Intro

I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.





Sunday, December 29, 2013

American Hustle (2013)




I was going to start my review by saying American Hustle is the best Scorsese movie since Goodfellas, no matter that it wasn’t actually directed by Martin Scorsese. But American Hustle is made by movie maverick David O. Russell, now one of Hollywood’s biggest and most reliable A-list filmmakers, and the film is truly and uniquely his, as much I Heart Huckabees as it is Casino. Like its main characters, this almost rudely, insistently entertaining movie has tremendous confidence and sparkling showmanship, spinning its twisted Horatio Alger yarn with all the skill of a seasoned swindler.

Russell doesn’t just flirt with disaster—as he did in Silver Linings Playbook—but courts it openly. Almost continuously over its 135 minutes, the director seems to embrace complete entropy (if not anarchy) and an exaggerated human circus approach, only to pull a long con of his own, one performed with enough control and elegance to have you hooked. If the result, more flimflammery flair than finesse, seems like a bit of a narrative mess, it’s a rich, marvelous mess in which the narrative is not what mattered to begin with.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Circus (1928) Analysis




Those who think that Charlie Chaplin’s use of simple, mostly passive camerawork and compositions stemmed from poor craftsmanship ought to think a bit more about the hall of mirrors scene in the filmmaker’s The Circus (1928).  Chaplin’s technique was meant to find precisely the right angle to communicate the pictorial, intellectual, and emotional values of the shot, foregrounding character, acting, theme, and story over cinematic elements. His chaste, even static camera was confined largely to patient waiting while he reached through it to make contact with us, but if Chaplin wanted to be flashy, Chaplin could be flashy. Almost a full two decades before the similar celebrated sequence of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1946), Chaplin had mastered the cinematic technique necessary to shoot an infinite series of reflections at once.

In The Circus scene, the Tramp finds himself dodging both a policeman and a pickpocket when he runs into the hall of mirrors. Chaplin choreographs the cross-eyed images in the hall so precisely that the two men, running away from each other, bump headlong. The main character’s own figure is multiplied a hundred times so that it is impossible to distinguish the reflection from the man. The sequence serves, however, a thematic purpose much more important than the visual magic it creates. Chaplin, through the numerous reflections and repetitions of his own character, communicates a fractured sense of self, an incomplete identity. Caught between legitimate society (represented by the cop) and a wayward life of crime (represented by the pickpocket), Charlie must choose his own persona; he must discover, as he will throughout the movie, who and what he is and how that relates to all the other facets of himself (the reflections): who and what he appears to be to others, who he wants to be, and who he will never be.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Dark Streets, Dangerous Women and Knights in Dirty Armor: Frank Miller’s “Sin City” and the Conventions of Noir



“The air cools. The sounds change. The suits and brief-cases scurry to their fortresses and bolt their doors and balance their checkbooks and ignore the screams and try not to think about who really owns Sin City.”
                                                                                                                                            —Sin City Volume I: The Hard Goodbye

Sin City, its creator has said, is not a place but a state of mind (Booker 161). Eager to do comic books about crime, “about tough guys in mean cities,” in 1991 artist Frank Miller created the first story of the Sin City series, initially released in thirteen parts in Dark Horse Presents (Harvey 259). The story was retitled The Hard Goodbye, released as a graphic novel and followed by five more “yarns,” sordid tales of urban violence set in a climate of complete moral corruption. Influenced by Hammett, Chandler, Spillane, Jim Thompson and “long nights of living alone in Manhattan and discovering the black-and-white movies,” Miller’s illustrations drew their inspiration from outside the traditional confines of the comic book subculture (MacDonald 42, Gabillet 104). Sin City featured gritty black-and-white stylized graphics, over-the-top, hard-case crime retro dialogue, hardcore ultraviolence; it became an exercise in the celebration of film noir culture, one that is particularly extreme, violent and brutal, even by the genre’s standards. Steeped in darkness both physical and psychological, the style, characters, setting, themes, and tone of the graphic novel series, particularly the first four volumes (The Hard Goodbye, A Dame to Kill For, The Big Fat Kill and That Yellow Bastard) are undeniably indebted to film noir.  At the same time, Sin City self-consciously draws attention to the conventions of noir either by reducing or amplifying them, effectively critiquing its own narrative forms while remaining entirely within the rules of the genre.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Oldboy (2013)

 

I feel I must preface this review by admitting, unfortunately, that I have not seen the reportedly brilliant, shockingly successful source material for Spike Lee’s Oldboy, Park Chun-wook’s 2003 Korean cult classic described by one critic as “adapted from a manga comic-book, which was in turn adapted from an overwhelming desire to see what damage hammers do to foreheads.” As I have been deprived of this undoubtedly awesome experience (while most critics have not), I will refrain from making any comparisons between Lee’s movie and its inspiration (which most critics have made). It is my understanding that the new and unimproved Oldboy falls sadly short of its predecessor, but, for those of us who haven’t seen the Korean version, this reimagining can still be a lot of fun.


