Friday, December 19, 2014

All That Heaven Allows

            This film is the melodrama to end all melodramas. Made in 1956 by Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows is a Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman drama that in theory represents everything wrong about fifties Hollywood cinema.  By modern standards the film is dramatically overblown especially for the story at hand. The plot is about a widow named Cary Scott who, now that her two kids are in college, plans just chill out at home and probably marry a widower. Suddenly she falls in love with Mr. Kirby, but not old man Kirby, it is his son Ron! What will the townsfolk think of this scandalous affair?! That is essentially melodrama, simple and relatable dramas expressed with big emotional bombast; that being said, All That Heaven Allows is a fascinatingly modern and smart film. By examining Cary Scott and how other characters try control her, the film becomes a surprisingly biting commentary about love, nonconformity, and women trapped in a patriarchy.  
            The thing that sticks out the most about All That Heaven Allows is the clever screenplay. Writer Peg Fenwick has this ability to refer and comment on social issues of time without ever breaking pace. For example there is a conversation between Cary Scott and her daughter, Kay, about how Ancient Egyptian people would the widow of the Pharaoh alive because she was a possession. Kay teases assures that this never happens anymore but Cary replies, “doesn’t it?” this moment is essential because it reveals how society traps women like Cary.  She lives in a society that is enforcing her to either care for the kids or marry a rich widower and the plot of her falling in love with a poor gardener is a defiance of these social customs. This social pressure shows throughout the film, especially when anyone sees the lead couple together. This is what makes this film so great today it shows how unreasonable this society is towards women and states, “I know, right? This sucks.”
            Douglas Sirk, while not as famous as Billy Wilder, William Wyler or his other contemporary German expat Hollywood directors, he is a quietly brilliant director in his own right. It is clear that Sirk is gets the subtext of the script, when one examines the nuances of his choice of camera compositions. He had a penchant for irony in his films; famously in All That Heaven Allows he uses a television as a visual metaphor for loneliness and imprisonment whilst a salesman gushes about it providing “all the company you want… life’s parade at your fingertips.” In context of the film, the TV is a distraction used by Cary’s kids to keep her in the house. Why explore the outside when the TV can give you everything?. It is diabolical, delicious filmmaking.
            The single flaw of All That Heaven Allows is that the solution to Cary’s problem is apparently another man. Throughout the film Cary is stuck in an ultimatum between choosing Ron Kirby or her reputation with her friends and other suitors, which might not age well for some people. That being said, for one to dismiss it for this reason alone would be to ignore that 1) Ron is also making compromises and 2) Cary is trying to restart her life in a sensual instead of a ambitious way. The film is an old prototype to films like The Piano about women having a sexual awakening; in this case, the film is about having complete freedom to choose whomever she dates or marries. It would be a lonely and rotting experience for Cary to play homemaker by herself or with some old guy she never loved so of course she would date a hunk like Ron. Not only does Ron genuinely care for her but also his naturally young, rebellious spirit, and vitality provides her that escape. It seems unambitious but the relationship was so daring for it time that it is still a beautiful story to see unfold.
            All That Heaven Allows is a lovely melodrama at heart but by picking at details of the script and symbolism in it only makes the film better. Such details show a film that is surprisingly feminist and nonconformist for its time, ironically in a very popular genre of its day. The film is also great at showing that the idea of escaping from the norm dangerous, in fact, it makes the idea look exciting and even healthy. Plus, it is really fun to chew out Cary’s kids and neighbors… gossipy little shits, why do they get in the way of true love!?

            (All That Heaven Allows is available in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack via Criterion Collection)

