No. 237 | February 26, 2012
The end of the year came before the end of my moviegoing for 2011, and my recap from the holiday season was admitedly an incomplete look back at last year’s films. I blame Hollywood. Most weekends are a drought for quality, then at the end of the year the heavens open. I suspect we could more easily change the weather than the movie studios’ release schedule, which does create a challenge for anyone who wants to see all the movies that are worth seeing.
By now I’ve seen most, though not all, of what I’ve wanted to see. (Melancholia, Carnage, some foreign films, e.g., remain on my “must see, but not yet seen” list.) So, with the red carpet already laid out for the Oscars, it seems like a good time for a 2011 recap redux.
In the post below I’ll offer my quick take on some notable films that I hadn’t mentioned last time, including a few notable for the wrong reasons. Then I’ll wrap up with my choices for top films for the year. (As I type this I still haven’t made my list, so I’m as eager as anyone to find out what they are.)
A love story in love with movies, and with the way movies were once in love with love. I found the film fascinating (and the reaction fascinating to read as well). The Artist aims to recapture something that’s been lost, something more than just the stripped-down conventions of an early movie era. It wants a way of looking at our world and ourselves free of the ironic and cynical view that’s become commonplace in recent times. Not all was well in the old days, and The Artist has its scenes of tragedy as well. Those moments may seem easier for us to grasp; the scenes of wide-eyed innocence feel less familiar. They feel nostalgic, in fact, and if there is any use to nostalgia, it’s to say there’s something not quite right with the way things are today. The once-fresh world of movies has grown old and stale, and we need a new way forward. That’s a critique I find persuasive: you’ll have to look hard to find anything new on this list of top grossers for the past year. The Artist has something in common with the films on that list; it too borrows from the past. But it is not an old film. It’s wildly entertaining and the freshest film of the year.
A film about sadness, but hardly sad at all, Beginners is sweet and warm, yet far too sweet and warm for its own good. The performances are fine, and give credit to Ewan MacGregor and Christopher Plummer, especially. The cast makes the film worth watching, but the story seems oddly muted. Conflict is avoided at all turns, characters are explored only so far, and this tale of how life can be messy and full of surprise seems a bit too neat in the end.
A Better Life
An immigrant gardener and his son, and the struggles of working-class life in Los Angeles. The Oscar nomination for Demián Bichir is well-deserved, and all the better if it draws a bigger audience for the film, now on DVD. The bond between father and son is heartfelt and moving.
Frailty, thy filmmaker is Alexandar Payne, the director who has given us Ruth Stoops (Citizen Ruth), Tracy Flick (Election), Warren Schmidlt (About Schmidt), and Miles Raymond (Sideways). No one is as flawed and as compromised in The Descendants, except perhaps the mother, who is left in a coma after a fleeting few moments waterskiing off the Hawaii coast in the movie’s opening scene. This film belongs to George Clooney, playing the husband she can cheat on no longer. He is a true hero by Paynean standards, an accomplished lawyer, a respected patriarch, though a hapless father to his two daughters. Payne does excellent work blending tragedy with humor, and Clooney and the cast are terrific.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The film has its flaws. There’s the problematical appropriation of 9/11 for its ready-made tale of anguish, reducing a still-fresh national tragedy to a simple plot device, to the occasionally annoying, frequently not credible, central character, Oskar, the boy who loses his father in the World Trade Center crash. The father left behind a key and Oskar searches the city of New York for the lock it belongs to. So far, not so good. But Oskar’s encounters provide a number of memorable scenes. Viola Davis, Jeffrey Wright, and Sandra Bullock all do good work, and Max von Sydow as the mysterious “renter” shines in a role without a word of dialogue. A bit gimmicky, but that is par for the movie overall.
The performances are wonderful. Michael Fassbender offers a brave and powerful portrayal of a man addicted to sex. Carey Mulligan shows why she is one of the leading lights of her generation. The bitter truth that the movie pretends to deliver, however, is all bitter and no truth. I found the story not just unappealing but hard to believe. Director Steve McQueen may be more interested in the buttons he’s pushing in his audience than the lives of his characters onscreen.
This film from Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi ranks high on the list of critics’ favorites. I’d have liked it more if it were a little less the Bickering Bickersons of Tehran. It’s a drama about a family being torn apart: a married couple on the brink of divorce, a grandfather with Alzheimer’s, a daughter caught in the crossfire. The father hires a housekeeper, but when her pregnancy ends in miscarriage, he ends up in court accused of murder. Fair to say, Persian justice does not operate the same as our own. A Separation is a good film, well worth seeing, though I have to say, not as great as advertised.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Did I enjoy it? Thoroughly. Will I see it again? Absolutely. Did I follow it? Well, yes and no. There’s a complicated plot that I wouldn’t dare to describe. It almost comes as an afterthought, anyway. Atmosphere, character, and games of trust and deceit are at the center of this Cold War spy story, adapted from the novel of John le Carré, with a cast of mostly Brits headed by Gary Oldman. First rate all around.
