22 April 2006

a note

I'll be out of town for awhile, so the page redesign is going to have to be delayed, as I have to go to Maine for a family situation. In the meantime, I should have time to post some more reviews, including Chinatown and a panning of Lucky Number Slevin. Of course, all of that depends on situations out of my control.

17 April 2006

100 films: Taxi Driver

films-taxidriver
buy from Amazon.com

starring: Robert DeNiro, Cybill Shepherd, Peter Boyle, and Jodie Foster
written by: Paul Schrader
directed by: Martin Scorsese
R, 113 min, 1976, USA


Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese's masterpiece in which we watch Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) spiral into madness, is a monument to the potential of American cinema and serves as a prime example of the possibilities when an actor, writer, and director operate in harmony. As the title suggests, Bickle gets a job driving taxis as a means to deal with his insomnia. While most drivers will only work certain areas, Bickle volunteers to drive "anytime, anywhere" for long hours, often twelve hours at a stretch, and spends his free time sitting in porno theatres or watching TV in his apartment. Bickle is a lonely, unremarkable soul who craves something else, be it human contact or notoriety or the simple goal of living a worthwhile existence, even if he has little idea how such things are achieved. He's a little unhinged, perhaps a result of his time in the service.

Despite his willingness to be among the people, he has a great dislike for the people who spend so much time in his cab, for the "the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit" that make up the city's seedy underbelly. Deep down he probably wonders if it was worth defending in battle. So when he spots Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) coming out of the masses in a virginal glow, perfect and pure, he sees her as a cure to his loneliness, something he can latch onto and devote his considerable energies toward. In short, he's found hope, purpose, destiny. He's found a reason to live. After staking out the campaign headquarters where she works for some time, Travis puts on his Sunday best and charges in to ask her out, smiling all the while. She relents, partly because he's so persistent, and they go out for pie and coffee, and on their second date Travis takes her to one of the porn theatres he frequents, reasoning that plenty of couples go there. It's not altogether clear if he has ulterior motives or is honestly at a loss for what normal people do on dates, but the effect is undeniable. Betsy cuts off all communication, leaving Travis alone and confused and emasculated, clueless as to how he should react.

Thus begins his descent into insanity. Needing a simple gun for protection, he buys several instead, dedicates himself to peak physical form, and confesses to fellow cabbie Wizard (Peter Boyle) that he's got some bad ideas in his head. Chiefly Travis has, for reasons known only to the mentally unstable, pointed his attention at Betsy's boss: Presidential candidate Sen. Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), a man he claims to support even as he plots his assassination. Or is he? With a person like Travis it's impossible to know for sure, but it certainly seems to be the case. The assassination appears to be, at the core, an act of revenge against Betsy for not returning his calls, a grand gesture she cannot ignore. It doesn't stem from any ill will toward Palantine himself, a man who once rode in Travis' cab. So why not just kill Betsy? He no longer thinks of her as a perfect being. Could it be that he wants her to suffer? Is it that he longs to be considered important? Or is he just too confused to deal with a broken heart in any rational manner? Probably a little bit of all three. Also, consider the hint of a Messianic complex he develops when deciding to embark on a side project of rescuing Iris (Jodie Foster), a young hooker, from a life on the streets. For her part, Iris is ambivalent toward the whole thing, but Travis has it in his head that she needs rescuing, so he devises a plan to free Iris of her responsibilities.

Part of the difficulty in putting into words a film like Taxi Driver is the inability to get a handle on the character of Travis Bickle, a man described by Betsy as the guy in that Kris Kristofferson song[1], "a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction." There's little doubt that Travis has some wires crossed in his brain, but it's not as easy to figure out which ones, or how that affects his actions. So perhaps the walking contradiction label is a perfect one. Take, for example, his willingness to drive all over the city. Why would a man with such a blatant hatred for the scum of the earth so readily volunteer to drive in their neighborhoods unless he had to? People with Travis' leanings toward bigotry do whatever they can to avoid mingling with those they hate. Bickle is modeled, in part, after John Wayne's character in The Searchers (1956), a racist cowboy with a strong hatred for the Comanche. Whenever given the smallest opportunity, he would kill as many Comanche as he could, but he wouldn't got out of his way to spend time around them. He'd have to be insane to do that. Which is, essentially, Travis Bickle's problem. He's that John Wayne character gone mad. But the one thing DeNiro does in creating the character, beyond the obvious psychopath stuff, is to give him a sense of childlike enthusiasm, from the handwriting in his journal to the fanciful tales he writes his parents to the way he plays in front of the mirror in the legendary "You talkin' to me?" scene to his conversation with the Secret Service Agent. In these scenes DeNiro plays him as a big kid who hasn't figured out how to be an adult. At times, it's nothing but a big game.

