Friday, July 29, 2011

White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949)

When I posted my review for The Public Enemy recently, I was lambasted by a Cagney fan for spoiling the movie, something I found amusing because A) it is 80 years old and B) as any fan of a Cagney gangster picture should know, the crux of the movie is always in his grisly demise, because nobody died like Jimmy Cagney. Even before the Hays Code took effect, Cagney turned his deaths into a form of reckoning, not moral so much as existential. Even at his most ignoble, Cagney makes such demises so compelling that he infuses the worst brute with tragedy.

Well, they don't get much more brutish than Cody Jarrett. The film opens with Cody carrying out a train heist with great timing but ruthless sloppiness. The other crooks dispatch two men on-board the train, but Cody's viciousness comes out in calmer moments, prompted solely by one of his subordinates using his name in front of the engineer and fireman. Compounding this horror is the release of steam when the fireman falls on a release, inadvertently maiming one of the robbers. In less than five minutes Raoul Walsh crafts a world of such violence and death that one could guess its outcome even without the legendary "Top of the world, Ma!" conflagration that ends the film.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger is so enjoyable it prompts not merely a reevaluation of the relevant worth of a superhero intrinsically tied to an outdated nationalist self-perception but of the abilities of its director. Joe Johnston, an art director who apprenticed under George Lucas and Steven Spielberg and then promptly made a solo career that did nothing to live up to that resumé, finally demonstrates a keen understanding of what his early bosses did with the help of his talents. Captain America is outrageously big, using CGI to extrapolate realistic objects to absurd dimensions. In fact, Johnston's movie feels more like an Indiana Jones film than Spielberg's last entry.

I typically enter these comic-book movies blind, with only the mass pop-culture resonance of basic backstory as my guide. But I have read Ed Brubaker's fantastic revival of the character, a run that effectively revitalized the Captain for an age of mass disillusionment. Johnston, along with writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, ably mimic Brubaker's balance of the character's old-school idealism with modern sensibilities. The film's subtitle is already cumbersome and limiting—it defines the film essentially as an advertisement for an upcoming one rather than its own entry—but it seems especially unnecessary considering that, among the rushed crop of Avengers-preparing movies (Iron Man 2, Thor), Captain America is the only one that truly works as a standalone property, as well as the first origin story since Iron Man to remotely justify its feature length.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Beauty and the Beast (Jean Cocteau, 1946)

Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la Bête is at once deeply fantastical in its fairy tale set design and ethereal cinematography and strikingly real in its class observations and human behavior. It is a film that bears its director's signature quite literally, opening with his deftly scribbling the actors' names in chalk as a helper quickly erases the board so Cocteau can keep writing and subsequently using a hand-written scroll with his John Hancock to set the movie in motion. Cocteau even kicks off the film with the clack of a soundboard, the self-reflexive touches the cinematic equivalent to tucking a child into bed before opening up the storybook.

Like a storybook, Beauty and the Beast uses few words, all the better to imprint on a young mind. Instead, Cocteau, cinematographer Henri Alekan and designer Christian Berard craft a world of clashing reality and ephemera, capturing banal bourgeois village life and frighteningly dense woods before moving into the full-on fantasy of the Beast's castle. The aesthetic, which draws from the engravings of Gustave Doré, is at once static and vibrant, using various camera tricks to bring out the magic of its bizarre sights. This is a poetic film, to the point that the various mentions of children's story I've made may be wholly inapt; though I've seen some of Cocteau's poems and artwork, this is the first of his films I've viewed, yet I understand immediately his quest to find the "classical avant-garde." No one would use a fairy tale in such daring fashion until Catherine Breillat put out Bluebeard more than 60 years later.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943)

The theme of duality runs indirectly through many Hitchcock films, with the ironic alignment of two individuals in his wrong-man thrillers and the fetished quasi-double (who is really just one person period) in Vertigo. In films such as Strangers on a Train and Psycho, however, that theme has come more prominently to the fore, examined in moral terms in the former and ludicrously psychosexual in the latter. Shadow of a Doubt, Hitch's 1943 thriller widely considered his first masterpiece, is the director's purest exploration into this minor theme. Featuring matched action and edits, suggestive character unity and clashing moralities, Shadow of a Doubt is one of the director's more immediately guessable mysteries even as it is one of his most surprising pictures.

Hitchcock establishes his darker tone instantly, opening on shots of urban decay in Philadelphia. And when his camera makes its way to a neighborhood where kids innocently play ball in the streets, the camera suddenly moves in a series of dissolves and low-angle Dutch shots upward into the no. 13 building nearby, finally moving inside an apartment where Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten), going by an alias, lies on his bed with liquor and money casually placed on the bed table. Cotten looks like a vampire, an image strengthened when the landlady arrives and closes his blinds, the darkness cause the man to rise with a jolt. The woman acts like a chiding mother, lovingly cleaning up the place and speaking to him sweetly without picking up on the harshness of his answering tone or properly paying attention to the implications of his littered alcohol and cash. She notes that two men came by looking for him earlier, and when she leaves, Charlie downs his last bit of whiskey and flees. Hitchcock was the master of paranoia, and the speed with which he undermines any expectation gives Shadow an edge that clearly announces the second stage of his career.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (David Yates, 2011)

[I guess I should issue a spoiler warning for this review, but honestly, if you've neither read the book nor seen the movie yet are still reading reviews hoping not to be spoiled, what the hell is wrong with you?]

Viewed as a referendum on the Harry Potter film franchise (to say nothing of my childhood), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is bound to fail. With precious few exceptions, this series has favored exposition over organic growth, deflated climaxes and spotty special effects, and at times this franchise has been so lifeless that Britain's talent pool has been drained to give these films any weight at all. Numerous critics and admirers have remarked upon the franchise's consistency given the number of editors and directors that have taken on the material, but I think that is something of a detriment. Regardless of who's made these films, the studio has made sure that nothing, not even Alfonso Cuaron's "none more black" mise-en-scène, has rocked the boat. Hiring David Yates, a workman whose primary skill has been putting exposed film into cans, seemed the final push to make these movies as crowd-pleasingly safe as possible.

