Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Link time! Death to Super-Serious Superheros!

Here's a good blog write up on the death of the superhero movie by Ali Arikan over at Cerebral Mastication, a great film blog. Check it out. As someone who knows little to nothing about comic books, I enjoyed it thoroughly. My two cents about the death of the genre after the jump...

I agree about the "seriousness" of comic book movies these days kind of tarnishing the genre. Of course, I was a fan of the The Dark Knight, but not for the same reasons that the emo thirteen year-olds were. I would over hear conversations in the lobby about what a profound movie it was, and how "sweet" the movie was, because "it was totally like a metaphor for terrorism". I don't know, maybe I'm just getting old, but the majority of the films fans (teenagers) wanted to claim the film held up metaphors and social commentary for the audience to ponder, which the film clearly couldn't support.

However, the film is great for taking the superhero movie out of the superhero realm and moving it to an noirish setting. I am not much of a comic book guy, so when movies are really comic booky (ie required inside knowledge to know what the hell is going on), I just don't get it, but hey as long as it's aesthetically pleasing and well made (like Dick Tracy) then I'm down. But what I can't stand is the kind of superhero film that wants me to know how serious and brooding its hero is (ahem, Superman Returns), those movies just plain suck. Superman Returns may have been one of the most boring suckfests I have ever sat through, and was more of an insult to Christians (we get it, Superman is like Jesus) than Bill Maher's Religulous.

The not-so-serious tone is what I actually kind of liked about Spider-Man 3, even though the film was flawed, and way to long, the emo Peter Parker was hilarious; especially the 'strut' scene. It was an example of a film not taking itself too seriously and having a little fun, which hey, isn't that what comic books are all about?
I still haven't seen Iron Man I understand that the film kind of does the same thing with being a great comic book movie; just simple fun. I mean yes, some of them try to tackle bigger ideas and themes, but like Ali talks about with X-Men do we have to actually make the film about those ideas? Can a superhero film really stand up to the same themes as a more serious, contemplative drama? I don't know, but it's what kind of turned me off of X-Men 3. The second film was a wonderfully executed action film, but the third film tried way too hard to cram way too much into less than two hours.

And maybe that's the problem these days: length. Every superhero film tries to either cram too much of a story in (seriously, there are about six different two-hour films that could be made about the X-Men members; that's excluding Wolverine) to too short of a running time (like the aforementioned X-Men films) or they try to prove their mettle by overstaying their welcome and making their films the length of a Terrence Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson picture. Maybe these directors think that if their film is as long as these serious dramas, then maybe audiences will take them seriously. Serious or not, audiences are still going to pay money to see Spidey, Superman, Batman, and Wolverine; no need to make us sit through epic lengths for us to get our fix.

Anyway, that's a lot of rambling from me. Great write up by Ali, though. The superhero film does seem to be on the decline in quality. I attribute this to an over satiated audience, who, no matter what kind of superhero film is released, they'll gladly plop down the 10 bucks to go see it. As long as there is a demand for it, there will be more good, sometimes flawed, but always overly long superhero movies like Spider-Man 3 and The Dark Knight. I just don't know which I prefer, the comic book films that are cheesy and clearly drawing upon a more classic aesthetic, ala The Phantom, Dick Tracy, The Shadow, etc., or the more 'serious' darker films like Batman Begins/The Dark Knight, Spawn, Hellboy, etc.

Both styles of comic book film clearly draw upon postmodern elements; the first group draws upon the nostalgia that Frederic Jameson so eloquently talks about in his book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, but wait....I'm doing what those that praise The Dark Knight are doing....I'm attaching something this deep to a film like The Phantom? Seriously? Well, you can't deny that films like it use that nostalgia to create a a more clear cut comic book world, whereas the darker films like the second group I listed above like to place their characters in seedy cities with noirish art direction surrounding them; this placement allows the audience the opportunity to ponder these more serious metaphors because the characters exist in tangible and recognizable cities like Chicago and New York. By taking the characters out of this fantasy world they are trying to pull something off that is impossible, because no matter how serious they want their comic book movie to be, it's still about a guy wearing a bat suit, or about mutants who control the weather.

Okay, wow. I wasn't planning on rambling on and on about this topic that much. Hopefully what I said makes a little bit of sense, but what do you all think? Is the superhero film dying? Head over to Ali's blog and read his piece and comment. Throw your comments in here too. I'd love to hear what you all think.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Halloween Week 2008: Stage Fright

My final Halloween pick comes in the form of one of the best Italian horror films I've ever seen. Michele Soavi combined the best elements of the American slasher film with the Italian giallo; creating a unique, eerie film called Stage Fright, or Deliria as it was known in Italy. It was called Aquarius....and Bloody Bird. Alternate titles aside, this one of the most original hack and slash type films that is heavy on atmosphere, low on acting, and through the roof on innovative deaths. Oh, and there is lots and lots of gore.

The story is about a cast for some kind of musical show where there is someone in an owl suit. The members of the show are your basic cliche dance types and Soavi really shows no interest in developing characters; I mean after all the whole point of the movie is to scare you. This isn't Rent! So when one of the dancers is missing some of the crew catch on that there are odd goings-on, and decide to try and leave....ah but they can't because the person in the owl costume is the killer and wants them all dead so he can place them on stage in an order he deems artistic.

Clunky plot aside there are some real striking images in the film. Soavi has a great eye for framing scary shots. For instance when the owl-masked killer is approaching one of the actors we get a POV shot from the victim, which makes the scene much scarier than if it were from the killers point of view and all we saw was the blood spewing forth. This sense of dread and waiting for the horrible inevitability of death is something that Soavi taps into and makes the film more intense than its contemporaries.

The other thing Soavi does well is take the conventions of both the American slasher film and the Italian giallo and tweaks them just a bit to create a nightmarish, ethereal experience often associated with Italian master Dario Argento (who Soavi did work for as an assistant on Opera). These moments include the bizarre scene where nobody realizes that the person in the owl costume isn't the actor, but the killer. They are rehearsing a scene, and the director tells the masked "actor" to really make it look like their killing the female character. What's creepy about this scene is that it really is the killer and he really is killing the actress, but the director and the rest of the cast aren't aware of it right away; so they are impressed by the realism of the scene. Also, the ending of the film or "key scene" is a tremendous example of pacing and keeping the viewer as tightly wound as possible. That's all I'm going to tell you....that scene is worthy of comparison to the old Hitchcock adage about the ticking bomb underneath your seat. It's as tense a scene that I've seen in a horror film.

It's not just Soavi's control of film techniques that's amazing, but the way he is able to create an innovative and creepy slasher/giallo film when both genres had been dead years before Stage Fright's 1987 release. Sadly after some successful films including the zombie film Cemetery Man, Soavi quit filmmaking to care for sickly son. He's returned recently with a lot of Italian crime films made for TV. I hear he hasn't lost his artistic touch.

I highly recommend Stage Fright for those looking for an innovative take on the American slasher film and for those who are dying to see a decent post-Tenebre giallo film. There are many insane deaths in the film: pick axe's through the mouth, torso's being torn in half, drills, chains saws, and one of the most hilarious explanations of a bullet going through someones head. If you've never seen an Italian horror film before try Stage Fright, it's a good place to start. It contains enough of the popular American slasher elements, but has those odd, dream-like images (seriously, the killer is a guy in a giant owl mascot head, how is that not creepy) and moments that make Italian horror so unique. I highly recommend Stage Fright, one of the best horror films of the 80's.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween Week 2008: The Fly

Be Afraid.
Be Very Afraid.

This famous tag line for David Cronenberg's remake of the 1950 horror camp classic The Fly is one of the all time great tag lines. What's so great about it is that it leads the viewer to believe that something horrifying and quite scary is waiting for them when they sit down to watch the film; there is horror in this film, just not in the conventional sense. This is not your typical horror or sci-fi scare fest, in fact there are not even that many scary moments in the film. Here is a sophisticated allegory for what is truly horrifying: having to watch the person you love die. Whether it's a physical death or a metaphorical one, Cronenberg takes the basic plot of the original film, and tweaks it into a romantic tragedy that just happens to exist in the genre of horror.

The story is simple enough: Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) is a genius physicist who has created a way to transport matter. Geena Davis plays Veronica, a reporter who is looking for an exclusive on Brundle's invention. Fearful that his secret will leak to the scientific community (which will cost him thousands) Brundle pursues Veronica at her office and pleads with her to not write the story until he has everything working for certain. Thus begins their relationship which soon blossoms into a romance. Veronica is just getting out of a relationship with her pretentious, yet caring, editor Stathis (played by the always smarmy John Getz) who is immediately jealous of the Veronica hangs on every word Brundle says. This was probably his affect on her sometime in the past. One night Veronica leaves Brudle's place to finalize some things with Stathis, however, Brundle too is weary of why she must leave and gets drunk, which leads to "something going wrong in the lab. Very wrong." You know the rest of the story from there.

