31.1.12

I Sold My Soul At Bohemian Grove: Secret Honor (1984)

I am slowly leaning towards making Robert Altman one of my favorite directors of the 20th century, partly for his hip cool films of the seventies, but more so for his scathing and astute political dramas of the eighties.  Secret Honor is one such political drama in its combination of minimalist filmmaking and grandiose theatrical performance.  It is how one should study a political figure, in a detailed manner that shows both his flaws and redeeming qualities simultaneously and without pause.  Furthermore, in the manner that Altman films Secret Honor it becomes a very personal experience between the character of Richard Nixon and the viewer.  Although Nixon claims to be recording his own memoirs, the film is much more of a historical figure being recreated to defend himself to viewers and given its intimate setting, the viewer has little choice but to listen.  I would jump immediately to calling this a piece of cinema verite, but the excessive ways of Nixon make the film a piece of absurdist cinema that makes Josh Brolin's performance in W seem stoic.  I know that better political films exist, but I am not so sure that a more honest one has ever been filmed.

The film is unusual that it involves a single character from beginning to end and that is the aging Richard Nixon, played virulently by Phillip Baker Hall.  At the point viewers are introduced, Nixon has locked himself into his study and has began recording his memoirs, which are half childhood nostalgia and half defending himself to an unseen jury.  He is recording his memoirs both aurally with a tape recorder and visually with multiple close circuited cameras.  With this setup, a few bottles of whiskey and a gun Nixon recants everything relating to his controversial life.  These discussions include recalling a tumultuous relationship with his mother and his loathing of both Dwight Eisenhower and Henry Kissinger.  He also speaks condescendingly of John F. Kennedy and his inabilities politically, drawing some rather prophetic comparisons to the Bush dynasty.  However, every time he begins to become enraged and his monologues become ramblings filled with expletives and mumbling curses.  He even reads from his own memoirs in a moment of brilliant metacinema.  Fortunately for Nixon, anytime he rambles to far he is quickly able to ask that his transcriber remove said portions.  While switching between a devious politician and a self-loathing simpleton Nixon goes between disregarding Watergate to accidentally implicating himself for his crimes.  Perhaps the only constant within the entire monologue is the influence of the conspiracy group known as both The Bohemian Grove and The Committee of 100.  He claims that this group of old white men with power used him to assure democracy in Asia, which would also garner them control over the heroin trade.  Nixon then goes to kill himself only to stop and remind viewers that he is only a puppet of a larger scam and that to implicate him is to implicate the entire system and if that is what society plans to do, then as Nixon sees it they are worthy of no respect and his repeated expletives are followed brilliant by a static filled scream while a crowd chants four more years.


There are a slew of reasons why I find this to be an incredibly honest political film.  First and foremost, Altman is politically detached from his filmic visions.  Whether it be Tanner '88 or Nashville, Altman realizes the illogical nature of the entire process regardless of party politics.  Compare this to say Oliver Stone whose films are clearly liberal leaning, or the conservatively inclined Forrest Gump.  While all the aforementioned films and filmmakers are excellent, I find only Altman's films to deliver an all-encompassing vision of the political world in which he exists.  Altman could have made Secret Honor a film that defended Nixon or outright attacked him, but it actually does both and ultimately leaves viewers to decide their thoughts on the outcome.  It also reminds viewers about the very real effects politics have on the individual.  Nixon is a man destroyed in this film, he has resorted to heavy amounts of alcohol and complete secrecy, because one mistake completely ruined his life.  The Nixon we are shown is so preoccupied with revealing his innocence that he finds himself rewording his own statements to appear politically correct or detached from his unfortunate past.  It is made apparent that nobody will see or hear these ramblings, yet his paranoia is so far gone that he honestly believes that the pictures in his office are watching him.  From the images, Altman provides us we are shown a man who simply wanted to join politics to be like Abraham Lincoln, yet a politician like Lincoln could never occur with a camera constantly watching.  Even in defending himself the camera's are on Nixon and it is not until they go awry that he can once again gain support.  It is incredibly brilliant considering that Nixon was arguably the first victim of a media entrenched political world.

This is one of the hidden gems of The Criterion Collection.  It is a rather unusual viewing experience as it is a narrative with one actor and not a single other is given a voice of contradiction.  I would strongly suggest grabbing a copy if you love political cinema or anything unconventional.

29.1.12

Here’s A Killer Who Understands Bureaucracy: The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007)


The deluge of found footage films has produced a mixed bag of films over the past decade or so, with highlights including The Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity franchise.  This fascination with discovered footage has proved to be a fascinating source of narrative material for a fictional approach to filmmaking and seems to be a fad that will continue for at least another few years.  However, in 2007 the Dowdle Brothers released a fake documentary about a psychologically depraved serial killer that has forever changed my understanding of what is possible with not only a found footage film, but also horror movies as a whole.  The understanding of the affects proper editing, narrative delivery and cinematic composition can have on the human psyche are  apparent in the Dowdle’s work as viewers are both captivated and disturbed by the film.  It is a film that truly stands on its own as a psychological thriller on a low-budget, and between its gritty realism and absurdly sadistic killer it will have you checking the corners of your house and behind the shower curtain for many days.  Not to mention you will never look at blurry VHS images the same way again.


As noted, the film is set up as a pseudo-documentary in which the police have discovered nearly a thousand tapes shot by a serial killer to recording everything from his sexual fetishes to his grotesque torture and murdering of women.  This then fuels the narrative of the documentary which focuses on an unnamed man who begins his serial killing by kidnapping and murdering an eight year old girl and upon doing so he realizes that he is not only excellent and murder and torture, but that he thoroughly enjoys engaging in the behavior.  The killer continues on to kill a couple who stop to help him with assumed car trouble and the psychotic killer is so deranged that he takes the husband’s head and places it in the stomach of the woman.  These discoveries are intertwined with police, FBI, psychologist and forensic scientists commentaries of the events many of which leave the experts baffled, particularly the killers fascination with a particular woman named Cheryl Dempsey.  As the commentators note, the killer takes a particular fascination with Cheryl and stalks her at length before breaking into her parents house to both kidnap her and killer her boyfriend and of course all of these events are shown in the killers recordings.  It is then shown that the killer debases Cheryl through torture and mutilation causing her to become almost slave like to his every demand.  Realizing the media attention he is receiving the killer decides to change his modus operandi, but manages to have a one-on-one confrontation with Cheryl’s mom, in which he offers help to find Cheryl.  Before Cheryl’s mom can stop the killer he flees from the scene chuckling maniacally.  The killer now takes up killing prostitutes while continuing to torture Cheryl, which includes making her don medieval garb and a bizarre rubber mask that is only topped by the killer’s own disturbing bird skull mask.  The killer becomes so good at killing prostitutes that he is also capable of tricking investigators into believing that the killer is indeed a police officer named James Foley, who while innocent is incapable of providing an alibi and is eventually a victim of the death penalty.  Upon the death of James, the killer sends a map to the police labeled with the words “missed one” and the location of another body, implying that James had nothing to do with any of the killings in which he was punished.  Tragically, James is cleared of all charges posthumously, however, these events are overshadowed by the attacks on 9/11.  The film then cuts to the discovery of the murderers house and his tapes.  This seems to be a rather calm incident until the SWAT team opens a crate to find the body of Cheryl clinging to the last threads of life.  In perhaps the most haunting scene of the film the documentary interviews Cheryl who is incapable of doing anything but stating “what do you want me to say” to the interviewer, a clear sign of the mental damage caused by her captor.  Viewers are then informed that Cheryl killed herself shortly after the interview and within weeks her grave had been pillaged and her body remains missing.  The film closes with experts discussing the very real fact that the killer is still on the loose and that of the large collection of footage twenty-seven tapes remain missing and they can only speculate as to the reasons why the killer kept them in his possession.  One expert also states that they should keep an eye out as to where the documentary is shown, because he is certain the killer will be unable to resist seeing his own “art” played on screen.

