Director: Nicolas Roeg
Writer: Terry Johnson
Cinematographer: Peter Hannan
Producer: Alexander Stuart and Jeremy Thomas
by Jon Cvack
I was looking through a list of the best chamber drama films (I can’t seem to find the link) and came across this one, which was ranked far higher in the subgenre's pantheon than is deserving. I’ve been working on a similar story setting and I was wondering how many films I’ve missed. Insignificance sounded weird - something about characters per the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Joe Dimaggio, Joe McCarthy, and Albert Einstein, who aren’t actually those characters, all meeting in a hotel room was enough to pique my interest.
The beginning starts out exciting, flashing across the many departments of a film set, clearly, but not specifically The Seven Year Itch, as Monroe is about to step above the train tunnel vent. This is edited against Einstein in his room doing math; Senator Joe McCarthy drinking in a bar before walking around town; Monroe later being driven around the city and buying toys; Joe Dimaggio at a different bar (or maybe the same as before), with some famous piece of Marilyn Monroe Art on the wall next to him. Soon they all end up at a hotel.
The first meeting involves McCarthy, who I didn’t even know was McCarthy until I paused the movie halfway through and looked it up on Wikipedia. I’m more embarrassed that I didn’t know it was Tony Curtis. He accuses Einstein of communistic ties, threatening to destroy the single copy of his work on the General Theory of Relativity, written in notes scattered across Einstein’s apartment. McCarthy then leaves, Monroe enters and explains his theories out loud, using the toys she purchased to demonstrate ideas on the speed of light and time travel. She’s about to sleep with Einstein for a reason I don’t understand and then Dimaggio comes to the motel and the two start fighting. The next day McCarthy wakes up Monroe, with Dimaggio gone and McCarthy thinking Monroe is a prostitute. He then punches her in the stomach and tosses Einstein’s papers out the window. Einstein returns and laughs about the papers, pulls out a watch, revealing it's 8:15; the time the Atom Bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, and the entire hotel room explodes, as though straight out of Sarah's hallucination in Terminator 2, except a longer sequence.
Here was a film I couldn’t wait to return to Roger Ebert for, a bit nervous that maybe I completely lost the point and was due for some embarrassing insight. Sure enough Ebert sums it up perfectly, “I am not quite sure, however, what the point of the movie is.” Neither am I. Allowing myself to speculate, I think there’s clearly an idealization of the past. A fascinating bit of trivia involved Theresa Russell who was reluctant to take on the role on account of much the image had been hijacked with popular culture, with Madonna embracing the persona right around the time of release. Even with that fear in mind, and although doing a pretty good job, there’s something about the dress and high pitched ditzy voice that just don’t feel genuine (even Michelle Williams had a tough time pulling it off in My Week with Marilyn). Still, by placing Russell into the epitome of Monroe-vian stereotypes, embracing the sexuality as much as the personality, we see a time when a woman like this was worshipped that cannot exist today - or even in the year 1950, as television was starting to make its splash and the movie screen was beginning to deal with significant competition.
The same goes for Einstein, who leaves us wondering when the next great mathematician will come along to make discoveries that will inspire a generation. And yet we remember that his involvement led to splitting the atom, and given what he provided, it’s strange that McCarthy would accuse him of communistic affiliations, or that Joe Dimaggio was there at all, though I guess he too is a piece of the past that many want to return to - not that there haven’t been great or greater ball players since. Then the world blows up. The end of a generation or something, or maybe the end of those idealized 1950s when everything seemed easier and better, caught by Happy Days whose run would extend midway through the 80s. While before it was all about sex, math, and baseball, now it’s about weapons that can destroy the entire world, and the parodying of those figures we once held in such high esteem, who serve as no more than symbols now. I could keep going, stretching what I think it all meant, I just don’t think any of it is all that interesting or adding up to anything special. It was a film that you knew would be slow to finish within the first ten minutes. It was such a great set up - imagining these characters all together, talking. Instead it dove in the opposite direction, avoiding substance in favor of abstraction, getting lost in it’s own exploration, never really returning back to anything.
BELOW: A very long apocalyptic sequence
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Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Writer: Dennis Shryack, Michael Blodgett, Daniel Petrie, Jr., Jim Cash, and Jack Epps, Jr.; story by
Cinematographer: Adam Greenberg
by Jon Cvack
I recall seeing this movie cover near as long as I can remember, with Tom Hanks next to that awesome and ugly dog (a Dogue de Bordeaux, FYI), and for all the animal buddy movies from throughout the decade (Beethoven, Dunston Checks In, Homeward Bound, etc.) and over twelve years of cinephilia I’ve just never been in the mood, thinking it’d be god awful, never giving Hanks the benefit of the doubt that his performance would carry this entire film, soaring above any silliness I expected.
