Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Accomplishment #004: Days of Heaven

Director: Terrence Mallick
Edition: Criterion Director-Approved Special Edition

What immediately stands out about this film is the photography. Philosopher/director Terrence Mallick teamed up with nearly blind cinematographer NĂ©stor Almendros and shot one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. They decided to step away from the trend of the times and did not try to beautify every person and every set with large swaths of defused lighting. They were audacious enough to depend almost entirely on natural light. There are some great stories relating the doubtful and nearly mutiny like reactions of Mallick and Almendros's Hollywood crew. Even when some of the crew where invited to some early viewing of dailies, they still doubted the artistic authenticity of doing something different.

The most noticeable positive result of the natural lighting is of course the plethora of "magic hour" shots that span the duration of the film. The amount of these shots is almost mind blowing. Most major motion pictures include maybe one or two of these "magic hour" shots in their entirety. The difficulty that is encountered attempting to arrange large crews, actors, camera, extras and more into proper location to take advantage of what is really only about 20 minutes of perfect light is massive.

Mallick's free-flowing, naturalistic approach to filmmaking did not require massive setups for these shots. He was completely ok with figures in foreground being underexposed to the point of silhouette. While shooting against a bright sky he did not try to fill in the foreground with large lights he would merely bounce a little fill onto the faces, then allow them to be underexposed while over exposing the background. This created a massive sense of depth in the large open fields of the farm the characters worked on. If he had attempted to evenly expose both fore and background as was typical in many major films of the time he would have severely flattened the images he was creating.

Beyond the photography, the film lends itself to contemplative analysis of its themes of nature, the cyclical nature of life and love. We watch the group (Bill, Abby and Linda) start anew when they escape Chicago and head by train to Texas to become migrant workers. They again start a new life of luxury when Abby marries the farmer. Later, they start anew when they have to go on the run after Bill kills the farmer in self defense. And at the end of the film Abby and Linda are starting new lives on their own after Bill's death.

In addition to the cycles of our characters lives, the cycles of the harvest are also very much a part of this movie. We arrive in Texas as the wheat is at it's pinnacle of growth, ready to be cropped. We then experience the actual harvest, snow, and the wheat's re-growth. Just as drama and pressure is increasingly disrupting the lives of our migrant workers and the farmer, so too is the life of the wheat being threatened by biblical plagues of locusts and fires.

Mallick's contemplative and naturalistic film eschews heavy dialogue in favor of telling the story in pictures. Fortunately, he supplies pictures that are more than worth listening to.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

does this make it official?

Your Movie Buff Quotient: 84%

You are a movie buff of the most obsessive variety. If a movie exists, chances are that you've seen it.

You're an expert on movie facts and trivia. It's hard to stump you with a question about film.

it's that god damned 16% is why I made this blog!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Accomplishment #003: Mean Streets

Director: Martin Scorsese
Edition: Warner Home Video Special Edition

The more I see, the more I love me some Scorsese. Every film of his I see is so methodical, so obviously well planned out. He is a master at creating sequences where every shot just feels right. It's like watching pieces being placed into a puzzle. So he either must storyboard the hell out of his films, with the entire story already planned out in his head... or he gets copious coverage and works only with genious editors (Thelma Schoonmaker anyone?).

The film was made in Little Italy, New York City and is heavily inspired by Scorsese's childhood in the 10 block neighborhood. The story focuses on a group of young, wanna-be gangsters. Charlie (Harvey Keitel) is the nephew of a high ranking mafioso and has a conscious that impedes with his ability to become the hard edged gangster he seems to aspire to be. Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) is a reckless hood who's into everyone in the neighborhood for at least a couple hundred dollars. Then there is Tony (David Proval), the owner of the dive bar where they all hang out. Last, but not least is Michael (Richard Romanus), who may be the most determined to make a name for himself in the world of organized crime, but initially seems to be failing miserably at it.

These are the human characters in the film, but just like in Scorsese's Taxi Driver, there are times when New York City seems just as much a character as any of the people on screen. Scoresese's New York seems to be everything Giuliani wanted to change about New York (and in many ways succeeded). Mean Street's New York is filled with shady dive bars that are constantly illuminated by dark, red lamps and inhabited not by the casual drinker, but the sort that would make it their living, if only someone would support them in such endeavors. This New York is unabashadly anti-gay, pro stripper, and filled to the brim with a bunch of boys wishing to be made men. This New York makes for a hell of a movie.

Now, I usually despise movie reviews that discuss too much plot and give away the movie, so I'll give you a warning now: spoilers below. I'm going to do it though, because there is something about the story and character development that I find unique and fascinating. So, if you've seen the film please read ahead and comment. If you haven't, go see it, then come back and read and then comment!

I believe that this story is not about Charlie and Johnny Boy, but about Michael. If you look at the classical theater definition of the word, protagonist describes a "character undergoing a dramatic change, both of his own character and external circumstances." In my opinion, Michael is the character who undergoes the most change, and Charlie and Johnny Boy are the external circumstances that cause this to happen. At the beginning of the film Michael is a pretty pathetic excuse for a criminal. We meet up with him while he's trying to unload some black market German camera telephoto lenses. What he learns is that what's he's actually invested in is Japanese lense adapters. It is a pretty embarrassing moment. By the end of the film we've seen him change into a not just a cold blooded killer, but someone who's enough power and draw to have someone else pull the trigger for him.

Charlie and Johnny Boy on the other hand remain nearly the same people through the movie. From beginning to end Charlie is hiding his relationship with Teresa and continuously sticking his neck out for Johnny. From beginning to end Johnny is recklessly ignoring the dangers he's creating for himself and those whom he relies on.