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Passion of Joan of Arc

            The Passion of Joan of Arc, is there any film in history that is as mythical as this?  Directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer, this film about the last days of Saint Joan of Arc was critically acclaimed but at the time (1928) it was very controversial. It failed financially and so many copies were destroyed that at one time it was considered lost; then with great luck, a complete negative print was found in a mental asylum, of all places. More than just an easy to find purchase museum piece The Passion of Joan of Arc is a uniquely powerful art film that has emotional resonance to this day.  Part of why it was so controversial was that it was a film about a Christian figure that did not immediately idolize the saint but that is what made the film so great.  Combining unique visuals and beautiful performances, The Passion of Joan of Arc provides one of the most complex and honest portrayals of a martyr on film.
            The first thing that the film states is how Dreyer used the recorded text of the trial of St. Joan as the main source of his script.  There are lines in the film that are literally a part of history. Not only does it is create a sense of historical accuracy but it allows for the archaic political implications of the time to be nakedly displayed.  One might not expect that wearing men’s clothes was such major factor St. Joan’s trial.  Another aspect of the film is the set design, which was this huge, multiple room, and outdoor mini-castle.  It is hard to notice but the details of this are so precise that looks like an ancient cathedral.  This attention to detail shows that Dreyer put much effort into research and also wanted to portray the event sincerely.  Regardless of his beliefs Dreyer is an honest and empathic storyteller who would not tarnish a story with cheap flourishes.  He wanted to show why the story of St. Joan resonated so much with the French and Catholic Church and by simply portraying the trial as how it happened, that resonance shows itself brightly and truthfully.
            Of course this film would not work if Joan of Arc herself were played simply for melodrama.  Actress Renée Falconetti manages to delve into the psyche in a way that was far ahead of its time.  Her performance in this film is one of that is so raw, subtle and intimate that it is disquieting.  Roger Ebert wrote, “in a medium without words, where the filmmakers believed that the camera captured the essence of characters through their faces, to see Falconetti… is to look into eyes that will never leave you.”  Falconetti looks so broken that one cannot help but get caught in debate about how demanding Dreyer was on set; even then, her eyes can still pierce into one’s very soul.  Falconetti is also ambiguous with her portrayal, when one sees her as Joan it is difficult to tell if God drives her or madness.  But even as she is interrogated, St. Joan’s emotions are still sincere and unsinkable.  In a film era when pantomime was the norm and Marlon Brando was still a toddler, Falconetti’s performance was a revelation.  She never acted in another film again but the effort put into understanding and portraying this one role far surpasses many of the best of the past present and future.

            The funny thing about The Passion of Joan of Arc is that the film is so reliant on close-ups that one can hardly notice the elaborate set at all.  Dreyer wanted the audience to understand St. Joan as intimately as possible so he filmed the actors as exactly that; the actors did not where make-up, the set was painted pale colors so the camera could stay focused on their faces and nothing else.  To watch this film is to watch a collection of faces that flow into a narrative and emotional arc.  Every wrinkle, tear, and facial muscle is as revealing as a verse in a poem.  The film is like history reinterpreted as a psychological dreamscape; it allows the audience to freely see St. Joan as a human that evolving into an idol.
            It is difficult to understate the significance of The Passion of Joan of Arc as it seemingly transcended the film medium itself and is treated like a Renaissance painting.  The film is so entrenched in the history of St. Joan it becomes an abstract documentary of sorts that allows for her to speak for herself.  The minimalist and close nature of the cinematography somehow manages to both detached and curious about the events while understanding the tragic beauty of St. Joan. Most of all Renée Falconetti’s performance as St. Joan and Carl Theodore Dreyer’s direction shows their insistence of trying to understand the character of Joan, which is what makes it so special. This is a film about empathy, an effort to understand the human side of a martyr. In doing so it makes St. Joan’s sacrifices more tragic and greater because by the end it is like watching a close friend or loved one die. The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential watch; a beautiful film that is so much more gripping and intense than most art films made these days.  Granted, it may be best to watch it with a friend in case one needs to go buy more tissues.

            (The Passion of Joan of Arc is available on DVD via The Criterion Collection. While I can't guarantee the quality of disc, if you have a Region Free Blu-ray player, or the like, then it can be bought on Blu-ray through The Masters of Cinema: an art film distributor from the U.K.)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil

            When I first saw Tucker & Dale vs. Evil my first thought was, “who wrote a film about me, and who the hell is Dale?!” Vanity aside, this film was actually a pleasant surprise. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is a Canadian horror comedy about a pair of fierce looking yet happy-go-lucky hillbillies, named Tucker and Dale, as they work on their vacation home in the woods. Unfortunately, they look so scary that the dynamic duo unwittingly scare a group of college kids into a violent frenzy. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is a riotously funny horror parody that not only flips the script on slasher films but also feels like a classic madcap comedy.
            Blood and humor often do not mix well but it works in Tucker & Dale vs. Evil because the filmmakers are less concerned about realism than they are about mocking horror film clichés. Take Tucker and Dale for example, both look like they came out of Deliverance yet not only could they “not hurt a fish,” they probably have never seen a movie in their life. Meanwhile, these college kids probably have seen so many horror films that not only are they paranoid but they also deluded themselves into thinking at they are the warriors. Much of the humor comes watching Tucker and Dale act oblivious or scared while these kids fail fantastically to fight of the “scary hillbillies.” It is like if Abbott and Costello walked into the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but all the kids think those two are the cannibals. It is bizarre and amazing.
            If there is a complaint to have about this film is that the meaning behind the story is a bit muddled.  There is this running theme about how not every redneck is a madman but there is small and needless twist by the end that weakens the message. Thankfully, the performances throughout the film are as believable as they are hilarious.  The highlights are definitely Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine as Tucker and Dale (respectively) both of whom bring a goofy charm to the film that is more sincere than most mainstream comedies of the past and present. Katrina Bowden also provides a good performance and her chemistry with the leads greatly boosts the breezy atmosphere of the film.
            Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is simply a fun film to watch, it is like a direct-to-DVD film made by a cast and crew that actually gave a damn.  Whatever the screenplay lacks in finesse, the film makes up for in humor, energy, and charm. The titular characters call back to the great fools of yore while not feeling as anachronistic as them.  It is also clever in a way that only someone with a great understanding of the horror can create; it is surprising that a film this accessible can stay fresh through repeat viewings.  With the right crowd this could easily be a Halloween party staple.

            (Tucker & Dale vs. Evil is available on DVD,Blu-ray, Amazon Prime Instant Video and Netflix)

Monday, October 20, 2014

You're Next

            You’re Next is a slasher film that was really popular in festivals like Toronto Film Festival and Fantastic Fest last year; it was not a hit at the box office but is still popular on streaming sites.  It is touted for being a subversive horror film, like Cabin in Woods and Scream, something that turned the horror genre on its head. Having now seen the film myself, it is a fun but underwhelming film.  You’re Next is an undeniably clever film filled with strong twists and a badass lead character but it lacks a real sense of interest it’s own plot. Even with a strong protagonist the film’s dull script diminishes it to a decent horror rental, at best.
            First of all, Sharni Vinson is genuinely wonderful and badass as Erin, the lead character in You’re Next.  The arc of Erin is the foundation of the most fun ideas this film has to offer and Vinson’s nuanced, layered, and funny performance keeps the film grounded. If there is a reason as to why this film is still worth watching, it is to simply watch Erin kick ass. It is shame that the rest of the cast and their characters are not as interesting as what Vinson is doing in this film.
            The cast is not awful; they are just not given much to do beyond killing and dying. Aside from Erin, they either lack presence, backstory, or they are simply unlikable; by the time the slashing begins, their personalities blur into another mob of horror victims.  Yes it seems counterintuitive to say, “people just die pointlessly in horror films” but these characters are more flat than one would expect. Plus, You’re Next is not trying to be just a slasher film but a subversive and comic horror film.  At the halfway point, the film decidedly takes clichés of horror films like “the final girl” and “the unstoppable killer” and spins them into a realistic subtext. The filmmakers clearly know that this genre is artificial and want to make this film look like a realistic incident. Why is it that only the main character acts like a person in house full of clichéd horror characters? That is anybody’s guess. The film overreaches its grasp but at least the subversive bits make for an entertaining second act.  
            You’re Next is not a bad film it is just shallower than expected.  Anyone yearning for the next great horror satire will be sorely disappointed; as just another slasher film, it is well executed.  It has a protagonist that is exponentially better than any character of the same ilk that is played by great newcomer, Sharni Vinson.  Even though the subversive elements are under-utilized they are welcoming in their cleverness. Overall, it is not as audacious as Cabin in the Woods, not as funny as Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil but at least it is not as obnoxious as Scream.

            (You’re Next is available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, DVD and Blu-ray)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Double Feature: Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein

             Oh $#!% a double feature! The classic Universal Monsters film series was a cesspool of ghoulish creatures that have charmed the world for the last 80 or so years.  They are historically important to both the horror genre and mainstream cinema but in this era of post-modern horror gimmickry, these films seem to lack the fear factor that most people crave. That being said, Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein prove an interesting exception. Sharing themes of humanity’s obsession with death, the ethics of science, and rejection, both films work great as character dramas and as horror and are only enhanced by watching both films in sequence.
            The biggest reason for recommending both is how similar yet different both films are. They play as two halves of a larger story, same characters, themes, and all but tonally they are completely different.  Frankenstein is a stark German Expressionist style horror film with a very direct plot. In contrast, Bride of Frankenstein is a huge yet campy film that blends the same Expressionist horror with comedy, special effects, and Christian symbolism. Bride of Frankenstein is often considered the better of the two films because it expands upon and reinterprets the best ideas of first film whilst adding things that nobody ever expected. Personally, I prefer the original Frankenstein because it has a spookier atmosphere and stronger lead performances.
            There is still that nagging issue about it not being scary, they do not give that adrenaline rush that modern horror films specialize in creating, but that is not necessarily the point of the Frankenstein series.  Horror is a complex genre that can jolt people fear as well as underscore themes; films like Rosemary’s Baby, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and the Frankenstein series are less about sudden shocks and about uttering hard questions and have those questions haunt the audience.  The crux of the horror behind Frankenstein’s Monster is not just that he kills people but that he is the result of a well-intended yet negligent science experiment.  That is not say that Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are humorless art films but they are very clever, spectacular films that have haunting atmosphere and compelling drama.
            Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein are all-around wonderful horror films that show that shocking the audience is only one part of the horror genre.  These films are spectacular and macabre melodramas that will baffle and haunt people into delight. Plus at less than 75 minutes each, these films are the perfect length for a double feature at a Halloween party or any late night with friends... or alone with some popcorn, a drink, the devil, and some leftover candy.

            (Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein is available on Blu-ray and DVD)

Monday, October 6, 2014

Goemul aka The Host (2006)

            So a couple of scientists dump a few hundred bottles of toxic waste into a river, what could possibly happen? According to the South Korean horror The Host, a giant man-eating, plague-spreading, amphibious monster is what happens. The Host is one of those great films where its premise does not do it justice; like Godzilla, the rampaging monster is catalyst for social commentary of the past and present. However, while Godzilla was an intense Cold War allegory, The Host is an eccentric satire about SARS and a... certain western government. Charged with by political anger, dark humor, and despair The Host can feel off-key and incendiary but these elements make for a surprisingly human and fun film.
            The plot of The Host revolves around a narcoleptic oaf and his dysfunctional family as he tries to rescue his daughter from the monster; meanwhile, having to dodge the U.S. and Korean Security, who claim he is infected. Imagine the film as National Lampoon’s Toxic Mutant Vacation and it makes more sense. The leads are basically archetypes but what makes the film really fun is how director Bong Joon-ho plays with the characters emotions through his compositions. It is the one of a few films that has the stones to play up a moment of grief for laughs by simply lingering on the moment for far too long.  It works because these moments seem like normal reactions of the chaotic setting presented to the audience. When faced with a sudden disaster, people become unhinged, confused and scared, which the film reflects impeccably.
            There is some controversy about the film being implicitly “Anti-American,” this is a narrow assumption. The film does joke about U.S. for not caring about the environment and being for nosy in global affairs; granted, the Korean government’s methods for disease control are not portrayed kindly either. In context of the film though, these forces are just a small but loud part of the struggle of the main characters. The goal of The Host is to show how a family can unite and survive in an unusual yet familiar disaster and this SARS/FEMA style of sloppy government finger pointing makes this film perfectly contemporary.
            The Host is a fun monster film that hides its brightest ideas with humor and madness. The characters are peculiar and surprisingly rounded due to the use of cleverly choreographed actions as opposed to unsubtle exposition.  The moments about government are harsh but whether they are important or not depends on the viewer. In a way, The Host is almost a complete contrast to the old Godzilla. Whilst Godzilla is bleak and blatant with its themes, The Host is a very goofy film made with self-assurance.  The Host is a great party film and its themes grow and mature through repeat viewings.  An absolute must see, Halloween or not.

            (The Host is available on Blu-ray/DVD and it is streaming on Netflix. Also, this is not related to the Stephanie Meyer book The Host or the 2013 film adaptation of said book.)

