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Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The trick, William Potter, is not MINDING that it hurts.
A British soldier the titular Lawrence - and his Arab guide Tafas have stopped at a desert well to drink. Through a mirage and the shimmering heat, we see a black speck in the distance. "Turks?" Lawrence wonders. Slowly, with minimal cutting, the speck resolves itself into a man on a horse who rides up, lowers his weapon and shoots dead the Arab. It is a beautiful, shocking and violent entrance and given the time it takes, a surprisingly economical one. We meet the second main character and juxtapose his character with Lawrence's. We see the stupid and brutal nature of the inter-Arab feuds and squabbles which sets up much of what happens later and the stupid and brutal nature of life in the desert a desert which might be as important a character as Lawrence.
But as the movie plays out, it also plays off what that scene reveals. We already have some inkling that lurking under the civilized veneer Lawrence wears something darker is lurking. We know he is something of a professional risk taker we've seen his demise, for instance, and the way his immediate reaction to learning how to drive a camel is to put spurs to it. But there is a masochistic streak running beneath it that may explain Lawrence's actions better: his trick with putting out a match with his fingers, despite the pain. It is significant that when he gets what he wants, an assignment in the desert that he thinks will be "fun" ("It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.") he blows out the match rather than snuff it with his fingers the jump cut to the desert is not only beautiful and beautifully done, it indicates that the desert fulfills the need for pain that the lit match had poorly filled. After Lawrence leads a spectacular raid on Aqaba, he reports, "We killed some, too many really. I'll manage it better next time." But he also reports having to execute a man: "There was something about it I didn't like . I enjoyed it." In the end, Lawrence and Ali have changed places: it is Lawrence who leads and participates in the bloody massacre of Turkish troops at Tafas now where in this review have we seen that name before? - and Ali who resists violence. But then, Prince Feisal had already previsioned what would happen with Lawrence. He tells the reporter Jackson Bentley, "With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable." And Lawrence learns that the internal squabbles of the Arabs are not the greatest problem he faces. Prince Feisal had already indicated this: "The English have a great hunger for desolate places. I fear they hunger for Arabia." Lawrence has been aware all along that his superiors have designs on Arabia (the historical Lawrence, by the way, had known of the agreement between England and France all along, but in the movie he learns of it only after Tafas, when the push for Damascus is planned.) and his work for the Arabs is designed to make them an English client state. Lawrence has been working all along for two goals, an independent Arabia and an Arabian client state.
But then, this just scratches the surface of what is going on with Lawrence's character. We see so much more: the shameless exhibitionism, the intelligence, the possible sexual orientation one wonders if his reaction to being raped in Deraa is similar to his explanation for the match trick his belief in his own indestructibility, his conflicted loyalties and his love for Arabia, whatever the questionable source for that love might be. The movie needs a great performance in the central role, and boy do we get that. Peter O'Toole was a little-known Irish actor, primarily on stage, before this role. He is, if a strictly hetero man may say it, magnetically gorgeous and as perhaps our mostly naturally flamboyant actor he is a natural for the part of "A poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior (and) also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey." He gets the conflicts inside Lawrence and wisely never resolves them. O'Toole's performance here is perhaps the single most unfairly overlooked lead performance in AMPAS history. This man being competitive Oscarless is a crime.
The movie also has perhaps the best color cinematography ever Freddie Young gets the credit for that and a magnificent score, from Maurice Jarre. Along side O'Toole's great performance are superb performances by Sheriff as Ali smoldering sexuality in the love interest the always welcome Jack Hawkins and Claude Raines as Lawrence's British handlers, Anthony Quinn as an Arab leader of questionable loyalties and clear motivation, and Jose Ferrer in a brilliant brief turn as a Turkish Bey. The only performance that too me seems off key is Alec Guinness as Feisal. Not that Guinness is not a great actor, but perhaps because for me Guinness is the most British of British actors, even when made up as an Arab or a Tantooean hermit he seems like, well, a Brit made up like an Arab or a Tantooean hermit.
It is not a perfect movie. Lean's direction is overall fantastic no one handled epics like Lean. The battle sequences are beautiful, there are images (O'Toole in flowing white robes atop a train, for instance) that are perfect and iconic. But like all epics, including Lean's, there are stretches where the pace seems to lag unnecessarily and the movie drags. The ride across the Nefud should not feel like it is in real time, no matter how gorgeously filmed. But that's a quibble. This is a great film.
