Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Skuriels: Honorable Mentions, Part 2

(as before, these are listed in no particular order)

"Everyone loves to endlessly discuss the ending to Do The Right Thing, Spike Lee’s funniest, saddest, most passionate, and most controversial work to date, yet the film shouldn’t be defined by a thrown trash can.
It’s about the creation of the world, the warmth Lee feels for every beautifully flawed resident of that Bed-Stuy corner n 1989. Every time I pop Do The Right Thing into my Blu-Ray player, it’s like opening up a trunk full of clothes you wore in high school. Each shirt makes your heart swell with memories, each hat a reminder of a backstory, each pair of pants recalling a moment of happiness or pain. Lee’s storytelling, character development, and confident establishment of his world’s geography successfully make me nostalgic for a time and place I didn’t experience. It’s like the incendiary Brooklyn version of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. It’s a joy to revisit these people.

"Lee was 32 when Do The Right Thing, only his third full-length feature, came out, yet his vision is executed with the surest of hands. His framing and use of deep space construct the community. Watch the stoops on the brownstones in the distance of every outdoor shot or every time the camera captures the windows facing out of Sal’s—you’ll find Da Mayor, Smiley, or any other character irrelevant to the scene at hand still making an appearance, leaving an impression. Radio Raheem, in one of the film’s several iconic moments, notes, 'the story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand.' The heat takes a toll on these characters’ abilities to keep their love and hate in check, and in the finale, 'the left hand (hate) is kicking much ass.' By film’s end, however, though their world has been rocked, life for most will somehow press on and the right hand will hopefully make its comeback. People like to focus on the riot scene and associate Do The Right Thing with anger—foolishness. This film has far too much compassion for its characters to be defined in such a reductive manner." ~ Russell Hainline

“Peter Jackson still owes me a good night's sleep.

“I suppose it's a bit embarrassing to have the film that's been most integral to the building of one's tastes be so proudly lowbrow. The Film That Changed Your Life is supposed to be something beautiful and revelatory, right? It's supposed to be some knock-out world masterpiece, but that's not how it worked out for me. I had my brain rewired by a high-energy splattery zombie comedy. Before Dead Alive, I wasn't really into horror. I grew up a squeamish kid, inexplicably drawn to the garish, gory VHS covers in the horror section of the neighborhood video stores but too hesitant to actually take the plunge. Other kids saw the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th movies and excitedly shared gruesome details with each other while I stood off to the side and wondered what that's like. A couple films seen right on the cusp of the teen years - Aliens and RoboCop, for instance - tested my limits for the kind of violence I could handle in movies, which then increased my curiosity about the forbidden genre. My mother was a horror fan, and she cherry-picked a couple titles she knew to be worthwhile.

“Then, at the age of 14, I took a flyer on a VHS of Dead Alive, a film I'd known about from its vivid zero-star review on Prodigy's old film-review server. For the next 95 minutes of my life that day, Peter Jackson stomped around in my head, kicked a bunch of fucking doors down and shouted, ‘This is what you like, bucko! Hope you're okay with it!’ The excitement from having this brought to my attention in such a forceful way by such a forceful whirligig of a movie literally left me unable to sleep that night. A whole world was opening up in my head, one filled with ridiculous gore and bizarre comedy and creepy-cool scares. In short, I didn't know movies could do this, but I needed to find more that did.

“So maybe it's not Citizen Kane. But Jackson's magum opus, a terrifically-crafted perfect amalgam of Looney-Tunes comedy and wildly inventive gore-horror pumped so full of mad energy and left-field ideas that it becomes larger than life, did a very important thing for me. It showed me that high style isn't merely the province of high art, and genre cinema is as worthy of thoughtful consideration as the more respected films the gatekeepers stumped for. I'm still working hard to prove that.” ~ Steve Carlson

“Nowadays, Pixar receives a lot of critical acclaim for making animated films for children that are ‘more complex’ than those of their competitors. This represents a mischaracterization of said competitors, who are not unsuccessful because their films are not complex, they are unsuccessful because their films are not intelligent. There is no more striking a testament to the power of so-called ‘simple’ animation than Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro, a rare children’s film that actually feels as though it was made from a child’s point-of-view.