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Elephant Man

           David Lynch is a director who is, to put lightly, difficult to write about.  Like the works of Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, Lynch’s films are surreal and ambiguous art that are genuinely unforgettable.  That being stated, most of his films are so surreal that they feel alienating.  They are also so divisive that most people, including critics, cannot agree on what are his classic films. It is maddening, even for me. Nevertheless, The Elephant Man is a straightforward film by Lynch’s standards but his surreal flourishes make this film very unique.  The Elephant Man is a biographical film about John Merrick, a man famous for being horrifically disfigured and disabled by a series of enormous tumors. Specifically, the film is about Merrick’s transition from a carnival attraction to a source of medical studying at the London Hospital for his remaining years. The premise alone is heartbreaking but what make this film unique is how David Lynch stylized the picture.
            To put simply, David Lynch made The Elephant Man to look like Frankenstein. It was shot in black and white, thick shadows that cover lavish sets, and has a string based musical score that evokes ideas of fear and loneliness. The idea sound exploitive but it works because Lynch intelligently uses this style reveal the exploitation of Merrick. Since Frankenstein’s Creature and Merrick a born to a world that is violently fearful to things they do not understand, whether it is science or physical defects, one cannot watch this film without recognizing a tragic parallel.
            Of course the film is not just Lynch implicitly waging a finger at those who have laugh and mocked a person’s appearance for two hours, the tale is more nuanced than that thanks to a fantastic acting ensemble.  John Hurt is unrecognizable as John Merrick but he never lets his elaborate make up do the acting for him; through a carefully soft tone of voice and use of his environment, Hurt portrays the modest yet self-aware Merrick perfectly. The best of all is Anthony Hopkins portrayal as Merrick’s doctor Frederick Treves. Hopkins’ Treves is fascinating because conflicted he of his own method. Treves is a man who thought he did the right thing by taking Merrick out of the circus, but he still on display in the hospital, it is just a cleaner circus.  To see Hopkins’ character begin to realize his own hypocrisy is a morose but subtle transformation.

            Even though it is one of David Lynch’s simpler films The Elephant Man is still a difficult film to watch.  It could have easily gone down the path of Radio or Rain Man by appraising a Merrick for merely existing but instead it dabbles into the implications of how people interact with people him.  Was he being exploited?  Did people truly love him as a person? Do such implications even matter as long as Merrick is happy?  The Elephant Man is sad and at times uncomfortable to watch but it is also a poetic and beautifully acted film that deserves to be seen.  
           (The Elephant Man is available on Netflix, Blu-ray/DVD and Amazon Prime)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Big Trouble in Little China

           Many years ago an evil magical warlord named Lo Pan ruled the distant land of San Francisco, with an iron fist.  For plot reasons Lo Pan kidnaps the fiancé of Wang Chi, a restaurant owner who knows kung fu.  But in doing so Lo Pan and his army make the mistake of stealing the big-rig truck of the most stubborn, crazy, and mullet-wearing truck driver in America, Jack Burton.  As one might expect, Big Trouble in Little China is no Oscar contender but whatever the film lacks in class it easily makes up for it with a sense of adventure, bombast, and self-parody.
            Big Trouble in Little China is essentially director John Carpenter’s comedic ode to martial arts movies.  As seen in his previous works (The Thing, Halloween, and Assault on Precinct 13) Carpenter is a straightforward director but he is also a very rowdy one as well and it shows in Big Trouble in Little China.  More than just massive fight sequences and stale fortune cookie joke, the film is loaded with bright magic, wonderfully ridiculous costumes, explosions, skeletons, and there is even a cave troll, it just randomly appears but at that point the film already had me hooked in its lunacy.  Such random spectacle would reduce lesser films to a rambling mess but Carpenter keeps the story in focus, making it feel like an Indiana Jones film on coke.
            The anchor that keeps the film grounded is Kurt Russell’s self-effacing yet charming performance as Jack Burton.  What makes Jack Burton so funny and fascinating is how clumsy and out of place he is in the story.  The thing with Jack Burton is that thinks he is an action hero but is about as effective as a truck driver can be against an army of kung fu fighters.  If anything Wang Chi does all of the hard work while Burton trips through most of the conflict.  Kurt Russell plays up his goofy action star persona to emphasize Jack Burton’s ineptitude and he never loses his charm or composure in the process.  Jack Burton could easily look like a stubborn jackass but Russell’s natural self-aware charm lightens the character into an ineffectual hero that anyone can root for.  Burton is cocky but he knows that he is out of his depth, which makes his willingness to help his friend Wang Chi even more admirable.
            Big Trouble in Little China is a film that merely aims to please and that is perfectly fine because of how much it gets right.  It is loaded with fantastical Jackie Chan style action and with enough magic to blow up a circus tent.  Best of all is that it is all anchored by a funny self-deprecating performance by Kurt Russell. If there is a major flaw with the film is that it offers little depth beyond Russell, the action, and the special effects but at least it has a sense of adventure.  To this day, bad blockbusters like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and The Expendables have this problem of being made by filmmakers that coast on the momentum of their newest special effects tools. Things like 3D cameras, CGI, and Smell-O-Vision can only engage the audience for so long if the plot and characters are treated like an afterthought. This is why I love John Carpenter’s work because at his peak he always found adventure in the stories he worked on.  Sure the whole plot of Big Trouble in Little China stems from some jerk trying to get his truck back but he is an endearing and fun jerk to hang out with.  Ultimately, Big Trouble in Little China is like a hilarious tall tale being told by a very close and possibly drunk friend at a party and who does not love that?

