Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Red Shoes

            The Red Shoes, I’m not even sure if there is anything new to say about the film.  Filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker have gushed about how the film inspired them.  A restored version of the film was screened at Cannes in 2009, which absolutely floored the audience. The Red Shoes is a film that is so adored that it has a near mythical status amongst the film community.  The most popular reason is that is one of the most gorgeous looking films ever shot in Technicolor.  Yet the one reason why this is so beautiful is how the colors enhance this tale’s themes of art and obsession.
            The plot of The Red Shoes revolves around Ballet Lermontov and their creation of a ballet based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale of the same title. But things lead to turmoil when the ruthless impresario Lermontov learns that his composer fell in love with their lead dancer Victoria Page, who only lives to dance.  The climax leads to poor Page in conflict over what she loves more, the glory of ballet or her lover.
            It is a grand melodrama but the highlight of the film is the “The Red Shoes” ballet itself thanks to its bright surreal imagery but what is so fascinating is that the actual ballet symbolically parallels the main plot. The shoes of the play, which shine brighter than Dorothy’s ruby slippers, represent the allure of art but also the difficulty and pain to create it, blood is red after all.  Beyond the ballet sequence, red pops up throughout the film to represent passionate feelings, mostly love and hate but it is far more nuanced than that. Notably, when Lermontov reaches his lowest point, he is sitting in his apartment wearing a red velvet robe surrounded by red felt furniture, which unsubtly reveals his conflict despair in the best possible way.
            The Red Shoes is a beautifully crafted film that embraces the decadence of high art as much as it fears it.  The story is a classic but the ballet sequence adds a layer of meta-fiction that most post-modern art fail to pull off, let alone so elegantly. Technicolor already makes The Red Shoes look like a glorious painting but the ways the colors highlight the main themes makes this film a visual masterpiece. In hindsight, it is clear why the filmmaking world adores this film; it says so much about the potential of cameras as a storyteller that it became, and still is, the cinematic ideal.  Not much else can be said beyond that, just buy the Blu-ray and let the Technicolor sink into your skin.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Gojira (the original Godzilla)

            A new Godzilla film is out, that is cool but how many of you have actually seen the original Japanese film Gojira?  After 29+ movies, Godzilla is a brand defined by a series of goofy low-budget monster Smack-Down spectacles with our heroic monster saving the world. Most of the films are undeniably fun but personally they feel too much like empty calories.  It never made sense how Godzilla, a giant reptilian monster that can flatten a city block with his ATOMIC BREATH, became a friend and hero to all of humanity.  In my opinion, Gojira is still superior partially because the monster transcends itself as one and becomes a message of doom.
            Gojira is an allegory for the nuclear arms race from the perspective of Japan; the monster itself represents the results of an atomic bomb.  Given that the atomic bomb is reinterpreted as a giant dinosaur it should seem goofy but it works because of the human drama surrounding it.  The film actually delves into the complex issues like the arms race, environmental issues, and Governments withholding information with a sense of wisdom that hundreds of Cold War films never seem to get right.  Moments like when characters mentioning how they barely escaped Nagasaki reveal a setting that know the true effects of a nuclear war, which is pure horror. A Cold War film that is actually more concerned for the people and not “The Nation” is rare in the fifties, which is what makes Gojira so refreshing.
            The tone of dread is represented throughout the film by the dark cinematography of Masao Tamai and the directing by IshirĂ´ Honda.  Gojira is filmed in stark black and white, which is important because it covers much of the more fake looking special effects but it also enhances the bleak mood of the film by bathing the destruction in shadows. Frankenstein and the trendy film noir flicks of the time used this dark style in a strikingly similar fashion.  Watching Tokyo burning with blinding white flames in a jet-black night is as beautiful as it is horrifying.  
            This is feeling redundant, Gojira is dark, bleak and horrifying film and that is what makes it so great.  The film reaches into the horrors of the Cold War era but it does so in a beautifully unpretentious manner.  The camera work is a magnificent example of how black-and-white film can strongly emphasize apocalyptic moods. Godzilla the creature is brilliant in its own right and it deserved to become a phenomenon but I worry that people will forget about the origins of this monster.  Overtime people will forget the dark metaphor behind Godzilla and remember it as just another weird Japanese relic. The point is that great fun can be found in the weird but gravitas can be found as well.

