Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Tunnel + Smile

The Tunnel. Last week in my "February movies" post I mentioned seeing a German thriller I really liked called The Tunnel. I want to say a little bit more about it to hopefully pique some interest for people to watch. Released in 2001 and directed by Roland Suso Richter, The Tunnel is based on real events as a group of people in 1961 dig a long tunnel into East Berlin to try and lead an escape of relatives and friends. The tunnel needs to be long enough to reach past the unoccupied zone populated by soldiers, barbed wire and the concrete wall being constructed to keep German citizens separated from one another.

The Tunnel works as a thriller and suspense film, but also as a exploration of the physical and psychological damage caused by the Berlin Wall's creation in 1961. The wall, an extreme barrier that was not only a symbol of the escalating Cold War between the Soviet Union and the USA but an actual device to keep people imprisoned, is completely fascinating to me. After I watched the film, I promptly bought The Berlin Wall: A World Divided 1961-1989 by Frederick Taylor and am eager to read more on the topic.

I knew going into watching The Tunnel I'd love the premise, but I was surprised at just how suspenseful the film is. Richter gives us multiple stories to become entangled in--there's romance, secret border crossings, espionage, betrayal, loyalty and lots and lots of digging. If you like films set around the Berlin Wall or East/West Germany during the Cold War [the Lives of Others is an example of another film I love based in this setting] then this rousing film is highly, highly recommended.

Smile. It's no secret I love a sly bit of satire and this lesser known gem from 1975 and director Michael Ritchie really deserves to be discovered by more people. There's just so many films from the 1970s that have slipped into the cracks of film history that are waiting to be seen and embraced, Smile is one of them. It's a funny portrait of a group of people connected to a "Young American Miss" beauty pageant, from judges to the women competing. The pageant is small potatoes, but don't tell that to car salesman and head judge "Big" Bob Freelander, as it is the highlight of the year for him and other contestant organizers.

Big Bob is played by the great Bruce Dern and he's an actor I'll watch in pretty much anything, especially from this particular time period. Dern usually portrays villains, eccentrics and other characters that allow him to tap into this manic nervousness he's perfected, but his character in Smile is kind of the straight-man to chaotic events that befall the pageant. It's wonderful to see Dern outside his usual sphere of oddball and play a character so lost in normalcy.

Dern is just part of the pleasant ensemble cast that also includes very early appearances by Melanie Griffith, Annette O'Toole and Adam Sandler's buddy director Dennis Dugan as a pervy teenager trying to get some polaroids of the pageant contestants undressing. There's just so much charm in Ritche's film and it works as a satirical comedy and snapshot of the 1970s. Good stuff--go discover it if you don't know this one and like films from the '70s.

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