Saturday, March 12, 2011

On Hiatus

As mentioned in a few other outlets, I'm going on hiatus (hopefully temporary). I have enjoyed scribbling in this journal over the past two years, but right now I need the time to focus on other things. If anyone has any suggestions or comments on my writing, I would like to hear them. Otherwise I shall pick this back up in due time.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Odd Man Out (1947)

Directed by Carol Reed.
Starring James Mason and Robert Newton.
In a Nutshell: A wounded revolutionary disappears into the city, evading a manhunt.

The potential hotbed of political posturing and outlandish plot trappings quickly evaporates from one’s viewing of Odd Man Out. Before Carol Reed transformed Vienna’s war scars into an expressionist dreamscape, there was Ireland’s Belfast. Shot by Robert Krasker (also of Third Man status), the streets become a twilight-lit purgatory for its wounded protagonist. Johnny McQueen (James Mason), a notorious leader of the Irish Republican Army, is left dying at the scene of a botched robbery turned accidental murder. He struggles for catharsis and escape, rubbing up against urchins, vengeful authoritative types and a trio of the eccentric-destitute. It makes a surreal journey, not just from Johnny’s slowly ebbing life, but his disorientating exposure to the world above, heightened through baroque angles and lighting. Framed within an opposing neorealism, ally Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) keeps a cool head as she scrapes together a future for her love; fate looms ominous.

One point of interest: the IRA and Belfast are never called by name, most likely to sidestep any overt politicizing. If there is any drawback, it over-generalizes the machinations of Johnny and Kathleen. Their emotion is broadcast in sight and sound, but overall both remain too enigmatic for a narrative hinging on redemption. In that respect, the attention to subsidiary characters can feel like a grope for “meaning” with allegorical figureheads in place of realism. Still, all the more accolades for Reed and Krasker, whose work transcends the material with a visual, poetic aura. The audience feels Johnny’s debilitation beyond the physical and earthly strife, even if they cannot speak it. It stands a film of beautiful, sensory experience, in its purest form.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Touch of Evil (1958)

Directed by Orson Welles.
Starring Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh.
In a Nutshell: A corrupt sheriff and upright narcotics officer clash over a murder case.

Given a final bid at an American audience, Orson Welles pulled out all the stops for his B-movie cop-thriller noir. Panned then, acclaimed now, it offers the goods with such immense conviction that it rejects an involvement beyond admiration. It is a film that broaches themes as varied as drug enforcement, racial tension and corruption without using them for more than framework for its plot. And yet it hardly needs thematic discourse, not with such energetic filmmaking prowess on display. The plot itself is overshadowed by the ideological showdown between two investigators of a recent murder; self-righteous narcotics official Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and crooked “police celebrity” Hank Quinlan (Welles). While Vargas officiates a by-the-book approach, Quinlan is suspected of planting false evidence to incriminate the most likely suspect (who may be a target of Quinlan’s racism). Vargas suspects this as all too commonplace for Quinlan’s investigations while Quinlan is choked with bitterness, believing that his past police work let his wife’s killer go free.

Drowning in fatsuit padding, Welles makes for a memorable tyrant. His pathos is cohesive, but never in the foreground as the film calls for comeuppance without enlightenment. Again, the audience gets a plot detail rather than anything “meaningful.” But again, it hardly detracts. In fact, Touch of Evil teems with so much detail that it illuminates its own stark luridness and amoral complexity, maybe even for film noir as a whole. That famous opening shot oversees the hustle and bustle of the bordertown, zeroing in on Vargas and his bride, Susan (Janet Leigh). Their newlywed bliss is centered in a shot beginning with a bomb being wound and ending with its detonation in a car’s trunk. It is a flicker of pleasure that becomes trapped within our witness to the main crime. By the end, Susan will be brutalized by the film’s characters and marginalized by its story.

Taken as mere execution over concept, Touch of Evil exemplifies the sort of tonal and visual panache that can make film such an intoxicating medium (pardon my hyperbole). It is a film built on strokes of filmmaking, from Welles sweeping camera movements and jagged cutting to colorful bursts of acting from the stock players. Henry Mancini saturates the screen with a jazzy soundtrack that veers from sinister to vulgar to explosive rage. It is no wonder it became a staple influence of the French New Wave’s experimentation. Touch of Evil is nothing but craft, a dark, indelible testament to the surface medium.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Starring Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Magee.
In a Nutshell: A teenage hoodlum is brainwashed into rejecting immorality.

