Sunday, January 30, 2011

History Vs. Hollywood: Defending Titanic

The joke has been told so many times: Spoiler-- the ship sinks. Sometimes to get out a hardy laugh. Other times just to add to the list of complaints against this film that hold no water. Why this film holds up and why many great films based on history hold up to this day are for the fact that they stir our emotions. Regardless that we know the actual facts. The set design, the period recreation, even the scope of a picture. All contributing to 'a look back'. Despite Cameron's attention to detail, people still lambast the picture as a love story with a strong emphasis on class conflict. Too black and white in its characterizations. These criticisms still do not diminish the the integrity of the film. Titanic, for all of its perceived faults, renders a perspective on the past.

Cameron uses the characters of Jack and Rose to his advantage. Especially when it comes to his visual prose. With those two characters, he can follow them all around the ship. Dining halls, decks, engine rooms, and many other places of the grand ship. Had Cameron used actual figures from history, the geography of the scenes would have been limited. Added to this, if Cameron chose to follow two real life historical figures that were on the ship, detail-oriented historians would be breathing on every frame. Being a history major, I have seen this happen a number of times.

In a way, a straight line can be drawn from this to Gone With the Wind. & from Wind, a line can be drawn directly to D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. Massive epics such as this one have existed since Griffith, who photographed hundreds upon hundreds of extras for a single scene. Not CGI extras like they use nowadays. Around the time David Lean came in, a refinement of the epic had taken place. It's what the widescreen aspect ratio was made for. Then along came the New Hollywood & then the 80's. Somewhere in the 90's, period pieces and corsettes became an in thing to do. Shakespeare In Love, Titus, The Remains of the Day and The Age of Innocence.

Edwardian culture brewed during the majority of Titanic's running time. During the 1900's, there was a confined role of upper class women. Cameron's film offers a criticism of the close mindedness of that very culture. One scene specifically where Rose sees a mother showing her daughter how to eat properly plays a key note in the development of that character. She's fed up with it all.

Robert Brent Toplin in his book Reel History ascribes that "The simplification of first and third class is a trait that is inherent in docudrama. A truly comprehensive story would introduce us to the second class as well." As is noted in Richard Corliss's criticism of the film, when he notes that "the first class passengers are third class people and vice versa." Toplin also raises important questions: "Why did a much higher percentage of first-class passengers escape on lifeboats than did passengers from steerage?" The statistical evidence as the author put it is disturbing. 60% of the first class passengers escaped in lifeboats while only 25% of steerage passengers did. Even though the call of women and children first should be appplied, in the case of this event, only 31% of third class women escape on the boats. The emphasis of class conflict is much more heavily embedded here than a previous picture about Titanic's voyage: 1958's A Night to Remember.

When Titanic hit on a snowy day in 1997, it was inescapable. For one, the soundtrack featuring My Heart Will Go On was prominently featured on radio stations leading up to the release. Then came the Academy Awards and the self proclaimed King of the World's film ended up nabbing 11 golden men. As most of you know, the film had a non stop raking in of cash at the box office. When one thinks about, there is no reason why films like Titanic or most recently The Dark Knight should even be as successful as they are. We live in a day and age where films are released to first weekend grosses. That's all studios care about nowadays. Seldom do we see a picture that tops the charts for more than 4 weeks straight. But back in the 80's, a film like The Golden Child could still top Box Office charts for five weeks in a row. Titanic's financial success can be attributed to the repeat viewing. These numbers didn't just jump high for 3 weeks and die the fourth week. The reason was the 15 weeks in a row at the top, not dipping below the $20 million range. These are people coming back and taking their grandparents to see it. Spreading the word of mouth.

Perhaps the films most accomplished achievement is how Cameron delivers an emotional punch that one wouldn't find scrolling through books on the 1912 event. Seeing Titanic in the theatre, there were quite a few people who left in tears. The sequence most noted for cueing the waterworks in which Rose lets Jack go. It is a sad end to the character. But for my money, the sequence that propels this film into the realm of greatness is a montage set to Nearer My God to Thee. It is this type of scene that Avatar lacked & the one I steer people to check out when I hear those criticisms 'lacking in character development', 'hype' & 'plodding' aimed directly at this film like sharp pieces of ice. Because we are attached to Jack & Rose's story, the emotional investment of the other passengers is strengthened.

