Movie Roundup: Super Capsule Edition

Usually with these roundups I like to devote more than a couple sentences to each film. But once again I’ve fallen way behind and am playing catchup, so we’ll try to speed through this as quickly as possible.

The Immortal Story – Late Orson Welles made for TV movie based on an Isak Dinesen story. Fine performances from Jeanne Moreau and Welles himself, and interesting story and a lack of typical Wellsian flourishes make for a fine, if not necessarily great film. The #7 film of 1968.

Moby Dick – John Huston’s adaptation of the Melville classic that I’ve still only made it halfway through, despite three attempts (the last was a decade ago). Orson Welles is great as the thundering preacher, and Gregory Peck makes a fine Ahab (though he was apparently panned at the time) but otherwise just an above-average literary translation. The #12 film of 1956.

Broken Blossoms – DW Griffith classic about an abused wife who finds refuge with a Chinese storekeeper, which ends in tragedy. Relatively racism-free, for Griffith, and a touching melodrama, actually quite a beautiful film. The world would be a better place if this was the film Griffith was most remembered for.

Little Women – Pedestrian literary adaptation enlivened by the perhaps too on the nose casting of Katherine Hepburn as Jo, her 19th Century doppelganger.

The Man Who Knew Too Much – I’d resisted seeing this Hitchcock remake of his own 1930s British film for such a long time, that it likely couldn’t help being surprisingly good. James Stewart is as good as ever, but Doris Day’s the real shocker with a fine performance as a mother caught up in international intrigue. The #5 film of 1956.

My Name Is Julia Ross – Very fine psychological noir film about a secretary who gets brainwashed into thinking she’s a rich guy’s wife. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis, a B movie auteur worthy of further study (his Gun Crazy is terrific).

Little Miss Sunshine – Generic indie comedy that somehow won a massive audience and a number of Oscar nominations despite its mediocre, cliche-ridden and generally messy script. The #27 film of 2006.

Madame de. . . – Max Ophuls masterpiece about a pair of earrings winding their way through high society infidelity. Gorgeous camera movements, fine performances from Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio Di Sica.

The Kid – Very fine Chaplin comedy/melodrama in which the Little Tramp comes to adopt an orphan. Jackie Cooper gives a tear-inducing performance and Chaplin’s in top form both in physical comedy and in his unique ability to sidestep maudlin in even the most sentimental works.

A King In New York – Late Chaplin about a deposed monarch who flees to America and is overwhelmed by modernity. Some very fine setpieces (Chaplin as TV advertiser, and a communist propaganda-spouting child are the funniest bits). The #7 film of 1957.

Blonde Venus – Marlene Dietrich and director Josef von Sternberg combine for this melodramatic tale of infidelity and a mother on the run. Dietrich’s as great as ever as an ex-showgirl who goes back to work to make money for a life-saving operation for her husband. But while he’s away, she has an affair with another man. When the husband returns, he chases her all over the country to get his kid back. Overlong, but still good.

The Heroes Of Telemark – Decent enough WW2 action film set in Norway as the Allies try to blow up some Nazi reactors to prevent them from developing heavy water (necessary for an atomic bomb). Entertaining, but I expect better from director Anthony Mann. The #17 film of 1965.

The Train – This is more like it. Burt Lancaster leads a group of French Resistance trying to prevent Paul Scofield’s Nazi commander from stealing precious works of art during the last stages of WW2. Lancaster and friends try every means possible to stop Scofield’s train, without damaging the art. Lots of train wrecks and some exciting action and a fine supporting cast that includes Jeanne Moreau and Michel Simon. Lancaster’s really grown on me in the last year or so, I know longer hate him. Directed by John Frankenheimer. The #11 film of 1964.

New Rose Hotel – Ahead of its time noir from director Abel Ferrera stars Christopher Walken (in one of his great wacky performances) and Willem Dafoe as corporate espionage guys who hire Asia Argento to seduce a scientist and get him to move to another company. Has to be seen to be believed, the last 20 minutes are bizarre and wonderful. The #13 film of 1998.

The Quiet American – Joseph Mankiewicz’s adaptation of the Graham Greene story about a cynical Brit and idealistic American (who may be a CIA agent) in Vietnam and the woman they both love. A beautiful film with excellent performances by Michael Redgrave and Audie Murphy. I haven’t seen the remake yet, but it’d be hard to top. The #6 film of 1958.

Pan’s Labyrinth – Quite overrated. Sloppy story construction is totally not excused by the film being a “fairy tale”. Del Toro makes it clear in the end that the whole fantastical aspect of it is in the girl’s imagination (the objective shot in the climactic scene showing her talking to empty space). Really, I found the whole thing ugly and depressing. The editing is great though, I love the creative use of the wipe and Del Toro uses it a lot, to great effect. The #20 film of 2006.

Man Of The West – Mediocre Western starring the always(?) mediocre Gary Cooper. Anthony Mann made far better films, I was just never into it. Maybe I should give it another shot? The #13 film of 1958.

