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The Ides of March (2011)
Films about he politicians background machinery are a well-known and always welcome genre within American cinema. It is indeed strange for me that we don't get as many examples from this as we could, during and after the Bush jr. administration. Anyway Clooney does enjoy doing it. Surprisingly enough, he is a skilled filmmaker, who can this pull this kind of thing out, when he associate his director competent vision with the persona he has been cultivating for so long: the smiley winking guy, who stills Casinos with a cell-phone or gives Nespresso capsules away for the beautiful smile of a woman.
The trick here was on the surface to give us a story about how a campaign manager falls for a girl who happened to have slept with the candidate, and how that triggers a whole set of findings that will tell us the huge distant between the openness and liberal thoughts of the "clooney-character" and his real self, as someone "like the others". So sex (which we don't see) as a trigger for a bigger drama, brought to screen by sex which we do see. Gosling's character is our agent on-screen, the guy who knows what we know, and finds out new stuff with us. All this is stripped out of real dramatic intent, the passions are not explored as such, only as cold triggers of a bigger "political" story. After all politics is the game of small men in high positions.
Ryan Gosling is the new Brad Pitt, in that he conquers the audience easily through looks and personal sex-appeal, and that allows him to hide some of his shortcomings as a true actor. But, also as Pitt, he can recognize the good stuff, and he has an artistic ambition, which means he is bond to spend his career alternating between the "watch my looks" projects (crazy, stupid, love) and those where he believes he'll come through as a serious actor in serious films (Drive). This film goes in the second type.
It could work and he could get through this. But than we have Hoffmann, whom we lost too soon, and who was probably the best actor alive. Nobody understood dialog, or speech for that matter, like he did. Rhythm, intonation, and that almost lost art of understanding that acting for the camera is not so much about how you project externally, as it is about how you reveal your character to yourself. A kind of Brand 2.0, that's what we lost with Hoffman. there are maybe a couple of actors alive who can do it, but none as young as Hoffmann. This film will live on in my memory through one single word that he says, preceded by a pause. While he speaks on the phone with Gosling and the latter lies to him, he gives a short pause moment and answers "ok". And with that we know that he understood he was being lied to and that he didn't want Gosling to know it. The editing helps a great deal here as well.
My opinion: 4/5
the infinity of the womb
I've been absent. Not only from writing about films, but from watching them with the frequency of past days as well. Part of it was life-driven, as i don't have the time i used to have. Part of it is because from time to time i feel the need to step a little back from whatever i'm doing more intensely and reevaluate things. Passions are better enhanced through fasting. I've had 6 or 7 very intense years where my life mixed a great deal with the lives of the films i've watched. That's the beauty of films, when you approach the films that change you by allowing then to become a part of your life, by blending them into you - as if you had a choice... Cuarón had changed me before, he's so intense because his narrative is always in the eye. His films are bits intimacies that arise from the magic of the relation between character, space, and camera. That's the basis of his dramatic construction, that's where the story lies. That's what allows him to spin and make beautiful free yet coordinated movements, like a planet circling the sun. Children of men changed me because of that. When i heard that Cuarón decided to go to space and enhance even more that special relation between space and camera, i knew he was going for something even bigger. He changes me now, once again
Nothing is more powerful, and as such more difficult to bend as space. It's infinite in its possibilities (like desert), it is totally spatial and it is the opposite of architecture, which is also all about space. Children of men mastered the built space, as this one masters the infinite. Intimacy of a space capsule as opposed to the possibilities of gravity zero. The camera as the ultimate non-animated disembodied character, as chaotic as space itself, yet as emotional as any of the 2 characters in the film. Cuarón ranks at the highest point, together with Kalatozov, in that so dear (to me) theme of space manipulation and film.
Both actors do what was expected. Clooney plays Clooney's character, and becomes a useful wheel in the mechanism, allowing with his persona to make the audiences enter easily this otherwise strange unexplored film frame. Sandra tries hard, as she always does, perhaps harder than she should, and also as always, she seats uneasily in the role, but again that works in favor of the narrative, as her character also does not belong to the world where she moves. Than comes the magic. And world, from the moment it starts to shake, is always a sequence of total stillness followed by spatial chaos. Meteo rain vs the silence inside a capsule, breaking cranes (again the cranes are flying...) vs the sight of Earth framed by a window. We get the most powerful womb representation that i can think of in my whole life in films, and the metaphor of poles, of touching extremes is complete, as the intimacy of the uterus kisses the intimacy of the infinite, where Clooney is allowed to sing while he sees the sunset, or rise.
