Showing posts with label Blind Spots. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blind Spots. Show all posts

June 13, 2016

Blind Spots Series: The Outlaw Josey Wales

Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) prepares for battle in The Outlaw Josey Wales.

So much of the Western genre is built on the intense conflict between the forces of civilization and the chaos of the wild. This division epitomizes the disorder facing the country around the time of the U.S. Civil War. Economic and political forces ripped apart the country and set up the conditions for marauders to own the new world. The opening scene of The Outlaw Josey Wales depicts the violent mess of this environment. We first see Josey Wales working the land with his son; it’s an idyllic look at frontier life. In just a few moments, his life completely shatters. The grim reality of this world births the outlaw superhero that everyone wants to destroy. Josey’s refusal to accept the war’s end makes him a threat to the forces of civilization, and the bandits join the fight to capture the huge reward for apprehending him.

Adapted from the 1973 Forrest Carter novel The Rebel Outlaw: Josey Wales, this film depicts a hellish world. During the opening sequence, the close-ups of crazed killers wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror film. Josey is the innocent victim with little chance against the vicious gang. To gain revenge, he must first become one of them. It’s tricky to view a guy who kills so many as a hero. The opening scene’s brutality bonds us with his fight. There’s no doubt that the men who killed his family were monsters. Writers Sonia Chernus and Philip Kaufman (the film’s original director before Eastwood took over) make sure there are few sympathetic enemies. The exception is Fletcher (John Vernon), Josey’s former leader in the guerrilla Confederate unit. He seems more sympathetic to Josey despite his role in making him an outlaw.

Released in 1976, The Outlaw Josey Wales arrived in a country torn apart by Watergate and Vietnam. There are specific enemies in this film, but the real evil is the institution that supports them. In a key early scene, the boss of the evil Captain Terrill (Bill McKinney) seems just as corrupt as his underling. He sets up the massacre of Fletcher’s unit without batting an eye. Nastily killing the men with a hidden Gatling gun feels particularly mean. There’s no honor in the way they fall. Josey does meet Union soldiers that seem like regular guys, but they still work for the group that’s hunting him. They have no choice but to follow orders. The bandits that stumble upon Josey and try to kill him are more feral. However, their efforts spring from the rewards offered by the Union leaders.

Sondra Locke plays Laura Lee in The Outlaw Josey Wales.

It’s difficult to argue with claims that this film is an iconic Western. It contains all of the genre’s signature traits in gorgeous outdoor settings. The cinematography from Bruce Surtees (a regular Eastwood collaborator) creates an interesting clash between beauty and horror. A perfect example is the sequence when marauders try to rape Laura Lee (Sondra Locke). The close-ups shots of their dead eyes are frightening, particularly from her point of view. It lasts for what seems like an eternity and offers a grim look at humanity. What’s striking is the spare beauty of the landscape around this scene. Like much of the movie, it shows the dark side of humanity but within an attractive setting.

There’s less beauty in the nearly deserted towns of the Texas wild. It feels at times that Josey has died and is wandering an infinite hellish landscape. The men he encounters feel like demons from the afterlife. In the final act, Josey does rediscover a sense of community. He falls for Laura, but it’s really about the last residents of the lost town. They journey to the lands of Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) and enjoy a brief respite from the chaos. Dancing around the fire and enjoying each other’s company, they establish the foundations for a new society. This brings added weight to the final battle with Terrill’s gang. Josey is fighting for more than revenge against the men who killed his family.

Lone Watie pulls out a shotgun in The Outlaw Josey Wales.

This film is considered a revisionist Western, and it’s a step beyond the more two-dimensional genre films of the early days. The depiction of Native Americans in particular offers more depth. Chief Dan George does the heavy lifting as Lone Watie —a trusted companion for Josey. It’s nearly impossible not to like that guy, and George’s performance is the reason. On the other hand, the depiction of women could use some work. Little Moonlight (Geraldine Kearns) is beaten by her master and then nearly raped in her first scene. Later on, she hooks up with Lone Watie. She’s depicted positively but is quite a thin character. Laura Lee also feels more like a symbol than a fully written person. She steps up to fight the enemy in the end but is mostly around to love Josey.

I’ve seen most of the seminal Westerns but never got around to The Outlaw Josey Wales. It’s an interesting movie and was definitely worth checking off my Blind Spots list. I am curious to note just how much Eastwood did once Kaufman left. I hate to give either too much credit for the final product. Kaufman excelled at presenting the desert landscape at Edwards Air Force Base in The Right Stuff. This story feels like his type of work, but it also matches the melancholy Westerns of Eastwood’s career. It particularly connects to Unforgiven, which subverted the violence even further. Regardless, this film comes together well in delivering an engaging story and a worthy genre film. It checks the boxes yet never becomes too predictable. Eastwood also embodies Josey with a quiet grit that fits the loner role. He’s rarely been better on screen, and that says quite a lot.

This is the fifth entry in the 2016 Blind Spots Series. You can preview this year’s list and follow along with future entries through Letterboxd.

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May 12, 2016

Blind Spots Series: Jailhouse Rock

Elvis Presley gives his famous performance of the title song in Jailhouse Rock.

Elvis Presley appeared in more than 30 films largely during the ‘50s and ‘60s, but few remain well-known today. Most of them were light musicals that used Elvis’ stardom to draw in audiences. I can’t speak with any authority on his career; I’d actually never seen an Elvis film prior to this experience. Even while doing musical marathons and having other opportunities, I never selected a movie from “The King”. This wasn’t a conscious choice to avoid Elvis; he’s created plenty of good songs. In fact, “Suspicious Minds” is one of my go-to karaoke songs. Somehow his films didn’t attract me in the same way as other music superstars from that era.

When I decided to include an Elvis movie in this year's Blind Spots Series, Jailhouse Rock was the obvious choice. The iconic performance of the title track is everywhere in pop culture. On its own, that sequence promises a fun and upbeat story with energetic songs. Elvis does a choreographed dance number to one of his signature tunes; how can it go wrong? That moment holds up well and does not disappoint. This is the image people will see of Elvis 100 years from now. He’s shaking and swaying at the height of his powers, and it’s clear he’s a superstar. Elvis is alive! There’s even a fun touch at the end where a TV producer chides dancers for missing their marks. That line reminds us that it’s all a tightly produced theater, even within the movie.

I mention that line because it connects to what I find most interesting about Jailhouse Rock. In his performance scenes, Elvis is magnetic but never seems truly authentic. The songs are lip-synced, which is the norm for most movie musicals. Elvis has a rare ability to make the moves feel improvised when they’re really tightly choreographed. When you look beyond the songs, this story is a surprisingly cynical take on the music industry. Elvis’ Vince Everett is a wannabe star who has great talent. However, he also has no compassion for anyone but himself. Women and former pals are just pawns for him to push around in his pursuit of money. It sends a weird message to have Vince be such a total jerk right to the end. He only mellows after he nearly loses his voice, and I doubt that he’ll keep being a changed man after the credits roll.

Elvis Presley and Judy Tyler have a warm moment in Jailhouse Rock.

I don’t want to oversell the complexity of this story; it’s quite stilted for the most part. The love story with Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler, who tragically died shortly after production ended) has no sparks. She represents the business side of his career and the authenticity he loses. Judy spends a lot of time smiling, but she’s sidelined once Vince’s career starts flying. The other main character is his former jailhouse buddy Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy), a country and western singer. When Hunk gets out of jail, he becomes Vince’s lapdog to stay afloat. He also represents something real amid the fakeness of the industry. When Hunk literally punches some sense into Vince, it’s a convenient way for a jerk to start reforming. It’s also laughably clunky.

Elvis first appears on screen at a construction site and quickly kills a man with his bare hands. The story sets up Vince as an anti-hero ready to fight the world. Later on, he violently slaps a studio head after learning that the guy stole his music. Elvis wants to be Johnny Cash, but he comes off like a whiny teenager. There’s no menace to Vince; his punch of a prison guard during a riot comes out of nowhere. He’s very unlikable, but that doesn’t make us root for him. We need some connection that makes him worth following. Elvis only seems at home when performing, and he’s quite stiff in the dramatic scenes. The possible loss of his voice feels like the right comeuppance for Vince. He’s especially mean towards women and takes Judy for granted right until the end.

Released in 1957, Jailhouse Rock was only Elvis’ third film. I suspect that he grew more comfortable on screen later in his career. He also probably didn’t spend too much time playing idiots like Vince. Despite the story issues, this release was a huge box-office success. It arrived during a time when rock ‘n’ roll was grabbing hold with the public. There’s a conflict within the film between youngsters like Vince and the old-school establishment. Judy and Vince even start an indie record label to sell his music. He’s ultimately corrupted by the old guard and wowed by pretty things. A beautiful actress shows up briefly for a romance and then quickly disappears. That whole sequence feels designed to keep Vince from Judy more than anything else.

I’m glad to check this movie off my blind spots list, but it hasn’t sold me on Elvis as an actor. The tale of possible redemption falls short because he doesn’t feel genuine. Inadvertently, it promotes the idea that Elvis isn’t original. There are many intriguing ways to read the film's themes in terms of Elvis’ career, though I’m not the guy to do it. Taken solely as a piece of entertainment, Jailhouse Rock isn’t a complete product. A few great performances aren’t enough to sell the total package.

This is the fourth entry in the 2016 Blind Spots Series. You can preview this year’s list and follow along with future entries through Letterboxd

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April 2, 2016

Blind Spots Series: The Great Dictator

Charlie Chaplin gives his famous last speech in The Great Dictator.

Rarely has a film included a finale so powerful that it makes the rest of the story fade away. When Charlie Chaplin turns to the camera and makes a plea to humanity in The Great Dictator, it lifts the story to another level. He breaks the fourth wall and blatantly expresses the film’s mission statement to remove any doubts. Costumed to mimic Hitler, Chaplin warns of the “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts”. After two hours of satirizing the military, Chaplin emotionally brings it all together for us. The film's jokes provide cheap laughs for a moment, but they only click if there’s more beneath the surface.

Beginning with the phrase “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be emperor”, Chaplin delivers a long monologue that’s a tricky proposition. If he doesn’t convince the audience, this moment could derail the movie. The somber look on Chaplin's face eliminates any doubts. Watching The Great Dictator more than 65 years after its release, it’s easy to dismiss the turmoil in the world at that point. Particularly in Europe, the threat from Hitler was real. It’s hardly just a historical document, however. This line feels particularly apt given today’s divisive climate: “Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness.” This message still connects now, and Chaplin sells his conviction.

I’ve started on the final scene because I wasn’t that engaged by much of this film. When Chaplin directly satirizes Hitler with Hynkel (Dictator of Tomania), his ridiculous take is effective. It’s such an over-the-top character that he seems more convincing as a cruel dictator. He’s the kind of guy who declares war on anyone just to avoid boredom. There’s no logic to his madness, and he tries to wipe out entire groups because he can. Hynkel is clever satire, but there’s a lot of other material that feels like filler. The running time is more than two hours, and you definitely feel the length. It’s such a personal project for Chaplin, and I suspect he tried to make sure all his ideas made the final cut.

The opening scenes during World War I are well-done and satirize the weapons of war. Moments like a bomb following a soldier in a circle work because they’re so over the top. The barber (also played by Chaplin) is completely over his head in war and feels similar to his famous Little Tramp character. I should note that this is a full sound film, which can be jarring if you’re used to Chaplin’s silent work. It isn’t a huge adjustment after a short time, and there are some familiar gags. The scene with a group of men eating pudding is a highlight that would fit in his classic films. Each guy doesn’t want to find a coin in the pudding, which would set them up for a hero’s death. The look on Chaplin’s face when he bites into the coin is just perfect.

I hate to dismiss the middle section of the movie, which does include fun moments like the pudding sequence and a food fight with the Mussolini surrogate Napolini (Jack Oakie). Having already seen (and loved) City Lights, Modern Times, The Gold Rush, and others, it’s hard not to compare The Great Dictator to those films. It’s a daring project that deserves all the acclaim, and I’m glad to have finally caught up with it. I might prefer the others on the whole, but that’s more about personal preference. It was Chaplin’s most successful commercial film and is still watched regularly today. The mayhem and direct satire doesn’t feel dated, and that says a lot in 2016.

Related Articles

Blind Spots Series: The Outlaw Josey Wales
Blind Spots Series: Jailhouse Rock
Blind Spots Series: The Host

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February 22, 2016

Blind Spots Series: The Host

The Host, the 2006 film directed by Bong Joon-ho

It might seem peculiar to have a Blind Spot film that’s only 10 years old, but this is a rare exception. I’ve been hearing raves about Bong Joon-ho’s The Host almost constantly since its release. A hugely popular movie and a key part of the rise of South Korean cinema, this film doesn’t fit in a simple box. Bong takes the monster-movie format and creates a sad look at the impersonal ways that governments deal with their citizens. I don’t want to oversell the complexities, but there’s definitely more happening than just showing a grisly creature.

The Host feels quite similar to Bong’s latest film Snowpiercer (my #1 movie of 2014) in the way it outshines its B-movie formula. That movie is even more audacious (and feels less human), but both are quite different than you'd expect. The over-the-top situations still allow for great drama, even while the scenes can be ridiculous. The monster is a strikingly original beast created through intentional pollution by evil U.S. scientists. Even so, it’s hard to take it too seriously. Its attacks are closer to a football linebacker charge than your normal horror-movie baddie. You don’t want to get stuck inside its teeth, but the creature mostly just knocks people out of the way.

This story centers on Park Gang-du (Song Kang-Ho), a shop owner who isn’t the smartest guy in the room. He runs a shack near the river with his family, including his daughter Hyun-seo (Go Ah-sung). When the monster unexpectedly appears and attacks a crowd of people, all chaos ensues and Hyun-seo is taken. When a surprise phone call reveals that she’s still alive, the family embarks on a daring journey. It’s quite a slow burn on this road trip with the bickering group. Gang-du is joined by his father Hee-bong (Byun Hee-Bong), archer sister Nam-Joo (Doona Bae), and former activist brother Nam-il (Park Hae-il). They’re hardly normal heroes and are comically inept at times. This could be frustrating if you were expecting more capable lead characters. Gang-du spends a lot of time freaking out about his daughter and not acting.

The first attack resembles an old-school monster movie with screaming masses running in all directions. Bong takes a rare gamble in giving us a clear view of the creature. If the audience doesn’t believe in it, this movie would be DOA. Instead, it’s such an odd sequence that it intrigued me about what was coming. The film’s opening scene includes a creepy American scientist (Scott Wilson) ordering a worker to dump formaldehyde into the Han River. There’s such an ominous tone to this moment, and it contrasts with the outlandish appearance of the monster on the shore. Bong is such a master at mixing genres without taking us out of the story.

There’s a cynical undercurrent through the action about governments’ inability (and lack of interest) in protecting its citizens. The South Korean leaders spin a tall tale about a virus and are fine with releasing the “Agent Yellow” chemical agent to hide the truth. They’d rather capture people who saw the creature than deal with the truth. The Americans are even worse and seem more than incompetent. There’s true evil in these characters, which explains why the North Korean government reportedly loved this movie. I’d read the message as critical of all large institutions, with the U.S. standing in for any overly powerful government. They’re the typical uncaring military figures of The X-Files who would rather create more carnage than lose control.

Following the early mayhem, the pace lags while the family struggles to make progress. It’s a test to the audience to stick with this group after multiple failures. There are two main reasons the slow approach doesn’t lose the impact. The first is the paranoid atmosphere that looms over everything. The family is depicted as a threat to national security, which pits even good people against them. There's also compelling sadness in the face of Hee-bong, especially during his monologue about his son. The formerly comic Gang-du becomes a tragic figure with this new info.

The Host risks slipping off the rails before the fiery climax, but any doubts are gone after the gut-punch ending. It’s rare to spend so much time with characters and then watch them fail. It isn’t a nihilistic ending due to a touching silver lining. Even so, there’s no feeling of triumph when the creature finally meets its end. The battle seems unfinished while the government receives no punishment for their awful behavior. Individuals may survive and even make no emotional connections, but the leaders care little. It’s only a matter of time before the next crisis happens.