Some Came Running – Fine combination of Vincente Minnelli and James Jones, as Frank Sinatra plays a writer who returns to his small town after the war only to get himself into trouble along with Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine. The #11 film of 1958.

Pal Joey – Another Sinatra film, this time as a wanna-be club owner torn between the rich and vicious Rita Hayworth and the poor and honest Kim Novak. The great Rodgers & Hart soundtrack elevates it quite a bit. The #10 film of 1957.

Unknown Pleasures – Probably the most accessible of Jia Zhang-ke’s films, as it has a lot in common with a lot of other films, most notably Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye. Young Chinese unemployed, flirting with lives of crime and angst, beautifully filmed with fine performances. The least weighty Jia film I’ve seen, but still pretty great. The #6 film of 2002.

The Trial – Some flashy Wellesness, great creepy modernist architecture, a very good performance from Anthony Perkins and some weird supporting work from Welles, Jeanne Moreau, and Akim Tamiroff. But, in the end, it’s a Kafka adaptation and my enjoyment of it is dependent on how I’m feeling about Kafka. And I like Welles better than Kafka. The #12 film of 1962.

Paisan – Six-part Roberto Rossellini film about the conquest of Italy in World War 2. Unusual for this type of film, I actually really liked every section. Some great action and suspense sequences (the opening story in a castle, the story about a woman attempting to reach her husband) and very moving non-action sequences (the bonding between an African-American soldier and an orphan who steals his shoes, a priest a rabbi and a minister having dinner in a monastery). One of the best war movies I’ve seen.

Europa 51 – Ingrid Bergman plays a high society housewife so distraught be the tragic death of her son that she dedicates her life to helping the poor. Quite naturally, her family has her declared insane and locks her in an institution. Great performance from Bergman in another terrific Rossellini film.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated – Mediocre documentary about the MPAA. The director hires a PI to track down the secret MPAA members for way too much of the film, as if anyone cares what they look like. The stuff about the history of the organization and the examples of their wacky decisions and decision-making processes is interesting though. The #26 film of 2006.

One Week/The High Sign – A pair of Buster Keaton shorts. The High Sign has a great climax as Keaton bests a house full of assassins with some amazing stunts, and One Week is a lot of fun with a build-it-yourself house gone horribly wrong. Not as brilliant as the best Keaton, but still very physically impressive.

Spiderman 3 – An entertaining enough mess of a film. One villain too long, and James Franco doing his best to fight Hayden Christensen for the title of The Worst Actor Of His Generation. The middle section homage to Saturday Night Fever and The Nutty Professor is the funniest part, but Tobey Maguire is generally speaking, pretty bad. Kirsten Dunst does a fine job of looking cute and singing terribly, though,

A Prairie Home Companion – Perhaps the most human of all Robert Altman films, he abandons his steady microscopic zooms for a camera the fluidly moves around the mise-en-scene like recent Hou Hsiao-hsien. A film explicitly about death and the lovable Midwestern existential acceptance of it. A perfect little film from a man who specialized in big messy films. The #4 film of 2006.

Mudhoney – Like Baby Doll on acid. Russ Meyer’s Southern Gothic horror film (can I call it that?) about a drifter who gets entangled in an exploitation web of God, sex and violence. Not quite as exhilerating as the first 20 minutes of Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!, but a better film on the whole. The #9 film of 1965.

The Reluctant Debutante – Terrifically charming Vincente Minnelli film about a young girl (Sandra Dee), raised in America, who enters British high society at the insistence of her step-mother (Kay Kendall) to upstage her rival (Angela Lansbury). Of course, she falls in love with the wrong guy, and it’s up to her father, wonderfully played by Rex Harrison, (who abhors all the nonsense, but goes along with it anyway) to fix things. Fun and entertaining, with some great Minnelli color and compositions (I recall a certain lamp quite particularly). The #7 film of 1958.

Tropical Maladay – Mesmerizing masterpiece from the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The first half is a fairly typical gay romance, set in the forests, factories and caves of rural Thailand. The second half reenacts the emotional arc of the first, while resolving its psychological complications with a eerie and suspenseful mythological cat and mouse game between a soldier (one of the men from the first part) and a shadowy panther. The #5 film of 2004.

The Quatermass Xperiment – British sci-fi film that was apparently the first of a whole series of Quatermass films. Astronauts come back to space infected with some kind of alien plant life that threatens to kill us all. The #21 film of 1951.

The Garden Of Allah – The beautiful gold tones of two-strip Technicolor are about the only highlight of this Marlene Dietrich melodrama about a priest on the run who marries a saintly woman (Dietrich, if you can buy that). Also stars Basil Rathbone and Charles Boyer.

The Mating Season – Thelma Ritter (Pickup On South Street, Rear Window) gives yet another standout performance in this Mitchell Leisen comedy about a hamburger stand owning woman who goes to visit his son and his new rich wife (Gene Tierney) and through some mistaken identity, ends up as the maid. Sweet and funny.

