Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Recent television

The Office, Season 6

Much to my surprise and, I imagine, that of most of the people who took the original Merchant-Gervais series as something of a television masterpiece, The Office achieved escape velocity around the third season and became, if not the same kind of achievement, a great, surprising work in its own right, with a seemingly limitless well of creative energy and enthusiasm. The tricky balance of the show, consistently struck and maintained over several years (and about two dozen episodes per season) is to contain the beyond-insane antics of the lead character (an emotionally stunted, borderline sociopath who, in spite of his penchant for destroying everything around him, not only manages to lead a successful branch, but remains eerily plausible in doing so) and a sense of the real world and real economy in which his livelihood is placed.

Without the characters who surround Michael Scott, of course, the show wouldn't amount to much. The Gervais-Merchant series depicted with a harsh sense of reality that a man like David Brent wasn't long for the business world, and drew out the approach to its inevitable conclusion to the limits of the viewer's endurance, and beyond, often swallowing up other characters' hopes and dreams along the way. ("She said 'no,' by the way" is about as heartbreaking a moment you're likely to find in any sitcom.) As developed by Greg Daniels, the American series not only opts not to pitch its characters into hopelessness and industrial-park oblivion (the optimistic "Christmas Special" conclusion of the UK narrative is less a satisfying resolution than a strained act of mercy), it expands its focus beyond the main quartet (Michael, Jim, Pam, Dwight) to build secure foundations for its supporting cast. The idea isn't to guide the characters along a path towards their inevitable destination (happiness or disappointment) but to try and explore what choices people really would make, even under the most ridiculous circumstances, and to observe the nuances of their behavior along the way. For example, "The Shareholders Meeting" may have a perplexing, unsatisfying conclusion, but the key moment comes when Oscar is invited to share his brutal honesty with Dunder Mifflin's top tier - the truth he bragged about wanting to speak to power if given half a chance - and he balks.

It's the understated, empathetic approach to character that powers the emotional highs and lows of the program - the sheer elation of the conclusion of the "Michael Scott Paper Company" arc of the fifth season, which, in its use of a repurposed office space as an impromptu dance contest is almost worthy of Tati's restaurant shindig in Playtime; the heart-palpitations-inducing torture of "Scott's Tots"; the brilliant two-parter from the third season (directed by Daniels), "Traveling Salesmen"/"The Return," which likely was responsible for launching Ed Helms into a minor stardom. Listing moments of greatness could turn into a tedious parlor game, but there's scarcely a cheap shot to be found.

The X-Files, Season 3

As I make my way through The X-Files, I often find myself drawn more to the episodes that don't seem interested in developing the show's lasting legacy: the aliens, the inter-agency (or extra-agency) cover-ups, the shadow governments, and so forth. Two episodes from the second season, "Humbug" and "Soft Light", both seemed stronger in their single-dose story arcs (even if the latter is hooked up at the end to the conspiracy business, with Steven Williams's character written into an otherwise autonmously Twilight Zone-style script), and it seemed to me that episodes not dealing with what fans often call "the mythology" (aliens, etc.) are altogether stronger artistically, and take greater (and welcome) liberties with dialogue and characterization. "Syzygy," not an entirely successful "small-town hysteria" narrative with more than a few cut corners, nevertheless uses a kind of everybody-goes-crazy premise (a staple of science fiction serial television since Star Trek) to find some elasticity in Mulder and Scully's otherwise clean & professional comportment ("Sure, fine, whatever"), and "War of the Coprophages" shows the pair in fine Walter-Hildy form as they find themselves in the middle of what is essentially a black comedy version of a monster movie.

The season highlight thus far is "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" (the title refers to the unsung Hollywood director who collaborated on several of Keaton's greatest films; he took his own life, penniless, in 1955), with a magnificent guest performance by Peter Boyle, and the kind of dry, eccentric humor that often galvanizes the show's best scripts.

