cade snyder

The Sea Hawk

The Sea Hawk
1940
Directed by Michael Curtiz

Errol Flynn was one of the biggest stars of Hollywood’s “golden era”.  While he’s not got the kind of legacy and widespread recognition that leading men like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, or Clark Gable have today, in his heyday his movies outperformed everyone else’s at the box office, even while he was constantly quarreling with Jack Warner (he was under contract with Warner Brothers for much of his Hollywood career) for more respect from the studio.  The Sea Hawk not only provides a compelling argument for why Flynn and his films were so popular, but also gives just the slightest hint at the carefree playboy nature of the actor himself.  Flynn plays the heroic Captain Geoffrey Thorpe, one of the “Sea Hawks”, a group of privateers who patrol the seas plundering Spanish ships on behalf of Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) who publicly disapproves but privately admires the men, particularly Thorpe, and the riches they’re bringing back to her.  Their work, however, strains the political alliance between England and Spain, but as it turns out, the alliance is a front meant to bide time so King Philip II can build up the Spanish Armada to eventually overthrow England and then the world.  Thorpe and the Sea Hawks beg Elizabeth to create a British navy capable of fighting back, but she refuses to see it as necessary.  But when Thorpe and his men capture a Spanish ship carrying ambassador Don José Alvarez (Claude Rains) and his niece Doña Maria (Brenda Marshall), a series of events takes place that will give Thorpe the opportunity to prove once and for all Spain’s devious intentions if he can only manage to survive the machinations of Alvarez and the traitorous Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell).  The Sea Hawk is a formula film, made to play to Flynn’s strengths and deliver exactly what made his previous films popular, even using sets and costumes from his earlier hit film The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and employing the same director, Michael Curtiz, that had so ably handled nearly all of Flynn’s previous hits.  If you compare this film to The Adventures of Robin Hood, Flynn’s best known work, the parallels between the two in terms of character types and actors occupying the same roles, the film’s look (other than the obvious difference of Technicolor versus black-and-white), its action sequences and massive spectacle, its sound (Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score here may even rival his brilliant Robin Hood score), and even its very structure itself with certain scenes mirroring each other (particularly the elaborate sword-fight scene with the same shadow technique), it’s all impossible to ignore.  And yet The Sea Hawk doesn’t feel like a “color-by-numbers” project; in fact, I’d argue that it’s even better than Robin Hood.  As I see it, there are two possible reasons for that notion.  For one, Errol Flynn is afforded more freedom in the role of Captain Thorpe than he had with Robin Hood.  With Robin Hood, Flynn had a legendary figure that the audience was already largely familiar with from literature and previous film versions.  Flynn did an excellent job with the role, forever redefining the way people envisioned Robin Hood in the years since, but he didn’t have the same ability to completely create the character the way he does with Captain Thorpe, who is an entirely new fictional figure.  With Thorpe, Flynn is truly creating a new hero in his own image, a swashbuckling pirate, honorable, romantic, humorous and mischievous, and at times you can see Flynn grinning as if at the audience, letting them in on how much fun he’s really having.  He handles the more serious elements just as well, mainly when he’s a galley slave struggling to keep up hope and rally his captured men, and when he’s going sword-to-sword with Lord Wolfingham in the film’s climactic battle, but the lighter moments are when Flynn’s charm and natural screen presence really shine through.  The second reason The Sea Hawk soars (see what I did there?) is that it has a purpose behind it.  The film’s historical accuracy is extremely dubious, but with its fudging of history, the film’s 16th-century Europe stands in for the Europe of 1940, with Philip’s Spain filling in for Hitler’s Germany as the country eyeing world dominance through invasion of England.  Even though the film is an American production, much of its cast and crew were European and therefore were sympathetic to the British war effort, and it’s clear that the film is in large part meant to boost English morale in their fight against Germany.  Elizabeth’s rousing speech at the end of the film, asserting that it was England’s duty to defend liberty for all peoples and the world was not mean to be ruled by one man, was directed as much to the audiences watching in England as it was the characters in the film, and could have easily been delivered by Winston Churchill.  The speech’s impact is largely thanks to Flora Robson, who gives Elizabeth poise and authority throughout the film, convincingly showing the struggle in her mind between preparing for war and thereby assuring it or doing everything in her power to prevent war and potentially leaving her country defenseless in the process, balancing her roles as royal politician and as protector of her people.  The rest of the cast do great work as well, with Claude Rains doing a more solid job here than the unfortunate mincing he did as Prince John, and Henry Daniell and Brenda Marshall amiably filling roles that were obviously meant for Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland.  The film does fall short in places - for one, it doesn’t address as directly as it should the fact that the Sea Hawks are essentially pirates and that their ransacking and sinking of Spanish ships would be fairly considered acts of war by Spain since the Queen doesn’t treat the acts as criminal.  The film tries to use the freeing of English galley slaves being used to power Spanish ships as righteous motivation, but it doesn’t hold up for the entirety of Thorpe’s crew’s activities.  Also, this film suffers from a weak romantic subplot much like in The Adventures of Robin Hood, with the key difference being that Maid Marian is a key figure integral to the Robin Hood legend while Doña Maria is a character obviously added only to be a love interest for Thorpe, with no real character beyond her romantic requirements.  Her reasoning for falling for Thorpe is also much thinner compared to Maid Marian’s motivations for falling for Robin Hood, making the whole thing feel even more like a requirement for better box office instead of for better story.  The more interesting romance in the film is actually the one hinted at between Thorpe and Elizabeth, and while it seems to be one of mere flirtation, it’s suggestive enough to be intriguing, much more so than Thorpe and Maria could ever hope to be.  Also, there’s a substantial part of the film where a monkey shows up for no reason and causes trouble.  It’s obviously pure calculated comic relief, and it’s really, really stupid.  No unnecessary monkeys - that’s your filmmaking tip for the day.  The Sea Hawk luckily manages to overcome its inclusion of an unnecessary monkey and succeed at being a classically thrilling and rousing swashbuckler, deftly directed by Michael Curtiz (who doesn’t get the respect as an “auteur” director that he deserves) and brilliantly acted by Errol Flynn, one of the great badasses of cinema.  He may not look badass if you just see a picture of him, but he commands and dominates the screen anytime he’s on it.  Also, if you’ve ever heard the phrase “In like Flynn”, that became a common saying in the ‘40s in reference to how easily Errol Flynn got laid.  Badass.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns

Double Feature!: Yojimbo/Miller's Crossing

Yojimbo/Miller’s Crossing
1961/1990
Directed by Akira Kurosawa/The Coen Brothers

I’d promised last month while I was still in full Oscar movie mode that after the awards were over I would make a point to watch the Coen Brother’s stylish gangster film Miller’s Crossing and write up a review for it. I figured I’d have to do that before starting up Criterion Collection March™, but as luck would have it, one of the Criterion films I was set to watch makes for a perfect companion to Miller’s Crossing. That film would be Yojimbo, Akira Kurosawa’s highly influential samurai flick. Both films find the basis for their stories in the same two Dashiell Hammett novels, The Glass Key and Red Harvest, and both use the hard-boiled concept of a lone anti-hero manipulating both sides of a gang war as a means of exploring the genres that the respective directors so greatly admired.

Yojimbo has Toshiro Mifune in his most iconic role as the mysterious ronin who calls himself Kuwabatake Sanjuro (which translates to ‘thirty-year-old mulberry field’, a name he fabricates while staring at a mulberry field). When Sanjuro arrives in a small town plagued by the constant fighting of two rival gangs, he sees an opportunity to make some money and help rid the town of its criminal problem while he’s at it, and so he sets to work convincing each crime boss that he’s on their side, and laughs as the two gangs slowly tear each other apart. Yojimbo marked the peak of Kurosawa’s mainstream popularity, shot at the tail end of his most productive decade and released at the start of the decline of his popularity, when his film output slowly lessened as did the audience for his films (although the quality and artistry of his films certainly didn’t). It was his greatest commercial success, and made a large impact on filmmakers around the world. It even helped create a new genre by serving as the basis for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, which helped solidify the then-nascent spaghetti western genre. That’s fitting, given that Kurosawa was himself inspired by American Westerns, particularly the films of John Ford. That influence shows itself clearly in Yojimbo, as does the influence of Dashiell Hammett-style hard-boiled crime fiction and films. The lone stranger hero and the town full of helpless, defeated townspeople are both common archetypes in Western films (Rango made good use of them just last year), and the imagery of Sanjuro wandering down the empty, dusty main drag of a small town or standing in the distance facing down a line of criminals is an image oft-repeated in Westerns as well. So too are gangs full of two-bit criminals and gang bosses who were once allies commonly found in gangster films, and there’s even a “gun moll”-style character found in one boss’s wife (played by Isuzu Yamada), who is even more scheming and ruthless than he. The character Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) shows clear inspiration from both Western and gangster films as a gunslinger defined by the power his gun gives him, clinging to it even in his final moments in a death scene that could easily be copied into any film from those two genres. The film’s tone, however, is generally lighter than most Western and gangster films, as it’s really a black comedy at its core, playing up the absurdity and pointlessness of the town’s situation and the criminals themselves. The film isn’t about good guys vs. bad guys, because there are almost no good guys, save maybe for the tavern keeper (Eijirō Tōno) who gives Sanjuro a place to stay. Sanjuro himself isn’t even a 'good guy’; his interest in the town and the gangs is largely motivated by his need for money and by his boredom. A masterless samurai, at the start of the film Sanjuro throws a stick into the air, watches it fall, and travels in the direction it points. He has no great moral convictions. He’s simply a trained killer who wants something to do and some way to make money, and he happens to find a town that’s “full of people who deserve to die”. The criminals themselves are too inept and too distracted by their own squabbles to notice his machinations, the one exception being Unosuke, and it’s key that he’s traveled and seen other places, giving him the experience and equipment to challenge Sanjuro. The film isn’t as emotionally powerful as other films from this same period of Kurosawa’s career, such as Seven Samurai and Ikiru, but it is perhaps his most plainly entertaining (thus also his best-performing film at the box office in Japan). Similarly, the film doesn’t display the same poetic beauty found in those films and others of the decade, but the visuals here still stand up to Kurosawa’s high standards, shot by Kazuo Miyagawa (who also shot Kurosawa’s Rashomon among other renowned Japanese films) with noticeably dramatic compositions, structured to carefully direct the audience’s gaze and give power to the characters onscreen, often surrounded by a shroud of wind-blown dust (again, the Western influence shows itself). The film’s art direction is as subtly impressive as you’d expect from a Kurosawa film, and the music is great and even surprisingly catchy, particularly the main theme heard at the film’s opening and closing, which is an excellent hip-hop sample just waiting to be discovered. If you give credence to the idea that there’s a difference between a film and a movie (I usually don’t, but I’ll indulge for the moment), then you could say that out of Kurosawa’s career made up largely of great films, Yojimbo was the best movie he ever made.

Miller’s Crossing doesn’t draw as much from Western genre traditions, but it’s very much beholden to the gangster genre and hard-boiled fiction for its style and use of language. The film takes place in an unnamed city in the Prohibition era, where Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) serves as the right-hand man and trusted advisor of Leo O'Bannon (Albert Finney), the leading crime boss in the city. Trouble starts when Leo rebukes Johnny Caspar’s (Jon Polito) request to kill two-timing bookie Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro), brother of Leo’s main squeeze Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), setting off a gang war in the town. Despite Tom’s pleas, Leo remains resolute in his devotion to Verna, and despite her trysts with Tom, Verna refuses to hurt Leo or give up Bernie, leaving Tom to go between the gangs and keep order in the city - if he can keep from getting himself whacked in the process.  As is the case with any Coen Brothers movie, Miller’s Crossing is chock full of dynamic visual style; in fact, it may the most stylish of their films, perfectly capturing the period in a manner that emphasizes the coolness of the area in the clothing styles and set dressing and exaggerates open space in the various settings and environments in a manner fitting the gangster genre, but also keeps an overall darkness and drabness to the lighting and color palate that helps the film keep its serious tone, even when sprinkled with the Coens’ trademark dark humor, and keeps the film firmly in the hard-boiled tradition.  That tradition shows itself in the clever use of language as well, as certain colorful phrases and words come up repeatedly in the film and create a sort of dialect within the film’s world that all the characters speak and understand, the most obvious examples being the phrase “What’s the rumpus?” and Tom repeatedly being accused of being “smart” as a negative trait.  Under the stylistic flourishes, however, there’s quite a bit of substance to be found.  For one, the entire cast give performances that are either career-best or among their best.  Finney, Polito, Harden, and Turturro all flesh out their characters (with the help of the Coens’ script, of course) to be more than the basic crime film archetypes that they could be labeled, giving each supporting role depth and complexity that lead to truly surprising moments.  Byrne, however, gets the biggest challenge, the most fascinating and conflicting role in the film, and he handles it beautifully.  Tommy is established in the world of Miller’s Crossing long before the story begins and is known to all of its characters, and yet, like Sanjuro in Yojimbo, he’s still a stranger.  The difference is that Sanjuro is a stranger to the other characters in the film, but Tommy is a stranger to the audience.  Tom is enigmatic, perhaps even more so than his “smart” attitude may let on.  Throughout, the viewer struggles to figure out what Tommy’s main motivation is - loyalty to Leo?  Love for Verna?  His own criminal career?  Or something else entirely?  Like Yojimbo, one of the themes that seems to pop up is the absurdity of criminality and the notion of a moral code among criminals, a notion that gets completely torn down as the film’s double crosses pile one on top of another (similarly, Sanjuro is able to pull off his double crosses because the gangs blindly assume he’ll follow the samurai code of loyalty to a paying master). One could argue that much of what Tom does in the film is based on adhering to such a code or some sense of duty towards Leo, although there are various ways in which he clearly doesn’t adhere to that code, such as sleeping with his boss’s girl.  The most interesting theme that I find in Miller’s Crossing is control of one’s life or, more appropriately, a lack thereof, which encompasses ideas of determinism and fatalism that are very common in hard-boiled fiction and film noir.  This is a theme that comes up repeatedly in various forms in many of the Coens’ films, with characters who either think they are in control only to find out that they aren't or characters who get caught up in events that they can’t control.  Here we see shades of both, with Tom trying to end the gang war through his machinations but repeatedly finding himself mere moments from being discovered, only to be saved by some seeming act of fate.  As much as Tom wants to be in control, he is clearly not.  That may be why he decides in the end not to return to Leo’s side, because he knows he can not control whether another major confrontation and gang war will happen again.  Then again, maybe he feels guilty for sleeping with Verna and hurting Leo, or maybe he can’t stand the thought of seeing Verna with Leo instead of him, or maybe he knows that he and Leo can never be as close as they once were.  The exact reasoning for Tom’s choice isn’t precisely defined by the Coens, so it’s up to the viewer to decide for themselves what is going on in Tom’s mind, bringing the viewer even further into the character of Tom and the story as a whole.

