Monday, February 28, 2011

Films that didn't beat the odds but should have: Leaves of Grass (2009)

I see a pattern with these posters. They're all lame. 
     Tim Blake Nelson wrote Leaves of Grass with Edward Norton in mind for the lead. If Norton had turned down the script, Nelson would not have pursued the project any further. That's an interesting fact to ponder when watching Nelson's hilarious, tragic, violent, and mystifying film. Not because of Norton's performance(s), which is(are) exceptional by the way, but because of the sheer ambition that fills every facet of this film. 
     Describing the plot is sort of a moot point, not because there is no plot, but because several plots are happening at the same time. I guess you could say that the film, at its most basic level, is a story about identical twins who are nothing alike. Not only are they nothing alike, but they are residing on two polar extremes of American society (Brady is a drug-dealing redneck in Oklahoma, while Bill is a Classical Philosophy professor at Brown). Norton plays both brothers with an almost supernatural confidence. Brady's accent is thick and almost indecipherable and Bill's voice has a certain quality that forces people to listen to his eloquent, brilliant thoughts. 
     So of course the estranged brothers have to meet. It has been 12 years since Bill has left town, and his mother (played by Susan Sarandon) has put herself into a rest home prematurely. 
     I won't spoil anything, so I'll just say that plot happens and before you know it the brothers are sharing the frame like a couple of Lohans. 
    A man as well-connected (he has been a character actor in nearly 50 films) as Nelson has no trouble finding excellent actors to play small parts in his film. Even Richard Dreyfuss makes an appearance as a drug baron (go figure). Nelson has made a film with the "not really twins" special effect used famously in The Social Network with a fraction of that film's budget. 
Just in case you were wondering, Tim Blake Nelson is that guy from Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
     Not only that, but he has filled this movie to the brim with ideas. We see a lecture from Norton's Bill Kincaid that is expertly delivered and beautifully written juxtaposed with a group of guys discussing moonshine at a Waffle House; we see an orthodontist screaming for his children's "crooked teethed friends" to get braces "so the family won't fold into an empty burrito"; we see many, many brutal murders involving weapons ranging from pistols, shotguns, and crossbows. 
     The most interesting part of this film, to me, is that both brothers are brilliant. The redneck, hick brother who sells marijuana is every bit as brilliant as the Ivy League professor who can sight translate Latin. The movie does not bash the viewer's head in with the fact that these brother's are geniuses. In fact, it doesn't really say much of anything. Nelson's dialogue is so good that we don't need any exposition; the dialogue is so well-written that we just know these characters. 
      Many people compare this film to the Coen Brother's work, and I guess that comparison makes sense. Especially since Nelson appeared in one of their films. But, in a way, I feel like that's a dismissal of what Nelson is doing with this movie. This is not an actor who worked with the Coens and tried to deliver a similar package, this is a very unique and interesting voice that I'm definitely going to be looking forward to hearing for a long time. 
     It's sad that this film didn't get hardly any recognition, because it is a very satisfying and interesting experience watching this movie. 

    And just so you know, it does mention Whitman. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jettisoned Into Obscurity: More Context (5-1)

Cameron Cook = Age ?

     Here we are, the five (okay...six) movies that I love completely and totally from the very, very bottom of my heart. I'll compile a list that spans from my number 10 to my number thirty spots at the end of the post.

And to make myself totally clear, these are my favorite English-language films. If I were including all of world cinema we'd be here all day. Sometimes a man needs restrictions. 

