Monday, December 29, 2008

Target #254: Pickup on South Street (1953, Samuel Fuller)

TSPDT placing: #737

Directed by: Samuel Fuller
Written by: Dwight Taylor (story), Samuel Fuller (screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

Shock Corridor (1963) was my first film from Samuel Fuller, and there I was impressed with the director's astute blending of B-movie and big-budget aesthetics, even if the story itself was pure schlock. Pickup on South Street (1953) was released a decade earlier in Fuller's career, obviously produced on a larger budget from a big-name studio, Twentieth Century-Fox. Nevertheless, the visuals are still notable in that there's a somewhat raw, naturalistic element to the photography, not unlike Dassin's Night and the City (1950) and Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) {the latter was also shot by cinematographer Joe McDonald}. In some scenes, Fuller shoves the camera so close to his actors' faces that they're out of focus, bluntly registering the intimate thoughts, emotions and brief inflections that are communicated through that most revealing of facial features, the eye. Though (unexpectedly) prone to melodrama, and with just a hint of anti-Communist propaganda, Pickup on South Street is a strong film noir that succeeds most outstandingly in its evocation of setting – the underground of New York City.
When just-out-of-prison pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) snags the purse of a woman on the subway (Jean Peters), he pockets more than he'd originally bargained for. The woman, Candy, and her cowardly ex-boyfriend Joey (Richard Kiley) had been smuggling top-secret information to the Communists, and McKoy has unexpectedly retrieved an important roll of micro-film. Will he turn in the MacGuffin to the proper authorities, or sell it to the highest bidder? If Pickup on South Street has a flaw, it's that the story seems designed solely to bolster an anti-Communist agenda, reeking of propaganda like nothing since WWII {Dwight Taylor, who supplied the story, also notably wrote The Thin Man Goes Home (1944), the only propagandistic movie of the series}. For no apparent reason, every identifiable character – even the smugly self-serving Skip McCoy – eventually becomes a self-sacrificing patriot, the transformation predictable from the outset. In traditional film noir, the unapologetic criminal always gets his comeuppance, the rational punishment for his sins, but apparently not when they've served their country; patriotism wipes the slate clean.

Richard Widmark, an actor who I'm really beginning to like, plays the haughty pickpocket with composure, though always with that hint of ill-ease that suggests he's biting off more than he can chew. The opening scene on the train is the film's finest, as McCoy breathlessly fishes around in his victim's hand bag, recalling Bresson's Pickpocket (1959). Thelma Ritter is terrific as a tired street-woman who'll peddle information to anybody willing to pay for it (though, of course, she draws the line at Commies). Jean Peters is well-cast as the trashy dame passing information to the other side, playing the role almost completely devoid of glamour; Fuller reportedly cast the actress on the observation that she had the slightly bow-legged strut of a prostitute. Nevertheless, Peters must suffer a contrived love affair with Widmark that really brings down the film's attempts at realism. Fascinatingly, upon its release, Pickup on South Street was promptly condemned as Communist propaganda by the FBI, and the Communist Party condemned it for being the exact opposite. Go figure.

Currently my #5 film of 1953:
1) From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
2) Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder)
3) I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Titfield Thunderbolt (Charles Crichton)
5) Pickup on South Street (Samuel Fuller)
6) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
7) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)


Friday, December 26, 2008

Target #253: Ben-Hur (1959, William Wyler)

TSPDT placing: #321

Directed by: William Wyler

Watching Ben-Hur (1959) is a lot like paying a visit to the Colosseum. Situated in Rome, Italy, this massive elliptical amphitheatre is the largest ever built in the Roman Empire, able to seat up to 80,000 spectators for gladiatorial games and various public spectacles. I've never been to Rome myself, but I'd imagine that one would look up at this amazing feat of ancient architecture, and be left in awe at the scale of it all. You would marvel at the amount of care and labour that must have gone into such a project, particularly given the comparatively primitive tools with which the builders had worked. I feel the same way about Ben-Hur – William Wyler's epic of epics, and, at the time, the most expensive film ever made. Winner of eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, this colossal cinematic gamble resurrected M-G-M from financial ruin. But is it worth nearly four hours of your time? Like a lumbering elephant, Ben-Hur wallows in its immensity, extravagance and self-importance. But it is epic – oh, so very epic! – and, like the Colosseum, demands our awe.

Earlier this year, I decreed Ben-Hur to be the one film that I wouldn't watch for the first time until I had the luxury of viewing it at the cinema. Sooner than expected, the opportunity came along, though the Christmas Eve screening date made it essential that I bring the usual holiday festivities forward one day. The sacrifice was much warranted, for the film can only be fully experienced in the movie theatre, not least because of the breathtaking 70mm anamorphic print, with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1 – one of the widest ever made. William Wyler fills every frame with rich extravagance, such that even the quietest person-to-person conversation takes place in a magnificent, lavishly-decorated chamber. Such expansive surroundings often promote coldness and detachedness from the audience (many uninvolving historical epics were produced around this period), and Ben-Hur doesn't entirely escape the same fate; for every exciting and emotional sequence, there are maybe two scenes of negligible exposition. But the film thrives on its excesses, and, fortunately, the good scenes are so incredibly good that they merit the wait.

Charlton Heston won an Oscar for his portrayal of Judah Ben-Hur, though his performance is merely adequate without being particularly brilliant. Heston, an actor who flourished mostly on sheer charisma, I think, appears to struggle in the film's most emotional moments {my personal pick for the award that year would have been Laurence Harvey in Jack Clayton's Room at the Top (1959)}. Stephen Boyd, though un-nominated, is quite terrific as Messala, Judah's boyhood friend who was later corrupted by the evils of the Roman Empire. Though there are many exciting scenes – such as the fiery ocean battle or Christ's crucifixion – the film's undisputed centrepiece is, of course, the extraordinary chariot race, a marvel of adrenalin-charged action and suspense. Every single metre of the contest had me enthralled, every jolt and tremble of the carriage sending an agitated chill down my spine. The sequence's enduring influence is to be found in practically every historical epic that followed, most noticeably Ridley Scott's Best Picture-winning Gladiator (2000).

To be denied one's name is the film's greatest tragedy. When condemned to a lifetime of slavery aboard a Roman galley, Judah loses his important status and is delegated a generic identification number – #41. His mother and sister, having contracted leprosy after years in confinement, later flee to a leper colony, where, we are told, names are of no use. After being liberated from captivity by the kindly nobleman Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins), Judah takes on the name of his newly-adopted father, a compassionate gesture but one that he is later ashamed to have accepted. To be denied one's face, on the other hand, is apparently divine. Claude Heater, as Jesus Christ, is never properly seen, glimpsed only from behind or at a distance. In this way, the Messiah is portrayed as something holy and angelic, not to be glimpsed by mortal eyes. Though the story of Christ may only form a subplot, thematically it sits at the film's heart. Ben-Hur is about the beginnings of Christianity, and how its teachings have inspired people from the very beginning, and ever since.

Currently my #8 film of 1959:
1) Die Brücke {The Bridge} (Bernhard Wicki)
2) Room at the Top (Jack Clayton)
3) North by Northwest (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder)
5) On the Beach (Stanley Kramer)
6) Le Quatre cents coups {The 400 Blows} (François Truffaut)
7) Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
8) Ben-Hur (William Wyler)
9) The Tingler (William Castle)
10) Some of Manie’s Friends (Bob Finkel) (TV)


Target #252: Heat (1995, Michael Mann)

TSPDT placing: #381
Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by: Michael Mann
Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Val Kilmer, Jon Voight, Tom Sizemore, Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Ashley Judd, Mykelti Williamson, Dennis Haysbert, William Fichtner, Natalie Portman

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

Like him or not, director Michael Mann has his own distinctive style, but what matters is how well he is able to use it to tell a story. Manhunter (1986), a solid and well-acted thriller, was tarnished by Mann's excessively "trendy" style, and a musical soundtrack that has kept the film perpetually trapped in the 1980s. More recently, Collateral (2004) demonstrated a precise and balanced combination of style and substance, making excellent use of the digital Viper FilmStream Camera, perfect for capturing the low-key lighting of Mann's favoured night-time urban landscape. His follow-up, Miami Vice (2006), was almost entirely devoid of substance, a meandering crime story redeemed only by a thrilling shoot-out in the final act. Heat (1995) is among Mann's most lauded achievements, and I'm happy to say that it's probably the finest of the director's films I've seen so far. Most noted for being the first film in which Al Pacino and Robert De Niro shared the same screen (they were separated by decades in Coppola's The Godfather: Part II (1974)), Heat is sizzling, action-packed drama.

