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.