The Morning After: Feb. 10, 2014

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what I’ve seen over the past week either in film or television. On the film side, if I have written a full length review already, I will post a link to that review. Otherwise, I’ll give a brief snippet of my thoughts on the film with a full review to follow at some point later. For television shows, seasons and what not, I’ll post individual comments here about each of them as I see fit.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

The Conformist

Long before he became an Oscar-winning director, Bernardo Bertolucci was churning out prominent Italian-language films, including the film that brought him major international acclaim. The Conformist explores a period of Italian history many filmmakers would sooner forget, the regime of Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator whose coercive practices made being a political dissident in the nation a dangerous thing.

Marcello Clerici (Jean Louis Trintignant) wants a normal life. Born to wealth and privilege, Clerici has emotional baggage that influences his desire to work alongside the fascist government. Tasked to assassinate a former teacher of his, Clerici embarks on a fascinating look into his present and his past while he vacillates between doing the right thing and conforming to the system that oppresses and kills.

This isn’t necessarily a film about performance. Trintignant gives Clerici just the right measure of humanity to give the audience an understanding of his goals and desires. From there, Bertolucci’s literate adaptation of the novel by Alberto Moravia tackles the material with insight and dignity. This is a first rate exploration of societal desire for normality, which often enables the rise to power of willfully vindictive and power-hungry men. It acts as a cautionary tale to future generations that slavery to an ideal betrays yourself, your friends and your fellow countrymen.

Of all the masters of cinema that came out of Italy during the 1950’s and 1960’s, Vittorio Storaro remains one of the most important figures even though he never sat in the director’s chair. Storaro’s contributions, most notably in The Conformist, influenced generations of cinematographers. Using a wall as a divider to create a split screen between two individuals, a physical barrier symbolizing an emotional one, is employed superbly here. Oblique angles are used to throw the audience off-kilter, paralleling the character’s own disillusionment. Heavy use of light and shadow to create depth, beauty and emotional distance are used frequently. Even the ground-level camera watching leaves blow away became a frequent cinematic flavor to future generations.

Watching The Conformist for the story is one thing, watching it for its opulent and influential cinematography is something completely different.

Ryan’s Daughter

David Lean left an indelible impression on the film world, his epic stories remain seminal works for any film enthusiast. The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago are among his most famous works. Yet, as cineplexes moved away from movies that were split with intermissions, Lean’s style of films became less appreciated as the 1960’s wore on, culminating in his penultimate cinematic feature Ryan’s Daughter.

A sprawling romance brings together Robert Mitchum as a widowed school teacher and Sarah Miles as Rosy Ryan, an impressionable young barkeep’s daughter who falls in love with Mitchum’s Charles Shaughnessy in spite of their vast age difference. As a physical and emotionally wounded soldier (the recently departed Christopher Jones) arrives in town, her young heart begins to fancy this vulnerable young man even though his participation in the war against the Germans on behalf of the English military is not a popular position in town.

Set in a working class Irish town, the citizens are resentful of the English authority and long for rebellion, adding a historical element to the film that fits right in with Lean’s broad cinematic palette. Mitchum and Miles give wonderful performance as do John Mills as the town’s deformed whipping boy, Leo McKern as the titular parent Thomas Ryan, and Trevor Howard as the town’s respected priest. Jones presents the stiff upper lip of the British aristocracy and while his performance is the weakest of the bunch, his embodiment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder makes up for his other weaknesses.

Lean’s gorgeous cinematography is still at work here and it’s a shame that the cinema world drifted away from his kind of movie. This remained his final film for more than a decade before he decided to go out in style with the beautiful story A Passage to India. Few directors had such a brilliant streak of pictures, making Lean one of our most important figures.

Jerry Maguire

It’s almost appropriate that I follow up two films by prominent feature film directors with the film that turned Cameron Crowe’s career around, making him a popular figure in film and audience circles. That promise was short lived. After this and Almost Famous, his career took a nose-dive, both in terms of output and quality of said output. Yet, creating two compelling films in a short career is worth something.

Jerry Maguire begins quite conventionally following our title character (Tom Cruise), a sports agent, as he pens a mission statement promising more intimate relationships with his the players he represents. The letter leads to his termination and despite his attempts to take his clients with him, he manages to secure only two men, one a promising quarterback (Jerry O’Connell) and the other a loud-mouth, money-hungry family man (Cuba Gooding Jr.). The only person who leaves the firm with him is the quiet accountant (Renee Zellweger) who secretly fancies him and ultimately ends up in a relationship with him.

When you watch romantic films, be they comedy or drama, you expect certain elements to present themselves, churning the story through expected narrative arcs. Crowe’s screenplay deftly navigates those cliches and turns out a film that cleverly plays with those mechanics, taking the audience in unexpected directions. There are still some predictable moments, but after the first half hour, it becomes more and more difficult to guess what might get in the way next.

Cruise isn’t a great actor, though he’s turned in some spectacular performances. While this doesn’t quite belong in the league of his work in Magnolia< this is probably one of his most humane performances that he's given. He's exceeded by most of the rest of the cast, including a surprisingly capable performance form Cuba Gooding Jr. At the time the film came out, all anyone could talk about was the "Show Me the Money" scene, which made Gooding Jr.'s performance look utterly annoying, a caricature that bore little resemblance to a real person. I can now see why he was an instant Oscar success story. That his later career didn't quite live up to that potential is disappointing, but not necessarily unexpected. Zellweger delivers her best performance outside of Bridget Jones’ Diary, a selfless, emotionally rich single mother. Bonnie Hunt and Regina King are also quite good in small parts.

Not being a sports fan, I avoided the film upon its release, never really having a desire to see it. While I don’t regret that decision, I’m not upset that I’ve finally gotten a chance to see a film that’s warmer and more interesting than I initially gave it credit for. It plays with tropes in new ways that displayed quite a bit of promise from its director.

The Ruling Class

Based on the play of the same name, The Ruling Class targets the British aristocracy for ridicule, making them out to be vain, selfish, power-hungry ideologues so enthused by their own opinions that they fail to see anyone else as human.

Peter O’Toole delivers an undeniably brilliant performance as Jack Gurney, a schizophrenic pulled out of the hospital after his father accidentally hangs himself. Believing himself to be the God of love, Jack faces a family that resents his position and goes to great lengths to ensure that there’s a sane heir to the family’s seat on the House of Lords.

There are several funny scenes in the film, but there are also plenty of questionable decisions that send the film flying off the rails. This is a film that will test your appreciation of an older style of British black comedy. Much like my indifference towards Tom Jones, I find The Ruling Class to have some interesting things to say, but never sticks out as something unforgettable. For British humor, give me Kind Hearts and Coronets over The Ruling Class without question.

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