Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

2014 Summer Movies #1

Posted by Gerald on June 6, 2014

Summer Movie #1 – Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014): My first reaction when I heard that there was going to be (another) Godzilla re-make was, roughly, “Oh God, no! Why? Really?” My attitude changed a bit when I found out Gareth Edwards was going to direct it. He had only made one feature film before Godzilla, but it was a very interesting one. It was entitled “Monsters” (2010) and I reviewed it a year or so back. It is the sort of science fiction movie there should be more of – on one level a decent monster film and on another an examination of something deeper (America, its border with Mexico, and the immigrants who cross it). It wasn’t a flawless film, but it was quite good and had a few scenes that really stayed with me. His version of Godzilla is a very good film (again, not flawless) with some beautiful scenes. The story has plenty of time for character and does a great job of telling small stories about people against the titanic backdrop of its main plot. The effects are not just big – they are often used with restraint. The movie manages to encapsulate the transition of Godzilla in the original movies from monster to hero in a way that works well. It also has a wider set of ideas about man’s arrogance in the face of nature that it explores without being overly facile or preachy. Finally, it has scenes that combine the alien and the beautiful. Edwards did this in “Monsters” and does it more effectively here. The scene used in the early trailers of a HALO jump at night was beautiful in its full form and was put against music by Ligeti “Requiem” that Kubrick used in 2001 – and to similar effect of creating a sense of other-worldliness. But in this sense as these men parachute into a world that isn’t ours anymore, and really never was ours – the point of the movie. Go see it – and see “Monsters” too (streaming on Netflix at the time I’m writing this).

Summer Movie(s) #2 & 3 – Captain Blood (Michael Curtiz, 1935) & The Sea Hawk (Michael Curtiz, 1940): I decided on a swashbuckler double feature last night and grabbed these out of my collection.  Both star Errol Flynn (I think that these two and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” – which I really need to get – are his three best know films); both are directed by Michael Curtiz, both were adapted from novels by Rafael Sabitini, and both were scored by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  As a result of all that, they feel very similar.  “Captain Blood” is the story of how an innocent man is swept up in the political turmoil of the late Stuart period in England, becomes a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation (they actually did use convicts and indentured workers for this as well as the far more numerous African slaves), the escapes, becomes a (great) pirate, then is redeemed by the Glorious Revolution, defeats the evil governor, get the girl (Olivia de Havilland as said evil governor’s niece), happy ending, music swells.  “The Sea Hawk” chronicles the adventures of a fictional member of the group of Elizbethan privateers who went by that name, features an evil Spanish plot concerning the Armada, features Basil Rathbone as the evil Spanish ambassador who our hero needs to defeat, once again the hero is enslaved (in a Spanish galley) and escapes, England is saved, girl is gotten (the much less memorable – than Olivia de Havilland – Brenda Marshall as the ambassador’s niece), happy ending, music swells.  It is interesting that the girl is a niece to the villain in each case; making her easier to introduce and giving an entry into the villain’s world while still leaving the relationship distant enough to justify her betraying him for the hero.  Basil Rathbone is in both movies: as the main villain in “The Sea Hawk” and as a treacherous French pirate who has a great sword fight (over Olivia de Havilland, of course) with the hero in “Captain Blood”.  Finally, both feature the hero being enslaved and then escaping to save the day for England!  Add in much sword fighting and swinging about on ropes and you’ve got the movies.  I love this stuff.

Summer Movie #4 – Patton (Franklin J Schaffner, 1970): I could probably recite the dialog in this movie from memory.  It was a boyhood favorite of mine (aired on ABC in 1972, when I was nine years old) and still is.  As a kid, I loved the war movie.  As an adult I love the biography.  At one point Patton, in what I understand to be an actual quote, responds to an aide expressing concern after an outburst that Patton’s men didn’t know when he was acting by saying “It isn’t important that they know, it’s only important the I know.”  I think many people who have never watched the film simply dismiss it as glorifying him.  I don’t think that is true.  Strange to say, I think the man was a bit of an enigma.  He was certainly egotistical and ambitious, but he also had an ability to inspire great confidence and loyalty in many people (but probably not Omar Bradley – one of the film’s biggest fictions is the idea of a warm relationship between those men, there is solid evidence that Bradley did not like or respect Patton at all but wasn’t the sort of man to ever announce that to the world).  To what extent was the “famous” Patton the real one and to what extent was it a deliberate creation from a man who understood and employed theatricality?  I think the film wisely leaves that to our judgment.  What we do e see in this film a man who is dynamic and charismatic played in a career-defining performance by a brilliant actor.  This movie was co-written by Francis Ford Coppolla, who would go on to make another movie with a dynamic and charismatic leading character played a career-defining performance by a brilliant actor – Vito Corleone in “The Godfather”.  Here we also see a movie that I think has been unjustly accused of simply glorifying its main character.  I would argue that both are about bigger-than-life figures who are also deeply flawed.  Final things – this new digital transfer is brilliant and Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score sounded great on the sound system at the Carolina Theater.

