Saturday, May 30, 2015

Salt of the Earth *** (2014)

Rated PG-13, 110 Minutes
Sebastio Salgado, the subject of the artful documentary Salt of the Earth, is a Brazilian photographer who's witnessed and documented some of the most tragic and momentous moments of modern history.  Directed by the imaginative German filmmaker Wim Wenders, Salt of the Earth traces the life story of Salgado as he reflects on his experiences and how they changed him. 

Salgado began his career as an economist at the World Bank.  An interest in labor issues spurred an interest in photography and with the help of his wife he traveled all over the world observing workers and the conditions they endured. In the 1980s and 1990s he spent time in Africa covering the famine in Ethiopia and the civil war in Rwanda. He photographed the "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia and the oil fires in Kuwait following the first Gulf War in 1991.

Many of these images are devastating.  Some have accussed Salgado of building a career through grotesque displays of Third World suffering. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Salgado strikes me as a deeply sensitive person determined to raise awareness and provoke discussion on why genocide, famine, and war remain are not just "episodes" of history, but persist into the present.

Furthermore, we learn Salgado's own experiences took a toll on his mental health.  After witnessing the aftermath of atrocities in Rwanda and Serbia he began to lose faith in the future.  A renewed passion towards nature and the environment rekindled his spirits.
 He restored his family's farm in Brazil by overseeing the planting of over two million trees, restoring life to a dying landscape.  With the help of his son, Salgado continues to pursue photography in the far corners of the earth.

The Salt of the Earth is a truly cinematic documentary telling an intimate story in grand terms. When viewed on the big screen Salgado's images are nothing less than awe inspiring. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Blues Brothers ***

Released in the summer of 1980, The Blues Brothers brought the popular Saturday Night Live act to the big screen.  Now 35 years old, Blues Brothers perseveres not so much for its humor, but for the amazing personalities who appear onscreen.  Starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as Jake and Elwood, two white blues musicians on the run from Nazis, cops, and angry girlfriends.  When the brothers learn the orphanage that guided them through childhood is about to be closed by the county they decide to embark on a "mission from God" to get the their band back together and save the orphanage.

The music performances are easily the highlights.  Director John Landis captured some legends on film including Aretha Fanklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, Cab Calloway, and John Lee Hooker. As for the Blues Brothers themselves, Belushi and Aykroyd excel in their personas and obviously had fun with them.

Going into the 1980s, John Landis seemed poised to rule the decade.  He scored four major hits in a row: Animal House (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980), An American Werewolf in London (1981), and Trading Places (1983).  Landis loved big explosions and car crashes - basically Looney Tunes on steroids.  But between the extended chase scenes you get great music and it's great to hang out with Belushi and Aykroyd.

In Belushi's all too brief film career, The Blues Brothers stands out as his best movie. Although Jake's one dimensional as a character - I could see Belushi moving him in interesting directions, a sort of rock and roll Falstaffian figure.

If you love great music, epic car crashes, a car chase through a mall, slapstick humor, the redemptive power of rock and roll - you cannot miss this one!

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Big Trouble in Little China (1986) ***

From a 2015 perspective it's hard to believe John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China flopped at the Box Office back in 1986. As an action comedy Big China has aged much better than the Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop movies.  There's a self-reflexive tone to the film that's in many ways a satire of the action genre, while being a pretty good action movie in its own right. I'll wager Guardians of the Galaxy took a few cues from Carpenter's rollicking cult classic.

Kurt Russell is Jack "the check's in the mail" Burton, a boisterous truck driver who gets caught up in Chinatown intrigue during a layover in San Francisco. Russell speaks with a John Wayne drawl with an amusing trucker's cadence - must have listened to his share of CB Radio for research. He runs into his buddy Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who is about to be married.  When an evil ganglord kidnaps Wang's bride to be for sinister purposes, Jack and Wang get caught up in a trippy adventure in the heart of Chinatown's underworld.

