Reflections on the Golden Screen

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This section is dedicated to films which I especially like and will watch many times.  But in the main it covers movies which have either never made it in the first place or for some reason have gone off the radar - all of them are great films in their own right.  The latest fashion is a pre-occupation with so-called "blockbusters" which are sometimes excellent but more often than not are all style and no substance.   C.G.I. is great and has extended the parameters within which Directors can work but in many cases the graphics come at the expense of a good storyline and often become boring.  The following films are sans  C.G.I  graphics and are all the better for it.
This Boy's Life (1993)
Director - Michael Caton-Jones
Very few would argue with the assertion that Robert De Niro is one of the finest actors of his generation.  In a scintillating career he has played gangsters, boxers, priests, deranged killers, taxi drivers and more, but to my knowledge he has only ever played the role of a nerd on one occasion which is in This Boy's Life.  De Niro seems to be the least likely choice to play the part of an idiotic nerd and for that reason alone it is one of his finest roles playing the moronic Dwight.  The "This Boy" referred to is Toby played by a 19 year old Leonardo de Caprio in his first meaningful film role following four years of  television soaps notably as Darlene's classmate in Roseanne.  Set in 1957,  De Caprio is outstanding playing a 15 year old Toby, who leads a nomadic existence following his feckless mother, Caroline, played by Ellen Barkin, in her numerous escapes from an endless list of  worthless boyfriends.  Finding herself and Toby in Seattle, Caroline's judgement once again lets her down when she allows herself to be drawn into the weird world that Dwight inhabits and desperate for some semblance of stability in her life she marries him.  Both Toby and Caroline might have learnt to tolerate Dwight's eccentricities but life becomes intolerable when his bullying nature begins to assert itself and he makes Toby's life a misery with his incessant spite and juvenile tricks he plays - all designed to destroy Toby's self-worth and in some warped way to build up his own ego.
 
All of the other character actors are excellent with Chris Cooper in there with a very young Tobey Maguire but there is one performance which stands out from the rest; Jonah Blechman is so good as the gutsy gay schoolfriend of Toby that he must be gay in real life which doesn't matter today, but in 1957 homosexuality often invited insults and sometimes violence, so that both within the film and outside the film, Blechman was courageous in expressing his sexuality.  Subject to cat-calls by Tobey who should have known better considering his own situation, Blechman's "gay" bests Tobey in a fight to the great humiliation of Tobey - the pair later become great friends.  Blechman was every bit as good as Di Caprio within the film but unlike his co-star he never went on to do anything notable afterwards which is a shame.
 
Rounders (1998) Director John Dahl
Despite the presence of Matt Damon, Edward Norton and John Malkovitch  Rounders is not a film which is widely known - the understated title doesn't help matters and there are many moviegoers who would find little interest in the film's subject matter of high-stakes poker.  However, although the poker games are truly gripping, the film is as much about the nature of friendship as poker.
Worm (Edward Norton) is the grown-up edition of the kid your mother told you to keep away from - the mantra "he will get you into trouble !! " echoes down the years and is the language of mothers everywhere.  Worm inhabits a world of high-stakes poker players in a Runyonesque scenario of loan-sharks, hoodlums, hustlers and low-lives where the deliciously dangerous Teddy KGB (John Malkovitch) rules by fear.  Seemingly oblivious to the danger, Worm proceeds to cheat his way into trouble pushng the boundaries of the poker games and pushing the boundaries of his friendship with Mike (Matt Damon).  Fortunes are won and lost in smoky back rooms
and so are friendships and alliances as Mike remains steadfast to the mercurial Worm.  Despite the fact that any of the poker-games are as nail-biting as the obligatory car chases in most action movies these days, Rounders  has become liitle more than a cult film for poker players which is a shame because it's much more than that. 
