31.7.11

Collège l'humour: Foreign Exchange (2008)

American independent filmmaking and toilet humor high school comedies ought never to mix.  Sadly, nobody informed Danny Roth of this notion.  His 2008 film Foreign Exchange attempts to make a low budget high school buddy film that happens to deal with global opinions on the American way of life.  His attempts to mask legitimate commentary on American foreign relations through sex jokes and weed references fails miserably and viewers are left wondering why they did not simply rewatch American Pie.  Foreign Exchange is a film that lacks in every sense of the word.


The film centers on a group of high school friends attempting to slack off for their senior year of high school.  Part of this laziness includes hosting foreign exchange students in their homes.  The central figure of this group is Dave (Ryan Pinkson) who foolishly assumes his exchange student Laurent to be a female.  Along with his other friends he attempts to enjoy his last semesters without concern.  In fact, the only thing Dave seems to show interest in is wooing his long time crush Robyn (Vanessa Lengies).  Dave and his friends assume that they will all go of to college together and continue their wily ways without the burden of living at home, although this seems insignificant because each of the kids' parents are either nonexistent or overly supportive of their child's miserable life choices.  I am sure you can guess the plot from here on out.  Dave wins Robyn's heart and the guys all go their separate ways realizing that their lives after college are inevitably different.  There is nothing left to elaborate on...the plot is as insignificant as the movie.


I will avoid heavy criticism of this movie and instead note the complete lack of ingenuity in regards to high school/college comedies.  I am slowly coming to realize that this is a dead genre with nothing new left to offer.  John Hughes basically covered all the issues of high school twenty years ago and every college film is simply a homage/remake of Animal House, with or without the existential issues of The Graduate.  To be fair decent movies in this genre do occasionally arise both Van Wilder and Superbad come time mind as recent examples.  Ultimately though, the college comedy is dead and there is no amount of "foreign" influence that can appear to fix it.  We can only hope that a director emerges who is more concerned with telling a unique story than attempting to relive his high school years through bad cinematography and crude narration.

My closing words for this film are simple...do not bother.

30.7.11

The Jealousy of Fascism and Four Sisters: Belle Epoque (1992)

When the Academy Awards choose their winner for Best Foreign Film based on two criteria.  The film has to be unbearably depressing, or relentlessly upbeat and feel-good.  Thankfully, for my sanity during this particular viewing, the 1992 Spanish film Belle Epoque falls into the latter.  It is a film about lust, love and friendship that spans generations, gender and class.  It is also an extremely idealistic film in its portrayals of a war torn Spain that manages to exist harmoniously despite divisive political and religious beliefs.  As I noted in a previous review on All About My Mother, melodrama is a staple of Spanish movies.  It relies on all the elements of the genre, including over acting, emotion inducing music and visual textures that seem at times surreal.  Despite being a rather conventional film, Belle Epoque is humorous, enjoyable, and a great study on the frivolous leanings of young love.

The film begins with a young man named Fernando (Jorge Sanz) avoiding detection after desertion from the Franco Army.  After a close brush with local law enforcement Fernado meets the elderly Manolo (Fernando Gomez) who is belligerently against the war and while literally impotent, sees Fernando as a vision his younger self.  After a night of drinking and talking, Fernando departs from Manolo.  Upon walking to his train for Madrid, Fernando views Manolo's gorgeous daughters arriving.  Infatuated with the four daughters Fernando purposefully misses his train and asks to stay with Manolo.  What occurs next is awkward sexual relationships with three of the four daughters, one who is bisexual, another who is widowed and one who has an off-and-on relationship with the local momma's boy.  The only girl Fernando overlooks is the youngest, and arguably most attractive, of the daughters Luz, played by a young and wide-eyed Penelope Cruz.  Amidst religious divides, underground rebellion and unscheduled visits from world famous flamenco singers, Fernando and Luz end up together at the alter.  In a sweet, yet bitter, closing scene Manolo watches the couple ride off to Madrid realizing he is yet again alone and left merely to exist in his old age.

The film deals with love liberally.  The types of relationships displayed in the film are as broad as they are complex.  Obviously the film deals heavily with sexual love as it relates to Fernando, the sisters and even clergymen.  It depicts physical love, however, as a lower form used primarily for gratification, as opposed to stability or comfort.  The film invests greatly, as it should, in notions of emotional love.  Each of the sisters comes to respect Fernando and love him for his good nature and excellent cooking skills.  They are able to forgive both themselves and him for their sexual encounters, realizing that the fleeting intimacy is far inferior to lifelong bonds of friendship.  Given this, it is easy to understand why Fernando and Luz end up together, she is the only one of the sisters to project this notion of love from the films onset.  While less obvious, the film does play on non-biological familial love.  This is evident in the relationship between Manolo and Fernando, one that Manolo claims to be purely friendship.  However, it is obvious that Manolo seeks to be a father figure to Fernando, particularly in regards to teaching him the world of politics.  In fact, Manolo and Fernando's first night as friends is spent together in Manolo's room, a completely platonic moment that still serves as a reminder of the frail barrier between the emotional and physical realms of relationships.  Belle Epoque posits a fluidity of relationships that can be as simple as loving ones mother, or allowing your wife to knowingly make you a cuckold.

Belle Epoque is a sweet movie and one well worth watching.  I would not go out of my way to purchase it personally, but a rental from Netflix is highly suggested.

