January 31, 2015

A Most Violent Year (2014)

It is not often that I find a film that seems to exist for the sole purpose of pleasing me. I have been blessed on very few occasions to sit down at a movie theater and watch as a studio spends millions of dollars and, presumably, lots of research and development into mind reading technology, displaying a motion picture tailor made for my brain. A Most Violent Year is A24's (the distributing studio) love note to me ... and I can only thank them with an $8.50 matinee fee, a DVD sale and a glowing review.

Now, A Most Violent Year, for many, may be the most disappointing film of the century. As Hollywood is want to do, they are selling this fucker hard as about forty different things. The main selling point seems to be that the movie is basically the second coming of Goodfellas and, like its title suggests, will be the most ultraviolet crime thriller of all time. So yeah, if you're going in expecting that, you might be pretty bored or pissed off.


But if you've got an open mind, plus a working knowledge of Hollywood's bullshit, you may be treated to a genre busting morality tale that rivals ... and yes, I am about to say this ... the intellectual power of The Godfather

The amazing aspect of A Most Violent Year is it's attempt to bring a new voice to the 'gangster' genre. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, for better and worse, have stamped the crime genre with their footprint and most movies try (and mostly fail) to duplicate those director's work of genius. Don't get me wrong, some have matched or maneuvered around the created tropes to create genuinely compelling works of art (Mike Newell's Donnie Brasco comes to mind) but many stick to the formula.

A Most Violent Year's core strength is subtly deconstructing the gangster genre by posing what could be, in superhero genre terms, an origin story ... hell maybe even a Christ figure story ... of a man walking the line between civilian and mobster. But the film has only shadows of 'gangster' to it. In a sense, this is blue collar near-mobality (trademark to me please). The movie's main character, Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is an on-the-rise oil mogul. But don't get it twisted: there aren't fancy boardrooms and insane cars. Abel is fairly wealthy ... but like the film's other approaches to things such as violence and corporate intrigue ... it is a drab wealth. It is probably a realistic wealth.

 

Abel's desired location for his empire is not flashy or fancy. It is crude and grey. It is not something you desire to own unless you desire to work in that field. Most gangster movies try to show the style and excess of success. And yes, some people live that lifestyle ... but for most in the real world, money making operations aren't fancy, they're dirty and non-luxurious. 

But even the 'flashy' components Abel surrounds himself with like a drab, ugly mansion and a modest looking Mercedes, feel more 'real'. The director J.C. Candor and his art direction team take the pomp and circumstance and the often exaggerated mythic quality of the gangster flick out of this film.

But here I am, talking about Abel as a 'gangster' when he is anything but. In fact, the film has less plot and more examination to it, the examination being a very David Mamet-like approach to a man's conscious when surrounded by gangsters: what lines will he cross and what won't he cross. Like the film itself, Abel is trying to defy the expectations placed on him by his ethnic background, fancy hair and dress, the business he works in and the connections to gangsters he inherited (his wife is the daughter of a now-jailed, ambiguously labeled gangster, though that is never made explicitly clear). Abel is our hero but he is almost a Shakespearean character from one of his tragedies. His tragic flaw is his conscious and the entire film relies on the testing of that conscious, and the good and bad side of actually having one ... and yes, there can be a negative aspect to having a conscious ...


But unlike other films of its ilk, the conscious challenges are not like 'will he start to kill' or something similar. It is 'how can I impress the loan manager at the bank that I am a guy you can trust' or 'can I loan cash from person A or person B when either A and B is really against me'. It is both mundane and revolutionary.

Oscar Isaac is getting lots of praise but where I have heard complaints is that his character is almost like a walking metaphor and not real flesh and blood. And, partially, I can agree. Like any good Mamet play, Abel is more then just flesh and blood. He is kind of the personification of the inner struggle and sometimes his psychological plight takes over the actual realism of his character. But that isn't exactly a drawback for me ... because the film is, in the end, a morality tale, a metaphysical tragedy wrapped in a genre breaking film.

Isaac is pretty incredible to watch and as his morality goes from noble to unnerving to nearly deadly, the audience debates the values one can have in life. Abel seems unable to accept ANY compromises but sometimes, or at least we think, compromises have to be made. And while people complain about his, perhaps, overwritten part ... the actor sells it. Isaac is a star waiting to happen.

