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Film Appreciation

A personal journey through the world of cinema

Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me

Posted by on Jun 13, 2015 in Film Appreciation | 0 comments

There are movies that premiere at a certain age in your life that seem to snag you at just the right moment. These movies seemed to be made for you and you were ready for these movies. There are certain films that I have a deep affection for that, were they to come out tomorrow, I probably wouldn’t enjoy as much. “Crude” comedies that came out the nineties tend to fall into this category. They were racy at the time I saw them and they’ve planted the seed for my sense of humor now, but if I were an adult in the 90s, I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed them that much. The Ace Ventura films fall into this group, as do some of Chris Farley’s early films. Adam Sandler’s early films, like Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore fall into this group, and I think my admiration and feeling of endearment towards Sandler as an actor stems primarily from a sense of nostalgia for my childhood Children’s movies usually fall into this group, too. The Mighty Ducks movies and The Sandlot are films that I would certainly consider classics, but I recognize that I probably wouldn’t go see them in the theater if they came out today. But I probably wouldn’t go see any feel-good sports film about a team of underdogs, or a film about a lost trio of housepets trying to get home (Homeward Bound) or a slapstick comedy about a child left home alone who is terrorized by two bandits (Home Alone). When you are a kid, you are ripe for that type of story. Nowadays, most of the films I see are made for adults and are about adults, and I probably won’t regularly see films about kids until (if/when) I have children of my own. To me, this demonstrates a difficult task filmmakers face: how do you make a mature, realistic film about children that appeals to adults? Certainly, some of the greats have done it well: Rossellini with Germania Anno Zero (Rome, Open City) and Truffaut with The 400 Blows, and recently The Boy with the Bicycle by the Dardenne Brothers. These are all exceptional films, of course, but in my opinion they serve more to use the case of children to indict adults and their immature and selfish behavior. It’s rare to find a film that shows what it’s like to be a kid in a way that adults can appreciate, a film that celebrates childhood and demonstrates what it was like to be a kid. Stand by Me, the 1986 film by Rob Reiner, stands out for me in that regard. I recently rewatched the film, which is based on a Stephen King novella called “The Body.” Set in 1959, the film focuses on the friendship between four twelve-year boys who go on an overnight hike to view the corpse of a missing child. Even though Stand by Me came out the year before I was born and is about children, it wasn’t a film I watched or admired as a child, despite seeing it on TV several times. I really didn’t get it. It was too slow to be a kid’s movie. I didn’t really see it until age 16 when I read the “The Body” in a high school English...

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David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows

Posted by on Apr 11, 2015 in Film Appreciation | 0 comments

Last week I finally had the chance to view highly praised film It Follows, a supernatural horror story from writer/director David Robert Mitchell. I’ve written before about my admiration for the horror genre and my distaste for most horror films that have come out over the last few decades. It Follows is a welcome deviation from the current onslaught of torture-filled films loaded with cheap and predictable tricks (like the dreaded “pop out”.) While the material of Mitchell’s film may fall within the horror genre, certainly the execution goes beyond the conventions of the horror film, at times exploiting those very conventions, and at other times paying homage to some classics (particularly John Carpenter’s Halloween). The plot involves a supernatural curse of which one can only rid themselves by passing it to someone else—how they pass it on, I won’t divulge. The film’s protagonist is Jay, a young college student and the latest prey of whatever “it” is that “follows.” Jay is stalked by an ever-changing entity (always resembling a human but never the same human) that only she can see. If she lets it catch her, it will kill her. Fortunately and conveniently for spookiness effect, it never runs as a rule. Jay’s options are a) to always outrun it or b) pass it to someone else. No origin or reason for the curse is ever explained, but that doesn’t seem to be of much concern to David Robert Mitchell. I read that the idea for the film came from dreams he had as a child in which he was being stalked by unknown pursuers. Certainly the film’s ambiguous setting reinforces the dreamlike, or nightmarish, quality of the story. Shot in Detroit, Michigan, the cinematography manages to achieve an eerie, surreal atmosphere while maintaining some semblance of a recognizable reality. That reality is at times anachronistic. It’s a film where cell phones exist, but are rarely used. Where characters watch black and white horror films on 1970s-style television sets. We don’t really know when this taking place, or where. It’s a world very much like our own but just slightly different. At times I expected Rod Serling to make an appearence and explain that Jay was being followed into the far reaches…of the Twilight Zone. To further increase the surreal nature of the story, parental and authority figures are noticeably absent in the film. Jay’s mother is spotted in one scene but her lack of interaction with her daughters actually draws more attention to her. After that scene, she is never seen again, even after her daughter is drugged in one scene, hospitalized in another, or when their neighbor is murdered. In an early scene, a cop questions Jay about a traumatic incident. After that, we don’t encounter any more cops, even as Jay and her friends conduct their own investigation. If Mitchell wanted to truly embrace this universe where his victims are left entirely to fend for himself, he might’ve left out these authority figures entirely. Many comparisons have been made between It Follows and John Carpenter’s Halloween, from the mid-west suburban setting, to the cinemagraphic techniques reminiscent of the New Hollywood era. Mitchell does a fine job of paying homage to the horror genre without spoofing it in the way that films like Scream have. The...

