Tuesday, February 24, 2015

O Lucky Man! ***1/2 (1973)

O Lucky Man! follows the coffee salesman Michael Travis in his dreamlike odyssey through 1970s Great Britain.  

Malcolm McDowell wrote the story and played the lead role.  Told in the style of a picaresque tale, Travis interacts with all levels of English society- the business class, rock stars, the military, and the poor. Needless to say at every station of life he witnesses the cruelty and hypocrisy of humanity.  Actors appear in multiple roles in different points in the film, most notably a young Helen Mirren.

Directed with flare by Lindsay Anderson, who also directed Malcolm McDowell in If, a performance that got the attention of Stanley Kubrick who cast him as the Alex in A Clockwork Orange, a persona McDowell never escaped.  O Lucky Man! references Clockwork several times, and interestingly shares many of the same themes.  A box office flop in 1973, O Lucky Man! has since earned a cult following.

Throughout the film there are several musical interludes, a sort of Greek Chorus commenting on the action in the guise of a power pop band led by Alan Price.  The set looks like the one the Beatles used in Let it Be.  The music's really, really good.  Highlights include "Poor People" and "Sell Sell."

There's a spontaneity in O Lucky Man! one hardly finds these days.  On the commentary track, McDowell recalls writing the script in various pubs throughout England and how many of the scenes were improvised on the spot - an exemplar of 70s cinema.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

American Sniper and Monument's Men: Then and Now

George Clooney's Monuments Men, the story of Allied efforts to preserve centuries of great art from falling into Nazi hands during The Second World War, generally flopped with audiences last year. With all the heightened rhetoric surrounding American Sniper, Monuments Men takes on something of a new meaning.

Many wrote off Monuments Men as creaky and old fashioned. The trailer, with Bill Murray and John Goodman in the cast, promised a sort of Ghostbusters type WWII adventure. Instead, the tame PG rated script hinged on a plot to . . . save art . . not necessarily a recipe for box office gold.

While I wish Clooney had given his cast more to do, it never gets boring.  When Clooney recruits Matt Damon to join his mission they seem really relaxed, it felt more like Ocean's 11 in the ETO- not necessarily a bad approach for a throwback war movie.

I'm sure Clooney grew up watching movies like The Great Escape and The Train featuring a diverse group of people who share ideals and come together to stop the Nazis. Monument's Men never loses sight of what was at stake in the war: the survival of democracy and free thought. 

Meanwhile, American Sniper depicts cold blooded soldiers fighting for a vague cause under a problematic pretext.

Chris Kyle, a legendary solider known for tallying the most kills in Iraq, does his job with a remarkable efficiency. He referred to the Iraqis as savages.  Bradley Cooper's performance brings honesty and depth.  Sienna Miller gives a good performance as his wife, but she's often reduced to acting in front of a phone.

For all its merits as a motion picture, American Sniper takes great pains to avoid the politics of the war in Iraq.  Vague references are made to fighting the terrorists in the Middle East in order to prevent them from hitting America again.  The silence over the politics says more about our time than anything else.

After viewing American Sniper, a quote from Herman Wouk's WWII novel War and Remembrance floated through my head, "Either war is finished, or we are."  

As the 20th Century came to a close and the threat of nuclear war receded, the world breathed a sigh of relief.  Then 9/11 happened. Suddenly the future history of the 21st century loomed as one of never ending conflict.  The post 9/11 political situation echoed what Yeats wrote in "The Second Coming", "the best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Thus we get the world of American Sniper.

The films I most admired, Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, even Apocalypse Now ridiculed the very idea of war.  American Sniper suggests a future where war is the norm. And that is tragic. 

At least Monuments Men reminded us some some things are worth fighting for.  American Sniper depicts never ending imperialistic wars, conflicts in which the few bear the burden, while political opposition to them amounts to disloyalty, if not treason in the eyes of some. Eastwood's potent war film asks us to consider to such a world and points the finger directly at you.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Two Days, One Night (2014) ***

The 2014 Belgian film, 2 Days, One Night, starring Marion Cotillard (Sandra) tells the simple story of a woman trying to save her job.  She is a married working mother with two kids.  On a Saturday morning she's informed her fellow employees at a welding company voted to remove her so they can receive a bonus of 1000 Euros.  Now, Sandra has a weekend to convince her co-workers to change their minds.

2 Days, One Night provides a view of the modern middle/working class in Europe.  I'll confess ignorance to the state of the labor movement in Europe.  In America, the movement has faced serious setbacks over the past forty years.  The idea of solidarity among workers seems to have diminished.  The film suggests the same may be happening in Europe.  As portrayed in 2 Days, One Night, the company's managerial situation is a quasi- partnership between owners and workers. I'm sure some of the cultural nuance went over my head.  

The film opens with Sandra getting the bad news.  Her husband convinces her to set out and meet with each co-worker to change their mind.  So she sets out to sway them.  Her attempts at friendly persuasion meet with mixed results.  Some are compassionate and agree to forego their bonus, while others treat her with a quiet disdain and refuse to help.  We can understand their side as well:  One father says he needs the bonus to pay for his daughter's tuition.  Others have more selfish reasons. The story's conflict points to a compelling ethical dilemma:  How far does one go to help their neighbor in need?

And what does it feel like to be a person asking for help?  Asking for help is never easy. Sandra questions herself repeatedly as the movie unfolds.  We learn she's struggled with depression and her marriage could be in trouble.  At times she's about to give up, but finds the strength to keep going. Directors Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne never resort to sentimentality to ratchet up the tension, instead the camera follows Sandra as if you're watching a documentary. Small, naturalistic moments carry the film.

Cotillard is familiar to American audiences with plum roles in Public Enemies and The Dark Knight Rises.  As Sandra, she gives a realistic performance full of vulnerability and quiet courage.  The performance has earned her a well deserved Oscar nomination.  2 Days, One Night is an underdog story made with precision and care, rooted in realism. Well worth checking out.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Locke ***

Locke takes place entirely in a car.  In a swift 84 minutes, we follow Locke, played by Tom Hardy, as he takes phone calls and navigates the English highway.  He's a successful engineer with a loving family. He's about to begin a major project. Unfortunately, Locke's night of reckoning has arrived due to one major mistake he made. Now he's in an impossible situation.  As a study of the everyman in crisis, Locke stands out as one of the unique achievements of 2014.

Hardy does a great job in a demanding role. Subtle gestures tell us he's a decent man desperately trying to hold his life together.  On a stressful car ride to London, he takes a non-stop flurry of phone calls from his family and co-workers.  The tension never lets up.  

Some may dismiss Locke as a radio play disguised as a film.  Granted, Locke would make for a great radio play.  But the virtuoso cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos creates atmosphere, movement, and the isolation of driving alone. There's not a dull moment.

Many great films work well within enclosed spaces such as My Dinner With Andre and 12 Angry Men.  Spielberg's Duel also comes to mind, the one where the motorist is pursued by an evil truck driver.  Locke inverts the scenario as the protagonist must resolve an internal conflict.  Highly recommended.