Death Is Good, But There Is No Love: Holy Motors (2012)

Holy Motors is most certainly the one film that I longed to see for a better part of 2012 after hearing mentions of it on a few of my favorite blogs and podcasts, not to mention as it began receiving awards by various critics associations.  Until viewing it last night, I had only heard descriptions about it, or seen very brief clips at one point or another, always more than enough to pique my interests and seek it out as soon as possible, fortunately, a friend had a copy that they passed along to me and I was able to digest the visual feast that is this film beyond simply looking at the poster, which is its own work of art. I am somewhat on board with the guys at Battleship Pretension when they claim that the film is far from a perfect film, but manages to go about its visual stylings with such audacity and vision that it cannot, and should not, be overlooked, even going so far as to make one of the top ten lists of two critics who I find to have some of the most refined and specific taste in the realm of film criticism.  Holy Motors is as much a sobering reflection on the state of performance in film, as it is a pondering of human existence on a larger scale.  It is a rare thing for a film to engage with the magnitude of 2001: A Space Odyssey philosophically, even more unusual that it manages to engage with the dialogue with any degree of success or validity, in the same vein as Irreversible, Holy Motors, from director Leos Carax, is yet another film from 2012 to make viewers really consider the way in which they consume movies, as well as the larger concept of truth and its tenuous relationship with what we have come to assume to be reality.  I found many of the episodes, as it is really the only way to describe how this film unfolds, to be absolutely mesmerizing, and even the weaker moments of the film exist on a plain so far above much of its competition that it exists as a bit of cinematic magic.  If it were not enough to simply praise the movie for being a visual experience, the performances in this film are more than perfect and Denis Lavant, in particular, brings one of his best delivered set of characters, since first coming to my attention as a delusional Charlie Chaplin impersonator in Harmony Korine's most "normal" film Mister Lonely.

Holy Motors has a plot, all be it a very vague and nearly incomprehensible one, but I assure you it exists some where in the nearly two hour time frame.  Needless to say the film mainly focuses on a man known as Oscar (Denis Lavant) who dons various make-up and wardrobe styles and travels around Paris, on assignments, yet the film chooses to open with an individual known as Le Demour (Leos Carax) who enters a theater only to view a crowd watching, what I have been led to believe is King Vidor's The Crowd, instantly, and magnificently making the film exist within the metacinematic, something that is extended when the narrative begins to follow Oscar in more depth as he engages in his various assignments, all of which apparently hearken back to moments in the history of cinema, whether they be the intensely intimate portrayal of him pretending to be a homeless elderly woman, clearly an evocation Soviet cinema of the early 20th century, or the shock political cinema of Passolini, which occurs when Oscar is assigned to play a grotesque man that kidnaps a model, played rather stoically by Eva Mendes, only to take her into a cave and strip naked, not to have sex, but, instead; to eat her hair.  The film also takes on less artistically embraced elements of cinema, having a sequence pulled directly out of a gangster film, or one which results in a CGI-feuled sexual nightmare.  In one of the films most bizarre moments, Oscar reunites with what appears to be a former lover named Eva (Kylie Minogue) thus thrusting the film into the musical realm, only to return to the darkly dramatic within moments.  The various stories entwine as Oscar moves through Paris in a white limousine and it becomes considerably unclear as to what moments are indicative of his personal life and which depict his "job."  The narrative then takes a leap into the decidedly absurd when Oscar's final job places him at his own home, with his family, who for no explicable reason are a set of monkeys.  The narrative then focuses on Oscar's chauffeur Celine (Edith Scob) who returns the limo to a garage named after the film, and as she leaves the limo with other similar vehicles, the cars begin talking to one another, waxing philosophic about moss on stones, thus ending the film rather abruptly considering all the combined aspects.

I am not even going to proclaim to remotely comprehend exactly what Holy Motors is about, because like the previously mentioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, any singular proclamation about the film is to only focus on aspects and often fails to consider the filmic text as a whole.  Fortunately, Holy Motors in its episodic stylings affords a viewer the ability to pick singular moments as a point of reference, thus leading me to believe that it is a film about filmmaking, much in the same way as 8 1/2 or Stardust Memories, which arguably uses similar techniques, but in a far less dark manner.  I say this because Oscar constantly bemoans his performances, not because he does not appreciate the notion of acting, but because he seems utterly convinced that the often draining performances he delivers are falling on deaf ears, particularly as a result of a technological landscape that embraces minimalism.  In one of the films most poetic scenes, Oscar reflects on an era when filmmakers were distracted only by the heaviness of their camera, a masterful existentially absurdist statement, which proves to be the grounding for the entire film.  It is hard to call Holy Motors a welcoming film, but this previously mentioned scene seems to be Carax's way of saying that society is equally dark and for any film to suggest otherwise would be to betray the power of the medium and its ability to reflect reality to some degree, even if in the highly stylized nature of this film.  It makes me consider its relationship to some of  my other favorites of the year, particularly The Master, Take This Waltz and The Loneliest Planet, all of which use cinema to show the stark betrayals of humanity, as well as their ever so brief moments of triumph, never once allowing the viewer to assure comfort and self-fulfillment.  I find Holy Motors to be in the same vein as the highly introspective, but decidedly distancing cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, in so much that it allows viewers just enough familiarity to become invested, but reminds them that even in familiarity the senses can, and will, be quickly betrayed.

Key Scene:  The intermission scene is decidedly awesome and serves as an awesome mid-point for an excellent film.

Bluray, Bluray, Bluray...


Your Mothers Were Slimy Rats! Their Milk Was Sour!: Hangmen Also Die! (1943)

I am currently enrolled in a Contemporary Women's Playwrights course for which I am finding myself completely enthralled with the complex, masterful and exceptional plays which are being discussed, however, I am not a theater student and am instead taking it as an extension of my gender studies certificate.  As such, when the fellow students reference terms like "Brechtian" I find myself completely lost as to what precisely they mean and have been seeking to better understand.  I thought that by watching Hangmen Also Die!, a play whose script was written by Bertolt Brecht that I would come to better understand exactly the nature of such a style included.  Sadly I am no closer to understanding the deeply philosophical roots of all things Brechtian, however, what I did receive was a rather excellent viewing experience from one of my personal favorites Fritz Lang.  Admittedly, Hangmen Also Die! was a bit slow to start and I found my interests waning a bit instantly labeling it as yet another propaganda heavy war film from an exceptionally good time in Hollywood Cinema, but then something happened and the film found a second, perhaps even third, wind and became an extremely watchable highly cinematic study in human frailty, the notion of good and evil and deception in the name of a larger good.  A chiaroscuro revelation that could only come from the magnificent eyes of the Austrian Expressionist auteur, Hangmen Also Die!, like so many of the rarefied Kino Films releases stands to be obtained and watched, repeatedly if possible, but also suffers from a degree of obscurity that makes the prints available less then stellar, in fact, this particular print is considerably grainy and the sound often drops mid sentence for many characters, nonetheless, it becomes so stylistically impressive that all concern for its damaged nature disappear in the face of cinema at its finest, and a film that I initially chided for its choice of American actors playing gestapo officers, became something with a hugely complex and absolutely enthralling war film with just the right touch of noir madness.

Hangmen Also Die! exist within wartime Chzechoslovakia, which the name alone tells one was a time prior to two World Wars, and in this particular case a moment in which Germany occupied the nation, leaving its citizens uncomfortably within the rule of a cruel fascist hand.  One Czech patriot named Dr. Svoboda (Brian Donlevy) takes it upon himself to kill a German officer who has earned the infamous reputation of being the "hangman of Europe" for his willingness to murder all those not within the strict ideal of Aryan identification.  This act of course makes him criminal number one within the country leading to an all out assault by the Nazi occupants to seek revenge.  Fortunately for Svoboda, an elderly history professor named Stephen Novotny (Walter Brennan) and his daughter Mascha (Anna Lee) agree to help him and in the process also become intertwined within the gaze of the Nazi's.  Realizing that their best means to get the citizens to talk is to take hostages and begin killing civilians until they agree to speak against their neighbors, an action that proves relatively unsuccessful, even as men from the towns are gunned down by frustrated gestapo.  In fact, one member of the community a garrulous, rotund brewer named Emil Czaka (Gene Lockhart) sees the entire thing as a means to assure his well-being and safety within the ever growing power of Nazism and sells out his town for riches and protection.  When word is spread about Czaka's terrible decision a plan hatches to use his as a red herring, thus affording Novotny to go free, as well as to lift the eyes from Svoboda who is growing more conspicuous every day.  While the group is eventually able to convince the Nazi's that Czaka was responsible for the actions, through some clever deviations and redirected truths, it does not negate the deaths of so many via assassination, and while the film ends on a decidedly high note, it, nonetheless, reminds viewers of the losses within the film, which, no doubt, reflected very real loss at the time.