This is the second entry in the 2016 Blind Spots Series. You can preview this year’s list and follow along with future entries through Letterboxd

January 25, 2016

Blind Spots Series: First Blood

There’s a common image of John Rambo from pop culture that’s stuck with me despite having never seen a Rambo film. The iconic shot has a beefed-up and shirtless Sylvester Stallone holding a giant gun while mowing down scores of bad guys. He’s intense and solely committed to his mission in the jungles of Vietnam. That perception actually comes from Rambo: First Blood Part II, the second film in the series. It expanded on the more personal story of the movie that introduced us to the former Green Beret. Released in 1982, First Blood reveals a broken man who’s just trying to stay afloat and is a time bomb just waiting to explode. It just takes some hassling from the local police in Hope, Washington to push Rambo back into the fight.

First Blood is a gritty action thriller, but much of the fighting is pretty standard. The dim-witted police officers and part-time National Guard members underestimate the skills of a man built to kill. It’s easy to view this movie as a direct source for many films with single guys taking out baddies with their particular set of skills. A movie like Under Siege loses the PTSD but has a similar tale about a military superstar who can’t be stopped. I also couldn’t help but think of Surviving the Game, a less effective but strangely amusing story of a homeless man hunted for sport by wealthy businessmen. These are two of many examples of the continued legacy of our first adventure with Rambo.

Despite the over-the-top action, it’s a much simpler image that sticks with me after seeing this film. The haunted look in Stallone’s eyes is quite moving, and the actor never rings a false note. Rambo is more than just a world-weary vagrant with bad luck. When he looks at the cruel cops, he sees his much nastier captors in Vietnam. Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) misjudges Rambo because of his own preconceived notions about homeless veterans. What he doesn’t see is the horror lurking behind Rambo’s eyes. It doesn’t take much to unlock the weapon inside his mind. Like Rambo says in his final monologue, you don’t just turn it off.

Sylvester Stallone stars as John Rambo in First Blood

I’ve neglected to discuss the action scenes, which stay grounded thanks to straightforward direction from Ted Kotcheff (North Dallas Forty). A tense standoff on a cliff (resulting in the movie's only certain death) stands out, but most of the fights happen in the dark woods. There’s a claustrophobic feeling to the forest where Rambo hunts his prey, and that only increases when he’s trapped inside an old mine. The scariest moment for him involves not humans but hordes of rats attacking him. This film’s modest budget ($14 million) fits with the tone of the story. It’s more about personal horror than any real action spectacle. Jerry Goldsmith’s score reveals a feeling of increasing dread instead of excitement. It says a lot that the climax is a sad and angry rant and not a fight.

It doesn't feel like a stretch to read the Rambo character as a symbol of America following Vietnam. There are more connections with paranoid '70s thrillers here than the jingoistic action films of the '80s. This world is chaotic and on the brink of destruction; there are no real heroes. We're aligned with Rambo, who doesn't purposely kill anyone. On the other hand, he inflicts a great deal of punishment and destruction. Rambo is a tool of this wicked age, and there's little optimism after Vietnam. Even when he steps down, there's little sense Rambo's inner torment is over.

Another factor in First Blood’s success is the work of the two key supporting actors — Brian Dennehy’s Teasle and Richard Crenna as Rambo’s former leader Colonel Trautman. Teasle initially feels like a one-note villain who enjoys tormenting outsiders. He’s not a good guy, but there’s a more complicated resentment behind his moves. The story only hints at why he’s so committed to killing Rambo. Trautman is the kinder figure, but it’s too easy to look at him as a good guy. He created a killing machine with no place at home. Trautman offers hints at remorse, particularly during the final scene. The somber look on his face while Rambo lashes out reminds us this is a tragedy. It’s no surprise that Crenna returned as Trautman for two sequels, and it became his signature character.

First Blood was my first experience with this franchise, so the entire series is a blind spot for me. I’m curious to check out the sequels but less excited because of how different they become. You don’t get the feeling that this film was designed to start a franchise. It was adapted from a 1972 novel by David Morrell that nearly became a movie many times over the years. The story is quite bleak, and there’s a reason that action was emphasized more in the much larger sequels. Along with his recent performance in Creed, it’s another reminder that Stallone can shine in the right role. He’s much better as a tormented everyman than as your standard action hero. Rambo is a skilled fighter, but it’s Stallone’s grim intensity that makes him such a classic character.

This is the first entry in the 2016 Blind Spots Series. You can preview this year’s list and follow along with future entries through Letterboxd

April 4, 2015

Blind Spots Series: Poltergeist

Carol Anne Freeling talks to the TV in Poltergeist, directed by Tobe Hooper.

"It's not ancient tribal burial grounds, just... people."

Growing up in the ‘80s, I wasn’t a daring movie watcher. To put it simply, horror movies frightened me. Even PG films like Poltergeist were spooky enough to give me nightmares. We started watching the Tobe Hooper film at a friends’ house on VHS a few years after its 1982 release. I was probably around eight and not ready for it. Once the chairs started moving and the tree came to life, I was out of there. I went home before the real chaos began, and that was definitely a wise move. I’ve seen glimpses of scenes on TV since, including a creepy clown and famous shots of Heather O’Rouke saying “they’re here” as young Carol Anne Freeling. Even so, I’ve never sat down and watched the complete movie. Part of me is still wary after that first experience; childhood fears don’t ever really go away.

Commercials on TV have started airing for the new remake, which hits theaters in May. I’m not thrilled to see it, but the brief glimpses of a clown (again) and other iconic elements are still creepy. On the other hand, I doubt it will leave much of an impression. The trailer offers glimpses at the iconic moments of the original, yet feels strangely distant. It’s possible the genre has changed too much to make this premise click. Sam Rockwell and Rosemary Dewitt should help to sell it.

I’m getting off track, however. We’re here to talk about the original, which Hooper directed with considerable input from Producer Steven Spielberg. There have been hints that Spielberg did more than Hooper to really guide the project. Regardless of the real creative source, the movie worked for audiences. It’s time for me to finally put aside the fears that have caused me to avoid Poltergeist for more than 30 years.

The story is set in the type of new house community that was common in the early '80s. In fact, my parents moved us into a similar neighborhood in 1982. Our house was right next to a cemetery; is my reluctance to watch it making more sense? Despite the updated furnishings, the house where the Freelings live is really creepy. An ugly old tree stands just outside the kids' window, and an unfinished pool sits in the backyard. Steve (Craig T. Nelson) and Diane (JoBeth Williams) are well-meaning parents trying to raise three kids. They don't deserve to be haunted by ghosts. On the other hand, they're so laid back that the danger barely fazes them.

The family witnesses unbelievable sights yet seem okay with spending another night in the house before moving. Carol Anne is abducted and disappears, but her parents (especially Diane) often forget that fact when marveling at the ghosts. Part of the reason is the requirements of the script; if they'd bolted when the chairs started moving, the movie would end. Plus, we'd never get the chance to meet the great Zelda Rubenstein as the ghost expert Tangina!

I didn't have nightmares after watching Poltergeist, but that doesn't mean it isn't scary. One scene with a guy imagining the skin on his face ripped off is grisly. The clever use of make-up brings a different level of creepiness than modern effects. The use of sound also makes an impact when there's little happening on screen. Just hearing Carol Anne's voice from another dimension brings a chill. The pace is fairly slow, but it ratchets up the tension. The quiet before the chaotic finale is quite effective. We know that everything is not okay and keep waiting for something to happen.

There's a fine line between scares and silliness, and this movies strikes that balance. A toy clown trying to choke young Robbie (Oliver Robins) is funny; Diane getting attacked by skeletons is more frightening. Most scenes have a little of both. The result is an odd hybrid between mainstream entertainment and horror. The tone shifts by scene and generally works, though the end result is a bit different than you might expect.

This post is the March contribution to the Blind Spots Series. Check out all the entries on this page

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Blind Spots Series: The Great Dictator
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February 23, 2015

Man with a Movie Camera Review (Blind Spot Series)

A close-up of an eye in Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera.

It’s rare to find a movie that feels unique; most are inspired by previous examples of their genre. Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera isn’t the first documentary, but it remains a rare example of creative uses of the camera. Released in 1929, the Russian production depicts a day in the life in cities like Moscow, Kiev, and others. What makes it shine is the inventive ways that Vertov presents the action.

