Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sans Soleil (1983)

Directed by Chris Marker.
In a Nutshell: A montage of videos from cultures across the world.

Sans Soleil is one of the most poetic and rich films I have seen in a very long time. But in writing this review, how on earth do I describe it? The simplest explanation I have is this. Sans Soleil is a collection of videos taken worldwide, organized like a travel log. Much of the focus placed on the impoverished Guinea-Bissau and the technologically advancing Tokyo. Also included is Paris, a shot of Iceland from the 60’s that bookends the film, and a detour to San Francisco that indulges in seeing the locations Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was filmed. The movie is narrated by an unseen woman, revealed at the end to be a man named Sandor Krasnar, who is actually Chris Marker’s alter ego. That is the film, but at the same time nowhere near what the film “is”.

It has little structure and little concreteness to hang a summation on. One of the clearer ideas that surfaces is its analysis of Vertigo. Narrative-wise, it drops in apropos of nothing but is not entirely random. Vertigo is a film about the dangers of memory and the past’s destructive influence on the present. Sans Soleil is wed to the similar idea that the true resonance of the past cannot be captured and even the simple photograph or recorded video cannot hold truth. At the odd moment, the film will enter into “The Zone” where a Japanese computer scientist (again, a Marker alter ego) turns the film into dichromatic, flat images. It captures the image, but renders it unrecognizable. One image that survives this deconstruction is the idyllic shot of the girls in Iceland. Even though neither Marker nor the audience knows the true nature behind the girls, but the film keeps it as an untouched emblem of purity.

There is no way I can make a concrete statement to summarize this film. I imagine some who are reading this still have no idea what this is about. I believe San Soleil does not wish to trick the viewer into the somewhat altered views of Marker’s travelogue but revel in how the power of the subjective human memory. It is a film with no set context or aim, but let’s the assemblage of video and narration shape its own interpretation for each viewer. This is a film you just need to experience for yourself.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano.
In a Nutshell: A ruthless prospector’s quest for wealth during America’s oil boom.

Leaning shamelessly on the hyperbolic, I will boldly pronounce There Will Be Blood to be American filmmaking at its very finest. It completely immerses into its universe; every scene meticulously crafted into its own masterpiece. But enough indiscriminate fawning, to what degree is this film so masterful? To begin, the rise and fall of oil baron Daniel Plainview (a soon-to-be iconic performance by Daniel Day-Lewis) is a microcosm on the sweeping themes that define our American history. Community versus the individual, capitalism versus religion, ruthless self-assertion mixed with ambition, and the self-made American’s empire built on lies, opportunism and misanthropy. Both Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson say these with a glorious embellishment, but TWBB never resembles self-parody.

Despite the film’s grandiose themes playing front and center, TWBB never loses sight of its main focus, the corruption of Plainview. Formally a shrewd businessman raising the orphaned son of one of his workers, his volcanic rise into oil poisons his soul beyond salvation. The quiet displays of humanity quickly burn up in Plainview’s uncontrollable greed and anger, culminating in a horrifying, nearly inhuman monster. Day-Lewis is simply transcendent, a ferocious intensity barely restrained by his assured, taciturn delivery. Paul Dano as an equally opportunistic preacher displays a childish petulance that is wholly indicative of the character, and was unfortunately mistaken by some to be overripe acting.

There Will Be Blood is no less a culmination of laudable scope and beautiful execution. Robert Elswit’s haunting cinematography turns the American West into a harsh, alien landscape. Not just for our experience, but for Plainview’s; eyeing the burgeoning civilization and its inhabitants as simple exploitation. Jonny Greenwood’s unique score supplies a foreboding resonance to Plainview’s story and is strong enough as a standalone masterpiece. As the story unfolds, tragedy comes by hand of God and man and Plainview’s growing success further robs him of his ties to humanity. The finale scene shocks not by its animalistic nature of its actions, but of the way ambition coupled with materialistic hunger has damaged Plainview beyond repair. Anderson has masterfully constructed his own tale of brutal success and comeuppance, a truly American tale sparing no spilled drop of blood. True cinema excellence.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Directed by John Huston.
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston.
In a Nutshell: Three men find themselves at odds after a successful excavation of gold.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is an unflinching, black humored parable on the greed of men. For a studio film carrying some serious matinee appeal, it unabashedly strikes at the moral complexes that would leave us to sell our humanity for some buried treasure. The film stars Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt as Dobbs and Curtin, drifters caught up in a quest for gold by the seasoned Howard (Walter Huston, John’s father). They make their way to Mexico and, sure enough, find plenty of gold to abolish any future job worries. It is keeping the gold that ends in downfall.

While there is some zesty adventure to be had, it is the characterizations of the three protagonists and the fates that ascribe for themselves that drive TTotSM. Bogart plunges fearlessly into his role as the pitiful, desperate Dobbs. Devoid of any movie star charm, Bogart teeters on self-destruction, never letting go of his prize. Huston is the old-time prospector and has a few amusing moments with that character. But Huston gives Howard a quiet sensibility to his surroundings, knowing all too well the cost of their success. Holt is also effective as a good heart tested by his situation. The plot unfolds into false pretenses, murderous bandits, and the cruelty of Mexico’s heat (photographed in scorching detail by Ted McCord) as the men hold onto their remaining sanity.

By the end, each man gets what he deserves, to varying severity and Huston has given an uncompromising look at the crumbled ruins of men’s souls. The screenplay (also written by Huston) does not wallow in analytical probing, but shows us through every action, gesture and line the pathos of each man’s struggle. Shot on location, there is a haunting, rugged beauty to the sparse plantation and arid sun that complements the film’s realistic focus. A perfectly competent adventure film, but an even more powerful depiction of the material hunger that can comprise even the purest of consciences.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Straw Dogs (1971)

Directed by Sam Peckinpah.
Starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George.
In a Nutshell: A newlywed couple face the harassment of a rural England town.

Sam Peckinpah, despite his well-earned reputation as “Bloody Sam,” is an incredibly underrated director in his depiction of humanity versus life’s cruelty. Though with Straw Dogs, it’s questionable whether his nihilism got the better of him. Straw Dogs involves two young newlyweds, meek mathematician David (Dustin Hoffman) and childish flirt Amy (Susan George). They move to Amy’s hometown where David’s American ways immediately irks the townspeople. David also hires one of Amy’s old beaus as a handyman, and Amy does not miss an opportunity to flaunt herself before the workers. Amy defines herself as a woman who can control others with her sexuality, though her teasing finds herself raped by her ex. That she ends up succumbing to the rape, evokes an adolescent confusion between both men and whatever uncontrolled feelings that follow. But when David takes in a man wanted for murder, he summons up enough muscle to defend his home from the mobbing townspeople in a lengthy, unrestrained bloodbath. And this was where the film lost me.

That is not to say the scene of David defending his home is what undermines the movie (though its excessiveness is borderline pornography). But it compromises what the movie could have been about. Throughout the movie, David is a wimp; a portrait of man pushed and kicked around by the crude townspeople. His marital conflicts with Amy never come to closure and the tension she creates just ends up being more fuel for David’s fire. If everything about this film is presented exactly as Peckinpah intended, I can only infer that he intended to show the animalistic capacity of civilized men within placed in the most barbaric of settings (That sounds offensive to small-town British folk, but given Peckinpah’s portrayal, I have no apologies). There is the meditation on violence. David is left unsure of his own murderous tendencies, but the film’s events can only apply to David. As a commentary on our own capacity for violence, its presentation is too extreme to resonate. It seems like Peckinpah had the seeds of a good idea, but too much broad characterization and plot elements leave it a blood-soaked mess.

For the basic gist of Straw Dogs at only a fraction of the running time, I advise watching this. Believe me, it is no less ridiculous.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

Directed by Werner Herzog.
Starring Klaus Kinski and Helena Rojo.
In a Nutshell: Conquistadors travel down river in an ill-fated search for gold.

Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God is as haunting a decent into madness as cinema will produce. Anything to the contrary needs only to look into the glazed, bright and curled lips of Klaus Kinski as the aforementioned Aguirre. He is the member of an expedition chosen by Gonzalo Pizarro to find El Dorado; a team woefully unprepared for the horrors that await them in the jungle. Following the death of the team leader, Aguirre is put in command and leads the group further into the unknown. With a production as rife with misfortune and madness as the finished piece, Herzog brings an amused detachment to the conquistador’s self-destruction.