While I will fully admit that this film helped me little in better understanding the intricacies of Brechtian ideology as it relates to cinema specifically, I was quite enthralled by its genuine commitment to the concept of the group collective challenging the forces of evil.  It is out and out a film of World War II, in where the Allies make fools of the Axis, in this case going so far as to appropriate a country very close to Germany as an image of America, right down to its take no bullshit attitude and overemphasis on romanticism.  Of course, this appears to be a critique, but I am more than aware that it is a result of the culture and very much influenced by the propaganda of the era.  What Hangmen Also Die! ask viewers to do is to follow it as a group of individuals make a on-the-fly plan work in their favor, taking odds completely out of the picture, especially considering that so much of the success of their actions is predicated on their good fortune.  This is clearly evident in the luck Mascha has when obtaining Czaka's coveted golden lighter as a tool to frame him in their indictment, or when Svoboda is saved in the nick of time from almost certain death by, none other than Mascha's fiance, whom he had made a cuckold of only scenes earlier.  This sort of reliance on a larger good, helps events like these land, where petty wrongdoings like minor theft and pseudo-infidelity are diminished in the face of military style executions, and what would later be revealed to be large scale genocide.  While religion is certainly discussed throughout the film, it is not a central factor by any means, allowing for it to filmically exist within the context of expressionist noir, a genre very much associated with Lang's later films and while this will not prove to be anywhere near the film that Metropolis or Scarlett Street would be, it still whispers moments of brilliance, and could even be seen as being thematically within the same vein as his well-known masterpiece M.

Key Scene:  The stand-off in the hospital locker room is chiaroscuro perfection.

This, as so many of Kino's gems are, is an expensive DVD.  However, with a little patience one can obtain this as a rental from Netflix and it is more than worth pursuing, as it is a truly wonderful piece of lesser known film.


Experiments In Film: Paperman (2012)

So I know that this will more than likely go down as my least experimental film within this little aside on my blog, but I could not pass up an opportunity to elaborate on it after it won an Oscar last night, and since I have failed to see Argo I figured this would be far more appropriate.  Last night, however, was not the point in time with which I became familiar with this cinematic wonder.  Instead, I first saw it as an introduction to Wreck-It Ralph, which I enjoyed but fails to hold the narrative sway of this animated short, despite having plenty more space and time to work with.  Paperman, while at first glance does not appear to be experimental, at least in comparison to what is normally mentioned within this context, one has to consider that it is very much that since it is from Disney, a company not entirely known for experimentation, aside of course from the free reign given to Tim Burton.  Paperman, much like my favorite Pixar film, Wall-E, focuses on everything wrong with conforming to standards and fearing new experiences.  It takes the melodramatic and uses it such a welcome way, embracing both the power of silence and necessity of sound all swelling into an invested moment that will have you sitting up right in curiosity.  In a bold choice of only using black and white, director John Kahrs assures no confusion about the very clear statement existing within his film, and is sure to cement his place as a premier Pixar staple in years to come, which is more than welcome on my part, because I doubt the necessity of another Cars film.  Yet even for being in black and white, the short questions the factuality of life and exists in a realm of magical realism by its closing, reminding viewers that in the insanity of existence, sometimes love and human connection still occurs if the "forces that be" will it to do so.

The film is quite simple and lacks any sort of deception as to what it is about, viewers are shown a young man and a young woman who share a brief connection, when the young man's paper flies into her face, leaving some of her lipstick on the page in the process.  The two laugh, but nothing comes of it, instead; they go along with their lives.  Yet, when the man sees the woman in an interview in the building across from where he works, he attempts to get her attention by flying paper airplanes across the gap, much to the disgust of his fellow employees and supervisor.  When this fails and he is faced with a daunting task of more papers, he throws out convention and chases for the girl through the busy streets, and just when he thinks he has lost her, the hundreds of plains that fell to the ground begin guiding him towards her, at the same time when the girl stops to smell some flowers she sees the paper, with her lipstick on it, a coincidence to eeire to ignore.  The two then return to their original location, still in silence the credits roll and they are shown engaging in a cup of coffee at a diner, and one can only assume a great future.  Again, this is all animated in black and white, with the exception of the girls red lips and the lipstick mark, and aside from an absolutely wonderful composition from Christophe Beck is visually simple.  The story, however, is delivered with such assuredness and precision that it absolutely moves a person upon viewing.  I know it is a minor category as far as Oscars go, yet it is one of the outright correct decisions made last night and I can only imagine what kind of work we will see from Kahrs in the future, if this is anything, I would be willing to bank some possibilities on an animation revolution.  Also I am rather certain it is at the very least an indirect homage to The Red Balloon.

To find out more about John Kahrs, or to watch Paperman click either of the images below.


I Have No Funk. I Am Totally Funkless: Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)

When I make note of famous indie time travel movies, minds will undoubtedly jump first to Primer a stellar low-budget deeply perplexing film from the genre that made huge waves upon its release in 2004.  However, I would never have imagined that an indie film would navigate again into such waters, let alone find itself financed by the Duplass Brothers, the certifiable power houses of the indie scene who appear to have their hands within anything and everything released in the world of independent cinema in the past year or so.  Yet, in Safety Not Guaranteed one is provided with a very much indie film, including one of the Duplass' in a leading role, not to mention a narrative that finds itself heavily invested in the idea of time travel, although, to be fair, very little of it actually has to do with actual time travel, instead, focusing on events leading up to a planned tripped by one individual.  Colin Trevorrow's fictional feature debut is a film that is ostensibly about time travel and at times this seems to be everything but the case for the film, yet as the narrative manages to show the idea of time travel is something shared by quite a few people and only actually attempted by a handful.  A narratively mature film, aside from a handful of unfortunate uses of the word friggin, Safety Not Guaranteed is exactly what should be expected out of an indie film, a standard very much set by the Duplass Brothers and a lesson that could still use of teaching to some indie filmmakers who find themselves embracing sloppy and misguided filmmaking and cool or indie, when in fact it is just bad and ill conceived.   Nothing about Safety Not Gauranteed reflects such misdirection and, in fact, beautifully stands its own compared to some heftier films claiming to be indie films, specifically, Silver Linings Playbook, which while good, certainly had a larger budget allowing for an all out marketing campaign and a means to accrue Oscar buzz.  I am more than willing to say that Aubrey Plaza puts on a better performance in this film than Jennifer Lawrence does in Silver Linings Playbook, but the way the  dice land results in one being relegated to her identity on Parks and Recreation, while the other is receiving far too much credit for what was essentially a run of the mill role.

Safety Not Guaranteed focuses on the somewhat disillusioned Darius (Aubrey Plaza) who is attempting to find income while dealing with her dead end internship at a magazine in Seattle.  She seems destined for monotony until she is afforded an opportunity to engage in a piece with head writer Kenneth (Jake Johnson) and fellow intern Arnau (Karen Soni).  The piece they plan to pursue focuses on a classified ad placed in a local newspaper requesting a partner for a time travel trip which threatens to be quite dangerous and the individual will receive compensation upon return.  The crew of course assumes that they will invariably meet an insane individual and have a piece solely in that right.  Darius seems to take a keen interest in it and her vested interest is likely a result of still reeling from the loss of her mother, for which she takes ungrounded fault.  When Darius meets Jeff (Mark Duplass) the man responsible for the ad she instantly realizes that there is much more to him than an insane individual, and becomes intrigued by the passion for which he pursues his desire to travel back in time, even finding herself opening up to him about her own loss.  Meanwhile Kenneth deals with his own past ties to the area, attempting to rekindle a high school romance with former girlfriend Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who brushes him of when he suggests that she come back to Seattle with him to take up within his life.  Enraged by his disappointment, Kenneth then goes on an drunken quest to assure that Arnau gets laid, something he believes Arnau should be doing at his young age.  Meanwhile, as the intensity of Jeff's plans grow, Darius becomes more emotionally invested in the outcome, only to realize that his past is far more complex and not quite as true as he may have claimed.  The confrontations of all the characters come to the forefront moments before the time travel is to take place and Darius decides to commit to Jeff and the two seem to successfully travel into the past, although on a metaphorical level they are far from the only characters to do so.