In it's own way Big Trouble offers a unique take on the familiar East meets West themes. Jack's the typical 80s action hero - muscular, dumb, but with good intentions. His gun (white man's weapon of choice) proves laughingly impotent against Asian martial arts.  At the moment of truth he often gets clumsy.  Lost in a world that makes little sense, Jack's only effective with the help of his friends who must explain their culture to him. As the film unfolds it's clear Wang's our true hero, while Jack's the Sancho Panza.

All the action sequences are visually impressive and advance the plot. W.D. Richter's script, a rewrite of the original story set in the old west, added witty dialogue and a comic book sensibility.  While Indiana Jones and Rambo gave us infallible heroes cast in the traditional American mode, Russell offers a send up of those guys.

John Carpenter was on a roll back in the 80s.  Halloween invented the modern slasher film, Escape From New York remains one of the most stylish dystopian films ever made, and The Thing remains a horror masterpiece.  Unfortunately, conflicts with 20th Century Fox forced him back to making independent films.  Although Carpenter never gained the clout of a Lucas or Spielberg, his films continue to provoke and challenge audiences, instead of just placating them.  Big Trouble in Little China being a prime example.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Citizen Kane (1941) ****

Today would have been the 100th birthday of the great director Orson Welles.  In honor of his birthday, TCM will air a slate of his films each Friday this month.  Citizen Kane remains the ultimate masterpiece of American cinema.  At this point watching Citizen Kane might feel like homework for some, especially upon initial viewing, but it achieves a greater significance each time I watch it.

Released in 1941, Citizen Kane met with critical success, but slumped at the box office. Nominated for nine Oscars, Kane won for original screenplay. After Citizen Kane, Welles worked on The Magnificent Ambersons, but left the project after RKO studios insisted on editing changes.  Thus for the rest of his life Welles depended on his acting to finance his own projects and usually worked outside the system, leaving many films unfinished.

Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, a media mogul who lived both the American dream - and nightmare.  Loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst (and a few other tycoons), the story examines the emptiness of wealth, fame, and the collapse of youthful idealism into hubris and cynicism.

Kane's guardians plan his future.
Upon its release in 1941 Citizen Kane looked unlike anything Hollywood had ever produced. The film opens with the forbidding mansion of Xanadu as the camera pans to a  "No Trespassing" sign.  Then a mock Time-Life Newsreel telling the story of Kane's life from humble its beginnings and rise in the newspaper industry.  And then a shift to a screening room as newsman enclosed in darkness argue about the meaning of Kane's final words, "Rosebud."
The rest of the film follows a reporter on a quest to unlock the secret of "Rosebud." Flashbacks trace his childhood, rise in journalism, and eventually politics.  He personified American exuberance as it entered the 20th century, manifesting itself in imperialism. Kane led the charge for war with Spain in 1898.

Kane marries the niece of the President and seemed predestined to attain the presidency, the end all and be all of the American dream.  But wealthy men seldom attain the highest office - Nelson Rockefeller, Donald Trump, Steve Forbes etc... Kane campaigns as a champion for the poor.  And yet the speech looks foreboding, almost Fascist.  Like many American politicians, a sex scandal undid his political career.
Running for Office
The second half of the film takes on a much darker tone. Kane's second marriage to a young opera singer leads to unhappiness for both.  Both wander around like strangers in Xanadu.  Growing balder and fatter, he spends his final days in despair about his life.  As he says prophetically later in the film, "If I hadn't been very rich, I might've been a really great man."

Images and sequences from Citizen Kane stay with you forever.  My particular favorite is "Charles Foster Kane" dance sequence.  With Kane at the height of his powers he holds garish party and we see him subtly evolve from idealistic young man to a megalomaniac.
The "Dance Sequence"
Now at 100, Welles is undergoing something of a renaissance.  Recently The Projection Booth Podcast dedicated a whole episode to his unreleased movie from the 70s, The Other Side of the Wind.  The film had an amazing cast consisting of John Huston, Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, and Susan Strasberg.  

Happy Birthday Mr. Welles!

                                  THE WHITE STRIPES "THE UNION FOREVER"

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron **

In between their witty banter at penthouse parties and endless pursuits of super villains and Eurotrash terrorists, the Marvel heroes must get bored.  I do like the cast of Avengers, Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner especially stand out, and the rest have their moments when they're not fighting robots.  And with Joss Whedon at the helm you're guaranteed an exceptional product. According to interviews Whedon's described the making of Age of Ultron as a traumatic process. Dealing with the Disney behemoth? I hope he goes on to do better things.  Possibly a reboot of Apocalypse Now?  About a half hour into Age of Ultron I was hopeful with its homages to The Empire Strikes Back. You know that "heroes with their back to the wall" vibe. Then the second half devolved into a conventional comic book movie with the routine epic battle at the end.  For myself, the most awe inspiring part of The Avengers was watching the credits roll  - now that is something to behold.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Reservoir Dogs (1992) ****

Quentin Tarantino's debut film Reservoir Dogs took the world of cinema by storm in 1992. Most American movies at that time were formulaic mediocrities with paint by numbers scripts. Independent films, usually politically driven, were starting to hit the mainstream as an alternative to Hollywood. Tarantino merged his mainstream sensibilities with a literary approach to storytelling.

Tarantino's story's been told many times.  A High School dropout raised by a single mother, at 16 he started working at an X-Rated movie theater in Los Angeles. After knocking around at various odd jobs he landed a position at Video Archives, a now famous video store.  While there Quentin spent hours watching every kind of film imaginable from Hong Kong Cinema to the French New Wave.  He spent hours debating movies with co-workers who all dreamed of making it in the film industry.

Eventually he began writing scripts and working on a low budget film, My Best Friend's Birthday.  One of his scripts Reservoir Dogs miraculously fell into the hands of Harvey Keitel who played a pivotal role in getting the film made.

The opening scene of Reservoir Dogs broke all the rules of how to start a movie with a group of professional criminals we know little about in extended discussions over pop song lyrics and the ethics of tipping a restaurant server. The story is told backwards and sideways. We get fragments of exposition, the planning of the heist, and the bloody aftermath all fitting like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  A heist film where we never see the heist!

The actors Tarantino assembled including Keitel as the seasoned pro, Steve Buscemi as the hothead, Chris Penn as "Nice Guy" Eddie, Tim Roth as the undercover cop, Michael Madsen as the sociopath, and Lawrence Tierney as the boss - all turned Tarantino's dialogue into music.  

And who are these men? Tarantino's throwback masculinity provoked audiences  As white males of the underclass they have their own sense of honor. They frequently drop the "N" word and make derisive comments aimed at women and gays.  Like Peckinpah's Wild Bunch, they know their choice of life probably means they are doomed to a violent demise.

The culture and conflicts of the 70s reign ever present in the soundtrack, the cultural references, the cars, and the KBILLY radio station.  The legacy of the Vietnam War looms ghost like over the film, a conflict Gen X watched play out on TV when they were kids.  As the war ended discussions on what went wrong were filled with rancor and bathos.  Many of the scenes in Reservoir Dogs are all about the heist and "What Went Wrong?" 

Often considered ultra-violent, Reservoir Dogs is actually far less violent than any Rambo or Die Hard film - or any superhero movie for that matter.  It's the way Tarantino presents the violence that irks some critics.  Asking the audience to actually feel and participate in the violence is a place "action" movies rarely go.  As many other critics have pointed out, the 1991 Gulf War played on television with audiences never seeing the aftermath of the violence.  In Reservoir Dogs blood is spilled and violence does have consequences.

Great films come in such supply.  A precious few never lose their energy and pick up momentum with each viewing.  Reservoir Dogs belongs in that category.