May 20, 2010

Film Reviews

I teach a class dedicated to storyboarding, shot composition, and visual communication at the arts college, often the classes deviate into film analysis about story progression, character arcs, or just plain "what's your favorite movie" discussions. This prompts me to do stuff like this more often. So here's a few new reviews for old movie, some are lesser known than others, either way I highly recommend all of them, all five films have very different styles of pacing, story structure and character development.

Dead Calm

I first saw this film when I was a teenager, and even then I was astonished at the lack of dialogue. The film is all about mood and atmosphere and it's a very underrated movie. Dead Calm is a very simple film that somehow leaves this empty feeling in the pit of your stomach, it's plot largely focuses on the exploits of three people, all alone in the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia.

The setting is an extremely vast and spacious landscape but yet the feelings exhibited throughout the film are of claustrophobia and loneliness. Phillip Noyce, the director, uses so many tight framing shots (especially when he frames Nicole Kidman's face) and stages so many scenes in small enclosed areas, that he is able to create a sense of uncomfortable dread throughout out most of the film.

After the death of their infant son, John (Sam Neill) and Rae (Nicole Kidman), decide to get away from it all. They choose to embark on a sea vacation where they will be alone for as long a time as they want. However, three weeks into their journey, they come across a seemingly deserted sail boat. As they study it from afar, they notice that a man is aggressively rowing towards them. Hughie (Billy Zane) comes aboard in a panic and declares that everyone on board that ship has died from food poisoning and that he is the only survivor. John, in disbelief, decides to search the boat himself and, in an instant, their journey becomes a nightmare in more ways then one.

There are not too many scenes in which the audience witnesses these three characters together, as a result the entire film feels lonesome. Of course, there are scenes between Rae and Hughie, but for the most part, their isolation from one another highlights how truly cut off these characters are from society and themselves.

Adding to these feelings of isolation and loneliness is, perhaps, the most hauntingly written score ever penned for a feature film. The music is eerie, foreboding and creates such a sense of dread within the audience that at times, the film is extremely uncomfortable. Graeme Revell, in charge of the original music for the film, establishes such a sense of unease that it provides the film with an added element of depth. The overall impact of the film is heightened as a result of the score.

In most Australian films, there is usually an ongoing theme of wilderness versus civilization. Symbolically, men are typically associated with the wilderness while women are usually affiliated with civilization. In Dead Calm, the sea stands in for the wilderness. In fact, there is no civilization to speak of. They have left it behind. For the first forty five minutes of the film, typical gender roles are reinforced. John, who is skeptical of Hughie’s story, decides to take on the role of active male and search the other boat himself, leaving Rae alone. At this point, Rae is an inactive participant. She is still greatly traumatized by her child’s death and thus acts as caregiver, providing Hughie with water when he arrives on board. Then soon after everything turns sour.

This film is a wonderful thriller. It is beautifully shot and the acting is natural, not forced. The film is a true classic in the sense that it will leave one with an undeniable mark afterwards. This film stays with you. It is also a very different type of Australian film as well. It is very undermining and, save for the ending, very subversive of the themes of Australian cinema.

Barton Fink

The Common Man is what made Barton Fink famous on Broadway. His playwriting ability allowed him to generate enormous success and attract the attention of Hollywood hotshots and big production companies. Fink, however, thinks of himself as in touch with The Common Man, and moving to the glamour and phoniness of the pictures would distract him for the source of his success. Fink eventually takes the bait, and proceeds to seal his fate with the Gods of the pictures. Staying true to his roots, Fink stays in a humble, dull hotel room at the Hotel Earle—alone and isolated—ready to write his next masterpiece. What would result is a spirally self-destructive course of psychological torture where only revelation of oneself is the remedy. Hollywood is where Barton Fink moved; hell is where he ended up.

If there is one director (or pair of directors) who you can always rely on for refreshing, different and perplexing cinema, it’s the Coen Brothers. With each film, something new is brought to the table, and it will undoubtedly make you think. I’ve only seen a few of their impressive filmography, and I can say that no two films of theirs follow a similar theme, but they all follow a similar style. Really, the only thing you can expect from a Coen Brothers film is the unexpected.

Barton Fink fit into this perfectly. The film is a perplexing, thought-provoking, and immersive conundrum of endless symbolism and significance. Picking apart each element of the film literally takes hours, and figuring out the meaning behind it all would take a couple of days. Whether or not that means that this film is an outrightsuccess , it does prove the point that the Coen Brothers achieve exactly what they set out to do; possibly more successful than others, but their reputation supports such a claim.

