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 28, 2014

Dismantling Narrative Conventions and the American Dream in "A Cool Million" and "The Big Lebowski"

Nathanael West and Joel and Ethan Coen have never been known for playing it straight. A Cool Million, subtitled The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin, and The Big Lebowski can be read as satires, if not parodies, of the American Dream of success. Their denial of coherence and lack of narrative discipline, deemed post-modern, their refusal to be constrained by the imperatives of conventional narrative and formal purity can be related to the way these works challenge the assumption that achievement is desirable and possible through hard work. Another connection between the novel and the movie is in the main characters’ embodiment of the Jewish folk character of the ‘schlemiel’—the clumsy, inept, charismatic character that stumbles from one situation to the next, pushed around by circumstances that are not of his own making. In following characters that are not in charge of their own destiny through convoluted plots that are ultimately absurd and somewhat incoherent, Nathanael West and the Coen brothers challenge not only narrative and stylistic conventions, but the conventional ideas of progress and improvement through work.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Harold Lloyd and the American Dream: How Speedy Turned into Willie Loman—and Back Again

A young man, straight out of high school, with hopes of a dramatic stage career, hangs around the Edison Company studio, watching the actors, stars as well as lowly extras, walk through the gate. Unable to get work in the legitimate theater, he has turned, temporarily he hopes, to films. But access is denied. All of the directors have their favorite extras, and all of the favorite extras have passes to get through the studio gate in the morning. Unknown, with only one day of work in the movie industry on his resume, playing a Yaqui Indian no less, the man waits and hopes. One day, however, he notices that when all the extras return from lunch, in full makeup, no one asks to see their passes. He devises a plan right there and then. Dawdling away his morning, the young man makes himself up lavishly during the noon hour and joins the returning crowd at one o’clock, slipping in, with a casual wave to the gateman, for the afternoon shooting. The year is 1913, the young man Harold Lloyd. The actor was dogged, inventive, self-made, compensating for what he lacked in experience, training or talent with sheer energy, bounce, and push. It hadn’t occurred to him yet that he would someday play himself.

Lloyd’s entry into the studio that day—and therefore the movie industry— reads like a partial scenario for one of his later films. “He can do anything he tries,” the smitten sweetheart says in the first reel of Never Weaken (1921). It is not only her love for Lloyd’s character that engenders this type of unquestioning faith. Harold the character, as well as Harold the actor, could do most anything he set his mind to. In his best thrill comedies, he generated sympathy not only because he was liable to drop to his death at any moment, but also because he simply refused to. In film after film, Lloyd put himself in danger and emerged unscathed; he got the money, got the girl, and, most importantly, got ahead. His trials, tribulations, and ultimate triumphs spelled the facet of the American Dream on which his mass appeal was built: a mediocre individual and how much he can accomplish through the right combination of hard work, luck, and pluck.

A perfect example of his unwavering climb (this time to success and popularity rather than up a skyscraper) presents itself in the narrative of The Freshman (1925), directed by Frank C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. A small-town young man with wildly unrealistic dreams of college, Harold Lamb—and what better name could underscore his innocence—seems the least likely person on the planet to become popular, but giving up is a foreign concept to him. By the end, he has everything he ever wanted: his classmates’ respect and adoration and a beautiful girl who loves him. The future has never looked brighter; there is no way this young man will not win in life as he did on that football field, or even, hopefully, taking fewer falls and hits. Twenty years later, in Preston Sturges’ characteristically disenchanted Mad Wednesday (1947), the once hearty  and hopeful Harold, now bearing the purposely bureaucratized last name of Diddlebock, is slow, broken, bent, a sad parody of the dreams he had as a boy, of Lamb’s triumph as well as the falsity of idealistic American clichés that triumph was built on. Lloyd’s silent characters embodied the hopes of the nation in the twenties, but his naïve optimism had no pull on a post-Depression era audience in the sound period. The homely, small-town values had betrayed him as well as the viewers; the tools required for success in this world—significantly, in Sturges’ film an urban one—were of a much more cynical nature.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The 400 Blows (1959)

Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is one of the most important films of the French New Wave and one of the most intensely moving coming of age stories ever to be put on screen. The director’s first film, made before his 27th birthday, the movie is an exemplar of Truffaut’s best qualities as a filmmaker: his clarity, honesty, directness, his simplicity and deep feeling. A semiautobiographical movie, The 400 Blows follows the 12 year old Antoine Dionel (Jean-Pierre Leaud, who would reprise the role another four times), typecast by his mostly absent parents and socially incompetent teachers as a troublemaker and a liar, and lets us share in his minor joys and sorrows. The film’s personal nature is made obvious even before the opening credits, when we find out the film is dedicated to influential critic of Cahiers du Cinema and Truffaut’s mentor, Andre Bazin. The sense of intimacy and immediacy continues through the first few shots of the movie, long fluid takes of the middle-class quarters of the city in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. This is a Parisian’s Paris, seen in traveling shots of the empty streets and buildings and low angle shots directly under the tower, not the postcard cityscape establishing shots.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Baggage: Objects and Spaces as Markers of the Emotional Journey in Wes Anderson’s "The Darjeeling Limited"