Lt. Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) is something of a cliché, the hard-working homicide detective who is distant from his family. However, Pacino gives the character depth, a hard-edged, street-wise cop who is basically good at heart. When writing dialogue for Al Pacino, the temptation is always there to make him shout a lot, and there are several scenes when Mann does exactly that, but the character is strongest when he's not talking at all, lost in silent contemplation or embracing the hysterical mother of a murder victim. Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) sits on the opposite side of the law, a principled professional thief who has dedicated his entire life to crime. McCauley has a motto: "don't let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner." His failure to adhere to this advice is ultimately what gets him killed, for, though he is prepared to discard his relationship with a sincere art designer (Amy Brenneman), McCauley unable to walk away from his own principles.

Heat boasts an impressive supporting cast – including Val Kilmer, Tom Sizemore, Dennis Haysbert and Jon Voight – but it's no surprise that Pacino and De Niro dominate the film. Their single face-to-face encounter is a corker, as they sit opposite each other sipping coffee (the table between them representing not only the border between police and criminal, but also a mirror of sorts). Hanna and McCauley exchange terse pleasantries like old friends, despite having never met before, and the two master actors coolly and effortlessly exude charisma with every word. The film's promotional tagline boasts "a Los Angeles crime saga," suggesting that Mann was attempting something akin to his own The Godfather (1972), though he doesn't quite pull it off as readily as Coppola. His film could have done with a few trimmings, excising a few largely superfluous personal subplots, including an impromptu suicide attempt that came right out of left-field. Nevertheless, Heat is a gripping crime story, with great performances, and one of the best shootouts that you'll see anywhere.

Currently my #3 film of 1995:
1) Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam)
2) Se7en (David Fincher)
3) Heat (Michael Mann)
4) GoldenEye (Martin Campbell)
5) La Cité des enfants perdus {The City of Lost Children} (Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
6) Braveheart (Mel Gibson)
7) Apollo 13 (Ron Howard)
8) Babe (Chris Noonan)
9) Die Hard: With a Vengeance (John McTiernan)
10) Toy Story (John Lasseter)


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Target #251: Get Carter (1971, Mike Hodges)

TSPDT placing: #570
Directed by: Mike Hodges
Written by:
Ted Lewis (novel), Mike Hodges (screenplay)
Starring: Michael Caine, Ian Hendry, Britt Ekland, John Osborne, Tony Beckley, George Sewell, Geraldine Moffat

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

1971 was the year when mainstream filmmakers began to the push the limits of what was acceptable to show on screen, both in terms of sex and violence. Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) enthralled and disgusted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, picking up a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Picture but later being voluntarily withdrawn from circulation by its director. Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) shocked audiences with its uncompromising exploration of inherent human violence and vigilantism. Likewise, Get Carter (1971), from director Mike Hodges, is an incredibly gritty underworld gangster film, so much so that you can almost taste the gravel between your teeth. It won't escape your notice that all three of these films are British, or, at least, were produced with substantial British input; apparently, it took Hollywood a few more years to become quite as well accustomed to such themes, though that year's Best Picture-winner, The French Connection (1971), does rival Get Carter as far as grittiness goes.

Jack Carter (Michael Caine) is a London gangster, an entirely unglamorous occupation that entails such duties as gambling, murder and watching pornography. After his brother, Frank, dies in Newcastle under suspicious circumstances, Jack goes up there, against the wishes of his employer, to find out exactly what happened, and to punish all those responsible. What he finds is the usual assortment of sleazy low-lifes and lascivious whores, all part of the underground lifestyle into which he sold himself. Get Carter obviously derived a degree of influence from the trashy pulp-fiction novels of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane, and, indeed, this inspiration is openly acknowledged when Carter is seen reading "Farewell My Lovely" {adapted by Edward Dmytryk as Murder, My Sweet (1944)}. Like many of the hard-boiled anti-heroes of 1940s and 50s film noir, he has sold his soul for a chance at revenge, and there's no going back. A detail worth noting is that Carter's eventual assassin is first spotted in the opening credits, sitting opposite in the train carriage. A cruel coincidence, or was his fate sealed from the very beginning?Get Carter may have served as inspiration to the recent generation of British gangster film, but the Quentin Tarantino/Guy Ritchie style of film-making favoured today – the most notable example of which being Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) – is often excessively trendy and highly stylised. Mike Hodges' idea of a gangster film is ugly – disgustingly and uncomfortably repellent, offering not a glimmer of respectability nor nobility in its selection of depraved characters. Even Jack Carter himself is not a man we are asked to admire. He may have a steady supply of droll one-liners at hand, but at his heart he is cold, almost completely devoid of human emotion. Just watch Carter's stone-face as his car is rammed into the bay (with an unfortunate captive in the boot), or his indifference to the fate of friend Keith (Alun Armstrong), who is thoroughly roughed-up while lending a hand. Hodges appears only to find decency in the deceased Frank, who represents the honest, working-class type of man. However, even this legacy is coming to an end, for the next generation, Doreen, has already been corrupted.

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) Get Carter (Mike Hodges)


Target #250: Missing (1982, Costa-Gavras)

TSPDT placing: #841

Directed by: Costa-Gavras
Written by: Thomas Hauser (book), Costa-Gavras (writer), Donald Stewart (writer), John Nichols (uncredited)

Of all the frustrating story devices, red tape is among the worst of them. You can't see it, but Missing (1982) is absolutely swathed in red tape, invisible twines of lies and empty promises that may keep you momentarily satisfied, but ultimately get you nowhere. Costa-Gavras' 1982 political drama is based on a true story, and so, as in real life, there are no easy answers. Exactly how and why did Charles Horman die? Were United States officials somehow responsible for his death? Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) wanders dutifully from hospital to hospital, to every prison and asylum centre, in search of his missing son, gradually becoming disenchanted with the government bureaucrats in whom he'd placed his trust and hope. If the film's conclusion feels somewhat unsatisfying, then Costa-Gavras has succeeded in communicating Horman's confusion, anger and exasperation at the immobility of the political machine. Just as the missing man's father and wife were left without closure, so, too, are we. There can be no resolution as long as governments are set upon protecting their own interests.
Jack Lemmon was no stranger to frustrating film experiences. The Out-of-Towners (1970) is among the most exasperating movies you'll ever see, for its demonstrates a perfect (comedic) incarnation of Murphy's Law, in which nothing goes right, and there's nobody you can blame for it. Missing notably differs in that Costa-Gavras singles out a target for our frustration – the country's self-serving officials and corrupt military officers– and so our annoyance swiftly turns to anger. Lemmon gives one of his finest dramatic performances as as Ed Horman, continually haunted by the incomprehensible disappearance of a son he could never understand. Sissy Spacek isn't quite as strong, but her Beth Horman – the missing man's young wife – is quiet and vulnerable, a woman of fierce convictions that she's too small to carry out. Any filmmaker should utilise a soundtrack by Greek composer Vangelis with caution, for nothing screams "1980s" quite so loudly. However, it isn't all bad news for Missing, as the electronic musical score does actually add a sad, nostalgic element of surrealism to the scenes of violence and bloodshed.