Along with Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver marks the beginning of the collaboration between Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese, a pairing that over the course of roughly 20 years and eight films[2] provided some of the most distinctly brilliant moments in all of cinema. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more productive pairing. But where Mean Streets was a film brimming with possibilities, Taxi Driver achieves greatness simply by fulfilling that early promise. Both are films about New York City that are largely dissimilar, but it would have been impossible for the latter to exist without Mean Streets and the other three films that precede it, as they serve as the foundation on which Taxi Driver rests. Contrary to popular opinion, Scorsese didn't burst on the scene as a fully-formed genius. It took him a few films to get his bearing before reeling off a string of masterpieces.

There's a multitude of things to discuss concerning Taxi Driver, from Harvey Keitel's turn as a pimp to the dramatic and violent final scenes, that would take more room to do justice than I have here, but one thing worth noting is the two different ways Scorsese films the city that mirrors, in a way, Travis' contradictory nature. As we follow Travis through the city at night, he takes care to let neon lights flood the lens, using mostly what little available light is at hand, and basically does what he can to film the city as Travis describes it--as a teeming gutter full of all manner of filth. No effort is made to make it look any better. In fact, there's a high probability that Scorsese took time to make the footage look even dirtier than necessary. Contrast that with the scenes during the day where the same city, for the most part, looks nearly spotless. We see different neighborhoods and we see them primarily through a camera that's tilted up ever so slightly, avoiding the trash and whatnot on the street. We're no longer looking through the windows of Travis' cab. Instead, we're given a more objective look at him as the world sees him and not the other way around. Thanks to Paul Schrader's script, we know how Travis views the city, but during the day Scorsese gives us a look at how the city actually is, which gives us the slightest hint that perhaps Travis' point of view isn't all that accurate.

*****************
[1] The song is "Pilgrim", which appears on the album Essential Kris Kristofferson. Supposedly the song was originally about Dennis Hopper and expanded to include Johnny Cash and a whole host of other people.

[2] They are: Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), and Casino (1995). There was also an American Express commercial.

15 April 2006

so you're still waiting for a new review...

teaching myself web design has taken more time than i expected, so the next review (Taxi Driver) is a bit delayed. So, in the meantime, go to blogshares.com and discover a way to waste far too much time on something with little to no cosequence. Oh, and buy some shares of this blog while you're there.

12 April 2006

header

The image above is a test for the new design. None of the links up there work. I'm teaching myself photoshop to make this thing, so if you've got a suggestion, fire away.

09 April 2006

current cinema: Thank You for Smoking

thank you for smoking

starring: Aaron Eckhart, Katie Holmes, Cameron Bright, and William H. Macy
written by: Jason Reitman, from the novel by Christopher Buckley
directed by: Jason Reitman
R, 92 min, 2006, USA


The inherent problem with reviewing films early in the calendar year is that there's no way to tell how a film will compare to the myriad of prestige projects slated for the fall. There's always the temptation to proclaim something as "The Best Film of the Year", even though the competition so far is pretty slim. Of course, such statements have little to no actual meaning, other than sounding important and looking good on a poster or DVD case, and often look foolish in retrospect. So why is it that film critics continue to use such grand statements. My guess is that it's just an easy way to get the point across.

So you'll have to forgive me, dear reader, if I fail to proclaim Thank You for Smoking as the year's best or an early Oscar front-runner or any other hyperbolic claim, even if they're probably all true. I shall save such sentiments for early January, where they belong.

That being said, the fact remains that Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking is a wicked satire, a glorious skewering of a culture where lobbyists are treated like rock stars, multi-national corporations are portrayed as victims, and nothing is unethical, just poorly argued[1]. Aaron Eckhart stars as Nick Naylor, the chief lobbyist for the tobacco industry. We meet Nick as much of America meets Nick, on a panel for Joan Lunden's talk show. The panel is heavily slanted, as most day-time talk show panels are, but Nick, using nothing more than charisma and simple logic, rules the day, winning over the audience and making Ron Goode (Todd Louiso), aid to Sen. Ortolan K. Finistirre (William H. Macy), look like a damned fool.

