Above All, I Am A Man: The Master (2012)

I am sure at some point on this blog I have confessed my love for Paul Thomas Anderson as a director, citing his work There Will Be Blood, as one of my all time favorite films, number 25 to be exact (As my top 100 stands).  I went into The Master knowing that I would in all likelihood enjoy the film.  I did not expect to be enamored with the film though, I am not entirely ready to place it above There Will Be Blood, but I am quite sure it will be one of my favorite films of this year and perhaps of the decade...it is still too early to tell of course.  The Master, like most of Anderson's work, benefits from being projected over the big screen, considering the inherent cinematic nature of his works.  The Master is by no means his most straightforward film and certainly manages to be non-linear in ways similar to Magnolia.  The acting is, as always on point, with brilliant performances by both Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, as well as a surprisingly well-executed performance by Amy Adams.  A thematic films of sorts, The Master is inundated with psychoanalysis, theological and existential commentaries that jam together into a film that builds its intensity ever so slowly and gracefully, and while many of the conversations post-film complained about it being to long, I would say that The Master is the perfect length and subsequently is a rare thing in being a perfect film.

The Master, while non-traditional in its narrative leanings, certainly has a main character in Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) a down and out veteran who drunkenly moves between jobs ranging from a department store photographer to a migrant farmer, always leaving jobs as a result of his alcohol induced spurts of rage or severe issues of miscommunication between himself and whoever he is with at the moment.  It is clear that Freddie desires very specific things, an explanation to why exactly he is on Earth and to get laid, two things that are constantly in battle with one another.  During one particular night of drunken meandering, Freddie finds his way onto a ship only to awake to an inquisitive crew, captained by one Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) a regal man, who is an intellectual well-knwon for his philosophically inclined self-help books.  Taking an unusual liking to Freddie, partially out of curiosity, as well as his skill at making strong libations, Lancaster welcomes Freddie into his life, much to the concern of Lancaster's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and other members of his extended family.  As Lancaster invests in Freddie it becomes clear that the young veteran's anger is a point of contention, particularly when Freddie attacks people who question Lancaster directly.  Throughout the remainder of the film Freddie and Lancaster are at odds, as Freddie seeks meaning to his life, while Lancaster constantly makes the wide-eyed alcoholic a guinea pig to absurd experiments.  Ultimately, the two severe ties and Freddie heads away to travel about England, eventually meeting a girl at a bar.  The film closes with him engaging in intercourse, before returning to a vision of him laying next to a nude woman made of sand, suggesting the fulfillment of at least one of his desires in life.

While I am not theoretically inclined enough to really dig into the various criticism possible with such a complex film as The Master, I was quite drawn to Freddie as a character with severe maternal issues.  A few passing references are made to Freddie having a problematic family relationship, perhaps one void of a paternal figure and it is further suggested that his mental state is severely affected by this problem.  As such, Freddie displaces his longing by a constant quest to bed women, ranging from a model at a department store to Lancaster's wife, often having disturbing day dream of every woman in a room being nude, regardless of age or attractiveness.  Freddie also seems to have a strong attachment to Lancaster because of his nurturing nature, while it would be appropriate to analyze Lancaster as a father figure his sweet actions towards Freddie suggest otherwise, especially in the two's closing scene involving a singing scene, very reminiscent of a maternal lullaby to a young child, although this one is far more tragic and certainly more dark.  In the end, one could say that Freddie fulfills his maternal quest with his moment of intercourse, which is not accidentally with a larger woman with clearly motherly features.  Yet the film closes with Freddie laying next to an over-sexualized woman, a possible claim that Freddie has not grown in the slightest and may, in fact, have regressed considerably.

Key Scene:  It involves Amy Adams and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in front of a mirror, trust me it is intense.

This is just now making its theatrical run and is certainly to be seen in a big screen setting, but I will warn you, ignore the stupid people and their ungrounded comments about the films complexity.  They are the same idiots who did not like Tree of Life, simply because it did not have a linear narrative.


There Is No Point. That's The Point: We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Anxiety manifests itself in some unusual ways when one considers films.  In some cases it can be quite overdone and seem ridiculous, as is the case with Requiem for a Dream, in other instances it can be minimalist and almost become a character within the film, as occurs in The Following and on other occasions it can so perfectly serve the plot that it makes the film a class, check out many a Hitchcock film for an example of this.  However, in Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin, anxiety envelopes the film in such a manner that one becomes almost nauseous, and at the very least exhausted, after watching the film.  Of course, it could sound as though I am reflecting negatively on the film for this, yet that is not the case.  A challenging and draining movie is to be respected, similar to the works of Von Trier or Passolini, We Need To Talk About Kevin is beautiful in its abjectness and exists as either the most unassuming horror film of all time or the darkest comedy ever created.  Needless to say, it is clear why this film fell to the wayside last year, considering that it deals with incredibly provocative  issues and is unapologetic and nonredemptive in the manner it portrays them, particularly the relationship between a mother and son that is troubled, literally from conception.  A brilliant set of performances from Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller, along with some grating and confrontation imagery amounts to what is probably the greatest pro-choice film ever composed.  The concept of loathing burns of the screen as viewers consume, at times involuntarily, the world falling apart before their eyes.

