Monthly Archives: October 2015

Music at the Movies: Dont Look Back

The 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

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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 the shrill, personality-free glumness and the depressingly literal-minded symbolism-stalking 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 it is as hollow as the antiseptic digital cinematography that strips it of its personality. 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 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 kiddie 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