising ease. He didn’t act the part, he embodied the part.
Fosse’s self-indulgence wasn’t just flaunting in what was his fourth film, it was reckless. But let me say this about Fosse. He took the swishy thing called male dancing and turned that itself into a calling card heterosexual endeavor. He was a film and stage actor, dancer, Broadway choreographer and director, screenwriter, film editor and film director with his own stamp of innovative razzle-dazzle cuts. Self-indulgent boring people I can’t put up with. Self-indulgent talented people you can’t stop me from being fascinated. If I could have traded lives with anybody in world history, it might have been Bob Fosse. See “All That Jazz” for that unconventional reason alone.
123 Minutes. Rated R.
MUSICAL DRAMA / CHARACTER STUDY / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “8½” (1963, Italy); “Cabaret” (1972); “Stardust Memories” (1980); “Chicago” (2002).
“Rosebud.” – Charles Foster Kane
One of the ten best films ever made. Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) has been hailed so long as such a landmark in technical filmmaking that it has overshadowed the fact that it contains one of life’s most profound messages. Charles Foster Kane (Welles) is raised into exorbitant wealth, idealistically runs the New York Inquirer newspaper and sensationalizes the news, becomes an economic baron in every way, idealistically runs for New York State Governor, and acquires so many things that the bulk of them lose all meaning. Kane begins young adulthood as a boisterous whippersnapper, and then proves it is possible in this world to buy unhappiness.
Indeed, “Kane” is known for its technical breakthroughs: Deep focus, optical illusions, low-angle shots, non-linear narrative, baroque music techniques, the “documentary” newsreel as story overview (it becomes a “normal” movie after it completes), the breakfast scene montage which depicts Kane’s entire first sour marriage in five vignettes, the matte shots – all innovative techniques that have molded modern film language to this day. The whole film is flashback, as told through interviews of people that knew Kane, as told to journalist Mr. Thompson (William Alland) on an investigative tour. The criterion objective is to figure out the meaning to Kane’s last word, “Rosebud,” or at least find insightful information into any future Kane biography.
“To forty-four million U.S. news buyers, more newsworthy than the names in his own headlines, was Kane himself, greatest newspaper tycoon of this or any other generation,” says a title card in the newsreel sequence. Kane was only a fictional character, albeit, inspired by the real life tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who attempted to buy and bury this film permanently. Hearst did not acquire the rights to bury the film, although he did succeed in stifling the film from reaching a major mass release. The big city markets showed “Kane,” but it wasn’t until a decade later when serious magazines began discussing “Kane” as the It movie of the sound era.
The saddest of the early scenes of “Kane” has dramatic heft. Kane is a child that belongs to poor parents who own a boarding school. It is Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris) who buys-adopts young Charles so he can have a better life. Mary (Agnes Moorehead), the mother, feels this will be of this boy’s best interests. Charles will be heir to Thatcher’s unfathomable riches, but he will lose his origins. But running a newspaper “will be fun.”
The most important shot of the film however never gets discussed, for all the articles that have ever been written about “Kane” this is a never. At the 8 minute 42 second mark, Kane is on a balcony in the company of Adolph Hitler in the “newsreel footage,” and if there any evocation of Kane’s lost youth and idealism, it’s that brief single shot that wraps up everything spoiled and jaded about Kane. Consider though the context of when the film was made. If Welles had made the film perhaps a year later, I can imagine the entire shot being lifted by studio mandate. Sure, he denounces Hitler in a brief blurb later, but the scene is of Kane blindly supporting Hitler. Powerful men blindly party with other powerful men, never mind their doctrine. As far as I know, there is no Welles quote that exists on how he boldly came up with this balcony shot.
The one mandate that was enforced on “Kane” was the brothel scene that was in Welles’ original screenplay. After Kane has hired the staff of his competitor The Chronicle, he takes them to a brothel. It wasn’t the studio but the Production Code, actually, that required it excised. Welles changed it to a rowdy party scene with dancing girls in glittery outfits, and drunkards cheering on. As a consolation, we get both of these type of scenes in Martin Scorsese’s taboo-breaking “The Wolf of Wall Street” from last Christmas. Joseph Cotton, important as Kane’s chum and arts columnist Jedediah Leland, is the first to groan about Kane’s conversion into a bighead.
Kane blows his first marriage by entering a scandalous relationship with an uneducated floozy named Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) that will ruin his political run for office. But the worst bighead thing he does after they marry is push Susan to become an Opera Star, despite everybody’s urging that she stinks. Leland trashes Susan in a review at their own newspaper, and thus, a friendship is over. Lots of friendships end due to Kane’s overinflated ego.
If I were to sum up the meaning of Kane’s tragic trajectory, it’s the endless buying of antiques and showpieces. A scene where Susan, retired from opera, is doing jigsaw puzzles, has Kane pacing in the background where the size of his fireplace looks like it’s going to swallow him up. Nobody in the world, no matter how rich they are, needs a fireplace this ostentatious. It’s not the end of Kane’s purchasing of gaudy furnishings, but it is the best symbol of it. Susan has already been driven to a suicide attempt, and at the end chooses to abscond from financial support just to get away from Kane and his monstrous mansion of Xanadu.
And, of course, there is the meaning at the end as to the reveal of “Rosebud.” The explanation means everything, and nothing, depending on how you look at it.
Welles, who came from the Mercury Theater and from his radio serial “War of the Worlds,” wrote and directed it at age 25. Yes, that’s an extraordinary embodiment of Welles playing Kane throughout his adult ages, but he’s gained by first-rate old age makeup. To this day, “Kane” is the benchmark in film reverence, and it’s still the best film ever by a first-time director. Extraordinary, indeed. My second favorite Welles film is the suspense-thriller “The Lady from Shanghai” (1948) which was ahead-of-its-time weird, a twisted noir with a heap of avante-garde visual images.
“Citizen Kane” though is as essential as they come. But, like for me, it’s not a film like you’ve heard that will give you instant gratification the night you first see it. Let it grow on you for six months. Its’ richness and fullness, deepens upon the more you reflect on it. “Rosebud” will deepen in meaning, too, as you take the time to ponder.
119 Minutes. Rated PG.
DRAMA / CHARACTER STUDY / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE
“Mabel is not crazy, she’s unusual. She’s not crazy, so don’t say she’s crazy.” – Nick
The best performance by an actress in film history is by Gena Rowlands. A Woman Under the Influence (1974) is the two and a half hour kitchen sink drama you only think you don’t have time for. It is a nervous breakdown movie, with Rowlands as the domestic housewife Mabel falling to pieces after accumulated years of depression and anxiety have gotten the better of her. Peter Falk is her insensitive, blue collar husband who is among the last to notice that something’s off-kilter with his wife. They share three children together, but it’s only after a play-date with other neighborhood children that her behavior is berserk.
Nick is the foreman of a construction crew that always seems to be working overtime. The kids are sent away for the night so Nick and Mabel can have an intimate night together. But he has to work, and she goes to a dive bar to get sloshy, spends the night with a stranger and wakes up in the morning feeling violated. The incident is also quickly forgotten by her, it’s just another disconnected segment in her frazzled, hectic life.
Before noontime, she is cooking spaghetti for Nick’s 10-man crew. Way too many men to handle under one small roof, but she feels obligated to be the entertainer. She asks one of them to dance even though it’s a non-dancing mood in the house, Nick gets curt and tells her to knock it off. Days later, she is incompetent with the children, but is bouncy and dancing when a parent comes over to collect his children. There will be a fight against this parent, with Nick’s mother, and a psychiatric doctor.
The big scene of the film is the breakdown before the psychiatric doctor. This is Rowland’s tour de force of acting, behaving delirious and hysterical, yet doing it with such spontaneity that it has the direct force of a documentary. The psychiatrist is there to talk reason with her, but he is ready to convince Nick that she needs immediate institutionalization. Mabel believes she is just being giddy and jovial. Why should anybody stop her from being happy? But, of course, there is something wrong with her.
Mabel is sent away for treatment, and is absent for several months. She returns, and some might say there isn’t anything permanently wrong with her. The months away have given her time to unplug from a chaotic domestic situation. Spend enough time with this film, and you will realize Nick is just as crazy. Maybe more than crazy, and certainly a clueless father. Mabel was lonely, mistreated, maligned to boredom and to Nick’s frenzied behavior for years. Could she have gone temporarily crazy after being with her husband Nick for too long? I’d say that’s true.
Nick has a welcome home party for her that doesn’t go as planned. Too many people are invited, it’s declared too overwhelming, so Nick double-backs on his plan for a big party and has most of them thrown out. The quieter set of friends remain, but when they get a dose of Nick’s hostility, they let themselves out. Soon after, Nick is seen yanking a dangerous weapon out of Mabel’s hand. The craziness between Nick and Mable will continue on.
Rowlands was the wife of the late writer-director John Cassavetes, who pretty much made low budget kitchen sink films for his entire career. He starred in movies like “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and “The Fury” (1978) to collect the paychecks so he could make his own movies. Before I’d offer to call him a God, I’ll admit I had patience for only a few of his movies. Some of them were domestic turmoil drivel, but some of them are significant. “Shadows” (1959) was important as a major driving influence in independent cinema for its naturalistic acting. By “Faces” (1968) he was finding his footing, it was an intimate observation on adult relationships, and for the next fifteen years he made variations on that kind of cinema. “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (1976) has a peculiar spin on the street crime drama, and it’s a quirky original.
At this year’s Oscars, Cate Blanchett deservedly won for “Blue Jasmine” for playing a woman on a fast downward spiral into borderline schizophrenia. “A Woman Under the Influence” is the original “Blue Jasmine” or the blue collar version of it. Blanchett’s performance I’d rank among the all-time ten best, but I declare Rowlands the greater performance by a nose. Rowlands was Oscar nominated, but lost to Ellen Burstyn for “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.” Cassavetes was nominated for Best Director, his sole nomination in his career.
A lot of that has to do with Cassavetes’ handheld verite camerawork that follows Rowlands and the other actors in long, raw takes. Cassavetes proposed the idea of the scenario as a play first, not a movie. But it was Rowlands who said there would be no way she could play the role night after night without collapsing into exhaustion after the second night due to the demands of playing Mabel. Even without Rowlands’ astonishing performance, I want to stress this, the film would still stand the test of time because it is a fascinating and real portrait of abnormal psychology.
155 Minutes. Rated R.
CEREBRAL DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Faces” (1968); “Husbands” (1970); “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974); “Blue Jasmine” (2013).
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD
“It’s insured, so it’s a victimless crime.” – Andy
The most anguished, tortured, complex, brilliant performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s career. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) is the staggering crime drama where two hard luck brothers decide to knock off a mom and pop jewelry store – their own mom and pop’s. Andy Hanson (Hoffman) proclaims, “We don’t want Tiffany’s. We want a Mom and Pop operation, in a busy place, on a Saturday when the week’s takes go in the safe. We both worked there. We know the safe combinations.” Mom is not supposed to be working that Saturday morning. A third outside criminal-for-hire is not supposed to be complicit in the crime. Alas, it does not go according to plan. Bloodshed goes down.
The crime, the prelude and the aftermath get multiple jigsaw-cutting episodes, to see things from each character’s point-of-view. Hank Hanson (Ethan Hawke) is the brother who is supposed to raid his own parent’s store, but with his lack of criminal experience, he has a hot-headed acquaintance (Bryan F. O’Byrne) do the raid. We learn Hank is hard up on paying child support to his ex-wife (Amy Ryan). We learn Hank has trouble paying $130 for his daughter’s field trip. And the obvious: he has a very fragile ego.
Back to Andy. He has a superhot wife (Marisa Tomei), but as cocky as he is, hints tell us that he does not feel deserving of her. The movie opens up with explicit and risqué fornication in Rio, only to be followed by confessions later that they can’t seem to summon that kind of great sex back home. The bulls*** of life can’t compete with a vacation in Rio, is what is said. Regularly back home, Andy embezzles money from his accounting branch at his Manhattan real estate office. Andy pays big money to shoot up heroin in a posh penthouse where privacy and comfort is fundamental. His life is fractured in such secrets.
Hold on, let me observe Hoffman’s acting here. He has the “my life doesn’t add up” monologue at the penthouse. Most actors would look foolish and unconvincing talking to themselves. Hoffman’s snaky businessman shrivels down, he is yearning to be heard, he has bottled anger and shame up for years. You can’t help but go, “Wow, Hoffman knows this character, how does he know him this well?” Hoffman turns purple in several scenes in the film in suppressed rage, compensating his ego by controlling others. When he places his hand on his brother Hank, we might think he is going to squeeze the life out of him. But it’s only to sternly lecture him, and to let him know, You’re not getting up. You’re in my control.
As a result of the robbery, mom (Rosemary Harris) makes it to the hospital but in a catatonic state but will likely not recover from the brain trauma. Charles Hanson (Albert Finney), the father of the clan, makes it his mission to understand why his wife fell victim to this crime. The plot will urgently require from here on out for smart-conniving Andy and bungling-gullible Hank to clean up their tracks and cut off any loose ends. And money, what money? They still need it. When all else has failed, Andy is capable of transitioning from smooth operator to perpetrator of extreme retribution. The only way out is stealing more money.
Of course, Hoffman is the major attraction here, demonstrating that he could take a crime drama character and twist out the tragedy in him. His Andy is cobra-like and calculating, but has feelings of inadequacy. He dreams of starting over, but needs cold hard cash to do it. He has a beautiful wife, but does not know her. He has a brother that looks up to him, but really envies him. Now they have participated in a crime together. Hank is the one that has made lots of mistakes, but is Andy not the one who has ensnared everybody in this plot? Andy tries to not be a ticking time bomb, he does everything in his self-composure not to be that, even the trashing of his own house comes with understatement. But Hoffman, turning purple, is bound to explode.
Hawke, conversely as the nice guy not cut out to be bad, is very good in the movie, too, even if he wears desperation on his sleeve too obviously. Tomei, a pillar of desire as wife Nanette, is a junkie for sexual attention because she’s not good at anything else. Leonardo Cimino as a shady jeweler and Michael Shannon as a blackmailer have crucial scenes that turn the plot as well as show-off their aptitude for character acting.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” was the final film of Sidney Lumet, who directed with vigorous and merciless mastery at age 83. He was famous for films such as “12 Angry Men” (1957), “Fail-Safe” (1964), “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “Network” (1976), “The Verdict” (1982). And he was never properly hailed for such films as “The Hill” (1965) and “Running on Empty” (1988). Lumet believed in extensive script rehearsal during pre-production, so his actors would know the lines inside and out, and so he could also adjust his visual style to suit the actors when it came time to shoot on location. He also had the guile to gut the script: Andy and Hank were friends, not brothers, in the original draft. And he jettisoned Andy’s child from the script. Kelly Masterson’s debut screenplay is not only brilliant, but tightly wound now.
This was the second best film I saw in 2007, only amiss to “No Country for Old Men.” Hoffman was not nominated at the Oscars, nor was the film for anything else, another example proving the Academy has a penchant for incompetently overlooking at least one masterpiece per year. Of course, Hoffman’s Andy is a portrait of shameful human nature spiraling out of control into the vortex of self-destruction, and that kind of heavy stuff – and the gorge of family dysfunction – has some [Academy] viewers steering their eyes away. Anybody who wants a Masterpiece in Modern Dramatic Tragedy, though, which culminates in every last person marred in hurt, needs not to look elsewhere.
117 Minutes. Rated R.
CRIME DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Blood Simple” (1985); “Family Business” (1989); “Fargo” (1996); “A Simple Plan” (1998).
“To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States.” – Henry Hill
One of the ten best films ever made. Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990) is the ultimate time capsule film of three decades of life in the Mafia. Starting in the 1950’s the gangster lifestyle was at its most ideal, when the cops were easiest to pay off. It was a glorious and glamorous time – the cars, the booze, the nightclubs, the all-night card playing, the stacks of money, the mistresses, the fur coats for the wives, the ball-busting. The semi-autobiographical voiceover narration by Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco (as Henry Hill and wife Karen) is crucial to the film’s success because they tell their exploits with fondness. Scorsese’s camera scoots and zips around the film with documentary-like concentration in its entirety, desire for plot is arbitrary.
We watch the behavior and are captivated by it. We know everything these characters do is morally bad. But you can’t help but fantasize being a part of the special privileges these guys got to live with. I have always preferred “GoodFellas” over every other mob film from day one. “The Godfather” is a handsome classic Greek tragedy of a film, but have you ever fantasized about being one of the Corleones?
One of the muffled complaints over the years is that Henry Hill doesn’t have to do as much of the whacking or dirty stuff compared to the others. Not true. Henry gets busted in Tampa, Florida nearly feeding a schnook to the lions at the zoo. Henry overall is a special case, not said outright in the film. He’s a handsome kid, a glamour king for the Mafia outfit. Consider the film’s most famous shot – the camera tour through a red-lamp Copacabana nightclub via the backdoor so Henry can take Karen out on a meaningful date. Henry is luckiest amongst the mob family because he gets to be along for the ride of a lifetime, is even doted on (free champagne bottles from the guys at the other table over there!), and only gets his hands roughed up occasionally.
