Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Baby, I don't care.

Ah, film noir. Hard-boiled detectives, yummily seductive women, and quick-paced mystery storylines which inevitably lead to violence in frighteningly dark, sense-of-impending-doom inducing settings. What more could you want from a movie?

How about some witty dialogue?

I personally was a fan of the film noir unit, and will probably be checking out some more film noir films in the future (The Maltese Falcon, anyone?). However, I'm afraid Kiss Me Deadly didn't do it for me the same way Out of the Past and Chinatown did. And after some deep, thought provoking debating between me, myself and I, we've decided that the main reason Kiss Me Deadly was brought to its knees so easily and metaphorically kicked in the teeth by its two competitors is the lack of memorable dialogue.

Throughout my viewing of Out of the Past I found myself smiling at the quick, subtle, yet miraculously witty lines. Just to list a few of my favorites:

"My feelings? About ten years ago, I hid them somewhere and haven't been able to find them."
"Joe couldn't find a prayer in the Bible."
"You're like a leaf that the wind blows from one gutter to another."
"Build my gallows high, baby."

And while you'd think the seemingly monotone apathy with which such quotes are usually delivered would render them dull and forgettable, the hints of sarcasm, charm, sincerity, and even the simple matter-of-fact tone somehow bring them to life.

And Chinatown was not without its own quick wit, ranging from lines such as "All right, Curly. Enough's enough. You can't eat the Venetian blinds." to the infamous last line "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown. "

Unfortunately, Kiss Me Deadly did not leave such a lasting impression on me. Or at least not a positive one at any rate. I do recall the wishy-washy, every-aggravating voice of the Lily Carver impersonator and the dull, sleep-inducing rant presented by the evil scientist--however, just exactly what they were saying escapes me. The character's lines seemed more corny than anything, though it may have been the script as much as it was the delivery. If only there'd been a bit more 'VA-VA-VOOM!', maybe the movie's script could have been saved.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

How happy is the blameless vestal's lot! The world forgetting, by the world forgot. Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!

All good things must come to an end, and unfortunately that includes the end of our Romantic Comedies unit. While I thoroughly enjoyed both films, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind presented a much deeper theme with a question that ultimately seems to end with a catch-22. And the question is, if you had the option to erase your memory about something or someone, would you do it?

Now, most of us may initially think yes before quickly realizing 'Oh, no. Memories make us who we are.' and deciding on this seemingly moral and logically correct answer. After all, those who don't remember the past and learn from it are doomed to repeat it, aren't they? Our memories define us: our morals, our beliefs and our actions. If we destroy those memories, then aren't we destroying a part of ourselves?

If I may bat for the other side now and play the Devils' Advocate, however, what about those people who have had horrible circumstances happen to them? You may scold someone who wishes to erase the memory of a person from a bad break up, claiming they will never learn from their mistakes if they continue to do this time and time again. But what are you going to tell the person who was attacked and raped? 'If you erase this memory, you'll never learn to keep your legs crossed tighter when someone's forcing them apart.'? I would hope not.

Though, once again, as I chameleon over to the con side--what if the person has bettered themselves as a result of this horrible encounter, and have for example taken up a defense class of sorts, vehemently adheres to the buddy system, and is much more cautious around strangers?

But does the removal of scarring memories mean that the aforementioned person will once again throw caution to the wind and say '!@#$ this'? Surely their friends won't leave them vulnerable because they still have the memory of what happened and will surely encourage the continuance of the beneficial behavior.

Perhaps I should wrap this up before it breaks into all-out internal warfare that could last for quite a while. As far as my personal opinion goes, I think it's a very gray area. Even the mere idea of having the technology available is sending up red flags as I imagine the various ways it could be abused--but taking that out of the calculation, if it was an option I, being nothing more than human, would probably chew my moral logic to bits, spit it out and step on it on my way towards the temptation of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

We may be Whores, but we ain't Whorses!

Not originally a big Western fan, I'd decided to bite the bullet and grit my teeth for the next couple weeks when we it was first announced we'd be delving into a seemingly irrelevant, cliche-ridden unit . Of course, now I've swallowed that bullet and eaten any misconceived notions I had about Westerns.