This is the second film in 2 years that: -really changed me; -was compared by a great deal of people to 2001; -which i find has nothing to do with it. Is it the fact that he films planets and black space? That the actors are dressed as astronauts? That we have scenes in zero gravity? The other film was Malick's Tree of Life.
This is the best 3D i've seen. Nowhere else have i seen such a meaningful use of the possibilities.
My opinion: 5/5
The Stranger (1946)
the absent clockmaker
This is a unique film in the career of a master. Never before, and never after this one, would Welles accept to direct a movie without at least the promise/illusion of full creative control over it. Here he is merely the action/cut guy, and he knew it first hand. He accepted this commission after the logistic disaster of 'It's all true', when his image was, for the first time, hitting a low in Hollywood. I imagine he wanted to keep a foot in the industry, in the resources that had gave him so many possibilities in Kane. So he accepted doing as a director, what he would do the rest of his life as an actor: to act in pedestrian projects, to pay the rent and his real work as a master filmmaker. That stuff about him being a crazy who worked to pay for his own work.
So any serious Welles student, and for that matter any serious film-goer, will come to this film trying to see the master magician perform his magic. But he will be eluded. There's no mastery here, mere above the level competence. The script is pretty good according to the context and current standards in its day. The nazi stuff may have given it an edge in its moment, the war had been over for only a year or so when this came out.
But my life as a film goer overlaps Welles life as a filmmaker to a very important extent. I'm working myself on a personal project related to the unseen masterpiece The other side of the wind. So this is sort of a saltless meal for me. A waste of time, of resources. A complete stupidity to put Welles in front of a camera, but not in front of the whole game.
We do have some interesting sequences, or rather shots, though. The very first opening shot is quiet wellesian in the plain visual sense that was valid then: the shot begins in the back of Robinson's head, and than opens without cuts, with a back dolly shot, to a room full of people. We have the initial sequence with the religious nazi surrogate deliberately escaping. Those are atmospheric shots, interesting sequences. We have the clock tower, powerful as a metaphor and as a space (check the stairs and how Welles frames it).
But mostly we have a total lack of twists, of master touches. We have an absent master, nothing that would hint us that we are actually watching a film by an inventor, someone who deeply changed how we dream, feel, live. What a waste, what a tragedy.
My opinion: 3/5
When you are a child, you seldom choose the films you watch. In a normal free world environment, a child will probably fall victim to the laws of the moment, to whatever is on. Of course over that there is the influence the educators may have on you, but that will profoundly vary from child to child, and every child will still see and contact the trends of his moment. I was lucky enough, i suppose, to be partly fed by Pixar as i grew up. The Toy Story thing was a part of my upbringing. Later when i started watching films seriously, and specially when i started mapping my living in the space (as an architectural student), i understood the importance of the cinematic stakes that Pixar was playing all along. The space, the movement the camera.
Well, that seems to be suspended, at least for the moment. PIxar is now Disney, and that shows. The themes are aligned with what Disney knows that sells, and that contrives the whole creative process that used to be groundbreaking for each Pixar project.
The space narrative is abandoned, and i can understand that specially in this film, because the space had potential. We had the castle, we had the highlands. Outside and inside, and infinite possibilities. But the framing, the movement of the camera, the quality of the cinematic space, all that is gone, sacrificed so that we can have the repented child trying to mend the wrong she has made to her mother, trying to put the world to the happy end that Disney requires to keep their ticket buyers tuned in, satisfied, and with the sense that they took their children to see a film with a "moral", with something to think about.
Everything creative seems to have been invested in the main character, the girl, who Is interesting. She lives on her hair, and the scene where she receives the claimants to her hand is remarkable in how much of the character is gone by the covering of her hair. The slipping hank is a wink, i suppose.
That redness, and the expression of the character through it may be the one redeeming feature of this film. But i feel deceived, i feel that a person i used to visit since i was a child is no longer there to give wisdom. Well, let's hope for better chapters.
