Golden Celluloid – 4/30/2012

Harold and Maude (1971)

Directed by Hal Ashby (Paramount Pictures)

 

I don’t always give 5-star ratings, but when I do, I – ….. come to think of it, I do give a lot of 5-star ratings! Luckily, I know why. At this point in my life, I am now watching a lot of movies that I believe will help develop my cinematic literacy, inspire my techniques as a filmmaker, or simply make me a more enlightened person. So why not share these experiences with you in the most efficient way?

I thereby introduce my new Golden Celluloid section. Many of these films are classics; some I may simply love upon a first viewing. But everything I post here would have ordinarily received a 5-star rating in one of my Movie Journal entries; I would just prefer to write about it in the below format, rather than provide the false notion that I give perfect ratings to every film I watch. The reactions to these movies I discuss will all be based upon me discovering them for the first time, my guinea pig being Harold and Maude, which I saw in a film course last week. So here we go…

 

The story: Harold (Bud Cort) is a young man who simply wishes he were dead. He fakes outrageous suicides (fantasized for our behalf), only to be absurdly misunderstood by the adult figures in his life, including a wealthy mother, a psychologist, a militant uncle, and a priest. But then he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), an outrageous 79-year-old with a passion for life. Harold and she soon form a relationship, reaffirming his values and teaching him that life, no matter how grotesque, is certainly worth living.

 

Why you should see it: Anyone who bases their enjoyment of Harold and Maude on the narrative alone (a teenager falling in love with an elderly woman) is definitely missing the point here. Hal Ashby’s film is one of the most quirky, hilarious, and genuinely touching films ever made. Its effectiveness is justly conveyed through a story as fantastical as the characters we come to adore. Harold’s “death scenes” are indeed, quite violent, but they become funnier as the film invites us to enter its level of absurdity, mainly as we are introduced to Maude, who is played with sensational enthusiasm by Ruth Gordon. Bud Cort, whose performance is comically restrained, is also wondrous, the two arousing lovely chemistry in what is surely one of cinema’s most unorthodox romances.

Ashby’s film is no doubt a criticism of Vietnam, in ways the film makes rather obvious, but not through heavy-handed preachiness. Harold and Maude arrived at a time of cinematic counterculture, Hollywood’s “art film” movement coinciding with a new-found youth culture. Ashby had been an editor prior to the making of this film, and his ingenious choices of when to “make the cut” are startlingly honest. Meanwhile, cinematographer John A. Alonzo does a terrific job of composing grandiose imagery, that which has metaphoric connection to life and death, conformity and uniqueness, people and purpose, and ultimately, the many meanings of love.

In the end, it is not just Harold’s life that is reformed, but also our own. It is likely that each of us has a Maude in our lives, driving us to love and be happy, even when things couldn’t look more bleak. Harold and Maude is morbidly subjected, yes, but it has more heart than you could possibly imagine. Cat Stevens’ soundtrack also lends a quite essential hand, composing a unique tone of sadness and joy, one that has never quite been matched. Harold and Maude will be released on Criterion DVD and Blu-ray on June 12, the original DVD having been out-of-print for quite some time. Maybe that will return Ashby’s flick to its initial success, having long rested in obscurity. It certainly deserves it. This is one film that has to be seen to be believed.

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Movie Journal – 4/24/2012

Yojimbo (1961)     5/5

Directed by Akira Kurosawa (Toho)

After bringing the samurai genre to unprecedented popularity in 1950s Japan, Akira Kurosawa completely transfixed his own conventions in Yojimbo, a film that remains one of his greatest achievements. Taking elements from American westerns, such as High Noon and those by John Ford, it is especially ironic that Yojimbo created new elements of the Western genre that would remain ever since. Sergio Leone’s first spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars, is an almost identical remake, in addition to establishing Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” character, a clear inspiration of the deadly loner played by Toshiro Mifune.

Sanjuro (Mifune) is a samurai-for-hire, a wanderer who upturns every notion that Kurosawa previously established for the “noble” profession. Finding himself in a seemingly desolate town, the samurai soon becomes involved in the rival factions of a rice and sake merchant. Hiring himself to each without the other’s knowledge, he soon drives them closer to their own destruction.

In Yojimbo, the samurai era has basically come to an end. Mifune’s samurai is no longer loyal or honorable; he has no master or interest in serving society. Yet these pitiful gang members still uphold such expectations, allowing him to thoroughly take advantage of them. The film is also a surprising, theoretical example for the destruction of capitalism. Sanjuro interjects himself between these two competing firms, and once he has his way, only those who have aided him remain.

Kurosawa was a master of the moving camera; tracking shots are dynamic and involving, occasionally subsiding for still shots of remarkably deep focus. The cinematography, by Rashomon veteran Kazuo Miyagawa, is simply remarkable. In fact, the climax of Yojimbo is possibly one of his most exciting, a samurai duel commenced by a shot of incredible composition and depth, featuring nearly three levels of focus.

The script is also darkly hilarious, Monty Python-like slapstick contrasting with moments of strikingly hard violence. The era of Rashomon and Seven Samurai is over, and a new one has begun. One of the primary symbols in Yojimbo is a handgun, one that represents the end of a time when a man could be judged by his skill with a sword. There is a moment late in the film when Sanjuro willingly faces that gun, not knowing whether or not it is loaded. Like Sanjuro, Kurosawa’s film ventures into such unknown territory, examining the past with both reverence and ingenuity, but most importantly, awaiting the future with ample curiosity.

Movie Journal – 4/12/2012

L’Avventura (a.k.a “The Adventure”) (1960)     5/5

Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (Janus Films)

Antonioni’s L’Avventura was a game changer. It showed the world that characters’ actions don’t necessarily have to be associated with meaning, mainly because people don’t necessarily do meaningful things. There is some psychology that not even cinema can unravel, despite the fact that filmmakers may enable us to try.

On an island off the coast of Sicily, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and Anna (Lea Massari) are on a peaceful yacht trip, if not for the anxiety of a soon-approaching marriage, especially after the couple has not seen each other for a significant duration of time. In other words, it transforms into relationship hell. Soon enough, Anna goes missing, and her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), begins to help Sandro look for her, even after the vacationers have abandoned all hope on the island. The two then form an inexplicable relationship, and although Anna’s mysterious absence lingers throughout the film, the new couple arguably abandons their quest.

Antonioni shoots the film brilliantly, as fascinated with nature as his characters’ faces, which range from expressionless to painfully emotional. There are recurring themes throughout the film of time and dream, but what ultimately sticks is the isolation faced by Sandro, Anna, and Claudia. The post-war upper class is so out of synch with reality, so disconnected from their own emotions that they fail to form meaningful relationships. The affair that Sandro and Claudia begin is “the adventure” the film refers to (“l’avventura” is also translated in English as a “fling”); the search for interpersonal connection that was never fully explored by Anna, hence her physical disappearance.

The lack of passion in this society does not enable Sandro and Anna to learn all the rules of love quickly (or even properly). In fact, in film’s final act, Sandro may have finally failed. But relationships will never succeed without knowledge of human weakness, and ultimately, the ability to forgive; to trust the one you love and share hope for a better future. I’m just calling L’Avventura as I see it. But I guess I don’t really know, do I?

 

 

Flesh for Frankenstein (a.k.a. “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein”) (1974)     4/5

Directed by Paul Morrissey (Bryanston Distributing Company)

How does one even attempt to review Flesh for Frankenstein? Can you just trust me that I saw it? Please? How about this, I’ll just show you a screenshot.

Not good enough? Okay fine, let’s compromise. I’ll sum it up in the following paragraph…

 

The Andy Warhol-produced, Paul Morrissey-directed, Udo Kier-starring Flesh for Frankenstein is one of the most hysterically funny, gory, and least terrifying horror films ever made. Because of the purposefully awfully dialogue and performances, it is also instantly quotable, incredibly bizarre, and not soon forgotten. The cinematography, however, is undeniably interesting, as are the filmmakers’ interpretations of the Frankenstein legend. Who ever thought the baron’s obsessions would be driven by psycho-sexuality? (The only thing that gets this guy off is giving life to corpses and getting them to mate …. but not without having his way with them first!) Despite the ultra-campy attitude (and deceptive artlessness) it applies to the genre, the film is a surprisingly fresh, thought-provoking interpretation of a story we all claim to know so well.