Although the negative reviews have probably managed to kill Lee’s film by now, Oldboy is a movie worth resuscitating. With its big name actors, celebrity director, and commercial genre qualities, the movie is not a masterpiece by any stretch, but it is a lively entry into Lee’s ongoing campaign to push into the mainstream (25th Hour, Inside Man). The film has an obsessive, hypnotic quality that could only be dampened by comparisons to the original. Even rarer, it’s an adult movie at a time when PG-13 films fill the multiplexes, a Nicolas Winding Refn for the masses.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Fargo (1996) Analysis




Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo opens, appropriately, in Fargo, North Dakota, although this is the only scene in the movie to actually take place in the title location. Over the opening credits we see a car, barely visible through the fog in the distance as it makes its slow progression through the snowy, bluish gray landscape. The tan Sierra goes up and down on the frozen-over roads, occasionally disappearing into snowy voids. The Coens’ Midwest is bleak and ominous, a mood perfectly underlined by Carter Burwell’s gloomy score. The brothers and virtuoso director of photography and long-time collaborator Roger Deakins create an epic landscape of near mythical proportions, if only for the purpose of contrasting it with the ordinariness and decidedly unheroic nature of the characters that inhabit it. Contradictions like this one abound in the Coens’ universe; their work has always defied definition. They play fast and loose in terms of plot and refuse to be constrained by the formal imperatives of conventional narrative, stitching together a number of different genres and in the end transcending such conventions altogether. Fargo starts out as a perfect-crime drama, but soon embraces conventions of the noir, the thriller, and tragedy, all with a big, darkly humorous smile on its lips.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sennett and Roach: Two Methods to the Madness

“The Mack Sennett Keystone comedies were the culmination of 15 years of comic primitivism—the characterless jest and the excitement of motion raised to the nth power” (Mast 43). Before Sennett, American film comedy had been confined to the music hall sketch; he gave it the freedom of destructive absurdity. While still at Biograph, the future King of Comedy moved Griffith’s static, inert, indoor-bound camera outside, where it enjoyed both visual freedom and the freedom to move. And move it did, at mad speed, nearing supersonic velocity, stopping only when the figures onscreen smashed through one wall too many, fell down manholes or wells too deep, or were simply overcome with exhaustion The filmmaker added tremendous energy and breathtaking pace, the incongruous and the non sequitur, and a taste for burlesquing people, social custom, and the conventions of other films.

Hal Roach was always second to Sennett; the latter established the formula while the former merely adopted it. While Roach began imitatively, copying Sennett’s chases, falls, custard-pie throwing, and generalized chaos, he gradually began thinking more in terms of character than non sequitur, carefully structured gags instead of speed, logical plotting rather than constant, cumulative romping. Roach’s films benefited from more structure, less improvisation, creating what Gerald Mast calls a perfect stairway to insanity (185). To use the same metaphor, Sennett did not ever take the stairs up; he took the elevator, punched the floor button—or, if feeling especially inventive, whacked it with a hammer—got stuck a couple of times between levels, sometimes plummeted, coming close to the bottom of the elevator shaft, and, finally, shot through the roof.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Captain Phillips (2013)



Sandwiched in between Gravity and All Is Lost, Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips is only one of many, incredibly well-made, gripping but grim survival tales to hit the theaters this fall—a season of soaring cinematic standards as much as of falling leaves.

Impeccably constructed and surprisingly complex, the movie succeeds on all notes but one: characterization. Based on the real-life takeover of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates, it offers an immaculate reconstruction of a chaotic incident, portrayed on screen with immediacy and intelligence. Full of kinetic energy, exciting and suspenseful, the film traces Captain Richard Phillips’ ill-fated journey on and off the Maersk Alabama in early April of 2009. The only problem is we don’t know enough about him, the journey, the ship, or the pirates to care.

“It’s just business,” pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi) keeps repeating, a phrase not actuality uttered, but reflected in the attitude of Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks, portraying the kind of quiet, commanding role Oscar dreams are made of). Curt and professional towards his crew and extremely attentive to security measures, the title character is a civilian tasked with getting a huge cargo ship safely from Oman to Kenya down the Horn of Africa. It’s clear he just wants to get the job done as quickly and effectively as possible.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Counselor (2013)





The Counselor, Cormac McCarthy’s much-anticipated screen-writing debut paints an elusive, eccentric, exquisitely rendered picture of poetic pain. Filled with bizarre, bone-grinding violence, twisted characters, confusion and moral compromise, Ridley Scott’s movie becomes a sodden, sordid cautionary tale of good and—mostly—evil. If you were looking forward to the crime thriller—more Tony than Ridley—the film’s trailer seems bent on promoting, The Counselor is not it.

Michael Fassbender heads a burning hot all-star cast, all outshined, hover, by the pulpy, lyrical, hardboiled and hell-bound script, a foray into the mesmerizing and merciless milieu of corrosive drug trade on the American-Mexican border—a barrier as moral as it is geographical for much of American fiction. McCarthy and Scott enter a closed, dangerous, elite world, devoid of any ordinary people to act as gateways or guides for the audience or to remind us of a reality beyond the brutal one of the cartel.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Of Mice and Pink Pachyderms on Parade





While Walt Disney did not invent animation, he perfected it, introducing new ideas and techniques that would come to define the medium and change it forever. His Dumbo, released in 1941, benefits from all of the artist’s hallmarks; an enchanting, endearing story filled with pathos and humor, it commands emotional involvement, and often masks its supreme, superb style through the spirit, sentiment, and simplicity of its subject. Dumbo is a study in original, inventive use of shadows, darkness, and light, as well as excellent, expressive use of nuances and shades of color to create realistic textures, subtleties of highlights and perspective (including angles of near-avant-garde obliqueness), and complex, moving backgrounds. Outstanding in both content and execution, Disney’s fourth feature might not boast the ambition of the preceding Snow White, Pinocchio or Fantasia, but it is no less accomplished.

By the early forties, Disney and his gaggle of extremely talented artists had mastered the dynamics of movement and the art of developing character personality. Returning to anthropomorphism and personification, deceptively “simple” animal characterization, Disney endows his characters as well as inanimate objects and machinery—like the circus train engine, who flexes and puffs sighs of relief after every exertion—with human features and characteristics that seem completely natural. The titular pachyderm, with rounded, pin-cushiony shapes, soft, sincere blue eyes and ears the size of bed sheets, is instantly recognizable and lovable, and the film becomes an unpretentious expression of universal human truths. One of the sequences that set the movie apart from anything that came before it, however, is the unique, unforgettable “Pink Elephants on Parade,” one of the best known, and strangest, animated sequences that Disney, or any studio, has ever done.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Don Jon (2013)



 
Don Jon, Joseph Gordon Levitt’s writing and directing debut, is a skittering and sweet film filled with humor, heat, and heart. At once openly satiric and disarmingly sincere, the movie manages to be both funny and touching, sometimes in the same instant.

Playing against type as a brawn-bound Jersey boy and an inveterate lothario obsessed with himself, porn, and Scarlett Johansson, Levitt might at first seem like an odd choice for the eponymous Jon—dubbed Don because of his way with the ladies. But the immensely talented young actor has tricks up his sleeve we hadn’t seen before, boldly displayed in front of as well as behind the camera.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) Analysis




Tillie’s Punctured Romance, released in 1914, marks Mack Sennett’s first feature length film and his biggest Keystone project. Bringing together all the talent on the Sennett lot—and then some—the movie is also notable as Marie Dressler’s first screen appearance. An adaptation of the stage success “Tillie’s Nightmare,” which also starred Dressler, the film tells a conventional tale of a simple country gal (Dressler) who gets swindled by a shark  from the big city (played by Charlie Chaplin). “The fetid atmosphere of the wicked city” and the country’s “pure breath of open spaces” are placed in sharp and comedic opposition, while the straight-forward, uncomplicated plot—essentially the material of any one of the director’s shorts stretched out for over an hour—becomes simply a pretext for a series of gags, mounting in rhythm and intensity to a speedy culmination; Sennett, parodying both the melodramas of the time (shades of Griffith’s Way Down East) and a gaggle of intellectual pretensions, lofty sentiments and noble virtues, demonstrates once again that tense melodrama and comedic farce are not that far apart; all it takes is an alteration or exaggeration of character personalities, a scrambling of editing rhythms, and a distortion of events, and seriousness dissolves into laughter.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Prisoners (2013)




Fully deserving of mention in the same breath—or gasp—as Seven, Mystic River, and Zodiac, Prisoners' fragmented central mystery burns with white-hot intensity. Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski weave a dense narrative web of seemingly disparate plot strands interwoven around a complex moral core; the movie is concerned with the psychological, emotional and social consequences of violence as much as solving the crime.

The wages of sin, guilt, vengeance and redemption weigh heavily on the characters of Prisoners. With remarkable visual elegance and economy, the gifted Quebecois director flawlessly captures the moods and mores of small-town, God-fearing America. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.” These words open Villeneuve’s film, spoken over a wintry forest landscape, frozen in the icy late-autumn chill. The slow, creeping camera pulls back to reveal the barrel of a shotgun, pointed head on at a lonely deer. This is only the first of many images of predators pursuing their prey.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

“Always Have an Iguana Around,” Werner Herzog Advises Aspiring Filmmakers



“Is there such a thing as insanity among penguins?” The question is one of many, just as striking, that legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog has posed through his work. The Montgomery Fellow returned to Dartmouth last month for a five-day residency, the highlights of which included a memorable presentation Wednesday, September 18 in Spaulding Auditorium that I was lucky enough to attend.