My opinion: 2/5
Scarlet Street (1945)
I haven't seen one single Lang American film that i do not consider to be, overall, a failure. I find it that it is relatively important to, once in a while, search for one of these films, watch it and try to understand what was the shift that makes them work so bad, at least today. After all Lang gave us Metropolis which is a prodigy of visual sets, not so much of narrative. But than he made M, which is a really good project, that starts something that he could have transported to the American noir.
He is also in the generation of Germanic directors who invented the basic lighting that would be integrated into noir. And I think the problem starts there. In his mental shift towards American movies and audiences, Lang decided to keep and reaffirm what he had always done best: visual staging. But he never understood the dynamics of the noir narrative, the fabric of the noir world. How the shadows, lights and hats only truly work when they structure (or are structured by) the narrative.
(spoilers) And there Was an interesting narrative here!, at least as far as these films go. Of course it is superficial (so is almost every film) but it had potential to be explored in a visual medium. It has the self-reference of the main character being an image maker (a painter). The common man dragged through temptation (the woman) to a world he doesn't understand and to which he ultimately collapses. But the girl is also not in charge of her own game, because of love. And even the bad guy, who is supposed to supervise the whole thing looses absolutely control. So fate comes above everything. In the middle we have an interesting and well explored (in terms of script) diversion through the ever juicy theme of mixed identities: our surrogate on-screen gets his pictures signed under other name without consent. Finding this out he doesn't react how we supposed, instead embraces and encourages this to go on. Ultimately he kills his own work, by killing the persona that assumed the identity of his work. So when he kills the girl, he's sort of committing suicide. That makes it perfectly useless to actually show the suicide in a later sequence that drags the film more than it required (although this scene IS visually interesting on its own because of the use of light, there we have Lang!). I suppose some scared conservative producer would ask for this scene, in case people wouldn't understand the previous one.
The problem is that Fritz doesn't do pretty much anything with the material he's got, in terms of visual adequacy. He gets his script, and than considers every set, every sequence, on its own, not as part of an integrated storytelling conspiracy, but simply as a workable scene on its own. It's as if Fritz in front of the possibilities of the script was like every other man in front of Robinson's paintings: unable to go beyond the crippled perspectives, unable to understand the core.
My opinion: 3/5
The Hospital (1971)
the big character
I've been having a growing interest in George Scott. He is something of a unique kind within film actors. He never embraced the Method revolution as deeply as so many of the American actors of his generation, but also he is not old-fashioned. His acting, even when he is closer to go over the top is always fluid, and his films, if dated on any respect, always work still today, because of him (at least). He is theatrical in that words, and not anything else, command his performance. His phrasing bends the text and delivers us all the nuances he requires for it. He carries a film.
Here we have his talents summed up to a clever script, and a wonderful use of space, in a cinematic way. What we have is a goofy detective story, mapped into the troubled life of an undesignated detective, mapped into one single well explored set. On top of everything, we have native American mysticism, thrown under the disguise of an interesting screen woman. So this is an accidental police story. Some murders happen, few clues are given. We follow these murders from a clueless point of view which, nevertheless, does not coincide with the point of view of the tormented doctor, who will partially act as a detective, to the point of bending the outcome of the story. So the curious narrative trick here is how the narrators eye is anchored on the space of the hospital, even though the story has to do with how the doctor deals with the facts. We watch the doctor's version of the world from an point of view external to him, this is interesting.
**spoilers** Than a woman gets into the story, a sexy mystic beast, who deviates us from the back story, only to the point in which we learn she has (unaware) the key to the enigma. And than we have the story of the burnt out doctor, suicidal, hopeless. This 3 threads start as separate lines that we follow, bound together by the action of the doctor. The beauty of the script i show in the end these threads have one single conclusion: the murder is the woman's father, and the woman is the healer for the doctors depression. So he protects the insane murder and intents to run away with the woman.
Oh, but we have the hospital. Now we know that was the ultimate character, all the time. The doctor understands this, so he can't leave it. His existence as a character depends on the existence of that hospital, as a space. It's that space that bends everything that happens inside, as the character of an horror film which you never see even of you know he's there.
Notice how this is underlined by the protesters. All the time they are outside, wanting to get in, and as the film ends and the story unfolds, it's their invasion of the hospital that makes us aware of how much we are into that character now. It's the hospital, all the way.
My opinion: 4/5
The Artist (2011)
We've seen things like this before, haven't we? Films that are not about films, but instead a love letter to other films.
