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Like the auteurs of the French New Wave, US film director John
Frankenheimer also approached filmmaking with a fresh playfulness
during the early 1960's. Indeed, his 1962 film, The Manchurian
Candidate, endures as one of the more unique and interesting American
films of its period.
The film follows a group of soldiers who've recently been released from the Korean War effort. While Major Marco (Frank Sinatra) suffers from strange reoccurring dreams, his friend Robert Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is even more disturbed as he embarks on a sort of unconscious political killing spree. When Marco learns that Shaw is at the center of a right wing-communist brainwashing conspiracy culminating with the assassination of the presidential incumbent, Marco ultimately realizes he must stop his fellow former soldier before it's too late. The film is also complimented by performances by Janet Leigh, James Gregory and Angela Lansbury.
With its use of everything from montage to Cinema Verite-style filming, Candidate was one of the most stylistically bold American films this side of Citizen Kane. Additionally, the film serves as a worthy time capsule of the cold war paranoia that existed during the Kennedy administration (also proving eerily prescient with Kennedy's later assassination in November 1963). With a recent Criterion re-release and the craziness of today's political situation in the US, now's as apt a time as ever to revisit this seminal classic of American cinema.
After courting controversy with the bloody western The Wild Bunch in
1969, filmmaker Sam Peckinpah would push the envelope of on screen
violence even further with his 1971 follow up film Straw Dogs. The
story of a timid mathematician who turns into a blood thirsty killer
after a group of hoodlums rape his wife and attack his home, the film
remains a visceral and disturbing watch some 45 years after its
Straw Dogs follows mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) and his attractive young wife Amy (Susan George) as they settle in Amy's quiet childhood village in Cornwall so that David can devote time to his work. Markedly different within the town's milieu, the Sumner's presence causes dissension among the townspeople with a gang of local hoodlums beginning to bully Sumner and lust after his wife.The situation escalates when one of the lead hoodlums rapes Amy, setting the stage for the film's second half where David finally sets aside his "nice guy" facade in order to savagely reassert his masculine pride.
Violent and unrelenting, Straw Dogs is a meditation on man's base savagery from one of cinema's most terminally politically incorrect auteurs. Whether one finds themselves loving or hating Peckinpah's polarizing vision, however, Straw Dogs is certainly not a film to leave you indifferent, a testament to its enduring power so many years after its initial release.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Following his screen writing credits on classics like Obsession and
Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader would make his first foray behind the camera
with the 1978 film Blue Collar. Spotlighting the exploitation of
proletariat workers at the hands of forces at be, the film ranks among
Schraeder's best and remains a quintessential piece of 1970's U.S.
Blue Collar revolves around three workers at a Detroit auto plant; Zeke (Richard Pryor), Jerry (Harvey Keitel) and Smokey (Yaphet Kotto). Perpetually mistreated by their higher-ups and barely making enough money to feed their families, the film follows the group as they hatch a desperate plan to rob their union. Carrying through with the plan, the men end up stumbling upon evidence of behind-the- scenes corruption, setting the stage for the film's second half where the big wigs gradually take down each member of the group.
Shot with an air of gritty realism, Blue Collar is a low budget drama with a Marxist heart - powerfully channelling themes of race, class conflict and white collar crookedness. Though similar contemporaneous films have endured better in the annals of film history, Schraeder's debut remains an overlooked gem - one worthy of being dusted off and given a second look.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In a filmography spanning nearly fifty years which has taken in
everything from gangster epics to gritty dramas, The King of Comedy
remains one of Martin Scorsese's odder works. The films recounts the
story of Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring comic and celebrity wannabe
attempting to land a spot on a late-night television show. Creepy and
disturbing, the film is a powerful character study and commentary on
our culture's obsession with celebrity.
The King of Comedy begins one night when Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) manages to slip into the limousine of comedian/talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), pleading Langford to give him a spot on his show. Langford gives him the number of his agent in an attempt to get rid of him, which leads Pupkin to later stalk Langford's reception office. Eventually kidnapping and holding Langford for ransom, the studio executives decide to give Pupkin a spot, where he performs a bizarre set drawing on his dysfunctional childhood.
