10/31/12

#67 - Convoy (Sam Peckinpah)




On the CB



This is the first Sam Peckinpah movie that I’ve ever seen in my life and it was a childhood favorite of mine. The movie was often shown on TV here when I was young, but what made it a favorite was also the fact that I’ve pretty much grown up around truck drivers. Three of my uncles drove trucks at one point of their life or another (one of them still does actually). So I always had a love for these huge powerful machines, and for me “Convoy” captured what it meant to be a truck driver on the road. I however haven’t seen the film in almost 20 years now, so watching it last night was quite a nostalgia trip. 

But although this is a very enjoyable film and goes surprisingly well with “Vanishing Point” and “Two-Lane Blacktop” since it gives a rebellious middle finger to authority and portrays life on the road, but from the working man's perspective - a trucker's perspective with all the CB vocabulary and everything. It is also the weakest film of the three and quite probably the weakest Sam Peckinpah film I’ve written about so far. Which is no big deal to be honest since I never expected “Convoy” to be a masterpiece, all I expected was a fun and cool movie and that is exactly what I got.


However, even though the production of “Convoy” was very troubled and Peckinpah struggled with alcoholism and illness through most of it, this still feels very much like a Peckinpah movie. Sure you can also describe it as a cheap cash-in on the success of “Smokey and the Bandit”, but this film has way more heart than “Smokey” can even think of. What “Convoy” does great for an action road movie is that, while the thrills and laughs are preserved, it still has those small human moments. Like the exchanges between Duck (Kris Kristofferson) and his waitress girlfriend. There’s real tenderness and honesty there. Although this is also a woman that Duck forgets the second he drives off with his truck, and a woman that by the end of the film gets completely replaced with Ali MacGraw. Oh Sam…

Anyway, the stunts and effects in this film are wonderful and thrilling. Trucks flip over, cars run through barns and at one point half a town gets demolished by the convoy. And then there’s the convoy itself – an ever growing row of trucks on the highway that in the later parts of the film seems quite endless. But although the film has a rebellious message it never gets bogged down by it nor does it ever veer off in to some moralistic lecturing.


There is however thematic consistency with other Peckinpah films as “Convoy” romanticizes the outlaw, is very anti-establishment and the huge trucks are not only big phallic symbols of masculinity and male dominance but also a symbol of freedom. They scream “land of the free and home of the brave” which makes it kind of funny that the film was immensely popular in the east-European communist countries at the time of its release. I guess that the “working man uprising against an oppressive authority figure” storyline spoke to the reds as well.

As I said at the start of this post there is a lot of deep-rooted nostalgia for me when this film is concerned, so this write-up is probably a horrible reflection of the film itself as I seem to be completely and utterly unable to point out the major flaws in it (and I’m sure there’s quite a few). But I am being nothing but absolutely honest when I say that I had a blast while watching it last night.




Cast:

Kris Kristofferson - Rubber Duck
Ali MacGraw - Melissa
Ernest Borgnine - Sheriff Lyle Wallace
Burt Young - Pig Pen
Franlyn Ajaye - Spider Mike


10/30/12

#66 - Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)



 

Good Story, Well Told



In many ways the movie “Magic Mike” is the surprise success story of 2012. The production budget of the picture was only about 7 million dollars and it grossed over 150 million worldwide. However the real success of “Magic Mike” is not the one on the box office but the one on the storytelling front. This movie is proof that good stories that are well told will always have an audience, even if the backdrop of the picture is something as the male stripping scene of Tampa. Although I’m sure that the male stripper thing helped get quite a few female butts in the theaters as well.
 
But I’m not a female and I enjoyed the film quite a bit. Not because of the stripping scenes, and there are quite a few of those, but because of the wonderfully executed coming of age story at the center of it. The story follows two guys, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a lost 19 year old kid who doesn’t exactly know what to do with himself and Mike (Chaning Tatum), who Adam meets on a construction job and who pretty much opens the doors for Adam to a whole new world that is about to change his life, the world of male stripping. As Mike puts it when he explains the situation to Adam’s older sister Brooke (Cody Horn): its money, its women and its fun – a 19 year old’s dream. But the situation is hardly that simple, and although Adam is 19, Mike isn’t.
 

This simple set-up is the catalyst for the story and to be quite honest it could have been set on an oil rig or in some other similar environment and it could have worked just as well. But I love the male stripping backdrop as it first of all explores something we've never see in movies. A glitzy backdrop that is very ripe with opportunities for humor, opportunities that the movie rarely passes up.
 
Apart from this dramatic story and this great sense of humor it’s the actors that elevate the film as well. Everyone is great across the board but if there was one name to pick out it would without a doubt be Matthew McConaughey in the role of the strip-club owner Dallas. With this part he continues his string of wonderful performances that was started with “Bernie” and “The Lincoln Lawyer”, and I hear he’s great in “Killer Joe” as well, which is a movie I hope to see sometime soon.
 

