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Wings (1927); And Comparisons to Wonder Woman (2017)

June 25, 2017

For years I had been trying to watch Wings, ever since my crush on the adorably cool Clara Bow developed. I had always wanted to deep dive into her filmography to witness the evolution of a Brooklyn tomboy into a bonafide superstar, but Bow’s reign in silent cinema meant that sifting through her films would be difficult as many were lost or inaccessible. Wings, her most unanimously lauded film, became my primary directive. The film that won the first ever Academy Award for outstanding picture starring the biggest actress of 1927 was a fact repeated every time I glanced at anything related to Bow. Years ago, prints weren’t widely available until 2012 when the film was released on DVD. It took me 5 years to get my hands on a copy, and lordy, I’m glad there are DVD’s!

One thing I wish I knew going into this film—not that it truly mattered by the time I finished—is that Bow is not the focus of Wings at all: airplanes and William Wellman’s incredible direction is. Wellman was a phenomenally skilled filmmaker whose extensive career generated some of the best films of its time, but no other film highlights his finesse and poetic nature like Wings does. Wings is considered one of the last great films of the silent era. I would argue further that it’s one of the few genuinely great war films of all time.

Wings’ story of two fighter pilots off to war centers itself in WWI. Jack (Charles Rogers) and David (Richard Arlen) are two men from different economic backgrounds who love the same girl. Initially there’s spite between them because of it, with David knowing the truth that Sylvia only loves him. Meanwhile Mary (Clara Bow), Jack’s longtime neighbor that he tolerates being around, is head over heels in love with him. But duty calls and both men must leave to fight. In basic training, they develop a bond and their resulting bromance is the crux of the story. Love and war takes its toll on both men giving Wellman free rein to treat audiences to a brilliantly emotional roller coaster packed with spectacle.

The war scenes are simply incredible. I watched in complete shock while screaming at my television in disbelief of the insane stunts that were being performed. Planes whip through the sky, zip into clouds, spiral towards the ground and crash flipping over with real bodies in them. Surely these had to be dummies in the cockpit. The first person medium close-ups in airplanes had to be faked somehow. A director would never put his actors in such dangerous situations, right? Wrong. Thanks to the short feature on the DVD that reveals the film’s production, I learned that “Wild Bill” Wellman was aptly nicknamed and he surrounded himself with a stunt team just as daring as him.

These pilots legitimately crashed their planes into the ground. The bodies that jump from burning helicopters in parachutes are real and they actually hit the earth on which they fall. Wellman and his camera operator Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast found inventive ways to showcase the authenticity of battle through camera rigs and placement. Because of this we are treated to some of the most stunning and immersive shots I’ve ever seen on film. Audiences ride through the skies with these actors. When one is hit and blood squirts from their face or mouth, the emotional impact it has is genuine. We don’t know many of these men falling from the skies but there’s an empathy for the extinguishing of life in the callousness of war.

Throughout the film I wondered what vets of the time thought. Did Wings hit too close to home? Was it authentic? Then I discovered that not only was it authentic, but many of the extras were actual servicemen who fought in the very battle that is depicted at the climax. Wellman and d’Arrast were also WWI vets which explains Wellman’s desire to get the action sequences right. All the complex pieces of real life and movie magic are masterfully controlled by Wellman whom orchestrates with agile delicacy. Nothing looks clunky or janky. Everything is immaculately in place at the right time creating an even paced film filled with all the feels.

A majority of film directors today can’t seem to handle melding both epic action and tender love with equal weight. But Wellman expertly does so in Wings, and what’s more he does it between Jack and David more than the unrequited love affair between Mary and Jack. David even shares touching moments thinking of his mother and in an impressive, masterful shot we are shown David’s dilemma going into war when he pulls out a bear from childhood. We don’t need title cards to express how this boy is now being sent off as a man and may never come back home. Bow is at her best illuminating her emotions with big eyes and possessing an infectious smile whenever Jack is around. She sells her emotions easier than ice cream on a sweltering summer day.

It’s stunning that 90 years later the biggest film at the moment is Wonder Woman, a film set during WWII about 30 years after the events in Wings. Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins succeeds at attempting to follow Wellman’s lead on screen. Whether intentional or not, Wonder Woman directly lifts elements from Wings. Many of us in the audience of Wonder Woman roared in praise at Jenkins’ ability send chills when the Amazonian princess decides to walk through enemy lines with nothing more than her lasso of truth and sword. The same feeling I got during that beautiful moment of empowerment came again a week later while watching Wings when Allied troops cross over enemy lines beginning their trench war battle, a sequence that also conjures King Vidor’s epic WWI battle film The Big Parade (1925). In Wonder Woman, the scene in which Chris Pine tries to escape enemy territory by plane almost exactly replicates a scene in Wings when a character flies out of enemy area only to have his fate sealed.

Both films 90 years apart and from completely opposite ends of the spectrum are commentaries on war and the callousness of battle. Both use spectacle to emphasize the damaging nature that war has for everyone and not just those engaged in battle. While I enjoyed Jenkins’ feminine-driven perspective on the topic, I’m just completely amazed at how Wellman—almost a century prior—did it more effectively in ways that still hold up. I thoroughly enjoyed Wonder Woman, but I know the same won’t be said of it in 2107.

SEE BOTH.

