Sunday, February 25, 2007

Recent Screenings

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) Directed by William Wyler. Starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Harold Russell and Hoagy Carmichael.

I've seen The Best Years of Our Lives several times now, and each time I watch it, I come away feeling like it should be ranked among the greatest films of all time. It's about as close as you'll get to a perfect motion picture, excelling in almost every aspect of filmmaking. And, in fact, it won seven Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Frederic March), Best Supporting Actor (Harold Russell), Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Music. Harold Russell, a genuine World War II veteran who lost both hands in the war, received a second Honorary Oscar "For bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance" in the movie, making him the only person to ever win two Oscars for the same performance.

The story concerns three veterans - Frederic March, Dana Andrews and Harold Russell - returning home after the war and the adjustments that each of them must face. If that sounds too dramatic right off the bat, one of the wonders of the film is that Wyler never lets the film feel too heavy, using well-timed humor, great cinematography, and excellent editing to keep everything moving along at a good pace. There are some particularly funny moments early on, when March takes his wife, played by the wonderful Myrna Loy, and grown-up daughter, played by Teresa Wright, out on the town. March and Loy make a great married couple trying to find their way with each other after several years of absence. The scene where March first returns home is handled so well from a filmmaking point of view that director David Lean spoke of it years later in an interview. It's so simply done, yet very powerful. Wyler and his cinematographer Greg Toland, who shot Citizen Kane and was considered one of the most innovative directors of photography ever, do a masterful job throughout the film of using wonderfully crafted shots to give emotional resonance to the story. Watch carefully the scenes early in the film, when the three men are waking up in the gunner's compartment of a bomber at sunrise. It's beautiful, effective and seemingly effortless cinema.

Dana Andrews plays a heroic "flyboy" who did great in the war but comes back to poverty and a wife who doesn't love him. Russell plays a navy vet who was going to marry the girl next door but now feels like a freak because of the hooks he has instead of hands. It's hard watching what he goes through without thinking of the young men and women returning from Iraq who may be faced with similar life-changing wounds. In a small role, the great songwriter ("Stardust," "Georgia on My Mind") Hoagy Carmichael plays Butch, Russell's uncle who runs the neighborhood watering hole. We even get to hear Hoagy playing and singing a bit.

Somehow, Wyler grabs your interest from the start and never lets it go as he follows the three main characters and their intersecting stories. In the end, he delivers one of the most gratifying films that Hollywood ever produced, a genuinely funny, touching, and deeply human film. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Sur mes lèvres [Read My Lips] (2001) Directed by Jacques Audiard. Starring Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos.

After enjoying Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped so much [see previous Recent Screenings], I decided to try this earlier film. Also written by Audiard and Tonino Benacquista, it stars Emmanuelle Devos as a woman with hearing deficiencies who works at a property development company. Her co-workers treat her poorly, she's lonely and somewhat frumpy, but she does have an ability to read lips, which can work to her advantage at times. Vincent Cassel plays an ex-convict who winds up working as Devos' assistant. She is both attracted and repelled by him; he doesn't care much for her or the job; but he becomes intrigued by her ability to read lips, while she discovers that his abilities as a thief can help her deal with a difficult colleague. Soon, the two strike up an uneasy working relationship that draws them deeper and deeper into a scheme to steal a large sum of money from a local gangster. As the suspense becomes more and more intense, the sexual tension between them also increases. Audiard once again takes what could be a typical low-level mob movie and turns it into something much more fascinating. While Read My Lips and The Beat That My Heart Skipped operate on the surface as crime thrillers, Audiard ultimately seems to be interested in exploring individual character and relationships between people. His work reminds me at times of Claude Sautet, albeit with more violence. Read My Lips races along at an increasingly intense pace, and La Reina and I were a little exhausted and relieved when it was over. But it was an exciting and intriguing ride, with several well-placed twists and turns. Devos won a Caesar Award for Best Actress for this role, and Cassel and the other actors also do fine jobs. The script by Audiard and Benacquista is tight and well-developed. I forward to more films from this director. RECOMMENDED.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
(2003) Directed by Peter Weir. Starring Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany and the Galapagos Islands.

