Category Archives: Thoughts

The Rosenbaum Project #1

All_Quiet_on_the_Western_Front_(1930_film)_posterby Robert Ham

I love a good movie watching project that involves a list or guidelines to follow. And one that I’ve been wanting to dive into for some time is to see all of the entries on the great critic Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s 1000 Essential Films List that I haven’t already seen. [The full list is on my Letterboxd page.]

I really want to limit it to one calendar year, but that would require the use much more free time than I have available. Instead, I will move through the list at my own pace, and try to catch every last one.

My method will be as mad as this project. At the beginning, I will initially bounce between following it in chronological order and jumping to the films on the list that I have in my collection of DVDs/Blu-rays, but have yet to watch (The Leopard and Fellow Traveler are two that leap to mind right now; I’m sure there are others). Once I’ve exhausted the movies I have here at hand, I will work chronologically through the list with all the films that are freely available to stream online. When those are all done, I’ll start digging for the outliers. I think about this stuff way too much.

So without further ado, I inaugurate The Rosenbaum Project.

L’arrivee d’un train en Garede la Ciotat; Le Sortie des Usines (1895, dir. Auguste and Louis Lumiére)

The oldest films on Rosenbaum’s list are also the easiest to get a look at. One simple search on YouTube and they’re there for you. They don’t look very good, but there they are, in all their short, one shot, no edit glory. And because they’re so short, I could watch them a few times and really wonder at what I was witnessing. Almost all of us, in some small or huge way, long to be immortalized, to be remembered for centuries after we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. That’s right at the core of why I write as much as I do. The hope is that someone will stumble across my work in 100 years and think about what kind of person I was in my real life.

And so do I stare at the men and women in these two films and wish I could follow them on the train or on their walk/bike ride home. To get a glimpse of their day-to-day existences and what life was like for these common folk back in late 19th century France. I could read all the books in the world that tackle that very subject but it wouldn’t be the same as seeing it firsthand. Alas, I never will get that chance. Yet, for these brief few minutes, I can get a glimpse of them and their hurried walks, gaze at the small window opened up to their world, and goggle at the days of steam-powered trains. These scenes, captured on their early cameras, are going to be available to generations long after I’m gone. Amazing to consider, isn’t it?

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930, dir. Lewis Milestone)

I jumped ahead in the list as this was a DVD I had sitting on my shelf for a long time, sent to me by the folks at the NW Film Center around the time of their short retrospective of films that tackled the subject of WWI. I was unable at the time to write something about the series, which I do regret. With this project hanging on my shoulders, and this within arm’s reach, there was no reason for me to wait any longer.

There have been hundreds of films made since this tackling the absurdity and horror of combat, but the root structure began right here with this bleak, beautiful classic. You’ll see glimpses of Paths of GloryFull Metal Jacket, Coming HomeThe Best Years of Our LivesSaving Private Ryan, The Hurt Locker, and so many other classics of the genre within these two hours.

It’s as uncompromising and unrelenting as a war movie could possibly get, with scene after scene of German soldiers losing their minds and their humanity as they face the horrors of trench warfare. Even the small joys that these men receive with the occasional extra portion of food, booze, and, in one particularly devastating scene, sex are all shaded with the understanding that soon they’ll be back on the front lines. And knowing that the reason they got more food is because the cook made rations for 120, but only 80 soldiers returned.

The message isn’t a complex one, of course. And, truth be told, it can be extremely hard to listen to the wails of the men, the madness they suffer from, and the exhaustion in their eyes. But it’s also impossible to turn away from, in part because of how stunning each shot is. The combination of director Lewis Milestone’s vision and the cinematography of Arthur Edeson is breathtaking, using shadows and darkness with noir-like intimidation. Then there are those great sequences like following the pair of boots from doomed soldier to doomed soldier, the tracking shot following the three men as they try to capture the attention of three French women while swimming in a canal, and that amazing shot of the Allied soldiers leaping over the trench through the eyes of Paul (a fantastic Lew Ayres).

