Friday, August 29, 2014

Lessons from Criterion:
"Belle de jour" by Luis Buñuel

Few faces in the movies have contemporized storytelling standards as swiftly as Catherine Deneuve’s. When she is brought into the early scenes of Luis Buñuel’s “Belle de jour” – the movie that would ultimately announce her as a force of reckoning in European cinema – her expression is one of vacancy interlaced with ambiguous yearning, as if frozen in a moment of lost inspiration. Before dialogue punctuates those gazes, audiences are immediately drawn to her distinctive features; sharp and porcelain, they clearly do not assent to the same standards of early Hollywood starlets. The eyes are not glossed over by traditional values, either, but seemingly searching for something different, something forbidden. But of what, exactly? Are they paralyzed by the grind of a maddening routine? Are they stirred to discomfort by the unnerving finality of a marriage? Though incessantly voracious, her expressions do not draw obvious attention to the unrest in any of those around her, because that is part of her elaborate game. As the simple but calculatingly elusive Séverine, Deneuve creates a character that fills the space with a sense of wild destiny. She is not a pawn in a screenplay of emotional chess moves, but a firm hand moving around all the pieces in a game she slyly rewrites the rules for. Imagining her now, in a generation of female empowerment, is like witnessing the birth of a standard in the face of an accidental archetype.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Richard Attenborough, 1923 - 2014

Towards the end of Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth,” the elderly advisor William Cecil is brought to a sobering concession during a scene he shares with his resolute queen. In that moment, there is no politics or intrigue influencing their dialogue – only gratitude, which briefly releases them from the enslavement of their professions so that they can share an exchange of subdued recognition. Her respect for him is emphasized in a face of growing wisdom, and the kiss he bestows on her hand is an impulse of civility that seems to hold back tears. It is not an act of defeat to be dismissed, but a gesture of goodwill for a man who gave his all for the safety of his monarch. Knowing now that it will forever be one of Richard Attenborough’s final keynote performances in a major motion picture, the scene seems to take on new life as an autobiographical metaphor, as if to suggest that the final bow was his way of saying farewell to a cinema he had bestowed so much resounding influence on for well over fifty years.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wreck-It Ralph / ***1/2 (2012)

So there he is, clambering his way towards the top of a pixelated high-rise, and his gargantuan fists intend to pummel the façade until it all crumbles under the weight of his massive form. A craftsman armed with a magic hammer is the only one in a crowd of panicked figures capable of undoing that damage; if he matches his adversary’s speed and accuracy long enough to neutralize the smashing, then the building will recover, its citizens will persevere, and the destructive brute will be tossed over the side in an act of cheerful celebration. The formula is a simple pattern of competing wits, but that is all the program requires it to be, really. From those little windows inside powerful game boxes standing at the local arcade, missions present clear challenges to those at the controls: find victory in simple worlds of singular problems, and achieve a high score (or advance to later levels) before the quarters run out. What none of the players realize, however, is that the characters within these game boxes actually have their own lives and identities, and when the systems are shut down for the night, they engage one another within the walls (and wires) of a virtual society. Not since “Toy Story” has an idea for an animated movie been so audacious to assume that lifeless instruments of amusement can possess real emotions, much less the instinct to aspire for things beyond their intended use.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Deliverance / **** (1972)

“Sometimes you have to lose yourself before you find anything.”

Hindsight is an attribute that can diminish the value of films that once walked the fine line of visceral envelope-pushing, but to possess it also allows for deeper observations. Consider John Boorman’s “Deliverance” as a noteworthy example; released in 1972 well before the full disclosure mentality of filmmakers drove the underlying current of popular cinema, it was once considered the most explicit mainstream drama of its kind. Just as audiences were taken aback by the implication of simple characters stumbling into frightening realities, a good portion of viewers were greatly unnerved by another key suggestion: that the back corners of the American south could also be hotbeds for cruel and disturbing behaviors. These ideas informed an entire way of thinking that would become the running joke of southerners throughout popular culture, ultimately inspiring the likes of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” – that is, movies where the underbelly of horror was often localized in wooded areas populated by inbred villains. Four decades have passed since that approach left an imprint, and nowadays the ideas are commonplace and tired, and often without artistic foundation. To see them at the source, in a movie far removed from the desensitized nature of modern violence, is like staring back at a relic. And yet despite such facts Boorman’s film still speaks to us in profound ways, as if to indicate hidden wisdom has long rested in frames glossed up by a once-shocking philosophy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Elizabeth" Revisited

