Tag Archives: Film Favorites

Film Favorites: Johnny Guitar

Is there any way to announce a consideration of Johnny Guitar other than the now famous Jean-Luc Godard quote about Nicholas Ray being “cinema”? Famously, the director expressed that Ray was among the first, if not the first, American auteurs to do with cinema as only cinema could, taking up the poetry of dialogue and the untarnished, painterly quality of art and the distant timelessness of theater and encircling them with the vulture of film, engorging itself on the carcasses of other mediums and ensuring they lived on, in altered, transmuted form, inside cinema.

Godard’s quote is a touch too heated (I’ll take to my grave the thought that Nicholas Ray is among the most underrated auteurs Hollywood ever produced, but that he was the first true advocate of “cinema” is a much more difficult proposition). Certainly, however, Ray’s films always felt more alive with pulsation, even in their embalmed detachment, than those of many other auteurs. And Godard naturally felt the love due to Ray’s unparalleled work in genre as a means of classifying social incoherence and expressing differing views of humanity’s own artifice. If he wasn’t the first true cinematic visionary, he was up there with the greats of his or any other time.  Continue reading

Film Favorites: All About Eve

Everybody’s been talking about it lately, but the Academy is on a nervous show-biz kick recently, with The Artist, Argo, and most recently Birdman winning Best Picture awards in a new glut of the much vaunted “films about films” genre (even if, in Birdman, as it is in many other works, film is only ever sub-textual). Shockingly, you really have to go back sixty five years for another film about the art of stagecraft to win a Best Picture award, and since nearly every review of Birdman has compared it to a certain self-hating implosion from Joseph L. Mankiewicz, I figured Birdman’s award last Sunday is as deserving a reason as any to actually edit and post the review of All About Eve I wrote sometime around like last August (I was busy in the ensuing half year, it turns out). Enjoy!

When it comes to performances, it really doesn’t get any better than Bette Davis’ Margo Channing. She captures every conflicting facet of a marvelously convoluted character: bitter anger, a desperate joy in bringing harm to others, brittle loneliness, an existential masquerade locked under a thick, tetanus-infested mesh of coiled barbs and white-hot superiority, a sadness about a world that has spit her up and thrown her out. When All About Eve is discussed, the conversation naturally shifts to Davis, and certainly, she deserves it; she draws eyes like the fires of hell target moths. But what’s lost in this conversation around Davis is no less substantial: the vicious, all-fangs screenplay surrounding her, and the tight, snug filmmaking that crawls around it and locks it into a vise that squeezes every ounce of spiritedly, tirelessly mean complication and viciousness out of one of the greatest screenplays ever written for cinema and lays it barren right on the screen. 1950 was Hollywood’s self-hating year, and no filmic attack dog bore greater, more lustful fangs than Joseph Mankiewicz’s absolutely undying All About Eve.

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Film Favorites: 3 Women

Update 2018:  How I do love this movie. If Altman’s oneiric fluctuations and clouded, evasive truths are as wonderfully resistant to crystallization as always at the beginning of 3 Women, they eventually sour into full-on psychotropic nightmare by the conclusion. By the film’s end, Altman holds life in a Janus-faced state of simultaneous free-fall and resting haunt. It won’t be for everyone, but catching this film’s wave-length is uniquely rewarding precisely because it is so slippery, its mind so hauntingly unquiet, ever-still but always subtly shifting with a frightening lack of clarification.

What’s so fascinating about 3 Women is that it retains so much of Altman’s typical sensibility, from his evocative sense of place to his shaggy, non-committal attitude toward the forward push of narrative, but it twists those features into an entirely different, slantwise milieu. To wit, 3 Women elastically mobilizes Altman’s typically wide, expansive canvas, for instance, not to conjure a community-spanning horizontal weave, as in Nashville, but to probe the psychological lonelines of two women locked into a particularly demented pas de deux of self and other.

Compared to Altman’s typically wistful realism, then, 3 Women is a more mannered vision, a West that doesn’t shuttle us into the chaotic instability of the social world so much as stage a difficult, near-unfathomable tableau for us to parse, one where the fractured, contorted intimacy of two women is more than enough to disorient our conception of selfhood. Like several of Altman’s earlier films, this is still a vision of a dilapidated West. And this “West” is no less a canvas for the self, no less a place where people go to find themselves, even more than 75 years after the “death” of the “real” Wild West. But in Altman’s wonderfully misshapen variation, the West, and Western fiction, is also where identities blur and bleed, where spectral figures wander across the land and seem to diffuse into space itself, where one’s sense of self is tested not against the might of an unforgiving landscape but against the soul of another. Call it McCabe & Ms. Ullmann (and Andersson). 

