friday, january 22, 2010
NightwatchingThe particular epiphany that opened the doors of understanding about cinema to me seems almost prosaic to the point of insignificance when articulated directly: everything in a film is there for a reason.
Well, isn't it obvious? Yes, of course it is. Which might be why I overlooked it for so very long. The import of this simple idea is transformed into something breathtakingly profound when it is unshackled from the stultifying inertia of plot and allowed to blossom in the vast fields of possibility the medium can lay claim to.
Peter Greenaway's 2007 film Nightwatching takes this conceit and runs with it. On one level it is a retelling of the story of behind the creation of Rembrandt van Rijn's masterpiece, The Night Watch. On another it's a dissertation on how a work of art must be understood within the context it was created in. read more
monday, july 27, 2009
Paris, TexasThe German director Wim Wenders and American playwright Sam Sheppard began the collaboration that would become the 1984 film Paris, Texas, with nothing but "this one character and the landscape he would show up in."
The character was a travel-worn and weather-beaten man in a dusty suit and distinctive red baseball hat. The landscape was the harsh South Texas wasteland of Big Bend National Park. And from that the pair proceeded to weave one of the most compelling cinematic tales of the era.
Although the start of Paris, Texas seems somewhat arbitrary, it's vastly important that the tale begins with this unusual protagonist, Travis Henderson (a superb Harry Dean Stanton) crossing a threshold - the US/Mexico border at Terlingua, Texas. He's moved out of nowhere into somewhere. Although the dingy South-Texas border town where "the dust has come to stay" certainly doesn't seem like much to speak of. read more
monday, may 25, 2009
Pandora's BoxFilm, due to its nature as a primarily visual medium, is often a pursuit of the proper objects of our obsessions. More often than not this ends up with a product that spends its energies putting a premium on pulchritude and lacks any suitable involvement of desire. Few directors understood this as early and as well as silent film director Georg Wilhelm Pabst.
It's difficult to know if the director understood what he was getting when he espied the young, and undeniably lovely, Louise Brooks and selected her as his lead in Pandora's Box (Die Büchse der Pandora) - the retelling of Frank Wedekind's "Lulu" plays. Brooks, it turned out, was much much more than just another pretty face.
Her attractiveness - both in terms of physical appearance and sexual magnetism - didn't simply provide a centerpiece for a particular film; it scratched the deeper levels of the medium's potential. Critic Andrew Sarris felt her beauty was evidence of cinema's ability to touch on the universal aspects of the human condition. read more
monday, april 06, 2009
Beauty and the BeastUpon first viewing, Jean Cocteau's 1946 film Beauty and the Beast (La belle et la bete) is a delightful interpretation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont's version of the famous fairy tale. It appears to be an innocent diversion for any age but appearances are often deceiving.
Like it's source, Cocteau's story of Beauty (Josette Day) and her improbable lover (Jean Marais) proves to have a very deep and somewhat darker subtext when subjected to a more concentrated examination. Still, not only does it prove capable of the scrutiny, it loses none of its considerable charm as a result. Beauty and the Beast belongs to that rare category of cinema where watching the film encourages the viewer to explore the possibilities of their own imagination.
Like all great works of art, the testament of the filmmaker's craftsmanship of the filmmakers is the seeming effortlessness in telling the tale. And the delights of the film are a starting point for those who are open to perceiving its splendors. At some point, Beauty and the Beast takes willing suspension of belief and allows it to blossom into a fantastic adventure for the imagination. read more
monday, march 23, 2009
Valley GirlValley Girl is a film that really had no right to be as good as it actually turned out to be. It emerged from the odious low-budget teen flick genre that was almost inescapable the early '80s.
Most of these films consisted of a threadbare plot, a surfeit of scatological humor and a minimum number of breasts to keep the audience interested. The vast majority were completely forgettable with, perhaps, a few dozen or so being memorable for a particular sequence or, perhaps, the presence of an actor far better than the material. But maybe a handful were very good and one or two absolutely superb.
And in 1982, director Martha Coolidge made one of the very best with Valley Girl. Although she had the sparse budget typically given to these efforts she was determined to make a movie that told a story. In doing so, she created a film that became a truer document of a particular place and time - Southern California in the early 1980s - than any number of cinematic efforts that followed in its footsteps. read more
monday, march 16, 2009
The Rules of the GameThe first time I saw Jean Renoir's 1939 masterpiece The Rules of the Game (La Regle du jeu) it was at the behest of a film expert that held the work in the highest esteem. I found it interesting although a bit curious and, in the end, a bit wanting for all the fuss that had been made about it.
Still, I have never found such a broad consensus about a work on the part of such a divergent set of critics. The film is almost universally considered one of the greatest ever made.
Either all these film experts were vastly mistaken or my ability to understand the work was wanting and the latter seemed an infinitely more probable possibility.
Upon rewatching The Rules of the Game more than 15 years later I was astonished to discover it offered almost completely different experience - one of a rich and complex work that left me slack-jawed by its power. A fair bit of that can be attributed to my greater experience and familiarity with film as a medium but part of it was one of the more subtle traits of the work. read more
monday, january 12, 2009
The Taking of Pelham One Two ThreeAs guilty pleasures go, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three gives a decidedly robust amount of pleasure for reasons one should not feel guilty for in the least. The delicious surprise of the film on first viewing gives way to a wonderful fascination in the careful craftsmanship when watched repeatedly.
The 1974 film depicts the hijacking of a New York City subway train and subsequent effort to secure one million dollar ransom for the release of 18 hostages. It becomes an unlikely cat-and-mouse game between a buffoonish transit cop, Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) and the tightly wound leader of the hijackers, Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw).
What Pelham delivers is a fantastic updating of the classic caper film using the conventions of the police procedural. It's crafted with watchwork precision that is something of a surprise given the director, Joseph Sargent, previous efforts were mainly television serials. Despite a resume stocked with episodes of Gunsmoke and Star Trek, he shows an innate sense of control through the entirety of Pelham despite the temptation of excess one would suppose a feature film would offer. read more
monday, december 29, 2008
DeliveranceIt is a significant tragedy that the power of John Boorman's 1972 masterpiece, Deliverance, has almost completely been lost to cliche. In the three-and-a-half decades since its release, this strange tale of a river rafting trip gone horribly awry has become cultural shorthand to identify the perception of the south as inbred, violent and backward.
Screenwriter David Gerrold once wrote that "any great truth can - and eventually will - be expressed as a cliche." The implication being that every cliche masks a profound truth worth exploring once you plumb the depths of meaning beyond the empty shell of significance that has been left to litter our common parlance.
That certainly applies to Deliverance - the very name of which has become shorthand for a type of crude stereotype of the American South. It's now considered evidence for the backward excess attributed to the region despite being a brilliant dissection of the fallacies that hide behind such assumptions. read more
wednesday, november 26, 2008
Stalag 17In 1953 the Second World War had not been over a full decade and, perhaps, too short a time to present a film depicting the conditions of German prisoner-of-war camps in a realistic manner. But a comedy within that setting was a goldmine of possibilities for the genius of director Billy Wilder.
Stalag 17 may not be the director's masterpiece but it is a brilliant example of his ability to create a popular film loaded with subversive subtexts and his signature cynicism. Although he swaddles it all in broadly (and sometimes badly) played humor it's unmistakably there. And in that respect it was decades ahead of it's time.
Yet, today, Stalag 17 is difficult to appreciate on its own terms primarily due to the television show it served as the inspiration for, Hogan's Heroes. The first casualty of the limpid sitcom is Wilder's sharp wit and acuity but the ham-fisted humor remained intact. Because, lets be honest, Wilder offered up better funny than what's on display in Stalag 17 on lots of occasions. read more
thursday, november 20, 2008
Red DesertWe are so accustomed to the rich hues of colors that saturate movies that imagining a world at the point this revolutionary aspect of filmmaking was introduced can be difficult. While the introduction of sound is heralded as a revolutionary step forward for the medium but the advent of color seems almost mundane in comparison - an inevitability, if you will.
Yet it seems a great deal of daring work by a number of directors in the early years of color broke incredible ground with this powerful tool and paved the way for the template of its use we take almost completely for granted today. It's helpful to step back and look at these efforts from time-to-time and none are more important than Michelangelo Antonioni's first color film, 1964's Red Desert (Il deserto rosso).
Like many of the famed Italian director's efforts, Red Desert defies conventional plot-driven storytelling in favor of an elliptical narrative that uses the visual strengths of the medium to explore emotional states and feelings. Antonioni's hallmark moodiness and existential concerns are in full display here as well as the director's fondness for long takes and stylized set work. read more
monday, october 06, 2008
NotoriousNo matter how much you prepare yourself for Hitchcock at his best, you simply are not ready for the power of his skill as a director. For year's I had intended to see his 1946 masterpiece Notorious but never did for one reason or another. Finally, at the incessant urgings of a cinephile whose opinion I value quite highly, I ponied up for the (sadly out of print) Criterion re-release.
And, of course, was completely blown away.
If it's not the best movie I've ever seen, it's certainly in the top five. It's taught but effortless, charismatic but disturbing and probably the best example of Hitchcock's sometimes flitting humanity - a glorious element of his earlier work that sadly became overshadowed by his cynicism in his later films.
As one might suspect for a tale involving Nazi's plotting revenge from a safe haven in Brazil, Notorious teems with intrigue, plots and suspense but it transcends all of it to tell one of the post powerful love stories ever committed to celluloid. It is a tale of a fallen woman seeking redemption for the excesses of her past and a man unable to believe she has been able to change. read more
monday, july 28, 2008
Nanook of the NorthThe blasted hoary wastelands of the Canadian Arctic seem a strange place for film to have come to the crossroads of its development. When filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty undertook an unprecedented project in the early 1920s to record the lives of the Intuit Indians that lived in the Hudson Bay the result was nothing less than revolutionary.
Flaherty's 1922 film Nanook of the North was a massive commercial success but, beyond that, it was nothing less than creation of an entirely new branch of cinema as well as redefining the aesthetic baseline for the medium as a whole. Upon its release, the film was enormously popular becoming one of the best known for the entire silent era.
It's impact can be found in the overwhelming number of stereotypes about Inuit peoples that it popularize - kissing with their noses, building igloos and waiting patiently over air holes in the ice for their prey; even the common use of the term "Eskimo" to describe these peoples. read more
monday, july 21, 2008
On the WaterfrontWatching Elia Kazan's masterpiece On the Waterfront for the first time is to behold a film with which one is already intimately familiar. It's pacing, setting and tone have been copied and referenced so often it is now part of how we conduct discourse about the medium.
To put it simply, if you make a crime film you have to respond to the gauntlet thrown down by Kazan and Marlon Brando in 1954. And the parts of the film that pack the most power have long lapsed into the realm of cliche, making approaching them on their own terms a tough proposition.
Moreover, there is the inescapable backstory of director's Kazan's controversial testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). The director's act of "naming names" of movie industry players who had connections with the Communist part cannot be separated from the work. read more
monday, july 14, 2008
NashvilleLudwig Wittgenstein once claimed that a serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes. While the Austrian logician he made the claim to in order to highlight a specific point about language, it turns out the sentiment applies quite well to film.
Witness Robert Altman's 1975 masterpiece, Nashville. On one level it is a hysterical skewering of a type of cloistered regionalism and the eccentric oddities that it produces. But on another level it's a satirical exegesis about America as a whole and never more serious as when it's pulling your leg.
The movie packs the stories of two-dozen characters in Nashville, Tennessee just prior to a 1976 presidential primary. Given its setting pretty much every tale revolves around music and the industry of making it to some degree. read more
friday, june 13, 2008
The 3penny OperaThe 3penny Opera (or Die 3groschenoper) is a film that has been almost completely overshadowed by its history.
Derived from the tremendously popular play its passage from page to screen was a famously stormy one. Playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill sued the filmmakers for breach of contract. After it was made the Nazis banned it and destroyed almost every known negative leaving it to be seen only through adulterated copies for more than 75 years.
In 2006, a new version of the film was finally made using a camera negative and the result was a version of the work that is nothing more than a complete revelation. Last year, the Criterion Collection released this on DVD and it is almost like witnessing a new version of this Weimar-era masterpiece. read more
monday, june 09, 2008
The Treasure of the Sierra Madrehe Treasure of the Sierra Madre towers over modern film like few other movies in history. Its influence, direct or indirect, makes it a Rosetta Stone for unlocking the ethical underpinnings of almost every film examining the murky depths of man's own shaky morality in the modern world.