Summer Movie #5 (Kubrick Film Festival #1) – The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956): I bought the Criterion edition of this a few months ago but hadn’t watched it yet.  The Blu-ray transfer is just beautiful.  I don’t think there is a better statement about the futility of all of humanity’s plans in the face of random chance than the stunned expression on Sterling Hayden’s face through the final scenes of this movie.  Elaborate schemes and brilliant execution meet human frailty and a yapping French poodle.  I love it.  This isn’t Kubrick’s first film, but it is really the first one that anyone has much of a chance of seeing.  Already here we can see the experimentation, in this case the use of fractured narrative, and the visual eye of a photographer that will mark all of his work.  If you haven’t guessed, I’m a huge fan.  Kubrick is probably my favorite director.  On this viewing of this movie, the thing that really struck me was how Kubrick filmed the shoot-out in the apartment.  All we see is Elisha Cook enter the room firing, we hear a fusillade of shots while the camera stays on him, and then the slow pan around the room to see the results.  Brilliant.

Summer Movie #6 (Kubrick Film Festival #2) – Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957): Another Criterion edition that has been waiting for me to watch it – and another great transfer (of course).  Here again, Kubrick is playing with genre.  With “The Killing” is was film noir and the “heist” movie, here it is the war movie – but I think his subversion of the tropes is more noticeable.  I don’t mean the anti-war war film, those were not uncommon in the 1950s, but that the hero here – Kirk Douglas – ultimately fails to effect the outcome of the story.  He doesn’t stop an attack he knows to be futile, in fact he is somewhat complicit in that he participates, although his reasons are better than those of his commander.  He doesn’t save his men from being executed.  He brings down General Mireau (played with a wonderful sense of manic ambitiousness by George Macready) but is unable to touch, or even arouse a sense of guilt in, the infinitely more culpable General Broulard (played with amoral aplomb by Adolphe Menjou).  Here we can see the next evolution of the carefully choreographed camerawork that was always Kubrick’s staple.  Having just seen “Patton” a couple nights ago, I was struck by one similarity and one difference.  The similarity comes in an early scene where General Mireau is visiting a hospital in an obviously pro forma nod to caring about his men (to each he says the same thing “Hello soldier.  Are you ready to kill more Germans?”).  He encounters a man who he is told is suffering from “shell shock” and immediately dismisses its existence and then orders the man be removed from the hospital because he is contaminating that place of honor.  The rage, that seems to be covering up an internal fear, and even the language is very similar to what would be used later in “Patton” and I would be shocked if Coppola hadn’t seen this movie.  The difference is in the two depictions of battle – particularly the assault on “the Anthill” at the center of this film, and the major battle scene in North Africa early in “Patton.”  The assault here is a flowing whole, moving across the battlefield, showing how impossible these attacks truly were in a way that not only “feels” real but accords with every account of the war on the Western Front by those who fought there.  The battle in “Patton” is pure Hollywood.  A depiction of an advance by what would have to have been the most incompetent officer in the German army (clumps of men and tanks waiting to be cut down by gunfire and artillery march into a big open plain surrounded on three sides by hills and ridges that the Germans had evidently not thought to scout out or secure – I’ve never spent a day in the military and I know this was ridiculous – I love the movie, but let’s be honest here) leads to intercut shots of big explosions and close-ups of men who are obviously not being shot or wounded.  Kubrick’s film was thirteen years older but captured far more realism than Schaffner’s – and did so with a tightly controlled flowing camera work that is the anti-thesis of film “realism”.  Brilliant.

