Saturday, July 29, 2017

My So-Called Life (1994-95)


(This review appears at Wonders in the Dark on their Top 80 Television Series of all time countdown at #49)

“It just seems like you agree to have a certain personality or something..... for no reason......just to make things easier for everyone. But when you think about do you even know it’s you?”
- Angela Chase

It’s hard to overstate the impact of My So-Called Life and the long shelf-life it has had, considering it only had one truncated season. No other show has ever captured the daily angst and passions of teenage life with as much honesty and intensity as this one. It is both a time-capsule piece and a progressive, universal kind of work. Had it played on premium cable, no doubt it would have survived long past its initial year. It has thus inspired an obsessive cult following since its initial run with strongly devoted followers and critics often labeling it as one of the 10 greatest cult shows of all time and/or the greatest teen drama in all of television. It inspired a whole generation of fans that have continued to keep the show alive and relevant through (indulge me here) the creation of binge-watching guides, revelatory sexual awakening GIFs, fashion tributes, fashion analysis with the costume designer- including an outfit-by-outfit breakdown of everything Angela wore during the show, a book of critical analysis and essays, a breakdown of the show’s use of music, fantasy reunions, rumors of reunions, actual reunions, continued discussions with Winnie Holzman (writer), and re-watch analysis as an adult, among many other things. There is simply no end to the insatiable passion the show has inspired and continues to inspire.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Allan Fish Online Film Festival: Street Angel (1928) - Frank Borzage

 (Re-posted with updates in honor of the Allan Fish Online Film Festival)

”Everywhere….in every town….in every street….we pass, unknowing, human souls made great through love and adversity.”

One of Allan Fish's greatest gifts was sharing his passion for films long forgotten or never fully appreciated. In keeping with that theme, my review highlights a film never before posted to Wonders in the Dark. Certainly not made for cynical audiences, Borzage represents a style of filmmaking that has mostly fallen out of favor. Here we have a director who pulls together themes of love and hardship, complete with expressive use of atmosphere: streets, apartments, rooftops filmed with scintillating panache. Then, throw all this together with heavy doses of melodramatic plot twists that are simply too crazy to believe. Melodrama, in the hands of Sirk or Fassbinder, tends to be something that modern audiences have welcomed. Their use of color and symbolism adds a layer of subversive commentary that Borzage lacks. But, Borzage excels at a certain kind of irony-free, old-fashioned story-telling that to my mind is worth championing for its propellant emotional energy.

Although 7th Heaven gets most of the attention, and Lucky Star is a hidden gem, Street Angel is my favorite Borzage film and is a romantic masterpiece of the highest order, provided you’re willing to suspend disbelief. It is the story of Angela (Janet Gaynor), who in need of  money to purchase medicine for her mother attempts to prostitute herself on the street. She winds up getting arrested for robbery and sentenced to a year in a work house. She runs off before being imprisoned and escapes to find her mother dead at home. She avoids the cops and runs off to join the circus, where she meets a painter named Gino. They strike up an awkward friendship, but soon bond and fall in love. Their blossoming love, and impending marriage is threatened when the police find her again. She is taken to prison while Gino is unaware. He thinks she is lost forever and things get really interesting when she is released from prison a year later.

Janet Gaynor won the first Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayals in three films: Sunrise (1927), 7th Heaven (1927), and Street Angel (1928). AMPAS first designed these awards to be based upon an actor’s body of work for that entire year. Her performances in the Borzage films are tops, and Street Angel is the best of the three for me. She’s simply magic here. Sunrise doesn’t quite capitalize on her sincere and varied emotional qualities as well as the Borzage films, and in fact Borzage makes far greater use of her range than Murnau’s film. She also has great chemistry with her leading man, Charles Ferrell, whom she appeared with in a total of 12 films together! His performance here is solid, and much more understated than in 7th Heaven.

Borzage’s use of wildly ridiculous melodramatic elements is to my mind, highly entertaining and emotionally satisfying, and a significant draw to his appeal. In the Borzage universe, the obstacles thrown in love’s way forces one to sacrifice, make tough choices, and is a true test of how devoted one’s love is. Love is not proven true until it perseveres beyond adversity, and this is most apparent in Street Angel. His emphasis on depth of field, layered set design, and shadowed lighting are also impeccable. Street Angel includes some fantastic tracking shots and pans, use of silhouette, and of particular note, there is an intensely crafted scene among thick fog along the docks at the end of the film. This is a memorable set-piece, filled with suspense and romantic desperation that then culminates in a perversely emotional climax that finishes in a church. Although I don’t know how Allan felt about this film (he doesn’t list it in his 5,000 important works so I suppose that says something), I hope viewers find ways to appreciate this one.   

View here:

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Allan Fish Online Film Festival

To honor the late Allan Fish, I will be participating in this online film festival. Looking forward to this experience where we can share access to all sorts of films available for viewing online, much as he did during his brief but brilliant life.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Kes (1969) - Directed by Ken Loach

Billy Casper lives with his elder brother Jud and his mother. They live in a small flat in a factory/mining town in Northern England. Both brothers share the same bed. Billy goes about each day to school wearing the same outfit, always looking rather worn and dirty. He cares not. When he’s not at school, Billy can be seen wandering around town on his paper route, stealing milk or meandering around the countryside with a stick, whacking away at brush and weeds or doing a bit of birdwatching, or getting into a fight with his brother. Though Billy seems to have a great deal of freedom to spend his time as he pleases, his existence has a predestined endpoint based upon where he lives and the family he has born into. In his world in Northern England, there is little hope for a future full of possibilities. He’s expected to learn little in school and indeed, nearly all of the adult figures in the film seem to have it in for Billy. Without fighting against the grain, Billy is likely to take a low paying job in the mines, just like his elder brother does or his father may have done. We would know more about his father if he hadn’t left the family. Billy lives in a world where nearly everyone expects the worst in him, or even goes so far as to antagonize him to keep him down, especially the school superintendent who seems determined to crush everyone’s spirits.

In the same way that some parents may try to steer their children to more practical choices when they hear that they want to pursue a career as a painter or English major instead of a lawyer or doctor. Billy also finds a most ‘impractical’ object of interest instead of prepping to pursue a more appropriate career in a factory or mine: Training a kestrel. After seeing some kestrels flying in a field, Billy pilfers a book on the subject of Falconry from a local bookshop. Determined to pursue this quest, he rather quickly becomes a master on the subject. Not only does Billy catch a kestrel, but he houses, feeds, and trains it with such a respect for craft and expertise that he begins to take on a sort of maturity of spirit through his relationship with the bird he calls Kes. As time marches on, Billy splits his time between school and his bird, with Kes being his clear favorite thing in the world. Billy finds a certain peace and power shifted to him through his passion, ingenuity, and initiative to train his bird, which in its own way is his act of social defiance as he refuses to conform to the expectations of mediocrity and humiliation set before him by parents, school principles (“Your’s is the generation that never listens!” ), coaches and employment agencies.

David Bradley’s performance as Billy goes down as one of the most naturalistic in the realm of childhood roles. You never for once see him attempting to act. Ken Loach of course supports this approach through the way he films, but you still have to cast it correctly. Billy is so slight and grungy that he seems more like a 10 year-old boy who rolls in the mud, rather than a 15 year-old boy on the cusp of young adulthood. There are all those things he’s supposed to be thinking about at age 15, like girls. But, Billy has a state of mind devoid of distractions like that. For him, he sees no limitations yet, refuses to give in, and is determined to let his interests carry him through the day without anyone stopping him. Despite the fact that people believe Billy can’t read (“What's tha got this (book) for when thou can't read?”), Billy clearly can read above the ability that is expected of him. Billy’s voice-over while training the bird, as he repeats the lines from the book regarding feeding and training, act both as a means of showing us how intentional Billy is to follow the guidance in the book to the last detail, but also to show us that he is internalizing it, mastering it and can clearly read above and beyond what others think he can.  

