Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Andrei Rublev (1966)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #26 (tied with Rashomon)

The biopic is a cinematic genre staple, and there are plenty of good reasons for this. Telling the life story of an important person brings in curious audiences hoping for a glimpse of the person behind the legend, and actors often relish the opportunity embody a well-known figure (that such performances often win prestigious awards is also a likely incentive). Yet despite having been among the first films ever produced, biopics have been structured roughly the same way every time. Most follow a "greatest hits" format, tracing the person's life from birth to death, highlighting the major events in their lives and typically offering a pop-psychology explanation for how they became who they were.

The problem with this approach is that it often simplifies the person's life, boiling them down to a few moments that only demonstrate their impact on history by confirming what audiences already know. An example of this is Taylor Hackford's Ray (2004), which, despite strong performances from Jamie Foxx, Regina King, and Kerry Washington, only reaffirms what audiences already know about R&B singer Ray Charles.

Andrei Rublev, director Andrei Tarkovsky's passion project, is loosely based on the life of Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn), a religious icon painter in medieval Russia. But rather than beginning at Rublev's birth and charting his entire life, Tarkovsky chooses to focus solely on a roughly ten year period, starting in 1400 with Rublev leaving a monestary with his fellow monks and artists Daniil (Nikolai Grinko) and Kirill (Ivan Lapikov). The three wander the Russian countryside, as the film is divided into various episodes ranging from Rublev's tutelage under Theophanos the Greek (Nikolai Sergeyev) to the savage raid of a town by a band of Tatars. Through it all, Rublev grows both as an artist and as a believer, the tragedies only strengthening his craft and his faith.

The operative term in the film's plot description is "loosely based." Tarkovsky did frame his film with events from the real Rublev's life, but his ultimate goal was not fidelity to his biography. Instead, Tarkovsky sought to make a film that spoke to Russia's religious history, directly flying in the face of the Soviet Union's official atheist stance. It's this that makes the film unique among biopics: it's less about the person's life than using them as a symbol of current social malaise.

More after the jump.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Cannes 2015: Who Were the Big Winners?

The 68th Cannes Film Festival concluded yesterday, with the various juries coming together to hand out their prizes. Judging by the reviews coming out of the French Riviera, it would seem that many of the films played very well, with only Gus Van Sant's The Sea of Trees - a psychological drama starring Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe - being met with the infamous "Cannes boos."

It's impossible to predict how a jury will determine their winners; with the jury members changing every year, so do the kinds of films that will appeal to them. That being said, there is an idea that a Palme d'Or-winning film is one of great importance, artistically, socially, or historically. It also typically means being epic: the two previous winners of the festival's top prize, Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) and Winter's Sleep (2014), clocked in at three hours or more. It's also often the work of a filmmaker that has won prizes at the festival in previous years, creating a sort of "momentum" of their career. It can also simply be a film that appeals directly to key members of that jury; Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's 2010 winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was offbeat enough to appeal to jury president Tim Burton.

Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart seemed to fit the bill the best: it was an ambitious work taking place over three separate time periods, from a filmmaker who has been a recent winner (Best Screenplay, 2013). However, the film went home empty-handed, as did Denis Villeneuve's (Prisoners) war-on-drugs thriller Sicario, Justin Kurzel's new take on Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, Joachim Trier's Jesse Eisenberg-starring drama Louder Than Bombs, and 2013 Jury Prize winner Hirokazu Koreeda's Our Little Sister.

Below is a list of the prize-winners from the Main Competition, as well as commentary based on what we know about the films so far.

More after the jump.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1998)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #48 (tied with The Battle of Algiers)

"What is cinema? Nothing. What does it want? Everything. What can it do? Something."
- Histoire(s) du Cinema, Chapter 3A

Many of the key figures in the development of the French New Wave - filmmakers Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jean-Luc Godard, as well as theorist Andre Bazin - began their careers as film critics. Truffaut, for example, worked at the prestigious French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema when he collaborated with Bazin to create the guidelines that would define the movement. As critics, these filmmakers understood the thematic aspects of filmmaking, and thus created a movement that was a direct response to Hollywood tradition. In the tradition of the French New Wave, the director was considered the author of the film, with all other aspects of filmmaking channeled through their vision. It was as if to prove this theory that many of these critics became filmmakers themselves.