The story may be simple enough, but the emotions within are poignant and true, and What follows is a story of true horror; not in the traditional sense, but in the always unique and unconventional Cronenberg sense. Cronenberg has always been a director who directs his films with objectivity and coldness of scientist or doctor. His films never go beyond what is on the screen, in terms of damning or praising characters and their actions, and he has always been a director that keeps the audience at arms length. Oddly though, I find myself drawn to his icy embrace. I find Cronenberg to be one of the most watchable of directors working in film today. Sure his style doesn't reach the masses, but he always gets great performances out of wonderful, but almost always misused, actors like Christopher Walken, James Spader, Peter Weller, James Woods, and in The Fly he provides Jeff Goldblum with material to deliver his best, and as of yet unsurpassed, performance.

It's true that Cronenberg almost always keeps his characters intentions at arms length from the audience (one of the major criticisms of his recent foray into the crime genre), but I appreciate that about the director, because unless I'm in the minority, I like a director who doesn't hit me over the head with the themes of his films. Case in point: The Fly. At the time of its release a lot of people praised the film for being an astute allegory for the AIDS epidemic. However, the always elusive Cronenberg debunked those critiques and said that he never had intentions of making The Fly a message picture. He appreciated the correlation, but really he saw the film more as an allegory for watching someone you love metamorphosize into someone completely different, right before your eyes. This allegory works well within the horror genre, and especially with the story of Brundle and his fly.

The Fly contains oodles of Cronenberg's favorite themes: the degradation of the human body, passionate love and romances that are derailed by freak accidents, and "special powers" (a vague label no doubt, but I am thinking of Brundle morphing from loner nerd to sexy athletic fly, and also Christopher Walken's burden in The Dead Zone) acting as the onus for his films protagonists. There are many memorable moments in The Fly, one of my favorites being the scene where a pissed off Brundle (because Veronica has left and challenged his new powers as something awful) goes to a bar and challenges someone to an arm wrestling match. The moment that follows never gets old. Also Cronenberg's intense focus on Brundle's body and the way certain parts of his body morph, change, and fall apart or fall off altogether (I'm thinking of the really gross fingernail scene).

Yet, through all of the grotesqueness, Veronica still loves Brundle. And for all of the grotesqueness, the audience is still emotionally invested in the story; that is the triumph of The Fly and what Cronenberg is able to accomplish. Also, Cronenberg is able to conjure up suspense by element of surprise; we are never quite sure, once Brundle's metamorphosis takes place, what he is going to look like, or bad it's going to be. By keeping the audience guessing, the film does have a true horror genre feel to it, but it transcends the genre and cuts through the grotesque appearance of Brundle by maintaining the human element; the love Veronica has for Brundle, and him wanting her to remember him as he was, not what he is becoming.

One of the reasons why The Fly is one of my favorite films is because of that transcendent nature of the script and the all out performances from Goldblum and Davis. True, the film has icky and gross visuals to constitute a good Halloween viewing, but it is also a film that will make you want to wrap up the one you love. When Brundle is mid-stage of his metamorphosis he tells Veronica to leave, and that he doesn't want to hurt her because he is changing and wants her to remember him as he was, not how he is. The moment is poignant and powerful; not just because of the performances by both Goldblum and Davis, but because the scene can be an allegory for what it must feel like to communicate with someone you love while they submit to cancer or Alzheimer's or any other disease where you watch a loved one slowly change from the person you knew. What's truly transcendent about the film is that after the credits role and all is said and done, it's not the state of the art makeup or effects of the Brundle Fly, or the blood and gore that have you remembering the film, it's the poignant relationship between Veronica and Brundle. Love trumps all.

I wrote all of this with a bias as the driving force. There is something deep and profound and moving about this film that affects me so much. I haven't even mentioned that when we get to see the Brundle Fly at the end of the film, it is truly one of the scariest moments in horror. The final moments of the film are scary, no doubt, and if you haven't seen the film, and are not a fan of the usual stab and slash type of horror film, then rent The Fly. It's a brilliantly crafted, sophisticated horror film.

Halloween Week 2008: The Burning/Hatchet

Already behind a day....so in an attempt to cram as many recommendations as I can I will have two posts with four suggestions today. The final review coming tomorrow, Halloween morning. Enjoy.

The Burning is nothing special. How's that for a reason to rent it? Okay, it does have one thing going for it: gore. Here is a typical American slasher film, with typical results, and yes, despite the infamous "raft scene", it has typical gore. I only say that because other 80's slasher films were just as gory, it's just that nobody remembers them because when they got to video (during the whole 'video nasties' era) they were chopped to hell as if Jason himself took a machete into the editing room. The Burning is unique and kind of infamous for being the first movie the Weisnstein Bros. produced, and for having early sightings of actors like Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and Holly Hunter.

The story: In the New York and New Jersey areas there is a famous legend of a man named Cropsy who terrorizes campers. Of course he only does this because, SPOILER ALERT, he was teased as a child at the very same camp. No way! Okay, so the story is a wee bit uninspired, in fact it's typical 80's slasher fodder, but the "raft" scene is pretty damn cool if you can find it. I think there might be some clips of it on youtube, and rumor has it that even though the recently released MGM version on DVD says it's the complete uncut version....apparently it's not. But I haven't seen it on DVD, so I can't say one way or the other.

The film is a Halloween recommendation only for those of you that like your slasher films, because well, this one is better than any Friday the 13th movie, and it has Tom Savani the gore master in charge of dispersing the blood and guts. Plus it's fun to watch Jason Alexander play the cool guy. His overacting is amazing.

Overall if you REALLY want a slasher film to watch, and you have already seen the original Halloween and don't like foreign horror films, well then try to find The Burning, it won't disappoint with it's copious amounts of blood and gore and cool villain with a great name. Seriously, Cropsy that's a great slasher name. The original title was Cropsy's Revenge. I would have gone with that title, it sounds a lot cooler.

If The Burning was kind of an above average 80's slasher, then Hatchet is an above average toungue-in-cheek 21st centtury horror film. In the wake of Eli Roth's uber snarky Cabin Fever (which I have to admit made me laugh a lot....I mean come on: Pancakes!) Adam Green released Hatchet, a film not at all unlike The Burning. Hatchet is also about a killer in the woods named Victor Crowley who may or may not be an inbred monster from Hell. It's irrelevant really because the film is just one big excuse to get horror icons in cameos and kill lots and lots of people. Freddy Kreuger, Jason Vorhees, and Candyman all make appearances (okay, well the actors that played them) and really Green's film is just an exercise in reminding the audience that the filmmakers are in on the joke too.

Despite the films obvious flaws (the acting is horrible, although the actor from Trippin' is in it, so all is not lost) Hatchet does have some faint semblance of charm. If you were a child of 80's slasher films or just a rabid fan of the genre, then the film will probably entertain you the same way Cabin Fever did if you were a fan of the Evil Dead pictures. The film is extremely gory and pretty good in the entertaining department once the teenagers get away from the Mardi Gras set piece (and gratuitous nudity) and get on the boat that spells their doom. I think Green had The Burning in mind when he made this film, because much like The Burning, Green's film uses buckets upon buckets of violence and gore in an attempt to seperate itself from your average slasher; Hatchet was also heavily re-edited after its initial release where it was slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating for violence and gore.

So there ya go. If you want a decent one-two punch for slasher films on Halloween night, and you've seen everything else, these are two decent, if not flawed, additions into the genre.

Both The Burning and Hatchet are available on DVD. The Burning can often be found late night on IFC.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Halloween Week 2008: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3

When Wes Craven was lured back to write this third installment in the Nightmare franchise, he was reluctant to do so since he never intended for his original film to spawn a string of (mediocre) sequels. He agreed to write the script as long as he could approach a taboo topic that intrigued him: suicide. Much like the original Nightmare Craven got his idea for the third film through reading articles about teenagers being so scared in their sleep that they would commit suicide in a state where it wasn't known whether or not they were awake. This idea intrigued Craven as well as the thought of bringing Freddy back to kill him off and to remove the bad taste the second film of the series left in the fans mouth. The result: a pretty good horror movie that is not a complete waste of your time.

Of course the minute the film opens and you see five different names of screenwriters on the screen, you know that they butchered Craven's original script; they did indeed do that, you can check out the original script online. In the original script Freddy was menacing and didn't talk much (like the original) and was more vulgar and scarier. Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) wasn't a medical expert on sleep or anything like that, she was looking for her missing father (John Saxon!), the last man to know where Freddy's body is buried. Also, there was no sub plot with the doctor of the hospital (where all the kids are having the same nightmares) encounters a ghost nun who just happens to be named Amanda Kreuger, Freddy's mom.

So yeah, the film is interesting for the reason alone that you can see elements of the original version Craven had in mind, but sadly the studio didn't go all the way with it, afraid that no one would want to pay money to such a serious subject broached in a horror film. Craven has always been a pioneer of getting these more serious subtexts into his films and then using the horror genre to explicate them further, but not here as it's kind of surprising that New Line, a studio notorious with taking chances, played it so safe with this one.

The quick and dirty version of the story: teenagers are having nightmares and Freddy is killing them in the real world through their dreams. Nancy returns to help the kids make sense of what's happening. Instead of each teenager having a dream and dying, Craven did something interesting with this one and had them all inhabit the same nightmare. While in their nightmare the kids could be anything they wanted to be, since it was their dream, thus giving them super powers (one kids is really strong, one is a wizard, one a punk rock chick with switch blades, etc.). So yeah, that's pretty much the plot....you're basic Nightmare storyline.

Still you get some great, weird moments that are synonymous with the Nightmare franchise. For instance the scene where Freddy turns into a giant worm like creature and starts to swallow Kristen (played by a young Patricia Arquette). Also, the deaths are as inventive as ever and the special effects are pretty good for the time, and the low budget director Chuck Russel was working with. Another interesting thing about the film is that it's the last entry in the series where Freddy is always joking and making awful puns as he kills people. It wasn't until Craven would come back to the franchise with New Nightmare that Freddy would be this quiet and this menacing.

The last watchable thing about this film is the amount of talent it had working on it. Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Mist) re-wrote the screenplay, Chuck Russel (The Mask, Eraser) directed, and the film stars Patrica Arquette, Laurence Fishbourne, and of course John Saxon (who has a tremendous scene of overacting and pure scene chewing where he's in a bar drinking, slowly, and delivering his lines even slower).

I always remember being really scared by this movie when I was a kid. It had one of those memorable cover boxes that looked really cool with all the teens and their "special powers" , and then on the back the creepy image of Freddy as the worm swallowing Arquette. I could never get that image out of my head as it would cause me to have nightmares. Well, many, many years later I can say that the film isn't that scary. Even though there is nothing really scary about the film, it's a fun addition to your Halloween to-do list if you've never seen this installment. It has a good cast, talent working behind the scenes, and even a cameo from Dick Cavett! Oh, and Dokken sings the theme song. Yes....there's reason to see it right there.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors is playing the rest of the month on the Independent Film Channel.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Halloween Week 2008: I Walked With a Zombie

While watching Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie I couldn't help but think of a different a film, a completely different film in both genre and context. The film that kept popping up in my head was the Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful. The film stars Kurt Douglas as a ruthless producer in the vein of David O. Selznick; however there is one scene where Douglas' character reminds me more of producer Val Lewton, producer of I Walked With a Zombie. The scene I am speaking of is where Douglas and his friend, a director, are working on their first film, a cheap B-level horror film called Curse of the Cat People. They are stuck with cheap looking cat suits that don't fit a lot of the actors who are supposed to be wearing them. When they ask themselves the question: "what do you have when you have a bunch of actors in cat suits....a bunch of actors who look like they're in cat costumes.", they come to the realization that showing the cats is a mistake, and then they ask a better question that hints at the success to these kinds of horror pictures: "what are people most afraid of? The dark! Let's say the audience never sees the cats....". I can't help but think that this is similar to the types of conversation that producer Lewton and director Tourneur had on their sets for similar B-level horror pictures. This moment from a completely unrelated film is key to understanding the success of Tourneur and Lewton's horror pictures, especially I Walked With a Zombie.

Tourneur and Lewton are successful in taking a non-horror book for its source material (Bronte's Jane Eyre) and turning it into an atmospheric spook-fest. There is nothing that is overtly scary or even nerve-jarring about I Walked With a Zombie, but there are many unsettling moments that rely on what we don't see; a formula for success found in later horror films like The Blair Witch Project.

Shadows are always in play in these kinds of films, and in I Walked With a Zombie some of the best moments come from creepy imagery silhouetted or mysterious figures lurking in the shadows. The story is your basic voodoo horror plot where a naive Canadian nurse goes to the West Indies where mysterious voodoo medicine is practiced. Betsy has been contracted out by a wealthy man to try and figure out what ails his wife (he's tried everything of course....but there's always something more), and early on she tries not to let her optimism and naivete get the best of her, but she presses on, sure that she can save her employers wife, which leads to some odd encounters as she dabbles in the locals medicinal philosophies.

Despite the films title, the plot of the story has little to do with "gotcha" moments, and more to do with uncertainty; the old stand by of a "stranger in a strange place" horror formula. A lot of it works, especially the creepy scene where Betsy takes the woman she is caring for through a maze-like field marked with various voodoo emblems. The lack of cheesy, foreboding music or easy scares are what make this scene so memorable. All you hear is the wind and the gasps of Betsy; like her we too are making this uncertain journey through the voodoo maze. The scene has an eeriness and unsettling nature rarely found in today's horror films. Tourneur did the same thing in his other horror films, most famously Cat People and Night of the Demon, and by only showing certain amounts of what was around the corner, and by using shadows and eerie sound without cheesy music, he was able to create a unique horror film that relied more on your senses than the usual monster type film that was popular at the time.

It's not the kind of horror film for everybody; there's no blood or scary monsters or jump-out-of-your-seat moments, but there is a tremendous amount of style in how Tourneur and Lewton get the audience to believe something bad is going to happen when really, nothing is happening on screen. These two thought that the sound of shuffling feet waking you up in the middle of the night was a lot scarier than zombies trying to eat you in your cottage, and you know what, if you watch this film you'll understand why the sound of feet shuffling across pavement is more unsettling than seeing someone getting their guts ripped out by rabid zombies. A truly unique and clever B-level horror film, and a pleasant change of pace from the Saw movies, or the usual Halloween fodder found on video store shelves.

I Walked With a Zombie showing on Turner Classic Movies Thursday October, 30 at 9:00 AM

Friday, October 24, 2008

Halloween Week 2008 is upon us...

That's right...I will attempt to do a write-up every day about some random horror film that I deem worthy of your time. My aim is to showcase some unconventional choices, as well as some horror movies that just don't get the proper notoriety. Please feel free to add your own recommendations and reviews of horror films in the comments section and I will be sure to link to them. For now I leave you with the haunting images from the famous ending to a famous movie that I just watched for the first time this morning...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Die Hard 4: Die Hardererer

So I just watched Live Free or Die Hard and I have to say I was pretty impressed. I had my reservations about it being PG-13 and how old Bruce Willis looks, but he pulled it off well; after all it was the role that made him into a star, so it's not like the performance was going to be awful. Timothy Olyphant as the smarmy computer hacker villain was awesome. Seriously though he is two decades too late; had he been around in the 80's he could have made a whole career playing the too-smart foil for Arnie or Mel or Sly. He was one of the best parts of the movie and a big reason why the movie felt 20 years too late. And that's a good thing. More thoughts after the jump...

The magic of Dish network allows me to see these movies about three years after the fact, but hey, at least I don't have to overpay at the theater and sit next to a big smelly guy on his cell phone. The movie was a call back to the early Die Hard pictures; that is to say it's a call back to the action films I love so much from the 80's and 90's. The only problem is that that style of action film seems so out of place in 2008 (well 2007 was when the movie was released). It's heart is in the right place: action scenes that have a real sense of danger and awe, also action scenes that seemed grounded within the reality of the plot (read: less reliance CGI to make things look cool), and recognizable and likable characters; most notably John McClane who was doing the snarky anti-hero thing long before it became popular in the action films of today. However, for as big a smart ass as he is, he is always loyal to the law; there is no ambiguity with John McClane he is always going to fight as long as he can for the good of the city, state, or (in this films case) the country.

The lack of ambiguity by the hero is so common in today's action films. Directors almost want their heroes to be just as "cool" as their villains. But however antiquated a film like Live Free or Die Hard may seem, it is undoubtedly a breath of fresh air. The plot is familiar and like any kind of Die Hard film. Olyphant plays Thomas Gabriel, a real smart guy who set up some banking back up system after September 11th so that their wouldn't be an economic crisis should terrorists strike again. Of course the government and especially the secret sectors of the FBI and NSA didn't appreciate Gabriel enough, so the natural thing is to make them pay attention to you. So he controls the system he created and begins an elaborate plot to syphon the money from the accounts on the back up system; you know, so maybe now they'll pay attention to him. Hmm sounds like any Under Siege movie, too. Poor bad guys, no one pays enough attention to them.