“My Neighbor Totoro is a magic-realist work in which fantastical creatures, from personified dust-bunnies to the eponymous giant animal to a literal cat-bus, exist not as heady symbols but manifestations of the innocent wonder with which we view the world when we are young. The film asks the viewer not to concentrate on plot, but mood and emotion (the antithesis of the aforementioned unintelligent productions). Through Miyazaki’s painterly images and Joe Hisashi’s transportive original score, this proves as easy as pie, even for Western viewers who are more accustomed to narrative overload. No animated film has better used the hand-drawn medium to transcend the limitations of live-action.” ~ Danny Baldwin

“After making a huge splash with 1968's shoestring-budgeted surprise hit Night of the Living Dead, it took George A. Romero ten long years to return to the flesh-eating ghouls that made him famous.  In that time, he made three poorly received films (There's Always Vanilla, Season of the Witch and 1973's underappreciated chemical warfare thriller The Crazies), followed by the great pseudo-vampire flick Martin, which was a modest hit on the art-house circuit.  After stretching his legs as a filmmaker for a decade, his sequel-of-sorts to Night of the Living Dead was bound to be a bigger, bolder, more adventurous film, and was it ever.

“Beginning a few days into the zombie takeover that started in Night..., Dawn of the Dead thrusts us into frenzied chaos almost from the very first frame, as civilized society already seems to be in the throes of imminent collapse.  Soon we meet the four characters we'll be with until the end, all of whom have decided that society as we know it is a sinking ship and it's time to cut and run.  There's Fran (Gaylen Ross) and Stephen (David Emge), television station employees who have managed to steal their station's (cleverly named WGON) weather helicopter, their friend, SWAT-team member Roger (Scott H. Reiniger), and Roger's new friend Peter (Ken Foree).  Without a destination or much fuel they simply take to the sky, eventually winding up at a shopping mall (a relatively new invention in 1978), deserted except for the plentiful zombies roaming its corridors. 

“It's demonstrative of Romero's talent as a filmmaker that many of the film's most powerful scenes take place after Fran, Stephen, Roger and Peter have cleared the mall of zombies and set up house, their survival mode gently shifting back into what could be considered a normal, daily routine, albeit surrounded by piles of consumer goods that are now mostly useless and without value.  There's something extraordinarily haunting about watching these four characters (likeable, believable human beings all), living like kings inside their enormous, consumer paradise, while just outside their walls the world is being eaten alive.  After a while, even this cavernous haven begins to feel like a prison, but with no sign of life outside (and nothing on TV, eventually, but static), is there anywhere they can go?

Dawn of the Dead has been my favorite film for over fifteen years, ever since it blew my mind the first time I saw it in college.  It has action, adventure, horror, drama, suspense, comedy (both low-brow and high-brow), and pungent social commentary, and all are handled exceedingly well.  The concept and setting are rich in metaphor if you want to look for it, but it works just as well if you don't.  It paints a vivid picture of a believable and terrifying apocalypse.  The four characters are all fleshed-out (pun intended), three-dimensional, sympathetic people, and well performed by the cast.  The script is excellent, as is Romero's direction (and knack for making a low-budget film look and feel positively epic).  Sure, the blood looks like red paint, but everything else about Tom Savini's gut-ripping special effects are phenomenal.  Last but not least, it ends on a note of perfect, intriguing ambiguity. 

“Romero would return to the zombie well many more times over the course of his career, with varying results, but his original trilogy (including the largely underrated Day of the Dead, which followed 7 years after Dawn...), remain high water marks of the zombie sub-genre, and of horror/fantasy film-making in general.” ~ Jason Alley

"When confronted with the fudging of facts in a documentary, Werner Herzog has been known to say that he's more interested in 'the ecstatic truth.' What's particularly fascinating in Herzog's search for the transcendent on film is that it generally plays out before our eyes with a fairly straightforward, unaffected mise-en-scene. There's rarely any special effects, expressionistic lighting, or flashy camera tricks involved.