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Objective camera in Wild Tales

Posted by on Mar 26, 2015 in Film Appreciation | 0 comments

I visited the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s cinema the other night, where for the past two weeks, they’ve been screening Damian Szifrón’s Best Foreign Langugage nominee Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales). A Spanish-Argentine co-production, this anthology series explores the theme of revenge through six unrelated stories set in different parts of Argentina. The film is clever and often hilarious (I screened it late on a Monday night in a theater with maybe 10 people, but the laughter from the small audience was uproarious.) It is also disturbingly and unapologetically violent, but the blend of humor and violence never seems distasteful. Like the films of the Coen Brothers or Paul Thomas Anderson, violence in Wild Tales is often presented on a equal playing field as the rest of the action. As the title implies, Szifrón’s film demonstrates the wild size of human behavior, as if it were the subject of scientific study. The film’s title sequence is comprised of National Geographic-like photographs of feral animals of all sizes; Szifrón is letting the audience know: what we are about to see doesn’t take place in “society”; we’re in the wild. Szifrón is very concerned with reinforcing this idea. He often employs a technique in which the camera is attached to an inanimate object: stuck to a door that a character swings open or from the inside of a explosive device, to name a few examples. Szifrón uses this effect to imply a totally objective camera (quite literally from an object’s point of view). I am usually skeptical of camera techniques that draw attention to the presence of a camera, particularly when they seem to be solely for style purposes and don’t serve the story. In the instances where Szifrón used this technique, I was certainly reminded of the camera’s presence, however, I never found the technique overused or gratuitous, and in fact, felt it effectively re-established on several occasions the film’s theme of “objective” scientific study. Argentina has always had an impressive cinema industry, and Wild Tales demonstrates the type quality films coming out of that country. I look forward to seeing more work from Szifrón in the...

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The Reinvention of Sid: Creativity and Villainy in Disney’s Toy Story

Posted by on Mar 17, 2015 in Film Appreciation | 0 comments

This piece was originally written for a college English course. I recently rediscovered the article and reedited it for publication here. I always thought Disney did a good job of creating truly repulsive villains who in the end deserved their comeuppance. When Whoopi Goldberg and those other talking hyenas chewed apart Scar at the end of The Lion King, I had no problem watching him get torn to pieces. It was cathartic. Scar killed his own brother then blamed it on his nephew. That’s really evil. Jafar, in Aladdin, was a greedy psychopath hell-bent on destroying anything around him to get what he wanted. He deserved getting stuck inside that genie bottle. Cruela Deville? Pure evil; the woman tried to murder 101 Dalmatians for the sake of a coat. A coat! These are some pretty heinous villains we’re dealing with here. But in 1995 Disney released Toy Story, a film whose “villain,” Sid, really wasn’t a villain at all. The real villain in Toy Story is Woody’s inability to cope with change. Once Andy’s favorite toy, Woody, a cowboy action figure, finds his stature jeopardized by the appearance of Buzz Lightyear, an astronaut who refers to himself as an “action figure,” never as a toy. Toy Story serves as an apt metaphor for the death of the western and the advent of the technological age. But Disney’s young audience needs a more obvious conflict, something more tangible. Enter Sid, Andy’s neighbor who spends his time blowing up or dismembering toys. Sid is your typical mid-90s problem child: slightly mean to his little sister and constantly donning a a black t-shirt bearing a skull. When Woody and Buzz accidentally fall into Sid’s possession, they put aside their differences in order to defeat the evil “villain” and get back to Andy. Along with Sid’s mutant toys, Buzz and Woody put together a plan to frighten Sid out of ever going near a toy again. The problem is that Sid isn’t really a villain. Because the film is told from the point of view of talking toys, we as an audience view Sid as a diabolical sadist. But let’s look at this from Sid’s point of view. Does he know that after Geppetto got Pinocchio to talk, every other toy apparently decided to follow suit? Does Sid know that toys have emotions? No. Nobody does! Not even Andy. For whatever reason, these toys find it appropriate to keep their ability to communicate verbally and formulate rational thoughts a secret. They choose to allow the human race to remain ignorant of their ability. Sid performs his tortuous acts of violence against the toys not out of malice or evil, but because he is ignorant to the fact that they have a consciousness, an ignorance perpetrated by the toys themselves. He didn’t even steal Andy’s toys! And as far as Sid’s concerned, he obtained those toys in an entirely legal fashion, believing Woody and Buzz to be apart of the grab machine he paid to use. And as for Sid mistreating his sister, well, that strikes me as normal big brother behavior. I’ll even venture to say that what Sid does with the toys demonstrates acts of creative genius. Post-modern critiques of consumerism, perhaps. After all, what creativity does Andy exhibit? He receives the...

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“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” in Shall We Dance

Posted by on Mar 6, 2015 in Film Appreciation | 0 comments

TCM recently aired the 1937 Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers classic Shall We Dance, a film notable for its collaboration with the Gershwin brothers. This may be my favorite of the Astaire-Rogers films that I have seen. While “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” may be one of the more recognizable tunes from the film, the musical also features the bittersweet standard “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” Fred Astaire serenades Ginger Rogers while abroad a foggy ferry ride from New Jersey to Manhattan, as they both realize their romance will have to come to an end when they reach shore. While many of Astaire and Rogers’ more famous musical sequences feature elaborate dance numbers on extravagant sets, this one stands out for its simplicity. There are only three shots (a couple of medium shots and a close up); the rest is all in the lyrics and the acting. While Fred is the one doing the singing, Ginger really steals your attention here solely through her facial expressions. Her subtle performance demonstrates her talents as an actor. Her mood shifts from amusement at the song to sadness when she realizes the implications of what Fred is saying. Notice how she turns from Fred as the song goes on and her slight change in expression as she reacts to each verse (how she blushes at “the way your smile just beams”, then turns to a frown when Fred sings “the way you sing off key.”) Finally, her teary-eyed close up reveals the pain behind the song. This YouTube video also includes a dance number the two performed in 1949 to the same song, but I don’t think it captures the sentiment behind Ira Gershwin’s...

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5 Movies About Movies

Posted by on Feb 23, 2015 in Film Appreciation | 2 comments

As much as I love talking about movies, I love learning about how movies are made. I love the story of film and the stories behind the films. It’s appropriate, then, that some of my favorite movies are movies about the world of cinema, about our love of cinema, and about the people who make the movies. Like novelists who feature writer-protagonists, filmmakers who have made pictures about films are sticking to a subject they know intimately, and I think this makes for an honest, insightful story. It’s probably why there are so many great films out of there about cinema. I’ve chosen five, made by some of the industry’s greatest directors, as the best films about films, and all of which explore a different aspect of movies. The list is in no particular order. 1) La Nuit Americaine (1973) Francois Truffaut’s masterpiece explores the creative, commercial, and personal side of filmmaking, with Truffaut himself starring as Ferrand, a director attempting to complete a film amidst financial troubles, technical issues, and the cast and crew’s personal woes. With such a collaborative effort like a film, many factors can hold up and effect a production: a malfunction at the film lab that destroys a day’s work, an alcoholic has-been actor puts production a day behind schedule, troubled romance arises between actors and crew members. Truffaut takes you through small details that a director must confront, such as selecting the color of a background car to larger issues like dealing with the complications of a pregnant leading lady. Indeed, through Ferrand, Truffaut seems to be questioning the absolute possibility of the auteur theory that he championed. Early on in the picture, Ferrand narrates: “Shooting a film is like a stagecoach ride in the Old West. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip, but pretty soon, you just hope you’ll reach your destination.” Ferrand highlights the difficulty of a film ever truly matching what a director had envisioned from the beginning; because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking, where human interaction is key and human error is inevitable, the final product is full of compromise. 2) Sunset Boulevard (1950) Billy Wilder’s wicked and witty indictment of classic Hollywood. The story pairs a faded and forgotten silent film star (Gloria Swanson) with a down-and-out unsuccessful screenwriter (William Holden). Filmmaking isn’t really explored here, instead, Sunset Boulevard explores the lives of those living outside the Hollywood spotlight, and in doing so Wilder and Charles Brackett’s screenplay exposes the cruelty and vanity behind the glamour of Hollywood. Regarded as one of the greatest films in American cinema, you don’t have to be a film-lover to enjoy this one; Sunset Boulevard is part noir, part comedy; a tragedy narrated with a reserved irony that softens the impact of violence, but full of enough bizarre and disturbing sequences to leave you unsettled, even 65 years after its release. 3) Ed Wood (1994) Tim Burton’s best film happens to be one of the few he’s directed that deal with real people in real situations, (unusual territory for the director of films like Beetlejuice, Alice in Wonderland, and Batman). The movie stars Johnny Depp as the real-life Ed Wood, a wannabe film director struggling to make it in 1950’s Hollywood. Lacking any marketable talent, but equipped...

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Rowland K Lee’s I am Suzanne!

Posted by on Feb 1, 2015 in Film Appreciation | 0 comments

This week the Museum of the Modern Art screened I am Suzanne!, a 1934 film by Rowland K Lee about Suzanne (Lillian Harvey), a rising dance star in the Parisian musical theater scene. Suzanne is stuck between two men that care more about controlling her than allowing her personal freedom: her manager, Baron, and Tony, a puppeteer from a fledging theater. Baron sets out to make Suzanne the greatest dancer in the world for his own financial gain, filling the seats every night at their popular theater. After seeing one of her performances, Tony tries to meet Suzanne in her dressing room in order to sketch her likeness for a puppet, but Baron refuses to let him in, saying “I am Suzanne.” When Suzanne injures herself during a particularly dangerous dance number, Baron drops her and selects a new dancer to mold. Tony, then, nurses Suzanne back to health and trains her in puppetry. When Baron attempts to take Suzanne back, Tony spits Baron’s words back in his face, echoing, again, the film’s title: I am Suzanne! The real Suzanne has yet to make that declaration herself, which becomes her ultimate struggle throughout the film. It soon becomes clear that Tony is more in love with the idealized marionette version of Suzanne that he crafts than with the human herself. Hitchcock might’ve liked the film and one could imagine that, if he had seen it, he might’ve drawn some inspiration for Vertigo from it. Despite Suzanne’s best efforts to be recognized for herself, she is often rendered voiceless and manipulated, a puppet. Wooden-puppets and human-puppets abound in the film. Rowland K Lee sets up the theme early in a not-particularly graceful dance sequence in which Suzanne is tossed and thrown around stage by male dancers, quite literally manipulated like a puppet. The dance number is later mimicked entirely in Tony’s marionette theater, with Suzanne pulling the strings. When Suzanne realizes that Tony is not much different than Baron, she rebels against the world of puppets and violently destroys one. In a surreal and terrifying dream sequence, she goes threw “puppet court.” The scene is on YouTube. Enjoy: Suzanne’s refusal to be controlled makes her the “worst enemy” to the puppets, both the wooden ones and the humans who we see in this scene dangling by ropes. I love this scene; it’s comical and nightmarish at the same time and does a great job at highlighting the film’s theme of individual freedom versus control. I am Suzanne! is certainly a one-of-a-kind film that got in some risqué scenes just before the Hays code really took effect in 1934. The film had been lost for quite some time but has been restored and is part of the MoMA’s archive...

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Netflix Pick: Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel

Posted by on Jan 12, 2015 in Film Appreciation | 1 comment

Celebrated as one of most innovative fashion editors of the 20th century, Diana Vreeland had successful runs at both Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and later as a consultant with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland and Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, chronicles the life of the “Empress of Fashion,” following her early years in Paris and New York, her start as a columnist for Bazaar and her mid-century reign as the one of most prominent fashion editors. Born in 1903, Vreeland’s life spanned almost the entire 20th century. Through her tangential or direct association with major events and figures, she’s like a true-life Forrest Gump (minus the naiveté and slow wit). As a child, she witnessed the coronation of George V. She claims to have rode with Buffalo Bill while living in the Rocky Mountains. Charles Lindbergh flied over her home in Brewster, New York on his transatlantic flight. She attended the same event as Adolf Hitler in 1930s Berlin. She discovered Lauren Bacall. She served as a fashion advisor to Jacqueline Kennedy. Some of these events, the documentary goes on to explain, were true; others were embellishments that Vreeland perpetuated. The filmmakers embrace Vreeland’s fictionalized version of herself by incorporating scenes from fictional films like Funny Face and Who Are You Polly Magoo, both featuring characters modeled on Vreeland, into the film. The scenes are cleverly used to illustrate Vreeland’s personality, but it is important to keep in mind that these are film scenes and not documentary footage. I wonder if they were even necessary; I would’ve enjoyed a bit more of the rest of the film’s b-roll, which consisted mainly of Vogue and Bazaar photographs, behind-the-scenes glimpses of the photo shoots, and interviews with Vreeland herself. Told with wit and charm, and with a run time of under 90 minutes, The Eye Has to Travel is light, fast-paced and laudatory documentary; it’s an enjoyable documentary that gives the viewer a sense of the evolution of 20th century fashion. It’s currently available to stream on...

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Carlos Saura’s Flamenco, Flamenco

Posted by on Jan 4, 2015 in Film Appreciation | 0 comments

Before I get to the film review, a word about the venue in which I saw it: Anytime I go to a new city, I like to check out one of the local independent theaters. Santa Fe, New Mexico has a recently restored movie theater, the Jean Cocteau Cinema, named after the renowned French film-maker. The cinema originally opened in 1976 and passed through many owners, before closing its doors in 2010. George RR Martin, the author of the popular A Song of Ice and Fire novels (Game of Thrones to HBO viewers) purchased the cinema and reopened it in 2013. With 132 seats and a small screen, Jean Cocteau Cinema is a quaint theater but with a lot of charm. The cafe area includes work from local artists and a bar, and the concessions are inexpensive. Located not far from the heart of Santa Fe, it’s well worth a visit for fans of cinema stopping by the city for a few days. The night I was in town, the options were either Carlos Saura’s Flamenco, Flamenco or the new James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy The Interview, only in its second day of release and still not being carried by many theaters across the nation. I had already seen The Interview via Amazon Prime, so I went with Flamenco, Flamenco. I thought, “why not?” I had lived in Spain for several years, but never got too invested in the music or dance of Flamenco. Time to learn a little about the artform. The film was billed on the theater’s website as a documentary about the history of Flamenco, featuring interviews and musical performances. It wasn’t. Instead, Flamenco, Flamenco is an hour and a half journey through Flamenco’s many manifestations, told through a series of stand-alone, highly choreographed and stylized performances. When one performance ends, the screen fades to black and immediately fades in to the next performance. Admittedly, I was surprised, and a little frustrated at first when I realized the concept of the film. I hadn’t done my research, and I wasn’t in the mood for what I felt was essentially a series of music videos. But that frustration wore off after a few more songs and I began to really enjoy each performance. I found myself sucked into the film. This wasn’t a concert film; these artists weren’t performing for a live audience, nor were they simply doing their performance in front of a camera. These choreographies were meant to be filmed. Saura staged his film in an abandoned train stain in Sevilla and had his subjects perform in front of a series of life-size paintings. The lighting and camera work were deliberate and wonderfully paired to the rhythm and movement. Like Scorcese’s camera in The Last Waltz, which generally remained on stage with The Band and rarely showed crowd shots, Saura was more interested in establishing an intimacy between the performers and viewer. He captures the eye contact from one piano player to another. A smile of approval from guitarist to his percussionist. The beads of sweat on a dancer’s face. The viewer becomes immersed in the passionate and often intense world of Flamenco. Flamenco, Flamenco explores the art form’s many representations, giving us a taste of instrumental pieces, a cappella pieces, and dance performances. The artists...

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Book Review: Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd

Posted by on Dec 30, 2014 in Film Appreciation | 0 comments

Halfway through A Brief Life: Charlie Chaplin, author Peter Ackroyd quotes British writer Thomas Burke, whom Chaplin met during his first homecoming to London since he had achieved fame in the United States: “‘…he is first and last an actor. He lives only in a role, and without it he is lost. As he cannot find the inner Chaplin, there is nothing for him, at grievous moments, to retire into.'” Ackroyd then adds him own comment: “Millions of words have been written on Chaplin, but perhaps none as pertinent as these.” Burke’s comment becomes the theme, or the hypothesis, that Ackroyd sets out to prove. “A Brief Life: Charlie Chaplin” is an engaging, concise and unsentimental look at the life of the silent film star and innovator of cinema. The narrative follows Charlie Chaplin from his impoverished youth in London slums, through his rise to “the famous man in the world,” his decline in popular esteem and eventual exile in Switzerland, and, finally, his eventual return to the United States and his honorary Oscar. When addressing Chaplin’s personal life, Ackroyd highlights the turmoil and the often cruel nature of Chaplin’s character. He utilizes accounts from Chaplin’s friends, acquaintances, ex-wives and lovers to paint a portrait of a self-absorbed, verbally-abusive, often paranoid man. When discussing his professional life, Ackroyd emphasizes Chaplin’s stubborn and totalitarian approach to directing. When a continuity team tells Chaplin that an electrician accidentally entered a frame, he assures them that viewers will only be focused on him and not notice the blunder. Ackroyd quotes Marlon Brando, who wrote of his experience filming A Countess from Hong Kong with Chaplin: “Chaplin was a fearsomely cruel man…probably the most sadistic man I’d ever met.” And this is Marlon Brando saying that. Ackroyd, however, always ties events in Chaplin’s personal life to his work. His poor upbringing in London, for example, would influence some of his most iconic films, including The Kid; later in life, his exile from America would inspire his box-office flop a A King in New York. Chaplin, as Thomas Burke alluded to, was only comfortable when he was working, and Ackroyd’s assessment is that it was precisely Chaplin’s flaws as a person that made him the genius that he was. The very fact that Chaplin was “flawed and frail and funny” is what informed his art and why people, world-wide, embraced him. Recommendation: A good read, especially for fans of silent film and Chaplin. For those who are fans of Chaplin the man, the self-professed “peace-monger,” Ackroyd’s book is a refreshing look at the dark side of his...

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