Posted on 1/23/12 04:13 PM
"Brief Encounter" is very quiet subdued film from director David Lean, known more for his sprawling epics "Lawrence of Arabia", "Dr. Zhivago" and "Bridge on the River Kwai" and from writer Noel Coward who was one of the most important playwrights of his time. Their respective brilliance is on show here, in this early masterpiece which stands up against Lean's later works.
The film seems to suffer from accusations that it has "dated poorly" but I honestly don't see it. It is the story of a potentially explosive affair that is told in a very reserved manner, and scarcely has any impact beyond the two central characters. For this reason the film seems like a breath of fresh air in a genre that tends to lean towards melodrama. With "Brief Encounter" we are given a focus more on internal conflict, particularly in the mind of Laura (Celia Johnson) whose inner monologue, spoken as if to her caring husband, is stitched throughout the flashback telling of her affair with Alec Hardy (Trevor Howard). This narration serves the purpose of highlighting Laura's self-consciousness and adds poetry to the calm visuals.
In the romantic genre this film is quite original in that it deals with a middle-aged middle-class couple who start an extra-marital affair. There are no villains, Laura's husband is respectful and understanding, Alec's wife is non-existent. The only conflict is internal, borne from feelings that cannot be helped and actions that occur spontaneously. We are not distracted by childish squabbles, we are dealing with intelligent respectable people who are overcome with love and misery and so we get a film that is not didactic or preachy in the way many American films of this time are. Although the affair between Alec and Laura doesn't work out there is no resolution. Even though the final image in the film is Laura and her husband embracing, her last true emotional act is her attempt to throw herself under a train. She is in pain from beginning to end.
This is not to say that the film wallows in depression or self-hatred. There are moments of real love and infatuation. The film explores the highs and lows of an incongruous love affair, shooting from the joy of being in the other person's company to the shame of being part of an illicit love affair that takes place outside the confines of what is socially acceptable, being forced to duck and hide outside one's usual social circles, having to lie to one's husband so as not to have to face the consequences of his disappointment.
Addressing the accusations of the film's being out-dated, there are of course a number of things in the film that betray the time in which it was made. Laura is a character who is exploring sexual possibilities outside the confines of a nuclear family, and seeing as the film was made during the reign of a conservative government during war-time, it is indicative of the changing values in a Britain that would be at the forefront of social reform 15 years later, and that would of course vote out the conservative government the following election. The film explores how women's place in society was rapidly changing, and how the change would not be easy for anyone.
The film is sprinkled with great moments but the most poignant is the one scene that takes place both at the beginning and the end of film, in which Alec and Laura part for the final time. In the beginning we see that Alec and Laura are annoyed by the arrival of Mrs Messiter, but it's not until we revisit this scene at the end of the film that we get to understand the irritation and discomfort of this departure. It was a relationship that was always overcast with fear of exposure and guilt, this ending is representative of the essence of the relationship. It can't even end well, but of course this is merely the end of physical interaction, the mental anguish will continue, which Laura understands, which is why she attempts to kill herself.
This is truly one of the greatest British films ever made from one of the great directors and one of the most notable playwrights of the 20th Century. It works because we are shown two characters who are smart enough to know what they are doing will end badly, but are too smitten with one another to be able to resist meeting every Thursday. They are both respectable family people, one holds down an admirable profession the other keeps house, yet for all their good education and high social standing they have no means by which to avoid these events. It is a story of love and tragedy in which physical appearances mean nothing and what lies beneath is where the seeds of change are sewn.
Posted on 1/22/12 05:15 PM
Could the pleasure I derive from watching this film be described as "guilty"? Maybe, but so what. I really do enjoy it. I've got a genuine thing about flashy extravagant musicals and this film is done exactly in that style, only instead of music we get Shakespearean language. If a film is going to yank us out of reality I'd much prefer it to be done completely like it is in this film rather than in a half-assed way, like most action/thrillers.
"Romeo & Juliet" is probably my favourite Shakespeare play, although I've not read them all yet. I wouldn't consider myself a huge sentimentalist, but there's something profoundly brilliant about the language and the plot as well as the deceptively complex characters. This is the greatest love story ever told for one reason (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!): both lovers die.
We get hints about Romeo that he is fickle. He begins the story in love with Rosaline, but as soon as he sets eyes on Juliet he's smitten with her and Rosaline becomes a nobody. Juliet is locked in an arranged marriage with a man she can't stand. At this point in her life the young handsome Romeo is her escape. This love could have been nothing more than an infatuation, let's not forget the story takes place over the course of five days and in this time the protagonists meet, fall in love, get married and die. The story is known as true love, but what if they hadn't died on the fifth day, would young love continue into middle and then old age? It's hard to imagine, but for Shakespeare this is the essence of love; spontaneity, recklessness, devotion and fleeting moments.
Now, as for Luhrmann's interpretation of the story, while it's hardly the definitive version of the original play it is certainly something to admire in my opinion. As for the modern interpretation, this isn't something unique to this film. Shakespeare's plays are often being reset in different time-periods (I once saw a version of Othello set in the 1930s, suspenders, phonographs and all). The specific one chosen for this film, Verona Beach, is like a post-apocalyptic Miami-style beach-side city in which two aristocratic houses are engaged in a gang war of sorts. This conflict in comprehensible in these terms. Modern gang-violence is a thing that is understood to some extent as being exactly the type of conflict that is present between the Capulets and the Montagues.
