Saturday, March 29, 2008

Highly .RECommended

I was at Synapse honcho Don May's Friday night and we watched the Spanish horror flick .Rec (2007), helmed by awesome contemporary Spanish director Jaume Balagueró. All I can say is that it was an amazing 70 minutes. I can't remember the last time a film made me jump - it's been YEARS. .Rec rectified this - AND - it provided some damn fine creepiness too.

I'd like to give this film a larger entry and will do so when I'm feeling a bit better. Please excuse the inelegance of my pen at this hour, but I've been under the weather as of late. .Rec is an amazing film. It's not without a few minor flaws (very few films are), but its vision and extremely taut rising action make for a brilliant lil' gem of which we need more of. Sadly, the NTSC release is in limbo as Sony's Screen Gems is currently remaking it. I'll leave you with this charming image before I sign off tonight - courtesy of Javier Botet's blog (the actor who played this particular part). Creeeeeeeeeeeeepy! Another entry on this film coming soon!

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Time Has Come...

The time has indeed come. I owe it to several of my friends, (especially Lara, Jamie and now Tamara too) to discuss, fully and responsibly mind you, the simple genius of: Into the Blue (2005).

Why do I maintain that this is a great film (admittedly for all the wrong reasons)? Why do I put my reputation repeatedly on the line for a seemingly throwaway, disposable, and unexceptional film? Well, simply put, I strongly admire the film's blatant and obvious transparencies. There's no lie with Into the Blue, it is everything it claims to be and more, AND it delights in its simplicities. That, friends and neighbors, is admirable. Nobody says a word when I champion exploitation films from the 50s, 60s, and 70s - there is a built in assumption that if I am exerting energy to champion them - then the courage of my convictions regarding them is somehow enough to avoid cocked eyebrows. But, poor, poor Into the Blue, I can't tell you how often this film is icily condemned from people who have never even seen it.

It should come as no surprise (especially to those who know me) that I often debate the politics of taste and the points of concordance between high and low art aesthetics - it's my area of scholarship. But, Into the Blue does not fit into this niche of discourse. Instead, I debate its, oh I don't know - "authenticity as a commodity" if you will (with commensurate acknowledgment of its aesthetic, both visual and thematic).

You may ask:
Is Into the Blue really worth my time? Yes.
Is it a "great" film? Well, there are great things about it.
Can it truly rate with the great cinematic masterworks of the 20th century? Uhm, absolutely not.

So, do not get me wrong. I am not endorsing this film as particularly substantive or possessing of uncommonly sophisticated narrative strategies or that it is a "one for the ages" classic with universal connectivity, etc. etc. etc. Please do not leave comments informing me that I set it up to be "great" and you were "let down" and it was a deplorable turkey. This is NOT the intent of this article. I merely mean to suggest here that Into the Blue's "greatness" rests in its unabashedly uninhibited nature.

Let's get a little kick-start here. Joe Utichi at wrote one of the greatest (and I truly mean that, and I have read works on cinema for twenty plus years), truthful, and efficient reviews I have ever read. Put plainly, he gets it sooooooo right. I just HAVE to reproduce a portion of it here as he truly gets to the heart of Into the Blue's appeal. He writes:

It's hard not to fall madly in love with a film that's this unashamedly contrived. In the grand tradition of the Hollywood popcorn picture, it's as though finance meetings were held to decide just how far they could push an essentially empty story to create something so beautiful that people would have to buy into it. Because Into The Blue is all about beauty. If you're not beautiful, you're almost certainly one of the bad guys. If you are beautiful, prepare for the camera to focus on your behind at every opportunity. There's a rulebook, I'm sure, that all major studios worship; if the title of your big-budget entertainment flick doesn't end in a number or isn't plucked from some form of source material, Jessica Alba must wear very little. Be under no allusions - Into The Blue is, and remains for all of its 110 minutes, beautifully uncomplicated. You'll follow the story, you'll become engrossed in its simple sense of peril and you'll laugh yourself silly at such witty ripostes as "Shut up, you coke whore." Take a handful of your friends, make sure you're in a noisy cinema or well away from anyone there taking things seriously, and enjoy one of the most communal films of the year. You'll want to talk and laugh and joke through it. Such actions are usually never to be endorsed, but I'm willing to make an exception for Into The Blue if you are. God knows I couldn't resist. The truth is that we don't get enough cinema like Into The Blue. Films with such little ambition that they seek simply to dull those cerebral centres of your brain and provide you with something to take your mind off the humdrummery real life for a little over an hour and half.