A directorial career rife with controversy, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ satire may stand as one of his most contentiously debated. Branding it Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange seems adequate for the crucial variation on Burgess’ thesis. Violence and sexual deviancy are not just youthful sins that time’s passage shall erode but traits ingrained within our very being (just as the apes evolved into violence in 2001: A Space Odyssey). We can choose to obey such instincts; the film argues that the ability to retain that choice is far more crucial than leading a chosen life of compassion. Alex (Malcolm McDowell) has made the wrong choice, beating, stealing and raping the denizens of dystopian London. Far from acting out of desperation, Alex feels an unexplainable zeal for his actions, matched only by his appreciation for Beethoven. An accidental murder lands him in jail where he volunteers for an experiment that would “cure” him of sin. Alex’s treatment is a success, but due to an unintended side effect, listening Beethoven brings on crippling sickness. A hollowed-out soul, Alex must face a future eager for his suffering.

There is a lot to love in this film including McDowell’s magnetic performance and Wendy Carlos’ bizarre score. Its thematic presentation can be a difficult experience to detach from, if only from Kubrick’s brazen manipulation of his audience. Alex is our first-person perspective, and the entire film is shaped in his morally repugnant mind. Scenes of violence and rape are distinguished by inappropriate soundtrack cues (typically classical music for an air of faux-refinement). Many of those scenes burst with vitality while several post-incarceration scenes drag from thematic repetition and over-attention to detail. Supporting performances are grotesque caricatures, with authority figures characterized as corrupt and self-interested.

All of this seems destined to elevate Alex into the only true sympathetic character. One can only ascertain Kubrick’s intentions from these elements. Alex may find joy in the pain of others, but those restricting that choice seem just as immoral (or in this context, worse). The film seems to thumb its nose at those angling to reform “instinct” but seems more willing towards juvenile condemnation than anything too probing. Its subject matter may be too polarizing to be viewed without one’s biases providing its own interpretation. But it is still admirable how Kubrick never falters in his devil’s advocacy. If you do not agree, who is he to make up your mind?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Directed by John Huston.
Starring Sterling Hayden and Louis Calhern.
In a Nutshell: A group of criminals pull off a heist with devastating consequences.

It can be said with some confidence that nearly every heist movie can be traced back here, one that owes that distinction to weakening censorship of the Production Code. Specifically this refers to the actual heist itself, a detailed centerpiece celebrated for its authenticity. Every action, every move is studied, slowly sealing the fate of the crooked men behind it all. The Asphalt Jungle is pure noir abandoning a potboiler appeal for a thesis on societal decay and amorality. Though that is markedly less engaging compared to its narrowed character focus; seasoned criminals upholding their degenerate lives with dignity, if only to escape desperation. Atalented cast of supporting actors handles the characterization; highlights include Louis Calhern as the financer wrestling with a burdensome conscience, and Sam Jaffe as the mastermind whose clipped delivery suggests an incarnation of Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Director John Huston revels in constructing the house of cards, though it may leave some finding the first act shapeless. But once the heist collapses, the plot momentum moves with crushing intensity, undoubtedly the film’s greatest strength. Despite its judgeless lens on the criminal element, it offers little authentic insight. Its portrayal of the law is no better; cops are flabby, corrupt or John McIntire’s snarling bulldog. Though such complaints feel extraneous given its necessity to the plot, one already colored by enough fine atmospheric detail. The Asphalt Jungle leaves little to chew over, but it exists beyond its moralistic musings. A well-to-do stroke of masterful Huston storytelling.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Secret Honor (1984)

Directed by Robert Altman.
Starring Philip Baker Hall.
In a Nutshell: A fictionalized portrayal of former President Nixon’s reflections.

What sort of truth can be ascertained within fiction? Particularly when it so brazenly skews well-documented fact? Secret Honor attempts this, showcasing a memoir, drunkenly dictated by Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall). The account is near-complete fabrication, but portrayed as if it could have happened. Nixon himself is not quite the man we know, more of an expansion on his public persona. Though that would in fact make him a more familiar figure than the “real” Nixon; self-righteous, bitter and willing to stand before the American people their victim. Hall treads that line between embodiment and impersonation in a similar vein, running the emotional gamut to near apoplexy (not a criticism per se, but a clear example of how jarring stage acting can sometimes feel on film). He veers from emotional high to low, dotted with sputtering digressions and unconscious profanity, expertly exposing Nixon’s wounds underneath.

Ever the dependable “actor’s director,” Altman observes with little fanfare. Though he does restate one noticeable motif; Nixon’s image in a television monitor; a parallel to his own self-created image, now washed out and trapped in recorded history. This image created by Altman, Hall and writers Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone (the latter a former lawyer for the Justice Department and the National Security Agency) is able balance both sides of the political spectrum. Nixon is still the left’s adversary, but abused by his friends on the right into a man willing to extend the Vietnam War for drug money. This Nixon can only absolve himself by his own hand and the movie presents an intriguing invention to the Watergate scandal. Without aligning with any real history, it does well to exploring the shady moral waters that run our country, and what sort of man it produced. Or could have produced and probably did anyhow.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Starring Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten.
In a Nutshell: A girl suspects that her uncle may be a serial killer.

