Saturday, January 19, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty, 2012
Dir: Kathryn Bigelow

Everyone seems to have an opinion on this, so why shouldn't I?

The divide in opinion about this is pretty clear: whether it's CIA propaganda or the work of an "artist" (certainly a loose term for Bigelow). The latter seeming to be what the director herself wants you to think. It is a bit of both, if I can get away with that. But seeing through the CIA ethos of the film is not that hard.

First off: I'm not sure how this advocates torture. Because it works? Well, does it really? From all the interrogation sessions that we see, all they got out of it was a generic war name: Abu Ahmed, which later we find out is Abu Ahmed al-Kuwati, who was Osama bin Laden's courier at the time of his death. The rest is all connecting-the-dots detective work, mostly progressed through hunches, carried out by "Maya" (Jessica Chastain), a CIA agent. Many of her superiors are not even impressed by her deductions. Her single-mindedness is key to her work though, as she persists even when the CIA is given information by Saudi Intelligence that Ahmed is dead. All of the grey areas involved in how intelligence is gathered and interpreted by torture doesn't make anything clear concerning any perspective, whether you think it's the CIA's or Bigelow's, behind the content of the film.

None of this is nearly as interesting to me as Maya herself, who, if anything can be said about her, is entirely defined by work. In terms of the CIA, she is a cypher throughout the film, which is important. Her character has been dismissed as one-dimensional by some crtics, but she grows from a rookie into a confident, and even arrogant, field agent seamlessly. That she falls into the pattern of CIA/espionage group-think is not strange. In fact it's expected of her (she is, after all, "a killer"), and of all agents for that matter. They wouldn't be agents if they started thinking differently. Her growth into the CIA ethos is telling. Maya has, in essence and thought, become the perfect agent. A little uppity and forward in the knowing-your-place hierarchy of the CIA, but motherfuckers have to get stuff done, and this sort of attitude separates the slackers from the go-getters.

The most important scene in the film is the very last one, which correlates back to a lot of little tidbits about about Maya herself. So let's back-track for a moment to the scene in Islamabad where the Marriott gets bombed. Maya and elder-statesman field agent "Jessica" are eating at the hotel while "socializing." Jessica tries to prod a bit into any kind of personal life that Maya might have, but the ever-vigilant Maya has nothing to give back. When asked if she even has any friends at all, she can't answer. She has no life outside her work. Maya says at a point later in the film that "...a lot of my friends have died trying to do this," but they are just other agents. Are they really her friends? Even earlier than this, she is asked by her partner, after some time of witnessing and participating in torture interrogations, if she'd like to take some time off in the States. She refuses. After all, it's hard to track terrorists from across the planet. What does she even have back there? In a scene at a cafeteria at CIA headquarters, Maya a a chat with the CIA director (James Gandolfini, who is clearly supposed to be Leon Panetta, now the Secretary of Defense). When asked how long she has worked at the CIA, she answers 12 years and that she had been recruited right out of high-school. She has done nothing else but hunt bin Laden.

So where does that leave Maya when the task is done? Alone, in a military plane, left to ponder where she'd like to go. This could be anywhere. But again, she has no answer. What are the tears? Relief? Happiness? Despair even? Maya, and the CIA, have to think about the reality of their new situation: Osama bin Laden as existential crisis. Maya is back to zero. She needs a new identity, but that can be imprinted easily enough. That's what she is trained to do. The CIA (and America) needs a new boogeyman. I'm sure there will be one soon enough (besides just "Muslims"). What triumph can there be in this never ending cycle? No bombastic fanfare. No real victory. Because Osama was just another muslim killed in the Middle East by a system that told us to think otherwise. That system created an identity for Maya around that myth, and then they blew it away.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Witchfinder General

Witchfinder General, 1968
Dir: Michael Reeves

The thing about any Vincent Price vehicle that I'm sure you've noticed is that if the ensemble around him is a bunch of cardboard cutouts than it just isn't going to work (think The House on Haunted Hill). But in this, the other actors, and especially Reeves' style, really helps with Price's hamminess, which is always evident ("I don't do accents."), but never overbearing.

Getting back to Reeves: if Robert Bresson were forced to direct a B-movie script about Matthew Hopkins, it might look like this.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


Drama/Mex, 2006
Dir: Gerardo Naranjo

Oh Meheeco. It's nice to know that your middle/upper-middle class late teens (or maybe earlier 20s; whateva) act just like us. Or do they? Where is the puro mejicano? Is Acapulco actually that Mexico? I think it is when its coming from the locals. I think I saw it sometimes here: futbol, cerveza, la playa, chicas, mariachi. That stuff is embedded in the film and works in it's favor. The soccer scene is as good as it gets. If you see this, I think you'll see it. I suppose it's just that this age group everywhere creates the drama; it comes with the territory.

Girls gunna be girls. Fernanda cares about Gonzalo, but plays him like a dummy. Chano's assualt-romance just brought back so many feelings! Yeah, he's a punk and a thief (literally, money and girls), but dangit if he's gonna get worked up about it ("I don't know. I guess I'd like to be different or something, but I sure ain't suffering over it.") Chano's a wild-man, and a manipulator. Very much in the Yuddy mold from Days of Being Wild (1990). You're not supposed to like or dislike him. He is what he is and is pretty up front about it. Does Fernanda fool herself into thinking otherwise, or does she not care? Her whole "I'm pissed at you" act at the beginning is just a game she thinks she should be playing with him.