And so we have our hero: a man who tells a little girl her mother isn't a credible expert, a man described as a profiteer, a pimp, and a "yuppie Mephistopheles"[2]. All those nasty words you can't say in public--that's him. It's a curious choice for a protagonist, to be sure, but when you Think of Nick as the heir apparent to some of Cary Grant's more memorably sleazy characters, he doesn't seem quite so loathsome. Such a role requires a special breed of actor, one who is tall and handsome, a prototypical alpha male so self-assured and confident that every word out of his mouth carries enough conviction to make you at least consider it, no matter how absurd. There are a slew of legendary actors who couldn't play this sort of role, and then there is Eckhart, who was born to play it. Eckhart, with his blue eyes and cleft chin, is the kind of guy who was likely quarterback of the football team, prom king, and universally popular his entire life. He's the type of person who could lead a willing battalion on a suicide mission. If they ever re-make The Dirty Dozen (1967), he's the first person they should cast.. So it's no surprise he makes Nick the most likable character in the film, throwing himself fully into a bravado performance that's sure to significantly increase his asking price[3]. I expect we'll see him in mostly leading roles for awhile after this. What is surprising is how much energy the film expends in making Nick likable, despite his obvious flaws.

It would have been easy for first-time director Jason Reitman to establish Nick as a dubious hero, only to teach him a profound lesson on the error of his ways, thereby reforming him to a more comfortable level of morality and acknowledging to the audience that, yes, this is a bad guy. This would have led to a review where I chastise Reitman for not having the guts to follow the story's logical progression wherein people don't change, they don't learn grand life lessons, they don't reform. These things just don't happen in real life, I'd say, as I bemoan the state of filmmaking today. And I was ready to write that because, let's face it, precious few films stray from that formula and it makes for an easier review. If the director's going to be lazy, I see no reason why I shouldn't be afforded the same luxury. But I am happy to report that Reitman is a kindred soul who values such things as not betraying your characters and avoiding the temptation to preach and moralize and otherwise vary from the film's ultimate end: to be both entertaining and artistic. Because if Thank You for Smoking is any indication, Reitman is an immensely talented individual who, more than the vast majority of filmmakers, gets it. He is an artist who understands his medium down to its core, who isn't afraid to take chances, who knows his film history. Yet, he doesn't feel the need to tell us that by throwing in an obvious homage or a clip from a film with similar themes. Rather, he simply goes about telling his story in the best way he knows how, using his accumulated knowledge for maximum effect. It is a great debut, a gleefully subversive film that's a wickedly funny and fearless gem. My only fear is that Reitman won't be able to duplicate it.

*************
[1] The main character often says that if you argue correctly, you can never be wrong.

[2] Or, if you prefer, Satan.

[3] Other reviews and interviews and whatnot are calling this the performance that fulfills the promise of his debut in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men (1997), but I shall refrain since I barely remember it.

06 April 2006

100 films: A Clockwork Orange

clockwork orange
buy from Amazon.com

starring: Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Michael Bates, and Warren Clarke
written by: Stanley Kubrick, from the novel by Anthony Burgess
directed by: Stanley Kubrick
X, 136 min, 1971, UK


Listen, my dear brothers, to a review of a tale most vile, full of the old in-out and other such nastiness. A tale in which Alex (Malcolm McDowell), our faithful narrator and leader, is imprisoned for the accidental killing of a person and later conditioned by his government to abhor sex and violence, but also the glorious music of Ludwig Van. Sometimes karma can be a cruel, cruel mistress. Sometimes it can be poetic. But, my dear brothers, we must never forget that it is always in play.

So learns Alex after his release from prison. Cured of his predilection toward sex and violence, he encounters the victims of his earlier transgressions only to find that people's forgiveness cares little for his cure or the fact that he's paid his debt to society. The wounds Alex has inflicted are deep, so it's little surprise when his victims exact their revenge because, deep down, they are no better than Alex. Freed from restraint by a feeling of righteous indignation, they are able to expose their true selves, as dirty and nasty and vile as Alex in his prime, only now Alex has been so conditioned that he cannot even fight back. He is defenseless, begging for mercy. It's doubtful that this was a desired effect of the conditioning, so you have to wonder: if the government takes away Alex's ability to defend himself and sends him out in a society that hates his very existence and distrusts this so-called cure, does perhaps the punishment exceed the crime? Taking nothing else into consideration, possibly. But when you factor in the conditioning against the perfectly natural sexual appetite and the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven, then it's clear the government has gone too far.