Superman Returns – Better than any of the current cycle of superhero films, and the best since Batman Returns.
I had kind of the opposite reaction to it that I’ve had to the Spiderman trilogy. With those films, the action and effects are great, but the melodrama is dull, repetitive and all-around unbearable. In Superman, though, I really dug the drama and thought the effects were kinda lame, dare I say cartoonish. There’s a real dramatic problem with Superman, in that he’s essentially perfect and invincible. The Kryptonite plot is OK for one film, but if they make a sequel they need to follow the lead of Superman II and give him some extra-terrestrial villains to fight. I dug the whole Superman as God/Christ motif, I thought it ran through the film at a nice, not quite beating you over the head level. It raises but doesn’t really answer some interesting questions about the role of heroes/saints in modern life. The performances were fine all around, with nobody really sticking out, though I think Kate Bosworth had the same problem Katie Holmes had in Batman Begins: namely that she’s not really believable as an adult. The #8 film of 2006.

Bienvenue a Cannes – TCM documentary about the Cannes Film Festival has some good anecdotes and gossip, but ultimately isn’t very insightful about the history of the festival or the films that have played there. Kind of like that foreign film montage at the Academy Awards last year that reduced the history of non-American cinema to the most boring and maudlin films the US could find.

Mutual Appreciation – A worthy addition to the existential slacker comedy genre that I’m generationally predisposed to be a fan of. Director Andrew Bujalski shows some real skill as he gets surprisingly good (considering how indie the movie is) performances from his actors and keeps an slow, but never boring, pace to the film, creating a believeable reality out of it all. The #5 film of 2005.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley – So much better than I expected. Ken Loach’s Palme d’or winner at last year’s Cannes film festival is pretty much a perfect historical epic. Cillian Murphy stars as a young doctor who joins the post-World War I IRA, becomes increasingly radical and eventually finds himself on the wrong side of the civil war over the creation of the Irish Free State. Essentially the micro story of Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, except with all the Hollywood touches stripped away leaving a raw core of historical realism and melodrama. The #2 film of 2006, though that may change. I’ve only seen it one and a half times and I’ve seen Miami Vice several more, but this may very well be the better film.

The Alamo – John Wayne’s directorial effort is a by-the-numbers telling of the fate of the famous mission and its Texican defenders. Wayne plays Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark is Sam Bowie and Laurence Harvey as Col. Travis. It takes way too long to get going, and Wayne doesn’t appear to have much of an eye, though the transfer shown on TCM wasn’t particularly good. The #17 film of 1960.

Once More, With Feeling! – Stanley Donen’s light comedy stars Yul Brenner as an over-the-top maestro and Kay Kendall as his longtime girlfriend who breaks up with him after an apparent infidelity. Through a variety of plot contrivances, the two have to get married and then get divorced. Pleasant, but unremarkable. The #13 film of 1960.

The Glass Bottom Boat – Zany Frank Tashlin comedy starring Doris Day and Rod Taylor (along with a thin Dom DeLuise and Dick Martin, from Laugh-In). Taylor’s a NASA scientist who may or may not suspect Day of being a KGB agent. Wackiness ensues. 60s comedies are very strange, I don’t know that I quite understand them. But the most shocking discovery: Doris Day is hot. The #12 film of 1966.

The Edge Of The World – Early Michael Powell film about the last days of a small island north of Scotland. Some fine scenery and decent performances, the story’s kind of a poor man’s How Green Was My Valley. The editing is out of control though. I’d never noticed such an Eisentstein influence on Powell before, it’s a good thing he lost it later, as it’s just way too much here. On the meagre evidence of this and Peeping Tom (both very fine films), I’d have to say Powell needed Pressburger.

Where Eagles Dare – Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood star in this mediocre WW2 action film about spies and assassins and a daring assault on a Nazi castle high in the mountains. The plot twists left and right, but the direction (by Brian G. Hutton, who did Kelly’s Heroes and the Tom Selleck masterpiece The High Road To China) is pedestrian and clunky. Burton and Eastwood deserved better. The #16 film of 1968.

Still Life – As yet unreleased in the US is Jia Zhangke’s most recent film, about a two people from Shanxi each searching for people in and around the town of Fengjie, as it’s in the process of being dismantled to make way for the flooding caused by the Three Gorges Dam. Might be Jia’s most beautiful film thus far. At least in terms of the colors he gets out of the digital camera, it ranks with Miami Vice as the best digital movie I’ve seen. The deliberately-paced realism is lifted into the sublime by a few shots I refuse to give away until more people have a chance to see it. The #5 film of 2006.

Where Danger Lives – Decent enough John Farrow noir starring Robert Mitchum as a doctor who gets suckered by a crazy woman. Her husband ends up dead and the two of them try to flee to Mexico, while Mitchum’s got a concussion and the girl gets crazier and crazier. Great supporting actors are largely wasted in much too small roles, namely Claude Rains and Farrow’s wife, Maureen O’Sullivan.

At Cinema’s End

Ryland’s got his review of Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End up at The House Next Door (Warning: There Be Spoilers!), so I’d thought I’d kick in the two cents I wrote last week about the film, in response to complaints that the two sequels are such much messier than the tidy first film (an aspect Ryland touches on as well).

