To Rise from Darkness: The Dark Knight Rises
I guess I might as well be honest while I am here: I miss indie-minded Christopher Nolan. I miss that stylized simplicity of Following, the complexity of simplicity of The Prestige, the non-linear emotional/cerebral rollercoaster of Memento, and the guilt laden suspense of Insomnia. That is not to say I don’t like his Batman films; in fact, I love them. All that independent, creative, and mind bending sensibility is definitely imbued in his Batman trilogy (to some extent, with a sledgehammer), but you can tell that both he, as well as some of his audience, cannot wait until he makes another small, non-humongous budgeted film. It is his desire to give his stories and characters layers that makes his Batman films so interesting. The fear and desire in Batman Begins and the internal conflict of vigilantism in The Dark Knight (with other political subtext, of course) are what make the films so compelling. Nolan’s grand finale to his Bat-Trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, is no different in its intentions, but, as I said, you can tell he’s ready to revisit his roots. Make no mistake, The Dark Knight Rises is incredible, but, perhaps to the fault of high expectations that could never be met, I left the theater a little let down.
Picking up eight years after The Dark Knight, the third film in the trilogy begins with Bruce Wayne having turned into a rich recluse, the kind that the public would be quick to make a snark allusion to Howard Hughes. However, he comes out of hiding when Gotham City faces a new threat in the form of the hulking monster that is Bane. Bane is ready to destroy the entire city, blowing it to smithereens. And while there are plenty of explosive action sequences, the focus here, as usual, is on the story and the characters. Sort of.
While Batman Begins and The Dark Knight both handled large action scenes and even larger, more powerful scenes of drama and suspense, The Dark Knight Rises seems to have trouble reconciling the two. You either get scenes of great emotion and contemplation followed by a somewhat lackluster action sequence, or you get something rather trite and heavy handed followed by “action poetry”. Is it the running time or is it something else? It takes a while for the film to focus properly, balancing the two perfectly, allowing both drama and action to occur very closely together and balance well. But the film seems hesitant to make up its mind about not what to focus on but how to do it. You have a stunning prologue in a similar fashion to The Dark Knight’s Kubrick inspired first six minutes, and then for the next half hour, it seems, it’s all Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Michael Caine’s Alfred discussing how much Gotham, and Wayne himself, needs “the Batman”.
While the trouble in focus is a problem, the presence of the weighty internal conflict is welcome. As heavy handed as it may be, the fact that it is there at all and the fact that Nolan gives us a protagonist, an iconic one at that, whom we can explore psychoanalytically is one of the blessings of the trilogy’s existence. If anything, it’s the realism and the psychoanalytic approach that make the films (greatly aided by Bale’s awesome performance), not the huge set pieces. Michael Caine also does quite well as the loyal and conflicted Alfred, trying desperately to motivate Bruce Wayne to do the right thing, which does not always necessarily mean become the Batman. Here, it’s all about the battle between hope and lost faith. But, what Bale does here, once again, is show that Batman is human and that every facet of desire and motivation is real. Bale’s realism and humanity in playing the character is stunning and one of the best things about this film in particular.
In The Dark Knight Rises, we are introduced to a new villain: Bane, a character who, in the past, was a steroid pumped demon, usually working under or with another villain. Here, embodied by Tom Hardy, he is like Bronson on steroids. Er, well, more steroids. The point being, he is more human than he has been in other iterations, yet still monstrous. As far symbolic representations go, you can draw comparisons between the maniacal and chaotic Joker and driven and deliberate Bane. The Joker likes to create chaos for the sake of chaos, both as a means of pure joy and pleasure as well as a way to turn Gotham’s finest into Gotham’s most twisted and evil. He is real world terrorism without motivation that the public can understand. The destruction he creates is as enigmatic and flamboyant as he is. Bane, however, has a very specific goal. His objective is socially oriented (which may or may not recall strains of the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement), so that he can bring Gotham down from within. He is the terrorism with a driven ideology, and one for all to hear. However, as good as Tom Hardy is, simply because Heath Ledgers performance has been forever embedded into our minds, his villain is not as good. Maybe because Bane has a definite objective, he seems less interesting than a villain without reason. Maybe mystery is sometimes the best thing for a villain. Regardless, even if he is not the best, Hardy plays him to the hilt, and the deep, electronically manipulated voice is effective once you get used to it.
