Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Sight & Sound Challenge: Pulp Fiction (1994)

Film: Pulp Fiction (36/250) 
Critics Poll: 127th 
Directors Poll: 107th 
First Time/Rewatch: Rewatch

I wish I could've seen this film when it first hit theaters, before Samuel L. Jackson's Ezekiel 25:17 speech, Uma Thurman and John Travolta's dance scene, and the glowing briefcase all became legendary. This film had a reputation and an influence a mile long by the time I finally saw it in my teens, and it definitely lived up to the hype. I didn't know at the time that it would be my future husband's favorite film, but I can certainly see why it would top anyone's list of favorite movies. It just drips with style. The colors, the fashion, the music (Tarantino and Scorsese just nail it every time with their pop music choices, don't they?), everything is completely on point and this film, while certainly paying homage to other sources (as Tarantino is wont to do), feels fresh and original and is unlike anything that came before it. This film is a game-changer. I don't know what else to say about this film, so I'll just kick off my shoes, put on a record, and do the twist!

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Sight & Sound Challenge: His Girl Friday (1940)

Film: His Girl Friday (35/250) 
Critics Poll: 171st 
Directors Poll: 546th 
First Time/Rewatch: Rewatch 

This film is the epitome of that 1940s "fast talking dame" style that is so often parodied. The dialogue crackles and sparkles with wit, the timing is perfect, and the chemistry between Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, while not necessarily romantic, cannot be denied. The two complement each other so well. And I love films (especially older films) that feature a female character more than holding her own with the guys. She's valued, she has gumption, and while she initially decides to give up her career to be a wife, she can't deny the thrill she feels from being damn good at her job. Can I sing the praises of Rosalind Russell for a minute? From Auntie Mame (my all-time favorite) to The Women, to His Girl Friday to The Trouble With Angels, she's just a joy to watch and a seriously underrated actor. This film showcases her unique charm and ability to articulate lines at lightning speed! I just love her, and this film, so much. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

What Do Your Favorite Films Say About You?

When that recent Tarantino interview came out, so much of the film loving Internet was aflutter (a Twitter?) with opinions about the valid, constructive criticism Quentin had regarding the film It Follows. Yet among my friends, more dispiriting was the fact that Tarantino himself loves to badmouth a different film which many of us hold in high regard - his own carchase/slasher masterpiece. Yes, I'm talking about Death Proof!

Personally, I hold that film above Reservoir Dogs, Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds. Of course a few took exception with my opinion on this, but many people on my Facebook wall chimed in and declared Death Proof to be their favorite Quentin Tarantino film altogether. Which I guess goes to show you how subjective taste can be. Sure we can back up our opinions with this or that "fact", but in the end, it's all very personal.

If you press someone to give you a list of their Top-10 or more films, what you'll get is a pretty good glimpse into who that person is. You will not only be able to know what they respond to visually, but emotionally as well. In a way, a list of someone's favorite films can be even more insightful than the much lauded Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Pretty much every time I look at my own personal favorites list, I find myself thinking, "Perhaps it's time to  shake this list up Craig?" Yet when I try to think of what I'd eliminate, I'm at a total loss. Even though I now prefer Kill Bill (as a whole) to Pulp Fiction, I cannot bring myself to remove Pulp Fiction from the top of that list. That's the movie that made me who I cinematically am and introduced me to things like the French New Wave and Hong Kong Cinema. I'm so resistant to removing films from my list that my Top-10 is actually a Top-11 because I couldn't bring myself to remove anything to make room for Y Tu Mamá También.

Looking at my Top-11 I see so many recurrent themes and visual tropes. Lots of bittersweet endings and films about eras ending. There's also lots of brown in the color pallets and an overall mid-century flavor to much of the design. Of course most of the films use source music to underscore scenes and feature hyperbolic camera moves...except for the ones that don't. Some of the films on the list are even from the same year. Does that mean something?

When I saw the 1962 commedia all'italiana classic Il Sorpasso for the first time last year, I fell instantly in love. Upon trying to figure out why I responded to it so strongly, I came to the realization that though this movie pre-dated me by twenty-one years, it was made specifically for me. It checks off pretty much every element on the list of things that I respond to in cinema. To quote my own review: "It’s a road movie that luxuriates in the settings and side characters, it expertly balances comedy and drama, it features a passive main character who is propelled along by a charismatic rascal, the pop songs are expertly placed and the photography is beautiful." Of course I loved it, it was pretty much predestined.

So is it now time for my Top-11 to become a Top-12? I've come to accept the fact that none of those core movies are going anywhere anytime soon. They are part of who I am. They're like those islands in Inside Out. My relationship with them can change, but they will always be there underscoring everything else that I watch. I will love or hate something for the ways it is either similar to, or different from those core films. The only choice is to add, right?

But then again, Il Sorpasso doesn't bring anything new to my personal canon. It's merely a variation on several extremely well known themes in the pre-existing, "Craig Canon". Perhaps I should only incorporate a new film  to the list if it adds something new to my understanding and appreciation of cinema. Or perhaps I should just accept who I am. Like they say, you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

For the curious, here are my Top-11 films. What are yours? What do they say about you?
  1. Pulp Fiction
  2. Ed Wood
  3. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  4. Taxi Driver
  5. L.A. Confidential
  6. Buffalo '66
  7. Annie Hall
  8. The Godfather Part II
  9. Boogie Nights
  10. Chasing Amy
  11. Y Tu Mamá También

Friday, August 28, 2015

Friday Quote: Sister Act

"Bless us, oh Lord, for these Thy gifts which we are about to receive. And yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food, I will fear no hunger. We want you to give us this day, our daily bread. And to the republic for which it stands, and by the power invested in me, I pronounce us ready to eat. Amen."