The film is brilliant first and foremost for its fresh and disconcerting approach to horror filmmaking.  It is apparent, but subtle, that the Dowdle’s are pulling their inspiration from decades of horror films.  When I say this I do not simply mean American films, but foreign horror films as well.  It is easy to pick up the influences from such horror films as Rosemary’s Baby, Eyes Without A Face and Audition, as well as an understanding of horrific imagery as it relates to cinema as a whole.  Each extreme angle and blurry shot adds an affect of uncertainty that makes the film almost unwatchable due to its blatantly disturbing nature.  However, the film is also an incredible stud of the problems faced by investigators and government when trying to catch a killer that works so craftily within a convoluted justice system.  The killer, as the experts note in the film, understands that by severing bodies and dumping them in separate counties that it will increase the investigation process exponentially.  However, he is also clever enough to pray on victims who already work outside of the law, such as prostitutes, because he realizes that a demand for social justice will be far less for these women than an average person.  Furthermore, the killer is so deranged that he is incapable of committing similar murders and often kills out of rage, yet at other times his murders are quite premeditated.  This constantly shifting murder streak causes the FBI to fail miserably at profiling the killer, because his methods are so complex that it spurs one agent to state that the man most likely works for them.  Finally, and perhaps my favorite factor in this film is its narrative choice.  Most found footage films preoccupy themselves with focusing on a paranormal entity, whether it be demonic or spectral and while this is fine, it certainly results in a sense of detachment when viewing.  It is nearly impossible to detach yourself from the seeming authenticity of this film and this factor makes the film all the more disturbing, not to mention the multiple layers of criticism in which a feminist theorist like Laura Mulvey could provide.  However, that is a heavy bit of theory that I would rather not cloud this review with, but in the future expect an article on it somewhere.

The Poughkeepsie Tapes is currently in a limbo and has yet to be released on any physical format.  Netflix currently has a copy in its saved queue, but it could be sometime before we see a mainstream release.  However, if you search Youtube or other media sharing websites it should be rather easy to find a copy.  My only piece of advice for viewing this one is to stick around after the credits, trust me it is probably the best scene of the entire movie.

27.1.12

The Highjump Is A Masochists Event: Personal Best (1982)

Some movies try quite hard to approach subjects that are overlooked or misunderstood by general audiences.  When this works correctly, it is something amazing and often creates a cultural phenomenon relating to the subject of focus.  Robert Towne's study of female athletes in Personal Best is anything but this, because what could have been an engaging study of companionship and competition between women instead becomes an exploitative film that relies on crotch shots and excessive nudity to draw audiences in.  I will say that the film is quite well made and perhaps one of the best edited sports movies I have ever seen, however, the cinematic nature of the film does little to save the convoluted and misogynistic storyline from succeeding.  What Personal Best should have been was a revolutionary piece of athletic cinema, however, it borders on soft core pornography.  To further this, a film that deals heavily with the existence of homosexual relationships, fails to maintain their validity and results in a film that demands the necessity for heterosexual normalcy.  In short, Personal Best is a feminist's nightmare and has since become a stellar example of how not to make a socially progressive film.

Personal Best follows the experiences of two women athletes who become entwined in a romantic relationship while competing and training together for a spot on the American Olympic team at the 1980 Olympic games.  The women involved are the aging track star Tory Skinner (Patrice Donnelly) who is an open lesbian that realizes her time as a world class athlete are fading.  The other woman is the much younger and inexperienced Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) who is as sexually inconsistent as she is on the track.  Chris's lack of productive results leads her to be taken under the wing by Tory who also possesses sexual feelings for Chris.  These feelings are enacted upon and the two become a couple and all seems all right until it becomes apparent that their off field relationship results in negative affects on their on field performance.  In order to correct this male coach Terry Tingloff (Scott Glenn) enters in to the picture to correct Chris and stop Tory from destroy both her and Chris's career.  Realizing that Chris is quite dependent on Tory, Terry interferes and begins flirting with Chris.  After successfully wooing Chris with affection and ice cream, Tory begins a fit of jealousy, which includes causing Chris to blow her knee while practicing the high jump.  However, almost inexplicably, the two mend their relationship as friends and Chris begins a new relationship with a water polo player named Denny (Kenny Moore).  In the trials for the Olympic Games, Chris and Tory work together to assure that both of them obtain spots on the Olympic team and the film closes with them celebrating their victory and Tory giving her blessing to Chris's new relationship, claiming that Denny is cute for a guy.  Ironically, in passing statement by a reporter, it is realized that the women's efforts are futile for the United States plans to boycott the Moscow Olympics.  This statement that seems arbitrary actually implies that the women's efforts are futile and irrelevant.

If it is not apparent that the film is problematic from the plot description, I will happily elaborate on its issues.  The first is the obviously exploitative nature of the film as it relates to lesbianism.  The film has multiple scenes that involve lengthy panning shots of Tory and Chris in bed or the women athletes in the spa, all of which appear to lack necessary placement in the film.  Furthermore, almost every segment of track and field filming involves crotch shots of the women, again for no obvious artistic reason.  Furthermore, the film implies that women athletes are incapable of being productive without the direct guidance of men.  In a lengthy diatribe, Terry explains that male athletes are inherently easier to coach because they lack feminine needs and emotional instability.  If these factors were not enough to make the film incredibly problematic, the fact that each woman in the film ultimately falls back on a man to assure her safety is the nail in the coffin.  Chris relies on the assurance of Denny both physically and emotionally for her success, while Tory ultimately confides in Terry for support, which is further problematized by the implication that the two have been intimate in the past.  It is a film full of plot gaps, exploitative dialogue and voyeuristic cinematography that has no purpose, besides what appears to be reaffirming the patriarchal ideals that would come to dominate the 1980's.  If this film is the supposed cult classic it appears to be, I would assume it is solely to its absurdity.