And yet, Deathly Hallows Part 2, like its predecessor, shows Yates not overcoming his flaws but offsetting them with narrow but powerful strengths. The final installment in this film franchise suffers the same overarching, aforementioned issues that plague all these films, and it also suffers from the convolution, calculated audience appeasement and rush-job pacing of Rowling's written conclusion. Yet for once, I can confidently say that few, if any, of the film's major flaws can truly be traced back to Yates, while a great deal of its moments of pure atmosphere and character are specifically the result of his hand.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Jane Campion's Short Films: Peel, Passionless Moments, A Girl's Own Story

An Exercise in Discipline: Peel

An Exercise in Discipline: Peel opens Jane Campion's career with a bang. It starts with an echoing tap eventually revealed to be an orange bouncing off a dashboard and proceeding in a series of quick cuts that allow no hint of coherence even as a title card establishes its trio's relation to each other. From there, it only gets stranger, using the vivid color of '80s clothes and the countryside around the stopped car to bring out the dysfunction of the family dynamic exhibited by the father, his son and the boy's aunt. The father chastises the boy for throwing his orange peel out the car window, even stopping to make the kid pick up the pieces along the road. The lad's defiance leads him to run away, but in quiet shame he starts collecting the peel long after getting out of eyesight. The woman, meanwhile, viciously berates the man for making them stop, already peeved that she had to spend the day driving with them when she had other plans.

The only thing clear-cut about this movie is the aforementioned card with its postmodern family tree, but even that triangle is problematic: by folding back in on itself, it lightly suggests incestuous relationship, an theme common to Campion's early work in both literal and psychologically figurative ways. Though one generally refers to the film by its subtitle, it is important to take note of the "Exercise in Discipline" tag. It speaks to the fractured narrative exercise: the man forces discipline upon his son, who then begins to order around the woman having no been conditioned into a harder adult male. But it also hints at the formal rigor of Campion's piece, which features segmenting and fragmenting angles, framing and focal lengths by cinematographer Sally Bongers to deepen the alienation and power dynamics of the family. It's bewildering to think that something so dense and fully formed was a student film, and much less surprising to note that it won the Short Film Palme D'Or at Cannes four years later. This is one of the best modern short films I've seen, and one can see Campion's gift for microcosmic, obsessive yet always playful characterization in its eight short minutes.

Passionless Moments

Continuing the splintered framing and behavioral observation of Peel, Passionless Moments shows how our attention focuses in and out constantly. Repetitive sounds, double-take glances and sudden bursts of memory cause people to randomly meditate and fixate on things they do not particularly care about but try to solve anyway. Campion then adds her focal aestheticism to the mix by messing with focal lengths to demonstrate how one's attention is always settling on one thing at the expense of the other, and that the vacillation between foci is random and, as the title lets on, passionless. Though Campion's next short would firmly align with a feminist perspective, it is this film's presentation of her minute detail as merely a series of shots she finds interesting at the moment until something else catches her eye, demystifying her approach even as she only furthers her mastery of the form. Though it's a step down from the fully contained bewilderment of Peel, Passionless Moments is no less vital in understanding Campion as a filmmaker. In fact, given how much more accessible it is, it mght be a better starting point.

A Girl's Own Story

Jane Campion's work may be less openly confrontational than the work of Catherine Breillat, but I find her style to be far more combative and transgressive, particularly in her early work. Her fragmented, synecdochical framing eventually blossomed into full-on paranoia and schizophrenia in Sweetie and An Angel at My Table, respectively, but A Girl's Own Story, the longest and admittedly weakest of Campion's early films, shows that style being used to dive into the female perspective for the first time. A Girl's Own Story opens with girls looking in a medical book at a drawing of an erect penis, their hands curiously brushing along this 2D representation to get a feel for the material. At last their hands move down along the drawn legs to the bottom of the page, revealing a bit of text that warns "This sight may shock young girls."

But if a penis is shocking to these young women, Campion suggests that is only because of its power over these physically changing girls. From Beatles reenactments that have other girls in a Catholic school shrieking in quasi-homosexual frenzy to a boyfriend who convinces one girl to have unprotected sex (leading to pregnancy) without the two even sharing a kiss, men hold power over these confused and suddenly sexually appealing women. One shot, in a clinic where pregnant teens meet, frames these women under one of those garishly graphic crucifixes, tacitly pointing out the religious root of chauvinism in the Western world. For the first time, a slight surrealism enters Campion's frame, a tone she would carry out in fullest extent in Sweetie: one girl's parents have stopped speaking to each other and use their daughter to pass messages between them, only to have rough sex in front of their children. Later, the father joins the ranks of the other men circling around these women like sharks. Campion doesn't force any of these shots, and for the first time Campion demonstrates her ability to completely bewilder and stun with such subtlety that the cognitive disruption always seems to hit just after the tone switches once more, only widening the confusion.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)

Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 masterpiece, Army of Shadows, opens on a shot so darkly ironic that its minimalism scours out any potential fleck out of humor. A static shot framing the Arc de Triomphe bears witness to a procession of marching Nazis, the symbol of French victory now a paean to conquering foes. It establishes the tone of this film, set mostly in twilight when metallic blue night pushes the sun out of view: Melville's film is an ironic, regretful and sad. The latter is what struck me the most. I cannot think of another war film so bitterly rueful, even films about modern, questionably justified conflicts. This is a film about noble resistance that depicts how ignoble that resistance could be. When the film was released in the aftermath of another great insurrection in France, I suspect its hostile reception was less the result of its ostensible glorification of the subsequently reviled De Gaulle (who barely features, and not altogether flatteringly at that) but the implications and warnings at least partially aimed at the new radical left.