I agree Joe, i did fall madly in love with it too.

So then, we could possibly surmise that Into The Blue could very well be used as a figurehead for Adorno and Horkeimer's classic Enlightenment as Mass Deception: The Culture Industry. After all, I agree with Joe that there is little ambition to this film other than to dull your senses (minus that of "sight" of course) and that it does fail magnificently at "engaging" the audience in the way that Adorno would have wished. If they ever got around to publishing just that chapter from the Dialectic of Enlightenment, surely any ad-mat from this film would serve as a great cover. But, you know, on second thought, I'm not so sure.

Adorno and Horkeimer do include in their title: MASS DECEPTION. Into the Blue, while it is a wonderful example of culture industry horseshit, is just too on the nose for it to be taken as anything other than culture industry horseshit. As I said, there's just no lie to this film. I ADMIRE that. Most people prefer to know they're being conned. Into the Blue steals your lollipop and knowingly winks at you simultaneously, you are NOT conned. There are other films that we could claim this of, but none of them work for me quite the way Into the Blue does.

I can't help but think that Adorno and Horkeimer would appreciate the stones of this film. It has some big ones. I was making a comment to friends over drinks last night, a simple analogy really, that the sharks in the film serve as a sort of meta-commentary, or more specifically, a meta-signifier. Sharks are just pure evolutonary genius. To quote Matt Hooper: "Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It's really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all." Well, Into the Blue is also a perfect engine: all this film does is shamelessly promote conventional beauty (to the point where you want to start doing some push-ups right away) and obsess on Jessica Alba's ass, and that's all. To this I say - there is beauty in simplicity.

And, credit the screenwriters who ACTUALLY pull off a character driven plot. No, it's not character driven in the sense that Umberto D or Out of Africa is character driven, but it does take quite a bit of time setting up our two young heroes, their respective foils, and the major villian(s). The plot is standard, but the film rises above its clichés with honest, sincere, visual bullshit.

I actually DO care about Jessica Alba and Paul Walker's characters in this film, their relationship and love is strong and their courage and conviction are true. So is this film.

I'll wrap this up by saying:
To the people I have repeatedly recommended this film. It is NOT that I would recommend this film in general. If some people in a Blockbuster asked, gee which should I get, Dr. Strangelove or Becket? I would not say, NEITHER, YOU'VE GOT TO SEE INTO THE BLUE! It is that your immediate condemnation of the film without having seen it forced a defensive stance despite no common frame of reference. I have always steadfastly maintained that it was a great film for all the wrong reasons, but I always got so much resistance. Pity. The choice is yours, and to paraphrase Jim Garrison, nothing you will do will ever be more important.

Thank you Don May Jr. for making me buy it that cold January day in 2006.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Scenes That ALWAYS Leave Me Breathless

Do you ever put in a DVD and cue it up to a certain scene that you've seen hundreds (if not thousands) of times? I myself do this with whole movies all the time, (for more on this, please see the "Gone to Bed" series here at Trash Aesthetics). But I am referring specifically here to certain scenes that you, for some reason, love to watch over and over for the sheer enjoyment of the repetition of the scene. If you're like me, my old roomie Fred or other members of our "Dateless" weekend Friday at Fred's jamboree (which usually includes stimulants and lots of "selective viewing") then you too have probably engaged in the practice of DVD scene cherry pickin'.

Well, in this new series of columns, I'd like to discuss one of these scenes that I refer to; I put it on occasionally and it ALWAYS knocks my goddamn socks right off.

West Side Story is certainly one of my favorite musicals (my all-time favorite is A Star is Born 1954); it has my ALL TIME FAVORITE actress in it, Natalie Wood, and it is sublime beyond the powers of descriptive prose in many regards. I consider portions of West Side Story (1961), to be cinematic perfection. The film not only aggressively tackles its literary progenitor - Romeo and Juliet, but contextualizes this theme into mid-twentieth century New York City and the prejudices and biases that seem inherent to cosmopolitan hubs like Manhattan. West Side Story does not sugar coat its racist ideologies, they are at the forefront of the entire film, providing the engine for its multiple tragedy, star-crossed lovers ending. Some may argue that the potency of these issues is lost under the weight of Bernstein and Sondheim's work, I would disagree adding that the messages of West Side Story resonate even more deeply in the contemporaneous American social and political milieu. 10 Academy Awards went to West Side Story, a monumental number - If I recall correctly it is in second place for most Oscar wins behind Ben Hur, Titanic, and most recently, The Return of the King which all have 11. Do I give a shit about Oscars? Not really, I merely mention it as a marker for historical significance, which the Oscar is surely representative of...

Like listening to the solo from a favorite piece of music or reading a passage from a favorite novel, the cueing of a scene from a favorite movie offers the same pleasures. The scene that I frequently cue up is the famous rooftop number "America" which takes place immediately following the local dance where Maria and Tony meet (John Astin is so great in that scene!). "America" is one of the most iconic musical sequences ever filmed, and for good reason. Everything about it is perfection. Rita Moreno (a Puerto Rican born actress playing a Puerto Rican for a change) owns the scene. Smoldering, steamy, oozing sexuality in her every move, Moreno begins the number with her "Puueeeerrrrto Rico, my heart's de-votion, let it sink back in the O-cean" and we're off and running. She elegantly and seductively GRINDS her way through the number trumping George Charkiris' quips and egging him on like a woman Toreador at every moment (one can EASILY see why she received the Emmy, Tony and Oscar all in the same year). It's hard to put into words exactly how the synergy works between image and sound during this sequence. The music and lyrics are spectacular, this is a given, but the choreography and visual sophistication of the scene are where Shakespeare would claim the rub lies. Robert Wise displays a deceptively "simple" approach to the scene and it is often in the "simplicity of things" where true creative genius can be found. The camera set-ups are numerous and edited seamlessly together, the color palette is made up of a variety of red, purple, pink, and orange pastels juxtapositioned against the dark backdrop of the city that never sleeps. Let's have a look shall we?

The Youtube clip is a very poor substitute for the cinematic experience that I discuss in this post, but perhaps, at least, it gets my major points across. I'm not sure how to phrase my next point as it is a tough one, but I'll do my best to connect the following thoughts with the topic of this post. Life can truly throw some horrible shit at you, after all, it is the bumps in the road that forge who and what we are and shape the contours of our character. I will deal with these issues the best I can and I suppose that's all anyone can do in the face of trauma of varying kinds and degrees - no tears, no major distress, just handle the situation.

So why is then that I can turn to mush from seemingly innocuous distractions like cinema, or tv, or whatever? I was watching Casino Royale two nights ago (see post below and WARNING: Spoiler herein) and I knew that Vesper was going to die, but when she did, I simply broke down emotionally. It's not that she was going to die, any idiot could see that coming (with pre-knowledge of the book or otherwise), it's the WAY they chose to handle it. On the page, it would read quite tragic, but Martin Campbell's visual elocution of the scene proved a potent punch to the gut. Trapped in an elevator, underwater, rapidly running out of air, Bond desperately tries to save the first woman he ever loved - despite her lack of disclosure about costly secrets and despite his heartbreak (I knew people that said, "ah hell, let her die" and I thought "Are you crazy? He LOVES her, He will ABSOLUTELY do everything humanly possible to save her!"). Separated by a locked rot-iron elevator door - thirty feet under the Adriatic, Bond reaches desperately for her through the gate, kickig and tearing the iron door - and Vesper calmly takes his hand, caresses her cheek with it and then tenderly kisses it - well ladies and gentlemen, I just fucking LOST IT there. Couldn't help it. I wasn't sobbing uncontrollably mind you, but I did well up nice and good. WHY?

And why is it that this scene from West Side Story (NOT a sad scene mind you) makes me well up too? I'll attempt an answer. To begin with, art - whether it be music, literature, cinema, painting, sculpture - etc. possesses great power; it binds us, exalts the soul, conquers all.

