Monday, June 27, 2011

Melancholy and the Many Faces of Love: MYSTERIES OF LISBON

Let me start by saying, this film redeemed my entire week. After obtaining tickets to The Guard, Winnie The Pooh, Love Crime and The Devil's Double at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week, Mysteries of Lisbon was the only screening I was able to attend. I had never heard of Raoul Ruiz or his plethora of features. My only introduction to this 257 minute film (that's over four hours) was a picture on the LAFF website and the knowledge of its patience-trying running time, not the greatest source of inspiration for a film with a start time of 7pm. But, after David Ansen, Artistic Director of the festival, finished his opening remarks, praising Ruiz as an artist and visual story telling master, I was strapped in and ready to feast my eyes on the images coming to life on the screen.

This film was sumptuous in every way (the man next to me kept saying, "Oh my god, that's gorgeous" over and over and over again throughout the first thirty minutes). Ruiz creates a story which constantly intertwines the playfulness of fiction and the cold dark truths of reality. One of the ways in which Ruiz utilizes fantasy to tell his story is by incorporating a puppet stage, filled with all the characters from the film as paper cut-outs. He uses this stage to set up the tableau in the next scene, using these make believe characters to come to life (so to speak) into their real life counterparts.

The film follows three (you could argue more) main protagonists, all with hidden identities, all with dark and painful pasts. The beauty of the story is in the ways in which all of these characters come to find out who they truly are and how their lives had always been inextricably intertwined. Giving away the secrets would defeat the purpose of the film that Ruiz set out to create, so I will not attempt to do so here. His film is a woven tale of woe, we discover the characters as they discover themselves. This film is about secrets and the way they haunt our lives till the very end.

Ruiz narrative would be incomplete without the incredible art direction by Isabel Branco and set decoration by Paula Szabo. These two women create the world in which Ruiz characters get to breathe and it's a gorgeous world of muted colors and deep greens, you can truly lose yourself within the frame. The cinematography by Andre Szankowski has an indelible impact on the audience. He constantly plays with filters and alters his depth of field in moments of frustration, confusion, and utter loss. The camera work in this film is a journey all by itself.

In an industry which has lost itself in large studio pictures in order to secure a "big bang for their buck", this film was an experience I will never forget. This film helps me to remember why I moved here in the first place and helps me to have faith in filmmakers willing to take a chance on a cinematic experience that they know their audience still craves. It also continues to strengthen my resolve to participate in the festival experience, because films like this need to breathe, they need to flicker to life on screen in front of a captivated audience, they need someone to believe in them.

Mother and Son reunited at last

A love triangle with a tragic end

Just feast your eyes on this gorgeousness.

A lover's quarrel

By her son's fevered bedside.

(All captions are vague, spoiling this film would be wrong in so many ways.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Overcoming Numbness: ORDINARY PEOPLE

Robert Redford's Ordinary People, was a disjointed portrait of a family struggling to cope with loss. Redford's stunning cast is comprised of Donald Sutherland as Calvin Jarrett, Mary Tyler Moore as Beth Jarrett, Timothy Hutton as Conrad Jarrett, and Judd Hirsch as Dr. Tyrone Berger. I believe that Hirsch's very accurate portrayal of Conrad's psychiatrist provides this film with some throughly redeeming qualities. Sutherland and Hutton's strained and yet tender relationship anchors the audience firmly within the film's narrative, especially in the film's final minutes when both men come full circle to grapple with their debilitating grief. Mary Tyler Moore was the weakest and most unlikeable character in this fantastic ensemble. Her insistence on anger as a manner of managing her grief was believable but completely unredeemable.

Hutton is amazing in his portrayal of a young man lost within himself and amongst the living. The relationship he develops with Hirsch throughout the film truly requires the audience to approach Conrad cautiously, realizing that he is a ticking time bomb of emotion. We, as the audience, have to wait for the final explosion. Conrad and Berger spend most of the film rooting out the societal and familial insistence on closing down emotions, the notion that emotions should remain private, within the individual and/or the family, which in turn prevents Conrad from dealing with the amassed guilt over the death of his brother.

Beth, is an infuriating portrait of a mother. Sutherland sums it up beautifully in his final dialogue with her, stating that she not only buried their son but she also buried everything that made her a woman, a mother, and a human being. The loss of her son completely erased her presence. Her insistence on subtly avoiding and blaming her only living son makes her a monster in the audience's eyes, as we don't meet Buck (the deceased), we have little to grasp in terms of how much she has lost.

