Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On Curiosity and The Movies

             When I saw the premise for the Things I Learned From The Movies Blogathon, the one thing that crept into my mind was how my most memorable cinema going experiences occurred through curiosity, or finding the motivation to see something new. There were moments where I became more curious about film and thus me a bit less oblivious and more open to share my interests with other people. So here are three movie experiences that taught, or reminded me, to be more curious about film.

            As a kid, I never liked trying new things, which was awkward when my family moved to Munich, Germany in 2002.  During those four years, my two sisters were the cool drama kids, my parents were the happy PTA power couple, and I struggled.  I was anti-social and I never felt comfortable anywhere outside of playing video games at home. My mother, persistent on making me more social, sent me to the school’s film club; it was not baseball, but at least I would be sitting around other people.
            The clubroom was strange place that was both a video library and a lounge that looked like the common rooms in the Harry Potter series. The teacher was a proto-hipster lady who wore a dog collar but was also uncompromising about her methods. She started the meeting with a stern warning, “Do not expect to see anything new! This club is about celebrating classic cinema, so you if want to see Zoolander or Spiderman, you can get that shit in any rental store,” and that was that.
            After watching a documentary about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies—which I fail to remember the title of—she gave every kid a film to watch at home. Mine was Todd Browning’s Dracula.  I was genuinely exciting at first, this would be the first straightforward vampire film I would ever see, but it was rather disappointing. The story was dull, it looked stagey and most of the actors are either stiff or comically hammy. The one exception was the actor who played Dracula, Bela Lugosi, who caught my attention with his ghoulish and grand presence. Something about his charisma made me more curious about other vampire and horror stories. I started reading books like Salem’s Lot, Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, and eventually I was looking up horror movies online and started talking to other people about weird things I saw.
            When I returned to the club in the following week, the teacher asked us about the films we have watched. I confessed, “I thought Dracula was slow, but the villain was cool. I was wondering what other horror movies you had?” She lit up, “Well it is not a horror film, but let me show y’all something is just as thrilling!” She then turned on the projector and introduced us to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. At that point I was hooked.

Seven Samurai
            Anyone close to me knows that Seven Samurai is my favorite film of all-time but my introduction to the film is rather embarrassing. Around the time we were preparing to leave Munich for Seattle, I had become the worst kind of fourteen-year-old genre film snob. I thought nothing that was made outside of Hollywood would ever be worth my time. Then one day I was skimming through a book about cinematic storytelling in the library and on the action cinema chapter the only action film analyzed was Seven Samurai. I was completely mad. I thought, why would anyone analyze some obscure 50s samurai film when there were such great action films like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Armageddon? Teenage me was an idiot.
At that moment, I vowed to never watch the film. About 2 years and a weekend later, I was sitting home alone, surfing the channels and noticed that Seven Samurai was beginning to play on Turner Classic Movies. Realizing that forsaking a vow is less painful than doing homework, I decided to watch the film, and for those three and a half hours I was left in stunned silence.
            The film was a revelation. The story of a group of samurai protecting a village from bandits seems so quaint, like an early John Ford western, but the level of detail committed to the screen was intricate and extravagant to the point of profundity. The film transported me into feudal Japan, openly revealing every grimy, painful and human truths of what it meant survive during this period, which is often glossed over by the romantic mythmaking of the movies.  The village was not a set but a barely thriving ecosystem that faced the ravages of war. Every battle was a moment of barely controlled chaos, further emphasized by massive fires or torrential rains the turned the land into bloody mud. Even the titular samurai, while noble and heroic, were far more human than one might expect; they were a weary, pragmatic group who fought for sake of providing one final good deed before fading into obscurity.  Never had I seen a film made with this much passion.
            Seven Samurai is still a beautiful, gripping, and overwhelmingly passionate film that can still leave me in tears. To think that I once thought this movie would never be worth my time just makes it all the more hilarious. Nowadays, I watch it not just because it is amazing, but as a reminder that great cinema is not defined by language or place, and the only thing stopping me from seeing these sort of films was just myself.

