Archive for May, 2009

The 50 Greatest Dramas: #41: Jules and Jim (1962)

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

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Landmark film from French New Wave player Fran├žois Truffaut about the evolving relationship between two friends and the woman they both love

Jules (Oskar Werner), an Austrian, and Jim (Henri Serre), a Frenchman, are best friends, young carefree bohemians sharing intellectual and physical pursuits and, eventually, a love for the capricious Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). At the end of the First World War, in which the friends have fought on opposing sides, Jules marries Catherine and takes her to the Rhineland, where they have a daughter.

This ambitious film, based on a novel by Henri Pierre Roche and vaguely inspired by Goethe’s ‘Elective Affinities’, covers some 30 years, beginning in the early part of the 20th century and culminating in the Depression-era with Hitler’s rise to power. The early, more joyous, third of the movie has Truffaut revelling in technical tricks; jump cuts, frozen frames, zip pans. There are a few failed experiments, but far more that has passed into cinema lore. When he succumbs to the influence of Renoir in the latter part, the filming becomes languorous, melancholy and humanism taking over as the wilful Catherine brings about a clash in the relationships. For all it’s technical audacity it’s the fundamentals - expert storytelling, a fantastic script, beautifully realised characters and a fine cast - that really contribute to the film’s enduring appeal. Jules and Jim are instantly likeable, their friendship utterly convincing (if bizarre). Catherine is bewitching and flawed, one of cinema’s greatest enigmas and quite rightly the role that has ensured Moreau’s lasting fame.

Jeanne Moreau in ''Jules et Jim'

And of course, there’s the skill of the director himself. The unconventional morality of the love triangle and emotional turmoil of the later stages of the film are beautifully rendered. Truffaut’s calm, detached approach, with wistful narrative interjections and the leisurely emergence of domestic detail, is unusual, but very effective. He later described it as like “an old photo album”: the audience is made to feel as if it’s reminiscing over events long past. It’s sad and evocative rather than immediate; gentle rather than histrionic. We’re left to wonder and to judge the events for ourselves, countless questions are raised and remain open - the mark of a fine work of art.

 

Verdict
Truffaut’s most popular work, and for good reason. A gentle understated triumph.

The 50 Greatest Dramas: #42: American History X (1998)

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

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Hard-hitting drama starring Edward Norton as a reformed neo-Nazi who returns from prison and tries to prevent younger brother Edward Furlong from making the same mistakes he did

Since the 1989 release of Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee’s seminal film on simmering inner-city race relations, convincing cinematic studies of the effects of racism have been rather light on the ground. John Singleton’s underdeveloped Higher Learning didn’t quite get there, leaving Russell Crowe’s performance as a brutal skinhead in the 1992 Australian film Romper Stomper as the last time a film attempted to take an unflinching look at the brutal world of neo-Nazism.

The controversial subject matter of white supremacists and their violent tactics is tackled in 1998’s powerful American History X, a film that produced a different type of controversy on its release when director Tony Kaye battled publicly with New Line Cinema over the final cut.

Putting on more than two stone (13kg) of muscle for the role, the shaven haired and tattooed Norton is barely recognizable as the film’s lead, Derek Vinyard. The movie captures the tense 24-hour period after Derek is released from prison for the murder of two black men. Through a series of illuminating black-and-white flashbacks, audiences are given an insight into how Derek’s poisonous views are cultivated and ultimately changed after his brutal stay in prison.

Edward Furlong (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) is Derek’s younger brother Danny, a troubled teen who is tempted to follow in the jackbooted steps of his sibling. The complex relationship between the two is played out against a harsh Venice Beach backdrop, a place where a violent tribalism is at play among the area’s multiple racial denominations. Offsetting Norton’s rabble-rousing racist rhetoric is Dr Bob Sweeney (Avery Brooks), an African-American teacher who has taught both of the bright but misguided Vinyard brothers. Sweeney acts here as the film’s moral conscience, a man who illuminates American History X’s commentary on the futility of unrelenting hate and bigotry.

It’s rumoured that, during post-production, Edward Norton stepped into the editing suite, ultimately giving his character a lot more screen time. Although this move might be seen as egomaniacal even by Hollywood standards, viewers will be more than thankful since Norton delivers another one of the gripping performances that have become his signature.

 

Verdict
A well-made, well-acted and often violent film that offers a compelling portrait of redemption and the destructive nature of racism.

The 50 Greatest Dramas: #43: The Pianist (2002)

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

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Roman Polanski returns to form with this true story-based account of Wladyslaw Szpilman, “the greatest pianist in Poland - maybe even the whole world”, as he aims to evade capture by the Nazis in war-torn Warsaw

After the disaster that was The Ninth Gate (1999), Roman Polanski’s career, already on the wane, looked to be heading for the exit door. Enter Wladyslaw Szpilman’s autobiographical account of his time in the Warsaw Ghetto - the perfect means for Polanski to distill his own experience of his time in Krakow during World War II, a subject he had wanted to tackle for years.

As it is The Pianist is Polanski’s greatest work since his heyday in the 1970s, a classically structured and shot movie that undoubtedly rivals Schindler’s List as one of the most detailed and shocking examinations of the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis.

