Friday, August 31, 2012

Brief Encounter


Brief Encounter
Director: David Lean
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard

When you think David Lean, you think big, exciting, and sweeping. You think Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and Bridge on the River Kwai. But for me, Brief Encounter, so very different from Lean’s later work, is passionate and evocative enough to easily rank it among Lean’s best despite of – or perhaps because of – its much more modest focus.

We meet Laura Jesson (Johnson) when she seems to be having a difficult day. She is upset and anxious as she travels home from a train station. When she sits in front of her fireplace with her husband Fred, she starts narrating in her head the tale of her recent platonic love affair with Dr. Alec Harvey (Howard), which just ended that day. Through flashback, we go back to the beginning of Laura and Alec’s relationship as she recalls meeting him at the train station, and how they continued to meet once a week at or near the train station.

There are a great many things I feel very fondly of in Brief Encounter. I’ll start with the central relationship between Laura and Alec. Both Laura and Alec are married, and contentedly so, with children. Both Laura and Alec are middle-aged; perhaps still on the youngish side, but definitely no spring chickens. Both are leading lives of sedate routine. When they meet, it’s completely innocuous as he takes a piece of dirt out of her eye. When they meet again, though, they happily start to fall in with one another, they enjoy spending time with one another, and suddenly, they realize they are in love.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Black Orpheus


Black Orpheus
Director: Marcel Camus
Starring: Breno Mello, Marpessa Dawn, Lourdes de Oliveira, Lea Garcia

The old stories, the classic stories, simply will not die. They are told time and time again, in different cultures, in different languages. I am always fascinated by how a story of one culture can be reinterpreted and retold, usually with great success, by a completely different culture. Black Orpheus is a great example of this, how a classic story of Greek mythology is reinterpreted in 1950s Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval.

As stated, the film is a retelling of the Orpheus myth. In this case, Orfeu (Mello) is a streetcar operator in Rio, and he meets Eurydice (Dawn) when she rides the trolley car to the end of the line her first day in town. She is there to visit her cousin Serafina (Garcia), but Orfeu is more concerned with marrying his shrill harpy of a fiancée Mira (de Oliveira). Eurydice confesses to Mira that she fears Death is stalking her. Eurydice and Orfeu fall in love over Orfeu’s music, and Orfeu spends most of Carnaval avoiding a jealous Mira. When Death finally claims Eurydice, Orfeu must "descend the depths of the underworld" to find her again.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Public Enemy


Public Enemy
Director: William A. Wellman
Starring: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edward Woods, Donald Cook

For my money, there are not enough superlatives in the world for James Cagney. We still talk today about screen presence, charisma, charm, these ineffable attributes an actor must possess if they want to become a superstar. It’s no surprise that this, Cagney’s fourth film, has him in the lead role and beguiling us at every turn. It’s a good thing for Public Enemy, though, that it stars Cagney; if it didn’t, it would have precious little going for it.

Tom Powers (Cagney) grows up in the slums of Chicago at the turn of the century. Even as a child, he’s predisposed to being nasty and cruel, all while his brother Mike (Cook) is virtuous and true. Tom grows up to be a gangster, getting hooked up with running booze during prohibition with his best pal Matt Doyle (Woods), while his brother becomes a soldier, going off to war and returning a hero. As Tom’s actions become more violent and ruthless, the ending of the film becomes more and more clear.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Princess Mononoke


Princess Mononoke
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: (in the English version) Billy Crudup, Claire Danes, Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton

The maestro Miyazaki tackles ecological issues by moving the setting of the crisis from the topical Amazonian rainforest to an enchanted land far away in this anime classic. Although it’s titled Princess Mononoke, the eponymous princess is actually more of a supporting character who goes by San instead of Mononoke, and she doesn’t do much in the film except act angry a lot. Our real hero is more interesting.

