Ellen on Earth: Gender, Religion, and Ellen Ripley in David Fincher’s Alien3
(Author’s Note: This was originally written for my horror cinema class.)
Not unlike its HR Geiger designed monster, saliva cascading from its bladed fangs, the Alien franchise has morphed generically with each film, these alterations and manipulations contingent on the director’s generic and stylistic proclivities. With Ridley Scott’s original entry in 1979, Alien was created as a film that exists within a haunted house context, traipsing through tropes with a sci-fi bent; James Cameron’s 1986 follow up Aliens recontextulized that universe as a militaristic allegory about the state and the body; David Fincher’s Alien 3 (1992) sought a vision of spiritual, metaphysical horror; and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection (1997) dressed dressed the franchise entry up in the garb of a goofy sci-fi action film. But it is Fincher’s entry which is the most striking and the least understood, the product of studio interference, script rewrites, and the struggle to achieve an Alien film that both resembled its classical originator as well as diverged from it drastically to mine in the conventions of the art house. Read the rest of this entry »
Reinventing the Game, All Over Again: Review for Scream 4
Although I have a personal qualm with calling director Wes Craven the “Master of Suspense” (everyone knows that that title belongs to Alfred Hitchcock), I will contend to the idea of calling him the Master of Horror. Although John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween started the 1980’s slasher craze, Craven had already been steeped in exploitative horror movies like The Last House on the Left (a loose remake of Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring) and The Hills Have Eyes. He was slowly but surely making a name for himself with these low budget, graphic horror movies. He then kind of transitioned to the other subgenre of horror, the slasher film, and joined that 1980’s craze. His nightmarish masterpiece A Nightmare on Elm Street is commonly known as “The House that Freddy Built”, for it was New Line Cinema’s first foray into the horror genre, with dozens of others to follow the trend.
And then Craven and the slasher genre itself disappeared for a little bit. Craven continued to make films, but they were, for the most part, under the radar and not nearly as successful as Nightmare had been. 1996 came and the guy who redefined horror…redefined it again, with the “if Pulp Fiction were a horror film” classic Scream. Just as with Pulp Fiction, the film set out to explore the clichés and conventions in a genre not many people cared about anymore. Not only do that, but twist them on their head and rub them in the audience’s face. Scream worked as a comedy and as a horror film, but also as a relatively insightful exploration into the dissection of a genre and its fallacies and strengths. Craven asks, “What makes horror work? Why were the 1980’s films so ubiquitous? Why did people go see them? And why, underneath all of that, are they so profoundly stupid?” Yes, ladies and gentlemen, 1980’s slasher flicks aren’t exactly the most strenuous things to watch. Scream is memorable and fun (you gotta love that Drew Barrymore scene) and smart. Yay self referential humor! I may be wrong, but Scream may have been one of the first mainstream genre films to acknowledge its conventions and make humor out of it. (Please correct me if I am wrong.)
After making two successful sequels, Wes Craven and his motley crew (Neve Campbell, Courtney Cox, and David Arquette) are back with Scream 4. The story and its cast has evolved much like popular culture, and its meta-ness is even more meta. (Let’s just say that in the first five minutes, Anna Paquin complains about “all this self referential horses**t and meta humor”…that’s right folks! The already meta humor just got meta on itself! They’re satirizing themselves!) Anna Paquin wittily says at the beginning that the “whole self aware, post modern meta s***” “has been done to death”. People have smartphones; social networking and blogging are being acknowledged as key points. Even internet fame plays a key role. Not only has Kevin Williamson (who wrote the first two films, as well as Dawson’s Creek) had the technology itself evolve in its role in the story, but so has the humor. The culture itself is important, where characters make note that the ever changing film industry is concentrating on “reboots and remakes” and “torture porn”. (Ironic, since Craven’s Last House on the Left and Hills Have Eyes were both remade in the last decade.) Yes, people, those who have missed the brilliance of the Scream humor, dialogue, and fun are in for a treat.
Sidney (Campbell) comes back to Woodsboro to promote her new book and just as she comes back, the murders begin to happen again! Dewey (Arquette) is now Sheriff and Gale (Cox) has left the industry to write, but suffers from writer’s block. Admittedly, getting back into the groove of seeing these characters in a slightly “where are they now?”-esque way is jarring. However, once we get into the swing of things, so to speak, all is well and the chemistry seems completely natural. The introduction of new characters is certainly welcome, as we meet Sidney’s timid cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), on whom the story revolves. We meet Jill’s best friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere), an attractive, acerbic closeted horror buff (she makes me want to cry); Charlie (Rory Culkin) the resident film geek; Robbie (Erik Knudsen), who runs the Cinema Club with Charlie; and Trevor (Nico Tortorella) Jill’s ex. While each of the new additions are winning in their own way, my hat goes off to Panettiere, not only causing me to set a standard for girls that they will probably never be able to meet, but also for getting the cleverest dialogue and bringing pretty great acting to all of it.
The most interesting aspect, as I discussed earlier, is how the characters have evolved and how the culture has as well. This is a universe where there are seven Stab movies, only the first three being based off the events from the Scream films. Characters talk about how franchises are killing the originality by not knowing “when to stop” and that “they keep recycling the same s***”. The new subgenre “torture porn” is talked about and we the audience get insight into how the horror film industry is again changing gears. However, if you’ve stayed with the Scream franchise at all, the most exciting self referential part is “the rules”. Coined by Jamie Kennedy in the first film, the Rules are “The Rules One Must Abide By in Order to Survive a Horror Movie”. The meaning, however, changes a little as a rule set to be able to predict what kind of movie you’re in. As with the poster tagline for Scream 4, “New Decade, New Rules.” Williamson and Craven take this rule in and of itself to heart, introducing new clichés that build upon the old ones. We get “main cast bloodbath”, making Sidney “expendable”. These days, “the unexpected is the new cliché”. As the film continues to examine these conventions of these new horror films, the idea of a remake or reboot becomes essential, and the characters acknowledge that “remakes are all the studios ever greenlight anymore”. Charlie continues, “Modern audiences get savvy to the rules of the originals; so the reversals become the new standard”. The killer is trying to, much like remakes themselves, one up the original. Make it bloodier, gutsier, and more shocking. Top everything the original did. While Craven certainly tries to make this point, he also tries to make another one: “Don’t mess with the original.” This is Craven’s gentle reminder that, while Scream 4 is good, maybe even great, it will never be as good as the first one, and he knows it. What does that all mean? Craven is again utilizing self aware humor to satirize exactly what he’s doing, in a way; and that’s fine by me.
Technology plays a strong part in the film. The way people communicate, while it’s not really helpful (to the characters, at least), it is interesting. Smartphones, streaming, and social networking all work themselves in. Robbie is a constant blogger who always wears a headset with a webcam on it, reflecting that our generation, Gen-Y, is always on the internet and always updating people on our personal lives. He introduces the idea that in order to beat the original, “the killer should be filming the murders and then uploading them to the internet in real time, making your art as immortal as you”. And, much like the awesome shout out to Michael Powell’s 1966 film Peeping Tom, the killer does indeed use a camera and (kind of) give the audience a first person point of view. However, what does all this use of technology mean? As this generation has a chronic need to stay connected, making yourself famous via the internet plays a pivotal role. And in a bizarrely Social Network-ish way, the film manages to make a light social commentary on our obsession with the internet and using it as a medium to get our 15 minutes of fame. No longer is it a snarl in the face of watchdog groups who think that “people who watch too many scary movies are bound to commit the same crimes” (which was the first one), but more of a slight warning to how culture is becoming so homogenous and fame becoming so attainable that people will do some horrible things to get there.
