Thursday, December 27, 2012

Fires on the Plain (1959) - Directed by Kon Ichikawa

Of all the war films I’ve seen, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain. If it’s possible to have no real battle sequences and yet still make the most gruesome war film even made, I think Ichikawa came really close to encompassing the all-out devastation of war. It is a picture of war that examines the micro level, yet is able to paint with broad strokes. It also lays before us, the ugliness of humanity reduced to nothing but instincts and in so doing, reflects the darkest side in all of us. It is as bleak and unrelenting as any war film I’ve ever seen.

Ichikawa’s film concerns the plight of a private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) on a Philippine Island in February of 1945, who is stricken with tuberculosis. He is forced to leave his squad to seek medical treatment at a field hospital, and is instructed if he does not get treatment there, that he is to commit suicide. He is denied such treatment at the hospital, and decides to wait things out there. Meanwhile, the allies bomb the hospital and the medics flee, leaving Tamura to traverse the countryside by himself. His journey is a memorable one. One that takes him through abandoned villages, over war ravaged mountainsides, leading to encounters with various rag-tag ensembles of half-starved and mostly crazed soldiers. The plot delves into the darkest sides of the human condition, where the option for heroism doesn’t even exist.

Here I want to discuss the astounding camera work in this film. Setsuo Kobayashi was principal cinematographer behind the camera for this starkly filmed masterpiece. His use of the mega wide-screen compositions is as jaw-dropping as any I’ve seen in this type of genre work. He’ll place the action at the far side of the left or right and slowly allow the figure to work his way toward the middle. There are bravura camera movements and tracking shots on the sides of mountains, the close-ups of the malnourished faces, the editing of the bloody action sequences. It is one of the best photographed war films I’ve ever seen, filled with memorable images. Even the images of the actors themselves is something to behold. Apparently Ichikawa kept his actors from eating much during the filming. Their gaunt and lifeless performances are exactly right here….removing all emotion from the proceedings and making it feel like pure hell on earth.

This is a portrait of war that is bleak and nearly post-apocalyptic. At times it almost resembles sci-fi in its absurd surrealism, but it is grounded in bloody violence and harsh language that reminds us that this is all too real. This film exists somewhere between Sam Fuller’s gritty realism in The Steel Helmet, Andrei Tarkovsky’s poetic imagery from Ivan’s Childhood and Coppola’s sense for epic absurdity in Apocalypse Now. Somehow Ichikawa’s film is able to weave these sorts of elements together, without forcing anything, as he presents this story of survival to us. Ichikawa was apparently emboldened to make this film from the time he witnessed the dropping of the Atom Bomb. This inspiration can clearly be felt as the devastation of human body and human soul is examined here in all its gory details. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Duck Soup (1933) - Directed by Leo McCarey

Note: This review of Duck Soup appears at Wonders in the Dark as part of the Top 100 Comedies Countdown, coming in at #4.

At my parent’s house in Chicago there is this photo album with a slightly yellowed and faded photo. In it, is an image of a small boy, about age 4, who is holding an RCA videodisc in his hand. It is a copy of Duck Soup. He has a beaming smile. Yes….that was me. It sometimes strikes me as I look back at that photo and realize how much that film and the Marx Brothers have meant to me throughout my life. Back then, we would go visit my grandparents in Davenport, IA and my uncle would come over to visit in the evenings. He had an RCA videodisc player which he would bring over. He had a remarkable collection of titles. We would watch Shane, The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, among many others. He also had The Marx Brothers, who were my favorite. He had Animal Crackers, A Day at the Races, and what I consider their best film and a landmark of comedy…Duck Soup. My brother and I would sit down in my grandparent’s basement watching these movies and laughing our heads off. This routine went on for years.

One of the great things that I’ve realized through my many years of watching The Marx Brothers, is how well the comedy can play to different ages. When I watched Duck Soup as a small boy, I was completely infatuated with Harpo’s antics. His pratfalls really need no translation. As I got a bit older, I began to understand Chico and his malapropisms, the way he would botch particular words certainly made sense to my 10 year-old noggin (and made me laugh). Now that I’m older, I am able to get Groucho’s rapid fire sexual innuendos and one-liners. When you put all of this together, you have what I would consider the most varied, wide-reaching form of comedy and probably the birth of the modern comedic sensibility. I’m not sure that any single comedian, director, or comedy troupe can lay claim to the word “comedy” as much as the Marx Brothers can for me. They can probably be credited with creating comedy as we know it today, taking it from an era mainly focused on the stage, to the modern cinematic and television world. When you watch their films, you can feel an almost sitcom-like, episodic structure at times, and it’s clear that everyone from Lucille Ball to Woody Allen to the late night comedians felt their direct influence. Sure Chaplin and Keaton were masters….but silent film is a different thing altogether and I don’t even want to make the argument comparing them.  But, when I think of comedy, The Marxes are number one and Duck Soup is their supreme masterpiece….the one where the songs didn’t suck and the one where they pushed the boundaries the farthest.

Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) is appointed leader (dictator) of Freedonia by a woman named Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont) who is funding the country (seemingly on her own) to keep the country from bankruptcy. The leader of nearby Sylvania, Trentino (Louis Calhern) wants to take over the country, and in order to start a revolution, sends over two spies, Pinky (Harpo) and Chicolini (Chico) to spy on Firefly and find some dirt on him to….well I’m not exactly sure what they’re after but they certainly want to catch him red-handed! Rufus and Trentino soon begin to woo Mrs. Teasdale together and when Trentino calls Rufus an upstart (upstart!!!??), war ensues.  All of this is basically superfluous as the film mainly functions to allow the Brothers to enact all sorts of mayhem …..on women, political figures and dignitaries, lemonade vendors, soldiers, even themselves.

Duck Soup was the Marx Brothers most sustained bit of lunacy, and there are so many different kinds of comedy that one can find embedded within the film: slapstick, satire, silent-clown and mime, monologues, puns, pre-code shenanigans etc. There are as many different types of things to laugh at in this film that one can imagine. I think of three scenes in particular. One is the scene where Harpo and Chico befuddle and belittle the lemonade vendor on the street through a variety of gags. The lemonade vendor tries to tell them off because he says they’re turning away his customers. Soon enough, Chico bludgeons the guy with wordy absurd-isms, while Harpo frays his nerves with a barrage of physical torment. Another classic scene (perhaps one of the most iconic comedic moments in cinema), is the “mirror” sequence where Groucho stands in front of what he thinks is a mirror, when it’s actually just Harpo dressed up like him. Harpo follows Groucho’s every move, even down to anticipating nearly everything that Groucho does. Their physicality and comedic timing is really funny. But I also find one of the funniest aspects of this scene to be the way that Groucho’s iconic “look”, is aped by his brother. It’s all done in silence though, as if the sequence is straight out of a silent film. The final unforgettable sequence (and maybe their greatest 10-minute stretch that was ever filmed) is the inspired war sequence at the close of the film that plays as buffoonish satire, where in the midst of battle, every scene is rendered hilarious by the fact that Groucho has changed outfits…..wearing everything from Confederate Gray, to Russian Bolshevik, to Coonskin Cap! There’s even moments here where each of them (all four Marxes, as this was Zeppo’s last hurrah) is wearing a different vintage style uniform. It comes as perfect comedic timing when as they are throwing fruit at the newly captured Trentino, the upraised arms and lilting voice of Margaret Dumont suddenly causes the boys to throw their fruit in her direction instead.

Oh but Margaret Dumont! Was there ever a woman so used and abused in the name of comedy!!!!??? I swear this woman was a saint, and probably the Marxes most unsung hero(ine) and one of the keys to their success. Most great comedians need a straight man (or woman), and Margaret Dumont was Groucho’s. Groucho could be wooing her with sexual innuendos and suddenly would turn on a dime and lay into her with put downs: “You haven’t stopped talking since I got here....were you vaccinated with a phonograph needle?”. “I can see you bending over a hot stove….but I can’t see the stove.” Dumont somehow made Groucho’s occasional mean-spiritedness seem justified, as if she needed a comeuppance due to her rather prudish lifestyle. But there would be those moments when you would believe he saw her as the most beautiful woman in the world. It wouldn’t last but a split second, but it was there nonetheless. It was the speed at which Groucho would change his tune, though, that would make their interaction so magnificent….and it would be as if she didn’t even catch the jokes. Groucho apparently considered her to be the “5th” Marx Brother. That’s how important she was.

Many of the Marx films have memorable sequences: The Viaduct Scene (The Cocoanuts), The Letter Dictation (Animal Crackers), The Swordfish Scene (Horse Feathers), The Stateroom Scene (A Night at the Opera), Tootsie Frootsie Ice Cream (A Day at the Races). But Duck Soup not only has the great scenes but the biting social commentary to boot. In the Depression Era, for Groucho to be making jokes about war ("You're a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.") and taxes ("The country's taxes must be fixed and I know what to do with it....if you think you're paying too much now just wait till I get through with it."), it is pretty biting. It is well known though, that the film didn't do as well at the box office as their previous hits and Paramount ended up dropping them. They were never able to duplicate this satire again once they signed with MGM, where they aimed their venom at a much more benign form: The Opera. All of us have certain films that we are very biased towards. This can happen for certain reasons, but for me it’s very hard to view this film objectively. Seeing it at such a young age has ingrained it upon my brain and in some ways, it is probably this film that began the lifelong cinematic journey that I am on. I think back on that picture of me now and all I can say is…. “Wow that kid had great taste in movies.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Le Cercle Rouge (1970) - Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

This film contains such an overwhelming sense of foreboding that even from the early frames one can sense the doom washing over everything. One feels that the churnings and machinations of the people in the film are sort of like a mouse on a wheel, that they will work their tails off and yet end up right where they started….or perhaps worse: that they will succumb and be imbibed through the mouth of fate, which will yield all of their efforts null and void. The fact that Jean-Pierre Melville is able to take such a tone and infuse it with poignancy, suspense, and a respect for the art of devotion is remarkable. He is one of my favorite directors.

Le Cercle Rouge is Melville’s penultimate capstone to a career which has come to define neo-noir for me. His existential takes on the heist and the hit-man are absolutely essential cinema and have come to influence anyone from Michael Mann to Nicholas Winding Refn. His style of reducing cinema to observation (a la Bresson) is put to wonderful use as the observance of craft becomes elevated to a zen-like experience. Le Cercle Rouge stars Alain Delon (who makes smoking a cigarette a must-see event) as Corey, a just-released ex-con who has been tipped off by a jail-guard to a huge heist opportunity. Corey’s path crosses the story of another, named Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte), who is a just-escaped fugitive who is being tracked across the countryside. Vogel climbs into Corey’s trunk of his car, almost like Vogel is incubating in Corey’s “womb” and the two form a bond. It appears that each of them sense a portent connection. Is it fate that draws them together? The film seems to enact not a sense of coincidence that they are together, but a sense of determined purpose, like this is MEANT to happen. They hold up in Paris, as Corey begins to flesh-out the details of the heist. They turn to Vogel's old friend, an alcoholic ex-cop named Jansen (Yves Montand) (who also happens to be a crack-shot and ballistics expert), to assist them in their quest to rob a high-end jewel gallery. We also follow the exploits of the police investigator Mattei, a man far too uncool for the likes of Delon, but whose chief inspiration is to not only find the fugitive, sniff out the heist, but also to wreak havoc on us, the audience with his ability to foil and outwit the crooks who we are rooting for! The rat bastard!

I won’t pretend to beat around the bush. This film is cool. It’s not over-the-top cool, like his Le Samourai, but it’s utterly stylish, devoid of trumped-up drama, is silent most of the time, and lets the images speak for themselves. Above all, it’s a man’s world, where to find sense in this world, one must have a purpose and craft that one excels at. Our three crooks are either at the end of their rope, or have very little going for themselves. They have a predilection for finding trouble. It’s almost like they don’t really need this heist for the money, though. They need it for validation of their own selves…their own self-respect. Some men are accountants, some salesmen. These guys are crooks.  They pour as much thought and devotion into their heist as anyone would to something incredibly important to them. Melville similarly devotes a religiously observed portion of the film to the heist itself, which goes on for nearly a half hour of running time, most of which is incredibly silent (taking a page from Dassin). In fact the entire heist itself achieves the on-screen artistry of something like a beautiful song-and-dance routine, or a terrifically choreographed fight. We have the balletic movements, the attention to detail, the cause and effect relationships. There’s also an implied deduction that the audience must make at times, because slightly out of the usual order, Melville does not directly implicate us in all the details of the heist itself. Many heist films (a la schlock like Ocean’s Eleven) make it almost too fine a point to include the audience in EXACTLY everything that will happen and when it will happen. Melville understands we don’t have to know as much as the characters do to enjoy the heist scene. We watch and observe, without the burden of pre-anticipation.

If the film is also gorgeously cruel, it’s that ending where our crooks must look fate straight in the eye. Why must Melville remind us that our sins will find us out? Why must Melville remind us that those who risk much to gain, must also risk much to lose? Why Why Why? Melville is too smart to allow these guys to get away with it. Why pander to an audience that is craving for our protagonists, these crooks, to achieve some sort of immortality through their heist? Because life doesn’t work that way. As Elliot says in E.T., “This is reality, Greg”. The difference between great directors, and directors in title only, is that the great ones refuse to budge, refuse to pander, refuse to acknowledge that they MUST do something a certain way. Melville consistently throughout his career was almost fashionably in love with the concept of doom and foreboding. Like I said, from the early frames of this film, one feels the pull of death. It was there from the start. To betray this would be to betray the intent. Melville was like a rock. He was not going to budge. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lincoln (2012) - Directed by Steven Spielberg

Lincoln just might be one of Steven Spielberg’s least Spielbergian films. I don’t say this as any particular knock against him or the film either. It is no secret that I am a fan of Spielberg and I consider him to have made several masterpieces, my favorites being Jaws, E.T., and A.I. There are so many great films in his canon though. However this one may be least typical. He is often complained of showing too much sentiment and being too telegraphed in his approach..... some feeling he panders too much to the masses. Perhaps last year’s War Horse was the most debated film in recent memory regarding this aspect. Lincoln however often prefers to view things from the periphery, and even at times dares to be boring. Yes Spielberg has attempted making films with historical perspective before: The Color Purple, Schinder’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich. But this one feels different and not so akin to those in that list.

