Your high school English teacher always said everybody had a story in them. The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was a filmmaker who only had one story, a story of revolution that he attempted to tell in as many ways as possible. As a Jew trying to survive in Italy during the Second World War, Pontecorvo became a Marxist. Going into hiding, he organized Partisans to fight the fascist government and also wrote for the Communist Party’s underground newspaper. His early exposure and involvement in radical leftist politics led to his adoption of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonial theories, ideas that he would subsequently develop in his magnum opus Battle of Algiers (1965) and later in Burn!
Battle of Algiers ideological ambiguity angered many conservative viewers and critics upon its release only three years after the French loss of the Algerian War. At the time the French right wing terrorist group OAS (the villains of Fred Zinneman’s Day of the Jackal) was still active and had attempted to assassinate the French president Charles de Gaulle three years before for his role in the decay of the French empire. Battle of Algiers was banned in France for five years, ostensibly for showing the atrocities committed by the French armed forces and the Algerian insurgents’ National Liberation Front with the same objective remove. The events portrayed in the film were carefully researched to accurately represent similar occurrences from 1954-1960. In contrast, Pontecorvo’s next film had only a tenuous connection to any factual incidences. The protagonist, William Walker, played by Marlon Brando, is very loosely based on the 19th century American rogue adventurer of the same name who while under contract from the Nicaraguan government to put down a rebellion ended up declaring himself President of Nicaragua. His story is told in Alex Cox’s brilliant film, Walker, finally available from Criterion, starring Ed Harris with a score composed by Joe Strummer.Continue Reading
Days of Heaven
The tale is simplicity itself: A young man (Richard Gere), his girl (Brooke Adams), and his spunky kid sister (Linda Manz) flee trouble in Chicago and find harvesting work on a wheat farm owned by a wealthy Texan (playwright-actor Sam Shepard). The couple, who are masquerading as brother and sister, learn that the farmer is terminally ill, and the young man encourages the woman to marry the farmer so that they can claim his fortune after he dies. Confusion, suspicion, disaster of near-Biblical proportions, and tragedy ensue.
Were it not for Manz’s deadpan voiceover narration, this pictorial masterwork could almost be a silent film – director Terrence Malick’s spectacular images tell the story. Shot by Nestor Almendros, who won an Oscar for his painterly cinematography (with an assist from the supremely gifted Haskell Wexler), Days of Heaven is among the most gorgeous features ever made. Filmed mostly in twilight’s “magic hour,” the film is bathed in hues of lavender and gold. It’s a rapturous visual poem that shocks the eye with its beauty.Continue Reading
Though it almost shares a title (but little else) with director Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 spaghetti-war flick The Inglorious Bastards, which was just a dirtier Dirty Dozen knockoff, Quentin Tarantino knows a good title when he sees it. With a minor spelling change he gave us his own comic book WWII movie, Inglourious Basterds. With a definite nod to François Truffaut’s The Last Metro, it’s like a Powell & Pressburger (49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing) piece of propaganda, if those guys were still making those flicks in the 1970s. What at first glance may seem like a nasty and mean Nazi revenge fantasy is actually a tribute to the power of cinema and the power of Tarantino’s beautifully composed dialogue. This may be the most talky war script ever written, but unlike the pointlessly inane ramblings of the film he made two years before this, Death Proof (his half of the double feature movie Grindhouse), this dialogue is used to constantly build suspense, and in the hands of an expert actor like Christoph Waltz, it often sounds like an evil poetry. Aided by the clever score, pirated from other films, and the sharp period detail, Inglourious Basterds proved to not only be one of Tarantino's most ingenious creations, but is a film that has aged well (in the brief years since) and is sure to take its place with the best of the genre (lets call ‘em Naziploitation flicks).
Inglourious Basterds is an equally shared international ensemble piece divided into chapters. First you are introduced to a cat n’ mouse playing German SS man, "Jew Hunter," Col. Hans Landa (Waltz in a mannered piece of scenery chewing that deservedly won him an Oscar). The film opens with him interrogating a French dairy farmer who is hiding a neighboring Jewish family in his floorboards. He toys with the man before his soldiers shoot up the floor, but the teenage daughter Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to escape into the countryside. Meanwhile an American unit commanded by a very Southern Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt acting like a cross between Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn) leads a group of Jewish soldiers known as the "Basterds" on a dirty trick mission to torture and wreak havoc on Nazis, becoming legends and the thing of nightmares to Nazis, including even a flummoxed Hitler (Martin Wuttke). A few years later, Shosanna, now known as "Emmanuelle Mimieux" (and resembling a young Catherine Deneuve), runs a hip cinema in Paris and is any movie geek’s dream girl. Unfortunately she has the unwanted attention of a young German war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl of Good Bye, Lenin! and The Edukators). He is even starring as himself in a recently completed film about his sniper exploits called Nation’s Pride, directed by head Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Zoller convinces the higher-ups, including security-chief Hans Landa, to hold the premiere at Shosanna’s cinema, with the German high command in attendance, including the Führer himself. Shosanna and her boyfriend hatch a plan to burn the theater down during the screening.Continue Reading
Kill Bill: Vol. 1
Director Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is pop culture in a blender and on speed, particularly the culture of violent 1970s B Movies and exploitation films. It’s a comic book for movie nerds. It’s a who’s who, name the movie, appreciate the genre, video store game. More importantly it goes beyond its exploitation genre - it’s actually a mesmerizing, funny, elegant film. It all works beautifully, unlike its sequel Kill Bill: Vol 2, which was a mess. KB:V1 is an epic, bloody, action masterpiece.
