For Your Consideration: July 18, 2014

 

I celebrated a birthday yesterday. I have now been on this earth for 24 years, about a third of which I would say has actually been spent in the pursuit of great cinema. Before that, I occasionally watched things like “White Chicks” and “Scary Movie 3.” I’m so sorry, younger self. I would stop you if I could.

If I have made the turn in the years since to Sophisticated Cinephilia, it is at least partly thanks to the work of such as those enumerated in further detail below. No need to get too complicated with it – this week we’re looking at three films highlighting the work of a director or performer who happens to share my birthday – July 17. And we’re doing it on July 18. Simple, right?

– Ethan

“The Public Enemy” (1931)

Cast: James Cagney, Jean Harlow, Edwards Woods, Joan Blondell

Available to rent or buy from Amazon Instant or iTunes, on disc from Netflix

In an era when Hollywood stars were perhaps at their most self-conscious about their on-screen image, Jimmy Cagney stands out for being content to be, over and over, a dirty scoundrel. Compared to his perfectly-composed peers like Cary Grant or Clark Gable, Cagney was always a little rough around the edges, an endearing quality that makes many of his performances hold up over time; unlike many of his contemporaries, he barely seems to be acting at all. In his best roles, like no-good hoodlum Tom Powers of “The Public Enemy,” one wonders if Cagney is actually about to spontaneously combust right in front of the camera: he’s sharp, dangerous, mean. Watch that infamous grapefruit scene again: few leading men of the studio age would embrace the bleak, irredeemable fury of that moment the way Cagney does.

– Ethan

“Ordinary People” (1980)

Cast: Timothy Hutton, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, Judd Hirsch

Available to rent or purchase from Amazon Instant, on disc from Netflix

It is one of the great small injustices of Oscar history that all of the major players in “Ordinary People” received acting nominations – except for Donald Sutherland. Neither as openly troubled as Hutton’s shaken teen, nor as brittle as Tyler Moore’s porcelain housewife, Sutherland’s role is possibly the most difficult, a fundamentally decent and resolute father at the center of a tragedy, holding not just himself but the rest of his family together. It’s hard to remember now, as his career has taken a distinct turn since the 90’s toward the villainous and the schlocky, but between “Ordinary People” and “M*A*S*H” and “Don’t Look Now,” Sutherland was once a master of the everyman coping with horrific loss – and it is no small thing to elicit sympathy while being strong enough to avoid pity.

– Ethan

“Chungking Express” (1994)

Cast: Brigitte Lin, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Tony Leung, Faye Wong

Available on Hulu Plus

The films of Wong Kar-Wai are sure to be, at the very least, visually outstanding: there’s a meticulous craft that goes into each and every frame of his work, a precision of vision that always earns one’s respect, even if the narrative stagnation of a “My Blueberry Nights” or “2046” can make that respect a bit grudging. But “stagnant” is not a word that applies in any way to “Chungking Express,” a flaring symphony of sound, and color, and style. As woozy and romantic as the Mamas and the Papas track that constantly loops through the soundtrack, Wong’s parallel tales of love and missed connections in Hong Kong could just as easily take place in New York, or Paris, or Rio, or Mumbai – there’s a haunting familiarity to “Chungking Express” even as Wong infuses it with his flavor of a particular time and place. You may never look at a pineapple the same way again, though.

– Ethan

 

For Your Consideration: May 9, 2014

It’s a popular notion that truth is stranger than fiction. When it comes to film, sometimes you don’t have to choose. Take This Week in Richard Linklater: we’ve already been talking enough about him lately for his increasingly ambitious work, but a few days ago we learned that what was already one of the more peculiar projects of his career, “Bernie” (2011), just took an even more fascinating turn.

So maybe not every case of a film “based on a true story” winds up with a released murderer living in a Hollywood director’s garage. But there’s a reason filmmakers keep going back to that particular well. So for this week’s lineup, we’re offering up three selections where the backstory is just as (if not more) intriguing than the film it inspired.

– Ethan

“In Cold Blood” (1967)

Cast: Robert Blake, Scott Wilson, John Forsythe, Paul Stewart

Available to rent streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, or on disc from Netflix

There’s a fine line between re-enactment and re-creation; at what point do you stop pretending to act out someone’s life and start reliving it? If there’s something particularly eerie and off-putting about Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Truman Capote’s watershed real-crime narrative, it’s not an accident: the director purposefully chose to film in as many of the actual locations involved in the case as possible. That includes not only the actual cells in the Kansas State Penitentiary where Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock were imprisoned and executed, but the actual house in which the two petty thieves murdered all four members of the Clutter family. The flashback scenes to the crime are amongst the most haunting in cinema, with Robert Blake and Scott Wilson drifting through blackened hallways like men possessed.

Of course, Brooks’ film barely even touches on one of the most eccentric pieces of the case, namely the peculiar relationship and camaraderie struck up between the criminals and Capote while he was researching the book. For that part of the story, you can go to Bennett Miller’s 2005 film “Capote,” and learn how Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird somehow got mixed up in all of this.

– Ethan

“The Killing Fields” (1984)

Cast: Haing S. Ngor, Sam Waterston, John Malkovich, Julian Sands, Monirak Sisowath

Available to rent streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, or on disc from Netflix

“I wanted to show the world how deep starvation is in Cambodia, how many people die under Communist regime. My heart is satisfied. I have done something perfect.”

-Haing S. Ngor

In “The Killing Fields”, Haing S. Ngor plays Dith Pran, a Cambodian translator and journalist for New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) during the Khmer Rouge’s brutal takeover of the country. The movie follows Dith Pran as he gives up the chance to escape in order to help Schanberg, but is subsequently trapped in the totalitarian regime that murdered up to 2.5 million people and destroyed a nation.