            (Big Trouble in Little China is available on DVD/Blu-ray and it is streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Big Parade

            A challenge for many critics is to convince their audience to watch a silent film. This is not to say said audience is impatient (please don’t leave) it is just difficult to gauge whether a film works as entertainment or as just a relic.  Like, “sure Grandpa, you played with sticks as a kid but that doesn’t mean I should trade my Kindle for one.” That is why I tend to recommend silent comedies or things like Triplets of Belleville; visual humor is more appealing than say: German Expressionism, Soviet films, or D.W Griffith’s aggressively controversial work.  Nevertheless, there are is a group of “pre-Talkie” Hollywood films that are both grand, deep, and fun to watch, among them is King Vidor’s World War I epic The Big Parade.
            One thing to keep in mind with The Big Parade is that was made in 1925, a raucous moment of peacetime in America, meaning that King Vidor was never had a reason to make a propaganda.  Therefore, so he had the freedom to say whatever he wanted with The Big Parade.  This makes The Big Parade very unique because not only is it a WWI film, a rarity these days, but a contemporary WWI that is as brutally honest as The Hurt Locker was about the Iraq War.  Nevertheless, the film is much breezier than most war films due to having a night and day structure.
            Tonally, The Big Parade can be split into two films; the first half is a romantic comedy of manners about a three American soldiers stuck in reserve in a French village, trying to woo a village girl.  The other half being a horrific melodrama about said soldiers marching to the frontlines with the entire platoon slowly being picked off.  Surprisingly this structure works because both halves are strong in their own right but also due to the way comedy aspect linger and then suddenly vanishes.  During the first half of the story it is easy to forget that the war is spreading across the setting, making the violent second half all the more terrifying and tragic.
            That being said The Big Parade would have fallen apart if not for its fantastic main cast and their chemistry within the film.  John Gilbert was an absolute star for his time and it shows here, he is a charming and versatile lead that can play comedy and drama with graceful ease.  Renée Adorée is a hidden gem, in this film she is proves to be a stronger performer than the likes of Lillian Gish. The chemistry between Gilbert and Adorée, as a soldier and French villager who fall in love, is both gleeful and passionate; they are so delightful to watch that to see them get separated is almost too cruel. The supporting cast is also sublime; Karl Dane and Tom O’Brien in particular are unique as both comic relief and as military archetypes. Dane essentially plays Forrest Gump but with a goofy pretense for honor, O’Brien is a cocky blowhard who fears the frontline, meanwhile Gilbert is fearfully stuck between their viewpoints.  Ultimately these characters are scared; regardless of whether it is concealed, stated, or forgotten, they are trapped together in the same hell and the entire cast sells that idea perfectly.  
            The funny thing about The Big Parade is that it is a glamorous Hollywood war film about how unglamorous war is. It was as epic as any film could have been back then; it featured the biggest stars in the world, and had fantastic moments of fun.  But it is clear all of this escapist fantasy stuff could not hide the horror that was The Great War.  The Big Parade essentially an admission that the idea of glory died amongst those millions, if it was not a lie in the first place. The film is very brave but it is a warm and glossy experience that one will gladly get immersed. Anyone who loves period melodramas like Atonement, War Horse, or even Titanic should check this out. Beyond just hugely influential, The Big Parade proves to be a surprisingly entertaining, graceful, and modern film after nearly 90 years.

            (The Big Parade is available on Blu-ray and DVD)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Triplets of Belleville

