365cinema

365 films, 365 days, a year of cinema.

Rivers and Tides December 9, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — welch742 @ 9:51 pm

 

Day 35

 

Art and Time have always seemed to have a long-term relationship. Great art takes time to create, to properly evaluate, and most art is created using materials (marble, canvas/paint, metal) that they hope will stand the test of time. This long-term relationship is important because most art is created for spectators, and a sense of permanence is necessary so that it can be properly digested.  Rivers and Tides flips this relationship on its head by introducing us to Andy Goldsworthy, a natural sculptor and artist. Goldsworthy is notable because he only works with material he finds in nature (ice, rocks, roots, leaves, etc.) and he allows his works to interact with their surroundings.

What that means in a nutshell is that Goldsworthy goes out into nature and builds various works of art and then allows nature to have their way with them. No matter the size, the detail of the piece, or the time it took to make, Goldsworthy allows his works to be consumed by the environment he pulled them from. This may be hard to grasp without seeing his work firsthand, but let me try to elaborate using a picture or two. Take a look at this piece of art for example:

 

 

Goldsworthy created this by taking various size chunks of icicles and putting them together using only the cold air and the heat from his hands. He did this over the course of one night, and after finishing it he photographed it and let nature run its course. The sculpture melted very quickly after the sun rose, and if not for the documentary crew filming, no other human soul would’ve had hard evidence that it had ever existed. Goldsworthy’s method fascinates me because he truly has no interest in his art as a commercial product. He truly uses only what nature provides to him, and he accepts that often times his projects fail: beautiful webs of sticks get blown apart by wind, massive rock formations fall apart as the earth shifts, the slightest incorrect touch brings down a complicated  composition of leaves. His work’s relationship with time produces actual stakes that make every completed work seem more impressive and breathtaking than the last, especially since the beauty is always fleeting.

However fleeting it is, Goldsworthy work’s are truly beautiful. If anything Rivers and Tides is a successful documentary because of the amazing works of natural art it displays, like this for example.

 

Goldsworthy created this using various color leaves, with a weird type of root making the black spot in the center. There were no paint or artificial substances used, even though in picture form the center spot is so black it looks fake. This particular work does not even get very much mention in the documentary and there are eight to ten more that we see from start to completion that look almost too good to actually exist.

Rivers and Tides isn’t completely perfect though, and despite its interesting concept and beautiful imagery, it sometimes feels hollow. Goldsworthy is a very intriguing main character and his methods are unique to say the least, but we never really learn too much about him. He gives us a glimpse into his life, his influences, and how he works, but overall we never truly understand why he has devoted his life to such an interesting pursuit. That does not make the documentary any less fun to watch, but when I was done I could remember almost everything he made, but I did not really remember anything notable about the person making them. Still in terms of visually interesting and thought provoking documentaries you could do a lot worse than Rivers and Tides. Even if you have no interest in art, it still has plenty to offer.

 

Up Next: My look at Billy Wilder continues with an analysis of his harsh look at alcoholism, The Lost Weekend.

 

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The Heartbreak Kid December 8, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — welch742 @ 4:00 am

 

Day 34

 

Love isn’t the only thing that blows about The Heartbreak Kid!  Zing!  Ok, now that I have that out of my system I will say that The Heartbreak Kid wasn’t that bad.  It had some funny moments and Ben Stiller was his normal neurotic self, but outside of that most everything else was a mess.   The problem with movies like The Heartbreak Kid is that they don’t know whether to be gross out screwball comedies or whether to be more of a heartfelt romantic comedy.  Instead they fall somewhere in between and the result is a film with very uneven tone and characters who feel underdeveloped and uninteresting.  None of those things lead to a good movie and it’s a shame that the Farrelly brothers have fallen so far after There’s Something About Mary.