Run away with me, girl. Let's book it out of "Crapapulco." Maybe go to Yankeekland.

And Fernanda, she was going to do it! But of course, she's just a pretty girl coward. And you know what, I take it back: she doesn't play Gonzalo, Chano plays her. The game gets flipped on her. Big-time. This dude stole from your family, and you're gonna go wanderlusting with him?! But, of course, she got caught (by two perspectives!), and homies don't let a homie's bitch play him like that. Fer, babe, maybe you feel bad or something, but it wasn't until you realized you'd been found out. That sure is a way to change your mind.

And what about Gonzalo? Is he just a yukka mejicano? For real, dude? She humps you after you confront her, and everything's OK? Of course, it might not be like that. Who knows what's really gonna go down. Particularly with Fernanda, who all we really know about her by the end of the film is that she is a flake, and she definitely doesn't know what's gonna happen. So Gonzo goes from being King Goalie Shit with his golden boys to a drunken mess, getting housed by Chano, crying all over himself. That's the thing about Gonzo, though: he doesn't have any shame, at least not for himself. He is a just really emotional guy, and that's what makes him admirable, to a degree.

But, of course, he does all the things you are supposed to do when your girl cheats on you. That's just who he is. First, he goes and rounds up a mariachi band and serenades Fernanda's window with Mexican love songs. It's such a freakin' cliche, but it's also one of my favorite scenes from the film. Gonzo's pain, right there, is one of the truest moments in the film. With his bros looking on, leaning against their car, sluggin' 40s. No shame, all emotion, so real. It makes you think about yourself and how you are always embarrassed about something. It's such a fucking hindrance. Gonzo's emotional jolt doesn't let him stop though, especially when it doesn't work. So what now: confrontation.

You sympathize with Gonzalo, but then he gets violent. Fernanda feels bad and looks wretched, but then says it's all his fault. Naranjo does a great job of not letting you pick a side in this (because that's not the point). Both of them feel like shit; both of them are shitty. A perfect couple? But surely not after this bullshit? And Fernanda decides the best way to get back to not feeling so shitty is to fuck Gonzalo on the beach. And he let's her.

The other "storyline" of the film really didn't hook me in as much, but it has a lot to do with what Naranjo is trying to say. Jaime is the older office worker who might (probably) be having an incestuous relationship with his daughter. He steals some money from his work and decides to head to Acapulco to kill himself (The suicide thing is just kinda played out if you ask me...). There he runs into Tigrillo, a young school girl who is trying to learn with her friends ("The Yahairas") the fine "dance" that local girls play with tourists on the beach for easy money/gifts. They become attached to each other for a night, and Tigrillo manages to liven up Jaime, even enough to stop him from killing himself during their "climax". You could say that by the end, the characters form a bond because they both want to get out: out of Acapulco, or out of a life. Naranjo compares them (they both steal money at some point in the movie) because they share similar longings. They just have different desires.

And this is how, as I see it, you are supposed to view the film. I've read some reviews for this, mostly on how this is "shallow and empty." I supposed if you looked at most teenage culture, you could say the same thing. But that only looks at the film on a superficial level. Our desires cause us pain, when in conflict with both our other desires and the desires of others. However, they are positive in the sense that despite the pain caused we continue to desire different things or people or places. We keep on moving on despite the pain this movement causes. People will always be people, and everyone has their own reasons. That's life: It goes on. The last scene on the beach proves it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mysterious Skin

Mysterious Skin, 2004
Dir: Gregg Araki

There's no real narrative uniqueness to this, per se, but what I really liked was the awkwardness that Araki used in his editing. The way he uses some of his transitions never lets you get a bead on any one character, and in that way, they start to resemble actual human beings instead of movie tropes. But the most important thing is that it keeps you in the moment. None of the characters really have any deep thoughts or regrets about the recent past (what happens in the film), although Brian (Brady Corbet) and Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) are dominated by the most powerful experience of their childhood, albeit in different ways (Neil becomes highly sexualized while Brian is lost in repression, both sexual and of memories). Even the kid actors, who probably had no idea what they were supposed to be reacting to in the context of the film, do a great job of this.

Neil's encounters with older men in Kansas and New York are vivid but he soon moves on to the next one, even if he can be disturbed by ones like the AIDS backrub guy. And even when you'd think he'd reconsider his habits, like after being sexually assaulted, nothing makes you assume he is going to stop. Brian might have been the more easy character to have fall into a caricature, considering his nerd/ufo thing, and Araki probably felt more astute in fleshing out a character like Neil given his own background and earlier films, but it never becomes something silly. His journey to recover his memories becomes more about finding himself, and Neil.

