Monday, September 30, 2013

Titus / ***1/2 (2000)

“I shall grind your bones to dust, and with your blood and it I shall make a paste, and of the paste a coffin I will rear and make two pastries of your shameful heads. And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam, like to the Earth, swallow her own increase! This is the feast I have bid hereto, and this the banquet she shall surfeit on… and now prepare your throats!”

He knows only what his time and civilization have conditioned him for: to slay the enemy, conquer his lands, and sacrifice all others – including loved ones – who might characterize a divisive strike against his fist or mind. That is the fundamental guiding force of old conflicted Titus, the main character at the center of England’s bloodiest stage play, and with that conviction he clutches an instinct that is hard-hitting and unsympathetic; audiences bear witness to the ensuing brutality like lambs carried through varying stages of slaughter. There is no hope for any who challenge his will, and those that may merely stand in his shadows as cautious observers are subject to similar fates. Like a spinning blade, the aged general of a dying empire crashes through lives without regard to the merits of human existence, and when a maniacal plot for revenge against him begins to escalate in the hands of bloodthirsty dissenters, it becomes only another platform for more macabre crimes against the flesh.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Year Older, A Year Wiser

So the old adage goes, perhaps excessively. Today marks the first day of my 32nd year as a living organism in this strange blue world of ours – that round habitat that has become the groundwork of not only billions of years of change and evolution, but of human experiences, conditions, lessons and intelligence. To think of my own existence as part of a scheme too grand to comprehend is like placing yourself in any key moment in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” No one will ever realize what cause or effect will come with their presence, but to know that there is one – and to maintain that perspective – is beyond profound.

Life is a precious commodity. It is taken for granted so easily, so passively. I know this because I have indulged in plenty of my own time-wasting, usually for no other purpose than momentary satisfaction. I used to think of age as an annoying reminder of new aches and pains working their way into one’s life, and that is not entirely untrue. But it is only part of the big picture, which is bound by the element of time that drifts us ever so closer towards the end of our existence as we know it. That becomes a little scarier to confront each year, but it also puts the present into a much broader perspective. Today is about today, and doing everything you can to live, enjoy, savor and cherish the pleasures of Earth and its gifts. I know this better at 32 than I did at 24, and it’s a remarkable feeling to not only realize it, but experience it.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Stand by Me / **** (1986)

When you are an adventure-seeker stuck in that odd transition between early youth and adolescence, few movies resonate more than “Stand by Me.” Our suspicions suggest all the right notes are found not so much on the basis of having gifted filmmakers telling this story, but in the implication that its ideas come from within a collective experience that all men recall with some fondness (or alarm) as they grow older. Rob Reiner, Stephen King and Bruce Evans often find this trait meandering through many of their endeavors, and it’s a wonder they even bother referring to some of those stories as works of fiction. Together, they seem destined to write the prototype for what nearly all male youths will endure on their journey towards a more informed state of wisdom, and here it is all told in a setting where a quiet community is altered by fate’s own sleight of hand, and four spirited individuals are challenged by an event that will compel them to grow up much sooner than they should.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory / (2011)

*(star rating not relevant)*

So here is where their nightmare comes to an end. After 18 years of falsified imprisonment, legal battles, unrelenting suspicion and a documentary filmmaker’s camera as their only link to the outside world, the West Memphis Three arrive at the center of “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” having learned the harshest lesson about our flawed legal system, and their reward is their own freedom. But at what cost? Two decades of their lives have been lived in isolation for ludicrous reasons, a devastated community spent all their emotional energy on the wrong targets, and the deaths of three eight year olds have gone without justice because an incompetent police force was too careless in their pursuit of facts. And even after the turmoil, none of those involved in the false convictions ever shows the slightest hint of spine; they resolve to their pompous rhetoric that those convicted were done so in a clean case, and the state’s eventual decision to free them based on reduced sentences instead of full exoneration is a spit in the face. Seldom has a film inspired so much dislike in viewers towards the very system designed to protect them.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Paradise Lost 2: Revelations / (2000)

