Monday, December 29, 2014

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder. 1974)

"We'll be rich, Ali... and we'll buy ourselves a little piece of heaven..."

Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a very strange, but ultimately extremely talented director who helped bring about, perfect, and end the German New Wave cinema movement. His professional filmmaking career lasted a little bit less than 15 full years in which time he was somehow able to produce over forty films. Fassbinder was an open homosexual (though he married 2 women during his lifetime who were said to be "non-disturbed" by his homosexuality) who was often accused in his West German homeland of being homophobic. He had a desperate need for a motherly or feminine caretaker, but was also often accused of being a misogynist. Fassbinder had a history of domestic and substance abuse*, and an even more tumultuous history of casting his multi-gender lovers as leads in his feature films.

Fassbinder also had a reputation for speaking up for the socially disadvantaged. His films frequently dealt with exposing the injustices formulated by the German upper-class. Combining his desire to speak for the unspoken for and his enigmatic appreciation for Hollywood melodramas, Fassbinder made a low-budget film that was meant to keep him in practice between two of his bigger budget productions. He cast his gay lover in the title role, and based the story loosely on Douglas Sirk's 1955 melodramatic masterpiece All That Heaven Allows. Sirk's film tells the story of an upper-class widow played by Jane Wyman who falls in love with a much younger gardener played by Rock Hudson while her kids, friends and country club look down on her and their arrangement.

Fassbinder's homage, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, follows a frumpy, older cleaning lady named Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and a much younger Moroccan immigrant named Ali (El Hedi ben Salem**) who ignite an unexplainable connection after meeting in a bar. The mood of the next 89 minutes is uniquely introduced through Fassbinder's direction using a variety of tunnel shots with main characters in the foreground while nosy onlookers sit just slightly out of focus in the background. From the opening moment when Emmi enters the bar, the camera flows outward to show her disapproving onlookers. She does not belong in a place like this - it is mainly inhabited by Arab immigrants along with a busty blonde bartender***. She is immediately the outsider. After being coerced into dancing with this strange older woman, Ali (one of the previously disapproving immigrants) realizes that there is a connection between the two of them that he cannot ignore.

After a very short time the two are married and forced to deal with all of the social and racial prejudice that goes along with their partnership. Both parties have already been forced to deal with scrutiny. Emmi is a cleaning lady who is used to being looked down upon, while Ali is an Arab immigrant who is not even allowed to use his birth-given name. Though experienced in being scrutinized (Ali goes as far as saying "German Master, Arab Dog" in his broken German), the weight of the world's disapproval begins to impact the couple daily. Ali longs for the food of his homeland. Emmi refuses to make that food for him because she believes that he needs to become more of a German. After succumbing to pressures to fit in with her co-workers and neighbors, Emmi even begins to mock her lover's "foreign mentality" in front of others. Though they are in love, this furthers their loneliness and isolation from each other. Self-identity begins to dissolve.

It is no coincidence that a decent portion of the film takes place behind fences, or through windows and screen doors. Fassbinder's sophisticated direction keeps his main characters isolated figuratively and literally from the outside world. Loneliness palpitates through both Ali and Emmi - only their connection is strong enough to survive. Even Emmi's children (one of which is played by Fassbinder) disapprove of the love affair in dramatic and shameful outbursts. Another wide shot from the camera during this scene sits the audience in the role of a voyeur. If her children knew that we were watching, they would not be acting out in this fashion. We want nothing more than the ability to reach through the screen and scold those causing shame, but rather we are forced to watch, react, and imagine ourselves in the same position.

Though Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is an obvious homage to American melodrama, the film does not seem sappy or overly dramatic. Fassbinder takes a very simple approach (perhaps due to budget restrictions) to the story that helps all points remain powerful. The main characters are framed in a way that allows the audience to empathize with their emotional journey without feeling like they are being forced through a sermon. This is a simplistic film. But that is what makes it beautiful.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul : B+

 *Fassbinder died in his apartment of a cocaine overdose in 1982. He was found with a lit cigarette still between his lips.

**Sometime after El Hedi ben Salem's relationship with Fassbinder ended, he stabbed multiple people in a bar. After fleeing Germany for France, he was later jailed. He hanged himself in his jail cell at the age of 43. Just three years after the release of Fear Eats the Soul.

***The "busty blonde bartender is played by Barbara Valentin - who was romantically linked to Freddie Mercury in the 1980s. Yes, THAT Freddie Mercury.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Blob (Yeaworth. 1958)

"How do you get people to protect themselves from something they don't believe in?"...

The year is 1957, and you are in a small Pennsylvania town. The Cold War is in full swing, and everyone is living in a constant state of fear over the future of the modern world. You and your best gal pal are at the local "make out point" when you see what seems to be a falling star. This particular falling star makes a startling boom as if it has crash landed on Earth. While investigating the crash site, you find a little rock that looks like it could have been a piece of the moon. But that is all you find. Seems harmless, right?

Well, it isn't. And though the main characters in this B-movie campfest believe that their night can continue as normal - the audience knows what is really happening. After all, the seemingly infinitely long opening credit sequence features a cheesy tune, written by a young Burt Bacharach, that literally tells the audience everything they can expect for the next 82 minutes. That falling star is guessed it....THE BLOB!

Directed by Irvin Yeaworth (who at the time was most well known for his work making inspirational religious short films) as the "B" side of a double feature with I Married a Monster from Outer Space, this was not a film that a lot of people expected to succeed. Strangely enough, The Blob was a sleeper hit that grossed a domestic $4 million at the box office after only costing $110,000 to produce. What made a film like this a hit? Three words: "Starring Steven McQueen".

Mr. McQueen only had one credited role to his name before being cast as the lead in The Blob, and this is the only example of a film where he is billed as "Steven" rather than the ultra cool Steve that he would later utilize.  His presence meant nothing to the film or studio when it was originally released, but rather in retrospect after he went on to make a few classic movies under his newly found macho persona. It is likely that without his [later] added star power, The Blob would have been forgotten about like many other B-movies from the 1950s. It certainly would not have gotten a Criterion release. I mean, have you ever heard of I Married a Monster from Outer Space? No? Exactly.

Though Steve obviously became the most famous Blob-alum, the actress playing his girlfriend in the film, Aneta Corsaut, did also go on to greater fame as a recurring character on The Andy Griffith Show. Casting these young actors was a very smart [read: lucky] studio move that has helped keep the movie relevant. It also helped that the leads were talented. For some unknown reason The Blob does not play out as much as a monster picture as it does a teen flick. These dough-eyed kids (who all look to be about 30) have their game of tonsil hockey interrupted by an amoeba-looking monster, find the aforementioned monster, and then spend most of the film trying to convince their peers, parentals, and local law enforcement that their story is not an elaborate prank. When one person does not believe them (would you??) they move on to the next available authority figure to tell the entire story over again....

This leads to ample screen time for the young couple, and less for the titular monster. The monster itself is not much to look at - which could be why it does not appear many times on screen. Don't get me wrong, the Blob does not evade being seen in the same vein as your garden variety Cloverfield monster, but it does only make sporadic appearances throughout the film.

My favorite (and probably the most famous) scene features a group of unpaid extras fleeing a movie theatre in a frenzy after seeing the Blob for the first time. Why is this scene memorable? Well, the extras were simply townspeople who lived in the town where the movie was shot. When you watch the film, you can see that these extras are not running in fear, but rather in pure delight. You can almost feel their general sense of "We're gonna be in the movies!!" as the crowd unloads out of the theatre "terrified", but also with an electric smile on each face. Check out the picture at the top of this post. Does anyone in that picture look like they have just come across a monster?

The Blob is okay. It isn't great. It isn't bad. What it lacks in prowess it makes up for in campy ridiculousness. It is also pretty fun to see a young Steve McQueen making a fool out of himself for a measly $3,000 paycheck. Some people have theorized that the Blob monster was meant to represent the creeping threat of Communism. I don't know if that is true or not, but if it is - Communism sure looks like grape jelly.

The Blob: C

Friday, October 31, 2014

Alternative Halloween Movies

“Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear." - Edgar Allen Poe


Are you sick of the same horror movies on Halloween year after year? If you're anything like me, you no longer have any interest in the played out, "been done" crap that usually plagues the Devil's favorite holiday season. If you are just unable to deal with another passing October filled with carbon copy sequels from once interesting horror franchises like Saw or Paranormal Activity - I have compiled a list of 10 "alternative" horror films that may add some spice, or screams, to your popcorn filled Halloween night. 

#10. In the Mouth of Madness (Carpenter. 1995)

I want to make it clear that this is a list of "alternative" Halloween movies, and though the list will get more obscure as we go - this is not a very obscure horror movie. It is written, scored, and directed by horror legend John Carpenter and plays out like a classic Lovecraftian horror flick. Insanity, fear of the darkness, and a seemingly campy interest in the unknown help this film stand out from anything else made by Carpenter. Charlton Heston plays a man who is sent from a publishing company to track down a missing horror writer. The rest of the action unfolds in a very surreal, Twilight-Zone-hooks-up-with-your-nightmares kind of way, and that only adds to the lore of the movie. I You might not be able to exactly pin-point a real plot, but this is a film that is meant to be experienced as opposed to just watched. Surreal, unforgiving, and stocked to the brim with references from H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos  - if you like horror lore, you will love this movie. My Grade: B+

#9. A Chinese Ghost Story (Siu-tung. 1987)

I fully understand that some people do not want to watch something as disorienting as Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, so next on the list we have a Chinese romantic comedy, horror from the late 1980s. To be fair, I'm trying to reach all audiences. A Chinese Ghost Story is exactly what you think, but dialed up to 10. The film follows a debt collector who falls in love with a ghost after spending a night in a haunted temple. It is revealed that the ghost he loves is being forced to spend eternity at the temple because she is buried in a specific place that binds her soul to the eternal service of a sinister Tree Demoness. I know, it really is awesome. The man enlists the help of a Taoist Priest with extraordinary sword fighting skills, and the rest is just pure fun. The movie was a breakaway hit in many Asian countries, and has spawned a cartoon series, 2 sequels, and a [bad] 2011 remake. If you want something different for your Halloween, this would be the right movie for you. I personally love it. My Grade: B+ 

#8. Equinox (Muren. 1970)

A group of friends travel to the canyons of California in order to enjoy a nice picnic. They stumble upon a strange book that reveals details of a monster world that exists alongside the human world. After reading from the book, the friends accidentally unleash a slew of monsters. Sound like something you have maybe seen before? Equinox was released thirteen years before Sam Rami's Evil Dead franchise, and though the plots are very similar, the campiness in Dennis Muren's (a future 9 time Academy Award winner for visual effects) independent directorial debut cannot be matched. The film was shot on an unbelievable budget of $6,500 and is too much fun to pass up. Not to mention, a lot of the monsters featured in the film would make great Halloween costume inspiration. My Grade: C

#7. Eyes Without a Face (Franju. 1960)

Eyes Without a Face is an Italian-French horror film from the 1960s with seriously impressive visual effects and a story that stands the test of time. This is a far cry from the movie featured directly before or after on this list. In fact, this movie is just different. It centers around a young lady who has been disfigured in an accident, and her surgeon father who abducts girls in an attempt to remove their faces and graph them onto his daughter. The title is a reference to the mask that the daughter wears during her time of disfigurement. What makes a movie like this scary is the idea that the surgeon initially had decent intentions, and was ultimately driven by his failures to abduction, murder, and insanity. The path to Hell is paved with good intentions, they say - and Eyes Without a Face (like Dr. Jekyll before) proves that desperation combined with science and insanity equals nothing short of absolute terror. My Grade A-

#6. Jigoku (Nakagawa. 1960) 

If we are all being forced to admit that gore-horror is a legitimate sub-genre in the horror movie world, then we may as well do what we can to make it interesting. Jigoku is a movie that was not well known upon official release, but its discovery really put American audiences on their heads. A precursor to a now common genre, this film redefined the history of Asian horror. Is it campy? No. It is surreal, and it contains buckets of gore. An obvious influence on CW's hit show Supernatural, Jigoku features a Hell with inhabitants being constantly tortured in a variety of ways until death, only to reappear on the torture table to experience it all over again. This goes on for eternity. This is a bloody, scary, and mind-boggling piece of J-horror history, and I have been amazed for years by the fact that is has not "gotten over" with Halloween audiences in the United States. Check this one out. You can find it on Hulu Plus. My Grade: A-

#5. Suspiria (Argento. 1977)