Here we also see an influx of well-known actors, some in their pre-fame phase (Giovanni Ribisi, Jack Black, Bokeem Woodbine), some in their prime as character players (Boyle, J.T. Walsh, Kurtwood Smith, Michael Berryman, Stephen McHattie, a too-briefly-glimpsed R. Lee Ermey). If the kidnapped girl in Oubliette looks familiar, it's the future Kaylee from Joss Whedon's Firefly.

Have Gun Will Travel, "Three Bells to Perdido"

I didn't know what to expect from Andrew V. McLaglen, who is best known for directing five of John Wayne's more popular features (none of which I've seen), a fair share of Gunsmoke (ditto), and over a hundred episodes of HGWT (ditto again), but "Three Bells to Perdido" is quite a bit more expressive than McLaglen's lack of a reputation would seem to indicate. Richard Boone makes an ideal hero, his rocky features, unforgettable, baritone laugh and the diabolical gleam in his eye canceling any temptation to see him as a simple do-gooder.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Revenge"

Many episodes of the television program (which ran from 1955 to 1965) shared The Master's penchant for the macabre. The pilot episode, the first of the seventeen he directed himself, is not only quite subdued in this regard, it's arguably his bleakest moment - if it wasn't The Wrong Man, for which "Revenge" is something of a prototype. (Both star Vera Miles as a working man's wife who is traumatized into catatonia.) The epilogue declares for the story a too-pat resolution. The truth offered by the final shot (before Hitch appears) seems more clear: that these two will dwell in guilt and sadness into infinity.

Damages, conclusion of Season 1

At least two reviews compared this to Louis Feuillade. I don't see the resemblance, and I don't just mean in form (how could it?); the French master was one of the cinema's earliest great artists and storytellers, his work with themes of intrigue, narrow escape, and far-fetched conspiracy are a long way from the considerably more prosaic backstabbing and unraveling of moral rectitude that plays out across the first season of Damages. If anything, the battle between Arthur Frobisher (Ted Danson) and Patty Hewes (Glenn Close), the spectacle of gods and goddesses hurling moons at each other, disintegrating any mortals foolish enough to do - or defy - their bidding, only speaks with Feuillade through the medium of Jacques Rivette.

With one season under my belt, I find it's smarter than a pleasant time-waster, and its images (the windswept Manhattan grey, the amber of a single-malt you'll never be able to afford) pleasing to the eye, although the direction is almost always a little too enclosed and with-the-grain to foster much enjoyment on a formal level.

Terminator: The Sarah Chronicles, Season 1

An absolutely stupid program that I watch out of the corner of my eye when I'm occupied with something else. Not much to see here, other than Summer Glau's gifts as a comedienne.

30 Rock, Season 4 premiere episode

Not pretty. But that's how I felt about the opening of the third season, and it developed considerable momentum after I declared it a write-off. So here's hoping.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 4 & 5

The fourth season is, so far, the show's most ambitious, both thematically, and in its apparent budget. Not everything works - the less said about "Where the Wild Things Are," itself a gloss on an episode from earlier in the same season, "Fear Itself," the better. And "Beer Bad" is often cited as the low point in the entire series. But when it's on, it's on. Whedon the producer allows Whedon the writer-director the greatest amount of experimentation in lighting and performance, and the show hits two all-time peaks, "Hush" and "Who Are You?"

Further tricks on viewer memory - begun with the Danny episode of the fourth Season - when Buffy's kid sister is introduced, and while the fifth season seems a little punch-drunk as it finds its legs, the quality of writing overall seems consistently sharp and funny.

Angel, Seasons 1 & 2

The first season suffers somewhat from Joss Whedon's absentee-landlordism: several episodes are simply poorly directed, and the dialogue is often "Joss Whedon Fan Club" grade, rather than the thing itself. (At the same time, Buffy's fourth season was one of the most ambitious, with its rather over-ambitious Initiative arc and some of the show's (and the cast's) shining moments. So one imagines Whedon had his hands full.) That said, the season's biggest mistake was corrected with the elimination of one unnecessary character (the in-real-life ill-fated Glenn Quinn, who succumbed to a heroine overdose while Angel was in its fourth season), and the grain of the show's promise remained indestructible even through episodes that wouldn't have passed muster during the final season of Sliders. Charisma Carpenter's strength as an actor came into fullest fruition in "Eternity"; her exchange with Angel in the finale allowed a dozen different expressions to cross her face without the slightest strain.