Perhaps none of this figures better exemplifies this idea than Godard. Godard's films, starting with his very first (Breathless, 1960), are designed to be anti-Hollywood dispatches that are unmistakably his, leaning heavily on blasé attitude and ironic recreations of Tinseltown iconography. The double- and triple-entendres stack up in his films, as he consistently references other films and ideas while subtly skewering them. Godard's grand cinematic project is, essentially, to question the concept of cinema itself, in an effort to better understand the possibilities that the medium affords storytellers and artists.

In none of his films is this more apparent than in Histoire(s) du Cinema, an eight-part video project that Godard began in 1988 and completed ten years later. Through each installment, Godard examines the history of cinema through abstraction, overlaying images and footage from hundreds of films onto re-enactments, recitals, and interviews. The density of the project makes it one of his most difficult films, as well as his longest.

The film explores film history in an unconventional way, yet Godard's Marxist reading of history and his positioning of himself as an active participant in its evolution going forward are what make it a truly fascinating document.

More after the jump.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: The 400 Blows (1959)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #39 (tied with La Dolce Vita)

Francois Truffaut, despite being one of the leading figures of the French New Wave in the 1960s, doesn't quite fit in with his contemporaries. Whereas Jean-Luc Godard sought to skew Hollywood conventions, Alain Resnais looked toward left-leaning political cinema, and Robert Bresson attempted to create a new "pure cinematography," Truffaut operated in a form that was not superficially different from the mainstream cinema at the time. His style is more conventional, less abstract, and his characters have more in common with the impoverished heroes of Vittorio De Sica than the too-cool countercultural figures of Godard. It's no surprise, then, that Truffaut would go on to experiment in Hollywood filmmaking during the 1970s.

Yet one look at his debut, The 400 Blows, reveals that he's far from a conventional filmmaker. The film concerns Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a young, misunderstood Parisian boy. After being caught plagiarizing Balzac by his hard-nosed teacher (Guy Decomble), Antoine decides to run away from home, taking his stepfather's (Albert Remy) typewriter with him. He's caught when he tries to return it, landing him in jail overnight and eventually sent to an institution to be observed and "rehabilitated."

The 400 Blows is episodic in structure, avoiding the three-act narrative that dominated Hollywood at the time, which certainly helped set it apart. But whereas his contemporaries were telling stories about twenty-somethings who were disillusioned by life in post-war Europe, Truffaut here explored the disillusionment of adolescence, crafting the story of a mischievous child without scolding his actions.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Entertainment Junkie's 2015 Cannes Film Festival Preview: Meet the Jury + 11 Films To Look Forward To

Before we begin, don't get too excited: once again, I will not be on the French Riviera this year, so you won't be getting any festival recaps from me as this year's slate of films premiere (it's my goal to do so one day, though).

That doesn't mean we can't look forward to this year's festival, though. Cannes is arguably the most prestigious film festival in the world, and this year's set - running from May 13 through May 24 - has a number of promising films debuting, both in the main competition and in the fest's other various events. And that's what we're going to cover here; however, unlike last year's list of ten films, we're going to crank it up to eleven this year, as there's just so much potentially-great stuff on the horizon.

But before we get into that, meet the nine members of the competition jury, headlined by a pair of idiosyncratic directors who are themselves Cannes favorites.

Ethan and Joel Coen, presidents

The Coen Brothers have a long history with Cannes: their 1991 film Barton Fink claimed the festival's most prestigious prize, the Palme d'Or, while Joel Coen has received three Best Director awards (1991 for Barton Fink, 1996 for Fargo, 2001 for The Man Who Wasn't There; in all three cases, Ethan was an uncredited co-director). A total of eight of their films have competed in the competition. The duo's last film was Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), though they have written several screenplays that they have not directed, such as last year's Unbroken (directed by Angelina Jolie) and the upcoming Bridge of Spies (directed by Steven Spielberg).

