Monday, January 7, 2019

1983 on Netflix

If you're like me, you only have vague recollections of 1980's Gdansk Shipyard strike, and even vaguer notions of what it accomplished. In fact, it was a highly effective act of political resistance, gaining Poles the ability to form labor unions, codifying basic human rights and, in its own way, ushering in the eventual crumbling of the Soviet Union.

The Netflix original series 1983✭✭✭✭ imagines a very different outcome for the era's political unrest. Using a horrific terrorist attack as a pretext, the Polish government rounds up hundreds of political dissidents, effectively crushing the nation's burgeoning democratic movement, all in the name of national security.

But all is not gulags and breadlines in Warsaw as a liberal immigration policy with Vietnam and a visionary finance minister (Andrzej Chyra) have transformed Poland into an economic powerhouse, and the world's leading manufacturer of computers and cellphones. The Polish people now have a peaceful, orderly society and material comfort. They seem to have everything except the truth about their own past.

Now, twenty years later, as grizzled veteran police detective Anatol Janów ( Robert Wieckiewicz) investigates a recent rash of murders and criminal activity, he has the gnawing suspicion that there's more going on than meets the eye. With the help of a well-connected law student (Maciej Musial), the pair slowly discover a complex conspiracy that leads to dark and forbidden places, threatening the pillars of lies on which modern Polish society is built.

This eight part series is not always easy to follow, especially in the early going. It's so challenging that it's tempting to zone out and become hypnotized by the stark beauty of its gray, bleak images. But by episode six, when all the story threads begin to coalesce, it becomes a fairly simple plot with clearly defined motivations. Writer Joshua Long and a variety of directors (including Agnieszka Holland) do a remarkable job of building and maintaining suspense. I can't think of one moment in the show's nearly 8 hours that felt padded or flabby. If you're a fan of moody, austere police dramas, give 1983 a try. But don't @me if you become transfixed for the whole 8 hours.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Elevator to the Gallows Turns 60

Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows is a stylish and seductive thriller about a murder plot gone terribly wrong. But unlike most thrillers, the film focuses on the aftermath of the crime, forcing its characters to reveal their stories and their souls while the relentless noose of justice tightens. Thanks to the film’s omniscient point of view, there is no mystery about the crime itself - we know exactly who has done what to whom - rather, in typical French fashion, all the unanswered questions revolve around the various miscreants’ mental and emotional turmoils. And in a testament to taut storytelling, all of these jumbled lives will be disentangled in a terse and tidy 90 minutes. 

Elevator to the Gallows is a must watch for photography buffs, as legendary cameraman Henri Decaë (The 400 Blows, Le Cercle Rouge) delivers an inky monochrome that captures the steely yet romantic essence of the city of Paris. His daytime scenes have the diffused, overcast look that defines French cinema of the era, while his night exteriors glow with glistening wet streets and whimsical neon signs, hazy with mist. In an iconic sequence, Malle has leading lady Jeanne Moreau wander the streets in close up, her face pelted by a gentle rain signifying the tears of her broken heart. 
Meanwhile, a pair of lovers flee the scene in a stolen convertible, the wind in their hair and the wide open boulevards of the city evoking a perfect metaphor of heady, youthful joy. 

But the film’s most memorable takeaway is the astonishing, and astonishingly original, jazz score by Miles Davis. While most soundtracks seek to merely support the action on screen, Davis’s cool, bluesy trumpet seems to drive the narrative, acting as a sort of unseen Greek Chorus. While his music emanates from a lofty perch unsullied by the desperate souls below, Davis’s riffs create an emotional context for Malle’s ever expanding tableau of human weakness. And the Greek Chorus analogy is apt for Elevator to the Gallows is a classical tragedy in the truest sense. Its anxious arc pre-determined by the dark character flaws of its principals; their stained shadows withering under the ethereal light of Parisian winter.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Red River Turns 70

Red River is a sprawling epic western, with just enough unique and offbeat artistry to make it a true American classic. It is a highly fictionalized account of the first successful cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail; a dusty track leading from San Antonio to Abilene, KS, that became an essential route for the nation’s food supply. Here we will meet tough-as-nails Texas rancher Tom Dunson (John Wayne) and his foster son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift) who over the years have built a cattle herd numbering in the thousands from little more than sweat, spit and prayers. But the end of the Civil War has brought economic collapse to the southern tier of the United States, and Dunson’s only hope of solvency is an arduous 1,000 mile journey across rocky wastes to a spanking new railhead in Kansas, where his cattle can be sold and shipped to the hungry northeast. 