As far as great moments go, there are few more: there is a moment of strange and striking editing late in "The Prodigal" (watch the moment when Angel commandeers the police car); the introduction of Faith (on the lam from Buffy) bodes well; and, although I may be in the minority, Alex Denisof's stiff-upper-lipped Wesley is a welcome addition. The show has some work to do, however, to redeem the ham-handed introduction of "Gunn" and his gang of feral demon-hunters. Regarding that, it seems little coincidence that, when Shawn Ryan's name appears in the writing credits, Gunn becomes more of a tough adult than a tough eight-year-old.

Lost, Season 6

Sheer spectacle and disorientation is a hell of a way to debut a new series, and the show's creators compounded it with mystery, murder, and science fiction. Unfortunately, in the intervening years since the 2004 pilot, Lost became the victim of its spectacular success: the whys and whats and huh?s of a mysterious island with mysterious phenomenon can only be explained and re-mystified for so long before one imagines scripting committee's lively discussions devolving into a cacophony of dull, wooden thuds as they bang their heads against the table in sequence. As misdirections and backstories are layered upon one another, the body of the multi-strand narrative became bloated and distended, in spite of an intermittent show of vitality. The show's sixth and final season isn't so much a eulogy of receded success as a zombification of the mutilated cadaver, lathered in makeup, formal wear, and paraded around like the title character of Weekend at Bernie's: small wonder one of the two main characters is, when you get down to it, basically a re-animated corpse. The series conclusion was wished (and wished hard) into existence by the show's fans, but what is most evident now is that Lost, taken in sum, is quite a bit like the original Star Trek series, in which there's only one dull planet for our heroes to explore, and every extra's life is forfeit.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

the Helen Hayes, Jack Palance, and Henry Fonda* record

In honor of Jackie Cooper's 88th birthday.

In 1971 and 1992, an Oscar record was set and matched: the longest distance (38 years) between an actor's Academy award and their last Academy Award nomination. It can be said that Henry Fonda (Best Actor nominee, The Grapes of Wrath; Best Actor winner, On Golden Pond) broke that record, but he'll always have an asterisk next to his name for producing 12 Angry Men, which earned him a nomination in the Best Picture category.

As of today, September 15, 2010, seventy-three men and women are in a position to break that record, if they happen to get on the ballots for 2010. It's probably not going to happen: most are retired, and those that are still active aren't being talked about as possible contenders, or they are only active on the stage or on television, or doing low-profile work here and there. Nevertheless, a few items:

Jackie Cooper remains the actor who was youngest (9) at the time of his nomination, for Norman Taurog's 1931 Skippy. Cooper has been retired from the screen since 1990: one of his last films was Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, playing iconic Daily Planet chief Perry White (as he did in the first three Christopher Reeve entries). Cooper's acting career was long, not exactly distinguished, but quite functional. He always seemed to be the right person for each age of his life, with instantly identifiable, little-boy nose and (presumably real) full head of hair. He was also a prolific television director for over thirty years, winning a primetime Emmy award for the series, The White Shadow. [years elapsed since last nomination: 79]

Screen legends and (allegedly) feuding sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine have also effectively retired, but still make occasional appearances. De Havilland was recently awarded the French Legion of Honor by President Nicolas Sarkozy. [years elapsed: 60 (de Havilland), 66 (Fontaine)]

Luise Rainer won two consecutive Oscars for Leading Actress, in 1937 and 1938 and, after a few more roles, disappeared from the screen almost completely. Having turned one hundred earlier this year, she still makes public appearances. [years elapsed: 62]

