Rob and Roger #3: Reviewing Ebert’s “The Great Movies”

The Great Movies

Film critic Roger Ebert‘s book “The Great Movies” collects his essays on one hundred movies. As Ebert says “they are not “the” 100 greatest films of all time, because all lists of great movies are a foolish attempt to codify works which must stand alone. But it’s fair to say: If you want to make a tour of the landmarks of the first century of cinema, start here.”In addition to the book which collects a selection of one hundred essays, the complete and on-going series of essays can be found online at Ebert’s website (direct link).

Though this site is called “The Cinephile” I must admit I have yet to catch up with a number of these great movies. I plan to correct this and will regularly schedule a viewings of the movies until I have seen (or re-seen in some cases) all one hundred movies. I plan to view them in alphabetical order, as they are presented in the book, however there will be exceptions.

The 400 Blows

Francois Truffaut was a film critic before becoming a film maker. I have previously been aware of him through his role in Steven Spielbergs Close Encounters of the Third Kind (where he plays a French scientist investigating UFO related incidents) and his views on anti-war films (he is reported to have said there can be no such thing as an anti-war film).

Truffauts first feature length film is a semi-autobiograpical look at an adolescent growing up in Paris named Antoine Doinel as he struggles with authority and his place in society.

What struck me about this film were it’s long takes, it’s striking imagery which mixes styles artfully (a particularly terrific tracking shot closes the film), and it’s careful structure that draws the viewer in. At times the film feels naturalistic but it is also has all the precision and style of a hollywood studio film.

These aspects of the film deserve a great deal of praise and I enjoyed it however I would not say I was engaged by the film to a degree that would see it become one of my personal favorites. Reading Ebert’s essay I do not feel it particularly illuminates for me why this film should be considered one of the true greats.

Ebert states it is “one of the most intensely touching stories ever made about a young adolescent”. I felt the film does present realistic adolescent characters and the story is quite tragic however I was not moved to the extent that Ebert appears to have been.

Ebert goes on to discuss the joyous moments of the film and mentions a sequence in which Antoine and his family go to the movies. It is the one time the family unit appear to be happy together. Knowing Franciois Truffaut was a film critic prior to moving into writing and directing his own films one can see this sequence demonstrates his love of film and it’s power.

Certainly, a film well worth seeing and with much to reccomend it but not one that will enter my personal list of favorites.

Interestingly the character of Antoine Doinel is revisited a number of times by Truffaut, I am curious to continue his story and see how the later films develop the character further.

Last Year At Marienbad

July 2011 saw the British Film Institute present a retrospective of the work of director Alain Resnais which included Last Year At Marienbad. It makes for an interesting companion piece to The 400 Blows. Both directors were working in a time of experimentation with the French “New Wave” movement underway (though Resnais did not consider himself a part of this movement).

This is a film that could stand in for many peoples definition of “art film” or even “pretentious French cinema”. It pursues a very deliberate style with dream like imagery and narrative. Scenes, dialogue, and locations recur often. Piecing together a straightforward plot is difficult with a number of elements coming in and out of focus and situations repeating in new ways.

I struggled to decide whether I actually liked this film. At times the style was too much and danced dangerously close to silliness. It felt like a parody of a pretentious art film. At other times however I found the imagery to be stunning and the narrative quite thought provoking. I devised a number of pontential themes and plots which I felt may be playing out though these would often be discarded as a subsequent scene would take another tangent. 

Ebert says of the story, “one would not want to know the answer to this mystery. Storybooks with happy endings are for children. Adults know that stories keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, on and on until that end that no story can evade.” It is not a happy ending that I require, other films which appear to lack coherency (for example Mulholland Drive) often succeed by drawing the viewer into the atmosphere and working so well on an individual scene basis that the whole seems less important than it’s parts but I not convinved that Last Year at Marienbad does this.

What story there is is summarised as: “In.. [a] chateau are many guests–elegant, expensively dressed, impassive. We are concerned with three of them: “A” (Delphine Seyrig), a beautiful woman. “X” (Giorgio Albertazzi), with movie-idol good looks, who insists they met last year and arranged to meet again this year. And “M” (Sascha Pitoeff), who may be A’s husband or lover, but certainly exercises authority over her.” And so we follow the interaction of these three characters, predominantly X and A.