Original Review:

Robert Altman is not about to be forgotten. The man directed a proper handful of esteemed classics in the early ’70s and surged back into the limelight in the early ’90s with a pair of brusquely bitter late-period highlights. For good or ill, however, the greater film community tends to look sideways whenever a good portion of his lengthy, dense filmography is on trial. Say, for instance, anything between 1976 and 1991, a period in which the director made almost a baker’s dozen of fresh films for dissection, many of them rightfully moved past but quite a number truly audacious, brash, deeply personal, and worthy of analysis in their own way. It’s strange to call Robert Altman “underrated”, but the man made a lot of films, and sometimes it seems as if those who love him think time got lost between the early ’70s and its twenty-year later counterpart, the early ’90s.
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Film Favorites: The Wind

It is not a new or interesting argument to rain down laurels upon silent cinema for its vigorous, transformative sense of cinematic self-exploration. No time in cinema history matches the medium’s earliest years for pure ecstatic inventiveness and unbridled, unhinged storytelling experimentation. No time has seen directors and cinematographers and editors, and even producers for that matter, ever so consistently transfixed by the potential of exposing the cinematic mind by pushing it to its breaking point and moving beyond the grip of narrative storytelling to look for new and exciting ways to freshly portray the limits of fiction on screen. No time has ever been as hungry, or as invested in film for the sake of film itself.

It is also not a new or interesting argument to look to 1928, the last year of silent cinema’s monopolistic dominance in the medium, as the pinnacle of the form’s artistic exploration. Although no one work may equal the heights of what FW Murnau achieved with 1927’s Sunrise, the sheer plethora of major and minor classics, from Dreyer’s luminous The Passion of Joan of Arc to King Vidor’s cityscape tone peom The Crowd, to Josef von Sternberg’s hazy, mystifying The Docks of New York, proves that drama was in fine form as a selection of unarguable masters looked to close out the history of silent cinema on a high note. Of course, they may not have known it was coming, but we auteurists are no less guilty of assuming intent in our individuals than anyone else (we’re perhaps more guilty, if anything). Continue reading

75th Anniversary Film Favorites: Fantasia


phaseIn honor of their seventy-fifth anniversary in 2015, I present a pair of reviews for my two favorite Disney animated releases, both released in the same year, 1940, and both far more challenging and transformative than any feature film the company has yet released since. The two introductory paragraphs of the reviews are identical or nearly identical, but the meat of the reviews are film-specific.

Fresh off of reinventing cinema with the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Walt Disney and his band of merry auteurs certainly made enough money to rest on their laurels and produce what would have assuredly been a hugely successful similar film. Another princess, another band of silly sidekicks, another all-time expressionist cinematic villain, you get the deal. Things would have gone down smoothly, and Disney and friends would have been laughing all the way to the bank.

Except for one thing: for all his grubby corporatism and power-hungry megalomania, Walt Disney genuinely loved film, and he genuinely loved testing the waters for what film was capable of, and no one, not even the corporate masters he answered to, was going to tell him otherwise. He was a man of boundless vision, a child in a cinematic toybox, a person driven by ego and pulsing personal joys and for whom his company was a means to immortalize his dreams and nightmares on celluloid for everyone in the world to see. He made films because he wanted to watch them, and after Snow White, he didn’t want to watch another princess story. He was hungry, and having changed things forever, he wanted to do it yet again.
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75th Anniversary Film Favorites: Pinocchio


pinocchioIn honor of their seventy-fifth anniversary in 2015, I present a pair of reviews for my two favorite Disney animated releases, both released in the same year, 1940, and both far more challenging and transformative than any feature film the company has yet released since. The two introductory paragraphs of the reviews are identical or nearly identical, but the meat of the reviews are film-specific.