We open with Prince Ashitaka (Crudup), our real hero, defeating a gigantic gross warthog worm demon thingie, but in the process of bringing the nasty beast down, he gets hit with a fatal curse. In an effort to find some sort of a cure, he travels to the heart of an enchanted forest to beg the spirits to heal him. In doing so, he also stumbles into the ongoing war between Lady Eboshi (Driver), a ruthless and inventive leader, and the spirits of said forest.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Snow White


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Producer: Walt Disney
Starring: The Disney animation team

When one mentions films that were game changers, one would be remiss to leave this film off the list. Despite the fact that it is not the strongest film Disney ever made, its place in film history is indisputable. People laughed at Walt Disney when he said he could get audiences to sit through a feature length animated film. They thought he was nuts. And yet, on its release in 1937, audiences went nuts for Snow White, cementing Disney’s place in the pantheon of epic movie studios.

The film opens with what has now become the classic Disney shot of the overly ornate book with the ridiculously fancy font and the first few lines of the classic fairy tale. It then cuts to the animated castle, and the world of the fairy tale is established.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Little Caesar


Little Caesar
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

One of the earliest gangster films, Little Caesar is more than just a movie for those interested in the history of cinema. Propelled by a captivating performance by Edward G. Robinson, Little Caesar still tells a gripping story.

Caesar Enrico Bandello (Robinson) is a small time crook who dreams of making it in the big time. His partner Joe (Fairbanks), though, dreams of getting out and going straight (as a dancer, of all things). While Rico gets introduced to the local gangs and rises through the ranks, Joe is trying to make it as an entertainer despite Rico’s best efforts to keep Joe in the gang. Rico’s rise is meteoric due to his utter ruthlessness and crazed bloodlust, which, of course, can only lead to an equally meteoric downfall.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Mirror


Zerkalo (The Mirror)
Director: Andrey Tarkovsky
Starring: Margarita Terekhova, Ignat Daniltsev

Not for the faint of heart, Tarkovsky is undoubtedly among the greats of cinema. His work transcends traditional film narrative, and it is unlikely that there is a better example of this than in his The Mirror. Called by many a “film poem,” this is a rather apt description of a film that should never be spoken in the same breath as Hot Tub Time Machine.

IMDB informs me that the plot, nominal as it is, is about a 40 year old man who is about to die, reflecting on the memories and regrets of his life. The memories and regrets part I got; I did not realize while watching it that the man was about to die. Ah well; doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the sense of nostalgia and wistfulness that flows throughout the film. The film is composed of episodes, essentially, that are only linked by being different parts of the man’s life. There are stories of his young childhood in a cabin in the woods, of some of his military training when he was 12, of arguments with his mother when he is a man, of arguments with his ex-wife, and reminiscences of what his mother was like when she was young. What is interesting about all of these episodes is that none of them are what we would categorize as “life-changing.” He does not remember the day his son was born. He does not remember his wedding day. Rather, he remembers a party he had where a Spanish man re-enacted a great bull fight. He remembers the day that his mother, a young woman, panicked that she had mistakenly allowed a misprint to be printed in the evening newspaper. He remembers his father, mostly absent, helping his mother wash her hair in a basin. These are the episodes that speckle The Mirror; these tiny, seemingly insignificant moments that make life what it is. We have few “big days” in life; it is as if Tarkovsky is saying that the “regular days” are just as memorable, if not more so. They deserve to be preserved and remembered too.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Seven Samurai


The Seven Samurai
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura

I tend to complain a lot about movies with running times greater than three hours because I apparently have the patience of a squirrel on crack. With a total running time of 207 minutes, you would think that The Seven Samurai earns my wrath. Sorry to disappoint, but The Seven Samurai manages to do what most epic films simply cannot: hold my interest with a meaningful, rich, and varied story filled with characters with which I enjoy spending my time.