The film meanders through it's first hour, slowly building a narrative worthy of it's explosive climax. I think that the last thirty minutes are what pushed this film into the Best Picture category. I don't want to give all the details of the final dramatic scenes but Conrad, Berger, and Calvin find themselves at a crossroads and they all make it across the dangerous impasse to learn what each are truly made of.

Redford's honest portrait of a broken family is beautifully realized in it's characters, and the study of each of these people and all their rough edges make this difficult film an important film to see.

Conrad and the distance between him and his mother.

Final climatic scene between Conrad and Dr. Berger

Calvin and Beth sharing a moment.

Dr. Berger, the most amazing portrait in this film.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Ok, so this is totally lame of me. My recent (snap) decision to start a blog during a very tumultuous time in my life (hence the lack of consistency with posts and research) already has me feeling guilty and full of anxiety. I wanted to use this blog to reignite that feeling that I had sitting in a classroom everyday. To help remind me why I love film and how much movies have changed my life and hopefully inspire someone, somewhere, to watch something they wouldn't thought to watch before.

Living in LA, I have come to realize that I have access to so many unique screenings both at home and at the theater; ranging from the strange (screening of The Fly, one of my first ventures into the Horror genre), the unusual (attending a Leprechaun franchise series of screenings), the classic (Casablanca on a print for the first time ever), along with generally getting to see every film that piques my interest as soon as it hits the blogosphere.

This is an incredible opportunity to talk about the films that I see every week, both discovering and rediscovering. I want to WANT to write this blog and I boxed myself into a writers corner that I want out of. So as of this next week I am starting over.

Every Monday I will post a new blog, documenting, praising, ranting, or raving about something I have found the week before. Hopefully, I will get to uncover some interesting things I never knew about and maybe inspire someone else to seek out these movies and bask in watching them. I am still figuring out what I want to do in this crazy business of entertainment, but I do know that I want to be a part of finding audiences for films that deserve to be seen. After all, films are art intended to be seen by people seeking a collective experience. So, tune in next week for some good old fashion film talk.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Love Affair with the Obsure: ED WOOD

If Edward Scissorhands is a love letter to Tim Burton than Ed Wood, Burton's dramedy biopic of the late director Edward D. Wood Jr, is a love letter to the artists who work with the film medium. Again, as in Scissorhands, there are similarities between Burton's life and that of Ed Wood, both in regards to his imagination and precise insistence on creative control of content and artistic flourish. Burton's film, although I believe it to be his least interesting, focuses on the two major features that Edward made, now celebrated as cult classics, Plan 9 From Outer Space and Bride of the Atom (renamed under a re-released title Bride of the Monster later in the film). It also chronicles Edward's professional and personal relationship with Bela Legosi, which mirrors the relationship Burton created with his long time idol Vincent Price.

The film follows Edward on his journey to gain film recognition and fame and creates a sub narrative about his quest for love of women, despite the fact that he likes to wear women's clothing (he is especially fond of angora, used thoroughout the film as a constant reminder of this strange fetish). The most endearing qaulity of Burton's Edward is Johnny Depp's protrayal. Depp, perfectly cast as a the blissfully ignorant artist who truly believes that quaility and depth is overlooked by the audience in favor of the larger story, plays Edward to a tee. He creates a character we fall in love with for his naive nature and endless optimism, even in the face of muliple failed film financing, limited budgets, small crews, and limited production supplies. Edward and his crew could crank out a picture in only a few days, shooting almost fifty scenes in the same time it took other studios to shoot a meager three or four. At the end of the day, Edward just wanted to make pictures and he wanted people to sit in the theater and enjoy watching them.

Even though it never happened in real life, the scene at the end of the film where Edward meets his idol; writer, director and producer Orson Welles, provides the fictional Ed some solace and joy amongst his numerous failed films. Welles reminds Edward, and the audience, that the business of making pictures should always begin with personal integrity and a willingness to stand by your story, no matter what the reaction of the audience or the critics might be.

The realtionships, in the end, are what holds this film together and why I found some joy in it's conclusion. Ed, admist his professional follies, never lost faith in the people in his life and never sought out to make a movie he couldn't defend. This makes Edward like Burton in more ways than one. Burton fought long and hard to get the funds to make this film in black and white. He was convinced that Edward's story could only be told within the world of black and grey, the same medium in which Edward made his. It was a tough sell to the larger studios and after failing to get this movie finianced, Disney finally stepped in and told Burton they would not only allow him control over the film stock but also allowed him full creative control over the content of the film. Burton, like Ed, sought the difficult route to make the movie he wanted but in the end wouldn't compromise for his artistic vision for anyone.

