Thursday, August 31, 2006

Deserter (1933)

Mmm! A story about a cake-baking expert?

Genre: War Drama (Soviet Union)

Starring: Boris Livanov (October), Aleksandr Chistyakov (Outskirts, The End Of St. Petersburg)

Directed By: Vsevolod Pudovkin (Storm Over Asia, Mother)

Overview: German dockworkers suffer through a shipyard strike amidst the rise of Communism. Throughout their ordeal we follow one man's struggle, doubts, and the decisions he makes... oh and he might just desert at some point...

Acting: As intense as ever, we have some great emotion from these proles, but it never quite goes over the top. I said before that perhaps context is what's most important here, because if I saw people yelling and freaking out over anything but communism, I might just say it's a little overboard With this cause behind them and their starving children though, you buy it, and it's moving.
Rating: 8

Cinematography: Here we have the best of the Silent Era montage works from the masters of Russian cinema clashing head-to-head with the worst talkies technology that ever existed. They had clunky cameras that were so loud they needed to be in soundproof booths, so it made them almost impossible to manage. This resulted in constricted camerawork, like rarely seeing pans, though you often got heads cut off. The price people paid for the cutting edge, I suppose. Pudovkin pulls off splendour yet again regardless of having an arm tied behind his back. If you ask me, factories and their gears are just the coolest subjects for black and white film.
Rating: 8

Script: The dialogue were about as propagandist as you could get. There's really no great individual conflict, the issues are the standard ones you would expect: "Why starve when we can work?" "What are we fighting for anyway?" "Hurry to the dockyard, the police are coming!" The poetry is there in the words from time to time, but it's still pretty cliché, run-of-the-mill stuff.
Rating: 7

Plot: The story is different compared to other Communist propagandist films of its era. Firstly, this focuses on people who AREN'T Russians fighting for Communism, and it has Communists fighting in among themselves far more than usual. It also includes the story of a coward fearing for his life amidst the bravery of his countrymen. It's typical in the 'great resolve and sacrifice' message, but the way it goes about it is refreshing, if a tad slow.
Rating: 7

Mood: I just can't explain it, the whole film felt a bit like a chore. I didn't expect it to be this director's masterpiece, but it was slow going. Perhaps if this film had been a true Silent I'd have appreciated it more. The problem wasn't the sound editing, because that was unique, with the occasional purely silent scenes dispersed throughout, especially just before a dramatic sequences, but I think I know why I've never heard of this movie before, you know?
Rating: 7

"Hi my name is Vsevolod Pudovkin. I'm an effin genius."

Overall Rating: 74% (Well I Came Back, But I Left A Couple Of Times)

Aftertaste: Perhaps I should have waited to see this one, as watching it so quickly on the heels of The End Of St. Petersburg may have been the reason for my ennui. Visually though, this guy is one of the most influential montage men out there. I won't recommend this to anyone unless they're doing a project on 'early talkies films about communists who aren't Russian'. I guess that won't happen anytime soon.

Night Watch (2004)

You know, some posters just deserve top props. Kudos

Genre: Fantasy Action Vampire Horror Thriller (Russia)

Starring: Konstantin Khabensky, Vladimir Zolotukhin

Directed By: Timur Bekmambetov (The Arena)

Overview: For centuries 'The Others' have stood guard against one another to ensure that peace is maintained. Now, with war again on the brink, we follow one of The Other of the Light as he polices the Dark on his Moscovian night watch.

Acting: Horror films: Toilet acting? No Problem! Foreign Films: Some of the most spectacular you'll ever see. Foreign Horror? Compromises on each side with the budget having veto rights. Over 4 million bucks might put it on the low end of Hollywood, but that's basically Russia's GDP right now, so yeah, good times.
Rating: 8

Cinematography: For the second half of the movie, this had an artistic quality that sets the mood in that subtle Fight Club filters and mild special effects way, as well as some professional camerawork that proves the skill of the crew. For the first half of the film though, I was convulsing on the ground at the Aronofsky-class editing, the stylishly bleak sets and the intense action. My friends laughed at how moved I was. That's why I hate them.
Rating: 9

Script: "...And so it will be, until a man emerges who is meant to become the Great One. And, if he chooses the side of Light, then Light will win. But those to whom the truth has been revealed say that he will choose Darkness, for it is easier to kill the Light within oneself, than to scatter the Darkness around..."

Thought I'd spare the confusion about the basics of what this story is about. If you follow the tale as it unfolds, you might be a smidgeon confused, and I wonder how much of that is because of the culture-specific Moscow and how much is the script itself. I doubt it was due to horrible translation because it looked right, but being this confused while watching such a well thought-out production can't be right. Scripts are more than pretty words; you have to let us know what's happening.
Rating: 6

Plot: In recent explorations of the Avant-Garde film, I've come to appreciate the misunderstood, the deep subtlety that comes from a nuanced storyline. It still bugs me when it's like that in films that AREN'T Experimental though. This picture is hated by many, and I'm betting it's for this reason. It's confusing and it was either done on purpose or it was just weak storytelling. As for the core Act elements, we have touch of cheese intro that redeems itself, followed by a pretty terrific middle, if not that well written, and an open yet satisfying ending that makes you wonder if there's going to be a sequel. Hint: trilogy means three...
Rating: 8

Mood: Pretty intense. Not knowing all the powers of the vampiric 'Others' keeps the mystery alive as to exactly what they are but at the same time it might detract from bringing us closer to the protagonist, his cause and his reasons. I'll chalk up all the mood-killers to a lack of understanding, but it's gorgeous, and even if we don't get what's going on, there's no doubt that these things have been fighting an ages-old battle that they know inside and out.
Rating: 8

"Heeeere vampy vampy vampy! Follow the blood jar!"