The story takes place in a Steinbeck’s neck of the woods, in the fictional Cypress Beach in Monterey California near Cannery Row. This was particularly exciting to watch given that I was reading "Tortilla Flat" at the time, getting to witness what became of the area that Steinbeck had described countless times prior. Scott Turner (Tom Hanks) has grown bored with small town police work, getting ready to hit the big leagues over in Sacramento, preparing to hand the torch off to the supremely type-casted and everyone’s favorite cop Reginald Veljohnson playing Detective David Sutton. They meet up with an old fishermen, Amos Reed (John McIntire), who spouts off conspiracy theories about how the new ice factory next to his houseboat is participating in some shady dealings, which is further confirmed when a ziplock bag full of thousands of dollars washes up shore. It’s here that Hooch (Beasley the Dog) is introduced as a begrimed, incessantly drooling dog that loves to mess with Scott and his OCD tendencies. When Amos is found murdered, Scott decides to take in the animal, convinced that it might know something about the killing, discovering that while the dog is capable of destroying his entire home, he can also feel affection for it, aided by assistance from the local veterinarian Emily Carson (Mare Winningham), who quickly becomes Turner’s love interest.
The story is designed in such a way as to keep your focus, as though pulled out - and, from my recollection, mentioned - in the countless screenwriting books that promise you million dollar formulas. Everything seems to serve the purpose of getting these two opposing personality types together. And while most other performers would have allowed this move to fall flat, Hanks is such a powerhouse, capable of making even the most passing scene entertaining that for all the tropes and formulaic twists and turns, the story never stales. It’d almost be easier to list the scenes that didn’t work than for those that did, everything from having a stake out with Hooch in the car, improvising line after line of ball busting toward the dog, to his initial reaction upon getting back home while out shopping for dog food and toys, discovering his meticulously cleaned and finely furnished apartment completely destroyed - Hanks made me believe that he without a doubt to learned to care for and admire the dog. Hanks has that rare ability to make every character he plays feel completely real and pure, somehow balancing between charm and humor, as though he’s performing and speaking directly to us. We know where the story is going, and yet his performance alone is enough for the entire story to feel original and fresh.
However - and SPOILER ALERT - I was definitely not expecting the ending, in which Hooch takes a bullet for Turner, after discovering that the Police Chief Howard Hyde (Craig T. Nelson) has actually been in on the money-laundering, drug-smuggling, and whatever else was going on. Allegedly, two endings were shot - one in which Hooch died and the other where he survived. Test audiences were split and they decided to go with tragedy, to which Hanks attributed for the film’s mild success. I never would have expected the dog to die in this one. I wasn't emotional so much as blown away by Hanks' ability to display such emotion, where allegedly Hanks thought about how he’d never see Beasley again once the shoot was over in order to conjure up the tears.
The fact that all it took was realizing that he’d never see his friend again to elicit such a powerful reaction doesn’t just go to show the depth of Hanks’ talent, so much as his empathy and compassion as a person. Tom Hanks is considered by many to be one of the nicest celebrities in the world . He exudes kindness and appreciation for his fans; seemingly like a genuinely good man and exceptional friend. To see a character of his go through such pain after losing his best friend was incredible, especially as you snap out of the scene, realizing that while perhaps maybe not wiping the tears away, you were quiet and understood what he was going through - and then you realize you’re watching a buddy-dog comedy. Hanks is the type of actor that could never be replaced, as original as Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando, or any giant of cinema. As with any great artists, no matter the material, he connects to the individual viewer, transporting them to another world and immersing them within a believable reality, no matter how absurd the concept. I was expecting a really silly movie when I put this on. Instead, I was glad to be able to experience it later in life, with no association of youth; rather watching it with a fresh adult eye and having an even greater appreciation for what Hanks managed to achieve.
BELOW: Is he bad in any movies?
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Director: David S. Ward
Writer: David S. Ward
Cinematography: Reynaldo Villalobos
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1...
Having read a bit more into the game, I now understand the many references that would have otherwise gone completely over my head. Bull Durham is regarded as the baseball fan’s movie (quoted extensively in "Men at Work"), containing countless references and jokes that only the most diehard fans would pick up upon. For instance, in Major League, when Wild Thing is in the locker room, he sees one of the older pitchers with vaseline rubbed all over his arms and chest so that he can throw a spitball (which has an fascinating history if you read it, but basically is a ball with vaseline or any other lubricated substance on it that affects the throw by making it move erratically through the air - similar to the Knuckleball [again look up history or watch the Netflix Documentary] creating a danger to the batter), with the older pitcher admitting that he’s doing whatever it takes to keep his edge. Another player, with a beautiful face and who plans to take his career beyond the field, fails to make a play one game because he didn’t want to risk hurting himself, ruining his trade or non-player opportunities. Each player represents the stereotype that is often associated with the position, or that you could picture in your mind when reading about what the position demands. Tom Berenger epitomizes the concept, playing catcher Jake Taylor, where if you read about the catcher, is the most difficult defensive position on the team, and as one friend explained to me, basically controls everything on the field - from identifying weaknesses, calling the signals, or coaching the pitcher if they get into a rut. Jake is the Indians biggest advocate, wanting to win the series for no reason other than to prove Rachel Phelps wrong, inspiring the team to work together and win.