The rest of the cast is phenomenal as well. Jessica Chastain plays Abel's wife, an Armani wearing ticking time bomb who threatens to unravel Abel's stability all while being his most dedicated supporter. Albert Brooks continues to play against type as a shady lawyer while actors like Elyes Gabel, David Oyelowo and Alessandro Nivola play small, but charismatic, roles.

The best actor in the whole thing though is New York City. Taking place in 1981, flawlessly recreated by the design team and a marvelous cinematographer in Bradford Young, New York is simultaneously beautiful and grimy. Many have compared it to Sidney Lumet ... I tend to agree as many of the on location shooting reminded me of some of the dirtiest sections of Serpico.

A marvelous character study with amazing acting and production, the film was made just for me but it may also be made for you too.

September 13, 2014

The List: 9 Truly Freaky Moments in Star Trek


I was recently listening to Random Trek (a truly great podcast that you must all check out) and they discussed the season 1 The Next Generation episode 'Conspiracy'. During the discussion, it was pretty apparent that the hosts were disturbed by how gross the episode was. And there is no arguing, as they agreed as well, that the end is immensely graphic and freaky as all get out.

Now, while Star Trek is a drama, it tends to be a softer view of the future. The show is more allegorical than anything else, so the realm of science, philosophy and morality are explored, not necessarily horror and suspense. And though we are talking about spaceships and aliens with big ridges on their heads, the show certainly tries to keep things grounded. But producing over 750 hours of television and 12 feature films can sap you of ideas from time to time. And when that happened, Star Trek revealed some truly freaky ass shit.

Here are nine examples of when things got crazy (and freaky)*:

*note: I've only watched Voyager and Enterprise sparingly so I've excluded them from this list. I only added episodes of TNG and DS9 as well as some of the films. Hey, I never said this was a comprehensive study! If you know of any freaky moments from TOS, VOY, or ENT, let me know in the comment.

***

Speak of the Devil: "Conspiracy" (TNG, Season 1, episode 25)


This is kind of the champion of freaky ass Star Trek. Sure, you can see stuff like this in a horror flick but ... this is Star Trek! The show with jumpsuits, technobabble and elfin merchants with weird ears. How can what happens in the video above be real?!

***

That Was Unexpected: "Empok Nor" (DS9, Season 5, Episode 24)


There have been plenty of murder mysteries in Star Trek. There have also been some pretty eerie deaths and such but one thing Star Trek never does is do anything simple. So when DS9's writers got towards the end of season 5 (and the end of ideas for that year), they decided to do a haunted house episode in space and took all the Star Trek out of it, injecting horror and brutality in its place.

Just watch the first forty seconds of the clip above. I can argue, in terms of quick and brutal deaths, maybe only the films can match the uncharacteristic violence of the above clip. 'Empok Nor' is certainly a deep cut episode of DS9 and that is mostly because it is one of the least Star Trek episodes of that series, let alone the franchise.

***

Just ... No: "Night Terrors" (TNG, Season 4, Episode 17)


Okay. That was odd.



O .... kay. This is getting wei ...



NO. NOOOO. NO. Just NO! Stop it. *cries*

***

Right. Next. To. You: "Identity Crisis" (TNG, Season 4, Episode 18)


Two episodes that freak me out ... back to back. Though lacking the horror tropes of "Night Terrors", "Identity Crisis" offers its own chills. When Geordi uses the holodeck to investigate a mission from his past in which he and a friend were possibly infected with an unknown disease, he discovers that there was an invisible guest that was with him that day. As he slowly deletes all the holographic copies of his old crewmates from the program trying to determine why he sees multiple shadows reflecting off a wall, he is left with just himself and a lone shadow ... apparently coming from no one. 

I've posted a video of the investigation below. However, the YouTube user who posted it recorded it off a live TV so it lacks the impact of seeing this truly eerie moment for the first time and with TNG's amazing production value (the use of lighting was especially effective in the scene). I watched this for the first time in the hospital when my appendix exploded and I had trouble sleeping all alone in my hospital room that night.



Here is a link to the full episode for free on CBS.com: Identity Crisis

***

Odo Goes the Way of The Thing: "The Alternate" (DS9, Season 2, Episode 12)


Long before it was determined that Odo was a Founder and long before we even knew what a Founder was, DS9's early seasons dealt with Odo trying to find his origins. In this early run episode, Odo visits a planet and finds life similar to himself. Naturally, the DS9 crew take it back on the station and the life form starts executing and attacking people like a gooey slasher would ... in darkened rooms and poorly lit corridors.

