Monthly Archives: October 2015

Music at the Movies: Dont Look Back

220px-dontlookback2The obvious soul to siphon for Dont Look Back is Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, a comparison that is not circumstantial but, I suspect, intentional. After all, the mid-’60s films featuring and warping the Beatles public persona were revolutionary in their day, and they feel as ribald and restless today as they were then. These films not only utilized but mangled the burgeoning cinema vérité stylings of the French. They were markers of subversive anti-documentary documentary filmmaking that threshed out the interstitial regions between fact and fiction, narrative cinema and documentary cinema, and an untested wandering soul named D.A. Pennebaker couldn’t resist. Continue reading

Progenitors: Gladiator

 

With Ridley Scott pulling a fast one and making a movie people unanimously enjoy once again, let us return to the last movie he directed that people seem to unambiguously appraise. Who’d a thought that I wouldn’t like it very much…

How fitting that a film that stole the Saving Private Ryan stylistic thunder wholesale turns out to be Saving Private Ryan, only more-so. With all of its shrill, personality-free glumness and the depressingly literal-minded symbolism and sermonizing, all Gladiator is lacking is the carefully calibrated mechanical craft that occasionally saved Ryan from the abject misery of its narrative histrionics. The screenplay for Gladiator, by David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson, is as dry and cloying as that of any other cinematic Roman epic – take any number of glorified potboilers from the heyday of the early 1960s – but what is missing is the zest. Gladiator is gilded, but it never pops. The screenplay calls for proselytizing, but director Ridley Scott seems parsimoniously bored with the production. He comes alive occasionally – the opening battle, where the desaturation can’t hide Scott’s desire to light it with the fires of hell. But for the most part, Gladiator is a soporific, deadened motion picture convinced of its portentous pregnancy with ideas, but the script is as hollow as the antiseptic digital cinematography that strips it of its personality. Like Ryan, it seems strangely torn between old-fashioned Romanticism and modernist realism, and the two impulses neutralize one another.  Continue reading

Progenitors: Saving Private Ryan

With Steven Spielberg at war again with Bridge of Spies, let us return to arguably his most famous war film. 

To begin as Saving Private Ryan does, and to remove the obvious with brevity: the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan is superior pure cinema. The D-Day invasion, clipped and rampagingly beautiful and barbarically full-throated, has absolutely nothing to say about war that wasn’t already said as early as eight decades before with the forgotten French masterpiece Wooden Crosses, but Ryan repeats the obvious with an ungodly amount of hyperbolic hysteria. So much that your faculties falter and you run with it against your better judgment. As a mini-movie, the prelude of Saving Private Ryan is unimpeachable, iron-clad cinematic entertainment – and it is, mind you, entertainment, fixated on drawing us into the violence and enticing us with it. Francois Truffaut was absolutely correct in his famous anti-anti-war film declaration, noting that cinema could not truly be anti-war because the fundamental act of tying together imagery of violence is fundamentally arousing. Saving Private Ryan could not hope to be anti-war if it spent the rest of its three hour run time declaiming at the top of a hill about it, but morality aside, it is unarguably superb cinema. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Day for Night

Since all New Wave films were, directly or indirectly, fascinated with filmmaking, it isn’t exactly a surprise that one small slice of celluloid would eventually literalize this subtext. And since most New Wave filmmakers both loved and doubted cinema all at once, it isn’t exactly a surprise that the resulting film would be Day for Night, Francois Truffaut’s semi-poisoned pen love letter to the joy of making cinema. It might be assumed that the joy of cinema follows, but that is not part and parcel with Truffaut’s vision. In Day for Night, cinema production is a circus, but the film that results is a wash. Day for Night is not an ode to the finished product, the destination, but to the production, the journey. In an oddly humanizing bit of self-love, Truffaut paints a director as an enthusiast more than a madman. He doesn’t care if the figure has talent or not. The fact that they want to be making movies is enough. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Shoot the Piano Player

After transcribing his childhood into one of the finest character studies in all of cinema, Francois Truffaut took a cue from his sometimes friend, often enemy for his second feature. He went Godard, in other words, and like his relationship with that most temperamental of filmmakers, Shoot the Piano Player is cinema with both hot flashes and cold skin. In 1960, before the French New Wave was nothing more than a passing whisper in the international film crowd, Shoot the Piano Player managed to prelude and predict all the proclivities, both passing and permanent, of the trend. Fittingly, and without surprise, it is as buoyantly vivaciousness and infected with cinematic self-love as even Godard’s Band of Outsiders and yet as chilly and formally provocative as Godard’s Breathless (in a rare feat of simultaneous humility and egomania from Godard, that film’s name tells all). Continue reading

Back to the Future Day (from the Future)

The title being my fancy way of saying I wrote these reviews of Back to the Future II and III but didn’t upload them until now, a full six days after the proper day of 10/21/15. Oh well. You get to read them now, I suppose? 

The mortal coil of Sequel-dom reached its original apex in the dark days of 1989, with seemingly every major tentpole blockbuster of the decade facing the doldrums of another franchise film. Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon. And, of course, Robert Zemeckis had to return to his darling overnight love bug and gilded moneymaker after a sabbatical redefining the possibilities of cinematic animation with Who Framed Roger Rabbit (his best film to this day). The thing about Back to the Future II, the thing that separated it from every other Hollywood blockbuster of the year , is that it was to be followed by Back to the Future III, to be released one summer later and filmed concurrently with its predecessor. Continue reading

Progenitors: The Muppet Movie

As there are reports of the Muppets on television for the first time in a few decades, a review of the first incursion of the Muppets into cinema was in order…

 

The central enigma of the Muppets, as well as their fascination and their joy, is the sense of childlike post-structuralism they marinated themselves in without ever once dipping into supercilious irony. Every slice of Muppet fiction thrives on the sense of “the show” as it exists in contrast to our world, as the Muppets themselves are performers who are also, tacitly, being performed. Heady stuff, but the key is here, as it always was, to believe both ways. On one hand, we need to know that the Muppets are being performed – the opening joke of the movie, with a talent agent played by Dom DeLuise circumstantially, and whimsically, passing through a Florida swamp where Kermit the Frog resides and invites him to take a trip to Hollywoodland, is pure anarchic happenstance and absurdism. It dares us to question how arbitrary the occurrence is, how artificial, how performed.  Continue reading

Midnight Screenings: Universal Horror Films, Part 2

Catching up on some of the famous Universal Horror films I have missed a chance to review until now. Just in time for Halloween too! ‘Tis the season…

The Wolf Man

After a trio of terrific Frankenstein features, a pair of other memorable monster pictures, and a cabinet of curiosity’s worth of assorted slippery cinematic tricks and treats, Universal finished off the 1930s in fine style. Having almost single-handedly ushered the silent cinematic stylings of playful expressionism and fantastique into the sound era, the company was apparently tired. Very tired, and withering away, but not before one final ride into the sunset before the dark days of WWII made fantastical cinematic horror largely irrelevant and quaint compared to the sandblasted nihilism of the curdled noir genre. Continue reading

Midnight Screenings: Universal Horror Films, Part 1

Catching up on some of the famous Universal Horror films I have missed a chance to review until now. Just in time for Halloween too! ‘Tis the season…

The Mummy

With Dracula and Frankenstein enshrining Universal Pictures as the new patron saint of genre cinema, the prospect of renewed wealth stoked a fire in the loins of the company. Projects were suddenly being green-lit left and right. Expediency was the name of the game, but the pedal-to-the-medal production and narrative qualities of Universal Horror never diminished the prowling crawl of the individual frights within their films, works which, in the early days, were not only commercial ventures but artistic expeditions into the unknown as well.

Still, there was no time for ego or excess in the early days of Universal, and productions were humble and forthright. This was never more-so true than with The Mummy, a reminder that, if Universal wasn’t always the most experimental or transgressive production company circa 1932, they were a well-oiled cinematic machine all the same. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Hiroshima mon Amour

Updated late 2018: Still one of the peaks of modernist cinema. Modernist not only because it feverishly critiques the ideological gaps in Western society’s desire for connection to a particular trauma Europe wishes to frame as universal, as an experience Europe can “have” as immediately as Japan. But also modernist because Resnais preserves some imaginative connection, some space of shared potentiality and togetherness between the two symbolically-freighted but humanly-complex protagonists amidst the pock-marks of race, gender, and distance which are not simply counter-cultures of modernity but its various currents. A truly wonderful depiction of Europe losing its colonies and experiencing a crisis of self under the deluded belief that the rest of the world was ever truly under its moral purview rather than merely its circumstantial jurisdiction, that the non-Western world was the West’s possession to experience. Resnais imagines participation in an other’s trauma as a liberal aporia, an oscillating bridge, and a perceptual torrent.

Original Review:

How does one deal with the film that outed the single most seismic and volcanic cinematic shake-up in the entire history of the medium, the French New Wave? As much as Godard would become the face of the movement one year later, Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon Amour was, for many, the first breath of renewed light into the no man’s land of the once-proud French cinematic landscape. It was a film of many firsts. Of course, most obviously, it was the first Western film to seriously grapple with the horrors, both tangible and intangible, of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. But its most important first was much more elemental and, arguably, circumstantial: it was the first movie of what would become the New Wave to devour the international box office, and the first to turn eyes France’s way for the first time in a handful of decades. Continue reading