Just to be clear, Miller’s Crossing isn’t a remake of Yojimbo.  There are certain similarities due to them being based on the same sources - the gang wars, the capture and torture of the heroes, the enigmatic nature of the protagonists, and you could even analogize Tom’s hat, given a considerable amount of attention by the camera, to Sanjuro’s sword, items that helps each character define themselves and empowers them - that make the films interesting to watch in tandem with each other.  They are, however, entirely independent from each other and self-sufficient, two great films made by master filmmakers, one among the greatest directors the film industry has ever known, and the other two among the best working directors today.

Rating (both films): ☀☀☀☀☀
Five out of five suns

The Killing Fields

The Killing Fields
1984
Directed by Roland Joffé

The Cambodian genocide that took place during the rule of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the late ‘70s is considered to be one of the worst genocides in modern world history.  While historians can’t put exact numbers on the victims, estimates suggest that 1.3 million were executed and buried in what are known as “The Killing Fields”, and if those who died due to disease and starvation thanks to the restrictive policies of the Khmer Rouge are included, the number is anywhere from 1.8 to 2.3 million.  That’s out of a country of only 8 million people, meaning that roughly one/fifth of the population was decimated.  And yet, despite the horror of this atrocity, it’s not one that’s widely taught or discussed, at least not in America.  It was certainly never taught in any school I went to, and I knew nothing of it until I was older, and didn’t know the details or history beyond the name Pol Pot until…well, until I watched this movie.  Why is that the case?  I can only speculate, but I can say with certainty that The Killing Fields is an important and eye-opening depiction of a terrible period in world history, one that should never be forgotten.  The film is based on the true stories of New York Times journalist Sydney Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, and his friend, Cambodian journalist and interpreter Dith Pran, played by Haing S. Ngor, a doctor and non-actor who himself was a survivor of the genocide. Director Roland Joffé and writer Bruce Robinson don’t hold back in showing the events of and leading to the genocide, starting in 1973 with an accidental bombing of a town by American planes that kills hundreds and is then whitewashed by the government.  Then in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge overtakes the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, while most foreigners and embassies are being evacuated, Sydney and Pran stay at the French Embassy to continue reporting, until the French demand that all foreigners be evacuated and all Cambodians be sent out.  The final section of the film shows Sydney in New York, desperate to find any sign of his friend’s whereabouts, while Pran slaves away in a forced labor camp, doing anything he can to survive and perhaps one day escape.  The film doesn’t let anyone off the hook - the Khmer Rouge are guilty of some of the most horrifying acts in the film, but the Cambodian Army and the American and French governments are not without guilt in instigating the Khmer Rouge and then not doing enough to save Cambodian lives.  If the film had focused entirely on presenting the historical events, the film would be nearly too overwhelmingly depressing to handle, but instead Joffé and Robinson focus an equal amount of attention on the friendship of Sydney and Pran, a friendship forged through hardship and one that keeps both of them going through the toughest of times.  If it were purely fiction, the friendship angle might come off as cheap and even degrading (the Pearl Harbor effect, if I may be so bold as to name it), but because it’s true (although the film surely does take liberties for the sake of entertainment), because Sydney and Pran really did have this amazing friendship, it doesn’t feel pandering at all but absolutely vital to the story.  Waterston and Ngor do an excellent job of selling the friendship, which starts tentatively as a simple collaboration of two journalists in the first section of the film and blossoms through their travails into a binding trust.  Waterston is technically the star of the film, and he does an excellent job expressing the anger and frustration of a journalist who sees injustice and can do little to change it, but The Killing Fields is without a doubt Ngor’s film.  The fact that he had never acted before being cast as Pran is astounding, because he naturally takes his own experiences and funnels them into his performance, so that in his eyes we see the pain of seeing his country and countrymen decimated, the relief when he saves his Western friends or when he saves them, the deep sadness and loneliness of watching his family evacuated while he elects to stay and report, and the despair hiding behind his eyes as he desperately acts to hide any sense of emotion or intelligence in the labor camp, and all of it seems all too real.  It’s a powerful, deeply moving performance, and it was one of the best decisions the Academy ever made to award him with an Oscar for it.  The other supporting actors do strong work as well, particularly John Malkovich as photographer Alan Rockoff, who here proves the point I made in my Color Me Kubrick review that he’s always just at the line of overacting and because he doesn’t cross that line here, he’s excellent.  Joffé convincingly visualizes the time and place with smooth but kinetic camera work by cinematographer Chris Menges, a grungy and at times harrowing recreation of Phnom Penh, the labor camps, and the Killing Fields all done in Vietnam under the guidance of production designer Roy Walker, and sharp editing by Jim Clark that leads to several attention-grabbing shocks and surprises.  Maybe the most brilliant technical work is done by Mike Oldfield, whose score often evinces a horror film instead of a historical epic, making the scenes of bombings, executions, and panicked citizens all the more horrifying and heartbreaking to watch.  The story at the heart of The Killing Fields, the everlasting bond between two men and how that bond inspires them to survive, is uplifting, but the facts of what happened in Cambodia are troubling.  The Khmer Rouge has long since been out of power and Cambodia has rebounded impressively ever since, but the legacy of Pol Pot and his regime remain.  This film shouldn’t be viewed as a historical drama but as a reminder that such awful atrocities are real and still happen in our modern, “enlightened” world, and simply ignoring them won’t make them go away.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀☀
Five out of five suns 

Mr. Jealousy

Mr. Jealousy
1997
Directed by Noah Baumbach

I’ve mentioned this already in the past on my Tumblr, but I’ll say it again: Noah Baumbach is one of my favorite current directors and writers.  Not only has he directed several great films (The Squid and the Whale, Greenberg, and his criminally underrated debut Kicking and Screaming, and no, that’s not the Will Ferrell soccer movie), but he also wrote those films as well as co-writing my two favorite Wes Anderson films, Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  The man isn’t perfect, though.  Margot at the Wedding was, although admirable, a clunker, and as it turns out, so is Mr. Jealousy, an early career film made eight years before his breakthrough with The Squid and the Whale.  The “Mr. Jealousy” of the title is Lester (Eric Stoltz), a man in his early thirties who has struggled to maintain romantic relationships due to his toxic bouts of jealousy.  Lester’s newly-engaged best friend Vince (Carlos Jacott) introduces Lester to his fiancée Lucretia’s (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) friend Ramona (Annabella Sciorra), a museum guide with a cheerful disposition.  Lester is determined not to let his jealousy kill another relationship, even with Ramona’s rich history of past lovers, but despite those intentions, he finds himself dwelling on her past relationship with acclaimed writer Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigeman).  By chance, he sees Dashiell on the street as the author goes into group therapy.  Lester decides to find out more about Dashiell and Ramona, so he enters the same group therapy session, using Vince’s name and life as his cover, and engages in heated discourse with Dashiell that unexpectedly turns into an odd friendship.  Mr. Jealousy still shows some signs of Baumbach’s considerable talent.  The scripting itself is well done, with a good structure based on narration from Baumbach himself that moves around within the timeline of Lester and Ramona’s relationship with several asides into their pasts, their imaginations, or into the lives of their friends.  The dialogue is good, the kind of dry wit and one-liners that are in all of Baumbach’s films, and the basic concept itself, a jealous boyfriend lies to get into the same group therapy session as his girlfriend’s ex, is novel and has plenty of potential for humor and insight.  It delivers on both, offering up several laughs throughout the film, especially from the hilariously neurotic performances of Jacott and Eigeman, one being a nerdy, endearing neurosis and the other a cynical, self-deprecating neurosis.  The problem with the film is that there’s no real spark to the story or the characters that is easily found in Baumbach’s more successful films.  I never found myself particularly caring whether Lester and Ramona would stay together or not.  While the narration itself isn’t terrible, Baumbach’s monotone delivery is; he should have cast someone with a more authoritative voice to do it.  Eric Stoltz is a decent actor, but he’s not interesting enough here, and gets easily outshined by the supporting cast, who can deliver the New York intellectual style of dialogue without sounding absurd, a feat Stoltz doesn’t fully accomplish.  There’s nothing in the film that’s outrageously awful, but there’s nothing great about it either.  It sits firmly in the middle.  I did find the experience of watching Mr. Jealousy interesting for one other reason: as I watched, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Baumbach’s collaborator Wes Anderson and his film The Royal Tenenbaums.  There are a lot of similarities in the structures and styles of the two films - the monotone, unseen narrator (Alec Baldwin fits the role much better than Baumbach), the fluid movement through time, the montage introduction of Lester that’s much like the character introductions in The Royal Tenenbaums, the New York socialite setting and dialogue style, the sixties soundtrack.  Baumbach doesn’t have nearly the distinct visual flair that Anderson does, but there are certainly signs of other similarities that would have attracted them to each other.  Mr. Jealousy came out before The Royal Tenenbaums, or even Rushmore which shares several of these similarities.  Was Anderson influenced by these films or is it simply a case of great minds thinking alike?  I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about.  If you’re a fan of either director, then you’ll probably enjoy or at the very least get some benefit out of watching Mr. Jealousy.  It’s a weak film, but not a terrible one, more just a young director still trying to find his voice.  Luckily he’s since found it.

Rating: ☀☀☀
Three out of five suns 

Hollywood Shuffle

Hollywood Shuffle
1987
Directed by Robert Townsend

Robert Townsend was a struggling black actor in L.A., desperately searching for good roles to try out for, roles that didn’t involve being a slave, a butler, a pimp, a street thug, or any of the other stereotypical roles struggling black actors had to take to make ends meet.  Tired of hearing casting directors say he wasn’t “black enough” and frustrated by the lack of serious roles available to him, Townsend decided to do the next best thing: write his own movie, direct it, and cast himself as the lead.  Thus we get the hilarious Hollywood industry satire Hollywood Shuffle.  Townsend stars as struggling black actor Bobby Taylor.  The film follows Taylor as he goes through casting for the part of Jimmy in Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge and all the trials and tribulations involved: directors who want him to be blacker and more like Eddie Murphy, fellow actors saying that they’d never take such a demeaning role while they desperately try to get the same exact role, coworkers at Winky Dinky Dog who think Bobby is stupid for thinking he could ever make it, a grandma who hates the kind of roles Bobby is auditioning for, and a little brother who looks up to him even when he takes ridiculously embarrassing roles.  Throughout the film, Bobby drifts off into elaborate fantasies: a black acting school teaching students how to play all the stereotypes, taught mostly by white teachers; “Sneakin’ in the Movies”, a play on Roger & Ebert with two black guys in their place; and “Death of a Breakdancer”, a film noir with Bobby playing detective Sam Ace, among others.  Townsend spent two years making this movie, doing stand-up comedy gigs to make money and buying film stock whenever he could afford it, and having the crew pretend to be UCLA students so they could get away with not having expensive shooting permits.  That backstory is telling, because it’s pretty obvious when watching the film that this is a labor of love, not only for Townsend but for many of the other actors who appear as different characters in different fantasies repeatedly throughout the film, all who could surely relate to the main character’s predicament.  Even facing the tough odds of making a film on the cheap on his own over the span of two years, Hollywood Shuffle is one of the underrated gems of ‘80s film comedy.  The film’s satirical message comes through loud and clear, and it’s hard not to see Townsend’s point about the unfortunate lack of serious and respectable roles available for black actors in Hollywood (the same complaint could be made by most minorities in Hollywood, actually) and be saddened at how much work still needs to be done to make the movie industry embrace minorities (just think to yourself what the ratio of white actors versus non-white actors in major films has been so far this year).  But even more than being a solid piece of satire, Hollywood Shuffle is hysterically funny.  Townsend and co-writer Keenen Ivory Wayans come up with some ingenious concepts and hilarious lines throughout the film, both in and out of the fantasies.  It’s the kind of comedy that’s highly quotable, with the kind of quotes that mean absolutely nothing to people who haven’t seen the film but are hilarious to anyone who remembers it (favorites among my friends: “I can’t waits to get my freedom!”, “There’s a bat in my house! Batty batty batty!”).  I don’t want to say much more about the humor, because it always feels a bit absurd to write something trying to convince people how funny something else is, so suffice it to say that it is genuinely funny and that the humor ages very well.  Of course, there are elements of the film that haven’t aged well - there’s plenty of '80s-style outfits and hair, and gloriously '80s music and dancing (the film ends with a ridiculous rap song and dance sequence both performed by the actors), but while these elements may make it harder for some people to take the movie seriously, which it really deserves to be, they only help make it funnier and more fun to watch.  It also helps that the film is full of excellent comedic actors.  Keenen Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, Helen Martin, John Witherspoon, Dom Irrera, and Paul Mooney are some of the more recognizable and eventually successful actors featured, but even the actors without name recognition still do a great job with voices, timing, and delivery, and Townsend is absolutely perfect with the characters and voices that he comes up with, so much that it really does make you sad that he’s never really broken through.  Technically, the film does tend to show its low budget; it’s got some editing issues, the flow of the film is a little off, the production design is simple, and it’s clear in some instances that the take chosen was probably the only one shot because they couldn’t afford more takes.  Still, even with those pitfalls, the film looks on par with plenty of other '80s comedies, which really aren’t about being visually artistic anyway.  And in fact, the Sam Ace film noir-inspired sequence is really well shot, using a black and white film stock and simple shooting/editing style that is very reminiscent of serious indie films of the era and is beautifully put together.  I’m not going to make any overstated claims about Hollywood Shuffle.  It has its flaws, and I can’t deny that.  But in very basic terms, it’s a satire that brings to light a serious problem and gives the audience plenty of reason to consider that problem, and it’s a comedy that is consistently funny, so considering those two factors, the film is a rousing success.  I strongly urge you to see it, because it’s one that deserves a much larger following than the one it already has.  Then maybe one sweet day There’s a Bat in My House! will become the real sitcom that it rightly deserves to be, and we’ll all finally learn if a black bat from Detroit really can find happiness with a white suburban family.  A man can only dream.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns 

