Monthly Archives: August 2011

IMDB Top 250: Casablanca (1942)

I arrive at my 12th review in my IMDB top 250 challenge. After some slight disappointments and a lot of very pleasant surprises, the challenge has proven to be quite a satisfying exercise that has introduced me to a good number of great films, some of which have become instant favorites of mine.

One of the most significant omissions in my film resume had always been what is branded as one of the most significant and influential films: Casablanca.

Like most other black and white films of Hollywood’s so-called golden era, Casablanca represents a challenge for me to review. The style and manner in which these films are put together is very different from what I grew up with. Acting, back then, was rather theatrical, with gestures that did not strive for realism, but that stemmed from the fact most actors were theater-trained. Films were also made and delivered differently. In the almost 70 years that have passed since Casablanca’s release audiences have changed quite a bit. While the contemporary tendency is for thinner plot lines and flatter characters supported by extremely detailed editing, old films like Casablanca strive for a great script, strong characters and clever storylines over most other aspects of film-making.

At times, the pace of films like these can be off-putting, often being branded as too slow and boring by today’s audiences. Before we go forward, we have to consider that art is always a product of context. Casablanca was informed by a different American reality and by the films that preceded it. The history of film was still very much in its infancy when Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergmann shared the screen, and very few movies, if any, had captured the tragedy of unfulfilled love as poignantly as Casablanca had. It was also a highly appealing story that has always found success in movies: two people who are in love that are forced to sacrifice it for a higher cause. In fact, the film took risks that other films were not willing to take, weaving a romantic story through questions of morality, humanity and war.

The film was also the stage to powerful performances by the leads, especially Bogart, whose Rick Blaine interestingly combined an aura of cool with the fragility of a wounded man’s man. Bergman as his love interest is captivating. She was more than a movie star, she was incredibly beautiful and elegant, enough to make her presence felt even when she was not taking part in the dialogue. For both big-screen legends, Casablanca will always remain as their crowning achievement, one that speaks a great deal about the power of love, but also about the unlikely triumph of a low-budget film based on an unremarkable play.

Today, we speak of Casablanca as one of the first American classics. It is common to see scenes from Casablanca still being imitated today. To judge it by today’s standards would be as ludicrous as to pretend technology has not affected the medium. Given the tools and tradition that helped build Casablanca, the film is a remarkable achievement that has remained in time almost as powerful as it has always been.

Rating: 4 out 5 (very good)

Niels

The Best Moments in Film History: The horror of war, “Apocalypse Now”

Today I return to my blog to continue with my series on “The Best Moments in Film History”.

After my first post touching upon the magnificent performance of Kevin Spacey as John Doe in Se7en, I switch gears to a touching moment in film personified by the timeless Marlon Brando.

By the way Apocalypse Now is constructed, the screen required someone with the presence and emotional power of Brando, Hollywood’s ultimate acting virtuoso, to bring the story arch to a satisfying close. The film had traveled, in a metaphorical and literal level, to a point in which it could have collapsed under the weight of its own expectations. Brando did not only bring the excellence of his craft to the fore, but all the mystery of his persona and the aura of greatness that accompanied him from early on in his career.

The success of a performance, as actors themselves would tell you, comes also from listening to other actors. In this film, Martin Sheen plays Captain Willard in a performance that is powerful because it is restrained. In the more of two hours of film, the Captain does a lot of listening and observing, acting as a small pawn thrown into the middle of the Lion’s den. When Willard becomes Kurtz’ prisoner, the Captain acts in reaction to the madness that surrounds him, in an attempt to stay alive and gain the trust of Kurtz until he can achieve his mission: killing him.

Marlon plays Colonel Kurtz as a man that has lost his mind but who, at the same time, can be rational enough to eloquently reveal part of the torment that haunts him.
When Colonel Kurtz decides to open up to his prisoner, the movie reaches its climax. Marlon lurks in the shadows, his face only revealed by strings of light as he’s sitting down eating a fruit. Slowly the Colonel speaks to reveal the horror that consumes him. The emptiness in his eyes is remarkable and we believe this is a man that has lost himself completely in the carnage of the conflict. There is no glimpse of hope, he is but a mere shadow of his former self and his words are poignant and bizarre enough to make anyone cringe:

I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us

It can be argued that Apocalypse Now does have other moments that are indelible and helped make the movie what it is. However, if it had not been for the great Marlon and his hopeless words that summarized the goal of the film, there would not be an Apocalypse Now in any list comprising the best films of all time. For Brando it was perhaps the last great role of his incredible carreer, one that changed the concept of acting forever.

Niels

IMDB Top 250: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)

My IMDB top 250 film challenge continues. Today I reach my 11th review with the end of my Clint Eastwood cycle. In this post I will analyze one of the most critically acclaimed pieces in the history of film: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, directed by Sergio Leone and released in 1966. At IMDB, the film never leaves the top 5 and it was, until recently, one of those widely known classics I had never seen. So, this week I can finally say I have cleansed my cinematic soul and proudly declare I have seen the famous Western.

As it happened with Unforgiven a few weeks ago, I came into this film with a lot of hesitation. I really did not think it would deliver despite the great ratings it has received since it was first released. You see, I had always come to think of the Spaghetti Western as the genre of cinema where all cliches come to find a home. The image of John Wayne taking down cowboys and stereotypical Indians still burns my retina and clouds my view. To my delight, both Unforgiven and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (which I will abbreviate from now on with the letters GBU) delivered in style. While Unforgiven was the masterful stroke of Eastwood as a director and a storyteller, GBU was a fun trip from beginning to end.