It is clear that We Need To Talk About Kevin begins in media res, however, the events happening and those that have already occurred are less clearly defined.  We can tell that a woman named Eva (Tilda Swinton) is existing in pill-induced, alcohol consuming post-marriage life, as a result of what appears to be her son Kevin's (Ezra Miller) act, which appears to have been some sort of high school shooting.  Taking this moment in her distraught life, where she has now taken up employment at a travel agency, is juxtaposed quite jarringly with her past, one in which she was married to Franklin (John C. Reilly) after the birth of Kevin.  It is clear from the onset that things will be troublesome between Eva and Kevin, as even during his toddler years Kevin acts out against Eva, specifically harming her body and desires when nobody is around, only to act completely innocent when Franklin is around.  As Kevin grows older, his and Eva's relationship splinters more and more, eventually to the point where, in what might be jealously, Kevin leaves a cleaning chemical out to cause his younger sister to burn her eye.  Eva, despite her disdain, attempts to formulate some degree of a relationship with Kevin who continually belittles her every instance in which she may find success.  After all but giving up, Eva makes one last suggestion about going on a trip, which Kevin dances around committing to, only to go about killing the next day.  Throughout the film Eva constantly meets with Kevin in a juvenile prison where he demeans and dismisses her, up until the films closing scene in which Eva visits Kevin prior to his transfer to an adult prison and it is at this moment that Kevin admits for the first time to being lost, which results in a hug of comfort from Eva, perhaps the first genuine moment of bonding between the two throughout the whole film's narrative.

I only half-heartedly meant the bit about it being a wholly pro-choice movie, an analysis of that would be foolish and ungrounded.  Instead, I would like to consider this film as a perfect example of how one should depict and philosophically approach violence and its acts in film.  At no point does this film glorify or justify Kevin's actions, yet at the same time it does not condemn them.  It clearly draws a line of points which could elucidate particularly why Kevin acts out, yet it also helps to explain Eva's innocence in the situation, a claim that parents victims seem to disagree with adamantly, as happens up her being hit randomly by a woman in the street.  In fact, one could make the argument that Ramsay's film draws greater concern to the family structure of contemporary America as a place of latent violence.  The silences and back room dealings that happen within even the seemingly happiest and well-to-do families only lays in wait for something tragic.  Life, according to the world of We Need To Talk About Kevin, is usually shitty and there is no explanation as to why, yet it is pointless to dwell on the past no matter how dismal the present may be, simply put, there is no going back to a time before.  As Eva's constant scrubbing of red off her porch suggests, some stains cannot be removed, as such, you must accept getting use to their presence.

Key Scene: Tilda, Shopping Cart, Christmas Music, Eggs.

This is with little doubt one of the hidden gems of 2011, along side House of Pleasures and Take Shelter, it is deserved of acknowledgement when one reconsiders the best films of last year.  Rent it and see what I mean.


Dangling From A Clock For One's Life: Safety Last (1923)

When it comes to silent film actors/directors/and whatever other hat one had to put on, I am stand in the corner of Buster Keaton, although I am also completely aware of the cinematic magic that is Charlie Chaplin.  However, I had up until about a week ago never seen a Harold Lloyd film, but had always remembered seeing clips of him dangling from a clock on shows when I was younger.  Fortunately, I had the opportunity to attend a screening quite similar to the one I blogged about last year, concerning Flesh and the Devil, in which a live organ accompaniment occurred whilst screening the film.  When I heard that this years would be Safety Last, I made sure I was in town to attend the film and the decision was certainly for the best.  While the overall construction of the film does not rival that of Buster Keaton, it is clear that Harold Lloyd takes the prize for the most dynamic and dangerous stunts, even if many of the tense moments are aided by some excellent cinematic illusions.  Furthermore, I have never, and I mean this sincerely, seen a crowd engage with a film with such liveliness and excitement as the mostly elderly viewers of this center piece of silent comedy.  It is not a particularly complex film, but it does possess the sparkle and magic of everything one expects when they talk about the magic of cinema, each of Lloyd's jokes and stunts top the previous one, so much so that one finds themselves exhausted at the films close, however, this worn out demeanor is more than welcomed as it is certainly an engaging film, made more so by the addition of live music and an ecstatic audience.

Safety Last, follows a young man, named, as should be no surprise, Harold Lloyd, as he leaves for the big city to make a name for himself and succeed financially.  He leaves behind his girlfriend, played rather wide-eyed by Mildred Davis, promising to propose to her once he has obtained financial grounding.  Renting an appartment with his Pal (Bill Strother) the two pursue the tough road to economic success, Harold working in a department store, while Pal appears to do factory work.  It becomes clear that Harold's job is not providing him with financial stability, especially considering that much of his money is spent on rent, however, through some pawning and slyly worded letters, Harold makes his girlfriend believe that he is quite successful in the city and desires to marry her in the very near future.  Taking this as a sign of his great successes Harold's girlfriend travels to the city to meet him and plan their marriage.  When Harold makes this discover, literally as she enters his place of employment, he begins putting on the facade that he is indeed doing extremely well and, in fact, manages the entire department store, something his girlfriend comes to believe true do to a series of lucky encounters and well-delivered stretches of the truth.  When the department store seeks a means to attract customers, Harold volunteers Pal to scale the building in a feat of strength and athleticism for a large sum of money to be split between the two, an amount that will allow Harold to truly get on his feet and marry his love.  However, when the day of the spectacle emerges it becomes evident that Pal is under surveillance by a diligent cop who prevents him from climbing the building, thus requiring Harold to take his place, for what he assumes to be only a few floors.  Yet through a series of follies and mishaps it is Harold who climbs the entire length of the building thus earning the money for himself, as well as winning over his girlfriend in new ways.  Harold has succeeded in the city, all be it, by some rather unusual means.