Two things don’t really make sense - one being that even though most of these guys were pulled from the minors, or straight from civilian life, they’re somehow able to perform vastly better when discovering that they were recruited solely to fail. I guess it’s a common underdog story, but given all of Phelps' admissions of deliberately choosing the worst players it was difficult to ingest. The larger issue, though, is that the Big Game in the movie is really just a one game qualifier in order to get into the playoffs, with the movie ending immediately after. Like any Big Game, it’s exciting to watch and knowing the mechanics of the game made it more enjoyable, but then you realize that it really isn’t that big of deal. Sure, it might have saved the team from moving to Miami, but it’s as though the story was cut prematurely when they realized that they couldn’t possibly make a 5 or 7-game series as exciting as a one off game. For that reason it works; it’s just that when it ends, I was left wondering “and then…?”
Jake Taylor’s other story is trying to get back his old athletic lover, Lynn Wilson (Rene Russo; who really is the best love interest in a sports movie [see Tin Cup]), who has gotten together with a rich businessmen and not all that inspired character. We know where it’s going, though again, given your preconception of a slapstick comedy, there are genuinely touching moments. Other scenes fall victim to the 80s misogyny often discovered in comedy films from the period, such as motivating the team to win by getting a life sized bust of Rachel Phelps, covered in leopard skin cut outs, which they’ll remove one by one for each game, until she’s finally wearing nothing but underwear, making you wonder if it was always just underwear, or if it was once meant for the more offensive gratuitous 80s boobage. You can’t help thinking of how that would have played in today’s world, and while it doesn’t take up too much of the focus, it’s still there, showing the film’s age.
It’s a fun summer time comedy, perfect to watch while reading and watching baseball, once that last game ends on a Sunday night.
BELOW: The greatest walk up song in movie history (also made me understand what a walk up song is)
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Director: David S. Ward
Writer: David S. Ward
Cinematography: Reynaldo Villalobos
by Jon Cvack
I think the major issue with this film is that it both sounds and is marketed to look like a slapstick comedy in the vein of Spy Hard or Police Academy, especially with Wild Thing’s (Charlie Sheen) jagged hair cut and the antics of a last place team who’re failing to hit, catch, or accomplish any simple task of baseball. Yet it’s actually a decent comedy-drama, balancing an underdog story with that of a freshly widowed and newly crowned Cleveland Indian owner Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton) who hopes to maintain the Indian’s long losing record, hoping for them to reach third place, which would put them in a better sales position, where hopefully they’ll get picked up by Miami and provide her with a heavy payout.
I’ve been reading a lot about baseball lately, and the more I explain what I’ve learned to people, the more I realize how much I don’t know about the game, which makes me read more, which leads me to discover I know even less than before (this is currently occurring after having finished George Will’s “Men at Work”, which is an incredible - and at times dense - breakdown of the game and its recent history). One thing I now understand is that being into baseball requires the same kind of mind as any connoisseur - whether art, films, literature, wine, whatever. Because even supreme talent is still batting below .400, there’s a determination to compare and contrast who was the very best, which extends beyond individual players and into the individual players' extensive stats. Pull up the stat acronyms for a pitcher and discover figures beyond your imagining. Every single accomplishment, error, or impact on the game is measured, quantified, and used to try and put together the best teams possible. As Moneyball demonstrated, each player has a position within that spectrum, balanced between how much they prevent runs and how many they gain.
It is here where it gets interesting, as I truly believe that anyone with a fascination in role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer - who might resent baseball, observing it as a stupid boring sport; something that the “bros” watch - would actually enjoy the game if they understood it. Baseball is a battle and the players are soldiers - each with the most detailed grade of skills possible to score and prevent as much as possible. The same goes for the flip side, with Sabermetric and Stat Geeks who might have no interest in either physical or video game RPGs, but might develop an interest when learning about the statistical strategy. Nevertheless, I would argue that it’s more impressive deal that the RPG gamers don’t like baseball, as it’s a live example of what they love to imagine. If D&D battles came to life, people would want to watch them. This is what baseball is providing, but with less fantastical elements (though that’s also debatable given the fantasy league). At the end of the day it’s all up to chance - whether the role of the dice, or the unknown unknowns of the professional game.
Continued with Part 2...
