Reds (1981)

Reds (1981) movie poster

director Warren Beatty
viewed: 07/14/2016

Epic is as epic does.

Reds is well-likely Warren Beatty’s most personal magnum opus.  Perhaps if Reds had gotten more love, he might have made more films as director than he has.

It’s been said that “Everybody wants to be a director!” probably going back to the time before cinema itself.  But Beatty made Reds before actors-turned-directors really won kudos and Oscars.  It lost out Best Picture to Chariots of Fire (1981) which I’ve never seen and at present, I doubt I’ll ever see.  That said, Raiders of the Lost Ark also lost out to Chariots of Fire that year.  But the Oscars have never been kind to actually great films.

Is Reds a great film?  It certainly strives for it.  Beatty gives it his dedicated all, with great cinematography by Vittorio Storaro, music by Stephen Sondheim and Dave Grusin, a fine script by Beatty and Trevor Griffiths, and a cast that included Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Maureen Stapleton (who did garner an Oscar), Gene Hackman, Paul Sorvino, Jerzy Kosinski, and scads of others (this is an epic, after all).

And truly, it’s a story of true merit, based on the lives of John Reed, journalist and socialist who wrote “Ten Days that Shook the World” and his lover and fellow journalist Louise Bryant.  Set in the heady days of WWI and leading up the the Russian revolution, it’s a radical picture for Hollywood perhaps of any era, what with the Communists as the good guys, when only a couple decades ago many were blacklisted for even tenuous associations.

What truly elevates the film, though, is the innovation that Beatty achieves by interviewing “Witnesses”, the real actual people who knew either Reed and/or Bryant.  These people appear as elderly talking heads against a black background, giving varying degrees of context, at first almost seeming nonsequiturs, but ultimately adding verity and reality to the fictional sprawl of the epic tale with a connection to the document.  Tremendously innovative, it lifts the film, from the good to possibly great.


Spartacus (1960)

Spartacus (1960) movie poster

director Stanley Kubrick
viewed: 06/22/2014

Ah, Man.  Spartacus.

This was another one of those movies that I’m not sure how I managed to go 45 years without seeing.  It’s Stanley Kubrick.  Most film dudes (and dudettes) have seen every Stanley Kubrick movie, right?

Me.  Not even.  I still haven’t seen Killer’s Kiss (1955), Paths of Glory (1957) or Barry Lyndon (1975) and oddly enough, it’s been eons since I’ve seen most of them.

Epics are a slog.  I mean Spartacus is over three hours long.  And you know from the opening moment that you are in for a long haul.  It opens with a title card of “Overture” and a black screen plays back a rather forceful musical theme for quite a while before the pictures and title come.  If you didn’t know before that, you know pretty quick that this is one long movie.

It’s got a great cast.  Kirk Douglas leads with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov, and Charles Laughton playing the Roman leads.  It came at a time of a lot of big Biblical epics were cramming the screens, so this piece of historical cinema jogs just aside of the Christian story but still gets to pit itself against ancient Rome.  That while it’s more subtly about the Hollywood blacklist and the import of the Civil Rights movement.

It was interesting to see Olivier because I don’t think I’ve recently watched any movie that he was in.  And Peter Ustinov.  He’s very appealing as well.  Douglas seems a little long in the tooth for the role of the slave revolt leader, but he produced the film and dammit, that’s just how Hollywood works.

Apparently, Spartacus was the only of Stanley Kubrick’s films that he did not have final cut on and one which he dismissed from his oeuvre.  You can kind of see that.  It’s more a Hollywood epic than a personal vision, though it’s good, well-made entertainment.  Maybe that’s it.  It’s good, well-made entertainment.

Intolerance (1916)

Intolerance (1916) movie poster

director D.W. Griffith
viewed: 10/05/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

My first ever film class in 1986 was really quite a fine class.  We watched a number of great films, great standard film school type films, a truly good primer on cinema studies.

