Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars

        So I have been dead silent on this blog since the Criterion Blogathon, which was sudden and I apologize. It is not because I was frustrated and exhausted with writing something new, it is because I was frustrated and exhausted with getting this damn video essay done!


        This video was the final project for one of my Film Theory class this semester. The teacher required us to create a video essay about a film or films and analyze them in the context of a certain critic or theorist like Susan Sontag, Andre Bazin, and Walter Benjamin. In this case I touched upon Truffaut and talked about auteur theory, adaptation and authorship through the context of the Akire Kurosawa's Yojimbo and the western remake A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone. Its rough, admittedly, I wish I could get rid of the redundant title card and mixed the sound better; but that's show business! Plus it was fun to find ways to talk about film outside of writing essays and reviews.
         Anyway, this video is more analysis and than review so I'll say right here that Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars are classics that are must-see films. Actually, check out just marathon all of Kurosawa's and Leone's films, their bodies of work represent some of the best action and art filmmaking in the world.
         (The video essay is also available on Vimeo, just in case the Youtube video goes missing for some reason)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Criterion Blogathon Presents: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant


            What does a room say about a person? A lot, as far as director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was concerned with his masterpiece The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. This German story is about a fashion designer Petra von Kant and the women in her life as they walk in and out of her bedroom. The film shows her wake up, laugh, cry, and get drunk in her bedroom; but most of all it shows her dominate and exploit these women in order gain any kind satisfaction, only to fatalistic submit to the allure of another woman. This is an intense slow burner of a film that will shock viewers with how beautifully it portrays a very self-destructive side of love.
            The film may take place in a single bedroom, but if there is one thing that one should take from Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is that R.W Fassbinder and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus know how to make the most out of a set. The room is already glamorous, featuring a grand king sized bed, a small fashion studio area filled with mannequins that is separated by exposed beams, and a mural of Nicholas Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus that covers an entire wall. The film could have been a simply glorified stage show but the brilliance comes how camera and prop are positioned to create something purely cinematic in scope.  Each shot is immaculately choreographed in order to create an emotionally complex aesthetic; the exposed beams become frames within the frame, the mannequins and mural become metaphors for other women and desire respectively. One could forget to read the subtitles onscreen and still comprehend the stakes at hand just from the way the camera glides through the film.
            There is a theme of sadism and masochism throughout that is disquieting and fascinating in how it is intimately portrayed. Petra von Kant is a prideful and domineering character that always gets what she wants; namely, from her mute assistant Marlene of whom Petra takes relish in verbally humiliating. However, the film subtly reveals that Marlene is her own agent, taking this abuse for her own desire, which colors the film in unusually sensual ways.  In the first act Petra is talking to her cousin Sidonie about her cruel ex-husband, both are in the foreground, but Marlene is in the background, starring at Petra. Marlene is initially out of focus until the camera slowly zooms in on her face, revealing that she is in tears, the camera then suddenly loses focus again and pans to a close up of Petra. This reveals a parallel between Petra’s marriages and her relationship with Marlene but the emotional context is so ambiguous. Marlene could just as easily be weeping for Petra’s past injuries as could be weeping for her own; either way, her presence haunts the entire film.  This is a moment of impeccable filmmaking, grandiose in its design and it maintains a delicate sensitivity that is so rare in melodramas.
            The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a difficult film to watch as its incredibly slow pace weighs down the drama created onscreen. Even the entire cast moves in a tired and meandering pace, as if Petra and her company were suffering from hangovers, but it ultimately fits the film. Often traditional dramas and Hollywood films maintain a fast and precise pace that comfortably pushes action yet barely lets the drama breathe. The benefit of the film’s slow pace of is that it allows for the audience to distance themselves and contemplate on the actions onscreen. The film could have felt perversely voyeuristic but Fassbinder tests this notion to uncomfortable extremes. The breakup scene of Petra and Karin exemplifies this because it forces the viewer to watch Petra slowly devolve into despair without any hint of relief. The room becomes claustrophobic and the heat from the red Poussin mural becomes palpable. By letting the drama unfold and remain unedited, the tension between these to character just builds to the point where it is simply distressing to watch. 
            The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is an emotionally complex drama that will strike a nerve with its beautifully displayed acts of love and torment at its most naked. The cinematography alone is on another level as it evolves a single room into an intricate display of the Petra’s state of mind, F.W Murnau would be proud. The pacing is not for everyone but those with the patience for it will be treated to one of most intense and beautiful dramas of the 1970s.  Like her bedroom, the story Petra is a luxurious, passionate, and at times unbearably intimate affair, which haunts the audience long after they have seen it.


            This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon, which is a weeklong blogging event that celebrates the films circulated by the art house distribution company The Criterion Collection.  For the rest of this week there will a plethora blogs—hosted by the websites Criterion Blues, Silver Screenings, and Speakeasy—that are reviewing everything ranging from the gleeful silent comedies of Lloyd and Chaplin to Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant samurai epics to the wonderfully weird films of countless auteurs like R.W Fassbinder and David Lynch. Nothing on Hausu, funnily enough, one would think that a film that crazy would be an early pick. Anyway, so check it all out, there are so many great blogs and films being posted that no reader will leave empty handed.

If you are have a Twitter account you can find all the latest posts via #criterionblogathon.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Only Lovers Left Alive


             One of the best films of 2014 was a sexy romance about two weary and aloof vampires; further proof that a great story can be made out of anything resembling Twilight. Then again, not even Bram Stoker could predict a sexier vampire couple than ones played by Tom Hiddelston and Tilda Swinton. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, Only Lovers Left Alive is a post-modern vampire movie that plays around with clichés, yet realizes a purely sensual and melancholic experience that makes vampires such great creatures.
            The film has a fairly simple story. Adam and Eve are two ancient happily married vampires, yet while Eve is in Tangiers, she learns that Adam has become very depressed in his house in Detroit. So she flies to Detroit to help Adam to get out of his funk. However, much of what makes Only Lovers Left Alive so great is how the film patiently moves through the world the created by the characters. As their cheeky biblical names imply, Adam and Eve are very ancient, so old that they have developed hobbies in music and literature and have secretly influenced the culture of the world. This is their mixed blessing because the world is feels decades behind them. The setting of Only Lovers Left Alive is a one that is dark yet rich and it makes audience savor it all.
            It is a fairly comical in that this film’s interpretation of vampires is essentially nocturnal hipsters; as cold as they are though, these are characters that are charming and far from dull. This is in part due to the lead performances of Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton whose chemistry oozes with lust. There is an intimacy to these characters that is sensual, but also dependable. Even when they are separated by thousands of miles they can still rely on each other as partners. Their love creates a sort of synergy that is subtle yet is unmistakably there, like the best couples on and off the screen. Plus their conversations—ranging from past lives, the fall of Detroit, and blood popsicles—are so funny and endearing one may forget they can kill people in an instant just to survive.
            On the whole Only Lovers Left Alive proves to be more than just an art-house alternative to the Twilight thanks to a brilliant cast and a wonderfully dense story. This is a cool and sexy film that is more willing stretch into the funny and strange territory of nocturnal life. Even if vampires are no longer scary, this film proves that they still know how to party or chill out.  It is both a legit date movie and fresh diversion for those grimy dark days of October.  

            (Only Lovers Left Alive is available on DVD/Blu-ray)

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

House (or Hausu, 1977)


           What a wonderfully horrifying trip. It always seems like the freakiest films in existence—horror or otherwise—have the most innocuous titles imaginable. Film titles like Blue Velvet, The Thing, and even The Shining are not nearly as punchy as say The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but nevertheless are stamped upon the most bizarre films ever made.  With this mind, House represents the most illogical extreme of this practice. House is a Japanese ghost story that plays like an acid fueled remix of The House on Haunted Hill, Suspiria, and The Monkees TV show starring a bunch of cheerleaders.  This film is a low budget monstrosity of kitschy surreal horror that will bewilder and shock anyone with its pure madness.
            The plot (excuse, really) revolves around a Japanese schoolgirl name Gorgeous and her six girlfriends as they visit the country home of her elderly aunt.  Life is dandy at first, but once the aunt’s cat starts twinkling its eyes things escalate quickly into a bizarre nightmare.  The horrors of House are unique in that the filmmakers—especially the special effects artists and actresses—push themselves into ridiculous and comical extremes. This is a film where a flying decapitated head biting a schoolgirl in the butt is the least crazy moment in the plot.  However, the plot hardly maintains a consistent mood so much as it switches between funny and bleak whenever it pleases, which surprisingly works because it makes House completely unpredictable.
            House has this hyper stylized visual design that is seemingly made to screw with people’s heads. Every other outdoor scene is clearly a studio lot with painted backgrounds, flashbacks within the story look like silent films strips, and the violence is so exaggerated that one would think this was a cartoon. Even the mundane moments of House are visually zany. The first act alone seems to shift from a psychedelic slapstick comedy to a Powell and Pressburger-style melodrama whenever it pleases. There are cheap techniques used in House that are so cheesy and weird, not even Roger Corman would dare to use them, but they lead to such an overwhelming crescendo that they have to be deliberate, and if so, it is very effective.
            House, in its own nutty way, is a fantastic horror film.  This is a film that does not give a damn about logic, realism, or any of those pesky formulas that genre filmmaking has to follow, and it is all the better for it.  House is a mad carnival ride that needs to be experience with a group, if only to hear the plights of “What did I just see?” It is certainly a film that takes pride with its audacity.