BELOW: Put some snot on that spitball
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Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, and Masato Ide
Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda, and Asakazu Nakai
by Jon Cvack
Having only seen this movie twice, I still feel ill-equipped to offer anything beyond superficial insights. The movie contains such a vast amount of depth and humanity, based upon director Akira Kurosawa’s lifetime of education and filmmaking that I’m certain to only graze the surface. Like most of history’s greatest films, this is another that failed to receive the accolades it deserved, having been completed past the Cannes deadline, instead premiering at the Tokyo International Film Festival, which Kurosawa failed to attend. As a result, Japan refused to enter the film as a nominee for Best Foreign Film Academy Awards, and while it was still recognized for directing, costume design (which it won), cinematography, and art direction, it would have likely brought home the statue for Japan.
Ignorant of Kurosawa’s history, I was stunned to learn that by the 1970s, he was considered old fashioned and struggling to get his films financed. Although between 1948 and 1965 he made over seventeen of his finest films. Yet between the periods of 1965 and 1993 he only made seven(!) pictures. Financing fell through for many, he was once attached to direct Tora! Tora! Tora! (‘70) and was quickly pulled from the project when his perfectionism bordered on “insanity”. Of course, one wonders how much better the film could’ve been if he remained at the helm. A year after he finally got his first film in six years completed, Dodesukaden ('70), which later flopped, Kurosawa attempted suicide by slitting his wrists, believing his career over and his best years long behind him.
Thus, Roger Ebert was famous for declaring that Ran was as much about Kurosawa’s life as it was an adaptation from "King Lear". In fact, while the two share many traits, the film’s are significantly different, with Ran focusing more on Hidetora’s comeuppance for a lifetime of warfare, murder, and greed, while Lear focused more on the king’s general foolishness. Nevertheless, the story of a maddened King and his jester, wandering around their former empire, is retained, with Tatsuya Nakadai as Lord Hidetora offering one of the great performances of the decade.
The story begins with Hidetora having a dream that tells him he must divide up his kingdom to his three sons Taro (Akira Terao) , Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu), with the eldest Taro receiving the prestigious first castle, and Taro and Saburo accepting the second and third. Hidetora believes that so long as they stick together they will remain strong. He hands around a single arrow which is easy to break, but when bundled together it’s impossible. Of course, Saburo puts the bundle against his shin, putting a bit more power behind the attempt, foreshadowing his alliance with warlord Fujimaki (Hitoshi Ueki), who’ll join forces to battle the other brothers. His spoiled son’s immediate dissent and dissatisfaction of Hidetora’s decision indicates where it’s going. In no way is there going to be a peaceful alliance between the three, not so long as the innate desire for power and prestige exists.
BELOW: A short clip of the castle attack, providing a decent glimpse into the film's beauty (now just imagine it on a big screen in 4k)
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Director: John Irvin
Writer: James Carabatsos
Cinematographer: Peter MacDonald
by Jon Cvack
John Irvin needs to make a war film about Iraq. After watching his highly underrated When Trumpets Fade I was thrilled to check out Hamburger Hill. When you see Best of Vietnam War lists you often get the classics - Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket. I’ve seen Hamburger Hill on a few lists, yet it never seemed nearly as revered. This isn’t to say that it’s equal to Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket, though it’s vastly superior to Platoon.
Similar to When Trumpets Fade, the story contains countless layers of military life, focusing primarily on the relationships between the soldiers, though extending to race relations and many of Vietnam’s futile missions. We follow three new recruits who are shipped to the front lines: Beletsky (Tim Quill), Langiulli (Anthony Barrile), and Washburn (Don Cheadle), Bienstock (Tommy Swerdlow), and Galvan (Michael A. Nickles), each with their own personalities, all determined to stay alive. They’re led by Squad Leader Adam Frantz (Dylan McDermott), who while watching them messing around, admonishes that while his duty is to try and keep them alive, they’re equally responsible for his life. It’s a frightening moment of reality. Frantz doesn’t want them to die because it’d require him to have to train a whole new crop of soldiers, while their negligence will increase the chance of his own death. During a brief explanation on how to properly brush their teeth, medic Abraham ‘Doc’ Johnson (Courtney B. Vance) who on takes the prescient look of a New York hipster, scolds one of the FNGs (‘Fucking New Guys’) as they fail to brush for as long as ordered. Johnson uses the moment as an example of how to end up dead - orders are carried out to keep soldiers alive, plain and simple, no matter if it’s brushing your teeth to avoid decay or during battle.