The story of the trio of prospectors, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) and the grizzled old veteran Howard (Walter Huston) searching for their fortune in the rugged and ruthless mountains of Central Mexico during the 1920s has lost not a whit of its power in the six decades since it's release.
Bogart and the film's director John Huston first joined forces in the classic film-noir thriller The Maltese Falcon. The success of that film made the actor a star and gave Huston the directorial clout to undertake the more unorthodox The Treasure of Sierra Madre.Film critic Roger Ebert once praised the The Maltese Falcon as a beautiful synthesis of image, action and dialogue and this mastery of the medium extends seamlessly into The Treasure of Sierra Madre. If anything, Huston moves beyond the confines of his previous work as he brings the camera out of the studio and into the world at large. read more
monday, june 02, 2008
ZodiacThe truth, may in fact, set one free. But attaining it comes at a fantastically high cost. In a world increasingly insistent on facts as the preferred currency of knowledge it's more than a little surprise to many that truth remains as elusive to us as ever.
Although David Fincher's film Zodiac wears the guise of a classic police procedural drama, this strange elusiveness of certainty about the world around us is the real subject it addresses.
The subject practically requires it. The film is about the so-called Zodiac killer claimed to have slain 37 people in California during late 1960s. It's a pretty paltry total for a classic American serial killer but doing people in wasn't Zodiac's real point of genius.
The case gained its real notoriety in the killer's brazen boasts to police though the media. Mailing a series of ciphers and taunting letters to various newspapers - notably the San Francisco Chronicle - the killer was able to create a harrowing public persona that gripped much of northern California throughout his period of activity. read more
monday, may 12, 2008
JawsSteven Spielberg's adventure across the landscape of modern culture began the summer of 1975 with a little film about a big fish. Jaws went on transcend the movie theater and became a phenomena in and of itself.
It became a footnote in this area two years later when another young filmmaker, George Lucas, unleashed his unconventional science fiction epic upon an unsuspecting public. Today it's almost impossible to examine Star Wars outside of its wider societal impact but Jaws still stands resolutely on its own merits.
Because Spielberg seemed to understand from the very beginning that what he was making was a horror movie - nothing more and nothing less. Rather than stooping to the camp trapping the genre had become associated with, he delved deeper in telling his tale to tap into the more primal elements that have allowed it to endure. read more
monday, may 05, 2008
The TrainKnowing what makes something art is not simply a matter of knowing what you prefer. And knowing if it's worth getting killed for is another matter entirely.
Once beyond the casual ignorance of relativism one invariably finds that art and the idea of aesthetics becomes a very complicated very fast. And as difficult as figuring out what makes something art there is the even thornier problem of understanding its intrinsic value.
On first glance, John Frankenheimer's excellent 1964 film The Train would seem to be an unlikely vehicle for this kind of heady discourse. It's ostensibly an action film - a Burt Lancaster vehicle designed to help the star recover from the poor showing of his previous movie.
You expect it to move fast, move forward and always keep its eyes on the plot. And it certainly delivers in those respects but it is quite a bit more than that. Somehow, what emerged was something transcendent. read more
wednesday, april 30, 2008
Grand HotelAn inordinate amount of the influential filmmaking that has created our modern approach to cinema is often described as a reaction to the massive and affluent studio system in Hollywood. Particularly that of its so-called Golden Age - the period following the silent era dominated by the five major studios; MGM, Paramount, RKO, Warner Bros, and Twentieth Century Fox.
While the sins and transgressions of this period are many and well documented but it's also important to realize that its successes were massively influential as well. And the 1932 blockbuster Grand Hotel is a perfect example.
About the same time that Grand Hotel was being made, the Germans were hard at work coming up with Expressionism. Lacking the resources of the American film industry they leaned large on their vivid creativity. In less than a decade those directors would fuel a Noir renaissance in Hollywood. read more
thursday, april 24, 2008
Point BlankPoint Blank might possibly be the most subversive action film ever made. Wrapping itself gleefully in the vestments of the genre it inexorably deflates the iconography that it, ironically, defined ever after. Point blank, the film suggests, may be a blank point.
Ostensibly, the 1967 film chronicles the relentless quest of a driven man, in this case Lee Marvin’s Walker. What director John Boorman succeeds in doing is questioning the underpinning of the quest itself by simply asking “Why?”
That existential query proves devastating to a man whose very name is an active verb.Still, the film starts in stasis. In a prison cell. Literally and figuratively. Walker even says so. "Cell." “Prison cell.” he utters flatly. "How did I get here?"
He is starting from nothing. It’s all been taken. Or thrown away. It's hard to say. But still he arises and finds a way to continue. It takes some doing but, once he gets going he’s certainly got inertia on his side. The problem is there is nothing else. But that can wait for later. read more
monday, april 21, 2008
Swimming to CambodiaThe unexamined life, as Socrates famously pointed out, is not worth living. By that standard, Spaulding Gray lived one of the most fantastic lives of worth. Sadly, he didn’t see it that way.
For most of his adult life, Gray ruthlessly dissected his experiences in performances that were basically autobiographical monologues. It was a pursuit that should have kept him comfortably ensconced in the suffocating embrace of the New York art scene.
In 1987 filmmaker Jonathan Demme made a movie of one of Gray’s best-known monologues, Swimming to Cambodia. It was a fortuitous collaboration and, as a direct result, this offbeat artist’s particular métier was able to find a much wider audience. Which is all the more surprising when one considers the disaster this film could have been in the hands of lesser artists. read more
friday, april 18, 2008
Stop the PressesBetween 2004 and 2006, approximately 200 journalists working at The Dallas Morning News lost their jobs. Some were laid off, others opted for a voluntary buyout and good old attrition snagged a few as well. By the time it was all said and done approximately 30 percent of the newsroom staff was eliminated.
Manny Mendoza was one of the staffers who took the buyout. Instead of heading off to Vegas for a year's worth of poker playing as the former arts and entertainment critic previously vowed, he decided to join forces with Dallas filmmaker Mark Birnbaum and document what had happened.
He wanted to examine the unholy combination of forces that made the cuts necessary and look at the impact on the reporters and editors who were affected. read more
thursday, april 17, 2008
RashomonTruth and justice, while not mutually exclusive, are not at all the same thing. Moreover, neither is necessarily helpful in understanding the desires of the human heart. Akira Kurosawa’s legendary 1950 film Rashomon is justifiably famous for demonstrating the paradoxes created by the former but is often overlooked for its incisive examination of the latter.
Which is odd since not only is this theme powerful in every frame of the film it is also stated outright by the director in his autobiography. He explicitly points out that he chose to film a version of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s story In a Grove because it “goes into the depths of the human heart as if with a surgeon’s scalpel, lying bare its dark complexities and bizarre twists.”
Rashomon is a masterpiece and foundational work of cinema not because it undertakes these questions but because it asks them in such a unified and powerful manner. The entire aesthetic of the film works as a whole to deliver its message. It is a film to be experienced not simply watched. read more
monday, april 07, 2008
The 39 StepsAlfred Hitchcock looms formidably over modern cinema to the point that undertaking the examination of his work can be a daunting endeavor. But it is worth remembering that one of the key reasons his work has retained its importance for so long is because it’s so damned enjoyable to watch.
Best of all, it’s funny. Wickedly funny.
What makes it amazing is that you can start from there and go just about any direction you want because he’s taken such meticulous care in crafting the thing that it’s packed full of meaning waiting to be unleashed to the curious observer. But that’s certainly not a necessary requirement when you sit down to get started. All you need to do is sit back and trust him to do his thing.
The 39 Steps is seen as the high-water mark of the famed director’s stretch working for UK film companies before he decamped to Hollywood. This twelve-year span was less a period of apprenticeship than a honing of the skills he would then explore to their extremes over the rest of his career. It served as the genesis of his genius as the pre-eminent auteur. read more
friday, april 04, 2008
Casino RoyaleJames Bond has come to be inseparably associated with an array of characteristics and accoutrements rather than any essential aspect of the character himself. It’s worked very well for the endurability – and profitability – of the franchise but it leads to a suspicion that there is nothing at the center at all.
What you see is what you get and, no matter how charming and elegant the outward appearance. For the viewer, it’s the perfect character for wish fulfillment, so much so that the franchise has done quite well for the past several decades on the momentum of its own conventions and charm.
