Month: July 2014

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R (7/31 issue)

index#barnesyardbumps:

*The enchantingly nutso Lucy, a cinematic crossbreeding of La Femme Nikita, D.O.A. and Altered States, is the most tangible proof that director Luc Besson gives a rat’s ass since the 1990s.

*Steve James’ affectionate Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself is a sincere and powerful portrayal of mortality and undying love.

#barnesyardharrumphs:

*The same creaky and goofy qualities that make Brett Ratner’s Hercules mediocre in any era are also what make it almost recommendable in this time of doom-shrouded action cinema.

index3*There is a casual and somewhat lazy assumption in The Fluffy Movie that the viewer is already familiar with the Gabriel “Fluffy” Iglesias origin story, so the film is both an insufficient entry point for newbies, and a too-familiar series of callbacks for longtime fans.

#barnesyarddumps:

*There is an exhilarating impression early in Guardians of the Galaxy that the film may actually have the guts to surrender to leading man Chris Pratt’s Kool-Aid Man chaos, but the feeling is short-lived. Soon, we’re stuck following magical orbs and infinity stones with the awesome power to do things I never really cared about, and Pratt’s dizzy charm is pushed aside in favor of plot-heavy predictability and Marvel Universe-building.

July is “Summer” Movies Month (Daniel’s Pick) – “The End of Summer”

indexThe End of Summer (1961; Dir.: Yasujiro Ozu)

GRADE: A-

By Daniel Barnes

“I was born and here I am. That’s all that matters.”

There is no more powerful a sequence of images in the cinema than a Yasujiro Ozu shot-reverse-shot. The great Japanese director was a master of composition, a painter of perfect vertical lines, but I always associate him with his uniquely visceral approach to classic one-on-one conversation. Ozu had a knack for getting his actors to address the camera at 92-98% direct eye contact with the camera lens in these sequences, giving the impression that the audience-eye is the one being met while still offering a quintessentially Japanese sliver of modest remove. Whatever sensation of pure glee my nine year-old niece gets from the “Let It Go” sequence in Frozen, I feel the same thing watching Ozu dialogue scenes.

images3I am no advocate for Eastern spiritualism or soft-headed New Age-y dogma, but I am a firm believer that the films of Yasujiro Ozu make us better human beings. The End of Summer was the next-to-last movie Ozu made before his 1963 death, and it is imbued with a sense of loss, both of mortal life and of a smaller, simpler era in Japanese life.  There are beautiful rhyming shots of a skyscraper, TV antennae, a temple, and the smokestacks of a crematorium posed against the tree-lined Kyoto skyscape.

By this point in his life, Ozu knew that he was passing away, but he also understood that his way of making films had expired – this was a man shooting Technicolor features in Academy ratio in 1961 after all. In The End of Summer, there is a through line about a small, old-school sake brewery barely holding on against a giant conglomerate, and we feel Ozu’s fear that small-batch sake will expire along with his own eternally patient and culturally astute approach to cinema.

It takes a while to orient ourselves in the narrative, because Ozu refuses to nudge the plot into artificially convenient spaces. From the very first sequence, a sense of contemporary artifice is established – a widow and a widower are being set up in the neon-lit “New Japan” of Osaka by a hunch-shouldered go-between, although the widower farcically insists that they make the meeting seem like an accident.  Awkward and funny in a way that Noah Baumbach would envy – the dullard widower who collects “cow-related things” coolly lights her cigarette with a blowtorch-like flame – it’s a beautiful sequence, an ideal introduction to the blend of screwy comedy and wistful drama that Ozu will revisit throughout the film.

images2As it turns out, none of the three characters introduced in the opening sequence becomes central to the plot, and most of the action takes place in Kyoto instead of Osaka. Eventually, the central figure that emerges is the sake brewery owner, an elderly father-in-law to both the widow and the matchmaker from the opening scene. His wife long since deceased, he has recently reconnected with an old flame from his married days, a supremely practical woman who urges her Americanized daughter to play the role of the sake brewer’s illegitimate offspring, because she might as well.  The portrayal of disrespect towards the pre-war generation personified by the sake brewer (“I wish father would act appropriate for his age”) is similar to Ozu’s masterwork Tokyo Story, only cut with sly comedy and borderline Sirk-ian melodrama.