I'm not nearly as fascinated about such incursions as i am for anything really new that comes out. As far as i know, the most fascinating referenced cinema is the one that captures the lessons of great previous films, and extends its notions a little bit. Or break them. You have people, like the Coens or de Palma, who made a career twisting the ideas of people before them. If we talk about silent films, than Guy Maddin is someone who really picked up what we stopped caring about with The Jazz singer, and twisted every notion to create something new. That's the kind of reference that i'm looking at with passion.
This one enters the Cinema Paradiso drawer: expansive genuine passion for a certain type or moment of cinema history, poured into a vessel of nostalgia. You will understand these films if you understand that nostalgia, not necessarily the films that it addresses. Unashamed sweetness tops these attitude. You decide to play in that world or not. I've entered it several times. But i don't stay there more than a few moments without feeling that i'm bypassing something really important, in other films being made.
That said, this one is a pretty good homage, in that flat sense. Some elements work amazingly well here, and one is even interesting from a cinematic point of view:
the one thing that works incredibly well is the main male actor: Whoever chose him understood his potential, he understood what it took for a silent actor to live on screen, and the director definitely understood his face, every angle of it. He smiles in a way that i've seen very few times. That smile carries the film, when he doesn't smile, we easily enter the depressive mood of the character represented by the absence of its actor's smile. Actors representing actors is something always interesting. To do it pretty much with a smile alone, makes him worthy of the Oscar. By the way, he is always an actor on the film. When he is acting for the silent films in the film, he has a similarly camera aware attitude as when he is in the real world of the film.
The narrative unfolds around and is finished with films, of course. That's why our on screen lovers get together making a film, and his love for her is reaffirmed by the scenes of another film they made together. It's the necessary self-reference, required for films like this to work.
And there is one remarkable scene. The "sound" dream. Our silent character dreams the world gains sound, objects, everything starts to produce sounds, except his own voice. This is remarkable because nothing is explained, everything is in the eye. The mere editing of simple sounds in an other than that silent scene makes us understand the drama of this character on verge of extinction. That was a cinematic moment.
My opinion: 4/5
Escape from New York (1981)
Carpenter has a very special talent to give his films a mood, an environment, the taste of a specific world. That mood is almost always associated to a very strong sense of place. Many of his films are physically located within some recognizable area, related or not to our real world and if so, always twisted in some cinematic (visual) way.
I believe he always starts the conception of each film with this idea of place and mood. Than he builds a story that allows him to explore that mood, usually something trivial and unimportant, existing to support his cinematic vision.
Here we have it. Manhattan, one of the most recognizable places in film world. Twisted to become an assumed apocalyptic world. (the fact that Plissken enters it by plane, landing on top of the WTC is an unintentional irony, 20 years before the attacks).
He uses Kurt Russell, someone who can be trusted to the kind of role he has: physically self- aware, stylish, deliberately empty. He is a nice guy, because he plays this parts with a second layer of self-reference, a blink to the audiences, always: he's playing a role which he knows can't be taken serious, and we get that, we know we are watching a guy acting a role while he makes fun of it. This something Bruce Willis or George Clooney are also capable of doing. It's fun that 25 years later Russell would participate in a Tarantino film that references with a similar sense of irony these films already not serious, and the ones before this one. Russell participated in the 2 layers of irony. That's good.
But Van Cleef is even better. He was a supporting actor in first generation westerns. He lived to become a main actor in 2 of Leone's ironic genius westerns. And here he still has the opportunity to enter a new stage of film irony, playing a character who manipulates and observes this western of a solitary hero fighting low moral for self-benefit. 3 layers in film world, he was in them 3. That's remarkable.
After this, Carpenter gives us all sorts of visual treats, to enrich the bizarre feel of this world. This is a worthy experience, a kind of Blade Runner without anything serious to say. It doesn't change you, but it's worth the ride.
My opinion: 4/5
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Road trip films are a very powerful genre because they convey a deep sense of oppositions merged to create a vision of unity. This something that, apart from this sub-genre, maybe only western can create so aptly, but with western we are always attached to the meaning of the films: western film is viscerally linked to a certain American vision of values, moral and ethics, and its Italian connection, to cinema itself, meta-narrative.
But the road-trip is free from so many conventions. They come in all shapes and sizes. So you can produce a road-trip movie in anyway, without being forced to obey the laws of a genre, because in the end, it's not one.
