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Sunday, January 15, 2017

1958 - A Random Cinematic Year In Review

Preface: I have decided to write this series at least in part because I don't make it out to see new films very often and I've found that I spent too much time at the end of the year attempting to see all the big releases (many of which I'm not even interested in) for no other reason than to make an obligatory 'year end list'... This is a way that I can continue writing about films without feeling the pressure to see a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise take the time to. I'll still see most of them eventually, just on my own time. I use a random number generator to pick a year and I use to determine the actual release year.

1958 was a year that kicked of decades of exploration and wonder. Russia's SPUTNIK was joined in space by the US's first orbiting satellite, The Explorer 1. Later that year, Congress approved funding to form a civilian agency responsible for coordinating America's activities in space called the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). Cinema did not remain unchanged. The drive to explore the heavens coupled with our nation's willingness to fund said explorations (albeit our motivations were anything but purely scientific), inspired amazing works of scientific based fiction for decades to come. You can find examples of this inspiration from Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY ('68) to Ridley Scott's THE MARTIAN ('15) and a whole lot of STAR WARS & "Star Trek" in between.

In a deleted scene, the Xenomorph kept stealing Predator's stapler.

Another significant advancement in the world of technological wonder happened in 1958. The microchip (or integrated circuit) was created. The concept of miniaturizing multiple transistor circuits gave way to an entirely new direction of progress in the electronics manufacturing industry. This is the technology that would ultimately lead to the fact that you may be reading this on a device that fits into your pocket and has far more computing power than the first space shuttle.

These types of technological advances can be found in all aspects of our lives; not the least of which is the film industry. Smaller, light-weight, cheaper cameras have found their way from low-budget independent flicks to every Summer blockbuster. The camera's lower weight and profile make them much more versatile when it comes to mounting and placement for a far wider range of perspectives. The result of which can be seen in all of its magnificent glory in action films like Gareth Evan's RAID series...


as well as anything by South Korea's Kim Jee-woon...

This turns out to be a great opportunity for the horror genre as well. I'm reminded of a particular scene involving a wheelchair in David Robert Mitchell's 2014 film IT FOLLOWS and so many hauntingly beautiful and extremely creative shots in Nicolas Pesce's super creepy THE EYES OF MY MOTHER (2016).

Aside from the portability of the equipment, its continuously dropping price-tag has had a far greater effect on the industry and the art form in general. Just twenty years ago, an idea and boatloads of passion were quite simply not enough to make a film. You also needed to find someone with at least 7 figures to put into it. These people work for studios and they see your idea as their investment and your budget as their leverage. This fact put the artist at the mercy of the industry; a relationship that rarely yields a product with the type of artistic integrity that is more likely found on a canvas and an easel or scribbled on a notepad in a guitar case. There are tons of exceptions to this but the general rule seems to be: the more that an artist's passion has to rely on someone else's money for its realization, the larger the gap will be between that passion and the realization... The point is, 1958 was a great and revolutionary year for technology... and therefore, a great year for film.

My Top 5

5 - ELEVATOR TO THE GALLOWS - Directed by Louis Malle
There aren't many films that are cooler than this one. Its a French Noir with an improvised score by Miles Davis. Its one of those moral tales of a simple plan that should have gone off without a hitch... But without a hitch wouldn't make a very good movie. Treat yourself to a great performance by Jeanne Moreau and you won't be disappointed.

4 - VERTIGO - Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
This is the greatest film of all time according to Sight & Sound. I guess I don't quite agree with their assessment considering I actually prefer three other films just from the same year but... they have a good reason. Vertigo is probably Hitchcock's most influential film today. It wasn't his first or last twist ending... or even his best. But it has the type of charisma and tension that has made it resonate with audiences for the past half of a century. There are very few filmmakers that have accomplished that. He did it a lot... like twenty times... 

3 - ASHES AND DIAMONDS - Directed by Andrzej Wajda
The world of film lost a lot of important people last year. Polish director, Andrzej Wajda was one of them. This was his third installment of his thematic "War Trilogy" which also included A GENERATION and KANAL. These films take place in front of the backdrop of the Warsaw Uprising, NAZI occupation and the ensuing Communist takeover. However, they are much more about struggle and humanity than they are about politics or socioeconomic systems. This is a sign of an artist with patience and wisdom beyond his years.

THE MUSIC ROOM - Directed by Satyajit Ray
Ray's filmography doesn't contain any missteps. His films range from really good to flat out masterpiece. When you start your cinematic career with The Apu Trilogy ('55-'58), you've really hit the ground running. This was his first film after Apu and I think it's every bit an essential art house film as anything by Kurosawa, Renoir or Bergman. It gets criminally overlooked because it is not from one of the cinematic powerhouse countries of its time. If you've never experienced Satyajit Ray, this is a great place to start. 

1 - TOUCH OF EVIL - Directed by Orson Welles
In 2012, the aforementioned VERTIGO overtook Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE  (1941) as Sight & Sound's Greatest Film of All Time... Well, in my opinion, as great as KANE is, it's not even Welles' best. That title would go to this film. This is art-house pulp at its absolute finest. Its a dark, dirty back-alley story of murder and revenge seen through the lens of  masterful artist that has harnessed the power of light and shadow.

Friday, April 29, 2016

1996 - A Random Cinematic Year In Review

Preface: I have decided to write this series at least in part because I don't make it out to see new films very often and I've found that I spent too much time at the end of the year attempting to see all the big releases (many of which I'm not even interested in) for no other reason than to make an obligatory 'year end list'... This is a way that I can continue writing about films without feeling the pressure to see a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise take the time to. I'll still see most of them eventually, just on my own time. I use a random number generator to pick a year and I use to determine the actual release year.

1996 saw the births of young starlets like Abigail Breslin, Lorde and Dolly the Sheep. It also saw the deaths of great thinkers Timothy Leary, Carl Sagan and Tiny Tim.

While the FBI was pre-occupied with identifying and arresting the Unabomber and not finding 2Pac's killer, the Nerdlucks snuck in and stole the talents of some of the greatest basketball players on Earth... and Shawn Bradley. Luckily, NASA was able to save the NBA stars with the help of some sort of a boom-box genie named Kazaam... Unfortunately, Larry Johnson was never able to recover his talents... It was in the news.. Look it up.

I had N64 taste on a Tamagotchi budget

I had a lot of fun in 1996... I was 15 years old. I was all about punk rock, Scully & Mulder and watching movies. My first concert was Face to Face at The Electric Ballroom in Tempe, AZ. I saw Roland Emmerich's INDEPENDENCE DAY at the original Cine Capri in the Biltmore area and I snuck into the West Wind Drive-In in Glendale through a hole in the chain link fence to watch Ben Stiller's CABLE GUY.

The aforementioned INDEPENDENCE DAY was the top grossing film of the year with $306,000,000 and Anthony Minghella's THE ENGLISH PATIENT virtually swept the Oscars (I've still never seen it...)

Quite possibly, the most important thing to happen in cinema in '96 however was a device made by Toshiba called the SD-3000

It was the first DVD player. You could take one home for just less than $700. Later, this technology would turn out to be the most rapidly adopted consumer product ever and it had a massive effect on the film industry. DVD's higher resolution and durability, cheaper production and better copyright security gave film distributors the opportunity to continue making profits on their films long after they had left the cineplexes. I think the cultural significance is just as important as well. The home video experience was greatly improved by this invention. Casual film fans and cinephiles alike began acquiring larger home collections of these discs. Consumer's willingness to buy gave the distributors more of a reason to release more options on the platform. Archived films and boatloads of special features made it possible for anyone with an interest to study cinema from all around the world and from every cinematic era. Now, with multiple options for streaming platforms and VOD, the physical media seems to be taking a far back seat in the home video market. But keep in mind: for many, it was the DVD that gave a lot of us the opportunity to truly indulge our budding fascination with this art-form in the first place...

My Top 5

5 - THE GOD OF COOKERY - Directed by Stephen Chow
I love Stephen Chow movies and this one is criminally underrated. It's available to stream on Netflix at the time that I'm writing this and you should probably stop doing what you are doing right now and watch it. Its absolutely absurd and completely heart-warming at the same time. If you're into SHAOLIN SOCCER or KING OF COMEDY, you'll like this one just as much. I think I actually prefer this one.

4 - RIDICULE - Directed by Patrice Leconte
Somewhat like THE GOD OF COOKERY, I'll file this one as another underseen gem by a well liked international filmmaker. I haven't seen all of Leconte's films but I've never seen one that I disliked. I think his THE WIDOW OF SAINT PIERRE and MONSIEUR HIRE are his masterworks. This film exists somewhere around the top of his middle tier. Its a film about the power of words and rapier wit and as such, its dialogue is written fantastically. Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" musical has recently reminded me a bit of this film.

3 - BOTTLE ROCKET - Directed by Wes Anderson
I am a fan of Wes Anderson's style... That being said, I think that in most of his films, the minutia of his style tends to get in the way of his characters and story. I think that's why this and THE DARJEELING LIMITED are my two favorites. This is his first and most unpolished movie. And its the one that I've revisited the most. 

2 - BREAKING THE WAVES - Directed by Lars Von Trier
Von Trier films are all over the map for me. I think that he has made everything from masterpieces like this one to absolute pieces of tripe which only exist to assault the human senses like THE ELEMENT OF CRIME... The only film of his career that I like more than this one is DOGVILLE. I usually don't care much for this film's shooting style either. Much of it is hand-held, and very narrow. It just really works with this flick though. It is also probably Emily Watson's greatest performance. And that's saying a ton.

1 - FARGO - Directed by the Coen Brothers
This is an R rated film that I saw when I was 15 years old in the theatre with my Father. That in itself was special. But this film was different. It was the first time I had experienced a piece of cinema that I couldn't fit into a genre box. It was funny but not really a comedy. It was composed out of visually beautiful grotesqueness and its overall tone was almost a deafening quietness. I didn't know films could do or be that. You see, I always knew that I like watching movies more than all of my friends... I didn't really know why, I just did. I had no ambitions to analyze them any further, it was just how I prefered to spend my leisure. But I think this was the first time that I ever saw a film as a piece of art. And subsequently, my passion for this art-form has grown in me ever since. You could say that because of FARGO and my inability to compartmentalize it into any specific genre or theme, my life as a cinephile has become compartmentalized... or partitioned if you will... into two segments: Pre-FARGO and Post-FARGO... The Coen Brothers became my favorite filmmakers that day.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

1968 - A Random Cinematic Year In Review

Preface: I have decided to write this series at least in part because I don't make it out to see new films very often and I've found that I spent too much time at the end of the year attempting to see all the big releases (many of which I'm not even interested in) for no other reason than to make an obligatory 'year end list'... This is a way that I can continue writing about films without feeling the pressure to see a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise take the time to. I'll still see most of them eventually, just on my own time. I use a random number generator to pick a year and I use to determine the actual release year.

1968 was a very eventful year in the news. The United State's involvement in The Vietnam War was facing the its worst problems both at home and abroad.The Tet Offensive was North Vietnamese's most successful campaign and amid mounting public outcry and protests, President Johnson's approval rating plummeted.

This year also saw two of the most historically significant political assassinations. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F Kennedy were both shot within months of each other.

"Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal." - MLK

Not all the news of the year was bad however. On Christmas Eve, the crew of NASA's Apollo 8 became the first humans to orbit the Moon.

The year in cinema was rather eventful as well. Two of the most famous films of all time actually opened on the same day. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, and Franklin Schaffner's PLANET OF THE APES both opened on April 3rd. 2001 ended up winning at the box office but lost the Oscar to Carol Reed's OLIVER!.

The Festival at Cannes took place during massive general strikes and anti-capitalism and anti-consumerism demonstrations. As a form of acknowledgement, the festival decided not to hand out any awards. Films were screened from some of the best of the Japanese, French and Czech New Waves....

And meanwhile, back in the states,.. A young and ambitious filmmaker from The Bronx, was running around a small town in Pennsylvania inventing a subgenre of horror that is today worth more than the GDP of some countries... 

My Top 5

5) CAPRICIOUS SUMMER - Directed by Jiří Menzel
When I think of the late 60's, I think of Japanese, French and Czech films. This film isn't quite the masterpiece as Jiří Menzel's previous effort, CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS but its more than entirely watchable. Just imagine how light and airy a Czech film could be when it's not taking place during the Nazi occupation... 

4) 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY - Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick didn't make any imperfect films and this one is no exception. It is not meant to be merely watched, but consumed, over and over in the decades following its release. I really don't know what else to say about this one. It's comforting like a warm blanket. At any time, I can watch any part of it in passing or enjoy it all the way through. It never disappoints.

3) SHAME - Directed by Ingmar Bergman
There are plenty of dark Bergman films to choose from but this highly underrated gem might take the cake. It is essentially about all of humanity's worst traits and how tight of a grasp they have during wartime. Stress, anxiety, impotence, cruelty and betrayal all take their turns on the center stage here. Liv Ulman and Max Von Sydow make for brilliant puppets to these aforementioned human conditions.

2) NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD - Directed by George A. Romero
It's really impossible to understate this film's significance. The importance of what Romero did for horror and its zombie subgenre is eclipsed only by what he did for American independent DIY filmmaking. In 1968, the auteuristic attitude hadn't quite infiltrated the American studio system yet. And this film's success (10th at the box office) surely led to some of this nation's culture towards artistic freedom.

1) ROSEMARY'S BABY - Directed by Roman Polanski
Every Roman Polanski film feels as though it is the exact film he was trying to make. Every technical aspect is meticulously planned. Simultaneously disarming and disturbing , its easy to forget that this is Polanski's first American film and he was only 35 when he made it. I'll never get tired of watching this one... 

Monday, March 21, 2016

1987 - A Random Cinematic Year In Review

Preface: I have decided to write this series at least in part because I don't make it out to see new films very often and I've found that I spent too much time at the end of the year attempting to see all the big releases (many of which I'm not even interested in) for no other reason than to make an obligatory 'year end list'... This is a way that I can continue writing about films without feeling the pressure to see a bunch of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise take the time to. I'll still see most of them eventually, just on my own time. I use a random number generator to pick a year and I use to determine the actual release year.

1987 - The aftermath of the Iran-Contra affair found us all in a country that was becoming more and more comfortable with trusting the government less and less. 

"I tried to stand up and fly straight, but it wasn't easy with that sumbitch Reagan in the White House, I dunno. They say he's a descent man, so maybe his advisors are confused..."

The previous year’s Oscar Winner for Best Picture was Oliver Stone’s anti-war Vietnam drama, PLATOON. 1987 followed suit with a couple of its own noteworthy films about the same subject: Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, FULL METAL JACKET and John Irvin's underrated HAMBURGER HILL.... Both of which, I think are far better than PLATOON...

Maybe my favorite monologue ever...

Bernardo Bertolucci's beautiful epic, THE LAST EMPEROR won Best Picture and Best Director at the Oscars. Maurice Pialat's UNDER THE SUN OF SATAN took the Palm D'Or at Cannes while The Golden Lion at Venice was won by fellow Frenchman Louis Malle for his AU REVOIR LES ENFANTS.

The top grossing film of the year was Leonard Nimoy's 3 MEN AND A BABY. Wait... what?.. I had no idea that Spock was directing feel good family comedies in the late 80's. I don't really remember this film but take that in for a minute... PREDATOR, THE LOST BOYS, DIRTY DANCING, and HELLRAISER all came out in the same year. These films spawned a countless number of sequels and remakes... and 3 MEN AND A BABY beat them all at the box office...

This is NOT Antonio Banderas

My Top 5

5) WALKER - Directed by Alex Cox (US) 
Speaking of anti-war, anti-Americanism...anti-everything.... As much as I love Cox's earlier releases REPO MAN and SID & NANCY, I think this is his masterpiece. Ed Harris plays William Walker, the American mercenary that took over the country of Nicaragua in the mid 19th century as part of America's 'Manifest Destiny' bullshit. This film is full of expressionistic and surreal anachronisms used to tie the past to the events taking place at the time the film was released. "Before Rambo... Before Oliver North..." may be the best tagline ever...

4) EVIL DEAD 2 - Directed by Sam Raimi (US) 
This is my favorite of the Ash trilogy... which makes it also my favorite Raimi film. I think the climate of horror films that we find ourselves in today is largely influenced by this film.... and for good reason. This film strikes the perfect balance between the earnestness of its predecessor and the overtly silliness of its sequel.

3) RAISING ARIZONA - Directed by The Coen Brothers (US) 
Looking back at their filmography, it could be easy to overlook this one as a fun excursion that doesn't quite fit into their overall repertoire. This would be a mistake. This is one of their absolute best films. I would also add that although I'm a huge fan of the Coen's more recent work with cinematographer Roger Deakins, I honestly don't think that Barry Sonnenfeld gets enough credit for his work in their first three films. The shot composition is beautiful.

2) WINGS OF DESIRE - Directed by Wim Wenders (Germany) 
This is such an amazingly poignant and poetic film about the gift that is humanity.When I think of 80's Arthouse films, I think of Wim Wenders; primarily because of this film and his 1984 American masterpiece PARIS, TEXAS. Its beauty has stood the test of time and I feel that it is influence is still echoed by today's artists. One of my favorite films of the past few years, Jonathan Glazer's UNDER THE SKIN owes a lot of inspiration to this piece. I've never seen its American remake... I'm not sure why I would...

1) THE PRINCESS BRIDE - Directed by Rob Reiner (US) 
This is my favorite film of 1987. It's also the film that I've seen more than all of the others combined. I grew up with this film and thankfully, I never grew out of it. I still watch it pretty often. I'm not saying it's the most important film of this year and I'm definitely not saying it's the best film of the year... All I'm saying is that if I have to choose which of these films to pop in the Blu-Ray player right now... The story is a lot of fun, the framing device is done well, the acting is great all around (especially by Mandy Patinkin and Wallace Shawn) and the dialogue is endlessly quotable... Also, I just noticed that my top two films on this list have amazingly charming performances by Peter Falk... As you wish...

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Postmodernism and Pastiche of Army of Darkness

The term, postmodern can mean a whole host of things in relationship to art. It's exact definition is and will continue to be the topic of debate. It will be described by its critics as a cynical and nihilistic mash-up of the previous ideas of creative people. While proponents see it as intellectual deconstruction and homage of the artistic stepping stones that paved the road to the modern age.