28.7.11

Top Ten Thursdays: Brad Pitt Movies

In light of my recent post about the brilliance of Tree of Life, I have decided to create a top ten list of my favorite Brad Pitt films.  This is partially a result of his excellent job in Malick's latest film, however, it is also an homage to an admitted man crush on the actor.  I have tried to grab a unique mixture of Pitt's work, but as always it is based on personal taste.

10. Babel (2006)

This is one of Pitt's briefer performances, however, his breakdown next to the pay phone will break your heart








9. A River Runs Through It (1992)


Starring a young Brad Pitt, A River Runs Through It is as tragic as it is beautiful.  Pitt masterfully plays a characters whose youthful angst leads to a spiral of trouble and an untimely death.






 8. Inglorious Basterds (2009)

 
 Brad Pitt is in the Nazi killing business, and as Lt. Aldo Raine his performance is booming.









7. Snatch (2000)

While was originally given the role of Mickey because of his terrible accent, Pitt's character manages to steal the movie with his quick right hand and indiscernible rambling.













6. Twelve Monkeys (1995)

 Brad Pitt only adds to Terry Gilliam's respectable adaptation of the classic short film La Jetee. 











5. The Assasination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (2007)

This severely under-appreciated film contains Pitt as an aging outlaw.  Pitt plays the part with minimal emotion causing an already sobering film to become much more stark.







 4. The Tree of Life

 My recent review of this film will help shed light on this choice.








3. Fight Club (1999)

Brad Pitt's performance as Tyler Durden in the adaptation of Palahniuk's novel helped revolutionize cinema as it transitioned into the new millennium.  Pitt also became the envy of workout gurus everywhere.








 2. Se7en (1995)

Arguably Pitt's most mature perfromance, Se7en displays him as a cop whose wrath leads to his brutal and undeserved downfall.






1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

With the help of make-up and CGI, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button displays a synchronization of everything that is possible in Pitt's repetoire.  At times he plays a stoic aged man, at others a rebellious youth.  It still baffles me as to why he didn't receive the Oscar for Best Actor.


 Honorable Mention

Thelma and Louise (1991)
Seven Years in Tibet (1997)
Ocean's 11 (2001)
Burn After Reading (2008)



 

27.7.11

For A Gunman, You're One Hell Of A Pessimist: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

Sepia-toned Paul Newman is a thing of beauty, as is the rest of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  I had the pleasure of revisiting one of my favorite films last night with a few friends over a glass or two of scotch.  This film is a classic, and for being well over forty years old, it is comparable, if not superior, to the recent remakes of 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit.  The combination of Paul Newman and Robert Redford, paired with a Burt Bacharach soundtrack, makes for an unending adventure complete with robberies, shootouts and tense chase scenes.  While many westerns are by mere existence cinematic, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid allows for the venue of late sixties rebellion and unconventionality to turn the genre on its head.  The film thus becomes not only a western, but a dark comedy as well...although it could be easily missed amidst Sundance's quick draw skills and Cassidy's equally fast wit.  To sum it up, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of the coolest films you could ever hope to see.


The film follows the exploits of two members of the infamous Hole In The Wall Gang,  the stoic and stern Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) and the ever amiable Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman).  After a series of successful robberies, the duo is placed permanently on the run from a bitter bank owner.  After picking up their mutual love interest Etta (Katherine Ross) the group flees to Bolivia in hopes of finding shelter.  Once there Sundance and Cassidy grow restless, deciding that their own form of happiness comes in robbing banks.  Unfortunately, their decision to rob a few more banks places them on watch by the Bolivian leading to a shootout between the duo and a insurmountable number of Bolivian soldiers.  The film ends in a freeze frame of the duo drawing their guns against improbable odds.  Save for a few more details this is basically the plot of the film.  While it may seem short and sweet it is far from this, in fact it is one of the most well written, acted and shot films of not only its era, but the history of cinema as a whole.


The film is rather lacking in heavy social critique.  Instead, what Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid represents is a nostalgia for a yesteryear in westerns.  It is a buddy movie of sorts, focusing on unquestioned companionship.  The do is constantly at each other throats berating one another for stupid actions.  Yet when it comes to robbing banks or assuring their survival they work harmoniously.  It is reminiscent of the early work of John Wayne or even Bonanza...a notion that in a world as unpredictable as the Wild West...friendship is the only certainty.  The big factor making this film different, however, is the inclusion of a female into the group.  While brief, it implies the possibility a group unity existing without gender serving as a divide.  Simple in regards to filmic narrative, but huge in changing what was possible in the images of the Western.

Do what I did for this film.  Buy the Blu-ray and drink some scotch...it is a pair made in cinema heaven.

26.7.11

I Want To Escape: Road, Movie (2009)

Often Indian cinema is a barrage of visual ecstasy.  This is usually related to the gorgeous color palate and mesmerizing landscapes of their country.  However, what Indian film often lacks is a well-grounded narrative.  Fortunately, Dev Benegal's Road, Movie is a fine combination of both.  It is a film that studies the collective experiences of urban/rural, male/female, young/old simultaneously posting that harmony can come through escapism, and to Benegal that escape comes best through moving pictures.  Road, Movie is arguably the Eastern envisioning of Cinema Paradiso, with the same sweeping cinematography, sentimental music and nostalgic narratives.  It is a movie about the power of movies, and for being a lesser known film it certainly delivers a fair share of force.


