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Sette canne, un vestito (1948)
Beautiful early Antonioni short
Although Michelangelo Antonioni's feature films were almost all entirely against everything the neo-realist movement purported to be (Il Grido (1957) being the exception), his early documentaries always possessed hints of the movement. His documentaries were always about the working class, from the street cleaners of N.U. (1948) to the river workers in his first documentary, Gente del Po (1943). In the way he stuck unabashedly with the working class he resembled his apprentice, Roberto Rossellini, for which Antonioni would write Un Pilota Ritorna in 1942. Antonioni would later be quoted as saying he was always decidedly against the political fixations and aesthetic indifference of the movement, but said ignoring the movement was an impossibility when trying to make films in post-war Italy.
With Rossellini planted firmly in cheek, Antonioni would make twelve documentaries about various components of the working class, before jumping into the upper class venues of his feature films starting with Cronaca di un Amore in 1950. Although his attention to beautiful location filming has always been a component of his work, Sette Canne un Vestito (1949) is probably the most accomplished of all his documentaries. Chronicling the harvesting and eventual manufacture of rayon, a new post-war synthetic fabric, Antonioni's cameras roll in two locations that would be very influential on his feature film career the Po Valley and Torviscosa's industrial plants.
The trees along the Po river would end up serving as a significant backdrop for Aldo's melancholic journey in Il Grido and are shot with a similarly caged-in aesthetic. The workers in Sette Canne seem like prisoners behind the wall of Po river trees. More interesting though, is Antonioni's fascination with the machinery and pollution inherent in the industrial manufacture of products. Several shots predict Il Deserto Rosso (1964), from the symmetric and distant shots of buildings with all their crisscrossing deco to his unwavering obsession with the properties of smoke. Like in Il Deserto Rosso, a worker is engulfed entirely by a massive dispelling of smoke, demonstrating his insignificance and vulnerability to the greater industrial, capitalist whole. A low angle shot of a smoke stack suggests the masculine power inherent in Italy's fascist renaissance.
Sette Canne un Vestito is too beautiful to be deemed neo-realist every shot seems handpicked and fabricated, although Antonioni claims he would never direct his working class subjects. Of all his work though, this is probably the most influenced by the neo-realist movement, capped off with a subversive dig at fascism. After the film spends all its time with the working class in their struggle to get these fabrics manufactured, Antonioni ends off at a bourgeois fashion show. He cuts together several shots of glamorous women coming down the runway in the very materials the proletariat worked so hard to produce. It is a total slighting of all their hard work, and Antonioni makes sure to make apparent the greedy disconnect of the upper class, and how much of the proletariat's work is abused by the few in power. Antonioni would try to shy away from politics in his films, but Sette Canne is probably the most overt he will get in his slinging of the upper class, which thus makes it his most neo-realist work.
At only ten minutes it is a short and sweet taste of the director's themes and visuals to come, a must-see for Italian art-house fans. With or without subtitles it matters not, for the power of Antonioni's images transcend all forms of written or spoken communication. His documentaries would always possess a beautiful tribute to the humble lands of his birth, and Sette Canne un Vestito is arguably his most beautiful.
Oliver's Story (1978)
If love really does mean never having to say your sorry, then the producers of Oliver's Story should consider themselves lucky, because otherwise they'd have a lot to apologize for. Banal, melancholic and tepidly shallow, Oliver's Story is of all things a complete antithesis to Hiller's infinitely superior Love Story. Where Love Story was a celebration of life in the midst of death, Oliver's Story is narratively lifeless, so wallowing in death that in retrospect makes the finale of the first film seem like Laugh-In. In Love Story, Arthur Hiller was able to capture the optimism, vitality and spirit of its youth subjects, providing its flower children audience with a moral center to believe in. Here was a couple, Jenny and Oliver, who overcame class, religious and parental boundaries to create a marriage based on love over money or politics or heritage. Love Story was the penultimate baby boomer picture, a movie for youth the world over to celebrate their liberal optimism and flower power innocence.
In Oliver's Story these characters have grown tired, and so has the first film's spirit. The motivated, liberated youth from the first film become the self-centered, pouty aristocrats that populate this sequel. The hippie sensibilities of the first have been replaced with yuppie complacency, as Oliver goes on a journey discovering that hey, plant ownership ain't so bad after all. The "love story" in this film is pointless, since both characters care too much about themselves to ever come close to capturing the shared bonding between Oliver and Jenny in the first film. Marcie fills her life with recreation, be it tennis, fancy dinners or overseas photography. Oliver starts off a lawyer with a social concern, but ends up accepting his position into land-owning bourgeois society all because, you guessed it, Jenny would want him to do so. Please.
The movie is called Oliver's Story, and if it is to be about Oliver's soul searching, it is the most passive and empty searching as I've ever seen. O'Neal, who can be great when he wants to be, is reduced to pouting while looking onto open landscapes. While the film covers a span of two years, the dreary setting remains a constant winter, and the trees are as dead as the emotion in this film. Some will call it smart for eschewing the standard romance plot, as Bergen's character becomes a write-off after an abrupt confrontation two-thirds in, but it is just arrogant writing. Writer Erich Segal (who also penned the first film), seems determined to breakaway from seemingly low brow romance conventions, but in so doing he has created a totally stale and empty film. What is a romance film without any romance? Even the brief sex scene between O'Neal and Bergen is so truncated and undeveloped that it amounts to all the eroticism of a loaf of bread. Stale.
The film veers from being a love story to being an empty film on just how oh-so-tough it is being bourgeois. The first film worked so well because Ali MacGraw brought a spunk to her lower class Jenny, who in turn was able to free Oliver from his upper class conceits. Without Jenny, Oliver is just another pouty aristocrat, and nobody wants to see a movie about the wealthy complaining about how hard off they are. Sorry, but tennis matches, overseas trips and countryside dinners do not strike me as a particularly sympathetic lifestyle, widower or not.
The whole film is an insult to the original, embracing money over love, individual self-pity over altruistic compassion, and pouting over pleasure. It's one big melancholic bore, where we spend ninety minutes waiting for Oliver to come to the conclusion he should have reached at Jenny's funeral, and that is the need to move on. What does he move to? The comfort of his father's wealth. For those two lovers in the first film, who needed only love to make it, such a conclusion is particularly disheartening. Those who wish to preserve their love for the first film and its characters are best to avoid this sellout Love $tory.
Ghosts of Mars (2001)
Assault on Space Station 13
John Carpenter's `Ghosts of Mars' is a derivative B-movie, and in that respect it succeeds admirably. Essentially a remake of the largely superior `Assault on Precinct 13', `Mars' is a film that allows Carpenter to get one step closer to the genre he has always wanted to convey. The Hawksian Western has always been a favorite to JC, and the dreary red sand of Mars is probably the closest he will ever come to recreating the Western aesthetic.
The true stand-out in the film is not the western skylines, but instead Natasha Henstridge's assured and confident performance. Her character is smart, sassy and can hold her own in any situation. She embodies all the characteristics of the traditional Howard Hawks female; she's poised, rough and manlier then any of the males in the film. Between this performance and her star-making turn in `Species', Henstridge has established herself as one of the toughest and most threatening female actresses today. She really is able to exude this power over all of her scenes, she carries a charisma scant few actresses today can proclaim. Jamie Lee Curtis' and Adrienne Barbeau's days as Carpenter's prime female leads are long gone, but Hesntridge has definitely proven with this role that she can more than fill the void.
Although in no way is `Ghosts of Mars' a great film, but it is definitely a step in the right direction for John Carpenter. It is a return to the condensed and simplistic stories that Carpenter shaped his career upon in the late 70's and early 80's. `Assault on Precinct 13' is a much more intriguing and fulfilling film, but this does a good job in an inter-textual manner at playing with Carpenter's original film, which itself was a play upon `Rio Bravo'. Ice Cube is certainly no Napoleon Wilson, but the chemistry between him and Henstridge is grounds enough on which to see the film. Definitely not Carpenter's best, but a solid film in its own right. Watch it, then watch `Assault on Precinct 13' to see Carpenter in his prime.
Beach House (1982)
"Beach House" is a fairly weak and derivative teen comedy. It strives to be like "Animal House" and "American Graffiti", and it largely fails. The script is inept, and the direction is so loosely plotted and ill conceived that it is tough to follow what exactly is going on throughout the film. The story seems secondary to musical interludes and drinking games. What is even more puzzling is the attempted rape scene near the end of the film. It is quite dark and does not suit the film at all. It is as if they tried to rip off "Halloween" momentarily too, just to rack in a quick buck.
It is somewhat of a shame that this movie is so poorly made. There are a few decent things going for it. The music is in the same vein as The Ramones's music in "Rock 'n' Roll High School", and evokes some feelings of nostalgia. The best part of the film though, are a few of the female leads. Ileana Seidel as the spunky Brooklyn broad, Cecile, is really cute and has some screen presence. It is a shame that this film is the only one to bare her name. Kate McNeil achieved slightly more success than Seidel, and she too was good in "Beach House".
As a film, "Beach House" is just excess. It offers no story or even characters to connect with, and it just plays out like a plodding music video. Proof of the film's inability to create character is the fact that it does not even offer a resolution. Do the boys from Philly end up getting along with the Brooklyn greasers? Apparently nobody making the film cares. If you love teen comedies then give this a look, but it ain't no "Porky's", that's for sure!
Miami Vice: Brother's Keeper (1984)
This pilot episode for the popular "Miami Vice" series is a great window into the long-lasting series. It has all the facets that have made the series so popular: trendy pastels, rapid editing, popular music, synthesizer scoring, Tubbs and Crockett banter and good ol' fashioned violence. The subject matter is gritty, but its presentation slick, and that combination works to make "Miami Vice" an undeniably entertaining series from an aesthetic standpoint. The film is given heart by its two leads, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, which make this more than just an hour and a half MTV spot.
For those who missed this great TV series, this pilot is the perfect place to start!