Kevin Williamson’s screenplay is, of course, top notch. (If you disliked Scream 3, there’s a reason for that: he didn’t write it.) It’s not perfect, of course, but the melding of the same lingo and popular culture works out magnificently. The dialogue is witty and funny. Best of all, the film is genuinely scary. Without having to strain for the same “torture porn” clichés it condemns, Scream 4’s smart screenplay keeps you guessing at every turn. But it does use the typical conventions it satirizes, probably to accentuate that, while as bombastic and stupid as they may sound when you talk about them and analyze them, they do work.
Scream 4 is a very welcome treat and something that I’ve been waiting for personally for nearly a decade. When I had first heard it was going to be made, I was obviously wary. Sequels are not good, as a rule. This franchise, however, has managed to be the exception to that rule (even if Scream 3 was kind of ridiculous). While it certainly may not be as good as the original, at least it isn’t trying to. If anything, it’s merely trying to reintroduce that same illuminating examination into the genre for new audiences, but making it just as fun. (Kind of like when you update a history textbook.) For the record, it’s not as good as one, as good as two, and better than three. Wes Craven brings back all the thrills and chills, with a great, smart horror film. But, as he says, don’t mess with the original.
The End of an Era: Review for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
For a very long time, I was getting annoyed at all the hoopla people were making out of the final Harry Potter film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. But, finally having seen the last film in the sometimes-corny-sometimes-marvelous franchise, I now know why. I was amongst the cynics who, despite enjoy the books and reading them voraciously, found the phrase “it’s the end of an era” incredibly irksome. Again, as I say, I now know why people said it.
I was treated to seeing both parts one and two back to back, which was a great experience. It reminded me of when I had first heard that the final book of J.K. Rowling’s magical tome would be split in two. Naturally, like most of the fandom, I was incredibly annoyed and thought it a ploy for more money. However, it actually may have been wiser to do it this way. Parts 1 and 2 are rather different in tone, almost like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, but switched: Part 1 is more about languid storytelling, with Part 2 is more about visceral thrill and riveting emotion.
Splitting the films in two certainly allowed more leeway in terms of accuracy and detail and despite the plot holes that had left in the series because of previous films; most of those holes are mended in both films. Aside from late and almost irrelevant introductions, director David Yates nicely ties in the cast of characters together again.
Part 2 is the most emotionally raw of the films, even though its primary focus is visceral thrill and excitement. Starting off exactly where Part 1 left off, the film begins and doesn’t really let up until the finale. It has its moments where we’re allowed to catch our breath, but the tone is constructed meticulously, like running a marathon. And, to me as well as countless other fans, Harry Potter was a marathon of emotion, action, and connection with characters.
Once again, the trio, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, present their best acting chops and really shine. With a screenplay that’s heavily invested in nuance and emotion, the actors exceed expectations and reveal nuances and facets of their characters that haven’t really been shown in the past. The kids bring their A-game to the film. Action notwithstanding, all of them perform their parts, doing spells and stunts, with nothing but realism and professionalism. It hits home when you realize that you’ve stuck with these actors since 2001, when Chris Columbus assembled the three for the first film Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. You’ve watched them grow from mere kid actors to fully matured actors. Radcliffe doing Equus and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying; Grint doing the anti-war film Comrade in 2012; and Watson doing My Week with Marilyn and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Although they’re no longer tied to these roles (nor should they be), they’ll always be Harry, Ron, and Hermione in our hearts.
The supporting cast does spectacularly, allowing actors who’ve up until now stood in the background to have a few shining moments. Maggie Smith as Prof. McGonagall and Julie Walters and Mrs. Weasley both have totally incredible and kick ass moments during the battle at Hogwarts, and so does Matthew Lewis as Neville Longbottom. But MVP goes to Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, who has had the thankless role (both character and actor) as a despicable antagonist to Harry Potter at school. Here, however, like in the novel, he becomes one of the most important characters in the series, recalling events from previous films. The pensive scene is a particularly a sucker punch to the gut of incredible emotion.
Also worthy of MVP is the delightful and kooky Helena Bonham Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange, Voldemort’s right hand woman. She, who is so expert at bringing sickening and disturbing characters to the screen, vamps it to the hilt. Bearing her decidedly repulsive teeth, she’s both sexy and repellent at the same time. She does an excellent job playing Emma Watson playing Helena Bonham Carter (think Polyjuice Potion), working hard not to topple with the impressive and imposing figure and her heels. Helena Bonham Carter is, in a word, wicked.
As with most adaptations, things are missing. This isn’t horribly bothersome, but more background of characters like Snape and Dumbledore would be much appreciated, and would have furthered our understanding of character and added depth. Thus, the way it’s left, Dumbledore’s mysterious past and Grindlewald are kind of characters shrouded in mystery and not much about their relationship is ever known. I hope more is revealed on the DVD/Blu-ray special features.
Needless to say, the film looks absolutely stunning. The scale for battles and the general world of Harry Potter is enormous, and thus the film represents that perfectly. I almost never utter the words “this would looks great in 3D”, as I am a vehement opponent of the technology. But the sense of depth and the humungous setting would have made it an incredible experience. Never would I have realized that Hogwarts was such an imposing castle. The aerial shots of the school are wonderful, comparable to some of the best shots in The Lord of the Rings. Thankfully, Part 2 retains the same great cinematographer as Part1, Eduardo Serra. His knack for geography, color, space, and aesthetic look is perfect, and those very artistic proclivities work even in the most busy and kinetic of sequences (I.e. Gringotts).
The Battle at Hogwarts is an incredible showdown, a long battle sequence (seamlessly edited) rivaling some of the best from the most intense war films, like Lawrence of Arabia, the Bridge on the River Kwai, and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Though the weapons may be different, the anticipation, the buildup, and the adrenaline are all the same, with scale to match. The final battle between Harry and Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) is an incredible and majestic scene, allowing the story to come full circle.
Everything up till now has been a cake walk. Dramatic points, sheer fun and excitement, and the unraveling story; they’ve all been leading us to this moment. Yates and screenwriter Steven Kloves handle the material with expertise; the cast does a superb job, and the film looking completely amazing. However, that sense of melancholy one feels like parting with a good friend will come back and latch onto your heart as the film grows ever closer to its finish. Contrary to believe, though, this, your childhood, isn’t ending, not permanently at least. With these films and the books as well, your childhood will always be there to revisit again and again, and it will be there to give your future posterity an incredible childhood as well. For this, my friends, is the end of an era, but not the end of the magic.
Summer Movie Roundup
I had Netflix this summer, which basically meant my time was spent either doing homework or watching movies. Over the course of the vacation, I watched 74 films. I have written about 30 reviews. Hope you all enjoy.
P.S. The posters won’t appear, but it’s not like that really matters.
The Graduate (1967) | Directed by Mike Nichols
What a great film! It’s as seductive in its wit, satire, and drama as Mrs. Robinson. An incredible portrait of growing up after high school. One of the most unique coming of age tales I’ve seen in recent years. The film was very well written and avoided melodrama, which was great. Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katherine Ross were all fantastic. Hoffman plays mild mannered good boy excellently, and Bancroft, who was only 6 years his senior, is one hell of a temptress. Very funny, and perhaps has jumped into my favorite films list.
This film, after Bullets Over Broadway, was my first Woody Allen film. I’d been worried because I had very high expectations. And I rented it so I could weep about how single I am. Thankfully, neither occurred. It was a brisk, intelligent, and funny film. Allen was hysterical and Keaton was top notch. But my favorite scene was when Allen is standing in line at the movies and complains about the pseudo-intellectual talking behind him. The relation to German philosophy and the breaking of the fourth wall was perfect, and I think that Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind shares its non-linear, memory lane format. I loved it.
The Lady Vanishes (1938) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Let me tell you I am a huge fan of the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, my favorite film of his being either Psycho or The Birds. The Lady Vanishes is, in several ways, a departure from his normal grimness and morbidity. Light as air and as ironic and witty as Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby (my favorite film), rarely does darkness taint this film. As it should be. Its frothy ambiance and amusing characters fill out any trepidation one might have when boarding a train. The claustrophobic setting is no doubt reminiscent of Agatha Christie fare, but it’s funny and more light hearted. Its as if everyone is in on the joke. This is thanks both to the impeccable directing as well as the superb screenplay. The two leads are marvelous! A superb caper, and significantly better than his oft acclaimed The 39 Steps.
Something Wild (1986) | Directed by Jonathan Demme
Something Wild this way comes! Sporting a look reminiscent of Louise Brooks in her scintillating role in GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, Melanie Griffiths shines as the pathological liar trapped by her own subtle insecurities, Audrey/Lulu. She takes mild mannered Charlie, played by Jeff Daniels, on a whirl wind of a ride allowing himself the freedom from routine and obsessive compulsion, something he’s accustomed to but rebels against subconsciously by doing subtle things like not pay lunch bills. Ray Liotta steps into the picture in his first role as Audrey’s violent ex-husband. I would say that this film, heartwarming, weird, thrilling, and romantic, is like the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s. It’s like The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, and Bringing Up Baby on crack and in the 1980’s. I was wary about it for a third of the film, finding it kind of weird and finding Daniels just annoying and underdeveloped. But Demme, who won an Oscar for directing in 1991 for The Silence of the Lambs, subtly allows Daniels character to create a back story for himself, allowing the viewer to see how “nice guy”-ish he really was, and allow him to develop further into a nuanced character. Melanie Griffiths was awesome. It’s a Wild and fun and romantic ride.
You’ve Got Mail (1998) | Directed by Nora Ephron
Based on the James Stewart movie The Shop Around the Corner (which was, in turn, based on a stage play), Nora Ephron’s charming You’ve Got Mail seems very quaint in an age where every kid has a smart phone and an iPod and complain when a YouTube video takes too long to load. This, children of this generation, is what life was like for internet users in 1998. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who seem to just exude chemistry ever since their film Sleepless in Seattle, play people who like each other. Or at least, they like their online, anonymous personalities and slight facades. In real life, Hanks is the big bad chain store crushing Ryan’s cute little book shop, and a very Pride and Prejudice relationship begins. The banter is funny, as Ephron’s script always are (written with her sister, Delia), and it’s a perfectly suitable romantic comedy. It’s queer watching people use dial up, though. But the story itself doesn’t seem very dated. But it doesn’t feel as cutesy romantic as it could be. Instead, it just comes off as a little bland at times and fluctuates between true romance and the dull over trodden gimmick of the two leads who hate each other but really love each other secretly. But, it is, for the most part, enjoyable fluff.
Videodrome (1983) | Directed by David Cronenberg
The minute the film starts, you have a sense that it’s going to be some political or social commentary or allegory about obsession with media. It’s prophetic message may seem snooty and pretentious at times, but it ends up being overrun by its graphic, haunting imagery. The visual effects work better than the dialogue itself in serving as a prophetic warning. Some notable lines are in there, like “the television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye” and such, but literally having a beta-max shoved into your chest is scarier than anything you can imagine. The storyline involves James Woods, the president of a sleazy TV channel, stumbling upon a frequency to a channel that’s even more sadistic and sexual, called “Videodrome”. Torture on screen, that’s what the people want! And considering the surge in torture porn flicks, it’s not hard to believe at all now. The film is well acted, but it’s the make up and horrifying visuals that make this film as indelible as it is.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004) | Directed by Wes Anderson
I love a dysfunctional family as much as the next guy, considering I have one myself, but The Life Aquatic just didn’t cut it for me. The characters were shallow, the story was deeply uninteresting, and the humor was full of itself and twee. It was so quirky and annoying, I wanted to punch the screen. I remember enjoying the Royal Tennenbaums because it was darker, more skewed on its views on humanity, and its emotional complexity was more ambiguous. Its dark humor wasn’t as blatant and self serving as well. Luckily, I don’t own this movie. However, as always, Wes Anderson’s color palette was nice.
The Prestige (2006) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
I’ve basically learned since Memento not to doubt the logic and skill and brilliance of Christopher Nolan. Even with his blockbuster films that are as mainstream as you can get, like The Dark Knight,there’s a level of darkness and emotional complexity and integrity to the work itself that is so rare to find these days. And so, why not make an allegorical film about…auteurism. Jean-Luc Godard said, “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” And by that, Nolan gives us a fairly straight forward, emotionally gorgeous, and visually stunning tale of two rival magicians trying to one up each other with who gets the better trick, and the most prestige. (Though, the word is meant to symbolize the fraud itself and its presentation to the audience.) Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman do an awesome job playing really petty magicians, Scarlett Johannsen is gorgeous, and, per typical of a Nolan film, the end will rape your mind. Great, under rated film.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) | Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
If there were ever a shocking, a sprawling, and an intense mystery thriller for a neo-noir generation, it would the this film, the Swedish adaptation of the first novel in the Millenium triliogy by Stieg Larsson. Instead of being marked by nonstop action and excitement, the plot draws you in slowly and steadily, and grasps you until yuour last breath, never letting go. Michael Myqvist plays journalist and investigator Mikael Blomkvist of the Millenium periodical. He’s consulted by a powerful man about the disappearance of his niece. He is joined by genius punk-goth hacker Lisbeth Salander, played with pathos and power by Noomi Rapace, and they work together as an odd couple team. As they go through the case, more and more dark details are revealed. It’s a winning psychological thriller that keeps you on the edge without being a complete assualt on the senses. There are graphic scenes of rape, but they are not gratuitous. The original translation fo the Swedish title is Men Who Hate Women, and the film delves into the chauvnism and the crimes committed against women, without being blatant or misogynistic. It’s Rapace who makes the film, sporting this dark and slightly disturbed look, and that look is as dark and mysterious as her personality. An incredible and visceral film, but it runs a bit too long at over 150 minutes. I am eagerly anticipating the remake by David Fincher and starring Daniel Criag and Rooney Mara (the Social Network).
A Little Romance (1979) | Directed by George Roy Hill
What could be more charming that riding on a gondola in Venice and kissing under the Bridge of Sighs, falling in love for all of eternity? Very little, in fact. A Little Romance is at a disadvantage in my own personal views from becoming an annoyingRomeo and Juliet rehash. Two photogenic young stars, one played by Diane Lane and the other by Thelonious Bernard, embark on a romantic adventure against the will of Lane’s mother. But, young love is far more optimistic and less melodramatic than Shakespeare plays it, and its end result is more delightful and amusing and romantic than you could imagine. What won me over? The charming, if volatile Bernard, who plays a dashing and handsome young French boy who loves the cinema and quotes Casablanca upon meeting Lane’s Lauren. On their way to falling for one another, they are joined by Lawrence Olivier, who is in splendid form as a pickpocket. It is charming and their determination without cynicism, as well as without the obnoxious cutsiness of Nicholas Sparks, make this a beautiful film, with breathtaking scenery and some wonderful performances. It’s dated in a way, for those weened on trash like The Notebook, but it will remain a picturesque illustration of young romance at its cinematic finest.
Manhattan (1979) | Directed by Woody Allen
Manhattan seems to be a companion piece to Allen’s Annie Hall form 1977. It elaborates on the ideas of pseudo-intellectualism, but there’s still that sweet sentimentality intact. The scene where Keaton and Allen are standing in line at the movies listening to the guy talk about neo-realism and whatnot seems to be the thesis for Manhattan. How the broad talk of philosophy can in the end ruin a friendship and how one must get down to the bare bones, simplification of tenderness. This is shown when Allen continues to date and yet intellectually demean his 17 year old girlfriend, played by the grand daughter of Ernest Hemingway. We see she’s a perfectly capable of understanding these concepts, but she just doesn’t care for them. She wants emotional stimulation as opposed to constant intellectual stimulation. And it works. However, Allen’s inner intellectual is drawn to his best friennd’s mistress, Keaton again, who is wonderful, and he must decide between true beauty and emotion versus simple, almost emotionless intellect. But, really, its sharp evaluation of New York City sophisticates plays second fiddle to its gorgeous photography. Gordon Willis captures the stark contrast of black and white beautifully, and the Gershwin filled score is absolutely immaculate. It’s a beautiful, endearing film about love and the city.
Following (1998) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
I think Christopher Nolan is a god sent to us by the film lords. And, while Following is certainly not his strongest films, it is an impressive debut nonetheless. A thick and hard boiled neo-noir about guys who burgal for the thrill of it. The black and white photography is fitting, but it never pulls you in aesthetically. It feels like there should be more contrast in the lighting to show the contrast in characteristics between the male leads. It plays out much like Double Indemnity. But unfamiliarity with Nolan’s back and forth story style may find this jagged and rough edged film disconcerting and maybe irksome. All said and done, it makes for a good neo-noir and an interesting piece of filmmaking. But, if you’re looking for a better Nolan noir, look for Memento.
Insomnia (2002) | Directed by Christopher Nolan
It’s funny that I should watch this film while slightly sleep deprived. But being up late at night is nothing compared to Al Pacino’s insomnia-ridden cop in Nolan’s excruciatingly tense mystery. Based on a Norwegian film of the same name directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, Insomnia is an interestingly existential film, though it doesn’t try to be. Pacino’s LA cop, on the hunt for a murderer of a 17 year old girl in Alaska, accidentaly shoots his partner and tries to cover it up. Already under suspcian for something back home, he is unable to sleep and has flashes of visions. Not to ention the fact that where he’s staying in Alaska; well, the sun never goes down. Hillary Swank plays the sharp, star struck local cop who is on the same case. And Robin Williams, in a brilliant departure from his broad comedy, plays the murderer. He’s not funny. His character, who plays mind games with Pacino’s cop, could have easily been a bad rip off of Hannibal Lecter in the Silence of the Lambs, but Williams brings his own twisted nerve to the character, keeping it fresh. Visually, the film is captivating, utilizing symbolic motifs and great cinematography. But, it’s a Nolan film. A film of pure tension and suspense, Insomnia will keep you up at night.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955) | Directed by Robert Aldrich
As I was reading the essays that came with the Kiss Me Deadly Blu-ray, it kept saying that it was a sci-fi noir. I would have to say that’s an overestimation of the film. It is more hard boiled film noir in the classic vein, if significantly more violent and a bit more exciting, than it is science fiction. Yes, it took place during the Cold War, and yes there’s some stuff about nuclear war fare that isn’t exactly spelled out explcityly. But, if there is anything to draw you to this hot as hell classic, it is how ahead of its time it was. Robert Aldrich’s superb and intense film plays up the violence and the misogyny to unbelievable levels, making it both shocking and entertaining. And Ralph Meeker’s off kilter, nasty private dick is one of the most memorable performances I’ve seen in a while . And the box, of course; the great Whatsit, which inspired Quentin Tarantino for his film Pulp Fiction. That said, it is classic noir, so if you’re not really into repugnant anti-heroes and hot dames, then oh well.
Pulp Fiction (1994) | Directed by Quentin Tarantion
Non linear storyline. An homage to everything you can think of. Punchy, kick ass dialogue. Samuel L. Jackson quoting the Bible. Uma Thurman and John Travolta dancing. This hell fire of a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino is a pop culture masterpiece, tones and perfected by its rousing and interesting characters and most of all by the killer screenplay written by Tarantino and Roger Avary, for which they won an Academy Award for. It’s hard to tell what the film is actually abuot, but that may be just the point. A throwback to the hard boiled and trashy novels of the 1950’s, the film relishes in its meandering story lines and interconnected plots, reveling in exactly that subgenre. Samuel L. Jackson is absolutely superb as a philosophical hitman, and he delivers his lines with perfect beat, enunciation, and emotion. He’s as moving as he is funny, and Tarantino’s social analysis throughout the film is spoken through him, and it’s dead on. Travolta is also fantastic as the partner, and he plays a character which could be really annoying and ignorant. Instead, he’s cool, funny, and clever. And Uma Thurman plays the wife of WIng RHames. I have to say, Uma Thurman seems to be at her very best when she’s dealing with Tarantino. She was kickass inKill Bill, and in this, she’s cool, witty, and her pathological decision making is nothing but intense. The film may be over two and a half hours long, but it’s fast paced. And not by action, but by compelling story and incredible dialogue. Truly a masterpiece of the modern era of film, and a love letter to all things trashy and pulpy.
Peeping Tom (1960) | Directed by Michael Powell
In many ways, I feel that David Cronenberg’s disturbing and smart Videodrome works as an unofficial companion piece with Michael Powell’s unsettling masterpiece Peeping Tom. Both are essentially about the cruelties and horrors of voyeurism and what it does to people. Both are sexually charged with deep and horrific psychoses of their main characters. Bot are propfetic and comment on social desires, taboos, etc. But, of the two, I prefer Peeping Tom, as it is more elegantly handled, but just as penetrating. Psychotic Mark Lewis, played by Carl Boehm (who looks like a more handsome and younger version of Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang’sM), kills women. He films them to the point of death. And the he watches it over again. A very, very obvious exploration into voyeurism, the first person point of view would inspire the same kind of madness in Black Swan (which was also inspired thematically by one of Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s masterpieces, The Red Shoes). Moira Shearer plays a young woman who begins to befriend the young man, who works as a photographer, as as the film goes on, his personal traumas are revealed in the most suspenseful fashion. A great piece of filmmaking, with its subtext as potent today as it was in 1960.
My Man Godfrey (1938) | Directed by Gregory La Cava
Godfrey is a “forgotten man”, basically a bum, who is picked up by a family of aristocrats for a scavenger hunt game. He is then hired by the family, in particular, Cornelia Bullock, to be the family’s butler. The test for him, a reserved, wise man (as men like that tend to be in films of this style), is to last in the house without walking out. The Bullock family is bonkers. Steeped in extravagance, the family is always in trouble or doing something stupid, like getting drunk and partying and whatnot. I was rather disappointed with this film. As a big fan of the screwball comedy, and an admirer of William Powell in The Thin Man, the film seemed devoid of actual wit. Yeah, people banter back and forth, but none of it is actually very funny. The comedy itself shouldn’t feel so dated, instead it just feel half hearted and kind of stupid. And I don’t appreciate there being not one admirable character. The entire family seems repugnant and/or idiotic. And William Powell’s forgotten man is supposed to come off more as kindly and wise than oh so holier than thou. Oh, boo hoo, a movie with a message about the worth of money. Like we haven’t seen that before. Kudos to Pwell though, Without him, the film would be a dull and unfunny and preachy.