For some reason, I wasn't particularly interested in this film when it came out. I don't really care for Russell Crowe, for one thing, and the storyline just didn't intrigue me at the time. Too bad. It would have been great to see this on a big screen instead of our sometimes cranky television. In the end, La Reina and I really enjoyed it. I'm still not sold on Crowe as an actor, and the one complaint I have about the movie is that he didn't seem to inhabit his role of Captain Jack Aubrey as much as he recited lines and tried to look "bold" or "heroic." Acting-wise, the real discovery was Paul Bettany, who played Dr. Maturin. It wasn't until the end of the film, watching the credits that it dawned on me that the good doctor was also the albino killer monk in the Da Vinci Code. What a transformation! Bettany may have more to work with in his character than Crowe does with Captain Aubrey. Dr. Maturin is a navy surgeon who's also a naturalist. He prefers scientific discovery over war, and his inner torment as he deals with his conflicted situation, and how that works out in his relationship with Captain Aubrey, forms the emotional foundation of the film. It's the complexity of both characters that distinguishes the film from other typical contemporary adventure films. This is a throwback to classic Hollywood, mixing action, intrigue, exotic locations and good character development to bring about a cohesive and pleasant whole. The cinematography is stunning, especially the scenes shot on the Galapagos Islands. RECOMMENDED.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950) Directed by Otto Preminger. Starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney and Karl Malden.

Preminger, Andrews and Tierney had already collaborated on one of the greatest film noirs of all time, the haunting and mysterious Laura (1944). Where the Sidewalk Ends is a much leaner, harder noir, and while it will never reaches the cinematic heights of Laura, it's a fine film in its own right. Dana Andrews plays a cop whose father was a crook and who carries a chip on his shoulder because everyone reminds him of that. He hates crooks and often gets in trouble for beating them up to get information. He's kind of an early Dirty Harry, with father issues. Already in trouble with the new captain, played by Karl Malden, he's connected to the accidental death of a former war-hero who had turned into a bullying alcoholic involved with gangsters. At the same time, Andrews falls in love with the guy's girl, played by the lovely Gene Tierney, and this creates more complications. (Doesn't it always.) The efficient and interesting screenplay is by Ben Hecht, one of Hollywood's greatest writers, who was nominated for six Oscars in his career (winning two) and whose numerous credits include Notorious, Spellbound, Wuthering Heights, Scarface, and His Girl Friday. In different hands, the film could have devolved into a typical, maudlin story of a misunderstood cop redeemed by love, but Preminger and Hecht keep you guessing and slightly off-guard. The wonderful noirish cinematography helps evoke the psychological moodiness that underlies the film's hard surface. RECOMMENDED - but only if you've seen Laura first!

Angel (1937) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, Melvyn Douglas and Edward Everett Horton.

For much of Hollywood's history, Ernst Lubitsch was probably the most revered and respected director of all time. Other great directors such as Billy Wilder and William Wyler all acknowledged their tremendous debt to him. (Walking together after Lubitsch's funeral, Wilder said sadly, "No more Lubitsch." Wyler reportedly responded, "Worse than that. No more Lubitsch films.") These days, I imagine the average movie fan doesn't even know who he is, one more testimony to the ruthlessness of history and the fleeting nature of fame. In the last year or two, I started watching his films, because you can't read anything about cinema history without bumping into him at every turn. I've enjoyed several of them, especially Trouble in Paradise, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be . I can't say Angel was one of my favorites, probably because I love Lubitsch's romantic comedies (he basically invented the genre) and Angel leans more in the direction of romantic drama, albeit with Lubitsch's sly and intelligent humor at work here and there.

