Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) - Directed by Tony Richardson

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is Tony Richardson’s angst-ridden and beautifully shot masterpiece. Part of the “Angry Young Men” movement during the British New Wave, it is one of the best and most memorable of the lot. It was an influential film at the time and still works as a document of an era and of stream-of-consciousness storytelling, something that would become en-vogue during the New Wave era of the 60’s and beyond. Additionally, the wonderful use of hand-held camera and tracking shots makes the film visually alive and emotive. It also contains a brilliant early performance from Tom Courtenay as the troubled youth, lashing out and rebelling against family, responsibility, and compliance.

Tom Courtney plays Colin, a young man who has been admitted into a correctional facility for young men after stealing some money. His life though, has been spiraling downhill…..his father was ill and died; his mother quickly found another man with whom he has arguments with, he lives at home with several loud younger siblings, and basically has a hard time staying on the straight and narrow, rebelling against everything….his mother, the need to find a job, society itself. Once at the correctional facility he begins to develop a talent for running long distance cross-country. The Governor of the facility (Michael Redgrave) notices this and lets him have long jaunts across the countryside, with hopes this young man will be the winner at the cross-country meet that they will hold against a local, elite boarding school.

Richardson’s film bounces around in time and quickly cuts from flashbacks and memories to the present day and every which way, with quick edits and effectively stark black-and-white cinematography by Walter Lassally. There’s also a longingly romantic quality that the film has about it, with shots of bleak, barren trees and puddles of water reflecting the gray sky, mist hanging about…….. there is a longing and a yearning threatening to break free from every frame, just as Colin feels the need to find escape into something. His runs across the country are freeform. He streaks about and somewhat loose-limbed, runs with abandon until he can run no longer. These are his moments alone in his thoughts. There is something called the “runner’s high”, of which I have experienced on my own at times. You begin to not feel anything….your legs keep churning and pounding but you stop feeling it and you just go and keep going. You feel as if you could go on forever. But sure enough, reality comes back when the run is over.

When the Governor admits a deep desire to have Colin win the race against the runners from the other school, it is slightly telegraphed as to what will happen. I don’t suppose it’s any fault of the filmmakers, but there is this innate sense that to have Colin win the race just wouldn’t be right. In the final 5 minutes of the film, we witness one of the greatest edited sequences in cinematic history. Memories and thoughts flood through Colin's head as he runs across the countryside. Back and forth, the moments flash in front of us as both exhaustion and the climactic moment spreads open before us: thoughts of his father, and past loves, of crimes and hatred and disappointment, of joys and hopes and running and clouds and grass and trees. However, the crowd’s pleas and the Governor’s astonished face are not enough to convince Colin to cross that finish line. It is a great finale to a great film, and one of cinema’s great “f*ck you” moments.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Favorite Films of 2012 (finally)

Living in Kalamazoo, Michigan means not being able to see all the new releases in a timely manner. After finally catching Rust and Bone (on DVD) and Amour (playing to a sold out audience at Western Michigan University) over the last couple weeks, I feel I'm finally ready to lay out of my favorite films of 2012. Note that although some of these were released in 2011 in other countries, all of them saw their U.S. debut in 2012.

Here are my 10 favorite films of 2012. These are based on a **** star rating system.

10. The Imposter (2012) - Layton *** 1/2: This documentary was simply spectacular. Fascinating and proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction.
9. Silver Linings Playbook (2012) - Russell *** 1/2: Great romantic comedy and hits all the right notes. Wonderful all around cast. Cooper and Lawrence make a great team.
8. The Master (2012) - P.T. Anderson *** 1/2: 2012's strangest and most haunting film. Filled with some of the most intense filmmaking you'll ever see and some of the best acting found anywhere. But at times is impenetrable.
7. The Loneliest Planet (2012) - Loktev ****: Shots, moments and storylines that I've never seen before put on film. For those so inclined, this will be a quiet and rewarding film.
6. 2 Days in New York (2012) - Delpy ****: The best comedy of 2012 and a great throwback to classic screwball comedies. I love Delpy.

5. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) - W. Anderson ****: Anderson's best film since The Royal Tenenbaums. A thorough delight....melancholy and filled with yearning. Beautiful cinematography and design.

4. Amour (2012) - Haneke ****: This film will break you. Dark, moving, and intense. It doesn't let up until the end. Wonderful performances from Trintingant, Riva, and Huppert.

3. Lincoln (2012) - Spielberg ****: Brings history to life, and makes it surprisingly relevant. The cast is perfect, and Spielberg strikes just the right tone. A beautiful film.