The plot of The Seven Samurai is tremendously simple: some samurai soldiers are recruited to help a poor farming village fend off a bandit attack. We open by seeing the bandits ride up to the village in question but decide to postpone their attack until the rice harvest is in. This prompts a great deal of wailing and weeping from the villagers, who are poorer than poor. They send emissaries to a nearby town to find samurais who will work simply for food and honor rather than money. The first one they find is Kanbei: older, sharper, and with a great deal of nobility. He is doing this because it is the right thing to do. With Kanbei on board, five other samurais sign up, along with a samurai apprentice and a pesky samurai wannabe Kikuchiyo (Mifune). Back at the village, the samurai deal with frightened and, frankly, stupid villagers, train them, wall off the perimeter, all in preparation for the impending siege.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The General


The General
Director: Buster Keaton
Starring: Buster Keaton, Marion Mack

So many others have said it before me, but who cares: the easiest gateway into silent cinema is through the comedies. Funny is funny, regardless of time. Drama ages, horror ages, but comedy – good comedy, that is – perseveres. The General is not only good comedy, it’s great comedy.

Southern rail engineer Johnnie Gray (Keaton) loves his train, the eponymous “General,” and his girl, Annabelle (Mack). After the eruption of the Civil War, Northern spies steal both Johnnie’s train and Annabelle, who was hiding in a storage car. Johnnie must follow them with another train, save the girl, and bring both of them – the girl and the General – home to the South, all while foiling the evil Northern army’s plans.

Keaton is my favorite of the silent comedians due to his “Old Stoneface” acting style. He was known for his stoicism in the face of outlandish situations, and that stoicism has served him well as time has gone by. He doesn’t mug for the cameras, and in any scene where he’s acting (versus wild athleticism) he underplays everything. There is a subtlety to his comedy. There are plenty of obvious jokes, sure, but also smaller, quieter gags that set Keaton apart from his contemporaries. All of this explains why I like Keaton in general, but not why I like Keaton in The General. (ha ha, catch what I did there? I’m so clever…) His Johnnie is so likeable, I just want to take him and hug him like a little teddy bear. Keaton plays Johnnie with a very strong bravado style. Johnnie doesn’t flinch at facing men taller and stronger than he is. From what I can tell, Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd weren’t exactly toweringly tall actors, and frequently their characters were the “wimps” who had to eventually fight the big bad bully. Typically, they are quaking in their shoes at the prospect of this. Not Johnnie. He’s headstrong, almost to the point of absurdity, but he never for a second doubts his abilities. I like that. A lot.

Friday, August 17, 2012



Director: John Carney
Starring: Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova

A Guy (Hansard) and a Girl (Irglova) meet in Dublin. Both are musicians without an outlet, both are working menial jobs to barely make enough money to get by, and both have recently been dealt losses in their love lives. Drawn together by music, they rehearse and record an album of the guy’s original songs, all while a strong romantic attraction between them looms in the background.

This is an incredibly sweet film. “Sweet” can be such a terrible word, but I mean it un-ironically here. The growing affection between the guy and girl feels natural and unforced but still manages to make me feel all warm and glowing on the inside; even better, it has realistic missteps. Early on in the film, the guy invites the girl back to his bedroom and asks her to spend the night, to which she replies, “Fuck this,” and leaves. He feels stupid, and must make amends later. Little glitches like this in their relationship make it feel far more relatable. As Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” I really appreciate that about the film; it manages to set the romance apart from the thousands of other stereotypical film romances.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Director: Ang Lee
Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, Ziyi Zhang

By now, you may have noticed that I tend to get annoyed with grandiose films that feature tragic romances. Oh, did I say “annoyed?” Perhaps I should have said “I throw a tantrum and rant and rave and make it more than clear how much I kinda sorta hate that type of movie.” But then, see, just when I’ve almost given up entirely on grandiose films, I see something that clicks, something that really gets to me. The exception that proves the rule. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one such exception.

