The Last Detail (1973, Hal Ashby)
Hal Ashby was just one of the many American filmmaker's who helped make the 70s the most artistically fruitful decade in the history of American cinema. Starting with the highly influential Harold & Maude (1971) and ending with Being There (1979), Ashby made seven incredible dramatic achievements that helped change cinema while also providing social insight from a nation still reeling from Political injustice at home (Watergate Scandal), and away (Vietnam). These events hung over the conscience of a culture for the first time out of sync with it's political system; the bubble had been popped and the truth hit the American public, their best interests were not important afterall. Ashby's Coming Home (1978) certainly dealt with the post-war angst of Vietnam with powerful sincerity, though his 1973 film The Last Detail deals with societal's current moral stances in a less obvious fashion. So far I've hardly done a great job at making someone not familiar with Ashby's work want to rush out to see them, but his films are so touching, honest, and mostly entertaining that I do urge such a person to do so. His ability to meld serious drama with comedy is like watching the world's greatest driver seamlessly change gears at high speeds, all with an irresistible melancholic tone that stays with you. I've ranted long enough with my gushing over Ashby's work and barely said anything about the film in question. The Last Detail stars Jack Nicholson as a one of two Navy men ordered to escort a prisoner unfairly charged with theft to his incarceration, as the three of them set off, the two sailors begin to warm to the young ruined prisoner and decide to show him the time of his life before his freedom is stripped. One highlight comes when Nicholson (in purely hysterically Nicholson mode) pulls a firearm on a rude bartender who asks for the prisoner's ID. The scene gets out of hand as he wants a beer at any cost resulting in unhinged humour of the highest order. With plenty of laughs on this 'buddy road movie' that shadow of melancholia haunts the film, even when the three are clowning about while drunk in their hotel room there is a sense of unhappiness and unrest in them all, most present in the two sailors. When the time comes to drop the prisoner off they have bonded with the youngster and know full well of the unfair fate that awaits him, yet off he goes. The situation is out of their hands, they're just two men following orders, the orders of command which they don't understand or agree with but follow almost unquestionably because that's their role. This take on The Last Detail certainly fits when placing it against the backdrop of America during this time, a country coming to terms and seeking answers into "why these things happen". The Last Detail is one of Hal Ashby's greatest films amongst his many, it's also one of Jack Nicholson's best during his greatest stretch of projects, it's simply one of the best films full stop. I think I've written enough, for now.
Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales Of Several Journeys (2000, Michael Haneke)
For my money Michael Haneke is one of the best working directors in the world right now; A man of such power yet exercising such restraint, and a man who's work with actors is of the highest order. His film Code Unknown is one which I hadn't seen in several years, one I knew I had to revisit again like I do most of his work. The film is an elliptical trip through the social unease in Paris as we see the clashing of ages, cultures, creeds, genders, and races. Of course you could swap Paris for any modern city boasting multiculturalism but Paris is Haneke's choice here, mostly due to the impression some of the city's house security had on him. In an interview on the DVD Haneke comments on how struck he was by finding that Parisian apartments have codes in which to enter, not keys or swipe cards, but codes. As he planned to take on the breakdown of communication amid modern society, this seemed to fit perfectly as a metaphor for all he aimed to accomplish. As expected, the acting on display is just stellar and simply untouchable, at the centre of it's many characters is a fine performance by Juliette Binoche who is part of what is for me the highlight of the entire film. As her character sits on the metro, from an unexplained A to B, she is harassed by two young Arab men. Their comments are assumed and spiteful, eventually forcing her to move to another area of the train, they inevitably follow. Shot in one static take (a much utilised Haneke trademark) and featuring no music (Haneke refuses to score his work), the scene is unbearably tense and accurately delivers the films message in a shockingly honest manner, a scene that is unfortunately relatable, as class, age, and race collide. Haneke's knack for building suspense isn't widely appreciated mostly due to the cold and disconnected approach to his shooting, But Haneke is a meticulous craftsman, a filmmaker of technical virtuosity (an extremely long dramatic take early on the the film is the perfect example of this) and is in constant control of his artistry. Code Unknown offers many insights into the modern world, from Bolivian poverty to Parisian 'highlife' this tale of incomplete journeys as the title suggest offers no answers, why should it? Life doesn't offer us explanations so how can cinema?
The Gold Rush (1925, Charles Chaplin)
A director remembered for so many great films, films that take the viewer on a vast journey of emotions, emotions stemming from its loveable on screen creator. The Gold Rush, amongst all of Chaplin's work, was the one he favoured most and was the one he wanted to be remembered for most. Though it rarely takes precedence over City Lights or The Great Dictator, The Gold Rush has always been placed at the top of such an illustrious career. It's strange to think of the film as Chaplin's champion; I would have placed many of his others if hazarding a guess but perhaps this marked a creative peak for him, the fact that it remains the only silent film of his that began shooting with the complete story mapped out shows insight into the planning and detail involved. What I love about this film is how purely enjoyable it is in its sense of adventure, none of Chaplin's silents are held down by their sociopolitical insights or their heart-tearing melodrama, yet The Gold Rush is the easiest to be swept along with. That said, it does contain one of Chaplin's most affecting scenes; as his lonely young prospector is stood-up by the woman he loves on New Year's Eve, the montage that follows stands just as powerful as anything else in his films.
This Is Spinal Tap (1984, Rob Reiner)
It goes without saying that This Is Spinal Tap is a comedic masterpiece, an unprecedented influence that just can't tire from as many repeat viewings you throw at it. This 'rockumentary' of an ageing/fading rock group drew inspiration from real life bands of the time; the creators courteously never named them but I can definitely muster a guess at Saxon and Whitesnake. The songs are ingeniously constructed, with painfully funny witty lyrics ("How can I leave this behind") and catchy to boot as they have you hampering for the OST. The naturalistic note perfect performances from McKean, Shearer, Guest, and the rest of the gang were severely planned through many series of conversations and note taking, before unleashing it in loose fashion in front of the camera to make room for improvisation, each actor could play off the other with their knowledge of where the scene could or should go. The results are just phenomenal and the feeling they stumbled on a recipe for gold by chance is probably one rooted in truth, the nature of the film meaning they couldn't recreate the magic exactly if they tried. With never a dull moment the film moves along with memorable quote after memorable scene, the laughs simply don'y stop until the screen is black. I was reminded of how spectacular the career of director/co-writer Rob Reiner from Spinal Tap in 1984, to the Oscar nominated success of A Few Good Men in 1992. A back to back canon of masterful wide reaching films that have etched themselves into the public conscience ever since. Along with Meg Ryan's fake orgasm, Spinal Tap's 'Stone Henge' stands at the top of the finest moments in not just comedy, but in any film.