The messiness of it, the sheer crazy incomprehensible insanity of the whole enterprise is exactly what I love about Pirates 2 & 3. I thought the first one was alright, but aside from Depp, it was pretty standard. These last two though, are just all over the map.

So many action/adventure blockbuster movies are straightforward and earnest and linear, full of exposition and tearful Tobeys. The last two Pirates, though, are wholly unique. Avant-garde summer blockbusters that are in every way Anti-Ratners.

I thought of two films while watching At World’s End, and the first is Miami Vice, a beautiful, expositionless tone poem of a film in an action movie’s clothing. Pirates 3 is a beautiful film, with some fascinating imagery and only tops the intricately complex and deep compositions of the second one, especially in the action sequences. The baroque Looney Tunes stunts within frames of overwhelming detail are always stunning, the only action sequence I’ve seen equal it is in the opening shots of Revenge Of The Sith.

Which is a nice segue to the second movie I was reminded of . . . Star Wars (oh yeah, I said it). We ran Star Wars at the theatre Tuesday night for the staff (for the anniversary: the original, non-Special Edition one, naturally). I was struck again by just how relentless the last half of the film is, and how little information there is to orient the viewer. It’s just one action sequence after another, with the bare minimum of information conveyed as efficiently as possible in a few lines of dialogue to connect the action. Now, the Pirates films aren’t as good as Star Wars (I’m not that crazy). But they’re clearly following the same model and I think they work for the same reason.

I just find the anti-Pirates camp to be inexplicable. Too me, it’s like saying there weren’t enough explosions in Citizen Kane. I don’t understand what it is they expect . . . a straightforward narrative? Bleh. Give me chaos instead any day.

And all of this is not to mention the fascinating web of ideological explorations in the Pirates films. Many a master’s thesis can (and will) be written on the transformations in the sexualities of Depp and Knightly in these movies.

Launching Metro Classics

As you can see, there’s a new addition to the sidebar. We’ve managed to convinced the powers that be at Landmark Theatres to allow us to program and run a repertory film series this summer at the Metro Cinemas in Seattle. It’s going to be a nine week series constituting a decade-by-decade survey of film history from the 1920s to the 2000s. If the series is successful (meaning if we can draw enough customers to break even) then they’re going to let us continue to program rep films in the future, and possibly expand the program to Landmark theatres in other cities around the country.

So if you, or anyone you know is in the Seattle area this summer, come on out to the scenic U-District and catch some great films and help further the nationwide cause of repertory cinema.

Free popcorn for anyone who finds me and mentions The End Of Cinema!

Darth Vader: Jackass

From the good people at The House Next Door, where you can also find my friend Ryland‘s very fine appreciation of Revenge Of The Sith.

In the comments section for Ryland’s post, you can find this great summary of George Lucas from House founder Matt Zoller Seitz:

“But what he’s good at — immensely complex action scenes packed with so much information you can’t absorb it all in one viewing; primal pulpy metaphors for emotional states and moral quandaries — are things very few filmmakers even attempt post-silent cinema, and he succeeds. That’s why the movies are great in spite of the fact that they’re always teetering on the brink of incoherence and stupidity and often toppling in.”

The #54 War Movie Of The Last 50 Years

Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan was hailed as a masterpiece immediately upon its premiere, and that ranking doesn’t appear to have dimmed in the collective reckoning in the nine years since. Well, I thought it was overrated then, and after watching it for a third time last night, I’m more convinced than ever that my initial reaction was the correct one.

The case for SPR generally runs along these lines: the opening 25 minute Omaha Beach sequence is groundbreaking in its technique and realism, and the remainder of the film is a powerful tribute to The Greatest Generation, a reminder of what they sacrificed for the rest of us in World War II. There are variations, but generally it boils down to realism and patriotism as the reasons SPR is great. It’s telling that few, if any, advocates of SPR have anything to say about the film’s script (written by Robert Rodat, who also wrote Fly Away Home and The Patriot), which is, at best, maudlin and sentimental.

Omaha Beach – It’s one of the great stories of American history: the D-Day landing and the hard slog up the beachhead in the face of overwhelming German firepower. It’s a sequence that appears in a number of different WW2 movies, most notably Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One and the multi-director epic The Longest Day. There are also variations of it in, among other films, Allan Dwan’s The Sands of Iwo Jima and Don Siegel’s Hell Is For Heroes, the former features a beach landing under heavy fire, the latter a suicidal uphill attack on a German bunker. Another noteworthy comparison is Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which was released a few months after SPR, is just as viscerally intense, but with none of the moral or filmic complications of Spielberg’s film, and also features an extended assault on an uphill bunker, one that is superior to SPR‘s in just about every way. Watching the sequence again, I was surprised at how small it seems. There’s no sense of the vast 10 mile expanse of the beach, we’re pretty much confined to the same 300 yard stretch of sand through the whole attack. Spielberg’s never been strong on continuity, a problem which repeatedly comes up here: the same shots (especially a POV shot of the German machine gun firing at the same half dozen troops, which we see at least three times) repeat several times, and appear to have no geographic relation to the main thrust of the plot, which is how Tom Hanks destroys a bunker, thereby making the beachhead safe for the invasion (the absurdity of which should be self-evident). The sequence appears to function in real time, making the whole of the Omaha Beach landing appear to take about 20 minutes, when in fact it stretched on for several hours before the troops were finally able to break through.