A landmark of the New German Cinema—although he prefers “Bavarian Cinema”—and the creative force behind over 60 films, including Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Nosferatu and documentaries such as Grizzly Man, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog presented a reel of clips from his work and sat down with Film and Media Studies Associate Professor Jeffrey Ruoff for an onstage conversation followed by an audience Q&A session.

Introduced by Ruoff as “one of the world’s greatest filmmakers, working at the height of his creative powers,” Herzog’s long and varied career eludes classification. The writer-director-producer sees thematic unity in his films, provided by the “common denominator of the universe: chaos, hostility and murder.” 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Punch-Drunk Love (2002) Analysis



Calling Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love a romantic comedy seems inappropriate; although it utilizes many of the conventions of the genre, it does so self-consciously, and subverts more conventions than it embraces, casting a knowing gaze on the lighthearted, predictable, and frequently mindless Hollywood fare and twisting it into this surreal, darkly funny, completely surprising and truly original movie of often fearsome beauty. In traditional romantic comedies, as in P.T. Anderson’s film, boy meets girl and has to overcome substantial obstacles strewn across the path to true love; if only more movies could incorporate the use of crowbars, novelty toilet plungers, hundreds of cups of Healthy Choice pudding, harmonium abandonment, and phone sex extortionists into their love stories, a trip to the multiplex would be ever so much more exciting. From the first scenes of Punch-Drunk Love, it is clear we have left the world as we know it and entered the writer/director’s universe, in which the earth seems to rotate and revolve much as it does in real life, only at a rather skewed angle, and everything stands suspended a few degrees away from logic and reality.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Annie Hall (1977) Analysis




Woody Allen’s Annie Hall captures the full development of the director’s carefully constructed persona. Like Chaplin’s Tramp, Woody is also the eternal underdog; his story is undeniably funny, but also poignantly sad. Under the comedy lies a barely concealed truth, a healthy amount of the tragic. Over the years, Allen has become predictable, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He has us laughing before we ever hear the punchline, because we know exactly what it’s going to be. Allen, like Chaplin, draws on his own life for inspiration, and always puts feeling into his movies, whether they are dramas or the usual romantic comedy. Alvy Singer is self-consciously a New Yorker, an egocentric intellectual, and an overly anxious, death-fearing paranoid comedian made in the director’s own image.

The film starts and ends with jokes, but we’re decidedly less likely to laugh by the end, because we recognize the truth behind the punchline. Alvy warns us in the beginning that life is “full of loneliness and misery and suffering and it’s all over way too quickly.” He also spells out his belief on relationships: he’d “never want to belong to any club that would have [him] as a member.” About an hour and a half later, he concludes that relationships are “totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but we need the eggs.” What Alvy wants is something unattainable, and he’s an expert at making it unattainable. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Jason Reitman, Movie Maverick




“I don’t really know what kind of a girl I am,” the title character reluctantly admits in Jason Reitman’s Juno. Like her, all of the director’s other protagonists are not as sure of themselves as they would like to appear. Just as under the laugh track of Reitman’s movies lie serious social themes, beneath the seemingly secure, brashly self-confident shell his characters build lie fundamentally flawed, lost, damaged, or insecure human beings. Thank You for Smoking (2005), Juno (2007), Up in the Air (2009), and Young Adult (2011) all center on very complex, realistic, deglamorized characters that find themselves in less than ideal situations. The filmmaker’s refusal to shy away from difficult characters, unconventional subject matter and ambiguity is one of the reasons he is a maverick filmmaker. Reitman’s movies are deeply personal, experimental in both content and form, blending light humor with dark undertones of social satire, and perfectly capture the nation’s anxieties and culture of resilience. Most of all, they are the movies he wants to make. While his father, Ivan Reitman, of Ghostbusters (1984), Stripes (1981), and Meatballs (1979) fame, “wants to take your favorite song and play it better than you’ve ever heard,” Jason “want[s] to take a song you hate and play it so well that you’ll learn to like it” (Jacobson 20).

Monday, August 26, 2013

Kick-Ass 2 (2013)


Crude, crass, callous and filled with carnage, Kick-Ass 2 commands our attention. Half smart-allecky satire, half semi-plausible vigilante fantasy, the movie is a worthy, if inferior, successor to Matthew Vaughn’s original. The series’ first director and co-writer remains on board as producer, but the creative reins have been handed down to the little-known Jeff Wadlow.

