Saturday, November 6, 2010

I don't even know what I'm qualified to do...

*tap tap tap* This thing on?

So, it's been a while. Okay. Maybe more than a while. Real Life got in the way of important things like blogging for a few months, but I never intended to abandon this thing entirely. That said, the reason I'm back to post one more review is because of a movie that's quite a bit like my Real Life: No Footing.

Rowan alum Michael Licisyn screened his film for current students and faculty last night in an event hosted by the Cinema Workshop. No Footing tells the story of Madison (Jensen Bucher), a 23-year-old art school graduate trying to get her life on track. Despite her Bachelor's degree, she finds herself working in a copy shop for an unbearably absurd boss (a perfectly over-the-top performance by Derek Lindeman). She can barely pay the bills and is far too drained at the end of the day to paint for herself, let alone pursue the dream of making a living with her art.

She feels stuck and alone when she finds herself continually bumping into Christopher (Jake Matthews), a kindred spirit of sorts who gave up the theater in order to get a steady job as a high school guidance counselor. Their relationship is refreshingly complex; this is not a love story, despite one very suggestive dream sequence. Instead they are not quite even friends. Their dynamic is one of a mentor and protegee. Madison latches onto him in the hopes that he can teach her how to cope with what she perceives as failure. In turn, he teaches her to take responsibility for her own happiness.

In a Q&A session after the film, Licisyn stated that Madison's journey was based largely on his own, when he was struggling to establish himself after graduation. This may be why the film rings so true. Madison's world is the same one that I'm living in, as are many of my peers, and Licisyn explores the myriad of ways in which we all cope with it. Like Madison's best friend Kylie, I chose to extend my undergraduate education by an extra year (although I didn't fail any classes in order to do it). Like Madison herself, most of my friends who have already graduated are working low-wage jobs unrelated to their majors. Madison's parents are my parents, down to the mother pushing for a career in teaching as a back-up plan. And of course everyone has a Cory (Michael Bower, better known as "Donkeylips" to those of us who were kids in the '90s), that eccentric success story we can't help but look at with envy. This film captures all the uncertainty of entering adulthood at a time when degrees are plentiful but jobs are few, and it does so with a subtlety that is absent from most coming-of-age stories.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Boudu Sauvé des Eaux

Suicide seems to have been a common theme in French comedies, or at least the ones showcased in Cannes Classics this year. Jean Renoir's Boudu Sauvé des Eaux is about a homeless man, Boudu, saved from drowning himself by the middle-class bookseller Monsieur Lestingois. Hailed as a hero by the community, Lestingois takes Boudu in and tries to give him a respectable life. However, Boudu isn't interested in the so-called good life. He takes everything Lestingois is willing to give him, up to and including the bookseller's own mistress; after marrying her, he realizes that he was happier as a bum than a bourgeois, and jumps back into the river to reclaim his old life.

Much of the film's humor comes from the disparities between the Lestingois family's genteel lifestyle and Boudu's crude existence. Although Lestingois holds a higher place in society, Boudu continually bests him, running the man and his family ragged simply because they won't stand up to him -- it would be poor manners, after all, to refuse their guest. The lowly Boudu, therefore, comes off as smarter and wittier than his well-educated hosts, ironic because they run and live in a bookstore, which theoretically should be a fountain of wisdom.

However, this film is more than just another story of a poor man outsmarting a richer one. The characters are all complex and engaging; Lestingois does the right thing by taking in Boudu, but he does so at least partially because it makes him look good -- he's more concerned with society's opinion than with his family's. Boudu takes advantage of his hosts, but he too is shown to have at least something resembling a heart. This lighthearted film bypasses the preachy route by poking fun at both classes simultaneously, with the natural interactions between characters.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Au Petit Bonheur (1946)

Cannes Classics brought a restored print of Au Petit Bonheur back to the big screen last week. This absolutely hysterical French comedy from 1946 features Danielle Darrieux as Martine, the crazy and jealous wife in a marriage of convenience who sets out to make her husband fall in love with her, collateral damage be damned.

Said collateral damage consists of playwright Alain Plessis, whose car she first shoots and then repeatedly comandeers. Plessis is on his way to a remote inn, a wonderfully creepy place that serves to isolate the main cast, which is where he fell in love with an actress who later left him. He plans to relive their first happy moments, then kill himself; his plan is postponed when he comes across the innkeeper, Brigitte, who is rehearsing her own suicide. Together, they happen upon Martine's husband, Denis, who had broken in to get away from her. When Martine discovers him and he leaves her, she too decides to take her own life. Yes, kids, this is a comedy.

The rest of the film involves Martine and Denis scheming with other people to get each other back. Martine, who started out as mentally unstable, gains the upper hand by overhearing a conversation between Denis and Plessis. However, she is thwarted by an accidental dose of sleeping pills. All three characters are literally on the precipice before Plessins realizes he doesn't want to die, and Martine and Denis realize that neither of them wants a divorce. Along the way, there are more than enough misunderstandings and plays on words to keep this comedy from becoming too dark, and everything is tied up neatly in the end -- literally, with the rope that Brigitte would have used to hang herself.

Monday, May 17, 2010

You ain't supposed to enjoy yourself 'til sundown...

Well, kids, I made it. I’m writing to you live from the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France. Don’t expect regular updates for a while (does anyone still expect regular updates from me?) because I’m working my derrière off, to use the local vernacular. But, I’ll do what I can.

Early in the festival I had the amazing opportunity to see a newly-restored print of From Here to Eternity projected onto a giant screen on the beach. This was my first time seeing the film, believe it or not, so obviously I jumped at the chance.

The movie itself definitely lived up to the hype. I thought it was interesting to see a film from 1953 set around Pearl Harbor, because it presented a critical view of the military that certainly would not have gotten past the censors had the war still been going on. For example, Warden routinely manipulates and makes a fool of his superior, Holmes; officers would never have been looked down upon like that in a wartime flick. I also thought that the film had a mood of inevitability in the scenes leading up to the attack that might possibly have mirrored the general mood of the public in the 1950s -- that is, the idea that war would break out at any moment. I saw this parallel particularly strongly when Warden and Karen were in the car discussing their future, and he told her, "We're sure to be into a war by then."

The role of the two women in this film is also very interesting. It definitely showcases post-war attitudes about a woman's place being in the home; Karen defines waste as "a house without a child," and her back story revolves around being unable to have children, as though that's what determines her sense of self-worth. Alma, who goes by Lorene, has a job of her own, but it's not considered respectable; she dreams of marrying rich. The goals of both women are completely dependent on men. For this reason, I thought it was fascinating that the film closes on them rather than on the soldiers.

Unfortunately, the screening wasn't as picture-perfect as it sounded in theory. There was another beach-side event on a pier close by, and the music from that drowned out much of the beautifully restored soundtrack for parts of the movie, including the iconic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling in the surf. Fireworks in the ocean, though pretty, were also a distraction. Still, seeing the film at all was a wonderful way to start the festival; I just wish the exhibition had done it justice.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Maybe she was alright, and maybe Christmas comes in July...

World War II brought about a lot of disruptions and restrictions to which Hollywood had to adapt. The end of the war, however, brought about its own set of challenges. With the troops overseas, filmmakers had grown used to targeting a fragmented audience -- the men on the front lines, and the women on the home front. As soldiers returned home, Hollywood led the way in helping America adjust to a reunified peacetime society. Films became more violent to attract the male audiences who were fresh from combat, and female characters exemplified the American woman's return from the workplace back into the home. 1947's Dead Reckoning is a prime illustration of how Hollywood transitioned into the postwar period.

Dead Reckoning is clearly aimed at soldiers returning from war. The main male character, Captain Warren "Rip" Murdock (Humphrey Bogart), is a former soldier. Fitting with noir conventions, he refuses aid from his superiors in Washington, acting more as a lone detective as he tries to clear the name of his fellow soldier, Johnny, who had enlisted under an alias after having been accused of murdering the husband of his lover, Coral "Dusty" Chandler (played by Lauren Bacall look-alike Lizabeth Scott). In keeping with censorship rules regarding the portrayal of the military, it is immediately revealed that Johnny is innocent -- we can't have the audience doubting the virtue of a man in uniform, after all. The film then unfolds as a whodunnit as Rip tries to determine who framed Johnny.

There are several elements throughout the film that point to a marked change in censorship compared to earlier noirs. For example, Martinelli, the owner of the club where Dusty works, is portrayed as a gangster. This marks the return of a genre and character that had been banned during the war as "unAmerican." Here, the mobsters are German, with Nazi weapons; American audiences at this time were seeing newsreels of the liberated concentration camps, leaving a lasting and powerful impression of the atrocities committed by the defeated enemy. In particular, Martinelli's right-hand man Krause is portrayed as positively sadistic, doling out brutal beatings set to music. The excessive violence was a means of reaching audiences who had been desensitized, either by combat or by footage of its aftermath.

One of the most radical differences between wartime and postwar films noir is the portrayal of gender roles. Earlier films featured independent working females holding down the fort while the men were away. At the end of the war, Hollywood needed to convince women to give up their independence so that men could regain their jobs in the face of massive unemployment. From a modern perspective, this film is not at all subtle in its pursuit of that goal. Rip and Dusty have a recurring conversation about a woman's place -- which, according to Rip, is in a man's pocket until he's ready to pull her out again, and then only to look pretty. After resisting, double-crossing, and even trying to kill Rip, Dusty dies wishing that he could pick her up and put her in his pocket. Taken in its historical context, this could be seen as a warning to the women in the audience who balked at surrendering their independence: repent or die.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Those are harsh words to throw at a man, especially as he's walking out of your bedroom...