With that confession out of the way, let's move on to the meat of this blog post. Perhaps it's because I'm a young lady (read: not a girl, but not yet a woman) myself that I can't seem to snag my teeth into any other topic than that concerning the women--more specifically our beloved whores--in both Stagecoach and Unforgiven.

In John Ford's Stagecoach we were blessed with the surprisingly sweet and passive Dallas. Our poor, delicate blonde-haired prostitute was being run out of town, and didn't seem to be putting up much of a fight either. Ultimately, she caught the eye of our reluctant hero, Ringo, and by the end of the movie she'd risen above the dishonorable position of a prostitute to a surely soon-to-be wife. In Stagecoach Dallas, and our other main female character Mrs. Mallory, both played rather passive roles not doing much to push the story forward other than to serve as some motivation for our ruggedly handsome hero(es). Every good Western hero needs a DID (Damsel In Distress), right? Our spicy, Unforgiven whores beg to differ.

In stark contrast to the quiet, reserved Dallas we have the indignant leader of Skinny's whore-house; Strawberry Alice. Alice and her followers don't push--they forcefully shove the plot-line of Unforgiven into motion. Not content to just sit around and let unjust things happen to her or her brothel-mates, Alice is defiant, fiery, strong and powerful for a woman in her position. As Strawberry Alice would say "Just because we let them ride us like horses don't mean we have to let them treat us like horses," and she does her best to live by those words standing up for whatever dignity she and her coworkers are trying to preserve.

Interestingly, despite the stronger role Strawberry Alice is granted, at times I feel she goes overboard--namely when she pairs Davy with Quick Mike as far as the cutting of Delilah's face goes. There are times I wanted to smack some sense into her and point out that Davy shouldn't have simply been guilty by association. My heart went out to him when he was being pelted after going above and beyond to try and show his remorse and make up for what happened Delilah. Similarly, just as how I find Alice's man-hater ways a pesky annoyance I was similarly bothered by what a passive, weak character Dallas was. However, despite both character's flaws, they both brought a different, yet necessary flavor to their respective movies, Strawberry Alice full of zest and spice and Dallas satisfying our sweet tooth.

P.S. I think my favorite female character between the two movies was Claudia.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I've had so many names. Old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce.

In Pan's Labyrinth Guillermo del Toro manages to create a beautifully intricate, yet intensely violent fairy tale set in Spain, 1944 during the Spanish Civil War. Throughout the course of the film, the fantasy and reality worlds mingle until it is difficult to draw the line between what indeed is fact and when it crosses over into fiction. Del Toro's film is abounding with alluring scenery and lighting, elaborate costume designs, a score ominous enough to keep me tingling and awake long enough to write this blog, and an absolutely stunning and convincing cast. Originally tempted to delve into the wonders of Doug Jones and his magnificent portrayal of both the Faun and The Pale Man (as well as how he passed the time in those five hours it took to get into each costume), as well the fascinating puppeteering and CGI work that went into creating the plethora of magical creatures and items peppered throughout the movie my attention was unexpectedly captured by something--rather someone--else, and that is the director (and screen writer) Guillermo del Toro himself.

In all fairness, Pan's Labyrinth is the only one of del Toro's films that I have actually watched and though I now feel obliged to enlighten myself with more of his undoubtedly beautiful works, at this present moment I am not properly equipped to compare Pan's Labyrinth with any of his other films including Cronos, Mimic, Hellboy, and Pan's sister-film The Devil's Backbone. Instead, what captivated me about Guillermo del Toro was his blaring passion and involvement with this film.

Perhaps the most notable fact about Guillermo del Toro is his 20-year-old notebook that he takes with him everywhere and even lost during the production of Pan's Labyrinth. Within it are all his doodles, scribbles, ideas, drawings, and plots and it is the inspiration for all of his films, and with its disappearance he became immensely distraught. However, in what Del Toro describes as a magical act, the cabbie who's taxi he had left his sketchbook in returned it to him two days later and Del Toro literally emptied his wallet giving the man everything he had which totaled up to about $1,000.

When listening to the director's cut for Pan's Labyrinth, it doesn't take long to realize the passion he has for film making and storytelling. He pays meticulous attention to all the details, such as his request to have the camera almost constantly in motion to give the film a drifting, unstable feeling. He gives very precise, accurate direction for what he expects his crew to do and will expect no less--and certainly does not let it go unnoticed when someone goes above and beyond his expectations.

Another admirable thing about Del Toro is that he knows what he wants in his films and will not let anyone deter him or tell him otherwise. In Spain, actor Sergi López who was to portray the the most vile and unlikable character, Captain Vidal, was known for his melodramatic, comedic acting. Similarly cast against her norm was Maribel Verdú, often portraying a steamy sexpot, now played the ever so solemn and silently rebellious Mercedes in the not-so-sexy story of Pan's Labyrinth. When informed by another man that he was making a horrible mistake and miscasting these characters Del Toro calmly informed him that it wasn't that he didn't know, but simply that he didn't care.

Throughout the director's cut, Guillermo del Toro seemed very pleased and proud of the significant yet subtle color palettes used throughout the film. He used faded blues to portray the real world, a green gel filter to emphasize the nature aspect (namely the moss) in the Faun's lair, and a warm golden palette to portray the wonder and magic of Ofelia's fantasy world. If you pay attention throughout the film, you will see these palettes contrasting each other rather sharply at certain points in the film. Another aspect of Pan's Labyrinth that del Toro seemed to take evident pride in was the wipe effect utilized throughout the film. Oftentimes the characters would disappear behind a tree or other structure that would momentarily obscure the entire screen, before revealing a new shot or scene altogether. Del Toro described this wipe transition as having the effect of turning the pages of a story.

Clearly, Guillermo del Toro invested a lot into Pan's Labyrinth. Not only did he use $100,000 of his own money (later splitting the cost halfway with a friend also working on the film) to get the early production started, in the end he gave up not only his producer's cut of the film, but also his director's cut. In a similar act of devotion to his film, he also spent an extra month after the movie's production subtitling the film himself. He felt the subtitles for his last film were extremely bad, meant for the unintelligent and he did not wish for the viewers to feel as if they were watching a subtitled movie. It is due to del Toro's sacrifices, passion, amazing insight and imagination, knack for storytelling as well as his devotion to his work that made Pan's Labyrinth the absolutely fantastical film we now know and love.

Surprises lurk inside 'Pan's Labyrinth'

Del Toro: Drawn to the Dark Side

Audio Commentary on DVD by director Guillermo del Toro

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Babel Critic Review; Take 2

From a dusty mountain top in the vast Moroccan desert, a young, adolescent boy foolishly aims a loaded rifle at white tour bus winding slowly down the barren street. The bullet pierces through the glass with such suddenness it makes you jump and sends shivers down your spine as it lodges quickly and comfortably into the neck of a disgruntled American tourist, Susan (Cate Blanchett). As the warm blood pours out, dying her shirt a deep red, her similarly grumpy husband, Richard (Brad Pitt), quickly jumps into action to save his wife's life as the many occupants of the bus look on, surprisingly unhelpful and unsympathetic. Meanwhile, back in America, their children, Mike and Debbie, are safe at home with their Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barazza). Or so she would have the parents believe. Desperate to attend her son's wedding in Mexico and unable to find anyone to look after the children for the day, Amelia decides to bring them with her to the wedding. She enlists the help of her nephew, Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal), to drive her and the children across the border into Mexico. At the same time, a deaf-mute Japanese girl still struggling with the death of her mother spends her time rebelling against her father, trying to seduce dentists and detectives and flaunting her 'hairy monster' to any guy who'll look.

The common thread that weaves intricately through all these stories is of course the rifle shot which fuels the many different stories entwined in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" which won him the Festival De Cannes award for best Director. Or so you would think. However, upon closer inspection it becomes evident that the rifle is not the only common thread. In fact, it is by no means the most significant or powerful common occurrence throughout the four elegantly interlaced tales. Rather, the struggle against helplessness, the feeling of being totally and utterly lost and alone, and overcoming cultural and linguistic barriers is the true message that chains together our four groups of protagonists.

First and foremost, I was hopelessly enraptured by the truly powerful and heartfelt performances of all the cast members. All the younger actors, including those playing the two Moroccan boys, Ahmed and Yussef, as well as the two American children, Mike and Debbie, were very convincing and left me pleasantly surprised.