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Director: Frank Darabont
Shawshank is now acknowledged as the classic case of a film which did nothing at the box-office but slowly, by word of mouth, has become an all-time favourite of film connoisseurs.  Stephen King's books and short stories are so superlative that it takes a special Director to translate them successfully onto film but Frank Darabont has done it here and even improved on the original story.  The story is now quite well-known and is an adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo by AlexanderDumas - whether Stephen King did this consciously or sub-consciously is not known but it is one of the very few King stories which is identifiable with another story.  Although Stephen King's stories are unique and gripping the real strength of his work is the characterisation of which he is a master; his novels are replete with nuances, thoughts, beliefs and acts of human behaviour which are familiar to us all and Frank Darabont has copied this formula to the letter.  All of the character's in Shawshank are interesting in their own right from the prison warden (played by Bob Gunton, whose warden resembles uncannily Strother Martin's chain-gang boss in Cool Hand Luke ) to Red played by Morgan Freeman, Tommy (Gil Bellows) who couldn't face life outside the prison, Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) of course, but there must be  special mention for the casually cruel Captain Hadley played by Clancy Brown.  One of the all-time great movies.
Hearts  In Atlantis (1999) Director Scott Hicks
This film is another adaptation of a Stephen King story whose title belies the excellence of the story.  However, unlike Shawshank, it has never found any great popularity and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has seen the film.  Going by the title anyone scanning the paper for a film to go and see would think it was a rom-com or a fantasy film but it is in fact a subtle evocation of cold-war America when the F.B.I. spirited people away if they knew what a samovar was or even wore a woolly hat in the winter.  Realizing there are those who walk among us with "different" powers,  as someone who has supernatural powers, Ted Brautigan, played with his usual sang froid  by Anthony Hopkins, is an object of great interest to the F.B.I. who seek him out as he roams from one hiding place to another.  
Many of Stephen King's stories feature children or adolescents and he has an uncanny talent for taking us back to a time which we all knew well when the world consisted of best-friends, the fat kid, the inevitable bullies, the sensitive one, high-spirits and bewilderment at the adult world.  In this film, the story is related through the eyes of 11 year old Bobby Garfield, played by Anton Yelchin and the adult Bobby by David Morse.    Although there are a number of excellent child actors in the film, drawn from a  seemingly never-ending production line of kids queueing up for a taste of stardom, Mika Sue Boorem stands out as Carol Gerber, who Bobby remembers as his first love and as he kisses her for the first time on the Ferris wheel states grandly that "It will be the kiss by which all other kisses will be judged and found wanting."   Why didn't I think of that.
Stand By Me (1986) Director Rob Reiner
Most of Stephen King's books are set in Maine, the place he knows best, but on this occasion Rob Reiner has set the film version of King's short story named The Body  in the fictional Castle Rock, Oregon.  A year after making Stand By Me Reiner formed a TV and film company which he named Castle Rock.  Once again Stephen King has chosen to return to the world of children on the cusp of adolescence in 1959, and Rob Reiner has peppered the background with The Coasters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, The Del-Vikings, and other groups of that era when rock n'roll was exciting and new and a world away from the mediocrity of boy-bands.
The story related by the adult Gordy (Richard Dreyfuss) is of a journey he took with his 3 pals to find the body of a child killed by a train.  Although seemingly normal, mischievous kids, each of the 4 children have problems not of their own making with  the 12 year old Gordy (Wil Wheaton) haunted by the death of his brother (played by a very young John Cusack).   As the boys set out on their adventure it quickly becomes apparent that all of them have problems - Vern (Jerry O'Connell) is bullied unmercifully by other kids, Teddy (Corey Feldman) has far worse problems with a sadistic father who once held him over a  hot stove  badly burning his ear, while Chris (River Phoenix) makes light of his dysfunctional family and drunken father.  Strangely, Teddy, who has every reason to hate his father, idolises him as having been on the beaches in the Normandy invasion.  As the boys pick their way along the railroad track, intermittently singing the song from
Paladin,  although they all have neuroses any adult would find hard to deal with, they chatter away as small boys do about such serious subjects as the gender of Goofy - "he can't be a dog because he wears a hat and drives a car"  - and the mystery of whether Mighty Mouse could beat Superman in a fight. - "Superman's a real person and Might Mouse is a cartoon."  However, all of the boys underlying fears surface from time to time and they support each other, hinting along the way, at the adults they will become. 