Overall Rating: 78% (And We Even Watched It At Night)

Aftertaste: It's unfortunate that this failed in the explanations and the lack of mythology, but on the upside, a horror flick that goes on and on blabbing about prophecies and 'The End' and how it's gonna be with the eternal struggle, that gets tiring too. There's a happy medium there somewhere and perhaps the sequel will do a lot to clarify the time between the truce and the present. Either way, I'll be there waiting.

Strangeland (1998)

Know when there's a stray piece of yarn that you just HAVE to pull?

Genre: Horror Thriller

Starring: Dee Snider (Deepwater), Kevin Gage (G.I. Jane, Paparazzi)

Directed By: John Pieplow

Overview: A modern primitive stalks his prey online. When the detective's own daughter goes missing, the investigation quickly leads him to the primitive's home. Could it be that easy?

Acting: It was interesting settling in to what was without a doubt going to be one horribly-acted film. I mean Dee Snider, frontman from Twisted Sister, as the antagonist? Yeah the 80s cock-rock band. Imagine my surprise when I found him completely convincing in that 'just a touch, but not too much' cheesy way. Then Robert Englund (Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger) makes an appearance, Linda Cardinelli before "Freaks And Geeks", and several other faces to recognize besides. Half-way through I realized that this was an actual professional endeavour. The director should have tightened the reins here and there, but I was very impressed for a Horror film.
Rating: 6

Cinematography: Our baddie has one hell of an interesting look. The scene locales, that river, that house, it honestly didn't look low budget either. This isn't a gore film, but there are some creepy torture moments like eyes sown shut or dangling from hooks Texas Chainsaw style. There were even some moments of artistic camerawork from time to time that caught my eye. Maybe it was a lot of rooting for the low-budget Horror underdog, but the camera crew really knew what they were doing.
Rating: 7

Script: This is where we suffer. When it comes to explaining plot elements, it's to the point but too obvious, for example: conveniently a piercing aficionado happens to be there to explain everything. The dialogue between plot-moving elements is also atrocious. Hiring any writer to tweak the lines would have hurt the feelings of our Twisted Sister I suppose, but hell, even Lucas needed help with Star Wars. Glaring fromage comes from lines spoken by our two-dimensional hero cop and his chip-on-his-shoulder cliché partner, and I found the scenes where they were explaining chatrooms just a little too 'instructional video'. I think Dee focussed too much on minutiae when he had a solid thing going, and shot himself in the foot. Real potential that wasn't realized.
Rating: 5

Plot: Usually, when a script gets a poor rating, the plot suffers equally, but making exception of a few moments of suspension of disbelief, the underlying storyline is awesome. The antagonist isn't just some random nut, he has method to his madness and his exploration of body modification simply goes to the extreme, into the realm of the psychotic. It's not some slasher going around killing people for no reason. Not only do we have a man who isn't a murderer by nature, but the plot goes in a very interesting direction, adding two more acts of 'Twisted' storyline (HA!). This was brilliantly thought out; sadly it needed lots more polishing.
Rating: 8

Mood: This story about a modern primitive taking his expertise to the unwilling is immersive. All his desires and motivations are solid and true. Clearly this film was built around the character, which is great, but if more effort had been put into the cop chasing him, the daughter that was kidnapped, or included serious dialogue between our madman and his victims, adding real dimension to those around him, it could have been much creepier, since the characters would be less archetypal, more real. Plot holes, questionable police procedure and a town of 35,000 with a huge Extreme Industrial-Goth-SM bar overflowing with hundreds of patrons, I just don't see it, sorry Sister. At least have the pig say they're visiting another city to do research.
Rating: 7

Gotta give it to him for being creepy-cool

Overall Rating: 66% (Strange... It Was Actually Decent)

Aftertaste: I figured this John Pieplow fellow had directed only rock videos before this and after a mediocre search I discovered his website. He's a musician, go figure. I guess he stayed out of the direction biz. I'm sure he's doing alright. As for Twisted Sister, wow, he's still got a career. Some would just fade away after the passing fad of 80s cock-rock, but I guess he's just the type of guy to say, "I
ain't gonna take it lyin' down..."

Hee hee!

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The End Of St. Petersburg (1927)

Yes, he's that intense.

Genre: Silent War Drama (Soviet Union)

Starring: V. Obolensky, Aleksandr Chistyakov (The Deserter)

Directed By: Vsevolod Pudovkin (Storm Over Asia, Mother)

Overview: In this revolutionary tale, we follow a man as he seeks work in the city, only to end up having a village friend arrested for instigating a labour strike. He does what he can to help rectify the situation.

Acting: Heavy, expressive, up-close and in your face. There's the silent drama pantomime that you see where women swoon and moustachioed men snarl evilly, then there's this, where it's equally dramatic and equally over the top in its intensity, but rather than being inhumanly ridiculous, it's overly human. Perhaps this sort of acting is more believable when it's about people starving and fighting to get paid for an honest day's work. Such an awesome intensity, it's like looking at their revolution-inspired statues, it's just so BIG.
Rating: 9

Cinematography: I've never included casting in the cinematography. That's because people aren't a visual thing that enhances a film like a camera panning through the desolate defeated Winter Palace for example, or watching the careful use of rule of thirds while montages explode left and right along with the cannons. There's a thing about the characters here though, the way their faces show lines of strife, the way the black and white film makes their wrinkles an artistic piece of chiaroscuro, the way their freckles add contrast to help us understand the suffering these people are going through. This guy's a genius.
Rating: 9

Script: It's nice that we see the original Russian intertitles as they aid in putting us in the Soviet action, even the way they sometimes jump at us from a small font to quickly zooming to the size of the whole screen. I was surprised to see such an effect used, but there were too many scene where it was just understood what was going on, because we were Russians and we all remembered what it was like to overthrow St. Petersburg, and if we were too young, well it was certainly taught to us in school. That's a bit of a downer, but the words were inspiring enough.
Rating: 6

Plot: The story is so much like that of Judas selling out Christ, I wonder if that was what was intended. If not, kudos to me for Passion of the Bolshevik. This film was commissioned by the communists along with Eisenstein's October to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Revolution. Where Eisenstein's film was about the masses, this is about the singular man, the character that provided the reason for revolt. I'll tell you though, I haven't studies the Russian Revolution of 1917, and though I know the basics, there were a couple scenes that just should have been better explained.

Rating: 7

Mood: As it was with October, the subtitles added to translate the originals were jagged, out of place, bright yellow words that constantly reminded me of the present, a bit of a mood killer. The music was nice, the intensity was certainly there, but so was the propaganda. You know what, if capitalists were this heartless, you'd expect the starving masses to overthrow their plush-seated asses, you really would. Overall though there was something missing, perhaps it was my mindset, but this didn't keep me focused the way Pudovkin's last masterpiece did.
Rating: 8

Imagine running into this angry proletariate in a back alley...

Overall Rating: 78% (The Pravda Is Out)

Aftertaste: As I watched, I yelled "Baby! I'm influenced!". Yeah, definitely moved by the style of editing here, and if ever I became a cinematographer, I'd do the best job possible to come up with montages that make the scene like this one did, for sure.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Night On Earth (1991)

No, it's not about a planet-eating cab

Genre: Comedy Drama (USA, France, Germany, UK, Japan)

Starring: Winona Ryder (A Scanner Darkly, Heathers) Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful, Down By Law)

Directed By: Jim Jarmusch (Ghost Dog: Way Of The Samurai, Broken Flowers)

Overview: Five stories of five cabbies in five cities: Los Angeles, New York, Paris, Rome and Helsinki, simple as that.

Acting: I've always liked Winona, but I've never thought she was a great actress. She just knows what movies to be in, you know? Here, I thought she was way too forced in her tomboy act. Benigni is fantastic, Matti Pellonpää as the Helsinki driver was genuinely moving, and overall it was a nice bunch of the familiar meshed with the less common foreign talent.
Rating: 8

Cinematography: It does smack of a dated age. Every new city starts with a predictably common (yet enjoyable and serene) montage piece, showing us the night-time in the city we're in. We have standard shots that wouldn't be distracting to the mainstream, and we have the interesting international flair of the city streets. However, there's only so much you can do with the inside of a cab to make it exciting visually, and though professional, nothing spectacular going on in the looks department.
Rating: 7

Script: Well Benigni's would have to be my favorite of the skits, it was just so out there. When he gets a priest in his cab he feels the need to confess all his sexual sins to him, but in a hilarious Benigni way, it's almost like Jarmusch wrote the part for him specifically. The Helsinki story was a great ending as it takes it down a bit and hits us with a deeper, more serious tale of perspective, a little something to walk away with. Overall a well written script, if a little predictable in the beginning.
Rating: 8

Plot: This is compartmentalized to the point where I wondered if I should include 'Shorts' in the Genre. The first story is a casting agent's ride in Winona's car, the second, an immigrant driver taking his first trip to Brooklyn, then a Parisian (Isaach De Bankolé) drives a blind woman, Roberto Benigni cracks us up driving a priest around in Rome, and a dramatic tale is told by the driver of a Helsinki cab to a bunch of drunks. Enjoyable in its simplicity without any great common climactic events shared by the characters, much as it was with Mystery Train, actually. Simple and effective short storytelling.
Rating: 8

Mood: I'm going to call it "The Jarmusch Effect". You watch one of his stories, something microcosmic, where most of the action takes place in a, oh let's say, ten by five taxi for example, and they all interrelate on some level with a multicultural touch to the whole, and you leave wondering what the point was. It seems to me that Jarmusch really doesn't care about teaching grand lessons, rather he reinforces the lessons we learned long ago, and sometimes with a laugh. He's still an oddity to me. I don't know how to take him. Themes? Er, slice of life, I guess.
Rating: 8

Even the majestically annoying Rosie Perez swears ceaslessly for her short stint.

Overall Rating: 78% (Not A Bad Night)

Aftertaste: I'm really looking forward to Down By Law and Ghost Dog, given one's about a Samurai and the other has Tom Waits in it. So far in my Jarmusch exploration I've hit film four, and none of them held great sway with me, but people seem to like him and they often recommend Johnny Depp's Dead Man to me, which I'll get around to seeing soon enough. I guess it would be nicer if I knew why he films the way he does. As long as he doesn't make movies I hate I'll be happy to keep watching.

The Element Of Crime (1984)

The first of Lars' Europa Trilogy, not the thirteenth.

Genre: Experimental Post-Apocalyptic Noir Thriller Drama (Denmark)

Starring: Michael Elphick (Withnail & I; Gorky Park), Esmond Knight (The River)

Directed By: Lars von Trier (The Five Obstructions; Manderlay)

Overview: A cop is called back from Cairo, in hopes that his expertise could help capture a serial killer. It's been thirteen years since he's been in Europe, and it's a far different place than Fisher remembers.

Acting: Slow, steady, meticulous, this is the style that Lars makes his characters take, and this is one of the things that help give it that Experimental feel. It's not a weird film, not a movie where the haphazard tertiary characters are strange and unusual for oddness sake, but they do have an intricately quiet pace, and they don't feel the need to explain their actions. Solid performances.
Rating: 8

Cinematography: Ever seen Hardware? Sadly, I made the mistake of seeing that one while taking my first year of photography in college. This film uses the same colour composition, and if you're sick of seeing the inside of a darkroom don't watch this. It's always dark and it's always orange sepia (with rare streaks of vibrant contrasting blue) so it's highly stylized, but Lars has this way of magically putting the camera in just the right place to wow you visually, be it in sweeps, zooms or rare angles. I thought it was beautiful in its bleak outlook.
Rating: 9

Script: "There are no seasons any more. The last three summers haven't been summers. The weather changes all the time. It never alters."