Godzilla: defying gravitas. Wicked jokes are still funny, right?

            (Godzilla (Gojira) can be found on DVD and Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection and I must admit that it is a fantastic package. The picture quality is pristine and the special features also include Godzilla, King of The Monsters, which is the American re-edited version featuring Raymond Burr. Personally, I am mixed about that film but it’s a great way of showing how monster films like this were distributed.)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Taxi Driver

            Taxi Driver is a brilliant film, but not in the same vein as traditional, story-driven genre fare. Taxi Driver is a very dark character study or an “existential picture” as the screenwriter Paul Shrader refers to the film. To grossly simplify it, the film is about a taxi driver and how his isolation, the moral decay of New York and his barely controlled hatred for such scum slowly brings him into a seething rampage of destruction on the city. Infamous for it’s realistic depiction of bloody violence, the film is one that will make people question the very idea of vigilante causes, even if the cause seems justified. Taxi Driver is an uncomfortable but an ever-rewarding experience because of its vigilante and unusual ways he ticks.
            The titular cab driver is Travis Bickle, an unbelievably disturbing character but he is given great depth thanks to the performance of Rodert De Niro. He plays the character as an angry and anti-social individual but also weary, modest, and even self-aware at points.  From his perspective, which is the only given perspective in the film, New York City needs to be cleansed but is still apparent that he is a complete psychotic.  This becomes even stranger when Bickle meets Cybill Shepherd’s character, internally he idolizes her as a guardian angel who could understand his issues; it initially looks like they could work out, then he takes her on a movie date… what happens is so cringe worthy that not even the camera wants to look at him. It is brilliant.
            Another highlight of Taxi Driver is Martin Scorsese’s powerful direction. The way Scorsese composes each shot deliberately with a tone of simmering menace which perfectly compliments the unpredictably of Bickle. Whether it be the murky streets of New York, the sleazy neon lights of the porn theaters or a glass of Alka-Seltzer they are filmed with the purpose to link the audience into the mad mind of Bickle. With that plus a Paul Shrader’s bizarre narrative and Thelma Shoonmaker’s always perfect editing technique, the result is a stream of conscious masterpiece.
            Taxi Driver is far from a cheery film but it is a brilliant study of both the moral decay of urban areas and vigilantes. Rather than playing a rabid dog, Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle as a contradictory, angry, yet focused and affable that will genuinely question the viewer’s idea of anti-heroes. There are also so many other details like Jodie Foster’s performance, Cybill Shepherd, the racism subtext and the ending that could written about and they would result in so many interpretations, which is what makes the film so great.  Taxi Driver is that will leave each viewer with different questions and answers, nobody leaves unscathed but they will watch it again. A film this excellent deserves a multiple looks, regardless of content.

(Taxi Driver is available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Raid (aka The Raid: Redemption)

            Sorry for the late review, I just got back from vacation with a stomach bug so lets talk about something simple, The Raid.

            This Indonesian martial arts action film is probably the first one to ever feel like it will break my nose just from looking at it, which is a great thing. The Raid is a bare bones, fast paced action movie that takes every Hollywood action film of the last 25 years, beats them into a white powder and sniffs it in one breath. The film doesn’t invent anything new but it is executed so perfectly with a near psychotic amount of confidence that it reinvents the very idea of an action film. Thesis: The Raid is badass.
            The plot is not much, a rookie cop and his fellow squad mates get locked in an apartment building filled evil killers during a police raid and they have to fight their way out.  This is nothing that has not been done before in films like Die Hard and Dredd. But like those films and many others, the plot is merely a concept to wrap around the martial arts sequences, which are jaw dropping.  Aside from a couple, albeit fantastic, shootouts most of the action is from visceral, fast, bone crushing, and precise martial arts that has to be seen to comprehend their magnitude, and they definitely want you to see it.   
            The director Gareth Evans and fight choreographers/actors Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian can clearly read each other’s minds because the shots are perfectly composed with the action. The camera is never up close and edits are few, meaning every single hit can be seen clear as day. It was mainly shot with handheld cameras which allows for perfect flow from action to action; while handheld cameras notorious for being shaky, it does not matter because the filmmakers have a clear sense of space.  In short, by actually showing the action clearly in The Raid, the viscera and thrills become real and alive.
            The Raid is badass, end of thesis. The violent martial arts and gunplay are not for the squeamish but are undeniably impressive feats. The Raid, like Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon and Buster Keaton’s The General, is a film that best appreciated for the intense physical talented displayed onscreen. Yet the film also features an equally talented director that has a keen eye for composition in an exponentially chaotic environment.  The Raid is a lean and powerful action film that will satiate a thrill junky better than any action films that Sylvester Stallone and his Expendables group have made in the past couple decades.

