Saturday, January 6, 2018

Some Movies I Missed in 2016

            It has been awhile, and at the end of the holiday season no less! Gone with the festivities, the days off, and the indigestion, but at the very least, there was plenty of time to catch up with some of the great films released over the year. Well, hypothetically speaking. The big downside this year was that so many films like Phantom Thread, Call Me By Your Name, The Post, and Paddington 2, are not reaching Orlando until well into January, which is disappointing. What’s the point of even having an end of doing a top list or retrospective when release dates are this arbitrary, and where’s my Paddington 2!?  Granted, this problem is nothing new as every year so many great films get little or sometimes no chance to screen here in Florida. So as a fun experiment, instead of catching up on the 2017 releases, I spent much of my holiday catching up with some of the films I missed in 2016 and review those instead.

 Certain Women
            Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women is a beautifully measured anthology about the lives of… certain women who live around a small town in Montana. This includes Laura Dern; an insurance lawyer who deals with a lost cause, Michelle Williams; a mom building a house, and newcomer Lily Gladstone; a horse wrangler that is smitten with a teacher (played by Kristen Stewart). Kelly Reichardt directs the film in a manner similar to Andrei Tarkovsky and Jane Campion; the film is slow, nuanced, but every moment onscreen is engrossing and rich with empathy. The repetition of viewing Gladstone spreading hay, grooming her horses, every day reveals not only the hard work needed to do her job but also the loneliness of it all. Reichardt finds poetry and tragedy within the daily routines of her characters with an entrancing grace.
            Furthermore, and this may sound like a backhanded compliment, but Certain Women is one of the most vividly brown films that I have ever seen. Montana in this film is a decaying autumn of a state with its rundown hotels, muddy snowfields, and dirty leather jackets. Everything hints at a world on the cusp of dying out but Reichardt finds beauty in people striving to live on the land.

Things to Come
            When a film examine topics like philosophy, divorce, and parental death, it is easy for a story to fall into a pit of despairing melodrama, thankfully Things to Come—which goes for the whole trifecta—does not. The film is about a philosophy professor named Nathalie (Isabelle Huppert), who suffers through a couple major tragedies, but the film is less about the external conflict and more about her embracing the absurdity of it all. Director Mia Hansen Løve finds great humor and pathos in clumsy moments like when Nathalie fishes out a reusable grocery bag after accidentally throwing it away with a bouquet of flowers, in a fit of rage. It is hard to think straight on a bad day, but Nathalie is not so hopeless as to throw away a decent bag. This leads to Nathalie finding solace in her philosophy and begins moving on. So what if she is alone? At least she is free and healthy. It almost makes too much sense that Isabelle Huppert plays Nathalie, she always performs with such understated boldness and wit; it is like the character and actor are cut from the same cloth. Huppert carries the viewer through this film with unmatched confidence and by the time the plot reaches the lush fresh countryside, everything clicks together, and one is at peace.

The Love Witch
            A Technicolor horror throwback about a witch who finds, loves, and destroys her suitors with love magic? Sign me the heck up! Like a Powell and Pressburger film if the duo went on a binge on Hammer horror films and mushrooms; The Love Witch is delightfully a mad showcase of style and an unflinching feminist tale of finding power in femininity. Director, writer, editor, set decorator, and costume designer Anna Biller made one of the most singular and excitingly auteur films of 2016, if not the decade. Double-bill this with Daisies that party will be talk of the week.

            A boxing match, postwar Bosnia, a midwife assisting birth, a mother with Alzheimer’s disease, these are among the many, many moments documented by Kirsten Johnson in her sweeping and personal collage documentary. The film itself is a revealing anthology of people living through conflicts of various forms but what makes Cameraperson so unique is how revealing it is of the person behind the camera. The bulk of this film is made of unedited clips from dozens of documentaries (i.e Citizenfour, The Oath, and Derrida) photographed by Kirsten Johnson and throughout the film we hear her work behind the camera. We hear her talking to her directors about coverage, her reaction to a kid talking about their eye injury, and sometimes she is alone, outside in the cold, and the only way to know she is there is when she sneezes. With these simple details, it subtly reveals the physical, psychological, and ethical tolls Johnson goes through on a routine basis and also why this job is so important for her. It sounds like a dull avant-garde piece, and while it certainly is avant-garde, but dull it is definitely not. Do not let this film slip away.

