Monday, May 29, 2017

Movies for Memorial Day

In observance of Memorial Day, here are some viewing suggestions.

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Dir. William Wyler

Three World War II veterans return home and have trouble adjusting to civilian life. Each man faces a personal crisis and struggles to pick up his relationships. In many respects, The Best Years of Our Lives was ahead of its time with its nuanced take on the lasting effects of war.

Patton (1970)
Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner

Patton was a biographical picture about General George Patton, focusing on his campaigns in North Africa and Europe during World War II. Patton was a colorful and controversial figure and the film explores his complicated legacy with intelligence and nuance. The movie opens with a speech that has become one of the most iconic moments in American film.

Apocalypse Now (1979)
Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Adapted from Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now tells the story of Captain Willard, a soldier who is sent on a classified mission to assassinate a US army colonel who has gone insane deep within the south east Asian jungle. In the course of his journey, Willard confronts his own doubts about the war and the film descends into the roots of human violence.

Top Gun (1986)
Dir. Tony Scott

One of the most popular military films—both among the general movie-going public and among military recruiters—was 1986’s Top Gun. One of the essential titles of the 1980s, Top Gun was a huge hit that established Tom Cruise as a movie star. This story of elite fighter pilots was also extraordinarily successful as a recruitment film and many young filmgoers enlisted in the United States Air Force following its release.

Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick is not necessarily renowned for his humor but if you are tuned into Kubrick’s mordant sense of the absurd, Full Metal Jacket is one of the funniest war films ever made. Set in the Vietnam era, the first half of the movie takes place at the Parris Island Marine Corp training camp and the second half occurs amid the 1968 Tet Offensive. Kubrick’s vision of humanity is sardonic and bleak and Full Metal Jacket makes an interesting companion piece to Dr. Strangelove.

Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan was widely praised at the time of its release for the opening sequence that re-creates the D-Day invasion at Normandy. This movie redefined the visual style of the war film and the gritty handheld cinematography and the intense violence of the D-Day scene have been frequently imitated.

The Thin Red Line (1998)
Dir. Terrence Malick

Released the same year as Saving Private Ryan, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line was an adaptation of James Jones’ novel. Malick’s movies are less stories and more cinematic poems and The Thin Red Line is a mediation on combat, meaning, and mortality set during the Guadalcanal campaign of World War II. The Thin Red Line got lost in the hoopla over Saving Private Ryan but it’s a beautifully made movie.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
Dir. Ridley Scott

Following the lead of Saving Private Ryan, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down applied the same gritty style to a dramatic retelling of the 1993 firefight between American soldiers and Somalian militants. The movie is an intense and bloody affair and at the time of its release it was controversial with detractors arguing that it dehumanized Somalians and simplified a complex situation.

Restrepo (2010)
Dir. Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington

One of the finest films about the Afghanistan conflict and modern combat, Restrepo is a documentary that was filmed among the soldiers of Second Platoon, Battle Company during their fifteen-month deployment in the Korengal Valley. The movie brings the viewer into the daily life of soldiers in the field while also documenting the strategy of that time.

War Machine (2017)
Dir. David Michod

Playing as a mashup of the feature film Patton and the television show Veep, this film is a sometimes absurd take on the war in Afghanistan. Based on the book The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan by Michael Hastings, War Machine is a fictionalized tale of the commanding general and his frustrated efforts to win the war.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The 'Star Wars' Revolution

Today is the fortieth anniversary of the release of the original Star Wars and so it seems like an appropriate time to revisit a series of commentaries that I wrote to coincide with the release of The Force Awakens. Here is the piece most directly relevant to the original film:

The Star Wars Revolution
Star Wars has been such a dominating presence in cinema for the last thirty-eight years that it is difficult to imagine American movies and pop culture without it. But it’s worth understanding where Star Wars came from to fully understand what it has become.

The original Star Wars was released in the midst of the New Hollywood movement, which remains the greatest period of American film. Spanning from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, the New Hollywood movement gave rise to filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, and Stanley Kubrick who made movies like The Godfather, Taxi Driver, Annie Hall, Coming Home, The French Connection, and A Clockwork Orange. These movies upended filmmaking conventions, redrew the boundaries of censorship, told stories of moral complexity, and dealt with difficult subject matter.

Two things happened at this time that made the New Hollywood movement possible. The first was the destabilization of American society. Watergate, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam war, and insurgent social movements like second wave feminism and gay liberation shook up American society. At the same time the American film industry was going through its own structural change. The major studios were in financial trouble and the old standards of musicals and historical epics were no longer making bank. The studios went from standalone companies to divisions of much larger conglomerates. The new corporate owners didn’t know much about movies but they were interested in reaching the youth market and so they turned to young filmmakers. Under the old Hollywood studio system the average feature film director was in his mid-forties but now twenty year olds were given license to make what they wanted in the hope that it would regain the public’s interest in the movies. These young filmmakers produced motion pictures that reflected their own view of the world.

