[1971] The French Connection

The French Connection was a real thing. I’m not going to re-edit the details here but know that in the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s and ’70s smugglers trafficked more heroin than you can count from the Middle East through Western Europe and eventually through North America. Its rise and fall demonically haunts pre- and post-war Europe through its enormous involvement at all levels of corruption, from local informants and drug runners up through the highest echelons of government and other agency. It was a perfect combination of circumstance and trading one aesthetic and global crisis for another, lesser (?) one.

The French Connection took to dramatize and compartmentalize 40 years of serious drug trafficking into 2 hours of thrill, substance and action. William Friedkin’s dramatic distillation of decades of drugs helped to liven the pulse of filmmaking that beat so heavily from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Much like the conflict for which the film was named, The French Connection took clever advantage of circumstance to help craft its message. The perfect combination of casting, direction, cinematography, special effects, production and source material together (among other factors) drove this movie to such heights as a political action thriller and an investigative crime drama, that to try to replicate it is almost impossible. Yet improbably, and mind-blowingly it’s probably the worst of the 4 movies to win Best Picture from 1969 to 1972. Continue reading

[1956] Giant

Name all three movies James Dean starred in before his untimely death in 1955.

Chances are you’ll name Rebel Without A Cause – his second starring role in what has come to define him and beatniks like him. So strong was his performance in Rebel, so strong in fact that actors almost 60 years later use his lead as a template in portraying the ’50s. The archetypical “rebel” demanded so much of his life, but paradoxically, you’ll be hard pressed to find a fan or a detractor who still wonders what the rest of his career could have offered. After his performance in Rebel – immediately following Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and immediately preceding George Stevens’ Giant – he certainly, if nothing else, curated a ratio of greatness-to-role unmatched. Wherein thousands of actors have come and gone almost none have accomplished what Dean did after just three roles.

As his last film, Giant allowed James Dean to explore his relationship with a future self, leaving on-screen a record of gargantuan greatness. Sprawled out over three-plus hours, Giant follows Texas men and women as they deal with oscillations in the American Dream, shifting from property ownership and family preservation to wealth speculation and cash hoarding; these motifs play out over and over…and over again in the next 60 years, both on screen and in real life – and we will notice that technology and communication convenience has piercingly demonstrated the dichotomy between the many ideologies of success. Dean, as prospering oil tycoon Jett Rink demonstrates the latter so convincingly, so astutely, that we’ll still wonder if Dean wasn’t meant for greatness in 1955 or 2055. The best actors radiate on screen; the all-time greats soar off it. Continue reading

[1995] Sense and Sensibility

Of the 512 films nominated since 1927, only a handful exist that I have almost no interest in seeing. Sense and Sensibility was one of them: on my initial screen, I audibly cringed when I approached 1995 and saw that, along with Il Postino, I had yet to see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel bearing the same name and the same tired, stepping-on-legos annoying people that plagued Ms. Austen’s novels and those of her contemporaries’, too. But it’s important to the blog and to my understanding of film history that I watch all the movies available irrespective of my aversion to them. I still find it crucial that the Academy chose each film based on specific criteria, and that each year’s winner exemplified some zeitgeist-affirming premise, or more likely, mood.

That said, it’s hard to argue against Sense and Sensibility for a nomination: the cast is impeccably English and Austen-esque, Thompson’s adaptation rightly (for film) exaggerates certain aspects about the Dashwood ladies’ wealth, and modernizes some of the male leads to better attract a more modern audience. Lee’s wide shots and modest cuts between scenes created, if nothing else, a beautifully filmed 2-hour adaptation. Really, though, nothing else: Austen, like the Brontë sisters, created this fantastical world where every sister or mother is clever and brooding and every man is either dashing or hopeless, but cruel nevertheless.

Thompson captured the essence of this story with fluidity and passion, but even with her sharp pen, the story suffers from a wanton ambivalence towards any of her characters and a waning clarity regarding the feelings of her moste brooding Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sufferers of too many male suitors and not enough money to live in a gigantic estate, only a smaller one. At its core Austen’s novel and Thompson’s adaptation proxies Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, within which the brooding lover decides whether she will choose sense or sensibility, never bits of both, but in truth makes no choice, simply an acceptance of fate. Oh the cruelty of Mrs. Dashwood’s husband’s first ex-wife! Oh, my word Colonel Brandon, dashing and handsome, are you too gentle and too schooled on the harshness of the world to love? Are you too sensible for me you old man of 35? Do I sense that you, Mssr. John Willoughby, dashing and handsome, schooled in the fantastical currency of culture and a passion for the senses? Will you betray the poor(ish, not really), beautiful Miss Marianne? Ah Hugh Grant! Will you show up shape-shifted into another bumbling do-gooder who can’t do good right?  Continue reading

[1986] Children Of A Lesser God

Thanks to the invention and acceptance of sign language, deafness is not a debilitating affliction.

As physical limitations go, those who cannot hear have quite a few methods to conquer communication: reading lips, writing notes, using sign language and in quite a few cases, actually speaking. Being deaf or hard of hearing alone can’t stop a determined person from achieving any goal a hearing person would have. In Children Of A Lesser God, a hearing, but sign-fluent, William Hurt takes up residence at a school for the deaf as a communications teacher; throughout the film, scenes show him attempting to teach his students to communicate, not only with each other, but also with hearing people, too. His goals are surface-valiant and his methods delightfully unconventional.  But when he meets Marlee Matlin, a beautiful, deaf custodian at the school, who signs whip-smart sass and hides a dormant intelligence, the audience gets a taste of emotional physics. It makes for compelling drama.

Nested within the drama lies the main conflict in Children Of A Lesser God. It’s Netwon’s First Law wrapped into a different mode:

Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion unless an external force is applied to it

Continue reading