Friday, January 30, 2009

Movie #10: Doubt (2008)

If the questions and themes that are addressed in John Patrick Shanley's DOUBT, the film adaptation of his multiple award-winning play, seem a little obvious, the beautiful cinematic quality with which DOUBT is filmed more than makes up for it. Here is an adaptation from the stage that manages to completely work as a film, and doesn't feel (like MAMMA MIA reviewed earlier) like a fish out of water.

Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the new priest at the Catholic church. A self-admitted progressive, he smokes, takes sugar with his tea, and enjoys the use of a ball point pen. All the things that positively rankle Sister Aloysius's nerves. Meryl Streep at first seems like a caricature of all the Sunday School nuns who rap knuckles with rulers, but her mannerisms and archaic view of religious life come into sharp focus when Father Flynn's motives and actions pertaining to an alter boy are brought to life.

The acting is top-notch, but between Hoffman and Streep you wouldn't really expect any less. The surprise acting comes from Amy Adams, who uses her innocent, wide-eyed persona from JUNEBUG and ENCHANTED to different ends as the naive Sister James, caught between the enormous wills of Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. And Viola Davis, as the mother of the alter boy, may only be in one scene, but that scene is so powerful and the twist of the knife that is her dual confession to Sister Aloysius so painful that her that's imparted so shocking that her performance may in fact be the most riveting in the whole film.

The other big surprise is Shanley's direction. His ability to take something from the stage and imbue it with the grace and movement necessary for a film is assured, and perhaps allowed him the ability to emphasize certain aspects that, in a play, would be difficult. Father Flynn gives three sermons during the course of DOUBT, but the second one, concerning gossip, is the only one where Shanley actually films the story being told, about a woman who gossips and is punished by having to tear open a down pillow and collect all the feathers that blow into the wind. Why this sermon, and not the first one? It's finally made clear in the climax of the confrontation between Streep and Davis, and Shanley sets up an overhead shot, looking down at Sister Aloysius, the wind blowing the dead leaves all around her, feathers to be picked up. There are other visual hints and images that recur throughout the film: the wind is constantly finding its way into their lives - blowing down branches that hit one nun, coming through the windows and scattering Sister Aloysius' papers. Father Flynn at one point is troubled as he walks the hallways of the school - the stained glass window of the Lord's eye seems to follow him, separated by the spindles of a staircase.

But perhaps the best trick Shanley manages in DOUBT is the way he expertly plays his audience to fall into the same trap his characters do. DOUBT is not about whether or not Father Flynn actually did the things Sister Aloysius accuses him of. It's about our human tendency towards certainty, towards assurance that we know what we know. When I watched DOUBT I was entirely certain as to whether or not Father Flynn did what he is accused of. But something happens near the end of the film that smashes through that certainty, and left me with doubt as to my assertion.

That in itself isn't the trick Shanley pulls off in DOUBT. At the very end of the film Sister Aloysius admits that doubt has crept into her as well, but what's amazing is that her certainty was the exact opposite of what mine, and I expect the audience's, was. It's a revelation, and her anguish at the end as she admits this to Sister James that stayed with me for days after watching the movie.

How DOUBT received nominations for all four of its principle actors as well as its screenplay but failed to get a Best Picture or Director nod is beyond me. Maybe the fact the play already won a Tony Award, a Pulitzer, and the Drama Desk award was enough. A shame, though, because this is definitely one of my Top 5 films of the year.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Movie #9: Let the Right One In (2008)

Our introduction to Oskar gives us everything we need to understand his character. The screen is black, but we can hear threats, disturbingly reminiscent of DELIVERANCE: "Squeal! You squeal!" It is the sound of anger, of fear unbottled as rage. But when we actually see Oskar, we are confronted with the truth: a scared, pale, almost feminine boy standing in his room in his underwear, stabbing repeatedly at the air and wishing it were the local bully at his school. It's the first of many beautifully unguarded moments that implicitly understand childhood and the tentative steps we take when we move into adolescence.

It's certainly not the traditional beginning to a vampire film, but then, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is anything but a traditional vampire film.