The police have a larger role in the film, with two characters taking the leads: Commissioner Gordon, riddled with guilt about Batman’s exile from society, and newbie John Blake, a dedicated cop with a broken past. It really is nice to see Gary Oldman have a larger role here. Much the same way that Jude Law has done with Dr. Watson in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films, Gary Oldman brings intelligence and pathos to a character for whom layers did not exist in the films prior to Nolan’s. Oldman is skilled and plays Gordon fantastically. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was in Inception, plays Blake with sensitivity and intelligence, though his character is often relegated to acting like a junior detective. However, once his character begins to take control, Gordon-Levitt’s performance is all the better and more interesting. He is able to side step some of the cheesiness that seems to be inherent in the script regarding his character’s past, but not so much that the audience would not be able to identify with him. In short, both actors do extremely well.
The women of Nolan’s Batman trilogy have faltered, mostly because there has only been one, and she did not seem that important in the grand scheme of things. The women of Batman’s world never really have, with few exceptions. Selina Kyle, however, is one of those exceptions. Played with verve, class, wit, and sex appeal by Anne Hathaway, Catwoman manages to be a rather compelling character in this finale. Given no real origin story, only alluded to as someone trying escape her past with a clean slate, the mystery surrounding he character, and the vulnerability that Hathaway is able to portray (without being too sappy or cliché) makes Catwoman even sexier. Her new suit is sleek, yet simple and minimal, as opposed to the dominatrix outfit Michelle Pfeiffer wore in Batman Returns. Once again, the tension between Batman and Catwoman is palpable. You could cut the sexual tension with a bat ranger. Anne Hathaway surprised me because, as much as I adore her, I was honestly not sure if she would be able to pull off playing Catwoman. She did pull it off, and very well. Marion Cotillard, who worked with Nolan on Inception, joins the cast as well, also vying for Bruce Wayne’s heart. Cotillard does fine, if not spectacularly. She’s enticing, but her character, Miranda Tate, a wealthy philanthropist, does not seem to be the kind of man that Bruce Wayne would legitimately fall for. She does not seem to fit with Wayne. Sure, she “stands” for something, but she never gives the impression that she would go out and do whatever it took to do what needs to be done, in the way that Rachel Dawes did, especially the way Maggie Gyllenhaal played her in The Dark Knight. For there to be a convincing love interest, he or she must be other’s equal, and Tate is not, even if the woman who plays her is one of the finest actresses around.
One of the film’s biggest flaws, aside its slightly plodding story and pace, is its setting. In the previous films, Gotham City, no matter how much it may have resembled Chicago or New York, always had a sense of anonymity about it. Gotham is supposed to be Any Metropolis, USA. Here, we are given New York City, plain and obvious. From sightings of specific bridges (Brooklyn, for instance) to Saks Fifth Avenue, the anonymity disappears from the setting and, in those moments, the films steps out of the limbo between Batman’s universe and reality and just sits in reality. It is extremely jarring to see locations that are supposed to exist generically and realize that not only do you recognize them, that you have probably been there. Here, Nolan’s focus again seems unbalanced. With the inclusion of a new, fun vehicle called the Bat, we are once again ripped form one realm and shoved into another. The Bat is like the Tumbler, but it flies. This, to me, seems silly. It reminded me of the invisible Aston Martin V12 Vanquish from the James Bond film Die Another Day, and they both don’t work for the same reason: for characters that are so rooted in reality (for their respective interpretations and approaches), the use of such a gadget seems counterintuitive. Obviously, things in the film would never happen, but even the carnage and destruction that goes on feels real because that is how Nolan has approached the films. All of a sudden adding what is essentially a flying Batmobile is a strange move. Here, in both cases, the biggest problem of the film is demonstrated, in that it does not know when to be real, when to be fantastical, or when to balance the two.
