Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Blade Runner (1981) - Directed by Ridley Scott

A lot has changed in the last 30 years, not the least of which is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which has seen multiple versions both released in theatres and on home video/DVD distribution. Upon its release in a sneak preview in 1981, the film was deemed too confusing, and thus Scott and star Harrison Ford were forced to input a rather awful voice over for the mainstream American release, a film which I really didn't like very much. There was a more violent International cut, followed by a “Directors Cut” in 1992, which Scott never approved. At least it removed that voice-over though! What was always apparent to me in all of the versions I had seen until recently (watched on TV, Pan-and-Scan VHS, or even that Director’s Cut DVD), including the U.S. release and the Director’s Cut, was a muddled visual aesthetic, as if the film was artificially darkened beyond comprehension. I’m not sure if it was the newer remastered “Final Cut” on Blu-Ray, my new TV, or a combination of the two, but to me, Scott’s film has never looked better than it does now, justifying and enhancing its high status as one of the watershed cinematic experiences of the last thirty years.

Scott’s film, based on Philip K. Dick’s short story, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”, is a sci-fi neo-noir of epic proportions that has been highly influential to multiple sci-fi, neo-noir, and anime films that have followed. It concerns the story of Deckard (Harrison Ford) who is a “Blade Runner”, a hit man of sorts charged with hunting down and killing “Replicants”, which are androids that are nearly identical to actual humans who are used as slave labor in space exploration. Specifically, Blade Runner follows Deckard as he tracks a group of Replicants who have gone rogue on earth after killing some humans. Replicants look like humans from the outside and can even have emotions and learned behavior that they put together to create the semblance of a fully functional human being. We learn that they are rather desperate though, as they are only given a 4-year life span and will do anything to try to find a way to extend their lives. Deckard soon finds out that the task of “playing God” is a troubling endeavor.

Blade Runner has an aura about the way that it conveys its story, which is something out of pulp magazines, graphic novels or comic books combined with traditional film noir. All of it looks familiar, and yet it feels completely fresh and vital still today. Much of the credit to the film's success should be given to production designer Lawrence Paull, art director David Snyder and the multiple effects artists who drop us so mercilessly into a piteous Los Angeles, circa 2019, filled with towering, monolithic buildings, smog and pollution, continuous rain and darkened skies. In particular, the lighting of the film is monumental, standing up against something like The Third Man (1949), for perhaps greatest use of light and darkness of any film in history. Observe the way that light peers through window blinds, enlightening faces with chiaroscuro palettes. Or look at the use of neon lights, reflective surfaces, and smoke to create romance and tension. This film simply looks spectacular.

Rivaling the lighting, are the faces of the actors. This film is actually a continuous barrage of fascinating faces: Harrison Ford’s downtrodden and hard-boiled Deckard; Rutger Hauer’s Nordic aloofness complete with screaming, white hair; Sean Young’s angelic face, filled with tears and smeared mascara; Daryl Hannah’s mannequin-like perfection turned into a harlequin with white and black paint; Edward James Olmos’s pockmarked wise man. Considering the heavy doses of atmosphere, though, the film retains a dose of emotion. The Replicants’ drive to stay alive and become more human is almost fairy-tale in its quality. They are fully sympathetic antagonists, and this coupled with the gory violence strikes the viewer with a sadness and remorse. Thus, the film can play as highly emotive film noir, not just a stylistic exercise or a superficially cool film, something I have begun to call emo-noir, which is a term I used to describe Drive (2011). Although I don’t consider Scott to be an auteur in the strict sense, he has made a few remarkable films, Blade Runner being his best.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

My Week With Marilyn (2011) - Directed by Simon Curtis

I have been traveling and working in the UK for the last four weeks. As I write this, I am entering into my final week of this trip. I have spent time working with many wonderful British people as well as getting a deep dose of the culture here and the work ethic. I also had the privilege of spending some time traveling around the country on some days off, taking in the beauty of the Lake District and even Scotland before the snow fell. It was wonderful to have this experience. However, I’ve also at times felt like a fish out of water. One of the great challenges to being in another country once the sightseeing stops, is to try to function within normal society. I haven’t encountered any other Americans on this trip (perhaps a good thing), which added to the feeling of being different. Maybe it’s the time of year or the poor economy, but it has been interesting to be the “only American” around. I’ve felt like the odd one out, speaking with an American accent at the grocery store or the mall doing ordinary things where tourists don’t normally venture. Today, in fact, I went somewhere that tourists don't normally go: I went to the cinema and saw Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn.  Not only is it a brilliant entertainment and a superb fantasy, but I found a catharsis and sympathy in Marilyn’s plight, as she too was a fish out of water in this story involving her coming to England to shoot a rather ill-fated film with actor/director Laurence Olivier.

My Week with Marilyn is based on the diaries and memoir by Colin Clark, “The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me” and "My Week With Marilyn"(he was 3rd Assistant Director on The Prince and the Showgirl), where he recounts his short-term, but supposed deep connection to the most famous of movie stars: Marilyn Monroe, played with pure conviction here by Michelle Williams. In 1956, she embarked on a project with Laurence Olivier (played by Kenneth Brannagh), pairing the two of them in The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), with Olivier in fact behind the camera as well as in front. Olivier's film is a rather bland confection, but Clark’s memoir (he was 3rd Assistant Director on the film), and My Week With Marilyn, documents the story of Monroe’s difficulty to work with Olivier during the production, her troubles with her new marriage to Henry Miller, and the rather odd and fortuitous (for Clark) relationship with the young Clark during the making of the film. Many of the best and most interesting scenes in the film involve Marilyn, her Method acting coach Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker), and Olivier as they fuss and fight over work styles. For fans of classic cinema, these scenes are absolutely delicious fun.