It’s in this environment that Star Wars was made and the movie was in its own way revolutionary. Writer and director George Lucas was operating within the studio system while alienated from it. He and his contemporaries were among the first graduates of film schools and Lucas saw himself as an outsider who would make experimental movies. His first two features, THX-1138 and American Graffiti, didn’t resemble traditional narrative filmmaking and Warner Bros. and Universal reedited them before release, angering Lucas and prompting him to assert more control over his films and properties. Star Wars was more conventionally narrative than those pictures but it was even more experimental in its style and technique. The rapid editing and technological innovations revealed new methods of producing visual effects and ultimately new ways of making movies altogether.

The story of Star Wars was also revolutionary or perhaps more accurately it was counter-revolutionary. The film spoke to the youth of the time as it depicted a galactic civil war in which young people figuratively (and later literally) rebelled against their fathers. But Star Wars rejected the ambiguity of the New Hollywood movement in favor of the optimism and moral absolutism of an earlier era. The youth of the 1970s saw their struggles against the establishment in the Rebel assault on the Death Star but their parents would have recognized Darth Vader’s headgear as a synthesis of the Nazi helmet and the SS Totenkopf symbol, giving the conflict a different point of reference. This mix of mainstream and revolutionary elements is a large part of what made Star Wars a hit and made it both a part of and apart from the New Hollywood movement.

Star Wars is also a revolutionary film in the way that it altered the trajectory of the film industry. The enormous box office of Star Wars recalibrated Hollywood’s barometer of financial success and so the picture is often credited—or blamed—with ending the New Hollywood era. But that’s not altogether true. Like any business owner, the executives running Hollywood studios were always interested in making products that would generate the most revenue. By the late 1970s the audience was exhausted with downbeat stories and the success of Jaws and Rocky had already begun to shift Hollywood’s tone. Following Star Wars, the subsequent box office failure of somber films like Sorcerer and Heaven’s Gate and the success of upbeat pictures like Grease and Superman: The Movie completed the redirection of the industry toward escapist fare.

It’s become a cliché to say that Star Wars changed the American film industry. But that is so often said because it’s true. Star Wars was as important a cinematic milestone as Citizen Kane and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and like Orson Welles' and Walt Disney’s movies, the style and techniques of George Lucas’ original space opera have been so embedded in mainstream films that contemporary audiences can’t see what was so special about them. We’ve been living in the era of Star Wars for nearly forty years and what began as a youthful cinematic rebellion has become an empire in its own right. Now that we are on the cusp of a new era of Star Wars films, it is time for audiences, critics, and filmmakers to reevaluate what that means.

For further commentary on the past, present, and future of Star Wars, click here.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Movies for Mother's Day

Today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema featured music from Mother’s Day related films. Here is a recap of the movies discussed on the program as well as some additional titles.

20th Century Women (2016)
Set in the late 1970s, a teenage boy comes of age under the guidance of his mother and two other women. The film features a terrific central cast including Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, and Lucas Jade Zumann.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974)
A recently widowed mother takes her son on the road in pursuit of a singing career. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore features a terrific performance by Ellen Burstyn in the kind of substantive female role that is still all too rare in mainstream motion pictures.

I Remember Mama (1948)
Adapted from the stage play (which was based a novel by Kathryn Forbes), I Remember Mama tells the story of a Norwegian family immigrating to San Francisco in the early twentieth century.

The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Based on the novel by Amy Tan, four Chinese-American women explore their family histories and their relationships with their mothers through a series of flashbacks.

Kill Bill (2003/2004)
Quentin Tarantino’s two-part ode to kung-fu movies does not initially start as a tale about motherhood but this theme emerges over the course of the film. Kill Bill is a revenge story that morphs into a rescue and creates an unexpected emotional payoff in the ending.

Mildred Pierce (1941 & 2011)
James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce tells the story of a working mother who divorces her husband and struggles to raise her difficult daughter. The book was adapted twice, first in 1941 starring Joan Crawford and again in 2011 in a miniseries for HBO that starred Kate Winslet.

Mommie Dearest (1981)
Mommie Dearest was based on the memoir by Christina Crawford which alleged that her mother, screen legend Joan Crawford, was an abusive and erratic train wreck. The film was a commercial success but it was also regarded as an artistic disaster. In the years since, Mommie Dearest has become a cult classic.

Philomena (2013)
A dramatization of the nonfiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith which documented a woman’s search for the son she was forced to put up for adoption while she was living in an Irish convent. Philomena was named one of the ten best movies of 2013 on Sounds of Cinema.

Tallulah (2016)
Ellen Page plays a vagrant young woman who comes across a neglectful high society mother and her toddler. The young woman absconds with the child and takes shelter at the home of her mother’s boyfriend, claiming the child is her own. The film is a thoughtful examination of womanhood and motherhood built around a complex ethical conflict.

Terms of Endearment (1983)
James L. Brooks scored a commercial and critical hit with 1983’s Terms of Endearment. The film takes place over three decades and explores the relationship between a mother and daughter played by Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger.