Friday, June 17, 2011

Temporary Hiatus

So my full-time job has officially started and that in addition to my German class leaves me almost no spare time to watch movies, much less review them. So unfortunately the posts will be incredibly infrequent for a while. I'll try to still post one a week or so, though!


Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Confederacy of Dunces

"Fortuna had relented."

Some of you may be thinking: "I've never heard of this movie." Well that's because it's not a movie, but a book. I've decided to temporarily stray from movie reviews to write my thoughts on John Kennedy Toole's novel A Confederacy of Dunces.
The novel tells of the exploits of Ignatius J. Reilly, an educated idealist, yet socially inept and incredibly lazy man of 30 years who lives with his mother, Irene, in New Orleans. After Irene incurs a large amount of debt after a drunk driving debacle, she forces Ignatius to get a job after a lifetime of unemployment. To say that he doesn't succeed in the professional industry is a mammoth of an understatement.
I first attempted to read this book in eighth grade after a recommendation from a teacher. I'm not sure if I got more than 40 pages in the first time around. I stumbled upon the novel recently when I was cleaning out my bookshelf, and, assuming that my reading skills had not yet reached their full potential at fourteen, decided to give it another shot. However, as I began to read, I found, once again, that I was not fond of A Confederacy of Dunces. The story seemed scattered, and worst of all, the protagonist was just about the most obnoxious character ever written into fiction. In fact, none of the characters stuck me as likeable. But, unlike my eighth grade self, I stuck with the book this time, and ended up loving it.
The mistake I had made when I began A Confederacy of Dunces was to assume that I should read it like I would read any other novel. I was trying too hard to analyze the protagonist, to establish his goals or to relate to him in some way. Instead, you really just have to take it at face value, to see the gestalt, so to speak. Only then can you see not only the humor but the serious themes and questions brought up by this novel. For example, the overarching conflict is the contentious relationship between mother and son. Ignatius always criticizes Irene, but never moves out of the house. Similarly, Irene is disgusted with Ignatius' habits, yet caters to his every need. Toole also suggests a correlation between intellectualism and isolation.
The novel really clicked for me a little past the halfway point, when I envisioned what it would be like as a film. I think movies can get away with having a disagreeable and pompous protagonist like Ignatius much better than a novel, if not only due to the difference in duration. Ignatius Reilly would be much easier to handle for two hours that he is in the time it takes to read the 400 page novel. The characters and setting are portrayed very colorfully, and would translate wonderfully into a film. I pictured it like the movie version of Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, quirky and highly stylized. This would mimic the almost overly caricatured characters.
Toole's novel is over the top in almost every sense. But that's what a picaresque novel is, much like Tom Jones or Don Quixote. A Confederacy of Dunces is a witty and profound satire that grows on you slowly: you think you dislike it until you realize how excited you are to read about Ignatius' next undertaking.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 6, 2011

Blow Up

"I wish I had tons of money. Then I'd be free."

Michaelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up is a hitchcock-ian plot set against the background of 1960's London in the height of the mod fashion movement. The film is beautifully crafted, but incredibly slow moving.
Thomas, the protagonist, is a successful photographer, but is growing tired of the emptiness of fashion shoots with beautiful yet vapid models. In an attempt to capture something more tied to reality, he photographs two strangers in a park. The woman sees Thomas and desperately attempts to take the film from him. After she follows him home, he fools her and gives her the wrong roll. Thomas then develops and analyzes the actual pictures from the park. In the background, he believes he sees a gunman and a dead body. Thomas spends the rest of the film trying to crack this mystery, which brings us to the ultimate question brought about by Blow Up: How does one distinguish between reality and imagination?
To reinforce this thought, Blow Up has some elements of absurdism. This goes hand in hand with the mod time period. Thomas has very odd mannerisms, and will sometimes just run away or fall onto the floor in the middle of conversations. In addition, there is a brief interlude to the seriousness of Thomas studying his photographs where two young models come to his apartment and all three of them have sex on his floor. The oddest part comes at the end, however. Thomas is in the park where he took the photographs looking for the dead body, but it has disappeared. Suddenly, a car-full of young people dressed as mimes pull up by a tennis court and begin to play with an invisible ball and rackets. When the "ball" goes over the fence, Thomas plays along and throws it back to them. I believe that this is his surrender. He acknowledges that it is not important whether there was or wasn't a murder, or even a body for that matter. The event in the park served one ultimate purpose for Thomas: to remind him of his passion for photography and allow him to look outside the materialistic and superficial culture of his era.
Blow Up is one of those movies that you have to sleep on. I appreciate the film more now than when I was actually watching it. By most people's standards, it is a relatively boring movie. However, its message is solid and the means to portray it are incredibly creative.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Easy Rider

"I never wanted to be anybody else."

When people nowadays watch Easy Rider, it just screams "retro," whereas when it was initially released it was considered exceptionally modern. This film was relatively experimental, even for its time, and filled with lens flares, telephoto zooms and dissonant cuts. What makes Easy Rider so enticing is that the creators, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, truly believed in their vision and in their film.
Easy Rider is a visual ballad following two men on a cross-country motorcycle expedition. Along the way they encounter two important strangers, a hitchhiker who takes them to a commune and an idiosyncratic lawyer, played by Jack Nicholson.
The stand-out element in this film by far is the editing. It is almost solely what gives this film its style. When so many movies concentrate on continuity, the disconnects in Easy Rider's cuts are jarring and exciting. The cinematography, by Laszlo Kovacs, is at times breathtaking. There was little artificial light used in the making of this film. Instead, Kovacs brought out the beauty of natural light in the landscape. The musical choices were also great, I mean who doesn't get filled with joy watching two guys ride motorcycles down an open highway with Levon Helm crooning in the background? Oh and also, you can't beat the costume design in this movie. Dennis Hopper's shell necklace and incredible mustache prove my point.
You may want to stop reading now if you haven't seen this film, because I have to discuss the ending. I thoroughly enjoyed the first hour and fifteen minutes or so of Easy Rider. The first 45 minutes are visually stunning, and the next half hour is full of intriguing conversation. But because Jack Nicholson's character is the only truly interesting one in the film, after he is killed, i feel like the plot fell flat. The ending is comprised of a ten minute acid trip in a New Orleans cemetery (that isn't very compelling), and Peter Fonda's character realizing the futility of his and his friend's lives. In the very end, the two men are shot to death on their motorcycles by a couple of hippie-hating locals. I have to say, I don't really get the ending. I feel like the movie would have upheld the same themes if the two men had just continued riding. I mean I guess it shows that the world is filled with hatred? Or that their lives really didn't matter? As far as story goes anyway, the ending was not satisfying at all. If anyone disagrees or would like to give me an interpretation, I would welcome it.
I still enjoyed the majority of Easy Rider, however, as it is a very stylistically innovative and interesting film.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Friday, June 3, 2011

Midnight In Paris

"You're in love with a fantasy."

If there was one movie that would appear on the site "Stuff White People Like," it would probably be Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. This is because the film is brimming with famous Paris sights and historical figures, and everyone in the audience feels special to be able to recognize them (myself and my mother included.) But it's not a bad filmmaking technique: Midnight in Paris is another typically charming romantic comedy from Woody Allen.
To diverge a bit from the topic at hand, while waiting to see Midnight in Paris I had the pleasure of yet again viewing the trailer for Terrence Malick's upcoming film Tree of Life. If the trailer alone can give me goosebumps and almost bring me to tears, I'm kind of scared to see what the whole movie will do to me. But that's out next weekend. So until then we'll focus on the more lighthearted trip through Paris and its history with Owen Wilson.
Wilson plays Gil Pender, a Hollywood script writer turned aspiring novelist. While he is on a trip to France with his fiancée, Ines, he fantasizes about a Parisian life in the 1920s. Later on, he is actually transported to that era, meeting numerous influential musicians, authors, and artists. Through this fantasy, he realizes that he has been unhappy in life not because of the time period in which he lives, but in his outlook and the life decisions he has made.
Wilson is the perfect choice for this role. Every time he meets a new writer or artist like Picasso or Gertrude Stein, his dumbfounded reaction got huge laughs from the audience. The historical figures are almost caricatures of themselves, my personal favorite being Adrian Brody as Salvador Dali (and his obsession with rhinoceroses).
To avoid making this film a whole "time travel" gimmick, there is little attention paid to the logistics of the actual transportation from the present to the 1920s. Unlike other movies where you constantly ask yourself whether the fantastic elements are real or occurring in the head of the protagonist, this question barely crosses your mind in Midnight in Paris. Instead, you are too enamored by the visuals and the characters to really care. And either way, it doesn't really matter to the plot or the themes of the film.
There is a certain universality in this film because almost everyone has had what a character refers to as the "Golden Age Syndrome," or being overly nostalgic and having antipathy towards the present era. Midnight in Paris is a funny and charming film, and it also has a message. However, in the overall scheme of cinema, there is nothing truly unique about it. While it was fun to see famous artists and writers realized on the screen, the film will most likely fade into the background with a lot of Allen's comedies, and is relatively forgettable. But if you're an art history or literature buff, and if you've ever been to Paris, you will probably get a kick out of this movie.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

"If you shoot someone in the head with a .44 caliber every time you kill somebody, it becomes like a fingerprint, you see?"

