Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Criterion's 101 Days of Summer: The Seventh Seal

It's summer.  It's hot.  And I don't have a show going on right now.  And that means that I have more time to watch movies.  Perfect timing, too, as the Criterion Collection is adding one new movie to HuluPlus a day all summer long.  Some of which are unavailable elsewhere.  So, I've decided to start a new blog project corresponding to Criterion's 101 Days of Summer on Hulu.  For now, this is taking the place of my previous Netflix queue project, which proved more difficult than I anticipated since some of the stuff that has been sitting there for a long time isn't interesting enough to write about.

Anyway, the first movie posted on Hulu by the Criterion Collection is Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1958).  The film opens on a knight laying on a beach.  He and his squire have just returned from the Crusades, and they are making their way back to his castle.  During their journey, they find that their homeland is much changed; the plague has descended, claiming the lives of many of the people they knew and some villages have been deserted.  At the start of the film, before they leave the beach, the knight meets Death, and challenges him to a game of chess.  A game in which his soul is at stake.  This chess game continues throughout the film as Death follows the knight on his journey back to his castle.

One of the things that is really great about this film is the fact that it doesn't let you just sit back and watch it.  The stark imagery is unlike anything else I've ever seen, and it's frank treatment of themes like good, evil, and the existence of God surprise us into paying attention.  It's a surprise in that no modern film (at least none I can think of) has the audacity to treat such subject matter so directly.  One of my favorite scenes, pictured below, exemplifies both Bergman's use of imagery and boldness.  In this scene, the knight visits a church and goes to confession.  He pours his heart out to the hooded figure on the other side of the bars, whose face he cannot see.  During his confession, the knight questions the nature, and the very existence, of God.  During the scene, it is revealed to the viewer that the man listening to the knight's confession is actually Death; there is no God there, nor anyone representing Him, and we receive no answers.

Another strong image is that of the knight and Death playing chess.  

This is probably the most iconic image from the film.  It has often been imitated and parodied in the years since this film's release, but it perseveres.  

The acting is superb as well.  The actor playing the knight (Max von Sydow) gives a particularly strong performance, taking us on the knight's journey of meeting Death, questioning life and faith, and then returning to faith through interactions people he befriends on his way back to his castle.  As the squire, Gunnar Bjornstrand adds a bit of humor, albeit a dark and sardonic kind of humor, to the otherwise straightforward and uncompromising tone of the film.   

All in all, it's easy to see why this is considered a masterpiece.  Now I leave you with the film's final image: Death leading the knight and his companions in a final dance.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Christmas Movies: Lincoln and Les Miserables

During my Christmas break, I was able to see two films I've been looking forward to: Lincoln and Les Miserables, and found both to be, overall, outstanding.

If you walk into Lincoln expecting to see lots of Spielberg-esque Civil War battle scenes, you'll probably be disappointed.  There isn't much of that there.  It's probably the least Spielberg-esque Spielberg movie I've ever seen.  That's not to say it doesn't have his stamp on it.  But that never took me out of the story, like it has with some of his other films.  The film focuses on the last few months of President Lincoln's life, particularly on the passage of the 13th Amendment.  It grabbed me from the opening scene, in which Lincoln is speaking to a pair of young black soldiers, both of whom handle themselves with more grace and confidence in the presence of the President than the two young white soldiers who briefly interrupt the conversation.  One of them is able to recite Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, a moment which sets the tone of racial tension that, not surprisingly, runs throughout the film.  I liked that the focus of the film was on politics more than battle.  Makes sense, since Lincoln wasn't on the battlefield.  But I thought it was interesting to see how politics were played.  Lincoln obviously believed slavery was immoral.  But that didn't stop him from having a black housekeeper (or from blatantly saying that he'll "get used to her people" having greater freedoms if his amendment passes), and his fight for the 13th Amendment was as much about weakening the Confederate economy as it was about ending slavery.  Daniel Day-Lewis is flawless as Abraham Lincoln.  So much so, that I forgot that that was not actually Abraham Lincoln on the screen in front of me.  He's got some strong supporting performances around him, particularly Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, but Day-Lewis really carries the film.  

I've heard mixed reactions to Les Miserables, but I really enjoyed it.  I'm a fan of the play, so I was sort of predisposed to like it.  The film looks beautiful, and I really liked that the singing was done live during filming, rather than having the actors pre-record their vocals.  It added emotional depth to the music and lent a little bit of the live theatre experience to the film.  I was a little disappointed that one of my favorite songs from the play, "Little People," was mostly cut, but in context, I can understand why.  I could have done without some of the close ups on actors' faces.  Some, like the one during "I Dreamed a Dream" were effective, but in general, I felt that the technique was overused. The best part of it for me were the performances.  As Fantine, Anne Hathaway proves to be a much better actress than I previously gave her credit for, and this is one of the finest performances I've ever seen from Hugh Jackman.  I also liked Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as the Thenardiers; they brought a much-needed levity to the otherwise emotionally draining story.  There were a few that didn't stand out so much.  Eddie Redmayne (Marius) didn't really win me over until "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," and it took me a while to warm up to Russell Crowe as Javert.  I thought Amanda Seyfried and Samantha Barks as Cosette and Eponine, respectively, were a little one-dimensional.  Barks less so than Seyfried.  But those characters are written that way, and both sang their parts very well.  Barks did manage to overcome that and deliver an emotional death scene.  None of the performances are terrible, though.  Overall, I'd recommend it, unless you hate musicals.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Conquering the Netflix Queue: Wendy and Lucy

Wendy and Lucy (2008), is a snapshot in the life of Wendy Carroll, a young woman traveling from Indiana to Alaska looking for work.  Her only companion on her journey, and, it would seem, her only friend in the world, is her golden retriever mix, Lucy.  She runs into a string of bad luck, starting with her car breaking down somewhere in Oregon.  She gets busted for shoplifting a couple of cans of food for Lucy, leading to a few hours in jail.  When she returns, Lucy is no longer tied up in front of the store where she left her.  Wendy immediately focuses all her efforts on finding Lucy.  She walks across town to check the pound, puts up signs, and even leaves articles of clothing in various places she and Lucy passed through in hopes that Lucy will find the scent and return.

In the meantime, her car is towed to a nearby auto shop to be checked out, and the mechanic tells her that it is going to cost more than the car is worth to fix it.  Wendy cannot afford the repairs, so she is forced to get rid of the car.  At about this point in the film, Wendy finally gets some good news: Lucy has been found.  She takes a taxi to the address given to her by the pound and finds that Lucy has been rescued by a nice foster family, with a nice house and a nice yard for Lucy to play in.  After a few minutes with her friend, Wendy says a tearful goodbye to Lucy and sets off on the rest of her journey alone.

The film, written and directed by Kelly Reichardt, gives us very little information about Wendy's life prior to or following the events in the movie.  We know that she has a sister who doesn't seem to trust her, and that's pretty much it.  We don't know what circumstances led her to decide to go to Alaska, and we don't find out if she makes it there.  But that's not the point of the movie.  It's about the character.  Its simplicity puts nothing between the character and the audience, so we're sharing her experience with her, and getting to see what exactly kind of person she is.  Michelle Williams delivers a subtle, but still captivating performance as Wendy, showing just how far she's come since her Dawson's Creek days.

Though we don't know much about Wendy or her journey outside of this episode, Reichardt has obviously chosen a pivotal point in the journey to share.  And not just because she leaves Lucy behind here, though that's a big part of it.  Most of the people Wendy comes into contact with are fundamentally good, willing to help her out or cut her some sort of break, especially a parking lot security guard and the mechanic who looks at her car.  Their displays of kindness offer Wendy (and, though her, the audience) some hope in the midst of a desperate situation.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Movies: Killer Joe

Killer Joe, directed by William Friedkin, written by Tracy Letts and starring Matthew McConaughey and Emile Hirsch, is kind of like a train wreck.  You can't stop watching it, no matter how hard your stomach is turning. 

It's about the Smiths, a family who live in a trailer park in the Dallas area, and who are dumber than a box of rocks.  The film opens with Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch), pounding on the door of his father's trailer on a rainy night, screaming for his sister, Dottie (Juno Temple) to let him in.  Eventually, the door is opened by his step mother, Sharla (Gina Gershon).  Chris urgently pulls his father, Ansel (Thomas Hayden Church) outside to tell him about an idea he has to get the family $50,000: he wants to have his mother (Ansel's first wife) killed and collect on her life insurance policy.  As Chris puts it, he would then be able to pay off some drug dealers to whom he owes a large sum of money, and the family's financial problems would be solved.  To most people, this would obviously be out of the question.  But the Smiths are not most people, and Chris gets the whole family on board.  To carry out the plan, they reach out to Killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a policeman who sometimes moonlights as a contract killer.  When the plan inevitably goes wrong, things go south, fast, for everyone involved.  

The cast is flawless.  Even Matthew McConaughey, who I usually want to punch in the face.  This is by far the best performance I have ever seen from him.  There is something ominous that lurks below Joe's calm exterior, and it is impossible to look away when that exterior is broken.  Juno Temple's Dottie is a perfect, sweet, dumb white trash angel, complete with a halo of blonde hair.  As Chris, Emile Hirsch is a lovable idiot.  For the most part, his heart is in the right place, especially where his sister is concerned.  But his head fails him, and he gets himself, and sometimes the people around him, in trouble.  

Friedkin takes these characters and places them in a dark and dangerous world where anything can happen, and usually does.  Add to that the strength of the writing and cinematography, and you have an unforgettable filmgoing experience.      