Last nominated for her performance as the creepy Senator's wife in The Manchurian Candidate, Angela Lansbury may be best-known to contemporary audiences for her role as Jessica Fletcher on the long-running (1984-1996) murder mystery series, Murder, She Wrote, but in the context of her exemplary, sixty-six-year long career in the cinema, on TV, and (especially) on the stage, it occupies only a single chapter. With only one live-action film (Nanny McPhee, 2005) since Murder, she was most recently seen in the 2010 Broadway revival of A Little Night Music. [years elapsed: 47]

Kirk Douglas's screen appearances have been infrequent since his 1996 stroke. An actor whose stature - like that of Lansbury, and others - utterly precedes any conversation about his Oscar nominations (rather than the other way around), Douglas was last nominated for playing Van Gogh in Vincente Minnelli's Lust for Life. Well over a dozen movies could qualify as his most memorable and enduringly popular: the two he made with Stanley Kubrick (Paths of Glory and Spartacus), Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole, Brian De Palma's The Fury, to name but a few. [years elapsed: 53]

Eva Marie Saint is arguably better-known for starring alongside Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest than for winning the Oscar for On the Waterfront. She seems to have chosen family life over super-stardom, working steadily since the 1950s but often taking long breaks inbetween film roles, she recently made a cameo appearance in Superman Returns, Bryan Singer's 2006 "reboot" of the Man of Steel series, as Clark Kent's adoptive mother. [years elapsed: 55]

An unlikely screen star, and certainly no matinee idol, Ernest Borgnine didn't begin acting in film until his mid-30s, but he hasn't stopped since. (He even appears in the upcoming Bruce Willis vehicle, Red, an action comedy about over-the-hill black ops agents.) His only nomination and win is for Marty, which is arguably the most modest Best Picture winner - lacking in the bloat and grandstanding ordinarily associated with the award. Borgnine is still very much an active public figure. [years elapsed: 54]

Dorothy Malone, one of the only surviving cast members of Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep (another is Lauren Bacall), is effectively retired, and made her last screen appearance in Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct. [years elapsed: 53]

At 57, Mary Badham is the youngest actor with the potential to break the Hayes/Palance/Fonda-asterisk record, as "Scout" Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Badham acted little after Mockingbird, coming out of retirement only for the 2005 independent, Our Very Own. [years elapsed: 47]

Dozens of other men and women qualify to break the record, including Sidney Poitier, Tony Curtis, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, Peter Falk, Terence Stamp, Debbie Reynolds, Anouk Aimée, George Segal, George Kennedy, Seymour Cassel, Ryan O'Neal, James Earl Jones, Cicely Tyson, Cloris Leachman, and Liza Minnelli. Some of these (and other) performers are still working (often at a decreased tempo), many more are retired.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

the sorcerer's apprentice (turteltaub, 2010)

A highly competent blockbuster with visual lines as clean and clear as the moral ones - if I am permitted to bestow that upon Jon Turteltaub's film as a genuine and heartfelt compliment as opposed to a backhanded one, then that's what I'd like to do. (David Bordwell has also been mighty kind to Turteltaub, in the context of the first National Treasure movie.) Full of visual effects unexpected (if a parade dragon is going to turn into a real one, who's to say the men operating it aren't going to take notice?) and expected (yes, the title character reprises Mickey's miscalculated attempt to use magick to avoid chores), this is downright classical compared to the slovenly, wearisome fare that passes for Hollywood's vanguard in the all-digital/all-dimensional age.

Set firmly in a cast of "with the program" thespians (Nicolas Cage [for once], Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer), the real engine that drives Apprentice's specialness is Jay Baruchel, the 2010 moment's emblem of dweeb and twitch (earlier this year he starred in a romantic comedy called Holy Shit I Can't Believe This Hot Chick is Letting Me Fuck Her Oh My God, or something). Rising to the front of that particular trade since he stole a handful of scenes in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, Baruchel is actually a few degrees less stable than the picture requires - but on close examination I decided his line readings and general behavior slyly and pleasingly calculated. (Again, a backhanded-sounding compliment that I am trying to submit as "on the level.") A real professional, confident as anybody else in the lineup, he's a special effect in and of himself, and provides much-needed counterbalance to the expensive, studio precision that structures the picture around him.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

men in war (a. mann, 1957)

"Battalion doesn't exist. Regiment doesn't exist. Command HQ doesn't exist. The U.S.A. doesn't exist... We're the only ones left to fight this war."