And as funny as it may seem this struck me as probably the biggest crowd-pleaser that Soderbergh has done since “Out Of Sight”. I don’t think it’s better than “Che” or “Traffic” or even “Contagion”, but I’m sure that the simple and empathetic linear story that it tells is the key reason for this film's success. Yeah the people went to see it for the sexy and hunky stars but they stayed for the story, and then came back for another go. It’s a triumph of storytelling and proof positive that the audience for good stories is still out there, even though Hollywood would prefer it if everyone though otherwise.




Cast:

Chaning Tatum - Mike
Alex Pettyfer - Adam
Matthew McConaughey
Cody Horn - Brooke
Olivia Munn - Joanna



10/29/12

#65 - Vanishing Point (Richard C. Sarafian)




The Need for Speed



The image of a white 70’s Dodge Charger speeding through the desert is so iconic and imbedded in to our collective subconscious that I had it in my head even before I saw this film. And watching these shots on the screen for the first time evoked in me a great sense of familiarity and nostalgia, only to realize that these same shots I’ve seen in a dozen of other movies, including “Lost Highway”, “Thelma and Louise” and most obviously “Death Proof”. Such is the impact of “Vanishing Point”.

And just like “Two-Lane Blacktop” this is a movie about driving first and foremost, only that instead of focusing on the rebellious lifestyle and realism “Vanishing Point” goes for the inexcusable and immediate thrills of speed and fast cars, and it shows this with quite a style. The camera whips as the Charger vrooms by in to the distance, it glides beside it at full speed and vibrates together with the engine as it’s stationed on the car’s hood. The imagery it evokes is immediately thrilling and ultimately iconic.


“Vanishing Point” consciously revels in this iconography it is creating as it glorifies its main (human) character, the driver named Kowalski (Barry Newman). Through flashbacks we learn that Kowalski was many things, a decorated war hero, a race car driver, a hero cop. In short a superman. But now he’s just a driver with a job to do and nothing to lose. Nothing but a bet he made with his drug dealer at the start of the film.

This is also another film that carries that existentialism and spirituality of “Easy Rider”, some imagery it evokes veers off slightly in to surrealism even. The film actually opens with such a scene, where Kowalski dodges a police blockade and continues driving down the highway only to vanish right in front of our eyes. Then the film goes back two days and shows us the road Kowalski takes to get to that point. But once the film ends all this surreal imagery becomes crystallized and starts making sense. It’s not as ambiguously juicy like the ending of “Blacktop” or shocking like the one of “Easy Rider” but it does carry quite a visceral and visual punch. But the overall story itself and the characters (including Kowalski himself) are very flimsy and undeveloped.

But that’s not what “Vanishing Point” is about, like I said it’s about the driving and the speed. This is what Kowalski is also about and the whole film is a chase between him and the cops, and these are the parts that the movie does easily the best. The sense of speed it provides is exquisite as is the backdrop through which the car is being driven. It is pure Americana in so many ways. Sure the chase scenes are interrupted with various odd encounters that Kowalski has on his way but thankfully they’re never boring or all too long and the good heart-pounding stuff kicks in again soon enough.


“Vanishing Point” plays almost all its chips on one card and wins big. Yes there are existentialist and counter culture themes in the film but they’re clumsy at best. This film’s big rebellious heart is under the hood of that white Dodge Charger and it’s only happy when it’s racing down an open desert highway, preferably with a squad of cop cars on its heels.






Cast:

Barry Newman - Kowalski
Cleavon Little - Super Soul
Dean Jagger - Prospector


10/28/12

#64 - Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman)




That Sacred Bond between Man and Machine



Even though I wasn’t really impressed with “Speed Racer” the movie did inspire me to look in to other movies that deal with cars and racing since I am a bit of a closet driving enthusiast. So I was reading up on “Vanishing Point” (the film I’ll be watching tonight actually) where this film got mentioned a few times. I’ve never heard of it before, but it intrigued me because it was described as a cult gear-head film. And after watching it last night it was not hard to see why it attained that status.

The stars of the film are not the actors but the cars and the open road, and in the lead role is a custom built ’55 Chevy. This car has personality written all over it with its matte gray paint job and huge hood vent. It’s a car with a purpose, and its purpose is to be driven and raced. The two guys who use this car, the Mechanic (Dennis Wilson) and the Driver (James Taylor), seem more like the silent servants of this metal beast than its owners. And when they do talk they talk about the car - about how it performs, about fixing it, racing it, driving it.