The Batman films have molded and conformed thematically to whatever the contemporary social and political atmosphere is. Here, we plainly see strains of various recent social movements, and again, it is the focus that trips up the pacing and the story. Nolan handles the socio-political material better than anyone else would have, but as clear as the extremism is in the film, it sometimes gets caught up in itself. Strains of the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party Movement stand out the most, with dialogue form characters that read out the conceits as obviously as the final speech in The Dark Knight. As soon as the lesson in political science is put on the back burner, but still present yet subtle, the representations that the characters become and their motivations stand for seem smoother and more easily digestible than some of the ham fisted and overt ideas.
The action, though, seems of a different flavor that one is used to. It still remains fairly coherent in its editing and execution style, but you get the sense that, once again, there’s difficulty in reconciling the action epic of Michael Bay proportions and the thrilling, almost poetic action to counterpose the emotional weight of the story. The final forty-five minutes, however, are very satisfying to watch on the big screen. Especially, in IMAX.
The film also seems to be more stylistically different than those from the rest of the series, but its ties to the universe make it so that the film would not be able to stand on its own very well. That is not inherently bad, but while the other two films can be their own entity, it is harder to compartmentalize and separate The Dark Knight Rises from its counterparts. The film, though, does nice tie some things together, and it ends up being a fairly satisfying ending.
As “disappointed” as I was, I will still contend to the fact that it is a pretty splendid film. Maybe it isn’t the masterpiece everyone wanted it to be, but with the sky high expectations, can you blame it? While the film is flawed in several ways, it is a pretty incredible and fantastic way to end a superb film trilogy. Though the film has trouble with its pacing and its ability to focus, its strengths in acting and pieces of its storytelling outweigh its weaknesses. Similarly, in the film, the light is able to makes its way through the darkness in Gotham, if barely.
Also, check out my essay comparing Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s approaches the Batman at VeryAware.com!
Origin Story: Prometheus
I am not sure whether it is because I am a cynic or because I am apathetic or because I spend most of my “deep thinking time” either analyzing films or sleeping, but the question of “Where do we come from?” and other “origin of life” and “meaning of life” questions has never really occurred to me longer than that of a piece of Trident gum. I am amongst the blithely unaware, and remain so. Even watching certain films and shows that prod at that very question, like Planet of the Apes, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or even TV’s Lost, aside from analyzing within the context of the given show, I never though more of it outside of that context or applied it to my own life. Even after reading Camus’ The Stranger and even after watching Being John Malkovich (which, for the record, helped me grasp existentialism), I never thought of the meaning of life personally. Prometheus is no different, but I appreciated its probing at such questions nevertheless. While its admiration for Big Ideas is commendable, it is one hell of a messy film. But I enjoyed it anyways. Ridley Scott’s return to the universe he helped create in 1979 with Alien is visually spectacular, but its storyline is about as coherent as the theatrical edition of David Fincher’s Alien3 .
Its big questions stick out in the dialogue much like the social criticisms that stick out like an eyesore in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, or the social commentary on race relations sticks out blatantly in Crash. Though, the fact that a mainstream blockbuster would even bother asking those kinds of questions in a world of film where deep thought is usually frowned upon is, to some extent, admirable. Its choppy form and presentation is something that is problematic, but it is nice to see something that asks its viewers to think of those things. Written by Jon Spaihts and Lost co-creator/executive producer/writer Damon Lindelof, it asks those questions repeatedly, but perhaps not in an incessant manner. A good thing about the film’s screenplay is that, while it asks those questions, and filly in the backgrounds of certain characters with various ideologies, it allows for the audience to consider the answers.When scientists find an “invitation” in the form of archeological digs and subsequent symbols across the world pointing to something shared yet mysterious, it prompts Elizabeth Shaw (the original Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) to go there. The invitation is a constellation, and with the help of Weyland Corp. (sound familiar?), they bring a crew aboard the expansive ship Prometheus to that very planet. You know, to go look for stuff. The speculation and main plot device is that the planet may hold the key to the origin of life and the creation of humans, even all life forms, something that has intrigued Shaw in particular since she was a little girl. Of course, once they get there, starting messing around a little bit, you know nothing good comes of it.