However, many kudos must be awarded to the Martin Hernandez and his amazing sound team, because for me the sound in Babel was one of the most significant and well done aspects of the entire film. Throughout the film, there was very little nondiegetic music. It only arose when what was being said--or sobbed, or sniveled, or whimpered, or screamed--was not of any significant importance. However, this is not to downplay the beautiful music composed by Gustavo Santaolalla. His compositions helped smooth the transition from one setting to another. We would go from the humdrum string instrument plucking in dusty, desolate Morocco to the upbeat, techno-esque music vibrating through the streets of Tokyo, and then to the frisky, animated Mexican music back in Mexico.

Still, in a film that stretches across four countries, in three different continents, and exposes us to four different languages (English, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese and even a little bit of French sprinkled into the mix) and a deaf-mute Japanese girl, sound is bound to be a vital part of the film. Take, for example, a part of the movie where the Mexican maid Amelia has had a stroke of bad luck and is now stuck in the middle of the scorching hot desert with two children clinging to her. Of course, we've seen it before--someone stuck in the middle of nowhere. No matter which way they turn, no one angle seems to hold anymore promise than the other. However, I can say that no movie before "Babel" has been able to make a character's sense of frantic helplessness so infectious and potent that it seeps into your body and spreads to every last fiber of your being. There is no background music to give even the faintest illusion of humanity. The many swift cuts from one angle to the next give you the same frantic, searching feeling that Amelia is surely going through. Your toes curl and you cringe a bit as the camera focuses on her legs and high-heel bearing feet. The hot, yellow sand trying to swallow her with every step she takes as she fights desperately through it, her legs decorated with whitish-pink patches where her skin used to be. Where is the comforting background music that will allude to when salvation is near? Sorry to disappoint, but it's not there. All you hear is the heat-induced panting of Amelia as she fights to stay conscious and not faint from the heat, surely dooming herself and both children to die from the heat.

Of course, the single most interesting and unique aspect the sound team came up with was related to Chieko, the deaf-mute Japanese girl. Initially, she seems a difficult character to relate to, let alone sympathize with. She is bizarre, unstable, disgraceful, even possibly disgusting to some. However, through the use of sound--or rather, lack thereof--we are almost forced to relate and sympathize with Chieko. We are given a sort of subjective-audio point of view, especially when something has happened to upset Chieko. It is then that all sound is cut off, and you're sitting in the same eerie, maddening silence Chieko lives with every day. To simply imagine not being able to hear someone call your name, or to listen to your favorite song, or talk to someone over the phone, and all the other things we can do only because of our ability to talk and hear that we take for granted compels you to at least pity Chieko. Considering we are not completely detached or heartless and are still susceptible to such ploys devised to tug at our heartstrings, it is soon difficult to not relate with Chieko, despite the fact she is perhaps the most uncouth of all the characters we are exposed to.

Next, I feel some recognition should be extended towards the cinematographer and director of photography Rodrigo Prieto. The subtle changes in color that helped us distinguish (but not completely separate) the various countries we were exposed to were all thanks to his genius. As a good movie-watcher you should notice the muted colors of Morocco, and the murky shades in Mexico as opposed to the brighter colors and then the significantly more vibrant hues in America and Tokyo respectively. In addition the the lovely music and scenery itself, the manipulation of the colors helps us get a feel for where we are as well. It is also worth mentioning that almost the entire movie was filmed by use of a hand-held camera, manned by Rodrigo Prieto himself. A feeling of authenticity, urgency, and involvement are all achieved by the predominant use of a hand-held camera.

It is without a doubt in my mind that some people will feel that "Babel" is far too convoluted, coincidental and thus unbelievable to award it the merit it has been awarded. They will say it is simply overblown and miss "Babel" for what it truly is, a message--a plea, in a sense, for cultural integration or, at the very least, acceptance. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film is by far one of the most powerful and captivating films I've seen this year.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Yeah, well... This corn is an angel!

Being an adamant fan of Steve Carell and enjoying my fair share of Dane Cook's 'funny because it's so true' humor, three seconds into the trailer for "Dan and Real Life" and it had already trumped all other movies on my 'to-watch' list and was sitting contentedly on top.

While trying to decide which movie's critic to critique, I ran into Mick LaSalle's reviews on just about every movie I checked, and they were consistently negative. Needless to say I was surprised and hopelessly intrigued when I saw he'd given "Dan in Real Life" a 100 on Metacritic and commenced to click the small 'Read Full Review' link below what may be one of the best descriptions of a movie I've ever read.