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is allegedly one of the most violent and disturbing slasher movies out there. Forty-five minutes in, I was "pshaw"-ing this claim. Sure, there was some blood, but nothing that could freak me out enough to make me have to check twice that all the doors are locked. But, to my surprise (and gratification), the last half of this movie packs quite a harrowing punch.
The film is loosely based around the life of Henry Lee Lucas, one of America's most prolific serial killers. He committed gruesome murders across the country with his partner-in-crime, Ottis Toole. Lucas is realized on screen by actor Michael Rooker, and looks like the deranged lovechild of Heath Ledger, Albert Brooks, and Lenny from Of Mice and Men. And I will say, this combination is truly creepy. His bucktoothed yokel friend Otis (the filmmakers omitted the extra "t," probably for legal reasons) is frightening as well, if not only due to how incredibly stupid and impressionable he is.
If any of you have read most of my posts, you may remember that I reviewed Badlands, another film about a killer. Although director John McNaughton is no Malick, I'd watch Henry over Badlands any day. To make a movie about a serial killer, I feel like you just have to have that badass gene. The gene that allows you to put anything on screen, no matter how disturbing or controversial.
One thing I love about this film is that it delves deeply into the pathology behind Henry's killings. Not only do we hear him describe his methods and reasonings to a friend, but we also learn of his traumatic childhood, and how it lead him to becoming a murderer. This film captures a very realistic image of a serial killer; most importantly, introversion and the habituation of the murders. I do wish, however, that the film would have explored Henry's homosexual side a bit more. Instead, it portrayed Henry as almost asexual, or at the least very uncomfortable in a sexual situation.
I think what makes this film so shocking, and what sparked so much debate over its rating by the MPAA, is not the degree of the violence per se, but its unrelenting realism. With the exception of one or two brief moments, the bloodshed that occurs on screen looks completely authentic, and is unencumbered by quick cuts, digital special effects or dramatic music.
This movie, however, is definitely not for everyone. There is explicit rape, sexual assault, and gruesome violence. However, this film shows death and murder as it is, in a very raw and intimate way, which makes the murders doubly chilling.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Repo Man

"Fuck this. Let's go do some crimes."

I never thought I'd find a movie as quotable as Dead Alive or American Physco, but Alex Cox's Repo Man comes very close. This film has some of the wittiest dialogue I've seen in years, and some truly memorable characters. Throw in some violence and sci-fi elements and you've got yourself one truly entertaining movie.
Repo Man follows the young suburban punk Otto, played by Emilio Estevez, as he accidentally falls into the company of car reposessors. One day, and unusually large reward is placed on a Chevy Malibu. Unbeknownst to the repo men, the trunk of the car is housing the highly desired and highly dangerous decaying bodies of four extraterrestrials.
Almost everything about his movie is interesting, from the plot and characters to the setting. Having production designed a few student films, I really admire how the filmmakers created a very believable, dystopian yet realistic world in which this film occurs, right down to the brand of food on the shelves of every market. The clean, white boxes and labels are a contrast to Otto's gritty crime-filled world, and they highlight the clean suburban world of the so-called "ordinary fucking people" around them. A prominent message in Repo Man (as hackneyed as it sounds) is to live dangerously, take risks, and do whatever the fuck you want.
The first scene in the film sets it up to be filled with over-the-top comic violence. However, most of the violent scenes in the film are quite realistic. I think this is because while the filmmakers wanted the viewer to have fun while watching Repo Man, they also intended for the film to be taken somewhat seriously. It isn't another Evil Dead or Army of Darkness. Repo Man is a well-acted, incredibly well-written, and surprisingly thoughtful film. Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez have an amazing rapport, and they compliment each other and the rest of the cast very well.
I'm still not quite sure how I feel about the way this film ends. I'm glad that the kooky hippie character plays a prominent role, as he was mt favorite of the repo men. However, I will say that it was the slightest bit cheesy. Even for a movie about people hunting for dead aliens in the trunk of a car.
Repo Man is provocative, has an incredible verisimilitude, great dialogue, great characters, and just the right amount of violence. The ending is the only thing keeping it from five stars.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars