Archive for the ‘Finite Focus’ Category

  • Finite Focus: The End of an Era (The Last Picture Show)

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    Spoilers for The Last Picture Show

    Of all the New Hollywood directors, Peter Bogdanovich may be the one who carried his love of and nostalgia for Old Hollywood the most visibly on his sleeve. Before making his way out to Hollywood to be a director, he was a unquenchable cinephile, devouring the works of Ford, Hawks, Welles, and other Old Hollywood filmmakers, and quickly becoming close friends with many of them when he did arrive in Hollywood. Throughout his career, many of his films hearken back to the Golden Age of Cinema, from the Depression era nostalgia of Paper Moon to the screwball antics of What’s Up, Doc? But The Last Picture Show, one of his first major films, is special because it’s not only an imitation in some ways of classic styles (most obviously in its black and white cinematography), but it’s a eulogy to the end of an era that nonetheless pushes forward into a new era of both filmmaking and society itself.

    Though the story of the film focuses on young people Sonny, Jacy, and Duane as they work through their love lives and desires to escape from small-town Texas, the heart of the film and of the town itself is Sam the Lion. Sam owns the pool hall, cafe, and movie theatre – the three major businesses in Anarene. He also acts as protector to the mentally slow boy Billy, keeping him safe and stopping others from mistreating him. Sam is the moral rock of the town, though he’s hardly a moralist – he’s just a strong presence that makes you want to do the right thing by the people around you simply because Sam is there and you know it’s what he’d want. Sam is the last Hollywood hero, the last in the line of Hawksian and Fordian heroes, men of quiet strength and personal honor.

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  • Finite Focus: Inconceivable! (My Dinner With Andre)

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    My Dinner With Andre has been (more or less) integrated into public awareness as much through parodies as from various critical support upon its release in the early 1980s. But sitting down with the film, all the jokes and the hype (if that is the appropriate word) disappear as you drop into the trance of compelling storytelling. The title being a literal description of the movie, and indeed over a few courses in a Hotel Restaurant, Andre Gregory does most of the talking, mainly consisting of new-age philosophies and group consciousness experiments. It is mesmerizing mainly due to Gregory’s enthusiasm and preacher-like intensity (Gregory would be cast as just this later on in the decade in both The Mosquito Coast and The Last Temptation of Christ, perhaps due to his work here.) Actor/playwright Wallace Shawn, the “My” of the title and the voice-over narrator at the beginning of the film is essentially a patient listener as he munches on his cailles aux raisins (er, quail.) But that only sets the stage for when Shawn comes alive with his response to it all. The actor is famous for the energy of his voice, whether it be the nervous Dinosaur in the Toy Story films or the verbose Sicilian in The Princess Bride. Here, he delivers his rebuttal to Gregory’s ‘quest for life’ mumbo-jumbo with a more simple, practical approach grounded in the tangible and the scientific. Not surprisingly, while it takes Gregory over an hour to spell things out, Shaw does it in a rather succinct six minutes, and it is the actor (playing a movie-version of himself) at his incredulous best. Charleton Heston and cold coffee, yum!

     

  • Finite Focus: “Someone get me a fucking wiener before I die!” (One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest)

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    In this age of 3D glasses, product placement, and an abundance of needless special effects, I sometimes forget what it is that has always made me love movies so much. For me, I’m reminded during those rare moments when the actors completely take over a scene, where everyone and everything just clicks, and I become so engrossed in the moment that I am no longer aware that I am sitting on the couch in my living room in podunk Pennsylvania munching on reheated pizza. It’s those times when my analytical eye goes blind, when I forget that I’m watching people act, where I’m no longer examining the camerawork and mentally tearing apart the story for inconsistencies, and imagining the directors orchestrating the scene during production.

    There are some scenes (and entire movies) that are just so perfect, that when I watch them or think about them, my mind pulsates with elation to the point where I think that one of these days when I watch it, my brain very well may explode from an overload of sheer awesomeness. This is one of those scenes. This is one of those movies. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not a movie that is a stranger to critical and commercial praise – it won five Oscars after all, including Best Picture – but sometimes the praise it has received makes me take for granted how great of a movie it really is. It is a showcase of brilliant acting, a “how-to” for any aspiring young actor out there, and a delicious treat for anyone who, like myself, watches films first and foremost for interesting characters and deeply layered performances.

    This scene should be viewed in all Acting 101 classes.

    p.s. Does anyone else find Brad Dourif grossly underrated as an actor?

  • Finite Focus: Epilepsy! (Enter The Void)

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    As 2009 films go, there is a lot of love around these parts for Gaspar Noé‘s sensational masterpiece Enter The Void: Three of the dozen or so contributors to Row Three chose it as their ‘best film of 2009′ and it should bear mentioning that they were the only three that saw it! Hyperbole aside, I am well aware that this tour-de-force opening credit sequence does not play nearly to the effect of seeing this on a massive screen, but for sheer insanity (and complete lack of practicality), I offer them to you in all their garish, electronic, spastic, GLORY!

    Those wondering if the film is as assaultive as the below credit sequence, well, it is and it is not (Row Three Review). The film is not as directly punishing as Noé’s previous Irreversible; rather, Enter The Void is more melodic and breezy for the most part and this sequence is the most prankster-ish element. Enjoy.

  • Finite Focus: Did You See That Coming? (May)

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    May_onesheetThere is a scene, buried in the middle of Lucky McKee‘s romantic riff on dolls and Frankenstein, that achieves a graceful and majestic form of horror. Do not take this the wrong way, there are dozens of memorable scenes May, from the titular lead’s (Angela Bettis) creepy schizophrenic relationship to her doll Suzie, to her cute courting of Argento-loving hunk Adam (Jeremy Sisto) and his charming brand of amateur short-filmmaking, her gory veterinary anecdotes, and her passive-aggressive lesbian relationship with pet-hospital secretary Polly (Ana Farris). It is nice to see a horror film built almost entirely on relationships, rather than external supernatural or criminal elements. But there is a sequence in the film that is playfully exploitative, skin-crawling-ly physical and executed with flair.

    May, acutely aware of loneliness and imperfection (her own lazy-eye being the subject of childhood trauma), takes to volunteering in a classroom for blind children. In an attempt to giving a bit of herself to get to know the kids, she brings her childhood ‘friend’ Suzie, a Gothic hand-made doll that gives good reaction-shot from any angle, to ‘show’ the kids. Perplexed that her friend is in a box, the children make a rather intense play for May to open up the glass case, something that has never been done since her mother crafted Suzie a couple decades past. Various ‘all-in-her-head’ exchanges with Suzie have elevated into a full on psychological battle with the doll, visually (and aurally) represented by the glass grinding and cracking from the electric tension of the two ‘women.’ The blind tots making a grab for the cracked case causes Suzie to fall to the floor, and the kids, in a surreal fashion (high on symbolism, low on the reality of being blind) gather that Suzie is ‘free.’ They make a grab for her – across the floor scattered broken glass. Not since John McTiernan’s Die Hard has walking (crawling) on glass been so wince-worthy. At one point, while May tries to wipe the accumulating blood from Suzie and herself from her face, a piece of glass in her on her hand scalpels further; more blood ensues. May’s scars and Suzie’s broken amputated body and a collection of frantic children scrambling are a beautifully scored hint as to what is to come for the big finale of the film. In context or out of context, the scene is a winner.

  • Finite Focus: Clear Eyes in the Desert (The Hit)

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    TheHit_onesheetTerence Stamp has the ability to play a hard-edge mo-fo like any of the best of cockney slanged gangsters, but he also brings a goofiness, a loose charm, and sly wit to his performances that make for a unique performances. Bringing exactly this to the table in Stephen Frears’ 1984 gangster picture, The Hit, Stamp plays a mid level operator, Willie Parker, who for reasons known only to himself (well, there is the matter of the witness relocation program ponying up a villa in Spain for his retirement) sells all of his mates and bosses to the state. Ten years later, in the barren Spanish desert, Willie is captured by Braddock, a smooth and super-cool professional killer tasked, along with wet behind the ears henchman Myron (played by a baby-faced Tim Roth), to bring Willie back to ‘justice’ from the blokes now out of the clink.

    But this road trip from Madrid to Paris is anything but typical, much of the time it seems Willie is more in charge and in control of things than Braddock. His Zen calm at his decidedly limited number of hours on earth spooks Braddock and threatens Myron’s loyalty to his boss. In this scene, Braddock and Parker have a little existential and poetic heart to heart at fate and loyalty and professionalism. John Hurt’s performance as the subdued yet quite confused jobber is quite wonderful. Other than The Criterion Collection re-releasing this wonderfully offbeat film on DVD in April last year, it was more or less forgotten amongst Frears’ more famous works; yet very likely it is one of those little seen, but highly influential pictures. Evoking the effortless cool also seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs – another film about heists and gangsters yet little violence or crime on screen as well as the past-coming-to-roost of Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (a film also set in the bleached Spanish desert and very much likely also influencing Stephen Soderbergh (I’d be willing to bet The Hit had much as of an influence on the film as more explicitly referenced Poor Cow in The Limey) and Jim Jarmusch, it is a real gem. Long live the Art-Gangster film.

  • Finite Focus: And Death Shall have no Dominion (Solaris)

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    Solaris_onesheetLike most great science fiction films, Solaris (and I mean the Steven Soderbergh remake, not the Andrei Tarkovsky film from 1972) was not appreciated all that much on initial release. *Spoilers Follow* I am not sure if a re-evaluation of the film has started yet, but if not, here is as good a place as any. Delicately sprinkled with the debate on divinity vs. astronomical probability, the film seems to tap out on the side that Solaris is in fact the almighty, who trials the cosmonauts on the station with mirrors of their own thoughts. After requesting friend and psychiatrist Kris Kelvin (George Clooney) to come up an evaluate the problem on the orbiting space station, the scientific leader on the shuttle, Dr. Gibarian, commits suicide. Later, the Doctor’s ghost (or perhaps Kelvin’s own conscience or even, more daringly, God Himself) offers, “There is no solution, only choices.” (Earlier Gibarian also equates space travel as the search for divinity in another choice quote, “We do not want other worlds, we want mirrors.”) After the remaining two scientists begin bombarding their ghostly yet corporeal visitors, possibly manifestations from the planet based on each persons memories and emotions, with anti-bosons, the planet pulls the station into its implacable mauve energy cloud.

    The crashing station with Kelvin still aboard becomes a ‘moment of fear’ or a ‘moment of truth’ as the three remaining passengers wait for god. The scenes with Jeremy Davies’ character literally meeting his maker are shot to evoke both alien abduction (Fire in the Sky), part spiritual awakening. As it should be, because the film postulates both. More interestingly is Kelvin’s final journey, first of pain and suffering, then help by way of Gibarian’s ‘son’ (an corporeal entity of Solaris, The Son of God?) who reaches out a comforting hand, and a offers a serene (Jesus-like?) face. That he ends up in Heaven (of sorts, where “Everything we’ve done is forgiven. Everything”) with his deceased wife – all radiant and finally at peace, only cements things.

  • Finite Focus: No Man With a Good Car Needs to be Justified! (Wise Blood)

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    Wise_Blood_onesheetJohn Huston often directed films about mad, lonely men (from fierce Captain Ahab in Moby Dick to the Humphrey Borgart twofer of The Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon) while moonlighting as an actor playing monsters on screen (none greater than Noah Cross is Chinatown). Strange that the combination of those two things seems to be crazily overlooked in the case of Wise Blood (God bless Janus/Criterion for digging out this little cult gem), especially considering that the lonely and disturbed young man at the center of the film is brilliant character actor Brad Dourif.

    Dourif plays Hazel Motes, a WWII veteran returned home with a few dollars in his pocket, no prospects and no family. All that remains of his childhood is the haunting scar tissue of his fire and brimstone preaching grandfather (yes, a villain of sorts played by the director) and a shriveled and abandoned piece of property in the middle of nowhere. With not a lot of intelligence, but a boatload of determination, Hazel is determined to “do something he never did before.” Dourif is a force of nature in this film, who at a young age (only a couple years past his Oscar Nomination for One Flew over The Cuckoo’s Nest) was not quite on the path of the character actor who would play super-creeps in such varied films as David Lynch’s Dune, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and HBO’s Deadwood (or Voice Chucky the maniacal puppet in the Child’s Play films). Nevertheless, he more than holds his own against three other character actor greats here: Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton and Amy Wright as they attempt to force his naive determined (yet lost) soul from his forward and somewhat nutty trajectory (forming the Church of Christ Without Christ) into compromise with their particular (and petty) religious huckster schemes.