If you haven’t seen the movie, you don’t necessarily have to read a plot synopsis to catch up, but just take my word for it when I say the characters in The Heartbreak Kid do some terrible things. The plot is littered with infidelity, dishonesty, and just general mean and thoughtless behavior, but that’s not why it’s a bad movie. Plenty of contemporary raunchy comedies are filled with characters who have questionable moral compasses, just look at  The Hangover or Grown Ups. We watch movies like The Heartbreak Kid because they are full of outrageous scenarios that we would never want to experience first hand. It can be fun to watch people squirm,  but for the movie to ultimately succeed, the characters have to be likable throughout the film. It isn’t enough for the lead character to have a moral breakthrough at the end of the movie; it will just feel hollow and unearned without actual character development. It is ok for Phil to be a douche-bag for the entirety of The Hangover because we know deep down he actually is a solid person who cares for his friends. The movie tells us this through his attitude and demeanor, and while his actions aren’t altruistic, we can forgive him.

The Heartbreak Kid never makes that same connection to its characters, and its frustrating because it easily could have. Eddie, Ben Stiller’s character, is put in a terrible situation. He’s had a rough few years finding love and the one time he rushes into a decision it turns out he married a psychopath. We can certainly empathize with him, but it’s not enough to justify how poorly he treats everyone else in the film. There are no consequences to his decisions and even when things fall apart, I found myself happy that he had failed. That is not a good thing when you are trying to push the love story aspect of your movie. The ending should have set itself up as a moment of redemption for Eddie. Instead it allows him to wallow in the terrible choices he made, and then out of the blue try to win the girl of his dreams back. He doesn’t make any personality changes or revert to being the likable person at the beginning of the film. Instead we watch him desperately beg for happiness and the film happily gives it to him. It tries to pull it away at the very end, but at that point it was too little, too late. I had already given up hope that any of the characters of the film would make me feel anything other than anger, and anger isn’t the best emotion to feel when watching a romantic comedy.

 

Up Next: Nature becomes art in the documentary Rivers and Tides.

 

 

 

Waking Life September 28, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — welch742 @ 3:19 am

 

Day 33

 

Just by looking at the picture above, it is very clear that Waking Life is not your typical film.  Everything from its look to its plot, to its characters are radically different than any film I have seen in a while.  In fact, after watching Waking Life I’m not sure if it is correct to classify it as movie/film without using major clarifications.  Waking Life is in reality a long philosophical journey that covers all aspects of life and dreams.  It is built around the lucid dreams of the main character, whose name and back story we don’t know, but mainly he is a vehicle for the viewer to experience many conversations about what life, reality, and dreams have to do with real life.  Through in the fact that Waking Life was overdrawn and has varying levels of animation quality the film can sometimes be a little more different than it needs to be.  However, it has a lot of interesting things to say about philosophy, science, and general life topics which makes it a worthwhile film to view.

I won’t even try to describe the plot for you since it really isn’t all that important, but I feel like some explanation for the cell shaded look of the film is in order.  Waking Life was actually shot normally using digital video, but Richard Linklater (yes the same guy who did Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) decided to have artists digitally draw shapes and colors over the frame, giving it a pseudo-animated look.  This is the same type of look used in the film A Scanner Darkly, but in this film the quality and consistency of the animation is very varied.  It is tough to describe the overall look in the film without having seen it, but here are two images that give an example of the varied look the movie has.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This technique is called rotoscoping, and while it can be somewhat distracting at times, it provides a dream look that keeps the film grounded in its themes.  It also allows for Linklater to use fluid transitions and on-screen animations to emphasize some of the more “out there” theories and actions used in the film.  It”s a very unique way to visually present the movie and it wouldn’t work for most films, but Waking Life isn’t like most films.  It keeps you in a dreamlike and somewhat confused mindset throughout and the rotoscoping technique only heightens this distance from normal reality the film attempts to create.

The plot is just as scattered as the aesthetics, but Waking Life covers a wide variety of interesting topics and theories.  From telescopic evolution to “The Holy Moment” to talks about hitchhiking, the film covers a random assortment of crazy topics.  Some of them did move a little too far into philosophical theory, but overall Waking Life is a film that will constantly make you think.  That means it isn’t necessarily the best date movie, but it could generate some interesting conversation topics if viewed with company.  Ultimately though, Waking Life is a worthwhile film because it accentuates the individual experience.  The variety of topics and opinions can be interpreted many different ways and the nice thing about Waking Life is that Richard Linklater doesn’t push the viewer to accept any of the viewpoints he expresses.  The film merely presents various theories and allows the viewer to digest them at his own discretion.  It’s a far cry from the artificial emotion usually created in movies,  which allows it to be a much more rewarding film to watch.  While watching Waking Life I took by far the most notes I have on any film, but in hindsight there were merely aspects of the film that I found interesting, and not any technical or thematic revelations.  I figured I would spare you from them since the point of Waking Life is to take from it what you want.  However, I would definitely urge you to watch this film and take some notes of your own.

 

Up Next: I head back to normalcy and watch the Ben Stiller comedy The Heartbreak Kid.

 

Before Sunset September 16, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — welch742 @ 12:24 am

 

Day 31

 

After I finished watching Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise, I said in my review that I wouldn’t really be able to judge that movie without watching the 2003 sequel Before Sunset.  That was nothing against Before Sunrise, but the lack of real world grounding made me skeptical of how the movie played out.  After watching the sequel I feel much better about both movies and I’m glad that I watched Before Sunset even though I didn’t love Before Sunrise.

The sequel picks up nine years after the first movie ends with Jesse (Ethan Hawke) doing a book signing in Paris for his book whose plot very nearly mirrors his night with Celine.  Celine, having seen a sign advertising his book signing appears at the end of it and the two of them walk around the city catching up before Jesse has to go and catch a plane back to America.  The passage of nine years has had a substantial impact on both, and the dialogue in this film is far more concerned with their lives instead of their views on particular issues.  They do still move into  hypotheticals, but this time when they do it is clear that it is based more on their experiences.  Some of the cliffhangers from the first movie are answered like whether or not they went back to Austria six months later (he did, she didn’t) or whether they had sex (twice!), but overall the conversation is about their respective lives.  Both Jesse and Celine’s lives have not gone quite according to plan, and it is clear they relish the opportunity to be able to talk frankly about their successes and failures.  It makes for much more interesting conversation pieces, and the talks are far more emotional than before.

My problem with the first film was that the it seemed more that both Jesse and Celine fell in love with the idea of a perfectly honest night, and not with each other.  However, Before Sunset is excellent at showing just how comfortable the two are with each other, and how the presence of the other let’s them finally be completely honest with themselves.  Their ridiculous idealism hasn’t left completely, but it has been hardened by nine years of real life.  At the end of the film I still had doubts that they could make it as a real couple, but Before Sunset makes it clear that their night together had an enormous impact on both lives.  Hawkes and Delpy’s chemistry is even better than in the first film, and the slow burn between them is a pleasure to watch.  Both have significant others and many other obstacles keeping them apart, but it is clear this time around just how much they love each other.  The film even does a good job of answering many of the questions I still had, but leaving it somewhat open ended.

One of the other huge improvements over the first film is the fact that it takes place in real time.  Obviously, Linklater couldn’t have done that with the first film since it takes place over 16 hours, but Before Sunset really benefits from it.  For one Linklater uses many long takes, mainly walking shots, and these do an excellent job keeping the focus on Jesse and Celine.  The use of Paris could’ve became a distraction if Linklater used more scenic cuts, but he does an excellent job of using the location only when it made sense in the conversation.  After all, the film is only 81 minutes and the focus should be solely on Jesse and Celine, not their surroundings.  Real time also means that their conversation is extremely authentic.  We get to hear every awkward pause, every time they stumble over words, and every time they make a breakthrough.  The moment is very important for the both of them and Linklater makes sure that the audience gets to experience every moment of it.