Aguirre presents the story of the quest for greatness and the elements of nature that crush it in the end. Here, the jungles of the Amazon are an insidious force against the men ready to swallow them whole. A whole raft of men is shown mysteriously slaughtered in the morning. Men are fallen by silent arrows shot from the forest. Herzog himself never really delves into the minds of any one character. Even Aguirre himself, despite the electricity of Kinski’s performance, is only the unstable, greedy dreamer that others see. But it is all that is needed to suck the audience into Aguirre’s blind obsession for gold and to feel dread at the danger he ignores.

The film’s opening shot of the conquistadors descending down the mountains carries a poetic resonance. But on the same coin, Herzog views them at a distance, enough to have them lost in the thicket of trees and vegetation while the inhuman strains of the organ plays them on. Their river trip is not full of plot contrivances, nor is it just a parade of hallucinatory imagery (though there is plenty of the latter). It is a harrowing view at immoral ambition in the face of the impossible and the ensuing tragedy. The final scene is one of great sadness with Aguirre stranded forever in his own delusions against an unforgiving reality.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Apocalypse Now (1979)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Starring Marlon Brando and Martin Sheen.
In a Nutshell: An army captain is sent into the jungle to assassinate an insane colonel.

Equal parts spectacle and meditation, Apocalypse Now is one of the grandest examples of modern cinema. The story of introverted army captain Willard (Martin Sheen) sent to confront rogue colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in the jungles of Cambodia, Francis Ford Coppola’s retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness provides a searing cinematic look into the delicate balances that keep most men on the edge of madness. Though I hold Apocalypse Now to very high esteem, there is not much new ground to tread in terms of film discussion. However, Coppola did release a Redux cut in 2001, adding in previously deleted scenes to give the film a slightly new narrative. While met with largely positive reaction, I felt that it turned a near perfect film into one that was merely pretty good. Most of the changes are minor, but all of the big additions take a little bit away from the horrifying 1979 masterpiece. Without much ado, Coppola’s biggest Redux changes.

Psychotic air colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall), a man whose love of carnage is only outmatched by his penchant for surf and opera, is by far the film’s most memorable character. His senseless and bloodthirsty reputation shows the sort of madness held in respect by the U.S. military. He creates a memorable impression despite only 20 minutes of screentime. After his famous napalm speech in the Redux version, we are witness to Kilgore throwing a tantrum at his surfing buddies and then yelling at Willard via copter for his surfboard back (which Willard stole in a decidedly uncharacteristically light moment). Besides ruining his perfect send-off, the additional scenes edge Kilgore into cartoon territory and just prove unnecessary. Later in the film, Willard and his crew encounter a downed Playboy bunny helicopter in the middle of a monsoon. Willard negotiates some fuel for some bunny time for his crew, in another lighthearted moment. This interlude does show the madness of Vietnam taking effect on the bunnies, but is still unneeded. Keeping the scene in sacrifices the poignancy of the helicopter leaving the USO show with soldiers desperately clinging on.

Even more intrusive is the crew’s stay at a French plantation. The scene takes place after Willard makes it to the last U.S. outpost before Kurtz, so the whole sequence is incredibly disruptive to the narrative’s path to the finale. At the plantation, Willard receives commentary by the plantation’s head about the French’s relationship with the Vietnamese compared to the U.S.’s. Again, not needed since Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam or any of the politics, just a descent into madness that just happens to occur during the war. Willard also romances a widow, with far too much emphasis put on his duel nature (the half shrouded image of Willard juxtaposed against a stone statue says this far more effectively). One final unnecessary scene has Kurtz reading Willard some articles from Time magazine about America’s fabricated success in Vietnam. Again, more war commentary that just does not add anything. And it is curious to note that this is the only rime Kurtz is glimpsed in broad daylight. It breaks the powerful, mysterious air about the character and not for an interesting scene either. To conclude, between the original and the Redux version the choice is clear. The Redux version is just too loaded down by extraneous scenes that add too little or too much. For a truly cinematic experience, revisit the original in all its glory. All the bombast, the madness, and the horror, the horror.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

Directed by Charlie Kaufman.
Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Samantha Morton.
In a Nutshell: A director confronts his mortality while creating his own life on stage.

Here is a movie that almost begs not to be understood, and is as full of visual and narrative trippiness as one would expect from Charlie Kaufman (making his directorial debut). It is a film of great ambition, but also about ambition and how it brings us closer towards finding meaning (any meaning) in our short blip here on Earth. Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars as Caden Cotard, a theater director who uses the MacArthur genius grant to create his life’s masterpiece. He plans to transpose his entire life onto the stage, to celebrate and revel in the mundane of everyday life. Cotard expands production into a life-size model of New York with doppelgangers of Cotard and every meaningful person in his life.

During his production, Cotard tries to play God and crams his actors into the roles he believes their real-life partners play. Through his own double (a man who was studied him for 20 years), he becomes conscious of his own personality. As time wears on, his loved ones die and his city fades into a gray, abandoned void. To follow every plot thread and hallucination threatens to turn the viewing experience into an analytical one, rather than an emotional one. Hoffman’s Cotard remains the most accessible part of the movie. He fears growing old, he makes mistakes with his many love interests, laments losing touch with his daughter and uses this sprawling city-sized play as his path to creative fulfillment. This is a dense film, with no logical entry point to tackle its themes. But why discard this in favor of fast-food culture junk like Transformers? Synecdoche, New York embraces all the fears and neurosis that encompass our existence. If that doesn’t hold important to you, then I don’t know what will.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Close-up (1990)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami.
In a Nutshell: A man goes on trial for impersonating Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up is a sort of mutant documentary that blurs the lines between reality and simulacra. The film is about the trial of Hossein Sabzian who impersonated filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and to trick a family into appearing in a movie for him. His reasoning lies in a love for art and the clout to spread knowledge of Iran’s cinema to its people. It is reenacted with the same real-life players from the incident, though it is never clear how much has been fabricated for the cameras. Close-up is endlessly self-reflexive, but seeks to echo our obsession with media fame and respect. And rather than scorn, Kiarostami gives a simple, yet touching look at our fixation on film.

Such a story could have seen its absurdity spun into a film capitalizing on the desperation and failure of a man like Sabizan. But Kiarostami approaches with humanistic concern, showcasing the purity of a man who overcame his self-consciousness in the skin of another man. Sabizen was now somebody, someone with a voice and the influence to project it onto the screen. Though given that Sabizan is playing himself playing Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami hardly needs to force our sympathy and the lines between performer and reality blur together. Close-up is not about our perspective on Sabizan’s saga, but of Kiarostami’s. He moves past his hall of mirrors to question the self-meaning we cultivate from art and the identity we forge.

In the end, Makhmalbaf himself greets Sabizan in open arms. Makhmalbaf asks Sabizan if he prefers his stolen identity to his own. Sabizan tearfully explains, “I’m tired of being me.” Kiarostami has shown that the masks we wear and the realities we project are no less real, and no less driven by our deepest desires. The final scene shows both men driving off on Makhmalbaf’s motorcycle, redeemed through their unifying passion. A beautiful achievement on our most human of artistic longings.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

F for Fake (1973)

Directed by Orson Welles.
Starring Orson Welles and Oja Kodar.
In a Nutshell: Orson Welles examines the nature of fraud.

In the opening scene of Orson Welles’ final movie, F for Fake, he presents himself as a sly magician, making a quarter disappear and reappear before a child’s awe-struck eyes. The self-described charlatan turns to the camera with a winking air, and promises the audience an “essay film” on the nature deception, adding that not everything in this film will be entirely truthful either. Guided by Welles’ rapid (and many times misleading) editing, the film examines four artists whose careers have skewered the line of authenticity; art forger Elmry de Hory, faux Howard Hughes biographer Clifford Irving, Pablo Picasso (in a story reenacted with Welles’ real-life partner Oja Kodar), and Welles himself.

The movie is structured as Welles’ inner monologue reminiscing on both the nature of fakery and his own success (which arose from his infamous War of the Worlds radio broadcast and fictionalized Hearst biography). Welles openly questions whether or not their fraudulent nature nullifies them as artists. He reflects with a jesting air, though his narration can never find a cohesive thread to rest on. It threatens to confuse the viewer out of Welles’ presentation, but is saved by the grace of his compelling subjects and personal observations on his own life. That is key to enjoying F for Fake; putting yourself entirely in the trust of Welles’ storytelling.