Double Feature!: Winchester '73 and Bend of the River

Winchester ‘73/Bend of the River
1950/1952
Directed by Anthony Mann

The collaboration between director Anthony Mann and star James Stewart is one of the best-remembered and respected collaborations in the Western genre, a collaboration that established Mann’s career as a top-level director, took Stewart’s career into a new, more serious direction, and helped usher the genre into a more psychological and complex era.  Their first collaboration, Winchester '73, is a good example of how all three took place.  Stewart stars as Lin McAdam, a cowboy on a mission to hunt down 'Dutch Henry’ Brown (Stephen McNally), the man that killed McAdam’s father and their mutual gun-shooting mentor.  With his friend 'High-Spade’ Frankie Wilson (Millard Mitchell) along for the ride, McAdam arrives in Dodge City just in time to enter a shooting contest with the grand prize of a coveted One-in-a-Thousand Winchester '73 rifle up for grabs, one that Dutch Henry is eager to win.  In the end, McAdam proves himself the better shot, but Dutch Henry and his gang beat him up and take the gun anyway, prompting a chase across the state as the gun changes hands from one owner to the next.  By 1950, Mann had made plenty of films and had some level of success in film noir, but none of them got him the kind of attention and respect that he got once he started making his Westerns with Stewart.  Modern critics credit him with making the genre more psychological by bringing his noir sensibility to the Western, and you can see that starting with Winchester '73.  For one, Stewart’s character isn’t the do-gooder hero of many early Westerns; he’s a complicated figure, a man whose need for vengeance consumes everything else in his life.  Stewart himself was somewhat typecast as a do-gooder before his work with Mann changed that, and it’s easy to see why the perception changed.  He plays the intensity of McAdam’s obsession and hatred for Dutch Henry very convincingly.  There’s never doubt that McAdam isn’t a good person, but at moments you see the madness inside him, the need to kill Dutch Henry boiling behind his eyes, and you realize he’s capable of anything.  That’s something Western heroes had rarely displayed before.  The scene where he smashes an outlaw’s head into the bar and holds it there while his eyes flare with rage is as startling now as it was for audiences then.  You also got a sense of the fear, the anxiety, the paranoia of his character as well.  He knows the danger of what he’s doing, he knows the foolishness of it, but he’s so consumed by hatred and a need for vengeance that he simply doesn’t care.  Again, that’s more like the “heroes” of noir than the heroes of Westerns, at least up to that time.  The film also displays what Mann’s Westerns are best known for today: landscapes and environments that are not only backgrounds but elements and reflections of the story, often jagged mountains and craggy rock faces instead of the kind of beautiful, grand landscapes of other Westerns.  Mann still made the West look beautiful, because it is, but he also showed its dark and dangerous side in a way other filmmakers often ignored.  With the story’s journey structure, we get to see a lot of it too as the gun passes from Dutch Henry to an Indian trader to an Indian chief (played by Rock Hudson, oddly enough) to a coward to a crazy outlaw (played marvelously by Dan Duryea) and then back to Dutch Henry before it inevitably returns to McAdam after an intense shoot-out on a rocky mountaintop.  While the film does hearken towards the next generation of darker Westerns and anti-Westerns, it is still a classic-era Western, and as such still has some of the pitfalls, namely a stereotypical depiction of Native Americans as violent “savages” complete with the casting of a white man to play the Indian chief (just look at that film poster up top, the longer you look at it, the more white guilt you feel, unless of course you are not white).  Overall, though, Winchester '73 is a great Western work.  It doesn’t go as far towards the psychological and darker elements of human nature that his later film The Naked Spur does, but it certainly shows strong hints of them.  
The second Stewart-Mann collaboration, Bend of the River, is not nearly as dark or psychological as Winchester '73 and, not incidentally, not nearly as good.  Here, Stewart plays a former Kansas bushwhacker named Glyn McLyntock, now leading a wagon train of Missouri farmers to Oregon.  Along the way, McLyntock comes across a lynching and saves the man from being killed.  The man turns out to be another former bushwhacker named Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) who eventually recognizes McLyntock’s name and old reputation, but keeps it a secret from the homesteaders’ leader Jeremy Baile (Jay C. Flippen), who doesn’t believe any border raiders can be trusted, even if the war is long over.  Cole plans to head to California in search of gold, but follows the wagon train to Portland where the homesteaders can catch a ferry to their new home, order supplies, and leave Jeremy’s daughter Laurie (Julie Adams) to recover from wounds from a fight with Indians (sigh, yes, more violent, murderous Native Americans).  Months later, the homesteaders are still waiting for supplies, so McLyntock and Jeremy return to Portland to discover that gold rush money has corrupted the town, Cole and Laurie have become engaged, and the group’s supplies are priced to be sold to others.  Jeremy and McLyntock decide to take what’s rightfully theirs with the help of Cole and Laurie, and a chase ensues.  As the men rush to get the supplies back to the settlement, they learn that a nearby mining operation will pay big bucks for those supplies, and those big bucks are hard for an opportunist like Cole to resist.  Bend of the River fails where Winchester '73 succeeds; its characters are not nearly as complex as they should be, nor are they as complex as the story gives them the chance to be, as the story itself is even more complex and promising than Winchester’s.  With McLyntock and Cole particularly, there is a lot of room for internal struggle between their criminal pasts and their attempts to legitimize themselves in the present, but that never really happens.  McLyntock never wavers; at most we see that he’s an experienced killer thanks to the war, but even the violence he commits is purely to save the lives of his companions and the homesteaders who need food to survive the winter and is thus barely questionable.  While Cole has a little bit more complexity to his character, he essentially switches from good to bad in one scene and then never questions the shift.  There’s strong potential to analyze what really separates McLyntock and Cole, what makes one man go good and one man go bad, but that potential is never realized.  The film’s final message on the subject ends up being a lame one about Jeremy realizing he was wrong about trusting former bushwhackers…except he wasn’t, because he was absolutely right about Cole.  On top of that, there are several other problems, but here’s the biggest two: one, the female characters are weak and decidedly unequal to the men, which is not true for Winchester '73’s Lola (Shelley Winters), a saloon girl who stands up to the men and is willing to fight along with them when she can, but also shows vulnerability to her fate as a saloon girl who appreciates McAdam’s respect for her.  Laurie isn’t any of that, she’s just a damsel in distress and a girl for McLyntock to win in the end.  The second big problem is Trey Wilson, a young professional gambler played by Rock Hudson.  There’s nothing wrong with Hudson’s performance, or even the character itself.  The problem is just that the character is nonessential to the story.  He seems to have been added merely to show someone taken in by greed and then eventually sees the error in it, but you don’t need that character there to show the audience the trouble with greed; that’s already quite clear in the plot itself.  The film’s still visually pleasing and well-acted (although the lack of complexity in the McLyntock character does make Stewart’s performance less memorable), but the scripting problems and lack of depth make it pale in comparison to Winchester '73 or the even-greater subsequent Mann-Stewart pairing, The Naked Spur.  Winchester '73 is a great film for any fan of Westerns or for those unfamiliar with the genre and looking to get into it, while Bend of the River is more for fans of Stewart, Mann, and their collaborations.  Although Bend of the River isn’t a strong film, it does at least serve some purpose - it helps to highlight how impressive and truly different the good Mann-Stewart Westerns were for where the Western was at that time, and how important a figure Mann really is in the evolution of the genre.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀/☀☀☀
Four out of five suns/Three out of five suns

Films of Studio Ghibli

In the first half of this month, the Belcourt Theater in Nashville put on a retrospective of the films of Studio Ghibli, the iconic Japanese animation studio founded by directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. I made it out to see five of the films shown: Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle, and Takahata’s Pom Poko. Originally I was going to just post five short reviews of each, but as I’ve thought about it, I’ve decided to take a different approach this time and look at the films as a whole and pick out a few of the themes and story traits that recur throughout Miyazaki’s films and set his animated films apart, as well as comparing and contrasting Takahata’s film to illuminate some differences and similarities between the two directors.

1) Magic Realism - Miyazaki’s films belong to the fantasy film tradition, but they tend to lean more towards the realm of magic realism than pure fantasy.  This is in contrast to other fantasy films like, for example, The Lord of the Rings films,which exist in a world that is clearly and explicitly not ours (I know Middle-earth is technically supposed to be on Earth, but it’s not a world truly relatable to ours and that is purposely imaginary).  Miyazaki’s films, however, give the impression that they do exist in our world, or at least somewhat recognizable versions of our world.  Howl’s Moving Castle is something of an exception, as it is made up almost entirely of fantastic imagery (although the film’s depiction of international wars fought by conscripted wizards almost makes it “realist fantasy” instead), but the other three Miyazaki films make clear that they are taking place in our world.  Spirited Away opens with a normal modern-day suburban family and is set in an amusement park abandoned during Japan’s Lost Decade, Kiki’s Delivery Service is set in an entirely modern world that just happens to have witches as accepted members of society, and My Neighbor Totoro is similarly set in a modern countryside village that happens to be home to wood spirits.  These films all make a special effort to tie their stories to the viewer’s reality with modern language, clothing, technology, and in the case of Spirited Away, specific allusions to recent historical events.  By utilizing magic realism in his films, Miyazaki does two important things.  Firstly, he aligns his films with Japanese tradition and folklore, which is full of stories of spirits, demons, and magical creatures existing and interacting with humans, so that his films invoke a sense of history and national pride, one of many factors contributing to their success with Japanese moviegoers (four of his films are among the top ten highest-grossing films in Japan, with Spirited Away being number one).  Secondly, he makes the films more engrossing for children, because the stories and the magic are taking part in the world that they live in, letting them believe they can find their own Totoro.  This is perhaps a small distinction, but one that sets it apart from other fantasy film and animated films, particularly those of Disney.  Takahata's Pom Poko definitely fits into the magic realism category, although that’s actually unusual for his Studio Ghibli films, which are otherwise not fantasies in any sense.  The magic realism here still serves the same purpose of invoking national tradition, featuring the shapeshifting tanukis of Japanese folklore, but the purpose is slightly different as the film is meant as a warning to Japanese viewers not to forsake their traditions and their natural surroundings in the name of modernity and urbanization, a much more adult-oriented message than Miyazaki’s films, which is perhaps the biggest distinction between the two directors.

2) The sanctity of nature - An abiding respect and love for nature permeates throughout all of Miyazaki’s films.  The topic of nature and environmentalism is most directly approached in Princess Mononoke, but alas, I did not see that one at the retrospective, so I’ll avoid discussing in detail here (especially since I’ve already done so in this review).  No matter, though, because nature is still an important topic in the four films I did see.  The most explicit treatment of nature is in My Neighbor Totoro, as the wood spirit Totoro aids the kids in growing plants for their ill mother, but in this film and the others, the power of nature is best expressed through Miyazaki’s gorgeously lush animation, depicting a number of idyllic natural landscapes.  In Totoro, it’s the rural countryside, with its sprawling rice paddies and thick forest surrounding a giant, almost ancient tree; in Kiki’s Delivery Service, it’s the ocean surrounding Kiki’s newfound city home and the woods where she stays with the painter Ursula; in Spirited Away it’s the moonlit river flowing underneath the bathhouse and the landscapes that pass by Chihiro’s train window; and in Howl’s Moving Castle it’s the fog-covered mountains that hide the castle and the pastoral field of flowers that surrounds Howl’s childhood cottage.  While the cities and buildings in Miyazaki’s films are always delicately detailed and designed, it’s quite clear that the natural landscapes hold special meaning for him, and they are always a wonder to behold.  His appreciation for nature also extends to animals, found in every film, often as sidekicks to the protagonists, and nature spirits, like Totoro, Howl’s Calcifer, or Spirited Away's Haku.  In this, Miyazaki almost suggests a magical aura to nature itself.  Takahata would seem to agree based on Pom Poko, which is very explicitly about the sanctity of nature as the tanukis fight to save their forest and their lives in the face of urban development.  Takahata ascribes a magical aura to nature as well, although his idyllic depiction is tempered by the reality of modern urban sprawl’s inevitability, making his version of nature seem far more vulnerable to the whims of man than any of Miyazaki’s films, which tend to believe the opposite - man at the whim of nature.

3) Self-actualized girls - If I ever have a daughter, I’ll definitely want her to watch Miyazaki’s films, because they feature some of the best if not the very best young female characters that animation has to offer.  All four of the films here have girl protagonists who through the events of their respective films find the strength and confidence waiting inside themselves.  The two youngest are Totoros Satsuki (ten) and Mei (four), and their self-actualization is also the one most rooted in realistic terms, despite the presence of Totoro.  In truth, while Totoro is an important part of the story, the film is not about him as much as it is about the girls coming to terms with their mother’s illness and the possibility that she might not ever come back home (happily, the film doesn’t kill her off, a move that would have been more about making the audience cry than expanding the story or its themes).  Satsuki struggles with the emotional burden of her mother’s illness and staying strong for the sake of Mei, who idolizes her as many young siblings do their older siblings, but by the end of the film she is able to fully accept and grow into her role as older sister and accept her responsibility for her younger sister.  Kiki’s search for self-confidence is put in relatively literal terms when her lack of confidence in her own abilities as a witch causes her powers to fade (a cruel bit of self-prophecy, but an accurate one when considering that Kiki’s powers are symbolic of artistic talent), but in time of crisis she’s able to let her true bravery and determination show, and her discovery of her own purpose and ability brings her powers back to her.  It’s perhaps significant too that the crisis involves her saving a boy, not the other way around, and that she finds encouragement at her lowest point from older female friends, particularly one who is herself a painter.  Spirited Away’s Chihiro makes perhaps the most dynamic change, starting the film as an extremely nervous young girl, scared of almost everything she sees, but as the story progresses she quickly becomes the bravest character in the film by far, completely ridding herself of fear simply by treating everything and everyone around her with kindness and love, so that by the end of the film, even her parents recognize a change in her, a maturity and independence that wasn’t there before.  Howl’s Moving Castle is the only one of the films with a true love story (there’s some young “puppy love” in Kiki and a strong relationship formed between Chihiro and Haku in Spirited Away, but neither is truly romantic in nature) and perhaps tellingly also features the oldest protagonist at 18, who then spends most of the movie as an old woman.  The significance is that the girl, Sophie, has the same concerns and anxieties about herself that many young women do (and young men, for that matter) - that she’s too unattractive and uninteresting to find love, but the curse that makes her look old, although obviously distressing at first, eventually liberates her to release her anxieties and truly be herself, finding the strength within her to save Howl and all of their friends.  Again, the key is that she, like the girls in the other films, empowers herself, finding support in friends and family but not being empowered by them, and she saves the man she loves, not the other way around, which is very often the case in similar animated films (ahem, Disney).  Pom Poko doesn’t make as a strong an impression on this point.  There is a prominent female tanuki leader, and other females in the film, but the majority of the film’s character are male.  Takahata shouldn’t get any flak for this, though; his previous film, Only Yesterday, is one of the rare anime features specifically targeted to adult female audiences.