It was in this film class that I learned about D.W. Griffith and saw his 1916 epic Intolerance for the first time.  My teacher has alluded to The Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith’s troublingly racist masterpiece and landmark in world cinema, but deferred from showing it.  He did later show us Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), so he wasn’t merely eluding controversy or problematic films of significance.

Since, I have really come around to Griffith and the Silent Era of film.  I recall being very struck by Broken Blossoms (1919) in a graduate film class and have come to really have enjoyed his Sally of the Sawdust (1925) as well.  I also finally saw The Birth of a Nation.  But I hadn’t actually had a chance to see Intolerance again all these years.

So when a new print was showing at the Castro, I stepped out of an over-warm afternoon into the cooler confines on San Francisco’s best cinema to reconnect with a film I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years.

When you’ve made a commercially successful film based on a racist story of the rise of the KKK as the protection of American values, you come under a lot of flak.  Griffith sought to meet his critics in this massive epic about religious, racist, societal intolerance, trying to show that he was not such a bad guy after all.  He focuses on four narratives, one about the fall of ancient Babylon, one the crucifixion of Christ, another about a slaughter of Protestants in Renaissance France, and a contemporary tale of would-be do-gooder Christians who are intolerant of booze, dancing, and poverty.

Notably, he doesn’t at all address more glaring racial issues.  And it’s the Jewish Pharisees that are the ones intolerant of Christ and his teachings of love.

So as far as redressing his wrongs, it’s highfalutin’ hogwash.

But as epic cinema it is something unparalleled.

The sets of the Babylonian palace are so massive that they are hard to fully fathom.  Thousands of extras populate these massive sets, dwarfed by statuary and the incredible detail therein to evoke this ancient time.

It’s little wonder that the film focuses so much on the Babylonian story.  You put that much into a set, you better spend more than a quarter of your film on it.

But the film originated with the contemporary story, expanded into the bigger visions, but still lingering on the two tales that had more going from the plot angle, the oldest and the most modern.

But as what Griffith had perfected in his early short films, his build up to a climax, including racing vehicles: trains, chariots, horses, battles, cross-cutting back and forth to drive up the drama.  This is where the film succeeds the best.

It’s an enormous film, enormously long, enormously built, cast, and enormously ambitious.  Also enormously Christian in its core and morality.  Didactic beyond a fault.  But for all of the things one could cast as aspersions in its way, its monumentality and ambition still prove it out as one of the most significant films of its time by one of the most important innovators in cinema of all time.  It’s flaws, as in Griffith’s flaws, are all part of the portrait, impossible to deny, are aspects that must be appreciated, absorbed, taken as part of its already voluminous whole and kept utterly in mind.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 09/15/2013

I was already a little burned out on The Lord of the Rings before we began watching The Return of the King.  And it turned out that the kids were as well.  Not that they entirely realized it.

Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning finale is the longest of his trilogy and arguably actually the weakest.  It’s not just fatigue with the story and general tiresomeness of sitting through so many hours, but it’s not as compelling, it seems either.  His winning the Oscar for Best Picture for the film was more of a tip of the hat for the overall accomplishment of such a massive epic rendering relayed through the three films.  That seemed clear even at the time.  Besides, Hollywood loves commercial success.

In revisiting the series for the first time in a decade, my main thoughts are that the casting and designs are the best qualities of the films.  Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are quite a good pair as Frodo and Sam and their hobbit bromance.  Ian McKellen is great as Gandalf and everyone else is pretty good as whoever else they are.  And the digitally-enhanced New Zealand is very impressive and awesome.  Heck, even the orcs are lovingly repulsive.

The digital effects have aged okay.  As I’ve noted, there are some digital “camera shots” that I think look more dated than other effects.  I still stand by the statement that digital effects overall seem to age badly.  Gollum still reads pretty well, but I think it’s more to do with the character development in this.  The digital Gollum was a breakthrough in its day, but actor Andy Sirkis brought a lot of that to life in ways that will perhaps keep the film fresh for years to come.

