Tuesday, January 21, 2014

GUEST POST: Maurice Bursztynski's Favorite Older Film Discoveries Of 2013

Maurice Bursztynski is the host of the wonderful Australian music podcasts Love That Album and See Hear.   Love That Album takes a particular album and breaks it down examining it track-by-track. You can check out the podcast's official website HERE, while See Hear is a breakdown of a music related documentary film.

IKIRU (1952)
The more I delve into films, the more I realize I have huge gaps in things I believe I should have seen or at least been aware of. In 2012, I realized that the films of Akira Kurosawa (and classic Japanese cinema in general) was one of those gaps. Wanting to separate the samurai period pieces from the contemporary films, in early 2013 I watched over a couple of days DRUNKEN ANGEL (1948) and IKIRU. Both films left me amazed at what could be conveyed by a great filmmaker and his cast.

IKIRU is a film with two distinct parts. A council bureaucrat (played by Takashi Shimura)  discovers that he has cancer and wants to find a way that he can make a positive difference to local peoples’ lives before he dies. The first half is about his search, and the second half shows a gathering of people at his wake. If you’ve seen this film, I wonder if you’d agree with me that it the second half plays out in a way like 12 ANGRY MEN (1957). I know that Toshiro Mifune justifiably gets a lot of love from fans, but I am more firmly in the Shimura camp. He had such a range and depth of characters that he played across Kurosawa’s films, he’s become amongst my favorite actors ever.  Shimura is great at conveying his character’s emotional helplessness, after a life spent with repressing emotion for efficiency. He has one of the greatest faces in cinema. The film is definitely emotional, but the story doesn’t manipulate the viewer’s feelings like IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) (a film I love). You come out with a lot of respect for Kanji, Shimura’s character -and watch his peers fall on their metaphorical swords - without ever feeling the manipulation of the melodrama this could have been.

True, these are two films created by two different directors and with two different ways of conveying events, but ultimately, this is one tale in two halves that need to be considered together.

Claude Whatham directs THAT'LL BE THE DAY as a tale about a narcissistic fellow Jim Maclaine (played very well by David Essex), growing up aimless in early 1960s England. Like millions of other teens, he has the rock and roll bug, but has no idea what he wants to do with his life. Like his father before him (returned from World War 2), he deserts his well-meaning mother to go off and work at a holiday camp, then a fairground. Along with his best mate played by Ringo Starr, he lives to shag birds, slack off, and avoid the suburban responsibility his mother would have of him (looking after family business, marrying and settling down). This is no carefree representation of post war England as might be seen in, say, a Cliff Richard musical. It’s not so much a gritty film, but it’s no rock and roll fantasy either. Nothing we do is consequence free. Maclaine, to be frank, is a prick. He has no loyalty to anyone – family or friends.  He tries to be otherwise, but the film goes a long way to suggest you can’t fight your paternal genetics. His father was a wanderer, so….

Michael Apted’s follow up (both were written by Ray Connolly) takes up almost where the last one finished off. Unlike the first film’s tales of a working class lad wanting to escape from his surroundings, Maclaine finds his wishes come true – but with consequences. He becomes the lead singer of successful rock and roll band the Stray Cats (featuring Keith Moon and Dave Edmunds). Getting everything he wants only accentuates his self absorption. He falls for all the trappings of fame – groupies, adulation, money. You feel a combination of pity and contempt for Maclaine. The scene where he sings on TV with a huge choir as a Christ-like figure is a scary display of how far he has come from the character at the start of the first film. There’s a scene where he almost feels regretful of repeating his father’s mistakes with his own child. Is his final fate his own fault or due to the celebrity-obsessed society that places no checks on an ego run rampant? The film asks these questions, but the truth is ultimately both, making this story more relevant than ever.

This film came out in 1984 when I was 19. I got to see it for the first time (at a repertory cinema) in 2013 when I was 48. Is this relevant?

