Saturday, December 25, 2010

If.... (1968)

Directed by Lindsay Anderson.
Starring Malcolm McDowell and David Wood.
In a Nutshell: A group of boarding school students form a revolt against their superiors.

“Violence and revolution are the only pure acts,” youthful musings of the restless and lost. Director Lindsay Anderson’s film studies the subculture of an English boarding school, a storm that has rebellious student Mick Travis (Malcolm McDowell) smirking in its eye. If…. is a unique film; it subverts realism without falling into stylized trappings that would fetishize its anarchic thunder. Yet Anderson manages a finely detailed portrait, all fading into the larger picture. What that larger picture “is” the film never concretely outlines, as the 60’s provided plenty to rebel against. But Anderson is not interested in that sort of statement, at least not enough to find the humanity in his characters. As the chief instigator, Travis is embodied by McDowell as an imp and dreamer, with just a glint of devilishness. His wide-eyed ruminations and refined cultural sensibilities inject romanticism into his deeds, albeit steeped in naïveté. As a poster child for the audience’s rebellious cravings, he is indelible.

Travis’ world is deftly constructed. Though filled with archetypes, a talented array of character actors infuses Anderson’s character sketches with life and personality. Anderson catches small moments of the microcosm, defining a whole world with little exhibition (the blossoming love between one of Mick’s revolutionaries and a prepubescent tells its entire story in as little as three scenes). One odd touch is randomized scenes devoid of color, explained by Anderson as cost-cutting measures during interior filming (though Anderson would have preferred to shoot entirely in black and white). Narrative-wise, the scenes carry no additional pattern but a dreamy ambience, carrying into the boys’ waking fantasies.

Such tones of revolt, wistfulness and dark humor do not seem to contrast, but flow to capture the tumultuousness of youth. Anderson was suspected to be closeted, and the burning rage and despair he might have felt emanates through the boys’ desire to break free. Its much-discussed ending encapsulates the film’s tone into pure action, carried forth by the surrealism. Is it necessary? Particularly as the ending shatters the satirical context into pure protest. It may be hard to judge from a modern context, but could not blame If…. for having its finger on the pulse of youth, requiring such a scene to hammer home their frustration. And as Mick would argue, it stands as one of the film’s purest act.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Directed by John Cassavetes.
Starring Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel.
In a Nutshell: A club owner must commit a murder to pay off a gambling debt.

In response to his detractors, John Cassavetes once quipped, “A movie tries to pacify people by keeping it going for them so that it's sheer entertainment. I hate entertainment. There’s nothing I despise more than being entertained.” Perhaps there is a hint of facetiousness, though it is still a statement worth considering while viewing this film. Its premise suggests noir pulp, but Cassavetes pushes all that into the background for an unapologetically realistic character study. And that character may be John Cassavetes. His protagonist Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) is a man proud of his meager lot in life. When we meet him, he has just paid his last debt to acquire full ownership of the strip club Crazy Horse West. As entertainment, Cosmo offers tawdry peep shows boasting a low-rent artistry. His shows are earnest, deeply personal but humiliating in their faux-sophistication. Too soon, Cosmo accumulates a heavy gambling debt with some mobsters who offer him a way out; kill a Chinese bookie.

True to the noir genre, Cosmo is fatalism-infected scum, and knows it. The pride he takes in his strip-theater performers seems born of sweaty desperation. He has little else for show, all the better than to cling to what you got. The artist id is split between Cosmo and the Master of Ceremonies, Teddy aka Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts) who is self-pitying and yearning for audience approval, when not upstaged by the girls’ bare breasts. He is the counterweight to Cosmo’s workingman ethic, yet naked with his insecurities while Cosmo struts a faux-suavity. Only when the inevitable comes in full terror by the end, does Cosmo try to pin down his facade as motivation for the troupe. Everything is fraud, just “choose a personality.”

That is only what the film is, but how is it? The original cut is flourished with diversions featuring the film’s supporting characters including some extra performances. Though to say diversions may be missing the point of Cassavetes’ film; it is these cinéma vérité moments that he is interested in, not the bookie business (save what it can tell us about Cosmo and the gangsters). Cassavetes keeps the camera bare inches from the characters’ faces, thrusting this world at us and magnifies the barest quiver underneath Cosmo’s facade. Similarly, Cassavetes hides his character turmoil in full view within the gangster-noir murder plot (you know, “macho” stuff). We are left to explore this world and his lost characters, looking for art, looking for love, meaning, anything at all. Before the relief of the final curtain.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Fires on the Plain (1959)

Directed by Kon Ichikawa.
Starring Eiji Funakoshi and Osamu Takizawa.
In a Nutshell: A private in ailing health struggles to survive WWII combat.

1959 yielded two humanistic war films intent on tarnishing the legacy of military nationalism in WWII-era Japan. Masaki Kobayashi's sprawling The Human Condition witnessed the slow, grinding demise of idealism and the human spirit. Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain depicts quick, ugly cruelty. It tests the will of man’s survival when reduced to the barest of resources. When Private Tamura (Eiji Funakoshi) becomes stricken with tuberculosis early on, he is ordered to consider two choices: find medical care (to continue fighting) or suicide. The battlefield offers far worse. Ichikawa tracks Tamura through the hell of combat with each repugnant side inflicting different brands of hostility. But there is purity to Ichikawa’s study of the human will at odds with the bleakest of frontiers.

It is an unnerving film, with Tamura’s journey void of the rigor and civility that keeps society from folding in on itself. Ichikawa is not shy in revealing the haunting details, cut with occasional shots of scenic beauty too heartbreaking to smack of irony. But it is that compassion that reverberates with Tamura’s arc and his dogged refusal to submit to the elements. With his ambiguous ending (deviating from the novel) Ichikawa suggests little else is worth claiming. The cost is still great; even inner peace rewards no certainty. For Tamura, it becomes the only solace taken into abyss, moving towards the unseen salvation one prays will await on the horizon. In his pitiless rendering of war’s horrors, Ichikawa achieves the same revelation, and never looks back.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Starring Brigitte Mira and El Hedi ben Salem.
In a Nutshell: A lonely widow is ostracized when she falls in love with a younger Arab.

Fassbinder conceived Ali: Fear Eats the Soul as a directing exercise in between two other projects. This hardly telegraphs a labor of love. But his speedy production schedule must have granted an unfettered simplicity to the film’s unlikely love affair. The story is a thematic reworking of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, supplemented with two like characters from his early work The American Solider (a far grimmer tale about discrimination). But Fassbinder presents this tale without irony, projecting Sirk’s subtext to boot. The end result is a beautiful love story between two flawed individuals aching for acceptance.

The film's greatest achievement can be felt through the soulful performances of the resilient Brigitte Mira and sad-eyed El Hedi ben Salem. Today, ben Salem’s work carries a haunting truth. As Fassbinder’s real-life lover, the hostility he found in Germany built up until he stabbed three men, then hung himself in prison. As “Ali,” he faces victimization, even Mira’s unconscious prejudice, exhausting him to the point of emotional detachment. Mira’s Emmi faces the same tough decision of defying her family and peers for Ali’s love, and Fassbinder is careful not to define her plight as social martyrdom. Their conflict within themselves could reflect Fassbinder’s own struggle to find happiness, the unfortunate causality of human nature. Though the film’s end champions its progression as well.

Select shots of visual artifice present still moments of separation or proximity. Such shots adopt any number of manners; evocation of Emmi and Ali’s love frozen in time or the overt manipulation each character feels within their given “role”. Or it may just be Fassbinder’s extreme depiction of his own experiences. It may feel unnatural, but not inappropriate. Much like its title, these shots express a blunt simplicity akin to the couple’s union. Fassbinder has crafted a moving love story, but even its original intent demonstrates his command. Cribbing from Sirk forecasts lazy movie making. But Fassbinder’s personal melancholy illustrates the story’s backbone, uncovering depths of humanity that would have been strangled by Sirk’s feverish melodrama. Only something as ineffable as Emmi and Ali’s love deserves his simple honesty.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Blast of Silence (1961)

Directed by Allen Baron.
Starring Allen Baron and Molly McCarthy.
In a Nutshell: A hired killer is sent to New York where his past resurfaces.