There are many ways in which cinema can be postmodern. One theme is common however for the piece to be considered in this category. We are talking about films that are evidently aware of the films that came before them. Sometimes this comes out as a critique of the reality in which we live by warping that world with drug induced hazes, time travel, or other types of alternate or hyper realities that are all consuming to the characters. Other times, we 'flatten the affect' of the world around us by showing an emotional detachment of the characters to each other and their surroundings. Examples range from Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" ('82) to Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" (03) to pretty much everything Quentin Tarantino has ever done.

I think Sam Raimi's 1992 film fits best in the pastiche category. Pastiche is a term that refers to a piece of visual art that pays tribute and homage to pieces that came before it. Unlike parody, pastiche is a celebration of the works that came before. Like most filmmakers, Raimi was inspired by the other artists in many different genres. He shows that inspiration in his films, especially "Army of Darkness."

There are a lot of smaller, almost throw away instances in this film that reference other films. For example, when all of the mini Ashes tie Ash up to the floor is very reminiscent to a scene in Disney's "Gulliver's Travels" (39). Also, the words Ash is supposed to speak when he retrieves the book: "Klattu, Barada Nikto" are the same words used to control the robot in Robert Wise's 1951 film, "The Day The Earth Stood Still." There are other lines as well that are lifted from other films.

One of the most obvious examples of pastiche and homage in "AoD" is in its special effects and makeup work, much of which was meant to pay tribute to visual effects mastermind Ray Harryhausen.

You can see here, the similarities between Raimi's witch from "AoD" (top) and Harryhausen's Medusa in "Clash of the Titans" (bottom). The facial makeup is very similar.

Now take a look at some of the stop motion skeleton designs. On the top, you see 2 of Harryhausen's from the 1963 film, "Jason and the Argonauts." Then below is one from "AoD". Both are very similar even down to the expressions on their faces.... which skeletons are not supposed to have. Even the shooting process for the interior shots was done on an introvision or front projection stage as a tribute to the way Harryhausen's films were shot.

Part horror, part comedy, "Army of Darkness" at its core, is also very much an epic film. It is a story of a hero's quest. Not unlike Homer's Odyssey or Beowulf, it follows the typical twelve stages of the hero's journey beginning and ending in the ordinary world of S-mart.

It is this reason that I began thinking about it in reference to another epic film that I happened to watch recently. "Army of Darkness" tells the story of a man from a time of enlightenment who finds himself among a more primitive culture. He mentors them, introduces them to gunpowder and eventually trains and leads their army into battle to defeat a common enemy. All the while, struggling with the morality of his own ulterior motives.... This is also the basic plot line of a film that is ranked #80 on "IMDB's Top 250 List", #5 on AFI's "100 Greatest American Movies Of All Time" and #1 on Empire's "100 Best British Films Ever"... This film is so good, AFI and Empire are apparently arguing over which side of the pond it is from...(spoiler alert: it's British) I am referring of course to David Lean's 1962 masterpiece "Lawrence of Arabia".

I can hardly tell the difference

There are more similarities between these two films than the plot however. It was actually a few very specific shots in the opening scene of "AoD" that reminded me of "LoA". The film opens with a shot of feet drudging through the desert sands as Ash is being lead in chains to Arthur's castle. The vast majority of "LoA" takes place in the desert sands and is full of shots like this one. Then, as Ash's chainsaw is being held by Arthur's perplexed wise man, the blade reflects the bright sunlight directly into the camera, we quickly dissolve into a shot of the sun. This immediately reminded me of the sharp cut in "LoA" when Lawrence blows out the match into the beautiful wide sunset shot. Also, both films have the word 'of' right in the middle of the title...

When its all said and done, you would be pretty hard pressed to find a film that isn't a result of the inspirations borrowed from generations past. Postmodernism's greatest achievement is in blurring the lines between what was previously considered "high" & "low" art. Film is as progressive as it is expressive. It constantly changes and evolves. Filmmakers will never stop learning from each other and cinema will never stop serving as the best education for the next filmmakers. 

Come get some...

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Criterion Chronicles - The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

This is an ongoing series in which I chronicle the films of the Criterion Collection that I watch. I will include a brief synopsis and my thoughts. I usually watch these films on Hulu Plus' Criterion Channel..... I am currently paid by neither...

Cosmo Vitelli is a very confident and well liked strip club owner who just doesn't know when to fold a bad hand. He gets in over his head in a poker game and ends up owing the local crime syndicate $23,000. When he is unable to pay, they offer him an alternative solution. His task is to murder a book keeper that is being protected by his Chinatown neighborhood. Cosmo knows the score. If he refuses, it will only be a matter of time before they come for him.

This is a film from the movement sometimes referred to as "New American Cinema" or "American New Wave" that started in the late 60's. It is a movement that you can tell had trickled down from the French New Wave movement putting pressure on studios to give more artistic freedom to the directors. This is when auteur style film making began to flourish. Artists were allowed much more freedom to make films with less than traditional narratives. This lead to films like Francis Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation", Arthur Penn's "Bonnie and Clyde" and Dennis Hopper's "Easy Rider". It is also no coincidence that this explosion of creativity here in the states coincided with the end of the Hays Code in 1968.

John Cassavetes was a very successful television and movie actor in the 50's who began directing his own films in the 60's. Many of his films were slice-of-life melodramas featuring great performances from the likes of Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, and Cassavetes' own wife, Gena Rowlands. I would easily put Rowlands' performance in 1974's "A Woman Under the Influence" as one of the greatest on screen performances of all time.

This film however, at least begins with a more traditional narrative. It almost takes place in a noirish world of moral tales we found a to be so popular in the cinema of 50's. Ben Gazzara plays the lead as Cosmo.  He is the quintessential lady's man, well liked, confident and charismatic. He is so calm and collected that when he gets himself into trouble, its hard to really tell the full weight of the situation. This turns the plot of the film into a very good slow burn. By the end of the film, its hard to fathom exactly how we've found ourselves in this position. This is what made me think of the moral tales of the noir films from years past. I would almost consider this to be Neo-Noir but the plot doesn't crescendo in a true noir fashion. It's actually more of a underworld melodrama. Even after the film climaxes, it slows down back down and ends with an existential monologue.

All of the performances were great in this film, especially Gazzara's. I think it was the acting combined with the semi-realism style of camera work that gave this film its uniqueness. The wide aspect ration of 1.85:1 captures the Los Angeles area and all of its bright sunlight as well as its dark corners very well. It is reminiscent of Roman Polanski's 1974 masterpiece "Chinatown" in more ways than one.

This isn't my favorite Cassavetes film but I would highly suggest it as a piece of American cinematic history. Its important to take note of the major changes this country's cinema experienced at the end of the Hays Code era. Although I think "A Woman Under the Influence" is his best film, this one has a very different edge to it and is absolutely worth a watch.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Cinema of 2013 - "Welcome to Somerton" edition

Well it’s March again and we all know what that means… That’s right; it’s time for me to recap the cinematic year that ended a full three months ago…. I know I know… I do this later and later ever year. It usually takes me a while to catch up on everything and this year was particularly stacked with great films. I’m even having a hard time figuring out which is my favorite film featuring actors running on the poster and the number 12….

I should also mention that there are several key films from last year that I have still yet to see. I'm sure at least one or two of them would have made my list but I really want to get this posted so maybe I'll follow up later with an update of sorts.....
So, I hope you packed a lunch… There were just a lot of films that came out this year that I've wanted to talk about… Including these: 

The Worst:

Man of Steel - Comic books are not typically known for their subtlety and nuance. Unfortunately, neither is director Zack Snyder. This Superman reboot has about as much subtlety as this blog post has sarcasm and the overwrought dialog moves the plot forward with all the finesse and delicacy of shoes in a dryer.

Frances Ha - Noah Baumbach's new movie is very well regarded and has made many people's top ten lists this year. I can't say that I hated it, I just can't seem to understand why it is so popular. Greta Gerwig's titular character spends the majority of the film spinning her wheels and wondering why everything is passing her by. I didn't find her to be a particularly likable or even interesting character and by the time that she is finally given an arc, I had long since lost interest....

Turbo - Oh Goody... So this is the part of the blog post that I make fun of the poor children's film.... I took my two younger children to see this one when Monster's Inc was sold out so I was a little extra perturbed when it was as bad as it was. I can deal with a silly kid's movie that has a ridiculous plot and a bad ensemble of weak characters. Just please don't take my hard earned dollars and then proceed to show me an hour and a half of advertising... The climax of this flick takes place at the Indy 500. That's right, not a fake auto race that Dreamworks made up for the world that this story takes place, the snail races in the actual Indy 500. I'm sure this allowed the film to be financed via its multitudes of logo and product placement... which should have made up for its flop at the box office. Fine.... whatever... I just wish I had not been one of the suckers that shelled out cash to see it... I'll file this one under Hollywood Dick Moves, Dreamworks...

The Honorable:

A Band Called Death - So, you think that listening to 70's punk bands like Crass, MC5 and The New York Dolls excuses you from the white guilt associated with supporting a style of music that was pioneered by minorities and capitalized on by the pasty and powerful?... Watch this documentary about the very first black punk band and then think again... Might as well go and get your Dave Matthews collection back out of hiding you fucking sellout....

American Mary - I think this is my favorite thing to happen in horror this year. The very talented twin directors, Jen and Sylvia Soska have finely crafted a very gory and disturbing flick about body modifications and revenge... They have also weaved together a beautifully sad story about a monster, created by a monster who creates monsters. Beauty is the Beast, Dr. Frankenstein and his Monster all rolled up in one...

Before Midnight - I guess I don't have too much to say about this one. I think that it may technically be the best of the "Before" trilogy but I don't think it's my favorite. It is extremely well written and the acting by both Hawke and Delpy keep you completely connected at all times. It is very possible that this film is far more of a masterpiece than I am giving it credit for. I'm interested to see how well it holds up over time...

Grabbers - This is just a very well made horror/comedy from across the pond. It is one of the funnest times you will likely have on your Netflix queue this year. The two main characters, played by Richard Coyle and Ruth Bradley have a great chemistry together and the comedic dialog is exactly what I've come to expect from British writers...

The Hunt - This was about as uneasy as I have been watching a film this year. This film from Denmark starring Mads Mikkelsen, one of the best actors we have right now. It is a highly disturbing story that illuminates the destructive power of an innocent little lie... This was my third favorite Danish film this year.... 

Inside Llewyn Davis - The Coen Brother's newest film was just a little bit off for me. It was their first film since Miller's Crossing (1990) that didn't feature the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins and their first film ever that didn't include a score by Carter Burwell... Instead, they employed Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie) as DP and original music by T Bone Burnett... These are by no means bad choices but it was fascinating to be able to feel the difference in this film and it definitely shows how collaborative an art form cinema is... The classic Coen dialog took center stage with this one however and much like A Serious Man (2009), we are treated to a slice of Americana from years past as opposed to a more traditional story....

Kon Tiki - Maybe I should just make a list of kick-ass Scandinavian films that came out last year... This one is from Norway and it tells the epic true adventure story of Thor Heyerdahl crossing the Pacific Ocean in a balsa wood raft... It is exactly what you would want from an adventure film, amazing cinematography that sweeps the viewer up with the entire weight of the situation...

Stoker - Remember what I said about The Hunt making me feel uneasy?... Well, this film earns the runner up award for that category. And really, what do you expect from Oldboy (2003) director, Chan-wook Park? This film doesn't make my list for how disturbing it is however. It's here for how beautiful it is. This sick and twisted tale is set against an American Southern Gothic backdrop that exudes cinematic beauty and the Korean director brought along his usual cinematographer to capture and that beauty. It contrasts amazingly with the characters.... This is my third favorite film by a Korean director this year...

The Last Stand - And here's my second favorite film by a Korean director this year.... Please make no mistake. This is not actually a good film.... It's extremely campy, archetypal characters and a plot that really doesn't make much sense...Also, it takes place in Somerton, AZ.. a town I've been to many times and I know the area. This made all the ridiculous inaccuracies super evident to me... First of all, it was obviously not shot in Somerton. It's too hot there, shoot it in New Mexico... Second, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the sheriff of Somerton County. Somerton County doesn't exist, it is a very small town about fifteen minutes outside of Yuma.... in Yuma County.... Also, why the hell would the FBI send a SWAT team from El Centro, CA (a town that is roughly one tenth the size of Yuma, half the population and five times the distance away from Somerton)?.... Man... this movie sucks... I really really like it... I've watched like five times already... It does have it's good qualities. I think Jee-woon  Kim is one of the best directors of actions scenes working today and this flick has some insanely awesome shots... It's campy as hell sure, but unlike campy movies that I hate like Taken (2008), this flick knows exactly just how seriously it should be taking itself... If it makes you feel any better, we can just file this one under guilty pleasures.

The Best:

10. Blancanieves
Directed by Pablo Berger

Blancanieves is a silent black & white re-imagining of the Snow White fairy tale in 1920's Seville. The seven dwarfs have traded in their pickaxes and shovels for lances and (google search "bullfighting equipment") banderillas as they travel through Spain as a comical side show to the bullfight. They pick up an young girl with amnesia and take her along on the road. This is not a perfect film but I love crisp, picturesque black and white cinematography and this flick was shot beautifully. Also, Maribel Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien & Pan's Labyrinth) is fantastically evil as Encarna, the step-mother. 

9. In The House
Directed by Francois Ozon

Fabrice Luchini plays a French high school writing teacher/failed writer desperate to recapture the passion he once had for literature. He finds his zeal in a new student whose research methods are far less than honorable. Knowing the student is up to no good but conflicted because of his obvious gift for writing, the teacher must choose whether or not to put a stop to the child's transgressions, and risk stifling his potential. The proverbial can of worms that is opened is not one that will shut itself.

8. 12 Years A Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen

This is Steve McQueen's third film and so far he's three for three. He got into cinema with an already very impressive resume as a visual artist and it shows. I was very happy to see that the material was handled with such a serious and dedicated commitment to the technical and artistic aspects of this film. I think far too often, filmmakers and other storytellers will assume that if the story is powerful and important enough, they will be given a pass when it comes to the technical. But McQueen is a true artist and this film shows that the only way to truly honor the story and its real life subject is by pouring yourself into it and demanding perfection. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o gave probably the best performance by anybody male or female this year.

7. Room 237
Directed by Rodney Ascher

This was a great year for documentaries as evident by the fact that my seventh favorite film is also my third favorite doc. This is one of the most unique subjects you will find to study. This is a film that explores numerous theories by different people about hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 adaptation of Stephen King's The Shining. Theories include subliminal messages protesting America's treatment of Native Americans, it's a film about the Holocaust, or it was Kubrick's way of secretly admitting to faking the Moon landing... The genius of this documentary is that every conspiracy theory is treated with the same weight by the filmmaker. And the running theme is that Kubrick never did anything by accident and never made a mistake therefore, all of the above MUST be true....

6. Short Term 12
Directed by Destin Cretton

Short Term 12 stars Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. as Grace and Mason, a couple of employees of a group home for at risk teens. A new girl shows up at the facility carrying some particular baggage that Grace finds very familiar. This begins the resurfacing of Grace's past and the subsequent tailspin ensues. At times quaint and charming, this film never forgets to pull at your heartstrings. The characters and settings feel extremely authentic which demands the audience's undivided empathy. The performances by both Larson and Gallagher are impeccable. Lakeith Lee Stanfield's Marcus is also of note. He is someone to look out for in the future. 

5. Upstream Color
Directed by Shane Carruth

I'll be honest. I'm not really sure what or how I feel about this film... I've only watched it three times so far and I think I'm actually starting to understand it. This is the second film by Primer (2004) director Shane Carruth. It only took me about five years to realize that Primer was a masterpiece and it may happen with this one as well. What gets me the most excited about this guy as a storyteller is how both of these very complex films unapologetically lack any sort of exposition. He gives you just enough to keep interested but not enough to keep up. It not only demands, it rewards your undivided attention and repeat viewings.

4. Stories We Tell
Directed by Sarah Polley

I've been a fan of Sarah Polley's acting ever since 1999's Go. Her first feature as a director was the very melancholic Away From Her (2006). This is her first documentary and I loved it. On the surface, she took the camera to her own family in an attempt to investigate a trail of unanswered questions left by her departed mother. What she succeeds in finding far surpasses any single family's story and explores and exposes the torrid relationship between truth, myth and recollection..... 

3. A Hijacking
Directed by Tobias Lindholm

The Danish have Hijacked my list this year. The negotiations are intense and slow and some of the films on this list are getting very sea sick... This is a film about a cargo ship that is attacked by Somali pirates and the negotiations with the ship's company in Copenhagen. This film is heart wrenching and very suspenseful but what I think blew me away the most was how there is really no true antagonist. The filmmaker does such a great job at distributing empathy throughout the characters... As Renoir says in the French masterpiece, Rules of the Game (1939): "The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons...."

2. The Act of Killing
Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Anonymous and Christine Cynn

This may not be my favorite film of the year but it is by far the most important on this list... It's probably the most important of the year but I'm not sure... I mean, exposing Indonesian death squads that have never atoned for their heinous acts of genocide is at least as important as profiling professional backup singers... right?... Isn't it?... Is this thing even on...? Alright so what I'm trying to say is watch this film now, then come back we'll all write the Academy a nasty letter together... This film is so much more than just an expose on injustices that happened half a century ago. The filmmakers gives the aggressors the ability to tell their story through cinematic reenactments. They happily oblige as if they have never had a moment of remorse.... Oh yeah... this one's Danish too...

1. Pieta
Directed by Ki-duk Kim

My favorite film of the year came from my favorite Korean filmmaker. I'm not going to say too much about it. I wrote a full review here... I will add however that I am very excited that the acclaim that this film has received has led to Alamo Drafthouse picking up the rights to distribute his newest film Moebius... This is great news because it will most likely be readily available on VOD when it comes out later this year....

Editors note: I am the editor too.... deal with it... FYI: Many of these titles (including 7 of my top 10) are available to watch on Netflix right now.... Check them out...

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