I have ragged on this movie quite a bit, with that being said, I would suggest watching it if you are at all concerned with gender studies.  It is an absolutely necessary piece of cinema to know about when discussing feminism and lesbian imagery in film.  As for owning a copy, well that is another story.

26.1.12

Top Ten Thursday: Biopics

A good biopic is expansive, detailed and more often than not extremely biased.  Often released around Oscar season, biopics are usually inundated with respected actors and directed by notable persons in Hollywood.  Today I offer my list of favorite biopics, many of which were not Oscar contenders and a handful that were.  It is all in the hopes that the upcoming Abraham Lincoln movie will be glorious.

10.) The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

A poem of a film, The Passion of Joan of Arc set the standard for all biographies made after.












9.) Andrei Rublev (1971)

The Tarkovsky masterpiece on the unconventional experiences of a artistic monk is a film of grand proportions.

Review Here





8.) The Pianist (2002)

Roman Polanksi's biopic about Polish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman will drain your heart each and every time you watch the film. 









7.) An Angel At My Table (1990)

Simply put, An Angel At My table is how one should make a biography about an author.  I would be hard pressed to find a more cinematic study of an author than Jane Campion's biopic on Janet Frame.






6.) My Left Foot (1989)

My Left Foot introduced the world to Daniel Day-Lewis as cripple Christy Brown, garnering the actor his first of what will likely be several Oscars.






5.) Richard III (1955)

"A donkey,  a donkey, my kingdom for a donkey."













4.) The Diving Bell And The Butterfly (2007)

This French stream-of-conscious biopic is a lesson in artistic cinema that left viewers mesmerized upon its release.








3.) Raging Bull (1980)

The black and white story of Ray La Motta made Scorsese a household name and Robert De Niro a man's man actor.







2.) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Perhaps the most controversial biopic on the list, the story of T.E. Lawrence burns off the screen with excitement.









1.) Amadeus (1984)

This music heavy biopic is as much about the title character as it is about Antonio Salieri, and its excellent composition earned it a slew of Oscar nods.






Honorable Mention

Schindler's List (1993)
The King's Speech (2010)
The Social Network (2010)
Moneyball (2011)

24.1.12

Just Get Through The Goddamn Day: A Single Man (2009)

When a person approaches film narrative from a stream of conscious ideology, I often get concerned as delivering a coherent narrative is often difficult.  Of course there are exceptions to this concern, such as Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Lynch's Lost Highway.  However, it is rare for a movie to deliver stream of conscious narrative in a manner that is both accessible and perfectly poetic.  A Single Man, the debut film for Gucci designer Tom Ford, is a case where poetics and approachability combine  magically and in what could prove to be one of the most overlooked masterpieces of the past decade.  Obviously inspired by the successes of Mad Men, A Single Man focuses on the life of a professor in 1960's America at the height of Cold War fears.  Furthermore, it uses a set of respected actors who neither possess superstar images nor overact for the sake of assumed Oscar nominations.  Tom Ford's period pieces is all about subtlety and this helps the surreal nature of the film exponentially.  To add to my already exuding adoration for this film, I will state that it is precisely how a film should perform character study, by focusing on the character in a very singular and internal sense.


A Simple Man follows the course of events over a single day for the aging British professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) who is reeling from the recent loss of his partner Jim (Matthew Goode).  His loss is quite internal given the staunch conservatism which exists, even in the relatively liberal Los Angeles college community of which George teaches.  Given his depression, which has resulted from inner turmoil, George has vowed to commit suicide at the end of November 30th.  He plans to simply make it through the day and off himself with a gun, leaving everything that represented his life sitting out in his kitchen.  George begins to deal with his plan rather stoically until the world around him begins to interfere.  This begins with the inquiries of a young Jewish student about anti-semitism that leads George on a brilliant diatribe about the illogical nature of fear. After the deeply philosophical speech, George heads to his office to clean out his desk and down a fifth of whiskey.    This speech inspires a young student named Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) to approach George after class and discuss his own beliefs, as well as his past drug use.  Before parting Kenny purchases George a yellow pencil sharper as a gift for escorting him across the campus, it is quite apparent at this point that George desires Kenny.  However, realizing his purpose George leaves and stops by a liquor store to purchase gin for his former lover Charlie (Julianne Moore) of whom he was intimate with, prior to his coming out.  Upon leaving the liquor store George bumps into a young Spanish man dropping the bottle of gin and breaking it.   This accident leads to a discussion with the man named Carlos (Jon Kortajanera) who states that George is in dire need for someone to like him.  Shrugging this off indifferently, George heads home in an attempt to kill himself.  However, he finds himself unsuccessful at shooting himself and after receiving a call from Charlie decides to head to her house for a few drinks.  After dinner and a pass on the part of Charlie for sex, George leaves and heads to a bar, which him and Jim frequented.  There, by chance, he meets Kenny  again and after a drink they decide to go swimming.  During their swim at the beach George is knocked unconscious, at which point the two decide to return to George's house.  While finding a bandaid, for George,, Kenny discovers a  naked picture of Jim and proceeds to distance himself from George for the remainder of the night.  When George awakes a few hours later, he discovers Kenny lying on his sofa holding George's gun as a form of defense against his advances.  Realizing that Kenny had no desire for him, George enters his room with a new level of serenity, unfortunately, his decision to be happy is quickly followed by deathly heart attack that leaves George on the floor, which fulfilled his original plan for the day.


The film is quite impressive for its approach to a quite overlooked narrative in America prior to the 1970's, this of course being the experiences of homosexuals in the United States.  While Mad Men has dealt with this to some extent, they have never made it a matter to focus heavily on the alternative world of gay underground, let alone as a sole narrative.  Prior to a film like this, the commentary of gay life prior to Stonewall reserved for documentary filmmaking and narrative distanced from film.  I would imagine one of the biggest factors in changing this in cinema was the critical acclaim received by Brokeback Mountain.  IT is great to see a gay narrative emerge in film and even more so that it was provided with a respectable budget.  In years prior gay filmmaking was reserved to the avant-garde and experimental realms with filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and Su Friedrich leading the way.  A Single Man represents a complete change to voices about the past, as well as voices present in contemporary filmmaking.  I am glad to see films like this being made for a variety of reasons and hope the change continues, but if films like Beginners have anything to do with it, the trend is only beginning.  Sorry the criticism is not heavy in theory, but this is such an experiential film that explanation is somewhat arbitrary.

Watch this movie immediately, somehow it fell under my radar in 2009 and for that, I feel terrible.  Make sure you get a copy and share it with your friends; it is truly a visual manifesto.