There's little question that's part of the film's message, but to what end? The Prison Chaplain (Godfrey Quigley), as close to a voice of morality as A Clockwork Orange gets, argues before the review board that due to the conditioning "He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice."[1]. He's right, of course, as the Pavlovian approach to morality takes away the subject's humanity, reducing him to nothing more than a castrated animal. He's pitiful, really, which is a stunning turn of events considering his actions in the first half of the film. A great deal of that change relies on the acting abilities of McDowell, who's amazing in the role.[2]

Part of what made A Clockwork Orange so controversial upon its initial release[3], is that switch wherein Alex goes from hated to pitied. Kubrick presents us with a protagonist and narrator who is essentially an uber-villain--a gang leader who picks fights with rival gangs, beats up a homeless man, orchestrates a gang rape, and has a three-way with two teenage girls. There is no code of ethics by which he could be considered a good person. But, he is a clever and charming young man who serenades his rape victims with "Singin' in the Rain" and has a strange, unexplained fascination with Beethoven. It's difficult to reconcile that this likable young man could be capable of such atrocities, which is partly what Kubrick's going for here. Take Alex out of his odd white outfit and into some normal clothes and he looks no different than anyone else his age. Only at night he lets his inner demons run wild, where the rest of society has decided to suppress them. But the solution of just taking the demons away isn't a solution at all, because the demons are vital to who we are. Think of it as a ying and yang approach to the soul of man. Without that battle between good and evil we have nothing but an empty, boring wasteland. And that's not a life worth living.[4]

A Clockwork Orange, like so many of Stanley Kubrick's films, is an acquired taste. It is a bold, daring piece of cinema that aims to provoke a reaction in the belief that it is better to be found spectacularly bad than dull. Thankfully, it is neither. Kubrick paints in broad, provocative strokes, muting nothing in the frame. He employs a broad range of colors and flourishes that give the film a vibrant and raw feel, as if you're watching the characters and images explode off the screen. Alex mentions during one of his sessions that "the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen", so Kubrick does his best to make them seem really real, from Mum's hair to the red outfit of the woman being raped to the flashing lights of the record store. Couple that with the wide-angle lenses Kubrick is fond of, the slang bordering on gibberish[5], the numerous phallic symbols, and the occasional intention continuity error and the entire film is a bit disorienting and unnerving. It's designed to put you slightly on edge.

Of course, A Clockwork Orange isn't for everyone. It's an X-rated film that contains rape scenes and torture and pretty much anything that could make someone uncomfortable, but it's also a brilliant film with grand ambitions. Sure the film's message gets a little muddled near the end, and it isn't always clear what the intention is, and it tends to occasionally lose its way, but that isn't a reason to discount it. Thanks in large part to Kubrick, A Clockwork Orange feels like jazz, and because of that it feels alive, and a flawed film that feels alive is always preferable to a by-the-numbers one that's dull, especially when it's directed by a genius.

**************
[1] The Chaplin has an affinity for Alex due to Alex's prison role of the Chaplin's helper, unaware that he imagines himself as a Roman guard whipping Jesus.

[2] His performance is often noted as one of the best to never be nominated for an Academy Award. He was also snubbed by the British Academy. The film received four Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing. It won zero.

[3] Kubrick received death threats against both himself and his family and took measures to ensure the film wouldn't be shown in Britain until after his death.

[4] Strange as it may sound, I'm reminded of Revelation 3:15-16, "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth." I imagine there aren't many reviews of A Clockwork Orange that quote the Bible.

[5] A combination of English, Russian, and slang. So, yeah, you probably won't understand all of it.

05 April 2006

100 films: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

ET
buy from Amazon.com

starring: Henry Thomas, Dee Wallace, Robert MacNaughton, and Drew Barrymore
written by: Melissa Mathison
directed by: Steven Spielberg
PG, 115 min, 1982, USA


There are certain cultural experiences that tend to define a generation, sometimes a song or a novel or a current event, but quite often it tends to be a film that transcends demographics and is able to reach people on an intimate level. For a variety of reasons, few films can accomplish such a feat, but the ones that do are permanently burned into our collective memories. Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is one such film. The story, for the uninformed, centers around Elliott (Henry Thomas), a little boy trying to adjust to his parent's divorce and the myriad of things boys his age must adjust to. Then one night he encounters E.T., an alien accidentally left behind by his spaceship. They form a fast friendship, even to the point where Elliott begins to feel what E.T. feels and react to what he does and sees. But as E.T. stays separate from his own kind, it begins to have negative consequences on his health and, by extension, Elliott's. He attempts to "phone home", but it may be too little too late.