What distinguishes Red River from lesser westerns is its razor sharp writing - each scene of dialogue has a specific purpose and is crafted for a clear emotional effect - and the depth of its characterizations. Most notably Clift, whose soft-spoken, serene line readings stand in sharp contrast to his cold-eyed gunfighter persona. He and Wayne engage in a subtle completion not only for dominance of the cattle drive, but for the film itself. Clift and Wayne are aided by a rogue’s gallery of supporting actors as Walter Brennan, Noah Beery Jr. and John Ireland lend their famous faces to the proceedings. The film also boasts one of the most satisfying - and surprisingly feminist - endings in the history of cinema, as feisty frontier gal Tess (Joanna Dru), fed up with wanton displays of testosterone, sets the feuding parties straight with a sobering dose of good common sense.

 However, the real star of Red River is director Howard Hawks, who took this low brow, dime store tale of laconic cowpokes and elevated it to the realm of high drama, appealing to the intellect as well as the heart. Hawks was an astonishingly versatile director, proving equally adept at everything from suspenseful thrillers like Scarface (1932) and The Big Sleep (1946) to wacky romantic comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1936) and His Girl Friday (1940). Hawks’ superb ability at cinematic storytelling was held in high esteem not only in Hollywood, but also in Europe, where his genre-defying filmography was an inspiration to the young filmmakers of the French new wave. In the iconic magazine Cahiers du Cinema in 1952, director Eric Rohmer wrote “If one does not love the films of Howard Hawks, one cannot love cinema.” 

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Lady Bird (2017) ✭✭✭✭½

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird accomplishes something I previously thought impossible; it almost made me nostalgic for the darkly anxious days of 2003. This coming of age - or in this case meandering of age - film is polished to a humorous gleam that never hides its underlying harsh, truthful glare. With the drumbeat to the Iraq war pounding from their TV screens, along with early glimmers of the decade’s crisis economics, a group of high school seniors obsess about hormones, prom dates and college admissions. For one student who has nicknamed herself Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), anxiety for the future pulses through her naive spirit like the magenta streaks in her fashionably stringy hair. Lady Bird is desperate to escape the clodhopper confines of Sacramento, and its bumpkin co-conspirator UC-Davis, and attend college in the enlightened northeast, where surely her enthralling artistic aura will finally be recognized and celebrated.

While this may sound like standard post-pubescent fare, Lady Bird achieves an emotional loft miles beyond the typical teen film. Ronan’s erratic romance with an anguished young man (brilliant Lucas Hedges, who seems to be everywhere this award season) resolves into a scene of abject weeping that not only turns the gender tables, it will leave all but the most hardened souls wrecked and quivering. Laurie Metcalf, who plays Ronan’s mom, delivers a gem of a performance that launches passive-aggressiveness to the stratosphere. Something magical has happened to Metcalf in recent years. She has figured out how to play comedic abstractions so thoroughly grounded in truth that they cease to be abstractions, and instead become the astonishingly real people we deal with every day. Check out her extraordinary work in the HBO series Getting On (2015) for further confirmation.

It’s important to watch this film not just as the simple story of a geeky teenager, but within the context of time, and the grim ramifications the film leaves unsaid. Young Ronan may achieve her Ivy League dreams, but a few years later the costs will be devastating to her and her deeply leveraged family. The financial crisis will be be unforgiving to the heavily mortgaged, and during the film you just want to yell “Noooooooooooo” to her well-meaning but already struggling parents. Still, the film reminds us of a time when higher education and personal betterment seemed an unalienable right; an entitlement part and parcel of the American Dream. And perhaps that is Lady Bird’s real genius. In its mellow, microscopic way, it subtly, splendidly captures the death rattles of a once great nation. Before America fully descended to lies, greed and chaos. When anything was still possible.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

