Netflix Streaming, 50 Films: Week 4

After a brief hiatus, the list returns with two film’s that demonstrate the versatility and range of the Western, a Documentary that spans 4 years and a silent epic, 4000.

After the Thin Man (1936)

Though the series began to tire a little as it lost it’s novelty in later sequels, the direct successor to The Thin Man followed in the footsteps of the original brilliantly, doing everything right as a sequel. The Thin Man series incorporates elements of Noir, detective films and stars William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is a famous “retired” detective reluctant to involve himself in new capers and Nora is his wealthy socialite wife, always interested in seeing him return to form and crack a case. The two share some of the best on screen chemistry of any famous pairing and are one of the classic couples in cinema, sharing cocktails and wisecracks with effortless timing. Nick carries himself with an inebriated swagger that belies his prowess as an investigator, the sharpness of his wit and genius for deduction. After the Thin Man is a bit more deliberate in it’s who-done-it setup then it’s predecessor but is still serviceable as a plot vehicle for the entertaining escapades of Nick and Nora and the cast of characters is varied and interesting. Though fairly standard the it does feature a nice twist, interesting locations and memorable scenes but the real attraction and the center of the series is the unforgettable antics of the sleuthing couple.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

Noteworthy for several reasons, the silent film Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was one of the earliest horror films and most prominent examples of German Expressionism (the use of distorted and imaginatively configured sets to convey emotion and tone.) The film also featured a shocking twist that today has become a well traveled device of shock thrillers. Above all The Cabinet of Caligari is an exercise in imaginative expressionistic film making, a phantasmagorical excursion into a nightmarish fantasy. The disfigured architecture and bizarre perspectives is straight out of a cubist painting and the film as though from the collective imagination of Picasso and Salvador Dali. The deranged sets fully serve the creative vision of the film and help transport the viewer into an immaterial world, not of logic and certainty, but shadow and creeping terror. The film is a classic entry in cinema canon and is worth viewing as an example of a style now extinct and the striking concept of Mise-en scene which has also similarly vanished from the medium.

The Good The Bad and The Ugly (1966)

One of the most popular westerns ever made, The Good The Bad and The Ugly isn’t an American film. Filled with in your face grit and style Sergio Leone’s quintessential Spaghetti Western features the maverick author’s remarkable style at it’s purest; a fetishistic glorification of western cliches and larger than life bravado that was inspired as much by Samurai culture and the films of Akira Kurosawa as it was by the American old west. Leone’s technique was characterized by dramatic and stylish exaggerations of classic Western scenarios. His films includes some of the most entertaining examples of the classic showdown. His brilliant command of style and it’s personification in his characters is unique among the genre. The final duel of The Good The Bad and The Ugly for instance is a great example of how Leone was able to invoke the natural intensity of a moment and elevate it to a kind of poetry. It’s also remarkable how much underlying narrative is provided with each brief cut. Notice how long he is able to sustain what might have been merely a few seconds of tired cliche into a magnificent crescendo. The film’s iconic style is due in large part to it’s score, one of the greatest and most memorable, by the incomparable Ennio Morricone. Leone’s favor of captivating style and quasi-poetic dialogue, punctuated by sudden violence and death has inspired the works of Quenten Tarantino, and is recognizable most clearly in the Kill Bill films. Leone Westerns lacked the meditation of more contemplative examples such as High Noon or The Searchers but in their romantic overture possessed a similarly melancholic repose. Interesting to note: The Good The Bad and The Ugly was the third film in Leone’s man with no name trilogy which where filmed in Spain and began with A Fist Full of Dollars, which was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which itself had been inspired by the American Western.

Grande Illusion (1937)

Jean Renoir’s acclaimed humanistic war film tells the story of french prisoners and a German high commander during WWI. The film artfully depicts the lines that both separate and unite countries and classes. Considered to be one of Renoir’s finest it is arguably one of his most personal as a filmmaker as it was partially based off his own experiences as a WWI pilot. Though the impact of movies dealing with the social or political climate of a particular time or region can diminish with age, great films always possess qualities that are exempt from such limitations. With the Grand Illusion it’s the way it’s observance of class, etiquette and protocol help us to understand war as a state of mind rather than a necessary or absolute reality. The courtesy or disregard for individuals based on the notion of class or nationality are lines we ourselves except for the comfortable security of our own prejudices. Concepts such as this exist in the fiber of the Grande Illusion, to which the name itself is a reference, and sustain the timelessness of one of the greatest and most enduring war films ever made.

The Good - "Such ingratitude after all the times I've saved your life."

Hoop Dreams (1994)

One of the wonders of film is it’s detachment from the limitations of time and place: it’s capacity to express ideas and perspectives on life that would otherwise be difficult to comprehend. In the transcendence of cinema, by the vision and patience of the filmmaker we are afforded a glimpse at life as we cannot see it from within. It’s a virtue put to good use in films such as the Up Documentaries and one of the greatest films from the 90’s; Hoop Dreams, another one of the best documentaries of all time. To experience life and it’s spectrum of years and events and dramas unfolding before our eyes in a few brief moments is one of the great freedoms and exultation’s of film as an art, as well as a historical document. Hoop Dreams chronicles the high-school years of two promising young basketball players as they struggle to attain their dreams of playing in the NBA. The film follows the everyday lives of the boys and their families, through good times and bad, victory and defeat. A poignant real life drama, the film is so much more than a basketball documentary and over the course of a few hours captures 4 years in the lives of two boys and the dream of a lifetime.