    This particular scene requires the above paragraph to set it up, as Motes’ impulsiveness, faith (of sorts) and determination (and eventual frustration) are all summed up in how he purchases a rotting Ford Fairlane from a crusty used car dealer. I love the way that the dealer simply picks up his son and throws him out of the way after the son tries to ‘play dad.’ Another eventual theme that comes out in the film. Motes makes two ‘escape attempts’ to get away from his strange life as a preacher in the Church of Christ without Christ, and John Ford (well really Flannery O’Connor, the author of the book Wise Blood is adapted from) uses the ‘open road,’ a common metaphor for freedom and re-invention in American Cinema (and literature, I suppose) as an ironic bit of fatalism. The final ‘breakdown’ of the car rests on the incline of a steep hill whereupon a hellfire passage of Jesus graffiti further suggests that Motes is not getting away from either religion or his fathers legacy. Oh, did I mention that it is funny? That’s Southern humour for y’all.

  • Finite Focus: First Audition (Mulholland Dr.)

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    MulhollandKurt gave me permission to throw some entries into the Finite Focus series, which he deservedly dominates. I’m directing my efforts toward scenes that I consider Great Cinematic Moments, as well as just excellent or study-worthy individual scenes (mostly because if I didn’t constrain myself, I’d end up just posting random scenes I happen to like, and nobody probably wants that). By a Great Cinematic Moment I mean either a) it’s a moment of such great cinematic beauty, innovation, or transcendence that the scene itself makes one remember again why we believe in the power of cinema; or b) it’s a moment of such importance to the film that it becomes a centerpiece or distillation of the film itself. A lot will probably be both, but my distinction is whether a scene is powerful on its own, or within the context of the film.

    The first scene I’ve chosen is both, though it probably fits into category b) a little bit better. I pretty much knew I wanted my first post in the series to be from David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., a film that completely overwhelms me to the point of speechlessness (and often movelessness, too) every time I see it. But I had difficulty choosing which scene to post – thankfully Kurt saved me the trouble by having already posting the Club Silencio scene (which would get my vote for most overwhelmingly emotionally powerful scene of…a long time – it fits squarely into my first definition above).

    Read more and see the scene in question after the jump.

    » Read the rest of the entry..

  • Finite Focus: Lady and The Tramp (The Last Days of Disco)

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    LastdaysdiscoOneSheetWhit Stillman can write pop-culture deconstruction dialogue as well as Quentin Tarantino or Kevin Smith. He may keep it more highbrow and restrained, more theatre and less film, but that does not stop the words from sizzling off the screen. In fact, on closer inspection, the banter about Scrooge McDuck or in the case of this scene here, Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, says much about the actual characters and advances the plot and fills in the characters more than simply nice background dressing for the sake of tone or cool. Stillman only had three features, the loosely connected trilogy of Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and this one, Last Days of Disco (1998), yet all three are pretty much note perfect in how they play. We might as well throw the auteur label around, because it is hard not to immediately pick up the writer-directors stamp from only seeing mere seconds of any of these films. Only in a Whit Stillman movie would a full on bacchanal dance party be going on (New York’s Club 54 at the peak of the Disco era, although it is never called that specifically) and yet have the main characters sitting around talking in high language about low culture. After all these were New England graduates along for the scene as much for cosmetics, simply to be there, as anything else. They are far to uptight to really participate in the mulch of art-gay-fashion culture, but would rather be seen being there (or the thrill of getting their friends in) while hashing out their various relationship issues and neurotic hang-ups amongst themselves.