 Objects and spaces define the near-maniacally meticulous, color-coordinated, carefully framed and trinket-filled worlds of Wes Anderson’s films. Characters’ possessions and surroundings create and communicate their identities and serve as markers of their gradual evolution throughout the movies, the changing relationships between objects, spaces and characters defining their transformation as they undergo emotional and often physical journeys. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the director’s The Darjeeling Limited (2007), the director’s most conventional road movie to date. The film features all the trademark characteristics of a Wes Anderson movie: a nostalgic concern with the past and an exploration of childhood, “literal or prolongued” in the form of young men in a state of arrested adolescence clambering for spiritual fulfillment, sibling rivalry and family drama, absent parent(s), feelings of meaninglessness, repressed grief and suicidal depression, tonal tension between irony and sincerity, and almost obsessively detailed composition (Orgeron 42). It also contains Anderson’s most blatant—and blatantly, self-consciously clichéd—exploration of the journey theme and its reflection in the film’s production design, costuming, and setting.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Through the Looking Glass: Buster Keaton’s "Sherlock Jr."

Over sixty years before Woody Allen had his characters pop off the screen and into the film’s reality in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Buster Keaton had done the reverse. In Sherlock Jr. (1924), the most silent of all silent clowns played a movie projectionist studying to become a detective. Falling asleep in his booth, he dreams himself into the picture, simply walking down the aisle and into the movie-within-a-movie, where he finds he is at the mercy of film space and film time. While he stands still, maintaining his space-time continuity, the “unreal,” cinematic environment surrounding Buster undergoes the editing process. His universe instantaneously shifts from a park to a desert, to an ocean, to a snowdrift, and the character, although maintaining complete control over himself and his actions, is powerless against the filmic montage that changes his physical surroundings.

The scene epitomizes and exaggerates the conditions in which Keaton the filmmaker has placed Buster the character throughout his career. In film after film, he battled immense natural forces and huge mechanical objects which were beyond his control; in film after film, he simply reacted to the environment and the situation as pragmatically as possible, generally in ways that would solve his problems. Again and again, with elegance, poise, and superb command of his body—at once the most malleable and most tensile of physical objects—Buster made impossible physical stunts look not only possible, but effortless. He used no stunt doubles, no tricks, no sleights of camera or editing.

Keaton’s creative ideas as director, his inventiveness and determination, parallel his ideas as a clown. When cinematic wizardry is used, as it is in the montage sequence of Sherlock Jr., it makes Buster’s life harder, not easier. But the sequence is more than just stunting. It is perhaps Keaton’s clearest realization of the cinema’s mechanical basis, his greatest expression of control over the first and ultimate machine of his career—the camera, that unique mechanical object capable of representing and reshaping reality at the same time. Because, as much as Sherlock Jr. pretends to be about something else, it is a film about film. By taking us inside the picture alongside Buster—and constantly telling us we are, indeed, watching illusion unfold—Sherlock Jr. drops its light comedic premise (about a young man’s wish to become a detective and his romantic troubles) and becomes an almost abstract, unwaveringly funny, look at cinema itself.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Middle of the Road: Alexander Payne’s Journeys

 “I had been sitting on this Nebraska script even when I did Sideways,” writer-director Alexander Payne said in May 2013. “But I didn’t want to go back to a road-trip movie right after that. I was really tired of shooting people in cars. It’s a drag” (qtd. in Alexander). Despite these misgivings, the filmmaker returns, again and again, to road trips. Recurring throughout Payne’s work is the idea of a pivotal physical pilgrimage that doubles as a journey of self-discovery for his typical protagonist, a damaged but basically good person riddled with unease and inner disenchantment.

In About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), The Descendants (2011), and most recently Nebraska (2013), Payne cannot help but place his characters on physical, psychological, and emotional journeys, ones that might not have a clear destination but which will take the protagonists—and the viewers—to completely unexpected places. More often than not, origin and destination merge, and the characters end up where they had started; they return home, whether that is symbolized by an actual location or by family connections or romantic relationships. The writer-director utilizes the dynamics of the road movie not to express the more common theme of a yearning for escape, but instead to emphasize the psychological primacy of belonging, establishing and—significantly—accepting one’s true home.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Life Itself (2014)

Roger Ebert loved movies—except the ones he hated, hated, HATED. But even then he was (usually) honest, fair, and kind. He was a generous champion of films and filmmakers; he treated their triumphs like personal victories, their failures as intimately as if they were his own. Steve James’ richly satisfying, sensitive, stirring biography is many things, and all of them do him justice. Meticulous and moving, Life Itself is about the history of both cinema and criticism, about Roger’s illustrious career, his loving family, friends, and colleagues, his illness and death—tragic because it robbed us of a great writer, a great thinker, and a great man—and the memories he left behind, but most of all it is about life, his and ours, the life of movie lovers everywhere. Because life itself, that loaded two-word phrase, is what Roger really wrote about when he wrote about the movies.