It is easy to dismiss a film like Safety Last as being purely spectacle, or as a series of daring stunts loosely connected by narrative elements.  To do so would, however, be an incredibly ignorant reading of a keen film, about self-advancement and the pursuing of the American Dream.  Sure the film has some rather problematic elements of racism and gender issues, but it was made in 1923, one must accept cultural issues differently before approaching the films themes.  With all this in mind, the film clearly critiques the trouble of making oneself successful with the burdens of capitalist structures, particularly the renting of property and the interferences of private property into one's ability to succeed.     Furthermore, the film clearly delineates between the bourgeois and the proletariat in the zany and roaringly hilarious fabric sale scene.  This all culminates into a visual metaphor of a man's climb to the top of success, this lengthy climax covers a large portion of the film and is certainly met with challenges, whether they be those of law, or those of absurdity, it is not simple for Harold to reach the top and it certainly requires an amount of aid and an even larger amount of luck.  Yet, as the film suggest, one can succeed in this climb, by of course trying not to look down, and if one does accidentally do so they should pursue their goals in a frantic and possessed manner, or in another sense destroy their preoccupation with time, because it will,  in this film very literally, slow you down.

Key Scene:  It should be no surprise that the climbing of the building takes precedence here.

Unfortunately, many of Harold Lloyd's films have been relegated to secondary thoughts on collections of silent slapstick, and Safety Last is certainly no exception.  One can hope for a bluray upgrade in the future, but until then renting one of the many DVD's containing his works will have to suffice.


May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favor: The Hunger Games (2012)

I have been quite adamant in my loathing of The Hunger Games as a rip-off of Battle Royale, which in its own right borrowed quite heavily from Lord of the Flies, and while I was not upset that the film and book got hype, I was dismissive of how many people praised it for its originality, something, narratively speaking, it did not possess.  As such I avoided viewing this film for quite some time because I felt as though I would be selling out to one of my favorite novels and films in Battle Royale, as well as feeding into media hype about a film that I would more than likely hate.  However, I by some accident saw the trailer on television and was instantly drawn into the cinescape created by Gary Ross and knew that it would linger in my mind until viewing the film.  Unable to convince my friends to join in the viewing of a film that they too had dismissed, I grabbed a bluray copy from a drugstore nearby and popped the popular movie in for viewing.  I enjoyed The Hunger Games very much, it is certainly a rip-off thematically of works like Battle Royale and Lord of the Flies, but not it is clearly not with the means to exploit it for profits, and while I can only speak for the film, I felt as thought it was a realized distopian film with excellent cinematography, decent enough acting and enough fresh approaches to the  kill-or-be-killed narrative to make the two plus hour film worth my time and, more importantly, worth convincing others to watch.  The Hunger Games will likely be forgotten in the throes of big budget Hollywood in the next five or so years, but that does not mean we should ignore its current successes, as it stands right now, The Hunger Games is a great offering from the blockbuster system and as far as those are concerned it is one of the better films of the year.

The Hunger Games, for the two and a half people who do not know, follows a society in the grips of poverty and famine that choose to sacrifice two youth from each of their districts to fight to the death, the last one standing is promised wealth beyond comprehension.  Of course, the districts with larger populations and a decent means can train their youth to compete, while others are chosen by random drawing, often to their dismay.  In the case of the specific Hunger Games shown in the film one Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers as tribute for the Hunger Games in order to assure that her younger sister will not be subject to the cruel engagement.  Along with another village boy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) they represent their district in the games.  The two are whisked off to training at the Capital, which is grueling and affords them an opportunity to see how truly corrupt the society they live within has become, particularly in the disparity between people of various districts and their wealth.  Realizing this rather quickly, Katniss makes it a point to contradict the influence of wealth and stick to her own ways, making the initial hours of the actual games incredibly grueling.  As Katniss competes against others trying to kill her and various natural obstacles, she learns self-reliance and to trust people who do right by her, ultimately surviving the bout till it is only her and Peeta left.  Agreeing to commit suicide, as opposed to killing one another, a committee declares them joint winners of the games, in order, to not cause more despair amongst those viewing the games.  Katniss and Peeta return as victors, much the the anger of the committee and the film closes with the President of the districts contemplating the situation, after all this is a trilogy.

So I should probably confront the race issue in the film.  Having done a bit of research for this specific blog I have come to realize that in the novel the characters were clearly of darker skin than those in the film, proving problematic when you consider that white characters cover much of the main cast.  It also helps to elucidate the scenes of bonding between Katniss and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) who claims to have a connection to her, which when we know that Katniss is supposed to be darker, makes much more sense.  This is not my criticism per se, but just something to keep in mind when watching the film.  I myself, am drawn to the ways in which the adaptation completely dismisses the quality of any political structure in this particular distopian vision.  Neither right nor left wing politics have proved useful in this vision of the future, and libertarian notions are shot out the window when we consider that the actual games reaffirm that if humans are left to their devices that they will prove Darwin right every time.  I cannot say for sure what the political rhetoric that emerges would be from such a film, put I know that in its wake gender roles would be subverted, racial tensions would be broken and the idea of self-sacrifice for others would be glorified, at least this appears to be what Katniss' actions suggest and the President's discomfort reflect in the films closing.  The various social commentaries emergent within this film are many and each could be drawn on for hours.  Ideally, this should be a film introduced to burgeoning film studies students, as it offers a wide range of critiques that combine cinematic and theoretical language perfectly.

Key Scene: The poison/drug trip is well...trippy

I know I said that I rented this film, but I plan to get a bluray copy soon, it was much to my surprise quite good and well worth owning.


It Takes Two To Love, As It Takes Two To Hate: The Last Metro (1980)

If I have been consistent in my concern for Godard's flailing ability as a director as he moved into a post  60's era of filmmaking, I can say with some certainty that I have no concern whatsoever about the abilities and masterpieces produced by Francois Truffaut both during the French New Wave and well after his rather unconventional role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  As my previous reviews of Jules Et Jim and The 400 Blows, have shown, I thoroughly enjoy the work of Truffaut and my well established love for Shoot The Piano Player and Small Change make him one of my most well favored of French filmmakers.  Slap Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu into the picture and things could not be better, one could call The Last Metro Truffaut's answer to Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den or a reflection of how Resistance fighters shaped the landscape of World War II Parisian life, however, I would be hard pressed to find a person who would flatly dismiss this film as anything less than perfect. What I have come to understand and love about Truffaut is that he often fabricates a complex, often organic narrative that seems traditional in every sense of the word, only to completely pull the plug out at the last moment, resulting in cinematic disarray that leaves viewers perplexed and ponderous, without ever losing the cool hip French stylings of the other face of the French New Wave.

