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Badlands

badlands-1973-starkweather-holly-kit-martin-sheen-sissy-spacek

I’d never envisioned Martin Sheen playing a morally bankrupt adolescent so watching Badlands (1973) was something of a shock. In Badlands Sheen plays Kit an outsider with just enough smarts to be dangerous. I can’t quite make out his percentage of psychosis, but Kit sure has plenty. Evidently the film was based on an actual couple, Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate.

As the film begins, Kit’s bored with his garbage collecting job, which he soon loses by telling off the boss. He finds an odd kind of love when he meets Holly, played by Sissy Spacek. Holly’s an even keel (or flat line?) teen whose mother died a while back. She’s never had a boyfriend or lots of friends at school so hey, Kit’s interested in her so why not stick with him. Her father’s rather taciturn and aloof so she’s morally empty and will go along with anything since nothing in life seems like a big deal to her. She attaches herself to Kit since he’s there and he’s good looking and she doesn’t seem to have the depth to make moral judgments of any sort. Life’s rather boring in her South Dakota town and she’s got no social circle, no village is raising this girl so she goes with whatever comes along.

So we see this ho hum relationship, and both Holly and Kit are more inclined to the ho hum than to passion, flow along until Holly’s father gets wind of it. He forbids Holly to see Kit. Now Kit’s wild with love and can’t live without Holly. He breaks into Holly’s home and confronts the father, who wants him out. Dad won’t listen to Kit. He certainly doesn’t want his only child to settle for an uneducated loser who can’t keep a job. When the father turns his back to Kit to go call the police to get the trespasser out, Kit shoots him in the back. Kit and Holly burn the house down to thwart the authorities who’ll soon want evidence and they take to the road. It is odd, yet compelling to see Holly blithely go off with Kit after he’s murdered her father in cold blood.

Just like Kit, Badlands goes in directions viewers won’t expect. There’s never a police officer who’s determined to catch the pair. This isn’t Bonnie and Clyde, though the bodies start piling up as the story progresses. It’s more of a look at a lost, bored adolescent couple who make some odd and wrong choices, shrug them off and keep going in their way. Because the plot employs few Hollywood conventions and because the leads are compellingly low key and lost, the film works.

Who’d thunk that Jeb Bartlett could play a low key, psychopathic James Dean?

 

 

 

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Ordet

If you’re looking for something to watch as penance, perhaps Ordet will satisfy. I saw this listed in the bulletin at the Northwestern University Catholic center and thought for sure they’d have chosen a good film to discuss.

While I’m joking, Ordet is a a heck of a serious film. As Roger Ebert wrote it’s hard to get into, but once you’re in, you’re in. Perhaps.

Set in Denmark in 1925, Ordet’s the story of a family headed by Morten Borgen, a dour pastor in a stark rural town where religious denominations carry serious weight. If you’re not in the “right” one, you’re considered beyond the pale. Borgen’s got three sons, the oldest is married with two daughters. He’s an unbeliever, while his wife is sincere and devout. She’s also pregnant. The middle son is looney and thinks he’s Jesus, which gets on most people’s nerves. The youngest son wants to marry the tailor’s daughter, but her family goes to another church, one known for particularly dour worship services. Her father rejects marriage to a man from another denomination.

I doubt any character cracked a smile in the whole film. Yet after awhile the film does pull you in. It’s rather eerie. The daughter-in-law experiences complications when she goes into labor and this brings the story to a climax. I’m still not sure what to think of the film. I’m curious how the Northwestern discussion went. It’s a well crafted film, but certainly not for everyone. You have to be patient and interested in puzzling out meaning.

If you find the meaning, let me know.

Ordet

If you’re looking for something to watch as penance, perhaps Ordet will satisfy. I saw this listed in the bulletin at the Northwestern University Catholic center and thought for sure they’d have chosen a good film to discuss.

While I’m joking, Ordet is a a heck of a serious film. As Roger Ebert wrote it’s hard to get into, but once you’re in, you’re in. Perhaps.