Devoid of studio varnish, Allen Baron’s independent classic is a bitter tribute to the bare essence of noir. As lean as Samuel Fuller’s best, flavored with John Cassavetes’ emerging expressionism, it digs into the coarse heart of all noir; embittered isolation. Baron stars as hitman Frankie Bono with Lionel Stander’s raspy tenor functioning as his inner monologue. Once in New York on an assignment, Bono is confronted with past melancholies and begins losing the focus that molded his intense professionalism. Shot on a shoestring budget on location, Merrill Brody’s imagery mirrors Bono’s desolation, with ubiquitous shots of Christmas decorations for a wisp of coy irony. Baron tracks nearly every step of Bono, deepening the seething hostility he projects at the city. In his life of slimy dealers and spiteful dames, it is that inward loathing that centers Bono, refining his craft. Blast of Silence projects the noir mood into cold comfort against the suffocating bleakness of day-to-day.

What makes Blast of Silence such an indelible underground hit is how built-in these qualities were. Baron bucked the studio system, effectively alienating himself to roam the city streets. His acting technique is inhibited, but perfect for shading Bono’s unease. The pointed disgust Bono exudes seems to have coalesced with Baron’s ambitions to defy convention, create real film-making by the skin of his teeth. The end result faded quickly from audience consciousness and Baron’s career descended into TV Hell. Blast of Silence shares Bono’s lonely fatalism, with nary a flicker of humanity to be found.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Metropolis (1927)

Directed by Fritz Lang.
Starring Alfred Abel and Gustav Fröhlich.
In a Nutshell: The societal crisis between workers and owners of a capitalist dystopia.

A film that has not just changed our vision of our future, but the future itself through art, literature, culture, feeding into our perception of contemporary problems in a futuristic lens. It is a film of audacious visuals and grandiose ideas, one of the strongest survivors of silent cinema (and one of the most extravagant, equaled only by Intolerance and Greed). Eighty-three years later it has returned in as definitive a restoration as there may ever be (twenty-five additional minutes), and as powerful as ever. Metropolis concerns the struggle of class warfare, antiquated slightly by a proletarian impulse. The haves rule in sky-lofted paradise while the have-nots toil beneath the city. The privileged Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), son of an autocrat, falls in love with Maria (Brigitte Helm), an angelic beacon through the working-class smog. Witnessing an industrial accident propels Freder to defy his father and lead the workers in a revolution. Impeding his success is a mad scientist’s creation, a robot double for Maria, intent on sabotaging the workers from within.

For all of Fritz Lang’s gloriously baroque expressionism and narrative absurdity, its conceptualization of social strife with the growing industrialization feels ageless. Both classes are hive-mind forces of destruction, united only by spiritual idealism, not equality. It is a message even Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels could embrace, championing the dissolve of political bourgeoisie for reform of the labor force. Lang himself expressed dissatisfaction in later years, but the thematic power he brought to these ideas is unmistakable. Garnished with the very finest German Expressionism, Lang turns buildings into heaven-piercing castles and the city’s machinery into an electric monster, insatiable in its appetite for worker blood. The deco of Rotwang’s (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) lab has birthed nearly every mad scientist lair since.

Metropolis’ is a message film, one that is far too starry-eyed for our post-Marx society. Even with its newfound footage, not every narrative gap is bridged. But no matter. Few films can boast the literary and pictorial heights Lang brought to the medium. It is broad, occasionally over-explicit spectacle, but also buoyed by the unfiltered ideology that insulates Lang’s futuristic universe. There are hardly better examples that explore the capabilities film can be used to reflect our own struggles and shape our perceptions of tomorrow. I urge you all to see Metropolis in newly remastered glory, a landmark achievement in its final triumphant form.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Brute Force (1947)

Directed by Jules Dassin.
Starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn.
In a Nutshell: Oppressed prisoners plan their escape on drainpipe detail.

The classic film noir is always about the luckless, the forsaken. Those crushed by society and try to worm their way to power only to fall on their own swords. Are they just and honest men? Not always, but they personify a struggle that separates haves from the have-nots. Jules Dassin’s prison noir Brute Force plays to this convention making our noir heroes are actual prisoners, but bad men only by title. They are gruff but kind-hearted, united in camaraderie and only guilty of minor crimes (usually in the name of love). Their prison is lorded by a gutless warden commanding a wave of fascist guards. Hardly a muddy moral line can be drawn before the prisoners plan to escape. Not just a physical release, but from the squeeze of imperialistic terror.

The prison setting gives Brute Force a hard structure that bluntly highlights its politics. Its characterization is archetypical, but this is not a story that requires nuance. Given its release date, it functions as a Word War II parallel or civilian muscle versus the capitalist regime, relevant to any era (little surprise that Dassin was a member of the Hollywood blacklist). Such bleak commentary fused with a thundering Hollywood climax pitches Brute Force as a fine, rousing foray into the noir or prison genre (take your pick). Dassin may be overly earnest in his convictions, but his unshaken voice for liberation rings authentic.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

L’Avventura (1960)

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Starring Gabriele Ferzetti and Monica Vitti.
In a Nutshell: A woman becomes involved with the lover of her missing friend.

If it is hard to measure the impact L’Avventura had on cinema upon its release, perhaps it is because so little of it feels dated today. The first of Antonioni’s Incommunicability Trilogy, and the one where Antonioni found his voice in the privileged desolation of his characters. Translated, the title is “The Adventure,” a wry comment on the stunted emotions of the wealthy Claudia (Monica Vitti) and Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti). Sandro had been the lover of Claudia’s friend Anna (Lea Massari), stuck in a relationship that grew more estranged by the day. After a visit to a deserted island, Anna disappears. Not just from the scenery; once Claudia and Sandro begin their love affair, it is as though Anna had never existed. There is a Hitchcock element to this first act, but Antonioni does not seem to care about Anna anymore than Claudia and Sandro do. And there is something very wrong with that.

The island of Anna’s disappearance is an abyss of edged, sloping rocks, with hardly any plants and no animals. On land, the extravagance of Sicily has never looked so barren or its people so drab and clammy. The opening scene watches a vast patch of lush earth being excavated. Such images (courtesy of Aldo Scavarda) reflect despair on the amorality of its people. No crescendo of love is ever reached; Claudia and Sandro pass through their affair like lost spirits. When Sandro shatters the white noise, it is as though Claudia regains an entire consciousness, remembering what it is to feel again.

Perhaps that is a harsh characterization. Vitti (Antonioni’s muse in three subsequent films) delicately navigates Claudia’s plight: to batter against one’s own hollowness, grasping for happiness. She does not judge Claudia, and neither does Antonioni. Instead he offers the experience (the “adventure”) as its own commentary. Pure mood, L’Avventura is liberated from structure or a tangible purpose to its events. This made it a breakthrough in storytelling. And it is that story, of empty impulses and insulated angst that has earned L’Avventura’s legacy into our modern day. Draw your own conclusions about the sad, sterile lives of Claudia, Sandro and the rest. For their adventures will continue to reinvent themselves as our lifestyles continually leave the moral landscape in disarray.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Hole (1960)

Directed by Jacques Becker.
Starring Mark Michel and Jean Keraudy.
In a Nutshell: Five inmates attempt an escape.

The final film of director Jacques Becker is a marvel; smoothly unsophisticated in its depiction of grimy, laborious escape. Filmed in pseudo-documentary style with long unbroken takes, untrained actors (including real-life prison escapee Jean Keraudy) and no score, The Hole has a somber authenticity to its mechanisms. It does not thrive on grand spectacle or proclamations; the characters’ actions pulse with the animalistic instinct, be it freedom, desperation or brutality. But it is also a world of unity, one tested by the arrival of the fifth (Mark Michel), an adulterer sentenced for accidentally shooting his furious wife. He gradually enters the four’s inner circle as they plan to break through their cell floor to freedom’s beckon.

Drawing the viewer into the exertion is done with minimalist skill. One of the most famous shots has a four-minute take of the men pounding away at the concrete floor. This is real labor, not the sort of detail glossed over in a cut or dissolve. Close-ups of hands, dim lights and sweaty faces shrink close us into the spiritual purity of the struggle. The tremors of each new development and bond resonate against the bareness of the production. Becker has his finger on the pulse of the collective, the scrutiny of the prisoner’s day-to-day and the yearning to escape into the darkness. The underground that the men must traverse becomes a mythical labyrinth where, forgoing all earthly tension, each man becomes one with the same resolute hunger. By the time two of the men get a glimpse outside the walls, each is stirred in awe. But through Becker’s eye, even the slightest glance can tell so much more.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

Directed by George Clooney.
Starring David Strathairn and George Clooney.
In a Nutshell: Edward R. Murrow brings down Joseph McCarthy over his news show.

