Netflix Streaming, 50 Films: Week 2

With 10 films already behind us, we make it an even 20 with this week’s list, including two of the best Noir ever made, two very different war films, a creature feature, a costume adventure and a comedic con game. Our list also further matures with a tragic and sobering documentary and a mature psychological thriller from Japan.

The Adventures of Robin hood (1938)
A merry swashbuckling adventure that is one of the quintessential examples of the old fashioned gung-ho style that delighted in classic tales of daring heroes and thrilling escapades. Errol Flynn is at his best as the high spirited, sharp tongued hero of Sherwood, bravely defending the weak against wicked Prince John, (Claude Rains) and the corrupt Sheriff of Nottingham (Basil Rathbone) and winning the heart of the fair Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland). Visually sumptuous, it was one of the first to utilize the new Technicolor process. The film’s rich oversaturation is vibrant celebration of the bold spirit it’s production and a perfect accompaniment to it’s dashing adventurism. Like others of it’s kind The Adventures of Robin Hood is a simple good vs. evil tale uncomplicated by subterfuge or political vagaries. With daring action, hearty performances and enjoyable dialogue, it is one of the liveliest and most purely entertaining films you will see. One of the delights of classic cinema.

The Big Sleep (1946)
A classic example of film Noir, The Big Sleep elevates fast witty banter and sardonic innuendo to an art form. Naturally great performances and chemistry by Bogart and Bacall in a plot so convoluted author Raymond Chandler himself had a hard time explaining ‘who done it.’ When detective Philip Marlow is hired by a wealthy invalid to deal with a man blackmailing his youngest daughter, he becomes involved in the complicated affairs of the family, romantically so with the eldest daughter (Bacall). The plot features all the traditional staples of vintage Noir including blackmail, murder, gangsters, racketeers and dames. Verbal exchanges between the players are hugely entertaining. Conversations are engaged in with the dexterity and strategic prowess of a fencing match as characters trade words with swift, eloquent cynicism. One of the very best of it’s kind, The Big Sleep is a wonderfully labyrinthine web of Noirish style, dialogue and atmosphere.

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Sir Alec Guinness received an Oscar for his portrayal as the proud, dignified Colonel Nicholson in David Lean’s other great WWII character study (In addition to Lawrence of Arabia). Chronicling the efforts of British POW’s in a Japanese prison camp to build the eponymous bridge, the film assumes the stature of a war epic while pondering surprisingly deep concepts. Typical of his ability, Lean balances broad spectacle with intense personal drama and manages to orchestrate the physical peril and moral dilemma of a many different individuals into both a great war film and a remarkable study of human nature. The center of the film is the confrontation between Nicholson and Japanese Colonel Saito who presides over the prison camp with a severe sense of pride and duty similar to Nicholson’s own. The implications and consequences of their confrontation are surprisingly complex. Both opponents conceal pride and ambition from everyone and themselves with facades duty and honor. Religiously adhering to personal codes of conduct both similar yet unreconcilable, the two remain at diametric opposition yet ultimately make the same choices and compromises. In the end when both begin manipulating the rules they strictly observe in order to accommodate personal accomplishment, the film suggest intriguing questions concerning the heart of man. The relationship between Nicholson and Siato is one of the great ironies of the cinema. The film’s famous climax is an amazing culmination of action and symbolism, poetically summarized in both Nicholson’s iconic revelation and the final line of the movie. Bridge on the River Kwai can be enjoyed solely as a great war film but is surprisingly rewarding as a human study. With superb acting, strong writing and great action it’s a masterpiece that works equally well on both levels.

The Big Sleep

“Let me do the talking, angel. I don’t know yet what I’m going to tell them. It’ll be pretty close to the truth.”

A Christmas Story (1983)
A perennial holiday classic and warm tribute to the days of childhood and a past era, A Christmas Story is one of the most beloved and well traveled comedies and one of those rare films that has become a cultural milestone of sorts. It’s story involving Ralphie’s indelible childhood quest to receive the famed Red Rider BB gun for Christmas is a series of memorable episodes, the iconic images and quotes from which have become ingrained in pop culture (“You’ll shoot your eye out!”) The effectiveness with which it evokes a fondness and a genuine sense of nostalgia for mid-century Americana, is due in large part to the delightfully engaging narration by Jean Shephard. I think everyone has seen this film by now. It’s hard to miss the 24 hour marathons that run Christmas day, but who feels like waiting for December.  “Ho. Ho. Ho.”

Dear Zachary (2008)
When his childhood friend Andrew Bagby, is murdered, filmmaker Kurt Kuenne sets out to make a sort of memoir documentary for his unborn son. The resulting film, begun shortly after Andrew’s death, gradually becomes consumed by the startling events that transpired thereafter and is an unnerving mixture of the heartfelt remembrance it was intended to be and the shocking chronicle of events it became. Much more than a simple tribute or recollection, Kurt Kuenne has composed a work of remarkable life and nuance that takes many forms. Dear Zachary is extraordinary in it’s indefinable form and the range of emotions and thoughts it expresses to us and invokes in us. Hard to watch and impossible to forget, the film is at times frightening, disturbing, sad, and uplifting. Were it not for it’s capacity to invoke a certain amount of healing and hope in the face of tragedy it would be difficult to recommend at all. As it stands it’s tragedy and the gut wrenching realism of it’s subject matter nearly overwhelms it’s redemptive qualities. It’s fervor and raw emotion are deeply affecting but it’s also a psychological intense and devastating film that is hard to come to terms with. It’s a brutal experience that makes you question whether or not it is actually a valuable one. In the end it stands out to me as a remarkably powerful encounter, that I cannot help but talk about, less out of enthusiasm than simply astonishment at it’s potency and respect for the individuals it honors. It is the most personal documentary I have ever seen, but this recomendation comes with a sincere caution: This is a hard film to see and not the kind of viewing experience to be taken lightly.

PerfectBlue

“Excuse me. Who are you?”

Double Indemnity (1944)
One of the seminal works of the Noir genre, Billy Wilder’s, imitation Hitchcock, personified the hallmarks of the new art form with a clever one of a kind film that blended the crime genre with a kind of black satire. As the maverick director attempted to prove himself in the suspense genre the youth and rebellion of his style showed through. The result was something completely new as the film borrowed elements of crime procedurals and suspense films but couldn’t help but express the director’s own sardonic wit. Double Indemnity pioneered and identified many of the hallmarks of the style, helping to define Noir and set it apart as a new movement in film. The dialogue, as with any really good Noir is an absolute treat and the performances by Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G, Robinson are right on the money. Double Indemnity is great entertainment.

The Host (2006)
Korean monster movie, The Host is dissimilar to the style and pace we’re used to in American creature flicks. Unlike most, Director Joon-ho Bong, doesn’t forget that it’s the human aspect that makes, suspense, action, horror, whatever, effective. He never leaves his characters behind but instead uses their humanity to drive his story. He doesn’t mistake sound and fury for profundity. He doesn’t substitute superficial special effects for meaningful characters and story, nor does he dilute his film with gratuitous gore and special effects under the pretense of great spectacle. Instead he uses these elements effectively to support the integrity of the film, frightening, suspenseful and thrilling, as a human drama. Like Jaws or Jurassic Park before it, The Host is effective because we care about the people in it. When a hideous abomination, begins wreaking havoc on the shores of the Han river, the government, intervenes by zoning off the river and quarantining the victims. The film centers around the Park family, father Park Hie-bong, and his three grown children, (Park Gang-du, Park Nam-Joo and Park Nam-il). A family of half successes and partial failures, they band together to escape quarantine and rescue Park Gang-du’s daughter when she is abducted by the creature. The themes and symbolism of the family unit introduce an interesting dynamic to the story.

Robinhood

“Why, you speak treason!”“Fluently.”

Matchstick Men (2003)
One of the virtues of any good film is the human story within it. Too often the real motivation and power behind movies is lost when style and attitude is mistaken for meaning and purpose. Every so often a good film by a good director reminds us how it’s done. Compare Minority Report with Paycheck (both based on stories by sci-fi luminary Philip K Dick), or the first two Alien movies with the last two and you get the idea. Matchstick Men, directed by Ridley Scott, is a fine example of good storytelling based on interesting characters we like and empathize with. Nicolas Cage stars as idiosyncratic, phobic con artist Roy Waller who’s sterile regimented life and routine is turned upside down when he learns he has a daughter. Cage again proves his versatility in a performance that must have been as fun to give as it is to watch and Sam Rockwell, does a great job as Roy’s protege. Rockwell is an underrated talent and his unique onscreen persona works well opposite Cage’s obsessive compulsive Roy. Alison Lohman is perfect as Roy’s sprightly 14 year old daughter Angela (she was 24 at the time). The relationship between the uptight but lovable Roy and the effervescent youth is what makes this clever con film so endearing. It manages to be sweet and likeable without compromizing it’s intelligence as a con film. It doesn’t dillute it’s plot or insult the audience with patronizing sentimentality but relies on it’s genuine humanity to carry it through to the end.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2007)
Visually inventive filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Mimic, Hellboy) crafts his opus in a fairy tale that doesn’t transport us outside our world but suggests instead that fantasy exists within it. Set in 1944 Spain, it tells the story of Ofelia, a young girl who comes to live in a Fascist outpost when her mother is married to it’s commanding officer, the cruel and ruthless Captain Vidal. She soon encounters an enigmatic Faun and the strange kingdom he introduces her to. By setting his fable within the fabric of real life and the dark heart of World War II, del Toro contrasts the escape of fantasy and imagination and argues their validity to the innocence of childhood. This is the subtle brilliance and mystery of Pan’s Labyrinth; the coexistence of fact and fiction and the possibility that Ofelia’s world, which del Toro makes no qualms about presenting with the utmost realism, may in fact only exist in the heart of a child. He accomplishes this partially with less abrupt tranasitional cuts such as swipes and similar associative techniques, which imply the proximity of Ofelia’s imaginary world with that of our own. From a filmmaker like del Toro and a film like Pan’s Labyrinth, we expect him to simply imply the reality of fairy tale (and it’s for this reason we may underestimate this film) but here he does something much more profound and psychological. Unlike a film such as Hellboy, which simply presents the literal existence of myth, Pan’s Labyrinth suggests them with the same respect and authenticity but never confirms them outside Ofelia’s imagination. There is the possibility that the hope they represent may in fact be imagined. I’m reminded in some ways of the brilliant film Eve’s Bayou and how cause and effect often translate differently in the mind of children. Only Ofelia can see the Faun, because only a child is willing to believe him.

Perfect Blue (1998)
Mind bending Anime autuer Satoshi Kon’s breakout hit pushes the limits of reality and perception in this story about a young actress who is stalked by a mysterious and dangerous stranger. The plot routinely turns back on itself and it’s hard to distinguish reality from hallucination. Like many of his Japanime contemporaries, Kon is obsessed with visual, metaphysical and psychological paradox. His style explores the limits of reality through the literal and figurative contortions of his images and complex plots, through the freedoms afforded by the animation medium. His first film as director, it’s an experiment in bending the rules of storytelling. It uses it’s altered realities to engage the viewer on a more intimate level, drawing them in by constantly shattering the logical solidity of a given reality. The film resembles something like Memento or, though with more cohesion, the works and style David Lynch. Kon is one of those artists that reckognizes the truth of art; that no matter what form it takes, is not literal but the translation of the abstract through a physical medium. Replicated adherance to the rules of reality is acceptable but not necessary in order to accomplish this communication. Kon ‘s style came into full fruition in 2007’s Paprika but it was Perfect Blue that paved the wave for the latter film’s mainstream recognition.

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