It Comes at Night (2017); And Notes on Praising Mediocre Material

June 11, 2017

It Comes at Night is garbage–pure rotten crap. I hate to come down so harshly on someone’s personal art, but when that art seems so ambivalent to itself and life as a whole I feel that it’s begging for an odious critique. I haven’t been this annoyed by a film since Quentin Dupieux’s Rubber. Where Rubber felt like a trolling slap in the face to audiences, It Comes at Night doesn’t feel intelligent enough to even have a commentary or fully formed opinion on anything in particular. Instead the film unfolds as though it’s an undergrad’s introduction of a final term paper, which is probably why when the last scene faded to black and the first credit appeared on screen multiple moviegoers in my late night showing laughed out loud and I just audibly yelled “why?” at the screen.

Why did this receive widespread distribution? Who had the disposable income to throw thousands of dollars at such a half-baked idea? What did the producers of this film see in it? Why are people really praising the mediocre skills of Trey Edwards Shults?

To be clear, my frustration at this film wasn’t based on expectations. I knew nothing about It Comes at Night prior to walking in. All I knew was that when I asked a friend to hang out last week he suggested we see It Comes at Night. As someone who jumps to the notion of anything remotely related to horror/thriller I agreed without a second thought. I briefly skimmed the Rotten Tomatoes meter and saw that reviews of the film were mixed with a sharp divide between the fans and critics. This further intrigued. Would I take the side of the audience or the critic? Looks like I’m in the camp of the audience and I’m gunning for this movie’s credibility with a pitchfork in hand.

Initially, I wanted to read the review of every critic who rated this film highly just to make a personal point of ignoring films they praise in the future, but after getting two reviews in my eyes are sore from the amount of rolling they just endured. It’s irrational and unnecessary, I know, but I’m also punching into the keyboard at 1am, so I’m just going to revel in my initial reaction. Now, let’s get down to brass tacks of why It Comes at Night doesn’t work.

Set in some time and some place, a small family is in the midst of an epidemic. People have gotten sick and the family doesn’t know why or to what extent. All they know is that to survive they must stick together and kill anyone showing any signs of illness. Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the teenage soon of Paul (Joel Edgerton) and Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), possesses a heightened awareness of the situation and is the most emotionally affected by the turn of events and gruesome lifestyle his family has adopted. While Paul mercilessly kills those he deems worthy under the guise of keeping his family safe, Travis undergoes nightmares and hallucinations from the stress. When a new family crosses paths with the trio, Travis and his family fully come to realize how far they will go to survive.

Interesting concept, right? And sure it is. At it’s best It Comes at Night attempts to be a meditative piece on the frailness of humanity when fear takes over. Fear makes us loose sense of all rationality and good judgment– the current state of affairs in the world at large is testament to this notion. But let me emphasis the word attempt here. Just because It Comes at Night tries to be socially reflexive doesn’t mean it succeeds. In a drudging pace, It Comes at Night drones on and never quite says anything of substance by its end.

We are stuck with six characters we aren’t allowed to know. The only sympathetic characters among them–Will (Christopher Abbott), his wife and child–are constantly denied audience allegiance because the narrative tells us we aren’t meant to the trust them. So we wait for an hour and 30 minutes watching these people interact without ever knowing anything of value about them or about what’s happening around them. Any time we have the opportunity to gain some background knowledge on why we’re even here, Paul makes it a point to cut ties.

And then the film ends. Nothing to come away with, nothing to contemplate because it was all so shallow that you can debate it during its run time. Not only are we left with a film that doesn’t really say anything, but also one that lacks any truly compelling visual cues with an atmosphere of tension that is adequate at best. It Comes at Night felt like watching the pilot of a television show. It’s an interesting enough start that if this were a miniseries it could possibly blossom into something poignant and creepy. Rather than giving it that room to breathe, it became stifled of any momentum when it was made into a film, one that will burn and flutter away in the recesses of my mind after this review. I can’t wait.

AVOID IT. See Wonder Woman or something instead. 

 

Thoughts After Bingewatching 13 Reasons Why (2017)

May 2, 2017

*Note: this was written at 2am*

10 hours ago and six episodes into 13 Reasons Why, I told my co-workers that it wasn’t a “good” show, it was just “addicting” and that people contributing to the hype were just confusing the two words. Here I type after a 7-hour bender with the credits of the last episode still freshly seared into the black of the television screen—Crying. Head swimming.—Utterly sad, heartbroken and yet satisfied at its ending. After the halfway point of the series, 13 Reasons Why morphed from being a trashy, guilty pleasure that I could put on in the background to something completely powerful and gut wrenching. It wasn’t just a teen drama written by hipsters with at times terrible acting and cringe-worthy dialogue. After completing all 13 episodes—hearing all 13 tapes from Hanna Baker— I am wrecked at its portrayal of being bullied, shamed and existing as a human being in this sometimes completely rotten world we live in.

I may still be riding the high associated with bingeing an entire series of a show in a span of less than 48 hours, but 13 Reasons Why was life changing. I confronted some hard truths of my own life while indulging in this series. By its end, I found it to be a truly mature, fully formed thought experiment that tells one hell of a story in complicated ways. It won’t do that for everyone who watches it. In fact, it’ll turn a hell of a lot of people off. That’s to be expected. Hannah’s cautionary advice and the circumstances that surrounded it didn’t even register long term for half of the people directly affected by her decision. Some of the characters resorted to the same negative patterns and degenerative decision making that placed them there in the first place being unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture and face the gray areas of being put in a moral dilemma.