The Platoon is led by Sergeant Dennis Worcester, played by the excellent and lately absent Steven Weber of Wings fame who, no matter the role, is able to convey hilarious sarcasm. Weber and Frantz are close, hitting up the local brothel, getting drunk and trying their best to stay alive no matter the overwhelming odds. They seem to serve as the remaining soldiers from their own class of fresh recruits, most who have been KIA. Amidst the strict discipline is the camaraderie between men, which counter to Platoon, isn’t riddled with grandiloquent, officious commanders and subservient men, but rather with realistic relationships (which isn’t to say Platoon doesn’t have its moments - such as the first time Taylor smokes weed - so much as that many of the character feel more like exaggerations than real people).
Similar to When Trumpets Fade, the platoon is commanded to take Hill 937, which served little strategic significance and would later get abandoned once captured, much to great public and military criticism given the 72 killed and 372 wounded. John Irvin’s style was similar to what Spielberg would adopt with Saving Private Ryan, in having the men actually participate in boot camp in order to build authentic camaraderie, along with shooting in the Philippines which was undergoing its own war, causing some of the production to face sniper fire while en route to set. During the taking of the hill, Irvin set fire to countless tires in order to create a thick haze of black smoke, shooting in the rain and generating as much mud as possible to ensure the most authentic recreation possible, which was celebrated by many Hamburger Hill veterans
Once the Battle of Hill 937 began, the futility of war followed. We weren’t sure what the point of their mission was, other than to keep pushing up the hill, doing your best to keep yourself and the man next to you alive. Watching this film and knowing how the entire would eventually end makes you furious. To undergo such conditions, all for such little significance, costing as many lives as it did, seems to reflect the entire war. I don’t know much about military tactics, but I do know that having a high point advantage while an enemy approaches from below is one of the most favorable in battle. It makes sense - while you get fortify yourself, the enemy is forced to run up a hill, with no clue as to where the fire is exactly coming from.
While Platoon is very much an anti-war film, Hamburger Hills shows the hypocrisy of criticizing the soldiers who chose to honor their country’s demands. The men might not have wanted to go, or might have enlisted to at least ensure they had a choice over what they did, and yet the stateside criticism was horrendous. In one heart wrenching scene, Bienstock receives a "Dear John" letter from his girlfriend who met a new guy that told her it’s immoral for her to support him. In another emotional scene Sergeant Worcester recalls his recent leave home where he faced severe criticism from the community, leading to the collapse of his marriage. Later he received calls from a good friend, who was driven to an emotional breakdown when college students harassed him about his son who was killed in Battle of la Drang. Irvin's horrific portrayal of the conditions these soldiers were forced to live in makes the scene all the more bitter. As his friends are dying all around him, as he’s fighting for his own life, with limited food and supplies, wet socks, and nowhere to sleep, he’s told that all he’s doing is immoral. I can’t imagine what effect that must have had.
At least in World War II the soldiers were told they were heroes. In Vietnam, there was a very uneasy and tragic sentiment that, beyond one’s family, no one really cared or supported them. Irvin demonstrates that regardless of the politics of war, the soldier is not the one responsible. There is no reason to pass judgment on their actions. They are heroes because they are willing to do what their country orders them to do, and because they’re most concerned with keeping the man next to them alive. To think that privileged college kids would pass judgment makes me furious. I don’t think anyone wanted to be there, but there was no other option. As other films such as The Hurt Locker and American Sniper would explore, for many of the soldiers, it wasn’t about the mission, so much as lending their expertise and experience to save lives.
This film opened to the #5 slot at the box office, only taking in about $13.5 million. Compare this to Platoon, which opened at #1 and $138.5 million dollars. Platoon premiered on December 19, 1986, going wide on February 7, 1987, placing it in perfect Oscar Position (of which it’d take Best Picture, amongst others). Hamburger Hill rolled out in that dead movie month of August 28, 1987, a bit too early for awards fair, and I assume, similar to The Thin Red Line, was drowned out by Platoon’s success. I think it’s a much better film and one of the greatest Vietnam movies of all time.
BELOW: Steve Weber needs to make a comeback
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writers: Terry Gilliam & Michael Palin
Cinematographer: Peter Biziou
by David Duprey
It was the giant. That is the answer to what set off a long span of creativity within myself when I was young, the beast’s slow, looming, arrival and its imposing presence that utterly shifted the direction of my imagination. That and the Ogre. And the dangling cages. And, well, all of it, truly. Terry Gilliam’s endlessly fascinating, metaphorical fantasy adventure remains one of the most affecting movie experiences of what can best be described as my film addiction, and one that still keeps secrets waiting to be revealed.
The story centers on a boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock; in his only film appearance) who lives in the heart of England, awash in commercialism and vapid material wants. His parents, while not abusive, are neglectful as such, spending their time sitting on plastic-covered furniture watching banal TV programs that advertise futuristic kitchens and games shows that put people in absurd predicaments (with host Jim Broadbent). They are complacent members in the modern machine.
