My Head Is Made Of The Same Material As The Sun: Upstream Color (2013)

It seems as though calling a film transcendentalist would be a bit of an oxymoron considering the philosophical movements decided rejection of all things institutional, yet when one considers Shane Carruth's most recent work Upstream Color, one can find few proper terms to describe its unique, cinematic and absolutely mesmerizing quality and considering that it was written, directed, and, more importantly, produced by Carruth therefore allowing to exist about as outside of the institutional elements of filmmaking as possible, much as was the case with this now cult classic sic-fi enigma Primer.  If it were not enough alone that the film were outside of the system, as one would put it, thematically it draws upon a push from the absolute heights of technology and indoctrination back towards something in the natural world, almost bestial and intangible.  Of course, the film also makes heavy use of Henry David Thoreu's Walden which, undoubtedly, helps my case, although it is not in the "on the nose" pretentious manner that seems far more indicative of a terrible mumblecorp than the absolutely realized and visually haunting Upstream Color.  I would comfortably compare this film to the work of Terrence Malick with far less whispering and considerably higher amount of rejection regarding humanity as being inherently good.  One could also easily draw some connections to the work of Brian Eno, wherein he takes the most basic of musical elements and extends them to their grandest and most realized potential, finding the ambient enjoyment in minimalism.  While Upstream Color certainly uses visual elements in varied and intense manners, it still seems to have an ambient element about it, nonetheless, one that moves through itself and beyond itself, occasionally tapping into the most basic of human desires and experiences, only to make grand statements about the universe moments later.  Upstream Color is an early 2013 release and will likely become forgotten by the time awards season rolls around, however, it is such an engaging and challenging cinematic experience that I am convinced that it will do very well come the end of the year when I reflect on my favorite film experiences of the year.

Upstream Color certainly has a narrative, however, much like Primer it is so intertwined, cyclical and non-linear as to make navigating it with any degree of certainty, nearly impossible.  What does exist is a series of characters and ideas which seem to result in some identifiable narrative moments.  The main character of the narrative appears to be Kris (Amy Seimetz) a graphic designer whose run in with a drug dealer known only as The Thief (Thiago Martins) results in her losing all her assets, and her job, when the drug, created by some hybrid of plant, liquid and insect causes her to be hypnotized into following every order of The Thief.  This portion, however, is followed by Kris, now possessing much shorter hair and her attempts to rekindle a relationship with her estranged husband Jeff (Shane Carruth) whose own illicit behavior as an off the books broker for a set of motels leads to a certain degree of paranoia.  These interactions, as well as brief other occurences, are monitored by The Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) who appears to be an experimental musician with an expressed interest in capturing and altering the noises of nature into ambient, polyphonic musicscapes.  However, considering the location of much of The Sampler's work it is also quite possible that he is a pig farmer, who has music as a very secondary hobby.  When the traumas of the past and Jeff's own problematic present state lead to a falling out the couple almost split ways, only to decide to give their relationship one more shot, this time with a greater degree of success, although there arises on issue as to their shared understanding of past events,  particularly Jeff's assurance that what Kris assumes to be her past is indeed his own.  However, their memories seem to collide together in poetic certainty when the two arrive at The Sampler's pig farm and find themselves magnetically drawn to the animals, an act that has a certain degree of connection based on Kris and her previous run-in with The Thief, however, the involvement of other previously unidentified bodies makes the experience both incredibly personal to Kris and seemingly universal to all those involved, including Jeff and The Sampler, and, indirectly, The Thief.

It is the very indistinguishable line between the personal and the universal that seems to draw the narrative ideas of the movie together.  It is no accident that the film borrowed heavily from Thoreau's Walden exists in a similar thematic space, although to be fair that is very much the nature of transcendentalism.  It first involves a person finding themselves in relation to the institutionalized state they live in, then rejecting it and in the process of rediscovery finding a larger meaning.  One of the best moments of this within Walden involves Thoreau innocently looking into a frozen like at the habitat below leading to his own personal identity crisis, followed by a profound reflection on his relationship with a higher entity, in his case God.  Upstream Color is not so much oriented towards the higher deity aspect, although Kris and her vision of a sun-headed man, could certainly glean such a response, instead; it seems concerned with a push towards a healthy non-institutionalized way of living.  In fact, even the very drugs that exist within the narrative are completely detached from an sort of chemical-pharmeaceutical hands.  They appear to come from the earth, eerily manifesting themselves out of nothingness.  Interestingly enough, while Kris is going through the process of rejecting all her "earthly possession" as it were, her diet consists solely of water and ice, a veritable cleansing that goes along with her move towards a transcendent lifestyle.  One could certainly argue that the tension in her relationship with Jeff is a result of his continued attachment to the institutionalized world, even though his existence is entirely detached on paper.  Furthermore, the irony of them moving through hotels is not lost, in so much as not only is it not a home they built on their own, much as Thoreau did, it is further a space that even as it is intended to be a place of safe space and rest is not one of possession.  As such they must return to the dirt of the earth for the answers, and Carruth is clever to make it the most disgusting of places, a pigsty, perhaps suggesting that life is eternally attached to the most grotesque and it is in this realization that others can begin to share in the beauty of the world, at least the closing montages suggest such a possibility.

Key Scene:  The sun-head scene involving Kris and The Thief is cinematic magic.  I am almost scared as to look up how it was done, as it would inevitably spoil some of its awe.

This is a stellar work, it is well worth obtaining on bluray to view once, twice or even three times.  I imagine it even exists as a wonderful sort of backdrop when muted.


This Isn't Caving, This Is An Ego Trip: The Descent (2005)

I am beginning to commit to enjoying horror films, I am fully aware that it seems contradictory to a cinephile to enjoy horror movies, because by mainstream standards they are regarded as a lesser genre, one that is constantly pumped out and fills the space of movie theaters, in most cases, with garbage.  Furthermore, I have in the past talked about a "horror renaissance," and am certainly not the only person to provide such terminology when discussing the genre and its seeming disappearance over the past few years.  I am fully committed to now recanting that statement and claiming that there have been a solid set of horror offerings over the past decade and some change, we are just foolish as cinephiles to expect them to manifest themselves in a manner similar to that of say the eighties where gore ruled all and over-the-top was a must.  I think it is often a problem of fans of that era to assume that classic horror films of that era were the only thing to appropriate such stylistic choices, when, in fact, most every film from the 80's adheres to a high degree of showiness, even when it is meant to be serious and dramatic, think about Cinema Paradiso and Amadeus as primary examples.  I say all this to bring up The Descent, a relatively overlooked horror film from 2005 that is quite enjoyable and does little to undermine the tradition of the horror genre, in fact, aside from its setting it actually embraces most of the tropes of the horror genre, especially all of the elements that made the 80's one of the high moments for scary movies.  In fact, excluding a few new ways of scaring, I would say that The Descent is a viewer's guide to all the ways to scare in a horror film, which may suggest that it is lesser in its repetition, but its decided post-modern approach to the genre is damn scary in its execution, because while writer and director Neil Marshall certainly uses traditional ways to get you to jump out of your seat he seems to have everything a second or two off kilter making the scares deliver at the most unexpected moments.  The Descent will scare you and just when you think you have been provided the worst moments in the film they manage to extend a bit longer, not to mention, this is one insanely gory movie and man does it embrace that state of mind.

The Descent follows the experiences of a group of thrill seeking women who spend their time exploring the wild outdoors, attempting to navigate new landscapes and untapped territories.  However, during their most recent trip Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) experiences tragedy when during the return home, her husband dies in an intense and traumatic car accident, leading to her being hospitalized.  A year later, Sarah is invited to go caving with her group of friends, as a means to move on and forget about her tragic events of the past.  However, it is clear that even though she is attending the trip her psychological state is far from sane.  Nonetheless, the group undertakes a night of partying and boozing before heading on their trip, to a cave, which the group's optimistic leader Juno (Natalie Mendoza) fails to mention has been unmarked.  The descent, from which the film sort of draws its name, is relatively uneventful at first, aside from the occasional scare of bats or rock slippage.  Yet when it becomes clear that they must enter into the smaller portions of the cave to advance further paranoia begins to rise within the group, particularly Sarah who begins to have panicked visions of her past traumas, as well as visions of things moving throughout the cave.  After an accident immobilizes one of the members, it is revealed that Sarah's visions were far from imagined and that the cave is indeed occupied by humanoid creatures who have a desire to destroy and devour the occupants of their cave.  One by one the creatures pick off the members of the group, until it is only Juno and Sarah left, whose friendship was already at odds when Juno revealed her desire for naming the cave in their honor.  In an act of vengeance, Sarah attacks Juno with a climbing spike, leaving her stuck waiting for an eventual death at the hands of the creatures.  Sarah manages to escape and in a panicked state makes her way the group's car and escapes, however, when she pulls off to the side of the road it is made apparent that this escape was all but real and that her visions of insanity may have been much deeper than initially assumed.