A free spirited girl (Laurie Bird) inexplicably joins them on their drive across the country; she just takes a seat in the backseat of the car without asking if she can come along. The Driver and the Mechanic don’t even ask her anything about why she is joining them or where she’s going, they just drive along. And along the way they agree to a cross country race with GTO (Warren Oates), who is named so because he drives a ’70 Pointiac GTO. And this race is quite strange as well, because they don’t seem to be racing at all and they help each other along the way to their destination. A destination that they decide on early in the film but then later seem to forget about as they talk about going somewhere else.

This all sounds very pretentious and hollow and I am sure many will see it as such. But I didn’t. For me it captured the essence of the gear-head lifestyle because it is very much about the wind in your hair and the free spirited nature of the existence on the road. It’s also about the uninhibited obsession that goes with it, and especially about going really fast in an awesome car with a stupid grin on your face. And there is quite a bit of racing and fast driving in this film. Racing is how the guys make their money on their journey, and although it’s not as spectacularly shot as in modern movies it’s much more exciting for me personally. The racing is shot in a very realistic way and you experience these races as a bystander would, from a removed point of view, or as a person in the car. So you can feel the physicality and the speed of these cars, the vibrations of their motors and almost smell the gasoline and burnt tire.


“Two-Lane Blacktop” is a beautiful film full of visual and thematic poetry. It’s a road and lifestyle movie and the “Easy Rider” comparison that I’ve seen flung around when “Two-Lane Blacktop” is mentioned seem very apt to me. The ending is as equally mystifying as the one of “Easy Rider” and inspires much thought. It’s a film that made me remember my first car and the relationship I had with it. There’s something sacred about that.




Cast:

James Taylor - the Driver
Dennis Wilson - the Mechanic
Laurie Bird - the Girl
Warren Oates - GTO


10/27/12

#63 - The Invisible War (Kirby Dick)





Betrayal



Kirby Dick is not a foreign name to me. I’ve seen his two documentary films “Twist of Faith” (about child abuse in the Catholic church) and “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” (about the American film ratings board) and his last film before this one “Outrage” (about the anti-gay lobby in Washington) has been sitting on my watchlist since it came out. He is considered a controversial documentarian but I don’t see what’s so controversial about his films since he documents already well established problems in authoritative institutions. Be it the church, the government or a censorship board (if it quacks like a duck…) - institutions that wield the power to influence our daily lives. And his latest film, “The Invisible War”, is very much along those lines as it is about the rape epidemic of female soldiers within the US military forces.

Actually the fact that his films are even labeled as controversial only reflects the readiness of certain facets of our society not to question authority, for whatever reasons, and with that to ultimately ignore the mentioned problems, including this one.


Rape is a difficult subject matter as is, but when you hear how the military treats rape victims within its ranks, with hush-up tactics, victim blaming or even flat out telling the victims to “suck it up”, it becomes absolutely infuriating.  This is what “The Invisible War” is, it’s infuriating and disturbing, and it is exactly what it should be simply because such treatment of people who have gone through something as traumatic as rape is inexcusable.  Except if you’re the military of course, because officially now rape within the ranks is considered an “occupational hazard”.
 
The plethora of statistics found within this film is a bit overwhelming. The estimate numbers of victims, how many of said victims actually file in charges, and how many of those charges get processed and ultimately how many of offenders get punished, etc. - all of these numbers are quite harrowing, but I will not repeat them here. What I will say instead is that all this information is based on government data (as the film states at the very start) and it makes for quite a convincing case that the military is going out of its way to marginalize the victims and protect the offenders, who, more often than not seem to be of higher rank than their victims.
 
It’s a very thorough expose that also goes in to the psychological ramifications of such an event in such a controlled environment as is the military. This is presented through personal testimony of the victims and it’s absolutely heartbreaking to listen to, especially when one considers that most of them joined the armed forces out of a sense of patriotism and with very idealistic intentions. It’s a betrayal not only by the people who you considered to be your friends and peers, brothers even, but by the very institution that you’re serving and that you’d expect to protect you. But the film also tries to provide possible solutions and points out that the hierarchical military judiciary system is the first thing to blame, at least for the lack of punishment of perpetrators and due processing.
 

“The Invisible War” is a difficult film to watch, but it’s a film that by its very nature demands to be seen. The information it provides is very substantial and if anything it should serve as a great warning piece for any person that is considering to enlist. I’m sure that this occupational hazard will not be included on their recruitment forms.



Featuring:

Kori Cioca
Ariana Klay
Elle Helmer
Jessica Hinves
Trina McDonald
Michael Matthews
Hannah Sewell
Myla Haider


The Invisible War on IMDb

10/26/12

#62 - Hellraiser (Clive Barker)




Pain and Pleasure



Just like it’s the case with “The Omen” I have not seen “Hellraiser” despite being quite familiar with the film. However the difference here is that I actively avoided watching “Hellraiser” and there’s a reason for that. When I was a kid I walked in to a room where a couple of adults where watching a VHS copy of this film, and it was during one of the more extreme scenes in the film (the penis monster chasing Kirsty down that corridor – the image imprinted itself in my brain) and it kind of had a profound effect on me. Even though I was quite a curious child that loved movies I knew then and there that, yep, I was not supposed to be watching that. I had the exact same reaction to seeing pornography for the first time at a similar age. I just simply walked out of that room, stunned by what I’ve glimpsed at.