Many philosophical treatises, particularly those with a bit of Eastern Asian influence seem to adhere to the idea that living in the present is truly the only way to make it through life with any degree of success, and Safety Not Guaranteed is very much a film that considers such notions.  No character in the film, for the majority of the film manages to exist in the present, both Darius, Kenneth and Jeff live in their respective pasts, hoping to return to a time in which they could obtain lost loved ones, whether it be parental figures or hopeless crushes.  Even Arnau whose careful logic and hesitance is criticized not because it makes him uncool, but because it is a sign of him living in the future and completely missing out on enjoying his present.  In fact, it is not until any of these characters manage to absolutely free themselves from their concerns of any other moment but the now that they are able to embrace life, this occurs when Jeff and Darius spend an evening together before the morning of the planned travel, or when Arnau and Kenneth take to a fair in a wild and carefree manner, ultimately, the film makes sure to remind viewers that not all moments can exist in such transcendence, and that often times the pressures of future realities will rear their ugly head as in the case of Kenneth's incessant boss.  At other times unfortunate facts about the past will damage the opinions one may formulate about an individual, as occurs when Belinda (Kristen Bell) paints a picture for Darius about the psychologically troubled Jeff for whom she has grown to care for deeply, and if one is honest about it, is this not the basic premise for most time travel films.  The closing moments, like some of the classics in time travel, reminds viewers that at moments a perfect unity of occurrences can allow for a truly transcendent and shared experience to occur, even if said experience is something as physically impossible as traveling through time on a decked out hoover craft.

Key Scene:  There is a scene in which Darius explains her past to Jeff, in which Aubrey Plaza delivers a performance I saw coming out of nowhere that absolutely makes the movie much more than a sentimental comedy revolving around time travel.

An excellent little film that has been made recently available on Netflix Watch Instantly and is well worth investing a few moments towards.


Simplicity Can Only Be Achieved By Great Agony Of Body And Spirit: The Red Shoes (1948)

A viewing of The Red Shoes has been a long time in the making, it was probably the biggest gap in my film viewing catalogue and was always a point of shame when I would have to admit to having never seen it when talking with fellow cinephile.  Finally, on Friday I had yet another individual with excellent taste in film mention it to me and I decided then and there that I would go home and watch it without hesitation.  Going into it I expected nothing short of perfection and I can say with every degree of certainty that the film still overwhelmed me with its magic, its madness and its sheer cinematic mastery.  The Red Shoes, has made a very welcomed come back thanks to the diligent work of some film preservationists at UCLA, the tireless efforts of the gang over at Criterion and a surprise advocation for the film coming from Martin Scorsese whose filmmaking oeuvre certainly does not reflect this ballet heavy, musical influenced film from the masters of Technicolor Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.  There is not a moment within The Red Shoes that is not entirely entrenched within the cinematic spectacle, much like Singin' In The Rain the film exists as a work of grandiosity so artistic that to profess to disliking it would essentially be admitting that you hate living.  As pretentious as that may sound, The Red Shoes seriously is an impeccable film and aside from a few moments of wry British humor there is nothing about this film not to completely love, in fact, it manages to the cross the seemingly divergent lines of classicist filmmaking styles and highly expressionistic experimental filmmaking with such fervor that it has the feeling of being a colorful rendition of an early Busby Berkeley dance number.  Furthermore, like the aforementioned Singin' In The Rain you can easily go into this film assuming you know the plot to the film, yet it will very much unfold in front of you with such expertise and layers that when the close finally does come in its climactic intensity you will realize that you may well have stopped breathing for a few minutes.  It is still baffling that this highly realized film is essentially just an adaptation of a children's fairy tale, all be it a dark one.

The Red Shoes begins with a crew of students rushing an auditorium to witness the performance of an acclaimed ballet piece from Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) whose prestige has led to all group regardless of class to view his work, including Julian Craster (Marius Goring) an aspiring conductor who is immediately baffled to realize that his own pieces are being lifted for the performance.  Also in attendance is Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) an aspiring dancer whose ties to high places afford her an opportunity to meet the elusive Lermontov post performance, using her charm to assure a chance to audition.  Craster via letter confronts Lermontov about his theft, only to regret his decision, in the process meeting Lermontov who hires him on the spot.  Both Craster and Page become witness to the insanity and deception latent within the world of ballet performance, and begin to fathom how much power Lermontov truly wields.  Each, nonetheless, takes their turn in making an identity for themselves, Page by dancing wildly at a minor performance for the company, where as Craster jumps at the opportunity to rewrite a ballet adaptation of The Red Shoes, which he does brilliantly leading to Lermontov choosing it as the company's next pieces.  It is within this performance of The Red Shoes that harmony comes together beautifully as Craster and Page unleash a chemistry undeniable in a ballet performance that literally transcends the space and time of the theater.  The show of course receives rave reviews and the names of Page and Craster become well known, yet they fall for one another, much to the disapproval of Lermontov who sees it as a risk to his newly found cash cow.  He demands that they split leading to a deep depression in the two and the subsequent falling apart of the company.  Lermontov, nonetheless, manages to convince Page to return to the performance, which leads to a falling out between her and Craster who leaves dejected.  Realizing her mistake Page attempts to return to Craster, only to encounter her demise in what is easily one of cinema's most harrowing moments.  Of course, The Red Shoes is danced on, although the lack of Page is a very real thing when the troupe decides to perform without the presence of their leading lady, or any person in her place.

I once attended a conference where I saw a presentation comparing The Red Shoes to the then recently released Black Swan.  A majority of the discussion grounded the comparison in a use of Jacques Lacan's mirror theory which at the time was something I was unfamiliar with making for a rather difficult to understand talk, although I certainly think, upon seeing The Red Shoes that something is to be said about the notion of identity, sanity and the affects of performance demands on the individual.  Both films feature female performers whose quest for perfection and acknowledgement lead them to spiral into a degree of madness, although in Aronofsky's film the madness is tied to sexual inexperience and clear mental distress.  In the case of The Red Shoes it is a desire for success and a clear passion for the art of ballet, which by all accounts is probably the most labor intensive art one could choose.  Furthermore, where as Black Swan is about a singular individual, The Red Shoes focuses on a group of peoples' experiences, viewers have just come to associate the film with Moria Shearer, because it is her image the dominates the most magical and cinematic portion of the film.  The Red Shoes is much more a film about navigating the world of art, which has inherent ties to prestige and bourgeois power moves.  We see this in Page's complete disconnect from the fact that she is able to attend and leave practice in a chauffeured car, where as her fellow dancers must walk everywhere.  In sharp contrast is Craster whose identity as a student means he has little wealth or power to navigate, making his being robbed of his musical identity the exact thing to push him into impassioned action, which has relative success, up until the films closing moments of course.  Where The Red Shoes and Black Swan seem to come back together is in the closing moments of both main female characters, each arguably perform their last leap of perfection with dire results, but both also raise the question as to where one can go but down after achieving perfection.

Key Scene:  This is a no brainer, the entire dance sequence in the middle of the film could play on repeat on televisions and I know I would watch it countless times.

The Criterion bluray really is something to be amazed by and well worth owning.


Let Joy Be Unconfined: A Night At The Opera (1935)

A Night at the Opera is by no means my first engagement with the beloved Marx Brothers, for whom all comedic film is to thank, and rightfully so considering that they were the veritable grandfathers of every comedic styling imaginable, aside only from toilet humor it appears, but even that manages to sneak in occasionally.  As part of my relatively recent discovery of the film podcast Filmspotting, I have come to appreciate not only their gloriously terrible "Massacre Theater," but their ever impressive film viewing marathons, and while I found myself incapable of following along with their blaxploitation marathon, I assured myself that I would at least engage within one film in their Marx Brothers marathon.  I was able to catch up with A Night at the Opera and despite the seeming dissatisfaction the duo appears to have had with the classics of comedy, I could not help but still adore this film, even with their criticism of the other works in the back of my head.  Sure some of the jokes fail to land in the films, but much of that is, undoubtedly, a result of contemporary viewer's considerable distance from the material, yet one must truly consider that nearly all of this film is engaged in humor, almost all of which is uproariously hilarious and well-delivered, even layering upon itself, to make, dare I say, meta-comedy.  One is also reminded, while watching this particular Marx Brothers film, that the group was necessarily tied to vaudeville performances, particularly the fact that often in their routines they did more than just crack jokes, but could actually deliver some rather stellar music performances and choreographed dance/acrobatic numbers.  Furthermore, while much of the film is focused primarily on the gags and insanity of the Marx Brothers' characters, it also does have a larger overarching story, which only passingly involves the comedic trio, and considering that it is a secondary element of the narrative it is, nonetheless, a decent offering.  Also, as appears to very much be the case for Marx Brothers works as a whole, A Night at the Opera is incredibly anarchistic and completely dismissive of any sort of social guidelines or rules, and it is perhaps in this clear consideration of all that is to be maddening that it is to be adored.

