Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Underground (1995, Emir Kusturica)

Quest Status: 735 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #294

Underground is a film full of history and chaos, combining the two liberally until they become virtually indistinguishable. It begins with a Felliniesque parade in the street, with two drunken gangsters riding on horseback in front of a brass band. The band will be one of the few constants throughout the story, following the characters through good times and bad. They don’t comment on the action, they just keep repeating the same song again and again--right up until the film’s fantastical Felliniesque ending. Much like the circus in Fellini’s films, the brass band here seems to provide a lifeline to a nostalgic idea of old Yugoslavia, a country that existed “once upon a time.”

While the band can always be relied on to get the characters up and dancing, the rest of the film is an ever-changing whirlwind of a ride that often jumps forward decades in time without a warning and never gives the viewer a chance to catch their breath. The two gangsters we see at the start of the film turn out to be early members of the Communist Party, which initially means robbing banks and stealing from rich people in the name of the poor. Later, it means resisting the German occupation, and later, it means being in a position of adulation and political power, but the characters always remain the same at heart. They’re drunkards, criminals, womanizers, liars and schemers. One friend, Marko, uses his brains to get ahead, eventually tricking the other, Blacky, into living in the cellar with a large group of fellow refugees for 20 years.

While the first part of the film is a frenetic World War II adventure with some off-kilter twists, it’s this central part of the film where the weird factor really comes into play. The underground band of refugees believes that the war is still going on, convinced by Marko into producing weapons for the resistance while he lives a lavish life above ground as a high-ranking Communist official and sells the weapons on the black market. His grandfather is in on the scheme too, manipulating time in the cellar so that everyone believes they’ve only been down there for 15 years--not 20. The twisted treachery of this set-up packs a serious allegorical punch (even before a peripheral character muses that “communism is a cellar”), accusing the Communist leaders on top of profiting off of the lowly common folk down below--who even learn to love them for it and never suspect that they’re being taken advantage of.

Of course, things don’t end in the cellar. A monkey behind the controls of a tank is enough to set a new revolution in motion. But to what end? Kusturica makes it clear that there is none. In the film’s apocalyptic final section, the characters reconvene in a hellish vision of the 1992 Yugoslav wars. There’s not a building left standing, no one left alive who’s not wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. A flaming wheelchair revolves endlessly around an upside-down crucifix, suggesting endless chaos and evil. But those who remain still have their memories, giving them a glimmer of hope that what was lost can someday be regained. Despite its nightmarish finale, Underground is never a preachy or depressing film. It blows up the trajectory of modern Yugoslavian history into a surreal fantasy vision that promises a look at the elusive truth lying beneath it all--even if, as Marko suggests, it all turns out to be nothing but lies in the end.


---265 films remaining---

Monday, March 1, 2021

REWIND: The Night of the Hunter (1955, Charles Laughton)

TSPDT Rank #43

Initial viewing: c. 2007

"Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves..."

The Night of the Hunter is one of the strangest and most unclassifiable films ever to come out of the classic Hollywood studio system. On the surface, it’s a film noir thriller about some hidden bank robbery loot and the ominous preacher who searches for it. But while its basic story may be pure film noir, it’s also a throwback to the broad strokes approach of the silent era--with elements of D.W. Griffith epics, German expressionism, and slapstick comedy all thrown into the mix. Together with its blatantly unrealistic set design, Capra-esque sentimentality, and a larger-than-life performance from Robert Mitchum, these elements all combine to create a beguiling and fantastic film that is as difficult to describe as it is to resist.

Adding to the film’s mystique is the fact that it’s the only film ever to be directed by the great Charles Laughton. A hulking British expat who achieved Hollywood success with his towering performances in films such as The Private Life of Henry VIII, Mutiny on the Bounty and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the 1930s, he was certainly an odd choice to direct a Southern Gothic thriller set on the banks of the Ohio River. But by all accounts, he oversaw the film with a perfectionism and clarity of vision usually only seen from seasoned directors at the peak of their talents. His extensive acting experience also allowed him to develop an usually close bond with his actors, drawing out raw and otherworldly performances that are highly unusual for their era.