But its screenplay is the very root of the problem for Prometheus, no matter how “nice” it may be that something so mainstream would dare to make audiences think. The plot holes in the film and the unexplained questions and the abandoned subplots and the randomly inserted subplots… they are, to some, overwhelming and ruin the entire experience. Lindelof was called in for rewrites, and a new story may have developed, but it feels like fragments of the original are still apparent in the way that when you write a second draft of something, your friend will be quick to point out that something from the original is still there, but kind of not explained or even relevant. Some of this information and subplot is supposed to work in favor of the film’s suspense levels, but instead comes off as sloppy and unnecessary. Some of it may be a problem of logic. And while many complain about the issues, some of the questions are supposed to remain unanswered. Audiences hate a film where they are not spoon fed the answers, and while it may be a problem based both with the screenplay as well as the audience, the audience needs to grow up a little and work on its own for a bit. Certain things are supposed to remain unanswered, and intended to remain a mystery. There are certain parts where one could argue that the multiple sources of havoc in the film and not knowing which one is important is again intentional, to show that origins are chaotic in and of themselves. While some of these may be forgivable, the logic problems, as aforementioned, are sloppy and lazy.
Those problems aside, it was certainly a thrilling experience. Rooted in a very similar “haunted house” style of sci-fi horror (like Alien), it amps up the suspense by providing seedy characters, and cavernous set pieces which serve as perfection to haunt a viewer. Speaking as a matter of suspense work, director Ridley Scott is at the top of his game, and his return to the genre is a welcome one. His eye for visual style and his “Star Wars as a horror film” sensibility works well in contemporary film. It is a big film, shot in 3D, which I am pleased to report works in the film’s favor. Making its dark depths even deeper and more haunting and its immaculate rooms on Prometheus even more tantalizing, the 3D works well. Without the grand visual style of the film and its fantastic sense of thrill, the film’s weak points would end up outweighing its strengths.
Its cast, though, is also something to scream about. Noomi Rapace, and her harshly defined cheekbones, gives a very good performance in the film. Her idealistic Shaw, perhaps lost in search of something out there to believe in because of her father’s own faith, is smart, convincing, and yet also naïve. She also screams well, so that is also a plus. But it’s a performance that works very well for the film. Charlize Theron, who plays Meredith Vickers, an exec at Wayland Corp., brings in her full time bitch to the role, something that was sorely missed in Snow White and the Huntsman. Her cold and austere disposition is actually somewhat reminiscent of her bravura turn in Young Adult. But, this is a different kind of “bitch”. She is there to do her job and do it well, and she will have nothing less.
Though, the cast member that blows everyone out of the water is, of course, Michael Fassbender. Michael Fassbender does not merely play the android David. Michael Fassbender plays an Android playing Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia. Yes, Fassbender’s sociopathic android David plays the David Lean epic on a loop, dyes his hair blonde, and models himself entirely on Peter O’Toole in said Lean epic. Needless to say, if they do not immediately call Fassbender to play O’Toole in a biopic, I, as well as many other people, will be very unhappy. Fassbender’s portrayal is perfect. It’s the right mix of dead emotion, wunderkind android curiosity, and devilish duplicity. Next to the visual style, Fassbender’s perfect performance is the best thing about the film. Though some of David’s actions have garnered questioning and complaint, the fact that David is so emotionless (despite his desire to feel emotion), it makes those unanswered motivations and action seem all the more eerie and frightening. Fassbender’s voice takes on a very smooth, emotionless tone, almost like HAL 9000 from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Fassbender is so intriguing and insanely good, one kind of hopes for a separate spin off. Fassbender’s is a standout, electrifying performance, and one of the best things about the film.
To really break things down, the enjoyment of the film Prometheus is directly proportional to a) your expectations regarding the film as a prequel to Alien, b) your tolerance for unanswered questions, and c) how much you appreciate grand visual design, excellent suspense, and Michael Fassbender. If you consider the three factors prior to seeing the film, notably the first two, they will probably dictate as to how much you will enjoy the film. I was personally able to overlook its (perhaps glaring) plot flaws in favor of appreciating it as an exercise in sci-fi tension, outstanding visual design, and the fact that the film does ask big questions, even if it does not answer them. Because, if anything, doesn’t it matter that the questions are being asked at all?
Ghost Tale: Review for Insidious
Ghost stories are timeless. And so are haunted house stories. They’re embedded into our history and our DNA. That melding of those two subgenres of the scary tale or even the scary movie reveals something about our personal domestic fears. You would think that the two would get old and that that they’d die out, but they still haven’t. Whether it’s Paranormal Activity or the excellent Insidious, we still find ourselves fascinated with something so timeless.
Insidious is an interesting case. Directed and written by James Wan, the creator of Saw (he should have never turned it into a damn franchise); the movie is set in a new house with Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, and their kids slowly experiencing strange things around the house. Is this typical of a movie like this? Totally. It’s highly traditional. But the dependency that the film places on its sound design and visual design is integral and well used. The subtle noises and scratches coming from upstairs, the muted color palette and camera tricks which are fairly “old school” – they’re all used to the hilt.
This kind of suspense is rare, when at every turn you see either torture porn, lousy reboots or remakes, or boring and plodding retreads on old material. The suspense created here is real. It’s frightening. Eventually, Wilson and Byrne’s son is put into a “coma” (for an inexplicable reason), but the strange things keep happening. They decide to move back into their old house. All seems fine at first (you can tell because the pallet become colorful and saturated!), but the specters must have followed them!
That’s the first half. It’s a brilliant, scary, and extremely well-paced first half. The second half isn’t bad per se, but it’s so drastically different in tone it feels like it’s a completely different film. It’s as if the tone and style comes out of left field. It adds a very Exorcist-like element, in which the demons that are trying to possess their child must be stopped, etc. etc. It’s still “good but it’s not great. It becomes unbelievable and insanely strange. The switch in tone is admittedly a bit jarring. But, in a way, it’s understandable. It’s hard to follow up a first act so great with a second one that’s just as good.
It’s not the acting here that matters. It’s the atmosphere. The atmospheric tone, the creepiness, to sheer suspense and fear make the film what it is. The first half of the film is one of the best scary movies I’ve seen in ages. It may be the same ground that’s been explored before, but it’s been done with such panache that it seems almost entirely new. In the end it’s a fantastically frightening movie, fun and filled with fear. Vampires may come and go and werewolves may be a fad for a year or two, but ghost and the haunted house will never disappear.
“What’s Your Favorite Scary Movie?”
Horror has almost always been a very strange guilty pleasure genre for me. I became rather interested in the genre when I was six and I snuck a sneak peek at my sister’s videocassette of Wes Craven’s Scream 2. I didn’t get past the first ten minutes. However, as my tolerance increased, much like that of a future alcoholic, I became obsessed with horror films of all kinds. Some were quite memorable and remain my favorites while others were stupid and forgettable. I watched scary movies so often, in all iterations; I began writing a book about the history of the horror film at age 12. (Yeah, I didn’t go out much…) I kind of grew out of my very long horror phase when I was 15, but my love of all things horror has been forever fostered by my own interest in the morbid and the macabre. From classics like Dracula to modern torture porn like Saw, I have seen many a scary movie. And in honor of Halloween, here is a list of my favorite scary movies (in no particular order):
The Exorcist: Director’s Cut (1973) | Directed by William Friedkin
It’s been so long since I’ve seen the theatrical cut and it is so often I watch the Director’s Cut, I don’t really remember the former. (It’s the same with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.) Of course, anyone movie buff in their right mind would have William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece at the top of their list. While its philosophical musings, its fantastic screenplay (from original writer William Peter Blattey) and its top notch performances are all great pieces to the puzzle, the centerpiece is its visceral thrill. The feelings you experience while watching this film are almost incomparable to any other film. It just chills you to your very core. You may find yourself whispering, “Why, God, why?” Which is exactly the point.
The Shining (1980) | Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel was kind of dismissed at the time of its release. Only recently has it been reevaluated, and with good reason. Despite its somewhat mainstream tone, it is still, at heart, a Kubrick film. While I watch it, I constantly notice new things and ask myself why Jack Torrance (a raging, rampaging Jack Nicholson) was so compelled to go insane. What made him so susceptible to going nuts? And look at the gorgeous scenery. And you will find some of the most beautiful, haunting tracking shots ever on film. (It was the first time Kubrick used SteadiCam work.) Torrance’s descent into madness is one of those iconic scenarios, and him peeping through the door cackling “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” is one of the defining moments in cinema.
Scream (1996) | Directed by Wes Craven
Scream is a strange film in which it was very much marketed towards a mainstream audience and has very commercial tendencies, and yet retains artistic and cultural integrity. It’s a horror film that knows exactly what it is and why it works. It’s a slasher film that goes back and spoofs all those dumb clichés from the 1980’s and then rubs them in your face and then uses them again to scare you. Why? Because the film knows why those conventions worked and how to use them. The opening sequence with Drew Barrymore is definitely one of the most iconic moments in a horror film. Props to screenwriter Kevin Williamson for making postmodernism really cool. (You know, besides Tarantino.)
Death Proof (2007) | Directed by Quentin Tarantino
I am in the minority, apparently, for thinking that the better half of Robert Rodriguez’s and Quentin Tarantino bloody homage to exploitation films was the latter’s car chase movie. A lot of people preferred Rodriguez’s zombie flickPlanet Terror, but I found it hard to take seriously outside the “homage” circle. With Tarantino’s throwback to Vanishing Point and other car chase flicks, itfelt like a real movie. It felt like something you could go see in a theater and not know it was done for ha-ha’s. I enjoy it partly because of the dialogue, for Tarantino’s dialogue is always sharp, nuanced, and fun to listen to; the other reason, of course, is because of the bad ass car chase in the second half. Tarantino is under the impression this is his “Women are Badass Movie”, but he seems to be giving a little too much reliance on that. Aside from the fun conversation, it is indeed a “serial killer movie where the killer uses a stunt car”. Kurt Russell is great as Stunt Man Mike, and Tracie Thoms is like a female Samuel L. Jackson. And that is a very good thing.
Saw (2004) Directed by James Wan
Remember the days when there was only one Saw movie? Me neither. But, back in 2004, that was the case. Thank God. Saw technically doesn’t bear the torture porn label that its successors do. In a way, the violence is portrayed more in a Se7en-esque way (albeit, slightly more graphically). Its violence does not faze me because its reliance is less on visceral thrill and more on mood and writing. Yes, this is me saying that Saw was relatively well written. Think back, though. The first one was very clever, rather realistic, and, while the dialogue was negligible, it was scary. I find it to be chilling and interestingly moralistic. Until, that is, it begat about a thousand sequels. Then it just became stupid and laughable.
Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) | Directed by Wes Craven
Unlike the previous entries in Wes Craven’s Nightmare franchise, this one is actually interesting. Toying with the same kind of postmodern/meta ideas he’d work with two years later, this one takes place in the real world, where Heather Lagenkamp is an actress who has a son and whose husband is working on a new Freddy Krueger movie. Robert England is an actor whose demons are about to consume him. And Lagenkamp’s son is acting weird, of course. Although this seems mildly plain at first, what one should realize is that it is an astute examination of the influence of horror films on youth and whether they affect behavior. WHAT? Craven making psychological and cultural connections? Yes, indeed, and it is fun and scary and brilliant! No, really, it is the scariest of the entire franchise.
The Descent: Director’s Cut (2005) | Directed by Neil Marshall
There’s nothing like some good old claustrophobia to lighten the mood. Rock climbing girls get stuck and there are strange, bizarre bat people around. Totally convention and predictable, right? Well, no. Rather than using the same conventions that one would assume they would use, they, instead, go the smart route and channel the fears in your inner psyche. No annoying trick shots here, folks! Nothing but pure adrenaline and moody settings. And go for the Director’s Cut, just so you know, because the ending is so much better.
Psycho (1960) | Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
What would a horror movie list be without something from the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock? Psycho is one of his grand masterpieces, burrowing itself into the cultural psyche and refusing to get out. Norman Bates is completely insane, yet one of the most interesting characters in film history. The shower scene is probably the most iconic and recognizable scenes in film history. There is so much going for this film that has been written about countless times. Just go see it.
