Saturday, December 30, 2017

An Interlude:

It was getting too serious with all these political films, wasn't it? And sometimes Kevin Costner just grows on you . . . 

The Bodyguard, 1992. 
d. Mick Jackson
Starring: Whitney Houston, Kevin Costner

ANNA: I think everyone I've ever spoken to about this film hated it, but I actually have never minded it. I love Whitney Houston and think she was great in this opposite one of the more bland and DOLTISH (yet skilled) roles from Costner. Houston's music is as always, perfect, and I love the little nods to classic cinema (Metropolis, Rashomon) that I'm confident 100% of viewers miss when they shrug this off as a chick flick. I have a great time every time I watch. 

MATT: I liked the line when Costner was totally kicking that guy's ass in the kitchen. After he does the ass kicking in a few various creative ways he says, "I don't want to talk about this again." I also liked Whitney's slutty lines and her whoring around Costner. That was awesome. Other than that, the movie is really, really, really, really, really, bad. (Due to disrespectful language and other sentiments, continuance of this paragraph has been censored by Anna).

Miami Vice, 2006. 
d. Michael Mann
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx

ANNA: Apparently Colin Farrell wrapped his scenes on this film and drove himself directly to a rehab facility. This is more interesting than anything that actually happens within the narrative of this film, and yet even stoned or drunk or whatever he was, the result was RIDICULOUS. His walk bothers me. Every line of dialogue uttered (by anyone, not just Farrell, although his lines are definitely the worst) bothers me. The fact that Michael Mann, the director of Heat, put this lemon out into circulation bothers me. The only good thing about this film was the tiny interlude when they were flying jets to something that remotely resembled the original Miami Vice theme, but thinking about it now makes me angry that they didn't just use the real music and insisted on screwing everything up. 

MATT: Miami Vice and kicking ass should always be used in the same sentence. Farrell's stache makes porn stars jealous. Jamie Fox is turnin' up the heat with Calypso. Farrell's love interests could have definitely been focused towards someone better, but they're driving vehicles, they're flying planes, they're playing with drug dealers and working undercover. Kickin' ass with the over the top shots, bad dialog and guns. Good stuff. 

ANNA: I agree that the stache on Farrell was pretty legendary, along with that outlandish haircut, I liked Mance Raydar (Clarin Hinds) as the FBI guy, and overall, most of the music was good. It's still a giant waste of time and I feel dumber from having watched it. I say if you want a decent story set in Miami, watch Dexter (1st-3rd seasons only). I can't even include a clip from the film in good faith because I really don't want to ruin your day. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Resistance Through Cinema: JFK Special Edition

JFK d. Oliver Stone
starring: Kevin Costner, Joe Pesci, Tommy Lee Jones, and everyone else, ever. 

First some background: I watched the first two hours last week, then started it over again to watch the entire film on Christmas Day with my mother, then re-watched it once again with Stone's commentary (which I highly recommend if you're interested in some of the filmmaking techniques used or additional political rants) during which I took notes. I had tried, as a high school student, watching this when it first came out but my head just couldn't handle it. There are definitely a lot of ins, a lot of outs, and a ton of characters to keep track of, but I'm finally at a point where I can understand the film and most of what it was trying to say.

Bonus to anyone who can tell what illustrations (unrelated to Kennedy) are imprinted on the paper

I know there's a lot of flack that gets heaped onto Stone for twisting facts, selectively ignoring certain witnesses and agencies while emphasizing others, and so on, but regardless of all that, no matter where you stand on the Kennedy assassination, two things are clear: 

1. This film, while long, is extremely well done
2. There are many aspects to this case that made it ideal for several conspiracy theories, many of them plausible 

Also, after the political events we've all witnessed throughout the year, none of this (lying, cover-ups, murder, deceit, corruption, cheating, etc.) really seems that far-fetched anymore, you know, considering. I don't think I'm alone in the thought that these films used to seem a lot more fictional before 2017.

"One may smile and smile and be a villain."
To summarize the film's position on the assassination, it's helpful to first know what it's opposing, namely the lone shooter theory posited by the Warren Commission or the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in murdering the president. Stone instead focuses on the experiences of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (who actually plays Justice Earl Warren in the film but is portrayed in character by Kevin Costner), suggesting a much deeper involvement by several government groups, basically vindicating Oswald and distributing the blame onto everyone from the Dallas Police to next-in-line President LBJ. Multi-agency conspiracy, execution, and cover-up. If it seems like a lot to swallow, it is, but Stone makes it all seem if not logical, at least possible. Some of my favorite discrepancies: 

  • Over 40 witnesses in Dallas that day heard shots from behind them on the grassy knoll, not from the book depository (suggesting multiple shooters)
  • Lee Harvey Oswald was suspiciously allowed back into the country after defecting to the Soviet Union in the midst of Cold War tensions (suggesting government involvement to later frame him)
  • Security was lax, parade route was changed, and assassination occurred during least accessible moments from 6th floor book depository yet Oswald still charged as lone shooter within 72 hours (suggesting black ops involvement as outlined by my favorite character, X, played by Donald Sutherland who really does a TON in explaining motives and bringing everything together)

