Thursday, October 29, 2009
Dir: Howard Hawks (Richard Rosson)
October 29, 2009
"Get outta my way Johnny, I'm gonna spit!"
Considering that the re-make of this has become a cliche, and for all intents and purposes, is really not that good, I wasn't really sure what to expect from this. Let me say this: it blows the bejesus out of the remake. Now, it's not a perfect film, but considering the time period, it is seriously violent, and a clear "master-in-training" piece from a true stylist, Howard Hawks.
A thinly veiled take on Al Capone, given authenticity and bite from a Chicago newspaperman turned screenwriter, Scarface is one of the most damning critiques of society ever put on screen. The re-makes anti-morality has become a rallying cry for rappers and douche-bags everywhere, but at the beginning of this, the title screen is actually demanding why people are giving credence to killers, and demands that they think about it. It's pretty startling, really. Paul Muni is Tony Camonte, a violent psychopath who rises to the top of his South Side gang after murdering his boss, setting his sights on top dog Boris Karloff and the North Side bootleggers, but a brash cockiness and happy trigger finger is no match for his ultimate downfall, rabid jealously over the sexual escapes of his (a little too much) beloved sister, Cesca (Ann Dvorak). She, along with Karen Morely, who plays a mistress of a South Side boss starting to gravitate towards Tony as he gains power, are actually really great female characters, though their acting is definitely a bit amateurish, if snarky.
Taken in context of early 30’s predecessors, Muni’s Camonte is mentally disturbed to the extreme, spitting out broken English through a grotesque smirk (a little annoying at times in it's over-the-topness and not really intimidating, but sometimes he can be downright funny and/or crazy); that his downfall comes because of an incestuous infatuation with his sister, as opposed to something obvious like blind ambition, and murdering Cesca's fiancée "Little Boy" (George Raft), his best friend, in cold blood, speaks to the depravity of the character and what his world has made him, and of the great characters this film has, in general. Shades of gray, people, along with a conscience. Pre-Code rules.
Hawks’ most overt symbolism, the recurring “X” theme every time a character is about to be assassinated, is obvious but visually striking (especially the bowling "strike"), as is the stunning opener, Tony’s killing of his boss in shadows, with the camera traveling back and forth on the studio stage in a nearly five-minute unbroken shot. Awesome. Howard Hawks is pure cinema, and I dig that a whole lot. I'm pretty sure this has convinced me to make Hawks my next American director to go through. It's either that or John Ford. I'm guessing I will dig both, but we'll see.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
October 27, 2009
I have always avoided watching this like the Plague, and now I'm not sure why I thought it would be awful. This film is pretty much the perfect vehicle for an actor like Kirk Douglas, and as he was the executive producer with almost all creative control (which led to a clash with Kubrick), it's pretty much his movie. There is nothing definitively "Kubrick" about this film apart from the occasional visual flair and the fact that he is pretty much the cinematographer as well. Kubrick was only brought in because Douglas fired Anthony Mann after a week of shooting, probably for the same reason that arguments broke out with his new, much younger director. The film is about showcasing actors in an epic environment, and some are great, like Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton, mixed in with some bad ones, like John Dall (whose intended naivete comes across as just plain awful; I also disliked him in Rope (1948), one of my least favorite Hitchcock films.) As for Douglas, he acts, as all "movie-stars" do, as the same character he always portrays, and in a film like this, it works, unlike in Paths of Glory (1957). Ham it up, Kirk! Seriously though, if you can enjoy a film like Ben-Hur (1959), then from a pure entertainment standpoint, there's no reason why you won't enjoy this. Sure, I rolled my eyes a few times, but it's kinda part of the whole deal. It's a big, epic film that's supposed to please. Actors like Tony Curtis were brought onto the picture for just more "star power." That's not to say that I wouldn't shit on a completely worthless monstrosity, like most of the DeMille films that I've seen, but there is also some artistic merit to a film like this. This is no Lawrence of Arabia (1962), but few films are.
Monday, October 26, 2009
2 or 3 choses que je sais d'elle (Two or three things I know about her), 1967
Dir: Jean Luc-Godard
October 25, 2009
This at first glance this seems very typical of late 60s color Godard, a disjointed, anti-capitalist ramble with a whispering narrator (Godard) speaking elliptically. That stuff makes me want to punch someone in the face. But the entire film overall is never less than engaging, often hilarious, and sometimes astonishing (especially at a point when I have convinced myself that Godard has nothing worth saying to me anymore).
The film mostly follows the life of Julitte Jenson (Marina Vlady), a bourgeois housewife and mother who occasionally goes into Paris to work as a prostitute. Marina is a total babe, and watching her for an hour and a half is pretty remarkable, and for me, I was getting tired of Karina anyway. Good riddance, JLG. Vlady was the wife of Hotspur in Chimes at Midnight (1965), and she caught my eye there, despite only being in like 5 minutes of that film. The camera occasionally focuses on other characters, and cinema verite interviews mid-scene dissect their vapid lives. They sometimes have breathtaking insights, but more often just have a few mediocre witticisms. It even gets to Juliette's children, especially her hyper-active son, who pretty much gives the best performance a kid can, and his sequence about "nice, clean girls who don't disagree with me" is amazing. The always crying (or bawling her freakin eyes out) daughter is always on cue, which has to be somewhat difficult. In a typical Godard fashion, his argument is put forth sometimes directly, sometimes poetically: that modern society itself is prostitution, that we have come to value lifestyle over life. If the tired tirades against consumerism seem old, the overall effect is still one that is still frighteningly relevant 40 years later.
Even if you can't get behind his message, which believe me, I understand, 2 or 3 things is filled with so many powerful images and sequences that it makes me wonder what the hell he was doing on the brainfart that is Made in USA (1966). It also might be his funniest that I've seen, the presentation not nearly as serious as the thesis, coming across as a non-stop stream of visual puns and references. I think that's why I didn't hate this. The fact that Godard actually has a sense of humor and doesn't need to be so angry actually made this film as good as anything he ever made. But then, the mood will be changed with a gut-punch of insight and wonderment: the world in a coffee cup; the decision of which narrative to follow. The film is multi-layered and ambitious, and the things I didn't like about it are the things that I don't like about all Godard films. There are, however, too many things to like in this film to dismiss it. I'm a bit reluctant now to move on, since it was at this point that Godard revolted 1oomph against what he saw as "pleasurable" films. This might be the last kind-ish thing I have to say about him or his films. We'll see how long I go before i give up.
PS: Try watching this as big as possible: it's widescreen to THA MAX.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Paths of Glory, 1957
Dir: Stanley Kubrick
October 23, 2009
I don't know if it's the Kirk Douglas effect, but I was not really impressed with this in the overall. Yo, Kirk! You are acting as a French colonel, not a gunslinger in a Western. What's up with the english in this, anyway? It was pretty hard to imagine all those guys as French, but I guess it really doesn't matter in the end if other things are done right. The real problem is with Douglas playing an American every-man with American attitudes stuck in the French Army during WWI. Anytime he (or anybody, for that matter) talks, any semblance of reality is blown to smithereens. There is no tact in any of the acting.
The film sets up a huge Kubrick theme (anti-authority) and yet I wasn't invested in the film at all until the end. The black-and-white cinematography is terrific, and rightly showcases the awful lives men live when they are at war, but the black-and-white story itself is a no real importance. George Macready's ambitious, vengeful general is heavy handed, as is all the mise-en-scene that accompanies him (the dinner parties, the cognac, heck, even his "sofa" at the court-martial). With his voice, he comes across as some entitled Ivy League snob. The obvious counter-point to Douglas. From the very beginning, you are getting banged over the head that Douglas' Col. Dax and Macready's Gen. Mireau are headed for a confrontation. Some of the the minor characters (a sly, political minded Gen. or a drunken, cowardly Lt.) aren't so easy to pin down, but the way they play out most certainly is. Now, again, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it's just the technique and execution are somewhat lacking, if you ask me.
Kubrick's pessimism is what really shines through. A forthright portrayal of injustice with a tragic ending. As he says, it's not so much an anti-war film as it's an assault on the "ignorance of authority." The battle charge was pretty heart-pounding for me, if only because I'm kinda interested in WWI in that it is severely under-filmed in terms of combat. The technology vastly outpaced the strategy of the times and NO ONE comprehended until millions had died. Seriously, let's charge at Gatling guns like they're horses! Anyway, the hard-eyed camera bores directly into the minds of some of the characters, and the execution scene is gut-wrenching, even if you don't feel bad for the characters portrayed, only for them as human beings. Some of the best acting in the film is done by Ralph Meeker, as a Cpl. who tries to say stern faced in the hours before his death but eventually breaks down in fear and self-pity as the time comes. You can't can't help but feel bitter when they die. But that's about the only emotion I felt at the end, bitter. At the "authority" in the film, and the film itself. It could have been the film that tons of people rave about. It really isn't.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy), 1954
Dir: Roberto Rossellini
October 21, 2009
This is a pretty remarkable film for the mid-1950s. Of course, it's a European film, but subtle and inclusive in it's themes. Rossellini's direction captures the Italy all tourists see while blending in his homeland in a way that I'm sure all native Italians would approve of. Despite an ending that I'm not quite sure what to make of (maybe a little too Hollywood, and yet...), I found myself caught up in the lives of this couple on holiday (or business trip) in Italy as their marriage falls apart.