The film has a (pleasantly) rambling, stream-of-consciousness flow to it, underscored by deeper and more serious currents. For anyone familiar with Roger’s writing, as well as anyone who loves film, the movie is a must-see.  It is also surprisingly accessible to those utterly uninterested in film criticism, cutting to the human heart of all this history to tell a raw and riveting life story. The biography almost mimics Roger’s writing style, in which he combined his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema with an approachable, plainspoken prose that could be understood and enjoyed by anybody.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make the perfect pair of ivory-skinned wraiths in maverick moviemaker Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. These fabulously aloof, effortlessly stylish creatures are the coolest people you could imagine. They were hipsters before it was cool to be a hipster—a few centuries before, actually.  In the film’s hypnotic opening sequence a spinning 45-rpm record fills the screen, and Wanda Jackson’s witchy, bewitching wail fills your soul. The image dissolves into a revolving bird’s eye view of two silent, still figures, she surrounded by countless stacks of books strewn across the floor, he reclined in a couch amid vintage guitars and vinyl records, miles apart yet seemingly in the same room. Round and round they go, the camera circling closer and closer, inviting you to follow down the rabbit hole of this dark, delirious, delicious film. These bloodsuckers might be after your hemoglobin, but their story and style will start seeping into your veins as early as that first shot. Jarmusch’s undead really know how to live.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

"Safety Last!" and the Most Iconic Image in Silent Comedy

The quintessential Harold Lloyd character is the affable, bespectacled boy next door, anxious to get ahead, not very good at anything, but willing to compensate through sheer energy, bounce, and push; he is the comedic embodiment of the American Dream—what an ordinary man can achieve through a lot of hard work. The filmmaker’s success, as well as that of his characters, is that rare American miracle, the improbable, inspiring accomplishment that couldn’t possibly happen, but did. Safety Last! (1923), Lloyd’s most famous film, tells the story of a small-town young man on the make in the big city, trying to save up enough money so he can marry the woman he loves. Why a story of material betterment and romance should culminate on top of a skyscraper, only Lloyd could tell you. But it is in that juxtaposition of gag and thrill, at the intersection of improbability and idealism, that Lloyd’s specific brand of movie magic transpired. Benefitting from careful plotting, an impeccable sense of timing and tight, functional, unobtrusive editing rhythms, certain sequences of Safety Last!, which follow’s Roach method of accumulation ratherthan Sennett’s madcap speed, can serve as perfect models of how to construct a gag, develop it, twist it, scramble it, then redevelop it, twist it again, and top it. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

22 Jump Street (2014)

Trying to write a review of 22 Jump Street—which I’ve been putting off for as long as humanly possible—I find myself at a loss. Not because I don’t have anything to say about this sly, self-referencing movie, but because there doesn’t seem to be any need for it. The film is critic-proof, reviewing itself as it goes along. It’s a buddy cop movie about the conventions of buddy cop movies, a sequel about the appeal and downside of sequels, a low expectation summer blockbuster about the low expectations of all summer blockbusters. Basically, it wants to eat its genre parody cake and have it too.

In the first movie, the 2012 hit that borrowed its title and undercover brother shtick from the old television show best known for making every ’80s teenage girl in America and beyond fall in love with Johnny Depp, the Jump Street operation was restarted, Chief Hardy (Nick Offerman) explains, because “The guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas.” That may have registered as a jab at the studio powers that be, but in reality it’s a smiling affirmation that the guys in charge know precisely what they’re doing.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Two Faces of January (2014)

Drive screenwriter Hossein Amini’s directorial debut takes its title from the English derivation of Janus, the two-faced Roman god who stands at the cusp of the new year, simultaneously musing backward at recent lessons and experiences, and peering forward to the murky and elusive future ahead, a guardian at the crossroads of the past and present. The reference implies the twin forces of duplicity and shifting circumstances that swirl in the fragrant atmosphere of The Two Faces of January, an old-school, sly, seductive Southern Europe-set tale of moral compromise and misdirection. Based on the Patricia Highsmith novel of the same name, Amini’s film has its own two faces; it’s at once an involving character drama and a gripping suspense movie, a pleasurable period piece of precision and class and a tight and tidy thriller as shrewd, sleek, and scintillating as its characters.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

 Between the months of May—or, if we follow the ever-increasing trend of cinematic climate change, much earlier than that—and August, I go through an intensive exercise of willful suspension of expectations whenever I set foot in a theater. Summer Movie Season, or better yet SUMMER MOVIE SEASON in all caps, is easily dismissed as a period of shameless studio profiteering in which the industry churns out dime-a-dozen spectacle films that cost a hell of a lot more than a dime. They’re too big, too loud, too expensive, too reverent to the altar of the lowest common denominator, too dependent on slick special effects and not enough so on narrative and character. I bemoan how otherwise gifted stars spend their estivate months squandering their talents in Hollywood products addicted to and addled by computer-generated monsters, robots, and explosions.