The Last Metro centers on the experiences of a theater attempting to stay afloat with the constant oppressive gaze of Nazi's present in occupied France.  The current manager of the theater is Marion Steiner (Catherine Deneuve), who despite predominately being an actress, has undertook the role of manager in the disappearance of her husband at the first signs of Jewish persecution.  Entering into the picture, as well, is a young, well-regarded actor named Bernard Granger (Gerard Depardieu) who also finds himself at odds as a result of the war torn world of Paris.  Together they engage in a play, delivering performances to accepting crowds under the direction of the man who replaced Marion's husband, his former assistant Jean-Loup Cottins (Jean Poiret).  However, to the ignorance of the Nazi's present, as well as Bernard himself, Marion's husband Lucas (Heinz Bennett) has actually been providing directors notes to both Marion and Jean-Loup thus allowing him to continue directing pro-Jewish films literally right under the noses of the Nazi occupiers.  However, a set of Nazi intellectuals become suspicious and begin to do what they can to shut down the theater, a task they eventually succeed in doing, however, their actions are just a bit too late, as France is freed by allied forces and Lucas is allowed to leave hiding.  Unfortunately for him, Marion and Bernard had entered into an intimate affair while he was away something that clouds the closing portions of the film, an ending that is particularly meta in its narrative, as Truffaut pulls away the camera to review the stage and the actors occupying said stage as to suggests that everything is, after all, one big performance.

This notion of performance, and theatricality in particular, influence and construct the ebb and flow of The Last Metro.  The opening shots and interactions within the film suggest the relatively cramped spaces of theater stages as they relate to film sets and cinema in general.  Characters often engage with one another as though an audience is involved, facing out towards the camera, this is most obvious when we are initially introduced to the character of Bernard, all of which is furthered by the clear commentary added by the narrative being almost completely existent within the aforementioned theater.  The possibilities for Truffaut's choice to focus on the performative are likely endless, but I find two notions to his actions of note.  The first is the clear juxtaposition with the performance elements of Nazi soldiers and their entire political movement for that matter.  Truffaut is careful to paint the picture of a few soldiers within the Nazi lines as being good, but simply stuck in a system that forced them into uniform, leading to an inevitable performance, one that is rewarded when done properly.  Furthermore, it could be a cinematic and philosophic reflection on how we as individuals perform our currently assigned social roles, whether they be clear delineators like male/female or more abstract notions like captor/captive, Truffaut clearly means to analyze what goes into each performance and to what degree these performances are hiding, especially when this hiding could prove extremely fatal if found out at any moment.  It is an enigmatic film, but in classic Truffaut fashion, the story is so good you find yourself easily forgetting its necessity.

Key Scene:  The meeting of Bernard and Lucas is short, quick and awkward, but without a doubt the most important interaction in the film overall and a great moment of connection between two actors.  If you are reading this just as it goes up, Criterion is having a flash sale on all its DVD's and Blurays, one of which is The Last Metro, there is really no excuse not to own a copy.


Everybody Loses The Thing That Made Them: Beasts Of The Southern Wild (2012)

If this spectacular indie film is any evidence as to how the rest of 2012 will shape up in regards to film, I am ecstatic.  Easily the best film I have seen this year, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an emotive ride through a rather unconventional world, complete with moments of genuine sweetness and biting reality.    At no point in this film do you feel as though you are losing out on quality and, if anything you feel as though the movie ends far too soon.  Relying heavily on handheld cinematography and gritty imagery, this is a cinematic pseudo-anthropological study of persons residing in a world that has literally been taken off the map.  Vehemently opposed to traditions of filmmaking, Benh Zeitlin creates a world that is inhabited by those often deemed voiceless or inconsequential in film narratives.  Each character is in someway a victim of a societal oppression, whether it be gender, class, race or most importantly place of residence.  Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film about humanity in the grandest of terms that plays out with poetic magnitude and pertinent social commentary.  Furthermore, and perhaps most astonishing is the films focus on a child actor, often a risk, Zeitlin's directing and the films sincere quality help make a tricky method explode brilliantly off the screen.