Eschewing any vulgar Marxist reading which would place these documents into a simple superstructure paradigm, I offer instead that the human condition has never been more fragile than it is right now. Our species has grown a bit soft in our major strides forward. Would we, I wonder, for example survive another ice age as our predecessors once did? Despite all of our technological and scientific advances? Or is it precisely because of them that we are far too reliant ON them? This is a simple question that has been asked before and by more sophisticated than I, but I think that aggregately we are a bit "softer" than our distant relatives. Emotional is the word I am eager to use here. And, whilst we navigate our lives with abandon and scorn for one another (I worked retail for years, trust me, it's true,), hurting one another, lying to one another, we build such armor, such walls, such fortresses around our hearts that perhaps the one thing we will allow in is the safe parasocial identifications we forge with cinema, television, literature, and music. I know that my love of Natalie Wood is never going to hurt me, beyond the sadness I felt when she died of course. I mourned Vesper's passing in Casino Royale, but only for a little bit, and not really. But, I did in fact FEEL something, which is better than feeling nothing at all. And therein perhaps lies the enigma I describe. Trauma and tragedy assault us and we are numb - but watch one "heartfelt" episode of Hanna Montana and, boy oh boy, the tears come. Perhaps by being affected by ONE - we are in reality, acknowledging the OTHER.

So, when I throw in America from West Side Story and marvel at the sheer, for lack of a better word joy (I would be tempted to say jouissance, but it's not that) it brings me, I am probably doing it to re-connect with myself and the pleasures and beauty that life can indeed offer.

Well then, until the next cherry picked scene, I bid you a sweet adieu.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Casion Royale is the Real Deal

Holy Shit. I've never seen a truer return to form with a franchise/series than with the latest James Bond film, Casino Royale. I've been a Bond fanatic since I was a young lad, in fact, the first Bond film I saw in the theater was The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) - 31 years ago. I was seven at the time. My friend Mike's father had a Betamax and recorded a lot of Bond movies from the telly - so we had it made. I've enjoyed the whole series - unquestionably. I did like the Moore era, I was fine with Dalton, I enjoyed Brosnan - I like BOND - period. But, wow, I did not expect Casino Royale to impress me as much as it did. I was late getting to it, I missed it in the cinema (which hasn't happened in decades) and was waiting for the price to drop on the DVD. Well, I watched it last night and it FLOORED me. Amazing. Please, check it out. Daniel Craig is simply fantastic and so is the movie. If only they had done the same thing to the Superman franchise. Superman Returns: what a missed opportunity that was - a film completely ashamed of itself. Well, Casino Royale is NOT ashamed, the film wears its cultural heritage proudly, as a badge of honor. Not since On Her Majesty's Secret Service have we had such very honest, real, and plausible emotional responses to situational narrative. I LOVED this film. Bravo Lads.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

For The Thousandth Time: Part III (Gone To Bed Series)

GIVE EM' HELL JOHN. And, for my money, that's exactly what the Duke did... For this edition of my famous "Gone to Bed" series I write lovingly about a film that I am watching at this very moment. I went to bed to it last night and am doing the same tonight and I show it in my production courses (lesson plans on continuity). I have seen this film hundreds of times and never grow tired of it (hence its inclusion in this series of articles). The film of which I write is 1970's Rio Lobo.

The last film of legendary director Howard Hawks, Rio Lobo would prove to be his fond farewell to the industry as well as the movie-going public. For me, Rio Lobo represents memories of time well spent with my brother and grandfather. It was with them that I first saw this film, and on many subsequent viewings as well. Perhaps it is because they've both been gone for quite some time now that I am so fond of this film, but perhaps there's quite a bit more to Rio Lobo's resiliency than nostalgia. It is often regarded as a prime example of the Western genre's fall from grace and a poor last effort from Hawks. Neither claim is, in my opinion, valid.

Rio Lobo is the third incarnation of Hawks' Rio Bravo, with El Dorado serving as the bridge between the three films. El Dorado and Rio Lobo are essentially remakes of Rio Bravo - this is no secret or scam, they're admittedly remakes. Point being, however, that they are remakes in structure and theme, not story or plot. Each film has its own characters, back-story, specific settings and time, conflicts, etc. They do share similar structure and themes - as well as some plot points as well. None of this really means anything however as each film exists as a unique and specific text.

I love everything about this film. I love the Duke spoofing his image, one time leading man now aging, iconic gunslinger - hell, he's just "comfortable" as co-star Jennifer O'Neil states. Speaking of Jennifer, what can I say? She's just, well, just... not a master thespian in this picture. I think Jennifer grew to be a competent actress who occasionally gave very fine performances, but she was transitioning from model to actress in this film and well... it shows. Her performance shortly after Rio Lobo in Summer of 42' was quite simply, beautiful. Jennifer O'Neil had been a model since the age of 15 and her beauty and humor augment my love for Rio Lobo.

There are many fine performances in this picture, Jack Elam is fantastic as usual, Jorge Rivero proves an adept lead opposite John Wayne (no easy feat as Wayne munches almost any scene with any actor - your eyes just go to the Duke) Chris Mitchum is quite good, later CEO of Paramount Pictures Sherry Lansing is stunning and proves she would have been a formidable actress had she continued with her craft. It's just an all-around fun film.

The real star however has to be Jerry Goldsmith's score. Quite possibly my favorite composer of all time (and I've got dozens, from Waxman and Steiner to Elfman and Zimmer) the Maestro turns in a beautifully melodic, stirring, melancholy, rousing score. It only clocks in at about 40 minutes, but they are 40 amazing minutes. It is just an amazing and gorgeous score. I certainly could go on and on about it - but if you ever see the film you shall hear for yourself.

This picture is priceless to me. It simultaneously takes me back to a sweet, simple time - of 8 O'clock movies on WKBD Detroit, or of Bill Kennedy's "At the Movies..." - I would watch the movie with my Grandfather and Brother and we would bond over the Duke and with one another - enjoying the pleasures associated with a love for cinema. Now, years later, as those pleasures have no doubt been distilled into a pure concentrated 20cc dosage of nostalgia - I gladly inject that needle into my dvd player ALL THE TIME.


Approx. 300 times

Monday, March 3, 2008

Emmy Rossum - A Voice

One of the most often overlooked aspects of acting for cinema, television, or the stage is the singular quality of an actor's voice. There's a lot I could elaborate on here - Slavoj Žižek does a very nice job of elaborating on the affect of voice in his "Pervert's Guide to the Cinema". Professor Žižek discusses the fact that voice is not an organ, yet is is very much part of us, like our eyes, our skin color, our smile, our height and weight - etc. Yet voice is, biologically, a matter of muscles contracting, contouring and shaping air. And, yet, from this series of motions, we get a singular and unique attribute - - - one that is of major importance in the performing and visual arts. He uses examples from The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, The Great Dictator, and The Exorcist as examples of the "power" of voice through cinematic representation.

Having said all that. My favorite contemporary voice belongs to Emmy Rossum. Ms. Rossum has a very fine singing voice (hell, I was raised by an opera singer, if I can't spot "talent" or a tonal "quality" in a voice, my Mother will spin in her grave until doomsday). But, it is not her singing voice (although, I think it is quite lovely) that I am completely enamored with. It's the sonority, timbre, and shall we say, sexiness of her speaking voice that I can't get enough of. How can I put this? It's a voice that I would never grow tired of, it's the antithesis of, I dunno, say Fran Drescher. I mean, no offense to Fran, but how long before you would contemplate sharpening the cutlery and performing a little nocturnal elective surgery??? On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, for me, is Emmy. Hell, I throw in her films before bed (although not often enought to warrant a "GONE TO BED" column - although "The Day After Tomorrow" is probably approaching 100 views), because I find her speaking voice to be calming - - like - oxygen. Listen to her in the following clip: Especially the "You Were Right" line.

Yeah, I love that scene. A nice exchange between two fine, young actors. I especially love the slight overcranking at the end of their kiss - just as their lips part we go to about 48 fps - nice little touch. Performances are such subtle, nuanced, fragile little things. I'm reminded here of Henry Fonda in "My Darling Clementine" or Judy Garland in "A Star is Born" or Sissy Spacek in "Carrie" or Morgan Freeman in "Shawshank Redemption" or dear God, we could go on and on - iconic, singular, irreplaceable performances that fuse not only character to actor and film, but to public consciousness. In my opinion, Emmy Rossum has a voice that could one day - tether her to a performance that could be one for the ages. Whether that may happen is folly to predict, but, I can say that
A. I think she's lovely (okay, hot)
B. Supremely Talented, and
C. I am in love with her "voice" - wouldn't mind her whispering to me at all...

I'm off Mates. Later.