Archive for the 'The 50 Greatest Dramas' Category

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

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

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Landmark film from French New Wave player François 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.

The 50 Greatest Dramas: #46: Magnolia (1999)

Wednesday, April 15th, 2009

Julianne Moore in Magnolia

Tom Cruise actually gives a credible (and wonderfully deranged) performance in this assured third feature from Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson. Also starring a fabulous ensemble that includes Julianne Moore and John C Reilly

Covering 24 hours in the lives of what seems at the outset an impossibly large cast of characters, Magnolia may have video viewers reaching for the pause button in the dizzying opening scenes and making copious notes to keep track. However, as the film progresses the remarkable assurance that won Paul Thomas Anderson such acclaim in Boogie Nights comes to the fore.

Story hands baton on to story seamlessly, interweaving the lives of the disparate characters that include Tom Cruise as a misogynistic sex-guru, William H Macy as a washed-up quiz-show star and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the aspiring male nurse who wants to look after everyone.

With Anderson borrowing freely from fellow auteurs Altman, Scorsese and Demme, Magnolia’s finest achievement is the sheer ambition running through every vein. Anderson pulls off the ultimate coup de grace to leave viewers wondering about their own lives, mistakes and fates long after the final credits have rolled.

 

Verdict
Boogie Nights is remarkable but is Magnolia Anderson’s first masterpiece?

The 50 Greatest Dramas: #47: Hotel Rwanda (2004)

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Hotel Rwanda

A hotel manager struggles to save 1,200 refugees during the Rwandan genocide in this drama starring Don Cheadle

Hotel Rwanda is based on the real-life story of African hotelier Paul Rusesabagina, a Hutu whose compassion, humanity and quick thinking allowed him to save 1,200 Tutsi refugees from being slaughtered during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

A Schindler’s List for the Third World, Terry George’s account of that slaughter - in which around one million Tutsis were killed by the Hutu majority over the course of 100 days while the West turned a blind eye - works best as a powerful indictment of our own culpability.

Repeatedly emphasising the failure of the West to send an intervention force into the troubled country, Hotel Rwanda asks probing questions about the lack of a coalition of the willing - and comes to damning conclusions about the First World’s racist foreign policy decisions. As Nick Nolte’s exasperated and impotent UN officer Colonel Oliver growls helplessly at Rusesabagina, “You’re not black. You’re not even a nigger. You’re African”. Elsewhere, George’s film is strictly business as usual - a hand-wringing series of liberal platitudes that telescopes gruesome historical reality into sanitised, popcorn-friendly viewing. Insulating us from the horror of genocide, Hotel Rwanda pushes the slaughter off-screen and focuses instead on the hotel itself where Paul desperately tries to keep his Tutsi charges safe through a series of bribes, bartering and the liberal distribution of free beer to the Hutu troops.

Hotel Rwanda

In fairness, there are powerful moments - a nighttime excursion along a misty, strangely bumpy back country road ends with Paul realising that he’s bouncing over hundreds of dead bodies; a UN convoy carrying refugees is forced into a stand off with machete-wielding thugs as Oliver and a handful of Belgian troops fight to keep their human cargo alive.

In the lead roles, Cheadle and British actress Sophie Okonedo acquit themselves well - panic-stricken faces contorting in the gathering hysteria. Whether they deserve quite as much praise as has been heaped on them is debatable, but then there’s a certain value in over-praising Hotel Rwanda since to do so is to tacitly acknowledge our guilt and then seal it away in the past. The fact that Paul is styled in very American terms as a sharp, go-getting, self-made (business) man, only makes his heroism more appealing to the target US audience. This is cathartic cinema - watch it, feel bad, then go home and wait for the sequel, ‘Hotel Sudan’.

 

Verdict
Well-intentioned and worthy, this account of the Rwandan genocide swaps atrocities for melodrama. Its accusation about the West’s failure to intervene works well.

The 50 Greatest Dramas: #48: The Sea Inside (2004)

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

The Sea Inside - Mar Adentro

 

The true story of a Spanish quadriplegic campaigning to get the law changed so that he may choose to end his life without recrimination for those who help him. Javier Bardem stars in this dramatisation from Alejandro Amenábar, director of The Others

After his international success with The Others, Alejandro Amenábar could easily have gone to Hollywood to feed at the studio trough. Instead, he returned to Spain to create a beautiful, heart-wrenching work that will have you in floods of tears by the final quarter. Based on a true story, it might be easy to dismiss Mar Adentro as a ‘disease-of-the-week’ movie, were it not for Javier Bardem’s incredible turn as Ramón Sampedro.