No one can make empty spaces feel as full as Ozu, and that gift is perhaps never more tangible than in The End of Summer.  In a film that can alternate between knowing comedy and aching regret within the same moment, the most emotionally shattering scene comes between a couple of characters who are relatively incidental to the narrative.  One of the sake brewer’s daughters accompanies a co-worker to the train station, seeing him off as he travels to a new position in Sapporo, both of them painfully aware of an unspeakable attraction.  The comma in the sentence is a shot of the two would-be lovers shot from behind on gray station bench, resigned to their separation. The period is a shot of the empty bench with the sound of a rushing train in the background, and the following sentence begins with an image of a clock.  It’s like a tincture of undiluted Ozu – devastating, life-affirming, wise, and inevitable.

July Is “Summer” Movies Month (Dub’s Pick)

monika3Summer with Monika (1953; Dir.: Ingmar Bergman)

GRADE: B+

By Mike Dub

On the surface, Summer with Monika, one of the major early films of Ingmar Bergman, contains all the hallmarks of a typical teen romance film. Two young lovers, Harry (Lars Ekborg) and Monika (Harriet Andersson, who would become one of Bergman’s regular featured players), run away with each other, and away from the dissatisfaction of their everyday lives.  They have adventures, discover their sexuality, and survive by their wits, until reality sets in and they come home together, older and wiser, but still in love. But Bergman, as cynical a critic of humanity as there ever was, has no interest in providing a saccharine story of blossoming young love. In fact, he seems to be subverting a genre that has barely been invented. Leave it to Ingmar Bergman to make a film about the wide-eyed fancy of young love and turn it into a devastating lamentation of the harsh reality of the world, and the tragic consequences of maturing into adulthood.

monika 3 enhSummer itself is practically a misnomer here – Bergman’s Sweden is cool and hard, no matter the month. With a few profound exceptions, the stunning black-and-white cinematography by Gunnar Fischer largely avoids highly stylized contrast and maintains a cool distance, whether in the prime of summer or the dead of winter. Even in the middle of summer, Harry often wears turtlenecks and long pants, while the rocks that comprise the hillside are not so much wonders of nature as they are a barren landscape. The couple’s escape from their urban prison is welcome, but hardly idyllic. Though they experience the desired freedom, their journey is fraught with obstacles, including a menacing interloper, a decreasing food supply, and a revelation I won’t spoil.

With a structure essentially split into thirds (spring, summer, and winter), Summer with Monika ventures further into the aftermath of their getaway than more pleasing cinematic romances dare. However, Bergman and his screenwriter Per Anders Fogelström, upon whose novel the film is based, reveal what happens to the couple after after they return from their journey. Preferring psychology to sociology, Bergman portrays their love as doomed even before their return, not only because of the demands placed upon them by a decrepit society, but by the tragedy of a free spirit trapped by responsibilities.

PDVD_021Summer with Monika was surrounded with controversy upon its initial release in 1953 for its nudity and moderate sexual content (it was released in the U.S. by an exploitation distributor who  marketed it as skin flick called Monika – Story of a Bad Girl). Of course, the sexual content is pretty tame by today’s standards (and nothing compared to some of the content Bergman produced later), but what remains still shocking in its own way is the gut-wrenching display of two teenagers fulfilling their maturation by assuming the combative, self-destructive angst they inherited from their parents.   Throughout the last act of the film, there exists the nagging implication that it is not only youth, but happiness itself, that is fleeting. Summer is but a brief, invigorating season; the rest is winter.

TOMORROW: July is “Summer” Movies Month continues with a Daniel Barnes review of the 1961 Yasujiro Ozu film The End of Summer.

ESFS Festival #6, Film #3 – “AMERICA, AMERICA”

indexAmerica, America (1963; Dir.: Elia Kazan)

GRADE: C

By Daniel Barnes

Throughout his long career, Elia Kazan was often defined by his work with actors. A professional stage actor and director before becoming an award-winning Hollywood filmmaker, Kazan was one of the foremost cinematic proponents of the “Actor’s Studio” method and style, and he played a big hand in introducing James Dean, Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Eli Wallach, and many other influential actors to larger audiences. So it’s probably fitting that one of his most grandiose failures, the bloated and chaotic three-hour epic America, America, was filmed using mostly nonprofessional actors.

Kazan based America, America on an oft-told family story about his Turkish uncle’s tumultuous attempts to immigrate to America, so perhaps his emotional closeness to the material clouded his capacity for self-editing. For all of the film’s good intentions and pictorial beauty (Haskell Wexler was the director of photography), it’s a complete mess, and features such jarring and inept lurches in tone, style, pace, and meaning, I was shocked that the legendary Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde) served as the editor. Not that I blame Ms. Allen – I can only imagine the self-indulgent clutter that she inherited in the editing room.

imagesUrgency is picked up and dropped like a hot potato, motivation changes multiple times within the same sequence, and we are treated to scene after uncomfortable scene of actors unable to connect with each other. Besides the nonprofessionals, Kazan mixes in a few great old professionals like John Marley and Joanna Frank into smaller roles, but they’re so much slicker than everyone else on screen that they actually feel fake. Kazan’s dialogue is even phonier, and the characters deliver speeches to each other as though they had already read their own script notes. “After a while, you don’t feel the shame,” says Stavros’ collaborator father, because that’s how people talked back then.

The leisurely paced film follows Turkish-born Greek boy Stavros, a passionate young man who dreams only of going to America. When the ethnic strife in their Anatolian homeland intensifies, Stavros is loaded with all of the valuable family possessions and sent to Constantinople, ostensibly to set himself up in business but always with America foremost in his mind. Stavros is guileless and soft, and so he becomes an easy victim of swindlers and thieves, especially during a long altercation with a talky con man played by Lou Antonio that is one of the film’s many empty side streets.  Despite employing a conventional narrative, there is a formlessness to the film that eventually turns it into a chore, and we can sense these disjointed sequences slipping out of Kazan’s grasp.

imagesArriving penniless in Constantinople, the exploits of Stavros become almost Dickensian in their twisting fortunes and overall farfetchedness, although the film is no more compelling for it. As Stavros, a character that appears in almost every scene of the film, the bland Greek actor Stathis Giallelis is simply an unconquerable hurdle for the film’s emotional ambitions. Stavros becomes a carpet salesman, a destitute manual laborer, a gold digger, and a playboy in his desperate quest to earn his transoceanic fare, and over the course of the film he shifts in personality from impetuous innocence to cynical callousness to punchdrunk hope. Unfortunately, Giallelis isn’t capable of conveying those subtle transformations – he’s more like a child actor repeating his lines – and so a consistent emotional investment in the film becomes practically impossible.

CLASSIC DAN VS. DUB – “FORTY GUNS” (1957)

index2*In order to get us on back on track for the Hollywood 1963 festival, we are reprinting this Dan and Dub’s Duelling Reviews piece about the 1957 western Forty Guns, directed by Shock Corridor auteur Sam FullerThis piece, part of a series of Dan vs. Dub reviews we did over the course of several years, was originally published on November 2, 2005 on The Barnesyard.  We will return to the Hollywood 1963 Festival next week with Daniel’s review of Elia Kazan’s America, America.

Forty Guns (1957; Dir.: Sam Fuller)

DANIEL’S TAKE:

GRADE: B+

Sam Fuller only made a handful of westerns in his long career, and it’s a damn shame — the logistic and thematic possibilities of the genre give Fuller the perfect opportunity to indulge in his penchants for violent romanticism, romantic violence, and pure cinematic flights of fancy.

Forty Guns revolves around a trio of bounty-hunter brothers, led by Barry Sullivan as a surprisingly scrupulous, infamous gunman who has coasted a long time on his reputation. The second brother is the Marshall’s second gun, covering him from the back, while the youngest itches to get into the fray, and is prevented from doing so by his brothers.

It turns out that the Marshall has inflated his reputation, and for good reason — he has grown distasteful of killing, and the moral cloud that hangs over him. When he is forced to face down a violent drunkard, he does it without even firing his gun…the fear of the Marshall’s retribution is enough to freeze the surly young man.

That same surly young man turns out to be the beloved brother of self-appointed cattle baroness Barbara Stanwyck, who rules the territory with her forty sidemen. She has the governor and the town sheriff in her pocket, and frees her brother through a kangaroo trial. The Marshall follows her to the ranch to capture his quarry, and he and Stanwyck begin a tentative romance.

While the story isn’t much, Forty Guns is full of Fuller’s wild cinematic flourishes — there is a scene of Sullivan and Stanwyck suddenly getting caught in a prairie tornado that is absolutely bonkers yet brilliantly executed. A point-of-view shot from the barrel of a gun brings to mind a certain James Bond opening image; a violent wedding-day murder is shot like a gangland slaying; and a marvelously contrived musical scene at the subsequent funeral is shocking in its emotional sincerity.

