Finite Focus: A little bit of seduction in Children Of Paradise

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In a beautiful poetic film of many diverse and wonderful characters, my favourite moment comes down to pure carnal desire. It’s a simple look and casual statement made by a sleepy-eyed woman to a man. Contrary to what he may think as she stands near a bed, she’s not tired in the least. Her gaze is direct and her smile is anything but coy.

 

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It’s a wonderful sensual act which isn’t lost on her male companion – especially when it’s followed by the delicate positioning of her fingers on the bed and a deliberate reveal of her long legs.

It’s sexy as hell.

 

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Finite Focus: The Pool Party in Boogie Nights

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Whether you want to call it homage or straight up borrowing, P.T. Anderson’s great Boogie Nights certainly shows off its influences. Altman and Scorsese figure prominently, but another inspiration is Mikhail Kalatozov and his film I Am Cuba (which also happens to be a big Scorsese favourite too). Aside from being drop-dead gorgeous and a remarkably poetic piece of propaganda, I Am Cuba is known for several incredible long takes that, as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, will still take your breath away. One of them starts 2 minutes into the film as a camera roams through a decadent hotel party and bathing beauty contest, moves down several stories, through a crowd of people and into the water of a pool to capture the swimmers under the surface. Anderson states in his commentary on Boogie Nights that they not only wanted to try the same thing, but have the camera come out of the water too.

It’s a showy scene for sure, but it also ties together numerous threads and characters from the story and emphasizes how these lost souls are all together in this porn “family” – whether as complete avoidance of the real world or as a temporary waystation. We see Buck Swope’s (Don Cheadle) search for an identity continue as well as Maurice TT Rodriguez’s (Luis Guzman) pleading to Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) to be included in one of their films. Midway through the scene, Buck and Maurice go inside the house together as the camera picks up another character, but we reconvene with them a few minutes later in another scene that closes on Amber’s newly discovered fascination with Eddie Adams.

My favourite part of the party scene, though, is the last part of the clip above and comes right after the first cut that follows the long take into the pool. Eddie (who hasn’t yet become full blown pornstar Dirk Diggler) is asking his new buddy Reed Rothchild if his just completed pike dive into the pool looked awesome. Reed is looking to play a mentor role for the young lad and decides to reign in his confidence a bit. “I’ll show you what you did wrong.” Reed lines up a full flip, but only manages about 75% of it and lands flat on his back. As Eric Burdon and his sexy sounding female vocalist continue to pulse on the soundtrack, there’s a great edit underwater to Reed’s pained expression as he slowly floats to the surface with his back arched. It’s one of the funnier moments in a film teeming with them (as much as it’s also terribly dark at times), but it serves a purpose too – once Reed pops above the surface and Eddie says “You gotta brings your legs all the way around!”, that mentoring relationship has ended. Reed’s final “I know…I know..” comment is a realization and acceptance that he’ll be playing the supporting role to the star that Eddie will become.

Once we see Amber hoover a line of coke and then gaze intently at Eddie landing a full flip properly (in slow motion of course), we are fully prepped to dive headlong into the downward spirals that lie ahead.

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Finite Focus: The Opening of The Warriors

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The MovieClub podcast was kind enough to ask me to join them late last year for a roundtable discussion of John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up and Walter Hill’s The Driver. I had a great time, learned a thing or two about Elmore Leonard (thanks Kurt!), discovered a link between 52 Pick-Up and Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (thanks Jandy!) and used Google Hangout for the first time. This made the whole conversation almost exactly like a real roundtable since it included video of whoever was speaking in the main view and the rest of us down along the bottom. It also enabled us to drop images into the stream during the conversation, so we could illustrate several points. Pretty spiffy stuff.

Anyway, in preparation for the discussion, I rewatched Walter Hill’s cult-fave The Warriors and was more than happy to do it. It had been quite a few years since I’d seen it, but it held up great and doesn’t suffer from the standard dated feel that many 70s and 80s films typically do. It’s not that it doesn’t contain relics of 30 years ago, but just that it doesn’t feel stuck there. As a matter of fact, it even has a vaguely futuristic feel to it – not in the shiny-chrome kind of way or even as a post-apocalyptic tale, but simply as a point in time in the city that might be headed our way. The one thing that really impressed this time around was the film’s opening: those first seven minutes set up the story, characters, environment and even background in an impressively efficient, creative and engaging way. I just picked up the BluRay and was once again wowed by that opening sequence.

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Finite Focus: Buster Keaton tries to relax (Our Hospitality)

Buster Keaton has always been famous for his daring stunts and his deadpan face. Rarely does he break expression as he tumbles down mountainsides, fights vicious storms or survives buildings crashing around him. One of his best stunts occurs near the end of his classic Our Hospitality – as his beloved floats uncontrollably towards a huge waterfall and certain death, he ties himself to an overhanging log and swings out to catch the falling body as it plummets over the edge of roaring water. It may only be a dummy that takes the plunge over the edge, but that’s Keaton arcing out like a pendulum to catch it while swallowing torrents of water. It’s a fantastic scene that provides an exciting climax and is possibly even more remarkable in its execution today than almost 90 years ago when he performed it. There’s no editing out of safety wires or harnesses here – just a basic knowledge of physics and a great deal of nerve.

As great as it is, though, my favourite moment in the film comes much earlier and shows off one of Keaton’s other comedic skills – his impeccable timing. Unaware of a long-standing family feud (similar to a Hatfield/McCoy battle), Willie Mckay returns to his family home for the first time in decades. There he meets a young woman who just happens to be a member of his family’s rivals and she invites him over to dinner. The menfolk of her family are, of course, aghast when he arrives, but since they are hospitable southern gentlemen, they would never kill him inside their house. So they wait until he must eventually leave. Willie realizes this and stalls his departure – which also gives him more time with his new girl.

As he watches her play the piano, he becomes aware of the baleful glares of his hopeful executioners. For a full 10 seconds, he tries to appear unfazed by looking for a natural relaxed mode, but continues to shift positions, trying folded arms then leaning against the wall then hands in pockets, but never quite doing any of them before changing his mind and trying something else. It’s a wonderful little piece of funny business that shows his awkwardness and nervousness at the situation – while never letting his expression change.

You can see that snippet from the scene below:

Finite Focus: The Mother Summons Her Strength (Aparajito)

1955’s Pather Panchali (which translates roughly to “Song Of The Little Road”) was Satyajit Ray’s breakthrough on the international stage when it first made waves at Cannes. He followed it up the next year with the second part of his “Apu Trilogy” entitled Aparajito (“The Unvanquished”) which furthered the story of young Apu. After a tragedy befalls his family in the first film, they move from their rural home to the city. In Banaras they live near the Ganges river where Apu’s father goes for prayers every day while Apu begins to learn the same rituals in order that he too can work as a priest and bring some money into the household (even though he is only 10 at the beginning of the film).

An older gentleman also lives in their building and is always kind to the family. Apu’s mother avoids eye contact with him and always raises her sari a bit higher over her head when he is around. This initially appears to simply be a sign of deference, but there’s a moment in the middle of the film that shows her previous behaviour to have been concern about his presence. Her husband has fallen ill after one too many trips to the river (and the mammoth climb back up from it) and the older gentleman sticks his head into his room and calls to him. When the husband doesn’t respond and is obviously too weak to even move, the old man moves to the doorway.

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Finite Focus: Monsters vs. ALIENS

[Prometheus is coming. And to celebrate the Alien universe and all its permutations, I’m pulling this 2009 Finite Focus entry from the archives, which looks at one of the quieter moments in Jim Cameron’s entry into the series]

aliens_onesheetWhen one thinks of James Cameron‘s re-invention of the premise from 1979’s Alien, it generally is the macho bravado of the space marines that get the lion-share of quotable dialogue, and have been copied in other films to this day, ad nauseum. Yet the movie (most especially the lengthened directors cut of the film) slips in a strong maternal theme amongst the testosterone. While the film finally does turn Ellen Ripley into a ‘mech suited warrior’ (via the most well realized body-fork-lifter ever committed to celluloid), that comes later.

One of the strongest scenes in the film, perhaps showcasing some of Sigourney Weaver‘s best acting (Oscar nominated for this role, dontcha know!) this side of Death and The Maiden and Galaxy Quest is a tender moment spent with the frightened little girl. Being the only survivor of the fledgling colony of a planet infested with monsters, Rebecca, or Newt, likely witnessed on some level, many of the horrors when her parents bring home an embryo implanted in her father. Hardly a girl that needs to be lied to for protection, yet she is surely confused by the pretense of adults. Newt’s line of questions on ‘monsters’ and a tacit acceptance that they do indeed exist, ending with the connection to pregnancy is worthy of a Grimm fairy tale. Despite being a hearty mainstream blockbuster with crowd appeal, this moment stands out as one of (if not the) best moments in the film, worthy of Jan Svankmajer‘s Alice, a surreal take on Lewis Carroll that would come along two years later from eastern Europe, and feature a child actress bearing more than a little similarity to Newt’s Carrie Henn. Henn quit while she was ahead, not appearing in another film after this one.