It’s 1996 and Sampedro - now in his mid-50s - has been confined to his bed for the last 28 years after being paralysed from the neck down following a diving accident.

The film begins as he is introduced to Julia (Belen Rueda), a lawyer who agrees to present his case in court (and later helps him publish a book, ‘Letters From Hell’, about his experiences). His need is simple. Refusing a wheelchair as it represents the “crumbs” of what freedom he has left, he wants to die. As he says, “I believe that living is a right, not an obligation.” But the law in Spain will punish anyone who helps him. While some support his plight, others - such as a similarly incapacitated priest and also his brother, who thinks “he’ll have to live as long as God wills” - do not. The story takes a turn when Julia discovers she has a degenerative brain disease, initially leading her to suggest that the pair die together in a suicide pact. While Sampedro is attracted to her - despite the fact she’s married - he also gets close to Rosa (Lola Dueñas), a separated mother-of-two who makes ends meet by working at a canning factory. She visits Sampedro, he thinks, to make her feel better about her own life - although she claims it is to help him realise life is worth living. They soon become dependant upon each other, ultimately forging a bond that will tear Sampedro from his family.

Javier_Bardem

At the same time, Julia drifts out of the narrative with only a postscript in the story to reveal why. It leaves the film’s second half feeling rather unbalanced, but it scarcely matters, given that Amenábar concentrates on cranking up the emotions.

Depending on your point of view, what follows is either sentimental claptrap or highly moving. We glimpse Sampedro’s past life - when he travelled the world working on a boat - via a series of photographs that remind us how active he once was. As he listens to opera we witness how he returns, in his mind (with the camera flying across the countryside) to the sea, the scene for him of so much pleasure and pain. And we experience the moment when he finally leaves his bed to travel to La Coruña and sees simple scenes of daily life around him. All of it will melt even the hardest of hearts.

While Amenábar narrowly avoids being accused of manipulation, the film never feels like a campaign for euthanasia - perhaps because at its core is Bardem. Confined to bed, with a body left limp, he just has his face to express anger and joy. With those sad eyes of his, the actor who impressed in films like The Dancer Upstairs and Before Night Falls takes his work to another level. Avoiding simplification, he brings to life a fully-rounded character, as dignified as he is bitter. As he says, “When you depend on others, you learn to cry by smiling.” It’s a fine tribute to Ramón Sampedro, who died in 1998.

 

Verdict
Immensely moving, Mar Adentro is an astounding piece of work with a captivating performance from Javier Bardem. Stunningly directed by Alejandro Amenábar, he shows yet again what a precocious talent he is.

The 50 Greatest Dramas: #49: The Deer Hunter (1978)

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter

Opening with a wedding and ending with a funeral, Michael Cimino’s Vietnam odyssey takes three Pennsylvania steelworkers to hell and back. Starring Robert De Niro, the film introduced cinemagoers to Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep

It takes a true visionary to see exactly how the times are a-changing. In the latter half of the 1970s, with only Thunderbolt And Lightfoot (1974) to his name, Michael Cimino approached the Hollywood studios with his pitch for The Deer Hunter. They all baulked, unconvinced that the American cinema-going public was ready to see the recent wounds of Vietnam reopened.

Unconcerned, Cimino secured financial backing outside the usual channels by turning to Britain’s EMI, and then took further decisions that, at least at the time, seemed crazy: making the film last a whopping three hours (with a Russian Orthodox wedding sequence near the film’s beginning matching the length of all the war scenes in the middle), and placing alongside his established star Robert De Niro an ensemble of relative or total unknowns, as well as John Cazale, whose cancer meant there was a real risk that he would not live to complete his final part (in fact he died shortly after the production ended).

The rest is history. The Deer Hunter swept the board at film awards ceremonies, was a phenomenon at the box-office, and launched the cinematic careers of newcomers Meryl Streep and Christopher Walken. The reasons behind its great success are easy enough to see: it boasts extraordinarily nuanced performances from what is, at least in retrospect, a dream cast; it is technically very accomplished, without once seeming flashy or ringing false; and it manages to root its grand epic themes in a compellingly intimate human drama. The Deer Hunter is, in short, a deserved classic. The film also, in its day, courted considerable controversy, chiefly because of its portrayal of Vietcong soldiers forcing their prisoners (American and Vietnamese alike) to play Russian roulette. ‘Hanoi’ Jane Fonda, whose own, similarly themed film Coming Home was in fierce competition with The Deer Hunter at the 1979 Academy Awards, accused Cimino of racism, historians denied that there was any evidence of Russian roulette being played in the conflict, while a confederacy of psychologists and media pundits blamed the film for a spate of Russian roulette-related deaths in the US following its release.