An avid reader of history, Kevin sits well away from the influence of the screen and goes to bed one night only to find a knight on a white horse bursting from his wardrobe, riding off into the woods that have suddenly appeared in his bedroom. The next night, it gets even more peculiar when a group of dwarves arrive carrying a large map, running from The Supreme Being (Ralph Richardson). The map is no ordinary map though, as it is reveals time portals throughout the universe and the dwarves, who work for and have recently been demoted by the Being, have stolen it to travel about time and get rich. The problem is, their actions have drawn the attention of Evil (David Warner), who sets his minions out to steal the map for himself and reset history in his own name.
Mixing basic creationist themes with science-fiction fantasy, Time Bandits is a clever balance between children’s story-telling with some decidedly adult inclinations. Through a series of historical and legend-inspired vignettes, we travel about time with the gang, taking part in well-known scenes of the past a full thirteen years before Forrest Gump did. Written by Gilliam and Michael Palin, who also appears with other Monty Python member John Cleese (a quick note is to mention how each member of the Monty Python troupe is said to be represented by one of the dwarves), the story is ostensibly about a boy and his dreams but touches on a number of philosophical directions, leading to an ending that is both ambiguous but with purpose. A kid’s movie by design, it appeals to them because of its vision, but grows with them as a tale rich with unanswered questions that beg for one to fill in the gaps.
From the opening moments in Kevin’s room, filled with clues as to his coming adventures, we are meant to consider the parallels between dreaming and reality, yet Gilliam and Palin aren’t just content with drawing a single line of which side to choose. As the stories within the film unwind, we see the boy's growth as well as sharp jabs at the world he lives in, with nearly every character and situation serving as commentary on his life at home.
In Gilliam’s uniquely blended vision of real and imagination, we witness scenes that are layered in frights and laughs, such as the introduction of Evil, played with menacing fun by Warner. As a child, Evil’s quick undoing of his minions, who constantly question his validity, are objectively gruesome and yet there is great humor to it as well, something that Gilliam masters throughout. The gritty, earthy feel to it all makes every frame feel authentic, even as it spirals into the fantastical.
For adults, the movie is a criticism of consumerism, with the gang in the film eventually deceived by Evil to pursue “The Most Fabulous Object in the World.” This leads the narrow-sighted thieves along a path of hurdles that could and should stop them, but in their thirst for something no one else has, manage to trek ever on, eventually finding themselves suspended in cages over oblivion; another terrific visual metaphor. What happens next, I’ll leave for you to discover.
With that said, it is a challenging ending, one that for children will seem funny and clever and perfectly free of questions, but for everyone else, opens a box of mystery that, for people like me, inspire great conversations about possibilities. Who is that Firefighter? What really happens to Kevin’s parents? What will become of Kevin? And many more.
And so it brings me back to the giant. At one point in the film, the dwarves and Kevin find themselves atop the bald head of a giant who has emerged from the ocean, themselves on a wooden sailing ship. Notice how Gilliam frames the towering figure (played by Ian Muir), which lends him great majesty while generating an amazing sense of height and presence. Even now, it is a stirring sequence that, in an age of incredible CGI, stands far above it. This is the greatest achievement of Time Bandits, a film that, much like its premise might allow, has become timeless. It’s time to watch it again.
BELOW: The Supreme Being explaining why Evil exists
Director: John Huston
Writer: Tony Huston; based upon "The Dead" by James Joyce
Cinematographer: Fred Murphy
by Jon Cvack
I checked out James Joyce’s story before visiting the film. My aunt had gifted me a version that included the story and then four essays focusing on historical and psychological analysis, deconstruction, and feminist theory. Learning that many consider "The Dead" one of the finest short stories written in the English language, and after finishing Ulysses and failing to understand more than a few pages out of the 750 and presently trying to wade through Finnegan's Wake (and having the most frustrating reading experience of my life), I was excited to check out something a bit more accessible. It’s a solid story, involving a dinner party between old friends, each with rich personality, ranging from alcoholism to artistic talent to supreme intelligence. It’s a snowy night and Joyce splices in pop culture, political, historical, and cultural references. For anyone that’s a critic of films that include direct modern cultural references, you needn’t point to the finger at Tarantino, but rather to Joyce, as the text is filled with so many references of the time that the footnotes take up a David Foster Wallace portion of the book.
The supplementary critical essays ranged from fascinating to academically absurd - the type of analysis that makes you wonder who reads it beyond those who would write equally dense pieces. We learn about the political and social environment in Ireland during the time, as it was struggling with complete severance from the UK, discussing a return to Native Gaelic in order to preserve its identity, as expressed by Molly Ivors. We learn that the snow must have represented the vast wasteland and hopelessness experienced by Joyce during the time, who might have placed part himself into main character Gabriel Conroy (played by Donal McCann in the film), looking out into the future of his country and remaining uncertain over its future. We learn that the women were treated as inferior, with Kate and Julia Morkan having little to say about culture and functioning as superficial hostesses rather than contributing substantially to the dialogue.