Shu Lien (Yeoh) and Mu Bai (Chow) are both warriors who are seriously considering retirement. They have also been desperately in love with one another for ages, but because of an overdeveloped sense of dignity and tradition, plus a heaping spoonful of self-sacrifice, neither has ever dared to speak their feelings to the other. When Mu Bai’s unbeatable and somewhat mythic sword, Green Destiny, is stolen, the two embark on an adventure to find it. This quest brings them into the company of Jen Yu (Zhang), the governor’s daughter, who has been secretly training in the martial arts with the help of her governess-slash-trained-killer, Jade Fox. Mu Bai has a bone to pick with Jade Fox, but wants to help train and develop Jen, who, it turns out, has been carrying on a rather torrid love affair of her own. On the brink of retirement, both Shu Lien and Mu Bai find themselves hopefully pulled back into the world that has consumed both of their lives.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012



Director: Warren Beatty
Starring: Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, lots of others

*heavy sigh* So I watched Reds today. Reds clocks in at 3 hours and 15 minutes.

Here are better uses of my time for those 3 hours and 15 minutes:
1. Roast a 15 lb. turkey
2. Do two loads of laundry
3. Go for a two-hour canal run followed by post-workout snack and shower
4. Clean and organize the linen closet
5. Make mole sauce from scratch

I know, I know, I’m showing my hand too soon about what I thought of the film. Sorry. Can’t help it.

Reds, Beatty’s little pet-slash-vanity project, follows the life of journalist and revolutionary John, nickname Jack, Reed, obviously played by Beatty himself. The film starts when Jack meets Louise Bryant (Keaton), and the two are attracted to one another over shared revolutionary ideals. They get together, fight, break up, get together, fight, break up, then… wait for it… get together, fight, and break up. I think this happened a few more times in the film, but I stopped keeping count. Anyway, for what it’s worth, the background against which they get together, fight, and break up, keeps changing throughout the film. They start getting together, fighting, and breaking up in New York City, then move the bickering and sexy times to Europe then Russia, where both are reporting on the front line of the Russian Revolution, then back to the US, then back to Russia. The film is really focused on Jack Reed, on his transition from journalist reporting on socialist ideals and people’s revolutions, to full-blown revolutionary himself, making the speeches rather than writing about them. (And in between, he gets together, fights, and breaks up with Louise.)

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Bank Dick


The Bank Dick
Director: Edward F. Cline
Starring: W.C. Fields, Una Merkel, Cora Witherspoon, Franklin Pangborn

If ever there was a live action film that is essentially nothing but a real world cartoon, The Bank Dick is that film. This is W.C. Fields’ film from start to finish and as it moves from scene to scene, it’s just another chance for him to display his comedic talents.

The “plot” is about Egbert Sousé (Fields), accent grave over the “e” as the characters remind us (DAMMIT IT’S AN ACCENT AIGU, NOT AN ACCENT GRAVE!!! OK, I got that off my chest). He lives with a house full of women who constantly henpeck him, so he’s constantly running off to the saloon. There’s a scene where Sousé takes over as director on a movie set, but we mostly focus on how Sousé manages to unwittingly foil a bank robbery. On account of this, he’s appointed the new bank detective, or bank dick. Of course, he immediately runs into trouble involving some misappropriated funds, and he has to hold off the bank examiner (Pangborn) from discovering the embezzlement. Naturally, the film ends with a raucous car chase.

This is not a movie to be judged on its plot or narrative structure at all. This is simply a series of set pieces for Fields to perform. I don’t think there’s a single serious scene in the movie at all. Even when the characters start to fret about the embezzlement charges, they do so by acting in funny ways, fainting in funny ways, and lashing out in funny ways. Throughout the entire thing is Fields’ unique sarcastic mutterings and mumblings. Because a good portion of his brand of humor is relatively subtle, it translates well to modern audiences. Of course, though, there’s also a tremendous amount of broad physical comedy; Fields seems constantly to be running into walls, doors, coat racks, etc. that he doesn’t see. This stuff works too.

Sunday, August 12, 2012


Director: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Alicia Silverstone, Stacey Dash, Brittany Murphy, Paul Rudd, Dan Hedaya

Reposting here from my previous site.