23.1.12

You Must Get Beyond Passion, Like A Great Work Of Art: La Dolce Vita (1960)

The auteur Frederico Fellini always manages to touch upon something inherent to human nature in his epic films whether it is the delusions of a man sinking slowly into insanity 8 1/2 or the tragic nostalgia of existing as portrayed in Amarcord.  The Italian director's 1960 masterpiece La Dolce Vita, or The Sweet Life, is certainly not an exception.  Using famed Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, Fellini creates a visually stirring study of an aging man as he realizes that his desires both physically and spiritually are unattainable and that his life is slowly flickering into nothingness, despite his best efforts to find meaning.  As, I noted in an earlier review of Michelangelo Antonionni's Zabriskie Point, this concern with the existential self is a key element of Italian filmmaking.  However, nobody seems capable of capturing the true despair of this philosophical rut, quite like Fellini, and La Dolce Vita is certainly his best existentialist work.  From the sparsely constructed mise-en-scene's to the large cast of characters, La Dolce Vita is concerned only with the quest of one man as he realizes that his life is far more bitter than it will ever be sweet.  La Dolce Vita is often described as a comedy, and while it certainly has hilarious moments, the laughs gained from this movie are only a result of peoples own realizations that their lives are tragically linked to Marcello's desperation.  This link results in laughter, because to acknowledge it would be far too depressing.

The main character mentioned above is Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) an aging journalist who has come to loathe his job and the identity that is attached with such work.  Despite his disdain for his own work, Marcello has little luck shaking off the paparazzi and journalists who constantly follow him.  As a result, Marcello attempts to detach himself from his lackluster employment, by finding a romantic connection.  His first encounter is with a Maddalena (Anouk Aimee) a woman he meets at a nightclub only to sleep with hours later.  However, his rendezvous leads his current lover Emma (Yvonne Furneauz) to attempt suicide.  After this encounter, Marcello meets the famous American actress Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) who is the object of seemingly every males affections.  Marcello at first appears immune to Sylvia, until he is witness to her climbing up stairs at a local cathedral, it is during this time that he compares her to the Madonna and falls madly in love with her, claiming that she is equitable to the first woman ever created.  However, his advances are quickly thwarted when after spending and evening playing in a local fountain he is beaten up by Sylvia's American lover Robert (Lex Barker).  This failure to achieve love with his idea woman leads Marcello to find his answers through religion, which prove illogical first by his meeting with an old friend name Steiner (Alain Cuny) who sees church as nothing more than a place to play organ.  Marcello's second encounter with the false support of religion arises when he helps cover a story of a purported sighting of a Madonna by children at a tree in the outskirts of Rome.  This coverage quickly goes awry when rain begins to pour and the film technology begins to break.  This confusion paired with impatient attendees attempting to gain their own "healing" from the tree leads Marcello to leave the scene in with a greater amount of disillusionment.  These attempts at finding answers to his life's meaning continue as Marcello seeks solace in intellect, family, money and his past only to discover that each quest is as useless as the first at which point we are shown Marcello at what appears to be a party a few years following the previous events, given his now graying hair.  At this party, Marcello attempts to instigate an unwanted orgy amongst the attendees only to be stopped by the owner of the house, at which point Marcello rips open a down pillow and showers the party guests in feathers as he introduces them as performers in a play.  The film then shows the partygoers on the beach as they admire a large stingray with awe.  Marcello then notices the call of a girl from across the beach and quickly recognizes her as a young waitress from a restaurant he had attended years earlier.  She attempts to yell out words to him, but neither he, or the viewer, can comprehend her words.  Instead, he simply smiles and walks back to his party, leaving the young girl to be excited about life, while he wallows in his continued existentialism.  This closing, while uncertain, might imply that the only way to assure a life with meaning, is to remain ignorant to the fact that their is no meaning, however, Fellini offers such an ending in irony, for to do so would be to state definitively that there is no meaning.


So all this talk of existentialism, can cause the film to seem irrelevant, or as an existentialist would put it...inherently meaningless.  While some existentialist would say that this is the case, most would argue that even though the ultimate end is nothing, one should not stop from being amazed by single moments as they occur, whether it be something like falling in lover, or witnessing the natural awe of the world.  It is quite apparent that a film like La Dolce Vita, while bittersweet, certainly adheres to the latter.  Fellini's film is a celebration of moments that are beautiful, whether it be Marcello's infatuation with Sylvia, which leads to a poetic dance in water, or, a group of aging intellectuals admiring the ambient sounds of the natural world.  Fellini is not suggesting that a person should find despair in the fleeting world around them, instead he suggest that we should take solace in the moments while they last, because they will provide a person with some semblance of happiness.  Fellini certainly drives this point home with his comparison of Steiner and Marcello as characters.  Steiner states during a party that he is not as tall and powerful as people believe him to be and is actually quite self-loathing.  His own despair is never dealt with which leads him to commit suicide and kill his children in the process.  This, at first, comes as a surprise to viewers given his claims to find beauty in his children.  However, it is quite apparent that his beauty is rooted in jealousy for Steiner and his violent act serves as revenge.  Similarly, Marcello has his own run in with the beauty of youth through the young waitress, with whom he openly discusses the beauty of ignorance.  However, instead of exacting revenge on the young woman for her sweet innocence, Marcello decides to step away and ignore his jealousy.  The films closing scene of him turning his back on youth may seem dark, but what it really implies is Marcello's own transcendence of his existential longing for something different.  Ultimately, Marcello realizes his meaningless life is still his own and while it ends in nothingness, at least it is his own nothingness to possess.

This is a giant of an Italian film both literally and figuratively, and is one of the few Italian films I can fully support as being a masterpiece.  I cannot recommend viewing it enough and would suggest getting a copy for your collection.  However, it has yet to be released on Bluray so waiting awhile might not be a terrible idea.

21.1.12

Do You Care Whether You Live Or Die: Menace II Society (1993)


The late eighties and early nineties were a wonderful time for urban dramas, through Spike Lee, John Singleton and others the projects and ghettos of America became a subject of much study in both fictional and documentary films.  These gritty, violent and often moving stories of oppression and survival are their own unique brand of film that has often been redone and parodied at least once, and the Hughes Brothers 1993 film Menace II Society tops the list as one of the most prolific films in this genre.  It provides a solid storyline that begins intensely and rarely falters and, like so many of its contemporaries, the film is politically fueled and is certain to remind viewers that they are being privileged by viewing a narrative that does not follow tradition.  Furthermore, Menace II Society is an artistically sound film, which employs various camera and editing tricks to add ambiance to certain scenes and intensity to others.  In addition, it may fact that the film is co-directed, but I am having trouble thinking of a film in this genre that is more concerned with minor details, as they relate adding validity to the larger narrative.


  In an intense manner, typical of urban dramas, the film begins with two young black males purchasing beer from a local convenient store.  The two men named Caine (Tyrin Turner) and O-Dog (Larenz Tate) are instantly targeted by the Korean owners as possible thieves.  While upset by the storeowners acquisitions the duo agree to buy their beer and leave until the store owner makes a passing remark about the guys parents.  Infuriated, O-Dog lashes out violently killing both of the owners and leaving with the surveillance tape and money in hand.  We are then, after some archival footage of race riots and a refletion of Caine’s own youth with his drug dealing father Tat (Samuel L. Jackson), transferred to images of South Central Los Angeles as it stands in the early nineties.  Caine is shown awaiting his upcoming graduation with indifference as he checks in on the status of his good friend Pernell’s (Glenn Plummer) ex-girlfriend Ronnie (Jada Pinkett Smith) and her their son.  After this visitation Caine, O-Dog and another older member of a gang named A-Wax (MC Eiht) attend a graduation party.  This party fueled by drugs and alcohol introduces viewers to the other members of Caine’s crew which include the bright football prospect Stacy (Ryan Williams) and the thug turned Muslim Shariff (Vonte Sweet)  This group agrees to head to a local fast food restaurant for a bite to eat only to encounter trouble from a rival gang that shoots and kills another member of their group, which leads to a desire for revenge amongst the group.  The film then advances weeks to the point in which Caine and O-Dog are hired to do a car jacking for a fraudulent insurance company and when the robbery goes awry Caine is locked away briefly and questioned about his attachment to the convenient store murder shown earlier in the film.  Able to escape the claws of justice given their lack of evidence, Caine is released and sets out on a life of hustling and drug dealing only to quickly become involved in pregnancy scares and gang feuds that leave him confused and concerned for his life.  Ultimately, Caine decides to move to Atlanta with Ronnie and her son, after receiving the much desired approval of Pernell.  Sadly, on the day he is set to leave Los Angeles himself and O-Dog are gunned down on Ronnie’s lawn.  The film closes with images of Caine’s past flashing on the screen as he realizes too late that he cared about whether he “lived or died.”


I think the question to discuss after watching Menace II Society is what role accuracy plays in creating a respectable urban drama.  Like its much earlier film noir predecessors, urban dramas require a large amount of violence, deceit and representations of minorities to be believable.  It is precisely the concern with the non-traditional characters that makes Menace II Society superior to say Crash or many other Hollywood directed “urban dramas.”  Often Hollywood tries to diversify its image, by making characters that all viewers can relate to, this is not the case for Menace II Society, as a white male of relative wealth I have not, nor do I plan to, experienced the atrocities that occur in underprivileged parts of the United States.  However, I can realize when a film successfully portrays a subject and when it does not.  The fact of the matter is that the experiences of many characters with Menace II Society are fairly accurate and representative of the gangsta culture of the early nineties.  While there is certainly a large outcry against this film for its gratuitous violence, I find such criticisms to be petty and ungrounded, because I would argue that one only needs to watch a new broadcast for any metropolitan area in the United States to realize how truly abysmal the crime rate is in The United States.  The Hughes Brothers have constructed a film that could just as easily be a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the life of black teens in Los Angeles, given its uncanny accuracy and believability.  In essence, this is a staple in understanding race relations in 1990’s America and one of the most pertinent urban dramas I have seen to date.  The violence and profanity that occur in this film are in no way gratuitous but are instead necessary to capture viewers attentions to a reality that is occurring in the areas of our nation that we choose to ignore.

I am very sincere when I say you should own this movie and show it to your friends.  It is a necessary viewing experience for its artistic and social relevance and the recent bluray release burns on the screen with passion and reality, unlike anything I have seen in quite some time.

19.1.12

Top Ten Thursdays: Race and Racism In American Films

I figured that given the recent celebration of Martin Luther King and my upcoming review of Menace II Society it would be an ideal time to do a top ten list of American movies involving race and racism commentary.  I tried to make it a balanced list and consider all forms of racism in The United States, and do not worry D.W. Griffith is nowhere to be found on this list.


10.) Borat (2006)

While most people mistook this as a raunchy comedy/mockumentary, Borat is perhaps the most telling study of the ignorance Americans still possess in regards to race relations both nationally and globally.








9.) Bamboozled (2000)

One of two Spike Lee films on this list, Bamboozled is a scathing and confrontational look at the role African-American's play in their own exploitation in entertainment.






8.) Mississippi Burning (1988)

Mississippi Burning is, without a doubt, one of the most intense and well delivered studies of Civil Rights activism in the South during the 1960's







7.) Stand And Deliver (1988)


A staple of high school film viewings, Stand And Deliver is unique in its focus on Hispanic students and their struggles to obtain respect in the dismissive American education system.








6.) Jackie Brown (1997)

Pam Greer is sultry and seductive in this Tarantino masterpiece and her relationship with an aloof bondsman played brilliantly by Robert Forster provides for one hip commentary on race in America.








5.) American History X (1998)

American History X is easily the most abrasive film on this list and is a necessary viewing for anybody who is ignorant enough to believe racism no longer exists.








4.) Boyz In The Hood (1991)

This uncompromising urban drama welcomed America to a part of their country that they would like to have believed did not exist, and forever changed how individuals understood the world of minorities in underprivileged communities.








3.) Remember The Titans (2000)

This film is on the list simply because I have met nobody to date that dislikes this film.










2.) Do The Right Thing (1989)

No surprises here, my favorite film makes yet another of my top ten lists, this time for its astute observation on racial tensions in urban New York, particularly those between Italian-Americans and African- Americans.






1.) To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

While the defending of Tom Robinson only plays a minor part in this film, To Kill A Mockingbird is a film about teaching youth a correct and respectable lifestyle, one that includes defending the innocent, regardless of the color of their skin.










Honorable Mention

The Gentleman's Agreement (1947)
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)
Crash (2006)

We're Not Criminals, We Don't Know How To Steal: Tower Heist (2011)


Tower Heist upon its theatrical release was a film that had everything going against it, from Brett Ratner making an ass of himself when hired to produce the Oscars, to having a cast of actors who are no longer top level talent.  With that being said, Tower Heist is an incredibly enjoyable movie and often has the viewer surprised by the genius, innovation and sheer fun that exists in the relatively short movie.  It is not a brilliant movie deserving of large amounts of praise, nor is it a film that marks an advancement in heist films, but it is quite watchable and balanced in its comedic delivery.  It is precisely what a person would want out of a streamline Hollywood comedy, and to expect anything more out of this film going in would be foolish and illogical.  It offers nothing new to the film palate, but sometimes regular is exactly what a person needs, and Tower Heist is exceptional at being middle of the road. 


Tower Heist primarily focuses on Josh Kovac (Ben Stiller) a manager at an illustrious high-rise apartment known as The Tower.  Josh is a man who takes great pride in his job and concerns himself with the safety and comforts of his apartment’s residents which include the recently unemployed Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick) and the profusely rich owner of the apartment’s penthouse Arthur Shaw (Alan Alda).  While Josh is greatly concerned with the respectability of his job, his fellow employees display a less than zealous fervor for customer service.  These employees include Josh’s own mumbling and inept brother Charlie (Casey Affleck), the loud-mouthed West Indian apartment cleaner Odessa (Gabourey Sidibe) and a recently hired elevator repairman named Enrique (Michael Pena).  Despite their dysfunctions, the group works nicely together and please the residents, and all appears to be normal until Arthur Shaw is arrested in his penthouse.  Confused and uncertain of the reasoning Josh approaches the arresting FBI agent Claire (Tea Leoni) only to discover that Shaw has been arrested for large scale money laundering, which includes his and the rest of The Tower employees money.  At first skeptical, but quickly enraged by the act, Josh sets out to exact revenge upon Shaw by robbing him of the money, he believes to be kept somewhere in the penthouse apartment.  Unfortunately, before Josh can do so he is fired for damaging Shaw’s rather expensive replica of a car driven by Steve McQueen in a film.  This dismissal from his job leads to Josh recruiting the help of his brother Charlie and the unemployed Mr. Fitzhugh in the robbery, as well as the help of Slide (Eddie Murphy) and convict who is an expert in all things thievery.   Despite having differences of opinions, Slide agrees to help and the group sets out on a zany and slapstick heavy attempt at obtaining the money that is rightfully theirs.  I would go into detail about the robbery, but to do so would involve a severe amount of spoilers.  It is better to experience the twists in this movie, as they are indeed one of its biggest selling factors.


What I will do instead is focus on why I think this film has fared so well critically.  What separates Tower Heist from simply being a run of the mill heist movie, is the inherent racial and class issues present.  Often robbery movies involve wealthy thieves becoming wealthier, it is a rare occurrence in contemporary cinema that we get a revisioning of the classic Robin Hood narrative, in which wealth is stolen from the rich and given to the poor.  Yet even Tower Heist is different in that the film is about the rich stealing from the poor, and the poor deciding that they are fed up with the thief.  This film comes on the tail of some of the most expansive and outrageous bank frauds in American history as well as the fizzling of the much followed and discussed Occupy Wall Street movement, which shared the same condolences as the characters in this film.  Furthermore, this film also portrays a rather vast array of persons involved in the robbery.  Josh Kovacs is perhaps the most normal of the group, yet his privilege as a white male also means he possesses the most to lose if the robbery fails.  In contrast, characters like the poor uneducated Charlie or the silenced Hispanic Enrique gain the most from a successful robbery, an image that is often overlooked in heist movies.  Similarly, it is made quite evident that characters like Slide and Odessa are constantly at threat of white oppression, whether it be the ridiculous rules barring Odessa from becoming an American citizen or the heavy hand of the law the prevents Slide from acting in a civilized manner, as opposed to relying on theft.  Even the relatively well to do Mr. Fitzhugh is troubled by greed, as we are led to believe that he is one of the few bankers who was working without devious intentions.  I would simply like to contrast this film with The Town, which was about a group of white males engaging in robberies and simply posit that its popularity and critical praise is due most likely to its statement that the oppressed no longer care to take oppression sitting down.

I am wary about recommending this movie as anything but a theater movie.  I am uncertain how its enjoyability with transfer to home video, so if you get a chance your best bet is to see this film in theaters.

17.1.12

Experiments In Film: Rose Hobart (1936)

The soviet filmmakers, including Sergei Eisenstein, made it a goal of their to study how montages of imagery revolutionized the way viewers consumed cinema.  Often their imagery would rely solely on juxtaposition and how certain paired images caused unconscious relations in the human mind.  This style of filmmaking would go on to influence art house giants like Godard and Makvajev in countless ways.  However, on the precipice of this all stands the 1936 experimental masterpiece Rose Hobart, which is at its simplest form a re-cutting of the film East of Borneo and at its greatest form a carefully considered study of one woman's psyche as she deals with the predatory wild of both nature and the men around her.  However, to refer to this as simply being a new edit of a film would be to dismiss it as a revolutionary study in the affects of paired imagery not different than the goals of Eisenstein and other Soviet filmmakers.  What filmmaker Joseph Cornell manages to do in 19 minutes is completely revise a narrative to tell another story void of logic and familiarity, even though the film, in fact, pulls all its images from scenes that already existed within a familiar film.

Cornell's combination of b-roll footage, jump cuts on actress Rose Hobart and a blue tint over the film change a one film from a trite melodrama to a praiseworthy surrealist vision.  The seemingly arbitrary editing of the footage makes one think back to the early  works of Bunuel and Dali (who was one of the few fans of this work early on), as well as realize the influences the film had on later experiment filmmakers like Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage.  Similarly, Cornell's work can be called an early experiment in found footage, which would later become the stuff of viral filmmaking, as is evidenced by works sites like Everything Is Terrible, which gather bizarre film footage and edit to appear completely debasing.  Regardless, of what one refers to Rose Hobart as, it is quite certain that the film revolutionized editing and resulted in artistic filmmakers questioning their purpose and methodology.  Cornell's actions whether one considers them brilliant or fraudulent inevitably deserves his place in the halls of great experimental filmmakers for his unusual approach to a rather usual subject.

For more information on Joseph Cornell or to view the film click on either of the film stills below:

First We Find Her, And Then We Sleep: Renaissance (2006)

Bladerunner will forever be cemented in my memory as the perfect hybrid of science fiction and film noir and I have very little faith that a film will ever be released that could remotely rival Ridley Scott's masterpiece.  With that being said, a film occasionally comes along that makes me question my belief, because its artistic rendering and elaborate plot catches me long enough to think it will deliver a pitch perfect movie.  However, in ever case to date any movie I have watched thinking it will be the next Bladerunner has always let me down, sadly, this includes my recent viewing of the French animated neo-noir Renaissance.  The movie was excellent, watchable and artistically inspiring, yet by the end of the film, I was left feeling as though I had been cheated out of something extra.  Perhaps it missed Rutger Hauer holding a dove, or the general badass nature of Harrison Ford, but despite being a visual feast, Renaissance just is not the next Bladerunner.  The story line is more appropriate for an anime miniseries and the characters are simply not realized enough to cement it as either a noir or sci-fi masterpiece.  However, Renaissance is considerably better than a lot of the garbage that has been released in the past few years and as such, it deserves its fair share of praise.


Given that the film is primarily animated I will not bother noting the actors' names, but it is worth noting that Daniel Craig signed on to provide voices for the English release.  Renaissance begins with the kidnapping of a scientist named Ilona, whose name is closely attached with the Big Brotheresque corporation Avalon, which posits an ability to cure the ugly affects of aging.  This sudden and inexplicable kidnapping is followed by the introduction of Karas, a rough-edged cop with a dark past who rarely plays by the rules.  Karas makes it his sole mission to find Ilona's kidnapper, which includes approaching Avalon's CEO as well as a variety of other members of the Parisian underworld.  Unfortunately, these chases and encounters provide him with little success and he eventually approaches Ilona's sister Bislane about the whereabouts of her sister.  Realizing the grandiosity of the situation, Bislane agrees to help Karas break into Avalon's security to discover the nature of Ilona's work.  With some risk, Bislane discovers that her sister had been working on a project with one Dr. Nakata to discover a cure for aging.  Their testing was done in a rather unethical manner using a handful of children who eventually died, which led to a complete destruction of the test results.  This discovery leads Karas to reflect on his own past and he begins opening up to Bislane, while at the same time discovering that another individual involved with Avalon named Dr. Muller decided to hide the information about the tests from Avalon given his belief that the corporation would use the actions unethically.  It is then discovered Ilona has been placed in confinement with Dr. Muller's brother, who is stuck in the confines of a young child, despite having the appearances of an old man.  The young Muller has placed Ilona in a cyberchamber and is controlling her visual experiences, which range from the serene to the terrifying.  After doing investigative work, Karas finds the whereabouts of Ilona and Muller's brother and meets them in their hideout.  Karas, unfortunately, comes to the realization that the only way to assure that Avalon does not obtain Dr. Nakata's research is to kill Ilona.  With regret, Karas kills Ilona and realizes his newfound relationship with Bislane will be forever ruined by his decision.  The film then closes on an image of Muller's brother burning a picture of the brothers and he fades into the darkness of the underworld around him.


Renaissance is a very aware movie in its commentary on race relations in Paris, France.  While not as gritty, one could call this the animated answer to Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine, which was also shot in black and white.  Like, La Haine, Renaissance, realizes that the divisions of black and white are often problematic as most answers reside somewhere in the grey areas.  For Karras his own identity is muddled, as he finds himself performing his actions in a predominantly white world, when his past and own affiliations are inextricably tied to a Arabic underworld, as is evidenced first and foremost by his name and his own leanings toward Islam.  Similarly, it is on Karras's squad that we see one of the only black characters in the entire film and the character is a woman as well, a site for bell hooks to behold.  Finally, even the characters of Ilona and Bislane are relevant given that they are both blatantly of some Eastern European origins, most likely Russian.  Their scientific expertise is the larger factor in their placement in Paris, yet their research as implied by images shown is only assuring the safety of white Parisians, whether it be the Avalon CEO, or the very white face of Avalon billboards.  Even the head doctor of the project is not white, yet he is ruined because of the research that had little benefit to him.  The film does end with promise as everything merges into one color of darkness and the credits close with images of grey between the blacks and whites, which imply the possibility of a cohesive and beautiful mix of past racial divides.

I plan to keep a copy of this movie in my collection, solely for its place in the evolution of film noir.  However, any person interested in the evolution of CGI and technology in film should snag a copy of this film, because it is a visual masterpiece, and while I own a DVD copy, I plan to upgrade to bluray in the near future.

16.1.12

Odin Is A Hawk, He Soars Above Us: O (2001)

Tim Blake Nelson's unconventional adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello is a film about deceit and pride that is by no means the greatest film to come out in 2001.  What O is, however, is a fully realized film that sticks to its guns and delivers a fresh and focused adaptation that neither relies solely on its original plot nor strays so far away that it becomes ridiculous.  From the Outkast heavy soundtrack to the minimalist acting, O is what a director should aspire to make.  O is sound in its execution and makes the viewing enjoyable, despite being a rather abrasive film.  Perhaps the greatest factor of this film is that it takes an issue like race, which was important in Shakespeare's play and extends it to become the most relevant factor of the film, which expertly reflects its contemporary conditions, from the awkward sense of entitlement for white teenagers, to the delusional drive of a black basketball player being exploited for his athletic prowess.  In short, O is one of the freshest and most masterfully executed Shakespeare adaptations to date and is criminally under-appreciated for this sole reason.

The plot for those familiar with Othello, should be rather obvious, but given its twenty first century spin, I will explain the story anyways.  The film's title character, as in its original, is a respected black male named Odin (Mekhi Phifer), whose basketball abilities have gained him the respect of his peers and the teams coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen).  However, the film's central character is not Odin, but Duke's son Hugo (Josh Hartnett) who despises Odin for not only his athletic abilities, but the attention he receives from his father.  As a result, of his jealously, Hugo engages in an elaborate and furious plan to ruin Odin's life which includes causing him to become suspicious of his white girlfriend Desi (Julia Stiles).  Hugo tricks Odin into believing that Desi is engaging in infidelity with another basketball player named Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan).  Furthermore, in order to assure Michael's distance from the situation, Hugo causes a fellow student Roger Rodriguez (Elden Henson) to disdain Michael for his bullying behavior and his seemingly close relations with Desi.  In a spiral of deceit and confusion, Hugo gets Odin to kill Desi, while he attempts to get Roger to kill Michael.  When this portion of the plan fails, Hugo takes the act of killing Michael into his own hands, along with the killing of Roger who he deems a threat at this point.  However, despite his attempts to execute the plan, he is arrested and Odin ultimately kills himself realizing the errors of his recent murder and that his entire course of actions were the result of the jealous white people around him, a decisive end to a racially fueled film.


Aside from expert adaptation, O is an astute film in terms of racial commentary, particularly the exploitation of non-white individuals for the enjoyment of white individuals.  O does this both on a very blatant level and on a large scale throughout the entire narrative.  The exoticization of Odin as an athlete is constant in the film, whether it be the entire school gazing at him longingly as he plays basketball, or the continual reference of Odin as a prospect by college recruiters, which demean him as nothing more than an object for the exploitation of their own advancement.  This is rather necessary to the film plot, but the act of exploiting black athletes has become quite the point of contention in recent years as the NCAA continues to make large amounts of money off of their athletes which are predominantly black.  Secondly, the film focuses on exploitation of a black guy for the petty concerns of a white kid.  Hugo is clearly discontent with his life, as is evidenced by his continual drug use and, instead of simply facing up to his faults and confronting his father he attempts to increase his athletic skills through steroid use and by attempting to degrade Odin.  While not a perfect comparison it is likely that Nelson's concern in making this film was to show that these actions of jealously on the part of white persons toward those of color still occurred and while O is certainly a hyper-reality of such actions, the truth is that in America in the 21st century white people have blamed and exploited blacks for a lot larger things then getting praise as athletes.  O is not the greatest commentary on race in the United States, but it certainly does its share to continue the debate.

I cannot full out recommend purchasing this film as it will not be for everyone, but I would suggest renting it and watching it, because as noted earlier it is one of the best and most unconventional Shakespeare adaptations I have ever seen.

14.1.12

She Used Her Super-Intellect On Me. She's Like Hannibal Lecter: Saving Silverman (2001)

Many comedies stand the test of time for their timelessness or their cult like following, others are simply a signifier of a change in the way comedy films would be for the next few years.  Tragically, Saving Silverman is neither of those, it is simply a run of the mill comedy from the early 2000's that relies to heavily on toilet humor and gay jokes for its plot and fills narrative gaps with moments of absurdity so illogical that endearing does little to describe its situation.  Saving Silverman falls between the perfectly crafted college humor of American Pie and the witty quotable dialogue of Judd Apatow films, yet neither of these comedic forms appear in Saving Silverman, the film starts with promise and quickly and irreversibly falls apart.  In fact, if it were not for Dennis Dugan making Happy Gilmore I would completely dismiss his directorial abilities, because not only is this film uninspiring, he has Jack and Jill credited to his name, a flop of a film if ever one existed.