Marlene Dietrich plays the bored and neglected wife of a successful British diplomat (Herbert Marshall). While her husband's away on yet another trip, she goes to Paris, where she meets an American (Melvyn Douglas) who instantly falls for her. They only spend one night together, and she refuses to tell him her name, so he calls her "Angel." She realizes that she might be falling for him, too, which was not her plan, and she runs away. The scene where she disappears gives you an excellent idea of what a great director Lubitsch was, and what he contributed to cinema. Douglas gets up from a park bench to buy Dietrich a flower from an old, Gypsy-looking woman. He turns back to the bench, but Lubitsch keeps the camera on the old woman's face. In the background, you hear Douglas calling out, "Angel, where are you?" He keeps calling for her, his voice becoming more and more distant. Lubitsch never cuts away from the old woman, whose face tells you everything you need to know about what's happening. She eventually hobbles over to the park bench, leans down and picks up the flower Douglas had bought and dropped. Who up to that point in the history of film thought you could convey so much emotion by turning the camera away at a pivotal scene? Lubitsch seems to be exploring this effect, as he uses the technique on two other occasions in the film. And they all work. Partly because they're related to one of the themes of the film: what we don't know or can't see about those we love - what we can only imagine - can sometimes hurt tremendously. Marshall returns from his trip. Dietrich is increasingly restless. Douglas turns up in a most surprising way. The tension between the three builds up throughout the second half of the film.

Unfortunately, there are some moments early on in Angel that slide into pure melodrama, and Lubitsch lets the ending get away from him a bit. Also, I'm not a big fan of Melvyn Douglas. Herbert Marshall, on the hand, I discovered through earlier Lubitsch films and have come to respect quite a bit. He was highly popular in the 1930s, and his screen presence is wonderful, a charming, debonair personality with real warmth. And Marlene Dietrich? If you want to know why she is one of the all-time Hollywood luminaries, you don't have to go any farther than this film. She is glamour personified. During the film, La Reina kept commenting on her beauty, her incredible dresses, the amazing close-ups of her luminous face. What I love about Lubitsch is that he made films about adults for adults. When you compare the intelligence, grace and sophistication of his films with most current Hollywood offerings, you begin to wonder how we lost so much along the way. I'm not sure I would recommend Angel (which shouldn't be confused with Marlene's most famous film, The Blue Angel), but I definitely recommend seeing something by Lubitsch. Trouble in Paradise may the best place to start.

V for Vendetta (2005) Directed by James McTeigue. Written by the Wachowski Brothers. Starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry and John Hurt.

What a disappointment. The Matrix is one of my 100 favorite films, and I was looking forward to this Wachowski Brothers project based on Allan Moore's graphic novel from the 1980s. Written during the Thatcher era, the story concerns the masked "V," and his revolutionary (or terrorist, depending on your point of view) activities against a totalitarian regime that's taken over England. While I can see why someone would want to resurrect this project for our own George W. Bush era, the Wachowski Brothers have dispensed with any subtlety that may have been contained in the original and delivered a preachy, heavy-handed film that doesn't even seem to know (or care?) what it's really talking about. The plot could have been interesting, involving secret government research projects gone wrong, the mysterious V, and a young woman named Evy who gets caught up in his activities. She's pursued by the secret police on one hand and uncertain if V is mad or not on the other. As V, Hugo Weaving does as well as anyone could being hidden the entire film behind a Guy Fawkes mask and struggling with such a one-note character. Portman does okay as Evy, but seems defeated in the end by the terrible script. Fry, Rea and Hurt are all excellent actors terribly wasted. Like Pan's Labyrinth, I suppose this is another "adult fairy-tale," a comic book/fantasy film that tries to take on a serious subject. But I'm beginning to think that comic book movies trying to be serious are sort of like rock bands trying to be serious. Too often you wind up with something like Yes. One of the reasons The Matrix worked so well was that it had a good sense of humor about itself. (At least the first film did. The two sequels lacked this essential component.) In the end, V for Vendetta also takes itself too seriously. Like many people, the Wachowski Brothers harbor fantasies of striking back at the Bush-like bad guys; they just happen to have $54 million to make their fantasy come alive on screen. Too bad it had to be so plodding, confused and adolescent.


crystal said...

I agree with you about Vendatta, though I really like Hugo Weaving as an actor.

Speaking of movies from graphic novels and such, I wonder how the movie about the Spartans and Thermopylae turned out (the 300).

I didn't see Master ans Commander when it came out either. Maybe I'll rent it now, given your recommendation. I do like Rissell Crowe - I don't think I've ever been disapponted in his work, though I haven't seen all his movies. One of my favorites of his was one that didn't do well at the box office - Proof of Life.

Thanks for the reviews :-)

cowboyangel said...

