Friday, December 23, 2016

La La Land Review

2016 has probably been the worst year in recent memory. This isn't a new or groundbreaking statement, but there are times where I don't think it can be said enough. But man, movies, in particular, have been a special kind of bad this year. The kind of bad where there are almost literally no memorable movies to show for itself. Tired sequels, head scratching reboots, and just the most vanilla, Toyota Camry, Ph value 7 lineups of films you can find. It was so bad that it kept me out of the theaters for the longest stretch of time I think in my life. I just couldn't even pretend to like what I was seeing. So that's why this review of La La Land is almost unfair. A movie 1/17 as good as this one would have received high praise from me just because of what it was up against this year. So when I say that this is one of the best movies I've seen since Her and Whiplash (2014), I can't tell if that's because it's actually that good, or I'm just so malnourished from all this poo poo. I have to let this one breathe a little before I start making blanket statements, but here's what I can objectively say was amazing about this movie.

La La Land is the third feature directed by Damien Chazelle. He's known for directing movies that center around music, most notably Whiplash, a movie which is in my top 3 movies of the decade so far. This film is his first fully fledged musical, as characters break out into song and dance at a given time. The movie follows around two characters, Mia (played by Emma Stone) an actress looking to make her big break, and Sebastian (played by Ryan Gosling) a down on his luck musician in the midst of some career soul searching. The film takes place over four seasons as these two characters cross paths and influence one another to pursue their dream in the seemingly amazing city of Los Angeles. There's so much good to point out here. First of all the performances by the two leads. Gosling and Stone have acted together before in love roles, and it's no accident that they were cast together again in this film. Their chemistry is crazy electric. You can't take your eyes off the two when they're together. It's such a genuine relationship that both pull off flawlessly. No one plays it up too hard, and not only does neither one try to outdo the other, they, in fact, elevate each other into one of the most believable onscreen relationships I've ever seen. Every moment feels so real, and that adds to the overall enjoyment.

The story itself is also great. I love how it centers around a deadbeat actress and a deadbeat musician trying to find their way in Los Angeles. They both experience their equivalent of the brutal-ness of the entertainment industry and the city of LA itself. They also each represent an equally important aspect of the movie, as the film is a musical, one of them cannot exist without the other. They are at their best when they are together and promoting within them to chase their dreams no matter how pipey it may feel. And the film really does capture the frustration that comes with trying to make it in La La Land. Even when you seem like you're more than cut out or that you eventually have to find that big break, there's always that one little hiccup that seems so small, but you can swear unfairly threw off your whole opportunity.  The pacing of the story is also amazing. Nothing feels like is dragged or rushed. The worst part of any love story is the fight --> temporary break up to instill conflict in the story/relationship, and luckily in this film it happens so naturally and wraps up so gracefully that you're not bogged down asking why did he/she do that, why doesn't he/she go make amends. It's over before you know it, don't worry.

The music was also pretty great here as well. There were admittedly fewer songs and performances than I anticipated considering how the film was advertised, but all the music and choreography here is perfect. It harkens back to the old musicals of the 1940s-50s a la Singing in the Rain, except the nuance here (other than it taking place in the present day) is the camera work, and how the camera is almost a dancer and performer along with the cast. There's never dull or still moment, and everything feels fluid. The camera work and editing mimics the beats of the music and the story so that the entire film feels like it's dancing along with the characters. Speaking of the camera work, the cinematography here is stellar as well. In fact, the whole film has this beautiful attention to detail that I worried was escaping mainstream movies. There are foreshadowing in the background images/music, there are metaphors and symbolism with the camera work, and like any good musical, all the lyrics of the songs are pivotal to the story. The costume design is the best I've seen in recent memory. Looking up what a color means in respect to a movie and matching them with what characters are wearing definitely enhances the viewing. There's so much I could say and gush about but like I said they're only details and have no real barring on the film other than enhancement.

And my favorite aspect of the whole film is how Los Angeles is portrayed and how the city itself is once again a character in a film. Due to high filming taxes, this is the first movie filmed on location in LA since Nightcrawler in 2014, and boy does the movie do it justice. Right off the bat with an opening dance number on the 110 freeway, you see what the city is made of and what it brings to the table. The singers are all diverse individuals from various walks of life, who all traveled to this city to make it big and enjoy the perpetual sunlight. It really shows you what they meant when they say La La Land. But the city is tough and has it's dark sides that aren't really advertised as much. It's brutal and unforgiving and even unfair at times. But the city will always facilitate everyone to have that one opportunity of success. The city is gorgeously represented by recognizable landmarks (Shouts out to the Pasadena Bridge for that 2-second cameo), and no area is referred to by their city name (ie Santa Monica is still LA). This just helps blend the illusion of LA as a city and a breeder of opportunity. And the vibrant colors that are accentuated in the filming are 1 to 1 with the synesthesia I associate with this town. Noir highlights the dark and brooding aspects to the city, but I think here for the first time the glitz and glam is captured as perfectly as you can get it.

The best part of the film is the last 15 minutes. Chazelle is always known for his films going out with a bang, and this film is no exception. (SPOILERS) When Mia and Seb first lock eyes after not seeing each other for 5 years, the entire movie you've seen up until this point is condensed into a music and dance number which is playing through both characters heads. It's not only a nice homage again to the musicals of an older time, but more importantly, this is how they idealized their entire relationship after being apart for so long. The bad aspects of it are now good and the good aspects are even better. It then goes into a scenario where if Seb had followed Mia to Paris, and how differently their lives would be because of it. But that's not what happened and that's not how life works. They both needed each other to realize their dreams but they also needed to be separated in order to achieve them. They both realize that and as much as it kills them, they accept their paths like a spoonful of old medicine. And they both still love each other for it in the end (END SPOILERS).

So that's La La Land, the most pleasant experience I've had in a movie this year since Too Late (which is hard to count since seeing it in 35 mm was a literal once a lifetime chance). Objectively this is the best movie I've seen this year. Anyone can get behind it from a casual movie goer to a balls deep movie fucko like myself. If you're worried about not being able to get into it because it's a musical, I promise you the musical numbers appear naturally and fit so well with the film/story that you won't even be bothered by it.  I'm sure it will be leading the academy awards with plenty of nods, so be sure to check this one out while it's at a mild simmer. 9.5/10

*First blog post in a while, it's been a very uninspiring year but I don't think this blog will die as long as there are movies that still excite me to the point where I want to write essays about them. I apologize if the style and writing are a little shaky as I am rusty with my own style. I hope to get some more posts in here as awards season comes to full effect*

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Why Video Game Movies Never Work

Man it's been a while. I honestly didn't stop writing because I got bored, or my phase past or whatever. I stopped because I haven't been that inspired to talk about anything lately. A lack of me not seeing many recent films, plus just feeling out of creative juice. I don't have any quota, I just like to talk about things genuinely. With that being said, there have been a number of topics and film analysis' that have been going through my head. But I was recently tasked to do some creative development for a film, and without getting into any specifics, it involved film adaptations of video games. This to me is exciting because, for a lot of my childhood, and even now (though not as much unfortunately) I was a gamer. I used to feverishly monitor the game industry from the year 2007 and continuously for the next 7 or so years. My decline has a lot to do with the downward trend of the video game industry, lack of time and accessibility, and growing up. Despite all of that, I still am fairly up to date with blockbuster console games and sequels to franchises that I hold near and dear to my heart. So it's safe to say I have a general understanding of video gaming. Now here's the (multi)million dollar question: Why do all video game movies suck?

It's no secret that practically every video game adapted into a major motion picture has both suffered critically and finically. Why is that? Well every VG film is different and suffers it's own set of problems but it all boils down to a few things: pacing, tone, nostalgia blindness, and lastly the game itself. I kind of want to address each aspect and talk about why you need a perfect balance of all of these in order to have a "successful" video game film (depends how you define successful; Warcraft was received poorly critically, and had box office troubles domestically but was saved by China with record-setting numbers).

