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?"