A Serious Man (2009)
Why doesn't he just give us a written?
My first impression of the new Coen Bros movie, A Serious Man....
The plot is simple. It is the story of a man who finds himself utterly unprepared for his midterm exam. He has studied his teacher's stories, but not the reality behind them: he was unaware that there was going to be math involved, even though the whole point of the stories is to illustrate the math - it's the math that really matters. He was also under the impression that it was going to be open book.
In his desperation, he tries to crib from the exams of his fellow students, only to discover they don't have any of the answers either. Or if they do, their blue book contains nothing but indecipherable gibberish. He's afraid that failing the exam will cause his scholarship to be revoked. Finally, with it all falling apart on him, he turns to brazen cheating, and gets caught. And discovers that, while consequences may not necessarily have actions, actions most definitely have consequences.
Or perhaps not; perhaps that's too easy of a metaphor. What A Serious Man is, besides being one of the handful of best movies of the decade, is an examination of a world where, if God is present, he sure the Hell isn't showing himself to us; he left on sabbatical before the exam and the proctors he left behind can do no more than point to the parking lot.
I seem to have returned to my perhaps inappropriate metaphor. But then, I'm still turning the movie over in my mind. Perhaps it is better just to point out a few of the many, many joys the movie contains: typically sparkling dialog - it is the Coens - tremendous performances, especially by Michael Stuhlbarg, perfectly drawn and cast minor characters, a great shaggy dog (their best since Lebowski which was shaggy dog from first to last) that wanders into the middle of the movie and stays on the edge of the consciousness like it might, finally, actually mean something... maybe. An ending that is perfect for all those people who thought the resolution to No Country for Old Men was too pat, predictable and neatly wrapped up. And, oddly enough, a beginning that is its equal. The movie's plotting is typically ingenious, and provides a hidden circularity to the whole picture - the movie begins with a man who may be a Dybbuk and ends with a man who may be Schroedinger's Cat. It is also uproariously funny, right through to the ending credits.
And perhaps maybe, just maybe, it gives us the answer to the whole damn thing - an answer given to us by, of all people, Mike Yanagita.
Ace in the Hole (1951)
"I didn't make it cynical enough"
There has probably never been a movie from a major director quite like Ace in the Hole. It is a movie of almost unrelenting bleakness and cynicism, lightened only slightly at its outermost margins. It also not only stands up well more than 50 years later, it has a freshness and relevance that comes from an almost uncannily eerie spot on prediction about the future of the role of media in our culture. Wilder notably responded to the initial negative reaction to the film by noting that he did not think he made in cynical enough. In a time of wall-to-wall media coverage of the parentage of Anna Nicole Smith's baby, breathless television commentary on the suit Kobe Bryant wore to a hearing on his rape case or a prosecutor's hairstyle, crowds of gawkers outside of a mine disaster, Ace in the Hole plays with a more harshly realistic light now than it probably did on its initial release.
Kirk Douglas gives a tremendous, fearless performance as Chuck Tatum, a newspaper reporter who has fallen off the face of the journalistic globe and who smells the chance to regain his fortune when he stumbles on the story of Leo Minosa, trapped in an old Indian cliff dwelling. Tatum immediately recognizes that he can remake his name on Leo's story, if he can stretch the coverage out long enough. With the connivance of the fame-hungry local sheriff (despicably well played by Ray Teal), Tatum deliberately delays the rescue in order to maximize the story.
I have never seen Douglas give a performance quite like this, or in a role like this. In fact, there may not be another role like this in that era. Tatum is almost uncompromisingly nasty and self-serving to everyone; his boss, his coworker, Leo's slatternly wife, and Leo himself. Douglas the movie star disappears completely in this film. It is a masterful performance; any clue that we are watching Kirk Douglas acting would tear the film down.
Also wonderful is Jan Sterling as Leo's femme fatale (literally) wife, whose reaction, at first, is that Leo's predicament gives her a head start on leaving him. Later, Tatum convinces her that she can make scads of money of her husband, which she does with tremendous malice - the price to visit the cliff dwelling goes from free to one dollar quite rapidly. Sterling brings a great balance of sexiness and ruthlessness to her role.