Which is why Casino Royale was such an odd shock when released in 2006. Instead of a modernization or revisualization it is a concentrated study of one of the more conflicted characters in modern fiction and what those conflicts suggest about ourselves. read more
wednesday, april 02, 2008
The Italian JobAmong their many eccentricities, the British foster an astonishing adoration for motor vehicles. It’s not just an idle fancy either, it’s of sufficient scale to almost counter their distressing disdain for possessing a proper cuisine.
Which is probably why the film The Italian Job works so particularly well even in light of the fact it really has no business doing so. This Michael Cane led caper film from 1969 should have been a cookie-cutter copy of any number of similar movies foisted to the public as general consumption in that era but its not. It’s a vivid and wonderful romp that has proven to be as durable of any film of that era.
Producer Michael Deeley has called The Italian Job "the first eurosceptic film" and summed up the idea behind the plot as simply “us versus them.” On one level it takes on the classic youth vs age with the cheeky young Charlie Croker taking on not just the authority of the Italians but Mr. Bridger as well. read more
thursday, march 27, 2008
Hiroshima mon amourAlan Resnais’ monumental 1959 film, Hiroshima mon amour, takes on the formidable conceit of expressing the sublime. In this case, the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. That event not only devastated the city but entailed vast and profound effects on the world afterward.
It would seem, perhaps, that film would be perfect for this type of subject. The critic Siegfried Krackauer noted that film was an ideal medium for conveying the impact of “phenomena overwhelming consciousness” such as acts of violence and destruction on the scale of Hiroshima.
Such events, he wrote in 1960, “call forth excitements and agonies bound to thwart detached observation” which serves to make recounting the experience of it almost impossible for those who witnessed it. Film, he argued, has the means to convey the scope and impact of the event “without distortion.” read more
wednesday, march 19, 2008
The 400 BlowsThe 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups), according to the critic and director Jean-Luc Godard, was the first battle of the war against the establishment by the French New Wave.
As a critic, Francois Truffaut was the enfant terrible of the movement and his attacks against the studio system of the time were so abrasive they got him barred from the Cannes Film Festival in 1958. A year later he returned with The 400 Blows and took the prize for Best Director.
Yet instead of a bold divisive film like Godard’s Breathless a year later, Truffaut’s film is a startlingly sincere and intimate work of art that clearly shows the sympathy the director held for both his subject and the medium as a whole. read more
monday, march 17, 2008
BreathlessBreathless (À bout de soufflé) is the acme of the French New Wave and when it hit theaters in 1960 it started an inferno that still burns across the cinematic landscape.
Certainly, Breathless was not the first of the films by this group of young French critics-turned-directors but Jean-Luc Godard’s debut feature certainly crystallized the ethos of the burgeoning movement and became its defining statement.
And deservedly so. It was defiant in its style, abandoning all the revered methodology and forms of the existing cinema and demanding to be accepted artistically on equal terms. A tendency that led many to label Godard’s approach anarchistic even though the film itself a long slow study on style.
“I consider my Breathless as being the end of old cinema,” Godard said 1961. “Destroying all the old principles rather than creating something new.” read more
wednesday, march 12, 2008
Raiders of the Lost Ark“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” - Joseph Campbell, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”
There is a compelling power to Raiders of the Lost Ark that electrified audiences in 1981 and has continued to make the film a fantastic experience even for those who have seen it countless times since.
It is a fact all the more remarkable since the charm of the franchise sags visibly in the films that followed it. While the sequels mimic the structure and symbolism laid out in the first installment, they rarely transcend the formula itself as the original did consistently and are painfully weakened for it. read more
thursday, march 06, 2008
The Double Life of VeroniqueYou do not so much watch La double vie de Véronique (or The Double Life of Véronique) as you immerse yourself in it. It’s a sublime exercise in light, color and texture that strives in every frame to transcend the aural and visual shackles the medium imposes.
The film is often overshadowed by the late director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s subsequent work, the trilogy Trois couleurs. After finishing those films, the director announced he was retiring saying he did not feel film could be as profound as literature nor properly express the inner feelings of the characters.
But, in many ways, The Double Life of Véronique, is a singular masterwork, exploring the limits of what film is capable to express without the baggage of an overt message to convey. It somehow succeeds in revealing the depths of the medium in precisely the areas he felt it was powerless. read more
friday, february 29, 2008
The Wages of FearFear, it is said, has a taste. While that may or may not be true the great French director Henri-Georges Clouzot showed pretty definitively that it has a sound. And that sound, as it turns out, is the high-pitched roar of a two-ton truck.