Private Resort (1985)
Fun, but formulaic
"Private Resort" is another fun little teen sex comedies that only the 80's could make. Its got the instantly watchable Johnny Depp and Rob Morrow in early roles, and they both have a good time with the slapstick of this film. This movie is almost entirely composed of physical gags, but it does deliver the laughs. The punchlines to every seen are blatantly obvious and easily predictable, but for some reason "Resort" has enough charm to subvert its cliches. Although not nearly as good as the teen comedy classic, "Spring Break", this is still a worthwhile 82 minutes for fans of the 80's teen comedy.
Spring Break (1983)
A break worth taking
"Spring Break" is nothing more than an exploitive teen flick, but that is exactly what it set out to be. Following in the footsteps of the immensely popular "Porky's", this movie ups the nudie and the cheese ten fold. The entire film is a fine slice of swiss, with college drinking games and mayhem. You will probably not find another film that features more beer being dumped on everyone than this film. This is a movie that brings back those nostalgic days of the 80's, where everything was about having fun. What other movie could get away with a guy urinating on an alligator?
As far as 80's teen comedies go, this might just be the holy grail. While it doesn't have all that many moments of intentional hilarity, the entire film is full of lovably cheesy and wild antics. It is about four guys having the time of their lives, and it is great. The soundtrack is stocked with some great 80's bands like 38 Special and NRBQ, complete with MTV-style editing.
This film certainly wont win any awards, but it sure is one electric and fun trip back to the 80's. Never a dull moment, "Spring Break" is a film definitely worth saving from those dust covered VHS shelves! Forget "Friday the 13th", this is Sean Cunningham's masterpiece!
Pumping Iron (1977)
Everyone has seen the Austrian Oak's massive body, but "Pumping Iron" reveals the man behind the muscles. It is a compelling look at one of the most famous American icons in history. Arnold demonstrates a determination and confidence that has obviously propelled him to the superstar status he obtains today. The documentary is true and realistic, like all great documentaries of the 70's, and it provides a captivating window into the bodybuilding world. Although a true story, it manages to be intense and suspenseful during the final rounds of the Mr. Olympia competition. Will it be Lou Ferrigno or Arnold? Although most people probably already know the answer, getting to that conclusion is all the fun. A must see!
Escape from New York (1981)
"Call me Snake..."
"Escape From New York" is a solid action noir by John Carpenter, although it lacks the punch of Carpenter's other three previous features ("The Fog", "Halloween", "Assault on Precinct 13"). Kurt Russell became famous for his Snake Plissken, and rightfully so, although the character seems to be only a more gritty version of Napoeleon Wilson in "Assault". What makes this film the cult classic it is is Carpenter's very apocalyptic and brash story. This is a very dark film, and it holds up especially well today when shown against the countless fluff films that Hollywood seems to be churning out.
Carpenter made the most out of his meeger budget and created a very convincing New York City. Not only is the set design fantastic, but so are the typically strong performances. Russell, Hayes, Barbeau, Pleasence, Stanton, Atkins, Cyphers and Borgnine are all cult legends, and seeing them all work together makes Robert Altman's casts look feeble in comparison.
What limits this film from greatness is surprisingly lax direction by Carpenter. The film is not as tight as it should have been, and really fails to generate any sort of suspense during the action. Deaths just happen out of nowhere, with little to no build up, which is a shame. This movie could have really been amazing. The ending is perfect though, and easily makes up for the film's faults. See it for Kurt Russell and the great ending and you will come away a happy viewer. Watch "Escape From LA" though to see what this movie should have been.
The Thing (1982)
Who says remakes are never better than sequels?
John Carpenter's "The Thing" is an absolute masterpiece. This film is flawless in nearly every aspect, and really proves how talented John Carpenter is as a filmmaker. From Dean Cundey's stark lighting to Ennio Morricone's solid minimalist score, this film reeks of greatness. A true compliment to pay the film though, is how John Carpenter is able to take the large cast and make each character unique and interesting. It could have become confusing in the wrong hands, but John Carpenter is able to balance character development in with the plotting seamlessly.
Although all the actors are excellent, the real star of the show is Rob Bottin's ground breaking special effects. As I write this in 2003, his effects work in "The Thing" have yet to be beat. Simply amazing gore work is featured throughout the film that is so gruesome and shocking it will have even the toughest of viewers turning their heads.
With all the gore featured throughout the movie, it is amazing how Carpenter is still able to generate suspense by stressing the unseen. He is not merely making a gore picture, he cares about scaring the audience. Some scares come from the gore, but most of them come from the build up to that gory moment. The long tracking shots inside the claustrophobic station are particularily effective.
The icing on the cake with "The Thing" is Carpenter's perfect apocalyptic ending. This is a dark film, and the ending does not cop out with some sappy rescue scene. The ending is true to the themes and characters of the film, and is one of the best in history. The last line of the film beats "watch the skies" from the original "The Thing". In fact, everything about this film upstages the original. This is a remake like only John Carpenter can make, and it is a rollercoaster ride from start to finish. One of the best science fiction films ever made, bar none.