Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959) - Directed by Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray’s landmark trilogy about a boy named Apu who grows up to be a man across the span of three films, have been rightly called some of the greatest humanist films in all of cinema. They are referred to as The Apu Trilogy. Made in Bengal, Ray began the trilogy with his first film Pather Panchali (1955), followed by Aparajito (1956) and the last being The World of Apu (1959). At the time they were rightly recognized as the universally truthful films that they were and have held steady over the decades as incredibly important works both within the Indian film movement and across all of cinema as well. Ray is also, clearly, India’s greatest filmmaker and went on to great international acclaim following these films.

Pather Panchali is the story of a family. We meet a mother, a father, a sister, and a great aunt. Then comes Apu. He is born into a world of near poverty as his father and mother scrape by on little means. He and his sister find fun and adventure in whatever ways they can and they learn through the careful teaching of their parents how they should live and treat each other. This film contains such wonderful acting from all the main players. A standout is Karuna Banerjee as the mother, who does incredible acting with her eyes, conveying all the sorrow and regret of a woman who feels she has made some mistakes in life and is not able to correct them. A terrible tragedy strikes the family toward the end of the film, forcing them to move from their ramshackle home in the country to the city, as the father is forced to find better work. This might be my favorite film of the trilogy and is even more remarkable considering it was Ray’s first film. His triumph in this film is that of conveying an intense passion for the rhythm of life. What we are introduced to additionally, is the naturalness of the acting, the quiet and observant point of view and the pulse of everyday situations. So much natural beauty is found by Ray’s technique that much of the film feels documentary–like. This naturalness adds to the universality of the themes and family relationships.

In Aparajito, Apu is living with his family in the city, finding a different rhythm to life where everything is bigger and busier. His father takes ill and dies very early in the film. Apu moves with his mother back to the country and yearns to attend school as he gets older. Teachers find that Apu has a remarkable ability to learn and Apu scoops up every bit of knowledge he can gain. His perseverance and hard work allow him to graduate and Apu begins to step into manhood. This film again shows Ray’s uncanny ability to find actors who can convey incredible emotion without saying a word at times, but just by keeping the camera fixed on the eyes. It’s debatable, but this film might be the saddest and darkest of the three, with major tragedy striking Apu twice here. Apu though continues on with his schooling and is determined to persevere through all circumstances. It’s an inspiring film that in the face of such odds, Apu is able to achieve his goals.

Ray’s final film in the trilogy is The World of Apu. Apu is now graduated from college and is seeking employment and searching for love. He has a difficult time finding both but in a fortuitous turn of events, winds up getting married on the spot to a complete stranger, in a marriage ceremony planned for someone else who backed out. This plot twist yields one of the greatest stretches of the entire trilogy as Apu and his wife get to know one another in a common struggle of bending their wills and their desires to meet each other’s. Ray's trilogy is completed following intense amounts of pathos and heartbreaking emotion as the story goes places that are incredibly inspiring. It’s at this point that I must bring up the brilliant and moving score composed by Ravi Shankar that weaves through each film. Ravi became internationally famous later on in his career as a mentor and sitar teacher to George Harrison of The Beatles. I would call his pulsing sitar scores in these three films to be some of the best composed soundtracks of all time. Furthermore, this trilogy might be the best trilogy of all time when you consider the quality and consistency of vision in all three films, without so much as a letdown from one film to the next. Ray’s greatly humanist portraits of Apu and his world are life affirming in the best way possible.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Funny Girl (1968) - Directed by William Wyler

William Wyler’s late career musical Funny Girl was also Barbra Streisand’s film debut, and what a debut it was for her. She went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in a tie with Katherine Hepburn for The Lion In Winter (1968). Funny Girl recounts the true-life story of Fanny Brice, who went from hamming around NY burlesque stages in the early 1900’s and ended up getting signed by Florenz Ziegfield to headline the Ziegfield Follies in 1910, which was a popular stage show on Broadway. Funny Girl reprises Streisand’s turn as Brice from the Broadway musical, which ran in 1964 and chronicles Fanny’s early successes onstage, her courtship by the wealthy gambler Nick Arnstein, played by Omar Shariff, and Fanny and Nick’s downward spiraling marriage in the latter third of the film as Nick runs into legal troubles. Overall, I was really impressed with the film: it has great songs, an engaging story, and one of the truly great tour-de-force performances by an actress.