4) No villains/anti-violence - Despite technically being two different points, I put these together because they go hand in hand.  This is perhaps my favorite aspect of Miyazaki’s films, and what most particularly distinguishes it from Disney’s animated films, which almost always insist on having an evil antagonist who must be killed by the end of the film, usually in a very violent or gruesome manner.  In Miyazaki’s films, violence is never the answer.  Again, Princess Mononoke is more direct on this topic (simultaneously his most violent film and the most pointedly anti-violence), but it shows up in some form in all of his films.  Howl’s Moving Castle does make a point of referencing violence, as it takes on the theme of pointless war and the risk of Howl completely losing his humanity if he continues to fight in the war.  The other films, however, feature no violence - well, unless you count No Face eating the bathhouse employees as violent, but since none of them actually die, I choose not to.  Spirited Away and Howl both have characters in them that are antagonistic/villainous in nature, but the film makes a point of redeeming all of these characters.  Spirited Away turns the monstrous No Face into a gentle creature who seems to want nothing more than a friend and has Chihiro bid the witch Yubaba a kindly farewell, recognizing that she’s not as bad as she seems, and Howl turns the conniving Witch of the Waste from villain into an ally.  Meanwhile, Kiki and Totoro both have absolutely no antagonists at all, which seems almost revolutionary these days.  Seriously, just think of how many of Disney’s cartoon features have an antagonist in them compared to how many don’t (also notice how much less attention the films without antagonists are given), and then think of how many of those antagonists are killed without even a hint of remorse.  It’s hard to imagine that ever happening in a Miyazaki film.  Pom Poko is a bit interesting in this context, as it doesn’t have a direct antagonist, but on the other hand, mankind as a whole is more or less the film’s antagonist.  The film is also more openly violent, as several tanukis and several humans are killed over the course of the film, but the film is still in opposition to violence.  When the most militaristic of the tanuki leaders insists that the only way to fight back the development destroying their land is to kill the humans, it sounds fittingly drastic and upsetting, although he is no less justified in choosing violent means then were the Native Americans defending their lands against European settlers (then again, is violence ever truly justified?  That’s a debate for another day).  In the end, though, violent tactics are no more effective than any other tactic, giving the impression that Takahata agrees with Miyazaki on the point that violence solves nothing.

There are of course many more themes and ideas that could be brought and explored in regards to these five films, but these four are simply the ones that struck me the most and seemed most indicative of what makes Studio Ghibli stand out so distinctly in the world of animated film and cinema as a whole.  In keeping with traditions, my sun ratings will follow, but I’d gladly recommend any of these five films, and I’d feel safe recommending any other Studio Ghibli film as well.  If you haven’t been exposed to any of their films, particularly those of Miyazaki, a director worthy of being considered one of cinema’s greats, I’d highly suggest doing so whenever the opportunity arises.

Ratings:

My Neighbor Totoro: ☀☀☀☀☀
Five out of five suns

Kiki’s Delivery Service☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns

Spirited Away: ☀☀☀☀☀
Five out of five suns

Howl’s Moving Castle: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns

Pom Poko: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns

Stardust Memories

Stardust Memories
1980
Directed by Woody Allen

By 1980, Woody Allen had already made nine films, starting with What’s Up, Tiger Lily in 1966, and in that time he’d already made a major shift in the tone and style of his films, won an Oscar (for Annie Hall), made a foray into drama that was a critical and commercially disappointment (Interiors, which critics have since rightly warmed to), and made a heralded “return to form” (Manhattan).  He was already a director with a storied career, and that was 30-plus years and 30-plus films ago.  For a writer like Allen who’s so keen to write from personal experience, it’s no surprise then that he would eventually make a film like Stardust Memories.  Allen stars as Sandy Bates, a famous movie director known and loved for his comedies but who is struggling to finish his first dramatic film amidst the complaints of the studio executives.  At the same time, he’s been roped into attending a retrospective of his own films.  Watching his old films and dealing with the questions and attention from his fans prompts him to think about his life and what it’s all meant.  While he’s there, he’s visited by his girlfriend Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault) who has just left her husband to be with Sandy, he meets Daisy (Jessica Harper), a young woman at the retrospective that Sandy becomes infatuated with, and he is consumed by memories of Dorrie (Charlotte Rampling), his former “muse” actress and an old flame whose emotional problems doomed the relationship.  Stardust Memories is an homage to Federico Fellini’s masterpiece .  Sandy Bates is essentially a neurotic version of Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido Anselmi.  Both men are trying to finish a movie and having a hard time figuring out how their films should end, both men are womanizers and their relationships with women preoccupy their minds, both are hounded by their producers and their fans, and both are in a state of existential crisis as they try to figure out what movie they’re going to make and what personal life choices they will make.  In addition, both films are in black and white and both fluidly move between the protagonists’ fantasies and reality.  Allen is basically using Fellini’s film as a blueprint of sorts for exploring his own career and life.   Allen has said however that the film isn’t autobiographical, even though so much of the film parallels his life at the time - the failure of his foray into drama, his audience’s preference for his “old funny films”, not to mention that Sandy appears to have all the same neuroses and preoccupations that Allen seems to have in real life and that he explored in his previous films.  It also plays like Allen’s own means of assessing his career as a filmmaker and coming to terms with being best known as a comedic director and the idea that making comedies isn’t any less noble than making serious dramas (the kind of dilemma a director who loves Fellini and Ingmar Bergman might have, especially since both of those guys’ comedies get less attention than their dramas).  This all might suggest that you need to be familiar with Allen’s work to enjoy Stardust Memories, but that’s not the case at all.  In fact, I watched the film with someone who had never seen any other Woody Allen films and she loved it.  The film is really an appreciation of comedy, of love, of cinema, and of life itself that anyone can enjoy, all delivered with Allen’s signature style of humor - one-liners, self-deprecation, and a healthy dose of nebbishness.  Allen assembles a fine group of actors here for the main roles and the supporting.  He’s great, of course, in the lead role, which makes sense considering he’d more or less played the same character about ten times already at this point and considering that he’s essentially playing a fictional version of himself.  The three main women are all excellent: Barrault’s Isobel is sweet and smart, and even though she’s left her husband for Sandy, Barrault keeps her from ever seeming foolhardy or naive and instead makes her seem mature and assured of herself, perhaps too much for Sandy; Harper gives Daisy a vulnerability and innocence despite her dark clothing and darker demeanor that makes Sandy’s fascination with her believable; and then there’s Charlotte Rampling, who is simply brilliant as Dorrie.  She sells with equal precision both sides of Dorrie, the beautiful, charming, youthful in spirit side of her, and the caustic, self-concious, hateful side of her, both done without ever overplaying the positive or negative aspects.  Both sides are also expressed by excellent single shot takes, one being of Sandy’s strongest memory of love, a simple moment where Dorrie is reading a newspaper on the floor and occasionally looking up at Sandy and smiling, and the other a brilliant piece of editing where Dorrie is shot in extreme close-up of just her face as she’s in what we infer to be a mental rehabilitation center, and as she talks to Sandy her speech is edited into jump cuts, highlighting the sudden mood swings and uncertainty of her words and her emotions.  It’s a brilliant example of how editing can tell a story just as much as dialogue can.  Cinematographer Gordon Willis does a fine job here, the visuals being much in line and of the same high quality of his previous work on Manhattan and Annie Hall, although I don’t know that his images here are quite as arresting as some of the shots in either of those films or in his other collaboration with Allen, Interiors.  That can really be said of the whole film.  It has its memorable moments, but as a whole I don’t know that it hits quite as hard as some of his previous films.  It is, however, a very fun film and a funny one at that.  In fact, while it might not be quite as good as Annie Hall or Manhattan, it is funnier than both of those films, and certainly way funnier than Interiors.  And as the film suggests, maybe laughter is one of the things that gives life meaning, and giving us a few laughs is all that Stardust Memories needs to do.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns 

Easy A

Easy A
2010
Directed by Will Gluck

Comedy has generally been a male-dominated field.  Sure, there are examples of female comedians in the world of media, but they are certainly in the minority, and even if you look at TV shows like 30 Rock or Parks and Recreation, while they are centered around female characters, those characters are surrounded mostly by men.  Film comedy is even more male-driven than television comedy; men are almost always either the lead or one of the leads, and usually if a woman is the lead, it’s because it’s a romantic comedy.  So whenever I see a film like Easy A that promises to be a straight-up comedy (a teen comedy, true, but many great comedies have been) starring a female, my interest is automatically piqued.  Unfortunately, it’s not enough to cast a woman in the lead role of a comedy, even she is a talented actor like Emma Stone.  You need a good script, a good supporting cast, and a good director; unfortunately, Easy A does not have all of these things.  The basic concept of Bert V. Royal’s script is good: Olive (Stone), an unpopular high school girl lies about losing her virginity and consequently ends up with a reputation for being a slut.  Instead of fighting the notion, she decides to run with it, taking inspiration from The Scarlet Letter, and ends up helping out the school’s other nerds and outcasts by letting them lie about having sex with her to boost their image.  With that idea, the film is able to simultaneously expose and poke fun at the concepts of image, identity, reputation, and sexuality double-standards, not only among high school kids but among adults as well.  The problems come with the details.  The writing is peppered with tired jokes and one-liners that fail to impress.  A perfect example was used as a selling point in the trailer - Olive’s main detractor, the pushily evangelical and stuck-up Marianne (Amanda Bynes), says, “I answer to a higher power,” to which Olive sarcastically replies, “Tom Cruise?”.  Ugh.  Tom Cruise jokes were dated well before this film came out.  Easy A is full of jokes that fail to hit just like that one.  Speaking of dated, are high school students really ashamed of being sexually active anymore?  I sure don’t remember that being the case at my school.  If I’m wrong and it is still this way in schools, then I wish the film had put more heft into that side of the story.  It seems like this kind of film that deals so directly with the issue of girls trying to keep up appearances in high school for fear of rumors and petty retribution could have been more sensitively dealt with if written and/or directed by someone who could better relate to it, i.e. a woman.  The failing jokes and lack of serious insight is just as much the fault of director Will Gluck, who should have reined in some of the more painful punch line deliveries and made an effort to get some real emotion and truth in the story, on top of pushing aside the temptation to unnecessarily bash all religion (it’s good to take religion to task for its failures, but it seems like pure “Religion is stupid” jokes here) and pay such cringeworthy homage to ‘80s teen films, which only serves to remind the viewer of how Easy A fails to measure up.  It should be noted, however, that given the problems, Emma Stone comes away from this film scratch-free.  In her first true starring role, she is confident, convincing, and funny.  Gluck’s comedic timing is a bit off, but Stone usually nails her timing.  She definitely proves her future star potential with this film, which is only made more obvious by the lame performances of most of her other teenaged, or rather twenty-something aged, co-stars (Bynes is particularly annoying).  In fact, the strongest scenes of the film aren’t any of Olive interacting with her classmates, they’re the scenes where Olive is at home with her parents, played by proven gems Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson as loving but constantly joking parents who know too well how great and trustworthy a girl their daughter is to get mad at her for anything she’s doing.  Tucci and Clarkson both have great timing, which only serves to make Stone’s timing in these scenes even better.  I’d have preferred a movie about their family to this one about Stone’s tribulations at school.  Still, although I sound like I’m being rough on it, I found Easy A generally agreeable.  The film looks and sounds good enough to not be distracting, and there are some actually funny moments, even if there are not as many as I’d hoped.  Stone really carries the film, and if there’s anything to take away from this film, it’s that she definitely has a bright future.

Rating: ☀☀☀
Three out of five suns 

GasLand

GasLand
2010
Directed by Josh Fox

If you’re like me, then you probably don’t have a lot of in-depth knowledge of natural gas, an alternative energy source that has been hailed as the answer to the problem of dependence on foreign oil in America.  Natural gas supposedly burns cleaner than oil, making it better for air quality, and because there is a major supply of the stuff underground all across our country, it can be a major boon to our economy.  Sounds great, right?  Well, Josh Fox thinks otherwise, and after you watch his documentary GasLand, you’ll probably feel the same way.  The documentary is shot and narrated by Fox who travels across the country to talk to people and see firsthand the effects of mining for natural gas through a process called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.  I don’t mean to spoil the film for anybody, but the effects aren’t very pleasant.  Fracking involves shooting a large amount of water and toxic chemicals into the ground, which causes cracks in the earth that release the gas to be captured and used as energy, but also produces tainted water and potentially pollutes nearby water supplies and the nearby atmosphere with those toxic chemicals, many of which are carcinogenic or otherwise capable of causing serious illness and disability.  The natural gas industry insists that the process is safe and well-regulated, but as Fox points out, the industry is exempt from environmental regulations thanks to the machinations of Dick Cheney when he was vice president, and the fracking process does a great deal of damage to the air and water supplies of people living anywhere near the gas drilling facilities.  While industrial critics say that Fox’s movie is manipulative and one-sided, it’s hard to argue with the numerous people from numerous states and towns who have had their water ruined and had their families’ health deteriorate because of it.  Scenes of people setting water running from their taps on fire are attention-grabbing, but it’s really the testimonials that convince the audience that this process is dangerous for humans, animals, and the environment and that something should be done to fix it.  The clear message in the film is that the gas industry and the American government’s primary concern is making money, not the safety and well-being of American citizens.  GasLand is very effective at getting this idea across and expressing the urgency of the situation.  Fox’s extensive interviews make the case hard to argue, especially when you see how desperate and upset the people he talks to get when talking about how their lives and homes have been ruined.  Based on its effectiveness in making the audience aware of the problems of natural gas and making them feel indignant about the gas industry and the government’s lack of concern, GasLand should be considered a success.  There are, however, a number of flaws with the film itself.  One flaw is the use of multiple camera types, often handheld digital camcorders with low-quality images.  That, of course, is the nature of the beast when it comes to low-budget documentary filmmaking, and it’s really not fair to give Fox too much flak for that.  And occasionally he really does manage to get some good footage, either strong shots of landscapes and nature to highlight what’s at risk of being lost, or shots of the gas drilling machinery and the faces of the people who are already victims of the process that work in eliciting our anger and our sympathies.  The problems with the visuals really are that the camera work is often very shaky and very jerky, and mixed with the changing image quality and the fast-paced editing, it gets very tiring to watch.  The editing itself is actually pretty skillful, especially considering how much footage there must have been to work with, but I’m personally not a huge fan of the quick-shot edit style aesthetically, and I certainly found it to be overbearing here.  Also, I’m undecided on Fox as a narrator.  His voice is strong, deep, and unique, but it also doesn’t fluctuate; in fact, his tone of voice barely changes at all, so it starts to sound odd and somewhat distracts from what he’s actually saying.  Also, while he makes a strong case that something should be done about the natural gas industry, he doesn’t offer the audience any means of standing up against it.  He shows some politicians who are trying to change the policies and get the gas industry regulated again (although their attempts to do so have so far failed), but he offers us as viewers no outlets, no specific websites to visit, advocacy groups to seek out, charities to donate to, nothing.  It’s easy to find those answers after watching the film (that’s what the internet is for), but Fox really should have made an effort to put more information on what viewers could do or who they could talk to at the end of the film so viewers would be perhaps more inclined to do so.  While these flaws do lessen the impact of the film, I don’t think they lessen the impact of the message, and that’s ultimately the most important thing here.  I’d recommend GasLand to anyone out there who wants to be better educated on the subject of gas drilling and alternative energy.  Just prepare to be upset when you’re done watching.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns 

Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers
2013
Directed by Harmony Korine

Several years ago, when I saw Gummo, Harmony Korine’s first feature, my immediate reaction was that it was alright, but I didn’t see what all the fuss was about.  I didn’t think it was great, and I didn’t think it was abhorrent; I just thought it was fine.  But as more time passed from that initial viewing, first hours, then days, the film and its imagery were firmly stuck in my head and kept springing to mind, and it became more and more clear that the film had a greater effect on me than I’d realized.  You’d think I’d have learned from that experience, but when I saw Spring Breakers, I again left the theater thinking that the film was alright, very interesting and visually impressive, but nothing more, until the hours and days and weeks later when the film was still running through my head, becoming more powerful the longer I was away from it.  In all that time spent thinking about the movie, one thing that began to stand out is how big a role irony plays in the film, in ways that are both very obvious and extremely subtle, ways that help illustrate why Spring Breakers has more to say than its glossy neon-lit surface suggests.

The first example of irony in the film is its most obvious, so obvious in fact that people were talking about it while the film was still shooting.  When people first heard that Disney Channel stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens were cast in the next movie from the guy who made Trash Humpers (a movie that is very literally about people humping trash) it certainly seemed an odd choice for all parties concerned.  The benefits of casting Gomez and Hudgens (as well as Ashley Benson to a lesser extent, since she’s an ABC Family star, which is still Disney-related but not quite as squeaky-clean in its reputation) go beyond the obvious bonus of gained publicity from the name recognition.  For the actresses, it’s a chance to prove that they are no longer the child stars they once were, but for the film, it adds to the film’s exploration of the roles that society in general demands of women.  Korine plays with the inherent shock of young women whose careers have thus far been defined by the safety, innocence, and morality of the Disney Channel brand acting in a very adult film depicting an environment that is decidedly lacking in those three traits.  With Gomez, he creates a character who is very in tune with the Disney image, a devout Christian, deeply moral, and devoted to her family and friends, blatantly creating a symbol with her by naming the character Faith, which makes it all the more ironic and strange that she finds herself so at home and at peace in the hedonistic environments of Florida spring break, describing it in terms spiritual and almost baptismal, even telling her grandmother how badly she wishes she could be there at spring break with her.  As for Hudgens, he takes the opposite route, making her character Candy the complete opposite of anything we would see in High School Musical (another irony - naming a character Candy and making her anything but sweet).  Korine makes that clear immediately, introducing Hudgens by having her draw a penis in her school notebook, pretend to fellate it, and then have a giggle-filled exchange with Benson’s character Brit about how much they both need to get fucked, all while they’re ignoring their class lecture, making them as far from Disney-approved role models as possible. 

This contrast between the innocent good girl and the wild bad girls is important in the film for multiple reasons, one of which is highlighting the complicated and paradoxical dual roles society places on women, characterized by what Freud called the “Madonna-whore complex”, where women are defined as either saintly mothers or sinful whores, and often are expected to be both (as the pre-eminent Freudian analyst Ludacris put it, “we want a lady in the street and a freak in the bed”) while simultaneously being ridiculed for being either.  This constant conflict between “the mother and the whore” (which, perhaps not incidentally, is the title of one of Korine’s favorite films) is another ironic theme that deeply permeates the whole film and audience reactions to it.  For example, if you talk to, listen to, or read general audience reactions to the film, one of the things that comes out is that a lot of people hated Selena Gomez’s character and were glad to see her exit the film half way through.  The irony of this is that she’s the film’s only moral character; as soon as she exits the film, any sense of real morality goes with her.  Every other character in the film is at best highly irresponsible and at worst borderline psycopathic, and yet, despite what conventional wisdom about audiences would suggest, audiences hate the good character far more than any other, seemingly because she’s actually too moral, making her a “killjoy”, “buzzkill”, “prude”, whatever you want to call it.  The absurdity of the mother/whore duality is highlighted in the other three girls as well: Rachel Korine’s character Cotty plays at being a bad girl the whole film, getting caught up in the adrenaline of being criminal with Candy and Brit, until she suddenly gets a dose of reality in the form of a bullet in the arm and immediately denounces their criminal antics and begs to go home; and then Candy and Brit, just before their climactic raid on the compound of Big Arch (Gucci Mane) with Alien (James Franco), or perhaps after (the film plays a bit with the chronological order in its final scenes), call their parents and promise that they’ll come home and be good girls and A-students from now on, with dialogue and tone so melodramatic it’s obvious that they're insincere, accentuating the lie of these demonstrably immoral girls (based on their pleasure from and lack of remorse for their criminal and murderous acts) saying they just want to be good little girls from now on.  Film conventions tell us that a happy ending means our girls need to either suffer the consequences of their crimes or have a change of heart, affirming the moral order and good in humanity, and confirming that all women really want to be good girls and “mothers”; Korine opts for the latter, giving Candy and Brit a change of heart, but telegraphs that change of heart so that it rings as false and hollow as the actual idea itself that all women want to be “good girls”.

It’s significant, in fact, that for the most part, the girls don’t suffer any real consequences.  Sure, they get arrested and spend some time in jail, but the most they suffer from that is a little embarrassment and a few hours of boredom and discomfort until Alien bails them out.  And sure, Cotty does get shot, but her injury is only a minor one.  The film teases far worse consequences for the girls - in the party scenes, there’s always an anxiety that something is going to go too far and put the girls in a bad situation.  In one scene specifically, Cotty is alone in a hotel room with Alien’s two creepy henchman and a couple other guys, clearly drunk or high, rolling around the bed and the floor in skimpy clothing, slurring to the guys that she knows they want her but they can’t have her.  There’s a very ominous overtone to the scene, a sense that these guys are going to take advantage of this drunk girl writhing around in front of them…but they don’t.  The scene simply ends, and we as an audience have no choice but to assume that nothing happened.  The same goes for the several criminal and violent scenes.  The threat of disaster for the girls hangs over each of these scenes, and yet the disaster we fear never comes.  They never get caught, they never get seriously hurt, and they completely and totally get away with every single crime they commit.  This lack of consequences is another example of irony in the film, Korine setting us up to expect the routine dramatic convention of consequences for irresponsible or immoral actions and then defying those expectations, but it also points to another even more central and impressive ironic touch central to the entire film: despite all the many instances and appearances of sexism throughout, Spring Breakers is a feminist film.  That may seem like a strange claim for a film that opens with a montage of women flashing their breasts at the camera and kneeling in front of guys to get beer poured on them from bottles held in front of the guys’ crotches, but the thing to remember is that, although Korine may well have goaded the drunken college kids to be as wild as they could be, the sexism of spring break is not his creation; anyone’s who’s ever been to spring break or even simply seen spring break on MTV can attest to that.  Despite the film’s neon-bright, flesh-filled sheen of exploitation, there’s a genuine undertone of female empowerment in the fact that not only do the girls not suffer consequences, but they are in fact very much in control throughout the film.  This is explicitly true of Candy and Brit; they’re clearly the leaders of their small group, and once they join up with Alien, they make it clear in dramatic fashion that they are his equals, not one of his many prized possessions (making him perform oral on the barrels of their guns, a very obvious flipping of gender roles).  The final raid scene comes off as extremely unbelievable to many viewers (at least if IMDB’s message boards are any indication) - two little white girls walking straight through a heavily-guarded compound and shooting a whole gang of men without reloading or receiving so much as a scratch - but the scene isn’t about realism, it’s about showing an extreme example of these girls’ level of control, unafraid of any man or anything, and unwilling to be turned into victims.  When they decide to go back home, it’s not because they’re forced to by anybody; they leave spring break on their own terms.  It’s interesting in this context of refusing to be victimized that Cotty remains seemingly in control of her own situation, particularly in the aforementioned hotel room scene, until she is shot, at which point she does suddenly become a victim and decides to go home.  Similarly, Faith begins to feel like a victim after being arrested and never recovers a sense of control over her own safety, although Faith never shows the same level of confidence that the other girls do.  Faith’s presence might seem to undercut the feminist argument, but you could also argue that her lack of confidence and control over her own situation comes from her religious faith, both because Christianity has a history of encouraging subservience in women and because Candy and Brit don’t believe in God, which leaves them to put all their faith in themselves.  As a final argument for a feminist reading of Spring Breakers, note that while the girls don’t suffer any consquences, the men, Alien and Big Arch, do.  They’re punished for their crimes by way of death, while Candy and Brit live on, presumably to rob and kill and fuck and do whatever they want for the rest of their lives.  They’re like a twisted version of a feminist ideal: women in power confidently living the way they want to live, refusing to submit to the demands of any man or patriarchal society.  If they want to be bad, they’ll be bad, and if in the end they decide to be “good girls”, then they’ll do that too.

There are plenty more examples of irony in the film that don’t directly deal with gender issues.  Much the same as its veneer of sexism, Spring Breakers can seem racist at first glance, especially when you consider the climax involves two white girls mowing down a whole compound full of black men.  I don’t think that final scene is purposely insensitive - making the gang be all black seems more like a nod to cultural ideas of drug culture fueled by movies and TV than a comment on race, and as previously mentioned, gender is the more important factor in that final scene - but I can understand misgivings about it.  That said, I think the film is actually being far more purposeful and smart about its use of race than some may pick up on, the best evidence of this being Faith’s discomfort in the pool-hall scene with Alien.  She makes it clear that she’s unhappy and uncomfortable there because it’s loud, people are drinking and doing drugs, they don’t know the people there, and she doesn’t like the guys dancing on her and touching her.  Notice, however, that what she describes as making her uncomfortable at the pool-hall is no different than anything that happens in the spring break parties earlier in the film, in which she seems perfectly happy to be in a loud room full of people, almost all of them drinking alcohol or taking drugs, with random guys dancing all over her.  The only difference?  The party scenes are almost exclusively white people, and the pool-hall scene is exclusively black people.  There aren’t too many other instances of the film dealing with race, but that one scene speaks volumes about everyday racial hypocrisy in white people.  Another great piece of irony is Franco’s performance as Alien.  One would expect that a character that is in part based on the rapper Riff Raff (if you don’t know who that is, Google it and enjoy) would be purely broad parody and goofiness, and while Franco does provide some of the funniest moments of the film, he also brings a surprising amount of depth to the role.  His face-to-face scene with Gomez is maybe the most intense moment in the film, and he brings a frightening amount of manipulation and threat into his delivery and body language (Gomez does equally well at realistically conveying how uncomfortable she is), which makes the later scene of Candy and Brit turning the tables on Alien all the more powerful and meaningful (they’re not hijacking a wannabe thug; they’re threatening a truly dangerous individual and earning his admiration in the process).  Similarly, his change of attitude and seeming admiration for the girls following Candy and Brit’s assertion of power comes off as surprisingly genuine; when Cotty is shot he seems honestly upset and sorry, and his raid on Big Arch is spurred in large part because Big Arch tried to hurt the girls.  When Alien is shot and killed almost immediately in the raid, he loses all sense of danger and suddenly becomes a sympathetic figure in hindsight, especially when the girls stop for a moment over his body to say goodbye just before they leave, and we realize maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. 

And then there’s one final bit of irony: for a film showing so much shallowness and degradation, there is a lot of truly beautiful imagery.  The opening montage is an excellent example of this: the actions we’re seeing are misogynistic and repellent, but the sunlight, the slow-motion, the editing, and even the use of music from Skrillex gives the scene an energy and surreal quality that makes it oddly mesmerizing.  The film as a whole tends to follow this pattern of undesirable scenarios rendered into mesmerizing images, like the first robbery scene, a one-shot take that follows with Cotty in the car as she drives around the diner, catching glimpses of Candy and Brit causing mayhem in the diner through the windows, or the incredible montage set to Britney Spears’ song “Everytime”, starting with the scene seen in the poster above with the piano by the poolside and the setting sun painting the sky pink, interspersed with slow-motion shots of the gang’s criminal spree, or the final raid, starting with the striking shot of pink lights lining the walkway to Big Arch’s mansion (the film’s recurring use of pink in upending the color’s traditionally symbolic connection to feminism and girlish innocence is inspired) followed by the camera following behind the girls as they make their way to their final target.  The use of light and color is astounding, something not seen in Korine’s other films, which have dealt with more drab environments.  Maybe we should count that as another irony - a colorful Korine film is not something we would have expected before Spring Breakers.

For all this serious talk about the ironies lining Spring Breakers and its underlying feminism, it’s important to note that it isn’t an overly serious film.  It’s a film that recognizes that it’s ridiculous and absurd and chooses to revel in that ridiculousness and absurdity.  Don’t let those qualities fool you, however.  Spring Breakers may look like a dumb movie about girls in bikinis partying and committing crimes on its surface, but there are much deeper things going on underneath that pink exterior, if you take the time to look and aren’t blinded by all the neon.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀☀
Five out of five suns

3

Today I’m going to do three reviews at once, partly to help me get through the backlog of reviews I’ve got going right now, and partly because, while I enjoyed all three of these films, I don’t have deep, long-winded analyses to make about any of them, so I’m going to keep things relatively concise.

Upstream Color (2013) - As someone trying to make a career in the world of video and film making, Shane Carruth’s career is quite encouraging.  After making a splash with his inventive and very low-budget time travel film Primer, he’s returned with Upstream Color, another low-budget film, not only written, directed, and starring Carruth, but even distributed by Carruth himself, and once again to great acclaim from critics and film lovers.  Of the films I’ve seen so far this year, it is undoubtedly the most original and most intriguing, and it’s hard to imagine any other film coming out this year that could beat it on either of those fronts.  The plot centers on a woman named Kris (Amy Seimetz) whose life is upended by a stranger and a parasitic worm that induces a hypnotic state in its host.  After her ordeal, Kris meets Jeff (Carruth), they fall in love, and gradually as their relationship grows they begin to realize that they may share the same traumatic experience.  The enigmatic nature of the film leaves it very open to interpretation, but the most simple way to look at it is as a story about how people are haunted by their past in ways that they can’t quite understand and about a couple coming to grips with that fact and searching for the means to break free from it.  For Kris and Jeff, their past influences them in very literal terms - they continue to exhibit certain behaviors and enter trance-like states much like those they were forced into in their mind-controlled states, and furthermore, the worms that were in them still maintain a psychic connection to them even after being removed and implanted into pigs.  Although the film doesn’t make it fully explicit, it implies that Kris and Jeff become attracted to one another because the pigs carrying their respective worms become mates, and their ensuing relationship and occasional unexplainable mood swings are in part due to the lives and emotions of the pigs, and so despite being rid of the worms, their lives are still out of their control.  It’s not until they start to piece together their shared experience and find the pig farm where their pigs are being kept that they can finally feel free again.  The film is full of great ideas and interesting visuals to match those ideas, like the stranger telling Kris his head is the sun, too bright for her to look at, and so in the scene we see a man sitting with a regular body and a sun for the head as the camera, like Kris, tries to keep from looking directly at it.  The only aspect where the film lost me was in the editing, which was for the most part very rapid and erratic, a feeling that was emphasized by the sudden changes in sound with each cut.  This isn’t in itself a bad thing; in fact, it makes sense for the film, keeping the audience ungrounded and as disjointed as the characters in the film are.  I just personally find that rapid editing style unappealing and distracting, and it barred me from becoming completely engrossed in the film.  Don’t let that sway you, however.  Upstream Color is already available on Netflix, and missing it would mean missing what is truly the most unique film of the year.

Rating:
Four out of five suns

Gimme the Loot (2013) - Independent filmmakers do a lot of things right, but one of the things they still often get wrong, just the same as Hollywood filmmakers, is that they still largely focus on stories about white people (two good examples: the other two films I’m reviewing here).  That’s not necessarily a problem with the individual stories, but a problem with the industry and system as a whole, still too largely dominated by white male filmmakers who make stories they can relate to, which tend to be about white males.  With that in mind, Gimme the Loot is a welcome burst of fresh air just for being an independent, low-budget film with minorities, two African-American leads (even one that’s a female! Progress!) and an almost-entirely minority supporting cast, excepting one prominent white character who (spoiler alert) kind of makes you hate white people.  Adam Leon’s feature debut stars Tashiana Washington and Ty Hickson as Sofia and Malcolm, two aspiring and talented graffiti artists from the Bronx trying to build their reputation by hitting the ultimate target: the Mets’ Home Run Apple.  Unfortunately, to get near the apple, they need $500 to pay off the security guy, so they spend two long days pawning, hustling, and stealing to get their money, hitting almost every possible obstacle along the way.  This version of New York is one that hasn’t been seen onscreen for a while, one where life is tough and brutal and everyone is looking to scam everyone else, but it also shows the vitality and diversity of race, class, and background of people in NYC, which also makes it feel like the most honest and most appealing portrayal of the city I’ve seen in a long time.  Washington and Hickson are both believable and endearing; we want them to succeed, which makes it even more painful every time someone screws them over, which happens a lot.  Their relationship is the center of the film, best friends who obviously feel something more for each other but are too scared to say anything to one another.  The film delves into issues of class when Malcolm delivers weed to Ginnie (Zoë Lescaze), a wealthy white girl in a high-rise apartment who invites Hickson to stay and smoke with her.  Malcolm quickly falls for her, only to be spurned by her when she’s with her friends.  The short relationship accentuates how important the film’s main relationship is for Malcolm and Sofia; in a hardscrabble environment like the one they live in, the only people they can really trust and depend are each other.  It’s a teenage romance about characters that are rarely seen in romance films, and that thankfully doesn’t toss on any of the cliches of romance - no big reveal of feelings, no big kiss at the end, just the assurance that they’ll see each other tomorrow so they can find something else to stick their names on, the best way they know how to make an impact and leave an impression on the world around them, to keep themselves from becoming invisible in a city and world that rarely cares to see kids like them.  It’s a simple slice-of-life film that feels real, fresh, and thoroughly charming, and it’s one of my favorites of the year so far.

Rating:
Five out of five suns

Mud (2013) - Jeff Nichols’ last film, Take Shelter, was one of the best films of 2011.  I wish I could say that his latest film Mud was a shoo-in to be one of the best of 2013, because there’s a lot about it that I really enjoyed.  The film’s cast does a great job all around, led by Matthew McConaughey as Mud, a wanted man hiding out on a small island on the Mississippi River, and Tye Sheridan (only his second movie after The Tree of Life) as Ellis, a young teenager who, with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), stumbles across Mud and decide to help him, bringing him food and supplies and helping get word to Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud’s lifelong love, that he is waiting for her.  Much like Take Shelter, the cast shines in part because of its realistic capturing of the American Midwest, not only in their accents but in the attitudes and moralities of their characters, and the cinematography captures the natural beauty of the Midwest as well as the effects of economic hardship on the communities and small towns of the area.  What makes Mud stand out even more to me, however, is its status as a coming-of-age tale, one that has been repeatedly compared to the now-classic coming-of-age film Stand By Me.  Mud captures a very specific transition in the “coming-of-age” process, which is the point at which a young person becomes aware of the realities of life compared to the stories we all heard as children, the reality that love doesn’t always conquer all, that life doesn’t always have happy endings, that the line between good and bad isn’t a solid one.  At the end of the movie (spoilers, obviously), pretty much everything has gone wrong for Ellis - he didn’t get the girl he liked, his parents get their divorce, his family loses the houseboat, and as far as he knows, Mud is dead.  And yet, even though he struggles greatly with the idea that life isn’t always what it seems and bad things sometimes happen no matter what you do, it’s clear at the end that Ellis isn’t defeated; he’s learned to move on and adapt to life’s changes, which is one of the most important lessons that a person can learn, one that some people figure out far too late in life.  Looking at Mud purely as that coming-of-age film, I think it’s fantastic.  But when you pay attention to other aspects, there are some really unfortunate flaws.  The biggest problem is that the film is male-centric to the detriment of its female characters.  Ellis’ mother (Sarah Paulson) comes out alright, although the film gives more attention and sympathy to his father (Ray McKinnon), but the film makes Ellis’ crush May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) into a callous bitch and does a horrible job with Juniper, basically characterizing her as a slut who uses Mud when she needs protection and then dumps him for whatever abusive man she finds next, offering her no real sympathy and worse, leaving her to her unhappy life while everyone else gets to move on to better lives, or at the very least some hope for the future.  Between Juniper, May Pearl, and Ellis’ mother, the theme of the film seems to be that women are relationship killers who try to destroy the lives of the men that love them.  I don’t imagine that’s an intentional theme from Nichols, but it’s something that’s there and hard to ignore.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the ending either, (again, spoilers) with the over-the-top shootout and the hokey final shot of Mud and Tom (Sam Shepard) boating into the Gulf of Mexico (call me a downer, but I’d have rather the film ended with Mud actually being dead), but it’s really that oddly shitty attitude towards women that keeps me from calling this a truly great film.  Still, it says something about how successful it is as a coming-of-age tale that I can give it as high a rating as I’m about to, even with its misogynistic bent.

Rating: ☀
Four out of five suns

Room 237

Room 237
2013
Directed by Rodney Ascher

There are two things you should know before watching Room 237, Rodney Ascher’s documentary on the various hidden meanings and interpretations people have found in Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining: first, if you haven’t seen The Shining already, you really should before you make any attempt to watch this movie, mainly so you can have your own opinions formed before being inundated with the ones in the film and so you aren’t entirely confused by what the interviewed theorists are talking about (also, you should just watch The Shining anyways, because it’s probably the best horror film ever made); and second, don’t watch Room 237 with the idea that you’re supposed to pick one of the theories as “the right one”.  There is no right or wrong when it comes to this stuff, which is ultimately the point that Ascher’s film makes.  It doesn’t matter that some of the ideas in the film are pretty out there (the notion that The Shining is Kubrick’s way of admitting he helped fake the moon landing is the most notorious of the bunch) or that Kubrick himself would have scoffed at the majority of conclusions these theorists have made.  The point is that this one film means something different and something entirely meaningful to these five people, and that’s exactly what cinema at its finest should do. 

There’s no one right answer to any film, even if the director has one in mind; once a film is unleashed to the world, it becomes the property of the audience, and they have the freedom to find their own meaning within it and connect to it in whatever way strikes them.  This applies not only to hard-to-believe fan theories but even simply liking a movie that everyone else seems to hate or vice versa.  If you absolutely love the Transformers films and think they’re the best films ever made, even if every film critic out there would likely shake their head and gnash their teeth at that idea, it doesn’t matter, because you’re right, even while the critics who hate it are also right.  Despite its classification as a “mass media”, film is a deeply personal art, both for those who make it and those who consume it, and that is a major factor in its success and power.  As long as somebody is finding movies they love and building their own connections to cinema, it does not matter what movies they love or what those connections are; what’s important is that they have them.  Whether it’s a good idea to get as obsessive about a film as Ascher’s interviewees are with The Shining is another matter; ostensibly it’s not bad to become so interested in one particular film, but some of the interviewees sound like their lives have been consumed by The Shining to an alarming extent, to the point of impeding on their personal lives (the “fake moon landing” guy seems to have reached a point of paranoia that is troubling).  As long as you’re not letting other important parts of life become neglected, though, then why not watch a film hundreds of times and analyze every frame and watch it forwards and backwards at the same time and decide it’s an allegory for the holocaust or the labyrinth or the genocide of Native Americans?

I found Room 237 to be fascinating, both as an intriguing and at times hilarious look at extreme examples of how people make deep connections to film as well as a testament to the alluring power of Stanley Kubrick as a director.  It seems that Kubrick’s work is particularly suited to this kind of obsessive attention, partly because many of his films are enigmatic in nature and partly because he was always hesitant to explain what his films “meant”, believing it was the audience’s job to find meaning themselves.  The documentary itself consists almost entirely of footage from Kubrick films and mostly of footage from The Shining, often repeating shots and scenes, and never shows the interviewees themselves.  For that reason, it probably helps to be a film buff and to have a particular interest in The Shining, Kubrick, or wild fan theories so that the film doesn’t get too boring for you.  Personally, I’m all of those things, so I loved it.  I don’t completely ascribe to any of the theories on display; as I’ve written before, I view The Shining as a film about the failings of traditional roles of masculinity (a theme that can actually be applied to Kubrick’s entire filmography, excepting Spartacus and perhaps 2001, although I could make a case for 2001 too if I tried really hard), but in truth, that idea is no more or no less valid than any of those proposed in Room 237.  And thank God for that, because otherwise, if movies really did have right interpretations and wrong interpretations, then what would cinema be but one big multiple choice test?

Rating: ☀☀☀☀☀
Five out of five suns

The Muppets

The Muppets
2011
Directed by James Bobin

I, like much of the Internet, am a big fan of Jim Henson and the Muppets.  The Muppet Show, the various Muppet movies, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, The Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, The Storyteller, it’s all brilliant stuff that works whether you’re a kid, a grown-up with kids, or just a grown-up kid.  So when I heard that Jason Segel and his writing partner Nicholas Stoller were writing a Muppet movie, with Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords doing music and James Bobin, frequent director of the same show and Da Ali G Show, I was conflicted.  As much as I love the Muppets and am a fan of all of four of those creative people, it seemed like a big opportunity for disaster, and the trailers didn’t help to ease my concerns.  Watching The Muppets, though, I realized those concerns were misplaced - not because the film is incredible and flawless or anything like that, but because it’s not trying to be a perfect replica of a Jim Henson Muppet movie - it’s trying to pay tribute and homage to the kind of old-fashioned, non-cynical, sweet, whimsical, clever kind of humor that Henson and his crew of puppeteers specialized in, and that you rarely see in movies or on TV much anymore.  The film’s plot hinges on the disappearance of that kind of humor and the Muppets themselves over the past decades (the film basically ignores anything the Muppets did in the ‘90s or '00s) as Walter, a young man who is a huge fan of the Muppets and himself a Muppet raised in a human family, convinces his brother Gary (Segel) and Gary’s longtime girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) to help him rally the Muppets to put on a show and save the crumbling Muppet Theater before it’s destroyed by the greedy oil magnate Tex Richman (Chris Cooper).  The plot knowingly recreates the plots of The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan in its “let’s put on a show” structure, fitting considering how prominent the notion of putting on a show has always been to the Muppets.  The difference this time, though, is that the Muppets are aware of their history of putting on shows, so the film is able to directly address it and make jokes about their fame and their years of supposed decline.  Segel and Stoller’s script delivers plenty of laughs all keeping with the spirit of the Muppets, so plenty of corny jokes and one-liners, running gags, celebrity cameos, random explosions, and meta-comedy, all of which feel surprisingly fresh.  That’s not to say that everything in the film works.  In fact, there are a lot of questionable choices - Chris Cooper rapping?  The chickens bawking a cover of Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” (I assumed they were going to make a “cluck you” joke, but tactfully they didn’t)?  The cleaning montage set to the Muppets singing “We Built This City”?  The “Smells Like Teen Spirit” barbershop quartet?  Well, to be fair, the last one worked because the film commented on how odd a choice that was while it was happening, but the others don’t have such an excuse.  The thing is, though, all the Muppet movies had jokes that fell flat, and so did The Muppet Show.  Like its predecessors, The Muppets has plenty of jokes that hit the mark, enough to outweigh the lamer jokes/song choices.  A good chunk of the humor comes from the simple recognition of how cynical the world today is and how the film creates a completely opposite world, a town called “Smalltown”, a perfect suburban neighborhood where the townspeople break into spontaneous dance numbers for the benefit of Walter and Gary and the school kids hate going on spring break.  Even when the gang goes to visit other places, there’s little sign of the bad things in the world, even in a place as full of bad things - drugs, sex, greed, etc. - as Los Angeles.  The worst it gets is Fozzie playing in a run-down casino in Reno with a knock-off group called the Moopets.  There’s a definite theme in the film of simple optimism and happiness that’s always been in the Muppets, something that clearly speaks to Muppet fans including the filmmakers.  In keeping with that theme, McKenzie’s original songs are upbeat, bright, catchy, and funny, many similar in structure and humor to his work in Flight of the Conchords.  Although his songs may not match the simple brilliance and emotional beauty of a song like “Rainbow Connection” (in fact, the most touching scene of the film is when the Muppets sing “Rainbow Connection”), they are still memorable and effective, making The Muppets one of the best original musicals to be released in theaters in a very long time.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s main song, “Life’s a Happy Song”, ends up getting an Oscar nod, even if only because it would make for a good live performance at the awards show (I’m cynical enough to believe the Academy would nominate a song purely for that reason).  The film’s two human stars, Segel and Adams, do a great job with the musical performances and the comedy, not surprising considering their experience with funny musicals (Adams in Enchanted and Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, whose mini-puppet musical was what led Segel to making The Muppets).  Of course the real stars of the film are the Muppets, and it’s hard to deny their star power.  There’s definitely a sense of cognitive dissonance hearing slightly different voices coming out of figures as iconic as Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, or Animal, but that doesn’t make the puppeteers who are here any less talented at bringing the Muppets to life onscreen.  Walter isn’t an exciting addition to the Muppet family, but for the purposes of the film, he makes for a good entry into the story for the audience and provides as much humor as any other character in the film, and of the Muppets added to the stable since Jim Henson’s death, he’s probably the only one that deserves to stick around (sorry, Clifford from Muppets Tonight).  Now, I’ll be honest: the Muppets aren’t as funny here as they used to be.  They’re funny, but there is some tiny spark of genius that isn’t there anymore, and it’s easy to presume that that spark of genius is Jim Henson.  It’s doubtful that the Muppets will ever be exactly what it was under Henson.  But to tell the truth, it’s hard to say that they would be as great today as they were then even if he were still alive.  I say all that to say that The Muppets isn'tperfect, it isn’t a new masterpiece of comedy, and I don’t truly expect the Muppets to have a huge resurgence in popularity.  Even if they did come back to TV or movies again, it’s likely they would be as forgettable as what’s been coming out in the past ten years or so.  What The Muppets is, though, is a well-crafted, and more importantly, a lovingly-crafted tribute to Jim Henson and the characters that he and his cohorts created, characters that have been a cultural touchstone for multiple generations now (my dad’s 50, and “Rainbow Connection” is still one of his favorite songs).  When I was in the theater, there were a lot of kids in there who are too young to really know the Muppets beyond the ones from Sesame Street (none of which are in this film since Disney doesn’t own the Sesame Street characters) and maybe a vague awareness of Kermit and Miss Piggy.  My 8 year old nephew asked before the movie started what a Muppet actually was.  I wondered if the kids would actually get anything from the movie, or if it would just be a big nostalgia fest for their parents.  As it turns out, it was a big nostalgia fest, but it was a film made for kids too, so that even if they didn’t get why Kermit having an “80s Robot” that serves him Tab and New Coke is funny, they could still laugh when he had trouble leaving a room without running into a wall.  The Muppets have always managed to appeal to adults and children in a way that few family entertainments have ever been able to duplicate, but The Muppets does so handily, and by the amount of laughter in my theater coming from both the kids and their parents, I think that even if there are some sore spots and hokey routines in the film, it’s hard to label it anything but a success.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns 

