Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "[safe]" (1995)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

There is certainly no shortage of art about the fears of modernity. Especially since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution over 200 years ago, there have been countless novels, paintings, films, photographs, and other works that have addressed mankind's increasing reliance on technology and the compartmentalization of society as that technology further eliminates the need for social interaction. These works often take on one of two different approaches. The first is starry-eyed nostalgia for "the way things were," reminding audiences of how "simple" life used to be before the world became modern and unrecognizable. The other is a cautionary tale, delivering a dire warning to audiences about what could happen to them if they can't keep their humanity in a world that's increasingly mechanical. Both approaches rely heavily on making audiences uncomfortable with the modern world, though whether one is more effective than the other (if at all) varies considerably.

So leave it to American filmmaker Todd Haynes to take this idea and place it under his critical gaze with the help of his eventual muse, Julianne Moore. [safe], their first collaboration (and Moore's first leading role), tells the story of Carol (Moore), a San Fernando Valley housewife in the late 1980s. Carol's existence can be described as "affluent autopilot:" she has a set routine of gardening, visiting friends, doing aerobics, and attending social events with her well-to-do husband Greg (Xander Berkeley). One day, Carol begins feeling sick, with no unifying factor in her symptoms. Carol becomes convinced that her illness is caused by chemicals in the air, and travels to New Mexico to receive treatment from self-help guru Peter Dunning (Peter Friedman) at his Wrenwood retreat. The question, though, is: is Carol really sick, or is it all just in her head?

Haynes doesn't deliver any solid answers to this quandary. Instead, his camera studies Carol and her situation and allows the audience to assess where her malady lies. Some have interpreted the film as an allegory for the AIDS epidemic which, in 1995, had only just become a topic that was acceptable to acknowledge in popular culture. However, it is just as easy to read it as a quiet subversion of 20th-century fears of modernity, turned on their head in Haynes' treatment of his protagonist.

More after the jump.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Vertigo (1958)

*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: #1

After nearly two years of mostly-consistent posting and 51 films covering the broad scope of cinema history, "Sight & Sound Sunday" has finally arrived at the end of the poll's top 50. This feature is going out with a doozy, too: the new number-one, Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 thriller Vertigo. When the poll was released in 2012, the film's placement at the top was a shock, as it ended the five-decade reign of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. And it did so by a fairly considerable margin: Vertigo received 191 total votes, while Citizen Kane managed 157. It has steadily risen for the past several decades as well, debuting in the top 10 at number seven in 1982 before climbing to number four (1992), number two (2002), and now the summit.

Yet Hitchcock's film wasn't always so esteemed. Upon its release, it was greeted with mostly mixed reviews; the film garnered only two Academy Award nominations (for Best Art Direction - Color and Best Sound), and in Francois Truffaut's seminal 1962 book of interviews with the esteemed director, Vertigo only merits a few mentions. Even Hitchcock himself dismissed the film, placing the blame on leading man James Stewart's age as a factor for the film's poor reception (amusingly, Welles was also vocally disappointed in the film).

For a contemporaneous audience, the film does seem to be based on a far-fetched premise. Scottie (Stewart) is a retired detective who was forced to hand over his badge after he became afflicted with a dizzying fear of heights, which lead to the death of a policeman. He lives with his ex-fiancee Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) when he's asked by a former schoolmate, Gavin (Tom Helmore), to investigate his wife Madeleine's (Kim Novak) strange behavior. Madeleine claims that she is possessed by the spirit of Carlotta Valdes, a well-known woman who had committed suicide nearly a century prior. Scottie, however, begins to fall in love with Madeleine, only to find himself even deeper entangled into a web of lies and intrigue.

To be fair, this premise is still pretty out-there, even when compared to the kinds of barren framework and contrived setups that define many of today's thrillers. However, the film's reputation has grown more esteemed with time because of Hitchcock's impeccable direction, implication of the audience in Scottie's misdeeds, and a cruel sense of irony that makes for one of the most sublime final shots in all of cinema.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Flying Lotus' "Never Catch Me" Music Video (2014)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

This is going to be a much-quicker post than I typically give this series, for two reasons. The first is that Nathaniel changed the schedule on short notice, pushing the previously-planned [safe] to next Wednesday (which gives you an extra week to check out this remarkable film, won't you join in the fun?). The second is that, quite frankly, I don't have a lot to say about music videos. Despite being born in the MTV age and growing up in an era when the network was only beginning to transition from TRL to trashy reality shows, I never really connected to music videos. To this day, I'm much more likely to discover new music through streaming services and radio than I am through watching the song's video, and the format itself is so riddled with cliches and tropes that many videos are indistinguishable to me.

However, this week's new challenge is to select one of the five nominees for Best Cinematography at this year's MTV Video Music Awards (the full list of nominees you can find here) and pick a shot from that video. Unlike many of the categories at the increasingly-superfluous awards show, Best Cinematography is not voted on by viewers and fans, but rather by a panel of industry professionals, meaning that the winner isn't chosen purely by popularity of the artist. This year's nominees are:

- "Left Hand Free," Alt-J (cinematography by Mike Simpson)
- "Thinking Out Loud," Ed Sheeran (cinematography by Daniel Pearl)
- "Two Weeks," FKA Twigs (cinematography by Justin Brown)
- "Never Catch Me," Flying Lotus feat. Kendrick Lamar (cinematography by Larkin Sieple)
- "Bad Blood," Taylor Swift feat. Kendrick Lamar (cinematography by Christopher Probst)

I chose the "Never Catch Me," if only because it was my personal favorite out of the bunch: "Left Hand Free" too closely resembled a Budweiser ad, "Thinking Out Loud" never really grabbed me and I'm not all that fond of Ed Sheeran (though I like this song), "Two Weeks" is a visually-interesting but mostly-empty moving tableaux, and "Bad Blood," despite a killer remix by Lamar, is just a mess.

"Never Catch Me" is set at the funeral of two young black children, a visual that's made all the more haunting by the recent slayings of young black men in the United States. However, as the ceremony carries on for the adults, the two kids get out of their coffins for an energetic dance routine, eventually making their way out of the church and into a hearse that they drive away in. It's a video that makes the funereal lively, a celebration of the spirit in the face of the death of the body.

*Best Shot*

And the two kids are just phenomenal. They move with perfect rhythm like a pint-size Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, their choreography matching the driving hip-hop/jazz fusion of Flying Lotus' music and Lamar's spitfire lyrics. The cinematography is sublime, never showy but beautifully lit. But it's the kids who steal the show.

See the video for yourself here.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

*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: #35 (tied with Metropolis, Psycho, and Satantango)

"Sight & Sound Sunday" has been an ongoing series for almost two years now. In that time span, we've covered almost all 52 films in the Sight & Sound poll's top 50 (extras thanks to ties), ranging from silent Soviet art films to French New Wave cornerstones to Japanese masterworks to Hollywood classics to glimpses of post-colonial cinema. And yet, in the 51st installment, we are finally covering Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles, the only film to crack the top 50 that was directed by a woman.

Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman had, by 1975, established herself internationally with her debut Je, tu, il, elle the previous year. Having won acclaim for that film, she requested a larger budget from the Belgian government, and put together an all-female crew to work on the film. Though she would later state that having such a crew did not work out terribly well, it was still a remarkable achievement, especially at a time when feminism was gaining momentum throughout Europe. Akerman never considered herself a feminist, but her films suggest otherwise, as they confront the ideas of a woman's place in modern society and make a strong argument for progress.

This is certainly true of Jeanne Dielman. The film follows the titular character (Delphine Seyrig) across three days, detailing her routine in something approaching real-time. She cooks, cleans, and takes care of her teenage son Sylvain (Jan Decorte), while in the afternoon, she prostitutes herself in order to take care of herself and her son. At first, the routine is presented as rote and uninteresting, but things start to change on the second day, building up to a third day that will bring a much more drastic change.

Akerman's film takes advantage of its enormous running time - 201 minutes - to present something extremely ordinary to a powerful effect. Jeanne's routine is a subtly great feminist argument, though the third act takes it to a quietly revolutionary level. Akerman achieves this through a use of long takes, a strong performance from Seyrig, and a repetitive narrative structure that blends slight changes with drastic ones.

