Friday, September 6, 2013

Short Subject: 'Sentinels of Silence'

Ed. Note: “Sentinels of Silence” (1971): Color. 18 minutes. Directed by Robert Amram. Narrated by Orson Welles. Note: Offering breathtaking aerial views of the ruins of ancient Mexican civilizations, this is the only short film to win Academy Awards in two categories in the same year. After "Sentinels of Silence" grabbed two Oscars in 1972 the rules were changed to prevent the same thing from happening again. 

In the way of local trivia, on May 22, 1972, a little over a month after its dual-Oscar-win, this stunningly beautiful short film had its Richmond premiere at the Biograph Theatre. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Five Film Favorites: War Movies

by F.T. Rea 

Yes, like it or not, the drumbeat for war is sounding again and stirring passions. The debate inside the beltway over whether to bomb Syria is taking place as these words are being written. Justifications, warnings and predictions are in the air. With uncertainty swirling about, one thing is for sure -- filmmakers are paying attention to what’s happening. They are taking notes for the movies to be made about what’s happening … and what will follow.

As a setting for compelling stories the extremes of war have been useful to filmmakers throughout the history of movies. The first American feature-length motion picture to receive widespread distribution was D.W. Griffith’s rather warped melodrama about the American Civil War and its aftermath, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915).

Depending on what might be called a “war movie,” at least 20 such feature films have won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The problem with arriving at an exact number is that while some movies are set during wars, not all of them seem like traditional “war movies.” Which opens the door to the problem of defining that term.

Well, for today’s purpose “war movies” are going to be divided into two categories: heroic and anti-war. Still, most of the best war movies, at least in my book, have at least a hint of anti-war sentiment in them. Some might call it sanity. After all, war isn’t just hell, it’s crazy hell.

For this week’s list of favorites a “heroic war film” is about the quest to bravely fight through that crazy hell as part of a larger purpose. Such films are usually about losing oneself in the pursuit of that quest. Whereas, an “anti-war film” is more about the toll of war, or the sheer folly of it.

Thus, I have to cheat for this week’s favorites list -- two different sets of five favorites are needed to cover the war front.

Heroic War Films
  • “Attack” (1956): B&W. 107 minutes. Directed by Robert Aldrich. Cast: Jack Palance, Eddie Albert, Lee Marvin. Note: This gritty WWII yarn pits extremes against one another with cynicism as the referee. Cooney is the hated officer who owes his rank to political pull. Caught in the throes of a fit of cowardice he fails to support his men when it counts most. One of them, Costa, survives and wants Cooney to pay.
  • “The Deer Hunter” (1978): Color. 182 minutes. Directed by Michael Cimino. Cast: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale. Note: This tense story pulls three pals loose from their familiar blue collar moorings. It drops them into unimagined horrors in another world -- Vietnam. Then it explores the nature of heroism staring into the madness of a dilemma with no good options.
  • “The Great Escape” (1963): Color. 172 minutes. Directed by John Sturges. Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence. Note: McQueen is at his antihero best in this somewhat true WWII story about captured Americans and Brits in a German prisoner of war camp, plotting a massive escape. Their ingenuity and dedication are the stuff of a great adventure … whether they get away with it or not.
  • “The Thin Red Line” (1998): Color. 170 minutes. Directed by Terrence Malick. Cast: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Adrien Brody, James Caviezel, Woody Harrelson. Note: When Malick makes a WWII movie it’s going to be different from most war movies. This one lingers on the soldiers’ dreams and boredom, then explodes into action most of them have extreme difficulty handling. Of course, there are those charmed individuals who somehow thrive in combat.
  • “The Train” (1964): Color. 133 minutes. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau. Note: In 1944 a German colonel wants to grab a bunch of important art and take it out of France, to Germany, before the approaching Allied troops can liberate Paris. The French resistance wants to prevent the Nazis on the train from completing their thieving mission.

Anti-War Films
  • “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964): B&W. 95 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn. Note: Coming just after the Cuban Missile Crisis this outrageous, nuke-mocking black comedy worked like a charm. Poof! The fallout shelter-building-craze began to go out of style in the suburbs. Trivia: owing to the assassination of JFK in November of 1963 this film's release was delayed two months.
  • “Forbidden Games” (1952): B&W. 86 minutes. Directed by René Clément. Cast: Brigitte Fossey, Georges Poujouly, Amédée. Note: An orphaned and confused little girl is taken in by a family. In this subtle anti-war classic the devastating toll of mechanized war, as seen by children -- who can hardly grasp what’s happening around them -- is stunning. Don’t look for a lot of battle scenes in this one.
  • “King of Hearts” (1966): Color. Directed by Philippe de Broca. Cast: Alan Bates, Geneviève Bujold, Pierre Brasseur. Note: The first movie to play at Richmond’s long-lost Biograph Theatre (in 1972) was a zany French comedy; Bujold was dazzling opposite the droll Bates. The story is set amid the harsh but absurd realities of way too much war (WWI). Hey, when the world goes crazy, why shouldn’t the crazy people take over the town?
  • “Paths of Glory” (1957): B&W. 88 minutes. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou. Note: In the trench warfare stalemate of WWI, the search for glory becomes a fool’s errand. Living in mud with dead bodies piling up, blame-shifting begins to obscure the mission -- what is the mission? Honest men start to look like enemies to their corrupt superior officers.
  • “Seven Beauties” (1975): Color. 115 minutes. Directed by Lina Wertmüller. Cast: Giancarlo Giannini, Fernando Rey, Shirley Stoler. Note: This film is a unique combination of comedy and tragedy. Caught in a war, if they want to survive, what -- if anything! -- will captive soldiers refuse to do? What will their families at home, facing starvation, refuse to do? This unforgettable look at Italy in WWII takes you there.
Couldn‘t figure out what category to put "The Battle of Algiers" (1966) in, but if you watch it, this docudrama will tattoo your mind. It should be required viewing for those who are deciding whether or not to bomb Syria tomorrow.

