The Exiles (Kent MacKenzie, 1961)

The Exiles (1961)

The Exiles was written and directed by British-born Kent MacKenzie over the course of four years (1958-1961). It premiered at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, but somehow MacKenzie never managed to secure a distribution deal for his labour of love and, apart from a few other festival screenings, the film fell into obscurity until referenced in Thom Andersen’s 2003 film Los Angeles Plays Itself, after which it was subsequently restored by the UCLA (in 2008) and at last received the recognition it deserved. Viewed today, more than 50 years later, The Exiles provides a remarkable glimpse into the lives of a disaffected people that is as compelling and relevant today as it was when it was made.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around the exploits of a group of Native Americans over the course of fourteen hours, beginning late one Friday afternoon. These are not the Indians so heavily romanticised by a Hollywood machine spuriously intent on preserving their noble heritage, but an aimless bunch drifting through meaningless lives that are going nowhere. Perhaps because of this romanticism – both in American cinema and literature – their fate seems all the more sad and pathetic, although it is one that could as easily be applied to sections of any community. And yet, it is this sense of a heritage being diluted and slowly, inexorably erased that lends The Exiles and its quietly wretched characters a haunting poignancy.

We first meet Yvonne, a pregnant young Indian woman who lives with Homer, a rotund, oddly plaintive soul who sports an Elvis-style quiff and who is, tellingly, slouched in the lounge of their cramped apartment reading a comic book when we first meet him. Although she is carrying his child, the couple barely acknowledge each other when she returns home and begins cooking chops for Homer and his friends. She still has hopes that the child she is expecting might change Homer for the better, but, like all the characters here, there’s a telling resignation in the way she observes off-screen that ’”I haven’t started drinking or hanging around Main Street yet.”

We follow Homer and his friends as they trawl the night-time Los Angeles streets, hopping from one bar to another, greeting friends, sharing banter, and picking up girls. There’s a depressing inevitability about it all, a sense that these characters are doomed, trapped in an existence that systematically strips away any hopes or aspirations they may harbour, and distances them ever further from the customs and beliefs of their ancestors. The seedy bars, haunted by seamed and weathered faces, confirm their fate, and the gathering of these lost young men on a hillside overlooking the city to chant tribal songs, rather than confirming their heritage, seems to distance them from it even further.

The cinematography is astonishing. The night-time Los Angeles streets, filmed in stark black-and-white and shades of grey, thrum with an existence of their own, another character in the film that is as uncaring of its future as the people who roam them. There’s a strange vitality to it all, the people spilling in and out of bars, the policeman spinning his club as he gazes on. It’s a world that has passed, but which still echoes in the city streets of today.

Stray Dog (Akira Kurosawa, 1949)

Stray Dog (1949)

Stray Dog is considered by many to be director Akira Kurosawa’s first classic picture, and while it perhaps doesn’t reach the creative and artistic heights of later works such as Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1950), it provides us with a snapshot of a director who was on the verge of greatness. Heavily influenced by Western influences – particularly American Noir and Italian Neo-realism – the film boasts a rich visual sense that immerses us in the seedy milieu of the city’s back alleys and burlesque clubs while also using the more stylistic shots associated with Noir to engender a brooding sense of foreboding.

In the midst of a sweltering heat wave In post-War Tokyo, rookie cop Murakami (Toshiro Mifune) has his gun stolen by a pickpocket on a bus. Fearing that the loss of his firearm may result in his dismissal, Murakami undertakes an arduous odyssey to find the stolen weapon that takes him deep into the city’s underworld. Murakami is aided in his quest by the older, more experienced Detective Sato (Takashi Shimura). After locating the woman who lifted Murakami’s gun on the bus, Murakami poses as a destitute ex-soldier in order to infiltrate a gang that rents out stolen guns, and from there he and Sato painstakingly track down the desperate killer who now has the stolen gun.

The simple storyline serves as a framework for a more complex meditation upon the nature of men and the ways in which the same negative experience (in this case, World War II) can result in different paths travelled by the people involved. Murakami and Yuso (Isao Kimura), the man in possession of the cop’s stolen gun, are mirror images; they’re both veterans of the war, and each has his backpack stolen upon his return to the city. These shared experiences affect each man in different ways, with Murakami pursuing a career with the police while Yusi descends into a life of crime and psychological deterioration – a descent that is arguably pre-ordained by his social status. The lengthy sequence (filmed by Inoshiro Honda) in which Murakami goes undercover on the city’s streets (in his old army uniform) in search of the gun enables Kurosawa to establish not only this link between the two men but also the policeman’s identification with the villain. The topic – the difficulties experienced by soldiers returning from war to assimilate into society, and the subsequent criminal repercussions – became common to American cinema in the wake of the Vietnam War – most famously, perhaps, in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) – but it was something unique when Kurosawa made this film.

The story unfolds in a world in stasis, signified by the oppressive heat wave that burdens everyone, and to which Kurosawa constantly refers. Characters wipe their brows, fan their faces and search out frigid corridors of air created by fans as they go about their business. The rains are inevitable, and will provide the release from the oppressive heat that everyone craves, but until they arrive everyone exists in a kind of bubble, unable to move forward. The same applies to Murakami, whose future hangs in the balance until he can reclaim his gun.

For a crime thriller, Stray Dog unfolds at a typically deliberate pace for a Kurosawa film but, paradoxically, it’s a pace that is appropriate. Not only does it provide a compelling story, it also offers an incisive examination of a country that, like its central protagonist, felt itself to have been emasculated by its experiences in the war.

Las acacias (Pablo Giorgelli, 2011)

Las acacias (2011)

As road movies go, there are few that adhere so rigidly to the mind-numbing reality of a long uncomfortable journey as first-time director Pablo Giorgelli’s Las acacias. That’s not to say the film is a bore, although given its long stretches of silence tempered only by the unending rumble of a lumber lorry’s engine, and the deliberate pace of a tale confined mostly to the lorry’s cab, it’s something of a miracle that the story is as compelling as it eventually proves to be.

Germán de Silva plays Ruben, a lorry driver whose long years of solitary traversing of the roads between Argentina and Paraguay are etched on his rugged, careworn features. His cabin is both a cocoon and a refuge, and so it is only with gruff ill grace that he agrees to do his boss a favour by giving a lift to Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), a single mother from Paraguay who is travelling to Buenos Aires with her five month old daughter Anahi. The first part of the journey passes in a frosty silence, but as the miles mount up Ruben slowly begins to thaw, a process which forces him to reassess his approach to life.

From this simple premise, Giorgelli crafts an absorbing story filled with emotional warmth. A wealth of seemingly insignificant moments slowly accumulate, breathing life into characters who speak infrequently to one another but whose few words reveal so much. Such depth of character is aided by impressively natural performances from de Silva and Duarte, who are called upon to convey much of their character’s thoughts through glances and expressions. Even little Nayra Calle Mamani, who plays Jacinta’s baby daughter, seems to deliver a frighteningly appropriate range of expressions on demand.

Las acacias is not for all tastes. It eschews the conventions of the road movie: there is no cast of eccentrics waiting on the roadside, no run-ins with the police, or high speed chases. The road this film travels is lined with bland, dusty landscapes and anonymous vehicles that barely register as they pass by, and there is really no story to speak of. Despite this it is a warm and compelling story that draws you in so that, despite the uncomfortable journey, you wish you could spend a little more time with Ruben, Jacinta and Anahi.

Oliver Twist (David Lean, 1948)

John Howard Davies and Robert Newton in Oliver Twist (1948)

David Lean might easily have created a rod for his own back by undertaking to adapt a second Charles Dickens novel after the critical and commercial success of his 1946 version of Great Expectations. Few could have expected him to equal the calibre of the earlier film, and yet his adaptation of Oliver Twist – one of Dickens’ best-loved and most popular works – not only equalled its predecessor in every way, but surpassed it in terms of its meticulous recreation of a Victorian London filled with narrow dank alleyways over which decrepit buildings bulge and lean precariously, and dingy, ale-sodden drinking dens teeming so convincingly with the detritus of human life that you can almost breath in the stale odour of sweat and tobacco.

The familiar story follows the adventures of young Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) as he escapes life as an undertaker’s apprentice to venture into London. Once there, he’s befriended by the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) who introduces him to the unscrupulous Fagin (Alec Guinness). Briefly escaping from the pickpocket puppet-master’s clutches to find refuge with kindly old benefactor Mr Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), it’s not long before Oliver is snatched off the streets and back into the arms of Fagin by the evil Bill Sykes and his girlfriend Nancy (Kay Walsh), who soon comes to regret her part in the boy’s abduction.

Lean’s meticulous recreation of the era, and his confident visual style are matched by the performances from an accomplished cast. The most memorable of these, of course, is that of Fagin, as essayed by an unrecognisable Alec Guinness (who also appeared in Lean’s Great Expectations). With his long, straggly hair, unkempt beard and outlandish hooked nose he perfectly embodies the character, and rounds out the depiction with a sly rasping lisp. His portrayal is obviously open to accusations of anti-Semitism – in fact, the movie was banned in Israel and the States because of Fagin’s character – but, that aside, it is a characterisation that fits so perfectly Dickens‘ own depiction – even though he never referred to his creation as a Jew. In the part of Bill Sikes, Robert Newton’s propensity for eye-rolling veers dangerously close to the pantomimic at times, but he nevertheless manages to capture the dark, brooding menace which makes Sikes one of cinema’s (and literature’s) most memorable villains. Also worthy of mention is a young Anthony Newley’s portrayal of the Artful Dodger as a prematurely aged boy with the looks and mannerisms of a grown man.

Ironically, perhaps the weakest performance comes from that of John Howard Davies in the title role. It’s curious that, given his near-obsessive attention to detail, Lean permitted young Oliver to speak in the tones of a public schoolboy rather than the product of a workhouse orphanage upbringing. Similarly, Oliver’s vulnerability – which the slightly built and faintly girlish Davies captures well – while necessary for the plot to work, seems a little overstated for a boy who has supposedly experienced such a harsh upbringing. These are minor quibbles, however, and as the character of Oliver has noticeably less to do than the supporting characters, become only occasionally intrusive. And, to be fair, the delicacy of Davies’ performance does at least emphasise his isolation and vulnerability.

The fact that Oliver Twist has been filmed for the screen numerous times illustrates the story’s suitability for adaptation. Although the 1968 musical version is probably the most famous, Lean’s film is by the far the best. And in the comical interlude in which Fagin and his young associates demonstrate the secrets of their art, he even plants the seed of the musical that was to follow.

How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders, 2010)

How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon looks as if it was based upon a video game. It features numerous scenes of dragons and their mounts speeding through the sky, negotiating craggy outcrops of rocks on a rugged coastline, swooping over lush green hillsides and forests, and spitting fireballs as if they’re missiles from a fighter plane. In fact, the film is based upon a book (albeit with some major changes) by Cressida Cowell. No doubt, a video game based on the movie version of How to Train your Dragon will come – or probably already has two years after the film’s release – but undoubtedly there would have been absolutely no thought of lucrative tie-ins on the minds of the film’s creators when the film was being produced.

Jay Baruchel voices the character of Hiccup, a scrawny young Viking who is a constant source of disappointment to his beefy warrior father (Gerard Butler). Although Hiccup is drawn as being about twelve years old he has the voice of an adult (Baruchel was twenty-eight when the film was released), and a broad American accent as do all the other youth characters, which is a little odd considering all the adults speak with broad Scottish accents. Which, when you think about it, is also rather strange as they’re all supposed to be Vikings. But then, this is a film about dragons, so arguing the realism of voices and accents is perhaps a little churlish. Strange though, how it’s easier to accept the existence of winged creatures of myth than it is to accept a Scandinavian character who sound like he’s attempting a Tom Hanks impersonation.

Anyway, Hiccup’s continued requests to begin training in order to learn how to kill dragons are finally granted by his exasperated father just as Hiccup befriends an injured one. This dragon, which he names Toothless, has lost a tail-wing, which Hiccup replaces with a fake one, enabling Toothless to fly once more. Hiccup also designs a saddle and pulley contraption to enable him to both mount and steer his dragon. For a while, as Hiccup learns through Toothless the idiosyncrasies particular to dragons (which are suspiciously close to those of a common house cat), he’s able to combine both forms of dragon training by effortlessly pacifying the imprisoned dragons he is supposed to fight with the tricks he has learned from Toothless. However, of course, it’s only a matter of time before his two worlds collide.

While How to Train Your Dragon will provide passable entertainment for kids over the age of about six, Dreamworks, seem to pay scant regard towards providing jokes for the adults in the audience – unlike Pixar, Dreamworks fierce rival within whose shadow they seem to perpetually toil. In fact, the film doesn’t contain a huge amount of humour of any description, choosing instead to focus more on the cutesy nature of the growing bond between Hiccup and Toothless. With this in mind, the animators are careful to ensure all but one villainous dragon are drawn in a comical or cute fashion, and that the danger in which the youthful heroes find themselves is always fairly abstract in nature.

Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)

Moneyball

Of all the film genres, the sports movie has to be one of the most formulaic. Nearly all of movies within the genre follow the tried and trusted template of a down-at-heel or inexperienced sportsman (or team) defeating the odds to overcome their richer or more experienced rivals – or perhaps a debilitating disease or accident. Uplifting music will play at the crucial point of victory, and our leading man or lady will be carried aloft triumphant shoulders. And so on. Thankfully, Moneyball is a little different thanks to an intelligent script from Stephen (Schindler’s List) Zaillian and Aaron (The Social Network) Sorkin, whose decision to deviate from the template provides the film with a greater depth of emotion than it would otherwise possess

Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, real-life General Manager of the Oakland A’s, a modestly successful baseball team hampered by a meagre budget compared to its big gun rivals and the need to sell its star players at the end of each season in order to stay afloat. Realising the conventional attitudes toward player selection of his ageing coaching team won’t provide the club with the success he craves, Beane poaches nerdy Yale economics student Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) from a rival club. Brand’s theory is that the flashy crowd-pleasing players are bad value for money, and that according to his in-depth statistical analysis, greater success can be obtained by investing in players who appear to be of lower quality. Naturally, this shift in strategy meets with stubborn, ill-tempered resistance from his coaching team and team manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and after their season begins with a run of 11 straight losses, his teams criticisms appear to be justified.

We’re more used to seeing Jonah Hill in low risk, high-profile multiplex fare, so it’s a refreshing surprise to see him delivering an understated performance as the nervous, introverted Brand, whose timid nature is at odds with his unshakeable belief in his theories. He and Pitt make an odd couple, and on-screen the strength of their partnership never quite rings true (even though it may well be faithful to the truth) because of a lack of chemistry. Pitt effortlessly portrays Beane as a contradictory figure, either filled with a bubbling, nervous energy or consumed by melancholic regret – and it’s with this aspect of Beane’s character that Zaillian and Sorkin really succeed in breathing life into a genre which normally operates within rigidly defined parameters.

Perhaps the best indicator of the success of a sports movie is whether it can be enjoyed by those with no interest in sport in general or the subject sport in particular. Moneyball goes one further by managing to engage an audience that possesses zero knowledge about the sport in question. Of course, this is because the film isn’t really about baseball, or even the men who compete. Moneyball is about Billy Beane, about the way a poor decision made in his youth overshadows the remainder of his life, and how it is the regrets that haunt him which also drive him on and make him the man that he is. What makes him human is the fact that those regrets and doubts continue to haunt him at the story’s end and beyond.

Il deserto rosso (Red Desert) (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1964)

Monica Vitti in Il deserto rosso

Having confirmed his reputation as one of the world’s foremost directors of avant-garde film with the trilogy of L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first colour film explored the debilitating effect wrought on the human mind by the rapid transformation of the world into an industrial landscape as a result of the rapid technological advances made immediately after WWII. Typically, Antonioni expressed his views in a stark, existential style that will quickly deter the casual viewer, but it is perhaps the only way in which his study of alienation can effectively work. And, despite its bleak and difficult introspection, the story – and the landscape in which it takes place – possesses a strangely haunting beauty that remains with the viewer long after the final scenes.

Monica Vitti, who was Antonioni’s lover when the film was made, plays Giuliana, the troubled wife of an industrialist. Having recently been involved in a car crash (which may have been a suicide attempt), she struggles to find a reason to recover psychologically in the surroundings of her grim, industrial hometown. She mistakenly believes Corrado Zeller (Richard Harris), an engineer on a recruitment drive on his way to a new plant in Patagonia, might offer a reason, but when this proves not to be the case she is driven even deeper into despair – and possible madness.

Antonioni’s inspiration for the film was the way in which the nearby town of Ravenna had been transformed from a sleepy backwater into an industrialised wasteland by the expanding petrochemical industry. In Il deserto rosso he spectacularly illustrates this disintegration through the use of a muted palette of grey, brown and green, and of alien-like constructions that tower into the sky, dwarfing the film’s characters and emphasising their smallness and impotence in the face of industry’s progress. While Zeller and Giuliana’s husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti), the manager of the local plant, are agents of this industrial change, Giuliana is not, and she is ill-equipped to cope with the change, or to evolve in step with the evolution of this new technology.

Despite this theme, Antonioni was on record as stating that he wasn’t against technological progress, and this is reflected in the strange, terribly beauty of these monstrous constructions. But it’s a new, unfamiliar beauty that paradoxically blights the landscape. Antonioni also uses sound to emphasise their intrusion; an unrelenting symphony of high-pitched screeching and explosives hisse of steam that strikingly contrast with the gentle lapping of ocean waves on an idyllic beach in the story which Giuliana tells to her young son, and which is a thinly-veiled metaphor for her spiritual purity – or perception of it – prior to her incipient mental breakdown.

As with all of Antonioni’s work, Il deserto rosso is a difficult and enigmatic film that demands the complete attention of its audience. It’s themes are revealed, not just in the conversations of its characters – conversations which often seem to grind to an abrupt and unexpected halt, and also seem to have little significance at times – but again, as with all Antonioni’s work, through the environment in which the characters interact, and which impose themselves on the story with an insistence that cannot be ignored.