A Night at the Opera begins in an non-descript European country in which opera is highly praised, it was, of course, intended to be Italy, but due to its date of release censors demanded that references to the country be removed.  Regardless, in this country exists one Otis B. Driftwood (Groucho Marx) who has made a living by playing on the beliefs of one Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont) that he has the power to make her a relevant figure in the high class society, however, Driftwood is merely a very well-spoken con man and manages to take her for money, while making her believe that she can achieve prevalence by becoming friends with the local opera managers.  All the while, Driftwood seeks another means to gain money and finds it through a burgeoning opera star named Riccardo (Alan Jones) who is managed by the wry and slightly abrasive Fiorello (Chico Marx).  Driftwood and Fiorello strike up a contract, or lack thereof, in which they obtain money for Riccardo's performances, although they both seem quite aware that to assure this success they must dethrone the opera company's shining star Rodolfo (Walter Woolf King), which also means Driftwood losing his ties to the higher end opera figures.  Also within the mix is the wardrobe/stage/sound manager and mute Tomasso (Harpo Marx) who seems more content with showing how he can ruin a job than actually complete it with any degree of proficiency.  The entire opera troupe ends up taking up a job performing in The United States leading to a portion of the narrative occurring on the ship, during which time, the sly ways of Driftwood, Fiorello and Tomasso are brought to attention, yet their ability to think on their feet allows them to evade arrest and eventually shack up in an decent apartment until the opera season begins, at which time they use the opportunity to create chaos within the theater allowing for Riccardo to gain prominence, while also destroying the image of Rodolfo.  In the closing moments, everyone seems to have won their desired possession, except of course Rodolfo, but the narrative clearly makes him the bad guy and a person deserved of criticism.

I mentioned the anarchistic elements of A Night at the Opera as something rather present in much of the  work of the Marx Brothers.  I mean to say this both as a narrative device and, in some regards a cinematic sense, while the stylistic elements are certainly not as intentionally undermining as something done by Godard or Tarkovsky, they certainly exist within A Night at the Opera, particularly the act of speeding up images, or cramming the space within as many bodies possible would reflect this, especially as we see within the scene staged within the lower deck of the ship.  Language, is, undoubtedly, a part of the anarchy of a Marx Brothers film, obviously rooted within Groucho whose sure fire and every ready wit have become a bit of an iconic thing within cinema and cultural history.  Yet he is not the only one reconsidering language, Chico's purposeful misunderstanding, or, more importantly, refusal to understand certain terms could be their own place of anarchy within the filmic narrative.  Then, of course, there is Harpo whose refusal to say even the simplest phrase makes his use of language absolutely, and, undeniably, anarchistic.  If these elements are not enough to sway a reader as to the anarchistic nature of the Marx Brothers and A Night at the Opera specifically, the complete dismissal of everything bourgeois and sophisticated certainly should. One can see this in a super specific situation when looking and Driftwood and Fiorello attempting to create a contract, only to completely destroy it in the process, however, this also absolutely and obviously occurs within the final opera sequence when ever sense of normalcy and class separation is deconstructed through acts of acrobatics, bringing a working class game of baseball into the space, or by completely throwing of the staging of the play by dropping different scenery onto the stage.  It should be acknowledge, however, that not even the Marx Brothers believe that everything is a justification for insanity and even they can find moments of serenity and poetic transcendence.

Key Scene:  This serenity actually becomes the films highest moment, when viewers are treated to a Truffaut-like scene of Harpo and Chico playing music for children on board the ship that is a thing of legitimate cinematic beauty.

This DVD is relatively easy to come by and with no apparent bluray release in the future it is well worth the investment.


Never Look Into My Eyes: Beauty And The Beast (1946)

I had the fortune, all be it for some rather unfortunate circumstances, of finally getting a new slightly bigger television.  Along with this acquisition came the realization that I had moved from living in a 720p world, to one in the 1080p world and boy is the difference spectacular.  While I decided to break-in the new cinematic machine with a revisiting of "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me In St. Louis a recent bluray upgrade, this was quickly followed up with popping in the long overdue viewing of Jean Cocteau's French surreal masterpiece Beauty and the Beast, which is often present on various top ten films of all-time lists.  I have often held the Disney film in high esteem, mostly for nostalgic reasons, but also because it does have some moments of legitimate cinematic mastery, however, to be rather blunt about it the animated film does not have shit on this black and white, oneiric film.  Incorporating a variety of simple yet powerful filmic tricks, a stellar cast and what may well be the single greatest make-up job in the history of special effects. Beauty and the Beast jumps out of the screen, regardless of what aspect ratio or pixelation you may be viewing it in.  While I certainly suggest watching this in the biggest and brightest format possible it is such a magical film that it would not lose its charm even on a small screen in a low-fidelity setting.  Cocteau who is also known for his maddeningly experimental Orphic Trilogy, understands the perfect balance between a traditional and accessible narrative and the true artistic expression available by working within the unconscious framework and this easily comes across within Beauty and the Beast, so much so that, as one random review on Netflix suggests, it manages to capture the interests of both grown adults and very young children, more so than the previously mentioned Disney movie.  If the pure visual nature of the film were not enough to demand it moving up in relevance in discussions of film, it also manages to make a far less problematic commentary on burgeoning love and what role patriarchy plays in Belle's oppression than the latter Disney film.  I go on this tirade not to discredit the animated version, but because I truly am riding the waves of adoration well over twenty four hours after an initial viewing.

This version of Beauty and the Beast begins with the provincial setting, but Belle (Josette Day) is not a single daughter, but actually the daughter forced into servitude to her father, partially out of genuine love, but also because of an outright refusal by her two sisters to do anything that would undermine their feminine ideals or vain attempts at perfected beauty.  Their father, a man who deals in problematic money transactions is informed that a certain amount of his recent acquisitions have been taken as a means to pay off his debts, ultimately, forcing him to travel through the dangerous woods of the forest outside his town at night.  During this trip he decides to pluck a rose to return to Belle who requested it as a gesture of simplicity.  Not realizing that the roses belong to The Beast (Jean Marais), Belle's fater is informed that he is to stay imprisoned to the Beast, unless, he is willing to sacrifice his daughter to him in his place.  When Belle's father returns to tell the tale, Belle throws herself into the sacrificial ring, primarily because she believes herself guilty for her father's troubles, but yet again, also a result of her sisters and their lack of concern for anything outside their comfort zones.  Despite the contesting of her love interest Avenant (Jean Marais), Belle goes to the forest and lives with the Beast who continually makes gestures of kindness and romance towards Belle, for whom he becomes instantly infatuated, even proposing to her nightly, despite her continued refusal.  Belle, despite her lack of desire for marriage, learns to love the Beast as a friend and seems content to live in his world, until she learns of her father's sickness and begs to return home to check on him, a wish the Beast grants on the grounds that she return in a week.  Belle agrees happily, but is tricked by her family into saying, much to the mental strain of the Beast.  Avenant and Belle's brother manage to return to the Beast's house and attempt to break in and steal his riches.  Belle learns of the plans and finds her way back just as Avenant climbs into a forbidden room housing the goddess Diana who shoots Avenant with an arrow, ultimately, transferring the curse of the Beast upon him and allowing for Belle to fall for the Beast who is now human and just so happens to be a prince as well.

