Thursday, March 26, 2020

Great Scenes 6: Paths of Glory (a tour of the trenches)

Stanley Kubrick's fourth film Paths of Glory remains unforgettable over 60 years later. Set in the trenches of France during the First World War, the story explores the dehumanizing nature of war. General George Broulard played by Adolphe Menjou will order a pointless attack. After it predictably fails he decides to execute three random soldiers for cowardice just to set an example. Kirk Douglas in in one his iconic roles stands up for human decency by defending the wrongly accused soldiers. In this scene General Broulard inspects the trenches for a brief visit. With Kubrick's trademark tracking shot, allowing us to observe the conditions of the trenches, we're thrust into this world. The martial drumming adds to the sense of absurdity and war weariness among the troops. The cruelty of the general also speaks to Kubrick's recurring theme in his films on the irrational nature of hierarchies. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Great Scenes 5: Close Encounters of the Third Kind - UFO Encounter

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is probably my favorite Spielberg movie, in the top five for sure. In this scene electrician Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus) has his first encounter with a UFO. The two minute scene is a marvel in its use of sound, light, and editing. Of course the visitors turn to be friendly, but Spielberg keeps the audience guessing until the end.  The early encounter scenes are shot with a sense of suspense and wonder. Early versions of the Close Encounters script took on a more religious significance, focusing on a military officer who debunks UFO stories to the press, only to have an encounter of his own and eventually becoming a UFO evangelist. Those elements are still present in the film, especially here with Roy seeing the light here and being forever changed. The New Age overtones in the final encounter at the end speak more to the cultural climate of the 1970s, yet remain a unique expression of hope.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Great Scenes 4: E.T. The Extraterrestrial

Suburbia was Steven Spielberg's go to setting in the 1980s, sometimes a place of alienation and sometimes a haven from a frightening world. Spielberg's Poltergeist was released alongside E.T. in June 1982, a darker take on the middle class retreat to the suburbs as the Reagan era dawned. The Halloween sequence in E.T. is amazingly lit at the magic hour around dusk. There's something almost Utopian about the sequence - and humorous. Trivia note - Debra Winger is the ghoulish doctor who appears towards the end. Yoda also appears for a nice laugh. 

Great Scenes 3: Almost Famous

Cameron Crowe's wistful autobiographical film Almost Famous about his years writing for Rolling Stone as a teenager is a wondrous snapshot of the early 1970s. Nostalgic, yet realistic. This scene early in the film recounts his sister (Zooey Deschanel) deciding to leave home, inspired by Simon and Garfunkel's "America" as her mother played by Frances McDormand disapproves. The majestic song romanticizes youth and freedom on the highway, yet at the same time has a melancholy undercurrent, suggesting a nation of lost souls desperately trying to live up to some abstract ideal. Perhaps there was a time when a song could lead a young person to go their own way, defying expectations and creating new ones.

Monday, March 16, 2020

A list of Recommended Movie Podcasts.

So it looks like we're all going to be staying in WAY more often than usual for the foreseeable future. In addition to movies, television, books, music, we're all going to need to keep our minds occupied. Here's a list of some movie podcasts I would recommend. I'm sure there are many I haven't discovered and I'm always open to your recommendations.

The MovieFilm Podcast - Hosted by film critic Zaki Hasan and writer Brian Hall, two old friends, they review current films and go over the latest movie headlines. They have accumulated a backlog of commentary tracks that are well worth listening to as you watch along. They have covered most of the Star Wars films, Indiana Jones, and many superhero movies. 

The Projection Booth Podcast - Now closing in on 500 episodes, host Mike White has covered the most diverse selection of films you'll find anywhere. Name the genre, the Projection Booth has got it covered. Each episode features a panel discussion on the film with a rotating group of co-hosts.  Most entries also feature in depth interviews with those involved in the film's production. Try some episodes with movies you may not have seen - it will take you on an interesting path.