Yet the film is broadly nonjudgmental, not of resistance fighters who must sacrifice their morals in time of war; not the Vichy collaborators guilty of the sin of not wishing to die; not even the Germans, who, on the existential spectrum of violence presented in the film, appear merely to exist at the far edges where they have become violence itself rather than perpetrators of it. Army of Shadows shows feats of incredible courage, but that heroism is flecked with contradictions and contextualized around displays of realistic interaction between conquered and conqueror. How was this viewed as some piece of De Gaulle fluff again?

Capsule Reviews: Moulin Rouge!, A Corner in Wheat, 31/75 Aysl

Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001)

A pop culture kaleidosope-cum-travesty, Moulin Rouge! is as unbearable as it is enthralling, always at once, all throughout the film. The exclamation point in the title is actually the most subtle element of the whole shebang. It's like a Girl Talk musical, running through fragments of a vast range of music in blitzkrieg assaults of color and choreography. Though I don't know where on Earth the people who get emotionally invested in its paper-thin romance narrative are coming from, the film's aesthetic smorgasbord makes for an unforgettable, transfixing experience. Tim Brayton said it best, even if I can't match his level of enthusiasm: "Five minutes of the film can be exhausting; two hours is the most invigorating, blissful experience that cinema can offer."

The performances are fantastic: Ewan McGregor has rarely been more attractive, Nicole Kidman definitely hasn't, and Jim Broadbent has never been more boisterously endearing. Jill Bilcock's editing feeds every shot through a meat grinder, but Donald McAlpine's lurid throwback to Technicolor and Catherine Martin's vibrant art and costume design are still striking. Luhrmann's bombastic setpieces take choreography and romantic melodrama to gaudy extremes, and it's funny how this, his most bewildering picture, is also his most coherent and successful. I have no grade for this film; it's an A+ and an F at the same time and averaging out to a C doesn't remotely give the right impression of my feelings for it.

A Corner in Wheat (D.W. Griffith. 1909)

With its rapid editing between financially shaken-down commonfolk and monopolizing wheat tycoons, D.W. Griffith's A Corner in Wheat presages Soviet montage not merely in aesthetic but political thrust. His intercutting is darkly humorous: boisterous, lavish parties of the rich mix with static tableaux of miserable, exorbitant breadlines that feel like Griffith somehow went through time and brought back photographs of the Depression to splice into his moving picture. Even when they move, the poor trudge like zombies, and when the bread runs out all too quickly, the sense of despair only compounds. Griffith's grim comeuppance for the tycoon who starves the people to add $4 million a day to his coffers is a literal burial in riches, a macabre joke I didn't know Griffith had in him, but then I've only seen Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. The depiction of the middle class being driven into poverty to compound the wealth of the rich is, of course, more relevant than ever 112 years later.

31/75 Aysl (Kurt Kren, 1975)

Shooting over 21 non-consecutive days with the same strips of film and an alternating masking board with altering alignments of holes, Kren's 31/75 Asyl turns a static shot into an ever-changing tableaux of colliding light exposures and alternating time periods. The shifting areas of black space and splotches of countryside comprising differing days and lighting/weather conditions make a pointillist landscape, like satellite TV in a storm. When Kren drops the black space altogether for a moment, he's left with a pan-seasonal collage where winter snow rubs against spring bloom, the multiple timeframes glimpsed in the alternating patches of light and exposure now fully visible. I confess I don't know what it "means," but Kren's structuralist experiment is fascinating, beautiful and suggestive, calling attention to the way time affects all images even as they are constructed.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Harry Potter Books, Ranked

Compared to my marked indifference to the films, the Harry Potter books continue to charm me long after I move beyond YA fiction. The endless exposition does get to me at times, but there's a reason these books caught on: the relatable characters, the engaging plot and the element of surprise that remains in these works after numerous rereads and a general understanding of its wholesale ripoff of classical hero archetypes. I've cheered on Neville or been smitten by Hermione as much as I've been affected by any characters in fiction. So, to offset the light cynicism of my film post, allow me to take a more pleasant stroll down Memory Lane with Rowling's novels.

Capsule Reviews: In the Heat of the Night, Something Wild, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967)

I put off watching this film for years because it struck me as Hollywood moralizing that would inevitably resort to stereotypes and a skewed sense of self-righteousness. (I know it's wrong to pre-judge a film, but come on, didn't I just describe 99.9% of Hollywood racial dramas?) But In the Heat of the Night was everything I thought it wouldn't be: even-handed rather than polemical, nuanced and not bludgeoned, artistic rather than cheaply ripped from the headlines. Virgil Tibbs, the displaced Philadelphia homicide detective, wants to get out of the Mississippi town in which he finds himself involved in an investigation as much as the local cops want him gone. The chief, Gillespie (Rod Steiger), doesn't hide his prejudices, but he also notes Tibbs' own to goad the officer he knows is talented into staying. He knows that a man like Tibbs would like nothing more than to solve the mystery and prove himself better than all these country hicks, and Poitier's steely gaze cannot hide his agreement with the assessment.

This revelation of Tibbs' own racial hangups is not an attempt to soften the whites but to deepen and humanize the racial commentary. Admittedly, Jewison's action scenes somewhat undercut the wisome and depth of the dialogue and acting with such on-the-nose visual cues as a Confederate flag emblem on the front fender of a car pursuing Tibbs to some obvious angling of shots of lynch mob members. Nevertheless, this is a powerful document of racial tension that has aged remarkably well, buoyed by two dynamic performances by Poitier and Steiger and scripted with intelligence. I'd like to mull this over a few more times before I'd write a full-length review, but in the meantime read Adam Zanzie's excellent piece on the film. Grade: A-

Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986)

Jonathan Demme's stylish descent into yuppie hell plays like a more class-conscious take on Martin Scorsese's After Hours. Where Griffin Dunne eventually wound up right back where he started, forgetting his mad fever dream, Jeff Daniels' Charlie does not get off so lightly. His corporate VP  gets swept away by a dynamo who goes by the name of Lulu (Melanie Griffin) and endures such a mad and, eventually horrific, plunge off the deep end that he must reevaluate everything he believes in. The three main characters (including a striking Ray Liotta as Lulu's insane ex-husband) are all white, but they move trough a background of multiracial and multiclass people, and Charlie's interactions with them change him. On the flip-side, the more they stick together, the more Lulu begins to domesticate, becoming the sort of bourgeois trophy wife that the normal Charlie would love to be with, though he's already become used to the wild minx version.