In the end the nice thing about both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset is that they are both extremely personal films, in that every viewer will see them differently.  Essentially the films are simply moments in time, and the basic presentation in both allows you to take in whatever aspects you want.  Both films say a lot about life and love in general and depending on your worldview it is possible to interpret these films an infinite number of ways.  There is something beautiful about both the perfect moment they share in Before Sunrise and the repercussions it has in Before Sunset.  In the end, the only way to really evaluate both is based on how you felt when and after watching them.  That sounds cliche, but it’s the honest truth.

 

Up Next: I take in one of this year’s last summer blockbusters in Captain America: The First Avenger.  How will it stack up against the rest of the field?

 

Food Inc. September 15, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — welch742 @ 8:57 pm

 

Day 30

 

When Food Inc. was released in 2008 it received overwhelmingly positive critical and commercial attention.  I heard good things about it from everyone I knew who had seen it, with most saying that it changed the way they thought about the food industry.  At that point I was very intrigued and excited to see Food Inc., however it took me a while to actually sit down and watch the movie.  After all I love eating junk food, even though I know better, and I hate watching things that make me feel worse about my food consumption.  Still I knew at some point that I would have to let go of my pride and give Food Inc. a chance.

Now that I have seen the film I’m wondering why I worried so much in the first place.  Yes Food Inc. did make me feel bad about how poorly animals are treated by farmers and slaughterhouses.  It also made me angry about the fact that genetic patents exist, and that corn is used so poorly.  After watching the documentary I felt pretty bad about the business of food, but that feeling quickly subsided.  That’s probably because the key issue about Food Inc. is that is all about business.  There is nothing really personal at all about the documentary and that is where it falls way short.  Issue documentaries are all about addressing a serious problem and providing some potential for a solution, or at least an effective way the individual can get involved.  Food Inc. was never able to bridge that gap between problems with the industry and problems that are at the individual level.

Now that may make me seem heartless that I wasn’t able to personalize with all of the problems shown in the film and how these big, bad corporations did nothing about them, but to be honest I’m just being realistic.  These food industries exist because they are good at what they are supposed to do, which is to make money.  The methods that they use are in place because they create the highest profit margins, and while they may occasionally cause problems, they are something like 99.9% effective.  Also this means that when problems do break out they use the least-cost solution, which may seem heartless, but is just good business. Ultimately the only way problems like this get fixed is with new technology or by innovation that makes it less expensive to be able to raise and slaughter animals with the least amount of environmental harm.  My biggest problem was with the idea that life, in this case seeds, can be patented.  That seems pretty insane to me, but once again the only way to change that is with government policy.  I hate to be a cynic, but I doubt that will happen, so everyone will just have to get used to it.

At the end of the film Food Inc. tried to make a push for individual involvement and while it was an admirable one, it actually was somewhat insulting.  Their push was for people to whenever possible buy from companies who practice sustainable methods of farming or animal production.  There were so many issues brought up during the entire film, and that was really all they could push at the individual level.  Now personally, I would love to buy only organic or free-range food, but sadly i’m poor just like most of America.  If most people had enough money to make conscious food choices we would all purchase the highest quality food, but sadly most of us do not have that luxury.  Food Inc. even brings this issue up during the documentary and then at the end it decides to condense the problem as one that only rich people can afford to help with.  The fact that that was the only solution they could come up with is proof that Food Inc. is ultimately a failure.  It may succeed in showing people that we as consumers are not getting the best product, but then the only solution provided is just to buy the best product.  That is not an answer or even a suggestion that is acceptable nowadays.  I felt even less empowered than I did before watching the film and that is not something that an effective issue documentary does.  Even worse, I had no food in the fridge and it was 10 o’clock at night, so I went to Wendy’s and got myself some food.  The problems in Food Inc. didn’t seem like they were mine to solve so I enjoyed my meal guilt-free.

 

Up Next: I provide the thrilling conclusion to Richard Linklater’s love story by watching Before Sunset.

 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Filed under: Uncategorized — welch742 @ 7:45 pm

 

Day 29

 

The top line on the poster for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance states, “Together for the first time,” and it is one of the few times when the hype was worth it.  The film combines two of the biggest Western actors, Wayne and Stewart, with the best director of Westerns, Ford, and even features an amazing supporting performance from Lee Marvin as the titular villain Liberty Valance.  The film may have come at the end of their respective careers, and of Wayne, Stewart, and Ford only Wayne made or starred in another Western of note, True Grit.  However, they all were at their best in Liberty Valance and the result is one of the best Westerns that combines the themes of both rugged Western expansion and the eventual need to bring law and order into the territory.  Liberty Valance is all about the difference between myth and truth as well as perception and reality, and how history can be a tenuous thing.  Note: Unfortunately to discuss this film I will have to ruin the ending due to the impact it has on the film’s meaning.  If you have not seen the film and don’t want the ending ruined, don’t read on.  All I will say is that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a great Western that deserves to be seen by any fan of the genre.

The film hinges on the interactions between the two main characters Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) and Tom Doniphon (Wayne) and their respective relationship with the townsfolk of Shinbone.  Stoddard is a displaced lawyer trying to open a practice in Shinbone, while Doniphon is a rancher and gunfighter who fits in with the normal stereotypes of the old west.  The values are diametrically opposed  but they are tied together because they are both the man who shot Liberty Valance.  That might not make sense without having seen the film, but I shall explain as best I can.  Stoddard, in his attempt to use the law to bring down the murderous and thieving Valance ends up in a one on one shootout.  To the surprise of everyone in Shinbone, Stoddard appears to kill Valance with one shot, even though he has never shot a gun before, and he is praised by the townspeople.  After the incident Stoddard’s becomes a hero and is elected to represent Shinbone at the statehood convention. While their he is nominated to be the territory’s US representative and his new found fame makes him a shoo-in to win.  Stoddard, however, struggles with his guilt over murdering Valance until he is confronted by Doniphon.  Doniphon tells Stoddard that he was actually the one who shot and killed Valance, he did it from out of sight in an alley to the side of the shootout.  He then tells Stoddard that he is responsible for taking his fame and opportunity to bring order to the territory and make it a better place.  Stoddard accepts and is elected as the representative, the first step in a successful political career.

That last paragraph had a lot more plot synopsis than I normally like to include in my posts, but the particulars of that chain of events perfectly represent society’s development in the old west.  We love to glamorize the violence and chaos that made up the frontier, but we also make sure that this violence is palatable and righteous.  Larger than life figures such as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Pat Garrett are celebrated for helping bring down dangerous outlaws, but how do we reconcile their role as both celebrated lawmen and murderous vigilantes?  It’s easy to give them credit for their actions, but the reality is that they are just as guilty of murder as the men they killed.

In Liberty Valance, Stoddard and Doniphon’s actions are used to emphasize this dichotomy between order and chaos.  Stoddard is the lawyer and their school-teacher.  He not only brings an expertise on law, but also a level-headedness and kindness not seen out of many people in the old West.  He represents the future of the community, and is the impetus in their change from caring only for themselves to acting like an actual town.  Stoddard also brings the potential for statehood, and more generally the ability to be a part of something bigger than just Shinbone.  Unfortunately, his way also means the end of men like Tom Doniphon and Liberty Valance, people who are unwilling to give up their independence for the greater good.  Yet as Stoddard learns at the end of the film, these sacrifices come with major costs, and he was lucky to have someone like Doniphon to do the dirty work.  The death of Liberty Valance brought Shinbone many great things, but at its most basic level it was a cold-blooded murder.  That is something Ransom Stoddard will always have to live with.

In that way The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the perfect Western to usher out the careers of the genre’s greatest stars.  It is all about the landscape of the changing West and the idea that the frontier can’t live forever.  Unfortunately neither could Ford, Wayne, Stewart, and the peak of Western genre.  Just like Shinbone they all had to advance with the times and become part of the greater whole.  Still it’s nice to take a look back every once in a while.