Pacing is one of the most important aspects in any story. Your story can be amazing, but if the pacing is off, it can come across as either a hot mess, or a slow, unsatisfying burn. You kind of have to play to the strengths of the story and what you are trying to convey overall. A good rule of thumb is if you think the movie didn't feel as long as it actually was, it's being paced right. That doesn't mean that if a movie feels long that it's dragging, it's only a simple thought to follow by. So when writers and directors are presented with the story of a video game, they're trying to figure out a way to fit that whole story into a 2 hour movie. A good video game will take on average around 10 or so hours to complete. Can you see the problem? A video game's story is fleshed out and paced to fit the bill of a 10 hour or so game. It needs to proportionally feel like a movie in terms of build up and pay off. So some games where almost all of it's 10+ hours are vital to the story will have trouble squeezing into a 2 hour film. You can take out bits, but they may be crucial to the depth the game adds. So if the game is long and a lot of it's info is crucial, maybe it's not right for films. That's why games like Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy (not counting Advent Children [don't worry if you don't know what that is, it sucks]), though brimming with a rich story, haven't been attempted to make into a live action feature, because there is just too much to work with. It would be overwhelming to have all the relevant info packed in, and criminal to dumb it down in order to make it work. There's a reason why a lot of fighting games have been turned into movies: little to no back story, puddle deep characters, and easy to replicate ascetics. My solution to this is consider tweaking the video game story in favor of the film. Don't have it be a 1 to 1 adaptation of the story, the expectation is set too high. Instead go the route of the new Assassin's Creed film, where significant changes have been made to the story everyone know's but is still recognizable to the fans. The jury is still out whether or not the film is good, but I'm optimistic with the amount of effort they've been putting into it.

Tone is another one of those things that filmmakers can get so easily caught up in. They want to make their film deep, character driven, and bleak even. But these are movies based on video games. They fall under a category of escapism. No one wants to go into a Call of Duty movie and be reminded of the horrors and consequences of modern warfare on society. They want to see cool, absurd gun violence with battles and things like that. You can have those undertones, but they shouldn't be explicitly stated to the audience. Have them come to that conclusion on their own by observing the world. You can still have fun in a movie while getting a dark point or tone across (Shaun of the Dead). Speaking of Edgar Wright, I personally believe he's made the best video game movie ever and it's not even based off of a game. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World should be the poster child for every cartoony adaptation film. It doesn't just use dialogue to forward it's comedy, it also uses the camera and it's world to it's advantage. Just watch this scene and you'll know what I mean.
Notice how the scene feels dynamic, there's hardly any moment where the camera is still. It's being used to give life to an otherwise mundane scene. Then there's all the little quirks, the words visualizing the sounds, playing with the magnets, the overlay phone conversation. Even a major plot point of the seven evil ex's are portrayed in a way we would assume this world to portray them in. Little things like this can add so much to a movie. I can think of so many films based off of games that could have benefitted greatly from this. Many consider the first Mortal Kombat film the best video game movie because of how over the top it was. It knew the strengths of the game and capitalized on it by having plenty of gore and violence that still is crazy to this day. Now the film doesn't offer much else than that, but for that reason alone it is considered a cult classic amongst the video game and film world. I understand darker games can't pull this off as easily, but as I will talk about more later, play to the strengths of the gameplay and world.

Nostalgia blindness is where things get tricky. Directors and studio heads think that by picking a video game IP that is beloved amongst the general community, that it'll automatically do well. Well the 1993 Super Mario Bros. Movie is just undeniable proof that that''s just not the case. Mario is one of, if not the most celebrated video game license ever. If his name alone can't save a movie there's clearly a problem. Now yes there is the argument that it came out when Mario wasn't even at his peak in popularity, but it just shows that it just wasn't meant to be made into a film. This movie does contradict my argument of changing the lore to fit a film, but the changes they made I'd argue are more absurd than the actual game itself. I mean look at this. This is supposed to be a Goomba. Like what actually.

The movie bombed so badly that some people don't even remember it. Nostalgia is not enough to make a movie. You need content that is suitable for a film that uses the world of the video game itself.

Another point that goes along with the Nostalgia aspect: good gameplay ≠ good film. Many games are successful not for their story, but for how they play. In fact, a majority of gamers like to play their games devoid of the stories. They'll go straight to the multiplayer if the game offers it. When I think of video games that would make great films, only a hand full come to mind (Uncharted, Bioshock, Halo, Maybe Zelda) because their story alone carries the game. And what many studios fail to realize is that other games with great stories and settings are already based off of movies. Resident Evil is Dawn of the Dead, Tomb Raider is Indiana Jones, Need for Speed is Fast and Furious. It's fun to play movies. It's less fun to watch movies based off of games based off of movies. The important thing here is strategic choice. You can't just pick any game and make it into a movie (I mean you can try). There was a news story just released saying that a new movie based off of the puzzle game Tetris has a story that's too big so they're making it into a trilogy. The Hobbit was barely a trilogy, and that has a stupid amount of more content than a game about lining up blocks in a strategic line. Let's see how this one turns out.

The last point is something I brought up earlier and I feel like ties this whole long discussion up is to play to the strengths of the video game. If you are going to pick a game that seems unconventional for a movie, what does it succeed in as a game? There's a reason you picked it, and there's a reason it's popular. As far as I'm concerned, this is where the majority of the creative efforts should be placed into. Resident Evil was successful as a game early on for it's survival horror game play. This means that the player is placed in a horror setting with very little to find around to survive. Conservation of ammo is crucial and you have to make split second decisions as zombies come out of no where. This in turn creates a level of tension and suspense that indie game developers are trying to milk into the ground with their Slender Man/Five Nights at Freddy's clones. People get a rush off of being the underdog in a video game. So the movie should be more along the lines of Alien, and less action packed, semi-low stakes that it is today. It's not so night and day as I'm making it out to be, but honestly it really is a neglected aspect of these movies that I think can really increase the quality of them.

So that's it in a nutshell! Obviously this isn't a manifesto that has the cure to all VG film woes, but I think by having a collection of the main aspects of what needs to be done right can really help enhance why these movies fail all the time. Another big reason is that film makers aren't game designers and game designers aren't filmmakers. They both trust that each of them is doing their duty properly to ensure the movie is top quality when both don't know the mistakes in their each others flaws. And I mean of course there is a chunk of movies solely made to cash a check with zero regard for the finished product. It's a very complex world, but I hope one day that there can be a list of films based off of games that are considered good! Only time will tell, but from the success of Warcraft and the looks of Assassin's Creed, there seems to be a good upward trend happening here. If you were unfamiliar with most of the games, don't worry, the movies they're based off of are not very good for the most part. I would recommend playing the game instead. Thank you for reading, I hope to get some more of these out soon!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Noir Time! #5: Chinatown (1974)

Well here it is. My favorite neo noir ever, and a film that is without question in my top 5 favorite movies of all time. Chinatown is a master piece. I was planning on saving this one once I had a few of the classical era noirs down, in order to highlight the differences between the old and the new, but with Too Late coming out and blowing me away, I kind of already got into what makes a neo noir different from a regular noir. I think it also serves this 'Noir Time!' editorial better to jump around between older and newer noirs rather than front loading all the classics and being stuck with only neo noirs to talk about. But anyways. I don't think I'll be able to satisfy myself with what I write here about Chinatown. I can go on for days and I'll still miss an aspect of this movie that makes it amazing. But I'll try my best to coherently summarize why this is an all time great film.

Chinatown follows private detective Jake Gitties (Jack Nichelson) in 1939 Los Angeles, as he's hired by a mysterious Evelyn Mulwray to tail her husband Hollis because she believes he's cheating on her. Upon tailing Hollis, Jake finds out that he's tied to the major water and aqueduct project that would bring in tons of water to the city of Los Angeles, stealing it from the nearby valley. At a hearing, he finds that Hollis is against this idea, but most of the city is pushing for the measure to pass. As the day goes on Jake does in fact catch Hollis sharing a boat in Echo Park with another woman. When he returns to the office to share his findings, anther woman is there claiming that she's the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunnaway), and that he was hired by an imposter. This causes Jake to poke around even further, and a huge conspiracy unfolds as he uncovers more and more about the Mulwray's and the controversial water project.  The underdog aspect of this movie that really sets it apart from other films that try and do this (cough cough L.A. Confidential) is its atmosphere and tone. This feels like a Noir from the 40s in color. Everything in the movie looks like 1939 Los Angeles as it was, as opposed to a blatant and polished set. I feel like director Roman Polanski took his cast and crew back in time and shot in the streets of 1930s L.A. They filmed on location too, no replicated sets, which is even more of a testament to their achievement. The music is perfect. The overall theme is a beautiful somber jazz ballad which is equated with many noirs. The score can be downright chilling at times, like when Jake is spying on Hollis, or he takes a trip to the reservoir at night. It makes you feel like some real shit is about to go down, but it never does (at least that's what you think). The locations of the film are so damn memorable and vivid too. Echo Park, the Orchard, the retirement home, the reservoir, the dried up river mysterious ethnic boy who's riding a horse and gives Jake 'Obi Wan-like' guidance. They're all so colorful and vivid in my head. It goes with what I said in the Too Late review that the bight and vivid colors contrast with the very dark and depressing tone this film has. I can't really describe what feeling that invokes but its a very prominent and profound one. All of that to me help completely justify the twist at the end.