Your thoughts?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Accomplishment #002: New York Stories

Directors: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woddy Allen
Edition: Touchstone DVD

Imagine you're making a sandwich. You start with two great pieces of bread, maybe pantofolina (my favorite). Then, between these two slices of sumptuous, crusty bread you place... a big steaming pile of shit. That's what New York Stories is like.

I'd actually seen the first third of this film (Life Lessons, by Scorsese) twice before. It seems to be pretty standard film school viewing; and for good reason: it's great. The characters are fascinating and very complex. In just over thirty minutes Scorsese is able to craft characters with more depth than most you see in a movie running over two hours. It's one of the great things about this shorter format, that you're able to really focus on the meat and bones of the story; cut the fat.
Nick Nolte plays Lionel, a very successful, but creatively frustrated New York artist with a sprawling live/work loft. Sharing his quarters is Paulette (Rosanna Arquette), his live-in assistant and ex-lover. Tensions between the two rise to boiling point as they try and redefine their mentor/student relationship. I love Scorsese's use of the iris wipe (seen as recently recently as The Departed) to reveal Lionel's obessions, ie. his work, Paulette, Paulette's feet. As the two's relationship degrades Lionel becomes more and more unhinged, but at the same time it seems to benefit his work. I really love the ending to this portion of the film. In a very short scene it completely sums up the Lionel character and explains his cyclical nature.

Life Without Zoe by Francis Ford Coppola is terrible and I'm certain there is one reason for this: Sofia Coppola. The daughter of Francis is given a writing credit for this sack of putrid shit and it shows. The short of this story: a spoiled condecending brat who is over the top in love with her father and insulting to her mother runs about with her other spoiled brat girlfriends in the elite society of New York. She ignores her mother's instructions and becomes incredibly excited about the "new boy" at school who happens to be the richest child in the world. Blah blah blah, something about a stolen jewel, who gives a crap? The writing is aweful, the acting is deplorable. It was obviously a sign of the impending doom of Copolla's directing career. After this he made Godfather III and Jack (I'm not mentioning Dracula cause I love it even though Keanu was pretty retched in it).

After the turd burger in the middle comes Woody Allen's Oedipus Wrecks. I've been known to talk some smack about Woody Allen in the past, but I loved this piece. It's the story of a New York lawyer named Sheldon and his overbearing Jewish mother. The mother, played by Mae Questel (voice of Betty Boop and played Aunt Bethany in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation) is pure comedy gold. This film has a really great turn that I don't want to give away. It's a gimmick, for sure, but one of the best I've ever seen.

So who else has seen this flick from '89? What do you think Nick Nolte's character says about artists and where they look for inspiration?

Accomplishment #001: The Element of Crime

Director: Lars Von Trier
Edition: Criterion DVD

The first film for the experiment was certainly a bizarre one. Lars Von Trier's first feature film is a heavily art directed neo-noir that takes place is some odd dystopian future where it is always night and everything is lit by sodium lamps (with the occasional bright green fluorecent thrown in for contrast). Von Trier's use of sodium light gives the entire film a monochromatic sepia tone where white is yellow, blacks are a dark brown and rainy streets seems to run thick with heavy arterial blood.

Here's a brief synopsis (I don't like spoilers so I'll always try my hardest to avoid them):
A cop named Fisher sees a therapist in order to unlock supressed memories from his last case. After the opening scene the entire story plays out as a flashback; occasionally the therapists voice coming through to remind us of this.
Fisher returns to "Europe" to work a murder case earily similiar to a series of murders from years back. On his return he finds his mentor, Osborne has been disgraced and is on the verge of sinility. Fisher decides to embrace the teachings of his aging mentor as layed out in Osborne's book "The Element of Crime", the basics of which call for Fisher to think and act like the killer. As the investigation goes on the lines defining the difference between Fisher and the killer begin to blur.
I have to admit I was pretty exhausted when I viewed the film last night so I feel like I'm going to give this one another go sometime soon. I'm sure I missed a few things. Hell, with how odd this film was if I was 100% alert I would have missed a few things. I'd love to get someone's perspective on some of the abstract imagery and ideas in this film. Why the dead horse and the little horse heads as the killer's signature? What the hell was with the frustrating cup handles that always came off when Fisher was trying to drink something? Why the post dubbing on the dialogue? Was this an intentional effect, or just a neccesity because of the low budget?

A new experiment...

I am an unaccomplished film buff. Oh sure, I went to film school, I have a collection of nearly 400 films (last I counted), and I've seen thousands and thousands of films in my lifetime. I'm nearly certain I've seen more films than anyone I know. Even so, friends and family are constantly able to come up with titles that I haven't seen. And I'm not talking about bizarre and obscure titles from early 70's Yugoslavian cinema either, I'm talking about must see movies. People are continuously pointing out my failure as a film fanatic because I haven't seen The 400 Blows or Eraserhead. My film negligence is expansive.
I am now hellbent on fixing this issue. I've set myself up with a Netflix account and have added a smorgasborg of titles to my queue. My mission is to watch as many of the titles as I can over the next year (there are currently 500 titles, apparently the limit). I will then do a short review of the film here. I hope a few people will engage me in conversation about the titles. I do enjoy talking about a film after I see it as opposed to letting it immediately disappear into the obscurity that is my terrible memory. I'll think of it as my own personal film school 2.0.
Please feel free to recommend films you think I should see. Give it a try. Other people seem to like it when they think of a flick I haven't seen. You can roll your eyes and think to yourself, "He hasn't seen that movie? He's not a real film buff!"
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