In the end, we find out Odo is the gooey slasher thing and has had a bit of a multiple personality disorder since returning from the planet. Add 'daddy' issues and ... well ... you've got a rampaging blob on the loose. 

Turning away from more typical Star Trek fare with its approach to alien races (or, in this case, infections), 'The Alternate' is dark, moody and uncharacteristically creepy.

*The Best I Could Find Was At 1:29 on the video

***

A New Kind of Wet Willy: "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan" (film, 1982)


So ... uh ... that happened. Little, slimy creatures are gross enough. But forcibly putting them in someones ears is extra gross! This disturbing display of body horror is a rare sequence in a franchise dedicated to wonder, not chills.

***

Data Myers: "Phantasms" (TNG, Season 7, Episode 6)


So yeah, that is how the episode starts (the YouTube user edited it to make it a bit longer). Eerie enough. But like any good use of tension, comedic relief is necessary and 'Phantasms", an episode in which Data experiments with dreaming, is full of funny moments. Some, as in the clip below, that occur right before the episodes more freaktastic moments.



It is hard to believe that of all the TNG seasons there were, Season 7 was the one chosen by the Emmys to be nominated for Best Dramatic Series. The season is so crazy and tone def (besides 'Phantasms', there were episodes about Data being inhabited by an ancient culture ("Masks"), Beverly Crusher getting fucked by a ghost ("Sub Rosa"), and Geordi being visited by his dead mom's ghost ("Interface"); there were also episodes about adding a speed limit to the universe ("Force of Nature"), comedic character Lwaxana Troi's loss of her young child ("Dark Page") and the crew all devolving and attacking people ("Genesis")) yet visually effective. "Phantasms" is an example of Star Trek going outside its boundaries and freaking you out.

***

Caveman Riker! "Genesis" (TNG, Season 7, Episode 19)



As mentioned above, Season 7 TNG is weird. Though not as freaky as "Phantasms", "Genesis" deals with the more literal problem of the entire crew devolving into ... well ... monsters. Barclay turns into a Spider, Troi turns into a lizard thing, Nurse Ogawa turns into Zira the ape, Riker turns into a caveman and Worf becomes PREDATOR WORF!


"Genesis" benefits from putting the familiar, comfy settings of Star Trek into bizarro versions of itself. And, in a rare twist, Picard's devolution (which is delayed) is to be the Final Girl who squares off against the big bad at episode's end.


***

Space Zombies: "Star Trek: First Contact" (film, 1996)


Donald Marshall of GeeksOn called Star Trek: First Contact, arguably the most commercially successful and one of two of the most critically applauded Trek films, as "Night of the Living Dead in space" and nothing could be more true.


After having shared their first film with the original crew, the Next Generation cast got their own picture and completely owned it. But they also played against type. In the series first PG-13 film, there were multiple scenes of body horror, torture and just plain spookiness. It's not only a great film but also a perfect blend of Star Trek's philosophical ideals and freaky scares.

July 5, 2014

The Cinematography of Casino (1995)


Lately I've been going through some of the Martin Scorsese films (or crime films in general) I haven't seen for one reason or another. Casino was one of those 'you haven't seen that yet' films and I finally had some time to sit down and watch it.

I thought the film was a little more typical of late-Scorsese: loses its way at the end, overlong and far more style over substance. To some this is blasphemy, and while the film was never boring, it didn't resonant with me on any emotional level (just like how I felt in Scorsese's The Aviator and The Wolf of Wall Street, other true-story epics Scorsese tackled).

The production value was phenomenal so I thought I'd dedicate a Cinematography Of ... post to it.

I rounded these up from all over the web but most specifically from Screen Musings. Check them out.

***

Casino
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cinematographer: Robert Richardson

*click on the images for a larger view



July 3, 2014

The Winding Moral Road of 'Dirty' Harry Callahan


When you sit down to watch the Dirty Harry film series, the oft-iconic five film series starring
the universal man's man Clint Eastwood, you are not treated to anything resembling continuity.

When it comes to the more physical universe, for example, you'll see many familiar faces. For example, please meet:

Main Bank Robber Involved in Classic Scene

and Evil Pimp


and Ambiguous Black Militant Leader


and goofy, dog-giving never-before-seen best friend.


Hell, you'll meet entirely different characters from entirely different movies with the same names. I introduce to you: 

Lieutenant Briggs


and Captain Briggs


Wait. Didn't I see Captain Briggs from Sudden Impact in The Enforcer too?


Oops. That's Captain McKay. Wait ... what was I talking about?

Oh, right: continuity. Yes, in a physical/universe sense, the Dirty Harry Quintology really doesn't have a sense of keeping things tight (except, apparently, every side character's need for a mustache). In the first three films, there are a few recurring characters but they hardly factor into the stories. Inspector Harry Callahan seemingly meets best friends and lovers in each movie and loses them in a kind of less attentive Bondian fashion. 

It should be noted, however, that all of Harry's partners, without fail, are cruelly killed or maimed in some fashion ... or are victims of racial/gender stereotypes of some sort.

This is Al Quan, Harry's partner in The Dead Pool. He takes down bad guys with kung fu without irony. Incidentally, he is impaled by blown up car parts thanks to a deadly remote control car. Not a joke. I think he lives ... but he isn't important enough to check on.

Okay, so despite that one exception, you won't find the kind of continuity you'd find in something like the Lethal Weapon and its three sequels (which featured all the same background extras and rebuilt sets with attention to details like character tattoos and referencing past events).

And while it is fun to point out the many character/universal differences in the series, in a more serious way, it is fun to examine the various worldviews and morals of the title character. Not only does each Dirty Harry movie seem stand alone, its one connecting thread Clint Eastwood playing a character named Harry Callahan, but it contains drastic shifts in tone.

The tonal shifts are so drastic in fact that when each film tries to establish itself as a franchise and diverts from the main plot to cut to 'Dirty Harry Moments' (similar to James Bond moments but with more mustaches and really poorly located diners ...seriously, is every restaurant in this film series in the most crime riddled areas of San Francisco?), it can seem kind of jarring.

We'll go into more detail later but let's take the Clint Eastwood directed Sudden Impact. While far from the best film in the series, Eastwood throws a number of themes at us. For one, you have the iconic diner scene in which a very famous line is uttered:


This was a scene typical of the Dirty Harry sequels. Don't worry about the main story or plot. That grinds to a halt because, well, Harry is thirsty. Just like in the first film, Harry has to find himself in a situation in which he must rescue people whilst dealing out physical punishment and causing as much mayhem as humanly possible.

One liners? Check. Cocky, taking-Harry-totally-for-granted bad guys? Check. Bizarre gun physics and complete disregard for civilian safety? Check. Entertainment? Hell yeah! It's all light and fluffy and no one gets hurt.

Except the major problem is that Sudden Impact's main story, which Eastwood likes to take us away from for goofy ultra violence, is about a woman who, along with her sister, were brutally raped by a gang of local drunkards and maniacs and goes throughout San Francisco and San Pedro wiping them out by first shooting their dicks off and then blowing their heads away (I'd find clips for this to go with the above craziness but I'm kind of scared to type, in any combination, the words 'impact' and 'rape' into YouTube).

Phew, I don't know about you, but in-between vivid flashbacks showing the rape and visceral depictions of men's genitalia being blown away, I love a little wisecracking, tongue in cheek action sequence to liven things up. Don't you?

But this is just one example of the film series' unevenness. With the exception of the first film, each sequel debates with itself on what it should be: a franchise action piece or a serious look at the world's problems. Sadly, most of the sequels try to have both and sometimes fail at both. But these are all isolated to one film each.

When looking at the entire film series, the biggest inconsistencies are with Harry Callahan's moral code. They drastically change from film to film. What he thinks is slightly acceptable in film one and deplorable in film two is totally cool in film four. He'll use his gut in film one and three but will actually investigate, using the resources around him, in films two and five. His approach to women and minorities ebbs and flows. His ability to follow rules is non-existent in films one and four but essential to his actions in films two and five.

All Clint Eastwood really gives the part, in terms of continuity from film to film, is, as I said above, the name Harry Callahan. While this seems like a slight on the actor, it isn't. This was just the case of stories and ideas being born first and the character of Dirty Harry being added on later.