Lost in Translation (2003) | Directed by Sophia Coppola
Sophia Coppola’s Oscar-winning tale of lonely people in Tokyo is perfection. Absolute perfection. The slow, beautifully languid pace fit the meandering soul of the film itself, and the performances were spectacular and so nuanced. The locale is beautifully claustrophobic. The sense of emptiness and loneliness slowly being filled was incredibly palpable and honestly tugged at my heart strings. Murray’s pitch perfect fictitious self dazzlingly personifies loneliness and Johansson’s throaty and equally superb part embodies the lost soul she’s trying to find. It hit all the right notes in humor, drama, and romance, and I found it particularly pleasing that the two maintained a close, intimate relationship, but did not sleep together. To me, the unification of those souls, finding and helping one another back on their way – that translated perfectly to the screen.
The Piano (1993) | Directed by Jane Campion
Stanley Kubrick once compared film to music, that “it should be a progression of moods and feelings.” That couldn’t be a more beautiful and accurate description of Jane Campion’s highly exotic, erotic period tale of a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her daughter (a young Anna Paquin) sent to New Zealand for an arranged marriage. She brings her treasured piano, but her new husband (Sam Neil) cannot carry the piano back to their house. Eventually, the natives who help them bring their belongings introduce her to Baine (Harvey Keitel), a swarthy man. Hunter plays her character lovingly and, as a mute, without words. Other actresses could fall prey to scene chewery and believability, but Hunter is tender and nuanced. From years of repression, she finally is able to indulge herself and become free by having an illicit affair with Keitel. She maintains her love for the piano, which is an extension of who she is an appendage to her soul. Campion’s film is beautiful, with exotic photography, and Hunter and Paquin both deserved their Academy Award winds. Paquin isn’t cute or precocious, however. She is nothing but real, acting much older than she is. The Piano is an example of a film that needs little words to show its beauty, but reveals its gorgeousness through its pure mood and tone.
Being John Malkovich (1999) | Directed by Spike Jonze
Clearly, as evidenced by his screenplays for Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and even Synecdoche, New York,Charlie Kaufman enjoys being both self-referential, self-aware, and exploring the flaws, fallacies, and beauties of the human mind in all of its existential beauty. I would say Kaufman’s script for the amusingly dark Being John Malkovich, directed with style and flair by Spike Jonze, helped me understand what existentialism actually is: the philosophy of being. And in being, the exploration of existentialism is more humorous and dark than it is completely serious. John Cusack plays a down-on-his-luck puppeteer who finds a portal into the mind of the great actor John Malkovich, in a world where no one seems to actually know his filmography. (They keep saying he’s in some heist movie…) Meanwhile, he falls In love with an acerbic, stuck up Catherine Keener, who in turn falls in love with John Malkovich, but only when Cusack’s wife (an unrecognizable, incredible performance from Cameron Diaz) is inhabiting Malkovich’s body. And so, not only do we get a funny lesson in the philosophy of being and existing, but in are thrown the philosophies of sexuality, love, and fulfillment. Indeed, this is an interesting journey, and Malkovich is in full, overacting form. He’s supposed to be, of course. Cusack’s character, though, is too unlikable, and Keener is just repugnant. The kudos should really go to Diaz, for making a full transformation. The film has visual flair, giving perspective into…perspective. The film isn’t only an exploration of being and existing, but an exploration of what makes us tick.
GoodFellas (1990) | Directed by Martin Scorsese
This may be a complete travesty in the film world, but I could not stand this film. Having heard much about how realistic it was in comparison with the gangster epic by Francis Ford Coppola The Godfather, Scorsese’s brash, violent, and devious film takes out the romance of being in the mob and tries to make it as realistic as possible. Realistic though it may be, it is by no means, in my personal opinion, not any more entertaining. Ray Liotta(who was just as scary in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild) makes his mark on cinematic history as Henry Hill, the real life mobster who got into the gang as a young teen. I suppose it may be interesting to watch the workings of organized crime from an outsider’s view working to get in, but its unremorseful violence and profane script dissolves all interest. The meandering and overlong storyline also takes a hit at one’s attention span, and and its inconsistent narration makes it seem a little sloppy. The visual style remains the same, and by that I mean uninteresting. The violence, as I said, is brutal, tough, and nasty. It’s not a fun film to watch. But kudos to Scorsese for a first class selection of music, a playlist that reflects the times and the characters. But…Joe Pesci…seriously. Punctuating your screenplay and having your one uneducated and dense and trigger happy character spout the f-word every other word doesn’t make him seem any more interesting and it doesn’t add any depth to the character. Somehow, though, he managed to nab an Oscar, which I think may have been a bit more deserved for My Cousin Vinny. De Niro feels barely there. But, I guess the reason why everyone lauds the film is because of its realism. Woo hoo. Based on the book Wiseguy by co-screenwriter Nicholas Pillegi, GoodFellas is a unique piece of celluloid for its realistic look at the mob, but its entertainment value is as scares as anyone In the witness protection program.
City Lights (1931) | Directed by Charles Chaplin
Much like his next film Modern Times, City Lightsshows Charlie Chaplin’s romantic side more than ever, and it shows how hesitant he was to jump into the era of talking pictures. Made four years after the “first” talkie, The Jazz Singer, Chaplin maintained that if the Little Tramp talked all of his magic would disappear. He had his point, for the incarnation of the Tramp in The Great Dictator isn’t as delightfully quaint. One of the problems I’ve had with silent comedies is that they feel like a bunch of shorter gags made for one and two reelers just strung together without a coherent storyline. Buster Keaton avoided this with his death defying, if less entertaining The General, but Chaplin fell prey to this in his funny, but long and slow The Gold Rush. City Lights escapes this problem by giving the Tramp a serious love interest in that of a beautiful blind flower girl. It’s fluid and funny, and that is what matters. He is adamant on helping her get money to pay for her rent as well as for her to undergo surgery so that she can see. Ah, but there is a catch. He had accidentally been masquerading as a millionaire, after befriending an alcoholic one who invited the Tramp into his home. And that means that should the flower girl see him, she would know him for the bum he really is. And he hasn’t a care in the world. The strongest thing this film has, besides great gags, is a touching storyline. It is his most romantic feature, next to Modern Times. It is filled with heart and doesn’t tug on your heartstrings, but pull gently more and more until the beautiful, slightly ambiguous ending. It’s delightful, hilarious, and heartwarming, and one of my favorite Chaplin films.
Bronson (2008) | Directed by Nocolas Winding Refn
Bronson is one of the most exhilarating movies I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in a while. I’m not normally a fan of ultra-violence, but director Nicolas Winding Refn is so theatrical, so flamboyant, and so delightful in his violent performance art, it doesn’t matter. And it’s indeed theatrical. And it is indeed exhilarating. The film grabs you by the crotch and doesn’t let you go for a moment. Tom Hardy, in a role that has me questioning why the hell he doesn’t have a crap load of big awards on his shelf, begins the film by introducing himself as the world’s most violent prisoner. And he makes his motivations explicit. “I’ve always wanted to be famous.” And so, Charles Bronson, formerly known as Michael Gordon Peterson, addresses an audience on a stage, as if performing some vaudevillian one man show. The cinematography, by Larry Smith, is as harsh as Bronson’s knuckles, and the violence is intense, but darkly humorous. Hardy humanizes the character in a completely bizarre and brilliant way. Yes, he is a madman, but his exuberance and delight and charisma is so undeniable, you find yourself rooting for him. At times, he doesn’t even seem evil. He seems like an Alex Fletcher 2.0, only with a hell of a lot more muscle. Various symbolism about repression and being confined and claustrophobia and splattered in red across the screen, but the visualization makes the experience truly memorable. But the winner of the formula? Ding, ding ding! Tom Hardy is brilliant and absolutely brutal as the lead, perfecting the accent and bouncing back skillfully between being horrific and being hysterical. The blend of classical music and British pop/techno makes it feel a lot more like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, but in reality, as much as they are about desensitization to violence and its effect on society, the films themselves are very different. Kubrick’s film is at once repulsive and cringe worthy, but that was the director’s intention. Refn, however, wants to, like Bronson, give you a show. And that he does.
The Sting (1973) | Directed by George Roy Hill
Having been born in the 1990’s and most familiar with caper films like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, from a ‘90’s child point of view, Roy Hill’s masterpiece crime movie The Sting can best be described as an “old timey Ocean’s Eleven”. However, for the sake of screenwriter David S. Ward, it’s far cleverer than Soderbergh’s film. (Not to say his film isn’t good, it’s great.) A street grafter (Robort Redford) wants to avenge the death of a friend (Robert Earl Jones) by pulling the ultimate con on the gangster (Robert Shaw) who killed his friend. He gets the help from a professional con man and cheat (Paul Newman) and what follows is a particularly jolly and fun movie. George Roy Hill had previously worked with Newman and Redford on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film that, much to the dismay of Cinephiles, I despise. I dislike it mainly for its strange pace. But, thank goodness for The Sting. Its pace is jaunty and fun, and it’s a film that almost lacks much of a dark side, except for the finale. Newman and Redford have perfect chemistry together, as we all know, and the master and apprentice repartee is brilliant. Robert Shaw is pleasantly menacing as the gangster, completing this excellent ensemble. The Sting is one of the more delightful films I have seen this summer, and while the stakes are high, it’s a big win for the viewer.
Shrek: Forever After/The Final Chapter (2010) | Directed by Mike Mitchell
The Shrek series is best known for creating an empire at DreamWorks Animation that is comparable to that at Pixar Animation. What’s the difference between the two studios? DreamWorks’s films, in particular the Shrek series, are cheekier, more sarcastic, often more self-referential, and often crasser. And, everyone copies them, not Pixar. And so, DreamWorks pushes the sequel limit with the multiply-titled fourth Shrek film, alternately known as Shrek Forever After and Shrek: The Final Chapter. The fourth film is evidence that, after the second, the formula was running very, very dry. The self-aware fairy-tale series does an It’s a Wonderful Life-esque morality tale, when Shrek (the insufferable Mike Myers) wishes that he were just as fearful a single and unmarried ogre as he used to be. And he stupidly gets his wish when he makes a deal with Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohrn). And gone are his children, his family, his friends, blah blah blah. And he has a day until he can set things right et cetera. It’s the most boring plot you could ask for, one that has been tread over a billion times within the cinematic work. The animation is lazy, the jokes are boring, and the movie seems extremely half-hearted. Even its self-awareness is lacking. The characters are so incredibly stupid, and yet they try to wink at the camera (as they have for the entire series) with an “oh look how clever we are lampooning fairy tale”. Even the voice work is insufferable. Cameron Diaz seems barely there and Jon Hamm is completely useless as a member of some ogre-rebellion. You would have thought that after ten years, the animation would be mind-blowing, kind of like when you watch Toy Story and then you watch Toy Story 3. It’s a completely unnecessary sequel and I hope that this is where the fairy tale finally ends.
Fat Girl (2001) | Directed by Catherine Breillat
Catherine Breillat is a professor of Auteur Cinema. This is so incredibly obvious with her polarizing filmFat Girl, a film so uncomfortable and so infuriating that it is difficult to watch. However, this is not for the general and obvious reasons that many people talk about, such as its lengthy sex scene, its rape, the sexual violence, etc; it is hard to watch because the characters within her film are not so much characters but mouth pieces for her feminist theory fodder. Following is a short personal op-ed piece I wrote about the film:
But not exactly why. Yes, the sex scene is repulsive and excruciating, but it’s more the shockingly stereotypical and pseudo-feminism stuff that is spouting from the character’s mouths that make this irksome. The male character, Fernando, is a prime example of a character that self-contradicting in his ethics and what he carries out. And it doesn’t help that Breillat is propelling various ideas of how men use women and how that is either perfectly fine or disgusting, as her interviews are not entirely clear. She says, “Fernando is not an asshole.” And then goes on to say that he is being sincere in an instantaneous manner, and that sincerity disappears when he gets his desire. Doesn’t that mean he’s not actually sincere? Her understanding of the male persona, at one moment describing men as sick dogs who just want to sleep with women and then hailing them (seemingly) for their ability to have that power, is infuriating. Four or five times, throughout the lengthy bedding scene, Fernando changes his onions to suit whatever the girl wants. Yes, this tactic is slightly realistic, but the constant change of mind to express opposing ideas makes little sense and instead gives off the impression that the character is just a mouth piece for the director, who has made the two characters just part of a thesis for her feminist theory class. The portrayal of males and sexuality reaches two different extremes, and whether or not they are true, the explanation and justification for these actions are not true within the male world. I am very sympathetic with the female character, of course, as the male is being very manipulative. Breillat isn’t clear as to whether she’s condoning these actions or tactics, as her interviews and own quotes remain murky. It’s just very obnoxious to see this portrayal that wants to express very different ideas within one character, which makes the character themselves a work of self-contradiction.
This did not change much as the film went on. Fat Girl, otherwise known as A ma soeur! (For My Sister) , is somewhat a demonstration in shock cinema (which is a term that recalls titles more like The Rocky Horror Picture Showthan deliberately intellectual cinema along the lines of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut) and somewhat a demonstration of deliberately and obsessively intellectual and theoretical subject matter. It only occasionally appears to be an actual movie, but too thin are the strands of plot and story that hold the auteur’s ideas together cohesively. The characterization of Elena (a gorgeous Roxane Mesquida) is derisive and sometimes bizarre, while her liver Fernando (Libero De Rienzo) is too often chauvinistic and, as aforementioned, self-contradictory. And the relationship between the two is like someone’s thesis for a gender studies class acted out by people, but a lousy and overtly sexual one. Trading ideas instead of feelings, the director speaks too blatantly through the characters instead of letting them find their own voices. This is also true of Elena’s relationship with her younger sister, Anais (Anais Reboux). It’s superficial and unbelievable at first, something you would hear in a sitcom, where the dialogue is so wooden and pseudo-analytical, that it drives the viewer up the wall. However, this is lessens as the film goes on, and the relationship manages to normalize itself. The real star of the film is sweet, emotional Anais, who manages to voice her (or the director’s) ideas and theories without succumbing to too much ludicrousness. She’s far more cynical and realistic about love and sex than her sister. Her wounded soul is apparent only when she lets us see it instead of making it forced. Her performance is surprisingly nuanced for someone so inexperienced and young. Given the material for the film, I would have found it hard to do. But her cries and whimpers, her laughs, and her ideas all seem more real than is deserving of the film.
Fat Girl is an interesting film, but its ideas, characterizations, and overall tone are too polarizing to be enjoyable or watchable. Breillat is an intellectual at heart who tries too hard to instill her ideas on frame and in dialogue than make a film where the characters find themselves instead of act as a go-between for her and the audience. If anything, watch the film out of curiosity and for Anais Reboix’s moving performance.
You Don’t Know Jack (2010) | Directed Barry Levinson
I don’t know of too many films that tackle very polarizing issues, like abortion or doctor assisted suicide. That’s not to say they don’t exist (the former subject has a few, like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,Citizen Ruth, and Vera Drake), just that they are fairly rare. Leave it to HBO to go full throttle with this subject, and leave it to them to go directly and film something about the source. HBO Films’ You Don’t Know Jack chronicles the career of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, also known as “Dr. Death”. Al Pacino plays the good doctor and the film goes all the way from the beginning of his ideas for doctor assisted suicide to his trial and conviction by the Supreme Court. While the film vividly and realistically presents the cases, victims, etc. for the audience, the problem with it is its one sidedness. It tries its best to show both sides of the issue (sort of), but I suppose it’s not their job to show both sides. They are telling Dr. Kevorkian’s story, not the issue itself. And it’s not a documentary. Though, insight would have been nice. Al Pacino’s performance was stellar, of course. He again transforms himself into someone whom is slightly sinister and yet benevolent at the same time. You Don’t Know Jack is an excellent docu-drama, thoroughly entertaining and brings some of the issue to light.
Monster (2003) | Directed by Patty Jenkins
Patty Jenkin’s roaring film Monster (see what I did there?) is a demonstration in complete transformation from actress to character. Less than a portrayal, Charlize Theron embodies that of her character, convicted and executed murderer and prostitute Aileen Wuornos. Her performance will go down in the history of cinema as one of the finest things, one of the most heart wrenching, and one of the most terrifying. Hers will stand next to the great roles in cinema, such as Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose, Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., and others. Her performance alone reminds me of why I love cinema. It moved me. Anyways, enough about Theron. Monster is the incredible film that manages to let its own character let the audience become sympathetic towards her, as opposed to the director forcing it down their throats. Christina Ricci is excellent as Aileen’s lover, Selby. The raw emotion is what pushes the film, and it will tear your heart out without remorse.
The Wages of Fear (1953) | Directed by Henri-Georges Cluzot
Having been shocked and pleased with Henri-Georges Cluzot’s great film Diabolique, I was expecting the same sort of tension from his previous masterpiece The Wages of Fear. I was sorely disappointed. The film is about four men in some South American country who are hired by an American oil company to transport two trucks of nitroglycerin. From there, the road is rough and the terrain is dangerous. And the movie is boring. Regardless of what it says about American industrialism and its horrors, the biggest problem with the film is that it is extremely dull. It takes about an hour for that brief synopsis to actually begin, for the driving to start ot for driving to even be mentioned. Before, it’s just a few characters wallowing in how much they want to get out of their god-forsaken country. And even as they do drive, the tension is limited except for a few scenes. The characters are all rather repugnant. Especially Jo (Charles Vanel), who spends the entire film either whining or yelling at people for no reason. I was highly disappointed in this film. What one is wagering is their attention span.
Paper Moon (1973) | Directed by Peter Bogdonavich
Peter Bogdonavich’s Paper Moon is a strangely sweet and funny film about dark times and dark people. It’s not exactly a dramedy and it’s not exactly a dark comedy either. It’s funniness is fairly frank and honest, but its setting is the darkness. A con man and his friend’s daughter (Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum) go about during the Great Depression getting rich by selling Bibles to people. It’s a very sweet, very strange ale, and Tatum O’Neal absolutely shines as Addie Pray. She’s precocious, but not annoying or unbelievable. She’s also devilishly clever. Tatum is the youngest person to ever win an Academy Award, for she was ten when she won Best Actress for the role. I remember feeling a little uneasy about whether she deserved it or not, but she most certainly did. Paper Moon makes a most entertaining yarn of a film. The black and white photography is in particular gorgeous. It’s a classic that could fall way to be overly sweet, but it has just enough sour in there to please everyone.
Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bête) (1946) | Directed by Jean Cocteau
I managed to miss the Disney Renaissance growing up, which means I’ve never actually seen their musical animated adaptation of Beauty and the Beast in its entirety. I suppose it was, in a way, a good thing, as it left me fairly unbiased when viewing the enchanting Jean Cocteau adaptation of the film (Le Belle et la Bete) form 1946. It is, in the most honest and glorious fashion, a fairy-tale film. Everything about the film exudes mystique and enchantment. The gorgeous set design, the magnificent special effect, and, above all, the story and romance are all perfect. Its magic is palpable with some of the most impressive special effects (that would be increased in impressiveness for Cocteau’s Orpheus). Jean Marrais portrays the Beast (as well as a handsome suitor) while Josette Day is radiant and beautiful as Belle. Based on the tale written by Leprince de Beaumont, this adaptation transcends the fairy-tale medium itself (even though it is so distinctly that), by telling us a love story and having us fall for the beast over the handsome man he was. The emotion that Marrais portrays under the thick makeup is tender and vulnerable, something shown underneath a hard and beastly exterior. Greta Garbo, upon seeing the film and its ending, said, “Give me back my Beast!” And that is how we, the audience, feel. I have only felt this strongly and similarly about a beastly character once before, in Peter Jackon’s 2005 adaptation of King Kong. We fell in love with something that looked monstrous but was in fact more kind and gentle than any man. Josette Day is equally as kind and generous in the film, and she pulls off a part that is as vulnerable as the Beast’s. This enthralling and ethereal film is one of the most beautiful ever, and transcends the art of the fairy-tale by making cinematic magic by putting a beautiful love story on film. Indeed, it was Beauty killed the Beast, as well as the audience.
The Others (2001) | Directed Alejandro Amenabar
The Others is a peculiarly traditional film, as well as interestingly symbolic. Beneath the dust that covers the gigantic Gothic household where Nicole Kidman and her two children live, and behind the shadows that shroud the house in mystery, are symbolic references that allude to the Bible as well as to more sociological comments on religion, superstitious and its effect on people. Kidman plays the religious, hardened, and heartbroken Grace, whose deeply religious views she pounds into her children puritanically. Her children, Nicholas (James Bentley) and Anne (Alakina Mann), live each day in the darkness, as they are sensitive to light. The one light they can handle is the barely-there glimmer of hope that their father will return home from the war safely. In traipse three servants, one of whom is a mute, and one, Mrs. Mills (Fionnula Flanagan),seems to be the ring leader. Their connections to the house are deep, the roots of which are hidden. But as the daughter begins to see intruders her mother can’t, strange things begin to happen. This is a deceptively traditional film. Its production and camera tricks are so traditional, you will, at times, be thinking you are watching a ghost story from the 1960s. That’s not a bad thing; as a matter of fact this film may work somewhat as an homage to those ghost films. And just like those films, every frame contains something about religion and the afterlife. These messages might be a tad more sophisticated and complex, but in the end the most important part of this ghost story by Alejandro Amenabar: it scares you. Yes, as conventional as the scares seem to be, they are indeed frightening. The deceptive turns and wicked twists pay off well, and the ending is satisfying. The Others is an accomplished film in the traditional style of ghost story telling. It does the best thing a ghost story can do: keep you up at night.