The Deer Hunter

There is no doubt that Cimino’s chosen focus is on his American characters, although whether this constitutes racism is more open to question - he certainly does not shy away from showing American brutality. Cimino has subsequently defended his film’s historical accuracy by claiming that Russian roulette is used on POWS even to this day as a weapon of torture - but it does not follow from this that it was ever used in Vietnam, and the uncomfortable probability remains that the ‘continuing’, if thankfully marginalised, practice in today’s conflicts is inspired less by the realities of the Indo-Chinese experience than by the accessible fictions of The Deer Hunter itself.

What is certain is that the film’s Russian roulette sequences constitute an arresting metaphor for the random cruelty of death in war and, thanks to the care which Cimino has taken in building up the viewer’s investment in his tormented characters, these scenes are as involving, upsetting and unbearably tense as anything that has ever appeared in cinema. Viewed now, some decades after it was made, what seems most striking about The Deer Hunter is the sensitivity with which it charted the shifting mood of its times. After Vietnam, after Watergate, after nearly a decade of self-examination, anti-authoritarianism and cynicism, when all the old American verities had fallen away and patriotism had become a dirty word, Cimino seemed almost alone in discerning that, in a nation shaken to its very foundations by distrust, there still remained a growing desire to return to some of the old faiths, values and traditions.

The Deer Hunter

His story of three young working-class men from the heartlands (De Niro, Walken, John Savage), whose lives are all forever changed by their tour of duty in Vietnam, is a harrowing reflection of America’s experience in the first half of the 1970s; but the film’s final, ambivalent sequence, in which the two survivors gather at a wake for the third with a small group of friends and lovers and find solace in the words of ‘God Bless America’, instead looks forward to the future.

Cimino’s characters, who are only semi-articulate at the best of times, never actually voice an opinion on America’s Indo-Chinese ventures, and it is not clear whether Michael, Nick and Steve go to Vietnam because they are patriots, or conscripts, or because it is in their eyes, much like the mountains back home where they hunt for deer, just another all-male domain in which they can play out their games of cameraderie and machismo. In this way, Cimino side-stepped the narrow ideological controversies of his times, making a film that could (and did) touch both fervent supporters and vehement opponents of the Vietnam War - and the same is true for his ending, which seems to reassert an America that rests on faith and patriotism, even as it calls into question whether such terms can any longer have the same meaning as they did before. It is a mixed message that looks back to all the doubts and disillusionments of the seventies, while at the same time paving the way for the new conservatism of the eighties under Reagan.

Deer Hunter

On top of all this, The Deer Hunter is at once a war epic (whose focus on the homecoming of De Niro’s hero Michael Vronsky evokes both Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’), a realistic portrait of a sleepy Russian Orthodox steeltown in Pennsylvania, and a story of male friendship that, post-Brokeback Mountain, seems full of unspoken desire and sublimated longings. It is rich, messy, and unmissable.

 

Verdict
Gauging the shifting moods of the 1970s, this tale of life and love disrupted by war is as arresting as a bullet to the brain.

The 50 Greatest Dramas: #50: Mississippi Burning (1988)

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

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Hard-hitting - if somewhat simplistic - tale of hideous racism in America’s Deep South. Stars Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as FBI investigators

This powerful movie represents Alan Parker’s best work and remains pertinent, although the events it borrows from occurred in 1964.

Two FBI investigators, the bright, by-the-book Yankee Ward (Dafoe) and the older, calmer Southern boy Anderson (Hackman), visit a small Mississippi town after the disappearance of three civil rights workers (two of whom were white). Their clash over working methods provides the subplot as they reveal the extent of the racism and brutality simmering in the town - especially from the wife-beating, black-baiting law enforcers (headed up by Brad Dourif).

No recent film has generated such convincing Southern atmosphere. It’s like a fly-on-the-wall observation wrapped inside a handsomely mounted thriller, and ensures that the message, told in potent but arguably simplistic terms, reaches a wide audience.


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