10 Years of The Savages

The Savages struck a vibrant chord with me when it was first released 10 years ago. It’s all about a pair of 40-ish siblings (Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman) who must pause their lives and become caregivers to an aging and ailing parent (Philip Bosco). That same situation pretty much defined my existence a decade ago when, on one coast, a mother-in-law stroked out while my father, inconveniently ensconced on the other coast, grappled with the latter stages of heart failure. As my brother, my wife and I scrambled to keep everyone in Depends, meds and some ragged semblance of quality of life, all of us grew closer as a family unit. The ending of life is a powerful focuser of the mind, and the sharing of fear and grief an epoxy to souls grown distant over the years.

Written and directed by the talented Tamara Jenkins, The Savages is a smart blend of tender moments, darkly comic notes, and situations that often seem on the verge of toppling into absurdity. From these elements, Jenkins weaves a web of life that feels very real, as Linney and Hoffman try to find their own moments of solace while their cantankerous father’s days both slowly and quickly fritter away. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have two of the most brilliant actors of their generation working to realize the vision. Linney’s turn as a neurotic, struggling NYC artiste rings with the authenticity of firsthand experience and was nominated for an Oscar, while Hoffman’s whiny, morose academic is squarely within his impressive wheelhouse.

For me, The Savages had the added bonus of being partially filmed in Sun City, Arizona; an irrigated, manicured - and totally preposterous - desert oasis where many privileged members of The Greatest Generation, my mother-in-law among them, lived in giddy leisure until drawing their last breaths. And just as the elder Savage draws his, the film courageously evokes an anti-climatic bathos, which is precisely how passages of the long suffering really feel to the survivors: a strange, stunning mixture of crushing sadness and welcome relief.

Those pastel Sun City cottages are now being snatched up by a new generation of aging Boomers, eager to live out their days basking in the town’s favorite activities: golf, bingo and horrendous driving. Most of the new residents are my age - a few even younger - and well, it makes a guy think. As a film, The Savages does the same thing. It presents a stage of life we’ll all face sooner or later - if we’re lucky - and it gives us an unusual opportunity to reflect on our own character and our own mortality. And like the Savage family, may we all learn from our anguish, and find the strength to venture on.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

40 Years of Close Encounters

I’ve changed my mind about Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) several times over the years, proving once again that consistency is not my strong suit. When I first saw it, nestled cosily in a shiny new multiplex, I thought it was pure hokum. Its car chases, toothless hillbillies and mashed potato mountains made the film seem like Smokey and the Bandit Meet the Flying Saucers. It didn’t help that the aliens’ mother ship - a spectacular reveal intended to make audiences gasp - looked like that tacky, oversized chandelier hanging over Aunt Elisabeth’s dining table, under which I had spent many uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinners as its dagger-like crystals swung precariously over my head.

Still, despite my complaints, there was something about the movie that haunted me. Not doubt because it was a story I really wanted to believe. I’d like to think that if there are intergalactic craft buzzing about the earth, and if one day they should decide to make themselves known to us, that they would be a kindly, peaceful, emotionally stable lot that would happily take humanity under their wing, or whatever alien appendage would be appropriate, and show us the way forward. Now that’s something we could really use.

I’ve encountered, closely (stop it!) the film a few more times over the past forty years: on TV, on home video and I even paid to see the ill-advised 1980 Special Edition, which promised to show us the inside of the alien spaceship (spoiler: it looked like an enormous, austerely designed Norwegian disco). And I’m happy to announce that I’ve not only made peace with the movie, I now revel in it, warts and all. Forget about the acting, which ranges from serviceable to embarrassing - Richard Dreyfuss could certainly chew some scenery in those days - and ignore its poorly developed female characters. Hey, it’s a Spielberg, his films don’t do interesting women. A few years ago, he had the great Sally Field playing Mary Todd Lincoln, one of the most psychologically complex women in American history, and turned her into a clingy hausfrau.