Let me talk about twists for a sec. A twist in a film isn't something anyone can put into a movie to shock the viewer for the sake of memorability. A twist has to do more than that, it has to be earned. It's why M. Night Shyamalan has not found any critical success since the Sixth Sense. He throws them in for the sake of having them, and for making it a part of his brand , when in fact most of the time it's cheap confusing and groan-worthy. What I just said in the previous paragraph was basically that the aesthetics and tone alone were enough to justify any sort of twist at the end of this movie, which there is. But Chinatown is so amazing, it has multiple aspects for it's justification. [SPOILERS] So let's talk about that twist. Finding out that the girl Evelyn has been hiding her daughter that came from the rape of her father is an absolute mind bender. So first of all, the movie up until this reveal was playing it very straight, like a classic noir of the 40s. It was hitting the same beats of those films: the venerable private eye, the femme fetal, vivid imagery, a conspiracy that's bigger than any case the private eye has had before. So we as the viewer are expecting a similar experience. We think we kind of know along the lines what's going to happen, not necessarily plot details, but how the movie will resolve itself. We think we have it figured out. Because if you've been reading these pieces before, I always reiterate that these movies are not about the destination, they're about the journey. So we as the audience have our guard lowered going into the twist. When it happens, all of a sudden Polanski has flipped the concept of a noir on it's head. The destination of the film becomes just as crucial as the journey. And it's so shockingly out of left field that you feel sick to your stomach when it happens. And just when you think it's all done and your guard is all gone again, bam, the police shoot Evelyn in the head as she tries to escape with her daughter from her evil powerful and corrupted father Noah Cross. Your left gobsmacked (hi I'm from 1956) and you have the same disbelief, the not-knowing-what-to-think-or-feel feeling that Jake has at the end of the film. The famous line "forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" was the movie speaking to the audience in a meta way. So that's one reason why this twist is so good. There's more however

So the twist is very much justified, but it's not hollowly created for the sole reason of shocking the audience. There is some serious subtext behind it. Having an inbreed child really just emphasizes the corrupt personality of Noah Cross. He goes against everything that's considered morally right, and that includes breaking natures law of never molest or rape anyone that's related to you, especially your own daughter. He doesn't care though, he knows he can get away with it. And he does! He isn't arrested or dethroned or stripped of anything other than the life of his true daughter. This is just showing how the top of the top in this world are untouchable. No matter what you do, no matter what evidence you uncover, that 1% will never be affected. A truism that resonates all too familiarly today (see the Big Short). The death of Evelyn to me represents the death of the old, reputable Los Angeles. That's really what this movie is about in a sense. It was written by Robert Towns, but it's no coincidence that Roman Polanski chose to direct it. Polanski's wife was the victim of the Manson family murders back in the 60's, and was brutally killed in their Los Angeles home. Polanski, mortified, moved away from L.A., and almost didn't even direct the picture because of how scarred he was. I think in the end he really wanted to make a piece exposing how this city may seem all that, but it was built on the foundation of corruption. I think Kathrine Cross, daughter of Evelyn and Noah, represents what L.A. has become. It's the inbreed result of corruption, lies, and crime, yet is still somehow still beautiful on the exterior. In my opinion, this is the best twist ending of all time [END SPOILERS]

Let's talk a little more about L.A. because to me, it is a main character in this film. Other than the gorgeous set pieces, there is a lot to be said on behalf of the city. The overarching concern is water, and how the city needs more of it. It's highlighted that they're in a drought (when jake visits that dry river bed) and they're going to be needing to take water from near by areas, unfairly. These areas would be the valley and south of L.A. This was actually a concern for Los Angeles back in the day. If Mullholland (Mulwray hmmm) hadn't built a similar style aqueduct to Los Angeles, it is believed that L.A. would be no bigger of a town than Santa Barbara with a similar wealth distribution. Without the water, there would be no industry, less of an influx of immigrants seeking opportunity, and no upscaling the seemingly empty areas. So it's pretty clear why the movie chose to focus on water. Us Californians are in the middle of a huge drought, we're no strangers to the power of water. I also like the little touches on L.A. the film has. For example, as soon as Jake crashes his car in the orchard, he becomes less confident and more helpless. He needs his friend to give him a ride places, and that affected the outcome of the end of the film. This is the film's subtle way of saying that you need a car in Los Angeles to survive, similarly to Sunset Blvd.

As for the actual characters, our main leads are amongst the most memorable in all of Noir. Jack Nicholson absolutely transforms himself into private eye Jake Gittis. He has this confidence and swagger of any dic of the time, and you feel like you can trust his actions, that he knows what he's doing. As the movie goes on his confidence diminishes, and all of a sudden your safe net that you've placed on Jake begins to become nonexistent. You're at the mercy of the movie. Evelyn Mulwray is one of the most interesting femme fatals out there. She's not trying to cheat Jake, she's not after anything material like most other femmes. She just wants freedom. Freedom from her father, and to break away from her life that she's currently in. Her love for Jake is actually true, and what keeps her from fully realizing it is her insatiable thirst to start a new life. John Huston as Noah Cross is also an amazing cast. Huston is known as a legendary director and actor, and is famous for directing one of the first noirs the Maltese Falcon. It's safe to say his casting was deliberate.  He's cocky, poignant, and just without any sort of moral fiber. He's amongst the best of the worst.

And that's all I really have to say about Chinatown. I know I'll be forgetting some points and facts about the film, and maybe I'll update this post as I remember them. The fact is this is one of the best movies ever made. Period. It does justice to the movement of noir, the old pulp novels from the likes of Raymond Chandler, the city of Los Angeles, and of course us the viewer. If you haven't seen it, I highly highly recommend that you do. If you have seen it, but only once or not in a while, I invite you to revisit it with these points in mind! It's one of those movies that never gets old to me, no matter how many times I watch it. It's a testament to masterful filmmaking. And to me, it's one of the very best Noir has to offer.

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Jungle Book Review

Jungle Book 1967 is like top 3 all time best Disney Animated moves for me (shout out to Peter Pan and 101 Dalmatians).  I'm already overly hard on movies that don't ask a lot out of an audience, especially kids movies, but this film really had me lookin out for things that would besmirch the name of the original animated classic. That being said at the end of the day all this is is a very very well made money bag. I really cannot think of a reason why this movie needed to be made in the first place other than cash money. I would get it if another studio was making their own rendition of the tale, perhaps a more adult film (Warner Brothers has a 2018 release of Jungle Book {FKA Jungle Book: Origins} set, directed and starring Andy Serkis, so cool I guess) but Disney is working and building from within. And that to me is the biggest problem with Jon Faverau's Jungle Book. In my opinion the movie does so much original that the fanfare ends up holding it back.

If you need a summary for the Jungle Book,  something something condescending. I'll lead off with the complaints first because I would be lying if I called this a bad movie. But my complaints do stick within me more so than other movies of this quality (I'm an over protective mother). So like I said before, this movie isn't a scene for scene remake of the original, which was not an event for event adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's 1984 classic collection of short stories with the same title. It takes some steps in new directions, it makes certain characters motivations more clear (why Shere Kahn wants to kill Mowgli, why Baloo saves Mogwli initially),  and it outright adds new moments and scraps others (no talking elephants here). I personally appreciated a lot of this, as a complete live action remake would leave me a bit over saturated, however I wouldn't have held it against Disney if they decided to go on this route. But since they went the original route, when you have so many moments in the film basically saying "hey... hey.... remember the old Jungle Book? Aw yeah you remember the old Jungle Book don't you ;).... hey.... HEY..... remember the Lion King? Aw yeah you remember" you get my point. But having moments like that really hold back the film in my opinion. You're taking such an organic route, you want it to be remembered on it's own in that case. Sure comparisons would be drawn between the two no matter what, but having moments harping back to the old and other Disney classics was Faverau's and Disney's way of saying "we don't think this movie can stand on it's own." Which is disappointing because it totally could have, at least with what I saw. When you have this raw-er tone ( I mean it was still light hearted but it was also pretty girtty for a kids film in a way) and all of a sudden Bill Murray is sining "Bear Necessities" when there had been no other musical moments in the film up until this point, and no real need for one at all for that matter, it really just sticks out not in a good way. The same people who appreciate the senseless barrage of fanfare in Marvel movies will appreciate it here, but stuff like that shouldn't be pushed in the audiences face, it should be presented subtly so that if a real fan is paying attention he catches it and appreciates it more. Fanfare should be a part of the story, it should be like an extra, the people who are in the back of the restaurants in scenes pretending to be talking. Daniel Craig as a Storm Trooper in the Force Awakens is a perfect example of this. But anyways. There are no original songs in this film either. So that's something to be said.