Horror Movie Podcast - "Dead serious about horror movies", HMP is the ideal podcast for horror fans. The hosts have also accumulated an impressive archive with themed episodes and commentary on the latest releases.

The Faculty of Horror - A monthly podcast hosted by Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West who take an academic approach to analyzing horror movies from a feminist perspective. Always insightful, humorous, and educational - highly recommended

The Film and Water Podcast - Rob Kelly, who also hosts an excellent podcast on Bob Dylan, has a backlog of 150 episodes covering a wide variety of movies.

Pure Cinema Podcast - The official podcast The New Beverly theater in Los Angeles hosted by Brian Saur and Elric Kane. Brian and Elric have large backlog of episodes, I would especially point new listeners to their "list" episodes on their favorite cult movies from different genres. 

Slate's Spoiler Specials - Watch a new release and then listen to Slate critic Dana Stevens discuss the film with a panel of guests. Always a fun and intelligent discussion.

Maltin on Movies - Leonard Maltin has done so much to popularize films for a wide audience with his annual movie guides. He now hosts a podcast with his daughter Jessie. Each episode a one hour interview on films and film history.

The Important Cinema Club - If you want a deep dive into film in general I would direct you to these two guys. Based in Toronto, Justin Decloux and Will Sloan release a new episode each week. Most entries focus on the career of a director by looking at a few films from their catalog. Will and Justin are especially passionate for Poverty Row pictures and Kung Fu flicks.

Movie Sign with the Mads - Comedians Frank Coniff, Trace Beaulieu, and Carolina Hidalgo provide a humorous take on a different movie each week. Now exclusively on Spotify.

Super 70 Podcast - A film commentary cast hosted by Dylan Davis. Davis obviously a lot of research into his enriching and idiosyncratic commentaries. His first series focused on the 1980s and the second series explored a film from each decade beginning with the 1920s.

All these are available on itunes, spotify, or the links above.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Great Scenes 2: Duck Soup.

Duck Soup imagines the fictional country of Freedonia appointing charlatan Rufus T. Firefly as their new President. Instead of an inaugural speech he sings "The Laws of my Administration" with each verse getting more ominous as he describes his plans for Freedonia. A brilliant satire, eerily prophetic. 

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Great Scenes 1: Monterey Pop (1968)

I'm going to start posting some of my favorite sequences in movies. Monterey Pop is a documentary on the festival held in June 1967. This is Ravi Shankar performing with his band (runs about 18 minutes). It's cool to see many of the iconic figures of the 1960s in the audience. Sitar music may not be your thing, but it's hard not to be transported by this - amazing filmmaking and music!

Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Invisible Man (2020)

Elizabeth Moss stars in The Invisible Man, the latest release from Blumhouse Productions, updating the classic story for the current moment. More of a suspense thriller than a straight horror film, genre tropes are used effectively to portray the psychology of an abusive relationship and gas lighting. There's also a role reversal: the subject of the film is not the invisible man, but the woman he's terrorizing. 

The film begins with Cecilia (Moss) making a night time escape from her tech magnate boyfriend Adrian's seaside mansion, the sequence takes it time with an eye on every painstaking detail. Provided safe haven by her friends, she learns Adrian has died, but left her an allowance in his will overseen by his brother. Yet Cecilia senses she's being watched. Her feeling of being watched soon turns into physical assaults. Explanations for Cecilia's paranoid behavior leave everyone baffled and cause them to question her sanity.

The second half of the film features an assortment of clever plot twists, with sly references to North by Northwest and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Moss's multi faceted performance, a woman dealing with PTSD who becomes an empowered survivor, carries the the story along like a strong current. Men are on the periphery of the story, but the conniving possessive nature of her former Silicone Valley phenom Adrian (Elon Musk comes to mind) and his equally duplicitous brother.

The Invisible Man has the distinct Blumhouse Production look - heightened middlebrow within a believable environment. As a study in gas lighting, the art of deception by men usually directed towards women, the film gracefully makes it point. 


Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Two Sagas: Star Wars and The Godfather

The two definitive epics of the 1970s were hands down Star Wars and The Godfather. Perhaps their most lasting legacies are how they redefined story telling on the big screen. Francis Ford Coppola and wrote and directed all three Godfather films (with Mario Puzo as co-writer), while his former protege George Lucas wrote and directed Star Wars. Both took chances by deciding to make sequels to already highly successful movies, while not without precedent, were going against the grain. It worked out well: The Godfather Part II was released in 1974 and topped the original in the opinion of many. The sequel to Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back was released in 1980 and paved the way for seven more films (including two spin offs). 

While one is a space opera and the other crime epic, both introduced an innovative approach to narrative. The original Star Wars trilogy were the middle chapters so any new viewer watching A New Hope must orient themselves to the idea they're in a much larger story, one where the history and future are only suggested. The prequel trilogy (1999-2005) tells the origin story of Darth Vader and traces the decline of the Republic, while the sequel trilogy (2015-2019) serves as an epilogue/coda to the themes explored in the previous six.

The Godfather (based on the 1969 Mario Puzo novel) begins in 1945 and ends in the early 50s. The Godfather Part II covers two separate time periods: the origin story of the Corleone patriarch Vito spanning the early 20th Century and the story of Vito's son Michael taking over the family business. The Godfather Part III released in 1990 moves the story into the 1970s, providing closure to Michael's narrative. An as yet unmade fourth chapter would've continued the Corleone saga into the 1990s and provided another prequel story set in the 1930s centering on Sonny Corleone (covered in Edward Falco's 2012 novel The Family Corleone).

In 1977 Coppola edited the first two films together for chronological for their network TV debut. It's a different way to experience the films, but takes away from the time bending narrative of Part II. But one can get into The Godfather saga at any point and still be engaged with the characters. Like Lucas would do with his films, Coppola included new scenes left out of the theatrical release - speaking to how these narratives are continually evolving. 

Now that all nine Star Wars films are complete, one can experience them in any number of ways. You can go in chronological order from episodes I-IX or watch them in order of release or countless other ways depending on your fancy. I prefer to watch them as they were released to get the authentic experience, but like The Godfather one can jump in at any point. The narrative inconsistencies in Star Wars I try not to get too hung up on. For example, originally Darth Vader was not to be Luke's father, and Luke and Leia were not siblings. As a fan it's easy to be confused due to Lucas's contradictory statements over the years, but the experience of the nine films transcends these minor narrative quibbles.

Narrative inconsistencies aside, Star Wars and The Godfather both center on families. The multi-generational approach feels more literary as we watch our characters age and pass on their knowledge (and issues) to the next generation. The Corleone family is a metaphor of the American experience: an immigrant family in America, building a future, and eventual corruption and downfall. The Skywalker saga begins with Luke, destined to become a messianic figure, while the prequels tell the story of his father Anakin. For the sequel trilogy the Skywalkers are less front and center as Luke, Han, and Leia pass on their legacy to the new generation. Both end with a sense of closure and continuity. 

The sequel trilogy reminded me of The Godfather Part III in some indirect ways, especially The Rise of Skywalker. On the DVD commentary for Part III Coppola spoke of how he had little new to say in the last chapter since the audience knows the routine and what to expect. Star Wars movies are also recognizable to the point of ritual. Everything from the frequent quote "I have a bad feeling about this" to the opening crawl. The Rise of Skywalker delivered on all these points, despite the unbearable weight of history bearing down on the story. As the latter chapters suggest these stories can lose momentum, but also open the way for new stories told by others. 

Star Wars and The Godfather on the whole are more than the sum of their parts. There are highs and lows in these stories, but it's about the journey, not the destination. They paved the way for a new type of story telling, tapping in the collective unconscious. The stories invite people in, which may be their most definitive legacies.