Saturday, April 23, 2011

Little Fugitive (1953)

Back in 1953, when Little Fugitive was a brand-new movie, the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (for almost thirty years writing (often-enlightening) reviews encased in quaint tut-tuts and dry observations) ended his review with "All hail to 'Little Fugitive' and to those who made it. But count it a photographer's triumph with a limited theme." And he was mostly right, especially for us watching today: the triumph is the film's preservation of early-'50s NYC, particularly Coney Island, as the little boy--tricked by his older brother into thinking the little "tad," as Crowther put it, had murdered him--makes his way through a series of mild adventures, his fears forgotten in a world of shooting galleries, pony rides, and merry-go-rounds--after he collects empties and cashes them in. His adventures are slight, but that's the point: The Little Fugitive is one of a handful of movies that lowers the camera to see kidhood without condescension or (too much ) sentiment.

Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, and Ruth Orkin wrote, photographed, directed and produced; the little boy, Joey, is played by a non-actor, Richie Andrusco (as was his brother). And aside from a few NYC stage actors, the rest of the cast plays itself: New York City, that is, and that Island that's as eager to please as Pinocchio's, but without donkeys.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Fall (2006)

Tarsem Singh (or simply "Tarsem" over the last few years) has directed only two pictures since 2000--and that first one was The Cell, a movie whose plot matters infinitely less than the terrible beauty of its images and the astounding commitment of Vincent D'Onofrio to the persona he crafts, like some alternate-universe lead in an opera written by H.P. Lovecraft.

With The Fall, Tarsem does not flinch under the threat of his earlier picture, but decides to edge closer to Tim Burton than David Lynch as he explores the most needful thing of all: the yearning for narrative, for life to lose its messy edge and follow a straight line for once. The injured silent-era stuntman and the little girl with the broken arm collaborate on the same story--but to different ends. Of course, the story has its own ideas, and draws everyone in (and here we should turn and give a little bow to Terry Gilliam, who knows more than any of us the value of a ripping yarn-within-a-yarn-within-a-yarn-within ...)--and Tarsem follows the fairytale, building an almost-satiric Wonderland of Extraordinary Gentlemen (including Alexander the Great and Darwin) in a world that Tarsem swears is real--all actual locations, no special effects. If he's telling us the truth, then we really do live in a story, no matter how duplicitous the storyteller/Black Bandit may be, no matter how dangerous the stunts actually are.

This is not a film for everyone. Some might find it too weird, others to obvious. But if you look closely and long, and listen to one more story, you'll be reminded of the real draw of the movies--and of paintings and ballads and bedtime tales: They pretend to be windows we can look out of, but are really special mirrors for seeing ourselves and the important things still living behind us.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Restrepo (2010)

NOTE: I posted this without knowing that Restrepo's co-director, Tim Hetherington, had been killed in Libya. My Sicilian grandfather, who was sent to fight in World War I, told me he never killed anyone. "I had no argument with those men," he said, "but they wanted me to shoot. So I shot over the Germans' heads, and everybody was happy." My prayer for Mr. Hetherington and his family and friends is that we should all be so happy. In the meantime, I am sure that everyone who knew him will keep his name in their mouths, "familiar as household words," and "in their flowing cups freshly remembered."

In Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington go to Afghanistan and stick close to, as the Internet Movie Database informs with its usual completeness, "The Men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team." And watching them dig in, goof around, freak out, sing and cry and stare into space, I found myself caught between the reality that movies insist on and the one I'll never see--and how, as with scenes of active combat, the two of them are so often the same. That is, what I know of combat I know from the movies--but this is not a "movie" (or a TV series, like the excellent Generation Kill); it's a "documentary."

But watching Restrepo is like watching Full Metal Jacket or Jarhead or The Hurt Locker--even Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now, as extravagant as those movies are. Restrepo engenders an interesting confusion: Does it look like a fictional film because I've seen so many, or is it Restrepo's actual soldiers who've seen the same films and have learned how to behave? This may simply be the most hair-raising home movie ever made--you know how you get when someone turns on the camera at the family get-together: one is "on," so one "acts"--up, usually.

But I don't think that's necessarily what happens in Restrepo--actually, I think it's the opposite: the movies have clouded our vision of the real horror and boredom of warfare, and Restrepo brings us face to face with our seen-that-even-though-I-haven't-done-that smugness. This is so much The Real Deal that even that expression sounds phony--as phony as a non-combatant's "understanding" that War Is Hell. The triumph of Restrepo is that it ignores us, chooses instead to let itself be itself. We're just along for the ride, so we better stay out of the way when the shit starts to fly.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Devil's Backbone (2001)

Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone is an excellent addtion to a strange but compelling sub-genre: Spanish rural/isolated locale Gothic mood-pieces--with children. This goes back at least as far as The Spirit of the Beehive in 1973--although no overt supernatural elements are present in this one, unlike The Orphanage (2007) or del Toro's own Pan's Labyrinth (2006). It may be a mini-genre, but its potency hasn't waned--and The Devil's Backbone may be the best of its type.