Amy Heckerling, the director that brought you the iconic 80s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, turns her ability to examine pop culture on the 1990s. What started as an idea to write a movie about a popular but kinda dumb girl turned into a shockingly well-crafted adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.

Cher (Silverstone) is the rich popular girl at her posh Beverly Hills high school. She and her friend Dionne (Dash) think they wield more power than they actually do and set about trying to match-make and makeover everyone around them. Of course, though, things get beyond her control and she ultimately realizes she’s, well, clueless.

When Clueless debuted in 1995, it was not advertised as an adaptation of Emma. It was simply another teen movie, and when I saw it in theaters, I only read it as another teen movie. A month or two after it came out, Heckerling was asked in an interview about some distinct similarities between her movie and Austen’s novel, to which she more or less replied, “FINALLY! Someone figured it out!” This film isn’t just loosely based on Emma, however; it IS Emma, just with updated wardrobes. Entire scenes are ripped directly from the text; consider the scene where Tai (Murphy) is alone by herself at the frat party, while Cher is dancing. Josh (Rudd) asks Tai to dance, thus “saving” her. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a loose adaptation – this IS the village dance scene from Emma. Heckerling didn’t even bother to change Mr. Elton’s name; here, his name is just “Elton,” but he’s every bit the pretty boy who considers himself far superior to everyone around him.

I love that this is an obvious adaptation. It somehow lends the film a touch of gravitas, but not too much to bring it down off its cotton candy cloud. Furthermore, the fact that the adaptation is not loose but shockingly spot on is a testament both to Austen’s original story, proving that Emma is timelessm and to Heckerling’s ability to adapt a story to fit a novel time and culture.

Well, Emma may be timeless, but Clueless is very pointedly and deliberately dated. Part of what I enjoy about this movie is its obvious sense of time and place. The film does not attempt to be timeless – it is shamelessly linked to the mid-nineties in Southern California. Right around this time, I was in high school, and to be honest, this is probably a large part of why I like the film as much as I do. It is as if Heckerling took all the most blatant trends from when I was in high school and preserved them on film for me. Of course I remember wearing thigh-highs with skirts! That was, for some bizarre reason, the trend! And the grunge look? Of course! The film is a time capsule of teenaged life in the 1990s. Granted, it was a highly privileged life, but a part of me can relate to these girls.

Alicia Silverstone is so very winning as Cher. Her daft-yet-desperately-wanting-approval popular girl manages to make you grudgingly like her in spite of her wealth and good looks. You know – that girl in high school that you WANTED to hate because she was so perfect, but she was just so damn nice, you couldn’t. I had one of those when I was in school, and I see Silverstone channeling that same character here. Cher’s voiceover is a large part of the reason why the character comes across so appealingly. The narration is highly biased and completely in character; if anything, all of Cher’s mannerisms are amplified inside her head. She is funny and more than a little silly, but what is so important to me, she isn’t mean. Cher doesn’t seek out drama with her friends. She reaches out to the new girl in school, shunned by everyone else, and takes her in. She keeps her father healthy by encouraging him to drink his juice. She sees her single friends and wants to make them happy by setting them up. She makes an effort to see the good in everyone. Frankly, with the overgrowth of bitch-laden reality TV shows (any of the Real Housewives of I-couldn’t-care-less comes immediately to mind), it’s nice to see a movie about a rich girl who is also kind. There is a refreshing lack of cattiness in the character; I respond very well to that.


Paul Rudd as Josh, the Mr. Knightley stand-in, appears here in his first big screen break, looking all young and fresh-faced. Heckerling mentioned that Rudd’s ability to improvise lines in character was much stronger than the other cast members’, and it’s easy to see how he transitioned from a film like this to his work with Judd Apatow. Personally, he plays such a pseudo-prententious yet ultimately appealing character, I remember my fifteen-year-old self had a bit of a crush on Mr. Rudd.