The book had mentioned John Huston’s adaptation, specifically it’s concluding montage as the snow is falling. It was Huston’s last film after a career that spanned 46 years, beginning with The Maltese Falcon (1941), going on to provide us The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), The African Queen (1951), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), with many great films, concluding with The Dead, in which he died shortly after. The closing moment, as Gretta Conroy recounts the story of her past love in youth, who died from tuberculosis, shortly after he journeyed through the cold snow to visit Gretta one night, of which the memory was brought on by a song sung at the party, is something I found myself unable to forget and grew excited to see come to life. There’s an intimacy with the story, as we see how everyone is willing to let loose a bit, enjoy some drinks, good food, great discussion, and lifelong friendships all while a melancholy extends throughout the story. I assume John Huston knew that his life was coming to an end, and that this film would likely be his last; that he too would be staring out into the cold snow, not knowing what was next, only that the uncertainty was overwhelming and smothering to the mind.
The film made me recall those rare moments when all the friends you hope to gather at a party are finally able to arrive. It occurs only once across years, no matter how hard people try. There’s always the one straggler that you wish could have made it. In those rare moments you spend a few moments reflecting on past memories, and move on to discussing the present and future. You talk about jobs and prospects; films, shows, books, and new ones to come; you discover how some relationships have evolved, others have remained, and a few have ended. The night’s always end far too quickly, and there’s a melancholy at the end, as you wonder when, if ever, you’ll all assemble again, knowing that it’ll take years more, and who knows what might happen.
It’s captured so perfectly by the closing line by Joyce, as Gabriel stares out into the cold snow, “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Gabriel wonders if he ever loved Gretta as much as the boy she mentions, causing him to reassess his life and all he experienced. I think Huston, having such a monumental body of work, wondered if it was all worth it; if he got all he wanted out of life; if he too could have done better, or something more. He was one of the rare directors who transitioned to color film with grace, never allowing his style to age, as happened to many others from the classical period. He accomplished the rare feat of adapting one of the most revered stories in literature, and doing so with such compliment. The film's not better, it’s supplemental. He immersed us within an environment that Joyce brought to life. At only sixty pages, the story feels so real. Huston puts images to those words, and I’d bet the closing images would have made Joyce proud. You feel cold while reading the story and watching the film, wanting to sit next to a fire with some bourbon and those you love. For two giants to elicit such a reaction is incredible. I loved it.
BELOW: The beautiful finale, both for the film and for Huston. Rarely does such a revered moment from a book adapt so well to the screen
Director: Philip Kaufman
Writer: Jean-Claude Carrière and Philip Kaufman
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
by Jon Cvack
I had read Milas Kundera’s book about a month before checking out the film. I’d known about the novel for years. I was aware that it dealt with ideas that Nietzsche explored, and having read all of Nietzsche's work - with the exception of his posthumous "The Will to Power" - was thrilled at seeing them adapted into a narrative. I was hoping it’d read as well as other philosophical literature, per Camus, Dostoyevsky, or Sartre. Unfortunately, I was a bit bored, failing to understand what made the book so popular, or what exactly it was exploring. I was hoping the movie would close up the loose ends. Instead, I was left thinking the movie was far greater than the book, later learning that Kundera despised the movie so much that he refused another adaptation of any of his novels, leaving me really confused.
Visiting the Wikipedia page, I see that the book explores Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal state of recurrence, in which all that is to come has already come before.* This means a person should take full advantage of the life they’re living, and in the novel’s case, and Tomas in particular (Daniel Day Lewis), this means a life of sex and love that add lightness to life, which adversely impacts those he gets involved with, in this case two women, creating an unbearable struggle on their end. Get it?
Tomas is a doctor and womanizer, currently involved with the artist Tereza (Lena Olin) who’s as sexy as they come, in addition to numerous other woman he demands remove their clothe moments aftervmeeting them; that is, until he takes a meeting in the country and meets a barmaid, Sabina (Juliette Brioche), who’s reading "Anna Karenina", making her more intellectual and therefore more appealing. Tomas is unable to control himself, leading the three to enter into an epic love triangle, where no one provides any ultimatums, though constantly express their jealousy.
It was Lewis’s involvement in the film that really got me excited to check out the three hour story. Given the backdrop of the Soviet’s invasion of Hungary I was expecting an epic film per the likes of 1900 or Dr. Zhivago. Let me go out on a limb and assume that Tereza represents Hungary under Soviet control - sexy, powerful, confident, while Sabina is an independent Hungary - sensitive, precarious, sentimental. I just find this symbolism uninspired.
The film is good, beautifully shot by Sven Nykvist. Daniel Day’s performance is not amongst his most memorable, but it didn’t need to be. Once again I had no doubts that he was a Hungarian doctor during the Soviet expansion, as he embodied the man’s spirit, allowing us to watch his uncontrollable urges, both with women and in protest against the Soviets, portraying a genuine conflict between acquiescing to the regime and toward his love for Sabina.
Yet somehow the story never feels like it quite connects. We see Tomas eventually attempt to escape to the country with Sabina after he published a damning political editorial, causing him to lose his job at the hospital. We later learn that both he and Sabrina died in a random car accident, by which point Tereza had run off to the states where she learns of their deaths later on. The sporadic nature of Tomas and Sabina’s demise is tragic; I just don’t know what I was suppose to take from it. In the end, Tomas might have come around to vowing complete commitment to Sabina, who put up with his philandering far longer than any partner should’ve. It seems he only changed because of circumstance - no longer able to use his confidence as doctor to demand women remove their clothes. So did he really change, humbled by their rustication, or did he simply have few other options?
Even after reading numerous essays, I still don’t find anything all that deep about this story. It seems to take a superficial understandings of Nietzsche and politics and create the illusion of profundity. The movie is worth checking out for the performances, but for a book that had achieved cult status ever since I first heard about it in college, I was disappointed. I suppose I’ll just have to check out another from Kundera.
*Kundera doesn’t agree with the eternal state of recurrence.
BELOW: One of about a dozen [really good scenes] about jealousy
Director: Andrzej Wajda
Writer: ,Jean-Claude Carrière; collaborating with Andrzej Wajda, Agnieszka Holland, Bolesław Michałek, and Jacek Gąsiorowski
Cinematographer: Igor Luther
by Tory Maddox
I have a fairly superficial understanding of the French Revolution. I know there were tens of thousands of beheadings, the storming of Bastille, and Robespierre was the face of the cause. I had never heard of Danton and although I enjoyed the film it’s much advised that you check out the wikipedia page before watching (or better, take the free Coursera course), as I imagine it’ll create a much richer viewing. Allow me to summarize what I learned (mostly read from wikipedia).
Many historians consider Danton the chief proponent in overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the First French Republic. He has been accused of orchestrating the September Massacres, in which thousands of French prisoners were killed for fear that they’d join the monarchist forces in fighting against the revolution. He was Minister of Justice for the National Convention, which sought to reform the government. He supported the beheading Louis XVI, and eventually co-created a Revolutionary Tribunal that stripped the weapons from many in the masses in order to avoid any backlash for the September Massacres. The actual power of the government resided in the Committee of Public Safety, which had dictatorial powers that Danton supported and helped create, though he never held office at the CPS.
Opposite the Committee of Public Safety was the French National Convention that exerted further authority over the state, soon resulting in the Reign of Terror that would claim the lives of over 40,000 French Citizens. This led to the rise of political party The Montagnards, with Danton as their most vocal supporter. Danton hoped to move the Revolutionary cause back to a more moderate stance in order to appease possible foreign invaders. This put the French Convention at even heavier odds against the Committee of Public Safety (led by Robespierre), eventually pushing Danton into a corner as he had to defend his more moderate stance against the extremism of the CPS.
After various financial corruption and bribery accusations while Danton was attempting diplomacy with Sweden, he was arrested by the Committee with various other members. Because of Robespierre’s supreme dictatorial powers he was denied a fair trial, unable to even defend themselves in court, or to have witnesses testify on their behalf. Danton and the others were found guilty without even being present in court. They were sentenced to the guillotine and Danton was beheaded, his last words being “Don’t forget to show my head to the people. It’s well worth seeing.”
Coincidentally, as Danton attempted to warn, the government found Robespierre's pretensions disagreeable, and only three months later, he was also beheaded.
The film follows Danton (Gerard Depardieu) as he’s about to be imprisoned. For any fan of Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, here’s a film for you. It’s gritty and real, with an ability to keep the narrative grounded rather than overly dramatic. Danton and his compatriots laugh and remain gregarious no matter the consequences of what they’re facing.
There’s an interesting exploration of ego and its operation within a revolutionary capacity. As the nation was fearing invasion and a complete failure of the cause, knowing that they were ushering in the modern era of democracy as their allies across the seas in American had done, you could feel both the electricity and the danger. The person who led the nation one day could just as easily have everything turned against him, beheaded the next. There are people lying in the streets, waking up, ready to do whatever the day brings, knowing they’re part of something special, similar to our own Founding Fathers. Except it’s the chaos and mass murdering that operates in the background that makes it so eerie.
BELOW: Robespierre's (Wojciech Pszoniak) powerful speech, denouncing his old friend Danton
Thoughts on films, old and new
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