Of course, for a musical to be great, there has to be some great songs and musical sequences in the film. For me, the two best ones are  “People” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade”. “People” became one of Streisand’s standard numbers throughout her career and it’s easy to see why. It’s a slow-build kind of song with changes in dynamics that seem to suit Streisand’s powerful tones. In the film, it’s an important transitional moment as she projects her vulnerability to Nick and emphasizes that she has a need for connection. Even more astounding is the sequence for “Don’t Rain on My Parade” as Fanny decides to go after Nick on his cruise to Europe but finds herself late to the boat. This sequence goes down for me as one of the truly great musical sequences in all of cinema. Not only is the song perfect for the moment, but the camera work during this scene is quite astounding. In one segment, a camera, presumably attached to a helicopter is eyeing a moving train. As the camera pulls in close, we find Fanny at a window seat singing the song in-sync. I thought to myself, “They can’t top that”. Oh yes they could! At the finale of the song, we see a tugboat leaving NYC and the camera swings alongside the boat, finding Fanny singing the song in-sync again as the boat speeds along. The camera pulls away leaving a breathtaking view over the water and New York City as Streisand hits the final note. It’s a wow moment.

Streisand has a lot of wow moments in this film though. She simply commands your attention every moment that she is onscreen. She totally gets this Fanny character and it can be seen in everything from the way she uses her New York accent to her Jewish heritage to the singing and comedic moments. One can see that all her work from the Broadway stage on this character paid off dividends in the film. Streisand’s timing is impeccable. I point us to the seduction scene between Nick and Fanny where Streisand continually hits the right jokes at the right moment. She’s delicate, funny and sexy when she needs to be and pulls it off with panache. There are times when you see a performance and you know it’s one of the great ones.  She’s just an incredible talent with her voice, her comedic timing and she wears her emotions on her sleeve in the best way possible. She is truly dynamic and all of this was utilized well by Wyler as he knew that she deserved all the screen time feasible. Streisand seems to connect to the viewer without a camera filtering the performance because of her ability to emote directly to the audience through a true, humble honesty. This feels like a vibrant and totally fresh performance even forty-three years later. Bravo to Streisand.

Although the film is set during the early 1900’s, one can feel the pulse of the 1960’s quite clearly in the outlook that is given to the relationship of Fanny and Nick. Fanny is clearly the breadwinner, bringing in the income, while Nick is up-and-down, making paydays on his gambling and then going long stretches without luck. He is riding on Fanny’s coattails. By the end of the film, we realize that Fanny does not need Nick at all from a financial standpoint and can support herself. Nick can’t handle this fact that the woman is the lead money-maker. One can feel the tugs of the women’s liberation movement in these scenes at the end of the film as she doesn’t need her man in the traditional sense and parts ways with him, singing the Fanny Brice standard, "My Man". It’s an interesting blending of the period setting of the film with a more modern outlook on women in the workplace. I appreciated this nuance and it gave the film some added dimension. One must remember though, that this is a musical, and to me, this a great one. Yeah there are a few lapses in continuity and story-flow toward the end, but I forgive it because it contains too many good songs, too many funny moments, and one brilliant performance. I think that’s in the end why it’s so good. Musicals are often wonderful vehicles for some of the greatest entertainers. Funny Girl is an example of that type of masterpiece, capturing the essence and talent of Barbra Streisand.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Top 70 Musicals Countdown at Wonders in the Dark

I want to make sure to acknowledge the massive effort going on over at Wonders in the Dark. They have just begun the Top 70 Musicals countdown, put together by a voting panel of resident experts. It should be a fun and educational undertaking that I will be checking on every day. In honor of this, I will be posting a few reviews of musicals over the coming months here at Films Worth Watching, and will be a guest blogger making an appearance during the countdown.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Dodes'ka-den (1970) - Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Kurosawa made Red Beard in 1965, which was a massive critical and financial success. At the end of 1965, it was in fact Japan's highest grossing film, but for many reasons, Kurosawa would not finish another film for 5 years and would enter into the darkest period of his career. Kurosawa suddenly had a difficult time getting funded for his projects, as they were usually expensive endeavors. So, he turned to Hollywood and became involved in the production of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and was slated to direct the Japanese section of the story, but this turned into a huge debacle and Kurosawa left the film to work on something else. He decided to begin a new project, one which would not contain his longtime collaborative actor Toshiro Mifune. It would also be in color, something that Kurosawa had never used before. This film would be shot in only 9 weeks and would go on to be one of his biggest box-office failures. During the following year after the film's release, after health and mental problems, Kurosawa attempted suicide. He would miraculously recover and would go on to have a late bloom to his career. But this central film to this difficult period in his life is one that cannot be easily digested or ignored. It is Dodes'ka-den.

Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den is the darkest film of his that I’ve seen and I can’t quite think of a close second, although I Live in Fear (1955) might be a candidate. Here, the story is boiling over with sadness and regret, abuse and social impotence, addiction and all manner of sadness and injustice. This is the closest that Kurosawa ever came to Bergman-esque territory. Kurosawa’s story revolves around a ragtag assemblage of people living in a garbage dump. There is a boy with mental development issues, who pretends he is a trolley driver and runs around the dump all day making noises mimicking a trolley. There is a girl who lives with her abusive uncle who works her night and day tying flowers together to make a living. Another thread follows two very poor individuals, a man and boy living in an abandoned car barely scraping by, begging for food at restaurants. Several other stories are told as well, involving infidelity between a man and wife, an attempted suicide by a man at the end of his rope, among many others. All of this is very dark and the depressing atmosphere is truly enveloping. Life is cruel in Dodes’ka-den.

In perhaps the most compelling moment in the film, the man and boy who live in the car become food poisoned and are subject to intense stomach pains and sickness. One can almost feel the pain and suffering they are going through. Even the color of their faces takes on a surreal green pall to it. This is due to the makeup, but also the lighting, which strikes at odd angles and bathes them in this repulsive green color. Kurosawa makes excellent and continued use of color at fascinating moments, highlighting the toxic environment these people live in with neon colors, both in the clothing palette but also in the background colors. The sunlight glows with an otherworldly orange-yellow at times and swirls of color appear in the background as if out of a Van Gogh painting. These moments are beautiful and memorable both for their expressiveness and surreal qualities. It's amazing that it took Kurosawa so long to use color in his films, but his use of color here is one of the film's most striking and memorable aspects.

All the stories have very dark elements that are punctuated at times by slight attempts at grace or persistence in the face of adversity. However, there generally is an endless cycle of disappointment and heartache at the center of these stories. These people can’t rise above their ramshackle dump and move themselves out of it, precisely because they can’t bring conclusion to their internal emotional and psychological suffering. They persist and subsist because they can’t bring themselves to do anything else. It’s hard to say whether Kurosawa is calling this a noble venture or not. This is the question at the heart of one of Kurosawa’s most challenging and rewarding films: is life worth living under these circumstances? He wouldn’t make another film for five more years, and following his suicide attempt it would take a special project to get him going again. His Dersu Uzala (1975) is essential viewing following Dodes’ka-den in that it portrays a healing, humanity, and companionship that is in direct contrast to the continued suffering and struggle in Dodes’ka-den. These two films together constitute the psychological breakdown and recovery of one of the true masters of cinema.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Paisan (1946) - Directed by Roberto Rossellini

Burgeoning out of the tremendously harsh economic and social period following World War II, Italian neorealism was a vital movement screaming to be heard. Giving voice to the people, it was a way to convey stories of the suffering and injustice facing Italians during and following the war. Amazingly, through the use of mostly non-professional actors the movement maintains a vital freshness and poeticism to this day. Roberto Rossellini, along with Vittorio De Sica made probably the best films of the movement, each grabbing the audience through humanistic portrayals and vital truth, infusing stories with a yearning for justice and grace under harsh conditions. Rossellini’s Paisan is the 2nd installment of his War Trilogy coming between his equally important works, Rome Open City (1945) and Germany Year Zero (1948). Paisan is a wonderful distillation of a collective yearning for understanding and reflection on war’s scope and effect on people.

Six short stories are presented over the 120 minutes of the film and they all deal directly with war’s effects- psychological, physical, environmental, economical, spiritual etc. The film is set during the year of Italy’s liberation from German occupancy. In the first episode, a group of GIs attain the assistance of a teenage girl to help them navigate some difficult terrain. A beautiful moment of attempted communication and understanding between a GI and the girl is undercut by the cruel insistence of violence. In the third episode, a GI in Rome is so disenchanted and fed up with the economic and relational difficulties of the city that he doesn’t realize the same woman he fell in love with and lost track of 6 months prior, is the woman who picks him up on the street. Love, in this case, is thwarted by ennui and mental paralysis. In perhaps the most tragic sequence, episode 6, a few GIs are behind enemy lines trying to support the partisans in defeating the Germans. Their futile attacks on the enemy, coupled with the deaths of some local family members are incredibly haunting, leaving only a screaming child on the roadside wandering among dead bodies.

Although the film is in somewhat rough shape (although it used to be in much worse shape) and the dubbing is pretty far off, it does not impact the watchable quality of the film, nor the ability of the film to impact the audience. In fact, I think the scratched and rough quality of the film today only enhances the harshness of the stories and the difficulty in producing such a film on the streets and in the rubble. Rossellini’s insistence on using these natural locations and using mostly amateurs to wander these cities and locales makes the stories incredibly vital and heartpounding, mysterious and tragic. In fact, though the film presents 6 different episodes, they are remarkably connected and related, as the presentation covers all of Italy, from the south to the north, bringing the collective of a country and the terrors and hardships it faced to a full awareness.

Continually, themes of miscommunication and the futility of understanding are underscored as GIs try to communicate with the local Italian people. Furthermore, love and family being thwarted or snuffed out by swift violence or mental ineptitude is another theme brought forward. Although Paisan is filled with deeply humanist perspectives and moments of shared beauty, the continual presence of injustice and violence, economic squalor and deprivation usually refutes any attempts of transcendence or joy. It’s hard to imagine the hardships facing the local Italian people of the time, but this film does a particular service in that it’s a forever reminder of the true cost of war, both for the soldier and the innocent bystander. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011) - Directed by Terrence Malick

Note: My review contains spoilers so that if you haven't seen the film please read with caution. 

Preface: It has been pointed out by multiple critics and bloggers that the film takes place within the context of Western religion, specifically Christianity. My review and analysis takes place within that context as that is how I have viewed the film and its meaning.

Terrence Malick's newest magnum opus is a gushing, uninhibited look at life and its purpose. It's a nearly 2 1/2 hour film filled with lots of ideas, and it could have easily been hours longer. In plot, the film basically follows the summer experience of a boy named Jack. He has two younger brothers and a father and mother. He lives in a Neighborhood, which is a stand-in for a universal neighborhood of sorts, a place where one plays, learns, experiments, experiences life in all its glories and tragedies but still under the guidance and love of ones parents, so there is a safety net. Later in life, the family is stricken with the news that the middle child has passed away at age 19, from what we do not know. The mother and father clearly have their faith challenged. This is where the early reference to Job in the film's opening passage comes into play. It's also clear that Jack as a grown man, played by Sean Penn, is clearly searching in the void to fill a vacancy in his life. 

Malick’s title, The Tree of Life, references the passages in Genesis 2:9, "And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground -- trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil." It’s clear that God presented two choices to Adam and Eve and gave them the option of following their own intent, or following the way of everlasting permanence with God. Adam and Eve followed the way of “Nature” and ignored the salvation/tree of life in the garden. This of course leads to the need for grace or salvation following The Fall of Humanity in Christian theology. This is synonymous with the film’s subject matter. I believe the film is basically about the boy coming to the understanding that his parents are fallible, reaching the point in time where he cannot rely on them to be his saviors. He realizes that there is death, that life is finite, that this innocent boyhood will come to an end. His parents try as they might, but they cannot save him through their human love. He has to be saved through his own search. Jack is reminded of this through the behavior of his father and mother. Both love their children but in different ways. The father is a perfectionist and strict disciplinarian but he loves his children and teaches them that they must stand up for themselves. Mr. O'Brien wants so badly to have his children obey him though that he gets frustrated easily and has a temper. The mother is eternally loving, providing comfort, warmth, and grace, but she is meek and not able to convey the strength that the boy needs at times. Jack doesn't find complete solace in either of them and instead tries to find his own way. There's a specific moment where Jack says, "What I want to do, I can't do. I do what I hate." which seems to directly reference a passage from the Bible, Romans 7:19 where Paul says, "For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do -- this I keep doing." It's moments like this where perhaps Malick tips his hand as to where the film's theology and philosophy lie.