The impact of politics on the film industry is a subject I find fascinating, particularly during and immediately after WWII into the Cold War. The more I learn, the more I want to know, and the more I want to watch films from that era so that I can try to pick apart what was going on behind the scenes in terms of censorship and government regulation. I've talked before about movies that were made at the beginning or during the height of the war, but once the end of the conflict was in sight, Hollywood faced a new set of challenges in the transition to the postwar era. In my Film Noir class, we've been discussing these challenges and how they are exemplified by films such as The Big Sleep.

As the war drew to a close, Hollywood had to appeal not only to the largely female homefront audience, but now to the men returning from overseas as well. Heroes gave way to anti-heroes, including Humphrey Bogart's hardboiled detective Phillip Marlowe. Marlowe is hired by an ailing but wealthy veteran to figure out who is blackmailing his wild young daughter, Carmen. The case is over with rather quickly, as Geiger, the blackmailer, is killed right under Marlowe's nose. But the detective is unsatisfied with this resolution and digs deeper, much to the chagrin of General Sternwood's older daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who does everything in her power to throw Marlowe off-track as he finds himself investigating not only Geiger's case, but the disappearance of Sternwood's employee Sean Regan, who was alleged to have run off with the wife of Geiger's landlord, Eddie Mars.

Though Marlowe was hired to extract Carmen from a potentially dangerous situation, he soon switches his focus to Vivian; this is the result of early screenings of the film for troops overseas, who wanted to see Lauren Bacall's role expanded after the success of her pairing with Bogart in To Have And Have Not. I haven't seen the earlier version, but I thought that Vivian was the more interesting sister and I was glad when the narrative shifted towards her shady dealings instead of Carmen's drunken mix-ups. Still, both sisters' troubles are a lot to pack into one movie.

The violence in this film is very overt and hands-on, targeted at the many men who were readjusting to life after combat. Marlowe gives Carmen a couple of hard slaps to get her to come to when he discovers her in Geiger's house with his newly-dead body, and he himself is beaten bloody more than once, not to mention multiple murders that occur as Marlowe attempts to solve the riddle of Geiger's slaying. Additionally, Marlowe is presented as someone that other men would want to be; women throw themselves at him throughout the film, with the exception of Vivian, who eventually admits her attraction to him. It seems there is no woman that Marlowe couldn't have, but Vivian still holds her own as a classic femme fatale. Courting both male and female audiences was a daunting task at this time, but by cultivating strong women and men of action in his characters, Howard Hawks walked the tightrope well.

Monday, February 8, 2010

I was the steam when hot meets cold...

Tom Kalin is not a director who shies away from controversial subjects. What I like about his films, in fact, is his ability to pull social taboos out into the light and examine them without deliberately trying to be provocative. Perhaps the best example of this is his 2007 feature, Savage Grace.

Savage Grace is, like Swoon, based on a real-life murder case. This one involves the Baekeland family, hiers to the Bakelite plastics fortune. The film chronicles the relationships between Brooks Baekeland, his wife Barbara Daly Baekeland, and their only child, Antony Baekeland, from Tony's infancy through Barbara's death at the hands of her son. A major theme of the film is the rumored incestuous relationship between Barbara and Tony, alleged to be the catalyst that led Tony to kill his mother.

One of the many remarkable things about this film is the way it was shot. As he proved in Swoon, Kalin does period films very thoroughly, shooting each segment as it would have been shot in the time period in which it was set. The progression from a stable camera and classical Hollywood-style invisible editing in the 1940s and 50s to the handheld camera and more adventurous style in the 60s subtly helps to orient the viewer each time the narrative jumps ahead, while making the transition feel seamless by immediately calling to mind the decade that is now being portrayed.

Of course, what many would consider the most remarkable thing about this film is its subject matter. Incest is among the gravest taboos in modern society, foremost on the unwritten list of "Thou Shalt Nots" that governs what topics are addressed in the mainstream media. It's easy to assume that anyone who would make a movie about it is purely looking to capitalize on shock value, but after viewing Savage Grace I can say that this doesn't seem to be the case here. In fact, Kalin seems to take great pains in order to avoid shocking the audience -- anymore than absolutely necessary, that is, because the Baekeland case is shocking in and of itself. Rather than exploiting his characters, Kalin explores them as human beings, flaws and all, and presents a respectful picture of what can go wrong in the human mind that would lead to such tragic events.