            Daisies is a fabulous psychedelic Czech new wave film that I saw long ago for a class assignment. At the time, I was living in Pasadena, California with my parents, slowly figuring out the pre-requisites of going to college. I was taking a community college course on women in film and it was required to view a public screening of a film made by a female director. I noticed Daisies was playing at the LACMA, it looked fun and interesting, so I went and it has grown to become a favorite ever since. Like Hausu or The Rocky Horror Picture, Daisies is one of those films where the strangeness of it all overshadows its brilliance but is glorious nonetheless. However, what I remember most fondly about that screening was not the surreal comedy, or the bold imagery, but the awkwardness of watching the film with my parents.
            This happened out of necessity, I did not know where the LACMA was and they did not want to stay home all day; plus, on the website Daisies look more like a slapstick comedy than a transgressive art film. It seemed like a great idea for a family night out until the film started. The phallic symbolism was squirmy enough for them but once they started seeing floating heads, their bafflement was audible. Once the film ended, I slowly turned to my parent and after a moment of silence my Dad said, “Well that was weird” and we all laughed. We continued talked and laughed some more about all the weird moments on the way to the car. In the end they were glad to see it, they probably do not plan to see it again but they were glad nonetheless, and that made me happy.
            I love moments like this because they remind me of the joy of going past my comfort zone and sharing those experiences with others. By watching these old, obscure, and weird films and talking about them with family, friends, and bloggers, I found myself becoming more sociable whilst finding a better understanding of film. Even bad films can provide perspective or at least a funny memory to share with friends. However a more important lesson I learned was to trust people when they suggest something new. If my parents did not send me into that film club I might not have found my passion for film. As an aspiring critic, I hope to be that encouraging.

            This is a late post for the Things I Learned From The Movies Blogathon. Thankfully I did not choose punctuality as my topic. Anyway, check out Speakeasy, SilverScreenings or #LearnedFromMovies on Twitter for more introspective essays, stories, and lessons learned at the movies.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

September Pre-Hurricane Movie Update 2016

             I guess I have to apologize twice over today; one for the fact that this is later than expected and once more for rushing to complete this post before Hurricane Matthew takes out my Wi-Fi connection. So without wasting too much time, here is what I saw in September

Young Frankenstein/Blazing Saddles
            August ended on a tragic note—as every month of 2016 seems to do—with the death of comic legend Gene Wilder, which ultimately leads to a bittersweet beginning of September with a re-introduction to two of his funniest comedies. In Young Frankenstein Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frohnkensteen, a passionate and childishly mad scientist who becomes obsessed with late grandfather’s work after inheriting his fortune and castle. This film shows Wilder’s brilliance as a comic actor as he shouts lines like “My grandfather’s work was doo-doo” with an forceful command that not even Laurence Olivier could pull off. Nobody really plays a comic role like Wilder anymore; he hardly relied on mugging or improvising one-liners until the camera stopped. He would disappear into his role like a method actor, embracing the absurdity of the heightened world he traveled in, which makes moments like when he stabs his knee. Certain elements of Young Frankenstein do not age well (the scene when the Creature meets Madeline Kahn is irksome) but it is a masterful showcase of Wilder’s masterful comic acting.
            Blazing Saddles on the other hand has aged surprisingly well. It is a defiant satire that rips on the racist themes of the Western genre and Hollywood filmmaking as a whole with brilliant simplicity. Blazing Saddles only features Gene Wilder in a secondary capacity but no less a hilarious and valuable part of an already legendary cast of comedians.  With actors like Cleavon Little, Madeline Kahn, Slim Pickens and Harvey Korman—plus Richard Pryor and Mel Brooks—Blazing Saddles seems like a time capsule 1970s comedy scene but it still feels relevant today.

Cemetary of Splendour
            From the Taiwanese director Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, Cemetery of Splendor is a drama—of sorts—about a sleeping epidemic that has afflicted the soldier in a contemporary rural village. At first the film focuses on an elderly woman, and relationship with an afflicted soldier and a seer who can communicate with the sleepers. Beyond that however, the mystery evolves into a mood piece of psycho-surrealism. The film is a visual riddle, subtler than films like Under The Skin and Embrace of the Serpent but more than capable of messing the mind. Like a new spot on the skin, Cemetery of Splendour is inscrutable and haunting enough to be unforgettable.

Rachel Getting Married
            Anne Hathaway stars as Kim, the mentally unstable sister of Rachel, who is given a couple days leave from her clinic to attend her sister’s wedding. However this is not My Big Fat Greek Wedding, this film is a raw affair about a family that is trying miserably to hide the cracks of their foundation as personal grudges and tragedies are revealed. It is a solid drama that showcases Anne Hathaway’s powerful range and spontaneity; however, the film fumbles hard when it actually showcases the wedding, which is an overlong mess that seems more appropriate in a Baz Luhrmann musical than a neo-realist drama.