Restrepo

Restrepo
2010
Directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington

Directors/cinematographers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington do something quite unique with Restrepo, their documentary following a platoon of fighters for one year while they’re stationed in Afghanistan’s Korangal Valley, hailed as one of the most dangerous places in the world.  Instead of using this film to showcase their opinions for or against the war in Afghanistan, they stay objective, keeping the focus not on the politics of the war but on showing the daily life of the soldiers who are fighting it.  Of course, filmmakers can’t be completely objective; the act of deeming certain moments worth shooting and others not, of cutting one scene and leaving another, of editing two images next to each other, is inherently subjective, but with Restrepo the directors don’t make their opinions obvious or force them on the viewer.  The point instead is to present these soldiers as they’re fighting to survive and in interviews talking about what happened after the fact, and then let the audience decide for themselves what to take away from it.  I’d hesitate to call Restrepo an entertaining documentary, because it doesn’t do much to entertain.  The visuals aren’t especially pretty, being that they’re shot on cheap video cameras with lots of shaky cam and zooms and dirty lenses.  It’s almost completely devoid of music, save for a few songs played by the soldiers on the guitar.  In addition, there’s really no sense of narrative or developing story to the film.  There’s just footage of the men doing their duty, fighting, standing guard, working, sitting around doing nothing, and occasionally finding moments to have a little fun with each other.  But these moments don’t really cohere into a single storyline.  They’re simply various moments picked out at random to represent the soldiers’ year of deployment.  In almost any other documentary, this would be an issue, but that’s not the case here.  Junger and Hetherington have no interest in entertaining us; they want to help us empathize with these men, and by keeping their film dirty and raw and unmanipulated, they achieve this goal remarkably well.  The lack of narrative makes perfect sense for a documentary about a war that is equally lacking in narrative.  Restrepo excels in illustrating the difficulties America faces in Afghanistan and why it is taking so long and seemingly going nowhere.  Korangal Valley is so dangerous because the Taliban is constantly engaging the Americans in combat, with multiple firefights breaking out every day.  The film’s title comes from an outpost that the men are able to build to help push back against the Taliban, which they name after PFC Restrepo who is killed early in the campaign.  The soldiers struggle to make the local elders and civilians understand why they are there and that they want to help them, and various incidents only make the tensions worse.  By the end of the film, their biggest accomplishment is the creation of Outpost Restrepo, which helped the Americans considerably in their fight in Korangal Valley, but text at the end of the film informs us that America withdrew from Korangal in April of 2010.  All these events illustrate the general picture of the Afghanistan War as a whole - the seemingly never-ending supply of fresh Taliban fighters, the inability for Americans and Afghanistans to agree with and understand each other, and the overwhelming sense of futility that envelops the entire situation.  Restrepo may not be entertaining, it may not be a film you want to watch more than once, but it is an important film to see.  It gives the average person a firsthand glance at the war in Afghanistan, and presents it more honestly and objectively than any other film, fiction or non-fiction, has managed so far.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀☀
Five out of five suns

Lady Terminator

Lady Terminator
1989
Directed by H. Tjut Djalil

Sometimes you hear about an awesome terrible movie and when you go to see it, it ends up just being a terrible terrible movie.  I say that because I want you to understand how sincerely I mean it when I say this: Lady Terminator is an awesome terrible movie.  Really awesome, in fact, and also really terrible.  Lady Terminator is an ‘80s Indonesian horror film/rip-off of Terminator, with director Jalil Jackson (a.k.a. H. Tjut Djalil) taking whatever little bits he liked from that film and combining them with little bits from Indonesia’s legend of the South Sea Queen to create a story that makes very little sense.  I’m going to do my best to synopsize this so you guys can know what you’re missing out on right now, so just try and follow me.  Okay, so the movie starts with the South Sea Queen 100 years ago in her seaside castle following her normal routine of having sex with a man and then killing him with the eel inside her vagina if she doesn’t please him, as so many young women do.  Then some white guy shows up, has sex with her that she finds pleasing until he grabs the eel out of her vagina and turns it into a dagger.  The South Sea Queen gets infuriated and does what any scorned woman would do: she runs into the sea and promises to return in 100 years to have revenge on that man’s great-granddaughter, because obviously that’s better revenge than just killing the guy who actually stole your vagina eel while he’s right there in your castle.  100 years later, an unsuspecting anthropology student (Barbara Anne Constable) travels into the South Sea to find remains of the Queen’s castle underwater, but instead ends up naked tied to a bed so that the Queen’s eel can crawl into her vagina and the Queen can live again.  With her new body, the Queen stalks Erica (Claudia Rademaker), the white guy’s great-granddaughter and a budding pop star, killing everyone who stands in her way.  Erica finds help, though, in Max (Christopher Hart), an American cop working in Indonesia to escape the pain of his first wife’s death.  But how can you kill an indestructible killing machine?  A mystical old man gives Erica the eel vagina dagger that might just do the trick, but don’t worry - there’s still a good hour of pointless firefights, countless dead people, plenty of destroyed cars and a blown up helicopter and tank before someone finally thinks to use it.  Lady Terminator, which also goes by the title Nasty Hunter, has all the terrible moviemaking traits that you could hope for: bad framing, bad lighting, awful editing, very obvious and awful voice dubbing that only occasionally matches up to the actual actors’ mouth movements (it is all in English, by the way, not Indonesian), bad acting by the actors who are actually onscreen, awesomely lame '80s synth music including an entire lame '80s pop song performance, and awesomely lame '80s special effects (especially those involving vagina eels).  As in the best terrible movies, everything awful becomes brilliant because the people onscreen are so oblivious and earnest in their attempts that you can’t help but find it all endearing at the same time you find it hilarious and utterly baffling.  The parallels to Terminator are hilariously obvious - for example, at one point the dub actor for Max slips in a “Come with me if you want to live” while you can’t see the actor’s face onscreen.  The film deserves some credit for having decent live-action stunts, although the camera work and editing is so inept that you can hardly tell what’s going on whenever stunts happen.  And the film brings up so many interesting questions: Does having your penis bitten off by a vagina eel really kill you instantly?  What about being shot in the penis by a round from a machine gun?  Furthermore, why does Lady Terminator insist on shooting men in the penis?  Why do our heros keep trying to shoot her?  If the first time you shoot someone, she doesn’t die, do you really think shooting her hundreds more times will eventually do the trick?  And finally, why did society turn on the mullet?  I’ll answer that question for you: they saw mullets like the one on the character Snake in this film and saw how powerful and lustrous they were and knew that they could never achieve such a glorious mullet themselves and so they started making fun of them to mask their own mullet-defeciency and despair.  What else do you need to hear?  Lady Terminator reaches that special cult-classic range of being so terrible and ill-conceived that it magically becomes incredible.  This isn’t the best worst movie ever, but damn, it’s a lot closer than you might think.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns 

They Live
1988
Directed by John Carpenter

On paper, They Live reads like it would be John Carpenter’s schlockiest film, a sci-fi action flick with a professional wrestler playing a drifter who finds a pair of sunglasses that lets him see aliens living among us.  Surprisingly though, They Live is Carpenter’s most subversive film, a piece of political and corporate satire that’s as relevant now as it was in the Reagan era, if not more so.  The wrestler is “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a star of the then-WWF, who brings the physicality and “charming asshole” demeanor of his wrestling persona to his drifter character “Nada” (so named in the credits, but never mentioned in the film).  Nada is a regular struggling workingman, who happens upon an alien conspiracy to control the world and devour its resources by subliminal messaging and appeals to humanity’s greed and laziness, and decides to fight it the only way he knows how: with a shotgun.  With alien creatures that have bulging red eyes, skeletal faces, and melted green skin, all of whom in the regular world appear to be rich businessmen/women, police officers, media personalities, and politicians; billboards, signs, and magazines with blunt sayings like “OBEY”, “WATCH TV”, and “STAY ASLEEP”; and a hero who delivers lines as goofily unforgettable as “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass - and I’m all out of bubblegum”, They Live is heavy on cheese and light on subtlety, but there’s something about the film’s in-your-face attitude that makes it refreshing and all the more engaging.  Its subversive nature isn’t because the film has deep subtext; everything it says about the power of corporate greed in America, its influence on the media and its ability to thrive by convincing the poor that they need the rich to stay rich to survive and pushing the American dream of social mobility while simultaneously removing the means of achieving such mobility is front and center and blatantly obvious.  What makes it subversive is that it is so cheesy and so violent and so easy to dismiss as mindless entertainment and yet it’s in fact an extremely biting, “pull no punches” critique of corporate power in America, perfectly formulated to appeal to the middle-class, average Joe film audience that has the most reason to be angered by these issues.  Amazingly, it might be more resonant now than ever, thanks to a lame economy that was effectively crippled by corporate and financial greed and malfeasance and a growing movement of people determined to fight the power and change the rules.  This should be the signature film of the Occupy movement.  It even has a scene of police in riot gear using excessive force to tear down a tent city.  But if all of that political and social critique doesn’t interest you, then there’s another reason to see They Live: the big fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David, who plays Frank, a man struggling much like Nada.  When Nada tries to get Frank to put on the glasses, Frank refuses, prompting Nada to attempt to kick Frank’s ass until he acquiesces.  It’s easily one of the best fights in cinema history - it’s simple, it’s believable in a way most film fight scenes aren’t, it’s funny at times and brutal at other times, and at a ridiculous six minutes long, an eternity in film time, it’s brilliantly paced and absolutely mesmerizing.  Every time you think it’s over, one of them gets up and punches the other in the face, and then they start up again.  There’s just something so primal in the entertainment value of two men fighting like their lives depend on it.  Those six minutes alone make the film worth seeing, but luckily the rest of the film, even with its cheese factor and poor pacing, is still entertaining, and for a film with aliens, pro wrestlers, and magic sunglasses, is quite enlightening too.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns

Traffic
2000
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

This year marked the ten year anniversary of the war in Afghanistan, making it the second longest after the Vietnam War.  Similar to Vietnam, the American military effort in Afghanistan has struggled due to periods of lackluster leadership, poorly defined goals, poor understanding of foreign culture, widespread corruption, and flagging support for the war among the American people.  There’s another war that has suffered from all the same setbacks, one that has lasted longer than both Afghanistan and Vietnam combined, a war that is still being fought and that has implications for both the safety of our nation and the international community, a war that seems only more and more futile as time wears on.  That war is the war on drugs, as it was so deemed by President Nixon forty years ago.  Steven Soderbergh’s multi-Oscar winning film Traffic explores the war on drugs from all angles and delivers a chilling message: we can’t win the war on drugs, and we can’t afford to quit trying.  By using several different plot lines, the film, based on a British miniseries, is able to explore the many sides and faces of the drug war.  The film takes place in four main locales, differentiated by contrasting visual styles.  In Mexico, the struggle of good cops Javier and Manolo (Benicio del Toro and Jacob Vargas) to fight the drug trade under the eye of the corrupt General Salazar (Tomás Milián) is depicted with a bleached-out, yellow-tinted, grainy, high contrast look.  In Ohio and Washington, D.C., a cold, steely blue hue colors the scenes of newly appointed drug czar Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) and his drug-addicted teenage daughter Caroline (Erika Christensen).  Finally, in California, two DEA officers (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán) work to protect the key witness (Miguel Ferrer) in their case against major drug smuggler Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer) while Ayala’s wife Helena (Catherine Zeta Jones) tries to salvage her family’s wealth and reputation, and Soderbergh (who as usual acted as his own director of photography) plays up the state’s “sunny” reputation with high color saturation and blown-out brightness.  The cinematographic choices alone speak to Soderbergh’s ingenuity; such drastic and obvious changes to a film’s visuals are rare and risky, particularly so many in one film, but they do an incredible job in establishing each scene’s setting immediately for the audience and help establish the mood of each storyline from the start.  The ensemble cast is excellent and very well-chosen; there are no weak links in the bunch, and no one who steals the show from anybody else, although del Toro comes damn close.  Technically, the film is extremely taut, with handheld cameras that echo documentary-style intimacy and a fast-paced editing that succeeds in keeping the intercutting stories from becoming too confusing while continually ratcheting up the tension as the drama rises.  Traffic is one of the smartest and most honest depictions of the drug problem on screen, treating with equal care law enforcement, smugglers, politicians, and users, as well as the people surrounding them who are indirectly affected as well by the drug trade.  It doesn’t attempt to give answers to the problem, because there aren’t any easy answers to solving a problem so deeply entrenched in global society.  Instead, it merely shows the complexities of the situation for audiences who may not realize how problematic it truly is, pointing out both the failings of the war on drugs, the many obstacles involved, and the many reasons why the war can’t be surrendered.  I wonder though how different the film would be if it had been made five years later, post-9/11, after Washington decided terrorism was the country’s new number one threat and put the war on drugs on the backburner.  Certainly the Mexico scenes would be significantly different.  Even though the international dynamics have changed in the decade-plus since Traffic was released, its core statements have not, and the war on drugs still rages on.