It is a conflict with no real origin, but is passed on through generations. The families hate each other and they can't say why. Each generation breeds it's own personal reasons for fighting, beginning with the inherited offences, and continuing with the deaths of the younger members, (eg. Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo kills Tybalt, etc.) thus perpetuating the violence.
What both Romeo and Juliet therefore represent is the breaking of the chain. For many people in the real world it is their parents (their views, their enemies, their issues) that mess up their lives, or what's worse, when people inherit their parents views wholesale, like in the case of Tybalt or Benvolio. Both Romeo and Juliet have a hatred for one another's family that they have inherited, but as soon as they meet it is gone, and their loyalties are only with each other. Unfortunately their families influence proves far too great and they perish because of it. As much as it is a love story, "Romeo and Juliet" is about how the generation before can come to destroy the younger generation if the two are not completely compatible.
These themes are well represented in this film. The younger Montagues and Capulets are nearly mindless with their hatred, Romeo's presence at the Capulet party is enough to gravely offend Tybalt, while the parents do nothing to bridge the gap that they have created. Luhrmann's direction is kinetic and very heavy handed, but it works very well, representing a flash-in-the-pan romance with a lightning-strike feeling and a bizarre punk-burlesque style.
My favourite scene in the play is when Romeo climbs the walls of the Capulet mansion and overhears Juliets pleas: "Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou, Romeo". It is probably the most memorable of all Shakespeare's scenes for it's incredible wealth of beautiful lines, "art thou not Romeo, and a Montague?" "Neither fair maid, if either thee dislike" and of course "that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But for the film the most memorable scene must be when Romeo and Juliet first meet through the fish-tank. It is a very peaceful moment in a very loud film and the coy playful interaction between the characters, beautifully and silently acted out by DiCaprio and Danes sticks in the mind, and - dare I say - is much more memorable than how the first meeting occurs in the play. In the film it feels genuine, and it's completely necessary for the rest of the film, because if we believe this meeting, if we believe the looks in their eyes then we believe their love will last forever.
The film on its original release made back it's $14.5 million budget more than ten times, and it's little wonder. Besides the obvious star-power the film flaunts, the modern aesthetic opens Shakespeare to a whole new audience, and it's a testament to Luhrmann's boldness that he retained the play's original language, rather than just adopting the basic plot outline. And new audiences being opened up to the brilliance of Shakespeare is always a good thing.
Posted on 6/01/11 08:34 PM
This great ensemble film about the porn industry by Paul Thomas Anderson and set during the late 70s and early 80s is a surprisingly unusual extravaganza, mostly because it is an intelligent director addressing a controversial subject matter. It is heavy on great music and complicated yet beautiful scenes, boasts an unbelievable cast and is one of the most competently written films you're likely to find.
What's most interesting about the film is how it spoofs the classical-era films, or in other words, the notion of nuclear American family. This is a very obvious characteristic that the film flaunts. Amber Waves and Jack Horner are surrogate parents for Dirk Diggler. Dirk rejects his family name and takes the name of his new parents; a porn name. He is in good company when he arrives in Jack's house alongside Roller Girl, Reed Rothchild and Buck Swope, all children in the new unconventional nuclear family. The classic Hollywood trajectory is followed surprisingly closely here (as seen in films from 1933's "Only Yesterday" all the way up to 1990's "Home Alone"), as the family is together then torn apart by an unseeable force (in this case, the video-tape) and is ultimately reconciled at the end.
Of course this conventionality is satirical and wildly off-set because of the actual setting of the film and its characters. Where the conventional American family is obviously represented in platonic relationships, the fact that Jack's family is based on sex upsets the feeling of familiarity usually a staple in such stories. What we have then is not a film celebrating the new unconventional family, such as something like Don DeLillo's "White Noise" but instead offers a new perspective on an old idea. Basically, the film purports the idea that a family is something that is built on a vested interest, something that was absent from Dirk's "biological" family; an antagonistic mother, a cowardly father and a sexual son. The film ultimately rewards all its characters, Buck gets his business, Maurice starting a new club with his brothers etc.
The family aspect focuses heavily on Dirk, but Jack also has an interesting struggle of his own involving the art of his trade. Early on when Jack, Amber, Roller Girl and Dirk all meet in a diner, Jack divulges his desire to create the ultimate film in which people will stay in the theatre after they've jerked off to see how the story ends. Jack's artistic hopes are given a fighting chance when Dirk arrives on the scene and brings his dreams to life. Despite the acclaim Jack's films finally receive he must come crashing back down to earth when he is forced to work on video.
Jack clearly has impressions of what porn and sex are that he eventually and disastrously discovers his audience don't hold the same view of what he does that he holds. This becomes clear in two scenes, first, the scene in which Jack comes to realise his financier is a paedophile, a thing that shakes his faith in the industry and second the scene in which Jack, Roller Girl and the cameraman are cruising through LA looking for an amateur to film with. Jack's artistic vision clashes with the amateur boy's desire to fuck, and so a tension arises. When Jack beats the boy he is beating his audience for its indifference to his vision; it's desire to "jerk off and leave". It is really a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of the divide between film-makers and film-goers played out in a fantastically over-the-top manner.
Criticism of this film would have to include the fact that Anderson lifted the style of this film wholesale from Scorsese's "Goodfellas" and "Casino" with the use of kinetic camera movements, swift-editing and upbeat music feeling very familiar. Thankfully Anderson seems to have perfected his own individual style as is seen in "There Will Be Blood", but here his youth and inexperience are glaring, but not overpowering.
What is very impressive here is both the script, which sets up some fantastic moments, such as the scene with Alfred Molina's drug-dealer and his Chinese fire-cracker friend, and the amazing long-shots that appear throughout the film, most notably the opening scene and Lil' Bill's murder-suicide.
Overall, the film is messy at times, but delightfully provocative in its treatment of familiar themes in unfamiliar places. A great success.
Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens) (Nosferatu the Vampire) (1922)
Posted on 10/09/10 05:11 AM
It's the season for horror films and where better to search for a true classic than Germany in 1922. "Nosferatu", as you should know, is an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Victorian London-set Dracula, but here the action is shifted to Bremen (or Wisburg depending on which version you watch) in 1838.
Right away, let me explain why this is one of the great horror films. First, because there was no sound the idea of throwing a loud noise and an image on screen at once to make people jump could not be applied. In other words the film, probably the source of all modern horror, builds its entire atmosphere through images alone, which is a considerable achievement when one thinks of the atmospheres in horror films that are based almost entirely around sound (eg. The Cat People, The Shining).
Secondly, the make-up and performance of Max Shreck is so creepy and believable, that at times you could forget you were watching a fiction film. This particular element, along with some others I'll mention later, really adds to the themes Stoker was putting across in his novel. Basically, the novel reflects on the absence (and by extension, the presence) of supernatural phenomena in the increasingly technologised Victorian age. This film takes that idea but dilutes it somewhat, making the vampire the source of a plague, a very real threat to humanity.
Speaking on the character of Dracula (or Orlok), the shots of him are so beautifully eerie that they simply must be etched into the mind of whoever sees them. One that always strikes me is the figure of the vampire standing in the pointed-arch doorway before he attacks Harker (or Hutter). Another, would be the emotionally and sexually charged image of the vampire standing at his window, gazing over at Mina (Ellen) with a look of pure animalistic desire on his face.
Speaking of Mina, the film takes an interesting deviation from the novel. Besides the look of the vampire, his death is changed from being staked while riding in his coffin on a carriage on the side of the Carpathian mountains to being destroyed by the sun's rays in Mina's bedroom. This is a substantial act as it is a very early example of female heroes in cinema. Whereas the novel has Mina looking on as the men kill the vampire, here Mina consciously sacrifices herself to the creature (and the vampire is more a creature here than in any other film I've seen) in order to rescue Bremen, and her husband from the threat of the plague.
Mina's arc is fascinating and profoundly emotional for a time when visuals were all there was to communicate with. One of the most powerful images shows Mina standing beside a window which then cuts to a window-view shot of a number of coffins being walked down a street. Death is ever-present around Mina; the flower's Jonathan picks for her (an act that was not emphasised with inter-titles in the American version), the presence of Gothic grave-like crosses around her on the beach, all of which give the impression of what is to come. Gone is the Mina Harker of the novel who the men desperately try to protect from having to see the death and horror this monster has wrought.
Also, because of Mina's strong role in the film, Jonathan is surprisingly weak. He cowers from the vampire on numerous occasions, he nearly kills himself escaping from the castle, and he ultimately fails to protect his wife from the vampire. This shows a true crisis of masculinity that wouldn't re-emerge in cinema after the silent era until possibly the 1970s.
To return to the topic of visuals, the film benefits greatly from DW Griffith's technique of taking cameras away from single set shots and having the action take place largely on location. The scene in which the townspeople chase Renfield through the town gives great shots of the real-life location and adds to the film's stretch for realistic portrayals of these fictional events.
To be honest, I can't really make head nor tails of what the film is saying in relation to the theme of supernatural events in a logical environment. The presence of the plague seriously alters the book's meaning. Perhaps Mina is meant to be some kind of higher level being whose understanding, bravery and, ultimately, sacrifice are necessary for the largely ignorant masses to survive. Either way, as almost every other image in the film, the one in which the vampire feasts on Mina's blood is quite simply as disturbing an image as you could get.
Considering "Psycho" supposedly terrified audiences in 1960 I'd find it hard to gauge the impression a film such as this made on audiences in a pre-World War II society. Silent films certainly demand more attention than sound films, but this film, more than most others seriously rewards the effort. If you've not seen this I highly recommend it, it's in the public domain so you can legally watch it on a number of sites, but I'd recommend archive.org
Posted on 10/03/10 09:14 AM
I wish it weren't so, but in seven months between October 25th 1978 and May 25th 1978 Hollywood produced two horror films (Halloween and Alien, respectively) that were better than any and every horror film that has been released in the last ten years, and it's a damn shame, because horror is such a powerful genre when done properly, and to prove that I've decided to review "Alien".
One thing the horror genre always allowed for was taking more controversial social issues and representing them visually. The film has constantly been referred to for its portrayal of the female hero, Ellen Ripley, and has thus been labelled a "feminist" film, which it is, but it is also much more. The film is not simply a "female-kicking-ass" film (as, perhaps James Cameron's "Aliens" could be more accurately described), but is a deconstruction of the icon of the white man that has been a part of Hollywood's visual imagery for decades as well as being the centre of Western literature for centuries.
The film puts forward a number of contradictions to this myth of the great white man as hero and saviour of women and non-whites, as the possessor and user of penetrative phallic objects. The first and most obvious representation of this is the alien xenomorph itself. The first glimpse we get of it is its eggs (an overtly feminine symbol) and the emasculating monster it releases. This creature penetrates the male figure, effectively raping him, impregnates him and forces him to give birth. Immediately the role reversals have taken place. We get similar symbols when the alien's inner mouth penetrates Brett, yet another white man.
