Sunday, May 25, 2008

Life is brief

Yesterday and today found me in highbrow movie mode: watching a bunch of films that I had been meaning to get around to viewing but have not been afforded the time. I suppose I should amend that slightly—the first film, John (spelled Jhon in the credits) Huston’s Wise Blood (1979), has been looked at previously…but it’s been so long that I decided to give it a second glance. I had the foresight to DVR this one, since it’s not available on DVD and finding it on VHS is even more difficult; based on author Flannery O’Connor’s darkly comic novel of Southern grotesques (perfect material for Huston), Blood tells the tale of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif)—a peculiar young man just released from the service who decides to start his own church, the Church of Christ Without Christ (“Where the blind can’t see, the lame don’t walk, and the dead stay that way”). This movie isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea (sister Kat is a fan because O’Connor is her favorite author) but it’s got great performances from Harry Dean Stanton (as a con man…er, preacher), Ned Beatty (another preacher) and Amy Wright (as Stanton’s daughter).

I followed that up with Let Him Have It (1991), a searing drama based on the true-life events surrounding Derek Bentley (Christopher Eccleston), a slow-witted British epileptic who was executed for his participation in a 1952 shootout with the police in a case that became the yardstick for “travesty of justice.” Eccleston is good as the doomed youth, but it’s Tom Courtenay who really shines as the boy’s anguished father; the movie itself admirably manages to keep things on a calm keel and resists over-the-top outbursts about the problems inherent with the death penalty. The only flaw in Have It is that it repeats much of the same ground covered in the similar Dance with a Stranger (1985); you would have thought director Peter Medak could have found a different way to tell his story. Still, I enjoyed this one; I own it on DVD but because I have a stack of unwatched discs that rivals the height of the Sears Tower it’s taken me a while to get around to seeing it.

This morning, I DVR’d three films that I knew I wouldn’t be up and conscious to see—beginning with Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru (1952). Now, I’ll be only too quick to acknowledge that when it comes to foreign cinema, my expertise could use a lot of beefing up…and while I’m not sorry I watched Ikiru it ran a tad long for me. In the movie, a dull bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) discovers that he’s dying from stomach cancer, and after taking stock of his accomplishments in life realizes he’d like to shuffle off this mortal coil having done something…in this case, using the powers of his office to close down a poisonous cesspool and construct a park for children.

What I liked about Ikiru is the fact that no character in the film can be considered sympathetic; the loving relatives (his son and daughter-in-law, as well as uncle and aunt) are most appealing. and his fellow bureaucrats are a bunch of ass-kissers to the ward-heelers in power. Even the dying bureaucrat comes off a bit creepy at times, particularly when he strikes up a friendship with a female employee (Miki Odagiri) who quit her job because she had the foresight to see that there’s no future in it. (On the other hand, these scenes are among the best in the film; I love Odagiri’s 100,000-watt smile and her infectious zeal for living life to the fullest.) A few film buff acquaintances of mine have been after me to catch Ikiru for some time now, and while I didn’t dislike the film I’m not sure I’d be up for a second showing without a coffee urn handy.

Following Ikiru was the equally depressing Umberto D. (1953), the neo-Realist Italian classic directed by Vittorio de Sica about an elderly pensioner (Carlo Battisti) struggling to survive in postwar Italy…with only a small dog as his loyal companion. While this film is living testament to the maxim that dog is man’s best friend, Umberto D. is even more depressing than Ikiru: Umberto’s landlady is trying to kick him out of his apartment, his friends have deserted him…he’s even forced to finagle his way into a hospital stay in order to stave off eviction. Again, the highlight of this film is the warm friendship between the main character and a maid named Maria (Maria Pia Casilio) who has problems of her own (she’s pregnant but is uncertain who the father is). There’s no happy ending attached to this movie; just the reaffirmation of the bond between man and dog. (I guess what I’m trying to say is Umberto D. is not a date movie.)

So I decided to end things on a lighter note with The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004)…okay, I’m kidding about the “lighter note” stuff. I don’t think Assassination is a particularly great film but it is certainly interesting: Sean Penn plays a real loser named Samuel J. Bicke whose failure at his job, marriage and everything else in his life (truly, everything he does turns to shit) leads him to believe that forces beyond his control are responsible for his luckless existence and he makes plans (laughingly inept, I might add) to kill Tricky Dick. It’s impossible not to be mesmerized by Penn’s performance (with the moustache, he looks like Rupert Pupkin) as a man clearly clutching at straws, and he is ably supported by fine turns from Don Cheadle, Naomi Watts (as his ex-wife) and Jack Thompson (letter-perfect as Penn’s “good ol’ boy” boss). Loosely based on real-life events, the same material was also used in the TV-movie The Plot to Kill Nixon (2005).

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