    Thus while sitting quietly off to the side of the meat market, young assistant D.A. (Matt Keeslar) lays the smackdown on Lady and the Tramp for teaching young women to worship jerks, the clubsfloor manager, Des (Chris Eigeman, a Stillman regular) goes on the defensive that Tramp was rehabilitated, eventually. This may not play out watching the scene out of context below (something which is still highly entertaining), but I assure you that it is very much in line with how each of those two characters, at the time vying for the attentions of the heroine of of the film, Alice (Chloë Sevigny), view themselves. Not only that, it goes a long way for being a primary piece of foreshadowing to how the plot (the real plot, not so much the money laundering plot or disco plot) involving Alice’s sex and love life, and how it is going to go. And for that it trumps a gangsters take on Madonna’s Like a Virgin or a register jockey’s digression on the deaths of thousands of innocent contractors on the Death Star. Open plea to Whit Stillman: It has been too long, please make another movie.

  • Finite Focus: Disoriented and Deranged (Encounters At The End of the World)

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    End_of_the_world_onesheetWerner Herzog makes no effort to disguise the fact that he is not a fan of the March of the Penguins type feel good nature romp. He pretty explicitly states this in his Antarctic documentary Encounters At The End of the World. Having recently viewed Lars Von Trier‘s Antichrist, there is a line of dialogue that would probably make Herzog nod his head, “Nature is Satan’s church.” The combination of hostility/indifference of nature to man or animal is a common theme in Herzog’s documentaries and fictional (see also animal to Man in Grizzly Man).

    Only Herzog would travel all the way to Antarctica and spend just as much time with plumbers, bus drivers and even the cafeteria workers as he does with the scientists working in either natures crucible (a massive live volcano in the ice, with a pit of violent magma at the center) or in her icy cathedral (the waters under the 6 foot ice-floor that have vaulted ceilings and are both awesome and eerie). Yet of all things, it is indeed a penguin that hits the core theme of Herzog’s work: The intrepid, incomprehensibly motivated, adventurer that risks death for often vague goals of adventure and glory. In this case, it is haunting and strange to see a penguin that insists on walking endlessly into the continent, away from the flock and the life-giving ocean waters into thousands of kilometers of rock and ice. Herzog simply saying the phrase ‘certain death’ is enough to flutter the heart and tingle the spine. Perhaps it is the accent, perhaps his speech cadence, or a combination of both. Either way, it is one of many delights of this film, and a memorable image that goes strongly against the currents of a Disneyfied world.

  • Finite Focus – You’ve got to be Kidding me (Escape From L.A.)

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    escape_from_la-onesheetWith the current blockbuster season revamping old toy lines into earnestly over-plotted visual CGI nightmares. Let us go back to 1996 when John Carpenter made a sequel/remake/parody of his own post-apocalyptic B-film classic Escape From New York. Escape from L.A. has all the hallmarks of a sequel, a familiar plot that recycles much of what was loved in the original and a much bigger budget, yet for one reason or another, Carpenter decided to do almost all of the special effects work with models and mattes. It adds a goofy charm to the film, which I have to imagine was intentional. Carpenter’s willingness to go boldy into wacky territory with Escape From L.A., gives the film a certain wit as a spoof of some of the concerns of the various boroughs: plastic surgery, star-fucking, beach culture but also on action-shoot-em-up filmmaking in general. The last part may have turned many fans of the original (which, lets face it, is silly-fun in its own right) away from the sequel and not made any headway in critical or popular circles, but there are a small and dedicated group who do love this old-school candy confection.

    And never the idiom of the film more fully on display than in this particular Deux Ex Machina. Snake has just been shot and escaped from gladiatorial basketball, but has to get across town to find Hershe Las Palmas (Pam Grier) and her band of hand-gliding warriors with no time to spare. So, falling down a gully, he finds Peter Fonda, here playing a Zen surfer, suited up in his a wet suit, surfboard in hand. Conveniently giving Snake a second board (begging the question for what is coming, why he’d bring a second board, or park his jeep down in the ditch for that matter), they wait a few seconds for ‘Tsumani,’ the big one, a wave of water purging through the sunken city streets. If that isn’t enough, while surfing with a bullet in his thigh, Snake spots Map-To-The-Stars-Eddie, (Steve Buscemi standing in for Ernest Borgnine’s Cabbie, just not as nice) and transfers from the surfboard to the back of Eddie’s car. Buscemi’s expression and muttering one-liner is priceless. With a well timed jump wherein the scene switches seemlessly to driving stuntwork as the wave passes onward. The complete lack of veracity to the look or plausibility (or because of it), make the scene pretty glorious.

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