Long story short, Italian horror is probably my favorite. Nobody encapsulates the absurdity of Italian horror like Dario Argento. The only director to appear on this list twice, Argento has one of the most distinct and identifiable styles in all of movie-making. He is the pinnacle of the saying "great at nothing, but good at everything".  Nothing specifically stands out as genius in Suspiria (maybe other than the haunting score), but everything about the film remains vibrant, fresh, and fun. Set in a French ballet school, Suspiria features a wide range of colors, along with a twisting and memorable set design. When I see the winding staircases and walkways throughout the school, I am instantly reminded of the monumental sets featured in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. That is a pretty cool style to use as a reference. Though this may be the most inadvertently dated film featured on this list, Suspiria has become a massive cult favorite for a reason. After watching the film, be on the lookout for countless references in pop culture from AHS: Coven all the way to The Simpsons. It is a lesser-known movie that made a major impact. My Grade: A

#4. Fiend Without a Face (Crabtree. 1958)

Fiend Without a Face is tons of fun. It is a classic 1950s B-horror film with a premise [literally] straight out of a pulp comic book. To quote everybody's favorite SNL character - this movie has everything: a monster that eats your brain and spinal cord, barefoot townspeople, a surprisingly bloody climax, and a scientist trying to master some sort of psychic power. The premise is utterly ridiculous, sure, but the understated horror combined with overstated comedy makes this film a camp classic. You have to watch Fiend with the same mindset that you would have when watching a movie like Rocky Horror. It may be the goriest film of its time, and it is widely considered one of the best B-movies ever made. Don't just watch this film because you crave something different this Halloween - watch this film because it is incredibly uneasy, funny, goofy, serious, scary, and memorable. My Grade: A 

#3. Carnival of Souls (Harvey. 1962)

Herk Harvey only directed one feature film in his entire career, and it was not well received when it was first released as a B-movie in the 1960s. In fact, it took artists like David Lynch and George Romero siting Carnival of Souls as a major influence before the film started to be taken seriously by cult audiences. The film has now garnered a variety of praise for its ability to use suspense rather than action to strike fear into an audience. For me, this is an almost perfectly crafted horror film. It has some campy moments, it was shot on a very low budget, and it has the feel of a classic episode of The Twilight Zone. The story simply follows a young lady who somehow survived a horrible accident. Sometimes simplicity is the scariest factor of them all. She is alone, and that feeling is not only palpable, but understandable. Intrigue and empathy are as effective as screenplay and directorial style when it comes to helping this film graduate from cult movie to horror masterpiece. Carnival of Souls could possibly be the most underrated horror film ever made. Not bad for a guy who only made one movie. My Grade: A

#2. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Argento. 1970)

Okay, this one may be an example of me cheating a little bit. I wouldn't necessarily call The Bird with the Crystal Plumage a "horror" film, but rather it is more of a psychological thriller. Either way, it is a really damn good movie. And it is scary. Maybe not scary like The Exorcist, but  it is definitely comparable to the most intense episode of Criminal Minds that you've seen - without the basic cable limitations. Like many films by Dario Argento, this film is constantly twisting and turning. Each character is relevant to the story, and there is a shocking climax to the action. And like I mentioned before, nobody can beat this Italian director's style. Crystal Plumage has style, wit, thrills, and genuine scares. This is a perfect Halloween movie if you aren't the monster type. My Grade: A

#1. House (Obayashi. 1977)

Now we're talkin'. House is easily one of the weirdest, most visceral, dreadful, funny, and haunting movies I have ever seen. If any movie exemplifies the perfect alt-Halloween experience, it is this 1970s Japanese masterpiece. A young girl is upset by the fact that her father has remarried without telling her, so she and a group of friends go to an Aunt's house for the summer. At the house they encounter a variety of awesome, hilarious, scary, and disturbing things. A piano comes to life and eats a young girl. A demon cat has eye's that flash when something from the other world is about to happen. Combine that with flesh-craving, disembodied heads, and possessed light fixtures and you have the recipe for success. The film's underlying theme of nuclear war fallout is an entire different story. House is goofy enough that you cannot call it a horror film, but it is also visceral and surreal enough to leave a lasting impact on a person. If you are in an adventurous mood this Halloween, I strongly recommend checking this one out. And guess what? You can find it on Hulu Plus. Thank me later. My Grade: A+

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Tiny Furniture (Dunham. 2010)

"Listen, if you're lonely, you can come back to my place, and we can just take an Ambien and watch "Picnic at Hanging Rock."

I gotta say, I love Lena Dunham. In the pilot episode of the very good HBO series "Girls", Dunham's character says to her parents that she believes herself to be the voice of her generation. "Or at least...some generation". Though I am not willing to go that far, I will happily compare her to the voices in the head of this generation. Dunham, as a celebrity, embodies the after-college hangover better than anybody. She seemed to be desperately unprepared for the success of her television show, and perhaps inadvertently sliced a knife through conventional Hollywood with her tattoos, vocabulary and [lack of] ability to walk in heels. She has been criticized by lesser minds for using sexuality, profanity, and drug abuse as plot-points, but who are we to blame Ms. Dunham for simply holding a mirror to the anti-bourgeois among us all? The 2014 version of counter-culture never has been the Flower Child or the "I heard it first" hipster, but rather a culture formed out of complacency - void of real-world understanding due to engraved entitlement. 

There is something unarguably strange about the time between graduating college and beginning life in the "real world". College teaches (for the most part) the ability to think critically and ask questions. The real world hates people who ask questions. Especially if they are young people. In a world where you need work experience for an entry-level position for which you apply in the hopes of gaining work experience - the post-collegiate daze is not only real, but also mentally and physically demanding. This is the plot of Tiny Furniture. Written and directed by its star, the film is an essay on the life between lives. A piece of paper from an old building does not actually qualify you for anything - especially not happiness. 

College is an atmosphere that teaches and encourages young people to follow their dreams. Sadly, the utility bill does not care about your dreams. When Aura (Dunham) arrives at her mother's home in Tribeca she is not greeted with much grandeur. She has spent the last four years at a college in Ohio, where right before returning home she was dumped by her longtime boyfriend. Aura's mother is a successful and wealthy artist who takes and sells pictures of tiny furniture. Some of these pictures also feature Aura's younger and more competitive sister. Aura's mother and sister are played by Dunham's real life mother and sister. The Tribeca home that they share is also the real home of her family. It is hard to say whether or not they are playing themselves - that would be a question for the director herself - but if they ARE playing characters then I would feel pressured to call them the greatest amateur actors that I have ever seen on screen. 

Aura's home life is thick with frustration and mental inequity. She believes that she deserves to be happy, and that she should have a great job. But she is not interested in putting in the work to achieve either of these things. She accepts a job taking reservations at a restaurant, and then sparks a relationship with one of the kitchen workers. This particular man already has a girlfriend, but is still able to secure a date with Aura (where he stands her up) and the two eventually share an icky and uncomfortable (read: realistic) sexual encounter. Because when you are not receiving any fulfillment in your every day life - there is no better way to ignite feeling than a quick orgasm. Though masturbation would probably be a better option than any of the sex had in this film.

Dunham's direction is just as mundane as the characters in her screenplay. The camera is almost always just sitting in a singular shot as if every detail needs to be noticed. The long white cabinets in her home are displayed as if they are artwork in their own right. The set offers nothing much to the film besides an arena for the action to take place - which I believe matches the tone of the film due to the fact that none of the characters have any chemistry either. Both of these sensations I credit to a screenplay that does not need simple tricks, and makes every attempt to stay away from cheesy and to embrace what is real. In the Criterion special features, Lena Dunham claims that she made Tiny Furniture on a budget of just $65,000. She used her real family, home, and friends for her directorial debut - and I would say that they made a movie that is without a doubt something to cherish. I have never seen a movie that embodies the "quarter-life crisis" with such realistic pessimism and simplicity. It is the American Beauty for 20-somethings. The difference? I actually liked Tiny Furniture.  

Tiny Furniture: A


Friday, June 27, 2014

Beverly Hills Cop (Brest.1984)

"A heh-heh-heh-heh....."

I am only 24 years old. I just thought that I would start this write-up by immediately letting you know that I have never lived in a time when Eddie Murphy was considered funny. Most of his recent movies (excluding his Oscar nominated work in Dreamgirls) have not only been major box office bombs, but also a dart board for critics of all mediums. But I am an open minded guy, and I always enjoy watching old clips of Murphy on Saturday Night Live! (KILL MY LANDLORD! KILL MY LANDLORD!) and his hilarious stand-up special, Delirious. So maybe, just maybe, Beverly Hills Cop could live up to the hype. Though I would say that it is a fine movie, I can also confidently say that the hype is just that - hyperbole.

Murphy plays a renegade cop from Detroit who is seen in the opening moments taking on an unsanctioned sting operation. Things escalate quickly as the police arrive, effectively blowing the operation, and causing a major car chase. I have no problem with car chases, but if a movie has to start with an elongated chase scene it is almost always a bad sign for the continuation of character development. Beverly Hills Cop is no exception to that rule. The rest of the action in the film rolls downhill with very little regard for originality or development. An old friend meets Axel Foley (Murphy) in Detroit, but is mysteriously murdered before the two of them can really catch up. This sparks a cross-country drive to Beverly Hills where Foley is determined to solve the case.

High-action comedies are very common now, and that may be what cements the film's reputation as ahead of its time. Though I understand that argument, I was constantly confused over whether I was watching an action movie or a comedy. Car chases, machine gun shootouts, and curse words happen regularly throughout Beverly Hills Cop, yet Murphy was still given free reign to wax several dated comedy routines. I know that so many people would argue that the movie is "super-quotable", but I would hazard to guess that those people where teenagers or close to it when this film originally hit theatres. Murphy's execution in the film is perfectly mediocre, but nothing he says matches the pacing of the film itself, nor does any of it stand the test of time. The "are you racist?!" scene at the hotel front desk is drenched in cliche, and the "I have herpes simplex 10" bit is funny only if it serves as some kind of nostalgia for the viewer. For me, it did not really hit any buttons.

Don't get the wrong idea. I'm not saying that the movie is bad. I just think it is dated. This has been a common problem for me when it comes to cinema of the 1980s. The decade is probably known for being America's weakest in terms of film - which is most likely why mediocre films like Beverly Hills Cop shine through as classics from that period. There is nothing wrong with having some quick, poppy laughs, but when those laughs are spread thin and combined with a lack of structure and development - that is when you lose my interest.

Eddie Murphy fails to come off as likeable as the street-wise cop from Detroit. He is more obnoxious than determined, and his emotional sequences are either over too quickly or completely unbelievable. His style combined with the famously catchy score creates a sort of undeserved slickness or edginess to that the action sadly does not deserve. There are undoubtedly good elements working in the film's favor, but no idea is capitalized on or used to full potential. Instead, Murphy and director Martin Brest revert back to action sequences and dull, off-color humor.

This is just another example of a movie that (in my opinion) was not interested in standing the test of time. Eddie Murphy needed a vehicle, and Paramount Pictures wanted a hit. Both of those things became reality, while Daniel Petrie Jr. and Danilo Bach were even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Though I believe that the screenplay awards are usually the most fair, I have a hard time imagining a world where this type of humor and frantic action would be considered original. Sometimes it seems like the Oscars obligatorily nominate the big hit comedy every year regardless of merit (Bridesmaids comes to mind). It surprises me that writers were even able to spread this material out for two more sequels. Again, I'm not really saying that the film was bad. Two words: thin and dated.

Beverly Hills Cop: C

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Manhattan (Allen. 1979)

"Six months isn't so long. Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people..."

Woody Allen has always been polarizing. His name has resurfaced in the news due to new allegations from Dylan Farrow accusing him of molesting her when she was a child. Are these accusations true? I do not know. They could be. They might not be. I honestly do not want to focus on that right now, but I know that I also need to at least address it before I continue writing about the 1979 classic, Manhattan.

A lot of times artists are bad people. Does that make their art less significant? That's another question that I cannot answer. Should a viewer have an overwhelming feeling of guilt when they admit to enjoying a film by Woody Allen? I do my best to stay out of that mental trap. Don't get the wrong idea, I obviously think that if these allegations against Mr. Allen end up being proven true, then he is a monster. But nobody knows the truth other than Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen. Honestly, I have trouble trusting either of them.

Now that you are educated on my "wait for the facts" approach on judging others, we can talk about Manhattan. Like with many of his movies, Woody Allan is the writer, director and star. He plays the ridiculously self-centered and perverted Isaac. It is hinted that Isaac could be an intellectual, but he is not willing to put in the work that comes with that distinction. He used to be married to Jill (Meryl Streep) before she left him for another woman and to write a tell-all book about their marriage and love life. In all of his glory, he is now in a relationship with a high school girl named Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) who claims to be in love with him. Isaac believes that he is just a blip on her dating radar and that someday they will separate allowing him to become just another one of her memories.

Mariel Hemingway is perfect in this role. Her acting is so raw and unpolished that she outlines the truth and innocence in all of her lines. Tracy's character is living in a typical romantic comedy while Isaac and the motley group of supporting characters are inhabiting a story that is more about loss. A married couple is forced to deal with their adulterous ways, and Isaac falls in love with (leaving Tracy in the process) a bohemian played by Diane Keaton.