2. The Deep Blue Sea (2011) - Davies ****: A sad and tragic look at the life of a woman caught between comfort and passion, and not able to settle into either. Rachel Weisz gives the best performance of the year by an actress. She's amazing, and the cinematography and score are memorably impressive.

1. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - Bigelow ****: 2012's most perfect film. Bigelow and Chastain hit all the right notes and the film connects viscerally and emotionally for its entire running length. Unforgettable. Sure to rouse opinions from anyone who sees it.

And here's all the rest of the new releases that I saw from 2012, with a short blurb of what I liked or didn't like about them.

Anna Karenina (2012) - Wright ** 1/2: Great cinematography and set design, but rings hollow.

Arbitrage (2012) - Jarecki ***: Fine performances in this taut little suspenser.

Argo (2012) - Affleck ** 1/2: Empty entertainment and one of the most overrated films of the year.

Bernie (2012) - Linklater ***: Brilliant performance by Jack Black in this quirky film.

Brave (2012) - Andrews ***: Fine family fare. My kids love this one.

Compliance (2012) - Zobel * 1/2: Yucky and sensationalist.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) - Nolan * 1/2: Bloated and overrated beyond compare.

Django Unchained (2012) - Tarantino ** 1/2: Half-hearted Tarantino.

The Five Year Engagement (2012) - Stoller ***: Solid rom-com and really funny.

Flight (2012) - Zemeckis **: A film that doesn't know what point to make.

Footnote (2011) - Cedar ***: Funny and smart film from Israel.

Found Memories (2011) - Murat ** 1/2: No real drive or importance.

Goodbye First Love (2012) - Hansen-Love **: Cliched and forgettable.

The Grey (2012) - Carnahan ***: Solid actioner that gets better throughout.

Haywire (2012) - Soderbergh ** 1/2: Action film that doesn't leave one with any impression.

Hitchcock (2012) - Gervasi ** 1/2: Entertaining but there's no reason for its existence.

The Hobbit (2012) - Jackson **: Boooorrrrring.

Holy Motors (2012) - Carax ***: Interesting experiment. Not wholly successful but excellent in parts.

Hope Springs (2012) - Frankel * 1/2: What were Streep and Jones thinking? Steve Carrell miscast.

The Hunger Games (2012) - Ross ***: One of 2012's funnest movies.

The Impossible (2012) - Bayona ** 1/2: Too short for the material. A bit offputting at the end too.

The Kid with the Bike (2011) - Dardennes ** 1/2: More of the same from the Dardennes.

Killer Joe (2012) - Friedkin * 1/2: VERY atmospheric, but ultimately sort of ugly for ugly's sake.

Killing Them Softly (2012) - Dominik ** 1/2: One of 2012's great misfires.

A Late Quartet (2012) - Zilberman ** 1/2: I didn't believe the actors as accomplished musicians.

Lawless (2012) - Hillcoat **: Unnecessarily violent and wasted the talent of good actors.

Les Miserables (2012) - Hooper ***: A very solid musical filled with good performances.

The Life of Pi (2012) - Lee ***: Inspiring and solid film.

Looper (2012) - Johnson **: Back to the Future meets Blade Runner.....with poor results.

Monsieur Lazhar (2011) - Falardeau ***: Moving portrait of a class and a teacher.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) - Ceylon ***: Solid film if a bit overrated.

Oslo, August 31st (2011) - Trier ** 1/2: Retread of The Fire Within misses the mark for me.

The Paperboy (2012) - Daniels *: 2012's WORST movie.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012) - Chbosky ***: Solid second half and Watson is great.

Prometheus (2012) - Scott ** 1/2: Entertaining film, but not up to Alien or Aliens.

Rust and Bone (2012) - Audiard ***: Solid performances and fine cinematography.

Skyfall (2012) - Mendes ** 1/2: Does Bond have to be SO SERIOUS?

Take This Waltz (2011) - Polley ***: Uneven, but has some great elements and Williams is amazing.

To Rome with Love (2012) - Allen ***: Really funny and touching film from Woody.

The Turin Horse (2011) - Tarr ***: Worth another look someday. Might be better on repeat viewing.

The Well-Digger's Daughter (2012) - Auteuil ***: Elegant and beautiful melodrama.

Friday, April 12, 2013

One, Two, Three (1961) - Directed by Billy Wilder

This post is being re-run, with some added thoughts, in honor of The James Cagney Blogothon, hosted by The Movie Projector. 