The story of Beasts of the Southern Wild is the story of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) a young girl who lives in a flooded portion of Mississippi with the eponymous name of  The Bath.  She lives in an incredibly rural world, ruled by bartering and communal help, having only the guidance of her temper-fueled father Wink (Dwight Henry) and the random advice of her school teacher Miss Bathsheba (Gina Montana).  Told through Hushpuppy's point of view, we are shown a young woman struggling with a detachment from her mother at a very young age and a father who is slowly falling apart as a result of heart disease.  These very real problems are paralleled with Hushpuppy's visions of beasts from days of yore rising from the melting snow caps to come prey upon her and her insecurities, something she says they can sense from miles away.  While the films begins in a light-hearted manner, the realities of living off the grid begin to interfere, as Hushpuppy and her community become the point of forced intervention by health outreach programs who see their lifestyle as not only primitive, but dangerous, particularly their living in a world that is constantly threatened by flooding.  Eventually being evicted by government agents, Hushpuppy has a taste of the "civilized" world something that bothers her to such a degree that she sets out to find her mother.  After swimming a great distance she ends up in a floating dance hall/brothel where a woman who very much matches the descriptions of her father's memories.  Sharing fried gator with her she attempts to make her realize she is her daughter, however, the woman leaves without acknowledging this fact, resulting in Hushpuppy returning to the island, with the food in tow, just in time to give it to her father before he dies, resulting in one of the films most heart-wrenching scenes.  The film closes with Hushpuppy spouting words of affirmation to her life up to this point, as she leads the residents of The Bath on a march down the road, in what we as viewers can assume is their dire future, however, no fear exists on the face of this girl who has grown years in the matter of a few days.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is perhaps the most well-executed film bildungsroman since The 400 Blows, particularly in that it manages to transcend the traditional formative youth experiences in favor of something far grander philosophically speaking.  Of course, Hushpuppy does go through the traditional formative moments, whether they be forced acknowledgement of her gender, or the inevitable realization of death and these are necessary to such a narrative.  However, I would posit that the experiences in this film are far more complex and reflective than most films about children, excluding the previously mentioned Truffaut film of course.  I mean to say that Hushpuppy has a few moments of internal reflection that would cause the Buddha to be proud, most notably her acknowledgement that she is a small puzzle piece in a big puzzle, something that is simply explained but difficulty realized.  Furthermore, she comes into contact with her power as an individual when spiteful, in one scene she strikes her father in the chest out of frustration, causing his heart problems to reemerge.  She realizes in this moment that her anger out outlashes can have very serious consequences.  Furthermore, she encounters her mother, or someone similar, an experience which causes her to reflect on the value placed on a woman who, ultimately, left her alone.  This realization inspires courage and self-determination within Hushpuppy, something that allows her to stand face-to-face with the beasts that she so greatly feared, affirming her role as a leader to future generations.

Key Scene:  The movie has far to many great moments to simply pick one.

This movie is emotive and realized.  Under no circumstance should you miss checking this out whether it be in theaters or on bluray it is to be viewed immediately.


It's Still Just Once A Year Isn't It?: Groundhog Day (1993)

Defining Bill Murray as an actor can prove to be an incredibly difficult thing, as his performances range from the incredibly absurd in something like Coffee and Cigarettes to disturbingly dreary and honest like in Lost in Translation, however, it seems agreed upon that his best performance exists within Groundhog Day.  I must admit when I would read this it baffled me because having only now revisited the film for the first time since childhood, I seemed to remembered it being a highly comedic film with no social value.  However, this revisitation afforded me the ability to see how contemplative Groundhog Day is, as well as providing a clear argument as to why Bill Murray's best performance does indeed exist within this film.  The range of emotions played out throughout the films plot and Murray's ability to offer a keen and focused performance is truly a spectacle to behold.  Sure the film is endearingly stuck in the nineties and much of the humor is formulaic, but Groundhog Day has enough unusual moments, sweet encounters and a honest questions about how one would spend their days were they to repeat them.  This combination, along with the watchability of Groundhog Day helps to explain why it has cemented itself as a cult classic and as one of the best films of the nineties, so much so that it was chosen as one of the films to be saved by the National Film Archive.

Defining Bill Murray as an actor can prove to be an incredibly difficult thing, as his performances range from the incredibly absurd in something like Coffee and Cigarettes to disturbingly dreary and honest like in Lost in Translation, however, it seems agreed upon that his best performance exists within Groundhog Day.  I must admit when I would read this it baffled me because having only now revisited the film for the first time since childhood, I seemed to remembered it being a highly comedic film with no social value.  However, this revisitation afforded me the ability to see how contemplative Groundhog Day is, as well as provi....err, wait a second.

Groundhog Day follows disillusioned reporter Phil (Bill Murray) who is begrudgingly taking up his fourth trip to report on the famous Punxsutawney groundhog known for his predilections for weather reporting.  Along with Phil are his two co-workers who see Phil as a blowhard with serious delusions of grandeur, his cameraman Larry (Christopher Elliot) and his producer Rita (Andie McDowell) whom Phil finds attractive.  Awaking with much disinterest in performing his role as reporter, Phil goes through the motions as he drinks coffee, runs into a high school alumni and reads his lines as though it were just another day.  However, a severe blizzard traps Phil and his crew in Punxsutawney for the night.  This is when things begin to get weird, as Phil wakes up to realize that he is living the same day over and over again, stuck in a seemingly infinite loop, in what is to him the worst town on earth.  At first Phil reacts by enjoying excesses, once he realizes that even if he kills himself, he will still wake up at six each morning to the tunes of Sonny and Cher.  Eventually, Phil makes it a goal to win over Rita an effort that proves nearly successful, but not, perfect, particularly considering that any efforts he may make will be thwarted by having to start over the next day.  Phil, ultimately, realizes that he must act out positively in order to make Rita take notice, something that is made exceptionally easy by the fact that he has each moment and action down to a science.  His final winning over of Rita proves to be the means to break his curse, something he is careful to accept, but embraces warmly upon verification.

It is easy to see Groundhog Day as a run of the mill Bill Murray comedy, in which he rambles with near absurdity as the characters around him attempt to play the straight man to his funny.  However, there is clearly a philosophical pondering that exists on the layer below the comedic narrative.  For Phil each day becomes an ethical dilemma in that he is essentially engaging in actions that have no moral consequence.  It is perfectly valid that he drive head on into trains, smoke and consume like a glutton or go to bed with a variety of women, because the fact is that he will wake up to live the next day, as though nothing ever happened.  What becomes interesting is when he chooses to make positive actions, because they will go unacknowledged, particularly considering that Phil goes out of his way to learn and exact his help in a meaningful manner.  It truly ponder the age old question of: if you do a good act in the woods, will anybody be there to acknowledge it being done.  Of course the answer is no, but one should do it, nonetheless, because on some metaphysical karmic level it will be returned.  Finally, the film also posits the ethical issues of exploiting individuals with whom you have an intellectual and experiential advantage over, particularly for one's own devices.  Phil exploits his knowledge of the day to sleep with women and steal from banks, however, the narrative suggests that such actions will lead to disillusionment and despair, condemning them in the end.  I am sure there are other lays to Phil and his philosophy, but I am not versed on the matter enough to expand further.