Everybody has their own particular role. Look at Paul Sorvino as the Mob Boss Paul Cicero, who doesn’t budge or move much at all. “Paulie may have moved slow, but only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody,” Hill says of him. He has a stillness, he is respected. The key advice Cicero makes in the film is not using the telephone for any purpose – messages are to be hand-delivered or brought face to face. At the end, FBI phone wiretaps hurt the confidentiality of others who didn’t obey that advice.
If you wanted a killer, then Joe Pesci as Tommy Devito was the guy. Tommy was used to shooting guys (indiscriminately!) and burying the holes off the highway. You didn’t need Henry to shoot guys when you had Tommy gleefully doing the work, you sense Tommy volunteered to do hits. Not an authorized hit is when Tommy kills Billy Batts in 1970, a Made Guy, and it takes nearly a decade for word to get around for Batts’ family to get revenge.
Last you have Robert DeNiro as Jimmy Conway, who is a born gangster, the kind of guy who “cheers on the bad guys in the movies.” Jimmy is the pragmatic gangster, the apple in Cicero’s eyes. He operates with the cool and smarts of an endurable wiseguy. Jimmy also turns out to be the one that turns his back on others, with paranoia oozing out of him. He serves prison time once, and he’s never going back.
I saw “GoodFellas” three times in theaters the year it came out. It wasn’t until the fourth or fifth time it came out that I started to become disappointing that it doesn’t show the Lufthansa heist, which is said with pride by these wiseguys to be the biggest heist in American history. I wondered at the time if Warner Bros. was too cheap to dish out a bigger budget for Scorsese to work with. After all these years, I am now satisfied that Scorsese doesn’t show it.
What Scorsese does is introduce an excited round-up of all the main guys and secondary mob hangers-on involved in the heist. What happens in the heist aftermath is Jimmy ruthlessly cutting corners by whacking a series of non-essential and undesirable guys connected to the robbery. I’m left fascinated like a puzzle-solver watching the behavior of the cohorts involved and speculating how necessary it is or not for Jimmy to order hits on them. Yes, ruthless is the word. Tommy is a sociopathic hothead, but Jimmy is one mean backstabbing sonuvabitch ordering his own friends to be dead. I’ve never had a viewing in which chills didn’t run down my spine when “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos flares the soundtrack while a shot reveals two dead bodies in a pink Cadillac.
By the late 1970’s, there’s a difference in mob moneymaking that shifts mob behavior. The drug trafficking angle was appealing for the low level gangster like Henry Hill because of the fast cash, but it also – what Henry couldn’t see at first – called too much attention to FBI authorities. Henry also can’t see that the drugs that he snorts alongside with his wife Karen and with his mistress, began to tarnish the coolness of gangster life. You’re watching the end scenes happen, and yet you’re rewinding the film in the head, and realizing the 50’s and 60’s were… gee, life at its most awesome. Henry becomes an inevitable federal witness to save his own skin, learned backstabber behavior within the mob culture. But the film never loses its bravado – that voiceover track never stops being enthralling as he recalls his gangster lifestyle.
Scorsese has been saluted for so long for being America’s best director that today’s younger movie fans only know his name by reputation, or only know him as the guy who made “The Departed” (2006). If you’ve never seen a Scorsese classic, I implore you, start with “GoodFellas.” It is the most essential of all his films, more so than “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980) included.
CRIME DRAMA / ADULT ORIENTATION / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
145 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “The Godfather” (1972); “Once Upon a Time in America” (1984); “Pulp Fiction” (1994); “Casino” (1995).
“I look at a hundred deals a day. I pick one.” – Gordon Gekko
An essential primer course to learn the stock market. Wall Street (1987) was a zeitgeist film that encapsulated the yuppie fever of more money, less servitude-to-mankind mentality. Michael Douglas, as the iconic Gordon Gekko of “Greed is Good” mantra, deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Actor. Even though the film was a big hit and was garnished with solid reviews it was one of those odd cases where even then it was underrated. Today it is the Bible of Big Business films. Hardcore capitalist-king monologues, critical insider trading crimes, the jargon on deal-making major financial acquisitions – all mined in a brilliant screenplay written by Stone and his co-writer Stanley Weiser.
Filthy rich Gordon Gekko (Douglas) buys and sells commodities, but in essence, creates nothing. He contributes nothing to the world and reaps on speculation worth. He gets involved in buying one-hundred thousand shares of stock as a daily acumen, but gets really excited about takeovers of corporations distressed. It’s 1985, and he sees a rapacious go-getter in Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen, career apex). Gordon coaxes Bud to participate in insider trading that manipulates the value of stock shares.
Few films encapsulated as many legendary lines of dialogue than “Wall Street.” The dialogue is prophetic for what was intended on later times. “The most valuable commodity I know is information. Wouldn’t you agree?” Gekko remarks to his protégé. This was a screenplay ahead of its time.
It’s not that Gekko needs a protégé to conquer the commodity exchange. I feel it could just be a self-serving lark to micromanage another human being’s life. Consider it this way: he invites Bud into his circle if money talks, but if it doesn’t, he is ready to spit him back out again into the guppy pond. It’s not that Bud gets overwhelmed in the film’s second half by debt (no such thing, right?), it is that his loyalty to his father’s company Blue Star airlines becomes a just principle to him again.
“The thing about money, Bud, is that it makes you do things you don’t want to do,” says Lou Mannheim (Hal Halbrook), the elder statesman stockbroker. The cocky kid grows a conscience and squares up to undo his wrongs. The Cobra King, in his Morty Sills suit, is ready to make Bud his cockroach. Gekko thinks he has his protege pinned to the wall. Watch “Wall Street” to see how Bud turns the tables on his mentor. There isn’t entirely a happy ending, since securities and exchange commission agents intercept the white collar malfeasance.
“Wall Street” in retrospect is one of the strongest and most enduring of all Oliver Stone films. It followed a year after his Oscar win for “Platoon” (1986), and was before the modestly budgeted “Talk Radio” (1988), before Stone would return to Vietnam saga stories and 60’s revisionist histories once again. Also in the “Wall Street” cast is James Spader, John C. McGinley, Chuck Pfeiffer, Sean Young, Martin Sheen as Bud’s father, and Daryl Hannah as the blonde interior designer who is pretty much a high-priced slut.
126 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “Inside Job” (2010); “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” (2010); “Margin Call” (2011); “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013).
“When it hits two years, you start checking out other girls. But it’s not because there’s no love. It’s because there’s no more thrills and turn-ons.” – Seh-hee
The most haunting relationship film I’ve ever seen. Time (2006, South Korea) pivots on the destructive words and goading that happens between a man and woman when their coupling becomes unsatisfactory, turning to irrational game-playing to arouse jealousy out of each other. The woman’s ego is more fragile. Extreme insecurity leads to her getting plastic surgery which results successfully enough post-procedure, but scars her soul. This was the thirteenth film written and directed by the great Kim Ki-Duk who directed my all-time favorite film, “Spring Summer Fall Winter… and Spring” (2003).
Jung-woo Ha plays a guy attractive who is creatively unique enough that most white women I know would want to sleep with him. His character is Ji-woo.
Seh-hee (Ji-Yeon Park) strongly believes that her boyfriend Ji-woo doesn’t find her attractive, particularly after she catches him checking out a café waitress, and even more so when he flirts with a girl who just his car. After this happens, she behaves sexually different in bed, thinking that a “new girl” in bed is what he wants. Seh-hee is so reactionary about feeling inadequate for Ji-woo, she splits unannounced for six months so she can get extensive plastic surgery.
The plan is to come back into his life as a new woman and wow him, to wow him with expectations that she can satisfy his lusts to the maximum.
The message by director Kim Ki-Duk is that a new face and body, and new personality, can be warped to such extremes that his protagonist Seh-hee, following the demanding transformations, no longer recognizes her own self, nor appreciates her own self.
A couple of women come onto Ji-woo after Seh-hee has left. Ji-woo is a thoughtful guy into more than just the superficiality of looks, and if you scrutinize, he is more into the second woman that comes on to him, who is less conventionally beautiful but more intelligent and mysterious. But their connection is interrupted by an unseen stranger, the film clueing us (but not Ji-woo) of the information that Seh-hee is following his every move. Seh-hee, who disappeared into nowhere, is now stalking him.
Seh-hee, now a stranger with an unrecognizable face, turns up as a waitress at Ji-woo’s favorite cafe, spilling coffee on him (a deliberate move to make him take awareness of her) and then popping up on a ferry boat soon after. She seduces him. It’s an old relationship to her, a new one for him. Before long in their new relationship, she is trying to recreate moments from their previous relationship. He is befuddled and simply lovestruck.
But Ji-woo catches on. Here we have a Seh-hee who changes her body, but she is still the same crazy out of control person. Seh-hee is still perplexed, sown in jealousy, defeated by low self-esteem. She became pretty, which gave her comfort and won Ji-woo’s attention. But how long does pretty last when you don’t know how to act pretty?
Unlike most Ki-Duk films, “Time” contains a large amount of dialogue. Ki-Duk, one of my five favorite filmmakers, is a master of silence and meditation (best examples are “3-Iron,” “The Bow”), but this time he could not shy away providing ample, concentrated dialogue which he achieves with exceptional ease. This is perhaps the best dialogue he’s written for any of his films, shrewd and perceptive, but everyday true and direct as well. As always, Ki-Duk’s visual compositions are equally startling and impressive.
The film says something about bad relationships, without spelling it out. Metaphorically, how do you get over a destructive relationship? That’s the question. I came away with this: Time away is what heals, time away is what eventually kills an addiction to another person.
97 Minutes. Rated R.
ROMANTIC DRAMA / MIND-BENDER / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Vertigo” (1958); “Woman is the Future of Man” (2004, South Korea); “Beautiful” (2008, South Korea); “Before Midnight” (2013).
“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone.” – Oh Dae-Su
The first time I saw it I was so awestruck, in such disbelief, that I thought maybe I was the one that was seeing something more perverse than was actually there. Oldboy (2005, South Korea) had me staggering out of the theater then had me questioning myself, “Did I really see what I thought I just saw?” What was there, after my senses were settled, was a revenge thriller with taboo-breaking content that I feel had never been tried before. Well, maybe elsewhere in Asian Extreme cinema, but never done with such soul-shattering power.
It what was the original shocking, transgressive and transcendent thriller by Chan-Wook Park (“Joint Security Area” is his most normal movie), a man is locked in what feels like a crummy third-rate hotel room that will become his chamber for the next 15 years. He has a bed, a TV, a shower, a dresser, a pen and paper, and other miniscule furnishings, and little else to keep him from growing crazy. He will box to stay in shape, he will punch the walls to adapt his pain threshold. He learns of the changes of history from his only ally, the television, but learns from TV news that his wife was murdered and he was framed for it. Occasionally the room is gassed, he gets haircuts and manicures from strange men in masks, and maybe is hypnotized to digest certain intellectual information.
Set free without explanation, the revenge is to find the man who made him his prisoner for all those years, and to find out why. This man, who was once a family man and belligerent drunkard named Oh Dae-Su, is a free man after all these years. He was at the time an old-boy – a completely irresponsible big-talking louse of a person. He is sober now, sharper, but is he really free on the outside? The mastermind behind the plot, whom I will not mention, is revealed to be still toying with his long-term subject when Oldboy is on the outside. “I’m sort of a scholar, and what I study is you,” he says. Can Oldboy put a bullet in this sick man’s head before he gets an explanation as to why he was captive?
At a sushi restaurant, Oh Dae-Su meets young chef Mido (Gang Hye-Jung) who takes a liking to him and joins him on his detective quest. Something poignant draws us into Mido, she’s the girl who is as compulsive about doing the right thing and appeasing a man who is in anguished need. She is a caregiver, as if she were conditioned to be that way, loving the volatile Oh Dae-Su a little too close and intimately. Mido might seem like a girl sidekick gimmick to serve the protagonist with convenient companionship, but she proves to be more – a perfect component to add to the film’s overall pattern of tragedy. Here is a film with an arrangement of plot and character that is nothing short of storytelling genius.
Oh Dae-Su is played by the esteemed method actor Choi Min-Sik whom I have often referred to as the Korean Robert DeNiro. He played a serial killer in the merciless “I Saw the Devil” (2011), a struggling artist in 19th century Korea who begins drawing pornography before becoming a celebrated painter in “Chi-Hwa-Seon: Painted Fire” (2003), and he was a shunned married man who must murder his wife to secure a better future in the downbeat but compelling “Happy End” (2001). In this film, Min-Sik eats a live octopus on film (the explanation why he does it makes considerable sense when you hear it), but mostly you empathize with the inner rage that drives him on his revenge mission. After all these years, he is driven more by hate than love. But love and compassion remain inherently deep within him. Oldboy gets his nemesis in his clutches at the end, but it’s actually his conscience that informs him that the tables have actually been turned on him.
With scenes of Oldboy smashing heads with a hammer in a bravura one-shot fight sequence, non-anesthesia tooth-pulling, the cutting out of one’s own tongue, incestuous sex, close-up suicide and other forms of implied sadomasochism, this is a weird, wild, and perverse film experience. This film was also part of director Park’s revenge trilogy that included 2003’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (my grade: B+) and 2005’s “Lady Vengeance” (my grade: A-). “Oldboy” remains the biggest Korean cult film in America, probably because anybody who sees it never forgets it and its reputation carries on.
119 Minutes. Rated R.
PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR / BLOODLUST / WEIRD MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “The Vanishing” (1988, Denmark); “Audition” (1999, Japan); “The Secret in their Eyes” (2010, Argentina); “Oldboy” (2013).
“Our society has put hate above love, favored killing over living.” – Paul Snider quoting Hugh Hefner
Maybe the saddest film ever made, but there are a few people out there who should find this essential viewing. Bob Fosse’s Star 80 (1983) is the true story of the brutal murder-suicide of Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten by her sick, manipulative and controlling husband Paul Snider. Stratten (Mariel Hemingway) was a humble girl from Vancouver, British Colombia who worked at a Dairy Queen at age 17, Paul Snider (Eric Roberts) was a hustler, club promoter and sometimes pimp who discovered her. To get Stratten into Playboy would mean to catapult Snider’s own lifestyle too – his way to get himself into the in-crowd. Hugh Hefner, the uber-famous Playboy publisher, would be one of many to find Snider to be too sleazy. Stratten would marry Snider, become quickly estranged from him, made efforts to break it off cleanly, and ended up dead.
Snider ultimately didn’t have the same class to belong to the new world that Stratten became accustomed to. His narcissism and jealousy was suffocating, at one moment encouraging Stratten’s new film career and the next accusing her of sleeping with the director. He would try and fail to make money in sordid businesses, alternately attempted to insinuate himself into the Playboy Mansion life only to be curtly shut out of it. Dorothy was sweet and naïve, but all too tolerant of incessant verbal abuse from her husband. She felt she owed him pity. And money. Friends tried convincing Dorothy she didn’t owe her husband anymore money.
The film makes it clear from the beginning that it will end in murder. This allows us to see and dissect the strands of sociopathic behavior in Snider from the start. By Fosse structuring the film as a flashback, we engage the film as a fascinating and despairing character study the entire way. Snider is snooty and big-talking full of promises, but sniveling and parasitical all the same. One scene is unforgettably embarrassing: Snider meets a TV actor named Vince Roberts at a Playboy party, and the sycophancy of Snider idolizing him and yet insulting his career is a case of the most horrible manners.
Eric Roberts, the real-life brother of Julia Roberts, gave one of the most unheralded great performances of all-time as the egotistical, remorseless Snider. I always had the feeling that Eric never became a bigger star, like a character actor like Hoffman or DeNiro, because he was too good in this film – he was smutty and scary in a way that made you not be able to imagine him in a normal role.
As for Hemingway, she is simply pristine in terms of beauty, and demonstrates vulnerability and kindness through and through. Hemingway infuses the essence of Stratten and Playmates, capturing the “girl next door… fresh and young and naïve.” At the time, Hemingway got breast implants before shooting the film, but denied that she got them for the role at all. I heard, later on, from somewhere that Hemingway felt “Star 80” was the role of a lifetime and felt the boob job was necessary to do the role right. As for me, I always felt Hemingway did just right with the pitch-perfect vocal intonations of a young girl transforming into a rising star.