Directed with care and restraint by Tomas Alfredson and written by John Ajvide Lindqvist based on his novel, LET THE RIGHT ONE IN delicately captures the shy, innocent fumblings of friendship and first love for Oskar, who has been beaten down at age 12 by his life. His parents are divorced: his mother distracted, his father distant and possibly struggling with burgeoning feelings of his own. Oskar feels invisible, his paleness blending into the stark whiteness of Sweden, where the films takes place. The only one to pay him any mind is Conny, the school bully whom Oskar imagines stabbing in the beginning of the film.

That feeling of invisibility ends when he meets Eli, a dark shamble of hair and eyes large as saucers. She suddenly appears standing on the jungle gym outside Oskar's apartment complex. She's recently moved in next door, she explains. Their interactions late at night, outside, are poignant and really the heart of the movie. How does a 12-year old show his affection? Oskar gives Eli his Rubik's Cube after Eli shows him how to solve it. They learn Morse code so they can communicate with each other through the walls of the apartment. And for Eli, who has been twelve "for a while now," the questions of how to relate to Oskar is doubly confusing, which makes their repeated connections and their situation at the film's end wonderfully reached.

However, Alfredsen doesn't let you forget that this is also a film about a creature that subsists on the blood of the living, and without resorting to a more Westernized series of action set pieces he fills LET THE RIGHT ONE IN with a multitude of eerie moments: a figure scurrying up the side of the building, brief flashes of elongated tongues and faces that, for a split second, are infinitely older than at first imagined. Blood? Check, and lots of it. Sometimes with a quiet humor (a poodle and a bunch of cats get some good laughs) and sometimes for shock (the exquisite climactic "pool" scene), the movie never fails to surround itself in a shroud of winter that keeps everything in a suitably somber mood.

A quick note: both in print and online there are numerous attempt to compare LET THE RIGHT ONE IN to TWILIGHT, oftentimes asserting (one way or the other) that one is the "superior" vampire film. But that's a severe disservice: LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is simply one the best films of 2008.

It just also happens to be a vampire film.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Movie #8: Skinwalkers (2007)

How's this for a kick-ass opening?

A young boy is walking down the street with his dear old grandmother, on their way to pick up his mother at the local hardware store. They pause at the corner, and the grandmother looks up, alarm on her face. An eagle screams, passing just overhead and soaring across the street to a rugged, scruffy motorcycle type, who flexes his muscles and levels a murderous stare at the pair.

"We only want the boy," he says. The sweet grandmother reaches into her purse to pull out the largest pistol I have ever seen a grandmother carry. "Run, Matthew!" she cries as she starts firing. Another biker type appears and starts blasting. The mailman sees what's going on and cries out, grabbing a sawed-off shotgun from his mailbag as the bullets start flying everywhere.

SKINWALKERS doesn't start like that; you have to wade through an almost unwatchable 20 minutes before you get to this scene. But it should start like that - thrust us directly into the action to learn what's going on along with Matthew and his mother as their eyes are opened to a world of Skinwalkers: shape-changing werewolves at war with each other. The evil baddies, led by Caleb (Jason Behr looking, as others have noted, like the lead singer from a late 90s rock band), wish to kill Matthew because it is prophesied he is the one who will bring about their destruction by ending the curse that gives them their power at the change of the moon. On the side of right is Jonas (the always creepy but watchable Elias Koteas) and his extended family, who want Matthew to end the curse and give their kind the freedom of a normal life.

The problem with the first 20 minutes of the film is all of this is explained in the most banal way imaginable, using trite, bland storytelling like scrolling prologues and pages of useless exposition. Useless, because once the action starts we're put in the place of Matthew's mother (played by rising action hottie Rhona Mitra of DOOMSDAY) who has to quickly understand everything that's happening to her and her son anyway, which is an infinitely better way of moving the story along. Director James Issac revels in the B-movie feel of SKINWALKERS, and loads the film with tense moments and a bevy of twists and turns to keep the story from falling flat.

The werewolves fall more into the "Wolf-man" Universal Monsters look than THE HOWLING or the more recent DOG SOLDIERS, and credit fore that should be given to legendary FX man Stan Winston and his team, who had a hand in the production. They look descent for the budget, and Issac does a lot of lighting and film speed tricks to hide some of it. But SKINWALKERS, despite its supernatural leanings, is a solid B-movie action flick.

