Alan Kovski © 2013  |  All Rights Reserved

In case you overlooked them (movies)

There are some wonderful motion pictures that are overlooked or at the very least undervalued. Those misjudgments and marketplace failures cannot be remedied by an essay, but here at least is an attempt to tilt the scales just a little bit back toward justice and art. Besides, nothing is easier than rambling on about movies.

The Moderns, a 1988 movie directed and co-written by Alan Rudolph, is one of the most severely underrated films. It is a satirical portrait of the fast-moving artistic and cultural trends of the 1920s, when modernism was in full rage and people were hungry for whatever was new. Amid such rapid change, people often fail to separate real art, cultural pretenses and commerce. The film is extraordinarily witty and intelligent. John Lone is superb as an arriviste who judges art only by its dollar value and its potential to buy him social status. Genevieve Bujold is a lovably spirited and cynical art dealer who sells three paintings to Lone’s character. She tells him, “I think you could easily say that these three works capture the true spirit—l’essence—of modernity.” The paintings will be denounced as forgeries. Forgery becomes a metaphor for false culture, hard to distinguish from real culture in a period of rapid change.

A Sunday in the Country is a 1984 French film directed by Bertrand Tavernier, with English subtitles. It portrays an artist in his old age. He recognizes his own shortcomings, his willingness to settle for merely good commercial work rather than striving for individuality and greatness. He had a family to support, after all, so he chose to do the responsible thing, while the years slipped away. Played by Louis Ducreux, the main character explains himself to his daughter in one of the most beautiful and thoughtful of scenes. The daughter, played by the first-rate Sabine Azema, listens with love and admiration in her eyes. The scene looks like a painting by Manet, it is so filled with lovely detail. “Did I age too quickly?” the father asks his daughter. “Papa, dance with me,” she responds. And they dance, to the tunes of a small band in an outdoor restaurant in a park. A Sunday in the Country is one of the slower-moving films you will see, but it is transfixing. From a novel by Pierre Bost.

A Room With a View is a superbly crafted, witty movie released in 1985. It may have been undervalued as if it were mere Masterpiece Theatre stuff. It is a Merchant-Ivory movie made from an E.M. Forster novel. The movie is directed by James Ivory, with an exceptionally intelligent script. Julian Sands is excellent playing a bit of a young fool but not too much of a fool, a thinker who tries too hard to think, basically a good guy. Daniel Day-Lewis establishes his foppish character with his first brief words, with body language and intonation and facial expression. Maggie Smith is wonderful, her character so prim, manipulative, gossipy, untrustworthy and ultimately good-hearted. Judi Dench is comically perfect. Helena Bonham Carter is fine as an awkward young woman who does not know what—or who—is good for her. The film makes perfect use of opera music (Puccini), thanks in part to recordings Kiri Te Kanawa made with the London Philharmonic.

Miller’s Crossing is well known because it is from the Coen brothers, but it does not seem to be listed among their best. The violence in the 1990 film distracts viewers, I think, from how good it is, even though the violence is Hollywoodish rather than realistic, by which I mean it is somewhat light, not stomach-turning. The main character is always thinking, trying to salvage something of a life within the world of organized crime. Gabriel Byrne could not be better for that role, his face communicating a disappointed intelligence. The actors are given extremely vivid characters. And the movie is beautiful, in terms of both cinematography and music. The Coen brothers have a remarkable ability to put mood in scenes. They can make a hat sitting on a table at night mesmerizing.

Daddy Nostalgia is lavishly praised by people who have seen it, but I doubt that amounts to many people in the United States. It is a 1990 film directed by Bertrand Tavernier in English and French, the main characters being bilingual and living in France. Dirk Bogarde, in his last film, plays a father and husband who has had a heart attack and obviously does not have much time left. Jane Birkin plays the daughter, her moods changing as she tries to come to terms with the fact that she was never as close to her father as she wanted to be, and now she will lose him. Great realism.

The Year of Living Dangerously is a 1982 movie that could have been great and is, I think, great in most of its content, but marred by a Hollywood ending. It was directed by Peter Weir and stars Mel Gibson and Linda Hunt. Gibson plays Australian news correspondent Guy Hamilton, something of a naif, in Indonesia at the time of the fall of Sukarno. It is transfixing to watch Linda Hunt’s character, Billy Kwan, confront Third World poverty and misery in two wordless sequences, after the death of a child. The movie dramatizes the impotence of the West, the inability of developed nations to effectively influence the developing world. That theme is captured in the quietest of climactic dialogs, with the wounded main character lying helpless on his bed, his eyes bandaged. A superb Filipino actor, Bembol Roco, tells the main character, "Mr. Billy Kwan was right. Westerners do not have answers anymore."

The Twilight Samurai was successful in Japan, but it drew little attention in the United States, where it was released in 2002 with English subtitles. Maybe the title made people think it was a mere samurai flick, a chop-socky action flick. It is not. It is a beautiful historical drama, woven together seamlessly from two short stories set in 19th century Japan just before the Meiji Restoration. The main character is an impoverished samurai who works in his clan’s storehouses to help keep the accounts. His love for his daughters, his growing love for a woman, and the grim obligations of clan loyalty form the core of the story. Directed by Yoji Yamada, and starring Hiroyuki Sanada.

Heaven, a 2002 movie directed by German Tom Tykwer, stars Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi. It has a sensational story, and with such stars you’d think it would have been noticed. Blanchett is great as a woman who makes a tragic mistake and must confront the consequences. Ribisi is amazing as the police officer who falls in love with her, even though he realizes he cannot succeed in helping her escape the law. He is in love and he is doomed, and he knows he is doomed. Lovely cinematography and the genius minimalist music of Arvo Part enhance the moods of this tragedy. Tykwer joked that the music was the only realistic part of the movie.

Another Earth was released in 2011 and perplexed reviewers, who insisted on calling it science fiction, although it is not. It is surrealism, the genre often associated with the writings of Franz Kafka. Science fiction requires plausible rationales, even if the writer does not truly believe the rationales, while surrealism depends on imagery and psychological elements. The image of a duplicate Earth hanging in the sky, inhabited by duplicates of ourselves, is the central image of the film. Another Earth also is a tragedy. It reminds you that you do not get to make amends for terrible mistakes, except on imaginary Earths. The terrible accident you caused, or the other worst mistakes you might have made, can never be taken back, not in the real world. The movie uses a nice little twist to wind things up, and that baffled some viewers too. Too bad. It’s a smart ending.

November 2012