Even the smaller characters are given moments. I especially liked Eric (Jeff Licon), Neil's friend, who is also gay and obsessed with Neil, but Neil ignores him sexually in favor of his tricks. He has to deal with his two best friends, Neil and Wendy (Michelle Tratchenberg), leaving separately for New York while he stays in "Buttcrack" Kansas. Brian's search for Neil eventually leads him to Neil's mom's house where he meets Eric, and they develop a friendship, and it plays itself out very organically. The other interesting character for me was Avalyn, a woman who Brian contacts because, like him, she "believes" that she has been abducted by aliens. Her actions after they meet might suggest that she was sexually abused as a child herself, and her deal with the TV special and aliens is just an attempt to reach out to someone like herself: vulnerable. Her move on Brian is entirely warped though, as she thinks for some reason that Brian has turned out more like Neil.

This film could have easily been something lame, and in the hands of another director, it probably would have been. The Hollywood way would have externalized all the inner drama of two sexually abused young men, and then had this gift-wrapped confrontation at the end with the culprit to make everything OK. But that's not how the world works. Instead, Araki internalizes the exteral, investing meaning in actual melodrama, in the present day (whether in the time of the film or in the two young men's memory of their abuse), and no one is demonized in the film, not even the abuser. It was just something that happened. And in terms of that "confrontation," the one that happens turns out to be one that you don't expect. The boy's little league coach (Bill Sage) is shown to us only in memory, which is clear as day for Neil, who confesses that he still loves him in a vulnerable moment ("That summer is a huge part of who I am..."), while for Brian the hazy pictures in his head make him think that the figure of the coach is an alien. Brian's outburst at his father, who is not around much in the present and seemed oblivious to the warning signs that Brian was showing in the past, is the the releasing of a valve into true feeling, maybe even ones that Brian didn't even think he had. And in the end, when Brian and Neil return to the place of their abuse, all they can do is confront the fact they've both been fucked up by this person who left town years ago. But that really doesn't happen either. When Brian has a nervous breakdown after realizing what actually happened, Neil has no words of comfort for him. It would be a lie. Now they both know.

Soundtrack is great too, with early 90s bands like Slowdive, Cocteau Twins and Ride.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Stiener

Die Große Ekstase des Bildschnitzers Steiner (The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner), 1974
Dir: Werner Herzog

Like most of Herzog's documentaries, this works because he is fascinated by the paradox of humans who endeavor to exist in a place where they really shouldn't (think of later films like Grizzly Man (2005) or Encounters at the End of the World (2007). With Walter Steiner, a 23 year-old champion ski flyer (which is slightly different than ski jumping, I guess), Herzog has found someone unable to stop "flying" despite constantly knowing the dangers he places on himself by doing it. Walter is one of the best, and the administrators keep pushing him to try to break records (thus increasing intrest and revenue) by increasing the height of the ramps. Sometimes he'll pull of a great jump, but when he's interviewed at the bottom he'll bash the higher-ups for trying to hurt people. Sometimes though he actaully will crash and burn. But what can he do? He loves to fly. He needs the ecstasy. Those around Walter tell him that he broods too much, but this only seems to sink him further into his psychological state. The TV station providng funding for the film's insistance that Herzog himself be in the film sort of makes it feel like "Werner Herzog's Wide World of Sports" at times, but I think a lot of what Herzog tries to do (at least in his non-fiction) can be traced back to this.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Morvern Callar

Morvern Callar, 2002
Dir: Lynne Ramsay

It might be telling that Ramsay hasn't made a feature (well, her next film is coming out this year) since this, and some of the stuff that I've read ("Hipsters fucking suck") in reviews definitely reflect this. The strange thing is that there aren't really any hipsters in the film (there is a crazy party at the beginning, and I guess you could call them hipsters if you wanted to, but the film doesn't go out of it's way to label them as such so I'm not really sure what the problem is). And it definitely isn't a "mumblecore" film or some such nonsense that might be a label thrown on people making those types of films. But Morvern (Samantha Morton) isn't. She's just a poor Scottish girl from a small coastal town whose boyfriend commits suicide.

This isn't a film about her trying to cope with that the whole time though (thank the gods). She's obviously distraught at first, but after discovering that he had an unpublished novel, she decides to send it to the publisher under her own name. She then hacks up his body and buries it in the hills. When the publisher answers back that they are interested in publishing it, she takes money out of her boyfriend's bank account, grabs one of her friends, and heads to Spain for a "holiday." The film ends with the publishing representatives actaully coming to Spain, and her signing a contract.

Now, you might think with that description that this film would be pointless, but you'd be wrong. Morvern seems like a typical girl most of the time, but the more the movie progresses, the more you know she is a fraud in more ways then just not having written "her" novel. That might make her a bad person, and it might not, but it makes the film supremely interesting. That deep current of who Morvern really is mixed with Ramsay's poetic observational style (it's almost like Wong Kar-wai mixed with Herzog being told in a BBC Drama) really kind of captures something that resonates in kids nowadays (or, at least I think so). The last sequence in the film (after she gets the contract) is just a slo-motion close-up shot of Morvern's face as she dances (in London I presume) away engulfed in noise and strobe lights. And my first reaction was "Oh man wait until she's finally exposed for what she really is." But then again, she might never be. It doesn't matter. She made choices and changed her life. Definite A+. Gonna check out some of Ramsay's earlier stuff soon. Decent soundtrack in this too.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Age of Medici