But the goat of this movie is not just two or three heartless people, it is all of us. As in Frank Cady (Sam Drucker in Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction) who, with his wife, is proudly and fiercely the first of the throng that encamps at the cliff dwelling, and who is not above using his status for his own personal gain; he turns an interview into an advertisement for his insurance business. Leo's predicament draws a huge crowd, including a literal carnival, and other people who are looking to cash in on Leo, most notably a country band hawking the sheet music to their song, "We're Coming Leo." Wilder handles all of this material with his usual straightforward aplomb. Wilder is not one for shots that call attention to themselves, and the unpretentious nature of his direction serves the starkness of the story well. Likewise the script is full of the bitter wit and great lines that grace any Wilder film.
But the film has one major failure, and that is the end. Tatum, it turns out, at least belatedly has a heart and isn't the most cynical person in the film, and we get an unnecessary and unlikely attempted murder, a stabbing, comeuppance for the bad guy - all of which seems tacked on and diminishes the film. To me the real end of the movie comes a few minutes earlier, when Tatum announces that Leo had died, and the carnival closes down, the crowds leave and even as the dust begins to settle, we see a long shot of the solitary figure of Leo's lame father, slowly hobbling back to the mountain that still holds the body of his son. That is an unforgettable shot. That ending, with Tatum essentially unredeemed and alive, would serve the movie much better.
Still, this bitter, cynical and well-made movie is a great gem, and a fine addition to Wilder's brilliant oeuvre
The Life of David Gale (2003)
Decent movie destroyed by a cheap ending
When it comes to twist endings, I think there are three things that are necessary to justify them.
First, the ending has to evolve logically from the story. That is, when you go back and look at the movie the second time, you can see where the careful director and screenwriter have laid the groundwork for the twist. Think of the Sixth Sense. We may not have seen the ending coming, but the evidence for it was there, in retrospect.
Second, the ending has to be internally consistent with the logic of the movie.
Third, and most importantly, the ending has to resonate backwards into the story, offering some insight into the characters and the story that makes you understand the story better with repeat watchings. This is perhaps the hardest thing for a trick ending to do.
David Gale violates all of these precepts. ALL of them. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER Most egregiously, the trick ending - the final tape Winslet gets is absolutely inconsistent with the entire movie. Kevin Spacey's character goes to the trouble of killing someone, framing himself, getting executed, creating a tape that exonerates him for someone to find right after he dies, AND THEN SENDS A TAPE UNDERCUTTING ALL THIS TO A REPORTER? Horse hockey. The sole reason for that tape to be sent to Winslet is so the movie makers can make us sit on a cinematic whoopee cushion. END SPOILER END SPOILER END SPOILER Not only is it a cheap trick, it is a stupid one. Any screenwriter worth spitting on if they were on fire should be able to come up with a way for us to realize that the whole thing was a set up without resorting to such an obvious trick that is an insult to our intelligence.
The ending also is not prepared for us previously in the movie, anywhere. It does not arise naturally from any of the characters, there are no real clues scattered for us to have missed. It is just tacked on at the end.
And, of course, it adds nothing to the movie. Until the end, the movie was a decent, if overly strident, movie about an issue: the death penalty. I am not one for message movies, and am ambivalent on the issue, but the movie was not - until the end. What does that ending say about the message that the movie was sending in the first hour and forty five minutes? Nothing, except that the movie makers don't care about the issue they tried to get you to care about.
The stridency of the movie prior to the twist is the result of a mediocre script and by the numbers direction. Even before the end, this was at best a 6. But with that ending....
A contemptible movie. I'd give this a 1, except for the Kate Winslet rule. She's an actress I love watching, and is one of those rare performers where their mere presence in a movie keeps it from being totally worthless for me. Also, Spacey is very good as usual; the ending is not his fault.
So, I'll give this a 4 for the acting. But it is awful.
It's hard to know how to describe or review Borat. I mean, how do you describe a movie that gets huge laughs from the Running of the Jew, or two hairy men wrestling naked? The movie has some of the hugest laughs I've ever experienced in the movie. At one point, I was literally bent over in my seat, pounding the chair in front of me with my fist (thankfully, a moderately attended morning showing and the seat was empty).
