The Last Metro

The Last Metro

Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro is a movie about our passions, for the people around us, the communities we build together, and the projects/desires that drive us.  Truffaut takes an almost broad capturing of the French theater scene in 1940’s Paris during the German occupation, using the historical setting for when a mechanical oppressor begins to infect and discourage the artistic passions that drive people.

Catherine Deneuve is heartbreaking and spectacular as Marion Steiner, an actress who takes over her husband’s theater company after her Jewish husband Lucas Steiner (Heinz Bennent) is forced to flee the country once the Germans take over.  However, Lucas Steiner’s passion for his theater runs so deep that he never has the chance to flee but rather he is hidden in the basement underneath the theater.  Complications ensue when a busy-body theater critic threatens to take things over and Marion begins falling in love with their newest play’s womanizing lead Bernard Granger (played with effortless charm by Gerard Depardieu).

The romance between Bernard and Marion feels almost out of nowhere as the film comes down to its final act until you realize that the romance has developed right on stage without anyone’s notice, including the two players themselves.  It’s a subtle, interesting trick that Truffaut pulls off and it miraculously works as their passions for each other finally take them over.  That’s what the film is all about in the end and the film’s entire look and feel signals that fact.  From the oppressing use of reds throughout the film to the red, satin curtains of the stage to the set design of the night club and elaborate red dresses of Marion Steiner to the romantically lighted scenes of the troupe rehearsing the play, every decision Truffaut indicates an outward expression of love and fiery passion of the characters’ internal lives.

It’s a strikingly beautiful movie in that way and it’s hard not to fall in love with the film as it lovingly graces the screens with a gentle touch, showing a loving community of theater obsessives putting on the best show they know how.  Truffaut gives into a bit of cartoonish villainy with the French collaborator and drama critic, perhaps indicating a slight malice towards those in the critical profession.  He gets his own comeuppance in a cartoony epilogue scene that feels cut in from a completely different movie but the threat of the character’s presence does give the film a sense of forward momentum towards film’s end.

Truffaut has crafted a loving dedication towards the arts and those that show true passion for it.  Lucas Steiner sacrifices everything, including the love of his wife, just to be in proximity to the theater which he loves so dearly and one could imagine Truffaut feeling the same way for the cinema.  Even Bernard and Marion’s passionate romance is seen and developed through the prism of their passion for the theater.  The film is a love letter to all of those who love the beauty of artistic expression and Truffaut carries those themes in a lovingly entertaining movie and a delightful surprise from a filmmaker in the august years of his filmmaking career.

Killer of Sheep

Charles Burnett’s first film, a UCLA student film, is one of the most ambitious and culturally important movies of the last thirty plus years.  Killer of Sheep take the Italian Neo-Realist style and places it in the setting of 1970s inner city Los Angeles.  The film’s comments on race, poverty, and the ultimate social struggles of the people depicted in the film are timeless and it is a striking début picture in the way it deftly handles those ideas in interesting, artful ways.

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Haywire

Haywire

Steven Soderbergh refuses to shoot action in the conventional way with his latest, Haywire.  In fact, nothing about the movie is inherently conventional.  As with The Girlfriend Experience, taking an actress not known for her acting talents, Soderbergh morphs and shapes the film to the lead’s inherent talents.  With The Girlfriend Experience, the filmmaker took the inherent seduction and sexuality of Sasha Grey’s porn star past and formed it into a narrative about a high-class escort, pushing the bounds of intimacy.  Haywire’s lead, MMA fighter Gina Carano, is a purely physical being in every way, shape, and form.  Beyond just her sensual beauty, every move the actress conveys throughout the film conveys a brutality and a sense of violence that belies that sexual exterior.  There is no doubt throughout the film that she can kick anybody’s ass.

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Splendor in the Grass

Splendor in the Grass

Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass sets the tone right from its first scene with our two protagonists in the midst of a make out session by a rushing waterfall.  Considering that this is also Warren Beatty’s first scene ever in a motion picture, it’s almost doubly appropriate.  Beatty throughout his career would be looked at as the hunky movie star exuding sex appeal and right from the start, the star begins his tumultuous relationship with women, on and off screen, as sex would play in an important role in the majority of his major work in the years to come.  In fact, Kazan’s film, with a script by William Inge, is quite shocking for its time considering its treatment of sexuality, with Natalie Wood’s character in particular.

Wood and Beatty play two teenagers madly in love with each other in Kansas during the late 1920s.  The specter of the market crash looms over the proceedings as the two characters deal with their relationship, school, and family.  Kazan deals head on with teenage sexuality creating a frank and open dialogue about sex and the pent up frustration of growing up.  Well, the two characters do seem madly in love but they could just as easily be madly in lust.  Throughout, the characters bemoan, scream, and shriek, pushing up against the idea of being “good” instilled by their parents.  The two characters fighting these urges culminate in their eventual breakup and in Wood’s sexual mania.

Beatty is good here in his film debut, playing it subdued and bristling, as the frustrations with his characters longing for something just a little bit more with Wood’s character as well as bustling up against his father’s expectations of him, another major theme of the film well represented.  Beatty feels fresh here, still charming but not overbearingly so as would characterize some of his later work.  There’s a vulnerability to his performance here that he would later lose as he would seem to gain more and more confidence.

