Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Sight & Sound Challenge: Daisies (1966)

Film: Daisies (25/250)
Critics Poll: 202nd
First Time/Rewatch: Rewatch

This is a crazy little movie. Virtually plotless, this Czech film features two young women galavanting about, making mischief, pigging out, and enjoying themselves in every way. It feels like a scrapbook come to life, mixing still frames with vibrant colors and crude special effects. It's a hodgepodge of interesting visuals and madness, of free-spirited hedonism and chaos, of silliness and delight. This was my second time watching this film. While the first time I saw it I was hung up on "Okay, what am I watching?", this time I was able to enjoy it for the piece of art that it is. I think if I was more familiar with Czech history, the political references and overtones would not be lost on me, but it's enjoyable nonetheless as a celebration (and cautionary tale?) of absolute freedom. 

Monday, July 27, 2015

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

I still can't get over the fact that this movie helped to birth the "Disney Renaissance" that began with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast. Something so subversive paving the way for something so wholesome. Though Alan Menken certainly deserves an immense amount of credit, the real draw for me is Howard Ashman's phenomenal abilities as a lyricist. Every time I listen to his work I discover some new couplet that absolutely knocks me on my ass! His vocabulary was immense. Who else would have thought of a line like "I'm espcially good at expectorating!" for a children's film like Beauty and the Beast? And then to call back to that with a line as ludicrous as "I use antlers in all of my decorating!"? Thank God Jerry Katzenberg was able to see past all the sly murder and S&M jokes of Little Shop and recognize a prodigiously versatile duo who could do family friendly as well. It hurts my heart to think of all the great lyrical possibilities we lost when we lost Howard so young. But at least we will always have "Suddenly Seymour" and "Somewhere That's Green" and "Dentist!" and...

Friday, July 24, 2015

Friday Quote: Mars Attacks

"I bet you're psyched about the Martians coming Grandma? I mean, you've seen a lot of crazy stuff already. Everyone must have been real scared when they invented the train!"

Mars Attacks (1996)

Thursday, July 23, 2015

State of Siege (1972)

Essentially this movie is a dialogue. Like The Confession before it, this film is primarily built around two people talking. But don't assume that this is some sort of My Dinner with Andre situation. This is not idle chit-chat between friends. This is a conversation about socio-political issues that are still relevant today. This is a conversation where lives hang in the balance. But even the most serious conversation can be difficult to dramatize cinematically.

Earlier this month I watched Judgement at Nuremberg. While I agree with what the film is about and as much as I love the performances in it, I found it a bit clumsy in the telling. It too is a film about conversation. Like State of Siege it is based around the idea of two conflicting viewpoints butting heads. But in order to give context and flesh-out its characters and narrative, it resorts to what I like to refer to as, “train-car structure”. You open with a scene of Spencer Tracy out and about in Nuremberg, then you get him in the courtroom for a long while, then out and about again, then back in the court room. The film proceeds like this right through to the end. An endless train of alternating scenes that alternate between boring and fascinating.

Sometimes this structure can work, but it is very difficult since you are continually stopping and starting your narrative. Just as soon as something is getting interesting, you cut away to something else and have to build up audience interest all over again. You lose momentum. What makes State of Siege so interesting, is that it manages to integrate the exposition right into the narrative. Costa-Gavras trusts that his audience is capable of absorbing various bits of information simultaneously. Interrogation and exposition weave in and out of each other effortlessly and are often occurring at the same time. While less hyperbolic, this is very much a proto version of the hypertext style Oliver Stone would be worshiped for employing in films like JFK and Natural Born Killers. It’s also hard to imagine Steven Soderbergh pulling off something like Traffic without the influence of Z, The Confession, State of Siege and Missing.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Costa-Gavras is one of our great filmmakers and should be honored as such.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Sight & Sound Challenge: Days of Heaven (1978)

Film: Days of Heaven (24/250)
Critics Poll: 117th 
Directors Poll: 132nd 
First Time/Rewatch: First Time

This is a simple story of a secret love "rendered biblical" in Craig's words. With director Terrence Malick at the helm, you know this film is going to be deliberately paced and absolutely gorgeous to look at. The only other Malick films I had seen previously were Badlands and Tree of Life, so I had a general idea of what to expect. Opening with the beautiful Camille Saint-Saëns piece "Carnival of the Animals - Aquarium" (one of my personal favorites) over old photos puts the viewer in a curious dreamy mood. Who are these people? What is their story? Combined with the breathtaking "magic hour" photography, this film draws you in and demands that you appreciate it. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sight & Sound Challenge: Touch of Evil (1958)

Film: Touch of Evil (23/250)
Critics Poll: 57th
Directors Poll: 26th
First Time/Rewatch: Rewatch 

With a plot that's all over the place and some very questionable fake accents (Charlton Heston as a Mexican? Really?), I found myself giggling more than I should have. What this film really has going for it is the gorgeous black and white photography, the interesting camera work, and the music by the legendary Henry Mancini, specifically "Tana's Theme." It really evokes a certain place and feeling. This film is more about a mood for me, and not necessarily an amazing story with stellar acting (I'm sorry, again, I just CAN'T with Charlton Heston). Definitely worth a watch to see how great a film can look and sound.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Enemy Mine: Leonardo DiCaprio's Flawed Quest For Oscar Gold

If you've been on the Internet at all in the past couple years I'm pretty sure you're familiar with the various memes about Leonardo DiCaprio's desire to win an Oscar. A particular favorite of mine is Leo as Jordan Belfort crawling towards an Oscar while nearly paralyzed by Lemon 'ludes. He has become the Susan Lucci of the Oscars aka the perpetual "also ran". But it's not like he doesn't deserve one.