“Star 80” would be the final film of Bob Fosse who died four years later of a heart attack. He is in my mind the most underrated film director of all-time. He only made five films, had he made more he would be more revered as a filmmaker. See all that exist: “Sweet Charity” (1969), “Cabaret” (1972), “Lenny” (1974) and my personal favorite “All That Jazz” (1979). Fosse was already a great Broadway choreographer before he turned passionately into filmmaking. He was nominated three times for Best Director (won for “Cabaret”), but was overlooked for “Star 80.” He was a genius at the creative image, used film as a way to explore the psyches of entertainers, found a way to depict obsessive-compulsiveness of its characters by mirroring it with his editing style, and brought an unparalleled sophistication to sordid material.
I want to mention a few other things about the film. Hugh Hefner was displeased with his portrayal by Cliff Robertson, but Hefner is impossible to portray anyway, isn’t he? Hefner is one of the most oddly benevolent of all legendary controversial figures of the past century. Robertson is a placid as well as astute interpretation, if anything, of Hefner and so it’s hard to even be offended by the portrayal. Aram Nicholas (played by Roger Rees), the director that the movie Stratten becomes involved with as she withdraws from Snider, is a [very] fictional creation of director Peter Bogdanovich. “They All Laughed” (1981) was the actual film that Stratten was shooting for Bogdanovich, a good film too according to me.
Finally, the drawn-out murder-suicide scene at the end is recreated at the actual house where the incident took place. The film implies he forced her to have sex, taunted her before shooting her brains out with his shotgun, had sex with her corpse on a bench apparatus designed for deep penetration, and finally howled and moaned for a couple of hours before turning the gun on himself. All could have been prevented if she had walked out of the house the minute Snider was behaving he was ready for violence. Or prevented if she never had felt she owed him time alone to see him at all.
I take it back that “Star 80” is the saddest thing you can see. It is actually more accurate to call it the most depressing of film experiences. But a masterpiece I think it is. If you are one that has been drawn-in to the wrong types of scheming and dangerous people in your life then you owe it to yourself to see this film. Even if you have to close your eyes for some of it.
103 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / WINTER DESPAIR / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Lenny” (1974); “Taxi Driver” (1976); “Death of a Centerfold: The Dorothy Stratten Story” (1981); “The Notorious Bettie Page” (2006); “Lovelace” (2013).
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
One of the ten best films ever made. No Country For Old Men is the Coen Brother’s masterpiece. No small feat considering their past triumphs “Blood Simple,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski.” Technically flawless to be sure, but the Coen Brothers have never dug so deep before. It helps that the story source is the Cormac McCarthy novel from 2005, whom McCarthy is one of the world’s greatest authors and sociologists if I may say so. McCarthy’s Pulitizer Prize winner “The Road” from 2006 is the greatest read I’ve had in many years.
The winner of four Oscars including Best Picture, “No Country” only fashions to appear as another cops, bad guys and missing money loot genre piece, until you start recognizing author Cormac McCarthy’s bleak criticism on the decay of our contemporary world of today.
Let’s accept that the film works brilliantly on two different levels, both as thriller and as modern social dissection. The thriller: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin, “American Gangster”) is an outdoors rifle sportsman who stumbles upon numerous dead bodies, a pick-up truck load of heroin and $2 million in cash. It’s every working man’s fantasy to stumble upon a couple million in unmarked bills, but the scenario is so unbelievable to Moss that he can’t help but double-guess the situation until – let’s just say his crucial mistake is to return to the scene to wipe away finger marks or see over anything else that might lead authorities or drug runners back to him.
The situations are unbearably suspenseful. What do you do when a pack of killers are awaiting on hilltop for you to return to your car? Do you hide down below in vacant vehicles or do you run? “No Country” also has one situation which I thought I never would see but turns out to be quite believable: a man drifts downstream a river while an attack dog drifts down right after him. The man has a gun he can use on the dog, but will it work and not be clogged up after getting all wet.
The film’s purest character is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones, which was his second great Texas man performance following “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada”), the one police figure who fully understands and connects the dots between the related deaths surrounding the missing drugs and money. He is benumbed by all the violence he has seen in his time or heard of. Times aren’t as peaceful as they used to be.
Not with men like Anton Chigurh walking around. Played by Javier Bardem (“Before Night Falls”), Chigurh is one of the most chilling psychopaths I’ve ever seen in a movie, a killer who uses the heads and tails of a coin flip to decide the fate of his victims. With a bushel of black hair and an off-kilter smile that insinuates evil underneath, Anton goes through a killing spree en route to the missing drugs and money with a cattle stun gun under his arm as his customary lethal weapon. Woody Harrelson (“Natural Born Killers”), arguably evil but to a definite lesser degree, is a private detective who will eventually have a run-in with Anton.
Anton’s only vulnerability is marked by whether the soles of his favorite badass cowboy boots are soiled by blood. After killing one victim, Anton becomes involved in a telephone call. The pool of blood is spreading, so he lifts up his boots and rests his legs on the bed. One crucial scene Anton walks out the front door of a home where he might have killed somebody, but the audience isn’t sure. But we know what happened when he kicks up his soles to check whether his boots have been stained.
Immersed in a cycle of chaos, where one violent incident triggers the next we become absorbed in the ceaseless constant frenzy of violence. There hasn’t been this much unrelieved suspense in a motion picture since “Straw Dogs” (1971), another entry in the pantheon of all-time great films. But let’s look past the thriller aspects because “No Country” transcends typical category genre.
Modern social dissection: Money or no money, the characters are left in a deep cycle of never-changing ways after the picture fades to black. There is an inexplicable car accident at the end of the picture that has nothing to do with the principle elements of the story. McCarthy suggests, God pre-destines our nature. The character in the car accident, by metaphysical drawing power, will always run into harsh and violent run-ins with nature continually throughout his life no matter if he’s rich or poor.
We start making assumptions at other individuals in the film at where the rest of their lives will lead – Sheriff Bell who feels he must be embroiled with work or his life will wither away into insignificance; Moss’ wife, played by Kelly Macdonald who doesn’t believe money will ever improve her. Beyond looking at the individuals you could start considering larger social cycles. The cast of characters and settings are a microcosm for what McCarthy suggests about the world entire. All of these themes arguably make the film more profound then the themes of “Citizen Kane” (1941).
The wisest exchange of dialogue takes place in a coffee shop between Jones and a sheriff of another county – two law men that have seen first-hand the worst in criminal nature. That other sheriff bemoans how young criminal behavior is spawning more anti-social behavior and shares his ideas of how social civility got all out of whack. “I knew when kids stopped greeting people by sir or ma’am.” Both men understand the changing and evolution of larger social cycles. People kill each other over money. People kill each other for the thrill of overpowering others.
Wise and true, and kind of a miracle because this particular scene is less than a minute long. The Coen Brothers, working conducive with the McCarthy source novel, was never this precise and this profound.
Read also Ten Best Films Ever Made.
122 Minutes. Rated R.
SUSPENSE / THINKING MAN’S THRILLER / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
“Most times when critics say I’m ripping off Hitchcock, it’s a shorthand way of describing me when you haven’t really thought about what I’ve been doing.” – director Brian DePalma on his career
The spellbinding horror film about a poor high school outcast who wreaks revenge on her classmates because there was nothing else left to do. Carrie (1976) is undoubtedly cruel for a horror pic, a film about a girl so shy there is less than any hope that she could grow up, make friends, fit in the workplace, and be anything but a hermit. Sissy Spacek is the charity case student, endowed with the gift of telekinetic powers which she keeps to herself until the fateful prom night. Piper Laurie is the crazed fanatical mom Margaret White who slaps Carrie and locks her in the closet as punishment. Actually, you kind of think this outcast would have a chance in life is she were given a best friend, a makeover, some confidence classes, and let her be torn away from her oppressive mother.
I think “Carrie,” based on the terrific nerve-jangling debut novel by Stephen King, is DePalma’s best film. It is simply masterful filmmaking by Brian DePalma, who I wouldn’t have called great before this film (1974’s rock opera “The Phantom of the Paradise” was irritating in how garish it is). DePalma would go onto a career of making lots of very movie-ish movies done with ubiquitous high style and vulgar shocks. Here’s a list: “Femme Fatale” (2004), “Blow Out” (1981), “Body Double” (1984), “Carlito’s Way” (1993); my next four favorite movies by him. Whether it’s hazy dreaminess, doppelganger killers, spinning camera tricks and split-screen devices, or obscene nudity – the vulgarity of DePalma’s movies get under your skin and make you feel something. Often lust.
Hair falls over her face, she looks down everywhere she walks, opens her mouth in a mousy way to talk, and thinks she’s bleeding to death when she experiences her first menstruation period (in the girls locker room). When Carrie White gets asked by Tommy Ross (William Katt) to go to the prom, it’s supposed to be a joke. Perhaps everyone will expect her to fall flat on her face. But she appears beautifully, has a soft-spoken grace, and is fairly normal edging towards a Cinderella happy ending. But the cruelest kids of the lot have the ultimate practical joke – one that’s too sick to be predicted. Nancy Allen, John Travolta, P.J. Soles and Michael Talbott play the worst anti-social teens.
Carrie, and Tommy Ross too (not a bad kid), are victims of this joke. She can’t even hear Tommy’s protest when it happens. Consider though this poor hermit’s history at school – she has never been through a week of school and not been abused. Because she thinks the school is against her, the class population is there to laugh at her, she has no other instinct but to wreak revenge on everybody. The horror. Like Amy Irving’s survivor, we’re all a little bit permanently destroyed by what we see.
The greatness of the film has to be given fair attribution to Spacek and Laurie. At the audition, Spacek arrived unwashed and dressed in a crappy sailor dress that wasn’t just nerdy, it was a travesty in appearance. She was cast immediately, and it helped that DePalma knew Spacek as the set dresser on his previous film “Phantom.” Spacek tapped into something pitifully shy and no self-esteem into the character that cannot be duplicated. Laurie hadn’t acted since 1961’s “The Hustler,” which she did there so brilliantly, and reluctantly signed on, not liking the script, and misinterpreting it as a satiric comedy. She was at DePalma’s Los Angeles apartment, grabbing her hair in anguish, parading the room and spouting the dialogue with overbloated largeness, until the director stopped her and said she was going to get unintentional laughs if she went that far with it. DePalma explained it was a horror film, that it was a Stephen King shocker (King’s novels weren’t famous yet, he was just starting), and Laurie put a leash on some of it. She kept some of her quirks in her rehearsal, but twisted the character into something nasty. Most evil mom roles are limp in comparison to Laurie’s work.
So beautiful one minute, and alien in appearance when Carrie goes into revenge mode. Nobody has telekinetic powers in real life (not like this), but if this story was done without it, there would be no transcendent metaphorical power to it. A masterpiece in horror and filmmaking craftsmanship, as well as a peering look into anti-social high school behavior – the whole lot of them.
The recent remake with Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore is very anemic, to such an awful degree to me that it upset me for days. Don’t get shortchanged by it.
98 Minutes. Rated R.
PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR / DISTURBING / AFTER DARK NIGHTMARES
Film Cousins: “Sybil” (1976); “The Fury” (1978); “The Dead Zone” (1983); “Carrie” (2013).
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY
“A film is, or should be, more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” – director Stanley Kubrick
One of the ten best films ever made. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is as much the ultimate meditation experience as well as the “ultimate head trip” as advertised in its year of release. Today, meditative cinema has all but vanquished from our screens in favor of rapid-fire editing and pop tunes on the soundtrack. With each passing decade, I’ve casually noticed a disregard for Kubrick’s masterpiece. Mostly, I believe, is because we can’t sit still without checking our phones. It’s yet another reason why viewing “2001” at a temple, err, movie theater, is mandatory because home video in this case just won’t cut it. To love “2001” is to detach yourself off from everything else.
The prologue of the film is “The Dawn of Man,” set millions of years ago when our ancestors were apes discovering their first tools (Yes, we came from somewhere, is the argument). It’s an awful long section to make that point and introduce the Monolith – a device so godly it had to come from somewhere else, beyond Earth. But with painterly images this jaw-droppingly beautiful, why would you want to cut to what’s next? The presence of the Monolith returns to the moon in the year 2001, an object alien to space travelers and great minds. Something in the universe is bigger than them.
Bringing wonder and splendor are more essential to Kubrick’s film than slowing it down to arbitrary explanations. The Johann Strauss waltz piece “Blue Danube” is used twice in montages of spacecrafts docking onto a large spaceship and the moon. My eyes are slavering over such majestic, gorgeous images (particularly the Pan Am space plane dancing in its way into the spherical spacecraft) – once again, I don’t want to cut to what’s next. I think what I’m getting at, is that if you love the meaning of what an image really means, and the significance of it, there’s no desire to move beyond it. I want that image to soak into my subconscious. Bad movies with nothing to look at choose to cut rapidly with S-E-N-S-A-T-I-O-N(!) to the next shot, because they have nothing to really show in the first place.
Even by the time “2001” introduces Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood as astronauts on their way to Jupiter for a secret mission after the halfway point, there doesn’t seem to be a deliberate interest with particular characters. Kubrick isn’t concentrating on a single character or two, but of humankind in the scheme of the universe. More human-like than anyone else is the Hal 9000 computer (voiced by Douglas Rain, who spent a career doing narration). Hal 9000 is so advanced in human empathy and pity, that he also assumes the faults, the jealousies, and self-preservation that are foibles of humans. Is Hal 9000 really on anybody’s side but his own? Nobody is going to turn him off. As a defense mechanism, he tells astronaut Dave Bowman, “I honestly feel you ought to sit down, take a stress pill, and think things over.”
What we do gradually feel is the fright of deep vast open space in the last two-thirds. Man attempts huge feats in space exploration, but is unequipped to deal with its foreign enormity. “Jupiter: And Beyond the Infinite” is the final title card, bringing us to the Star Gate sequence. Its purpose is also a total mystery, but astronaut Dave is thrust into its deep vortex for a long, long “acid” trip sequence. I love 98% of the imagery that Kubrick created for it, via slit-scan photography (implementing some macro photography of colored paints and chemicals), although there is one shot of a star bursting and nebula that looks too much like a painting. Still, what a painting.
Jarringly, Dave ends up in a perfectly calibrated room designed for comfort – this baffles many, but the theory has always been aliens have created this cozy environment so they could watch and observe him peacefully. Then, the ecstasy of rebirth, as Dave becomes the Star Baby. We’ve only been here a few million years in the human body we know now – the possibilities of how we’re able to transform over the course of a million generations is limitless, when you think about it.
I saw “2001” first when I was 8-years old, while my mind was still shaping, and it expanded my imagination and filled me with abstract thought. It’s not the kind of film that satisfies you with replete and definite answers as to its meaning or what really happens at the end. It’s bigger than all of us, and you have to be patient to think for years for what it all means. Short attention spans will scoff, but the rest of you, start pondering.
Special effects by Douglas Trumbull; Cinematography by Geoffrey Unsworth; Screenplay by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, based on Clarke’s short story “The Sentinel.”
141 Minutes. Rated G.
SCIENCE-FICTION / TRANCE-OUT / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Quest for Fire” (1981); “Contact” (1997); “A.I.” (2001); “Gravity” (2013).
The one essential 9/11 film you should go out of your way to reckon with. United 93 (2006) doesn’t use movie stars. In fact, some of the men and women that orchestrated communications in the traffic control towers are played by the real people themselves. Paul Greengrass’ jittery and shivery film is a verite documentary-style reenactment of the morning tragedies of September 11, 2001, giving us a detailed experience that acts out in real time.
This is the story of scared men and women, either trapped in an airplane occupied by bomb-strapped terrorists on Flight 93, or those on the ground in mission control looking for answers while thunderstruck by the fact terrorists have attacked America. Four planes are hijacked, nearly all within a 90-minute frame time, and as air traffic control attempts to corroborate the information with the military you hold your hands in a clutch waiting to see how they plan to remedy the situation.
Forgive the initial disbelief at first when the first plane is hijacked, in consideration that there hasn’t been an incident on U.S. soil of a hijacking in what is said to be many years. But then a second plane is hijacked. Radio dispatches try to make sense of the information, and are disturbed when they disappear off the radar screen.
One plane crashes into the Twin Towers. FAA director Ben Sliney (playing himself) isn’t sure at first, and believes it might be a private charter plane of some kind. But an enormous chunky hole in the building points to the evidence that it is a commercial plane. The tower waits for the local police to confirm. Again, confusion and disbelief.
Then the second plane hits the Twin Towers. The concentration on protecting New York from anymore crash landings becomes a priority. But the military can’t seem to get approval from President Bush to take advanced action because of his failure to take command – the film handles this by cutting around to different military and police stations standing down while they wait for orders. Then there is misinformation that a Delta plane has been hijacked. What happened on 9/11 was horror, and the film treats it as that. This is also a drama about confusion, as well as the grace of men and women who coordinate together to try to come up with solutions while higher powers are unavailable to hand out orders.
The film, without going into any sentimental backgrounds of the passengers of Flight 93, portrays them as ordinary men and women, young and old, shaken senseless once a group of religiously fanatical hijackers take over the plane. Simple and fast, the hijackers remove the pilot and the co-pilot with coldblooded ease. The passengers are paralyzed with what is fear, but also, just shock. Nothing like this has happened before in their comprehension of history. Nothing in America, at least.