The classic quote from Variety‘s first review of the film bears repeating because it still holds true: “The League of Nations could make no better investment than to buy up the master-print, reproduce it in every language, to be shown in all the nations until the word ‘war’ is taken out of the dictionaries.” It’s a pipe dream, I know. That’s why folks like me got obsessed with films, though: every time we see a great one, we feel its impact deeply and hope that the same would be true for everyone else. Here I am, then…hoping.

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Reelism: Kill Bev?

photo-mainposted by William Ham

Biocarbon Amalgamate is pleased to welcome you to the first of several regular features we hope to introduce over the next few weeks. Reelism is the umbrella beneath which we will point you in the direction of interesting real-life tales of one of the many different facets of cinema (particularly the less-glamorous stations along the path) from elsewhere on the Internet.  No regular schedule as yet; frequency will be determined by how often we stumble upon something of note. Which could potentially be quite often, as there are, by our count, upwards of a dozen sites devoted to movies out there.  And watch for more new features in the days and weeks to come.

This serves as kind of an addendum to yesterday’s review of Razing the Bar.  Like Ryan Worley’s documentary, it is about the struggle for the soul of a beloved local landmark with a devout following; unfortunately, there’s precious little uplift to be had here.  Julia Marchese was employed at Los Angeles’ New Beverly Cinema since 2001.  The New Beverly (or The New Bev, as it’s known by people who can only handle three syllables at a time), for those unfamiliar with it, is sort of the cinephile’s analogue to the Funhouse – funky, a little low-rent, but dripping with charm and love of film.  Or it was, perhaps.  Quentin Tarantino, star of Destiny Turns on the Radio, stirred up a lot of chatter back in 2007 when, to rescue it from impending revelopment, he purchased the place using money he salted away from his residuals from the “Sophia’s Wedding: Part 1” episode of The Golden Girls.  Big-name status notwithstanding, he mostly kept out of the day-to-day workings of le Bev Nouveauapart from making the occasional suggestion and regularly lending titles from his vast personal collection.  It was clear that the beloved production assistant for the 1987 Dolph Lundgren personal training classic Maximum Potential was first and foremost a fan of el Nuevo Bev‘s double features, loyalty to the dying tradition of 35 mm projection, and slightly run-down ambience – the same aspects that attracted like-minded cinemaniacs like Marchese to work there, less-than-competitive wages be damned – and sought to be the kind of patron every independent dreams of: the kind that fronts the money, then steps aside to let them do what they do.

Which is why some raised their eyebrows when the Love Birds in Bondage auteur announced he was taking over as The N’w B’v’r’ly’s head programmer, and abruptly shut it down for the entire month of September for renovations with a grand re-opening scheduled for October 1.  But few seemed to worry too much – this was QT (short for “Quentin Tarantino”), champion of the celluloid underdog and rescuer of the forgotten and the semi-obscure.  There were plenty of possibilities; excitement overruled trepidation.  Marchese certainly had reason to be excited, because… well, let her tell you the tale of what went down (and down, and down…).

Now, we’re not going to editorialize here – this is, after all, only one side of the story and we shouldn’t assume that the utter silence from the other end constitutes a tacit admission of guilt and/or a sneering disdain on the part of management towards those lower on the celluloid food chain and their gall at expecting their accusations or questions worthy of acknowledgement, much less response.  This would seem to be behavior more befitting a faceless, impersonal conglomerate and quite out of character for a (once-literally) mom and pop operation like the New ‘erly.  And there is as yet no indication that Tarantino, loved by millions as the voice of “Jack Cavello” in the videogame Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair, is even aware, much less approves, of any untoward behavior on the part of those appointed to do the day-to-day work of running the theater.  But, if there is any truth to all this, it would prove an absolutely appalling example of the abuse of wealth and power and a pretty ugly betrayal of the vision theaters like The Nuh Buh were founded upon – to preserve a small part of an American moviegoing experience rapidly dwindling towards extinction.  We hope that Quentin Tarantino steps forward soon and sets the situation right, or at least the record straight – we would hate to lose faith in the man once awarded the honor of “thanks” in the credits of the short subject Snails!

(The bitterest irony of all in this sad tale: Marchese had just completed her first documentary, Out of Print, an encomium to the irreplaceable virtues of pre-digital projection, with a particular focus on one theater whose identity I think you can probably guess.  She has cancelled the premiere of the film, but has made it available to all via Vimeo: you can see it here; the password’s down at the end of her post.  And – personally – I’d steer clear of the comments thread directly below that.)

Thoughts: Haywire (2011, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

haywire_ver6_xlgThe further adventures of one little boy and his semi-obsession with the works of Steven Soderbergh on Blu-ray…

I’d like to think that when Lem Dobbs set out to write this script, he did so with only one challenge in mind: to begin and end the film on the word “shit.” I’d also like to think that was inspired by the much-praised scene between McNulty and Bunk in The Wire‘s first season where they investigate a crime scene trading only variations on the word “fuck.”

That opening “shit” also reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s discussion of how he was able to do a little audience manipulation in JAWS, letting them titter at Brody’s weary “Come down here and chum some of this shit” right before letting the shark break the surface of the water and freak them out. Dobbs throwing that four-letter word in from the get-go sets up nicely the exhausted conversation between Mallory and Aaron that you’re just about settled into when he tosses a cup of hot coffee right in her face.

I still remember the pure shock I felt when that first big fight began. The brutality of it is still incredible. The lack of music, the dull thud of each punch, the realistic gun shots, and the rawness of the whole thing. It felt like a real fight, albeit one between two trained counterintelligence agents. Soderbergh only really gets back to that same level one other time, preferring instead to play the superstar secret agent card in her attacks on the Irish police and the other agents who descend on her father’s house to capture/kill her. But that is precisely what makes that first showdown and the terrifying one in the hotel room between Mallory and Paul so damn memorable. The cartoon-y elements of the violence are removed and you’re left wondering if the actors really did get hurt as they filmed it all. 

What shouldn’t surprise me is how audiences responded to this movie. Like SOLARIS, the film was very well-received by critics but moviegoers thought it was pretty terrible. I’m still trying to parse out why. You’d think that the notion of watching a woman step up and kick some ass would be something folks would love to see.

My theory is that Gina Carano isn’t a hyper-sexualized figure in the film. She gets dolled up for the party outside of Dublin but shows very little skin. She even complains earlier about having to wear a dress in the first place. Outside of that, she opts for utilitarian clothing that allows her freedom of movement. Compare that to the outfits that Lara Croft or Alice from the RESIDENT EVIL films are poured into. Add to it the one pseudo-sex scene where Mallory is the one leading the charge (and you don’t get to see anyone’s naked flesh) and is it any wonder that teen boys in middle America responded so poorly to this?

I firmly believe that HAYWIRE is one of those movies that will find a rabid audience now that it’s freely available on streaming services and DVD/Blu-ray. At the very least, I’d love it to be a calling card for the Broccoli family in the hopes that they could coax Soderbergh out of his so-called retirement and let him direct a future James Bond movie. Dare to dream, eh?

Thoughts: Rounders (1998; dir. John Dahl)

Rounders-movie-poster-1020349804This is the film equivalent of comfort food to me, right up there with MONEYBALL and TEQUILA SUNRISE. I’ve seen it so many times in so many different scenarios that it’s almost relaxing to sit through it, even though I know it’s not a great movie by any means. But I know where it’s going, and I know who succeeds in the end, and I can put it on in the background while I’m cutting vegetables and not feel a whiff of guilt that I’m not paying close attention to it.

What’s wrong with this movie? For starters, John Dahl films it with all of the visual acuity of a made-for-TV-movie, or at least one that is pre-ordained to be part of a syndication package to cable TV: lots of fading to black, and lots of dead space that can be excised to fit in a couple more commercial breaks. For as much as I’ve enjoyed many of Dahl’s films, he puts them together like Woody Allen or Sidney Lumet, a vessel to simply capture the acting rather than adding anything substantive to it through color, camera moves, or editing. Yes, some of this falls under the purview of DP Jean-Yves Escoffier and editor Scott Chestnut, but Dahl has final say, right?

That last question is a bit of a waffle-y one, as this was a Miramax film, which means Dahl was likely under the thumb of Harvey Weinstein. That, though, leads me to my other complaint about the film, which is the choice of female actors for the secondary roles here. You remember a time when Hollywood or some power players decided that making Gretchen Mol a star was going to be their huge priority in the late ’90s? For about four years or so, her face was unavoidable, as was the unfortunate truth that she simply wasn’t much of an actress. I have to believe that her presence was shoehorned into this picture by big Harv, Poor girl could bring nothing more to this role but tight sweaters and furrowed brows, with every line of dialogue stumbling out of her mouth with no agency or heart to them at all. Worse still is poor Famke Janssen who is poured onscreen to lasciviously chew on straws and throw herself at Matt Damon in one particularly dumb scene.

This leads us to the bottom line of this picture: it is so badly written. In retrospect, this is partially forgivable because this was the first produced script by screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien, but seeing their track record since then doesn’t let me give them too large of a pass; these were the men behind the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson remake of WALKING TALL and the post-Tarantino mess KNOCKAROUND GUYS. I appreciate that they don’t give us too much overwhelming explanation of the minutiae of no limit Texas hold ’em, but they do slather every line with such schmaltz and unctuousness.

But, one of the reasons I can continue to watch this is that it has a much better cast than it deserves. Much better. The dialogue doesn’t feel so bad coming out of the lips of a thespian like Edward Norton, Martin Landau, and John Turturro. Matt Damon was only just realizing his abilities as an actor, so to see him turn on the juice at times is fairly thrilling. Think of the scene where he meets Landau at the bar. His demeanor shifts so dramatically from when he hems and haws about his legal career to when he explains about his confidence at the poker table. Everything from his body language to his diction snaps to life when he talks about playing cards. It helps keep the overbaked chatter he’s given to read palatable.

Of course, there’s also the joy of watching John Malkovich practically slap on a furry hat and down a bottle of vodka in every scene he’s in. It’s completely over-the-top overacting that goes over the edge over and over again. But it’s Malkovich, for heaven’s sake. That’s where he lives and breathes. He lost the art of subtlety years before and the last 20 years of his career have been about watching him take a simple phrase like “$30,000” and turn it into an deliriously atonal jazz solo.

In spite of myself and my otherwise good judgement when it comes to film, I really like this movie. As I said to someone, it’s hardly a great movie, but there’s greatness in it. Just enough to sustain me until its expected denouement and the final departure of Damon’s character from the scene. You’ll find nothing new hiding in the crevices of ROUNDERS. Just slip it on like a comfy t-shirt and turn off your critical brain for two hours. You deserve it.

Thoughts: Magic Mike (2012, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

magic_mike_ver2_xlgContinuing my swing through the works of Steven Soderbergh, I landed last night on this slightly unusual entry in his filmography. I say “slightly” because the overriding theme of the film is one that has troubled the director for the past few years: the collapse of the middle class economy and the attempts by people within that dying group to try and pull themselves out of the morass. It’s there in THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, SIDE EFFECTS, and even CONTAGION. But it struck home the hardest (pun fully intended) with MAGIC MIKE. Watching poor Mike try to plead his case to the loan officer at his bank and struggle with what he has wrought as he gives almost his entire nest egg away is downright heartbreaking.

The next time you watch it, focus on those moments instead of the copious amounts of exposed flesh on screen (a challenge for many of you, I’m sure, but you can do it). I also would direct your attention to the incredibly realistic performances and dialogue throughout. I would not at all be surprised to learn that the dialogue had been improvised as that’s the level of purity that almost all the actors bring to it. You feel like these are conversations that you’re overhearing at another booth in a bar. Only poor Alex Pettyfer seems to struggle in this at times but is redeemed in some truly lovely conversations with his on-screen sister (the fantastic Cody Horn).

This is also one of Soderbergh’s most confidently directed and shot films. Interesting to think that he was just hitting a real stride when he decided to quit making movies for theatrical release. But I loved watching the way he used the deep yellows and blues of Florida to paint almost every scene that doesn’t take place inside the strip club. He was also able capture, just through the use of some red and blue light and some dissolves, the feeling of being completely out of your head on drug and drink. The scene where Alex gets completely gone on G (whatever the hell that is) is shockingly beautiful and figuratively intoxicating to watch. Then he counters the morning after by bathing it in a sickly green. Masterful.