“It is a masterful exploration of the rich and fascinating world of Elizabethan England; the story of the Virgin Queen, the court’s rude luxury, and the atmospheric tones of life behind the castle walls scramble off the screen like deep hidden secrets of the past just waiting to be revealed.” – taken from the original Cinemaphile review of “Elizabeth”

In a key moment of dreamy perfection, a scarred monarch stares back at her reflection in the mirror and announces, unequivocally, that she has “become a virgin.” What is she suggesting? To understand the implication, one must comprehend the veracity of her journey up to that one moment. In 16th century England, political unrest has paved the way for violent religious persecution, and a Catholic rule is threatened when its current queen, Mary Tudor, becomes terminally ill before producing an heir. All thoughts of the crown falling to her sister Elizabeth, a Protestant, inspire proclamations of damnation, and her almost childlike naivety serves to create an emotional current that amplifies the exploits of her devout enemies. But scrawled across this face of intense consideration is the soul of a woman bound to unwavering endurance, and as her command over the country is tested by quiet betrayals occurring all around her, she comes to see this moment – this one revelation – as the only means of rising above a difficult world of violence and suffering. That she has to discover the necessity of this impulse out of terrible heartbreak (and murderous plots) is as sobering as it is tragic.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Robin Williams, 1951 - 2014

“When in doubt, go for the dick joke.”

Reminders of our mortality usually arrive in cruel increments. Today, a collective sweep of grief underscores that notion as we are hearing news of Robin Williams, who at age 63 was found dead this morning in his California home of mysterious causes. Specifics regarding his untimely demise are ongoing, but there is one thing that will persevere as a certainty in the wake of this reality: Williams was more than just a good actor and comedian, he was also a man whose endeavors were delivered with such consistent zeal that it garnered him millions of enthusiastic fans. While most applauded his comedic ability – namely, his penchant for embodying characters of endless quirk, and his knack for skillful improv – it is his endeavors in a slew of thoughtful dramas that resonate in this moment, and seem to emerge as the first thing on our minds as we reflect on his remarkable career.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Story So Far

It was sixteen years ago when the movies emerged at the forefront of my professional aspirations. The first film that sparked that drive was Disney’s “The Black Cauldron,” which had just been released on VHS after years of being buried in the vaults. Following an eager viewing, I sat down – as I had done so periodically early on when writing reviews for the school newspaper – and cranked out a five paragraph analysis in just a few short minutes. The endeavor had been at the request of an old user-owned web site that initially launched as a petition to release said movie, which was now taking articles from an influx of enthusiastic new viewers as a way to celebrate the long-delayed arrival of their obscure treasure. From that moment on, my new venture merged fluidly with the pursuit of an identity in the new frontier of the world wide web, and words poured from the mind like liquid without obstruction.

Sixteen years later, I sit at a desk in contemplation of milestones. What are the odds that the first proof copy of my first volume of articles would show up in the mail on the very anniversary date that my first review went live on the Internet? Who could have guessed that it would reach my hands in the same week that I finished writing my 700th full length film review, which has already broken a long list of traffic records? Fate and coincidence seem to be interchangeable words when projected into windows of perspective, but in these travels there exists an urgency to reflect. Because the world is barreling past us in a sweep of maddening velocity, moments to pause are a rarity. But they must be done, especially if we are to understand anything about ourselves beyond surface intrigue.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy / ***1/2 (2014)

When a crowded genre comes to the point of being saturated by clichés and wall-to-wall adrenaline, sometimes a little silliness can go a long way. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the newest (and most eccentric) of the Marvel comic book movie adaptations, is a mad act of absurd genius: refreshingly creative, quirky, well-staged, beyond visionary, often hilarious and fueled by imaginations that seem to tap into an obscure corner of the mind in order to create an endless array of wondrous images. It left me with the kinds of sensations normally reserved for deep and meaningful science fiction epics. That this comes as a major surprise only makes the response all the more enthusiastic. Who would dare suspect that a preposterous little story of unattractive renegades could inspire high amusement, especially after we have been overrun by traditional superheroes caught up in an interlocking battle that demands rigorous stamina and far-fetched conflicts? No recent summer movie has taken such bold risks and gotten completely away with them, much less offered an audience a thrilling adventure in the company of thoroughly original characters.