Several of Billy Wilder's films are significant works and among the greatest films of all time.   His output, particularly up through the early 1960’s is a cavalcade of great movies. I wonder, though, if One, Two, Three qualifies as underrated? It certainly qualifies as a masterful satirical comedy, one of Wilder’s downright funniest films. But it gets lost in the shuffle. Preceding its 1961 release, there was the 1-2 punch of Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), arguably Wilder’s best films, containing the electricity of stars like Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, and Shirley MacLaine. One, Two, Three may not get the same attention because it stars an aging James Cagney, Horst Buchholz, Pamela Tiffin, Arlene Francis, and Liselotte Pulver. But Cagney turns in one of his greatest and funniest performances here. Was the man ever funnier than in this film? Was he ever more fiery, passionate, and amazing than in this film? It is as much a crowning achievement for him in his career as it is another Wilder masterpiece. But it's Cagney's performance that makes the material really work.

Oh the hilarious joys of this film are a sheer delight. Based on a one-act Hungarian play from 1929 and a plot sort of borrowed from Ninotchka (1939) (which Wilder co-wrote), Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond wrote this script which revolves around C.R. MacNamera (Cagney), an executive for Coca-Cola who is based in West Berlin. He’s aiming for a head job leading Western Europe and is banking on his proposed introduction of Coke to the Soviet Union as his ultimate achievement to get the promotion. He also has a wife (Arlene Francis) and 2 kids at home. C.R. gets a call from the home base in Atlanta from his boss Mr. Hazeltine in Atlanta saying that he’s sending his daughter Scarlett (Pamela Tiffin) to Europe and wants her to stay with the MacNameras. C.R. reluctantly takes the responsibility. He realizes he’s into a huge mess, though, after Scarlett winds up falling in love with and marrying a communist named Otto Piffl (Horst Buchholz) while in Berlin under his watch. MacNamera has further complications when Mr. Hazeltine comes to visit and MacNamera has only a few hours to turn the Communist into a distinguished European gentleman before Mr. Hazeltine arrives.

Most of this film’s comedy is a satirical hodge-podge filled with communist jokes, but no one is really spared. Everything from American patriotism to Nazism is given full assault here: MacNamera’s assistant named Schlemmer, who repeatedly clicks his heals together every time he’s given a command; his secretary who provides fringe benefits; Otto Piffle’s hilarious communist pronouncements; Scarlett’s southern heritage; even the spread of mega-corporations globally and the use of lavish gifts and under-the-table bribes. It’s all played at an uproarious pace, especially in the blistering second half, on the level of traditional screwball comedies like His Girl Friday (1940) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). Of course it’s all rather silly and over-the-top, but this sort of material begs for this treatment.

This film ultimately belongs to James Cagney, though. This would be the last film he would appear in until Ragtime (1981), but it’s arguably his greatest performance in any film that I've ever seen him in. He simply owns this film and devours it beginning to end. His lightning paced dialogue and snappy timing are simply stunning and on the order of supernatural. There’s a scene toward the end of the film where he’s rattling off a list of items needed acquiring to his secretary and the delivery is astoundingly quick and punchy. You take pause and marvel at him as you watch it. It might be my single favorite Cagney moment of all time. How the heck could he talk that fast and still be coherent? For most of the film he is worked up into a gloriously nervous lather. His character is rather a conniving rat, but he’s pure fun to watch! For those with the background information, look for some humorous nods to previous films that Cagney appeared in. Also, a couple things of note as I did a bit of background on this. Apparently, Cagney hated Buchholz, saying of him, “this Horst Buchholz character I truly loathed. Had he kept on with his little scene-stealing didoes, I would have been forced to knock him on his ass, which I would have very much enjoyed doing." Another thing of note is that at the beginning of Wilder’s shoot in Berlin, the Berlin Wall was just being built. Thus, the tone in relations between nations as the film was released went south, causing the film to fail at the box office. It really should be seen though and is not only one of Wilder’s best films, but one of the all-time great comedies from this era, even presaging the Cold War lampooning that Kubrick would examine in his masterful Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). But the most memorable thing about the film is Cagney. His remarkable talent and timing is on display here in all it's perfection.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Roger Ebert....R.I.P.

If I could name any film critic that had an influence on me, it would be Roger Ebert. I think it was his conversational approach and emotional honesty. Something was personal for me when I read his words. I felt like even if I disagreed with him, I still always understood where he was coming from. Just yesterday I read his most recent blog post where he admitted that cancer had come upon him again. Yet he was still so optimistic. We have lost him now. This is a sad day.

On two occasions I met the man. I attended the University of Illinois, his alma mater. While there, I had the opportunity to volunteer for his "Ebertfest", which was his film festival that he holds every year in April at the glorious Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign, IL. I remember greeting him and opening the door for him at the back of the theater, as I was a "crowd-support" volunteer. It was at the beginning of the opening night showing of Patton, back in 2002. He was gracious to me.