Formulaic plot aside (really the plot is irrelevant) the action scenes are pretty great, especially a scene involving a semi truck and fighter jet; especially the scene that follows where McClane jumps from said semi-truck and onto the jet as it is crashing towards the ground. It's a pretty amazing and virtuoso scene, and again, made all the better by making it look like a legit stunt and not relying so heavily on CGI to ruin the scene. The performance by Willis is great as McClane is battered, scratched, and bloodied within the first 20 minutes (of course), and the film has a nice addition of Justin Long as another hacker dragged along in the mess with McClane. Kevin Smith also has a pretty funny cameo as a hacker called "Warlock".

Live Free or Die Hard is a harmless use of your two hours and if you're a fan of 80's or 90's action films and all of the funny cliches that come with them, well then you won't be disappointed by the latest addition to this action franchise. The only real issue I take with the film is having it be PG-13. It's odd seeing McClane not being profane and pissed off. Sure he kills people (and please understand, blood does not make a movie good), but what I always remember about the Die Hard films was that they were like a live-action Road Runner/Coyote cartoon for adults. McClane as the Road Runner would get the crap kicked out of him (and always spit blood and have dried blood and grease on his white shirt) but keep coming back to get the coyote. Some of the smaller deception scenes (the ones where the villains crew always gets turned on by the guy and his sidekick running the crew...it happens in every action movie like this) seem too quick and made for this era of action film instead of the era they are drawing from for most of the movie. There is just that little bit of inconsistency that bothered me that probably could have been solved had they gone all the way and done a classic R-rated action film like the other Die Hard pictures.

But that is a small complaint for an otherwise surprising and fun action film. Which is something of a rarity these days.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Art of the Character Actor

So I'm watching Broken Arrow on one of many great HD channels that Dish Network provides (hey, it's my last week of vacation still...cut me some slack) and I was glad to see two of my favorite character actors sharing some dialogue with each other. Who might those actors be? No, it's not Howie Long and Delroy Lindo. It's Kurtwood Smith and Daniel von Bargen. Now you may be asking yourselves who these people are. You probably know both of them from their television work -- Smith as the dad on That 70's Show, and von Bargen as Kruger, George's boss, on some of the later seasons of Seinfeld -- but it is their work in movies a watched a ton when I was younger that makes me laugh whenever I see them in a movie I happen upon while watching television. Smith was the villain Boddinger in the brilliant Robocop and he was in Rambo III. Von Borgen was in one of my favorite horror movies back when I was in high school called Lord of Illusions which also starred Scott Bakula (!) as a private detective trying to track down an evil warlock or something or other...whatever it was, it was being played by von Borgen and I always remember that performance. These two truly are the epitome of character actors. One glance at their filmography on imdb and you see that these guys act in anything and everything. They obviously never have trouble finding work; which is good for me because that means I will see them randomly on television in some movie or making an appearance on a sitcom. Anyway, I'm bored and I saw those two actors and felt like I should make you all aware of their brilliance.

Oh...and whatever happened to Christian Slater?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"There is no film. There is nothing, nowhere."

This is part of the Movies About Movies Blog-a-thon hosted by goatdogblog. You can read the rest of the entries here. There's some really good stuff there, check it out.

The words in the header are uttered by Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), the director of a movie in a movie by Federico Fellini, and they set the audience up for the films main theme: that through the darkness and uncertainty of not knowing what's to come, we can look to our memories and it is this nostalgia that can lift us up and break free the chains of reality we are immersed in everyday. For Guido there is "nothing, nowhere" at the particular time he speaks these words, but as the film progresses we see a man change; dwelling on past childhood memories, rites of passage, male fantasies, and the value of life itself, Guido doesn't just represent the obvious self-reflexivity of filmmaker Federico Fellini, but also the audience. Fellini is inviting us to partake in this explication of past memories like Guido does, and if we the audience give ourselves to genuine contemplative moments, then we too can change and that there is life to be lived. Something, everywhere. 8 1/2 is that rare film that is a masterful film about a film, but it has the ability to penetrate the screen and creep into our psyches and affect us like no other film can; but like all film hopes to do. That is the power of film, and the power of 8 1/2.

8 1/2 was the moment when director Federico Fellini was starting to hear the jeers from the ultra-serious Italian neo-realist crowd. Having his roots in neo-realism Fellini made a stark departure from the grounded realism and Truth many Italians and film critics found in films like The Bicycle Thief and the Fellini penned Rome, Open City. When Fellini broke free from the shackles and limitations of neo-realism (emotionally it's a great movement and there are some great films there, but it's pretty aesthetically dull) with his brilliant La Dolce Vita all bets were off. Then came 8 1/2 and most critics and lovers of neo-realism thought Fellini had completely lost his mind.

The film shows Fellini's own frustration with the film industry as is masterfully displayed in the famous opening dream sequence. Right away Fellini is telling the viewer that this is a self-reflexive film. We are introduced to Guido while he is being asphyxiated by some kind of gas and trying to kick out the windows of his car, when he suddenly appears outside floating above his car. Guido then floats through his world and eventually above a beach (which we are given the information for later in the film) only to be pulled down by one of his associates (a producer, no doubt representing reality and the decisions Guido must make) who have a string tied around his leg. As Guido struggles to break free from the rope the producer tugs harder and Guido falls, then he wakes up.

The effect of this opening sequence is twofold: from a strictly aesthetic standpoint it's some of the best visual work (all the dream sequences are filmed beautifully, they are also the most fantastical moments of the film) Fellini ever did, showing that he was done with the neo-realist approach to filmmaking. The other effect the opening scene has is the self-reflexive nature of the scene. Since Guido is Fellini it can safely be interpreted that this must have been how Fellini felt while not only making 8 1/2, but any movie after the extremely popular La Dolce Vita. Fellini is telling us that the life of filmmaker working with all these movie producers and people employed by the studios is the same as the opening scene. The obscurity vs. clarity polarity is obviously there with the asphyxiation scene (studios wanting something creative from you even if you have nothing to offer them, another theme of the film), but also the fact that Guido is able to soar in his dream just a little bit, but when he flies by his set (notice how it's for a science fiction film) towards the producers on the beach, they want him down; who surely believe that you can only allow a creative force (like Fellini) so much time in the day to dream things up. A frustration that pulsates throughout the film as the need for decisions and deadlines weigh heavy upon Guido the only thing he can do is think about his childhood while everything around him in the present (the film, relationships) crumble.

The other scene I want to talk about is the origin of the moment where Guido probably decided he wanted to make movies. There is a flashback to Guido's childhood triggered by the password "Asa Nisi Masa" which Fellini explains in an interview is a game him and his friends used to play where they would add the suffix -si or -sa to the first letter of something they wanted to turn into a coded word. In the film one of Guido's friends tells him a story that if they don't utter those words at night before they sleep a picture on the wall will come to life. The correlation of making pictures move and making movies is brilliant and one of the best scenes of the film. If you break down the word further like Fellini explains it then you find a kind of password like Welles' "Rosebud". "Asa Nisi Masa" becomes anima meaning soul or force, but also some of the repressed female characteristics that can be found in men. This is portrayed in the brilliantly wild and funny Harem scene where Guido has all of the women from his life waiting on him hand and foot. It's as if he has them bottled up in his psyche, they are a major part of who he is.

The film excels on the deep interpretive level, no doubt, but it is also just a joy to savor all of its beautifully imagery and the amazing musical score by Nino Rota. It's a film that can lift your spirits by the sheer brilliance of which it was made, yes there are a lot of underlying themes, but more than anything its a film about filmmaking that excels in everything a film should be; which is important since everything we're watching is about what we're watching. The art of the film about a film is often lost on many filmmakers today who are too interested in the easy satire or in-jokes (Fellini was funny too, he kept a sign on the camera throughout 8 1/2 that read: "remember this is a comedy.") of Hollywood, but with 8 1/2 Fellini is interested in something much deeper.

No other film about filmmaking has as much depth as 8 1/2. Here is a man who is seeking all kind of cure methods while he's ruining relationships, meandering on the set and delaying the film (the scene where he is being forced to talk about what the movie is about is hilarious), a man who would rather contemplate on the past then do anything about the future of his film. And this is the point of the film and what makes it the best film about filmmaking. When Fellini was asked what he wanted with 8 1/2 he said he wanted to depict the "three levels upon which our minds live: past, present, and conditional." As a film professor I had once pointed out, notice how Fellini isnot the future, but instead the possible, the potential, the fantasy (think about the end of La Dolce Vita, it's not what his life will be like if he leaves the beach with his dream girl, it's all about the potential, the could of the situation is deafened by the breakers that drown out her voice).

