Friday, February 20, 2015

I saw these movies over the past two weeks

Terror at the Mall: This movie made me think a lot of Nightcrawler thanks to a brave but shameless R reporter and his insistence on getting all up in people’s business as their lives’ slipped away. I would normally go on a sanctimonious tirade about his crossing of that line, except a: I don’t know where that line should be and b: I’m the voyeur who had every opportunity to turn the channel and didn’t. The movie, released by HBO Films, chronicles the attacks on a mall in Nairobi by the terrorist group known as Al Shabaab. Most of the violence was caught by security cameras, which director Dan Reed obtained and weaved into a storyline with narration and interviews with survivors. It’s terrifying to watch these innocent people scatter and hide, helpless as these misguided young men crept up and fired bullets indiscriminately at them. Men, women, and children lost their lives (71 to be exact, 3 pregnant women included and at least a dozen kids) and the killers were added to that total. The interviews mostly recount the panic, pragmatic decision making, and relief of the survivors, most of whom not only survived but also thankfully could count their loved ones (mostly children and babies) along with the rescued. There is something triumphant about these men and women uniting to save one another, especially when this common connection, as ugly as it is, causes so many to act so selflessly. But while most of interviewees walked away with something of a new appreciation for their lives and loved ones, there was one gentleman who proved to be the sad exception. He lost his wife. The shots that caused the wounds that cost her life are caught by one of the security cameras. It’s hard to watch, and maybe it shouldn’t be seen. I don’t know the answer to this, but I do know that his description of the events took my breath away. I would call it a moment of transcendence except it actually made me sink lower in my seat. Maybe transcendence is sometimes supposed to pull us closer to the dirt. This moment is crucial to a film in which we wonder how these men could act so senselessly, especially when we hear accounts of them also apologizing and acting with the kind of compassion that only people in their warped position of power can offer. The common ingredients to violence at this juncture in my life seem a: greed b: hate c: brainwashing and d: misguided ideology. I’m not sure if this is a good movie, but I’m glad I saw it.

** Note: the movie sparked a discussion between me and my better half, a discussion that started in one troubled area and ended up in a futile and arbitrary debate over whether or not we should credit a “country” with the moral accomplishments of its people. We haven’t chased our tails so furiously since we saw Do the Right Thing together back in 1999.

Total Recall (1990): I tend to reflexively trudge through life in a sarcastic haze in order to repel the perils of actual feelings. It’s a weakness, I know, but it’s all I got. Movies from Paul Verhoeven’s ten year/four-for-four winning streak (starting in 1987 and ending in 97) worked great for morons like me, both then and now. Though I’d like to think of myself as wiser and impervious to the same giggling postmodernist “soooo ridiculous it’s profound” imprudence of others, I’m right there with them laughing my way to an early death. Total Recall is silly and preposterous, though the ideas in We Can Remember It For You Wholesale occasionally break through all of the noise. Verhoeven’s skill is matched by his energy. The effects by the great Rob Bottin are the images that bind us smirking losers together. I guess this is as it should be. Total Recall is the type of glorious spectacle that I need from time to time. Sometimes I long for it on a Sunday afternoon in which I miss my Newport friends who would come by with beer and gross food to remedy or sustain the debauchery of the previous night. Here we would laugh and joke our way through our meaningless existences.

The Phenix City Story (1955): I can’t believe I’m just catching up with this now. I’ve only seen one other Phil Karlson movie (shameful) so I’m certainly not going to wax philosophical about his oeuvre. In opening his film with thirteen minutes of newsreel footage describing the forthcoming events, Karlson at least spoils the fate of one crucial character. I’m not complaining, in fact I don’t have a single complaint. This is a masterpiece, the kind of movie that should be held high when eulogizing the virtues of economic artists trudging their way through big stories with little money. The dealings are yet another stain on the American quilt. Actually, it’s similar in spirit to Terror at the Mall in that society (meaning a social order) can/will fail us from time to time, and it’s in this wicked space that bad men prosper. I don’t mind using terms like bad men when describing Rhett Tanner (as portrayed by Edward Andrews), a man willing to quantify and weigh human life against power and wealth. It’s a rather nice allegory for some of the same problems currently bubbling in our melting pot. It was also a sly commentary on the Civil Rights Movement, which was officially being born in the year this movie was made.

Pather Panchali: Elegiac, impressionistic, fleshly, attentive, unbound, and thriving with the rhythms of life. Ray’s movements and cuts contain a great deal of attuned perception to our relationship to nature. There is a scene where Harihar speaks with poise to the ancestral overseers who want to know why he and his family are suddenly uprooting for the big city. In this conversation he politely lays forth his reasoning for leaving --- he basically states that they have held him down and that he can’t even afford to pay back their debt with the wages he earns working tirelessly day in and day out ---- as the camera tracks slowly towards him. In the midst of that tiptoeing he mentions the name of a deceased loved one, pauses and the camera pauses with him only to pick up its crawl as he continues. This movie is full of similar flourishes, and the story itself, though no different from many other sad and triumphantly humanist stories about impoverished families, is full of joy amidst the struggle. These aren’t helpless rural peasants laid out for our pity; they are full of dignity and strength. I can’t say that I understand Truffaut’s reaction one bit, certainly not his rumored articulation.

Come and See: Among the many pointless hypothetical inquiries into the do’s and don’ts of telling stories would be whether or not it’s “necessary” to recreate travesties for historical fiction’s sake. Perhaps more relevant a question would be whether or not you personally should subject yourself to things of that nature. Elem Klimov’s Come and See chronicles a young boy’s horrific war experiences during the Nazi occupation of Byelorussian SSR. The movie was written by Ales Adamovich, who served as a Belorussian partisan fighter at a very young age and undoubtedly witnessed some of the horrors so assuredly recreated here. I won’t bother going into the deluge of atrocities, but I will say that much of the horror portrayed may have been better captured (and much of it is) in the young actor’s face. The pandemonium isn’t confined to set pieces; it’s in the trees, in the eyes, on the ground, and in the soundscape. The filmmaking evokes other Russian masters (though my knowledge is sadly limited to the renowned auteurs); the movie it reminded me most of was actually Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. I’m not so sure I buy the “plea for peace” notion, though it certainly would give pause to anyone wanting to immerse themselves in battle. I guess the reason I doubt this is because though some will be repulsed to the point of trauma, others will be unquestionably fuming about the pillagers marching unobstructed through a defenseless region. I guess here we might find an answer to the pointless question of whether or not to fictionalize that which is unfathomable to those of us who live what some consider a “comfortable existence.” Oh and by the way, the young actor’s name is Aleksey Kravchenko, and he supposedly went grey while filming this movie. I almost went grey watching it.    

I also caught up with: two films dealing with Frank Merrill’s six month military campaign in Burma during WWII. The films were 1945’s Objective Burma! and 1962’s Merrill’s Marauders, directed by Raoul Walsh and Sam Fuller. Different approaches here; one made in reverence and the other with many more questions. There is also the problem of racial representations in Walsh’s film, while Fuller works harder to even things out. I like both film a great deal, setting aside my 2015 issues with the 1945 movie, as I suppose you have to if you want to enjoy much of anything from that time. Not so fun fact, the U.S. military prodded the marauders until they were “victorious” and out of the 2,997 that were sent, only 130 returned. I also shamefully caught up with another great WWII thriller for the first time, this from Fritz Lang, 1944’s Ministry of Fear. I don’t have much to say other than Lang picked the wrong film to apologize for. Bob Clark’s Deathdream would make a fine chaser to Eastwood’s American Sniper. The finale is as heartbreaking as anything I’ve seen in a traditional war movie. Don Siegel plays it rough and loose with 1962’s Hell is for Heroes, a nice unsentimental look at battle life. Fritz Lang adapted J. Meade Falkner’s Moofleet to great effect. I just wish I had seen a crisper transfer so that Eastman Color would pop. Darkman is underrated Raimi. And I saw lots more but I’m losing focus here.   

here is a beautiful drawing by my friend Jackson:

Monday, February 9, 2015

1957: War

In light of a recent wonderful year end roundup essay from one of my favorite critics, I have been given the incentive to ditch ranking movies by year. To sum up his point; it’s pointless (for me) to attempt an objective list based on rank when different movies set out to achieve different goals and when I don’t really know how to quantify something as elusive as “importance.” This is a dangerous distinction, often the reason many puffed up entertainments (Foxcatcher) garners more serious consideration than those pesky termites. But I feel the need to at least briefly grasp those qualities that draw me to certain works, especially the ones that appear on the opposite ends of the brow chart. So what better year to start with than 1957, a year that two of my friends have argued is the year of 3:10 to Yuma, the rest be damned. I can’t say I disagree with this sentiment wholeheartedly. Scratch that, I disagree with it wholeheartedly, not that Daves film deserves anything less than adoration but that one great film ought to render a whole slew of great films rubbish in comparison. 1957 (as was much of the 50s in general) was blessed with an overabundance of great works, specifically in the war and western genre.

Paths of Glory pisses me off. I clench my teeth and curl my toes every time. I want to crawl into the screen and fix everything, but that’s part of the frustration because nothing can be fixed in a world set so firmly in its ways. It’s one of the most effective movies I’ve ever seen, so much so that my dad can’t even watch it. He gets too upset. I think it’s also a nice example of a war movie having the utmost respect for soldiers, binding together in their tight fortified hell, yet matching that passion with a deep and rampant hatred for the hierarchical entities that orchestrate the madness spacious/snug quarters. ---- Ugh! I can’t help but sounding like a kid fresh out of college, locked away in his parent’s house awaiting the real world, shocked by the horrors that have been shocking young stupid kids like me for years, except that I’m not a kid anymore. Oh well, I’ll continue on my righteous rant. ---- There is a big emphasis on juxtaposition (housing, clothing, food, custom, luxury) between soldier and officer, and after all of the cruel formalities take their course and the viewer is left feeling not only helpless but also disillusioned to the point of anger. In most films that involve a courtroom, the built in drama revolves around the law being upheld (the truth being proven) while here it’s just the opposite. The law is part of the problem and there is nothing to swoop and protect us from its mulish procedure.  And then, just as the movie goes where most viewers hope it won’t,  a young fearful girl (played by Kubrick’s wife Christiane) --- a similar victim of war’s brutality and cynicism ----  sings “The Faithful Hussar” to a group of rowdy soldiers who suddenly fall silent and/or hum along. I don’t really even know how to process this scene; I just know it gets me every time. It doesn’t offer any resolution. I have seen it three or four times and with each viewing I had to wait a few minutes before reentering the real world. The battle that these men are fighting is futile, their lives are not valued, their blood won’t solve anything, and their common sense/love for each other will only earn them a date with the firing squad. It’s as anti-war/authority/fascism as anything ever made. And for anyone tempted to count Kubrick as cold and detached, I offer this movie as evidence of his humanism, not to mention his grasp of the film language at a young age. For all of the griping (undoubtedly matched if not dwarfed by the rampant deification) about Kubrick, I think we can all agree that he had a freakish talent that may or may not hit some on a personal level.

It makes sense that the overall war sentiment was that of, shall we say, less reverence than the “flag-wavers” made during the conflict and after. Don’t get me wrong, I often prefer that era of war but it’s nice to see the tide shift a bit, though John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles --- which I always felt could have been the bastardized fourth Calvary movie ----- proves that supposed antiquated notions of war can still make for riveting entertainment, especially since much of the focus here is on the home front. And to be fair to Ford, who accomplished more in five years than I will in 65, his attitudes towards authority in general probably paved the way movies like Paths (his visual command certainly did), just look at Henry Fonda’s Owen Thursday for heaven’s sake, not to mention Paths could have easily been called They Were Expendable. Either way, the Frank “Spig” Wead biopic lost $804,000 so perhaps audiences were slightly disillusioned at this point especially considering what nabbed the top box office spot. The #1 draw of 1957 --- which also won Best Picture and ushered in a new era of “epic” filmmaking for its director whose previous films were technically more “intimate” but not as different in scope from where I’m standing ---- was The Bridge on the River Kwai. I’m not going to try and ascribe a cultural or political analysis of (Paths of Glory pretty much earned back what it cost) its success measured with its fog of war sentiments, but it raises a few questions. The movie has become (or always was?) one of those AFI/Academy obvious picks for “greatest of all time” which has undoubtedly curdled some of its myth for postmodern audiences. Me, I saw it many times when I was younger and at least three times as a young adult. I revisited it recently, not necessarily to pinch myself but because I genuinely love looking at it. I also don’t lament Lean’s post-Kwai “epic” course, and even if I did it wouldn’t do me or anyone else any good.

Kwai, like Paths and Fort Apache, finds hysteria in the ruse of military etiquette. You have a few individuals operating on a somewhat sensible --- albeit allegedly opprobrious -- level only to be gunned down by the same people they are supposed to be fighting alongside. This not-so-friendly-fire is so on point, the scenario so damned-if-you- do/don’t/what’s-it-all-for that you can wonder if we really needed to “madness” postscript to drive it all superfluously home. But again, I’m not complaining. More madness from Andrzej Wajda in his fictional account of the Warsaw Uprising’s doomed attempts at staving off Nazi forces whilst waiting for Soviet aid that deviously won’t arrive in, Kanal. We’re down til we’re underground. There is a lot of words spilled on Polish bravery, though you get the distinct impression that Wajda is also accentuating a needless cultural imprudence. I think he did a great job of assimilating rousing with exasperating, especially as they slide down into the depths of hell. There they wander around in excrement, lost, gassed, doomed. There is something to be said for their fortitude and our innate survivalist predisposition, even if their final stand is spurred on by their adopted ethnographic principles on valor. The final shot is cruel, funny, and acerbic. It perfectly encapsulates everything that came before.

Due to their staggering losses during WWII (ten percent of the population), it would make sense that the government would want to keep a watchful eye over their film industry, ensuring that this loss was worth the price. By 53, Stalin was no longer and Khrushchev’s critique of his totalitarian rule opened the door slightly for a broader sense of an individual’s value in the face of war. This gave way to intimate histrionics, where the greater good had to finally faceoff with personal loss a la Mikhail Kalatozov’s, The Cranes Are Flying. It follows a family (including a lover) torn apart by war, specifically the enlistment and death of our hero, Boris. Much of the action and conflict revolves around the home front once again with Boris’ girlfriend Veronika and her various tribulations. Though Kalatozov and his cinematographer Sergio Urusevsky shot things that boggle the mind and eye, the movie simply wouldn’t resonate without a central performance as good as Tatiana Samoilova’s. At least I can honestly say that this is what struck and stuck with me. Anthony Mann's Men in War follows a group of foot soldiers through a series of awful predicaments. It's Mann through and through and since I'm feeling extremely lazy I'll leave it at that and trust you to know what I mean.

Maybe I’ll post more on 1957 later. No promises.