It became apparent to me, from early on, that one of GBU greatest assets is how it meanders through every cliche in the book and makes it work by not taking itself seriously and playing with the audience’s expectations to create one incredibly entertaining story. GBU plays like an epic novel where every character seems to be taken straight from a comic book. There is a caricature of the heartless pay-as-you-go assassin (The Bad), the dirty and poor bandit that is always looking for the next big hit (The Ugly) and the mysterious yet incredibly cocky cowboy that roams the land in search for gold and adventure (The Good).

Of all of the three main characters, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was Tuco, the bandit, played by the eternal Eli Wallach, and not Blondie, the cowboy, played by Eastwood, to be the most interesting and entertaining character. Tuco is, in many ways, the heart of the film, balancing with humor and silliness the cockiness and grace of both Blondie and Angel Eyes, the assassin, wonderfully played by Lee Van Cleef. Tuco is a whole lot of fun because his character seems to remain above all stereotypes. The only thing that is certain about him is that he dreams of riches. There would be no one, not even a brother he still holds dear to his heart, or Blondie, who he grows fond of, that would be able to stop him in his quest for the treasure that a dying man spoke to him about.

Angel Eyes, out of the three, is the easiest to define. He is a brutal killer whose only rule is to see a job through to the end, no matter how difficult or how tempting it may be to desist. The film clearly depicts him as the guy the audience should root against as he has no comedic or gentler side to him. For Angel Eyes the goal is only money and that is never in doubt. While Tuco is comedic and even adorable in his messiness and mannerism, Angel Eyes is always business and nothing else.

Blondie is a bit of a mystery as the film leaves open the question of whether we should root for him in this adventure. Despite being branded as “The Good” at the end of the movie, Blondie is not altogether decent. His desire is also to be rich but, unlike the other two, he will not go out of his way to cause harm. In fact, Blondie only kills in the movie as a defense mechanism, to protect his life from the common threats of the Wild West.

What makes GBU great is not the story though. For Leone, film was very much an instrument to exploit his creativity as an artist and composer. As with previous endeavors, GBU is an opportunity for Leone to explore a great variety of shots, often switching from panoramic to close-ups, using the arid and vast terrain to his advantage to create wonderful compositions. While there are certain elements of GBU’s central story that are sketchy, Leone’s stylistic display of talent is, without question, the film’s strongest aspect. No better example than the masterful scene at the cemetery where Tuco frantically searches the circular grave site as the camera follows him and accelerates until everything in the background becomes a blur of graves passing through. Once the three main characters meet upon finding the treasure we are placed as the spectators to one of the most inventive and fitting endings in the history of cinema, one that is not only clever, but impressively shot by Leone, who grasped the moment with a fine use of creative composition and music.

The Grand Finale

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 (masterpiece)

Niels

IMDB Top 250: The Thing (1982)

Carpenter

After a long hiatus I restart my blog with my tenth film review of my IMDB challenge: The Thing, released in 1982.

The Thing stars Kurt Russel in one of the most convincing roles of his career. He plays R.J. McReady, the charismatic leader of a pack of roughened-out American scientists locked away by snow and ice from any meaningful hint of civilization in a distant outpost in Antarctica. The film benefits from a very strong opening sequence that shows us a Siberian dog running for its life as two men in a helicopter seem determined to end its life. As with the rest of the opening third of the film, the first few scenes are permeated with an ominous atmosphere that fills the screen with a sense of doom that is rarely as effectively delivered as it is in this film.

Despite the vastness of the environment, the film feels incredibly claustrophobic. The almost constant snowstorm that cuts all communication with the outside world serves as the lock that keeps all of these men trapped inside a narrow ensemble of hallways and rooms that make up the scientists’ outpost. From the moment we are introduced to the dog desperately running away from a certain death, we know that there is something off with this picture and that whatever it is come, it would have to be confronted in this limiting setting, where escaping is impossible. There is, as a result, a sense of unavoidable doom that inhabits every room and corridor. There is always a presence lurking among the men and even after we discover what it is, the very nature of this unexpected visitor keeps us guessing for who its next victim will be. It is never a matter of if it will happen, but a matter of when.

Having pointed out some of the most prominent features of the film, some sci-fi fans might be able to see a striking similarity to Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece: Alien. While Carpenter’s film does borrow a lot from the famous sci-fi thriller, which certainly undermines the raw artistic value of the piece, the director makes it his own by successfully reinterpreting the concepts and ideas elegantly used by Ridley, while introducing new elements that still made it feel fresh and nerve-wracking. While Alien is helped by incredibly convincing special effects for the time in which it was filmed, The Thing lacked, even 3 years later, the sleekness of its predecessor. In this sense, The Thing comes out as more of an unfinished material that is odd, gory and awkward all at the same time.

However, what the film lacks in intricacies and richness of detail, The Thing makes up for it with a sense of realism that is almost exclusively the merit of the unpolished look of the film. While the creature’s appearance is not altogether convincing, the circumstances these men find themselves in seem genuine.The characters we see on camera are far more relatable than those we see in Alien. These are not nerds or cowboys of a distant future, these feel like average Joe’s that are trapped in this impossible situation none of them could have avoided. It is this sense of impending doom that the film so effectively generates that keeps you at the edge of your seat throughout.

There are, as in other Carpenter films, several cheesy lines and cliches that hinder the overall effect of the movie. However, Carpenter does an awesome job at building a highly suspenseful and atmospheric environment that does wonders for the film.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 (good)

Niels