Monday, May 30, 2011

Blow Out

"Pigs, vultures... what, did you swallow a whole box of animal crackers?"

I added this film to my Netflix queue mistaking it at first for Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up. When I found out that I was instead going to be watching another Brian De Palma thriller, I was a bit worried. I didn't know that the two films were loosely related, or that Blow Out would turn out pretty damn decent.
Possibly original at the time (but now seems a bit contrived because of the Scream franchise) Blow Out begins with a movie-inside-a-movie. It is then revealed that the protagonist, Jack, is the sound editor at a studio that manufactures soft-core slasher porn flicks. While Jack is off recording effects one night, he witnesses a car accident that ends up killing a prominent governor. He catches it all on tape, and begins a conspiracy theory that the crash was not simply a freak accident, but an assassination.
While this is more or less a typical thriller, it is quite a bit of fun to watch and has a surprisingly complex plot. Brian De Palma really found a perfect stylistic balance between over the top 70's effects and boring and unoriginal cinematography. De Palma uses split-screen in the beginning to set up a fast paced tone. There are also shots with such deep focus that they become dreamlike, adding to the suspense and mystery. The climax of the film takes place during a firework show at a liberty celebration. This scene is one of the most visually stunning uses of colored gels I have seen yet, as the light from the multi-toned fireworks reflect onto the characters faces.
One thing that did bother me about this film, however, is the vapid and uninteresting female love interest, Sally. The drama of the situation did prevent any romance from truly developing, however. Both Sally and Jack have relatively flat personalities. They are defined by what is happening to them, rather than their nature. So I would say character development is the one stand-out weakness in this film. In contrast, one of the greatest thing about Blow Out is the ending. I love the technique of bookending a film. I wish I could talk about this ending without giving anything away. I will say though, it is an incredibly bleak punchline of sorts that mirrors the initial scene in a very clever way.
And so, unlike Sisters, the first movie I reviewed on this blog, Brian De Palma creates a memorable, suspenseful, and stylistic thriller (with just a few flaws) in Blow Out.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 29, 2011


"It's America... cars smashing into each other and all those mangled corpses!"

I can't imagine how hard it must have been to write the script for Nashville. If I were to have read it, not knowing that it was to be directed by Robert Altman, I would have predicted it would come out a scattered mess. It's true what they say about Altman: he really does break all the conventional rules of moviemaking. About half of the shots are so dark you have to squint to see what's going on, the dialogue overlaps or is too quiet to hear, the plot does not move toward one specific goal or end point, and there are far too many characters. But as always, Altman gets away with it.
Nashville takes place over the course of a few days in the mid-seventies, around the time of the Grand Ol' Opry and the presidential primaries. The film follows the occasionally intertwining stories of about 25 musicians, fans, politicians, and their friends or family members. I love the way Altman introduces his characters. Some of them walk in the frame for a few seconds, heads faced away from the cameras. If they weren't famous actors, like Shelley Duvall and Jeff Goldlum, you could easily mistake them for extras.
Another interesting thing about Nashville is that about 1/3 of the running time is comprised of musical numbers, all written specifically for the film. Because of this, its 2 hour and 40 minute length is very appropriate: it plays in parts almost like a concert. Nashville has been called a satire of the would of country music, but I really don't feel like Altman is making an attempt to mock the industry. Instead, it plays not only as a celebration of the genre and its fans, but also as a reflection of the political, social, and musical turmoil that was occurring at the time the film was made. Thus, Nashville has a somewhat tragic tone to it that continues to develop as the film approaches its climax.
Because of the depth and intricacy of this film, I feel like I can hardly scratch the surface. But one thing stood out to me the most. Just like many other Altman films, Nashville is not concerned with specifics. Each individual line or character does not matter on its own. Instead, much like the ideas of the Soviet montage movement, this film is about the interplay of the characters, their environment, and their effects on each other. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, so to speak.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

PS: Dad, I hope you're not mad I didn't give it the full 5. That's reserved for Short Cuts and McCabe and Mrs. Miller.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams 3D

"I am a scientist... but I am a human too."

Remember the days when the best part about
going to the theater to see a movie was watching the previews? Well now every time I sit through them, I have to contemplate my decision to go into the film industry. You'd think they would at least advertise decent movies in the screening of rogue director Werner Herzog's new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Instead I had to watch clips of Jim Carrey dancing with CG penguins and Tom Hanks on a motorcycle. Worst of all, there is a new inspirational film coming out about a dolphin with no tail learning to swim. It's called Dolphin Tale. Now what self-respecting person would make such a horrible pun?
On the bright side, Herzog, one my personal favorites, continues to prove that the art of cinema is not yet extinct (and that 3D might not be all bad). He has strayed off course a few times, but I've always admired the intimacy and humility of Herzog's films. He has incredible passion for his subject matter. To make Cave of Forgotten Dreams, he acquired a permit to film in a location that was previously exclusive to very few archaeologists and art historians, the Chauvet Cave in southern France. This cave contains the oldest cave art yet discovered, dating as far back as 30,000 BC.
While I still don't enjoy watching a movie through badly fitting plastic glasses, this is probably the most thoughtful use of 3D I've seen in any feature film. Herzog wants to show us not a representation of the cave, but the reality of the cave and the dynamism of the paintings. The sight of the paintings, mineral formations, and ancient bones were all breathtaking to say the least. It is ironic that I get more emotional watching crude, flat charcoal paintings than from a sappy tearjerker, but the 3D really captured the expressiveness in the eyes of the animals, and drew a bridge between civilizations tens of thousands of years apart. This is by far the most powerful idea brought about by the film.
In a postscript to Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog contrasts modern man and the ancient civilizations that produced the art in the Chauvet Cave by showing us a nearby nuclear power plant. The water that is used to cool the reactors is diverted, creating a a contained warm-water tropical environment. He spends an especially long time filming a few albino alligators living in this biodome. While I didn't really get his metaphor comparing these alligators to man, this sequence was so charmingly Herzog that I couldn't help but love it.
If you can get yourself to the nearest theater that is showing this film in 3D, I would highly recommend it. Herzog aced it with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a truly unique cinematic experience.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Friday, May 27, 2011

Glengarry Glen Ross

"Put. That. Coffee. Down. Coffee is for closers only."

If I had to give a 14-word description of Glengarry Glen Ross, it would be: a modern-day noir-esque Death of a Salesman with more swearing than The Big Lebowski. Given the ensemble cast, with great actors from Alec Baldwin to Jack Lemmon, it would be very hard for this film to disappoint.
Glengarry Glen Ross, directed by James Foley, is all about the writing (which is very appropriate, seeing as sales is all about talking). The film opens with a very funny monologue from Alec Baldwin’s character, a corporate hotshot brought in to motivate jaded real estate salesmen. This is the high point of comedy in the film, however, as the rest consists the both professional and emotional decline of the employees of the company, and the decline of the company itself.
I feel as though this movie made only a halfhearted attempt at the film noir style. It would have been interesting to see the filmmakers either take this idea all the way, or abandon it completely, because it feels like it is in a stylistic gray area. That being said, I loved the use of rain in the beginning to set the initial tone, and the sound of the train passing in the background whenever someone was yelling especially loudly.
As far as storyline, Glengarry Glen Ross is definitely a tragedy, if not solely due to Jack Lemmon’s character Shelley Levene, an aging salesman who can never be as good at his job as he used to be. My mom drew a comparison between Shelley and Gil, the token unsuccessful businessman on “The Simpsons” (later on we found out that Gil is actually based on Lemmon’s character.)
The interesting thing about the portrayal of the characters is that we are barely given a glimpse into their lives outside their jobs. It is almost as if they exist solely as underpaid, under-appreciated employees, working to sell land that doesn’t exist to people who don’t want to invest. I think this is the point of the film: the author’s criticism of the modern-day labor force and its ultimately dehumanizing powers.
Glengarry Glen Ross is a well-made and well-acted film. But because it is mostly dialogue-based and has very few locations, I think it probably works better for stage, the medium in which it was originally written.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


"If I could sing a song about the way I feel right now, it would be a hit."

I was reluctant to start watching Terrence Malick's Badlands because I thought I'd be in for another sprawling epic like Days of Heaven. But when my mom informed me that it was only an hour and a half long and about a 1950's midwestern spree killer, I got really excited (those of you that know me at all will know why).
Ultimately I was disappointed in this movie. But before I get to the bad, I'll mention the good. While it wasn't as visually stunning as some of Malick's other films, it had great cinematic moments. For example, the first instant we see the killer-to-be Kit Carruthers' gun peeking out of his back pocket as he sneaks into the house of his young girlfriend, Holly, to drag her away from her protective father is shocking and exciting. And [semi-spoiler alert] the sound of piano keys buckling under the pressure of gasoline when Kit burns down Holly's house is so brilliant it almost had to have come about by accident.
My favorite part in the movie is when the two lovers are on the run and live for a while in the woods. These segments are so wonderfully whimsical. I mean isn't that all anyone really wants out of life, to live in a secluded treehouse with your true love, fishing and stealing fruit from a nearby melon patch?
Despite this, I think Malick isn't really cut out to make movies about murderers. His style is perfect for those aforementioned sprawling epics, but it just lacks spark and pacing for this type of storyline; spark that films like The Honeymoon Killers have, for example. The romance between the protagonists seems flat and unbelievable. Malick barely made an attempt to explore the depths of what went on in the characters' heads. He may have been trying to portray the emptiness inside of killers like Kit Carruthers, but I don't think it translates well onto the screen.
While I was underwhelmed, all of you who aren't serial killer buffs might like this film more than I did.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Au Revoir, Les Enfants

"Do you realize there will never be another January 17th, 1944?"

I'd been meaning to watch Louis Malle's autobiographical Au Revoir, Les Enfants for some time now, but I had no idea I was in for such a painfully heart-wrenching story. This is the kind of movie that makes me feel senseless for having given Robocop such a high rating.
Au Revoir, Les Enfants tells the story of a young boy, Julien Quentin, in a Catholic boarding school in the middle of Nazi-occupied France. After some initial tension, he befriends an introverted new student, Jean Bonnet. In the weeks that follow, Julien is forced to look outside his sheltered and privileged lifestyle to see the horrors that are occurring at the hands of the Nazis.
I don't know what it is, but there are so few boarding school movies/books I dislike. If..., Young Tรถrless, Dead Poets Society, Lord of The Flies (does this qualify?). I think it's that they seem to be self-contained societies, with their own hierarchy and the friendships that arise within them that makes the stories so affecting. The relationship between Jean and Julien is no exception. If any film embodies the poignant innocence and integrity of the child, this is the one. Saying any more about what happens between the two boys might be a spoiler, so I'll stop here.
What really I love about Au Revoir, Les Enfants is the subtlety in its portrayal of the inhumanity of the Holocaust. It does this much better, in my opinion, than any film could that shows explicit images and violence. And in addition to the highly moving storyline, the film is beautifully shot. So in other words, there really is no reason not to see it. And then see every other film Louis Malle has made. You won't regret it.

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


"Tastes like baby food!"

I don't know how Peter Weller does so little with his face and still manages to be such a great actor. I guess it's his expressionlessness that gives him character. And also what makes him perfectly convincing as Robocop.
To quickly summarize, Paul Verhoeven's Robocop takes place sometime in the future in crime-ridden Detroit. The police force is relatively weak compared to the criminals, and a big corporation decides to market robot police officers. When there are setbacks in the plan, they decide they must create a hybrid human-robot that embodies the best of both worlds.
The film certainly doesn't waste any time getting into the action. The first robot (the hilariously stop-motion animated ED-209), malfunctions within seconds of his introduction. And the transformation from Officer Murphy to Robocop takes just one quick cut. This leaves plenty of time for campy violence and quotable one-liners. Which is of course the reason people watch this film in the first place.
Now I might be biased because I am a huge fan of camp (yes, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive is in my top ten), but I thought this movie was pretty fun overall. Apart from the fact that I am getting a little mad at Netflix. The quality of their streaming films is awful. And the DVDs always seem to skip, this time making me me miss the scene where Robocop comes face-to-face with his murderer. Luckily though, this film is not very plot driven, so I put together the pieces pretty easily.
I wish I was able to see Robocop when it came out, back when no one really had computers, because I'm sure it would've seemed super innovative. Nonetheless, I think it passes the test of time and holds up wonderfully.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Before Sunrise

"It's a totally scattered thought - which is kind of why it makes sense."

Having seen both Richard Linklater's Waking Life and Dazed and Confused, I was extremely glad to discover that Before Sunrise is more akin to the former. The plot is simple, two strangers, Jesse and Celine, meet on a train, become infatuated, and spend a romantic night together in Vienna. However, the beauty of this film is not in plot, character, or aesthetics, but rather in its universality. I'll try to explain.
The film is wonderfully structured: it begins when the characters meet, and ends when they part. We know nothing of their lives or their worlds outside of their relationship with one another. Thus we are experiencing the events that occur in the film exactly as the characters are. Similarly to how I felt about Waking Life, Linklater and his co-writer Kim Krizan create characters that eloquently articulate things that everyone has thought about, but has not really known how to put into words. This is where I come back to the concept of universality. Whereas Waking Life demonstrates the universality of thought, Before Sunrise demonstrates the universality of love. Everyone who has felt love can't not relate to Celine and Jesse or the situation at hand.
So apart from what the poster to the right might hint at, Before Sunrise is not a standard-cheesy romance film like The Notebook or Amelie or Casablanca. Even though it is about a girl who gets off a train in a foreign city with a total stranger to spend a night with him (and ends up falling hopelessly in love in the course of a few hours,) it feels entirely real. Their emotions and conversations are incredibly human and relatable. And despite Ethan Hawke's weasel-y and obnoxious disposition, you end up falling in love with him just like Celine.
But I warn you, don't watch this movie if you're feeling lonely, because you'll get really jealous of the characters and end up just feeling worse. Apart from that though, this is definitely a movie worth seeing. Oh and also. There's a sequel. Which will be making an appearance on this blog very soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


"That's how I got so sick - SOMEONE CALLED ME ON THE TELEPHONE!!"

I will remember Brian De Palma's Sisters not for its suspense or exploration of the psychological effects of being a conjoined twin, but rather the most unrealistic fake blood I have ever seen. So, unlike Carrie, another De Palma film, I wouldn't really call this a horror film, but the mystery of it at the least compelled me watch until the end.
You know how sometimes you can't tell if something from the past is cool because it is actually cool or it just seems that way because it's from a different time period? Well either way, stylistically, I loved De Palma's use of split-screen (from which I think Danny Boyle may have gotten inspiration.) I had never seen it used for such a long amount of time, especially with the same action occurring at different angles. This was probably my favorite thing about this film, due to the lack of depth of themes and characters, the mediocre acting and the unsatisfying ending. In the first half, Sisters seems as if it will have great potential, but just sort of fizzles out by the end, and takes itself a little too seriously (also unlike Carrie).
Overall, Sisters might be worth watching if you are in the mood for killing an hour or so on a pretty shallow suspense film.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars