Finite Focus: Albert Brooks’ Gold Fish (Out of Sight)

Albert Brooks might feel a bit snubbed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences considering all the critical love for his performance in Nicholas Winding Refn’s genre-delight, Drive. One has only to look at the image above to see why perhaps the Academy wasn’t overly keen on recognizing the picture in any category outside of Sound Editing. In all fairness, violent movies such as Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan and No Country for Old Men were all nominated recently besides violence. But I digress. Despite that many people feel that Brooks hasn’t done genre films before and the performance in Drive seemed to come out of nowhere. But really, Brooks did this kind of thing wonderfully in Stephen Soderberg’s highly entertaining Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight.

Take this scene where Don Cheadle shakes down Brooks’ white collar inmate in the prison library. On Oscar Nomination day, Cheadle will be playing the part of AMPAS, and this time George Clooney is too busy picking up his own Oscars to play defender to Brooks. Either way, no Gold(Fish) for the man, and that’s too bad.

Finite Focus: Dealing With The Break-Up (Tuesday, After Christmas)



Radu Muntean’s 2011 film Tuesday, After Christmas shares many similar stylistic attributes with its recent Romanian brethren – it proceeds at a leisurely pace (depending on your point of view, this could be termed “unhurried” or “glacial” – I prefer the former), contains very naturalistic performances, uses very little extraneous music and incorporates very long takes. Other then the tension-filled dinner scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, rarely have I seen all these qualities used as exquisitely as in this film’s central scene: the 12-minute long sequence of a wife gaining her strength and resolve to assert control over her husband – after having just learned from him of his infidelity and his love for a younger woman – and to decide how things will be from now on.

The film’s plot is razor thin: Cristi’s wife Adriana accidentally meets his mistress Raluca (but doesn’t learn about the affair) and it makes him realize that he needs to come clean and make his choice. He still loves his wife, but for him it’s a familiar, comfortable relationship and not quite the passionate affair he’s having with Raluca. We get an intimate glimpse in the film’s long opening scene (single shot of course) of them lounging in a naked, post-coital bliss as she playfully nips at his chin and they engage in the chit-chat of lovers. Later, as contrast, we see Adriana shaving Cristi’s sideburns while he stands naked at the bathroom mirror. It’s not that he doesn’t love his wife – there’s a tenderness with which he rubs her feet on the couch while they have a routine conversation – but he feels the pull towards his younger, less self-sufficient and more vulnerable mistress. So when Adriana decides to meet Cristi at the dentist, she also meets Raluca who is the hygienist that has been working on her daughter’s teeth for the last few visits. After the extremely tense meeting (for two of them at least – Adriana is unaware of anything), Cristi realizes what he has to do.

Would you like to know more…?

Finite Focus: Crazy Dance (Simple Men)

Stylish for the sake of style, very much of the 1990s, Hal Hartley may be the precursor to a variety of that decade’s indie success stories: Kevin Smith, Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson. He has a knack for using big words and big ideas for chuckles and certainly knows his way around a pop song.

While Giorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth gets a lot of credit for the its protagonist’s crazy dance, here is the Hal Hartley version, circa 1992. You cannot get much more indie cred in the early 1990s than Sonic Youth, but Hartley plays everything like a sight gag. There is a point to it all, however. As in most things Hartley it is simultaneously obvious, insincere and loaded with irony. The lead characters, foregrounded in the second half of the dance, begin a foolhardy courtship that you know (as per all Hartley joints) will end badly, dance (and song) acts as a bit of greek chorus. Characters in his films are troubled, mysterious, childish and ultimately romantic caricatures, that nevertheless capture…something.

“I can’t stand the quiet!”

Since I am guest spotting on The Director’s Club podcast this week and have been reacquainting myself with this episodes director, let’s Crazy Dance!

Finite Focus: How to Smoke a Joint (Taking Off)

Before Milos Forman was the Oscar-winning director of Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he was one of the foremost directors of the Czechoslovak New Wave, bringing French New Wave sensibilities to a Czechoslovak setting (but calling on universal themes) in films like Black Peter, Loves of a Blonde, and The Fireman’s Ball. In between those two career phases, he made his Hollywood debut with Taking Off (1971), made while he was still struggling with English and having to rely on writer/actor Buck Henry to help him with the line readings. But that doesn’t seem to matter too much, and the film, though something of an oddity, is more compelling than you might imagine.