The way that Alex (George Sanders) and Katherine (Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini's wife at the time) treat each other is amazing. Alex has clearly convinced himself that he doesn't love Katherine anymore, and almost goes out of his way put her down. Sanders is amazing as this wealthy British man who back-talks his wife, flirts in front of her with other women, leaves her in Naples to go party with friends in Capri (where he definitely lusts after a married woman), and then as a indecisive soul who almost picks up a lonely prostitute before bubbling over with frustration as he yells at his wife that he wants a divorce. Bergman's Katherine is remarkable in a different way. I almost didn't like her acting at first. It was too stilted, almost like it was being read. The subtlety of her character starts to come out later though, as the time she spends in museums and the ancient ruins of Italy begin to impact her, along with the memory of a sickly young man who read his poetry to her. Half the time she tries to convince herself that she still loves Alex, while the other half she can do nothing but spew venom at him. They make each other jealous; Alex with his flirting, Katherine with her memories ("He was a fool." "He was not a fool! He was a poet." "Aren't they the same?").
Rossellini is also subtle in how he captures everything and creates a mood. From the classic "couples" Hollywood shots and the sweeping pans, the film is grounded in the pop cinema of the times. However, as he captures the people and landscape around the couple, the neo-realist frames almost make it feel like a documentary at points, as does the information that the tour guides give Katherine as she wanders around. The shots of the statues and ruins, along with the accompanying music as Katherine gets caught up in the art and imagery, is a truly remarkable way of representing a life changing moment, the way a great song or painting makes you feel when you first encounter it (It also lets you see where Godard got the idea for Les Mepris (1963)). Italy itself is also a character, with the music, the people, the sounds; everything about the mise-en-scene, especially in the "neo-realist" shots, seems like it could only be captured by an Italian.
So the ending. After the climax where they both decide that they need a divorce, a friend convinces them to go to Pompeii to look at an archeological site, despite their reluctance. There, they see men uncover a couple who died together when Vesuvius erupted, which greatly effects Katherine. They are forced to leave, while Alex thinks it might be best if he heads back to London, not only to give each of them their space but to contact a lawyer about getting divorce proceedings started. Along the way back, they are forced to stop by one of the many religious parades that have happened throughout the film. They get out and watch, and Katherine tries to bridge the gap between them once again, only for Alex to snap back, "You've never understood me and never tried! Let's stop making excuses when we're finally being honest with each other." It seems like the marriage is over, and if the movie had ended there, it would have blown my mind. However, as the parade marches on, a "miracle" happens as a statue passes (Mary, maybe?). A man on crutches is suddenly healed, and the crowd goes bonkers. Katherine gets caught up in the crowd surging towards the statue, and Alex is forced to go after her. When they get back together, they are moved by emotion, and declare their love for one another. Say whaaaat? A miracle, or bullshit? Their is clearly a connotation to the reconciliation and the power of faith, but I was a little let down by this ending. Maybe it's just that the film seemed to be heading for nothing other than the couple's separation, and this just felt like a cop-out. On reflection tough, the sincerely optimistic statement made by the ending is genuinely different in it's own way, not to mention about how faith and Italy are interwoven, though it's just not the one that I would have used. What your personal views about faith may have an impact on how you interpret the ending of the film.
The film succeeds because despite all the wandering and searching the film depicts (which is awesome), it is about a voyage of discovery. It's a leisurely, contemplative film in no hurry to get anywhere (like most vacations) that is a unique testament to faith, even if that means nothing to you. Viaggio in Italia is a film in search of itself, that doesn't know it's own ending until it finally get's to it, miraculously appearing for an audience that could not have possibly seen it coming. Does it feel "right?" I don't know, but I really enjoyed the vacation, as bumpy as it could be at times.
Friday, October 16, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
The relationship doesn't start right away, as their arcs meet each other the first couple of times that Vittoria goes to the market, but they only talk a little bit about the market or her mother. Piero's restlessness is different from Vittoria's in that he is driven; he has a "passion" for the market and money. His restlessness, as Vittoria notes, is that "he can't stay still;" he is a young man with virility. However, unlike in earlier films like L'avventura (1960) or La Notte, Antonioni doesn't seem to view his materialistic lifestyle or restless love life a bad thing; in fact, he shoots them as being some what vibrant, if spastic. Capitalism is a little less corrupt. A new attitude for Antonioni, where things are little less about guilt and compromise and selling-out? I'll have to see more films of his to know for sure. Vittoria is far more sluggish. Her impulses in between the Piero meetings are seen when she dresses up and dances for friends or randomly rides in an airplane to Verona with traveling friends. You're never really sure why she does any of these things. In life, though, you just do those things sometimes. The times when she just stops and looks at the things around her is a good demonstrator of what she's all about. Her face is pensive and wanting, but she never knows exactly what is is she needs.
The relationship really starts almost by accident. Vittoria becomes fascinated by a man who she is told just lost big in the market when it crashes and follows him around for a little bit. She bumps into Piero at a store where he buys her a drink. They form a fragile alliance where Piero wants what all guys want, and where Vittoria seems to blow hot and cold, much to Piero's confusion. The one thing that I didn't pick up until the end was the framing of Vittoria in relation to Piero. It's the exact way one of his former girlfriends is framed in an earlier scene, reminding us of exactly what Piero is all about. The relationship builds to the point where they seem to be in love, wasting time with each other and forgetting about the hustle and bustle of life. They remind each other of a meeting at their preferred spot, a construction site near Vittoria's apartment. After the promise of meeting, the characters are never scene again. It deconstructs to the point where by the end, you know both of them have come to the same conclusion that moving forward with the relationship would be a huge mistake. Maybe that's the really tough thing about watching it. The film begins with the termination of one love affair and ends with the scuttling of another. It seems to be nothing but narrative drift, but of course, that's Antonioni's purpose. Can you ever be satisfied? Trying to date Vittoria would be awful because you can never ever know her.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, 2009
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Dir: Orson Welles
October 5, 2009
The last "completed" film ever made by Welles, this is basically just him sitting and talking about Othello (1952), the awesome shoe-string budget film that won Cannes. Maybe a bit pompous at times (though at the beginning he claims that he won't be), it's worth watching if you find Welles to be the master of cinema that he is, or if you just like to hear the sound of his voice. You know he clearly loves to hear his. It's really bizarre to think that the last two completed things that he could do were, in a sense, documentaries. It's a really odd coda to a career that should have been so much more. At the end of the film, you get a glimpse of Welles the man and the artist. You see his weariness and his exhaustion. It's deeply sad and profoundly moving.
It's on youtube:
F For Fake, 1974
Dir: Orson Welles
October 5, 2009
"This is a film about trickery and fraud; about lies...almost every kind of story is almost certainly some kind of lie."
I don't think that I can form any kind of higher praise of this film than to say that the entire time I was watching this, besides being spellbound, I felt like I was being deceived. Despite what we find out, and Orson's own admission about lying about the Picasso story, I almost want to say that, like Clifford Irving, he might have just made up everything. The fact that Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving were able to hoodwink (or as Welles would say, "use hanky-panky") "experts" in their own specific fields (art and writing) made me think that this might have been Welles' attempt at a cinematic version. At times he does seem inspired by the sheer gall that both men have, and how that might even tie into his own life, especially considering the War of the World episode. The interactions between Irving and de Hory are ridiculous and hilarious, considering that everything that comes out of de Hory's mouth is basically refuted by Irving as bullshit. Is de Hory really trying to get people acknowledge his forgeries at legimate pieces of art considering that no one could ever prove they weren't unless he admitted it, or is he just having more fun?
The film itself is structured in a way that lets you think about what is being offered you, and yet it blows by so quick it makes you feel like you've missed something, or have been tricked. Welles basically invented "MTV" editing for this film, and it comes as no surprise to me that it was force-fed to unsuspecting teens in the future. That fact is that it is very efficient in what it does. It is just another stunning way that Welles found to tell stories, and also dig deeper into the nature of cinema itself. The way the multiple "biographies" are woven together throughout the film, you aren't really ever certain what to believe about what is being said. At points with Oja Kodar, however, I kind of felt like he was just showing off his hot young girlfriend, like he was saying, "Look at this, everyone. Yeah, I know you like to look, but she is mine. All mine." Whatever, Orson. I indulge you with practically everything else, because it's awesome, but this was just too much.
The film, as many note, comes across as a very personal essay from a man that knew a thing or two about "fakery." There is no better place to find a thesis than when he talks about Chartres, the "anonymous" cathedral, which also happens to be the most poignant moment in the film :