Movie Project #46: Solaris [1972]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Solaris [1972]

Solaris [1972]
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Writers: Stanislaw Lem (novel), Fridrikh Gorenshtein (screenplay), Andrei Tarkovsky (screenplay)
Country: Soviet Union
Genre: Drama/Sci-Fi
Starring: Natalya Bondarchuk, Donatas Banionis, Jüri Järvet
Running Time: 167 minutes

Solaris is a Russian sci-fi epic that requires a great deal of patience. Actually, that might be putting it mildly. Tarkovsky’s film feels every bit of its 167-minute running time (and then some). It has extensive, long takes of seemingly nothing of importance. One early scene shows a character driving in traffic for a good five minutes — that’s it. I’m not ashamed to admit that my first attempt at viewing the film months ago resulted in me falling asleep an hour into it. This time I started back over from the beginning and watched it all in one take.

Solaris is a notorious slow starter. The first hour or so focuses on a psychologist, Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), who is spending his last day on Earth at his elderly father’s home. Tomorrow, Kelvin will be flying out to the space station orbiting a distant oceanic planet called Solaris. While attempting to relax, he is visited by Henri Berton (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky), a former space pilot. Berton warns Kelvin about his past experience near Solaris in which he claimed to have seen a four-meter-tall child on the surface of the planet. His superiors dismissed this claim as hallucinations, but Berton is adamant about what he saw. While Kevin and his father seem to agree with the hallucination theory, this meeting does plant some seeds of doubt in his head.

This, the film’s first act, moves at an especially methodical pace. There are long shots of the scenery surrounding the father’s home, particularly that of a small pond. This act is also where the extended traffic scene occurs; it is meant to portray a city of the future (fun fact: it’s actually Tokyo), but it seems so trivial in the scheme of things.

Solaris [1972]

When Kelvin arrives on the space station, the film grows more interesting. It turns out that of the three men stationed there, only two are still alive. The third, Kelvin’s friend, Dr. Gabarian (Sos Sargsyan), has committed suicide for reasons unknown. The two remaining scientists are uncooperative and have clearly struggled to come to terms with what has happened onboard.

Kelvin gets a glimpse into their mindset when he begins hallucinating himself — shortly after he gets on board, his dead wife appears in his room. Despite his best efforts to get rid of her, knowing she is truly dead, she just keeps reappearing. The theory is that the ocean on Solaris is causing these “visitors” to appear on the space station, there for all of them to see. What follows is less of an external conflict than it is a meditation on introspection. I can’t even begin to attempt to answer some of the questions this film asks, but there are some truly fascinating ideas in place regarding our place in the universe, sentient beings and the human psyche. At the same time, it’s awfully challenging to get to the point where these thoughts intrigue.

Solaris [1972]

This is a beautiful film, and Tarkovsky makes damn sure we know it with his intense focus on the surrounding environments (the comparison of the vast, open Earth to the claustrophobic space stations is especially noteworthy). There is a lot of eye candy, but that can only do so much to maintain interest.

I’m curious as to how the original 115-minute cut unfolds; the 167-minute version is just too much. I truly believe there is a great film within Solaris; it just needs a substantial amount of editing. (And this is coming from someone who ranks 2001: A Space Odyssey as one of his all-time favorite films).

6/10

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Movie Project #37: Pink Flamingos [1972]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Pink Flamingos [1972]

Pink Flamingos [1972]
Director: John Waters
Genre: Trash
Starring: Divine, David Lochary and Mary Vivian Pearce
Runtime: 93 minutes

Sometimes my curiosity gets the best of me.

I have a habit of seeking out films that have garnered notoriety over the years for any number of reasons. Cult films, “so bad they’re good” flicks, disgusting endeavors… you name it, I’ll watch it. One of my biggest blind spots in this regard is the work of director John Waters. Dubbed the “King of Trash”, his early 1970s output is frequently hailed as some of the filthiest, most rotten films ever created. Pink Flamingos is perhaps his most notorious full-length feature, and that seemed like an appropriate choice for this project.

Pink Flamingos [1972]

Amusingly dubbed as a “transgressive black comedy exploitation film” by Wikipedia, the movie revolves around the character of Divine (played by the drag queen actor of the same name) who has been dubbed the “filthiest person alive” by local tabloids. She lives in a small trailer with her family, including her large egg-loving mother, Edie (Edith Massey), her sex-crazed son, Crackers (Danny Mills), and her good friend Cotton (Mary Vivian Pearce). They are living a seemingly happy life until a rival couple, Raymond and Connie Marble (David Lochary and Mink Stole, respectively), develop a plan to sabotage Divine’s career and take over the “filthiest person alive” title. The film follows both sides as they attempt to “out-filth” each other.

The plot is basically a moot point because this is all about shock value. This is one vile, disgusting film that completely shattered my preconceptions of how trashy a movie can be. I had heard of one scene beforehand, the infamous eating of dog feces, but I did not know that this was 100% real. That’s what makes this so gross — everything in this is legit, aside from the human murder scenes. There is a certain scene early in the film involving a chicken that will upset any and all animal rights activists. There’s also a character that is credited as “The Singing Asshole”, and yes, that title works literally. There is a scene with unsimulated oral sex, and full-frontal nudity is a common occurrence. Needless to say, this movie has no boundaries at all, and most people will not be able to handle this.

Pink Flamingos [1972]

Pink Flamingos was made on a ridiculously low budget of $10,000, and the cast is comprised almost entirely of friends of John Waters. As such, the acting is terrible, and overall there is very much a “home movie” presentation. This is amateur to the full degree, but I suppose that is partly what has helped give this a cult following. Not many people could make a trash film of this magnitude on that type of budget, but then again, there isn’t anyone like John Waters.