Throughout history there have been many instances of artists living up to the weight of expectation following a landmark work not by trying to trump it but by doing something completely different. Coming off the massive success of Raging Bull, you sense Scorsese indulging his whims in opting to do something smaller and a lot more art- house, and from the expressionistic shots of Pupkin against a blown-up photograph of a roaring crowd to the general atmosphere of existential isolation, this is one of Scorsese's strangest and most experimental movies by some margin. Special praise must also be given to DeNiro, the film's ability to get under our skin in no small part due to his ability to effectively put across the creepiness and desperation of Pupkin as a character.
Though maybe not a cinematic masterpiece on a par with Scorsese's more well-known films, The King of Comedy is still an interesting work which modern movie-goers should revisit. In its commentary on social degeneration through the spectre of one character it can be seen as a sort of companion piece to Scorsese's earlier Taxi Driver. At the very least, the film is another testament to the DeNiro-Scorsese collaboration as one of the great actor-director collaborations in the history of the movies.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Occasionally you see a movie that is utterly singular, and it
confounds. This was definitely the case last night when I watched Under
the Skin, Jonathan Glazer's new film about an alien seductress's
encounters with various men around Scotland. You can trace the
influence of certain forebears (Roeg, Kubrick, Antonioni), but Glazer's
vision is ultimately something bracing and new. Although I'm still
recoiling from the mind bender of a viewing experience, I know that
Under the Skin is a film that will get under my skin for weeks to come,
and I strongly suspect it's a great cinematic work of art.
In a plot line not far off Species, Under the Skin concerns an alien sent to earth to capture male specimen. Taking the form of a beautiful young woman, the alien (Scarlett Johansson) drives around Scotland and asks random men for directions, proceeding to lure them into her vehicle. An experience with a particularly sexually aggressive man results in the alien having her human skin torn, the film ending with the horrified man setting on fire and killing the strange creature underneath.
At first glance the plot might not read as much, but it's what Glazer does with it that makes the film so unique and special. Everything is shot with an air of distance so as to make us see the world through the protagonist's eyes, things as banal as a nightclub or shopping mall feeling otherworldly and strange. Scarlett Johansson gives a great performance in the lead role, having a hard-to-describe alien presence, and Micah Levi's haunting score provides a perfect aural accompaniment to the sentiments expressed in the film. Meanwhile, the implications of the plot in terms of its discourse on sex and gender gives the viewer something to mentally work over long after the credits have rolled.
Under the Skin is the latest film to provide an experience that is different and interesting for contemporary movie-goers. In recent history, "that movie" has been The Tree of Life, The Master, Post Tenebras Lux, or Spring Breakers. Glazer's film is the latest addition to this handful of films which re-establish a cinematic vanguard and aren't afraid of taking risks.
One of the central figures of the French new wave movement, Jean-Luc
Godard revolutionized cinema in the late 1950's and early 1960's with
films which mixed film-historical pastiche, pop art surfaces, and
Marxist-existentialist philosophy in a fresh and innovative way.
Released in 1963, Contempt arrived after a string of art-house
successes and was at the time Godard's most expensive project, a
widescreen story of a faltering marriage featuring big-name stars like
Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance. Though some will argue for Breathless
and others A Woman is a Woman, to me Contempt represents the apex of
Godard's art, an indictment of capitalism dressed up as big budget
Contempt follows Paul Jeval (Michel Piccoli), a struggling playwright who artistically prostitutes himself as the screenwriter for a film adaptation of The Odyssey to support him and his wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot). Paul's decision to write for money makes the couple's marriage an unhappy one, Camille dissatisfied with him for his inability to do something which is both spiritually fulfilling for him and financially lucrative for them. The film ends with Camille leaving Paul to run off with his producer boss Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance), the artist ultimately losing out to the larger mechanisms of capital.
