Cinematic Greats: Breaking the Waves

Breaking the Waves - poster

Breaking the Waves (1996) is one of the greatest films ever made, and the magnum opus of Lars von Trier.  Martin Scorsese and Roger Ebert each hailed it as one of the 10 Best films of its decade, with Ebert writing:

“Breaking the Waves” is emotionally and spiritually challenging, hammering at conventional morality with the belief that God not only sees all, but understands a great deal more than we give Him credit for.

…  Not many movies like this get made, because not many filmmakers are so bold, angry and defiant. Like many truly spiritual films, it will offend the Pharisees. Here we have a story that forces us to take sides, to ask what really is right and wrong in a universe that seems harsh and indifferent. Is religious belief only a consolation for our inescapable destination in the grave? Or can faith give the power to triumph over death and evil? Bess knows.

Breaking the Waves - Index Card

I wrote in 2008:

I’ll leave you for today to just mention one last movie, standing in great contrast to the movies I’ve written about above.  I won’t say too much about it, but that Breaking the Waves (1996, Emily Watson) I saw in the movie theater and became physically drained from the experience.  Not so much an entertainment as an exercise, but like a good work out, this one pays off.  It is for the most part a quite bleak film, with these very colorful mini-intermissions – about six – spread Breaking the Waves - text blockthrough as sort of chapter markers.  The film is a unique vision of the making of a saint, and through the bleakness emerges finally at the end great joy.  It is, as I now think about it, and I’ve thought about it many times – one will never forget this one – an alternate (and I’ll say a very alternate, without elaborating how at this time) telling of the story of Christ.  No more about this now, except perhaps to understand the mood of it a little, the theme music (only in the end credits) is Bach, Siciliano from Sonata for Flute & Harpsichord in E flat major, BWV 1031 – a melancholy rendering of that performance, that is, as compared to a more flamboyant or whimsical version as some I just sampled on iTunes.  [2016 Note: for trumpet and organ, not available on iTunes] If you ever do watch it, to get the full experience try to do it in one sitting with no more than one pause or so, which should be done at a mini-intermission.  As I said, an exercise to watch it, 159 minutes.

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Availability: iTunes rental & purchase

Cinematic Greats: Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare in Love - poster

Every once in a while the Academy gets it right: Shakespeare in Love is one of the most beautiful and lovely pictures ever made.  It’s also one of the most thoroughly vetted, so there’s little I can add to existing comment.  Joe Morgenstern of the WSJ nails it:

As “Shakespeare in Love” unfolds, though, we see beyond the performances to how ambitious the whole undertaking really is, and how marvelously well the writers and director have pulled it off. Through the medium of movies they’ve reconnected us to the magic of theater. Scene after scene engages us as cheerful groundlings, tosses us jokes, toys with our expectations, then sweeps away the boundaries between film and stage, comedy and tragedy — a death scene, for instance, played almost simultaneously for laughs and tears — so we’re open to the power of language and the feelings behind it. I wasn’t just open, I was swept off my seat.

The only thing I’ll add is that the ending is among the greatest, most beautiful and emotionally urgent endings in the history of cinema.

Availability: iTunes, Netflix

Netflix link

Cinematic Greats: Donnie Brasco

Donnie Brasco - still

I’m a spoke on a wheel.  And so was he.  And so are you.

What a fantastic movie this is; a blessing.  Just about perfect.

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Prior to The Gift, a trailer was shown for the upcoming Johnny Depp portrayal of Whitey Bulger, Black Mass.  I was instantly reminded of Depp’s other mob film, Donnie Brasco (lest anyone has remembered, let’s all forget about Public Enemies).

Which gets one thinking about the career of Johnny Depp, one of the biggest talents in Hollywood.  He was on the Letterman show talking about his first stint as Captain Jack Sparrow in the mega-blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean series; speaking of the Disney execs:

They didn’t know what I was doing, exactly.  They were concerned that I was, uh, I think in their words ‘ruining the movie.’  Something subtle like that.