In the end, Harry Callahan is a new man each and every go around. This crude, unscientific picture guide will tell you the Harry Callahan that appears in each film:

DIRTY HARRY (1971)
FUCK THE SYSTEM!!!!!

MAGNUM FORCE (1973)
For better or worse, HELL YEAH! THE SYSTEM!

THE ENFORCER (1976)
The system is pretty good AND is equal opportunity!

SUDDEN IMPACT (1983)
Fuck the system???

THE DEAD POOL (1988)
HARPOON GUN! Oh, and the system will be televised.
Let's look at the first, second and third films of the series primarily. In the first Dirty Harry, Harry Callahan is the loose cannon we all know and love. But do we really love him? Harry is insensitive, lacking any emotion or affect, is cruel, borderline racist and is not against torturing suspects and harassing them when they seemingly beat the system. His biggest moment is at the end, after dispatching the Scorpio killer, when he throws his badge in a lake, disgusted that the system couldn't stop Scorpio but he could. Why need a system when your gut and bullets can take care of the bad guys alone?

Makes sense for the character of Harry as introduced in the first film. So, then we go to Magnum Force.

In Magnum Force, Harry Callahan is a mildly temperamental police officer who participates in authorized skill competitions (would you see the Harry from the first film doing this?), using forensics to aid in his investigation (as opposed to his gut) and is completely disgusted with a gang (or 'death squad') of motorcycle cops who are wiping out the worst criminals in the city without due process.

Wait, what? Is this the same Dirty Harry? Wasn't he basically dying for the chance to have a death squad of his own so he could take care of bad guys? Well, Harry changed a lot between films, I guess. He says he doesn't like the system but accepts it until a better one comes along but, wasn't he trying to invent his own system in the first film?

And that brings us to Sudden Impact. In that film, Harry's love interest Jennifer (Sondra Locke) also happens to be the killer going around shooting balls and heads off as revenge for the rapes she endured that left her tortured (and artistic, apparently) and her sister comatose.

Harry, at first, tries to stop her because, well, he is against premeditated, non-thug related murder, but he eventually sides with her when he sees how scummy the rapists are. In the end, thanks to happenstance, he is able to place the murders on the now-deceased head bad-guy and let's Jennifer go free.

Wait, what? Wasn't Harry railing against vigilante justice in Magnum Force? But wait, wasn't he kind of sort of advocating it in Dirty Harry? I'm confused.

System schmystem
So, I guess I've taken a lot of time and typed a lot of words simply to say that while the Dirty Harry films all share Clint Eastwood, a .44 Magnum and crazy action sequences, they certainly don't share philosophies. And that can make for some confused viewing when watching the films in order.

In some cases, you side with bad good guys. In others, good bad guys. Etc. Etc. Etc. It makes me wonder about the planning stages of the films and Eastwood's involvement in them. Was he interested in just 'good' stories (I use 'good' loosely because I watched The Dead Pool and good does not exist there) or was Eastwood (and the writers) trying to say something about society, conveniently wrapping around fantastical sequences of mayhem?

I almost view it as alternate universes. The Harry from Dirty Harry wouldn't function in the world of Magnum Force. However, you could see him getting by in Sudden Impact. It seems each film offers a different perspective on what is good and what is bad. Harry himself goes from anti-hero to hero from film to film.

In the end, it is a fascinating approach to a film series that has never felt organized or planned. Instead of writing the characters into corners by keeping them true to form, growing only from point A and thus only moving forward to a limited B and C, the producers, writers and actors basically take a clean slate and start over each time, telling the story they want to tell, regardless of character history.

So, in actuality, these aren't Dirty Harry films in the sense that they are movies with Harry Callahan and his reaction to an ever changing world. No, these are films in which a man named 'Dirty' Harry just happens to appear and, interspersed throughout gun fights and ironic mutterings such as 'swell' and 'marvelous', ends up being involved in a kaleidoscope of human emotion.

In each film, you can pick a side. Hell, Harry picks all of them. But it wouldn't be a unique film series, through the classic, good films and the horribly bad ones, if in its attempt to remain utterly inconsistent they actually become consistent on accident. These films are social essays whether they wanted them to be or not and Harry is simply our ever-evolving psyche, tackling new ideas.

I'm not complaining. In fact, I feel lucky. Punk.