It seems like every review of Django Unchained must begin with the writers’ opinion of Quentin Tarantino rather than the movie itself. There is talk of his maturation as a filmmaker, and whether or not he has matured. I’m going to begin by stating that I haven’t really enjoyed Tarantino in quite a while. The Kill Bill duo and Inglourious Basterds were part of a phase of his career where he fell in-love with violence, over-indulgence and with himself, and more specifically with his writing. There are endless scenes in Inglourious Basterds of shot-reverse-shot dialogues that chew up valuable screen time where Tarantino could be showing us something, but it seems he’d rather have us listen to his dialogue instead. Good dialogue, no doubt, but for me film is a visual medium and I’m on the record as being a disciple of the “show, don’t tell” principle. Tarantino likes to build tension through dialogue, like the opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds, instead of through action, like almost every scene in Argo. Of course there’s no right or wrong way, only preference.
That being said, Tarantino comes back to life in Django Unchained. The first hour of the film is some of the most entertaining cinema I’ve ever seen in a Tarantino film. The pacing is brisk, the dialogue is witty and funny, and the performances are outstanding. It’s a great set-up for the second-act. Fans of the spaghetti Westerns of the 60′s and 70′s will enjoy many of the conventions present in the beginning of the film (music, vengeance, bounty hunters). The kinship of a freed slave and a German bounty hunter really is handled beautifully, something that would have been tough with lesser directors and actors, and it’s that partnership that drives the majority of the story. Christoph Waltz is basically the star of the first act and his performance carries the film screaming into the second act. You could say the three acts of this film are all controlled and paced by different characters. Waltz’s German bounty hunter is a humorous, quick-tongued man who always has the upper-hand, and the first act directly resembles that.
Unfortunately, the second act applies a heavy dose of brakes and nearly brings the film to a grinding halt. The second act is primarily driven by the tense business relationship our two heroes must form with a seriously menacing plantation owner
played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who just so happens to be another part of this film that historically does not work for me. I’ve never really bought into Leo’s roles, most recently as a tough guy (The Departed). But here I thought he turned in a tremendous performance playing the villain. He’s cold, cruelly business-minded, sickly humorous, and prone to engaging in idle chatter, and the second act follows his lead. The business dealings here take the form of a first introduction, where we’re treated to a lengthy scene of slave fighting and early negotiations, which is then followed by a 5-hour horse ride to the villainous plantation house known as “Candieland”. This ride takes up plenty of screen time and slows down the pacing a bit too much for my taste, but still establishes the relationships (or lack-there-of) that will come to a boil in the 3rd act.
Act 3 begins much like the end of the act 2, establishing relationships, this time with DiCaprio’s Uncle Tom butler played
marvelously by Samuel L Jackson, and engaging in idle banter. Jackson’s performance must be noted for it’s necessity to the story as well as the dual threat he presents. At one moment he’s the funniest character and almost insensitively comedic, and the next moment he’s cunningly sneaky and menacing. This act is driven by the opposite persona’s portrayed in Jamie Foxx’s character and Jackson’s character. Much of the active force for the remainder of the film begins during the business dinner scene in Candieland, a scene that seems to go on forever. I realize a dining room is a finite space and there’s only so many ways to show the room without crossing the 180 degree line, but the length of the scene coupled with the constantly familiar staging made the scene drag for me. The dialogue is really fantastic, a great mixture of humor and tension, and sometime’s both at once. But ultimately it starts to feel a bit long with the amount of dialogue and aforementioned stagnancy of the visuals.
I knows it seems like I’m disliking much of the film, but I’d like to point out that these are only minor gripes. A visual problem here, a few trimmed lines there. That’s all. The rest of the film after the dinner sequence is pure Spaghetti western and I enjoyed every damn second of it. The audience I saw it with cheered multiple times, and deservedly so. If there’s any one auteuristic element in Tarantino it is that the villains will get theirs. Tarantino loves to punish people who do bad things and have subjected our heroes to a multitude of pains and anguishes, and I loved watching it.
I could write another post just on the amazing music and, most impressively, Taratino’s use of light in the flick, but I don’t have the screen caps to illustrate my point. So I’ll leave you all with a wonderfully re-used song from the flick that I can’t stop listening to.
Considering I haven’t been writing at all in several months, anyone who casually reads this site might look back to a couple late Summer posts to remember why I’ve been absent. I hate not writing, but my time has been fully consumed by my scholastic endeavors. But thankfully that has come to a temporary end, and I’ll be back watching some more diverse fare and writing a ton more i the coming weeks.