Set in Denmark in 1925, Ordet’s the story of a family headed by Morten Borgen, a dour pastor in a stark rural town where religious denominations carry serious weight. If you’re not in the “right” one, you’re considered beyond the pale. Borgen’s got three sons, the oldest is married with two daughters. He’s an unbeliever, while his wife is sincere and devout. She’s also pregnant. The middle son is looney and thinks he’s Jesus, which gets on most people’s nerves. The youngest son wants to marry the tailor’s daughter, but her family goes to another church, one known for particularly dour worship services. Her father rejects marriage to a man from another denomination.

I doubt any character cracked a smile in the whole film. Yet after awhile the film does pull you in. It’s rather eerie. The daughter-in-law experiences complications when she goes into labor and this brings the story to a climax. I’m still not sure what to think of the film. I’m curious how the Northwestern discussion went. It’s a well crafted film, but certainly not for everyone. You have to be patient and interested in puzzling out meaning.

If you find the meaning, let me know.

Vanya on 42nd St.

julianne moore Vanya on 42nd Street

André Gregory, who starred in My Dinner with André, is certainly unique and directs like no other director. Vanya on 42nd Street is such a unique play or project and finally a film. He assembled a wonderful cast including Wallace Shawn and Juliette Moore to get together and rehearse Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for years. Several times a week the actors would perform this play — for 4 years. It wasn’t till the third year that they started to invite a handful of guests to watch them. Eventually, Louis Malle agreed to direct a film version of their play.

The story involves an extended family, who like the family in The Cherry Orchard, have money problems. On top of that several men in the story are smitten by Yelena, a beautiful young woman who’s married to an old scholar. There’s lots of conflict in the family revolving around personal grievances and what to do about their money problems. Because the actors performed this play so many times over a long period and thus became intimate with their cast members they reported that this story was like no other to them thus there’s a depth to this performance that’s palpable and like no other performance. The actors perform in a gorgeous abandoned theater in ruins, which resonates with the play’s theme. Both the play, translated by David Mamet, and the Criterion Collection interviews are engrossing.The interviews made me appreciate the meticulous acting this process afforded.  I’d definitely watch this again and again for the story and fine acting.

The Sweet Smell of Success

sweet smell

When I made my 2014 New Year’s Resolution to watch one old movie (i.e. before 1960) I had no idea where it would take me. I’ve discovered so many terrific films due to this challenge and the limited, but good selection at my local DVD store.

A prime example is the 1957 The Sweet Smell of Success  starring Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster. Curtis plays Sidney Falco, a struggling, opportunistic press agent who’s both manipulating and manipulated as he tries to get the powerful J.J. Hunsecher played by Burt Lancaster to write about his clients. It’s a career based on lies, begging and creating an icy cool image. J.J. is based on Walter Winchell, a columnist who pioneered the celebrity beat. Here J.J. gets Sidney to break up a romance between his sister and a jazz musician. No one would be good enough for J.J.’s sister Susie. There’s definitely a weird one way vibe between J.J. and Susie, who’s in love with clean cut Dallas.

Sidney has few scruples about setting up Dallas. The one time he objects to J.J.’s plan, he capitulates. Anything to further his career. Sidney lives on the edge in a corrupt world with edgy, witty dialog and high stakes. The few times his maneuvers don’t work, like when he tries to blackmail one of J.J.’s rivals, it backfires. Sidney never thought that someone in his field might prefer to come clean to his wife than to do his bidding. Sidney’s doomed as he’s neither as powerful as J.J. or honest like Dallas or the clean-when-forced-to-be columnist.

The Sweet Smell of Success is set in a kind of hell, a hell with witty reparteés, stylish women and men in sharp suits sipping martini’s. It’s fun to watch, but I wouldn’t want to come within a mile of any of the characters.

I’m now re-watching with the Criterion Collection commentary to eke all I can from the film.