By and large, Pink Flamingos is a bad film. It piles on the trash and never lets up. There are a few genuinely quality scenes — primarily when the 50s rockabilly tunes are featured prominently — but this lives and dies by its shock value. A film of this magnitude did not need to be made, and I am quite shocked that this holds an 81% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I suppose I am content with seeing this once just to remove my curiosity, but I cannot recommend doing the same for anyone else. Also: I will never hear Surfin’ Bird the same way again.

4/10

 
Pink Flamingos [1972] - title screen

Movie Project #29: Aguirre, the Wrath of God [1972]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God [1972]

Aguirre, the Wrath of God [1972]
Director: Werner Herzog
Genre: Adventure/Drama
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra and Helena Rojo
Runtime: 93 minutes

The promise of copious amounts of gold can make people do funny things. Especially when said gold encompasses an entire city. In the case of commander Gonzalo Pizarro (Alejandro Repullés), his second-in-command Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) and their large group of Spanish conquistadores, these men have decided to embark on a punishing journey through the heart of Peru in search of the legendary El Dorado, a city rumored to be filled with gold.

Set in 1560, the conquistadores travel down the Amazon River while chasing their dream. As with most ancient expeditions, this doesn’t go particularly well. For one, their attempt to carry cannons and other weapons through the hot and humid jungle, all while wearing heavy armor, proves as difficult as you would expect. They also have to deal with hostile natives and random arrow attacks — not everyone is happy to see them, apparently.

Early on, the commander splits up the expedition and sends a smaller group to continue pushing down the river. This group, eventually led by Aguirre, is given the task of actually finding the city of gold. It doesn’t take long for Aguirre to assert his powers, and he quickly becomes a frightening leader. The man is on a mission, and quitting is not an option.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God [1972]

There is a definite Heart of Darkness vibe to the film, as an overhanging sense of dread lingers from beginning to end. How can this expedition end well, especially when its leader is quickly descending into madness himself?

The filming process for Aguirre has developed a bit of a legend, and I suspect this is part of the reason why the movie is so highly regarded today. Werner Herzog has stated that he stole a 35mm camera from film school, flew down to South America, gathered a large group of locals who did not speak a common language, and took them on a ridiculous trek through the Amazon jungle in order to shoot this movie. The film was created on a meager $370,000 budget, with about a third of this going toward Klaus Kinski’s salary. The hostile relationship between Herzog and Kinski could get a post of its own. At one point, Kinski threatened to leave the set and didn’t change his mind until Herzog threatened to shoot him first and then pull the trigger on himself.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God [1972]

Ultimately, it was worth the fighting and bickering because Kinski delivers an unforgettable performance. His madcap behavior is never presented as over-the-top, as he delivers a more subtle performance. Make no mistake — it’s quite obvious the man is losing his mind, it’s just not in a, say, Nicolas Cage type of way. The supporting cast also performs quite well, but this is Kinski’s film through and through.

Aguirre, the Wrath of God is a largely methodical film, and this could be an issue for some. It’s worth sticking with, however, at the very least to see one of the more memorable endings in all of film. One can only imagine what those little monkeys were thinking.

8/10

Movie Project #39 and #40: Last Tango in Paris [1972] and The Maltese Falcon [1941]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Last Tango in Paris [1972, Bernardo Bertolucci]
Last Tango in Paris [1972, Bernardo Bertolucci]
Starring Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Maria Michi.

I don’t know if there is a more controversial film in my project. Last Tango in Paris gained a lot of notoriety with its theatrical release, as it received the ominous NC-17 rating. This is a movie that has no shame, and I would imagine that Maria Schneider was at least partly nude for half of the film, if not more. The movie focuses on an anonymous affair between the young Jeanne (Schneider) and the much older American hotel owner Paul (Brando). Paul is a recent widow, and Jeanne is a recently engaged woman who somehow seems pure and innocent. What transpires for much of the film’s 2+ hour runtime is a series of mindless physical hookups where not much else happens. The film’s last 30 minutes or so serve as a stark contrast to the rest of the picture, and this is when all hell breaks loose.

This final 1/4 of the movie is very interesting, but it took a hell of a long time to get there. Scenes of increasingly graphic sex can only do so much before they become trite and shallow. Brando’s performance is undeniably strong, but it is rather unfortunate how emotionally damaging this film was to Schneider. Apparently the uncut version of the film is a whopping 250 minutes — for me, two hours was plenty enough as is. Until the intriguing final act, Last Tango in Paris is a bit of a bore that relies too heavily on gratuitous sex to get by. 6/10

The Maltese Falcon [1941, John Huston]
The Maltese Falcon [1941, John Huston]
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George.

I am amazed that it has taken me this long to see The Maltese Falcon, which is widely considered as the grand-daddy of Film Noir. This is the movie that made Bogart a big star, and his role as private investigator Sam Spade is even more impressive than his later turn as Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. This film revolves around an elusive treasure, a jewel-encrusted statuette of a falcon. Spade gets drawn into the mess after working with a new client, the femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Astor), and soon he becomes entangled in the web of crime and murder.

Director John Huston’s first directorial effort has a wonderful mix of action and slick dialogue, and he is aided greatly by the casting of Bogart, who delivers a performance for the ages. His turn as Spade ranks as one of the most badass characters in cinematic history. There are lots of familiar faces here — Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Elisha Cook, Jr. — and all involved are terrific in their roles. The Maltese Falcon is a fantastic Film Noir that is worthy of its classic status. 9/10