So we have the Bonnie and Clyde, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, My blueberry nights. Each a very shiny light in its own cinematic galaxy. Each creates its own rules.
But what works all the time as a key element in these films, and what it shares with western, is how it invites the filmmaker to shoot wilderness, wide spaces, infinite roads, to portrait solitude, inner voyages, personal dramas. That's the one thing that makes the film live or die.
This one lives. I have a growing admiration for Ida Lupino. A woman in the job mostly done by men. Giving us new versions of masculine genres. Feminine intimate calculation placed against (and over) men's intuitions and symbols. This is a film with no relevant female characters. She delivers, I think, a kind of deeper version of this genre, specially compared with the generality of films done in these days, when the medium was not so developed as to allow emotion to be shown from such an inside point of view.
So here we have a film of tension, instead of violence. The promise of the next thing that will happen is always superior to the perspective of actually seeing that. And that's what builds the shape of the film: the next thing. Talman gives us a very fair version for his typical character, more remarkable if we think it was still given when Brando hadn't broken the rules for cinema acting. And naturally, a film like this necessarily depends in important parts on the performance of the actors.
So this is a film of sketched but unfulfilled actions, tension as opposed to realizations. The promise of the next landscape, the next town always mirrors the evaluation of the situation by each of the 3 characters. That's why our bad guy keeps one eye always apparently opened, even when asleep.
My opinion: 3/5
Murder, My Sweet (1944)
Detective, the epicenter
Chandler is a tricky guy, because he always builds his stories in a deceiving way. He creates a simple thread, which at first you can very easily follow. Something about looking for some girl missing, or some old coin, or find some blackmailer. This we start doing always with the detective, usually Marlowe, as our surrogate. We know what he knows, from the facts that get to him, to his thoughts - easily transpired in the books, but many times tawdry represented in films, as off voice. But every time, the unfolding of the initially simple investigation becomes filled with contradictory events, an incredible amount of new characters, and endless possibilities for explanation of the story. We get lost. So does Marlowe. And that's the point. We find ourselves suddenly pushed around, by everybody, all our mental mechanisms of understanding the story betrayed at every moment. We fall into the black hole, like Marlowe when he gets hit in the head. As if we experienced the hallucinogenic effect of the drugs that take Marlowe's notion of time and space away.
This is truly powerful writing, when you think of the concept. Not great literature in the specific qualities of literature as art, but very good narrative concept. These detective stories are never about exactly how everything happen. In the end the explanation is so complicated that it becomes impossible to make credible, or so simple that it lacks interest. This is no Agatha Christie, where the intellectual mechanics of the story is what drives you to go with it. Here what matters is the world in which the story takes place, the rules of the universe where the characters live. These are literary characters, living in a literary world of their own, with very specific rules.
When you bring this powerful concepts, and mix them with film, than you have something really worthy. That's what happened when filmmakers working in Hollywood, supported by visual ideas developed in Germany 10 years before, started to use this otherwise minor literature. In 1941 we had the Maltese Falcon, the first truly developed noir film, in this narrative sense. This means that when we get to this film, 3 years later, the genre is still developing, but already totally in inscribed in the mind of the viewer.
This film understands what this is all about. It is competent in how it is able to cast us into the chaos of an unexplainable world. Marlowe is a pawn, from the beginning, when he finds Moose inside his office without being able to put him out or refuse his request. Actually I find it interesting how this Marlowe is much more vulnerable to the pushing around by every character than Bogart's typical Marlowe. I suppose without Bogart on the boat, the writers were able to take liberties with the character. What we have here is not the character of Chandler's books, but it's interesting to see Marlowe as a poor manipulated fellow, permanently on the edge.
The problem is actually the actor. It is very rare for me to be put off by a poor performance, but in a film like this, with the central role of the detective as our surrogate in the narrative, if the actor fails so deeply as Powell failed here, the film is seriously damaged. Bogart was always limited as an actor, but at least he had enough self-awareness to project his own unique character and carry the film with it. Not Powell, all those facial gimmicks, denounced expressions. The director doesn't help, the editing is not fair for the actors (specially the men), but that's no excuse for all the distracting elements of Powell's performance. And Anne Shirley shines much more brightly than Claire Trevor. Hard to believe the man would ignore the first one to become bewitched by the other one.
My opinion: 3/5