An unnamed cameraman (Mikhail Kaufman) actively looks for new ways to capture the shots, but we’re observing that guy from another vantage point. Kaufman is credited as this film’s cinematographer, so he’s hardly just an actor playing a role. Ranked #8 on the most recent Sight & Sound poll in 2012, this incredible film’s reputation continues to grow with each passing decade.

On the surface, a black-and-white documentary without a story doesn’t sound that intriguing. The selling point is how Vertov presents the material. The opening shot uses trick photography to present what appears to be the miniature cameraman standing on top of a giant camera. Other shots employ split-screens and multiple images superimposed on the other to create something new. A trick shot appears to present the cameraman being run over by an incoming train. Afterwards, a reveal shows a safe opening beneath the ground.

Titles at the start reveal Vertov’s ambitious plans for this film. There are no actors, artificial sets, or fictional scenario for this project. It’s like a variation on the rules of the Dogme 95 project many years later. Vertov was outspoken about his hatred of the fiction film, so this is hardly just an artistic experiment. He’s trying to prove where the real value comes from cinema.

A predominant theme is the act of seeing life through the visual medium. A late scene presents a crowd in a movie theater watching this film. There’s recognition that even a non-fiction look at real life is still being edited for audiences. They’ve arrived to watch entertainment, so even a filmmaker trying to show truth is still making something artificial. Vertov’s manifesto seems absolute, yet the trick photography reveals understanding of ways to manipulate our perspective.

Anyone who creates a shot with a cameraman projected inside a beer glass is hardly a humorless ideologue. There’s playfulness to this project that keeps it light despite the high-minded goals. Vertov shows a world in motion and speeds up the action to convey that fact. It’s an upbeat and energetic life in the city. A key factor is the editing from Vertov and his wife Yelizaveta Svilova, which brings together the chaos into a coherent whole.

The unique visual style of Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera.

Beyond the style, Vertov finds emotional resonance in capturing various stages of life. A happy couple signs their marriage license, and a sad one prepares for divorce moments later. There’s a brief shot of a birth and washing the baby immediately afterwards. The camera observes intimate moments that connect emotionally because they’re universal. The hustle and bustle of the daily commute feels similar to what we experience in our cars today.

Trains and buses depart constantly and represent the backbone of the working society. It’s a communist world, and large pictures of Lenin remind us of this fact. Even so, there’s little difference in this community from our own. Vertov shows locations that are specific to Russia, but it doesn’t feel like a travelogue of a foreign land.

There are many versions of the score for Man with a Movie Camera, and each one definitely influences the experience. I watched Michael Nyman’s 2002 soundtrack from the performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall. The upbeat music brings power to the shots of the city in motion. The sped-up rhythms of the people and transportation create a dance between humans and technology. Nyman’s string-heavy score is hardly subtle yet brings energy as the pace increases.

There’s so much activity on the screen, so there’s no way to process everything on a first viewing. It’s the type of film that’s tailor-made to play on a large screen with a live orchestra. Watching it at home feels like a second-rate experience. Even so, Vertov’s work retains its power and creates a truly unique look at filmmaking and life itself.

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January 26, 2015

Blind Spots Series: Wait Until Dark

Audrey Hepburn stars in Wait Until Dark as Suzy, a blind woman facing off with home invaders.

It takes a lot to surprise modern film viewers, especially in the comforts of home theaters. That fact makes the final shock of Wait Until Dark even more impressive. We’re familiar with the “last scare” from horror films that’s become commonplace. The audience relaxes after the villain is defeated, but the baddie returns for one last trick. This trend goes beyond the horror genre; it even happened at the end of Die Hard. What makes this moment different is how grounded the story has been to that point. Roat (Alan Arkin) is a creepy villain, but he doesn’t appear superhuman. When he leaps across the screen at Audrey Hepburn’s Susy Hendrix, it’s entirely unexpected. She brutally stabbed Roat moments earlier, which makes his trampoline-like jump towards Suzy even more unlikely. It’s a comical scene on repeated viewings, but the first instance is brutally effective at the end of such extended suspense.

Our story begins with Lisa (Samantha Jones) smuggling heroin inside a doll into New York City. She works with Roat but makes the strange choice to give the doll to Suzy’s husband Sam (Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.). This sets in motion a scenario where Roat hires two of Lisa’s former associates to retrieve the doll. Mike Talman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston) are small-time hoods and not in the same world as Roat, but money talks. I’ve yet to mention the most significant factor in the entire plot — Suzy is blind. This allows the guys to deceive her and search the place, but she’s hardly a helpless victim. Recently blinded in a car accident, Suzy is still learning how to live without sight. Even so, she begins to catch on that the seemingly friendly men in her apartment may not have good intentions.

The villains linger around the corners of the frame and trap the unknowing Suzy in her home.

Hepburn received a Best Actress nomination for a role that appears simpler than it is; she’s on her own against the invaders. Sam leaves for work early in the movie, and only her 11-year-old neighbor Gloria (Julie Herrod) can help Suzy. Hepburn was a superstar by this point of her career and destined for awards interest. That doesn’t mean the performance fails, however. After a lengthy introduction that sets the stage, we spend the remainder of the movie with Suzy inside the apartment. Hepburn’s screams of frustration might seem overly melodramatic, but she sells the anger pretty well. Her slender frame adds to the sense of danger from the robbers. She seems tiny compared to a guy like Richard Crenna, and the shot composition builds the sense that Suzy’s trapped inside a nightmare. Roat and his guys are toying with her, and she stands in the middle of the frame surrounded by trouble.

Wait Until Dark was adapted from a Frederick Knott play that premiered one year earlier. Its source material on stage is evident with nearly all the action taking place inside Suzy’s apartment. A few scenes happen outside or at Sam’s studio, but the film mostly sticks with one location. This choice allows us to become very familiar with the location, including the parts that would play a key role in the final conflict. Suzy points out the refrigerator early in the story, and it’s no surprise when it comes into play later. The downside of sticking with the apartment is the slow pace during the first hour. The finale is dynamite, but there are times when it feels stretched to get there. It takes Suzy a long time to recognize the signs that something is amiss, and repeat visits from Talman and Carlino halt the narrative momentum.

Director Terence Young is known for directing early Bond films like Dr. No, From Russia with Love, and Thunderball. He enjoyed a long career, but Wait Until Dark is one of the few other well-known films in his background. The easy comparison to his work here is Alfred Hitchcock, but Young takes a more direct route. He uses the space well, particularly when characters are standing near Suzy without her knowledge. An early scene with a body in the closet is also a convincing moment because it feels so mundane. Henry Mancini’s score underplays the suspense and saves the volume for the final act. The blaring sound of a car engine after an abrupt cut is one of the most startling moments. The lack of these shocks until the end makes them a lot more convincing. The story plays more like a melodrama until the bloody finale.

Alan Arkin's creepy performance stands out among the supporting players. 

Looking beyond Hepburn’s performance, the other memorable role comes from Arkin as a man who enjoys the chaos. There’s probably an easier way to find the doll than using Talman and Carlino. Roat has no problems with tormenting Suzy and plans to leave no witnesses by the end. I’m familiar with Arkin’s grumpy old man persona, so it’s surprising to see him chewing the scenery as the villain. In the DVD interview, Arkin describes Roat as a guy who takes so many drugs that he’s mellow but living in a haze. He doesn’t really show the darker side until the end when it’s elimination time. Unlike Arkin, Crenna seems far too nice to play a criminal. It’s no surprise that he’s unwilling to take the next steps to find the doll. Talman spends the most time with Suzy and may have feelings for her. That storyline is never developed but seems likely given his final scene.

One reason for Wait Until Dark’s success was the masterful marketing campaign, which claimed that the theater would turn the lights down to the “legal limit” during the final eight minutes. Their brilliant move worked, and it’s easy to see why they focused on the last segment. The moments when Suzy angrily shatters the light bulbs to give herself a chance are superb. Watching this film in a packed theater must have been quite an experience. There’s a reason the play has been adapted frequently over the years; it still packs a punch. I’m curious about a 1998 revival that included Marisa Tomei as Suzy and Quentin Tarantino as Roat. From a glance at the reviews, they were not kind. Tomei is a talented actress, but matching Hepburn would be difficult. She brings ferocity to the part that’s truly unexpected. Hepburn retired afterward and only returned for a few roles, which was a stunning move. It’s hard to argue with ending her tenure as a full-time actress on this note, however. She lifts the material to much greater heights.