To continue this motif, the first four crew members who die are white men, including Ash, the android who is a personification of white greed and a creation in the image of a white man. The most symbolic scene in the film, I believe, comes when Ripley discovers the order on the ship's computer that the alien specimen has priority over the expendable crew. When Ash appears she uses a very masculine aggression to throw him to the ground, however Ash retaliates by trying to shut her up permanently by shoving his phallic-shaped magazine into her mouth, with some strategically placed porn images in the shot so one does not miss the meaning of this gesture. Finally, the white male's control of the ship is eradicated as Parker decapitates the robot and Lambert finishes him off.
To emphasise the relevance of the final scenes, try and imagine it as a Hollywood western from the 1940s, where it's two white women and a black man who take a stand against the villain. It's simply inconceivable, which is one of the reasons why "Alien" has such resonance and cultural importance. The final scene aboard the shuttle brings the idea behind the film full-circle. Ripley, now stripped, revealing her feminine figure, uses non-physical means to destroy the transsexual monster, the monster with an effeminate physique but with male penetrative actions, a monster Hollywood had yet to create. Ripley is certainly not a woman who uses male methods of problem-solving (ignoring the following films that possibly missed this theme). She is clearly emotional and fearful as she destroys the Nostromo, and as she confronts the alien at the end ie. she is most definitely a woman's woman, not a masculine one.
The film is not an indictment of white men, but of the representation of white men in literature, such as films or novels. The white men in "Alien" all show an entitlement to their dominance eg. Ash overruling Ripley's decision to quarantine Kane, Dallas's decision to follow the alien into the air shafts over Ripley.
In the end, the film is about survival, and refuting the idea that white men are the ultimate Darwinian triumph. The Xenomorph is shown to be a creature who can adapt to any environment, referred to by Ash as "the perfect specimen". This quote reveals the inherent self-hatred and self-denial in white supremacist doctrine; the refusal to accept one's own humanity, the insistence that white man is a divine creation. In the end, the inferior being, the woman - which great thinkers from Aristotle all the way to Freud have seen as deformed men, with even interpretations of the vagina as being an inverted penis circulating science communities in Victorian times - is the one who defeats this "triumph" of evolution.
The films isn't all symbolism however. On a technical level it has been oft-imitated, but never equalled. The slow creeping camera that travels in a circular motion almost throughout the film, slowly revealing what it is looking for, adds an intense atmosphere upon which the film's most primal impact is based, rather than Hitchcockian suspense. Adding in an equally tense, creeping score and a dark blue aesthetic and you've got the recipe for a profoundly spectacular horror film.
Ridley Scott's direction and vision for this film are unmatched, except maybe by his own later sci-fi film "Blade Runner". The entire film feels like it is set in a cold distant future on a faraway planet, and not for a moment like it's on a film-set. Truly, the art and set designers for this film deserve much accolades.
It's no wonder that "Alien" is still considered a landmark in American cinema, from both a thematic and technical perspective. Few directors have managed to capture or even understand the beauty that lies behind the film's atmosphere, and so its imitations are inferior. Truly an essential work
Posted on 9/19/10 08:24 AM
This is a much more difficult film to write about than most. I like to imagine it's only called "Star Wars" without all that other unnecessary crap in the title, but alas it isn't to be. I'm part of the generation who never got to see "Star Wars" before it was decimated by its creator, catching the re-release in a local cinema back in 1997 or so. As a seven year-old I was still as captivated by it as I'd imagine those who'd seen it 20 years earlier were. Now however, I've got a few gripes about the film that I must mention.
But the positives first. The effects for the time (and I can only now use my imagination to erase the added CG from the screen) were quite spectacular. We all know that feeling of seeing those light sabers for the first time, and learning afterwards to make the noise as we swung around an invisible one at home. And this is really the film's greatest strength, the one thing Lucas could do very well was create an amazing no-strings-attached fantasy universe. An amalgamation of other ideas and mythologies, the Star Wars universe feels totally immersing and yet strangely familiar. The design that went into the creation of this universe, including the technology that is used and the beliefs that the characters hold, makes it exciting. In many ways, it showed what cinema was capable of, in a time when American cinema was at its most experimental.
The story, while simplistic, is universal. Thought by some to be a criticism of the war in Vietnam, with the US as the big bad Empire, it's hard not to fall in love with these characters. Visually the film has a gritty aesthetic as if the universe is old and tired, while the sound effects are almost as legendary as any of the objects or characters, done by the same man who did the sound effects for "Wall-E". And not to mention the electrifying opening score.
The characters are crucial for this film, from the droids to the heroes and the villains. The withered figure from a time long past, Obi-Wan Kenobi, to eternally sinister Darth Vader, and the (for some reason) forgettable Grand Moff Tarkin all reveal Lucas's influences. What brings the film to life is the way they are acted and how the characters all interact with one another, something gravely missing from Lucas's "prequels".
But this brings me to my unfortunate but necessary criticisms and how the film's greatest asset is also its biggest flaw and that is the man himself: George Lucas. While his direction is perfectly apt, never drawing attention to itself (and rightfully so in a fantasy film such as this) he should almost certainly have hired someone to help with the dialogue. The ideas behind the characters eg. Han as a rogue, Leia as a being stubborn all fit the film perfectly well, but whenever they actually say something it feels cringe-worthy. Perhaps this is appropriate for a story such as this, but when considering the absolutely dreadful dialogue in the prequels, I'm positive Lucas hasn't the ability to write believable conversations. I know I'm not alone in this either, as Mr. Alec Guinness requested his character be killed off so he wouldn't have to continue speaking these words in future films. For these reasons I much prefer hearing R2-D2 talk than any of the other characters, and it was a wise decision to give Chewbacca the last line in the film.
I simply cannot go on without speaking about Lucas's philosophy on film direction, and the assertion that directors "abandon" their films. What Lucas fails to realise is that once a film is made, it belongs to the audience and not to the director anymore, but "South Park" have tackled this issue. In defense of, for example, "Blade Runner: Final Cut" and "Apocalypse Now: Redux" at least the original versions are still available, where Lucas has forced these desecrated films onto us without any alternative. We can still pretend like the prequels don't exist, but we can't ignore the painfully obvious CG creatures stumbling uselessly onto the screen.
Even Lucas himself doesn't seem to know what he's doing. On the director's commentary he comments how he purposely kept the film focused on small personal areas rather than drawing attention to the world and over-complicating things. This is all fine until moments later when we see an overhead shot of the entire city of Mos Isley as the speeder, with a CG C-3PO, Luke and Obi-Wan sitting rigidly and dead like the soul of this once great film heads into it.
I can't help how critical I sound, but it's ridiculous that Lucas has had two good ideas his entire life and is a billionaire for it. And however badly "Star Wars" has been decimated "Return of the Jedi" is almost completely ruined by a number of, not just unnecessary, but unbearably dumb changes. I hope someday I might be able to find a copy of the original film so that I can enjoy it without a digitally altered Harrison Ford shifting awkwardly as Greedo fires a blaster at him.
In my mind the film is worth the rating I give it. In a perfect world Lucas died after "The Last Crusade" and was remembered as a great writer, rather than a hack who got lucky, which is how he'll surely be remembered when he does go.
Posted on 9/08/10 05:05 PM
The landscape of modern cinema would be vastly different had Alfred Hitchcock never been born. Ask the best directors of the modern age who are their inspirations and this man's name is sure to pop up. And "North By Northwest" is almost certainly this masterful director's most entertaining film.
Released between Hitchcock's undeniable masterpieces "Vertigo" and "Psycho", "North By Northwest" is the most typically Hitchcockian film that Hitchcock ever made. It has all the essential elements that one comes to expect from a Hitchcock film: the wrongly accused man, the moments of suspense and humour, the absurdly lively manner in which a love affair is sparked, and the MacGuffin. In fact the film is so conscious of its Hitchcock-ness that on first viewing it seems almost carelessly constructed. However that's nearly impossible to notice since you're so enthralled by the elaborate tale and the lightning fast speed in which it unfolds.
Cary Grant really nails his performance as Roger O. Thornhill in both the tense moments and the comedic ones. We can really feel his pain after his betrayal by Eve at the auction house, as well as his frustration when the authorities won't be believe his far-fetched story of kidnapping, and his shock at the revelation about Eve at the airport. He's the self-important Madison Avenue man who we inexplicably root for throughout the course of the film, and he's very lovable.
What absolutely has to be addressed when considering this film is the screenplay, which simply must be one of the greatest ever written. Even as I write this review my mind continues to jump from scene to scene and how the film compressed so many feelings of shock and immense humour into a two hour film. Nonetheless, in any other director's hands I honestly don't believe we would have gotten quite as enjoyable an experience as we did.
As an example of the mastery of Hitchcock, take the scene in which Roger and his mother break into George Caplin's hotel room to try and discover who he is. There is a phone call to the hotel room, and they both debate whether or not to answer it. Roger answers the phone and it is one of the men who is trying to kill him. In one of many "facepalming" moments, the man on the other line says "if you are not George Caplin, then why are you answering his telephone?" or something to that effect. Roger hangs up and asks reception whether the call was external or made within the hotel. We learn that the henchmen are in the hotel. This entire sequence has begun to set up the suspense for which Hitchcock is renowned. Roger and his mother quickly exit the room and come to an elevator, but as they get in the henchmen are coming up and manage to catch the same one down.
Roger is now motioning to his mother in the claustrophobic elevator that these men are the ones who are after him. As the suspense is reaching boiling point, Roger's mother leans over and asks the men: "you're not really trying to kill my son, are you?" The scene slowly dissipates into one of the most hilariously absurd scenes I can think of as the entire elevator laughs at the question, while Roger stands there stony faced and worrying for his life. This scene is a minor scene in the film, but it shows unreservedly that Alfred Hitchcock was an artist of the highest grade, because it expresses exactly the kind of person that Hitchcock was; an absurdist. And also, it's a suspenseful scene that feels completely natural, unlike the more mechanical suspense scenes we get in films like "Scarface" and "The Untouchables".
As well as being an undoubted artist, Hitchcock always displays his mastery of the craft of filmmaking. No review of "North By Northwest" is complete without mentioning its most iconic scene, the plane at the dusty crossroads. The scene is so abstract and so surprising that it alone could prove the genius of the man. Watching the scene shot for shot, it can be described as nothing short of perfect. The slow movement of the cars as they pass by on the road, the disturbing confusion about what we're to expect which makes everything seem sinister, and the superb editing all come together flawlessly. Of course the most shocking thing is how vulnerable Roger is standing out in the open like that, and the horrifying realisation that the plane that has been humming in the distance all this time is now coming right towards us. I personally find this scene terrifying and exhilarating every time I watch it, and finishing with that bizarre crash at the end. It's simply perfect.