Then, every once in a while, something like Edge of Tomorrow comes along, and my faith in the mainstream, commercial American movie industry is renewed. I saw the film the Friday it came out. On Sunday, I had a 13-hour trans-Atlantic flight to get through. My first priority was not making sure I had a window seat, low-sodium meals on the plane, enough time to switch terminals between connecting flights, or, you know, that my passport was, indeed, in my bag. Between Friday and Sunday I was badgering everyone I know in Europe not only to go see this movie, but to wait until I got home on Monday and come see it with me.

Hands-down director Doug Liman’s best and most purely pleasurable effort in the twelve years since The Bourne Identity (if not longer than that), Edge of Tomorrow is less of a time-travel movie than an experience movie. One review called it “a cheeky little puzzle picture in expensive-looking blockbuster drag.” It’s a stylish, cleverly crafted, and continually involving mind- and clock-bending bit of action adventure that neither transcends nor redeems the genre, but, thanks to a superb creative team and star Tom Cruise, becomes a surprisingly satisfying exercise of that genre.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Immigrant (2013)

A great classicist, James Gray has often been called painterly, operatic, novelistic. It’s as if we have forgotten what good cinema looks like, searching other media for a comparison, assuming the heft and heart of art and literature is somehow outside the movies’ grasp. Gray’s The Immigrant, which premiered last year at Cannes and is just now hitting theaters, is a romantic tale that hides its monumental scale and subject in plain sight, a subtle, soulful masterpiece that cuts to the very heart of the American experience. Wrapping big themes in an intimate embrace, the film feels both epic and personal. It not only reminds us of what film used to be, but also of what it could be once again. A story of survival and redemption for the characters, the movie surely accomplishes the same for a very specific, straightforward kind of filmmaking that I haven’t seen in a very long time.

A mournful, mesmerizing meditation on the immigrant experience, the movie opens on a slow zoom of the Statue of Liberty shrouded in foggy mist, its back turned to the camera. From that first moment, The Immigrant unfolds in the foggy, misty gap between the promise the statue embodies and the harsh realities newcomers encounter when that promise turns its back on them. Later in the film, Lady Liberty will make a second appearance, this time as the main character’s cabaret costume, a sad parody of the ideals represented by the statue. The woman is asked why she came to America. “I want to be happy,” she mouths gently, her voice breaking with infinite sorrow. In another show, a magician levitates before the Ellis Island detainees, who are for the most part awaiting deportation to their home lands, assuring them that anything is possible if they believe—“The American Dream is waiting for you,” he says at the end of the act. How appropriate that the pep talk comes in the middle of a con act.

Friday, May 30, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Three years ago, Kick-Ass director Matthew Vaughn reinvigorated the Marvel franchise with the clever historical revisionism of 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which boasted a superb new cast, cool retro style, globetrotting intrigue, and a refreshing emphasis on character. Bryan Singer, the series’ original creator on board as director for the first time since 2003’s X2: X-Men United, confidently carries that same momentum, combining the gravitas of the early films with the playfulness of Vaughn’s follow-up. Making for exceptional pacing and relentless drive, Singer pulls together an ambitious, suspenseful film and secures a future for the franchise at the same time he continues to reinvent it.

The X-Men series has always been somewhat unique among its kind because it wears its allegorical heart on its sleeve. By chronicling the adventures of a despised minority, it pokes around some interesting social and political issues. The theme of ostracized, oppressed outsiders empowered to fight against their social stigma in ways both good and evil runs throughout the seven films to date. The central conflict is the endless moral argument between Professor X and Magneto, between the idea that mutants should fight for the redemption of mankind and the insistence that they should defend themselves by any means necessary. This time around, their misunderstood humanity is amplified by extreme physical vulnerability, their struggle framed by a genocidal battle in the near future.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Nebraska (2013): One for the Money, Two for the Road

After making side trips to California’s Central Coast and Hawaii for Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), Alexander Payne takes to the road yet again, this time in his home state, for Nebraska (2013), a wistful ode to small-town Midwestern life and the quixotic dreams of stubborn old men. Payne’s prairie-based old-age odyssey begins, appropriately, on a busy stretch of highway. 

A small, solitary figure shuffles along the side of the snow-fringed road, stooped and scowling in the wind. His determined trudging is interrupted by a police officer, who asks where he’s coming from and where he’s headed. Wordlessly, the old man points back and then forward. This is a man who, like his surroundings, seems to have outlived his usefulness; he has that self-involvement the way someone does when he’s staring death in the face, bobbing and weaving along that highway to avoid his inevitable mortality. His journey is a last, valedictory gesture designed to give meaning to a life. He seems confused, but there’s a heartbreaking purity, a blankness to him, as well as a hunger and a ferocity, that feel terrifyingly real. Without saying a word, he has hit upon a deep and eloquent truth: like the character, that’s all we really know in life—that we came from back there and we’re going forward on the road, regardless of where it might lead, because we have no idea what the end destination is or where we’ll end up anyway. 