Via cell phones, the passengers learn of the other planes that have crashed into the Twin Towers. Soon, another plane will crash into the Pentagon. The flight’s destination, it becomes assumed without doubt, is that the Al Qaeda terrorists are on course on a suicide mission. The hostages have a few brief moments to talk softly to each other. Todd Beamer (character actor David Alan Basche) riles up the stewardesses to find as many weapons towards the back of the plane that are available. Fellow passengers get organized to charge and disarm the terrorists. The rest is a very convincing re-dramatization: Credit the real plane’s black box and cell phone transcriptions, of how the men fought the terrorists in the aisles, making it to the cockpit, and died, crashing into Shanksville, Pennsylvania, while yanking away controls from their captors’ hands at the final moments. The original target was the Pentagon.
Writer-director Paul Greengrass previously had made “Bloody Sunday” (2002) about British troops who slaughtered civil rights activists, and was similarly documentary-style in its objectivity. His newly released “Captain Phillips” is about the Somalian seas hijacking of an America cargo ship. Throughout his films, Greengrass uses his raw rattling camera and editing techniques to create merciless and unsentimental realism as well as quasi-documentary immediacy. Few movies will be more traumatic than “United 93.” The usefulness of this movie? To use it as a testament to survivors of loved ones and to raise our readiness as a nation against further hostile attacks from foreign nations. 110 Minutes. Rated R. HISTORICAL DRAMA / TRAGEDY / MASTERPIECE VIEWING Film Cousins: “Bloody Sunday” (2002, Britain); “Kandahar” (2001, Iran); “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004); “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012).
“Motion pictures and weapons of war: science has created them both. So while others point guns, I’ll have my camera, offering fantastic dreams of other worlds just beyond our reach.” – Director Fritz Lang
Nothing matches the grandiosity and blind ambition of this film during its time. Metropolis(1927, Germany) is a cornerstone of sci-fi cinema and is one of the most lasting influential films in history. The Fritz Lang black & white silent film is a descendant of a hundred modern day science fiction films, most notably “Blade Runner,” “Dark City,” “The Matrix,” “A.I.,” and “Minority Report.” When other films borrow from “The Matrix” for instance, what they’re really imitating is “Metropolis” whether contemporary filmmakers are conscious of it (The Wachowski’s who made “The Matrix” admit the “Metropolis” influence). The futuristic story of exploited underground workers activating an uprising against the capitalists that live above ground in a magnificent skyscraper city, remains an enthralling one.
There are more title cards that contain dialogue than other most others for its time, and the speech mimicry is a bit slow in relation to communicating the plot than our fast-cutting films today. But in a woozy mood, “Metropolis” can hold you spellbound. It gets very fast-moving anyway by the second half. The stylized sets are always astonishing to look at, and tell more of the story than the title cards do at times. The most expensive film ever made for its time, it cost $7 million Reichmarks, which would be equivalent to $200 million today. (At nickel and dime box office ticket prices it had trouble making its money back.)
Gustav Frohlich plays the spoiled aristocrat Freder who has lived a charmed, stress-free life. Alfred Abel plays the industrialist father who has kept his son away from the truth about the slave-wagers he exploits. Brigitte Helm plays Maria, the love interest who urges Freder to acknowledge the sick class disparity. Freder goes down to the subterranean cavern to see overdriven workers stagger through dangerous conditions. Freder is startled to learn that the rich live blissfully only because the lower classes, inhabiting in an underground city, grind through demoralized labor.
Since Freder has lived a toil-free life, he decides to work a 10-hour day to gain empathy of a worker’s life. He can hardly sustain himself through an entire shift. As an amends, he shows his fellow workers there is a more meaningful life above the city’s surface. This, of course, leads to an uprising also spearheaded by Maria who riles the crowd. The tycoons do what they can to flood and destroy the lower depths to suppress the insurgency. There is also intrigue with a mad scientist named Rotwang who has created a robot, or replicant (think “Blade Runner”), who is a doppelganger of Maria that the evil industrialists use to fool the underground revolt. Viewers out there who love city destruction chaos will love this stuff.
The German Expressionist weirdness compensates for some of the more illogical facets – how do those machines really work? “Metropolis” was deliberately over-stylized by Lang for dramatic effect. Lang created special effects to simulate electrodes and elevated transportation (consider the similarity of commercial consumer vehicles in “Minority Report”), used real spouting flames in proximity to the cast, ran hundreds of extras through hazardous mechanical-operated gates, and goaded his actors to jump from high places. Lang’s career would flourish into the sound era with such titles as “M” (1931) and “The Big Heat” (1953).
This however is the Lang film that will be met with awe and admiration by viewers for another two hundred years to come. Grand, marvelous, bizarre – these traits are part of a watershed film that revolutionized Hollywood. Even if it came from Germany. In fact, it impressed Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels enough that aesthetic elements inspired Nazi propaganda.
There have been several edited versions over the years. The earliest DVD release had a 124 minute running time, there was also 1984 edition scored with rock music by Giorgio Morodor that ran at a deliberately compressed 82 minutes, and then miraculously the restored 2010 edition which added a half hour of long lost footage. See any version, but go with the restored cut if you love dwelling in extra outlandish avante-garde imagery.
153 Minutes (Restored Version). Unrated.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / MIND-BENDER / WEEKEND TRANCE-OUT
Film Cousins: “Blade Runner” (1982); “Dark City” (1998); “The Matrix” (1999); “A.I.” (2001); “Minority Report” (2002); “Elysium” (2013).
“It’s a story that can, perhaps, make you question your own value system. Even your own sanity, because it strongly and realistically tries to make the case for spiritual forces in the universe.” – Director William Friedkin
In all faith, this is the most enduringly terrifying of all horror classics. The Exorcist (1973) is the original blueprint for half of the horror movies cranked out of Hollywood in contemporary times. Its’ power is primal, however, thanks to the pulsating and pungent directing of William Friedkin (“The French Connection,” “Bug”). Friedkin lets the early scenes live and breathe in a real environment, slowly letting manifestations of the devil rise to presence. Friedkin gradually unleashes feverish visual techniques and sputtering soundtrack devices. I could speak of technique endlessly, such as the frigid temperatures that are brought out more by grainy film stock. Yet there is some kind of black magic that works in the film, it’s unexplained, but new generations continue to have convulsive reactions to the film today.
The prologue could be hard to follow for first-time viewers. Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) is on an archaeological dig in Iraq when he discovers an ancient amulet which has been around for thousands of years. After some investigation, his worst fears become true when the amulet resembles the statue of Pazuzu, an otherworldly demon who takes the form of a man, a ravenous bird, a scorpion and a lion all in one. These scenes of discovery emanate something entirely else, though, due to Friedkin’s style. The gnashing dogs, the devil worshipper music, horrific laughter that sounds like it comes from Beelzebub itself. It’s a premonition itself, and Father Merrin will eventually make a trip to Georgetown, Maryland to help 12-year old Regan (Linda Blair).
Ellen Burstyn, who beat out Anne Bancroft for the role (Jane Fonda and Audrey Hepburn were also considered), is one of the few actresses who will willingly edge into a nervous breakdown for a role. She played Christine MacNeil, Regan’s mother, whose character is a professional actress who has surrounded herself with vain entertainment people. How ungodly of her. Yet she remains humble and compassionate for her own daughter. This fine girl starts demonstrating abnormal behavior including speaking in obscene blasphemies. Regan is a simple and proper adolescent girl, a little naïve about men and boys, and so when she bleeps “Your mother sucks c***s in hell,” this an indication Regan is not herself.
Consider your own person for a moment in relation to Regan’s possession. We go through this life, often striving to succeed with goodness intact, but sometimes in fear behave in completely inexplicable ways. Have you ever acted in a way, that later, you couldn’t understand how you could have done that? We have all felt under possession of something beyond our control ourselves at one point or another, have we not? We’re all thankful we can purge in ways that Regan, or the psychotics of this world, can’t seem to shake.
Regan though commits a hellacious amount of anti-human activity that goes beyond psychosis: super-rapid convulsions, soiling herself, vile puking with a wrathful trajectory, self-mutilation (followed by “Lick me! Lick me!”), twisting her head 180 degrees, and finally, telekinetic powers on objects to swat people with. The devil is sadomasochistic, ravaging Regan’s body from the inside.
The other priest of the film, Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), loses his faith in the beginning perhaps because he senses he is fighting demons more than he keeps closeness to God. His mother has rapid-producing cancer brought on by edema, and it spreads to mental incapacity. The mother ends up in a second-rate convalescent hospital, and blames her son for putting her there. Father Karras faces a cruel remark that if he had become a psychiatrist, he would have had a rich spread on Park Avenue where he could have cared for his mother instead of being a broke priest.
Christine chooses the reluctant Father Karras because he has background in psychiatric studies. Father Karras expresses the usual doubts of whether Regan is psychotic and schizophrenic, or if her soul really is being gouged by the devil. He of course finds justification to move forward with an endorsement for exorcism. He finds reason to take the case to the Vatican, wins Church approval, and is joined by Father Merrin for the mission.
The head-spinning last section of “The Exorcist” is a blow out between good and evil, a thunderous battle of spiritual wills. If some of the leading up encounters with Regan have been nauseating, the final showdown is more lascerating in the battle to force Satan out of Regan’s body. “The power of Christ compels you!” is the most famous line, but the litany was always more complex than that. The on-going litany of words speak to Regan from deep within, and her soul re-awakens. The devil makes Regan lash and desecrate her own body during this internal conflict. The physical violence of what occurs, between the devil and the priests and between the devil and the girl, is appalling and powerful.
“The Exorcist” is, to me, the most artistically accomplished screamfest in film history and is my number two for the horror genre. I’d still rank “The Shining” (1980) as the best horror film ever, all in all, because of its breathtaking visual design and hidden symbolism. But thoughts of God, evil incarnations amongst humankind, and general spiritual confusion is what seems to get rattled while you watch the Friedkin film. It is movies like this that get you to think about the world beyond, that there has always been something watching us. For when life goes right, God is watching us. When life goes wrong, there seems to be something inexplicably damning us. That we go through life feeling judged is perhaps why we tread familiar waters. We fear to offend God or signal Satan.
121 Minutes. Rated R.
HORROR / SUPERNATURAL / SATURDAY NIGHT SCREAMFEST
Film Cousins: “The Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977); “Angel Heart” (1987); “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990); “Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist” (2005); “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” (2005); “The Conjuring” (2013).
LITTLE BIG MAN
“The Human Beings, my son, they believe everything is alive. Not only man and animals. But also water, earth, stone.” – Old Lodge Skins
Arthur Penn’s western masterpiece that would never get made today, which makes it all the more unique and idiosyncratic. Little Big Man (1970) is about 121-year old Jack Crabb, a white man who goes back and forth living between white culture and the Cheyenne Indians throughout the course of his life. Dustin Hoffman does a peerless and expressive job playing the young puerile Indian, then young white man, then rugged adventurer whose self-appointed mission was to defeat General Custer (Richard Mulligan). I have often described to others the film as a comic romp version of “Dances with Wolves.” This is fiction based on the Thomas Berger novel, but persuasively resurrects insalubrious historical footnotes such as the genocide of Indians on the American Reservations.
“Little Big Man” has the epic arc and a compelling one, coursing Jack’s life through a revisionist Old West that reveres the old ways. Yet it still has the impudence to label the Pawnees as vicious Indians, who murdered Jack’s family when he was a boy and became adopted by a Cheyenne tribe.
This is one of those movies that wants to tell it how it was.
Jack briefly engages religion, feels first love for his adoptive stepmother, meets Wild Bill Hickok while he flirts with a gunslinger profession, is a failed shop owner married to an oafish Swedish woman, and finally, after rejecting the white lifestyle, he re-establishes himself as a “Human Being,” what the Cheyennes refer themselves as.
Embodying great dignity, actor Chief Dan George plays the venerated Human Being who goes by Old Lodge Skins and is grandfather to Jack. He appears throughout, slightly more damaged than the last observation of him, but perseveres and becomes a great wise man. At some point, during a massacre by the white man’s military, he is miraculously “invisible.” Trotting through the carnage unscathed, he is either a lucky fluke or perhaps there is something happening deeper to actualized myth – great men transcend their space in the physical world. For Jack, he takes on the patronage hardship of four wives. Particularly heartrending is the conclusion of his best wife Sunshine (Aimee Eccles), a sequence that tears my heart out every time I see it.
You must appreciate how canny the narration is with explaining history and motivation. “Custer believed that he needed one more victory over the Indians to be nominated for President of the United States.” Jack goes back and forth with comingling peacefully with the Indians and rubbing noses with Custer, who dismisses Jack as ineffectual. What Jack imparts to Custer is reverse psychology advice. The Little Bighorn scene, so crucial, was filmed in Montana near the actual battle site. Most Indian men die in battle, as stated, leaving women repeatedly as widows. There is also one gay Indian, which is an example of anti-convention in the western genre.
Vigorously entertaining, the picturesque “Little Big Man” offers us old-fashioned traditions and values that are disappearing from this world, such as a peaceful peoples’ communal embrace with nature. There’s no doubt of the film’s heavy ideology – the white man has been a repeat offender in murderous racism – but instilled is an internal conflict of ingenious complexity at the human level. Just now, I rewatched a scene with Jack sucking up to Custer. You sense his humility in having to do such a thing just to stay alive. Penn, the director of “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967) previously, made the most humane and conscientious westerns, albeit, not without a protagonist who questioned his bravery and cowardice hand in hand. He found peace with it. You have to find peace in order to find a way to live to 121 years.
With Martin Balsam as a snake-oil salesman, Faye Dunaway as the luscious preacher’s wife, Kelly Jean Peters as Olga, Jeff Corey as Wild Bill and William Hickey as the historian.
140 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
WESTERN / SCENIC IMAGERY / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969); “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971); “Dances with Wolves” (1990); “The Ballad of Little Jo” (1993).
“I will not allow violence against this house.” – David Sumner
As the debate of violent rage in the psyches of the modern male continuously gets expounded year after year in movies, only one has ever seemed to nail it inside and out.Straw Dogs (1971) was originally rated X in its premiere for extreme violence and a sexual assault, and was banned in the United Kingdom for a number of years. It remains a rough, queasy and unpleasant film to watch and it is easy to imagine how some audiences might be turned off by the film. The film contains gratuitous violence, because it is about gratuitous violence – and how we’re sucked into participating in deplorable actions. It is rather brilliant in what it says about man’s capacity to commit violent acts when provoked by circumstance. By all means, if you’re hooked, see this Sam Peckinpah classic. This was the iconic director’s finest hour, although “The Wild Bunch” (1969) is most often mentioned alongside his name.
Dustin Hoffman plays weakling mathematician David Sumner who relocates with his wife Amy (Susan George) to the rural English countryside. The couple have hired four locals to build a garage and to assist in other renovations of their new home. One of the hired hands, Charlie Venner (Del Henney), had a brief relationship history with Amy and is still obsessed by her. In turn, he is contemptuous towards David, who in his eyes is unmasculine and unworthy.
The four hired hands, customary heavy drinkers, begin harassing the couple lightly by ridiculing David and ogling Amy (flaunting her body at them doesn’t help). The harassment becomes more and more blatant, and it builds to a scene where David’s and Amy’s cat is deliberately harmed. But no blame is directed verbally. Amy calls David a coward because of his inability to stand up and take action. Instead of making sour accusations, David makes feeble attempts to befriend the workers as a way to win favor. But it is simply another demonstration of his ineffectual, unmanly behavior. David’s way of countering the boys is to act smug in his intellectual superiority.
The drama leads to the hotly contested rape scene, one that might go too far for some viewers. David is out duck hunting with a few of the boys, and although this is supposed to be a day of camaraderie for him, he is made into a laughing stock. At home, Amy is overpowered by her ex, the beefy Charlie. Following Charlie, other men become Amy’s violators. The scene is about psychological terror mostly. How will she ever tell her husband? Or can she?
Amy has difficulty with the perpetrators’ presence at a church function later on. Without inquiring about the suddenness of her emotional duress, David agrees to take Amy home early. While driving through a dense fog, they accidentally strike down the town simpleton Henry Niles (David Warner) with their car. Unbeknownst to them, Henry Niles has just strangled a young girl named Janice (Sally Thomsett, who appeared to have a schoolgirl’s crush on Mr. Sumner).
A vigilante mob commences to hunt for Niles and his whereabouts are traced to David’s home. David deduces that the mob will beat and kill Henry Niles if they get to him. Janice’s father is a drunkard who leads the mob David’s home, and with the aid of the four handymen they take the house under siege. They are spurred by alcohol, by the fever of the mob mentality, by the debauchery of their recent experiences there. Different weather conditions might have steered them away, but the frigid cold and fog somehow keeps everyone there in joined participation. One would not trot off in the dark alone, he would rather remain amongst hostile company.