Throughout, Welles offers plenty of wry, but not cynical observations about his own esteemed and commercially unsuccessful career. It is this self-reflection that allows him to playful examine Hory and Irving in their chosen career of deception and unravel their motivations for doing so. This makes F for Fake a love letter to the art of moviemaking, how the distortion of reality uncovers hidden truth. At the end, Welles reveals the fakery perpetrated within the very film and is becomes clear that Welles the magician was no mere put-on. Free of the constraints of the normal documentary, F for Fake remains one of the most inventive non-fiction films and one of the better pranks of cinema.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rashomon (1950)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Starring Toshirō Mifune and Machiko Kyō.
In a Nutshell: A murder and rape is depicted through four conflicting perspectives.

During Rashomon, one character states, “It's human to lie. Most of the time we can't even be honest with ourselves.” An almost verbatim quote from Akira Kurosawa himself, Rashomon is a still powerful film about how we can distort our own reality. Its famous storytelling approach was revolutionary, but beyond gimmickry; Rashomon was the first of its kind to supply conflicting realties and then never arrive at some tidy conclusion while the camera betrays the trust we have to report the truth. The film begins in a rundown gatehouse where a woodcutter (Takashi Shimura) and priest recount a horrific incident that occurred one muggy afternoon. A feared bandit (Toshirō Mifune, a bundle of animalistic fury) rapes the wife (Machiko Kyō) of a samurai (Masayuki Mori). That much is fact, but the accounts of the bandit, woman, samurai (through a medium) and woodcutter give their own set of details that alter motivation and who exactly killed the samurai.

But the actual chronology of events is not the objective, something too many Rashomon derivatives invest too much importance in. Instead, Rashomon tells us that no man can ever obtain absolute truth. Each participant in the crime tries to twist the events based on their own guilt and delusions. For example, with Mifune’s samurai, we can easily see how each version still has the same person even as he tries to present himself in a nobler light. The samurai and his wife are more fluid and can come off as weak-willed, victims, or brave depending on who is telling the story. Only the woodcutter acts as an outside witness, but his uncertainty does not make his version any more reputable.

Rashomon is not only a terrific advancement in storytelling, but beautiful on a technical level. The woods are rendered in crisp black and white, the midday heat radiating off the screen. Meanwhile the sparseness of the courtroom and gatehouse convey the deceiving simplicity of Rashomon’s tale against the character’s distortions. That Kurosawa never resolves the crime does not infuriate, but brings new facets of the characters upon each viewing. To add a solid conclusion would undermine the film’s purpose to study how we report the truth. Rashomon distinct mark in film has inspired many like-minded works, but its intensity and fascination will never be duplicated.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Scenes from a Marriage (1973)

Directed by Ingmar Bergman.
Starring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.
In a Nutshell: The portrait of a couple’s disintegrating marriage and enduring love.

Scenes from a Marriage, the saga of one couple’s relationship pre and post divorce, may be one of the most intimate and honest look at marriage ever put on screen. The marriage is between divorce lawyer Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and college professor Johan (Erland Josephson). Both are intelligent, independent and successful, with no real issues disrupting their lives. Until early in the film, Johan announces he is having an affair and decides he will walk out on Marianne. She is willing to save the marriage, but he leaves, stranding Marianne without any sense of identity. The film follows the next ten years of their lives as they fight against the resentment and attraction between each other.

To watch these two struggle against their feelings and fail to make a clean break is wrenching. Little emotion is left out or unexpressed, and Ingmar Bergman fearlessly dives into the character’s souls. Once Johan leaves with his mistress, Marianne feels misplaced but slowly regains a free-spirited self that dilutes her sexual confusion. But Johan returns, desperate for Marianne’s affection. Marianne complies, but only to prove to herself that she truly does not love him anymore, which causes Johan to lash out at her violently. The relationship only gets increasingly hard to end. Bergman keeps the whole film indoors (and in few locations) with tight framing on the two leads. We feel trapped in their fight, uncomfortably so, but allows Bergman to present the marriage as openly as possible.

None of Johan and Marianne’s relationship would have had an ounce of depth if not for its textured performances. Ullmann must balance her character’s stifled independence without becoming a bland wallflower, but handles it with grace. Her scenes of liberation from Johan are some of the most touching in a film full of wounding emotion. Johan could have easily been a weak man, aloof or uncaring to his self-interest only to come crawling back on his knees. But the screenplay develops him into a well-rounded insight into male societal expectation that Josephson’s understated performance complements well. The film may examine its couple almost too closely, but it takes great care to examine why Marianne and Johan continue to find solace in each other many years after their marriage ended. Such brutal, naked honesty fails to define Johan and Marianne’s relationship into mere words, but as a fundamental human desire for love and understanding. It is as mature a look into marriage as you will ever see on film and one of Bergman’s absolute best.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.
In a Nutshell: A doctor infiltrates a sex cult after a marital secret comes to light.

Eyes Wide Shut, a disorienting look into dehumanized marriage, is a worthy bookend to Stanley Kubrick’s peerless and polarizing filmography. It is also Kubrick’s most adult picture, exploring the lies of happy marriages and the sexual nightmares that occur beyond closed doors. Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (married at the time) star as Bill and Alice Hartford, a wealthy New York couple living an ideal marriage. Bill is a respected doctor attracting plenty of unwanted attention, but finds security in Alice’s fidelity. However, the night after a Christmas party, where both find themselves deflecting advances from guests (Alice’s in particular being the most transparent of seducers) Alice reveals that she nearly left Bill for a navel officer many years ago. Shaken, Bill decides to wander New York after attending a house call. He ends up meeting with an old friend, who leads him to an orgy where Bill’s involvement may have lead to the death of a party guest.

That handsome and multimillion dollar movie stars Cruise and Kidman were asked to play the central couple already places Bill and Alice’s marriage in a higher plane than our own, allowing our objective view into their (soon to be ruined) utopia. Bill is unassuming to his wife’s secrets, that end up puncturing a world he once thought he had control over. And indeed, the city of New York becomes a parade of characters that try to edge Bill towards their own sexual agendas. The orgy Bill attends is by far the coldest and most artificial expression of sex throughout the film, as masked guests passionlessly and noiselessly embrace together in isolation. Therein lies the dichotomy of Bill’s two options; impersonal sex with the women he meets, or his wife, fully realized before him, but now no more than another fixture in his upscale NY life.

This movie delves into many themes on the nature of men and women, marriage, even conspiracy. But what makes the film so memorable is not Kubrick’s exploration, but in his presentation of his beautifully unreal world. Eyes Wide Shut’s New York is a studio set sapping any of the charm accompanying an on-location shoot. The interior locations (the orgy, the Christmas party, the Hartford’s apartment) convey an European-like demeanor, stately but detached of warmth. Cruise gives a passive, restrained performance (unlike Kidman, a sensational window into the female cognition) that both enforces his disconnect with the world around him, but allows him to act as the audience’s surrogate through his strange adventure. In ideas alone, Eyes Wide Shut is not the most revolutionary in examining the collapse of marriage, but gives a thrillingly cinematic portal into Kubrick’s mechanized view of love. The final scene provides the glimmer of hope that Bill and Alice will improve their marriage. It is slight, but maybe it proves that Kubrick was not so cynical about human progression after all.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

La notte (1961)

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau.
In a Nutshell: A writer and his socialite wife become aware of their loveless marriage.

La notte is the middle chapter of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Incommunicability Trilogy and the most frustrating to endure. Its main couple, a successful writer named Giovanni (Marcello Mastroianni) and his bored wife, Lidia (Jeanne Moreau), are the sort of people we cannot help but hold no sympathy for. Both are wealthy, attractive, surrounded by friends of equal stature and spend their lives attending parties and mixing with high culture. Both can barely pretend there is any life left in their marriage as Giovanni shamelessly chases women while Lidia half-heartedly deflects advances from other men. As both move from one social gathering to the next, it becomes to clear just how far the crack in their relationship has grown.

Antonioni has always been a director of spaces. Wide, desolate planes where his character’s hopelessness and modern angst fills the screen. Everything down to the parties that Lidia and Giovanni attend feel uninhabited. Thankfully, Antonioni’s style gives his material a maturity and restraint that could have easily delved into over-wrought visual clichés. Particularly since Giovanni and Lidia’s problems are not revolutionary in film’s history of marital crisis’s. But it is familiar and the viewer’s own loneliness and insecurity becomes the film’s backdrop.