Generally, it’s the story of a young girl who wants to be free from her parents’ loving but old-fashioned home and joins up with a group of free-loving hippies. But the film doesn’t focus on her, aside from a few sequences where we’re privy to a sort of impromptu concert from future stars like Carly Simon and a young Kathy Bates (billed as Bobo Bates), who provide a sort of wistful soundtrack. The rest of the time, we’re with her parents, searching for her fruitlessly, not really knowing where to turn until they stumble upon some other parents in the same situation and discover there’s a whole support group – the Society for the Parents of Lost Children, or SPLC for short. At one of the meetings of the SPLC, the leader suggests that everybody try marijuana – you know, to understand what their children are experiencing.

Would you like to know more…?

Finite Focus: Machine Gun Fantasy (I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK)

After making a few of the most powerful films of the last decade with “The Vengeance Trilogy” (consisting of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) Korean director Park Chan-wook made this quirky gem entitled I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (which may be one of my favorite movie titles ever). Taking place in a mental institution filled with all sorts of eclectic patients, it follows a young woman who thinks she is a cyborg.

Some might say this goes too far over the line into silly and eccentric, with all sorts of kookiness thrown in just for the sake of it. And while there are parts of it that makes me, a big fan of strange cinema, raise my eyebrows I nonetheless get swept up in the fantasy.

No more is that fantasy put display than in the scene I have chosen to highlight here in which the main character gets up from her wheelchair, walks casually to the middle of all the adjoining hospital corridors, holds up her arms in front of her and proceeds to tear up the place with machine gun bullets she is imagining are coming out of her fingertips. It’s a wonderfully over-the-top and quite brilliantly put together sequence that shows off Park’s visual flair as much as any other scene he’s ever done.

If you’ve never seen this film before please do, and watching the scene now will definitely give you great insight into what you can expect:

Finite Focus: Competitive Scars (Jaws)

While my recent rewatch of Steven Spielberg’s breakthrough hit Jaws reinforced all my memories of perfectly paced thrills and well-done animatronic shark effects, what really struck me this time around is the way the film takes its time with these characters, and always in a way that enhances the story at hand. The three men who go after the shark have disparate backgrounds, which are established just enough for their interactions to work, and work they do. Brody is a water-phobic police chief new to the town who feels his duty to protect the people he’s called to serve very strongly, but has to prove himself in the face of skeptical and quite frankly oblivious town leadership. He takes his responsibility so seriously that he overcomes his fear of boats to join the shark-hunting expedition personally. Hooper is an enthusiastic marine biologist who knows sharks inside and out but still may not be prepared for what he’s about to face. Quint is a hardened shark-hunter who faces danger head-on, with almost a deathwish level of intensity. These personalities clash, but there’s one scene where their masculine competition escalates but ends in bonding.

After hunting the shark for a while, they take a break, have a few drinks, and Hooper and Quint start one-upping each other with scars and wounds gathered in their line of work. There’s definitely still a bit of a competitive vibe here, but it’s a friendly one, the barbs of difference deflected as they tell stories about their experiences. It’s not the kind of thing you’d initially expect from Hooper, who initially seems too nerdy to care about such one-upsmanship, but he’s as excited about his work with dangerous animals as Quint, and it makes sense that they’d share a sense of pride in their “war wounds.” There’s a wonderful moment when Brody starts to bare his stomach, presumably thinking about showing a scar of his own (one relating to his fear of boats, perhaps?), but refrains, leaving it to his more boisterous companions. It sets Brody apart from them, and yet, he’ll be the one with the best story to tell from this expedition.

Would you like to know more…?

Finite Focus: The Crab Lady (Pulse – Kairo)



Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Pulse” (also known as “Kairo”) is one of my favourite doomsday films. It’s dark, depressing, unwavering in its march towards the end of humanity and creepy as hell. By using sound, darkness and shadows in a very subtle manner, Kurosawa shows the gradual disintegration of society as the ghosts of the dead find their way back to the living. It’s really a commentary on humanity’s growing disconnection from itself as more and more people use cell phones and computers to communicate instead of face to face. The film is one of the best representations of “dread” I’ve ever come across which creates a feeling of complete void within the pit of your stomach. There are plenty of fine examples within the film, but the best is probably the one scene that sticks in most people’s memory – the crab lady.

During a period of time when more and more people are getting connected to the Internet (and in the day when Modems were still commonplace – the film was released in 2000), there seems to be a greater disconnect in the population as a whole. The streets are becoming deserted, people are staying inside their personal shelters and the souls of dead people are spilling into the real world among us. In the scene in question, a young man enters an abandoned room (friendly tip: if a room is sealed off with red tape, do NOT go into it) and starts to explore it. As he looks around the light shifts and illuminates a large red splotch on the wall. At the same time a spooky low female moan rises up on the soundtrack. Until this point the only sounds have been the ambient noises of his footsteps in the abandoned room and some low rumbling from outside. He turns back to where he walked in and we cut to his point of view. Recessed at the back against the wall is a dark form – the moaning stops, the rumbling continues and suddenly a high-pitched screechy squeaking sound dominates. It cuts out leaving the rumbling and then begins again just as she starts slowly, and abnormally smoothly, walking towards the man.

