Classic Review: Lillies of the Field

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Review:  To recognize both the conclusion of Black History Month and the recent Academy Awards Presentation, I thought it would be fitting to review Lilies of the Field, the first film to give the award for Best Actor to an African American, Sidney Poitier.

The opening shot of Lilies of the Field does not do much in the way of grandeur—an old car driving down a desert highway with a simple song in the background.  It’s not epic, it’s not grand; it’s comfortable, cozy.  In many ways, this shot sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The film introduces us to Homer Smith (Poitier), a self described “black Baptist” and a drifting handyman, who stumbles across a convent in the Arizona wilderness and is hired by its nuns to do some maintenance work.  Homer first works in order to make a quick buck—something the Mother Superior, the other lead in this movie and something of an antagonist to Homer, promises but never gives.  Still, she manages to coerce him to stay, work, and even drive the nuns around.  A bond begins to grow between Homer and the religious sisters.  The center event of the movie though, is when the Mother Superior asks that Homer build for them a chapel near their convent.  At first reluctant to do so, Homer soon finds that this chapel is a matter of pride for him, and with faith, humility, and hard work, the logical “happy ending” is reached.

Though depicting Catholic nuns and having a famous Bible quote, the “lilies” passage of Mathew 28, as the movie’s theme, this film manages to not feel overly religious.  Catholic, even Christian, elements are kept to a minimum.  Jesus, for example, is only mentioned in song.  The presence of God, though he himself is commonly mentioned, does not saturate this movie.  Yes, it’s about faith, but it’s also about human relationships.  The constant struggle between Homer and the Mother Superior is iconic, as each side represents a strong personality that holds out to get what he or she wants, only to find in the end that each must give in order to receive.

As I said in the beginning, this is a film that gets much of its joy out of quality simplicity.  Sidney Poitier gives a performance deserving of his Oscar as Homer.  It isn’t five minutes into the movie that we, the audience, completely accept him as a convincing and believable character, despite the fact that we know nothing of his past.  Still, his performance doesn’t feel overly dramatic.  He’s no Ben-Hur, but for this movie he certainly doesn’t have to be.  Lilia Skala as the Mother Superior plays an equally convincing role, again never failing to incite believability in her character.

Lastly, though the technical aspects of this movie are not mesmerizing, they flesh out the movie quite well.  It was shot on location in the desert, and a real sense of progress is felt as the chapel gets closer and closer to completion (an actual crew labored through the night to achieve this effect).  Finally, Jerry Goldsmith’s score, with its folk-grassroots sound and use of a popular Baptist hymn, complements the movie beautifully and is in itself a treasure to simply listen to.
In conclusion, Lilies of the Field is a touching little movie.  A sort of diamond in the rough, this film gets two thumbs up from me, and I cite it as an example of how great movies need not be expensive.

Classic Review: North by Northwest

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Inspiring sequences in later classics such as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, this gripping spy thriller delivers visuals and style way ahead of its time.

The film is a prequel to Cloverfield, with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant.  No, really, I swear!

The film is a prequel to 'Cloverfield', with giant stone presidents chasing Cary Grant. No, really, I swear!

Review:  Before James Bond hit the screen for the first time in ‘Dr. No’, Alfred Hitchcock created a master work that would serve to define the espionage genre as we know it.  The producers of ‘Dr. No’ would later incorporate elements borrowed from this film in their Bond sequel, ‘From Russia with Love’, a classic in its own right.

Cary Grant stars as an advertising executive named Roger Thornhill, wrongly identified as a government agent, and later framed for murder.  Forced to run from both the authorities and the mysterious Vandamm (played brilliantly by James Mason), he ends up romantically entangled with a beautiful woman he meets on a train.  Things are never as they seem, of course, and the constant threats keep the audience on its toes.  The blend of humor with danger, often in elaborate set pieces, would be imitated for years to come, but rarely equalled or surpassed.

The cinematography, though still marked by its era, was a foray into brand new techniques.  The tracking shots, crane shots, and the use of matte paintings for scale are all still impressive today.