Excluding those that took place in the distant past, Anthony Mann directed only three war films, and only two (this and, by a stretch of imagination, The Heroes of Telemark) were concerned with ground combat. Like its title, Men in War's agenda is on the simple side. It shows men, in war. The screenplay is built around the basic "attrition narrative," in which one character after another is withdrawn from play until only one or two remain. This isn't the film where PFC McClusky goes back home to Flatbush Avenue, where there's a girl waiting for him; the platoon isn't saddled with a war orphan or an exotic parrot that's been taught to make recite remarks; nobody reminisces about "back home" or the last skirmish, or anything else. The view of war is pictorially cramped and thematically narrow, as if viewed from the wrong end of a telescope.

Yet the film, spare as minimalist theater, is rich in effect and immerses the viewer deeply into an environment of constant danger and anticipation of continued danger. This film sweats and smells like fear. There are no comfort zones, not even in nature. Especially not in nature. Death inhabits every natural space: a thicket of bushes and trees, a long hill, the ground beneath the soldiers' feet. In fact, at times, the film frame itself almost seems to have been set against them.

Quite a ways into the picture, a cast-off sergeant (Aldo Ray) and a mute, shell-shocked Army colonel (played with expressive silence by Robert Keith - the effete criminal Julian in Don Siegel's The Lineup, and the patriarch in Gordon Douglas's Young at Heart) appear and threaten to gum up the works for everybody. Ray comes off as irreverent and callous, and he's looking to protect two interests - his own neck, and the colonel's, to whom he's formed an unbreakable, familial attachment. Already his character is a tough nut to crack - his selfish attitude is far from indivisble, and he's given no signs of "being yellow," a trait we might otherwise expect to be uncovered later. And what begins as a battle of wits between the sergeant and Lieutenant Benson (Robert Ryan, never harder-bitten) is soon overtaken by the dominant structuring force of the men's lives, their environment, and the film's visual scheme: explosions, flying debris, gunfire, and the occasional garroting. It begins with thirteen men, in the middle of a hundred square miles of enemy territory, and no more than two get out of the movie alive.

below (twohy, 2002)

Preferable to Jonathan Mostow's straight-faced, secular U-571 in almost every conceivable way, Twohy's deft, Lewton-esque (it distinctly recalls The Ghost Ship), Darren Aronofsky co-scripted "haunted submarine" tale ultimately loses force as it becomes progressively more esoteric in its visuals - on at least three occasions, Twohy will execute a match-cut/scare-cut that has the effect both of diluting the oogedy-boogedy-ness handily outdone by other "old dark house in space" pictures (such as Ridley Scott's Alien, or Paul W.S. Anderson's fantastically corny and creepy Event Horizon), and derailing the narrative, so much so that we lose track of what's at stake, and wonder if the characters have, as well. Still, even if the tale eventually loses itself in a fog, the first two reels are impermeable genre sheetrock, a lean setup and kick-off with sharp editing and a terrific set piece that demonstrates how fast news travels on a small boat.

reign of terror (a. mann, 1949)

Four of the most distinctive artists in American cinema had their hand in this "period noir": William Cameron Menzies (who produced the film, and played a chief role in its visual design), the versatile Philip Yordan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Æneas MacKenzie), John Alton (who executed the Menzies and Mann aesthetic with hard shadows, harsh diagonals, and dozens of leering, harrowing closeups), and Anthony Mann (whose direction of brutality is not diluted by the fact that nearly every scene witnesses an act of violence). The prologue counts off the key figures of the French Revolution, their faces butting into the lens in a manner that recalls an outsized silent melodrama, or a crime serial. The plot is pure, self-devouring nonsense - Robespierre's hit list goes missing, and he hires an impostor to find it before his bid for dictatorship exceeds its sell-by date. As with V for Vendetta (Alan Moore's novel, not the Wachowski brothers-produced film adaptation), terror and panic is sourced directly from corruption in power (although the mob is implicated, too, in two scenes that bookend the film), and most of the villains are done in by their very natures, and that of their co-conspirators. Most, but not all: Arnold Moss's limp-wristed take on Fouché leavens the somewhat blander star turns by Robert Cummings and Arlene Dahl. Memorable moments include a barkeep/pimp giving Cummings the runaround as he fishes olives from dark fluid; "There's a revolution, don't stay out late!"; Charles McGraw with a mouthful of food, barking obscenely at Beulah Bondi; the introduction to Robespierre, "of powdered wig and twisted mind!"

Sunday, May 16, 2010

robin hood (r scott, 2010)

Lots of post-Hannibal Ridley has great, Duellists-grade images mixed with the dross, edited by a hacksaw. As with Body of Lies, Robin Hood has a first act that seems confidently and pleasurably unmoored, free of the false gravitas and prestige drama that ends up as the film's undoing. Body's first act plays like a blacker, bloodier Ishtar*, and while Crowe's tiresome/overdrawn nobility plagues his very first moments, there is also a confusion of comedy and gravity that grants a pleasing lack of stability; there's Danny Huston's effortlessly Wellesian (Hustonian!) charisma; and the opening battle is actually quite nicely directed, as is the first scene between Eleanor and her runt son who becomes king, the only Hollywood scene in javelin-hurling distance that illustrates effectively how the personal trumps sound political judgment.

The picture ultimately tanks, in no small part due to the very same oddball King John character (wouldn't announcing him as the runt of his brothers lend the opportunity to deny, rather than confirm, the statement?), but a film by a director who seems trapped by his own producer impulses (which may explain the eccentric Saving Private Ryan homage that frames the final, needless battle) while displaying no small measure of visual and narrative imagination in a small yet recognizable portion of the rest of the film, is miles better than nothing at all.

* That's a compliment, in the likely case that it doesn't register as such.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

the 10 greatest war films (in two parts)

My father asked me for my take on the ten greatest movies about war. I responded by asking him if he meant the traditional "men who fight" type of films, or would I be permitted to promote non-traditional "war" films, i.e. those that explored violent class wars, told the tale of resistance fighters put in unorthodox situations and forced to make hateful choices, or even works of essay cinema, that took up the subject of Hollywood mythmaking and star power as it pertained to real conflicts. The result, I made a list of ten for each category. Here they are, with a few words.


1) IN HARM’S WAY (Otto Preminger, 1965); glossy, all-star black & white epic, marketed as windswept romance and heroism, actually very disconcerting and violent, its true subjects are disappointment and sorrow. Still, the stars deliver megawatts in every scene. Who needs AVATAR in 3-D when you have Preminger in CinemaScope?
2) PLAY DIRTY (Andre de Toth, 1968); a bitter, but never humorless, team-of-renegades actioner that followed in the wake of THE DIRTY DOZEN. Where Aldrich’s better-known box office smash now seems diffuse and meandering, de Toth keeps everything in one clenched fist. (A chunk of jagged rock in the other.) Moreso than LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, a movie that leaves you with the feeling that you’ve got sand in your eyes, your nostrils, etc.
3) THE BIG PARADE (King Vidor, 1925); a more traditional picture of war from the silent era, but still gripping. Picture-frame depictions of the Great War dwarf the protagonists.
4) SEVEN SAMURAI (Akira Kurosawa, 1954); a true-blue classic, with a rich, satisfying dramatic arc, unmitigated by complex blocking and editing. Nary a dull minute, and there are 207 of them. Watch it for the story, watch it for the craft, watch it for the actors, or, better yet, watch it for everything.
5) MEN IN WAR (Anthony Mann, 1957); Mann was one of the few filmmakers (along with de Toth) to notice the potential of depicting troops being attacked by the very ground they walk on, the very film frame that encloses them. I’m speaking figuratively, of course – after all, this isn’t Chuck Jones’s DUCK AMUCK, but Mann establishes a claustrophobic chokehold by sewing danger into everything seen, heard, unseen, unheard. Brilliant opening sequence destabilizes the audience almost immediately by destroying a slow, quiet build-up with a deafening, panicked shout.
6) CASUALTIES OF WAR (Brian De Palma, 1989); although he has his detractors, and they are tireless, I’ve always been on his side, and from where I sit, one of the things De Palma always does well is to turn the screws by unnaturally slowing action and cutting between converging vectors (for example, a speeding car, a blissfully unaware pedestrian, a panicking bystander, too far away to be heard…) to generate suspense. He would normally apply this scenario at least once in his countless, Hithcockian thriller plots or crime sagas, but in CASUALTIES, the change of theme makes all the difference. The hero’s own squad represents a more terrifying threat to his life than the “enemy.”
7) ZULU (Cy Endfield, 1964); one of the very, very best films shot in 70mm during that large-format stock’s heyday. (It was the original IMAX.) Rather than take sides and make racial-political mincemeat out of a story that seems to ask for it (a tiny British supply depot is attacked by, and holds out against, an enormous Zulu uprising in 1879 – “holds out” because they were spared, presumably because they won the respect of their aggressors, who far, far outnumbered them), Endfield focuses as much as possible on the sheer excitement and tension of the conflict, and takes every opportunity to fill the frame with eye-popping compositions, colors, and costumes.
8) APOCALYPSE NOW (Francis Coppola, 1979); not much to be said about this landmark film: rich and strange, flawed, but unforgettable and one-of-a-kind.
9) ATTACK! (Robert Aldrich, 1956); like a few other titles here, there’s more animosity between the men who are supposed to be fighting side-by-side than there is between the designated “good guys” and “bad guys.” The murderous, insane hatred borne out by the two lead characters (one a grizzled, probably unstable, combat veteran, the other a natural coward and bureaucrat) lends more tension to the film than the actual combat sequences. Highly effective as a genre film, but also troubling.
10) FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) – Anti-Nazi propaganda done up into a terrifically exciting espionage adventure. Has one of my all-time favorite screen stunts (done by photographic effects, of course; George Sanders leaps from a fourth floor window, crashes through multiple awnings, and lands on his feet, makes sure his hair is in place, and trots off), and ends with a brutally depicted plane crash into the ocean. (Hitchcock spared little sentiment for extras.)

1) STRIKE (Sergei Eisenstein, 1924); riveting and unstable, one of the most exciting movies ever made, you don’t have to have Communist leanings to be stirred to action by this film.
2) LETTER TO JANE (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972) – A film essay on a single, still photo of Jane Fonda during the time she spent with the Viet Cong. Sounds simple, but turns out to be a provocative examination of the power of images, star power, and Western colonial expansion, and how these subjects intermingle.
3) THIS LAND IS MINE (Jean Renoir, 1943) – mild-mannered schoolteacher becomes a figure for the French resistance. Charles Laughton usually played sympathetic heroes, but rarely one who was quite as meek: his brilliance as an actor is complemented perfectly by Renoir’s sure hand as a director. An ideal companion piece for GRAND ILLUSION.
4) NONE SHALL ESCAPE (Andre de Toth, 1944) – the war was a year from its close, but the story is told from the perspective of Nuremberg-like trials taking place in a speculative future. Similar to the other de Toth film mentioned here, NONE moves at a fast clip, crowded with jutting, unfriendly angles and equally crisp blacks and whites. Still shocking, and it’s hard to believe Hollywood would subject even war-weary audiences to such a frank depiction of the birth of the Holocaust.
5) THE MORTAL STORM (Frank Borzage, 1940) – the rise of fascism in a little German hamlet, a tragic romance (Borzage’s specialty) and a pretty unusual movie from the early ‘40s that told a more “meta-” tale of the murder of the nicey-nice, jovially-scored Hollywood fluff piece at the bare, sandpapery hands of a new kind of Hollywood fiction that was suddenly – even if only dimly – aware of more deadly serious matters over the horizon, effectively placing a “will James Stewart get the girl” alongside “is humankind worth redeeming.”
6) ARMY OF SHADOWS (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969) – One of the first color films by Melville, who remains almost exclusively known for his crime films, which featured chiseled-jawboned men in slouch hats and dames warbling sad tunes in dank cafes. ARMY OF SHADOWS, a portrait of the French resistance against the Nazi occupying force, shares with these films a sense of impending doom countered by the fierce, quiet independence and dignity of their protagonists.
7) THE NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani,1982); the rise of Italian fascism, and its brutal, homicidal, fratricidal tendencies, as seen by a child. Manages to keep us in touch with the fantastic perspective of events seen through young eyes, while never letting us loose from the terrifying events of unfiltered reality. A compelling drama that leaves you no comfortable ground upon which to steady yourself.
8) A MAN ESCAPED (Robert Bresson, 1956) – in which the structure of the prison becomes the protagonist’s key adversary, and one of its most potent characters. Human antagonists remain mostly unseen. Like all Bresson, vivid in texture, every second.
9) THE GREAT DICTATOR (Charles Chaplin, 1940) – a bit similar in narrative to THIS LAND IS MINE (meek ---> strong)…poking fun at Nazis could seem dated if not for the miraculous final speech. Chaplin sacrificing – figuratively, by shedding the image – the “little tramp” in order to battle Hitler is both mindblowing and heartbreaking.
10) CULLODEN (Peter Watkins, 1964); a harrowing pseudo-documentary, filmed as if by a live television news crew, of the Battle of Culloden (1745), the last pitched battle on British soil. Not a fun one, either – essentially a massacre of poor farmers by Scottish Highlanders and a detachment from Manchester. The actual battle was over in less than an hour, but the effects on Scotland’s relationship to the Kingdom were far-reaching and disastrous. Watkins declares the facts of this tragedy soberly, without ever overplaying his hand or overemphasizing an ironic point.

EDIT: A Facebook friend pointed out that I'd overlooked Sam Fuller's war films, the best of which (for my money: THE BIG RED ONE, THE STEEL HELMET, and FIXED BAYONETS!) convey and critique the excitement of war often in the same florid gestures. Either of his Korean War films from 1951 could switch out with the Aldrich film in List #1. On the other hand, I thought about them but decided to exclude them. THE BIG RED ONE, on the other hand, is a gross omission, and belongs firmly in List #1.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

the fall (singh, 2006)

While not exactly good, The Fall nevertheless reminded me that Tarsem Singh was not just a pretty-pictures show-off, but that his visuals seem to suggest a distinctly intelligent voice that you may not necessarily expect. And he has rhythm, which is not an overstocked item in the filmmaking world.

There is the matter of the child actor. Catinca Untaru. She is not good in the classical sense - verisimilitude, flawlessly memorized lines, focus - and the makers take an enormous risk by having her (and her leading man) in tears for something like the last three reels. Nevertheless, the risk pays dividends - she is an asset to the film's emotional arc. The paraplegic's despair is as irresistible to us as it is to young Alexandria - even while the underlying motive-resolution behind his circumstances (he was jilted, he's redeemed, he gets over the jilt) is too pat to spark as much interest as the visual design.

ADDENDUM: A moment's research reveals that Untaru was in competition for an award for youth acting, by an organization that appears to be the Academy Awards of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Horror. Among Untaru's competitors were Brandon Walters in Baz Luhrmann's (remarkably sober and gorgeous) Australia, Lina Leandersson in the Swedish vampire film, Let The Right One In (a film I was not mad about, but I'm unable to argue that Leandersson did anything less than brave, grown-up work), the title character in Slumdog Millionaire (whatever), and the undeniably talented Freddie Highmore in some Nickelodeon-ish nonsense involving trolls. All the boys and girls did at the very least respectable work, but - mystery of mysteries - they were defeated by Jaden Smith, spawn of Fresh Prince and that girl from Jason's Lyric, who gnawed through an already squandered property, the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the world of child acting, there are great performances (rare) and decent performances. There are also "bad" ones that work, and bad ones that blow up in everyone's face. Smith in The Day is emblematic of the last group.