            A 1950s Japanese Heian period horror film about two women whose souls return as vengeful black cat demons after being raped and murdered by samurai warriors. This film is certainly haunting and atmospheric but its brutal criticism of samurai culture is film is what makes this film so fascinating. From the very beginning Kuroneko portrays samurai as barbarians who exploit their social status to rape and pillage people whom they were suppose to protect. As the film continues, it reveals how this exploitation is systemic; their honor code is so powerful, that it blinds them of their own inhumanity they cause. Kuroneko is both a cathartic and poetic exercise of revenge but also an allegory about systemic exploitation, which is sadly still relevant to this day.

Only Angels have Wings
            Certain films have the benefit, or curse, of being so dated that they become a window of their period. Only Angel Have Wings, a Cary Grant led action drama about aviators who deliver mail in the Andes Mountains, could only be made in 1939, but it is still thrilling because of that reason. These are pilots who must risk flying on rickety at best planes in terrible weather without GPS, which is all sorts of horrifying. The film is an intense experience not just because of the ride itself but also the cast of characters riding the planes. This is a group that intends to live in present, they are fueled by the adrenaline and forget about the dead, or at least try to forget. While it never provides much in plot Only Angels Have Wings is still striking character drama about thrill seeking, and fatalistic masculinity. It is certainly a better choice than watching the Point Break remake again.

The Royal Tenenbaums
            The Royal Tenenbaums is an adult family comedy about the internal strife of the artistic Tenenbaum family, who must deal with their dying estranged father, who is kind of a jerk but still means well. Like all of Wes Anderson films, The Royal Tenebaums has a quirky aesthetic blend of dry French new wave, the farces of Hal Ashby, and old dollhouses. His style may seem absurd initially but once one gets acclimated, the costumes reveal symbolic meaning, the dialogue begins to pierce, and the characters reveal their soul with graceful restraint. While The Royal Tenebaums does surpass his best film: The Grand Budapest Hotel, it certainly one of Wes Anderson’s most effective and emotional works.

The Last Man On Earth
            The idea of a Vincent Price led vampire movie loosely based on I Am Legend sounds rather exciting but it falters under wonky pacing and stiff drama. The biggest fault is that features an overly long flashback that is almost nothing but exposition that is delivered with the verve of a smoking PSA. Vincent Price is certainly the best part of the film, and it is refreshing to see Price playing a ordinary man in danger instead of a frightening clever schemer, but his charisma is not enough of to keep that second act from feeling like a lecture. Those who can plow through that brick wall of exposition will be rewarded with a more admirable adaptation of I Am Legend than the hammy and wrongheaded Will Smith film, but not by much.

A Woman Under The Influence
            The upside to college is getting introduced to a new great filmmaker that does not get circulation anymore. John Cassavetes is probably better known as Rosemary’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby or the arrogant private The Dirty Dozen; beyond acting, he was a quietly talented filmmaker that independently directed these loose—almost improvised—day-in-the-life dramas. Among them is A Woman Under The Influence, a film about a mentally unstable woman (played masterfully by Gena Rowlands) and her relationship with her husband (Peter Falk) and three kids. The film looks rough, modern films of its type—like Rachel Getting Married—seem polished in comparison, but it ultimately does not matter because it is such a devastating and powerful experience that it can leave even the most cynical viewer stunned.

            The plan was to write something longer about this film, but since I might get swept away by this hurricane, I’ll just say this: it is a David Fincher murder mystery/journalism story about the Zodiac Killer, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo, go see it. Already did? See it again.

Well that is it, some of these were pretty bleak, so click here to see Paul Newman on a bicycle.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Some Highs and Lows of August

            As of two weeks ago I have started a new semester of college, which means I’m still adjusting to the demands between schoolwork and blogging. For now I’ll just focus on writing short and informal stuff and leaving longer essays for Blogathons and film/topics that inspire analysis. Still, I saved up some short reviews of the films I saw during August just to make up for the dead time.

Bojack Horseman Season 3
            Still the best show on Netflix. Season 3 is a bit less serialized than the previous seasons, but each episode has a magnificently composed arc to them that reveals darker shades of Bojack, Hollywoo(d) and his dwindling group of friends.  The mostly silent episode “Fish Out of Water,” is an outstanding episode that perfectly represents the show’s brilliantly zippy and dark comic style whilst experimenting with said formula. However, it is heartbreaking and brutally honest episodes like “The Best Thing That Ever Happened” and “That’s too Much, Man!” that make me committed to this show. The show may not replace Bob’s Burgers in terms of pure condensed laughter, but that not really the show’s mission at this point. Bob’s Burgers is more interested in being The Simpsons for a new generation; Bojack Horseman aspires to being something like Pagliacci.