Road, Movie begins with a young man named Vishnu (Abhay Deol) struggling with accepting control of his father's fleeting Hair Oil business.  Vishnu, donning a wardrobe influenced by Western culture, refuses to adhere to tradition and desperately seeks escape from his father's demands.  Fate allows Vishnu to take a worn down mobile cinema across the deserts of Indian to deliver to a museum by the sea.  What Vishnu expects to be a simple task, and a chance at escape, turns into a far larger voyage of self-discovery and maturation.  Vishnu while on the road meets three distinctly different faces of Indian culture.  The first is a boy played by Mohammed Faisal, a reflection of Vishnu's youth, particularly given his ties to familial employment.  Second is a large, aging man named Om (Satish Kaushik) whose name is indicative of his carefree and unconcerned demeanor.  Vishnu also meets an enigmatic unnamed woman played by Tannishtha Chatterjee who teaches him the passion of love and the beauty of sacrifice.  This union is juxtaposed with images of corrupt police officers and heartless bandits whose actions hinder large amounts of helpless people.  Vishnu amidst this chaotic, and at times absurd journey, comes to realize that his own disdain is futile in relation to the real and physical pain of many Indian people.  Ultimately, he chooses to not only share the simple pleasures of cinema with others, but to himself enjoy the relaxing escapes of things as insignificant as a hair oil massage...one which happens to imply a new life for the reborn Vishnu.


As I noted earlier, Road, Movie is very much a reflection of an ever-evolving India.  Like the characters in the movie, the films chosen for viewing reflect various moments in Indian history.  When choosing a film for a group of elderly Indians, Vishnu projects a classic Buster Keaton short.  While obviously picked for its humor, the film also implies a time in India when imperialism ruled without fail.  Keaton, a staple of American cinema is a Western icon, all be it, not of English descent.  Similarly, when dealing with a belligerent cop, Vishnu plays a cheesy seventies Baliwood cop film that shows cops failing to apprehend criminals and win the hearts of young lovers.  This reflects a moment of rebellion in India, against not only the remnants of imperialism, but also an unfair and illogical caste system which allowed people superiority by birth alone.  Finally, the film itself serves as a projection of the new image of India as it relates to those viewing the piece.  Benegal displays an India still full of issues, but offers visions of equality and advancement if people can simply learn to be approach issues "like a man," which may is, in the film, as simple as changing one's hairstyle.

Road, Movie is a hidden gem.  Benegal offers a masterful piece of film that is as visually stunning as it is socially relevant.  Make it a mission to obtain a copy of this film to show DVD companies that world cinema is relevant.

25.7.11

Father, Forever You Wrestle Inside Me: The Tree of Life (2011)

Prior to viewing this film, I read countless reviews that claimed Terrence Malick's most recent film to be utterly indescribable.  I assumed this to be a simplistic avoidance of what was to my knowledge a rather deeply philosophical film.  I assured myself that once I was able to see this film I would offer up my own answer to this lack of commentary with a dense and well directed review.  Gladly, however,  I am like these other viewers incapable of providing any vision as to how truly magnificent this piece of cinema was to me.  I can say this however, Malick put more effort into making this film than most people put into their entire lives.  I am not offering you a review beyond this, but instead a list of a few thoughts as they relate to this film.  I strongly encourage you to see it is theaters as it will invariably change everything you know about cinema, and arguably your life.  I know it is a drastic statement, but it is sincerely offered from a rather humbled film scholar.  With that being said here are some thoughts.


Malick offers a two plus hour set of images that each stand alone as moments of art.

Malick has made a film that transcends itself into a realm of spiritual and cerebral exuberance.

It is the most emotional response I have had to a movie since childhood.

It is simultaneously singular and universal in its audience.

For those not prepared for the experience...it could very well ravish you.


Malick has taken a vision of the heavens and offered it to us...it would be a sin not to enjoy the immaculate vision.


Again please see this movie...that is all.

24.7.11

It Was Offered For Your Pain, Not For Your Pleasure: The Beguiled (1971)

As I have noted before, the late sixties and early seventies are my favorite era of American filmmaking.  A majority of the films offered during this time period play with narrative conventions to create radical films to challenge the oppressive demands of Hollywood and to use cinema as a voice of opposition to the political ideals of their time.  Don Siegel's film The Beguiled certainly offers such an example.  A trippy film with pseudo-narration, multiple voice-overs and sporadic cinematography, The Beguiled exudes all the rebellion indicative of New Hollywood filmmaking, not to mention it contains Clint Eastwood in one of his finer early non-western films.  The film is a period piece in the most liberal of terms and often incorporates imagery of the early seventies as an ironic juxtaposition to the Civil War being depicted on screen.


The film begins with a series of sepia photos of Lincoln, Grant and other Civil War icons as a way to imply the time period, which leads into a fade to color scene of a young girl named Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) picking mushrooms in the woods.  While gathering the last few mushrooms a Union soldier falls to Amy's feet obviously wounded from battle.  This soldier in short urgent breaths explains himself to be John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) and pleads for help from the young girl.  This would not be a problem were it not for John being stuck dead in the middle of Confederate territory.  Oblivious to the consequences of harboring a Union soldier Amy brings John back to her all-girls boarding school much to the dismay of the schools headmistress Martha (Geraldine Page).  Martha is concerned primarily for the act of treason, as well as the inherent problem of bringing a young male into a school of young women.  What ensues upon John's stay is a jealousy fueled bout of sexual tension that involves young Amy, Martha, the boarding schools slave and one of the schools other teachers Edwina (Elizabeth Hartmen).  While tense, John is able to stay under the protection of the women, until he makes the mistake of sleeping with one of the young girls named Carol (Jo Ann Harris), who dons a classic seventies haircut, despite the films setting of roughly 1860.  Upon discovery of his act, Edwina shoves John down the stairs, yet again his leg.  Martha, also enraged, amputates John's leg claiming it a necessary act for his survival.  When John awakes and discovers his leg removed, he steals Martha's gun and takes control of the school while waiting for Union soldiers to arrive.  The young Amy, distraught by John's infidelity, as well as his outburst against her pet turtle, agrees to pick poisonous mushrooms to feed him for dinner.  This act leads to John's death and subsequent burial by the women, ending the film on an ominous tone, despite its rather notable moment of liberation for the females involved.