I made visual notes of the difference between this absolutely cinematic surrealist masterpiece and its grandiose and also cinematic animated counterpart.  It was not until a recent discussion about the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast that I realized that the film, at the very least, passively supports women existing in verbally violent relationships, simply because they know the male figure's temper is a result of other forces, when, in fact, these assumptions, in no way make his demeaning and spiteful actions any less terrible.  In Cocteau's world, the Beast is just the opposite and is actually quite caring, loving and egalitarian, essentially allowing Belle to move freely through his housing, and remember her entrapment is not the result of his doing ultimately, but instead; her father who allowed her to go in his place.  This also ties back to the notion that were it not for Belle's father and his obvious monetary issues, for which he places the onus on Belle because the family simply treats her as a doormat to be walked upon.  Hell, even the charming Avenant clearly possesses ulterior motives for his romantic gestures towards Belle, most of which seem to have a devious sexual desire about them.  The Beast's difference becomes not a thing of physicality, but morality, he seems to navigate world void of capitalist desires or the false notion that one will find understanding and unprecedented happiness through continual gains monetarily.  An otherness narrative also emerges within this narrative text, because, unlike the Disney version, viewers are led to assume that this transformation is irreversible and it is not until the closing moments of the film that we realize that love and distance from the greed of the rest of the world can help the Beast return to normal from his disaffirmed self.  Even his own disfigurement is suggested to be a result of the terrible actions of his others, in this case their wrongdoings with a witch who curses the Prince, since his parents refuse to believe in its possibility.  When Angela Lansbury sang "A Tale as Old as Time" it is quite possible that this cinematic treasure sat in the back of her mind.

Key Scene:  The moment when Belle first walks into the Beast's castle in slow-motion with the candelabra held by human arms is certifiably one of the highlights of surrealist filmmaking on the whole.

Buy this bluray, it is a staple of the Criterion Collection and was clearly made with much time and dedication.


Vanity. Vanity. All Is Vanity: Babette's Feast (1987)

The period piece is a genre that I always approach with a considerable amount of hesitance, which is a surprise considering that I absolutely adore everything about Downton Abbey and would probably come around on most any other Masterpiece theater production I undertook.  I am rather certain that a lot of my uncertainty is grounded within the very theatrical, costumed and rigid nature of the style.  My review of Anna Karenina made careful note of the manner in which the narrative styling and cinematic set-up counters the tradition of the period piece.  The Scandinavian classic Babette’s Feast is, undoubtedly, entrenched within the tradition of the period piece and is heavily influenced by a commentary on the nature of religion, making it quite similar to one of my favorite directors Carl Theodor Dreyer.  I will admit that I would never have undertaken a viewing of this movie, were it not for my research surrounding food in film, but I am more than glad to have engaged with this work, because not only is it beautifully composed, poetically written and simply cinematic, but it has opened me up to the world of period pieces done correctly and I cannot wait to engage with the genre full scale in the upcoming months.  Babette’s Feast is both an incredibly intense consideration of the role selfishness and vanity play into an individuals existence, as well as a reminder that even in the most distinct of philosophies and national barriers things like good music and beautiful music can help to unify any group.  It is also noteworthy that the film deeply considers the nature of femininity as it relates to a variety of oppressions and the rather creative manner in which many women navigated such issues and obstacles.  Yet, one of the major elements that seems to create a visually striking and unconventional film with Gabriele Axel's particular period piece, is that it is so dismissive of temporal and spatial constraints as to almost be experimental in its grandiosity, matching beautifully with its questions of religion and self-identity in a way truly and unequivocally transcendent.  Suffice to say, Babette's Feast is a cinematic revelation and yet again a remind that not all films from the 80's find themselves shrouded by the showiness of the era.

Babette's Feast, does indeed have a character named Babette (Stephane Audran) and while she certainly plays considerably into the plot, especially in its back half, she is rather irrelevant to the front portion of the narrative.  The film focuses primarily on two sisters, Martine (Birgitte Fiederspiel) and Phillippa (Bodil Kjer) whohave lived into old age within the same provincial village in Denmark.  Viewers are led to believe that they have spent much of their life locked on the island as a direct result of their father possessing them as his own, mostly as a result of his religious believes, but seemingly out of a sense of protection, especially since it appears as though their mother has long been forgotten.  The  knowledge that the father refuses to allow either to marry does not go unacknowledged, in fact, many townsfolk attempt to ignore this provocation and ask, always with failed results.  Two figures attempts factor in prominently, firstly in the haphazard and a bit goofy soldier General Lowenhielm (Jarl Kulle) who makes an offer for one of the daughters, only to be rejected leading him to spill his life into his work in the military, using his learned "piety" from the time with the daughters and their father to his advantage, even securing and economically viable, as much as it is political marriage.  The second suitor Achille Papin (Jean-Phillip LaFont) stumbles upon the family after hearing Phillipa sing at church, instantly becoming infatuated with the diva like quality of her voice.  He asks for permission of her father to train her in singing, something she initially agrees to although, when he realizes the sexual implications of such requests, he demands that Papin remove his services and return to Paris.  The narrative then flashes forward considerably and the much older Phillipa and Martine receive Babette at their doorstep, with a note explaining that she is Papin's daughter and wishes nothing more than to serve as a cook to the elderly women.  Although the women explain that they can offer no money, Babette agrees to work for free, eventually bringing the old ladies more money than before, which is, ultimately, topped off by her winning the lottery.  Babette as a gift, wishes nothing more than to cook a dinner for the parish in celebration of their late father, begging to cook a great French meal.  The sisters are hesitant, but agree to let Babette have this one wish, and she blows all of her winnings on the lavish meal, even inviting General Lowenhielm to return.  The dinner complete with rich food and drink serves as a unifier and a breaking of enforced conformity over decades of silence.  The silence is broken though, not through words, but through subtle expressions and actions.  Babette reveals that she was once a cook at a lavish French restaurant and that the sister's allowing her to enjoy her artistic past was greater than any gift imaginable and all those involved seem quick to agree.

Babette's Feast won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film the year it was entered and deservedly so, considering that if an American based society is to identify a singular film to represent the entirety of foreign cinema, Babette's Feast is certainly a deserved candidate in its transnational nature.  In fact, Babette's Feast, while very much a film about the beauty of a singular shared experience, via a feast, is also a consideration of border crossing.  This, of course, happens in very literal terms with the heavy amount of traveling done throughout the film, but can also find itself manifesting in a variety of different manners.  For example, the notion of a spiritual being crossing even invisible borders is a though professed by the sisters' father and a theme that seems prescient throughout the film.  While the characters seem to share distinctly different views of the world, they, nonetheless, seem similarly affected by a large entity, we can call it God in the context of this film, but its essence in some instances moves the villagers to sublime internal remembrance, while in other cases it causes characters to consider their entire existence, as Lowenhielm existentially considers his own vain life, perhaps serving as the main factor in his decision to return for the dinner.  Borders are also crossed in a gendered sense, although not in the performative element of somebody like Judith Butler.  Instead, gender identities are a very fixed thing, however, the roles they can perform in society seem less strict.  For example, both the sisters manage to take the place of their father as spiritual advisors for their community, and while they do not don the dress of a religious figure their status is, nonetheless, tantamount to such associations.  In a similar context, Babette's role as a cook may seem heavily domesticated and, exists in such a state up until the final feast, but with her willingness to throw caution to the wind in the French oriented menu and the revelation that she has been in charge of a restaurant certainly makes a viewer reconceptualize each gendered performance in the film, even by male figures like Papin and Lowenhielm, which become far less "masculine" in a sense.

Key Scene:  Sure the feast takes up a better third of the movie, but it is both grand and simple and serves as an extended and poetic scene and one of the best uses of food as metaphor I have seen to date.

This is a Hulu offering via the folks at Criterion.  I can only hope for a future bluray release, but until then this should work perfectly.


Experiments In Film: Daisies (1966)

It is a rare thing for me to become entirely invested in a film from the opening scene all the way to its closing moments, as die hard as a cinephile as I am, I will fully admit that I am guilty of occasional waining and checking of the phone during a film.  It is truly a feat for a film to have my vested interest for its entirety, particularly in regards to anything with a heavily experimental or avant-garde lean, considering that these films take a considerable amount of time to unfold and become clear in their meaning.  Yet, Vera Chytilova provides just that in her experimental feature film Daisies a film so decidedly its own that I found myself completely glued to its offerings, even when repetition was the means for said offering.  Chytilova's film is clearly a work of realized art, each frame cleverly matching or juxtaposing its predecessor, ultimately, lacing together a mesmerizing, psychedelic consideration of what it meant to be a woman tapping into her own individualized feminine identity as it would be in the mid-sixties Czech Republic.  I have seen many a failed experimental cinematic endeavors which banked heavily on their abilities to use colorization and tinting to capture the viewers on at least a visceral level, however, it is rather clear that, like the silent filmmakers of days gone by, of which the director takes a clear influence, each tint job and color variation serves as a consideration of the moment or a larger commentary on the collective situation.  With that being said many of the rainbow filled scenes would undoubtedly play well with a drug toking individual.  Even if the film has a decidedly trippy element about its existence, that does little to dissuade the astute viewer form its multifaceted consideration of the ideals of feminist and the politics surrounding the acts and notion of destruction, especially those occurring within and towards the bourgeois state of mind.  Oppression is not a thing to be overlooked within Chytilova's film, however, as a earnest filmmaker, in line with the mentality of Godard, Daisies is careful to condemn its characters for living within a world of disillusion and lies, showing them in perilous situations and reminding viewers that it was the only possible and plausible outcome.