I wouldn't recommend Ed Wood to the general film viewer but if you have seen the Burton canon, sans this film, you should really give it a watch. It fits within his larger eerily romanticized world but remains the most restrained of Burton's works.

Friday, June 3, 2011

The dystopian land of Edward Scissorhands

The film begins encased in snow. An older woman is tucking her granddaughter into bed, oddly large for such a small little girl. The granddaughter asks innocently about the origin of the snow and the grandmother stares, lost in thought, out of the bedroom window. Her story begins with a boy, a mountain, and the street below.

As we get aquatinted with Burton's "idilic" world, which seems to confine its characters to roam a single avenue neighborhood of lollipop colored houses, we begin to realize that things are most definitely not as they seem. This film is filled with a bouquet of strange housewives and nosy neighbors, who seemingly are never allowed access off this confined cul-de-sac (at least the women are not ever allowed to leave, the men arrive and leave promptly at the same time each day, leaving home in their candy color coordinated vehicles and driving to the land off screen). Every house has an eerie familiarity mixed with the repulsive. We meet Peg Boggs, played by the fantastic Diane Wiest, as she is walking door to door trying to sell her neighbors Avon products with a plastered on smile and veiled disappointment. After striking out with every one of her neighbors,n she gets into her car and fixes her sights on the haunted mansion high up on the mountain above their town. What she finds when she pulls up to the overgrown gate is an entrance to another world altogether. Peg, enters through the huge doorway and finds life is flourishing beyond the broken gates. She is instantly mesmerized by what she finds. As she walks around the house and makes her up to its summit, she finds a small boy sitting timidly in a dark corner of the attic and promptly decides to take him back down the mountain to become a member of her family. 

Edward, played by the indelible Johnny Depp, emerges from the dark, hands first, initially frightening the audience and Peg. But after the initial shock of Edward's appearance, we instantly fall in love. Edward is both initially horrifying and sad to the audience, at once we are hesitant to trust his body, but then we come to realize that he is hesitant too. Edward is a character created by its actor. Depp speaks for Edward in the movements of his face, the subtly of his expressions, and the sheer joy he experiences the moment someone accepts him. When Edward emerges from the light we realize that he has as much to fear about the world around him as we do. We simultaneously sympathize with his social unease and unfamiliarity and empathize with his grace at trying to be a regular human being. 

Edward quickly becomes the oddity turned celebrity in his small town. He is celebrated for his differences and finds himself the center of attention in a town where the rumor mill is all that's interesting. But this fame quickly dissipates when the town ladies man accuses Edward of raping her. The town picks up their pitch forks and their idyllic world goes up in flames. 

As the town begins to take it's revenge on the boy they can't define a sub plot has also been brewing. Kim, played by Winona Ryder, is Peg's daughter. She finds herself initially frightened of Edward and his strangeness but over the course of the film finds her love for him catching her off guard. Her boyfriend Jim, played by Anthony Michael Hall, who she loves for his aggressiveness becomes abrasive the more she interacts with Edward and his sweet awkwardness. Kim, finds herself at odds with the life she had created for herself and the one that Edward opened her eyes too. She realizes that Edward would always be more of a man to her than Jim could ever be. 

Burton's creation and success of this film I believe lies in his familiarity with this story. Burton has always believed that Edward was the screen incarnate of himself. Burton grew up in a similar monochromatic suburban neighborhood in Burbank, CA that could not contain the dreams and make believe that little Tim Burton sought out to create. His vision of the world was larger than the perfectly manicured lawns and close minded natures of suburbia's residents. Burton would always see himself as an outsider looking in. This film was a way for him to express the dystopia he always found in his real life and create a character who ultimately cannot assimilate to the world around him, but in the case with both Burton and Edward, we wouldn't want them too. Burton's stylistically exaggerated world of color and form allow us access to a world outside of the one in which we live. His collaborators, Danny Elman, composer; Colleen Atwood, costume designer; Ann Harris, Rich Henricks and Paul Sonski, set designers; Tom Duffield, art director; Bo Welch, production designer; and Stan Winston, special effects producer all work seamlessly to create the world in which Burton's characters reign. Most of these amazing artists will continue to work with Burton on his subsequent films, which help to cement his visual style and production flair. Burton creates a true fantasy world that we, as the audience, want to crawl into and discover something we didn't know was possible. Burton takes us out of our reality and places us within his dreams. 

More on Burton's style, collaboration, narrative structure, and films in posts all throughout June (I would like to have a new post up every Friday of the month). I also hope to go to the Burton Retrospective Exhibit at LACMA to gain some more information about his career, life, obsessions, and unique works of visual and cinematic art.