But the finale was all about fatigue.  I asked Felix which film he liked most and he said that he thought The Two Towers (2002) was his favorite.  He couldn’t really say why, but I think that the Gollum character is a key part of the trilogy’s arc (at least the film trilogy) and he has his best moments in The Two Towers.  Both Felix and Clara enjoyed the series overall but focused a lot less throughout this one.  I think we’re all glad it’s over.

It was still very amusing and very “meta” for me and them as they viewed it through the influence of LEGO The Lord of the Rings video gaming, which added familiarity at a removed level, something I encountered only vicariously through them.

Maybe one day, they’ll read the books.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 09/07/2013

The kids wanted to watch The Lord of the Rings, march right through the series.  I warned them that these movies are all loooong.  At three hours, though, The Two Towers is much shy of the finale in length.

I hadn’t revisited the films since seeing them in the theater a decade ago on their initial release.  They are epic enough once.

The films are largely wonderfully cast and designed.  The worlds of Middle Earth and the characters find beautiful rendering in Peter Jackson’s films.

But here in 2013, we are dealing with Jackson’s hubristic The Hobbit (2012) series, pumped up as long as the whole The Lord of the Rings trilogy, while based on a much more slim volume.  So, some cynicism has arisen in my heart at Jackson, even in viewing this older films.

Not entirely fair.  But there you go.

The kids really enjoyed the film.  Gollum makes for an interesting and sympathetic hook.  Felix actually fell asleep for the last hour of the film and caught up watching it with Clara the next day.  She gladly sat through the ending again.  Still influenced by Felix’s playing of LEGO The Lord of the Rings.

We’re all ready to watch the finale next Saturday.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai (1954) movie poster

director Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 04/12/2013

My venture into cinema with my kids has typically been quite a broad one, but seeking to expand it yet further, I set us up with Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai for Friday night.  I, myself, hadn’t seen it until five years ago, shamed-faced as I was to realize that.  But Seven Samurai was actually only the 2nd film that we watched in a foreign language together, with me reading the subtitles to them so they wouldn’t have the challenge of keeping up, but would have the sound of the language in their ears.  They were certainly open-minded about it.  I had, however, forgotten that it was over 3 hours long, which has been more daunting (the length) than many other possible impediments to success with them.

When the intermission rolled around, both Clara and Felix groaned, “What! It’s only half-over?”  Fair enough, fair enough.  Epics are epics.  They require endurance.

Being familiar with The Magnificent Seven (1960) and A Bug’s Life (1998) (oddly to a slightly lesser extent), I had talked to them about how this film was adapted into those two, and how many elements of the story, characterization, action and adventure had been pulled into many other films since.  Felix has been particularly keen to see many of the films considered to be among the best ever made.  Whether he is at the right age to appreciate them fully, or whether Clara is, might be somewhat questionable, but I also thought that having seen Seven Samurai now, at this age with me, it will be a part of his/her landscape of cinema going forward.

Queried at the end of the film, Felix said it was “okay”.  Clara said she liked it.  These are typical post-movie responses from the two of them, probable to be repeated time and again after many varied films we see together.

For me, it had been five years since I’d first seen it, and while much of it remained strong in my mind, oddly the fact of its epic length had been forgotten.  Maybe that is a statement to how engaging the film is.  Even at 3 hours plus, it doesn’t feel overlong.  In fact, through much of it, the pacing seems apt and energetic.  And really, the kids did not wane through the film.  They made it all the way and were involved throughout.

It really has been the template of a great action/adventure film, from the build up of the characters to the inevitable battle sequence that finishes the story.  Takashi Shimura is great as Kambei Shimada, the eldest, noble, first samurai enlisted to protect the farming village.  I also particularly liked Seiji Miyaguchi as Kyūzō, the quiet, serious, deadly capable member of the team.  And as always, the great Toshiro Mifune is great as the rambunctious, wily rebel, Kikuchiyo.  There is much of class, not so much critique perhaps, but representation in what the ideals of the samurai are meant to be.  Like the classics of the Western genre, which I so often consider in contrast with the Samurai film, such an early genre film tends to establish more of the tropes, traditions, effects, character types than to subvert them.

