Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Movie List: 45-41

45. "And it's love which is awakened."

Toto the Hero (1991)

This one should either be here, five to 10 slots higher, or 40 slots lower. Or maybe 140 slots lower. I really have no idea, not having seen it for a while. But I obviously remember liking it a great deal. It tells the story of Thomas, who nicknamed himself Toto during a wildly imaginative childhood that has given way to a wildly imaginative adulthood and old age. Even as he nears the end of his life, Thomas retains his faith in a paranoid fantasy that he was switched at birth, during a hospital fire, with a man named Alfred, a rich man whom Thomas both envies and loathes. Part of the reason for this is that Thomas is in love with his sister from an early age, and not being officially related to her would be a help. The movie hops around a lot in time, and there are many flights of fancy, including tulips that sway back and forth while someone sings Charles Trenet's jaunty "Boum." Still, despite the sweet nature of some of the material, as one fan on imdb put it, “This is a tight, mean, well-constructed tale about the feeling that dogs us all -- is this all life is? Could I have been happier as someone else? Are they happier than me? Am I lucky or unlucky? And most importantly, this: Why, when life seems so hard at times, can we find so much joy in small things . . . ?” If memory serves, I agree.

44. “Sure, I lie from time to time.”

The 400 Blows (1959)

Among other things, one of the best full-length directorial debuts in movie history. Truffaut modeled the story of troubled adolescent Antoine Doinel (brilliantly played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) on his own life. In her essay about the movie for the Criterion Collection, Annette Insdorf writes:
Born in Paris in 1932, [Truffaut] spent his first years with a wet nurse and then his grandmother, as his parents had little to do with him. When his grandmother died, he returned home at the age of eight. An only child whose mother insisted that he make himself silent and invisible, he took refuge in reading and later in the cinema.

Like Antoine, Truffaut found a substitute home in the movie theater: He would either sneak in through the exit doors and lavatory windows, or steal money to pay for a seat. In The 400 Blows, Antoine and René reenact the delinquency and cinemania of the young Truffaut and Robert Lachenay (who was an assistant on The 400 Blows). Their touching friendship is captured in René’s unsuccessful attempt to visit Antoine at reform school.
Insdorf also relates the casting of Léaud, and Truffaut’s instructions to him, “not to depict adolescence from the usual viewpoint of sentimental nostalgia, but . . . to show it as the painful experience that it is.” This clip of Léaud (and other kids) auditioning for the movie is one of my favorite things. Truffaut went on to make four more movies starring the character, none of which I’ve seen. I need to remedy that. Also, I just discovered that The Simpsons recreated the movie’s famous last shot, this time with Nelson. Hilarious.

43. “A person doesn't change just because you find out more.”

The Third Man (1949)

Rarely have I seen a movie stolen as brazenly as this one is by Orson Welles once he finally appears as Harry Lime, closer to the end of the picture than the beginning. The theft is especially impressive because the rest of the cast is also terrific. Joseph Cotten plays Holly Martins, an American pulp writer who goes to Vienna in the wake of World War II because his friend Harry has promised him work. Instead, he arrives to learn that Harry has died in a car accident. Or has he? Well, no, he hasn’t. And when he’s first seen, it’s suddenly, lit in a shadowed alcove in one of the great moments in movie history. At one point, Lime, trying to rationalize his crimes, says to Holly:
You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.
That line got parsed by a lot of people. Welles later said, “When the picture came out, the Swiss very nicely pointed out to me that they've never made any cuckoo clocks.” And writer John McPhee said that at the time of the Borgias in Italy, Switzerland was “the most powerful and feared military force in Europe,” not the Switzerland we know as a punchline to jokes about neutrality.

42. “My years are not advancing as fast as you might think.”

Groundhog Day (1993)

Groundhog Day is very funny. The scenes with Ned Ryerson alone make for a comic gem. But there is also a great deal of philosophical depth to the movie, and not just for a Hollywood comedy. As Phil Connors (Bill Murray) relives the same day over and over again (director Harold Ramis has estimated he does this for 30 or 40 years’ worth of days), he perfects both himself and his relationships with other people. His move from frustration (Why is this happening?) to narcissistic fun (I’m gonna sleep with everybody! I’m gonna drive drunk!) to despair (I’m gonna kill myself!) to self-improvement and enlightenment make the movie a natural fit for religious groups of all stripes. Ramis said:
At first I would get mail saying, “Oh, you must be a Christian, because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief.” Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it, because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation center for 30 years and my wife lived there for 5 years.
Whatever your spiritual persuasion, Groundhog Day has something to make you think about, and it will make you laugh while it does it.

41. “Suppose I shot you. How’d that be?”

Badlands (1973)

The second post in this blog's long, illustrious history was actually about this movie. Here is that post, in slightly altered form:

Terrence Malick wrote and directed Badlands, and released it in 1973, shortly before pulling a Salinger-like disappearing act. He released Days of Heaven in 1978 and then fell off the map for 20 years.

Just like Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), Badlands depends heavily on a slowly gathered sense of dread and a liberal use of voice-over narration by one of its main characters. It's a much smaller, more modest story, though, and it's the better movie because of it. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek play Kit (25) and Holly (15), a pair of disaffected South Dakotan youths (is there any other kind?) in the late 1950s. It's not giving anything away to reveal that someone gets killed and the pair hits the road to outrun the fuzz and then several other people get killed and no one gets any less disaffected. It’s sort of what Natural Born Killers might have looked like if Raymond Carver had written it -- What We Talk About When We Talk About Going on a Killing Spree.

Sheen is extraordinary, and though I've never been a big fan of Spacek, she does a terrific job with the voice-overs, which are often spare but poetic:
He needed me now more than ever, but something had come between us. I'd stopped even paying attention to him. Instead, I sat in the car and read a map and spelled out entire sentences with my tongue on the roof of my mouth, where nobody could read them.
Despite its brilliance, the movie does have quite a silly tagline, according to imdb: “In 1959 a lot of people were killing time. Kit and Holly were killing people.” This is nothing, though, compared to my favorite tagline of all time, which is from The Lift, a Dutch horror movie about a demented elevator: “Take the stairs! Take the stairs! For God's sake, take the stairs!”



Blogger Dezmond said...

GD is one of the greats. It has gotten better with age. I saw Badlands once a long time ago, and remember being underwhelmed. I should check it out again.

7:55 AM  
Blogger ANCIANT said...

I've always thought Badlands was the quintessential John Williams movie. I'm surprised it's not a lot higher up in the queue. It's amazing how long Martin Sheen's been producing quality work.

I have Groundhog Day in my top 20. I think it's one of the great comedies of all time.

Haven't seen Toto, but hard to argue with any of the others.

2:19 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

I agree, ANCIANT. 'Badlands' is quintessential John Williams. Violent criminal, on the run from the law, nothin' to lose.

10:27 AM  

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