Brazil (1985) What I love most about Terry Gilliam’s works is how they plow ahead with their twisted universes with zero explanation. These movies abandon us in worlds beyond our complete understanding – which is probably why I haven’t revisited most of these titles since I first saw them. There’s something unnerving about being lost inside Time Bandits (am ambiguous nightmare disguised as fantasy whimsy), The Fisher King (psychological breakdown squeezed into a fairy tale), Twelve Monkeys (it’s Twelve Monkeys)… even The Crimson Permanent Assurance has an not-quite-right tone that leaves me less than settled. And then there’s Brazil, Gilliam’s masterpiece of Everything Is Wrong. Claustrophobia soaks into every frame, anxiety seeps through every performance. The world of the Ministry of Information is a bottomless maze of red tape, bureaucratic doublespeak, steampunk poverty, and forced manners. It’s considered dark comedy and sci-fi satire, even in its pitch-bleak final half hour, but to me, it’s pure and utter horror, a study of hopelessness that terrifies me to the core.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) I tend to prefer Harryhausen’s sci-fi films to his fantasy ones; the fantasy flicks have better, more impressive effects work, but the sci-fi flicks have better stories, and better stories win out every time. Even if I count Jason and the Argonauts (my favorite Harryhausen fantasy and notable exception to the above preference), his fantasy films, while plenty of fun, sort of blur together to me, thinly plotted heroes’ journeys with generic leading men and hammy villains, the only notable distinction being the various creatures met along the way. But what creatures! In The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, we get a cyclops, a dragon, a giant two-headed bird, and, of course, a sword-wielding skeleton, whose fight with Sinbad remains one of the coolest special effects sequences ever put to film. Sometimes, that’s enough.
Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011) I worried this documentary would be too much of a celebration with too little new information, a film aimed at Roger Corman fans who already know all about Roger Corman. And, yes, it is a celebration, and, yes, it does recap all the familiar bullet points (shot movies fast and cheap; kickstarted the careers of some of Hollywood’s biggest names; essentially defined independent film as we know it). But it’s also far more detailed than I was expecting, offering new insights into his career and some of his best work. (Best bit: a thorough dissection of The Intruder as both a great film and a box office flop.) Corman’s World has the same gloss as similar titles like Not Quite Hollywood but more depth and focus, not just in examining Corman’s career, but in the ins and outs (and ups and downs) of low-budget moviemaking as well. I’m not sure I buy the film’s closing argument that Corman’s name isn’t known enough these days, especially when it goes from “nobody knows who he is” to footage of him receiving an honorary Oscar, but still.
Dial M for Murder (1954) I remember seeing this with a packed audience back in 1995 (in 3D!), and it was beautiful. The crowd gasped and cringed and ooooooohed every time they thought Ray Milland was about to be found out – and then we laughed at ourselves for falling for it, again and again. It’s pure Hitchcock, tricking us into rooting for the villain, if only temporarily. Hitchcock, more than anyone else, understood empathy through guilt, how our own fears and insecurities work to connect us with otherwise unconnectable characters. Why do we fear for, say, the killer in Frenzy who’s desperate to retrieve his lapel pin, or Norman Bates when he has trouble sinking Marion’s car? Perhaps it’s because we know what it’s like to be busted, and those anxieties creep to the surface when watching moments like those. Dial M is perhaps the most extreme example of this brand of Hitchcock manipulation; it’s 105 minutes of plans almost unraveled and lies almost revealed. Hitchcock plays us like a trombone in this film, and no matter how many times I revisit it, I still fall for it. Every time.
Dames (1934) First thought: Would Busby Berkeley have been better off working in short subjects? His dance numbers are unquestionably marvelous, but they’re so removed from the stories which contain them (which are often flimsy excuses to get us there), it’s almost as if his work deserves to stand in isolation, as the sort of plotless one-offs only shorts can provide. Second thought: What is it with Berkeley and dragging songs beyond their limit? In Gold Diggers of 1935, “Lullaby of Broadway” gets stretched to seven minutes and change; in Dames, “I Only Have Eyes for You” – a song with only two verses – runs on for, what, ten, twelve minutes? I get that these movies (and, more notably, cartoons like the Merrie Melodies series) were used to sell new songs to the public, and I get that repetition is used to keep the tunes memorable, but there’s a limit, you know? Anyway: Dames is cute but ultimately a little too lightweight, its musical segments lacking the oomph we’ve come to expect from Berkeley, the comedy in-betweens lacking the big laughs it needs to keep us tuned in.
Fort Apache (1948) John Ford understood: with Monument Valley around, why would you even think of filming anywhere else? It’s not just the backdrop that makes Fort Apache work, though – despite being a pinch too long (its episodic structure diffuses the focus and creates something of a ramble in the middle), it’s a damn fine character study hidden inside a Western. Henry Fonda’s stiff, stubborn, glory-seeking cavalry officer has enough flaws for three movies, with the star providing an ice cold performance that mesmerizes. He’s eager to prove himself as a champion of the West, while we can plainly see such action may not be necessary, with the politics of the land being far more complex than just Cowboys and Indians. As Fonda’s underling, John Wayne is terrific, too, revealing far more depth than he’s often given credit for. He sees the impending disaster of his commander’s decisions but knows his place, and Wayne plays this tragedy in small moves, perfect for a morally ambiguous picture that studies the grey areas of history.
3 Godfathers (1948) The other Ford/Wayne Western of 1948 is an entirely different kind of flying altogether. This Technicolor treat is an odd mix of hard drama and light comedy, especially once its full premise is laid out: a trio of bank robbers on the lam gain custody of a newborn whose mother dies while stranded in the desert. Some “men don’t know what to do with a baby” comedy fills the gaps, and for a while it looks like we’re headed squarely for Guttenberg/Danson/Selleck territory. But the film backs off, moving instead toward something more somber, showing us the kindness found in even the roughest of men. There’s also some heavy-handed Nativity allegory which gets laid on thick – if references to “New Jerusalem” weren’t enough, the script has the characters repeatedly spell out the metaphor, even reading directly from the Bible in several scenes. It’s all a bit too obvious to ever quite succeed on the level at which Ford aims, and the finale takes an iffy, unearned turn in attempting to keep things light (and Wayne heroic), although the director’s masterful touch and a cast able to tackle the story at a more human level (rather than play it broad, there’s an earnestness to the performances) create some touching moments along the way.
Ministry of Fear (1944) The first half hour is pure nightmare, treated almost as a horror by Fritz Lang, who lends the action a spare, haunting look. (Most memorable is a seance sequence, with the cast submerged in darkness.) Then we get to the meat of the story, in which Ray Milland follows the trail of a Nazi spy ring in London, and as spy thrillers go, it’s all sharply paced, with plenty of exciting twists and murky plotting, but it’s also lacking the otherworldly punch of the opening sequences. It’s as if Lang figured the espionage didn’t require the same fever dream style. And that’s a shame, because it’s the difference between a great film and merely a good one, and with a less stylized approach, the bulk of Ministry of Fear is merely good.