It’s Natalie Wood, however, who delivers quite the knockout performance.  After the break-up of the relationship, Wood’s character goes mad in sexual frustration and despair and has a complete nervous breakdown.  There are moments where the scenes almost become too much and border dangerously close to parody but Wood’s performance and primal screams keep the film’s more melodramatic elements in check.  She gives a completely naked performance, bearing herself, body and soul and elevates the film into something truly special.

Teenage frustration and longing can be a difficult thing to represent on film.  Often, it can become overly obnoxious and annoying as a multitude of teen films has demonstrated.  Kazan, however, guides two wonderful performances from his leads and makes a real believable story about not just the sexual mores of young adulthood but growing up into one’s own self.  Much of the dramatic conflict comes from outside as well as within the relationship, as Beatty’s father played by Pat Hingle imposes his own wants and desire upon his son.  Hingle is boisterously good as Beatty’s father, switching from a loving father pose to menacing distress with ease.  Wood’s mother, played by Audrey Christie, enforces her own rules of morality upon her daughter as well leading to her eventual breakdown.  She of course is oblivious to this blaming everything that goes wrong on a young Beatty.

There’s a wistful nostalgia to better period even when the film is living within them but the film is quick to dismiss the notion.  Characters are in constant motion, trying to decide the people they want to be and trying to decide who they are from moment to moment.  Kazan has crafted a beautifully shot film with some strong central performances.  Without the strength of Wood and Beatty at the heart of the film, things could easily fall into annoying pastiches of old clichés about growing up.  Beatty and Wood imbue their characters with real warmth, vulnerability, and despair.

There are a few story problems with the film.  Though the inevitable market crash provides the story with an undercurrent of foreboding, it’s entire purpose in the story feels unclear.  An instance of dramatic irony creates a situation where Wood’s and Beatty’s families switch power positions in town but with the exception of one tragic occurrence, little is done with the story point.  Speaking of families, Beatty’s character has a party girl sister who throws herself onto any man that comes her way.  She represents everything that our two main characters are controlling themselves to keep from becoming.  However, part way through the film after a harrowing near rape that leads to the eventual dissolution of the Beatty and Wood’s relationship in consequence, the character completely disappears with only a line or two at the end to indicate her ultimate fate.  It’s a bit befuddling as it was an interesting character to thrust between two incredibly chaste characters but it seems, like the male characters in the film, once they ran out of use for her, they disposed of her just as quickly.

As much as the first half of the film seems dedicated to the undercurrents of sexual frustration and dissatisfaction, the film moves beyond that one note and folds it into the larger themes of who we want to be and that vital time in our lives when we come to terms with how we want to get there.  It’s once Beatty loses his virginity to another girl and Wood spirals into despair that the film comes alive in interesting and unexpected ways.  Splendor in the Grass takes its title from a poem by William Wordsworth recited within the film about the beauty of the past and the strength to take from that youth you never get back.  Kazan’s film dramatizes those elements to great effect and creates a beautifully acted drama out of those simple ideas and real human conflicts.

Prince of the City

Prince of the City

Sidney Lumet is one of the greatest filmmakers to have ever lived and one of his greatest film is the epic cop film, Prince of the CityTreat Williams is superb and breathtaking as a once corrupt cop who grows a conscience but in the end loses his friends, family, and reputation, all in the name of doing the right thing.  Prince of the City is a deeply powerful film with a heavyweight ensemble putting in strong, unforgettable performances.  The film’s treatment of corruption at every level from the office to the man to the system itself is frightening in its poignancy.

William’s Danny Ciello is at once brash, charming, angry, dangerous, and intensely vulnerable throughout the film.  When taken in by Internal Affairs, he makes a deal where he refuses to turn in his partners, a deeply felt loyalty that is tested over and over throughout the film and provides the film with its heart.  Rather than treating corruption as a good vs. evil situation, the film takes the more complex view of what corruption does to the soul of man versus the black and white villainy of most films of its ilk.   Jerry Orbach is great as one of Danny’s cop friends who becomes embroiled in Danny’s decisions but the cast is uniformly great, taking the best of the New York City scene of actors.

Not just one of the best cop films of all time but also one of the best looks at the justice system and the ways power and money corrupts everything.  Andrzej Bartkowiak’s photography from the grit and grime of the New York City streets to the polish deep within the halls of justice complements the story and gives the film much-needed gravitas and energy.  Lumet’s doesn’t whitewash the story or its characters showing them for their deep flaws but also their deeply human selves.  It’s both a cynical film and an optimistic one and it handles that balance well.  While showing the capacity for good, it also shows what happens to the man willing to stand up for what’s right in a system that only knows loyalty.  Corruption from institution to man are the central themes of the film completely embodied by Treat William’s magnificent performance at its center but Lumet surrounds him with such a strong script, a powerful ensemble, and some of the best photography of New York ever put on film.  Lumet’s film is deeply powerful due to the raw energy of its cast creating a magnetic, striking film that is hard to shake.

Solaris

Solaris

Andrei Tarkovsky’s meditative, deeply humanistic Solaris stands as an answer to Stanley Kubrick’s mechanical 2001: A Space Odyssey in the way it pushes the scientific intrigues of its subject matter to the background, bringing the characters and their internal human drama to the forefront.  Tarkovsky’s overlong, indulgent treatise on humanism within the science fiction realm treats its characters with loving graces and spends so much time with them that the sci-fi artifice that surrounds them seems almost inconsequential.

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Stolen Kisses

Stolen Kisses

Stolen Kisses is the third film in Francois Truffaut’s continuing examination of Antoine Doinel, started so masterfully with the 400 Blows.  It’s incredibly impressive as Truffaut not only revisits the character but the actor, Jean-Pierre Leaud, as well seeing him develop as a performer and really see him become a man.  Here, we see Antoine develop as a young man, just discharged from the army, as he attempts to find work in Paris.

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Repulsion

Repulsion

Catherine Deneuve gives a chilling performance as a mentally unstable woman slowly coming apart over a weekend spent alone in her sister’s apartment in Roman Polanski’s haunting second feature, Repulsion.  Right from the start, this is a film that shows a confidence that is shocking for a director so early in his career.  The title credit sequence truly sets the tone for the picture that follows with our young protagonist’s eyes darting back and forth as the credits scroll awkwardly across the screen.  This is a woman that is not mentally together and Polanski never pulls back the curtain on that.  He slowly reveals bits and pieces as we see a woman completely withdrawn from the world around her.

Once she is left finally alone in the apartment, the violent oppression that resides in her mind is finally allowed to burst through and the ensuing hour and a half is truly one of the most startling sections in film history and Deneuve delivers a truly disturbing performance as a woman who finally succumbs to something that Polanski refuses to share with his audience.

Polanski leaves it to the audience but leaves subtle clues and hints as if the film was a deep puzzle of the woman’s mind.  Pieces shattered left and right are strewn across the screen.  Is it a film about sexual repression?  Has she suffered sexual abuse?  What demons haunt this woman that rockets into an ultimately tragic conclusion?  These are questions that Polanski wants you to ask because the people in her life never seem to.  Treated as just an inward person, the people around her constantly baby and protect her, never probing for any deeper meaning despite her obvious mental anguish.

Polanski’s use of space and structure inside the sister’s apartment is astounding.  The filmmaker uses the set design and a claustrophobic shooting style to enclose the audience around our central character and to keep not just her disoriented but the audience as well.  Polanski wants the audience to feel that encroaching invisible menace that Deneuve perfectly encapsulates in her performance.  That fear is what drives the pictures most sinister moments such as when her “boyfriend” decides to drop by.  His love gets mistaken for aggression in one of the most disturbing scenes in the film because in her mind, she truly can’t tell the difference.

Repulsion is the probably one of the greatest cinematic representations of mental illness.  Polanski delightfully puts his audience in the mind space of someone whose repressions of deep, dark secrets slowly unravel her until it’s too late for anyone to do anything.  It’s a disturbing picture because Polanski gives us no real world character to hang on to that isn’t completely disposed of one way or another.  So when the film takes its dark turn and the character we have been following truly collapses and becomes her own villain, we as an audience can’t turn away and end up losing ourselves within the film.  It’s an ultimately upsetting picture that isn’t so much a thriller as it is a deeply disturbing horror film of the mind but Catherine Deneuve’s performance is so outstanding and engrossing, it’s difficult to look away.

The Iron Lady

The second The Iron Lady was announced, Meryl Streep’s Oscar was already certified and ready to be awarded.  Streep as Margaret Thatcher, England’s first female prime minister and a controversial political figure of the Cold War era, is the kind of part that breeds Oscars and putting the most nominated actress of all time in that part is a relative sure thing.  Unfortunately, the script by Abi Morgan and direction by Phyllidia Lloyd is nowhere near as strong as it should be and all the film has is a strong central performance that feels all for naught.

It’s not necessarily the filmmakers’ fault per se.  The biopic has been a lethargic prestige genre designed to get their lead performers award recognition and little else.  It’s a sound strategy as Jamie Foxx can attest for his stirring performance in Ray.  But be honest with yourself, what do you really recall of the film?  The problem with the biopic is that it tries to take in too much of the person’s life.  A film tells a story with a beginning, a middle, and end with a central theme linking all parts taking us to the end.  Many of these biopics try to condense a whole life into those two hours not taking into account the major swings and turns that a life takes over the course of decades.  In the end, the films make simplistic statements on their subjects but there’s little depth given and ultimately, at best, you have a turgid film with an actor at its center giving it their all and then some.

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The Black Cat

There are no bigger names in classic horror than Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.  Most famous for their portrayals of Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula, respectively, they also made a slew of movies together at the height of their star-power.  The first one of these collaborations was Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat, a stodgy black and white horror film revolving around a Satanist architect who traps a couple of vacationing honeymooners in his stylishly modern castle.  The art deco set design on the interiors of the castle are actually quite impressive and provide an interesting dichotomy between the classic exterior of the castle and the old fashioned story that unfurls through the film and the modernity that lies within.

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