Saturday, October 1, 2016

BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919), WAY DOWN EAST (1920), ORPHANS OF THE STROM (1921)

Historically speaking, the D. W. Griffith must-see film canon begins with the epic, but controversial Birth of a Nation and the epic, but rambling, Intolerance...but it certainly doesn't end there. The 1001 movie list has three other Griffith films and...I've put off seeing them long enough.

Broken Blossoms
Broken Blossoms is a basically a morality tale about a peace loving Chinaman who opens a shop in London and befriends a young woman who suffers from the brutality of her abusive father. The movie relies quite heavily on title cards, which gets to be a little distracting after awhile. The film is more interesting historically than anything else and let it be pointed out to Griffith detractors that the good guy in this film is the person of color and the bad guy is the white guy...though the original short story title (The Chink and the Child) couldn't even pass the political correctness test of 1919.

Way Down East
Way Down East is honestly my favorite of all the Griffith films from the 1001 list. The story is about a poor young woman named Anna who gets tricked by a smooth-talking, affluent scalawag. The young woman ends up having a baby (who conveniently dies) and later begins working at the house of a family whose son falls for her, though Anna feels her secret past is too much for her to overcome. There are a bevy of local characters who provide comic relief and further complicate the plot. The movie does have a lot of melodrama, but I found the story interesting and involving even at two and a half hours.

Orphans of the Storm
Griffith had directed several historical pieces up until the release of Orphans of the Storm in 1921. Orphans is set during the time of the French Revolution and the plot involves the separation of two sisters (one blind), amidst the turmoil and upheaval of the time.  Griffith is know for being a technical innovator, but he also knew how to put a story together (he's also the screenwriter of Orphans ) and the idea of using fictional protagonists coinciding with real historical events has been a movie staple ever since.

The Players...

Lillian Gish is the female lead in each of these films, as well as Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. In later years, she received and Academy Award nomination for Night of the Hunter. Her last film, The Whales of August was released in 1987, seventy-five years after her movie debut in 1912.

Richard Barthelmess appeared as the Chinaman in Broken Blossoms and as the love-struck David in Way Down East. He was nominated for an Academy Award in 1928, the year of the last hurrah of the silent era. One of his best later roles was as a pilot in Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings.

Donald Crisp played the evil father in Broken Blossoms, and went on to become one of the most reliable supporting players in Hollywood (Mutiny on the Bounty, The Life of Emile Zola, How Green was My Valley,The Man From Laramie, among many others). Crisp also appeared as General Grant in Griffith's Birth of a Nation.

Lowell Sherman played Lennox the cad in Way Down East. He later made a mark as a director, directing Mae West in She Done Him Wrong.

Dorothy Gish appeared with her sister Lillian in Griffith's Musketeers of Pig Alley as well as the blind sister in Orphans of the Storm.

Joseph Schildkraut played the dashing romantic lead in Orphans of the Storm. He later became a reliable character actor, winning an Academy Award for The Life of Emile Zola in 1937. I remember him best for playing the ghost of a murdered concentration camp victim in the 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, Deaths Head Revisited.

Friday, September 30, 2016

MOVIES FROM THE 1990'S (MONTH 4)

 MOVIES FROM THE 1990'S NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE FILMS 

Since I still had quite a few movies from the 90's left on my 1001 list, I decided to watch ten this month that I haven't seen and aren't in the mother tongue.

Open Your Eyes
If you like a movie that will keep you guessing, Open Your Eyes might make for a good nights viewing. The lead character is rich, handsome and about to embark on a relationship with the hopelessly beautiful Penelpe Cruz...until a disfiguring accident turns his world upside down. Or does it? What is actually happening here? What does it mean? It's worth finding out even if you've seen this film's remake, Vanilla Sky. I do prefer Open Your Eyes to Vanilla Sky overall, though the latter film manages to be pretty creative on its on.

Man Bites Dog

What are you doing to me, 1001 list? Man Bites Dog is a Belgian film that is a mock documentary featuring a serial killer who we go on his rounds with as he and his filmmakers provide narration as they are bumping people off! Very unpleasant to look at, but maybe the director wanted to show this guy in his environment being so matter of fact because he doesn't feel he is doing anything wrong. Did I mention this was unpleasant to look at?

Sombre
And yet another movie about a serial killer is Sombre, an odd little French film about a serial killer who kills mostly prostitutes but gets involved with one woman who actually develops an interest in him. A lot of the film is intentionally dark (as in it's hard to see what's going on on the screen) and is done with a hand held camera to give it more of a documentary feeling. But could someone please explain the ending?