Hannah Baker’s story of her suicide is hard to watch and can get all into the nooks of crannies of your head. At least it did for me. It’s latent with moral ambiguity— a moral quagmire if you will—that begs viewers to understand the truth in the spoken words that I initially scoffed at during the first episode: “There are 13 sides to every story.” Each person’s side is rooted in their own experiences, their own perspectives, their own truths. Understanding this reality is imperative to understanding the popularity of this show and why I found it to be so profound despite its amateur, and at times off-putting shortcomings.

My introduction to 13 Reasons Why happened on an airplane ride last month. While on the plane taking deep breaths to ease the anxiety that always seems to creep up while sober and 40,000 feet in the air, I noisily started ogling the computer screen of the preteen looking girl next to me. Tucked between myself and her mother, this girl watched back to back episodes of a show that I couldn’t take my eyes off. Like the tapes that Hannah passed around between 13 friends, lovers and enemies, this girl passively passed on this show to me as I did for my significant other who stayed on the couch for much of my bingeing a month later. I’m not gonna lie, Dylan Minnette’s face caught my eye first. There’s something adorably innocent about the actor that translates perfectly into his character Clay Jensen, the protagonist whom we experience these tapes through.

My odd cougarish attraction mixed with fascination at the soundless images of a dead girl on a gym floor in a pool of blood made me desperately curious to what the hell this show was and why this kid was watching it. Once off the plane, a gigantic billboard for the show with Minnette’s face welcomed me to L.A. on the way to my hotel. I finally remembered the show two nights ago and decided to put it on. Y’all it was bad. The first few episodes are cheesy and extremely corny at times. In fact, all of the characters were incredibly unlikable and nothing more than transparent clichés of high schoolers. It was laughable, but I couldn’t help but find it endearing and captivating. It was like Memento; although you know the ending, you’re just itching to go through the journey to see how it gets there. Patience is virtue.

Whether I was merely incepted or the progression of the show really does get stronger, following these characters and hearing their stories becomes grossly engrossing and devastating. I found myself gasping for air and trying to contain my emotions by tape 11. By this point, the show shifts in tone and style. It’s raw and painful and the full circle revelation of it all feels too much. I got to release a much-needed breath of fresh air thanks to my own desires and expectations by tape 11, but that air staled quickly and disappeared again as more revelations unravel and other character’s truths waft in. Saving someone is not always possible. Sometimes you can do more. Sometimes you’ve done all you can. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do at all. Hannah’s complications stem from all three.

It took 13+ people to push Hannah Baker to a place where she didn’t want to live anymore. Where every fragment of her life stop mattering. For a lot of people who exist in this world it takes a lot less. For others, a lot more. Hannah’s life was marred by typical teen angst and poor decision making on her part, like everyone who navigates through life. But her story escalates by each decision made by the people she surrounds herself with and the way she interacted with them or the things they said and did to her or the things she did or didn’t say to them. “Fault” is such a difficult, loaded word, one that is brilliantly explored in 13 Reasons Why. We often look for “faults” or scapegoats in any unpleasant situation. Sometimes a situation is nothing more than a chain of reactionary forces linking themselves to create a breaking point. No fault of anything, just the magnetic pull of a specific place at a specific time that leads to a specific situation.

13 Reasons Why highlights this fact while sprinkling in all the nuances of making “right” and “wrong” decisions. This show cleverly zeros in on all the gray areas and emotional turmoil that rises in any given circumstance. Above all, it’s a show that begs viewers to just take a moment to truly address how difficult life can be and how at the end of the day even if you can know what’s going on in someone else’s head, you can’t feel their breaking point or carry their weight for them. Maybe it’s because they didn’t speak up. Maybe it’s because you didn’t listen. Regardless, it’s hard to say that it’s one person or 13 people’s “fault.” Even the designated “worse” person of the show is shown to be more than a one-note bad guy. There’s more to them than we may be willing to accept.

There is a lot of backlash against 13 Reasons Why and I completely understand it. The issue of suicide and rape is polarizing, one that will jolt strong emotions from viewers and unfortunately trigger many. Criticisms of the series range and some are reasonably explained here (warning: spoilers). While the writer’s qualms are completely validated, I admit that I don’t align with these points raised as I interpreted the series much differently. I mostly disagree with the argument that the show allows Hannah to blame the 13 people for her death, thus taking the agency and responsibility away from her.

In essence it does seem that Hannah attempts to do this does this, but the show doesn’t allow that to be the entire narrative. Multiple times throughout the series, characters express how Hannah’s tapes are Hannah’s truth, not there’s. Some of her truths are complete misrepresentations of the objective facts at hand. Such is life. No one person is the reason, despite Tony’s abrupt revelation to a character’s that it is. Clay wisely admits in the end that everyone could have done more, but as Hannah even reveals to the listeners, sometimes the signs of suicidal tendencies look like nothing. Suicide can be a blameless situation despite wanting to place fault on the shoulders of someone. You can’t save everyone, but the point of 13 Reasons Why is that it’s important to try.

We should all make the effort of being a support system to others once in a while. To take the extra 10 minutes to call a friend you haven’t heard from in a while to see how they’re doing. To truly hear and respond to someone’s drama even when you don’t want to. To communicate, let your guard down occasionally and let someone in. If not, we’re just repeating all the same mistakes laid out time and time again over the ages from societies who have already been there and done that. 13 Reasons Why is a reminder to viewers, a plead actually, to take the extra step and effort to be truly present and aware of your interactions with others and to realize when you need to ask help for yourself, sometimes more than you’re willing to.

