Reviewed: Days of Heaven

I was interested in the work of Terrence Malick after seeing Tree of Life.  As I started watching his much earlier film Days of Heaven, I was at first reminded of Ron Howard’s Far and Away: young lovers brought together and separated by the the trials of pioneer life in an earlier American era, set against the gorgeous backdrops of that unsullied wilderness.

But where Howard’s movie was a fun bit of pop celluloid, Malick’s is art.

The style is wholly ambitious.  Not unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey in this sense, he uses dialogue sparsely, and constructs a deceptively simple plot.  Much of the film’s meaning is communicated symbolically through the physical environment on which the story is imposed.

Days of Heaven begins in fire: the furnaces of a factory and the violence that attends them.  After this prologue, we enter the paradise promised in the title; indeed, the story’s central act is truly a season of heaven on earth, one of those times in life where everything is perfect and you just lose yourself in the rapture of it all.

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2013: My Year in Film

I got out of the habit of keeping track of what I watched last year.  I’m back in it, but for now, here are the first 12 movies I can remember seeing for the first time last year, in alphabetical order:

 

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

So much swashbuckling fun!  Actually saw this as a little kid, but couldn’t remember much about it; watched this with the fam now, and everybody loved it.  Errol Flynn is the perfect Robin Hood (“You speak treason!” “…Fluently.”)

Strange to contrast this with 1991′s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a movie so bad I hadn’t bothered to see it again since then, and when I did this year, I thought it was even worse.  From the constant hero shots of Costner’s mullet, to the weird ways they contort their own screenplay to find excuses to use Morgan Freeman’s character, this is a sad, obvious bunch of clichés.  What a joke.  At least Alan Rickman knew enough to ham it up.

10/10 (the 1938 version!)

 

Babette’s Feast (Danish, 1987)

My main train of thought watching this was how different–and how much worse–this would have been as an American production.  In a Hollywood version, Babette would have been a sexy cougar whose metaphorically erotic orgy of food would have “liberated” all the “narrow-minded prudes” around her, freeing them all to “be who they really are.”

As it is, Babette’s Feast is far more subtle, realistic, and, therefore, moving.

8/10

 

Ikiru (Japanese, 1952)

Honestly, I didn’t see what the big deal about this Kurosawa classic was for most of the film.  Sure, it was poignant and beautiful, but not earth-shatteringly so.  Until the final act.  That daring bit of directorial bravado–where tipsy mourners at the protagonist’s wake review his final days, intercut with scenes of the great living in question–profoundly impressed me.  Genuinely insightful and impressive.

Another contrast with a hypothetical American version: in Hollywood, Watanabe would have had a love affair with Toyo in the second act, finding his passion for life in the arms of a young woman.  How sad that we’re so predictable.

10/10

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See Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter

Remembering legendary actor Peter O’Toole, everyone calls up his role in Lawrence of Arabia.  Rightfully so, as it may still be the screen’s most breathtaking epic.

But I’d suggest another work to cinephiles who would celebrate his legacy.

1968′s The Lion in Winter is one of my favorite classics.  O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn spend two hours flawlessly firing some of history’s most viciously barbed language at each other.  No movie before or since has had such deliciously venomous dialogue, and these titans of stage and screen relish every line with sadistic aplomb.  Cold blooded fun!

 

Winter Light and the Light of Christ

This week I finally saw Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light.  What a beautiful film, in many ways.  I absolutely loved it.

The most striking part, though, was a scene near the end where a supporting character gets his screen time to talk to our protagonist, a pastor plagued by doubt and melancholy.  The church sexton confesses to the pastor that our apparent understanding of Christ’s suffering is superficial, limited to the cross.

He wonders if the emotional suffering of Gethsemane, and the spiritual elements of the crucifixion might not have been worse.  He describes these scriptural details in a way that deeply intensifies the Lord’s suffering.

I sat up pretty straight during this scene.  His confused reaching for truth brings him so close to a Latter-day Saint knowledge of the Atonement.  I wanted to tap him on the shoulder and talk about the Book of Mormon.  I wanted to show him Jeffrey R. Holland’s Easter talk below.

Sadly, YouTube doesn’t have a clip of just this scene.  It starts around 7:00 in the 7th video in the linked playlist, and runs about 40 seconds into the 8th.

Winter Light YouTube playlist

“Then He Kissed Me”

I’ve never seen GoodFellas, but I found this scene on YouTube when looking for this old song by the Crystals.  What a work of art!  Scorcese perfectly uses the period music and adoring, long tracking shot to establish this guy’s bravado, in the service of impressing a girl.

I mean, when a club holds a table for you, you’re powerful, but when they build a new one in front when you show up, that’s serious!

But the technical artistry here is the best part.  Getting that shot must have been tough, but it was worth it.  It’s a joy to watch.

Reminds me of this long tracking shot from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil:

But, of course, like all kids who grew up in the 80′s, “Then He Kissed Me” mostly reminds me of the opening of Adventures in Babysitting:

Stanley Kubrick Presents the Complete Works of James Joyce

As I recently finished reading a survey of Joyce’s writings, it occurred to me that each of his four majors works could be compared to the four major acts of Kubrick’s film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, in order.