A misfire of epic proportions. A war is fought, millions die, but all is well: the horse survives. Steven Spielberg, please phone home. (We won’t even bring up what you did to Tintin.)
Another Oscar nomination (Nick Nolte as the alcoholic father) already on DVD. Warrior is a father-son drama set in the world of martial arts fighting. Above average for its kind, though nothing especially groundbreaking.
1. The Artist
2. The Tree of Life
3. Midnight in Paris
5. J. Edgar
7. A Dangerous Method
8. The Descendants
9. Margin Call
A few notes: (1) On any other day, you’d get a different list. I could see any of the top four or five being #1, for example. (2) I’ve left off foreign-language films, documentaries, and some others. It’s silly enough to rank films of different genres telling different stories, but I did want to draw the line somewhere. These are feature-length, live-action, fiction films in English. That’s it. (3) The conventional wisdom is that 2011 was a below-average year for movies. I think it’s too early to tell. What we are fond of now and fond of later are often different movies, and ultimately what makes a good year is a few good films that linger in our memory, not the ones we forget. I’d guess most of the films on the list will stand up, and others will emerge. But I don’t really know. Only time will tell. (Now, I’m wondering how I could have left off Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The second guessing has already begun.)
The Artist (2011)
Michel Hazanavicius, writer-director
Guillaume Schiffman, cinematographer
Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, Uggie
Quote of note
—George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), The Artist (2011)
No. 161 | September 17, 2010
Our theme this week
Notable films of 1957
I was ten when I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I left the theater that afternoon with a new idea about what movies were all about. I followed Stanley Kubrick’s career from then on. Eventually, I caught up with his earlier films, but somehow I made it into my thirties before ever getting to Paths of Glory. I shouldn’t have waited. It’s one of his best.
Paths of Glory is a devastating portrayal of the French army during World War I. For two years, the French and Germans have been engaged in a standoff, neither side advancing, neither retreating, locked down in the trenches. The losses are measured in the hundreds of thousands. Orders come down from above for the French soldiers to take the Anthill, a position held by the Germans. It’s a suicidal mission, and when it’s not successful, General Mireau (George Macready) lays blame with the soldiers for their failure to muster sufficient effort. Three men are court-martialed for cowardice. Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) attempts to present a defense, but as the saying goes, military justice is an oxymoron. The men are convicted and sentenced to die.
Kubrick made an antiwar film, but his target was more than just the military. Paths of Glory is a parable for the battle between class divisions in society. The general’s headquarters is a palatial estate, where at night grand balls are held. It’s safely away from the fighting, where soldiers duck in the trenches as bombs blast a few yards away. The officers fret over their petty careers, the men pay with their lives. The enemy is said to be the Germans, but they’re never once seen on the screen. As Orwell said in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “The war is waged by each ruling group against its own subjects, and the object of the war is not to make or prevent conquests of territory, but to keep the structure of society intact.” In Paths of Glory, General Mireau orders strikes against his own troops. As General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), Mireau’s superior, explains later to Dax, “One way to maintain discipline is to shoot a man now and then.” That’s bluntly put, but the point is made.
It’s been said that all war films—even antiwar films—tend to glorify combat. I never get that sense here. The action is well-staged—it’s extraordinary, really—but there’s no appeal to it. Kubrick makes his point and leaves no doubt. War is hell, combat is frightening, life is not fair, and death is painful.
Paths of Glory is one of the great films of 1957, or any other year. The writing is superb, with Kubrick and others adapting a 1930s novel by Humphrey Cobb. The editing and sequencing of the the action is very effective, and there are many memorable scenes. I’m especially fond of several, including one with the two generals discussing plans for the operation; they speak in coded language, careful not to be too coarse about putting their careers over the lives of their men. The acting is first-rate too, with Douglas, who carries much of the movie, at his best. As Dax, the one officer with any decency, he finally lets his rage fly without concern for the consequences, and it’s a cathartic moment; he can’t change the gross injustice that’s occurred, but it gives the audience some relief to know that he, at least, is clear with the truth and will not be corrupted.