A few quotes:

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 1.50.21 PM

The Story of a Cheat

guitry

The Story of a Cheat (1936) is a delightful comedy by Sacha Guitry, whom I’d never have discovered if it weren’t for my New Year’s resolution to watch old movies. In T he Story of a Cheat, Guitry plays a suave man who falls into one incident after another where he winds up stealing or conning someone. As a boy, he stole some money from his father’s shop. He got caught and was forbidden to eat the mushrooms served for dinner. As all his relations get poisoned, he lucked out and thus the confusion over whether honesty is the best policy ensues. No matter how bad things get, there’s always some silver lining and this hero winds up doing alright – as long as he’s dishonest. Whenever he’s honest, he gets in trouble.

boy cheat

It’s a fun, entertaining French film told almost entirely through flashback and voice over. Big no-no’s for movies, but this does work. The Criterion Collection provides a nice essay on Guitry’s career.

Désiré

Released in 1937 starring Sacha Guitry, Désiré is a comedy about a French woman and her household staff. Odette is a former actress who’s beau is a government Minister. Her staff includes a cook, a maid, a chauffeur we never see, but lacks a valet. The night before Odette, played by Guitry’s wife at the time, and her beau are to leave for the countryside, a chatty, meticulous valet comes to interview for the job. His references are impeccable and he’s hired. God forbid the couple goes to the country without a valet.

In the kitchen Désiré gets to know the maid and the cook. He’s very professional about his job and the hardest worker of the group, but also shares lots of observations about employers e.g. in a couple days a servant knows his employer well. In a year the servant can predict the employer’s every move and thought, yet after employing a servant for 5 years the employer probably doesn’t even know the servant’s last name. Touché.

Désiré’s previous employer intimates that while he was impeccable at his job, he made sexual overtures and therefore was let go. Odette is ready to send him packing but he persuades her to trust that it’ll never happen again.

All goes well until madam starts having dreams of Désiré making overtures. Her beau hears her calling out his name. Meanwhile Désiré also has dreams and the maid hears him calling out. Both don’t know what to do and try to hide the problem as best they can.

Désiré is a farce done with wit and intelligence. It makes some good points and is something of a counterpoint to Downton Abbey. Here the characters smoke and joke and toy with each other.  Guitry is a fine comic actor who held my interest from start to finish.

City Lights

city lights

I’d never watched Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, or perhaps any Chaplin film, before. I remember being shown some silent film as a child in some group setting and being bored to tears. That feeling ran deep, though the specifics – who was in the film, or what it was about faded fast. Since I’m half way through my year of watching one “old” i.e. pre 1960 movie a week, I thought it’s high time to watch Chaplin.

After seeing and loving Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last released by the Criterion Collection with the enriching commentary, I thought I could like City Lights. I was right. What a delightful, charming, poignant film! Chaplin plays his signature Tramp, who I think everyone in the West with a pulse has seen in some form. As the film opens some long winded politician is bloviating at a ceremony to unveil a statue about progress and prosperity. When the drape is removed, we see the Tramp asleep in one of the figure’s laps. He scrambles to get out of the way, always desiring not to bother anyone, but in so doing gets more entangled and almost loses his pants. It’s high comedy, but still works. What’s more Chaplin is definitely satirizing the politicians and society that honors these values while blind to those left behind or harmed by “progress” and whom “prosperity” has overlooked.

Soon the Tramp meets and falls in love with a girl who’s blind, who sells flowers on the street. She mistakes him for a millionaire and this is the main plot. After impressing the flower girl, the Tramp runs into a crazy, distraught millionaire whose life he saves. The friendship between the eccentric millionaire and the Tramp is mercurial. When the millionaire’s drunk, all’s well. When he sobers up, he rejects the Tramp, time and again.

The Tramp and the Millionaire

The Tramp and the Millionaire

The film’s commentary helped me note a lot in the film that I would have overlooked. The political themes, the cast, and the history (how on average Chaplin did 38 takes for every scene in what he himself dubbed a “neurotic” quest for perfection).

The film came out in 1931 when sound had been around for awhile. Chaplin, the commentator states, didn’t think sound really added much to films and that it took away some of film’s subtleties. While there’s plenty of slapstick, I can see Chaplin’s point. By having to rely on pantomime, the actors have to do more with a look or action. Also, Chaplin’s films did well all over the world. He felt that if the audience heard his accent some wouldn’t like his work as much. It’s a valid point as when I watched, I projected an American accent on to the characters.

The film is delightful and succeeds in providing humor and pathos often right on top of each other.

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