The Beguiled reeks of patriarchal criticism.  Everything within the film has an element of female liberation.  The method of poisoning of John occurs through a natural fungus implying a bond with Gaia or more simply Mother Nature.  Similarly, the entire school of women is a form of liberation, given that prior to John's arrival they had successfully fended off other male infiltration, and it is implied that they will continue to do so after John's death.  Furthermore, the women, led by Martha, take it upon themselves to figuratively castrate John by removing his leg.  John even goes so far as to claim a concern that they will cut of his other leg, pausing a moment before saying leg implying that he fears the loss of another appendage as well.  Even when John attempts to repossess power with a phallic gun, he loses out to his false sense of immunity at the hands of a clever pre-teen girl.  The film also posits a unified womanhood regardless of race or age.  The slave that lives with the girls is allowed free reign to voice her opinion and is careful to make the girls aware that no such thing exists as slave work in their unified commune.  The film even dabbles into images of lesbianism between the schools head teachers, the ultimate form of male exclusion.  The Beguiled is as much a Civil War period piece as it is a lesson in feminine independent sustainability.

The Beguiled is not for everyone.  I am partial to it for its similarities to other trippy New Hollywood films and recommend it to those who share my passion.  I know it plays often on television and is currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly.  Do not pass up the opportunity to view a truly bizarre Civil War film.

23.7.11

Awake A Moment -- From Your Dark Night: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

I have a soft spot for German Expressionism.  As an artistic movement I find is existential themes, jarring visual nature and philosophical pondering on the human existence absolutely fascinating.  I am particularly keen on its transfer into early German cinema.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may be the shining example of expressionist silent filmmaking.  It is a haunting film that employs theatrical techniques to create a dark, ominous and orchestrated nightmare.  For being made in 1920, it is an impressive work of visual trickery, acting and plot, particularly given its twist ending.  Furthermore, its quick cuts, extreme angles and shadowy settings are key influences on Hitchcock and every horror movie to follow.


The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is not a particularly traditional plot for a silent film, given its use of flashbacks and dream sequences; however, it is still a rather coherent narrative.  The film opens with two men talking, an unnamed older gentleman and a young man who swears to have a bizarre story to explain his sleepwalking wife. The young man Francis (Friedrich Feher) tells the elderly man of a town called Holstenwall that is famous for its annual fairs, which include a variety of amazing attractions.  In his story, Francis pays particular attention to a new act led by a man named Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss).  His tent claims to have a fortune telling somnambulist by the name of Cesare (Conrad Veidt).

The story seems simple and absurd at this point until Francis explains that later the same evening a murder inexplicably occurs leaving the townspeople flustered.  The next day witnesses another showing of Cesare by Caligari and in the evening, another murder occurs, unfortunately for Francis it is a dear friend of himself and his fiance.  In a moment of anger, Francis approaches Caligari and accuses Cesare of the attacks, Caligari dismisses this claim and allows them to keep eye of Cesare that evening.  However, Caligari's sway over the sleeping allows him to use another man to kill Francis's fiance, this other person, however, happens to be his dear, and recently deceased, friend.  Incapable of proving Caligari's fault in the murder Francis chases him to discover that Caligari is in fact under disguise as a Director of an insane asylum, a front Caligari uses to find patients that sleep walk upon which to experiment.  Francis through determination proves that Caligari is a fraud and psychotic and with the help of wards straps Caligari into his own bed.  The film fades to black and Francis is then shown mingling amongst the patients at the psychiatry ward.  Caligari, now the director, descends the stairs to the dismay of Francis, who instantly attempts to attack Caligari, claiming him responsible for multiple deaths.  It is now Francis who is shown being tied into a bed as an onlooking Caligari claims to have discovered the source of the young man's madness.  In an innovative moment of filmmaking The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a film about a dream, and jars viewers with the realization that what they just witnessed was never a moment of reality.

I noted my fascination with expressionism at the beginning of the piece.  I want to pay particular attention to how this artistic style plays well into the dream narrative of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  As is obvious the film is told from the viewpoint of a psychotic man.  As such it helps to explain why the entire films set is unyielding in its ominous presence.  Each tree, building and lamppost leans drastically in an attempt to devour the characters around it.  There is no source of comfort in this setting for a person who is mentally convinced that others are attempting to destroy him and the sharp angles and monstrous features of Holstenwall.  All which reflect the bizarre imagination of Francis.  Beyond this, each character is heavily doused in makeup to add emphasis to their features.  Francis's fiance has deep set eyes which are heavily shadowed, furthering her hollowness in regards to the flailing reality in which Francis exists.  Caligari's wrinkles are emphasized and his hair is disheveled making him appear as a madman to Francis, as opposed to being the demur and logical director of a psychiatric ward.  In fact, the only character in the entirety of the narrative that does not possess heightened facial features is Francis himself, because it is his nightmare making his own corporeal being that last vestige of reality.  This disconnect between mans bleak reality and the oppressive world that consumes him is a key theme of expressionist art and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari exemplifies the style perfectly.

