Six films: Casablanca, Thor, Blade Runner, La La Land, Der UntergangPsycho

For one reason and another, I’ve been watching a lot of films recently. Here are the most recent half dozen, in the order I watched them, with brief comments on each. I have to say it’s been a good run: I really enjoyed all six.

Casablanca (1942)

A genuinely excellent film, though as always with all-time classics not quite as good as its reputation would lead you to think. Much hangs on the raw charisma of Humphrey Bogart (as Rick) and Ingrid Bergman (as Ilsa); Paul Henreid as Victor Laszlo radiates all the charisma of formica, but it doesn’t really matter because it’s kind of the point that Rick and Ilsa are magnetically attracted but she is bound to Victor.

The film is so shot through with iconic images and lines that at times it becomes difficult to watch, as it seems almost like a Casablanca parody. Towards the end, the script becomes so dense with quotable quotes that it approaches the comical. They come thick and fast, almost all of them from Bogart’s character Rick:

“If that plane leaves and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life.”

“We’ll always have Paris.”

“It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

“Here’s looking at you, kid.”

“Round up the usual suspects.” (This one spoken by Captain Renault.)

“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

It lends a certain sense of unreality of the closing minutes of the film; but also a satisfying feeling of settling into something very familiar and safe. A strange inversion of how that ending was originally intended to feel, a shocking and heart-breaking self-sacrifice.

Thor (2011)

After Casablanca, a film that is not considered a classic. It’s one of the lesser entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for all its slightness it’s very enjoyable when Thor is on Earth. His sense of dislocation is palpable, and very funny — he is simultaneously completely sure of himself and entirely uncertain of his surroundings. Chris Hemsworth’s surprisingly subtle performance conveys this perfectly. Meanwhile Natalie Portman does her usual trick of not really acting much but being heartbreakingly beautiful.

When the scene shifts to Asgard, things are rather less interesting. Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki is fascinating, though partly because we know how he is going to flower in Avengers a year later. Otherwise, Thor’s band of generic buddies fail to fascinate, and Anthony Hopkins’ Odin is disappointingly weak. It’s really only the juxtaposition of immortal Thor with small-town New Mexico that delights.

Blade Runner (1982)

The first time I have seen this now classic film in a long time, maybe twenty years. It’s much bleaker than I had remembered, and much more difficult to follow (perhaps because we watched the director’s cut that omits the intrusive voiceovers by Deckard.)

I’m not sure how much sense the story does make, but the visuals are absolutely fantastic: not merely imaginative, but striking and iconic. Again and again, I found myself looking at images what were powerfully familiar despite not having seen them for decades, images that had wired themselves directly into my hindbrain: the first time we see Rachel facing us directly, and immediately suspect she is a replicant; the gigantic faces projected on the sides of buildings in the darkness and rain; Zhora running away from Deckard in her transparent plastic coat, messily gunned down; Sebastian discovering Pris in the garbage; Roy Batty dying in the rain. All iconic in a way very few films attain in even a single image.

In retrospect, this was a very brave film for Harrison Ford to take on after Star Wars and Raiders. It could not be more different in tone, and it must have been quite startling, even repellant, for people who went to see it expecting more of the same kind of swashbuckling. It’s basically an art film in blockbuster’s clothing.

La La Land (2016)

I have a soft spot for musicals — in fact, some of my favourite art is in this form. But I didn’t particularly expect that La La Land, for all its Oscars, would tick my boxes. My favourite musicals tend to be idiosyncratic (Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures, Assassins) — and, to be blunt, they are pretty much all Stephen Sondheim’s work, with honorable exceptions for Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Les Miserables.

In many respects, La La Land is the very opposite of these: it’s a pretty conventional love story set against the hackneyed backdrop of trying to make it in LA — her as an actress, him as a jazz musician. But as usual, execution is everything, and it’s there. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone absolutely sell the premise, and are believable as an incompatible couple who find a way to be in love, then run into practical difficulties. The songs are easy to like, the dance sequences (which I would usually find an intolerable bore) are captivating, and the what-could-have-been coda elevates what would already have been a good film into — I think — greatness.

At any rate, I am keen to watch it again, and see whether it plays as well the second time around.