Fellini's major films are more surreal, expressionist, postmodern. Some fault him for this, calling it willfully exhibitionist and aesthete. So the quote I threw in the title of this post makes the film sound nihilistic and teeming with the postmodern nonchalantness and irresponsibility that many of Fellini's detractors accuse him of. That is often the mistake with postmodern art, be it film or literature or whatever, the knock on it is that postmodern art is too nihilistic and doesn't care about the future. This assessment couldn't be more wrong, because the people who do postmodern art correctly understand what it truly represents: that through an explication of our past we can change how we are in the here and now. The future is always in question with postmodern art, much like it is with Guido and his film. He can't answer questions about the future of his film because he doesn't know what the future holds. Why let the future rule your life when you don't even have control of what's happening in the present? And this is what's at the heart of 8 1/2 and postmodern film and literature: how can we change the now to a better now. Yes, the film is exhibitionist (as is evident in the wonderful screen test scene where the theater acts as a confessional), but it's never exclusive; the invitation is there for us to be contemplate on life like Guido in the movie theater watching screen tests.

The above quote in the header suggests that there is something beyond the screen that is more important. 8 1/2 is a perfect example of how a film can use its techniques and moments within its story to evoke past memories -- nostalgia that makes us feel good about the present, the here and now. By exploring our past histories we can uncover newfound truths about ourselves we never knew; opening up parts of our anima, our soul or driving force, we never thought were possible. And isn't that the most wonderful and ultimate goal for all film, to move us and provide us with those moments of reflection?

As mentioned earlier 8 1/2 is the greatest film about filmmaking ever made; I also find it to be the greatest film ever made. It resonates with me the more I watch it. It's one of those rare films that excels at both being about as aesthetically perfect as a film can be and having a powerful and poignant narrative that never grows tiresome. This is the power of the film: like a good epistle or contemplative prayer by the great Thomas Merton, I can return to 8 1/2 numerous times because both its aesthetics and its narrative put me in a deep state of the contemplative. And isn't that the goal of most films? To resonate with us so deeply and on such a personal level that it becomes almost a religious text for us; opening up new worlds of personal discovery and epiphanies that help us learn from our past so that we can become better people today.

8 1/2 contains the power of a film that is, on the surface, a self-reflexive exercise by Fellini who threw everything on the screen for this movie, even having some fun with film criticism as the critic in the movie is the catalyst for the death of the film; but beneath its surface lies an invitation for the audience to think about our own pasts, think about how we treat the ones we love, and how to be an original thinker in a world that wants you tied to a string so at any given moment they can pull you down from your moment of reverie. It was about five years ago that I accepted this invitation when I sat down and watched 8 1/2 for the first time. Watch it by yourselves first, then watch it with friends -- freeze framing certain scenes and discussing the power that lies in each frame; this is a film of tremendous power and poignancy, a film filled with beautifully lighting and cinematography, a film that has some pretty funny satirical comments on the movie making business, and more than anything it's just an entertaining, wonderful film experience, unlike anything you have likely seen or will ever see after. It's the greatest film about filmmaking, yes, but it's also the greatest film of all time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Pineapple Express

David Gordon Green is one of the best filmmakers working today who some have even compared to the visual poet and master Terrence Malick. Would you have ever guessed that him and his friends that met at North Carolina Film School (his DP Tim Orr and the actor Danny McBride) wold collaborate with the Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen on a pot comedy? Yeah, it's a little surreal, but when I saw the red-band trailer for this movie months ago, I knew that these two camps couldn't miss if they were to collaborate. Pineapple Express is a perfect example of a visual poet adding his touches to a commercial Judd Apatow produced "bro-romance" . It's a film filled with surprises and the usual pot-fueled comedy routines, but it is all done with such visual beauty, a fresh take on things like car chases and people sitting around smoking pot, and it all ends with a subtle joke that seems to have been missed by many.


Jim Emerson on his scanners blog hit the nail right on the head with his analysis of the film. Check it out after you see the movie.  The reason I bring it up is because I am surprised by how many critics missed the joke of the film. The film itself is about as simple as you can get, and that's mainly because the joke of the movie is that this is exactly the type of movie that these two stoners would conjure up on their stained couches.

The story is about Dale Denton (Rogen) a process server who witnesses a murder. He leaves a joint behind and that's how Ted (the always brilliant Gary Cole) can trace the weed back to Dale's supplier Saul Silver who is the only person who has the particular type of weed that Dale was smoking (called pineapple express). This all leads to a horribly convoluted buddy chase movie in the vein of 70's movies like What's Up Doc? or anything by Cheech and Chong. But really the fact the story is so convoluted is irrelevant, because well, that's point. When the film stops being a pot movie and turns into a full blown action film from the 80's -- that's your sign to stop taking the film at face value.

Now it's not irreverent or obviously winking at the camera like the old Abrahms and Zucker Brothers movies, but if you understand what is being done in the final moments of the film, it makes the movie so much more enjoyable. Sitting there in the theater I couldn't stop laughing as Green and Apatow (and screenwriter Rogen) riffed on the conventional car chase ("just kick it with your foot, isn't that what they do in the movies?" "But how do you drive with only one foot?") or other exchanges like the morning after the big final showdown with all the drug dealers. They sit around eating a greasy breakfast and discussing how awesome everything was and who did what and how great it was when they did this...and you get the point.

Let's talk about that ending: for me it was one of the greatest things I have seen in a comedy in a long time. Better than the Michael Bay-parodied Hot Fuzz, the end of Pineapple Express is an olio of ever 1980's and early 90's action film I grew up watching. In this final scene, which takes place in an abandon barn complete with multiple levels and secret doors, I was reminded of the first two Lethal Weapon films (someone gets shot as they stand on a metal grate and then fall over and get their leg caught in a chain and swing from side to side, but sadly James Franco doesn't tell anyone to "go spit"), Double Impact or any Jean-Claude Van Damme movie for that matter (Seth Rogen and Gary Cole have an incredibly long fight scene plus there are barrels! If you've seen those movies, you know what I mean), any thing made by John Woo, I saw some Predator, some Commando, anything with Segal or Chuck Norris, any straight to video movie with ninjas or Billy Blanks, and I could go on...

The point is that these are all references that Rogen and Apatow and Green wanted to install into their film because this is how they think these two characters Dale and Saul would expereicne something like this. There is no reveal at the end of the movie that lets you know it was all a hazy brainstorm while they sat on the couch and smoked Saul's innovative "cross doobie" or that they were just dreaming this thing up all along in some passed out reverie. That's what makes the joke so great, because there is no way that one can watch this film with a straight face. I was surprised to hear Michael Philips and Richard Roeper the other night talking about how they were disappointed in the film and how ugly and violent it was at the end, and how it didn't match the tone. I was surprised they missed the joke, especially Roeper seeing how later in the show he recommended the brutally violent and gratuitous Hell Ride. I think they wanted the film to be something it was never intended to be, and Philips got it right when he said that the filmmakers are not at all interested in the commercial appeal of the film. It's all an in-joke, and I for one found it hilarious.

It's almost impossible to conventionally review this film (which I am not trying to do), but it all works if you find the references funny. It also works if you just like stoner comedies; the character of Red (Danny McBride) is bound to get some laughs, as well as Gary Cole asking "has anyone seen my big knife" as he holds a giant machete. But the finest joke is the fact that David Gordon Green directed this film, and the way he has cinematogrpaher Tim Orr shoots the final action scene (he shoots it in a style that is a straight throwback to 80's action movies, everything from the two main characters splitting up so they can have their own final showdowns with the villains they match up with, to the scene where someone rolls on the ground shooting a bunch of people and said shot people keep shooting their guns in the air.) is one of the best jokes in movies this summer, and one of the best comedies that Apatow and Rogen have collaborated on.

Oh yeah, and James Franco steals the movie...every scene belongs to him.

In Bruges

Man I love being surprised by movies.  Sometimes a movie just looks terrible, but then enough people start discussing how good the film is, and well, it's only a matter of time before you break down and watch the movie.  This is the case with In Bruges, a film that was marketed horribly with its awful trailers making the film look like just another Pulp Fiction wannabe (is that even possible 10+ years later?) -- Things to in Denver When You're Dead and 2 Days in the Valley sprang to mind when I saw the trailer, and if you remember those films, then you can see why I was less than enthusiastic about giving the film a shot.  Boy was I wrong.  In Bruges is a great film full of surprises; a film that is one of those rare experiences where you feel as if you don't know what's going to happen next.  It's vulgar and violent, beautifully juxtaposed by the main character of the film, the city of Bruges, with its historic architecture and beautiful art galleries.  It's a near brilliant film with a few odd detours that derail the films momentum, but it is brilliant if not for the sole reason that I was surprised how good the film was.

The film written and directed by the playwright Martin McDonagh (his first feature) is not so much quirky as it is distinct; a unique blend of vulgarity and contemplative moments about heaven and hell.  It stars Colin Farrell and the always great Brendan Gleeson as two hit men who are told to take two weeks off in the historic Belgium city Bruges.  The reason for the sabbatical is because of Ray (Farrell), who was asked to kill a priest, but when he shot the priest he accidentally shot a little kid praying (sounds implausible, but the way McDonagh sets you up for this scene is masterful).  This bit of collateral damage is made all the sadder when Ray sees a small piece of paper that has what the kid was praying about -- this moment is rare in that it evokes both poignancy and laughter, something that McDonagh and especially his actors pull off extremely well throughout out the film.

While in Bruges the characters are established.  You have Ray the young and brash hitman, suffering from his mistake on his last hit, and bored to tears in Bruges, where all he wants to do is drink and hang around a film set that has set up shop in the city.  Ken (Gleeson) is the veteran who is interested in getting Ray to put the incident of the kid behind him and focus more on sight-seeing and what the historic city has to offer.  One of the best scenes between these two in the city is when they are in an art gallery.  The images of the art contrasted with the face of Farrell (who has great facial expressions throughout) are wonderful and are a perfect example of the uniqueness of the film.

While in Bruges things happen (odd things involving racist dwarves and crazy canadians) that are hit and miss, but the heart of the story is what happens between Ken and Ray and how Ken so badly wants to help Ray get over his mistake and move on.  There is a scene of tremendous, surprising power on a park bench when Ray is trying to talk to Ken about what happened that day.  It's a great scene and shows that when Farrell is comfortable (usually when he can just be himself and talk in his native tongue) he can be a great actor.   I wouldn't dare reveal how the film unfolds (which is half the fun of the movie) but things happen and information is gathered, all resulting in the appearance of Ralph Fiennes as Harry who is their boss.  Fiennes is wonderful, having a lot of fun overacting and doing his best Ben Kingsley impersonation (I'm thinking of the Sexy Beast Kingsley, not the Gandhi Kingsley).  All of this culminates in a final 30 minutes that is just absolutely brilliant with visual nods to films like Touch of Evil and The Third Man and some truly inspired dialogue (especially how the dialogue reveals these three hitmen as having ethics and how they adhere to these ethics).

In Bruges is a film for anyone despite the way the trailer advertises it; it's a film for anyone who loves movies.  As mentioned earlier the movie does get sidetracked with a drug induced conversation between Ken and Ray, a movie star dwarf, and some hookers.  This scene tries a little too hard I think to be "edgy" or whatever, and it just falls flat.  It just doesn't belong in this movie, there was really no need for it considering the first half of the film was vulgar and un-PC enough.  However, it's a rare kind of film that Roger Ebert described as good a debut as Mamet's House of Games, and I think that's a good comparison.  With it's vulgar dialogue, sudden bursts of bloody (McDonaugh likes to use the color red) violence, it's beautiful on location cinematography, and its wonderful acting it's one of the better and most surprising movies of 2008.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies, #1: 8 1/2

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1) 8 1/2
dir. by Federico Fellini

In the interest of keeping this somewhat short and not overly analytical, I am going to use the bullet format to showcase some of the famous imagery and moments that make this my favorite film of all time: the masterful, beautiful, poignant, elegiac, sexy, and highly influential and innovative 8 1/2 by Federico Fellini. Fellini said that when he made 8 1/2 he wanted to create a film that showed the three levels upon which our minds live: past, present, and conditional. There isn't another film that I have seen that is both so pleasing and wonderful to look and still has the ability to move me every time I watch it. Most films will always have the aesthetics down, but the power of the film erodes after each viewing (think a film like The Bicycle Thief). Not so with 8 1/2, I still get a little choked up at the "audition" scene where all of Guido's sins are being displayed in the form of screen tests...but more on that later...here are the bullets, in a somewhat orderly matter:

Opening Sequence/Traffic Jam: An almost ethereal experience as some form of gas fills up Guido's (the main character played by the awesome Marcello Mastroianni) car and he can't seem to escape. The film is definitely an exercise in self-reflexive art. Guido is indeed Fellini (Marcello often represented forms of Fellini in all of his films) and in this opening sequence you can see Guido being suffocated. But then he appears out of the car and floats away...only to be pulled down ("down, for good.") by a man who is in control of the string attached to his leg. The metaphor is clear: the camera is the creative force, the liberator, and you have the producer, the money-man, pulling the director down from his heights to dwell in reality -- or rather what people will pay money to see. This is the dilemma for Guido (and Fellini who often said he "winged" it on the set of 8 1/2) as he cannot think of a way to get his film (read: life) started and on track. Guido is like any good Italian man...he loves women, and when he invites Clara the mistress to come to the shoot instead of his wife Luisa, that's when things get even murkier and more confused for the cheating Guido. And simply: it's one of the most amazing sequences I have seen in any film. The crazy and frantic opening shots, the compartmentalized imagery of arms hanging from a bus and quick shots of faces. There is such a weird feeling to the opening, and so much to see and admirer, that you may have to stop the film after the dream sequence is over, and start over again.

The Thermal Spa
: What's great about this scene is the use of music that accompanies the great tracking shot. It's one of the first films to use an already-composed piece of music as the guide track for the scene. Also, this introduces the always beautiful Claudia Cardinale as the woman of the spring, the muse Guido seeks all film. It's an amazing one-take tracking shot.

Framing/Blocking/Lighting/General Symbolism through mise-en-scene
: Throughout the film there are brilliant examples of mise-en-scene especially in the hotel sequence where Guido wanders the halls keeping watch on all of his production assistants working, but he has nothing creative to add to the process. Also, the scene where young Guido encounters Saraghina and the punishment from the priest that follows (and the tracking shot of young Guido and the portraits of all the priests on the wall) as he confesses, but decides to return the seductress Saraghina rejecting the sacred for the profane. Later in the film there is a masterful use of lighting as Guido sits in a car with his muse; she fully lighted, Guido dark except around the eyes, as if in a confessional booth. The moment is brilliantly executed. There are too many examples to share about blocking and lighting and so on...so I will just say, the entire film is a feast for the eyes. Visually, there is nothing boring about this film

The Women: Fellini always employed beautiful women to star in his films, and even though most of them are regulated to being ogled at; Luisa is one of the strongest female characters in a Fellini film. Played by the gorgeous Anouk Aimee, she isn't fooled once by Guido and his cheatin' ways. Her scene with Guido after the embarrassment of the screen tests is so sad and so telling of how Guido (Fellini) treats the woman he is supposed to love and be faithful to. The famous Harem sequence is also a hilariously overblown wet dream for Fellini, as all of the women in Guido's life come together to serve him, and when they are revealed to be too old or from a time too far past, they resorted to the "upstairs" where they are more Madonnas and caretakers than sexual objects; which means Guido will pay them no heed. It's a brilliant scene, hilarious and awful all at once, and very telling of how Fellini felt about women.

Shades/Glasses: A common image found in Fellini's films. Marcello wears shades in most of Fellini's films; representing a blindness to what is around him. Whenever Luisa is around or when there is some confusion about the plot of the movie, he puts the shades on, as some form of escapism and voluntary blindness. Luisa is the only woman seen without shades. Her normal glasses make her look "unattractive" (she really isn't), but they are clear lenses, able to see into Guido what he cannot. They are mirrors adding to the self-reflexive themes of the film. The screen test is just another example of what the glasses represent: mirrors. Also, by the end of the film when Guido has his epiphany, he is wearing clear lenses rather than shades.

The real vs the fantastic
: I have already mentioned the Harem scene, one of the most fantastical of the film, but also the whole nature of the film is a revolt against artistic reality -- remember Fellini began working right around the time Italian Neo-Realism was huge -- for artistic freedom. The film fades in and out from reality to fantasy (the influence here on Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is obvious) often times making it hard to tell which is which.

Control: Young Guido vs Mature Guido. Who controls what by the end of the film. 8 1/2 is the greatest film about a film ever made, and with that comes the importance of the director; the person who controls things. The entire film we see that Guido has little control over his film (read: his life) and by the end when we hear the words: "life is a celebration, let's live it together" it is an epiphianic moment, he may not change his womanizing ways, but he is inviting Luisa to join him in celebrating life, and he too for the first time will enjoy life with her. Guido has realized that he can't control everything, and that he should just live life and make films and enjoy everything as it comes. The dance around the spaceship structure at the end of the film is a beautiful image: the opposite of what Bergman portrays with his dance to conclude The Seventh Seal. Hear Fellini is interested in a dance of life, rejuvenation; a celebratory moment of reverie, keeping with the films dreamy feel, the end just lifts you up both emotionally and physically as you cannot help but get up and want to cheer for Guido. There is no way you cannot be moved by the end of this picture. It's simply the perfect example of narrative and aesthetic working together to create the most beautiful moments in film. It's why film is such a wonderful medium, 8 1/2 has the power to change who you are. Just like Guido the viewer is invited to use the film as a mirror to reflect on their own life and the choices they have made. It's a perfect example of the power of cinema.

Fellini invites you to participate with him in reexamining life and what it may mean for you. It's like the end of another Fellini film La Dolce Vita (clip is above for context), the symbolic "dream girl" turns to the camera and smiles: asking us whether or not we do indeed see. It's not a matter of if we hear the words over the breakers, it's whether or not we are able to see that her lips, her actions, are signaling for us to cross the threshold, take that first step towards the sweet life. She is physically uttering the words: "Come with me, I will usher you into a better life, a life of celebration; a life worth living." If you can see, then the dream girl, or whatever that may represent for you, is obtainable...but you have to be able to see. Take the shades off and see what life offers.

8 1/2 is such a beautiful film, not only asking us to reexamine as look in the mirror, but also inviting us to laugh. When Fellini was making the movie he kept a note on the camera that read: "Remember, this is a comedy." Reminding the viewer too that it's okay to laugh and enjoy life. There is no other film that moves me, makes me feel the poignancy and that special deep satisfaction and clarity -- a rare state of reverie, when you know you have just witnessed something special; something that leaves you speechless and in a a state of awe -- that is what 8 1/2 does to me every single time I watch it. It's something special and something to behold. I am glad I am able to talk about it and share it with you all. This is what film is capable of doing and this is why I am so passionate about it.

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies, #2: Pulp Fiction

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2) Pulp Fiction
dir. by Quentin Tarantino

Yeah I know. Pulp Fiction. Obvious, huh? I mean what 26 year-old film buff doesn't love this movie? But I don't really care if this is a somewhat predictable choice. Quentin Tarantino's masterful interpolated tale of seedy gangsters, their wives, sadomasochists, boxers, and inane drug dealers is still one of the freshest films I have ever seen. The film has been somewhat watered down due to all of the parodies and aped wannabe films that followed, but it was a rite of passage film for me; a film that was like a ferryman taking me across the river of casual film admirer to fully evolved film buff.

It's the first time I re-watched a film twice in one day. I remember it vividly, because I was never allowed to see the film, and I was staying over at a friends house (I think I was in like 6th grade or something) and we watched it -- shocked by what we just had seen -- we had to watch it again. There was no other choice...I mean, did that really just happen? Did we really just see what we though we saw? Wait is that the end of the film? These were the questions we turned and asked ourselves after the initial viewing. From that moment on, whenever anyone would ask me what my favorite movie was; I would mention Pulp Fiction. Whenever I was asked which film inspired me the most to leisurely write about film, I would mention Pulp Fiction. Whenever anyone would ask me: which film do you recommend for us tonight? I would answer Pulp Fiction. By now most everyone has seen the film, its influence on pop culture is well noted. It's a masterpiece of postmodern filmmaking and it pretty much introduced the world to the bizarre mind of Quentin Tarantino.

The film is still fun to watch too; time has not made the film easier to look back on be dismissive towards it. Yes, the buzz for the film and its merits were huge when the film came out; the kind of buzz that usually spells doom for the film five years down the road. However, Pulp Fiction still holds today with its weird pop-philosophy (see the clip above, which is actually quite moving), nostalgic postmodernism (the Jack Rabbit Slim's scene), outrageous violence ("I just shot Marvin in the face"), and quotable dialogue (there's too many to list here, but come on, who doesn't know the foot massage discussion, or ask anyone, even if they haven't seen the film, where the "Royale with cheese" line comes from, and you will always get the right answer). The film is also famous for the revitalization of John Travolta's career (damn you Tarantino, because of you we had to endure Mad City, Face/Off, Broken Arrow, Michael, The General's Daughter, and of course Battlefield Earth), but it also has tremendous and star making performances from Samuel L. Jackson -- who it seems to take a lot of roles that want him to be a different version of the Jules character he plays here -- Uma Thurman, and Ving Rhames. It's also interesting that this film, even after repeated viewings, is never not interesting. It still has the ability to make you laugh and squirm and sit on the edge of your seat (especially in the virtuoso scene of Vincent injecting a comatose and OD'd Mia).

What else can I say about the film. It's one of the best ever made, and its influence on the genre and film in general is immeasurable. Yes, there were a lot of horrible Pulp Fiction rip-offs (2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead) but it also made films like Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Tarantino's later film Jackie Brown more accessible to a larger audience. And anytime you can flood the cinema with something a little edgier and a lot different than the usual Hollywood crap that comes out, well then, we should all thank Pulp Fiction for that. Truly one of the best films ever made...ah...but there is one that is better. As I grew up even more and enriched my palette I found a film that excels in both narrative and aesthetics in a way that no other film I have ever seen has. That would be my selection for my favorite film of all time which is...tune in tomorrow to find out.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Kevin's Favorite 25 Movies: 5 - 3

It's been awhile since I posted on here, so in lieu of a really long post about my top five favorite films, I will just post the top three for now, and then save the top two for tomorrow. Also, I have been real busy this week, so there shall be more blogging this week (mostly because Tieryn is gone for three weeks, so what else am I going to do) as I have reviews to put up here for Speed Racer, Hellboy, Indiana Jones (finally!), and Mad Men: Season One. Also a book review for Martin Amis' The Second Plane: September 11 Terror and Boredom. A brilliant collection of essays and two short stories by Britain's greatest author. Plus...much much more comin' your way here as I plan to finally get out the theater again regularly (the theater sabbatical was looong, as is evident by the fact that it took me two months to finally see Indiana Jones a film I was waiting on pins and needles to see...) and see Hellboy II, The Dark Knight, The Strangers, and the brilliantly titled Midnight Meat Train. On with the countdown!

Click to watch video

5) The Godfather
dir. by Francis Ford Coppola

What can one say about The Godfather that hasn't been said a million times, already? There is no real point in trying to give insight or praise the films many merits, because that has already been done to death. People a lot smarter than me have looked at Coppola's masterpiece frame by frame and dissected the film in ways I could never do justice. The film is a benchmark -- one of those films that you know you need to see, but you are never quite sure why until you lay eyes upon it -- a masterpiece of the crime saga that looks at all other copies in its rear view mirror. There will never be another film like The Godfather -- the closest anyone has come is Sergio Leone with his masterful, yet overly-long, Once Upon a Time in America. Coppola evokes so much nostalgia with his film that even for someone like me who obviously wasn't born then, feels a part of that nostalgia. It's the first truly 'classic' film I ever watched...and everything about is classic, there is really nothing monumentally groundbreaking about the film, but it never disappoints, and it paved the way for so many pretenders to try and be as poignant and violent, cruel and sincere as The Godfather.

But other crime films fail at creating a world where those dualities are so seamless, and oddly enough, even inviting. From the opening moments of the wedding scene, the viewer feels a part of the Corrleone family. A sly trick that Coppola uses (and later Scorsese would use in Goodfellas) in letting the viewer feel a part of this community; that way it's easier to dismiss the violent acts they commit and still view them as sympathetic characters. Coppola's film doesn't glamorize organized crime or the life they lead (especially the way they treat women), but they certainly look good doing it, and the films photography and sets and costumes are so authentic that the film truly does emit a genuine American Classic film aura. Even though it was made in the 70's, I cannot help but think of The Godfather in the same terms that I think of Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and other landmark American film classics.

Plus...just look how awesome the cross-cutting is during the scene posted above. It's an ultimate (read: authoritative) and timeless textbook for any aspiring filmmaker.

