Thursday, December 18, 2014

Inherent Vice (2014)

The following contains pseudo-spoilers for both Inherent Vice and Chinatown. Nothing specific about either film. Just thematic stuff. You have been warned...
"Chinatown is a pretty good metaphor for the futility of good intentions. Police officers are told to do as little as possible in Chinatown in the way of law enforcement because you never know whether you're helping to avert a crime or helping to commit one."
Robert Towne (screenwriter)

There are plenty of reasons to love Inherent Vice. There's beautiful photography, amazing acting, hilarious gags, touching drama and an awesome soundtrack. But more than anything I love Inherent Vice because it is the anti-Chinatown.

Now don't get me wrong, I loves me some Chinatown. I've re-bought that film more than any other movie in my collection. I just don't entirely agree with the message. I may be a cynic, but I'm a cynic who loves to be wrong.

Apathy is just too easy. Sure the world can be a pretty shitty place. Reading headline after headline about the rich get richer and police officers get away with murder is enough to make you want to throw in the towel. But imagine how bad it would be if we all just stopped trying? Sure it's near impossible for an individual to make any sort of significant change in this world. But that's no reason to stop trying. You might not be able to change the game or turn the tide, but you can probably manage to do a little good for someone. That way, when you're inevitably chewed up and spit out by the machine, you can at least say you got a few good licks in.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Straight Story (1999)

While it's pretty surreal to see that Walt Disney castle followed so closely by the words, "a film by David Lynch", that S-word holds little sway over what is to follow. As the title states, this is "The Straight Story" but that does not mean that it is out of place among the rest of Lynch's output. That early scene of Dorothy sunning herself in the yard could easily be right out of Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. The same goes for all the various characters Alvin lives with and comes across on his journey. Yet instead of playing them for menace or ridicule, Lynch instead chooses to take this languid road trip as an opportunity to show us that they are more than just roadside curiosities. Like John Merrick in The Elephant Man proclaiming, "I'm not an animal!" this is David Lynch insisting upon the humanity of the characters he continually chooses to train his camera on. While "surreal" is easily the word most associated with the cinema of David Lynch, I would place "compassionate" as a close runner-up.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Last Tango in Paris (1972)

Though most famous for all the sex and butter, what I was most drawn to with this film was the production design. Usually design has to be really ostentatious to get the average viewer’s attention. It has to be some sort of story-book, alternate world like in a Wes Anderson film or set in an alien/future world like Blade Runner. But when you really get down to it, all films are designed. Someone has to pick this location rather than that location because this location helps to better tell the story.

With its brown tones and dirty walls, this film epitomizes what we who did not live through the 70’s imagine that they looked like. But this film is not reality. Director Bernardo Bertolucci, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro and production designer Philippe Turlure consciously got together and picked a color pallet and a location that would give them what they needed. That cloth draped mass in the back room was not there by accident and the same goes for the stained walls that are reminiscent of a painting by Mark Rothko. And oh that pebbled glass! It’s a shorthand that creates a mood which instantly sucks you into this film’s world of lust, rage and anguish. You could turn off the sound and still “get” what is being conveyed. This is pure cinema.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

There’s no such thing as monsters. And that’s why I don’t care about so many horror films. Though I grew up devouring episodes of Sightings and The X-Files, I know for a fact that there aren’t any flukemen or chupacabras out there that are going to come after me. What I’m afraid of is other people. Every single one of us has the potential to commit unspeakable evil upon others and even upon ourselves. THAT is horror. The monsters are just a fictional manifestation of our neurosis. The Shining is about alcoholism, Rosemary’s Baby is about a loss of control, Psycho (and pretty much the entire slasher genre) is about sexual guilt. The mind is where horror lives and that is why the best horror films are able to stick with us. They speak to the fears that lay deep, down inside of us all. They speak to the fears that we would never dare give voice to. Even if you haven’t thought of a particular film in a while, it is there inside of you waiting to be awoken by the smallest trigger. If it’s in a word, or in a look, you can’t get rid of The Babadook.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Foxcatcher (2014)

Having grown up in Orange County, I have been surrounded by wealth my whole life. I've gone to school with wealth, I've been friends with wealth and I've most certainly worked for wealth. Of course wealth is not necessarily a bad thing. I've seen people use their power and influence to make positive changes in their communities and the world at large. I myself have even sporadically benefited from the largesse of some particularly well-off individuals. But I have also seen the ways in which wealth can be corrosive. In both the local media and in person I have witnessed the various ways that wealth can shield and enable people with dangerous impulses. That is what spoke loudest to me all during Foxcatcher. Had John E. du Pont been anyone else, he probably would have been institutionalized long ago. He certainly wouldn't have been trusted with military grade weaponry. But because of his wealth, he was indulged and encouraged. So many warning signs were just glossed over. And then we wonder how a tragedy like this could have possibly happened.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Revenge of the TV Ninjas

As numerous think pieces have been telling us for years, theatrical exhibition is a thing of the past. Of course if you are a regular reader of this blog we will assume that you still make an effort to get out to your local movie house, but as for John Q. Public, it's all about VOD, Netflix and Bluray. Why bother putting on pants, driving, parking, walking, finding a seat, etc. when you can just wait a couple of months and see it in the comfort of your own home on your brand-new HDTV?

It's simply a fact that if you are a filmmaker, a majority of the people who see your work will be seeing it on a TV. That in and of itself isn't really cause for alarm. There are some really nice TVs out there these days that are capable of generating some really beautiful images. But then there's the pesky problem of the "smooth motion" feature that comes as the default setting on practically all HDTVs manufactured these days. Don't know what I'm talking about?