Rosetta
Rosetta is the story of a poor teenage girl who lives with an alcoholic mom. The mom is also prostituting herself to make extra money. Rosetta's obsession is getting a job that will give her needed stability for her most unstable life. Rosetta's dealings with a young man who works at a waffle stand and her manipulations in the seeking of employment make up a lot of the drama of this simple but effective film.


A Taste of Cherry
I was sorry to hear about the recent death of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, the director of Close-Up and Through the Olive Trees. The journey of the protagonist, Mr. Badii, of A Taste of Cherry, is a slow trek by car and is a search for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. The amount of admiration one can have for Kiarostami's movies depend on whether or not you can get interested in stories that don't exactly go at a swift pace. I for one appreciated the slow moving journey in A Taste of Cherry. Mr. Badii's  journey was sad, tragic, difficult, but sometimes funny as well. It wasn't the director's final film, but it would certainly have served as a nice epitaph for him, anyway.

Farewell My Concubine
Farewell My Concubine is a Chinese epic that features politics, revolution, poverty, sexuality and opera. It's a long ride at almost three hours, but the entire movie has a wonderful attention to detail and a plot that is often sad, but is a most worthwhile story...but one that requires your full attention.

Beau Travail
Beau Travail is a French film about a French Foreign legion officer who becomes jealous of his superior's admiration for new recruit and tries to destroy the recruit in any way possible. The story is based somewhat on Herman Melville's Billy Budd. One thing about this film that you can't mistake is the underlying homosexual overtones. It isn't explicitly stated, but it is definitely there.  Okay...that's two films in a row from this list with a gay theme.


Happy Together
Make that three in a row with a gay theme! Nothing subtle in the homosexual theme of Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet, which is about a Taiwanese man living in the United States who marries a woman to satisfy his parents even though he actually has a relationship with another man who poses as his landlord when the parents are around. A movie that successfully explores cultural differences as well as sexual differences and is a pretty engaging comedy to boot.


Happy Together
What is it about all these nineties foreign films that have a gay angle? Happy Together starts off with a sex scene between the two male protagonists. It is about the only scene of the entire movie where this off-again, on-again couple seem to get along well at all! Sparked by jealousy, misunderstandings and distinctly different personalities, their relationship is doomed from the beginning. The movie does have some nice closure at the end in a scene near a waterfall in Hong Kong. And if you are waiting for them to play the song Happy Together, you'll get your fix at the end of the movie. Does that last point qualify as a spoiler?


The Wild Reeds
The Wild Reeds is the coming of age story featuring four young people, one of which discovers he's gay (in keeping with the theme of the last few movies I've seen!) . The main drawing point of this film is that the young people in the film seem real as do their struggles and uncertainty. But watch out for the Commies!

Note: Forty 1990's films in the last four months, but I still have more from that decade to go!  Will I ever get through this flippin' list? And it's about time for the new 1001 addition to come out, so they may even add more! Oh, well...moving on...

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

MOVIES FROM THE 1990'S (MONTH 3)

I  had quite a few movies from the 90's left on my 1001 list that I had NEVER seen before that I decided to watch the this month.


Reversal of Fortune
Reversal of Fortune is the story of Klaus and Sony Von Bulow, the rich couple of whom there was much speculation at the time that Klaus knocked off Sonny for her inheritance. This was a huge story back in the day, but I never got around to seeing this movie based on lawyer Ron Dershowtiz’s book about the case until now. It is interesting in that it does present different scenarios to what may have happened and is punctuated by the lead performances by Glenn Close as Sonny,  Ron Silver as Dershowitz and best of all, Jeremy Irons (you’ve no idea…) as Klaus.

Strange Days
The James Cameron/Kathryn Bigelow Sci-Fi  film Strange Days was a bit of a bomb when it was first released at the box office. It’s hard to see why…the film certainly has the pedigree of a hit, with a good cast led by Ralph Fiennes and Angela Basset, a gritty story that keeps you guessing, loads of action, but not too over the top….So why wasn’t this a bigger hit again? I guess William Goldman was right-nobody knows anything when it comes to what movie is going to be a hit. The movie did get mixed reviews (63% on Rotten Tomatoes). The movie gets the consolation prize of making one of the editions of the 1001 movies book.

Boyz in the Hood
John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood is the rough story of three kids and their family, friends and enemies over time living in the mean streets of Los Angeles. A penetrating, sobering  and tragic look at life in the hood. Often compared to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, though my preference is for Boyz between the two films. Fine performances, especially Laurence Fishburne as the political philosopher father.

Three Kings
Three Kings is the story of Gulf War soldiers on a hunt for treasure in Iraq, who through a series of chaotic events eventually find their humanity and change the course of their actions and try to do the right thing. Three Kings works as a war film, an action film and as a human drama.

