Running Out of Time (To, 1999)

A mixed bag of fluid camera moves and clever plot twists which never transcend the film’s overall schizophrenic identity. Part heist film, part buddy comedy, this To film features a great pairing of Andy Lau as the terminally ill thief and Ching Wan Lau as the cop pursing him, but doesn’t have the sense of immediacy of his best work. To’s at his most impressive when he compliments visual dynamics with a crisp plot, and Running Out of Time doesn’t succeed in keeping interest within the narrative. Instead, it wallows in style, and even though To is a master of this type of heightened mise-en-scene, it just isn’t enough now that he’s proven himself a truly great action director with Triad Election and Breaking News.

Cutter’s Way (Passer, 1981)

Post Vietnam War apathy, fear, and accountability become the obsessions of the two protagonists in Cutter’s Way, namely womanizer and underachiever Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) and disabled veteran Alex Cutter (John Heard). One night, Bone witnesses a man sliding a body into a dumpster getting a vague look at the culprit as he drives away. After being questioned by the police the next day, Bone tells his friend the story, engaging the off kilter Cutter into a grand investigation toward catching the killer themselves. They believe the murderer to be a CEO of a local oil company, but find out early on that neither the police, nor the community have any investment in questioning such a high powered figure. Cutter’s Way makes sure to diametrically oppose it’s two leads, Cutter over compensating because of his disabilities, attempting one last shot at heroism, while Bone pessimistically feels sorry for himself because he dodged the draft, consequently questioning the validity of the venture the entire time. Bridge’s Bone must have influenced his iconic character in The Big Lebowski, yet Cutter’s Way digs deeper into the guilt-ridden restlessness of the character instead of dwelling on the impotence of clashing with the rich. Ultimately, the film flails in terms of plot (one important character disappears without explanation three quarters of the way through the film) but succeeds greatly in providing an outlet for the common man’s anger with the rich, and their exploitation of time and circumstance. The supposed villain, is only seen atop a horse until the final climax, first marching in a parade and then at a polo game. Cutter and Bone constantly look up at this hidden, menacing figure, and it’s to the film’s credit the ending provides a stunning eye level confrontation. Filmed in the beautiful sunny streets and wharfs of Santa Barbara, CA, Cutter’s Way shows how the small, dark trauma’s of the common man eventually and inevitably seep to the surface, even when the corporate aristocracy refuse to take responsibility for their involvement. The consequences of which, as seen by the duo of Cutter and Bone, can be devastating.

The Hitcher (Harmon, 1986)

So you’re driving down a desolate desert road, tired, bored, and itching for some company. You see a lone man on the side of the road sticking his thumb out. You stop, doing a good deed and solving your problem at the same time. But your hitcher turns out to be John Ryder, and as played by Rutger Hauer, he turns out to be the devil himself, a serial killer of almost supernatural skill and timing. He’s a nightmare scenario, a ghost which haunts your every move even when it’s logically impossible. John Ryder slices, shoots, and stabs his way through The Hitcher like no other killer I’ve seen on screen. He comes and goes whenever our good samaritan Jim Halsey (C. Thomas Howell) needs to be reminded what kind of hell he as stumbled into. Ryder relentlessly stalks Jim after the initial pickup, causing countless deaths, vast devastation, and turmoil. But The Hitcher always remains a personal journey into the heart of evil, where an unsuspecting victim gets to feel, understand, and relive time and time again the brutal deeds of a madman, until he becomes one himself. Halsey and Ryder’s relationship is built on the greatest of conflict, but has a hint of respect in there as well, Halsey astonished at Ryder’s ferocity, and Ryder stunned at Halsey’s ability to stay alive, even when everyone, including the cops, wants him dead. The Hitcher thrives on it’s dream like logic, where Ryder maneuvers his way through the mise-en-scene without much semblance of reality, but perfectly ingrained within the story logic being presented. If Ryder is the devil and this is Jim’s own personal everlasting nightmare, then these unsettling, savage encounters make perfect sense. Thrown from car after car, beaten, and burned, Ryder and Jim attempt to outlast each other within the heightened world they both want to destroy (albeit for different reasons), creating a sometimes Bunuelian look at modern day slasher films and the mysteries they can afford when done well. All good deeds don’t go unpunished, and for Jim, his life becomes a wrecking ball named John Ryder.Avoid the horrible remake of this film, which takes every haunting attribute of the original and turns it into a Hollywood gore fest.