Like Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone is set during Spain's civil war in the late 1930s. Looming fascism in both films serves as a kind of specter haunting this corner of Europe, its brutal will always ready to exert itself even on children. But the orphanage of The Devil's Backbone withdraws for a time from the larger world and literally goes underground--and under water, to achieve effects that are at once chilling and beautiful. It's a ghost story, but one that rises to affect the political and personal worlds of the orphans, the left-wing Republicans (the side that Bogart fought with in his backstory in Casablanca--the losing side, as Louis noted) who run the orphanage, and the fascist Nationalists whose unexploded bomb in the orphanage's courtyard serves as a threat that cannot be withdrawn.

There's mystery and mysticism, politics and poetry, all of it mixed in without apologies. The Devil's Backbone may not be as aggressive as Pan's Labyrinth, but its subtleties make it the better Gothic, a world of secrets and regrets, with the strange justice ghosts so often require.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Ballad of a Soldier/Ballada o soldate (1959)

Alyosha, the young World War II soldier in Ballad of a Soldier, and Shura, the equally young girl, meet as stowaways on a train, the war set aside for a moment. The two of them are impossibly innocent, their faces smooth and childlike, shining softly. The whole movie is like this, a simple and beautiful song. The Russian camera loves to sink down so that it can peer upward at its subjects, almost shyly--the effect, though, is not of a demure glance but a fully orchestrated requiem, the sky filling the background, the Earth curving into the distance.

The size of everything around them--particularly the deprivations of the war, the ragged gaping holes and tired faces, rutted roads, the houses turned inside-out--is matched by their big round eyes, gazing at one another--but the soldier wants to gaze at his mother: Rather than accept a medal for bravery, he had decided to take a short leave to fix her roof. The war follows him, tugging at his sleeve the whole way. It's a sentimental film, but so honest in the effort that you're willing to let it shine like the young lovers glowing like Old Hollywood, Soviet-style.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mafioso (1962)

Sicilian Antonio in Mafioso takes his Northerner wife Marta to meet the family. They sit down and eat and eat and eat. Marta lights a cigarette, and everyone stares--they'd never seen a woman smoke. She explains she likes to have one after a meal, and they all burst into laughter: that was merely the first course. A pile of squid-inked spaghetti comes out, there under the hot sun, and the meal must continue.

Antonio crows his joy at such abbondanza--but for Marta it's just Sicily always giving you more than you really want. And his family treats her coldly, the Sicilian flat look delivered without active malice, just a habit of being. However, they eventually figure out what they want from her--pliability so that they can work out their own schemes--against their own son, no less--so they cozy up and win her over.

Antonio, however, is not excused from the table, and has to take extra helpings, until he himself is dressed and trussed and arranged on the platter for the old men who stare him down by muttering, "honor"--but he has no choice, and thus no honor. Mafioso works surprisingly well as a prelude to the ethics of The Godfather, in which the world beyond Sicily is alien, even the rest of Italy, and the illusion of family masks inherited grudges and dogged greed. Antonio's time away had appeared to him something he'd really made, something he could live in--but on his return he finds that he hasn't made anything, that it had been some silly dress-up game, that Sicily was always the only real thing in his life.

And all he can do is obey and be dismayed, the life he'd prepared as a successful businessman in the comfortable boot of Italy now dry chalk in his throat. You can see it on his face once more at the end, as he takes another walk through his factory, everything still purposefully clamoring, his co-workers still admiring him--never guessing that a miserable, dead criminal smiles at them, holds a clipboard to his chest and disappears into his Milanese disguise.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Isolation (2005)

How to describe Isolation? Imagine if Ridley Scott were all set to direct Alien--then the budget went south. So he re-sets the film on a small farm in the middle of Irish nowhere, and substitutes H. R. Giger's mad-love shape-shifter with, um, cows. Sort of.

The result is yet another British Isles horror surprise. From 28 Days Later (2002) to Dog Soldiers (2002), from Shaun of the Dead (2004) to The Descent (2006), from The Disappeared (2008) to The Reeds, (2009) (and sorry, but only The Disappeared is on Instant Play right now--although all these titles are available from Netflix), it seems the Brits are back, with a vengeance--and a monster or two, and some hauntings and flesh-eaters, and ...

Isolation's director, Billy O'Brien, makes a picture you can hold in one hand--if you're crazy enough to open your palm. In some ways it's the real surprise in the bunch, if only because it's so simple--as was Alien, even John Carpenter's The Thing (which Isolation also resembles), if you look past their budgets--and with horror, sometimes simple is best. O'Brien gives us a few characters, a villain and a surprise or two, sets it on a farm where no help is forthcoming, then lets this nasty little contraption give you the willies, the creeps, the jumpin jives.

As long as you give in to its premise--gene modification (the post-millennial response to '50s radiation-mutation) gone terribly wrong--Isolation provides a good Dark Ride--dark as the inside of an old barn at midnight, sloppier than a mid-Autumn farmyard. It's a triumph of hand-made, animatronic ick that understands that horror's playground lies between the viewer's need to know and the desire to look away.