More after the jump.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Persona (1966)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #17 (tied with Seven Samurai)

It seems incredible to think that, for a director as internationally esteemed as Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, only one of his films made the cut on Sight & Sound's decennial list. It's even more incredible that that film is perhaps the densest in his filmography. Bergman certainly never shied away from ambitious thematic material; many of his films dealt with the relationship between the sacred and the profane, and many focused on the fragility of life. However, films like The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, and Cries and Whispers were also accessible to the general public; they could just as easily be taken as entertainments as they were treatises from Bergman's perspective.

Persona, on the other hand, is decidedly more abstract. Elisabet (Liv Ullman), an accomplished stage actress, has fallen silent, incapable of speaking even though she hasn't been diagnosed with any ailment. In the hospital she falls under the care of Alma (Bibi Andersson), a young nurse who, under the suggestion of the administrator (Margaretha Krook), takes Elisabet to a beach house for treatment. Though Elisabet continues not to speak, Alma carries on a one-sided conversation with her, and the women's relationship becomes more and more intimate. However, when Alma reads a letter that Elisabet has written the administrator, their relationship is deeply fractured.

It comes as no surprise, then, that there have been multiple interpretations as to what the meaning of the film is. The most interesting of these is that the film is about film itself, examining the relationship between filmmaker and audience in the artistic process.

More after the jump.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Screening Log: This Year's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" Films, March-May

A few quick reviews of the films we've watched so far for The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot;" clicking the link in the film's title will take you to that film's article.

The Sound of Music (dir. Robert Wise, 1965)

Rightfully considered a classic. Visually, everything about this musical is big, from the mansion in which the Von Trapps reside to the dominating mountains of the surrounding Austrian Alps. Yet the story itself is beautifully small, with Julie Andrews doing phenomenal work at making Maria a woman who is wholly herself. The songs are excellent, Andrews and Christopher Plummer are a white-hot pairing of romantic chemistry, and the whole film is damn near perfect. May the hills always be this alive. A+

Paris is Burning (dir. Jennie Livingston, 1990)

An essential documentary from a voice that has virtually disappeared since. A glimpse into New York's ball scene - a haven for the disenfranchised - provides a powerful study of race, sexuality, gender, and class in post-Reagan America. That many aspects of these balls have permeated popular culture only cements its importance as a LGBTQ document. A

The Quiet Man (dir. John Ford, 1952)

This Ireland-set romantic comedy earned Ford his fourth and final Best Director Oscar, and for good reason: it's a lush production that features gorgeous images of the rolling landscape of the Emerald Isle. John Wayne delivers the finest performance of his career as an ex-boxer looking to purchase his ancestral land, and Maureen O'Hara is terrific as his love interest. In it's best moments, the two get a chance to smolder. Yet the film meanders a tad too much to make it truly great. B+

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (dir. Vittorio de Sica, 1963)

An anthology of three stories starring Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren, de Sica's film is a study in how two of the hottest stars in the world can come together to set the screen ablaze. Of the three films, the middle one is the weakest, built on a premise that barely sustains its brief running time. But the other two are so terrific that they elevate the whole thing to a classic of '60s Italian cinema. A

Mommie Dearest (dir. Frank Perry, 1981)

Nowhere the near the disaster of its reputation, the film is actually more of a colossal miscalculation: a biopic based on rumor and hearsay rather than concrete fact. Still, Faye Dunaway is nothing short of amazing in the role of Joan Crawford, giving herself over completely to every withering stare, cutting remark, and flight of insanity. It's a truly phenomenal piece of acting in an otherwise dull film. The film: B- Dunaway: A+

Johnny Guitar (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1954)

A revisionist Western with a counterculture bent, the film is playful with Western tropes and anchored by a terrific pair of performances from Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge, playing bitter rivals. Though the film loses momentum in its second act, it closes with a mad fury, making it a fun curio of the studio system's final years. B