Throughout we are given witness to several passengers-- third class and other. Some clutching on to each other in a warm bed with cold water running underneath. One comforting her kids. One even at the Captain's chambers, watching the water rise through the glass. All accepting their fate on the doomed vessel. In many ways, it represents what the entire film is about. It laces two things together that are the backbone of it all--scope and character. For a vessel so big and once thought unsinkable, this sequences gives it a chilling air of sadness. Jack & Rose's storyline may have been the soul of the picture. This scene for me is the heart & one that never ceases to cue the waterworks.

So, what do you think?

Let me hear YOUR opinions. This is a film that divides like a massive ship breaking in half. So I expect to have some interesting conversation sparked.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Momentum VI: There Will Be Blood

"I'm finished" an exhausted Daniel Plainview says. Back facing the screen. Sitting in a bowling alley that is Kubrick-like in its symmetry. How did we get to this point is the same question we probably asked ourselves of Magnolia. The difference is the only thing falling from the skies this time is the oil that spews out of a derrick with a towering presence as large as Daniel Plainview's character itself. Right off the bat, the title promises blood. We can sense it in the foreboding air of doom that bubbles from the surface like a pocket of crude oil. & by the end of it all, we get it.

There Will Be Blood is a film that will invoke strong reaction. Considering the pacing, it has more to do with a novel than a film. It falls in the novelistic approach. Loosely based on the Upton Sinclair book Oil!, the director wrote alot of original material for it. It captures a time and place in the American West during the turn of the 20th century. From a photography standpoint, Robert Elswit shoots the panoramas and landscapes with a bold and watchful eye. Helping recreate the sense of ambition amongst dwellers of both oil and religion.

The long takes. The wide shots. Holding a frame. It allows the film space to breathe. You don't need superfluous coverage when one shot will do. Kubrick may no longer be alive but his children are hard at work. In the long run, this is the picture that calls for this type of filming out of all of his films. It's not fast paced and packed with characters like Boogie Nights & Magnolia. In fact, if Boogie Nights was soul, this would be classical. Not the average period piece classical like Beethoven. Alot rougher around the edges ala Penderecki.

These rough edges around this picture are pierced and knotted into a startling tapestry created by Johnny Greenwood's score. A bold and unconventional score at that. Pushing the viewer to uncomfortable places.

The opening 20 minutes of the film set the tone for the story to follow. In it Plainview falls down a mineshaft and injures his leg. Driven with determination, he musters his strength to climb out of the mine. No dialogue need be spoken to tell us the characteristics of this gristled prospector. Who now lay in an assayer's office waiting for his money.

At its core it is a character piece. Plainview is a tricky character to gauge. Full of contradictions. Plainview's quest for fortune soon becomes as vast as the vistas and terrain he crosses with his partner H.W. Taking on and eventually defeating all his rivals. The bond between Daniel & H.W. develops in the 2nd act when he is made deaf from an oil blast. This bond is interrupted by the supposed long lost brother which could have gone in the wrong direction, but here it doesn't. Then there's Eli Sunday. A man of faith who will eventually learn the hard way what happens when you step over the line in a bowling alley. & not in the Walter Sobchek way either.

An argument I've seen against Plainview's character is that he doesn't evolve. He remains the same man as the beginning. What makes him such a fascinating character & one of the best of the last decade is his ongoing competitive streak. We want to feel sympathy for him. And as the H.W. bond dries up and Daniel reduces him to nothing more than a 'bastard in a basket' it is striking. Heart as black as the oil he once drilled.

It is only until the final scenes of him in his mansion made for the wealthiest of men, that we can finally accept the point of no return for this character. The theatrical performance of Daniel Day Lewis is on full display here. When seeing this in the theater, people erupted with cackles and howls at the milkshake scene in the bowling alley. It is a phrase that has since made it on to T-shirts & even parodied on Saturday Night Live. But the thing that silenced the coos of laughter in the theater that day was a vicious blow to Eli's head with a bowling pin. Then another. Everyone remained silent until Plainview uttered those famous last words and the strings came on.

