Finite Focus: Ustinov & Laughton (Spartacus)

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As much as I enjoyed each and every one of the 196 minutes of my first viewing of Spartacus (in wonderful 70mm no less!), I wasn’t even halfway through it when I was able to pick out my favourite scene. Oh sure, the long shots of 10000 extras are magnificent, the massive battle scene both stunning and exciting (real rolling logs of fire!) and the individual gladiator fights quite visceral (far more so than anything from Gladiator), but for my money the most gratifying footage of the entire epic is the 3 and a half minute master class on “How to deliver your lines” as given by Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton.

Granted, they had some fantastic dialogue to work with as Dalton Trumbo’s script hits some high points here (though perhaps not quite as high as the subversive “oysters and snails” bisexual subtext scene that follows it directly and which was excised from the film until its 1991 restoration), but the two actors are delighting in their characters so much they add a sense of joy to the entire scene. It opens shortly after Spartacus and his fellow gladiator slaves have rebelled and broken out of Batiatus’ (a Best Supporting Oscar turn by Ustinov) gladiator training facility (where slaves are turned into warriors to eventually battle each other to the death for the amusement of others). Life was good for Batiatus – his role as buyer and seller of slaves had left him wealthy and with few worries – until the revolt crushed his prison facility and forced him to flee to his friend Roman Senator Gracchus (Laughton).

Though he seeks compensation and a bit of revenge, it isn’t against the rebellious Spartacus, but against Crassus (Sir Laurence Olivier) – Gracchus’ main rival in the Senate. Crassus had stopped by to see Batiatus recently and demanded to be entertained by a private death match between several of the slaves. Though completely against the standard practice, Batiatus relented and set up the fight for Crassus and the “capricious, over-painted nymphs” who had accompanied him. This indignity, along with Crassus purchasing Spartacus’ new love and taking her away, sparks the uprising. Gracchus entertains the idea of vengeance against Crassus as he too is no big fan of the politically astute and power hungry Crassus.

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Finite Focus: Billy’s classroom story (Kes)

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Suppose a man has a hundred sheep. lf one of them strays, does he not leave the other 99 on the hillside and go in search of the one that strayed? And if he should find it, I tell you this, he is more delighted over that sheep than over the 99 that never strayed.

 

The bible passage above, as spoken by a young girl at a school assembly in Ken Loach’s magnificent film Kes, is pretty straightforward in its message: embrace those who are different and who wander away from the expected. It’s a shame none of the adults in the movie actually pay attention to it and quite ironic that they spend a great deal of the time bemoaning how “these kids” never listen.

Every single adult – parent, teacher, boss, social servant, etc. – appears to obstruct the children from pursuing their own paths. They berate them constantly, push them towards the same dull existences they were forced into and seem to demean them at every turn. The assembly scene is a precursor to the school’s principal admonishing a group of boys (most of them innocent) for various “crimes” and, before caning them, essentially telling them all that they are worthless and that it is pointless for him to even try talking to them since they never listen. It’s comical, yet very sad due to the very realistic style of the movie and the picture it paints of the working class of 1960s England.

It’s the scene that follows this, though, that is one of my favourites of the film and one that shows that you can occasionally find hope (even if at some point it may be dashed) in dire circumstances. The titular character of the film is actually a falcon (a kestrel to be precise), but it is his owner, the young schoolboy Billy Casper, that is the focus. Picked on by just about everyone and having just come from his own caning (simply for having fallen asleep at the assembly due to his early morning chores), Billy is pulled into his class’ discussion about “Fact And Fiction”. His teacher Mr. Farthing is asking students to define what a fact is and to tell the class a factual story or event that occurred to them. Catching Billy not paying attention, he singles him out and appears to be yet another adult trying to assert his control.

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Finite Focus: Literary Interlude (The Big Sleep)

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There’s pretty much nothing I don’t love about Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep – Bogart’s world-weary but somehow still idealistic private eye Philip Marlowe, the chemistry between him and Lauren Bacall (now an off-screen couple starring in their second film together), the cast of colorful supporting characters like Martha Vickers as Bacall’s crazy sister, the witty and caustic script, the florid dialogue, yes, even the fact that some of the mystery isn’t even resolved. I love the very messiness of it. But when I think back about The Big Sleep, the scene that usually pops into my head is essentially extraneous to the main mystery, is unrelated to Marlowe’s relationship with Bacall’s character, and is basically an all-but-unnecessary interlude to the entire rest of the film. I’m talking about the scene where Philip Marlowe goes to a pair of rare bookstores to follow up on a clue.