More after the break.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Sunset Boulevard" (1950)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) refuses to be left behind. One of the biggest stars in Hollywood during the silent era, Norma witnessed her offers wane as the pictures began talking, a fate that also befell a number of her contemporaries. Though the film roles have dried up, Norma intends to make a comeback return. Writer Joe Gillis (William Holden) is struggling to get a script of his produced, and is on the run from creditors aiming to repossess his car. Chance brings him to Norma's palatial Sunset Boulevard residence, and she offers him a sweet deal: polish her draft of a film about Salome for her to star in and she'll cover his debts. However, Joe winds up being caught in Norma's web of self-delusion, with her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) keeping him in check and Norma herself sabotaging his budding flirtation with Paramount Studios reader Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson). And somehow, before it all ends, Joe will end up dead in a swimming pool.

Even though Hollywood hadn't even reached its first half-century mark in 1950, Sunset Boulevard was director Billy Wilder's poison-hearted "love" letter to the studio system. By this point in his career, Wilder was already one of the most successful directors in the business, winning the Best Director Oscar in 1945 for his sobering alcoholism drama The Lost Weekend and scoring major acclaim for films as diverse as the 1939 comedy Ninotchka and the 1944 noir Double Indemnity. Though Wilder worked in a number of genres, there was one constant throughout his filmography: an irreverent streak that at once betrayed a deep love of cinema and what it could do as well as gleefully subverted Hollywood's well-established notions. The Austrian-born filmmaker was a true enfant terrible and relished every moment of the role.

For a movie about the movie business, Wilder manages to cram in a number of high-profile cameos and name-drops, giving the film one of the more authentic appearances amongst its compatriots in the subgenre. But there is a reason that Wilder's Hollywood noir has made such a lasting impact, far beyond the bitterness towards its subject, the wittiness of its dialogue, and its then-novice use of "beyond the grave" narration. And that reason is Norma Desmond.

More after the jump.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Satantango (1994)

*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: #35 (tied with Metropolis, Psycho, and Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles)

When the Berlin Wall began being torn down on November 4, 1989, it signaled the end of an era for central and eastern Europe. Since the end of World War II in 1945, almost the entirety of the central and eastern parts of the continent had come under Communist rule, mostly thanks to the influence of the Soviet Union. However, the western part of the continent - allies of the United States - opposed the spread of Communism. As the United States and Soviet Union embarked in a "cold war" that would carry on for nearly 50 years, Europe found itself divided by the "Iron Curtain," a name given to the arbitrary border that divided Communist Europe from "democratic" Europe ("democratic" because many nations are constitutional monarchies rather than republics). This curtain ran directly through a divided Germany - West Germany was a democratic ally of the United States, while East Germany came under Communist rule and aligned with the Soviet Union. The Berlin Wall - dividing the United States-backed western side of the city from its Soviet-backed eastern side - became the physical symbol of that divide. On one side (the west), the city was rebuilding; if not exactly a utopia, it was at least developing along with Western Europe into a more prosperous world. On the other side (the east) was a world made stagnant by failed planned economics and oppressive authoritarian rule. The contrast could not have been more stark.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, then, was the most potent image of the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989. Because the wall was a tangible object, it could best be used as a symbol to be celebrated, the moment when re-unification became a reality for a deeply fractured nation whose wounds could never properly heal divided. But it was hardly the only major moment during that year. Revolutions in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary all saw Communist rule come to an end in those countries, and Albania, Yugoslavia, and finally the Soviet Union would end their Communist regimes within the next three years, with the latter two nations dissolving to eventually create 21 new nations over the next two decades. And the trend kicked off events around the world, with Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mongolia, and South Yemen abandoning Communist rule as well (the 1989 Tiananmen Square revolution in China failed to spark change; China, Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, and North Korea remain the only nations under Communist rule today).

The fall of these Communist regimes sparked intense artistic reactions within those countries. This isn't surprising; in most countries, artistic expression - especially anything that could be considered critical of the regime - was severely limited. The fall of Communism, then, was met with a number of works across all mediums that examined the period that had just past, the future that lay ahead, and the damage that would need to be repaired (if such a thing were even possible). In most cases, these works were critical of the regime and lamented the shattered history that it resulted in. To say the least, the art of post-Communist Europe was pretty dark.

This is true of Satantango, Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr's magnum opus. Based on a novel of the same name by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, the film is set in a small communal farming village in an unspecified setting. Mr. Schmidt (Laszlo Lugossy), whose wife (Eva Almassy Derzsi) is having an affair with neighbor Futaki (Mikos Szekely B.), is conspiring to steal money from the rest of the village after the farm collapses. His plans are put on hold, however, when rumors spread that Irimias (Mihaly Vig) - long thought to be dead - is soon returning. Irimias indeed does return, but he bears a sinister agenda: he's worked out a deal with Hungarian military officers to manipulate the villagers into giving him all of their money, then destroy the village and everyone in it. Only Schmidt, Futaki, and a local drunk nicknamed the Doctor (Peter Berling) are resistant to the charming man's plan, but how can they hope to stop him when everyone else follows blindly?

At 432 minutes (about 7 hours 12 minutes), Tarr makes the film feel even longer thanks to his extensive use of long takes. However, it serves to create a potent allegory for life in Hungary under an authoritarian regime, utilizing the film's running time, symbolic imagery, and desperate narrative to produce a portrait that's remarkably bleak.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000)

*This post is part of the "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" blogathon at The Film Experience*

Though we often celebrate directors for their vision, it's rare that we think about that vision in terms of the scope of genre. That is to say, when we talk about a filmmaker's greatness, it is often intrinsically linked to a particular type of film (or films) that they make. We think of Steven Spielberg in terms of crowd-pleasing blockbusters and sentimental Oscar behemoths. We think of David O. Russell in terms of large-ensemble tilt-a-whirls hinged on the actors' unhinged performances. We think of Quentin Tarantino in terms of his genre pastiches that combine whatever he's passionate about at the moment. Of course, these filmmakers make other types of films (well, maybe not Tarantino), but these are the types of films that they are most famous for making.

And the more a filmmaker is grounded into their "type," the more us cinephiles tend to sing their praises as having a particular "vision." It's much easier to categorize a filmmaker as having something important to say if a sizable chunk of their filmography lies in the same genre or is thematically connected or has the same aesthetic. The more a director fans out into various genres and ideas, the less cinephiles tend to vaunt them as "artists." Unfortunately, these filmmakers often get tagged simply as "workmen," directors who simply show up to set, yell "action" and "cut," and turn out the product. For better or worse, these are the Ron Howards, the Ridley Scotts, and the Clint Eastwoods of the world.

(Interestingly, this only tends to apply to filmmakers post-1960; Golden Age of Hollywood directors tend to be praised by modern cinephiles even though many of them truly were only doing the work assigned to them by the studio. And this isn't to say that the "workmen" are all neglected by cinephiles; Steven Soderbergh may be the most celebrated genre-hopper of the 21st century).

All of this is to say that Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee, though rightfully celebrated by cinephiles, deserves more recognition for his versatility. Lee's career has stretched over a quarter of a century, and during that time he has made intimate LGBT dramas (2005's Brokeback Mountain), superhero movies (2003's Hulk), special-effects extravaganzas (2012's Life of Pi), suburban ensemble dramas (1997's The Ice Storm), war films (1999's underseen Ride with the Devil), sophisticated comedies (his international breakthroughs, 1993's The Wedding Banquet and 1994's Eat Drink Man Woman), and Jane Austen adaptations (1995's Sense and Sensibility). Lee has never limited himself to a single genre, and he's proven himself to be a master chameleon, his direction always in service of the film rather than the other way around. And he's an Oscar favorite as well: four of his films have been Best Picture nominees, all three of Taiwan's nominations in Best Foreign Language Film were films directed by him, and he holds the distinction of being the only director of color to win two Best Director Oscars (for Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi).