Spielberg’s decision to show the battle from Hanks’s point of view is especially limited, in that it reduces the heroism of many to that of one: the star and protagonist. In SPR, Spielberg repeatedly reduces the general and the epic to the specific and generic. Thus the massive Omaha Beach landing is reduced to a half dozen guys in a small space fighting one gun and a handful of Germans. In the same sequence in The Longest Day, a massive array of troops must crawl under enemy fire to set up a bangalore torpedo and take out one of the many bunkers on the beach. Soldier after soldier volunteers to run out there only to get shot, as true a depiction of collective heroism in war as I’ve ever seen. In SPR, the nameless soldiers’ deaths are instead often reduced to macabre jokes: a GI wanders the beach holding his severed arm (a shot lifted from Akira Kuroawa’s Ran), a medic frantically works to save a wounded man, only to have his patient get shot in the head as soon as he says “I’ve stopped the bleeding!”, Hanks barks commands repeatedly to his radio man, but the third time he pulls him over he’s missing his face and the radio’s been shot, Hanks gives a comical look and throws the radio away.

So, the Omaha Beach sequence is neither epic in scope nor particularly noble in character, nor original in plot. What about in its film technique? Speilberg shoots the sequence with a shaky handheld camera, with desaturated color, both of which were (and are) supposedly revolutionary. And indeed, the use of a handheld camera was revolutionary. . . when Roberto Rossellini and the Italian Neo-Realists started doing it in Rome, Open City 53 years before Saving Private Ryan. The shaky POV action sequence is a recurrant trope in war, action and horror movies, and had been for years before SPR. Spielberg may have been the first to splash blood and mud on the camera, but I’m not sure. Similarly, his may be the first film where we see people being shot underwater, a dubious achievement at best. As for the color, well, as with his decision to shoot Schindler’s List in black and white, it’s an homage to the war movies he grew up watching (and the documentaries shot during the war, which were very often shot in black and white. And it’s hard to be original when you’re making an homage. Yes, Saving Private Ryan is far gorier than a film like The Longest Day. But is that really what we mean by realism? More blood?

The Rest Of The Film – Given much of the talk about SPR, you’d think the film ended when Omaha Beach was taken. But no, there’s over two hours left of film time to go! Two hours that basically consists of generic characters doing stupid things for no clear reason and ascribing great meaning to them, with the occasional justification for war crimes thrown in.

1. Generic Characters – Like many a war movie, SPR‘s characters are a collection of representative types, both in genre iconography and as a PC multicultural mix. There’s the captain who’s sick of killing, but serves as a father figure to his men (he’s even a school teacher back home), played by Tom Hanks; his sergeant, big and gruff but also brave, honest and protective, Tom Sizemore; the medic, smart and sensitive, as horrified by war as Alan Alda and who also fills the role of the soldier who takes abut his mother, Giovanni Ribisi; the wisecrackin’ kid from Brooklyn, Ed Burns; the Southern sharpshooter, lifted whole straight out of Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York, right down to the pre-shot prayer, played by Barry Pepper; the New York Jew, there to remind us of why the Germans are bad, played by Adam Goldberg (who will always be Chandler’s roommate Crazy Eddie to me); the big dumb Italian who carries a rosary, Vin Diesel; the cartographer/interpreter who knows nothing of war (think Lawrence Of Arabia), quotes poetry, translates Edith Piaf and who functions as our surrogate in the group: we meet the other characters through him, Jeremy Davies; and finally the holy grail himself, Matt Damon as the corn-fed blonde Iowa farmboy (a type which appears as a symbol of wasted youth and innocence and possible homoerotic desire in The Sands of Iwo Jima, but functions as the American ideal here). A brief sequence with Pvt. Ryan’s mother is as generic as possible: a white picket-fenced farmhouse amidst amber waves of grain. I swear there’s even an apple pie cooling on a window sill. Many films, war films in particular, use this kind of generic character setup. But it’s telling that films like The Big Red One and Platoon don’t follow that structure, as both Samuel Fuller and Oliver Stone actually fought in wars, unlike many a war movie writer or director.

2. Doing Stupid Things –

A. The initial stupid thing is the mission itself. Back in Washington, a secretary discovers that three of the four Ryan boys were KIA on the same day. A debate ensues with Gen. George Marshall over whether or not to find the fourth Ryan and send him home, despite the fact that he’s missing somewhere far behind enemy lines and any rescue mission will likely lead to many more men being killed to save one. In an astounding display of irrationality, Marshall reads a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to a Mrs. Bixby, expressing his regrets over the loss of her sons during the Civil War. (Note that in the reaction shot to Marshall’s reading, his staff member is framed next to a portrait of George Washington, in case we don’t know who Lincoln is, I guess). Somehow, this letter is so moving to Marshall and his staff that they decide Mrs. Ryan cannot be allowed to sacrifice as much as she did for the cause of freedom, though there’s nothing but respect, sympathy and admiration in Lincoln’s sentiment. The power of the letter is supposed to trump any question of the utility of wasting several lives to save one, though there’s no logical reason for it to convince us of that fact.