L'Età di Cosimo de Medici (The Age of Medici), 1973
Dir: Roberto Rossellini

I'm guessing that most of Rossellini's later "history films" that he made for television are similar to this and The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966). The reason I would rate the latter as being better is simply because it isn't nearly 4 hours long. Medici is separated into three episodes, which broken up you could make a case that they are on par with Louis, but the overall effect is something much more tedious. But again, that isn't to say that this stuff isn't interesting. How Cosimo de' Medici became one of the most influential men in Europe is similar to how Louis had to consolidate his power once the opportunity presented itself. It's not boring or exciting, but interesting. And in every scene, a character gives his own views on art, The Renaissance, and Western Civilization in general. If you can't derive any sort of self-truth from that, you probably shouldn't be watching films. But from this, I have another problem (which is actually my fault, sort of). I'm hardly ever distracted by subtitles, but this film's almost continuous stream-of-monologueness really forced me to choose between the image and the text, which is a shame because Rossellini is practicing a cinematic minimalism that is hard to catch. To miss the most subtle of movements can be to miss the entire point of the scene. I wish it were dubbed into English (which with almost any other type of film I would certainly not want). These history films really create a tug-of-war between my ability to stay focused and engaged with the seemingly dull machinations of the film and the interesting details of history being captured as cinema. I must say, I fail a lot of the time, as I am a product of what modern media has made of me. There is something to say about being taught something without being preached to, and anything that makes me think is something worth watching.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Underworld, 1927
Dir: Josef von Sternberg

This was one of the first films ever to be open about gangsters, and it's certainly a von Sternberg film. I might be selling it short simply because so many riffs of the gangster genre are in it because on the other hand it probably had a hand in forming some of those same cliches. If it's better than a lot of gangster films that followed it it's because unlike many of said films, this doesn’t really have a central premise – a big problem or heist or something. von Sternberg's "soft light specials" (particularly on leading lady Evelyn Brent, who's a great wise-cracking gun-moll puppy slut), along with the rest of his style (emotional motifs wrapped in romanticism), really make this a mature technical effort for his first professional film, but it doesn't really exude the overall emotional wallop that something like Docks of New York (1929) will for him two years later. It's probably hard to top a film like that on any level, but he makes it his own in the von Sternberg way, so I'll just say that this is a sad film that just happens to have gangsters, and in that sense it makes it worth watching.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mikey and Nicky

Mikey and Nickey, 1976
Dir: Elaine May

I don't know if it's me or the cinema world conspiring against most of them, but I'm not sure how many films (well, serious films) I have seen that have been directed by women. I think Sofia Coppola is talented, in her way, but who knows how that would have panned out had she not been from that family. Elaine May seems to be a strange anomaly. She started out in comedy, where she is probably best known, doing improvisational stand-up routines with her partner Mike Nichols (who would also start directing films). She did a comedy in the early 70s, and then she wrote and directed this.

And what is so strange about that is that this is one of the best movies about male friendship I have ever seen. It might be doing a disservice to May by saying that this is the best Cassavetes film that he never directed, but I don't think it's a coincidence that she went out of her way to get Cassavetes (Nicky)and Peter Falk (Mikey) to play the two titular characters. By that I mean she wrote the screenplay with Cassavetes and Falk in mind. I’d venture to guess, however, that a great deal of the film is improvised. If there is anything to say about the story, it's that both men are small time hoods involved with the mob, and Nicky seems to have finally crossed the line with his superiors and now has a contract on his head. Their decades-long friendship comes to a head when Mikey is called in for support and they have to examine what they mean to each other.

Like a Cassavetes film from the same time period, this film seems to have a limitless amount of small poignant and heartbreaking moments. There’s really too many to mention, and doing so would probably ruin some of the film for those that haven’t seen it. The whole thing is so intimate and believable that the rather pedestrian story is one that seems very real. There isn’t “urgency” or whatever, as Falk and Cassavetes both get fairly drunk before hand (as is their way), but there is this small sadness in everything they go through because of this "realness" (sometimes so real that you can barely watch it) and also because all signs point to tragedy and there is nothing that can be done. Definitely one of the greats.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Nosferatu the Vampyre), 1979
Dir: Werner Herzog

Remake? Homage? Herzogian clusterfuck? I'm not really sure what this film is, but for the most part I really liked it. The look of the film can, of course, be derived from Murnau's original (and even parts of Faust), but most of the story is taken straight from Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Count Orlok reverts Count Dracula. I was thinking about all the other vampire movies that I have seen during the viewing, and was actually kind of surprised that there were a few instances (not necessarily downright "lifting" a scene, but close enough to go "huh?") in Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) that are influenced by this. Not that it really matters though. Everyone knows the story, and Herzog makes this film his own (and so did Coppola, in his "hodgepodge of influences" way).

This really is the type of Herzog film that I enjoy. Well, for the most part anyway. When ever people actually interact and "act" everything is super-serious silly. I don't really understand its purpose, even in stuff that I think is funny. Maybe it's Kinksi's influence (he is just as batshit as ever here). Dracula's mesmerizing/seduction scenes are strange to say the least, better to say absurd. The gypsies in the Transylvanian village look like Incas or something, and everything is just wacked out (esp. Renfield). Bruno Ganz gives a little glimpse of what comes down the road for him in the future as Harker, and Isabelle Adjani seems to be under the same spell, but she is forgiven simply for being a total babe. I suppose it's all about keeping the spirit of the original, but the silliness of that is what turned me off there.