Demme turns the film into an exercise in duality: The film's tone switches from comedy to horror. The cinematography transitions from pastel-colored romp to cold, metallic tones so quickly the effect is at once barely noticeable and deeply unsettling. "What are you going to do now that you've seen how the other half lives?" Lulu asks, furthering the dualism by clarifying "The other half of you." The other film that makes for an easy point of comparison with the film is David Lynch's Blue Velvet, a connection made in their mutual view of small-town America as no bastion of morality in the face of rotting cities. Yet unlike Lynch's despairing suburban hell and Scorsese's expressionist frenzy, Something Wild has a real sliver of hope running through it, the idea of recognizing one's duality and finding spiritual middle class in the sharply divided racial and class system of the '80s. That's such a lofty idea I nearly forget you have to fight your way past a crazed Ray Liotta to get to it. Grade: A

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)

Howard Hawks' brassy, vibrant Technicolor musical at first glance seems a depiction of vacant gold-digging, but the more one pays attention, the more one can only see the film as a vicious attack on the commercialized notion of romance, a deconstruction brought about by its two female leads. Russell and Monroe are so dynamic and forward they seem to grab a hold of the camera itself and manipulate our view of them. They make an unstoppable duo, Russell's Dorothy consumes every hunk in sight, while Monroe (cannily satirizing her own public image) uses airy, wide-eyed bimbosity to set traps for rich schlubs looking for a trophy of her caliber. I don't know if a film has ever torn down the male gaze so thoroughly, not only hijacking it to show how women have sexual desires (the "fairer sex" has always been more sexually experienced than the men in Hawks' films, but here they are almost unfathomably to the males) but in the pair's manipulation of that gaze to position men right where they want them. Even if the men are sitting in a theater.

Hawks' use of musical interludes in his films (think Rio Bravo and To Have and Have Not) has always been rich in character, and the grand sequences here are as clever and telling as they are dynamic and artistic. From the opening moment, as Monroe and Russell appear in ruby-red sequins to instantly monopolize the attention, Hawks positions the musical numbers to demonstrate their utter power over men and the uninhibited expression of their own desires. Perversity gets stacked on top of perversity here, but maybe I only use that word because it's so unorthodox to be shown the female desire instead of the male gaze. This is damn near a perfect picture, as funny as it is transgressive, and one of my three favorite Hawks pictures, along with Rio Bravo and Only Angels Have Wings. Grade: A+

Harry Potter Films, Ranked

With the final installment of the Harry Potter film franchise at last upon us, allow me to briefly take stock of a film franchise that has often failed to capture the magic of its magical source material yet continues to suck me in almost against my will. I noticed as I compiled this list how few of the films really held any pull over me at all these days, and in nearly every case, when I revised my opinion of a film, the film in question went down in my estimation. Still, there are moments to treasure in all of these films, even the worst ones. When the franchise's impeccable casting and generally competent setpieces are allowed front-and-center over awkward comic relief and endless exposition, even the weakest film shines, if only for a moment. To give a sense of my opinion of these films as films, I included ratings next to each entry, along with how I originally rated them back when I rewatched the films two years ago before Half-Blood Prince. So without further ado, let's take one last tour through Hogwarts.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Perfect World (Clint Eastwood, 1993)

A Perfect World takes plays in the days before John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas as a prison breakout in Huntsville leads to the taking of a hostage and a manhunt across Texas to bring the escaped to justice. This setting is no accident: with the shadow of Kennedy's literal and symbolic demise hanging over the film, Clint Eastwood's portrait of stunted, doomed innocence is all the more poignant, and it's no wonder this simple but powerful psychological study emerges as one of the director's finest works.

After a tranquil but confusing shot of a man lying in a field next to a Casper mask and some fluttering cash in the wind, Eastwood moves back in time to show a strict Jehovah's Witness keeping her children inside on Halloween and refusing candy to any kids who wander onto her doorstep. Eastwood breaks up these scenes with shots of the prison breakout, as Robert "Butch" Haynes (Kevin Costner) and Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) crawl out through the ventilation system and hold up a prison official to make him drive them off the grounds. The connection is clear: for the young, repressed son, Phillip (T.J. Lowther), his home is as much a prison as the literal institution, though he's done nothing to deserve his incarceration. When the two cons break into the house and take him hostage, they ironically facilitate his own freedom despite using him as leverage. Along the way, he and Butch affect each other in profound ways, mainly because Eastwood, a director I've often found overly insistent, never forces the point.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Brian De Palma: Carlito's Way

I used to think Carlito's Way was, to quote the popular interpretation, an "apology" for Scarface, a toned-down, mature take on that film's criminal excess that depicts a gangster trying to redeem himself rather than climb the ranks of the underworld. After revisiting that film, however, I can better see what De Palma was doing with his first, more grandiose view of the criminal underworld and, with unorthodox focus, how it affected America's rising Latino population. Nevertheless, this film, with its ever-moving but graceful camera, bold use of color and flagrant romanticism, not only proves the superior view of criminal life but also stands as perhaps De Palma's finest achievement as a filmmaker and the best balance of his confrontationally probing camera and the mainstream Hollywood elegance of which he wanted to be a part.

This mix of the daring with the quotidian might explain why so many mistook the film for a mildly original take on a tired subject. But to see how the film subverts and analyzes clichés, one need look no farther than the opening, a monochromatic framing device that spoils all pretense at suspense by showing the titular hero murdered by way of introduction. De Palma uses the sequence not only to set in motion his aesthetic approach—using his Steadicam shots as POV representations of Carlito's view, up to and including the slow pivot upside down and pull back as Carlito's soul leaves his body—but to make sure that we spend the film not wondering what happens to Carlito but why this doomed scenario occurs.

One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

One False Move, directed by Carl Franklin from Billy Bob Thornton's first and best screenplay, is a moral thriller and neo-noir posing as a simple cops-and-robbers action movie. It opens with a horrifying, virtuosic killing spree in L.A. as a trio of criminals—sloppy, unhinged Ray (Thornton); calm, psychopathic Pluto (Michael Beach); and Ray's gentler but still complicit girlfriend Fantasia (Cynda Williams)—viciously murder six to get their hands on a pile of cash and a small hill of cocaine. But Fantasia's minor act of conscience sets in motion a case that stretches across the country, uniting the unlikeliest of threads in a fantastically paced narrative with complex, human characters.

Look at the way we meet Dale Dixon, a sheriff far away from the grisly murder scene, in Star City, Ark.: though the film cuts away to him via the brilliantly scary match of a screaming child in the first sequence, our true introduction to the character comes in the form of a phone call the LAPD makes to him after clues point them in the direction of Star City. Bill Paxton, mostly off-camera, establishes his character with aplomb, his fast-talking simplicity revealing an insecurity and open desire to ingratiate himself with big city cops. We also get a taste of his oafishness but also his drive. We later learn that townsfolk call him "Hurricane," which may reference either the blustering hot wind he puffs out in gales or his energetic In-person, Paxton only deepens Dixon's clumsy but capable sheriff, the character's unlikely balance of stereotyping and originality a microcosm for the film's broader overview of this Arkansas town and the storm working its way there from Los Angeles.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955)

Speaking pleasantly but pointedly with a local mob boss, attorney general candidate Albert Patterson (John McIntire) wearily agrees to the reminder that a grand jury found no evidence of gambling in the city. He cites the dictionary, saying "a gambler is one who plays a game of chance. They're right; there's no gamblin' here. Nobody in Phenix City has a chance." So ripped from the headlines that it opens with a 13-minute newsreel interviewing the real-life subjects, The Phenix City Story is one of the grittiest, darkest late-period noirs of the '50s.

Aptly compared by Bosley Crowther in a moment of critical faculty to On the Waterfront and All the King's Men, The Phenix City Story is a horrifying look into mass corruption, coerced silence and the near-impossibility of doing the right thing in a rigged system. Made on-location with a minuscule budget, the film's pseudo-documentary feel paints a portrait of vice so utterly soul-corroding that even those who seek to get rid of the gambling and the mob use the same violent, mindless tactics to fight back.

Capsule Reviews: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Cœur Fidèle, On the Waterfront

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

Set in a hilly village more twisted with jagged, crowded shacks than a Brazilian favela, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is one of the great landmarks of film history. Like so many early films, its theatricality is literal—one can plainly see the edges of set design—yet Robert Wiene's Expressionist masterpiece turns the psychological thriller into one of the great examples of pure cinema in its infancy. This is a warped film, with buildings twisted and curved in wracked pain and characters plumbing the depths of facial expression. Even the title cards are twisted—the card that the titular doctor hands over is so gnarled and indecipherable in bunched, sinister spiracles that it seems the inspiration for nearly every black metal band logo. Regardless of what Siegfried Kracauer says, Caligari is not as political as later German silents, but its aesthetic power is so distinct from contemporary American and French filmmaking that it certainly feels confrontational. Lang, Murnau and others would soon use the style to tackle the depravity and anomie of Weimar Germany, but Wiene is content simply to wow. And I wonder, is this the first great twist ending of the movies? Grade: A

P.S. Be sure to pay attention to Conrad Veidt's show-stealing performance as the somnambulist Cesare, hypnotized into murder by Caligari. Big and bold as silent acting (especially Expressionist silent acting) was, Veidts introduction is subtle, a close-up on his sleeping face capturing ever slight tic as the synapses along his face slowly fire, undulating his flesh in zombie-like reanimation as Caligari first awakens him. Veidt's most memorable performance is, of course, the ever-disturbing protagonist of The Man Who Laughs, but he is no less unsettling here as the tortured sleepwalker.

Cœur Fidèle [Faithful Heart] (Jean Epstein, 1923)

I cannot even imagine how good MoC's new Blu-Ray of Jean Epstein's unfairly ignored silent looks, given the quality of the old video I downloaded. (It's one of those titles that makes me wish I could afford a region-free player.) Epstein's film, inspired by Abel Gance's editing innovations, makes a starkly realistic yet poetically magical work. Made before Eisenstein et al. started demonstrating their theories on montage, Epstein's film uses a realistic background of working-class concerns and romantic melodrama (its light evocation of Victor Hugo, particularly Les Misérables is no coincidence) as a means of editing experimentation. Even the final shots, showing romantic joy tempered with the traumas of endured trials, finds the balance between poetry and reality. Epstein uses close-ups of hands and faces not only to establish character and occupation but tension and the emotional subjectivity of the film's character relationships. The acting is often "big"—especially Edmond von Daële's lecherous Petit Paul, who infuses every gesture with boozy arrogance—but it too is remarkably restrained, setting a precedent for realist cinema even as it shows how daring and aesthetic probing realism can be. Grade: A+

Best Scene: The fairground sequence set after Paul steals Marie away from her lover Jean, a bitterly ironic jubilation surrounding the miserable woman and the sneering, victorious thug. Epstein turns the carousel ride into an experimental frenzy of editing, using a rapidly cut collage of faces and POV shots of the fairground swirling in a fast panorama to visually elucidate the tension between Marie and Paul and her slow resignation to his domination.

On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954)

Marlon Brando was just turning 30 when On the Waterfront premiered: in it, he looks a great deal younger and behaves a great deal older. His plain, goodhearted never-was Terry is world-weary before his time, a washed-up boxer-cum-stevedore gently but forcefully coerced into being a mafia hood, his bosses playing on his obedience and gullibility. Brando's performance set off a firestorm, dismissed today by those looking to kill gods by saying all he did was mumble. But take one look at Brando's plaintive face, occasionally wracked in unsuccessful attempts at intimidation and always filled with longing of romantic and existential varieties, and the hype justifies itself. "He tries to act tough, but there's a look in his eye," says Edie (Eva Marie-Saint), the sister of the dockworker Terry unwittingly lured to his death, and Marie-Saint's fascination with him at times seem as much unfettered astonishment of Brando's skill as Edie's attraction for this lovable bum.

A reworking of Arthur Miller's screenplay for The Hook, a project he was meant to work on with Kazan until HUAC pressure forced denouncing confessions from the director, On the Waterfront's morality play about the virtues of snitching smells of moral wish-fulfillment for Kazan, who wished to see a character honored for ratting. This moral equivalence and fantasy is even more potentially loathsome when one considers that not only are the crimes that prompt Terry to testify far worse than political affiliation, they also actually happened. Still, viewed within the diegesis and broader questions of the morality of speaking up, On the Waterfront emerges a morally sound treatise on the importance of not staying silent in the face of horror. Situated between these extreme poles of self-absolution and rectitude, On the Waterfront finds a moral complexity by truly considering what choice to make and then showing the consequences of those choices. Even the priest, guilted into a social crusade only to become a self-compelling force, is more than a moral stereotype. It's easy to pigeonhole Kazan's film as self-forgiveness, but to these eyes it seems a lot more like a confessional and ensuing penance. Grade: A

Best Scene: Cliché as it is, the "I could have been a contender" scene is iconic for a reason. When his brother Charley (Rod Steiger), the mob boss' lawyer and right-hand man, reluctantly pulls a gun on his own brother to ensure his silence, Terry has a defining moment of reflection and bitterness. Brando never sounds angry, only deflated and sad, as he recounts how his brother's boss ruined his boxing career, and Brando's even tones and measured volume convey overwhelming emotion. Brando was one of cinema's most heartbreaking actors, but I don't know if he was ever more wrenching than here.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)

Sherlock, Jr.'s self-awareness sets into the film instantly, the intertitles that establish each character also listing the actor's name as if it were the character's name. This has the effect of player and performance, the first blur between reality and artifice. Seen today, Sherlock, Jr. looks like the first mainstream American form of surrealism, but this is less by deliberate design on Buster Keaton's part than the inevitable outcome of a film about film, the most inherently surreal artform of them all.

Some express surprise that the film was, in its time, Keaton's least-grossing feature, and its whittled length was the result of negative feedback prompting the artist to cut out chunks of footage. But the sheer strangeness of the movie, its self-reflexive, forward-thinking structure and narrative, must have alienated audiences unprepared to deal with its implications and technical prowess. The General may be Keaton's masterpiece, but it is this movie, even more unjustly ignored by initial audiences, that best proves how ahead of his time the man truly was.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Keaton Shorts: One Week, The Boat, The Paleface, Cops

"It was Keaton's notion that cutting, valuable as it was in a thousand ways, must not replace the recording function of the camera, must not create the happening. The happening must happen, be photographed intact, then be related by cutting to other happenings."
—Walter Kerr
I like to space out my Buster Keaton viewings, giving myself just enough time between films that I surprise myself with his genius with every binge. I find the whole "Chaplin vs. Keaton" debate more than a bit tedious, though obviously both are divergent yet titanic enough to warrant comparison. I will say, though, that for the undeniable mastery of the two of them, Keaton is the who, to me, best exemplifies comedy, not simply between them but in all of cinema. His cutting, camera technique, scripting, design and performance capture the flow of comedy better than I've seen anyone else do since.

The above quote gets at part of his skill at crafting movies: despite the obvious construction of the setpieces and the distancing effect of silent film pantomime when viewed through a modern prism (neither of which I intend as criticism), Keaton's movies feel so in the moment, so spontaneous, that I not only continue to marvel at his skill but feel surprise at the payoffs. Roger Ebert gets at that in his own praise of Keaton's work, saying "Another of Keaton's strategies was to avoid anticipation. Instead of showing you what was about to happen, he showed you what was happening; the surprise and the response are both unexpected, and funnier." I'm not the most devoted Keaton disciple, but I've seen some of this stuff more than once, and I almost forget what happens because Keaton does such a great job moving escalating every moment on its own terms without telephoning the next gag over the one that's currently playing.

I've been meaning to pick up Kino's Blu-Rays of The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr., and I'm ecstatic that the company is releasing his early shorts on Blu-Ray on my birthday (gift ideas, people). To get myself ready for that essential purchase, but mainly because it had simply been a while, I decided to visit (and revisit) some Keaton shorts.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (Tony Scott, 2009)

Tony Scott's remake lacks any and all suspense (as do nearly all his movies despite his penchant for thrillers), but he also finds a surprising resonance in the material. Blessed with a superbly written script, Scott tones down his usual madness and lets his actors do most of the work. Oh, he still can't help himself at times, but Scott puts his talents toward a sense of visual pacing and structure that uses the battle of wits between Garber (Denzel Washington) and Ryder (John Travolta) to slyly bring out back story and sociopolitical themes.

Travolta hams it up to no end, playing ex-con stock trader Ryder like the demon of Wall Street unleashed below the city, his outrage at serving time for his white collar crimes well-timed to the outrageous entitlement displayed by the real stock brokers who took all kinds of shortcuts to make a fast buck. Garber too is guilty, but we see the disparity between them, greed motivating one and financial desperation the other. Washington and Travolta have the awkward task of playing off each other mainly through long-distance radio communication (an analog take on the potential for meaningful friendships through Internet communication?), but they make for one of the richest hero-villain pairs in years and get across some unexpectedly keen social commentary to boot, even if Travolta oversells it. Supporting players John Turturro (as an arrogant negotiator), James Gandolfini (a scandal-ridden mayor) and Luis Guzman (a former MTA employee nervously helping Ryder) also deliver solid performances.

