Friday, June 15, 2012

The depths of the unknown: PROMETHEUS

Note: I was going to talk about George Steven's Swing Time this week, but after watching it for the first time, realized that Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee deserve the praise that this film just didn't inspire in me. If you are are looking for the perfect night to bask in the heaven that is Fred and Ginger, rent one of these instead. 

"Big things have small beginnings" 

The opening credit sequence of Prometheus (Scott, 2012) will take your breath away. The camera flys above lush green valleys with icy blue water running through it like viens. Cliffs of ice and snow create fortress of rock and create an ambiance of fear and awe. The sequence ends at a raging waterfall. As the camera flys above the torrent of clear and dangerous water, a man, full formed, appears at the top of the falls along the edge. The use of both practical effects and VFX design make this white skinned giant appear human while also creating an unworldly feel. He drinks from a small capsule, which oozes a black liquid that comes alive in front of his eyes. The substance enters his system and rapidly eats away at his skin and bones until he tumbles from the cliff into the water below, breaking apart as he falls. He hits the water with a loud thunderous crash. Welcome to Prometheus.

This film is masterful in the hands of its cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski. The sweeping camera angles and creation of space on the newly discovered planet incorporate a mythical and sinister feeling that alerts the audience to the fears they know are sure to unveil themselves around the next corner. Ridley Scott directed Alien in 1979. Alien is a film that stumbles upon a monster and inevitably becomes a fight for survival about all else. Prometheus, probably much to the dismay of Alien fans, is not that kind of film. Scott takes on a much more metaphysical approach in this film. His characters are seeking, not stumbling, to find answers to their past, present, and future. They seek out the monsters, hoping instead to find a land of ancient men. But even this naive search can lead to death and destruction for all who seek it. The title stems from the ancient greek myth of Titan Prometheus, a servent to the gods who gave human beings the gift of fire, leading to both prosperity and invention and also impending and inevitable destruction.

Noomi Rapace masterfully plays Elizabeth Shaw, a scientist on the verge of a major archeological discovery. With the aid of her fellow scientist and lover, Charlie Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green) they set out to find an ancient race, one they believe we have descended from. They seek to meet their makers and what they find instead both destroys their belief in faith itself, but also leads to there emotional and physical devastation. Michael Fassbinder effortlessly plays the android David, seemingly human but lacking in compassion and sensitivity. His separation from humanity is something that Scott is intent on exploring. The themes of human nature, destruction, dependence, faith, and trust are built and shattered as this film burns slowly at the beginning and builds to its climactic final moments. Due to the impeccable costume (Janty Yates) and set design (Arthur Max), the actors were able to truly inhabit the space of the ship and the planet outside of it. The helmets and space suits both protect and entomb the characters as they move from the space ship to the outside world. The production design is delicate yet forceful and precise.

I don't believe that this was a perfect film, but it was expertly crafted, and the acting, especially by Rapace and Fassbinder, was chillingly perfect. Rapace was the perfect successor of Alien's badass female lead, Sigourney Weaver. Shaw is a fighter but she is also wounded and vulnerable. Towards the end of the film, she realizes that her insistent search for the answers to the past has irrevocably altered her future. This film sets out to explore the implications and possibilities of immorality. The financier of the expedition, Peter Weyland (played by a expertly made up Guy Pearce), seeks to find a way to erase the inevitability of death and never have to resign his "throne" to his family. This is a creation story, a exploration of myth and fantasy. It will not answer our questions about god, the afterlife, and inevitable nature of mankind, but it will make you hesitant to ask those questions in the first place. Sometimes what we seek to find only leaves us shattered and more lost then when we began. This is one of those films.

 The engineers 

 Charlize plays Ms. Vicars, the expeditions overseer 

 Elizabeth as she enters the alien ship 

 The tomb of the engineers 

 Amazing production design, the mist and the vases. 

 Director Ridley Scott hard at work on set. 

 David discovering a whole new world 

 David watching Shaw's dreams 

Landed on the planet. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

I am not an animal: THE ELEPHANT MAN

"I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!" 
-John Hurt as John Merrick 

David Lynch's The Elephant Man (1980) was only his second feature film after his experimental feature debut Eraserhead. Mel Brooks, the famous satirical director, fell in love with Eraserhead and helped to finance The Elephant Man. This film was Lynch's first studio picture.