Read more and see the scene after the jump. (No spoilers for the film as a whole.)

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Finite Focus: The Client is Always Wrong (Desperado)

Having just caught The Losers, a sort of the 80s action and ‘splotions throwback in earnest stupidity with the stylistic nudge-nudge-wink-wink most definitely not in that era, my first point of entry into the films blend of super-cool-posturing and bantering snark was Robert Rodriguez’s big(ger) El Mariachi sequel/reboot Desperado. And it was not just the ‘keep moving the plot along’ speed of the film, like all the interstitial guts were removed in the editing process, but also the Zoe Saldana – Jeffrey Dean Morgan sex scene seems to be very much like the abridged Salma Hayak – Antonio Banderas candle lights and slo-mo playboy spread.

But enough of comparisons, let us talk of the indomitable Steve Buscemi! Here is a character actor who can be goofy overkill (watch how he puts out is cigarette) and confiding and very serious but also be quite self-aware. Basically, Buscemi’s body language is (more-or-less) the tone of the film. Heck, his character is even named “Buscemi.” In the below scene he is fishing for information by putting himself in a dangerous situation, a bar full of idle criminals and thugs, and proceeds to insult them without exactly insulting them, and intimidate them (as much as Buscemi can be intimidating, a joke likely borrowed by the casting agent of Con Air) not by his own presence, but by being harbinger of El Mariachi (but here re-invented a vengeance driven superhero). Hey don’t shoot the messenger!

Watching Buscemi enter the bar (comically full of trophy antlers), take a seat despite a distinct lack of hospitality, and be pleasant and intimate with the bartender is exactly the sort of weightless fun we like in a big silly action picture. Although it adds just an extra touch of goofy that had the (in my experience in talking with action-nuts) effect of actually putting people off the film. Much like Kick-Ass, the line of what you are willing to take in terms ‘wanting real’ and ‘wanting fantasy’ and the suspension of disbelieve varies from audience to audience. But still, you can’t knock the pure promise of fun and mayhem that is offered in the opening sequence of Desperado, and Rodriguez’s willingness not to ever get to serious with his premise. Throwaway fun? Sure. But cotton candy is good once in a while.

Finite Focus: The End of an Era (The Last Picture Show)

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Spoilers for The Last Picture Show

Of all the New Hollywood directors, Peter Bogdanovich may be the one who carried his love of and nostalgia for Old Hollywood the most visibly on his sleeve. Before making his way out to Hollywood to be a director, he was a unquenchable cinephile, devouring the works of Ford, Hawks, Welles, and other Old Hollywood filmmakers, and quickly becoming close friends with many of them when he did arrive in Hollywood. Throughout his career, many of his films hearken back to the Golden Age of Cinema, from the Depression era nostalgia of Paper Moon to the screwball antics of What’s Up, Doc? But The Last Picture Show, one of his first major films, is special because it’s not only an imitation in some ways of classic styles (most obviously in its black and white cinematography), but it’s a eulogy to the end of an era that nonetheless pushes forward into a new era of both filmmaking and society itself.

Though the story of the film focuses on young people Sonny, Jacy, and Duane as they work through their love lives and desires to escape from small-town Texas, the heart of the film and of the town itself is Sam the Lion. Sam owns the pool hall, cafe, and movie theatre – the three major businesses in Anarene. He also acts as protector to the mentally slow boy Billy, keeping him safe and stopping others from mistreating him. Sam is the moral rock of the town, though he’s hardly a moralist – he’s just a strong presence that makes you want to do the right thing by the people around you simply because Sam is there and you know it’s what he’d want. Sam is the last Hollywood hero, the last in the line of Hawksian and Fordian heroes, men of quiet strength and personal honor.

