Great Cinema: Four Films Worth Watching

Films are one of my favorite parts of modern culture.  They tell us so much about our society, people, and ourselves.  Good films, like any piece of art, should make the audience feel something.  And if a two hour film can somehow draw out emotion, that’s an accomplishment.  

In this post, I want to provide you with five films I have very much appreciated for making me consider my own humanity and feelings.  In no particular order … 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) 

This is a unique film for the list for a number of reasons, but notably that it’s in Chinese (subtitles did not bother American moviegoers in the least).  Adapted from a novel, Crouching Tiger stars Chow Yun-fat as master swordsman Li Mu Bai.  Co-star Michelle Yeoh plays Yu Shu Lien, the partner of Li and long time friend.  

The story opens with Li explaining his decision to retire from his life as a swordsman, giving his famed sword (known as ‘the Green Destiny’) to a nobleman and benefactor.  Shortly after the nobleman takes possession of the sword, we quickly learn the culprit is Jen (a very adept Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the nobleman and secret student of Jade Fox, a known assassin.  

Li, the famed warrior, wrestles with significant conflict in terms of his complex feelings towards his long time partner Yu (who was once engaged to his best friend before his untimely death), tracking down the assassin Jade Fox, and his desire to take on Jen as a student.

The film also dives into the backstory of Jen, and how the daughter of a wealthy noble becomes a warrior.  We are treated to a number of flashback scenes where Jen had once been held hostage by bandit named Lo, whom she comes to better understand and eventually fall in love with.  

Despite the martial arts, this film explores two love stories and juxtaposes two would-be couples.  Li and Yu are older, more reserved, and hesitant to act based on custom and tradition.  Jen and Lo find themselves swept away by passion and have little use for the opinions of the world.  Moreover, the romantic scenes between the couples don’t feel at all forced or gratuitous.  

This film also provokes other elements of our human nature.  Li seeks to kill Jade Fox because she killed his former teacher.  The assassin herself struggles when she realizes her disciple’s skills exceed her own.  Jen feels smothered by her life as a noble and the expectations that come with it (which do not include running off with a bandit or fighting).  There’s a great deal of internal conflict brewing throughout the film and by the end of it, Li has wondered if he has wasted some important opportunities.  

Of course the human emotion matters profoundly, but the other key elements of the film all click.  The actors, many with significant prior Hollywood experience, play the roles well.  Few of the main actors knew Mandarin coming into the film, which makes it more impressive .

The action scenes are phenomenal and the film didn’t shy away from the ‘wuxia’ genre of the novel (a Chinese form of fantasy literature).  We see characters make superhuman moves, but not so much that it takes away from the movie.  In fact, it feels believable.  The music paces well with a number of the action scenes, and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed solos.  The visuals from the movie are buoyed by great sets. The Gobi Desert and other provinces in China, showing a variety of climates and regions.

Since its release in 2000, other films in the genre have tried to recreate the magic of Crouching Tiger, but it just hasn’t happened.  Story, action, romance, music, and dynamic characters.  Makes for a fantastic movie.  

Jojo Rabbit (2019) 

When a friend initially recommended this film, my knee-jerk reaction was “I dunno.”  But Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell provided all the credibility I needed go give this a chance.  It did not disappoint and Jojo Rabbit easily makes my list of films people should see. 

The story revolves a 10 year old boy named Jojo (portrayed by Roman Griffin Davis), who must face harsh truths about growing up in Nazi Germany.  Living in a Germany heavily laden with propaganda, Jojo believes in Nazi cause, the greatness of Hitler, and stereotypes about Jews.    Though Jojo has the patriotic fervor you might expect in a young boy, his mother Rosie (played by Johansson) recognizes her son is still a sweet child who only parrots what he’s been told.  (Older boys in the Hitler Youth give Jojo the nickname Jojo Rabbit because of his inability to kill a rabbit to show his worth.)

Jojo doesn’t have many friends and a short, ill-fated stint in the Hitler Youth proves maybe he isn’t cut out for serving the Reich like most other German boys.  To compensate for a lack of friends, Jojo creates an imaginary goofball version of Adolf Hitler (director Taika Waititi becomes a very believable Hitler).  Throughout the film, we see the imaginary Hitler as an incarnation of the propaganda which has bombarded Jojo for his life.

The film slowly alludes to Rosie’s involvement in an anti-Nazi resistance group and low-key efforts to correct the misperceptions of her son.  Jojo must confront his own perceptions about Jews when he finds out that his mother has secretly harbored a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie).  The banter between Jojo and Elsa provides interesting exchanges that vacillate between the serious and comedic.

In fact, one of the unique aspects of Jojo Rabbit is the fact that find yourself laughing one minute, cheering for the small victories of each character, and feeling the weightiness of Nazi persecution.

Like any good film, the strength lies in the story-driven approach to the film and the perfectly attuned cast that brings the story to life. Even the minor characters produce a memorable effect, and Jojo’s best friend Yorki (the scene-stealing Archie Yates) is a hidden gem.  Also, Rockwell’s character, Captain Klenzendorf, has a small story arc with a path to redemption, thanks to our young hero Jojo.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Ralph Fiennes leads a literal all-star cast in the story of a run-down hotel in the fictional nation of Zubrowka, under communist control but filled with wild stories from a bygone era.  

The film opens with the nation’s most wealthy man, Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) providing a tale about how he came into possession of the The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Zero’s story focuses on the long-serving and renowned concierge Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes), who often seduced many of the older women who frequented the hotel.  While not above womanizing, Gustave is incredibly dedicated to his craft and gentlemanly conduct.

When we learn that one of the hotel’s well known patrons, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) dies, Gustave takes his new protégé, a young Zero (Tony Revolori) to the reading of the will.  Gustave’s long time lover Madame D. has left him a priceless painting that prompts outrage from her jealous son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and other family members.  

What follows is a bizarre yet fun sequence of events where the family tries to frame Gustave, who escapes custody with the help of Zero, his baker-apprentice girlfriend, and a secret cadre of concierges (think skull and bones society, only for concierges).

So, what makes this film so great?  What’s the buy-in?  The deeper rooted issue that drives the story is the evolution of society and the loss of a more civilized world.  How do we cope with changes which destroy a sense of decorum which had long governed our conduct?  

In the beginning of the story, one has to wonder why the older version of Zero holds on to a drab hotel which no one visits any longer.  He struggles to let go of the last remnant of a world which does not exist.  Humans love to hang on to symbols which bring about nostalgic feelings, and we often find objects which remind of us a time in our lives when everything was right with the world.  

There’s also a sense of appreciation for Gustave.  He’s something of a Renaissance man who has a wealth of knowledge and connections.  He says all the right things and knows all the right customs.  While on the run from authorities, he manages to stay one step ahead at all times. Gustave also takes in Zero, a refugee, as a lobby boy and shows him the ropes, providing him not only with a job but a place to stay.  He also makes Zero earn his keep.  Gustave is the mentor we all either had or wanted when we were young.

A number of cameos and bit roles ramp up the star power:  Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Willem DaFoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Matheiu Amalric, and Bill Murray (yes, Bill Murray) do their part in the film and no one tries to be bigger than the story itself.  

The choices for the sets, filmed mostly in Germany prove for some fantastic scenery and the costumes for Gustave, Zero, and their accomplices have an interesting vibe that meshes with the scenery and provides a nice color scheme.  The hotel’s scenery and Gustave have us wishing for a more refined time.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

This is probably not the Quentin Tarantino film you expected to see on this list (if you were expecting one at all).  Everyone lauds Pulp Fiction and it deserves the praise.  Casual moviegoers might not even be aware of this film, and if they are, may not realize it predates Pulp Fiction.  But this film merits a lot of consideration for a number of reasons beyond the great story.

The story revolves around a Los Angeles heist, organized by arch-criminal Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie (Chris Penn).  Cabot recruits six individuals for the heist (we later learn they’re stealing diamonds) and compartmentalizes the group by not allowing any of them to use their real names.  Each man is assigned a color:  Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Pink.  The heist is complicated by the fact that Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is an undercover police officer who is intent on bringing down the group and Cabot.  Of course, complications arise in the heist, and a sizable portion of the film transpires in a warehouse the group uses as a rallying point.  

While the plot creates a film worth watching, Tarantino’s style of story telling elevates this film to a different level.  One of the trademarks of Tarantino’s film-making is his non-linear sequencing of events.  Scenes are out of order, and yet the film makes perfect sense.  The opening scene reveals the criminals having breakfast, already acquainted with one another, preparing for the heist that day.  We quickly move to a car chase and a gun-shot victim, post-robbery.  Tarantino neatly unpacks the before, after, and in-between events as if this was the way filmmaking should have always been done.

Tarantino’s dialogue in this and his subsequent films also make this movie memorable.  He doesn’t waste words.  Almost every sentence counts and every scene reveals something about the characters.  Tarantino movies are incredibly quotable.  For instance, the opening breakfast scene has the gang of criminals, about to commit a robbery, giving Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) grief over the fact that he did not tip the waitress.  White tells the others he doesn’t “believe in” tipping.  It leads to a discussion about minimum wage and how hard the waitress works and if she should find another job.  Of course, this transpires after a drawn out discussion about the deeper meaning of Madonna’s music.

Later, we’re treated to a hilarious scene where Cabot gives each man his color alias and Mr. Pink objects.  Cabot goes into an explanation about how he tried to let guys pick their own names in the past and it just doesn’t work because everyone would argue over who gets to be Mr. Black.