Although The Night of the Hunter failed to achieve success upon its initial release, it soon achieved an unusually early cult following--thanks to its regular presence on late night television in the 1960s and ‘70s. Moving with the deliberate logic and uncanny precision of a dream, The Night of the Hunter is perhaps most effective on the young and unsuspecting, like the best horror movies. For those expecting a suspenseful thriller, it will likely seem too strange and tonally inconsistent. At one moment, we see Mitchum’s preacher threaten his two adopted children with a knife--with a casual aura of evil so convincing that we really fear for the children’s lives. But at the next moment, we see him slip on a fruit jar, lumber up the stairs in a parody of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, and howl like a wounded animal when the children narrowly escape into the river.

The film’s final act focuses on the children and their attempt to escape from the preacher, with the action taking on the aura of a fairy tale. The children float down the river across a background of twinkling stars and animals twice their size, as lullabies lull them to sleep. When the preacher does appear, he does so only as a silhouette in the distance--a symbol of evil beyond the children’s comprehension. The kindly old woman who comes to their rescue (played by silent era icon Lillian Gish) is just as inconceivably good as the preacher is inconceivably evil. And when the final showdown comes, it remains firmly in the realm of symbolism--with the old woman and the preacher singing competing versions of the same hymn just like they were drawing pistols in the street. Despite its disregard for realism and narrative conventions, The Night of the Hunter always retains its hypnotic pull and childlike urgency. Never before or since has the battle between good and evil felt so elemental.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Holiday (1938, George Cukor)

Quest Status: 734 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #943

Continuing with an era that I've been focusing on a lot recently, I'm back in 1930s Hollywood today with George Cukor's Holiday. This film fits firmly in the screwball tradition of its era, with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in the lead roles, spending the entire film unaware that they're in love with each other. However, it's not just stubborn ignorance that keeps them apart. He's an up-and-coming young businessman with a lust for life who does a back flip whenever he feels a worry coming. She's the black sheep of "one of America's sixty families" who spends her time hiding from members of the other 59 in the quaint play room of her family's mansion. They hit it off from the start... right from the moment he announces her engagement to her sister.

The situation is understandable enough. But Hepburn's sister Julia (Doris Nolan) is the film's true mystery. Despite being a proper society girl who dotes on her demanding father, Julia agrees to marry Grant's Johnny Case only 10 days after meeting him. The two have apparently had no discussion about their future together, and, as it turns out, have very different ideas about it. It's difficult to believe that a woman so concerned about financial security and social standing would marry a self-made man with no knowledge or reverence for high society. The film's moral would seem to be "only fools rush in," but Julia is no fool. Does she see Johnny as an exciting escape from the stiffness of her father's world while still being capable of achieving the financial success she desires? Does she assume that Johnny will just automatically adapt to high society with her help? It could also be that not much thought was given to her character during the writing process, but either way, she comes off as uptight and controlling in the film. It's no wonder that Nolan's Hollywood career failed to gain traction after this film, the biggest role she ever got.

One of the promotional posters for Holiday asked moviegoers the question, "If you had $1,000,000... which sister would you choose to spend it with?" Given the extreme disparity between the two sisters, Cukor makes this an easy question for the viewer to answer. But the question itself is interesting. Grant's character is already successful when we meet him - an enterprising young man on his way to making his first million. He finds out that his fiancee comes from a wealthy family only after he proposes - not before. He doesn't need her money, so her father's promises of a job at his bank are worthless to him. It's only a question of how close he will come to compromising his values. Because of this, there's not as much tension here as there is in some of the more famous screwball comedies like His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby. Still, Grant and Hepburn are at their most joyous and effervescent, conveying a life-loving spirit that has been absent from movies for adults for a long time.