The Wailing
            Set to some ominous music, The Wailing begins with a verse from Luke 24:37-39 “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” and it only gets cheerier from there. The movie proper begins like a dark comedy as Jong-goo, a shlubby small-town cop, ineptly deals with villagers who are infected with a rabid zombie-like disease. It is hilarious, but it stops playing like director Na Hong-jin’s pseudo-sequel to Shaun of The Dead once Jong-goo’s daughter gets infected. The plot does not merely take a sharp turn so much as it evolves into one of the most blasphemous horror epics since The Exorcist. The Wailing is a lot to take in, brutal in every sense of the word and it haunts long after it ends.

Sing Street
            Lets end on a high note with the other instant classic musical of 2016. Sing Street is an adorable coming of age tale about a boy who in an effort to impress a girl starts a new wave band so that they can make a music video. But much to everyone’s excitement and horror, the band is actually pretty good. In fact, they are kind of amazing. They are so unreal that it could only work in cinema. Set in the 80s, Sing Street plays very much like that decade’s many jukebox dance-film/musicals like Dirty Dancing and Footloose, but has the tremendous advantage of having original songs that transcend their pretense as a throwback. Sing Street teases many 80s trends, a running gag of how the band dresses up like specific one-hit wonders whilst the bandleader talks about being original is hilarious, but this films has nary a cynical bone inside itself. Sing Street is shamelessly nostalgic, shamelessly romantic, shamelessly crass, but who cares? This film is the dance party that the 80s deserves. So check it out!

            So there you have it. Hopefully something in here peaks your interest and maybe by February I will have something that resembles a top-10 film list for 2017.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: Swashathon Edition