I mentioned that The Descent has a title with a dual meaning.  The obvious one being that it is about a group of women descending a cave, whereas the second refers to one woman and her descent into madness after the crippling sense of loss when her partner dies.  Of course, that is the metaphor that extends throughout the film, because as many know, good horror films exist to exploit the hell out of a metaphor and The Descent does it with unadulterated commitment.  For example, the creatures themselves could represent Sarah's own blind rage, one that is intent on destroying everything in a state of vengeance, misguided and inexplicable it is a sort of feeling of injustice that if not properly attended to could explode into serious issues.  Furthermore, her fractured relationship with Juno is not necessarily reflective of her deception regarding their planned locale, but, instead; a result of her failed help as a friend after her husband's death.  As both Sarah and another friend note, Juno disappeared immediately after the accident as opposed to saying the length of time appropriate to help Sarah through her mental breakdown.  Therefore, her act of revenge against Juno in the closing moments of the film has a possible second layer of "pinning" her down for her own previous indiscretions, allowing her to no longer use mobility to escape, one could argue that by attacking Juno, Sarah has forced her to face her evasiveness.  While the other characters seem secondary in this critique they are certainly not that, in fact, I would argue that they also represent an extension of Sarah's psyche, or better yet problematic ways in which she could have dealt with the tragedy.  For example, one girl is aiming to be a doctor, perhaps a metaphor for the problems of treating Sarah as a fragile being in constant need of care, whereas another addition to the group is a woman who navigates each moment as though it is a singular detached experience, perhaps a failed approach Sarah might have taken after her husbands death.  Regardless of these readings the closing of the film suggests that any and all efforts were in vain, because Sarah succumbs to the darkness of her descent, one of loneliness and inevitable death.

Key Scene:   For as many scary moments in the film, perhaps the most creepy moment comes rather early in the film.  Suffice to say, it involves a window and boy did it stick with me.

This is an excellent film and one of the better horror films of the past decade.  I strongly encourage you to pick up the cheap bluray, it is certainly worth more than its price suggests.


If I Am Not Me, Then Who The Hell Am I?: Total Recall (1990)

It seems as though Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick will be doing a battle of sorts for my favorite sic-fi author whose work has been successfully transferred to film.  A handful of reviews have considered each author and their works as they have been adapted and Total Recall only proves to be the most recent case of this, a film that I had wanted to see for awhile, but always put on the back burner for a variety of reasons.  I am glad to have finally obtained a bluray and popped it into my player, because it was a very redemptive experience on a large scale.  For whatever reason I had written of Arnold Schwarzenneger as a respectable actor, despite being fully aware that he is excellent in the Terminator series amongst other things.  Furthermore, a very terrible experience with Showgirls, as well as a less than stellar response to Basic Instinct had me strongly reconsidering my notions of what constituted Paul Verhoeven as a great filmmaker, aside from Robocop.  Finally, I was rather certain that highly stylized, special effects film had lost their magic by the end of the eighties, but this film seems to really be the swan song of that era and baffled me with its continually experimental and fresh use of visual elements to create a highly watchable and active film.  One would be hard pressed to really criticize Total Recall as a film, because, while it has its moments of terrible acting and occasionally bends under its ambitious plot, it manages to be solidly executed and perfectly timed considering its both inclusive character plot and larger philosophical considerations.  Total Recall, much like Die Hard is just a fun film to engage with, one will find viewing this film to be viscerally enjoyable and visually mesmerizing while also being aware of its general badass nature, particularly in some of the more bizarre moments of special effects and cgi, which manages to exist within the world without the weird showiness present in more contemporary works.  I have not paid the remake a visit to this point, but I feel as though it will only be a let down, because this version is something extraordinary and indicative of what is truly possible with science fiction films that are fun and easily accessible, yet not so watered down as to be insultingly straight forward.

Total Recall centers on the experiences of Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenneger) a construction worker whose life within his gorgeous wife Lori (Sharon Stone) is constantly at odds given his preoccupation with his dreams about roaming Mars with a brunette woman only to result in his death when his helmet breaks and he suffocates in the toxic air.  These dreams lead Quaid to pursue answers through Rekall, a corporation that specializes in aiding people with their desires through a dream state.  Quaid takes up this opportunity only to result in a technological error that leads to him being woken up while being put under for his unconscious experience.  This awakening finds him with a severe case of memory loss and the knowledge that he must return to a certain place to assure his safety.  However, when Quaid awakes he is also fully aware that he is now a wanted man, one who apparently has ties to a man named Hauser who worked on Mars.  As Quaid begins to navigate this space it becomes clear that the people he assumed to be his friend were spies themselves, even Lori who attempts to kill Quaid when he returns to their apartment.  Despite being completely against odds Quaid's desire for survival affords him the ability to appropriate technology to his advantage, even using brawn when necessary. While running from pursuers, Quaid learns of a deeper layer of exploitation occurring in his world, one that has led to mutations in individuals, specifically groups whose living close to the surface of Mars.    Furthermore, Quaid realizes that his identity as Hauser has layers of problems, some that tie him directly to the exploitation of the persons on Mars, fortunately, Quaid meets a woman named Melina (Rachel Ticotin) and she helps him to realize his past, as well as make larger sense of the dreams he was having at the beginning of the film.  Quaid takes it upon himself to correct the wrongdoings by the large corporation, and uses both his newly obtained technology, as well as a keen awareness of the group and their hubris to his advantage, eventually saving the citizens of Mars.  The closing scene shows Melina and Quaid happily embracing, although it is quite possible that this entire world was simply the result of Quaid's initial dreaming at Rekall.

My relatively recent review of A Scanner Darkly, also an adaptation of a Dick work, considered the problem of reality and physical experiences, and it is certainly a theme in Blade Runner, a personal favorite of mine, again a result of the influence of the great science fiction author.  I would certainly place Total Recall within this context, but where the other two films seem intent on considering the issues of providing validity to a non-sentient being possessing "experience" while the other considers how experience is affected by layers of drugs, Total Recall seems to consider the idea of imagining into existence justice and egalitarianism in the world.  Quaid is certainly not a perfect person, but one can easily see from the onset of the film that he is a just and aware individual who simply wants his presence to validate those around him for something relevant, even if he can be a bit snappy and standoffish in the right circumstances.  The way the narrative, which is quite assumedly the vision of Quaid, plays up on the lesser versus the one's with unyielding power has various layers, whether it be the delusion of unwarranted power and how this affects the psychological outlook a person might have or the way a lesser individual internalizes their oppression,  suggests that Total Recall is decidedly entrenched in denying anything "performed."  It could easily possess layers of Marxism, psychoanalysis and in the right context a feminist reading and each would be able to draw upon the "dream" nature of the narrative to advance a reading of rejecting power, particularly those with such sway that their authority is even difficult to undermine in the unconscious state of the world of Total Recall, assuming of course that the film is an entire dreamscape.  Total Recall is concerned, firstly, with the issues of assuring one's presence in reality when each interaction is predicated upon a series of lies, or at the very least performances for and against expectations, and even if this rather obtuse consideration of the film is frustrating, its clear criticism of capitalist endeavors, much like what occurred in Robocop, is well worth celebrating.

Key Scene: The X-ray machine sequence could have been in a film this year and still been as captivating.

Total Recall on bluray is super cheap and certainly will prove a great film to have on hand for various situations.


Don't You Ever Call Them Tattoos: The Illustrated Man (1969)

I am beginning to think that Ray Bradbury may well be the ideal author to have his works adapted for the screen, considering my apprehension regarding Truffaut's adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, a book I am very fond of, it was a pleasant surprise to find a film that completely embraces and properly appropriates the world and themes of Bradbury's seminal novel.  Of course, I have only read this singular novel by the sci-fi giant, but when I discovered that The Illustrated Man was an adaptation of a Bradbury short story I had considerable degree of excitement, only furthered by the excellent cover work on the DVD copy I obtained.  It is difficult to fully break down what is excellent about this film because it is not necessarily linear and has layers of stories intersecting and is certainly not a perfect film.  However, considering that it was made in 1969, it adheres to a certain stylistic construct to which I am quite fond, one of heavy lighting in a natural setting and experimental match and jump cuts that help capture the viewer within a dreary and dreamlike trance.  While I would never suggest that The Illustrated Man exists on the same plane of brilliance as, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, it does seem to commit to the same degree of grand introspection and evocative imagery.  What The Illustrated Man does brilliantly is take a set of themes, most of which center around notions of unity, authority and a sense of loss and disconnectedness in an increasingly modern world, much the same as Bradbury's collective works.  However, where his novel and adaptation by Truffaut entrench themselves within the optimistic, The Illustrated Man is a highly pessimistic piece, taking careful strides to note that somewhere in the near future people will simply wander about seeking their own sense of self worth, and while doing so they will constantly run the risk of encountering people who sensibilities favor the highly violent and are completely willing to destroy in the name of self-understanding.  Of course, there  is the more blatant level of the narrative, emphasized in the obvious visual elements of the film that reminds viewers that to truly where your past on your skin, is a jarring and disconcerting thing to encounter, even for the most progressive and idealized of individual.