The tragedy of many silent films is their terrible restoration.  Thanks to Kino Films and other companies, these films are at least available to audiences.  However, I would suggest choosing your own background music while watching these, I particularly enjoy listening to ambient music such as Sigur Ros, Grouper and Brian Eno, but to each their own.  Simply put this is a masterpiece of a film and a cheap copy is certainly obtainable.

22.7.11

When I See Marriage, I See Deathnote: Crime of Passion (1957)

There was once a time in Hollywood when actors would spit out a large amount of films every year.  The greats like Bogart, Bacall and Hepburn all have a large repertoire of films to their credit.  While many of these films are forgettable, there were a rather large amount of decently produced movies that while not brilliant certainly hold merit for their respective eras.  The Barbara Stanwyck driven crime thriller Crime of Passion is one such example.  It mixes the elements of the Woman's Film, melodrama, detective stories and a bit of noir into a well acted and enjoyable movie.  Tragically, the film is a bit predictable; however, it is a great piece of cinema that is indicative of the changing face of Hollywood as it transitioned into the 1960's.


Crime of Passion begins in the same vein as His Girl Friday.  Barbara Stanwyck is Kathy a respected woman's writer at a San Francisco newspaper who believes in independence over the oppressive traditions of marriage.  She is in line to excel at her job until a detective from L.A. named Bill (Sterling Hayden) appears while on call to investigate a murder.  Kathy and Bill become instantly smitten finding each others unconventional lifestyles fascinating.  In an act of love, Kathy leaves her job to marry Bill and live with him in L.A.  Things seem happy from the start, but as Kathy begins to realize the unhappiness of a trapped lifestyle, she desperately plots to escape her living situation.  She exploits Bill's boss Inspector Pope (Raymond Burr) in hopes of garnering a promotion for Bill.  She uses lies, sex and in the films later scenes murder to assure Bill obtains the job.  However, given her illogical actions Bill soon discovers her to be the murderer and arrests her, thus proving that his loyalty will never be to love, but to his job as a cop.  Kathy's attempts at advancing her cause ultimately result in an entrapment that is literal as opposed to previously being a metaphor.


The film is a key commentary on gender; at least as far as 1950's films are concerned.  It displays the problematic relationship between a dominant husband and submissive wife as were the case well into the 1960's in the United States.  Kathy, from the onset, loathes the concept of marriage choosing the loneliness of singlehood over the cage of marriage.  However, she foolishly believes that Bill is unlike other men, especially giving his claim to care about her freedom if they were to marry.  As becomes apparent, marriage in a 1950's setting meant submissiveness and monotony, often causing women to concern themselves with petty things such as the "perfect dress" for a retirement party.  In much darker situations, as is the case with Kathy, this futile lifestyle led to madness, or, to use a sexist term of the era, hysteria. This behavior often resulted in severe depression, self-medication through alcohol, or in the case of this film women being locked away for fear of them lashing out against society.  In the theory of the time, Kathy represents a very deviant woman whose desire for freedom is not logical and thus problematic.  While this film is enjoyable as a piece of historic cinema, it is nice to know that in most of the United States such feelings of malaise are now treated with legitimate concern and no longer passed off as feminine weakness.

This film is for the serious film history buffs.  It is a great little film that is full of action and romance as is required of a good melodrama.  It is certainly problematic with its portrayals of marriage and gender, but when all is said and done, it is well worth grabbing a copy for your dvd rack.

21.7.11

Top Ten Thursdays: Best Picture Winners

The Oscar winner for best picture is often controversial and always leaves room for debate.  It is certain that many films that have received the award did not by any means deserve, the most notable example being Chicago.  Regardless, I have decided to offer up my ten favorites from all the winners since the Academy Awards began in the 1920's.  They are by no means my favorite films from any given year, but they are all great pieces of cinema in there own right.

10.All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)


One of the quintessential war films, this is a sobering vision of the inhumanity of warfare at a time when making such a film assured becoming a pariah.








9. No Country for Old Men (2007)



 A bleak film about a psychotic killer that is brilliantly suspenseful, No Country for Old Men was not my favorite film of the year, but it is certainly much better than many of its contemporaries.





8. Schindler's List (1993)



One of the best Holocaust films to date, Schindler's list is a difficult film to watch and one that legitimized Spielberg as a respected director.





  
7. The King's Speech (2010)

The King's Speech is the most recent Oscar-winner.  I found it to be a great film that is by all definitions perfect.  The acting, cinematography, and music all coexist in perfect harmony.  It is a lesson in period piece filmmaking.

 






6. Rain Man (1988)



Rain Man cemented both Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise as Hollywood players.  The film itself is well shot and seems also transcendent of a decade with a large amount of terrible movies.









5. On The Waterfront (1954)



Marlon Brando's "I coulda been a contender speech" will break your heart.











4. The Godfather (1972)



Brando is so good in fact that his picture appears twice in this top ten list, although to be fair it is all about Al Pacino is this classic.  I also have a review of this film worth checking out








3. American Beauty (1999)



Perhaps the most anti-consumerist film to ever win best picture, American Beauty shows the darkest depths of suburbia and leaves no possibility for redemption.












2. Annie Hall (1977)



This existentialist manifesto and independent woman fashion statement is Woody Allen at this finest.  It really makes me wish I grew up under a roller coaster.