5. Eyes Wide Shut

     I can think of no other director that manipulated audiences the way that Stanley Kubrick did. Case in point, Eyes Wide Shut. When Stanley Kubrick was on the verge of releasing his newest film in over a decade, he cut all of the trailers and TV spots himself. The previews advertised a film full of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise sexing around New York to zany circus music. What the audience got was a film about a man trying, desperately, to have sex but never actually getting any. Kubrick put the audience in the same frustrated state as the character, and it apparently did exactly what Kubrick wanted it to do, namely, alienate audiences and critics alike.
     When the film came out, everybody was disappointed. Critics, fans, casual moviegoers, they all agreed that Kubrick had crafted a completely disgusting and degrading film. It objectified women, it made men out to be shallow and irresponsible, it made the rich look ridiculously stupid and boring, and it basically ended the Cruise/Kidman marriage.
     Well, the problem is, that is all completely accurate. Kubrick is just pulling a Mark Twain. Throw in a little satire that hits too close to home and everybody gets all upset, but this should not have been a shock to anybody. What are Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, Clockwork Orange, and Killer's Kiss if not satires? Those films were extremely successful and acclaimed. What happened with Eyes Wide Shut?
    Ambiguity happened.
    The film is full of unanswered questions. There is also a blending a genre in the film that disturbs audiences to no end. The problem is that it is not completely satire. There is an emotional and disturbing core to the film that asks the question: Why do you trust your spouse? How far can trust go? Does love equal sex? Those questions are difficult, and they are presented in the film in a realistic manner. The film has found legs over the last decade and it has finally achieved the status of Kubrick's other films. But it still seems to carry the stigma of being Kubrick's dud.

View the trailer here

4. A Serious Man

     The Coen brothers are not scared of doing whatever they want. They've built an entire career with films that go against the mainstream. Their plots, characters, lines of dialogue, and visual techniques are so idiosyncratic and original that it is always obvious that they have written and directed the film. From Blood Simple to True Grit, the Coens have always had a clear fingerprint on their work.
    And while I love all of their movies, some more than others, I have to admit that I never thought they had a masterpiece on their hands until I saw A Serious Man. There have always been elements that I like in their films, but there is almost always another something that eats at me. Anything from the ridiculous subplots of Burn After Reading to the absurdly broad performances in otherwise serious scenes (I'm looking at you Michael Lerner in Barton Fink and Joe Polito in Miller's Crossing), there is almost always something in one of their films that dampens the experience.
    In other words, I've always had fun with their films. But only once have I found one of their films truly great and moving in all the right places.
     A Serious Man is about many things. Judaism, Marriage, Fatherhood, Teaching, Life, Sibling Rivalries, Death, Divorce, Racism, PTSD, Ritualism. It has a little something for everybody.
     What is magic about this film is that it completely gets the book of Job. I mean that in the sense that Job is all about ambiguities (something you'll find in all of my favorite movies). It is considered by some scholars that the frame narrative of Job was added after the book was written in order to provide a clearer image to the story. The Coens, in their retelling of Job, wisely replace the beginning argument between God and Satan with a strange and haunting parable.
     Not only that, but they have done something very, very nice with the ending that answers many more questions than you might think (a look at Job would really be helpful, both before and after the viewing). The performances are perfect, the editing is perfectly paced, and the ending will knock you dead.

View what might be the best trailer ever here

3. Inland Empire

     Inland Empire is a rare bird. In many ways, it's not too different from a terrible movie, and I mean that with the utmost respect. There's just something off about it. The whole thing. The cinematography is unusually grainy and the images are eerily close to their subjects. The dialogue editing feels arhythmic. Sometimes it takes up to five seconds for a person to respond to a question. The sound editing is strange. What is that low rumble taking over the soundtrack? Why can we hear everything? The breathing, footsteps, the sounds of lips over teeth, it's all there. 
    The world is both hyper-real and hyper-cinematic. There's no cinematic masking covering up distasteful sounds or unflattering angles. The film all at once feels like a documentary and a dream. It's over three hours long, but it feels longer. The images are muddy. 
    And yet, when it's all said and done, the movie has gathered everything up and slapped you in the face with it. It is a dream. It is a nightmare. It is everything that Lynch has been trying to do for over thirty years. This is the film he has been making his whole life. Every image, every sound, and every cut is perfectly placed. 
    Be warned, the film is also absolutely terrifying. 
    Be warned, it's probably the most polarizing film ever made. 

View the trailer here

2. Paris, Texas

     Paris, Texas will make a grown man cry. 
       What can I say? It has everything. It has every single little thing I could ask for. 
      A brilliant blues soundtrack from guitar-god Ry Cooder, 
      a gorgeous visual style from cinematographer Robby Muller, 
      a devastating screenplay by Sam Shepard, 
      and of course, pitch-perfect direction from Wim Wenders. 
      Harry Dean Stanton, Nastassia Kinski, and Dean Stockwell give excellent performances in this film about a man who tries to get everything back after a psychotic break and total loss of memory. But does he succeed? The answer to that question is completely up to the viewer. And you all know how much I love my ambiguity. 

View the trailer here

1. Synecdoche, New York

     This is the one. This is the film that did everything I wanted. My wedding vows will be about Synecdoche, New York
       Where do I even start? With the perfect screenplay? How about the amazing soundtrack? Okay, here's what I'll do, I'll talk about the cast. Tom Noonan, the criminally underutilized actor/director, is a revelation in this film as the Caden(Philip Seymour Hoffman)'s stalker. His final moments in the film are magnetic, haunting, beautiful. Diane Wiest steals the third act of the movie. Samantha Morton ages 60 years so believably that you forget you're watching a movie. 
       And there's Philip Seymour Hoffman. That beautiful, beautiful man. How his performance didn't sweep every awards show imaginable is proof that award shows are retarded. In fact, this film was nominated for nothing. NOTHING. Criminal. 
      Another thing that's criminal is giving away too much about the plot of this movie. It's up to you to take the initiative. Do you trust me enough to watch a movie with a title like that? 

      You'll be glad you did. 

View the trailer here

Favorite International Films 

  1. Winter Light
  2. Yi-Yi
  3. Zerkalo
  4. Battle Royale
  5. Eight and a Half
  6. The White Ribbon
  7. Andrei Rublev
  8. Scenes from a Marriage 
  9. Mother 
  10. Amores Perros 
11-30 (In no particular order, the numbers are arbitrary)
11. True Stories
12. The King of Comedy
13. Love & Death
14. I'm Not There
15. The Fountain
16. The Graduate
17. Being There
18. Opening Night
19. Brazil
20. Short Cuts
21. Punch-Drunk Love
22. Jackie Brown
23. Ghost Dog:The Way of the Samurai
24. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
25. The Thin Red Line
26. Dancer in the Dark
27. Crimes and Misdemeanors 
28. Gangs of New York
29. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie
30. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I want to hear from you guys: what are some of your favorite movies and why?

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Context would be nice, wouldn't it? (10-6)

Cameron Cook = Age 4
     A few readers have asked me to provide context to what my favorite movies are. Apparently my opinion cannot be trusted unless my favorite films have been listed and talked about. I suppose that's fair. So what I'm going to do is split up my top ten favorite movies into two posts, speaking briefly about each film and why I love it so much.
     I would like to hear what some of your favorites are in the comments section. That way we can all get to know each other a little bit better. Now wouldn't that be somethin'?

     So lets get right down to it.

10. Back to the Future

     Back to the Future is one of those rare movies that has grown up with me. I first saw it when I was around six or seven years old; McDonalds was selling the movie with happy meals for some strange reason. My mom wouldn't let me watch it so of course I immediately found a way to watch it without her knowing.
    And boy am I glad that I did.
    When I was young I liked anything with gadgets, adventure, and funny cool guys. This movie has it all. I have owned the trilogy on VHS, DVD (twice), and Blu-ray, and I'm sure I will own it on whatever medium is coming next year. While I love the entire trilogy, I feel that they are just additions to the first film instead of films in their own right, so in that way I just call them all Back to the Future without any installment in mind. I even love the ride. The video of the film's ride at universal studios is a special feature on the Blu-ray, and I have watched it over ten times.
     Between Michael J. Fox's wormy characterization of Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd's spidery characterization of Doc Brown, Robert Zemeckis is at his special effects/comedy/adventure blending best. But I have a feeling that all of you have seen this one before.

