Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Sight & Sound Challenge: Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Film: Once Upon a Time in America (216/250) 
First Time/Rewatch: First Time

Ugh. You know how to get me to immediately dislike a movie? Show a rape scene (TWO in this case) and then treat it either comically or tragically for the rapist.
This films tells the story of David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert DeNiro) and his ugly gangster life, starting when he was just a boy. I liked the childhood scenes enough, showing how even children can get drawn into a life of crime. Once Noodles grows up, apparently all he does is rape women and feel sorry for himself. I could talk about the great cinematography, the decent acting, that great score (minus the pan flute, which drove me nuts), but what really stuck with me was it's despicable treatment of women. I have to laugh when I think about how I complained about the treatment of Claudia Cardinale's character in Once Upon a Time in the West, a film I overall really loved. I'd take a lewd comment or two over a brutal rape scene that then follows the rapist while mournful music plays, like I'm supposed to feel sorry for him. The real kicker is that it followed this beautifully romantic scene that really tugs at the heartstrings. And the picture above? That's another woman he raped, and this still captures her bemused expression as they all take their dicks out so she can try and guess WHICH ONE OF THEM RAPED HER. SERIOUSLY. What on earth is this movie?! Many hail it as the greatest gangster film of all time, greater even than the Godfather films (which, no, I'm sorry, it's just not), but I guess I'm missing something. I'll just go watch Once Upon a Time in the West again.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sight & Sound Challenge: A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Film: A Matter of Life and Death (215/250) 
First Time/Rewatch: First Time

This is another film I was unsure about going in. The films produced by the iconic duo of Powell and Pressburger have been very hit (The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) or miss (A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I'm Going!) for me. I'm very happy to say that this film fits into the former category. I was drawn into the story immediately; Peter (David Niven) and June (Kim Hunter) have great chemistry together and their conversation in the opening scene had me instantly invested in them. The sets are beautiful, both the beautiful black and white austerity of "heaven" (and can we talk about that massive escalator?!) and the lush technicolor scenes of earth. At first I was puzzled by the decision to make the heaven scenes black and white and the earth scenes in color, but then it made sense. It's a reverse Wizard of Oz effect. Who would want to go to heaven when home looks like Oz? Where everyone is alive, blood flows through their veins, and love at first sight is a very real possibility? I loved seeing Roger Livesey again (he has such a great voice) and everyone really plays up their roles. Yes it gets sentimental, but I didn't mind. I was taken on a dreamy journey and I loved every minute.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

When the first Guardians film came out, I heard so many people rejoicing that Marvel had finally gotten "weird". And while I appreciated the humor, the soundtrack and some elements of the design, all I could think of was that Hunter S. Thompson quote, "It never got weird enough for me." Well lo and behold this sequel has come along to deliver on the promise of that first film.

Like Tim Burton did with Batman Returns, this is James Gunn bending the superhero genre towards himself. He played it safe for that first film, and now he's able to let his freak flag fly. This feels much more like the work of the mind that gave us Tromeo & Juliet, Slither and Super. Who other than Gunn would use a movie this expensive in order to dissect the insidious message of a 70's pop song?

No matter how fun and frivolous art can be, it's always telling us something. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the perfect type of pop song: it's great to dance to, and the lyrics stick with you.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

From a narrative standpoint this movie didn't have to open with the D-Day Invasion. You could have easily snipped out those first twenty-six pages of screenplay, started with the telegrams being typed out, and gone from there. Sure there are little character beats that get dropped in that opening sequence (about Captain Miller in particular) but nothing that isn't also covered later. It feels like the type of indulgence that a studio reader would have suggested cutting for budget's sake. But this isn't a screenplay, this is a film. On the page it's a pretty straightforward account of taking the beach. But with sound and images on a screen, it's an assault. It beats you into the ground. That opening is there to traumatize the audience. Now you are in Captain Miller's boots. You're startled by loud noises and hypervigilant about threats from all sides. Is this what it's like to have PTSD? Anything can happen and anyone can die at any moment. And that is why Steven Spielberg is a master.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Sight & Sound Challenge: The Thin Red Line (1998)

Film: The Thin Red Line (214/250) 
First Time/Rewatch: First Time

First, I'd like to say that I'm back (for now) from a much needed blogging and movie-watching hiatus. I was really starting to feel burnt out and watching the films on this list was becoming a burden, something I had to do that wasn't bringing me much enjoyment. I really wanted to finish what I started, but I didn't want to end on a note of resentment. So I took a little break!

Now, on to this movie. We actually watched this back on Memorial Day, wanting to observe the holiday beyond getting an extra day off and going to barbecues. I wasn't sure what to expect going in. I'd seen a fair amount of war movies and I had seen a few (not enough) Terrence Malick films; I wondered how his take on the subject would be. But I might have guessed how it would be. Yes, it's war, and yes, there's killing. But there are beautiful shots of their surroundings: wind blowing over grassy hills, light shining through tree branches, birds sitting peacefully in the greenery. A reminder of how beautiful this planet is without us fighting like a bunch of angry little insects. I also loved the narration, reminiscent of Malick's film The Tree of Life. Getting into these characters' psyches really cemented the fact that these are people, not just faceless soldiers. Like westerns, war movies were a genre that I'd somewhat dismissed before taking on this challenge. Too gory, too much the same. But I was really moved by this film, and more brokenhearted than ever at the combative nature of man.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Born in Flames (1983)

It's depressing how prescient this film turned out to be - and I'm not even talking about that last sequence. The idea of a utopia in name only that came about because of a peaceful revolution feels a lot like the eight years of Obama that we just lived through. We were able to pretend that everything had changed overnight without all the messy business of addressing the racism, xenophobia, misogyny and homophobia that eventually made Trump possible. The future depicted in this film even had a Black President!

When we were watching this the other night 'Becca'lise proclaimed, "This feels like a zine!" and I don't think I could have said it any better. I was already thinking about how this felt like mid-60's Godard (when he was stating to get political but had not yet lost his sense of fun) but my wife's observation is really more apt. This film owes way more to punk and queer culture than it does to Bertolt Brecht and Nicholas Ray. Moreso than cinema, this is reportage. Dispatches from the future. Now, if only we'd really listened to Lizzie and the girls all those years ago. Anyone have a time machine?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

Oh man this movie is everything I love about Super Hero Comics: it's silly, serious, action-packed, and it has an ethos. I 100% reject the idea of keeping politics and social issues out of genre, and so does this film. It has a message to impart and it imparts it while also telling a pulpy, "blood and thunder" story that's filled with gods, goddesses, and super-powered Germans. More than ever we need super heroes, but since they don't exist, we have to become them. Wonder Woman herself cannot come down off the screen and save us, but she can inspire a whole generation of little girls and boys to care for others and to fight for what they believe in. Now, let's cue up that electric strings sting, and get to work.

Now, here's a Twitter thread of 75+ female film writers on Wonder Woman that was curated by the great Marya Gates! Give them your clicks and attention because this world needs female voices.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Inland Empire (2006)

On a recent rewatch of Mulholland Drive, I was observing how many scene transitions were simply a hard cut. One minute we are with one set of characters and the next we are with a whole new group of characters. We have no clue if they are connected but we go along with it. In-between those two scenes is where the cinema of David Lynch resides. We are shown one image and then another and it is up to us to make or find the connections and divine meaning.

Having been filmed in pieces over years, Inland Empire stretches that premise nearly to the breaking point. Lynch himself didn't even know he was making a feature until well into production. He'd come up with an idea for a scene and film it, then a few days or weeks later he'd have a new idea and film that. There was no finished script, the actors had no context of what came before or after. There's even an additional  90 minutes of unused footage are available as DVD bonus material.

Unlike Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway I have yet to hear anyone give a coherent "reading" of this film and I don't think it's really even possible to give one. It's an immense collage of pain and sorrow (garmonbozia?) peppered with the occasional dance number. It's not a Disneyland ride with a narrative throughline. Inland Empire is one of those carnival spook-houses where shit just pops out at you. You don't wonder how the Creature from the Black Lagoon got to Transylvania, you just go along for the ride and have an experience.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Hateful Eight (2015)

I went into The Hateful Eight with a lot of expectations. It was the Tarantino film that almost wasn't and it was shot on Ultra Panavision 70. I came out of it very nonplussed.

Though it was shot with large format film and lenses, nearly the entire runtime was spent inside a not particularly cinematic cabin. And then there was also the question of misogyny. While I'm aware that Tarantino has written some seriously awesome female characters in the past, I absolutely could not figure out what he was trying to say here. Needless to say I wasn't really chomping at the bit to revisit this film any time soon.

It's nearly eighteen months later and I decide to give it another try. And while the Cinema of this filmed stage play still leaves much to be desired, I got a lot more out of it this time. I'm still not certain what Quentin was trying to do with this picture, but having lived through the 2016 Election and five months of Trump, the world of this film is now a much more recognizable one. It's not a straight analogy where A = X or anything like that. But this duplicitous world where everyone has a hidden agenda and unlikely rivals miraculously become allies, feels just like turning on the evening news. And of course it's particularly bad for the women. God bless America!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Toni Erdmann (2016)

On paper this sounds like a film that would fill multiplexes. It also sounds like something we've seen a million times before: Joker parent needs to learn that not everything is a joke, serious child needs to loosen up, everyone learns and grows. As I was watching it, i kept imagining these same scenes being played out with bright lighting and crisp lines and the mere thought made me cringe. It's the makings of an Adam Sandler for Netflix film. Fortunately this movie is not shot that way. 

Director Maren Ade's choice to place this generically farcical story in a very believable world helps to expose just  how generic and farcical our world actually is. Especially the world of business! If you are hoping to climb the corporate ladder, there's practically no end to the ways in which you will debase yourself for advancement. You'll also let a whole lot slide in order to not be seen as difficult. Go along to get along. The world of this film is not a fiction. We are living in it. Donald Trump is President.