America’s anti-Communist movement of the 50’s found a regrettable mascot in Joseph McCarthy whose witch-hunts spread fear and ruined reputations. Sickened by McCarthy’s dishonest slander, Edward R. Murrow sought to disrepute him from the desk of his nightly CBS news show. Director/co-writer George Clooney frames this as an ode to Murrow’s legacy if also a cautionary tale his successors. The film is an undeniable champion of Murrow. By keeping this focus on Murrow, Clooney gives an absorbing account of journalism’s fight for civil liberty, trimmed with all necessary period details. McCarthy is played by stock footage, showing the man as a spitting, raving bully before his shameful Army hearings. David Strathairn’s Murrow acts as a beacon of quiet, reserved principle amidst his anxious newsroom peers.

The McCarthy fight seeps into every single scene, creating an insular world of news and politics. Compounded by Strathairn’s news-ready close-ups, Clooney magnifies the film into a grand struggle for television’s soul. Strathairn’s Murrow feels mythical, though the actor is canny to allow a glimpse of humanity even when the script does not. That the film follows a single-minded approach to Murrow feels refreshingly old-fashioned. Murrow’s epilogue mourns the loss of media ethics and our appetites for baseless fear mongering. If the ending reads too blatantly (but sorely deserving of current audiences), it only exemplifies the unstated social strife beneath every monologue. With the fear of communism antiquated beyond our memories, Clooney pleads for our media to account for the delusions and smears that run our news cycle. With Good Night, and Good Luck, his direction can at least take its advice to heart, sticking straight to the story and nothing less.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Bande à part (1964)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring Anna Karina and Sami Frey.
In a Nutshell: Two youths enlist a young woman in their next robbery.

“A few words chosen at random. Three weeks earlier. A pile of money. An English class. A house by the river. A romantic girl.” And the most fun ever to be had at a Godard movie. Bande à part is a crime film only in theory, disposing its pulp origins for a breezy cadence. The plot has two hoods (Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur) ensnaring a virginal classmate (Anna Karina) into robbing her aunt. That is a plot, but it is not the movie. This outing has Godard’s self-consciousness and pop-culture bitterness in check. His characters are still living through cinema; play acting gangsters while fumbling for the next conquest. For a while, Godard asks us to live this, to want to live it. And we can, because it is just so much fun.

Before the heist, Frey, Brasseur and Karina engage in youthful delectation, rendered by a parade of set-pieces aped to this day. Take the Madison sequence where the characters dance to a jukebox swing. For just a few minutes, they move in step (Karina in between the boys) unnoticed by the café’s patrons. Godard’s amused voiceover cuts through the soundtrack. “Parenthetically, now’s the time to discuss their feelings,” as if such isolated bliss could never be so pure.

Godard leaves a distinct nostalgia-infused tinge on his film, from the mist-covered villa of Karina’s character to the confused materialism of Frey and Brasseur. But his smoother pacing and camera movements diffuse his pretensions. As with the later Masculin, feminine, the characters are not cultural figures, their America worship an oddity of their own delusions. That fantasy eventually shatters (death is involved), but is quickly followed by the cheeky promise of an American sequel. It is those humorous reflexive touches that make Bande à part so enjoyable, such freedom from Godard’s chord of disdain. At least for some.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Starring Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand.
In a Nutshell: A barber’s blackmail scheme goes awry.

Pre-Cold War era noir casts a hard-bitten glare over the alienating suburbia slice-of-life that is the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. The Coens have proven insidious manipulators of whatever genre strikes their fancy. Here they bring an expert’s restoration to film noir, bustling with timely idiosyncrasies. Its protagonist, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), is the quintessential noir icon; a man condemned to misery for wishing a better life. Though Ed is a greater puzzle, narrating about his dull barber job and unpleasant wife with deadened candor. He hardly seems aware his life is one worthy of unhappiness. When Ed is offered a business investment, he blackmails his wife’s boss (Ed suspects they are having an affair) without pause.

But something goes wrong and Ed kills one of his transgressors. I will speak no more of the plot, though the manner in which it circles back to Ed is more happenstance than contrivance. Such plot mechanisms benefit from the ease of the film’s languid pacing filled with ancillary subplots and other asides. Plenty diverts from the film’s core conflict, moving in step with its solemn narrator, musing on the little details. This is pure narrative style, nearly supplanted by Roger Deakins’ chillingly crisp cinematography and Thornton’s dry calm. It can feel far too mannered and insular, like a malevolent puppet show. Taken as an exercise in lavish cinematic aesthetic, it will not disappoint. Besides, it is not as if Ed Crane was there to begin with.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Big Sleep (1946)

Directed by Howard Hawks.
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
In a Nutshell: A PI is hired to untangle a family’s underworld involvements.

Sometimes all a film needs is charisma to overcome its own limitations. Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the hardboiled Raymond Chandler novel succeeds this, with no small thanks to the studio. The executives behind The Big Sleep recognized its overly convoluted plot as too disposable for audiences. Re-shoots and re-edits changed the film’s rhythm from a morose noir into a coy love story amidst a tumultuous underworld. Even with the outsider influence, the current incarnation of The Big Sleep remains definitively Hawks-ian; relaxed and cynical, but hardly morose.

Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) is sent to clear the names of an infirm general’s daughters (Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers) centered on a family employee’s disappearance. Though Marlowe becomes quickly steeped into a web of hoods, gamblers, pornographers and other riff-raff. Bogart was the first to play Marlowe, honing the weary romanticism that has lived in film PI’s for decades. The plot throws out tight bits of suspense, with Bogie retaining his collected wits. It is as “cool” as movie “cool” gets. Bacall, Bogart’s love on and off set, matches the whip-smart repartee with the aplomb of a seasoned pro. With the murders and motivations fading from moviegoer memory, it is their crackling, cutthroat courtship that has burnished their reputation as one of cinema’s most iconic couples.

If The Big Sleep could keep one distinction, it demonstrates exactly how to bottle star power. It rolls along good-naturedly through sin and vice without acting wary of its own shadow. This effortless “cool” can be distilled to the inward manner Bogart sizes up an adversary or deflects a sexpot’s advances. Hawks and a trio of screenwriters punch up the noir gloom with droll self-amusement, nimbly avoiding histrionics. Without a proper structure, it could be argued that The Big Sleep coasts on its surface strengths, but that’s just it. It is not the plot that leaves us spinning, but great dialogue, great acting, great scenes. As free floating as cinematic jazz, albeit with some outside improvisations.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bigger Than Life (1956)

Directed by Nicholas Ray.
Starring James Mason and Barbara Rush.
In a Nutshell: An experimental miracle cure wrecks havoc on a teacher’s mental state.

Tapping deep into the yearning that defines the “Nicholas Ray hero,” Bigger Than Life makes the persuasive case for setting that man loose in bourgeois society. It is a film that rattles the chains of 50’s American life, far and away from any sly Douglas Sirk-ian understatement. We begin with the sort of drab ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama that many thought they were buying; prim schoolteacher Ed Avery (James Mason) becomes deathly ill and finds a cure with an experimental prescription of cortisone. In order to get back on his feet (including a night job as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet), Ed takes dosage after dosage. Not only does he get better, but Ed also transforms into the idealized advertisement of 50’s patriarchdom (football lessons, shopping sprees and disciplinary lessons soon follow). Though once the drugs seize Ed’s mind, the American dream slides into expressionistic nightmare.

Over the years, Bigger Than Life is upheld for its critique of 50’s values. While Ed may take these to frightening extremes, he nearly breaks free from his suburban conformity (or at least closer than Jim Stark and his hungry brooding). Even after a horror-movie showdown and a skeptically happy ending, the question remains. Is he a rebel or a monster? Ray either keeps his cards hidden or remains as divided. Within Ed’s megalomania is a drive for self-improvement with no room for lenience. It heightens, and nearly rips his family apart, but until then, Ed had mastered his life’s duties to live in comfort with all the gadgets a successful life could provide. Is that happiness? Even a tearful embrace at the end cannot tell.

Despite his conspicuous British accent, Mason hits every right note. From meek to might to menace, his performance is matched on by Ray who shifts genres without becoming a pastiche. Under Ray’s eye, the Avery house is a shadowy prison of domestic clutter and excess. Ed’s life peaks and bottoms out in such a scant amount of time that it beautifies the film’s brutality into a broad stroke. Bigger Than Life lives up to its title only to befit its study of our own inhibitions. Even as it weighs Ed’s struggle between conformity and liberation, the most unnerving impression one can take is that even Ray cannot give an easy answer. It is a puzzling, harrowing and outsize as life itself.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Directed by Alain Resnais.
Starring Emmanuelle Riva and Eiji Okada.
In a Nutshell: An actress and architect conduct an affair in postwar Hiroshima.