I don’t normally go for films like this. I found last year’s The King’s Speech (2010) to be rather as expected, not containing many surprises. There might be something more to My Week With Marilyn though. This is not a “biopic”, which is usually meant to portray the entire life and breadth of a key figure. Instead, this film captures a short term glimpse of a star and is not subjective to the baggage of normal biopics, with the usual length and sogginess that comes with trying to capture everything. This is a film from Clark’s perspective looking at Marilyn Monroe, not the internal perspective of Marilyn looking outward. We never really encounter Marilyn except in the presence of Clark, or sometimes Olivier as well. In this way, Marilyn remains at a distance from us just as initially Clark is at a distance from her. When Clark is brought inter her inner circle, we have the privilege of going there with him. It is the paralleled point of view of Clark and the audience that maintains this important synergy. What in fact makes the movie succeed is this rather strict and intentional point of view that allows the audience to maintain a link with the subjective source of the material, rather than become distanced as objective observers of the proceedings. Clark is a rather blank canvas of sorts. We project ourselves into his shoes and we become Clark through this point of view. It’s not that we are flies on the wall. We are, in fact, this young man. He, in essence, lived out what millions of people would consider their greatest fantasy: to spend intimate moments with a mega star. Be it Marilyn Monroe, Greta Garbo, Michelle Williams (or whomever), there surely are times when moviegoers or fans have dreamed about what it would be like to meet such a person. I’ve wondered myself what it would be like if I could go back in time and have lunch with Garbo. What would I say? What would I do? My Week With Marilyn allows us to realize such a fantasy and put us right in the middle of it. Of course, what's in it for Marilyn? It's all mostly a trifle with nothing behind it. She is directionless, drugged, and utterly tragic and despairing. Clark gets to enact his rather selfish fantasy. But, Marilyn remains the exploited one in all of this. Where is her solace to be found?

Of course here is where we must have a discussion of Michelle Williams. I’m beginning to wonder whether I should turn my entire blog into a Michelle Williams fan page as I’ve already written about her glorious acting in Blue Valentine (2010) and Meek’s Cutoff  (2010) and my vote of approval at this point is rather redundant. However, I must admit that normally when I see an actor or actress take a role such as this, I tend to think of it as a sellout. In this case though, I feel like Williams has paid her dues. She’s done the indie films and the small pictures and created tremendous work along the way. Thus, I think she deserved this role and the chance to shine for the masses. I think Williams has earned all the accolades she will get for this role. Whether it’s her greatest performance or not isn’t a point to bicker on. It will likely be her iconic performance though. It will be the one she is remembered for by most people many years from now. As Monroe, Williams rightly stays far from any sense of caricature. She doesn’t play it too big, which allows the audience to sympathize with her humanity, and there is a deep humility and respect at the core of the performance that provides a transparency even though Marilyn remains rather enigmatic. It’s brilliant stuff all the way.

Whether all of this really happened back in 1956 is beside the point. The conceit works whether it’s truth or fiction. I would probably be so inclined to believe that with decades in hindsight, Clark’s memoir (which I haven’t read yet) would be highly subjective to the haze that envelope memories as they grow old. I actually think the film tends to capture the golden glow of such memories to the point that the film is rather absurdly glossy. This is not a flaw. On the contrary, if the film were to enact a greater sense of importance or realism, it could have become far too soggy. By keeping the glossy and glowing look, it gives greater weight to the subjective point of view and perspective, and I personally could care less whether the story is true or completely fabricated. It works cinematically, and that's my main concern. Although it’s clearly not the best film of the year, it is one of the best films of its kind and in my world there is room for films like this.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Before Sunset (2004) - Directed by Richard Linklater

(This review contains spoilers)
In Before Sunset, Linklater’s follow-up to his romantic masterpiece Before Sunrise (1995), we pick up Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) 10 years after they initially met on a train in Europe. Their epic day spent in Vienna talking, ruminating about life and falling in love, ended with our two lovers departing and making plans to meet up 6 months later on the train platform where they parted ways in Vienna. Of course, they leave without exchanging phone numbers or any contact information, which leaves the viewer very skeptical that they would ever meet again. In Before Sunset, we learn not just what happened 6 months later, but also what else has transpired in their lives since then. Not only is Before Sunset a brilliant and essential follow-up to the first film, in some ways, it’s better.

At the beginning of Before Sunset, we meet Jesse at a bookstore where he is signing copies of his book in a Parisian bookstore. His book, apparently somewhat popular, is the “fictional” account of his day and night with Celine, which occurred roughly 10 years before. Celine happens to be in the bookstore, eyeing Jesse from the stacks of books. They make eye contact and Jesse drops what he’s doing and goes over to see her. They meet awkwardly, slowly begin conversation, and decide to go walk around Paris while talking, before Jesse has to catch an evening plane from Paris to his next stop. We understand immediately that Celine and Jesse never met up 6 months after their initial day together. In fact, this point is discussed early on in the film, clearing up some mystery as to why they didn’t get together. Jesse had made it back to Vienna, but Celine missed the date because her Grandmother died right beforehand, with the funeral occurring on that fateful Dec. 16, thus eliminating any chance of them meeting up again, until now. They spend the rest of the film, as in the first, talking about their lives.

If there’s one part of the film that doesn’t quite work well, it’s actually the opening moments of the film where Celine and Jesse meet. It feels a bit forced and awkward in that bookstore. Once they get out on the streets, the film takes off and the chemistry so electric in the first film, comes into focus again. When comparing the films, it is obvious that Before Sunrise is easily the most traditional of the two, including proceedings more entertaining for standard audiences. What the first film leans on are the encounters with various passers by: the actors, the palm reader, the poet-bum. These encounters pace the film and break up the “monotony” of having two people talk the whole time. In Before Sunset, side characters are eliminated. It is essentially Celine and Jesse, alone for 75 minutes in one long conversation. Thus, cinematically, it’s more risky, and also therefore less romantic in the traditional sense. I feel that this approach is probably closer to what Linklater was trying to get at in the first film, but, Linkater succeeds here in that he’s able to convey the ephemeral time together better. This film nearly occurs in real time, providing us essentially with the lone 70-90 minutes that they have to catch up. In this way, he infuses the film with a fleeting realism. This realism is also apparent in the progression of the discussions which go from polite introductions and jokes, to talk of careers, to the heated discussions of what happened “that day” and why their love lives have never compared with that ever since. This progression toward the more serious reflects our natural tendencies to get to know someone or open up with less important topics and gradually dig deeper.

If the first film was all about “What could life be like?”, then the second film is about “What could life have been like if...?”. This perspective is especially apparent from Jesse and Celine as they talk on the boat tour on the Seine and then continue a heated discussion in a car ride:
Jesse- Why weren’t you there in Vienna?
Celine- I told you why.
Jesse- Well I know why…I just….I wish you would have been. Our lives might have been so much different.
Celine- You think so?
Jesse- I actually do.

My favorite quote in the film is this one:
Celine- I guess when you’re young, you just believe there will be many people with whom you connect with......Later in life you realize it happens only a few times.

Finally the film comes to its most pointed moment here:
Celine- I was fine….until I read your f****ing book. It stirred shit up, you know? It reminded me how genuinely romantic I was and how I had so much hope in things, now it’s like I don’t believe in anything that relates to love. I don’t feel things for people anymore. In a way I put all my romanticism into that one night and I was never able to feel all this again. Like somehow this night took things away from me…..

All these quotes seem so very true, not just for these characters, but great observations about life. There is definitely a regret in the tone of the film, to not just being young and stupid as they say, but to a remorse for what happened to their lives over the last 10 years following their decisions. They are only in their early 30’s, and yet there’s the sense that things are too late for them, as if the decisions made between ages 20-30 set you up for the rest of your life. Missing that window has caused great heartache for both people. I applaud the skepticism and pessimism in this film, as it’s a sobering flipside to the romantic optimism of the first film. Taken together, both films make up one of the essential cinematic relationships.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Before Sunrise (1995) - Directed by Richard Linklater

In 1991, Richard Linklater’s experimental masterpiece Slacker was released. Made and shot on a shoestring in his home-town of Austin, Texas, it consisted of a sequence of vignettes (conversations basically) between a couple of characters that lasted anywhere from 5-10 minutes, whereupon the focus then shifted to a new group of people which we follow for another 10 minutes. So the film goes in its attempt to quantify and give weight to the conversations of a smart but rather directionless group of people. It’s arresting in its vibrancy, inventiveness, and quirky characters, whom by definition we never get to know very well. This style of conversation being the centerpiece of the film, was continued to lesser effect in his coming of age tale, Dazed and Confused (1993). Dazed feels like a feigned attempt at profundity and slogs through a high school genre exercise. But, his next film would be an essential slice of 90’s cinema, a film about talking and listening, of profound discussions of life, death, and love, and a relationship that is born, blossoms, and fades within 24 hours.

Before Sunrise takes the concept laid down in Slacker and Dazed and Confused, but is more mature and focuses on two people for the entire film, rather than groups, so we’re able to dig deep into two souls who have been brought together for a very short time. We’re introduced to Celine (Julie Delpy), a Parisian, on a train in Europe. She is reading in her seat, but is bothered by the arguing couple next to her. She picks up her stuff and moves to the back of the car and sits down next to Jesse (Ethan Hawke). He and she notice each other. He strikes up a conversation with her, a conversation that will last for something like the next 24 hours, after he convinces her to get off with him in Vienna where he needs to catch a flight back home, instead of her continuing on to Paris, which is her final destination. They both realize the next day they must part ways, but in between they spend the entire day, night, and next morning talking, listening, and falling in love. His asking her to go with him is no risk to him. He’s got nothing to lose. Celine’s acceptance of the improvised moment, to leave the train with Jesse, is her leap of faith to accept his trust without question. Their timid and awkward first moments after getting off the train soon lead to letting their guards down, to sharing their inner beliefs and dreams, leading to undeniably romantic passages of the film as they realize they might be each other's soul mates. Linklater's technique doesn't artificially trump-up the romance or create a false sense of preocupation for the audience. We feel that Celine and Jesse earn each other's trust, and our trust as the audience because they are generally interested in each other as equals, as human beings drawn together. This is all done through patience and observing human nature as it unfolds: jokes to break the ice, tentatively giving complements to the other, being respectful of the situation and not taking advantage of the other.

