Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mad Max / *** (1979)

In awe of George Miller’s  recent “Mad Max: Fury Road” – and the precision of craftsmanship that went into its ambitious chase sequences – I found it essential to return to the first source of that inspiration, a small and inexpensive movie that began life as a shell for one director to pour his distinct vision into. The first endeavor about the wandering avenger Max – then an agent of justice who had yet to endure his inevitable personal tragedies – was a broad and coarse character study without the refined world that we recognize as post-apocalyptic (though it did, in fact, open after the end of a devastating war). What separated it from a host of other law-enforcer-turned-punisher vehicles of that time, however, came down to a principal of technical values; it was not one of those pictures that blurred the coherence of a story in the jumbled images of nonsensical action, but one that celebrated the danger of the open road in photography with impeccable clarity. The majority of the picture seems to exist as an open protest of the time’s shoddy trend, and there is not a moment where we suspect the man handling the cameras isn’t willing to be right there in the middle of the chaos along with his subjects, potentially in the hands of incredible danger. In those first images are the seeds that would go on to become the elaborate shows of the later films of this series, arguably brought to a furor of artistic perfection in the most recent.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Lessons from Criterion:
"Watership Down" by Martin Rosen

At the heart of every resonant childhood fable is a creature of nobility, wandering cautiously through the minefields of danger without surrendering to defeat in a contemptuous domain. In recognizing that prospect through chronicles of ambitious animals, few have been as captivating as rabbits. How do such small, seemingly inconsequential beings become profound avatars of such purity in conviction, though? Is it some unseen source of wisdom they possess, or something evolutionary? Writers have spent generations grappling with those perspectives in a wide array of subjects, but seldom have they been as consistently generous – or as deeply affecting – as those involving the lives of shy, burrowing rodents. Their eternal plight in an existence against bloodthirsty predators seems to provide an apt context in recognizing the lost qualities of our primal instincts, and there is dialogue in “Watership Down” – the greatest story ever written about a rabbit – that frames them in the embrace of an eloquent aphorism: “All the world will be your enemy, prince of a thousand enemies. They will catch you, and kill you… but first, they must catch you!”

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser / ***1/2 (1974)

Minds do not always harvest congenial reactions when they are exposed to foreign realities, especially when they are so grossly detached from them for lengthy tenures. That is one of many significant functions of “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” Werner Herzog’s stirring fable about a young German who mysteriously wandered into Nuremberg square on a warm day in 1828, and right into the clutches of a culture that would leave him in the throes of permanent alienation. His origins are of inexplicable depth, and yet help to emphasize the challenge of exploring such strange surroundings. For the first two decades of his life he was chained to the wall of a dungeon in an undisclosed area, and was never permitted to learn or experience anything beyond the comfort of a bed made of hay. He could barely walk, speak nothing coherent and had no knowledge of simple human interaction. Where did he come from? How did he escape? As perplexing as his arrival – and subsequent integration – came to be, perhaps they were just minor exercises compared to the nature of his ambiguous upbringing, which seemed to cast its own dubious shadow on his brief time in civilization before it ended just as mysteriously as it began.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

There Will Be Blood / **** (2007)

A good cinematographer will reveal the spirit of a film by framing its subjects in virtuosic complexity, but a more gifted one will use the magnetism of a profile to infiltrate an entirely different sphere of reckoning. One must wonder if such inspiration is what follows those who come to photograph Daniel Day Lewis, one of the most captivating presences that has ever graced the movie screen. Never one to shy away from roles that stretch his remarkable dexterity, it becomes more than just a simple use of focus when a camera is drawn to his face; he seems to pull it away from all peripheral distractions, like a magnet of passion who must penetrate to the core of psychosis and expose its features in a head-on glory. As both a symbol of gentle courtesy and a figure of power and corruption, he quietly celebrates the nature of his characters in devious assurance. So it is little wonder that film photographers – usually so dominating on most movie sets – seem to regard his power with submissive awareness. And if such minds are genuinely in synch with the possibilities of their material, they would not be wise to ignore the opportunity of a golden standard.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Notes on a Scandal / ***1/2 (2006)

“People have always trusted me with their secrets, but who do I trust with mine?” Barbara Covett asks this key question in one of the many voice-overs that litter Richard Eyre’s “Notes on a Scandal,” but her announcement comes on the cusp of more menacing intentions: namely, the destruction of one woman’s own way of life. Most films would be eager to delay such devious realities, but not this one; it is clear from the first moments that much trouble is going to occur, and all of it in the hands of women whose emotions overpower their reason. Given the severity of their situations, one couldn’t argue much with caving to that temptation, either. When we first meet Barbara – a grumpy school teacher who recites her thoughts as they go into a revealing diary – she is merely a cautious observer in the lives of ordinary sorts who grind through their boring routines. Her silent disgust of them is impenetrable; descriptions escape her mouth that are sardonic and nature and often cruel beyond measure. But does anyone really know how she feels? Of course not, because that would undercut her opportunity to get closer to the newest teacher on the faculty, whose own secrets will come to be the fuel for a sly game of manipulation between them both.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Taking of Deborah Logan / *** (2014)

The mind may be a tool of immense possibility, but in a weakened state it can also become the nucleus for chilling prospects. Horror movies have gotten exceptionally convincing at supplying that rationale in order to validate some of their menacing ideas, but they come to an intriguing crossroads in “The Taking of Deborah Logan,” in which the source of terror appears to originate in, of all possible places, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. She is an elderly and kind lady of proper upbringing who lives out in the great countryside, and when a trio of college students come to document her case for a filmic dissertation on the saddening nature of the illness, their cameras seem to burn a hole through the fabric of their expectations (not to mention the blinders of her caregivers). Sure, a terminal case like this can make any normal person do a number of incoherent things… but is Alzheimer’s itself entirely responsible for violent tendencies? Self mutilation? Or worse yet, moments of delusion in which a house might react with violent warning? Strange things are gradually overtaking the Logan family, and here are cameras that are unwilling witnesses to a plot that will have everyone involved questioning the validity of what they experience.