            What a lovely oddity. Triplets of Belleville is one of those films that are both easy and hard to describe.  It easily the weirdest animated family film of all time; then again, that implies if kids are actually patient enough for it.  For one there are only about two decipherable lines of dialogue in this film, though it does not really need them. The story is like a Don Bluth film, which is about a kidnapped cyclist being saved by his heroic grandmother, their dog, and three jazz singers, yet the filmmakers prefer to linger on the moments between the plot beats than creating a tight narrative. The film is so surreal that it can feel baffling yet it is these style choices that makes this film it so poignant. Whereas some say “it is about the journey and not the destination” Triplets of Belleville goes even further by being about the people that support the journey.
            It is a testament to the talent of the animators that they can be so surreal yet so expressive that little dialogue is needed to make a sensible and engaging story.  The film reveals how much a viewer can take visuals and sounds for granted by greatly emphasizing the former over the later.  While jarring initially, it is funny and inspiring to see the cyclist evolve suddenly from a round kid with a tricycle to this stringy man with watermelon crushing thighs.  The animation is also why the lingering bit work so well, seeing an old lady tune and play the refrigerator like a harp is cooler than any car chase because of how idiosyncratic, intricate and more importantly character defining these moments are the characters more fascinating than the journey itself, which is encapsulated by an ending that brings warm nostalgia for family and friends that have left or passed on.
            Triplets of Belleville is a strangely brilliant film, not just because the odd animation is fun to watch but also because of its ability to incite a very personal nostalgia. Not the tacky nostalgia that like a 80s hair metal revival band concert but the kind that will make people want to call up their parents to say “thanks.” It is a painful but warm film that sticks to the head.

(Triplets of Belleville is available on Netflix and DVD)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Raid 2 (aka The Raid 2: Berandal)

            The first film in The Raid series was something akin to getting adrenaline shot directly into heart. Just pure non-stop action including guns, gore, as well as some of the most hard-hitting and spectacular martial arts ever filmed.  It was the best action film of the new century and it seemed like nothing would ever top it… then The Raid 2 came along and slapped that title away. But in all seriousness, Goddamn is it relentless! The Raid 2 takes the ultra violent action of the first film weaves it into this cool crime drama in order to create a stylized epic that would have made Bruce Lee and Jean-Pierre Melville proud.
            The most polarizing bit about The Raid 2 is the plot because it is very simple for a two and half hour film. The Raid 2 takes place moments after the first film where our hero Rama, noble rookie cop/martial arts savant, is ordered to infiltrate a national crime syndicate and kicks ass^2 until it all burns down. The plot is not much different from some of John Woo’s films but it transcends that crutch with very intense, expressive, and diverse visual style. The film has a surprisingly sharp-dressed sense of cool, similar to films like La Samourai and Drive, but with the violence of said films being brought to the forefront instead simmer underneath its atmosphere.
             Many of the major plot points in the film are emphasized through the use of huge fight sequences.  For example, when a crime lord hires an assassin, instead of following it with a sneaky kill, it cuts to a fight sequence between the assassin and a dozen targets on the streets.  Anyone looking solely for story will think the fight sequences are excessive, which is like complaining that Singin’ in the Rain has too many well-executed songs. Unlike The Raid, where the premise is admittedly an excuse for fighting, The Raid 2 instead uses violence as a way to enhance the plot. Many characters in the story talk about ambition and “reaching beyond one’s limits” which, in the crime world, means killing off the competition, cops and et cetera. The martial arts, while amazing in its own right, becomes rather poetic by provide a very literal parallel to this theme of ambition.
            The Raid 2 is ultimately a lot more of the original film plus some things that were never expected from a martial arts film. The fight scenes are amazing as usual but it is pleasant surprise to see the action serve the plot and not the other way around.  It borrows stylistic ideas from a huge assortment of films in such a manner that it becomes a unique salad of a film.  If anything the biggest flaw of The Raid 2 is that the way it expands from the first films and experiments tone and pacing may just make it even more alienating for most people. It is easily the most violent, ambitious and daring action film of the year, which is what most aficionados would expect from this series, but whether this will appeal to anyone else is difficult to say. Nevertheless, as a pure action film, The Raid 2 exceeds the high as heaven expectations laid by its predecessor with an identity that is clearly its own.

            (The Raid 2 is available on Blu-ray and DVD)