A wonderful little interview.  You’ll have to excuse the quality; if you can find better let me know.

Being Johnny Depp, we may take it that he assured the producers to the effect, “I’m Johnny Depp.  I know what I’m doing.”  Boy did he.  From Edward Scissorhands on, there has never been any doubt about Depp’s “out there” roles — he always nails them.  He dons the full costume and makeup better than just about anyone.  He’s great at that, often brilliant.  Though occasionally a movie will fall short, as The Lone Ranger or Sweeney Todd, his performance is not to blame for those failures.  He always adds a quirky element to his portrayals that — as the Pirates anecdote proves — is entirely his invention.

But there’s this whole other side of Johnny Depp that is seen much less frequently — the “serious actor” who plays “straight” roles — roles without the fancy costume, without the panoply.  Donnie Brasco is the best example of this, and makes me wish he would do more “straight” roles.

Donnie Brasco excels because of Depp, and a great true story, and — most of all — because Al Pacino puts in probably the best performance of his career.

A terrific movie, maybe not as “essential” as Goodfellas, but every bit as good.  My highest recommendation.

Availability: iTunes

Cinematic Greats: 48 Hrs.

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A great movie and an 80’s flashback in one!  Sometimes a movie just hits all the right notes.  That may sound clichéd, but hear me now and believe me later: 48 Hrs. is a fantastic, funny as hell movie with a great Dirty Harry-inspired villain and a thrilling storyline — much more than one could expect in Eddie Murphy’s debut.

If you never saw it, do yourself a favor and catch 48 Hrs., an essential picture that holds its place among the many great movies of the period.

Availability: Netflix

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Cinematic Greats: The Mist

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The Mist - text blockTHOSE FIRST PULSATIONS through the corrugated tin door, which a moment later are found to come from tentacles — the giant, flesh-tearing tentacles of an enormous monster whose body is never revealed: this is the sense of mystery and wonder — and dread — that evokes those early marvels of Steven Spielberg.  James Berardinelli of Reel Views sums it up better than anyone:

The Mist is what a horror film should be – dark, tense, and punctuated by just enough gore to keep the viewer’s flinch reflex intact. … [Director Frank] Darabont has fashioned a tense motion picture that’s ultimately more about paranoia, religious fanaticism, and the price of hopelessness than it is about monsters.

The Mist is an intense macro-epic for when the world is being torn away.  You can read my previous comments here.  And the ending is brilliant — decidedly un-Hollywood.  A terrifically thrilling film.  9/10

Availability: iTunes, rental or purchase

Cinematic Greats: Elephant

Elephant - poster

I wrote in my Spalding Gray post:

The movies Leaving Las VegasElephant, and from just a week ago, Under the Skin, clawed away at me long after I left the theater.  You might say those are my demon films — so much scarier than ghost & goblin movies, because this type of haunting is personal, and real.

When a movie is keeping you up at night a month later, it got to you.  Roger Ebert gave his highest rating while astutely addressing the audience-splitting nature of the film:

ElephantGus Van Sant‘s “Elephant” is a record of a day at a high school like Columbine, on the day of a massacre much like the one that left 13 dead. It offers no explanation for the tragedy, no insights into the psyches of the killers, no theories about teenagers or society or guns or psychopathic behavior. It simply looks at the day as it unfolds, and that is a brave and radical act; it refuses to supply reasons and assign cures, so that we can close the case and move on.

Elephant to me is not an unqualified masterpiece, but it’s darn close.  Highly recommended; 9/10.

Availability: Not currently available via VOD, but you can buy the DVD at Amazon for under $5.  That you can buy the DVD for so little, yet it’s not available through streaming media goes to show the balkanized, chaotic state of media access.  It’s almost worse than airfare pricing.

Italian Essentials: Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso - poster largeMy sister recounts a remarkable tale involving three grand old movie houses:

Once a week for a period in the late 80’s and into the 90’s, the Riverside, California Fox Theater hosted viewings of independent and foreign films — which was the only way to see indies and foreign films in Riverside at the time, other than renting a videocassette.  The Fox was built in 1929, and besides being one of the old Fox movie palaces that sprung up around the nation in the 20’s and 30’s, holds its place in the history of cinema as the first theater to hold a public viewing of none other than GONE WITH THE WIND.

On this particular evening, my mother and sister (I was away at college) went to see at the Fox the great Italian love letter to old Hollywood and the movies, Cinema Paradiso.  While watching the movie, in which (minor SPOILER ALERT! — it happens about midway through) the old Italian movie house is brought to ashes by a fire started in only the most poetic way, mother and sister began smelling smoke within the theater!  Was this an enhanced sensory experience the theater was offering?  Not exactly.  The odor was faint enough not to cause alarm, so the audience continued to watch the movie.  After the film had concluded, they exited the Fox to find — lo and behold — that the Golden State Theater, which stood just across the street and a few yards down 7th Street, was in its final throes.  Cinema Treasures:

Originally opened in January 1890 as the Loring Opera House. Star[s] such as Sarah Bernhardt and W.C. Fields performed on its stage.

Cinema Paradiso - text block 1Later it became a movie theatre and was renamed Golden State Theatre, operated by Fox West Coast Theatres.

It was closed in January 1973, and stood unoccupied until the empty building was gutted by a mysterious fire (possibly arson due to the high cost of renovation?) in October 1990. City officials then approved plans to demolish the remains of the building.

Ever since I heard this story, I’ve considered witnessing the conflagration of two movie palaces in one night — one on film and one in the flesh — to be an amazing coincidence.  Alas, the trespasses of our past.  Once the old movie houses go, they shall not return — so we must treasure those that still stand.

Now on to the movie!

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Cinema Paradiso is a lovely, charming, endearing and timeless classic that captures the exuberance of old classic movie houses and the joyous spirit of a night spent within.

There is a director’s cut of Cinema Paradiso, which adds nearly an hour to the running time.  It was released in 2002, and I don’t think I’ve seen it.  The widely-seen theatrical release is 124 min., and the one I’ve seen.  I mention it because critics are split as to which release is better.  At some point I’ll have to revisit Cinema Paradiso at its full length.

But no matter the version, Cinema Paradiso is completely essential.

Roger Ebert:

Yes, it is tragic that the big screen has been replaced by the little one. But the real shame is that the big screens did not grow even bigger, grow so vast they were finally on the same scale as the movies they were reflecting.

Cinema Paradiso - stillIn his 3 1/2-star review, Ebert knocks this movie down a peg for being too predictable.  My memory of the latter half of the film is not clear enough to agree or disagree with Ebert, but any such transgression is easily forgiven.  Now I’m not sure what happened — I can’t email Ebert to find out — but he awarded the new, longer version 4 stars while stating that it was inferior to the original, at 3 1/2 stars.  Go figure.

Stephen Holden of the Times, in his review of the director’s cut:

“Cinema Paradiso” has had its detractors. Yes, its sentimentality is shameless, but its child’s-eye view of the world — a view bursting with wonder, curiosity and longing — feels emotionally authentic.

Holden disagrees with Ebert about which version of the film is better:

The director’s cut, which will open in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, is more romantic, more emotional and ultimately more satisfying than the teary-eyed original. By adding 48 minutes to that two-hour release, and bringing back a character that had been deleted from it, the director’s cut sabotages the earlier version’s message, a variation of the old admonition that you can’t go home again.

You can’t go wrong with either version; the original is waiting for you on Netflix.

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Cinema Paradiso - text block 2Besides all its other charms, Cinema Paradiso features a beautiful and perfectly fitting Ennio Morricone score.  And the language!  The movie could only be Italian — any other nationality would not work nearly as well.  The language, setting and score sing in harmony.

Cinema Paradiso is a wonderful film, which upon its release became instantly embedded into the canon of film.  A must for all cinephiles, that it’s in Italian only makes it better.