The performances are all well-done, from Piccoli as the withdrawn Paul to Bardot as the coquettish Camille to Palance as the square-jawed money man. The cinematography of Raoul Coutard should be noted, having a pictorial beauty in its colour and composition which recalls the work of the artist Edward Hopper. Like Godard's other movies, Contempt has a playful and freewheeling approach in its structure and editing, at times randomly dipping into a montage sequence or tongue-in-cheek film homage. The story being told, as well as the film's more arty and experimental formal elements, make clear Contempt's status as a radically leftist work - a bomb to be tossed at a movie establishment which pumps out films conveyor belt-style for maximal profit.
In conclusion, one would be wrong to make accusations of "sell out" at Godard when looking at Contempt's original poster which exploits the sexuality of star Brigitte Bardot, because the film is just as radical as any of the director's other work. It's necessary viewing for anyone interested in the French new wave, time capsuling the period when the movement - building off the momentum of its critical hits -reached its commercial apex. That Godard used his most commercial moment to craft a statement that was radically anti-commercial is a testament to both his cleverness and intellect.
From The Lady Eve to Groundhog Day, the battle of the sexes is a
recurrent theme in much cinema. In Denys Arcand's 1986 film The Decline
of the American Empire, the showdown takes place over a fall weekend in
Quebec cottage country among a group of academics. The film is a witty
and sardonic look at sex and relationships in the modern age, and along
with a handful of other French-Canadian films (Mon Oncle Antoine,
C.R.A.Z.Y.) makes a solid argument for Quebec as the leading exponent
of quality cinema in Canada.
Decline... commences with parallel groups of four men and four women as they prepare dinner at the cottage and work out at the gymnasium, respectively. The characters are either professors in the history at the Universite De Montreal or their lovers, and their conversations are dominated by talk of sex, sex and more sex. Though initially the segregated groups of men and women have quite gendered conversations on the subject, their eventual coming together over dinner causes things to heat up and tensions to rise.
A troupe of veteran Quebecois actors give indelible and utterly believable performances as the eight lead characters, special praise going to actor Remy Girard as the lovable scoundrel of the same first name. The cinematography of Arcand and DOP Guy Du Faux is also quite good, functional yet also achieving a subtle lyricism in parts. More than anything, however, the film should be noted for its script, Arcand possessing a preternatural skill for witty dialogue which makes the film enjoyable and engrossing throughout.
In conclusion, The Decline of the American Empire is a smart and funny comedy/drama which offers a glimpse into the lives of intellectuals and their bedroom matters. The film is a must-see for fans of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, covering similar territory to these filmmakers while also offering a flavour that is uniquely French-Canadian. The Empire may be in decline, but so long as films this good are being made we should be fine.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After the success of L'avventurra (1960), Michelangelo Antonioni made
the second entry in his trilogy on "modernity and its discontents" - La
notte (1961). The film concerns Giovanni and Lidia Pontano, a bourgeois
couple who realize their marriage has lost its spark over the span of a
night. Improving on l'avventurra, La Notte is an affecting cinematic
poem about the larger alienation of an age.
The film concerns Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni), a writer who's recently penned a best-selling novel, and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau). Amidst a background of technology, futuristic skyscrapers, and industry, they go through the motions of their marriage - the romantic fervor which once defined it now a distant memory. The Pontano's are eventually invited to an upper class party, where Giovanni runs off with the host's daughter Valentina (Monica Vitti). When Lidia learns of Giovanni's infidelity, the two must ultimately confront the truth of what their marriage has become in the picture's poetic climax.
Mastroianni, Moreau, and Vitti all give fine performances. The cinematography of Antonioni and DOP Gianni Di Venozo perfectly illustrates the film's themes, placing characters against their highly modern milieus and articulating Adorno's ideas about the alienating effect of technology on the modern consciousness. The screenplay by Antonioni and Tonino Guerra is La notte's driving force, it has the power of a highly affecting novel, every minute hurtling towards the film's inevitable conclusion.