Filmed in Vienna, the film has a gorgeously romantic atmosphere and a few scenes highlight the chemistry between the leads. I love the scene on the trolley-car that is a 6-minute conversation done in one take. They are asking each other questions to get to know one another, and their conversation is funny and observant, and you almost don’t realize it’s one take because it's effortless. The next brilliant scene is after they’ve picked up a record in the record store and they go into the listening booth to hear it. Linklater’s camera focuses on both their faces at the same time as they listen to the yearning, romantic ballad with the tension literally boiling over. They both want to look at each other during the song. But every time Jesse looks at her, she looks at him and he turns away, and vice versa as they avoid making eye contact out of embarrasment. This scene aches with a tenderness that is unbearably real. Of course much of the film is devoted to just following them through the city as they wander, but they encounter a few people along the way that almost act as signposts for their relationship as it matures. First they meet a few goofy actors on the bridge who seem to hardly regard them as a serious couple. Later, a palm reader seems to recognize their connection and leaves them with these words, “You need to resign yourself to the awkwardness of life”. Then they encounter a poet, who leaves Celine and Jesse with a beautifully written poem, giving weight to their evening and connection. Finally, the bartender, recognizing that they are living the most important night of their lives, gives them a bottle of wine to share. As their connection increases, so does the awareness of their connection become apparent to others. Sure enough, their youthful, idealized romanticism is wrapped up in living for the moment without much regard for the consequences. Their relationship seems to exist outside of time itself, and in the morning they have to face tough decisions. As the film reaches its ending, it's clear that the romantic optimism for life that they share gets in the way of practical reality.  It's this tug-of-war between romanticism and reality that sets up the difficult decisions. My lasting impression I take from the film is that it encompasses that point in life where one wonders what one's life might be like, and what life could be. Celine and Jesse are constantly attempting to answer these questions.

This film wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for the winning performances from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, giving life and breadth to the film and commanding our attention for the entire length of it. They are literally onscreen together for nearly the whole film. Linklater’s script, co-written with Kim Krizan, is knowing and honest about life as a twenty-something, and most of Celine and Jesse’s discussions encompass not pop culture or current events, but timeless things like memories and fears, making the film far less dated than it could be today. Of course, at the end of the film, after Celine and Jesse are no longer in Vienna, a melancholic coda comes over the film, recapping through images, the places they went through the previous day. Only now with the light of day upon them, these places feel ordinary and empty, as if the fleeting moments they shared together are destined to remain only as memories... or will they? It’s no big secret that there is a sequel to the film, Before Sunset, which takes place 10 years after Before Sunrise, that is an essential companion to the first one. I will examine the sequel next week. But it’s the first film that can always stand on it’s own, and there is a freshness about Before Sunrise even today.  Before Sunrise is one of my favorite dramatic romances, along with Casablanca (1942) and Brief Encounter (1948).

Monday, November 21, 2011

Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) - Directed by Robert Wise

Foreword: I must point out I'm indebted to Tony D'Ambra's review of this film (linked here), as he was the inspiration to see this film in the first place. I can't even hope to add any sort of new idea to the fold, but I do want to emphasize my admiration for both Tony's review and for the film.

In Robert Wise’s fatalistic film, written by blacklisted screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, we see the ugliness and dark side of film noir, not just in a cinematic way, but in a socially destructive way. It stars Harry Belafonte as Johnny, a night club entertainer who’s in debt to the mob due to his gambling addiction, and Robert Ryan as Earle, a racist con-man who is desperate for cash and respect from his wife Lorry, played by Shelley Winters. Ex-cop, Dave, played by Ed Begley recruits both men for a heist job he has been planning (which will set them up nicely for many years) in a small town in the Hudson Valley of New York. He needs both men, but when Earle finds out his partner for the heist will be a black man, he’s completely against it.  Realizing his desperation, though, he decides to reluctantly join the plan. Johnny is not without his racial prejudices either, turning the film into a socially potent film noir. Premonitions of violent gunplay in the presence of kids playing with squirt guns on the street presages the violent climax.

Robert Ryan and Harry Belafonte give brilliant performances as two men who can hardly stand each other, but attempt to set aside their prejudices for the greater good of the heist. As in all heist films, the set-up is terribly important. Shooting in small town, upstate NY, the cinematography by Joseph C. Brun during several sequences in the film is simply stunning of the Hudson River and the mountains in the background. During the actual heist itself, there is a wonderful choreography of sequences that stir up the suspense, as we realize before the robbers do, that something is about to go wrong. There is a deep sense of melancholic fatalism at work in the film. We sense early on that both of these men have ugly personality issues and are doomed. Earle cheats on his wife, has a violent streak, and has a deep sense of self pity that does not flatter him. His racism is the icing on the cake. Johnny is not much better. He’s cheated on his wife, gambles too much, and is no longer living at home. Although he visits his daughter and takes her to the park, he’s distracted by threatening mobsters who want cash. His racism seems more born out of self defense and prior history,  but it’s racism nonetheless. Ed Begley’s Dave is the only one that can keep Johnny and Earle from tearing each other apart.