2010’s Kick-Ass, a brilliant, brazen, charcoal black action-comedy about a shy, nerdy teen trying to make it as a crime fighter was a breath of fresh air, the anti-Spiderman young superhero adventure I’d been waiting for. This screwy, savvy, self-conscious and self-satisfied sequel fills the screen with even more arterial spray and lays the irony on even thicker. By the second outing, however, it’s getting harder to distinguish Kick-Ass from the polished, name-brand superhero flicks it seemed to offer us respite from.

While still bone-crushingly brutal, Kick-Ass 2 drops its punchy predecessor’s attempt to pass the visceral, vicious violence off as something shocking or subversive. Gory, gimmicky, and grisly, the first film was deliciously and insolently provocative; it introduced crime-fighting children who toted guns, shot to kill, and cursed like Samuel L. Jackson. A joke is rarely as funny the second time you hear it, but Kick-Ass 2 offers a fresh infusion of comic energy in the loose, flippant approach to its source material, the ongoing Marvel series by Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Elysium (2013)




Elysium, the much-anticipated second feature from writer/director Neill Blomkamp, is an absorbing and intelligent bit of sociologically pointed caste conflict futurism that builds on real, present catastrophes to craft the carefully constructed horrors to come. The year is 2154, and the world’s elite has long decamped for the titular gated community in the sky, while the less fortunate toil away on a decrepit and dangerous planet that has undergone economic and environmental collapse. The paradisiacal space station colony hovers just outside the Earth’s atmosphere, a short shuttle ride away, taunting the downtrodden proletarian masses with its unattainable proximity.

Sound vaguely familiar? That’s because the South Africa-born filmmaker once again goes for bold (if blunt) political parable, substituting a polluted, overpopulated, and largely Latino Los Angeles for the racially-charged Johannesburg of his previous film. Blomkamp came out of nowhere with 2009’s District 9, an action movie with an acute social consciousness that only thinly disguised its apartheid allegory in crustacean alien guise. An unexpected critical and commercial triumph  and a  low-budget aesthetic achievement, the visionary film did a lot with a little, the striking production design, cinematography, costuming, and effects seemingly, against all odds, willed into being by its young creator—Blomkamp was not yet thirty when shooting District 9, and working with a budget of fewer millions than he had years.

Four years have passed, and the director makes a poised entrance into mainstream popcorn cinema. Although the sets are grander and the stars more famous, Blomkamp maintains much of the grit and grime, intensity and ingenuity of District 9.Working with a larger canvas and a more conventional framework, his Elysium plays like a cross between its smaller, scrappier, and often more searing predecessor and a big-budgeted, little-minded blockbuster. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

This Is the End (2013)


For most people, the apocalypse and eternal damnation are topics of sober reflection and deep despair. Seth Rogen is not most people. A graduate of the popular, profitable Judd Appatow comic fraternity, Rogen and co-writer/director Evan Goldberg create a perfect mix of hilarity and horror, goofiness and gore in the funny-as-hell This Is the End.

Based on the 2007 never-released short Seth and Jay vs. the Apocalypse, the movie is surprising, suspenseful, outrageous, absurd, and ultimately jubilant; it lets off an infectious sense of fun and the spiky comic energy of a foul-mouthed but generally good-natured hard R-rated comedy of near-cataclysmic levels of vulgarity and excess.

Friday, August 16, 2013

On the Waterfront (1954) Analysis




Elia Kazan’s highly acclaimed multi-award winning On the Waterfront eludes easy classification. An early example of social realism, it is also deeply felt. The director presents the gritty reality of the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, but at the same time he is battling his own demons. When Marlon Brando’s character says “I was rattin’ on myself all these years and didn’t even know it,” he speaks as much for Kazan as he does Terry Malloy. The film comes as a poetic justification, a poignant apologia for the director, after he had agreed to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming names and becoming a pariah among his former colleagues and friends. Just as the world of Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) temporarily seduced the character, so did communism seem appealing to Kazan for a while, but in the end he was convinced it was an evil that needed to be opposed. The screenplay fuses realism with the more stylized gangster film, and ultimately transcends both genres and stands on its own as one of the best film of its decade, and one of the best American films ever made. Its message is just as powerful, and the acting just as stirring and convincing today, as it was more than half a century ago.

Friday, August 9, 2013

All About Bette


“Woman, sir, is a chalice,” a male character says in Jezebel (1938), “a frail, delicate chalice to be cherished and protected.” He’s clearly never met Bette Davis. The scathing gaze radiating from flashing eyes that betray an obvious intelligence and brilliant flamboyance, the deep, scalding voice, the arrogance, toughness, and brittle aggressiveness, no, Bette Davis was no frail and delicate chalice. One of the greatest and most daring female stars of classical Hollywood cinema, an icon and a powerful woman on and off the screen, Bette Davis transcended the limitations of her sexual identity in films as diverse as William Wyler’s Jezebel and The Little Foxes (1940), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), and Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Never a traditional beauty, she thrived because of  her attitude, her mastery of movement and emotional detail, her personal style, forcefulness and willingness to be disliked and to tap into her vast neurotic potential. Hers is a world of sumptuous glamor and tempestuous emotionalism: the savage lavishness of the Old South, the intellectual New York theater milieu of high class premieres and awards parties, and, finally, Hollywood wealth and decadence decayed into a perverse and outrageous travesty.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Wolverine (2013)