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Finite Focus: Battling the Elements for 116 Years [Buster Keaton]

Well, not quite 116 years. Buster Keaton would’ve turned 116 today, and his films have been delighting audiences for 94 of those years. One of the three great silent comedians (along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd), Keaton’s name doesn’t always strike the immediate recognition among mainsteam audiences that Chaplin’s might, but for me, and for many who have seen his films, Keaton’s particular brand of stone-faced endurance against any and all elements that would seek to do him in – from enemy soldiers to angry fathers to hordes of cops to nature itself – can hardly be beat.

Keaton was a genius at physical comedy, and though Chaplin practically has a patent on the word “pathos,” Keaton’s stoicism manages to get just as much or more true emotion. You feel for him because he refuses to ask for your empathy. Meanwhile, he was busy working through some of the most incredible stunts ever put on film, which he did all himself. The first “whoa” moment watching a Keaton film is always “whoa, they did this before they had computers and stuff,” and the second is always “whoa, he’s doing this himself without stunt double to fill in.” Chaplin did this too, don’t get me wrong, and I love Chaplin to bits, but I get a sense of real danger with Buster that’s quite exhilarating without ever failing to be funny.

Would you like to know more…?

Finite Focus: “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” (Lost Highway)

Lost Highway posterI‘ve already professed my love for the work of director David Lynch in my previous Rank ‘Em post. To me he has made some of the most interesting and thought-provoking films ever, whether it be getting under the skin of the everyday (Blue Velvet), getting to the heart of humanity (The Elephant Man) or exploring the myths and pitfalls of Hollywood (Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire), I find his films not only fascinating but weirdly rewatchable in spite of their strangeness.

For this Finite Focus I thought I’d highlight one of my all-time favorite Lynch scenes, from his labyrinthine Lost Highway (which Kurt already highlighted in a previous Finite Focus), in which Bill Pullman is at a party and is suddenly approached by a mysterious pale-faced man (Robert Blake). What follows is a baffling and creepy-as-hell conversation in which the Mystery Man (as he’s credited) seemingly is both at the party and at Pullman’s house. Is it as simple as the Mystery Man having a twin? Or is there something altogether more bizarre and sinister going on? It’s a Lynch film so who knows but the scene stands as one of the creepiest of all time in my eyes.

Whether you’ve never seen it before or just need a refresher, here’s the scene in question below.

Don’t have nightmares, now…

Finite Focus: “Are they?” (Shadow of a Doubt)


Suspense as a genre can be distinguished from mystery by the simple fact that in a mystery, you don’t know whodunit until the very end, and in suspense, you do – the suspense comes from the fact that you know more than the characters, or that you AND the characters know the truth but cannot get out of a dangerous situation. Suspense works because we’re caught between our knowledge and our helplessness – a situation ripe for exploiting audience identification. Alfred Hitchcock excelled at suspense, and this brief scene from Shadow of a Doubt shows why.

Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) has returned to his small-town extended family, sending his namesake niece (Teresa Wright) into fits of joy. But we know not everything is right with Uncle Charlie – he’s fled his city apartment quickly, with a large wad of cash and two men tailing him. Hitchcock leaves a bit of mystery at this point, as we don’t know for nearly an hour what exactly he’s running from – not until young Charlie get suspicious and looks up a newspaper clipping that Uncle Charlie had tried to hide. But she’s still not sure (as we definitely are, since we have more clues to piece together and don’t have Charlie’s adoration for her uncle to overcome), and leads the conversation to poke at Charlie’s insecurities.

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Finite Focus: “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” (Rio Bravo)

Rio Bravo posterHallmarks of the Western genre include shoot-outs, cowboys battling Indians, chases on horse-back and the classic good versus bad mentality. But Howard Hawks’ wonderful Rio Bravo (which I just saw for the first time recently, I am ashamed to admit) is one of those which proves that a little sing-song is welcome every once in a while.

Instantly taking its rightful place on my list of all time favorite movie scenes is when Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson sit back, relax and join together to sing “My Rifle, My Pony and Me.” Added touches of joy come from Walter Brennan’s Stumpy playing the harmonica while he awaits eagerly to join in on the next song (and he very much does!), as well as Western veteran John Wayne happily watching on without singing a word. The scene is so well played that you forget, if only for a few moments, the overall plot of the movie.

Truly one of the great “take a break from the action” moments of all time and surely one to cheer you up if you’re feeling down. Sublime.