Lake of Fire (2006) | Directed by Tony Kaye
The abortion debate is so extreme and controversial that it is hard to ever have a conversation with anyone about it without it turning into a debate. It’s harder still to document the issue itself without letting your own biases get in the way of being evenhanded. Somehow, though, Tony Kaye, the skilled music video director and director ofAmerican History X, managed to do it. And not only did he show both sides in a documentary, he actually made the documentary well. A compelling look at all aspects and facets of this extraordinarily painful debate, Kaye presents the issue through interviews, archival footage, etc. It took Kaye 17 years to make the film, which leaves room for 17 years of opinion and change. The interviews come from both the completely rational as well as the completely fanatical. Filmed in black and white, which may be aesthetically important to show that the issue itself is not merely black and white, the documentary is often hard to watch. If it had been in color, it would literally be unwatchable at some points, as some abortions and the aftermath of such procedures are shown and documented. The murders of several doctors who had performed abortions occurred during the production of filming. Protests are shown. Even Norma McCorvey, the history making Jane Roe of the Roe v. Wade case, is interviewed. Fanatics on both sides are interviewed. And philosophers, writers, academics, and politicians give their input. (The black and white cinematography is rather compelling even as a piece of cinema verite at times.) And while even handed and ambiguous it may be, the best thing one can say about this emotional and riveting documentary is that it will move you, make your blood boil, and make you think. That is the best any documentary can do. Make you think.
Give ‘Em Spell: Review for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1”
The expectations when entering a theater showing an adaptation of a novel are either extremely high or extremely low. There is often doubt set in the mind of the pessimist, one of those “You can’t top the book” mindsets. The optimist has hopes that the filmmaker will include every minute detail from the novel, regardless of its impossibilities. And when the credits roll, more often than not, both people walk out of the theater with the same regard to the film. “The book was better.”
In the case of the Harry Potter films, the books have always been better. The screenwriters and producers have too often sacrificed character development and linear narrative for action and melodrama, making Potter fanatics furious everywhere. When Warner Brothers announced that the final book in JK Rowling’s fantastical series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, would be split in two, their audience was frothing at the mouth with pure rage and indignation. The reason, the producers said that splitting Deathly Hallows into two parts would enhance the film and allows for more detail, so that the narrative wouldn’t be as rushed and that the filmmakers could make it as faithful to the book as possible. Of course, fans refuted this claim, saying it was for money reasons.
As to whether or not the intention was to make it more faithful or to make more money, it doesn’t really matter in the end. We follow our hero after the sixth film and book, after Dumbledore has died, and the sense of foreboding and darkness is immediate. The first shots of the film are the trio, Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson), prepping for their journey to find the Horcruxes that contain pieces of Voldemort’s soul. Every ounce of emotion is put forth, and then we are tossed into the throng of the War Against Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes).
When we first experience the action, it’s during the Seven Potters scene, where members of the Order of the Phoenix transform briefly into Harry in order to act as decoys. It’s perhaps one of the most exciting scenes this year, not merely from the glitz of the special effects, but from the movement of the camera and the blood rushing music by Alexander Desplat. It’s loud and fun, as any Michael Bay film, but in its way, slightly more meaningful. Look at it; a troupe of people willing to risk their lives for the sake of the Greater Good, being led by a seventeen year old.
The film continues and is, by far, the darkest film of the series. It’s darker than Half-Blood Prince, which, for some reason, concentrated more on melodrama than character or story development. It’s nearly pitch black. But this is a good thing, considering that the heavy tome is filled with emotion and darkness throughout. The darkness does not overstay its welcome; rather it adds an interesting and suspenseful dimension to the film. From the moment it starts, the suspense never lets up, in a good way, and you can’t take your eyes off the screen. It’s action packed and makes your heart pound, but moving all the same.
While calling the film “Part 1”, the filmmakers did manage to put in a lot throughout the film without really sacrificing too much detail. It successfully went through the first three fifths of the book without stopping or hindering the immense pleasure one feels when watching a seemingly serialized film. The acting was top notch, which I am surprised to say. All three actors are blooming into delightful thespians upon the screen. Unlike the first few films where it seemed like the three were trying too hard and exerting too many facial muscles in each scene, the actors seemed more comfortable and it seemed like it was easier to show emotion rather than force it out. The senior actors, such as Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman, exude their character’s traits with ease and flamboyance, Bonham Carter playing Bellatrix Lestrange and simply hissing at the camera with hate and causing a rush of fear within the viewer. Rickman plays his usual sardonic/deadpan lines well, as usual, but his role is underwritten.
This is, without a doubt, the best looking Harry Potter film. The cinematography is simply astounding; with some of the most gorgeous shots I’ve seen in a long time. The camera sometimes slowly creeps and pans from one angle to another, and at other times is frantic within a chase scene and heading towards characters, as if the actors will collide with the screen. One could easily create a photo book just from the beautiful shots from the film. Eduardo Serra, whose cinematography has been seen in such films as The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Wings of the Dove, epitomizes perfection for such an emotionally complex film that adds action to the mix. I think the film may have been shot in high definition, for the picture was clearer and sharper than one I’ve seen in ages. It added more depth and feel to the film. I swear, the imagery was the best I’ve seen in a long time.
The visual effects have improved greatly since Chris Columbus had to use a computer animated Radcliffe during the troll scene in the bathroom. Now, things look more fantastical and realistic than ever. The serpent Nagini looks even more frightening as it lunges at the camera, both fangs so horrifying one jumps. Kreature and Dobby return to this film, Kreature first appearing in Order of the Phoenix. We haven’t seen Dobby since Chamber of Secrets in 2002. That’s nearly eight years, and there has been vast technical improvement since then. He looks more realistic, like a little midget who just so happens to be an actual elf. And because of this realism, he provides one of the most emotionally moving parts of the film.
Perhaps one the most important aspects of the film is the subject of what the Deathly Hallows are. For those of whom that haven’t read the seventh book, I say, “Are you waiting for an invitation?” Get with the program, people! This was newsworthy in 2007! Anyways, the Deathly Hallows were three objects that were created by Death to evade Death Himself and to grant power to three brothers who had met Him. It’s almost like a Grimm fairytale, with a lesson and wit violence and comeuppance. As to how they would have made this integral part of the book a legitimate part of the film, I was expecting a rather shoddy and sepia drowned flashback. I could not have imagined how fantastic this sequence was going to be. Blending traditional geometric shapes and shadow puppetry with 21st century technology, the silhouetted sequence plays like a frightful dream, basked in deep monaural colors and deep shading. Not only did it perfectly illustrate the fairytale and convey the needed message of the fable to the audience, but it did it in an imaginary and brilliant fashion; a fantastic hybrid of two art forms from completely different eras. The short, called Tale of the Three Brothers was directed by Ben Hibon.
The only particularly problematic thing in the film is the introduction of new characters that should have appeared several films ago. Mundungus Fletcher (Andy Linden), the notorious thief and scoundrel, was introduced in the fifth novel but only appears in this film, and very briefly. There’s the new Minster of Magic, Rufus Scrimgeor (Bill Nighy), was brought on from the sixth novel and now only appears a few times in this film. This is more the fault of the writers from the past, who neglected bring in characters from the past.
This film is spellbinding because, amongst other reasons, it is so incredible; it can be set apart from the rest of them and be taken upon its own glorious merit. It has all the right ingredients and then some more. Moving, exciting, and gorgeously shot, this is the best Harry Potter film thus far. The dark and eerie feel, foreboding what will come next; will make you hungry for more. I cannot wait until Part 2 comes out. Director David Yates does a fantastic job, making one of the best films of the year.