A few years later, while living in Chicago, I went to see him speak at a Barnes and Noble store, at the Orchard Creek Mall, back in 2005. Well he was signing my copy of his "Great Movies volume I" and I told him that I had a lot of fun volunteering at his festival. He told me that he really appreciated my help and thanked me for that.

In the book, he signed it, "Thanks for Ebertfest".....Roger Ebert.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) - Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Wow. Is there a better way to describe this film? Is it possible to have a one-word review of a film? Wow. Maybe that’s all that’s needed. It’s hard to know where to start when talking about this one. Do you talk about its sheer massiveness? Do you talk about the acting? Do you talk about the brilliant lighting and cinematography? What about the captivating musical score? Or maybe it’s best to just start with Rainer Werner Fassbinder himself? The man was so prolific during his short career that it’s nearly hard to take in everything (or even to find it all). He made over 40 films in roughly a decade. And perhaps his greatest achievement is this film, Berlin Alexanderplatz. In the annals of epic filmmaking, Berlin Alexanderplatz makes most “epic” films seem very small indeed. Clocking in at 940 minutes, including 13 “episodes” and 1 epilogue, it is as big and epic as they come. And that’s an understatement.

Originally aired as a mini-series on German TV, this film has finally become more accessible with Criterion’s release several years ago, in a huge 7 disc set. I have watched it for the first time, after spending the last couple years digging through Fassbinder’s canon of films. I’m actually glad I waited to see this until now, because I feel like I was better able to appreciate the scope and breadth of the film and understand how the themes and design of the work fits with Fassbinder's other works. Based on Alfred Doblin’s novel of the same name, Fassbinder’s film details the troubled life of the hulking man-child Franz Biberkopf (an unforgettable Gunter Lamprecht), from his murder of his girlfriend, to being released from prison, his delving into alcoholism, and troubled relationships with various women, involvement with a group of criminals where he ends up losing his right arm due to an accident. In the film’s final episodes, he finds fleeting love with a beautiful woman he calls Mieze (Barbara Sukowa), but she meets an untimely death, whereupon his despair is unquenchable. In the absolutely outrageous 2-hour epilogue, we see his experiences in a hell-like place, where he is subjected to horrific visions and experiences as one of cinema’s most unrelenting, and unforgettable passages is told.

I’m not so sure that the film could necessarily be considered enjoyable per se. But it’s the sheer weight of the thing and the incredible command of the screen and the material that Fassbinder puts on display that makes it so good. I started out watching episodes rather infrequently, but as I worked my way through, I found it to be more and more compelling and watched with more rapid fervor. What
Fassbinder is able to do with such a long running time is create a literary arc. Rewards for watching this film come from the depth, slowly built throughout the story just as one would find in a great novel, and it really compares very well to literary storytelling, perhaps even more than cinema itself.  If you asked me to pick a few favorite episodes, I would probably choose 7 and 11 as my personal favorites. Episode 7 is filled with some incredible lighting and suspense, and contains some of the best acting in the entire series. Episode 11 remains unforgettable due to the knock-down drag-out fight between Franz and Mieze. This extended moment of conflict and human violence is incredibly troubling, as he nearly kills his love out of jealousy and rage, but simultaneously "loves" her all the same throughout. It is a devastating scene and one of cinema’s most memorable clashes, as they brawl along the floor for what seems like an eternity. Mieze’s screaming pleas at the top of her lungs echo as an expression of life’s pain and misery. It is a moment of pure, agonizing release.

But that scene is also a microcosm of Fassbinder’s filmmaking. His stuff is often difficult to watch. His approach is often very raw, awkward, and nakedly emotional, leaving one feeling uncomfortable and troubled. At times the film is all of these things: glorious, breathtaking, inspirational, but also annoying, disturbing and exasperating. One cannot sit and watch this film passively. This is a film that will slap you in the face and shake you up repeatedly. And I realize it’s also probably not everyone’s cup of tea.  There is no arguing with the high degree of acting quality on display though, and this film contains a cavalcade of Fassbinder regulars….everyone from Gottfried John, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Brigitte Mira, Volker Spengler, to the absolutely perfect Barbara Sukowa as Mieze and Hanna Schygulla as Eva. Every performance in the film is spot-on and there isn’t a weak link in the bunch for the entire 15 hours. Furthermore, the lighting and cinematography adds emotional and psychological depth. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the musical score, by Peer Rabin, which is haunting and enigmatic throughout. After hearing so much about this film for several years, I was thinking it would be hard to live up to expectations, but this film surpasses them. It is without a doubt, one of the very best films ever made.