Saturday, December 26, 2009

Target #284: Klute (1971, Alan J. Pakula)

TSPDT placing: #797
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula
Written by: Andy Lewis, David P. Lewis
Starring: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider, Charles Cioffi, Dorothy Tristan

For the most part, the advent of sound was utilised simply to accompany the on screen action. In Klute (1971), director Alan J. Pakula does something very interesting: he uses audio to layer one scene on top of another. Call-girl Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), held at the whim of a desperate sexual deviant, is forced to hear the tape recording of a murder. The camera never leaves Bree's face, but the viewer barely sees her. Instead, the mind conjures up an entire scene that was never filmed, the sickening final moments of a drug-addled prostitute at the hands of a disturbed man. A less-assured director might have used video footage, or even a flashback. Pakula understood that the audience would provide its own flashback, and his merging of disparate visual and audio streams allows him to tell two stories at once. In this respect, I wouldn't be surprised if the film was the partial inspiration (along with Antonioni's Blow Up (1966), of course) for Coppola's The Conversation (1974).
Though the film takes its title from Donald Sutherland's small-town detective John Klute, the character himself remains oddly detached throughout. Instead, Pakula is most concerned with Fonda's reluctant call-girl, an aspiring actress who keeps returning to prostitution because it involves an "acting performance" during which she always feels in control. Fonda brings an acute warmth and vulnerability to a film that is, by design, rather cold and detached. Pakula deliberately distances the viewer from the story, placing his audience – not in the room where the action is taking place – but on the opposite end of a recording device. His accusation that the viewer is himself engaging in voyeurism runs alongside such films as Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), Antonioni's Blow Up and many works of Hitchcock. It is Fonda's performance that gives the film its core, more so than the mystery itself, the solution of which is offered early on. However, the extra details we glean from Bree's regular visits to a therapist could easily have been peppered more subtly throughout the film.

Currently my #5 film of 1971:
1) A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
2) Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah)
3) Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart)
4) The French Connection (William Friedkin)
5) Klute (Alan J. Pakula)
6) Get Carter (Mike Hodges)
7) Bananas (Woody Allen)
8) The Stalls of Barchester (Lawrence Gordon Clark) (TV)


Friday, December 4, 2009

Repeat Viewing: The Shining (1980, Stanley Kubrick)

TSPDT placing: #148
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stephen King (novel), Stanley Kubrick (screenplay), Diane Johnson (screenplay)

As do most, I can clearly remember the first time I saw The Shining (1980). I must have been thirteen or fourteen, and had just read Stephen King's novel. There was something cold and clinical about the film that really shook my spine; I could never quite put my finger on exactly why. Perhaps it was the drab colours, the detached camera-work, an overwhelming sense of apathy towards the characters' fate. Just recently, I took the opportunity to see The Shining at the cinema (on a double-bill with A Clockwork Orange (1971)) and my appreciation for the film hasn't faded. An unhappily-married couple (Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall) are employed to caretake the Overlook Hotel over winter. As the long, bleak months progress, the Hotel's rich and dark history begins to manifest physically, and Jack's alcoholism and unstable psychological
state begins to crumble into maniacal madness.

Jack Nicholson's grotesquely over-the-top performance is terrifying, and hilarious, and insanely watchable; Kubrick encouraged Nicholson to overplay the role to its demented maximum. Not surprisingly, his favourite actor was James Cagney, who frequently eschewed realistic method acting in favour of a broiling intensity that suggested a time-bomb on the verge of exploding. Shelley Duvall, meanwhile, does a very good imitation of a complete mental breakdown (in fact, the director himself drove her to the brink with his endless insistence on re-takes, sometimes as many as 100). The exaggerated central performances are strangely at odds with John Alcott's detached cinematography, which surveys the carnage of Jack's mental breakdown with a disquieting aloofness. However, the camera doesn't merely act as an observer; Kubrick uses it to tell the story, his peculiar use of quick zooms serving to claustrophobically constrict the viewer's field of vision and emphasise an element of interest.

Throughout the film, frequent (but irregularly-spaced) title cards signal the passage of time, as though counting down to a historical moment. Jack's plummet into insanity thus becomes set in stone, inevitable, and every preceding frame is plagued by the hand of Fate, gently nudging the man towards a predetermined end. In the film's ambiguous epilogue, Jack's image appears in a photograph dated July 4, 1921. Hence, even before we see Jack Torrance first enter the Overlook Hotel, he has already become a part of its history (just as the previous caretaker Charles Grady had formerly known the Hotel through his historical doppelganger Delbert Grady, the butler). Alternatively, these visions could be a manifestation of Jack's alcoholism – note that, in every scene featuring a ghost, there is a mirror present. It can't be mere coincidence that Jack's axe-assault on a bathroom door was clearly inspired by a sequence in Victor Sjöström's Körkarlen (1921), which concerns an alcoholic husband and father.

Currently my #2 film of 1980:
1) The Elephant Man (David Lynch)
2) The Shining (Stanley Kubrick)
3) ‘Breaker’ Morant (Bruce Beresford)
4) Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner)
5) Stardust Memories (Woody Allen)
6) Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese)


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Repeat Viewing: A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)

TSPDT placing: #93

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Anthony Burgess (novel), Stanley Kubrick (screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

In Kubrick's adaptation of Anthony Burgess' bizarre 1959 dystopian novel, a juvenile delinquent (Malcolm McDowell) and his gang of droogs whittle away their time partaking in such wholesome activities as beating homeless drunks, warring with rival gangs, raping helpless women, and enjoying the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven. There are two things happening in this film: one that Kubrick inherited from Burgess' writing, and another that is endemic to the cinematic medium.

The first role of A Clockwork Orange (1971) is as a rather vicious political satire, dryly mocking the hypocrisy of the government and its policies on institutionalisation and criminal rehabilitation. In the film, the Minister of the Interior (Anthony Sharp) is depicted as opportunistic and self-serving, latching onto the unproven Ludovico technique in a bid to stem his party's failing popularity with voters. When public opinion turns against the therapy, the Minister very swiftly back-peddles, reversing the treatment so that Alex may return to his former ultra-violent ways: "I was cured alright!"

The UK edition of Burgess' novel contained a final chapter in which Alex sees the error of his former ways, and vows to reform into a productive member of society. Kubrick was unaware of this addition until he had almost completed the screenplay, and never considered using it in the film. This was, I think, a good decision. Burgess' ending shies away from the problem: by letting human nature run its course, he seems to be implying that the problem of juvenile delinquency will sort itself out. Kubrick, admittedly, doesn't offer any solutions of his own, but the corrupt manner in which he ends the film leaves a sour taste.

The Ludovico technique depicted in the film involves the screening of movies, which allows Kubrick room for a degree of self-referentiality. It is in the audiences' nature to recoil from acts of sex and violence, and Kubrick's hard-nosed, deliberately-subversive approach (utilising the perspective of its biased protagonist and narrator) only encourages this response. Just as Alex is exposed to the Ludovico aversion therapy, Kubrick is exposing his audience to the same treatment. Does it work? Do we become desensitised to the violence, or do we begin to associate socially-accepted cues (i.e. Beethoven's Ninth, "Singing in the Rain") with acts of evil?

Currently my #1 film of 1971:
1) A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick)
2) Straw Dogs (Sam Peckinpah)
3) Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (Mel Stuart)
4) The French Connection (William Friedkin)
5) Get Carter (Mike Hodges)
6) Bananas (Woody Allen)
7) The Stalls of Barchester (Lawrence Gordon Clark) (TV)


Repeat Viewing: Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, James Cameron)