Wise chose to film in standard aspect ratio, shunning the oncoming neo-noir aesthetic for a more traditional look, while still maintaining an aura of cool. His work on editing Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) seemed to have influenced him quite a bit, as the use of deep focus, low angle and Dutch angle shots are very Welles-ian, but they’re used here to striking, not gaudy effect. Of particular note is the chase around the fuel tanks and pipes at the end, as shadow, harsh light, and odd depth-of-field emphasize the paranoiac dread. Wise’s film is deeply realist in nature, containing neither heroes nor anti-heroes for that matter. It’s simply ugly people playing the ugly game of life and losing.

Wise continues to impress me, with work across multiple genres, something that other American directors, like Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann did. After working on film noirs, westerns, and sci-fi films, Wise made a huge name for himself with the stupendous West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). What I notice about all his films, is the deep respect for the audience. I know some don't agree with that! I think he gives us what we can believe in. Film noirs like The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow allow the audience to believe these are real people making fatal decisions. In West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), despite the cinematic unreality of musicals, Wise captures the sincerity of the characters, which makes us feel that these musical worlds are much like ours, containing people we believe in and admire. If you can make masterpieces in the film noir and musical genres, there’s a real understanding for what makes movies tick.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Red Desert (1964) - Directed by Michaelangelo Antonioni

Were it not for Michaelangelo Antonioni’s early 1960’s output, he would probably make my all-time top 5 most overrated directors. As it is, he is saved from such a fate through a string of 4 films that all examine the same thing: spiritual, emotional, and relational alienation. His “alienation” trilogy of L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961) and L’Ecclise (1962) introduced his major themes of concern and his major muse, Monica Vitti. We tend not to include Red Desert in this grouping, but we might as well have, and called it a "quadrilogy" of sorts. In fact, I would argue that Red Desert is the culmination of the themes that he was exploring and the highest form of visual and thematic expression that he would ever achieve. In his following movies, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1970), The Passenger (1975), he began a decline stemming from a self-indulgent pretense that bordered on near self-parody. Can I blame him though? Where can one go after Red Desert?

Red Desert is unabashedly a pretentious film at heart, but this is not unlike many great works of art. Monica Vitti stars as Giuliana, mother of a young boy and wife of Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) who runs a huge, industrial plant, of which I’m not sure what it produces or refines, but it’s a network of steam release valves, rusted silos, and produces all kinds of waste that, along with the rest of the nearby industrial jungle, pollutes the water and air in abundance. Antonioni shot the film in northern Italy in and amongst real industrial power plants. These are real places, but they don't feel like it. They feel otherworldly. Adding to this odd dimension is the soundtrack that reminds me of the kind of blips and drones that might as well have come from the sci-fi film The Forbidden Planet (1956). But, Antonioni clearly wants us to recognize the tortured and pained reality of this world, even though green grass looks out of place in the polluted landscape.

Giuliana, we are told, had a car accident one month prior, and her husband feels that she is still in some state of shock, as he confides to fellow plant supervisor Corrado (Richard Harris). In fact, she is. We are introduced to her as she walks with her son across the wasteland around the factory. She strangely pays a man for a half-eaten sandwich, and we immediately realize that she is not right. While visiting her husband’s plant, she meets Corrado, and they soon develop a strange affair. It doesn’t involve sex at first. Rather the extent of their relationship involves confiding to each other what is eating at their souls. She opens up to Corrado and admits that in the hospital she became lost, losing touch with herself and has been unable to retrieve her soul from the proverbial abyss. Corrado is less estranged from humanity, but is fearful of the world and cannot remain still, prodded to transience. Red Desert examines their soulless existence with urgency and remorse. She cannot fathom loving anyone, nor anyone loving her. She wants to connect, but lacks the spiritual and emotional center she needs to do so. When later in the film Giuliana goes over the edge due to her son’s faking a major illness, she and Corrado are thrown together in the most dispassionate of ways in a feigned attempt at comfort.

This was Antonioni’s first film in color. Red Desert is filled with a near continual barrage of striking images, often with primary colors contrasting with bleak grays and browns. It's one of the most visually expressive films ever made. Nearly any shot could make a striking photograph or painting, something which has been noted by many. Additionally, notice the way that fog insists on being both part of the imagery and part of the enveloping malaise and disconnectedness of the characters. In fact, this is a film where the imagery and thematic/psychological elements parallel each other directly. Much like Anthony Mann’s westerns, like The Naked Spur (1953), or Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den (1970), Red Desert uses the environment to deeply reflect and ultimately enhance the psychosis of the characters within that environment. Red Desert’s industrial and toxic wasteland is Antonioni's fully realized metaphor for the polluted and alienated modern soul. This for me is what elevates Red Desert above all of Antonioni’s films. Although L’Avventura and others cover the same ground (poetically in fact), it appears to me that Antonioni reached his zenith of expression in Red Desert and laid down his manifesto.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

My Top 50 Musicals

In honor of the impending conclusion of the Wonders in the Dark Top 70 Musicals Countdown, hosted and championed by the amazing Sam Juliano (who so graciously invited me to submit two posts to the countdown), I've decided to post my own Top 50 Musicals. I spent a good chunk of my summer catching up on all things musical, and both revisiting some old favorites and seeing many musicals I had never seen before, seeing 28 musicals in all. I also participated daily in the comments at the site and really enjoyed the banter and the education that went along with the countdown. What did I learn? I learned that I enjoy musicals much more than I ever thought I did and I'm far more educated now in the subject than 6 months ago. I've still got some learning to do. My exposure to Opera films and some foreign musicals is not as good as it could be. My own personal issues with Maurice Chevalier is also somewhat of a detractor on several films as well. But, all in all, I feel pretty proud of my own top 50. I will say that I think it's a mix of traditional and accepted classics, some different choices, as well as some campy and/or guilty pleasures. Let me know what you think!

