Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Was it you that changed, or only me?

It's rare to view a sixty year old film and feel like it could have been made yesterday. Such a movie is William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives. I don't think this film will ever really be dated because it deals with one issue that will, sadly, always be a part of this world: soldiers returning home from war.

The movie opens by introducing us to three men all trying to catch a flight back home. Al Stephenson (Frederic March) is a middle aged sergeant returning to his family and his old job as a banker. Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) was an officer with an airborne bombing crew. Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) is a sailor who has lost both of his arms and is now forced to use steel hooks for hands.

The movie quickly begins to drop each of the three men back into their old lives but, it seems none of them are ready to readjust. So rather than try, they each decide to go out for a drink. One by one they all - along with Fred's wife, Milly, (Myrna Loy) and daughter, Peggy, (Teresa Wright) - end up at Butch's bar. The rest of the night consists of drinking, laughter and the common knowledge that nothing will ever be the same. War has changed the soldiers, their families and their country as a whole.

This is truly a wonderful movie. It has several scenes that work on such an emotional level the audience can actually feel the pain of these men. One of the most heart breaking lines occurs at the beginning of the film. When Homer is leaving, Fred turns to Al and says, "You gotta hand it to the Navy, they sure trained that kid how to use those hooks." Al solemnly states: "They couldn't train him to hold his girl, or to stroke her hair." Homer knows this is true. He has a girl waiting for him back home, Wilma (Cathy O'donnell), but now he isn't so sure she'll still want him.

Another reason we react so strongly to the character of Homer is because Harold Russell actually was a soldier who lost his hands in the war. Every time the film allows him to open up about his loss, we know that he isn't merely acting. There is a scene towards the end of the film where he takes off his hooks and tells Wilma, "This is when I know I'm helpless." It is a scene of tremendous power. Russell actually won two Oscars for this role. He was given an honorary Oscar and won for best supporting actor.

William Wyler constructed such a well made film. He never falls into cliches or allows his characters to act in ways we know they shouldn't. He, and his cinematographer Greg Tolland, allow the camera to penetrate each character. Each scene focuses so deeply and for such an extended amount of time we really begin to understand these characters. I have always thought that some of the most powerful scenes in film were done with a stationary camera and no lines at all.

Such a scene occurs in this film. Fred goes to a field that is harboring several hundred military planes, the type that he was on during the war. He crawls into one and begins to relive every excruciating moment he ever went through during the war. No words can explain what he feels here. Pain like this can't be explained, it has to be felt.

The Best Years of Our Lives is a movie full of pain but, in the end, we are left with so much joy. I almost want to stand up and cheer every time I reach the wonderful ending scene.

This is a movie made for veterans of World War II but, it has held meaning for every soldier who has ever returned home to a place they couldn't quite remember.

What should you be watching this Friday?
The Best Years of Our Lives

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I Can't Get You Out of My Head.

I had originally intended to review a romance this week, since Valentine's day is Sunday. I still might but, another film is distracting me. I honestly don't think I can review any other films until I get this one out of my system. Michael Haneke's Cache' (Hidden in English) is demanding my attention.

Many people have referred to Cache' as a thriller. I would hesitate to label it that way because it is so much more than that. Haneke has constructed a psychological mind game that has come to consume my thoughts. The night that I watched it, I laid awake in bed and went over and over every detail in my mind. I convinced myself that I was missing something, a minute detail must have been escaping me. Any film that forces me to consider it days after my initial viewing deserves to be discussed as soon as possible.

The film opens with a single, unwavering shot of a street and the front of a house. The shot is so still and lasts so long that I initially believed it to be a picture until a bicyclist rides down the street. The shot continues until we see a pause and then the scene running backwards. This is a video recording. A few moments later we realize that Georges and Anne Laurent (Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche) are watching a video tape of the front of their home. Georges runs outside to try and find the camera. He had watched himself pass right beside it on the tape. Why hadn't he seen it?

As the film progesses, more videos begin to turn up. Along with the tapes are eerily drawn pictures of a stick figure bleeding from the mouth and a chicken seemingly being beheaded. They look as if a young child drew them. What do they mean? Georges seems to have some idea. When Anne begins to realize that her husband is hiding something from her she questions him. He refuses to answer.

It is this refusal that begins to pick away at what seemed to be a happy marriage. They have a perfect life. Georges hosts a popular TV talk show. Anne is a publisher. They have a son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky)who seems to be doing well, aside from being a typical, apathetic teenager. All of this seems to fall apart when they realize their lives are on display.

I will try not to give away too many details about the plot, you need to see this film for yourself. Georges eventually follows the messages left in the subsequent tapes to the house of a man he has not seen since his early childhood, Majid (Maurice BĂ©nichou). The men have a deep and painful history but, I will not reveal the secrets their memories hold. The point is that Georges believes he must have sent the tapes. How can he be sure? What makes this film so brilliant is that as the story unfolds we realize that it does not matter if he sent them. What matters is that someone sent them and, in doing so, destroyed the once peaceful existence of the Laurent family.

Haneke has constructed a well paced film that from beginning to end causes us to feel tense and unnnerved. He never has to pick up speed and rush towards the next big action sequence. Instead, he balances the film with terrifying flashbacks of [what may be] Georges' memories and Georges' everyday life, from dinner parties to conversations with his son. There are no epic fights, multi-shot chase sequences or a ticking bomb with 5 agonizing seconds left. None of these things are missed. We prefer the drawn out, unsettling shots of a house or a hallway.

Cache' is the type of film that does not allow the audience to vegitate in front of a screen and then dismiss it when the credits roll. Every single character is a suspect but, we cannot say anything for sure. The possibilities become endless. During my research of the film, I found that many people even suggest it could be Haneke himself filming the family. I don't agree with this but, again, I cannot say for sure. Anything is possible in Cache'.

