Adventures of Robin Hood
Hollywood sweep. The true swashbuckler. Captain Blood is great but I can’t escape the bright colors of Robin Hood. By bright colors, I don’t just mean the gorgeous Technicolor. I mean the soaring music, unafraid to inhabit the mythic quality of the story, to play for fun and to play for thrill. I mean Olivia de Havilland, looking good enough to storm a castle for. I mean Errol Flynn interrupting a banquet of rich snobs, knocking guards away with the antlers of the deer he carries on his back. I mean sensational moments, one after the other.
Directed by ultra-prolific Michael Curtiz, Robin Hood is the perfect action movie: playful, it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It indulges only in the magic of cinema and never have I felt such magic on screen.
Not prolific but almost always excellent, Stanley Kubrick created a few masterpieces and some great films. For me, Barry Lyndon is the best of his work.
All of his films are funnier than they get credit for, and Barry is the funniest. Though it is certainly tragic to watch Ryan O’Neal’s character rise to fortune and fall from grace, a subtle humor runs throughout the movie. This humor is one of the secret touches of Barry Lyndon that make it so good.
The narration tells us in most cases what will happen before it does but this doesn’t ruin suspense because Kubrick’s movie is about how things happen. The pace and rhythm are unique and refreshing, like many of the camera moves which zoom in and out of gorgeous compositions. Ryan O’Neal is better than he was ever expected to be. He is in almost every scene in the movie’s three hours and is perfect in every one of them.
A master of literary adaption, Kubrick created a movie where in every frame, every line of dialogue, every time the music comes in and goes away, I feel the touch of brilliance.
Le Dernier Combat (The Last Battle)
It begins while our post-apocalyptic hero screws a blow-up doll, the closest he can get to human affection, male or female. From there, Luc Besson takes us to a burnt-out city where the sky rains fish. Only half-way into the movie we learn why no one has spoken a word thus far (it isn’t just a French obsession with Charlie Chaplin, though it does feel like The Tramp meets Mad Max).
Words are sparse in Le Dernier Combat and so is beauty but both are present, reserved for small delicate moments. Black and white and bleak, Besson makes the fight between a couple of men the last real human battle. He reduces conflict to a simple goal, lets us feel all the horror of failure and the surprise of hope. It is as dark and beautiful as the future can get.
How Green was my Valley
One of John Ford’s non-Westerns, How Green was my Valley is an unforgettable portrait of childhood. The story takes place in a Welsh coal mining village. Ford follows one family, its leader the father played by Donald Crisp. There are many sons, the youngest is Roddy McDowall, the narrator, the eyes through which we see all the events. As conflict arises in the mine, the family is spread apart, some of the sons push for a union while the father remains traditional. His one daughter, played by Maureen O’Hara, falls in love with preacher Walter Pidgeon but marries a rich man out of duty.
As the picture travels through light and dark moments, McDowall’s character grows up, not physically, but emotionally as he sees both the courage and hypocrisy of the adults around him. I love the film not only for its moments of tragedy, which are great, but the instances of joy. Always a little clumsy with his use of humor, Ford uses scenes familiar to his canon and they are better than they ever were: scenes of drinking and singing, fist-fighting, moments of simple logic faced with sophistication.
I don’t think childhood has ever been captured better on screen. Though it isn’t the best representative of John Ford’s overall work, I find it his best picture.
Perhaps my favorite of all these, How Green was my Valley
Lessons of Darkness
Werner Herzog denies that his documentaries are documentaries, and claims that his fiction films like Aguirre are documentaries. His entire body of work is undefinable; it can only be called film, pure film. He is the most daring, the most exciting filmmaker alive.
Of all his work, Lessons of Darkness is the best in my opinion. Is it a documentary? Well, at the end of the Gulf War, Herzog flew over Kuwait in a helicopter with his cameraman. Together they captured the oil fields on fire. But this isn’t the same breed of film we see in the political-agenda docs that have become so popular. Herzog calls it a science-fiction film and it is. The fires spout from the earth like giants. Our world doesn’t look like our own. This is the journey to another planet. Herzog even reads scripture over the images.
A filmmaker bound to the quest for new images, for fresh landscapes, Herzog creates in Lessons of Darkness a film like no other. It defies story, it even defies experimentation. He tests the boundaries of the visual medium, what it can do and will do, by showing us the parts of nature that we don’t even realize, how alien they are to our consciousness.
Only Angels Have Wings
At this point in my life, I could make a list like this filled with only Howard Hawks movies. I am in love with his cinema. His worlds are filled with men that I want to have as friends, women I want as lovers. I wish that I could inhabit any of his films, to be stuck forever up on the screen trying to prove that I’m the best with his reporters, his flyers, his cowboys and his soldiers.
Of all his that I love, Only Angels Have Wings I love the most. It’s about a bunch of flyers who deliver mail out of a small South American town. They’re led by Cary Grant, fearless, professional, unable to associate with women emotionally because they always want to ground him from what he does. It’s scene after scene of the Hawks ethic: men test each other’s ability, men and women snap at each other with wit, the shamed man gets a chance to prove himself, the hardened one finally gives in to the woman who isn’t as tough as she seemed, I guess neither of them were.
There’s a scene where a pilot without good eyesight goes out on his last run, a fog-filled flight that spells suicide. He crashes on return. Grant tells him in the privacy of a tent that his neck is broken. The pilot asks his best friend to leave him alone. You see, he’s never died before and he doesn’t want to do it badly the first time.