Ever go over to a friend's house to watch a movie and suddenly it looks like an over-lit, daytime soap? That's "smooth motion" in action. By artificially inserting extra frames to "smooth out" the action, high art becomes unwatchable crap. There's even a movement on Twitter, spearheaded by filmmaker Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper) that prides itself on sneakily turning this feature off on the TVs of friends and family. They document their clandestine heroism with photos using the hashtag #TVNinja. But why is this even necessary? Why is this "smooth motion" the default setting?

Tired of seeing the images she worked so hard to frame and light reduced to visual garbage, cinematographer Reed Morano, ASC (Frozen River, Kill Your Darlings, The Skeleton Twins) saw fit to start a petition in hopes of getting HDTV manufacturers to stop making "smooth motion" the default setting on their products. When the petition was first launched it gained a lot of attention and signatures, but now it has kind of plateaued. I'm writing this in the hopes that you who have not yet signed will take a moment out of your day to do something for art. Let filmmakers have their art be seen the way they intended it to be. Don't let all their work be in vain.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

While the ending did get a little bit too M. Night Shyamalan for my tastes...overall I dug this movie. I dug what it has to say about humanity and our innate desire to explore and push further. I liked what it had to say about the importance of science and of education. I also liked what it had to say on a sub-textual level about the fight to save celluloid from oblivion and the sorrow Christopher Nolan must feel every time he leaves his kids behind to go on a shoot that runs over schedule. I like that it allowed Nolan to continue to experiment with time in a way that only cinema can do. Getting to see this in 70mm IMAX was also something marvelous to behold. Oh and did I mention the score yet? Organs! There is a lot to like here. You can quibble about a lot of little things, but they're just that: little things. I'm not saying this film is any sort of masterpiece, but if the best you can do is nitpick a film, it can't be truly bad.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cinephile Shopping!

Not sure if you heard, but it is once again time for the twice-annual 50% off Criterion sale at Barnes & Noble! In fact we are already one week in! But don't worry, things are set to run until December 1st so there is still plenty of time to load up on holiday gifts for that special cinephile in your life without breaking the bank. You can even buy for yourself! We won't tell...

Back in 2012 we put together lists from several of our contributors recommending titles that are worth picking up during the sale. While we still highly recommend all of these titles, countless new ones have been released in the intervening two years. That's why Craig has seen fit to put together a list of some newer titles worth checking out on this go around (along with a few classics peppered in)!

He's separated things into three categories with five titles in each. All links will take you to the film's Criterion page so you can get a plot summary and overview of the bonus features before hitting up Barnes & Noble. We'd love to see what you guys pick up. Don't be afraid to post a picture of your haul on Instagram and tag us in it. If you don't already follow us we are @thiscinematiclife.

New Titles
  1. The Innocents
  2. Picnic at Hanging Rock
  3. Eraserhead
  4. Y Tu Mamá También
  5. A Hard Day's Night
Box Sets

Monday, November 17, 2014

Lonesome (1928)

Though there are a few scenes with spoken dialogue, this is still very much a silent film. And like most silent films this is an extremely simple story. It's a story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and it's all over in a brisk 69 minutes. None of this is a meant as a negative. In fact, it's a great asset because what makes this film really special is director Paul Fejos' hyperbolic style with all its rapid cutting, color tinting, swinging cameras and superimpositions. Had this film been any more narratively complex, the style would simply have been all too much to take. Thankfully instead, this wild style works as a joyous and palpable expression of the simple and pure love story at the heart of this wonderful film. God bless the wonderful people at Criterion and George Eastman House for saving this film and bringing it to my and everyone else's attention.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Louise Brooks: My Gateway to the Movies

Silent film actress Louise Brooks was born on this day in 1906. The actress and dancer is probably best known today for her work in G.W. Pabst's films Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl. She was feisty, rebellious, stubborn, beautiful, and unforgettable.  To many, she is merely a ghost of a long-gone era of filmmaking, a starlet who didn't quite survive the leap into talkies. To me, she is my classic film gateway drug.

I wish I could remember the exact moment I first saw her face: those dark eyes, straight eyebrows, smirking lips, and that helmet of shiny black bobbed hair.  I know it was sometime during my sophomore year of high school, and I was in the middle of my goth phase (ugh). I saw her somewhere, and I had to know everything about her. I bought and read Louise Brooks by Barry Paris, and her memoir Lulu in Hollywood. I bought books about old Hollywood in used bookstores, and I learned not only about Louise's life and career but some of her contemporaries as well. I started watching Turner Classic Movies, and saw my first silent movie (The Unknown starring Lon Chaney). I printed out the TCM programming schedule and taped it to my bedroom wall, highlighting the films I wanted to see that week, taking special care to never miss their Silent Sunday Nights. I started taping movies religiously, the stacks of VHS cassettes piling up in my room. When I finally got a chance to see my beloved Louise in one of her silent films, it was magic.

When I started my junior year, my school binder was decorated with a collage of pictures of Louise, Lillian Gish, Colleen Moore, Mary Pickford, Jean Harlow, Greta Garbo, Anna May Wong, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Billy Haines, Harold Lloyd, Myrna Loy. I had fallen in love with the movies and there was no turning back. I guess I have Louise to thank for that. There's something so special about finding something that speaks to you in those awkward teenage years. I'm sure if I never saw her face I would have found my love for film in some other way, but I'm happy it happened the way it happened. What started out as a fascination with an actress and a vague appreciation for a few old movies that I'd watched as a kid turned into a lifelong love affair. I had found something that was mine. 

Happy Birthday LB.