December 30, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

Totoro and a cat bus add magic to Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro.
My Neighbor Totoro remains one of Hayao Miyazaki's signature movies. 

I’ve encountered a strange internal resistance with several of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. They sit idly in my watch list for way too long yet don’t reach my screen. I’ve yet to dislike any of his movies, but there are still plenty to see. Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle in particular were among my favorites of their particular year. Sometimes it takes an extra push, and the blind spots series organized by Ryan McNeil is the perfect remedy. It’s been an amazing year to discover past gems and finally see classics that deserve that label. These films have sterling reputations for a reason, and the final entry is no exception. My Neighbor Totoro was just the right choice for a quiet afternoon following the holiday chaos. I watched this fantasy with my five-year-old daughter, and she was charmed by it. It’s the rare kind of story that connects with both kids and adults because it feels true to both experiences.

Released in 1988, My Neighbor Totoro remains one of Studio Ghibli’s most recognizable movies. Its title character is the studio’s mascot and familiar to many who haven’t seen this film. It presents a family that doesn’t seem out of place in our world, and that makes their experiences connect with us. Within this real-life framework, friendly forest spirits and a cat bus don’t feel so unbelievable. I watched the English dub from the 2006 Disney release, so I’ll reference those actors in this post. My daughter is still too young for subtitles, and the voice work is stellar and not distracting. I’m relieved that Disney has put together impressive DVDs that have allowed so many young people to catch up with Miyazaki’s work.

The setting is Japan in the late ‘50s. Professor Tatsuo Kusakabe (Tim Daly) moves into an old house with his two daughters so they can visit the hospital where his wife Yasuko (Lea Salonga) is recovering. The girls love exploring the strange home and meet some oddities in the nature around it. Satauki (Dakota Fanning) is 10 and seems older, while Mei is four and still discovering the world. She spots a quirky little creature strolling outside the house and follows it into the woods. This leads Mei to King Totoro, who’s likely a troll but named incorrectly by Mei. The big guy forcefully belts out his words, but it’s clear there’s no danger from the cuddly Totoro. Miyazaki’s at his best in this sequence, which delights but doesn’t push too hard to woo the audience. It takes real skill to strike this balance.

The family enjoys a moment in Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro.
It's easy to spend time in Miyazaki's welcoming environment.

What makes this story work is the relaxed pace, which gives us time to connect with the characters. Kusakabe isn’t the typical absent father of many animated stories and loves his daughters. They’re all struggling with feelings about Yasuko’s illness, but it doesn’t overwhelm them. The reactions feel natural, and no one gives a long speech about their emotions. Miyazaki underplays the drama, which makes it strike a much stronger chord. The house is worn down yet remains comfortable, especially for imaginative young girls. There’s a communal atmosphere with the other residents that makes it refreshing. The 88-minute running time flies by despite the laid-back approach because it’s enjoyable to spend time with the characters. The fantasy aspects play a key role, but they’re hardly the only reason to check in with this community.

While less direct than environmental fables like Princess Mononoke and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, there’s a love for nature in My Neighbor Totoro. The forest is warm and inviting, and Totoro springs from this friendly landscape. The cat bus glides over the hills and is a fun combination of a modern device with a familiar pet. It makes little sense and isn’t explained, but it hardly matters. Our acceptance is easy because it’s such an inviting place. We want to spend time there, and the plot is secondary. Miyazaki doesn’t overwhelm us with too many creatures or ambitious set pieces. Instead, he keeps it simple and connects us with the girls. It’s possibly his best film, and I was thrilled to take the plunge and spend time in this magical world.

November 24, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: The Wages of Fear (1953)

The Wages of Fear, released in 1953

The premise is simple. Two guys must drive a truck 300 miles across rocky territory to an oil field. The catch is their cargo — unprotected barrels of nitroglycerine that could explode with any minor disruption. There are two trucks, and the prize is $2,000 per person at the end. Only desperate men would tackle a job with such a low chance of success. This situation gives Director Henri-Georges Clouzot the perfect set-up to craft an extremely tense thriller. Released in 1953, The Wages of Fear offers a nihilistic look at human nature. The script from Clouzot and Jérome Geronimi reveals the dark side of modern civilization. The American Southern Oil Company (ASOC) is making huge profits in the Mexican town of Las Piedras, but their gains come with a steep price for the locals. The industrial ruin creates a bleak wasteland that provides the backdrop for this perilous journey.

The opening shot is a kid tormenting bugs, and this ugliness pervades the film. A man throws rocks at dogs, and no one looks happy in this hot and uncomfortable setting. The beautiful Linda (Clouzot‘s wife Véra) stands out in this grim environment, but she’s treated like a subhuman. There’s little humanity in this desolate place, and its remote setting makes it difficult to escape. Mario (Yves Montand) connects with Jo (Charles Vanel) over their French background, and they become friends. They’re among the most aggressive volunteers for the dangerous mission for the ASOC. They end up driving one truck, while the jovial Italian Luigi (Folco Lulli) joins the stoic German Bimba (Peter van Eyck) in the other vehicle. The situation is so desperate that they’ll do anything to get away from it.

Clouzot doesn’t rush into the main plot and gives us time to understand the town. It’s a harsh place where only the oil company finds success. The real victims are the locals, who’ve been manipulated by the ASOC and can only watch as their land dies. Las Piedras resembles a post-apocalyptic town that’s been decimated and sits in ruins. An accident kills 13 workers, and the American company men only care about their investments. Transporting the nitroglycerine is so dangerous that they’re forced to say “to hell with the union!” and pursue other options. Nearly an hour of screen time passes before Mario and the others climb aboard the trucks. It feels like a futile gesture to serve inhuman corporate masters. The financial rewards are great if they succeed, but it's basically suicide.

The Wages of Fear, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

An early conflict at a bar spotlights the problems in Las Piedras. Luigi strolls inside with a big smile on his face and buys drinks for the crowd. This doesn’t sit well with Jo, a former gangster who dislikes everything about the upbeat Italian. The conflict escalates to an ugly showdown that nearly becomes deadly. The close-up shots of their feet and faces bring a horror that something terrible is about to happen. The static shot of the gun holds for a moment, but it feels like an eternity. A question hangs over Jo’s participation. He isn’t picked as a driver but gets the job when another guy doesn’t appear. Did Jo kill him? He seems desperate enough to do anything given the harsh conditions. Jo gives a strong impression, but hints arrive during their trip that it’s really just a brusque façade.

Once the journey begins, the slow pace lifts the tension to nearly unbearable levels. Even the drive out of the ASOC headquarters is nerve-wracking. Any turn of the large tires can lead to immediate death. Armand Thirard’s camera pulls right up to the tires and offers close-up views of each rotation. This intimate perspective of the road creates an ominous atmosphere that reminds us of the risks. Clouzot masterfully creates a sense that survival is highly unlikely for anyone. When the drivers bypass an obstacle, there’s certain to be something worse down the road. The stress on these guys makes a mistake more likely, and even lighter conversations maintain the aura of danger. We’re waiting for the challenge that’s too much, and the deliberately paced editing adds to the portentous tone.

Véra Clouzot in The Wages of Fear

The treatment of women in Wages of Fear is extremely negative and reveals its lack of warmth. Linda loves Mario, and he describes her as “half savage”. When he’s driving away and she tries to convince him to stay, Mario pushes her off the truck and into the mud. Casting his wife as Linda is an interesting move by Clouzot given this unfortunate portrayal. Our first view of Linda shows her cleaning the floor while the camera leers at her. It presents her solely as a sexual object from the start. Mario stands above Linda while she's prone on all fours beneath him. The tone feels similar to a rough Western where the women have a limited purpose. Linda must watch as the man she loves heads towards death and can do little but cry about Mario’s impending fate. He treats her like a nuisance and doesn’t share the feelings enough to care about her sorrow.