So what's to like? Pretty much everything else. In keeping true to his original manifesto of trying to "capture new images," what Herzog crates an atmosphere and mood that is sincerely scary. Dracula running erratically through the town square at night with the coffin under his arm and his coat tails flapping is such an awesome depiction of deranged spirit. At the same time, Herzog also creates a film that looks into the unknown. From the opening credits, he sets a tone of these powerful images. And in all honesty, the "traveling" montages are some of the best things I have seen from Herzog, and will remind you of certain parts of Aguierre (1972). And of course, this infamous montage, which I only know is infamous in retrospect, really captures Herzog as art, and at his best. This is not the first time I have been moved by Wagner's Das Rhinegold vorspiel in a film, but it had a similar effect. Maybe the best remake ever, if you want to call it that.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?

Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?), 1970
Dir: Michael Fengler and Rainer Werner Fassbinder

This was supposed to be the first Fassbinder I had ever seen, but after looking at some articles I guess he is only responsible for the idea and producing, kind of like Truffaut's input for À bout de souffle (1960). Fengler was his assistant most of the time (but here seems to have been at the helm of direction), and the co-director credit was used to boost the film's viability around Germany, where Fassbinder was a budding star of Neuer Deutscher Film (New German Cinema). I have no idea if this is exactly what Fassbinder is like, but let's just say I'm glad I can give him another chance. Herr R. falls in between Antonioni and Pasolini's atrocious Teorema in terms of annoying films about European bourgeois living. It's just so dull. Don't you all know you're wasting your lives?!? Doesn't it make you just want to do something crazy!?! I'm glad Herr finally "ran amok" (something was bound to happen given the title...), because I was about to lose it if another awkward conversation about the "mood at work" took place. Coupled with the pseudo-documentary style, even the 88 minute time was pushing it. I think that my feelings sort of make the film a success in a strange way, that being pissed about how these people live their lives is the whole point, but I guess I want something more than a a dull string of "natural domestic scenes" followed by a crazy, twist ending. I mean, shit, M. Night Shyamalan can do that and be "provocative." So, here's to second chances Rainer, whenever that may come.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Young Mr. Lincoln

Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939
Dir: John Ford

In a banner year for Hollywood (in which Ford also directed Stagecoach), it would be a tough decision to pick out any film and say it was the best. Now, I can't claim to have seen all of the films that are championed as "masterpieces" from 1939, but having seen this and Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, I can certainly say that it was one of the best years ever in all of cinema. Ford combined a highly fictionalized account of young lawyer Abraham Lincoln around a courtroom dramedy (that is always a terrible sounding portmanteau, but apt here because there are some serious gut-busters during the trial). Henry Fonda is again a perfect Ford lead (this was their first collaboration), prone to long pauses and seeming introspection in a type of film that usually would shun such cerebral behavior.

The "Honest Abe" myth is in full swing, and that hokey-ness might be too much for some people, but it really worked for me. It's hard to explain, but I think that because the film felt dated actually made it seem all the more brilliant. Ford really gets into Abe, and despite the fact that he always wins at whatever he does (like a log-splitting contest), there are some truly incredible moments, like Abe being unable to pick which pie is best as a judge in the "Best Pie" contest because they are both "too good", or his book reading postures in general, in which he tangles himself up, sometimes to the point where he reading upside down.

I think if you really want to think about Ford's as a visual artist, one just has to notice where he places his characters: they are just in very beautiful (albeit sometimes artificial) locations. Abe's early love interest in Anne Rutlege is beautifully shot as they walk along a river. Abe has to deal with many rivals (including Stephen Douglas) once he meets Mary Todd in Springfield, but even then Fonda plays Abe as a man with a penchant for being reluctant. It's clear that his take on Lincoln is that he was a weird guy with a moral streak, and these odd touches make it all the better. The best of these "weird poetry" scenes is when Mary asks Abe to talk outside after a dance, and then Abe proceeds to stand on the balcony, leaning against the railing as Mary sits down. Then he just stares into the darkness for almost a minute as Mary watches him before the scene fades out. Being that you read my reviews, you know that I tend to get hyperbolic when I have strong feelings either way on a film, but God damn: John Ford was a genius.

There are many great things in this, but the one thing that really pushed me over the edge was the way Fonda played Lincoln in court, which contrasted well with the prosecution, who were presented as dandy law-men. Not only does his "every-man" logic and wit win over the jury, judge and crowd, but his eccentric movements and postures (slouching really) are just plain out there, to at one point where he just sits down on the floor. His slouch comes into play during one of the prosecution lawyer's bombastic ravings, where Lincoln is staring off into space in the same position as the Lincoln Memorial (maybe a bit more slouched), but I think I seriously went "Oh, wow" to the empty room. It's so obvious, but right then I thought it was the most brilliant thing ever.