The movie relies on pretty much every funny trick in the bag; physical humor, verbal humor (Borat's fractured language), sight gags (check out Azamat's fridge!), in-your-face rudeness, ethnic stereotypes used in a way to defeat the stereotypes (Even Borat is a spoof on how Americans view foreigners), a little politics (the rodeo), and even the jokes that you have to think about (watching the pentacostalists suddenly start speaking in tongues, and realizing that this is pretty much what Borat's been doing the entire movie). Almost all of it is fresh, audacious, and hilarious.
Easy to decide if you want to see the movie, by the way. If it sounds like something you'd like, it delivers everything you'd expect. If it sounds like something you'd hate, it delivers everything you fear.
Well made and entertaining
There is a place for a well made, entertaining film like this; as far as I am concerned just not, generally, on the Oscar podium, but still.
Gladiator has some impressively filmed scenes; the extended battle scene at the beginning is first rate, as is the recreation of the battle of Carthage in the Colessium (Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't we win? - great line). All of the fighting scenes were imaginatively staged.
The acting was decent. Russell Crowe - not one of my favorite actors - proves he can be effective when he's not given too much to say, and Juaquin Pheonix is superbly creepy throughout.
But I found myself annoyed at stretches of the film, particularly at the end, where Crowe envisions meeting his wife and child on a tree line alley through a field of wheat, or something. It's what I expect from a Mitch Albom book, not a serious movie. Not that it detracts too much from the film, really. The story of Crowe's family is the peg to hang the action on; it adds neither intellectual or emotional depth to what is in reality a well-made, well-shot, entertaining popcorn muncher.
It makes me very sad that I did not like this movie; I am a huge fan of all five books in the incredibly misnamed Hitchhiker trilogy.
Where did the movie go wrong? Well, casting Sam Rockwell, for one. I wanted to bash his heads in with a rock throughout the film. Yes, Zaphod is supposed to be annoying, but not that off-putting.
Second, the plot seemed to be missing a few pieces, somewhere. As in, the end features Trillian and Arthur together - big change from the book, but I'm fine with that - and... Zaphod with the Vice Preisdent? Did I miss something? Yeah, she clearly was jonesing for him during the movie but... what? SOMETHING had to happen. Maybe in the director's cut.
But frankly, the problem was that the whole thing never felt silly enough for me; it's like the actors felt they were in the middle of some high art feature. They should have been having FUN, and that fun should have been evident on the screen. Instead, it was flat, featureless and... God but I hate to say this, dull.
All joy wants eternity
There is a quote from Nietzsche's Zarathustra, something along the lines of, when you say yes to one joy, you say yes to all woe. There is a moment, half way through the erasure process for Joel, when he cries out to the doctor erasing his memory, "Please let me keep this memory, just this one." With that, Joel is essentially accepting the entire course and swoop of his love for Clemmentine; not just her confession that she feared being ugly, or her tangerine sweater, or even her crotch, but her changeability, her alcohol consumption; even the painful end of the affair, all for one memory. And at the end, despite his having forgotten everything about her, and despite knowing from her that the relationship is going to fail, Joel says yes one more time.
This is a wonderful movie. I had resisted seeing it because of Jim Carrey; for the same reason I avoid Robin Williams in serious roles, when I see them acting drama, they always look like the improv is busting to get out. Here, though, Carrey never gives a hint that he is about to go all Ace Ventura on us. Instead, he gives a restrained, effective performance as Joel. Winslet as Clemmentine is likewise fine.
But the real stars are the direction and the screenplay. The movie creates an unnerving feel throughout, especially in the memory sequences, with quick cutting and effectively unsteady camera work. The screenplay is intelligent and witty, and makes effective use of the non-linear story - we may be jumping around but we are never really lost.
Well, except maybe once; the circular nature of the story - it begins more or less at the end - came as a nice surprise to me. But it is honest, the clues are there - the differences in the "meet" story Joel tells, Elijah Woods's unexplained presence at Clemmentine's building, Joel's not knowing My Darling Clemmentine.... A nice job by the screenplay.