That's a perfect example of the style of writing employed here by this director. It's nonsensical, paradoxical and yet somehow advances the plot just enough to keep us in a muddy and vague understanding of the overall action. As with Last Year At Marienbad, I don't know whether to call it genius or not, but I will say that it's on purpose and there are some very poetic lines that drive home the ills of this strange society that now exists, and a valiant effort indeed.
Rating: 8

Plot: The plot itself is ironically ever-standard Noir. A cop chasing down a criminal, however the twist is the method he's using to catch him. This cop, Fisher, has a mentor who wrote a book called 'Element of Crime', a method of police work where the detective adopts as many of the habits of the criminal as possible, and lives as much like that person as they retrace their actions, their motives, their crimes. It's a cerebral Noir, because our protagonist struggles with himself far more than he ever could with any assailant.
Rating: 8

Mood: I'd never would have imagined Lars von Trier doing Film Noir in a million years. It's definitely original, I'll give it that. He certainly does what he can to flip a Genre on it's ear, but borrowing the ever-rainy, always dark, post-apocalyptic air from such perfect films as Blade Runner, made in 1982 might have a lot to do with that. Overall, the film might have been too symbolic, too nonsensical, but it is Avant-Garde before Noir, so don't expect to understand this perfectly.
Rating: 8

Post-Apocalyptic Europe, where cops beat on innocents and crimes go unpunished... Wait isn't that today's America?

Overall Rating: 82% (The Element Works Good, But Could Be Hotter)

Aftertaste: You might be too confused to appreciate this film, but if you go in knowing it's Avant-Garde, then you can forgive its nonsensical qualities before they occur. I myself expected something far more linear so it took an effort to make that shift. It's interesting how one can 'cue up' the right side of the brain, waking it up, inviting it to take over and do what the logic centers would be infuriated over. I guess that's what this taught me: knowing that something is Avant-Garde halfway through makes it less enjoyable than knowing it ahead of time. It's important to know what side of the brain should be working hardest before any endeavour...

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Mystery Train (1989)

Me and my girlfriend for the first 40 minutes of the film

Genre: Crime Drama Comedy (USA, Japan)

Starring: Steve Buschemi (Reservoir Dogs; Living In Oblivion), Nicoletta Braschi (Life Is Beautiful; Down By Law)

Directed By: Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers; Coffee And Cigarettes)

Overview: The tale of three stories that share the connection of Elvis and a hotel in Memphis, Tennessee.

Acting: Even Screamin' Jay Hawkins is in this and you know what? He's an amazing actor! Sadly he's not been in nearly enough films. Tom Noonan, a little known actor I've recently grown to love tells a wonderful little tale about the spirit of Elvis. You know, having Steve Buschemi in a movie is never a bad idea either. I did noticed some weak casting of tertiary characters or the occasional take that should have been redone, but overall for a low budget production, very decent.
Rating: 8

Cinematography: The shooting style is fairly standard, however there are successful attempt at art-house moments. The opening and closing shots, the decor of the rooms and the terrific costumes of the hotel staff are certainly the highlights in this category. The perspective you may have about a booming birth of Rock and Roll town like Memphis is quickly shattered by frequent spans of lazy streets and yards filled with broken cars and furniture. America, the Beautiful.
Rating: 7

Script: "Say, you have anymore of those Japanese plums, or any other exotic fruits from around the globe?"

The best written character would have to be Screamin' Jay Hawkins with such lines as the one above and 'you look like a damned mosquito-legged chimpanzee'. Again this category does not excel in poetry or insight as it is more common and everyday in its observations, but the language barrier lines are fun, and there's occasional wit strewn throughout. Where there are moment of monologue, they're more drunken ramblings or purposely annoying chatter. Good, but nothing memorable.
Rating: 7

Plot: One story about a Japanese tourist couple from Yokohama, one about a woman stuck in a layover, and one about Memphisites who prove that booze and guns don't mix. You've seen this kind of story before in Four Rooms, not to mention the exceptional Magnolia, and people like stories that reconnect the whole at the end, be it as simple as having it take place in the same apartment complex for the 10-Part Decalogue, or a brisk passing in the street as we see in the Three Colours trilogy (Bleu, Blanc, Rouge). If this tale did not have this connection, it would have failed in my books, because individually, the stories weren't all that fantastic.

Rating: 7

Mood: I'd have said that this was obviously an early directorial effort because of the pacing, but even Jarmush's newest, Broken Flowers, also drifts in a slow tone. His films need not concern themselves with the petty ramblings of dialogue, and that's special, but the overall themes of 'quirky synchronicity' just didn't resonate enough with me to move me. I've seen three of his films now, and I'll be giving him the full chance of five more, but I gather I'll have to expect the same from the rest, instead of those filled with lesson-teaching depth or action.
Rating: 7

My favorite's got to be Scremin' Jay, that plum-stealin' bastich

Overall Rating: 72% (I Think I Can, I Think I Can)

Aftertaste: If it's one thing Silent and Experimental film has taught me, it's the patience to endure long stretches of quiet characters. The girlfriend on the other hand, not so much. She often complained about the flow of the first act and though mostly redeemed at the end, she still did not see the reason for that first tale. After contemplation, I also thought that these Japanese tourists meshed poorly with the other two perfectly interlocked chapters. I'll agree their segment should have been much shorter, or more closely entwined in the fold.

Friday, August 25, 2006

True Romance (1993)

One of Squish's Top 10 All-Time Films

Genre: Action Crime Drama Romance Thriller

Starring: Christian Slater (Alone In The Dark; Heathers), Patricia Arquette (The Secret Agent; Stigmata)

Directed By: Tony Scott (Top Gun; Enemy Of The State)

Overview: Clarence falls in love and marries call-girl Alabama. When Clarence visits Alabama's pimp to go pick up her stuff, the newlyweds finds a lot more trouble than they bargained for.