What I noticed this time that I hadn’t before was that each of the samurai that are slain in the film are felled by musket fire.  None falls to the traditional weapons of the samurai, not swords, spears, arrows, knives, but each are brought down by essentially “cheap shots”.  Set as it is in 1587, these weapons are rare and almost seem anachronistic.  Throughout the siege, though, the samurai are keenly aware of the number of guns that the enemy has, with two of the weapons being uniquely captured by the daring of two of the samurai.  It is the third, uncaptured gun that brings down the last two, even with Kikuchiyo surging forward, bullet wound in his gut, to slay the man with the firearm.

It’s an interesting point, with perhaps some interesting interpretations.  I won’t overly hazard much here.  But I will say that it struck me.

Great movie.  Maybe I’ll give the kids a break next week.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924) movie poster

director Raoul Walsh
viewed: 02/16/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The opportunity to see a newly restored print of Douglas Fairbanks/Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad was an opportunity not to be missed at this year’s Silent Film Festival Winter Event.  Frankly, I’d gladly sit through it all, but I dragged the kids through Snow White (1916), a collection of Buster Keaton shorts, and this epic epic of nearly 3 hours in itself, I felt we’d done pretty darn well.

We had watched The Thief of Bagdad (1924) once before on DVD when the kids were much younger and I was just exposing them to silent film.  Felix and another girl his age loved it and remembered it as awesome for years afterward.  Much later and not terribly long ago, we watched the British Technicolor remake The Thief of Bagdad (1940), which was brilliant as well in its own way.  But now, the kids are older, much more experienced in watching silent films (no longer necessarily needing me to read the inter-titles anymore.)

Frankly, I enjoyed it more than they did this time around.  My own memory of the film proved pretty concrete.  The first half of the film is a joyous, lush, fantastic and comical tale of the titular hero, a happy-go-lucky thief (the marvelous Fairbanks) who “takes what he wants” and lives as he pleases.  Only when he goes to steal from the Caliph’s palace, he falls in love with the princess, and realizes his bon-vivant life needs redemption, which he can achieve under the guidance of religion and the successful accomplishment of a great quest.

The quest is the second part of the film.  The princess’s suitors are sent to the ends of the earth to find the rarest of treasures, with each one trying to outdo the other.  Fairbanks goes the farthest, battles a number of creatures, achieves the ultimate goals, of course, and then has to come back to Bagdad to save the princess and the who city from the conniving Asian villain.

The sets are big and lush, the action is big and wonderful.  In a lot of ways, it’s not at all unlike the kind of popcorn movies that Hollywood has been churning out most summers ever since.  Action and adventure and what would have been some top special effects of the day.  Certainly a few of the creatures bear the silly weakness of their technical limitations, but the flying carpet is done in a marvelous stunt and has all the magic that cinema can offer.

In the introduction to the film, it was suggested that Fairbanks “danced” his role, perhaps with a nod to Vaslav Nijinsky, and it was interesting taking that notion in through the film because Fairbanks’ performance is very physical.  Even with the full-body emotive acting style of the silents, his movements are outsized and broad.  But considering the intention, the fluidity and musicality of his movements, the performance is much easier to fully appreciate.  He has an action that he does with his hands to indicate that he’s “wanting” something and while its all far from subtle, it certainly has a vivid energy and sense of “lust for life” that truly embody the character.

Certainly, you can see this film on DVD and hopefully then on a screen of good size, but it cannot be beat to see it on the big screen with live orchestration.  Top notch film-going experience.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed: 12/30/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

One of the most beloved films of all times, I was keen to take the kids to see Lawrence of Arabia at the Castro Theatre, showing from a new digital restoration, that some have called “a revelation”.  It’s got to be said, the infinitesimal details that are made visible in this restoration are amazing.  Cinematographer Freddie Young’s epic vistas of the desert are doubtlessly more stunning than they have ever been, exemplified perhaps, in the scene in which Omar Sharif first appears, a hazy dot in a swimmingly illusory haze of heat, riding into visibility.  The scale of these scenes is profound.

This experience led me to reflect on the first time that I saw Lawrence of Arabia in its entirety.  It was in a film class in college, one of the first films I ever saw on VHS in letterbox format.  On a relatively small television screen.  Like many new to letterboxing, I was slightly appalled at how tiny everything was, but as the film went on, I could see that the breadth of the image was important to keep intact.  Even as a semi-microscopic thing, the film communicated its vastness and epic qualities.  I certainly had never seen it on the big screen, in now way in the detail of the new format.  It’s a tremendous way to enjoy the film.

Of course, it’s also nearly four hours long.  By far the longest film I’ve ever watched with the kids.  I think that part of it was an endurance run for them.

This is, in my opinion, a pinnacle of period, style, and genre.  David Lean accomplished here what filmmakers for decades since have been trying to recapture, those that dare into the realm of the epic.  And it’s all iconic stuff.  From Peter O’Toole’s performance, Young’s cinematography, Maurice Jarre’s musical score, this is classic cinema of the 20th century achieving something tremendous and amazing.

Certainly, anyone can disagree.  But it’s one of those films that most film lovers love.  I guess I’ll have to list myself among them.

The kids were indeed daunted by the length, but it was telling how intently focused they remained throughout the film, even in the parts that are probably a bit more complicated to follow.  How they’ll rank it for their favorites will be for them to decide.  To me, it’s just great cinema.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed:  04/07/2012

Felix picked this one for movie night.  His grandfather had told him about it, saying that it was one of his favorite films.  But perhaps more than any other aspect of his grandfather’s thoughts on David Lean’s 1957 WWII prison camp epic The Bridge on the River Kwai was that his granddad and his friends, inspired by the film as kids, went into the woods and built bridges and blew them up afterwards.  I should note that Felix’s grandfather eventually went on to be an engineer for British Rail, actually working on building bridges.  Not a saboteur.

It was fine with me.  I’d thought of taking the kids to see it at the Castro some months ago.  I prefer to not be the only person suggesting films for the kids.

This is one of those films that seemed to be on so regularly when I was a kid that I don’t know how many times I’d seen it, or if I’d watched it all the way through in any one sitting, or what, but I’d probably seen the final scene, the blowing up of the bridge often enough to feel as familiar as almost any cinema that I can think of.

The story of English, American, Australian, Burmese, Thai, all sorts of soldiers (though mostly British), stuck in a Japanese prison camp in 1943 somewhere in Thailand or Burma, forced to work on a railroad bridge across a river.  When a new group of prisoners comes in, led by Alec Guinness in one of his most signature roles, almost everyone in the camp senses the meeting of an irresistible force against an unmovable object in the battle of wills between Guinness’s Col. Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa’s brutal Colonel Saito.  Clara very quickly came to hate Saito, his cruelty and severity so starkly on display from the get-go.  But it’s not just the Japanese whose rigor and pride wind up destroying themselves.  When Nicholson wins the first battle of the wills, showing the integrity of the British (perhaps against better judgment or not), he then wants to show further the ability of the British to build a bridge, a one-upsmanship that leads to even greater hubris.

The always great William Holden plays the more callow but still sensible and ultimately noble American, the one man who gets to call a spade a spade as far as self-importance, stiff-upper-lippedness (phew! just typing that was tough), and general blindness to common sense.

The location settings are tremendous, the beauty and wild drama of the landscapes, the exotic flora and fauna that surround all these men, that they hardly take one brief glimpse of.    The cinematography won an Oscar for Jack Hildyard.  This is one of the films that immediately comes to mind in thinking of Lean’s work in epic cinema, the epic breadth not just of story, but of image and setting.  The thing won a bunch of Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Guinness.  This is one of those films that is pretty well just plain great.  One of the films whose greatness is pretty readily obvious to most.  Probably one which you’d find the majority of people would generally agree upon.