In Cold Blood (1967)

Based on Truman Capote’s novel of the same name, in Cold Blood is the brooding account of drifters Perry Smith and Richard Hickock and the infamous murder of the Klutter family in Kansas 1959. The film’s respectful treatment of the material does not coerce sympathy, nor does it pass judgment, but in the meticulous recount of two stray lives, finds poignancy that transcends both. It draws an intimate portrait of the two men who’s pathetic dreams and aimlessness in life led them on a tragic journey across the country. The story follows the two companions from the beginning of their fateful road trip, depicting them with honesty as men embittered by society and their own pasts but with a tenderness it also reveals their own trials and suffering as wounded souls. The film’s great achievement is it’s humanity. It never makes excuses for their actions nor ignores the terrible consequence of their choices but is honest enough not to make it’s own condemnation. It is merely an account of a tragedy and the unfortunate circumstance that brought to misguided deadbeats to murder. Shot in black and white it is one of the most beautiful and appropriate uses of the style. The heaviness of guilt and the anguish of ruined lives pervades the film and the brilliant performances, particularly by Robert Blake as Smith, give it an ennobling authenticity. It has a style and mood remarkably unique and truly powerful in it’s realism.

After the Thin Man - "Come on, let's get something to eat. I'm thirsty."

Intolerance (1916)

Master of the silent epic D.W. Griffith, though known more for his controversial milestone Birth of a Nation, made what is probably the crowning achievement of his grandiose style and personal philosophy with Intolerance. A collection of historical vignettes the film is a three hour journey that looks at hate and prejudice through the ages. There is something extraordinary about the great fantasy dramas of the silent era, with the ingenuity, craftsmanship and imagination of their special effects and the startling immensity of sets. Intolerance is an epic in every sense of the word with a visionary story concept and composition ahead of it’s time, (preceding films such as Babel, The Hours, Crash and Magnolia) as well as magnificent sets and spectacular set pieces (compare scenes from the siege of Babylon to those of Return of the King, or Kingdom of Heaven.) Intolerance is an amazing film of breathtaking scope. It’s sheer size, the enormity of it’s production, the sets, costumes and number of actors involved, is to this day astounding. Life and death, love and hate, greed and charity. In all the superficial scale and visual hyperbole of modern CGI, I seldom find anything as truly breathtaking as this classic epic. If you think silent films are boring or never think about them at all, you owe it to yourself to see Intolerance. It is a culmination of everything they where capable of, a marvel of cinema and a film to behold.

Man with the Movie Camera (1929)

In some ways an early precursor to the brilliant and visually peerless Baracka, Man with the Movie Camera is one of those films that reminds us of the simple wonder of the motion picture as an invention and the capacity of film as an experimental art form. We become accustomed to the conventional format of “movies” and fixed in our expectations of just what a movie is but every so often we experience a film that doesn’t passively abide by established convention but instead simply explores it’s possibilities as an art form but also an amazing and mysterious phenomenon. Man with the Movie Camera is a collection of images, moments and scenes, that capture life as it progresses through a single day. The self referential title as well as the conceptual nature of some of the techniques used are also indicative that the artist was going for something beyond mere objectivity. It is in fact a film about film and the voyeuristic eye of the cameraman, as well as the audience and in some ways resembles films such as The Player, or Blow-Up. Still revolutionary to this day, I can only imagine how much it must have been in it’s time.

Intolerance - "Such a wonderful king. If only he thought as we do.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

In the tradition of the sensitive contemplative westerns such as High Noon and My Darling Clementine, Ox-Bow examines the estate of the human heart and the nature of pride and vengeance when the of the law is stretched to accommodate both. The western has always been the great American mythology and one of the most accommodating of genres for moral parables. The frailty of true justice in the hands of men and the restraint that distinguishes it from lawless retribution is one of the intriguing aspects of the old west because while technically the difference between murder and justice is a matter of legal positioning, morally it’s a matter of the heart. The Ox Bow Incident makes such an observation when hate and vengeance are concealed by overtures of duty and justice. Henry Fonda stars in this lyrical tale of a would-be poses so possessed by the desire to render judgment upon a man suspected of murder the boundaries of law of the land and that of the heart are tested. Fonda, with a similar sensitivity he demonstrated in My Darling Clementine, plays Gil Carter, a man torn between the logical arguments in favor of condemning the accused man and the reasonable doubts of his conscience.

Say Anything (1989)

The films of Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) exhibit emotional complexities seldom allowed in formulaic Hollywood. His characters don’t just go through the motions of a plot but struggle with themselves and their feelings. They are flawed but try very hard to do what is right. Crowe’s sensitivity to life’s ambiguity, demonstrates honesty and integrity. The moral and emotional vagueness that haunt the consciences of his characters is what makes his films so fascinating and elusive. They are closer to the reality of real life than the manufactured happiness of most movies. As a result his films, like life itself, are often times more resilient, harder to predict, and more engaging. Though 2000’s Almost Famous is a great film in it’s own right Say Anything and it’s observance of a blossoming relationship between two adolescents is perhaps his most profound.

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