View the trailer here; it's pretty ridiculous.

9. 25th Hour

     Changing directions from funny adventure comedy to whatever you call this, 25th Hour is Spike Lee's love letter to post-9/11 New York, and it's tough love.
     Chronicling Monty Brogan's (Edward Norton) last day before a seven year stint in prison for drugs, 25th Hour begins as a small, character driven drama and slowly escalates to a critique of New York City in the wake of 9/11, and eventually the entire country. Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of Jacob Elinsky, a high school teacher with a crush on one of his students (Anna Paquin) is not only sympathetic, but it's downright heartbreaking.
    Even Barry Pepper is good in this movie. And that gets its own paragraph.
    25th Hour is one of those rare movies that sheds light on a totally different world than I am used to and somehow draws me in and makes me sympathize like I've known the characters for years. Between the excellent writing of David Benioff and the powerful direction of Spike Lee, I suggest giving this movie a try.

View the trailer here

8. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

     I don't know what to say about this movie that hasn't been said already. Every scene is funny, creative, interesting, intelligent, wonderful. The acting is great, the direction is great, the music is great, the concept is hilarious. I love everything about this movie and I can quote any line of it at any time of day. This is most definitely my favorite Wes Anderson movie and I think it will always hold a special place in my heart. You know, in a David Bowie in Portuguese kind of way.
    And Willem Dafoe.

View the trailer here

7. Raiders of the Lost Ark 

     Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of those movies that just inexplicably works. It embraces every single movie cliche (Including an extremely literal Deus Ex Machina) and somehow comes out on top. It has action, comedy, adventure, and a little thing called timelessness. I have loved this movie for going on two decades, and I'm going to love it until I die.
     I hope that on my deathbed I can watch this movie before I go out, because this is by far the most fun movie on my list. Most of you know this movie all too well, so I'm not going into too much detail here.
    And Harrison Ford!

View the trailer here

6. Nashville 

     Robert Altman's magnum opus, I say. Nashville brings together over 20 characters from all different classes, races, and backgrounds with only one thing in common: the need to be famous in the world of country music.
     Over the course of three days, these characters' lives intersect and break apart as a political fundraiser run by country music stars grows near. There's Barbara Jean(Ronee Blakly), the now-adult child star with a heart of gold; Tom Frank(Keith Carridine), the country-rock star in love with a married mother of two(Lily Tomlin); and there's the Tricycle Man (Jeff Goldblum) who never speaks with words, only magic tricks.
    Mix those things together and you get  beautiful, tragic scenes like this, but there are also completely hilarious scenes involving the perfectly toupeed Henry Gibson. I would go so far as to say that Nashville is the quintessential American movie for people who want to know about our culture.
Fun Fact: All of the music in the film is recorded live, none of it was pre-recorded.

View the trailer here, although I warn you, it's just a scene from the movie that was used as a reel.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Movie Review: Catfish [Contains Extremely Vague Spoilers]

Anyone = This review

     You've heard the stories. They've made excellent fodder for Lifetime movies and Dateline episodes, and they always have the same moral: Don't trust anybody that you've met on the internet. The stories have been around for over a decade now, and they've been the subject of far too many Law and Order: SVU episodes. 
     To put it simply: Catfish is not a shocking revelation. We know the dangers of social networking. We've known them. However, we have never quite seen the story told this way. Usually, the story involves an innocent young girl who meets the perfect guy online only to find out that that guy is twenty years older and way more violent than she originally conceived. (Exhibit A, ladies and gentlemen)
     So what we have in Catfish is a blending of what we are used to and something new. That something new begins with the male perspective, which is strange because it seems that stereotypically men would fall for something like this faster than women would, you know, if we're going to use blanket statements.  And the other something new is the way in which the story is told. 

     [For the purposes of this review we'll take the film at face value and hold that it's a true documentary, leaving the popular opinion that these filmmakers pretended to be in the dark longer than they were next to the elephant in the room.]