I liked how Costa-Gavras cut directly to flashbacks without exposition or explanation, leaving the viewer disorientated, and wondering if we are, indeed, watching the past or the present. This technique recreates the confusion of the characters involved, and emphasises that our narrator is not omnipotent, but merely, like Ed, trying to piece together the facts as best as he can. The scenes of military violence, with the contribution of Vangelis' soundtrack, are oddly and eerily surreal – particularly the striking image of a galloping white stallion being pursued by a volley of bullets. The visitors to Santiago (though the name Chile is never uttered) are all strangely sedate in response to the images of bloodshed, their schedules unfazed by the nearby murder of local citizens, as though their status as "Americans" somehow places them above all this. At the film's end, Ed Horman dejectedly states "I just thank God we live in a country where we can still put people like you in jail." There's a deliberate hollowness behind these words; as we've just seen, America's policies aren't quite as righteous as they'd have us believe.

Currently my #4 film of 1982:
1) Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)
2) Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (Carl Reiner)
3) First Blood (Ted Kotcheff)
4) Missing (Costa-Gavras)
5) The Verdict (Sidney Lumet)


Thursday, December 18, 2008

December 2008 TSPDT Update

That time of year has arrived. After slaving away at the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? Top 1000 for almost one year, the good folks who run the website have released their annual update, which encompasses a wider range of film polls and critics’ lists. Though I had expected my current progress (sitting at 241/1000) to receive a thorough bludgeoning, I’ve actually done quite well for myself here.

The following is a list of new additions and omissions from the updated list; I’ll list only the films that I’ve seen (out of a total of 96 changes).

New additions:
#483: Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter)
#541: Swing Time (1936, George Stevens)
#565: Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron)
#576: MASH (1970, Robert Altman)
#601: An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli)
#644: The Usual Suspects (1997, Bryan Singer)
#660: My Fair Lady (1964, George Cukor)
#733: The Matrix (1999. Andy Wachowski & Larry Wachowski)
#778: City of God (2002, Fernando Meirelles)
#868: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra)
#878: From Here to Eternity (1953, Fred Zinnemann)
#880: Radio Days (1987, Woody Allen)
#898: Starship Troopers (1997, Paul Verhoeven)
#899: Leave Her to Heaven (1945, John M. Stahl)
#917: Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
#952: Scarlet Street (1945, Fritz Lang)
#953: Lost in Translation (2004, Sofia Coppola)
#956: Memento (2000, Christopher Nolan)
#979: American Beauty (1999, Sam Mendes)
#981: Fort Apache (1948, John Ford)

Total additions seen = 20

* The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926, Lotte Reiniger)
* L’ Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat (1895, Lumière, August & Louis Lumière)
* Blood Simple (1984, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen)
* Jason and the Argonauts (1963, Don Chaffey)
* Knife in the Water (1982, Roman Polanski)
* Love and Death (1975, Woody Allen)
* Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)
* Russian Ark (2002, Aleksandr Sokurov)
* Shock Corridor (1963, Sam Fuller)
* Stray Dog (1949, Akira Kurosawa)
* The Thin Man (1934, W.S. Van Dyke)
* The Tingler (1959, William Castle)
* Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, Mel Stuart)

Total omissions seen = 13

So, as you can see, the newest update actually boosts my count of films seen, from 242/1000 to 249/1000. Believe it or not, I’m one viewing away from being one-quarter of the way there!

Thoughts on the changes? Well, I’m devastated to see Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Van Dyke’s The Thin Man (1934) drop off – two very different films, of course, but each brilliant in its own way. From memory, that means that the Top 1000 is now Jules Dassin-free, which is a sorry state of existence {I recently viewed Night and the City (1950), which is even better, as part of my “Shooting in the Dark” blog}. Furthermore, a list without Nick and Nora Charles isn’t really a list at all. I think I'll drown my sorrows with a martini. We may also lament the childhood favourite Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Woody Allen’s epic Love and Death (1975) and that piece of campy, demented brilliance that is William Castle’s The Tingler (1959).

As far as additions are concerned, many of the new titles appear to be rather mainstream populist films of the last decade; such as The Usual Suspects (1997), American Beauty (1999), Memento (2000) and Donnie Darko (2001). These are all decent films in their own right, but it’s sad to think that they’ve stolen the place of that obscure Czechislovakian war drama that I’ve never heard of, and probably never will now.
The additions I’m most happy with are Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), a superb piece of Halloween craziness, and Swing Time (1936) – one can never have too much Fred and Ginger! Oh, and Terminator 2 is awesome.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Target #242: À bout de souffle / Breathless (1960, Jean-Luc Godard)

TSPDT placing: #29

Directed by: Jean-Luc Godard
Written by: François Truffaut (story), Jean-Luc Godard (writer)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

As much as I'd like to think that, after two exciting years, I've been well-and-truly inducted into the world of cinema, I'm really still an amateur. I hear the term "French New Wave" and immediately become intimidated. What's it all about? Hand-held photography, jarring jump-cuts and pretentious philosophical musings? It was with some trepidation that I approached Jean-Luc Godard's À bout de soufflé / Breathless (1960), supposedly the cornerstone of the French movement, though I was somewhat reassured by a brief plot description that sounded uncannily similar to a modern urban thriller: "a young car thief kills a policeman and tries to persuade a girl to hide in Italy with him." In many ways, Breathless is just like a contemporary film. The hand-held camera-work has a gritty, documentary-like immediacy, and a dynamic freshness that wouldn't arrive in Hollywood cinema for another few years {Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker (1964) is the earliest example I can think of}. Stylistically, even recent thrillers like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) and Michael Clayton (2007) owe a lot to Godard, as curious as that may sound.

Both leads are excellent in their respective roles. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays a Humphrey Bogart-wannabe, an out-of-his-depth car thief who speaks tough, but whose brave frontage is immediately transparent. His character works effectively as a semi-affectionate satire of Hollywood's hard-boiled film noir heroes – ripped from the pages of Hammett, Chandler and Spillane – who don't actually exist in real life. Jean Seberg, an American actress who only found success after migrating to Europe, is beautiful and sensual as his independent some-time lover, who finds excitement in the notion of a fugitive boyfriend, but has yet to decide if she loves him or not. As far as the romantic subplot is concerned, Godard emphasises the selfishness of his new generation. Love is no longer an intimate and enduring connection between two people, but a succession of lurid and meaningless sexual encounters. Though Michel and Patricia frequently speak their love of each other, their motives are purely egocentric in nature. Each character frequently alludes to their own needs and desires, and Patricia eventually informs on Michel to prove, for her own benefit, that she is indifferent to him.

My only previous Godard work, Alphaville (1965), had sufficiently intrigued me with its half-satirical espionage thriller set against a backdrop of science-fiction. However, when the narrative periodically came to a standstill, so too, I found, did my interest in the film. Breathless gave me similar sentiments, albeit to a lesser degree. While never boring, there is a sizable patch in the middle of the film – in particular, a long scene spent inside Patricia's apartment – where Michel's status as a wanted man is entirely forgotten. The film's narrative drive comes to a grinding halt, and the two characters are left in limbo. When he's not trying to entice his American companion into bed, Michel raises seemingly arbitrary philosophical questions – such as, out of nowhere, "do you ever think about death?" – that apparently serve no purpose other than to justify Godard's film as an important "arthouse" picture. Much has been said about the pioneering use of jump-cuts, a creative trick to trim down the running-time without losing key scenes, but I found the technique unnecessarily jarring and unpalatable.