The Elephant Man seeks to explore deformity and social exclusion and its effects on society and its "freaks". This film is based on the life of Joseph Merrick who died at the age fo 27 at the Royal London Hospital. This film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, of which it won none. This film inspired the Academy to create a category for Best Film Makeup after Christopher Tucker, the chief makeup artist, did not receive commendation for the creation of the elephant man. To create the impecable realness of the deformities, John Hurt's makeup was crafted from casts of Merrick's actual body. The casts had been housed at the Royal London Hospital. This makeup took up to 8 hours a day to apply and created a realness that only makeup effects can duplicate.

Lynch insisted that this film be shot in black and white and, thanks to Brooks, was granted the artistic license to do so. The black and white photography, shot by director of photography, Freddie Francis, is so integral to the overall story and mood of Lynch's characters. The muted tones and dark shadows serve to define the overall themes of the film. Lynch seeks to explore deep longing, disguises and betrayals, both physical and emotional. John Merrick (played perfectly with passion and angst by John Hurt) comes to life with the shadows that Lynch painstakingly creates. There is a gorgeous sequence when Dr. Frederick Treves (in the best performance of his career by Anthony Hopkins) is introducing Merrick, stripped down to his deformities, to his medical colleagues. Instead of showing us the man as monster, Lynch illuminates a curtain from the front and John's twisted body shines through in shadow. We can hear Treves describing Merrick's various deformities but we are not a witness to his humiliation.

Lynch begins this film with an experimental montage. He superimposes images of a woman, screaming in pain, and the images of large elephant heads. A haunting musical score plays in the background as the woman's face and the elephant's face become one. This opening montage serves to disorient the audience. We are never sure what we are looking at. We enter this film under the guise of disorientation and like Treves slowly seek answers to the truth about the woman and her place within this dream world. We first meet Treves as he snakes his way through a carnival. He seems to be following someone, deeper and deeper into a maze of freaks and horror seekers. He enters the freak show through a back alley tent and we soon find he is searching for a scientific study patient. He slowly maneuvers his way to The Elephant Man tent and finagles a deal with the master of ceremonies, Bytes (played by Freddie Jones). Bytes reveals The Elephant Man to Treves and a slow push in reveals a single tear fall gracefully down his cheek. Treves is forever altered in this moment and at once sees a medical mirage and an abused man living like an animal. He insists that Bytes trade him, Bytes will get paid and Treves will have a medical marval to showcase in front of his colleagues. But the relationship begins to change when Treves learns that there is a man under the cloak of deformities. A man lives and breathes under the bulbous head, the crooked spine and the useless hand.

In a beautiful moment where Treves tries desperately to get John to talk to him, to show him he is a man, not some deformed animal. John speaks to Treves, telling him his name, forming words and sentences of great poise and grace. John is a man, a well spoken, gentle man, who until this moment has been treated no better than a mangy dog. Treves and Merrick become fast and fervent friends and Treves slowly tries to assimilate Merrick into civilized society, but then struggles with the moral implications of trading one freak show for another. Lynch spends the majority of this film weighing the cost of humanity. Merrick seems to be the only truly selfless human being and the rest of us are turned into monsters. Merrick makes a very poignant statement to a friend when he says people fear the things they do not understand, absolving the people surrounding him of their cruelties. It's the ultimate sign of forgiveness and humanity.

Dreams and fantasies play a large role in all of Lynch's distopias. Merrick, due to his deformities, is unable to sleep laying down. He has to sit upright or his body would be able to sustain life. There is a painting in his room at the hospital of a boy tucked into his oversize bed, fast asleep, safe and protected. John yearns for this sense of stillness and warmth. He spends every night watching this sleeping boy and wishing that he could lay his head down and dream with the same childhood innocence. John seeks nothing more than this small kindness. In the end, that kindness is granted.

I had the rare honor of seeing this film projected at the New Beverly's David Lynch retrospective a few weeks ago. This film was one of the most beautiful cinematic experiences of my life. If you haven't seen it, do yourself a favor, watch it now.

 John laying down to sleep 

 Dr. Treves watching through the Freak Show

 Torturing John 

 John single greatest moment of divine pleasure

 John being beaten by "his master"

 John meets Dr. Treves for the second time

 The study of a man

 John as Romeo

 John trying to get back home

John mesmerized by his new gifts 

The Elephant Man Trailer

Thursday, May 31, 2012

the crushing defeat of adulthood: MOONRISE KINGDOM

"I love you ba-aby, but you gotta understand. 
When the lord made me. He made me a ramblin' man." 
Hank Williams 

The year is 1965. The sepia soaked celluloid immediately orients us in uniquely symmetrical cinematic space. Welcome to a Wes Anderson movie.