Trainspotting
Trainspotting is one of those films that gets away with more with me because of its Scottish pedigree. What I mean is that the story of malcontent heroin addicts has the potential to be a real downer (which Trainspotting is much of the time anyway), but does have a quirky sense of Scottish humor, as well as occasional glimpses of hope in the mire of sadness and lives wasted.

Lone Star

I really liked John Sayles' Lone Star, a Texas story of a current discovery that dredges up the skeletons of the past in a small Texas border town in more ways than one.  Well presented  blends of interracial conflicts along the Texas border, and the flashback scenes feature an uncharacteristically evil turn from Kris Kristofferson. Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Pena make a memorable couple in the modern story.  Forget the Alamo, indeed.

Slacker

Richard Linklater’s low-budget early film Slacker is an interesting experiment. Our minds are used to following a central character around, but in this film the central character interacts with another character and the next character leaves the central character and they become the main character! It took me a little while to get my mind around these multiple artsy Austin, Texas people at first, but had to admit I really began to like this film more and more as it progressed. Could be dismissed as gimmicky, but it works for me.

The Last Seduction
The Last Seduction… What movie does this film-noirish story of a sexually dominating and manipulative woman with more than a few sociopathic tendencies remind me of? Basic Instinct?…A little…Fatal Attraction?…Yes, a bit….Body Heat? Yes, that’s the one. It held my interest, but wouldn't quite make my book.
The King of New York
Since Christopher Walken has become associated with a lot of silly (but mostly funny) things in recent years, it's interesting to see him in a straight crime boss role that makes you forget about cowbell skits and Country Bears movies at least for the time being. He is the best reason to watch The King of New York, a gangster movie that may not be at the top of the crime movie classic list, but is still a good watch for fans of the genre. And it did make the 1001 list, so there you have it.

Safe
After watching the early Todd Haynes indie movie Safe, about a woman played by Julianne Moore who seems to be allergic to just about everything modern, I had the following conversation about it with my wife.

Wife: So what was the point of that?

Me: What do you mean?

Wife: I mean were her phobias mental or physical?

Me: I think it's supposed to be both, but it is intentionally unclear.

Wife: What about that community she goes to? Is the guy running it a sincere guru or a charlatan?

Me: You could interpret it either way, but I think it's intentionally unclear.

Wife: Okay. What about her family? Are we supposed to sympathize with her husband or is he part of her problem?

Me: Good question. I think it's supposed to be...

Wife: Intentionally unclear, I know!  I'll just look at the extras.

(After watching the extras)

Wife: Looks like a lot of what was going on was supposed to be intentionally unclear.

Me: I think you're right.

THE END

I still have a lot of NON-English language films left to see from the 90's. I will take a look at some of those next month.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

MOVIES FROM THE 1990'S (MONTH 2)

Since I STILL had quite a few movies from the 90's left on my 1001 list, I decided to re-watch ten this month that I've seen but haven't seen for awhile.

Thelma and Louise
Thelma and Louise is a sort of 90's feminist Easy Rider about a pair of women whose unfortunate circumstances lead them to be on the run from the law. The movie is a bit of a fantasy ride, yet still rings true more often than not. Mark this one down as one is even better than I remember. Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis are both excellent and Callie Khouri won a well-deserved Oscar for her strong screenplay.

The Sixth Sense
Another from the if you know what is going to happen it might not be as good a movie experience files, The Sixth Sense is a supernatural story that never pulls it's punches enough for you to figure out exactly what is going on underneath the surface until close to the end. That was true the first time I saw it and I still feel a bit dense about not figuring it out sooner. It's been hard for director and M. Night Shyamalan and star Haley Joel Osment to top their respective contributions here. Maybe some day.
Clueless
Clueless is one I'm less sure about. What is the connection to Jane Austen's Emma again? But I can see that this has a similar appeal to a later generation to the appeal that I have to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I honestly didn't know both films were directed by Amy Heckerling until I watched Clueless again. I also got the opportunity to watch this one with my niece (she's a big fan of the film), which is always a plus.


Boogie Nights
Boogie Nights is the complex and funny character study of the pornography industry during the 70's and 80's. I liked writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's flair and style in this film as well as his subsequent film, Magnolia. And where is my old Betamax copy of Debbie Does Dallas, anyway?

Short Cuts
After finally reading Raymond Carver's collection of stories on which it is based, I was looking forward to watching Robert Altman's adaptation of Short Cuts again after many years. Not of all of what Altman's fly by the seat of your pants filmmaking worked during his career, but it really works for Short Cuts. He takes Carver's stories and changes them where he needs to, has the characters interact with each other in ways they never did in the short stories and puts it all together as a cohesive whole. Some Carver purists may not approve, but I'm not among them. I think it's a brilliant film.

Magnolia
Magnolia is a film I also compare to Short Cuts because of multi-character nature of the piece. I like this one almost as much as Short Cuts, though the second half, where all the characters break into song for no reason and are attacked by a shower of frogs, doesn't quite live up to the first half. Still highly recommended with a fine cast headed by John C. Reilly as the world's nicest cop and Tom Cruise, who plays a cross between Tony Robbins and Andrew Dice Clay.

Rushmore
I have to admit, I liked Wes Anderson's Rushmore seeing it now more than when I first saw it. Teenage overachiever Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) and millionaire businessman Herman Blume (Bill Murray) vie for the affection of teacher Ms. Cross (Olivia Williams). It's a movie with a great deal of charm and warmth. Probably (now) my favorite of Anderson's movies.

The Crying Game
Part of The Crying Game game is watching it with someone who hasn't seen it before and see if they can guess the radical plot twist that happens about half way through the movie. Spoiler: My wife didn't see it come it and failed this test. Sorry, dear. Overall, the film works well as a thriller and as a social commentary on human sexuality as well. I also really like the scorpion/frog joke and try to use it in my own conversation where applicable.

Jurassic Park
Yes, dinosaurs are cool, I've always thought they were cool since I got those little dinosaur booklets at Sinclair stations when I was a kid. But maybe I'm just Jurassic Park'd out. I've read the book...seen all the films...seen Michael Crichton's Westworld, which is definitely a forerunner of Jurassic Park. Maybe I'm taking the special effects for granted and know how the plot is going to go and was a little bored by it this time out. I will say the triceratops was always my favorite dinosaur too, Dr. Grant! In fact I always rooted for him in my imaginary battles against T-Rex as depicted in the colorful picture from the Sinclair Dinosaur booklet below.




Saving Private Ryan
Who can forget that long and horrifying opening of Saving Private Ryan, which depicts D-Day in an unglorified and violent way that few war films had done before. We also get on board for an epic journey following the squad led by Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) that spends most of the movie searching for the elusive Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), who gets to go home because his brothers were all killed on Omaha Beach. And Spielberg won his second Oscar for this and a lot of people think it should have won Best Picture, too.  So, we can pretty much put this in the war classic category and move on, right? 

Not so fast.

I wanted to read famed screenwriter William Goldman's essay on Saving Private Ryan after I saw the movie again because I heard he dishes out some tough criticism on the film.

Goldman's major problem with Saving Private Ryan #1: The movie starts with an older man in modern times and his family visiting a veteran's cemetery in an emotionally charged scene. We fade to a close up of the man and cut to a flashback to the story which begins with the D-Day invasion. The logical assumption is that it this Captain Miller's (Tom Hanks) story until we discover at the end of the film that Captain Miller is killed and the man in the opening scene is Pvt. Ryan himself. The problem Goldman sees in this is that Ryan only comes into the movie at well past the half way point. How can he be recounting the story if he wasn't even there for most of it?

Goldman's major problem with Saving Private Ryan #2: The squad (minus two who have already been killed) finally locates Pvt. Ryan to take him back. However, Ryan stubbornly wants to stay with his squad and help his brothers in arms fight in the upcoming battle with the Germans. However, the ridiculous part for Goldman is the fact that Captain Miller's squad decides to join the other squad and fight the oncoming Germans! What? Now they are going against their mission after rigidly sticking to it for almost three hours of film time? Goldman points out that there would have been an easier out if they had just let Ryan stay and tried to get back but were blocked in by oncoming Germans and forced to stay and fight out of necessity.

Goldman's major problem with Saving Private Ryan #3
 Here is Goldman's direct quote.
The other disgrace of this storytelling is this: there is no pregnant moment to the story. (I'm not going all intellectual on you—remember, the Zipper scene and Matt Dillon trying to electrocute the dog back to life were my happiest moments this year in a theatre.) But all stories do and must have them. They are the reason the story is being told. The pregnant moment of Shakespeare in Love is this: Will has a block. We do not tell of Joe and Gwyneth after he's written King Lear—the whole point is the guy can't write anything. Armageddon happens when it happens because the meteor is on its way.

There is absolutely no reason for this story being told now since Matt has no specific reason for visiting the cemetery.


Goldman also has problems with the film's patriotic over-sentimentality during the modern day scenes (I disagree with him here. I find those scenes effective). He also hates Ryan's one long speech (the girl hit by an ugly stick one) which is the viewer's one opportunity to know something about Ryan and doesn't put him in an overly positive light. (I think he's right about that one.)

Anyway, food for thought from the always interesting Mr. Goldman.

Glad to revisit these films from the 90's, but there are plenty from this list that I've never seen....I'll take a look at some of those next month.