Germania anno zero (Rossellini, 1948)

Rossellini completes his “War Trilogy” with the story of Edmund, a young German boy who navigates bombed out Post War Berlin to find food, shelter, and money for his ailing family. Rossellini’s on location photography frames this personal nightmare with haunting precision, making Edmund, his ex-nazi brother in hiding, sickly father, and older sister, a collective of past trauma’s with little hope for the future. Germania anno zero (Germany Year Zero) focuses on the everyday struggle for survival, but also the deceptive and manipulative qualities people use when faced with such situations. Edmund is countlessly betrayed, whisked away, and forced out because he’s a child, never taken seriously as a bread winner even when his own brother sits impotent, unable to provide with fear of getting arrested for past crimes. Where Paisan looked to explore the vast ramifications of WWII, Germania anno zero brings the conflict of war torn environments back to a personal reckoning where Open City began it in Italy. But Rossellini does this in Berlin of all places, humanizing the common German people instead of vilifying them for their past actions (or inactions in the case of Edmund’s dying father). Still, it’s a film about succumbing to the pressures of chaos, and Edmund’s final decision marks a distinctly pessimistic stance on the whole affair, one primed with deceit, regret, and finally death. In the neo-realist tradition, Germania anno zero doesn’t pull any punches in examining the horrors of post war life.

Proces de Jeanne d’Arc (Bresson, 1962)

I love Robert Bresson. His films wiggle under my skin with their bare-bones approach toward visuals and sound design, forcing an interaction with the characters and motivations on a spiritually confined level. Yet, Proces de Jeanne d’Arc (Trial of Joan of Arc), Bresson’s take on the trial and subsequent final days of the French martyr, feels so dry, so composed, conundrums concerning her relationship with God, the voices of the Angels she hears, and the “Earthly Church”, begin to take shape in uncomfortable ways. At only 68 minutes in length, Bresson’s film feels like a snapshot of history, an incomplete jumbling of text book paragraphs and history lessons masterfully capturing the inadequacies of such an attempt. When British soldiers look through a crack in the wall at Joan sitting in her cell, they represent the viewer, only seeing a fragment of this woman’s life, destined to misunderstand her function and meaning. Many of these moments of judgment occur throughout Proces…, and it makes for a frustrating but engaging experience. Where Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar or Mouchette enable a setup of the physical world being explored, including outside exteriors to compliment character, Proces… only affords interiors, cramped close-ups, and silky shadows of black and grey, highlighting Joan’s inner turmoil but never making universal assumptions either. Bresson’s Proces…, like those of all great historical biopics, succeeds in complicating familiar images and iconography purported by traditional retelling’s of history, allowing for a mysterious examination of Joan whittled down to the essentials. Bresson achieves this dynamic in spades.

Summertime (Lean, 1955)

David Lean’s sun-drenched Summertime paints a vastly different picture than Fellini’s Italy and leagues apart from Roeg’s nightmarish vision of Venice in his masterpiece Don’t Look Now. But this is Hollywood’s epic master craftsman, where first kisses are juxtaposed with perfectly timed fireworks and the night sky represents simplicity, romance, and heartache. But the playful glee fits nicely within Summertime and it’s whimsical outlook on love, because Lean and star Hepburn are out to create a moments of fleeting romance destined not to last. Lean uses on location cinematography nicely, especially in the opening montages of Venice’s waterways and architecture as images of misunderstood wonderment for Hepburn’s American traveller. But like it’s initial impressions on tourists completely missing out on the beauty of the locale, so do the supporting characters get lost in the shuffle, shifted to the background whenever necessary to the structure of the plot. In turn, Lean’s Italy feels like a Hollywood backlot even though it seeps with romantic indulgence of a foreign affair, leaving little to be explained or even pondered over. The mysteries of love matter little here, just the glory of experiencing it in the first place.

Re-visting Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers

Any film critic worth their salt will re-visit, re-view, and re-hash over material which has confounded them upon first viewing. I think it’s the most important approach a critic (of any art form) can have when faced with challenging work. First impressions might be the end all in the work place, but not when the theater lights dim. Flags of Our Fathers came and went this past fall without much public fanfare, although a few critics loved it, while most were ambivalent. First time out, I seemed to be caught in the middle. With such high expectations in mind, I was disappointed, finding the voice over narration and Spielbergian attitude toward past and present distracting and unnecessary. After screening the film again on DVD, I found myself drawn to different aspects, deeply intrigued by the strange structure of the story. The opening war sequences are stunning in brutality and scope, but ultimately become overwhelmed by the awkward shifts in time and setting and Paul Haggis’ obvious and tedious screenplay. This tension between Eastwood’s classic direction and Haggis’ formulaic script plays out till the final scene with the young soldiers joyfully playing in the calm beach water of Iwo. Flags becomes defined by this push pull relationship, at once lyrical, deceptive, and fascinating in it’s dissection of heroism and the common soldier, but also maddening, tired, and dumbed down through structure and dialogue. It’s a strange film, one at odds with itself over the most common cinematic devices, which ironically were solved so triumphantly in Eastwood’s parallel effort Letters From Iwo Jima (no Haggis this time). Flags of Our Fathers might not be a great Eastwood film, but it’s definitely one worth contemplating multiple times, because for me it represents a staggering conflict between American autuerism and mainstream simplistic melodrama, a battle which remains a fascinating, bloody, and raging experience.