A field of tall grasses displayed in a wide shot, two children are in the frame. A girl on the left and a boy on the right. The girl in a pink jumper and bobby socks is carrying a yellow suitcase, a portable record player and a wicker basket, something meows from inside it. The boy is decked out from head to toe in khaki, merit badges, a coon skin hat and a backpack with two small sleeping bags hanging underneath. We meet Sam (Jared Gilman) through the Suzy's binoculars, her magic power as she calls them. They help her to see things, even when they are up close. Sam, gazing sweetly at Suzy (Kara Hayward) also sees the world through lens. His wide black frames consume his small face. The two meet in the field with no name and hatch a plan to leave their worlds behind and travel together into the unknown (or as far as the map they have will take them). It turns out they met the year earlier in a very enigmatic fashion. As if struck by some magical arrow, niether Sam or Suzy would ever be the same from that moment on.

The island of New Penzance is the perfect stomping ground for Anderson's usual suspects. A few new faces grace his fairytale setting. Frances McDormand, plays Mrs. Bishop, Suzy's disillusioned and achingly lonely mother. Bruce Willis plays Captain Sharp, the sweet but somewhat absent-minded town policeman set to find the missing kids. Edward Norton plays Scout Master Ward, a man with the best of intentions for his small Khaki scout charges but who ultimately is unable to keep them under wraps. Bob Balaban plays the narrator, lovely in a heavy red coat and small snow hat and gloves. He takes us through the storybook that is Moonrise Kingdom.

This is the seventh feature film by Wes Anderson, the first of which began with Bottle Rocket (1996). Building on and expanding from his previous work, Anderson takes his characters out into the wilderness and out of the cookie cutter world they normally inhabit. Anderson uses a lot of hand-held camerawork and sets out to create a lot of movement with his characters and the space they inhabit onscreen. Unlike his previous work, Anderson allows his characters room to breathe here. They are stuck in the enclosed space of a small island but they can roam "free" within the space. The location shooting is still seeping with Anderson's visual style; symmetry abounds, even in the woods. There is a particularly Andersonian shot with a police station-wagon, a flag and a lighthouse, set side-by-side, all matching perfectly. His visual style is his most impactful mark as a filmmaker and his fans wait years to see what new worlds Anderson has been creating. His characters are always set up to inhabit a piece of celluloid that is uniquely their own. There are also plenty of the tracking shots that have become synonymous in Anderson's films, creating a specific orientation of space. They are stiking in Moonrise because they occur both inside and out. The camera is set up as if it's an active audience member, the characters have set the stage onscreen and the camera moves along a stationary plane, acting as the shifting eyes of the audience. We learn about the characters as they learn about themselves.

Moonrise Kingdom harks the same lyrical melancholy present in all of Anderson's films. Music directly influences the tone of the film, the characters and their emotional state of mind. Several songs in the film are by cowboy country legend Hank Williams.  His twangy blues perfectly represent the quiet surrender of the adults in this film; all struggling with their adult problems that seem to pale in comparison with the angst of being young.  Moonrise constantly toes the line between somber melancholy and sweet joy. It seems that New Penzance is an island of misfits. Parents act like children and children act like adults in this topsy turvy world of imagination. Anderson creates a world within the frame that alerts the audience that we are in a fantastical expression of reality. The dramas and actions of the characters of this film are extreme but completely believable expressions of loss, love and beauty. We can find a part of ourselves in all the characters onscreen, we have all been there; lost in the throes of first loves, dying loves, unfulfilled dreams and jobs that change who we are. We are Sam and Suzy at the same time. Anderson encourages us to find that sense of childish wonder singed with bitter realization of future disillusionment and get lost in love. The marching musical themes creates a calling to arms, a sense that both real and imagined doom is not far off on the horizon. The threat of a hurricane looms in reality while the emotional storms of the characters on Penzance churn as well.

Storytelling is of the utmost importance in this imaginative tale. Suzy packs a bright yellow suitcase to run away with; filled to the brim with stolen library books with stories of fantasies and mythical muses. There are several instances in the film where Suzy reads aloud from these books (the stories themselves created by Anderson and cover artwork commissioned specifically for the film). She invites us into the imaginative world that she so yearns to belong to.

The film almost feels as if Wes made a book for his audience to climb inside, making us long for a time gone by. A time where your favorite record, dancing in your underwear on the beach, and sweetly falling into your first kiss, is all you will ever need. At the end of this film, as the camera tilts down to Sam's just- finished painting, we all want our own private Moonrise Kingdom.