While most of the plot is downright mythological, it proceeds in a very natural way under Ford’s elegant direction. Perhaps one of his single greatest strengths is his ability to avoid the cinematic principles that trapped so many Hollywood productions from this time period. There is some slightly too expressive musical pieces, but for the most part they seem present to underscore the very poetic intentions as opposed to manipulating one’s feelings. The initial poetic poignancy displayed in the opening sequences is ditched once the courtroom scenario starts, and while this shift in tone is somewhat disappointing, it doesn’t really ruin the film at all (as stated above). The end is definitely over-the-top, where after Abe wraps up his trial and sees the family safely off, he walks off into a storm (which would have been beyond genius), but then it fades into a painting of the Lincoln Memorial with the pomp of the Battle Hymn of the Republic blaring. In the context of the film, it still kind of works, but it seems like the sort of thing that Ford might not have had full control over. Either way, this is a bona fied masterpiece, with all of the great things about Ford in full effect.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Taking of Power by Louis XIV

La prise de pouvoir par Louis XIV (The Taking of Power by Louis XIV), 1966
Dir: Roberto Rossellini

In 1962, Rossellini declared that "cinema was dead", and decided to move into television, which he considered, if used correctly, to be a great educator and a tool against "ignorance and barbarism" (I wonder what he'd think of today's tube...). That is basically what this is. It took me quite a long time to adjust to one of the most extreme forms of deliberately slow pacing I’ve ever seen in any film. This is slow in a way completely different from “minimalism”. As uninteresting as it sounds, and this is indeed an “educational” film (like a documentary you'd watch in a classroom), I can’t help but find it interesting just because Rossellini is trying to accomplish something that I haven’t seen attempted before. In essence, the film is about the power vacum that occurs once Cardinal Mazarin dies in 1661, and as Louis decides to govern as well as rule, his machinations to make sure that it happens. Rossellini's neo-realism has completely done a 180 from his post-WWII days, as all melodrama has been eschewed for non-actors who were only given their lines about 15 minutes before shooting commenced (Watch the "actor" playing Louis read his lines off a blackboard here). However, Rossellini's camera is still intent on capturing small details, and I think that alone makes this worth watching. I mean, watching Louis eat his dinner while he makes all of his nobles watch is boring, but this is how Louis did things, and kept the aristocrats in check. Louis was a genius at making the trite seem important, and so is Rossellini.

Monday, January 31, 2011


Gertrud, 1964
Dir: Carl Theodor Dreyer

So I've now seen all of the features that Dreyer did after he made The Passion of Jean of Arc (1928), and this probably affected me the most besides that one. Vampyr (1932) is sort of in it's own little world, a moody, atmospheric slice of horror that you couldn't really really group with other Dreyer except maybe in a visual way. Day of Wrath (1943) and Ordet (1955) are both chiefly invested in Dreyer's humanistic interests, but are too hung up in their religious trappings (witch hunts in the former, conflict of faith and "miracles" in the latter) to really get all the way through to me. Dreyer let's all that stuff fall away and deals with the most complex of human emotions: love. While the film doesn't fall victim to easy pleasures of sentimentality, it can wear on you in its earnestness. There are certainly worse things that a film can be though.

The love life of Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is basically all we have to deal with in the film, but that can be asking a lot at points. She is married to a politician, Gustav Kanning (Bendt Rothe) but is no longer in love with him (and she even hints that she may never have been in love with him). She has instead fallen for the charms of famous young musician Erland Jansson (Baard Owe), who feigns love but is actually, in terms of relationships, just a typical young man. The wild card is Gabriel (Ebbe Rode), a past love of Gertrud's who's comes back to Denmark to receive an award for his poetry, but it is most definitely more about seeing Gertrud again (and getting her to see the pain of his lonely life).

There is no real big deviation in Dreyer's style from previous films, and in keeping with it, he basically does nothing to hide the fact that the film is based on a play. In the case of this film, that's not necessarily a bad thing unless you have no attention span. The monumentally epic takes, a trademark in his sound films, adds to austere atmosphere. You would think that this would be a detriment to a film about love, but you may have already guessed that no one is going to go away happy. And of course, the lighting, as always, is amazing.

The films overall thesis is moving, and many of its most poignant moments are discomforting in their elongation. Watching a wretchedly depressed man break down in rejection is practically unbearable, and that the rejection itself is far from malicious makes it that much more difficult. It's a bit over the top, but if anyone can get away with it, it's Dreyer. But in the end, at least for me, things need to be pushed at a more that glacial pace and I got tired of the endless chat that the lovers subjected themselves to. It's a nice character-driven film, and as a swan-song, it might even be Dreyer's most "Dreyer-like" film, if that even makes any sense, but not enough for the personal canon. Certainly not for casual viewers, that's for sure, but remarkable in its own way.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Last Year in Marienbad

L'année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad), 1961
Dir: Alain Resnais

After watching this all the way through while trying take it seriously, I must admit that I failed miserably. It's not that this film made me angry (though it pushed my limits a lot), it's just that nothing in this film captivated me in any way. For a movie that is only about two people being in love, you can't really care can you? The only interaction between them is just "remembering" and frankly it's either way over my head or its main points are driving at things I could care less about.

So there's this guy (Giorgio Albertazzi), and he's 100% positive that he met and fell in love with a woman (Delphine Seyrig) at some chateau the year before (possibly not the one they meet at again in the film, or is that a memory as well?). The woman is 100% sure that the dude is a creep and a stalker who has never met her, until she isn't (or is that even her?) Her (possible) husband (Sacha Pitoëff) is semi-interested in her well-being, but mostly likes to house people in Nim (which is probably some grand gesture about memory and dreams).

In Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) we actually get interaction and, at the very least, we begin to understand the characters and their motivations. Here, we don't and because of this there is absolutely no room to care. If you want to say that anything is truly frustrating about this, it's that Resnais nails the mood and look of a film that should be interesting, but breaks it apart so that it isn't. Maybe I just get really turned off by metafiction (which granted works a lot better in film than literature, but still...). I wouldn't be surprised if some interpretations led to some grand realization about life. It is a puzzle I guess, and Resnais deliberately only gives us some of the pieces. The film has all of the answers or it has none of them (look at the photo below: the people have shadows but the trees don't), but either way, it's just not a film for me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Brighter Summer Day

牯嶺街少年殺人事件 (A Brighter Summer Day), 1991
Dir: Edward Yang

You can watch film after film after film, and even at points become fed up with how mundane everything you watch is, but then you watch something that makes you want create something just as great and poignant, that hints at something deeper than just the story you are presenting. A Brighter Summer Day is one of those films. A film about community, family and a failure to connect on many levels, it resonates clearly in every aspect of its production. That the film has fallen into obscurity is ridiculous, and makes the experience of watching the film all the more powerful.

At its core, the film is about Xao S'ir, a teenage kid who is trying to get along in Taipei, Taiwan in 1960. But in building the sense of community that dominates the film, the overall feeling of uncertainty that permeates with every character belies the sense of unease that was Taiwan after the departure of the Kuomintang and the Republic of China to the island, especially under the iron fist of Chang Kai-shek. Parents try to teach their kids values for posterity when they themselves have no idea what the future holds, and the same kids fall in to street gangs to try to build a sense of security for themselves. That's what the first half of this film is about: the world that Xao S'ir is growing up in. Xao S'ir seems to be a fringe member of the Little Park Boys, and only at times feels like he is interested in being part of the mayhem. They are always bumping heads with other gangs over turf and girls, and the leadership is being tested because their leader, Honey, is on the lam after killing another street tough. Two lieutenants, Deuce and Sly, begin to jockey for the top. To make things worse for Xao S'ir, he gets on Sly's bad side (over a girl), who then begins a run of passive aggressive bullying. Honey's fate is crucial to that of Xao S'ir's, who becomes friendly with his girlfriend Ming, and their relationship starts to weigh on him. Xao S'ir's inability to communicate his dilemma begins to show in his overall attitude, and he eventually gets expelled from school, and decides to take actions into his own hands.

Tawain in 1960 is like bizarro China meets the USA. All the kids are into rock'n'roll and gangs, and the parents are worried about the culture change, but everything is totally exaggerated because although they love American culture, no one really gets its and barely any of the kids speak English. There is a romantic, melancholy tone that Yang build up through the film attached to all of this, and it is one of its biggest strengths. Given that the director's cut is almost 4 hours long, you definitely need those things, but once you are in to the film, you really forget about everything else, which is the greatest compliment I can give it.

Yang is sort of like a modern day Ozu, who clearly influenced his style. Lots of long, master shots that don't cut in close; lingering portraits also in long shot that make you study a character fully; deliberate tracking shots, and no camera shake. The gang chases and beatings are some of the most frightening things I've ever seen because he doesn't cut away and because of the lighting, which is as elaborate as it is simple (kind of like Yang's overall style). He also uses ellipsis to great effect. His still, long takes allow for masterful mis-en-scene, which is impossible to miss. In the end though, it's a film that's about everything because it has everything. While telling its story, it lingers in the details, and sometimes that's where you find answers. The answers of this film aren't necessarily obvious, if there are any. Maybe it's just the truth you get from listening to a song, and really feeling it.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Fighter

The Fighter, 2010
Dir: David O. Russell

I know there is a certain amount of predictability to the fight genre that makes it so appealing to so many. Maybe I'm being unreasonable to want something different, but I think David O. Russell presented this as something different but still made a regular Hollywood movie. Or was it a David O. Russell film that he "eased" up a bit on, that he compromised with Whalberg to make a commercially viable film? Personally I really didn't care for Russell run amok in I (Heart) Huckabees (2004), and thought this felt more like Three Kings (1999), which is a good thing. I'm guessing it might have had something to do with him having nothing to do with the script.

I might not be giving Russell enough credit though because I thought there was some really funny incidental comedy bits in this, those moments that weren't deliberately meant to be funny. There were plenty of those in this film that got the crowd guffawing but that was typical stuff. I mean, I don't even think I can remember what they are. That's how seemingly unimportant the moments were. It may have to do with the idiosyncratic Method (particularly Christian Bale) acting taking place throughout, but it also says something that Russell was able to capture them.

The dedication to 90s visual graphics and the strange video grain notorious to that time actually made me think about Tim and Eric in a strange way. All of this was involved with the HBO broadcasts of the fight and the "Crack House" documentary, which certainly gave the film a different vibe from other "Bahston" films that have come out in recent times. The boxing wasn't too gratuitous, and there weren't any lame motivational speeches either. Whalberg had his "It's my life/It's now or never" Bon Jovi moment, but it could have been way worse. The Micky Ward story has the Arturo Gotti trilogy (where Ward lost the last two fights), but it wasn't told here. I think that could have given the ending a bittersweet taste, but who cares about that, right? Cue WE ARE THE MUTHAFUNKIN CHAMPIONS.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

True Grit

True Grit, 2010
Dir: Coen Bros.

I think the Coen Brothers natural proclivity for quirky characters and dialogue really hurts them in a Western because it basically reveals the whole thing to be paper thin at best. All the characters do their thing and that's it. Considering how they bucked the trend in A Serious Man (2009), I had some higher hopes for this. The set-up is pretty Western standard, which is fine, and there are some fun scenes, but only one character reveals himself to be more than meets the eye (possibly?). As I've said about Westerns before, plot and story are pretty irrelevant, and good, complex characters are everything.

There is some debate over whether this is grim or actually pretty light, and honestly, I don't even think the Coens know. Maybe that's the whole point. How funny everything is can get lost in the language, but I think I laughed a few times. In terms of "villains", was Josh Brolin supposed to be laughed at 'cause he actually turned out to be pretty stupid? For a character supposedly known for his deviousness, he turned out to be something a lot less than that. In a different situation it might have been a good thing, but here it's decidedly underwhelming. Everyone else in Barry Pepper's gang has no chance to stand out, and the one guy that did made fucking animal noises.

The three main characters we have to follow offer some good acting, if not a whole lot of character depth (Bridges' ramblings about his ex-wives seems to be the epitome of irrelevant. Is that why you drink, or what? Does it reveal anymore than kicking Indians? Or is that just a funny "that's just how things were" moment). I was actually kind of impressed by Hailee Stanfield as Mattie Ross, but it's hard for a kid to externalize all the emotion a great character has. She only reveals herself to be a kid a few times ("Do we really need him, Marshall?") but it's never really enough to make her something more than just her dialogue suggests. On the other hand, I thought Matt Damon's La Boeuf was great probably because I didn't know what the hell his deal was. He's quick to to defend the honor of himself and the Texas Rangers but it belied a sensitive, uncertain side, and he might have been a closet pedo. I mean, the "sneaking a kiss" line at the beginning could have been a throw away, but then the unnecessary, over-the-top spanking and then some of the looks he gives Mattie sort of sealed it for me. Of course, it's all very ambiguous, but that's why I thought he was a good character.

Roger Deakins is a pretty good cinematographer but I don't know why everyone is flipping out over this. I thought the only really nice canvasy, Western shots were done in traveling montage rendering them pretty pointless. And the whole whole scary snakes ending. What was that? And the epilogue made it out like the whole movie was about how time passes us by, which is not the impression I got at all.

There are better Westerns. Just check earlier in this blog.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy
Dir: Joseph Kosinski

Woah. Watching this on the gigundo IMAX screen in 3D was a trip, and one hell of an experience. And if it were all about insane, state-of-the-art visuals and electronica scores by Daft Punk, it would be perfect. But as a movie, it's pretty unoriginal in it's execution, and down right predictable. It's The Matrix (1999) by Disney, so a lite version. In fact, the similarities are staggering, not even to mention the same puedo-religious bullshit that's pretty much both their philosophies ("The One"= "The Son of the Maker" in the same messianic vein). This badassery accounts for a lot of dues-ex-machina "wtf" moments, particularly the fact that Sam just comes into "The Grid" and can kick ass, sans training montages, which at least Neo had to do. Even better, during the climax, there is an ultimate "need-to-wrap-this-up" moment, involving none other than TRON ("I fight for the Users!" Oh right. Glad that happened in half a second...), which could take the cake for many an illogical plot device in all the best/worst movies you've ever seen. Also, if you are interested in characters and/or character development, this has very little of it, except that maybe Jeff Bridges' Kevin Flynn is not only a tech genius but also a hippy-zen master, which was funny for maybe a line or so ("You're really killing my zen thing, man!"). But I'm guessing the target audience of this really doesn't give a shit about any of that. So in conclusion, as an experience this is first rate; as a movie, not so much. But you may have guessed as much just from the trailer.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 2010
Dir: Michael Apted

You really have to have some strong children actors to pull off a movie that revolves around them, and unfortunately, that actors that play Edmund and Lucy are lacking (s0 no real progression from Caspian), even if they try hard enough. The big surprise for me had to be Will Poulter, who plays Eustace as a great British brat, and the writers even give him some witty one-liners which could zing straight out of the BBC. Definitely the bright spot of the film. Dawn Treader's main failing as a story has to be its silly religious undertones (like all Narnia books) and the references in this movie were the most heavy handed in franchise yet. So, I guess I can look forward to The Silver Chair in two years time and give you another half-hearted review, and that will be followed up by The Horse and his Boy, which is probably the best book in the series for its lack of religious nonsense (or so I remember). I like The Magician's Nephew too, obviously not because it's a Genesis metaphor, but because it's the most supremely weird book in the series. The Last Battle kind of blows (though Susan not getting into Heaven always made me laugh). So there's my thought on the film and possible future releases. Personally, I think the BBC with their dwarfs in mouse suits did a better job at capturing the spirit of the book, but that's probably besides the point.