Acting: Try this in one breath: Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Val Kilmer, Bronson Pinchot, Samuel L. Jackson, James Gandolfini, Chris Penn. I'm not for name dropping in film but Jesus Christ you can't help but be impressed. It's like they took every cool hip dude out there and invited them to a movie party.
Rating: 10

Cinematography: Of all the films I've reviewed, I've made note of good or great editing in only ten, so clearly it's not something I pay that close attention to. Originally Quentin planned this to be edited like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, using his 'end at the beginning and middle at the end' style, adding an element of mystery, but producers chose the standard linear fashion. What's incredible about this is that even with a standard storyline, the editing is a staccato juxtaposition implemented so perfectly that it makes the film seem so full of action all the time while still detailing plot elements quickly. Gandolfini's big scene, the cops' interjections at the end, the moments with Brad Pitt, it's a thrill ride the whole way through, and one hell of a roller coaster scene too, what a rush.
Rating: 9

Script: Who wrote this? None other than Quentin Tarantino, and I'm talking before the verbal diarrhea days of Kill Bill Vol. 2. The same foul-mouthed taboo dialogue as he spouted in Pulp Fiction is spouted by Dennis Hopper in this one. Look, of all films in the entire universe that I quote, this is the one I quote most often, from Bronson Pinchot's "You... You want me to suck his dick?!" to Saul Rubinek's "
Don't give me the finger. I'll fucking have you killed!" and "Oooo, that's imaginative. I've got more taste in my penis..." not to mention Brad Pitt's stoner, "Don't condescend me, man. I'll fuckin' kill ya, man."
Besides being the super-coolest, hippest script you ever heard, there's also the odd occasional moment of deep introspection or oratory genius by gangsters played by Gandolfini and Walken. Alright, alright I'm gonna stop before I blow in my pants.

Rating: 10

Plot: This movie is all over the place. You think it's just going to be a survival plot, then it turns into a vengeance plot, then you might wonder where it's going, until the opportunity of a lifetime presents itself and our cute couple decides to go all the way and risk it all, while guns and gangsters abound. If you think Quentin Tarantino writes spectacular action-filled endings, this one has those all beat. These are the times I wish I could break my spoilers rule! Oh, what drama!
Rating: 9

Mood: Granted, seeing a film for the eighth or ninth time has a way of messing with your neurons. I call it 'Synaptic Burn-In', that feeling you get when you watch a movie you've seen a dozen times and will always love for as long as you live because you just like the way your mind remembers it so clearly like it was yesterday. I'm doing all I can to remain neutral here, but with such a conclusion, and that exhilarating rush the whole way though... and who doesn't love Christopher Walken? Overall, the mood in this one is 'cool' and 'gangbusters' all at the same time, and it's hilarious too. It's just got it all.
Rating: 9

Tastes like a peach...

Overall Rating: 94% (Truly Amazing)

Aftertaste: There are so few films that I can think of that made me immediately want to run off and review it, the film so fresh and still exhilarating as I type. I hadn't really decided what my All-Time Top 10 Films were, but having seen this again made me realize it's sure on that list.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Silence Is Golden: The High Price of Transition To The Talkies (August 2006)

Technology can be a wonderful thing. It can extend lives, improve our quality of life and enlighten us in our knowledge of the world around us. But each coin has another side. The introduction of computers in the 80s lead to major downsizing in the 90s. In the 30s, people by the hundreds were being 'tractored out', as one tractor could replace ten able farmworkers. Imagine how many breeders, blacksmiths, street sweepers and stable-hands were put out of business when the automobile replaced the horse as our favoured mode of transportation? History is full of examples of people being squeezed out because of change and progress, and in Film, this was truest at the advent of the Talking Picture.

1927 introduced the popularity of talking pictures with Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, and within approximately two years, every picture made in Hollywood was a talkie. This caused a major upheaval in the industry, and though some actors managed to stay the course, most found themselves with waning careers, never being as big a star as they once were.

Others found their careers to be non-existent after just a few pictures.

Pola Negri was a very successful and rich Hollywood film starlet whose career included over fifty films, a woman who reportedly had romances with Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin. There were other impasses that saw her popularity wane but her thick Polish accent was one of the main reasons she stopped working in Hollywood.

Emil Jannings, the first winner of the Oscar for Best Actor, was a man with a heavy German accent that did not transition to talkies very well. He returned to Germany where he made several Nazi propaganda films, ending any chance of working in Hollywood again.

Clara Bow revealed a Brooklyn accent when she started making talking pictures, Vilma Banky sounded too Hungarian and Agnes Ayres sounded 'improperly pitched', many of the more common reasons for big names to go quiet.

Karl Dane, however, is perhaps the most tragic example of the harsh world of fickle success. In Hollywood he had a solid name for himself, with a career of almost fifty films as supporting cast and comic relief, having been in such record-breaking smash hits as Son Of The Sheik and The Big Parade. On a personal note, I grew to recognize this face and when he'd make his appearance in a film I wasn't so sure I'd like, I always
appreciated his presence as it always made for a better film.

Rasmus Karl Thekelsen Gottlieb was born and raised in Copenhagen, and when he started working in Hollywood, his thick Danish accent was not a problem until talkies, when, like several of his counterparts, he could not find work. He managed to get the occasional role, but by 1933, his career was over and he was earning money as a part-time carpenter and mechanic while training to become a plumber. He bought a hot dog cart to help make ends meet. Selling hot dogs outside of the studios he had once been a movie star in while watching his marriage fall apart drove him to depression, and in 1934 in his rented room he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a pistol.

Here's the thing though: people were so infatuated with the talking picture than for years the industry suffered, as the cameras were so loud that they had to be put in soundproof booths, reducing the cinematographic experience to an old standard of static, unmoving cameras. The sound equipment was also bulky and clumsy, so actors were also confined in their movements until the boom mike was invented.