Taxi Driver (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976)

Also rightfully considered a classic. Martin Scorsese's direction is masterfully controlled, every image loaded with information, every movement studied and deliberate. Robert De Niro's performance reveals new dimensions of Travis Bickle every time, and Cybill Shepherd absolutely radiates as the lone angel in this NYC hellscape. It may be Scorsese's best film. A+

Nine to Five (dir. Colin Higgins, 1980)

A fun, progressively feminist comedy that makes the most of its leads in Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton. All three are fantastic, and the film is at its best when it allows the women to hang out and swap revenge fantasies. Though the film's second half isn't quite as high, it still manages to entertain and make a salient point about how women are treated in the workplace. B+

Bright Star (dir. Jane Campion, 2009)

Choosing to make a film about John Keats' (Ben Whishaw) oft-forgotten lover and muse, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish), proves to be a sharp return-to-form for director Jane Campion. The film is lush and beautiful to look at, thanks in large part to Greig Fraser's impeccable cinematography. But the film's real power comes from the restrained, endearing performances by Cornish and Whishaw, as well as a scene-stealing turn from Paul Schneider as Keats' best friend. Moving and elegiac, it makes a thoroughly touching romance. A-

Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)

What else is there left to say about this film? It's rightfully considered one of the greatest films ever made, all the more impressive considering that Welles was a Hollywood newbie who had never directed, written, or starred in a movie before doing this one. Welles delivers a master class in acting; the scene in which Charles Foster Kane (Welles) attends his second wife's (Dorothy Comingore) opera debut is stunning in Welles' controlled facial expressions, conveying volumes of information without speaking a word. Quite simply, this is one of the rare films that everyone must see. A+

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday/Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Citizen Kane (1941)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly weekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

*CROSSOVER SPECIAL: this post is also part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

2012 poll rank: #2

At this point, Citizen Kane doesn't need an introduction. By the time he made his directing debut with this film in 1941, Orson Welles (whose centennial is May 6) had already established a reputation for himself as a pre-emenant artist. He had earned raves onstage, becoming heavily involved in the Works Progress Administration's Federal Theatre Program and mounting productions of Macbeth, Faustus, and The Cradle Will Rock. He helped establish the Mercury Theatre, a theatre troupe that included Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorhead, and Ray Collins, and put together a hugely-popular production of Julius Caesar (set in Fascist Italy) in 1938. Later that same year, as the troupe began working in radio plays as well, Welles became a national name for his infamous October 30 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds;" the production was written as a news broadcast, and many listeners mistook it for news of a real alien invasion. Finally, Welles arrived in Hollywood, worked on a script with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, cast mostly from the Mercury Theatre (most of whom had never acted onscreen before), and released Citizen Kane to the world. Though it was unevenly received at first, it would go on to become a legend: it topped Sight & Sound's "best films of all time" poll in 1962, and held onto that spot for the next 50 years, as Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo claimed the top spot in the most recent poll.

And Welles managed to do all of this by the time he was 26.

Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane (Welles), a newspaper magnate (believed to be modeled on William Randolph Hearst) in the early part of the twentieth century. On his deathbed, Kane utters the word "rosebud," kicking off a journalistic investigation by Jerry Thompson (William Alland) into what the word could possibly mean. Interviewing several major figures in Kane's life - his second wife Susan Alexander Kane (Dorothy Comingore), his personal business manager Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane), and his best friend/reporter for the New York Inquirer Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) - Thompson begins to put together an idea of who Kane was. The majority of the film is told through these flashbacks, as it charts Kane's impoverished Colorado childhood to his acquisition of the Inquirer and subsequent rise of prominence to his loss of everything, including his palatial, incomplete home of Xanadu.

For a film that's so concentrated on a man of prominence, it makes sense that it would begin with what is essentially a newsreel hagiography of Kane. But it's that newsreel that belies exactly what the film is: a mystery noir about the identity of a man who spent his whole life in the public eye, only to be an enigma in death.

More after the jump.