 

Up Next: I sacrifice my appetite and watch the Academy Award nominated documentary Food Inc.

 

 

Double Indemnity September 6, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — welch742 @ 3:13 am

 

Day 28

 

So after a screwball comedy and a WW II film, Wilder moved away from both in 1944 to make the film-noir classic Double Indemnity.  When I chose Billy Wilder as my director to analyze this was one of the film’s that I was very excited to see.  I love film noir and Double Indemnity was one of the classics that established some of the standards for the noir films that followed.  Double Indemnity also was the first film that Wilder co-wrote without Charles Brackett, choosing instead to write with famous crime novelist Raymond Chandler.  This is important because this was one of the factors that led to the split between Wilder and Brackett, which is an important issue when analyzing his collective works.  This film also continues upon the work Wilder did in his first two films and it effectively combines the strong dialogue from The Major and the Minor with the shadowy lighting and harsh angles used in Five Graves to Cairo.  The result is a film that wasn’t the best film noir I’ve ever seen, but one whose visual and thematic techniques had an immense impact on the genre.

Double Indemnity revolves around the interactions between Walter Neff, an insurance salesman, Phyllis Dietrichson, the femme fatale who lures him into a plot to kill her husband, and Barton Keyes, the insurance claims manager investigating the mysterious death of Mr. Dietrichson.  However, the film is presented as a series of flashbacks, with first person narration from Neff.  This means that we know early in the film that Neff did in fact kill Dietrichson, and is going to get caught, but overall that matters less than the interactions between the main characters.  Double Indemnity isn’t a murder mystery, but an examination on guilt, greed, and manipulation.  This wasn’t the first film to use flashbacks to tell the story, but by giving away most of the ending early on the movie ensured that the interactions between the people involved in the act was more important than the end result.

It helps that Double Indemnity features excellent performances by all three leads (Fred MacMurray as Neff, Barbara Stanwyck as Phyllis, and Edward G. Robinson as Keyes).  Stanwyck’s performance is thought to have helped create the femme fatale trope and she is excellent at switching between conniving and innocent, while all the way plotting to come out on top.  Her and MacMurray work well together and their power struggle and moral choices keep the film and characters fresh even when the outcome is certain.  However, the star of the film is Robinson as Keyes.  He never fails to steal the scenes he is in, and the pseudo father/son/mentor relationship he has with Neff continuously provides emotional weight to the story.

Still where Double Indemnity shines is in the innovations that Wilder included.  He already showed an excellent grasp of dramatic lighting in his previous films, but he takes it to the next level here.  Throughout the film uses the shadows from windows and doors to create tension and the feeling of being watched.  For instance he constantly uses the shadows of Venetian blinds to this effect.  Take a look at the picture below.

 

 

Clearly if you look at Neff, positioned on the left side of the frame you can see the emphasis on shadows and light.  While this tactic does not provide anything substantial to the plot it ratchets up the tension of watching and being watched.  The whole film is about trying to commit the perfect crime, and this attention to avoiding being seen works well.  Wilder also continued to use excellent angles and shot lengths to show the lack or presence of trust between the main characters.  Ultimately this visual queues may not seem important, but they reinforce all of the film’s themes and the general mood.

It’s tough to compare Double Indemnity to either of Wilder’s previous works because they are so different, but I will say this film definitely had the best combination of story and visuals.  It is a well crafted film that engages from the first frame to the last.  It’s not my favorite film noir that I have seen, for example I think Hitchcok’s Shadow of a Doubt from 1943 is better, but it’s easy to see the influence it had on later movies in the genre.  It also is the beginning of a stretch of critically acclaimed films, from now to The Apartment in 1960, that mirrors the best of any other director.  With Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder began to hit his stride and it leaves me excited to see what is next.

 

Up Next: For Billy Wilder his next film is the Oscar winning tale of alcoholism, The Lost Weekend.  Overall, I continue with a classic Western featuring two of the genre’s best actors, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.