Clueless certainly isn’t Citizen Kane, but it is a very good romantic comedy. The genre of romantic comedy has been systematically run into the ground by Hollywood in the last decade or so, as it has churned out subpar stories with weak females and stereotypical males. Clueless, even for all its silly trends and cotton candy fluff, has a much stronger story than these other Hollywood attempts because it has much stronger source material. I love that it is so heavily taken from Emma; that fact is what elevates Clueless above its counterparts.

Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10

Friday, August 10, 2012

Some Like It Hot


Some Like It Hot
Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, George Raft, Joe E. Brown

I have what I call “comfort movies.” Movies I can count on to cheer me up when I’m feeling blue, movies I know will make me laugh or distract me from my problems. I’ll be up front about this right now: these movies get a bit of a free pass from me when it comes to critical evaluation. If a movie is capable of repeatedly making me feel warm and fuzzy when I need it most, it gets entered into the pantheon of “comfort movies,” and is forever cherished. Some Like It Hot is one such movie. Fortunately, though, my adoration of Some Like It Hot doesn’t need to be apologized for; the film stands up for itself.

Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, broke jazz musicians Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) have the misfortune to be witness to a mobster’s (Raft) hit. Fleeing the city for their lives, the only transportation or work they can find is for an all-women ensemble heading to Florida for the winter, so they decide to dress up like dames to land the gig and get out of town. Problems arise when Joe, posing as Josephine, falls for the band’s lead singer Sugar (Monroe), and Jerry, posing as Daphne, catches the wandering eye of a bachelor millionaire (Brown) looking for his next ex-wife.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Pickup on South Street


Pickup on South Street
Director: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Richard Widmark, Thelma Ritter, Jean Peters, Richard Kiley

Pickup on South Street is film noir as interpreted by Samuel Fuller. As if noir wasn’t dirty, gritty, and grimy enough, Fuller has to take his pulp style, his unabashed love of the lowlife, and overlay it with the world of film noir. What results from this mashup is a noir that feels a bit different, grittier, danker, sweatier than others. Which, of course, makes for a perfect noir.

Richard Widmark is Skip McCoy, a pickpocket or “cannon,” who unwittingly lifts sensitive government microfilm in the middle of it being passed from traitors to communists. The police are on his case, the government is on his case, and the traitors are on his case. Everyone wants the film back. What’s a regular ole pickpocket to do?

What elevates Pickup on South Street from a more laborious 1950s Anti-Communist propaganda flick is the character of McCoy. Frankly, he couldn’t care less about either side. It’s not that he particularly likes the commies, but he’s far more interested in getting as much money or as many favors out of each side than he is doing right by his country. As he incredulously says to the exasperated police detective, “Are you waving the flag at me?!” Whichever side can offer him the better deal is the one he’s more interested in.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012



Director: Yimou Zhang
Starring: Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Ziyi Zhang

The story of Hero is fairly straightforward. A nameless warrior, literally (Li), is summoned to the Emperor of Qin to relay his story of how he defeated three infamous assassins (Leung, Cheung, and Donnie Yen). Along the way, the Emperor starts to doubt the warrior’s veracity, suggesting other possible alternatives than what Nameless has said.

The story is easily the least interesting part of the film, providing more than anything a framework from which to hang spectacular battles and set pieces. However, there is a hint of Rashomon to Hero through the idea of the retelling of the same story but through different lenses. I rather enjoyed seeing the different ways the same story played out. As each retelling changes, the impression of each character changes as well. Even the Emperor, who is not a character in the stories, goes from hero to villain then somehow back to hero again through the course of the film, and there is a similar sort of circular journey for the other main characters. It’s a neat story-telling method.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Maltese Falcon


The Maltese Falcon
Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet

It’s daunting to know where to begin when speaking of a film as grand and prominent in the American film lexicon as The Maltese Falcon. There is so much to speak of historically when referencing this film. It’s John (Anjelica’s father) Huston’s directorial debut, a man who went on to have an amazingly prolific career spanning decades (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Prizzi’s Honor). It’s Humphrey Bogart’s first role as the legitimate hero of the film; he had been languishing for ten years as a B-movie supporting gangster before Huston had the sensibility to promote him. And most importantly for me, it’s considered by some, myself included, as the first true entry into one of my most favorite genres, American film noir.