 Suzy and Sam 

 Mr. Bishop, played perfectly by Bill Murray 

 The quiet troublemakers

 Suzy and the world through her window 

 Sam and Suzy make a plan

 Sam flys the coop 

 The dysfunctional yet extremely forgivable adult band of misfits 

 Suzy's magic power

 The cast 

 Edward Norton as the lovable Scout Master Ward 

 We've lost them again 

Suzy's perch 

The narrator, the storm is impending

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Whimsy and Wonder: Chaplin's CITY LIGHTS

The Studio System embraced sound in 1929. Chaplin, among many other filmmakers, was a reluctant convert to the new technology and believed that the introduction of spoken words to the screen would mean the end of the silent characters he had created. Chaplin understood that the Tramp would no longer carry his magical gait through the advent of sound in moving pictures. The silents had captured the imagination of an international audience, and Chaplin believed that sound would close the boundaries between nations with differing languages.

Chaplin's misanthropic tramp; Keaton's coy and socially stunted traveler; and Lloyd's rich man with a purpose, brought years of films that will forever be cemented in film history precisely for their timeless and enduring nature. We didn't need words to feel their pain, the awkwardness, their sadness and their fantasies. We felt their moods through movement and fluidity in a way that we are unable to replicate in film's today. Physical humor has been much reduced to bathroom humor and stupidity but the films of the 20's represented a space to allow comedy to unveil itself in mood and body language rather than speak for itself.

City Lights (1931), was Chaplin's last "silent" film before transitioning over to "talkies" five years later with Modern Times (1936). Although Modern Times was his first sound film, Chaplin stills defies the transition. When the tramp speaks his first words, (he sings a song to a crowded room) it's famously in gibberish.

City Lights is said to be a "crossover" film. Chaplin's use of simple sound effects and a synchronized score mimic the feel of the new talkies. He utilizes sound effects to replace speech in the opening sequence of the film, where unintelligible beeps mimic speech. Chaplin seems to be hinting that words are not always necessary to tell a story. Dialogue is still represented on intertitles.

In City Lights, the Tramp wakes atop a statue at it's unveiling. He is forced leave the square and aimlessly wander the streets. He buy a flower from a beautiful girl on the sidewalk. He quickly finds out she is blind when a car door slams and she tries to return his change to the wrong man. The Tramp sits by as she watches the man drive away. He falls instantly in love with her innocence and grace. He leaves her and she goes back to her daily routine with her live-in grandmother. Later that night, the Tramp is wandering alone by the waterfront, the girl's flower in hand, and convinces a suicidal, rich and inebriated older man to change his plans and return home. In a effort to thank the Tramp for his help, the rich old man showers him with gifts. Only to wake up the morning to not remember what had happened.

The Tramp is again turned out onto the street, but this time visits the girl in the rich man's car. He courts her for a while and states his intention to take care of her. The young girl believes that this rich man will be her prince charming. When she and her grandmother fall on hard times, the Tramp insists that he will take care of everything. He embarks on several wild adventures to procure rent money for the girl. Including a humorous interlude at a nightly boxing club. He eventually seeks the financial help of the rich man he saved but is mistaken as a thief immediately thereafter. The Tramp runs to the girl, gives her all the money, some for the rent and the rest for eye surgery, to get her sight back. He is then taken to jail after he leaves her house.

We see the girl again some months later, she has regained her sight and has opened a flower shop. The Tramp, after being released from jail, sees her in the window of her shop. The girl, finding a strange man staring at her through the window, goes outside to offer him some money. When she holds his hand, she finally realizes that this Tramp, not a man of means, was the one who ultimately saved her.

Chaplin was able to fund and distribute City Lights through United Artists, allowing him to make a silent picture amongst the new world of talkies.  Ironically, even with the new sound technology, City Lights was, and remains, one of Chaplin's finest feature films and was his most financially successful venture at it's opening (it made over $5 million during it's initial release).

The final scene of the film remains one of the most beloved moments in cinematic history and was even a personal favorite of Chaplin himself. He believed it to be his most honest and least rehearsed moment on screen in all of his illustrious career. The final moment of the film between the girl and Tramp will leave you feeling wistful for a time that can only be relieved through the magic of cinema.

City Lights was selected for admission to the National Film Registry in 1992. Remembered for it's lyrical romanticism, especially in Chaplin's interaction with the blind girl. Most of Chaplin's film tend to grapple with social issues and strife but City Lights carries an air of simplicity and genuine good-hearted fun.

Chaplin's Tramp utilizes physical humor and exists on the fringes of society. He used body language as  a form of speech that allowed him to interact with the space around him. Unlike Keaton who coexists with society, Chaplin is always in a stuggle with it. Chaplin's only friends in City Lights are those who cannot see him. They can't even remember he exists. The Tramp is a man living on the edges of the world, wandering around without purpose, but who helps his audience see themselves in a new light.