It is this sound that permeates the second half of his 1953 film Le Salaire de la peur, known in English as The Wages of Fear. It not only puts the characters on the screen at the edge of their wits, it plays dark havoc with the audience as well. And Clouzot uses it like a surgeon with a scalpel.
What makes The Wages of Fear so powerful isn’t the technical achievement but the philosophical one. It is one thing to make a tense thriller and convey that powerful sense of anxiety that comes from having one’s life held in a precarious balance and it’s another to use that to sheer away all artifice and decorum. read more
monday, february 04, 2008
The SearchersFew films carry as much symbolic baggage as The Searchers. Its reputation as one of the greatest films of its genre stands in an uneasy juxtaposition with the fact it’s effect is to undermine the most treasured tenets of the classic Western.
It’s a testament to the craftsmanship of director John Ford that he could create a film with all the requisite mythos and, at the same time, make a movie that addressed issues much deeper and darker. While the story travels long the lines of the typical tale from the American west The Searchers twists the narrative for its own ends.
The tale of Ethan Edwards unrelenting odyssey of vengeance stands as one of the most influential in American film. The man’s five-year search for Indian tribe that kidnapped his niece and his possible intentions to slay the girl for becoming part of their society has resonated far beyond the popularity of the genre that created it. read more
monday, january 28, 2008
If...Lindsay Anderson’s If…. is a film that persistently defies simple explanation and, in that respect, it is maddeningly like life itself.
If…. slides from bizarre to hallucinatory with disturbing ease. Anderson is keen enough an observer to know that that strange rituals of the boarding school are absurd enough to not need much prompting to become flights of fancy.
Is a man playing guitar while using the toilet any weirder than committing a giant alligator to the flames? Not really. But the constant succession of odd images eventually overwhelms the viewer so that by the time the chaplain pops up out of the drawer it’s almost mundane.
Almost. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps it’s best to start at the beginning or, even better, at the center. And the centerpiece of the film is Malcom McDowell. read more
monday, january 14, 2008
OnceOnce is a musical for the digital age.
Which is something of a surprise given it seems just to be the classic low-budget boy-meets-girl film that has been a staple of art houses for decades.
It tells the story of two musicians in Dublin whose ability to express what they feel through their art is as profound as their inability to do so through talking normally. When asked about his painful former relationship the protagonist can only sing a jokey song which tells a harder truth than the most heartfelt words. When asked who she loves, the girl replies in a foreign tongue. It's only when they are playing their instruments and singing to each other that they connect.
It's a unique situation but the filmmakers seem insistent on universalizing the couple; from the obstinate insistence on not allowing them names to the distant way they are allowed to be seen. Many of the shots of them are in crowded streets at a distance with passersby blocking the shot an making it difficult to understand what they are saying. read more
monday, january 07, 2008
The Third ManCarol Reed’s noir classic The Third Man is a masterpiece of the genre. It’s a film that comes laden with a half-century of admiration, fan exegesis and a legion of movies that have been inspired by its brilliance.
All of which makes viewing the film for the first time a somewhat intimidating affair but - ironically - it's a film that meets you on your own terms. Possibly because the message it carries is one that still resonates as strongly today as it did when the film was first made.
What struck me most forcefully having watched it recently was how unfettered the writer, famed British novelist Graham Greene, was in trotting out his favorite subject – faith and its place in the modern world. Where things become really interesting is in how director Carol Reed then takes this idea and unfolds it in every aspect of the film. read more
monday, june 11, 2007
A Room With A ViewIf ever a film suffered from the sins of what it begat, it would have to be Merchant Ivory’s 1985 effort A Room With A View.
The film was a surprise sensation and news reports were amazed to find these lines at the independent theaters that were showing it. By the time all was said and done, the $3 million film had pulled in almost $21 million in the US and garnered three of the eight Academy Awards it was nominated for.
A blockbuster? Of course not. But a lot of interest in what usually was dismissed as a niche aspect of the market. And that began a long progression of European based period pieces that tried to draw the blue hair crowd out of their bridge games and into the matinee showing.