Dan in Real Life fires on so many circuits that at times it's actually shocking how good it is.

And the praise doesn't stop there. He continues;
It tells a funny and emotional story without any of the sentimental shorthand found in most romantic comedies. And though its level of sheer comic craftsmanship dwarfs most contenders, it doesn't feel in any way constructed. It feels intuitive and inspired, a film of humanity and insight.

While I may have disagreed with a heavy majority of LaSalle's reviews, this time he truly is putting my very thoughts into words (albeit, considerably more eloquently than I could ever muster).

For those who have not yet basked in the glory that is "Dan in Real Life", Dan Burns (Steve Carell) is a windowed newspaper advice columnist who rounds up his three daughters for a family reunion at his parents' house in Rhode Island. The following day, due to a fortunate misunderstanding in a library, he finds himself completely enraptured by a woman for the first time in years. Managing to walk away with her number in hand he is absolutely ecstatic.

Enter Mitch (Dane Cook). Dan's younger brother.

Enter Marie (Juliette Binoche). Mitch's new girlfriend and the woman from the library.

Throughout the movie Dan attempts to smother his feelings for Marie, not wanting to cause any bad blood between himself and his sweet, little brother who seems to have found true love for the first time. Hilarity ensues in order to soften the wrenching of heart strings as we watch Dan's silent struggle.

Seem typical, overdone and predictable? I give the stage once again to LaSalle;

Even if you end up guessing where the story eventually goes, its path is so eccentric that each turn in the journey comes as a surprise. And most of the surprises are very funny. This is impressive comic writing.

It truly was a beautifully done movie, and simply reading Mick LaSalle's review and raving about it myself has me itching to go see it again. The relationship that blossomed between Dan and Marie was refreshingly believable and realistic. The relationship was not solely lust-driven (though Binoche truly is a natural beauty) and the jokes were not sleazy, crude-humor but because the movie utilizes Murphy's 'whatever can go wrong, will go wrong' law so well and the events and emotions allow you to really connect with Carell's character.

The chemistry between characters was riveting--and not just between Carell and Binoche--but the entire cast. It was a treat to see Dianne West playing Dan's mother, and while some (LaSalle included; "
Brittany Robertson is comically adept as the rebellious, lovesick middle daughter - though Hedges allows her to be a bit too shrill and writes her as too much of a repellent, hateful brat.") felt that the middle daughter, Cara, played by Brittany Robertson was a bit over exaggerated, I didn't have the same problem and enjoyed her performance in its entirety.

I really enjoyed reading Mick LaSalle's review on this movie--though we disagreed on countless films he is by no means a bad critic and gives praise when and where it is due, as well as the proper critique. He shows a clear understanding of how shot positioning and timing can effectively draw on the right emotion at the right time as shown when he points out;

In one scene, Dan opens a door and finds his youngest daughter having a conversation with Marie. He'd love to join them, but he knows he shouldn't, and the camera emphasizes his longing by hanging back with him and not moving in for a tight shot of the daughter. Such psychological perception and sensitive intelligence characterize Hedges' work throughout, and the result is one of the half-dozen best American films so far this year.

If you haven't seen this movie, both I and Mick LaSalle highly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Introductory Post

They say the first step is admission--so here it is.

I'm a junkie.

A movie junkie, to be more precise.

Who doesn't love a good movie? But not only do I love watching movies, I enjoy (maybe more than I should) researching them; reading quotes, fun trivia and 'goofs'; looking up information on the actors and actresses; scrutinizing critic reviews and most of all discussing them with other people.

I'm not a big purse person, but I do carry a small one around with me when I go out. It's an endless mess--not because it's full of cosmetics, cash, credit cards, etc--but on any given day it is overflowing with movie ticket stubs. Among them are Awake, Enchanted, Beowulf, August Rush, Fred Claus, 27 Dresses, National Treasure (twice), Dan in Real Life, and many more.

As much as I enjoy movies--watching and mindlessly researching--I haven't looked much (read: at all) into the actual techniques and terminology of film. So hopefully by the end of the semester, I'll be able to apply what I learn in Art of Film to any and all movies I watch in the future.