Ace Merrill is the nemesis of the four friends and Kiefer Sutherland plays the bullying thug to perfection until he gets his come-uppance at the hands of Gordy - it's a feature of all Stephen King novels featuring children that the obligatory bully always comes to a sticky end - if only life were so simple.
Stand By Me has become a cult classic among younger moviegoers who probably appreciate the danger on the trestle bridge section more than the revealing dialogue.  Such a shame that a burgeoning talent as River Phoenix should have come to such an ignominious and wasteful end just 7 years after this film and quite ironic that the other 3 boys went on to be successful in their different ways.
The Last Samurai  2003 : Director Edward Zwick
"The old and the new are at war for the soul of Japan."
Before watching this film it was tempting to believe that it was simply a vehicle for Tom Cruise to strut around in a samurai costume but there is far more to The Last Samurai than meets the eye.  Although it undoubtedly trades greatly on the orientalism of the Samurai code with its wonderfully ornamented medieval costumes and ancient weaponry, the film is actually a compelling drama set at an unparalled time in Japanese history.  Japan had for centuries been remote from the western world until Commodore Matthew Perry  sailed from America in 1853, opening communications between the two countries.  While America was on the cusp of the American Civil War and Japan was about to engage in a civil war of its own between the ancient Samurai and the modernising Imperial court the Director is at pains to point out throughout the film the similarities in both country's cultural evolutions.  In particular, he points out how much the Native Americans and the Samurai way of life had so much in common and both cultures were extinguished at around the same time.  Although Samurai warriors with their martial code and almost mythical  way of life have a fascination for most western observers it comes as a surprise to find that the Native Americans have the same enchantment for both Samurai and the Imperial Japanese, and General Custer and the American  Indian Chiefs were well known names.  Tom Cruise's role as an alcoholic ex- Indian fighter in the U.S army ( Nathan Algren) is fundamental in emphasising the similarities in the demise of the Native American culture and that of the Samurai and as his flashbacks of shameful atrocities perpetrated by the cavalry upon the Indians he finds the life of the Samurai a salve for his guilt in the part he played in those massacres; given that the flash on his shoulder reads 7th Cavalry it would be reasonable to assume that the massacres refer to the Washita and perhaps Sand Creek.  As time goes by,  Algren comes to despise the Imperial court and the puppet Emperor Meiji, comparing it to the establishment in Washington which sanctioned the Indian genocide and although he knows full-well that the Samurai are bound for destruction he takes up arms on their behalf nevertheless.  Although it doesn't say so the final battle is the culmination of the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion at the battle of Shiroyama which ended the Samurai culture forever; the battle is comparable  to the Native American battles in which the Indians fought with bows and arrows against rifles and artillery.
One of the many stand-out scenes is an attack by Ninja warriors in the heart of the Samurai homeland; in a breath-taking display of martial arts  it is with a sense of relief that the Director has resisted any attempt to have the Ninjas flying up walls and over rooftops which is prevalent  in so many martial arts films and appears ludicrous in the extreme.
Amongst the sterling cast, Timothy Spall has an uncanny aptitude for stealing scenes; this ability is even more remarkable given that Spall's character of Simon Graham is hardly heroic.  However, Timothy Spall's Englishman abroad has a depth which combines timidity with the kind of courage that carries on despite an overwhelming fear of the situations he is faced with.
In the huge cast of Japanese actors, Ken Watanabe as the Samurai leader plays his part with some gravitas, Hiroyuki Sanada is excellent as the volatile Uiji, Masato Harada stands out as the sly Omura and  Shichinosuke Nakamura's part should not be underestimated as he plays the Emperor Meiji, struggling to comprehend the momentous happenings around him.
It's truly refreshing to see Directors such as Zwick making adventure films which can be enjoyed simply for the thrills engendered in the action scenes - and for those who wish to dig a little deeper he has set the action to a background of authentic historical material signalling the end of an era in Japan.
 
Inglourious Basterds Director : Quentin Tarantino
Tarantino has never given any reason for the misspellings of the title but it is indicative of his quirky personality which shines through once again in his take on World War II.   I have to say that for myself I find  the extreme violence in Tarantino films rather off-putting and in many scenes it is undeniably gratuitous - but there is another side to Tarantino which is in complete apposition to never-ending search for variances of violence and it is this side of his nature which makes his films extremely enjoyable; more exciting than all your car-chases,  more frightening than all your fight scenes and far more tense than a firefight are scenes such as Christoph Waltz toying with the French farmer like a cat with a mouse.  Both men know that S.S. Col. Hans Landa (Waltz) is slowly but inexorably leading up to exposing the Jews hidden beneath the floorboards and the tension is palpable as the scene unfolds.  The escape of Shosanna played by Mélanie Laurent is a major factor in the film.
Interspersed with such brilliant scenes as the above are the comic-book antics of Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine and his band of Jewish assassins all of which seem to have have their origins in Sgt Rock comics or possibly Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos.  The scenes of scalping and branding with extraordinarily large knives are the complete antithesis of the scenes where brilliant dialogue is enough to crank up tension and once again Tarantino reveals the duality of his personality as expressed on film.
Fortunately, as the film moves along, there are several mores scenes where dialogue does the trick not least where Waltz meets up again with Shosanna who he does not recognise but still manages to instil fear into her simply by his presence and in a fine display of acting Mélanie Laurent's Shosanna breaks down as soon as he leaves.
Arguably the finest scene in the film has the superb Diane Kruger playing a Marlene Dietrich simulacrum called Bridget von Hammersmark at a table in a basement cafe with a British officer (Michael Fassbender), and two Jewish "Basterds."   They are surrounded by a roisterous crowd of German soldiers and finally joined by S.S. officer Major Hellstrom played by August Diehl.  This scene is enthralling as Hellstrom who is more forthright than Landa exposes the accent of the British officer and although the whole scene culminates in a firefight worthy of Scarface its true worth lies in the tension and interplay between each and every person in the cafe.


Tarantino's versions of Churchill, Hitler and Goebbels are again comic-book characters drawn fromthe exploits of Nick Fury and Sgt Rock but serve to reveal his split personality, while the movie theatre on a Paris street is really atmospheric and to his credit he never reverts to the standard "for you ze war is over" dialogue. 
One day, Tarantino will forget his numerous pop-art roots and the result will be a classic film acclaimed by one and all -- or perhaps not.


Out of the Furnace  ( 2013) Director: Scott Cooper
The shocking beginning to the film is startling, repellent and captivating all at the same time, as a neanderthal Woody Harrelson stuffs a cigar down his girl-friend's throat and reduces a well-meaning man to a quivering jelly in a brutal attack.  I did at first think that the movie was yet another depressing, gratuitously violent epic which are so much in vogue, thrown together to cater to the immature, and the only thing which kept me watching was a stellar cast which had not yet appeared.  And sure enough, as Harrelson lumbers and mumbles his menacing and merciless way through the film as the degenerate Harlan de Groat, one by one, a superb cast appear to play their parts in a riveting movie.  The film is set in a bleak, industrial landscape, reminiscent of the town in The Deer Hunter where Russell Baze played by Christian Bale works in the foundry which dominates the landscape - there are other similarities to The Deer Hunter although it can never be said that it is a copy of that film in any way.  Russell's brother, Rodney, played by Casey Affleck, is a soldier returned from Iraq;  his experiences in combat have left him feckless and aggressive and when he takes to bare-knuckle fighting to pay off his debts to the world-weary Willem Defoe he enters the world of Harlan de Groat to the detriment of all of them.  The Appalachian stronghold of de Groat and his band of retarded hillbillies is truly scary, so much so that even the police are reluctant to go there,  and when Russell and his father's brother (Sam Shepard) pose as drug buyers and enter into de Groat's degenerate slum the tension is palpable.
As always, it takes the cast of peripheral actors to make up a great film, and although Christian Bale is the central character, every single part is played to perfection and every character is fascinating in their own right.  It is indicative of the excellence of the cast when a fairly minor role is played by Forest Whitaker as the police chief.  This is a complex and multi-layered film which deserves to better known but has gone the way of Shawshank probably for the same reason -- its innocuous title.