Saturday, July 15, 2017

The 7th Voyage of Sinbad: Swashathon Edition

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

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

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Tom and Rico: Hollywood Gangsters

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

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

My Top 10 2016 (the Late A.F Blog edition)

            It is April Fools Day, so why am I writing my Top 10 for 2016 now? Apparently, my roommate thought it was a funny prank to change all the dates on my planner in order to make me think that it was still 2016. So I thought I had plenty of time to write this down in a relevant manner. In hindsight, it was weird that the Oscars happened in December, but that’s what I get for not paying attention. Sadly, this rush job has forced me to skip a couple films. Films like Cameraperson, The Love Witch, Manchester By The Sea, Certain Women, 20th Century Women, OJ: Made in America and The Greasy Strangler certainly sound brilliant enough to land on this list; there is only so much time for watching movies.

10. Love & Friendship
            One of the two summer films that maintained my interest, Love & Friendship is a sly and uncomplicated Jane Austen romantic-comedy boosted by two outstanding and underrated performances. Kate Bekinsale is unexpectedly hilarious as the deceptive widow Lady Susan. Bekinsale portrays her as a playful and unsinkable charmer who quips her way through suitors and disapproving family members to get what ever she wants.  Even better is Tom Bennett, whose performance as the blissfully dim Sir James Martin is simply beyond words. If nothing else, the world would be a better place if people looked at the world the same way Sir Martin looks at peas.

9. Tower
            In order for a documentary to find a sense of emotional truth, it sometimes needs to go beyond the confines of stock footage. Tower is one of the finest examples of this process. The film is a study about the 1966 UT Tower shooting that reenacts the attack through rotoscope animation that is formally realistic but also bright, abstract, and as colorful as Andy Warhol’s pop art. The film could have easily been a wrongheaded and garish mess yet the animation is it never sanitizes the tragedy of the event but is engrossing the viewer into the mindsets of the people who have witnessed and survived the event with great delicacy.

8. The Fits
            It is amazing to see how much a film can accomplish in seventy minutes and a strong hook. The Fits is a children’s drama about an 11 year-old tomboy who decides to try out for an all-girl dance squad; however, as soon as she joins every girl mysteriously starts succumbing to seizures. Is there something in the water? Is it ghosts? Maybe it does not matter. Toni and her friends fear the seizures, initially, yet they grow to accept the inevitable. It is a brilliant little debut for lead actress Royalty Hightower who at 9 years olds handles the emotionally complex mix of fear and acceptance with surprising nuance. She is a perfect anchor for director Anna Rose Holmer’s storytelling style, which progressively moves from quiet to surreal at a disquieting pace. The Fits is like an epiphany in a dream. 

7. Hunt For The Wilderpeople
            Of all the superheroes that popped in an out of summer 2016, none were more gangster than Ricky Baker and Uncle Hec. Sure Ricky and Hec are just a pair of bumbling outlaws who they never come close to saving the planet but their personal triumphs are far more inspiring than anything Batman or Captain America have achieved. Their travels across the New Zealand bush show them finding a greater sense of self worth and love for the world. Without pretention or cynicism, the film shows that the world is not an obstacle or a fight stage but a place of discovery that must appreciated.
            The Film is also funny as hell. Like a Wes Anderson or an Edgar Wright film, Hunt For The Wilderpeople is a giddy and visual rich comedy yet director Taika Waititi makes it feel completely new with morbid wit and a mad sense of spontaneity that even his influences have trouble doing naturally.  Furthermore, Sam Neill and Julian Dennison are just hilarious together as the film’s dynamic duo. They should star in one of those superhero shows, or True Detective. (Note: am I being too obvious Disney?) 

6. La La Land
            Who knew that a lovely Hollywood musical about naïve Hollywood dreamers would cause so much turmoil amongst film buffs? From MTV to Slavoj Zizek, La La Land has been under the critical knife so frequently that the film almost looks like an unrecognizable corpse. It is easy to see why, since the film is both so hyperbolically in love with Hollywood yet so apprehensive about the main character’s goals. Sure Sebastian and Mia (played with blissfully by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone) love classic jazz and Hollywood cinema but the film shows that it takes more than romanticizing art to make a dream come true, if it ever does. The whole conflict between Sebastian and his friend Keith, a jazz-fusion artist, clearly alludes to a similar conflict between Bill Evans and Miles Davis. Sebastian can be like Evans and wallow in modal jazz all he wants but it is Keith that shows any the sense of genuine innovation.  In the end, this line of applicability between passion and dread is what makes Damien Chazelle so fascinating as a director. Like Whiplash, La La Land is a deceptively portrait of blindly passionate artists who strive to achieve their goals, even if it means losing something along the way. It also helps that there is some great music along the way. La La Land is a beautiful film about art and artists; however, there was one film about art that did it one better…
5. Paterson
            Paterson is about a week in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver who lives in Paterson, New Jersey. Every day Paterson wakes up with his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) and her bulldog, drives his bus around Paterson, and writes free form observational poetry about love, life, and matchboxes in his little black journal. Meanwhile Laura is at home with her own projects—whether it be painting, music, or farmers market cupcakes—whilst the dog watches them in mild disapproval. Each day mostly sticks to the routine, nothing melodramatic happens, and it is amazing.
            Like Jim Jarmusch’s previous film, Only Lovers Left Alive, Paterson is an offbeat but charming portrait of a loving couple who find an escape through the creation and appreciation of each others art. Though Only Lovers Left Alive tends to rely on obvious genre beats, Paterson moves with a Zen-like focus and confidence that is downright hypnotic. Seeing Paterson and Laura wake up every morning of the week never gets old in the slightest. They are characters that work hard, live modestly, but they still find time to live their little dreams.   

4. Toni Erdmann
            In a year as trying as 2016, it became more vital than ever to find humor within the ennui. Dads, infamous for their puns and practical jokes, are supreme cinematic fodder but rarely does a film capture the source of that humor like Toni Erdmann, and it is not likely to ever be topped. Toni Erdmann may be the ultimate ode to dad jokes but it is also an emotionally complex story about a man trying to reconnect with his a daughter that is personal and weirdly epic. Toni Erdmann somehow evolves into a story about aging, family, and finding one’s relevance in an ever-globalizing world, which invites the audience to laugh at with nihilistic glee. The fact that director Maren Ade somehow made this nearly three hour-long German comedy seem too short is a feat onto itself. The film is like an absurd hurricane that one has to see to comprehend its magnitude.

3. The Witch
            This film has haunted me for over a year. The premise of The Witch is so simple—a pilgrim family living in a cabin in the woods haunted by witches—yet the film effortlessly reaches for themes of blind faith and trust and grinds them to a paste. The family is a group that is deeply religious, they have faith in God and no one else, but it is called question once a horrifying event happens. Doubt evolves into paranoia, which forces every character to face the abyss of their failures. This is most tragic for the oldest daughter Thomasin, who seems to be the most innocent, yet by the end questions whether she and her family are any better than the titular monster. This film is up there with The Virgin Spring and The Wicker Man in how effectively it removes any sense of hope in the world. It is a classic campfire story that reveals the worst in humanity.

2. The Handmaiden
            What a decadent ride. The Handmaiden shows the director Park Chan-wook taking his maximalist, morbid, and transgressive style into creating a loose adaption of the Sarah Water’s novel The Fingersmith. The resulting the film is a delicious period piece that lacks much of Park trademark ultra-violence but is still easily the most exhilarating film of 2016. Set in the 1930s in Japanese occupied Korea, the story is a spellbinding series of sex, lies, and smutty literature about a Korean woman named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) who is hired by a conman named Count Fujiwara to pose as a maid and steal the fortune of the mad Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee). The con gets complicated however when Sook-hee falls in love with Lady Hideko. The film is very much like a classic Hitchcock thriller where every scene builds upon the next with great suspense, yet Park maximizes the opulence and darkness into a perverse yet epic chess game. 
              The Handmaiden is polarizing in how it portrays sex and sexuality, which is about as graphic as one can be in a post-Blue is The Warmest Color cinema landscape. The film is lurid enough to make clear that there is a dude behind the camera; that being said, the film also shows Park Chan-wook reflecting upon the male gaze. The world of The Handmaiden is one where comically grotesque men rule everything, and exploitation is a commodity. Men like Count Fujiwara never really see women as people with wants or needs but living dolls. Hideko and Sook-hee have no time for such pricks and they tear up the establishment in brilliantly twisted fashion. This is reflected in the performances of actresses Kim Min-hee and Kim Tae-ri who are clever and badass in their respective roles but also have genuine chemistry. Their relationship is portrayed as not something that they come to terms with, like a coming of age story, but a form of trust that helps them evolve into something strong enough to be defy their world. The Handmaiden is not exactly as tasteful as Carol, but in its own nutty way, it is still a magnificent and modern portrait of sex and gender politics. The Handmaiden is a delightfully mad film that is just as transgressive as it is thrilling.

1. Moonlight
“Well, what did you expect?”
             Moonlight proved to be something special as soon as it began with a spiraling long-take with Juan (Mahershala Ali) leaving his car, talking to one of his dealers and then witnessing Chiron (one of many) being chased by bullies, with concern. The film almost tricks the viewer into thinking that is just another neo-realist drama, but in this beautifully concise moment, it hints that one of the most poetic and empathic cinematic experiences of the decade. Moonlight is a coming of age story in three acts—each with a different actor playing Chiron—about his personal struggles with as a gay black man in Miami during his childhood, teens, and adulthood. Each chapter plays like a unique short film with their own conflicts but through time the film reveals itself as symphonic tale about love, acceptance, and personal identity in America that is more succinct, daring, and intimate than Boyhood.  
            The film also has one of the best acting ensembles of this century. One could talk all day about Mahershala Ali, Naomi Harris, or Janelle Monáe who all deserves to become stars just for their ability to make the overwhelming presence of their characters be felt off-screen.  However the best acting in Moonlight comes from the trio who play Chiron, or as they are called in their chapters: Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Black (Trevante Rhodes).  All three of these actors had to share the emotional weight of this one confused and sad character, which only get heavier as time passes and they carry it perfect grace. This is especially true of Trevante Rhodes, who is ripped beyond belief; he plays with this intimidating stoicism that progressively wears off, revealing the frail kid that he guards with his facade. Rarely does a character this cinematically designed come off as so human.
            Moonlight is one of those films where the superlatives can go on forever. Where does one find the time to write about its lush yet simple score, the gorgeous cinematography, or how director Barry Jenkins composes everything with such love and elegance? This paper is already past 2000 words, and two months late, so they will have to wait another date. In the end, Moonlight is everything that is good about cinema.  Barry Jenkins created an empathy machine that invites the viewer into the psyche of its characters and does so with an embrace that very few masters have achieved.  

So that’s it, right? Ah sh!t, the Honorable Mentions!

  • High Rise and Green Room: While these films are not as engrossing as Hard To Be A God or Mad Max: Fury Road, they are effective as scathing commentaries of the political climate as well as being shocking, claustrophobic, and deliciously violent genre films.
  • Under The Shadow and Arrival: More wonderfully done allegorical genre fiction that face death, God, and the world. Just with slightly less violence.
  •  Hail, Caesar! and Lemonade: Sprawling, pure, cinematic bliss.
  • American Honey and The Lobster: I can’t help it if A24 killed it last year! It is a brilliant studio and I hope the company keeps it up.
  • April And The Extraordinary World and My Life As A Zucchini: Down with American animation, Viva la France!
  • Cemetery of Splendor and Embrace of The Serpent: These are two of most enthralling slow art house films I have seen since Under The Skin and Ida. If both films were not technically 2015 releases they would certainly be on the list.  
Ok now I’m done!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Navigator (3rd Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon)

            Buster Keaton is so recognizable as the stuntman with the bemused face and Basset Hound eyes but that it is easy to forget his ingenious ability to frame action comedy with effortless precision.  More than a cinematic clown he had the visual sophistication and ingenuity of a grand architect. This is most apparent in The Navigator; a screwball misadventure where Keaton is trapped on an empty cruise ship with a girl that dislikes him. The story is rather incidental and cumbersome but it shows Keaton making the most of the setting through creative use framing and props. This results in one of his more ambitious and spectacular comedies.
            The story essentially begins with war spies preparing to send the titular cruise ship adrift into the sea. The captain’s daughter Betsy O’Brien (Kathryn McGuire) attempts but fails to stop this scheme, leaving here trapped on the ship. Making matters worse, her idiot neighbor Rollo Treadway (Keaton) is somehow on the ship, thinking it was traveling to Honolulu. The story of The Navigator is mostly an excuse to put Buster Keaton on a boat, but what a boat. Like the trains in The General, Keaton lovingly frames the rooms and the machinations of the titular ship to the point that it is as much a character as it is a setting.  The way the camera shifts with the tide and how a long shot can reveal the baffling scale of the deck are astounding and clever details. It shows Keaton to be as much an inspiration for Wes Anderson as he is for Jackie Chan.
             The ship plays like an ironic hell and Treadway and O’Brien, who seemingly never had a hardship in their life. There is plenty of food and space, but their inability to do even simple tasks like open a tuna can, make coffee, or even adjust a lawn chair makes any sense of comfort just out of reach for these dim rich kids. Clearly they never lived without servants but there is a dry and innocent charm to their absurd tricks at surviving on the ship.  It helps that Buster Keaton and Kathryn McGuire have a lovely screwball chemistry that is surprisingly rare in Keaton’s work.  Keaton’s films are often not as romantic as Charlie Chaplin’s comedies can be yet The Navigator shows Keaton finding a solid comedic equal in McGuire.

            Unfortunately, the film stumbles hard in the final act with the battle of cannibal islanders. It is fascinating that Noble Johnson plays the cannibal chief yet it feels structurally unnecessary for the plot. The catalyst of the film revolves around a civil war; surely, a rebel navy ship or even pirates would have been just as sufficient than wallowing in racist stereotypes. At the very least, the film treats the cannibals more like another comically absurd obstacle than anything else, but it still feels gross by modern standards.
            The Navigator shows Keaton challenging his ambitions in a way that defined himself as a great silent filmmaker. He utilizes aspects of the ship that still makes it feel fresh and hilarious; plus, Kathryn McGuire is that rare example of a genuinely fun romantic lead in a Keaton comedy. The film was one of Keaton’s most technically impressive works but it is not one of his most palatable. Much of what make this film great can be found in later—and better—works like Sherlock Jr. and The General. Nevertheless, the film is has great spectacle for those willing to go deep into Buster Keaton’s filmography. Like is a marvelous yet rusty old ship, The Navigator is a great artifact of a time that would be best to not relive.

            This post is part of the 3rd Annual Buster Keaton Blogaton, which is celebrating 100 years of Keaton's films. For more essays and reviews on Keaton check out the hosting blog Silentology.

[Edit: In the original post I falsely presumed that the actor Noble Johnson, who plays the Cannibal Chief, was a white actor in blackface, when in fact he is actually African-American. This was a failure on my part on to properly research the actors onscreen before completing the post, which is inexcusable. The post has been changed in order to correct this mistake.]