The final half hour is as intense and relentless as any sequence of film as I have ever seen. The antagonists hurl rocks through the windows, toss rats into their house and set portions of the house on fire. As the invaders circle the house in a violent frenzy, David takes measure by jamming the doors, turning on the outdoor lights and, as part of pragmatic manhood, preps house-made weapons to use in his defense – including a bear trap.
Amy pleads with David to give up Henry Niles to the mob, and Hoffman’s anger escalates due to his wife’s uncompassionate stance. This is where he slaps her. But by the way he slaps her it has a different intonation – as if revealing that he doesn’t really love/respect her (this deepens the abyss of the film’s moral complexity). David, it could be interpreted, is fending off the home invaders because it is an insult to his manhood. A man’s home is his castle. But he has lost his wife’s everlasting love in exchange. If she had remained a “perfect” woman up until that moment, would David have just listened to Amy from the start? Or compromised with her?
After a first death, there is no turning back for the vigilantes – they must break in and kill David and the others he is harboring. The results are inexorable acts of carnage punctuated by one awkward moment – two members of the mob vie for David’s wife. In an off-kilter close-up, Hoffman is beguiled but clued into their likely motivations at the same time.
Peckinpah’s editing in the final act is masterful, composing a series of rapidly increasing juxtaposition during the gruesome, no holds barred fighting. The action, the back-and-forth cutting and sliding camera movements of the house interior and exterior, seem to let the viewer know exactly how, and where, the characters are positioned and in what they are engaged in moment to moment. The moody and dense music score is by Jerry Fielding, the multi-layered screenplay is by David Zelag Goodman and Peckinpah, and the foggy scenery was captured by cinematographer John Coquillon.
Hoffman’s performance is among the best of his career – he’s timid but has a violent undercurrent simmering towards eruption. Like his opponents, he is using violence to prove his manhood. Hoffman’s character is more sensible than the brutes, since he is the most conscious in ability to weigh the costs of his actions. Only Hoffman though can make excuse of himself for killing in the name of self-defense. Blistering and incendiary, “Straw Dogs” is a vision that sears into your perspective of the whole world, and troubles you forever.
118 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “The Wild Bunch” (1969); “Deliverance” (1972); “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” (1974); “A History of Violence” (2005).
“Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” – Macbeth
The rare occasion where a film is so determinedly pessimistic it works all the better for it. Macbeth (1971) is Shakespeare adapted unlike any other, bleak and gory, muddy and swampy, boiled and blistered, a vision of hell on Earth. Everybody speaks in it like they got a case of the crazies. Too many Macbeths are noble and righteous, here we get a thane defined by reckless blind ambition. The coven of naked witches construct a prophecy that he will become King. Lady Macbeth will stir her husband’s wrath, and inspire a coup d’ etat. Once the Shakespearean wheels of destruction set forth they cannot be reversed. This was the film Roman Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby”) made after his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson family, and you can feel an outpour of rage coming from his work.
Polanski’s 1971 interpretation is as out-there of a Shakespeare adaptation that exists. The text is nearly unabridged and full-verse – and sometimes not said in soliloquy but used as a voice-over inner monologue. The mood is unlike any other, psychotic and fatalistic. The players do not have any redeemable humanity to them, they live as if they expect to die shortly. The swordfights in this movie are like the first duels to the death that I ever saw, far more real than a “Musketeers” romp. Unflinchingly, this is a hopeless tale of shapeless, rapacious people on the verge of overthrowing civility. You can make a game out of point-picking the most level-headed among this society of smudged intelligence.
Attaining power takes a certain heedless audacity. Macbeth follows through on his destiny and kills Duncan (in close-up) to become King of Scotland. He spends the rest of his days constructing malice against those he fears will plot against him. The pillaging is very primitive in some scenes, beyond deplorable and nearly offensive the senses.
The witches corral in the nude, behaving insanely, dropping repulsive guts and entrails into the cauldron. The camera looks into the cauldron. Polanski comes up with hallucinatory visions, but that mean what? It’s all so nightmarish with a voodoo-like power. We know that a paranoia of insurgents and evil forces is what preoccupies Macbeth’s subconscious fears. Yet I would think that there is more to it. Are all these characters’ under satanic possession? Is Macbeth the new Antichrist?
Photography took place as it was described in lore of the real Scottish king from which Shakespeare built his play on. Northumberland, was the primary locale, with additional shooting on the marshes of Wales. “Macbeth” became the only theatrical film produced by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire, and as a result, was lambasted for nude and grotesque sensationalism – even though Polanski insists such elements was his and co-scenarist Kenneth Tynan’s idea before funding ever became available. Polanski also takes credit for one of cinema’s most gnarly beheadings and head on a stick shots.
Starring Jon Finch as the destructive Macbeth, Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth, John Stride as Ross, Martin Shaw as Banquo, Terrence Bayler as Macduff, and Nicholas Shelby as King Duncan.
140 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “Throne of Blood” (1957, Japan); “Ran” (1985, Japan); “Richard III” (1995); “Hamlet” (1996).
“Have you heard that as couples get older they lose their ability to hear each other.” – Celine
Beautiful young thinkers have romance. Before Sunrise (1995) is a movie for anyone that appreciates intelligent conversation, travel and chance encounters. Ethan Hawke is young American abroad, Jesse, while Julie Delpy is the eye-catching French girl, Celine. They talk for twenty minutes on the Eurail – his stop is in Vienna, her destination is beyond – but with a good line he convinces her to get off the train with him. To do nothing but tour the city, walk and talk. This turns into an all-night date that is as divine a romance as anything the cinema has given us.
The writer-director is Richard Linklater. I’ve met him three times. He’s hunkier, more charming, more eagerly sociable, more gregarious than most filmmakers. He’s got good looks and confidence. This description sets him apart from his contemporaries, and I think that’s important. He’s a guy that’s been around many walks of life. His earliest movies “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused,” although entirely different scenes, also contained a bright young vernacular. Linklater’s movies talk smart and up to speed with youth culture today. His characters have life goals, world opinions, and most daringly, esoteric musings. That’s funny. Most movies don’t feature characters that speak rhetorically for the heck of it.
These two are honest with each other. They believe in love, but in higher callings. Jesse says of his doubts, “If I’m totally honest with myself, I think I’d rather die knowing that I was really good at something, that I excelled at something… rather than I’d just be in a nice, caring relationship.” Celine says of love, “I always feel this pressure of being a strong and independent icon of womanhood, and without making it look like my whole life is revolving around some guy. But loving someone, and being loved means so much to me. We always make fun of it and stuff. But isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?”
People who go to movies for plot over character aren’t going to catch its vibe so easy. Jesse and Celine roam through the city – stop at the record store, a cemetery, a carnival, coffee bars, a run-in with a gypsy who foretells prophecies, another run-in with a spontaneous poet for hire. Forgoing, it continues that way. What marks its brilliance is the conversations, the asides, the waxing of world philosophy by two attractive people getting to know each other. The suspense is when the kiss is going to come, and if there will be promise of more.
When “Before Sunrise” came out, nobody figured it would spiral into a cult classic. That it would carry in peoples’ hearts years after one viewing. That it would inspire real life love stories by couples’ duplicating their scenario. The sequel “Before Sunset” would come out nine years later, to catch up with the characters in a reunion sense only to slowly peel away the characters’ long-dormant lust for each other, and “Before Midnight” revisiting the characters again another nine years later is now in theaters. Stories of first love melts us – it’s just something that captivates us as romantic humans – which is why “Sunrise” has to be the ultimate favorite. You gaze at the film adoringly as you would a lover.
Rated R for a few flirtatious F-words and… French kissing. Otherwise it’s suitable for anybody with imagination and a set of loins.
101 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “Roman Holiday” (1953); “My Night at Maude’s” (1969, France); “Before Sunset” (2004); “Before Midnight” (2013).
THE SQUID AND THE WHALE
“All that work I did at the end of our marriage, making dinners, cleaning up, being more attentive. It never was going to make a difference, was it?” — Bernard
I say you can’t spend your life digesting only good and morally upright stories, you need to witness a few that feature pompous, wrong-headed people so you understand contrasts in the universe. The mordantly funny masterpiece The Squid and the Whale (2005) stars Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as divorcing parents of two boys, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline. The semi-autobiographical comedy-drama by writer/director Noah Baumbach reeks of mid-1980’s New York intellectual components. His take is a little meaner, gutsier and more hilariously profane than other family dysfunction films.
It starts with a family tennis match that’s about scoring, not fun. “Hit it at your mother’s backhand. It’s pretty weak,” Daniels tells his son. Within a few days, the parents tell their kids that they will be separating. Daniels and Linney agree on joint custody, but really it is an endless struggle to win favoritism from their kids.
Daniels, a career benchmark with this performance, has an oversized ego as a literary writer in a creative funk. As a father, he is constantly trying to influence his kids. Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” and “Great Expectations” are greater books than the school endorsed “A Tale of Two Cities.” Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” “The Wild Child” by Francois Truffaut. “Blue Velvet” at the cinemas over “Short Circuit.” Actress Monica Vitti. Tennis players Ille Nastase and John McEnroe. New York Knicks are the best NBA team. Agree with whatever Dad says or you lose his respect.
Linney isn’t a star parent either, sleeping with men indiscriminately. In particular, mom hooks up with her son’s tennis teacher (William Baldwin). “Who taught you these junkyard strokes?” Dad calls him a “half-wit” but still hits tennis balls with him. Later, judgmental Dad lets one of his college students Lili (Anna Paquin) room and board with him. He mentors his boys to play the field, sleep with a woman, but sheds commitment. Lili the risqué creative writer is an option, Dad muses. He possibly means to initially dispatch her for his son, but later, he makes a desperate play at her.
Eisenberg and Kline are flawless as the kids, both at an early stage of their sexual development/dysfunction, seized by adolescent confusion. Eisenberg’s first girlfriend (Halley Feiffer) is intelligent and affectionate, but he says to her face she has “too many freckles.” Kline spends too much time in front of the mirror gazing at his own pre-pubescent body, judging his sexual parts, with a Scotch glass in hand. That’s Tangerine Dream music from “Risky Business” (1983) on the soundtrack, you might be able to recall sexy imagery from that film. The youngest boy probably has remembered that film’s sexy imagery.
These boys are growing up too fast, too arrogantly. Eisenberg steals lyrics from Pink Floyd’s “Hey, You” and claims it as his own for a talent contest. Kline is masturbating at school at a pre-teen age, and wiping his semen on books and school lockers. “How do you know it was my boy’s?” Dad asks the principal, in doubt. Outside child counseling is a suggested remedy but Dad sneers at it.
Ultimately, Dad wants quick sex, his sons’ company when he’s lonely, to play tennis and ping-pong at a whim, and his wife to ask for forgiveness. He is always speaking in self-interest, putting down others, including educators that are below a college level. What does that do to his son Eisenberg? Here, the son thinks, just like his father, that he’s better than anybody that’s not a Ph.D. He sees himself as superior but hasn’t accomplished anything himself, he’s just a teen. Who is going to save Eisenberg, you ask? Before he turns into his father? He’s a bright boy, perhaps he will figure it out for himself. This film understands the epiphany of learning how to think for yourself when your parents are too narcissistic. Mom isn’t classy either, but Eisenberg does tell her there are some things he just doesn’t want to hear, especially when it comes to Mom’s reveries of how she took lovers how and where.
The film is perhaps asking you to sympathize with Eisenberg and Kline. Imperfect kids, but they are saddled with terrible role models as parents. I see it, these kids will outgrow their parents and become more “adult” at a younger age than most. All the movies and books they’ve seen and read might steer them more wisely. Maybe they will still turn into obnoxious smart-asses, who knows. But I got good faith in them. These are kids that are already capable of evaluating themselves and changing opinion.
The other Baumbach film I really like is “Greenberg” (2010) with Ben Stiller in a rare dramatic role as a likely borderline personality disorder case. If Baumbach sees himself as the Eisenberg character then it is presumed he started troubled before he bloomed into a great talent. Somehow he finds luminous humor in family turmoil. Instead of finding maudlin moments in the pain, he finds comedy.
81 Minutes. Rated R.
TWISTED COMEDY-DRAMA / MATURE TEENS / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979); “Shoot the Moon” (1982); “The War of the Roses” (1989); “Greenberg” (2010).
DAYS OF HEAVEN
Wheat fields, harvesters, sunrises, big blue skies and a Gothic mansion. At the dawn of 20th century rural-pastoral America in Terrence Malick’s masterpiece Days of Heaven (1978), Richard Gere and Brooke Adams are farmhands whom claim to be brother and sister but in truth are clandestine lovers. Gere’s kid sister (Linda Manz) tags along, offering dispassionate narration throughout. Gere lets Adams marry plantation boss Sam Shepard to escape a life of grueling work. The three of them are family, living under the same roof. Delayed gratification seems easy when Shepard is diagnosed with an incurable cancer which means that Gere and Adams will soon inherit the property. Then Shepard is told he will live, and he plans on a long and fruitful marriage ahead of him. Gere and Adams continue to frolic in hidden locations, but living a lie takes its toll. A grievous love triangle transpires.
Opting to shoot in Calgary and throughout Alberta, Canada as well as a few scenes of his native Texas, Malick gave us indelible locations to dream about. Foremost a visual feast, Malick’s “Days of Heaven” is among the five most beautifully photographed films ever made but his fastidious technique is utmost crucial. Believing in the principles of natural lighting, Malick’s strategy was to film as much as possible at sunrises and sunsets in what he called the “Magic Hour.”
Cinematographer Nestor Almendros called this “a euphemism, because it’s not an hour but around 25 minutes at the most. It is the moment when the sun sets, and after the sun sets and before it is night. The sky has light, but there is no actual sun. The light is very soft, and there is something magic about it. It limited us to around twenty minutes a day, but it did pay on the screen. It gave some kind of magic look, a beauty and romanticism.” Almendros won an Oscar for his work, but was grateful to colleague Haskell Wexler who was credited with “additional photography.”
You are not likely to find any quotes by Malick attached to any of his films. When “The Tree of Life” (2011) won the Palm d’Or at the year’s Cannes Film Festival he did not make a speech, although he appeared happy to be on the French Riviera. He explained in one furtive statement, “The work should speak for itself.” As high-brow as each of his films have proven, he is equally modest on every one of them. The one tidbit he admits in regards to “Days of Heaven” was that he was “crushed” when first choice John Travolta turned down the part (Travolta twenty years later had a cameo role in Malick’s “The Thin Red Line”). It worked out for Gere idolizers – “Days” is the best performance of his younger years.
Near the end of his classic film, Malick mesmerizes us with a locust swarm, a fire, a manhunt down a river, and a wistful final scene that virtually expresses, “It was nice while it lasted.” The music theme, referencing Aquarium from “The Carnival of the Animals” ballet by Charles-Camille Saint-Saens, inspires a reverie of an antique music box from the old century. When I hear this music to this day, in any other presentation, it summons up memory of “Days of Heaven.”
94 Minutes. Rated PG.
PERIOD DRAMA / SCENIC IMAGERY / WEEKEND TRANCE-OUT
Film Cousins: “Map of the Human Heart” (1993); “Wings of the Dove” (1997); “Silent Light” (2009, Mexico); “To the Wonder” (2013).
THE WIZARD OF OZ
“How do you talk if you don’t have a brain?” – Dorothy to Scarecrow
One of the ten best films ever made. The Wizard of Oz (1939) could be the first magical film many ever see, I know it was mine. Everybody is aware that the opening Kansas scenes are in black & white before it switches to painterly Technicolor. But it’s not black & white, not really. The film opens in a hypnotic, dreamscape sepia scheme emphasizing red-brownish faded photographs. In the story’s early moments, the town’s land magnate is bitten by Dorothy’s faithful dog Toto, but the dog runs away from the basket. Dorothy and Toto go on a trek, meet a magician who forecasts the future from a crystal ball, and returns home to face a Twister! The tornado picks up her house, spins it in a whirlwind, and crashes her in the Land of Oz.
“We must be over the rainbow!” is Dorothy’s (Judy Garland) first theory following her flight. Logical answers are unnecessary in an Enchanting Fantasy like Victor Fleming’s “The Wizard of Oz.” I don’t always want a world that makes sense when it comes to the genre. Few movies have given us that privilege. “Pinocchio” (1940); “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971); “The Princess Bride” (1987); “Babe: Pig in the City” (1998); “Spirited Away” (2002) are a few select others. Darker visions for adults looking for a trance-out like “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) and “Dark City” (1998) are even appreciated.