"They just named me as a suspect!"
The experience of watching this film is pretty similar to all of Stone's other films, which is to say there are a lot of quick edits, multiple shots of ongoing action with smooth voice-overs, extended dialogues, and a talented group of actors. Music and lighting are always very well planned, highlighting the moods of scenes and hinting at change or danger. In the telling of JFK, Stone combines many different formats of visual aesthetics--sixteen millimeter, black and white, over-saturated color, and actual newsreel footage--making for a documentary feeling yet often larger-than-life viewing experience. We are sucked into believing a lot of what Stone has to say simply because everything looks so believable. The shots are jarring because the events themselves are jarring; the editing style used for many of the characters, CIA recruited radical David Ferrie (Joe Pesci) in particular, shows interior paranoia as well as the overall disorganization of the events surrounding them. 

"I am a patsy."

In the commentary Stone talks a lot about lighting in "corrupt oranges," along with the American Gothic-inspired blocking of moments in Garrison's life in and out of his home, and it's cool to hear the guy in charge of everything laying it all out, explaining certain decisions and throwing in little anecdotal bits about actors (Walter Matthau sitting by himself on the set not bothering anyone or getting Donald Sutherland to do eleven pages of dialog in one take). Again, it's a long film, but listening to the commentary really takes it to the next level, explaining much about the creation of the film as well as the events that inspired it.

The actual footage of the assassination is still horrifying, after all these years, and is used several times and in a few different ways throughout the film. The first and probably most memorable viewing we get is very early in the film just after the credits and a collection of film segments of Kennedy's election, plans for the country, and some candid moments with his family with Martin Sheen's voice narrating. A snare drum accompaniment starts as JFK and Jackie disembark Air Force One and board the limousine (with its drop-top removed). In any other setting a sustained snare drum cadence would suggest something military or regimental, but in this sequence it's setting us up for the inevitable fall, and it's dreadful. The last image Stone leaves us in this opening introduction is of the pigeons scattering from the top of the depository as the gunshots ring out from below. 

After a few fragmented replays of the same sequence during moments exploring the parade route and the timing of gunshots, the complete film (as shot by Abraham Zapruder) is shown by DA Garrision in the courtroom near the end, this time completely. For those who may not have viewed it before, it's violent and harsh---we are being shown a live execution, not reenacted, not edited, but how it really happened. This is not for everyone, obviously; it's not an easy thing to see. The most raw, disturbing moment of Zapruder's film unfortunately gets replayed three times as Garrison tries to illustrate to the jury the logical direction of the fatal shot to Kennedy's head, and each time is a terrible jolt. I couldn't help getting emotional during this scene, unable to grasp that above and beyond someone's artistic description of it or any other film experience, that this unthinkably violent thing happened, someone filmed it happening, and hundreds of people were standing right there when it did. It's upsetting to me even now, writing about it.

It may stretch the truth, it may say some damaging things about the government (that we want to instinctively want to trust) and it may be better viewed as a work of fiction but this film is an important work and something I think every American should see. Thoughts? Is Stone way off base, or do you agree with his version? 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Resistance Through Cinema: Get Out!

GET OUT, 2017. 
Written and directed by Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, 
Bradley Whitford. 

"It's time for a young African American to meet with his white girlfriend's parents for a weekend in their secluded estate in the woods, but before long, the friendly and polite ambience will give way to a nightmare," (IMDB)

This is an amazing, thoughtful film, and while I was inclined to summarize just which media fans of which works or artists would appreciate it most, I'm scrapping it all and saying everyone should see it. It's classified as a suspense/mystery/horror film, but don't let that stop you if these aren't your favorite film genres---this film has a lot to say about humanity, and it explains in very real exchanges between characters how social relations are still rooted in racism and objectification. It's an important work.

Before we get any deeper into that, this seems like a good time to point out just what watching a film like this entails for any viewer, political or not, would-be film scholar or not, who just enjoys movies. In identifying what we find exceptional or pleasurable in films we can group these elements into the following three categories: 

Narrative: "No matter the setting or era, I always love a good Shakespeare story."
Technique: "Stanley Kubrick's One-Point Perspective and colors always look amazing."
Theme: "Racial issues seem to be a common driving force in Spike Lee's films."

People who study film are considering all three of these elements, all the time; some apply different film or literary theories and dissect the art of cinema even deeper, i.e., "Acting is psychology, the camera plays on this psychology, and then the audience is the final receiver of these psychological transactions. This is the interaction of film." 

Why does any of this matter? 

Because this film, Get Out, succeeds on all three of those fronts, and that's a pretty special thing for a horror or suspense film not adapted from a book or short story to do. The story is well-written and its performance spot-on. We're interested by its events and are well-convinced by its actors. Most of us identify with Chris (Kaluuya) immediately, regardless of our own gender or cultural background, as he is shown to be the most important character in the film (onto which as viewers, we will project ourselves--there's that film theory again). Because we align with Chris, we are with him, we want him to succeed, but we are also more importantly seeing the events of the film through his eyes and perceptions, which happen to be those of an African American male. 