            (House is available on DVD and Blu-ray via Criterion Collection and for rent through Amazon.com)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Guest


            Ever since Cabin in The Woods* (2012) flipped the script on mainstream horror there has been an influx of indie horror films that bring a “back to basics” approach to the genre. Take for example Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett’s You’re Next, a 2011 slasher film that while not completely original, had some good Wes Craven-style twists that made it refreshing.  You’re Next was fine, but it looks like a warm up exercise for the The Guest, which could be a new Halloween classic. Made in 2014, The Guest is a delightful mix of 70’s and 80’s horror distilled into an intensely focused thriller that stars one of the most charming horror villains of the decade.
            The Guest begins on a slightly somber note as the Peterson family grieves for their eldest son Caleb, a soldier who died in Afghanistan. But on the eve of the Halloween festivities, the family gets a sudden visit by David Collins, a tall, witty, chiseled man who was in Caleb’s old squad. Caleb’s brother and sister notice that something is terribly off about David but the parents enjoy his company. Honestly, after watching The Guest, who can blame them? David is an awesome dude. Sure he can cave in a man’s head with his fists but he has the wit and charm of a dapper Southern gentleman but with an actual sense of modernity. This is due to the fantastic performance of Dan Stevens, who looks just unstoppable with a grin or a glare. David is a rare character whose most human traits are more haunting than any boogeyman.
            The Guest evokes the spooky intensity of Halloween and The Terminator, yet the film is sharp as a knife. The film has a morbid sense of humor; even as the bodies begin to drop, it is more than willing to slip in a one-liner or a kitschy shot to hysterical effect. The fact that The Guest is set in a town that worships Halloween gives the film a carnival atmosphere that makes it so fun and cool. Granted, at times the film feels too much like a lost film by John Carpenter—especially with the film’s aggressive electro-pop score, which emulates Carpenter’s musical style. Then again with a film this enamored with Halloween, who would not find inspiration by a filmmaker so ingrained to that holiday? The Guest may feel like an old car rebuilt from scratch but it least Wingard and Barrett made sure it was built to last. Guaranteed to make the seasonal watch list of any horror fan and neophyte.

(Available on Netflix, Amazon and DVD/Blu-ray)

* It just occurred to me that I muddled the timeline. Cabin in The Woods began production in 2009 and premiered in 2012; meanwhile, You're Next was filmed in 2011 and got a wide-release in 2013. I point this out because my review implies that You're Next was inspired by Cabin in The Woods when really they are kindred spirits of the same new wave of horror. Sorry for the confusion.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Bojack Horseman: A Broad Review of Seasons 1 and 2

The title theme song represented the show better than any poster.

            In a world where cable is dying and shelf space for DVDs and Blu-rays is running low, streaming services have arisen from the web to provide diverse and wonderful television. Where else would a show like Bojack Horseman even prosper anywhere besides Netflix? The premise of a burnout television star horse is already alienating enough, but the show evolves so roughly that any TV network would have canceled it after five episodes, which would have been their loss.  Bojack Horseman is an exhilarating adult animated comedy that takes the genre at its current state and genuinely pushes it forward.  It begins as a dark yet spot on parody of Hollywood celebrity but develops into a brilliant character driven satire that equally resembles Mad Men and Fantastic Mr. Fox, but with more cussing.
            At first glance, Bojack Horseman is not much. The first three episodes are funny but in a crass style that is generic compared to shows like Archer, Venture Bros, or at worse… Family Guy.  However by episode four the show-writers commit to a serialized style of storytelling that gives the show weight like no other animated comedy on air. As the show progresses the stories of each character pressurize with tension until they cathartically burst.  Bojack Horseman is a comedy driven by character and plot, not gags, and delves into themes like depression, Internet culture and the psyche of comedians. If nothing else it is the only show online where a talking cat lady can break up with a horseman for a guy that is clearly just three kids hiding inside a trench coat and somehow play that narrative funny and straight with perfect ease.
            Speaking of business, apparently Netflix has some hidden contract that every great comedian in Hollywood must lend a voice in Bojack Horseman.  The voice cast is just impeccable.  Will Arnett is perfect as Bojack; the role plays to his creepy acerbic humor and reveals emotional boundaries that are unexpected from him.  Amy Sedaris as the cat Princess Caroline has this fast and cutting wit that would make Howard Hawks proud. The highlight though is easily Aaron Paul as the stoned out Todd; Paul straddles between mellow and hammy so well that he brings this corrupted childlike vibe that is always funny. This however does not diminish the rest of the cast including Paul F. Thompkins, Allision Brie, Patton Oswalt, Kristen Schaal and countless guest performances that just baffle the mind.
            Bojack is a fascinating character because underneath the vulgar jokes about his alcoholism, self-destructive behavior, and insecure ego, the show makes no qualms in stating that these are signs of deep depression.  A running gag with Bojack is flashbacks of abuse he received from his parents, which are comically nasty at first, but it quickly stops being funny once these flashbacks delve into how they belittled Bojack and their violently real arguments. In the first episode of season two, his mom talks to the now adult Bojack on the phone and admits that she was a monstrous mother; it is one the most disarming moments on television this year and it is only the first episode of the second season. The show searches for emotions behind its own humor, regardless of how ugly it is and reveals it with naked honesty, which is why Bojack Horseman is great.
            Bojack Horseman is an ambitious piece of work that pushes beyond episodic gag comedy and allows character drama to build, which made for some of brilliant serialized television.  It questions a backwards notion that TV animation can only reach a South Park level of maturity and finds an oddly introspective outlook that is beautifully honest. The show is still funny as hell but it is not afraid to reveal the hell it takes to reach that level of humor, which is more than can be said about most of Fox’s comedy lineup lately. So check this show out, it is raw but it is easily one of the most exciting shows on TV. It is a show that will fill a void that one never knew they had at all, which is what makes trying such risky shows and movies so fun.
            (Bojack Horseman is available on Netflix)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Dope and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

            Hello blog, it's been a while. I would say that college kept me distracted but honestly it was because I stretched myself thin. Lately a slew of fantastic and interesting films popped up from everywhere and all I could think was, where do I begin? Dope was great, Inside Out was amazing, Lava was lame, Jurassic World has... issues, and I finally saw Boyhood, which was great but the discussions I had about it were even better. I made the mistake of writing about all of them at once, leaving with me half finished stuff and nothing to post, but now I have something, two things. I figure write about one film in theaters plus one film that is streaming would make a sort balance. It might be unnecessary in the long run but feels right for now. So here are two films that are from totally different genres but they share the distinction of being shot on location in California. It is not much but it is amusing to see two filmmakers find inspiration for two very unique worlds within this state. 


            Since when did the 1990s become the new 1980s? If one asked the lead actors of Dope, Shameik Moore, Kierset Clemons and Ton Revolori, it never left as far as they are concerned. Dope is an indie drama-comedy about three 90’s pop culture loving high school nerds, Malcolm, Diggy and Jib, as they survive living in the gang-ridden Inglewood, California. We see them play the Super Nintendo, talk about when the Golden Age of Hip-hop began, start a punk band in their defunct high school music room, find romance, yet the film forgoes of the cloying tone of teen drama.
            Their stories reveal an idiosyncratic notion about the difficulties of being an outcast within an outcast society. These are nerdy kids who were never interested in the bullshit gangster lifestyle, yet have no real choice but to live around it because society expects nothing more or less. The film jokes that good grades are a thing only white people like, yet all three have good grades.  It creates a fascinating context about how systemic hatred can cut so deep that it even can make fellow men turn on each other and the comedy makes its very palatable.
            Honestly the main trio is so fun that the film could easily work vignettes about them and their neighborhood. However, Malcolm somehow stumbles into the Molly trade, which is funny but also feels a bit forced.  Aside from a genuinely clever method involving the Internet to get out of the game, the story itself is not much compared to characters and setting. Thankfully by presenting it as a comedy of errors that makes it transcends Dope from being just a Superfly knockoff.  It also helps that Shameik Moore, the actor who plays Malcolm, is has the comic charisma that makes it all seem believable. His trip into the Molly trade may be a mistake but it was one that he could fix, which is a nice note of the film.
            Overall, Dope is pretty awesome. The film is structured a little clumsily but it is a darkly funny character piece that has a cautiously optimistic look at race and lower class living, which makes it worth seeing on its own. It also features cast of great comic actors, especially from the three leads who ought to be stars before the decade ends.  Curious to see if this film will stand the test of time, in an era of throwback acts, Dope could just fade away, but with its strong themes and wit it might stay relevant for a very long time.

(Dope is still in some theaters though it is phasing out, odds are likely you will have to wait for it to stream or to be on disc.) 

Speaking of streaming...


            In the seedy town of Bad City, the people who rule the night are not the junkies, the pimps, prostitutes, or even the gangsters, but an unassuming vampire woman that haunts the streets. Touted as the “first Iranian vampire western” ever made A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night sounds like some hot hipster junk food but it stands out with a great sense of style and cool energy. As her directorial feature debut, Ana Lily Amirpour makes a striking impression with this sensual chiller.
            One thing to clarify is that while it is an Iranian production, the film itself is shot on location in Taft, California yet it is not set in California or Iran. In a sense the film takes place in a hyper stylized movie world. This is emphasized by the film’s stark black and white photography, which makes gives it the intensity of a noir, horror and western but also the icy vibe a French New Wave flick. The shadows are deliciously dense, as expected, yet it truly stands when the anonymous vampire girl moves onscreen, she wears this black cloak that gives her a ghastly presence, even in funny moments like when she glides on a skateboard, it flutters like a bat. Simultaneously she has this ethereal allure to her, which is partially due to actress Sheila Vand’s strong presence, but also in the way that camera frames her pale face just pop onscreen radiantly like a demented Mae West. The camerawork here not only creates a horror landscape it helps in portraying one of the truest vampires in years.
            A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night has style but there is a sense of fatigue to the film that may put people off from it. The film is a slow burner but this pace works because it matches with the film’s running theme of spontaneous pleasure and the weariness that comes afterwards. Characters try to find satisfaction through things like pop music, sex, loud parties, and drugs that feel great at first but always leave them exhausted.  This conflicts through the ambiguous nature of the vampire who could easily be a demonic trickster or a warped kind of savior.
            Slow or fast, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a dark corner worth exploring. Ana Lily Amirpour is a powerhouse director who brings a cool and passionate sense of craft of someone like Truffaut… if he ever made a horror film. For a film touted as “first Iranian vampire western” it not only transcends that gimmick but also leaves mainstream American horror in the dust. This film is one of the more original, sexy, and remarkable vampire films in recent memory.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is streaming on Netflix, for rent on Amazon as well as on disc.

            So for anyone who stumbles upon this, check these out and if you have any questions just ask.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road



            What an odd time to be alive when the third sequel to an Australian post-apocalyptic action film series about an ex-cop named Max Rockatansky is the most talked about film of the summer. Thirty years since Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Max is back, and looking more like a young Tom Hardy than an old Mel Gibson, continuity has never been this series’ strength. In this adventure, Max is swept in the epic chase for Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) as she rescues sex slaves from clutches of the evil tyrant Immortan Joe and his Warboys. This film should have gone the way of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull but it exceeds the highest standards of action filmmaking in brilliant and defiant fashion. Not only is Mad Max: Fury Road a loud, bone crushing and liberating action film, the action itself is used to convey themes of gender politics with a profound yet unpretentious touch.
            Almost every single action scene is done with practical effects, which may not sound like much until one actually witnesses the level of craft and danger produced onscreen. Not only is a there a big rig with a giant speaker wall and flame-throwing heavy metal guitarist strapped on top of it, but this machine is real and is put into the fray. What could have been an epic simple gag later becomes a set piece for brilliant action. The stunts pulled in this film are baffling; forget the gunplay or the fight choreography, the real treat here is watching these people jump around, crash, and burn these cars with insane glee. Yes the film is a relentless two hour-long car chase but it is a chase of overwhelming depth, imagination, and precision.
            An unexpected but welcome twist to this series is that Furiosa, not Max, is the true main character of this story. First of all, Charlize Theron’s acting in this film is arguably her best work here since her work on Monster. She plays Furiosa as a determined, meaty, and sharp soldier but with an unusual sense of purpose. During one of the few quiet moments in the film Max asks why Furiosa is rescuing the slave girls and she simply says “redemption.” It sounds like silly action movie shtick but this is works because her motivation does not feel overtly maternal, which is rare amongst heroines. The audience never fully understands why she decides to become the hero, but those missing pieces ultimately do not matter, it is her actions that prove her heroism. This not like Ripley trying to save a little girl in Aliens or “The Bride” avenging her husband and child in Kill Bill, Furiosa’s redemption is universal. Some people might be upset that Max is just a “supporting character” yet it is refreshing to see an existential female hero for a change.
            A lot of critics have discussed at length about the film’s themes of patriarchal tyranny and feminism but what makes this film work so beautifully is that these themes are developed through the visuals.  In one action scene, Max tries to snipe the searchlight off of a scout car at night, after failing twice he gives the rifle to Furiosa who then shoots down the light. This is a defining moment of the film because the trade is done quickly and amicably. Max knows Furiosa is a better shot and he is not going to debate this fact. A lesser filmmaker would have added some cliché “battle of the sexes” banter but director George Miller does not have time for that bullshit in his action film. Everything about the struggle of Furiosa, the sex slaves and Max are told through a camera shot, a lighting trick, or even a simple gesture, and it makes them intriguing characters. Furthermore the filmmaking reveals this setting to be a fast, brutal and unfair world, yet by the end there is sense that it is fixable if one is brave enough to face it. Watching this film is a testament to how much can be said without saying anything at all.
            Mad Max: Fury Road is easily the best action film of the last ten years, which still sounds nuts on paper.  This film should have been a cynical cash grab, but then again who can truly predict a loose cannon like Mad Max? The film can melt faces faster than a Judas Priest record and somehow it is easier to comprehend than the most blockbusters of recent memory. The use imaginative practical effects create a rare sense of fear, texture and prestige to the violence created onscreen. The action alone would have made it a highlight of this year but the filmmakers made a conscious decision to examine themes of tyranny and feminism through the action, and it worked wonderfully. Even when smarter action movies like The Avengers, District 9 and The Dark Knight attempt to delve into greater themes they trap themselves in a ponderous state of reasoning, as if the filmmakers feel hindered by their genre or the themes. Mad Max: Fury Road does not have this problem because George Miller and crew were secure enough to run with their themes from the start. This is an audacious passionate action film that was refined by personal insight and that alone is beautiful.
            (Mad Max: Fury Road is still in theaters... just realized that this is my first theater review, talk about late. Anyway, check it out on Blu-ray when it is released though, it's totally worth it.)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Dark Tones in Double Indemnity

            Tone is the concept of brightening and darkening light to create depth and mood within the frame. Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is a key example of a film that creates mood through the means of shadows and light. Double Indemnity is a film noir about an insurance salesman named Walter Neff who is smitten by the sultry and conniving Phyllis Dietrichson who entices him to murder her husband for his insurance money, which leads to Walter’s downfall. Film noir is a fairly abstract genre usually involving good people doing bad things and bad people doing worse, but one thing that defines film noirs are their dark and hazy tone. Double Indemnity is arguably the most definitive example of the film noir tone. The film is shot in affinitive black-and-white, which is great for creating distinctive shadows and silhouettes, giving the film a mysterious and bleak atmosphere. Tonally the film has subtle amounts of contrast yet Billy Wilder’s cinematographer John F. Seitz effectively uses it through incident controlled lighting to create an intensely Californian setting. Tone in Double Indemnity is such a significant aspect of the film that it becomes the defining style of the film.
            Incident controlled lighting is a style of illuminating a set by using artificial lights to create strong shadows; unlike reflective control, which revolves around art direction. Double Indemnity is a great example of the incident control as method of creating a realistic setting.  For example, after Walter Neff first meets the Mrs. Dietrichson, he walks into her living room and narrates about the venetian blinds blocking the sunlight, which are casting a striped shadow in the set (see Figure 1). The film takes place in a sunny Los Angeles and this moment provides a sense of place, one can imagine the heat seeping through the windows. Furthermore this can be seen as a metaphor of the salesman is being blinded by the femme fatale’s beauty. It is a beautiful shot that brings a sense of literal and figurative heat into the film.
Figure 1

