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The Film Experience™ was created by Nathaniel R


 Gemini, Cinephile, Actressexual. Also loves cats. All material herein is written and copyrighted by him, unless otherwise noted. twitter | facebook | pinterest | tumblr | letterboxd

 

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Friday
Oct282011

London: "The Deep Blue Sea"

David here with one last report from the London Film Festival. Master British filmmaker Terence Davies provided a suitably British closing film, with Rachel Weisz lost in The Deep Blue Sea...

"Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea," Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) remarks at one point, naming the title of Terence Davies' latest feature, an adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play. It's Hester's voice that opens the film, too, disembodied over the dark blue background of the credits, reading a suicide note to her lover, Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston of Thor fame). Hester is drowning in the deep blue sea of her own adoration, because Freddie's love isn't strong enough to reciprocate and pull her back to the surface.

The Deep Blue Sea betrays its theatrical origins from the first shot, panning smoothly across the front of a row of houses, the edges of the frame misty as though the smoke machines have been humming for hours. Davies has never been one to shy away from formalistic filmmaking, though, and like his best work, this film finds emotional power in and despite of the thoroughly artificial surface, which cracks itself between theatrical mannerisms and the sort of dissolution of temporality that dominated Davies' feature debut Distant Voices, Still Lives. The couple's flat houses much of the action, lit with a curiously indistinct glow through the windows, and the dialogue, particularly Hester's verbalisation of her feelings, is more narrational than conversational. But only minutes in, her memories spin, and black dissolves glide through her memories with a ghostly implacability.

As we meet her, Hester is trying to commit suicide - an indication that her story is not set to be a cheerful one. Handy with the sort of observational intimacy he practiced in Distant Voices and The House of Mirth, Davies again tells a deeply personal story without giving his filmmaking over to a singular point of view. It's due to Weisz's superb performance - besting her Oscar-winning work in The Constant Gardener - that we understand the moments of worldly perspective, from every mention of the war to the words of her landlady Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell), are Hester's own realisations of how selfish and narcissitic her dramatic emotions are. Despite the stilted dialogue, Weisz's is a very physical performance, the overwhelming nature of Hester's love and her attempts to quash it apparent in the cadences of her voice and the limits she puts on her movements.

The Deep Blue Sea is often too mannered, too ponderous, and Davies' technical mastery of the camera has the faint scent of pomposity to it. The pitch of Weisz' vivid passion is never as apparent as it needs to be in this environment;  a breathless swoop of the camera onto her face is notable for its alertness, a crack in the fusty air around her. But finally, though rooted in British history (as the final shot insists), this is an irrefutably personal story in a world that emphasised the communal. Hester, unfamiliar with the song the patriotic drinkers around her sing, softly sings the chorus only to Freddie, shifting the words into her own narrative. Selfish, but after all, her passion is just a drop in the deep blue sea. (B)

Friday
Oct282011

Worst News of New Movie Century? Brett Ratner for "Wicked"

I wish I could tell you that Brett Ratner's recent grab for the director's chair on Wicked (yes, the Wicked) was a perfect gotcha Halloween scare joke but it's actually true according to the New York Times. Ratner calls it his dream project.

Begone Brett Rattner, you have no power here!

But this quote actually upset me more.

I’ve always challenged myself, and whether I failed or not, I didn’t fail in my mind. I went through the experience, and it prepared me for the next time I’m going to do it.”

What many egotists fail to grasp when they attempt non-private things beyond their talents is that there are other people in the world besides them. Whether you fail out or not is an actual issue. It matters. If you fail you ruin other people's dreams. You ruin the dreams of the fans of Wicked. You ruin the dreams of fans of the movie musical genre itself, which is always under attack by lazy thinking, deep ignorance of its functionality and which needs a real Hollywood hero to champion it, not an egotist who'll just move on to the next thing once he fails (but not in his own mind!). Musicals, and this is true of all specialty genres, DESERVE artists who understand and respect their peculiarities and who can bring new inspiration. There's nothing in Brett Rattner's filmography -- at least that I've seen though perhaps his short segment in New York I Love You was amazing? -- that suggest he could handle the extremely complicated task of serving up Wicked's joyful grandiosity with a light touch (a line even the over-produced Broadway show trips on occasionally). How could Rattner, who has only directed very standard forgettable movies imbue it with colorful stylized beauty, and make it soar with girlish melodrama and sweetly corny comedy? 

What has he done to deserve this?

One would assume that if Brett Rattner does make it -- you can never trust these things until movies are actually filming and Movie|Line is right that his future projects list is ever-changing -- that he will be given the job because he could a) talk himself into it and b) his films have generally done well at the box office. But Wicked the musical on stage has already grossed more than all but a few dozen movies in the history of the cinema; it's its own bankability. The producers could completely change the fate of future musicals here by taking a risk (which would pay off) on a director with big vision, a unique skill set and, above all, musical comedy aptitude. Rattner's imagination is too earth-bound to defy gravity. His films don't dance. He even made a parade of bizarrely powered mutants feel as mundane as an everyday crowd queueing up for a sports event.

Friday
Oct282011

Oscar Horrors: In (Mild) Defense of Linda Blair 

In Oscar Horrors, Team Film Experience explores Oscar nominated contributions to the horror genre. Here is new contributor Mayukh Sen.

HERE LIES...Linda Blair’s reasonably complex turn in The Exorcist, slain by the prodigious work of fellow pubescent Tatum O’Neal (Paper Moon). 

Brian de Palma apparently hated The Exorcist, and it’s not difficult to see why.  I generally fall on the unimpressed side with the film, because none of the psychological trauma undergone by the characters finds aesthetic articulation.  Everything is so clearly, obviously constructed on a Hollywood set that it borders on the parodistic. What is superlative about a director like de Palma is that he understands the trappings of genre conventions and mocks the notion of film as a classically escapist, populist medium, managing to extract a modicum of truth out of such a framework.  Friedkin doesn’t understand this.  Interpreting what should be perfunctory entertainment as a parable of human suffering – that’s dreary city.         

I won’t waste a second pretending Linda Blair’s performance is any great shakes.  Her nomination was largely the product of inertia – The Exorcist (1973) was just a cultural phenomenon that the Academy couldn’t ignore, Dan.  Yet reading Glenn’s wonderful piece on Sissy Spacek’s performance in Carrie made me realize the extent to which Blair’s performance has become underrated.  Spacek’s performance is a masterpiece because of her fearless, but still graceful, physical expressivity.  She is a performer who understands body language.  The way she continually destructs, contorts, and fractures her body often acts as a reflection of the character’s emotional distress. 

Somewhere along the line, it became fashionable to oversimplify Blair’s performance as a lot of “sitting there” caked with makeup.  Those in defense of her performance often point to the luminosity of her earlier pre-possession scenes, rightly claiming that she is replete with youthful charm.  I agree.  She’s wonderful there, and she sets up a foundation for the supposed tragedy that occurs later in the film. 

Beyond Mercedes McCambridge’s voice, plastic turning heads, body double controversies and other stunts that may not have much to do with acting talent, though, Blair’s work is solid.  She demonstrates remarkable control over her facial expressions and body language, subtly communicating the “devil’s” continual torment, lack of patience, and frustration.

How does one externalize the psychological state of demonic possession?  I’m not quite sure, but we can say that Linda Blair succeeded, to a degree. Her work is highly gestural but still controlled, and this degree of expressivity works wonders. I’ve noticed a tendency of certain critics to dismiss horror film performances as merely “acting scared” and “being terrified”.  Though Blair’s performance is ultimately a cheap narrative trope, it shouldn’t be evaluated so lazily.  I’m not a fan of praising performances because of the sheer amount of work put into them (see Meryl Streep’s string of performances in the 80s), but, in this case, the physical work is brutally effective.  There is increasingly little appreciation for what actors communicate through physical gestures, and this might be part of why Linda Blair’s nomination is something of an afterthought these days.

Previously on Oscar Horrors

Friday
Oct282011

Ask Nathaniel...