I like Hugo Weaving, too. And I did think he did a pretty good job in Vendetta, considering what he had to work with.

Proof of Life was one of those pleasant surprises for me. A film I knew nothing about and wound up enjoying. I thought it was pretty well-done - don't know why it wasn't more popular.

BTW, have you ever seen Proof (1991)? That has both Hugo AND Russell. I've heard good things about it and even checked it out once but have never actually seen the thing.

Did The 300 finally come out? I haven't heard anything good or bad yet. Don't think I'll be seeing it for a while, though, as I'm totally burned out on the whole comic book/graphic novel/ fantasy thing right now. Even Spider Man 3 fails to excite me, and i like the series. maybe by the summer I'll be up for it.

I will, however, go see the new Harry Potter flick whern it comes out. For some reason, I'm still not tired of those.

cowboyangel said...

Oh, Crystal, you were right - one of the computers I use did only have 16 bit color. Thanks for the observation. I've changed it now.

crystal said...

I've not seen Proof ... Hugo and Russell together! :-) I've never seen a Potter movie either - you like them, huh? I do really like Spiderman, though, and own the two out so far.

I've been seeing tv ads for the 300, so maybe it's just about to come out. I guess it's based more on the comic book than on the real life battle - not very realistic looking but more like a cross between animation and real actors. But Gerard Butler is the Spartan king :-)

Jeff said...

Hi William,

The only two I've seen out of this set are Master and Commander and V for Vendetta.

When I put up my Guy Fawkes post, I was only vaguely familiar that V for Vendetta had something to do with references to Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. I'm glad that you didn't care for it, because I saw it shortly after I put up that post and I absolutely hated it.

This was supposedly meant to be an anti-fascist film, but what I saw was the glorification of sanitized comic-book violence wrapped up in faux-zen rhetoric. I'm not a fan of the Wachowski brothers. I think they did a similar thing with those Matrix movies. True, the special effects were dazzling, but I think that an argument could be made that they should take a hard look at themselves after those films played at least a part in the inspiration of the Columbine violence. I'm not a big fan of films that sketch out an Orwellian vison of the future anyway. I'm more inclined to think that it will look more like Aldous Huxley's vision.

I'm not a huge Russ Crowe fan either, (my wife, that's a different story), but I thought this role in Master and Commander was made for him. I thought he did a good job. A decent film, with good attention to historical detail. The opening scene and the scene going around the Horn were excellent. Not the greatest action film in the world, to be sure, but I'd recommend it... Good performance by Paul Bettany, as you said.

Read My Lips has been on my list to see.

cowboyangel said...


I do like the Potter films, especially the third one, Prisoner of Azkaban, which was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who just did Children of Men. He's one of the three Mexican directors that was getting some attention at the Oscars last night. We had seen the first 2 films and thought they were fairly good, but the 3rd one knocked us out. After that I went back and started reading the books. I had tried 2 or 3 times to read the first one and never got very far. Now, I'm a confirmed Potter-head. La Reina, too. The 4th film was the first one I had seen AFTER reading the book, and I didn't like it as much. Part of that was the fact that the 4th book is my favorite (so far) and has way too much in it for one film. They were originally going to do it in two films, and I think they should have.

I don't know Gerard Butler. Why do I get the feeling he's not unpleasant to look at?

cowboyangel said...


I was out of the country when Columbine happened. What's the connection with the Matrix?

I agree with you about Huxley's vision being closer to the reality.

If you liked Master & Commander but could use more action, have you seen the recent Horatio Hornblower films, with Ioan Gruffudd as Hornblower? Those are great. A co-production between A&E and England's ITV. Eight films. Available on DVD. We got them from the library. La Reina and I both really enjoyed them. They're more action-oriented, but because it's a series, you also get excellent character development.

Ironically, a female friend told La Reina about the series because it had some hunky actors. Just in case you need to persuade the misses that they're not "guy" films.

They're very good. I kepp meaning to post something about them.

BTW, Read My Lips is very violent. As I said in my review of The Beat That My Heart Skipped, I think the director handles the violence well, using it to develop character and plot. That's true in Read My Lips, though perhaps not to the same degree. Just be aware.

Jeff said...