Currently my #6 film of 1960:
1) Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
3) Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)
4) Inherit the Wind (Stanley Kramer)
5) The Time Machine (George Pal)
6) À bout de souffle {Breathless} (Jean-Luc Godard)
7) Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla)
8) The Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman)


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Target #241: Partie de campagne / A Day in the Country (1936, Jean Renoir)

TSPDT placing: #147

Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: Jean Renoir (writer), Guy de Maupassant (short story)

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

Last week I watched Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) for the first time, and, while I quite enjoyed it, I felt rather distanced from the story, as though the film was so preoccupied with snappy characters and dialogue (as in a stage play) that it didn't bother with emotion or atmosphere, the evocation of time and place. Happily, this wasn't a problem with Partie de campagne / A Day in the Country (1936). Renoir's unfinished adaptation of a short story by Guy de Maupassant gains a wonderful personality through its on-location filming. Even though we ourselves never observe the oppressive, polluted Parisian streets, Claude Renoir's outdoor photography sweeps over us with the cool and cleansing touch of a fresh breeze, somehow translating into visuals the revitalising sensation of clean country air in one's lungs. Unfortunately, it was also this on-location shooting schedule that proved the film's demise, weather problems delaying and eventually leading to abandonment of production. The film was not released until 1946, faithfully edited together using the existing footage.
Renoir's film undoubtedly feels like an unfinished work, but what exists is nonetheless brilliant. Unlike many unfinished orstudio-butchered would-be masterpieces, that A Day in the Country was not completed to the director's satisfaction causes minimal detriment to the sequences that remain today. The narrative up until the "ending"is perfectly-structured and enjoyable to watch, all planned sequencesup until this point having presumably been filmed without incident. However, after Henri (Georges D'Arnoux) and Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) come together for the first time in a reluctant but passionate embrace, the story then jarringly cuts to a years-later epilogue, a wistful conclusion that reflects on events that seemingly never took place. "Every night I remember," confesses Henriette, as she meets her former one-time lover, having settled on marrying a scruffy imbecile (Paul Temps). But exactly what does she remember? There had been nothing in the film to suggest that she and Henri had fallen in love; this eventuality had always been implied, but never satisfactorily executed.
A strong cast – including André Gabriello, Jane Marken, Jacques B. Brunius and Renoir himself – bring lighthearted humour to their respective roles, but it is the budding romance (never quite realised) between D'Arnoux and Bataille that form's the story's heart. Following its eventual 1946 release, A Day in the Country was lauded as an "unfinished masterpiece," and I suppose that such a description is appropriate. Had filming been completed, such that the story followed through its intended and logical arc, I can only imagine what a powerful piece of cinema the film might have been. Have you ever had a wonderful dream from which you were woken prematurely? This is how I feel about A Day in the Country. Everything up until the hasty ending is funny, emotional, glorious, and invigorating, yet we're wrenched from the dream-like clasp of Renoir's hand unexpectedly and disappointingly. But I'm an optimist: we should simply be glad that this much of the film exists for us to enjoy. Reflecting on what might have been is a task that should ideally be left to movie characters.

Currently my #4 film of 1936:
1) Modern Times (Charles Chaplin)
2) After the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
3) Swing Time (George Stevens)
4) Partie de campagne {A Day in the Country} (Jean Renoir)
5) Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich)
6) Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock)
7) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra)
8) Secret Agent (Alfred Hitchcock)
9) Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander)
10) My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava)


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Target #240: A Night at the Opera (1935, Sam Wood)

TSPDT placing: #196

Directed by: Sam Wood, Edmund Goulding (uncredited)
Written by: James Kevin McGuinness (story), George S. Kaufman (screenplay), Morrie Ryskind (screenplay), Al Boasberg (uncredited), Buster Keaton (uncredited), Robert Pirosh (draft, uncredited), George Seaton (draft, uncredited)

The Marx Brothers were anarchists. They shunned order in favour of spontaneity and irreverence, and their early work – both onstage and in their films with Paramount – is characterised by this loosely-structured chaos. Story? The Marx Brothers didn't need a story: all that was required was a woman for Groucho to insult, a uptight bureaucrat to whom Chico could speak his own peculiar version of Italian, and an over-sized prop that Harpo might abuse in whatever manner he pleased. When the comedy team (minus Zeppo, who, tired of being the straight man, struck out for greener pastures) moved to MGM, producer Irving Thalberg decided that their style of comedy needed to be combined with the musical extravagance for which the studio had already required a reputation. The Marx Brothers were given creative freedom, glittering sets, elaborate musical numbers and, above all else, a story. Some fans of the comedy troupe view this as an inconvenience, the narrative merely getting in the way of all the jokes, but I think it works.

As a result of MGM's influence, A Night at the Opera (1935) bears a remarkable resemblance to an Astaire-Rogers style film (despite most of these being produced at RKO), the only difference being that the bright pair of young performers (here played by Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones) have the aid of three bumbling comedians to facilitate their happy ending. The tale revolves around young in-love opera singers Rosa and Ricardo, the latter of whom can't achieve the recognition he deserves, due to the overbearing influence of the stuffy virtuoso performer Rodolfo (Walter Woolf King). Groucho, proving that he does have something akin to a heart after all, agrees to help Ricardo achieve success in New York, though he takes a lot of coaxing from Chico and Harpo, who are really just along for the ride. Allan Jones fills in the void that would previously have been played by straight-man Zeppo, though Kitty Carlisle's dazzling opera singer is the highlight of the supporting cast. Also enjoyable is the ever-serious Margaret Dumont and Sig Ruman.

I've never really been the greatest fan of the Marx Brothers, but I nonetheless enjoy their witty style of humour – particularly anything that Groucho has to say – and, in this film, I appreciated the greater degree of class afforded by the opera setting. In keeping with MGM's standing as the industry leader in movie musicals, A Night at the Opera even includes several genuine opera performances, and it's the real singing voices of both Carlisle and Jones that you are hearing. Chico and Harpo, likewise, don't miss an opportunity to show off their own impressive musical talents, with the former dancing his fingers across the piano keys, and the latter doing likewise on both a piano and his signature harp. While Duck Soup (1933) may have the greater rate of jokes-per-minute, fans of the Marx Brothers can do much worse than to sit down and enjoy the first of the trio's two most commercial successful films {the other being A Day at the Races (1937)}. Going to the opera has never been this chaotic.

Currently my #5 film of 1935:
1) Top Hat (Mark Sandrich)
2) The Informer (John Ford)
3) The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) The Raven (Louis Friedländer)
5) A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood)


Saturday, November 29, 2008

Target #239: La règle du jeu / The Rules of the Game (1939, Jean Renoir)

TSPDT placing: #3

Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: Jean Renoir (scenario & dialogue), Carl Koch (writer)

The Rules of the Game (1939) arose from Jean Renoir's desire to create a "pleasant" film about a society that he believed had become rotten to the core. His brand of satire, from a screenplay he co-wrote with Carl Koch {husband of animator Lotte Reiniger}, is razor-sharp and unapologetically direct. For the French Bourgeoisie, morals and integrity have become a thing of the past. Married couples frequently hold mistresses and lovers, such that to not have one is considered abnormal. Society not only accepts these transgressions, but encourages them, and neither spouse can justly object, for they each have their own alternate pair of arms in which they may seek comfort. When the film was initially released in 1939, many audiences didn't appreciate Renoir's apparent disdain for their existence, and the critical response was bitter and disheartening. One outraged cinema-goer even attempted to burn down the theatre! Thus, it's not hard to understand why the director subsequently removed critical scenes to cater to his critics, and it wasn't until the 1950s that a near-complete print was reconstructed.
This was my fourth film from Jean Renoir, but only his second feature-length offering, so I'm still trying to familiarise myself with the director's style. The Rules of the Game is enjoyable, of course, but one does idly wonder why it's held at the pinnacle of the cinematic pantheon. For one, there doesn't seem to be anything truly "cinematic" about it. Others have mentioned the pioneering use of deep-focus, which I admittedly never noticed (somebody must be doing their job right, I suppose), but the whole film had a vibe of theatricality that kept me detached from the story. In other words, the characters were on the stage, and I was sitting back in the audience, enjoying their shenanigans but never feeling a part of them. Compare this to a comedy from, for example, Ernst Lubitsch, in which we can readily relate to the characters because we feel a part of their close-knit group. Perhaps Renoir's use of largely unsympathetic characters, who treat human relationships as some sort of perverted game, played a pivotal role in my inability to be feel involved in their story.