In terms of noir, there is so much that makes The Maltese Falcon fit within the genre, yet it is also notably lacking a few significant pieces. As Roger Ebert points out, almost all the action takes place within tidy and well-maintained middle of the road hotel rooms; there is not the dank, dark grit and sleaze of Force of Evil or Detour. It is notably absent. Furthermore, there is astonishingly little use of significant shadows, such as those that make The Third Man an amazing visual experience. However, when it comes to hard-boiled dialogue and harder-boiled, dangerous characters, The Maltese Falcon has noir in its blood in spades. Literally – Sam Spade is our hero.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Last Wave


The Last Wave
Director: Peter Weir

I am a ginormous fan of Peter Weir’s early Australian films before he went all Hollywood, before he became predictable. I don’t know how he managed to do it, but he has the dubious honor of being the ONLY director I can think of who made a film that cracks my all-time top ten list (Picnic at Hanging Rock) AND made one of my most hated films of all time (Dead Poets Society, a movie that pushes all the wrong buttons). Luckily, The Last Wave is far closer to the former than the latter, as it is definitely one of his early films. It is a film that has to be Australian, a director exploring his country and its conflicts in one of the only ways he knows how: through mystical film.

David Burton (Chamberlain) is a tax lawyer who gets inexplicably brought on to help defend a case of five Aboriginal men accused of killing another Aboriginal in modern day Sydney. One of the five men, Chris (Gulpilil), is the only one who will talk to David, but he won’t talk about the night of the killing. The more David gets involved with Chris and Chris’ old friend Charlie (Amagula), the deeper he seems to sink into a mystery. Unexplained weather and strange dreams; are these frightening portents of things to come?

For me, this film is all about mood; a fantastic, spiritual, uncertain, threatening mood. What Weir does so well is to create this mood, then let it wane, then bring it back, then ratchet it up. The ever so slight slow motion shot, thrown in when you’re not expecting it, or the ceaseless ping heard on the soundtrack when you expect it to be quiet, or a casual shot of something we've seen before, making it completely unclear as to what we are being shown is fact or fiction. As one of the seminal directors of the Australian New Wave movement of the 1970s, Weir’s most significant contemporary (in my opinion) was Nicolas Roeg. I mention this because I swear, the two of them must have had conversations about this concept of elliptical storytelling and slightly sinister mysticism.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Passion of Joan of Arc


The Passion of Joan of Arc
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Starring: Maria Falconetti

Sight & Sound’s almighty critic’s poll of “Best Films of All Time,” published only every ten years, just came out. While all the media attention was focused on the fact that Vertigo ousted Citizen Kane for the number one spot (btw, Kane was still number two), I find it more interesting to focus on some other, more significant changes in the list. Like the presence of a film in the top ten list when it never breached that mark before. The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film considered lost until the 1980s, continues to climb in world esteem, jumping to the number nine slot on one of the most prestigious Top Ten lists in the world.

The story is based on the transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial and subsequent execution. There is no set-up; we jump right in. Joan (Falconetti) is interrogated by priests who ask her questions about her faith and her belief that God gave her a mission. She holds fast to her declarations. They threaten her, torture her, try to confuse her. Ultimately they charge her with heresy and she is burned at the stake. So, y’know, this summer’s feel-good popcorn flick.

All kidding aside, this is a beast of film, a towering presence in the film canon. Anything I say about it is slightly ludicrous because it’s all been said before by people far more eloquent. But hey, this is my blog, so I’ll nobly make an attempt.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens

In 1964, Hollywood produced two films about the threat of nuclear war. The country was in high paranoia, and there was constant fear about nuclear attack. One of these two films was a harrowing drama. The other was a satirical black comedy. Few people remember the drama (Fail Safe, starring Henry Fonda), but the satire, Dr. Strangelove, is still revered to this day.