Around the 3rd act, the timeline jumps to Daniel in his mansion. I have no problem with this but I would like to see the missing chapters. This is the kind of story that would be perfectly suited for 3 hours. It just seemed the canvas Anderson was painted on was intended to be even bigger.

If there's anything Anderson's career path has told us it is that his aesthetic refuses to be tied down to a single trait. Mature gets thrown around alot these days. If there's a word to sum up Anderson's aesthetic at this point it would be confidence. He's given us some great cinematic characters in Dirk Diggler, Jim Kurring and Daniel Plainview. I can't wait to see what he'll give us next. Hopefully Inherent Vice or whatever it will become comes out soon. With Smith & Soderbergh supposedly hanging up their director caps in the future, the 'indie generation' of the 90's is certainly going to be smaller.

Oh and one other thing. There will be another one of these director series coming soon.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Baraka- A Review

Baraka is a visual tone poem of profound spiritual beauty that stirred my soul like few works of art have. It acts as hymn to the thread of life that is weaved from culture to culture . There are no words. Nor need there be any narrative of the sort. All we have is the images presented before us.

Photographed in 70mm and directed by Ron Fricke, who was DP on Koyaanisqatsi-- another film that captures the balance and imbalance between man and nature. This is the type of film made for the Blu Ray. So stunning is the picture quality, that reviews, including Roger Ebert have universally praised this as being the most essential disc out of all of them. If that doesn't make you want to run out and buy your copy, I don't know what will.

The stage on which this work is set? Across 24 countries. From Pygmy funeral rituals to the Egyptian pyramids. This is a world singing with harmonious rhythms created by feathered treetop dwellers and punctured by the harsh crash of a falling tree. A world of Tibetan monasteries and monks meditating through the streets of a bustling crowd. We visit many locations on this third stone from the sun. All of which contain a scenic marker that is either filled with the business of everyday activity or gently soothing in its desolate landscapes.

It is a snapshot of people caught in the midst of their daily rituals and compared to their surroundings, are but passing visitors in a great sea of cultural change. Some seen laying under a bridge for shelter. Some applying tribal paint. Some just trying to get off the subway. It is our world. And as this visual feast shows us, it is one of astounding beauty. In some cases, one of haunting sadness. Baraka accomplishes what most films are unable to. Presenting us a portrait of archetypal imagery that resonates deep in the soul and allows us to see a world beyond words.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Blue jeaned babies & L.A. ladies

Music is just as important to me as film. I treat it in the same respect. So naturally, I was inclined to check out Untitled. There's a scene in which the lead character asks the guitarist from Stillwater a question. What do you love about music? The scene acts as a fitting coda to the many transcendent moments that preceeded-- the Tiny Dancer tourbus singalong, the golden god roof scene and the airplane scene.

Like a great album, there are no weak tracks. It is strong the whole way through and leaves you humming the tunes. To quote the great Lester Bangs "the greatest gobbledygook ever."

I've had Dark Knight fever and have been stricken with occasional Full Metal Jacket syndrome. But seldom do I have that intangible feeling one experiences when they've found a movie that they feel was made for them. This is that film for me. Here is a film that has been called that "o" word by film elitists. No, not orgasmic. Overrated. I can only respond to that statement with this: the film was probably not made for you. I enjoy ambiguity, artistry & audacity. But films like these come along so rarely. One that is grounded in reality and never falls off the deep end into over-sentimentality. It's a real film.

Upon watching this I wanted to be around at that time. There are only a handful of films about that era with the ability to reproduce such a feeling of being "in the moment" in terms of that era as this one. Each character and moment a new verse to an exuberant piece of music. It's the epitome of nostalgia. Even though these memories, both happy and sad, are ones I haven't experienced, it still puts me in a trance. A state of ever present longing to be with these characters that lasts well over the running time.