It's that time again. It's actually a perfect time since I need inspiration (this week has been.... difficult). Remember no 17 part-questions and no top ten list requests disguised as questions (unless you're okay with me just banking them for future inspiration for top ten list columns... in which case, shoot!). Otherwise, fair game! 

P.S. Oscar questions may be diverted to this weekend's Oscar column. Depending on what they be.

Friday
Oct282011

Distant Relatives: Lawrence of Arabia and The Lord of the Rings

Robert here w/ Distant Relatives, exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film.

Heroes, Real and Imagined

"The Lord of the Rings" was originally published in 1954, eight years before the release of the film Lawrence of Arabia. Technically it came first. Then again T.E. Lawrence rode through Arabia in 1916 besting J.R.R. Tolkien's adventure by 38 years. Really, if you wanted to continue down this path you'd have to go back invention of the epic hero tale itself. This is why these films make for a fascinating fit. They are, arguably, the greatest cinematic epic based in realty and the greatest cinematic epic based in fantasy. They have similarities as a direct reflection of their status as epic hero storytelling, and similarities so specific they transcend that label. Then there are the differences. You won't see me use the term "reluctant hero" here because Lawrence, though he may get there eventually, starts off expecting his adventures to be "fun." Frodo not so much. And it's safe to say without a spoiler warning, that you're aware that Lawrence didn't do anything in Arabia that saved the world, even on a small scale, yet that's just the mission that Frodo is tasked with. Lawrence's mission is a little more vague, creating chaos, trotting from one quickly conceived battle to another, eventually perhaps uniting the Arabs. Quite a ways from Frodo's to destroy the ring of power, save the world. But both are attempting to bring some sort of perceived restoration to a land and both are at the whim of a towering ancient history, of which they will soon become a part.
 
Both stories start off similarly enough with a singular character chosen for their je ne sais quoi and sent off to a far away place. Although that je ne sais quoi may be some combination of strength, resolve, and perhaps to their detriment, innocence. In other words, they both understand, or will understand that the trick to standing the fire is "Not minding that it hurts." Immediately there is danger, harsh foreign landscape and people, separated by clan or by race, defined by differences; the Bedouin, the Howeitat, the Dwarfs, the Elves forced to work together, united for the purpose of our hero. Following this is the hardship of travel, the escalation of war, battles by name (Aqaba, Helm's Deep, Damascus, Gondor), and an inhuman enemy, actual non-human Uruk-hai for Frodo, and for Lawrence, the Turks represented only briefly by the Bey of Daara who tortures, though not much more than we've seen of some of our heroes. Sometimes the pure evil of fantasy is less unsettling than the complexity of reality. Finally there is a resolution, an ending, or a semi-ending. But I'd argue that in both cases the resolution is only partially relevant.

Into the Darkness

We already know that Frodo will achieve much and Lawrence will achieve little. Their journeys foresee those ends quite quickly. What's more important is how those journeys will alter them, and not for the better. The term "epic hero tale" conjures up images of bravery and glory, but Frodo and Lawrence experience a whirlwind of darkness, fear, and corruption. Of course, the one ring is a symbol of power and with great power comes great corruptibility. Frodo falls deeper and deeper into darkness until he's won over by Gollum. Lawrence too lets his building grandeur fill his own head. But there's an even greater darkness at play. Early in the film, after Lawrence kills a man he laments, not that he may have to do it again, but that he enjoyed it. In so many ways, these men are the keepers of life and death. Victories slowly come filled less with jubilation and more with relief that the end is one step closer. Meanwhile the old men who run the world sit at tables and make declarations and have no idea just how little power they have, and how much belongs to one little person.

Epic hero tales that give us everyman protagonists, exotic locales, and thickening drama are a staple of storytelling. Here, even at opposite ends of the fantasy/reality spectrum we find two films that meet all the criteria for a quality epic. Did T.E. Lawrence's story make for a great film because it naturally met all the criteria of the genre? Because it seemed to be scripted? Is The Lord of the Rings such a beloved tale because despite the fantasy, the emotions, the personalities and the conflicts are so close to what we see in reality? These films cross over each other and back again and still are only bookends for cinema's rich collection of epics whether fantasy or reality.

Other Cinematic Relatives: Star Wars (1977-1983), Princess Mononoke (1997), Ben-Hur (1959), and The Harry Potter Series 

Thursday
Oct272011

Oscar Horrors: Bringing "The Birds" to Life

Oscar Horrors continues...

Here lies...The Birds, whose only Oscar nomination for Visual Effects were shot down by Cleopatra. The birds themselves are just resting, waiting to come back and haunt us all.

Amir here. Few horror films have had the long lasting effect of Hitchcock’s The Birds on my life. As a child – and I shamefully admit, well into my teenage years - I used to get scared really easily in the theatre. I’d turn all the lights in my house on after a horror film, just in case something was lurking in the dark. But I’d sleep on it and the morning after, I’d forget all about whatever it was that scared me: the serial killer, haunted toys or ghosts.

Thanks to Hitchcock's classic however, however, to this day I’m terrified of birds. I hate the way they strut around, looking at us with their soulless eyes. Some time in my childhood, it was The Birds that forever etched this frame in my memory.


Such is the power of cinema!

Like most Hitchcock films, The Birds doesn’t rely so much on the actual birds to scare us, but on the psychological horror that comes with the idea of the town’s takeover; the impending sense that at any minute another attack might start. But in those small bursts when we see the attacks, Hitchcock knocks it out of the park.

He used a combination of elements, from real birds on the set to archival footage, and from invisible nylon threads to yellow screen superimposition to achieve the effects that he wanted. The crew insisted on avoiding mechanical models for the most part and chose to use trained birds wherever possible. The result of the prolonged shooting period and the complex post-production is nearly impeccable. The birds look as alive and vicious as any animal I’ve seen on the screen.


Needless to say, almost fifty years later, some of these effects look a bit aged, but the impact they leave is still the same. The claustrophobic terror they inject in us is still as intense. And I’m sure there are other kids out there who think of Tippi Hedren’s helplessness in that attic every time they see a crow on the wire or a flock of gulls by the water.

Other Oscar Horrors...
Rosemary's Baby - Best Supporting Actress
The Swarm - Best Costume Design
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane -Best Actress in a Leading Role
The Birds - Best Effects, Special Visual Effects
The Fly -Best Makeup
Death Becomes Her -Best Effects, Visual Effects
The Exorcist -Best Actress in a Supporting Role 
Rosemary's Baby - Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium
Beetlejuice - Best Makeup
Carrie - Best Actress in a Leading Role
Bram Stoker's Dracula - Best Costume Design
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Best Actor in a Leading Role
King of the Zombies - Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture
Poltergeist - Best Effects, Visual Effects
Hellboy II: The Golden Army -Achievement in Makeup
The Silence of the Lambs -Best Director
The Tell-Tale Heart -Best Short Subject, Cartoons

Thursday
Oct272011

Roland Emmerich, Anyone?

File under: Things I Never Thought I'd Be Doing

...interviewing bombastic disaster movie king, Roland Emmerich!

And just when the interview was getting good, it ended! I had a million more questions I wanted to ask him like: Does Vanessa Redgrave even breathe dramatically when the camera is off?; Were all those male royals and their bastards in Tudor England really full lipped ginger pretty boys or was that just a casting preference for Anonymous (I couldn't tell them apart!)?; 10,000 BC ....what the hell?; Why have I never been invited to the über gay parties at your LA estate?; Was directing 90s muscle hunks Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude Van Damme in Universal Soldier (1992) on set as fun as watching them be brain-dead super soldiers onscreen? (Hey, it was fun in 1992. Don't judge!)

P.S. I know that you're not supposed to like Anonymous, but I had fun watching it. Sometimes big bold cheesy underlining, playing to the balcony if you will, is JUST right for ridiculous conspiracy theories like "Shakespeare never wrote a word!". Sometimes you just want to hiss at hunchback villains dressed in black and swoon with lusty queens who go weak at the knees for poets.