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Finite Focus: Inconceivable! (My Dinner With Andre)

My Dinner With Andre has been (more or less) integrated into public awareness as much through parodies as from various critical support upon its release in the early 1980s. But sitting down with the film, all the jokes and the hype (if that is the appropriate word) disappear as you drop into the trance of compelling storytelling. The title being a literal description of the movie, and indeed over a few courses in a Hotel Restaurant, Andre Gregory does most of the talking, mainly consisting of new-age philosophies and group consciousness experiments. It is mesmerizing mainly due to Gregory’s enthusiasm and preacher-like intensity (Gregory would be cast as just this later on in the decade in both The Mosquito Coast and The Last Temptation of Christ, perhaps due to his work here.) Actor/playwright Wallace Shawn, the “My” of the title and the voice-over narrator at the beginning of the film is essentially a patient listener as he munches on his cailles aux raisins (er, quail.) But that only sets the stage for when Shawn comes alive with his response to it all. The actor is famous for the energy of his voice, whether it be the nervous Dinosaur in the Toy Story films or the verbose Sicilian in The Princess Bride. Here, he delivers his rebuttal to Gregory’s ‘quest for life’ mumbo-jumbo with a more simple, practical approach grounded in the tangible and the scientific. Not surprisingly, while it takes Gregory over an hour to spell things out, Shaw does it in a rather succinct six minutes, and it is the actor (playing a movie-version of himself) at his incredulous best. Charleton Heston and cold coffee, yum!

 

Finite Focus: “Someone get me a fucking wiener before I die!” (One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest)

In this age of 3D glasses, product placement, and an abundance of needless special effects, I sometimes forget what it is that has always made me love movies so much. For me, I’m reminded during those rare moments when the actors completely take over a scene, where everyone and everything just clicks, and I become so engrossed in the moment that I am no longer aware that I am sitting on the couch in my living room in podunk Pennsylvania munching on reheated pizza. It’s those times when my analytical eye goes blind, when I forget that I’m watching people act, where I’m no longer examining the camerawork and mentally tearing apart the story for inconsistencies, and imagining the directors orchestrating the scene during production.

There are some scenes (and entire movies) that are just so perfect, that when I watch them or think about them, my mind pulsates with elation to the point where I think that one of these days when I watch it, my brain very well may explode from an overload of sheer awesomeness. This is one of those scenes. This is one of those movies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not a movie that is a stranger to critical and commercial praise – it won five Oscars after all, including Best Picture – but sometimes the praise it has received makes me take for granted how great of a movie it really is. It is a showcase of brilliant acting, a “how-to” for any aspiring young actor out there, and a delicious treat for anyone who, like myself, watches films first and foremost for interesting characters and deeply layered performances.

This scene should be viewed in all Acting 101 classes.

p.s. Does anyone else find Brad Dourif grossly underrated as an actor?

Finite Focus: Epilepsy! (Enter The Void)

As 2009 films go, there is a lot of love around these parts for Gaspar Noé‘s sensational masterpiece Enter The Void: Three of the dozen or so contributors to Row Three chose it as their ‘best film of 2009’ and it should bear mentioning that they were the only three that saw it! Hyperbole aside, I am well aware that this tour-de-force opening credit sequence does not play nearly to the effect of seeing this on a massive screen, but for sheer insanity (and complete lack of practicality), I offer them to you in all their garish, electronic, spastic, GLORY!

Those wondering if the film is as assaultive as the below credit sequence, well, it is and it is not (Row Three Review). The film is not as directly punishing as Noé’s previous Irreversible; rather, Enter The Void is more melodic and breezy for the most part and this sequence is the most prankster-ish element. Enjoy.

Finite Focus: Did You See That Coming? (May)

May_onesheetThere is a scene, buried in the middle of Lucky McKee‘s romantic riff on dolls and Frankenstein, that achieves a graceful and majestic form of horror. Do not take this the wrong way, there are dozens of memorable scenes May, from the titular lead’s (Angela Bettis) creepy schizophrenic relationship to her doll Suzie, to her cute courting of Argento-loving hunk Adam (Jeremy Sisto) and his charming brand of amateur short-filmmaking, her gory veterinary anecdotes, and her passive-aggressive lesbian relationship with pet-hospital secretary Polly (Ana Farris). It is nice to see a horror film built almost entirely on relationships, rather than external supernatural or criminal elements. But there is a sequence in the film that is playfully exploitative, skin-crawling-ly physical and executed with flair.