Rating: 
Five out of five suns

The Ten Commandments
1956
Directed by Cecil B. DeMille

I have a great respect for Cecil B. DeMille and his significance as a director and producer in Hollywood lore, but despite that significance, I’ve so far been unable to have a great personal attachment to his work because it’s so heavy on spectacle often at the expense of story or pacing.  The Ten Commandments shows definite signs of this problem, but it does so much that does work over such a long period of time (nearly four hours) that the film’s problems are largely outweighed.  It also helps that The Ten Commandments has such a powerful story behind it, a story thousands of years old, one that, depending on your personal beliefs, is either entirely true or at the very least based on some historical events.  Charlton Heston plays Moses, the Biblical figure who (spoiler alert) is found as a baby in a basket floating down the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter Bithiah (Nina Foch), raised (spoiler) as an Egyptian prince alongside Rameses (Yul Brynner) in line to become the next Pharoah, falls in love with throne princess Nefertiri (Anne Baxter), discovers he is (spoiler) the son of a Hebrew slave, lives among the slaves, kills (spoiler) the Egyptian master builder Baka (Vincent Price), is banished from Egypt, finds a new home in Midian and (spoiler) a wife, Sephora (Yvonne De Carlo), lives as a shepherd, climbs Mt. Sinai and (spoiler) talks to God through a (spoiler) burning bush, returns to Egypt to demand that (spoiler) now-Pharoah Rameses free the slaves, unleashes plagues upon the Egyptians until Rameses relents, leads the Hebrews to the Red Sea, (spoiler) parts the Red Sea so they can pass through it, then leads them to Mt. Sinai, where he finds the (spoiler) Ten (spoiler) Commandments by which the Hebrews will be governed.  Heston and Brynner both deliver performances that are among their career bests, authoritative without sacrificing vulnerability or humanity, and the rest of the cast perform just as solidly.  The true marvel of this film, though, are the sets, the costumes, and the special effects.  The re-creations of ancient Egyptian temples, palaces, and sphinxes are astounding, especially considering that many of them were full-sized multi-story buildings, not just matte paintings like most films in that era would have used for such expansive scenery shots.  The costumes are beautifully exotic and Technicolorful (I just made up that word, © Cade Snyder), and the makeup work is solid as well, especially in aging Charlton Heston to match the historical images of Moses in paintings and statues.  And while the special effects are dated compared to what we have now, the Red Sea scene is still impressive in its scope and daring.  There are, as I mentioned, some issues with DeMille’s love of giant crowd scenes and orgiastic spectacles, but those issues are actually only noticeable in the film’s second half, following the intermission, when DeMille spends perhaps too much time lingering with the Hebrews amassing at the city gates, too much time within the Red Sea sequence watching the Hebrews walking along the path in awe and terror, and too much time with the golden calf orgy scene, and maybe the extra time is only noticeable because these scenes are so relatively close to one another.  The first half, however, is beautifully paced, with DeMille resisting the urge to lose focus on the story, even with plenty of opportunity for him to do so.  The first half, in fact, is so strong and essentially flawless that it’s hard not to forgive the second half’s more easily distracted narrative.  What’s interesting about The Ten Commandments and what really speaks to DeMille’s talents is that, although the film is ostensibly religious propaganda, it never feels preachy.  DeMille instead highlights the basic themes of the story of Exodus that make it meaningful for all people, no matter their faith: the basic right of every man, woman, and child to be free, the power of conviction, the courage it takes to stand up for what you know to be right, the rewards of sacrifice and morality, and the foolishness and inevitable downfall of tyranny (DeMille speaking in the film’s promotional trailer suggests parallels between Rameses and dictators of the 20th century).  Even if you don’t follow Abrahamic faith and don’t believe in Moses as a deliverer and prophet of God, The Ten Commandments is still a towering achievement that should be seen at least once by any film buff, so make sure not to passover this one!  That’s an Exodus pun.  You’re welcome, bitches.

Rating: 
Five out of five suns 

Melancholia

Melancholia
2011
Directed by Lars von Trier

The apocalyptic image of a rogue planet hurtling towards Earth and causing strange environmental phenomena before smashing into our planet and destroying it is at the center of the marketing campaign for Danish provocateur director Lars von Trier’s latest film Melancholia.  That’s not surprising, given the excitement and intrigue such images create and the painterly beauty that von Trier has put into these images, but although it may loom large over the film itself, the planet named Melancholia is not the main focus of the film; it’s a red herring, a thrilling sci-fi lure to bring audiences into a film that’s true purpose is presenting one of the most bluntly honest depictions of depression and emotional helplessness ever put onscreen.  The movie starts with a dreamy, stylized intro set to the prelude to Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, where we see scenes of the main characters at different points in the film’s story, both literal and figurative events, all in extreme slow motion, that set up both the film’s mood and insights into the characters’ minds that reveal themselves later in the film, here illustrated with carefully and precisely structured images that at times directly reference other pieces of art, i.e. Millais’ famous painting Ophelia and Alain Resnais’ enigmatic film Last Year at Marienbad (the film’s title and interplanetary-doomsday conceit may also be inspired by Albrecht Durer’s engraving Melancolia I).  After the dramatic overture-style opening, the film is split into two chapters named for the sisters that are the film’s main characters.  The first is titled “Justine”, focusing on younger sister Justine’s (Kirsten Dunst) wedding reception, held at the mansion owned by older sister Claire’s (Charlotte Gainsbourg) husband John (Keifer Sutherland).  The reception becomes increasingly disastrous as family members are hesitant to participate and Justine’s depression bubbles to the surface, creating distance between her and the groom (Alexander Skarsgård), her boss (Peter Skarsgård), and the rest of the party, and eventually driving her to helplessly sabotage her own chance at happiness.  The second chapter titled “Claire” is set sometime afterward when Claire takes Justine into her home to care for her in her increasingly debilitating mental condition.  News of the planet Melancholia excites John and his and Claire’s son, but Claire can’t help but be terrified that it will hit Earth.  As Earth’s fate becomes more and more obviously doomed, Justine’s health returns, her depression putting her in the odd position of being the most mentally prepared for impending extinction.  Von Trier has stated that his inspiration for the film came while he was going through his own bout of severe depression, and that personal experience explains why the depiction of depression in the film feels so real.  For one, the film doesn’t try to create a reason for Justine’s depression.  There’s a chance that her mother (Charlotte Rampling) may also suffer from some form of depression, but even that’s not certain or lingered on by von Trier.  Justine is simply depressed because she can’t stop being depressed, and it doesn’t matter how hard she tries to make herself better, she can’t, because you can’t simply wish away depression.  Nobody in the film truly understands that except Justine, everybody else assuming that she’ll be fine or that she’s not trying hard enough or that she just wants attention, which is not far at all from how many people in real life approach depression (I should perhaps point out now that I’ve never been clinically depressed, but I have known many who have been and/or still are).  Many viewers will be turned off by this film because of how unsympathetic and frustrating Justine seems, but that’s simply von Trier refusing to pander to audience expectations.  Making the protagonist real is a higher priority than making her likable.  Kirsten Dunst’s performance is perfect here precisely because she makes Justine so impenetrable and frustrating, her motivations difficult to decipher, largely because Justine herself isn’t able to explain her motivations.  Dunst’s mood changes and moments of extreme emotion are convincing without being overly dramatic, and she’s just as convincing when she finds an odd sense of validation in mankind’s final moments.  Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the foil well, struggling to handle Justine’s depression while feeling a familial duty to support her sister, then to be struck with the same feelings of overwhelming fear, sadness, and helplessness in the shadow of Melancholia.  For many viewers, Gainsbourg will be their entry into the film, the character they can more closely relate to, although that may make the film’s ending all the more chilling for them, even if it is completely expected.  Melancholia is, despite being a high-concept piece full of special effects and visual spectacle, a highly personal film, a story written by a man struggling through his depression about how people in different states of mental health handle crisis.  And yet, compared to the other von Trier films I’ve seen, this one doesn’t quite measure up.  As odd as it is to say about a film where the entire world and all life as we know is destroyed, Melancholia feels less ambitious than some of von Trier’s previous work.  That’s because it doesn’t really challenge and confront the viewer as much as, for example, Dogville and Antichrist both do.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does give this film less of an impact (again, ironic) by comparison.  It doesn’t help much either that visually the film is extremely similar to Antichrist, which means it still looks really good and has the same level of uncomfortable intimacy that always works so well for von Trier but feels less fresh.  All that said, if you’ve seen von Trier films before and hated them, it’s doubtful this film will change your mind.  Some claim it as his most accessible film, which might be true, but it’s still unquestionably a Lars von Trier film.  For me, that’s a good thing, and it’s good for the movie too.  Melancholia was probably a very therapeutic film for von Trier to make after years of suffering through his own depression, and if I had to guess, I bet it will be comforting for viewers who are themselves depressed or formerly depressed or have loved ones who struggle with depression to see depression depicted in film in a way that actually resembles what they’re going through.  It doesn’t happen often, so enjoy it while it lasts.  And who knows, maybe we should say the same thing about life on Earth.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
2012
Directed by Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski, & Tom Tykwer

Cloud Atlas is a particularly ambitious film project with six different stories set in different time periods playing out simultaneously, some in the past, some in the relative present, and some in the future, with a cast of actors who portray multiple characters appearing in most or all of the storylines, with a complex interweaving of connections between the events and characters occurring in each of the stories.  As big as the film is, though, I don’t actually have all that much to say about it, because ironically enough, as complex and layered as the film’s plot is, thematically it’s a pretty simple and straightforward story about love and legacy.  That underlying simplicity is not necessarily a bad quality, but I think it does help explain why there wasn’t a stronger critical response to the film. 

Critics in general tend to respond better to movies with deeper meanings and complex explorations of theme, even when those themes are murky or unclear, because writing about such films requires more thought and more engagement by the writer, which makes them more interesting to critique.  This is why there can be such a large gap at times between what critics like and what average moviegoers like, and why a movie like Holy Motors (to use a current example) can end up at the top of many critics’ lists and not get any attention from audiences or major awards ceremonies (which, while often not voted on by average moviegoers are still heavily influenced by their tastes).  But while critics will generally love (or at least be more interested in) a movie like Holy Motors, they’ll tend to be disappointed by a film like Cloud Atlas, because it’s the kind of film that renders criticism moot.  You don’t need to read a critic’s take on Cloud Atlas to understand or appreciate the film; it’s all already there in the movie.  You don’t need anybody to tell you that the film looks great, or to tell you the acting is good, or even to tell you the film’s themes, because the film repeatedly expresses those themes explicitly through the dialogue.  There’s no real engagement for the critic, and so there’s no reason for them to get excited about it.  It’s not that critics have hated it but more that they don’t care enough about it to praise it; as of now, it’s only at 64% on Rotten Tomatoes (you should be wary of putting too much credence in rankings on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDB or anywhere else, but here it helps illustrate my point).  On the flip side, the film has been a box office flop, failing to connect with a large audience, and that’s likely because, even though the film deals with very basic universal human themes - love, death, fear, belief, the past and its effect on the present and the future - in very deliberate and obvious ways so that any audience member can pick up on them, the film’s multiple parallel timeline structure is still intricate and complicated, and although the filmmakers and particularly the editor do a great job of keeping those timelines organized and clear for anyone who is paying enough attention, it can be quite intimidating for many average moviegoers, especially when coupled with the film’s nearly 3-hour running time.  So basically, Cloud Atlas is simultaneously too complex and not complex enough.  That’s a rather unique and unfortunate problem for a movie to have.

I’ll point out, however, that while I don’t have that much to say about it, I did like the movie, and I imagine a good number of you reading this might too, because if you are reading this, that means you care enough about movies to spend part of your free time reading about them on the internet, so there’s a fair chance that you fall between the extremes of movie critics and so-called average moviegoers, and so there’s plenty for you to enjoy in Cloud Atlas.  The film does an excellent job with telling the stories simultaneously, cutting back and forth between them at a perfect pace that makes the long running time go by in a flash and that interconnects the lives of the many characters and makes interesting and revealing connections between the various time periods without becoming too confusing, a feat that editor Alexander Berner deserves praise for (and one he really deserved an Oscar nomination for, too).  The gimmick of having the actors play multiple roles works well and further helps keep the story straight in the viewer’s mind, even if it does bring up some questions of how exactly the lines of the film’s version of karma work in determining who a person will become in their next life.  There are some issues with hammy acting and poorly-chosen accents here and there, but for the most part the cast does an admirable job in all of their respective roles, especially considering that the film’s size and scope doesn’t really call for subtle performances.  The visual effects and production design are impressive and engrossing across all six stories, a feat that’s even more impressive considering the disparate time periods and genres at play.  Truly the film’s only major drawback, which in itself isn’t necessarily a flaw but rather a reason it’s not gotten more appreciation, is that it is thematically simple, which I’d imagine is actually attributable to the film’s source.  In literature, it’s far easier and more plausible to explore a wide variety of broad themes like those I’ve mentioned in Cloud Atlas - love, religious belief, life and death, the past’s effect on the future, the impact people have on one another directly or indirectly - with equal attention, but films generally tend to focus the majority of their attention on one primary theme or at least a closely-related group of themes.  Cloud Atlas doesn’t do this, and I think that may be a big reason why some viewers and critics have found it to be overstuffed and unfocused.

I should touch on one of the big talking points regarding the film: the controversy regarding the white actors portraying Asian characters.  I don’t think it’s offensive in intention, because there’s a very clear and logical explanation for why the film would do this: the film’s whole structure and effectiveness is based around the idea that the same actors are playing multiple characters and thus automatically connecting certain characters across the various storylines.  This means certain actors do portray different races, but this cuts across all races - black actors play white, black actors play Asian, Asian actors play white, Asian actors play Hispanic (no white people playing black, though; maybe that was too risky for them to consider?) - so obviously the filmmakers aren’t saying anything specific by having white actors play Asian.  And yet, I do see why people might take particular offense to this depiction, largely because while the other storylines have maybe one or at most two instances of actors playing against race, the particular storyline in question set in Neo Seoul has at least three major figures in the storyline that are played by white men in Asian makeup, which means they outnumber actual Asian actors in the storyline set in an Asian country.  What makes it worse is that the makeup to make these actors appear Asian is frankly hideous, making it very obvious that they’re not actually Asian and making them hardly look human.  Although, to be fair, this same problem arises with all the shifted race makeup in the film.  Still, I think the filmmakers’ hearts were in the right place in terms of actor and character diversity, and they should at least get some credit for that…although they couldn’t get one real Hispanic person in there?  I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m just trying to cause trouble now.

I found Cloud Atlas to be a very pleasing and entertaining experience, but I’d put it in the same group as films I’ve reviewed before like The Fountain and The Fall, films that are worthy of praise for their ambition and visual imagination and beauty but that fall short of their lofty aspirations in the storytelling.  In Cloud Atlas’s defense, I think it’s far more successful in its storytelling and character development than either of those two films, but there are still a number of issues and a lack of thematic depth that keep it from reaching the level of greatness that Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis surely hoped it would reach.

Rating: ☀☀☀☀
Four out of five suns