Der Untergang (aka. Downfall) (2004)

Like most people, I guess, I became aware of this film because of that one scene that’s used in all the Hitler parodies. I’ve always been impressed by Bruno Ganz’s performance as Hitler: it’s only the iron-solid conviction of his performance that makes the parodies work. So I was keen to see the whole film.

I had assumed that the scene we all know would be climactic, towards the end. Instead, it opens the second quarter, beginning 38 minutes into the long 2:29 running time. It is not the outcome of the film’s events, but the trigger for them. For the last three quarters of the running time, it’s already apparent that the war is lost, and we watch as the despair is ratcheted up. It’s remorselessly claustrophobic, almost all of it taking place inside Hitler’s bunker, wound tight with a curious blend of tension and resignation. The scene towards the end as Magda Goebbels carefully and methodically murders each of her six children in their sleep, to prevent them having to live in a world without a Third Reich, is truly appalling.

Der Untergang is not an easy film to watch, but it’s a rewarding one.

Psycho (1960)

Fiona’s working on an MA in professional media composition, and as a part of this she is watching classic films to analyse their music. Casablanca was one such; Psycho is another, as an exemplar of the suspense genre.

Everyone knows the bare bones of the story, but it’s first time I’ve seen it played out. I wonder what it would be like to watch it for the first time, not knowing the central secret in advance. Even with that surprise spoiled, the film works surprisingly well for a 57-year-old low-budget journeyman piece. (Hitchcock used black-and-white primarily to reduce costs, though also wanting to avoid the shower murder being too obviously bloody.) What makes it work is how cheerful and likeable Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates is.


5 responses to “Six films: Casablanca, Thor, Blade Runner, La La Land, Der UntergangPsycho

  1. Bladerunner is not only a visual feast, but the music by Vangelis makes it audibly fantastic. I had not realized how much so until I watched the always excellent Nerdwriter video,

    That may be of interest to Fiona, as I’m biased in that I think Bladerunner is a “classic” (as it is my all time favourite film).

    My hope is the sequel leaves the question of “is-he-or-isn’t-he” ambiguous. Out of all the various versions, (I can never remember which is which), I prefer the one without the unicorn dream sequence, which means it looks like I don’t like the Director’s Cut or Final Cut. Though I suppose these various revisions means that the true meaning remains ambiguous as they merge into one, perhaps like tears in the rain?

  2. dinnerpartylog

    Rachel is so obviously a replicant to me. It was never really in doubt in my mind.

  3. @Harvey Thompson
    Absolutely. Vangelis’ score fuses itself with the movie so completely that if it were removed, it wouldn’t be the same movie anymore. There aren’t many movies I can’t think of where this happens; one of them coincidentally is the other cyberpunk masterpiece, Ghost in the Shell, scored by Kenji Kawai.

  4. Seeing it a couple of years ago I was surprised at how Blade Runner has basically no story: it’s just a series of vignettes, loosely connected. For a detective, and a robot hunter, Harrison Ford does very little detecting or hunting of robots. This is brought home almost comically when he turns up to the film’s climax accompanied by a voiceover of his boss basically telling him that while he was getting busy with Sean Young instead of doing, you know, his job, somebody else solved the entire case he was supposed to be working on!

    If it weren’t for the visuals and the sound that make up the vignettes, it would be a complete dead loss, but those visuals and sound are stunning. And so brave: imagine casting Tom Cruise as your leading man and then having spend most of the film in silhouette! Which director would have the courage to do that? But Scott does it, with Harrison Ford just as he was becoming one of the biggest stars in the world.

    One quibble: I disagree that it’s ‘basically an art film in blockbuster’s clothing’; whatever scott may have told the people funding it, there’s nothing blockbustery about it: it’s an art film through and through, as I think the initial box office takings showed.

  5. I’d agree with pretty much all of that, H, and especially your observation that it’s much more a sequence of loosely connected vignettes — we might almost say short stories — rather than a conventional film that has a plot.

    As to “blockbuster’s clothing” — I remember it being very much sold as a blockbuster at the time, not least by the exciting-sounding title that has literally nothing to do with the film. I remember too a video-game tie-in, which was very unusual back in those days. My point is not really about the film, but about how the studio wanted people to think about the film.

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