For every Age of Innocence and Howard’s End, there were a dozen other forgettable releases over the next decade or so. It got to the point that you couldn’t go see a film at an independent theater for awhile and not endure a litany of previews featuring frocked young women dashing across Tuscan and English countryside landscapes pursued by dashing gentlemen in rumpled linen suits. read more
monday, april 30, 2007
Trainspotting"Choose your future. Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that?"
And thus begins one of the most indelible images of 90s cinema... the introductory soliloquy of Trainspotting.
The suave cadence of Ewan McGregor's recitation the pressing tempo and pessimistic lewd growl of Iggy Pop's Lust for Life somehow is the perfect counterpoint to the dashing street chase that opens the film. It's a long long way from the breezy optimism of the young fab four that kicked off A Hard Day's Night but, rest assured, its the same cinematic street they are about to race down.
Like the Beatles film, Trainspotting is less about a specific story - much less any moral message - than it is a succession of sensations. An idea that music videos had been perfecting for about 15-or-so years, ever since the Buggles had the nerve to kill the radio star. read more
monday, february 05, 2007
Star WarsStar Wars is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good movie. In fact, rewatching it recently, I was struck by exactly how bad the thing is. It’s woefully bad. The horrible recent trilogy was not a fall from grace for George Lucas, it was a return to his original form.
None of which to say Star Wars is not an enjoyable movie or overlooks the fact it is a vastly important and influential one.
Seeming to blast out of nowhere in 1977, Lucas provided a glorious summer diversion that was simply unmatchable by anything else we had up to that point. It was firmly planted in the past and gleefully frolicking through the future all the while having a finger on the pulse of the present.
Lucas was clearly a film buff. You see a love for film and an alert student of the medium’s history at work in his movies.Star Wars is no exception. It’s the kind of fanaticism he shared with other mid-70s cinema giants such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. read more
wednesday, april 19, 2006
TrustThe early 90s was an exciting time to be into independent movies in a city large enough to have a several theaters showing them. The first few years of the decade saw the emergence of a vibrant group of young filmmakers that included Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Gus Van Sant, Whit Stillman and Steven Soderbergh. It seemed like every week there was another great film showing somewhere.
But the director that most captured my imagination was Hal Hartley. To this day I will go see a film just because of his name but for most folks outside of the independent film scene in the US have never heard of the guy, and that’s a serious tragedy.
Trust was the first film of Hartley’s I saw and it was so different and fresh in comparison to anything else I had ever seen that, when it was over I went directly to the box office, bought another ticket and saw it again. read more
thursday, april 06, 2006
Trois Couleurs: Bleu"Real artists find answers. The knowledge of the artisan is within the confines of his skills… Real knowledge is knowing how to live, why we live."
- Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1941-1996
The films of the late Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski are uniformly gorgeous, profound and awash with levels of symbolism and meaning that stay with the viewer long after they return to the mundane rigor of the routine world. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, his films were a staple of the art-house crowd and suffer, unjustly I feel, from that association. This is simply wonderful filmmaking that anyone can enjoy if they give it the proper chance.
The narrative style is clear and true although he doesn’t rely on plot to get his message across like typical blockbuster films, that isn’t to say his films aren’t accessible. His appeals to imagery, emotion and intellect are powerful enough for the viewer unused to such approaches to enjoy his films quite well. His films have an incredible intensity but earn it honestly rather than resorting to overwrought music, over emphasized camera angles and special effects. read more
thursday, january 26, 2006
Blade RunnerIt is hard to think of another movie that has had such an important and lasting impact as Blade Runner but was so completely overlooked and disabused upon its release (Seven, maybe, but that film was much more of a financial success).
Released in 1982, it was expected to be a smash if for no other reason than it featured mega-star Harrison Ford fresh off his Star Wars triumph (Raiders of the Lost Ark was still a year away from being released). This film was everything that one wasn’t – dark, confusing, and resisting a linear interpretation. It failed miserably in the North American box office (but later did well internationally)
And being botched by the studio didn’t help either. In 1993, more than a decade after it’s initial release, director Ridley Scott later was able to unleash his version that is even more powerful and important than the original. It was more than simply jettisoning the asinine narration and restoring the more austere finale that raises so many existential questions – Scott reassessed the meaning of the film itself. And, given the import of the themes he undertook to address, that was an astonishingly audacious task. read more