By the way, on a couple occasions, characters sing My Darling Clemmentine. Note that both times, they stop just before the line, "You are lost and gone forever/Dreadful sorry Clemmentine." Not as long as we have memory she's not.
One of the best films I have seen in years. It will live in my memory... I think.
L.A. Confidential (1997)
Excellent Modern Noir
Well, I watched L.A. Confidential last night for the first time. An excellent example of modern film noir. A well written, brilliantly acted film. However, a couple of minor quibbles prevent me from giving this a 10, or calling it one of the great films of its time.
First, I join in praising the acting; uniformly excellent. Usually, I don't care much for Russell Crowe, but here, why, it's almost like he was born to play an unintelligent mook prone to uncontrolled fits of violence. Second, I think it's Spacey's best work that I've seen, much better than his Oscar work in the vastly overrated Usual Suspects, for instance. And James Cromwell was superb. I'm only aware of seeing him in a handful of roles; he's been good in all of them, but his turn here was a revelation. The scene where he offs Spacey jarred me. Pearce, Straitharn, and even Basinger are also memorable.
But I had a couple problems with the film, that at first blush at least keeps me from praising it too highly. First, I hated hated hated the times the director superimposed an earlier shot of a character over the screen, as if we were not smart enough to figure out that the dead girl was the prostitute with the nose job, for instance. A smart film like this one should trust the audience to get it.
Second, you know, when a character asks another one, "Would you shoot a suspect who is surrendering in the back to prevent some lawyer from getting him off?" and the character answers "No", well, you pretty much know how the movie is going to end, don't you. There's a difference between foreshadowing and telegraphing.
The movie does it a second time, too, when Spacey and Pearce are talking about how they got into police work and Pearce mentions the imaginary name he's given to the guy who killed his father, followed by a scene where Spacey whispers that name to Cromwell, followed by a scene where Cromwell asks Pearce - and only Pearce, mind you! - if he knew the guy. There is no reason for Cromwell to ask only Pearce about the guy, except to move the plot along to Pearce's recognizing that Cromwell is the villain. There were other, better, subtler ways to reach that conclusion, and the movie should have seized them.
The "rape" scene didn't work for me at all. Not for a minute. Again, it seems an obvious plot contrivance. I think it would have worked better (given that the point of the scene was to allow photos to be taken) if Basinger had been the aggressor.
Oh, and I am somewhat torn between praising the excellent cinematography and arguing the movie should have been in Black & White. Color photography diminishes noir, and neo-noir.
And last, how did Bud White survive that final shoot-out? Didn't Cromwell shoot him in the face, point blank? What, is this some sort of mystical Jules and Vince moment? Movie ends better with him dead, I think.
But still, great acting and dialog. The screenplay is intelligent and suspenseful; wonderfully shot, great music. That I still rate the film as highly as I do, with these problems, is a testament to how superb the rest of the film is.
This Is Why We Go To Movies
Spoilers To me the interesting thing about the movie is the introduction, about half way through the movie, of the Gunderson family. Until that point, the movie was a very well done thriller, reminding me strongly of the Coen Brothers' first film, Blood Simple, in the way it followed the long, obvious unraveling of a crime, every little mistake being far more obvious to the viewers than the characters. And then suddenly, the movie has a moral center to contrast the darkness of the plot.
At first Margie seems to be almost a cartoon rather than a person, but what you realize over the course of the movie is that what she is is human: good at her job, loving to her husband, kind to her coworkers and subordinates, just... nice. And she wraps up the crime at the end with a great little speech emphasizing the human view, without us even realizing that it is that... For a little bit of money. And here you are. And it's a beautiful day. And, well, I just don't understand it. Now that you put it that way, neither do I.
This is a movie that is almost uniformly excellent; the cast, headed by Macy, MacDormand and Buscemi, is perfect - I cannot think of any other actors who would be better for the lead roles. The script is spot on in the way it sees and develops its characters, and the way people actually talk. The Coen Brothers' taste for the quirky qua quirky is much more muted here, but it still adds just the right touch of the other to keep the movie riveting. And the cinematography catches the vast empty whiteness of the northern winter perfectly.
Everything that brings me to movies is in here: great acting, great dialogs, surprises, amusement, shock, beauty, harshness, humanity.