Friday, August 8, 2014

Jodorowsky's Dune

             Filmmaking is a rough business where even the most efficient filmmakers can lose their dream project due to things like weak funding, disinterested buyers, or even bad weather. It is rough but as Jodorowsky’s Dune shows is that failing to finish a project is never a complete loss. Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary about director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 3-year attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s Dune only for no American studio to actually pay any interest in it. But the documentary surprisingly not about regret as it examines the people of the Dune crew created some of their best art based on their experience working on it and how that inspiration swelled over the decades.
            The true subject and star of Jodorowsky’s Dune is arguably Jodorowsky himself. Alejandro Jodorowsky is less an avant-garde filmmaker than he is a cosmic wizard that wants to reveal the pain and beauty of the universe but humans fail to understand his space lingo.  This is a man who is not just inspired by LSD; he is the kind of guy who will slip it into his special effects supervisor and say, “make that.” His methods are insane but what the film reveals is that he produces brilliant results. When creating the film Dune he completed the pre-production phase with a script, storyboard, as well as a cast and crew including H.R Giger, Dan O’Bannon, Pink Floyd, Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, Mœbius and even Orson Welles.  Jodorowsky’s insider tales alone makes this film a wonderful experience because he bursts with the type of extroverted charisma that anyone, let alone artists, would yearn to have.
            Ultimately, Jodorowsky’s version of Dune never went past the pitch meetings but the experience that this collective had was clearly cherished. For example Dan O’Bannon went on to write Alien and H.R Giger became the art director for it, both of them drew inspiration from their work on Dune. Jodorowsky’s Dune could have simply been a stark reminder of the fickle business that is filmmaking but it subverts that idea to become a loving homage to struggling artists.  One of the most painful thoughts in life to believe everything that one creates or does is useless. But Jodorowsky’s Dune is a film that argues that even the broken pieces of the worst kinds of disasters are still salvageable and who does not love that?

            (Jodorowsky’s Dune is available on Blu-ray/DVD. Also, if anyone knows if Jodorowsky had ever published a Dune concept art or story-board book, could you send me a link? That would be awesome.)

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sherlock Jr.

             Oh Buster Keaton, even though you never do so yourself you always make me smile.  With a deadpan attitude and a near-suicidal knack for physical comedy, Buster Keaton proved to be one of the most inventive film comedians of all time with 1920s output alone.  One of his best and oddest films was Sherlock Jr., a bite-size, crazy, and surreal spy parody.  At 44 minutes, the film is infamously lean for a feature but it perfectly encapsulates Buster Keaton’s brilliance as a comedian, stuntman and technical innovator.
             Sherlock Jr. is about a film projectionist/amateur detective whose life is immediately put in disarray; the guy is broke, the Local Sheik wooed his girlfriend, life sucks for this guy.  Downtrodden, the guy starts sleep in the projector room and then dreams of becoming the silver screen hero Sherlock Jr.! The premise of a film within a film alone reveals how Keaton’s innovative was at the when it came to the cinematic structure of comedy. Gags like Keaton tripping over himself because the film keeps jump-cutting to different sets was something nobody did back then and Keaton aces them like a true professional. Keaton’s style of humor is firmly rooted in vaudeville, Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin, but unlike Keaton was the first and probably best at translating that style into film with such postmodern detail.
            Sherlock Jr. also shows Keaton near superlative physical commitment and knowledge of performing gags. Keaton was infamous for performing his own life-threatening stunts, including one in this film where he may have broken his neck, yet his deadpan delivery always makes them look so humorous and fun. In Sherlock Jr. Keaton jumps from one eye-popping stunt to the next with the grace of a bumbling magician.  Add to the fact that the Sherlock Jr. is about as a long as a TV drama episode and weird premise the film becomes less of a comedy than a live action cartoon, it is awesome.
            If there is one problem with Keaton is that he himself has a very cold and offbeat presentation. Lloyd was more lighthearted working class hero and Chaplin was a soulful bum; in contrast, Keaton looked like a stuntman that was pompous, confused or tired. He looked like a hipster but even then he had a better grasp at irony than anyone back then and now. Like when Keaton’s character is introduced as “Sherlock Jr.” he absolutely chews the scenery as this ridiculously foppish Sherlock parody in wonderful fashion.  Scenes like this really allow him to play with his deadpan face in order to mock the seemingly more sophisticated ideals of Victorian Melodrama.  Keaton’s offbeat acting style may seem distant but it adds up to some great comedy in this film.
            With Sherlock Jr. Buster Keaton made a powerful and complete statement about his identity as a performer and filmmaker.  He proved himself to be one of the great tinkers in filmmaking by dabbling in meta-filmmaking tricks like jumps cuts and still make a cohesive and hilarious film.  The film also featured some of his most audacious stunts and he executes them at a Looney Tunes pace.  Admittedly, Sherlock Jr. is less a film than it is a showcase for his film experiments and stunt work. Yet by showcasing all of his ideas into this one short film he creates a wonderful and funny starting point for anyone curious enough to watch silent film. It is a short and strange trip that will make anyone laugh and smile.

            (Sherlock Jr. is available on DVD and Blu-ray via Kino Lorber as part of a double feature deal with Keaton’s Three Ages. It is also on Netflix as a standalone.)