I would be remiss if I forgot to mention a particular vignette in the film. There’s a funny and very detailed sequence during a physical education session where the gym teacher gathers all the boys to play soccer for their exercise for the day. The coach seems to live in some kind of absurd man-child existence. It’s pretty hilarious when the coach says, “Alright we’re Manchester United, who are you?” The teacher is playing harder than any of the boys and makes it seem like it’s a life and death match, pushing the kids around, calling penalties and generally wreaking havoc. To my mind, this sequence is about as accurate a depiction of what it’s like to be a bunch of boys called together to play a game on a field. Half the boys aren’t even paying attention with two fat boys playing some kind of pat-a-cake game and Billy climbing on the goalpost driving the teacher nuts. It’s a rather hilarious and truthful sequence in all, inducing both laughs and cringes and is one of the highlights of the film. Loach has a lot of fun with this sequence by displaying the score of the game as if it’s a live broadcast on television.

Loach builds the film to its most moving sequence when Billy has to relay a truthful story to the class. Everyone pressures him into talking about his bird. He proceeds to explain to a rapt audience about how he trained his bird Kes, how he feeds it, how he trained it to fly on the leash and then how he got up the gumption to let Kes fly without a leash. It’s a riveting scene and it’s mostly due to the way Billy comes to life when he talks about his bird. It’s his time to shine. What is so defining about this scene is that it is a window into the possibilities that may lie ahead for Billy. This display of passion, leadership and expertise is a shock to those around him (even his teacher) as it goes completely against what his “life’s calling” is supposed to be. Even Billy’s teacher finally gives attention to him, coming to visit him and his bird and witnessing what Billy and his bird can do. It’s the one moment where an adult takes an interest in supporting Billy. Loach thus reminds us through this of the importance of parents, teachers and mentors in the lives of all children and how they can support the children in their lives. Yet, the end of the film is a quick comedown as Billy’s life in Northern England isn’t going to provide any easy pathways. His brother swiftly kills Kes to repay a bit of mischief on Billy’s part. One couldn’t think of anything more cruel or spirit-crushing to happen to Billy. He doesn’t let the bird stay in the trash-can though, fishing him out of there to give him a proper burial. Despite this grievous loss, there’s clearly been growth in Billy. Kes is a masterful, realistic coming of age story, told with particular grace and sensitivity by Ken Loach.  

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Boyhoood (2014) - Directed by Richard Linklater

When I recall my childhood, there is a remembrance of a certain feeling I used to have a kid. I used to feel like the years dragged on and on and never seemed to end. Christmas never came soon enough. Birthdays took too long to come around again. Summer dragged on in a stream of endless days. Boredom often creeped in and time seemed to go so slowly that I couldn’t stand it. I’m not sure if that’s a common feeling that many of us had as children, but it’s certainly something that came to my mind often. There was something that always made me feel like I wished adulthood would come soon. But it seemed so far away. Flash forward to my current existence at the age of 35. Months seem to flash by in the blink of an eye. There is never enough time to do everything I need to accomplish or want to accomplish. It seemed we were just getting our two girls to be potty-trained and now BOTH of them will be getting on the bus in September. It’s getting so I can hardly remember how my girls behaved and acted when they were younger. At some point in time, our lives go from dragging on slowly, to flashing in front of us so quickly that we can hardly keep up. I can’t pinpoint when that changed for me, but it certainly has and I have no doubt it may be many years again before time slows if it ever will.

Some might focus on the fact that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a story of a young boy and his growth from small child to young manhood. With my current perspective as parent, more so than child, the film plays more for me as an example of just how quickly time passes, how fleeting our family units can be, how so much of life becomes a blur, and especially from the parental perspective: how quickly our children grow up. In this way, it simply, but devastatingly examines  childhood as if we are loving relatives, guardians or parents, viewing the story of Mason Evans through our own lens, wherever we may be on that spectrum. For me it’s clear that Linklater, who was the father of his 8 year-old daughter Lorelei whom he cast in this film in 2002, was influenced by his own childhood, but also by his own sense of parenting a child. For many parents, every year that passes can be marked most often by things their children are doing. Boyhood can be viewed in nearly the same way and is the mode of reflection that resonates most with me.