Married with the cinematography is film legend Bernard Herrmann’s suspenseful score.  The motifs used by Herrmann would later be adopted by John Williams for ‘Jaws’, and numerous other pictures.  Not only is the score suspenseful, it is very memorable, which also is echoed by Williams’ talent for composition.  In a way, this gives the film a ‘proto-Spielberg’ feel.

The film’s themes are classic Hitchcock.  The case of mistaken identity, also evident in ‘The 39 Steps’ and ‘The Wrong Man’, serves as the main McGuffin (device that drives the plot), with a non-descript microfilm containing “government secrets” as a second.  Unlike other Hitchcock classics, there is very little subtext or symbolism.  It is more or less a straightforward adventure.

The romantic subplot, as was typical with Hitchcock, uses innuendo to border on the edge of risque.  The sexual material remains subdued, however, there is no nudity or direct indication of coitus (until the last scene, between a married couple).  None of this feels forced or over the top, except for maybe a small tongue-in-cheek element, and the dialog serves as a bridge for the characters rather than lowbrow titillation for the audience.  I thought it was handled tastefully and quite well.

The other film that springs to mind the most when I think of ‘North by Northwest’ is ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.  There are a lot of stylistic similarities.  It is very evident to me that the young Spielberg drew inspiration from Hitchcock.  Both ‘Jaws’ and ‘Raiders’ reflect the tone of this film, in writing, cinematography, music, and action.  Humorously,  ‘North by Northwest’ contains the earliest instance I’ve seen of the cliched man-running-from-explosion shot, and it is by leaps and bounds more effective here than anywhere else!

This is, without a doubt, a very fun spy thriller.  It’s not a very deep movie, there isn’t a lot of action, and the pace is determined but fairly sedate.  It doesn’t make the mistake of taking itself too seriously.

I definitely recommend this film to fans of adventure movies, especially the James Bond and Indiana Jones series.  They owe a lot to Hitchcock and his crew’s genius, and this film is definitely one of my all-time favorites.

Slumdog Millionaire

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Gripping, intimate, and ultimately hopeful, 2008’s Best Picture deserves its recognition.

D. Thats my final answer.

D. That's my final answer.

Review:  Yesterday evening, I went to go see the critically acclaimed ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which has enjoyed great success in the past few weeks.  It’s made the rare move up the box office top ten, rather than degrading.  I had wanted to see it awhile back, but I’m glad I saw it when I did.

I saw it the night it won the Oscar for Best Picture.

I have had a distaste for the Academy’s decisions in recent history, snubbing great movies that deserved at least a nod (like, say, ‘Gran Torino’ or ‘The Dark Knight’), but I do agree that, out of the nominees, ‘Slumdog’ deserves the prize.  Granted, I only saw two out of the five hopefuls, but the only other Best Picture nominee that I wanted to see was ‘Frost/Nixon’.  For myself then, its only competition was ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’, which, ironically enough, is something of an antithesis of ‘Slumdog’.  ‘Benjamin Button’ is about death.  ‘Slumdog’ is about life.

Something else that struck me as particularly different was how conservative ‘Slumdog’ was, as contrasted with most modern cinema.  ‘Slumdog’, since it was shot in India, had to play by their rules to get past the censors.  Unlike Europe and the United States, India is a country that has not alienated its religious side.  As such, something approximating the U.S.’s Hays Code still exists.  The sexual aspects of the story, then, are told and shown in a way that does not titillate, but invites sympathy.  There is about one-and-a-half kiss(es) shown on screen, and the way it is played makes this act seem all the more intimate.  The conservative guidelines play right into the filmmakers’ hands.

Though the sexuality is, thankfully, subdued, the violence can still be disturbing.  Yet it is never gratuitous.  What makes the film earn its R rating is the tone, not the acts themselves.  I’ve seen worse in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, but that film has a lighter tone than ‘Slumdog’.

As I said, the film was shot on location in India.  Entirely.  The landscape is naturally exotic, and the cinematography dynamically captures this feel.  We are immersed in the culture from the get go.  When we are on the streets, running with the slum children, we feel the energy of the chase, but when we are in a plain hotel room, we feel the staleness and restlessness through the camera.  I don’t think I can imagine a film about India again without thinking of the way this one was shot.  While I’m a bit old school in my preference of a steady, unblinking camera, the fast editing worked perfectly here.