Are those Hornblower films based on the O'Brian seafaring novels?

At the time of the Columbine incident, there was a lot of talk about how the killers, Harris and Klebold, had modeled their "trenchcoat mafia" look after Neo in the Matrix and had been devotees of the film, including their fixation with the worthless Tec-9, an obnoxious weapon that has no valid reason for existing. There may have been more to that in the media than in reality, but it should be enough to give the Wochowskis some room for pause.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have a problem with violence in movies, per se. I love almost all of Martin Scorcese's movies, for instance (glad to see Scorcese finally get his due at the Oscars). The violence, however, has to have some kind of meaning to it or context, even if it is meant to horrify and to make you uncomfortable, as it does in a Scorcese film or in something like Saving Private Ryan or Reservoir Dogs, or Twenty Nine Palms. On the other hand, I don't even mind some violence as entertainment, as it would be in a Jackie Chan film, an old Clint Eastwood, or even a Bruce Willis movie or a Star Wars episode.

The violence in films like the Matrix and Vendetta, is sort of like an ultra-violent, sanitized ballet, that has almost a numbing effect. It is cartoon violence that is incredibly brutal yet somehow without consequence. It has an unreal quality about it. It is also inconsonant with the rest of the professed "philosophy" in the movie. I don't know if I'm using the right words or expressing it well. I think you probably know what I'm trying to say.

cowboyangel said...

I think you probably know what I'm trying to say.

I have absolutely no earthly idea what you're trying to say, Jeff.


Just kidding. Though I'm curious to know how you would differentiate between Tarantino's violence and that of the Wachowski brothers. Or between Die Hard and The Matrix. Except that Alan Rickman's such a delicious bad guy in Die Hard!

I think the violence in the Audiard films (the 2 I've seen) defintely has meaning and context, and he does a particularly good job of showing the consequences of violence. Better than most directors I can think of.

This is an interesting topic. Because there's the argument that directors like Scorsese who supposedly give context and meaning to their violence may still promote violence, particularly since there's so much of it in some of their films. I have mixed feelings. I watch violent films. I like some violent films. I've never felt like they made me particularly violent. But I'm not sure, in the end, that the violence of Scorsese or Peckinpaw or Coppolla or some other director is inherently less violent. I've known a lot of young men who thought the violence of Goodfellas was pretty damn cool. I'm not sure they care about any meaning or context Scorsese may have intended. (If he intended any at all, which I'm not necessarily convinced of.) And I think it's just as likely in the end that someone could watch Goodfellas and go out and shoot down people as it is that they watch The Matrix. Actually, remember, John Hinckley was influenced by Taxi Driver and his obsession with Jodie Foster. There was a guy in Australia who "stomped" his mother to death after listening to Bob Dylan's "One More Cup of Coffee," which is such a beautiful, haunting song, so you never know.

Your comment about the conflict between the (pseudo?) Zen philosophy and the violence of the Wachowskis is a good point. They have several conflicting messages in their films, I think. Vendetta being a particularly terrible example of mixed messages. Unintended, in my opinion. Like they just didn't think through things enough.

The Hornblower films are based on C.S. Forrester's novels, not those of O'Brian. I meant to mention that. But it's the same time period being covered and in similar ways.

Thanks for the info on Columbine. Now I do remember hearing something like that.

cowboyangel said...

Sorry! Peckinpah, Peckinpah! Coppola, Coppola!

Jeff said...

You know guys who thought it was cool in Goodfellas when Billy Bats told Pauly to go get his shine box and got stomped on and stuffed in a trunk and cut up and buried to the audio backdrop of Donovan's Atlantis.

Hmm... Maybe you've got a point.

You at least have a point where Reservoir Dogs was concerned. Thinking it over, it occurs to me that Quentin may have just as serious a blood fetish as Mel.

cowboyangel said...

Wow, Donovan. I didn't realize his music was used in Goodfellas. It's been a long time since I've seen it, to be honest. But spend some time on IMDB (I think the demographic is mostly 20 to 30-year-old men), and you'll see how much violence is glorified, whether it's by Scorsese, Tarantino, Audiard or the Wachowskis. They just really like violent movies. It's kind of scary.