As it plays out for nearly 3 hours, we view in vignette form, a sequence or two filmed using the same actors and actresses over the course of 12 years. These sequences are magically edited and strung together so effortlessly, the film almost never seems to skip a beat despite the length of the filming process. Ellar Coltrane plays Mason from age 6 to age 18. Lorelei Linklater plays his older sister Samantha; Patricia Arquette plays their mother Olivia; and Ethan Hawke plays the father Mason Sr. It’s hard to describe any particular sequence as being a standout as the film truly is greater than the sum of its parts, with each successive scene (and therefore passage of real time) building exponentially upon the previous. Most of the plot could be considered fairly standard and straightforward stuff: parental separation, moving, remarriage, divorce, girlfriends, drugs etc. What is most memorable is just how effortless and weighty it all becomes with the impact of the aging of the actors and how quickly the changes occur in front of us. To quote Ethan Hawke, the film is “a little like time-lapse photography of a human being”. But considering it’s such a conceptually-gimmicky premise, the film is superbly underplayed and unassuming with a strong sense of humble honesty. Linklater lays out the film for us and lets the aging actors do things to our minds that no other film trickery could do. I recall hearing about the premise of this film at the time of the release of Before Sunset back in 2004 and thinking about how cool and amazing it would be if Linklater was ever able to finish the film. However, I did have my doubts about being able to execute such a lengthy project as Boyhood. It is one of the more significant film achievements to have completed Boyhood as initially planned and have it turn out as simple and edited together as if there was never a hitch. It’s really a marvel of a film.

And this now brings us back to real life and our own existence. It’s hard not to feel like time is slipping away. You try to make time to slow down and enjoy the moment as often as you can but there is a prevailing sense that it’s all futile and time will slip away very quickly. Our memories will fade and fail; our efforts will often go unnoticed and we’ll fail to appreciate the things and people around us. I think Patricia Arquette’s monologue sequence at the end of the film is something that leaves a strong impression upon me. She says, “You know what I'm realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced... again. Getting my master’s degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what's next? Huh? It's my fucking funeral!” She ends by saying, “I just thought there would be more.” As I read into that last line, it can be more of many things: more time with our children, more to life, more time to enjoy the journey. The more we mark time, the more we realize what has passed us by. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Gone Girl: Insult to Cinema

So now I'm relegated to writing about films that arise deep dissatisfaction. Last year, 2014, continues to be the year of cinema that underwhelms and annoys. And in the case of Gone Girl, I would say we have found the biggest example of cinematic tripe disguised as critically praised masterpiece. From all corners (88% Rottentomatoes, 79% Metacritic), this film has gotten heaps of praise. In this day and age, that's not necessarily saying anything though. Today's critical establishment is made up of numerous self made critics, the likes of which can gain access to these sites through blogs or online "zines" without any actual significant time building up a reputation over the years. Heck even I could be one of them if I really wanted to. The years of Siskel and Ebert are so far behind us, it's almost comical with which we look to sites like RT or Metacritic to tell us that a film is great, due to the network of nobody's that make up the data set. But I guess I'm not surprised that it's a Fincher film that is drawing my ire. I find his cinema to be stilted, manipulative and misogynistic. Gone Girl continues his grand tradition. It is far and away the worst film of 2014 that I've seen, as it positions itself as some kind of intelligent, pulpy noir, but in actuality, is a manipulative, pretentious, misogynistic piece of trash.

One of my main issues with the film is the way that it shifts point of view to serve the needs of suspense and entertainment. The first hour carefully avoids telling us certain information in order to set up the final 90 minutes. We're not even privy to the Ben Affleck character's every move in order to build suspicion of his character, when in actuality, the story never follows through on this point of view, continually shifting to the Rosamund Pike character's voice over in flashbacks. These flashbacks near the beginning are deliberately manipulated to allow us to believe she's the innocent voice from the grave. But it's only the lack of information provided by the director that deliberately avoids telling us her true story until the entertainment requires the switch of tone in the second half. If it's one thing I can't stand, it's a director whose film only becomes entertainment through bait and switch. Literally, the suspense and structure of the entire film revolves around the director leading us on through avoidance of complete information. If you think back to shifting points of view in Rashomon (1950), one realizes it was done to speak to the audience about truth. Shifting points of view in Gone Girl are only utilized to keep us needlessly guessing. I literally cannot understand how the critical masses were foolish enough to allow themselves to be blindly entertained by such manipulative and self-serving cinema. Literally the first hour is pointless set-up to serve the needs of the switcheroo. As was put well by another review, this is a cinema of obfuscation.