It had been roughly fifteen years since I last saw E.T., a long time to be sure, but an eternity when you consider that my primary focus back then was less on cinematography and technique and more on sports and creating havoc. As a result, the E.T. I remember only somewhat resembles reality. Certain things are lodged in the back of my head--the Reese's Pieces, the NASA men, and the rest of the iconic images--so it was surprising to watch it again and realize just how different the actual film is from the film in my memory[1]. The childhood version of me found the film to be by and large creepy. But what do kids know anyway?

In actuality, very little, but they do have the unique ability to respond to stimuli without the burden of knowledge and cynicism. So when E.T. propels the bicycles across the face of the moon, a child is much more likely to believe they're flying, rather than assuming the film is using some form of rear projection or other such effects. It's that innate sense of wonder that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial employs more effectively than the vast majority of films dare dream. It has the ability to move people to tears with a simple tale of a friendship that transcends all barriers.

One thing Spielberg does in the early going is model the visual style of the film after all the alien invasion B movies of the 1950's. At every opportunity he fills his night exteriors with fog and lights cutting through the haze. He puts more light then is even remotely plausible in the shed where E.T. is hiding, so when contrasted against the fog, it tends to glow with an otherworldly eeriness. And this is before either the characters or the audience has met the alien, so there's an amount of unease about the scenes where Elliott is sitting in the lawn chair armed with nothing more than a flashlight. For all we know, the alien could pounce on him at any moment. There's always that risk in an alien film: they're either friendly or hell-bent on world domination. Rarely is it something in-between. And sure, you could assume that since this is from the director of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) that the aliens are likely to be peaceful, but young directors love to try new things, so you never know[2].

So when we discover that E.T. is indeed friendly, a lonely soul accidentally left behind, we breathe a sigh of relief knowing that Elliott and his family will indeed be safe, that no one is going to get shot with a laser. Elliott, for his part, does what virtually every boy his age would do in such a situation: he treats E.T. like a cross between a little brother and a pet that's followed him home and he won't be allowed to keep. That is, he hides him in the closet, confiding only in his brother and sister, who despite some conflict earlier in the film are more than willing to help. The task of keeping E.T. a secret serves to unite these siblings in a common cause. Gone is the constant bickering and yelling of the film's early scenes. When Elliott is teased in school, Michael (Robert MacNaughton) actually sticks up for his brother against his friends. They learn, in some small way, what it means to be part of a family, growing closer in pursuit of a goal.

Of course, they don't become nearly as close as Elliott and E.T., who actually form a bond so tight that their heart rhythms begin to operate in sync. They begin to share experiences, such as E.T. drinking beer while Elliott gets drunk during school and mimics the actions in the movie E.T. is watching on television. This is by no means an original way to show that two characters are of a like mind, but by tying their fates together in a supernatural way, Spielberg is able to present it in a new way and it's so effective that when they lay side by side on the verge of death, you can scarcely stand the thought of what might happen. As an audience member, you're torn between wanting E.T. to be able to phone home and re-join his family and wishing he could stay on Earth with Elliott and his family. But if they're to both live healthy and productive lives, they cannot stay together. E.T. cannot stay on Earth and Elliott cannot leave his family behind, and so ends one of the great friendships in all of cinema.

***************
[1] A small part of this has to do with the fact that I had trouble tracking down anything other than the re-release version, so some things are different.

[2] Especially when you consider that this is the same man who wrote Poltergeist (1982).

04 April 2006

various

some notes for the dedicated (or not so dedicated) reader:

1. There's a review coming later today. Honest. Tomorrow at the latest.

2. You'll notice some changes to the page. There are some Google ads. The ads really aren't so bad. I've checked most of them and they're to legit things like The New York Times or upcoming movies. So click on them. Don't be afraid.

3. The search feature is pretty cool, actually. If you search the page for, say, Kubrick, you'll find all the reviews involving him, obviously. It makes finding an older review much easier.

4. These reviews are being syndicated (I guess that's the right word) on blogcritics.org. There's a link on the side. It's a pretty cool site. They're also being syndicated on Google News, which is cool.

5. I'm still looking for a new layout.
There was an error in this gadget