(The Raid is available on DVD and Blu-ray. There is also a sequel titled The Raid 2: Berandal; I will not formally review it is in retail, but it is easily my favorite action of the year and I’ve seen Captain America: Winter Soldier)

Thursday, May 1, 2014

City Lights

           Charles Chaplin, has there ever been an artist that was as contentious as him during their time? Just as when “the Talkies” were becoming trendy in Hollywood this comedian decides to make yet another silent movie, talk about not giving a damn. City Lights is a silent romantic comedy about a little tramp and a blind flower girl who thinks he is a millionaire.  Hilarity ensues as usual but like many of Chaplin’s films City Lights will leave one blindsided by the shocking amount of depth and humanity he brings to the screen and without pretension. Chaplin wanted to prove that his silent comedies still had merit in the new Sound Era and resulted in a masterpiece that transcends both his genre and medium.
            So after nearly 85 years of time to take this film out of context, is City Lights still funny?  Yes. Chaplin is a brilliant satirist because he was never alienating. Many of the characters in the film are a subtle representation of life when in the economy began to crash. His signature Little Tramp character always represented a good 99% percent of world, making him instantly relatable, never mind that his warm presence and abilities as a comedian. Though of course he is a brilliant comedian, he may lack the physical prowess of Buster Keaton but his timing is bulletproof.  After thirty years of acting prior to this film, mostly as the Little Tramp, Chaplin looks like he invented pantomime with the way he gracefully nails every single gag.
            However, a funny thing about City Lights is that the satire itself is not at the forefront of the plot.  Almost every film Chaplin has made outside of City Light, like The Kid, The Great Dictator and Modern Times, were about topical issues like war and poverty; in contrast, this film is a comedic love story that is as realistic as a fairy tale, but it is a tender one.  City Lights is about the Little Tramp and his romantic yearning for connection, even if it means living up to a lie about his own wealth.  He is dishonest yet always has good intentions, like getting a job scooping feces to help pay for the Blind Girl’s rent, but still dresses posh whenever he meets her.  Ultimately, he is a lovable mad man, a bum who thinks he is a Victorian romantic, yet his selflessness proves to be his greatest trait by the end.
            Personally, there are very few films that make me cry, let alone profusely, this @#$%ing film made me break down, all because of chemistry between the Little Tramp and the Blind Girl (played by Virginia Cherrill).  Chaplin and Cherrill play like they were destined for each other as they mingle together over things like flowers and his “wealth” because they visibly act with a level of intimacy would be drowned out by dialogue.  This intimacy is encapsulated by the ending, which relies solely on the performances of the two leads and very few close ups to create one of the purest portrayals of love ever on film. It is a delicate and subtle moment that is both intensely sad and heartwarming, something that less than a dozen or so films in the last century managed to duplicate.
            Regardless of his intentions, modest or otherwise, City Lights is Chaplin’s ultimate artistic statement.  The film defied not only the norms of an increasingly noisy Hollywood but also the upper class that refused to believe that Black Tuesday ever happened. He also uses this defiance to redefine himself as both a comedian and storyteller by revolving the plot around his Little Tramp as human character and not a symbol.  In hindsight, the theme of love in the lower class is so universal and is so well executed that the history behind City Lights, the film is a masterpiece.

(City Lights is available in a DVD/Blu-ray combo package by the Criterion Collection as well as Amazon Instant Video