I believe the most probable suspects are revealed during the credits of the film. At the end, we see another unwavering camera. We are instantly attracted to a woman in the center of the frame. After a time, she passes and the film is over. Haneke puts all of the focus on this woman. The first time I saw Cache', I wondered if she was a character that I somehow had not noticed. The second time, however, I noticed what about half of the audience saw the first time through. There are two characters, who should not know each other, who meet on the left side of the screen. Is this the answer? No, it's just one more possibility in an ocean of endless scenarios.

Cache' is a labyrinth with several exits all leading us back to the beginning.

What should you be watching this Friday?

And, for many people, you'll be watching it again on Saturday.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The First is everything but, let's start with the Third.

The first is always the hardest.

I wasn't sure which film to review this week. It had to be a masterpiece but, not as well known. At the same time, the movie could not be so obscure that it would be impossible to find. This is, after all, the first impression you will have of me and my taste in movies. The first impression is a lasting one. The first is everything.

The perfect choice came to me last night. Both brilliant and little known to many. I can't think of a better place to begin than a post-war Vienna, shrouded in paranoia and mystery. It is one of the greatest films to ever grace the screen and yet, many people have never seen it. The movie that I am referring to is Carol Reed's tour de force, The Third Man.

The Third Man is a typical film-noir elevated to perfection by every aspect of its production team. The script, by Graham Greene, hooks the audience from the very first line: "I never knew the old Vienna, before the war...". These words come from a man named Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton), a pulp-Western writer who has been invited to Vienna by an old college friend, Harry Lime (Orson Welles). The story takes a turn very early when Martins learns that his friend died shortly before his arrival. What happened? It is this very question that propels the film towards one shocking discovery after another.

Martins almost immediately begins an inquiry into Lime's untimely death. He first seeks out a British officer named Calloway (Trevor Howard). Calloway gives an ambiguous discourse about the evils of Harry Lime and cautions him to leave Vienna at once. Martins chooses to disregard the warning and instead seeks out a woman he saw at Lime's funeral. The woman is Lime's old love interest, Anna Schmidt (Allida Valli). Certainly she can shed some light on the mystery surrounding Lime.

What makes The Third Man such a genius work of film is the way this simple set-up is executed. The first thing the audience will notice is the music. The entire score is performed by Anton Karas on an instrument called a zither. At first it sounds very upbeat but, listen carefully and you will hear the dark undertones that serve as a bleak reminder that nothing is what it seems in Vienna. (Reed actually heard Karas playing in a bar one night and thought he would be perfect for the film. He was right on every level.)

Robert Krasker's beautiful black-and-white cinematography is another element that grabs the audience and refuses to let go. The high walls of the city mixed with an interesting lighting scheme begins to make Vienna feel like something out of an Escher drawing. Also, watch closely and you will see that many of the shots are tilted, rather than held straight, suggesting that something is askew in the city. (I have always thought that this unique camera angle was an idea borrowed from Welles' Citizen Kane).One of the most superb shots takes place towards the end of the film. A chase scene in a sewer takes full advantage of the claustrophobia we begin to feel as a main character tries to escape the labyrinth of tunnel workings under Vienna.

**The rest of the review gives away a twist in the plot. However, if you have seen the cover of the DVD or any poster for this film, you already know what I'm referring to here.**

As wonderful as all of these elements are, it is truly the tension building up to the discovery of Harry Lime that makes this film so wonderful. I'm not sure there has ever been a better introduction of a character than the entrance of Orson Welles as Lime. The way the lighting shadows all but a pair of feet, the sound of the cat meowing to draw out attention, every small detail pulls us in further until we finally see Lime's wry grin emerge from the darkness. Reed paces the scene with such patient precision. He lets the audience lean forward and see through the confused eyes of Martins, even though we all know what comes next, we still can't say for sure. This is the mark of a brilliant director.

Welles is only in the last forty minutes of the film but his character is usually the most remembered from The Third Man. Lime is such a complex villain. He charms us and at the same time we are repulsed by him. Consider the famous "cuckoo clock" speech on the ferris wheel. We hang off of every word he says and, at the same time, are horrified by the conclusion it draws. Watch closely during this scene and you will be able to see just how frightened Martins has become of his old friend. When Lime opens the door of the cart on the ferris wheel, watch as Martins anxiously loops his arm around one of the poles.

I will not spoil the ending but, I will say that it is one of the greatest of all films. Reed actually argued with both the producer (David O. Selznick) and Graham Greene about the original ending of the script. Eventually Reed convinced them that his vision for the ending was much better. The ending is not only better, without it this would not be the classic that it is today. The ending is a work of genius.

The Third Man has been regarded, by many, as one of the greatest films of all time. It was Carol Reed's finest directorial achievement and one of Orson Welles' most iconic roles. The music, cinematography, direction and acting are flawless.

It is a masterpiece.

So, what should you be watching this Friday?
The Third Man

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Where do we begin?

I don't know a great deal about blogging. So, please bare with me as I navigate this new terrain. The thought of blogging never occurred to me, not until this morning around 11. A friend of mine asked my opinion on a film he'd recently viewed. After I assaulted my keyboard with a reply, an interesting thought crept up from the back of my mind. I have so many ideas about the movies, so many things I want to share with others, what better way to spread these thoughts than the internet? Thus, the blog.

I would love to share my thoughts about films with anyone who cares to read. More than likely, the movies that I'll be commenting on won't be the current box office hits. Instead I would like to focus on the classics, cult classics and others that have helped to shape films today but have been forgotten by so many.

Any feedback or suggestions would be wonderful. I hope to hear from some people soon.