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Archive for March, 2011

 

 

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“Movies are a magician’s forge, they allow you to build a story with your hands… at least, that’s what it means to me. What attracts me in movies is to be presented with a problem and be able to solve it. Nothing else; just to create an illusion, and effect, with almost nothing” —Mario Bava

Director Mario Bava’s stylistic influence on 60s Italian cinema—particularly the Giallo genre—goes without saying. His singular vision was always evident, no matter what genre he was working within. Often taking what could have been fairly pedestrian story material, and—with limited budgets—Bava created worlds that you can fall into; mysterious, often dangerous worlds. His films have a staged feeling, and maybe that’s the point; clearly atmosphere and mood are paramount concerns—and why should’nt they be? Film is, after all, a visual medium, and like another visually minded-director—David Lynch—Bava fashions dream-like worlds that tap into the primal, the visceral.

Certainly, as a result of Brava’s initial work as a cinematographer, his shots are always impeccably composed, and fascinating to examine as single images…

  

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BardotDansLeCinemaMaintenant

She was the muse of many a creative individual. