Sunday, June 30, 2013

June 2013 Film Wrap-Up

Heavenly Creatures (Peter Jackson, 1994) = 4/5

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's pre-Lord of the Rings Peter Jackson! Heavenly Creatures is an evocative tale of obsessive adolescent fantasy. It is darkly comical, whimsical, but most of all terrifying. There's something very disturbing about innocent escapism that evolves into the sinister. Kate Winslet is very good, but it is Melanie Lynskey in her debut role who impressed me the most. I let her know it and she responded, which may have made my year.

The Intouchables (Olivier Nakache & Eric Toledano, 2011) = 4/5

It is far from the most original or intelligent film I have ever seen, but it was extremely hard not to like this one. Simply put, it is hilarious and heartwarming. It's a breath of fresh air for the buddy comedy genre. Cluzet and Sy are brilliant. I just feel as though there was a lot of untapped potential here. The direction is somewhat methodical (slick but feels too plotted) and the film could have been even greater in more experienced hands. Oh well, I shouldn't expect too much from a blatant crowdpleaser. 

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977) = 3.5/5

This vibrant nightmare, while somewhat dated, offers a nice blend of cheese and scares. It's an important slasher film that I should have seen years ago. Some of the colours in this film are just out of this world, and the score by progressive rock band Goblin is the film's pulse.

The Black Balloon (Elissa Down, 2008) = 4.5/5

I was really surprised by how much I loved this film. Thomas (Rhys Wakefield) develops a crush on Jackie (Gemma Ward), but any attempts to capitalise on those feelings are thwarted by Thomas' autistic brother, Charlie (Luke Ford). As you can imagine, a film with such a plot allows for plenty of emotional tension, and this is what makes the film so absorbing. I think it says a lot about the innate strength of family ties and the value of toleranceThere are no easy roles in this film, and everyone handles their part with aplomb. The cinematography is rather striking—we see Sydney in all its suburban splendour. 

City of God (Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund, 2002) = 3/5

Knowing this film is often hailed as one of the greatest of all time, there was a lot of pressure for me to like it. Unfortunately, it just didn't interest me a whole lot. Too many characters. Too much movement. All acceleration and no braking. I wanted to like it but it's sensory carnage. This film has been called the Brazilian Goodfellas, but I think Scorsese's film is streets ahead of this. 

Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009) = 4/5

Three teenagers are confined to a property to endure a twisted form of home-schooling. They have no idea what life is like beyond the walls of the estate. It's not the easiest or most logical film to watch, but it is endlessly compelling. A daring work about power and indoctrination that is unashamedly nasty when it wants to be. It contains one of the most subtly evil film insults of all time: "I wish your children get all the wrong stimuli and grow to be bad." Imagine Haneke meets Von Trier meets Korine. 

The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948) = 4.5/5

I had seen two other Michael Powell films before watching this and loved both: They're a Weird Mob and Peeping Tom. This was the first time I'd seen a Powell-Pressburger collaboration. The Red Shoes is a gorgeous film that captures the fervour of artistic impulse and the dizzying intoxication of the impassioned soul. It has aged magnificently, and Black Swan has nothing on it, in my opinion.

The Loved Ones (Sean Byrne, 2009) = 1.5/5

As someone who is tired of seeing the same themes and tropes recycled in Australian cinema, The Loved Ones loomed as something refreshing. However, this desire to break free from the conventions of Australian cinema is what ultimately sullies the film. I can't remember the last time I saw a film that was so desperate for the validation of its audience. It seemed to be crying, "LOOK HOW SUBVERSIVE I AM!" The atmosphere just never feels right. The film is too aware of its grotesqueness and there is no nuance to anything. I also had no reason to empathise with the Xavier Samuel character. We just don't get to know him enough before he is seized by the sadistic Lola (Robin McLeavy). I suggest you do not show this film to your loved ones. They will disown you.

The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001) = 4/5

Don't go into this expecting a saucy teacher-student fantasy. Haneke strips sex of its intimacy, depicting it as a series of cold power plays. It's a meditation on expectation versus reality, and how we fall in love with the idea of a person. The film is slow and I found myself getting restless at times, but the characters are so multi-faceted that I couldn't help but be entranced. Isabelle Huppert is phenomenal in the title role. 

Bug (William Friedkin, 2006) = 3.5/5

I hated this film when I first saw it in my early teen years, but I'm SO glad I rewatched it! It's about fear and delusion. A poisonous folie à deux plays out in this flawed though frightening film. The performances from Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd are two of the most convincing I have seen in any film. I would have liked it even more if the execution was less stagy. I realise the film is based on a play, but this shows too much.

Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2013) = 4/5

There's a George Bernard Shaw quote: "If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance." In Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley exhumes those skeletons from her family's closet, and they dance in the most beautiful way. Alternatively, her family secrets are not so much skeletons but embalmed corpses—you don't want them in your presence, but there's a twisted beauty about them. The film is a cathartic work that taps into the innately human desire to divulge; to tell stories. There's a point in the film where Polley mulls over her aspirations for the film. There was a point where Stories We Tell was just a story, and Polley didn't know whether to make a documentary for public release, a home movie, or an art project. I am glad she went with a documentary because it turned out very well, but any format would have reflected that human need to document. When extraordinary things happen to us, it is only natural to want to tell someone. In some cases it may be egotistical, but it's mostly a matter of captivating your audience with wide-eyed wonder. My full review can be read here.

Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) = 3/5

There's a lot to like stylistically, but there are too many meaningless sequences and I couldn't connect to it emotionally. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I were more familiar with 1960s British culture, but this just came off as pretentious to me.

After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985) = 3.5/5

Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) meets a woman at a coffee shop and they agree to a date later that night. While riding a cab on the way to the woman's apartment, Paul's $20 note flies out the window. This is the first of many bizarre occurrences that befall him that night. By the end of the film, you will feel as though you went through everything Paul did. The premise wears thin pretty quickly, but this light Scorsese film has enough laughs to make it worthwhile. 

The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988) = 5/5

Rex and Saskia are a young couple vacationing in France. When they stop at a service station, Saskia is abducted. Three years later, Rex begins to receive letters from Saskia's abductor. It's a plot like this that you crave as a fan of thrillers. This is a terrifying film with an unforgettable, sadistic payoff. It's eerily poetic and always immersive. It's the idea that evil could be living next door to you that is most frightening. 

The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999) = 4/5

An absorbing drama about adolescent secrecy and curiosity, and the things that keep us awake at night. Helped immensely by a great score by Air, and a script that finds the perfect balance between subtle humour and heartfelt truths. Even though the title hints at what will happen, it shocks you nonetheless. It shocks you and it leaves you empty. The film is a good advertisement for why you should let teenagers be teenagers. 

Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957) = 4.5/5

At 88 minutes, Kubrick's anti-war film never languishes. Every scene means something and is riveting to watch. The film takes a moral stance without being preachy. Beautifully shot—especially the scenes of trench warfare. Rarely will you see a greater use of tracking shots. 

Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July, 2005) = 5/5

This was my second viewing of July's debut film. When I watched it a few years ago, I immediately knew it was one of the best films I have seen in my life. I must admit it wasn't as fascinating this time around, but only in the way looking at a photograph will never make you feel as joyous as you were in the moment it was taken. It is still a brilliant piece of art, but it's the type of film where the first-time viewing is a near-religious experience. Many will dismiss it as "hipster trash", but they are too attached to their preconceived notions. This really is one of the most humanistic films ever made. You do not dissect it. You experience it. A poetic film that captures the beauty of those moments we share with another human being that mean nothing to anyone else but the two of you.

Swingers (Doug Liman, 1996) = 3.5/5

There's not a lot to this film in terms of plot, but it's still rather enjoyable. We essentially follow a group of male friends as they attempt to pick up women at bars and clubs. It highlights the differences in mindset between 'alpha' and 'beta' males. As someone who has always been very sensitive and reserved around the opposite sex, Jon Favreau's character really resonated with me. I have never been an alpha male, and I don't think I can be. It's just not in my nature. I digressBeneath the machismo of the characters lies a charming vulnerability. It's not laugh-out-loud funny, but those chuckles add up.

Faces (John Cassavetes, 1968) = 3/5

John Cassavetes had a very interesting approach to filmmaking. He prioritised love and human relationships above all other thematic concerns. He didn't care that a lot of people would dislike his films. He knew that making a film that people hated was wiser than making a film that inspired apathy in audiences. It would guarantee that he would be remembered. This was only my second Cassavetes film after Opening Night (which I liked without loving). Sadly, I just couldn't get into Faces. It's easy to admire but so difficult to enjoy. In a film where everyone wants to be heard, the dialogue sounds like static. On the surface, that sounds like a very ignorant assessment, but Cassavetes and cinéma vérité are very new to me. The man knew how to work a camera, though. 

The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963) = 3.5/5

The final film in Bergman's 'Trilogy of Faith', following Through a Glass Darkly (which I haven't seen) and Winter Light (which is one of the best films I have ever seen). Bergman layers on the drama, never allowing the audience to surface for air. Sven Nykvist's cinematography adds to the disquieting atmosphere of the film. The performances by Thulin and Lindblom are outstanding. Despite its strengths, the film is simply not long enough to dissect the neuroses of the two sisters. The dialogue wasn't as piercing as it is in Bergman's other films. I just expected a lot more from this one, but it is still worth a watch.

The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001) = 3/5

OK, so I gave this a 3 out of 5 which is technically a passing grade, but I think this is a failure of a film. It fails because it tries to be a modern masterpiece when, at its heart, it's your run-of-the-mill oddball family comedy. The main thought running through my mind while watching this was "Why should I care?" I am not a big fan of films that rely upon mythologies to work. The characters seldom seemed like real people. They felt like storybook fabrications, and the narration was just obnoxious and left no mystery in the air. I usually love films about dysfunctional families, but only when the dysfunction organically evolves out of seemingly innocuous situations. In this film, Anderson was so desperate to let us know how fucked up everyone was. We already know this family is dysfunctional and eccentric after the opening scenes. It's lazy characterisation.

This film feels like a sequel to a lost work. The characters feel pre-loved. No matter how hard you try to connect with them, you know it won't be enough because Anderson's love for them will ultimately supersede yours. These characters feel like test subjects in a social experiment. I couldn't cosy up to them. I wanted to, but I just couldn't. I just don't like the microcosmic universe Anderson created here.
Oh, and for a film that claims to be a comedy, I barely chuckled.

Another major flaw of this film is that it lacks an emotional centre. Anderson jumps from character to character and from story arc to story arc before we can establish any meaningful connection with the characters. Shots are overstuffed with visual stimuli. I didn't know what to look at, and I cringed at how artsy Anderson was trying to be in a film that didn't warrant excessive artsiness. Nothing emotionally affected me. There are scenes here that may have made me cry if they were in a more measured, cohesive film. 

So, what's good about this film? The cinematography, the soundtrack, and the performances (not outstanding, but good considering the material). It seems like I've bashed this film quite a bit, so I think it did pretty well to earn a 3.

Despicable Me (Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud, 2010) = 4.5/5

There are few things more gratifying as a film enthusiast than watching a film you don't expect much from and being absolutely blown away. I was at a friend's house for a movie night and this was the movie we decided on. I couldn't believe how engrossed I was. The cliches are easy to disregard because the characters are so engaging. It had me laughing a lot, and I can't remember the last time a film filled me with this much joy. Oh, and please, DO NOT compare this film with something from Pixar. Everyone knows the brilliance that Pixar is capable of, but I think this film is just as good as something they would do (and better than some films they've already done). I get the feeling people will be snobbish and say "Meh. Not from Pixar; don't care." Do not make that mistake. 

I Stand Alone (Gaspar Noé, 1998) = 4/5

This is an almost nihilistic work that makes you question the arbitrariness of everyday life. The Butcher (Philippe Nahon) has lived an unsatisfactory life, full of misery and regret. For him, "surviving is a genetic law," not something he does because he enjoys it. There is a monologue in this film that gave me chills. The Butcher delivers it after he witnesses an elderly woman die. It contains no niceties or comforting remarks. In essence, it argues that we do not truly love our family or friends. The feelings we have for them are the product of necessity, to propel our own existences. I didn't necessarily agree with what was being said, but there was enough truth to the words to make me uncomfortable. A confronting and unforgettable film that will stay with you for days.

In Summary - The Must-See Films (4.5 or 5 Stars)
* The Black Balloon
* The Red Shoes
* The Vanishing
* Paths of Glory
* Me and You and Everyone We Know
* Despicable Me

Sunday, June 16, 2013

2013 Sydney Film Festival Review: Stories We Tell

Director: Sarah Polley
Writer: Sarah Polley

"If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance."
                                                                                                        ~ George Bernard Shaw

In Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley exhumes those skeletons from her family's closet, and they dance in the most beautiful way. Alternatively, her family secrets are not so much skeletons but embalmed corpses—you don't want them in your presence, but there's a twisted beauty about them. The film is a cathartic work that taps into the innately human desire to divulge; to tell stories. There's a point in the film where Polley mulls over her aspirations for the film. There was a point where Stories We Tell was just a story, and Polley didn't know whether to make a documentary for public release, a home movie, or an art project. I am glad she went with a documentary because it turned out very well, but any format would have reflected that human need to document. When extraordinary things happen to us, it is only natural to want to tell someone. In some cases it may be egotistical, but it's mostly a matter of captivating your audience with wide-eyed wonder.

Going into this film, I was pondering, "What IS this?" I hadn't seen the trailer, and had only read briefly about the subject matter. "Documentary? Biopic? Metafilm? Autobiographical drama?" I'll give you a brief rundown of what to expect in terms of genre and structure, but the story itself will be left for you to discover. The film is a documentary wherein Sarah Polley interviews her family and some acquaintances. Polley asks them about details of her family's past, with a focus on the lives of her parents. That is a very vague and dull summary, but trust me: you do not want to know anything else. I'm glad I didn't do any background reading on the film before I saw it. The film's revelations are not ones you want spoiled.

I must stress that there is more to this film than a series of interviews. Polley intersperses the film with reenactments of critical events shot on grainy Super 8, which makes it challenging to differentiate legitimacy from fabrication. We also see archival footage and some old photographs which make Polley's family members more than just interview subjects. There were points in the film where I wanted to put the kettle on and climb inside the cinema screen. Polley's family charmed my socks off, and I got the impression they have a multitude of stories to tell—stories that are fascinating enough to warrant their own documentaries. Excerpts from Michael Polley's memoirs add warmth and homeliness to the film. His voice is a comforting one, and a smile crept across my face whenever he commanded the screen. 

You are probably wondering why you should see a film about the family of a director. You may think Sarah Polley is an egotist who is all "ME ME ME!" Well, you are wrong. Polley has crafted an intensely personal film that never once lapses into self-indulgence. We all have our own family secrets, and Polley's film allows us to examine our own dilemmas against something else. As someone who has lost all of his grandparents, I found the film refreshing. I miss the days where I would sit on my grandfather's knee to hear one his stories. I didn't care what he told me. Anything that came from his mouth would make me smile, and I regret that I took his presence for granted. Hearing members of Polley's family speak candidly to the camera took me back to my childhood, where hearing a great story was the best thing in the world—even better than getting a PlayStation for Christmas.   

Realistically, this is a film anyone could make. That is no disrespect to Polley, and most people would undoubtedly fall short of what she has achieved here. What I mean is that your history is more interesting than you think. A reservoir of tales runs through every family, and I'm not just talking about funny, fragmentary things (like the time your uncle farted at that funeral). We have to burrow beneath the surface and open ourselves to painful truths. You will find so much if you are willing to get hurt. At the beginning of Stories We Tell, we hear a Margaret Atwood quote: 

“When you are in the middle of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion … It’s only afterwards it becomes anything like a story at all.”

That's why so many worthwhile stories evade us. When we are caught in a moment, we forget that it will be a memory once it is over. Things that are innocuous at the time of their happening evolve into moments that haunt us or provide us with great comfort by mere recall. Memory allows for much mythologising, and one of the main conflicts in the film is deciding whose perspective carries the most validity. Chinese whispers is more than just a game kids play. It happens every day. One person adds an incorrect layer of detail to a story, and that falsity becomes gospel truth. 

Sarah Polley deserves recognition as one of the great female voices in cinema today. I have not seen Away from Her, but I really admired the quirky Take This Waltz. Stories We Tell is a remarkable achievement that would have been emotionally exhausting. At 34, Polley has so much time to add to her already stellar career as writer/director.

I will say one last thing about Stories We Tell. I need to see this film again at various stages of my life to fully make sense of it. At the age of 20, I have so much more to learn about love and loss. I will watch this when I am in my 40s (hopefully married with children), and I will watch this when I am grey and hobbling with a walking cane. Only then will I truly understand the subtle messages of this complex film.  

4/5 stars.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Death in the Films of Woody Allen: A Semiotic Analysis

Woody Allen is one of the most prolific directors working in Hollywood today. Having averaged one film per year since 1969, the American filmmaker has garnered a reputation as one of cinema’s great comedic storytellers. One of the auteur’s most prominent thematic preoccupations is death. Allen’s fear of dying has been a recurring theme throughout his career, to the extent that his strenuous routine has become a distraction from the existential dilemmas of life (Lax, 2009, p. 114). Through this essay, I will use a semiotic lens to illustrate Allen’s death anxiety as it has evolved over the past 44 years. His career will be divided into three stages: Allen’s “early, funny ones” (1969-1975); his more dramatic, experimental work (1977-1999); and his lighter, more accessible films and European travelogues (2000-present). I will examine how Allen abandoned his slapstick roots to become a more serious, purposeful filmmaker. My overarching stance is that Allen’s stylistic choices are influenced by his identification as an atheistic existentialist. As most of Allen’s films are driven by dialogue and characters, a semiotic analysis is intrinsically difficult, and I hope my research fills a gap in the existing literature about his films.    

Before dissecting Allen’s work, it is crucial to understand that the director’s projects are deeply personal and perpetuate their own collective ethos. While Allen has consistently denied elements of autobiography in his films, the separation of Allen the filmmaker and Allen the character is difficult to achieve.

Annie Hall (1977)

This is evidenced through the opening scene of Annie Hall, where Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, directly addresses the audience with a monologue. Through signifiers such as “a tweedy sports jacket, a shirt but no tie, and his trademark horn-rimmed glasses,” (Fabe, 2004, pp. 179-180) audiences assume Allen is speaking as himself, the director. However, when Allen says, “Annie and I broke up,” he asserts himself as Alvy Singer, the protagonist (Fabe, 2004, p. 181). While this scene is not concerned with biological death, it signals the metaphorical death of the author (Fabe, 2004, p. 179). Indeed, Annie Hall was Allen’s first attempt at making a comedic drama that appealed to the human condition. Until then, his films were farcical comedies with parodic overtones. However, these “early, funny” films by Allen are worth discussing as they explore many of the themes, including death, that would characterise Allen’s later films.

The outrageous nature of Allen’s early comedies provided him the opportunity to reduce existential problems to mere jokes. Death, as well as God’s silence, could be placed in “unexpected and reductive contexts,” (Hirsch, 1990, p. 160) softening their blow to the human psyche. Sleeper (1973) is a science-fiction spoof about Miles Monroe (played by Allen) who is cryogenically frozen in 1973 and revived 200 years later in a totalitarian state. It is arguably Allen’s most visually ambitious film from his early career.

Sleeper (1973)

In Sleeper, Miles is wrapped in aluminium foil when he is brought out to be thawed. Aluminium foil is generally used to cover food that we intend to eat at a later point. Here, foil is a preserver of life, used to avoid the decay of the human body (Mooney, 2011, p. 117). Food is a recurring theme throughout Sleeper as it is intrinsically related to survival.

Sleeper (1973)

In one scene, Miles continuously slips on novelty-sized banana peels. He is being felled by that which sustains him, as “the life of the mind is interrupted by the claims of the body.” (Hirsch, 1990, p. 160). This is Allen’s way of grappling with the intangible, and it echoes his statement in Love and Death that “the body has more fun [than the mind].” Allen’s slapstick antics are a brief respite from thoughts of mortality.

Love and Death is Allen’s satire of Russian literature, particularly Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Lax, 2009, p. 351). Again, Allen uses comedy to undercut the significance of death, this time by holding “vaudevillian conversations with God.” (Hirsch, 1990, p. 160).

Love and Death (1975)

In an early scene, Allen’s character, Boris, recalls a childhood dream where waiters stepped out of coffins in a foggy field and danced the Viennese Waltz. This foreshadows Boris’ later conceptualisation of nature as “an enormous restaurant,” where animals must eat other animals to stay alive. Boris thinks of the world as a place where he can be subsumed by forces larger than himself, including death (LeBlanc, 1989). Here, the restaurant is stripped of its elegant connotations, transformed into a place where only the strong survive. In Boris’ dream, there are no people to be served, only people to do the serving. The long shot positions the viewer to perceive the waiters as preying creatures.

Love and Death (1975)

In Love and Death, death is personified as the Grim Reaper, dressed in a white cloak as opposed to the archetypal black. This deviation from conventional representation reflects Allen’s framing of the film as a comedy. By humanising death, he makes it a comedic subject. It is no longer an abstract idea that plagues his every waking hour. In the final scene, Allen’s character partakes in a “dance of death” with the Grim Reaper, an obvious homage to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. This scene highlights a disconnect between European and American cinema. As Bruns (2009) writes, “The Scandinavian attitude is to take the negative seriously. Allen takes it comically.” (p. 18).  Allen’s comical treatment of death is still an acknowledgement nonetheless. His dance with the Grim Reaper is an affirmation that one must find enjoyment in life as a means of distraction from the inevitability of death.

Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978) and Manhattan (1979) all provided glimpses of a more focused, cinematically-conscious Woody Allen. However, it was Stardust Memories (1980) that would announce Allen’s detachment from his screwball comedies of old. Stardust Memories was Allen’s attempt to “become someone else, someone both ‘other’ and better—more serious, more probing—than a zany comedian, a professional New York neurotic and cutup.” (Hirsch, 1990, p. 196). Human mortality is not a major theme in the film, but much treatment is given to the death of Allen’s comic persona that defined his “early, funny” films. The film is shot in black-and-white, a stylistic choice that coincides with Allen’s subdued character. Allen plays Sandy Bates, a filmmaker who is hassled by his fans to avoid making serious films and restrict himself to comedies.

Stardust Memories (1980)

In Sandy’s apartment, a blown-up photograph of Nguyen Van Lem’s Vietnam War execution hangs on a wall. The photograph mirrors Sandy’s psychological state at the time. Like Lem in the photograph, Sandy is in a position against his will. However, the imposing size of the photograph is a reminder that, for all of Sandy’s pressure, he still has the privilege of being alive. One of Allen’s recurring ideas is that life is meaningless because the universe is expanding or decaying (Conard & Skoble, 2004, p. 9).

Stardust Memories (1980)

There’s a scene in Stardust Memories where Sandy is describing the impermanence of life on Earth, lamenting that “matter is decaying.” As he delves deeper into his monologue, the camera zooms into a medium close-up of his body, implying that Sandy is harbouring narcissistic thoughts about the longevity of his own work. However, when Sandy says that everything—including the works of Beethoven and Shakespeare—will perish, he walks out of the frame and the camera lingers on a blank wall. This reflects Allen’s philosophy that nothing lasts, and that all matter will one day disappear. Several flashback scenes depict Sandy performing magic tricks as a child.

Stardust Memories (1980)

One such scene shows a young Sandy making a globe float. The globe is an iconic sign that represents Earth. Sandy’s manipulation of the globe reflects Allen’s desire to control the human predicament. Allen has said that “reliance on magic is the only way out of the mess that we’re in.” (Schickel, 2003, p. 136). Ultimately, Stardust Memories is an important film in Allen’s canon. A character in the film observes that comedians say “I murdered that audience” when their jokes are going well, and it’s this synergy of comedy and drama that distinguishes the film from Allen’s earlier efforts.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) is often cited as one of Allen’s most balanced films. Girgus (1993) writes that it “realizes the creative potential of all of his important films as well as the fulfillment of a promise about his artistic values and objectives.” (p. 89). There are several story arcs in the film, but the most relevant in terms of its exploration of death is that of Mickey Sachs (played by Allen). Mickey is a hypochondriac who is terrified of living in a godless universe where all human endeavour amounts to nothing. Allen toys with the film’s chronology to heighten the anticipation of cause and effect (Bordwell & Thompson, 2010, p. 103). We see Mickey come into the frame with a cheerful demeanour—a drastic contrast to the depressed man we saw earlier in the film. He recounts to a friend how a failed suicide attempt led him to appreciate the gift of life. Through a flashback, we see Mickey’s suicide attempt and his subsequent trip to a cinema where he watches Duck Soup. This scene is incongruent with Allen’s worldview that “life is inherently and utterly meaningless.” (Conard & Skoble, 2004, p. 7). Mickey manages to salvage some meaning from the film he is watching, concluding that life can be enjoyable even if there is no afterlife. Allen has even conceded that he “copped out” (Conard & Skoble, 2004, p. 125) with a convenient ending to the film. Hence, the scene where Mickey watches Duck Soup can be construed as Allen’s attempt to escape scrutiny.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

The cinema is Allen’s comfort zone, and it is where Mickey Sachs sits transfixed to a screen with darkness obscuring his face. In the film’s final scene, Holly (played by Dianne Wiest) announces that she is pregnant with Mickey’s child.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

As both characters embrace, we see them reflected in a mirror. The mirror forces the audience to question the reality of the moment (Bailey, 2001, p. 114). It may also be Allen’s way of examining his own, and Mickey’s, place in the world. As someone about to venture into fatherhood, Mickey must determine whether he is fit for the role. The prospect of fathering a child may allay his fears of dying without a legacy. 

Deconstructing Harry (1997) stands as one of Allen’s most personal films. If Stardust Memories was Allen’s response to an audience that wanted nothing but to laugh, Deconstructing Harry is his meditation on the struggle of dramatic writing—of separating art from the artist. Allen plays Harry Block, a writer who uses the people around him as inspiration for his novels, much to their chagrin. Harry interacts with these characters in fantastical sequences, where they appear not so much as people, but as phantoms of Harry’s past. Indeed, this detachment from human feeling has inspired the idea that the characters in the film are “corpses and vampires of lost love and life.” (Girgus, 2002, p. 165).

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

This notion of characters who cannot realise their human agency is apparent from the opening scene, where Lucy (played by Judy Davis) arrives at Harry’s apartment via taxi. This scene is repeated several times to the point that it resembles a technical glitch. This scene echoes Stephen Heath’s observation that film “depends on that constant stopping for its possibility of reconstituting a moving reality.” (Girgus, 2002, p. 165). The monotonous repetition of Lucy’s entrance emphasises her deathly existence, whereby she serves as Harry’s plaything.