*(star rating not relevant)*

The unanswered questions at the end of “Paradise Lost” were the kind that could inspire not only a need for a follow-up documentary, but indeed an entire political movement. In “Paradise Lost 2,” three teenage boys who were tried and convicted in 1994 of a grizzly series of child murders in Arkansas are nearly five years into their prison sentences, and occupy camera frames like mere shells brow-beaten by a due process that failed them. The perplexity of their convictions was instrumental in the creation of a non-profit support organization that is centralized in the second documentary, in which supporters of the “West Memphis Three” take on operative roles in an appeal process that would overturn the conviction of Damien Echols before a proposed death sentence is carried out. Anyone who saw the predecessor with an open mind can easily see why: in a legal climate that was beginning to use DNA and forensics as keys to unlocking the secrets of heinous crimes, how was it even possible that three relatively calm teenagers could be found guilty of murders that they could not be linked to scientifically?

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills / (1996)

*(Star Rating Not Relevant)*

On a quiet evening in May of 1993, three young boys in a small town in Arkansas were wandering the neighborhoods after school when an assailant abducted, bound and brutally murdered them, and then left their mutilated remains in a ditch in a remote forested area off a nearby interstate. The ensuing events in West Memphis over the following year were of disquieting reality, as details of the crimes were exposed in graphic detail, a community was whipped into a frenzy of fear and anger, and three teenagers were prosecuted for the slayings based on evidence that was perhaps less than circumstantial. That all of this played out in an atmosphere that was rank in overwhelming religious undertones no doubt complicated the matters, but one central question would endure long after the nightmare had ceased: could three relatively docile teenage boys really commit something so heinous, or were they the victims of a hysteria that demanded some kind of finality to a crime too shocking to comprehend?

Friday, September 13, 2013

300 / *** (2007)

The hero at the center of “300” is defined as a man “baptized in the fire of combat,” which might explain the look of almost sadistic pleasure he occupies for two hours. The  prologue sets that idea in motion quite literally from the day of his birth, when a mystic holds his writhing infantile figure over a gulley containing the bones of countless discarded children while he conducts an examination for signs of physical flaw (the voice-over informs us that Spartan society tossed newborns into the pit if any were deemed “unsuitable”). Later, as he goes through a structured adolescence of demanding physical tests with dangerous wild animals and public fighting contests, that look of persevering torment seems harmonious with his hardened face – the same look, not coincidentally, that is also permanently etched on the profiles of elders who see the violent upbringing not as seeds for a traumatic adulthood, but rather as the curriculum for those destined to be fierce warriors. It’s a dangerous world out there, especially for a culture that seems content to do battle with swords and shields without breastplates to protect their exposed torsos.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Riddick / ** (2013)

The Riddick character always was more productive and interesting in the shadows, which may explain why the newest movie about him revisits the approach of “Pitch Black.” In that film, a spaceship serving as a prison transport (carrying him and a slew of other misfits) crash-lands on a desolate planet in which bloodthirsty aliens who only come out at night are let loose by a solar eclipse, thus leaving all the human lives in a state of danger that forces them to trust a precarious killer. After a narrow escape, the follow-up (“The Chronicles of Riddick”) saw him descend into a more evolved alien world of utopian palaces and cutthroat politics, inevitably leading to an ambitious climax that required him to become their unlikely leader. So much for a long prison sentence.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Second (or Third) Time Around

In my adventures of writing about older movies that I neglected to review during theatrical release periods through the last several years, I realized that I’m not being entirely truthful to my audience. Once upon a time, I wrote that “reviews represented an immediate experience,” and used it as a defense to explain why I could never be one of those critics who would occasionally go back and write a second critique to a film I might have changed my mind on. The flaw in that statement is that the sentiment is negated the moment I choose to write about something that I first saw years prior, yet never got around to evaluating while it was still a commodity at the local multiplex. In order to be informed on a keyboard, after all, the subject must be fresh in your mind; this usually requires new viewings of said movies, and in many cases the opinion is modified because the material has had more time to settle. Opinions indeed are not absolutes, and neither are any claims to the contrary (even when I might be the one making them).