As I have said, the imagery can be striking and many scenes are a pleasure to watch. At times I was drawn in to the film but too often I was left looking for something of interest in the story. I believe The 400 Blows is the more successful of the two films as I found it more engaging from a story perspective while also offering visual interest and thematic concerns which provoke thoughtful reflection.

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Thor

By my count Thor is the 21st feature film released since 2000 based on the comic book characters published by Marvel. Early efforts included the Blade trilogy, Spiderman, and X-men which which met with great success. More recent adaptations have sparked an ambitious plan to tie together the characters of The Avengers through a series of films including Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. With Iron Man 2 the company went into overdrive with this idea, coordinating a series of cameos and additional scenes in an effort to build back story and excitement. I feel Iron Man 2 was hurt by these scenes as they slowed the film and were a distraction. I also feel that while the earlier efforts allowed for filmmakers and studios to bring something of their own sensibilities and perspective to the material more recent outings appear to have been more controlled by the Marvel team and as a result I think they have started to lack individualism. The films have started to feel very similar to one another. Ultimately this may lead to a payoff in the upcoming Avengers film that makes it all worthwhile though I struggle to convince myself that this will be the case.

Thor arrives with an interesting director in Kenneth Branagh, better known for adapting Shakespeare for the screen than producing blockbuster Hollywood films, and an Oscar winning actress in Natalie Portman. Probably one of the lesser known characters in the Marvel stable Thor also has one of the most unusual and difficult to adapt backstories. Based on Norse mythology Thor is a god like being living in a realm called Asgard.

A surprisingly large portion of the film takes place in Asgard and it is to the films credit that these scenes work reasonably. While Asgard does not feel like a completely realised place it holds up sufficiently well for the faux-Shakespearean drama to be compelling. It helps too that the supporting roles are filled with some interesting actors who embrace the tone of the material.

Thor’s rash decision making leads to an argument with his father the result of which is banishment to Earth. Scenes taking place on Earth are mostly of the fish out of water variey with Thor bumbling about with comedic results. The jokes work pretty well and are a relief from the bombast of Asgard.

Whilst all of these elements work well enough they never really gel to a sufficiently satisfying degree. The climatic scenes on Earth lack much excitement as the plot reaches a fairly predictable conclusion. A fight against a CGI creature fails to be particularly exciting. Overall there is just enough that works to save Thor from failure and we have certainly seen worse Super Hero outings. It gets a mild recommendation.

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The Shield

Over the last few weeks I have been catching up with the TV series The Shield. The show first aired in 2002 so I am certainly a few years late but I suppose it is better to be late than never.

I do recall the hype machine in 2002 for this show. Star Michael Chiklis won an Emmy and the shows graphic visuals caused a stir. It was one of the early cable shows to demonstrate what could be accomplished on tv when writers/producers were given additional creative freedom. Despite the early positive response I never actually sat down and started watching.

Recently however I picked up the first season DVD set and found it addictive viewing, racing through those opening episodes and pushing on through seasons two and three is short order (a few weeks only). The plot moves quickly through the seasons with spectacular plot twists liberally sprinkled throughout. Even the pilot ends with a shocking event that would have anyone reaching for the remote to watch “just one more…” Admittedly the twists and turns sometimes stretch credulity but they are so much fun you hardly notice, happy to be along for the ride.

I have seen debates rage over the relative merits of The Shield vs The Wire, another television series centring on working Police. Having now watched a roughly equivalent amount of both series I think it is a difficult to comparison to make. They apporach their subject matter in quite distinct ways. If I had to break it down very basically I would say The Wire is about character while The Shield is all about plot. By the end of a season of The Wire I feel as though I have an understanding of a community and the views of a number of people in that community. It builds over the course of a season and the actions build from the characters. I can’t claim the same for The Shield where the characters feel more at the mercy of the plot which is interested in maintaining consistent action beats.

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Source Code

When Moon hit cinemas it was something of a surprise. A science fiction film with the special effects, style, and intelligence of the great 70s films of the genre. Director Duncan Jones certainly made an impression with this, his first feature, and while many reported on the novelty of his parentage (Jones is the son of rock legend David Bowie) it was his film making skills that deserved discussion. It was therefore with some trepidation that I approached his follow up effort to that break through. Frequently filmmakers sophmore efforts pale in comparison to their debuts, especially when their debut is as successful as Moon. Could Jone’s capture magic a second time? The trailers did not bode well, looking like a fairly standard studio picture of middling impact. Trailers are often a poor reflection of their product however so I tried to keep an open mind.