Here and Now with the Past; Ramblings on the TCM Classic Film Festival

April 12, 2017

In 1931, MGM producer Samuel Goldwyn insisted on adapting Elmer Rice’s successful stage play Street Scene for the screen. The dramatic story, centering around a New York City stoop on a hot summer day, unfolds through the various inhabitants that call the stoop home. The stair-encased concrete slab of the stoop serves as a soapbox for the apartment’s tenants, granting audiences the intimate opportunity to hear opposing ideologies, moral standards and personal desires of a dozen or so New Yorker’s who jut in and out of the frame. Goldwyn’s adaptation of the play brought in newcomer Sylvia Sidney and the already established, masterful director King Vidor—two essential components that make Street Scene an absolute powerhouse of a film. The whirlwind of talent on and off the screen allows Street Scene to successfully capture pertinent traits of human behavior while advising against the dangers of the moral superiority that comes with class and racial identity, making it a riveting film like no other of its time and putting it on par with the likes of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) almost 60 years later.

I had the pleasure of seeing this remarkably conscious work of art at the TCM Classic Film Festival this past week. Preserved and presented in nearly pristine 35mm thanks to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, I watched Street Scene with bated breath as tears welled in my eyes. I underwent an incredibly emotional experience during the film’s screening; one wrapped in a love for cinema’s ability to reflect the human experience so perfectly then shrouded in Turner Classic Movie’s desire to bring these films into the forefront of contemporary audiences’ minds. That tear-laden moment throughout Street Scene proved to be just one of many powerful emotions that eclipsed my very first film festival experience.

Publicity still from Street Scene.

The TCM Classic Film Festival was my lifelong dream come true. Cinephilism is in my blood, a passion for film so deep that it feels encoded in my DNA. Thanks to a mother who loved old Westerns; a father who cemented my earliest memories of going to the movies; and an older brother who fell in love with the theater and the Golden Age of Hollywood in my youth, I’ve carried the need to obsessively watch and engage with films before I even understood the mechanics of criticism and film reviewing. In fact, I’m pretty positive my earliest ancestor was the tribe’s fire tender who debated the meaning of what was happening in the fluttering licks of fire and the animated glow of its coals. Turner Classic Movies has allowed my ancestral devotion to moving pictures to thrive over the years by making the deep dive into the ocean of cinema history easier to navigate.

That’s why I always knew I’d work for Turner Classic Movies. I was never certain how, when or under what conditions, but I knew even if it meant as a janitor in my 60s that I’d find my way into the TCM building. What I couldn’t have imaged or expected was that I would get to work on the Film Festival with an amazing group of people by helping organize and construct the beautiful programming guide that found its way in the attendees’ hands. The experience of being among the community of classic film enthusiasts that migrated from all over the world for this cinematic mecca in Los Angeles was unreal. I never expected to see such a diverse fan base of warm, friendly people, especially considering how problematic classic films can be. I’m naturally weary of those who long for the nostalgia of life in the past. The phrase “make America great again” churns knots in my stomach at the obvious disregard of what America was for people of color. But the core group of people who came out to celebrate and relive the classy, sophisticated, often left-leaning ideologies of old Hollywood were kind-hearted fans who just wanted to discuss the legendary and unsung talent of yesteryear.

The theme for the 8th annual TCM Classic Film Festival was Make ‘Em Laugh. Nevertheless, my experience with the films I managed to see mustered a different theme: Make Em Reflect. Many, if not everyone, who watch classic films are taught to view them from the lens they were created in because there are problematic issues that we do not stand by today. But what was hardest about having to look back on how people of the 1920s into the 1970s thought and acted was realized that little to nothing has changed in the grand scheme of society. Sure, it’s not acceptable to throw around racially charged words and it’s most definitely frowned upon for men to beat women, but we are all awake to the reality that now more than ever these things are still taking place and oddly enough seem to be coming back in vogue like some twisted alternate universe where the last generation of progress didn’t happen. These films actually feel progressive compared to where we find ourselves today.

No period of cinema highlights this better than the Pre-Code films of the 1930s. These films—made before the infamous Hays Code placed sharp restrictions on what could and couldn’t be discussed, implied or shown on screen— often reflected a radical ideology from their writers, directors and producers. Pre-Code often featured a heavy concentration on sex, violence, illegal activity and liberal leaning philosophies often influenced by source material from the 1920s New York theater scene. Fans of this era in cinema history flock to these films for this very reason. We love their salacious stories and edgy performances that crystallized itself on celluloid strips. In Street Scene, infidelity, racism and class are a major focus. Two other fantastic Pre-Code films screened at the festival centered on strong women who use sex to for their own pleasure and advantage: Jack Conaway and Anita Loos’ Red-Headed Woman (1932) and the Howard Hughes/Tom Buckingham collaboration Cock of the Air (1931) restored in its original sensational glory by the Academy Film Archive.

Jean Harlow in Red-Headed Woman.