“The Wizard of Oz” is a trance-out, and just all bliss. Movies today don’t have the unabashed gusto to unleash a full musical number with Munchkins – for the heck of it (Today’s movies are too literal and mundane when often a good music number could punch things up). During this number “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead!” and followed by “We’re Off to See the Wizard,” it might dawn on one that more costume colors are comprised than you see in movies today. One thousand costumes were supplied for 600 actors during the shoot.
Along the way, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion (Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr). I’m pretty much ecstatic for all of them. As a kid, the Tin Man might have been my favorite simply because I liked seeing Dorothy oil his aluminum to lube his rust. His wobbly, top-heavy dance during “If I Only Had a Heart” is imperfect, but it has me tickled. I just as much liked Scarecrow’s hay stuffing, and the Lion’s mane grooming scene upon arrival in Emerald City.
The plot is almost simple. Dorothy needs to visit the Wizard to ask for assistance to return home to Kansas. But the Wizard is introduced as a vainglorious and conceited spectral force, demanding he will grant her journey home in exchange for the Wicked Witch’s broom (the scepter of her power). Dorothy is the epitome of optimistic innocence blended with resourcefulness, and she wants Home, so she naturally goes along with it.
The adventure is exciting and forbidding without being too dark. Upon storming of the Witches’ castle, there are daunting labyrinths to swerve through – it’s a frighteningly fantastic place without the need of 3D effects whamming you in the face. The flying monkeys are real henchmen without them being computerized critters with unnecessarily gnarly faces. The witch has power without her being an indestructible CGI phantom. This is a fantasy world in “Oz” but it’s occupied by Human Beings where mortal rules still apply.
To write another plea of thanks, I’m also happy a movie like this exists that doesn’t include electricity discharge out of wizards and sorcerers’ hands. The words “termination” and “annihilation” aren’t used. “Oz” is timeless not only as film but as inspirational art because it applies to universal personal themes, contrary to today’s times for it does not try to be “relevant” with Iraq, war, North Korea, Columbian cartel, Russian mobs and whatever nonsense today’s movie “themes” seem to be over-saturated with. “The Wizard of Oz” is an everyday antidote to world chaos. The goodness sticks more with you than witches’ evil. Maybe that’s why a viewing on any given day soothes and rejuvenates your soul.
Wonderful, delightful and inspirational is not a combination I’ve used a dozen times to describe a film, but “The Wizard of Oz” continues decade after decade to be an exception. And a lush heartwarming discovery for generations of new film-watchers. There’s no place like home, but really, a trip to Oz is endlessly more desirable.
Note: Sure, “The Wizard of Oz” is not an obscure masterpiece. But too many of today’s young generation have become too unfamiliar with how essential it really is.
101 Minutes. Rated G.
Film Cousins: “The Wiz” (1978); “Return to Oz” (1985); “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” (2005); “Oz the Great and Powerful” (2013).
“Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theater.” – Director Roman Polanski
Hypnotic cinema when watched in the dark. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is a masterpiece of psychological horror shot in peerless mood-altering black & white. It is essentially about a woman who cannot live on her own. Her sister vacations for ten days, and during that time the dwelling goes from unassuming apartment to house of horrors. Carol fears social encounters, especially with men. She is repulsed by touching, equating sex with rape (or perhaps she was an incest survivor?). She is afflicted by an inwards personality, drifts indifferently through her beauty shop job, and suffers from hallucinations.
Look at Carol and see that she is played by the unequaled beauty Catherine Deneuve (“The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” “Tristana”). Her chilly, disaffected performance is one of cinema’s best. Or perhaps it is just brilliant casting? Nobody suspects Carol as that abnormal because she is fortified by her own beauty. She has one major crush, Colin (John Fraser), a player who must interpret his rejected advances as a form of shyness. Does Colin pursue Carol because he’s intrigued in bringing out the beautiful woman tucked within the wallflower?
Carol’s sister is Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) who has auditory groan-and-moan sex in their apartment with a married man. You can dig deep to imagine Carol’s insights, but then again, aren’t her thought processes very basic? Carol fears that this man is going to leave his wife and consequently steal Helen away from her. As a start, he does take Helen away for extended holiday. What ensues over the course of alone time is a paralyzing breakdown of stability for Carol, demonstrating she is unable to care for herself, and worse, crumbles into hallucinations. Of course, real life comes knocking at her door. Her maladjusted response to male presence goes overboard, dramatically. There is also a rabbit that’s out of the fridge and rotting.
“Repulsion” continues to influence films decades later, never more strikingly than with the delirium motifs of “Black Swan” and most recently Rooney Mara’s character in “Side Effects” is a comparison of Carol. What we start with is a presentation of ordinary life, a slow tumble into personal breakdown, and peaks at a woman’s distorted interpretation of life around her. Polanski’s film is more than just a little troubling, it is disturbing. Polanski’s film is worth many insights into a damaged mind.
109 Minutes. NR, mature audiences only.
PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR / MINDBENDER / LATE NIGHT THRILLS
Film Cousins: “Peeping Tom” (1960, Britain); “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968); “Black Swan” (2010); “Side Effects” (2013).
WOMAN IN THE DUNES
“Do you shovel to survive, or survive to shovel?” – The Man
A masterpiece so obscure that I doubt most major critics have even seen it. Woman in the Dunes (1964, Japan) is a parable and visual poem that defies conventional description since it resists realism. It is also what the DVD box quote promises: “Haunting. Erotic. Unforgettable.” Sovereign rulers of nondescript power are perched atop a hill. Beneath are desert canyons, with people lodged in the dunes like inhabitants of an ant colony. The woman (Kyoko Kishida) needs a companion, so the village rulers trick a man (Eiji Okada) into the pit with promise of a hospice, and then permanently remove the ladder. The man, desperate for freedom, attempts to climb and scale the wall of sand only to slide down in vain again and again.
The man was simply a traveler on an entomology expedition. But he told no one from the city about his whereabouts, this makes him vanished from civilization. The man must now live in the dunes – to serve as companion to the woman of the dwelling. It is not an ideal living situation, he detests it. Equally, he detests the woman. A few days there he realizes it is futile to complain. A little time after that, the man accepts the woman’s sexual invitation. He learns to make the most of his spare surroundings, until he can devise an escape. Two forces operate to deny him escape: the rulers and the woman. Perhaps the woman loves the man simply because when there is no one else, you love best what is in front of you. Likewise, this is apt the case for him as well.
Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film is the best Japanese film ever made. The great desert sand film, according to mainstream lore, has always been “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). But that’s only because many have never seen the Teshigahara film which breaks open the conventional possibilities of how you can photograph cascading sand and desert storms. If you’ve never seen it, now how can you judge? Obviously, film society can be an ethnocentric hub of favoritism pushing English-language films. But you’ve read this far, you’re of an adventurous mind, and now you know you must see “Woman in the Dunes.”
I also recommend Teshigahara’s eerie tale “Pitfall” (1962) about laborers on a construction site haunted by a ghostly autocrat out to rob them of their human spirits.
123 Minutes. Rated NR, but for mature audiences only.
Film Cousins: “Pitfall” (1962, Japan); “Walkabout” (1971); “Swept Away by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea” (1976, Italy); “The Truman Show” (1998).
TAKE THIS WALTZ
“You seem restless. In a kind of permanent way.”
The second best film of 2012, one that is destined to be largely overlooked but adored by the few who see it. Writer-director Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz hasn’t been courted by some people because its pegged as “just another marital infidelity movie.” Yes, it is about infidelity, but “Waltz” is about how even the thought and fleeting fantasy of sleeping with someone else can have a paralyzing power until the thoughts themselves become its own drug. Michelle Williams plays Margot, a woman who has probably been a very good person for 30 years of her life and then chooses one critical month to be bad. And she changes too radically all because of it. Williams is an actress who can play anything, a famous person or a common married woman, and every time she comes across absolutely spontaneous.
Taking place in Toronto and Nova Scotia Canada, Williams’ heroine Margot is married to an unromantic lug (Seth Rogen, in a non-sophomoric role for once). She becomes enchanted by a rickshaw driver (Luke Kirby) who talks to her in a way that every girl (supposedly) dreams of being talked to. His conversation is witty, incisive to subconscious feeling and peppered with sexual suggestion. She talks more to him in a way to see if he can keep up, but he’s well ahead at the finish line. Luke is waiting for Margot to catch up.
The erotic confession monologue fondly recalls Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” (1966). Daniel, the crush, tells her how he would like – in a fantasy environment – kiss the top of her forehead. Then her eyelids. Feel her eyelashes flutter under his lips. Then slowly, lips brushing up… it proceeds to out-eroticize Penthouse Letters. Margot finally agrees to a just kiss… but 30-years from now. Marriage deserves at least that long before a faux pas.
It’s only days gone by until Margot can’t stand the idea of waiting that long, even though she brought it up. She lives in a cute little two-story house with husband Lou, the kind with multi-colored autumn paint and a few rickety drawers and cabinets. Lou isn’t a complete waste, he has a cook book on the horizon with a publishing house to back him. He doesn’t know how to come up with small talk at dinners with her, he kids around, (even rolls around on the floor) and is rarely sincere. But he does love her.
But being with Lou is like having a brother or a small child, the excitement of love never even found a rip-roaring plateau. When they kiss or make love, their contact lacks carnal bravado – they touch each other with kidding and jesting. More dopey than hot. That one track of lovemaking style becomes mechanical, one could say.
Margot can’t seem to fathom the idea that a good-looker like Daniel would ever flatter her. She hides behind ironic, hostile jokes at his expense – the kind that shields her from hurt, really, since she dishes out “blows.” She drops the hostile act, softens, and is liberated to talk sexy. Some wallflowers never talk sexy. But here, Margot is learning. Yes, it’s too bad she can’t learn to do that with her own husband.
“Take This Waltz” has the exactitude of real life and responsibilities converging with the urge of running off. An extraordinary circular shot towards the end brings everything into a new light. As it unfolds the passage of time, it in the most artfully brave way lays bare the euphoria of new love and how it can totally create a new persona from within (although new changes are often self-deceptive, and temporary at best). This masterful 360 shot by director Polley has the compositional bravado of Scorsese at his most risky (“Who’s That Knocking at My Door,” “The Age of Innocence”), and the paradoxical use of “Video Killed the Radio Star?” on the soundtrack is elementally haunting – a song Margot clings to it because it’s youthful.
We try to cling onto perfect memories in our lives. What Margot, and the rest of us, have to learn is that we cannot live forever clinging to a perfect memory nor can we manufacture moments that emulate perfection from before. We have to persevere along and look for new memories to create. Even if it takes work. And that’s done best shared with the one you’re married to. Marriage is a lifelong process of adaptation, if only Margot and Lou had learned.
Also with Sarah Silverman who accomplishes intriguing and surprising depth in a supporting role as Margot’s sister-in-law.
106 Minutes. Rated R.
ROMANTIC DRAMA / SEXY IMAGES / MASTERPIECE VIEWING FOR ANYTIME OF YEAR
Film Cousins: “Persona” (1966, Sweden); “The Age of Innocence” (1993); “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999); “In the Mood for Love” (2000, China).
“In Australia when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if means killing his fellow creatures. The Aborigines call it the Walkabout. This is the story of a Walkabout.” – Prologue
One of the ten best films ever made. Walkabout (1971) features two city children lost in the Outback, luckily saved by an Aborigine boy who is on his yearlong exodus to claim his manhood. It begins weirdly with abstract images of modern life that are brilliantly bookended in the conclusion. Stick around long enough and you will catch some of the most beautiful imagery ever captured. Here’s a film that was filmed and created in a particular time and place that will never be duplicated again. The current “Life of Pi” is the closest any film in ages that has truly been able to compare on a transcendent level, but they are more similar in theme than in texture. This 1971 film is its own singular touchstone.
The film is just barely inappropriate for young children, but then again, see for yourself first and then decide when you want to share it with your brood. Mostly, the first dramatic scene of the film in the desert is what will scare or bewilder younger viewers. Scene description: The father has taken his two young children to the desert. It is suggested in a brief leering shot that the father is ashamedly attracted to his daughter. Misses his children with his revolver, sets his car ablaze, and uses the final bullet to do away with himself. The children, unscathed, run into the wilderness to be lost. All filmed in such a matter of fact way.
They do what any city children would do. They pant for food, water and shelter in a petulantly impatient way. Over the course of time, lost indefinitely, they will require less and less. That is an interpretive meaning to the word “adaptation,” is it not?
Jenny Agutter is the nameless beautiful teen girl on the transition to womanhood, and Lucien John as her little brother who is innocent and has only a limited cognition of their predicament. The boy craves food and water, but once fulfilled, he yearns to kill boredom. The arrival of David Gumpilil (an indigenous member who became an unlikely movie actor for the next 30 years in Australia productions) as the Aborigine man-child dilutes the boredom. “I expect we’re the first white people he’s seen,” the girl observes.
The Aborigine boy is fascinated by her, beyond terms of conventional communication. Of course, without a shared language there will be dramatic miscommunication between them. The young girl wants the Aborigine boy to guide them back to the city, or an outpost with white people who can rescue them.
The Aborigine boy wants companionship, love, to share his adventures, to be a teacher and sage. Two white children consensually become his students. The Aborigine boy, smitten with the girl in particular, enacts a mating ritual which is unfamiliar to the girl. Heartbreak and rejection is devastating in all cultures universally, it’s no different in the Outback as it is at an inner city high school. The Aborigine boy is hard on himself because since his mating ritual is rejected, he sees himself as a failure. Not unlike most 17-year old boys who fail at first love (I will attest myself, too).
The return to civilization is emphasized less, the pleasures of the journey reveled. Of course the two protagonists have to eventually return home – the idea of returning home is part of many of our genetic instinct. They are from the city. They have family. But survival in nature becomes a game we subconsciously strive to master, perhaps it is a lifestyle for some inclined. A conduit to spiritual freedom. I haven’t always myself known who I am until I am stripped free from modern devices and conveniences to be given infinite space in the wilderness to think.
There are animals in the Outback (as well as limitless animals, insects and exotic organisms photographed in this film, and yes, kangaroos!). Hunted by the Aboriginals for food and survival. Hunted by white men selfishly for sport. We see those contrasts, as well as the contrasts of how food is prepared and served in wilderness, and how it is chopped and packaged back in modern society. The girl and boy will have advanced thought processes later in life built from this lost experience, because they have lived the pyramid from inside and out. They have embedded knowledge that is exclusive to them.
We are molded by our surroundings, conditioned and programmed. Force me to a few days in the Outback with no experience, I am impotent and desperate. Give me a guide to teach me and grant me the time to adapt over several weeks, I will persevere and become fond of my new lifestyle.
The girl is seen years later, grown up in a conventional city life, but one senses she currently feels spiritually trapped by conventional living and hungers for her past when she roughed it in nature with an adventurer as a guide. Are we all able to return to our past with the same purity as originally felt? Life’s greatest moments are lamentably unrepeatable.
Extraordinary cinematography was done by director Nicolas Roeg himself. Roeg’s career has been criminally unrecognized. In brief, he made three masterpieces that defy orthodox genre description: “Walkabout” for its landscape imagery and human spiritual themes; the horror film set in Venice called “Don’t Look Now” (1973) which is for anybody who loved “The Sixth Sense;” and the stunningly weird alien on Earth saga “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976) which transforms into an allegory of sex addiction and alcoholism. The film most people have nonchalantly seen by him is the children’s film “The Witches” (1990), the drawing appeal however were fans of author Roald Dahl.
Spellbinding is not a word I’ve used a dozen times to describe a film, but I could watch “Walkabout” with no sound on and be spellbound.
100 Minutes. Rated G.
Film Cousins: “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976); “Spring Summer Fall Winter… And Spring” (2003, South Korea); “Into the Wild” (2007); “Life of Pi” (2012).
“FBI says they can prove it through physics in a nuclear laboratory. Of course they can prove it. Theoretical physics can also prove that an elephant can hang off a cliff with its tail tied to a daisy! But use your eyes, your common sense.” – Jim Garrison
Quintessential. JFK (1991) stands on its own as one of the most courageous films ever made both technically and topically, leaving durable imprints of societal impact. In the world of filmmaking, Oliver Stone’s film has most ardently influenced documentary films of today with their multimedia-layered probing – can you imagine “The Fog of War,” “Bowling for Columbine,” “No End in Sight,” “Why We Fight,” “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “The Corporation” and “The Ground Truth” existing without Stone’s influential hand?
The death of our 35th President John F. Kennedy, presented by Stone as an eternal mystery with no closure. Blending in different kinds of film stock, arrays of lighting arrangements, and fusions of color and black & white, Stone employs a hallucinatory slipstream of visual styles to explicate information. Multi-dimensional evidence is so well-structured that belief of Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) as the lone assassin theory dissolves. Henceforth, the implication of a Warren Commission cover-up becomes a logistical possibility.
I’ve always noticed over the years that the people that have hated “JFK” have often been the same people who have never actually seen the film – exactly the kind of people I don’t like. One misconception is of the half-truths that the film is often accused of tossing around. To the film’s rebuttal the protagonist is forthright of what is fact and what is speculation. Yes, the film separates ideas of fact and speculation.