            To have coincidence in tone the lighting has to be set to reveal the subject. If one can see the subject clearly then the tone is coincidental. This can look uninteresting onscreen because it is essentially the default tone for less mysterious genre films but it is still useful when properly manipulated. Double Indemnity stretches the possibilities of this technique by adjusting the exposure of the camera. This is used to great effect to portray the physique and intentions of Mrs. Dietrichson. Her first appearance reveals her wearing only a towel, seemingly aloof but not vulnerable. She is lit brightly in order to give her a sensual aura that makes it clear why the salesman would kill for her in the first place. As the movie progresses though, the she is depicted in a darker tone by shooting the film stock with less exposure (see Figure 2). The increasingly dark affinity to the lighting of this femme fatale is a subtle reminder from Billy Wilder of her sinister nature.  In a realistic setting she could easily hide her monstrous self but the dark lighting makes her intentions clear.
Figure 2
An overlooked aspect of Double Indemnity is its art direction and how it also controls the tone of the story. This is a form of reflective control that hard to notice because the shadow filled cinematography of John F. Seitz can distract from this element; nevertheless the element is there and it is effective. One only has to look at the suits that Edward G. Robinson’s character, Barton Keyes, wears throughout the film. Barton Keyes is Walter Neff boss as well as their company’s main investigator for insurance fraud. During the first and second act, Barton is shown mostly wearing a disheveled white collared shirt and a pale colored vest, which makes him look optimistic and oafish. This is emphasized by how Walter always helps Barton with lighting a match; it shows how much they respect each other, as well as how Walter is always thinking ahead of Barton. Then in the end, Barton finally catches Walter confessing to his crimes while wearing a pitch-black suit (see Figure 3). The suit can represent many things, whether it is Barton mourning his friend’s fall from grace or a cloak of cynicism, however the way Barton move towards Walter turn him into a herald of Walter’s doom. This sudden change in costume is only pushed when a wounded Walter slumps to the ground and Barton looms over him like a reaper ready to take his soul and lights his cigarette.  It is a tragically precise way for the film to end.

Figure 3

            With Double Indemnity, director Billy Wilder employed tone to such a strong degree that he arguably defined the sleazy theatrical style of film noir.  Billy Wilder’s use of affinitive tones in the film is surprisingly flexible by having the tone get gradually darker in order to cinematically portray the bleakness of the plot. The lighting and shadows of the film create an atmosphere that fits natural to the setting while still feeling stylish and sensual. The art direction of the film is simple enough to not clash with stylized lighting while still effective in creating drama in an already dark film. Film noir is an unusual genre in that its mainly defined by visual style than by plot devices. Double Indemnity and films like it are formed through their aesthetic, which is what makes them so brilliant.


Works Cited
Double Indemnity. Dir. Billy Wilder. Perf. Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward
             G. Robinson. Cine. John F. Seitz. Paramount, 1944. DVD.
Wilder, Billy. "Double Indemnity (9/9) Movie CLIP - I Love You Too." YouTube. YouTube, 29
             May 2011. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.
Wilder, Billy. “Photo 1: Venetian Blinds.” Double Indemnity. Paramount,
             1944. Studiesincinema.blogspot.com. “Double Indemnity”. Jeremy Carr. Web, June
             2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.
Wilder, Billy. “Photo 2: Mrs. Dietrichson.” Double Indemnity. Paramount,
             1944. doubleexposurejournal.com. “Fatal Attractions.” Matthew Rivera. Web, 
             August 1, 2014. Web. 04 Mar. 2015.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Shapes and Lines of Outer Space


A key aspect in creating a unique aesthetic in film is to use lines and shapes to engage with the audience.  A prop or character can move in a specific direction within the frame to create a virtual track.  A cinematographer can compose their shots to have a motif; the frame can be linear and square or diagonal to provide an unusual motif.  A filmmaker can even add certain shapes like spheres or cubes to add dimension to the frame.  These are simple yet malleable techniques to use that allow for filmmakers to make films of with a potentially limited aesthetic like realistic science fiction look unique.  Even though films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Gravity are of the same genre; they look and feel drastically different because their directors use these techniques in unique ways.
When one must explain how these techniques work it important understand the idea or motive behind each film.  2001: A Space Odyssey is a psychedelic art film about the seemingly infinite possibilities of space travel.  Gravity is a thrilling drama about the horrifyingly real risks of simply orbiting around Earth. Both films rely on special effects but their creators had to use techniques involving lines, angles, and shapes in order to make a unique perspective on the frightening yet wondrous unknown of outer space.