 I also have a few problems with characters. First of all Scarlett Johansson was not a good choice as Kaa. All I could think about was the computer from Her. I know the kids won't care or know her voice, but I don't want to be thinking that I'm hearing Scarlett Johansson voice coming out of a snake right now. All (most) of the other actors did a good job of portraying their animal role and giving it a bit of character past the actors own personality, but I don't think Scarlett's sensual voice was the right pick. The original Kaa was voiced by the dude who did Winnie the Pooh, perfect for a snake voice. Whatever, that just kind of irked me. She also is like in one scene the whole movie and is never to be heard again. The other voice I (kinda) had a problem with is Christopher Walken as King Louie. Now when he was talking in the movie, the entire audience was laughing at everything he said and I'm not sure in a good way. They were laughing because they were hearing Christopher Walken's voice come out of a gigantopithecus (big ass extinct orangutang), which at it's core is just absurd. I have less of a problem here than with Scarlett because the original King Louie was played by a jazz icon of the time Louis Prima. His personality and vibe was translated into an iconic jazz number "I Wanna Be Like You." So his personality matched up with what Disney was originally intending for the film to be, but also at the same time he was a super distinct and recognizable icon in the 60's. So I attest that Walken is of that same kin where he is a recognizable icon of our time that also fit into Faverau's vibe for him. That's fine. The problem is Christopher Walken singing "I Wanna Be Like You." Walken cannot sing, the song is totally un-walken-esque, it was just odd and unnecessary. They just should have left out the song. I mean when Baloo and Mowgli were singing "Bear Necessities" it could have been passed off as "oh they were singing the song to pass the time in the river." But here Louie just breaks out in a song out of no where as he's trying to forcibly convince Mowgli to stay with the monkeys. Now I understand that the original Jungle Book may have portrayed in a racist way, and this was Disney's way of portraying it in a more PC fashion, but I think the filmed would have served the audience better if they did away with the song completely. As far as characters themselves go, beyond their actors, I don't think Baloo and Mowgli had enough on screen development together that Baloo would risk his own life to save a kid. They have like one scene of them working together and that's it. In the original (and again I may be a little biased here) I felt like Mowgli and Baloo were the best of friends by the time he risks his life to save him. I also think there wasn't enough Shere Kahn here. Another scene or two show casing his evilness would have really added some depth to the tiger. Also the score wasn't as great as it was intending to be. There are 89 minutes of score here for a 92 minute film. The score is a big and integral part of this one. That being said it fairly average and contrived. Nothing caught me, and I would kind of cringe at some of the lighter hearted bits. And finally, the ending sucked. It sucked hard. A spit in the face to the original in order to make a sequel. That one kind of made me mad. Okay that's it.

What this movie did great: it's visual effects. Now it may not look like it but this whole movie was filmed in a sound stage in Los Angeles. The only thing that isn't animated here is Mowgli. That's seriously impressive. I knew this going into the film, and I could swear to you there were moments that looked like they had to have been filmed. The effects are easily worth the price of admission on their own. Bagheera and Baloo steal the show here. Ben Kingsley and Bill Murray have amazing chemistry and they both do great services to these characters that I hold near and dear to my heart. Baloo an Bagheera from the original both feel like good friends to me, and I can gladly say I feel the exact same here. Idris Elba also does an awesome job at a new (cockney) approach to the character which is equally as intimidating as the original. Maybe not as charming, but still, he does a good job. Mogwli's actor does a good job too, child actors can be annoying and jarring if not casted properly, but I can safely say that I do associate Neel Sethi to Mowgli now. And like I said before, the original moments they had here were a very refreshing and fitting welcome. They did a good job not making any outlandish decisions or events that didn't at all fit with the Jungle Book theme (except that ending).

Now I know I piled it on hard with the negatives, and wrote very little about the positives, but that's because the original is so precious to me. I'm overly scrutinies because I wanted to make sure it did the 1967 version justice. But this movie did do it justice. For the most part it was very respectful of the original, and it was a nice welcoming watch. There's just noting I can really say about it other than its pretty good. The trade off is I don't think this will be amongst the memorable versions of the Jungle Book (maybe it will with that 100 mill opening weekend haul). It had too many moments that relied on the original that kinda made this one not have enough going for it to be considered drastically different and separable from the animated version. That's just my opinion though. I also am not an animator, so I don't have to say anything about the effects other than that they're mind blowing and game changing. If you go and see this movie you will like it, I guarantee it. That maybe due more to Mr. Kipling than Mr. Faverau but oh well. How much you like it is for you to decide, but I know deep deep down at the very least you will like it. It's score to me is indicative of what it did right, and how well it told it's story. Go see it if you haven't. 8/10

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

My Golden Days Review

Movie’s that have retrospections on a character’s life are a dime a dozen these days. Whether they have a “trick” to them (Slumdog Millionaire) or are about a genuinely interesting life (Forrest Gump), there’s no denying that the cinema space is chock full of movies that reflect on a particular character’s life. It makes sense why it’s done though. We as humans relate and empathize most with someone growing up, seeing where they came from, and how it made them into the person they are today (or in their moment in film). It’s such a universal trait that it can transcend through all cultures seamlessly. Which is why, despite being French, My Golden Days touched me at a very personal level. But despite all I’ve been saying about how movies like these are made all the time, this is by far the most human and grounded movies out of all of them. What director Arnaud Desplechin is nothing short of amazing.
We follow the life of Paul Daedalus, a frenchman who is moving from Tajikistan back to Paris to continue his career in academia. This encourages him, and us as the audience, to look back upon his life and see how he got here. The movie is broken up into several “chapters” each of which represent a significant time or event in Paul’s life. Starting from his childhood and ending up all the way to his beginnings in Tajikistan. What I like about these chapters is the length and significance of each one. The childhood chapter consists, obviously, of many years of his life, yet it starts at the moment Paul realizes he resented his manic mother. It also is the shortest in length of all the chapters. Another chapter is dedicated to this one time when he helped a couple of communists in Russia escape with his identity. This one slightly surpassed the length of his childhood in screen time. The final chapter was on his love, Esther, which took place for the majority of the film. What’s significant to me about this, is this is how we remember our lives. We can’t really remember our childhood up until a certain point, and even then it can be a blur to us. We place a great deal of cognitive importance on more significant events in our lives, like Paul’s Russian adventure, making it more vivid in our heads than other memories. But it is our love and the falling in love where we remember every single second. It’s the most euphoric, and the most significant time in our lives, selfishly I might add. I just think that sort of subtle presentation is brilliant.
The content of the film is just so human. I don’t mean like it’s “brutally honest” or that “it tells us truisms we don’t wish to hear,” I mean it’s set up in a way that is unconventional to most narratives. Paul can be a little polarizing at times. His decisions can be rash, and you’ll sometimes be wondering “why is he doing that?” The character of Ester can also be puzzling as well on the surface. She has this facade of “I can and have had any boy I like” and has this very intimidating front, but once Paul woos her, she becomes clingy, neurotic, and spontaneous in a bad way. Some may be confused as to why her character changes so drastically, but to me I see it as we’re seeing everything from Paul’s point of view. So when you first meet the girl you love, she’s automatically intimidating and you always put her on a pedestal in your head. To you, she’s a cut above everyone else, when in reality that may not always be the case. Once you get to know her, and you get past the “honeymoon phase,” you start to encounter the issues many couples find themselves with: dissenting opinions, over-protection, and exhausting communication. And when you look back at those times in your mind, your significant other always seems more spastic and neurotic in your head only because you don’t like what you see or hear. You always frame yourself in a position where you’re not wrong in situations that can be marked off as minor squabbles. This theory is supported when Paul lashed out at his best friend at the end of the film inquiring about Esther, claiming that this friend went above and beyond to sabotage their relationship. The truth was this friend didn’t put that much weight into it, and it made Paul seem a bit unstable. And the most real aspect of this film is that he doesn’t end up with Esther at the end of the film. And that’s not to say that hasn’t been done before in a film. But what’s unique to me is how things are left between Paul, Esther, and the audience. Paul isn’t over her, he hasn’t moved on and he hasn’t found peace. What’s more is none of the movie focuses on his life after Esther. This to me emphasizes the idea that Paul has had no life after Esther, at least not significantly. It’s not a Shakespearean tragedy, it’s just reality. How they split and where Paul is at the end of the film is so real.
I like the other little touches this film has on being human. For one Paul is studying anthropology, the study of humans. His last name is Daedalus, who was a skilled craftsman and artist in Greek mythology, but most notably the father of Icarus. I think it’s safe to say Paul flew a little too close to the sun when it came to love. His little sister is named Delphine, which comes from the Greek city of Delphi, which was believed to be the heart of the Earth. She was Paul’s heart at times, pushing him forward, and confiding in him, but also it serves to show that we as humans are the heart of the Earth as well.
The direction of this film is amongst some of the best out there. Paul’s relationship with Esther makes sense because we saw how he grew up. He had issues with females in his life as his mother, who committed suicide, was basically loathed by him and takes refuge under the wing of his Grandmother, and later on an elderly Anthropology professor both of whom he likens to a mother figure. He’s unstable and blunt with his actions towards Esther because of this. I also love how the passage of time within the flashbacks are never explicitly stated, but observed through the change in hairstyles of the characters. Desplechin does a great job with my favorite style of directing, “Show don’t tell.”The tone of this movie is spectacular. It doesn’t deviate in the slightest, everything is straight forward from start to end. Dramatic moments in Paul’s life aren’t dramatized more for the sake of the movie. It puts a bit of a perspective on life, when you believe moments should feel more dramatic and weighty, when in fact they are not, and time keeps moving forward. The cinematography is also top notch here. Every so often the screen will close in on a certain point and only show the actron through a door hole-like circle. It’s almost voyeuristic in a way, and it kind of epitomizes how we are merely observing life through a small viewing point (which in turn is a smaller scale for life, as Paul does not represent everyone or life itself). The acting is superb as well. Sometimes it can be hard to judge the performance of an actor in a foreign film, but here you can tell everyone gave very genuine and strong performances.
That’s not to say this movie didn’t have issues. Firstly there were some actions and decisions made by the main characters that I couldn’t tell if they were weird, or just a part of French culture. We know that both Paul and Esther made some erratic actions, but there were times, like how they both slept around with other people while they were away from each other, where I couldn’t tell if they were tolerating it because it was part of the culture or if it was because they were in love. There was clearly a line crossed when Esther slept with his best friend, but still it’s a little perplexing, and Europe is known to be a little more liberal when it comes to “sexual traditions.” I also wish we got a bit more of Paul’s current life situation. There would occasionally be cut backs to his present, but not enough to contextualize his current life, or what kind of life he wishes to have. They’re only minor nitpicks but it did stick out with me a little.

Overall, My Golden Days was an absolute treat to view. Even though I’m not quite as old as Paul is in his very last flashback, so much of this movie resonated within me very clearly. I felt like I was watching a perfectly sculpted realistic psyche of an individual, and I don’t think that’s ever been perfected on film. Is this movie for everyone? Yes and no. It can resonate with everyone, but it will only appeal to those who are willing to look back on their life and embrace it in order to compare it with this film. Some people can bottle up their memories and adamantly try and live in the present, so I think this movie will not strike a chord with them as much. For me, however, I felt like I was spoken to in a way. It’s hard to explain, but what Desplechin has made me feel is a normalized sense of myself. That doesn’t strip me of any unique qualities, but there were definitely moments in my life where I thought “this is only happening to me.” Sure enough I saw moments extremely similar unfold before me on screen. I can not recommend this movie enough, especially to those who wish to look back on their lives, or wish to understand what it means to be human. This is one of those special movies I will be revisiting at times in my life where I want to reflect and reminisce. 9.5/10

Monday, March 28, 2016

Noir Time! #4: Too Late (2016) {Film Review}

Wow. I just saw a movie that I thought I would never see anytime soon. A movie that perfectly captured my love of this movement called Film Noir, and put a completely modern spin onto it. I didn't know whether I wanted to make this post a Noir Time retrospective, where I would point out what it did genuinely that would be considered noir-isms, or to make it a strict film review where I talked about its other technical aspects and didn't focus solely on its noir traits. So I've decided to do both. And let me say this for the record: Too Late is the best movie that's come out this year, and maybe even last year as well. I urge everyone to go see it in theaters because that's truly how it was intended to be seen. And I'm not just saying that like a purist stuck in the past, resisting the evolution of technology and cinema. I mean it was literally filmed and presented entirely in 35mm film print.

A little history. For the first 100 years of cinema, 35 mm print was the standard for filming and presenting movies. Theaters all around the country would carry projectors that could accommodate to the format, and that was just the norm for up until around 25-30 years ago. Digital cameras became available, and movies were beginning to be shot digitally. Theatres would dispose of all their projectors, and now almost every movie made now a days is shot completely digitally. Only a few theatres in the country now carry even a single film projector. With digital format, the quality can be sharpened and sharpened from 1080p all the way now to 4k digital. Netflix will not acquire an original movie unless it's shot in 4k HD to give you an idea of where things stand today. With 35mm print, there was never a way to update or sharpen the image quality. What you filmed and developed is what you got, so colors could be more vibrant, and images could feel more tangible. Now there is the downside of the expenses of film vs digital, the environmental costs, the wear and tear they can be subjected to, and the hassle it is to film with it and even presenting it in theatres (ie changing film reels). But with everything shifting towards the internet, you would think it would be in big theatre chains' best interest to present something consumers can't see at home. We could very well have a film renaissance, at least that's what first assistant director of the movie Matt Miller believes. But I digress. My point was to emphasize the uphill battle first time writer and director Dennis Hauck had with making this film. Filmmakers have shot and presented modern movies before in film (Quentin Tarantino's the Hateful Eight, and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master) but they were only for higher profile directors whose reputation outweighed the budget and inefficient costs of shooting in film, and even those movies were presented in 70mm, a larger film print. This movie was filmed in 35 mm and in Techniscope with a first time director and a significantly smaller budget and release.  I had the chance to hear him speak about the movie, along with other members of the crew, and what the creative processes was behind making this movie. Let me give a small plot summary before I dive any deeper.

We follow troubled private detective Mel Sampson (played by the very selective John Hawkes) as we view the tangled relationship between him and the missing woman he's hired to find (thanks IMDB). It was filmed in five separate acts, each of which is filmed in one TRUE single take (looking at you Birdman). If you are a lover of film, interested in film noir, or curious about film noir but are not into older movies this film is for you. Now if anything I've said or written about up until this point interests you at all, stop reading and go see this movie immediately. There's no real way I can talk about this movie, especially at the length and depth I want to talk about, without spoiling it. And it's not like spoiling the plot ruins the movie. There isn't a Sixth Sense twist in it, but I don't want to rob anyone of seeing this movie for the first time unfold in 35mm. Chances are there will be one theatre in your area showing it, and it must be seen in 35mm in order to be fully appreciated. It's not a gimmick, it's seriously part of the art, I promise you wont regret it. When you see it come back and read the rest of this.

Okay where to even begin. Like I said this movie contains five separate nonlinear acts filmed in one single tracking shot. Very much inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which was filmed as a "single take" film. But in fact that movie (more obviously today) had "cheat" cuts. I mean, I bet if Mr. Hitchcock had it his way, he'd have filmed the whole movie in a true single take. But the unfortunate reality is that standard film cameras can only carry about 11 minutes worth of film before having to be changed. This movie was filmed in Techniscope, which means there was double the film. Meaning that each take was 22 minutes long, and truly did not have any cheats or edits (and by edits I mean spliced takes; there are some nifty little on screen edits but not at the cost of altering any takes). That's extremely impressive when considered that Birdman had around 273 cheated edits to hide altered takes. Even more impressive considering the camera rig weighed around 90 pounds to cary, and (for the most part) remains steady throughout the entire film. Now there is the occasional camera wobble, and half paused line from an actor that can be noticed but for the most part everything is spot on. And it's crazy because the dialogue of a Noir is considered pulp, which is fast, witty and requires characters to bounce lines off of one another. It's where Tarantino get's his inspiration from, and I consider him the best writer of dialogue ever in film. To have that not only accomplished, but perfected here is nothing short of an amazing feat. The dialogue is so out of a 1940's noir, a Raymond Chandler novel, a pulp cereal, yet none of it feels dated or out of place. It's actually some of the more natural dialogue in any film, and the modern interpretation on it is fantastic.

Here's where I'm going to get a little more Noir specific. This movie pays homage to the world that it came from while also setting a new standard for the movement of Noir. Seeing Dorothy die in the first act is just a reminder to us that Noir is always about the journey and seldom about the destination. It's emphasized even harder by the fact that each act is a single take, and we must patiently follow along in real time and see how things unfold. Right away we know that Mel has a relationship with Dorthy, we know she's in trouble and they've been troubled before, and we know she dies. We want to see how we got to this point. I think the first act is my favorite because it has the tough job of establishing the viewers in the story, as well as film itself. We get some of the more scenic and colorful shots of Los Angeles, as well as the more technically impressive camera acts (zooming all the way into Mel as he answers the phone from a far {yes that did happen real time}, and the flying camera as Dorothy gets chocked to death {via Technocrane}). I have yet to talk about a Neo Noir (Noir film made after 1958's Touch of Evil) as I was hoping to ease into it with some more classics (which I still intend to do), but essentially what sets them apart from traditional Noir's is that they're filmed in color. It's so much easier to manipulate lighting to affect the mood in a black and white film, so how do they do it in color? Well they use the color itself to set the mood, bight colors contrast with a dark tone have a lot of resonating impact. Alfred Hitchock once said, "I used technicolor for the first time in ‘Rope,’ and we took all the color out of it." pushing further the contrast and affinity (things that are alike vs. not alike). That's not to say there's no darkness to express mood, but having color can be advantageous and disadvantageous depending on how you look at it. It adds an extra dimension of depth. Seeing these colors in film just pop right at you. Yeah I know Blu- Rays look nice but it's so different in this case. Seeing this movie in the highest resolution possible ass opposed to 35 mm is not the same.

I love the modern takes this film has on Noir. There are so many little things that I could point out that connect to a Noir, but I'll just talk about the big ones to me. First of all, this movie is set in present day (as made evident by comments about HBO's the Wire) but there is a serious lack of technology in the film. Dorothy's flip phone is dead and she asks to borrow one from a pair of drug dealers, which ultimately leads to her demise. This is the social commentary similar to that of Sunset Blvd. and Chinatown where they insinuate you are completely inept in Los Angeles without a car. Well here they are saying you are basically dead if you don't have a proper cell phone. Technology today is responsible for our survival for better or for worse. I like how it speaks so true to how we are today, and captures our society in this moment, just as those movies captured Los Angeles in their respective moments. I also love the foreshadowing dialogue and visual metaphors this movie has. One of the drug dealers has a line that basically says I wish you could hand the main character a tape of how the movie ends in a film so that they can avoid their ill fate, right before they meet Dorothy and she's murdered. There is also a visual metaphor of Dorothy taking an apple from Skipper, who is in a tree, right before he kills her, alluding to the bible and taking a bite from the forbidden fruit. Then there is the similarity between the ballroom lounges in 1940's Noir to the strip clubs in this movie. Basically every Noir back then had a scene in a ballroom lounge where our main character would meet his love interest or femme fetal (or both). Here, the emphasis on strip clubs can be likened to the same thing, as Dorothy and Mel meet for the first time in one, and Mel's love interest works there as well. Finally, there are so many little homages to other noir movies, they're so fun to find on your own. The most notable being how Dorthy is Mel's daughter, revealed to us in the final act, very similarly to Faye Dunaway's character and her relationship with her daughter/sister in Chinatown (there's even a line where Dorthy's Grandmother says "The name Muller still carries water in this town." Muller sounds fairly similar to Mulwray, the fictional family in Chinatown who were responsible for the towns water supply, which goes even further as it's connected to the history of Los Angeles and its corruption {Mulholland}). The film is called Too Late as a play on words. Mel is too late to save Dorothy, he's too late to start a family with her and Mary, he has a line at the end of act 2 where he says "I need to change my life," but dies at a drive in at the end of act 4 (symbolizing the death of film as well). I just love things like that. I asked Mr. Hauck on what some of his favorite Noirs were that inspired the film, and what impact he hoped this film would have on the movement of Film Noir. His response was that he never intended this to be a Noir when writing it. His favorite Noir's were Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, and Touch of Evil, but he said it was the books of famous Noir writers Raymond Chandler and the stories of fictional detective Lew Archer (created by Ross Macdonald) that really inspired him. While I won't argue the artistic intent of the director, it's curious how this film can be connected to things beyond books. When you can interpret art beyond what was initially intended and have it hold up, that's something truly special. Directors in the 40's didn't make their Noirs to "make Noirs," they made them because they dramatically and artistically reflected the pessimistic feelings many had at the time. I would like to say that this movie does the same for itself, and the world we live in today.

I don't know what else I can say about this. John Hawkes is so engaging and does a phenomenal job of portraying a vulnerable detective. He seems like he has it all together, he seems like he's invulnerable to the world around him, but in fact he is damaged and exposed. Just like a classic Noir Dic. The score and music is amazing as well. Music can be a big character in Noirs, and though it never becomes prominent, I feel that is the case here. Speaking of inanimate characters, the city of Los Angeles has never looked better on film and really does the job of immersing you in the tone of the film. Costume design, set design, all appropriate, all great. Just quality filmmaking. Hauck said he was amongst the last to be taught how to make movies with film, and he expressed how he didn't see how this movie could be made another way. Please go see this movie if you can. The only downside to it (which unfortunately has to play into its final score) is that a lot of it's charm is probably sucked out if it's not viewed in 35 mm. Because of how hard that is to view, it is an inescapable demerit. That being said this one is one of my favorites, and you best believe it will be a future cult classic amongst the underground film world. This one was really special to me. 9/10

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Noir Time! #3: Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Second Noir Time in a week! I kind of felt bad for the way I wrote that Maltese Falcon post. Even though I stand by everything I said, I feel like it came off as too crabby and overly pretentious. And while I acknowledge that a lot of times I can exhibit those traits, I felt especially bad since that movie is a classic, and it sounded like I didn't care for it much. So I wanted to make up for it by talking about a movie of which I have no bad things to say about. This film isn't the subtle detective thriller in the brimming post classical age, but a magnum opus work that represents the best of film throughout the ages. It's not my favorite movie, and it's not the best noir, but Sunset Boulevard could very well be one of the best movies ever made. Disclaimer: Don't read this post if you haven't seen this movie at least once before. Not only is it impossible to talk about the film with out spoiling it, but you're doing yourself a disservice on missing out on one of the best movies ever made.

We've seen Director Billy Wilder before with his other classic Double Indemnity, but this movie is a cut above in quality. Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) is a down on his luck screenwriter who is about to get his car seized for unpaid loans. As he evades the repo men, he pulls into a old, rundown, yet striking and beautiful house of a forgotten movie star of the silent area, Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson). Norma sees Joe as her chance to break back into the film industry and tasks him to write a screenplay, and in return, Joe gets to lay low from getting his car repossessed. Oh I forgot to say the movie opens up with Joe's dead body floating in Norma's pool, and he is narrating to us postmortem. Yeah. Man there's so much to say about this movie. I think this film has the best some of the symbolism and social commentary of any movie out there. This is a film noir, all of the elements are there, but that's not what anyone should be focused on when seeing this. This is Wilder's take on the movie industry and life in Los Angeles. Joe, being a screenwriter who can't get work despite having submitted many screenplays, is very representative of how hard it is to break into the film industry. He is also so fixated on his car, and how he needs it to go to work. He seems super do or die about it. The car is what got him in the mess he would soon find himself in. This is showing how having a car in Los Angeles is essential. It's not like other cities with good public transportation. If you don't have a car in LA you're basically out of luck. You need it to survive. At leas that's what Wilder is saying. It's also a jab at the petroleum companies who vetoed the construction of a proper public transportation in Los Angeles so people would be forced to own cars, and then buy gas. It's titled Sunset Boulevard almost like it's an allegory of living in Hollywood.

Joe is always fluctuating his feelings with Norma. First he's unsure about her, then he loves what she can provide for him, then he keeps trying to get away from her unsuccessfully until he drops everything to leave her and in turn is shot and killed by her. This is what Wilder is saying it's like working in the movie industry, its tough to get in, and once you're in too deep, it'll kill you if you get out. Joe is fascinating because he's interesting and not at the same time. He's a bland looking fellow with no interesting vices, yet you're incredibly sucked into him. It helps to know that he's dead and we want to see how he got to this point (see not about the destination, it's about the journey noir-ism) but I also think it's because there is a bit of Joe in each and every one of us. We all wish we could make it big, and even if it's not our calling, I'm sure we've all wondered what it would be like working in the film industry. Wilder needed this character to not disrupt the balance of the others (and by others I mean Norma), but still manages to have him resonate with each of us. Joe works hard and means well, but his death is semi-justified by his evasion of the repo men, his manipulation of Norma, and his adulterous relationship with another young but engaged screenwriter. Though all of this is redeemed for him right before he's shot, but it's worth noting. He's a great character, but Joe isn't the star of the show.

Norma Desmond. One of the most memorable characters in movie history. Oh my goodness she's crazy, she insipid, she's striking, she's narcissistic beyond belief, and yet you love every single second of her when she's on screen. Gloria Swanson gives one of the best performances of all time in my opinion. You see, Norma used to be the biggest movie star of the silent era (in this movie's world). The expressions Swanson makes with her face are so poignant and vivid, they're exactly what a silent star would have to do to act since they could only use their face to emote and not their voice and tone.  It's the same with her hand gestures, they're so fluid and graceful, like she's perpetually posing for a silent film. It's brilliant. It's no secret that her character is representative of an age gone by. She's so stuck in the past, so in denial about her dilution from fame, that she constantly puts herself in a position to perpetuate her stardom. Her narcissism is over the top, and the way she treats Joe and Max, her butler, is so deplorable that you're disgusted at her presence at times. Kind of like mainstream audiences were done with the silent films. But yet. you see her reality, you see how lonely she is (that new years party) and the lengths she goes through with her denial, that you can't help but feel sorry for her at the same time. And when she finally snaps and shoots Joe at the end, you're almost certain you hate her and want her to go down with him. But Wilder throws a 180 at the audience and has the press and police the following morning pretend that she's acting out the climactic scene in the screenplay she was writing, and she has that famous line "Alright Mr. Demille, I'm ready for my close up" and she looks right at us with her beady, deranged eyes, as she inches closer and closer into the camera. She's so broken off from reality that she's still trying to convince us, the audience, that she's still relevant, that she still stars in movies, and that she'll get away with this crime. When in fact it's just delusions. In an ironic twist she IS the star of this movie, just not in her world.

There are other little hints at the film industry in this film aside from our two main characters. Max the butler (and Norma's first husband) used to be her old director. He's a foreign fellow, and while his nationally is never stated, it can be presumed that he is German. Germans dominated the silent era with the German Expressionist movement, a movement that directly inspired noir. Before many German directors fled their Nazi infest country to Hollywood, Germany was actually the king of the film industry. Having Max play the butler shows that that's what's become of those great silent era directors. Many of them didn't have any successful "talkies." They merely served the industry now, instead of contributing to it. Him also being married to Norma at one point in their lives kind of shows how the two were essentially permanently tied together and coexisted each other. He could never leave her side. It's also worth noting that Billy Wilder was actually German himself, and was one of those who fled to Hollywood. He didn't make silent films, but perhaps he was portraying a bit of himself in this character. Another tidbit is the character of Cecil B. Demille is actually a real director and played by the real Cecil B. Demille. He was fabled director at the time, and made successful movies that spanned from the late twenties all the way to the mid 1950's. So he worked with Swanson's character in the movie, but in real life he also worked with silent era stars. He's one of the few in the industry who managed to stay in that long and see it change. His presence in the movie is an outright acknowledgement that the film industry is a mean, fickle, and unforgiving work place that can spit on the very same people it paraded in years past.

Sunset Boulevard is THE movie about movies. Even though it was made in 1950 it still somehow manages to remain relevant today. I'm not even talking about it holding up and not being dated, I mean it's themes and messages are still almost the same in 2016. It's a movie you would think would have been made in 1970 at the very earliest, but Wilder was such a visionary and so ahead of his time that he pulled it off in an era where people still at least decently remembered going to see silent movies in theatres. As for its connection to noir, like I said it has everything that makes a noir a noir, yet it doesn't feel that way. The feeling you get is almost one you get in a horror movie. It's not the moody, hazy, mystery solving feeling you get out of a good noir, its genuinely chilling and unnerving. You're watching a deranged person entertain her delusions to the fullest extent, and we get to see from an outside unbiased perspective what that looks like. A big lonely, overgrown house, covered in pictures of Norma Desmond. She watches her movies by herself every night, and autographs head shots that she sends to fans which turns out just to be Max pretending she has people writing to her. And that shot at the end sends shivers down your spine erry time. There's so much I didn't even talk about (the dead monkey, the coworkers, ect.) which goes to show how deep this movie is. Maybe you'll catch something that I missed! Which is what I love about discussing movies. I included this as an extra Noir Time bonus because while it is noir, it's not the ones I'm going normally write about. But I'll talk about those few unique ones now and again. This one however deserves to be talked about at length. I'll end it with an all too true quote from the film with Norma saying, " I AM big! It's the pictures that got small."

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Noir Time! #2: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

So I've been kind of slackin on this whole Noir Time segment. Not because I'm lazy (which I am) or intimidated to convey a proper analysis of a precious film subject to me, but because it's extremely overwhelming to pin point what to write about, which movies to chose, the order in which to expose new readers into. I could do a history, I could do a retrospective, but to me it doesn't have to be an a particular order that fits a narrative. I want it to fit my narrative, what I believe the proper level of exposure should be. That being said I'm hitting a T-ball shot with this weeks film the The Maltese Falcon, a film that many of you have probably heard of. Its cultural significance outweighs the actual content and narrative of the film in my opinion, and that's why I believe it should be one of the first film noir movies anyone sees.

This is one of those movies that film buffs of any kind have seen at one point or another. It's almost redundant getting into the nitty gritty of the story, or even summarizing the plot (an element of which I'm not fond of in the first place). I'm coming off as cynical and lethargic in this writing because personally this movie doesn't really do it for me when it comes to capturing that true noir essence. So why even talk about it? Well I do however believe it started many of the detective thriller tropes, and it came at a period of time where film movement was transitioning from classical films (1929-1941) into post-classical films (1944-1963) {approximated dates} two different film movements that were effected by the current events of the country, the evolution of film technology, and the growth of the film industry as a wholeNot only that but this was the first real film that demonstrated to a main stream audience what a detective thriller noir was capable of, albeit at a very rudimentary level.

Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) is a detective with a partner who is tasked to follow the husband of the mysterious Brigid O'Shanaughnessy (a cliched name played by Mary Astor). When Sam's partner takes on the task he is spontaneously murdered. While Sam fights off the heat from the police suspecting his involvement, he learns that Brigid is involved in a group of wealthy thespians after an ancient priceless and elusive artifact from Malta, and are trying to get their hands on it. Each player in that game reaches out to Sam, and he orchestrates a plan that pits them against each other and inevitably having them succumb to law and order. Right off the bat this film is very fast paced. Like the talking, the dramatic moments, the Action," it all happens so fast and there is hardly a moment to pause and reflect on what exactly is going on. This keeps the viewer on their toes on the one hand, but it also forces them to pay very close attention. One missed line of dialogue or a reflection in your head muting the movie in the background can force you to miss crucial moments or plot points. The fast pace also doesn't allow the viewer to take in the ambiance and atmosphere the setting is creating to its full potential. The acting is also ham central. Humphrey Bogart is always an interesting choice for a lead considering how short stalky and crooked his teeth are, but I guess people bought into that back then. I've come to appreciate his style with other movies such as the Big sleep and Casablanca, but it still can be glaring for how charming he appears to be to the females in the film and how weird it comes off now. Oh well, it comes with the times I guess.