That notion stuck with me through my whole teenage life and now through the majority of my early adulthood - I’m just not ready to watch that shit. Well I finally watched that shit and, apart from giving me that massive flashback to a semi-forgotten childhood memory, it was not all that bad. First of all because my idea of what “Hellraiser” is was majorly warped by that single experience. I only experienced that shock and gore of it, which made me think it’s a movie that only exploits shock and gore. And I fucking detest films that display no real value beyond providing such extreme imagery.


But last night I found out that “Hellraiser” is actually not that kind of film. And sure, except for the effects, make up and the score the whole production has a rather bland facet to it. The acting, the script, the editing and the cinematography – it all seems very sloppy in a sense, but I’ve already gone at lengths in my other posts how a sub-par presentational quality can elevate a horror film’s effectiveness. This is the case with “Hellraiser” as well as it proves to be quite an effective and tense film. But what stuck with me the most were the sadomasochist themes and aesthetics at the core of the film.

What “Hellraiser” does is that it makes its horrors psychologically tangible with their link to sexuality, a link that is channeled primarily though sadomasochist iconography and character motivations. So these horrors can be a product of a search for the ultimate pleasure (Frank), a yearning for sexual fulfillment (Julia) or even sexual blooming (Kristy). The film taps in to the all human fear of sex and its psychological connections with death, and it does so primarily through visual and storytelling means and in quite a disturbing way. Obviously this makes “Hellraiser” a very controversial horror film that does not hold back its punches.


The only real flaw for me is that it takes itself a bit too seriously. This seriousness even makes it quite laughable at points when combined with the sloppy filmmaking that I mentioned. But then again the film itself also feels like a response to the other franchise horror films of the 80’s like the “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th” series, which were becoming very tongue in cheek kill-fests. Anyway what matters is that “Hellraiser” is an intriguing and tense film with some great visual effects and make-up work, but it’s shocking and sexually subversive nature is what makes it so effective and quite unforgettable. Even though many will (and already do) hate it for the exact same reasons.




Cast:

Andrew Robinson - Larry
Claire Higgins - Julia
Ashley Laurence - Kristy
Sean Chapman - Frank
Doug Bradley - Lead Cenobite


10/25/12

#61 - Speed Racer (the Wachowskis)




LSD


I have to say up front that I’ve never seen a single episode of the Japanese animated series that “Speed Racer” is based on, so my judgment may be very superfluous for anyone who loves the show. But because of that I also don’t have any preconceived expectations and opinions on what an adaptation should be like. However, since I saw “The Matrix” at the perfect age, I am an admirer of the Wachowskis so it pains me to have such conflicted feelings about “Speed Racer”. It’s a movie that I really want to love, but for the life of me I cannot find many reasons to do so.

But then again I am not this film’s demographic either, since it seems to be aimed at the widest possible audience and primarily kids. And even as I was typing that sentence I realized that I simply do not buy that excuse anymore for films of this type*. Especially not in the world where Pixar makes (made?) films that everyone can enjoy, from a preschooler to the grandparent, all age demographics, racial demographics and whatever other kind of demographics seem to be served**. And the basic premise of Speed Racer does not strike me as one that can only be interesting to kids. I mean, for God’s sake, my favorite Pixar film is about a talking rat that wants to be a chef, and it’s a film that fully served my adult storytelling needs! Anyway, I feel like I’m ranting already which means that it’s time to move on.


So what did I like about “Speed Racer”? Well for one the campy nature of it all is fantastic and it’s actually what makes the film stand out, apart from the dazzling visuals of course. I also love the cast as it is filled with obviously great actors, both young and old. But here we already have a problem.

The film is shot completely in front of a green-screen and then they added everything that surrounds the actors in the post with CGI. The problem is that the actors are frequently reacting to stuff that was not there when they shot it, and although their interactions with each other are well executed a lot of their reactions to the CGI elements just feel fake or even a bit incompatible. But this is a problem that plagues most films that are done entirely in front of a green-screen, not just "Speed Racer".

Still what the Wachowskis’ use of green-screen does is that it brings out a wonderfully colorful cartoon aesthetic to the film. And although I often found green-screen films of this type to feel very unconvincing I can safely say that since “Sin City” no other film has put this technique to better visual use. This is mostly the case because the Wachowskis are not trying to recreate a semblance of reality in “Speed Racer”, but instead use it to stylize everything. This aesthetic that they create is colorful and dynamic, a visual treat and a complete assault on the senses. For anyone even remotely interested in inventive use of CGI and green-screen filmmaking and its use for transitions and other editing and cinematic trickery, “Speed Racer” is the film to watch.


But this visual assault on the senses severely lacks any juxtaposition with the story, because the story is simply over plotted and convoluted. Both the visuals and the plot are on full overdrive mode making the film a rather numb and exhausting watch. The story is overly complicated in the sense that it enters that “The Phanom Menace” territory, the one that deals with trade treaties, galactic politics and whatever, and these superficial plot elements drown any real emotional storytelling points and quite honestly destroy any semblance of fun that could have been gotten from what is a very simple plot at its core. Only that instead of the galactic politics of “The Phantom Menace” in “Speed Racer” we get corporate shenanigans.

And while we’re at it, isn’t it quite ironic and a bit duplicitous that a 100 million dollar movie from a major studio has a theme of corporate corruption and champions the small independent business? It’s like Warner Bros. are openly saying, we’ll peddle you any bullshit you want to hear as long as you send us your dollars. Well how predictably corporate of them!

I get that this corporate theme can be read as a critique of the studio system itself (just replace “corporation” with “studio” and voila!), but the duplicitous connotations that I mentioned just overpower any purity that might be found in this interpretation of the theme. This is the case as well with the parallel that can be pulled between what racing means to Speed (Emile Hirsch) and the art of making movies. This theme is completely tarnished simply because the racing in this film is so goddamn plastic, it lacks any sense of physicality and danger and with that any real excitement and emotion. Sure it looks fucking cool, but it’s a clear cut case of style over substance and surely this cannot be what filmmaking or racing is supposed to be about? Well for some people it certainly is, but despite this movie I refuse to believe that the Wachowskis are that kind of people.


Alejando Jodorowsky once said about his failed adaptation of “Dune”*** that he wanted to make it a film that gave the audience the experience of LSD but without being on the drug. I guess this might be the greatest compliment that I can bestow upon “Speed Racer” because, at least visually, it absolutely achieves that effect. It’s a colorful, dizzying and dazzling pop-art pastiche but despite its potential it unfortunately fails as a film.

-

* I do however buy it for strictly adult films like “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” and “Funny Games”, but those are also films that are not intended for the widest possible audience, nor where they meant to be films for kids.

** I have to stress how much I hate this marketing lingo. This greatly comes from the extent that film marketing has infected the creative process with its focus grouping bullshit (this is not shampoo that they’re peddling) and the intent on catering a film to this or that demographic. It’s art by consensus which is an oxymoron if there ever was one, especially when you ask for opinions from non professionals that, with all due respect to most audience members, don’t know what they’re talking about.  Test screenings on the other hand are a great tool to gauge the broad impact of your film on an audience and are in my opinion a vital part in the making of a certain type of film.

*** In the whole history of the film medium this is probably the most fascinating movie that was never made. Such artists as Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Jean Giraud Moebius and Hans Ruedi Gieger where attached to participate.  A documentary on the failed project is set to release sometime next year. Cannot fucking wait!





Cast:

Emile Hirsch - Speed
Chrustina Ricci - Trixie
John Goodman - Pops
Susan Sarandon - Mom
Matthew Fox - Racer X


10/24/12

#60 - La Strada (Federico Fellini)




Amplified Grace


Wow. After the last two Fellini films that I saw I really did not expect this. Both “8½” and “La Dolce Vita” where soulful and intelligent conceptual and stylistic marvels, but “La Strada” connected with me on another level. It provided an emotional connection that I did not manage to fully establish with the other two, which does not mean that “8½” and “La Dolce Vita” are inferior films. They are not inferior simply because they are not designed to be what “La Strada” is. A film that does not call attention to its style, a film that does not struggle to engage you intellectually but instead focuses all its assets to hook you emotionally. And it does this effortlessly.

In order to achieve this Fellini’s approach for “La Strada” is obviously very different than in the other two films. Here he is practically invisible. The narrative is simple, linear and does not employ any flashbacks or dream sequences of any kind. And this is very much an Italian neo-realist film, or at least it carries much of that style’s influence. The camera and production design and lighting are all used to accentuate realism. The film even deals primarily with the lower class in post war Italy. The only real divergence from the style seem to be the actors.


The Italian neo-realist films where usually cast with amateur actors, the real people, however “La Strada” stars the great Anthony Quinn, who is admittedly very convincing even though his performance is dubbed in to Italian (a norm for Italian cinema of that time as they did not care much for on location dialogue and did it all in post). He plays a traveling artist, a strong-man named Zampano, who purchases himself a wife named Gelsomina, played by Giulietta Masina.