Next Thursday a new list will be posted. Perhaps it will a lighter category. And, we will try to go back to the rules and hold it to just “five” film favorites.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Feature: 'The Damned United'

Michael Sheen as the extraordinary manager, Brian Clough
by Todd Starkweather

No, probably not the “United” football club most readers will envision when they read the phrase "the damned United." At one point in English football history Manchester United took a back seat to another giant of English football: Leeds United. Just a few generations ago, Leeds stood tall amongst England's footballing elite.

The Damned United (2009) tells one particularly enthralling tale from those Leeds United glory days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The club's most successful manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), had suddenly resigned in the summer of 1974 to lead the English national squad. Leeds United sought to hire a big name manager to replace the one that left, and the team offered the job to Revie's rival, Brian Clough (Michael Sheen). Clough had achieved great success, leading Derby County to the First Division Title in 1972. (Yes, even more improbable than imagining Leeds United as a top dog in English football is imagining Derby County as champions.). However, his reign as Leeds United manager was and remains one of the most spectacular collapses in the history of sport. In the time span of a mere 44 days, Clough, one of the most respected and admired managers in England, took over the defending champions, led them to a miserable start, engendered hatred from the players, supporters, and the board, and was eventually sacked. If the story had not been true, the film would have seemed preposterous.

Fortunately, the story was true, and screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Tom Hooper create rarity: a brilliant film about sport. Prior to The Damned United, Morgan had penned scripts for The Queen (2006) and Frost/Nixon (2008). Hooper, meanwhile followed up The Damned United with The King's Speech (2010) and Les Miserables (2012). While I will not say that The Damned United is better than all four of those films, but I enjoyed it more. Now, my bias as someone who enjoys football more than British royalty, American presidents, and bad singing probably contributes to my assessment of the film. Yet even those who have no real affinity for English league football will find The Damned United a terrific film.

In creating a quality film about sport, Morgan and Hooper employed the tactic of filming very little sporting action. Hooper splices in some old file footage of the actual Leeds United and Derby County matches, but he wisely avoids trying to have actors recreate the matches. One of the best scenes in the film involved a match between Clough's Derby and Revie's United. Only we never saw a bit of it. The entire match, the ebbs and flows and all the drama, was captured by watching Sheen's Clough, too nervous to watch from the pitch, pace nervously back and forth in his office. To Hooper and Morgan's credit, they found a way to nearly emulate the anxiety and joy of sport. No overwrought athletic heroics filmed in slow motion were required. The tick of the clock, Sheen's face, and the crowd's vocal reactions told the story of the match.

A few moments of play are shown at times in the film if only to provide context, but Hooper wisely keeps the drama and action confined the sidelines, dressing rooms, boardrooms, and hotel rooms, all of which are wonderfully rendered with vintage 60s and 70s décor. Tables, clocks, wallpaper, telephones and all other manner of bric-a-brac are meticulously stylized.

Of course, while the story involves those who plied their trade in football, the story if more about ambition, desire, success, a tragic fall, and ultimate redemption. Sheen marvelously plays an attractive character who, if played less adeptly, might be regarded as stupid, self-absorbed ass. Sheen has had a fair amount of experience playing powerful men. He has also played Tony Blair (The Queen) and David Frost (Frost/Nixon). (I guess Morgan writes with Sheen in mind.) Here, though, he is at his most attractive and dislikable. His sharp facial features make him knife-like. His is brilliant and sharp but does not realize that his personality cuts too deep for those who care for him. 

After receiving a perceived slight at the hand of Revie, Sheen's Clough vows to make his club greater than Leeds United, and with the help of assistant manager Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), he does just that. However, his obsession with unseating Revie and Leeds United lead to his fall. Taylor warns him, but Clough refuses to listen and eventually splits company with Taylor, calling him unambitious.  The relationship between the two men is the film’s underlying narrative. In many ways this is a romance with a bitter break up and heart-warming reconciliation.

On the surface, it would seem hard to root for Clough after watching him treat his great friend in the manner he does and then doing a rather lousy job of managing Leeds. The film did not hide the crap job that Clough did at Leeds, and it makes clear that Clough only took the job to spite Revie and cared little about the club, its players, or its fans.  Clough realizes this all too late and is sacked after his miserable 44-day run as manager at Leeds.

While the movie ends with Clough's sacking, Clough's story does not end, and I think that the second half of Clough's career as the popular manager of Nottingham Forrest ultimately helps make Clough a more redemptive figure than he otherwise might appear. Eventually reuniting with Taylor, Clough took over Nottingham Forrest and led them to two consecutive European titles, an astonishing feat that neither Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, or Pep Guardiola have matched. Even though Clough's career is bookended by his achievements at Derby and Forrest, his career is best told through his time of failure Leeds United. Such an amazing failure makes his accomplishments all the greater.

So if you begin watching the Premier League on NBC, remember that English football has a much richer and more interesting history than what you might be told on Saturday mornings and afternoons.