But the trouble with a film like this is where to start with a breakdown of its elements. On the performance side, John Turturro’s portrayal of Fink was impressive, to say the least. Fink’s bumbling, eccentric characteristics shouts the personality of a troubled writer, and he remains that way throughout the film. The Coen Brothers didn’t try to create a wholly innocent and honest protagonist—an aspect addressed in many of their films that I’ve seen. Instead, they focus on external influences on their main characters, who may or may not become immersed in them. Turturro’s performance was both humorous and captivating, which leads into the main external influence in the film: Charlie Meadows.

John Goodman’s naturally jolly and cheery demeanour works perfectly for this character; something that the Coen Brothers thought as well, writing the character up with JohnGoodman in mind. In hindsight, you can start to appreciate the attention to detail with a Coen Brothers production, but that can only occur after you watch the film. Goodman’s performance did its job, and because of that, the film’s effect becomes that much more significant.

This film consists of surprises, next to its symbolism. Here enters another Coen Brothers characteristic—throwing curveballs. After watching Burn after Reading, you would think that Coen Brothers fans would be accustomed to such tactics, yet they always seem to remain equally as effective when used in their other films. Simply put, you don’t know what will happen next in Barton Fink. Then again, you won’t be able to tell dream from reality, fact from fiction, or historical figure from imaginary character.

This is where Barton Fink comes into play as a truly surviving film in history. While I can’t say that it is the Coen Brother’s best film, it is their most interesting. Most likely, it was because it took so long to try and piece together the dots; connect all the events in the film and attempt to find meaning in everything it presents. My attempts to decipher the significance behind all the objects, people, or aspects of their existence in the film only added to the intellectual frustration one experiences after watching Barton Fink.

Most likely, this is what makes the film so great. The immersion by viewers happens post-viewing; Barton Fink is a film that forces you to examine it as a whole and then understand it after it has passed, rather than just being a series of events that eventually conclude. While the credits are rolling, I doubt that you will be getting up to leave the theatre, or turning off the television; you will be sitting there wide-eyed and open-mouthed wondering, “What did I just watch?”

The common consensus with this film is that it’s a genre-bender. To consider it a genre-melder would be incorrect, in my opinion. There are no elements that define the film as belonging to two, or even one, specific genre. More so, it defies any genre. The amount of symbolism presented in it, accompanied by theendless ways that viewers and critics can interpret that symbolism create an environment for the film to separate itself from others. The Coen Brothers—I would think—had this in mind while producing this film, though it would not be surprising to think that they decided to write a film about a playwriting moving toHollywood to write pictures. How it would unfold into a screenplay would unfold in Coen Brothers fashion.

Barton Fink is not entertaining. Most films that trade the factor of entertainment for something else—something greater, are the ones that truly pay off. This film is without a doubt a thinking viewer’s film. Even if you don’t consider yourself one, Barton Fink will naturally make you. It’s how the film is pieced together, and in turn, it’s how the audience will react to it. Really, there is no way to fully breakdown this film, as the audience should do it by themselves, or with help from others. What can be said in certainty is that Barton Fink is not a simple film, nor was it intended to be. Instead, the Coen Brothers created what is arguably the most complicated film in recent decades.


Before the triumph of ‘The Dark Knight’; before ‘The Prestige’ Christopher Nolan and his brother Jonathan set the stage for their meteoric rise with this taut, ground breaking thriller. I had first learned of this film when I was just starting to direct my first animated series, the sound recording technician told me it was amazing, and he lent me the VHS, I watched it that night, and the next ay I HAD to watch it again, the second viewing makes it an entirely new movie-going experience. No wonder it got OSCAR NOMINATED for Best Editing & Best Screenplay.

The film is about a man and his wife are severely beaten by an intruder – from his injuries the man suffers short term memory loss – he can’t make new memories. With the aid of tattoos and instamatic photos and notes he tries to track down his wife’s killer – but he can trust no one, not even himself. Leonard (Pearce) has suffered a traumatic injury: after waking one night and hearing a shuffling in the bathroom he investigates and finds his wife being strangled by a burglar – he shoots the man and receives a crack on the head from another. He falls to the floor beside his wife; as he loses consciousness he sees her die. It is his last ‘real’ memory. Afterward he is aware: he can function, brush his teeth, read a paper, but he is unable to form any new memories; and after half an hour or so his mind is wiped clean: he doesn’t know where he is or who he’s been with or what he has done. Despite this handicap he is determined to find his wife’s killer. This is the inciting incident for ‘Memento’; but we don’t come upon it until midway, such is the structure of the film. The story begins at the end, a murder.

The story structure has an utterly unique feel to it. Not for prose of course: novelists had been doing this sort of thing for centuries; and even for film : before Tarantino penned ‘Pulp Fiction’ Godard said a movie needs ‘a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order’. This film takes it to a new level, however, and even if it isn’t quite a new cinematic language, as some have suggested, who needs it, when the creators of Memento have spoken so eloquently?

Leonard has just killed ‘Teddy’ (Pantoliano), or John G. -- the man he’s convinced has murdered his wife. In short sequences that last the length of Leonard’s conscious memory we trace back to his discovery of John G and the truth.
It’s not as simple as it sounds: Leonard loses all memory of current events every twenty minutes or so. Then he starts fresh, relying completely on notes and photos to tell him where he is in his investigation – who to trust, who to fear, who to kill. These sequences are in color. Another set of sequences in black and white work their way forward to the same moment – thediscovery of John G. Add to the mix Leonard’s voice-over and you have a potential recipe for mud soup -- in weaker hands a disaster – as it stands a masterful drama that grips you from beginning to end.

Leonard finds himself in a motel room. He knows who he is, what his mission is; but he doesn’t know where he is or how long he’s been there. He consults his snapshots – he’s in the Discount Inn, room 203. He makes his way to the front desk where he explains his condition to the clerk. The clerk has to laugh; Leonard explains his condition every time he sees him. In walks ‘Teddy’. Lenny! he exclaims. Leonard consults his snaps: a photo of ‘Teddy’ with the inscription: “Don’t believe his lies.” Nevertheless he accompanies him to a collection of derelict buildings -- where he kills him.

Flashback to the truth: as we work backward we discover, just as Leonard does, a labyrinth of lies and murky characters: from drug dealers to cops to Teddy and the real John G. You won’t have the answer to this master puzzle until the very last.
Carrie-Anne Moss plays the girlfriend of a drug dealer with a femme fatale flair that is so sexy, so tough and so endearing you want to see everything she’s ever done, (outside of The Matrix which if you are like me you’ve already seen a bunch of times.) The original music by David Julyan is wonderful for its constraint. Likewise kudos to Production Design by Patti Podesta and the Sound Department (supervising editor Richard LeGrand Jr. among many others) for bringing this somber dream to life: all the ingredients to give Oscar nominated Dody Dorn plenty to work with in the editing suite.

But it is the writing that is extraordinary: a thriller on the surface cut with the quiet depth of a memory play. Leonard Shelby is one of the more intriguing film, characters to come along in recent years. Every so often we meet them: they reveal themselves layer by layer and just as we get to know them and trust them we learn something contradictory, something dark -- of them, of ourselves perhaps – a knowledge that may be better left buried with the bodies and the lies.
Memento is a movie that not only bears repeated viewing, it demands and rewards it.


A former gunslinger (Eastwood) comes out of retirement to take one last job, with the help of an aging rancher (Freeman) and a young gunman (Woolvett), to face a corrupt sheriff (Hackman). One of the darkest westerns (and in my opinion, the last great western) ever made, Unforgiven is less about sensationalized gun battles and more about a widowers struggle to suppress his murderous ways. William Munny (Eastwood) is a much darker, and certainly older, version of The Man with No Name. If one ever wondered what happened to the character years after Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, this is might be the answer.

The Man with No Name was a cross between hero and anti-hero. William Munny started off in life as a villain turned anti-hero. At the beginning of the film, Munny is living a quiet and peaceful life devoid of any alcohol, gun fights, and thievery. His reputation catches up to him when a young gunslinger looking for the legendary killer arrives at his home. He tells Munny he needs a partner for a job and hopes for the veteran gunman to join. After initially refusing, Munny agrees, and brings along an old trusted ally (Freeman).

During the course of the film, Munny’s past gradually becomes exposed as his sins continue to haunt him. He has murdered men, women, and children, shot unarmed men in the back, and robbed; this is not the typical hero seen in classic westerns.

Of course all western films deal with outlaws that have mysterious pasts rooted in violence, but the director never gives specific horrid details about their immoral endeavors. The audience of the 40s-60s knew the villain was the man in black, but in today’s films distinguishing between the hero and villain is less obvious. In Unforgiven, the hero and the antagonist are identical, with questionable pasts and an uncertain future.

By the end of the picture, you have an understanding of the main characters and their motivations, reasons behind why they chose their way of life. Bill (Gene Hackman) believes what he is doing is right, using violence to combat violence. The difference between him and Munny is the badge. Bill and Munny are characters on the same spectrum just at two different ends.

The film is a dedication to Sergio Leone, a director known for his Spaghetti westerns which changed the way the Old West is seen in films today. However Eastwood, while clearly inspired by his former colleague and friend, reveals his own interpretation of the Old West. There is nothing romantic about being a cowboy. Eastwood successfully removes the mythic image of the American cowboy in place of a more real world person of that time. Munny is the untraditional hero who must resort to his old violent self to win in the end. Why? Well, that’s the way of the Old West, a reality only hinted at in older western films.

The end of the film features one of the greatest, raw, and most entertaining gun battles in any western film. Munny confronts Bill and his men in a saloon, a classic setting. Not since Pale Rider (1985) has Eastwood fired off a pistol. To see the renowned actor put back on his hat, boots, and saddle up is one of the reasons, if not, the reason to see this film. The original outlaw, Eastwood, returns to a genre that introduced him to audiences around the world and his passion comes through in this Oscar winning picture. A must see for all western fans, but more importantly, for Eastwood fans as well.

Blazing Saddles

This is definitely a western of a different sort. A destitute black railroad worker is forced into becoming the local sheriff of a town that the assistant governor, Hedley Lamarr, wants to destroy. This is the town of Rock Ridge, a rustic dwelling of racist pioneers and dim-witted, God-fearing farmers. And if you have not yet seen this Mel Brooks’ comedy classic, then you should read no further. Because I do not want to be responsible for soiling your enjoyment of perhaps the most comical movie to ever come out of American theaters.

With his first picture filmed in Panavision cinemascope, Mel Brooks shakes the comic foundations of American cinema. Racist slurs, bodily noises, gay Hollywood filmmakers, you name it, it’s in there. “Blazing Saddles” has lasted in comedy as one of the most offensive examples of gastrointestinal humor. Can anyone tell me of a more blatant experience involving the passing of methane gas?

When Bart (Cleavon Little, in perhaps one of the most neglected performances in filmed comedy history) is recruited as the new sheriff of Rock Ridge, he discovers Lamarr’s sinister plot to destroy the town by running a railroad straight through it.
Then cometh the chaos. Lamarr sends dastardly cowboys, angelic sirens, and a savage ox of a cowboy named Mongo to stop Sheriff Bart. Enter Gene Wilder, brilliant as the alcoholic sidekick Jim, formerly known as the Waco Kid, who had the fastest hands in the West. Yes, the reference is staring Dean Martin right in the face. Like Martin, Jim is redeemed by the weight of responsibility and good nature.

This review would be absurd without giving honorable mention to the Late Great Madeline Kahn, who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Lili Von Shtupp. I cannot prove it, but I have always believed that Madonna owes a handful of gratitude to Miss Kahn for her performance as the tempting songstress. Just look at Lili Von Shtupp’s seductive stance upon the stage and you can imagine where the Material One got the inspiration for her trademark image.

I have interviewed many people about their favorite parts of this apocalyptic satire. From security guards to librarians, everyone has the same answer: the farting scene. Yes, there is timeless comedy in the sequence of cowboys eating baked beans and ripping loud ones by the campfire. As part of cinematic history, it should be noted that “Blazing Saddles” was indeed the first movie to ridicule the occurrence of flatulent behavior.

Other fans of the movie may not know that Richard Pryor, who co-wrote the screenplay, was intended to play the lead role. However, because of his unpredictable comedic routine, Brooks could not secure the insurance to finance his performance in the starring role. Therefore, the part went to Little, and Pryor was made a co-writer.

In the scene where Lili Von Shtupp seduces Sheriff Bart, she says, “Is it true what they say about black guys?” An unzipping of the pants is heard in the blinding darkness. “Oh, it’s true, it’s true!” The line that got cut out was one Pryor himself wrote. Bart was supposed to say, “You’re sucking on my arm.” Another one of my favorite anecdotes regarding this movie is the story of Frankie Laine, who sings the Oscar nominated title song. When Brooks advertised in the show business trade publications, he requested a “Frankie Laine-type” of performer. At that point in his career, Laine had entertained audiences by belting out showtunes to cowboy classics like “Gunfight at O.K. Corral” and the original “3:10 to Yuma”. When Laine himself showed up to audition, Brooks neglected to mention that the movie was a parody. Can you imagine the surprise he must have experienced the first time he watched the movie, expecting it to be an actual Western?

This one is ranked in my top ten comedy films ever for sure, I highly recommend it.

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