If you ask me, those early talkies years were the worst that film had to offer. I may change my mind as I continue to explore those early days of the talkie, and I'm crossing my fingers in hopes that I find more gems thank stinkers, but I don't think it's going to happen. Unless of course, you have a recommendation...

Oh and a little Post Scriptum:

Thanks for reading The Film Vituperatem's 500th post, a fine milestone, thank you very much.

I'm celebrating in the nude.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Cavalcade (1933)

She's Afraid! Of The FUTURE!

Genre: Drama Romance War

Starring: Diana Wynyard, Clive Brook (Shanghai Express)

Directed By: Frank Lloyd (Mutiny On The Bounty; Blood On The Sun)

Overview: Based on Noel Coward's play, this story follows the lives and tribulations of wealthy Londoners from New Year's Eve, 1899 and through these fast-paced times until the present day (1933).

Acting: The original was a play, so why not act this one out the same way? Because 'Film' and 'Theater' are different mediums, and just because a cactus is shaped like a chair doesn't mean you should sit in it. Maybe it was the whole haughty accents and "oh my, mummy, wouldn't going to war be grand, mummy?" Britishstocracy crap that turned me off early, but it gets worse as the film progresses. Maybe it's just that I couldn't take it anymore, like a dentist drilling in that nerve, there. Clive Brook tried, but sadly couldn't carry everyone.
Rating: 5

Cinematography: There is far too little usage of the original and unique double exposure shots that are used to symbolise a quick passage of time. The best montage is when 1914 rolls around: soldiers march joyously while singing "It's A Long Way To Tipperary", approaching a battlefield, a church in the foreground. This is overlaid by double exposure shots of the occasional man falling from the line, clutching his chest. The years drift by, as the background of men marching get slower, become more haggard, and the church transforms itself into a bombed out husk of what it once was, with the field turning from verdant to wasteland. Sadly, most of the picture, though in different settings, are far too typical static shots.
Rating: 7

Script: I suppose the plot elements were delivered appropriately as mother rambled on about how these crazy wild times are changing all too quickly. How dated. Perhaps in today's day and age a passage of time from 1889 to 1933 may seem trite, but I don't consider these present-day times all that crazy myself. I guess the point was lost on me. Those romantic declartions on the bow of the Titanic, how ridiculously sappy, urgh.
Rating: 4

Plot: When reviewing Fanny and Alexander, I said "The fact that the scenes taking place are important life event moments to our players is the key." In this one it seems like all of it's too much. Oh, my you're in the Boer War! No! the Queen of England has died! Ack, you're on the Titanic! Wait a World War! Highlighting all the world's tragedies that take place over a lifetime and making them the cause of your 'my world interferes with my life' theory is weak. The best dramas are personal, not an inventory of the world's ills. I've seen far better 'span of a lifetime' films about a family that had far more intense worldly influences, like Sunshine for example. That was great, and it spanned THREE generations!
Rating: 4

Mood: The mood was 'Early Talkie British Hoity-Toity'. Wow, am I ever sick of that. Why Hollywood made so many films about Londoners I don't know, but I can't say I've ever liked it. This is another example of suffering for the things you love, just to gain greater perspective. The mood is perfect if it is Hollywood's way of explaining how historically this was their worst era for filmmaking. But I don't think that's what they were going for, even with snooty little brats growing up to be snooty little dolts.
Rating: 4

The best part of the film: a guy who doesn't have a visible pickle up 'is arse.

Overall Rating: 48% (Don't Beckon The Cavalry)

Aftertaste: Sometimes you can tell by the cover that something's just not all that great, but when you've vowed to watch every film in 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die, it's a small price to pay. Geez, what will I do when it's done?!

Antonio Gaudi (1984)

Remember when you took her to see the church, and you made her leave early? She hates you for that.
Genre: Experimental Documentary (Japan)

Directed By: Hiroshi Teshigahara (Woman In The Dunes; A Stranger's Face)

Overview: This documentary explores the wonders of Spain's most famous architect, Antonio Gaudi.

Hi Kiddies!

I'll do this one a little differently today, since this film does it's best to circumvent my efforts at the standard five-category rating scale that I'm used to providing. I thought that rather than forcing my paradigm, I'd give this review a more 'organic' approach.

You see, the Spanish Catalan Antonio Gaudi (1852 - 1926) was inspired by nature. All his architectural works, even the most modest contributions, had a strong streak of the organic, be it a leaf-like roof on a row of houses, or a street with all the buildings, roads and sidewalks as merely an element of the whole, so intricately designed that it is seamless, looking like it just belongs.

The film opens up looking at Spain, it's people, then a few moments of shocking and truly incredible martyr art, incorporating all sorts of murals depicting all manners of execution done unto Saints. We are then instantly immersed in Gaudi's works. We see shot after shot of the buildings he created, invented really, and that focus stays until the very end.

From churches resembling carved-out grottos to pavilions that serve more to delicately accentuate nature rather than defeat it, we see the up-close images and intricate detail of his genius. The wonder of Gaudi is not only in his grand designs, but even in more mundane buildings, as regular downtown streets are graced with his beauty, containing shops and apartments behind the smooth rolling facades looking like cliff faces with tiny burrows.

The piece-de-resistance, as they say, is the last, his greatest work, still in construction today, the Sagrada Familia, a church that builders hope will be complete 100 years after the Architect's death, in 2026. As expected, it is impressive to watch.

This film is also inspired by nature. It is voiceless save in the soft sounds of wind through trees, water drops tinkling on ice sheets as they melt, or in symphonies of synchronicity, setting up a mood perfectly chosen for such works. As you watch, you do not learn of a man's life or his tribulations, his inspirations or his friendships, we see simply what nature (in man) has created, and this is why such a film has such a profound effect. The documentary's approach is like going on a hike, observing that which exists, not asking why it was made or what happened to the creatures that lived there. It's a meditative and stunning trip through a life's work.

It comes as no surprise that the director is a man also inspired by nature as one can see from his own masterwork, the Existentialist film, Woman in The Dunes.