Trying to resist the cinematic lobotomy Hollywood pulls on viewers every summer, I have come up with a movie-going strategy that involves lowering expectations. If, stepping into a theater, I expect nothing, then the films that offer nothing or close to it (After Earth, The Hangover Part III, Man of Steel, R.I.P.D.) will not disappoint as much. And every once in a while, I will be surprised by a movie that offers everything: story, character, excitement, action, intrigue, romance, and the magic of escaping into a different world. James Mangold’s The Wolverine was that kind of surprise.

Repairing the damage done by Gavin Hood’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Mangold tells an unexpectedly personal and intimate tale with style and snap. This time around the most iconic X-Man of all is somewhat world-weary, wounded, and worn. At the forceful center of the film is Hugh Jackman, the biggest marvel of Marvel's The Wolverine, who returns for his sixth screen appearance as the lupine superhero. Letting a less visible, more vulnerable side show, Logan, a.k.a. the titular hero, tests his extremes and overcomes his limits, physically as well as emotionally. The movie  is as packed with feeling as its title character, a mutant with more humanity than all of the human heroes of this summer’s blockbusters combined. The filmmaker’s foray into the X-Men franchise is endlessly entertaining, if somewhat existential, dipping into dark and ponderous psychological territory; Mangold puts his character through all sorts of physical pain, but the director is also interested in the deeper aches of the soul.

Monday, July 29, 2013

R.I.P.D. (2013)


Thank heavens for Jeff Bridges! His squinting, six-barrel-slinging, Stetson-wearing frontier marshal is the only thing in this undead cop thriller with a pulse. R.I.P.D., Robert Schwentke’s uninspired mashup of Men in Black, Ghostbusters, and Ghost, had its obituary written by the press long before release, critics everywhere denouncing it as the ninth circle of mindless blockbusters. If the film is not exactly the calamity everyone portended, it’s due solely to Bridges and a sprinkling of some mildly impressive special effects. But as much as the actor tries, and as much as he succeeds to elevate his grizzled, gravely 19th century lawman turned 21st century deceased detective way above the potential and pretense of an inert script, R.I.P.D. showed up in theaters DOA. Its few isolated positives are as noticeable and affecting as a fine summer mist amidst a raging, bludgeoning thunderstorm of bad.

Adapted from Peter M. Lenkov’s Dark Horse comic series by the Clash of the Titans team of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, the movie has character types instead of characters, obvious villains, and sluggish plotting that introduces one tediously predictable element after another: the young honest cop, his adoring, beautiful French wife, and the corrupt partner who talks him into some dirty, risky business that leads to his demise. (As an aside, is it just me or does that stolen “gold” look like shineless spray-painted gravel?)

Thursday, July 25, 2013

White House Down (2013)



For reasons best discussed between German-born director Roland Emmerich and his therapist, the king of disaster porn once again engages his fetish for destroying 1600 Pennsylvania Ave in White House Down. After what he did to the Capitol Building, Washington, D.C., this country, and the world in Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012, one wonders if he should be put on some sort of government watch list.

However you feel about the Oval Office, this country, or Emmerich’s compulsive need to re-enact the annihilation of everything that America holds dear, his latest is as ripping and riveting as it is ridiculous. A welcome throw-back to an earlier and more generous tradition of summer blockbusters that didn’t involve superpowers or science fiction, White House Down is cheerfully preposterous, marked with a simplicity, wit, and playful innocence so often missing from current action films.

Even rarer perhaps, it’s a slick, high-concept takeover movie with an inkling of shrewd political awareness. This time around there are no aliens, natural disasters, or even non-domestic terrorists—although the media in the film unanimously describe the White House seizure as an al-Qaida attack. The viciously violent coup is an inside job; in a way that would make Kubrick proud, the enemy comes from within. The villains are all disgruntled Americans with ideological axes to grind, right wing sociopaths, white supremacists, malcontent war vets and assorted bureaucrats with nasty agendas. Mixing fear, hope, and paranoia, White House Down is a dire political fable told with a pearly-white smile as tongue-in-cheek pastiche. It’s a sturdy, cheerfully preposterous, old-fashioned bit of escapism.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Lone Ranger (2013)



Gore Verbinski’s reboot of the Depression era radio and baby boom television Western hero enters a world of tall tales and strange myths. The Lone Ranger delivers all the energy moviegoers have come to expect from a hectic Jerry Bruckheimer super-mega production, and only mild bouts of mindlessness cheapen this imaginative and bold film.