Masina gives a powerful comedic and dramatic performance and is the emotional center of this film. But, as it usually is with standout roles like this, her character is deliberately designed to be pure and sympathetic and made to be such not only through the acting but also through the script and direction. The comedic layer only elevates this. So on retrospect I cannot help but admire Anthony Quinn’s performance just a smidgeon more because he is what makes Zampano human and sympathetic, despite the simple-minded nature of his character and quite a few despicable deeds that he performs. It would have been very easy for this character to become just a simple villain of the story, but he is not a villain at all, and I think Quinn (and, of course, the direction he received) is totally what makes the character work so marvelously. Actually this might be my favorite performance by Anthony Quinn, but I’d have to see this film a few more times before restating that with certainty. 


“La Strada” is a film that I would recommend to anyone as it is a very emotional film that has a ton of entertainment value as well. It is Fellini’s most accessible film of the three that I’ve seen, although it is not as stylistically exuberant. But it does preserve that graceful and spellbinding quality that seems to follow Fellini’s work, and actually I’d even argue that the cinematic simplicity of “La Strada” amplifies it.





Cast:

Anthony Quinn - Zampano
Giulietta Masina - Gelsomina
Richard Baseheart - il Matto / the Fool

Original language: Italian


10/23/12

#59 - Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah)




Art from Adversity



“Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” was Sam Peckinpah’s follow up to “The Getaway”, and it was envisioned as his final commentary on the western genre. But when the film released it was a commercial flop and mangled by critics. Ultimately it was disowned by Peckinpah and most people that worked on it because the version that hit the theaters was a truncated one that suffered badly from the clash between Peckinpah and the studio. However Peckinpah saved a copy of his original cut and this version is the widely accepted cut that you’ll find on (most) DVD and video editions of the film. This cut also made most critics re-evaluate the film and proclaim it one of Sam’s best.

As it’s evident from the title the film follows the two great icons of the west, lawman Pat Garrett and the outlaw Billy the Kid. The relationship between these two men is the main focus of the film as Pat Garrett was not always a lawman, actually the film makes it clear that he rode with the Kid in the past. And the film starts with a meeting of these two friends, but it is not a friendly meeting as Pat declares that he’s been hired to take the Kid in and gives him five days to clear on out of the state.


It seems like a familiar setup but what Peckinpah does with it is quite unique especially in the way he portrays Billy the Kid. In Peckinpah’s film he is not only an outlaw but also a very romanticized anti-hero. In fact oftentimes he is better received by the people populating the towns and the outskirts than the “good guy” Pat Garrett. This makes Pat’s turning on his friend even more poignant as he becomes a very tormented character because of it. Furthermore it underlines the passing of an era because Billy is portrayed as a man out of time, a living folk hero. And the bullet that finds him in the end is the last nail in the coffin for the era of the American outlaw and the Wild West, as well as the last nail in the coffin of the western genre. As if “The Wild Bunch” did not provide enough nails.

Obviously the two actors portraying Pat and Billy need to be at the top of their game for any of this to work, and honestly I was never really convinced by Kris Kristofferson as an actor until I saw this film. He gives by far his best cinematic performance here and makes Billy the Kid everything that he ever represented in the minds of the people. A murderous outlaw, a charming rebel and a true free spirit. But for me the performance of this film is the one that James Coburn gives. He was always a towering presence of the screen, but here he gives a superb and nuanced performance that is maybe not as charming as Kristofferson’s but Coburn is the broken heart and soul of this film.


Speaking of actors it is worth to mention that this film has one of the few on screen performances by the great Bob Dylan. And although he is not much of an actor it’s always fascinating for me to see someone like him on the screen. However the musical score he did for this film is awesome, and one of his most beloved songs (a song he did for this film) “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” is used to amazing effect*.

“Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” is a magnificent film with two great performances. It’s a haunting film with its nostalgia and the note that it ultimately leaves with is one of profound melancholy. A sadness for a friend lost and an era gone by. It’s a Peckinpah film even though it might have not turned completely how he envisioned it. But then again Peckinpah’s art always came from great adversity, and “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid” certainly holds on that scale.

-

* I’ve read that Sam Peckinpah actually cut the song from his “preview cut”, feeling that Dylan’s score was forced on him by the studio. This is a damn shame because it is one of the most memorable moments in the “special edition” cut of the film (the cut I’ve watched last night). 




Cast:

James Coburn - Pat Garrett
Kris Kristofferson - Billy the Kid
Bob Dylan - Alias
Jason Robards - Governor Wallace
Harry Dean Stanton  - Luke


10/22/12

#58 - Funny Games (Michael Haneke)



note: article contains spoilers

Torture Porn



This is a remake of the Austrian film of the same name from 1997. Both films are directed by the same man, Michael Haneke, and apart from the setting and the actors they are pretty much the same film to the point where even the dialogue seems to be just a translation from the German version in to English. Yes this is a shot for shot remake, and the only reason that I’ve ever heard from Haneke for doing this film is to preserve the function of the original film and not let some other director bastardize it, or even turn it in to a type of film that “Funny Games” is criticizing. An admirable endeavor if you ask me especially when you consider that it would have been made with or without Haneke.

But before going in to what “Funny Games” is about I need to say just how much I love this guy’s work. I’ve seen about half of Haneke’s feature films at this point and I’ve loved every single one. Sure most audiences will find the majority of his work boring or even detestable (including “Funny Games”) but they’re always very interesting and captivating films to watch for me. Well, at least so far. And despite the simplicity of his style of filmmaking there is a Kubrickian emotional neutrality and objective directorial point of view to all his films that brings out the ideas at the film’s center and makes them very easy to pick up. They’re very intellectually engaging films and can stick with you for days, that is, if you're willing to meet them half way. But anyway, a few thoughts on to the film itself.


“Funny Games” follows a well off family that, after arriving at their vacation house, meets Peter and Paul – two very strange but polite guys in their late teens. After they refuse to leave the family house and attack the father it becomes clear that Peter and Paul have some very unpleasant games in mind for the family. And what follows should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a horror film of this formula. Well that’s wrong, because this wouldn’t be a Haneke film if that was the case.

The most obvious deviation is Paul, who has a liking to breaking the fourth wall. He naughtily winks at the camera at one point, and at another even addresses the audience. With this Paul presents himself as an obvious element of the author’s agency, even bluntly stating in the text of the film that his actions are done to heighten the drama for the audience. This is a clear critique of formulaic filmmaking that the film is employing and especially a certain type of genre films that exploit the suffering and torture of its characters. Such movies have also been branded as “Torture Porn” by some film fans.


Still, Haneke does break the formula eventually with the fact that he kills off the entire family and lets the killers move along to their next target at the end. This brake from the genre starts at a very crucial point, when Ann (the mother) manages to shoot Peter and with that creates an exit point for the “triumphant” third act. But Haneke allows Paul to literally rewind the film and in a repeat scene prevent her from shooting his friend. The point of the rewind is obviously to deliver the full impact of a torture porn film but without the ultimate gratification in watching a survivor take her revenge, making all the senseless exploitation all right for the audience. No, if you want pointless torture porn, that’s what you’re going to get with Haneke and he refuses to give you a catharsis that will make you feel good for enjoying the violence that happened just minutes before.

But there is catharsis in Funny Games, and although it is not a gratifying or emotional catharsis it is an intellectual one. That is if the film did not disengage you somewhere with its genre toying and with its purposeful braking of the cinematic illusion.

“Funny Games” is an amazing conceptual critique of a certain type of film and the portrayal of violence in the media. And when graphic violence is concerned there is very little of it in the film, as most of it happens off screen. However the film is loaded with psychological violence in the form of degradation and humiliation of the innocent family, and this is even more traumatic and difficult to watch at times than any gore that a mere exploitation films could throw at you.


This makes “Funny Games” (both versions) one of Haneke’s least accessible films in my opinion, and this sentiment is just further contributed to with the illusion breaking effects in the film like the mentioned rewind and the winks at the audience. But like any Haneke film it is very much a rewarding experience that expects you to do a part of the work for yourself and does not care to spoon-feed you entertainment or ponder to you in any way. 

-

an observation - I couldn't help but notice that "The Cabin in the Woods" pretty much de facto ripped off the opening of this film, or homages it or whatever you want to call it. I mean just look at that title screen! It's quite possible that "Funny Games" was in a way an inspiration for that film, as they both deconstruct the machinations of the horror genre in their structure. (I didn't know where to place this tidbit in the main body of the text, so there it is)





Cast:

Naomi Watts - Ann
Tim Roth - George
Michael Pitt - Paul
Brady Corbet - Peter
Devon Gearhart - Georgie



10/21/12

#57 - The Omen (Richard Donner)

 

 

 

Semblance of Ambiguity



As somebody that has grown up on a steady diet of Hollywood blockbusters I find it interesting how there are some popular films that I’ve always avoided. “The Omen” is one of those films, and I really could not give you the answer to why I’d avoid it, especially since it has a good reputation and is often named in the same breath as one of my favorite horror films - “The Exorcist”. But now after watching “The Omen” I have to state that these comparisons don’t go beyond the obvious, and while “The Omen” is a solid film it also never even comes close to the mastery of Friedkin’s classic.

Still the film does have a good pacing and provides some genuine thrills with its great death scenes. But there is no real sense of mystery and the little atmosphere that the wonderful score by Jerry Goldsmith provides gets bogged down by rather predictable plotting of the story. There are quite a few horror clich├ęs all around and the silly investigation that is found in the second part of the film seemed quite daft to me, as our characters discover symbols and clues and divulge exposition that is all too obvious for a modern viewer.


Yes, the film probably did not have these problems when it was screened in its initial run and all this pseudo religious mumbo-jumbo was way more tolerable and maybe even fascinating to an audience that saw religious horror fiction as something fresh. However I think this is just mediocre screenwriting as “The Exorcist” goes through a similar investigation and comes out completely unscathed. I may be very biased here towards “The Exorcist”, but I can’t help it as I did find those scenes very tiresome in “The Omen”.

Another thing that left me cold with “The Omen” where the characters as I really felt little sympathy for these “beautiful people” and especially the protagonist who, if anything, seems to be roped in to believing all kinds of things because of ancient prophecies that come from the rants of a crazed priest. Furthermore all the events that unfold around him, even the deaths, could be easily seen as morbid coincidence. In fact the only character that I had any feelings of sympathy towards was Damien! As he could have easily been an innocent child surrounded by lunatics who believe him to be something he is not.

This semblance of storytelling ambiguity is actually the film’s greatest asset, but it strikes me as a rather unintentional addition as the film very much veers towards the “he is the child of Satan” option. This is especially the case when we take in to account the handful of sequels that followed this film - a notion that just pulverizes the mentioned ambiguity.


However these problems do not prevent “The Omen” from being a competent horror film and I personally attribute this to Richard Donner, a man that always struck me as a very able craftsman. The structure of the film works very well and as I said it has good pacing, but the rather sloppy writing prevents it from being a true horror classic. A title that others seem to gladly bestow upon it.




Cast:

Gregory Peck - Robert Thorn
Lee Remick - Katherine Thorn
David Warner - Jennings
Billie Whitelaw - Mrs. Baylock
Harvey Stephens - Damien



10/20/12

#56 - 8½ (Federico Fellini)




The Beautiful Confusion

  


“8½” is film that focuses on a director who is about to start making a new film. He wants it to be a personal film, a truthful film. No lies. In many ways this filmmaker, Guido, is the director of the film that I am writing about. I am not saying that Guido is Fellini, but I do think that he is the agent of Fellini. For example we have no clue what Guido’s film is about, even though he talks about it quite a bit throughout “8½”. But there is a spaceship set that is being built for Guido, and although it is not very clear what its purpose is in Guido’s film it sure as hell serves as a grand backdrop for the finale of “8½”.

Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) is suffering from something that is familiar to any person that is working in a creative field. A creative block. When you pile up on that the pressures that come with success and expectations and deadlines things start getting a bit screwy in your head, as is the case with Guido.


And creative block is certainly a theme of the film but it strikes me as a very superficial one - a theme that is there mostly to serve the plot of “8½”. It actually might have been one of the starting ideas for the film itself as it is very easy to see Fellini going through a similar crisis as Guido, and coming up with the concept for this very film. But the final film goes well beyond that simple proposition and has turned in to an internalized exploration of Guido’s professional and personal life and his relationship to the women that surround him. But “8½” is also an exploration of filmmaking and cinema itself.

The film questions the manipulation of film, the lie at the core of it, the personal, psychological, philosophical and especially the metaphysical qualities of film. The emotion. This is brought out not only in the dialogue of the film (like Guido’s talks with the critic and the Bishop), but in the cinematic language of the film itself.


“8½” does not adhere to any notions of storytelling structure and the events that Guido goes through are spiced up by his daily fantasies, his dreams and nostalgic flashbacks to his childhood. Sometimes the cut to these flashbacks is an abrupt one but sometimes Guido’s reality simply slides in to a fantasy. And these scenes are quite surreal and make the film exceptionally imaginative in its cinematic language, but despite their visual simplicity they make “8½” a purposefully ambiguous and even confusing film as well. Purposefully being the key word here, because who wants to be spoon-fed by their entertainment? The intellectual workout and challenge a film like this provides is a big part of its ultimate reward.

But what is clear though is the notion that Guido is a man who is buckling under the pressures that are put on him, by himself and the people around him, and he is very much looking for escape. This is evident even in the very first dream sequence, the one that opens the film. The final shots of that dream sequence show him soaring through the skies, and then him being roped down by others after which the dream becomes a dream of falling. He is violently ripped out of the dream in to the reality, and with his waking he is instantly surrounded by people who want him to “do things”. And Guido is a fearful man throughout the film, hypocritical even, and shows himself unable to face his obstacles.


Still, what Guido fails to achieve at the end of “8½” Fellini succeeds in gloriously because this film is pretty much everything what Guido wanted his film to be, as “8½” is both personal and honest. No lies. Well, minor lies, but lies that guide us to the truth. It is a film brimming with imagination, beauty and style. It is a psychological deconstruction of a character that is Fellini’s alter-ego as well as a true exploration and celebration of filmmaking and cinema as an art form.



Cast:

Marcello Mastroianni - Guido Anselmi
Claudia Cardinale - Claudia
Anouk Aimee  - Luisa Anselmi
Sandra Milo - Clara
Rossella Falk - Rossella

Original language: Italian


8½ on IMDb