NEW: PAYNE'S About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants Analysis HERE

In surprising ways, his odyssey resembles those of Dave Eggers’ You Shall Know Our Velocity, DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995) and Walter Salles’ Motorcycle Diaries (2004). The protagonists of these works are all younger than Payne’s character; they have had different life experiences; they travel different lands. But, through each of their journeys, they seek the same meaningfulness, defining their own identities in relation to others and to their environments, looking for a place they belong, and trying to establish a human connection.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Quelle Girl: "Breakfast at Tiffany’s," Film and Book

A stylish, simply yet elegantly dressed young woman steps in front of Tiffany’s on an empty New York street. Large, dark glasses cover her eyes, a tiara sits upon her frosted beehive, she is dripping pearls, and her slim, long black evening dress perfectly matches her black sandals. A soft, sweet song evokes a mood of melancholy yearning as the golden light of dawn washes over the scene. When Audrey Hepburn watched her reflection in that shop window in 1961, she set the entire tone and look of a movie and created a character that would come to inhabit the minds and hearts of the public for decades to come.

Truman Capote’s novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” first published in the November 1958 issue of Esquire, was adapted by director Blake Edwards and writer George Axelrod with a light touch. Dealing with comedy, romance, and poignancy in a swanky Upper East Side setting, the movie follows Holly Golightly, a charming, carefree, independent New York party girl, and her upstairs neighbor, writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard). While the film hews closely to its source material for the most part, maintaining much of the pungent, comical, racy dialogue (with some lines tuned down to Production Code standards), the few liberties it does take are not insignificant. The tone of Capote’s story was harder and more cynical; Edwards makes it soft and sentimental, bestowing upon it a Hollywoodized happy ending, dropping some characters and adding others, and turning the subjective point of view of the novella objective, and its narrator, a dispassionate admirer and friend, into a romantic interest.

***This is not a review of the film, but a comparative analysis of the Capote’s novella and its screen adaptation, and it contains spoilers.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Lone Star (1996) Analysis

 Lone Star embodies both simplicity and complexity. With quiet, watchful, and soft-spoken intelligence, director John Sayles displays broad social and political awareness, without ever losing sight of the human scale. He focuses on macro-political issues that he intertwines with the personal, demonstrating how universal concerns affect the lives of ordinary individuals.

At some point during the first act of the film, a scene seemingly unrelated to the rest of the movie takes up a considerable amount of screen time. This is a school meeting where disgruntled parents argue about which textbook would be more appropriate for their children’s history class. Pilar (Elizabeth Pena), the teacher, is desperately trying to appease them by explaining that all she was trying to do was present her students with a more complete picture. “Now that’s what’s gotta stop,” a concerned mother blurts out. What they are actually arguing about in the racially diverse and intolerant small town is whose version of history they should cover. And everyone in Rio County seems to remember the past a bit differently. The director is also bent on showing us, the viewers, the complete picture in this multi-layered narrative of the present and past of this disjointed community, from multiple points of view. Brief, meaningful encounters like this make up the movie, which plunges us directly into the action and lets us figure out on our own exactly how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Like Citizen Kane, Lone Star brings us closer to the truth through each vignette, while Sam (Chris Cooper) acts as our go-between, our guide.

Size Matters: Television’s Effects on the 1950s Film Industry

There is a scene in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) that demonstrates not only the director’s mastering of the new widescreen format and the careful balancing of composition within a larger frame, but also Cukor’s awareness of its history and value. It features aging matinee idol Norman Main (James Mason) getting fired by head of the studio Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford). The actor’s popularity had been slipping, along with the studio’s power and commercial viability after the introduction of television into the American home. During the conversation, the men stand between two flickering black-an-white images on the left and right edges of the frame. To the far left is a television set turned on to the fights, to the far right a movie, projected onto a screen in the next room. Main and Niles talk to each other precisely between a video image and a film image—a visual translation of the historical crossroads where all the studio heads and stars found themselves in 1954, with box office revenues plummeting.

Two years earlier, 1952 had marked the first full year in which the whole nation was blanketed by network television, and for the first time since the early years of the Depression, the movie industry was in a state of decline. 1952 was also, not incidentally, the year that brought wide screens and stereophonic sound, more practicable and less expensive color, a growth of independent production, and a landmark Supreme Court decision on film censorship. This was the beginning of a transition that would lead the American film industry from the hardened confines of a production-distribution-exhibition pattern that had lasted for over two decades into uncertainties and changing forms. Television was, of course, not the only factor that prompted this transition, but it was a heavily influential one. If the theater screen was to compete with the small one, Hollywood had to offer audiences something that they couldn’t get in their living rooms: new, bigger screens and visual effects, better sound quality, color, new genres, more sex, more violence.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

sex, lies, and videotape (1989) Analysis

Few movie titles have been as literal as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, writer/director Steven Soderbergh’s tour-de-force debut feature. And although the first word of the title makes a promise that a more conventional, Hollywood film would deliver on, Soderbergh’s very personal, wry, and grown-up comedy of sexual manners is all talk and almost no action, at least not onscreen, where all we get is white static. Sex, like everything else in the lives of its four protagonists, is treated in an adult and intellectual manner. Filmed in real settings, on a shoestring budget in the director’s hometown of Baton Rouge, with a cast of mostly unknown young actors and focusing on controversial subject matter, the movie was an overnight sensation when it was screened at Sundance, later going on to win the grand prize at Cannes. Just like James Spader’s Graham, an outsider who rides into town in a ’69 Cutlass, challenging the dysfunctionality of the American Dream through his very being, Soderbergh provides a new, alternative view of what American cinema is and what it could be. The ‘independence’ of Sex, Lies, and Videotape, its uniqueness, lies in both its content and form, if more pronounced in the former. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Do the Right Thing (1989) Analysis

In Do the Right Thing, writer/director/actor Spike Lee chronicles the lives of working class Brooklyners in the ethnically diverse Bed-Stuy area over a 24-hour period, on the hottest day of the summer. Lee gives a sense of the film’s energy and aggressiveness as early as the opening credits. As Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” blasts, sound and images are combined into a brilliantly edited sequence filled with bright colors, attitude, and anger. Shot by long-time collaborator Ernest Dickerson, the film seems about ready to burst with its palette of strong, saturated colors and emphasis on bright fiery reds and warm oranges and golds that create a visual representation of heat. As temperatures escalate, so do the conflicts between characters; tensions flare up and ultimately explode in racial violence.

Lee treads the fine line between the personal and the political, making his singularly unique characters more than just stand-in representatives for their class and race, but at the same time refusing to focus simply on the individual, instead reflecting on the wider social tensions that come to shape the characters and their actions. From the first shot of the film, a closeup of a ringing clock and Samuel L. Jackson’s character’s first words—“Wake up!”  (which also happens to be the closing line of Lee’s previous film, School Daze)—it’s obvious the director is pleading with the audience as much as the characters to open their eyes and see the urgent need for interracial respect and understanding. Lee’s is a clear, level gaze at American politics of race, from a distinct, African American perspective. His films pose questions that evade easy answers; he offers no solutions. By the ambiguous ending of the movie, it is up to us to decide what “the right thing” is.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Harry Langdon: The Elderly Baby

If Laurel and Hardy were grown men who acted like children, Harry Langdon, the most helpless, immature, sexless, timid and downright stupid of all the silent clowns, regressed even further, becoming, in effect, a middle-aged baby, seemingly retaining, by some dogged self-abstraction, the obliviousness and immunity of an embryo to the outside world. His most characteristic gestures and roles, among them the main characters of Frank Capra’s Tramp, Tramp, Tramp and The Strong Man, both released in 1926, combined the masculine and the feminine, the adult and the child. Langdon’s innocence and pathos infuse every frame of film, heightened by complete intellectual blankness to most of what surrounds him. A master of the slow burn, every action and reaction he ever emitted on screen betrays a truly infantile perplexity.

Even his makeup created a strange mixture of discordant opposites—the white powder and dark, heavily outlined eyes—that turned him into a combination of clown, infant, and hermaphrodite. Layered over an obviously adult face, the childlike getup resulted in what James Agee called the look of “an elderly baby” or “a baby dope fiend.” His outfit, made up of round, battered soft hat turned up at the brim, tight jacket with the top button fastened, the others unbuttoned, spreading open ridiculously at the hips, baggy trousers and awkward, oversized shoes, only heightenaed the childish absurdity and inadequacy of his characters, who were completely unfit for the world of men—and especially of women—and incompetent at adult social behavior.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Censoring Cinema: Hollywood's Production Code

“Suspicious of a flickering amusement that mesmerized the commonest of folk and the dullest of immigrants…, reformers of all stripes viewed the motion picture as a gateway to personal damnation and social deviance… the motion picture medium, if left to its own devices, was more liable to pollute and degrade than refine and uplift,” Thomas Doherty writes in Hollywood’s Censor: Joseph I. Breen & the Production Code Administration (32). These were the sentiments that led the film industry to adopt the Motion Picture Production Code in the 1930s, a form of self-censorship that regulated film content for over three decades. “Just as a single lustful spasm in a brothel might sow the seeds of disease and dissipation,” the author continues, “a brief session at a nickelodeon might undo years of educational guidance and moral instruction” (32). But the reasons behind adopting and enforcing the Code were varied, ranging from morality to economics, from religion to the need to protect the industry from government censorship. The effects the Production Code had on film content were as diverse as the reasons for adopting it. Although the Code was never considered unconstitutional—because films were not protected under the First Amendment until 1952—the document undoubtedly encroached on the motion picture industry’s right to expression and free speech. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

The Monuments Men (2014)

Just as the motley crew of art historians, curators, restorers and archivists—most of ages and girths that seem misplaced on the battlefield—fights to preserve the veritable treasure-troves of cultural artifacts looted by Nazis in George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, the writer-director-star of the film seems bent on preserving a certain kind of classical, even old-fashioned American movie that Hollywood just doesn’t make anymore. After vigorously investing vivid life into the best of his five retro-fun films, Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March, Clooney’s latest once again looks back towards a rich tradition of filmmaking that springs its morally astute ideas from history, politics and civic ideals, its noble intentions worn proudly on its sleeve.

The—very loosely—based-on-a-true-story wartime drama, co-written by Clooney with his producing partner Grant Heslov, draws on the WWII thriller, caper comedy, straight-faced procedural, sentimentally uplifting melodrama and buddy film, and includes just enough why-we-fight speeches to keep the patriotism practical (“They tell us no one cares about art, but they’re wrong. It’s the exact reason that we’re fighting, for a culture, for a way of life. If you destroy their achievements, their history, then it’s as if they never existed.”) The director seems unsure whether he’s trying to make a stylish wartime drama or a jaunty, jocular lark—Ocean’s Seven, WWII edition?—and what he ends up with tries to be funny, thoughtful, touching and true all at the same time but hones a little too closely to a dutiful, dry art-appreciation seminar.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Thelma and Louise (1991) Opening Clip Analysis

The opening of any film is rife with visual and thematic information and clues that anticipate and inform the rest of the movie. With Thelma & Louise (1991), director Ridley Scott puts a new and gendered spin on both the expansive road movie and the intimate buddy film. Teeming with thrilling, life-affirming energy, exuberant comedy, warmth, and wit, the movie focuses on the two title characters, utterly ordinary, working-class women fleeing the monotony of their lives and discovering unexpected, untapped wells of feeling and strength. Not unlike the Western hero of Hollywood classics, these ordinary women encounter situations and conditions that make them extraordinary. The Western is also invoked through Hans Zimmer’s mournful, tough, galvanizing country tinged score. Even before the first scene, over the opening credits, the music creates a poignant mood that is at once earthly and ethereal, like Thelma & Louise itself—or should it be “themselves”?

Friday, February 7, 2014

August: Osage County (2013)

“Life is very long,” T.S. Elliot’s immortal maxim, opens August: Osage County, a pulsing panorama of unfulfilled lives. It must certainly seem so to Beverly (a wonderful, grizzly Sam Shepard), the melancholic poet patriarch of the quarrelsome Weston clan, because before long he decides to take matters into his own hands. In the first scene of the film, he is hiring a live-in caretaker (a thankfully reserved Misty Upham) for his ailing wife, Violet (Meryl Streep in a role that should garner her an Oscar if she didn’t already have a truckload). Beverly’s bristly voice betrays a history of bitter disappointment, a lifetime spent among a few good books and a few more bottles of booze. “Facts are my wife takes pills, and I drink. That’s the bargain we’ve struck, a little paragraph in our marriage contract.” This is only a small part of the family pathology that director John Wells (The Company Men) brings to the screen in August: Osage County. When Shepard’s character takes his leave, you will miss him; you might also envy him.

His family will soon gather to the faded farmhouse to pay their last respects to Bev—and their disrespects to each other, in a scalding, stormy symphony of sarcastic insults, sneaky insinuations, shouted accusations, smashed plates, and slammed doors. Adapted from the acid-tongued, Pulitzer-winning play by Tracy Letts, the movie’s raw, blistering, bitterly funny dialogue lets loose a barrage of nasty recriminations, mocking taunts and hurtful revelations, all hurled with corrosive aplomb by an electrifying ensemble cast. Long-hidden secrets are unearthed, lessons learned, tears shed, and award nominations eagerly besought.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Battleship Potemkin (1925) Analysis

Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, released in 1925, revolutionized cinema, making its director and Russian filmmaking famous around the world. A master metteur en scene, Eisenstein focused more on the possibilities of film itself than on character development or plot. The director is interested in mass movements, and uses individuals only as representations of the many, fusing sound and images together to create a vast and startling ever-moving painting of often fearsome beauty. The overriding principle in Potemkin, as well as many of the Eisenstein’s other works, is that of kineticism—from the intense movement and dynamism within the frame, to the visual clash of his juxtapositions— which set up the rhythm of his movies and introduced a more sophisticated style of editing than had ever been used before.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Her (2013)

The movie’s official poster calls Her “A Spike Jonze Love Story.” The decidedly unofficial “honest” movie poster created by Uproxx calls it “a two-hour closeup of Joaquin Phoenix’s face.” More on that in a bit; for now I’d like to focus on the official tagline. Jonze (of the genre-bending—and genre-shaping—Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) is a filmmaker with an astute sense of the absurd. His films are genuinely provocative, brazenly original and bravely inquisitive, and Her, Jonze’s screenwriting debut, is no exception. But the film also offers one of the loveliest romances ever to have graced the silver screen. The fact that it transpires between a man and his software only increases my admiration for the delicacy and depth of feeling packed into the relationship, a brilliant conceptual gag that proves nonetheless sincere and completely plausible. Wildly inventive, challenging and engaging, this subtly profound film follows its own quirky, amusing course. It’s a melancholy, eerie love story unlike anything else you’ve seen this year—or ever.