In a filmography so varied, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon stands out for a number of reasons. The film still holds the record for highest-grossing foreign-language film in the United States, a remarkable feat for a nation that's so resistant to subtitles. It also stands out for it's use of balletic action, using the same "wire-fu" techniques that wowed audiences the previous year (1999) in The Matrix (the film's share a martial arts coordinator, Yuen Woo-ping). But the most interesting element of the film is how Lee plays with genre. While the film is meant to be an epic in the traditions of the Chinese wuxia genre, Lee borrows heavily from the narrative beats, characterizations, and visual iconography of the American Western.

More after the jump.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sight & Sound Sunday: Play Time (1967)

*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: #42 (tied with Pather Panchali, Some Like It Hot, Gertrud, Pierrot le Fou, and Close-Up)

In a previous "Sight & Sound Sunday" column on Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, we discussed the role of space in the French director's famed comedy, and how that use of space was utilized for both humorous and thematic impact. Renoir used deep-focus photography - then a relatively new technique - to accentuate the scale of the country manor and imply the looming world war that's lurking just offscreen. But he also used to give space for some clever jokes in the background, asking the audience to pay attention to every corner of the screen and rewarding those who did. Renoir understood that cinema provided an opportunity in comedy that other art-forms simply did not: visual gags could carry just as much weight as verbal.

Another famed French director, Jacques Tati, took this concept even further with his most acclaimed film, Play Time. The film takes place over a single day in a futuristic Paris that has been redesigned as a modernist landscape, with every building, road, and even person's walking pattern being a straight line. The film is constructed in six loosely connected segments involving two characters consistently crossing paths: Barbara (Barbara Denneck), an American tourist visiting the city for the first time, and Monsieur Hulot (Tati), a middle-aged man who is befuddled by modernity.

Tati's previous films had all focused on Hulot, who had become an enormously popular character with French audiences in the 1960s and transformed Tati into one of the nation's most celebrated comedians. With Play Time, he wanted to distance himself from the character, and instead crafted a film in which Hulot takes on a much more passive role, essentially serving as an audience surrogate for Tati's anxiety about the modern world. Instead, the film is a testament to Tati's skill as a director, as he uses the geometry of the world he created to not only convey his concerns, but also to find comedy in the film's uses of space and sound.

More after the jump.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Short Take: "Murder By Death" (1976)

Directed by: Robert Moore

Writer Neil Simon was well-known during the mid-20th-century for his comedies, both on the stage and on the screen. Starting on Your Show of Shows on television, he went on to win great acclaim on the stage for Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple, which would later be turned into a very successful television show. In many cases, his film experience was in adapting his own plays, as was the case in The Sunshine Boys. Murder By Death, however, was an original work, and one of his silliest at that.

The film finds five legendary detectives and their accomplices gathering at the mansion of the eccentric Lionel Twain (Truman Capote), who has invited them to "dinner and a murder." Tough-talking Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) and his assistant Tess Skeffington (Eileen Brennan), Belgian sleuth Milo Perrier (James Coco) and valet Marcel (James Cromwell), married detectives Dick (David Niven) and Dora Charleston (Maggie Smith), British investigator Jessica Marbles (Elsa Lanchester) and her nurse (Estelle Winwood), and Chinese private eye Sidney Wang (Peter Sellers) and his "#3 adopted son" Willie (Richard Narita) all try to figure out who will be murdered, how, and why over the course of the weekend, as well as how Twain's blind butler Bensonmum (Alec Guinness) is able to do anything.

Obviously, this is a pretty broad parody of detective stories, with each detective being a caricature of a well-known literary sleuth (in order from above: Sam Spade, Hercule Poirot, Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Marple, and Charlie Chan). And Simon's jokes fly from beginning to end, most of them being silly wordplay and witty asides. As a whole, the film feels like a stage play; it's very talky, relying much more heavily on dialogue than on visual humor. Of all the actors, Falk steals the show with his nonsensical film-noir musings, but everyone does fine comic work here. If the film seems to lose sight of the mystery at hand, it's because it was never really interested in it in the first place. By the time the third act reaches its umpteenth absurdist reveal, you're either onboard with the film's scatological nonsense or you're not. It's a light, goofy lark on detective stories. B