---266 films remaining---

Saturday, February 20, 2021

FROM THE VAULTS: Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)

 --Originally written 5/19/2020--

Current TSPDT Rank (2021 Edition): #399

[2020 Edition: N/A]

Under the Skin is a film about aliens, but it’s not exactly the sci-fi thriller you might expect from that description. Jonathan Glazer (whose other films include Sexy Beast and Birth) created a uniquely minimalist alien world for Under the Skin, daring the viewer to piece together the details of the plot from visual hints such as men sinking into a gooey black ether as soon as they try to approach a disrobing Scarlett Johannson. Johannson’s acting is intentionally robotic; she hardly utters a word of dialogue unless she’s trying to pick up a Scottish bloke off the street. In these street scenes, she’s like a psychoanalysis app powered by Siri, bluntly asking personal questions which suggest a desire for intimacy to her male prey but in reality serve only to establish whether the man is lonely and unattached.

But what about her reason for picking up these horny men and luring them to their doom? None of this is explained to the viewer. Even the idea that Johannson and her superior (Jeremy McWilliams) are aliens is only an inference to be drawn from 2001-esque lights and a robotic voice reciting English words in the opening sequence. The two characters don’t exchange a single word of dialogue in the entire film. What happens to the men after they’re captured by Johannson isn’t revealed until over 30 minutes into the film, and even then is only conveyed in the form of an abstract series of nightmare images.

Glazer ostensibly intended to show viewers how aliens might realistically act if they touched down on Earth to suck out the insides of the locals. They probably wouldn’t speak in any human language unless they needed to interact with people directly. They probably wouldn’t show any kind of recognizable emotion. And however they chose to devour their humans, you can bet that it wouldn’t be with a fork and knife. (So how would they do it then? Well, in one ominous scene, we see a man’s body instantaneously collapse into a filmy membrane, followed by a shot of juicy guts rolling down a conveyor belt to be transformed into a bright red beam of light. From there on, it’s anyone’s guess.)

Mica Levi’s dissonant score plays a key role in creating an atmosphere of weirdness and alien loneliness. We feel dread for the fate of the anonymous men before they even start to sink, and moments of silence are given all the more ominous weight by the squirm-inducing punctuation  from Levi’s viola. The absence of music in the street scenes, as Johannson talks to passersby (many amateurs who initially didn’t know they were being filmed), creates a cinéma vérité mood that makes the music all the more effective when it does come in, while also echoing the emptiness of the lives of the men that Johannson preys on.

This is especially pronounced in the film’s pivotal scene, in which Johannson picks up a man with a horribly deformed face (Adam Pearson) on his way to the supermarket at night. In this scene, her exploitation of his loneliness and longing for human connection feels unbearably cruel--a feeling which also registers with her for the first time when she is unable to go through with her nightly ritual and, in doing so, resigns herself to a human life of loneliness . It’s this quality, the delicate balance of realism and otherworldly discomfort which gives the film’s weirdness weight. Under the Skin doesn’t give the viewer any answers or explanation, instead merely posing the question “What would it be like to be an alien among everyday humans?”

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937, Leo McCarey)

Quest Status: 733 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #809

"If it should happen that I don't see you again, it's been very nice knowing you, Miss Breckenridge."

This should be one of the most famous quotes in movie history. It certainly packs more of a punch than "here's looking at you, kid." Of course, this could only happen if more people had seen Make Way for Tomorrow. But today, as in 1937, downward spiral films don't tend to do well at the box office. They might get good reviews, maybe even win an Oscar, or even one day end up in the top 500 of a 1,000 Greatest Films list, but they're not going to have much replay value on TV or inspire many clicks on Netflix. This probably explains why Make Way for Tomorrow has rarely been available on streaming services, except for occasional appearances on the Criterion Channel. Before it was released by Criterion, it was a mere footnote in film history, seen by only the most diehard of film buffs.

Now it's slightly more seen, but only slightly. After all, I've been working on the 1,000 Greatest Films list for over ten years and never got around to watching it until now. It's hard to sit down on the couch after a hard day at work and be depressed for 90 minutes. It's hard to do it on the weekend too. This is the price that filmmakers pay for being willing to stare reality square in the face. The same year that Leo McCarey made this film, he also made The Awful Truth with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne - a raucous screwball farce that won him a Best Director award at that year's Academy Awards. But there are no stars in Make Way for Tomorrow. In it, we follow two elderly parents who lose their house to the local bank as they are forced to move in with their children. Neither of the children has room to take them together, so they have to separate. Even then, they're a burden to their children, with no visible path to happiness. Slowly, they begin to realize that they'll always be a burden to someone, and things will never be like they once were.

The most recognizable face in Make Way for Tomorrow for most will probably be Thomas Mitchell, the veteran character actor who most notably played Uncle Billy in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. But the core situation will be painfully recognizable to almost anyone. Parents give everything to raise their children, and then what do they have to show for it? When the parents fall on hard times, or even just want to spend time with their children, they will likely be seen as a burden to the children they worked so hard to raise. Taking an tough and unapologetic stance, McCarey challenges the viewer to consider the situation of Barkley (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi), the parents whose children are so anxious to get rid of them, as they mournfully accept that their allotment of happiness has simply run out. Is this situation unavoidable? Would we do the same thing if faced with it in our own lives? Why do children see their elderly parents as such a burden? McCarey doesn't answer these questions, nor does he expect the viewer to, but simply invites them to watch the story of Bark and Lucy and consider it for themselves. The lack of sentimentality is part of what makes Make Way for Tomorrow difficult to watch, but also what makes it such a lasting and meaningful film.

---267 films remaining---

Monday, February 1, 2021

January 2021 Update (+2020 in review)

It's that time of year again - the new TSPDT list update has just been published! Despite all of the hardships and bad news of the past year, there was a silver lining in that I had my most productive year of blogging since I first started this project 11 years ago. It's still not easy to find the time to keep the blog the going, but over the course of the past year, I rediscovered the joy of watching a movie and hammering out a review shortly after. As you can see in the list below, I watched 42 new movies towards my quest over the course of the past year. This year, I hope to at least keep the same pace going, if not surpass it.

Thankfully, the new list update also gave me a slight push forward. Of the 25 new films added to this list this year, I've seen already seen a whopping 15. (I'll be posting a retrospective review of at least one of those within the next week or two.) Of course, I always lose some as well, but I still scored a net gain of 4 films, putting my current total at 732/1000. Almost 3/4 of the way there!

As always, thanks to Bill Georgaris for putting this amazing list together. Check out the details of its creation and the latest update here: http://theyshootpictures.com/gf1000.htm

And you can keep detailed tabs on my viewing activity here: https://letterboxd.com/Wisejake237/

Image result for celine and julie go boating house

January-March 2020
686. Chelsea Girls (1966, Andy Warhol)
687. That Obscure Object of Desire (1977, Luis Buñuel)
688. Los Olvidados (1950, Luis Buñuel)
689. Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974, Jacques Rivette)
690. The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
691. Local Hero (1983, Bill Forsyth)
692. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926, Lotte Reiniger)

Carl Theodor Dreyer: Ordet - The Culturium -

April 2020
693. If... (1968, Lindsay Anderson)
694. O Lucky Man! (1973, Lindsay Anderson)
695. Voyage to Italy (1953, Roberto Rossellini)
696. Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
697. Ordet (1955, Carl Theodor Dreyer)
698. Gertrud (1966, Carl Theodor Dreyer)

Heroines of Cinema: Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter's Orlando ...

May 2020
699. Triumph of the Will (1935, Leni Riefenstahl)
700. Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann)
701. JFK (1991, Oliver Stone)
702. W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971, Dusan Makevejev)
703. Orlando (1992, Sally Potter)

June-July 2020
704. Sansho the Bailiff (1954, Kenji Mizoguchi)
705. The Life of Oharu (1952, Kenji Mizoguchi)
706. Orpheus (1950, Jean Cocteau)
707. Vivre sa vie (1962, Jean-Luc Godard)
708. Hana-bi (1998, Takeshi Kitano)

August 2020
709. Dekalog (1988, Krzysztof Kieslowski)
710. The Last Laugh (1924, F.W. Murnau)
711. Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler (1922, Fritz Lang)
712. Naked (1993, Mike Leigh)
713. The Sacrifice (1986, Andrei Tarkovsky)
714. A Separation (2011, Asghar Farhadi) 

September-November 2020
715. The Saragossa Manuscript (1965, Wojciech Has)
716. Sátántangó (1994, Béla Tarr)
717. Van Gogh (1991, Maurice Pialat)
718. Tropical Malady (2004, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
719. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
720. Miller's Crossing (1990, Joel & Ethan Coen)
721. The Servant (1963, Joseph Losey)
722. The Piano Teacher (2001, Michael Haneke)

December 2020 - January 2021
723. Irréversible (2002, Gaspar Noé)
724. Caché (2005, Michael Haneke)
725. Nostalgia for the Light (2010, Patricio Guzmán)
726. Grave of the Fireflies (1988, Isao Takahata)
727. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989, Peter Greenaway)
728. Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks)

Quest Status: 728 / 1000

TSPDT Rank #233

1939... The year of The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. What a different world we see today than the one in those beloved films from Hollywood's Golden Age (especially when it comes to the last of the three). But Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings is one film from that year that doesn't get a lot of fanfare. On the surface, it might seem like a typical Hollywood film to modern viewers. Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Rita Hayworth all share the screen in an imagined South American locale where passions run high, the liquor flows like water, and hard-boiled men do their best to never ask a woman for anything. Everything is shot on a studio backlot and the story swivels on a dime, with increasingly improbable plot twists and dynamic character development. Even so, more than most other films being made by Hollywood at the time, Only Angels offers a view into something real and vital about its era.

It may have been made on a backlot, not in "Barranca," but this tale of daredevil pilots tasked with carrying the mail across a perilous mountain pass is given a boost of startling realism by its director, Howard Hawks, who brought his real-life as a WWI fighter pilot to the film. The dialogue and situations feel realistic not because they were filmed with real stunt pilots in real locations, but because they were overseen by someone who knew the subject. In one early scene, a fresh-faced young pilot who spends the first ten minutes of the film sweet-talking Jean Arthur's bombshell cruise ship entertainer finds himself blinded by fog and unable to return to the air field. Suddenly, the light, almost screwball mood of the film's opening scenes turns to nail-biting suspense as we watch Cary Grant and his team of pilots and radio operators attempt to guide the boy down safely. The attempt is unsuccessful, but there are no orchestral swells on the soundtrack - just the sound of an airplane's engine, the bang of the crash, and the ensuing silence.

But just as soon as the kid meets his untimely death, life in Barranca returns to its normal pace. A round of drinks is ordered and songs are sung, suddenly turning a moment of mourning into a musical. In this way, Hawks manages to cram action, comedy, romance, musical, existential drama, and suspense into a single film. Like the best of Hawks' work, Only Angels Have Wing seems to ramble along effortlessly, throwing the viewer right in the middle of a world that's just as exciting and full of life as its characters. Viewers today might not always recognize the world of 1939 - where women fight for the love of men who refuse to open up to them and the men are tethered to a cult of masculinity where nothing is more important than the perilous jobs they do together. Even so, it's fascinating to see the ideals that people strove for almost 80 years ago - and no one could have brought this world to life as vibrantly as Howard Hawks did here.

-- 272 films remaining---