            Swashbucklers were the old man’s superhero films. The name invokes images of grinning heroes in tights and button-down shirts holding a sword in one hand and a princess in the other. After decades of pictures since Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Bagdad (1924), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad brings the swashbuckler back to Arabian Nights territory in thrillingly absurd fashion. The film presents an exciting world thanks to the lively special effects by Ray Harryhausen and wraps it in a simplistic hero’s journey where every beat can be predicted a mile away, but for most people, this will not be a problem. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a film that jolted the swashbuckler genre into more fantastical effects driven style that makes the film seem mythical, even if Sinbad is no Hercules.
            The story of Sinbad the sailor, swordsman, and heartthrob is a classic heroes journey. Sinbad and his crew land on an island to find food, only to run into the wizard Sokurah, who is being chased by a Cyclops for stealing a magic lamp. Sinbad rescues the wizard, but loses the lamp. Sokurah, the grateful man that he is, secretly shrinks Sinbad’s fiancé Parisia to the size of a mouse but promises to cure her if Sinbad retrieves the lamp. Sinbad and Parisa face insurmountable odds with a smile, which is a plus for the film.
            These two leads are relatively unique to the genre because they begin in love and never leave each other’s side. Typically the hero of a swashbuckler as does all the adventuring alone and either woos or rescues the fair princess in a tower, pirate ship, etc.  In this film, our hero is already taken (sorry ladies) and much of the conflict is resolved with Sinbad and Parisa facing it together. Classic swashbuckler moments like when they swing over a lava pit rings a touch more earnestly, it becomes more them about having faith in each other than about Sinbad rescuing a princess. Sure Parisa spends most of the time in a box but even then she uses her size to her advantage; namely, sneaking into the lamp to come face to face with a genie. Sinbad and Parisa are lively characters when together, but unfortunately for Sinbad, Parisa truly is the better half.
            The biggest weakness of the film is that Sinbad himself is not that interesting of a hero. This is partially due to Kerwin Mathews’ performance, which is so mild that it makes any moment of excitement feel bland. Moments like when he finds Parisa’s shrunken body or searching for food with his starving crew shows Sinbad flatly smile or act with the sense of bemusement that recalls when Bob Ross brushes a happy accident. Nothing is exciting to him, just smile to the next point of conflict. At least with Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, part of why his smile works is that Robin Hood is audacious; he relishes in conflict, so of course he smiles at danger. Sinbad smiles, but it feels forced and almost tired. He passes the line of audacity of Flynn or Douglas Fairbanks and into just appearing unimpressed or vacant, dulling most of the tension of the story.
            Sinbad is also a dimwit. The root of conflict of the film relies on the fact the Sinbad cannot deduce that Sokurah—the only known wizard in all of Bagdad—may have shrunk Parisa in order to trick Sinbad into stealing the lamp. One could see the intention is to show Sokurah as both a clever and otherworldly villain, but one would think using magic would be too obvious a trick for Sinbad. Plus, the cure is on the Cyclops’ island anyway so why make it a secret at all?  The story still functionally works with getting Sinbad closer to fighting monsters but it is rare that such a call for action would make the protagonist so irritating to watch.
            At the very least the stop-motion animated creatures in the film are something to behold. Made by Ray Harryhausen, the wildest moments of the film involve characters fighting giant creatures, and they are wild. This film has a skeleton, a dragon, a Cyclops, which fights the dragon and who could ask for more? Harryhausen’s creations are not only imaginative and exciting but are driven with a sense of character that makes as dynamic as anything from Pixar studios, albeit more gruesome. The Cyclops in particular is very amusing, more than an animal he is a greedy beast that is puzzled by the influx of brave humans stealing his stuff, but they do make a tasty snack so he does not mind. Harryhausen’s monster effects are so bizarre and entertaining that they more than make up for a clumsy story and characters, mostly.
            The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is near perfect prototype of a modern blockbuster, faults and all. It is bright special effects driven spectacle where the story merely functions to move character action set piece to set piece. This does not make The 7th Voyage of Sinbad bad entertainment, films like Singin’ in The Rain, The Avengers, and Baby Diver also function specifically to encourage action and they are great. The ultimate problem is that the plot functions so sloppily that the swashbuckling and the monsters clash more than harmonize. Sinbad and Parisa have some moments of action but they are still difficult to watch when the titular character is less lively than the clay puppets. The film is a below average swashbuckler stitched into a great monster feature; that being said, anyone who does not watch this back to back with Jason and The Argonauts is missing out on a good time.

            This is essay is part of the Swashathon! It is a blogathon that celebrates the most gleeful and saltiest movies that the genre can muster. Hosted by the blog Movies Silently, check out this link for more essays by other bloggers on the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, and Maureen O’Hara? Who knew!?

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Tom and Rico: Hollywood Gangsters

             When there was Prohibition, there were gangsters, and the awesome movies about them. The stories of gangsters became part of Hollywood iconography that were both romanticized and reviled their audience, and studios like Warner Bros. were more than happy to please that audience. 1931 was a banner year for Warner Bros. with the premiere of two classic gangster pictures, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. Both films are exhilarating tragedies about the rise and fall of iconic gangsters during the Prohibition and Great Depression, infamous for their gaudy style and violence. In The Public Enemy James Cagney plays Tom Powers, a hotheaded brute turned prominent mob enforcer.  Edward G. Robinson is Caesar Enrico “Rico” Bandello, a common thug that becomes a made man. The are crude, mean and irredeemable crooks, but their stories were reflective of a time where honest hard work was simply not enough to thrive in America, which are still compelling and resonant today.
            The biggest similarity between the Tom and Rico is that they seek prospects in “The Big City.” Cities like New York and Chicago were both symbolic of freedom and opportunity, but also a cesspool for organized crime run by gangsters like Al Capone and Frank Costello, which Tom and Rico thrived in. The Public Enemy provides an epic vision of Chicago, starting with Tom’s unruly childhood in 1909 as a petty thief and ending at the height of the Roaring 20s. He becomes a surrogate for the audience was he witnesses firsthand the beginning of Prohibition and his heists for newly illegalized booze. Little Caesar has more abstract geography, at beginning Rico yearns about “going east,” rather than mention any urban city. However like Tom, Rico gets involved with the organized crime, the nightclubs, and he relishes it all.  Within the all the chaos of urban bustle, they found opportunity in bootlegging booze, which is admirable in a defiant way.
            Part of why Tom and Rico find so much work is that they beat their way into the criminal hierarchy with brutal efficiency. If there is a problem, they shoot it. If that does not work, they shoot it again. Like corrupt Robin Hoods, their killing sprees are touted with hero worship but there is an overt menace to their actions. Tom may look slick with a gun and a three-piece suit but he is a rabid dog at heart.  He runs on his id, compulsively going for any violent action if he thinks it will satisfy him. The infamously nasty grapefruit scene only scrapes the surface of Tom's unbound cruelty. Tom is less interested in being admired as he is in making people fear him. When Tom finds the opportunity to get revenge on his old mentor, he savors every moment of it. Tom torments the guy for minutes on end, making him beg and sing in front of a piano before finally shooting him dead. The character is a sadist at heart, but is still compelling to watch because of his childish nature. This is in part because James Cagney’s performance is so great; he is so good at layering greed and naivety underneath all the anger. Tom Powers is a character know that grew up hungry and broke, and having tasted wealth he is going would rather.
            Rico in contrast, is the more calculated with his actions. He knows perfectly well how to manipulate the public’s opinion of him with the right news headline or photograph while taking down his enemies. He does not even drink alcohol, preferring instead to indulge in fashion. His cunning and knack for presentation is most apparent after he guns down a disloyal colleague in front of a church when word got out that he would confess to the cop. The next scene reveals that Rico had bought the finest wreath for the man’s wake. As long as he smiles for the camera and carries a big gun, no one will call him out... except for Joe.
            Another key element is that Tom and Rico have friends and family that do not abide to the gangster lifestyle, which they eventually lose. Before moving east Rico’s closest friend Joe tells him that he is quitting the racket to become a dancer. This disappoints Rico at first, but it progressively turns to violent jealously once Joe falls in love with his dance partner Olga. Yet once Joe calls his bluff Rico become powerless in an unexpected way. Rico’s love for Joe is both his most redeeming quality and also his one weakness because once he shows mercy, nobody is afraid of him. For Tom he has his mother, whom he dotes over, and his straight-laced soldier brother Mike, who prefer Tom to quit while he is ahead. To say that Tom disagrees, is an understatement. He is so temperamental and childish that he alienates himself from his family, as well as makes himself a target for a rival gang. By the time he asks for forgiveness, it is too late. In 1931, redemption was saved for the comedies and romances.
            Both characters ultimately meet their ends in a similar fashion, once people start standing up to them, the good times end and they die alone and bloody. These are the Hollywood gangsters of 1931; the bad guys never win at the end, but at least the best years of their lives were glamorous. They pursued their perverse ideal of the American dream with the gusto and managed to taste the good life. It was brief and they wind up destroying everything around them but in circumstances like the Great Depression, it is a brilliant escape, and the audiences the loved every moment of it. Tom and Rico some of the first in a trend of charismatic crooks—villainous or otherwise—whose influence can be felt in films like Bonnie & Clyde, The Godfather, and even the early The Fast and the Furious movies. They are some irredeemably mean gangsters but they certainly made crime a fun time at the cinema.

            This is part of The Great Villain Blogathon, which is run by Speakeasy, Silver Screenings and Shadows and Satin. Since this post is a day late (my bad) go ahead check out all of the daily recaps here.