One thing Hitch is not often praised for by the regular viewer is his eye for fashion. The style of "North By Northwest" is spectacular, as it is in most of the films he made in the 1950s. They give what, at the time, would've been a showcase of some of the finest fashions available in the day and what to us now seems like a beautiful time-piece of fashion towards the beginning of the '60s in the US.
However, despite all this unabashed mastery, the film suffers very slightly from its meaninglessness. In the end, it feels so bizarre and farcical that it becomes some sort of abstract parody of Hitchcock the man and the filmmaker. Considering it came at the time when Hitchcock was making some of his most psychologically inquisitive pictures, it feels somewhat empty after it's over.
Having said this, the two plus hours spent watching this film absolutely fly by, especially when watching with an audience, which I had the privilege to do on my second viewing, and which really gave life to the picture. Although it feels almost like a remake of Hitch's earlier film "The 39 Steps", it's absolute hysteria, epitomized by the closing image of a train entering a tunnel (no visual pun intended on Hithcock's part I'm sure), is very welcome in the canon of film's made by possibly the greatest director that ever lived.
Posted on 7/26/10 12:46 PM
World cup winners in 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002, arguably one of the greatest Formuala 1 drivers of all time in Ayrton Senna, some of the most immersive festivals and beautiful women on the planet. It seems like there's very little Brazil can't do. Perhaps it can't do law and order but it proved in 2002 that it can, without doubt, do cinema.
The last decade must've been the greatest decade for non-English language films since the 50s when the likes of Kurosawa, Bergman and Fellini were churning out classics. Adding to a list of modern masterpieces which must certainly include the likes of "Oldboy", "Amores Perros" and "Gomorrah", comes Fernando Meirelles' "Cidade de Deus". Set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the film is nothing short of thrilling and horrifying in its modernist portrayal of life in poverty.
The opening scene sums up the moral of the story quite perfectly. As a chicken, moments from being slaughtered and cooked, escapes, it is chased by the gangsters who will stop at nothing to track it down and kill it. The point is that they own the streets and whether it runs or stays, it'll be caught eventually. However it ironically seems to escape its fate as a full-scale shootout breaks out, but not before we watch the series of events that led to this moment unfold.
The film has a very Tarantino feel to it. Structured in jumping timelines and seasoned with a mix of 70s disco and Brazilian samba music, not to mention the level of gore in the film, we see that American cinema has really informed the making of this film. Thematically, however, the film shows the ugliness of this violent lifestyle in a way that American films usually don't. Instead of the typical rise and fall story arc we get in films like "Scarface" or "Goodfellas", the entire film has moments of horror that always counter-balance any of the benefits of being a criminal. This is epitomised in the character of Buscapé, who only manages to "flirt with crime" rather than engage with it like his brother and the others who grew in the City of God.
Between the deaths of Shaggy, Clipper and Bené, at well-spaced intervals during the film, the rape of Knockout Neds girlfriend, the fact that Lil' Zé can't seem to get a girl, Tiago's drug addiction and the closing image of the Runts talking about killing everyone they can think of, there is a serious contrast with the Gangster classics of the Post-Classical Hollywood period. In other words, we very rarely see any appeal in living life on the outskirts of civilised society. Of course this might have as much to do with the recurring theme in the film; that the violence is inescapable, when considered in both time and space. Everything that happens brings it back to this idea of a circle of violence.
For narrative purpose, the film takes a very existentialist protagonist to tell the story. Buscapé does not get heavily involved in any of the film's main action and so does not try to moralise the issue or make a call to action against violence in the favelas. We see this most clearly in the scene towards the end where Buscapé decides not to expose the police corruption despite the damning evidence he could unleash. Instead he, like every other character in the film, looks out for his own interest, but with brains instead of guns. His Ghandi-like demeanour offers him a way out that Knockout Ned didn't take, that Bené tried to take eventually and that Lil' Zé never even considered. In this sense, the film puts across the idea that salvation is personal, rather than communal. The only problem with this is that Buscapé's seeming indifference to the death of his brother at the hands of Lil' Zé seems highly unlikely and implausible, but on the other hand it shows how a person can exist within a violent society and not be intrinsically violent themselves.
These themes are important in modern society where every act in the war on terrorism seems to be one of revenge. Almost every war that is taking place today has its roots in the second World War, which itself is a war deeply rooted in the violence of the preceding years. "Cidade de Deus", like the other modern gangster film "Gomorrah", shows how this violence is not on the outside of society, but is as much a part of it as the free-market or free-speech. The police corruption (which is still horrendous in Brazil) is a clear sign of this as in most American gangster films, at the very most it's a small number of policemen who are corrupt (think "Miller's Crossing" or "The Godfather").
On the visual side, "Cidade de Deus" is a spectacularly beautiful film at certain points. The style was heavily borrowed for the Oscar-winning "Slumdog Millionaire", a style of high-contrast that makes naturally ugly scenery like the favelas, or rubbish dumps, look more aesthetically pleasing. There is a strong element of Neo-realist imagery, seeing as the entire film was shot on location in the favelas of Rio. Also, the use of non-professional actors originated in the Neo-realist cinema of Post-War Italy and is used profoundly well here.
For me, the best scene in the film is when Lil' Zé and his gang go to teach the Runts a lesson. It's almost impossible to believe that that sequence didn't actually take place before the cameras because of the fantastic performances of those kids and the ruthless responses of the gangsters as it happens. The scene is also crucial to the circle of violence theme as we hear one of the Runts commenting on how they want to kill all the drug-dealers like Lil' Zé did, and also not forgetting the revenge killing of Zé at the film's end.
I'm sure I don't need to sing this film's praises as it's appeared on seemingly every "Greatest Films of all Time" list since it was released. Either way, if you haven't seen this film (and I hope you have cos i just about spoiled everything that happens in it) then stop waiting around. It's a modern classic by any standards.
Posted on 7/25/10 05:42 PM
This is Sergio Leone's masterpiece. This epic Western is really an ode to Westerns as it packs in enough cinematic references to qualify it for the Tarantino school of cinephilia. Yet despite/because of this it becomes one of the finest Westerns ever made and a massive addition to both 1960s art cinema and the post-classical Western genre that came to maturity in 1969.
With Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone created a film that took his principles of long drawn out shots and extreme close-ups to their limit. As Leone himself describes it, the film is paced to mimic the final breaths of a dying man, and for all its worth the film accomplishes this goal. Opening with the huge empty space inhabited by only a handful of people, the action takes a long time to come and over in a split second. After the four gunfighters fall and one gets back up, a sharp painful intake of breath takes us to Brett McBain's farm. This dying breath features little talk or action yet manages to potray a depth that is incredible and important for interpreting the Western genre as a whole.
Unlike most Westerns made prior to 1969, Once Upon A Time In The West does not divide its characters into good and bad. It's five main characters are instead categorised into progressive and conservative (and I use these terms apolitically). On the one hand we have Harmonica, played by Charles Bronson. His main concern throughout the film is revenge. He is a true "man with no name" character whose motives remain unclear until the film's conclusion. Also we have the wild west bucaneer Cheyenne, played by Jason Robards. He is the typical outlaw character who is first seen in handcuffs having just escaped a prison sentence. The third character on this is the brilliantly casted Henry Fonda as Frank. Frank is the cliché bad character, yet he manages to seem somewhat more bad than the likes of old West villains of yesteryear. These three characters are all flung out of their stereotypes and comfort zones by the next two.
Representing the future is Jill McBain, played by Claudia Cardinale. She is a whore from the city who comes to the West in search of a new and happier life only to find her new family having been butchered by the demented Frank. Jill is the centre of a struggle that takes place between the three Old West characters. Also on this side of progress comes Mr. Morton, the crippled businessman who will stop at nothing to expand his railroad so that he may die on Western coast of America. However Morton is stunted by his morals which tell him that he must own the McBain land, but won't resort to violence.
The relationship between Frank and Morton has transformed Frank into something of a gangster. He gets his men to do his dirty work for him, yet he is stuck in the old manner of doing things so he kills rather than negotiate. He can never achieve Morton's power. Like the Old West he is destined to fail at his endeavours. However when Morton comes to fear Frank he comes to prove the fact that money is more powerful than the gun and hires Frank's own men to kill him. He resorts to Frank's style of tactics showing the kind of indecency that money can cause.
There is also an important relationship at play between Jill and each of the three Old West characters. Harmonica is the one rips her frills and her sleeves, changing her from a city girl to a country woman and a worker. Her labour will now be manual, not sexual. It is also Harmonica who saves the McBain land from falling into Frank's hands. Harmonica plays the gun that protects Jill's business enterprise, a similar role to what Frank does for Morton. Cheyenne has an ambiguous relationship with Jill. He twice compares her to his mother and helps Harmonica to save the McBain land. Perhaps, being the child of a single mother he sees the potential in a lone woman and believes that Jill can accomplish what Brett wanted and what she herself truly wants. With the joint effort of Harmonica and Cheyenne at the auction Jill is protected from Frank, who she sleeps with and bargains with in exchange for her life.
The reason the film is so great is that because it doesn't moralize the path from the Old West to a new industrialized nation. It acknowledges that the West cannot expand without characters such as Harmonica to fend off the Franks of the world, and that a new society cannot maintain itself with a Morton at the helm rather than a Jill. Morton's dream was the ocean, but Jill's was Clearwater. If Morton were allowed to use the station as a means to an ends rather than Brett's dream of having the town as an ends in itself then the horrific encouragement of violence he gave to Frank could continue. Eventually, the country will reach a point where the Franks, Harmonicas and Cheyennes of the Old West no longer exist and the struggle will be between the Jills and whatever Mortons come along next. The film ends on a melancholy note as we see that Clearwater has been saved as it is Jill who will over see the progress of the town, not Morton, however as Harmonica notes, there will be other Mortons, suggesting that somewhere down the line a corrupt town will emerge.
The music of the film also plays a huge role. Most obviously is the sound that Harmonica makes most times he appears, which is in reference to the horrific incident in which Frank kills Harmonica's brother. The haunting sound give Harmonica the feeling of somewhat supernatural character who is coming to bring the yang to Frank's yin. The entire score of the film is fantastic and Morricone really outdoes himself on it. One of the finest moments comes as Jill walks out of the trainstation into Flagstone as the music reaches its crescendo, and again a few moments later when we see Monument Valley, a place that was practically owned by the films of John Ford of whom Leone was a massive fan. I must also mentin Cheyenne's theme which is done perfectly. The first two times we see him the theme is played slowly and menacingly as he don't understand his motives, yet as the film progresses and we warm to Cheyenne (because he saves Harmonica) the theme becomes more playful. Arguably (very, very arguably) a finer score than Morricone's work on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
Also worth mentioning are the several cinematic references in the film, some of which I noticed but can't put my finger on. Once Upon A Time In The West is almost certainly Leone's greatest cinematic achievement. While The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is obviously a more palatable film, it is too indulgent whereas this film holds its dying breath and creates an atmosphere and an aura that flows throughout the entire run-time. Truly a masterpiece.