I also quite admired the perfect natural rhythm he tapped into to go along with the dance sequences. Like SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, the film that he used as inspiration for this one, the dance segments ooze energy and ebullience. It helped, of course, that he had someone like Channing Tatum to film throughout as he has awe-inspiring control of his body. That he looks like a linebacker only adds to my appreciation of how he is able to move onscreen.

I love that Soderbergh never wants to make the same film twice. Even the sequels to OCEAN’S 11 that he made, don’t repeat the same camera moves and color palettes. That’s why I, and so many others, admire him so much. He’s constantly challenging himself with projects that seem outside of his scope. And he’s willing to admit when he has failed. Even beyond the massive amounts of money that MAGIC MIKE made, there’s no other way to look at it than as a complete artistic success.

 

Thoughts: Gray’s Anatomy (1997, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

grays-anatomy-movie-poster-1996-1020200884Steven Soderbergh is the only director whose work I will see no matter what the subject matter, no matter what the reviews are, and, simply, no matter what. Because as rough as the finished product might be, I’m certain to be wowed by some aspect of it. Even when THE GOOD GERMAN started slowly coming apart at the seams, it was amazing to watch Soderbergh stick to the restrictions of ’30s and ’40s cinema and to watch Tobey Maguire play against type.

I’ve been on a quest lately to acquire all of Soderbergh’s work on Blu-ray, inspired by his amazing directorial/editorial/cinematographic efforts on The Knick and reading this amazing extensive treatise on his career via Grantland. So far, it’s been pretty easy to do so considering how many of his films were made for major studios that shuffled his work into the discount bin (I snagged OCEAN’S THIRTEEN, SIDE EFFECTS, CONTAGION, and MAGIC MIKE in one fell swoop for a mere $20). And when Best Buy decided to mark down all their Criterion discs, that was my chance to fill in some further holes by grabbing GRAY’S ANATOMY and his other Spalding Gray-centric effort, 2010’s AND EVERYTHING IS GOING FINE.

My family has been on board with the work of the late actor and writer for decades now, spurred mostly by his brilliantly funny monologue on making big adult decisions Terrors of Pleasure, which was filmed for an HBO comedy special back in 1988 (you can watch the whole thing here). From there, we’ve followed his work as an actor in films like KING OF THE HILL and BEYOND RANGOON (and let’s not forget his recurring role on Fran Drescher’s series The Nanny), his sole novel Impossible Vacation, and his few filmed monologues. There was something about his wry sense of humor, his keen use of sarcasm, and his psychological/philosophical explorations that spoke to us…well, at least it spoke to me on a very deep level.

That said, I’ve re-watched and re-read Gray’s material a number of times, particularly ANATOMY for not only its sharp visual flair but also for how absolutely hilarious it is. I’ve seen this film at least 10 times at this point, and I still found myself laughing at his descriptions of the nutritional ophthalmologist’s office, the sweat lodge ceremony, and all the kids in his neighborhood grilling him about how he wouldn’t see a doctor no matter if rats were eating him from the inside out. 

Watching it this time, I was struck by how short the film was. It doesn’t crack the 80 minute mark. And, according to the bonus interview with Soderbergh, it could have been a lot shorter had the director not included the stories from the folks who had gone through eye ailments of their own. The same interview also revealed that segments of the monologue involving his relationship woes were cut out of the story as well. This reveals something great about Soderbergh – he’s a great economical storyteller. Even though almost none of his films move in chronological order, you can follow every step of the way because he knows how to reveal the perfect amount of information to keep things moving steadily forward. And it allows him some very dramatic reveals in the process (HAYWIRE and CONTAGION are the examples of this that leap readily to mind).

I also spent a lot of time just drinking in the visual aspect of this film that I’d appreciated but not completely before. The use of infrared film with the outside interviews was a particularly lovely touch, and how he was able to bring to life some of the background elements of the monologue through small visual aids like using a fish tank to highlight the conversation between Gray and the ophthalmologist about how fish might be the cause of his macula pucker and the stunning bits of slo-mo and camera moves to accompany his experience with the psychic surgeon Trini Boca. Considering the apparently small budget they had to work with, those touches seem even more spectacular.

gray1ANATOMY also reveals what a great actor Gray really was. Consider the fact that they filmed this thing in a warehouse, out of sequence, over the course of eight days. He maintained such great poise and was able to keep the narrative thread taut and complete through the whole thing. Something he was obviously capable of doing in front of a live audience, but it is writ large here. This can’t have been an easy project for anyone involved, but everyone did amazing work. It’s a jewel of both Soderbergh and Gray’s film careers and one that will hopefully gain a larger audience thanks to Criterion’s championing of it.

Thoughts: Snowpiercer (2013, dir. Bong Joon-Ho)

According to the film’s Wikipedia page, SNOWPIERCER has made over $80 million in box office receipts. Makes sense as it was released at the start of the summer and features a poster with Chris Evans looking like a combo action star/serial killer. Without knowing a lick about the plot, who wouldn’t be at least a little curious as to what was going to unfold on screen?

Snowpiercer-Movie-Poster-Chris-EvansI want, though, to imagine how a theater full of moviegoers at a suburban multiplex wrestled with what they saw over the course of this two hours. (I watched this at home as a pre-release screening download…that I waited until the beginning of August to finally check out.) Many of them have to have been inoculated to the world of Hong Kong/Korean action by this point, and willing to accept a small bit of surreality. But this…this is another animal entirely.

The plot itself is startlingly original and strangely prescient. You could imagine the leaders of the world agreeing to spray some chemical into the atmosphere to try and cool the planet. And you could likely imagine it going horribly wrong. But to drop the few remaining humans onto a train that never stops moving, complete with a caste-like social structure…now, that takes some left field thinking. For that we have to thank Jacques Lob, Jean-Marc Rochette, and Benjamin Legrand for coming up with the graphic novel on which this film is based.

I don’t want to get into a dull recitation of the plot here, as the numbers bear out that the few people reading this little piece have likely already seen it. So let’s instead talk about how Bong Joon-Ho and his crew constructed this film. Each section of the train and segment of SNOWPIERCER feels like a reflection of various cinematic influences.

The tail end of the train, where all the filthy untouchables and potential revolutionaries reside, is lit like a rail-bound sequel to DAS BOOT. The rail cars containing the supply of plants and fish feels like it was pulled from SILENT RUNNING. Bong pulls from the recent history of blood-drenched Asian action films in the sequence where the revolutionaries run into an army of black mask-clad, axe and machete wielding killers. The classroom car where a maniacal Alison Pill oversees the development of the train’s children feels like a surreal Wes Anderson homage. And everything in the front part of the train, from the nightclub to the sauna to the roaring engine room mashes up the previous 50 years of science fiction into an anarchic lump akin to the big wad of explosives that Namgoong Minsu uses to blow out the door of the train. Some of that must come from the fertile minds of the three Frenchmen who cooked up the source material, but credit Bong for pushing each new color palette and mood in front of the camera without flinching.

Those radical shifts in tone and action are important, too, to give viewers an uneasy feeling similar to trying to walk from one end of a moving train to another. It’s noisy with quick changes between light and dark, and as you move forward, you might wobble a little or a lot, but you’ll find your feet eventually. Mostly, it’s great to just sit back and watch the action and scenery float by you for the duration of the journey.

I know many folks out there balked at Harvey Weinstein’s notions that they should cut parts of the movie and add some opening and closing monologue to help (I’m guessing) explain the past and future of the world that SNOWPIERCER inhabits. I agree that it would have been terrible for the movie, but I also remember a conversation I had with a co-worker about FARGO some 20 years back. He liked it fine, but he wanted to have some sort of commentary on the screen that explained what happened to the people in the film later. What kind of prison sentence Jerry Lundegaard and Gaear Grimsud received, that kind of thing. There are still people out there that need things wrapped up in a nice tidy little package for them before they can feel that they got their money’s worth.

I’ll admit, I spent a little time afterwards wondering how people made it out of that massive train crash alive and what the future of the planet was going to look like if Yona and Timmy ended up being the only people in existence. I could even imagine a strange sequel based on either scenario. But in this world of franchising and planning out a cinematic universe from here until 2025, I think I prefer the lovely poetic finish to this wildly entertaining, allegorical epic. I am comfortable leaving those two standing in the snow and marveling over the sight of a polar bear. Let them move forward in some alternate cinematic universe while I shut the door and move on to something new.