Figure 1

             A virtual track is an imaginary line that a person or prop creates when it moves on screen.  Both films use virtual tracks in order to visually portray space travel in different ways in order to express a unique opinion on this subject.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey, during the manned mission to Jupiter, there is this shot of the Discovery One, a massively long white spaceship, slowly but surely moving left to right of the screen in a straight line (See Figure 1). This shows a linear path of an epic journey but it also feels stable.  In Gravity, the characters and objects move in a much freeform and chaotic fashion.  This is most notable in the very beginning when orbiting debris hits the space shuttle and Sandra Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, violently spins with the shuttle as she is still attached to it by a crane-like contraption. The virtual track of Ryan Stone is completely unpredictable and it happens so quickly that it looks like she is in a tornado.  This encapsulates the seemingly implausible nature of controlling oneself in space let alone conquer it like in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Figure 2

Another aspect of shaping the screen that is vital to the aesthetics of both films is their linear motifs.  The image onscreen often creates a visual trend of lines and shapes, when these images repeat it reveals a specific motif.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey is shaped with a flat and grounded motif with very few Dutch angles to completely skew the perspective.  Even when a shot is composed in a different angle the shot tends to feel perpendicular. A flat linear motif gives the film its rigid realism but it makes certain moments, like when an astronaut touches the alien monolith, feel jarringly surreal (See Figure 2).  It allows the audience to comfortable at first until something unexplainable happens, which feels frightening and curious, like a scientist discovering a new problem to solve.

Figure 3

In contrast the linear motif of Gravity is diagonal yet there so are long takes and everything spin so frequently in this film that the idea of a floor seems nonexistent.  However when the screen settles, like when Ryan Stone enters the Chinese satellite when it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, it reveals a diagonal motif (See Figure 3). This is a rather poignant example because as Colin Macilwain states “metaphor for the passing of the space-travel torch from US” (313) to China.  Even when one country seems to lose interest in space travel and research another country will eventually take its place. It is an optimistic moment in a film that is weary on the subject of space travel.
Figure 4

One visual motif that both films share is the use of circles and spheres as a way of portraying the pristine qualities of space.  The most obvious example of a circle being used as symbol in both films share is how planet Earth is portrayed as this distant utopia, the true home (see Figure 4). The planet is rarely, if not ever, seen as a whole in either film but whenever it is seen onscreen its presence looms over the picture like a mother watching over the spaceships.  Gravity the film is very intimate with the helmets on the astronauts.  There is a moment where the camera gets so close to Ryan Stone’s helmet that it transfer inside and becomes her point of view and one gazes the vast yet chaotic void she is trapped in. These helmets are essentially bubbles that keep these characters alive through their journeys and show how fragile they are.  
In Gravity it is perfectly clear that Ryan Stone’s adventure is to return to Earth yet 2001: A Space Odyssey is more about moving beyond there.  The film infamously ends with Dave Bowman, the astronaut assigned to find the monolith on Jupiter, being transported through a Star gate and becoming the Star Child (See Figure 5).  Norman Kagan wrote about the film claiming that the ending was Kubrick’s take on a “‘Greek Miracle’ showing what man is and what can be” (164). This is what really makes 2001: A Space Odyssey so beautiful; it takes the ambiguous fears that result from curiosity into account and ultimately finds that moving forward is still worth the risk.
Figure 5

Shapes and lines are useful because they are so simple to implement that they are essentially universal techniques.  Space travel in film is fun subject to examine because it shows how special effects have gradually improved but they only shine if the filmmakers can compose shots around effects with technique.  2001: A Space Odyssey would not have its ambiguous yet self-assured tone if not for its linear and forward driven style. Gravity would feel lifeless if the filmmakers filmed it rigid and even like 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Ultimately, these techniques work best if the filmmakers understand what type of story they want tell otherwise these tricks will feel pointless.  A filmmaker must give their shots a sense of purpose and creating shapes and lines in the frame can help with expressing that purpose.

Works Cited

Gravity. Dir. Alfonso Cuarón. Perf. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Warner Brothers,
           2013. DVD. 
Cuarón, Alfonso. “Figure 3- Ryan Stone's Face” Warner Brothers, 2013. DVD. 18 Feb.
           2015.
Cuarón, Alfonso. “Figure 4- Chinese satellite” Warner Brothers, 2013. DVD. 18 Feb. 2015.
Kagan, Norman. The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick. Third ed. New York: Holt,
          Rinehart and Winston, 1972. Print. 18 Feb. 2015.
Kubrick, Stanley. “Figure 1- Discovery One”Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968. DVD. 18 Feb.
          2015.
Kubrick, Stanley. “Figure 2- Touching the Monolith” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968. DVD. 18
         Feb. 2015.
Kubrick, Stanley. “Figure 5- Star Child” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968. 18 Feb. 2015.
Macilwain, Colin. "Thrill Of Space Exploration Is A Universal Constant." Nature 503.7476
         (2013): 313. Academic Search Premier. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
2001: A Space Odyssey. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and
         William Sylvester. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1968. DVD.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Sherlock, Jr. (or How to Tinker With The Frames)