Lincoln takes a look at the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, mainly as it focuses on his attempts to ban slavery through the passing of the 13th amendment. It is based upon the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin and the script was adapted by Tony Kushner. This is not a story unfamiliar to us, as far as history goes. But, I found myself engaged in the proceedings far more than I expected. One of the film’s greatest strengths, is the way that it brought history to life for me. Lincoln, and the attempts to pass the amendment through political maneuverings and underhanded deals, feels very modern, as if things really haven’t changed that much in 150 years. Even though there is the burden of historical inevitability in films like this, somehow the script and the actors make the story suspenseful and prescient. I was incredibly surprised with how the film spends a good deal of time showing us Lincoln’s attempts to basically buy votes, at one time even exclaiming how he’s the President of the United States and SHOULD be able to achieve the buying of votes. Kushner’s script also allows for us to comprehend and understand Lincoln’s own self-doubt, as he admits on more than one occasion to not fully understanding if he has politically and legally overstepped his bounds. In another of the film’s most dramatic angles, we are brought into Lincoln’s very difficult moral conundrum of whether to postpone the Rebel surrender in order to allow time to pass the 13th amendment. It is this element in particular, that made the film very personal, as we realize the gravity of the stress and personal struggle which Lincoln faced on a daily basis.

As I mentioned earlier, Spielberg avoids much of what could be considered direct scenes of audience satisfaction in favor of oblique moments of poignancy. Yes at times, John Williams’s score swells and we see glimpses of the Spielberg that haters love to hate. For the most part though, Spielberg does not give the masses what they would expect. There are three cases of which I will mention. One, is the moment when the House of Representatives is tallying the final votes and instead of showing us the ensuing celebration, Spielberg cuts to a long scene of Lincoln alone in the White House. He soon hears bells off in the distance and we realize along with him what has just happened. Yet it is that quiet moment of solitude where the focus is laid, not on the outburst of emotion in the House of Representatives. Another moment where Spielberg subtly avoids cliché, is the scene of surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse. Instead of showing us a scene where Lee and Grant are in the house together, with the requisite protractedness and predictability, we are not shown any of this at all except a tip of the cap from Lee and the Union soldiers as Lee gets on his horse. The final moment I will discuss (and what appears to be somewhat controversial from some dialogue I have engaged in on the blogosphere) is the assassination of Lincoln, which is not filmed at all and instead the moment is filmed from Lincoln’s young son Tad’s point of view, as the announcement is made while he watches a play at a different theater that night. His ensuing display of emotion is the focus of attention, instead of what would likely have been a predictable moment of John Wilkes Booth’s shot and ensuing melee. I appreciated this point of view for the reason in particular that throughout the film, young Tad had been trying to vie for his father’s attention and it was never enough for him. His realization that his father may be dead and the focus on those left behind is consistent with the overarching tone of the film up until that point.

Spielberg also seems to have taken notes from William Wyler and Sydney Lumet. It is far more an actor’s film than a director’s, and both of those talented men were known for their ability to cultivate the elements necessary to allow for wonderful performances to come through in the actors. There are so many actors here that can chew the scenery. Daniel Day Lewis literally IS Abraham Lincoln as one would expect nothing less from him. Kushner’s script relies greatly upon jokes and stories that Lincoln tells, and although one could tire of such moments, I found them to be a great example of how a man like this has gotten to this position, through relating to people and learning from others. Sally Field as Mary Todd makes us feel the pain of a woman who can literally not let go of past failures. She obsesses over the death of her son Willie and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown for much of the film, brought on by anxiety and depression. That centerpiece argument between Lincoln and Mary Todd as they attack each other over the topic of their son Robert’s enlistment is a direct reminder of how much strain this family was under. There are others though, from the brevity provided by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, to the stern condescension provided by David Strathairn, the film is loaded with lots of acting moments. Janusz Kaminski's low-light cinematography adds the right stylistic elements to a film shot mostly in dark, back rooms. It is not a flashy kind of work, but the photography allows a humble, knowing artistry to present itself.

This is a film that is not easy to do well. On one hand, it dares to be boring, enacting a chamber drama attitude toward a topic that the general public expects to be more bombastic and far reaching. I could see how if one does not pay distinct attention the whole time, one could lose one’s way. For those viewers looking for more artistic liberties to be taken on this topic, they will not find it here. It is a film that is remarkably balanced, often restrained, towing the fine line of historical accuracy, whilst maintaining a propulsive, yet understated brand of entertainment.