Stranger Things
            The show is a solid sci-fi mystery thriller that is filled with enough creepy monsters, government conspiracies and psychic children to keep the genre fans addicted. It is also a shameless pastiche of early 1980s pop culture, referencing the likes of Steven Spielberg, Steven King, John Carpenter and many more, which are fun for a while but become distracting to a frustrating degree. Often the show is more interested in creating entire scenes around a reference for its own sake rather than invoking an actual honest emotion or thrill. That is college film shtick. Thankfully the cast is outstanding, Winona Ryder is better than ever, bringing tenderness and intensity unseen from her, David Harbour takes the Chief Brody archetype and adds a harder edge to it with great results, but it is the leading quintet kids and their nerdy camaraderie that make this show stand out. The show could easily just be about them playing their Dungeons & Dragons campaign and it would still work; those kids are just that good. Stranger Things is an engaging show with great potential; hopefully next season will use homage to create stronger drama and not just trivia game fodder.

Penny Dreadful S1-2
            Penny Dreadful is about a witch, a cowboy, Victor Frankenstein and a vampire hunter and his manservant fighting supernatural crime in London, of course it is awesome! On paper it sounds derivative to the League of Extraordinary Gentleman but the concept of a supernatural drama starring a group of public domain literature characters is too broad for just one franchise.  The espionage tales of the Extraordinary Gentleman had more in common the Suicide Squad than Penny Dreadful—trashy film adaptation and all. Penny Dreadful is a more opulent horror driven experience that is striking with its ghoulish beauty and over-the-top acting from the likes of Eva Green and Timothy Dalton.

Best of Enemies
            A documentary about a series of debates between the conservative journalist William F Buckley and the liberal author Gore Vidal, which aired on ABC as part of the network’s coverage of the 1968 primaries. Their purpose was to comment on the candidates, but every week it turned into snippy arguments about their ideologies and lifestyles, and it is hilarious.  Granted it is hilarious until the film delves into the bleak implications these debates had on the media, at which the film reaches a sort of quiet profundity.

            Another documentary about two powerhouses meeting face to face; granted filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut were hardly mortal enemies but distant admirers who met for a series of interviews about Hitchcock’s filmmaking technique.  The process lasted a week but it resulted in a book—of which the film got its name—that changed the common perception of Hitchcock from a light entertainer to the Hollywood auteur.  While the film often lapses into advertising the book than examining the key subjects, it is worth listening to the recordings of Truffaut and Hitchcock and witness these distant admirers evolve into creative kin.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople
            No joke, after finishing my midyear review I went to see this film, based on my parents’ recommendation, and afterward I kept kicking myself for not being able to fit it in the list. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a hilarious and touching family comedy that blends the best elements of Pete Doctor and Wes Anderson films with gleeful and unpretentious style. This film—along with Love & Friendship and The Lobster—prove that cinematic comedy is not lost this year.

Finding Dory
            Thirteen years after Finding Nemo, everyone’s favorite forgetful blue fish Dory spontaneously realizes that she had a family and goes on the hunt for them. This leads to Marlon, Nemo and Dory getting lost in SeaWorld and hijinks ensue. The comedy is a bit uninspired, the highlight is Ed O Niel as an agoraphobic octopus but the film is mostly filled with simple slapstick and callbacks to jokes from the previous film.  However, the one element that is outstanding is how the film expands Dory’s short-term memory loss as a disability for the character. Instead of making it a silly joke as it was in 2003, the film shows Dory as she struggles with her memory loss in a very honest and sensitive manner, but also inspiring as she manages it with great success.  Finding Dory is no Toy Story 2 or 3 but it is certainly their best sequel that does not involve cars or monsters.