It's the look of resolution on William Miller's face when Penny says that he is home. Or Penny Lane's misty eyes as she learns about Russell's true feelings about her. Or the look of complete unstrestraint on Russell's face when he shouts "I am a golden god" on the rooftop. It's hard picking just one great song off this fantastic album. Above all else, it affirms my love for the subject of the film itself-- music. Something that chooses you. "It lives in your car. Or alone listening to your headphones on the vast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in your brain. A place apart from the benign lap of America."

So, what do I love about this movie? The answer to that is in the response given by Stillwater's guitarist to William Miller's question at the end of the film.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Monday, January 3, 2011

2010: A Year of Extremes

2010 is over. A Kraken was released. A totem was spun. 3 people ended up not heeding Dante's warning & were attached ass to mouth. Dirk Diggler decided he was not gonna fight for you, you or YOU. Even the Dude himself wanted to channel his zen through a daft punk lightshow. It seemed that waiting for a good movie to come along was almost as futile as Mark Zuckerberg waiting for Erica to accept that friend request.

Last year, limiting it to only 10 movies was a bit of a challenge. This year I had a hard time putting in 10 worthy films.

I'm wondering why I bothered with 3/4 of what I ended up seeing in the theater this year. I miss having a great theatrical experience. & two out of a handful of times that happened this year were from the theatrcial re-releases of The Exorcist & Back to the Future. Films that sweep the floor with what most of this year had to offer.

Here's to hoping that 2011 will be a cure for the diseases that 2010 brought us.

Youth In Revolt, The Book of Eli, The Wolfman, Shutter Island, Kick-Ass, A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Human Centipede, Iron Man 2, Splice, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Ghost Writer, Toy Story 3, A Prophet, Inception, Dinner For Schmucks, The Other Guys, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, The Expendables, Machete, The Town, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Mother, The Social Network, Jackass 3D, 127 Hours, Black Swan, Tron: Legacy, The Fighter, True Grit, Leaves of Grass, The King's Speech

This list is incomplete as there are still a number films yet to be seen: Animal Kingdom, Dogtooth, Blue Valentine, I Love You Philip Morris, Trash Humpers & Rabbit Hole.

1. The Social Network
A social network created by a someone who does not know how to communicate properly in the real world. The oil that makes this whole film run is perspective. We are given multiple views on what actually happened instead of one concrete view. Fincher & Sorkin never favor one over the other and lets the audience make up their own minds as to what really happened. Something that is drastically missing from cinema these days. Along with that he brings a restrained style and lets Sorkin's beat-perfect scripting take the reigns.

2. A Prophet
The stylistic choices that director Jacques Audiard employs (freeze frames, names of characters on screen) should not deter one's enjoyment rather enhance it. The most intense moment I've experienced from a film released this year goes to a scene involving the lead character Malik and a razor blade. You'll know it when you see it.

3. Black Swan
Repulsion meets Mulholland Dr. dressed up as The Red Shoes? That's what some people seem to be saying. Swan cuts deep. A spiritual successor to The Wrestler. If that one was from the heart, this is from the mind.

4. 127 Hours
The time compression of 127 hours to a mere 95 minutes taking place in a single setting may sound like a daunting task. Boyle managed to ratchet it up enough to make a story we already know the ending to seem riveting.

5. Enter the Void
'That was fucking trippy.'

6. Mother
Bong-jon hoo continues his perfect track record with a harrowing thriller chock full of heart wrenching scenes.

7. Toy Story 3
By far the darkest film Pixar has put out. Yet there is a warm sentimental vibe that is inviting.

8. Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage
As a longtime Rush fan, this doc had me grinning from ear to ear. They may not be the hippest band out there. Rolling Stone & the Rock N' Rill Hall of Fame shamefully snub their noses at them. But let's be honest. Why should they try to adapt to the mold when they got a good thing going for them already?

9. Best Worst Movie
A look into the lives of those responsible for Nilbog. It was quite revealing seeing people's reaction to fame in this light.

10. Shutter Island
Seeing the director dabble on the 'genre picture' canvas is something to be highly admired. Not without its flaws but good nonetheless.