            When examining the aesthetics of film it is easy to overlook the ones created in the years of silent film, especially films by comedians Buster Keaton.  He is a director that is more famous for his physical comedy than his camera work, but he had a natural talent for framing scenes and characters.  In fact, Buster Keaton’s comedy would have not worked if not for his ability to precisely fill the frame in order to create a surreal and exciting experience.
One of his most imaginative films was Sherlock Jr., which stars Buster Keaton as a nameless film projectionist who dreams of being a detective.  Made in 1924 Sherlock, Jr. shows Keaton composing his shots with grid structures, similar to the rule of thirds, to allow for clear and dynamic action within a small frame.  He even goes beyond the rule of thirds by composing himself and his actors in frames within frames in order to create effective moments of levity and surrealism.  By modern standards the use of space in Sherlock Jr. seems simplistic yet the framing techniques Keaton uses reveals how much freedom and director can have when manipulating the frame.
            When one watches Sherlock Jr. it is easy to forget how small the frame is throughout the film. With an aspect ratio of about 1.33 the frame looks like a petit square compared to the massive widescreen blockbusters like Interstellar.  Nevertheless, Keaton makes full use of this small frame by dividing it into sections and using movement to keep the frame open.  An example of this is a scene in Sherlock, Jr. where the Projectionist is trying to escape a moving train by running on top of it to catch a rope of a water tower only to get pushed to the ground by gallons of water.  The scene is shot in limited space with the train and the Projectionist in the mid-ground and the water tower in the background; the train itself fills more than two-thirds of the frame.  As the train exits left of the screen Keaton runs against the train in order to stay in the top-center of the frame. Once the train is gone, the frame loses its stationary lines and Keaton loses a platform to stand.  This scene is relevant in that it shows Keaton framing a scene economically by allowing his characters and props to move in ways that would effectively change the surface and openness of frame. By having the train exit the frame, the scene loses the visual lines that the train creates and reveals a sudden gag and vast area for Keaton to exit.  It shows how dramatically the space of frame in a single shot can change by simply allowing movement to occur.
            The line between the closed and open frame is blurred even further in Sherlock, Jr. with the famous the dream sequence. After losing his girlfriend to a crooked suitor, the Projectionist retreats to his projection booth and falls asleep while a murder-mystery film plays onscreen. He then dreams that the film’s villain and love interest are his rival and his girlfriend so he jumps into the world of the theater screen. Unfortunately, he cannot find his footing because the film keeps jump cutting to different settings.  This scene takes place in a frame within a frame.  While the frame is closed and the camera is perfectly still, the scene is absolutely chaotic due to the use of jump cuts that keep Keaton’s character in a state of tumbling confusion. As stated by William Verrone, “The visualization of the absurd—really, the impossible—in the sequence highlights the way surrealism works within comedy” (712) this also shows that the possibilities of manipulating the frame are boundless.  It is shocking to see Keaton suddenly stumble off a bench, then get cornered by lions, then stuck in a pit in the desert in what is meant to be a single closed framed shot.  Even when his frames seem closed he still finds a way to somehow drastically open up the environment.
            The idea of a frame within the frame appears throughout Sherlock, Jr. as a form of character motif.  There are moments where Keaton’s character is in his projection booth and as he looks out the projector window the camera cuts to Keaton facing the audience with the window framing his body.  This shot is flat and in a closed frame, the window only takes up a small portion in the center of the camera frame, which makes the Projectionist look frail and sad. In contrast, when the Projectionist is introduced as Sherlock, Jr. an open door provides a full portrait of a hero with swagger.  The film eventually concludes with the Projectionist waking up and making amends with his girlfriend by emulating Sherlock, Jr. himself.  By comparing the two portraits of the protagonist the film reveals his yearning to become someone better than who he actually is and thus a sense of growth. This reveals how framing within the frame can be used to find emotional resonance in a film.
            Through Sherlock, Jr. Buster Keaton uses simple tricks for manipulating space in films that are still vital to this day.  He did not worry about the size of the aspect ratio of the frame proper use of gridding and an open frame can still make shots feel large and exciting regardless.  When making scenes with action he tried to change the surface division of the frame by moving the props, actors or using jump cuts instead of moving the camera. When necessary he ignored any sense of cinematic logic in order to create a gag.  Finally, he could find the emotional core of a character by framing them.  These techniques reveal Keaton to be a filmmaker who tinkered with his films in order to make them to his liking, which is a perfect mindset for an artist to emulate.


Works Cited
Sherlock, Jr. Dir. Buster Keaton. Perf. Buster Keaton, Joe Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Ward             Crane. Kino Lorber, 1924. Blu-ray.
Verrone, William. "Humor and the Avant-Garde." Journal of Popular Culture 47.4 (2014): 709-            27. UCF Libraries. Web. 27 Jan. 2015.