Sister Act (1992)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Days of Being Wild (1990)

Unlike so many other ensemble pieces, Days of Being Wild doesn’t proclaim itself as such from the onset. There’s no rapid montage introducing us to all the various characters we will meet along the way. When we start, we are certain that Leslie and Maggie Cheung’s characters are going to be our protagonists. Yet before you know it, one character is jettisoned for another and it is their film, for a while…

A full year before Slacker, Wong Kar-Wai was already excelling at the type of narrative Richard Linklater would be praised for with that film. It’s a daisy chain structure where one character introduces us to another who in turn introduces us to another. Everything loops back eventually but not in the configurations you were expecting. In the end, you get these weird combinations of characters you never thought would end up together, but that’s life. You never know who is going to enter the picture next or return from the past. You can really tell what an influence this film had on Pulp Fiction.

Apparently this film didn’t do very well upon initial release. From what I gather, there was supposed to be a follow-up film which is hinted at in the final scene. But after the poor box office reception, those plans were scrapped. Yet, rather than make this film feel like some sort of vestigial appendage of a larger creature, the inclusion of that final scene inadvertently solidifies what makes this movie so wonderful. There’s always someone new, waiting in the wings, ready to enter the story of your life. Where will they end up taking you?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Sight & Sound Challenge: The Piano (1993)

Film: The Piano (34/250) 
Critics Poll: 235th 
Directors Poll: 174th 
First Time/Rewatch: Rewatch 

I waxed poetic about this film the last time I watched it, so at the risk of repeating myself, let me just say this.

Beautiful performances.
Beautiful music. 
Beautiful photography. 

That's basically what I look for in a good film. If it checks those three boxes, I'm a very happy camper. Definitely worth a watch for those who appreciate beauty in all its forms. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Sight & Sound Challenge: There Will Be Blood (2007)

Film: There Will Be Blood (33/250) 
Critics Poll: 202nd 
Directors Poll: 75th 
First Time/Rewatch: Rewatch

Watching this film is like listening to a concerto. Daniel Day-Lewis is the soloist, and the impeccable direction of Paul Thomas Anderson, the score by Jonny Greenwood, the strength of the supporting performances (especially Paul Dano), and the breathtaking photography by Robert Elswit are the orchestra, maximizing and enriching the film as a whole, supporting Day-Lewis's bold performance. This film grabs you by the collar and forces you to pay attention. And how good is Day-Lewis? When I saw it in the theaters, I sat there with my jaw dropped, and this second viewing didn't impress me any less. He acted his ass off and earned the hell out of that Oscar. I'm sure he'll have many more accolades coming his way throughout the course of his career until he finally says, like Daniel Plainview, "I'm finished!"

Monday, August 24, 2015

Tangerine (2015)

The use of widescreen can be tricky. In the early days of CinemaScope, many great directors were rendered impotent by that long skinny frame. How to fill it? Where to place the camera? Can it move? Many of the early "epics" just sit the camera there and stuff just happens in front of it. To this day there are filmmakers who couldn't liven up a scope frame if their lives depended on it. Thankfully, Sean Baker is not one of those filmmakers.

By virtue of the fact that it was shot on an iPhone, Tangerine is fairly limited in its photographic options. Zooming is difficult and there are only about three lenses to choose from. Yet magically, Baker and co-cinematographer Radium Cheung were able to turn these limitations into an asset. By shooting the entire film in wide shots through wide angle lenses, you get to see EVERYTHING. Even a close-up cannot help but bring the outside world into play.

Parts of Los Angeles that seldom get seen on screen are suddenly given their time in the flared sunlight. Through this literal lens, an average donut shop is effortlessly transformed into a stage on which frantic melodrama unfolds and a drive-thru car wash makes for one of the most epic sex scenes imaginable. It's fitting that a film about marginalized groups (transgender prostitutes, Armenian cabdrivers, etc.) gets to be filmed in such a manner. A wide lens that allows audiences to notice things they normally would have ignored, used to tell a story about people who are constantly ignored. Pretty damn smart.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Friday Quote: Dial M for Murder

"I'm afraid my murders would be something like my bridge: I'd make some stupid mistake and never realize it until I found everybody was looking at me."

Dial M for Murder (1954)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Hurt Locker (2009)

My relationship with The Hurt Locker has been a complex one. From 2009 until 2012 I was absolutely in the bag for this movie. When it won Best Picture and Best Director I was on cloud 9. So what changed in 2012? A little movie called Zero Dark Thirty was released. As good as The Hurt Locker was, that other film was somehow better. It touches on many of the same themes yet in a more complex, less black and white manner. And the things it has to say about America and the War on Terror are deeply profound. So of course it was almost universally ignored come Award Season. The only statue it took home was for Sound Editing, and even that it had to split with Skyfall due to an extremely rare tie.

Ever since then I've been bitter. Why did The Hurt Locker get so much love and Zero Dark Thirty got none? Kathryn Bigelow didn't even get a nomination this go around. Did The Academy figure she'd already been honored too recently? Better not give her another one lest she start thinking she's as good as sacred John Ford or some such! Can't make this honoring women thing into a regular occurrence. One every 82 years is plenty! But I digress...

So yeah, I had begun to unfairly hold The Hurt Locker's six Oscars against it. But then it occurred to me: Why does it have to be one against the other? This isn't sports, this is art! There doesn't have to be one clear winner and one clear loser. Or at the least its like soccer where there can be ties. These are both five-star films and The Hurt Locker's award success does not negate all the numerous merits of Zero Dark Thirty. If anything, it might turn more people on to Zero Dark Thirty. And so, after much soul searching, I was finally able to watch The Hurt Locker again. And guess what? It's a really great movie!