(Decided to do a little something extra this time around. Hopefully it will kindle one's interest toward these directors.)


I got hit hard with the film bug this year. It's sting is still being felt as of this moment and it looks like there will no curable diagnosis anytime soon. As a result I went out of my way to look for filmmakers that lurk beneath the radar. While the year in film may not have been very good, these filmmakers made it more than worthwhile when digging into their back catalogs. A first was discovering directors who have yet to tackle a feature and have only done shorts. Short films are usually forgotten or pushed to the side. Yet within a compressed amount of time, some of them are able to pull just the right amount of punch that a full feature does.

Early on in the year, horror/exploitation became a big obssession. Pretty much from January straight through April. Delved further into the Giallo subgenre to discover D'Amoto & Bava (both Mario & Lamberto) along with some classic Val Lewton films from the 40's. Opened the crimson stained door to French horror to discover some truly gruesome cinema. Inside & Martyrs among them. One could say I opened the door a little too wide in terms of horror.

Morbid curiosity got the best of me this year. I was steered in two directions for the first half of the year: experimental & extreme horror. The former involving the discovery of some truly mindfucking experiences. Begotten & Gozu in particular. In Begotten's case, it's hitting your head on the ceiling of how far surrealism can go. This may be a bold statement, but it just may be more surreal than Eraserhead.

Then there's extreme horror. The problem here is, testing the limits of what one can endure. Mine was sure as hell tested in 2010 more than any other year. Thanks in part to straying along some paths leading to some really grisly stuff. Wanting to knock out all the sickest stuff out there. Only to find a big bright sign marked DEAD END. & I'm not talking Cannibal Holocaust. That's a film I admire, as brutal it may be. There we ever some really effective shorts I came across. Most notably: Cutting Moments. The problem I'm talking about is crap like August Underground. Because honestly, everyone has a breaking point. Not so much in tolerance of the stomach, but in tolerance of the mind. You can only go so far until you end up becoming a parody of yourself. I got to thinking: Do I really need this in my life right now? Why look to the bottom of the barrel for a possible goody when there are so many great things at the top of it. Exploration need not be in just one direction but several.

I can only point to the things leading to it. Curiosity. We all have fears. Chances are people who are afraid of the dark turn off all the lights in their house. Or people who are afraid of heights want to go up in skyscrapers. We want to understand our fears in an attempt to decipher a better understanding of ourselves. In the process of doing so, our will is put to the test. So we dive further. Into an almost Neitzschean realm of our subconscious. Failure to extract anything new in our quest of discovery is the lynch pin of the whole thing. & it's what ultimately led me to a dead stop in this futile process of discovery for this particular genre of cinema. Telling as it may be, the films that furthered my adoration to the art form (the Kieslowskis, the Finchers, the Kubricks) helped put me on a correct path. To be sure, exploitation is not entirely dead to me. I still love the Coffys & the Pieces. Besides, lovers of exploitation watch a film like 5 Fingers of Death for one reason: entertainment. I enjoy gliding along the edges of fringe cinema. Hopefully I won't make the same mistake and fall off the deep end again. I'm looking at you Serbian Film.

Note: From the Fringe will become a regular feature on this blog. Where I hopefully introduce you dear reader, to some of the offbeat films of the underground.

Here is a list of Non- 2010 films I saw.


Some of these directors will put your limits to the test. Some will subtly comfort you. One thing cannot be denied: It impossible to go through these director's works unscathed.

Call it more of a rediscovery. I had seen El Topo before, but didn't really get big into his stuff until earlier this year. If you think Lynch is as weird as it gets, go watch The Holy Mountain and get back to me on that. His films are for fans of the surreal. So Lynch fanatics, good news for you. What differentiates Jodoworsky's work from Lynch however is an almost fantastical presentation of images. The colors seem more prescient. Jodorowsky's films stick to your subconscious like hot tar.

Good news for fans of Jodoworsky in 2011: the out of print Santa Sangre will be released on DVD & Blu-Ray by Severin Films on January 25th.