May, acutely aware of loneliness and imperfection (her own lazy-eye being the subject of childhood trauma), takes to volunteering in a classroom for blind children. In an attempt to giving a bit of herself to get to know the kids, she brings her childhood ‘friend’ Suzie, a Gothic hand-made doll that gives good reaction-shot from any angle, to ‘show’ the kids. Perplexed that her friend is in a box, the children make a rather intense play for May to open up the glass case, something that has never been done since her mother crafted Suzie a couple decades past. Various ‘all-in-her-head’ exchanges with Suzie have elevated into a full on psychological battle with the doll, visually (and aurally) represented by the glass grinding and cracking from the electric tension of the two ‘women.’ The blind tots making a grab for the cracked case causes Suzie to fall to the floor, and the kids, in a surreal fashion (high on symbolism, low on the reality of being blind) gather that Suzie is ‘free.’ They make a grab for her – across the floor scattered broken glass. Not since John McTiernan’s Die Hard has walking (crawling) on glass been so wince-worthy. At one point, while May tries to wipe the accumulating blood from Suzie and herself from her face, a piece of glass in her on her hand scalpels further; more blood ensues. May’s scars and Suzie’s broken amputated body and a collection of frantic children scrambling are a beautifully scored hint as to what is to come for the big finale of the film. In context or out of context, the scene is a winner.

Finite Focus: Clear Eyes in the Desert (The Hit)

TheHit_onesheetTerence Stamp has the ability to play a hard-edge mo-fo like any of the best of cockney slanged gangsters, but he also brings a goofiness, a loose charm, and sly wit to his performances that make for a unique performances. Bringing exactly this to the table in Stephen Frears’ 1984 gangster picture, The Hit, Stamp plays a mid level operator, Willie Parker, who for reasons known only to himself (well, there is the small matter of the witness relocation program ponying up a villa in Spain for his retirement) sells all of his mates and bosses to the state. Ten years later, in the barren Spanish desert, Willie is captured by Braddock, a smooth and super-cool professional killer tasked, along with wet behind the ears henchman Myron (played by a baby-faced Tim Roth), to bring Willie back to ‘justice’ from the blokes now out of the clink.

But this road trip from Madrid to Paris is anything but typical, much of the time it seems Willie is more in charge and in control of things than Braddock. His zen calm at his decidedly limited number of hours on earth spooks Braddock and threatens Myron’s loyalty to his boss. In this scene, Braddock and Parker have a little existential and poetic heart to heart at fate and loyalty and professionalism. John Hurt’s performance as the subdued, cool (under which hides confusion) jobber is quite wonderful.

Other than The Criterion Collection re-releasing this wonderfully offbeat film on DVD in April last year, it was more or less forgotten amongst Frears’ more famous works; yet very likely it is one of those little seen, but highly influential pictures. Evoking the effortless cool also seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – another film about heists and gangsters yet little violence or crime on screen as well as the past-coming-to-roost of Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast and probably a young Jim Jarmusch.

In short, The Hit is a real gem. Long live the art-gangster picture.

Finite Focus: And Death Shall have no Dominion (Solaris)

Solaris_onesheetLike most great science fiction films, Solaris (and I mean the Steven Soderbergh remake, not the Andrei Tarkovsky film from 1972) was not appreciated all that much on initial release. *Spoilers Follow* I am not sure if a re-evaluation of the film has started yet, but if not, here is as good a place as any. Delicately sprinkled with the debate on divinity vs. astronomical probability, the film seems to tap out on the side that Solaris is in fact the almighty, who trials the cosmonauts on the station with mirrors of their own thoughts. After requesting friend and psychiatrist Kris Kelvin (George Clooney) to come up an evaluate the problem on the orbiting space station, the scientific leader on the shuttle, Dr. Gibarian, commits suicide. Later, the Doctor’s ghost (or perhaps Kelvin’s own conscience or even, more daringly, God Himself) offers, “There is no solution, only choices.” (Earlier Gibarian also equates space travel as the search for divinity in another choice quote, “We do not want other worlds, we want mirrors.”) After the remaining two scientists begin bombarding their ghostly yet corporeal visitors, possibly manifestations from the planet based on each persons memories and emotions, with anti-bosons, the planet pulls the station into its implacable mauve energy cloud.

The crashing station with Kelvin still aboard becomes a ‘moment of fear’ or a ‘moment of truth’ as the three remaining passengers wait for god. The scenes with Jeremy Davies’ character literally meeting his maker are shot to evoke both alien abduction (Fire in the Sky), part spiritual awakening. As it should be, because the film postulates both. More interestingly is Kelvin’s final journey, first of pain and suffering, then help by way of Gibarian’s ‘son’ (an corporeal entity of Solaris, The Son of God?) who reaches out a comforting hand, and a offers a serene (Jesus-like?) face. That he ends up in Heaven (of sorts, where “Everything we’ve done is forgiven. Everything”) with his deceased wife – all radiant and finally at peace, only cements things.