TSPDT placing: #565

Directed by: James Cameron

Watching Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) for the first time in three years made me remember how amazing movies could be. Director James Cameron had previously achieved unexpected success with The Terminator (1984), a moody and relentlessly bleak tech-noir thriller. The inevitable sequel came armed with a blockbuster budget and state-of-the-arts visual effects, and it is a triumph on every level. The two films are very different, of course – just as Cameron's Aliens (1986) was very different from Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). The first Terminator film was a down-and-dirty dystopian sci-fi, where the modern-day setting is just as drab and ominous as the terrifying future. In Judgement Day, Cameron juggles a tricky juxtaposition of hope and despair. The blindingly-vivid 1990s action sequences feel as though they were captured in the flash of a nuclear explosion, and their dazzling intensity make our glimpse of a bleak, war-ridden future all the more horrific.
Science-fiction has often tackled the notion that Mankind's technology is destined to rebel, as in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). However, unlike most entries to the genre, T2: Judgement Day takes the time to explore the idea. As in Kubrick's film, the fates of humans and machines become inescapably entwined: Man is no longer merely the designer (a la Dr. Frankenstein) who creates an artificial son, but one who must learn from his progeny. Accordingly, John Connor (Edward Furlong) and the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) share a father-son relationship that twists back on itself like a Moebius strip, each half teaching the other. In one haunting sequence, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) grimly contemplates the Terminator's unwavering loyalty towards John, and his ironic suitability as a father figure. This grotesque interlacing of familial roles speaks a clear message: if Judgement Day is to be averted, Man and Machine must coexist as equals, though human vanity may never allow it.
Throughout the film, Cameron weaves one astonishing action set-piece after another, utilising a seamless combination CGI and optical trickery. The T-1000 Terminator at first glance seems reasonably innocuous, but Robert Patrick brings something icily sinister to the role, a cold intelligence that isn't strictly mechanical but somehow filled with imagination. An equally fascinating character, I thought, was Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor, a complete reversal from the innocent Sarah Connor of the previous film. Now emotionally hardened by the prospect of nuclear holocaust, Sarah sees only ghosts where she once saw people, her apathy stemmed only by her maternal instincts towards John. In a haunting dream sequence, Sarah Connor is powerless to warn a younger version of herself (representative of society at large) of the coming dangers, her screams consumed by a nuclear blast that levels cities and engulfs her in flames. Hamilton's performance is bold and ferocious, perhaps cinema's most intense female action role (not coincidentally, James Cameron also provided us with the runner-up, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens).

Currently my #2 film of 1991:
1) The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme)
2) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron)
3) JFK (Oliver Stone)
4) Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola)
5) Barton Fink (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)


Saturday, October 17, 2009

Target #283: 42nd Street (1933, Lloyd Bacon)

TSPDT placing: #438

Directed by: Lloyd Bacon
Written by: Bradford Ropes (novel), Rian James (screenplay), James Seymour (screenplay),
Whitney Bolton (contribution to treatment) (uncredited)

The backstage Broadway show has always been a staple of the Hollywood musical, and Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street (1933) might just be the grandfather of them all. The concept itself is appealingly self- reflexive: the process of manufacturing drama creates its own drama. Behind the theatre curtains, unbeknownst to the waiting audience, lives are being changed forever – love blossoms, hearts are broken, and directors wearily await the public verdict. Similar structures were later used in Powell and Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948) – in which the backstage drama is foreshadowed by the ballet being performed – and Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953). Better still, Singin' in the Rain (1951) took the same premise and applied it to movies themselves, a direct brand of self-reflexion that would only grow more overt with the likes of Federico Fellini and Charlie Kaufman. In any case, it is sufficient to say that the film's storytelling approach proved hugely influential, and many musicals have carried forth its various clichés.

In Depression-era New York, overstrained Broadway director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) vows to make his final stage-show his greatest of all. It won't be easy: his leading lady, the glamorous but snooty Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) is torn between love and stardom, bouncing between her wealthy benefactor (Guy Kibbee) and an old vaudeville partner (George Brent). Into the show comes shy, fresh-faced Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who learns the art of the Broadway musical, and incidentally becomes a star in the process. Among the supporting cast there are a few very familiar faces, including a sprightly Dick Powell (a decade before he toughened up with Murder, My Sweet (1944)) and Ginger Rogers, who proves her comedic spark even before pairing up with Fred Astaire in Flying Down to Rio (1933). For the most part, 42nd Street has an incredibly optimistic outlook, making it ideal for a lonely winter night. There's not a single unlikable character in the mix: even the snobbish Dorothy Brock has a few words of encouragement for Peggy before her nervous debut.