One of the aspects presented with a great sadness is the transition from an old-fashioned Catholic world to a secularist one. As duty-bound to their union as Giovanni and Lidia are, each is drawn into hedonism, though no one acts on infidelity. Their greatest struggle seems to be the burden of being decent people, unwilling to confront their issues to each other for fear of tarnishing some old moral code. As the empty, aged cities crumble around our couple, we see the values of yesterday begin to dissolve with every hopelessly uncaring look between them. Each is afraid to speak up and shatter the fragile illusion of their happy marriage. By the end, as man and wife make for one last grasp to reestablish their love, even we know that nothing can mend their rift.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Directed by Mike Nichols.
Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
In a Nutshell: Two married couples meet for drinks and expose marital secrets.

Adapted from the Tony Award winning play by Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is gold standard in black comedy. It is a barrage of marital hatred, tenderness, victimization, and whatever is left in the emotional gamut. The plot is two couples; George and Martha (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) and Nick and Honey (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) with George and Nick professors at the same university. George and Martha are middle-aged, unaccomplished, and stuck in a routine of one-upmanship and hateful verbal sparring. Nick and Honey have far less contempt for each other, but realize through George and Martha’s union just how unstable their rock is. As the two couples unite one night for drinks, the true nature of the two marriages unfurls in a fury of emotional wounding and booze-soaked tirades. The title comes from a poor joke repeated past its expiration date, a fair metaphor for the film’s comedic sensibilities. Though according to Albee, it relates to the fear of living without false illusions, a fear that defines the lives of George and Martha.

Mike Nichols (making his directorial debut) has the right sense to stick to the sharpened, wounding (and very adult) dialogue and claustrophobic scenery; the later credited to cinematographer Haskell Wexler transforming the suburban home into a cavernous lair into Hell. The casting of matinee couple Taylor and Burton caused the most publicity, but both display not a shred of star vanity. Taylor’s alcoholic is a matron Godzilla and the bully of the foursome; loud and cruel to safeguard her own demons. Burton is far quieter, but a slight vocal inflection or wincing look gives us all the insight we need. Segal has the least showy role, but is apt as the audience proxy while Dennis explodes from reserved housewife to childish drunk under George and Martha’s tutelage.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is unforgiving, but would not be as cutting if it did not provide some resonance. Both George and Martha have holed up in their routine of put-downs and incessant wrath, but it is that empty desire of one-upmanship that has kept together for this long. Their sudden friendship with the naïve Nick and immature Honey is only an extension of that self-superiority. I shall not reveal George and Martha’s damning marital secret, but it can be seen as an empty cipher to imprint their pains and struggles while exercising their desire to control (for so much of George and Martha’s ambitions have been lost in weakness). George and Martha are ugliness amplified, but like the film, do not seek to merely terrorize.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Contempt (1963)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli.
In a Nutshell: A confrontation with a film producer dissolves a screenwriter’s marriage.

Contempt may be the most Hollywood of Jean-Luc Godard’s filmography, but it is also his most personal. It is a film with big name stars and audience-appeal touches while also serving to deconstruct Godard’s clash between art and commerce. As its characters create a film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, their own lives begin to mirror the same story as well as Godard’s tumultuous relationship with wife Anna Karina and the film’s American distributor. In the Godard role, screenwriter Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) is asked to rework his Odyssey script by a crass American producer (Jack Palance) to make it a Hercules derivative. Paul accidentally leaves the producer alone with his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). Following the encounter, Camille has nothing but resentment for Paul and his work.

Camille’s sudden contempt is never explained to Paul or us. Perhaps the ease at which the producer steals Camille led her to believe Paul was letting her sleep with him as a bargaining chip. Neither Paul nor Camille clears the misunderstanding. Paul ends up accepting the producer’s job and is moved to the rich, spacious apartment that Camille always wanted. The couple hole up in their new home, embroiled in an extended marital spat. Both struggle to reclaim an unconditional love so that at least one will not have to admit fault. It is painful to watch the two half-heartedly communicate without exposing their insecurities; Camille to her wounds of betrayed love and Paul to his (possibly) accidental prostitution to further his career.

While a devastatingly hopeless tale of love gone awry, Contempt is still Jean-Luc Godard’s catharsis on the battles facing him as an artist in the film industry. The odious producer and the steadfast director (Fritz Lang as himself) fight over the final Odyssey cut, just as Contempt is torn between photogenic eroticism and raw marital anguish. This is where the film may not completely connect. As a love story, it is heartbreaking. Though balancing that with a movie about the making a movie, while serving as a commentary on moviemaking, Godard’s meta angst calls too much attention to itself. It is in Paul’s new apartment, where the lavish set, cinematography and showy direction threaten to vulgarize Godard’s matrimony deconstruction into cheap commerce. It is a sly, subtle joke, but far more effective than a petulant Jack Palance hurling film reels.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Grizzly Man (2005)

Directed by Werner Herzog.
In a Nutshell: An analysis on the life and death of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell.

Timothy Treadwell is such a Shakespearian portrait of fortitude on the edge of madness, that it is no wonder he caught the eye of Werner Herzog. A quick backstory; Treadwell was a drug addict and a failed actor who found a communion with nature, specifically with the grizzly bears living in an Alaskan peninsula. He resided amongst the bears for thirteen summers as a grassroots preservationist, interacting with them like an equal. For the last five years of his study, he brought along a video camera to capture authentic bear footage. However, following the summer of 2003 an altercation at the airport inflamed his contempt with humanity, and he and his then-girlfriend Amie Huguenard, went back to his home with the bears. Unfortunately, many of Treadwell’s familiar bear companions were in hibernation and the scarcity of food led to Treadwell and Huguenard being mauled by a grizzly. Herzog, no stranger the cruelty of nature, has constructed a breathtaking nature film, a portrait of a lone environmentalist resisting civilization, and a haunting story of a troubled man stalked by his own doom.

Despite the debate that Treadwell’s eccentricity has caused amongst his peers (illustrated through interviews of Treadwell’s friends and family as well as disapproving naturalists and park rangers), Herzog remains unbiased in his retelling of Treadwell’s life. Herzog also possesses audio of Treadwell and Huguenard’s final moments, but honorably refuses to play it and instructs one of Treadwell’s ex-girlfriends to destroy the tape. In fact he only interrupts Treadwell’s musings to weigh in on what he feels is “the overwhelming indifference of nature.” He holds a fascination with nature as intense as Treadwell (as evidenced in his other works) but lacking any sort of romanticism. All he sees the chaos of nature that enveloped Treadwell and is the closest Herzog gets to showing his cards on his subject.

Grizzly Man is a peculiar movie, but nothing short of engrossing. It may contain the most unrefined videos of grizzly bears in the wild (a view shared by Herzog, who praises Treadwell as a filmmaker), but never romanticizes nature. And Treadwell remains a study in himself; either an outcast who found an unexplainable unity within America’s most dangerous carnivores or an exhibitionist grasping for the attention he never received as an actor. Herzog certainly tries his best to paint an accurate portrayal with the footage Treadwell allowed to be filmed. We see Treadwell rage incoherently about civilization, baby talk to the bears, set up multiple takes for “spontaneous” observations, and so on. Whatever our interpretation we can see how such a man of oddball idealism could have found himself exiled by society and identified only within the perilous splendor of nature. Herzog dutifully does not prod us to judge, but to merely observe this tragic life of one man’s lonely embrace with death.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Collateral (2004)

Directed by Michael Mann.
Starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.
In a Nutshell: A cabbie is forced to aid a hitman in a string of nighttime killings.

Collateral is one of those films that manage to overcome its paltry script with exhilarating direction and first-class acting. It plays like the darkest of buddy comedies, playing heavily with the conflicting personalities of the two leads. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a skilled assassin who must kill five witnesses before morning. To get around, he gets into a cab driven by Max (Jamie Foxx) and attempts to keep his job a secret until one of his victims accidentally falls on top of Max’s cab. Now, Max is forced to transport Vincent from hit to hit, and the two men are continually at odds with each other. Vincent believes not just in “living in the moment” but at accepting and living with the spontaneity of life. Meanwhile Max, who is in his twelfth year as a cab driver, carefully plans out each moment while aspiring to one day have enough money for his own limo company.

If the characters feel organic, it’s not because of the writing, which saddles them with awkward chunks of monologues posing as character development. It is far too clunky for Michael Mann’s smooth direction, turning nighttime L.A. into the bleakest of wastelands. The city’s own haunting emptiness plays off Max, now trapped in his cab with Vincent acting as his catalyst to aim for a better life. Tom Cruise got a lot of attention for finally playing the villain, albeit a “safe” villain role. On paper, Vincent, with his philosophy quotes and superhuman assassin skills, could have been a chic Terminator, but Cruise gives him the necessary dimension to avoid being a complete monster. Foxx is even better and despite his comedy background, never overplays Max’s initial shock and weakness when confronted by his misfortune. When Max is forced into self-empowerment through Vincent’s teachings (and whatever plot diversions come his way), it feels wonderfully unforced even the face of an uninspired third-act chase.