1. Casablanca (1943)



Propaganda has never, and probably will never look this good again.  Next to Breathless Bogart and Bergman provide cinema with their most memorable and iconic couple








Honorable Mention

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Amadeus (1984)
The Hurt Locker (2009)

20.7.11

Tonight, A Comedian Died in New York: Watchmen (2009)

I am of the belief that if you want to make a big budget movie, then you should commit to going all out on its quality.  Zack Snyder is one of the few directors who really gets this idea.  His 2009 adaptation of the classic Alan Moore graphic novel is heavy handed, explosive and lengthy...all the signifiers of a great high-end production.  However, it differentiates itself from other blockbusters by being intellectual, artistic and most importantly cynical.  It, unlike other superhero movies, offers no form of redemption for its characters and allows immoral behavior to occur if it promises to placate human natures desire to consume and destroy.  Watchmen is the antithesis of a blockbuster film, yet uses every element of the genre to advance plot, amaze viewers and most importantly earn money.  It is the rare gem we rarely see in Hollywood, a major motion picture that has a legitimate social commentary.


Watchmen is set in a counter-1980's that is witnessing abysmal living conditions, particularly heavy distress for nuclear fallout, and the third re-election of Richard Nixon.  This set up alone makes the films criticisms rather blatant.  The film, however, follows a group of ex-superheroes who have each for various reasons splintered away from a crime fighting gang known collectively as the Minute Men.  They include a gun-wielding, cigar smoking wise guy named The Comedian (Jeffery Dean Morgan) and a psychotic bandaged noir-like character named Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) as two polar opposites for the possibility of superheroes.  Rorschach has taken it upon himself to find the purpose behind the recent murder of The Comedian, because he feels strongly that it is only the beginning of a string of attacks up masked heroes.  In hopes of ending the carnage, Rorschach attempts to regroup the remaining members of the Minutemen.  This includes the female vixen Laurie Jupiter (Malin Akerman), the tech genius Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and the post-nuclear uberman Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). 

This task proves impossible for Rorschach, because each member seems disillusioned by humanity and incapable of finding motivation to fight justice any longer, particularly Dr. Manhattatn whose psychic abilities make him believe human life to be laughably futile.  Despite bickering and misdirection the group eventually joins together to destroy The Comedian's killer.  In the sake of the ruining the plot, I will not reveal who the killer is, or what the outcome of the situation is, but my next paragraph my spoil the narratives outcome given its rather bleak nature.

Watchmen is both a scalding critique of United States politics post-1968 as well as a dismissal of escapism in to grandiose ideas of a higher moral power that exists to correct the actions of wrongdoers.  Each of the superheroes comprising The Minutemen are flawed and showing the dark side of placing trust in a believed higher being, even if they are not a manifestation of god.  The Comedian, represents the ideal American superhero in his rough and tumble, to hell with everything attitude.  However, his flaw is indiscretion and brutish anger lead to him becoming a murderous, alcoholic waste in his later years leading up to his death.  Nite Owl and Laurie Jupiter are flawed because they are incapable of removing themselves from the expectations of parental figures, who like themselves fought crime, to them both it is as much a forced duty as an act of good nature.  Even the gun-ho Rorschach is problematic, given that his moral compass is skewed by psychological trauma that makes his Robin Hood-esque vengeance tantamount to serial killing, more so that crime fighting. Finally, the omniscient Dr. Manhattan is the most problematic, because he is afforded vision into the future.  He knows the outcome of events relating to him.  He is by no means omniscient though, because his future visions, are inextricably tied to his moral compass, therefore his choice of right and wrong is relative to his own situations not necessarily the entirety of humanity.  He cannot help successfully predict the future, because even in an ideal situation it is still biased to his inner being.  The film ends only with words and the possibility of a redemptive lesson, which can, for the first time, truly ensure humanities peaceful advancement.

This is the best superhero movie I have ever seen.  It is what High-Definition televisions were made for and Snyder certainly knows how to create a all-encompassing experience.  Not to mention any movie with Bob Dylan songs is a good movie by me. Buy it and love it...I am certain it will blow your mind.

19.7.11

They Don't Sell Flowers in Corner Shops: Frog Song (2005)

I have seen many Japanese films that borrow heavily from American genre tropes.  Whether it be the Japanese take on the American sex comedy or their versions of psychological thrillers.  To be fair Americans borrow heavily from the Japanese as well, particularly in regards to horror films.  However, prior to Frog Song I had never seen a Japanese indie film that borrowed from American practices so heavily.  The film while short is a mixture of the depravity, absurdity and pure universal transcendence, as the main characters come to understand their own short and futile existences in relation to a much bigger, and ever continuing, dance of life.  It affords all the leeway of a low budget film, fortunately for its viewers it happens to be good despite its simplistic nature.  It sets out to tell a unique story and never once compromises this task.


Frog Song begins in the moment of a fracturing relationship, a young Akemi Kudo (Konatsu) returns from a rather physical fight with her boyfriend to discover that her lover has decided to hook up with a cosplay girl.  Akemi leaves in a fit of rage to a local manga cafe where she meets Kyoko Ito (Rinako Hirasawa) a burgeoning Manga writer and full-time prostitute.  Down on her luck, Akemi with the guidance of Kyoko becomes a part-time prostitute, using the job not as a means of income as much as an escape from her previously destitute situation.  However, Kyoko sees Akemi as a triple hybrid between a coworker, roommate and lover, which makes their brief encounter convoluted, particularly when Kyoko sleeps with Akemi's ex, whilst demanding to be called Akemi during their moment of intimacy.  Eventually, and inexplicably, the group makes up Akemi is shown as an older version of herself with two kids and no sight of her former lover.  The film closes with Akemi, Kyoko and the films entire cast dancing to the Frog Song in a moment reminiscent of the existential closing of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal.  It is obvious that the performance and actions of life are inescapable whether they be completely bizarre or tragically mundane.