I should start with what my own definition of a "Musical" is, just so we're all clear:

"A film that uses music, dance, or song to conceptually further the plot, emotions, character development or general impression of the film when said music, dance or song is performed or perceived to be performed and is considered to be a main crux of the film."

1. The Sound of Music (1965)
2. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
3. The Wizard of Oz (1939)
4. Swing Time (1936)
5. Cabaret (1972)
6. A Star is Born (1954)
7. A Hard Day's Night (1964)
8. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
9. 42nd Street (1933)
10. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
11. An American in Paris (1951)
12. West Side Story (1961)
13. Moulin Rouge! (2001)
14. Mary Poppins (1964)
15. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
16. Funny Girl (1968)
17. On the Town (1949)
18. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
19. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)
20. Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
21. Easter Parade (1948)
22. The Music Man (1962)
23. The Band Wagon (1953)
24. Top Hat (1935)
25. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
26. Yellow Submarine (1968)
27. Once (2006)
28. Oliver! (1968)
29. Dancer in the Dark (2000)
30. Funny Face (1957)
31. The Red Shoes (1949)
32. Fantasia (1940)
33. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
34. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
35. Kiss Me Kate (1953)
36. The Little Mermaid (1989)
37. Footlight Parade (1933)
38. Coal Miner's Daughter (1980)
39. Oklahoma! (1955)
40. Annie (1982)
41. My Fair Lady (1964)
42. The Blue Angel (1930)
43. Amadeus (1984)
44. White Christmas (1954)
45. Pinocchio (1940)
46. Grease (1978)
47. Cabin in the Sky (1943)
48. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
49. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
50. Lili (1953)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Swing Time (1936) - Directed by George Stevens

Note: This essay of Swing Time appears here in the Wonders in the Dark Top 70 Musicals Countdown, coming in at #6.

I sat down with my 3-year old daughter the other day and invited her to watch a dancing scene from Swing Time with me. She’s very interested in dance these days and taking a class (ballet) so I figured I would show her. It was the scene where Fred and Ginger are doing the “Pick Yourself Up” number, which is a boisterous dance. My daughter asked me a few questions about the movie at first as Fred and Ginger were talking, but she was mostly entranced and watched the scene with me in silence during the dance itself. I know it sounds simple, but I realized for the first time that dancing requires little explanation or greater understanding of context and/or plot to really understand it. It is truly a physical communication to those of us in the audience. Even small children instinctively know how to dance. It's not something you have to teach them. Dancing speaks to us on an instinctive level, and there never was, nor will there ever be another dancing duo like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose chemistry and artistry remain unsurpassed.

Swing Time is arguably Fred and Ginger’s greatest film. I know that Top Hat (1935) has lots of admirers (myself being one) but I think Swing Time has a bit more emotion working for it and in that way, is a bit of a departure. Director George Stevens may have had something to do with the film's different feel compared to the Mark Sandrich films. But, like all the Astaire-Rogers films, Swing Time has a plot that is mostly fluff, and usually only serves to get the stars from one song/dance number to the next. In this one, Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, member of a dance troupe, who also has a penchant for gambling. On his wedding day following a dance show, his friends hold him up, causing him to miss the wedding, whereby he is told by his father-in-law-to-be, that he must make it big in the dance business and only then will he allow him to marry his daughter. With his friend, "Pop" (Victor Moore), they ride the rails to NYC, where through a chance encounter on the street, Lucky meets Penny (Ginger Rogers), who is a dance school instructor. Most of the film that follows is filled with the usual contrivances: mistaken intentions, love triangles etc. It’s all second fiddle anyway to the song and dance in the film.

Of late, I've been trying to gain a greater understanding of Fred Astaire's talent and artistry. Few people debate his solo dancing, which is rather tremendous. What I've noticed though, is his chemistry with other dancers besides Ginger Rogers is a mixed bag. Oh sure he worked with some of the most beautiful women and/or technically gifted dancers of the Hollywood era: Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen, Eleanor Powell etc. But most of them are too perfect in a way. They seem to be going through the motions of the dances with Astaire (who tends to be a perfectionist anyway) and the chemistry with Astaire suffers for it. Something is missing. That something is Ginger Rogers. Arlene Croce in her Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book writes that Ginger Rogers “brought out his (Fred’s) toughness and also his true masculine gallantry.” In John Mueller’s Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, he writes, “Rogers was outstanding among Astaire’s film partners not because she was superior to the others as a dancer but because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop where dancing began.” What I believe made the pairing so remarkable, was their onscreen commitment to the dancing in whatever way they knew how. Fred’s perfectionism and trained excellence paired well and contrasted with Ginger’s ability to project independence and something resembling improvisation while they danced. What she lacked in formal training, Ginger made up with guts and know-how, which brought her sexiness and confidence to the foreground in their films together, elevating their dances.