Source Code sees Jones returning to the science fiction genre which served him so well with Moon but this time the tale may prove more approachable to mainstream audiences as tension is matched with action and romance. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a US military pilot serving in Afghanistan who awakes suddenly on a train. A woman opposite starts to talk to him as though they’ve known each other for years but he doesn’t recognise her. Trying to piece together what has happened as the train races to it’s destination, a gleaming and almost exotic Chicago, Gyllenhaals world is thrown for another loop when the train explodes and he awakes once again in unusual circumstances.

How and why Gyllenhaal is on the train is the mystery of Source Code. It’s a mystery that proves entertaining, the tension ratcheting with each remarkable discolsure. Opening to a Hermann-esque score and a hitchcockian conceit Source Code exudes style and hits the ground running developing from this mystery into a science fiction story that raises ethical and intellectual questions (as the best science fiction does) whilst never slowing down. Jake Gyllenhaal provides a likeable leading man, able to convince us that this is a guy capable of the action as well as the romance required. Each of the characters in his carriage is sketched briefly but with sufficient clarity to drive the plot forward in a meaningful way. Michelle Monaghan plays Gyllenhaals romantic interest and has little to hang her performance on but does well enough. Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wrights characters were less successful for me, seemingly channeling the ghosts of B-movies past (Wright playing at the mad scientist with his crutch and ruthlessness).

The pace never lets up meaning the audience don’t have time to dwell on the plots more questionable elements (at one point a character is essentially told the science would be too complex to explain and understand). Whenever there is a break in action or romance the plot escalates the tension with additional information or a twist in the situation. Leaving aside the science involved and the actions required for Gyllenhaals involvement from a military perspective I found myself questioning the morality of the romance. We are asked to invest in a romantic plot that I thought involved Gyllenhaal’s character taking advantage of circumstances in a way that could be distasteful on reflection. A lot depends on your interpretation of the films message regarding fate vs free will.

The emotional beats of the characters largely works well however. Given the pace and plot the film does a surprisingly good job of rounding out Gyllenhaals character, giving him an arc that proves satisfying.

The film’s conclusion ran slightly counter to my expectations and left me questioning some of what I had seen. I appreciated some of the questions raised by the final scenes and it certainly left me thinking about all I had seen I am not convinced an earlier climax may not have provided a more satisfying conclusion.

Overall the film provides fantastic entertainment and is one of the better science fiction films of recent times. While it doesn’t reach the heights achieved by Moon it is highly recommended.

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Boy

Boy is a New Zealand film that broke local box office records but appears to be relatively unknown overseas, at least for now. This is disappointing as it is one of the best films to emerge from the nation. Telling the story of a boy named Boy the film is set in the mid eighties. Boy lives in small town New Zealand with his many siblings, raised by his grandmother he daydreams of his fathers adventures which are keeping him from home. When Boy’s father does return the reunion is initially a happy one however things change as ulterior motives gradually surface and Boy is forced to face some difficult realities.
While the film is a comedy with large laughs throughout it weaves in social commentary and dramatic turns fairly well leaving the audience with a touching ending that is satisfying without providing simplistic anwsers to the questions it has raised.
Boy and his brother, Rocky, daydream and fantasize about their lives which allows the film flights of fantasy that recall the quirkiness and inventiveness of Garth Jennings’ Son of Rambow or Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and The Life Aquatic.
As a New Zealand film I believe it does a good job of representing aspects of the country and it’s culture whilst remaining accessible to all audiences. I hope to see it make more of an impression internationally in the future.
Included with the DVD edition of the film that I viewed is the Oscar nominated short film “Two Cars, One Night”. One can see the commonalities between the shot and Boy though they provide altogether different experiences.
You can also spot writer/driector/actor Taika Waititi in the trailer for this years summr blockbuster The Green Lantern playing a friend to Ryan Reynold’s character (it’s perhaps the only reason to watch the trailer as The Green Lantern looks terrible otherwise).



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