Leo has been great in so many films ranging from his first nomination for Arnie in What's Eating Gilbert Grape all the way to Belfort in Wolf of Wall Street. With the release of the first trailer for Alejandro González Iñárritu's upcoming wilderness survival story The Revenant, awards speculation has begun anew. Will this be Leo's year? Personally I don't think so.

Judging by the trailer and source material, The Revenant has all the sign posts of an award worthy performance: he's playing an historical figure, he's required to get dirty and there doesn't seem to be a more showboaty character in the film to draw attention away from him...unless you count director Iñárritu and superstar cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Once again DiCaprio's good taste has turned out to be his worst enemy.

No matter how good Leo's performance in The Revenant turns out, he is destined to be overshadowed by the long takes that the film appears to be shot in. Don't believe me? Just ask Sandra Bullock (Gravity) and Michael Keaton (Birdman). Add to this the decision to shoot the film entirely in natural light and it's a done deal. By continually choosing to work with "name directors" like Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan and especially Baz Luhrmann, DiCaprio is continually allowing himself to become just another stitch in a large, enveloping tapestry.

No matter how great Leo was as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, there was no chance he was ever going to beat Jaimie Foxx in Ray. As capable as Taylor Hackford is as a director, he's not one to try out stylistic techniques that would draw attention away from his characters. DiCaprio, on the other hand, had to compete with epic flight scenes and a color pallet so distinct that even the film illiterate had to take notice. The best you can hope for in a film that big is Best Supporting because you are literally supporting the film. Cate Blanchett had to crank it all the way to 11 just to get noticed and win her Oscar.

Let's remember that Denzel didn't win Best Actor for channeling Malcolm X in Spike Lee's ambitious and sweeping epic, he won it for overwhelming everything in his path in the relatively minor Training Day. Judging by the Southpaw trailer, Jake Gyllenhaal seems to have gotten that message loud and clear. It's even directed by Training Day's Antoine Fuqua!

If Leo seriously wants to take home a golden statue in the near future, he needs to first take a look at Johnny Depp's recent playbook. Rather than resigning himself to being yet another swirly-whirly in yet another Tim Burton film, Depp has opted instead to be the showboat at the center of what looks to be a fairly by the books, true crime tale - Black Mass. No way his newly blue eyes and receding hairline will go unnoticed in that picture! DiCaprio just needs to find a capable second stringer to hitch his horse to. Or perhaps he can just hold out for a lifetime achievement award like Peter O'Toole! 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Friday Quote: Hollywoodland

"George, that's all you were good for. Ten-year-olds and shut-ins. That was the best you were ever going to be. I knew that, why didn't you?"

Hollywoodland (2006)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Soft Skin (1964)

At the time of its release, The Soft Skin was viewed as bit of a letdown after the stylized sensation of Truffaut's Jules and Jim which had preceded it. Audiences at Cannes even booed it. I guess that's understandable. There's no freeze-frames or voiceover here. It's just a very simple story told extremely clearly. What makes The Soft Skin stand out all these years later, is how astoundingly personal it was to François Truffaut's life at the time.

Though based on an incident he had read about in the paper, it can be assumed that what really attracted Truffaut to the story was the fact that the director himself had been unfaithful to his wife Madeline Morgenstern. Within a year of the film's release Morgenstern and Truffaut were divorced. This was primarily due to numerous affairs François had engaged in over the course of their marriage. The most recent one had been with Francoise Dorleac who just so happened to have played the mistress in The Soft Skin.

Viewed through this lens the film becomes something altogether different. It's a confession. To get biblical with this, the film is an act of contrition. But should that matter? In order to really understand this work you have to know the intimate bedroom goings-on of its maker. Isn't that the stuff of the tabloids? Shouldn't a film be able to be understood and appreciated on its own terms and independent of external knowledge?

Part of me wants to say yes. We have no business involving ourselves in the private details of a filmmaker's life. But then there's the fact that this film's protagonist is a literary scholar who makes a living by using intimate details to illuminate the works of Balzac. It's almost as though Truffaut is begging us to look deeper, to really examine him and his life. He wants to be caught. He wants to be found out. Perhaps the whole thing was made so that he could show his wife and come clean?

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Sight & Sound Challenge: Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Film: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (22/250) 
Critics Poll: 117th 
Directors Poll: 107th 
First Time/Rewatch: Rewatch

Man oh man. Want to know how to make a perfect film? Here's the recipe:

1 part Kubrick
3 parts Sellers
1 part Slim Pickens
1 part George C. Scott
A splash of Sterling Hayden's precious bodily fluids
Add a mixture of Cold War paranoia, satire, and the blackest, most well-written comedy you can find.
Mix until blended thoroughly. 
Add pie. 
Remove pie. 
Blow it up. 

There you have it! Should be easy enough to duplicate, right? Wrong. This film is inimitable, timeless, and absolutely flawless. 

We'll meet again...