Dumplings (2004) | Directed by Fruit Chan
This short film was part of the Asian horror anthology Three…Extremes and it is my favorite of the bunch. Seemingly, more than the other two, this film was meticulously orchestrated to have a specific tempo, tone, and unsettling feeling. The film doesn’t even both trying to tempt you or lull you into a false sense of security. Instead, it just dives in. It is, in essence, an Asian Sweeney Todd, although; maybe even a little more disturbing. The slow camera movements linger on facial reactions and let every ounce of fear seep in. It is a powerful, scary film.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Directed by Jonathan Demme
This may not technically count as “horror” in the technical sense of the genre, but you have to admit, it’s a damn good film and it is, if anything, one of the most thrilling movies of all time. Smart screenplay, great direction, and excellent performances are what make this film so fantastic. (Side note: Jodie Foster’s accent is completely believable.) Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal Lecter in a star making performance, one that oozes an incredible creepiness and discomfort. Lecter likes to play mind games, and this intelligent screenplay plays along with you, toying with all of your preconceptions of the characters and storyline.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) | Directed by Tim Burton
I heartily think Johnny Depp was robbed during Oscar season when he did not win for his portrayal of Sweeney Todd, aka Benjamin Barker. Tim Burton’s masterful adaptation of the stage musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince is a delightfully macabre musical. Although its color palette is filled with bleak and washed out colors, the performances and songs couldn’t be more colorful. The violence is operatic and as choreographed as a ballet number, but its chills are genuine. Thus, you should definitely attend the tale of Sweeney Todd…
Pan’s Labyrinth (EL Laberinto del Fauno) (2006) | Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Out of all of the films I have listed so far, funnily enough, this seemingly innocuous choice of horror film delivers the hardest punch out of all of them (with the possible exception of The Exorcist). Guillermo del Toro’s layered fairy tale is drenched in symbolism and is a film you can go back to time and again and discover new things about its story. But why, of all the films, is this the most powerful? Del Toro blends reality and fiction with clever allegory and heart, making its content all the more intense and meaningful to the audience, similarly with The Exorcist. If anything, the two films could work, somewhat, as companion pieces, each asking the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Del Toro’s masterpiece is creepy, unsettling, and, above all, beautiful.
Black Swan (2010) | Directed by Darren Aronofsky
This little art house film by Darren Aronofsky became a smash hit because of one scene. Audiences, though, failed to realize how deep the film actually went into the mind and the madness of Nina Sayers and why exactly it was so well done. Admittedly, as noted by several critics, it does sometimes play off like a schlocky horror movie. However, its use of symbolic imagery, characterization, choreography, and cinematography give insight into how insane this film was. The shaky camera work, though normally distasteful personally, is actually a plus, adding to the sense that the audience is descending into madness withNatalie Portman. It’s all about pressure and insanity. A thematic sister to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, Black Swan is an intense work of art.
Nosferatu (1922) | Directed by FW Murnau
I love this film because it allows me to say such brash things as, “Twilight can suck it.” But FW Murnau’s silent spectacle was a technically illegal adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. Max Schrek, who was apparently ugly anyways, plays Count Orlock, and makes one of the scariest vampires to ever hit the screen. The moody tone and the excellent scenery make this film a classic. Also check out Shadow of the Vampire, a fictional account of the making of the film where Malkovich’s Murnau hires Willem Dafoe’s Schrek, who just plays a really good vampire…or does he?
Zombieland (2009) | Directed by Ruben Fleischer
It isn’t as meta or self-referential as Scream, but what self-aware humor there is makes for a very funny and entertaining movie. Filled with callbacks and homages to the zombie subgenre, Zombieland is an amusing ride. Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin all give very fun and light performances. It’s definitely the kind of movie you’ll put in after scaring yourself to death with the other films.
Honorable Mention That Technically Does Not Count:
Young Frankenstein (1974) | Directed by Mel Brooks
While Zombieland walks the line between comedy and horror (primarily on comedy), Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is nothing but comedy. A brilliant homage to the Universal Horror films of the ‘30s, Brooks’ film is a pitch perfect comedy that hits every single right note and then some. It is one of the funniest films of all time, with Gene Wilder, Teri Gar, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, and Madeline Kahn at the top of their game. You can’t not love “Puttin’ on the Ritz” or “Frau brucher!”
So that is my list of my favorite horror movies to watch on Halloween. I hope you have a Happy Halloween yourself and have fun.
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.
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