The techniques used in film can include everything from cinematography, editing, costume, lighting, and music. In this film, scenery is really important---the places, Urban Brooklyn, the freeways, the estate in the northern forest, are not just about geography but a continuum of ideological systems (safety to risk to all-out hostility). The lighting is at times bright and false as well as dark and foreboding. Objects (teacups and spoons, cell phones, framed photographs, bingo cards) are shown very closely to emphasize importance. Foreshadowing is used; suspense is skillfully done. Music is orchestral and jarring as well as guitar and folksy. Every technical choice made both on-camera and in the post-production enhancements has created a wonderfully aesthetic film experience, providing beauty and art even within the overall setting of danger.

The theme. This is what takes the film above and beyond typical horror or suspense films, and what makes it relevant, political, and part of the Resistance Through Cinema list. The theme, simply put, is to wake up. Talk to each other, value each other, accept our differences and embrace our similarities. Even before Chris is in any danger, we witness different situations of hostility: his girlfriend hits a deer with her car and the police begin to harass Chris; every white person Chris comes across speaks awkwardly about their favorite black athlete, being an Obama supporter, or other patronizing topics; Chris is largely prevented from interacting with any other African Americans at the gathering. It's uncomfortable and suspicious, but necessary---this kind of treatment and much worse is a reality for countless people.

The events of the film's narrative (kidnapping, medical experimentation, return to slavery) allow us to consider some of the realistic happenings outside the film that could potentially lead to them (racism, objectification, human trafficking), which are relevant in our lives, today, and likely will be for a while unless we start getting comfortable with having conversations about them. If there's a single takeaway from the film, it's LET'S MAKE A WORLD WHERE THIS ISN'T A LEGITIMATE FEAR, yeah? Watching a film might seem like a small thing, an unimportant thing, but empathy can come from unexpected places, and little acts can change perceptions and behaviors. Walk in Chris's shoes for a while and see how it feels. Then . . . do something.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Resistance Through Cinema: V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta2005.
directed by James McTiegue, written by The Wachowskis
starring: Hugo Weaving, Natalie Portman

"In a future British tyranny, a shadowy freedom fighter, known only by the alias of "V", plots to overthrow it with the help of a young woman." (IMDB)

The Bad Guys: The Government--High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt) and his team of propagandists, secret police, doctors, and religious leaders. The "A" and the "--tler" in the name? Yeah, that's intentional.

The Good Guys: The Resistance--V (Hugo Weaving), accused "terrorist" in a Guy Fawkes mask who opposes the fascist acts of the government; Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), daughter of two fallen revolutionaries who gets caught up in V's opposition.

Based on a British graphic novel by Alan Moore and adapted by the Wachowskis and James McTiegue (writers/directors and first assistant director of The Matrix), this film does everything right. The system of British tyranny is visually portrayed through amazing technique: the blacks, whites, and reds provide dynamic aesthetic contrasts while symbolizing the all-or-nothing totalitarianism and bloodshed inflicted by the government in power. The composition and depth of each scene, as in The Matrix, recall graphic novel panels so skillfully that pausing the film at virtually any moment provides the viewer with what could be considered artful, still photographs. Where the audio is concerned, well, without giving too much more away, Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" has never had a better context (BOOM!).

"There is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there?"

"People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be
afraid of their people."


The themes explored in this film combine violent historical events (Guy Fawkes' attempted Gunpowder Plot and subsequent execution, Hitler's totalitarian regime and concentration camps) with self-reflexive nods to the arts as opportunities for resistance. Thought police, a paranoid leader upon a screen, and actor John Hurt's past portrayal of Winston Smith provide homage to the novel 1984, whereas V, the swashbuckling, omnipotent savior who suffered years in a dungeon for crimes never committed is Monte Cristo's Edmond Dantes. 

Do you need to know about any of these references to enjoy the film? Not at all; the film explains itself perfectly without requiring any foreknowledge from its viewers. Maybe put the subtitles on during the opening sequences to get all of the voiceover explanation of Guy Fawkes and why he matters, and try to appreciate the little things in every scene: what people are eating, what's being watched on television, what kind of personal items are present. I found V's bunker to be a visual wonderland, filled with books, art, and music, items which aren't allowed in Sutler's England anymore, forcing us to wonder what kind of threat these things pose to the government? (Ideas!)

Is this story relevant today? Very much so. The politics of Sutler's philosophy involve media cover-ups, ruling by force, spying on citizens, and going further back in the narrative, atrocities much, much worse. Several times throughout the film we are shown direct reaction shots of citizens in their homes, in bars, or at work, grimacing at the televised acts of their government leader but powerless to do anything but accept them. But are they really powerless or just made to feel this way? The film uses explosives, knives, and guns to examine the more physical acts of resistance, but mental resolve and the preservation of culture through art and music, while a bit underrepresented in the mainstream, are given equal attention here, making this film both a super hero and thinking person win. 

"Ideas are bullet-proof."