For the few concerned parties who were helpful in my selection of study topic, I’d like to let you know what I’ve been up to. I was given the wonderful opportunity to study any particular subject of film I’d like under the supervision of a professor I fully respect. After some consideration, a broad study of Japanese cinema was selected (which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my blog before), which was then narrowed down to a study of the Shochiku Co film studio (namely because it wasn’t as well known as Toho or Nikkatsu). Preliminary research of the studio was then narrowed down to a few Japanese film directors who were employed at one time or another by Shochiku, namely Ozu, Oshima, and Mizoguchi. After debating the possibilities, I settled on Kenji Mizoguchi. This was mostly due to the relative familiarity with Ozu within the film culture and my own lack of knowledge concerning the mystique of Mizoguchi, especially since I’m a huge fan of Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff. In all honesty I would have loved to study Oshima and his radical films, but my professor steered me closer to a more familiar choice. No regrets, especially since those two Mizoguchi’s films appear very near the top of my Top 101 films list.
So I set about to watch as many of his films as possible and read as many books as were available in English. Up until now I’ve watched Osaka Elegy, Sisters of the Gion, Utamaro and His Five Women, Story of the Last Chrysanthemum, Ugetsu, Sansho the Bailiff, Street of Shame, Women of the Night, The Crucified Lovers,and Life of Oharu. My refined study concerned the aesthetic style and thematic consistencies in Mizoguchi’s films. But in order to properly formulate a theory or place myself in a critical conversation I had to engulf any writings concerning Japanese film and Mizoguchi by some of the world’s finest critics and theorists. The writings I assimilated into my research were the work of some great minds: Andre Bazin, Keiko McDonald, Donald Richie, David Bordwell, Dudley Andrew and Tadao Sato. If you’re going to research Japanese cinema for school or personal interest, these are the people you have to read (others would include Noel Burch and Donald Kirihara).
I won’t bore you with the details of my research but it was an experience I’ll never forget. I’d recommend to any fan of a particular cinema or director to delve fully into their oeuvre and see where the depth of focus takes you. You never know where a close examination will take you. It could actually lead to a re-imagining of critical thought concerning your subject, which is exactly where mine led. Now I’m charged with fleshing out my work and submitting it as an academic work. It’s really a dream come true to study film in a way that fully involves all thought and senses available to a human being. That’s what film is capable of. I encourage anyone with a serious interest in intellectual film thought to engage themselves in some deep research of a chosen subject. I’m sure you won’t regret it.
My home is populated with a few large posters (Clerks, M, a still of Anita Ekberg from La Dolce Vita) and a revolving door of smaller posters that take up wall-space in various rooms. Generally I love finding posters that are not like the theatrical displays, which are the designs everyone has seen hundred of times in the cinema, on TV, and online. I go for artwork, something that looks like an artist drew and painted and is unique looking or an image from the film that encapsulates the mood of the movie perfectly, not an image of the two or three main leads standing back-to-back, or headshots of the main
cast. That’s boring to me. It’s all well and good for marketing, but I want something with a little more class.
In searching for new cool posters I’ve found that one thing stands out in truly unique artwork: they’re mostly foreign. Take a look at that Cuban version of Kurosawa’s Red Beard at the top of the page, it’s so different and cool looking, using the color red in a way that the film is unable to convey in black & white. It’s simple and I love it. Believe me, that one will adorn my wall very soon. I also love the idea that this poster was hung in whatever Cuban movie theater when this film was released there as opposed to the generic English-language version, or even the version in its native Japanese language which is also pretty mundane.
So, from now on I’d like to periodically point out a cool movie poster that has caught my eye and could possibly end up on my wall. Hopefully some of you will enjoy this and share some pics of cool posters you all have found.
I’ll end this with another pic of a cool poster that really spells out the feeling conveyed in the film with a simple image, and manages to do so without covering two-thirds of the poster with the star’s face.