The cast, nearly entirely unknown locals, was incredible.  I believed.  The bad guys were convincingly menacing (one reminded me of Ledger’s Joker, in a good way), the good guys honestly innocent, and the in-betweens reasonably conflicted.  It all played very nice.

This film won Best Score, as well.  That’s one of the few points I’ve got to disagree with the Academy about this film… I don’t think it deserved it.  The score is good, and works very well in the context of the film, but Thomas Newman’s score for ‘Wall-E’ was better.  So was the collaboration for ‘The Dark Knight’, my personal favorite score from last year, but it wasn’t nominated.  But I digress. What I will say about the sound editing is more favorable.  It’s got to be the best sound editing I’ve ever heard, barely topping ‘Wall-E’, which still has better sound design, an important distinction to make.

I’ve given this film a lot of glowing praise, and I think it deserves it.  I can’t say this was my favorite film of this past year.  I can’t say that I have a favorite anymore, actually, but it is definitely up there among the best I’ve seen.

What makes me the happiest about this movie is its undying optimism.  Some may accuse it of being unrealistic, but this is ironic to say in a culture that credits random chance with the creation of life.  I’d say chance and the odds are given too much power.  Some things, as ‘Slumdog’ says, are written.  I believe God looks out for the everyday man.  He gives grace to the humble, no matter who they are.  ‘Slumdog’ doesn’t clearly choose a religious stance, but it does point in the direction of a positive force or intelligence in charge of the universe.  It’s easy to say this is good for fairy tales, but if it isn’t true, what hope have we?  If there is no God, how can a “slumdog”, a poor kid with nothing but a street education, become a millionaire?  Or are we doomed to decay, to die without memory and without hope?  I’d rather believe there is a chance for a happy ending.

Classic Review: Raiders of the Lost Ark

Stars: **** out of Four

Summary:  Harrison Ford’s definitive action hero role shines in his debut, arguably the best adventure film of all time.

Heck yes.

Heck yes.

Review:  I first saw ‘Raiders’ when I was about 9 or 10, on VHS.  It scared me to death.  The film’s many surprises, and especially its horrific climax, terrified me.

Now, it’s one of my favorite movies.

The first colloboration between Steven Spielberg and George Lucas opened in 1981, shattering box office records set by the creators of the film themselves.  Combining Spielberg’s steller direction, understanding of suspense, and whimsical imagination, with Lucas’ inventive story, delivered a one-two punch that is yet to be equalled.

The film used elements of the action/adventure cliffhanger serials of the 1930s to breath life into the action genre.  Indiana Jones, a graverobbing archaeologist, was the protagonist.  Combining James Bond and Humphrey Bogart, he borrowed elements from the heroes of the serials, including a bullwhip from Zorro and a hat from countless others.  The fedora, Jones’ iconic headgear, went on to become his symbol.  Now the fedora is synomymous with Indiana Jones.

The film’s pacing is superb.  There is never a dull moment.  Spielberg uses techniques derived from Alfred Hitchcock to infuse ‘Raiders’ with constant peril.  The action scenes, where some of the most iconic moments where planned on-set, are often parodied or homaged.  In particular the stunt in which Indy slides under a German truck while it is motion, and then works his way back into the cabin.  By understating the action, and keeping it grounded, what might be pedestrian in another movie comes across as mind-blowing in this one.

I mentioned the horror element.  It’s not that the film is extremely frightening, though it is for some children, but that the film critically uses small amounts of blood, gore, and scares to keep you on edge.  The worst scene is the climax, which depicts a man’s face melting off his bones, among other things.  Though rated PG, if it were released today it would earn a PG-13 rating.  Some minor cuts kept it from an R during its initial release.  This is a fun movie, in the vein of ‘Star Wars’, but is much more mature.  It’s not a kids movie, but don’t feel bad about letting teenagers see it.

The film is followed by three sequels, which I will review in the future.  I like parts of all those movies, but ‘Raiders’ is the one I admire the most.

Classic Review: Citizen Kane

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Visually striking and intriguing, Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece still holds its place as one of the greatest American films.

Why is it terrific?  Cause hes CHARLES FOSTER KANE!

Why is it terrific? 'Cause he's CHARLES FOSTER KANE!

Review:  ‘Citizen Kane’ is a hard film to comment on.  It’s like critiquing the Sistine Chapel, to some people.  Not so with myself.  I don’t think this is the greatest film ever made; definitely a great, but not the best.  I personally give that honor to ‘Ben-Hur’, which I will also be reviewing down the line.

The structure of ‘Citizen Kane’ has definitely left its mark on similar fictional biopic movies.  Both ‘Kane’ and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ begin with the titular character either dying or already dead.  Both stories are retrospective looks into the lives of the title characters.

Charles Foster Kane, though, is much different from Benjamin Button.  Based on a composite of Howard Hughes, William Randolph Hearst and even Orson Welles himself, Kane is a super-wealthy newspaperman who was given up by his parents when he was not even a pre-teenager.  This one dramatic incident, it turns out, reveals to the savvy viewer the key to understanding the emotionally distant Kane.  When Kane died, he uttered one word: ‘Rosebud’.  A great deal of mystery surrounds it, compelling a determined reporter to search for its meaning, hoping it will reveal who exactly Kane was, since he died alone and without any real friends.  In short, Kane was embittered to the point of sociopathy.  Though he greatly desired love, he couldn’t recieve it, and therefore couldn’t give it.  It’s only at the end of his life that Kane realizes what he was missing; but by then, it is too late.  If you haven’t seen ‘Kane’, I can’t spoil the ending for you, since it is singular, iconic, and critical to the suspense of the film.  It is also noteworthy for inspiring the end of another classic, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.

By necessity, the story is told from a very distant, detached perspective.  I never really felt involved.  I was intrigued, and fascinated, but it didn’t pull me in.  This, depending on your tastes, can ruin the film for you.  It didn’t for me, but I did feel it was missing something.  This does seem to reflect Charles Foster Kane himself; intriguing, but never connecting.  If this was intentional (which I believe it was), that’s an example of terrific writing.

The cinematography is very memorable, and dynamic.  The opening shots of Xanadu, Kane’s estate, at twilight, set up a Gothic atmosphere that haunts us throughout.  There is almost always something striking on screen, be it rain, lightning, snow, fire, or even dancing.  Even the most pedestrian of scenes are shot in a way that calls attention to the meticulous detail in the background, by use of deep focus.  ‘Kane’ deserves the acclaim it gets in this area.

As for music, Bernard Herrmann, who would go on to score, among other things, Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ and Wise’s ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, does a good job in complementing the picture.  Unfortunately, none of his music for ‘Kane’ really stood out to me.

‘Citizen Kane’ is certainly a great film.  It remains, though, well off my top ten favorite motion pictures.  Perhaps it is because of how much it reflects Kane himself.

If you consider yourself a lover of movies, you’ve gotta see this at least once.  You may not like it, or you may love it, but it is valuable in a historic sense.

Push

Stars:  * out of Four

Summary:  Though it toys with some good concepts, it wastes them all as it becomes just another sci-fi actioner.

It looks much better than it is.

It looks much better than it is.

Review:  A lot of people have compared this movie, a film about people with various superhero-like psychic powers, to last year’s ‘Jumper’.  In some ways, it is similar, but it is better than ‘Jumper’.  Not that that is particularly hard to do.

The cinematography, though quite beautiful at times, follows the ‘Bourne’ template so many action films are following these days.  It makes me long for the kind of patience old filmmakers exhibited, shooting long, dynamic takes and letting us take in the eye candy for more than two seconds.  ‘Push’ seems desperate to push as much information at you as possible, which the cinematography reflects.  There’s quite a lot of plot in this movie.  A lot.  Some of the plot is quite clever, making it a cross between ‘X-Men’ and ‘Mission: Impossible’.  If they had kept things simple and made one particular sequence the focal point of the film, this would have worked well.  I’ve said it before, but ‘Push’ really feels like a first draft by a rookie writer.  The characters are undeveloped, which taxes the actors (some of whom are quite talented), and the dialog is all focused on… ahem… pushing the plot forward.

It’s very easy to lose track of what’s going on.  I wanted to like this movie, I really did.  It just never had the heart or the patience to connect with the audience.

If you’re an adrenaline junkie, feel free to see it.  If you figure it all out, tell me, okay?

Paul Blart: Mall Cop

Stars:  ** out of Four

Summary:  After a slow start, this kid-friendly Die Hard parody finally gets on the Segway, and delivers a good film for lazy afternoons.

Hes determined to make a decent comedy. And succeeds.

He's determined to make a decent comedy. And succeeds.

Review:  Kevin James is one of the those comedic actors who isn’t an arrogant jerk (like, say, Adam Sandler), but he does end up in movies that suck every now and then. ‘I now pronounce you Chuck & Larry’ is a good example of that.

Thankfully, ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop’, the first financial hit of 2009, is not.

It’s refreshing to see a goodhearted little comedy film do so well, especially one that doesn’t rely on the raunch factor.  Instead, it relies on pop culture familiarity for its laughs, which does usually work.  The nice thing about ‘Paul Blart’ is that the titular character is just plain a nice guy, and you root for him instantly.  There’s not a whole lot to examine, thankfully, since the film never confronts you with anything particularly morally objectionable or complicated.  It’s very straightforward.

Though this film may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s not bad enough to keep it from being a popcorn-and-milkdud-munchin’ entertainer.  The best part is, it is actually just good enough.

And yes, Roger Ebert does like this movie.

Taken

Stars:  ** out of Four

Summary:  Veteran actor Liam Neeson proves he can play a character as deadly as Jason Bourne in this decent action thriller that never really finishes.

Liam Neeson is coming to get you.

Liam Neeson is coming to get you.

Review:  When I first saw the trailer for this French-American film, I made the comment that it was “Liam Neeson as Harrison Ford”, essentially, since the plot seems to resemble the fare that Mr. Ford used to end up in during the 1990s.  Humorously, this is still pretty true now that I have seen the film.  It’s done remarkably well at the U.S. box office, making it one of the early hits of 2009.

Liam Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a retired CIA “Preventer”, who is divorced and longs to connect with his 17-year-old daughter.  It starts very promising, if a little unoriginal, but then again who is? (Haha, I made a quote that sounded like ‘Blade Runner’!)

So Mills’ daughter wants to go to Europe on a trip with one of her friends, but Dad warily disapproves, aware of the dangers for young women traveling alone.  He’s soon proven right when nasty Albanian sex traffickers kidnap her.  Bryan manages to get one of the Albanians on the phone, and he promises, chillingly, that he will hunt her captors down and kill them.  The Albanian cockily wishes him ‘good luck’, and then destroys the phone.  That pisses Bryan off.

Don’t piss Bryan off.

With his ‘very particular set of skills’, he sets out to Paris, France, causing havoc in his search for the kidnapped girls.  Every baddy he meets he absolutely ruins, at one point strapping one of them to a chair and electrocuting them to death.  That’s pushin’ it, Bryan, was that really necessary?  Sure, these guys are absolute villains, but why torture him to death? Realistically, you’d never be able to do that without some emotional repercussions (unless you’re a coldhearted bastard, which Bryan clearly is not), so that is one of my major issues with the film.  When Bryan starts pushing the limits of cruelty on his mission, I’d like to see the emotional toll it would realistically take on such a man.  To me, the film never finishes because, when it’s all said and done, we never get to see Bryan Mills reflect.  And for a film so generally good, that’s a shame.

Still, if you’re a guy looking for a testosterone fueled action film, this is the first film in 2009 to deliver.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Stars:  ** out of Four

Summary:  Though excellent in almost every way, the second and third acts plummet so fast that it ruins the effect of a brilliantly played character’s curious case.

Hes not nearly this dull in the movie.  The rest of the movie is, though, so I guess its fair.

He's not nearly this dull in the movie. The rest of the movie is, though, so I guess it's fair.

Review:  For the 2008 Oscars, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ holds the most nominations, literally one in every category.  And for most of these, it absolutely deserves it.  The direction is phenomenal, the effects and performances pitch-perfect.

What prevents this good movie from becoming a great movie is a distinctly flawed story.

It all begins with an intriguing introduction, one so iconic that it could be used as the plot for an entire film.  That’s the story of a blind clockmaker, whose son goes off to fight in the Great War.  Tragicly, the son is killed in combat, leaving the clockmaker with one last goal.  He builds a clock for a train station in his native city of New Orleans.  When it is unveiled to the public, it ticks backwards, which causes some confusion and disappointment.  The blind clockmaker calmly explains that it represents his desire for time to work backwards, so that those who were lost so soon in the Great War could somehow return to their families.  After this unvieling, the clockmaker simply vanishes.

This story is told to us by a dying old woman named Daisy, who is lying in a hospital bed in New Orleans during the year 2006.  Attended by her daughter, Caroline, she asks of her to read an old journal aloud so Daisy can hear it before she dies.  What Caroline reads makes up the bulk of the film’s narrative.  It is the memiors of an enigmatic individual named Benjamin Button- who was, as he says, “Born under unusual circumstances”.  He has the mysterious, supernatural oddity of aging backwards.  The first third of this film, showing Benjamin’s days as an old-young man, is captivating.  This is the part of the movie worth watching, in my book.  Brad Pitt plays the vulnerable Benjamin, who remains naive and idealistic throughout his whole life.  The character he brings to the screen is amazingly well done.

Unfortunately, after Benjamin’s experiences in the Second World War, everything slows way down.  Benjamin remains as interesting as he used to be, but his character seems cheated and wasted by a story that is going in the wrong direction.  Not that the reverse aging is a problem; that’s not the issue with this story.  It is rather that the pure drama of the first act is quickly lost, traded in for a tragic romance.  It’s a shame that the romance was not captured well.

There is a lot of material in this movie. It makes it particularly hard for me to explain the problems I have with this movie.  My biggest problem is the ending, but that opens up a can-o-worms big enough for me to write a separate article about it.  I’ll probably compare its ending to another film, ‘Gran Torino’, which I felt handled itself much better and left you with a smile on your face.

I won’t discourage you from seeing this movie.  It is interesting, and quite entertaining at times.  You may like it better than I did.  To me, it shows a sort of hopelessness, which I didn’t like at all.  I think the part of the culture that ‘Benjamin Button’ reflects is a relentless, unfocused search for meaning, which eventually gives up and declares everything futile.  That’s not a good way to live.  That’s definitely not a good way to die.

Gran Torino

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  Aging actor/director Clint Eastwood delivers an understated, truly moving motion picture.

Some things never change.

Some things never change.

Review:  This was my first R-rated film in theaters.  I couldn’t have picked a better one at the time.  I’m very disappointed this film was snubbed by the Academy this year.  It at least deserved a nomination for Best Picture, though I would argue it holds up well in almost every category.

Oh well.

Clint Eastwood leads as Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski, a bitter, racist old badass who recently lost his wife to old age. With his old dog and his shiny muscle car, the titular Gran Torino, for company, he sits on his porch drinking beer and warily watching Hmong immigrants move in next door.  His adult children try to move him into a retirement home, but he refuses with a few choice words.  He’s sort of an old Dirty Harry, one of those guys you just don’t mess with under any circumstances.  After a few encounters with the children of the afore mentioned immigrants, he is slowly drawn into a conflict with a local gang.  Along the way he becomes a changed man.

Though filled with very crude language and some questionable discussion matter (to say the least), this only serves to underscore the characters.  It makes them real people, not caricitures.

This is a fantastic film, one of the greatest dramas I’ve ever seen.  It was much better than the leader in nominations for the Oscars this year, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’.  There is an important comparison I’d like to make between the endings of these two films, but I’ll do so in a seperate study.