Danger: Diabolik
            Based on an Italian comic of the same name, this is Mario Bava’s low budget crime film that answers the question, “what if Bonnie & Clyde had James Bond’s gadgets?” The story is about Diabolik and girlfriend Eva, master thieves who raise hell in Europe, robbing every bank in sight whilst always being one step ahead of the authorities. Diabolik and Eva are pop-art anti-heroes; nothing really matters to them as long as they look cool doing their work.  Sadly, the story is not as clever the heroes, many of the story beats are cool on the surface but any hint of logic would destroy them. The tacky dialogue—over-dubbed by some painfully stiff English voice actors—does not help either.  Still, there is some absurd fun to be had, and it would also make a nice double bill with a certain Adam West superhero film…

Batman (1966)
             Holy segue, its Batman! Ah yes, the spin-off film of the (in)famous Batman TV series from the 1960s; depending on who you ask, it is either a fun relic of a more innocent time or garish trash that reduced super-hero comics into an adolescent product. As someone who is both too young to understand and too old to care about such history, the film is pure adorable fun.  Batman is certainly camp, Adam West’s and Bud Ward’s deliver their pun-filled lines with the dramatic conviction of Rod Serling and the posse of villains chew the scenery like frenzied sharks, but the film is bright, punchy, and never dull.  Speaking of sharks, there is clear method to the madness, the film features the frequently mocked Shark Repellant Bat-Spray, but it is taken from a whole shelf of Bat-Sprays, including ones for barracudas, manta rays and even whales. Whales! Only in a truly evil world would one need whale repellant, or a hilariously comic one.

Point Break (2015)
            Oh boy. Ignoring that this film looks less like a adaptation of the 1990s Point Break than a direct-to-video stunt film that was turned into a remake in the post-production phase. Ignoring that Luke Bracey’s lifeless interpretation of Johnny Utah makes Keanu Reeves look like Daniel-Day Lewis. The fact is that this remake is horrifically dull action film, even by mediocre action standards. Every story beat can be spotted a mile away, every frame of film is filtered with a sickening green tint, and the action, by unwitting design, has absolutely no tension. The stunts are certainly elaborate but because every character is an obnoxiously fearless stuntman who performs stunts for fun, and the action is composed like every stunt compilation video on YouTube, everything feels so carefully choreographed that there is no sense of danger at all. For all the technical proficiency that it flaunts, the film robs itself of any sense of viscera or tension that people should expect from even a mediocre thriller. Watching the Point Break is about as exciting as watching a zombie film without zombies, a western without guns, or a comedy starring Rob Schneider.

Lady Snowblood
            Born a vengeful spirit, Lady Snowblood is a hard samurai who vows to kill the bandits that raped her mother, killed her father and her brother. She may not have met her family but she will not rest until f. This film is a raw, intense, bordering on horrifying samurai film that features some of the bloodiest action sequences that 1970s Japan could offer.  The story of Lady Snowblood, while shocking, is rather thin but the action and style is so distinct and immaculate it is easy to understand why Quentin Tarantino was so taken by this film when creating Kill Bill. Nevertheless, Lady Snowblood is thrilling and clever enough to be more than just a piece of trivia.

Tokyo Tribe
            Tokyo Tribe is a Japanese comedy/action/hip-hop musical adaptation of a manga about gangs fighting for territory and something about virgin sacrifices; it is about as sane as it sounds. Transgressive, violent, and rude as hell, Tokyo Tribe is the type of extreme cinema that both the cult musical crowd and exploitation fan will relish but the debauchery and violence is so persistent that it eventually becomes exhausting. It is like jumping in a mosh-pit at a hip-hop concert until a muscle is pulled. As for the music, there is actually a pretty solid mix of old school beats, the cast of rappers would not last a minute in the Wu-Tang Clan’s 36 chambers but their enthusiasm is infectious. Tokyo Tribe is a baffling film to experience but not exactly a dynamic one.

            So that is it. Not sure yet if I should save up future reviews like this on a monthly basis or post them up more consistently, but that is how experimentation works, I suppose. If you have suggestions or recommendations, let me know. For now, as uncertainty rocks lets leave it on a happy note, namely that Spike Jonze perfume commercial/music video that not enough people are talking about.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

M (1931)

