A master of baroque, neo-realist cinema, Federico Fellini took movies to a new level, turning standard, narrative storytelling on its head and replacing it with poetry. Few, if any, directors since even try to copycat his style, deferring to his one-of-a-kind status as a genius of camera-wielding and a maker of innovative art. He was to the camera what Picasso was to the canvas and made us see Image as we had never seen it before.
La Dolce Vita (translated as “The Sweet Life” or “The Good Life”) stands as a perfect example of Fellini’s genius. One of the most acclaimed European films of the 1960s (indeed, it illustrates “The Swinging Sixties” perhaps better than any other film ever made of that era), it won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, winning for Best Costume Design. Entertainment Weekly named it the 6th greatest movie of all time and it shines now more than it did when it was made because our modern-day society with its attachment to shallow values, instant fame (Warhol’s 15 minutes of “Me”) and universal promiscuity mirrors Fellini’s world view and reveals the director, in addition to his many other gifts, to be a true prophet of the future. Continue reading →
There are few movie treasures as evergreen as The Philadelphia Story, few movie stars as everlasting as the incomparable Katharine Hepburn. Labeled “box office poison” by Hollywood after making a string of nascent hits followed by a string of stinking bombs, Hepburn fled to her native East Coast to lick her wounds and find solace on the stage, namely in Phillip Barry’s play, “The Philadelphia Story” which became a lucky theater penny for everyone involved, Great Kate most of all.
Hepburn had the savvy to buy full film rights to the vehicle, provided she play the lead. She saw the play as her ticket-to-ride back to Planet Stardom, a kingdom she was to rule over for the rest of her life.
Filmmaker Terry Gilliam’s version of the Fisher King legend posits a Manhattan where knights joust in Central Park, a thousand strangers waltz in Grand Central Station, and courtly love lives alongside dementia, decay and death. The ancient tale has been analyzed by scholars like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Jessie Weston and Robert Graves, and is a central aspect of the Arthurian legend. The wounded king is Jack (Jeff Bridges), a popular radio talk-show host whose brash, arrogant misanthropy leads indirectly to a mass shooting that claims a number of victims; his ensuing guilt and shattered reputation leave him unemployed and depressed, riddled with guilt and self-loathing. In a scene slyly reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life, Jack meets a sort of guardian angel in Perry (Robin Williams, in one of his most enjoyable and eminently watchable screen portrayals). Perry is a former professor of medieval studies, who was personally affected by the shooting and who ends up homeless and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. When the two men cross paths several times, it seems inevitable they will both bring about the other’s rejuvenation, and the roles of wounded king and questing knight are often reversed and overlapped: which of these men is more wounded, and which one is most capable of selfless compassion? Continue reading →
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – 2000 – dir. Ang Lee
“When in comes to the affairs of the heart, even the greatest warriors can be consummate idiots.”
Ang Lee’s homage to Du Lu Wang’s kung-fu novel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, I must confess, did not make an instant impression upon me the first time that I saw it. The film soars with Lee’s breathtaking direction and cinematography by Academy award-winner Peter Pau, but I found the story meandering and simple.
Of course, I missed the point, discovered only after a re-watch. The story is indeed simple. It is the characters who are complex. This is an ironic movie about opposites: finding through loss. Gaining through sacrifice. Joy through despair. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a simple story about masculinity, femininity, and life. Continue reading →
Set in Nashville, Tennessee, home of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville (dir. Robert Altman, 1975) follows musicians, con artists, politicians, and weirdos as their lives overlap and intersect over the course of a fateful few days. The film showcases Altman’s signature style of combining multiple story lines, noisy, overlapping dialogue, and realistic, scattered camera angles into a complex yet consistent narrative whole. Considered by many to be Altman’s best film, it sashays between dialogue and song, the individual and the political, and humor and tragedy, without missing a beat.
There are many characters in David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago (1965), the sprawling, epic portrayal of people caught up in the Russian Revolution, the least of which is, surprisingly, Dr. Zhivago himself. In addition to Zhivago, Lara, Komorovsky, Pasha, and a host of others, there is the land, the weather, the first World War, the mountains, the interminable train ride, the tide of political events, the Five-Year Plans, even the giant posters of Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, all playing their parts and threatening to upstage the action. Beside all these a small story about love and betrayal should pale; as Strelnikov claims in the film, “the personal life is dead in Russia.” But it is Lean’s achievement that it is not: it more than holds its own, and forms the core around which the rest crash and swirl. Continue reading →
Audiences seem to have forgotten how for almost half-a-century, Doris Day dominated not only the movies but radio, the big-band circuit, stage and television. She WAS America in the way John Wayne WAS America. Her freckle-faced goodness and virgin-all-the-way persona mirrored American values and mores and was thus much-loved for decades. By the 1960s and ’70s, her star began to fade, a victim of the sexual revolution and the unlikely stardom of less conventionally attractive actresses like Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli. Today, in her eighties, she lives a reclusive life in Carmel, California, answers only to the name, ‘Clara’ and very seldom engages in conversation about her Hollywood glory days.
Paul Newman did not take Hollywood by storm with his first film, The Silver Chalice. In fact, in characteristic joking mode (he was a great kidder!), he actually took out an ad in the trades apologizing profusely to filmgoers for that cinematic travesty. Following in the footsteps of such giants as Brando, Clift, James Dean, Newman chopped a huge chunk off the pedestal of stylized acting, making his performances and acting in general seem real and accessible. Human beings. Unlike Brando, whose characters always seemed unreal, even freakish, Newman’s natural accessibility as a person as well as an actor made you think that here was a guy you could sit down and have a beer with and shoot the breeze with. He became one of Hollywood’s most-loved stars, in part, because though there was no way he (or anyone!) could ever have subsumed those Olympian good looks, that choirboy’s smile, the eyes bluer than all the Seven Seas put together, the body Adonis would have been jealous of (those pelvic “davids”!!!), filled with sexiness and swagger, he focused all his working energies AWAY from them; he cared nothing for being a pretty boy of the movies; his aim was higher and truer and it showed.