The Illustrated Man technically falls within the narrative space of a single valley, assumedly somewhere in the Midwest of a futuristic America.  While this world is covered in dirt, brush and a bit of water, the evasive cinematography and generally stark state of nature suggest a dystopic future scape.  It is in this world that we are first introduced to Willie (Robert Drivas) a young man who has taken it upon himself to wander about America in a quest to find himself before meeting up with a family member to get a job.  During a moment of rest he is approached by a hefty man named Carl (Rod Steiger) whose intrusive nature is bizarre on its own, yet when he becomes increasingly evasive and inquisitive, Willie accepts that his presence will not go away soon.  As they begin to talk, Carl shows off his "illustrated" body, which he makes sure Willie knows are not tattoos.  A bit confused as to its relevance, Willie is quickly told that the illustrations were acquired from a elusive woman, while Carl was working as a carnie, each tattoo having a story, such as the one with a rose, which he obtained from the as reminder to carry her in his hand.  These illustrations are more than simple body art, as Willie quickly realizes when he discovers that simply staring into any of them will result in the world of the artwork literally unfolding before his eyes.  One story focuses on a futuristic child's playroom that allows them to play in various dangerous worlds whether they be medieval castles or African savannahs, while another considers the plight of astronauts who have crashed on a planet that is in a constant state of torrential rain.  The final story considers the ethical issues of two parents who have been informed of an impending natural disaster and the choice regarding whether to poison their children in their sleep to avoid suffering.  It is this sense of loss and death that seem to tie the narratives together, both within the illustrations, as well as in regards to Carl's own story as he recollects the tattooing woman and how she inexplicably disappeared when he awoke after receiving the illustrations.  Willie, now being witness to the various stories, envisions his own death as taking up a patch on Carl's unpainted body, leading to him attempting to kill Carl to no success, thus fleeing in fear.  However, Carl, seemingly immune to physical pain, arises and begins a slow chase of Willie.

The film is chocked full of varied and detailed social critiques, which is not really a surprise considering that it is lifted from a Bradbury short story.  However, the one that seems to be the highest concern, at least in regards to the adaptation, is the idea of the sensory experience of the present being ignored in the futile quest to understand the future.  While I am not sure if this is entrenched within issues of drug use, or simply a consideration of technology as evolving to placate the human body and its ability to experience events, it is rather clear that at no point does a sensory experience seem to be an enjoyable thing.  The most blatant case of this comes in the way of the astronauts whose entrapment on a planet that continually rains is not so much an issue of health regards to catching a cold, as much as it is a result of their psychological breakdown as a result of being harmed by the dampness of the rain, or going deaf and eventually insane from the constant pattering of rain drops inside of a cave.  The closing moments of this particular vision witness the captain of the ship finding shelter in a "sun dome," which is a lavishly designed modernist house where sensory pleasure is placated by a sterile environment.  In this case it appears as though the film suggest that modernity has led to man's complete disconnect with the natural, so much so that to step outside of their technological shell is to assure their slippage into insanity, or worse death, which given the wired-in nature of our society at the moment, I would suggest that Bradbury made a rather astute observation.  However, Carl seems to be the exception to sensory suffering in his relationship with the illustrator, one needs to know very little about tattooing to be aware of its truly painful nature, and as Carl openly notes he has been tattooed everywhere from head to toe, suggesting that some incredibly sensitive portions of his body were marked.  It would seem as though he is callous to such sensory pain, in which case the drug element of the film seems to emerge, particularly since for all intents and purposes the work simply manifests itself upon his body, perhaps in the form of a non-physical vision, as opposed to an actual tangible piece of artwork.  If one is to read the extension of the sensory to the non-physical state, it helps to explain Willie's vision of his own death at the films closing moments, as the imagined entering into the real in a very intense and destructive manner, perhaps, again, as the result of some psychotropic experimentation.

Key Scene:  I want to note the overall degree of experimental cinematography in this film, it was what helped push this film from simply being excellent, to being brilliant and worth heavy consideration, there are moments that could rival Welles in their composition.

This is a magnificent film, but it is also one that has suffered from distribution rights issues.  As such, I would suggest renting it until a cheap copy becomes available, although the twenty plus dollar price tag on this film is well worth the investment.


The Happy Childhood Is Hardly Worth Telling: Angela's Ashes (1999)

The adaptation of Frank McCourt's memoir in all its high sentimentalism and Irish charm would have been a standout hit and well-received classic were it to come out any other year but 1999.  As many podcasts and bloggers have noted before me, 1999 has proven to be a standout film for contemporary cinema evidenced by the seemingly unstoppable amount of great, if not, at the very least, unique and important works.  In its two and a half hour undertaking, Angela's Ashes is an absolutely watchable film that has some true moments of heart-wrenching honesty and all around great performances, and given that I often see copies of McCourt's novel at second hand book stores, it is clear that it at one time or another was a widely acclaimed and read book, however, I am also aware that the heavy handedness of the text and subsequent sentimentalizing nature of the film are exploitative in their nature.  For the moments in the film that chronicle the emergence of first love, it is also important to note that these evolutions too come with loss and the film is never sure what to make of the ebb and flow of such natural occurrences, resulting in a linear narrative that manages to fail in its climactic structure.  Of course, I am hardly a person who advocates for such straight forward methodologies when concerning filmmaking, but the particular stylistic choices of McCourt's memoir and the directorial nature of Alan Parker.  The suffering Irish family is a trope culturally at this point and it is simply a matter of how committed the director or author are to the subject as to its success and Angela's Ashes is far from being as intense as My Left Foot.  I do, however, want to make it expressly clear that I am not against Angela's Ashes, I get the narrative it is trying to create and the methods it uses are certainly executed to the highest degree, but given that it was released relativley recently it is hard to embrace it for anything than traditional, deciding to play into the highly stylized romanticizing of poverty and suffering that would be blown into excess a year earlier with Titanic and as witty and energizing as the narrator's coming of age tale proves to be, it is simply not enough to justify its extended runtime and general lack of narrative evolution as characters move from point A to point B, only to realize that point A was the desired location after all.

Angela's Ashes, despite its suggestive name, actually focuses on the childhood and young adult experiences of Frankie McCourt, who is played by a handful of actors in this film since he ages throughout the lengthy temporal narrative.  Regardless, the story begins with Frank as a child and the realization of death when his parents Malachy (Robert Carlyle) and mother Angela (Emily Watson) suffer from the loss of a child due to it being born in the winter in their impoverished living conditions.  This sad misfortune begins the process of them moving from America back to Ireland, the exact opposite of what many were doing at the height of the Depression in both countries.  Upon arrival in the religiously and politically divided country Frank realizes the true powers of stereotyping as he is mocked by his classmates for being a "yank," as well for having a father who is lazy and from the North.  Nonetheless, Frank and his brothers are strong-willed children and they manage to survive even though their father hardly works, and when he does the money he earns is quickly wasted at the local pub.  Frank seems always keenly aware of these tragic actions on the part of his father and continually strives to make a path for himself in the world, while also attempting to earn money for his family, particularly his suffering mother.  Yet, when it becomes quite clear that their only means for survival is to completely remove their father from the live and work as live-in servants to a wealthy bachelor, Frank begins to question his place in the family, becoming quite critical of the discovery that his mother is providing sexual favors to the man for money, and finally moves out when he discovers that she would rather side with the man than her own son for the sake of economic safety.  Frank moves out on his own and finds work as a telegraph courier, which leads to his first sexual encounter with a young woman dying of tuberculosis, which gives him his last push into adulthood via an awakening to lust and death near simultaneously.  After a large sum of money falls in his way, Frank seizes the opportunity to truly begin his life in the only fashion he knows how, by moving back to America, although in the name of narrative closure it is suggested that he returns fondly upon all of the moments of his young life.

It is perhaps this emphasis on fondness that makes the film slightly more frustrating than rewarding, and I realize this is somewhat absurd coming from me, a person who loves when films take leaps and go against the grain of traditionalism.  However, in regards to Angela's Ashes the issue emerges when McCourt's text is vaguely adapted to make negative characters seems sanctimonious or something other than terrible.  Obviously the example I am referring to is Frank's father, Malachy who spends nearly all of his screen time drunk.  Of course, as children Frank and his brothers are less likely to pick up on these problems, and instead; embrace his more light-hearted paternal moments, which would be fine if the film also did not seem content with this methodology.  The fact of the matter is that Malachy is blowing his earnings on booze while allowing his children to go hungry and even worse for his wife to be so malnourished that when she gives birth it results in sick babies who die within hours or days of arriving into the world.  At no point is this truly challenged, sure Angela kicks Malachy out of the house and society seems intent on chastising Malachy, but it is so much more entrenched in his Northernness than in his alcoholism.  I must confess that I have not read the book so I am uncertain as to how Malachy is depicted in the context of the memoir, but it seems as though any attempts at defending his near atrocities should be undercut by the realities, something that the film manages to avoid on a regular basis.  While Malachy's character is the biggest problem of the film it is certainly not the only vague depiction of oppression, the film seems to have a unbalanced and wavering depiction of many of the institutions of the era, particularly the charity based organizations of the government and the Catholic church, as well as the role teachers played in Frank's upbringing.  I am not suggesting that Frank McCourt did not find success without a strong sense of self-worth and determination, but the film is a bit too self-aware about his post experience introspection to see where he was aided and hindered as a child, which causes the films sentimental nature to be more misguided than endearing.