Just do yourself a favor and shut your TV off, fast-forward 20 minutes, turn back on and enjoy.

Movie #7: Mamma Mia (2008)

I feel a little bad writing this review. Not because I'm embarrassed I watched MAMMA MIA; I won't even use the excuse that it was my wife's idea to watch it. It was, but I could have easily said "no" and left it at that. I was interested, liked the cast, and don't really mind the music of ABBA, even if I can't say I'm much of a fan.

Oh, man. I am so not the target demographic for this film.

The basic premise is that Sophia, a young, vibrant and perfectly stereotypical Musical Girltm is about to married at her mother's idyllic hotel on the coast of Greece. She never knew who her father was, so after rummaging through her mother's diary she finds three potential candidates and secretly invites them all to her wedding. Hi-jinks ensue, all to the music of ABBA.

That's about it. There's some raunchy fun courtesy of Christine Baranski and Julie Walters, and it's slightly uncomfortable but strangely appealing to watch Meryl Streep sing and dance and basically act like she's 17 years old. But other than that MAMMA MIA is tired, proposterous in ways that echo better musicals without overcoming it, and even worse, a little boring. I suspect this would work much better in its Broadway incarnation than it does dressed up like a movie.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Movie #6: The Reader (2008)

Well written, well acted and executed with clarity and finesse, THE READER, based on the short novel by Bernard Schlink, is a solid piece of filmmaking that unfortunately suffers from being just that: a solid piece of filmmaking. It's a Volvo: solid, reliable, and gets you where you want to go, but not the type of ride you bring out to the weekend car show at the local Denny's.

Michael Berg is 15 when he meets Hanna, a much older woman who collects fares on the train in late 1950's Germany. Drawn together in a passionate affair for the summer, their lovemaking is intermingled with longer and longer bouts of Michael reading to Hanna. Why Hanna initiates this is uncertain, but as the summer unfolds it becomes apparent that the affair awakens yearnings and passions in both of them. The affair ends inexplicably, and Michael returns to his life, attending University and majoring in law. Now in his 20's, he crosses paths with Hanna again, this time as he observes a trial against a group of women accused of war crimes in WWII. Hanna is one of the accused, a Nazi prison guard at Auschwitz.

Director Stephen Daldry and screenwriter David Hare do a good job of moving the story along, jumping back and forth in time and using the adult Michael's (played by Ralph Fiennes) visit by his daughter as a framing device. Kate Winslet give another in a string of strong performances, having to both play across a number of years and garner the audience's support despite her crimes. But the standout performance is by David Kross as the young Michael Berg who, at 18, displays a masterful command of his emotions and abilities. Everything comes together just as it should, but besides Kross' performance THE READER refuses to stand out as anything other than a solid, strong film, which should be more than enough but, somehow, isn't.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Movie #5: My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009)

After traffic mishaps caused me to miss the showings for SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and GRAN TORINO I decided to jump in and experience my first live-action 3D film. MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D is a pseudo-sequel to the original schlocky 1981 horror movie. The major plot points of the original (kids hold a Valentine's Day party at an abandoned mine and are murdered by a psycho miner using a pick-axe) serve and the prologue to tell the story of what happens to the same town 10 years later when a series of killings lead the townsfolk to believe that the original killer isn't as dead as believed.

The 3D effects are generally a lot of fun, although a lot of scenes featuring establishing shots of either the town or cars made everything look like toys. The opening of the film has the best use of the effect, as the camera slowly moves from room to room in the hospital where, until recently, killer Harry Warden was in a coma. The films earns its R rating as body after body drip from the screen. Unfortunately the promise of the opening doesn't last through the rest of the movie, as a series of new murders occur and it's up to a batch of unbelievable 20-somethings to figure out who did it and why. The murders, when they occur, are fun to watch and there are some fun black moments, but lapses in logic and poor acting (except for Tom Atkins, who is great) leave this just another muddled mess in the end that's absolutely unnecessary in 2D.

A lot of people will argue that I'm not getting the point, that films like this are meant to be bad, and the fun is in the blood and guts and fresh ways of using a pick-axe. MY BLOODY VALENTINE has some fun to be sure, and the 3D is a pretty fun way to go for a horror movie.

But c'mon...this isn't a very good movie. If you know that, and you're with a bunch of friends and looking for some laughs and - by all means check MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3D out as long as you can see it in 3D. In all other respects this is a completely unnecessary movie.

Short and Punchy

That's the tract I'm trying to take with the next batch of reviews, of which there are several. I really want to keep the majority of these short and to the point, with the rule of one poster of DVD cover image and one larger image at the end of the review, unless it's something (like I did with BREATHLESS) where I purposefully want to take a deeper view.

Also: the essay about the Oscar nominations is long, rambling, and seems to change direction. I know: I originally had something entirely different there that was about 4,000 words, which was way too long. I ripped out huge chunks of it, added new stuff actually related to the nominations, and that's why the piece feels rudderless and largely devoid of any style. I'm probably going to clean it up in the next few days when I have some time.

In the meantime,distract yourself with some of fine writing courtesy of the people listed over to the right. Great stuff.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oscar Ennui

It wouldn't be much of a film blog if I didn't take a moment to talk about today's announcement of the Academy Award nominations.

In a word...meh.

Okay...that was the short version. Allow me to elaborate.

Was anyone really that surprised by what was nominated? Did you really think THE DARK KNIGHT had a chance? Understand: I really liked it a lot, but it wasn't a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, and how could it have possibly stood up against the lure of the obvious Oscar bait that came out on late November and December?

To be honest I'm more bored than anything else. When the nominations were announced there was very little in the way of genuine surprise. On the good side Richard Jenkins and Robert Downey jr. both got nominations for outstanding work, but nothing for Michelle Williams in WENDY AND LUCY or anything for HAPPY-GO-LUCKY. Hooray for a screenwriting nod to IN BRUGES, but sadly the Coen Brothers get shut out. For every cheer there's a roar of rage.

But wait a minute. Isn't this how it's always been?

When I was younger it was a point of pride that I would quietly tip-toe out to the den in the early morning to sit in the blue glow of my television set, pad and paper in hand, an orange juice or coffee (when I was older) within easy reach, eagerly awaiting the nominations. Every announcement was a cause for celebration or dismissal, and if nothing it was a chance to argue endlessly with friends over what got left out, what would win and what should win.

Maybe a part of this was attributable to my youthful innocence and fairly narrow scope of film. Unless it was at my local multiplex or Blockbuster the chance I would be aware of many smaller or (God forbid) foreign films was practically nonexistent. I was content with what was presented to me as the cream of the crop, the choicest morsels in cinema.

But then this thing called "the Internet" happened. Lines of communication effectively shrunk the physical planet almost as fast as it expanded the film world I had previously taken for granted. Not only did I begin to hear about films of every size from every corner of the world, but for the first time it was becoming economically feasible to actually see them. And not only see them, but find others who also saw it, and talk to them about it. The workload doubled: not only was I compelled to partake of this celluloid cornucopia, but I had to wade through the limitless sea of opinion that accompanied it.

I had been steadily expanding my film palette for a few years, and I began to realize how that, as large as the world of film was, even domestic film, the platter from which the Oscar nominations were derived was of an equally impressive if opposite size.

Does this mean that the nominated films are bad? Or that the choices are completely at odds with what should be awarded? Not necessarily, and despite my utter lack of interest anymore that the Academy will reach out a little further and 1) embrace a wider range of films, and 2) acknowledge that there is no set "type" of film worthy of recognition, I'm still interested in all the nominated films. So far I've see three of the Best Picture films (MILK, FROST/NIXON and THE READER), and this weekend hope to catch a few more movies that have been nominated.

I love movies - big, small...the deal I made when I was a child still stood. Amaze me, make me feel, don't cheat me and I'm yours.

That's all I ask. So let's leave the ire and rancor that this or that wasn't nominated and just do that much more to see the things that are worth seeing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Movie #4: Inglorious Bastards (1978)

When I was a kid more often that not you would find my Sunday mornings spent curled up on the couch with my father watching WWOR 9, a local television station that would specialize in kung-fu and war films from the 60's and 70's. INGLORIOUS BASTARDS feels like a taste of all those afternoons, bringing back the dust slowly falling in between the slats of light from the shades and the icy wetness on my head whenever my father would play around and use my head as a coaster for his beer.

Considered a classic "Euro-Cult" film, it's essentially a lower-budget Italian DIRTY DOZEN, about a group of WWII allied war criminals who are hit by an enemy air strike while being transported to prison. Taking advantage of their predicament they initially make plans to run off and make their way to the Swiss border, but their plans are foiled once they mistakenly kill a disguised American strike force and are involuntarily "volunteered" to take their place on a dangerous mission deep within Nazi territory.

Everything is done on the cheap, but director Enzo G. Castellari knows his way around a film, and shoots everything with an enthusiasm and a skill that rises above the constraints placed by the budget. The use of hand-held cameras following the action bring an immediacy and excitement to the big set pieces and is assisted by the gorgeous Italian location shooting. Castles, waterfalls, small towns and open fields make up the majority of the set dressing, and Castellari knows where to put his camera to make the most of things.

Another wise choice is in the choice international casting, featuring Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson in the lead roles. There's a immediate charm and camaraderie evident when everyone's together. Svenson is saddled with the leader role, and the one criminal who's not really a bastard (he's being court-martialed for using his airplane as a taxi to see his girlfriend one too many times), but he's engaging and honest while also being as hard as he has to keep his "men" in line and get them to safety. Williamson, though, is the real prize - he's in incredible shape in the movie and gets the best of the camera every time, even mugging to the audience after one action sequence. Plus it's hysterical when they have to try to convince the French Resistance how Williamson could possibly pass himself off as a Nazi. A lot of this is due to the script, which is pretty tight and has as its core a solid high concept for a story. Although the idea of a gang of criminals taking on the bad guys has been done before, never does INGLORIOUS BASTARDS feel like a knock-off of more successful war films.

As Svenson leads his motley crew of criminals from one situation to the next the INGLORIOUS BASTARDS lights up in a way that only the most bad-ass films can. Crossbows are fired, people jump in the air and do somersaults just before shooting, a halberd is almost used a weapon. And yes, there is a sneaky Italian thief who manages to hides an entire tool set in his clothes and goes mad for a group of naked German women who just "happen" to be splashing around naked in a lake.

Sure, it's that's kind of movie. And yes, you can see the strings sometimes when an explosion goes off and a soldier "flies" into the air. But INGLORIOUS BASTARDS is just too damn fun and too finely made to really care about any of that stuff.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Movie #3: Semi-Pro (2008)

See? Not everything on this blog is going to be either serious foreign, art-house classics or critically acclaimed documentaries. There's always a little room for Will Ferrell.

SEMI-PRO was one of the "compromise" movies I routinely get from Netflix to satisfy my wife's cinematic desires. Which is not to say I was adverse to the decision - I definitely enjoy me a good Will Ferrell flick. SEMI-PRO doesn't exactly deliver on that - it's no ANCHORMAN, or even THE LEGEND OF RICKY BOBBY. But it's a damn bit funnier than the recent STEP BROTHERS, so in the Ferrell pantheon it gets a passing grade.

Ferrell plays Jackie Moon: owner, coach, player, and promoter for the Flint Michigan Tropics, an ABA team in the waning days of the league, a team just about as bad as can be imagined. Which is the point, considering this is pretty much a by-the-numbers feel good underdog story. When it's announced that the ABA is going to merge with the NBA and that the top 4 teams will be absorbed, Jackie makes it his mission to ensure his team's place in the league. This includes things like attempting a roller skate jump over 47 feet of Tropic Ball Girls, and wrestling a bear. Everything but actually focusing on playing the game. To that end Moon hires bad boy and ex-NBA champ Ed Monix (played by Woody Harrelson in a welcome return to basketball movies) who quickly moves from hated teammate to learned guru, teaching the team to be an actual team using rousing speeches, grueling practice drills and, in one instance, a punch to the jejunum, which if nothing else was a lesson in anatomy for me.

Yes, SEMI-PRO is predictable. Tone-wise it moves all over the place and doesn't quite settle anywhere. And it's Will Ferrell doing pretty much exactly what he always does. All that being said, I still laughed. The scene with the bear wrestling is pretty hysterical, if only for Ferrell's ridiculous warnings once the bear gets loose in the stadium. Everyone else does their jobs well, especially a brief appearance by Jackie Earle Haley as a hippie who makes a once in a lifetime free throw. So, as much as my senses tell me that SEMI-PRO is a bad movie, in the end I laughed a lot more than I anticipated, and that can't be a bad thing.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Movie #2: Man On Wire (2008)

"Why? Why is he doing it?"

The question of why is asked by a passerby to Annie, who is on the street in New York City pointing and shouting at her lover who is seemingly floating high in the air between the newly constructed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. As she relates this portion of the story in the amazing documentary MAN ON WIRE, she expresses her utter bafflement to the question. Her answer is, simply, why not?

What director James Marsh has done is taken the story of Phillippe Petit, a French tightrope walker obsessed with the idea of performing a high-wire act atop the towers and created a documentary both beautiful and magical, an artful balance of different tones and styles that mimic the ethereal actions of Petit and his crew. He's helped by the fact that Petit is a born performer, charming and enthusiastic in his interviews, who also had the foresight to extensively film much of the planning and practice that went into his eventual triumph in New York. Marsh takes this footage and skillfully combines it with interviews and narration not only by Petit, but most of the people involved in executing the plan.

Although "plan" doesn't do justice to the events that transpire to get Petit up in the air. Some of the posters advertising MAN ON WIRE call it a "heist" film, and that's as good a name as any. The structure of the movie could have been lifted from any number of 50's crime films, and Marsh uses this to his advantage, blending the real life footage with dramatic reenactments, shot in black and white in an often surreal, film noir style perfectly matched to the music of composer Michael Nyman, much of which had been used in the films of Paul Greengrass. These sequences, such as when Petit and one of his crew are forced to sit under a tarp for hours as they wait for a security to leave the floor so they can begin to lug their equipment to the roof is blends an equla does of suspense and humor, and work better than many similar works that are straight dramatic fiction.

All of that is put aside once Petit sets his foot upon the wire, and the actual footage coupled with his own account during his performance is breathtaking. There's footage taken from the time of one of the arresting officers who states, "I don't think I'll ever see anything like this again."

It's his words that I'll take away from MAN ON WIRE more than anything else. He gets it. Phillippe Petit's display doesn't require explanation: it is a pure act of magic, done with wires and poles, a gift to himself and a gift to those able to witness something none of them could possibly have imagined when they woke up that morning and got ready to head into work.

Some are always in need of an explanation, of the "why". Others are content with the simple existence of that which they see.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Movie #1: Breathless (1959)

BREATHLESS may not have been the movie to "officially" kick off the French New Wave, but after its release there was little doubt it would be the standard bearer for the movement. Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard based off a treatment by Francois Truffaut, BREATHLESS leaps off the screen and tears into its story with a youthful exuberance that embraces its roots in American genre films while gleefully tearing apart the staid tenets of how those films are structured.

This was my introduction to Godard, and watching it for the first time I was amazed at how fresh and exciting it feels almost 50 years after its initial release. Roger Ebert hails it as the beginning of the modern movie, and the most influential debut since Orson Welles and CITIZEN KANE, and it's hard not to think the same. The story centers on Michel, a small time gangster who idolizes Humphrey Bogart and the materialistic freedoms of America - the cars, the movies, and the women. BREATHLESS opens with Michel nonchalantly stealing a car, and as he tears through the countryside Godard demonstrates what makes this a "modern" movie - Michel's mouth motors as quick as his car, and as he goes from topic to topic Godard's "jump cutting" technique is introduced - the editing almost seems to stutter, catching the dialog just after it begin only to clip just before it ends. The technique forces the viewer to become a participant in the conversation, desperately trying to keep up with what Michel is saying - a hopeless cause. For a brief moment he even turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall and even more directly drawing the viewer into his world before he's off again, daring us to catch up. Soon he's stopped by the police and, having found a gun in the glove compartment, suddenly kills the patrolman in what looks to be a quick, gut reaction to getting caught. This sets up the rest of the story as Michel attempts to collect enough money to leave the country with Patricia, an American girl he fancies after a brief fling some time before.

But while the actual plot points of BREATHLESS are ripped directly from the Western gangster films of the 40s and 50s, the execution of the plot is anything but a retread. The editing is wonder at both ends of the spectrum - the jump cutting is continuously used to great effect, acting as a visual companion to the pace and tone of Michel's comments and eyeline. During a cab ride he tells Patricia how beautiful she is; the editing not only clips the dialog into brief, aural impressions but visually accents her face, her neck, wherever his eyes roam.

But what also stands out are the long, uninterrupted takes that echo the languid, bored moods of Michel and Patricia, especially in one particular scene up in her apartment. Michel spends the majority of the time trying to convince Patricia to sleep with him, but the movement and pacing betrays his boredom by not cutting away and focusing on his slow body movements and the endless little bits of distractions between them. The lighting is mostly natural, sunlight filtering through cigarette smoke in a haze that further enhances the feeling of emptiness insider the characters.

BREATHLESS also plays with unconventional methods of communicating the story. Michel walks down a street and the camera lingers on a passing sign that reads, "Live Dangerously Until the End!" Rather than show the police closing in on Michel, Godard uses newspapers and scrolling marquee signs flashing bulletins as Michel coincidentally drives by to signal their progress. And in perhaps the most ironic moment of the movie, a passerby who recognizes Michel and points him out to police is none other than Godard himself, thus directing the course of the film simultaneously in front of and behind the camera.

Would this movie have worked with different actors? It's hard to say, because what Jean-Paul Belmondo brings to Michel is an oddball electricity that would be hard to replace. Big, pouty lips and a broad nose, up close he looks far from the typical matinee idol, but his lithe movements and boundless charm make it easy to understand why he was a top drawer in France for so many years. His Michel is all sheen and bravado up front with a frightened kid just below the skin, and nowhere after the first five minutes of the film is it believed he's as tough as he claims to be. Even his tough guy actions - the initial murder, the muggings and bullying threats, betray a scared indecision, a life purposely without direction.

And the first moment Jean Seberg appears on-screen, walking up and down the street selling newspapers with her New York Herald t-shirt, it's impossible to look away. She's gorgeous and enigmatic and in her own way just as empty inside as Michel. There's a weird detachment to her actions and words that speaks to a coldness Michel never recognizes until it's too late. She announces she's pregnant, but the way she says it feels clinical, as if looking for a reaction from Michel. Is it true? She speaks to a friend and potential lover earlier where her condition is perhaps obliquely referenced, but that may have been a lie as well. Later, she coldly manipulates Michel's capture because, her thinking goes, if she can do something bad to him, it proves that she doesn't really love him. This sets up the wonderfully iconic ending, and one of the best last lines in movies, as Michel meets his end and maybe gets a glimpse of reality before the movie ends.

All together, BREATHLESS works to create a fresh and clear starting line for many of the things taken for granted on modern films. It celebrates American cinema even as it makes a case for the new wave of French cinema. The plot, characters, and style all coalesce into something where, for once, the reputation is less than adequate.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Welcome. What's Celluloid Moon?

Hi. Don’t mind the mess.

Celluloid Moon is a branch of Geek Monkey, your one-stop-shop for ruminations, reviews, and general revelry concerning all manner of geeky things. I wanted to take something from scratch that I can use to focus on film: specifically my growth as a film watcher and writer.

So throughout 2009 I’m going to keep a record of the movies I see, both in the theaters and on DVD, with the hopes of better expressing my thoughts and views on how and why these films either worked or didn't work for me, with the ultimate goal being two-fold:

  1. Improve my overall writing with regards to film criticism.
  2. Expand the breadth and scope of the films I see. I made a promise that for 2009 I would make every attempt to see as broad a range of films as possible, and try my damnedest to erase the enormous stockpile of DVDs I have lying around the house.

Some reviews will be long (and quite possibly ramble - I won't deny my faults as a writer), some I'll try to be as brief and concise as possible. Hopefully anyone stumbling across this blog will leave a comment, engage in some discussion, and point me toward some great films out there waiting to be discovered.

And that’s about as strict a Mission Statement as I imagine I’ll ever put out.

Thanks, and see you around.