The commercial and critical success of Rebecca and Suspicion aside, Hitchcock may have produced his first quintessential "American" film with Shadow of a Doubt. Not merely due to strength in technical elements (though there is that) but for its attention to the angst of upper-middle class suburbia (which would become increasingly heightened after the war). Being a Hitchcock film, this sets the stage for murder. Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotton) is such a man disgusted with the decedent lives of the wealthy, specifically widows. He returns to his sister’s house to hide from the authorities, reestablishing his bond with his niece Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright). Their shared namesake had evolved into what Young Charlie describes as telepathy. But Uncle Charlie’s secret life gradually comes into focus, a terror only Young Charlie can grasp.

This is the sort of suspense film not set in darkened alleyways but sunny, welcoming neighborhoods. The Newton household is gloomy, seemingly lit with just dappled sun streaks, a contrast to the bitterness seeping through Cotten’s benign façade. Though he would argue, it is dark world. Even odder peculiarities are burrowed under this all American-family, including Mr. Newton’s (Henry Travers) obsession with murder mysteries or the youngest Newton girl’s aggressively precocious (and ignored) social commentary. The progression from second act to third act keeps this worldview only as an intriguing layer to the suspense plot. But even then, a broken step or billowing car possesses an unnerving familiarity.

Young Charlie becomes the only Newton capable of exposing Uncle Charlie to the feds. Her decision is not so much a question of morals, but whether Young Charlie can bring herself to stir the calm. The ending seems dismissive of such status quo fury, but a closing shot of well-dressed ladies swaying around a ballroom (also the opening shot) demonstrates Hitchcock’s cheekiness. No matter what the script says, once you “rip the fronts off houses,” Hitchcock cannot let you unsee the swine within. It makes for a wicked coda and another fine example of this film’s dark charms.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.
Starring Brahim Hagiag and Jean Martin.
In a Nutshell: A recreation of the revolutionary battle within the Algerian War.

In 1954, native Algerians began to strike back against French colonists through urban guerilla warfare. French counter insurgency assassinated or captured the leaders of the National Liberation Front (FLN), sometimes acquiring crucial information through torture. While this culminated in a victory for the French in the city of Algiers, the countrywide uprising would help the French lose the Algerian War. Now we come to Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, a frank account of the struggle on both sides of the opposition. Pontecorvo idealizes the FLN, but the French are allowed sympathy, portrayed as dutiful men tasked with an invisible threat. Still a starkly political film, it renders its ideas without sensation thanks to its unvarnished documentary-style of filmmaking.

The film does not weigh on the struggles on any one person, but does obtain the perspectives of two peripheral characters. One is Ali la Pointe (Braham Haggiag) a petty criminal who rides the revolution wave to become one of the FLN’s most prominent figures. The second is fictional French commander Mathieu (Jean Martin) who accepts his job with taciturn resourcefulness. Ali contrasts with his callow and radical ways, ready to give plenty of malevolence to the French. Both have the necessary pathos to extend to their troops waging their own horror. Pontecorvo’s impartiality leads to extremities in Algerians’ depiction. Close-ups of innocent café patrons are shown seconds before an Algerian woman’s bomb blows them up. However, when the French detonate a terrorist’s house, the soundtrack mourns the bodies being pulled from the wreckage.

With its use of actual Algerian streets and untrained cast members, Pontecorvo is plainly looking for aesthetic realism to support its political honesty. It works, even partisan viewers can value the film’s deconstruction of the French’s strategic errors. Since its release it has been screened before military experts (including a publicized 2003 Pentagon screening) to question the efficiency of brute force and torture. Alternatively, revolutionary parties have used the film as a blueprint. Either appropriation circles back to its historical honesty, offering new answers for the next generation at war.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Raging Bull (1980)

Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Robert De Niro and Cathy Moriarty.
In a Nutshell: The life of self-destructive boxer Jake La Motta.

Like the real Jake La Motta, Raging Bull has been prized for its unforgiving, brutal nature. For a biographical film with a firm pulse on the emotions that constituted Taxi Driver’s forlorn soul (inadequacy, jealousy, hatred) it is a far more effective portrayal than a study. Much has been written about the process, and it deserves no less than the accolades previously bestowed. Perhaps its insight can only rise from the technique that Scorsese, writer Paul Schrader and Robert De Niro bring to their recreation. Even the real-life La Motta’s work as a technical advisor does not yield a picture that burrows into his mind. The insecurities portrayed are vast, complex. Could La Motta have answered these questions? Without being privy to that knowledge, one can only draw their conclusions from the screen’s output. It would be foolish to praise this film for its objectivity, but it succeeds without the need to comment or blame.