This film is, at its core, a humanistic struggle to survive in this cruel world. The little things; a dropped flower, the kindness of strangers, love in unexpected places, are the things propelling us through this hardness and Chaplin's Tramp helps us to remember them.

 Opening sequence, the reveal of a new statue in the square reveals a sleeping tramp

 Chaplin at the camera, still dressed as the tramp 

 The tramp wanders down to the river, where fate will change his life

 The tramps first interaction with the blind flower girl, for him it's love at first sight

 In an attempt to earn money for the blind girl's rent, the tramp enters the boxing ring

 Opening Titles of City Lights 

 The tramp is smitten 

 The blind girl dreaming at the window of the love she seeks to find

The tramp awaiting his "fixed" fight at the boxing ring, things don't ultimately go his way

Thursday, May 17, 2012


Hayao Miyzaki's film Howl's Moving Castle (2004), based on the novel of the same name by Diana Wynne Jones, creates a fantastical world in which witches and wizards live among ordinary people. From the opening scene, Howl's castle, on mechanical legs, moves majestically and somewhat heavy handed through the lush and vibrant landscape that is the wasteland.

Sophie is Howl's Moving Castle shining achievement. She is brought beautifully to life with the voices of Emily Mortimer (young Sophie) and Jean Simmons (Grandma Sophie). She transforms from a timid, fragile and isolated young woman into a self-assured, at peace and family forming old woman. Of course the aging is anything but willful, she is bewitched by a jealous woman's spell and is forced to live as an old woman until love can break it.

Sophie, an old woman now, leaves on a journey to find the Witch of the Waste (voiced by the always magnificent Lauren Bacall), but realizes her old bones are unable to get her there. She befriends a jovial scarecrow, which she nicknames Turnip Head, and she sends him off to find her a resting place. Little did she know he would summon Howl (voiced by Christian Bale) and his moving castle. She reluctantly (Howl is known to be a savage, heart stealing man) enters the strange castle and finds a small fire and a chair. She quickly falls asleep. She awakes to a ringing doorbell, a little boy named Markl (voiced by Josh Hutcherson) and a fire demon named Calsifer (brilliantly voiced by Billy Crystal) settled into the ashes on the hearth. Sophie immediately finds a way to stay on board the magical castle as the cleaning woman. Howl soon returns and the makeshift family of bewitched beings share their first family meal.

It is the journey that these unlikely characters find themselves embarking on together that is the heart and soul of this film. Through an impending war, followed by its actual commencement, these characters beging to realize that love is the only thing keeping them together. Howl is a moody and unpredictable master of the house. Each character finds his or her own way to maneuver around Howl's petty obsession with beauty and Sophie finds a way to teach him that he cannot always be afraid of his own shadow. Sophie is a willful and determined old woman, who overcomes her greatest fears and compels those around her to fight against the forces of evil to do right by each other.

Color plays a very important role in this film, from the lush green and blue landscape to the flame engulfed skies, Miyazaki creates a vibrant playground for his characters to move within.  The bustling cities burst with color at the markets, in the peoples faces, and into in the sea. The castle is able to navigate between settings by a flip of the door handle. Sophie and Markl move between these doors quite often, enjoying the differences they bring. But war is moving closer and closer and Howl is forced to quit abandoning the real world for his fantasies. Sophie's courage sparks a fire in Howl's heart and he begins to find that staying to protect the ones you love is worth the costs of potentially losing them. Sophie teaches Howl that life requires reliance on other people, no matter what the cost.

Miyazaki plays with themes of beauty and ugliness, physicality is what hinders and also propels the characters of Howl's Moving Castle. Sophie believes that she is ugly and unwanted in her young state but immediately embraces her perceived imperfections as unnecessarily important with old age. Howl is unusually consumed by his physical beauty and only through an act of melodrama, when Sophie decides to leave, does his intense obsession begin to fade. Other characters deal with their various forms and measure their worth through the eyes of others. Only when they form their makeshift family do they begin to realize that beauty is so much more than physicality.

This is one of Miyazaki's finest achievements. The story is magical and yet grounded in reality. Sophie is a delight to follow and the people who become her family become ours as well.

Sophie with a renewed Calsifer 

Sophie watching the war consume her world 

The magnificent legs to the castle 

Sophie and Howl at the market where they first meet

Madame Suliman's faithful companion 

Howl in his bewitched state with Sophie clinging to him 

Grandma Sophie and Markl outside the castle 

The wonderfully realized moving castle

Sophie's first encounter with her transformed self 

Sophie in the hat shop 

The wicked Witch of the Waste