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lessons from Criterion:
"Cries and Whispers" by Ingmar Bergman

Three sisters, each separated by different stages of emotional weathering, inhabit a countryside manor like rats quietly feasting on each other’s insecurities. One of them is terminally ill and on the razor’s edge of mortality; the other two have arrived from afar to offer care in her dark and painful final days. One looks askance at emotional displays like a strange and horrifying concept; the other, whose piercing blue eyes overflow with vague desires, shrinks to obscurity in the face of truth. Their lives are framed by the presence of a sole but knowing housekeeper, a frumpy woman whose own loss of a young child has left her broken but nurturing. In an important scene, she comes to the call of the dying woman, opens her shirt and allows her to rest her head on her warm bosom for physical comfort. Their stories intertwine in a narrative soaked in muted desperation, and the deep red interiors of their home act as an organism of imprisonment. What cauterizes their souls and robs them of empathy? And when the darkest of moments come to pass, will they oppose the barriers holding them away from the embrace of familial instinct, or become enveloped in their own shame?

Friday, September 6, 2013

Network / **** (1976)

The famous images of American cinema don’t always endure through generational transitions, but the sequence in “Network” in which Howard Beale explodes with rage on broadcast television will likely be studied for centuries. When it was first revealed in 1976, audiences were caught off guard by the savage proclamation – in an editorial climate that was not yet bankrupt of journalistic integrity, the moment was virtually overpowering in the way it satirized the idea of a regulated national process caving into vulgar sensationalism. Such a moment normally would have faded into obscurity along with countless others weathered by cultural shifts, but in a society that has thoroughly mimicked the movie’s core irony, it finds a distinct resonance. Could the writer, Paddy Chayefsky, have foreseen that his biting sarcasm would become the actual medium’s underlying value system? It is easily the most important and influential image of any movie about this industry: not so much funny as it is precise and visionary.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Mud / ***1/2 (2013)

The young heroes in “Mud” recall the sentiment of the teenage rebels in Rob Reiner’s “Stand by Me” – they are at that stage of adolescence in which their future will forever be shaped by the experiences of that moment, and the adults around them dictate it with situations of impending emotional gravity. For the four adventurers of Reiner’s film, the turning point was the search for the body of one of their deceased schoolmates; here, the two puberty-stricken boys become caught up in the dealings of an isolated stranger they meet on an island in the Mississippi, which houses a boat that was stranded after being caught between branches high in a tree during the last great flood. Their first encounter is a solemn one: the boys, eager to lay claim to the boat as their property, find fresh muddy boot prints and snacks in the cabin (suggesting it was recently used) and then spy a drifter on the island’s beach fishing. They are curious but distant, for obvious reasons. Nails in his boots leave behind a cross-shaped imprint in the sand. “They just good luck boots,” he tells them. “But you can tell they ain’t workin’ well at all.”

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Blue Jasmine / ** (2013)

There is a reason why I don’t review Woody Allen’s movies. Some filmmakers have a style and sense of storytelling that becomes an acquired taste; I, alas, have not often savored his endeavors, which sets me distinctly outside of a consensus. That does not diminish any enthusiasm I might have at seeing any number of his pictures for the first time, just as it would not hinder any avid audience member to step into a movie theater showing a film that was in the hands of someone they too might not always click with. All movies, really, deserve their day in court. When a theater’s lights go dark, there should only be the line of sight of an eternal optimist staring directly on, eager to capture something new and exciting in our evolving exposure to a few untouched corners of this industry.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Lessons from Criterion:
"M" by Fritz Lang

Sound was the new frontier in German cinema when Fritz Lang made “M” in 1931, and that insight provides us with the first of many potent ironies: the notable absence of a soundtrack and background noise. Lang, who was more comfortable with the physical theatricality of actors and sets of the 20s, faced that transition with protest, and his shameless desire to rob the first of his post-silent pictures of notable use of the technique was indicative of contempt for the medium’s abrupt expansion. The resulting effect may have been accidental: in a story featuring a predator lurking in the shadows, the only two constants are an occasional cry for help, and a killer’s low but piercing whistle in a metropolis devoid of most obvious sound cues. Audiences might not have contemplated such notions at the time, but in the minds of later generations who were already trained in the full use of theater speakers, the outcome is a startling one, and propels an intrigue in the material that might otherwise have been overlooked in the hands of someone more eager to push the technical envelope.