Audiences are more likely to connect with the adorably innocent Ruby Keeler, but the film revolves most strongly around Warner Baxter's disenchanted Broadway director, whose body and mind is gradually but inevitably failing him. At first, Marsh seems determined to do whatever it takes to taste acclaim one more time. In a scene borrowed straight out of Warner Brothers' contemporary gangster films, he orders hired thugs to intimidate Pat Denning, Brock's secret sweetheart, but Denning gets away with little more than a cut forehead. Marsh's eventual triumph is heartening, but bittersweet, as he anonymously enjoys the poetry of critical praise just one last time. It's the only moment in 42nd Street that strays from the film's otherwise-buoyant mood, and so it leaves an indelible mark. Most impressive of all, however, is Busby Berkeley's choreography, which really only arrives in the final act. It's remarkable how he uses human bodies like the cogs in a machine, melding human figures and movement, shot from above, into stunningly liquid abstract shapes and tessellations.

Currently my #3 film of 1933:
1) King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack)
2) The Invisible Man (James Whale)
3) 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon)
4) Duck Soup (Leo McCarey)
5) Flying Down to Rio (Thornton Freeland)


Monday, September 21, 2009

Target #282: Ninotchka (1939, Ernst Lubitsch)

TSPDT placing: #282
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
Written by: Melchior Lengyel (story), Charles Brackett (screenplay), Billy Wilder (screenplay), Walter Reisch (screenplay)
Starring: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach

I find it a little odd that, on the cusp of WWII, Hollywood delivered a piece of anti-Communist propaganda, when clearly there were, at that time, more immediate threats to European freedom. Ninotchka (1939) was produced while Ernst Lubitsch waited for Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart to become available for The Shop Around the Corner (1940), but it was by no means merely a fill-in project: the film was Greta Garbo's first and only collaboration with Lubitsch, and the actress' penultimate role before a premature retirement. MGM's publicity campaign used the tagline "Garbo Laughs!" to advertise that this was a new type of role for the enigmatic actress, a comedy that promised to humanise her otherwise somber screen persona {this campaign deliberately referenced the tagline for Garbo's Anna Christie (1930), which had proclaimed "Garbo Talks!"}. Though the screenplay by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch unsurprisingly has many genuine sparks of wit, the balance of romance, farce and political commentary never quite sits as comfortably as one would expect given the talents involved.

When three Soviet diplomats (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach) arrive in Paris to sell off some jewelry confiscated from the Grand Duchess (Ina Claire) during the Bolshevik Revolution, they find it difficult to keep their minds on their work. Far away from the cold, drab apartments of Moscow, the French capital is bustling with life, warmth and prosperity (just forget that the French upper-class are not, in fact, a reasonable yardstick for comparison with the Soviet proletariat). Playful aristocrat Léon (Melvyn Douglas), the Duchess' romantic lover, succeeds in corrupting the bumbling diplomats by flaunting the luxuries of capitalistic society. To ensure that the transaction goes through smoothly, the Soviets send down Ninotchka (Garbo), a curt, tight-lipped Bolshevik with a militant hatred of Capitalism and everything it stands for. Against all odds, the debonair playboy Léon and the belligerent Ninotchka fall for one another, an attraction that ultimately proves more significant than one's national allegiance.

Unfortunately, once love softens the formerly stone-faced Ninotchka, the film shifts from being a lighthearted political farce {not unlike To Be or Not to Be (1942) or Wilder's One, Two, Three (1961)} to a weepy romance. Lubitsch followed Ninotchka with The Shop Around the Corner. What worked so well in the latter film, I thought, was that Lubitsch's heart was not necessarily with the star-crossed lovers – James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan – but with Frank Morgan's shop owner, and his familial relationship with its employees. The three reluctant Soviet diplomats in Ninotchka are utterly charming supporting characters, but too often they are shunned in favour of the central romance, which seems to tread water once, as advertised, Garbo breaks character and enjoys a hearty chuckle. Nevertheless, Melvyn Douglas is magnificently debonair, bringing something distinctly likable to the role of a lazy playboy aristocrat. During her opening act, you can almost see a smile forming beneath Garbo's icy exterior, and she plays the role with just the right amount of breeziness.