Being a Michael Mann film, Collateral still has its action (check out the Asian nightclub scene with Vincent at odds from both sides of the law). Even more notable are the duo’s various meetings with other denizens of the night. From Vincent’s targets to Max’s comic relief mother, Mann treats us to vignettes that open up the underworld to breadth of stock characters made genuine. Less so is the finale that finally pits Max’s newfound empowerment against Vincent. But by this time, Mann’s visuals have managed to buck the clumsy script to maintain a naturalistic vibe within the moody L.A. underworld and the opposing nature of his leads. Collateral is little more than a fun ride, but succeeds in playing far better than it reads.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Le Samouraï (1967)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.
Starring Alain Delon and François Périer.
In a Nutshell: Following a recent killing, an assassin for hire must dodge the police.

Or in John Woo’s words, the perfect movie. I admit, that statement leans on hyperbolic, but Le Samouraï is still worthy of classic status. It commands the audience’s attention with its thinly dressed settings and concise bits of dialogue, complementing a story that only gets more complex as it progresses. The plot involves an impossibly gorgeous and solitary assassin Jef Costello (Alain Delon) whose code of honor is equivalent to that of a samurai’s (as the fictional opening text explains). After he successfully kills a nightclub owner, he is seen by several patrons, including a musician, who refuses to name him to the police. Despite the backup of an alibi from his girlfriend, the police superintendent (François Périer) doggedly peruses proof that Costello was the killer. Costello much also avoid retribution from his employer, who he believes persuaded the musician not to identify him.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmmaking style is akin to Sergio Leone’s. Both director’s works are films about films; collages of cinema sprung from their fondest of American movie memories. Le Samouraï is a love letter to American noir films of the 1930’s and 40’s, with a fresh treatment that strips away contrived plot devices and cheap suspense tactics. His world is almost graceful, demonstrated in the code of honor Costello has to his assassination methods. Costello’s delicate features and near silence shifts focus to his ruthlessness, making him a true portrait of a samurai warrior.

Le Samouraï is a precise and patient film, enabling itself to achieve level of suspense with as much minimalism as possible. Every character action becomes augmented against the bare mise-en-scène with the most mundane of actions moving with an otherworldly beauty. If there’s one reason why I disagree with Woo’s praise is that I just found it a cold movie. That’s not a just criticism, it was meant that way. That just is not my idea of movie perfection, especially since Delon’s robotic iciness began to ware itself out, giving Costello few dimensions outside of “honorable loner”. The film’s visual style of metallic gray and muted dull colors sets drains the film of passion and spontaneity (much like Costello himself). Le Samouraï is an exercise in meticulousness, both in Melville’s directing and Costello’s line of work. It may present emptiness a bit too well for its own good, but remains a beautifully dream-like noir.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Naked (1993)

Directed by Mike Leigh.
Starring David Thewlis and Lesley Sharp.
In a Nutshell: An aimless young man wonders the streets of London, seeking interaction.

Naked is a bleak and haunting comedy about a lonesome, though intelligent man named Johnny (David Thewlis) who returns to his old girlfriend’s house after committing a sexual assault. After an incredibly brief relationship with his ex’s clingy roommate, he walks off into the night, projecting his thoughts to anyone who will listen. Immediately, I knew this was going to be of those rip-your-guts-out types of movies. Johnny, his ex, her roommate and the people he encounters in London’s underbelly are those that have been swallowed up by their own hopelessness. Sure, they are well-read, capable people who could have led decent lives with a steady job, loving family and functioning friends. But be it lack of ambition or self-destruction, they have found their lives an empty void with no fulfillment or hope for something better. I have yet to experience the “real world” and hope that I will not have to for a few years. But Naked is a poignant look at what could be should fate or my own actions run sour.

Though for all its bleakness, Naked is an invigoratingly unconventional movie with a strong, caring attachment for the lost lives it explores. Mike Leigh is always a director about observations, without any tight plotting or scripting. Once Johnny leaves the apartment to lurk the streets, the film consists of his encounters with the denizens of the night. As he ambles about, the characters that Johnny meets take on varying degrees of importance while he pours out musings about everything from evolution to God to the apocalypse. This is where a film could have dragged but Thewlis is spry, witty and manically mesmerizing. Johnny may be a wreck, but his ramblings take on an engaging electricity as he pushes through the torment to connect with others. One of the best vignettes is Johnny’s conversation with a security guard who uses his dull job as a way to spend time planning for a secure future.

While it is talky, I was never bored by Johnny’s adventures until an unsatisfying last act conflict involving a scornful landlord. It only seems to exist as a clumsy parallel between what Johnny has refused to become by failing to direct his life. But for much of the film’s duration, Naked gives an honest look at the going-nowhere lives of city dwellers. The numbness, lack of decisiveness, and ugly truth are uncovered like raw nerve endings but Leigh never loses any humanity within the picture. He lets Johnny’s odyssey reveal his inner muse while peering into the meaningless lives of strangers, without contempt or disgust. Naked is one of those movies that will linger in your mind long after it’s over; its dank scenery, Thewlis’ frenzied pathos, and the exposed sincerity of the whole affair.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pickpocket (1959)

Directed by Robert Bresson.
Starring Martin LaSalle and Marika Green.
In a Nutshell: A man becomes addicted to thievery at the behest of his loved ones.

Pickpocket, a study on the criminal mind, is the film that is claimed to have heavily inspired Taxi Driver. Like Taxi Driver, Pickpocket relies heavily on voiceover (at this time, a new progression for film), allowing Robert Bresson to have his actors underplay every scene and let the narration control the mood. Both films also chronicle the lives of a men who likens themselves above society, and uses that superiority complex as a justification for crime. Although instead of becoming an unhinged vigilante, Michel takes to the high of thievery. His love of thievery and desire to be punished (casting aside the pleas of his moral-bound girlfriend to redeem himself) leads us down to Michel’s inevitable imprisonment. But at barely an hour and a half, Pickpocket is a very lean, gripping movie that wastes no time in chronicling Michel’s spiral.

Pickpocket, with its controlled, detached acting and uncluttered framing never seems to be passing judgment on Michel’s lifestyle. It is incredibly minimalist, straight and despite Michel’s narration to guide us through his moral journey, his actions and consequences do not dramatize themselves. The movie took its inspiration from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but avoids any moralizing despite the similarities between Michel and Raskolnikov’s views. But in both forms, the emotional hollowness that leads men to defy society is well represented. Michel’s addiction to crime is the only thing that keeps him feeling fulfilled, even though he knows of how it may end. Pickpocket may be a sparse film, but its terseness allows for Bresson to cut right to the film’s core of portraying the void criminals desperately hope to fill with their sins.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Taxi Driver (1976)

Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Robert De Niro and Jodie Foster.
In a Nutshell: A lonely and disturbed cabbie lashes out violently on New York.

Few films have explored into the decaying mind of the loner as effectively as Taxi Driver. And few films have portrayed New York as the simmering cauldron of despair, hostility and hatred that Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) rages against. In a word, Travis Bickle, who may or may not be a veteran of Vietnam, is a sick man and the sort of social alien whose attempts a human contact only isolate him further. Travis spends his waking hours driving cabs on the night shift in New York’s seediest of neighborhoods. The unbearable isolation and his disgust for the city have warped him into a man of twisted conscience and soul. But when he rants about the city and the hostility of others, it is not as though he’s exaggerating. Which is the true core of Taxi Driver; a man whose insanity and loneliness has been birthed from his accepted and yet morally corrupt surroundings.

Travis nearly finds redemption through two women, a campaign worker named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) and a child prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster). His brief relationship with Betsy collapses in his ill-advised attempts to form a more intimate connection. In this case, he takes her to a porno movie, proving that Travis’ thinking may be indistinguishable from the depraved society he despises. His unsuccessful attempts to save an indifferent Iris from a life on the streets unveil a more compassionate Travis, before the constant pain of rejection drives him to attempt to assassinate a political candidate. But all the while, Travis is very much the awkward everyman, not a standoffish psycho with one hand on the trigger and Scorsese keeps him familiar with our sympathies.