Jean Harlow stars in Red-Headed Woman as Lil, a fiery and confident woman who gains access into high society by sleeping her way up the social ladder. This disturbingly hilarious film uses its plot to explore the disparity in economic standings and how people tend to define their identities by the illusion of class and glamour—so much so that they are willing to do anything (and anyone) to feel accepted in someone’s “elite group.” Lil is shamed and deemed “unworthy” to gain access into superficial high society after an affair with a married man (Chester Morris). But the attempts to keep her out only fuels her fire to prove that she’s worthy of getting in. Meanwhile, Billie Dove uses sex to get her kicks and the perks that come along with being among the socially privileged diplomatic elite in Cock of the Air.

Thanks to the fine work of Heather Linvielle and the film preservationists at the Academy Archive, a theater at full capacity with eager fans got to watch a dazzling restoration of Cock of the Air. Before its initial release in 1931, the Hays Office had Hughes cut nearly 12 minutes of the film over its risqué material, and honestly it’s not hard to see why. Dove stars as a sexy free-spirited stage actress pressured into voluntary exile from France after a series of sexual liaisons lead to distraction and problems for the military. She heads for Italy where she is entranced by an American soldier (Morris again) whose own sexual exploits is endangering his job and life. The two are ignition for the other’s fire, but Dove refuses to be at the behest of a man and instead enjoys leading the arrogant soldier on in a series of hilarious circumstances while he begs for a chance to bed her. Dove’s promiscuity is admirable: she graces the screen in low-cut dresses, side boob and a sashay that entices any man, or audience member, that lays eyes on her.

These women get to explore their sexuality under varying degrees of social constraints. Dove’s character is European sparing her the judgmental standards of American society. Harlow’s Lil finds it difficult to gain access into high society but reaches a level where she creates her own standards. Meanwhile the working class, unhappily married Anna Maurrant (Estelle Taylor) in Street Scene must battle harsh judgment that denies her happiness outside of a nuclear family and from her own sexuality. Nearly 80 years later, lower class women are still vilified for being humans with a sexual desire. Birth control is challenged, planned parenthood is under attack and women are still having to defend themselves for doing what men have always been free to do: be agents of their own sexual identity. These current topics made watching Harlow and Dove sleep their way to the top exciting and refreshing but Taylor’s dilemma even more heartbreaking.

Chester Morris and Billie Dove in Cock of the Air.

Other highlights of the festival included seeing the 1926 Ernst Lubitsch film So This is Paris with piano accompaniment by Donald Sosin. This hilariously silly silent film and its performance gave our packed theater the opportunity to relive the past by creating an enchanting environment for watching a silent film on the big screen. Audiences reacted in sync laughing and hooting together at the antics of two married couples that become entangled in an affair. Their antics were made even more humorous by the upbeat, deliberate tempo of Sosin’s accompaniment.

Another musical gem that day was Lady Sings the Blues (1972) in 35mm. Diana Ross emits sparks in her screen debut as the tragic and talented Billie Holiday (whose stage name came from Cock of the Air star Billie Dove), physically capturing the inner turmoil that the late singer expressed in her vocals. There’s an authenticity that is present when watching a film in 35mm that excites movie fans in a visceral way. One guest introing Black Narcissus (1947) mused on this notion by discussing the pleasure of watching a nitrate print—two or which I had the pleasure of seeing at the festival. 35mm makes you feel as close to the past as possible. It’s akin to seeing the strokes of a painting or hearing the cracks and lint pops on a record. It heightens the process of filmmaking; the colors seem more natural and muted. Somehow the image seems more immediate. Ross looked spectacular and performs with hypnotizing grace on screen, as does the beautiful Billy Dee Williams who took my breath away numerous times along with Richard Pryor’s stunning emotional performance.

Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues.

This immediacy is felt even more when watching a nitrate print, which takes on a new form of life itself. Laura (1944) and Black Narcissus were absolutely invigorating to watch on the big screen though being sleep deprived stopped me enjoying the full experience of both. Laura’s black and white cinematography translates to silver tones in nitrate, like watching a Blu-ray transfer where the images are sharp and clear while the contrast is higher and light radiates in stunning ways. This effect is most evident in Jack Cardiff’s color cinematography in Black Narcissus and its ability to realistically reflect light and simultaneously soak it in. A scene in which a character stands in water is astoundingly beautiful as the sun’s reflection glows with a golden shimmer. Reds are deeply bold and vibrant while skin tones manage to radiate with warmth. Nitrate print allows colors to pop in ways made more effervescent through Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s gorgeously framed long shots and tight close-ups.

The TCM Film Festival felt like returning home to a place that I never knew was missing from my life. It provided a space for the most enthralled classic film fans and newcomers of the era to discuss their favorite actors, directors and pictures with like-minded devotees. Despite working through most of the festival, I managed to see an amazing batch of films and panels including home movies of Hollywood stars from their surviving family members, as well as informative and inspiring conversations from Leonard Maltin and Peter Bogdanovich, who discussed his history with legends like James Cagney, John Ford, Cary Grant and Orson Welles. The TCM Film Festival connected me to knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans while also serving as a place to share information and factoids that has nourished my ever-growing devotion for classic cinema. I am grateful for all the hardworking staff members behind the scenes, including Charles Tabesh, Genevieve McGillicuddy and Mark Wynns, for making this festival so spiritually gratifying and I can’t wait to return to it all next year!