Key Scene:  When Frank begins his affair with the young woman with "consumption" it is one of the few moments of absolute narrative and cinematic cohesion and it is hard not to get emotive at its beautiful depiction of loss of innocence.  If only this film were that consistent throughout it may well have been one of the highlights of a year of excellent film.

Angela's Ashes is not a bad movie, in fact, it is quite good.  My issue arise with some of its obtuse moral statements and considering that it is rather expensive on DVD, I cannot suggest you go out of your way to see it in the near future.


You Think Wrestling Is A Show? Life Is A Show: The Foul King (2000)

I seriously dread ever having to make a top ten thursday that focuses specifically on Korean films, although it has been quite awhile since I have even composed a list of such a manner so perhaps my fear is even more centered in the concern that I will never actually be satisfied with any list upon viewing other items that fall into its categories, even with the most absurd of categories.  Regardless, I am getting back into the pace of things with Korean cinema, as I know my planned Western month and impending Bond project will invariably block time from movies that I really want to see, as opposed to ones I should be watching, or am watching happily in the name of research.  As such, I wanted to dig into the corners of Korean Cinema and find some items that I had desperately wanted to view since first being informed of their existence and while Peppermint Candy seems to be the largest gap in my Korean film viewing to date, The Foul King was another that I longed to see upon hearing about its absolutely zany plot and action oriented narrative.  My trip through the Korean filmic landscape over the past year and some change at this point has afforded me a ton of different viewing experiences, some of which, for obvious reasons, exist decidedly within the horror genre, while others of equal enjoyment found themselves entrenched within the romantic comedy realm.  However, The Foul King seems to be in a world of Korean filmmaking all its own, drawing heavy influence from the works of Seijun Suzuki, while much to my surprise using some of the filmic stylings that one can only hope helped guide Aronofsky in his methodology as it pertains to my personal favorite of his The Wrestler.  Of course, considering that it is a relatively recent Korean film, The Foul King is anything but straightforward in its narrative.  Sure it is a linear film in many aspects, but it finds itself so informed by the impossible and the cinematically evasive as to be a constantly evolving narrative whose fixations on the crumblings of masculinity and the desire for destruction as a means of escapism.  The Foul King is a film that may well have suffered from a loss on the cutting room floor, but what viewers are given in the way of social commentary is good, if not absolutely perfect.

The Foul King focuses primarily on Dae-ho (Kang-ho Song) a out-of-his-luck bank clerk, whose diminutive relationship with his boss becomes a point of contempt and disdain for all that is wrong in his life, both financially and emotionally.  When his boss oversteps his boundaries and places the young worker in a headlock, Dae-ho takes it upon himself to seek out an alternative method to fight back against the authoritative boss.  When he is turned down by a friend who does tae-kwon-do, Dae-ho finds an add for professional wrestling and realizes that such and endeavor will provide him the skills necessary to fight off his boss.  However, the trainer and head of the gym refuses to aid Dae-ho, particularly after he expresses an interest in the classic wrestler known as The Foul King who would rely on elaborate cheating method to assure victory.  Yet Dae-ho is incredibly persistent and when the gym head is forced by mafia leaders to heighten the action of his matches he agrees to take on the aspiring wrester.  During his training Dae-ho comes to realize how truly exhausting and challenging wrestling can be, even when it is fake, learning to choreograph elaborate fights, along with the methods necessary to "cheat" without getting caught.  After some bumpy roads Dae-ho finds a bit of success in the ring and eventually builds up enough of a reputation to be scheduled to fight against renowned fighter Yubiho (Su-ro Kim).  Meanwhile, Dae-ho is still finding trouble with attaining respect at work, as well as at home where his father criticizes him for being a failure, as such, Dae-ho pours everything into this fight, even though he is expected to throw the fight in the name of entertainment.  After a long drawn out fight with Yubiho, one that delves into a real brawl, Yubiho does indeed defeat Dae-ho, but not before the young wrestler has earned a new degree of self-respect and willingness to strive for more than mediocrity in his daily life, even if he still finds it hard to be fully successful in every single endeavor.

The Foul King is such a straight forward "turning a new leaf" narrative.  Dea-ho is a simple character with simple desires and the film does not at any point attempt to layer a ton of metaphor onto this quest. However, that is not to say that The Foul King is not something short o brilliant.  In fact, I was completely enamored with the film from its excellent and highly artistic opening moments and found Dae-ho to be an absolutely intriguing character.  What the film does is takes something such as the concerns, particularly in a masculine context, for workplace advancement and parallels them nicely with the issues of competition and phallic power in professional wrestling.  Dae-ho would be quite content to simply move through his unproductive life, however, when he is attacked inexplicably by his boss in the bathroom it becomes a question of his own power and authority as a male and he seeks a physical venue to challenge to oppressive force.  The latent homoeroticism of things like wrestling and contact sports, allow for the attack by Dae-ho's boss to take on a new form, and other suggestions of homosexuality as being present in an unwarranted context play into this narrative nicely.  In fact, I found myself laughing each time a wrestler was shown training at the gym, inevitably they would be show working with a punching bag that was blatantly intended to be phallic, it would be near impossible to call it anything else.  Of course, the film does not suggest that homosexuality is bad by any means, it only notes that the issue of sexual advances and exploitations based on economic means is problematic and to work against this would be the ideal.  It is also a narrative that draws a clear line between being a person with low work ethic and a person who blatantly cheats.  While neither are ideals in any sense, it is clear that Dae-ho's cheating in the ring is for show, where as Yubiho's use of steroids and violent temperament are more detrimental to the safety of his opponents and the sanctity of the sport, a fine parallel with his boss whose constant attacks are borderline assault, as opposed to well meaning reprimands for the young banker's immature behavior.

Key Scene:  It is a rare feat to have the opening shots of a movie suck me in immediately, but this is the case with The Foul King.

This film is, unfortunately, hard to come by on DVD, but is available on Netflix.  However, there appears to be about one copy in circulation so it might be awhile before you get your hands on a copy.


Depression Is The Inability To Construct A Future: Side Effects (2013)

If it were not for the absolutely amazing and impeccable work being put out by Paul Thomas Anderson I would be in line to call Steven Soderbergh the best director currently working in film.  Always consistent and always pushing his limitations the rather unfortunate news that he is considering retirement is of great concern to film critics and cinephiles the world over, especially since he is making a conscience decision to move onto other non-film related endeavors.  Given his keen concern for perfection I am sure his next ventures will be met with much success, but it is still a bummer to think about, especially since films like Contagion and Bubble have received high praise and are certainly among some of my favorite films of their respective years, and I am a defendant of both The Informant! and Magic Mike as being highly underrated, yet keenly engaging films.  In fact, Soderbergh as a filmmaker represented on this blog is just short of the recently reviewed Kim Ki-duk for having the most films in which I have written full reviews.  Where Soderbergh does seem to be winning is in the area of receiving the most comparisons, scrolling through some of my past reviews it is rather clear that I associate a certain sort of deep focus minimalism with the director and deservedly so because he continually delivers a high quality product in a packaging that is clearly distinguishable as his own.  This is certainly not an exception for his most recent film Side Effects, which comprises itself of a handful of actors Soderbergh has relied on in the past and visually defines his auteur status, even if this proves to be his last film, aside of course for his highly anticipated HBO movie, Behind the Candelabra which is about, of all things, Liberace, a subject so sensitive that it could only work in the delicate surgeon-like hands of Soderbergh.  If Side Effects proves to be his final feature film then so be it, while it will certainly not stand to be his best work, it is still an exercise in excellent filmmaking and takes a plot with twists and deception and never allows viewers any moments to reside if comfort.  I was one of two people in the theater watching this movie, but when a certain, very violent scene occurred I was aware of my own gasps of astonishment, as well as those of the other person.  Unsettling would be the word to describe these moments, but considering that it is generally an absolutely bleak and stark film, one could never really define the viewing experience as welcoming.