B. The next stupid thing occurs when the small band reaches the besieged town of Ramelle (fictional, naturally), where Ryan is supposed to be. It’s a bombed-out village, with no inhabitants. Except, of course, for a French family who for some unknown reason are still in their half-destroyed house when the group arrives. Inexplicably, the father tries to pass his daughter to the soldiers, and even more inexplicably, Vin Diesel disobeys direct orders, takes the daughter, stands out in the open and gets himself shot by a German sniper. There’s no reason for any of this to happen but expediency: Spielberg wants to show us some civilian French, he wants to show off Pepper’s sharpshooting, and he wants to subject us to a long death sequence for Diesel (which is also apparently why the sniper never shoots him again, but instead waits five minutes for Pepper to get into position before looking for a second shot).

C. Disobeying orders is a recurring type of stupid thing in SPR, most clearly when the wisecrackin’ Brooklynite refuses to assault a machine gun, and then wants to shoot a German POW and Hanks won’t let him. Insubordination of this type would hardly be tolerated in a war, let alone from a veteran like Burns who’s been with Hanks for several months. Hanks, of course, defuses the tense standoff by sharing a little bit about his life back home. If only someone had thought of that at My Lai.

D. The final battle is a seemingly endless series of stupid things. Why do the Americans so desperately protect the bridge when they planned to blow it up anyway? Why do they wait until the Germans show up to string the wires for their mines, both in the street and on the bridge? Why do they have Davies carrying ammunition from point to point under heavy fire instead of stocking the ammunition in their foxholes and sniping points before the battle? Why does Davies cower in fear instead of saving Crazy Eddie’s life? The answer to that last one is simple enough: Spielberg is asserting that we, the audience (for whom Davies has been the surrogate throughout the film), and especially the brainier types out there, are incapable of functioning in the horrors of war, and were we placed in the same position as The Greatest Generation, would be entirely worthless. And did I mention the absurd deus ex machina at the end of the sequence?

3. War Crimes – I’d always remembered that it was Davies at the end of the film who shoots the POW, committing the film’s major war crime. Watching it again, I was surprised at how often these murders occur. In fact, the film can easily be interpreted as a coming-of age story in which we learn how necessary it is to execute POWs because they shot at us first. After the Omaha Beach sequence, the Americans shoot defenseless Germans in a trench and murder surrendering Germans with their hands raised in the air. The emotional power (and graphic bloodinesss) of the preceding beach landing is apparently supposed to justify the murdering of these POWs, just as the death of the medic is later supposed to justify the murder of the German that Burns causes so much trouble over. These crimes reach their culmination when Davies, after cowering throughout the final stages of the final battle, assassinates the German soldier he let kill Crazy Eddie, as that soldier is telling his compatriots what a coward Davies is. Davies, of course, had been the one stridently protesting Burns’s attempts to murder the other POW. Thus the audience member, after being shown their own cowardice, is asserted to be a murderer as well. It’s one of the most insulting things I’ve ever seen on film, and I can’t believe how many people are willing to let Spielberg get away with it. How can this film be taken as a glorification of The Greatest Generation when it shows them repeatedly engaging in the same brutal habits as the pure evil Nazis of Schindler’s List? It’s like the Bixby letter: the overwhelming assertion of emotion precludes any logical examination of what the film is actually saying.

Finally, I have a couple of minor quibbles with the film. The opening sequence shows an old man wandering through a cemetery with his family following. He stops at a grave and the camera slowly zooms in on his eyes. From there we cut to Tom Hanks preparing to land at Omaha, thus setting up an identification of the old man with Hanks. The slow zoom on the eyes is often a precursor to that person’s flashback. Of course, it’s Pvt. Ryan who is the old man, and what follows can’t possibly be a flashback (Ryan wasn’t at Omaha, he parachuted behind enemy lines). The only purpose of the zoom appears to mislead the viewer into believing that Hanks will live and thereby increasing the shock when he dies and we realize the old man must be Ryan. This kind of incoherent manipulation is something a director of Spielberg’s caliber should be better than. Also the faded US flag we’re shown twice appears to have 50 stars, which is two too many for 1944, but maybe that’s intentional. The old Ryan appears to know exactly where he’s going in the cemetery, though this is supposedly his first time visiting Hanks’s grave. Also, Hanks’s grave is conveniently placed such that there’s lots of space for Ryan’s family to stand well behind him, instead of bunched together like all the other grave markers.