Revisiting Stone’s masterpiece, I am most staggered by one aspect above anything else. The closing courtroom arguments by Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) in the courtroom reflects the kind of controversial head-banging that exists between left and right wing today.
“What National Security permits the removal of fundamental power from the hands of the American people and validates the ascendancy of an invisible government in the United States? That kind of national security is when it smells like it, feels like it, and looks like it…you call it what it is: Fascism.
“The war is the biggest business in America worth $80 billion a year. President Kennedy was murdered by a conspiracy that was planned at the highest levels of our government and was carried out by fanatical and disciplined cold warriors in the Pentagon and CIA’s cover-operation apparatus.” (February 1969)
To have a character say such words in a motion picture was a massive shock to the system, one that rippled into the world outside the movie theater. Boldly, the statement challenges “liberty” and “freedom” as propaganda words. A film like “JFK” was a watershed to modern liberal thinking (is that a good thing or a bad thing?). We understand the spider webs of corruption in high office better today because we understand the machine better – a lot of that is due to what we learned from “JFK,” and from other Stone films like “Wall Street,” “Born on the 4th of July” and “Nixon.”
Of course District Attorney Jim Garrison never really got after the wide-range of conspirators he desired to, only accomplishing to put Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones, never more different) on trial as a CIA agent complicit to the assassination. What Garrison succeeded at was to provoke national controversy and incite, gosh, opinion and discourse. Costner’s performance is the anchor of the film as he is required to communicate long monologues with vast and potentially incalculable information and yet makes it lucid and digestible. In addition, Oscar winning cinematography (Robert Richardson) and film editing (Joe Hutshing, Pietro Scalia) are among the best of the craft ever committed to a motion picture.
With Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Michael Rooker, Sissy Spacek, Laurie Metcalf and Donald Sutherland as Mr. X.
189 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “Wall Street” (1987); “Nixon” (1995); “W.” (2008); “Lincoln” (2012).
“How do you think the hike’s going so far?” – Gerry
Meditative, arty, beautiful, hypnotic, tense-filled… and willfully testing of your patience. Gerry (2003) will be maddening to those looking for quick fixes. We all crave doses of accessible, commercial entertainment that delivers instant interpretable information within seconds. You have to be one who meditates, one that spends minutes lingering on profound ideas and can wait until the film’s end, or until hours after the film’s end, to find your deliverance. Matt Damon and Casey Affleck star, there are no other actors. Only a few other specks of extras. Gus Van Sant directs at his most experimental. The common viewing complaint is that nothing happens. The philosophical power of the film is the foreboding fear of something happening, whether it be good or bad.
Movies have no right to be this slow, not unless there as beautifully framed, methodical, and visually poetic as this one. With an eye for stark desolation, like an Ansel Adams painting in motion, the work by cinematographer Harris Savides it is one of the best photographed films ever shot. Savides (1957-2012) would work with Van Sant six times including the Oscar-winning “Milk” (2008) and the Cannes Palm d’Or winner “Elephant” (2003).
In what was a “personal” I-don’t-give-a-damn-if-it-makes-money film by Van Sant, we are supposed to be mesmerized by the images first, drawn into the mood of dread second. Damon and Affleck are a couple of detached American jocks (read: emotions at arm’s length) who go off the trail on a nature hike in Death Valley, and when they turn around, they can’t find their car. This is a nuisance, but a tolerable one for they will set up camp and continue the search the next day. They reach a high crest only to realize they not only don’t have their car is sight but have lost their sense of direction.
A lost in nature movie with extended tracking shots. Stanley Kubrick used these kinds of shots of characters reticently moving down corridors in “The Shining” or soldiers marching towards oblivion in “Full Metal Jacket.” The whole detached ennui feel was the tonal chord of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” (1960), and so it is here. Van Sant is himself a master of mood and tone matching meticulously with his visual choices. Shooting carefully, “Gerry” is made up of 100 shots total, period.
Slowed to a lurch for its conclusion, “Gerry” has gotten slower and slower but alas, it also gets spookier. Who are these young guys to each other? We know they are buddies, but it’s not fully clear who they are to each other until they’ve come to the hour of their limitation when, only then, do they succumb to a final pitiful bond. And what’s crazy on a philosophical level is that the nature they’ve trekked is two-sided: it is both heaven and hell.
103 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “L’Avventura” (1960, France); “Walkabout” (1971); “127 Hours” (2010); “The Loneliest Planet” (2012).
“We Did It.” – the Army of the Twelve Monkeys
Pessimism is all-encompassing, but it is richly essential. 12 Monkeys (1995) is a riveting time travel thriller which features Bruce Willis as a somber, likely schizophrenic hero. It first starts in a subterranean future where people hide from the plague that took out billions on the surface of the Earth, then a loony bin circa 1990, then with an urgent relationship with Madeleine Stowe as a psychiatrist whom he kidnaps. “You won’t think I’m crazy when people start dying next month,” he forewarns. Brad Pitt is the mental patient turned animal rights activist with delusions of grandeur, assuming the role of cult founder – possibly the carrier of germ chemical warfare.
In his first trip back in time, Willis’ character James Cole has a mission to track down the Army of the Twelve Monkeys. But they’re not active yet in 1990, he acknowledges, explaining to a psychiatric board that they will unleash a killer virus in 1996. He was transported to the wrong year, he explains. If only he could explain himself better – Cole has the mind of a person encaged since adolescence. With an inevitable violent temper he is locked up in solitary confinement, only to disappear into thin air. Reemerging in 1996, he forces Dr. Railly (Stowe) allegedly at gunpoint to drive him from Baltimore to Philadelphia.
When we see the post-apocalypse future the sets, machines and particles are as convincing as any you would find in a film like this. Terry Gilliam is the director, famous for “Brazil” (1985) and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998) – and he is a perfect match for a story enmeshed with bizarre Armageddon portents. Stowe, as the doctor, is the rational voice of reason whose primary fear is not mankind but of Cole and his mental instability. While on route, however, Cole possibly convinces Dr. Railly of predictions that serve as omens. They began in fear of each other, and strangely, with an end of the world scenario looming Cole and Dr. Railly generate a pitiful kind of love.
Gilliam’s film is based on the 1962 French film “La Jetée” which is mostly made up of still freeze frames and one surprising moving image – the 28-minute short film was a landmark in experimental filmmaking. The ingenious screenplay of “12 Monkeys” by David and Janet Peoples (“Blade Runner”) fills in as a dramatized prelude of the 1962 Chris Marker film (not so much a remake as it often is mistaken as). It’s a neat companion piece, but the longer, fleshier, flashier “12 Monkeys” is better. Trickier, thought-provoking… the first time I saw it I had a couple of whopping “Aha” moments while I walked back to the car and reflected back on what I saw.
The current “Looper” is probably the best time travel thriller since “12 Monkeys.” They both say damn to the past for sake of some mastermind’s idea for a perfect future. But really, “12 Monkeys” is tops for the time-warp genre, followed next perhaps by 1979’s “Time After Time.”
129 Minutes. Rated R.
SCI-FI & FANTASY / TIME TRAVEL / MASTERPIECE VIEWING FOR ANYTIME OF YEAR
Film Cousins: “Vertigo” (1958); “La Jetée” (1962, France); “Time After Time” (1979); “Primer” (2004).
“You have to play the game to find out why you’re playing the game.” – Allegra
David Cronenberg’s transcendental masterpiece? I say so. eXistenz (1999), one of the great mindbenders of our time, constructs an alternate universe parallel to ours that is numbed by videogame addiction. The players use MetaFlesh game-pods that use bioports to plug into their spines. In the latest game, Jennifer Jason Leigh is highly lauded game designer Allegra Geller and Jude Law is reluctant PR nerd Ted Pikul. “I have this phobia about having my body penetrated surgically,” he concerns. His nervous system is uncooperative when finally jacked-in. Brace yourself. This is science-fiction defiant of conventional formulas.
Following an opening introduction held at a vacant church, Allegra syncs up with a dozen other gamers to test out a brand new video game yet to hit the market. Each player is connected to the MetaFlesh game pod – an organic system shaped amphibiously with temporal parts that are comparably female – with an umbilical cord that plugs into a bioport that has been surgically added to the human spine. Suggestively, this is a widespread common practice in future Earth.
Jacked-in, the lot of participants lose consciousness as they engage in the interactive role-playing game (RPG). Then a real-threat interruption: Allegra is lethally fired at by a would-be assassin. The bullets fired at her are human teeth. Observes Allegra: “This one has a cavity.” Explains Ted: “That thing was designed to get past any kind of metal or synthetics detector.” The two of them go on the run together. Their lives might be of secondary importance. They run with their $38 million dollar virtual reality game product. Allegra needs to engage with a friendly player to ensure it is not broken and will still operate. The film engages a new level of meta at this point.
The first ally appears to be an attendant named Gas (Willem Dafoe), who claims that his fill-up station is his business “in only the most pathetic level of reality.” Further escapades take them to a Trout Farm where an assembly line manufactures Meta-Flesh and a very abnormal Chinese Restaurant (a cut-out advertisement prior to entering says, “Will You Make It Out Alive?”). The special plate of the day appears to be green, gooey amphibious tripe.
“eXistenZ” is disgusting, and it should be. I’ve often noted that most women can’t stand it because of its grotesqueness. So be it, Cronenberg’s art in this occasion can be a guy thing. Boys and men are the ones more susceptible to playing video games for hours, we can admit this. At what costs do we play until we lose our physical relationship with the real world? Emotional, physical and spiritual atrophy comes with long hours lost spent playing. Ted aversively, if singularly, complains that there is psychosis involved with over-play. Allegra gently reassures that his nervous system is simply engaging with the game architecture. Play endlessly and get used to it. That’s what designers like Allegra say. Psychologists would warn of the dangers of desensitization.
Nobody is fully awake in the movie. Everybody is hooked-up, therefore in a trance from over-playing. Consider how truly brave it is for Cronenberg to direct everything at such a minimalist tone. Behavior is schizoid, conscientiousness is ephemeral – these virtual games are an unalleviated drug overpowering the brain. Cronenberg’s arguably highest interest could be about the grotesque human compliance to desecrate our flesh in order to obtain mind-blowing highs, and us being willing to accept the costs. When we’re lost in video games that blur reality with fantasy, we get disconnected. The “eXistenZ” scenario is what would happen if, say, 99% of the world population got hooked. How about this: Normal business activity in the world would never get done.
The shot composition, and editing, is as masterful as anything I’ve ever seen during the final scenes. It’s almost, in a hypnotic and hard-nosed way with those medium shots of disoriented players faces, Kubrickian. The bombastic outbursts by our protagonists is a wild freak-out, it chills the bones. Look for, as well as consider, Law’s subsequent darting, quizzical eyes as Ted. He is in disbelief at just how disengaged everyone else is. With such small, but telling cinematic details, Cronenberg’s film is compellingly probing in figuring out the motor behind human and dehumanized nuances.
Spellbinding from first scene to last, why is this Cronenberg tour de force less famous than it should be? It was released just weeks after “The Matrix” and suffered for it. “eXistenZ” is more cerebral, and perhaps esoteric. You just found your newest favorite weird movie if you haven’t seen it yet. Also with Sarah Polley, Callum Keith Rennie, Ian Holm and Christopher Eccleston. Catch these other Cronenberg films if you have not already: “The Brood” (1979); “The Dead Zone” (1983), “The Fly” (1986), “Dead Ringers” (1988); “Crash” (1996); “Spider” (2002).
97 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “Videodrome” (1983); “Total Recall” (1990); “Virtuosity” (1995); “The Matrix” (1999).
“Donna, if you’re not sure about this whole thing… this marriage… you could change your mind.” – Father to daughter
True Love (1989) by Nancy Savoca is one of the true underrated masterpieces of the American cinema, an entertaining turbulent love story that begins in the short days before an Italian-American wedding between Donna (Annabella Sciorra) and Michael (Ron Eldard). They look like a couple that needs a little more time to square the pegs of their relationship, but the reception hall, the dresses, the poured in gifts, and most importantly, the neighborhood expectations are so high that there’s nothing left to do but to move forward.
Donna comes off as a battle-ax to the guy’s autonomy. The first time I saw “True Love,” I believe I was on Michael’s side for the longest time. All the guy wants is a bachelor party without it being interrupted, without a curfew, without being hectored by fiancé Donna to “come over afterwards.” At the bachelor party he inevitably has, it would be a good guess to say he does the same partying he would do on any other given night outside the stag night custom. Stag film, dancing with the local hussy, shots ’round the house, cruise around town, hit Atlantic City at dawn, chow down White Castle burgers.
We start to gather that Michael’s clowning around isn’t going to end after they get married. “I just want to go out. Just for a couple hours… One hour, okay?” He’s the kind of guy who is willing to say no to his wife first before he would ever say no to his friends. “He’s a little wild,” Donna’s father (Vincent Pastore) observes, “but that will change.”
Looking around the film, around New Jersey, Michael comes off as one hell of a good-looking catch. He has a charismatic power to him that draws people in. He’s certainly a lot better off than Brian (Michael Selkirk), a directionless goof who spends his time courting a single mother (Star Jasper) he doesn’t look maturely equipped to handle. Michael has deceiving but persuasive appeal, and he is at least “manly,” not a Brian-like goof. Michael could exist in a Scorsese movie, Brian would get whacked in the first reel.
Michael’s wild nature is an indicator of why maybe Donna has to bust his balls a bit. If Michael didn’t have a curfew, perhaps he would stay out all night and fall asleep on someone’s rug night after night. He’s pretty chummy with the deli store owner he works for, and Michael yet is hesitant about bridging a fuller partnership with him for a career – he’s non-committal even when it comes to supporting himself and future family.
“I had the right idea tonight, Donna. I wanted to go out and be with my friends! My very good friends!” Goddamn you, Michael. You now have a bride tearing up her dress, bawling out on the toilet. It’s the most famous shot of the film, and I think, the seminal image in one framed shot that sums up what failed marriage looks like.
But they have such intense and magnetic sexual chemistry. They are not supposed to see each other the night before the wedding, but their loins are on fire for each other. Savoca amps up the bluesy, soaring love song “How ‘Bout Us” by Champaign to accompany Donna and Michael for a tryst that only happens for hyper-sexual movie characters. Blending aggrandized music, blue-tint glow of the night coming in from the windows, inflamed emotions, and special erotic detail… it is simply one of the most powerful sex scenes ever filmed, because it hot and because it has an artistic statement. Donna is disrobed, and the visual wipe transitions to Donna having her wedding dress slipped over her the next day. Donna is sure she wants to get married. Michael is sex and excitement.
The movie’s message is clear as day, the ending is a lament for marrying too young. Supposedly, a few younger people are confused by the ending. You’re in for this film, you’ll allow for this movie to cut you deep, especially if you are planning or impending marriage, or been through a high-wire toxic one. Feeling that you’re going to disappoint those around you isn’t a reason to get married. If it was true love, then that wouldn’t be brought up. Weddings are fun, too, even if they are on the verge of disaster. Only on a fantasy day like your wedding can there be blue mashed potatoes. The rituals, the coordination, the spread, the upgrades – all of those things can be hysterically ostentatious.
A year later, “GoodFellas” (1990) by Martin Scorsese was the epitome of the Italian-American underworld. But here, “True Love” is the Italian-American middle-class (if the name Scorsese had been attached to “True Love,” this would have been praised to the heavens. It would have been a celebrated classic by now, instead of an under the radar one.) Once you discover it, please don’t stop there. Savoca has built a career of making severely impressive and thought-provoking pictures about women, most notably including “Dogfight,” “Household Saints” and the current “Union Square” now in theaters.
104 Minutes. Rated R.
A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.” – Alvy Singer
Annie Hall (1977) is cinema’s most accidental masterpiece. The story compass was supposed to cover Alvy Singer’s (Woody Allen) life and his many failures with women, his many disillusions leading up to middle age. The original title was aptly “Anhedonia,” a condition that describes the inability to experience pleasure. It had a murder subplot that eventually became the genesis for “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993). Allen and film editor Ralph Rosenblum’s first cut ran two hours and twenty minutes. Allen said it was supposed to be a stream of consciousness comedy on a malcontent Jewish comedian. But what came out was a clumpy cut, overly cerebral, and reeked of pretentiousness.
Through test screenings, it was realized that Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall was everybody’s favorite character. To save the film from what was in first form a disaster, the footage was reshaped to focus on Keaton, pared down to a slim 93-minutes, retitled “Annie Hall,” and angled more on the turbulent comic relationship between two neurotics in love. During the 70’s, Keaton was considered the kooky actress of its time. The Annie Hall look, with tomboyish Ralph Lauren threads, became a popular trend: Women everywhere began copying Keaton by wearing vintage clothing, neckties, vests, baggy pants and fedora pants. She’s neurotic but lovely at the same time. Her quirks are charming. Her intelligence glows.