No. 158 | September 14, 2010
Our theme this week
Notable films of 1957
Pierre Boulle published the novel on which the movie was based in 1952, and when Academy Awards were handed out in 1958, Boulle won for best adapted screenplay, one of seven awarded to the film, including Best Picture. What’s notable about Boulle’s Oscar is that he was a Frenchman who spoke French, not English. The screenplay was in fact written by two Americans, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson, who were part of the Hollywood blacklist and not eligible to get screen credit during the time. In 1984, the Academy corrected the record, awarding Oscars properly, but posthumously, to Foreman and Wilson.
The film was a huge success, both at the box office and with critics. Director David Lean earned the first of two Academy Awards he won in his long and distinguished career. Lean had a special talent for making epic films that reeked of respectability, and were very good too. That’s not as easy as it sounds. (His earlier, shorter films were very good too, but his epics seem to have been a greater influence on later generations of directors, who could more easily emulate the length of his pictures than their quality.) I wasn’t around when The Bridge on the River Kwai came out, but as I remember hearing about it while growing up, it was about as esteemed as any film ever made, especially for the World War II generation. I saw it again not too long ago, and though it’s no doubt set in a time and place far different from our world today, the film stands up.
The largely fictionalized story centers around British soldiers at a prison camp in Southeast Asia. The Japanese commandant, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), orders them to work on construction of a bridge to help the Japanese war effort. The British leader, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), objects to Saito’s treatment of his officers, citing the Geneva Conventions. Two parallel storylines follow. One is the interplay of Saito and Nicholson, and the effort to get the bridge built. The other involves an American, Shears (William Holden), who escapes from the camp but then is enlisted by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) for a mission to blow up the bridge.
The film packs a lot into its 161-minute running time. We see Nicholson’s principled and admirable resistance, and also the madness of his obsession to build the bridge. We see Saito’s cool determination, and his private humiliation as he fights desperately with thoughts of suicide. We see Shears’s lack of concern about anyone but himself, and finally his selfless heroism. The characters are easy to peg as British, Japanese, and American, but they’re not painted with too broad a brush. Their treatment is very much as complicated individuals struggling to make the best of difficult circumstances.
The American star, Holden, got top billing, though the film was a British production. Yet in 1997 the movie was selected for the U.S. National Film Registry.
Anyone who sees the The Bridge on the River Kwai will never forget the tune whistled by the British soldiers, “The Colonel Bogey March.” It became a hit for Mitch Miller, but it was composed by a British bandmaster, F.J. Ricketts, during World War I and adapted various times in later years. One parody sung during WWII had the title “Hilter Has Only Got One Ball.” The tune, and film, had special resonance for British audiences who may have remembered that version.
No. 155 | September 9, 2010
Our theme this week
Actors who have directed one film only
“Nobody Ever Wins.” Those words, rather than “The End,” appear just before the end credits. It’s a war film with a message we never seem to learn.
It’s an anti-war film, and not one you’d expect to find from the middle of the 1960s. Hardly the work of a young radical looking to make a point about the country’s involvement in Vietnam (Kent State, in fact, was still a few years off), None But the Brave is a story about World War II, directed by a guy from the generation who fought it.
The action takes place on a small island in the Solomons. A platoon of Japanese soldiers is stranded with no contact to the outside world. Then a plane carrying American soldiers crashes nearby. As the two sides learn of each other’s existence, they first have a skirmish, destroying a boat that may have saved them, then begin to cooperate, calling a truce. The armistice offers an environment for survival. It lasts only until the Americans establish radio communications with the Navy. With help on the way, the Americans extend the Japanese the chance to surrender—an offer that’s refused. Hostilities arise and after a final gun battle the point of the movie—the pointlessness of war—is vividly clear.
Frank Sinatra’s company made the film for Warner Bros, a co-production with Tokyo-based Toho Studios. It was Sinatra’s only time in the director’s chair (though he had a hands-on role in making several other films without taking director’s credit). Sinatra starred as well, as a pharmacist with the American platoon. It’s hardly the most inspired of his performances—he could be quite good at times, though not here. Among the other actors, the one that got the most attention was Sinatra’s son-in-law, singer Tommy Sands, who was panned for his over-the-top performance. (Sands was married briefly to Nancy Sinatra and after the divorce, Frank was famously reported to have ruined his career.)
The production was not especially notable, effective at times, cheesy in parts. What makes the film worth watching is the story, a timeless tale with some crisp writing. None But the Brave might in fact be a good candidate for a remake. Hollywood is obsessed with telling the same stories over and over. Here’s one worth seeing again, where a new, updated production could actually offer an improvement.
Entr’acte | August 30, 2010
One more week of musical selections before we return to regular features. This time around, a variety of songs that make for some memorable movie moments.