Fuller also builds one of the most thrilling sequences I’ve ever seen in a western –the Marshall walks into a trap set up by Stanwyck’s assistant, a conniving tax collector who also holds a fatal torch for her, while the man hired to serve as bait can barely call out the Marshall’s name before fainting from terror. As the Marshall takes the bait and steps into a sniper’s line of fire, his younger brother creeps up behind and shoots the man in the head. The scene is constructed with fear and intrigue, but it is Sullivan’s reaction that makes the scene sublime: “You killed,” he says with grave disappointment, realizing that his brother is now forever tainted by murder.

Forty Guns isn’t a perfect film — Sullivan is serviceable in the lead, but not much more, while Stanwyck’s character barely skirts the edges of camp. Marlene Dietrich would fare much better playing a similar character in Nick Ray’s Johnny Guitar a few years earlier. Additionally, the ending feels tacked on, especially for a cynical gutter poet like Sam Fuller.

As David Thomson wrote about Fuller, “From the Civil War to the Vietnam War, Fuller has dealt with every major phase of American experience and returned with the conclusion that the world is a madhouse where ferocity alone survives.” This statement could be accurately applied to the majority of Forty Guns, a western of definite ferocity and madness.

By Daniel Barnes

40guns1 DUB’S TAKE:

GRADE: C

Samuel Fuller was never really one to concern himself too much with structure – aside from his most famous (and best) work Pickup on South Street, his movies seem to distance themselves from the standard form of plot – he directs a movie full of individual scenes and then fastens them together with an overall atmosphere that concentrates the film into a single, consistent unit. The Big Red One is a perfect example of how well Fuller can perform that task in that way.  However, Forty Guns is an example of how easily it can all fall apart.

The film follows three Earp-like brothers who arrive in a Tombstone-ish town in Arizona in the late 1800’s, a town run by ranch baroness Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck, in the only professional performance in the film) and her gang of forty ruffians. The brothers, headed by oldest brother and former US Marshal Griff Bondell (Barry Sullivan), are just passing through on their way west, until Drummond’s little brother kills an old marshal friend of Griff’s, and the other brothers are made aware of the evil doings of the wild, rampant townsfolk. In trying to bring law and order into the town, Griff falls in love with Drummond, and the second oldest brother takes on the job of town marshal.

The plot is not all that new, but that’s okay. It’s a western, and, like with most genre pictures, the film forgivably adheres to genre conventions. However, the plot is not the main problem – although Fuller wrote, directed, and produced the movie himself, it feels like it was made by four different people who each had a different idea of how it should be handled. I wonder if the original intention of the movie was to be shown on television, with commercials, as that would account for some of the incompatibility of conjoined scenes.  The result is an erratic, jarring, disconnected arch that forms no rhythm, no consistency, refuses to establish characters, and shotguns plot points and conflicts all over the place without any determination to want to deal with them.

Still, Fuller cannot avoid sneaking in some truly brilliant work. There are six or seven scenes in the film that are absolutely brilliant.  These scenes reveal a dark, moody, meditative western hinged on the complex relationship between Griff and Drummond. The best scenes involve Fuller’s deliberate attempt to shock the audience with his gritty, cigar-chewing articulations of violence and death.  One of the best moments involves one gunman who has just been shot and is about to die: he coughs and mumbles, and while he tries to speak, a large stream of saliva mixed with blood runs down his chin from his mouth; it’s disgusting and perfectly effective. The problem: I cannot tell you who that guy is or why he was there, though I think I know who shot him and why.

Forty Guns is not an altogether bad movie.  At times, we can even see how really great it could have been. As it stands though, there is not too much separating this Sam Fuller movie from a pretty standard episode of a western TV show of the time.  Boy, I’d never thought I’d say that.

By Mike Dub

Daniel Barnes @ the SN&R/CSIndy (7/17 and 7/24 issues)

index#barnesyardharrumphs

-As advertised, the motion-captured monkey effects in Matt Reeves’ Dawn of the Planet of the Apes are next-generation stuff, a leap forward from the leap forward of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the various CGI primates have a tactile presence that is legitimately jaw-dropping and borderline disturbing. Too bad the megapixels are the only things that matter here, and however photo-realistic the monkey fur, a cardboard character is still a cardboard character. Common decency will not allow me to completely dismiss a film in which a viscerally realistic primate rides a horse down California Avenue with machine guns blasting in both paws, but I never really cared who the ape was blasting or why.

-My review of Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man, featuring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last lead performance, was reprinted in the Colorado Springs Independent.