In summary, La Notte elaborates on themes present in L'avventurra, in my humble opinion improving on its predecessor film. Those looking for a film experience that is thought-provoking, emotional, and artful would do well to check it out. Not for nothing did masters such as Stanley Kubrick and Ingmar Bergman rank it amongst their favorite films. 9/10
Made on a low budget of $210, 000, Whit Stillman's debut Metropolitan
was one of the surprise independent hits of the early 1990s - wracking
in an Oscar nomination for screen writing and four million dollars at
the box office. The film concerns Tom Townsend, a smart, upwardly
mobile young man, as he falls in with a group of preppy Manhattanites
and experiences difficulty navigating his romantic life. Metropolitan
is a funny and poignant comedy of manners, skewering themes of youth,
class, and the battle of the sexes while providing ample laughs.
The film follows Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), a first year college student home for Christmas who finds himself falling in with a crowd of wealthy and educated young "haute bourgeoisie". As he becomes more involved with the group, Tom becomes the love interest of débutante Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Faina), but remains oblivious to her feelings because of a hang-up on ex-girlfriend Serena Slocumb. As this plot line provides a source of ongoing tension throughout the film, Stillman brings us into a world of upper class balls, where well-dressed young people drink fine wine and talk about everything from the differences between men and women to the ideas of French philosopher Charles Fourier.
The one criticism I can think to level at Metropolitan is the lack of ambitious cinematography from Stillman and DOP John Thomas, but then I think better and revoke that criticism, because the cinematography does what cinematography should do: service the needs of the script. And what a fine script! Metropolitan succeeds because Stillman is first and foremost a great writer, a man with a preternatural skill for dialogue who is able to shed insight into his themes of youth, sex, and class while making us laugh. Praise should also be heaped on Metropolitan's cast of fine thespians, particularly Chris Eigeman - who charms as Tom's cynically funny friend, Nick.
In conclusion, Metropolitan is one of the great American independent movies of the 1990's. For fans of Woody Allen and Denys Arcard, it is sure to delight. Metropolitan continues in that tradition of upper-class sex comedy drama, but offers something fresh and idiosyncratic to the mix - announcing Stillman as a singular film talent and laying the groundwork for later (and equally interesting) films like Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998), and Damsels in Distress (2011).
The Magnificent Ambersons was Orson Welles' second feature after
Citizen Kane. An adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel of the same
name, the picture concerns George Minafer, the spoiled heir of the
aristocratic Amberson family, and the loss of his fortune which
coincides with the rise of the automobile age. Though the RKO cut which
survives leaves much to be desired (the studio excised and re-shot a
significant portion of the film), Ambersons remains a very good picture
and a glimpse into the cinematic genius of Orson Welles.
The film centres around George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), the spoiled heir to the Amberson legacy. When the wealthy auto-industrialist Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten) attempts to rekindle an affair with George's widowed mother Isabel (Dolores Costello), George does everything in his power to thwart it. He ends up being successful, preventing Eugene from seeing Isabel on her death bed, but also inherits next to nothing. Finally forced to kick reality, George gets a factory job and injures himself - his story parallelling the fall of old money and rise of industry at the turn of the century.
The only criticism to be levelled at The Magnificent Ambersons is the editing job done by RKO, you sense that the original cut was an uncompromising work of art and that the surviving version, while still quite good, is by comparison inferior. That being said, the picture is exquisite in all other departments - Bernard Hermann's score, the sublime dolly movements during the ballroom scene, Agnes Moorehead's electrifying performance as Aunt Fanny, there's a lot to like about the movie. All these formal elements are in the service of a poignant story too, one about the larger social changes of an era and about a man who clings to his childish behaviour and gets hit hard by life as a result.
In summary, watching Ambersons is like looking at a damaged great painting, you're simultaneously in awe of its brilliance and frustrated by the prospect of what was or could've been. Still, for film buffs and fans of Welles, it is a must-see. Even in its tampered state, it manages to be at the highest tier of quality in all areas and say something that moves us, which is the mark of any great movie.
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