Extravagant, excessive, and intermittently exhausting, the vaguely revisionist, reinvigorated origin story stars the handsome but bland Armie Hammer of The Social Network as the titular masked hero, proving, as Orlando Bloom did in Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean that the main character can be the least compelling personality onscreen; in many ways, the director just took that hugely successful franchise and put it in a saddle.

An almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp—at least until he opens his mouth or makes the sort of flamboyant gesture any Captain Jack Sparrow fan knows and loves—gets top billing as Hollywood’s most iconic Injun. An outcast isolated from both his tribe and the white world, Tonto has his own reasons for riding alongside the masked avenger. He is no longer just a sidekick, but a mentor and the reason the movie works to the extent that it does. Heavily face-painted and sporting a dead-crow tiara he sometimes tries to feed—maybe someone should have told him that bird in Kirby Sattler’s paining “I Am Crow” was just flying in the background—Depp, like the film, mixes gravity and goofiness.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

La Dolce Vita (1960) Analysis



Great Italian director Frederico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) chronicles the fast-paced, seductive life of the Roman cosmopolitan world and all its excesses, capturing a moment in time when notions of glamor, empty entertainment and the promise of a quick thrill seemed poised to replace all humanizing values, and dignity was transmuted into the sensational. For Fellini, the film marks a turning point, a shift away from his neorealist roots as a writer for Rossellini’s Open City (1945) and Paisa (1946), and his own earlier films like I Vitteloni (1953), La Strada (1954), and The Nights of Cabiria (1957). The director’s movies became more stylized, more poetic, finally giving way to the visual carnival of (1963), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and Amarcord (1973). His images are highly charged with contrasts, textures, and movements and filled with longing and regret, even despair, but there is always a sense of joy, of wonder, a pure expression of love for his characters, their stories, and cinema. La Dolce Vita is not a film, it’s an experience. Following Marcello, a young journalist on the make (played by Marcello Mastroiani in the first of a series of collaborations with Fellini) as he chases down stories and women, the movie is a loose series of episodes, nights and dawns, ascents and descents weaved together in the decadent rhythm of an endless, aimless search for the elusive sweet life of Rome’s upper class.
 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Small Town America on Film: Pleasantville, Far from Heaven, and Revolutionary Road




The small town is “a deeply rooted symbol in the country’s collective consciousness,” more than a place, it’s “a distinct life-style with its own set of values,” and, implicitly, its own set of drawbacks (Levy 15). The phrase itself has come to carry a double layer of meaning, at once sentimental and condescending. It has been a “permanent staple of the American cinema” since its inception (Levy 16). The image of the small town in film has changed drastically over the past century, influenced by social and historical events and phases of the country, from an idealized and romanticized version in the 1930s, to the idea of small town as prison, a repressive environment of conformity and dull homogeneity in the 1950s, and everything in between. However, from the very beginning, it has been the image of the ideal, rather than its realization, that has ensured the survival of the small town as myth, “at once historical (specific) and universal (atemporal),” providing both “a version of concrete history and a vision of existence” (MacKinnon 3, Levy 20). Gary Ross’ Pleasantville (1998), Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), and Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008) all depict the less-than-sunny side of small towns and suburbia, in a very personal way, and at the same time their characters stand in as representatives for society as a whole, individuals who gave in to the idea of the middle-class American Dream of success in the small town, and found themselves trapped by the environment’s blandness, boredom, and the constant obsession of keeping up with the Joneses

All of these movies take place in the fifties, and it has been that era, more than any other, that seems to epitomize and perpetuate the image of the suburban/small town ideal, chock-full of family values carried “to the heights of saccharine platitudinousness” in shows like Ozzie & Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave it to Beaver, “shows with lots of teeth—teeth that were all evenly spaced, capped, and pearly white. But not teeth that actually bit into anything, [in] a world nicely contained in a box in which there were no problems that couldn’t be solved in twenty-two minutes,” (Simon 67, Wynne-Jones 31). These “kinder, gentler” times we reconstruct from TV reruns and movies of the 1950s bear little resemblance to reality, and in films like Pleasantville, directed by Gary Ross, we begin to see the true colors of this antiseptic view of the past (Sharett 65). Like any fairytale, the movie begins with “Once upon a time,” and transports the viewer into this “mythic utopia” we have made of the fifties (Maio 89).

Thursday, June 27, 2013

World War Z (2013)


Sorry, Sam, but snakes don’t cut it anymore. Marc Forster’s got motherfuckin’ zombies on this motherfuckin’ plane, in the ultimate revenge fantasy of economy class on a harrowing Jerusalem-Cardiff flight. These dead don’t walk; they run, necks outstretched, with cloudy eyes staring but unseeing, clicking their teeth like hungry, rabid rodents. Blind, ravenous, guided by sound and attracted to loud noises, the creatures move in terrifying swarms that pour down city streets like flooding rivers, take down flaming helicopters, crawl ant-like up walls, and scramble over barricades. And they’re awesome.