= Dubliners

A critical care for presenting a realistic story gives us the first stage of the work.  The inhabitants of this place are frustrated and stunted.  The Kubrickian monolith is equivalent to the Joycean epiphany.  Ironically, where the epiphanies of Joyce only instigate paralysis, the monoliths of 2001 catalyze a quantum leap in evolution.

= A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Here we see a truly new style (or, at least, a recent style perfected)–Joyce’s stream of consciousness and Kubrick’s special effects ballet.  Each work is a seamless, totally integrated work of ambitious art, where every facet contributes to the whole united  message.  Each work, thematically and in its plot, is about man moving onward and upward.

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2012: My Year in Movies

I saw 70 movies in 2012.  Here they are, with the date viewed, and how much I enjoyed each, on a scale of 1-10.  Looks like I gave five movies that I saw for the first time a perfect ten (tens are in italics). It was also a pretty good year for foreign film:

 

1. Tito and Me (Serbian), 1/2–8

2. Eyes Without a Face (French), 1/4–7

3. Cowboys and Aliens, 1/6–7

4. Through a Glass Darkly (Swedish), 1/7–6

5. The Madness of King George, 1/11–10

6. The Secret of Kells, 1/12–8

7. Touch of Evil, 1/14–7

8. Richard III (1956), 1/18–8

9.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 1/20–8

10.  Russian Ark (Russian…duh), 1/23–9

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Classic Chariots of Fire Scene

I love how this scene illustrates both the free joy and excruciating focus of running.  I wish the clip included the bit of speaking in the chapel at the very start–it’s a great setup to the beach run.  Still, a memorable scene of boundless youthful energy in its prime, set in a pristine, bygone time and place.  Perfect intro to a fantastic film.

Classic Battleship Potemkin Scene

Saw this film recently: provocative propaganda, with this scene as the most moving.  For an 87 year-old movie, it’s remarkably frank in its depiction of violence.  No modern movie would show the baby carriage keeling over like that.

Black & White Gives More Color

As an English teacher, I sometimes show black and white movies in class, which almost always elicits groans and complaints from most of the students.  Something I usually tell them is to notice how well black and white can create sharp contrasts and evocative atmospheres in settings, far more so than color can.

I like to use the first few minutes of Citizen Kane as an example of this–try imagining those exterior shots in color.  It would lose all of its intimidating power.

 

This summer I’ve seen David Lean’s 1948 version of Oliver Twist, and it makes the same point.  Those first few minutes out on the stormy moors wouldn’t be half so gloomy if they were in some glossy, digital HD rainbow.

Funky Science Fiction!

I recently rewatched one of my favorite movies, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I intended to read while it played, and just look up when the “best” parts came on, but I was instantly hooked again.  I had to to gaze, amazed, at every second.  Some parts of act III lag a bit, but it’s still a stunning masterpiece.

Anyway, watching that reminded me of Eumir Deodato’s jazz-infused reinterpretation of Straus’s famous theme used in the film.  Deodato took the 1896 piece of music, which Kubrick used in his 1968 movie about 2001, and remixed it in 1972.  So something from the past that was used to represent our future–which is now also in our past–was updated for a modern setting, which itself is now part of our past as well. And I was introduced to this song by my septuagenarian mother.

Talk about time warps!  Man, that just blew my mind.  It’s like watching 2001 or something.

 

Best Bond Fight In Best Bond Movie

I say that the best James Bond movie was 1963′s From Russia With Love.  My favorite scene is the fight on the Orient Express.

The trend in film has always been for fights to become more and more stylized, but this fight scene is the perfect balance of choreography and brutal, realistic brawling.  Add to that the fact that the scene is done in a confined space, in the dark, and you’ve really got a classic action achievement here.  Just shy of half a century has passed since this one came out, and it’s still one of the best fight scenes ever shot.

 

Cast Away

I watched this a few weeks ago, and it’s the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.  Not too many actors could have sold the scene of mourning for Wilson so authentically, grieving for a lost volleyball.

 

 

Just as impressive is the quiet speech Hanks gives about the inspiring power of endurance.  In the hands of many actors, it would have come off as melodramatic, but Hanks delivers it with majestic understatement.

 

 

Speaking of majestic understatement, I can’t think of another film where the musical score so perfectly complemented the film in style and substance.  This hauntingly hollow track gives me goosebumps; its sparse spaces are full of depth:

 

 

But before this appreciation gets too full of itself, here’s a classic commercial joke based on the film:

 

How Modern Russian Cinema Evolved From Orson Welles

Just saw Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil last month.  This impressive opening scene is the best part of the movie.  A lot of technical wizardry must have gone into making this long tracking shot work–not to mention tons of rehearsal.

Even more impressive, though, is the 2002 film Russian Ark, which I also saw last month.  A hypnotic tour of the Hermitage from the point of view of a ghost who slips around in time with no transition other than moving from room to room of the huge art museum / royal residence, the entire film is composed of a single shot.  It’s the only feature film ever done like this, and it’s fascinating.  Especially great for art lovers–hundreds of masterpieces are lovingly showcased throughout. Below is the first 13 minutes, plus part of a “making of” documentary.