Scott frames his film with flattened compositions, a beautiful array of neon-lit streaks of blue, red and green, and Scott's "Big Board" fetish realized by the flashing subway map back at Rail Control (a board framed, like all of Scott's giant screens, as a means of both clarifying and abstracting action). Yet despite his usual touches of altered speeds and on-screen text, Scott's aforementioned ease off the throttle shows that his love of visual style does not blind him to seeing and focusing on the great chemistry between Washington and Travolta. In fact, as a movie about a sedentary narrative spruced up by slick, action-oriented direction, I found The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 to be not only more tasteful but more emotionally affecting than Danny Boyle's slick con job 127 Hours.

Sidenote: I don't know if Travolta decided to play Ryder as a flagrant homosexual or that's how the part was written, but if and when he ever comes out of the closet, expect this movie to be gutted for clips on late-night shows. Dressed like he just came from a gay bar, Travolta finds ways to be even more suggestive. Describing a teenage hostage to Garber, Ryder notes his outfit and tangentially throws in "he makes it work" before getting back to the threats. Talking with one of his cohorts about Garber, Ryder bypasses the fact he doesn't know what the man looks like and says, "He's got a good voice, though; he'll be my bitch in prison." Bless his heart; he seems to know he'll never be a star again and at least balances out his usual tat with unorthodox performances in this and Hairspray.

Brian De Palma: Raising Cain

One of the more depressing critical threads that wove its way through the positive reviews of the recent Transformers film was that, for the film's glaring flaws, somehow its garish orgy of grease and gears constituted "pure cinema," as if the form's zenith is achieved solely by throwing money at the screen. By the same token, I would actually somewhat agree with the idea that the most cinematic moments in film tend to be the ones least connected to reality and tethered in some fashion to camp, even trash. The florid visual melodrama of Powell/Pressburger, Nicholas Ray or Martin Scorsese capture, for me, the essence of the artform, usually in the gaudiest, most brazen of moments. But if trash is one aspect of "pure cinema," skill obviously constitutes the X factor that finds the art and beauty within cinema's capacity for otherworldiness.

Going through Brian De Palma's canon has convinced me that, in the modern age, no one is better able to make pure cinema from the unlikeliest and most repellent of sources than De Palma, not even the wonderfully garish Tony Scott. Thus far, my favorites of his films—Hi, Mom!, Phantom of the Paradise, Body Double, etc.—have been the trashiest, transgressing all boundaries of moral and aesthetic taste while still displaying a keen satiric and visual prowess. His late-'80s strain of pure Hollywood features, even the intelligent and affecting Casualties of War, lack the madness De Palma pushes to the brink of abandon, and I found myself wishing for a return to the more gauche side of his filmmaking.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Capsule Reviews: All About Eve, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mary and Max

All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)

Probably the most glaring omission in my movie viewing. And boy was I missing out: this camp satire on showbiz is a vicious cycle of ageism, bloodthirsty ingénues and critics who use and are used by the stars they praise and damn. It may be all about Eve, the not-so-innocent farm girl looking to hit the big time, but the real star is the icon she seeks to usurp, played by Bette Davis. Though there are stereotypical portrayals of predatory homosexuals in the film, Davis is by far the campiest figure on the screen, chewing every line with relish, but then who wouldn’t savor this incredible dialogue? The final shot, an unexpectedly arty flourish involving endless reflections in mirrors, cheekily visualizes the unending cycle of new talent ever ready to kill their idols. Grade: A+

P.S. Check out a cameo by a then-unknown Marilyn Monroe, who steals her entire scene as a ditzy wannabe. Corrected for yelling “Waiter!” at a butler, she responds with hysterical sincerity and worry, “Well I can’t go yelling “Oh butler!” can I? Maybe somebody’s name is Butler!” The dour critic Addison can barely fight back his loathing when he deadpans, "You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point."

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975)

The first 10 minutes or so were so dull that I couldn't even get into the camp of the movie, but the second Tim Curry showed up I couldn't take my eyes off him, which potentially raises a few questions I might have to dwell upon. Curry's performance is rightly iconic, a completely un-self-conscious belly flop into pansexual lust communicated in every side glance, body thrust and blink. But, as my pal Sasha James rightly told me, "the first half is ten times better than the second." After a certain point Curry's rowdy, epically incomprehensible numbers about transvestism and making a Frankenstein monster out of Hitler's wet dream give way to more middling tunes that sap a great deal of momentum from the proceedings. I must admit, though, that I found the climactic image, structured around a parody of King Kong enacted on a prop of the old RKO logo, screamingly funny, if utterly bewildering. Still, when it comes to '70s rock opera films, I'm gonna have to side with the more coherent (if somehow even stranger) Phantom of the Paradise. Grade: C+

P.S. The second best character in the movie after Curry's Frank-N-Furter, Riff Raff, is played with Igor-esque comic menace by the actual writer of the musical, Richard O'Brien. Though not as consistently great as Curry (Riff Raff is one of the characters who gets completely altered by the end), O'Brien is nearly as entertaining.

Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)

Feeling bizarrely like a mumblecore film as filtered through Great Depression aesthetics, the claymation Mary and Max flits between monochrome and sepia-toned visions of poverty, loneliness and neurosis of insecure pen pals separated by generations and oceans. Even at 92 minutes, there's not enough here to justify the running length, and the padded repetition of Mary's dark home life and Max's Asperger isolation robs the film of some of its emotional power. That it is still so routinely affecting, however, is a testament to the sincerity of the characters, animated with simple resonance, written with minute, wry detail and voiced to perfection (check out Philip Seymour Hoffman's almost unrecognizable performance as the Yiddish Max, only guessable in moments using Hoffman's trademark deflation). Bonus points for the soundtrack, a nice blend of the unironically bouncy and the affectingly dramatic. Grade: B+

Park Row (Samuel Fuller, 1952)

Sam Fuller's Park Row is his most optimistic feature. Contrary to his cynical depiction of sleazy tabloid muckraking in such pictures as Shock Corridor, Park Row is an unabashed love letter to the newspaper. It opens with a scroll over the names of the 1,772 daily papers in circulation at the time (that number is now down below 1,422) and a title reading "All of them are the stars of this story." For good measure, Fuller dedicates the film to AMERICAN JOURNALISM in all caps. Even in his acknowledgments, the man hated subtlety.