World War Z is a surprisingly entertaining, fitfully exciting extravaganza that’s more substantive than the usual summer fare. Forster’s big-scaled zombiepocalypse is imaginative and intelligent, gripping and grown-up, filled with small details and quiet, simple moments as much as spectacular set pieces of terror and mayhem that are cleverly conceived and sleekly crafted. An expertly paced globe-trotting mystery, the film owes more to medical thrillers like The Andromeda Strain, Outbreak, or Contagion than it does to George Romero’s seminal works and other zombie films, with the exception perhaps of Danny Boyle’s near-masterpiece 28 Days Later. Tension, suggestion, and silence, interrupted by creaking doors, crunching glass, even a soda can rolling across a cafeteria floor, can be a lot more effective than rotting flesh, leaking pustules, and gore.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Casablanca (1942) Analysis




The classic wartime romantic melodrama Casablanca has been tested by time and passes with flying colors. An accidental success of the studio system assembly line, it carries as much weight today, if not more, as it did in 1942. Its poignant and stirring love story is timeless and eternal. The rich and smoky atmosphere and chiaroscuro lighting, the lush black and white cinematography, and main themes of loss, honor, self-sacrifice and redemption in a chaotic world perfectly reflected the dark and pessimistic WWII social climate, and are still perfect seventy years later.

Rick Blaine’s (the unimitable Humphrey Bogart) tough, cynical, and efficient exterior is an imperfect armor, barely covering the core of sentiment and idealism. His ultimate sacrifice in the service of something greater than himself is instantly appealing. He becomes a true romantic hero worthy of the other characters’ and the audience’s admiration. The emotional effect on viewers warming in the glow of Rick’s gallant heroism is the thought that perhaps we too could achieve greatness through great sacrifice. The film’s ending is not happy, but it is hopeful. True love does not conquer all. It does, however, elevate its characters to higher levels of humanity. And this stands at the core of Casablanca, distinguishing it from the majority of noir films that chronicle the dark side of human nature, basking in their own deep shadows of gloom and disenchantment. The movie dares to rise above the dark atmosphere of the war years, demonstrating that nobility and honor are still alive and well, and run a café in the unoccupied French province of Morocco.

***This is a short analysis of the film. It contains spoilers.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

After Earth (2013)



This father-son sci-fi wilderness adventure starring real-life father and son Will and Jaden Smith is nothing more than an overlong and overly sadistic obstacle course, both for its main character and the viewer. As the teenager hero of After Earth makes his way though dangerous territory, leaping from safe spot to safe spot, the movie leaps from lazy cliché to lazy cliché and listless life lesson to listless life lesson beat by predictable beat.

In the film’s exposition-heavy prologue we find out humankind now wears a lot of white unitards and moved to distant Nova Prime a thousand years ago because of Earth’s manmade downfall, elucidated through a stock montage of floods, fires, riots and explosions. The natives of our new home planet, none the happiest to be colonized however, have engineered super alien beasts known as Ursas—they are not bearlike, in case you were wondering—that are almost blind, but can track, hunt, and kill by smelling human pheromones—“they literally smell fear,” the voiceover helpfully explains. What I’ve just described—and so, so, so much more—could have easily been expanded into a full-length feature. Director M. Night Shyamalan squeezes it into about five minutes, and packs everything full of superficial details, justifications, and rationalizations that are both unnecessary and unimpressive.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Hangover Part III (2013)



Anyone who’s seen the trailers and promos for the last—fingers crossed—installment of The Hangover franchise knows that, among other instances of senseless animal cruelty, Todd Phillips’ Part III features giraffe decapitation by highway underpass. I couldn’t make this up if I wanted to. It’s not very funny, and completely tangential to the plot, but then a lot of things are. The problem is it takes place in the first five minutes, and the movie tries really really hard to top it for the remaining hour and a half. It fails.

There are some movies that should stand alone; sequels, prequels, remakes, and spin-offs can only harm their reputation. The first Hangover is one of these movies.  Perhaps the funniest and most entertaining film of 2009, it was an uproariously hilarious lowbrow achievement of raunch, profanity, and political incorrectness, and a modernized, twisted return to a simpler, gentler age (circa 1980) when bros and boobs ruled the comedic screen. Part II made the mistake of trying to outdo it, but, although inferior to its predecessor and patently unoriginal, replicating every situation of the first with mechanical obligation, it was still a good time. Part III tries to top both movies. Combined. Losing the expected, exciting backtracking structure—and any sort of boozing and hangovers, debauchery and fun, for that matter—this Hangover does away with the comedy almost entirely, replacing laughs with the half-parodied, predictable conventions of a bad, exposition-heavy B-movie caper played chronologically and completely soberly.