As noted the film starts off with promise, we are introduced to three lifetime friends the loyal Wayne (Steve Zahn) who has taken up profession as a exterminator, J.D. (Jack Black) a heavy set loudmouth who is constantly out of work and Darren Silverman (Jason Biggs) a loveable loser who has trouble finding respectable relationships in which he is not completely belittled.  The trio, along with being childhood friends, also share a passion for Neil Diamond and spend their free time in a cover band called Diamonds In The Rough.  All appears fine, if simple, in the friends lives, until Darren meets a girl named Judith (Amanda Peet).  Judith is stone cold and shows little concern for Darren, until she realizes she can use him as fodder to dodge the approaches of other.  This using of Darren quickly grows out of control and the film cuts to Darren and Judith six weeks later with Darren pathetically in love with Judith and her indifferent to his feelings.  Furthermore, J.D. and Wayne have lost their constant contact with Darren and Judith makes it a goal of hers to separate her boyfriend from his immature friends.  Confused and enraged J.D. and Wayne set out to breakup the couple and reunite Darren with his high school sweetheart  Sandy (Amanda Detmer), who is only days away from taking her vows at a nunnery.  Wayne and J.D. become so desperate to gain their friend back that they kidnap Judith and lock her in their garage.  The film then falls into absurdity as the Darren reunites with Sandy, Wayne and Judith become intimate and J.D. realizes his own suppressed homosexuality.  In the end, in a rather sloppy manner, all is resolved and the crew even meets Neil Diamond, who, undoubtedly phoned in his role as himself.  The film closes with the credits, which involves a group singing of Neil Diamond's Rain, which is arguably the best part of this film.


As I noted earlier, this film relies almost entirely on baudy jokes and raunchy imagery for its humor, which is problematic in its repetition.  I have come to realize in the past years of film viewing that a truly hilarious film combines multiple facets of humor that includes, but is not limited to puns, slapstick, post-modern humor, political jokes, cultural humor and even a dash of toilet humor.  I remember reviewing The Naked Gun last year and discussing its excellent use of slapstick, but I also realize now as I write this review that The Naked Gun also mastered other forms of humor as well.  It is a tragic sign as a writer, director and even actor when you have to debase a film to crude jokes for an hour and a half simply because the narrative is lacking.  In the rare occasions that a film is completely crude, like American Pie, it does so with such fervor and ridiculousness that it becomes a cult hit; again Saving Silverman fails to do this and simply uses gay jokes and nakedness as a means to an end.  With that said, I have no critical statement on this film and in fact find it almost entirely void of social relevance, except as an example of how not to do comedy.

So, I am sure it is apparent at this point that you should not bother to watch this film, unless you really care for comedy movies and even then I strongly discourage viewing this work.

13.1.12

Good Or Bad, It's All Playacting: Raise The Red Lantern (1991)


Stark is the best single word to describe Yimou Zhang’s 1991 masterpiece Raise The Red Lantern, which is a standalone work that channels the emotions and fall of a lone character so expertly that it manages to make a perfect, yet poetically heartwrenching film.  Raise The Red Lantern is art house world cinema at its highest form and helped to launch the onslaught of Chinese foreign films to the United States, which snagged not only Academy Awards, but the fascination of countless moviegoers as well.  Furthermore, Raise The Red Lantern does what few films did in 1991, it focuses solely on the experience of a female character and shies away from sugar coating the absolutely abysmal existence one Chinese woman faced in 1920.  From the color palate to the sparse dialogue this is a visionary work that stands on the shoulders of its predecessors in Asian cinema as well as a film that irreversibly changed dramatic filmmaking on a global scale.  A film like Raise The Red Lantern is precisely what one would use to argue for the artistic value of cinema.

As noted, the film focues on a female characters experiences in 1920’s China.  In the opening shot we are introduced to Songlian (Li Gong) as she is being told by her stepmother off-screen that she must find a husband.  In disdain she agrees to become a concubine for the wealthy unnamed Master (Jingwu Ma).  This follows with the film being set up into chapters based on each of the seasons of the year.  In the opening chapter Summer, Songlian realizes that she is to be the fourth mistress to the Master.  The First Mistress Yuru (Shuyuan Jin), whose old age has made her undesirable to the Master, thus leading to her sequestering her time on arbitrary activities away from the other wives.  The Second Mistress Zhuoyan (Cuifen Cao) provides the appearances of a caring and loving sister to Songlian, although as the film progresses we come to realize that she is perhaps the most spiteful of all the wives living in the palace.  Finally, there is the Third Mistress Meishan (Saifei He) a former opera singer who sees her time as The Master’s favorite wife as fleeting and spends an early portion of the film antagonizing Songlian.  However, as the film progresses it is made apparent that Meishan is simply disillusioned with her life in the palace and only acts out to assure her safety in the future.  Songlian is assisted by the rebellious and spiteful servant Ya’ner (Lin Kong), who due to her own relations with The Master treats Songlian with very little respect.  This stacked jealousy and layered deceit leads to a film about betrayal, self-protection and multiple narratives that are all consuming and narrated to perfection.  To elaborate more on the filmic story would be to cloud its viewability.  The film evolves from being a distanced and stark film to something very intimate as the guise of tradition falls apart.  It is about as experiential as a narrative film can get, and no amount of elaboration on the plot can do the film justice.

The masterful nature of the film is only second to the fact that it is a film about a woman’s experience in early 20th century China.  Films like these are few and far between so when they are made it is worth noting.  Unfortunately, many of the films focusing on women as main characters can fall flat and are frankly unwatchable, so when I come across a film like Raise The Red Lantern I am instantly elated.  The biggest factor about this film is that it passes the Bechdel Test.  In order to pass this test, a film has to do the following: It must have a least two women in it, these women must talk to each other, and their conversation must not be about a man.  While a large amount of the women’s conversations to revolve around their Master, many conversations do occur about other topics.  These topics include Songlian’s time at university, Meishan’s music and the general state of affairs in the palace, which they all agree are rather abysmal.  While this little test seems rather arbitrary and easy to pass, it is quite surprising how few films pass this test even in contemporary filmmaking.  For example, the multiple part, world-renowned sci-fi series Star Wars fails these parameters.  Therefore, when I say that it is a big deal that the film passes this test, I mean it, because it rarely happens.  So besides being an absolutely mesmerizing film it is also on the side of feminist discourse in its portrayals of the illogical structures of patriarchal traditions, as well as in its production which allows women actors and their characters a chance in the spotlight.  This importance of the women in the film is only greatened by the fact that The Master is rarely shown, and when he is shown it is never a full image of his face.

Raise The Red Lantern is a must watch film, and well worth the praises it has garnered over the years.  I think bluray is understood when it comes to obtaining a copy of this film, but at the moment no such option exists, which means a DVD will have to suffice.