Daisies both directly and loosely considers the movement through consumption oriented spaces by two young, what viewers can assume to be, Czech girls.  These girls go about quoting various cultural, philosophical and political figures, all the while undermining the authoritative figures in their path.  Food, as a few of the films I have reviewed here of late for a project, plays an integral role in the narrative.  In the case of Daises, it is particularly pro-feminist in that the two characters use it as a means to contend with patriarchal oppression, both in the rejection of social norms, as well as their own decisions to possess their own bodies, via consuming what they please, when they please.  However, much has been made of the director's choice to place the main characters in a dire situation during one of the closing scenes of the film, in fact, some have suggested that this moment is a clear discrediting of the feminist movement on the part of Chytilova, which I find to be completely absurd and somewhat ungrounded.  Firstly, considering that the film was released in 1966, any image of a woman, or in this case women, rejecting the domestic sphere outright would have proven somewhat revolutionary in its being new and fresh.  The Czech New Wave, while running somewhat parallel to the second wave of feminism, nonetheless, appears to pre-date it a few years in its commentary on the serious issue of spheres.  Secondly, the choice of the director to place these women in peril is not an artistic metaphor as much as it was a real case for women in the time, many, like the main protagonists, found themselves floundering, all be it not in water per se, hoping to be rescued by those with skills and power, in the case of the era men, and while this certainly occurs, even if indirectly, the narrative seems to suggest an overall initiative for women to seek self-reliance and forward momentum, even if that means a continued exploitation of powerful, rich men.

To find out more information about the film Daisies, or its director, click either of the images below:


This Guy Took My Teddy Bear!: Ted (2012)

I remember distinctly a divide as far as reactions were concerned upon the discovery that Seth MacFarlane would be making his directorial debut in something not directly tied to the Family Guy franchise.  One side heralded it as a much needed movement towards the mainstream, although to be fair it is quite impossible to find an individual who has not watch an episode, let along entire seasons of one of the most prolific comedies of the past decade.  The other divide seemed content on dismissing it entirely referring to it as a cheap attempt by the director to cash in on his name and its ties to Family Guy while also engaging in his own filmic desires.  I am somewhat ashamed to admit that for a brief time I certainly fell into the latter category, having found myself growing away from Family Guy over the years and assumed Ted to simply not be for my palette.  However, I managed to catch up with MacFarlane when he hosted the season premier of Saturday Night Live and was completely enamored with the earnestness and vivacity placed into his skits and presence, furthermore, I was reminded that he is truly one of the greater comedic minds of the last decade, both in delivery and in accessibility.  While I have found myself attempting to rediscover Family Guy, at this point with little success, I did find Ted to be much, much more than I anticipated.  While I am one of the growing number of fans supporting the work of Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller as far as over-the-top absurdist comedy is concerned, I find myself watching the work of Harold Ramis and John Landis and wondering where the deceptively simple, normal guy in an unusual situation comedy went.  Thankfully, Ted has shown me that in the hands of Seth MacFarlane this type of comedy is certainly possible and, while he has a ways to go before getting to his level of perfection, MacFarlane is certifiably the closest thing American moviegoers have to a Harold Ramis...aside of course from the still living Harold Ramis, although to be fair it has been sometime since the comedic auteur has offered anything of notoriety.  Ted is far from a perfect film, but it easily falls on the side of being good and shows promise for a successful future for the still young MacFarlane.

Ted begins with the story of John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) who has always been a slightly awkward person, so much so that he found considerable difficulties making friends as a child.  As such, when he receives a talking teddy bear from his parents for one Christmas, he makes a wish that it would come to life and be his friend forever.  Luckily for John, his wish is granted as a miracle of sorts and he awakes to his bear named Ted (Seth MacFarlane) talking and moving around.  Once verifying that he is not imagining it, John shares his new friend with the world. allowing to become an overnight sensation, which of course comes with its own set of problems leading to run-ins with law enforcement and a fall from popularity, although all along the way he makes sure to stay a dear friend to John.  Fast forward a few decades and John finds himself in a dead-end job, preferring to get high with Ted on a daily basis, as opposed to securing a promising future for himself and his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis).  Giving him an ultimatum, John is forced to choose a future with Lori over a comforting present with Ted, causing the disheartened bear to move out on his own and take up a job at a local grocery store, eventually creating his own relationship with an employee.  Yet, certain elements of his past are harder to shake and John continues to sneak away from work and events with Lori to hang out with Ted, leading to an accident in which Lori demands that John move out, much to the delight of Lori's asshole boss Rex (Joel McHale) who has been eyeing Lori for sometime.  John goes out of his way to win Lori back, partially from his own will, but also because Ted promises Lori that he will remove himself entirely from the couple's life if she gives John one more shot.  In the process of agreeing to this, Ted is kidnapped by a psychotic admirer and his son who has an apparent penchant for destructive behavior, leading to Ted reaching out to John despite his previous promise.  Lori in a moment of instantaneous understanding and compassion agrees to help John find Ted, leading to a crazy traversing of Fenway Park.  They eventually save Ted, although he is torn in half in the process, leading to a hopeful repair and a wish from somebody besides John for Ted return.  The film ends on a happy note as Ted returns comfortably back into John's life, while John is also able to mature and marry Lori in the process.

Buried deep beneath the profusely graphic excrement humor and jokes about old people being anti-semetic lies a very real commentary on the troubles of growing old and embracing adulthood that seem all too relevant to Seth MacFarlane, a comedian who is often criticized for being immature almost entirely as a result of his attachment to Family Guy, although I learned during Barbara Walter's "Most Fascinating People of 2012" that he began the show at 26, making him the youngest executive producer on a primetime show ever, a notable accomplishment for a person who is allegedly childish. Of course, Ted makes it very clear that there is a line to be drawn as to what is acceptable for a thirty year old man to be doing with his life and getting high, while making just over minimum wage at a rental car dealership is certainly not one of them, not to mention a problematic fear of thunderstorms that can only be placated by a talking bear.  Of course, in MacFarlane's infinite wisdom a complete disavowal of all these thing is not correct either, for a little light indulgence now and then along with a healthy attachment to one's childhood nostalgia can be a productive thing.  In fact, the narrative makes it rather clear what an unhealthy attachment to the past looks like via Ted's kidnapper who is a single dad who has allowed his son to become hyper-violent while living in his own grand delusion that allows him to dance to eighties mall pop music.  It is a very sound philosophical statement that exists within Ted one that reminds viewers of the very real responsibilities they must deal with on a daily basis, whether it be self-advancement or caring for the ones you love, while also not become so wound up with assuring everyones happiness that you ignore your own mental well being.  It also does not hurt that this film invests heavily in the possibilities of wishing for the unlikely.  A quick glance at MacFarlane's own struggles to get Family Guy on the air proves his own believe in having high ambitions.  Again the film is simple in its narrative, but it is in this muted approached to narrative that I hope MacFarlane is able to find comedic perfection.

Key Scene:  The party scene is pretty good and made all the funnier by some very self-referential humor on the part of MacFarlane.

This is a solid rental film and well worth checking out as it was easily one of the best comedies of last year.