            When thinking of film noir as a genre or style—with its shadowy urban worlds of despair, cool detachment, violence, and cigarettes—it is easy to think of it as something purely American. In fact, Roger Ebert once considered it “the most American film genre” for these very reasons.  While 20th century U.S.A was the perfect Petri dish to produce such classics like The Big Heat and Double Indemnity, some of best examples of film noir are not even American. The British film The Third Man and the French Le Samouraï come to mind but the film that influence these, and so many other films, is the 1931 German murder mystery M. Featuring the clever and dramatic direction of Fritz Lang and a shocking performance from Peter Lorre, M is a classic film noir made before the concept was fashionable.
            Set in Berlin, M revolves around Hans Beckert, a serial child murderer who is so elusive that even the city’s gangsters begin to search for him once the police start doing massive sweeps in the underground.  The story sounds like sensationalist pulp fiction but it is structured as a grounded procedural. Fans of Hannibal or The Wire will find M to be strangely familiar.  Much of first act focuses on meticulously showing the daily procedures of the Berlin police, the criminal underworld, the angry civilians, and Beckert’s routine. Almost none of these characters are stylized enough to fit the mold of any film noir archetypes—gumshoes, femme fatales, et cetera—but their environment purely noir. Their livelihoods reveal a paranoid and nihilistic post-WW1 Berlin where everyone is persecuting each other over baseless claims as the city devolves into an oppressive police state. The fears echoed in M are sadly modern even 85 years after its premiere.
            What fuels the plot of M is the German expressionistic eye of director Fritz Lang and his use of shadows. After years of directing groundbreaking silent films like Dr. Mabuse and Metropolis, this was Lang’s first foray into sound pictures and he translates his theatrical style brilliantly.  The sets are far more grounded than his previous works but he is still more than capable of unsettling an audience with a perfectly ghoulish shot. This is apparent in an early scene where the camera follows a girl bouncing a ball against signpost, the post is plastered with the bounty for an unknown murderer, and then a silhouette of Hans Beckert moves over the sign and he politely talks the girl. It is both a distinctively noir moment and one of most harrowing introductions of a horror character ever filmed. Fritz Lang’s taste in chiaroscuro and genre allowed M to become a critical international hit, which allowed him to work in Hollywood on other great film noirs like The Big Heat.
            While they never worked together again, the fact that both Fritz Lang and Peter Lorre made M before leaving Germany for Hollywood is almost too perfect. Lorre has always been a mainstay in early American film noir; often playing villainous and seedy foreigners types in films like The Maltese Falcon, but his performance as Hans Beckert is a far more complex and influential than anything he ever played. Beckert is portrayed as a wide-eyed, self-loathing obsessive who cannot control his urge to kill. Whenever he feels the urge, he habitually whistles “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which he tries to resist it at one point by drinking cognac in a café. Lorre portrays with an unhinged weariness, as if the song has kept him awake every day and night for a long time, and everything he does only makes it more painful. Lorre provides an entry into the psychosis of Beckert, revealing a side of this antagonist that is genuinely tragic and empathetic.  It is testament to a perfectly layered performance that Lorre can make one possibly forgive, but not forget, the sins of his character.
            M is easily one of the oldest and best examples of film noir, American or not. Through M, Lang used his expressive silent era tendencies to bring shadows into the sound era, revealing their potential for economic storytelling as well as a creating a bleak atmosphere that defines film noir. The story is a harsh, morally difficult tale to grasp set in a world that slowly becoming too oppressive for morals. It may lack some of the obvious trappings that American film noir had made popular, but noir has always been more of an attitude than an actual formula, and attitude is universal.

            (The film is available on DVD and Blu-ray via Criterion, but it can also be found on Youtube as well, not sure if it is legal--pubic domain is a bit vague--but they are there...)

            This post is part of the Film Noir Blogathon, hosted by The Midnite Drive-in. Check it out for more posts and reviews of films where the number of smoking guns are only matched by the number of cigarettes.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Classic Movie History Project: The Leopard

            Technicolor, a wonderfully named film colorization process that defined early to mid 20th century Hollywood filmmaking with regal and candy-colored movies like Singin’ in The Rain, The Wizard of Oz, and The Red Shoes. This process is not known for creating realism onscreen, but it allowed filmmakers to find a painterly beauty within their films, Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard is among such films. The Leopard is an epic Italian melodrama that takes place in 1860—late into Garibaldi’s campaign in the Risorgimento—as the aging Don Fabrizo Corbera, Prince of Salina, watches in quiet despair as the aristocracy loses in relevance in the country’s ever changing political climate. Like the Spaghetti Westerns, The Leopard is a European film made with a Hollywood style for an international market in mind; featuring stars like French actor Alain Delon, Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, and American actor Burt Lancaster as the Prince. With Visconti’s fondness for flair and neo-realism, he perceived an empathic vision of the Prince as he struggles to find relevance in his homeland. Through the use of vivid and desolate colors Visconti elegantly reveals the weariness, nostalgia and passion of this time period to the screen.
            The color scheme in The Leopard is not as flamboyant as one might expect from an epic. Compared to film like Gone with The Wind or Ben-Hur, The Leopard can look outright muted, but the color is affective in how it grounds the setting of a dying era. Notably, the outdoor sequences are dominated by the beige colors of dead Sicilian grass and clay buildings ravaged during the Risorgimento. These colors compliment’s the film’s theme of archaic perspective of the aristocracy and their fading relevance.  This comes into full force when the Prince and his family retreats to their summer palace in Donnafugata. They reach their destination during a dust storm, and attend Catholic mass covered in sandy gray dust, dressed in black. They sit still and listen to the organ play, looking like statues from forgotten ruins as the camera slowly pans to each family member. It is a quiet and nostalgic elegy to a more glamorous time.  