There were a few things that distracted, however. Imagine a film with no voices, and with ten minutes remaining, suddenly an old man in a chair speaks of the famous church. After everything that came before, it was out of place. His voice and subtitles interfered with the flow the film had taken, and rather than leaving it soundlessly poetic, it served to explain details that weren't even all that important.

I also would have appreciated a more organic manner of filming. When I noticed the slow rolling camera coming towards the doors of one of Gaudi's designs, it seemed natural, like I was there myself, and I hoped for this to continue. I wanted long takes of climbing stairs and drifting across halls, in a way similar to Russian Arc. When we followed the long line of seats on the pavilion he created, I wanted the camera to snake across it's edge as the architecture did to the nature it surrounded. From time to time the staccato of the beautiful still images seemed unnaturally machined, and I saw too many lost opportunities to have then mesh in unison. Had this happened I would have been far more moved than I was.

Overall Rating: 80% (A Nice Tone, Not Gaudy)

I would imagine that most people, like I did, after being astounded by the works of this man would then tip their hat to those who allowed him to build them. When observing the sights around Barcelona, seeing everything he's done, we're pleased that he was allowed this much creative control. I would not dare say that Gaudi is the only one with this degree of talent, that no one has existed since, with equally brilliant designs, but I do suspect that we need not only praise the governments that allowed this man's works to flourish to such a degree that a city became renowned for being able to contain his art, but we should also inspire other governments to allow such beauty back into their common city streets.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Faust (1994)

Of all three films entitled 'Faust' that I've seen, this is the best

Genre: Experimental Animation Horror Fantasy (Czech Republic, France, UK)

Starring: Petr Cepek, Jan Kraus

Directed By: Jan Svankmajer (Alice; Little Otik)

Overview: When a man's curiosity is piqued by a strange map, he follows it to discover an old theater. He decides to play along, immersing himself into Marlowe and Goethe's classic character Faust, a wise man who sells his soul to the devil.

Acting: The name Petr Cepek may not ring any bells to any of you out there, but he's famous enough to those living in the Czech Republic, with a healthy filmography under his belt. His role here as a suicidally curious, confused yet understanding everyman is terrific. The direction keeps the supporting cast in a zone of strangeness and you may find as I did that the life-sized marionettes, especially the foolish assistant, have become your favorite characters.
Rating: 8

Cinematography: The images are not as haunting as Svankmajer's Wonderland tale, Alice, but it is a story featuring demons and isolation, using an old theater as backdrop. We explore mostly the treacherous guts of a long-forgotten playhouse, but the occasional vast greenspaces and unkempt city settings as well. What truly makes this unique is Svankmajer's use of stop-motion and rustic marionettes. The stunning visuals and craftsmanship are truly the first reasons to see this.
Rating: 9

Script: Avant-Garde tends not to stray from silence, focusing on images rather than tale. The same is conveyed here, however those lines that ARE spoken are strictly those of the Faustian play, so you can rest assured that the tale is going to be well explained, but also told in a flourish of prose that is both dark and funny, certainly something for the fan of the poetic.
Rating: 9

Plot: I've read Marlowe's Faust, and having seen this film once before, I found that the mystery of this story is better told knowing the original tale. I explained the Faustian tale to my super-awesome girlfriend before we watched this outrageously loosely interpreted version. I was pleased that mid-way through the film, we were immersed in the story rather than the wonderfully strange Avant-Garde aspect of our everyman's journey. Those of you who may venture into this tale without knowing the original will be pleased at the thorough explanation. In essence, it's a play within a play, and the experiment is a success.
Rating: 9

Mood: Themes remain consistent from early on including a heavy dose of 'curiosity killed the cat' to the point that we wonder if our everyman will even make it out alive, assisted by a twinge of paranoia as a couple of men seem to be following him around. Age and yesteryear mesh with the modern day as the original old tale of Faust is told with the use of run-down props. 'Dusty' is certainly a term you could use to help describe this haunting tale.
Rating: 8

Yeah well, YOU make a golem and see it not turn out creepy!

Overall Rating: 86% (Devilishly Good!)

Aftertaste: Through our mutual love of Art-House film, the girlfriend's brother and I hit it off right away, and he graced me the honour of letting me borrow this from his vast new collection. In fact he was a little surprised as he didn't even remember buying it, not even aware of who Svankmajer was. Remember when you discovered something or someone for the first time completely by accident? There's something to be said about those good old days. I'm sure he'll find it a nice surprise when he gets around to watching it too.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Job (2001)

I was just as surprised to see Keith David in this as you were, believe me

Genre: Comedy Crime Series

Starring: Denis Leary (The Ref; Ice Age), Lenny Clarke (Snitch; "Rescue Me")

Created By: Denis Leary, Peter Tolan ("Rescue Me")

Overview: This detective police comedy does include the co-workers and cops at the police station, but tends to stay focused on Mike's vices, his wife and girlfriend, oh and the occasional case... right.

Acting: The series begins with the obvious gang: the partner with the overbearing wife, the immature girlfriend, the rookie gopher cops, and the big, fat, lazy, truly comedic comic relief. As the series progresses, they just get better. There's an episode with Elizabeth Hurley, and another one with Gina Gershon too. Look, if you even like Denis Leary a LITTLE you'll really enjoy this. My girlfriend was none too impressed when I brought this home, but she watched every single episode with me, cause they're just that good.
Rating: 8

Cinematography: Nothing special, but what more would you expect from television? No attempts at high-art, no rule of thirds or even that ultra-hip urban shaky-cam with cranked-out grain filters. Nope, just a static cam with a really believable set, and the occasional on-location shots. Yep, standard. Nothing to see here. Nope. More along people, move along.
Rating: 7

Script: "What do I tell my wife if I ate the soup with the head in it?"