Key Scene: The initial winning over of Rita on Phil's part is quite sweet.

As a classic American comedy, Groundhog Day is a must-watch movie and it is currently watch instantly on Netflix giving you no reason to miss the opportunity.


Free Your Mind, And Your Ass Will Follow: Platoon (1986)

Over the years Oliver Stone has sort of gained a reputation as being an abrasive director who often loses sight of making a good film due to his penchant for making politically scathing commentaries within his work.  Fortunately, on a few occasions Stone manages to keep the criticism focused enough to create a spectacular work, this is the case with Wall Street and is certainly the case with Platoon.  In the same vein as war movies like Saving Private Ryan and Thin Red Line, Platoon is loaded with a veritable who's who of emerging Hollywood actors, and a few veterans colliding together in brilliantly stacked performances, ranging from a smile-wielding Forrest Whitaker to a soft-spoken, yet suave Johnny Depp.  A film with a frenzied pace and incoherent editing structure, Platoon depicts a film about war as though the viewer is actually amidst the action, perhaps due to the fact that Stone himself was a Vietnam veteran, helping to explain the vehement and focused rage of his films.  At no point in the film does the narrative fall stale and having known the plot to this film well before its viewing, I found myself nonetheless blown away by its cinematic presence and general enjoyability.  Trying at times and poetic at others, the mix of cinema verite and exploitative grandiosity comprises what could well be one of the best war films I have ever seen, if it were not for the existence of Stanley Kubrick.  Platoon is an American classic and deservedly so, it like Citizen Kane or Easy Rider has a very real place in the historical landscape of American cinema and society.

Platoon introduces us to the hellish experiences of one enlisted soldier named Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), who has done the unthinkable and actually volunteered for service.  Along side a gang of lively soldiers, Taylor experiences the emotional and physical drains of war.  This includes amongst other individuals King (Keith David) a wise-cracking African-American man on the lookout for a means to leave the jungle, Sergeant O'Neill (John C. McGinley) who strives to gain promotions within his squadron despite being overlooked multiple times, as well as the less than authoritative Lieutenant Wolfe (Mark Moses) who is clearly scared by the entire Vietnam ordeal.  However, much of Taylor's war experiences are contentiously battled between two sergeants, one the hippy, hash smoking Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe) who clearly tries to befriend those around him and wants nothing more than to leave and Sergeant Barnes (Tom Beringer) who is ruthless and maniacal, seeing the war as a means to purge the earth of lesser beings.  Constantly confronting one another over the "soul" of Taylor, Barnes and Elias become incredibly confrontational to the point that Barnes kills Elias in cold blood during  a shootout, ultimately, leading to the squadron being disbanded.  After a short rest, Taylor is sent back out to war and, after yet another skirmish, finds himself with an opportunity to exact revenge for Elias and act he quickly undertakes, killing Barnes.  Ultimately, the film reminds us that war often pits allies against one another, leaving the enemy secondary, at least this is how Oliver Stone remembers Vietnam.

I could go into detail about how Platoon focuses on the intensity and sporadic nature of war, or I could talk about the racial vision of Stone's Vietnam.  More so I could talk about this film's political nature as it relates to other Stone movies, however, none of these approaches quite matches the idea of possessing souls as it relates to Platoon.  In this context, Barnes and Elias represent two reapers of souls, Barnes for the evil and Elias for the good, or so it seems, it could be said that both are simply corrupt soldiers seeking to validate their existences.  Furthermore, both Barnes and Elias have their assumed apostles, the various troops in the squadron siding with whom they find the most reflective of their own ideals.  It is saturated with religious metaphors and imagery from the presence of crosses, to somewhat ironic ankhs, as well as the now famous and oft-parodied death of Elias, which is all to Christlike.  Furthermore, it is, in my belief, no accident that Christ Taylor, becomes Christ T., a bit on the nose but quite fitting with Stone's religious study of war.  Overall, the film reads as a glorified study of The Golden Rule, one that is, ultimately, questioned, revisited and undermined in two hours of cinematic perfection.

Key Scene: Guns and smoke...and not from firing said gun.

This is a classic, and undeniable stamp on the greatness of American cinema, and while I watched it on Netflix, I would venture to say that the bluray is worth looking into, I know I intend to grab a copy.


My Tears Were White, Like Milk: House of Pleasures (2011)

Thanks once again to the guys over at Battleship Pretension for turning me onto a film that I would otherwise completely overlooked from 2011.  In this case, it is the French period piece titled House of Pleasures (Tolerance), which as you may have guessed focuses on life in a brothel, specifically one at the beginning of the 19th century in France.  While it may sound as this is the formula for an incredibly exploitative film, it is all but that and is instead an incredibly focused, cinematic and atmospheric study of a lifestyle and experience that is often relegated to the bizarre and profane in historical narratives.  With moments that are incredibly Kubrickian style, a contemporary soundtrack and a complete refusal to shy away from depicting the more unflattering moments of life in a brothel, House of Pleasures is sincere in what it is trying to depict.  It is important to note that the film was independently produced and eventually picked up by IFC, allowing for it to be unfiltered in its depictions, most importantly in the sexual elements of the narrative.  Bertrand Bonello's film is at times sobering, at others revelatory, but never uninteresting.  Including an excellent set of actresses, of various races and ages, House of Pleasures may well be one of the most politically correct films, about one of the more socially unacceptable topics.  More importantly, House of Pleasures stands out as one of the most beautiful films shot in 2011 and has knocked yet another film off of my previous list of my favorite films of last year, now only losing to Take Shelter and Tree of Life.  It is truly a tragedy that his film did not receive more hype, here is to hoping that at least one more person reads this post and discovers the film.

House of Pleasures focuses on the experiences of a group of women living in a brothel together, as they attempt to gain independence, while also paying off their debts to the madame of the house Marie-France (Noemie Lvovsky) who engages in the business as a means to provide for her two children.  While it is clear that Marie-France is not completely fair in her dealings with the prostitutes, she is considerably maternal to each of the women working there.  The head woman, of sorts, is Madeleine (Alice Barnole), also known as The Jewess, and she becomes the cook and maid to the other women after a tragic act of aggression by a client leaving her with a smile-like scar on her face.  Her dream from the night she was attacked becomes a point of reference throughout the film as the other girls engage in acts with various customers, most notably the woman known as The Doll, who literally acts as though she is a doll for clients and the Algerian who is often chosen by men for her foreign features. The narrative also focuses on the emersion of a new girl named Pauline (Iliana Zabeth) who is fifteen and seeks the brothel as a means to escape a dismal home life.  Covering every element of the brothel life, viewers are shown the general assembly of women as they wait for clients, as well as the more grim act of testing each woman for venereal diseases.  The film crashes climactically into one party scene, in which the women engage in an orgiastic encounter that includes masked lovers, animals and even Madeleine, scar and all.  Ultimately, the film closes with Madeleine recounting her dreams as milky white tears fall from her face.  The scene that follows completely throws the narrative off-kilter, but still manages to capture an inherent beauty in the film beyond explanation.

This narrative, as was the case with 8 Women, focuses on the experiences of a group of women in France that are to some degree voiceless.  However, avoiding the comedic, Bonello's film is sobering in its reality and brutality.  Often depicting multiple scenes at once it reminds viewers about how truly degrading and dark brothel life was in a time where sexuality and femaleness were not a thing of simultaneous power.  EAch woman is objectified within the film, whether it be the literal doll-like behavior of one girl, or the exoticization of women of color within the film, it is clear that they are assumed to be lesser than a male.  We are to assume that these women seek their own individual existence and find this to be the quickest avenue for their desires, however, the reality of the situation is that their desires are, ultimately, made a point of exploitation as they serve men who see them only as objects of  sexual gratification, which they can poor champagne over or sexually oppress as they see fit.  In the most problematic scenario, men can even act out their latent aggression on the women, as is the case with Madeleine's suitor and his knife/phallic attack, which permanently cripples her, in the sense she can no longer work within her normal brothel job.  House of Pleasures, however, never condemns these women for their actions, instead; it offers the argument that they were simply trying to find their own route to freedom in the only method they knew, something that is perfectly and poetically realized in the films closing scene.

Key Scene: The few times that Bonello uses a split screen are quite intense and add to the full element of the film's ambient existence

Netflix managed to pick this up on watch instantly, and as far as I can tell their are no plans to release it on blurry, so it may suit you to see it via Netflix before it falls into obscurity.


I Can't Put Anything Inside Me: 301, 302 (1995)

This film features a suspense laden-melodramatic narrative, an industrial noise-heavy soundtrack, and two women increasingly dealing with dueling paranoias crammed into incredibly tight spaces.  From that description alone one could assume that I was describing a Dario Argento movie and their assumptions would easily be justified.  However, the movie I am describing is actually a Korean movie from right in the middle of their illustrious and still evolving New Wave.  The film 301, 302 is brilliant, experimental and highly-invocative film that is about women's place and identity within Korea as it moves into modernity.  Heavy with a social critique, at no point does 301, 302 overdo its imagery and become on the nose.  A study in the issue of psychologically based eating disorders in their emergence, existence and eventual ending and it also questions the relationship of food and consumption relate to the body image, particularly, when that images is predicated on male dominance and judgement.  The acting within 301, 302 is stunning, the cinematography is intensely realized and the overall grittiness of this film causes viewers to become aghast at what would normally be simple images of food.  Cheol-su-Park's work intends to undermine the comfort in food and eating, as well as causing aversion to the traditional gaze in cinema, all of which he manages to do and still provide a entirely watchable, if not intense movie.

301, 302 begins, in sorts, at the end of the narrative, we are shown 301 (Eun-jin Pang), referred to by her apartment, engaging with a detective who is inquiring about the disappearance of her neighbor 302 (Sin-Hye Hwang).  301 explains that she was a pseudo-friend of 302, in that she, a cook, often attempted to deliver food to the writer who lived a very secluded and reserved life behind her closed apartment door.  The detective assumes that 301 offers little to his investigation and leaves, at this point the narrative unfolds, through what we assume to be flashbacks.  We are shown 301in earlier years, overweight attempting to cook a meal for her husband who is dismissive based on her expanding weight and constantly heckling about liking her food.  Eventually, 301's husband leaves her and she takes up attempting to win 302 over with her cooking.  She is enraged when she discovers that 302, who has a huge aversion to food, is always throwing her food away.  After confronting 302 about her refusal to eat by forcing her to eat the rotten leftovers, 302 confesses to being sexually abused at a young age while working in a her stepdad's butchers shop, ever since she has found herself disgusted by both food and the act of intercourse.  Feeling terrible about her actions, 301 begins to attempt making food for 302 that will be suitable to her diet, focusing on organic ingredients and often vegetarian dishes.  As each persons past opens up it is revealed that they both engaged in some terrible actions, 301 cooking her cheating husband's dog alive and 302 leaving a girl in a freezer to die.  Eventually their pasts become nearly irreconcilable and the two must come to grips with their consumption disorders in a disturbingly poetic finally, one that has to be seen to be believed.

