Friday, August 25, 2017

JRO's #71: Aguirre: The Wrath of God (Herzog, 1972)

Starring: Klaus Kinski, Ruy Guerra, Helena Rojo
Director: Werner Herzog
Writer: Werner Herzog
Release Date: 29 December 1972 (West Germany)

IMDB Synopsis: In the 16th century, the ruthless and insane Don Lope de Aguirre leads a Spanish expedition in search of El Dorado.


First Time
I'm pretty sure that it was around 1999. I can't remember if I watched this on my own first or as part of the Art & History of Film class that I took. I definitely watched it for the class. I just don't know if I had seen it before then. Houghton College, a small Christian liberal arts school, had a surprisingly great film collection at its library. I watched many, many things for the first time while there. I also watched a ton of X-Files.

Why it's on the List
I'm beginning to doubt my list. I hadn't seen this film since maybe 2007. It held up then. But why haven't I re-watched it since? Why did it take me so long to re-watch this one in the past month or so? I kept putting it off. I didn't want to watch it. Why not? Part of it is that it's a demanding film. It is an immersive film. My viewing habits at home have become poor, fractured. I think that maybe I was afraid to set aside the time to be demanded, to be immersed.

I wrote the above a few weeks ago. Here's some more from today:

I couldn't sleep last night. For some reason, I thought that this was a perfect time to catch up on this 100 project. From 3ish to 5ish, I watched Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God, a movie I've been putting off watching for over a month now.


I think it's leaving the 100.

I no longer love the film. It feels hollow, empty. It doesn't bring me joy any longer, so the mystical little Asian lady who folds her clothes funny and talks to her belongings tells me to tidy up my soul by getting rid of it.

The cinematography remains gorgeous and the blocking is always perfect. Herzog is a minor deity of directors; every Hollywood superhero film director should be forced to watch Herzog's entire filmography before they are allowed to start any work. The use of sound is spot-on. The paving and editing is perfect.

It's the narrative itself that no longer connects to me.

I've been contemplating lately the fact that I am specificially interested in masculinity and male identity in the films I love. Entertainment, which I wrote about on the other blog, is about more than this but definitely not less than this. Breaking Bad, which I have been re-watching sporadically the past few months (I'm currently near the end of Season 4) is about as muscularly masculine as these things get.

Klaus Kinski is magnetic, wonderful to look at, but his Aguirre is one note. The character lusts for fame and power. That's it. Whatever it takes. It becomes Aguirre versus humanity, Aguirre versus nature, Aguirre versus God. But Herzog never gives us an "in" to relate to Aguirre. Aguirre is presented as obviously unhinged, selfish, and blindly self-destructive. His is such a distorted manhood (pretending to godhood) that there is no fall, no struggle, only a steady demonic presence.

I don't know. I'm still grateful to this film for what it taught me about cinema the first time I watched it (and each subsequent re-watch). It was one of the earliest films that taught me patience, that trained me to pay proper attention to rhythm (editing) and the importance of the camera, its movement and meaning. I had been a budding cinephile all of my life. Herzog taught me to reckon with film as an artificial construct, each film the work of a team of skilled artificers. My biggest and most potent early dose of auteur theory was simply being exposed to Herzog.

Additional Notes/Stats

Nothing. Nada. Finito.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

JRO's #72: Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)

Starring: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reineger
Director: George A. Romero
Writer: George A. Romero
Release Date: 1 September 1978 (Torino)
The release date isn't terribly clear considering the multiple cuts of the film. I chose the release date for the first version, since as far I can tell there is no release date info for the Director's Cut (It was cut in '78 for Cannes but wasn't actually publicly screened anywhere). I could probably find if I spent some time digging around, but I don't feel like it.

IMDB Synopsis: Following an ever-growing epidemic of zombies that have risen from the dead, two Philadelphia S.W.A.T. team members, a traffic reporter, and his television executive girlfriend seek refuge in a secluded shopping mall.

Availability: Youtube (

First Time
August 2009 - documented on the old film blog:

Why it's on the List
What can I say? It stuck with me. This is one of a handful of films on the list that I had only seen once.

As of the recent re-watch, I can say that it holds up completely.

Re-watching this, I'm all the more saddened by the recent passing of Romero. He did zombies first and he did them best. There is more real humanity AND devastating social commentary in Dawn's 140 minutes than there is in all seven seasons of Walking Dead to date (to be fair, I've only seen a handful of episodes from the first season). I've only seen Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead. I need to track down and watch Romero's other zombie films.

I'd like to write more (you know, actually about the film itself), but I won't. I'm not feeling it right now. And right now the only thing that I want to write about is the ending, which of course would entail pretty huge spoilers. I won't leave you hanging like a severed limb, though.... The end? I dig it.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • This is one of very few horror films on the list.
  • I don't like the remake.
  • Sorry this post is so lame.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Chris' #72: Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

Starring: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Tova Stewart, Lisa Gay Hamilton
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Release Date: September 30, 2011

IMDB Synopsis: Plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions, a young husband and father questions whether to shelter his family from a coming storm, or from himself.

First Time
All right, the first CR5 Film Club Event to make my list! I believe it was me, Jeff, and John at the Art Mission Theater...right??

Why it's on the List
This was a late addition for me, but I do love the movie and I even own a DVD copy. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it did leave enough of an impression on me to include in my top 100. Jeff Nichols was also a bit of a CR5FC favorite; I believe we were all fans of the guy, and of this film in particular. Midnight Special is probably Nichols' greatest cinematic achievement to date, but I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Take Shelter.

At the surface, there's a lot of simplicity to the story; the plot can be summed up very easily and the setting and characters add a real cracker-barrel vibe. Nichols makes the most of the script, however, adding psychological complexity, thick tension, and horror elements. I would also argue that Nichols gets the most out of his budget as well; there's some impressive CGI in Take Shelter. Two CGI moments that really stick out are the product of Curtis LaForche's (Michael Shannon) dreams: 1) Curtis walks into his living room and suddenly all of the furniture is launched into the air and hangs there, as if gravity is lost. 2) Curtis walks into the street in front of his house and it starts "raining" dead birds. Curtis' dreams are all very intense nightmares, and Nichols does a fantastic job capturing the horror; it'd be interesting to see him in dabble in that genre in the future.

LaForche's nightmares are the result of two very realistic problems, a family history of paranoid schizophrenia and extreme weather. Curtis is also motivated by the desire to protect his family. One way or another, the audience can relate to the character; even if you're a climate change denier who doesn't understand mental disorders, you're still probably someone who wants to protect his/her family. Connecting with Curtis is key because the audience needs to be on his side, despite all of the reckless decisions that he makes. His wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), has been trying for years to schedule cochlear implant surgery for their daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). Luckily the health insurance benefits through Curtis' job allow the LaForche's to make this expensive procedure possible.

There is a lot on the line for Hannah. Samantha explains to her husband that, because Hannah is deaf, she's struggling to connect with the other kids in the neighborhood. With a communication barrier in place, Hannah chooses to isolate herself from her peers. Thanks to his nightmares, Curtis, too, begins to pull away from his friends and family. Red, the LaForche family dog, is given away to Curtis' brother; and after family friend and co-worker, Dewart (Shea Whigham), harms him in a dream, Curtis asks his boss to give him a new partner at work. Samantha is also hurt by her husband's refusal to communicate honestly with her.

The marriage between Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain is very believable. They fight and don't always listen to each other, but they have great chemistry, and when there is love, it's very sweet and genuine. I also appreciate the way Nichols wrote Chastain's character. Oftentimes, men will write wives who don't understand the motivations of their husbands as being very naggy and confrontational. Obviously there is some onus on the audience to realize that, if they were in the wife's position, they would react the same way, at best. Many Breaking Bad fans hate Skylar White, which is unfortunate and easy to do, since they don't get to be in her shoes. Samantha LaForche is a similar character in that she is forced to watch her husband put his life, their child's life, and her own life in uncompromising positions. When Curtis' actions cost him his job and long-term health care benefits, Samantha fights through her anger and frustration and comes up with a level-headed plan for how the family will make ends meet. Chastain is amazing in this film, and I really like her character.

Michael Shannon won many Critics Association awards for this performance, and rightfully so. There are many levels to Curtis, and Shannon breathes a lot of life into the role. There are subtle moments that he plays very well and then bigger, more emotional scenes that he's always been able to master. In terms of the subtle moments, I love when he walks down into the tornado shelter for the first time in the film. Even though the tornado shelter is on the LaForche family's land, he sort of stumbles upon it and walks down into it as if he was unaware of its existence. It's as if the shelter is his own manifestation. I also love the moment when Curtis walks into his counselor's office at a free clinic in town and discovers that his counselor, Kendra (Lisa Gay Hamilton) has moved on to another job at OSU. Curtis' new counselor essentially asks him to start from the beginning. You can really sense the anger, frustration, and betrayal in Curtis' eyes before he decides to get up and leave without saying a word.

Then there are the bigger, more emotional scenes. The Lion's Club dinner is very memorable and authentic--partly because the IMDB trivia reveals that all of extras in the scene has no idea what was about to happen. After Curtis and Dewart are punished for borrowing equipment from work without permission, Dewart confronts his former friend and co-worker and asks the LaForches to leave. The two get caught up in a physical altercation, and after that ends, Curtis begins to get in the faces of some of his neighbors. I have to imagine that some of those extras got goosebumps from Michael Shannon's intensity. This is Curtis at his lowest point in the film, and I pity him every time. I also get emotional every time I see Tova Stewart's face as she becomes afraid of her father's instability; it's heartbreaking.

The tornado shelter sequence at the end of the film is one of the more intense scenes that I've ever witnessed. Watching it in the theater was amazing; it was one of those moments where I took a second to think, "I can feel the silent captivation of everyone around me." I also remember thinking at the time that that sequence could make for a great episode of The Twilight Zone. I honestly wasn't sure what Nichols was going to do this moment--how dark was he going to go with this? At one point, I thought to myself, "Holy shit, is Curtis going to trap his family down there forever?" As Curtis, Samantha, and Hannah stand below the hatch of the shelter, Samantha pleads with her husband to let them out. In that moment, you fear for Sam and Hannah but you also feel bad for Curtis, since he feels so alone in this. Eventually, Curtis extends the key to his wife, but she demands that he open the door himself. "This is what it means to stay with us," she explains. Curtis now has a choice to make--crippling obsession or family.

On a more personal level, I can definitely relate to the struggle that Curtis goes through. Granted, I don't identify with the mental illness aspect to his story, but lately I've been feeling as if I am sabotaging my own relationships thanks to a newfound obsession. We've seen this in many films and TV shows before--the quality that exists in people to create drama when things are going well. Curtis chooses family in the end, and as a family, the LaForche's decide to get him some professional psychiatric treatment.

I have some mixed feelings on the very last scene. I really enjoy the shot of the storm being revealed in the reflection of the beach house windows. I also accept the fact that major storms like the one in the movie will probably be a reality someday, but I'm not sure that Curtis' obsession needed to be validated. At the same time, I like the message of, "We're completely fucked but at least we're together."

Additional Notes/Stats
  • This is it for Jeff Nichols. Midnight Special definitely belongs in my top 200. I like Mud and Shotgun Stories but don't necessarily love them yet.
  • There is one more Michael Shannon movie on my list.
  • This is it for Jessica Chastain. She's one of the best actresses working today, and I enjoy her in everything I've seen her in.
  • This is it for Shea Whigham, and mostly I've just seen him on the small screen. He was very good on Boardwalk Empire and season 3 of Fargo.
  • Phenomenal job by Tova Stewart. This is the only movie credit to her name, and she probably doesn't care about acting, but she has a ton of talent.
On a personal note, as Jeff was in a state of upheaval a month ago, I, too, am about to encounter a big life change. I'm moving to Los Angeles to pursue writing and comedy. I'm sorry to say that we'll soon be running out of opportunities to hang and see movies together. But maybe after I become homeless in LA, I'll have Jeff pick me up and get me back in time so that the four of us can see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle together.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

JRO's #73: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (Jim Jarmusch, 1999)

Starring: Forest Whitaker, Henry Silva, John Tormey
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Writer: Jim Jarmusch
Release Date: 19 May 1999 (Cannes)

IMDB Synopsis: An African American mafia hit man who models himself after the samurai of old finds himself targeted for death by the mob.

Availability: DVD

First Time
2000? I don't think that I saw this in any theater, but maybe I saw it somewhere in Buffalo. Maybe it was a DVD rental. Or maybe I bought the DVD immediately. I know that it's one of the oldest DVDs in my collection (bought my first DVD player in '97!).

Why it's on the List
By 2000, I was a Jarmusch fan. Stranger Than Paradise had been one of my favorite films since '93 or so and I watched Dead Man when it came out on VHS in late '95. I had also spent at least a year in the mid-90s getting high and listening to various Wu-Tang Clan solo projects. What I don't think I had done was seen any of the samurai and hit men movies that Ghost Dog references and builds on. Though maybe I had already seen some Kurosawa. And I had definitely seen enough gangster films to enjoy the gangster/samurai mash-up happening.

Ghost Dog is formally exciting. It is held up by excerpts from Hagakure, channeling an ancient text into a living motion picture representation of a dying code.
It is bad when one thing becomes two. One should not look for anything else in the Way of the Samurai. It is the same for anything else that is called a Way. If one understands things in this manner, he should be able to hear about all Ways and be more and more in accord with his own.
Since I was reading a lot of Ebert in 2000, I'll go ahead and quote him at length here:
It seems strange that a black man would devote his life to doing hired killing for a group of Italian-American gangsters after having met only one of them. But then it's strange, too, that Ghost Dog lives like a medieval Japanese samurai. The whole story is so strange, indeed, that I've read some of the other reviews in disbelief. Are movie critics so hammered by absurd plots that they can't see how truly, profoundly weird "Ghost Dog" is? The reviews treat it matter of factly: Yeah, here's this hit man, he lives like a samurai, he gets his instructions by pigeon, blah . . . blah . . . and then they start talking about the performances and how the director, Jim Jarmusch, is paying homage to Kurosawa and "High Noon." But the man is insane! In a quiet, sweet way, he is totally unhinged and has lost all touch with reality. His profound sadness, which permeates the touching Whitaker performance, comes from his alienation from human society, his loneliness, his attempt to justify inhuman behavior (murder) with a belief system (the samurai code) that has no connection with his life or his world. Despite the years he's spent studying The Way of the Samurai , he doesn't even reflect that since his master doesn't subscribe to it, their relationship is meaningless.
I think that Ebert's reading is mostly right, but wrong exactly in the one specific way that he thinks unlocks the film for him. Ghost Dog is definitely not insane. The world around him has gone insane. He has adopted a Way that gives him purpose in the world.

"Sometimes you have to stick to the Ancient Ways. The Old School Ways."

Besides being a lot of fun in mixing up genres, it's a film about self-discipline and about authority structures. What I wrote about The Sopranos a while back is applicable here. Both gangster films (white or black) and samurai films deal explicitly with morality and rule of law. They are always about how we are governed from within and from without.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • Edelstein: The problem is that Jarmusch panders to his left-wing art-house audience the same way Clint Eastwood panders to his right-wing audience. The African-American hero is meant to be a pure, noble warrior in spite of the fact that he lives by murdering unarmed men. It's easy to overlook that fact, though, since the only men he kills on screen are representatives of the vicious white patriarchy. Ghost Dog is largely a meditation on the death throes of that enfeebled ruling class. The Italian gangsters are either skeletal (Henry Silva, as the boss) or grotesquely obese, and they're broke, too—hounded by creditors and living in houses that carry "For Sale" signs. (The real-estate company is called Alighieri Properties.) Still, there's enough life in their arthritic bones to mow down innocent African-American bird-keepers and female cops and other threats to their dying white-male hold. Jarmusch can't contain his hatred. He throws in a sequence in which Ghost Dog encounters a pair of cretinous hunters toting a dead bear—just so the hero can invoke Native American lore and shoot two white people on principle. At the end, a little African-American girl fingers his big gun and his samurai manual. Am I the only one who finds the substance of this movie repulsive? 

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Chris' #73: The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Matthew McConaughey, Kyle Chandler
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writer: Terence Winter (screenplay), Jordan Belfort (book)
Release Date: December 25, 2013

IMDB Synopsis: Based on the true story of Jordan Belfort, from his rise to a wealthy stock-broker living the high life to his fall involving crime, corruption, and the federal government.

First Time
I remember this vividly because it was one of the worst movie theater experiences I've ever had--though it was much worse for Jeff. Jeff and Brent were up from Philly for Christmas and the three of us went to see this together. It was a sold out, evening show at AMC in Vestal. We purchased our tickets in advance, and because AMC has assigned seating, we thought we'd be okay showing up around the time that the trailers would start. We took our seats in the middle of a row--I was the closest to the middle; there was a dude seated to the left of me, Brent sat to my right, and Jeff sat to right of him. In the time between the trailers ending and the movie starting, several people walked over to Jeff and told him that he was in their seat, so he kept moving to an open one (I believe?). Eventually, all of the seats were full, so Brent got up to get help from an usher.

At this point, we know that the dude to the left of me is in Jeff's seat and Brent directed the usher to that area of the theater. The usher walks over to the dude and asks to see his ticket. Dude pulls out his ticket and shows it to him. The movie has already started, so the only light source in the room came from the project film. The usher literally looked at the ticket for a split second. There was no way in hell that the usher matched the seat number to where the dude was sitting, but he just assumed it correct because he was handed a ticket. Then the usher begins to wander over to the row ahead of us. People are getting annoyed at this point--they're trying to watch a movie and this usher is timidly asking them to check their tickets and make sure they're in the right spot. The usher is ignored by everyone. Instead of persisting and doing his job, the usher just gives up and leaves. Jeff is left without a seat.

Feeling frustrated and pissed, Jeff comes over to us and says that he's going to go to Brandon's and hang out there until the movie is over. It was weird as hell sitting there for the rest of the movie. Brent and I talked about leaving, but because Jeff had someplace to go, we decided to stick it out. After the movie ended, Brent confronted the dude; I don't remember the exchange but I believe he maintained that he was in the right seat. For what it's worth, the manager at AMC was very helpful and issued Jeff a refund.

You'd think that assigned seating would help to avoid issues like these, but I suppose the lesson for moviegoers is to still try and show up early, and the lesson for ushers is actually do their jobs.

Why it's on the List
Moving from an injustice on smaller scale to an injustice on a much larger one, The Wolf of Wall Street presents the life of Wall Street stock-broker and notable douchebag, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). While I do love this film, I need to acknowledge the coked-out elephant in the room. The story is repugnant and vile, and many people (including John) can't enjoy this film on any level. I can see where those people are coming from; there's no defending Jordan's behavior, and given Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter's efforts on this, one could make the case that the film glorifies depravity.

The Wolf of Wall Street is like a Rorschach Test--morally bankrupt scumbags will watch this film and aspire to be next Jordan Belfort; innocuous dumb-dumbs will laugh at the jokes and jerk off to Margot Robbie's scenes, without taking much else away from the experience; others will see a film that is well-acted and adeptly written, shot, and edited.

Not only do I fall into that last camp, but I also appreciate the fact that The Wolf of Wall Street actually causes me to feel angry. Good films elicit strong reactions, whether negative or positive. It's infuriating that Belfort was able to get away with his crimes for as long as he did--though, honestly, I feel his personality is more of an affront than his "penny stock" scheme. I'm just not too beat up over the fact that he made his wealth from scamming other rich assholes.

Regardless of my own moral compass, Belfort's actions were illegal and caught the attention of the FBI, specifically Agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) in the film. I hadn't seen Chandler in anything before this and I never thought much of him as an actor. He completely won me over here; his performance is very understated and brilliant. I love the way Agent Denham toys with Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) during their first meeting on a yacht (which is my favorite scene). As a cocky kid who's gotten away with a lot already, Belfort tries to charm the Feds and thinks that he's successfully manipulating Denham. Chandler is perfect for the role because he has a real "average joe" vibe. Given the way that Chandler plays the scene, it's very understandable that Belfort would be lulled into a false sense of security. Jordan ends up saying too much and Denham seizes that moment to show that he's also capable of being a wolf. I love the turn, as the conversation quickly shifts from congenial to caustic. This was the moment when I knew I loved this movie.

Matthew McConaughey's performance in Dallas Buyers Club beat out DiCaprio's performance in this at the 86th Academy Awards. McConaughey was great in DBC, and I can understand wanting to honor a person like Ron Woodruff over someone like Jordan Belfort, but Leo was robbed. Not only is DiCaprio perfect in this, but I feel it's the best performance he's ever given. Belfort became something of a cult leader at Stratton Oakmont, and given Leo's charisma, it's easy to see why.

One of my favorite examples of Stratton being a cult occurs when Jordan gives "farewell" speech at the firm. About a minute and a half into it, Jordan turns his attention to one of the Stratton's first brokers, Kimmie Belzer. He explains to his cult members that when Kimmie came to him, she "didn't even have two nickels to rub together." Kimmie was behind on rent and asked Jordan for a five thousand dollar salary advance so that she could pay her son's tuition. Instead of offering her five grand, Jordan gave her twenty-five thousand dollars. This nostalgia prompts Kimmie to tell Jordan that she "fucking loves" him and the other cult members are whipped up into a frenzy. I'm coming at this scene in a very sardonic way, but I do love the complexity and emotionality of that moment. We can feel Kimmie thinking back on her old life, a time when she truly struggled; it's very palpable and always makes me think back on a low point in my life when I had to borrow money from my mom just to put gas in my tank. In response to Belzer's "I fucking you's," Jordan tells her that he loves her too. That might be the only moment in the film when Jordan says that he loves anything. I'm sure there are many reasons for Belfort to tell this story in that moment, and while it doesn't redeem him, it adds a human element to this story. The brokers at Stratton Oakmont were living, breathing people who weren't born into wealth, and the film does an exceptional job at shining the occasional spotlight on that fact.

Jonah Hill's performance in this is also amazing. I love the commitment to the role; it's a true transformation. Other than being eye candy, Margot Robbie doesn't have a lot to do in this, but her performance is very authentic; I was surprised to learn later that she's Australian. The deteriorating relationship between Jordan and his second wife give us the true consequences of this greedy, drugged up, and unfaithful stock broker's actions. Belfort reaches his lowest point when he attempts to kidnap his daughter and drive off with her. Luckily for everyone involved, the kidnapping is not successful and Jordan's child is not harmed in the process. I don't know of many people who would watch that scene and think, "This is the life for me!" With The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese and Winter give us an unabashed, unflinching look at substance abuse in both a literal and figurative sense.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • There are two more Scorsese movies on my list; it'll be a while before I write about them.
  • This is it for Leo. I do love his work as an actor. It was nice to see him finally win an Academy Award, but should've been for this. Funny enough, watching Leo as Belfort was the way I wanted to feel when I watched Leo playing Calvin Candy. His performance in Django Unchained had a lot of promise but was underwhelming.
  • I considered adding Superbad to my list, but it'll have to crack my top 200--this is it for Jonah Hill. He's had quite the career #HotTakes
  • Speaking of unorthodox careers, it's funny how the McConaissance has changed the way many of us view Matthew McConaughey. Count me among the people who root for the guy, but this is it for him in my top 100.
  • Shea Whigham has a cameo in this, and I'll get to talk about him more with my next pick...