Tarantino films also tend to have a solid soundtrack, and while this is not a phenomenon unique to his work, he does have a tendency to ruin a song.  And in this regard, no one who has seen this film will ever be able to listen to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel in the same way without thinking about Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) brutally beating and torturing a captured police officer. 

Sometimes, it’s also what you don’t see that can make a movie.  Tarantino bombards us with a lot of gritty violence, interesting dialogue, and great music.  But we never actually see the heist go down.  And this fuels a lot of speculation amongst the audience (he would further use this device in Pulp Fiction because we still want to know what’s in that briefcase).  He leaves us without a piece of the story we would love to have.

This film also hits home with a number of people for demonstrating an interesting dichotomy in violent criminals.  There are traits of the criminal element which appear almost universal.  Each member of the squad wouldn’t hesitate to use lethal violence, and when the heist goes horribly wrong, they hate the idea of a ‘rat’ in their midst.  They’re all paranoid about figuring out what went wrong, and deeply suspicious of anything that doesn’t make sense.  We also see the criminals all wearing the same stand black suit, white shirts, black tie, and sunglasses for their mission.  

Yet, there is a gradation of these criminals despite having a code.  Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is clearly the most complex of the gang.  He developed a friendship with Mr. Orange prior to the heist and is deeply concerned when Orange may die from a gunshot wound.  Mr. White is also more irritated at the lack of control from Mr. Blonde (no doubt a psychopath), who killed a number of individuals during the heist that didn’t need to die.   

The fact that some of these hardened men have a sense of friendship and loyalty with members of the group provides dimensions to criminals we wouldn’t expect to see.  The other members of the gang fall somewhere between the controlled and thought Mr. White and the stone cold killer Mr. Blonde, but it’s clear that not all criminals value the same things.  The themes of loyalty, trust, betrayal, paranoia —  they apply no less to individuals merely because they break the law. 

Film Review – “The Dig”

The advent of online streaming services disrupted typical television viewing in a way unlikely to change anytime soon.  Netflix started this trend and eschewed any notion of resting on their laurels by creating original programming and allowing us to binge entire seasons of television in a matter of days (or hours).  However, that success in original programming rested with television shows and not necessarily movies.  I mean, can anyone deny that Will Smith’s Bright flopped on a level that should have seen Smith giving back his paycheck?  

So, when I saw a Netflix promo for The Dig, I was skeptical, and I added it to my list but that’s usually where movies go to die after I decide I can find something better.  This film did pique some interest as a World War II era period piece, it deals with archaeology, and its star Ralph Fiennes consistently delivers high grade performances.  

Let’s lay out one key fact before move forward:  The Dig is not Indiana Jones.  If you watch the film expecting Nazis and secret plots around every turn, disappointment will follow.  The Dig portrays archeology in a more realistic manner, and finds its roots in the real life story of the most important excavation on the British Isles.

** Warning:  mild spoilers follow ** 

Our film opens with wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) procuring the services of amateur archaeologist Basil Brown (Fiennes) to uncover any potential artifacts from a series of earthen mounds on her estate.  We see a strong dose of Brown’s character in the opening scene.  He is a man who knows his worth, as he refuses to work for less than 2 pounds per week though he lacks any real credentials.  We learn that his formal education ended at the age of 12 but he learned his craft from his father from a young age.  His dignity and a desire for professional recognition become even more apparent as the film unfolds, yet he never attempts to portray himself as something he’s not.  He corrects a man who introduced him as an archaeologist by noting that he is an ‘excavator.’

Mulligan and Fiennes pair well together

Brown’s work, with the help of Pretty’s servants on the estate and her cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), quickly uncovers a surprise under one of the mounds.  They discover the remnants of a ship, which others suspect may be a Viking relic but Brown assesses it to be much older.  As news of the dig spreads, it attracts the attention of archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), an expert who intends to scoop up credit for the dig and secure any treasure for the prestigious British Museum in London.

Phillips brings in his own team to continue the dig, including husband and wife duo Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and Peggy Piggott (Lily James).  The couple presents as a typical marriage of convenience from the time, as the significantly older Stuart seems interested in everything but his stunning wife.  Peggy, for her part, wants to establish herself as an archaeologist in her own right, and appears saddened when she learns her place on the team has more to do with the fact that she’s slight in size (and less likely to damage artifacts) rather than her historical acumen or skills.

Initially, we see Peggy as a minor character, but by the end of the film, she appears to have outgrown everyone else in importance other than Brown or Pretty.

Lily James as archaeologist Peggy Piggott

At the insistence of Pretty, the team of experts keeps Brown on the dig.  There is no obvious reason as to why Pretty does so, but the tone of the film suggests a mutual respect between her and Brown despite significant differences in upbringing and lifestyle.  The writers of the film avoid a disaster here by cultivating a bond between the two, but something that does not rise to the level of romance.  