            The Prince is a fascinating character in terms of presence and substance, much of which is portrayed through Burt Lancaster’s performance. With help from silver hair, moustache, and a detached demeanor, Lancaster simply disappears into the role as the Prince. Through much of the film, the Prince is more of a witness than an actual instigator to the changes of Italy’s political climate. In fact, when a village celebrates over an election shoddily rigged by the corrupt mayor Sedara, all that the Prince can do is smoke and giggle the absurdity of it all, not even fireworks could impress him. Lancaster embodies the bleak psyche of the Prince, portraying the character with cold detachment, but also profound sense of self-awareness and grace.
            The film brightens up a bit with the introduction of Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the daughter of Sedara, who charms Tancredi (Alain Delon), the Prince’s beloved nephew and heir. There is a morbid quality to their relationship, she was born solely for purpose of being married off—and indirectly getting Sedara accepted—into the aristocracy. Tancredi pays no mind to this and it is easy to understand his perspective. Every scene with Angelica emphasizes her beauty, charm but also her status as an outsider.  In a sequence where Tancredi and Angelica tour a dull filthy abandoned wing of the palace, Tancredi wears a matching brown suit whilst Angelica wears a bright pink dress. She is in contrast with everything and everyone in the palace. Angelica knows this, and some of her future in-laws callously accept her, but she remains resolute, which Claudia Cardinale portrays with effortless smolder. If there is an actor that shines like Burt Lancaster, it is Cardinale. 

            The sequence that defines The Leopard is the ceremonial ball that is the focus of the final hour of the film. This party takes place in golden ballroom, filled with hundreds of people dancing, dining and all dressed in some of the finest clothes ever shown onscreen.  It is a glamorous celebration of Tancredi and Angelica’s union but the dramatic core is the Prince’s growing detachment to the jubilance, knowing that his era is coming to its metaphorical end. There is one moment of levity for the Prince when Angelica offer him waltz, which does make him feel young again.  The dance is composed with graceful subtly—the master shot just far enough away to see their legs move in rhythm with some softly lit close-up intercut to sell it—as these two characters from different generations share this one beautiful moment of escape.  Powers may shift and lives may be lost when that, but at this moment, dancing is all that matters. Like the rest of the film, the ball sequence is both beautiful and difficult to process as it fills the viewer with contradicting feelings on the aristocracy, while critical of their decadence and glamour, it is impossible to not be moved. The many dances, the regal decorum and all the colorful costumes have an emotional connection to them, which is all the more palpable knowing that it will vanish within their lifetimes.
            When thinking about the great early Technicolor films—The Red Shoes, Ben-Hur, et cetera—they are lauded for pronounced and wonderfully bombastic use of color; however, The Leopard reveals their beauty through a subtler yet no less profound manner by using colors as signifiers. They reveal the film as a complex historical allegory as well as a heart-achingly romantic drama featuring Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale performing at their very best. The Leopard is a unique epic where the quiet and delicate moments standout just as strong, if not more so, than any chariot race or dreamy ballet routine of the Technicolor film that preceded it.        

            (The Leopard is available on Blu-ray and DVD via the Criterion Collection in a set that includes the 185 minute long Italian cut, as well as an American cut that is only 160 minutes long and dubbed in English. This review is based on the Italian version.)

            This review is also part of the Classic Movie History Project, a blogathon celebrating the best, worst and most unusual aspects of cinematic history. The event is hosted Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. Check out their pages for more stuff about Technicolor, Silent movies, Box office hits, duds, and more! A special thank you to the hosts for organizing this project and encouraging the uninitiated into viewing classic movies.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Best Films of 2016 (so far)

            It is July, so it seemed appropriate to do a sort of midseason review of 2016 by showing my favorite films of the year so far. It seems a bit silly; this list will be dated by the end of the year, but since I rarely review contemporary films this will at least encapsulate my favorite viewing experiences during the first half of the year. Even if only a few or possibly none of these films make it on my top ten, they are still worthy of being seen.

5. April and The Extraordinary World
            The best animated film of the year so far is April and The Extraordinary World, the 2D French epic sci-fi adventure with a title to match. What more can be said? It is a bright, fanciful adventure that is filled with imagination and enthusiasm. Sure it not as lavish as Zootopia or heartbreaking as Finding Dory, but what the film lacks in budget and tears it makes up for with a fantastic sense of storytelling and meticulous world-building that is rare, even for Disney. The action is also wonderfully zippy, lovingly mixing the sensibilities of Jacques Tati, Jules Verne and Bugs Bunny to brilliant effect. April and The Extraordinary World a wonderful film that any kind movie fan could enjoy.

4. Embrace of the Serpent
            Like Song of the Sea, this film is in that ridiculous grey zone of have two premieres in two years. Technically Embrace of the Serpent was nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar of 2015, but nobody saw this film until last March, including myself. So screw it, the film is great and it should not be pushed aside over a technicality.
            Embrace of The Serpent is a hazy sprawling film that interweaves two tales of a shaman named Karamakate as he guides a different scientist during through the Amazon in search of medicine in 1909 and 1940.  Both stories are weaving dreamlike parallels of Karamakate’s struggles as a man trying to preserve his culture, even as forces beyond his control tarnish it.  Both a psychedelic riddle and a neo-realist portrait of the Amazon and its people, Embrace of The Serpent is a spellbinding, beautiful and poignant work that will haunt people for months on end.

3. The Lobster
            Easily the best date movie since Gone Girl. The Lobster is a satirical, surreal, dystopian romantic comedy about a divorcee named David (Colin Farrell) who is transferred to a hotel where single people must go to find mates, if they fail, then the will be turned into an animal of their choice, a delicious crustacean in his case. This film is a meticulous and brutal examination of the social anxieties found in a modern society that believes that everyone must find their soul mate on eHarmony before they turn thirty. It is like if George Orwell somehow watched The Bachelor and wrote the screenplay for Luis Buñuel, yet Lanthimos somehow proves to be more biting either artist. The Lobster is darkly funny, but it is also romantic in ways that are completely unexpected. The core of this is thanks to that beautiful chemistry of Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz, who lighten up the oppressive setting as the evolve into one a very unique kind of romantic couple.

2. Love & Friendship
            From a film about the anxiety for modern matchmaking to a film about the rebellious glee of old fashioned adultery and flirting. Then again, Whit Stillman has always been at making witty romantic farces. Love & Friendship is his adaptation of Jane Austen’s story Lady Susan; the titular lady is a widow, whose virtuosic ability to charm is only matched by her ability to not give a shit about who she woos. Now she is on the prowl again and not even her rich snooty relatives can stop her.  She will even find someone for her daughter if she finds the time. Lady Susan is so audacious that she is inspiring; the confidence she displays is astounding and hilarious. It helps that Kate Bekinsale proves herself more than worthy for the role, spinning these lengthy, tongue-twisting, poetically dense lines of comic dialogue and still look like she just came back from a holiday. The film also features an equally wonderful supporting cast ranging from Stephen Fry to Chloë Sevigny. However the biggest scene-stealer is definitely Tom Bennett, a relatively unknown actor who is outright hilarious as Sir James Martin, a bachelor so dim he would probably walk through a wall if a door were painted on it.  Love & Friendship is not as deep as The Lobster but it is easily the funnier of these two great comedies.

1. Just kidding, the best film of the year so far is The Witch.

             For what it is worth, both films share a similarity in how they rebuild their respective genres. The Witch forgoes the formula of traditional horror—in fact, one could count the shocking scares with one hand—in order to examine Christianity during the time of the Salem Witch Trials, which is similar to how Batman v. Superman fiddles with the super-hero formula in order examine the titular heroes as either new gods or sons of God. However, Batman v. Superman was an overly long screed with particle effects. The Witch, in contrast is a tight, concise mood piece that focuses on one Puritan family surviving in the wilderness. Shot like a haunted house film but paced like a bleak Ingmar Bergman drama, The Witch is a tragedy where trust and logic is eaten away by dogma and fear, the film perfectly encapsulates both an ugly past and the fearful attitudes of the present. The Witch is an austere, and astonishing experience that is beautiful in its complexity. It may not be the scariest film of this century but it may be the only one that matters.