Frog Song is undeniably existential.  It shows the futility of humanity's attempts to rationalize the unknown.  From the films visuals of frog suits to acts of sexual abuse involving shoes it serves as a reminder of the unconventional, arbitrary and erratic flow of human interactions.  No character completely comes to grips with their place in society, whether it be Akemi who despite returning to her cheating lover still remains alone, or Kyoko who after giving up prostitution still acts as a performer in the films closing moments as she dons the frog suit.  Each character fails to escape their various forms of personal malaise, choosing to remain in a safety net of certainty, as opposed to free falling into an unknown abyss.  The dance of life, their personal frog songs, is the only commonality, making the films closing all the more brilliant and pertinent.

Frog Song is not a particularly mind-blowing film.  It has moments of cinematic genius and some great dialogue off and on.  I cannot recommend this movie, but would by no means deter the curious from viewing it.

18.7.11

The Most Well Guarded Yeast Factory I've Ever Seen: Gentlemen Broncos (2009)

In terms of cinema, there are some obvious and undeniable facts.  There will never be another movie close to Citizen Kane.  There will never be another movie close to Salo.  There will never be another movie close to Pulp Fiction, and however you as a reader may feel about it, there will never be another movie close to Napoleon Dynamite.  It came along at a time of conventionality in American film and completely discarded the rules, gaining an unwavering and loyal cult fan base.  Sadly, even the mastermind behind the film, Jared Hess, cannot provide a film of equal proportions.  His 2009 film Gentlemen Broncos is far inferior to Napoleon Dynamite, yet is so much more enjoyable than the majority of its contemporary comedic rivals.  It has all the staples of the earlier film, but on a slightly bigger budget. Fortunately, the allowance of more money does not cause Hess to discard the eccentricities of his earlier work making Gentlemen Broncos as wry as Napoleon Dynamite, save for a much larger amount of toilet humor.

Gentlemen Broncos follows Benjamin (Michael Angarano) as he heads to a home school writing conference per the discretion of his mother Judith (Jennifer Coolidge).  Benjamin, while awkward, displays an uncanny ability to produce bizarre science fiction works, notably his personal homage to his father entitled The Yeast Lords, which follows a man named Bronco attempting to recover his lost gonad.  This story is made all the more absurd by having the various characters imagine the story as they read it, showing a long haired Sam Rockwell playing the novella's title character.  Fate appears in the favor of Benjamin because the pompous, Dylan quoting, raga chanting, Navajo impersonating Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) is the guest speaker for the conference.  Chevalier is a noted sci-fi writer and one of Benjamin's heroes.  As part of the conference, Chevalier offers one of the students stories a chance at publication after review by himself and a "panel of experts."  Suffice to say, after reading Benjamin's story Chevalier realizes its potential and plagiarizes it to re-obtain his position as a respected sci-fi writer.  To make Benjamin's experience all the more difficult he has also agreed to sell his story to a group of home-schooled snobs who promise to make his script into a film.  After providing him with a wrongly dated check, the group butchers his film and creates a short film that is reminiscent of middle school AV club production.  Eventually, with the help of his mother and his "guardian angel" Dusty (Mike White) Benjamin confronts Chevalier, ruining his reputation and ultimately gaining self-respect and the heart of a home schooled girl who previously snubbed him.  This moment of harmony is closed with Bronco riding into the sunset on a missile-launching deer, an image only believable in the world of Jared Hess.

It is difficult to convince myself to read to heavily into the work of Jared Hess, but as the commentary following Napoleon Dynamite showed it is entirely possible.  Given this, the theme of Gentlemen Broncos is rather apparent.  A person often finds the most self worth in things they personally create, whether it be Benjamin's writing, Judith's clothing designs, or in a less serious sense Bronco's gonad, a literal device of procreation.  The film display's Benjamin not only as a struggling artist, but as a young man trying to find a self-identity that is distinctly different from that of his late father.  For most of the film, he dons his dad's clothing and stares despondently into the distance in delusions of grander.  It is not until he must save his mother from an attempted rape that he removes these items, placing a unique piece of his mothers clothing on and driving himself into the city to confront Chevalier about stealing his ideas.  This confrontation is also notable, because as a faux father figure Chevalier controlled Benjamin's actions, belittling his remarks at the conference claiming undisputed authority on the proper names for trolls in science fiction.  By the films closing, Benjamin no longer requires a guardian angel and, like Bronco, can fly off into far galaxies to reclaim his lost manhood...be it in a figurative sense of course.

Gentlemen Broncos is a film that will not please many, I can say that with certainty.  However, for those with a taste for the bizarre this is one of the best examples I have ever seen of unconventional filmmaking.  It is definitely worth owning if only to create a drinking game.

17.7.11

Just Think; Next Time I Shoot Someone, I Could Be Arrested: The Naked Gun (1988)

When I was much younger one of my favorite movies was Airplane!, despite having very little understanding of the highbrow jokes, I could appreciate the visual jokes and slapstick elements.  Having not seen The Naked Gun prior to this recent viewing I can safely say that had I seen it as a kid I would have loved it equally.  Leslie Nielsen is a comedic genius and David Zucker's post-modern approach to comedy is hilarious from the opening mocking of Middle Eastern dictators to the self-aware closing credits.  The pacing of the film is perfect, with each joked delivered in its appropriate context.  The cast is surprisingly stellar and includes veterans George Kennedy and Ricardo Montalban, in one of their less serious roles, as well as a variety of other notable celebrities, including a pre-white Bronco O.J. Simpson and Mr. October himself Reggie Jackson.  It is comedic gold, and may be one of the best comedies to come out of the 1980's alongside Caddyshack.