When the team discovers the ship, they discover a chamber undisturbed by grave robbers.  The subsequent artifacts drawn from the chamber astonish the team and foment a bit of conflict.

So what’s the film all about?

Good cinema, at its core, is an art form.  Artists always want to convey a message or theme of some kind and for The Dig, we arrive at an interesting premise.  The characters and the story all seem to be at the precipice of a defining moment in their existence.  The time for any further delays in their life has passed.

Basil Brown desperately wants recognition that he knows he deserves, and not to be condescended to by the likes of Phillips.  At one point, Brown’s wife almost chides him in remarking not to let ‘them’ take this from him.  A few scenes also point to missed opportunities in life for Brown, including the lack of children for he and his wife, and his lack of formal education.  Brown also appears to be a man somewhat consumed with his work, as he forgets to respond to his wife’s daily letters whilst he is away at the dig site.

Edith Pretty cannot evade her terminal health problems and the unfairness of life, as she already lost a husband and now must cope with her own mortality.  She must also wrestle with who will care for her son after she dies and consider the even scarier question of what comes after this life.  Pretty also bears the responsibility of determining what will be done with the important artifacts discovered on her property.  Will she keep them?  Donate them?  To which museum?  There are competing interests here.

In most of her scenes, Peggy Piggott is teetering on the edge of an affair with the younger, more exciting Rory Lomax.  What’s a girl going to do?  Moreover, how does she establish herself in a professional capacity in a field dominated by men?

Lomax is an intriguing figure in the film, too.  He qualified for the Royal Air Force and the cloud of war concerns his ailing cousin, Edith.  It’s also worth noting that Edith’s late husband served in the military in some capacity, but he’s only referenced as “the colonel.”  Lomax feels a sense of pressure himself as his cousin pleads with him to avoid any real danger, as the responsibility to take care of her son will fall to him.

The smarmy Charles Phillips has a limited window to finish the dig before war breaks out in Europe, and capitalize on the find of a lifetime to maintain reputation for himself and the British Museum.

Each one of these characters faces important decisions with permanent consequences.  How do any of us respond when put to the test and have a limited time frame to act?  Particularly when our decisions also defy society’s standards.

The Sutton Hoo treasure find in Suffolk remains one of the biggest in British history

We also have to contend with the impending crisis of World War II, hinted at on numerous occasions, but none so palpable as the repetitious flights of British fighter planes in a number of scenes at the dig site.  The Dig also intersperses scenes where we hear radio broadcasts about German aggression in Europe.  Britain, and perhaps the world, arrive at their own defining moment.  How will they respond in that moment of crisis?

Is it worth watching?  

The Dig frames its theme into smaller little motifs:  death, identity, work, time, relationships, the past, the future, and of course, living in the moment.  These traits largely define humanity,  and they make The Dig worth watching.  

The acting is rock solid.  Although Ralph Fiennes is the only actor Americans might recognize, the rest of the cast is no stranger to film or television and outside of America, the Brits are best with entertainment.  The sets, costumes, and such accurately date to the time period and the technical aspects of film making make you settle into the story nicely.  The story unfolds in a way that avoids many of the usual tropes which have been overused for decades.  I kept waiting for some trite plot device but it never arrived.

The film uses little profanity, mild sexuality, and no violence.  The theme of mortality does figure into the film, and one scene shows the death of an RAF pilot after a crash.  The Dig has a PG-13 rating and that’s more than appropriate.  I’m not sure young children would even be interested, but you would be the better judge of your children’s tastes.

Are there any problems with the film?  

Depends on your style of film. The pace is slow at some points, and this is not an action film.  I would describe it as more introspective.  Personally, I like that but I also understand it’s not everyone’s taste.  The aspect of archaeology in this story is more incidental, and not so much a key to the plot, but it does demonstrate the profession for what it is — a lot of painstaking and tedious work in the hopes of one amazing moment of discovery and glory.  

Also, some very detailed oriented people will note some historical inaccuracies in the film.  If that’s you, then you’re a movie snob.  One quirk worth mentioning is the casting of Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.  The real life Edith was in her mid-50s when the events in the film transpired and Mulligan is a much younger 30-something.  Sure, a more age appropriate actress would have made more sense, but the Mulligan handled the role well.  The film originally cast Nicole Kidman for the part, but after she backed out, Mulligan landed the job.  It probably worked out for the best, as it allows the movie to be more about the story and less about the star power of the actors.  

There are a few characters and sub-plots which were fictionalized but nothing out of the ordinary.  The movie does not betray the history as much as it adds a few characters for some additional conflict.  If you’re interested in learning more about the Sutton Hoo treasure and the archaeological find from Suffolk, check out the online display from the British Museum.

Overall rating:  3 out of 4 stars