There have been many readings and interpretations of the film and the characters. Some might make the assumption that The Father, Mr. O'Brien is a God figure. I can’t go down that path. Mr. O'Brien is clearly not perfect nor without sin and I can't substitute him for God in this way at all. On the flipside, if Malick were making some parallels between Mr. O'Brien and God, making him out to be a strict disciplinarian and domineering figure, then it really wouldn't fit with themes of the film regarding forgiveness and grace. Another point of contention for many, the beach sequence at the end of the film, has been claimed to be the afterlife or heaven. It does not feel like a heaven experience to me in the strict sense. In Christianity, one knows that when believers die, they go to heaven. There is no indication that the Sean Penn character dies. He clearly talks to his Dad on the phone in one instance, so we know his father is not dead either. In the film, he goes in his mind to a place of understanding and where his memories are reconciled to himself. So, I don't believe it's a heaven sequence but a spiritual birth sequence and moment of reconciliation and forgiveness. In fact, it is his moment of salvation or accepting of God's grace. The imagery used and repeated during this sequence is of entering through a doorway, which happens at least twice during this sequence. In the Bible, Mathew 7:7 reads, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." Again, Malick's references to biblical passages are more than just coincidental here. 

I think all of these spiritual overtones lead some to feel that this film is heavyhanded (where everyone would know exactly what is being said). I don't think it's heavyhanded, but more a film that is unrestrained. It is unrestrained in its efforts to display the power of creation, the comparison of father and mother, the realization of our speck of existence, childhood and the loss of innocence, the portrayal of salvation. This unrestrained quality gives the viewer a challenge in that one must view it actively. You can't just tune out, but you must meet the film on an equally active level of engagement to appreciate what Malick is trying to say.

There are some troubling aspects to interpreting the film through the lens of western Christianity though. If the film is truly a distillation of Christian themes, why does the creation sequence resemble more of what would be considered The Big Bang? There clearly is chaos in effect during the sequences and furthermore, there is more than a hint of Evolution portrayed through the development of single cells and gradually more complex organisms brought to life. I don't think that creation and The Big Bang are completely mutually exclusive, but traditional evangelical views do not espouse a belief in The Big Bang or Evolution. Does this mean that the interpretation of the film through the lens of Christianity is not valid? I'm not sure. I think it's a troubling aspect, and one I am not clear is reconcilable depending on how one views the remaining of the film.   

Philosophically and spiritually, the film provides a lot to think about. But, as a film experience it holds great power as well. The sequences of childhood are probably some of the best distillations of youth ever put on film. Even the camerawork by Emmanuel Lubezki seems to have the perspective of youth imbued upon it. Everything seems to be regarded with the naïveté and the mischief of a young mind. A window is regarded from the perspective of whether it should be broken with a rock or not. A lizard is not just a reptile to marvel at, it’s something to scare your mother with. This perspective really provides the lens of credibility that the films needs to convey its aura. As for the acting in the film, I'm never one to directly provide much praise to Brad Pitt. But, his performance here really strikes the right notes and is probably his best and most nuanced performance of his career. Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien also gives a breathless and near wordless performance filled with graceful and stern looks. I'm hoping we see more of her in the future. However, the star of the film is Hunter McCracken as Jack, who steals nearly every scene he's in and is able to carry the emotional weight of the film on his young shoulders. Sean Penn though is not given nearly much to do as the adult Jack and one wonders whether there was a larger plot thread involved at one point in the film's development. 

Outside of the “creation” sequence, most of what follows is similar to other Malick films in terms of its storytelling manner and are familiar to Malick-ites: Mostly wordless sequences involving individuals, distilled to actions or looks, shots of nature to convey mood and tension, and enhanced with musical interludes. All of the middle sequences are just stunning as the poetry of life unfolds in all its beauty and tragedy. However, the structure of the film is deliberately fractured, and at times nearly impenetrable. I think there is evidence of much more storyline involving Sean Penn's adult Jack. In the beach sequence we witness a woman who might be his wife and a girl who might be his daughter, but there is no attempt to explain who they are in this version of the film. There are rumors of a 4-6 hour version in the works, so it's entirely possible that the Sean Penn sequences could contain a great deal more information than we're given in the current version.

The Tree of Life is beautiful, transcendent and spiritual, but so are Malick's other films in different ways. So, I won’t go so far to say it’s his best one. I also will stop short of conveying any sense of this being the most ambitious or important film in multiple decades, as I’ve seen some call it. For me it’s no more ambitious than Lynch’s work, Von Trier's, or Kieslowski’s among others. Malick belongs to a family of filmmakers intent on conveying, in their own way, their outlook and perspective on life and the artistry of conveying it. This film is an important work that demands to be seen and should be seen by anyone interested or believing in film that is capable of grandeur. The Tree of Life is ultimately a challenging, sometimes messy, and rewarding work of cinematic art because of its ability to convey the ineffable of a spiritual journey and life itself through the medium of film. It’s as simple as that for me.