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

In one surreal scene, Harry takes an elevator down to Hell. Instead of elevator music, we hear a voice informing us that Hell has several levels—each one reserved for people who have committed various transgressions. The people in Allen’s Hell indulge in hedonistic pursuits as jazz music plays in the background. It is evident that Allen does not conceive of Hell as “eternal punishment after dying.” (Girgus, 2002, p. 166) To him, existence is hell. He is surrounded by people who have become nothing but fodder for his creative output, which will ultimately perish when he dies.     

Since 2005, most of Allen’s films have been European productions. Allen finds it is convenient to shoot in Europe because he can secure favourable financing deals (Lax, 2009, p. 163). Allen, now in his 70s, has experimented with different genres and styles. He now feels a greater sense of creative control, but may feel slightly reticent about his age and longevity as a filmmaker. Match Point (2005) revisits a theme that was addressed by Allen in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)—namely, that a godless universe means crime will go unpunished. Allen has said that he wanted to explore murder in a philosophical context so Match Point wasn’t reduced to a “genre piece.” (Lax, 2009, p. 24).

Match Point (2005)

Allen rejects the conventions of a traditional crime film, choosing not to show the murders committed by the protagonist. Chandler (1997) writes, “Semiotically, a genre can be seen as a shared code between the producers and interpreters of texts included within it.” Thus, Allen’s deviation from the codes of the crime genre forces his audience to consider the philosophical implications of murder. The protagonist, Chris, murders two people without being punished. The nature of the film medium results in the audience’s complicity with Chris’ crime. Viewers can only watch and silently condemn his actions. Any attempts to intervene are as fruitless as God’s.

Match Point (2005)

In one scene, Chris is shown reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The protagonist of the novel also commits a murder in the belief he will go unpunished.  Chris puts the novel down and picks up The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevsky. The novel has mimetic power (Hall, 1997, p. 24) in that it represents aspects of human nature. The study guide, on the other hand, is a synthesis of theories. Chris’ dissatisfaction with the novel reflects Allen’s worldview as an atheistic existentialist. Unlike Dostoevsky, he does not believe in the redemptive power of guilt (Siassi, 2013).

To Rome with Love (2012) provides insight into Allen’s anxiety over death and ageing. It marked Allen’s first acting role since Scoop in 2006—a possible indication that he equates acting with living. To remain off-screen would result in the death of the “Woody Allen character” he has maintained since he began starring in his own films. In one scene, Monica (played by Ellen Page) marvels at how Rome was once a magnificent civilisation, but now stands as a collection of ruins. She calls this realisation Ozymandias Melancholia—the sinking knowledge that nothing ever lasts.

To Rome with Love (2012)

This is contrasted with the following scene, wherein Monica and Jack walk inside a modern auditorium—a place of artistic output. Jack says his ambition is to “build radical structures” and “change the architectural landscape.” An extreme long shot is used to emphasise the inferiority of Monica and Jack to their surroundings. This resonates with Allen’s philosophy that the artist’s productions are futile to the ravages of time. An artist cannot live through their work.

Fundamentally, Woody Allen’s atheistic beliefs have shaped much of his cinematic output. While Allen’s films are indeed driven by dialogue and character development, the director symbiotically blends cinematic codes and conventions with his ideas. Allen considers death to be the enveloping force that renders all human endeavour meaningless. His films explore both the cessation of life and the metaphorical ‘death’ of characters and ideas. Despite the significant longevity of Allen’s career, he has managed to remain consistent in the views he espouses. Even his earliest films, which were ludicrous farces, contained glimpses of Allen’s cynical worldview. As he became more philosophical in his filmmaking, Allen explored themes such as the transience of the universe, the separation of art from the artist, and freedom from punishment in a godless universe.

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Sunday, June 2, 2013

May 2013 Film Wrap-Up

I feel dirty. I only watched eight films last month. EIGHT! I was up to my neck with uni assignments. In fact, one quarter of the films I watched in May were watched because I had to analyse them for assignments. Nonetheless, I still have the dignity to give you a recap of those eight films. Enjoy!

Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978) = 4.5/5

A fraught love triangle plays out amidst the Texas Panhandle in one of the best-looking films of all time. Is this a case of style over substance? I say the style is better than the substance, but the substance is still very respectable. My favourite image from the film would have to be the one pictured above. A swarm of locusts rapidly takes to the heavens after doing its damage to a farmer's wheat fields. It's the type of cinematic image that inspires the epiphany, "This is why I love the movies." Ennio Morricone's score is the other highlight of this majestic film. My admiration for Malick as a director grew to crazy heights after watching Days of Heaven.

Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013) = 2/5

The latest film from the warped psyche of Harmony Korine is a miscalculated, directionless romp and I have no idea of the demographic he is pitching it to. The late, great Roger Ebert was fond of saying, "A film is not what it's about, but how it's about it." What that means is that a film is not inherently bad because it contains a rape scene. The film is judged on how it incorporates the rape scene and why it includes it. Now, Spring Breakers does not contain a rape scene, but it could almost be seen as advocating rape culture. I did not like what this film was about, and I only cared a little bit about the way it was about it. My full review:

Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012) = 3.5/5

Seeing as The Shining is my second-favourite film of all time, there was no way I could resist watching this documentary about the wild conspiracy theories surrounding that 1980 Kubrick gem. We hear some fascinating theories but it feels very much like a rough draft of something greater. The visual style is rather inconsistent and often distracts from what is being said. Overall, this is a curious little oddity for fans of Kubrick and The Shining, although it won't be that accessible if you're not familiar with the genius director or his adaptation of the Stephen King novel.

Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936) = 4/5

Modern Times is a vehicle for Chaplin’s commentary on the struggle for survival in an industrialised world. Chaplin once said, “Look into the faces of the masses in our large cities and you will see harassed defeated souls and in the eyes of most of them weary despair.” The streets are overflowing with the disgruntled unemployed, and Chaplin implies that some crime is driven by need rather than want. We see Chaplin's Tramp character as an alienated industrial worker. Working on an assembly line, he is taken by the conveyor belt and literally becomes a cog in the machine. The romantic elements are very sweet, and emphasise the importance of being grateful for what you have. I really like the ambiguous ending, whereby the Tramp and the Gamin walk down a barren road, not knowing what their future holds. 

MAY 14
All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003) = 4/5

I'm a big fan of David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, and All the Real Girls made me love this director even more. However, I realise Green also directed The Sitter, so I don't want to heap too much praise on him. Anyway, I'm here to write about All the Real Girls and I'm telling you all that you should see this film. I love how unpretentious it is. It doesn't try to transcend its status as a quiet indie drama. I didn't expect Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel to have such natural chemistry, but they proved me wrong. They are sensational here. The screenplay is bursting with truth, and special consideration goes to the opening scene, which I consider one of the most beautiful scenes in any film. I don't usually link to specific scenes in my wrap-ups, but this one needs to be seen for its romantic tenderness. 

MAY 25
Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980) = 4/5

Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978) and Manhattan (1979) all provided glimpses of a more focused, cinematically-conscious Woody Allen. However, it was Stardust Memories that would announce Allen’s detachment from his screwball comedies of old. The film's reflexive quality marks a shift in Allen's career where he became aware of his own celebrity. We were given glimpses of this in Annie Hall, but Stardust Memories is where Allen's ego comes to the fore. Allen plays Sandy Bates, a filmmaker who recalls his life and loves while attending a retrospective of his work. Sandy is heckled by people for deviating from his comedic work and infusing his films with dramatic concerns. Allen denies that the Bates character is modelled around himself, but I think everyone considers this a half-truth at best. A character in the film observes that comedians say “I murdered that audience” when their jokes are going well, and it’s this synergy of comedy and drama that distinguishes the film from Allen’s earlier efforts.

MAY 29
An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009) = 3.5/5

It works really well as a period piece. Lone Scherfig creates a very convincing and evocative 1960s London, and John de Borman's cinematography complements the film beautifully. The performances are great, with Mulligan outshining her costars. I believe the film falters with its narrative and characters. The story is far too predictable and the conclusion borders on pseudo-profound. As for the characters, I just couldn't penetrate their minds. Or maybe the problem is that I could penetrate them all too well, but I just didn't care for them. When Jenny (Carey Mulligan) said "And I'm going to look at paintings and go to French films and talk to people who know lots about lots," I almost laughed in derision at how blatantly the film pandered to the Romantic imagination. But hey, I don't give 3.5/5 to bad films. This is worth a watch.

MAY 31
Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) = 3.5/5

It could have been great, but it settles for being good. It holds plenty of laughs, and it's a shame that it's let down by a formulaic third act. I had the same reservations about Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Both films are laden with boundless potential, but, despite creative visual styles, they lapse into frantic 'showdowns'. Now, I understand that this film is hailed as a modern comedy masterpiece, and I also know that various sections of the Internet consider zombie films (even the parodic ones) to be sacred. There's this adolescent mindset that zombies are inherently "awesome" (whatever that means), but I just don't get it. Another thing I don't get is how this film was once in the IMDb Top 250!