Worthy of mention too is that the scene starts out cold, metallic and sterile (like most of Aliens) and ends on a warm orange light haloing both actresses in intimate close-up. This is one of the last breathing moments before a 45 minute long perfectly sustained action sequence. A sequence where much is on the line because of the tenderness of that moment.

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Finite Focus: Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (Nowhere to Hide)

There is something both delightful and exhausting about Lee Myung-Se’s Nowhere To Hide. On one hand, the director plays with form to turn a dead-simple police procedural film into an evocative avant garde experiment; a clothesline for hanging every manner of stylistic tic and exudation of cinematic coolness. On the other, it’s entirely too damn long for such a simple conceit. Nevertheless, its sheer bravado and high gloss make it one of the key films to kick off the stylish Korean New Wave of the early 21st century. The movie plays at “11,” style-wise, for much of its runtime. But true to the Korean idiom, it has a plethora of tonal changes both within scenes and also by the (tenuous) glue connecting the film together. Occasionally it even stops for a brief The Third Man-esque impractical romance – to the point where it scene-checks the wonderful ending of the Carol Reed film. Fans of the third Matrix film will notice that the Wachowski Brothers borrowed the final fist fight (in heavy rain) from this film for the epic show-down between Neo and Agent Smith. So the film is a equal opportunity borrower and lender and that is the way it should be; cultural appropriation and so it goes. But that is not the scene I wish to highlight with this Finite Focus. There is something even better.

Never is the ‘lets just be so goddamn cool’ more apparent than this scene which uses an early Bee Gees song — yes, you heard that right: maximum coolness via The Bee Gees — over the murder on a stairwell that kicks off the ‘plot.’ Using freeze frames, slow motion, jump cuts, exotic camera movement, staccato step-printing and more to make a triad murder ring out with visual (and aural) poetry. It is all in the shot-by-shot extreme attention to detail which making things creep towards the sublime, a melancholy opera on a moment to moment basis. This is certainly the hallmark of Lee Myung-Se who carried this unique style on-wards across genres: wuxia (The Dualist), dream-logic (M) and soon, hopefully into the spy comedy territory with the forthcoming riff on True Lies, Mr. K.

Finite Focus: Ben Affleck Gets His Comeuppance (Dazed and Confused)

I only saw Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused for the very first time about a year ago and it became an instant favorite. It’s one of those flicks that I find insanely rewatchable because of the distinct characters, quotable dialogue, terrific soundtrack and a general sort of laid back, “it’ll be all right on the night” attitude. And it has a host of actors before they were really known names, from Milla Jovovich and Matthew McConaughey to Rory Cochrane and Nicky Katt (to name but a few).

Also in the mix is one Ben Affleck, playing bully Fred O’Bannion who makes it his mission to smack in the ass with a paddle all those juniors who escaped his clutches during the last day of school (I’m sure that school “tradition” makes much more sense to those in the US!). There are so many great scenes I could have chosen to highlight but ultimately I decided on the one in which O’Bannion gets what he deserves. I hate the kind of person that Affleck plays in the movie (being mean and nasty for no good reason) and I get so much satisfaction seeing him get his comeuppance like this every time I watch it.

Finite Focus: Blowing Up The Photographs (Blow-Up)

The first time I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up, I made the mistake of watching it as a simple narrative story and so by the end of it I was not only slightly confused but also a bit frustrated. It had a sudden, abrupt ending and some very odd scenes of shifting perspectives. For example:

1) Photographer Thomas (played by David Hemmings) is rolling around the floor with two young nubile models. As the expressions on the faces of the young women seem to alternate between happy and frightened, you become unsure whether they are participating in this willingly.

2) While at a club, Thomas witnesses the crowd fighting for the broken neck of a guitar which was thrown into the crowd by an angry Jeff Beck (while the rest of The Yardbirds – including Jimmy Page – keep playing). Thomas jumps into the fray, desperately grabs the guitar neck and dashes toward the door. The crowd follows him as if getting that broken piece of wood was the most important thing they’ve ever had to do. Thomas escapes to the street, looks over his prize, then tosses it to the ground and walks away.

I left the film with a frown on my face. But it stayed with me and it kept rolling around in my mind. What I came to realize was that those scenes only make sense if you look at them (and the entire movie) as showing different perceptions of reality depending on given contexts and points of view. So within that concert hall, the guitar neck is important – outside, not so much. Thomas thinks the young women are having a great time rolling around on the floor with him – the women, not so much.

This changing of one’s perception also goes for one of the best sections of the film. Thomas re-examines some photos he took in the park as he suspects they might help him unravel a mystery. He blows up a number of the pictures and scatters them on the wall. He looks from one to another, blows up some further portions and then, as he thinks he has put it together, we see a set of images from his photos in order:

 

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