KB:VI and KB:V2 were apparently intended to be one film, but they grew so big they were separated. Luckily the best stuff is in KB:V1. Both films jump around in sequence, but can be viewed and followed separately. Unfortunately for KB:V2 the late actor David Carradine as Bill is required to give long and tedious monologues. He was not a very good actor and long lines of dialogue were not his strong suit. (Imagine how interesting it would have been if Tarantino had gotten his first choice for the role, Warren Beatty?) Also where KB:V1 is clearly a riff on pop culture (films and television) of the '70s and early '80s, it’s sharp and focused. KB:V2 is all over the place, even adding Film Noir to the mix, not to mention the amount of minor characters with pointlessly long scenes of their own.Continue Reading
Once Upon A Time In The West
Sergio Leone's giant mega-Spaghetti Western is the ultimate Spaghetti Western. It may be the greatest Western of all time, period (it's at least up there with Shane and The Wild Bunch) and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Like a novel, we are introduced very carefully to four separate characters, their motives and links to each other slowly come together. Like an opera, Ennio Morricone's masterful score gives each character their own theme. Once Upon A Time In The West is such a unique and fascinating film, it's no wonder that its influence can be seen in so many films after it, including the works of directors Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Rodriguez.
The Spaghetti Western is a term which refers to a genre of Westerns generally starting in the 1960s which were produced by Italians (but often shot in Spain). They usually had another Euro co-financier (usually Spain) and they would use an international cast (usually Italians and Spaniards and maybe an American) to sell the film in different countries. The '70s would also see the rise of sub-genres such as Spaghetti Gangster and Spaghetti Zombie flicks. A number of Spaghetti Western directors had an impact like Enzo Barboni (They Call Me Trinity), Sergio Sollima (The Big Gundown), Gianfranco Parolini (the Sabata trilogy), and Sergio Corbucci (Django). But the big dog, the Orson Welles of the genre, was Sergio Leone. He hit it big with his "Dollars trilogy" (Fistful Of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly). Beside Leone himself the trilogy also made international stars out of the score's revolutionary composer, Morricone, and its star, Clint Eastwood, then only known as a hack American TV actor.Continue Reading
The Battle Of Algiers
Banned in France for five years, The Battle Of Algiers is the best pro-terrorism film ever made (yep, even better than V For Vendetta). Led by Ennio Morricone’s thrilling score, who wouldn’t root for those poor, but heroic Algerians in their struggle against the creepy militant imperialistic French? Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do to get all those pretentious cafes out of the Casbah. Told about ten years after the actual war, director Gillo Pontecorvo has crafted the definition of a "docu-drama," so well done it’s often mistaken for an actual documentary. Shot in grainy black & white in the actual locations of the real life events, Pontecorvo notes in the opening titles that not one foot of newsreel footage was used.
The Battle Of Algiers was released in the United States as the war in Vietnam was making many Americans sympathetic to the victims of colonialists. The film had a massive impact and scored awards all over the world. It would win the prestigious Silver Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival and strangely, for technical reasons, it would be nominated in 1967 for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and two years later it would get nominated for Best Director and for Best Screenplay (I’m not sure if any other film has received three Oscar nominations in two different years, two years apart).Continue Reading
It's fair to say that The Mission is an underrated film. Unlike Raging Bull or Blue Velvet it does not appear on many lists of the best films of the '80s (though any such list that does not have the Russian war flick Come And See on it is completely invalid anyway). The Mission doesn't even get mentioned in most Robert De Niro retrospectives. But this physically demanding, yet subtle role is one of De Niro's best. This was back when De Niro was still "Robert De Niro - all time great actor." Back in the good old days when he was still trying, before he became "That hammy actor from Meet The Parents and other comedies." The Mission was derided by most critics when it was released as overblown, as was De Niro’s performance (though the film did score a bunch of Oscar nominations thanks to a pricey ad campaign). But The Mission may actually be a lost gem that needs to be rediscovered and reevaluated; perhaps it could use the three-disc Criterion treatment.
Written by Robert Bolt (Lawrence Of Arabia), The Mission, at first glance, seems like a sweeping saga, but on closer inspection, it’s a small story with large mountains behind it. Jeremy Irons plays Gabriel, a Spanish Jesuit priest building a mission in the rain forest of South America in the 18th century. He is able to win over the natives with his groovy oboe playing. The natives become fully invested in the creation and running of the mission - it’s like a small co-op of social peace - as the natives are converted to Christians. Until a menacing slave trader, Mendoza (De Niro), arrives, ensnaring natives and selling them on the open market. Mendoza is a man with no moral center. However, later when he kills his brother (Aidan Quinn, sporting very '80s hair) in a jealous quarrel, Mendoza finds God and serves his penance by joining Gabriel’s order and hauling all his armor and weapons through the mountains. Moved by the native people's acceptance of him, he becomes a fierce protector of the mission and its people.Continue Reading
"Bobby Cooper" (Penn) is a wandering gambler whose car breaks down in some lost Southwestern town where he’s pulled into a web of lies, deceit, and murder.
Oliver Stone (W) directs one of his most re-watchable and entertaining films in a long and ambitious career. He creates a sinisterly fun Neo-Noir within the confines of a funky cowpoke town. The film maintains a strong mood throughout, with special attention paid to the details, and at a pace that never lets up.Continue Reading