Side Effects in all its multi-person narrative centers on two main figures, the first being Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) a woman who is suffering from various degrees of psychotic breakdowns as a direct result of losing her illustrious and well-to-do lifestyle after the arrest of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after being found guilty for insider trading.  She is happy about his release from prison, but when the stress proves too much she drives herself into the wall of a parking garage, thus leading to her being hospitalized for suicidal tendencies.  It is there that she meets the doctor on duty, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) whose hopes of finding success and a great future for his fiancee and her daughter have led him to take up extended shifts, as well as agreeing to more work with experimental pharmaceuticals.  However, when a combination of anti-depressents and anti-sleepwalking medicine lead to Emily violent stabbing her husband, Jonathan's involvement with the girl is put into question, especially since it appears as though he was solely responsible for the misdiagnosis and its subsequent fatal results.  In the process, Emily's former psychiatrist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) steps prominently into the picture spouting advice and opinions about Emily's past mental issues.  When it becomes evident that Victoria has her own interests at heart and that Emily is consistently attempting to undermine Jonathan's well being, he takes it upon himself to delve deeper into the case and prove that his actions were not to be blamed for Emily's terrible acts.  Of course, the added burden of this preoccupation with innocence leads to his being chastised for poor performance at work, which causes his fiancee to question his motives, only worsened when a set of compromising pictures surface, suggesting that Emily and Jonathan had a relationship that extended beyond patient/client lines.  This last form of loss leads Jonathan to throw everything at proving his innocence, an act that proves beneficial, although incredibly trying for the young doctor, however, he proves that deception is afoot and that proving one's sanity may well be more difficult than arguing for their insanity.

Much like his stellar film Contagion, or any film by Soderbergh that focuses on a specific subject, Side Effects deals with the world of prescription drugs, to be specific anti-depressants, in a near ethnographic manner.  The low key manner of his filmmaking and concern for story and character over visual flair leads one to constantly have to remind themselves that what they are watching is indeed fictional and far from full truths.  Perhaps this works exceptionally well in regards to this film, because it is decidedly concerned with the frail line between reality and illusion and to what degree one can cross those lines in the name of escapism or self-preservation.  At various points throughout the film each of the main characters engages in their various forms of deception, each with their own ulterior motives and desires, it is not a question of the ethics of the act of lying or purposefully deceiving the world, because as many Soderbergh films have done in the past, this is a relational issue.   People in the world of his films, and, to some degree, the world outside the theaters, are prone to deception as long as it assures the happiness of those around them.  I would be hard pressed to find even the most sanctimonious of people who do not lie in the face of despair or sadness to push towards the possibility of happiness.  This certainly seems to be the case for the relationship between Emily and Martin, they had an entire life of all they desired predicated upon high degrees of lying and deception and when the light is thrown upon this lie, it is hard to maintain the performance even in the most intimate of settings.  As such, Side Effects brilliantly captures the world of pharmaceuticals to great detail, but that is only the surface commentary of the film, because at a much deeper level Soderbergh seems intent on considering how we use drugs, and the chemical deception they provide to mask our delusional view of the world around us, as well as an excuse to actually go of the deep end when it proves advantageous.  To the world of Side Effects, drugs are a secondary problem to the general acceptance of lying for sanity's sake.

Key Scene:  Soderbergh goes Hitchcock via a Psycho style scene and boy was it intense to watch on the big screen.

This is a great film and considering that it could be his last theatrical release, I feel as though you owe it to yourself and the great auteur to seek it out at your local cinema.


Have I Changed, Or Has The City Changed?: Memories Of Underdevelopment (1968)

With the viewing of this film earlier this week I can now say definitively that at some point in my life I have seen every film on the TIFF essential 100 list.  This might seem a little silly for those who do not regularly read my blog posts, but this has been an endeavor that was well over two years in the making.  Many of the films on the list were quite easy to come by, but since it is an incredibly diverse and decidedly globalized list some of the works were just near impossible to find, particularly Memories of Underdevelopment, which as you may know is a Cuban film about revolution set in the heart of the sixties.  Fortunately, my attending a rather big name school for graduate studies has afforded me the chance to watch a copy, all be it, on a VHS player, but it is by no means the worst venue for some of the films I had to dig up, I think specifically of Wavelength and Pather Panchali when reflecting on this quest.  It is quite appropriate that I ended with something like Memories of Underdevelopment, because it stands apart from so many on the list (all quite excellent films in their own rights) as something uniquely its own.  A hardened cinephile will quickly recognize the various cinematic traditions exploding on the screen, whether it be flares of cinema verite, or a heavy use of Fellini's humorous absurdism, in fact, one can even pick out a healthy dose of American rock'n'roll influence, despite being a film made in Cuba during the height of its revolution.  What makes Memories of Underdevelopment such a powerful film, however, is that despite its clearly personal commentary on the state of Cuba politically and its inevitable extension to those occupying the spaces of the multiracial, multi-classed island, the film somehow manages to exude a certain degree of awareness about the larger questions of humanity, personal struggle and the ever present concern of aging and existential angst.  Filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea blows the lid off of cinematic conventions, by layering cinematic tricks, with masterful metaphors never allowing the narratives decidedly non-linear structure to ever provide any degree of comfort or intimacy to the viewer, yet the message is so personal and impassioned that it is hard not to be fully gripped from the violent opening of the film to its introspective closing moments.

Memories of Underdevelopment has a few narratives interwoven within the particular experiences of Sergio (Sergio Corrieri) a well-to-do Cuban whose travels and living in Paris have clouded his judgement of Cuba both as a country and as global political identity.  Sergio purposefully uses the term underdeveloped to refer the the nature of Cuba as it moves towards the seventies, suggesting it to be indicative of its relationship with countries like the United States, as well as a reflection of the larger social landscape.  Of course, Sergio is quite well off, therefore, he is able to more easily move about Cuban streets and, subsequently, engage with people of various classes.  Yet, as a single bachelor, Sergio spends a considerable portion of his time attempting to hook up and manages to find success with an young girl named Elena (Daisy Granados) whose doe-eyed demeanor is both built up as a point of attraction for Sergio, as well as a sign of weakness which he is happy to exploit.  Of course, his involvement with Elena is far more fleeting and desires nothing more than casual sex, yet, when it is revealed that Elena is indeed a virgin, and expects Sergio to now wed her after their intimate encounter, Sergio moves into a panic, attempting to avoid any degree of commitment.  It is, however, revealed that Elena, aside from still being a teenage, is also suffering from a high degree of mental illness, or at the very least a severe case of depression.  These changes result in Elena's family stepping in to seek reprimands for Sergio's behavior, although the wealth and well-being of Sergio allow for him to escape without as much as a scratch, able to float about Cuba with his condescending gaze fixated on all those lesser than him.  The film shows this rather simple narrative while continually intercutting between popular film and political footage, with a rather obvious yet incredibly poignant message along the way.

The notions of class and privilege cannot be ignored within Memories of Underdevelopment, and certainly should not, considering the political climate in Cuba at the time of the film's release.  Firstly, Sergio is intended to be a loathsome character, his Westernized, views of the world allow him to look at his country with some degree of disgust, suggesting that the people are to some degree underprivileged and, therefore, decidedly less than he is, especially since he has seen the "better," and considerably whiter parts of the world.  It is no irony that the people he seems to condemn the most are of considerably darker complexion than himself and as a result less connected with the Western ideal.  This frame of reference helps explain how he goes about seducing and taking advantage of Elena, who is noticeably darker than himself, her suffering from a mental disorder, only helps to convince of his ability as the closest thing to a "white oppressor" to take advantage of the mentally troubled and, as a result, savage Cuban woman.  It is a narrative that steeps itself within the realm of colonial criticism, which is no small irony, given that Cuba would be dealing with a colonial gaze via America, whose concerns for their production of weapons would lead to high levels of hostility, leading to surveillance and infamous photographs at the Bay of Pigs, completely unbeknownst to the people of Cuba.  Much in the same way, Sergio lives in a high rise condo and uses the lens of an expensive camera to spy upon the people around his building, whose class and racial complexion are othered and exploited, even gazed upon at Sergio's leisure.  It is, in fact, these sequences that seem to sum up the issues of the film beautifully.  The film seems to ask what good can come from change and a desire to alter the landscape of a country that is being passed down and decided by a for so high up as to be literally detached from the ground.  Their understanding of the problems does not speak to the deaths happening on the ground, only the lofty ambitions to be equal to the West, although this idea, as the narrative seems to hint, will never, and can never happen.

Key Scene:  There is a nice repeat montage of some dancing and striptease scenes in the middle of the film that is experimentally sound and metaphorically powerful.

This is a doozy to come buy and does not appear to be receiving an American release in future, as such I strongly recommend watching it but will leave you to your own devices to figure out how to do so.