Keaton's character is simply the worst - though I would bet that is most likely the point. Her name is Mary and she is smarter than you, or at least she believes that she deserves that much credit. In reality, much like Isaac, Mary is using her ability to wax intellectualism as a defense against her insecurities. She is in love with a married man, and her shame is outweighed only by her immediate need for positive male attention. Mary has been criticized for being too similar to Keaton's title character in the Best Picture winning Annie Hall, but I have never been able to make the connection. Both characters are "bohemian" and they both battle insecurity, but those traits are not rare to any character created by a king of neurotic storytelling like Allen. 

It is clear that the screenplay demands heavy focus on dialogue, but I think the excellent cinematography is something that is often forgotten about Manhattan. Here we have easily one of the finest cinematic paintings ever made. The black and white cinematography by Gordon Willis illuminates New York City in a way that is much more romantic than the many other late 70s New York flicks. The lighting may be some of the most famous in movie history. Several subtle moments are made more intimate with a simple sliver of light shining from the corner. Dark shadows are used to illustrate moments of conflict or loss. In one particular scene we hear Isaac and Tracy having an innocent conversation, but rather than focus the camera on the characters, Willis uses the camera's frame to show us the lonely landscape of Isaac's apartment. Tracy is bringing excitement and life into the otherwise shallow home of a very selfish and immature older man, and the artwork itself is all the audience needs to see that sensation in real time. Though there is a decent amount of dialogue in the movie, it can be argued that the camera singularly catches the most important moments.

Again, I am not forgiving Woody Allen for the things he may have done in his life. I think it goes without saying that he is a strange cat - and maybe even a monster. But that does not make Manhattan any less of an elite movie. The score is fantastic (and features the transcendent "Rhapsody in Blue" by George Gershwin), the acting is dry and natural, and the artistry in on par with the greatest of all time. Do not watch the film with a love story in mind - I believe that will cause you to miss the point. Watch this classic with an open mind toward fading glory days and inevitable loss. Like him or hate him, Woody Allen makes a helluva movie.

Manhattan: A

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Breathless (Godard. 1960)

"I don't know if I'm unhappy because I'm not free, or if I'm not free because I'm unhappy..."

I have to admit that after watching the weaker A Woman is a Woman followed by the detached Film Socialisme, I was weary about following through with my quest to knock out the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Then I watched Breathless. Here is a film with so much sleaze, style and wit that it can play somewhat as a comedy, but it also possesses a strong, crime-movie plot with sprinkled elements of drama and noir. In a time where French New Wave cinema was in infancy, Godard put together a sort of blueprint that inspired filmmakers from Quentin Tarantino to D. A. Pennebaker .

So what is French New Wave? In a time where established directors where primarily making Hollywood-esque movies in France a group of directors (many of whom started as critics with Cahiers du cinema) decided that they wanted to challenge the norm. Rather than accepting the traditional rules of film, these radical minds used contemporary issues in their plots, shot scenes on location using only the minimum equipment necessary and experimented heavily with film editing. The movies made by New Wavers very rarely had a clear cut antagonist or protagonist. Rather, directorial personality was given more attention. They pioneered the idea that directors should be considered the "authors" of the movies they are making. It is arguably the beginning stages of modern film as we now know it. 

And that is why Breathless left me...well...breathless. Audiences in 1960 would have only had access to a few films like this one at that time (most notably Truffaut's The 400 Blows). Because we are privileged enough to live in a time where a lot of the New Wave ideas are regularly used, many of the groundbreaking aspects of the film should be lost on modern day audiences. But there is something delightfully youthful about Breathless that keeps it, and the techniques used to make it, very fresh. It has been said that "jump-cut" editing was the most important technique to be introduced in film since the 1942 release of Citizen Kane, and that can be seen in abundance throughout this film.

The performances in Breathless were and remain revolutionary in their own right.
Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Michel - a killer who hides his obvious fears behind countless cigarettes and an awful fedora. He idolizes Humphrey Bogart and is constantly overcompensating in his attempts to come off as suave. The daintily feminine Jean Seberg gives us an interesting character in Patricia. Her entire ideology screams that she was a screenplay creation of Truffaut. She believes that she is pregnant with Michel's baby, but that never really develops into a point of interest. The main couple seem to care only for themselves, and in some stretches, each other. They perpetuate the head-strong pacing of the story by not giving most of the film’s happenings any second thoughts. Things happen…and then they are over. Even the climax of the film does not come from an honest place as Patricia never really does the right thing, but rather she does what she believes is best for her.

My favorite part of New Wave is easily the in-jokes and cinephilic references to past films. Characters throughout the film make references to an old friend named Bob the Gambler (a not so subtle reference to Bob le Flambeur) and later in the film Patricia interviews a writer who is played by Jean-Pierre Melville (the man who directed Bob le Flambeur). This is just one of the many small, but funny moments installed into the dialogue and action by Godard.

Do the heroes in movies need to be easy to identify? Do movies need heroes at all? Godard uses his platform to ask those questions. No person in Breathless ever seems apologetic for their actions, nor does the audience absolve any character by the time the credits roll. Even watching the movie over 50 years after it was initially released, Breathless makes it easy for the audience to follow a quick plot – all the while getting caught up in the ooh’s and ah’s of French New Wave.

Breathless: A



Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jesus Christ Superstar (Jewison. 1973)

"You have set them all on fire. They think they've found the new Messiah. And they'll hurt you when they find they're wrong...."

Norman Jewison may be one of the most talented movie industry men to have never won a coveted Oscar. He's worked with amazing actors like Denzel Washington, Danny Aiello, Nicolas Cage and even Sydney Poitier. When you browse through his filmography you will find films of many different genres that were shot in a various number of styles, yet I almost guarantee that you'd be surprised to see his name attached to a project as ambitious as 1973's Jesus Christ Superstar.

The movie is a new-age telling of possibly the oldest story that we all know - the life of Christ, but the approach is far from conventional. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber joined forces in the late 1960s and put together a concept album that was bound to be controversial. The music in this "rock opera" follows the story of Jesus and the Disciples (more so only Judas) as they arrive in Jerusalem with everything playing out from palms to the Crucifixion. Of course, subject matter of this magnitude was bound to eventually make it's way to the Broadway stage and inevitably into movie form. The project fell into Jewison's hands when one of the actors in The Fiddler on the Roof [Barry Dennen - who also plays Pontius Pilot in JCS] suggested during filming that he take a listen to the aforementioned album. The rest is movie history.

The movie itself is actually pretty darn impressive - especially when you think about all of the work the crew was undoubtedly put through during production. Jesus Christ Superstar was filmed on location in Israel which gave the crew the opportunity to film gorgeous long-shots of a few of the oldest landmarks in world history. The heat alone must have been hard to bear, but still every shot in the film glimmers as if the deserts of Israel were not totally barren. Jewison's direction seems to have allowed the cast (many of which were from the original stage production) to have fun and be light with the subject matter; perhaps this is what endorsed the film's contradictory feel. Jewison also spearheaded the idea of using several intentional anachronisms - which for some unknown (and uncommon) reason make the subject matter seem more meaningful. I've been told before that the only way to understand the arts and imagery of the early 1970s is to have lived through it.

Ted Neeley give us a likable Jesus Christ, but also one that feels more human than almost any other seen on film. As it gets closer and closer to the finale we see Jesus' confidence starting to erode. Jesus starts to get nervous and afraid of his growing celebrity, but his weariness is only noticed by Judas (Carl Anderson). Many people did not like how sympathetic the film made Judas seem - his betrayal was presented as more of a favor to the Savior than a traditional betrayal. This unrest is fair, but the film never promised to be an exact interpretation of the Gospel. It is more concerned with the idea of Jesus Christ of Nazareth being the first ever worldly superstar and how his celebrity eventually gets out of hand.

Of course, like with any religious movie, that was not the only controversy. Many wondered why Judas was the only African-American, and in the time of radical civil right debates it makes sense that people would wonder about the casting. Those concerns, at least for me, are quelled by Anderson's brilliant performance and hyper-powerful tenor vocals. I am sure that ANY musical theatre lover would be quick to inform you of just how difficult the music in this production is to conquer, yet Anderson never flinches.

All entertainment is allowed a certain amount of creative license and though we all know (or should know) that the Jews are not really responsible for Jesus' death, I also have no problem with the movie going that direction. Remember, some people don't even believe the story is let's not waste time worrying about all the particulars. Jesus Christ Superstar, if nothing else, is an opportunity for pure escapism. Even the most tranquil musical numbers have a driving force behind them. None of the numbers ever seem too choreographed, but rather the camera is simply intruding into the Savior of Mankind's most personal moments....set to music...

Jesus Christ Superstar: B+