"For Aguirre: The Wrath of God, he didn't go through the lengths that he did for Fitzcarraldo, but what you see depicted on the screen --- armored yet fearful Europeans drifting along on flimsy rafts as they try to bring some semblance of civilization to the jungle --- is exactly what was going on behind the scenes, too (although on screen, we also get the benefit of having it accompanied by Popol Vuh's heavenly, haunting musical score).

"With the sort of story-and-setting linearity we also find in movies set on trains, Aguirre is like Heart of Darkness in reverse --- we plunge deeper into the heart of madness the further downriver we float. At the center of it all, of course, is Klaus Kinski's force-of-nature performance as the title character. If the quest for the ecstatic truth is about the triumph of irrationality over rationality, with Kinski at the helm that truth isn't ecstatic --- it's apocalyptic." ~ Adam Villani

“Very few films I've seen say more in as economic a runtime or can be read in as many different ways as Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar. Jean-Luc Godard famously claimed that ‘In 90-to-100 minutes, we see the world.’ As Bresson saw it, this was a world defined by both cruelty and salvation. The Biblically-named donkey Balthazar is our protagonist, destined to suffer for our sins; despite Bresson's dismissal of traditional Christian beliefs in his own book, Notes on the Cinematographer, it's impossible to deny the presence of religion here. From the opening imagery of Balthazar's baptism by a group of children, to the final shot of his death amidst a sea of white sheep, set to the sound of clanging bells and Franz Schubert's elegiac ‘Piano Sonata No. 20,’ to the namesake of the virginal Marie, the film's other central character, Catholic mythos looms large. And while Balthazar is densely allegorical, these elements are always woven seamlessly into this modest, moving story about the suffering and transcendence of two earthly beings.

“Bresson was a master of an almost deliberately artless, paradoxically artful craft; he was able to convey complexity through absolute minimalism, his intense control over both the aesthetic and the more organic aspects of his craft creating an overwhelmingly powerful cinema, something more truthful than naturalism. Bresson's visual grammar establishes intimacy between his audience and Balthazar through close-ups of the animal, specifically his glassy eyes, while distancing us from the relentlessly cruel and hopeless Gerard, a leather-clad, motor-bike riding, chain wielding bully, often shot at torso level. Sound, too, informs our perception of these characters, whether that be loaded silences, the relief of the Schubert piece, or the cracking of twigs and branches snapping under the weight of Gerard's boots as, in one scene, he sneaks up on Marie, his grubby hand reaching from the shadows toward hers, which lies innocently on a bench.

“The film begins when Balthazar's braying cuts sharply through the lilting repetition of the Schubert piece—which plays plaintively over the opening credit sequence. The animal is soon bought by a young girl and her school teacher father. The girl is Marie, and as a child her attention is divided duly between Balthazar and a boy named Jacques, whom she promises to marry; the two lovers carve their names into a bench—as it happens, the same that will later confront her with darker desires. The film soon cuts to Balthazar as an adult, being worked relentlessly by a stubborn owner; he's whipped and beaten and strapped to a cart. The animal eventually escapes and finds his way back to the home of Marie, now a young adult (played by Anne Wiazemsky). Marie still plans to wed Jacques, but false accusations concerning her proud and stubborn father's unlawful dealings ultimately complicate her life and lead her astray. Weak and impressionable, Marie falls for Gerard (Francois Lafarge), whose strong will and rejection of authority appeal to her.

“As Marie commits herself to obeying Gerard's every command—telling her mother in one scene that, ‘If he asked me to, I'd kill myself for him’—her father falls into a deep depression. Likewise, disobedience and persistent lying bring the woman who cares for Gerard to tears. Balthazar, all the while, is passed from owner to owner, with Marie usually in tow. When the girl neglects the animal, Balthazar is handed over to Gerard, who only then succeeds in his seduction. The fates of these two are always entwined, and this makes the world within the film feel inescapably small, the same dreary scenery repeated and the same characters often involuntarily finding themselves face-to-face with each other. One scene at a party does the best job of capturing this congestion: a hoard of faceless teens dance eerily in sync with each other, none flinching as Gerard busts a mirror with a liquor bottle and proceeds to destroy the bar. This strange, soulless communal ritual recalls and perhaps informs a similar sequence prefacing David Lynch's Mulholland Dr.—also presented with anonymous remove—also showing the form and function of Bresson's deliberate automatism.

“Bresson made many films that feel elementally similar to this one—economic plotting laced with deeper meanings than their sparse narratives and even sparser characterizations would suggest—but none present quite so definitive a portrait of, as Godard puts it, ‘life’" Pickpocket and Mouchette are more focused and precise; L'Argent comes close to the same universality. But the the compelling, frankly bizarre mysteriousness of Au Hasard Balthazar and its animal protagonist make it unique. It's not explicitly a Catholic film (its Virgin Marie/y is corruptible, its Christ-like figure only deemed a saint bitterly before death, as a priest reads from a Bible dispassionately and fragmentarily), but, as film scholar Donald Richie puts it, it's a film aware of ‘the idea of religion.’ Most importantly, it works just as effectively as a simple tale about a girl and her donkey; or about a society struggling to maintain moral standards in the midst of financial obligations and material obsession; or as transcendent cinema bearing Bresson's inimitable signature.” ~ Sam C. Mac

“It's the final scene, and the romantic leads have settled down to a blissful game of gin rummy, yet they're still on a last-name basis. ‘Mr. Baxter.’ ‘Miss Kubelik.’ It's an odd touch, and a little bit quaint. But after all they've come through — lies, threats, a harrowing suicide attempt, and the corrupting lure of the corporate laddder — those small tokens of dignity are something to cherish. Billy Wilder knows what a struggle it can be to be a mensch.

“The Apartment shows all the grubbiness and careless cruelty of romantic relations, but never loses empathy for the men and women who tumble into them. And with those vast offices and chilly park benches that stretch off into infinity, no film better captures the feeling of loneliness possible in a huge city — ‘shipwrecked among eight million people,’ as Baxter puts it. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine's help is invaluable here. Both have to modulate their performances from carefree charm to pain to a firm core of resolve; both manage beautifully.

“Really, this is about as good as things can get. Movie-wise.” ~ Matthew Butcher

"This sort of list is difficult to make. Favorites? That’s a breeze. When you are tasked with cataloging the greatest films that cinema has to offer, though, you get into more burdensome territory.  Fortunately, our assignment had an element of the personal built in to the wording  –  'What twenty  movies best represent, to me, the greatest that cinema has to offer?'  –  an element that took the heat off a little bit when submitting those selections that weren’t typically canonical. The film I am here to talk about today, while the work of an acknowledged master, is one of those that usually resides just on the borderlands of a discussion like this - Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece of life in the French Resistance,  Army Of Shadows (1969).

"Fortunately, and unlike most of my generation, my first experience with this film was actually on the big screen, courtesy of Austin’s only movie palace, the Paramount Theatre. It made an indelible impression on me. Like the greatest cinema often does, it offered me insight into a time and place that seems incomprehensible. Never having lived through wartime in an occupied state with all the attendant  hardships and sacrifices, the inhumanity and petty corruption, the constant gut-wrenching fear, I am blessedly ignorant of all of those daily facts of French life during World War II. Melville opens the way for understanding by putting everything in the most basic human terms and letting the circumstances amplify the everyday.  Every gesture, every conversation takes on incredible significance. When the task at hand is so grim and the inescapability of your plight is so certain, nothing is simple and yet you must go on. Searching a sea of people for a sympathetic face becomes more than just a matter of seeking basic human connection. It is literally a matter of life and death. Everything is a gamble for the greatest of stakes. Melville’s poetic treatment of the subject matter perfectly illustrates for me how essential one person is and how inextricable we all are from each other. On top of all this, it is exquisitely made. The elegant camera movement, that beautiful Melville palette, the pervasive, fatalistic melancholy, the haunting, deteriorating title theme, Lino Ventura’s bedrock performance – all of it combining to impart a lesson that we can understand anywhere, at any time: In the gloaming, war redefines everything." ~ Cole Roulain

“The ambitions of a movie like The Tree of Life—a movie that takes us from the beginning of time to its ostensible end, stopping off to admire dinosaurs and get spiritual on a beach—are easy to mock. But the most audacious passage of Malick's great film, a birth of the universe that synthesizes both creationism and the Big Bang, is a necessary inflation: It not only hews closely to the aesthetic and thematic principles which have always been associated with the critical shorthand 'Malickian,' but it engenders a kind of humbling rack-focus akin to that feeling some of us get when we zoom-out from a blurry picture of our home on a Google Earth map. Malick's supposedly at least in part autobiographical odyssey would similarly be an exercise in indulging narcissism if it wasn't so damn expansive; in juxtaposing the birth and maturation of Malick surrogate Jack with the beginning of all life, our view of not only Jack's world but our own is broadened. You could criticize the extent to which Malick goes to achieve this, the 20-odd minute avant-garde interlude occupying an otherwise firmly narrative film, but that unique bit of ostentatiousness is something you just have to experience to understand. It's like the Google Earth thing: Sure I could explain to you how insignificant it makes me feel, but you really need to see that little pixelated planet for yourself.” ~ Sam C. Mac

“Truth be told, I could just as easily have chosen one of three or four other Robert Altman gems from the early ’70s, movies that changed the way stories are told (in every sense) on film. Altman used sound as a kind of fourth dimension, giving depth as well as breadth to his sprawling canvases: a viewer is as free to follow his ear as his eye, whether he’s tailing Elliott Gould’s mutter through the murk of L.A., honing in on patter in the casino clatter of Reno, or arriving in that frontier town on the bootheels of ‘Pudgy McCabe.’ But Nashville is the culmination of that style, epic in scope and scale — Music City as a microcosm of celebrity-besotted America on the cusp of the Bicentennial. Brassy and beautiful, enormous and intimate, it contains multitudes: stars, nobodies, old, young, white, black, deaf, hearing. The elevated and the tacky commingle here in a way that seems genuine — it’s hard to think of another ’70s movie expansive enough to include shout-outs to Godard’s Weekend and K-Tel commercials, without either seeming out of place.

“Folks in my home city of Nashville hated it when it came out, in no small part because Altman and his L.A. pals didn’t hire locals to do the soundtrack. (The best line came from the great Music Row producer Billy Sherrill, who said the best part was ‘when they shot that miserable excuse for a country singer.’) But as time goes by, it's harder to see why the city was so insulted by Altman's vision, which seems largely affectionate, absorbing and prescient. It anticipates not only the vanishing rural tradition in country music but also the rise of a third-party presidential candidate, the entanglement of entertainment media and politics, and the grim discovery that the fastest way to become a celebrity is to assassinate a celebrity. (Not for nothing does a poster for Nashville show up in the following year's
Taxi Driver.) Because of Altman’s expansive mash-up of Renoir and Preston Sturges, I see and hear something new every time I watch Nashville — especially in Henry Gibson’s Haven Hamilton, who embodies every contradiction the city (and the country) has about race, class, heroism and denial. Mostly, though, when I watch the movie now, I see a time capsule of a bygone city on the cusp of erasing its past, from the moment that campaign truck pulls out onto Second Avenue and creeps up a scarcely recognizable Lower Broadway. Altman’s Nashville is the city where I live — a place that gives birth to dreams, and just as often kills them.” ~ Jim Ridley

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