     The film is a documentary starring Nev, his brother Rel, and their friend Henry. Nev has been receiving painted versions of his photographs from a young girl, Abby, who lives in Ishpeming, Michigan over the course of several months. After the first few packages come in, Nev friends Abby, her mother, Angela, her sister, Megan, and the various other people related to what Nev calls the "Facebook Family." After Angela calls Nev concerning the shipping of packages, he begins a cellphone relationship with Angela and Megan. For the next eight months, Nev and Megan become very close and seemingly fall in love over facebook chat and cellphone conversations. 
     So naturally Nev would like to visit her at her home in Michigan. 
     Yet as Nev and his friends start adding things up, they realize that something is wrong. Some facts just don't work. And so they drive to Michigan in order to visit Megan not only because Nev may love her, but because she may not even exist. 
     Sure enough, when Nev knocks on the side door of a house in Ishpeming, Michigan, his filmmaker friends realize that they have stumbled onto a gold mine of a documentary. 

     But is the film good? After all of the hype surrounding the film at Sundance, after all of the questions surrounding that trailer, does it live up to all of the hoopla? 

    Yes and no. 

    In one hand, Yes, because the film is a well-paced and, by the end, extremely moving and powerful documentary, but in the other hand, No, because the film's marketing is a big fat liar. 

     Watching the movie at face value, without the interference of marketing or hype to sway me, would have been a totally different experience than the experience I really had. The movie I was watching was potentially "The best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made," and not an interesting character study on loneliness in the digital age. 

     As a horror film the movie sucks. There are no scares. As the marketing would have you believe, the documentary is full of intrigue and danger and mystery. However, the film does not deliver on any of these fronts. There is mystery, but it's of a different sort. 

    As a documentary about a generation where relationships can blossom without physical contact, the film shines. It raises so many questions about the way in which people interact online that it is impossible not to appreciate the movie for what it's doing. 

    So if you're looking for a movie that will "Disturb you to your core," I would suggest seeing something else (such as one of the films in my previous blog), but if you're looking for a film that I would lump together with The Social Network as far as commentary on the current generation goes, I would highly recommend this film to you. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Torture Porn: More than just icky?

I like how small the print of the critic's names is.

     David Edelstein coined the term "Torture Porn" in January of 2006 in an article where he accused Eli Roth's Hostel as a horror film with "money shots" instead of scares, and "scenes of sensual stimulation"instead of horror. After this nifty little term was coined, it started showing up in reviews everywhere. Saw, The Devil's Rejects, Hostel: Part II, High Tension, Martyrs, Inside, and Ichi the Killer were all included in the fun. And if people weren't clued in already, Fox News decided to run a Glenn Beck episode on the subject. (I know there should be a hyperlink, but it appears that that episode can't be found anymore...)
However, I did find this nifty picture of something similar.

     So Torture Porn exists. The sub-genre spawns many, many films each year from studios large and small. The films can be made with relatively small budgets, no name actors, no prior franchises, and no television marketing. In fact, most Torture Porn films don't even find physical retail status. Online horror sites like Bloody-Disgusting attain exclusive rights to a majority of these films and make them available for streaming.
     The trend is really no different from the slasher movies of the eighties or the exploitation films of the seventies. Once a formula has been established, film studios have no trouble producing variations on a theme for as long as the money rolls. Exploitation films, some as early as Freaks (1932) and as sadistic as The Last House on the Left (1972), were met with public outrage and boycotting. Articles were written about the lost new generation of sick artists doing anything for a kick. Conservatives knocked the films as nothing more than meaningless drivel, films existing merely for the opportunity to make people mad. It became clear to conservatives, relatively quickly, that most murders must be caused by these violent, disturbing, and irreverent films.
     However, it didn't take long for other critics to defend these films. Amongst the rabble-rousers, critics like Roger Ebert and Kevin Maynard defended these films as glimpses into the minds of a new generation of storytellers. Young people who were reacting to the Vietnam War. The films, disgusting and irreverent as they are, the critics point out, show real societal concerns by the writers and directors of the time. Ebert felt so strongly of the matter that he even wrote his own exploitation flick.
     Slasher movies, beginning famously with John Carpenter's Halloween, quickly became the new exploitation flicks. After a couple of years of outcries, it became apparent to many critics that these films, too, were representing a voice. And strangely enough, this voice was rather conservative. 
    We all know the story, though, don't we?
    Virgins live, sluts die. 
    Heavy drinkers die, the sober dudes find a way out.
    And, unfortunately, those people who aren't white can't seem to survive these conservative screenplays.
   So here's my generation's answer to the problems of the world, Torture Porn, and what exactly are critics talking about now?
    Nothing, really...
    Now, I realize that the genre is young, but it has been five years since the term was coined. We've got literally hundreds of these films out and ready for dissection. And yet the issue is still being argued over as if Hostel just came out this past December.
     A lot has changed since 2006. Now we have a formula. However, the formula is no longer a thinly veiled bit of conservatism. No, my generation is much more nihilistic .
And pretty.

     The thing is, the people between 20 and 35 years old right now have had to spend their youth witnessing terrorism at a huge scale and the subsequent wars that terrorism has started. Now I know that WWII and the Vietnam war were horrible. The Holocaust was one of the most devastating things that has happened in human history. However, those things did not happen everywhere. What I mean by "everywhere" is that we have the internet. And on the internet we have videos. And those videos come from phones. Phones that are in the pockets of everybody. We have a video of Saddam Hussein's hanging. We have thousands of videos of the World Trade Center attack. Thousands of videos from Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Things are instantaneous, and absolutely uncensored. The Vietnam War may have been the first televised war, but the Iraq War is the first uncensored look America has ever had at what war really is.

    I won't get into too much detail about my theories of war, but let's just say nihilism is involved.

    Furthermore, we don't only have videos of war. We have videos of everything. Petty arguments, fights between friends, murders on sidewalks, automobile accidents, sports injuries, etc.
   We have a video for every single baseless and immoral act imaginable. We have videos online to fill every hour of every day for over a thousand years.
    These videos are viewed every day on the internet, where people 20-35 most frequent, and they have done something to our brains. We either see the world more clearly, or we see a side of the world that no human being was supposed to see so much of. It used to be that morticians, doctors, and police officers saw the worst stuff. You had to be built a certain way for the job.
     I can see all of those things in about ten seconds.
    However, I've never seen those things in person. I'm detached. We are detached. And what happens when you're introduced to all of the terrible things of the world by the emotionless, objective lens of a camera phone? You become desensitized. You become emotionless and indifferent toward violence.

     You write stories.

This is an excellent example of Torture Porn commentary

     It is no coincidence that these films started coming out rapid fire around the rise of youtube and other video sharing sites. These films are a direct response to the desensitization of this generation. Now we have movies that beg the audience to flinch and feel sick. People go to these movies to feel a rush of excitement. The violence is so horrible, but we can survive it. We can watch it and not get sick. It is an endurance test.
     And what are these films saying? Sometimes I think they're commenting on the baselessness of humanity. Films like Hostel and Saw, hypocritically I must add, are commenting on the violent and immoral qualities of the generation today while exploiting those very qualities of their audiences. The films are making excellent points about the unnecessary hatred and violence of the youth today, but they would never be financially successful without that very youth paying money to see them.
     Not only that, but those films are drenched in some of the most despicable violence you could ever imagine. Things you can never take back once you've seen them.
     There should be way more writing about this subject. If this sub-genre is really so offensive, why don't people investigate further into what it is trying to say? Films like Afterschool and Benny's Video have embraced the qualities of the genre while commenting on the effects those qualities can have in a way that is extremely effective. While other films, such as Wolf Creek and, oddly enough, The Last House on the Left remake, seem to be selling the goods without any such commentary.
    This sub-genre is just begging to be written about. I'd like to see more people question this genre and look at it from the perspective of professional film critics, not angry rabble-rousers insisting that they aren't watching art.

By the way, I watched Martyrs this week. It made me feel very, very sick.

[There are definitely articles written on this subject. I'm not acting like I'm the first one. However, it is important to point out that an abundance of critics have stuck to their guns on this without giving any real reasons why. A majority of critics refuse to call it art and therefore won't watch it, but you know, it's there and it's growing. It's not going away.]

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Movie Review: Enter the Void

     When Gaspar Noe watched a film called Lady in the Lake (1947) on hallucinogenic drugs, he got the idea for what would, in 15 years, be a film called Enter the Void. Lady in the Lake, directed by Robert Montgomery, relies on one intriguing gimmick; the entire film is shot from the point of view of the protagonist. Every shot is literally through the eyes of its lead character. Of course, the film is a failure. No audience can sit and look through the eyes of a character for 90 minutes and not get torturously bored. It's like watching somebody play a video game. Boring.
     But Gaspar was tripping. He saw a different movie. In the movie he saw, these crazy lights and patterns kept covering the screen. The protagonist kept blinking, creating this strobing effect on the audience. Sometimes the character would walk through walls.
     Gaspar was impressed.
     When he left the theater with his friends, he told them about the film he had just seen. Coming out the same theater, they were wondering why their movie had been bland and overstuffed. So the idea was born, Gaspar was going to make the film he had seen.
     Here we are, fifteen years later, and Enter the Void is among us. Available for instant streaming on Netflix and Bluray, the film Gaspar saw can now be experienced by anybody with the proper equipment.
     The gimmick is still there, we are seeing through a young man's eyes for the entirety of the picture. Yet something is different here. The protagonist, Oscar, is a drug user. When he uses drugs early in the film, patterns of textured color which react to the sounds of the world appear on the screen. When he falls into a trance, the audience is invited to join in. When Oscar looks at a flame and closes his eyes, we see the after image in the darkness. When he blinks, the film goes black.
    This sounds mildly annoying. And it is. We are treated to twenty minutes of blinking, walking, hallucinating Oscar until he is [SPOILER] shot in the chest and killed early in the film. Then, for a few minutes (not exaggerating, four minutes) we are sent into a lightbulb, where it flickers in total silence, until we see the body of Oscar dead on the floor. We are still seeing from his perspective, but Oscar is now a spirit.
A screenshot from the film

     For the next two hours, Oscar travels through walls, listens in on conversations, travels through time to see himself as a young man, and moves between countries to view the lives of all the people he knew when he was alive.
     Over the course of the film, Oscar views the most important moments of his life and the hardships that people must endure alone. All of this is seen through the voyeuristic perspective of Oscar.
    What Gaspar Noe has done here is a masterpiece of cinematography. The entire film flows as if it was all done in one shot. The continuity of images is absolutely brainkilling to dissect. The images themselves are bursting with color and life. Each frame is an artwork in itself, giving us color and depth and light that is rarely seen outside of a Bertolucci film.
     The runtime is high, over 2 and a half hours, and the soundtrack varies from high volume to dead silence (leaning on the latter...). It strains the patience of those who have somewhere to be. But if you watch the film at night, when your day is over, and you let it wash over you like a good song, it will really have an emotional impact on you. The story of Oscar and his sister, of his night in Tokyo, and how it changes the lives of the people around him, is extremely profound. Not to mention the stunning, trippy visuals that fill the gaps in between the scenes.
     Also, did I mention that it has a spectacular opening titles sequence?

Click that link to see it, and click here to see the amazing trailer.

[Just so you know, Gaspar Noe made the film Irreversible, which if you haven't heard of, I suggest looking up. The film contains content that will absolutely disturb anybody. So there's that...]

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Films that didn't beat the odds but should have: Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

    Yep. There's a movie called Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai, and it isn't terrible. In fact, there are some days where I rank it as the greatest Jim (Broken Flowers) Jarmusch film of them all. The movie, released in 1999, was DOA in terms of box office despite fair reviews from critics. I'm guessing that the title didn't do much good for the film. There's something about the title that makes people scoff.
     Especially the crowd who would go see a Jim Jarmusch film. Oh, and by the way, it is pronounced Jar-Mush, not Jar-Moosh. He says so himself.
     Most Jarmusch films appeal to the "art crowd" or what some would refer to as "young hipsters." Considering that Jarmusch helped solidify the hipster movement of the early nineties, I'll bet that this extremely specific crowd was a purposeful decision. I mean...look at him.
     However, Ghost Dog is a bit of a departure for Jarmusch in terms of both style and content. Absent is the long, coffeehouse conversation. Absent is the disjointed plot and Tom Waits-style jazz soundtrack. Jarmusch's film feels completely different from the rest of his filmography. There's action, emotion, narrative arc, and plot. It doesn't sound like much, but that is a lot to take on when most of your movies are like this.
     What makes Forrest Whitaker's characterization of Ghost Dog different from most Jarmusch protagonists is that he feels like he was around before the movie started. That also doesn't sound like much, but lets break it down: John Lurie's character in Stranger than Paradise clearly did not exist until the start of the movie. No events prior to the movie are made mention of. There is no weight on his shoulders of any kind. He is a blank slate as the movie begins, as is Johnny Depp's William Blake in Dead Man. Most Jarmusch leading men start the movie as empty, boring people who are thrust into situations out of their control. They become characters over the course of the movie, but they are almost never characters to begin with.
     In other words, Jarmusch men are usually round, yet static protagonists.
Jarmusch on the left. Tom Waits on the right.
     In the case of Ghost Dog, he is a man who has had a long, difficult life. From the moment Ghost Dog arrives on screen, it is clear that he has a past full of intrigue. He has a great interest in the Far East, and reads all the books he can find. He lives alone, trains alone, works alone, and yet everybody seems to know him. His best friend speaks French, and neither men can speak each other's language.
     Ghost Dog doesn't just have the ability to vanish, but he seems to never materialize at all.
     What Whitaker has done with this character is interesting. Instead of playing the role as a weighted down, pained figure, Whitaker faces the role as a content, working-class day laborer. He goes about his day by a routine as any other man would do. He is not an eccentric. He trains and reads in the morning, eats his lunch, learns who he must kill by passenger pigeon by afternoon, and by night assassinates those who get in the way of a viscous Italian gang.
     Normal stuff.
     Whitaker could have easily played the mysterious loner card. You know the drill, a man who plays music and dances by himself, or writes in a journal out loud so we can understand his inner demons. Jarmusch could have directed him with those wide angle lenses all up in his face like he is a tortured soul. But instead we get a conservatively filmed, naturally acted movie about a guy who is just doing his job.
     In fact, it doesn't even occur to Ghost Dog that he is lonely until a little girl reminds him. After this, he seems to have a mild interest in making friends, but this wears off pretty quickly. No, Ghost Dog doesn't want friends, he just wants to do his job.
     Over the course of the film, however, Ghost Dog does realize the err of his ways and decides that maybe it's the Italian gang that is evil, not half of New York. So what we get is an exciting third act that includes butterflies, sniper rifles, murder, shootouts, car chases, disguises, dramatic deaths, friendships, and this truly outstanding scene. It's amazing what Jarmusch is able to accomplish with this film. All at once he is making a true samurai film, a comedy, a racial tolerance film, an action film, a philosophical film, and an intimate character study. Within the a ten minute scene, an old Italian gangster does a broad comedy bit where he raps some Flava Flav lyrics, Ghost Dog kills a man in cold blood, a little girl learns the meaning of "Emptiness is Form", and a man kills a female cop because, as he puts it, "They want to be equal, I make them equal."

     Now that's a lot of stuff to think about for a movie called Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai

   [For further viewing, watch Jarmusch's Mystery Train, a film that is surprisingly heartfelt given the director's dependably cold reputation.]