Lust Awakens The Desire To Possess: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (2003)

It has been a bit of time since I watched a Korean film, let alone reviewed one within the context of the blog and I felt that an injustice since it is the country within which I place my primary focus academically, particularly in regards to the Korean New Cinema movement.  With this in mind it was a high possibility that if I were to pick a film completely by chance that it would fall within the directorial scope of Kim Ki-duk, whose works are wide ranging and nearly all controversial.  In fact, I have to my recollection reviewed at least four of his films on this blog already, which may well be the highest for anyone yet.  I would be hesitant to call him the Takishi Miike of South Korea considering that it suggests a heightened state of shock value, but Ki-duk's films are certainly not for the easy going or those seeking a visually light film.  Even in the case of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring, one can realize that underneath the veneer of beautiful cinematography and a poetic reflection on the nature of adoration and sacrifice lays a highly graphic and terribly abrasive consideration of the nature of sexual awakening, violence against those things without power and the general issues of growing up and learning to navigate a curious and ever changing world.  I would pair this particular film with Ki-duck's The Bow, although wherein that film the director seems terribly preoccupied with the idea of entrapment and its justifications in the name of "protection," Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is near wholly concerned with the ability of beings to move through the world with complete lack of hindrances.  One can see the notion of burden throughout the film, but the metaphors are layered and near impossible to read as any singular statement.  Furthermore, the episodic nature of this particular work, divided into seasons, as the title implies, help contest even the possibility of forming or obtaining burdens as something that is seen as fleeting and capable of appearing and reappearing at a moments notice.  This film, like other Ki-duk works is not suggesting a single possible answer or degree of oppression, but is constantly aware that as things they are subject to repeated change, especially in their decidedly intangible nature.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring focuses on the "closed off" world of an aging monk and his student a very young boy.  I put closed off in quotations because the world is entered through two doors via a point of view shot, yet nothing seems to be restricting this world aside from a doorway.  Segmented as noted before the first section follows the young monk about the natural world of the expansive monastery, where he finds humor in tying rocks to various creatures and watching them struggle to move.  Enraged by his behavior the elderly monk forces the young boy to carry a rock on his back while he goes about attempting to amend his wrongs.  Some of the animals, however, have died as a result of his cruel experiment, leading to a deep sadness in the boy.  The narrative then moves forward a few years and witnesses the arrival of a mother with her sick teenage daughter, roughly the same age as the boy who is now a teenager himself, despite the outset desire to heal the girl, the young man becomes infatuated with the woman and the two begin a sex heavy relationship, only to be discovered by the old monk who demands that she leave at once.  Angry, the teenage boy follows behind and leaves the monk alone, thus leading to the next section of the film, where the young monk returns somewhat older, heartbroken and bitter for placing his faith in a woman who eventually cheated on him.  Upon return, the old monk makes the man carve words into the dock of the pier of the monastery until his anger is minimized, during which cops appear to seize the man for what one can assume to be either assault or murder.  This moves then into the next section of the film, where the previously young man returns to the monastery to take up residence, during which time he is visited by a veiled woman and her child, one can assume this to be his former lover, although it is never outright shown.  During a night of panic, the woman runs outside onto a frozen lake only to slip into an exposed portion and die from drowning, leaving the man to take care of the child, which, of course, leads to the final section of the film, which depicts the former student now serving as an aged monk to a younger generation.

The cycles of this film are clear, what is less clear is the tangible, spatial elements of the film.  One can easily argue that the film finds its grounding in a sort of chronological structure, which is partially true, however, given that the moments between each episode do not represent a flat out seasonal change, and appear to extend beyond simply a temporal space suggest something much grander at work, a notion only made all the more obtuse when one realizes that the actors playing the assumedly same parts change, therefore, adding a surreal and almost mythological element to the film.  I would even make a case that Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is very much concerned with what occurs in the liminal spaces of not only the world of the narrative, but the relationship between viewers and the screen.  It is no accident that the doors always open up into the world essentially telling those who are watching to engage with the work, or to step into its realm, for to not do so would be to disregard the intimate, yet always changing world of this secluded monastery.  In fact, everything is always on the move, much like in his film The Isle, Ki-duk's world is placed on water, which can obviously be read as a variety of things, however, in the spiritual regard of this work, and the other previously mentioned Ki-duk works, it only seems to add to the lack of grounding as a suggestion that any plans or attempts to anchor down to a place are futile, and in the particular location likely to result in death.  These "weights" which metaphorically appear in the form of the young boy tying rocks to animals, extend to the narrative, whether it be sexual desire, the dream of escapism or perhaps even notions of spiritual answers themselves.  The climb up hill carrying the burden of a stone in the next to final act seems to best sum up the entire narrative, in that, climbing the hill is already problematic, but one must only carry the burdens that they have brought upon themselves, and nothing more, every individual is given a chance to chose their outcomes, even in the most seclusive of situations.

Key Scene:  The rocks on the animals metaphor is so on the nose, but considering how inherently violent it is, I felt it to be an audacious and well-executed portion of the film.

This is another cheap Korean film that stands out as well-worth owning.  Not only is it an exceptional Korean film, but it is also a great art house work on a global scale.


If You Lose The War, Don't Blame Me: The General (1926)

I have long adored Buster Keaton as being both a brilliant filmmaker and a master of the slapstick comedy genre.  In many ways one can tie Keaton to all the best elements of the silent era, whether they be the great narratives, captivating visuals or senses for a cinematic landscape that is capable of intense specifics and grand generalities.  The General is certainly Keaton's most well-regarded film, one that often gets placed as number one in his oeuvre as well as being in top hundred lists on a near regular basis, in fact, if I am not mistaken it has also managed to find its way onto the most recent incarnation of the Sight and Sound poll.  While I will probably always be partial to Sherlock Jr., I certainly found myself completely captivated by the world of The General and even became aware of myself laughing out loud at many moments in the film, something that seems to be a rare occurrence when I engage with movies these days, let alone a silent era film at that.  Perhaps it is the universality of the narrative, or the genuine zeal of the stunts and comedy in The General, but damn if it is not a well-perfected bit of film, that leads me to suggest that it is no far extension to mention the late Keaton in the same breath as other major cinematic figures, whether they be Welles, Kurosawa or Renoir.  I know that Chaplin would prove more successful and that Harold Lloyd would commit to a higher degree of insanity, but one of my many adorations towards Keaton is his seeming ability to effortlessly weave both the serious elements of his film, in this case, the trials of war, with complete absurdity, thus allowing viewers to, unknowingly, become fully aware of the more serious and to some degree illogical elements of war.  Of course, it is not necessarily the ideal commentary one would hope for considering the clear positive and negative sides of the war, however, it is a film from the twenties, and is certainly far more critical of The South than say, The Birth of a Nation, furthermore, it is not unlikely that Keaton stages his protagonist on the side of the Confederacy as a means to layer on the irony.  If all of this manages, however, to not be a selling point it is worth remembering that this film possesses the single most expensive scene in all of the silent era pictures, and is well worth it as far as the history of cinema should be concerned.

The General focuses on the attempts of railroad engineer Johnnie Gray (Buster Keaton) to become a soldier with the Confederacy, almost entirely to assure the well being of his fiancee Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack) and the upkeep of his locomotive The General, for where the film obviously draws its title.  Upon discovering that Gray is a engineer the South rejects his desires to enlist and say that he should stay at home, however, the officers fail to explain their decision to Gray who assumes it is a negative choice, leading to his repeated attempts to join the Confederacy, particularly after he is egged on by his fiancee's brother and father.  Annabelle not realizing precisely why Gray is not enlisted, threatens to leave him unless he shows up in the clothing of the Confederacy.  Time passes and during an unusual event, Annabelle becomes a prisoner to escaping soldiers, leading to Gray chasing them down on a pushcart, which leads to the mid-section of the film which is a glorious and lengthy set of chases and re-chases between Gray and the soldiers in blue, often taking turns throwing things into one another's paths to slow down their already specified mobility.  During a night when Gray sneaks into the enemy camp he discovers their plans, which revolve heavily around a specific bridged trade route and after taking the lead in his locomotive, he is able to draw the Union soldiers towards the bridge, which he has started on fire, causing the passing trains to pass over the bridge, only to have it cave in while riding over it, leading to the destruction of the trade route in the process.   This is followed by a thorough trouncing of the soldiers on the part of the South, a barrage which directly involves Gray, at one point he becomes the bearer of the Confederate flag.  In the end, however, Gray obtains the thing he truly desires, via reuniting with his fiancee who has forgiven him and understands his situation, the two are shown kissing, while Gray half-heartedly salutes the passing soldiers, considering that his efforts on the train led to several degrees of promotion in one fell swoop.