This is not to mention the extreme misogynism of the film. Every female character in this film is either a fool, a gossip, an easy woman, or a psycho. The lying and cheating husband is positioned as practically a Saint in this film compared to all the women. The Detective Rhonda Boney character is shown to be slow to act and indeed paralyzed into inaction at the end even when she knows the truth. What about the gossipy women on the newscasts who appear petty and flighty? What about the sister who is so subserviently tied to her brother that she can't come up with anything to do but find ways to support him? What about the Andie Fitzgerald girl who gets naked for one scene, appearing like the uncaring, easy woman with nothing more to add? What about the "trailer trash" girl at the cabin? What about the "best friend" who unwittingly pees her way into a con? Last but not least, what about the Amy character, who is a complete psycho, who has gone so far off the grid that her manipulation and revenge tactics make her par with the devil? All of this makes the Ben Affleck character and the Tyler Perry characters look like the "sane" ones in a sea of crazy, idiotic women. Gone Girl is offensive and unintelligent in the worst way. All those critics that got fooled by it should have their responsibilities for film criticism removed.

Friday, December 26, 2014

What happened to 2014?

To think that anyone has missed my blogging over the last 6 months is probably no reason to begin writing again. There are always numerous blogs and sites to get opinions from. Mine is no more valid than anyone else's. However, I have missed writing about films. Perhaps the reason is that I have not had the urge to write about any of the films I've seen lately. I literally haven't been inspired to write about anything because I seemingly have seen very little that has been worth writing about. To date, I have not seen one film released in 2014 that is worthy of being deemed a masterpiece. By this time last year, I'd already seen Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, Before Midnight, To the Wonder, Wolf of Wall Street etc. In looking back at my 2013 list, I'm amazed at the number of magnificent films...

11. Fill the Void
10. Short Term 12
9. To the Wonder
8. The Wolf of Wall Street
7. Blue Jasmine
6. Prisoners
5. Laurence Anyways
4. The Act of Killing
3. Gravity
2. Before Midnight
1. 12 Years a Slave.

But getting back to the films released in 2014, I've been continually let-down. I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan, and there is a buddy of mine who I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel with who is also a huge fan, and neither of us found it to be as emotionally resonant as his 3 best works (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom). Or there is Ida, which is being so highly praised in many places. It was very good, but didn't blow me away. Under the Skin was highly repetitive throughout its runtime. It had some inspired spots, but it didn't shine throughout. Interstellar was solid, as was Mr. Turner. I also really liked Enemy, and The Fault in Our Stars. But I still haven't seen a masterpiece. This is not a complete list, but a sampling of what I saw and what I thought.

Out of 4 stars....

Interstellar ***
The Fault in Our Stars ***
Mr. Turner (UK) ***
The Grand Budapest Hotel ***
Hateship, Loveship ***
Ida ***
Calvary (UK) ***
Belle ***
Under the Skin (UK) ** 1/2
Snowpiercer * 1/2
Frank *
The Lego Movie **
The Theory of Everything **
Still Alice ***
The Double * 1/2
Enemy *** 1/2
Gloria ** 1/2
Blue Ruin ***
The Lunchbox *** 1/2
A Most Wanted Man ***
Chef ***
Tim's Vermeer ***
Joe ***

So I suppose at this point, the closest ones to being truly great were Enemy and The Lunchbox. But Enemy had a few spots that felt un-fleshed out, and The Lunchbox, though borderline a masterpiece, was a 2013 film in some circles. 

Maybe I am losing touch with the cinematic medium this year. I just don’t see how I could have 11 films I adored last year, and none from this year. It’s so strange. This is probably having more to say about me than anything else I suppose. Part of this disappointment with finding great films has caused my blogging to dissipate, as I mentioned. I just haven’t been inspired to write about anything. This isn’t to say I didn’t like Budapest and Mr. Turner or Interstellar. I liked them all. But they weren’t full-on masterpieces to me. There are still many films to see....Boyhood, Birdman, Foxcatcher, etc. I'm hoping for a great film soon.