Alright enough shitting on this movie. Its faults come from it's datedness not from it being a bad or flawed movie. Historical context is alway key when watching a movie and sometimes they shouldn't be at fault for it. They did nail the setting perfectly. Despite what I said before about not having enough time to take in the atmosphere, the foggy streets of San Fransisco are really shady and give you a sort or eerie claustrophobic feeling when they do appear in the transitions. A feeling like your could be followed at any moment (a scene that actually occurs in the film). The "villains" are also pretty great and memorable as well. The Fat man (played by Sydney Greenstreet) kind of reminds me of a poor man's insatiable Alfred Hitchcock, but he's definitely representative of the big wealthy trust fund individuals back in the 1940's who suffered very little in the depression. Peter Lorre as the eclectic thespian is by far the most interesting character. There's just something off about him in all the right ways. Many theorize that director John Houston wanted to portray him as a homosexual, but the studio advised against it. There are, however,  plenty of innuendos that suggest this in the film (pay attention to his cane, and how he handles it, and also how they describe the fragrance of his handkerchief). This movie was at the forefront of setting other noir "tropes" (I hate that word but it's convenient for this sake), such as the main detective being essentially victorious and untouchable in every fisticuffs fight he gets into. He always seems to have the upper hand. Sam Spade is one of the least vulnerable and more flawless detectives in the noir era (he does have his vice with his dead partners wife and beef with the police, but its minor and never mounts to much). That in a way makes him one of the least interesting Detective protagonists in noir, but his name and memorability stick because he was at the start of it all.

You can tell other directors such as Billy Wilder and Howard Hawkes were deeply inspired from this movie. I see it as the ground work for the all future noir the subsequently followed. It's a must see for anyone looking to begin their enriching noir journey through out the next few decades of cinema. The maguffin (a Htichcock term I suggest you look up if your unfamiliar) of the actual falcon, while frustrating initially, is one of the most important choices in film noir. They make it seem like the film is about this prized bird and where and what it is, when in fact its more about the drama, the turmoil, and the double crossing that occurs in order to procure the artifact. All the great stuff that makes film noir its own staple. And while it's not my favorite by any means, it's one of those films you have to see in order to establish a foundation for where it all started. This can be dry or hard to follow for some so be warned, but go in it with an open mind and an understanding of the time in which it came out and I'm sure you can garner a certain appreciation for it! In the next installment, I intend to chose a lesser known noir with all of the classic traits and none of the (super) dated aspects. The 1941 release dates cripples the presentation of this movie as the war had not ended and the film industry had not become fully cynical from the post-war fallout. You'll see in the next one that things will change subtly but significantly. But for now heres a photo of the actual Maltese Falcon prop I took at the USC library with a toaster. Enjoy!

Monday, March 7, 2016

Only Yesterday Review

Studio Ghibli is the corner stone of animation in my opinion. If Disney is the Beatles, Ghibli is the Rolling Stones. The movies they've made, mainly at the helm of fabled director Hayao Miyazaki, are some of the most unique and intricately animated films ever made. No two of their films are alike, and each one seems to pull off a memorable and original tone that American animators can't seem to replicate. So when I heard there was an unreleased film from 1991 set to be distributed to the states this year, I enthusiastically anticipated it's release. And after finally seeing it, I can say that Only Yesterday, for the most part, was worth the unnecessarily long wait.

Only Yesterday is directed by Ghibli's second best director Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies). The story is about a 27-year-old women named Taeko who is taking a holiday from her claustrophobic Tokyo-based desk job, to work in the country side with some farmers harvesting safflower. Throughout her journey she reflects upon her 10-year-old self in the fifth grade, a time in her life where she experienced a lot of change and learned about the world for the first time. Something that may or may not be inherently implied when watching is that the film is 25 years old, so it should be viewed in the context of that time. It didn't have the luxury of being viewed here in that time period and developing into a nostalgic classic like other films. So some may be a little underwhelmed when watching this movie. There are no twists in the story, no shocking moments, and no deviations of tone for the sake of sympathy of the character (ie a hypothetical death in her family). It is very deliberate and to the point with it's direction. Some may wonder why Taeko is primarily focused on her fifth grade self and not a full spectrum of her adolescence. I had myself wondering that at times too, but I think that it has to do with the culture of Japan. High School lifestyle is not the same in the Nihon as it is here, and maybe it's less drama centric over there. Perhaps the age of 10 (around that age) is a universally pivotal moment in every girls life, independent of her culture. As a boy, I can't really empathize with that, as girls and boys mature at different ages, but I can definitely see there being a relevance to that younger age. Taeko seems to be experience a mid life crisis type of moment in her life, as she is wondering if her life in the city isn't where she's meant to be and yearns for the country side. I also think this plays into the Japanese work culture that is still prevailing today. Japan is known to have some of the hardest workers, but it is also known to have one of the highest suicide rates in the world per capita, as many will literally work themselves to death. I can't say this confidently, but I'm sure the Japanese audience identified with Taeko's woes and experienced the vicarious lifestyle change with her.

Speaking of culture, I thought that to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the movie. It was interesting comparing my American middle school experience to Taeko's, as it seems that hers was more regimented and strict. I know her childhood story took place in the sixties and it could have been similar to American middle school children at the time, but I'm almost positive there were aspects that were exclusive to Japan. It was also interesting seeing the family dynamics, as well as the working conditions for the farmers to compare with what happens here in the states. I personally felt like I took a mini tour through Japanese lifestyles, and it had me longing for a real visit over there after the movie. Now, the main reason this film wasn't released here until 2016 is because there is a notable portion dedicated to girls getting their first period. I had heard about this reason prior to seeing the film, and I honestly expected much much worse for a 25 year delay. It's so harmless that I don't see the need to censor this from children at all. Now, I don't believe they can really identify with the movie in the first place, as it's about reflecting on who you are (Taeko) and where you came from and using that to propel you into the next chapter of your life post-education. But regardless, it's a shame that they had to keep this movie in the vault for so long for that reason. Don't buy Disney's probable excuse of "we didn't think it would have been a profitable movie."

The animation for 1991 is otherworldly. There are two distinct styles between Taeko's present and her fifth grade past. The present is sharper, more colorful, and filled with beautiful landscapes. Her past has more muted colors, the faces are a little more cartoon-like, and the backgrounds are less full. In fact there is a hazy glow in the flashbacks that help distinguish it from Taeko's present. A Youtuber I watch named Chris Stuckmann astutely pointed out that this was a perfect visual representation of how we think of memories in our youth. Like if you visualize a memory from your childhood, it kind of looks exactly like what is drawn. Not full, with a glow, and less sharp features in peoples faces. A brilliant animation choice for today, making it borderline revolutionary for 1991. There was a moment in the film where a car is driving in the country side after a rain shower, and the headlights hit the water on the leaves and there is a distinct glisten that made my jaw drop. I can't imagine how people reacted when this movie first came out, and what kind of inspiration it invoked on future films that we may have praised for their originality unknowingly.

While I very much appreciate a good reminiscing-on-life story, and this one was good, I can't help feel that the story played itself a little too subdued. Don't get me wrong, a good movie knows when to hold itself back, and real life isn't always filled with big cinematic moments, but I feel Takeo's admiration of farm life wasn't completely fleshed out to its fullest potential. Every moment in her young life was relevant to her current situation and her feelings that she faced, but I felt like it wasn't completely connected to her disdain of city life in a satisfying way. I think it's somewhat due to it's 1991 release and the very much new wave of Japanese animation, but since its being released today for the first time its hard to separate it from that handicap. And because of this, I don't think this movie will be the most memorable in the pantheon of Ghibli movies. I think I will remember it most for the flashback scenes, however. Young Taeko is so cute, and her actions are extremely believable and genuine of a girl that age. Seeing the world through her eyes and some of the pivotal moments of growing up was hard not to bring a big smile on your face. I don't know how I feel about the "love interest" Toshio, because [SPOILERS] she never really has a non-plutonic moment with him. Their attraction is only implied and at the end of the film we see them rush to each other, but they never kiss. It was hasty to bring up the idea of marriage with him (a moment which is somewhat acknowledged), but we don't know for sure if they get married, or even get together in the first place. I want to give it praise for its restrained approach to love, because sometimes love and relationships aren't as convenient as this one could have been. So I tentatively give it props for that. I just don't know how intentional that was. [END SPOILERS].

This movie was a treat to see. A real life "hidden gem" as the le internets say. Other than the animation, the movie didn't exceed my expectations of a quality, but not next level Ghibli movie. Which is fine, I didn't expect a Spirited Away-type movie to be held off from the states for so long. It was like finding a $50 bill in a pile of your old stuff. It won't buy you anything super special, but it's definitely a day-maker and definitely worth mentioning to your friends. I'm not sure how good that analogy was but whatever, the movie is good I would recommend seeing it before it's taking off the release cycle. It's not a movie I'll be rewatching often, but one I hope to revisit at a different point in my life and see how my feelings have changed since today. 7.5/10