The General is a lot of different things, whether it be a early reflection on the filmic possibilities concerning an anti-war statement, a fear of modernization blocking from human interaction, even in a negative sense, or perhaps most obviously it is a romance.  One with these suggestions can create arguments as to their validity and relevance to the respective film, however, there is an undeniable and outspoken consensus that this is easily one of the greatest comedic films of all-time, in not the to few concerning America specifically.  The question then arises as to what precisely makes The General such a stand out comedy, often placed higher on lists than any other Keaton film, and in many instances well above the first mention of Chaplin.  I would suggest that a ton of the support and eventual critical success of the film is its purposeful commitment to some of the more traditional tropes of Westernized culture, although completely reverting and reappropriating them to fit the desired situation.  It is no small feat to move a large train forwards and backwards, let alone choreographing one's movements through that area as well, much like Lloyd and Chaplin the shear athleticism is baffling and to center it within a comedic context is something entirely its own brilliance.  Keaton would often forces his way through scenes to make the moment work, diving, twisting and dodging accordingly all in the name getting the ideal shot or sequence.  Where the slapstick elements not enough, however, it manages to be further brilliant by the genuine comedy of the plot and the passing of being a soldier for either side, by simply switching coats, a mockery of Benedict Arnold, while also earnestly considering what it means to identify with one side during a war.  Perhaps the real humor in the film, however, comes at its most scathing moment, wherein Gray ignores all the killing he has done now that he has repossessed the affections of his fiancee, suggesting he would literally kill to win her back.  As noted before, it is seemingly simple, however, it has layers of irony and criticism when one pauses to truly place the situation against the backdrop of the war occurring simultaneously.

Key Scene:  The match cut of Keaton dropping stuff of the train while the following train and soldiers continually pick the stuff of the tracks is filmmaking 101, but few have used the match cut as well since...oh yeah there is also this really cool train crash sequence.

Buy this movie, it is a backbone for any collection.  I certainly plan on upgrading to blu in the near future.


Nature, Mr. Allnut, Is What We Are Put Here To Rise Above: The African Queen (1951)

I has been roughly six full years since I have decided film to be my biggest passion in life and since then I have seen a variety of films and sought out both the masterworks of film, as well as obscurities and absurdities in between, always taking very seriously the earnest suggestions of individuals along the way.  During the first six months or so of my endeavors I was strongly encouraged to watch The African Queen by a person whose love for classic movies and John Wayne seemed to assure that I would enjoy this work very much.  At the time, however, The African Queen was very much out of print and quite hard to come by and it was something I had always hoped to visit but never remembered to go out of my way to obtain a copy for, which to view.  In the past year, however, copyrights appear to have changed and not only is this lovely film available in both DVD and Bluray formats, it is now also watch instantly on Netflix, making this long unavailable classic open to a whole new generation of burgeoning cinephiles, and this is a gift of a film, with value extending well beyond its more than a half-century of age.  At once a war, romance, travel and religious film, paired with problematic commentaries on gender and colonization, The African Queen is nothing short of cinematic perfection and the commitment to stellar acting on the part of both stars Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart quickly snatch viewers into the world of the film, never allowing their hold to loosen, even in some of the films most over-the-top and unbelievable moments.  I can now understand why the individual who recommended this movie was so adamant that I see it immediately, and while it only took me six years to get around to doing so I am completely grateful for the initial recommendation, it is quite obvious that films like The African Queen in all their earnestness and mass appeal only come along one in awhile its newest reemergence only speaks to its historical place and the necessity of it being revisited many times, both in regards to the growingly masterful of oeuvre of John Huston, whose films are always a pleasant surprise to me, as well as a fine piece of film regardless of time or place.

The African Queen primarily focuses on two characters, the first being Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) a devout woman of the Methodist faith who, along with her brother Samuel (Robert Morley) have taken it upon themselves to bring the name of Jesus Christ to the native peoples of Africa, even going so far as to build a church in their village.  The second character is the carefree Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) who is willing to do anything to make money and assure the livelihood of himself and the functionality of his dear ship The African Queen.  Yet when the village is attacked by enraged Nazi's Samuel dies and the only persons left surviving, along with a few villagers who quickly flee are that of Rose and Charlie, who begrudgingly become companions in an attempt to escape the inevitable return of the German soldiers.  Using The African Queen as a means of navigation they travel down river, aimlessly until Rose suggest that they use the oxygen tanks on board, as well as other supplies to exact revenge upon the Nazi warship called the Louisa.  Charlie at first is dismissive because he associates his livelihood with the boat and sees Rose as a prudish simpleton, hoping only to escape their situation and unload her as quickly as possible, yet as many a story note, confined cohabitation can lead to forced intimacy, whether it be their need to get out of the rain or the necessary task of removing leeches off of a half-naked body, at some point animosity turns into admiration and eventually becomes adoration and Rose and Charlie eventually find themselves in the throws of passion, as best they could be shown circa 1951.  With a new drive and the companionship of one another the two take upon their journey to torpedo the Louisa, a task that proves a failure due to rain and unforeseen bouts of tumultuous water. They are at this point captured by Nazi sailors who have them set to hang, only to be saved at the very last moment by the sunken African Queen and its bunches of compressed air, which help to destroy the ship and afford Charlie and Rose an escape to safety.  They are shown swimming away in what can only be assumed to be a happy future together.

This film exudes sexuality, but that is not to to say that it is graphic or visually erotic, in fact, it exists entirely within the realm of metaphor and manages to use the sexualized image to a degree that would cause one to think of early surrealist work by Luis Buñuel.  Take for example the scene where Rose must clean herself in the river, it is not a scene of nudity, but certainly is a modest one by the standards of the era.  Viewers, however, share the same ability to see Rose as Charlie does, often only seeing her foot or hand peak above the boat or out of the side of the water.  It is a point of curiosity that has a certain degree of sexual curiosity about it, affirmed by Charlie looking way from Rose as she boards the boat, but as he does so his gaze become almost nearly direct with the viewer, allow those watching to see his eyebrows raise and eyes move about, clearly imagining what is occurring behind him, as do the viewers, because he blocks their line of sight.  Gaze is problematized because viewers are forced to ignore the next layer, while relating to the confrontation of Charlie's gaze which is reflecting the request for modesty on the part of Rose.  Nonetheless, the entire scene is frothing with sexual tension, only to be heightened by moments of removing leaches from Charlie's body, or the "release" of all the gin, which proves to be the upswing in regards to Charlie who takes a new liking to Rose despite being initially frustrated at her actions.  Other minor moments of Charlie repairing the boat, or Rose salting Charlie's leech bites have degrees of sexual tension, all leading up to the moment where they drown themselves in passion, working in unison to repair the boat motor, a choreographed moment of such intimacy that it is impossible to ignore, and should anyone be unsure about this, the monsoon scene that affords the two the final lift out of the river, undoubtedly, affirms their passion for one another, even if on an incredibly metaphorical level.  I mean, one could even see their swimming way from the exploded Louisa as a post-intercourse moment of ecstasy.  This of course is one reading, but a grounded one that I cannot help but support.

Key Scene:  The hanging scene is surprisingly jarring visually and reminded me of the very real crime that was going on during the particular period in which the film was set.

This well worth owning, but can easily be watched via Netflix.  For those who, like myself, will instantly fall in the movie, the bluray can be obtained for relatively cheap.


Retain, Even In Opposition, Your Capacity For Astonishment: Lincoln (2012)

I will do something that happens all to often on this blog, in my open choice to recant a previous belief that in regards to Oscar nomination for best male in a lead performance that nobody had anything on the excellent Joaquin Phoenix whose presence in The Master leaked through its crackled surface and glossy veneer to cut at the very question of a likable human being.  I was sure that even with my undeniable zeal for Daniel Day-Lewis that his performance would be lesser than what Phoenix provides.  While I still very much adore Phoenix and think his performance may well be the best of his career, when I popped Lincoln into view, I was aware from the moment that Lewis and his method acted version of Lincoln filled the screen that his acting would without question be far superior to his absolutely excellent counterparts.  It is something far different than There Will Be Blood, but, nonetheless, manages to show a very honed set of skills that jump out to viewers, each lengthy monologue welcomed with just the right amount of score by the infallible John Williams is more than enough to cause a viewer to become heavily invested in the film, so much so, that when it finally does end and the credits emerge the emotive drain is hard to ignore.  I mean to consider that alongside Day-Lewis' Lincoln are a slew of other respectable actors including, amongst others Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook and Tim Blake Nelson, and that is only naming a few.  I am not one to hold Spielberg in contempt for his particular style of filmmaking, especially in regards to its heavy handed nature, instead, I am fully aware of the stylistic choices he makes as a director and allow for them to permeate my experience, something I have attempted to do with more recent Michael Bay films with no success.  Even the detractors of Spielberg cannot deny the absolute magnitude and cinematic zeal of Lincoln, an absolutely inspiring narrative that is only made the more precise by a decidedly on-the-nose Tony Kushner script, Lincoln is what one should aspire to when making a biopic, in all its absolute intensity and surprising modesty.

Lincoln, despite being a film about one of America's most well-regarded presidents, nonetheless, considers a very specific portion of his presidency, the months leading up to the signing into affect of the Thirteenth Amendment, ultimately, and legally abolishing slavery in the Union, soon again to be The United States in a completist sense.  As history has shown, this was an incredibly complex process and one that Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) had to face while also handling the woes of his personal life, firstly, dealing with his mentally-troubled wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and his gung-ho son Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who felt it necessary to join the war effort to assure his self-worth, despite running the very real risk of losing his life.  Being the brilliant man that Lincoln was he is fully capable of navigating the various rungs of his administration, gathering respect from most everyone he talked with given his penchant for long-winded stories and breadth of factual knowledge, despite being almost entirely self-educated.  The problem emerges, not when opposition emerges, because Lincoln and his conclave of politicians are sure that they can obtain swing votes, it is the though that pushing the amendment through will only occur if a suggestion of its necessity to a peace agreement can be created, something that is problematized when the officers of the Confederate Army find themselves desiring piece talks.  Lincoln facing the decision to prolong slavery with the posibility of instant peace or ignoring these request with an assurance that the enslavement of man will end in The United States leads him to a multi-tiered moral quandary, which is only solved while rambling about geometry with a scribe one night.  Along with the help of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and the surprising swing votes of a handful of democrats the amendment is able to pass and slavery is subsequently abolished, not long after a crippling Confederate army surrenders and Lincoln allows them to flee accordingly.  While this is not a film about his entire life, it does, nonetheless, include his assassination, although it happens out of the scene, instead focusing on the trauma faced by his youngest child.  The film closes with an aging Lincoln offering a speech on prosperity and the human will, before somberly fading to black thus ending the epic narrative of a few months in America's bloodiest war.

Lincoln is an example of the classical Hollywood style properly realized.  I know many film lovers who suggest that Clint Eastwood is the last classicist making films and while I would tend to agree with that in the fullest, I would also argue that Spielberg possesses a certain degree of classicism, the only difference is that he came to his through evolution as a filmmaker, whereas Eastwood began as an actor in the world of Western classics and took this style into his movies.  One only need to break down any shot in Lincoln and realize that the stoic staged presence of each actor, paired with a set that defines the idea of chiaroscuro, as wall as the previously mentioned John Williams scores, make for everything one must have experienced when attending a film during the alleged "classic" era of Hollywood.  Even the sort of bombastic, hyper intensity one comes to expect from Day-Lewis is reigned in within this film, although, it is not ironic in the slightest, considering that the probable expectation would be this intensity seen in There Will Be Blood or Gangs of New York for such a major and visioned figure in American history.  Instead, Day-Lewis goes the way of simplicity with his version of Lincoln, finding himself far more concerned with portraying the man in his most humane, humble, a bit awkward socially and completely occupied with the notion of justice and a greater truth.  Similarly, much in the way of classical style the film is inundated with notable actors and faces, however, when this often happens in newer films characters constantly attempt to one-up one another, often making a mess in the process.  Lincoln is much more in line with the classic stylings and respect for large casts of respected actors, in the case of this film it is clear that everyone involved works in the space of Day-Lewis while also realizing that it is his space and they have just been fortunate enough to briefly share it for awhile.  A combination of hyper-intellectual dialogue on the part of Kushner, masterful scoring and a roster of classic style actors makes the case for Spielberg existing in the realm of classicism more and more with each film he makes.

Key Scene:  As much as I do not want to side with the Academy the monologue they picked for Day-Lewis when showing his performance in Lincoln is certainly the highlight of the film and is one of many brilliant moments.

This is obviously worth watching and I would even say worth owning.  It is a reminder of the power Spielberg has when committed to directing something visionary.


This Isn't Sorcery, This Is Torture: Kill Baby, Kill (1966)

There may be nothing worse in regards to film viewing then committing to a movie that is almost good, but in the end falls short and proves to be absolutely average.  While it may be a reactionary element on my part to the particular stylings of filmmakers like Dario Argento, Jean Rollin and in the case of Kill Baby, Kill director Mario Bava I feel as though the film in question is almost on tap to something excellent but manages to be to preoccupied with narrative closure and normalcy to commit to its zany direction.  I am also aware that I am watching this film with dubbing, which can prove grating in the case of a film that is not necessarily aided by absurdly terrible translations and delivery.  Kill Baby, Kill is a solid film and it has many shining moments, particularly a handful of experimental shots that would suggest a brilliant idea under the surface of vain concerns for attractive people with paranormal problems.  I will admit openly that I am quite unaware of Bava's process as a filmmaker, but the film seriously wreaks of being tampered with, in so much as it has some rather jarring and enjoyable breaks form linear narrative, only to continually resituate itself within the traditional filmic structure, most times with no explanation as to why.  It is one thing for me to engage with a film that purposefully avoids providing characters with names, but it is entirely another matter when I am rather certain that I am being told characters names repeatedly, but have little memory of what they might be scenes later.  Hell, I recently went on a tequila fueled night of Spanish films and undertook watching a Santo film only to be disappointed to discover that it had no subtitles, nor did it possess dubbing.  That being said, I continued to watch the film and managed to glean a plot to some degree, although to be fair it could have just been some elaborate fever dream brought on by the aforementioned tequila.  I offer this aside only to say this about Kill Baby, Kill, I thoroughly enjoyed it as a film and understand that many of its faults are indicative of its era and technological restraints, but there is absolutely nothing more frustrating than seeing moments of genius sandwiched in the middle of a subpar filmmaking.  I would equate it to placing delicious savory brie in the middle of dollar store slices of bread, if that is your course of action it is better just to eat the cheese on its own, much like this would have been a far better film it were just a set of experimental flairs detached from an attempt at cohesive narrative.

I will attempt to hash out some degree of plot from a film that is surprisingly assured that it has a direct plot.  Viewers are introduced to some dark decaying Victorian world in which a woman appears to be nonsensically running about a mansion, only to catch sight of an incredibly sharp spike on a gate.  Upon seeing this she jumps to her death, impaling herself.  This action leads to the county coroner arriving, one Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), only to discover that the town is incredibly unreceptive to his presence, existing instead in an outdated frame of mind that values sorcery and witchcraft over any degree of scientific truth.  This situation makes it insanely difficult for Eswai to get information or make a case for what he assumes to be murders.  As his movement through the area increases he becomes aware of many inexplicable deaths, mostly women, who lose large amounts of blood in the process.  The supernatural activities of the town, Eswai discovers are enacted to counter the demonic spells of Baroness Graps (Giovanna Galletti).  At this point, Eswai becomes incredibly confused as to what the truth of the matter is as it relates to the village, finding no aid when navigating between talismans and scientific truth, yet as more of his friends and trusted colleagues die, Eswai realizes that time is very much lacking and confronts Graps, only to discover that she has enacted such spells as a form of retribution against the town whose drunken oversights resulted in the death of her daughter, who was trampled by horses and slowly bled to death.  Graps believes that her daughters painful death is now the onus of the entire village, create a cycle of death as a means to assure revenge. Yet, Graps is also baffled when she realizes that her daughters spirit also navigates the spaces of the town exacting her own revenge, masked in eerie playfulness.  Fortunately, Eswai realizes the complexities of the situation at the last possible moment and saves his love interest while also assuring the destruction of Graps, although at the hands of another woman whose story is also seemingly important.

Cyclicality in film is not a terrible thing, in fact, it is a necessity in time travel films, and work quite nicely in the recent Men in Black III, however, it can be a bit frustrating when a film wants to offer this great non-linear focus on a cycle of issues, only to go about it in a terribly straightforward manner.  This, again, is my problem with Kill Baby, Kill, it is a narrative of a straight line, whose moments of experimentation seem like hiccups on a seismology reading.  The reminder that a good being is navigating the filmic space results in a narrative where sparks of zeal and camerawork that move through the environment as though they were their own character are ultimately lost, because they, aside from looking stellar, seem to have little affect on the narrative.  Earlier today, I listened to some of a podcasts from the excellent show Filmspotting, and they were making a less harsh criticism of Rami's initial Evil Dead film, suggesting that his use of bizarre camera work occasionally draws in viewers about their relationship with a horror occurring, particularly question within what sort of temporal and spatial world a paranormal narrative can exist.  Again think of the ways the Paranormal Activity franchise managed to challenge how viewers understand a linear horror film narrative, I know I am amongst a minor group of defenders for the films, but they really did revitalize how horror exists, and have for the worst created a set of offsprings that seem to betray the original, much in the ways that Kill Baby, Kill does with non-linear narrative.  Bava's work seems so intent on being surrealistic that when it does have the moments of such a degree of insanity they seem to be secondary to a lackluster plot.  I know that this film predates the original The Wicker Man by quite a few years, but it is clear that the sort of paranormal space created within that latter, is realized from the opening moments of the film, as opposed to be something that comes and goes at the whim of narrative normalcy.

Key Scene:  P.O.V swingset shot.

This is not a terrible film, but it is really damn frustrating.  I want it to be something it is not and I realize much of this is my own problem. With that in mind watch it instantly on Netflix and feel free to tell me that I am completely misreading the film, it is quite possibly the truth.