Hiroshima Mon Amour; a film heralded for helping to birth the French New Wave and one of the most innovative film narratives since Citizen Kane. Éric Rohmer predicted that Hiroshima could be recognized as, “the most important film since the war, the first modern film of sound cinema.” Lofty, but justified praise. The shifting blend of time, memory and reality becomes the domain for Alain Resnais and writer Marguerite Duras to exploring the relationship of two adulterous lovers in postwar Hiroshima. She (Emmanuelle Riva) is a French actress in an international peace film. He (Eiji Okada) is a Japanese architect who experienced the bomb’s destruction firsthand. They have a passionate, anonymous love. Later, they discuss the pain residing in their lives, in an extended two-day conversation.

When Rohmer spoke of Hiroshima’s reputation, he may not have foreseen Resnais’ influence through fracturing and shuffling time. Sometimes, it amounts to an interesting experiment (Last Year at Marienbad). Here, Resnais is more personal. Hiroshima observes two people whose lives have been ripped apart from their private involvement with the war. He lived through Hiroshima; a tragedy shared by millions. She recounts her punishment for her carefree affair with a German officer, glimpsed in fragmented flashbacks. It is never clear how much was real and how much was distorted by memory.

When the film opens, both are swept in the moment’s embrace as newsreel footage of Hiroshima fills the screen. They speak openly about the lives lost, the destruction, their own place in this turmoil. It is a vivid evocation of how absolute the past is within our present and how sorrow and ecstasy become one. This theme winds through the couple’s talk with the woman’s past unexpectedly resurfacing among Japan’s collective remembrance. Riva defines the film’s soul; unsure how to reconstruct her life with the big picture looming in the foreground. Resnais meshes the horrifying mundane of Japan’s ghost town with delicate surrealism to move with Riva’s sadness. While sidestepping any grand historical proclamations, the film defines what it means to bear emotional scars; what they meant then, what they mean now, particularly in a nuclear age. The world has long since recovered from World War II, but Resnais and Duras’ work will always speak for our anguish and uncertainty, past, present and future.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Directed by Federico Fellini.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg.
In a Nutshell: A gossip journalist spends a hedonistic week in Rome.

“This is the art I prefer. The one I think we’ll need tomorrow. A clear, precise art without rhetoric, that doesn’t lie, that isn’t flattering. Now I have a job that I don’t like, but I often think about tomorrow.” The words by detached journalist Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) describe the ideal purpose of art, the art he enjoys. Fellini is far too extroverted, far too unambiguous a director to hide this self-commentary, but this time he has earned it. La Dolce Vita lets the ecstasy and muddy morality of post-war Rome wash over its audience; all the objectivity of neo-realism with Fellini’s loving theatrics. Marcello’s week yields seven vignettes; each swims in decadent fantasy before staggering into the bleak dawn. Portraying Fellini’s alter ego, Marcello acts as agent and observer but never the moralizer.

Comparatively tame by today’s excesses, the film does not risk frolic for fright. Every scene that whetted 60’s audiences for “the sweet life” found itself anchored with startling reality. By the time a reactive, self-loathing Marcello derails a listless orgy, the film feels exhausted by Rome’s lost glamour. La Dolce Vita is wonderfully expressive; the bluntness of its visual compositions fails to diminish the impact. Which made La Dolce Vita less revolutionary for how it communicated with its audience (though Fellini’s delicate balance between realism and caricature need not be overlooked) than the commentary itself.

And yet Fellini can wring a shot of Anita Ekberg frolicking in a fountain for all its worth. Fellini is an unabashedly indulgent director; I love him no less for it. But La Dolce Vita, with its deeply cynical backbone and glittering show-biz extravagance, hits a nerve that will never dull in our similarly materialistic age. Fellini never needed to reach for these truths; every memorable scene pulsates with an authenticity all its own. It is a rare experience of a movie, shamelessly baroque though hardly its own moral wasteland. As long as men like Marcello continue to claw through their own emptiness, La Dolce Vita will never go out of style.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Love in the Afternoon (1972)

Directed by Éric Rohmer.
Starring Bernard Verley and Zouzou.
In a Nutshell: A man contemplates infidelity with an old acquaintance.

Éric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, brought a decidedly textured approach to film’s exploration of sexuality. Though Rohmer’s work comes is less interested in experimentation (or titillation for that matter), and more for putting our emotional battles under the microscope. Love in the Afternoon (the final Moral Tale) involves Frédéric (Bernard Verley), a man with a good job, happy marriage and two adorable children. This is a fine life and Frédéric knows it, but he enjoys the fleeting thrill of flirting with other women. Soon he finds his magnetism wearing off, just as Chloé (Zouzou) comes back into his life. The bohemian flame of a friend (with no love lost between them), she seeks a job at Frédéric’s firm as a way to get her feet on the ground. The two soon develop a relationship (close though sexless) that takes a different turn when Chloé asks Frédéric to be the father of her child.

What could have congealed into a sex war allegory is instead refined naturalism with no clear battle lines. Surely Frédéric is no deviant even as we meet him fantasizing magical ways of ensnaring women on the street. He misses the feeling of repeated first loves while suffocating in marriage. He even categorizes his women, radiating an old calm over own actions. While Frédéric speaks to the sexually restless, Rohmer’s camera never judges. Nor Chloé. She knowingly offers herself as an emotional challenge to Frédéric, but she is hardly “the temptress”. A washed-up model and ex-trophy wife, Chloé seems aloof to her own insecurities, but confident in her abilities. A bit of a mess, but hardly a villain. Strength in character detail encapsulated Rohmer’s career; this movie is just one good example. Frédéric’s decision goes beyond lust into a study of what stability can mean for our own happiness. How Frédéric finds that happiness only demonstrates the simple beauty of love coming full circle.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Masculin, feminin (1966)

Directed by Jean-Luc Godard.
Starring Jean-Pierre Léaud and Chantal Goya.
In a Nutshell: An idealistic youth chases an up-and-coming pop singer.

In its own way, Masculin, feminine plays a similar function in Godard’s oeuvre as Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Retaining just enough objectivity, both films portray the social and political maelstroms of their times. They stoke the wistful fantasies of its first audience, while leaving insight for its detached viewers. Though Godard’s commentaries are hardly straightforward; here on the culture born of French New Wave. “La Nouvelle Vague” famously birthed Truffaut’s 400 Blows where Jean-Pierre Léaud’s troubled youth insolated himself within the movies and Godard’s Breathless where Jean-Paul Belmondo’s criminal aped Humphrey Bogart. Now, we have Léaud as Paul, another film-lover who occasionally impersonates Belmondo impersonating Bogart. In between political discussions and small revolutions, Paul pursues Madeleine (Chantal Goya), a yé-yé singer groomed for the teenybopper crowd.

Paul and Madeleine are a curious pairing; he a child of Marx, she of Coca-Cola. The two size each other up, feigning indifference to a love they cannot define. The battle of the sexes is compounded by three more, though Godard does not push the quintet towards allegory. Even outside of the bedroom, Paul lives a life that is both movie fiction and that fiction’s reflection; hedonistic in a chaotic world. Non-sequiturs buzz about the frame’s edge, punctuated by empty gunshots. Filmed as cinéma vérité, its collection of scenes and interviews feel improvised. The film breathes; its observations about war, love, film and the like do not feel like statements, but experiences. Godard holds the immediacy to youthful introspection even when names and events have dated. Godard displays intrigue for this generation of restless, yearning narcissism. In between snatches of essayist musings, Masculin, feminine hints at a more loving ode for its characters and their cinema-seeped lives. How else could Godard regard his own children?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Lola (1981)

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Starring Barbara Sukowa and Armin Mueller-Stahl.
In a Nutshell: A building commissioner falls for the mistress of a corrupt developer.

Lola should have been the moment when Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career peaked. Nimbly avoiding muddy pastiche, Lola mixes satire, melodrama and a world-bitten cynicism into a charming caricature of class struggle politics. It takes its material to extremes, skipping an overt manipulation on Fassbinder’s part, while slyly deconstructing bourgeois under its audience’s nose. The film takes place in a post-WWII West Germany town, governed by amorality. Its contractors and businessmen hustle money from town officials for “reconstruction” purposes. Enter Von Bohm (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a building commissioner deemed un-corruptible thanks to a principled idealism (and just a touch of naivety). Von Bohm’s methods bring fear to the crooked, namely Schuckert (Mario Adorf). He complains to his mistress, a cabaret singer and prostitute named Lola (Barbara Sukowa), implying that such a woman would be beneath Von Bohm. Shuckert bets that Lola would not be able to court Von Bohm. She does, though their relationship grows faster than either would have predicted.