Key to this method is Jake’s many relationships with the supporting characters that play off of his intensity. To them, Jake is an angry, paranoid, dangerous brute (a very deserving view, mind you) to be engaged gingerly, then rejected after reaching rock bottom. Schrader’s script gives the surest definition of La Motta by utilizing his repeated motif of character study through solitude. La Motta’s anguished cries curse the burden of his inexplicable self-destruction. Violence and his unbearable sexual anxiety have consumed him; La Motta’s redemption does not triumph over these primeval emotions nor does it render them dormant (as the end of Taxi Driver suggests). Raging Bull’s catharsis champions our self-forgiveness, knowing that men like La Motta can never escape such feelings. It is material Scorsese never has to explain beyond the bare authenticity. The result is visceral, devastating.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sansho the Bailiff (1954)

Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi.
Starring Kinuyo Tanaka and Yoshiaki Hanayagi.
In a Nutshell: A family is cruelly separated, each member on their own journey back.

Based on Mori Ogai’s writing, Sansho the Bailiff is a tale of grand tragedy, blessed by the compassionate nature it extols. Social tyranny and divine sacrifice strike an aristocratic family, united through their redemption and love, if not on this earth. The plot unfolds simply, with its characters at odds with their own parallel suffering and catharsis. A bullying military force exiles a deputy governor for defying the draft. The governor’s wife (Kinuyo Tanaka) is sent to live elsewhere with her two children, but while en route, she loses them to kidnappers and is sold into prostitution. Under the rule of the cruel slave master Sansho (Eitarō Shindō), elder son Zushio (Yoshiaki Hanayagi) evolves into an obedient torturer while Anju (Kyōko Kagawa) continues to practice her father’s teachings, never losing hope for freedom. As she labors, Anju continually hears her mother’s voice calling for her children. The children plan for escape, setting the stage for Zushio’s salvation.

Mizoguchi opens with the quote; “This tale is set during the late Heian period an era when mankind had not yet awakened as human beings.” There is a simple directive to the characters’ portrayals; power aligns with cruelty as Zushio and Anju’s father demonstrates the foolishness of kindness within the hierarchy. True to this mythical structure, it boxes its characters into firm definitions. The titular Sansho exemplifies this. Not just as a villain who wields his influence the way his minions wield branding irons. But in his static characterization, firmly couched in his role, existing in the past, remembered only for the destruction he has caused for the present. It is a storytelling technique used throughout. Mizoguchi traps his characters within a variety of framing devices. Each sweeping camera movement defines their fate, tracking every ascension, retreat, descent or progression as a careful notation for the future. The camera also acts as storyteller, cherishing intimacy and shielding pain.

But for this entry, an excess of technical deconstruction pales behind the sheer emotive power of this film (pardon the hyperbole). Tragedy comes not just from its characters’ physical separation, but the separation from their own compassion. Its resolution may be bitter, but it celebrates our humanity and our ability to discover our compassion and find redemption. Mizoguchi has constructed a film of passion and understated delicacy, a film that can be touted as a purely emotional experience. Such cinematic beauty is almost impossible to further scrutinize. Perhaps one can justly sum it up by quoting Gilbert Adair’s proclamation, “Sansho the Bailiff is one of those films for whose sake the cinema exists…”.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Le Cercle rouge (1970)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.
Starring Alain Delon and Bourvil.
In a Nutshell: A thief enlists a murderer in a heist while pursued by the police.

Cigarettes, trench coats, fedoras, deception. Le Cercle rouge is heaven for noir fetishes, and a refreshing example of conduct for film’s sake. Its characters seem to act in spontaneous harmony like jazz musicians, all within the unspoken code of criminals. But it is fate’s will that noir’s fatalism shall bury them in the end, their fate orchestrated by its master Jean-Pierre Melville. Le Cercle rouge could be a case study of the actions of men, if such actions existed outside of the hard-boiled universe that only novels and films can entertain. Alain Delon stars as Corey, a thief who in true Alain Delon fashion, broods intensely behind a guarded blue gaze. Upon prison release, he encounters a man named Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) who escaped from the grasp of police captain Mattei (Bourvil). Corey enlists Vogel and ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand) for a heist while Mattei pressures nightclub owner Santi (François Périer) for information.

Everything unfolds and collapses for the men with Melville stripping down any frills and redundancies. Sparse mise-en-scène and clipped dialogue complements the men’s bare characterization. Even with such austere “cool” assigned to the players, Bourvil and Montand skillfully play up their respective character’s pathos, while Delon, Volonté and Périer squirm and bluff under the heat. The mannered tough-guy aesthetic makes every plot twist and coincidence feel fated, but understated enough that its artifice does not feel self-aware. It is the most advantageous stylistic move by Melville, and the folly of each man rolls out with unforced precision offering a complete view of this gangster world. Undeniably studied, but fewer films hold its internal laws to such rigor.