Courtesy filmfestival.tcm.com

Hell or High Water (2016); And Our America in a Nutshell

March 27, 2017

There’s an uncomfortable unveiling of America that Hell or High Water undergoes during its hour and 42-minute runtime. Director David MacKenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan slices off a piece of American culture and thrusts it under a microscope to reveal the nuances of how the “American Dream” affects our society and how our obsession with cultural ideology has us on the verge of hurling up what we’ve been spoon fed for generations. Every aspect of this neo-Western crime infused thriller’s production lends itself to unraveling these aspects through the microcosm of rural America, an often forgotten and ignored chunk of the United States that only came to the forefront of our thoughts with the disappointment of Trump’s electoral win.

In peeling back the garish layer of an American sector that we progressives dangerously consider “backwards,” MacKenzie’s vision and Sheridan’s script highlights how geographical isolation and a stagnant economy has resulted in our current status. But this very thought process—the over-analyzation of the those in the outskirts— has resulted in the furious push back and battles between opposing views that we relentlessly see today. This gets fleshed out in Marcus (Jeff Bridges), a geriatric sheriff coming up on retirement who still think it’s funny to make racial jokes aimed at his half Native American/Mexican partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). Marcus doesn’t seem to understand why Alberto can’t just take the joke, the way many on the right feel it’s acceptable to spew whatever degradation they deem acceptable without considering someone else’s history and cultural background. Similarly, Tanner (Ben Foster) can’t take a bank clerk that he robs calling his robbery “stupid.” He becomes furious at feeling emasculated and threatens her instead of considering the position he and his brother Toby (Chris Pine) have put her in by holding a loaded gun to her head.

Here, these men are all byproducts of their environments; for this reason, the Howard brothers push back against their environment to save the family ranch that is in danger of being taken by the banks after their mother passes. Poor, uneducated and with seemingly no other options, these jaded men—one recently divorced, the other fresh out of prison—pounce on small banks throughout Texas to earn the money they need to pay off the debt they find themselves in. Naturally, their plan spirals down a distorted vortex of bleakness, but along the way viewers are shown a true reflection of America, and not an idealized version or an altered fun-house reflection, but a sharp, clear look at what this country has become and what it’s always been.

This violence and inhumanity in Hell or High Water manifests itself in Tanner’s ferocious climax in which he seeks thrill and glory at the expense of innocent lives. In our everyday reality, this manifests itself in current synagogue bomb threats, shootings of unarmed people, Sandy Hook, the death of Trayvon Martin, the housing bubble of 2008, the deplorable American Health Care Act, Neil Gorscouch’s past rulings putting corporations over people and the continuing denial of rights to those with very little power, financially and socially. This desperate swan song is eclipsed in Foster’s performance but illuminated by the screenplay’s focus on how American policies and compliance has allowed this. Our boisterous arrogance and nostalgia is at fault for where we find ourselves in today.

Hell or High Water gorgeously plays out like an ode to Westerns of generations past thanks to the lush, wide landscape shots and passing establishing shots through car windows. It encapsulates the rugged, rough and tumble gun-toting imagery of the old cowboys, and its grants audience’s insight into this past while embracing the excitement of the era and reminding us that although the times may have changed, the enemies have stayed the same. In the time of the Newton gang, Jesse James, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, corruption of big banks has always been the enemy. And yet we keep forgetting this time and time again.

Set in Texas, Hell or High Water possesses the free range to expose America for what it is now: A post 9/11 future where we uphold the 2nd amendment over the 13th and where lobbyists and corporations have dictated our values to us. The inevitable heist gone wrong element of the film (foreshadowed earlier on) happens not because of serendipitous moments but because our ideological obsession with needing guns. The theft of money in a bank robbery is now a certainty for bloodshed, just as walking down the block at night heightens the chance of death for people of color be they Black, Indian or middle Eastern.

Similarly, lives are lost because of the callousness of banks and loan sharks under the guise of business. Hell or High Water is a great story that paints important strokes on the larger canvas of our country and the ideals we decide to hold true. It does so much while doing so little. It shows us reality through fiction, one that reflects a dying empire trying to hold on to its glory in a world of quickly changing beliefs and perceptions. The brothers’ last bank robbery in a bigger city is thwarted by technology and a readiness that these small-town men weren’t aren’t prepared for.

America is attempting to regress and go into its happy place while the Earth continues to heat, evolve and change with indifference to our existence. It’s up to us to decide if we’re willing to stick it to those in the system whom do us wrong or beat them in more productive, lasting ways to ensure justice and pursuit of happiness for all and our planet. As Hell or High Water shows, short-term fulfillment made by regressive patterns may win the fight, but it doesn’t win the battle. Only progressive movement forward can do that.

SEE IT. 

Sweet Smell of Success (1957); And That Bad Taste it Leaves in Your Mouth

February 20, 2017

large_ktuadjksimlotdkiu6b8w3sfw8eOur current social climate has bred us to do two things: fear one another and give in to our own greed. Somewhere in the mix of this inbreeding, we’ve bastardized empathy through cognitive dissonance that has allowed us to ignore unspeakable horrors we may cause as long it gets us ahead. American society was founded by men who justified the rape, abuse and enslavement of other human beings by simply lying to themselves and fawning it off as science or social order. Not every example of cognitive dissonance is as grim. For many Americans in our day to day lives, our lies to ourselves are ways to rationalize our compliance. We convince ourselves that it’s impossible and uncomfortable to fight against the system, so we ignore our own autonomy.

No film genre embodies these notions more than Film Noir during 40s and 50s, with its variety of films pitting characters into harsh situations that they can’t escape because they are prisoners to their environment. Sweet Smell of Success captures this gritty realism in ways I didn’t think possible. This is a film that affects you on a much deeper level forcing you to feel sorrow and pity for humanity, because some people are so lost in the illusion of being successful that they drown in their own deception. Unfortunately, upon their decent into the murky, crushing tides of despair they bring down everyone around them in an attempt to stay afloat.

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is a press agent living a salacious existence selling secrets and gossip to equally trashy publications. He’s made a name for himself making friends and enemies from people completely recoiled and simultaneously drawn to his scuzzy lifestyle and quick thinking. In his hunt of making a buck, Falco proves himself willing to crawl through any shit-tainted sludge if it means he’ll come out on top. The gatekeeper of the cesspool Falco operates in is J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), a media personality and news man. Lancaster’s stalking physique paired with director Andrew Mackendrick’s heavy use of low angle shots equates to his character’s stature in this New York City swamp they inhabit. J.J.’s co-dependence on his younger sister causes him to meddle in her personal life using Falco as a key player to splitting her up with her current love. But soon their meddling spirals into a series of unfortunate events as they both lose touch of what little humanity they have left for the sake of gaining what is not obtainable.

Lancaster is utterly terrifying yet enigmatic as the manipulating, strong-minded media icon. His dastardly arrogance and brazen attitude is constantly fed by the equally selfish and fearful people he surrounds himself with; a senator hoping to become president, an abusive misogynist cop, and Falco. J.J. validates the right to meddle into the affairs of other people despite what effect it may have on their psychological selves because he has a duty to readers, his enterprise, both mere synonyms for himself. He finds in his henchman Falco a partner to who laps at his deeds. Tony Curtis owns his scenes as a hapless, careless worm who will jeopardize his own mother’s soul if a means controlling the press. James Wong Howe’s stunning and flawless cinematography shines some high-key lighting onto the dark ways these men use their privilege to abuse and manipulate others.

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American values are reflected harshly from this film onto society baring some unwanted blemishes and gashes. These people have hardened themselves to the ethical norms of emotional security. Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odet’s killer scripts allows them to feel embolden to speak freely and recklessly to other people, using their tongues to lacerate those around them. Yet these are cowards who are often on the defensive and react with overt emotion when they are forced to criticize themselves thanks either to the disapproving looks of another or the upfront insulting of another. Much like our current administration mind you…

I’d be remiss if I ignored the connections of these despicable characters with the idiocy of our current administration. Similar to our leaders, the people of this film manage to validate all of their wrong doings and meddling because to them it’s a dog eat dog world and life is simply a game to be played for material gain and selfishness. Never mind the harm that it does to real people. By the standards of the big wigs, the group that’s wining about equal rights and empathy just don’t see the bigger picture, like when Falco tries to convince a needy friend to sleep with a stranger for a byline in a paper. He completely ignores her tears and any concerns for her safety or dignity. Instead he convinces her that she is helping and would be ungrateful to refute the stranger’s advances because after all, she’s the one who needs help. The line of thinking these days is that the public is silly to not trust our administration and support their actions, because after all we’re the ones who need help from all the danger that surrounds us.

Jackie (2016); A Slow Burn of a Character Study 

February 7, 2017

jackie-movie-poster“I never wanted to be famous, I just became a Kennedy.”

An interesting scene happens in Jackie when the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) and Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) ride alone together in the back of a hearse, while Jack Kennedy’s bloodied remains lay covered in the coffin at their feet. Jackie questions the driver’s knowledge of past assassinated presidents as she fears that her husband’s legacy will attain to nothing more than a distant memory. Bobby somberly listens and attempts to quell her anxiety, all the while peaceful and rational; like others in this scene and throughout the film, Bobby doesn’t show any reaction to losing his brother—the President of the United States. This scene is obviously fabricated. Jackie was a private woman who didn’t open the door for others to pry heavily into her extremely public life. Meanwhile, Bobby would go on to live about five more years before his own tragic assassination closed a window on his own story. My point is, this fabricated scene is at the imagination of the film’s writer, Noah Oppenheim. Anything could have been said or done in that hearse based on his whim, but he chose to handle this emotional moment and the ongoing situations in the film in very distant and flat ways.

The real life footage of John F. Kennedy’s death has always left an impact on me. Not the tragic shooting itself but America’s reaction to it. Faces filled with shock. Audiences of people gasped. Tears flowed for the many Americans who felt the personal loss of their chances at civil rights and progress. These strong emotions are not prevalent in Jackie. Everyone instead reacts with furrowed pity for Jackie, bowing their heads when she walks into a room or worrying with complete despair when she rambles on in shock. The ensemble of characters that fill out the film almost seem to judge Jackie behind their scrunched eyebrows yet no one, outside of Jackie, sheds a tear for Kennedy. No one shares  Jackie’s pain, they only seem to feel sympathetic slight. They don’t react as if they’ve lost a president, co-worker, or friend; they act as though they’ve lost the house gerbil.

It made me question whether this cold narrative and dismal focus is meant to give all the attention, and thus performative range, to Portman or if subpar direction of actors from Pablo Larraín simply didn’t allow for moments of glory for supporting characters. Saarsgard as Bobby seems nearly un-phased by his brother’s death throughout the entire film and is frankly wasted because of this. He adds nothing to the role nor the narrative except to be a shill that Jackie gets to lay her anger on when she thinks he’s doubting her. While I realize that Jackie and her emotional breakdown are the obvious focus of this film, it feels odd to watch a movie about an American icon and not get a glimpse at how his other loved ones reacted.

