Sunday, December 12, 2010

Good For Goodness Sake: Santa's Screen Gems

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me....a hidden treasure on DVD or VHS. Whether looking for gifts to put under the tree or simply movies to rent when holiday television programming is skimpy, here are a dozen suggestions in no particular order for older, sometimes forgotten releases that still make sense. They aren’t necessarily full of holiday cheer, but devoted cineastes tend to be happiest if good tidings are tempered by a little gloom:

1) McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Set in a Pacific Northwest frontier town at the turn of the 20th century, Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller is both a tragic love story and an indictment of how big business can crush free enterprise. The latter premise unfolds when a ruthless mining company demands that an independent entrepreneur (Warren Beatty as a gambler who launches a brothel) sell his property. The former theme is encapsulated in his doomed romance with the enigmatic, opium-addicted madam (Julie Christie) he hires to manage the whorehouse. In contrast with the cacophony of director trademark overlapping dialogue, the beautifully forlorn landscape shot by Vilmos Zsigmond provides a visual parallel to Leonard Cohen’s mournful music on the soundtrack.

2) Z (1969)
To all those contemporary Attention contemporary Hollywood filmmakers who generally fail to give political thrillers the requisite intensity and coherence, I recommend they look to Z as a helpful touchstone. Based on events in his native Greece a few years earlier, the masterpiece by expatriate Costa-Gavras concerns a progressive member of parliament (Yves Montand) killed after leaving a rally. Jean-Louis Trintignant is riveting as an indefatigable investigator who uncovers the government corruption behind the assassination. He’s successful in prosecuting the guilty until a right-wing military coup takes over the country. In reality, the director, the screenwriter, the composer and lead actress Irene Papas were all exiled.

3) Deadline – U.S.A (1952)
Overlooked in the wake of The African Queen, a splashier Humphrey Bogart picture, Deadline  U.S.A. arguably is the least-known of his films. This semi-noir focuses on a Manhattan editor (Bogart) trying to keep the well-heeled owner (Ethel Barrymore) of his crusading daily newspaper from selling out to a sensationalist rival that specializes in so-called yellow journalism. In the midst of publishing an expose about a local crime syndicate, he champions freedom of the press and the crucial role of the Fourth Estate, a message that resonates in this era of disappearing print media.

4) Local Hero (1983)
In Local Hero, an eccentric Texas oilman (Burt Lancaster) sends two of his executives to a tiny Scottish fishing village, where he wants to drill, baby, drill. Except for a hermit who owns the beachfront property in question, the quirky townspeople are enthusiastic about the idea of prospering from the deal. One of the visiting Americans (Peter Riegert) in Bill Forsyth’s subtle comedy succumbs to the charms of a slow-paced hamlet with only one red phone booth for communicating with the outside world before the proliferation of cell technology and email.

5) High Hopes (1988)
Decades before British college students began protesting tuition hikes in the streets of London, High Hopes was Mike Leigh’s paean to a way of life disrupted by the harsh economic policies of Prime Minster Maggie Thatcher. That is precisely what a neo-hippie couple (Ruth Sheen and Philip Davis) have named their cactus, in fact. She wants to have a baby, but he’s too depressed by the political climate to procreate. To be fair, the guy is also rather busy contending with an elderly mum and regularly visiting the grave of Karl Marx.

6) The Story of Qiu Ju (1992)
The Story of Qiu Ju depicts the tenacity of a young and very pregnant woman. Zhang Yimou’s film stars his frequent muse, the radiant Gong Li, as this stubborn citizen with a passion for justice. When the village chief kicks her husband in the groin, disabling him, she appeals to the police, the courts and government officials for redress. The plucky protagonist even travels with great effort to the provincial capital but encounters only more mindless bureaucracy in a tale that pokes fun at the Chinese system, which deserves it.

7) A World Apart (1988)
A white 13-year-old South African girl is traumatized when her parents (Barbara Hershey and Jeroen Krabbe) are persecuted for their anti-apartheid activism in A World Apart. And she’s utterly devastated after the family’s black housekeeper suffers a terrible loss in the violent milieu of 1963 Johannesburg. Based on the experiences of Shawn Slovo, who wrote the script, the film conveys the anguish of a teenager (Jodhi May) who yearns for some sort of normal home life in a society deranged by intolerance.

8)  Land and Freedom  (1995)
A 60th anniversary celebration of the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War devolved into a shouting match between the communists and the anarchists in 1997; righteous anger ricocheted through the New York City hall, as hundreds of beret-wearing codgers – many in wheelchairs – continued to view the past as prologue. Land and Freedom is Ken Loach’s take on that historical European conflict, in which the ideological battle among those on the left almost eclipses their collective fight against the fascist forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. The conundrum is personified in an out-of-work bloke from Liverpool (Ian Hart) who joins a militia in 1936, only to become disillusioned when the commies betray their comrades-in-arms.

9) Powwow Highway (1989)
Most road movies are intended to offer a glimpse of self-discovery and that’s no less true for Powwow Highway, a road movie that involves a week-long journey into the soul of a nation. Two Cheyenne friends embark on a trip from their Montana reservation to New Mexico in a battered 1964 Buick that one of them (Gary Farmer), a goofy but serene seeker, considers a traditional “war pony.” His traveling companion (A Martinez) is a bitter vet who has survived a modern war in Vietnam and prefers activism over Indian spiritual values. On a circuitous route through the Dakotas to stop at sacred places along the way, they find a balance.
10) High Tide (1988)
In High Tide, the incomparable Judy Davis – critic Pauline Kael once called her “a genius at moods” – portrays a dissipated Australian woman who sings backup for an Elvis impersonator. Their latest gig strands her in a bleak New South Wales seaside town, where she unwittingly meets her own adolescent daughter (Claudia Karvan). Abandoned as a toddler, the child has been raised by her fiercely protective paternal grandmother (Jan Adele) in a trailer park. This drama, directed by Gillian Armstrong and featuring Russell Boyd’s evocative cinematography, examines the notion of family and ties that don’t always bind.

11) The Darkest Light (1999)
The Darkest Light, a little-seen saga written and co-directed by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty), presents a sad, lovely look at decent people plagued with difficulties. As their eight-year-old son battles leukemia, English farmers in Yorkshire (Stephen Dillane and Kerry Fox) are plagued by an epidemic of hoof-and-mouth disease decimating the livestock. Their lonely daughter (Keri Arnold), age 10, befriends a Hindu classmate (Kavita Sungha). They’re dazzled by a presumably supernatural vision, which convinces the Christian girl it’s a sign from the Virgin Mary that her brother will survive.

12) It’s a Wonderful World (1939)
The obscure It’s a Wonderful World is not to be confused with Frank Capra’s ubiquitous It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), even though they both feature Jimmy Stewart. In the screwball comedy, directed by W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man movies), he plays a private eye unjustly convicted as an accomplice to a murder. After escaping custody to track the real killers, this cynic reluctantly teams up with an offbeat poet (Claudette Colbert). Despite delivering snappy sexist lines – “I never met a dame yet that wasn’t a nitwit or a lumphead” – he gets his comeuppance. The proceedings are too silly and slapstick, however, to qualify as an early plea for gender equality. And while no guardian angels are on hand to ring in any season’s greetings, a somewhat mystical nudge does persuade the two characters that they’re meant for each other. God rest ye merry misogynist gentlemen.

-- Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of  Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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