Not just that "other Canadian director". Egoyan has crafted some of the more critically acclaimed films to come out of Canada. Along with Cronenberg he is showing that above us, we have some true artists at work. He's also probably the only sane director on the list with the exception of David Gordon Green. Well....make that three sane directors if ya count the next one.

Once a music video director for the likes of Radiohead, Glazer took his stylized vision and infused it into his films. Sexy Beast is pretty much The Limey of heist films insofar as being a bold stylistic experiment. Birth took it one step further with incredibly Kubrick-like direction. It breathes like a cross between Eyes Wide Shut & Barry Lyndon. Interested in his next feature for sure.

Most may know him from Pineapple Express, but his earlier films (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow) have a striking small town feel to them. His films have been called the best films Terrence Malick never made. Being a Malick fanboy & after seeing Shotgun Stories as per the recommendation of Hare Media, it was inevitable that I'd watch the rest of the catalog. You feel like you know some of the characters in the world of DGG. In addition, he captures a Southern gothic vibe in the regions he films in. The last two efforts including the upcoming Your Highness may be a bit more mainstream, but I would love for him to get back to his indie roots again.

Their short films are a true testament to showing just how far stop motion has come since Ray Harryhausen. Principle among their works is a fascinating short called Street of Crocodiles. Anyone who wants to get into stop motion animation, these are the directors you put at the top of your list. The identical twins Timothy & Stephen are able to tap into a collective unconscious through a fascinating yet deeply unsettling mix of visual, musical and cinematic influences.

Recommended DVD: Phantom Museums.

All I can say is, watch Survive Style 5. It's a trip. Think Snatch on acid. Ichi the Killer's Tadanobu Asano stars in one of the four stories. As does Snatch's very own Vinnie Jones. Another one that may be a little hard to find as the copy I have is an import. It's not a 5 star knockout in my book but it's the type of film you need to see at least once just to witness the manic energy put forth by this director.

The 4 hour Love Exposure was described by Mitch Davis (co-founder of the Fantasia Film Festival) as "a hurricane of adoration and hysteria, poetry and perversion, humor and horror". Can't really put it any other way. Sit down. Press play. Get lost in its beauty. If you have a multi-region DVD player your hunt for this DVD will be rewarded.

For those disappointed in Iron Man 2 this year (i.e. everyone), I offer a much more satisfying alternative-- Tetsuo: Iron Man. It is described as Videodrome meets Eraserhead, so naturally I couldn't resist. Tsukamoto's films simmer with an almost mechanical like vibe to them.

From his short film alone, Morgan has proved to be an immense talent. You can also find The Separation on the fantastic short film compilation Small Gauge Trauma that was released through Synapse Films.

Which finally brings me to the weirdest discovery of 2010. You're probably thinking, how the hell can it get any weirder than the above films? Well....

There are sequences (particularly the opening) which include some of the most stomach churning and nightmare inducing things that you couldn't possibly imagine. It takes a lot to affect me when it comes to horror films, but this one damn near scarred me.

Worst film I saw in the theater: A Nightmare On Elm Street. What can I say, I'm an Elm Street completist. This movie exemplifies everything that is wrong with horror nowadays.


1. Breaking Bad
Season 3 proved to be an incredible intense and dark ride. The stakes were raised as was the drama with a potency that is as pure as the crystal meth processed by Walt & Jesse. The twin cousins should hands down be named villians of the year.

2. The Walking Dead
Instant love with a series after only seeing a Pilot is rare with me. This one did it. Some storylines could have been dropped. (i.e. the one group taking care of the elderly) Fantastic score by Bear McCreary.

3. Lost
Say what you will about the finale. The one question that people looking for everything to be tied up in a neat little bow should be asking themselves is just that: Why am I watching a show that thrives on mystery? It was a Rorschach test for people who love ambiguity. It will be missed.

4. Boardwalk Empire
Sopranos scribe Terence Winter takes on Jersey again but from a different perspective-- prohibition-era. Steve Buscemi, Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt & A Serious Man's Michael Stuhlberg are all given time to shine and in the case of the last 3 actors, show that they are seriously undermined talent in Hollywood.

As The Stranger would say, that about does 'er. Here's to a great 2011.