A vibrant palette and slow burning love story do little to take out the bite of Lola’s send-up of the post-war values. The distinctions do not offset each other, just a dark undertone to the dreamy, candy-coated festivities. And they are quite festive. Adorf is delightfully incorrigible while Mueller-Stahl’s can convey a wistful innocence with only his ice-blue gaze. Both are little match for Sukowa’s run of the emotional gamut. To balance so many facets of her character (dedicated mother, wounded mistress, ambitious social climber while both ashamed and empowered through her prostitution) risks the same tonal mess of the rest of the film. Sukowa more than succeeds; her rendition of “The Fisherman of Capri” at a key discovery is a masterpiece of frenzied insecurity.

Its other values aside, Lola’s biggest attraction is still Fassbinder’s auteurism. Lola, Von Bohm and Schuckert are portrayed as multi-dimensional while still acting allegorically. Their stories and interactions work in the same manner; humanism coloring in historical observation. This way, Lola shirks the obvious sentimentality of pat conclusions about its people or time. Fassbinder just tells us a story, flourished with honest human detail. Unfortunately, what should have been the height of Fassbinder’s career became his antepenultimate after drug-induced heart failure. But Lola can be lovingly regarded as his archetypal Fassbinder. Sheer joy, blunt characterization, a dark satirical aftertaste and everything else Fassbinder; a cornerstone of a peerless career.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Buffalo ‘66 (1998)

Directed by Vincent Gallo.
Starring Vincent Gallo and Christina Ricci.
In a Nutshell: An ex-convict kidnaps a dancer en route to extracting revenge.

Buffalo ‘66 is a film worthy of Vincent Gallo’s irregular career; raw emotion with fantastic bursts of creative filmmaking, if short of cohesion. It is a film about unrequited love, but not necessarily a “relationship film”. We become steeped into a character’s desire for revenge, but it is not a “revenge film” either. While it has a driven plot, Buffalo ‘66 is far more enamored in the details, small moments that bring its protagonist to his conclusion. Gallo plays Billy Brown, a man who served time after botching a bet on the Buffalo Bills. Once paroled, he aims to murder the Bills’ placekicker. From the opening scene of Billy pleading to use the prison bathroom, Gallo risks turning Billy into a grating pile of tics. Gallo’s whiny demeanor and volatile reactions certainly succeed in defining Billy as a damaged, unctuous creep. Not the sort who would immediately garner our sympathies, particularly when he kidnaps dance student Layla (Christina Ricci).

Billy forces Layla to pose as his wife (named for a schoolyard crush) so he could show off for his oafish parents (Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston). It is a task that Layla takes with an odd confidence, improvising within the role in a way that unexpectedly charms Billy’s parents. This section was shot in Gallo’s own childhood home, with the caricatured portrayals of Billy’s parents a focused chord of malice at Gallo’s own upbringing. Whether renewed with a found sympathy or afflicted with Stockholm syndrome, Layla attempts to connect with Billy and draw him away from his vengeful goal. But even then, Buffalo ‘66 does seek to become a “redemption film.”

No, this film refuses to be placed in a certain box and is all the better for it. It exists as a string of scenes where Gallo and Ricci explore their characters; lost souls who find solace in each other simply through their own company. Gallo’s Billy swings from dejected, to malicious, to wounded with a jittery grace; Ricci’s Layla is similarly childish and lonely, but wonderfully defines a character, rather than a plot device. Aside from Gallo’s attention to emotional detail, he employs a nice variety of techniques including frames within frames, an Ozu-style framing and even a pivoting freeze-frame that predates The Matrix. These could be gratuitous stunts without any resonance to Billy’s turmoil, a fine example of Gallo’s skill as a director. Undeniably unconventional, Buffalo ‘66 burns with a memorable emotional urgency. A hard film to shake off.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich.
Starring Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges.
In a Nutshell: Two boys mature in a dying Texas small town.

Anarene, Texas is a lonely town, one caught at the mercy of time’s rapidity. Its small-town pleasures have degraded into dilapidated touchstones of a forgotten era; a pool hall, café and matinee theater. There is little to do, and no way out except the war, sex or death. As Anarene recedes into the dust, its citizens conduct passionless affairs or glue themselves to their televisions. The Last Picture Show sadly observes our fleeting mythologies while dreading the banal future. It is simply told and tenderly realized. When the movie theater closes after a final screening of Red River, its characters effectively lose the Western myth that has sustained its past. Embodying this loss is Ben Johnson’s Sam the Lion, owner of Anarene’s three attractions. He reminisces on his glory days with melancholy fondness; little else is worth living for.

Peter Bogdanovich, a disciple of John Ford and Orson Welles, sinks into the era in a way that far surpasses a few pop tunes on the soundtrack. Sexual and social issues dot the characters’ lives without heightening to melodrama. There are mild laughs and searing confessions within the characters’ foibles and exploits. Everyone may grope for meaning in their pointless lives, but never without Bogdanovich’s sympathetic lens. As two good ol’ boys, Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges appeal to our good-natured sensibilities; in the wake of crushed football dreams and the verge of sexual discovery.

The camera's view of Anarene rarely rises above the skyline, keeping us caught in the human drama. Even as it evoked moods and values that were two decades prior to its audience, it hardly feels dated. What Anarene loses besides the Western myth (supported by its movies) is community. A finale death of one of its inhabitants only deepens the riff between its citizens, how alien each has become. The Last Picture Show is painful, honest and eager to embrace the clumsiness of its relationships. To continually laud its images and acting might veer into redundancy. A perfect evocation, frozen in time.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lolita (1962)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Starring James Mason and Shelley Winters.
In a Nutshell: A professor becomes infatuated with his teenaged stepdaughter.

Anyone familiar with the salacious and sardonic novel by Vladimir Nabokov knows the risks Stanley Kubrick faced in bowdlerizing to appease early 60’s sensibilities. Kubrick’s movie descends into sexual desire, infused with a tone both sly and dispiriting (but never at the same time). The movie begins with the book’s tragic ending. An air of pathos hangs over the movie, allowing us to observe literature professor Humbert Humbert’s (James Mason) pursuit of Lolita (Sue Lyon) with greater distance. Call it the Kubrick touch. Mason is perfectly cast as a man who regards his own perversion with bemusement, then ignores the warning signs anyway. The history of Humbert’s nymphet infatuation is now ordinary lust, inspiring pity and a knowing grin rather than disgust.

The emotional swings of Humbert’s tryst with Lolita more than account for the sharp tonal contrasts. Unfortunately, the censors may have had their way in muting any eroticism; all that is left are dark humor and middle-aged angst to grip the viewer. Tighter editing could have eliminated superfluous, if funny, scenes that cost the movie an appropriate curtness (too many involve Peter Sellers’ as a slippery playwright; a funny performance, but deserving of a different showcase). Rare for a Kubrick film to feature such extroverted acting; Mason’s flawless portrayal is given plenty of strong support. Newcomer Lyon balances petulance and callousness with ease while Shelley Winters fills her punchline role of Lolita’s needy, psuedo-cultured mother with an earthly charm.

A true adaptation may have been out of Kubrick’s grasp during past censorship, but finds the film’s own footing in obsession. A few slapsticky and superfluous scenes are championed by more meaningful moments; the emotional beats between Mason and his co-stars are wonderfully realized. Nabokov’s probing narration loses its voice, keeping perversion at bay. By the end, Humbert’s downfall has become more uncomfortable than his obsessions. We mourn his loss even if we cannot truly enter Humbert’s amoral psyche. One wonders if a censor-free Kubrick could have given a greater (if uncomfortable) depth to Humbert and Lolita’s relationship, but the film remains a stimulating treat.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Punch Drunk Love (2002)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson.
In a Nutshell: A mentally unstable man falls in love while deflecting an extortion scheme.

The comedy of Adam Sandler, built on humiliation and unforeseen bursts of hostility, has never been universally loved. Critics have dismissed for cajoling its viewers into laughing at Sandler for those qualities, including his outward attacks on the film’s proposed villian. Such forms the basis for Paul Thomas Anderson’s delightfully off-kilter romance, Punch Drunk Love. Sandler plays his usual persona, with Anderson exploiting those unsettling undertones. Barry Egan, a salesman of novelty items, is the product of years of repression and sibling bulling. He is lonely, prone to odd obsessions, and incapable of expressing himself outside of uncontrolled sobbing and violent outbursts. An ill-conceived phone sex call threatens Barry with extortion, goading Barry’s unpredictable nature. But Barry’s life begins anew once he meets the shy and mysterious Lena (Emily Watson).

Previous Anderson films have coyly aped past directorial trademarks. Now the homage is genre-specific; Hollywood (pre-irony) romance with a shot of psychological darkness. It is an erratic pairing, which Anderson illustrates with a Technicolor palette, jittery cuts and soundtrack cues, and the swooning glide of each tracking shot. Such are the details that enliven a script that feels intentionally underwritten. Particularly Lena; is she too timid to offer anything but unconditional support or is the on-screen Lena just Barry’s interpretation? Theirs is a love that takes an open-minded audience to fill in the blanks.

A brisker affair than the typical Anderson picture, Punch Drunk Love is still a genre experiment (film romance and the undercurrents of uncomfortable comedy) rather than conceived as a character study. Sandler and Anderson give an unrelenting portrayal of the anger and fear of one bordering on illness, without becoming cinematic psychiatrists. As a romance, it lets Barry’s hopefulness and ecstasy run equally amok, and the film becomes as joyful as a MGM musical. Anderson has crafted one 90-minute emotional high, sold with panache and more visual creativity than the most accomplished of romance films. Like the harmonium that appears before Barry in the opening minutes, it is puzzling and delicate, while yielding something as pure as those first plunked notes.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Brazil (1985)

Directed by Terry Gilliam.
Starring Jonathan Pryce and Kim Greist.
In a Nutshell: An office drone unravels a terrorist plot while perusing his dream woman.

Our filmmaking industry needs more Terry Gilliams, and perhaps Gilliam needs more of the industry. As a filmmaker, Gilliam is dependably imaginative and commendable in his pictures’ scope but can trip on visual and thematic overload. Perhaps that criticism is unnecessary; this sort of unchecked invention is precisely what films should be for, even the worst ones. Brazil is at once his most extravagant and most focused, a comic distortion of dystopia. At its heart, it is the story of a dreamer in a world of steel and paranoia. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) toils at a low-level government job while fantasizing of flight, monsters and a beautiful woman (Kim Griest). Sam finds his muse to be Jill, the neighbor of a suspected terrorist. Jill becomes the government’s target when she correctly accuses the bureaucrats of apprehending the wrong man.

Nary does a futuristic touchstone go untouched by Gilliam’s lens. Terrorism, consumerism, the monotony of office work and the needless intricacy of household appliances are scorn to Gilliam’s deadpan wit. Its darkest themes of government propaganda do not disappear so much as they become shrouded in absurdity. Brazil’s aesthetic is born of 40’s era optimism. Every backdrop flaunts its steam-powered artifice to excessiveness for further comic effect.

This muddle is weighed by the wistful dreams of Lowry, a venue for more Gilliam-esque visuals while gracing the delicate hopes to escape it all. It is a sad note that follows the film to the very last frame. Of Gilliam’s Imagination Trilogy, Lowry’s plight cuts deepest, if only by having the most horrid world to escape from. Much can still be lauded over in Brazil; Michael Palin deserves accolades for his work as a nice guy who just happens to be a torturer. Its overstuffed script and mise-en-scène can sacrifice coherency for creativity, redeemed by Gilliam’s eagerness and the humanism of Lowry. A studio head or some outside collaborator could have reigned in Brazil’s excess. But it wouldn’t be this movie.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Faust (1994)

Directed by Jan Švankmajer.
Starring Petr Čepek and Jan Kraus.
In a Nutshell: A man becomes trapped in a stage production of Faust.

The story of Faust has been retold countless times, inviting any fresh perspectives. Surrealist animator Jan Švankmajer’s version may not delve into the psychology of Faust but is unique in its own charms. His adaptation is not a straight retelling; rather an Everyman (amusingly deadpan Petr Čepek) traps himself in a curiously sinister stage production of the tale. The man assumes the role of Faust, becoming a life-size marionette for the play’s unseen, God-like director. As the man scoffs at his predicament, gladly sealing his own fate, the play starts blurring the lines of reality. The puppet co-stars continue the show off-stage, from the streets to a sunny Eden-esque meadow. While Faust is tortured, Švankmajer amuses us with cutaways to Faust’s audience, even during intermission.

Švankmajer’s offbeat sensibilities are the film’s strongest point; the puppet and stop motion oddities play like Pee Wee’s Playhouse written by Franz Kafka. But Švankmajer seems all too happy to fill the screen with his oddities and little more. Faust is too lengthy and too surface-weird to stick in the mind. Švankmajer has stated that his Faust’s manipulation is a commentary on the spread of capitalism. Čepek’s induction into the stage production (with accompanying audience) may speak of the parts we unwittingly play before the passive masses. But the film only grazes these themes, content with stretching its visuals over a too-long 90 minutes. Too obscure for some, but fans of the surreal will need little persuasion to check out Švankmajer’s Faust.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Directed by Charles Laughton.
Starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters.
In a Nutshell: Two children guard their father’s fortune from a serial killer.

The Night of the Hunter is a film unique in its isolation, being the debut and swan song of Charles Laughton’s directorial career. It is a shining example of unpolished experimentation, and its flaws are easily trumped by Laughton’s creativity and vigor. A hybrid of Gothic folk tale and children’s horror, the film follows frighteningly eloquent murderer and faux-preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) out to claim a fortune hidden by his former cellmate. He preys on the man’s widow (Shelley Winters), but only the children (Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce) know where the money is stashed. Powell stalks the children through a rural America, shot by Stanley Cortez into nightmarish abstraction. In this world, adults are weak, petty or cruel (save Lillian Gish’s hardened evangelist) with only childhood innocence as a means to survive.

As a remnant of Hollywood’s Golden age, the tone and scenery are impressively exaggerated, either as a child’s eye view or classic cinematic distortion. Unfortunately the third act, that rescues the children from Powell’s treachery, shifts into Sunday school treacle about Good versus Evil. The final scene belongs in a starkly different movie, though perhaps Laughton was providing relief to his honorable characters. Though it leaves little beyond unequivocal pretense, the innovation to the imagery and performances creates its own nuances. Mitchum brings a fascinating understanding to the character of Powell, a man who finds his cleverness as an absolution to his depravity. Chapin and Bruce have fine naturalistic instincts, but a few stagy moments betray Laughton’s confidence.

Covering so many film styles (German expressionism, fantasy, documentary, etc) can make it easy to regard the film as artless or self-conscious. With themes of little texture, it is that willingness to push the movie into unique territories that remain its most enduring aspect. At its core, the movie is a world through the virtue of children; any social critiques of small-town values and the Christian faith barely leave the film’s edges. Haunting at best, artificial at worst, The Night of the Hunter is a production unafraid to veer into unexpected directions to culminate into the perfect child’s nightmare. It pulsates with enough unbridled artistry to wonder the sort of auteur Laughton could have become.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

8½ (1963)

Directed by Federico Fellini.
Starring Marcello Mastroianni and Claudia Cardinale.
In a Nutshell: A film director struggles to find inspiration for his next project.

Has there ever been a movie more in tune with life than Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8½? Bursting with Fellini’s inventive style and essayist human turmoil, it has remained unequaled as the top movie about moviemaking. As a landmark in Fellini’s career, it displays a confidence and grace that eluded his later, overly-flourished work. 8½ tells the story of celebrated director Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), consumed and bored by his vices, searching for meaning in his latest movie. Unbeknown to his financers, actors, and confidents, Guido has yet to overcome his crippling director’s block. As he buckles under the strain, Guido’s psyche is explored through his reality, memory and dreams.

To uncover the neurosis of ambition and human anxiety is a daunting task, one that Fellini ironically has no issues rising to. Fellini and his camera glide through 8½’s many famous set pieces, blending memory with fantasy. Even Guido’s real life (played like a crumbling aftermath to La Dolce Vita’s hedonistic Hell) bustles with an infectious rhythm, aided by the many musicians and bands that float into view. That the film ends in a parade is only too perfect, a vision of Guido’s relief. Guido has his troubles (surely a reflection of Fellini’s own), but why settle for dourness? He delights in the baroque, fashioning outsize sets and colorful characters to illustrate Guido’s mind. Even regarded as simple visuals, it is a triumph of cinematic expression.

This sounds like a celebration of a man’s creative strife, and perhaps it is. Guido/Fellini is not asking for forgiveness, but to embrace the chaos. Guido/Fellini leave space to ponder the meaning their ambitions have on their lives, the poignancy that stops 8½ from becoming an inert pile of whimsy. The real beauty is how real Guido is to our own selves. He hides, lies, romanticizes and repeatedly yearns for his carefree days as a child. 8½ is less about director’s block (or Fellini’s invention) than the measure of one’s life and the roles we play. A searing introspection, diffused with the visual flair of purest escapism. A masterstroke of cinema, encapsulating life at its most turbulent.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Uma Thurman and David Carradine.
In a Nutshell: An assassin seeks to confront her would be-killer/ex-lover.

More talky than violent, Volume 2 of Quentin Tarantino’s saga is an admirable attempt to rein in the first volume’s chop-socky brutality for a quieter resonance. Loftier goals to be sure, but Tarantino’s indulgences work more against his aims for Volume 2. A few footnotes on the first volume are sufficient to catch any viewer up to Volume 2; The Bride (Uma Thurman) has defeated half of the Assassination Squad that massacred her wedding (seen in flashback). On the way towards defeating the rest, she will reunite with her daughter (presumed dead before birth) and Bill (David Carradine), her ex-master, ex-lover, father of her child, and orchestrator of her would-be murder.

Tarantino clearly loves his characters and treats the Bride and Bill’s relationship with care. Thurman and Carradine give toughened, subtle performances to illustrate a deeper history and dimension. Expected of any Tarantino film, there is dialogue, heavy with faux-Eastern burnishes. Though with a film with a clear need for momentum, long passages of talk only sandbag and lack the bite of his earlier features. Volume 1 may have been a thin update of trash, but had the kinetic skills to flirt with its own origins. Now, Tarantino’s portrayal of motherly anguish and betrayal spills out in turgid, self-mocking passages of “sophisticated” geek-speak. The production of Kill Bill suggested that this dissonance between the two volumes was organic. Both productions are still overly indulgent, one livelier than the other. Volume 2 is a worthy effort, but exists in a different universe than its first volume, where Tarantino’s bracing love of films can shatter its boundaries.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Starring Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu.
In a Nutshell: An assassin, left for dead by her former allies, seeks revenge.

Perhaps the most forceful element of Quentin Tarantino’s two-part revenge drama is not the geysers of blood, or the Girl Power, or the eclectic, genre-bridging soundtrack. Kill Bill may be the purest expression of cinema love from the industry’s top cinema geek. Tarantino famously loves his movies without irony and affectionately uses Kill Bill to distort and pay homage to “trash” genres (kung-fu, spaghetti western, giallo, etc). Volume 1 (occurring between Volume 2’s events) has little going for it besides fight scenes and bursts of lavish storytelling. This can come off as self-indulgent, but Tarantino is having too much fun with his toys to care. Ultra-violent to be sure, though Kill Bill arguably does not glorify its violence. It glorifies cinematic glorifications of violence with enough sense to not be gruesome.

Despite being produced as one film, Volume 1 carries a starkly different presence. Free of any backstory or conclusion, it is just gleeful exercises of cinematic embellishment. Kill Bill’s relentless flourishes can leave the emotional base (a mother’s anger over her child) out of Tarantino’s grasp. Though that may be beyond the “point” of Volume 1’s ambitions to honor excess cinema. Any narrative incoherence, cartoonish consequence or stilted acting free becomes instantly free from criticism with Tarantino’s imagination left to run amok. Too many scenes of geek worship (e.g. a cameo by martial arts legend Sonny Chiba) or sickening subtext (some business with a slimy male nurse) detract from the film’s spryness. But overall, Kill Bill Vol. 1 remains unfettered with a skilled command of cinematic joy. Undeniably self-indulgent, but fun nonetheless.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves.
In a Nutshell: A prostitute searches for his mother with his unrequited crush.

An odd blend of storytelling, My Own Private Idaho is a loose reworking of Shakespeare’s Henry IV framed inside its own tale of lost love. Like its narcoleptic protagonist Mike Waters (a puppyish River Phoenix), the movie is detached from ordinary conventions, making life an abridged, waking dream. His condition is detrimental to his life as a prostitute, but finds companionship with fellow hustler Scott Favor (Keanu Reeves). Scott’s prostitution serves to defy his parents, knowing he can reclaim his wealth at the right time. Mike falls hopelessly in love with the confident Scott, and the two make a trip to find Mike’s mother in Idaho.

The film was released during the height of the AIDS hysteria, but decides to ignore this and forgo condemnation of male prostitution. Stripping the environment of this criticism, Gus Van Sant can bury into the aimless of street youths and Mike’s longing for Scott. Employing the Shakespeare concept is an inspired touch, Scott playing Prince Hal with the grungy mentor Bob (William Richert) as Falstaff. Besides the role-playing, some of Shakespeare’s language is garnished to fit Scott and Bob’s life. Though it only amounts to a cute parallel with Reeves’ hollow delivery underlining the (albeit amusing) artifice.

When the film centers on Mike, it becomes tender and visually poetic. Sped-up shots of desolate landscape and grainy home-movie flashbacks convey the surrealism of Mike’s inner thoughts. His travels with Scott have a truncated, episodic nature to fit his narcoleptic state, which fail to drive any story momentum. The shapeless narrative swirls around Phoenix’s deeply felt portrayal of innocent yearning, the only anchor among Van Sant’s abrupt style shifts. When Van Sant is not enamored with his Shakespeare parallels, My Own Private Idaho perfectly adopts Mike’s sadness. Mike’s unconscious and reality become one; we do not move with him, but drift. Van Sant may have made an aimless film, but its melancholy resonates.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

L’eclisse (1962)

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni.
Starring Alain Delon and Monica Vitti.
In a Nutshell: A woman leaves her lover and drifts into an affair with a stockbroker.

L’eclisse marks the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s trilogy following the dissolve of modern relationships. It follows similar themes of alienation and the cold affront of modern technology. His discomfort with the world’s direction is all the more heightened; Rome’s architecture is photographed like the cities of a science fiction movie. Equally disaffected is Vittoria, played by Antonioni regular Monica Vitti. After a fight with her writer beau (Francisco Rabal), she breaks off their affair but is unable express why. Before meeting the cocky stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon), Vittoria wanders the land, finding comfort outside of the city and within her imagination. Her eventual meeting with Piero reveals an indecisiveness that gradually fades, though far from true affection. Their love is surface, and this shallow attraction is one of the few emotions that technology has yet to erase.

Dialogue is so sparse that L’eclisse could affect as a silent film. Love does not go unsaid; Vittoria and Piero have no honest feelings to articulate. Antonioni studies the banality of their relationship with careful detail. Their moments together are disjointed as if the narrative keeps choking on any momentum. Both characters share most of their scene separately and do not appear to inhibit the same world. Antonioni’s commentary on Piero’s life turns the stock exchange into a hermetically-sealed pit of chaos. Vittoria’s world is quieter, but one where she desires to escape (she uses blackface to try identifying with an African woman in a reference to the Second Italo–Abyssinian War). When the two meet, the small beats in their talk linger long enough to ring hollow.

Vittoria and Piero follow the path of every doomed Antonioni romance, with unrealized explanation. L’eclisse is more refined than the previous Incommunicability films in presenting the destroying power of environment, not just its people. We do not know explicitly what compelled Vittoria to distance herself from her lovers, and Antonioni wisely avoids blunt answers. He frequently holds our attention on the couple, daring us to weigh their relationship against their vacuous world. Shot with equal beauty and cold sterility, L’eclisse quietly comments on humanity’s loss granted by modern life. A poetic stroke of human instability.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

In the Mood for Love (2000)

Directed by Wong Kar-wai.
Starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu Wai.
In a Nutshell: The spouses of an adulterous couple find solace in each other.

To watch In the Mood for Love is like experiencing a memory. There are deep, regretful yearnings, a lush palette with time moving at a standstill. It is Wong Kar-wai’s story of two well-off neighbors living in Hong Kong, pre-1966 Riots. After a few encounters, both discover that their spouses have been carrying on an affair. Through an initially platonic relationship, they soothe their wounds together. They even devise imaginary scenarios of their spouses’ adultery in an attempt to reject their growing attraction. There is a sensual charge in the air, pulling them closer together, but neither one can break their moral stance. "For us to do the same thing, would mean we are no better than they are."

There relationship is achingly unconsummated with little progression from their meeting to their parting. What Wong understands is the power of setting and tone to feel the same longings as the characters. He follows the characters in eroticised slow motion, to no apparent payoff. Shots will inexplicably repeat, some will quickly fade or linger on minute details. There is no “meaning” but the dream-like quality this pacing brings, heightened by its elegant, melancholy atmosphere. Presented as a recollection, their relationship gathers a certain purity, remaining distant while treasuring its fleeting intimacy.

As the would-be lovers Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung are effortless in their character’s understated sadness. The artistry of their performances mixes with William Chang’s set and costumes to produce a beautifully fragility. This dissolves at the end where the film catches up with its characters, both have moved on from their courtship and living in a more tumultuous world. In the Mood for Love’s pacing, lighting, and visual design is stylized to the point of fetish. But few films have successfully used these elements to recreate the pain of a lost experience. Through the epilogue, time’s progression ensures that Mr. Chow and Mrs. Chan’s love can never happen again; too much has changed. In the Mood for Love is haunted by the regrets of our past, crystallizing its beauty with a bearable sadness.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Videodrome (1983)

Directed by David Cronenberg.
Starring James Woods and Sonja Smits.
In a Nutshell: A TV executive discovers a disturbing program intent on mind-control.

While Network took a sharpened, satirical look at television’s dehumanizing effects, Videodrome takes the concept to grotesque extremes. In true David Cronenberg form, television is presented as literal mind-control for the perverted and masochistic. Rick Baker’s imaginative special effects appropriately disgust. The human link navigating through is James Woods’ Max Renn, the president of a TV station that broadcasts softcore pornography. His sleaziness is of job-necessity. One of Max’s workers discovers Videodrome, a broadcast signal showing torture and murder. Believing it to be faux-snuff TV, Max eagerly pirates the show, hoping it will attract a wider audience. Max’s search for Videodrome’s origins uncovers a more sinister ideology behind the broadcasts. Originally developed as a way to supplement real-life with television, Videodrome became a system for controlling the minds of smut-obsessed Americans through tumors formed in the viewer’s brain.

Max aims to destroy Videodrome from within in a bizarre finale that blurs reality for the viewer and Max. The film narrowly avoids sinking in its own confusion thanks to Cronenberg’s sly execution. He ruthlessly attacks television as a means of exploitation and hypnosis. It is metaphorically broad and very gross, but allows Cronenberg’s disgust to peal. Max invariably belongs in this corrupt universe, but Woods avoids caricature allowing us to find our own twisted desires and desperations in him. The story veers into science fiction while linking to modern-day consumerism. Most telling is Max’s refuge in a church that offers the homeless television as a way to “stay connected” to the larger world. In this world, you can either shun TV and become an outsider or enslave yourself to its powers. Videodrome is hardly subtle, but Cronenberg knows how to give a memorable skewering of the modern day.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Network (1976)

Directed by Sidney Lumet.
Starring Faye Dunaway and William Holden.
In a Nutshell: A TV network exploits an insane news anchor for ratings.

For a film like Network not to collapse under its own thematic weight is no easy task. Ample praise has been doled out to Paddy Chayefsky’s script, seeping with bitterness, and the performances of the ensemble cast, all knocking out their Oscar moments with skill. But it is Sidney Lumet who keeps the movie’s gears from overworking themselves. Network attacks not only the television medium but also the divide of generational values, capitalism, sexism, social class, and on and on. Some of it played for laughs, other issues have the characters literally screaming at the viewer. Lumet strikes a realistic tone early on, inching slowly towards destruction. Never too much content at too fast a pace, allowing Lumet to balance Chayefsky’s bile with more humanistic undertones.

That is not to say the movie is merciful to its audience or characters. The catalyst for the plot is the breakdown of new anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch). Fired for low ratings, he threatens to commit suicide on the air. Ratings shoot up prompting the show’s producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) to build a programming circus to complement Beale’s increasing madness. The old-fashioned news executive Max Schumacher (William Holden) loses his career and finds himself sucked into an affair with the icy Diana. Characters are either ruthlessly ambitious or become (unfairly) dragged down by TV’s soulless mechanisms. That these two groups are exclusive to each generation is surely no accident on Chayefsky’s part.

Network has an appealing dark edge that did not distance the audiences that Chayefsky was attacking. As much as the film attacks the broadcasting process, it is the viewers who support the market for such garbage that are scathed the most. Beale may be the clearest voice in a station full of inane blandness, but to the end, he continues to play ball in the network’s ratings game. At least until a higher calling drives him completely over the edge. If Network’s ending feels unsatisfying, it is hard to wonder how Chayefsky could have reined his viewpoints into a tidy conclusion. But it is just as well; thirty-five years and Network only becomes timelier.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Boogie Nights (1997)

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
Starring Mark Wahlberg and Julianne Moore.
In a Nutshell: A high school dropout becomes a porn sensation, falls into drug addiction.

The late 70’s, early 80’s period of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights takes a look back at the glory years of indulgence. Everyone was burned out on their own pleasures without daring to peek at their own emptiness. The music and movies, meant to simulate the public’s hedonism had a plastic feel, even when done in earnest. It is a tricky line to recreate the pleasures of a shallow, if glitzy, life. But Boogie Nights lovingly relishes in the campy fun while uncovering the characters’ miserable lives. It is neither silly, nor gloomy; just a faithful recreation of every high and low. At the center of the impressively Altman-esque is rising porn superstar Dirk Diggler (né Eddie Adams) played by Mark Wahlberg (Anderson makes good use of the actor’s callowness). He is discovered by Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), a patriarchal director eager to test the artistic boundaries of porn. Diggler instantly rises to the top and fills his days with sex, cocaine, muscle cars, and suede clothing like an overprivileged kid at a toy store.

After a first half that revels in 70’s fun without irony, the film takes a dark shift. There are expected dramatic themes of drugs, death and abuse. What Anderson gives the most weight is the way the characters’ futile dreams have ended. Horner and his actors mistake their work for artistic credibility. Once real life interrupts the party, they refuse to confront their self-damage while society threatens to marginalize them. It is a credit that Anderson juggles the lives of so many diverse characters without showing how hard the screenplay is sweating.

Anderson delights in the attention to period detail and nails the mediocre production values and delusions that follow Dirk’s career. His only weakness is a tendency to be overly proud of his skill, lifting shots from other movies (e.g. Goodfellas, Soy Cuba) and overusing gaudy era-appropriate songs to add some extra flash. But perhaps that is the point; using excess stylistically is appropriate in portraying this lifestyle. By the movie’s end, Anderson has debased the lifestyle, but not its people. Even with too much human drama to spread, its compassion shines in its own unconventional way. As humane as it is exhilarating, Boogie Nights is a loving testament to artistic folly and the fleeting joys of a value-free life.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

Directed by Nicholas Ray.
Starring James Dean and Natalie Wood.
In a Nutshell: A defiant suburban teenager handles life’s difficulties.

The kids in Rebel Without a Cause did not have rough upbringings. They did not have poverty, gang warfare or social prejudice to take to bed every night. And yet, their world is a wasteland of violence and confusion, open only to emptiness and rejection. Director Nicholas Ray often employs the rebellious and tormented protagonist, now in modern youth, where such feelings are the most potent. Here he has found a unique id in James Dean’s Jim Stark. An iconic crystallization of teen angst, Dean navigates through a suburb of kids who have been abandoned by their parents, leaving them searching for answers. So they fight, they drink, they perform reckless stunts to impress each other. While a clear finger is pointed at parental guidance at the kid’s behavior, there is an unarticulated rawness to the movie’s self-expression. It offers no clear solutions, which cuts through dated melodrama to unveil a direct look at suburban youth culture.

The film’s iconic visage belongs to Dean, even if time has weakened his contribution. Nowadays, it is easy to see Dean’s acting as Brando-light at worst, green at best. Dean is admirable for going against the grain though his style is oddly mannered. His cohorts include Natalie Wood’s Judy, the actress unburdened by her late-career artifice, and Sal Mineo’s Plato, whose performance suggests overt gay overtones. Once freed from the cruel gang and their distant parents, the three form an alternate family to bury their household angst. It is an innocent interlude before the climax, showing Ray’s compassion for the needs of these delinquents. Early criticisms of the movie’s glorification of rebellion should have been wise to examine this scene’s support of domestic restoration.

Rebel leaves much unexamined, but maybe it never had to. Young filmgoers could fill in the blanks themselves and the film’s DNA became scattered all over American New Wave. Suburbia’s underlying darkness continues to be examined today; its impact has never truly left American subconscious. Some narrative structuring and overly broad characterizations of its adult characters date Rebel, but do not diminish. When it works, Rebel Without a Cause is remarkably truthful. A bold deconstruction of 50’s values, as powerful today as it ever was.