Currently my #11 film of 1939:
3) Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
4) The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor)
5) Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)
6) The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (H.C. Potter)
7) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle)
8) La règle du jeu {The Rules of the Game} (Jean Renoir)
9) Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding)
10) Another Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
11) Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch)
12) Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford)


Friday, September 18, 2009

Target #281: JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)

TSPDT placing: #492
Directed by: Oliver Stone
Written by: Jim Garrison (book), Jim Marrs (book), Oliver Stone (screenplay), Zachary Sklar (screenplay)
Starring: Kevin Costner, Jack Lemmon, Gary Oldman, Sissy Spacek, Michael Rooker, Joe Pesci, Walter Matthau, Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland

Oliver Stone's wildly-speculative conspiracy theory epic JFK (1991) opens with a montage of archival footage depicting the presidency of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States, up until 12:30PM on Friday, November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. However, even before this historical prologue has come to an end, Stone has already introduced his own dramatisation – a beaten prostitute, dumped on the side of a road, pleads that Kennedy's life is in danger. Her agonised cries play over familiar documentary footage of the Presidential motorcade. Already, Stone is defiantly blending fact and fiction, speculation and dramatisation. On its initial release, the film stirred enormous controversy due to its flagrant disregard for historical fact, but that's not what JFK is all about. Oliver Stone may (or may not) genuinely believe all of Jim Garrison's conspiracy theories – which implicate everybody up to former President Lyndon B. Johnson – but his film nevertheless offers a tantalising "what if?" scenario, an unsettling portrait of the fallibility of "history" itself.

Having undertaken some light research, I don't feel that Garrison's claims hold much water. However, that doesn't detract from the film's brilliance. Crucial is Stone's more generalised vibe of government mistrust, the acknowledgement that political institutions are at least conceptually capable of such a wide-ranging operation to hoodwink the American public. JFK also paints a gripping picture of its protagonist, torn between its admiration for a man willing to contest the sacred cow of US government, and its pity for one so hopelessly obsessed with conspiracy that it consumes his life, family and livelihood. Kevin Costner plays Garrison as righteous and stubbornly idealistic, not dissimilar to his Eliot Ness in De Palma's The Untouchables (1987). The only difference is that Garrison is chasing a criminal far more transparent than Al Capone – indeed, a criminal who may not exist at all. Costner is supported by an exceedingly impressive supporting cast: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland, Joe Pesci, Michael Rooker, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman and John Candy.With the Director's Cut clocking in at 206 minutes, JFK is an epic piece of work. However, the film is so dazzlingly well-constructed that watching it becomes less of a choice than a compulsion. Stone frenziedly throws together seemingly-unrelated puzzle-pieces, systematically peeling back layer after layer of conspiracy until all that remains is what Jim Garrison believes to be the naked truth. Beneath the sordid details, Stone speculates on the nature of history itself. Archive footage blends seamlessly with dramatisation – but what is recorded history but a re-enactment submitted by the winners? Not even the witnesses to Kennedy's assassination, clouded by subjective perception, can know for sure what exactly took place on that dark day in Dallas. Perhaps Zapruder's 486 frames of grainy hand-held footage (combined with that of Nix and Muchmore) represents the only objective record of the event – but Antonioni's Blowup (1966) argued that even photographic documentation is unreliable through the inherent bias of the viewer. In short, nobody knows what really happened that day. JFK is Oliver Stone creating his own history – or merely correcting it.

Currently my #3 film of 1991:
1) The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme)
2) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron)
3) JFK (Oliver Stone)
4) Hearts Of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (Fax Bahr, George Hickenlooper, Eleanor Coppola)
5) Barton Fink (Joel Coen, Ethan Coen)