Summer Movie #7 (Kubrick Film Festival #3) – Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960): I have a real love of Hollywood ancient epics, and this is one of the greatest.  Still, it is a movie that has its flaws.  Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay works on many levels (political commentary, traditional historical epic, lionizing biography…), but has a few flat spots.  Still, when it works, it works.  All the best stuff seems to have been written for the Romans, though – it is Lawrence Olivier, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov who make this movie so endlessly watchable.  I also feel compelled to say that as history goes, this film is nonsense, not just in its little details but in its understanding of how the Roman Republic worked.  Also, the Marcus Licinius Crassus played so memorably by Olivier bears no resemblance to the real one (think less aristocratic tyrant and more successful slum-lord who used his profits to buy political power).  How much of this is from Trumbo’s screenplay and how much from the Howard Fast novel it was adapted from, I couldn’t say.  To be fair, when Fast began writing this while serving time for contempt of Congress after refusing to cooperate with HUAC and when Trumbo adapted it while still blacklisted, I’m not sure fidelity to Roman history was at the forefront of their minds.  As far as Kubrick’s work goes, this is the least Kubrick-like of any of his films in appearance and tone.  Director Anthony Mann was replaced one week into the shooting after having finished the opening sequence at the quarry – yet the rest of the film, which Kubrick directed, looks basically like that opening sequence.  Only rarely do we see the idiosyncrasies that mark his other films.  I think one sequence that really shows them, though, is the gladiatorial fight where Spartacus kills Draba (Woody Strode).  It begins with the four gladiators about to fight sitting in silence listening to the small-talk of the Romans who are paying to watch them die.  Then for most of the first pair’s fight, we just see Strode and Kirk Douglas sitting in this small wooden box listening to the sounds of the fight and reacting to their own fears and thoughts.  Then their fight is mostly shot from very low angles except for a couple higher shots, most notably one from behind the spectators showing them talking and barely paying attention to the life and death struggle they initiated.  Most of the rest of the movie is shot in a fairly typical way – static shots, two-camera coverage, etc…   It is somewhat hard for me to believe that the man who directed this movie directed “Paths of Glory” four years before it and would direct “Lolita” two years later, but he did.  It is a film that he famously disowned due to his not having complete creative control over it (star Kirk Douglas was a producer and they have told very different stories over the years about their working relationship on the film.)  Still, this movie really opened the door for Kubrick in that it was the biggest money-maker in the history of Universal Studios up until the release of “Airport” in 1970.  Not brilliant, but still damned good.

Summer Movies 8 & 9 (Insomnia Special) – War and Peace (King Vidor, 1956) & The Duellists (Ridley Scott, 1977): I’ve been having trouble sleeping the last few nights and have watched both of these movies spread out across the last week.  I’ve reviewed both before, so just a couple of stray observations.  Herbert Lom – best knbown for playing Inspector Dreyfus in the Blake Edwards “Pink Panther” movies – plays Napoleon Bonaparte in “War and Peace” and I’d argue he has the most interesting portrayal of the entire film (Lom also had a small role in “Spartacus”, which I watched last night).  I love big historical epics, but it has to be said that while the stars of this movie (Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, and Mel Ferrer) were certainly doing competent jobs, none of their performances really stand out.  Lom’s does.  “The Duellists” is Scott’s first feature and won a “Best Debut” at Cannes.  It is very authentic and features good performances, but what really stands out is the cinematography (Frank Tidy).  The colors are lush and beautiful, the lighting is naturalistic, and in fact Scott has said he was trying to emulate a film I’ll be doing fairly soon as part of the Kubrick Film Festival – “Barry Lyndon”.

Summer Movie #10 (Kubrick Film Festival #4) – Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962): This was part of my summer movie viewing last summer, so, again, I’ll keep this to a couple of observations.  I love the way that the actors’ physicality is used to convey so many of the emotional dynamics in this movie.  James Mason in particular moves from graceful and poised to clumsy and unsure within the same scene.  There are also these wonderfully blocked scenes, like when a seated Humbert is surrounded by three standing people and obviously trapped, or the entire post-dance sequence with Shelly Winters.  We always see texts with the eyes we’ve got at the moment.  I keep seeing fate, first in “The Killing” and now here in the character of Quilty.  It seems to me that Quilty (Peter Sellers) represents Humbert’s drives, weaknesses, and ultimately his destruction.  His sophistication is a pose, he is pretentious over nothing real about himself, he mistakes shallow wit for humor, he is openly lascivious and devious – he is what Humbert is beneath his pose and what he fears he is in his soul.  These weaknesses are Humbert’s ultimate fate – they will destroy him – and that is the first thing we see in the movie.  When he kills Quilty he is really killing himself.  This is driven home by the scene on the desert highway.  The black car, driven by Quilty, stalks him like his most paranoid fears of discovery, like guilt, like death.  When Humbert has a flat tire ( a “blowout”) the car approaches and Humbert shows the first signs of the heart attack that will eventually kill him.  Final observation, here we see that Stanley Kubrick is the wrong director to go to if you want an adaptation of a novel that is primarily driven by the author’s vision.  Like with “A Clockwork Orange” and “The Shining” Kubrick wasn’t interested in adapting someone’s vision to film – he was always going to find what inspired his own vision and then created from that.  I have friends who have never forgiven him for how different his film versions are from their source material.  I think that is what made him an artist.  Brilliant.

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