Some think that the debate of the great American director hedges between Hawks and Ford. Like another of Hawks characters says, I wouldn’t want to live on the difference.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
One image of Renee Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Joan of Arc is enough to haunt me forever. The performance is harrowing, as the young plain girl is faced with interrogation from high religious and political figures. Her eyes are wide and filled with the kind of mystery that still surrounds Joan. It is perhaps the most perfect casting ever.
The film, silent and filmed almost entirely in close-ups, looks like none other. It is simultaneously beautiful and horrible to watch. The camera moves still seem fresh and modern. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a film that surpasses the evolution of the medium.
Places in the Heart
Overlooked in the history of American cinema are simple stories that evoke subtle truths. My mind goes to two great films from the 80’s: Tender Mercies and Places in the Heart. But Robert Benton’s story of a mother, played by Sally Field, recently widowed with two children and her struggle to bring in a cotton crop is the one that sticks with me the most.
She discovers friendship and love in the hands of Danny Glover, a wanderer who knows how to do the things she doesn’t, and John Malkovich, a bitter blind man who finds a home. The film shows people doing great and horrible acts without the overbearing style that has plagued so much of cinema about poverty and racism; this has none of Stanley Kramer in it.
The ending, my personal choice for the best ever, is poetic and touching. It perfectly completes this American story.
Up against all the actors of old, William Holden remains my favorite. True, he is more WASP than the rest of them, but there is something about his attitude, a constant sense that he knows just a little more than the others around him. Sometimes he even seems to know ahead of time how bad a situation he’s in but stuck like a fated character in a Thomas Hardy novel, he plays out his doom in dry sarcastic form.
Sunset Boulevard is Billy Wilder’s best, a Hollywood nightmare of fame desired and lost. Holden takes a job from Gloria Swanson’s psycho-starlet. He can tell from the start its a bad idea (we know too since he narrates the movie, drowned in a pool). Still the journey is more important, far more entertaining, and frightening than the outcome.
What elevates this movie above most horror, and it really is a kind of horror, is that however insane Swanson might be, she remains human. Created by Hollywood, it is impossible for her to want anything else but to be what she was in her prime. This makes her own destruction and the destruction she brings to Holden’s life timeless and tragic, especially when Holden discovers but is unable to experience true love with Nancy Olson.
Sure, the last shot and line are about as common as “Rose Bud” but the movie itself contains some of the best directing, acting, writing, and shooting of any film ever made.
The Thin Red Line
Terrence Malick’s adaptation of the James Jones novel is like no other war movie to come before or after it. It throws away convention, diving into the narrative of many, many soldiers, as the movie floats in an out of their heads and the lush jungle. At a young age, because of its unfocused style, I was unable to comprehend its worth and therefore hated it. For a few years now, it has become one of my favorites.
The Thin Red Line represents the best use of Terrence Malick’s poetic visual style. It seems to complete what he began with Badlands and Days of Heaven and does not go astray like The New World. Though it possesses an unending cast of familiar faces, it strays away from the multi-character form established with Nashville and often replicated. The connections between soldiers is not determined by consequence, but that they each have a unique war experience on the same island in WWII, each as valid as the next. There are many great performances, as small as John Savage who appears in a couple of shots, and as large as James Caviezel who serves as the closest I could conventionally term a “main character”. Sean Penn is stripped of any over-the-top moments, Elias Koteas shines as an officer with law background unable to comprehend the simple sacrifice method of the army, John Cusack is the hero that his colonel Nick Nolte admires but cannot understand and vice versa.
The cinematography, the tribal chants that grace the soundtrack, it all combines into a terrific picture.
John Carpenter’s remake of the Howard Hawks-produced The Thing From Another World couldn’t be more different from its origins. Departing from the gut versus science action sci-fi classic, Carpenter created the ultimate horror film. And The Thing is horror, not science-fiction. Though the plot revolves around an alien landing in an icy landscape, the real conflict concerns human interaction, whether one man can trust another, if a man can really trust himself, and visually it dwells on the mutilations of the body.
Kurt Russell leads a cast of great faces like Keith David and Wilford Brimley. They all pull their weight in what becomes, after its introductory first half, a tale of paranoia. Never have I felt suspense so much as the scenes where Carpenter has his characters test each others blood for sign of infection. The camera waits in silence for the Thing to reveal itself as it does in the end when the last two survivors wait in the freezing cold to find out if and which one of them is the intruder.
Wild at Heart
Wild at Heart exists between the two halves of David Lynch’s career. After and less conventional than his most hailed Blue Velvet and before he wandered into the super-abstract dream-enigmas that began with Lost Highway and evolved into Inland Empire, Lynch created something quite odd and unique in his adaptation of Barry Gifford’s novel.
A lovers-on-the-run road movie, Wild at Heart maintains a basic plot while Lynch’s wilder side riffs on The Wizard of Oz and Elvis Presley. On the soundtrack, heavy metal music blares, as well as Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and a traditional symphony score. This movie is as diverse as the American landscape and its people, willing to go places we don’t expect or have even imagined.
It features Nicolas Cage at his most unpredictable, Laura Dern at her sexiest, and Willem Dafoe at his creepiest. It is David Lynch at his best, and story-driven American film at its most daring. Most of all, it is just fun.