The film can be critiqued from many venues, particularly in regards to feminist theory.  In terms of a revenge narrative, the possibilities are evident, although it does not necessarily reflect this tradition in that it fails to exact bodily revenge as is the case with works like Deathproof or I Spit On Your Grave.  Similarly one could analyze the notion of voice and empowerment within women's movements, it is no surprise that 302 is a writer, as she sees it as a means to deal with her traumatic past and give voice to others who may have experience similar situations, however, this is also not completely plausible as we are led to believe that she never finishes an entire piece, let alone one one that companies agree to publish.  Ultimately, the film is to be read as a commentary on the power of food in female identity.  For 301 her ability to cook and enjoyment in eating are seen as a means of power, although her consumption becomes problematic when it is used as a means to replace her lack of sexual activity, it, nonetheless, suggests the possibilities of food serving as a means of identity.  Similarly, 302's refusal to eat has its own identity attached to it, although again it is unhealthy in its sexual attachments.  However, this unacknowledged hunger strike certainly has political implications that can be drawn from many a moment in history.  The food in this film, however, is to constantly be questioned, even in the closing moments of this dark film, we are not quite sure as to whether the food serves as a thing of disturbing unison or blatant and literal division.

Key Scene: Pretty much any of the cooking scenes are magnificent.

I am enthralled with this movie and am glad to have purchased a copy, however, I am also aware that it may not be for everyone, so I highly suggest renting the film before making a purchasing decision.


I Watched Signs Again Last Night: Jeff, Who Lives At Home (2011)

Sometimes making an enjoyable film is as simple as gathering together a few recognizable actors, throwing together a vaguely existential, yet sweetly honest script and a healthy dose of handheld camera action.  At least, that is how the Duplass brothers make filmmaking seem with their standout dark comedy Jeff, Who Lives At Home.  Placing much of its conceptual development in the notion that "things happen for a reason," the film is a welcoming ride of ups and so-so many downs between a family still grasping for their identity even into adulthood and old age.  Profound and revolutionary are not words I would ever toss at this film to describe its nature, but I would say that it hits its point with accuracy and wit.  Similar to their previous film Cyrus, this duo of directors have resuscitated independent filmmaking for me, something I have already said, but feel wholly obliged to remind my small readership.  The beauty of this film is that nothing is overdone, the acting is surprising restrained considering it is full of notably comedic actors, particularly Ed Helms who manages to make his loud method of acting work perfectly as a man flailing through his own disillusion.  Furthermore, the filmic narrative resides in the frame of a single day making the interconnectedness of each occurrence that much more meaningful and interesting.  While their visions of films clearly do not adhere to the norms of Hollywood tradition, the Duplass method of filmmaking is realized and seems assured to provide a ponderous and enjoyable movie.  Not to mention the film is set in Louisiana, always adding a degree of coolness to a film, even one such like this film.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home, as you might imagine does deal with a man named Jeff (Jason Segal) who still lives in his mothers basement.  While we are introduced to Jeff breaking the fourth wall and explaining the profound brilliance of the horror thriller Signs, it becomes evident that it is by no means entirely his story.  Along with Jeff is his brother Pat (Ed Helms) who desires so greatly to be and look successful that he uses his meager wages to buy an outdated Porsche, something that pushes his fiancé Linda (Judy Greer) over the edge, leading to her leaving him in frustration.  Along with this, there is Jeff and Pat's mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon) who is going through the motions of her dead end job and desires longingly to escape to a waterfall paradise.  Jeff moves through the film on a drug-fueled quest to find a man named Kevin, which leads to his eventual mugging and accidental meeting up with Pat, who himself is out escaping the feelings of despair, a result of Linda's leaving.  The two end up joining together on a quest to both find the elusive Kevin and for Pat to rekindle his relationship with Linda.  Meanwhile, Sharon becomes the point of affection for a secret admirer at her work, something she latches onto with joy.  However, as the narrative flows each comes to a realization that the thing they desire is unlikely to manifest it in the manner they would like, Jeff cannot find a quantifiable existence to Kevin, Pat realizes the Linda may be seeing another man and Sharon comes to realize that her ideals about her crush may not be anything she imagined.  Ultimately, the three meet up in a climactic bridge scene that has each of them redeem themselves, most importantly Jeff who seeks validation for his rather desultory life, manages to undertake a heroic action that makes him respected to the rest of his family.  It should be noted that the entire narrative is advanced by a simple task of needing to purchase wood glue.

The clear point of commentary within Jeff, Who Lives At Home is the lack of patriarchal intervention throughout the narrative.  Like Cyrus, the film focuses on a family still struggling from the lack of a paternal, or masculine, figure within their lives.  Sharon, as well as her two sons, make note of how difficult a lack of father proves to be in their daily lives, particularly Jeff who makes it the sole factor into his seemingly ineffectual lifestyle.  However, what the Duplass brothers suggest in their film is that the emergence of a father figure is not only unnecessary, but completely illogical.  Each character comes to their own personal realizations that their lives are completely their own, not to be oppressed by an unseen masculine figure who has clearly negatively affected their lives.  Jeff, who already relates to the feminine, as is clear in his monologue on Signs, manages to find a means to be heroic without asserting masculinity on a continual basis, while Pat learns to distance himself from the assumed notion that male dominance is understood and that the question of a female partner is not only acceptable, but ideal for a healthy relationship.   More importantly, without giving away the plot, Sharon also realizes the the void in her life does not need to be replaced by a male figure and she manages in an almost magical realist moment to come to terms with her own identity and self worth.  I know nothing about the Duplass Brothers personal lives, but I would venture to say that the amount of honesty in each of their works suggests that they may well have experienced many of the films moments in their own realities.

Key Scene: It involves lots and lots of running.

While I could sing the praises of Jeff, Who Lives At Home for hours, I am aware that it is by no means a must-own film.  In fact, I would fully suggest renting the film and enjoying it, because it is a great example of what indie film could and should be at this time in filmmaking.  Also the Michael Andrews soundtrack is perfect.