To conclude, here are 53 War Movies I’ve Seen from the last 50 years that are better than Saving Private Ryan:

Paths Of Glory
Bridge On The River Kwai
Hiroshima mon amour
The Horse Soldiers
The Guns Of Navaronne
Lawrence Of Arabia
Hell Is For Heroes
The Longest Day
The Great Escape
Dr. Strangelove
The Train
In Harm’s Way
The Heores Of Telemark
The Battle Of Algiers
The Dirty Dozen
Hell In The Pacific
The Sorrow And The Pity
A Bridge Too Far
The Deer Hunter
Apocalypse Now
The Big Red One
Breaker Morant
Das Boot
The Killing Fields
Top Gun
Empire Of The Sun
Full Metal Jacket
Good Morning, Vietnam
Henry V
The Hunt For Red October
Europa Europa
Last Of The Mohicans
A Midnight Clear
Schindler’s List
Starship Troopers
The Thin Red Line
Three Kings
Black Hawk Down
Pearl Harbor
Master And Commander
Gods And Generals
A Very Long Engagement

Movie Roundup: Beaned Again Edition

Fallen behind again, thanks to yet another cold. So, as word breaks that the A’s have acquired former Mariner folk hero Chris Snelling, I’ll drown my sorrows with my brand-new copy of Conan The Barbarian and try to kick out a quick-hit version of the roundup. This is Part One, which I wrote on Wednesday but am only getting around to posting now. Part Two will follow later this week, hopefully.

Lancelot du lac – Robert Bresson’s version of the end of Camelot has essentially the same plot as the godawful First Knight (#86, 1995): Lancelot returns to Camelot after the failed grail quest, tries not to sleep with Guinevere, fails and the whole thing falls apart. However, Bresson takes the opposite route to filming a medieval epic. Instead of overblown melodrama, Bresson made a minimalist epic, consisting of little dialogue, his typically emotionless acting and a camera that willfully avoids showing the most obvious images of a scene in favor of sounds (hoofbeats in particular), and lingers longer than it has any right to over apparently inconsequential things (the knights’ unarmored legs being a particular favorite). Like all the Bresson’s I’ve seen, it unnerves you, defies your expectations and provides a wholly unique experience. The #6 film of 1974.

Wild Strawberries – Somehow I missed this when I saw it a few months ago, but frankly I was underwhelmed. The dream sequence was pretty cool, but other than that, this quite famous roadtrip movie about about an old professor traveling the countryside and flashbacking on his life (think Deconstructing Harry, without the jokes) just left me cold. The #10 film of 1957.

Metropolis – Fritz Lang’s hugely influential mashup of the Communist Manifesto and the Tower Of Babel is perhaps the most influential sci-fi film of all-time. Tremendously expensive in its time, it set the template and standard for the way we think of the filmed future (Blade Runner’s only the most obvious example of it’s influence). As a movie though, it’s got some serious flaws: a whiny protagonist, some obvious plot holes (complicated perhaps by the incomplete nature of the most recent restoration, though Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler had the same problem), and the interesting thematic choice of resolving the eternal struggle of rich and poor through a damsel in distress love story rescue.

The Long Voyage Home – John Ford’s adaptation of a quartet of Eugene O’Neill plays set on board a ship near the beginning of World War 2. Shot by Gregg Toland not long before he did Citizen Kane, it’s got the same brilliant deep-focus black and white photography. Terrific performances from Ford’s regulars (Ward Bond, Thomas Mitchell, John Wayne, etc) liven the generally dour material.

They Were Expendable – Much to his distress, John Ford was pulled out of the war to shoot this propaganda film about the guys who proved the usefulness of PT boats in waging war during the battle for The Philippines at the start of WW2. As war films go, it’s pretty great, with top notch performances from John Wayne and Robert Montgomery, some really nice scenes with Donna Reed, and some exciting action sequences.

8 Women – François Ozon’s musical murder mystery stars three generations of hot French women, some of whom can actually sing. They’re all gathered one winter eve only to learn that the family patriarch has been murdered. Cut-off from the outside world, it’s up to them to solve whodunnit, airing all their dirty secrets and essentially exposing themselves as the most screwed up family you’ll ever see. And all with a solo musical interlude for each actress. Stars Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Beart, Fanny Ardant and Ludvine Sagnier. My first Ozon film, but it won’t be the last. The #5 film of 2002.

The Informer – Tag Gallagher ripped on this a lot in his great book John Ford: The Man And His Films, though I liked it quite a bit. Gallagher didn’t like the lack of tonal variance (all-serious, all the time), whereas I enjoyed the atmospheric, proto-noir, hyper-foggy images, and found plenty of humor and sympathy in Victor McLaglen’s portrayal of a desperately poor former IRA operative who turns his old buddy into the police for the reward money. Sure, it doesn’t rank with Ford’s greatest films, but it’s in the next tier.

The Wings Of Eagles – Another Ford film, this one a biopic about naval aviator turned paralyzed screenwriter Spig Wead. Wead and Ford were friends, and it shows in this rather tame film. Sure, Wead has his bad qualities, but he’s still a helluva guy. Ward Bond does a hilarious Ford imitation as the Hollywood director Wead goes to work for, and like all Ford films, there are some really terrific moments, but they’re way too few and far between. The #11 film of 1957.