 

Still not good enough? Fine! Here’s a few memes*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Not guaranteed to make sense if you’ve never seen Flesh for Frankenstein, or if you only know Andy Warhol as the “soup can guy”

The Man in the Box

Buried (2010)     3.5/5

Directed by Rodrigo Cortes (Lionsgate)

Ryan Reynolds trapped in a coffin for 94 minutes. Good luck getting heterosexual men to see that one. But seriously, Buried actually is a quite effective thriller, directed and edited by up-and-coming filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes. It is, however, quite debatable as to why the National Board of Review awarded Chris Sparling for Best Original Screenplay back in 2010, not because the film is poorly written, but simply because it draws suspense through baroque camera angles, dazzling lighting, and a genuine sense of claustrophobia. Meanwhile, the story elements leave something to be desired.

Reynolds is terrific as the film’s only principle actor, no scenes being presented outside of the coffin (although there are some cool shots that visualize the space directly surrounding it, simply represented as darkness). Unfortunately, Buried is very quick to announce why exactly Reynolds has been trapped underground, and it soon becomes obvious that the Iraq-centered narrative has a political agenda. This presents no lack of ambition, but does distract from the the principle concept of the movie, which is to display one of the greatest human fears in a way that only cinema can.

To convey this claustrophobia (and fear of quickly approaching death) is Reynolds, who has basically been given a chance to display his acting ability. His performance is utterly captivating and realistic, although the story that encapsulates his character never quite works. Reynolds plays an American truck driver based in Iraq, his unfortunate situation being a result of higher powers meddling in a place they don’t belong, and as a result, simply not giving a f**k about the little guy.

I almost wish Buried would have taken this concept further, but instead we have melodramatic ties to this character’s life, including a senile mother. The film would have been far more interesting if it had applied its political allegory to an overall, humanistic question – whether we could care about a man living or dying if he means basically nothing to us, rather than just the good ‘ol USA. Instead, we do care about poor Ryan Reynolds (in addition to that situation overseas), which ultimately makes for compelling entertainment, but fails to fully take advantage of the intriguing premise.

This is no 127 Hours, which was tremendous in accessing its protagonist’s psyche, in addition to thoroughly moving us, but Buried does arouse significant interest in its question of who is genuinely attempting to help Reynolds get above ground, or what is actually occurring in the outside world (Reynolds has been given a cell phone with remarkable service, yet a gradually depleting battery). Further ambiguity and plot twists would have helped this cause, as could a MacGuffin or two (Cortes claims that Hitchcock is one of his influences). In other words, if deeper mystery were to surround us, the constraints of the coffin would only apply more pressure, and for the audience, continued pleasure.

But the film does provide a conclusion worth appreciating, staying true to the themes and narrative strands that the film uses to continually entertain us. It also makes your heart skip a beat. Hitchcock was groundbreaking in his use of dark humor, telling bizarre stories that somehow seemed grounded within reality. To some extent, he was showing us the simple perplexities of life. Although Rodrigo Cortes isn’t completely successful with Buried, he makes it quite clear that he is attempting something beyond simple entertainment. On that front, it’s important to note what a true talent Cortes is behind the camera, thrilling us like few modern filmmakers have the skill to execute. You’ll feel trapped, yes, but unlike Reynolds’ character, you’ll also have quite a fun time under a few feet of dirt and sand.

Last to Live, First to Die

Battle Royale (2000)     5/5

Directed by Kinji Fukasaku (Toei Company)

For those of you who love the The Hunger Games, I regrettably announce that I have yet to see the film. But after viewing Kinji Fukasaku’s pulpy masterpiece of over a decade ago, I now fail to realize how the latest young adult novel-turned Hollywood blockbuster has even the slightest chance to measure up. Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, also based on a novel (by Koushun Takami), was as successful as it was controversial in Japan, and naturally, is the type of film that would never get past the MPAA. It’s like A Clockwork Orange combined with Lord of the Flies, an ultraviolent shoot-em-up with literary pretense, and as darkly hilarious as it is socially relevant.

Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) is a ninth-grade student still coping with his father’s death, a suicide by hanging that occurred two years ago. The past comes rushing back as Shuya’s class is chosen randomly to compete in the Battle Royale program, a killing competition held on a remote island, this “game” being headed by none other than the class’s seventh-grade teacher, Kitano (Takeshi Kitano). As we are told, Japanese society has now collapsed, resulting in widespread youth violence and thousands of dropouts. The intent of the “BR Act” is to reduce that trend, the absurdity of such logic lending itself to satiric brilliance.

The students must kill each other until only one remains. If not, they all die, via explosive collars on their necks. There are also “danger zones,” meaning that if a student remains in one such zone during an allotted time period, the collar will also explode. If more than one student remains after three days, once again, everyone dies. As for how the killing is done? Well, each student is given two bags, one for food and water, one containing a weapon. The weapons are completely random, just as the class’s selection was. One may get a crossbow, a semi-automatic rifle, an axe, or a trashcan lid. It all depends. Yet weaponry is not the only factor in this violent competition, especially when the players have known each other, and grown with one another, over several years.

Some students confess their love, others beg for peace, some rediscover or abandon cliques, and horrifically enough, some find that killing is the best option. Some may even enjoy it. Whatever choice these kids make, each seems like a realistic possibility, especially considering the detailed character profiles that the film provides us. We are therefore given interesting perspectives of how both children and adults view friendship, love, innocence, violence, life, and death.

Children are new to this world, their perceptions and developments somewhat biological, yet clearly influenced by their surrounding environment. In Battle Royale, adults force these children to sacrifice their innocence, and by doing so, bring out the worst in human nature, applicable to both themselves and the children they force to murder each other. Yet some refuse to give in, the motif being that if these kids hope to succeed, they must “run.” Whether advice or warning, the point is that there is hope for escaping both the game and this society, through nothing other than the youth which it has condemned.

Battle Royale beautifully executes the romance between Shuya, and the crush of his best friend, Noriko (Aki Maeda), yet retains the most power through Noriko’s relationship with an adult – Kitano. This man has been deeply hurt by his own family, disrespected by children, and lastly, been coaxed by the government into sending his former pupils to the slaughterhouse. Of course, there is also the desire for revenge. When all else is lost, it is possibly the easiest source of fulfillment to pursue. Meanwhile, Noriko, who was the only student Kitano had truly been able connect with, is his only link to something he can no longer understand. These character relationships are what drive Battle Royale in unexpected directions, providing it with thorough developments that do nothing but enhance the violent narrative.

In this fictional period, adults have destroyed the present, abandoning hope for the future by losing control of their next generation. Yet they feel as though they must regain control. They do so not by repairing themselves, which would arguably lead children back to their homes and schools, but by further destroying the future. Even though they may regain the upper hand, exerting some control over present circumstances, the Battle Royale Act only further destroys the country’s chances for a future run by today’s children, those we hope to inspire throughout our short lives. It is the equivalent of suicide, something Shuya knows all too much about.

In the film’s Director’s Cut, a release containing about eight extra minutes (mostly consisting of dream sequences and flashbacks), Battle Royale concludes with the line – “What do you think a grown-up should say to a kid now?” The ambivalent sadness in Battle Royale arises from this very disconnection, the concept that societal issues will preoccupy adults to the extent that they will forget about the future, and therefore, forget about their children. In the most tragic sense, they may even forget to love them. It is important to note that Fukasaku’s son, Kenta, wrote the film’s screenplay. Here is a pair who vowed to not make the same mistake.

Stylistically, Battle Royale is a combination of various sensibilities, the violence and humor straight outta Tarantino, yet use of framing and classical music more along the lines of Kubrick. The profound emotional, however, is Fukasaku’s own. The action sequences are also brilliantly choreographed and edited, exerting energy at every possible opportunity. And while the narrative of Battle Royale is not without flaw, there are seamless jumps between past, present, and dream, all while projecting titlecards onscreen that would make Tennessee Williams proud. So much inspiration went into Fukasaku’s ambitious project, and whether intentional or not, it has exerted more influence than almost any film of the past 15 years. Pretty cool.