An interesting undercurrent is the difference in personalities between Mario and Jo, who plays tough but has lost his nerve. They seem like pals before the journey begins, but the stress changes their relationship. Mario becomes more impetuous and reckless, while Joe becomes so cautious that he can barely react. A telling scene has the younger guy nearly knocking Jo off a cliff while they navigate a narrow perch on the truck. This moment foreshadows both guys’ eventual fates down the road. They find a way to avoid dangerous obstacles, but it’s only a matter of time before something takes them down. Yves Montand was a famous singer and playing his first dramatic role in this film. His focused performance reveals Mario’s skills and why he eventually fails. Charles Vanel was a veteran who’d been working regularly for more than three decades, and you can sense the tension between the actors beyond their characters.

The Wages of Fear

A thrilling sequence involves removing a large boulder that’s blocking their path. Having massive explosives on hand is rarely more essential than at this time. It’s a lengthy build-up to the big moment with Bimba constructing a complex system to destroy the rock. The camera pulls in on the matches and other objects in a brilliant way to convey the stress of this moment. The precision needed to make this tactic work (and avoid fiery deaths) is mind-boggling. Clouzot stretches this scene out to an excruciating length and throws in a few surprises. It feels like a great victory, but there’s still an inevitable feeling that these guys can only flirt with danger for so long. Eventually, their luck will change.

The Wages of Fear faced heavy censorship in the U.S. because of its anti-American stance and nihilistic view of humanity. The cuts removed scenes presenting the difficult lives of the locals and the uncaring feelings of the ASOC. They also deleted moments of “affectionate personal camaraderie” to avoid charges of homosexual themes. It’s unfortunate because these edits mute a lot of the film’s power. It’s a relief to have the opportunity to watch a more complete version through the Criterion DVD. This story is based on a novel by Georges Arnaud and was remade by William Friedkin as Sorcerer in 1977. It’s no shock that a guy like Friedkin was attracted to such a negative worldview. Clouzot finds moments of humanity during the journey, but the end result leaves a hollow feeling about our future. The changes of the industrial age will destroy the world, and even determined individuals can’t stop their inevitable destruction.

November 19, 2014

Announcing the 2015 Blind Spots Series

The Man with the Movie Camera

The idea of a “blind spot” is tricky because it implies there’s a hierarchy of film fans based on which films you’ve seen. While it’s important to expand your horizons and seek out diverse movies, watching them to check a box is pointless. On the other hand, there’s a benefit in seeking out titles that interest us but were pushed aside for a variety of reasons. These aren’t obscure movies yet have never found their way onto our screens. It’s this reason that has driven me to keep participating in the blind spots series. Last time, I selected 50 choices and had readers select 12 films. The result was an intriguing collection that hasn't included any duds. I’ve used this same process again for my 2015 series.

Thanks to 35 entries from you, I’ve narrowed down my list to 12 clear-cut winners. It was an extremely close vote, and five movies ended up just one vote short of making the group. On the other hand, seven films received just a single vote. I’m sad to say that Action Jackson, The Keep, Above the Law, American Pop, Infernal Affairs 2, and Rolling Thunder landed at the bottom of the rankings. I’m hoping to check out a lot of the options down the road. With a few exceptions, the votes followed no patterns and showed that it would be impossible to make bad choices from these options. Without any more unnecessary discussion, I present to you the 2015 Blind Spots Series:

Dirty Dancing
The Dirty Dozen
First Blood
The Great Dictator
The Host
Man with a Movie Camera
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Wait Until Dark

It didn’t surprise me that Carrie was the leading vote-getter, and seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas and Suspiria in the second and third slots was no shock. Despite its status in the Sight & Sound Top 10, I was a little surprised that Man with a Movie Camera made the cut. Another choice that I didn’t expect was Wait Until Dark even when you consider the star power of Audrey Hepburn. It’s an intriguing group of films that crosses genres and time periods. I really appreciate the support in building this list for 2015. I’ll post my thoughts about each film on the last Tuesday of each month. These pictures have sat on my watch list for years, and I can’t wait to discover them in the upcoming year.

November 4, 2014

Make Your Choices for the 2015 Blind Spots Series!

Memories of Murder, directed by Bong Joon-ho

One of my main reasons for starting this blog was to fill in the gaps in my film knowledge. The marathon structure allowed me to dig into zones that I’d hesitated to touch in the past. While the site’s format has evolved during the past few years, that goal is still part of the overall mindset. I’ve found the monthly Blind Spots Series helpful in ensuring that I’m catching up on movies that deserve my attention. I’ve participated in this project for the past three years and taken a different route each time. Last year, I stole Ryan McNeil’s idea to have the readers select their choices from a predetermined list. It worked out really well last time, so I'm doing the same thing again for 2015. While his options this year were extensive, I’ve restricted mine to 50 films. Without choosing the exact selections myself, this approach allows me to shape the general theme of the list.

I’ve spent considerable time recently pondering the goals of this site and what I’d like it to be in the future. This process has impacted the options developed for this series. For the most part, I’ve chosen movies that excite me and aren’t included to check a box. Some are genre films that would make few people’s lists of their favorite movies of all time. I don’t think the Action Jackson and Commando will be making the Sight & Sound list in 2022. It’s a diverse group from around the world that should lead to an entertaining ride each month. There are classics in the mix like Man with a Movie Camera, Patton, and The Great Dictator. None of these sound like work, which is the key. I’ve also incorporated genres where I’m still behind like musicals, horror, and animated films.

Your task is very simple, dear readers:

The voting will remain open for several weeks to allow you enough time to make your choices. I’ll announce the 2015 list in late November and start preparing for another strong year of movie watching. It won’t be easy for the new crop of films to live up to the 2014 selections. You should also be sure to check out Ryan’s monthly compilations of bloggers’ posts in the ongoing series at The Matinee. The participation continues to increase, and it’s interesting to note how differently each writer approaches their blind spots. Thanks in advance for your assistance in this venture!

Check out all the posts from the 2014 Blind Spots Series by clicking here

October 29, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Rosemary's Baby (1968)

There are few things creepier than an old apartment building that has seen better days. The clanking sounds of the elevator, gaudy interiors, and dim lighting offer the perfect recipe for a horror movie. Who visits these places and decides they’re the best options for home? The answer is Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse, at least in the mind of Roman Polanski. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes play the couple who rent a large, yet strangely cold apartment in New York City. There are hints during their visit that all is not right, including a closet blocked by a dresser. Rosemary sees the charm behind the façade, and Guy only cares about his acting career. What could go wrong? The neighbors may be nosy, but that isn’t enough. The young couple is ready to start a family and enter the next stage of adulthood. All seems right on the surface, but it masks issues that will send them down a dark path.

This premise sets the stage for Polanski’s adaptation of Rosemary’s Baby, considered one of the classic horror films. It isn’t your standard genre picture and exists more in the realm of paranoid thrillers than what we’d call “horror”. Even so, supernatural elements play a key role, and everyone is set against Rosemary. Polanski creates an environment where every citizen seems dangerous and no one is trustworthy. A respected doctor may not be there to help her, and apparently harmless elderly neighbors have a sinister intent. This film was released a year before the tragic death of Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate, but it contains the fear that would only increase after that event. Rosemary trusts her husband and others, and there’s little she can do when the truth is revealed. The story involves the devil and witches, but the greatest betrayal isn’t supernatural.

Cassavetes is known for directing movies that feel authentic like Faces and A Woman Under the Influence. That background creates an interesting contrast with his phony role in this film. Guy sits inches from the TV and studies actors, but he understands nothing about real people. He strolls into the room like he’s playing a character and is uncomfortable interacting with his wife. It takes little for the evil Minnie and Roman Castavet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer) to convince him to betray Rosemary. He can claim it’s for their future, but it’s really all about Guy. He’s one of the truly vile narcissists that I’ve ever seen on screen, and there are no redeeming qualities. Anyone who’s willing to sell his wife and child to Satan is pure evil. His obsession with getting famous is a weakness that’s easily exploited, and Rosemary lets a lot go before recognizing his true nature.

