Welcome to The Penny-Pinching Cinephile, a weekly spotlight of the best free flicks on the web. ‘Cuz sometimes you gotta eat.
1.) Taxi Driver
It’s rare when a legitimate masterpiece that’s not already in the public domain comes up to view for free online, so it’s a real pleasure to recommend Taxi Driver (even though I’m almost positive if you’re reading this column, you’ve seen the film at least once). Even though the subject matter is brutal, I frequently find myself drawn to repeat viewings of Taxi Driver, large stretches of which have a strange, hypnotic quality. This is in large part to Bernard Herrmann’s indelible musical score, which, combined with the neon-infused, rain-soaked New York streets, create an oneiric urban nightmare. I’m also consistently surprised by how much of this film appears real, and how much appears imagined, and how that distinction doesn’t really seem to matter in the enduring power and legacy of the movie. (This is also true of the later Scorsese/De Niro collaboration The King of Comedy.) Every time I watch Taxi Driver, I discover a new aspect to admire: from the film’s unexpected comedy (the scenes between Albert Brooks and Cybill Shepherd are positively screwball), to Harvey Keitel’s captivatingly creepy pimp. Taxi Driver has been so effective in immersing us in Travis Bickle’s singular, interior isolation, I think most of our memories of the film–its most famous images–are of his loneliness, when, in reality, the film is full of wonderful supporting characters (Peter Boyle as Wizard, and even Scorsese himself). If you haven’t seen Taxi Driver in a while, this may be the perfect time to revisit it.
Six years prior to co-founded Studio Ghibli in 1985, Hayao Miyazaki directed his first feature film, an adaptation of Monkey Punch’s manga Lupin III called The Castle of Cagliostro. Starring Arsène Lupin III (the grandson of turn-of-the-century French gentleman thief Arsène Lupin), Miyazaki’s film is actually a continuation of a Lupin III television manga that aired in Japan throughout the ’70s (of which Miyazaki directed several episodes). Even with all this back story, it’s not necessary to know who Lupin is or where is comes from precisely because the archetype of the goofy/suave thief with the heart of gold is so well-established in pop culture. The plot: after ripping off a casino, Lupin and his partner-in-crime Daisuke discover that the money they stole is counterfeit. They trace the phony bills to the small European Duchy of Cagliostro, where the evil Count Cagliostro is set to marry the innocent Princess Cagliostro, thus reuniting the two ancient bloodlines of their country (which the Count wants to happen because of some ancient secret that has to do with centuries-old conspiracies and magic signet rings). Smitten with the Princess, Lupin is determined to save her and uncover the mystery of the fake money. Along the way, he encounters an international super spy/former flame and a pesky Interpol agent who’s been after Lupin for years. There’s also fun stuff like ninja guards, underground catacombs, and a funky autogyro. The Castle of Cagliostro is pure fun, just a great animated adventure movie with colorful characters and a lot of fast-paced action and humor. It’s certainly not as technically impressive as Miyazaki’s later work, but it’s a very entertaining movie on its own right.
3.) The Tall T
In the 1950s, the American Western film achieved the pinnacle of the genre, producing seminal films like High Noon, Shane, The Searchers, and Rio Bravo. Although less well-known than John Ford or Howard Hawks, director Budd Boetticher produced some of the finest films in the western genre during a collaboration with star Randolph Scott in the late ’50s and ’60s. Of this cycle, 1957’s The Tall T is the duo’s best work. Adapted from a short story by Elmore Leonard, Scott plays Pat Brennen, a lone wolf rancher who gets ambushed by a trio of highwaymen and is held for ransom along with unscrupulous city-slicker Willard Mims and his new wife, Doretta. The plot is standard western fare, the baddie vs. the goodie, with a few shading characters in between. But Boetticher, working with a B-picture budget and tight shooting schedule, elevates The Tall T to the level of masterwork. Absent the political commentary of High Noon or the racial commentary of The Searchers, The Tall T is a straightforward, traditional western, but executed in an exemplary fashion that truly demonstrates the beauty and complexity of the genre. Boetticher gets great performances out of Scott, and especially Richard Boone as a surprisingly complex and sympathetic kidnapper. Among Budd Boetticher’s major champions/admirers is none other than Martin Scorsese, whose comments on The Tall T are as elegant and enlightening as the film itself.
The 1989 feature debut of Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, The Seventh Continent immediately established the themes that would come to define the director: post-modern isolation, interpersonal cruelty and exploitation, sudden outbursts of violence that result after a long, slow build-up of repression and denial. The film concerns a seemingly normal, middle class Austrian family, husband and wife Georg and Anna, and daughter Eva, going about their mundane, daily activities, until one day, Georg quits his job and declares the family is moving to Australia (hence the film’s title). Haneke films the family’s activities–eating, grocery shopping, at work or school, watching TV, going through a car wash–with the director’s trademark patient long takes. However, Haneke manages to imbue these scenes with such a palpable sense of dread; there is something eerie and just not quite right about their interactions. For the first half hour or so, Georg and Anna’s faces are deliberately obscured, the camera instead focusing on familial objects: a cup of coffee, a child’s drawing, static on the television. As the family begins to self-destruct, their objects–their signifiers of identity–are likewise destroyed (a lengthy shot of Georg flushing all the family’s money down the toilet apparently outraged audiences more than the film’s scenes of violence). There is something deeply unsettling about the idea of destroying the everyday objects that makeup the elements of our own identity. Haneke brilliantly exploits this contradiction: as a culture, we seem much more comfortable with destroying ourselves than our possessions.
Perhaps it isn’t so surprising that the two or three years prior to the advent of motion picture sound created some of the silent era’s most enduring masterpieces. It’s almost as if filmmakers around the globe recognized they had reached the apex of their form’s power, and delivered in kind. Joining Murnau’s Sunrise, Lang’s Metropolis, and Gance’s Napoleon, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is one of these late-era masterpieces. Dreyer’s film is taken directly from transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial and execution at the hands of her English captors in 1431. Visually, however, Dreyer was influenced by the recent (1920) canonization of Joan by the Roman Catholic Church: certainly, this is the portrait of a saint, not a madwoman. French stage actress Maria Falconetti plays Joan, in what has been widely regarded as one of–if not the greatest–performance in movie history. Ironically a star of light comedies, Falconetti will forever been known to history as Joan of Arc; in fact, she never appeared in another film again. Working with cinematographer Rudolph Maté, Dreyer’s film is renowned for its astonishing use of close-ups on the faces of his actors, portraying their inner turmoil and anguish in a way rarely seen before or since. While this version includes a musical score, Dreyer did not leave, an official musical score for the film, so if you wish to experience The Passion of Joan of Arc in its original silence, there is an alternate version here.
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