Posted on 5/28/10 04:19 AM
Ah, "Spirited Away". From the get-go let me just acknowledge that this review runs the risk of being overly doting, but it's only because this is one my favourite films of all time. I had to review it as my second "freak genre" film, alongside the documentary I reviewed last time. Anyway, there's lots to be said for this film, possibly the greatest ever drawn, so I'll get into it.
So what's the appeal of this film? Well for the children it simply must be the gorgeous colours and bizarre characters that crop up throughout. But kids are easily impressed, and I know for a fact, having rewatched "The Jungle Book" last summer for the first time since I was about seven, kids don't take dialogue or story into much account. For the rest of us, while it's impossible not to appreciate the massive imagination that went into creating these uncanny characters, there is as much complexity here to rival the best films that came out in the '00s.
In typical Miyazaki form, the good guys are not beacons of chivalry and kindness, nor or the villains truly villainous. For example, to take a little "Wizard of Oz" comparison, Yubaba is not nearly as demented a character as the Wicked Witch of the West, nor is Zeniba ("if you tell anyone I'll rip your mouth off") or "the good sister" truly good in the Glenda the Good Witch sense of the word. The workers in the bath house are truly detestable but not irredeemable, eventhough they are profoundly greedy and willing to sacrifice Sen for their greed, they appreciate when she leads the monster away from them.
So, to take another approach, what does the film mean? Well starting with the title, a beautiful title, it doesn't really mean anything in English. The Japanese title "Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi" directly translated means "The Spiriting Away of Sen and Chihiro". Well, "Spiriting Away" in Japanese culture is what it is called when a person goes missing and is said to have been abducted by the spirits. Now I'm not very well informed on Japanese culture so I'm sure there are a whole world of connotations attached to that term, that the film itself may or may not explain. It personally feels like the representation of the point in which a parent looks at their child and wonders at what point was it that they became so grown-up.
For me, the film feels like a lesson in how a child should be raised. There is an obvious transition in the film between Chihiro in the beginning, afraid to explore new places, always walking behind people/being lead, and Chihiro at the end, who leads her own band of friends into an unknown place. But look at what occurs between these two points. In direct opposition to the hyper-sensitive parenting styles of many parents in the western world (again, not sure how Japan is) Sen is really thrown into the deep-end. She repeatedly is battered, bruised, insulted and even caked in sludge in the bath house, almost relentlessly. She is forced to adapt to life, and change, through experience rather than being brought up as a sheltered child. In the end, the tumbles and knocks to the head make her a stronger and better person. In opposition to Sen's transformation is Yubaba's big Baby, who is afraid to go outside for the risk of germs, obviously the child was not allowed to experience life and so remained a baby for all its life.
However, I purposely avoid the term "coming-of-age" when describing this film, because Sen is not learning to be like her parents or the other adults, she is finding her place in the world. She wants to save those she loves, but doesn't pursue thing that don't benefit her. Truly one of the most resonating things in the film is the bath house workers' greed. Their delight at the gold is something very familiar for anyone (mostly students and housewives I imagine) who has ever seen a giveaway on shows like Oprah or Ellen (ever see the MONEY CANNON???) and the embarassing delight of those who obtain unimportant material goods.
Miyazaki's themes of feminism and environmenalism ring quite louldy here. One of the most frightening things in this film is the No-Face. Sure, for a child the chase scene can be quite scary, but I can't get over how very disturbing it is when Yubaba locks Sen in the room with the monster as if she's sacrificing this child to a predator. Sen's refusal to accept the No-Face's gold is a refusal to be subservient, she will not exist in relation to this monster and be dependant on him, clearly a rejection of the "gold-digger" mentality that permeates modern culture.
The environmental message is not something that could possibly upset global warming deniers. Miyazaki employs traditional Japanese mythology to give us characters such as Haku and the River God, who personify nature. The River God becomes a horrible, disgusting beast because his river has been polluted by man's waste. I personally find this a far more endearing view of nature than what the Abrahamic religions present ie. that all nature is there just for the benefit of mankind. Unlike this Sen loves Haku, the river spirit and so tries to save him. Once again this is all a complex story thread that leads back to the refusal to accept material goods among other things.
There is really so so much that can be said about this film, but I'd like to finish by commenting and the pure beauty of the film. The animation is glorious, and the attention to detail far exceeds anything I can remember from any other studio. A couple of scenes I must acknowledge for how beautifully drawn they are, I love the scene just after the pollution is pulled from the River God and Sen is standing on the edge of the bath as the mist vanishes. Also, the score is spectacular, especially in the beginning when the spirits are coming ashore. Watching the DVD extras one begins to appreciate what goes into directing an animated film. Miyazaki here tells a group of very young animators how he wants the scene with Haku the dragon in Kamaji's boiler room to look. He draws hugely from nature; he compares the way Haku falls to the way a snake looks when it falls from a tree and when Sen tries to feed him the cake he says it should be like trying to open the mouth of a dog.
I seriously can't sing the praises of this film enough. At the rate I'm going, if I watch this film until I'm 80 I'll watch it 480 times. Even the first week I got this DVD I watched it three times, something I haven't done since I was a child. I honestly don't think I'll ever tire of this movie, because it's not only a very imaginative and gorgeous one, but it has immense depth that warrants its being rewatched over and over and over.