There are three Astaire-Rogers dance sequences in Swing Time, my favorites being “Pick Yourself Up” and “Never Gonna Dance”, both of which arise out of the plot. In “Pick Yourself Up”, Lucky has just made himself look like a terrible dancer on purpose in front of Penny in the dance school. She gets fired because of it, and Lucky tells the director that she in fact is a great teacher and he proceeds to dance his heart out with Penny in a number that may be the most exuberant number they ever performed. What I love about the scene is the way that Ginger appears shocked and surprised at how well Astaire's character can dance. She sells this expression during the opening moments of the number, and this is an example of how her acting continued during the dance sequences. There are great changes in rhythm in the scene and it’s my favorite example of just how joyful these two could be onscreen. I also get the impression from watching this dance that Astaire and Rogers project an attitude: They're good and they know it. I've attached the video here....

Their final dance is “Never Gonna Dance”, which is performed after Lucky feels he has lost Penny to another man and is his plea to her that he may love again, but he’s never gonna dance with another. This dance is performed with deeply felt emotion. He slowly convinces her to begin the dance after they walk around each other for a bit. Then they part and as she walks away, he grabs her and she whirls around to face him. Their bodies throb with synchronicity and reluctance, like some passionate love affair between two people who are not supposed to be together. It’s hard not to become engulfed in the dance’s emotive and physical allure. It’s probably the most passionate and sexy dance Astaire and Rogers ever did. Famously during this scene, which had to be filmed in more than forty-eight takes, Rogers’ feet had terrible blisters and began bleeding during the shooting. In her book, Ginger: My Story, she writes, "I never said a word about my own particular problem. I kept on dancing even though my feet really hurt. During a break, I went to the sidelines and took my shoes off; they were filled with blood. I had danced my feet raw. Hermes saw what had happened and offered to stop the shooting. I refused. I wanted to get the thing done. Finally, we got a good take in the can, and George said we could go home -- at 4:00 A.M." 

Astaire has a tremendous solo dance in the film, but it is one sequence that must be addressed with special context. It is the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, which Astaire performs in blackface. Traditional blackface was of course laced with prejudices and highly caricatured performances. But, this sequence in the film, as noted by many critics and historians, is a clear homage to the great African-American tap-dancer, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, someone whom Astaire greatly admired. Moreover, Astaire also pays tribute during the scene to another great dancer of the time, John Bubbles, an African-American tap dancer who in fact taught Astaire a thing or two later in his career. In Levinson’s Puttin' on the Ritz, he documents an interview from the 1960’s that Bubbles gave which regards a tap lesson he once gave to Astaire, which highlights Fred’s regard for Bubbles: “It was on the stage at the Ziegfeld Theatre. He paid me four hundred dollars. He couldn’t catch the dancing as quick as Ann Miller, though, so I taught her so she could teach him to save time for them…..I gave them heely-toes, cramps, stomps, heely-toe turns, and cramp rolls.” It’s interesting to note that Astaire’s make-up is not the black, burnt-cork type, but a lighter brown color. My only complaint with the scene is the prop of the giant sole of the shoe with the large lips and bowler hat that I personally find offensive. But, the dance and performance are clearly not. In fact, it may be Astaire’s greatest solo dance sequence ever put on film, including some astounding, rapid-fire tap sequences and a brilliant, three-shadow back-projection effect behind Astaire as the shadows try to keep up with him. This sequence rightly earned the great choreographer Hermes Pan a Best Dance Direction Oscar nomination. If interested, for some added context around blackface, I point us to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), which takes a unique approach, both historically and conceptually to address blackface in its many forms.

Outside of the famous dancing in the film, there are also a couple of great songs as well. With music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy field, their songs “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance”, both became huge hits and standards throughout the years. “A Fine Romance” is performed in a wonderful and memorable set-piece with Astaire and Rogers in a winter wonderland of snow, with snowflakes falling all around them. “The Way You Look Tonight”, one of the most beautiful songs Astaire ever sang, has a touch of irony in the scene, as Astaire sings on the piano, while Rogers has her hair covered in shampoo suds in the bathroom. She comes out to meet him at the end of the song and totally forgets she hasn’t rinsed her hair. It’s a sweet and funny moment.

Despite their amazing chemistry, Astaire and Rogers might not actually have liked that they were paired together in so many films. Famously Astaire wrote to his agent, Leland Hayward after the The Gay Divorcee (1934) became a hit: “What’s all this talk about being teamed with Ginger Rogers? I will not have it Leland – I did not go into pictures to be teamed with her or anyone else, and if that is the program in mind for me I will not stand for it……if I’m ever to get anywhere on the screen it will be as one not as two”. Ginger in a BBC interview in 1987 said this: “We were a team. He didn’t do it by himself, Fred was not my Svengali. A lot of people think he was. I was very much my own woman.” Whether they got along or not, what’s amazing is that they were able to be professionals during the onscreen performances to the point of creating immense chemistry, be it through a heated rivalry or common goals of success, despite whatever differences they had. Swing Time is their final great pairing and perhaps the culmination of all their work throughout the years prior to this film. Their dancing here feels especially perfectly timed, creative, and in the final dance, terrifically passionate. What they left the movie-world will forever be remembered fondly and their beautiful dancing will always retain its charm and elegance. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Meek's Cutoff (2011 U.S. Release) Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Tuck what is called Meek's Cutoff...a bad cutoff for all that tuck it. ...I will just say, pen and tong will both fall short when they grow to tell of the suffering the company went through.
-Samuel Parker, 1845