The plot borrows heavily from the traditional cop thriller.  Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) discovers that his long time partner Nordberg (O.J. Simpson) has fell victim to a set up by a local mob boss and is now at the local hospital recovering from life threatening injuries.  Like a good partner, Drebin vows to avenge his partner and take down his attackers.  Unfortunately, Drebin is a klutz and cannot perform the most menial of tasks successfully, most notably driving his police car.  As a result, Drebin burns down the house of the suspected mob boss, fails to successfully woo the love interest with inside information to the mob and even attacks the Queen of England in a muddled attempt to save her life.  After a series of other mishaps Drebin is removed from the force, however, upon receiving info about another attempt on the Queen at a then California Angels game, he disguises himself as both an opera singer and head umpire to get close to the unknown attacker.  In a hilarious, yet climatic scene, Drebin prevents a brainwashed Reggie Jackson from shooting the Queen, wins the heart of his love interest and even regains his job on the force.  The film is a skeleton of a cop narrative covered with cheese, creme pies and all the other staples of comedic routines.

The film has its share of late eighties urban critique, and certainly berates the problems of bureaucracy in the world of crime fighting.  However, I want to ignore reading into these commentaries and instead discuss the comedic elements of the film, particularly its use of slapstick comedy.  I recently reviewed Buster Keaton's short film One Week and stated that very few films have delivered slapstick comedy in such an excellent and grandiose manner.  The Naked Gun is an outstanding exception to this claim.  Neilsen's understanding of visual humor is superb and every back flip, face plant and befuddled face hearkens back to the early slapstick masters.  Furthermore, like his predecessors Nielsen relies very little on special effects and uses a stunt double only in the most extreme scenes.  Combined with non-diagetic humor, narrative puns and 1980's political jokes The Naked Gun is as noted earlier an exemplary comedy that leaves much to be demanded of its predecessors.

This film is funny, no doubt about it.  Anyone who claims comedy as their favorite genre should see this film immediately and if you have already done so I would suggest revisiting it, because it is impossible not to be in a good mood after doing so.  I highly recommend obtaining a copy for your personal collection.

16.7.11

You Call That A Scream?: Blow Out (1981)

Brian De Palma often receives criticism from viewers for what they claim to be trite narratives, simplistic filmmaking and emotionless acting.  On a very basic level these critiques hold water, however, to assume these as faults is to misinterpret one of the best American auteurs since Stanley Kubrick.  His 1981 re-envisioning of Antonioni's Blow Up is a film about the burdens of filmmaking, and the importance of subtle details in both filming and experiencing the human existence.  It also doubles as a lens on early eighties Cold War fears and the ever increasing presence of violence and moral degradation in American media.  The film employs unconventional methods of cinematic narrative to tell add intensity and excitement to the traditionally linear narrative.

The film begins with a movie within a movie by employing POV cinematography to show a campy horror film complete with phallic knives, nude college girls and socially deviant psychos.  This brief scene stops to display movie soundman Jack Terry (John Travolta) being ridiculed by a director for providing such a crappy on screen scream.  After a series of arguments over the best choice of sounds for the scene, Jack is sent to acquire a new roll of wind sounds at a local park.  During this outing, Jack records a car accident that leads to a vehicle falling into the local pond.  Jack in a moment of heroism saves the girl in the car, but is unable to save the man in the car as well.  This is a problem, because the man in question is a up and coming politician set to become the next president.  After a series of police interrogations and a talk with the girl Sally (Nancy Allen) Jack is able to leave and listen to his footage of the crash. 

His ear for audio detail leads him to believe that the accident happened because of sabotage and not the acclaimed tire blow out.  Bringing this to the attention of authorities results in both Jack and Sally becoming targets of the hit man from the original job, Burke, who is played brilliantly by a young John Lithgow.  Through a series of wire-taps, audio/visual comparisons and chase scenes Jack is able to get Sally in contact with Burke with the hopes of catching him in attempted murder thus proving his theory about the assassination.  Unfortunately, due to a brief loss of audio contact Jack looses Sally and Burke, leading to Sally's murder while Jack is forced to listen to it on headphones.  In a somber closing scene Jack has decided to employ Sally's real screams of death into the film leading to the director proclaiming them to be his best offerings yet.  It is a true statement on the sacrifice for perfection in filmmaking.

The film is a step-by-step demonstration in audio editing for film prior to the introduction of Garage Band and other computer based editing software.  The recording, editing, and dubbing of sound are tedious jobs and Jack spends a good bit of this film performing these acts.  However, De Palma is careful to show how intricate sound is to film, employing the use of ambient sound, off camera dialogue and even a non-diagetic sound to emphasize emotion.  What is perhaps the most brilliant directorial choice for De Palma in relation to sound is when he chooses not to employ it, as in the slow-motion skyline shot of fireworks exploding as Sally dies in Jack's arms.  It is quiet, poetic and tragic and a time that visual suggests celebration.  To suffice, De Palm understands sound and it shows throughout the film.

Blow Out is yet another great offering from Criterion, and a film I would likely have never viewed had it not been for their releasing it.  I highly suggest grabbing a copy soon, preferably in the current Barnes and Nobles half-off sale.