These disagreements aside, The Rules of the Game is all about the dialogue, which is both frequent (a catastrophe when you're trying to read subtitles) and frequently witty. The story, particularly the second half, kept me consistently entertained; I laughed my head off at Shumacher (Gaston Modot) chasing Marceau (Julien Carette) around the house with a revolver, and the rather nonchalant manner in which the house guests responded to the disruption. Renoir's own character, Octave, was my favourite, a chubby middle-aged man with plenty of friends but no lovers. It's not difficult to see where Robert Altman got some inspiration for Gosford Park (2001), particularly in how he compares and contrasts the extravagant upper-class and their servants (who aren't really all that different in their unscrupulous sexual urges). Renoir himself also used similar would-be philandering hijinks in the more light-hearted romantic comedy Elena and her Men (1956), with Ingrid Bergman. I look forward to enjoying some more of the director's work.

Currently my #6 film of 1939:
1) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (Frank Capra)
2) Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
3) The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor)
4) Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)
5) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle)
6) La règle du jeu {The Rules of the Game} (Jean Renoir)
7) Dark Victory (Edmund Goulding)
8) Another Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
9) Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford)


Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Target #238: Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948, Max Ophüls)

TSPDT placing: #74

Directed by: Max Ophüls
Written by: Stefan Zweig (story), Howard Koch (screenplay), Max Ophüls (uncredited)

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

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) signals a tragedy from its earliest moments. The film's carefully-constructed narrative structure, with the entire story unfolding through flashbacks narrated by a dying woman's final letter, prematurely reveals a romance doomed from the outset. Whatever meetings take place, whatever promises are made, whatever hope is afforded us, we are always fully exposed to the knowledge that misfortune is only just around the corner. As such, a blanket of melancholy has descended upon every scene in the film, and all emotions seem stifled and distant; not through any fault of the filmmakers, but rather through the audiences' individual empathy for the heroine's ill-fated affection, towards a charming womaniser who can't even recall her name. This was undoubtedly the tone for which director Max Ophüls was striving; if you're looking for an uplifting romance to conclude a bright and happy day, this isn't it. However, there's a certain sedateness that the film struggles to overcome, the hollow feeling of a story not going anywhere, a train having already arrived at its destination.

Not surprisingly, given the director's nationality, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) has the feel of a European film. It's a bit difficult to put my finger on exactly why this is, but the Viennese setting probably contributed. Additionally, American romances – both of that time, and today – usually seem so anxious to please, doling out hope with every new meeting, and typically ending with the heroine carried off into the sunset in her eternal lover's arms. It's for its acknowledgement of the hopelessness of love that Ophüls' film, and others such as Lean's British-made Brief Encounter (1945), are regarded above most romantic pictures; after all, is there any love more poignant and memorable than unrequited love? Joan Fontaine, a favourite actress of mine, is as delicate as a flower, a quality that Hitchcock notably exploited twice in both Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). Her love for the dashing French pianist Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) is so incredibly passive that you already know that she's going to lose him.

Throughout the film, Lisa Berndle watches her lover from afar; she listens to his music through the physical barrier of a door; she quickly comes to know him, but only later comes to meet him. Fontaine's character is simply too weak to succeed in love, and only in her dying moments does she realise that her strength of will was required to bridge the gap between herself and the womanising, forgetful Stefan, who probably loved Lisa but never realised it. Though Ophüls' narrative framing device suggests the intervention of fate – that faceless, indifferent force to which most failed cinematic romances are attributed – into the couple's doomed romance, the blame instead falls to the two lovers. Their personal failings not only denied them love, but ultimately granted them death. That we are alerted to these inevitable eventualities in advance (both through the framing device, and a coldly-brutal sequence that indifferently alerts us, but not Lisa, to a typhis outbreak) makes it all the more difficult to bear.

Currently my #7 film of 1948:
1) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston)
2) Ladri di biciclette {The Bicycle Thief} (Vittorio De Sicae)
3) Rope (Alfred Hitchcock)
4) Oliver Twist (David Lean)
5) Macbeth (Orson Welles)
6) Key Largo (John Huston)
7) Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophüls)
8) Secret Beyond the Door… (Fritz Lang)
9) Musik i mörker {Music in Darkness} (Ingmar Bergman)
10) Fort Apache (John Ford)


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Target #237: Odd Man Out (1947, Carol Reed)

TSPDT placing: #394
Directed by: Carol Reed
Written by: F.L. Green (novel & screenplay), R.C. Sherriff (screenplay)
Starring: James Mason, Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Kathleen Ryan, F.J. McCormick, William Hartnell, Fay Compton, W.G. Fay, Elwyn Brook-Jones, Maureen Delaney, Denis O'Dea

A few years ago, when I first watched The Third Man (1949) {needless to say, one of the top ten films ever made} I made the mistake, as I'm sure many amateur film buffs do, to assume that this was the only film of note produced by director Carol Reed; a one-of-a-kind fluke. From here, I subscribed to the all-too-common but completely erroneous idea that Orson Welles had directed parts of the film, which might explain why it turned out so damn good. That I hadn't ever heard Reed mentioned as a distinguished veteran of British cinema is disheartening and ludicrous, for, even after only three of his films, I see no reason why he should not be held aloft alongside the likes of Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger and David Lean. The Third Man had an Ealing-style whimsy that worked superbly well in the lopsided streets of post-War Vienna, but Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) is equally engrossing, a sombre and straight-faced exploration of political unrest in Northern Ireland. Though his film follows – and, to an extent, sympathises with – the activities of an IRA-like organisation, Reed largely avoids making any sort of political statement. The story opens with a brief title-card in which we are assured that "it is not concerned with the struggle between the law and an illegal organisation, but only with the conflict in the hearts of the people when they become unexpectedly involved." The involvement of a "terrorist" organisation in the story is not to show support for the IRA or similar causes, but to suggest how political differences have eroded society's morals to such an extent that perfectly decent people will not extend their hand to help a dying man. As Johnny McQueen (James Mason) stumbles through the bitter winter snowstorm, frozen and bleeding following a botched robbery attempt, he is passed from one person to another, each of whom either turns him back out into the cold, lest they become implicated in his crime, or they exploit him for their own selfish means.

What works so magnificently about Odd Man Out is how authentically Reed is able to establish mood. The story unfolds in a single day, the bulk of which is spent in the darkness of a cold winter's night, snowflakes falling delicately to the ground, lending the film an icy chill that, even though it's approaching summer down here, had me drawing the clothes tighter to my body. No small praise should go towards Australian-born cinematographer Robert Krasker, whose elegant photography captures both the cold despair of the winter snowstorm, and the persistent warmth in the eyes of McQueen's young love, Kathleen (Kathleen Sullivan). In American noir, you usually come face-to-face with grotesque characters who are frightening and ugly; in British films, and I'm not exactly sure why this is, there's a certain charm about the grotesque. F.J. McCormick plays a doddering bum who tries hopelessly to profit from his discovery of Mason's dying fugitive, and yet his character is oddly likable. Robert Newton, likewise, plays an eccentric, humorously-flamboyant artist whose one obsession is to paint the portrait of a doomed soul.

Currently my #1 film of 1947:

1) Odd Man Out (Carol Reed)
2) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
3) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
4) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)
5) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves)
6) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles)
7) They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel)
8) The Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
9) Bush Christmas (Ralph Smart)
10) Song of the Thin Man (Edward Buzzell)


Repeat Viewing: Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles)

TSPDT placing: #1

Directed by: Orson Welles

Orson Welles' debut feature Citizen Kane stands as one of the twentieth century's most revered films, and, indeed, the title of "The Greatest Film Of All Time" has often been bestowed upon it, from as early as Sight and Sound's 1962 rankings, when it indefinitely dethroned De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948). After two viewings, I can't say that I find it to be the greatest film of all time, but any work with such a label would find it extremely difficult to live up to impossible expectations. Having said that, however, Citizen Kane is nothing short of masterful. In 1939, in an unprecedented studio contract, RKO offered young prodigy Welles, fresh from his success on the stage and the radio, a two-picture contract with full artistic control (a promise that ultimately wasn't kept). Borrowing elements from the lives of tycoons Robert McCormick, Howard Hughes, and Joseph Pulitzer, but especially American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Welles and fellow screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz weaved together the tragic story of Charles Foster Kane, poignantly highlighting the inescapable shortfalls of American Dream.

Charlie Kane (Welles) rises from humble beginnings to become one of the most famous and powerful people in America. At a very young age, Kane's mother inherits a gold mine and becomes suddenly wealthy, sending away her son to live with Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), his mother's banker. Proving something of a disappointment for Mr. Thatcher, Kane shows little aspirations for success until the age of twenty-six, when he decides to head the 'Inquirer,' for the simple reason that he "thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper." Kane eventually becomes rich and powerful through publishing "yellow journalism," which, though frowned upon by most critics, proves immensely profitable. Decades later, after two unsuccessful marriages and a failed bid for public office, Kane sits alone in his massive, unfinished Xanadu mansion (the most massive, impersonal and even sinister abode ever to grace the silver screen), pining for the lost innocence of his childhood. This is the story of a tragic life, and the ultimate testament that money can't buy happiness.

The most remarkable thing about Citizen Kane is its narrative structure. The film opens with Kane's death. As the image fades into a large "NO TREPASSING" sign on the gate of Kane's vast and lonely dwelling, we progressively cut to images closer and closer to his house, witnessing the enormity of Kane's wealth, and yet all his riches seem to be in disrepair. A lone lit window stands eerily amidst the snow, before the light inexplicably goes out, the figure hunched within suddenly plunged into darkness. We see Charles Foster Kane's withered hand clasping at a snow-globe, and his lips utter the mystifying words, "Rosebud." With a sudden crash, the snow-globe slips from Kane's hand and shatters on the floor. A maidservant enters the room and covers the dead man's body with a blanket. Following his death, the producer of a newsreel about Kane asks a reporter, Jerry Thompson (William Alland), to uncover the significance behind Kane's final words, a well-meaning but rather naive attempt to encapsulate a man's entire life in a simple seven-letter name.

A criticism often levelled at Citizen Kane is that it feels less like a warm, involving biopic than a formal masterclass in film-making technique. It's true that Welles was exploring largely unmapped cinematic territory at the time, and there's a certain sense of experimentation about the film. Mankiewicz and Welles constructed the screenplay as a series of fragmented, non-chronological flashbacks, each sequence filling in the missing parts of Kane's life, sometimes even showing the same event from differing perspectives. Greg Toland's elaborate cinematography makes unprecedented use of deep focus, in which everything in the frame – foreground, background and anything in between – is constantly held in sharp focus; the end result is a film that feels far more dynamic and "animate" than anything preceding the French New Wave. All innovation aside, anybody who suggests that the life of Charles Foster Kane is somehow uninvolving really needs to revisit the film; Welles pours his heart and soul into portraying the arrogant, tormented and ultimately lonely millionaire, and it's uncanny how the director's own tragic career drew clear parallels with that of his most memorable character.

Currently my #1 film of 1941:
1) Citizen Kane (Orson Welles)
2) The Maltese Falcon (John Huston)
3) The Wolf Man (George Waggner)
4) Shadow of the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
5) High Sierra (Raoul Walsh)


Friday, October 24, 2008

Repeat Viewing: The African Queen (1951, John Huston)

TSPDT placing: #305
Directed by: John Huston
Written by: C.S. Forester (novel), James Agee, John Huston (adaptation), Peter Viertel, John Collier (uncredited)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull

I can't imagine anybody not enjoying a thrilling romantic adventure like The African Queen (1951). Though it may not pack the emotional punch of The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) or Moby Dick (1956), this is nonetheless John Huston at his most entertaining, thanks largely to the impeccable chemistry between two of Hollywood's all-time most charismatic stars. In 1914, as the outbreak of WWI disturbs even the remote depths of wild Africa, Humphrey Bogart – grizzled, gruff and coarse – must form a tentative alliance with prim and proper British spinster Katharine Hepburn, if they are to triumph over the evil forces of Germany. With only the vague objective of somehow sinking the feared German warship, the Louisa, the two near-strangers strike out downriver in Bogart's small but resilient steam-powered supply boat, the African Queen. A continual bombardment of jungle obstacles, both natural and human, frequently threaten their survival, but the more prevailing question is whether or not the two polar-opposites will be able to survive each other!

John Huston's rousing adventure was largely filmed on location in Africa, though many of the white-water sequences were obviously shot before a rear-projection screen in London; fortunately, these optical effects are far less distracting on a cinema screen. It can often be problematic to build almost an entire film around just two characters, but Bogart and Hepburn are clearly up to the challenge, sharing a chemistry that is infectiously entertaining. Whether they're engaged in awkwardly-formal conversation, at each other's throats, or falling in love, every line of dialogue (from a screenplay by John Huston and James Agee) is an absolute delight, all the more so because we know that Charlie and Rose will eventually end up in each other's arms. At either end of the adventure, Robert Morley lends some pathos to the tale as Rose's humble missionary brother, who dies following a German raid; and Peter Bull, though perhaps too cartoonish to entirely fit the film's overall tone, adds some lighthearted humour as a temperamental enemy captain.

Just what is it about The African Queen that has made it such an enormous viewer favourite? I think that much of this has to do with Huston's predominantly lighthearted approach to the material – if you're not gripping your seat in excitement, then you're laughing at the interactions between the two leads. However, there's also a less-pronounced political commentary at play. Reverend Sayer's death might been viewed as symbolising the inevitable death of British Colonialism. That Bogart's roguish, hard-drinking North American (he's actually a Canadian) effectively conquers the prudishness of Hepburn's formal British spinster may likewise be taken to foreshadow the United States' rise as the world's most influential superpower. All politics aside, I find it amusing that just last week I attended a cinema screening of Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), in which an intrepid team of soldiers venture into the darkness upriver. Just consider The African Queen as that film's polar opposite – for this time we're going downriver, and we're gonna have a rollicking good time.


Currently my #2 film of 1951:
1) Strangers On A Train (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) The African Queen (John Huston)
3) The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick)
4) The Day The Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise)
5) The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton)
6) The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, Howard Hawks)
7) An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli)


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Target #236: Russkiy kovcheg / Russian Ark (2002, Aleksandr Sokurov)

TSPDT placing: #920
Directed by: Aleksandr Sokurov
Written by: Anatoli Nikiforov (written by), Aleksandr Sokurov (writer), Svetlana Proskurina, Boris Khaimsky (dialogue)
Starring: Sergei Dontsov, Aleksandr Sokurov, Mariya Kuznetsova, Leonid Mozgovoy, Mikhail Piotrovsky, David Giorgobiani, Aleksandr Chaban, Natalya Nikulenko, Oleg Khmelnitsky, Alla Osipenko, Artyom Strelnikov, Tamara Kurenkova

In many ways, Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002) sits beyond the bounds of conventional film criticism. It unfolds as if in a lovely dream – vivid, dazzling and unforgettable, and yet simply indescribable. The film is quite literally a casual wander through centuries of Russian history, each elaborate room and hall of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg representing a different period of the nation's extremely rich history. Sokurov is not at all interested in telling a straightforward tale of Russia's past – there is no substantial plot to speak of – but rather he seeks to explore it, and every room, every graceful camera movement, every astounding set-piece of costumes and music, captures a tantalising snippet of a historical period long lost in the sands of time. An almost inconceivable feat of preparation and execution, the film was famously shot in a single, uninterrupted take, a technique that progresses far beyond being a mere commercial gimmick and envelopes the audience within Sokurov's mighty cinematic canvas. In other words, you're there.

An unseen twentieth-first century narrator, whom we assume to be Sokurov himself, awakens at the snow-swept entrance of the Hermitage Museum, having presumably died unexpectedly. For the next 90 minutes, his eyes become our eyes; we can only watch, awestruck, as he wanders through this living, breathing capsule of Russian history, every different room yielding a fantastic new time period that we may explore. It is in this way that Sokurov's one-take technique becomes absolutely indispensable. I love Roger Ebert's (31/1/2003) concluding observation: "If cinema is sometimes dreamlike, then every edit is an awakening. Russian Ark spins a daydream made of centuries." The steady, uninterrupted flow of images keeps the journey vivid and authentic, sustaining an illusion that feels so genuine as to be almost inhabitable. By the end of the film, it is no longer Sokurov who is exploring the Hermitage, but it is us, and the richness with which each time period has been recreated is simply astonishing to behold.

I found interest in some critics' description of Sokurov as an "anti-Eisenstein," demonstrating that our emotional register is not solely triggered by the artificial suggestiveness of purposeful film editing. Montage may very well tell us what we're supposed to think and feel, but the single take of Russian Ark succeeds more momentously in immersing us in the moment, and so allowing our own individual emotions to form. The use of the dynamic long-take has been used, to varying extents, and for this reason, since around the time of Eisenstein – I particularly remember a sweeping outdoors shot in Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). Hitchcock famously used long-takes in the brilliant Rope (1948), and less-famously in the not-quite-so-brilliant Under Capricorn (1949). Even in Russian cinema, Mikhail Kalatozov made incredible use of the technique in The Cranes are Flying (1957). However, technical considerations aside, does Sokurov's film have much to offer us aside from a vague lesson in Russian history? I say that this question is an irrelevant one; all that matters are the emotions instilled within us.

Currently my #7 film of 2002:
1) Minority Report (Steven Spielberg)
2) The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson)
3) Adaptation. (Spike Jonze)
4) Road To Perdition (Sam Mendes)
5) Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg)
6) The Pianist (Roman Polanski)
7) Russkiy kovcheg {Russian Ark} (Aleksandr Sokurov)
8) Red Dragon (Brett Ratner)
9) Mou gaan dou {Infernal Affairs} (Wai-keung Lau, Siu Fai Mak)
10) Cidade de Deus {City Of God} (Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund)

What others have said:

"Though casual viewers with no special interest in either film history or Russian history may be bored to tears, for serious film students Russian Ark is a must-see. Sokurov’s achievement is notable not only for being the first film shot in one take, but for offering a striking antithesis to the Soviet montage cinema of early Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s edit-driven approach was forward-looking and characterized by decisive, revolutionary action, reflecting Marxist optimism about the future. By contrast, Sokurov’s film is awash in nostalgia and dreamlike passiveness, reflecting the lack of a clear way forward for contemporary Russia."
Steven D. Greydanus

"Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark is one of those movies more easily admired than genuinely enjoyed, let alone loved... It is from that technical choice that the most compelling drama emerges; wondering if Sokurov and cameraman Tilman Buttner will screw up or not is far more interesting than the fairly inert parade of historical figures such as Catherine the Great and recreations of historical events such as the Royal Ball of 1913. The opulent pageantry and the works of art on display make for undeniable eye candy, but what is shown is ultimately less captivating than the manner in which it is shown."
Michael Dequina

"Russian Ark is less like watching paint dry than like watching it sit on the wall and stay wet. A lot of expertise has gone into making a movie that is the same thing for an hour and a half -- the same boring, posing, meandering journey of weirdness, impossible to follow or stand. It doesn't change. It doesn't develop. It makes little effort to arouse the audience or communicate its content. There are those who call it an amazing technical achievement, and they are correct. But the movie is also extraordinarily boring. Go see it if you want an insight into how it must feel to be a teacher with nothing to do except pace up and down an exam room, waiting for the mean old clock to move its hands."
Ian Waldron-Mantgani


Friday, October 17, 2008

Target #235: All About Eve (1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

TSPDT placing: #83
Directed by: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Written by: Mary Orr (short story), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (written by)
Starring: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Marilyn Monroe, Thelma Ritter

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

I don't know what it was about 1950. Perhaps filmmakers had sufficiently recovered from the destruction of WWII to finally take stock of themselves, but it is in this year that Hollywood suddenly became self-aware; and it apparently didn't like what it saw. Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950) is cinema's most scathing satire of Hollywood's demented and destitute moral values. Likewise, Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place (1950) demonstrates how the studio system snuffs out genuine talent through its intent upon "selling popcorn." But it was All About Eve (1950) that truly took America by storm that year, uniting an ensemble of the industry's most charismatic stars and giving each of them acerbic mean streak that is both wonderfully compelling and entertaining. Though the film, scripted and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz {who is also responsible for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) and Sleuth (1972)}, specifically concerns itself with the theatre, the parallels to Hollywood are unmistakable, and such is the screenplay's apparent distaste towards the film industry that I'm almost surprised of its success.On the brightly-lit stages of Broadway, respected but aging theatre star Margo Channing (Bette Davis) clings extravagantly to roles for which she is far too old; as though Mankiewicz and Billy Wilder were exchanging ideas, you can almost see her turning into Norma Desmond a few years down the track. One night, Margot is introduced to ostensibly her biggest fan, a meek and sincere young woman named Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) – now, remember that name! Had I known beforehand that Eve is considered one of American cinema's finest villains, the first half of the film would have severely confused me – what detestable qualities could possibly be exhibited by this shy, modest and frankly adorable admirer of theatre? I decided that the mutual looks of contempt with which Margo and Karen (Celeste Holm) greet Eve's theatre award (a less-prestigious version of the Oscars) were merely the result of unfounded jealousy, and their resentment that such a modest girl could have received the high honour. When the penny finally dropped, oh, how I felt like a fool!

Bette Davis, late in her career, was one of the few actresses with enough sheer charisma to persevere in Hollywood despite her relative lack of glamour or traditional beauty. In All About Eve, her aging features look tired and almost grotesque – I say this not derisively, but as an observation for how well Davis suits her character. Margo Channing could never have been played by an actress still completely at ease with her looks. In comparison, Anne Baxter illuminates every room, particularly after her selfish intentions are revealed to the audience. The moment of revelation, when she stands, still in costume, positively pulsating with ambition, desire and lust, is a shocking betrayal that really took me aback. The film uniquely emphasises female dominance, with the inconsequential, malleable husbands (Hugh Marlowe and Gary Merrill) frequently relegated to the sidelines. However, George Sanders, as the sharp-tongued columnist Addison DeWitt, holds such contemptuous views towards society that he recognises Eve's game from the very beginning, watches it with amused, admiring eyes, before promptly reasserting his male superiority over her in the final scenes.