Saturday, June 17, 2017

JRO's #76 & #75: Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Hitchcock), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Stoppard)

I'm just trying to catch up. I didn't re-watch these, so they get this lame non-post. #73 post will hopefully be up in the next couple of days to catch me up.

JRO's #74: Results (Andrew Bujalski, 2015)

Starring: Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, Kevin Corrigan
Director: Andrew Bujalski
Writer: Andrew Bujalski
Release Date: 27 January 2015 (Sundance)

IMDB Synopsis: A frustrated son tries to determine the fact from fiction in his dying father's life.

Availability: Netflix Watch Instantly

First Time
Mid-to-late-2015? I knew there was a new Bujalski film out. I can't remember if I tracked down a torrent or waited for a DVD release. I had already seen Mutual Appreciation (promising), Beeswax (good), and Computer Chess (excellent); Bujalski was on my shortlist of Directors To Care About, so I had some high hopes for this one, though also some reservations about Bujalski "going mainstream."

Why it's on the List
The reason this is on the list is simple. It came out in 2015 and I've watched it five or so times already. It immediately clicked with me and still makes me smile and laugh as of this last re-watch.

Bujalski is not an American Rohmer, but he's the closest thing we have so far. There's nothing visually Rohmeresque about this film. But there are thematic preoccupations. Rohmer's rigorous formalism and Catholic filter are more challenging, but Bujalski's wrestling with his muddled Gen X heritage of confusion resonates with my own specifically American confusions.

Like Rohmer films, Bujalski films are propelled by conversation. Here, in addition to Rohmer's/Bujalski's probings of love and desire, how the sexes interact with one another, we are given a meditation on the body (which is not foreign to Rohmer), humorously mediated through the world of phsyical fitness trainers as a broken, depressed, fat schlub enters this world in an attempt to improve his own life. There is commentary on what it means to be a personal trainer, someone whose only job in life is to use their own bodies on behalf of others. This is a weird job (but, in theory, not too different from any teaching position). Pearce's gym owner believes in his mission to better others, to have everyone fulfill their dreams, though his own dreams depend on others wanting or needing to exercise. And yearning for more than lip service to spiritual fulfillment, this gym owner learns that he still lacks much. *Physical* fitness and discipline are what they are, but they also become metaphors for something more, or at least are marked as achievements that are hollow on their own.

Bujalski's film takes a small mess of contemporary broken people (gym people who sleep around for sport, divorced men), believable people who relate to one another imperfectly, and slowly, slyly, works toward a true happy ending. This is True Comedy.

Also, it's just undeniable that this film hit me at the right time. I was weak and fat and lazy for a long time. I decided to do something about it. From running to squatting to whatever, I slowly learned about "physical fitness" from 2013 to 2015. I was and am healthier than ever in the past, but I also learned that I'll never love that world. I'm still fat with bad habits. Good health is still foreign to me. I don't really like it. I'm a stranger there. I love beer and tobacco and books and board games and highly processed snack foods. But I've done enough lunges to be able to laugh along as Kevin Corrigan does his silly walks down the hall. And I've watched enough YouTube tutorial videos to both respect and be disgusted by so many in the fitness world, sometimes having both feelings at the same time.

Additional Notes/Stats

  • There's only one other film on the list more recent (same year) than this one.
  • I had no idea who Cobie Smulders was before this film. I've since seen a couple of episodes of How I Met Your Mother and thought they were pretty stupid. I haven't seen her in anything else of interest. Guy Pearce is of course usually great; what is special here is how earnest and vulnerable he plays his character. I recognized Kevin Corrigan as a character actor before this. This was his moment to shine in the lead role and he shines.
  • "If you were to stop smoking, and drinking, and eating so much shit, then you would be unstoppable."
  • Damsels in Distress hit me in a similar way as a recent comedy that works as true comedy.  I'm not entirely sure why this one made the list and that one didn't. I love that they both end with dancing.
  • Fear Excuses Surrender

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Chris' #74: Big Fish (Tim Burton, 2003)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter, Marion Cortillard, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: John August, based on the novel by Daniel Wallace
Release Date: December 10, 2003

IMDB Synopsis: A frustrated son tries to determine the fact from fiction in his dying father's life.

Availability: Hulu

First Time
I'm fairly certain that I saw this in the theater. I can picture a movie stub from Regal in my head (must be another one from my collection that I've misplaced), and this seems like something I would've gone to see. I was seventeen at the time of its release.

Why it's on the List
We've all met one or two people like Edward Blume before. Edward (Ewan McGregor/Albert Finney) is a storyteller capable of commanding entire rooms, holding the attention of a large group of people with his elaborate tales. Even if you bring up the subject of icebergs, people like Edward will have an anecdote at the ready. This quality can be very charming and fun initially, but if you spend enough time with people like this, their entire act can grow tiresome.

Will Blume (Billy Crudup) eventually outgrows his father's schtick. In the intimate moments where Edward tells his son these stories before bed, Will is completely captivated. As Edward begins to repeat these stories and share them with others, we see the father/son relationship deteriorate. This is the second father/son conflict movie on my list and it won't be the last.

One of the main things that I love about this movie is that we're able to understand where Edward and Will are coming from. It's easy to get caught up in the charm of Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney; the stories they tell are equal parts entertaining and captivating, but that doesn't stop Will from pouring cold water on his father's audience. Eventually we learn the justification for this. Edward didn't spend a lot of time with his son, and when he did, all he'd talk to him about were the same "big fish" stories.

Due to the structure of their relationship, Will grew up believing that his father had a second life. This drives a wedge between father and son, and the only thing that paves the way toward reconciliation is Edward's failing health. Will seizes this moment to pursue the truth, to find out who his father actually is. In response to his son's Fox Mulder-esque crusade, Edward explains that he's always been his true self, and that if his son can't see that, it's his own failing. In this duality of fantasy and truth, most of us might choose the fantastical version over the mundane reality, but due to Will's overexposure to fantasy, he explains to the Blume's family physician, Dr. Bennett (Robert Guillaume), that he actually prefers the truth.

As is the case with The Fall, Big Fish offers two very different stories--the one at the surface is very fun and imaginative, while the story buried underneath is darker and heavier. I love movies that split time between action-adventure and a complicated relationship. Big Fish's action-adventure side has a lot to offer. There are certain things that Tim Burton does very well, and this script is right up his alley. I'm sure this story works best as a novel, but Burton does a great job of bringing this to life; combining fantasy with real life has always been his forte.

There are five sequences in this film that I will always love:

1. Edward notes that it's true that time stops when you see the love of your life for the first time. As Edward bobs and weaves his way past the people frozen in time, he knocks some popcorn out of his way--a nice touch from Burton. Then, as Edward explains, once time starts again, it moves extra fast to catch up. I love the contrast of the editing.

2. Sandra Blume (Jessica Lange) watches her husband submerged in the bathtub. Sandra gets in and the two share a very sweet moment in the tub. Lange and Finney have great chemistry in the limited scenes that they share. The Edward/Sandra marriage is a believable one.

3. As Edward drives down a rural, Alabama road in a rain storm, his car is eventually hit by waves of water and he soon finds his vehicle at the bottom of a pond. The lights of the car hitting the darkness of the water is beautiful, and having the naked woman that Edward saw earlier in the film swim into frame really adds to the mystique of the shot.

4. Will and Edward are in the hospital and Edward asks his son to tell him the story of his death. Will is reluctant at first and explains that he doesn't know how to tell it. Luckily for us, Edward insists and we're treated to a wonderful payoff for their contentious relationship. Every time I've watched this sequence, I've either choked up or cried. It's a lovely moment and presents a fitting send-off for Edward Blume. Seeing everyone from the film gathered to wave goodbye to him is powerful. If your life has a positive impact on the people around you, not only will that give your own life meaning, but it can give meaning to your death too.

5. For me, the funeral presents a better ending than the one we actually get. The last line of the film talks about how, through Edward's stories, Will's father becomes immortal. That's a cute note to end on, but it's not a new idea; I feel like most of us already know about the power of handing down family stories. Turning my attention back to the funeral, I love the reveal of the people from Edward's tales--the giant is just a very tall man; the Siamese twins are just twin sisters who are metaphorically joined at the hip. As Sandra notes to her son, "Not everything your father says is a complete fabrication." The power of Will's discovery of this fact is felt in a very organic way. To see these different characters interact with each other, gathering around to hear and tell stories about Edward is the perfect conclusion.

There are other moments that I relate to. The witch's house on the outskirts of Ashton reminds of this old house in the town that I started to grow up in. It was this creepy, rickety old building that the neighborhood kids and I thought was haunted. I don't believe anyone lived in it, nor were there urban legends of anyone living in it, but eventually it was knocked down and replaced by a gas station.

Big Fish was the first time I saw Marion Cotillard in a movie. I remember having a crush on her when this was released, and hell, I still have a crush on her. I love the way she humors Albert Finney. Finney is an adorable old man in this--he's very charming and funny. Ewan McGregor makes the transition between young Edward and old Edward seamless. McGregor is able to play cocky without coming off as a huge asshole; instead, he maintains the charm and the Alabama accent might have a lot to do with it. His Minnesota accent on the latest season of Fargo is fine, but it doesn't hold a candle to his accent in Big Fish.

Steve Buscemi and Danny DeVito both add some nice humor to the film. I love that it seems like DeVito's Amos Calloway is taking advantage of Edward (and he is), but all of the intel that Amos feeds him is accurate--it's a fitting twist. Norther Winslow (Buscemi) is not just a great name for a poet, but is also a great Southern name in general. Norther's poems are comically simple, and Buscemi does a great job of selling them as works of genius, and playing defensive when he's met with critique. The cast is excellent across the board.

Even though I've been gushing over this movie, I think #74 might too high for it. As noted, I drew comparisons between this and The Fall, and I do feel that Tarsem's film is better. Big Fish is definitely a personal favorite of mine, but after rewatching it, I do realize that there other movies I've written about that I enjoy a bit more.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • This is one of two Tim Burton movies on my list--the other is in my top 15. If I could go back in time, I probably would've selected The Nightmare Before Christmas over The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. That pick was a last minute replacement and if I'm being honest, TNBC had a much larger impact on my childhood. Sorry, Tim, I fucked up.
  • Ewan McGregor and Danny DeVito are two actors I love that I won't get to talk about again. I can't point to another McGregor movie that I admire, but he's great in everything I've seen him in. There might be a DeVito movie or two in my top 200.
  • Miller's Crossing is one of those movies that I haven't spent enough time with. If I were to add another Finney movie to my list, it would be that one.
  • This is it for Jessica Lange as well. I need to rewatch Tootsie soon so I can continue to follow along with the Craig's List podcast. Tootsie is number #65 for Craig. I want to like that one more than do currently; that isn't to say I hate it, I just didn't grow up watching it.
  • Marion Cotillard should be on this list a lot more, but this is it for her. That's right, no Midnight in Paris in my top 100; the Cinemapolis crowd must've finally gotten to me. I'll probably have it in my top 200. Cotillard's also amazing in Rust and Bone, La Vie en rose, and especially Two Days, One Night.
  • There's one more Buscemi in my top 100, which feels like underrepresentation to me.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Jeff's #76: Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

#76: Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)

Here's what I wrote about this one in the last blog post I put up:

"I think this is my fourth time seeing what many critics consider to be Hitchcock's first truly masterful American film (For my money, he was hitting it right out of the park in his first year over here with REBECCA and the underrated FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT).  It seems to be something I return to every few years or so, mainly out of curiosity to see how my opinion on it has changed.  The first time I saw it around 16, I didn't really care for it.  There was just something cold and anti-climactic about it that kept me at an emotional distance from it.  Every time I've seen it since, I've become more impressed by how assured the hand is that's directing it all.  Before seeing it this time, I read an amazing article on how to read the visual language of NOTORIOUS by the late, great Roger Ebert.  In the article, Ebert talks a lot about the strong/weak dynamics of staging and framing in cinematography and how adeptly Hitchcock can show a character's interior struggle (like Grant's Devlin) simply through the way they move throughout a scene.  One thing that Ebert doesn't mention but that he inspired me to notice is how little Bergman's Elisha moves in the location of the frame throughout the film.  I believe I counted only once or twice in the entire film where Bergman isn't framed on the dominant right of a shot (right in that golden ratio location where our eyes instinctively move).  Just as she is the cynosure of the male character's attention, so is she ours within the frame.  And, although she Uappears to be a weak pawn within their patriarchal jockeying, she holds the dominant position because she ultimately owns her sexuality.  Her sexual freedom is what keeps her fixed and dominant and what makes the other male characters squirm around her in the frame.

With that all being said, I still feel an emotional detachment from the film (largely due to the unsympathetic nature of each of the characters), but I'm just so impressed by its visual brilliance and ultimately its perversity.  It's interesting to watch the film now and see how it has next to nothing to do with espionage and everything to do with the pettiness of jealousy and the precarious authority of male desire.  "

UPDATE:  I watched this again this week, and it just gets better and better every time I see it.

Jeff's #77: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

#77: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)

I've been struggling to write about this.  I re-watched most of it a few weeks ago and had to turn it off.  It just hit too close to home.  I don't know if there's a better film to capture the devastating loss of love and the bittersweetness with which we muse on it years later.  In my mind, it stands alongside Tom Waits' "Martha" as one of the greatest artistic representations of a doomed but never forgotten love affair. The fact that this entirely sung, candy colored musical is too emotionally overwhelming to watch during a difficult time is a testament to its surprising power and why it deserves to be on my list.  Even though I couldn't finish it, I knew it had me spellbound the same way when I first saw it. What begins as a stylistic gimmick slowly morphs into this melancholic onslaught of sorrow and regret.  It just floors you.

In an unrelated sidenote - I will be moving to Binghamton in a couple weeks.  Brandon's gonna put me up for a few weeks, and I'll be working at the Garage.  Looking forward to being closer to everyone again.  Hopefully we can all catch a movie and a beer soon.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Chris' #75: Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)

Starring: Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Helena Bonham Carter, Meat Loaf, Jared Leto
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Jim Uhls, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk
Release Date: October 15, 1999 (U.S.)

IMDB Synopsis: An insomniac office worker, looking for a way to change his life, crosses paths with a devil-may-care soap maker, forming an underground fight club that evolves into something much, much more.

First Time
Sometime in the early aughts, via DVD rental or a friend's copy. My brother, Brent, may have bought it and shared it with me and Jeff. This film found its audience on DVD, so someone gave me the whole "you've gotta see this" spiel.

Why it's on the List
I want to try something new; before I rewatch this, I want to take a moment to share a few thoughts about it. I don't know why, but I'm kinda dreading my rewatch. I suppose it's because Fight Club is so played out at this point; it's a safe bet that dudes in college are still hanging the posters on their walls. Regardless, Fight Club has a place on my list because it did have a huge impact on my life. I know that that's far from resembling a unique experience, but nevertheless.

Those of us in our late twenties and early-mid thirties probably know people who still quote Fight Club. There are quotes from this movie that I still think about and say--mainly: "...polishing the brass on the Titanic," and "you decide your own level of involvement," which I use when applicable in conversation. Reviewing the list of quotes on IMDB, I do see some lines that I still find to be good or amusing. The majority of quotes, however, are pretty nauseating. There's nothing sadder than a thirty-year-old dude sincerely quoting Tyler Durden. I can understand Tyler's appeal to boys and young men--he makes some decent points about capitalism and consumer culture--but after a certain point, he's an exhausting character to think about.

If the movie has a saving grace after all these years, it would have to be David Fincher; he's another big reason why this film made my list. Fight Club was my first real exposure to Fincher, since I'm pretty sure I didn't see Seven and The Game until the early-to-mid 2000s. If I were to build a Mount Rushmore for my favorite contemporary film directors, David Fincher would definitely be on there.

Wikipedia mentions that Fincher "supervised the composition of the DVD packaging and was one of the first directors to participate in a film's transition to home media."

There's no citation for that line, but it makes sense; the packaging and the menus matched the film perfectly. The DVD was also loaded with special features, and David Fincher's commentary track was the first of its kind that I ever listened to. This DVD set a high bar for what a film's home release could provide.

Now, on to my rewatch...

I still heavily approve of the opening credits sequence; between the visuals and The Dust Brothers' sound, it really sets the mood for what we're about to see. The concept is cool and inventive, and eventually we find ourselves in office building with little to no lighting. As is the case with Fincher's other work, the scenes are noticeably dark. The lack of lighting adds some realism to his films, but it also helps to settle us into the subject matter.

Regardless of how you feel about the material, this movie is perfect marriage of script and director. A lot of information is thrown at us in a short period of time, and Fincher does a brilliant job of keeping everything copacetic, while stylizing it in his own unique way.

Chuck Palahniuk's schtick is to find humor in the darkest, most disgusting places. Jim Uhls captures the tone of the novel perfectly. I remember reading the book after seeing this and I've always preferred the film adaptation. I enjoy the plotting of the movie a lot more and it helps to have these characters played by Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, and Helena Bonham Carter. I still enjoy Norton's monotone narration; he's great in this, as he usually is. Same deal with Pitt. Carter is also amazing in this, but I think I appreciate her performance more now than I ever have. Fans are quick to praise the two male leads, but Carter does more than hold her own; she's often the most interesting character in her scenes.

Having said that, it's still a male-dominated script and we know very little of Marla Singer. She's labeled a tourist, a faker (among other pejoratives) and is eventually reduced to this "fuck buddy" role for our unstable antihero. The film's stance on women is problematic to say the least, but given the tongue-in-cheek nature of its overall tone, I won't fault it too much. If I recall correctly, Palahniuk, a now openly gay man, has gone on the record to express confusion over the level of adoration that meatheads and "tough guys" have for this clearly homoerotic film. But with a line like, "We're a generation of men raised by women; I'm wondering if another woman is really the answer we need," it's my hope that Palahniuk and Uhls are expressing that sentiment with a shitload of irony.

That line is pretty gross, but it does address a very real problem in our society--the epidemic of overgrown children. I'll be quick to note that I, too, fall short in some areas that a thirty-year-old man should not, but there are plenty of dudes in this country who take too much pride in their lack of development. That line in particular seems to sum up one of the mantras of the alt-right scum in this country, so if I could take one line out of the script, it would have to be that.

The script gets progressively douchier as the film goes on (until the big reveal is made). Mr. Robot does a great job of removing the more obnoxious aspects of the script, choosing instead to focus on the themes in Fight Club that actually work and resonate with people. Again, I won't dismiss every point that the film makes; it's just that all of those points are dialed up to 10.

But one theme that I personally relate to is the feeling of rejection that Jack (Norton) has once Tyler shows more attention to Jared Leto's character. (Side note: it's amusing to think back on a time when Leto was taken more seriously as a person.) Jack and Tyler start Fight Club together, with exclusivity being a big part of it. Unaware that the club doesn't belong to him, Jack begins to feel wounded as he sees it grow beyond his control. I have my own control issues in this way and am flawed in my desire to want to be a part of something that only me and a small group of people are involved in. Hi, film clubbers!

Despite my criticisms, there are plenty of aspects to this film that I still enjoy--Fincher's contribution, to name one. #75 is probably too high for it, but I'm not exactly sure where it belongs. In all honestly, I think I've seen Fight Club too many times to truly enjoy it anymore. That's an odd admission, but let's see how I feel about it when I'm forty!

UPDATE: I can't believe I forgot to mention the other songs on the soundtrack; with Tom Waits' "Goin' Out West" and the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" it is a damn good one. Both songs play at perfect moments in the film, especially "Where Is My Mind?"--a great way to end it. My best friend in high school bought me a copy of Surfer Rosa for my birthday one year because he knew I loved that song. It's funny, I didn't end up listening to the album a lot back then because I wanted every song to sound similar to "Where Is My Mind?" And now, I love the rest of that album, Doolittle, and Come On Pilgrim. Great stuff.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • There's one more David Fincher film on my list and it'll be a long time before I get to write about it; two of his movies are on my 200-101 list.
  • This makes it back-to-back Brad Pitt picks, meaning that I only have one left. The next one is in my top 20.
  • I love Edward Norton, but this is it for him...which is to say that The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom are not in my top 100. Moonrise almost made the cut, and while I do love Budapest, it feels too early to call them favorites. Norton is excellent in everything I've seen him in, even if the movie isn't particularly good. His performance in Primal Fear will always stick with me.
  • Helena Bonham Carter will make one more appearance on my list, and I'll be talking about that movie next weekend.

Brandon's #75: The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)

There seems to be a great divide forged after the release of THE NEW WORLD where suddenly this great giant of cinema supposedly lost his way. I don't buy it. He takes risks. One of his biggest risks was divorcing himself from the pressures and constraints of narratives, not simply "traditional" narratives but narratives altogether. He seems to even reject the populist notions of time within narrative or even time itself.

THE THIN RED LINE follows a soldier (actually an entire unit, but the action often revolves around this guy) stolen from a similar freedom and condemned to the confines of military regiment. It's about a heretic, one who was freed by a group of local natives in the South Pacific. Having to resume duty is tantamount to hell itself sprinkled within. Nobody knows why they do what they do, nor if what they do has made anything beyond an insignificant difference.

Somehow the obligatory narrative/big budget obstructions form a perfect marriage between Malick's poetry and the war entertainment we've all grown so accustomed to. Here Malick discovered something as rare as any of his current balletic experimentations, the ideal balance, if you will. I still think it's a masterpiece.

I saw it first in '99, rented and viewed at Tara's mom's house, half of me hoping it'd offer the kind of thrills I'd seen in Spielberg's war film of the same year. Second viewing was in Ithaca, at my friend's girlfriend's parent's house, right after viewing THE NEW WORLD, still one of my favorite films of the young millennium.

War films recreate the end of human lives, lost needlessly and callously. Even the most wrenching deaths can't hide that. Why did we think that our love for goodness and truth would protect us from this torture? Taking a hill means tossing young existences carelessly into the unknown. Malick knows this. He isn't interested in the heroics that mask such antiquated atrocity. He also isn't interested in victories, large or small. At the same time, Malick doesn't revel in violence and destruction, soldiers lying wait are still amongst creation and can't help but be dwarfed by its complexity, perhaps their own place amongst the leaves.

I love the range of emotions in the "I blew my butt off" scene. It's hilarious or perhaps just ridiculous at first, followed by our enlightened soldier's lovely reminder that everything will be ok; even in death, something good can shine right through. THE THIN RED LINE is a perfect mixture of sadness, transcendence, horror, madness, and futility. Fuck rank and cloud. Anyone who questions Malick's genius need not look any further than this. It's a true gem and as close to a true anti-war film as anything ever made, not simply because it rubs our faces in destruction but because it reminds us of our humanity; like water merging together, it becomes hard to tell us apart.

It's a wonder this was made and I'm very thankful for it. The ending shows us a lovely instance of sacrifice from the film's most unabashed philosopher. All is grace as the glory shines through.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Brandon's #76: Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, 1947)

I thought I would add Robert Rossen's THE HUSTLER as my next entry but discovered that it doesn't work entirely for me. The suicide turns the tide and renders it unfit. Instead I'm going with the mighty BLACK NARCISSUS, which I praise here:

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

JRO's #77: La Moustache (Emmanuel Carrère, 2005)

Director: Emmanuel Carrère
Writers: Jérôme Beaujour, Emmanuel Carrère (novel), Emmanuel Carrère (screenplay)
Stars: Vincent Lindon, Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric
Release Date: 15 May 2005 (Cannes Film Festival)

IMDb SynopsisMarc is sitting in his bath one morning and asks his wife, "how would you feel if I shaved off my mustache?" She doesn't think it's a great idea, for the 15 years they've been married, ... (that's from the plot summary and not the synopsis, but it appears at the top of the page cut off like that. IMDb is weird. I just learned that all of these IMDb summaries and synopses are user-submitted. The one for this movie is incredibly long; I don't think that the writer knew what 'synopsis' meant! I think that IMDb usually automatically picks whatever is briefest. In this case, there was nothing brief!)

First Time
Late May or very early June, 2009. I posted about it in the early pre-Howard days of CR5FC:
We were living off-grid all that summer. No electricity meant no moving pictures. About a month into this movie exile, my mother gave me a portable DVD player/screen combo (7" screen, I think) and I was back in film club business. I still didn't watch that much, but I could charge the device at work during the day and get about 2.5 hours of tiny viewing pleasure at night.

Why it's on the List
Well, sometimes I have facial hair (a lot of it), and sometimes I do not. That's probably reason enough to love a film about a man, his moustache, and the people in his life who deny he ever had one. The film is incredibly hard to write about (see the "synopsis" link above, but don't actually read it) briefly because one wants to (in fact, must) engage with the details in order to make sense of the whole. Any review that goes beyond describing the plot and construction of the film risks becoming more about the reviewer than about the film being reviewed. This is always a "danger" of writing about anything, but certain works invite this more than others.

The basic plot of the film is simple. A man shaves off his moustache. No one notices. All of the important people in his life, including his wife of 15 years, insist that he never had a moustache. Yet he knows he had a moustache: he has his memories, he has photos, he has moustache hair clippings. All of this is developed skillfully into a thrilling exploration of truth, identity, communication, and perspective. 

The plot is thin and rightly so. It may be a frustrating film to many, but I find these real frustrations of the film to be emotionally resonant. These are real frustrations, rarely communicated with such power and directness. Sometimes the surreal can achieve what the real cannot.

The film is visually impressive. I haven't tried it, but I'm pretty sure that the film would work just as well with no dialogue. The dialogue is very good and sometimes very important, but the visual language is impressive enough to carry the film on its own. A recurring visual water metaphor communicates the fluid states of identity and relationships. Water is a symbol of both change and permanence. The actors communicate all of their emotions and frustrations, inner turmoils, through physical looks and actions, without ever hamming it up.

Then there's the music. Philip Glass at his best, used to great effect.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • I bought the English translation of the novel(la) and never read it. I probably never will. 
  • This is the only film I've seen Vincent Lindon in. He has 70 acting credits on IMDb. I'm pretty sure I've missed a lot of great performances. I've seen both Amalric and Devos in a few other things, notably both together in A Christmas Tale. Just looking over the filmographies of these three makes me acutely aware of how much contemporary French cinema I am ignorant of.
  • The Seventh Continent is the Haneke film probably in my 101-200 and was considered for the 100 (of course I'm lying about this as we all know that Funny Games is in each of our Top 10s). I bring it up here because the films share a similarity in being "blank slates," very neutrally constructed films that resist interpretation and answers. Ed Gonzalez (one of Brando's favs) wrote about this one: "The film is an unpretentious blank slate—almost totally without point but so unassuming it earns consideration.......The film is scarcely forceful, inviting any and all interpretations but never daring one itself. I'm not sure if this exposes Carrère as a philosopher without a point of view or indicates a refreshing form of art-house charity. Perhaps that's for us to interpret as well."
  • As a counter to Gonzalez, this essay is a helpful reading of the film, outlining very clear signals/symbols that direct our engagement with the film:
  • La Moustache is currently free to watch on Youtube:

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Chris' #76: The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Release Date: May 27, 2011 (U.S.)

IMDB Synopsis: The story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956. The eldest son witnesses the loss of innocence and struggles with his parents' conflicting teachings.

First Time
I saw The Tree of Life at the Art Mission Theater in the summer of 2011--I believe that that's when it finally came to Binghamton. I still remember my theater experience quite well; there were these two annoying people sitting in the row ahead of me and they kept groaning throughout the film, especially toward the end. I guess it was too long and artsy for them, but their little commentary almost ruined my experience. Let that be a lesson to everyone: if you're not enjoying a movie, walk out or keep the commentary to yourself.

Why it's on the List
This decision ultimately came down to The Tree of Life vs. The New World. The two films are both profoundly beautiful, but in the end I gave the nod to this one because I strongly relate to the themes and the relationships.

At the heart of this film is the dichotomy between nature and grace. Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) tells us that we must choose which one to follow. I'm sure John can give us more of a Biblical reading into this (and probably did on his old blog), but I do see this theme represented in the differences between the Old Testament and the New Testament. On the surface, Terrence Malick applies this theme to the actions and philosophies of Mrs. and Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt).

I fell in love with Jessica Chastain when I saw this for the first time. I don't mean that in a, "I'm an obsessed weirdo" kinda way, but rather, I find her performance in this to be extremely serene. Her presence in this is very soothing and always seems to put me at ease. Mrs. O'Brien is the ultimate maternal figure, displaying both love and occasional moments of austerity. She teaches her three sons to "help each other" and to "love everyone." Mr. O'Brien, on the other hand, teaches his sons how to fight and defend themselves. He wants to make it absolutely clear to them that the world can be relentless in its cruelty; the only way to combat this is to toughen up. I suppose I'm not particularly good at choosing between nature and grace; despite the apparent conflicts, both are needed to navigate through this wild and whacky world.

I'm glad that Malick balances Mr. O'Brien out as a character; he has a very loud presence as this intimidating asshole, but he will also find time to goof around with his kids. Malick also seems to poke fun at him a litte bit; at one point, Papa O'Brien is lecturing his boys as he drives down the residential streets of Waco. Seconds into this diatribe, his boys begin to tune him out and his eldest, Jack (Hunter McCracken), starts fidgeting with the radio. We've all experienced that "here he goes again" moment with certain family and friends, and most of us will deny being the "he" in that sentence.

My own father isn't that similar to Mr. O'Brien, but there are a couple of scenes in this film that really hit close to home. The most relatable moment occurs shortly after Mr. O'Brien leaves on a business trip. When Jack and his brothers find out that their father will be gone for an extended amount of time, they start dancing around the house. Like Brad Pitt's character, my dad is not a monster, nor is he necessarily a bad father, but my brothers and I were known to celebrate when he left the house. We have a better relationship with him now, so I don't feel too guilty about it. The dynamic between Jack and his parents also hits close to home for me. I commend Jack's bravery for being able to confront the behavior of his mother and father; it's not something that I'm always able to do.

As was the case with E.T.The Tree of Life provides some nostalgia for a "simpler time." Simpler time belongs in quotes, since the 1950s (and the subsequent decades) were hardly simpler for so many groups of people. Regardless, I know that when I was three years old, I would wander through the streets of Oxford, New York with my older brother and our friends. We were too young for video games, so our entertainment consisted of Sesame StreetThe Care Bears, and screwing around outside. While I don't feel that this was a superior childhood experience, the independence did lead to some fun adventures. Childhood independence can also lead to danger, too, and Malick does not hide that fact. One of the neighborhood kids drowns at the town pool, and another is injured by a firework. Fortunately, I did not have confront death and violence in the way that Jack did as a child.

Malick's style certainly isn't for everyone, and while I do feel that he can go a little overboard at times, I still find The Tree of Life's finished product to be both beautiful and reflective. Even though the film is slow and non-linear, it provides the audience with the space to think and feel however we want. We are constantly inundated with short flashes of memories. At one point, Jack becomes attracted to one of his classmates; we pick up on this without the use of dialogue or voiceover. Malick allows the images to just exist up on the screen without beating us over the head with on-the-nose narration. I love the camera movements in this; it seems to glide around the characters like some sort of spiritual being.

I was raised Methodist and attended church until the age of fourteen or so. There are specific lines in this film that I can recall saying/thinking during my many conversations with God. At one point, Jack addresses God and says, "Where were you? You let a boy die." Later on he asks, "Why should I be good if you aren't?"--though that question may also apply to Mr. O'Brien. There's a lot to unpack here, but I do feel that these questions are more than fair for a person raised on religion to ask. Again, I appreciate the act of confrontation in this film; it asks the big questions even though the answers are difficult or unknowable.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • This is the only Terrence Malik film on my list. I really want to rewatch Badlands and Days of HeavenThe Thin Red Line is very beautiful, too. Malick rules, and I should probably have more than one of his films in my top 100. Shame on me.
  • I have two more Brad Pitt movies on my list, one of which I'll be discussing within the next week or two.
  • Up until a few days ago, this was the only Jessica Chastain movie on my list, but I just bumped something off to make room for a film that I overlooked.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Chris' #77: WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Starring: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard
Director: Andrew Stanton
Writers: Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon, Pete Docter (story)
Release Date: June 23, 2008

IMDB Synopsis: In the distant future, a small waste-collecting robot inadvertently embarks on a space journey that will ultimately decide the fate of mankind.

First Time
It took me a while to see this, and the same can be said of other Pixar greats like The Incredibles and Monster's Inc. From 1999-2010, I passively avoided a lot of Pixar (and other animated films) because I mostly felt that I didn't need them in my life. Brave helped to turn that around a bit; I saw that in the theater and since then, I have been much more receptive to Pixar and animated features. I believe Jeff recommended WALL-E to me in 2010 or 2011, and we probably watched it together.

Why it's on the List
I'll get the obvious out of the way first--the film is visually-stunning, especially on blu-ray. There have been a handful beautiful films set in space over the years, and WALL-E is no exception. Andrew Stanton and his team also manage to turn a dusty, garbage dump of a city into art. This wasteland is all we get for the first twenty minutes of the film, as there are very few spoken words until that mark. I admire the risk that Pixar took with those twenty minutes--the opening five minutes of Up is another example of this kind of risk paying off. Instead taking a dialogue-heavy approach, Stanton and Jim Reardon rely on some great physical comedy and exceptional use of exposition.

The film is great at slowly feeding information to the audience through the use of Buy-N-Large promotional videos featuring Fred Willard. Willard is the perfect casting choice for BnL's satirically-named CEO, Shelby Forthright, because he's so adept at playing charming yet incompetent characters.

With only antiquated video recordings of Shelby Forthright and his favorite musical to keep him company, WALL-E's solitude is easily felt (it's weird to assign gender to a robot, but whatever); we pity WALL-E until EVE arrives on Earth. I love the relationship between the two and the juxtaposition of their personalities; WALL-E is sweet and a bit of coward, while EVE is trigger-happy and a badass. Stanton and Reardon did a great job in general of applying different personalities to the robots in the film, and the different robot designs are great, too. The closest thing we get to villains in this movie are a couple of robots that stick to their programming. I like the slight twist that AUTO (a nice nod to HAL from 2001) is purposefully sabotaging the Axiom's return to Earth, thanks to BnL's failure to clean up the planet.

The social commentary in WALL-E is obvious but effective, nevertheless. I especially love the moment when two dudes are talking to each other over face chat, even though they're a foot apart. The film effectively calls out our society's increasing sloth and consumerism. The Buy-N-Large slogan is perfect: "Everything you need to be happy."

The social commentary has hints of something you might see or hear on The Simpsons. This makes sense, given Jim Reardon's involvement. Reardon has directed over thirty Simpsons episodes, including many of my all-time favorites: Homer the Heretic, Mr. Plow, Duffless, King Size Homer...okay, really 95% of the episodes he's directed are among the show's best. Brad Bird wasn't the only Simpsons director to go on to produce some great work for Pixar.

Additional Notes/Stats
  • Fred Willard will make one more appearance on my list.
  • I only have one more animated film to discuss and it's not Pixar. I have several other Pixar movies on my 200-101 list, but WALL-E is my favorite.
  • I still have not seen Finding Nemo. I refuse to watch Cars.

Brandon's #77: Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)

The entire film is built around an event; one discovered, slanted, and orchestrated by a desperate/cocky (bad combo) ink slinger. But it's mostly about the reporter himself, watching his every move, scheme, and follow through. Like Holden's character from STALAG 17, he goes out of his way to announce loud and clear that he's an irredeemable piece of shit. ---- I never understood why Holden's character had the gall to act surprised when his fellow POWs beat the tar out of him, considering he has spent the entirety of the film goading and taunting them, giving them every reason to confirm his guilt ---- It sometimes plays out like a race to the bottom between Douglas' Chuck Tatum and Jan Sterling's equally awful Lorraine Minosa.

Each display an unhealthy affection for the rocks that have fallen on and trapped an unlucky treasure seeker, himself an exploiter. It's a big stupid carnival for bored suckers. Wilder's notorious cynicism is spread evenly around the New Mexican vistas, with inhabitants of all intellectual capacities. The dumb crowds, cop pricks, trapped victim and his restless wife, and even old crafty Chuck himself are handed equal daily portions of culpability.

It's easy to try and make cheap connections to modern times, specifically the relationship between the news and its audience or the way the police chief advantageously goes along with the entire charade at the expense of the trapped man's life. But like I said, Wilder's cynicism spreads wider and also he's more interested in Chuck's poison heart.

Why am I drawn to this? Maybe it appeals to some dark personal inclinations toward culture as a whole. That also feels too easy and self-congratulatory. I'm part of it. Certainly because it's so alive onscreen, bizarre and persistently ugly. Wilder will always be a debated figure, perhaps rightfully so, but I've rarely found his naval gazing a turn off. Especially when it, especially in the case of this film, predicted the future.

This film's media circus shines less light on manufactured consent and much more on the hysteria spun out of simple tragedy. Molly Haskell hit the nail on the head when she called it, "a public drunk on sensation." It all starts with Chuck; his anger, his desperation, his love for power and money, his disdain for ordinary people. I'm not sure "impressive" is the right word, but I'm impressed that ACE IN THE HOLE follows through. Considering that most of our judgement and criticism stems from within, I can only imagine what this says ultimately about Wilder.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Brandon's #80, 79, & 78

Copying Jeff....

80. Heat (Michael Mann, 1995)
79. Modern Times (Charlie Chaplin, 1936)
78. El Dorado (Howard Hawks, 1966)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Jeff's #83, 82, 81, 80, 79, & 78

In an effort to catch up, I'm just going to drop all my belated picks at once in a single post. This upcoming weekend, I can resume as normal. Grateful that we switched to one pick a week now.

83. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, 1938)
82. Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
81. To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944)
80. The Big Country (William Wyler, 1958)
79. Leave Her To Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945)
78. The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, 2011)