I've Always Depended On The Kindess Of Strangers: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Elia Kazan is perhaps one of a handful of well-established auteur oriented directors who fails to receive the credit and praise due his way, I mean the guy did make On The Waterfront, a film I plan to revisit when the Criterion bluray drops next week, although amidst all the work and other films I have on my docket it may be awhile before I actually get around to doing just that.  Regardless, A Streetcar Named Desire was one of the many "shame list" films I felt terrible for having never seen, partially because of my own admiration for Kazan, detached entirely from his problematic relationship with the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It certainly does not help that it is one of the most quoted films based off of one of America's most well-known plays.  This set of standards, undoubtedly, clouded my expectations for the film and I will admit that for a better part of the first act I was uncertain that I was really prepared to embrace its presence.  Yet, as the film unfolded and I became invested in the chiaroscuro world of Louisiana depicted within the, Kazan's masterful use of the subtle melodrama and yet another brilliant performance by Brando, I was in love with the film by its closing scene.  Of course,  somewhere in the back of my mind I was completely aware of the plot and nature of A Streetcar Named Desire, but that did not manage to make this cinema classic any less enigmatic.  This film, much like Kazan's Waterfront, or even his slightly problematic Pinky, manage to exist within a sphere that somewhat represents reality yet so continually betrays it as to be something of a metaphor, one that suggests entrapment, disillusion and everything that has become jaded as a result of the loss of the American Dream, which is rather surprising considering that the film, not to mention the play existed well before realizations of the true abyss that would be the fifties unfolded.  No character within A Streetcar Named Desire could be remotely described as possessing redeeming qualities, yet they are depicted in such a stark and honest manner that it is near impossible not to pity them to some degree.  Essentially in create a film that discredits everything a viewer assumes to be America, Kazan manages to somehow make one of the most American films ever imagined.  Also, I will admit my ignorance, in that I thought "desire" was a metaphor, and while it still may be the case, it is also very much the name of the streetcar as well...who knew.

A Streetcar Named Desire begins with the arrival of one of literatures most iconic women Blanche Dubois (Vivien Leigh) a mysterious and sultry woman who has travelled from Mississippi to meet up with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) who she believes to be living the grand life in New Orleans, a illusion that is immediately shattered when she finds her living within a dilapidated house along with her husband Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), never mind the fact that the couple is expecting a baby.  Nonetheless, Blanche clings to the illusion of her sister's traditional nature and assumes the best, even falsely believing Stanley to be a stand-up guy despite his constant drinking and generally negative behavior towards Stella.  In fact, it is not so much the crumbling relationship between two sisters that becomes central but instead the burgeoning resentment between Stanley who believes Blanche to be dishonest about her past, particularly regarding the means by which she obtains her various luxuries, particularly her strings of pearls and a dress that appears to be made of gold, as Stanley so eloquently puts it.  Blanche is no kinder to Stanley claiming that he is an ignorant brute and finds her notions affirmed when during one drunkenly impassioned argument Stanley actually lays hands on Stella.  Despite Blanche's concerns, Stella returns to Stanley and things pan out with a degree of discomforting normalcy, yet when Blanche begins spending large amounts of time with Mitch (Karl Madden) a friend of Stanley's, he begins to dig deeper into the dark past of Stella's sister.  It is revealed that Stella certainly has her own dark past she is running from, one that may entail a considerable amount of less than "ladylike" behavior, leading to the penultimate confrontation in the film where Stanley and Blanche argue about values and appearances leading to Stanley violently attacking Blanche and perhaps raping her in the process, although on the following day when Stanley has a disheveled and distraught Blanche committed to an insane asylum, he swears innocence.  Regardless, the actions of the night prior prove to be the last straw for Stella who finally leaves Stanley in the film's closing scenes.

The film is somewhat overshadowed by an implied rape which is not to be taken lightly, but it must be considered that if this were solely a film about an individual losing out to the aggressions of an angry, virulent male it would not have such a well established and seminal place in both American theater and film.  I would argue that the film manages to remain a cinematic standard, which is often placed high on the list of American cinema, as well as global cinema, results from its often direct, if not always indirect,  study of a woman learning to discover her own self-identity detached from patriarchal oppression and internalized notions of her own ugliness in regards to false and vain notions of beauty.  Stella is the real point of interest within at least the film, I have not read the play entirely through so cannot speak to it with any authority.  She is always and at once suffering from a variety of indefinable women's issues that have come to demarcate feminist politics and rhetoric since the films original debut.  Firstly, she suffers in a clearly abusive relationship, but cannot escape her situation due to the economic binds of lacking self-suficiency as well as a place with which to escape to, only causing her being relegated to a small space within an already cramped domestic space all the more tragic.  Similarly she suffers from the misdirected assumptions of an idealized femininity tied to Blanche who believes in the idea of a proper woman, one that is able to accrue status and respect through wealthy gifts and gentleman callers, although as the narrative makes quite clear even Blanche is incapable of navigating these waters in the ideal manner.  Finally, Stella finds herself oppressed by the societal expectations of motherhood, and despite being in an awful marriage and lacking economic grounding, norms suggest that she carries a baby to term, as in the early fifties the notion of an abortion were simply not acknowledged.  All of these oppressions combined make Stella's final departure that much more powerful, leaving the clearly staged setting of her home to enter the equally intersectional streets of New Orleans preferring the freedom of uncertainly to the assurance of discomfort.

Key Scene:  The tension that builds and then unleashes revolving around the card game was the point at which I understood the lasting effect of this film and is certainly a highlight in a film full of classic moments.

Buy this film, honestly, you have no rational reason not to.


Noodles Are Synergetic Things: Tampopo (1985)

In many instances a film has a reputation that precedes itself, often getting mentioned within circles of those in the "cinematic know" if you will.  These movies are exceptional and for many reasons fail to make it into the traditional top 100 film lists that flood a burgeoning cinephiles exploration.  For a long time one such film for me was that of Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, easily one of the greatest achievements in cinema, despite for some time only being witnessed by a handful of film students, becoming an excellent reference in one of my favorite films of all time.  Other films, like House becoming a point of reference due to their sheer inconceivability, while also being a thoroughly enjoyable film.  It is perfectly balanced between these two lines that we find a film like Juzo Itami's Tampopo, with its surrealist concern for deconstructed linear narrative being paired so well with classicist cinematic stylings.  I would venture to say that Tampopo in all its zany and incomparable antics exists with such a concern for the sensory that it is much like the food varied and depicted throughout.  Where my uncertainty with something like Tampopo lies is when describing its cinematic intentions, considering that it manages to be both a light-hearted pseudo-romantic comedy, while also being a biting critique of the effects of patriarchal tradition and Western influences on a Japan, that at the time, was still attempting to assure its grounding on a global scale.  The film also exists within the realm of the meta, allowing for viewer to become engaged with a drawn out depiction of urban Japan, while also considering the very intimate experiences of a somewhat definable protagonist, or in this case group of protagonists, yet the late Itami is careful not to leave too much certainty with any character, often taking the the viewer's assumptions averting and reverting them throughout.  Tampopo is a film that could be viewed differently and rewardingly every time, always changing and hopefully evolving, not much different than the way one's tastes change from youth to old age.

Tampopo begins with a direct addressing to the audience by a sly and aggressive Yakuza member simply referred to as Man In The White Suit (Koji Yakusho) who demands that all those viewing the film should avoid eating during the movie, as not to cause teh narrative to become inaudible over crunching and mastication, of course, this man will reappear throughout the narrative, apparently existing within and outside of the cinematic space simultaneously.  Other minor stories fill in the blanks, whether they be the Man and his erotic consumption of food with his lover, or a set of Japanese business man looking perplexed at the menu in a French restaurant, only to be educated by a younger member.  Yet another narrative focuses on the false notions of Western eating etiquette, while yet another considers an old woman entering a gourmet shop only to squeeze and destroy various foods much to the chagrin of the employee on duty.  However, the larger narrative focuses on milk truck drivers Goro (Tsutomo Yamazaki) and Gun (Ken Watanabe) who decide to stop into a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop after a night of driving and reading about the art of noodle eating.  However, the shop they decide to stop in is run by the widowed Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto) whose lack of a husband as a guide has led to her flailing business, as well as a disconnection from her son who is repeatedly bullied at school.  Tampopo is not void of her own dealing with tough individuals and is confronted constantly by the drunk Pisuken (Rikia Yasuoka).  Goro attempts to divert the aggression of Pisuken only to be beat up in the process, leading to his being awoken the next day by Tampopo to food and a frank discussion of her inability to cook noodles.  Realizing the truth in his statement Tampopo begs Goro to help her excel at the craft, something he agrees to wholeheartedly, thus beginning their journey through the Japanese urban landscape to create a hybrid of all the secrets relating to the art of noodle cooking.  This journey takes Tampopo, Goro and a variety of other characters from the world of Japanese decadence to the slums of the city, each providing a necessary element to the larger art of running a noodle shop.  in the process Tampopo and Goro become romantically involved, Tampopo's son confronts his bullies and even Pisuken comes around to joining the cause, making an assumed success out of a once flailing business.  The film then closes on a shot that suggests that the love of consumption starts at an incredibly young age.