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This icebox of a focus does, however, lend itself to fantastic work by director of photography Stéphane Fontaine who complements Larraín’s taut, breathy camera work with high contrast images that manage to suck the life out of the frame while still allowing stark, rich colors to stay embolden in every shot. This dual collaboration leaves the images within Jackie rigid and pliable. Mica Levi’s score balances the images while helping move shots forward in a rhythmic progression that effectively keeps up the pace of this near two-hour journey.

These elements play upon each other appropriately but they never fully make the package of the film incredible or stimulating. Jackie has just enough introspective sequences to make it a bearable character study of the nation’s most secretive First Lady, but the film doesn’t possess enough to make it groundbreaking or outstanding unless it’s for cinematic value and Portman’s performance. I found Larríne and Portman’s choice to make Jackie appear wooden and uncomfortable in her position, despite the real Jackie possessing a knowing confidence that managed to make her an icon, a large reason  why this film truly suffers. Jackie is a film to see if you’re a history buff who enjoys period dramas, or if you’re a Natalie Portman purist or simply if you’re someone who wants to see some great DP work at play. But if you’re looking for something deeper about Jackie Kennedy’s experience as a First Lady to an assassinated president, you may find yourself better impressed by a documentary.

Split (2017); And Rising Above Trauma

January 27, 2017

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The concept of traumatic experiences revealing themselves in tangible ways fascinates me. I am completely entranced when these palpable manifestations appear in gruesome and horrific ways in cinema. This twisted appeal began when I first watched David Cronenberg’s 1979 cult classic The Brood, followed shortly after by Adam Robitel’s Alzheimer’s horror, The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014). The musings that formed during the course of those films matured once I read an amazing article on how trauma can embed itself into DNA and get passed down through genetics. The implications of this study have been grossly underplayed. I mean think about, could suppressed trauma essentially reveal itself as tumors? Or skin ailments? Perhaps its the reason that certain diseases just “run in the family.” Maybe it could be the cause of mental disorders, like dissociative personality disorder as per the theme of M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film, Split.

After Claire’s (Haley Lu Richardson) birthday party ends, she gets an unwanted surprise and winds up kidnapped along with her friend Marcia (Jessica Sula) and estranged classmate Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). The girls are drugged and locked away in a suspiciously immaculate, seedy room with one bathroom. As the girls scramble to think on their feet and plan their escape, they are derailed by their kidnapper, Dennis (James McAvoy), who they soon discover isn’t alone.

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Though limited to one body, Dennis is one of 23 personalities that await in a queue to take over the body of Kevin. These different personas struggle to regain conscious in “the light,” but three have proven their strength. What fuels these three to stay conscious is their preparation for the arrival of the Beast, the 24th personality. The other personalities, and Kevin’s own psychiatrist (Betty Buckley), believe the 24th to be an imagined persona meant to keep the other personas in check but Dennis, Patricia, and Hedwig (all McAvoy) know better. The 24th may be more than another personality and could be something super and incredible all on its own.

Horror fans who long held faith that M. Night Shyamalan would return with a knockout someday can finally let go of that breath we’ve been holding in for about 15 years. Shyamalan has finally reached his potential and returned with a fantastic mind bender that narratively tests the limits of the human brain. Split isn’t just a thriller about multiple personalities, it’s a drama about abuse and the ways in which people learn to cope with it. Through flashback scenes, we see the childhood of Casey and Kevin, seemingly unconnected separate stories that intertwine together in heartbreaking ways.

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But back to Shyamalan, let’s not pretend that he is or ever was a beckon to filmmaking, although in our time I would argue he is one of the few consistent directors within the horror/thriller genre, on par with James Wan, Rob Zombie, or TI West. I think the years of backlash against Shyamalan has been rooted in viewer disappointment from once catching a glimpse of his genius early on in his career only to be led astray film after terrible film with his less than stellar motifis, plot  twists, and bland storytelling. The visuals that made Unbreakable (2000) captivating despite its hokey story or the atmosphere that made The Sixth Sense (1999) so heart-stoppingly tense was missing from his later, more garbagey films.

Despite his fickle ability to tell a story, Shyamalan shows a fierce mastery of skill in Split—a companion piece to his sophomore film Unbreakable, a film about ordinary people with extraordinary talents. It’s easy to argue that the film’s focus on distress from abuse is a tad bit exploitative and some critics have poorly argued this. I can understand this argument, but I don’t find that to be prevalent in the text of the film. It does more than blame trauma for psychosis, instead it questions what if trauma can cause the brain to react in extraordinary ways? It does already, Shyamalan just ups the ante through science fiction. 

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Split goes above and beyond as a horror/thriller through its effective use of camera movement, sound, dramatic lighting, and a strong performance from McAvoy. But I commend  Shyamalan for using Split as an uplifting bandage to those who have suffered trauma and abuse in life. It acts as a supporting hand intended to make the many of us feel impervious and invincible in spite of our pasts that are meant to make us feel weak. Split argues that something stronger, more impenetrable can emerge from within someone who has experienced trauma making our pain something that gives us an edge. For some that’s exploitation, for me it was emotional and powerful.

SEE IT.

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