Welcome to The Penny-Pinching Cinephile, a weekly spotlight of the best free flicks on the web. ‘Cuz sometimes you gotta eat.
1.) The Fisher King
The world was stunned and saddened to hear of the death of Robin Williams this past Monday. It’s hard to think of a movie star who was more universally beloved, across many generations, and for such a diverse array of projects. For people my age, Robin Williams’ ‘90s movies defined our childhoods, from Hook and Aladdin, to Jumanji and Mrs. Doubtfire. But even while he was creating classic kids’ characters, Williams was also giving career-best performances in more adult films. One of the best examples of the actors’ blend of comedy and drama is in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. Williams plays a homeless man who has adopted the identity of a knight on the search for the Holy Grail after a tragic shooting that killed his wife several years before. Williams’ signature manic performance style is tempered by the deep tragedy of the material, and the film succeeds based on his chemistry with Jeff Bridges as the radio DJ inadvertently responsible for the shooting. The Fisher King is one of Terry Gilliam’s less fantastic, but most human films, blending the romance of the Arthurian quest with deeply moving portraits of tragedy and mental illness. Although the nature of Wiliams’ death brings a new level of sadness to his performance in the film, The Fisher King is ultimately a redemption story. The scene in Grand Central Station where the crowd of commuters begin to waltz in unison when Williams sees the woman he loves across the platform, is one of the most romantic movie images of the past 30 years. If you’re looking for a reminder of why Robin Williams was one of our most beloved performers, watch him in The Fisher King and you’ll know why.
If I could pick one “must-see” documentary from the last few years, it would be Kirby Dick’s 2012 film about sexual assault in the military, The Invisible War. This movie is not only a tremendous documentary, but an important piece of journalism, since the horrific scope of sexual assault and harassment across all branches of the military is shockingly under-reported. Featuring interviews with current and retired service members, as well as with Congressmen and Generals, The Invisible War is both a crusading tract for reform and an intimate character piece. The film provides us with facts like “Women who have been raped in the military have a PTSD rate higher than men who’ve been in combat,” and then gives us real-world examples of this, as veterans struggle to get the mental health issues resulting from rape treated by the VA. While the VA has been plagued with problems getting veterans’ health issues treated, the victims of sexual assaults are especially under-served because of the nature of their trauma. In fact, many victims of sexual assault never report their rapes because the person they’re reporting to was a friend of the rapist (in 33% of cases), or, the person they’re reporting to actually WAS their rapist (in 25% of cases). The corruption and perversion of the system is enough to make you throw up, and give up entirely on believing in the good of the U.S. military. Kirby Dick’s film is certainly harrowing, but it’s a necessary watch. But there is a silver lining: since The Invisible War debuted, there have been changes enacted by the Department of Defense and Congress to address the issues brought up in the film, and more veterans have come forward with their own stories of abuse. Hopefully, the more people who watch this documentary, the more we’ll be able to change the policy of sexual assault in the military.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, sex, lies, and videotape launched the career of Steven Soderbergh, as well as the American indie film movement in 1989. Watching this movie for the first time with those facts in mind, it seems almost a miracle that a 100-minute movie with virtually no action and all dialog, would prove an international box office sensation and win the Palme d’Or prize at Cannes. Soderbergh’s brilliant screenplay certainly delivers a lot of lies, and some videotape, but crucially, no onscreen sex. (There must have been some disgruntled perverts in the audience in 1989!) Andie McDowell plays Ann Bishop Mullaney, who is unhappily married to John (Peter Gallagher), a scummy yuppie lawyer who is cheating on her with Ann’s sister Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). When John’s college friend Graham (James Spader) comes to visit, Ann finds herself spending more and more time with the intriguing stranger. In conversation with Ann, Graham reveals that he is sexually impotent and that his hobby is taping interviews of women talking about their sexual experiences. Spader’s vulnerable performance prevents Graham from coming across as creepy; in fact, Soderbergh’s mature and sympathetic screenplay treats all the characters with a respect rare in any film where sexuality is dealt with so explicitly. It might have been the titillating title that sparked interest 25 years ago, but it’s the strength of the screenplay and performances that has ensured sex, lies, and videotape as an enduring classic.
3.) The Trial
Citizen Kane looms so large in the legend of Orson Welles that his later films are often overlooked and under-seen. Welles’ 1962 film The Trial is the perfect example of the kind of almost, not-quite masterpiece that Welles would occasionally churn out after leaving Hollywood in the 1940s. Based on Franz Kafka’s novel, Anthony Perkins stars as Josef K., a petty bureaucrat who is awoken one morning by two anonymous men inside his home telling him he’s under arrest for an unspecified and never-explained crime. Josef K. spends the entire movie seeking aid from various friends and family members, including Welles as his lawyer, but none of them are able to adequately provide any advice, legal or otherwise. Standing before a jury for his crimes, Josef K. is the ultimate scapegoat, unable to elude the vague yet intractable force bearing down on him. The Trial is justly famous for Welles’ incredible photography, especially low angle shots, dramatic chiaroscuro lighting and close-up shots that convey a sense of claustrophobia for the characters. The endless rows of cubicles and oppressive low ceilings of Josef K.’s office recalls the silent film The Crowd, as well as The Apartment, and a shadowy chase sequence is reminiscent of Welles’ own chase through Vienna’s sewers in The Third Man. The Trial brings a visual dimension to the Kafkaesque: the absurd, unreasonable machinations of modern, bureaucratic society.
In 1940, John Ford worked with cinematography Gregg Toland on The Long Voyage Home. Toland’s innovative camera work, especially depth of field, deep shadows, face-distorting close-ups, and lighting from beneath the actor (sometimes in the floor), instead of lighting from above, presupposed his incredible cinematography a year later with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane. The fact that Toland’s work on Kane is so famous and yet his work with Ford just a year earlier is so little-praised, is one of film history’s most capricious quirks. Perhaps The Long Voyage Home is overlooked as well because it comes between Ford’ The Grapes of Wrath (also shot by Toland) and How Green Was My Valley (which infamously beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture). All of this is just to say: you should watch The Long Voyage Home! Starring John Wayne as a Swedish sailor (improbably, but he pulls it off), the film charts Wayne and his multi-ethnic crew as they return from WWII in a long journey from the West Indies, to Baltimore, and then back to England. The freighter carries a dangerous load of explosives, and tensions rise among the crew as they deal with a potential German spy among their ranks. The Long Voyage Home was adapted from several Eugene O’Neill plays, and features his signature dialogue, while also exemplifying Ford’s interest in male bonding and surrogate families. Like so many Ford films of the period, the film’s greatest strength is in the faces of his cast: beautifully sorrowful faces like that of John Qualen or the mischievous grin of Barry Fitzgerald. While it has been overshadowed by other Ford/Wayne collaborations, for the photography and acting alone, The Long Voyage Home deserves a spot on your to-watch list.
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