Welcome to The Penny-Pinching Cinephile, a weekly spotlight of the best free flicks on the web. ‘Cuz sometimes you gotta eat.
In Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 acid Western Dead Man, a Native American named Nobody (Gary Farmer) tends to the gunshot wound of a city slicker-turned-accidental outlaw named William Blake (Johnny Depp). Marveling at Blake’s utter inability to survive in the wild, Nobody mutters the film’s most famous refrain: “Stupid fucking white man.” I mention Jarmusch’s film is relation to Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 film Meek’s Cutoff, not only because it is probably the best revisionist Western since Dead Man, but because it is also very much about stupid fucking white men. Reichardt’s film is loosely based on an 1845 incident near Meek Cutoff, an offshoot of the Oregon Trail blazed by fur trapper and pioneer guide Stephen Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood in the film), in which Meek got very, very lost and several of the sojourning settlers died. In addition to Meek’s confusion and befuddlement, the men in the group bicker and stall, unable to commit to the a plan of action, leading the wives (led by Reichardt muse Michelle Williams) to forge ahead. “Meek” here, has a double meaning: certainly gendered power dynamics come into play, as survival becomes the only priority and the supposed subservience of wives and mothers transforms into grit and assertiveness. The film also engages in questions of race relations after the women capture a Native American man and force him to lead them to water, and salvation. Shot on location in eastern Oregon, the landscape in Meek’s Cutoff resembles the barren surface of the moon: desolate, grey, and seemingly endless. The arid, abandoned environment perfectly reflects the characters’ unmoored and aimless desperation. The resulting film is both minimalist and evocative, a must-see for anyone who thinks the Western is dead.
2) The Maid
Although Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva has gained international recognition through his collaboration with actor Michael Cera (in 2013’s Crystal Fairy and Magic Magic), it’s the 2009 Spanish-language comedy-drama The Maid that remains his most potent film. The Maid stars Catalina Saavedra as Raquel, a domestic worker for the well-to-do Valdes family for 23 years, whose life begins to unravel around his forty-first birthday. The Valdes children are teenagers now, the son affectionate towards “Raque,” the daughter, snotty and dismissive. The Valdes patriarch is aloof, the mother is tentative and unsure: suffering from mood swings and dizzy spells, it seems Raquel has outlived her usefulness as a housekeeper. Instead of firing her, the mother Pilar hires a series of “helpers” to assist Raquel in the cooking and cleaning; she dispatches each in hilariously sociopathic vigor. Silva’s film toes the line between psychological thriller, emotional melodrama and outrageous comedy–and Saavedra’s impeccable performance is the fulcrum on which it all balances. It’s a rare movie indeed that gives such thoughtful regard to a middle-aged woman of color, let alone one in a subservient domestic profession. The Maid might be one of the smartest, most nuanced character pieces of the past decade. Even as we’re horrified by both the Valdes’ privileged arrogance, and Raquel’s manipulative behavior, the filmmakers never deign to condescend to their characters with false ploys for pity or outrage.
When Bob Hoskins passed away at the end of last month, the movies lost one of their most reliable character actors. The Long Good Friday provided Hoskins with his breakout role as Harold Shand, undisputed leader of the London underworld. Modern britcons might do well to look back on Hoskins’ role–and John Mackenzie’s film–as the model for the East Side gangster. There’s no posing, preening bravado here: Hoskins’ stocky build and blunt mug are all you need to communicate the story a man who’s bubbled up from the bottom and holds on to his power with the jaws of a pitbull. Harold is trying his best to go legitimate, working business deals with everyone, including the American mafia, to secure property for the upcoming London Olympics (which never materializes). But Harold, or someone in his organization, has run afoul of the IRA, who subsequently get to blowin’ up anyone Harold has every come in contact with. The Long Good Friday is packed with interesting actors, including Paul Freeman (familiar to Indiana Jones fans as Rene Belloq), Pierce Brosnan in his first film as an IRA hitman, and most notably, Helen Mirren as Harold’s gal pal Victoria (sadly, a rather thankless role). If you’re perhaps unfamiliar with Hoskins work, check out the final scene in this film, in which, having taken a seat in the back of a cab, Harold Shand realizes the drivers are undercover IRA agents. Mackenzie plays the scene almost entirely on Hoskins’ face, a bold choice for such a pregnant moment. But it’s all there: the surprise, the realization, the resignation, the composure, and finally, the defiance. It’s proof Bob Hoskins was one of the best.
Within the war film, there is an interesting and vibrant sub-genre, the prisoner of war film, which has yielded some classic movies: Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape. Whereas most movies in this sub-genre focus on the prisoners’ attempts to rebel and/or escape, Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence instead focuses on the interconnected relationships between the Japanese guards and the British prisoners in a Burmese camp during WWII. David Bowie plays Maj. Celliers, a mouthy and rebellious soldier who constantly challenges Captain Yonoi (played by Japanese pop star Ryuichi Sakamoto), who develops a homoerotic fascination with Celliers (not hard to believe, given Bowie’s golden godness, an obvious homage to Peter O’Toole’s gorgeous, fay British officer in Lawrence of Arabia). Also involved is the camp commander Sergeant Hara (Takeshi Kitano), a savage man with curious shades of compassion, and Lt. Col. Lawrence (Tom Conti), an intellectual, long since exhausted with the brutalities of war. There is never any indication of escaping their circumstances; both Japanese and British are resigned to carry out their tenure in this tropical hell. Celliers’ rebellion is both charismatic and futile–one wonders why he challenges Yonoi at all, given he knows any serious infraction will result in his death. Oshima’s film, then, is a pretty bleak portrait of men in circumstances where they have no choice but to confront their true selves, and where survival is as random as torture and execution. At over two hours, the psychological mind games run a little too long, but the performances are never less than fascinating, especially from Sakamoto, whose barely constrained homoerotic rage is the highlight of the film.
Whereas Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is an example of a Japanese filmmaker adapting Western material, Lost in Translation is the more familiar story of a Westerner exploring an “exotic” culture. While Sofia Coppola’s film certainly flirts with Orientalism, the characters’ sense of feeling “lost” and unable to express themselves, could easily have taken place against any unfamiliar backdrop. (Coppola’s ex-husband Spike Jonze did the same thing with near-future Los Angeles in Her.) Even with all of its problematic aspects, the core of Lost in Translation–the relationship between Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray)–remains one of the most resonant romances of the aughts. Coppola has since proved herself an artist primarily concern with mood, and the mood captured in Lost in Translation, one of amber-lit piano bars and large, soft, white hotel beds, immediately evokes the melancholy yearnings of the displaced jet set. Bill Murray has perhaps never been better as Bob Harris, the aging actor facing a stalled marriage and career. Cinematographer Lance Acord photographs the neon metropolis of Tokyo in stunning detail. The city takes on a magical quality as both an unknowable monolith teeming with strangers, and as an intimate fantasy world in which Bob and Charlotte can escape their isolated lives in the hotel. The final scene, in which Bob and Charlotte famously embrace in the middle of a crowded street, crystallizes the themes of the film: finding connection with another person amidst the alienation of society, the sharing of a private moment in a public space.
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