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4) Blade Runner
dir. by Ridley Scott

Reprinted from an essay I wrote for a film class. The paper was on film noir, so the essay may make references to other films, but for the most part it involves most of what I find so fascinating and hypnotic about my fourth favorite film Blade Runner. It's beautiful, sad, poetic, exhilarating, and a rare film that will always leave who in contemplative state after viewing it (all experiences one feels in the moments of the scene posted above, all of which makes so much more sense in context, but watch it anyway). Just an amazing film. Now for the boring essay excerpt...enjoy!:

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner reverses this notion I have been discussing with Chinatown, the idea of what Jameson introduces that to look into the past, filmmakers are saying something about the present. With Blade Runner, we get the opposite, a look into the future to show the over consumerism and consumption of mass commercialism. So is Blade Runner a film noir? I would call it a cyber-noir, or postmodern-noir, with stylish elements that allow the viewer to think deeper about some of postmodernisms key ideas. Many critics like Roger Ebert, simply say that it is all style and no substance, a film that is only interested in its grandiose set design, and not in explaining or elaborating on the rich and complex storyline created by Philip K. Dick. I disagree with Ebert though, I think that if one looks at the film hard enough they can see the noir elements that are there as well as the ideas of one of postmodernism’s most influential thinkers, Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard introduces in his book Simulations the idea of a “hyperreality” (2) and the “loss of the real” (25), copies become what we associate with real and Blade Runner seeks to explore these deep questions in two ways: one is through the idea of escaping this world and living a better life on the “off world” a kind of hyperreal existence, and looks to the characters of Roy and Pris replicants created by the Tyrell corporation, to see if we as a society can rise up against the corporations that look to control us through commercialism. The other way which the film explores Baudrillard’s thinking is through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel. Baudrillard’s claim can best represent all of the films discussed when he says: “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (12).

One of the first shots of the film, and one of its most famous, is of the city with its towering digitalized billboards (pictured above) and a voice that can be heard telling people to escape to the “off world” where there are no problems and you can start you life over, away from “reality.” This is a place where your “dreams can come true.” These are the sounds of an, “easy money,” get rich quick mentality that was rampant in the 1980’s. All of life’s problems go away if you run away from them. The voice is head over the city, a city that has turned into a large scale, run-down Chinatown. This “off world” idea is what Baudrillard is getting at with his idea of the simulacrum, the copy without an original, life is good and life is easy if you leave the “real” world for your own that you can create. This is the idea behind Baudrillard’s mention of the “reality” of Disneyland:

Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of ‘real’ America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. (25)

So, this “off world” vacation that is offered to those who live in the Los Angeles of 2012, is the same that is being offered to those who live in the present of 1982. This loss of the real and hyperreality show how Blade Runner is unlike any other noir, it is dealing with the questions of consumerism through the realm of what has been called cyber-noir. And even though the noirish qualities of the film best represent the relationship between Deckard and Rachel one cannot ignore the films main point: that through commercialism and over-consumption we can alleviate all of our problems, we can let the replicants, or Others, that look so much like us, “expire” while we buy and consume anything we can to make ourselves feel more like men or women, and we equate this commercialism to happiness, when in reality we are just as the replicants are, and the film asks us if we can be like Roy and Pris and rebel against the Tyrell corporation, if we as society, can rebel against the commercialism that plagues our society, that is turning us humans into robots. This leads me to my next point about the film, the “reality” of its characters, especially as it is seen through the relationship between Deckard and Rachel.

When the film was initially released in 1982 it had Ford’s narration guiding the viewer through the story, also providing a traditional nostalgic homage to the great noir films of 40’s and 50’s. The ending was left ambiguous, in fact, in the 1982 version you weren’t sure whether or not Deckard was a replicant or not. Creating an even bigger dilemma with him having to “expire” Roy and Rachel and the other replicants. When the film was released years later in a “director’s cut” the narration was axed and a happy ending tacked on. The ambiguity was gone, Deckard and Rachel leave for the “off world” and live happily ever after. In the original film you are never quite sure if Deckard is a human or not. For instance, the scene where Deckard kisses Rachel, before hand he keeps her from leaving his apartment and traps her by the window, the way Deckard moves is robotic, and when they kiss, Rachel shows more emotion than Deckard. In another scene we see Rachel crying, where Deckard, it seems, is incapable of emoting anything. Of course the problematic 'signs' of humanity are the crux of the film, built into the very images used to forward the story. I think it very telling that it was the aspects of Blade Runner that most challenged ideas of humanity that were cut or altered. In particular, the removal of the Unicorn Dream sequence also removed the most obvious suggestion that Deckard was a replicant. And Deckard's voice-over telling us "Rachel was special - no termination date," changes the impact of Gaff's final line: "Too bad she won't live. But then again, who does?” In the original release Gaff is seen as outsmarted, as opposed to philosophically correct in the Director's Cut. I think these changes give the film less impact at the end.

The themes/meaning behind the film changes, the ambiguity is gone, and all of the mystery of the replicant/human dilemma seems to be removed. That haunting last line loses all of its power. However, the form/techniques used to introduce these themes are as strong as ever. Especially the lighting in the film, the heavy use of backlighting, hard lighting and light coming through moving objects – fans – make the film's grim future alive. The lighting also adds to the feeling of film noir. Many science fiction movies are shot in an unnaturally hard light, as if they were shot in a hospital (for example Stanley Kubrick's 2001: Space Odyssey). In Blade Runner we have a vivid feeling of dark alleys, sinister rooms and chambers, which is essential to old detective stories. These lighting techniques also introduce us to the ambiguous love affair between Deckard and Rachel. Notice how Rachel and Ray are usually lit in bright light, and how Deckard and the other humans are always in darkness. The opposite is used in most film noir. Ridley Scott’s idea to light the film this way is brilliant as one can see though the still shot provided, Deckard looks nor more “alive” than the replicant Rachel. By looking into the future, the film questions the state of the world in 1982, a time when this kind of postmodern thinking was starting to be embraced. Simulations was published a year after this film was released, but already the short stories of Philip K. Dick were introducing people to these postmodern ideas.

All of this to say: Blade Runner is the quintessential neo-noir. It has been called neo-noir, cyber-punk, and postmodern, but it is the perfect example of how a filmmaker can take a genre like film noir, and create something completely new, something that is completely elevated above every other kind of noir picture. Only Blade Runner and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet succeed in taking the noir genre and elevating it into high art.

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3) Vertigo
dir. by Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo just may be one of the rare films that will transcend all time. The film was made in 1958, but for me it is timeless. An always creepy tale of deception and obsession, it also plays as a self-reflexive psycho sex-thriller. Yes, that sounds like weird description for a film from the 50's, but Hitchcock did something amazing with Vertigo, he got it made in the 50's. I have no reason to believe he came across any kind of trouble making the film, I mean he could make anything he wanted and he had the All-American Jimmy Stewart as the films star, but I wonder what audiences thought as the film unfolded into a bizarre tale of obsession. It's one of the creepiest films I have ever seen, and I remember being younger and watching it ready to not be impressed, because obviously, some old movie from the 50's wasn't going to scare me. Boy was I wrong.

The film is hypnotic, from the first images of the vertigo you are sucked into the film and have given yourself to its powers. Watching it then I realized that the film was great because it held my attention at such a young age; watching it now, I am amazed at how much Hitch was allowed to get away with, and just how much of himself he put into this film via the Jimmy Stewart character. It was well known (and obvious when you watch his films) that Hitch loved certain actresses, especially if they were blond. Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, Eva Marie Saint, Janet Leigh, and in Vertigo Kim Novak. It is also known through numerous books and documentaries, that he was somewhat living vicariously through his characters who were in love with these blond beauties. When one views Vertigo through this self-reflexive lens, the film takes on a whole other exhibitionist angle (not nearly as much as Rear Window); an angle that reveals a director who is not only particular, but almost creepy in how demanding he is about the particulars. Look at the scene above; I think it's safe to say that that could be Hitch and his actresses over the years.

But more than anything the film is classic Hitchcock with its tense mystery surrounding amazing set pieces and good looking actors. The film is not as heralded as Psycho (innovative) or Notorious (classic filmmaking), but for me it's the apex of Hitch's career, and a decade that saw him make his best films: I Confess, North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Strangers on a Train, The Wrong Man, Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and Vertigo. A productive year that showcased his comedic side -- by making the fun To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest -- which would give way to his darkest film a year after his best decade: Psycho. I like to think of Vertigo as the foundation for what we would see in Psycho and the later films like Frenzy.

In Vertigo he created a film that must have been taboo for the era, a film that spends a lot of time on the topics of obsession and sex. What Hitchcock wanted to do with these always interesting topics (and usually the number one and two cause for murder) is show how easy it is for an innocent to get sucker punched by them. When the big reveal comes along about half way through the film, you breathe easy because you think you have all of it figured it out. But then Stewart's character, feeling embarrassed for having left himself so vulnerable, spirals into madness and takes his obsession to a level rarely seen in a movie theater in the 1950's. It's a perfect film, and is easily the greatest work Hitchcock ever did.