A doctor by trade, Ngor had never acted before, but drew on his four years under Pol Pot’s horrific regime to deliver an unforgettable performance. His face remains blank for much of the film, but his eyes carry the grief of a man and a country destroyed by utter madness. He won an Oscar for his performance, becoming only the second non-professional actor to do so. “After all, I spent four years in the Khmer Rouge school of acting,” he said after collecting the golden statuette.

“The Killing Fields” is one of the most powerful and authentic portrayals of the violence, cruelty, and senselessness of communist regimes, capturing not only the bloodshed but also the psychological and societal toll of an ideology that believed that all education, culture, and tradition must be destroyed. The film’s haunting images stay with you long after the credits roll, from the muddy expanse of corpses to a child crossing out his parents on a chalkboard. It’s a difficult film to watch, but according to Ngor, it is still “not strong enough, not bad enough, not cruel enough, not violent enough.” That alone should be reason enough to watch it.

– Elaine

“Quiz Show” (1994)

Cast: Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, Paul Scofield, Hank Azaria, David Paymer, Christopher McDonald

Available to rent streaming Amazon Instant, iTunes, and on disc from Netflix…you know, the usual

Imagine that Ken Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy champion who won 74 games in a row, had actually been fed the answers before the show. That is the premise of “Quiz Show,” a movie that chronicles the real quiz show scandals of the 1950s, when America learned that it had been duped by television executives eager for high ratings and contestants unable to resist 15 minutes of fame.

The movie was based on a memoir by Dick Goodwin, the young lawyer whose dogged investigation lifted the lid on the corruption. However, Goodwin, a consultant and producer for the movie, did not consider the quiz show scandal to be his proudest accomplishment—and who could blame him? The accomplished lawyer was a speechwriter and advisor for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and was the pen and mind behind LBJ’s landmark speeches on the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act.

With fantastic performances from Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro in particular—and a hilariously sinister cameo from Martin Scorsese—“Quiz Show” is a masterful cat-and-mouse game that transforms into a case study of morality that asks deeper questions about corruption, complicity, and guilt. Because really, with fame and fortune at your feet, what would you have done?

– Elaine

For Your Consideration: April 18, 2014

On Monday, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced its list of nominees and winners in journalism and letters. The reporting winners in particular seemed to strike a particular chord this year – from The Washington Post and The Guardian‘s publication of the Edward Snowden documents to The Boston Globe‘s coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings, it felt like there was something urgently earnest about the Pulitzers this year, a reminder that we can still seek out and find great journalism amidst the media blitz.

I don’t aspire to be as earnest about it, but here at The Best Films of Our Lives we thought we’d do our little part in paying tribute to the golden days of journalism, when “newspaperman” was actually a profession boys and girls might aspire to. For your weekend viewing pleasure, here are some recommendations for great films about those fast-talking, gung-ho hacks of the yellow press.

– Ethan

“His Girl Friday” (1940)
Cast: Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, John Qualen, Helen Mack
“His Girl Friday” is in the public domain. Watch it in full on YouTube, stream it for free on Hulu, download it, remix it, go crazy!
This is the ultimate newspapermen movie for newspapermen (and women). With his best reporter (and ex-wife), Hildy (Rosalind Russell) determined to quit the business and get married (to someone else), Walter (Cary Grant), a fast-talking, too smooth editor, has just one evening to win her back personally and professionally. This is screwball comedy at its finest–witty, cruel, sweet, and romantic. Hildy and Walter talk their way in and out of trouble, fall in and out of love, and plumb all kinds of depths (moral or otherwise) to get the best story. Because in the end, if there’s anything Hildy and Walter love more than each other, it’s the story.
– Elaine
“Roman Holiday” (1953)

Cast: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power
Available streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime, for rent on Amazon Instant or iTunes
If “His Girl Friday” is about the lengths a reporter will go to for a story, “Roman Holiday” is about the things even greater than the story. Audrey Hepburn makes her acting debut as a young European princess aching for freedom–to dance with the common folk, eat gelato in the sun, and wear pajamas to bed. She runs into Joe (Gregory Peck), and after an argument about Keats and Shelley, accepts his offer for a brief stint of liberation in Rome. Little does she know that Joe is actually a journalist looking to profit from the secret princess–the scoop to end all scoops. From this premise came the role that most suited Hepburn in her long and storied career, as well as Peck’s chance to prove that Cary Grant wasn’t the funniest leading man in town. The city of Rome co-stars in all its wonder, adding irrepressible energy and ancient charm to an endearing, energetic film. But beyond Hepburn’s grace and Peck’s charisma, it is the writing that elevates this film. Dalton Trumbo was never recognized during his lifetime for his Oscar-winning work, having been blacklisted by HUAC, but his dialogue, clever but natural, and the film’s poignant last scene ensure that “Roman Holiday” remains one of the classiest films to date.
– Elaine

“All the President’s Men” (1976)

Cast: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Ned Beatty

Available to rent from Amazon Instant and iTunes, on disc from Netflix

All those making positive comparisons between “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and the classic conspiracy thrillers of the 1970’s might want to go back and remind themselves what real paranoia looks like. The Watergate scandal, and Woodward and Bernstein’s uncovering of it, has long since passed into the banality of historical myth; and while Alan J. Pakula’s film was, to a large degree, part of crafting that legend, it’s remarkable to revisit it today and see the tangible cloud of fear that hangs over its protagonists’ dogged and desperate search for the truth. The ultimate triumph of an idealistic, skeptical journalism can not totally erase Redford’s sweaty, barely repressed panic, as, alone in a dingy and cavernous parking lot, he is left to ponder whether he’s gotten in over his head – and what the consequences may be if so.

– Ethan