But I digress. Close Encounters is a film to be appreciated for its sheer grand spectacle. It’s a film beyond the scale of humanity, and therefore its human elements are simply in the way. Its special effects, state of the art in 1977, still hold up and seem strangely subtle and tasteful compared to today's full throttle CGI fests. The lighting of the late, great Vilmos Zsigmond is simply a marvel here, and imbues each scene with a palpable sense of the otherworldly. And John Williams’ score, complete with that unforgettable five note major scale ditty, provides an aural grandeur worthy of the film’s extraordinary visuals. Forty years later,  Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains a flawed masterpiece, but even flawed masterpieces can contain important messages. The film impresses upon us mankind’s true, rather insignificant, place in the cosmos. And these days, there are lots of puffed up, self-righteous folks running around who need to be taken down a couple of pegs.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

30 Years of Babette's Feast

Babette’s Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1987 and was the first Danish production to ever take the prestigious award. It started a hot streak of sorts, when the following year Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror pretty much ran the table, claiming the Oscar, the Palme d’Or and the Golden Globe, further confirming to the world that the Danish film industry had arrived. While the Danes would not win another Oscar until 2010, for Susanne Bier’s In a Better World, this tiny nation of just under six million souls has become a capital of cinematic creativity, boasting such talented filmmakers as Lars van Trier, Per Fly, Anders Thomas Jensen and Nicolas Winding Refn, to name a few. If the grand moralist dirges of Carl Th. Dreyer define Danish cinema of the WWII generation, then Babette’s Feast must be considered the nation’s inspirational exemplar for baby boomers and beyond.

Directed by Gabriel Axel and based on a short story by Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast has the feel of an austere fairy tale for adults. Set in a remote village of thatched huts on the windswept Danish coast in the 19th Century, the story tracks the lives of two sisters: Filippa (Bodil Kjer) and Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) who have devoted themselves to performing good works for the less fortunate of their tiny community. Their father, a charismatic minister (Pouel Kern), built and in many ways ruled the hamlet with strict Calvinist sermons that forbade any experience of sensual pleasures. Out of devotion to their father, the sisters dismissed suitors and career opportunities alike, choosing to live out their days in spartan self-sacrifice, delivering bowls of bland soup to the elderly and infirm.

One stormy day, a visitor (Stéphane Audran) shows up at Filippa and Martine’s doorstep; a mysterious 35-ish woman in flight from France’s civil war. Her name is Babette and she bears a letter of introduction from a mutual Parisian acquaintance. The sisters, now elderly themselves and their beloved father long dead, take in the grateful Babette who in exchange devotes herself to their modest cottage’s menial chores. As the years pass, Babette becomes a valued and respected member of the community. When she receives a sudden financial windfall, Babette finally has a chance to repay the villagers for their unrelenting love and kindness. She decides to treat the ascetics to a special dinner; a meal so refined and sumptuous it will not only reveal her origins, it will leave the diners questioning their life-long denial of mortal pleasures.

Like all good fairy tales, Babette’s Feast has a moral. Actually it has several morals, some obvious, some buried in subtext. It’s an example of film as palimpsest; charming and engaging on its rustic surface, but laden with deep veins of meaning and nuggets of existential truth for those willing to unearth them. Along its symbolic, candlelit arc, several facets of the human condition are wistfully addressed, from gnawing regret over past decisions to the true nature of Christianity to the ever-changing definition of spirituality as defined by good works. By the final act, the artist’s place in society becomes a central theme and despite its gray skies and cold, biting winds, Babette’s Feast offers a most sunny and optimistic assessment of that uneasy coexistence. It also presciently hints that future divides between artists and audiences – and between deity and worshiper – will be spanned by bridges built of gentleness and respect.

Among the many riches of Babette’s Feast is a rare and clever parallel drawn between altruism and artistry. According to Dinesen and Axel, the joy bestowed upon the doer of good works stems from the same emotional needs that propel artists to ever higher levels of creativity and craft. Therein lies the secret to the success of Babette’s Feast. Despite the religious trappings, despite the self-denial and dour atmospherics, the film serves up a memorable celebration of all that is good about humanity.

1983 on Netflix

If you're like me, you only have vague recollections of 1980's Gdansk Shipyard strike, and even vaguer notions of what it acco...