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Operation: Conquer the Netflix Queue: Documentary Double Feature

While in recovery from surgery today, I entertained myself by watching a couple of documentaries.  Objectified (2009), directed by Gary Hustwit, is about the design of everyday objects, and how design influences daily life.  Some of the objects discussed, like spoons and garden tools, are things that might not generally be thought of as having been "designed."  There is even a scene in which a group of people are discussing the design of a toothbrush handle.  My favorite parts of the movie were the scenes which allowed me to watch a designer, or design team, at work.  I also enjoyed seeing how design has evolved as technology has advanced.   Overall, I thought it was interesting, but I would have liked to see more from it.  It's relatively short, so I feel like there's room to add something about solutions to the problems caused by planned obsolescence or something connecting the last few minutes to the rest of the movie.

Then I watched Music Instinct: Science and Song, a PBS documentary by Elena Mannes about the connection between music and the brain.  Given how interested I am in the connection between art and science, I was predisposed to like it.  It covered a lot of things I already knew, but there were some interesting scenes.  I particularly liked its coverage of international music; how different cultures use different tones and rhythms to convey various emotions.   I also really enjoyed interviews with musicians Daniel Bernard Roumain and Evelyn Glennie which highlighted the physical effect of music.  Evelyn Glennie is a deaf percussionist who "hears" music through the vibrations made by the sounds.  I couldn't find her clip from the film, but here is Evelyn Glennie's TED Talk on listening to music with the whole body.

Pretty cool, huh?  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Plays: Rose Rage

I'll just say it: I'm not a huge fan of Shakespeare's histories.  That said, I really enjoyed The Hidden Room's production of Rose Rage, an adaptation that condenses the entire Henry VI trilogy into one two-part, four hour performance.  The company made every effort to approximate the experience of seeing one of Shakespeare's plays in a court setting at the time of its writing.

The venue, the York Rite Temple, lends itself to the experience.  It's a masonic temple, which immediately gives it an air of intrigue that is appropriate for the show.  It's a small, unconventional playing space, with seating running along two walls on either side of the stage.  The seating is nearly level with the floor, putting the audience close to the action, which is fun when they start sword-fighting.  It also provided plenty of opportunity for the actors to interact with the audience, which made for some great comedic moments.  The space had a couple of drawbacks though: it was hot, which made it uncomfortable to sit in for four hours.   And, because of the way the chairs are set up in there, there were major sight line issues for anyone sitting in the second row.  The people involved in the production aren't at fault for those things though, and the actors are actually suffering from the heat just as much, if not more, than the audience in their period costumes.

The costumes are all handmade by members of The Baron's Men, a local theatre troupe that specializes in Shakespeare.  Here are a couple of examples.  

Just like a real Elizabethan performance would have, the show also featured live Elizabethan music, beautifully played by local musicians, and an all male cast, including three guest actors from the U.K. who appeared as part of the Hidden Room's Foreign Actor Exchange Program.  The entire cast did a great job, but those three really stood out.  Many of the actors played more than one role, and the guest actors seemed especially adept at creating distinct characters.  Laurence Pears, who played both Jack Cade and Edward IV, looked like he was having the most fun with his roles, and brought a lot of energy to all his scenes.  Other standouts included James Callas Ball as Duke of Somerset and Lady Elizabeth Gray, Joseph Garlock as Richard (Duke of Gloucester) and Brock England as Queen Margaret.  This cast was so enjoyable to watch, they made the evening fly by.

The show is still playing until this Saturday (the 11th), and I would recommend catching both parts if you can.        

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Operation: Conquer the Netflix Queue: Best Worst Movie

So, it's been a while since I posted one of these.  But, in my defense, July has been crazy.

Troll 2 is, by all accounts, a bad movie.  The acting is bad.  The story is bad.  The effects are bad, even for the eighties.  And people absolutely love it. Best Worst Movie (2009) is a documentary about the making of Troll 2, and how, twenty years after it was made, it found a following and became a cult classic.  It was made by Michael Stephenson, who played the child lead in Troll 2.  He conducts interviews with the cast, director, writer and fans of Troll 2.

Overall, I think Best Worst Movie is pretty decent.  Not the best documentary I've ever seen, but not the worst either.  And it does have some really interesting elements.  The parts I found most interesting were the interviews with the people involved who didn't realize that they were making a bad movie.  For example, there's this woman:

That's Margo Prey, who played Diana Waits, the mother, in Troll 2.  In that same interview, she goes on to compare Troll 2 to Casablanca.  For reference, she's comparing this movie:

to this movie:

Call me crazy, but I don't see the similarity.  

And then there's the director of Troll 2, Claudio Fragrasso, who still believes Troll 2 was a good movie, and doesn't seem to understand its cult value.  To his credit, he also doesn't care that people call it the worst movie ever made.  Another interesting character is Don Packard, the actor who played the creepy Nilbog Drugstore owner in Troll 2.  Here's his interview in the film:


Another thing I liked about it was watching the fans' reactions to Troll 2.  People go crazy for it: they share it with their friends, they throw viewing parties, they flock to theaters for midnight showings, they make t-shirts and masks.  It's great.  It really demonstrates, and celebrates, how a film, even a bad one, can have a lasting impact of people's lives.