As Meek’s Cutoff opens, we see water. Cool, rushing water, providing a cleansing and peaceful sound. We see a group of pioneers trying to ford the river, up to the top of their wagon wheels in water. Up to their shoulders in water as they wade across, they linger nearby and fill up their buckets. They are lost, but at least they have water. Question is, when will they find more? Meek’s Cutoff is based on a true story that was documented in 1845 as a group of pioneers decided to hire Stephen Meek, a guide and trapper to lead them on a shortcut through central Oregon, to lead them to the Willamette Valley. He ended up getting them lost, wandering around the south-central deserts of Oregon as their water supply and patience wore out.

I consider myself predisposed to enjoy this film. Michelle Williams is just about my favorite actress working today, and Kelly Reichardt’s previous film, Wendy and Lucy (2008), was one of my top 5 films from that year. This film confirms what I’ve been noticing and that is she is one of the most talented and promising American filmmakers working today. She’s made three recent films, Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), and Meek’s Cutoff that are all set in Oregon and all concern a certain wandering and searching. I think that she’s becoming increasingly assured in her abilities and the stakes have continued to increase in each film. Images throughout Meek's Cutoff are continually impressive, stark and realist. Yes the images are beautiful, mainly because it captures raw landscape. But the landscape is threatening and it’s as harsh as terrain gets, with no water in sight as our troupe walks across dry lake beds and dusty hills barren of any trees.

Williams plays Emily Tetherow, wife of Solomon Tetherow. There are two other couples with them, each with their own wagon. Emily Tetherow is a fascinating character to watch. Her stern and dirtied face is able to appear harsh and tough enough to compete with Stephen Meek, whom it’s clear she derides and blames for their plight. It’s also clear she holds some blame for the men in the troupe, as the women are never included in the discussions on what should be done with Meek and what they should do next. At one point in the film, the troupe captures a Native American and decides he might be the one to lead them to water. Emily does some kind things for him: feeding him, mending his moccasin, protecting his life. Yet it’s for realistic reasons she does this: She wants something in return from him and wants him to pay them back. I found this character development to be terrifically truthful. Williams plays the character straight and tough without a hint of weakness, able to draw a gun much quicker than the men appear able to.

Much has been made of the fact that Reichardt chose to film in standard aspect ratio, rather than widescreen. I’ve read reviews that have commented on this by claiming that Reichardt achieves some sort of claustrophobic effect or profound tension through this artistic choice. I couldn’t disagree more. I maintain once the film starts, you forget the film isn’t in widescreen. If the argument is made that the aspect ratio here provides claustrophobia, then we should be saying that other Westerns like Stagecoach (1939) and Shane (1953) are as well since they’re in the same ratio, something I would find preposterous. It also wasn’t that long ago that we all had square TVs and watched pan-and-scan videos. Did it feel claustrophobic to watch films then? This is not to say the choice was uncalculated. In fact, what I think the ratio provides is more realism, which is essential to the film’s feel.  Widescreen photography lends to the greater capacity of creating compositions, and the wider the screen, the more elaborate the compositions can be. Compositions do not feel realist in principle, they can feel manipulative, as if the hand of the director or cinematographer can be felt as he placed everything just so. Having a smaller field of vision limits the potential for compositions and I think that’s why Reichardt chose it. I also think it’s effectively done and one of the reasons for the film's success. You will almost never see the groups of men and women framed together. They are nearly always framed separately, because the camera doesn’t allow them to be framed together. With the men and women often separated, it highlights how women were probably not included in these types of conversations that men had. As viewers, we’re often watching the film from the women’s point of view as we watch the men talking from a distance. Reichardt also places most of the film’s emotion, as little as there is, on the shoulders of the women. She clearly wants us to see things as they do.

Meek’s Cutoff works so well because it’s such a deep meditation on quiet desperation. This film contains none of the tropes that cinema uses to trump up desperation or desolation, particularly in Westerns. There are no gunfights, fisticuffs, or even loud verbal wars between people. Mostly the film lingers on the mounting escalation of dread amongst the attempts at perseverance and hope. As things look bleaker and no water is found, hope begins to fade and desperation comes more to the fore. Yet it’s always restrained and cold, and the film forces you to stay in that place, providing no exposition or conclusion, confronting you with the eternal consequences of choice. In tone and execution, Reichardt’s obsession with quiet desperation seems to be her inspiration. It’s clearly what drives Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, and is the main focus in Meek’s Cutoff. I’m reminded of the films of Ozu, Melville, and Bresson, but Reichardt is less interested in providing any redemption or conclusion to her stories. In more recent times, Van Sant’s trilogy of Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005) are echoed a bit in Reichardt’s films, but again, Reichardt’s insistence on less cinematic intrusion and more realism separates her. This is a beautiful and memorable film from a unique voice.