Having recently finished Lars von Trier’s visually stunning directorial debut, The Element of Crime, a film that deals with crime, psychology, and crime solving in a crumbled, dystopian version of Europe, I got to thinking of other dystopian-set films I’ve seen and enjoyed. While this may be a fairly small sub-sect of films, the quality that pervades the genre is impressive when you think about it. The form itself is a very useful tool for film-makers in constructing allegorical versions of current and future society since they have at their disposal the freedom to create an entire society that can conform to any laws and rules they deem necessary in which to paint their allegorical tale. For the most part, they fall under the umbrella of science-fiction since they usually employ elements very common to the genre. These films paint a bleak futuristic portrait of a world torn apart by government, war, politics, and/or industry, and in most cases feature a grotesquely restructured version of our environment due to a common theme of impending environmental melt-down. These portraits generally serve to portray the director’s views of society as a whole or a particular country or region, as von Trier’s film does with its less-than-pleasant depiction of Europe.
Here is a selection of 10 favorites from my viewing history:
Dir. Orson Welles
V For Vendetta
Dir. James McTeigue
Dir. Ridley Scott
Dir. Chris Marker
Dir. The Wachowski’s
A Scanner Darkly
Dir. Richard Linklater
Dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Dir. Terry Gilliam
Children of Men
Dir. Alfonso Cuaron
Dir. Fritz Lang
Film: Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)
Director: Fritz Lang
Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede Nissen, Bernhard Goetzke
To place this film into simple terms would be a disservice to the brilliance of the overall picture, and most of all to the brilliance of its director. The film’s running time (4 hrs, 31 mins) may sound daunting and off-putting to a casual film viewer as well as a burgeoning cinephile, but rest assured there isn’t a wasted moment throughout the entire 271 minutes of film. If anyone has seen one or a few of Fritz Lang’s myriad of classics (M, Metropolis, Scarlet Street, Destiny, The Woman in the Window) then you’re aware of how revered and amazing a director he truly is.
Without getting into too much plot summary, the film concerns itself with two main characters: the criminal mastermind, Dr. Mabuse, and the state prosecutor sent to investigate strange gambling activity, Staatsanwalt von Welk. The film begins as Dr. Mabuse, who assumes various identities and disguises through make-up, wigs, and fake facial hair, carries out a heist of financial documents from a moving train and manipulates the stock exchange for personal financial gain in a thrilling opening sequence that is the earliest sign of a template for future action films to open in similar grandiose style that I’ve ever seen. From there we find out where Mabuse’s true power lies: mind manipulation. In several sequences the criminal’s “will power”, as he calls it, is displayed in the form of card game coercion with some of society’s highest rollers. It’s through this display of power that Lang exhibits a commentary on society and class structure, specifically by showing the power Mabuse has particularly over the wealthy, who are portrayed as weak-minded and susceptible to manipulation, both by Mabuse and von Welk. Likewise his henchman who carry out the dirty little jobs involved with his diabolical schemes are presented as equally weak-minded, thus showing the similar nature of these stupid henchman and the high society gamblers.
I use the term “diabolical”, as silly as it sounds, because the film really delves into fantasy and pulp, being that the source material was a pulp novel written by Norbert Jacques, and the term seems apropos for the material. The German expressionistic style is also on full display with chiaroscuro lighting, gothic architecture and sets, and the overall gothic essence and look of Dr. Mabuse. The film makes tremendous use of available effects, given the time when this film was made, and really amps up the horrific nature of the villain. Lang makes wonderful use of editing techniques, such as zeroing in on a particular face or item by blacking out the rest of the image in the lens and through super-imposing, in a similar fashion to the way this technique was used in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (released the same year, 1922) and much later in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946). In a way this film could draw comparisons to Murnau’s titular vampire, as both feature villains who control their prey in similar ways and are essentially unlovable creatures who yearn for a particular woman that may or may not lead to their undoing. In fact, I saw no less than 8 to 10 elements of this film that I have seen in later films (The Third Man, The Illusionist, Mission: Impossible to name a few) and never knew their origins lie in this Fritz Lang classic.
At this point in time I’d like to gush for a few sentences. The film, as a whole, is truly outstanding. I’ve watched several films that are 3+ hours and most of them slow down at points or come to a grinding halt altogether, but there is no hyperbole in saying that this film feels almost brisk in its pacing. The richness of the characters and the tightness of the story is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film from this era. Of course we have one of cinema’s true masters, Fritz Lang, to thank for these distinctions, seeing as he crafted a perfectly entertaining film that feels like a product of its time and yet includes moments and elements that still feel fresh or have yet to be outdone. If I had to assign a genre I’d call it a hybrid of cat-and-mouse, pulp-gothic-horror, and thriller, and it’s one that should be discussed far more often when arguing the all-time greatest films.
The last point I’d like to talk about is the silent performances by the actors in this film. I’m currently in the middle of reading a book by film theorist Bela Balazs in which he discusses the propensity of actors in silent films to use their bodies and facial expressions to convey hints of humanity and expression from within. Watching this film turned on a light bulb to what Balazs’ point is. The startling way with which Rudolf Klein-Rogge (Dr. Mabuse) uses one raised eyebrow and a tilt of the head to convey danger and fear is something no current actor could ever do, and not because our current actors are less talented as a whole but because the skill of using such facial expressions to convey emotion has completely eroded since the invention of sound. Balazs purports the theory that intertitles, and dialogue currently, should be ancillary tools used to push the story along; it’s the bodily and facial expression where the film exhibits its meaning and truly connects with the audience. Words can be deceiving, but actions tell no lies. If for no other reason, and believe me there are plenty, I hope many of you check out this film and other silent films and can come to appreciate what film used to be and see the way it has influenced what we watch in cinemas and in our homes right up to this very day.
I’ve been given a rare opportunity by my film professor, a professor whose opinion and depth of knowledge I truly admire, to study independently under his supervision for the next 4 months. A little back-story: the last two film classes I’ve taken, Film Since the 1940′s and Film Theory, were taught by this same professor, who is admittedly hard and makes his classes difficult for the casual student who might view film classes as an easy A. He takes the art-form seriously, which is easily my favorite element of his teaching style. He has a certain reverence for film and wishes to protect the sanctity of the medium from those of lower intelligence or those who don’t take the analytic process seriously. If nothing else his classes teach you to see film, and in many ways the world, in a way you’ve never looked at them.
Here’s the kicker to my situation: I get to choose my own topic. As he stated to me, choose a topic, genre, author, etc, that I really want to deeply examine and be an expert in. In essence, I get to choose any topic on film and study it in-depth, and have it count as college credit. I seriously can’t think of anything that would be more exciting as a huge film fan. The problem is, what the hell should I choose as my topic?? Think about the possibilities. I could choose to study a particular director out of the many many directors I admire and love, I could choose a certain genre of film, a specific time-period, an aspect of the film-making process, a technological movement, a film theorist and his theories on the medium, the films of a particular country, or perhaps even a single film that demands the attention of 4 months worth of study. Seriously, I’m over-the-moon ecstatic about this opportunity and excited to start the studying and analysis.
This post is, ideally, a call for help! If you were in my shoes and you could study an element of film, any element, what would it be? Leave your personal selection or a suggestion in the comments section. I have til next week to begin a dialogue with the professor about my topic, so until then I’ll be thinking up ideas. But I could use some ideas that I might not otherwise have thought of on my own. So, if you have an idea feel free to suggest it! Plus, it’ll be cool to find out what other people find most interesting or the one topic of film they’d like to study the most.
What do you think??
I have literally just gotten out of the midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises and I feel compelled to write a quick review of the film. Here’s my take: it sucks. Sounds kind of harsh, I know, and my reception is definitely a victim of expectation, but it isn’t just a bad Batman movie, it’s a bad movie in a cinematic way. It lacks narrative cohesion, an intelligent, terrifying central villain with any depth, back-story or goal, and lacks a good Batman story. The only good thing about the film was the character of Det. John Blake, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who acts as a sort of idealistic, younger amalgam of Batman and Commissioner Gordon. The dichotomy of the Batman-rage and the patience and intelligence of Gordon was the shining star amongst the dying lights of the previous characters.
I refuse to go into details, but suffice to say there is a structure that consists solely of plot points that pop up as a mere convenience or as “ooohhhh” moments, but rarely as cohesive developments. I mean, coming off of The Dark Knight, how do you screw it up this bad? It just has no soul, no feel, and no direction. This could be considered a snap-judgment, but me and the party I viewed this film with were completely disappointed with the result. It doesn’t use the heart and soul of the previous films, that of Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, and Lucious, save for sparing moments and brief interludes in a 2 hour 44 minute epic that could have included a few musical numbers and some “Family Guy” cut-aways and STILL felt as empty and soulless as the film I just watched. I didn’t have one single “Holy shit!!” or even a “Ohhh I see what they’re doing there” moment, because everything they did was spur-of-the-moment and without any real set-up. This film felt like a series of cut-aways, additions and non-sequitors that simply didn’t add up.
The Dark Knight Rises is bar none the worst of the series, and I’d go as far to say it’s not a good film by any standards. Total let-down from a series, character, and director that had so much promise. Dammit, this feeling sucks.