Fresh off of reinventing cinema with the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Walt Disney and his band of merry auteurs certainly made enough money to rest on their laurels and produce what would have assuredly been a hugely successful similar film. Another princess, another band of silly sidekicks, another all-time expressionist cinematic villain, you get the deal. Things would have gone down smoothly, and Disney and friends would have been laughing all the way to the bank. Except for one thing: for all his grubby corporatism and power-hungry megalomania, Walt Disney genuinely loved film, and he genuinely loved testing the waters for what film was capable of, and no one, not even the corporate masters he answered to, was going to tell him otherwise. He was a man of boundless vision, a child in a cinematic toybox, a person driven by ego and pulsing personal joys and for whom his company was a means to immortalize his dreams and nightmares on celluloid for everyone in the world to see. He made films because he wanted to watch them, and after Snow White, he didn’t want to watch another princess story. He was hungry, and having changed things forever, he wanted to do it yet again.
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Film Favorites: George Washington

It’s not a new point to discuss David Gordon Green’s sellout hackwork middle career stage, but his recent “return to his roots” phase is fresher still and only recently of this Earth; thus, it provides a far more welcome object of inquiry. The hackwork phase has been written about on end, and while I happen to think Pineapple Express is a fairly nuanced redirecting of Green’s trademark hush for the purposes of a stoner comedy, there’s nothing more to be said about his duo of 2011 misfires. Far more interesting are his recent efforts, epitomized by his 2013 release Joe. Many have taken to considering it a return to form, and while the film is strong and textured in many exciting ways, I cannot join the train. Owing more to post-Green works like Winter’s Bone, his recent films retain the social realism of his earlier works but run dangerously close to recreating the trees at the expense of the forest. The honest characters and hard-hitting drama mostly follow through, but the poetic post-Malick haze and thoughtful melancholy of Green’s abstracted reflection of everyday human activity has been lost to time. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Thief

With Michael Mann’s Blackhat underwhelming critics all around the land, I’ve decided to take a look back at the neon nightscape urban painter’s greatest film, a shockingly underrated work of crime fiction with an impressionist tint. From 1981, Michael Mann’s Thief. 

Michael Mann tore down the ’90s with three films of varying qualities that all are nonetheless championed as, at the least, lesser classics of the modern filmic world. The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider vary on the surface, but their strengths are uniform and typically Mann: a poetic variation on hard-edge grit (or a gritty take of impressionism, if you prefer), a focus on problem solving and realist process rather than sentimental characterization, and a deconstruction of masculine identity equal parts grimy American New Wave and the more clinical, cryptic European New Wave. The films vary in quality (I for one have never had much use for the flubby, indulgent Heat), but they capture Mann trading subjects without ever sacrificing his identity. Yet that identity came to fruition much earlier, on a much less famous film, and a work that matches and exceeds any of the three in quality: 1981’s Thief. Released at the very end of the American New Wave where dramas were going out the door in favor of genre exercises, Thief finds the best of both worlds in perfect, jagged harmony. It is a true pity that most of Michael Mann’s adherents haven’t seen it, for it is one of the few American crime films that seems truly interested in coming up with a new filmic language to explore its pet themes.
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Film Favorites: No Country for Old Men

One of the Coen Brothers’ most popular works, and with good reason, No Country for Old Men opens up as a dark-hearted thriller with a suitably soul-churning slow-burn style and some stunningly subfuscous cinematography from long-time Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins, and concludes as a burning bullet into the American soul and a deliberate, deeply textured dissection of Western iconography and the myth of the American Dream. For all its thematic heft, it’s an astoundingly sensory motion picture, where theme and content merge with form, and style becomes substance; every image and sound, no matter how slow and cavernous, coalesce into an abominable whole that attains a sort of lurching, poisonous, unspeakably despairing propulsive forward movement. It’s an indefinably visceral motion picture, the kind that feels humanity’s worst sorts in its very bones, and it sits back and shakes its head with a sense of hopelessness. For everything crawling under its skin, it never feels obtuse or over-written, and looking back on the 2000s, few cinematic achievements find craftsmanship so pure and perfected. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Children of Men

It would appear that selling one’s soul to the devil of commercial filmmaking can in fact serve a purpose, assuming of course you do so with a ruthless pragmatist’s eye. For that is exactly what one of Mexico’s most adored modern auteurs, Alfonso Cuaron, did with his introduction to English-language cinema in his one mercenary venture, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (no slouch as a film on its own, incidentally). For the success he had with big-budget tentpole cinema not only made a boatload of money (and made a franchise legitimize itself in the process, after two unflaggingly hum-drum entries beforehand), but it paved the way for one of the finest films of its decade, 2006’s Children of Men. If the entirety of the Harry Potter franchise only existed to validate the existence of this one film, well, it would be a job well done, for Children of Men is exactly the variation of cold-brewed, home-spun, plaintive sci-fi we don’t much see anymore, and exactly what the world of cinema circa 2006 needed. Continue reading