Tampopo runs in the same vein as a Monty Python sketch film, say Meaning of Life to be exact, but manages to somehow carry the philosophical and political levity of something like Godard's Weekend.  I absolutely loved Tampopo as a piece of cinema and want to make note of some of its more clever social critiques, however, I was by no means blinded by some of its egregious issues, for which I plan to mention as well.  Firstly, Tampopo is a film expressly concerned with intersectionality, whether various intersections allow for one to gain or lose respect in a society.  For example, it is not only a point of failure that Tampopo's son is of a lower-class status, but his lack of a paternal figure causes him to be ridiculed as well.  In opposition, would be somebody from the group of businessmen eating French cuisine, so involved in their world of masculine, wealthy privilege that they completely ignore Goro and Tampopo on the street, nearly trampling them in the process.  Even in this privilege, however, the group refuses to acknowledge ignorance, or in this case their own "otherness" in regards to a Western ideal, blindly following one of the groups orders for salad, soup and a beer.  The film also takes note to mention the idea that enlightenment and knowledge are not synonymous with wealth or power, especially considering that the homeless individuals are much more finely tuned to the niceties of life than any other character, white suit donning Yakuza excluded.  Finally, the film also considers the tragedy related to aging in East Asian countries and the manner with which elderly individuals are relegated to the corners of society, something just addressed in Ann Hui's A Simple Life a film I blogged about last week.  In fact, the only real failing of identities within Tampopo appears to come with the title character herself, while it is great that she is able to find her place in a mad urban landscape, the narrative does suggest that she is only able to do so with the help of a bevy of masculine figures, completely discounting the earnest efforts she has made, while also adhering to every domestic role imaginable.  Essentially she is both housewife and breadwinner and the narrative seems hesitant to make note of this fact, although, its closing does seem to suggest that all power comes from the feminine, so a complete dismissal is far from appropriate.

Key Scene:  There is an excellent homage to Chaplin about midway through the film that is hilarious and poetic in its simplicity, and proves to be one of many highlights in the stellar work.

This is a must own for anybody who enjoys cinema and while it is certainly not the cheapest thing ever it will prove a great investment for years to come.


Big Things Have Small Beginnings: Prometheus (2012)

I am constantly baffled by the way that decidedly watchable movie become victim to heavy criticism and end up completely disregarded or even worse, deemed bad and to be ignored.  This was absolutely the case with Cloud Atlas, which will, undoubtedly, prove to be the sleeper hit of 2012 and probably end up being a film highly praised ten or fifteen years from now, while many of the other works this year will fade into obscurity.  Prometheus is certainly no Cloud Atlas, but this extremely loose prequel to Alien is by no means a terrible film and aside from a rather drawn out and rocky third act it is a completely watchable and definitively enjoyable film.  I am almost certain that a larger portion of the condemnation directed towards Prometheus comes from the mass expectation that the film would exist in a cinematic framework similar to that of Alien, yet at this point in Ridley Scott's career the action heavy element simply does not fit his framework any longer, favoring, instead, the reflective, enigmatic nature of works like Blade Runner, for which Prometheus seems to share closer ties.  Of course, this is not to overlook the introspective nature of Scott's original Alien film, unfortunately, I am also certain that the average moviegoer foolishly lumps the trilogy into a set of films made by a single director, however, as most readers know the trilogy was directed by three distinct directors, who have branched out in considerably varied directions.  Nonetheless, Prometheus is calling back to this original work and no matter how much Scott attempts to deny its relationship to Alien, the various visual cues and the seemingly forced extra closing scene tie the film together.  Of course, the film is a visual masterpiece, one could expect no less from Scott and his creative team and it is hard to find a bad performance within the film, although I would make a particular note of Michael Fassbender who, as I am sure I have said before, is proving himself to have an acting caliber equal to that of a Daniel Day-Lewis or a Phillip Seymour Hoffman.  While it will be quite unlikely that Prometheus will be even close to cracking my top ten films of the year, I must confess that it is far better than the negative press it seems to have received, although my bias favoring Blade Runner may very well cloud a subjective review, but to be fair critics, by their very nature, live in a world of objectivism.

Prometheus begins in a rather expansive way focusing on some far off universe where a large blue being is depicted drinking some sort of black liquid, only to immediately follow this consumption with his body becoming overpowered by black virus resulting in his crumbling and falling into waters.  The narrative then fast forwards considerably to depict two scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Halloway (Logan Marshall-Green) discovering a cave drawing of a colossus pointing towards a set of stars.  This drawing, it is later revealed, has been discovered at various places in the world from different time period that would have yet to have been in contact to have shared such information.  Shaw believes that these images point to some sort of creation figure, a quest for a God of sorts, something that influences her navigation through space after the death of her father decades earlier.  The narrative moves forward to 2093 and viewers are shown the spaceship Prometheus moving through space, helmed by the robot/cyborg David (Michael Fassbender) a cold and distancing figure whose quest for learning and "understanding" human nature is marred by his lack of a soul, although it is clear he take a particular interest in the historical figure of T.E. Lawrence, as depicted in Lawrence of Arabia.  Regardless, David is subject to the orders of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) a stoic and distancing captain who simply concerns herself with enacting the orders of their employer Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) an aging man whose dying wishes were to help Shaw and Halloway discover the source of the cave drawings, which appear to exist in some planet so far in the depths of space that it would have been impossible for any astronomer to discover it till well into the twenty-first century.  Along with a diverse crew they approach the planet to discover it seemingly uninhabited with the exception of thousands of air-tight sealed pods.  David, however, possesses and ability to recreate moments in the past through a sort of particle regeneration and it is revealed that the beings of the planet were seemingly overtaken by some violent bug, causing them to die in a mass genocide of sorts.  This bug, becomes a source of fascination for David, as well as a threat to the members of the crew, especially when it becomes released on the ship.  Needless to say distrust and deception cause the ship and crew to fall apart leading to a large, messy and climactic encounter with "their maker," one that sets into motion a series of events that will inevitably result in the world depicted in Scott's earlier film.

The preoccupation with a higher being is something new to a Ridley Scott film, at least in regards to the works I have seen.  Take for example Blade Runner, it is clearly a film intended to remind viewers that their own aspirations to reach the heavens, by creating a veritable Tower of Babel, or building futuristic pyramids, are only a result of their own foolish hubris, put into check by a couple of cyborgs that deconstruct exactly what factors into human experience.  Similarly, Alien is many things, if not specifically, a reminder that human exploration and endeavor will invariably lead to their downfall and a lonely foray into nothingness, completely detached from a higher being.  With these two films as a reference point it would seem that Prometheus stands as a stalwart consideration of the place a higher entity plays in human understanding and as a suggestion that to obtain any semblance of a quantifiable relationship would prove to end all frustration.  However, in the tradition of Scott's films, the quest is ultimately unravelled by the human desire for more.  They find the colossus figures that served as a point of question for nearly two thousand years, only to realize that the movement of point A to point B results in wondering what lies within point C.  As the characters confess, they may well have found their maker, but what about their maker's maker, a terribly extensive inquiry into the nature of existence and a sort of larger transcendental scope.  While Scott could simply be suggesting that a quest for any one single ideology is foolish, it appears as though he is completely deconstructing any sense of a creation myth, because as he believes it to be, such myths do not account for the origins of the crafter of said creations (a mindful and a mouthful to be sure).  As his films clearly seem to do, and as Kubrick did years ago with 2001: A Space Odyssey, who looks at the tragedies of human understanding both as they long for a backwards movement, as with Shaw's quest for God, as well as in their forward looking notions as with the interactions with David, who reminds the humans that he was created to look like them as a means of comforting, a deeply profound statement on our own disconcerting relationship with artificial intelligence as an extension of the normalized self.  While I am not sure that Scott provides an answer he certainly seems to suggest living within a moment, as opposed to dwelling on the past or future, one of the seeming golden rules of life as it were.

Key Scene:  The unveiling of the universe schematic when initially discovered by David is one of the most beautiful moments in the film, despite being nearly entirely comprised of CGI effects.

This is a solid film, not one for everyone, but for those individuals who truly get the philosophical inquiries present in films like Blade Runner and Alien, Prometheus should prove a welcome surprise.  I would say rent it and be the judge of its value.