Sunday, September 13, 2020

WENDY AND LUCY (Kelly Reichardt, 2008, USA)

Wendy Carroll drifts along a rail thin steel umbilical, barely connected to family and friends, her canine companion Lucy’s unconditional love keeping her from an emotional breakdown. Wendy’s microcosm is representative of those living a fringe existence, her small tragedies ubiquitously expressive concerning the tiniest of lives of our unjust human condition. 

Director Kelly Reichardt utilizes a cinéma vérité approach to reach an ultimately unsatisfying truth (but not unrealistic), bringing her subjects close to the camera while filming on location, forgoing static set-designs and montage which allows the audience direct contact with Wendy. We often "fall through the page" when reading; in Reichardt’s cinema we tumble through the looking glass and into this celluloid world that not only mimics our own…but also becomes it. The minimalistic plot purposely breaks with convention and shows us life with unexpected patterns: Wendy encounters a friendly security guard and gruff mechanic, and finds compassion at the local dog pound. She also meets others like herself who ride the rails, and sees them as human beings to be kept at a distance because she’s content in her isolation, living moment to moment. Reichardt’s observations are non-judgmental. Though Wendy is angry with the local clerk for turning her in, she begins to understand the necessity of which he spoke. 

There is no Deus Ex Machina during her lonely search for Lucy in this strange town. She is lost and afraid of the unknown, which leads her to a bittersweet decision. The clacking rhythm of the train to nowhere is a brittle-steel heartbeat: for love, she sets her companion free and vows to return when things are better. Someday. 

Final Grade: (A)

Friday, September 11, 2020

PLAY TIME (Jaques Tati, 1967, France)

A visual ballet that dances on the edge of modernity’s precipice, trying desperately to evade sharp right angles and invisible barriers cursing a future age of hopeless isolation...but still finding hope in the human condition. Director Jacques Tati has crafted a brilliant life affirming allegory by utilizing his famous character M. Hulot, an elderly gentleman lost amid Paris’ changing landscape, an anachronism who is able to sustain his individuality amidst this cultural revolution.

Tati fills the screen with divine humor and grace, allowing each scene time to grow and build with exacting detail, delivering few obvious punch lines but expecting the viewer to emotionally absorb the images and routine and apply them to their own experiences. Tati doesn’t show the Paris of Antoine Doinel, the dirty streets that linger beyond the tourist’s gaze, but neither does he show the glimmer of his city’s landmarks except as reflections: he shows the city as losing its identity, like the people who inhabit its sterile corridors. Travel posters adorn the glass walls of an office, enticing adventure to other countries, and it’s hilariously the same building in every picture, but with a different child. A plaid bag whimpers like a scared pup in the airport lounge, kept on a leash by its owner. Monsieur Hulot overlooks a maze of office cubicles as he races to meet with a businessman and a high-angle shot shows Hulot lost because the woman in the center is always facing his direction! The businessman frantically races for paperwork while speaking on the phone to his boss who is only a few cubicles away. Hulot also ends up chasing a reflection through a glass panel across the street. Or witness the tourist who keeps trying to photograph the flower-lady (a perfect example of France, she says) and people of every nationality keep wandering into the frame. The ubiquitous black and silver chairs, their wheezing like a creature trying to catch its breath, offers an uncomfortable repose. Our postdated protagonist grudgingly accepts an invitation to visit a friend’s home, but he lives literally in a glass house: one wall is open to the street! The family goes about their business as if this is quite ordinary, while the pedestrians take no notice. Every TV in this complex is also tuned to the same channel.

Tati plays with audience expectations by showing us many different characters that are mistaken for Hulot, and then gradually diminishes his importance to the narrative. Every composition is framed with purpose, and multiple viewings will reward the audience with new and whimsical elements: PLAY TIME is playfully elegant.

Final Grade: (A+)

Monday, August 3, 2020

BOY (Nagisa Oshima, 1969, Japan)



A boy is caught in a precarious nexus between patriarchal authority and maternal inferiority, an abused and nameless child drowning in a sea of domestic un-tranquility. Director Nagisa Oshima’s Stygian dramaturgy masquerades as melodrama but runs deep with polemic, a political and social tragedy where an abandoned family becomes metaphor that juxtaposes Japan’s toxic past and brutal social mores, suffocating the present tense.

Oshima's use of a static camera allows a voyeuristic view into the dysfunction of the microcosm, a prescient cinematic style that predates "reality TV" where the act of filming alters the very subject, a quantum deception that subverts objective and subjective observation. But Oshima shatters the image with an enigmatic soundtrack of playful rhymes and vibrato ghosts, projecting reality but embracing illusion. BOY seems like a familial and humanist drama, rather superficial and mundane linear plot, but contains poisonous subtext in the narrative core: one just has to bite deep enough. Each scene is blocked perfectly though the freedom of movement is fluid and natural, allowing balanced compositions of empty space or oblique angles to contradict or enhance characters and action. The boy is tiny and often lost amid the wide angle shots, insignificant against the monolithic city and its machine heart. Oshima's mise-en-scene is a Revelation, an Armageddon of paternity where a father is dictator not only bringing life but ordering its abortion.

The boy's nuclear family reaches critical mass as the police close in upon their scam, chasing them to the very edge of their world. A series of petty scams, faking accidents then asking for payoff from unsuspecting motorists, becomes a temporary (and lucrative) livelihood. Oshima is not limited to indicting the mother and father, he also depicts the "victims" as fait accompli: they would rather pay off the family then report to police or insurance companies. The few who attempt to follow protocol are bullied with guilt until they comply, but this doesn't lessen their responsibility. The boy and his baby brother are never addressed as people by their parents, never given human nomenclature or identity, so a small child dreams of a galaxy far far away, where his true kin will someday come and take him home. For now, he's trapped in a Pater Ex Machina.

Final Grade: (A)

Saturday, July 25, 2020

THE LOST HONOUR OF KATHARINA BLUM (Volker Schlöndorff & Margarethe von Trotta, 1975, Germany)


Katharina Blum’s one-night stand leads to a life-long fall. Katharina’s humble life is one of work and loneliness: known by her friends as “The Nun”, she is the forlorn mistress of a wealthy businessman, a fact which soon becomes tabloid fodder, food for the imbecilic masses that can digest only the most vapid of prose. Her chance affair with Ludwig revels in some deeper meaning, but he is unknowingly (to her) a wanted terrorist. She decides to remain introspective and distant, revealing only vague information to the police, which fuels the arrogant and unstoppable Yellow Press: like the Hurst newspapers of the past, if the war doesn’t exist…create it.

Director’s Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta adapt the Nobel Prize winning novel by Henrich Böll but fail to create any emotional or situational depth to the characters: the film remains as cold as a newsprint font. The narrative eschews exposition and gives us her haunting looks and chaotic reactions, not allowing the audience to experience Katharina as a complex human being, as she seems to exude some pretextual identity, a conspirator in crime. Her fugitive lover Ludwig remains a mystery, his mischief unexplained except that he is an anarchist and wanted by the police. But is he an assassin, a member of some murderous fringe group, or just a non-conformist whose political views clash with the status quo? This is important to define within context of the film (it’s explicit in the novel) because it’s difficult to empathize with a woman who deliberately hides a killer.

The film portrays the true culprit as the “free press” that slanders Katharina, innuendo and outright lie breaking her sanity more profoundly than any sticks or stones. Authority is also shown as accomplice, guiding the immoral journalist towards his front page story, his smooth talking persona and good looks a mask that hides the vile smirk of superiority. But Katharina finally breaks her silence and agrees to an interview with the leering journalist…and he finally makes his well-deserved deadline.

Final Grade: (B-)

Sunday, July 19, 2020

COME AND SEE (Elem Klimov, 1985, USSR)


COME AND SEE is the most brutal and disturbing war film ever made: we experience Florya’s fiery baptism from boyhood into insanity. Director Elem Klimov shows us the horror of the Great Patriotic War untainted by Western propaganda (or at least its ignorance). 

Klimov films in a tight 4:3 frame and packs every shot with information: we are not spared the bodies, the slaughter, the deep wailing sorrow, and the emotional filth of war. His close-ups into vacant eyes and burned faces croaking reprimands are unsettling. The soundtrack is often an ambiguous thrum, a deep scream through nature; when music is revealed it is often ironic. Florya is a young man who wishes to defend his country from terrorists, these Nazi invaders who are destroying everything in their path. We experience the film entirely from his perspective; we feel what he is unable to put into words. His heartbreaking scream as he tries to shut himself out from the world, hands clawing futilely at his ears, to refuse the knowledge of his family’s gruesome butchery, is utterly compelling and believable. He and another young girl join the survivors of his village who are hiding in a swamp, starving, without hope. 

Klimov gives us pure instinctual survival, he defines the human animal, and Florya stumbles directionless through the film becoming less and less human. He films mostly with a Steadicam with minimal editing giving the film a very realistic rhythm, choreographing complicated sequences with hundreds of people. The final half-hour is almost too much: as the retreating Nazis burn an entire village…and a church full of women and children. Klimov packs us in this tight space with Florya and we smell the stench of fear and gasoline, and the cries echo in our hearts forever. This dichotomy is mercilessly crosscut with laughing and taunting soldiers, who not only feel no remorse but are jubilant and ecstatic, whose joy at this murderous parade is gut wrenching. Florya survives and witnesses the Partisan’s retribution as they execute the Nazis…but they take little happiness from this act. 

Florya never fires his rifle the entire film until the end when he discovers a muddied picture of Hitler. He points the weapon into the camera and shoots, reversing time, the Great Patriotic War rewinding, the Blitzkrieg retreating back into Germany, the Versailles Treaty being unsigned, and back to Hitler’s childhood. He pulls the trigger and each time these images rewind and his face glows with madness. But the final picture of Adolf as a child, cradled lovingly in his mothers arms…Florya can’t kill this image. Unlike the Nazis, he has retained his humanity; he is no child killer. The film ends as the Partisans march into the forest: the Steadicam follows them from the muddy road of fall, through the trees, and suddenly the snow is falling and a new season beckons. A wonderful shot without an edit, as the Russian winter is their final weapon that defeats the monstrous invaders. 

Final Grade: (A+)

Monday, June 29, 2020

SUNRISE (F.W. Murnau, 1927, USA)


A swan song of two humans, a final pronouncement of love: one whose spirit is divided by the aching lure of modernity, and another whose devotion is drowned in the cold depths of despair. Amidst the angry breaking waves and shrouded moonlit rendezvous’, one man almost sacrifices his integrity for a brief respite from patriarchal routine, his thick hands that once tilled the fields of his lovely wife now weapons of her demise until his senses return and they attempt to rediscover the ethereal spark that will once again ignite fiery passion.

F.W. Murnau’s mute homage to human nature is one of cinema’s crowning achievements, both in substance and style. His use of deep focus photography, detailed rear projection, and fantastic tracking shots were years ahead of their time, with modest set designs slightly skewed to impart a distorted perception and busy long shots establishing fragile humanity lost amid the steel and concrete jungle. SUNRISE was the template that imbued future directors with a melodramatic and creative vision, raising popular cinema above puerile standards and into the realm of artistic expression: though not the first to achieve this goal, it certainly was one of the best. George O’Brien’s masculine pathos and Janet Gaynor’s angelic visage haunt the silver screen, reflecting desperation and adoration through the subtly of mirrored eyes while Margaret Livingston’s sultry femme fatale exudes an ominous sexuality. The nameless protagonist, his hunched shoulders revealing his murderous intentions like a monster stalking its prey, rejects temptation at the last possible moment while his frightened wife cowers at the stern of a tiny boat. Together they travel to the big city, the metaphor concerning our humanity reduced to clacking machinery and noxious fumes, the individual lost amid crowded scenarios, but together they find salvation.

Murnau’s sparse use of Title Cards allows the narrative to focus upon the characters and grandiose cinematography, communicating on a basic emotional level, uninterrupted by blank screens and intrusive text. The tempestuous story is also spiked with moments of tenderness and humor, such as the frenetic dance sequence and drunken pig chase to the slippery spaghetti straps barely concealing a woman’s bosom. Murnau’s classic is a shining accomplishment of silent cinema, a creation whose horizon has set the standard for contemporary filmmakers.

Final Grade: (A+)

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

WALLACE & GROMIT: A MATTER OF LOAF AND DEATH (Nick Park, 2008, UK)



A madcap recipe of wondrous adventure whose ingredients include cheese, sweet cakes, infatuation, and murder whilst Wallace proves he may be the master…but Gromit the mastermind! Wallace and Gromit have opened a business called Top Bun, a dough to door delivery service full of timely humor and insane machinations baked with humor and sweetness. But a series of gruesome murders plagues the small town as local bakers are turning up dead: seems to be the work of a cereal killer.

Creator/Director Nick Park has once again introduced us to the heroic exploits of this dynamic duo, but this time casting a darker shadow upon their fate. Park understands cinematic language as he uses intriguing mise-en-scene and Hitchcock-like camera angles to build suspense and anxiety. Wallace falls in love with Piella and is led astray by his heart, like an untethered balloon floating skywards, soon to be dashed upon the hard reality of love. But Gromit discovers her dark secret and must save his master from becoming the last unlucky victim to fulfill her Hellish bakers dozen. The sincere and trusting Wallace and the silent but loyal Gromit are well-rounded individuals, each distinct and lifelike expressing their own unique characteristics. The creative stop-motion animation brings this clay to life, utilizing wonderfully intense close-ups to convey emotion (and devotion) through sublime facial expressions.

Nick Park also delivers the goods with rollicking action as the narrative is insanely propelled towards its doughy and violent conclusion. Pay close attention for homage to Donny Osmond, ALIENS, TOP GUN, GHOST and of course Powell and Pressburger’s epic. Though Wallace ends up safe and sound Gromit becomes a victim himself…of puppy love.

FINAL GRADE: (B+)

Saturday, June 13, 2020

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940, USA)


Alfred chases an elusive ink and paper fantasy, lost amid lofty ideals and imagination which are shrouded by the reality of his working class life. Director Ernst Lubitsch’s gregarious film brings these characters together in a believably adversarial sales environment full of Eros and Thanatos.

Jimmy Stewart suffuses Alfred with just the right amount of lovable despair, his haunting eyes the mirror to a lonely soul, and Margaret Sullivan as Clara is sometimes a spiteful woman but her beautiful visage belies the turmoil within. The supporting cast each fulfill an allotted role to carry the narrative tension and humor, but the acting is so good with taught pacing and scripting that all the pieces fit together creating a satisfying picture. The story reveals the pen-pal faux pas early in the final act and we feel the tension between Alfred who is testing Clara’s emotional depths: a women who is rather vicious in her condemnations of him. Lubitsch’s tender shot of Clara looking through the mail slot for a letter that we know isn’t there, her hopes and desires a vaporous dream, is a perfect reflection of cupid’s Cheshire grin. The film never becomes a humdrum melodrama and surprises with its honesty and pugnacious audacity, as lateral incidents include a cheating spouse, Alfred’s unjust firing, a suicide attempt, a nervous breakdown and a fist-fight between “gentlemen”. Mr. Matuschek’s transformation is personably conceived: from cranky boss to humble man, whose heart melts during the frigid Hungarian winter. Finally, two disparate people reveal themselves truthfully, opening their hearts to one another to become victims of love’s fickle embrace.

FINAL GRADE: (A)

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (Jorge Grau, 1974, Italy)



George is an antiques dealer who discovers a new axiom: those who believe the past is dead and buried are doomed to be devoured by it. Writer/Director Jorge Grau evokes the spirit of both George Romero and Michelangelo Antonioni in this classic horror film, creating drama from the sludge piles and belching factories of RED DESERT, the ultra-cool and suave protagonist whose motorcycle rockets through the arteries of London, a reincarnation of Thomas in BLOW-UP, and the mystery of the rising dead and cultural clash the was so well defined by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

A chance encounter propels George and Edna upon a diabolical journey into the unknown, where they become trapped in a vault of horror. Grau devises a scientific premise for the reanimation of the recently dead as a local farmer is using ultrasonic radiation to destroy the simple nervous systems of insects: it seems to be less toxic than pesticide. But this has an effect on babies who become violent and the electronic impulses of the newly deceased…and the dead began to rise. The use of heart-thumping sound precedes an attack and creates a crescendo of fear, which is utilized to great effect. One chilling scene in particular has our protagonists and a police officer trapped in a basement while the dead begin to push aside their caskets: Tobe Hooper’s homage is evident in the Marsten House basement scenario from SALEM’S LOT. The police investigate these series of murders blaming the deaths on Edna’s drug addled sister and corrupting youth culture represented by George in his leather jacket and shaggy good looks.

As in classic science fiction films, the young hero discovers the source of the apocalypse but his pleas fall upon the deaf ears of his elders, so he must take matters into his own hands. These zombies think and move quickly, the core of some basic reasoning still existent in their gray matter, and the disease can be passed by blood: again we see another influence that haunts Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER. George fights his way through a demented hell to save Edna, a stranger only hours before, and the nihilistic vengeful finale is reflective of the culture and social temperament of its time: the dead shall inherit the Earth.

FINAL GRADE: (B)    

Monday, June 8, 2020

GUN CRAZY (Joseph H. Lewis, 1950, USA)



A gunpowder romance as Annie Starr is the bullet that loads Bart Tare’s pistol, an explosive orgasm of deadly lead that finally breaches his fugitive morality. An exceptional screenplay by Dalton Trumbo blasts the screen with thinly veiled sexual innuendo: Annie’s grip upon the steel erection and Bart’s boyish masturbatory fetish (“shooting my gun just makes me feel good inside”), leads to their descent into self destructive fantasy. 

As a young boy, Bart is arrested for Burglary while attempting to steal a handgun. As he and his friends plead to the Judge about Bart’s moral character, they keenly express that he never intends to injure living things…he just has an obsession with guns. In a flashback, Bart tells of killing a baby chicken with a pellet gun and this begins a path towards enlightenment where he respects all living creatures: this is the beginning of spiritual Ahimsa. He grows into a kind and gentle man, likable and friendly with a boyish smile and charm that is not a ruse. But his mania still exists and becomes fueled by desire for a sharp shooting queen he meets at a circus: a femme fatale who knows how to handle his gun. Soon they are married and on a cross-country crime spree but he refuses to harm anyone, and in one tender scene he overflows with guilt about shooting out the tires of a police car because an officer could have been injured. 

Director Joseph Lewis creates palpable friction as he films a bank robbery entirely from the back of their car: Bart disappears into the building while a cop wanders by and Annie leaps out to distract him. The violent shootout and chase that follows is filmed on crowded streets (not a backlot or set), and the vertiginous perspective is not for those prone to motion sickness, making the audience accomplice to the crime. The cinematography is beautifully rendered in black and white and often tracks and moves with the action as it speeds towards the last fatal shot. Annie murders during their crime spree and relishes in the godlike powers of taking life: while Bart diminishes into emotional obscurity. Finally, trapped in the woods of his hometown, Annie is ready to shoot her way out and escape…but Bart breaks one vow while upholding another: till death to us part. 

Final Grade: (B+)