"You say, 'Honey, I hope you're not making Ballerina Head for dinner... because that's what I had for LUNCH.' " - Frank and Tommy

It seems that every episode has lines to walk away with. There is a steady stream of bold, laugh-out-loud jokes combined with that 'you're getting in too deep' situational comedy. Add an overall quirky character undercurrent, and you might just be as happy as I was (if you're lucky). The best dynamic would have to be Frank and his partner Tommy. Every episode they cracked me up.
Rating: 8

Plot: I take back what I put in the Overview. There's really no case following all season. There's a few 'on the job' moments like stakeouts and such, but somehow Mike and Pip end up both leaving the car. Of course the season/series ends with this big 'hope you keep us alive' cliffhanger, but that's just the way television goes sometimes. As with most series of its genre, there is the occasional reference to an event that happened in a previous episode, but it's made in that stand alone kind of way that means you enjoy any of them without having seen the rest.
Rating: 8

Mood: Imagine The Shield, if you've ever seen it. This also has corruption, cheating on spouses and putting personal matters before police work. Now get rid of the politics, the drama and the whole 'job' side of things, toss in stories about a 'whack palace', cops dumping bodies on other precincts' jurisdictions cause they don't want the work, and about a bucketful of extra laughs. It's fun, an adult-silly.
Rating: 8

Ouch, what is it with marketing departments and the wind-swept look?

Overall Rating: 78% (It Works)

Aftertaste: Am I disappointed that there's no Season 2? Definitely, but it's nice going into a Series knowing there's no more, you can bolster yourself for the cliff-hangers. You may already know that Denis Leary's next project became "Rescue Me", another NYC Public Service Comedy Series, this time about firefighters. With a lot more drama and a couple people from this show, it's obvious there was a transition period until he was part of something that meshed. Three Seasons in so far and still going strong.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Le Samourai (1967)

Yeah, you look good, but 'cool' is STILL not the word I'd use.

Genre: Samurai Crime Drama Thriller (France, Italy)

Starring: Alain Delon (Rocco And His Brothers; Eclipse), Francois Perier (Orpheus; Nights Of Cabiria)

Directed By: Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob Le Flambeur; Les Enfants Terribles)

Overview: A perfectionist hitman who lives by a strict code similar to that of a Samurai Warrior is seen by several witnesses as he leaves the scene of a hit. What follows is our anti-hero's cool and calculated way of dealing with police, witnesses and those who hired him.

Acting: The direction of this film is legendary, they say. This is Melville's masterpiece, they say. Alain Delon was so cool that this film immortalized him, they say. I don't want to disappoint those hardcore fans out there, but I tried. I REALLY tried to like this film and I will attest that this is the best aspect. Everyone plays their part bang on, regardless of the fact that the huge-footed cabaret pianist love-interest with a tightly cropped haircut has no sex appeal whatsoever. Ugh, I'd go so far as to say 'distractingly unappealing'. How is the '12 year-old boy' look sexy, even to the French?
Rating: 8

Cinematography: Some scenes have gorgeous storyboarding, like the lone meeting at the train-station, or the opening shot with this man lying in his bed, smoking in his lonely run-down apartment. Yes, Alain consistently poses in a contrived model stance. I'm sorry, but while I sit here writing a review trying to find excuses to up the score simply to appeal to all the critics out there who love this film, I'll have to be the voice of dissent. There's really nothing all that impressive about this, including the fedora and raincoat. Wait! The white gloves were cool.
Rating: 7

Script: The best scene of the film for this category was the one where the cop turns over the hero's alibi's house, trying to intimidate her perfectly, explaining how a police officer must simply bend the rules from time to time. It's a smooth, suave, cool way of letting someone know they're on your shitlist. I can't think of any other instance where the dialogue served any purpose but to advance the plot. This wasn't nearly enough about character development. Yes, it's a film with long spans of wordlessness. That makes it an even better reason to have the words be more meaningful.
Rating: 7

Plot: Sadly the title "Criterion Collection" emblazoned across the cover served to introduce a certain expectation from this viewing. Namely, I expected to see something good and cool, a story about a modern-day samurai with a deep honourable streak, shown through a series of intense character-building moments, including assasinations. Instead we're stuck watching a hitman try to squirm out of a police investigation. We learn too much of a man's professionally quick reflexes rather than fully exploring a zealous undercurrent of duty. It's just a cop-chase film, don't try telling me it's all cerebral with subtext. I get it, and it didn't move me whatsoever.
Rating: 6

Mood: "A razor-sharp cocktail of 1940s American gangster cinema and 1960s French pop culture - with a liberal dose of Japanese lone-warrior mythology... defines cool".
How do YOU define cool? I think of the last definition in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which is 'FASHIONABLE, HIP'. Clearly the back of the box simply meant the other meaning: 'a: marked by steady dispassionate calmness and self-control.' This definition may be used without being considered false, but I was waiting for a character who was wily, expert, cunning, and who would never get himself in a situation like this. In short, I was expecting a completely different movie, where cool means slippery, where it doesn't simply mean a good look, but a character you'd want to be like. God, too Disco dated, my friend. Next time, get a piano player who's really playing the piano. Fake is distracting.
Rating: 7

The problem with being a samurai seems to be not being allowed to change out of your plainly recognizable outfit.

Overall Rating: 70% (Uh, More Like A Ronin Actually, Not To Split Hairs)

Aftertaste: I know it's not about 'Samurai' as in Job Description, but Samurai as in the Warrior's Code and Way of Life, fine, but the code of "You Live To Die" does not mean going out of your way to be suicidally stupid. As a hitman, a killer, when someone gets a perfect look at you, you kill them, not woo them, problem over. You get rid of ALL the evidence, including the coat and hat you wore while doing the deed. You don't wear it out everyday even though you know you're being tailed. It's not armour for God's sake, ditch it. I feel truly bad that I didn't like this movie to the degree everyone else does, but I can't help it. Could you please do me a favour and explain to my why this is so good? I promise to listen!