The kids liked it, too.  Though perhaps Felix thought that more than one dramatic bridge explosion would happen.  However, that finale is pretty damn awesome in and of itself, a familiar, but brilliant piece of cinema.

Napoléon (1927)

Napoleon (1927) movie poster

director Abel Gance
viewed: 03/31/2012 at the Paramount Theater, Oakland, CA

The last time that Abel Gance’s Napoléon was shown theatrically in the United States was in the early 1980’s in New York City.  The version that was shown at that time was a four hour edit, rebuilt, compiled, enhanced by the film’s greatest devotee, film historian Kevin Brownlow, and produced in part by Francis Ford Coppola.  That version had a half-life on VHS and laser disc and was something I was always interested in, but never got around to seeing,  burgeoning film enthusiast that I was.

So, when the San Francisco Silent Film Festival arranged a series of showings in Oakland’s Paramount Theater of a newer version, a 5 1/2 hour edit, with live orchestra, showing the film’s final sequence as originally intended, using three projectors and three screens for the ambitious panorama shots that close the epic, I was in for absolute and for certain.

Even among the major films of the Silent Era, Napoléon is unique.  Originally logging in at over nine hours, planned as part one of a six film series about Napoleon’s life, and shot, as mentioned with sequences requiring three cameras and projectors, there is literally nothing like it.  And due to the expense of projecting the film properly, the opportunities for seeing it on film in the cinema come infrequently (and has been hinted at as perhaps “never again”).

The opening segment (there were three intermissions, including one of an hour and a half for dinner), the first two hours of the film, was perhaps the most radical and my personal favorite.  The film opens with a ten year old Napoleon Buonaparte, of Corsican birth, at Brienne College in France, played by the striking and stern Vladimir Roudenko (an amazing miniature of Albert Dieudonné who plays the adult Napoleon).  He is leading a snowball fight like a military campaign and Gance pulls out almost all the stops (not yet the tri-screen finale) to tell the story.  Featuring dramatic hand-held camera work, super-fast cuts, multiple exposures, you name it.  It’s an amazing sequence in and of itself.

The first segment, running at two hours, also includes Napoleon’s return to Corsica and his persecution by the locals, for whom a variety of national associations are attempting to be made, namely by England.  He winds up escaping on a small craft and endures a serious storm which Gance contrasts back and forth with the goings on in Paris as the French Revolution takes hold, with a wildly swinging camera lunging at a crowd of people and back in one of the wildest of all of the shots in the film.

The middle sequences, including Napoleon’s first major victory at Toulon becomes a bit less dramatic and innovative as the film work in the opening pieces.  But the finale, with the panorama shots of the soldiers and the cavalry, riding from screen to screen in the foreground really attest to the vision and breadth of Gance’s concept.  The film is epic in length, especially in its first conception as six films of unknown length, utilizing techniques and creating techniques, blazing across the screen(s).  Napoleon, as subject, is prime epic material himself.  It’s a perfect match.

The film, as Brownlow has dedicated his life to researching, restoring, bringing back to life, bringing to the world, is a great story in the world of film restoration, something that we all should be grateful for.   But the film, initially on release in 1927 in Paris at 9 hours versus the 5 1/2 hours of our version is…clearly something different.  How different? Will we ever know?  Still much different from a 4 hour version in the 1980’s, too?  What was there?  What wasn’t?

The fascinating thing for me is how the peak of the Silent Era came about for less than a decade before it evaporated into the birth of sound film.  Feature films only began in the early 1920’s.  That by 1927, there was the ambition and vision for a film such as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Gance’s Napoléon had come to such dramatic development in the medium, such radical, epic work.  This small period, in which so many films were made (and so many lost to history), was as rich a time in cinema as ever there was or doubtless ever will be.