A Scanner Darkly – Richard Linklater’s interpolated rotoscope adaptation of a Philip K. Dick mindbender is perhaps the best Dick adaptation ever (yes, that includes Blade Runner). The fluid, squggly animation is perfect to the shifting realities of Dick’s druggy, schizophrenic worldview. Keanu Reeves plays an undercover cop who loses his identity in his job (thanks to a killer new drug) and begins to suspect reality is even more fucked-up than it appears when you’re high. Also stars famous druggies Robert Downey Jr, Woody Harrelson and the sorely missed Winona Ryder. The #4 film of 2006.

Rome, Open City – Roberto Rossellini’s breakthrough film, and the movie that launched Italian neo-realism, shot with whatever the crew could find around town in the middle of a war. A story of the Italian Resistance during WW2, it builds to a devastating climax halfway through the film, such that everything that follows is, well, anti-climactic (much like Full Metal Jacket). Still, unlike, say Metropolis, it manages to be both stylistically influential and a tremendous film of its own. I’m not a big fan of neo-realism, at least, I didn’t like Bicycle Thieves, but this was great.

How Green Was My Valley – The last of my Gallagher-inspired Ford marathon is this story of a Welsh coal mining town that famously beat Citizen Kane for the best picture Oscar. It’s a fine film, with some wonderfully lyrical sequences (Maureen O’Hara’s wedding, Roddy McDowell digging for his father) but after a single viewing I don’t think it’s the masterpiece Gallagher describes in his book. I don’t know if he was overcompensating for the film’s subsequent overshadowing by Kane, or if I just missed the many, many subtleties he found in the film. Perhaps a little of both.

House Of Yes – Parker Posey gives a fine performance as a crazy rich girl in an incestuous relationship with her brother (Josh Hamilton from Kicking And Screaming) in this decent enough pice of filmed theatre. Tori Spelling(!) plays Hamilton’s appalled fiancée and Freddie Prinze Jr his younger brother. The #40 film of 1997.

The Trouble With Harry – Essentially Alfred Hitchcock’s version of Weekend At Bernies, as a collection of eccentrics (including Shirley Maclaine and Jerry Mathers) in a small New England town discover, bury, exhume, and rebury (again and again) a dead body. Quirky and entertaining, with a marvelous sense of place. It’s light Hitchcock, and a lot more fun than the similarly weightless To Catch A Thief. The #12 film of 1955.

Coconuts – The first true Marx Brothers film is also the worst one I’ve ever seen. There are some classic jokes, and some funny Busby Berkeley-esque dance sequences, but there’s way too many lame songs sung seriously by non-Marxes.

Woman In The Dunes – Hiroshi Teshigahara’s beautiful, mysterious and odd little film zigged when I was certain it was going to zag, almost always a pleasant experience. A high school science teacher on vacation to study some bugs in a desolate desert gets tricked into living in a deep, inescapable sand hole with an odd, and not unattractive, widow who wants to ‘marry’ him. I was prepared for an intense Japanese ghost story along the lines of Kwaidan or Ugetsu, instead it’s naturalistic and more than a little political allegory. Lyrical and kinky, it looks a little like Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour with sand. The #7 film of 1964.

2 Or 3 Things I Know About Her – One of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s favorite Jean-luc Godard films, I found it more of a way station between the Godard highlights Pierrot le fou and Week End: absurdist and comically self-referential like the first; logorrheic and blatantly political like the second. The plot setup is essentially the same as Buñuel’s Belle de jour: middle-class housewife is a prostitute in her spare time, but it’s more a slice of French life in the late 60s than an actual story. The #7 film of 1967.

The Loyal 47 Ronin – Kenji Mizoguchi’s two-part adaptation of the classic Japanese story (think their version of The Gunfight At The OK Corral or the Omaha Beach landing) is a masterpiece of action withheld. Through its nearly four hour running time, there’s almost no scenes of violence, including none of the many many ritual suicides that punctuate the story. Clearly what Mizoguchi’s after is not the action violence of a great revenge epic as the titular ronin seek to avenge their lord who was forced to kill himself after insulting a venal superior. Instead, he examines the culture and society that leads to a world in which mass suicide is the greatest possible act of honor. Filled with his signature long tracking shots, his camera constantly cranes over walls following the characters from above and thereby exposing and transcending the boundaries they choose to live in.

The Mizoguchi Movies I’ve seen, and all are great:

1. Ugetsu
2. Sansho The Bailiff
3. Story Of The Last Chrysanthemums
4. The Loyal 47 Ronin
5. Sisters Of Gion
6. The Life Of Oharu
7. Street Of Shame

Quote Of The Day

As reported on David Bordwell’s blog (see link on the sidebar), Werner Herzog speaking at Ebertfest:

“Our technological civilization is not sustainable on this planet. Nature is going to regulate us very quickly. . . . We’ll be the next ones [to go extinct]. But that’s okay. Let’s enjoy movies and friendship and beer.”