Numerous films exalt the profession of journalism; it's a byproduct of so many classic screenwriters getting their starts in papers. Even Charles Foster Kane, megalomaniac and bender of truth, finished his exhausted friend's scathing review of his mistress' dismal opera performance for the sake of the story. But I can't think of any film that believes in and so powerfully adores the very idea of journalism as this. Though it climaxes in grandiose, almost comically violent fashion, Park Row's idealistic mood suggests that Fuller would arrive at the same celebratory conclusion if the most important story covered in the film were a dog show.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)

My review for Johnny Guitar, Nicholas Ray's narrow-framed but epic-scope Western, is up now at Cinelogue. A gender-bending, brazenly political film, Johnny Guitar was not Ray's first foray into color film but most directly points to his legendary uses of CinemaScope to follow. Frankly, the only film I can think of that uses color better and to more deliberately artful effect is Powell/Pressburger's Black Narcissus. Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge give electrifying performances as women locked in a rivalry of sexual expression and repression, while Sterling Hayden's masculine presence is undermined routinely by gentle, even plaintive emotion. It's a wild film from start to finish, and one of Ray's best films, second perhaps only to Bigger Than Life.

So please head to Cinelogue and check out my review. Comments appreciated.

Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)

Pale Flower is noir in an almost literal sense, set almost entirely at night or in interiors without windows, obscuring the time of day and suggesting darkness outside drab, cracking walls. Though he made it for a studio, Masahiro Shinoda considered Pale Flower an independent film, and it's easy to see why: it feels like the work of an upstart, chopping up film noir into something new, philosophical and brazenly artistic without regard for commercial interests even as it clearly has an audience in mind. That the film became a hit when Shochiku eventually released it after a nine-month delay only speaks to the crowd-pleasing elements of its tight but perversely constructed nihilism.

Shinoda follows Muraki (Ryo Ikebe), a Yakuza enforcer newly released from prison after committing a murder, as he readjusts to life with a radically altered power structure. I have no idea to what extent the Japanese and French New Wavers knew of each other's concurrent work, but Muraki's existential cool, with his slicked-back hair and laconic stoicism, recalls Jean-Pierre Melville's '60s work and Godard's own gangster deconstructions. Muraki always seems to find himself in areas too cramped or too empty, never finding the right balance of space and people. Beneath his impassive face, confusion at this unfamiliar world rages.

The Public Enemy (William A. Wellman, 1931)

Nobody fit the Pre-Code era like James Cagney. With his handsome yet smushed face (like a dapper Cro-Magnon), Cagney captured the glamor and grime of the five-year period of big, bloody pictures like no one else. I'm mesmerized by Cagney, that compact face he always shrinks and contorts further into pure rage. Or the way he speaks lines with force and volume but always brings his victim up close for a lashing, a shotgun blast of verbal rage instead of a precise rifle shot. Some people, even admirers, say he was an overactor. I disagree; his acting is huge,but he knows exactly where to channel it at all times. I've yet to see Cagney get away from himself.

I've only seen a few Cagney pictures, but The Public Enemy shows off so much of his skill I feel as if I've tracked down every film in his corpus. One of the finest of all gangster pictures, The Public Enemy looks forward to Hays Code impositions of moral reckoning even as it subverts them. It offers up an utterly repulsive figure who is also strangely, inexplicably attractive and charming, as well as study of how crime is sometimes the only way for some to ever carve out a comfortable living. And even when the film suggests that, yes, crime doesn't pay, it does so in such a way that eschews any morally superior sermonizing.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Life in Music

Inspired by a series I came across at YAM Magazine, I've decided to complement my A Life in Movies post with a similar journey through the music that's stood out for me each year since my birth. Of course, I never heard most of these albums until I hit my late teens, but then that was the case for the movie post too. As I did with my movies post, I will limit myself to one selection per artist to avoid simply piling on, say, Radiohead and Animal Collective albums. I've also included videos for each to give a taste of the albums I picked.

1989: King's X — Gretchen Goes to Nebraska

King's X's second album is their most overtly Christian though the band always opposed description as a Christian rock outfit; indeed, even at its most spiritual, Gretchen contains doubts and realism, transmuting its loftier moments into wistfulness rather than sermonizing faith. Also, it's about as groovy and catchy as subversively technical heavy metal gets, emphasizing Beatlesque vocal harmonies and a funky bottom that manages to sound nothing like Red Hot Chili Peppers and its clones. Doug Pinnick's soul screams on "Mission" and "Over My Head" alone will convert you. To the band, I mean. Calm down.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Boudu Saved from Drowning (Jean Renoir, 1932)

Jean Renoir's satiric gutting of René Fauchois' play is one of the director's finest works, a biting work whose ambiguous target (does it ultimately side with individualist anarchy or bourgeois liberalism?) is less the result of an unfocused screenplay than an even-handed work of humanity. With roots in Herman Melville's similarly perplexing short story "Bartleby the Scrivener," Boudu Saved from Drowning is both an absurdist ode to rebellion and a sympathetic, even positive portrayal of goodness within the oblivious bourgeoisie.

The titular Boudu is the tramp qua tramps, played by that great beast Michel Simon of L'Atalante fame (or perhaps it's more accurate to say that Vigo's film later featured Simon of Boudu fame). Gigantic, scabrous, and stumbling in a way that suggests less habitual drunkenness than a body that infuses red blood cells with gin, Boudu is the Dionysian keeper of a park on the Seine. When his dog runs away, the distraught bum hurls himself off a bridge into the river, drawing a crowd of middle-class people who gasp and shriek but do nothing. It is up to a bourgeois man named Edouard Lestingois, who sees Boudu jump while mockingly watching the man through a telescope in his apartment, to run downstairs, across the street, down the bridge steps and finally, slowly leap to the man's rescue. Even the hero must maintain composure and be sure not to get all his nice clothes wet.