It’s tricky to label Rosemary’s Baby as “scary” because it includes odd moments that are hard to take seriously. The dream sequence is creative and eerie, but it also generates a few laughs. Mia Farrow keeps it grounded with her confused reactions, and her paranoia helps it to avoid going off the rails. A simple moment of her standing in a phone booth is surprisingly tense because Farrow sells it. When a creepy-looking man stands behind her waiting for his turn, we’re certain he’s part of the conspiracy. Those scenes work much better than having a character yell “Satan lives!” with glee. There’s a B-movie charm to that moment, but it differs so dramatically from the more believable terror.

Much of the tension comes from the art direction, which brings a claustrophobic feeling to the apartment. It feels like the walls are designed to keep Rosemary from even moving. The outside world of the city seems even more dangerous despite the vast spaces. It’s a partial escape from the scrutiny, but how can you escape when everyone has been corrupted? Polanski takes his time and allows the action to play out over long takes. Rosemary grows sickly and pale, and there’s a fear of the unknown that isn’t just about the devil. The pregnancy itself is mysterious and possibly deadly, and Rosemary has nowhere turn for salvation. When a possible escape route appears, there’s a sense that it’s a futile endeavor. Polanski creates a world that offers little hope for a happy ending.

NBC aired a four-hour miniseries of Rosemary’s Baby back in May, and the reviews were not kind. It starred Zoe Saldana and moved the setting to Paris. I haven’t seen the remake and don’t have much interest. It would be impossible not to compare it to Polanski’s film, and I doubt it would improve. That’s not to say that the original is perfect, however. What sticks with me is the dire mood and pessimism about humanity’s future. Rosemary’s options are to comply or jump out the window. Despite some awkward moments, the cynicism still connects to our modern world. There’s a reason that Polanski’s films tend to hold up well; they spring from the mind of a guy who sees the dark world. In a similar way to Jake at the end of Chinatown, Rosemary must forget the horror and live with the devil.

October 2, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain

What makes a film worthy to win Best Picture? It’s a silly question and essentially meaningless given the politics, but it comes to mind when thinking about Brokeback Mountain. The 2006 awards season pointed to an Oscar win for the Ang Lee film, and it was stunning to watch Crash bring home the prize. Given all the votes involved in choosing the winner, it’s problematic to read too much into the Academy’s choice. Regardless, their pick has not aged well and frequently appears on lists of the worst Best Picture winners. That may not be fair to Paul Haggis’ film, but it’s no stretch to say that nominees like Good Night, and Good Luck and Brokeback Mountain have had longer staying power. The fact that the latter was chosen for my Blind Spots series gives a clear indication of where it stands.

Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as cowboys that meet in 1963 and strike up a romance. Ennis and Jack are the stoic men of a different era and wouldn’t seem out of place in the Old West. They’re living in a modern culture that forces them to scrounge for odd jobs to make ends meet, however. Mainstream society isn’t ready to accept them as a couple. It’s a culture of fear where discovery can lead to more than ridicule. Being different can lead to a brutal death, and there’s little these guys can do. Ennis recognizes the situation and pulls so far within himself that he barely exists. His words come out as quiet grumbles, and there’s little joy to experience. Jack is more up front and willing to take chances, but that creates its own set of problems. Across the decades, they get married and have families. Daily life is misery, and only the short “fishing trips” give them the respite to keep living.

Michelle Williams as Alma in Brokeback Mountain

Lee’s film focuses on the absence of happiness and how it damages these men. They try to live a normal life by society’s standards, but memories of the brief meetings aren’t enough. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams) and has two beautiful daughters, but the joys are few and far between. Instead of providing comfort, the kids are screaming obstacles. We don’t see the happy moments for the girls, and things only get worse once Alma discovers his secret. It’s frustrating to watch them try to confine to social norms because it just creates stress and anger. Ennis drinks too much and walks meekly through his home, and his demeanor only changes when Jack arrives. It’s a rough experience for him but just as bad for Alma, who quietly endures his lack of interest. Williams does a brilliant job showing the sadness that keeps growing until their inevitable divorce.

There’s less time spent with Jack and his wife Lureen (Anne Hathaway), but there are subtle hints of their downward spiral. Lureen is a force of nature in her first appearance as a rodeo rider and has one of those giant personalities that can’t be contained. There’s less excitement from her after they marry, and she’s reduced to sitting behind an adding machine and watching their money dwindle. It’s a sour life that isn’t in the same condition as Ennis’ marriage but is hardly thrilling. Adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx, the screenplay from Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana shows the negative impact on more than Jack and Ennis. They’re forced to try and adapt, and it just leads to pain for everyone.

Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain, directed by Ang Lee

Brokeback Mountain was filmed in Alberta, and the incredible scenery creates a classic feel. Ennis and Jack can be themselves in these isolated spots, though staying there forever is a fading dream. These shots contrast sharply with the constrictive moments at home. We feel trapped inside the houses right along with the characters. The camera moves closer and gives the impression that the walls are closing in around them. The final scene at Ennis’ trailer makes it feel like he’s living inside a small box. The wide-open spaces of nature may be right outside, but he remains within the cramped home. The Oscar-winning score from Gustavo Santaolalla (Babel) plays in the background as Ennis recalls happier times. The promise of freedom is still there, but it’s been lost along with his friend.

August 25, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Politicians frequently talk about “two Americas” with the wealthy living in a different universe than everyday citizens. In the minds of horror film directors, there’s a third America on the fringes of our world. They don’t live by societal rules and wait for a group of teens to stumble upon their depraved world. Our normal standards for evil don’t do them justice, and regular killers seem mundane by comparison. Their havens are the backwoods of the Midwest where even the cops are in on the plan. It’s the type of place where a gas station has no gas and the smell of a meat processing center permeates the air. Ideas of morality go out the window, and cannibalism and other foul practices are fair game. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre provides an early example of this grisly setting. Released in 1974, the low-budget horror film was an underground hit and spawned countless imitators, sequels, and remakes. It also set the stage for a nasty sub-genre that still inspires filmmakers today.

The situation is familiar. Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her wheelchair-bound brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain) join three friends to visit their grandfather’s grave. They venture into the country in a van and run into some odd locals. The town is dilapidated, and even the friendlier folks are creepy. They pick up a weird-looking hitchhiker, who burns up the van and cuts Franklin with a razor. He’s out of his mind and speaks gibberish, yet it takes a lot for them to eject the guy. A friendly reminder: Don’t pick up hitchhikers that look insane! The characters seem less concerned about this encounter than they should be. There’s a sense that doom is just around the corner, but they walk into houses without thoughts of their own safety. It’s only a matter of time before something awful happens.

Marilyn Burns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

I’m not really a horror film guy, though I’ve enjoyed specific movies. They just aren’t my first choices most of the time. That’s the reason that several made it onto my list of blind spots this year. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a perfect choice for the Blind Spots series because I’d avoided it for so long. The first surprise is how little the chainsaw plays a role. Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) does kill one of his victims with the title weapon, but it isn’t shown directly. This isn’t a particularly gross or scary film, but that doesn’t mean it's not unsettling. The famous dinner scene in the last act makes quite an impact. Burns spends the last 20 minutes screaming constantly while the deranged family sets up their meal. From what I’ve read, the production was just as disturbing as the final product. Hooper takes his time and keeps us focused on the ugly behavior with no escape in sight.

Anyone who’s watched many horror films will see the influence from this source. Newer releases have ramped up the violence and artistry, but they’re working in a similar framework. Much of it was spoofed in The Cabin in the Woods, especially the gas station scene. Along with Halloween and earlier releases like Psycho, it set the mold for modern horror. The mystery is the key. We learn very little about Leatherface or his family, and that sells them much better than a complex back story. His simple make-up and crude mask also work because they fit with the rougher tone. The budget isn’t clear, but the highest estimates are around $300,000. This led to awful working conditions, but those certainly contributed to the uncomfortable environment. This place doesn’t look better in the daytime. There’s little beauty in this land, and the buildings have degraded into a dire state.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, directed by Tobe Hooper

There’s plenty to like with this film, and its influence is unquestioned. Even so, there are cracks in the armor. The non-professional actors aren’t convincing, particularly Paul A. Partain as Franklin. He’s a grating character, and it isn't about his disabilities. Franklin’s a downer and exists to fall down a hill or get in everyone’s way. He does participate in the movie’s funniest scene, a ridiculous argument with Sally after their friends disappear. Her exasperated “give me the flashlight!” pleas while he tries to join the search provide great unintentional humor. The major chase between Leatherface and Sally is also great fun and involves her repeatedly running into a worse spot. She sprints into his house and then traps herself upstairs, leaving only the glass window. Leatherface seems more interested in killing the door than her, so that helps Sally’s case.

Watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre won’t inspire me to catch up with other films about cannibals and grave robbers. It was still an important touchstone to see, however. What’s surprising is how long it takes to reveal Leatherface. There are few indications that a chainsaw-wielding killer is lurking behind the scenes. Without the sensational title, audiences would have little knowledge of what is coming. Hooper even uses the fake “based on a true story” device to make it seem legitimate. The stories of the production are just as interesting as the movie, and multiple books have been written about its creation. While it seems tame by today’s standards, there are still a few shocks in store for modern audiences. The unsettling mood sticks with you for a while, and you can’t underestimate that impact.

July 28, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Les Diaboliques (1955)

Les Diaboliques, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

There are moments in films that stick with you for a long time, if not forever. Flying down the trenches of the Death Star shows the power of movies. We’re riding the bike with E.T., boarding the DeLorean with Marty, or jumping on a truck with Indiana Jones. A much different aspect is cinema’s ability to haunt our dreams. We’re taking showers and worrying about Norman Bates or swimming and looking for a great white shark. There’s a moment in this vein at the end of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. When a dead body rises out of a bathtub, our shock is right with the victim. How is this possible? The rules of this world seem the same as ours. If a normal man can survive murder, what else can happen? It takes great skill to surprise a veteran movie goer, but this moment ranks among those legendary examples. The build-up is just right and prepares us for a surprise, yet it’s impossible to expect something with that much power to overwhelm us.

Despite its influence on thrillers like Psycho, this film remains obscure to most audiences. It lacks the notoriety of some other choices in the Blind Spots series, though there are plenty of fans. Clouzot employs a slow-burn approach that builds the tension deliberately and doesn’t overwhelm us with scares too early. The murder partially occurs off screen, which makes more sense when the major twists happen. It also raises the mystery and makes us question what we’ve observed. The confusion of what genre this really is remains up to the end. Are we in a horror film where the reality is malleable and allows dead men to torment their killers? Will new revelations question the reliability of the narrative we’ve followed for nearly two hours? These questions help Clouzot to maintain suspense when little is happening on screen. The events outside the frame hold the intrigue.

Simone Signoret in Les Diaboliques

Adapted from the novel Celle qui n'était plus (She Who Was No More) by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, this story largely involves three characters. Michel Delassalle (Paul Meurisse) is the sadistic headmaster of a boarding school who torments everyone. His victims include his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot) and his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret). It’s strange to notice how well this pair gets along, though it wasn’t always the case. Christina also suffers from a weak heart, and having a brutal husband doesn’t help. She owns the boarding school, which is struggling financially. The last thing a distressed institution needs is a guy who doesn’t care about anyone running it. This environment spawns a scheme from Nicole to kill Michel and escape his reign of terror. She needs Christina’s help to make it happen, and it seems like a safe plan. What could go wrong?

Clouzot reveals the many challenges in transporting a dead body to the right location. Nosy neighbors are on the lookout, and even a harmless drunk nearly stumbles upon the body. This sequence feels extremely similar to watching a nervous Janet Leigh try to escape with stolen money in Psycho. Cops and random people seem drawn to the car like a magnet, and these interactions take an excruciating amount of time. Hitchcock almost certainly took inspiration from this film when creating that movie five years later. This approach makes us identify with the criminals and hope they aren’t caught. In this case, it’s easy to understand why Nicole and Christina would want to kill Michel. Paul Meurisse excels at drawing no sympathy for a guy whose sole purpose is to damage others.

Les Diaboliques, released in 1955 and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

The challenge with Les Diaboliques could be its slow pace, which saves the scares for the final act. I’ll admit to feeling antsy during the slow reveals after the women return to school. This story could probably be told in less time, though it does allow Clouzot room to let it breathe. A rushed pace would diminish the suspense when Michel returns (in some form). Instead, we’re so desperate to learn what’s happening that any less thrilling scenes are quickly forgotten. You can see the building blocks for so many thrillers within the construction of the big reveals. The brilliant use of lighting and sound creates just the right mood and makes you want to hide from what’s coming. This film should be must-see viewing for any student hoping to work on films. The technical mastery removes any doubt of whether checking out a 60-year-old movie is worth it. It’s a textbook example of how to manipulate the audience and leave them wanting more when the credits arrive.

June 30, 2014

2014 Blind Spots Series: Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead, directed by George Romero

One of the challenges of the Blind Spots series is recognizing where plot conventions that we take for granted originated. On the other hand, it can be rewarding and heighten our understanding of the genre’s history. When Rick and Carl are trapped in a house in The Walking Dead, there’s a straight line back to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The new variations aren’t direct copies but owe quite a lot to the low-budget 1968 film. Zombies existed on screen prior to this time, but they were never presented as the mindless, flesh-eating vermin we recognize today. Romero and his co-writer John Russo drew from ‘50s monster movies yet created something far more horrifying to audiences. What were they to make of such a cynical look at the end of humanity? Although quaint by today’s standards, the sense of dread remains and provides quite an unsettling experience.

It’s a quiet afternoon in the Pennsylvania countryside. Siblings Barbra and Johnny are visiting their dad’s grave, but all is not as it seems. He just misses an important radio announcement and doesn’t realize the stranger heading towards them is different than a normal drifter. By starting this story with such a small-scale event, Romero creates a mystery of what’s really happening. We’re as much in the dark as the characters, though our movie knowledge makes us realize they should not approach this guy. When Barbra crashes her car and then leaps out on foot, it’s a terrible decision for anyone that’s seen a horror film. Of course, there were no films like this one for the characters to see. They aren’t experts like Randy from the Scream series. Instead, even some fairly weak zombies are enough to inspire chaos.

Karen Cooper, Night of the Living Dead

The success of Night of the Living Dead comes from the sound design, which heightens the suspense dramatically. Some early scenes with Barbra play out almost like silent films with music and clever audio to sell the danger. Later on, a violent killing resembles the Psycho shower scene and shows little but sells the brutality. It’s a minimal black-and-white production, but that fails to diminish the talents behind the camera. The actors play one-note characters out of a low-rent B movie, but Romero's skills overcome most of those shortcomings. There are some cringe-worthy moments with the hard-headed Mr. Cooper (Karl Hardman), who won’t listen to anyone. He’s a stock character in this type of film, and things never go well for such a stubborn guy in this environment.

Romero’s zombie films are clear allegories to the current situation in their culture. A prime example is the consumerism of Dawn of the Dead within the shopping mall. Without addressing them too blatantly, this film hits at racial tensions, mistrust of authority, and the growing chaos of the late ‘60s. The finale is a gut punch that removes all hope from the world. The sheriff and his deputies may be killing zombies and regaining control, but is that a good thing? They’ve just murdered a living man without a second thought and don’t even realize they’ve done it. The only focus is being in charge, regardless of the dire consequences. The zombies kill because they have no choice, but these guys don’t pay attention. There’s a real sense that we’re all headed for doom by the end of this film.

Duane Jones in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead

Given its reputation and the films that followed, it’s interesting to note just how much Night of the Living Dead takes its time. The middle act includes several long explanations from the TV news that are hardly thrilling. These feel more out of a schlocky old-school horror film than the more subversive movie we’re experiencing. The benefit of this downtime is the way it introduces hope that the characters have a chance. It lulls us into submission and raises the surprise when the horde returns to destroy the humans. There are hints that all will not be well, particularly with the sick girl in the cellar. There’s no way that she won’t become a zombie and start wreaking havoc. The awkward dialogue and sloppy human drama make it a little harder to care about their survival, but we can’t help but want them to avoid such a grisly death. There’s nothing glamorous about being eaten by flesh-eating beasts. This grim environment sticks with you and explains the staying power of Romero’s fresh vision.