Spanning the length of World War II, the film begins in 1939. Szpilman (Adrien Brody) is performing classical pieces on the radio as bombs begin falling on Warsaw. As the months role on, Szpilman witnesses the restrictions the Nazis place on Polish Jews - from compartments on trams they are not allowed to travel in to the startling sight of walls being built around parts of Warsaw to enclose the Jews into what became the infamous ghetto. As his family (including his mother, played by Maureen Lipman, and his father, played by Frank Finlay) are rounded up to be shipped off to the labour camps, Szpilman manages a dramatic escape - only to find himself in hiding for the remainder of the war in various abandoned apartments across the city. In an already distinguished career that has seen him work with Ken Loach, Spike Lee and Barry Levinson, Adrien Brody gives his best performance to date. As the years tick by, and Szpilman moves from one bombed-out house to the next, so Brody becomes a shadow of his former self - losing over 30 pounds of weight to the point where he looks like a ghost. But this is not just a role that requires drastic physical change; dominating the screen from beginning to end, Brody is required to journey through just about every emotion an actor can elicit.

Adrien Brody in The Pianist

Surrounded by Allan Starski’s awesome production design, Brody is also aided by the fact that Polanski’s film resists the temptation to show mass extermination. Rather, The Pianist is very much concerned with showing the sly means by which the Nazis took control of Warsaw. From the moment we see a German beat an old man in the street for not prostrating himself in front of him, the film concentrates on a series of isolated moments that echo the terror Polish Jews were suffering. The result is a triumphant and elegantly paced affair, which builds momentum over the two-and-half hours to the point where Szpilman is finally found by a German captain (Thomas Kretschmann) and must play the piano, literally, for his life.

 

Verdict
Polanski’s best film for well over two decades, The Pianist emerges as a moving depiction of one man’s struggle for survival, carried off with a committed performance from star Adrien Brody.

The 50 Greatest Dramas: #44: Mean Streets (1973)

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

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The breakthrough movie for Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel and Martin Scorsese, a classic tale of small time hoods, family, violence and the shadow of religion in New York’s Little Italy

As far as making an entrance goes, it takes some beating. Johnny Boy (De Niro) saunters into the bar in slow motion, a girl on each arm, as The Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ kicks in on the jukebox.

So marks the official arrival of one of US cinema’s greatest actors, and possibly its greatest director too in the form of Martin Scorsese. Scorsese’s previous features were the prototype New York Italian American tale Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1968) and the Roger Corman produced Boxcar Bertha (1972). With Mean Streets his directorial personality really comes to the fore.

The story of tested loyalties and destructive Catholic guilt among a group of small-time hoodlums in Little Italy with an unforgettable 60s pop soundtrack, it is a simple blueprint that would be copied by lesser directors who could never dream of bettering it.

Keitel, as Charlie, a tortured soul trying to keep it all together, and an electric, jittery, possessed and demented De Niro put in unsurpassable and believably human performances that kick-started their careers. To paraphrase Charlie, Scorsese didn’t make up for his sins in church. He did it at the movies.

 

Verdict
A tight, intense masterpiece from Scorsese, writing collaborator Mardik Martin and the iconic stars.

The 50 Greatest Dramas: #45: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

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A newly divorced man battles his ex-wife for custody of their only son

On the surface, Robert Benton’s Kramer Vs. Kramer doesn’t look like a classic tearjerker. The courtroom locations of the film’s final third couldn’t be more unsentimental. The picture’s colour palate - inspired by David Hockney’s ‘Mr And Mrs Clark And Percy’ - also renders the film sterile and standoffish rather than warm and accessible. Ironically though, this muted quality is what makes Kramer Vs. Kramer, in the end, so emotionally devastating. Adapted from the novel by Avery Corman, Kramer Vs. Kramer opens on the collapse of a marriage between Joanna (Meryl Streep) and her workaholic husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman). With Joanna fleeing the family home to ‘find herself’ Ted is left to juggle work with raising the couple’s only child, Billy (Justin Henry). Being a single parent proves difficult for Ted, but it’s a role he eventually comes to relish. That is until Joanna re-enters Ted’s life and demands custody of the boy.

Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer

While it’s very much a movie of its time (the fashions, fabrics and soundtrack reek of the late 1970s), Kramer Vs. Kramer hasn’t dated as badly as some of its contemporaries. This is due to the continuing relevance of its subject matter and its affecting performances. Besides fine supporting work from Howard Duff, Jane Alexander and Justin Henry, (who’s surprisingly sincere for a child actor), Kramer also features Academy Award winning turns from Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman.

Streep, who also starred in the mighty Manhattan in 1979, is slightly handicapped by a character whose desire to discover herself never feels convincing. On the other hand, Hoffman, who came to the film after going through a painful divorce, couldn’t feel more real. Apparently, Hoffman contributed so much to the script that Benton offered him a writer’s credit. Although the actor refused, it’s clear from his heartfelt performance that he was bringing a lot more to the role than simply his talent.

Verdict
Oscar-dominating 1970s weepie that is just waiting to be rediscovered.


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