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

Zootopia Review

I've been giving Disney a lot of flack lately. I went into greater detail in another post, but the long story shot is I felt like they were starting to play it a bit to safe when it came to their most profitable IP's. I would like to humbly put an asterisk next to my animation portion of that post as of today. Zootopia is a breath of fresh air, and an exciting new direction for Disney animation that I never thought I would see so soon.

Zootopia is directed by Disney Animation veterans Byron Howard (Tangled) and Rich Moore (Wreck-It Ralph). Judy Hopps (played by Ginnifer Goodwin) is a head strong Rabbit who goes against the grain and decides to become a police officer in the fabled city of Zootopia. Her first assignment is a mysterious disappearance case, and she reluctantly recruits the help of fox Nick Wilde (played by Jason Bateman) in order to uncover a case that's bigger than she could have ever imagined. I mean right off the bat this is a detective thriller, pseudo noir-type story. The directors even described it as L.A. Confidential meets animals. My bread and butter. It didn't do anything crazy or different with that idea but its something I very much appreciate, and had me sucked in immediately. Let me get my flaws out of the way first. The third act liar revealed/partner break up scene was kind of out of no where. It made sense that Nick felt the way he did due to his flashback earlier, but it kind of seemed a little rushed and spontaneous. Judy didn't seem to say anything that would invoke the kind of reaction Nick ultimately had. Plus everyone hates those moments, even if they are an "essential" aspect of children's story telling, I wish they just took the high road and did away with it. And the twist at the end I saw coming a quarter mile away. Not necessarily a bad twist, but I always like being surprised in films. "Nick it's a kids movie stopppp." No, I won't ignore flaws simply because it's made for children, people are grailing this movie amongst adult films so it should receive the same treatment. But I mean that's about it with all of the issues I had. Now here's what I loved.

I would say the best part about this movie is the world it established. Normally movies like this create a unique world, but don't capitalize on it at all, and focus solely on the story. Here I felt like we got a perfect dose of what this city is like. It wasn't in your face explaining every aspect about it, and it wasn't glared over in favor of the story. Instead the city is incorporated into the story and the action, and we see for ourselves what this world has to offer. There are so many hidden details that warrant a second viewing on its own. The production designer for the city (a German as I understand it) went all out on creativity setting up this world. The city is sectioned off into various biome type districts that make sense when put together. The desert area is walled off from the tundra separated by a giant air conditioning fan. The melted water run off from the tundra area flows in a stream into a heated area where it is syphoned into the rain forrest district, and so on. It's things like that that, despite normally going unnoticed, really deepens the world and leaves a very fulfilling and satisfying feeling in the viewer. And that's not even factoring in the accommodations made in the city depending on species. A little town for rats, giant ice cream for elephants, doors depending on size, it goes on! It's so fun looking at each little aspect that separates the species from each other. Speaking of that, let's talk about the design of the animals in this film, another aspect I feel will go under appreciated. The character design was done by Cory Loftis who did an outstanding job with everyone in the film. There are 64 different mammal species in the film, and tons of variations within each species. Despite being anthropomorphic, the animals were designed to scale (1 giraffe is 95 mice tall), which is a laboring task in the field of animation. Loftis had to not only make these animals human-like, but he had to do that whilst preserving the mannerisms of each animal. And he pulls it off as every character is completely unique from one another, a trait that is extremely rare in any film. The best part is finding the easter eggs in this world from billboards, to animal/human puns (pay attention to Judy's Ipod playlist), and interactions of animals in the background. The attention to detail in this film blew me away.

The writing in this film is terrific, especially considering what this movie had going against it. The film took about five years to make, with around 12 different rewrites, the first five of which were drastically different than the final product. Nick was intended to be the main character, but the directors found that through his eyes, we would see the world presented more cynically as opposed to Judy's brimming optimism. I'm normally one who hates forced messages in films, especially one's that can be considered taboo (alienating viewers at the expense of your message is very risky), but I loved what this movie had to say about social prejudice in society. It was so clever using species and predator vs. prey/minority vs. majority parallelism to sort of hint at the racial tensions we experience today. It's done so with out calling anyone out, pointing any fingers, or having one of those "character looking directly at the camera" moments that could have bogged down this films vibe in one fell swoop. The directors said they didn't intend for this story to be an allegory for today, but I still think this is the perfect movie to introduce to children about the world of prejudice. I also very much appreciated the other message it had which was essentially to not give up on your dreams despite all that's going against you. That message wasn't forced and presented in a very believable and encouraging fashion. The dialogue and humor is some of disney's finest too. Actors would record their lines in the same rooms as one another, a rare and less time and cost efficient decision that other animated films don't normally do. It pays off as the chemistry between each character is palpable in every scene. Disney knows what they're doing

It's very early to say this, as it takes about a month for the premature initial feelings of a film to die down for me, but as of right now I would say this is Disney's best animated movie since the Emperor's New Groove (or Lilo and Stitch depending on your preference, both great films). No unnecessary musical moments, no forced love interests, this movie did not deviate from its goals in the slightest. I read last week that Big Hero 6 was getting it's own television series, and I would very much hope for the same outcome for this film. It deserve to have it's world explored further, even at the risk of becoming oversaturated. For now, Disney has me feeling pretty good about their creative flexibility, and I'm looking forward to their next animated feature later this year Moana. 9/10