To be honest, I wasn’t interested in seeing it all those years ago, and really only went because my son was keen to see it, and it was on a double feature with a Peter Cushing film called CARNAGE aka CORRUPTION (1968) (which was not worth the effort).  Often, people see films many years after the fact and it is not a problem. As film fans, we have thousands of films from all manner of genre and different cultures to investigate, and usually those films will rise or fall on their own merits, even taking the climate they were born in into account. It seems to me that NIGHTMARE is different.

Like the FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980-current) and HALLOWEEN (1979-current) franchises, NIGHTMARE and in particular its villain Freddy Krueger are iconic. Not that its cult status should be an impediment to an objective assessment, but at my jaded age, I didn’t find it scary or overly interesting (don’t tear me to pieces with your own razor gloves). All I could see was '80s hair and horny teenagers. I mean I liked PORKY'S (1982) back in the day, but…

This is probably more of an indictment on me than the film, but it just did nothing for me. There was no nostalgia factor, and objectively, it did little for me. I grant you the idea of a killer working within teenagers’ dreams was a clever one, but ultimately I probably needed to have watched it on VHS, in my teens with a group of friends, not in 2013 with my teenage son. Oh….and I only just watched FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF (1986) for the first time two years ago also. Don’t get me started…..

I’m currently on a mission to try and watch as many American seventies crime films as possible. It’s a long journey, but that’s good. I try to not find out what common perception of a film may be so I can view it objectively (I only found out that NIGHT MOVES (1975) is highly regarded after I watched it and I found it only so-so).

Boy oh boy. What a wild ride CHARLEY VARRICK was. I confess, I’ll probably bump up my expectations of anything with Walter Matthau. Like his partner in comedy Jack Lemmon, he had a great gift for the dramatic as well, although in a different way to Lemmon. Even in a film as tense as THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE (1974), Matthau still has room for the comical. Varrick is all drama and suspense…no comedy relief. Matthau and his gang pull off a bank heist from the worst possible location – one that is used to launder mafia money. Matthau and the surviving member of his gang after the heist played brilliantly by Andy Robinson are in deep shit. Joe Don Baker plays Molly, a gun for hire sent to get back the money (I just watched PRIME CUT (1972). What is it about bad guys with female names?) On the surface, Molly looks too laid back to do anything too nasty, but this fucker tortures you because it’s fun.  I sense the Coen brothers are fans of this film.

That’s the great thing about crime films – we’re often asked to cheer the guy who did the least wrong. Varrick is a thief fercryingoutloud…But he’s not involved in the crooked goings on of organized crime. He’s betrayed at every turn, but always handles himself with style. My image of Robinson has always been as 'Scorpio' in DIRTY HARRY (1971), so it was interesting to see him as a vulnerable character. A great cast and a finale that Hitchcock would have been proud of. I found this a riveting watch.

I have my good buddy Tim Merrill to thank for this one. Truth be known, I think it will require several views to take in all that it offers. It stars Peter Greene  from PULP FICTION (1994) as a man with schizophrenia who has been released from a mental institution and wants to be reunited with his young daughter, currently with her adoptive mother. The film’s soundtrack is full of the sounds we hear and accept everyday, but all sound like static to Peter. He can’t put these sounds out of his head unless he can subvert his thoughts by self inflicted pain. The story gets more complex by the suspicion that he has murdered a young girl while a detective who is trying to track him down.

This film is not an easy watch, and not just because of the disturbing images and themes it presents. We are all bombarded with images and sounds every day whether we want them in our lives or not. Many of us are fortunate to be able to disregard most of them (people’s chatter, cars passing by with their horns blaring, radios playing the umpteenth repeat of the day of that song you hate or an advertisement for some stupid stuff you’ll never use, supermarket muzak), but Peter hears the world as static that he cannot evict. No one just wants to revel in silence. Quite the contrary. We willingly subject ourselves to these things more than ever, be it through the traditional medium or through the “hum and static” of Facebook. Thousands of posts on what people ate for breakfast, their political rants or pictures of their dogs. All Peter is looking for is a way to get that static out of his head. The narrative itself is interesting, but this is a film where the mood and the tone are more important than the story. Whichever way you look at it, it’s still a fascinating film.