If you consider Allen’s intentions and how he compromised his vision, “Annie Hall” is messy and chaotic – part of its charm ironically. Irreverent episodic and interrupting thoughts construct it into what it is. Here are some oddball delights: Alvy Singer talks directly to the audience to commiserate his frustrations with us. Flights of fancy such as growing up underneath the Thunderbolt rollercoaster at Coney Island. An animated diversion of Annie outfitted as the Evil Queen from “Snow White.” Adult versions pay a visit to their younger selves, as if they have moseyed casually into a long-past time capsule – a device taken from the 1957 Swedish drama “Wild Strawberries.” Split-screen effects of characters in two separate locations, commenting directly on their relationship. And how about the absurdist comedy such as lobsters on the loose in the kitchen that is just sooo random?
For me the final result is a perfect comedy, a film that is one of my twenty favorite films that I have ever seen. It was the first Woody Allen film I had ever watched (at 13-years old) and immediately it prompted me to watch as many of his movies that I could after that. I can’t remember what came second. “Bananas” (1971)? “Manhattan” (1979)? “Zelig” (1983)? I can never remember what came second.
I might have been so in love that I watch “Annie Hall” twice before I got onto a new one. I might not have understood all the jokes that year, but I got 80% of it at age 14, and a decade later, I finally understood triumphantly its’ more obscure comedy. Every few years returning to it, you pick up something new.
The end of 1977 saw Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” conquering award ceremonies left and right, culminating with four Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (shared with Marshall Brickman) and Best Actress Diane Keaton. The film played later as a gallery of cameos: Spot young actors like Christopher Walken, Shelley Duvall, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D’Angelo, and Sigourney Weaver making early screen appearances.
We live in a world that often feels inhibited away from open expression. We need movies like “Annie Hall” to remind us that people in modern society can still talk about random ideas with unbridled freedom and wit. Absurd, lovely, clever, analytical, ruminating ideas all done in an affectionate and funny style. The film is all pleasure.
93 Minutes. Rated PG.
Film Cousins: “Wild Strawberries” (1959, Sweden); “Manhattan” (1979); “Stardust Memories” (1980); “High Fidelity” (2000).
“Don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”
Because of its genre, it was even given the chance of being called a masterpiece the year of its release. Cops-and-robbers material taken seriously – what an obscure concept! How wrong-headed that Michael Mann’s masterpiece received zero Oscar noms.
Heat (1995) has Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino at the top of their game. DeNiro is the cool-headed sociopath who has never done “regular” things in life. Barbeques and ballgames, what the #$&% is that? Pacino, as an obsessed LAPD homicide detective, lives among the remains of dead people, his wife tells him. It’s his third marriage, will it be his last? Inundated criticism suggested that Pacino’s shouting was over-the-top, but it’s really one of his best performances. When Pacino’s shouting, he’s really acting out his daily addiction to rage and in being the showboat cop in his division. It’s all he really lives for. DeNiro and Pacino are opposite sides of the law, but they respect each other, because they understand they do what they do because that’s all they know how to do.
The current French film “Polisse,” concentrating on the Child Protection Unit department, is the best police film since “Heat” (although, take note, it’s less action-driven). When I reviewed this French masterpiece, I immediately had nostalgic flashbacks to December 1995, where I sat at the Century City Cineplex Odeon, the largest 70mm wide theater palace in Los Angeles. It helped that I had the perfect venue. But I knew then, instantaneously, that director Michael Mann (“Manhunter,” “Public Enemies”) made what I thought was the best cops-and-criminals film ever made. I still do think this, even more now.
Homicide Detective Vincent Hanna (Pacino) is the star of the police department. He measures his job success in terms of winning and losing. He does lament over the dead bodies that cross through his police work, but in his own imperturbable nothing-will-defeat-me way. But for the first time in all his years, he realizes he is losing his wife and stepdaughter because of his occupational commitment. Without saying so, he might believe he can cut down on his work hours – but only after the McCauley case is wrapped up. In exasperation, he decides to voice out his frustrations with his own adversary. Here comes the famous coffee shop scene when Pacino and DeNiro share the screen for the first time: Is Pacino trying to convince DeNiro to cut loose with all his gains and quit town?
What I think now, that I never realized then, is just how deeply sad DeNiro’s character Neil MacCauley is. Including all his cronies, they’re all sad. They’re all underground operators, world-class thieves stealing big money. But in a way they use all their spare time maintaining low-profiles, filtering money, spending within budget, living on the fringe. The scene when the posse goes out for a fancy dinner is a transparent attempt in friends and family bonding. In reality, they would have to turn against each other if freedom depended on it. A couple of them like criminal colleagues Chris Shiherlis (Val Kilmer) and Michael Cheritto (Tom Sizemore) are family men, but they really don’t even have good parental influence over their young. Do these guys really know how to mold their children into in-line, conformed and law-abiding citizens when they grow up?
McCauley says he is willing to quit the business. He’s finally chosen a relationship with a meek bookstore worker named Eady (Amy Brenneman) as his would-be companion after retirement. But is it not true that he’s chosen Eady mostly because it’s out of convenience, and not because they’re both lost souls with similar needs for each other? Eady is soft-spoken, compliant and malleable – not likely a woman that would raise a finger at McCauley. But how about this: Before he rides off into the sunset, would McCauley be willing to walk-out on her in 30 seconds flat if he spotted the heat around the corner? I also don’t think McCauley needs anybody, for he’s too much of a loner sociopath to need any specific person to live with eternally.
Equally complex are the subplots with money launderer Roger Van Zant (William Fichtner) and gun-for-hire/serial killer Waingro (Kevin Gage, pic right). Both these characters backstab the unyielding McCauley who never forgets to settle a score. Some of the shrewdest police work by Hanna in the film is to detain Waingro, and to release his whereabouts to a network of bail bondsmen, bookies and snitches in attempt to snare McCauley. Van Zant and Waingro align themselves together, sort of. Van Zant is the guy that McCauley stole from and tried to pay back, only to face an ambush team. Waingro is, well, a psychopath who deserves death. McCauley is strange and ruthless, icy and detached, pragmatic before acting on anything emotionally, but he does have his own self-appointed moral compass that he abides to instinctively. Revenge, within stealth requirements, is certain.
Dozens round out the cast, all of them compelling characters. Jon Voight as the shark and embezzler Nate, makes a living by setting up meetings between criminals and taking something off the top. Danny Trejo and Dennis Haysbert are criminals with a history of mortal jobs-for-hire getaway drivers – superbly lean storytelling establishes those characters in a matter of three scenes apiece.
Diane Venora is the would-be socialite wife, bored with life and frustrated by husband Hanna who is always out on the beat. Natalie Portman, in her third substantial role following “The Professional” and “Beautiful Girls,” is the stepdaughter who needs a suicide watch (I respect Mann’s gifts as a storyteller by trusting his audience to fill in the gaps). Ted Levine, Mykelti Williamson and Wes Studi are among the co-detectives who are well-seasoned but contentedly satisfied with their second banana roles in the department.
Also worth mentioning are Ashley Judd, Hank Azaria, Tom Noonan, Henry Rollins, Jeremy Piven and Xander Berkeley.
Famous is the cataclysmic street battle at the two hour mark, which begins as organized tag team shooting and then turns into a bloodbath battle royale, and is among the two or three best shootouts ever (“Scarface” and “The Matrix” deserve a share at the top prize in this category). But what has always humbled, if amazed me, is that “Heat” goes on with another hour of gripping drama, more surprises, and a final more intimate showdown, that is as rousing as it is emotionally affective.
172 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “The French Connection” (1971); “Serpico” (1973); “Colors” (1988); “Polisse” (2012, France).
Black magic and satanic ritual had their top-class cinematic due in Alan Parker’s 1987 thriller Angel Heart (1987, R, 113 Minutes). The film stars Mickey Rourke (“9 ½ Weeks,” “Diner”) as private detective Harry Angel, Lisa Bonet (from TV’s “The Cosby Show”) as voodoo priestess Epiphany, and Robert DeNiro (“The Untouchables”) as the shadowy and powerful Louis Cyphre.
Adopting the old story of a gumshoe who starts out on a harmless assignment, the hero is inexorably propelled into a myriad of danger. What makes “Angel Heart” exceptional is the amount of nightmarish surrealism that occupies the film’s mood and feeling. Rourke plays Harry Angel as a brash guy willing to risk damnation just so he can get his pay. As a result of unwilling to back out, Harry takes one long and spiraling decline into an abyss of trouble.
Taking place in New York 1955, Harry is obtained by Cyphre’s services to track down a missing person by the name of Johnny Favorite. Before the war, Johnny was a popular musician in the South with many followers and admirers. Ostensibly, Johnny has an unpaid debt to Louis Cyphre and hasn’t been seen in twelve years. The investigation leads Harry into the world of New Orleans voodoo culture.
Strange accidents and mysterious murders seem to follow behind Harry while on the case. Harry unexpectedly becomes a suspect to multiple murders. He bears witness to forbidden sacrifice rituals of a voodoo cult. He becomes a central player to supernatural activity. And he falls in love with the priestess and partakes in one of cinema’s most bizarre, blood-drenched lovemaking sequences.
Every now and then Cyphre pays Harry a visit to oversee his progress. Proving the truism that every man has his price, Harry continues with the case despite all the elicited trouble. Harry violates every professional code that he has stood for just because Cyphre is ready to dish out more money.
As Cyphre, DeNiro only filmed for six days but is totally enmeshed into his character. His character Cyphre is donned in black suits and has slick black hair, and walks around with a cane not as an assist to a handicap but because it symbolizes his wealth and prestige. Cyphre makes demanding requests look very simple – he is powerful without having to shift himself to accommodate others. He firmly directs Harry to continue onto his treacherous journey, and has no bones about whether all this unlawful bedlam will come back his way to harm him. Harry is his patsy.
As Harry, Rourke is crucially strong in the film by acting in on his own unyielding narcissism and boozy charm. Rourke, at one time, was great at playing these kinds of characters that don’t question their own sloppy judgment until it is too late to turn back. It is ironic that Rourke himself claimed to not have much interest in acting at the time, because he was becoming bored with the profession. But he becomes an electric character in this film, a very tragic casualty of his own uncouth conceit.
Director Alan Parker splices in some surprise imagery at us, but his resolution wraps up everything with translucent sense and logic. The music has an especially creepy jazz-noir feeling, and the bayou locations are exotic and perilous. “Angel Heart” is one of the most underrated movies of the 1980’s.
113 Minutes. Rated R.
Film Cousins: “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968); “Body Heat” (1981); “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990); “The Skeleton Key” (2005).
THE CRANES ARE FLYING
The Russian World War II film The Cranes are Flying (1957, NR, 95 Minutes, Russian with English subtitles) is so potent that it might piss you off at how weak and tepid American movies were during that period after you’ve made this discovery. It begins as a blissful romance between young lovers Boris (Aleksey Batalov) and Veronika (Tatiana Samoilova, an extraordinary and timeless performance to cherish and admire), but when the German blitzkrieg begins it prompts Boris to volunteer to fight, with Veronika staying behind to care for her aging parents. The air raids are, for a 1957 film, actually scary and shattering – two words that usually don’t apply to films that old, do they? Cine-geeks will want to hear about the extraordinary tracking shots and the running hand-held shots that would later be imitated in crucial David Fincher films.
But this is a movie for all people, especially those hungry to see a love story in another part of the world and in a war-torn time where joys of life have to be put on hold and compromises must be forced. And what compromises! With Boris pronounced assumed dead, and with basic needs stripped for her, Veronika has to make practical decisions regarding how she will survive in her war-torn city. Veronika decides, but only after she is severely coaxed, to marry Boris’ brother Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) for security. During the marriage of convenience she volunteers as a nurse at a military hospital for wounded soldiers, but off-duty she feels a burdening shame for betraying Boris, and gossipers and nagging family add onto her mounting humility.
You witness a beautiful but common woman questioning her existence. You also see her questioning if she can be more than common, and if she can restore her autonomous freedom (This all sounds like “Legends of the Fall,” doesn’t it?) I think there is a major revelation to be had here: You come out of it thinking, “Wow, I never thought I’d be so impacted by a Russian film but this film was amazingly well-done and entertaining.” It will stay with you for a long time because Veronika is a beautiful and courageous woman with an undying heart. Even her brief moments of weakness are strong.
Winner of the Palm d’Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival, “Cranes” is a favorite film among directors Martin Scorsese (“GoodFellas”) and Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather”).
94 Minutes. Rated PG.
Film Cousins: “Dr. Zhivago” (1965); “Map of the Human Heart” (1993); “Legends of the Fall” (1994); “Chunhyang” (2000, South Korea).
THE TREE OF LIFE
“A film is, or should be, more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” – Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999)
Brad Pitt is a man blessed with the gifts of family, able to provide his family a beautiful home on a serene 1950’s suburban street, has the respect of his wife and children. And although he has everything a man should need to live harmoniously, he loses his way. He misuses his authority to abuse his children, in the same way the big dinosaur bullied other smaller, vulnerable dinosaur in the “Big Bang” sequence. Pitt should be an esteemed father, but he has taken for granted the beauties and joys of the Earth. Just like so many of us do. It’s only at the end, when you confront death in the family, do you reconsider with awe how many blessings we have been bestowed in our time. You get to the end, and you want to take back all the bad behavior you exhibited, and rewind to the times when life was perfect, blissful, idyllic. We spend so much time reminiscing about the perfect times than living in the present times, and in human frailty, we allow ourselves to self-destruct in the present. This is best simple way to explain The Tree of Life, a film that has elevated so many viewers’ lives and yet baffled so many others.
It has now been one year since Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” hit theaters in the U.S. In that time, I’ve observed time and time again the immaculate performances. Jessica Chastain, as Pitt’s wife is perfect. Hunter McCracken, as Pitt’s unruly son, is as precocious a child actor that a director could hope for. But I’m past doing conventional praising of an extraordinary film that transcends ordinary description.
This past year I have been tirelessly thinking, pondering over and over again, how to explain this film to the unconverted, to the bewildered. The philosophical interpretations fill up more of my day-to-day than you could ever believe, I do not exaggerate.
been told plenty of times how “boring” this film is. I assert with absolute honesty that I play “Tree of Life” at home, on my new Blu-Ray, more often than any other film in my library. I obviously am not one that finds it boring. After going through the film enough times, and raising my philosophical interpretations, I can’t think of a better film in my library where I can literally shut my brain off and watch. Yes, I’m aware that many viewers get headaches trying to figure out what “Tree of Life” is trying to say. I’ve finally come to the realization, don’t think at all.
Don’t Think. If you’re watching it for the first time, or for the second time trying to figure out what it means, Don’t Think. That’s the answer I’ve come up with. Turn off your brain and muse over it as an inquisitive 5-year old child would consider the Universe for the first time. A 5-year old mind isn’t trying to conquer “answers.” The 5-year old is in awe by the beauty and majesty of the images. You don’t find yourself dissecting the meaning of great music, do you? When you hear great music you let it surge through your body with a transcendent nature that isn’t left to raking for analysis. Like all great music, “Tree of Life” is too magnificent for that.
Let me switch gears for a moment. If there’s anything in this world that I’m bewildered by, it’s when I go to art museums at the Metropolitan in New York, or the Getty in Los Angeles, and observe people “studying” at paintings for ten minutes at a time. I’m an impatient man, I admit that’s something I’m working on. But I often want to tell them, “Can you scoot over a foot so I can look at it head-on. I’m only going to take 30 seconds.” Yet I find them there, these art fawners, for maybe another ten minutes after that, “admiring” and “scrutinizing” a painting. A painting that doesn’t move. A painting has but one image. A painting doesn’t get any deeper if you spend one more minute reflecting over. I love paintings just like I love all art, but especially a second-rate painting (I don’t care if it’s 200-years old), can only muster so much deepness for me.
Yet I wonder how these art fawners at museums would respond to “The Tree of Life.” This is virtually the only film ever made with THOUSANDS of images worth hanging at a museum. And they are moving images. And each cut is to another image equally as breathtaking, or an expression taken to new revelatory heights. I respond deeply to every new image that unfolds. And I respond to it like great music, it surges through my body. It’s that transcendent. I DON’T THINK when I watch “The Tree of Life.”
So if you’re lost, all you need to do is return to my first paragraph of this article, and you got everything you need to know to set the ground work. The rest is left up to your interpretation, and whatever free-association thoughts that stream through your mind. Great cinema opens up the mind, remember that.
Yes, THOUSANDS of images. Any film that contains such a blessing should lend to an amended definition to the word masterpiece. “The Tree of Life” fits that definition ardently.
139 Minutes. Rated PG-13.
Film Cousins: “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968); “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976); “Days of Heaven” (1978); “Baraka” (1992).