Currently my #4 film of 1950:
1) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)
2) Harvey (Henry Koster)
3) In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray)
4) All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
5) The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston)
6) Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock)
7) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)

What others have said:

"Much of the fun of the film depends on a casting twist--making Baxter the bitch and Davis the doe-eyed victim. The dialogue is sharp and justly famous, though writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz has trouble putting it into the mouths of his actors: nothing sounds remotely natural, and the film is pervaded by the out-of-sync sense of staircase wit--this is a movie about what people wished they'd said. The hoped-for tone of Restoration comedy never quite materializes, perhaps because Mankiewicz's cynicism is only skin-deep, but the film's tinny brilliance still pleases."
Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader

"Set in the Broadway jungle rather than among the ‘sun-burnt eager beavers’ of Hollywood, Joseph L Mankiewicz’s film dissects the narcissism and hypocrisy of the spotlight as sharply as Wilder’s, but pays equal attention to the challenges of enacting womanhood. All About My Mother (not to mention Showgirls) would be unimaginable without it. Anne Baxter is Eve Harrington, the wide-eyed stage-door hanger-on who insinuates her way into the world of Bette Davis’ sacred monster, Margo Channing; butter-might-just-melt meets gin-hold-the-tonic."
Dave Walters, Time Out London

"For years, Broadway had maintained the reputation of being a nobler art than cinema, but All About Eve ruined Broadway's fame. As the Hays office loosened up, Hollywood began "stealing" Broadway's adult subject matter, leaving it without its unique trademark. All About Eve radically redefined the orthodox view of a sacrosanct theater... Aside from attacking Broadway, the film defended Hollywood against the encroachment of television. In one of the great one-liners, Sanders tells Monroe: "That's all television is, my dear. Nothing but auditions." All About Eve while ostensibly about Broadway, was in actuality an elaborate editorial praising the Hollywood system."
Emanuel Levy


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Repeat Viewing: Apocalypse Now (1979, Francis Ford Coppola)

TSPDT placing: #44
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
Written by: Joseph Conrad (novel), Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay), John Milius (screenplay), Michael Herr (narration)
Starring: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Laurence Fishburne, Albert Hall, Harrison Ford, Dennis Hopper, Scott Glenn

Unlike the bulk of war films, Apocalypse Now (1979) is not really about war, or, at least, it is only superficially so. The more significant conclusion to be drawn from Francis Ford Coppola's ambitious masterpiece is how the horror of war reveals the ultimate truths of our existence; how it exposes and illuminates the darkened shadows of the human psyche. The story was adapted, very loosely, from Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness (1899)" – a novel not without its interest, but one that I found rather tiresome reading. Coppola transplants the story from the Congo jungle to the murky depths of the Vietnam War, which in 1979 still left a bitter taste in the mouths of American audiences. The allegory of a man, on the brink of madness, choosing again and again to pursue his own evil upriver is equally relevant in any setting – Nicholas Roeg's Heart of Darkness (1994) was, from what I gather, a more traditional retelling of Conrad's tale, while Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) uncovered the darker side of Man in the desolate heart of 16th century Peru.

"We had access to too much money… too much equipment. And, little by little, we went insane." Fresh from the phenomenal success of The Godfather (1972), its sequel and The Conversation (1974), Francis Ford Coppola was among the most respected filmmakers of his era. For his long-awaited next project, he decided upon Apocalypse Now, then oblivious to the extent to which the film would crush his spirit. As grippingly documented in the unmissable making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse (1991), the film's production parallels that of the story it depicts – an intrepid director embarks on an impossible mission, its conclusion unknown, choosing against his better judgement to continue filming at any cost, risking insanity and financial ruin. A modest on-location shooting period soon ballooned into nearly 16 months; typhoons destroyed expensive sets; leading man Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack and battled alcoholism; the Philippine military frequently whisked away their helicopters to be used in active combat against rebel insurgents. It was Hell broken loose – for Coppola, the apocalypse had arrived.

The film's screenplay, by Coppola and John Milius (with Willard's voiceover penned by Michael Herr), still retains many of the themes of Conrad's original novel, with Kurtz's distaste for British Colonialism replaced with his disgust at the needless hypocrisy of the United States' interventionism. Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen) certainly isn't a typical war hero; even at the film's beginning, he sits at the verge of breakdown. As he lounges in a sweaty Saigon motel room, Willard contemplates the seductive stench of a napalm strike, equates the beating of the ceiling fan with the muffled whirr of a military chopper; he craves the horrors of the jungle combat, and he's not alone. Many lesser war films are content to settle on the age-old cliché that "war is hell," before hypocritically celebrating the overblown heroism of its brave soldiers. Coppola here does no such thing. In Vietnam, soldiers are mere pawns in this absurd, sadistic mockery of life and common sense; and war creates no heroes, but turns us all into monsters.

Note the progressive dwindling of humanity as Willard works his way upriver. At the river's mouth, the laid-back Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) casually goes about his duties, launching an explosive aerial assault on a Vietnamese village (to the bombastic notes of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries") purely because of the beach's ideal surfing conditions. This nonchalant fool retains enough compassion to bring water to a dying enemy soldier, but discards the canteen as soon as he notices the arrival of a famous American surfer. We progress upstream: a love-sick mob of recruits overrun a USO show, a boatload of Vietnamese civilians are gunned down in a moment of panic, a final American outpost – constantly under siege by the Viet Cong – operates without any form of command. By the time they reach Colonel Kurtz's (Marlon Brando) outpost in Cambodia, where natives have idolised him as a demi-god, Captain Willard and his remaining crew have shed every last sliver of humour, purpose and humanity. They progress, as in a drug-induced haze, towards the now-inescapable mouth of madness.

Watching Apocalypse Now – particularly in the cinema, as I recently did – was an extraordinarily invigorating experience, and I left the theatre with a cold chill down my spine. As a work of film-making, it is, to quote Colonel Kurtz, "perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure." Vittorio Storaro's on-location cinematography is completely breathtaking in its scope and immediacy, shifting gradually from the open-air theatrics of Kilgore's morning aerial assault to the closed, claustrophobic shadows of Kurtz's compound. At the long-awaited premiere, Coppola described his film, perhaps a tad pretentiously, as "not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam; it's what it was really like." I'm inclined to agree. With respect to Steven Spielberg's accomplishments in Saving Private Ryan (1998), I'd imagine that the human experience of war is not one of terrifying realism and clarity, but of a dream, the sensation of stumbling through a surreal carnival house of horrors. In the final moments, as that shadow of a helicopter flitters across the screen, we know that, wherever he goes from here, Willard will never truly leave the jungle.

Currently my #1 film of 1979:
1) Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola)
2) Skazka skazok {Tale of Tales} (Yuriy Norshteyn)
3) Alien (Ridley Scott)
4) Being There (Hal Ashby)
5) Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
6) Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton)
7) The China Syndrome (James Bridges)
8) Manhattan (Woody Allen)
9) Mad Max (George Miller)
10) Rocky II (Sylvester Stallone)

What others have said:

"What's great in the film, and what will make it live for many years and speak to many audiences, is what Coppola achieves on the levels Truffaut was discussing: the moments of agony and joy in making cinema. Some of those moments come at the same time; remember again the helicopter assault and its unsettling juxtaposition of horror and exhilaration. Remember the weird beauty of the massed helicopters lifting over the trees in the long shot, and the insane power of Wagner's music, played loudly during the attack, and you feel what Coppola was getting at: Those moments as common in life as art, when the whole huge grand mystery of the world, so terrible, so beautiful, seems to hang in the balance."

"Some recent commentators have attacked Herr's narration for its literary posturing, but his rhetoric isn't any more overheated than the superb cinematography by Vittorio Storaro or Murch's druggy audio effects. Those effects, like the ones in Coppola's earlier film, The Conversation (1974), probably qualify Murch as a coauteur; what he does in the opening sequence -- getting us from helicopter blades to the blades in a ceiling fan -- is as ravishing as any of the lap dissolves. Literary or not, Herr's hyperbolic prose... may be the best writing we have about American combat in Vietnam."

"Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam-era update of Joseph Conrad’s seminal novel Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now is an hallucinogenic trip into the jungles of the Far East. It is also occasionally flaccid, incomprehensible and obtuse. Yet, it manages to overcome these flaws to stand as a fascinating study of the nature of evil in man. Unfortunately, the journey is more interesting than the destination. Even a drug addled, frenzied Dennis Hopper cannot lift the scenes at Kurtz’ camp to the level of the rest of the film. Brando seems sedated, rather than morally bankrupt and weary. Why would anyone worship him as a god?"