Friday, September 7, 2012

Random Reviews - September 7, 2012

More random reviews...why not?

The Dead, John Huston, 1987

John Huston's last three films before his death in 1987 is a tour de forceUnder The Volcano (1984), Prizzi's Honor (1985) and The Dead - three outstanding films made respectively within a period of three years.  I highlight his final film - The Dead which is based on James Joyce's short story from The Dubliners. The film closely follows Joyce's story, providing viewers with vignettes of the yearly gathering of the Morkan sisters in January of 1904, which include singing and dancing, a piano performance, and recitation of poetry. There are many wonderful moments in The Dead, particularly the serving of the goose and all the different courses of foods during dinner.

The Dead is a beautifully slow and meditative non-narrative film.  It takes place when the western world was beginning to witness social and economic changes due to modernity.  Of course, Joyce's style of writing would later become associated with the broad movement of modernism. The film hits upon a number of issues, such as the political tension between Ireland and England, conversation about opera, discussion of about literature and clothing fashion of the time. There is also a sense of loneliness that pervades the story.  We eventually find out that what lies beneath this gathering is an unspoken tension between Gabriel and his wife Gretta, performed wonderfully by Huston's daughter Anjelica Huston, who had recently won a supporting Oscar for her supporting role in Prizzi's Honor.    

This is extraordinary filmmaking from man who began his career in the golden age of Hollywood - a time when a film like The Dead and its non-narrative style of would have been hard to find. The ending of The Dead has to be one of the most beautiful and power passage of prose I have ever read.   And Huston wonderfully captures this ending sequence of Gabriel self-reflecting on the fleeting nature of memories, the cosmos, "and the living and the dead."

49th Parallel, Michael Powell, 1941

This is a compelling propaganda war film made by one of Britain's finest filmmaker, Michael Powell, who also directed films with Emeric Pressburger, such as A Canterbury Tale (1945), Black Narcissus, (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and Pepping Tom (1960).   

After the sinking of their U-boat in the Hudson Bay, six Nazi sailors must evade capture as they travel across Canada. They meet different groups of people that challenge their Nazi rhetoric. One scene in particular is the Nazi speech by Peter (Anton Walbrook), the leader of the group, who tries to spread Nazism upon the peaceful Hutterite community--a group of people who happened to be of German descent.  Peter's speech literally scared me to the bones.   

This is a powerful film made during the time before U.S. entered the war. The final sequence of the film clearly alludes to this - a strong message to America to break with its isolationist stance. The poignancy of film's title addresses this as well: the geographical divide between the U.S. and Canada (the 49th parallel) - a divide that may have had no meaning or purpose for both countries if America did not join the Allies.

Most of the film was shot on location, which gives the film a realist quality.  Laurence Olivier plays a great role as Johnnie the trapper. 49th Parallel also deservedly won the best screenplay Oscar in 1941. This is clearly one of top films of the war genre.  It is great that Criterion released this one.

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