In Her’s opening shots, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix in a quietly heroic, beautifully hushed performance), is making an unabashed declaration of love to an unseen beloved. The actor, as well as his character, is unaffected, sincere, disarming. We quickly discover, however, that his lovely words are not addressed to his beloved at all, that this is what Theodore does for a living; the character is a latter-day Cyrano writing heartfelt notes-for-hire at (the handwriting all computer-generated, of course). The cuteness is instantly turned to cynicism, in a movie that is both visionary and traditional, tender and cool, passionate and wispy. Like the lingering analog affection for handwriting in a digital age, Her argues for both the past and the future, with a soulfully poetic spirit that’s become extremely rare in American cinema.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Oscar Nominations – This Year It's All About Who's Not There

Well, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters—i.e. the people who hand out those tiny little golden men everyone seems to be talking about today—have had their say. Here is my response.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Richly rendered, intoxicating and ingenious, Saving Mr. Banks is at times no less fantastical than stories about governesses who can fly. Director John Lee Hancock of The Blind Side fame, writers Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, and the superb ensemble of seasoned actors create a riveting backstage account of artistic collaboration, a clash of Hollywood titans marbled with moments of high comedy. The Walt-worthy giddiness, depth of feeling, and the stunning performances elevate the story above its premise as an unapologetically retro valentine to the studio that is the most literal Hollywood dream factory.

Thick with affection and old-fashioned showmanship, the movie is a Disney fairytale based on fact, namely the making of Mary Poppins, the much beloved 1964 musical fantasy that put Walt and his boys on the map as serious creators of live action family entertainment. There are knowing winks to Disney’s flying nanny, but Saving Mr. Banks is accessible and enjoyable to even those entirely innocent to the original film—if such people exist.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Subtle and surreptitiously soulful, Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest has a light, tender touch and a surfeit of sincere, deep feeling, two things the Coen brothers generally lack. A lot of the emotion comes from the music itself, supervised by T. Bone Burnett, a man who really knows his way around a ballad. The film is as melancholy as the somber, smoky, sweet songs filled with steely, blue notes, providing a startlingly straight-faced departure for the directing/writing/producing/editing duo behind Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, and Raising Arizona. Marvelous and mordantly funny, Inside Llewyn Davis is deeply personal, boldly original, and highly emotional.

The sounds of the early sixties folk music revival float in the air like a strange, intoxicating perfume, reflecting the lonesomeness and romance of the traveling life, particularly the meandering, fraught journey of a guitar-strumming balladeer trying to reconcile his life and his art. Oscar Isaac, who portrays the title character with sincere conviction and a haunting humanism, can definitely sing, in a fine, clear tenor voice that palpitates with the poignant pain of loss, longing, and loneliness. All of the songs speak to this pain and to the rootlessness and regret of his existence: “Fare Thee Well,” “Five Hundred Miles (Away From Home),” and especially “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” which opens the film: “wouldn’t mind the hangin’ except for layin’ in the grave so long, poor boy... I been all around this world.” The words and chords don’t just enrich the movie, they complete it, tapping into reservoirs of otherwise inaccessible feelings.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

The Wolf of Wall Street starts with an ad for Stratton Oakmont; the commercial makes us believe the brokerage firm is a golden American institution, a rock of financial stability, as traditional, trustworthy, and established as if the Mayflower passengers had etched the very name into Plymouth Rock. Cut to the nightmarish circus of a rollicking party on the trading floor of the company—not unlike what we’ve imagined went on in Rome before the fall (all but the roller-skating chimp and snorting coke off hookers, of course)—and then freeze-frame on the billionaire brokers tossing a dwarf at a huge velcro target, literally and figuratively abusing the Little Guy. Stratton Oakmont is America, its founder proudly proclaims in the ad. How horrifying is it to realize that he just might be right?

After going unexpectedly family-friendly with 2011’s Hugo, Martin Scorsese pulls a dramatic 180 with The Wolf of Wall Street, a nonstop barrage of drug-fueled decadence adapted by Terence Winter from real-life stockbroking swindler Jordan Belfort’s memoir. The book is a distant relative of the truth, it’s been said, and the film is a distant relative of the book. A big, unruly bacchanal with a sizeable, sinister smile on its lips, the movie is a bit of a contradiction, both abashed and unashamed, spectacle and cautionary tale, ode to and indictment of dollars, depravity, and conspicuous consumption.

Disturbing and exciting, exhilarating and exhausting, the endlessly entertaining film holds together by sheer virtue of its exuberant, furious filmmaking energy. Scorsese might be the best cinematic connoisseur of charismatic sociopaths, and Henry Hill or Nicky Santoro ain’t got nothing on Belfort. The Wolf of Wall Street’s brokers are avatars of an age of heedless self-indulgence and greed, gangsters with fountain pens instead of guns, slicing and dicing your bank account and putting your savings in a vise rather than your head. And, just like in the much less cynical and coked-up American Hustle, you’ll cheer the con artists on and thank them for swindling you when they’re done.