Taxi Driver is powerful film, and important in its depiction of society versus the lonely soldier. With the American life in degeneration, it is only understandable that any sane man would have trouble accepting the conditions around him. Yet it is Travis’ delirium that prevents him from being seen as anything more than an insane shooter. It is Iris who projects society’s mindset; she has fallen into prostitution but is either apathetic or unaware to her plight that she remains content. When Travis finally makes his stand against the candidate, he ends up being chased straight to Iris and his actions save her from a bleak future. He may have been transformed into a media hero by saving a little girl, but his anger is all too conveniently swept under the rug. That way the world can continue operating in its usual, unprincipled way. It is the close proximity of Travis’ hero status from political assassin that defines this man, someone whose frustration at the world treads a fine line between valor and madness.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Repulsion (1965)

Directed by Roman Polanski.
Starring Catherine Deneuve and Ian Hendry.
In a Nutshell: A sexually confused woman suffers a breakdown while in solitude.

Repulsion, Roman Polanski’s first English language movie, plays as great warm-up to the much more famed Rosemary’s Baby. Both involve women on the edge of insanity and the apartments that serve as their asylums. With Replusion, we enter the mind of Carole Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve), a painfully introverted hairstylist who, despite her beauty is uncomfortable about her sexuality. She flees from even the most honest of suitors and is disgusted with her sister’s relationship with a married man. When the couple goes away on vacation, Carole is left alone to her thoughts, leading to a psychological breakdown with nightmarish hallucinations that jostle between perverse pleasure and madness. As reality begins to slip away, Carole begins to lash out violently at the world around her.

Deneuve, who was in her early 20’s during shooting, gives an incredibly mature performance though much of the effectiveness lies in cheating the audience out of Deneuve’s objectification. Instead through a lack of character study, the audience never sees the motives behind Carole’s madness, only an onslaught of the surreal. Polanski’s later work is distinguished by far too much excess, but Repulsion chills with the smallest details. The constant dripping of water of the buzzing of a fly. The sight of a dead rabbit in Carole’s purse. Or most effectively, Carole listening to her sister and boyfriend noisily making love, which outlines Carole’s sexual terror without having to be gratuitous. The film’s shortcomings lie in any explanation towards Carole’s sexual confusion (save maybe the last shot). Polanski is far too concerned with filling Carole’s mind with decay than bog itself down with exposition. If Deneuve’s performance never begged empathy, perhaps it is because the movie would not have allowed it anyway. But with the viewer looking for any meaning behind it all will only discover the continuing fascination of Carole’s fear and desire becoming one.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Shining (1980)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.
In a Nutshell: The caretakers of an isolated hotel are terrorized by an evil presence.

Stanley Kubrick is typically (or in my experience) one of the first directors that burgeoning film students gravitate towards. And why not? He’s fairly modern, has a very consistent theme of dehumanization (that many seem to respond to) and has experimented in a wide variety of genres (sci-fi, horror, war, comedy, historical epic, family drama). Though since many people believe that filmmaking begins and ends with Mr. Kubrick, I find myself to be too critical of his work, which is unfair. Even his worst work is uncompromising, tightly directed and contains at least three or four iconic scenes. Of his entire filmography, The Shining would be in the bottom half, but still deserves its classic status.

Unlike most modern horror movies that pile on cheap shocks and gore, The Shining runs on a looming dread and a menacing atmosphere. The scenery takes on a life of its own, courtesy of Kubrick’s expansive framing, with shots that continually track the Torrance family (on par with the hotel’s portrayal as an omnipresent entity). Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance deviated a lot from Stephen King’s character, and rather than succumbing to cabin fever from his own alcoholic weaknesses, was instead a murderous psychopath all along. It is understandable why King and King fans would be upset at this change; Jack’s progression from family man to murderer feels less organic and more expected. It lessens the shock, but to judge the movie on its own terms, that Jack’s murderous tendencies were always there, then the film’s build to the rampage is as ominous as inevitability can be.

One element of the film that was unjustly criticized was Shelley Duvall as Jack’s wife Wendy. Duvall is out of her comfort zone in The Shining; her most frequent collaborator was Robert Altman whose freewheeling directing style could not be anymore different than Kubrick’s. Plus, King’s Wendy was also a different character, this time a more self-reliant and stronger woman. Duvall’s main acting challenge is to be flighty and hysterical, and Duvall is effective. It is hardly her fault the material has her do little more than wail, shriek and be bullied by Jack for half of the movie. Audiences and critics were also decisive of the film’s enigmatic qualities. Not much is explained about the hotel’s need to have Jack a murderer and several scenes that were explained thoroughly in the novel come off as non-sequiturs. There is no doubt this was deliberate, and it does show Kubrick’s faith in his audience to either form our own interpretation or take every mysterious occurrence at face value. Perhaps its instance on not explaining everything is exactly what makes it so enduring, so inexplicably horrifying. It manages a sinister mood that few have been able to replicate making The Shining a horror classic and that still beats the hell out of today’s horror flicks.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Directed by John Cassavetes.
Starring Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands.
In a Nutshell: A housewife’s mental illness threatens her family’s welfare.

Plenty of movies out there, devoid of any violent or sexually graphic content (unlike Man Bites Dog), that make me extremely uncomfortable. A Woman Under the Influence, John Cassavetes’ mediation on the struggle to maintain marital serenity, is one of those movies. The woman in question, Gena Rowlands as homemaker Mabel Longhetti, is a victim of trying too hard to please her husband, Nick (Peter Falk, at his most un-Columbo). She’s too eager to please at social functions, laughs too loud and too long, cries with a misplaced passion and generally gives off an uncomfortable vibe. But she’s never this way because she wants to be; she only wants to please her affable, if a tad loutish husband who she loves dearly. She is a victim of society’s pigeonholing and can never cram her psyche into the traditional housewife role. It does not take long for Nick to get fed up with her manic behavior and ends up sending her to a mental institution. It is then that Nick becomes an even worse caretaker, exploding with anger and sharing beers with his kids at the beach. He too feels the strain of being shoved into society’s trapping as assured and always in control.

When I say the film made me uneasy is no knock on its quality. But two and a half hours of yelling and dissolving marriage is just exhausting. But the movie does showcase Cassavetes’ strength as an actor’s director. Gena Rowlands gives a forcefully high-strung performance as Mabel, giving her eccentricity and irritating tics a sad, personal touch. Her inability to realize herself in her suffocating, suburban world begins shattering her psyche, and Rowlands can channel rage, desperation and faux joy in one look like no other. Peter Falk’s Nick is just as dysfunctional and well-meaning, relying mostly on violence and excessive shouting to restore order. But his outbursts are of the same nature as Mabel’s; an attempt to reinforce a notion of tradition that plagues American households.

Cassavetes has presented a searing, though overdone look at the American family. It’s overdone only in the sense that no real people could sustain the amount of dysfunctional energy that Nick and Mabel can. Or at least I hope not. But both characters are so well developed that the film could run on its own spontaneity and the lead performances boldly dive into the abyss that has defined Nick and Mabel’s lives. It’s as touching as it is nauseating to watch these two wrestle with their societal roles as their sanity is threatened. Both mean well, but the influence of our position in this culture can drive any well-meaning individual to madness. In the end, as painful as it was to watch, A Woman Under the Influence expertly defines the struggle between who we are and who we should be.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Directed by Elia Kazan.
Starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando.
In a Nutshell: A Southern belle clashes with her family and descends into insanity.

A lot has been written over the years about Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski. There have been morally unsound characters in movies long before Stanley, but they have all been played with reservation and restraint. But Brando brought the Method-style in full focus with Stanley; drinking, hitting, yelling, and never backing down from his character’s irredeemable qualities. He doesn’t submit to a simian cartoon (despite what many of the film’s characters would say) but instead expresses his anguish as a man who cannot think to summon such dimensions. It is hardly hyperbole to say that screen acting today would be quite different were it not for Brando’s fearless commitment to Stanley.

But for all of Brando’s acting revolutionizing, the film still belongs to Vivien Leigh as the unglued Blanche Dubois. She’s painted to be just as likeable a protagonist as Stanley, but Leigh’s performance is one of great tragedy as the audience waits for her downfall to arrive. She’s as brittle as a dry twig but her constant attempts at reclaiming a normal life (or deluding all around her that she can) are heavy lifting for an actress. Her tailspin to insanity, laced with homophobic jeers, nymphomania and possible cradle robbing (much of which was restored in the latest, uncut version), is hypnotic and achingly poignant in Leigh’s hands. Particularly her scene where she tries to seduce a young paperboy, her voice barely hiding the sexual longing in her sad life. It straddles a line between depressing and tawdry, but Leigh never buries Blanche’s inner turmoil.

The current DVD release presents the film uncensored leaving in the extended rape scene and scenes that sexualized Stella, Blanche’s sister and Stanley’s wife (Kim Hunter). The original cut gave little understanding as to what would attract her to such a brute and keep the marriage held together. It cheapened her character for audiences, but is now presented as a fully fleshed out figure (despite all the abuse she suffers from Stanley). The sexuality between the characters heightens through the constant manipulation and doesn’t devalue the tension with too much bedroom dealing. It keeps the heat in Blanche and Stanley’s battle as sweltering now as it did in 1951. The film continues to remain an engrossing insight into adult sexuality and as enduring as Brando’s raw passion.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Saragossa Manuscript (1965)

Directed by Wojciech Has.
Starring Zbigniew Cybulski and Iga Cembrzyńska.
In a Nutshell: An old book tells folded tale after tale of a soldier’s grandfather.

I think I can safely say that Saragossa Manuscript is one of the densest, twisted, more convolutedly plotted movies I have ever seen. Perhaps I’ll change my mind once I’ve seen more movies, but this one will be tough to beat. Saragossa Manuscript (which was adapted from a novel by Jan Potocki) begins as a soldier reading a tale about his grandfather, Alphonse van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski) being lured by two princesses who want to marry him. Instantly, he is brutally awakened from this vision and the movie soon follows a path of intertwining stories all ended with the reoccurring gag of the characters being sucked right out of them in a jolting manner. Many of the stories connect or undermine others, but one will need a spreadsheet to keep track of how all the characters and stories connect.

With the movie’s three-hour length (courtesy of fan Jerry Garcia who fought for an American release of the original cut), there is a problem of it lost in its own labyrinth. I have been told that I seem to have a problem with enjoying movies on a basic level (e.g. Transformers), and one would suppose that to enjoy this movie, you just have to let it take you for ride. For all the complexity, it always seems to be grinning at the audience; nothing is ever weighted down by melodrama. The actors seem to know this and never add an ounce of gravity to the performances. The directing is more theater, and less cinematic eschewing any sort of grandeur in the scenery. And the offbeat pacing from story to story only adds to the drug-trip like state of it.

And about that drug-trip vibe; Saragossa Manuscript seems to aspire to an all-encompassing window into everything, and I mean everything. The stories range from cautionary tales on temptation, religious guilt, and satire on narrative itself. The movie’s reality is never in stone, nor should it be. I’m still not sure if I liked this movie just because it kept throwing me for a loop, dozens of times. I guess to truly enjoy the movie, I would not fear becoming lost in the maze but just try to make out the scant whips of meaning within the various tales; no matter how the big picture fits together. Enjoy it for what it is; a disjointed window into humanity that can never measure up, but is charming in its effort. Saragossa Manuscript is confusing, overreaching, and taxing on the brain, but what a journey. A deserving cult classic and a trip for even the most sober of moviegoers.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Millennium Actress (2001)

Directed by Satoshi Kon.
Starring Miyoko Shôji and Mami Koyama.
In a Nutshell: A reclusive actress relives her life during a documentary interview.

I hope this isn’t the only anime film I watch for my blog/journal. I have a great respect and adoration for Japanese animation, but when it’s done well. Most of the Saturday morning garbage and Adult Swim series lose me. Far too much of it is wrapped up in its own fiction and comes off as culturally unfamiliar (Argument for another day). That said, Millennium Actress is a very moving drama that plays with the fabric of reality and just happens to be animated. The movie centers on a fictional movie star named Chiyoko Fujiwara who retreated from the public eye for 30 years. One of her greatest admirers and his cameraman seeks her out for a documentary. Chiyoko treats him to a retelling of what led her to seclusion while the filmmaker and cameraman become immersed in her storytelling. Before becoming an actress, she talks of helping a man escape from Japanese right socialism. He leaves behind a key for safekeeping and her entire life has been to reunite with her love. It’s an innovative plot devise in traveling through time, with film and history, present and past all occupying the same plane.

The movie does get confusing since many of the scenes never distinguish whether we are experiencing Chiyoko’s actual life or a movie shoot especially when the two doc-makers also start living her fictional exploits. Her films cover even more of Japan’s history from the Edo (military government) and Meiji (westernized centralized government) periods to a futuristic space age (that also serves as her acting swan song). This narration lends itself to a compelling study on the nature of make-believe and the way it bleeds into our own lives. Anime should not be segregated to its own genre, which is why I would strongly recommend this movie to anyone with a sense for both romance and storytelling. To envision this film in any different medium would be unthinkable given the range of history, the scale of human drama, and the sweeping, line-blurring narrative. It’s a touching tribute to the past and present, our idolization of film, and the pursuit of lost love.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Children of Paradise (1945)

Directed by Marcel Carné.
Starring Arletty and Jean-Louis Barrault.
In a Nutshell: A mine, actor, thief and aristocrat vie for the affection of one woman.

There are many films that exist on a purely cinematic scale, lifted high above the flatness of the everyday. Characters shine with their vibrant eccentricities, the frame dazzles with excessively ornate sets and costumes and nobility shines through in the darkest of times. Children of Paradise is one of those films, a large-scale romance in the same spirit of Gone With the Wind. Though it exudes a similar ambition for storytelling, Children of Paradise showcases a darker depiction of its characters and its environment. Many are actors, and the film follows suit with its lovingly embellished performances and lavish soundstage sets. It may lack the grit that the New Wave was built upon, but it sincerely embraces the life-as-theater coda with style.

The film takes place in late 1820’s Paris, full of starving street actors, prostitutes, pickpockets, and other low-lifes. For a film of this time, it certainly reveled in the seedier side of society, but as a viewer today, everything seems very bright and dream-like. The cities are bathed in white light with even the most ancillary of characters busy with activity, bringing a worldliness to the smallest of details. Even when the characters start to tear their relationships apart, the movie looks magnificent as though it prides itself in showcasing these human dramas. The characterizations are fantastically done as well. Arletty, the woman who finds herself fought over by four men is a far more grounded variation on the classic temptress role. Arletty was in her early 40’s during filming, but her age works with for her; she displays a hard-earned experience that allures even the most depraved. The four men are a bit more varied in personality, but no man is too noble or immoral to make her decision easy.

This movie’s romanticism is the impossible type that can only exist in the movies, but revels in its theater style. Children of Paradise is able to support five richly defined characters in its story. Using Paris' theater as a backdrop gives Children of Paradise a unique soul that takes joy in its ungrounded flair. Equally impressive is the story behind the making, which involved making and releasing the movie around Nazi involvement. That such an arrestingly romantic movie could have been born from such circumstances is nothing short of miraculous.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Man Bites Dog (1992)

Directed by Rémy Belvaux.
Starring Benoît Poelvoorde and Rémy Belvaux.
In a Nutshell: A crew of filmmakers follows a serial killer’s exploits.

It isn’t everyday that a film comes along that gives me pause. And I’ve shuffled through a lot of films that would rank as controversy lightning rods without any issue. This probably isn’t a sign of my endurance, but more so just fatigue or a better perception on the difference between vision and voyeurism. I guess to cut to the quick, many films that try to satirize violence fall incredibly short for me. I have a hard time picking apart any sort of critique on the nature of violence apart from any actual violence, which only makes the filmmaker look like a psychopath. Man Bites Dog is an incredibly violent film (One particular break-in/rape scene made even my stomach churn, and that is a pretty hard thing to do). While it’s not shy, its focus is not necessarily on the nature of violence, but on the media’s affixation on it (as well as the authors and filmmakers who find it such a reliable benchmark for their works; the psychopaths in question).

As black as comedies can possibly get, the movie involves a film crew documenting Benoît Poelvoorde’s serial killer, Ben, as though his activities were commonplace. The casualness to his actions is darkly (and I mean darkly) amusing at first, but it makes sure the viewer never gets too comfortable (though most normal people should feel uncomfortable from the get-go). In between murders, Ben loves literature, film, architecture, all while displaying a boyish, gleeful zeal with his killings. All the while, the filmmakers try to reserve emotional detachment from Ben. But by the end of the film they’ve become close to his friends and family and participate in his crimes.

It’s sickening, but a clever statement on our own media’s obsession on violence. Most people wouldn’t describe themselves as violence-craving and yet serial killers and school shootings will be the stories that make the cover of TIME or dominate a news shows’ weekly content. People like Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold, Ted Bundy, and Charles Manson have become household names for the sake of viewership and satisfying viwer curiosity. The way Ben’s film crew become sucked into his homicidal ways is all too telling about the way media attempts a sense of distance from murderers while in actuality giving them the perfect spotlight for their doings. Man Bites Dog would not be so shocking if it wasn’t so accurate about the way media views violence. It is a true satire, but a hard watch.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Hard Core Logo (1996)

Directed by Bruce McDonald.
Starring Hugh Dillon and Callum Keith Rennie.
In a Nutshell: A self-destructing punk rock band is documented during a comeback stint.

Or probably more accurately, Unfunny Spinal Tap. True, this movie is not without a few dark laughs, but if you liked This Is Spinal Tap, you will not necessarily like Hard Core Logo. But it’s a bit unfair to make the comparison since both films are aiming to accomplish two completely different tones. The concept is the same; the film is a fake documentation of a band making a final gasp of a comeback tour. Though instead of the endearing Spinal Tap fools, trying to grab depth and meaning out of thin air, the band-mates of Hard Core Logo are the standard “rage against the establishment” sort. The band’s frontman Joe Dick (Hugh Dillon who, thanks to his experience in the band The Headstones, brings an untrained authenticity to his role) plans on roping back guitarist Billy Tallent (Callum Keith Rennie) for the tour to benefit one of Dick’s idols. However, Tallent is poised to be signed into an alternative pop band. Their relationship is far more hostile than ‘old married couple’ given Dick’s knowing insecurity (barely disguised by his coarse machismo) at fading away, unlike Tallent whose, well, talent will surely give him a life outside of HCL.

Too many critics felt this movie was too cringe inducing and never really went anywhere; none of the scenes build and the plot just meanders. Which makes me wonder if a documentary recreating a punk band’s exploits should be a labyrinth-plotted, light-hearted romp (I don’t think so, HCL’s style is more than appropriate). There we were many small details that I thought gave it an edge over other fake-docs. Particularly the way that Bruce McDonald (playing himself) and his camera crew were not just observers of the madness, but added to the band’s annoyance and had plenty of interactive moments (including one insane drug trip that may have stepped outside the documentary style). And the simmering anger between Dick and Tallent really gets under the skin; the movie’s progression makes it clear the payoff will be far more explosive than that between Nigel and David. I would recommend this movie, but maybe not to any Spinal Tap fans. Maybe fans of Apocalypse Now. Group dynamic destruction over an arduous journey into madness that nobody wants to be on? Maybe that’s overreaching, but in all, this is not a fun film. It is accomplished in its discomfort and makes itself impossible not to watch with horror. A fine, if incredibly squirmy piece of fauxdocumentary.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Directed by Rob Reiner.
Starring Michael McKean and Christopher Guest.
In a Nutshell: A heavy-metal band is profiled during their American comeback tour.

The movie that launched the mockumentary genre, stripped away the empty self-importance of rock music and helped make Christopher Guest a cult comedy icon. So does it still go to 11 (sorry, unavoidable), even after the years of endless praise and almost predicable appearances on every comedy laundry list? Oh yes. As technically faultless as Zelig is, This Is Spinal Tap succeeds as a far greater comedy and study of the music industry. Its focus is on Spinal Tap, a fledging heavy metal band that gained their fame for being “one of England’s loudest bands.” The band mates are vacuous and show little grasp of cognition, but the film never ridicules them or forces us to feel disgust. We love them because their pursuit of rock star glory leads them into the black hole of musical careers; malfunctioning stage props, failed signings, Air Force performances and so on. But even as the misfortunes come one after the other, the band members’ optimistic sensibilities remain so that they can still stroke their brittle, attention-craving egos by continuing to reclaim the limelight. It’s never cruel and is respectable towards its targets, which is perhaps the reason why it has sustained such a long shelf life.

The movie manages to push the humor as far as it can go without completely breaking the reality (spontaneous combustion not withstanding), particularly with the music, which sounds generally bad enough to be the real deal. But the movie’s true durability is not just in the comedy but in the way it has made a punchline of every self-important rock band since. Having been embraced by the industry it’s mocking, no longer can any band inflate their egos without the inevitable comparison to Spinal Tap. In the end though, This Is Spinal Tap is a classic. Delusions of grandeur, limited I.Q.’s, fading celebrity, and the music industry’s mechanisms are ripe for satirizing and the film hits every mark. It never settles for gentle laughs, but never seeks to wound. There’s not too much else I can discuss without going to into a retelling of my favorite scenes, but it’s a gem and deserves its legacy.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Zelig (1983)

Directed by Woody Allen.
Starring Woody Allen and Mia Farrow.
In a Nutshell: A psychiatrist tries to understand the nature of a human chameleon.

Not one of Woody Allen’s better known features, but worthy of mention. Zelig is a near perfection of the mockumentary format, though perhaps not the best overall example of the genre. The plot involves a man named Leonard Zelig (Allen) who can take on the characteristics of any person he is in the presence of (and not just physically). He takes the nation by storm during the 20’s and 30’s prompting a psychiatrist (Mia Farrow) to cure him of this abnormality. The film’s strength lies less in the comic premise itself (which is a bit one-note, albeit a slight commentary on identity struggle) but the technical detailing. Thanks to old newsreel footage, blue screen technology and a variety of cinematography techniques, Leonard Zelig is seamlessly integrated into early America. Even when the premise begins to wear out its welcome, Allen’s insertion of himself into bygone American is incredible. Taking full advantage of the flaws and limitations accompanying early media (as well as his recreation of American doctor testimonials) the film works mostly through the presentation itself.

But given that Allen took such care to make Zelig look as authentic as possible, it’s too bad he chose himself to star. I would doubt that an unknown taking on black, Chinese, obese, etc. characteristics would be as funny as seeing them on the Allen. And since Allen’s performance is mostly in small grabs of archival footage (much of it dialogue-free) and photographs, so it’s not like an actor of great depth or gravitas was needed. But that does show the limit to the Zelig character. Allen doesn’t give the character much more personality beyond the concept, and the role is very easy for him to play. In keeping with the documentary feel, the movie could have had a greater life with an unknown (or at least someone not as recognizable) that could give a more chameleon-esque performance, doing away with the more overt dialogue from the doc’s commentators. I did not dislike Zelig, but by Allen playing to his limitations, too much of Zelig is explanation over performance. The format is brilliantly deadpan and well perfected the mockumentary format before Christopher Guest and makes it a quickly enjoyable movie. But it is just too bad Zelig couldn’t have offered more Zelig.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Alphaville (1965)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina.
In a Nutshell: A secret agent must destroy an oppressive computer in a dystopian future.

Boy, is this a strange, strange movie. I should mention to not make this your introduction to Jean-Luc Godard, preferably start with Band of Outsiders or Breathless, even if you are twice the sci-fi nut I am. It takes some time to settle into the film’s style (including lots of seemingly inapt music and bizarre shots), but the end makes Alphaville a very fascinating riff on noir pulp and Americanized science fiction. According to my Netflix sleeve, it was filmed entirely on the streets of Paris, and though Godard has effectively transformed it into a dark, absorbing futuristic setting (and not with a bunch of robots or policemen in Robocop style outfits). Eddie Constantine as secret agent Lemmy Caution from the Humphrey Bogart mold. His mission; to destroy a supercomputer that has controlled or eliminated free thought and emotion from the city of Alphaville. Basically, Godard’s commentary against technology, predating both the novel and film of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Despite all the absurdity, Godard has a given a haunting tale on technology’s control and the incessant need to apply logic to everything. Shots such as the citizens flaying around without their computer overlord are particularly powerful (as well as a sequence at a diving board that would take too much time to explain without context). What really gives it that punch was Godard’s refusal to make the film too futuristic. The post-modern buildings and neon signs wouldn’t seem all that special without the cinematography and the dead, controlling mood of the future. We don’t feel disconnected from this society because it is all too familiar (or at least it was back in the 60’s in France).

It is too bad that much of the comedic, comic strip-esque moments can conflict so much with the dystopian noir. It’s creative, but it does jar the viewer out of being sucked into the movie like a good movie should. Brazil had moments of even greater absurdity, but never acted as though they were not integral to that universe. Alphaville may have been too movie-ish for some likings, but Godard’s message about technology control still resonates. And future filmmakers would do themselves good to study Godard’s methods at stylizing the future from modern-day Paris. Sure, it’s far more retro than 2001:ASO, but no less captivating. Still a strange, strange movie though.