An off-his-rocker general, General Jack Ripper (Hayden), issues the go codes for B-52 bombers to drop nuclear bombs on Russia and manages to convince his air force base that the US is under attack from the Russians. The US President, Merkin Muffley (Sellers), summons his heads of state to alert the Russians and call back the bombers, which works… except for one plane that doesn’t get the message. Sounds serious!

Practically the textbook definition of “Black Comedy,” this is a wickedly funny and shockingly scary film. Kubrick had the presence of mind to understand that the comedy was needed to help Americans swallow the bitter pill about the possibility of nuclear war. The laughs come at some of the most unexpected places, intercut with the seriousness of a nuclear war. A fantastically funny early sequence has George C. Scott’s character, General Turgidson, with his “secretary,” tanning herself in a bikini in their “office.” A commander calls him to tell him about the deployment of the bombs, but the secretary answers, and starts making purring noises at the commander on the other end of the phone as well. It’s so unexpected when she says, “This is his secretary,” and then later, “Oh hi, Freddy, how are you, baby?” Probably the last thing you’d expect to see in a movie about nuclear war.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Zero Kelvin


Zero Kelvin
Director: Hans Petter Moland
Starring: Stellan Skarsgård, Gard B. Eidsvold, Bjørn Sundquist

The Scandinavian countries are lands that teeter on the edge of the world. I shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that the dramas I have seen from these countries are typically powerful psychological battles brought on through isolation and the intensities of nature. Zero Kelvin is a fantastic recent example of this.

Henrik Larsen (Eidsvold) is an aspiring poet slash pornography distributer living comfortably in Oslo in the 1920s. He loves his girlfriend, Gertrude, but she doesn’t want to get married. To get some life experience, he takes a job as a fur trapper in Greenland. There he works in close quarters with scientist Holm (Sundquist) and the main fur trapper Randbæk (Skarsgård). In the remote and vicious country, it’s imperative the men get along in order to ensure their survival, but when cabin fever starts to set in, the mind games really begin.

This is a brutal, brutal film. It’s like a Jack London novel without all the laughs. The setup for the film is minimal at best; Moland wastes little time getting us to Greenland and getting all three of the men together in a small cabin in the middle of nowhere. The environment is bleak and harsh and completely unforgiving. This is the edge of the world, where any dictates of civilized society quickly fall by the wayside, and the brutality of the landscape is mirrored in the brutality with which the men treat one another.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

High Noon


High Noon
Director: Fred Zinneman
Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, and many other recognizable faces

I make no bones about the fact that westerns aren’t really my thing. Luckily, High Noon is touted as “the western for people who don’t like westerns.” I don’t know if I would completely agree with that, but I do think that the themes present make it more accessible. For a western made in the fifties, there’s a profound cynicism in High Noon that a modern audience can connect with.

Marshall Will Kane (Cooper) has just married his lovely new Quaker bride Amy (Kelly) when word comes in that an outlaw he put away five years ago has been pardoned and is on his way back for revenge. Amy protests, not believing in guns or violence, but Kane has his principles and must stay in town to fight the gang. Trouble is, Kane runs into massive difficulty in recruiting townspeople who are willing to help him fend off the outlaws.

High Noon is a bit of a loaded film. It was made in the midst of McCarthyism, and screenwriter Carl Foreman was a victim of anti-Communist blacklisting. As such, the idea of Will Kane looking for help but having his friends one by one turn their back on him takes on a powerful allegorical meaning. The film won four Oscars, including Best Actor for Cooper, and was nominated for three other; it did not win in the Best Screenplay category. The weakness of the townspeople also riled up a number of Hollywood’s biggest names, most notably John Wayne and Howard Hawks. Both were so disgusted with the portrayal of classic American Western in High Noon, they teamed up to make its antithesis in Rio Bravo in 1959. All of which makes High Noon have an interesting place in the social fabric of 1950s Americana, but how is it as a film?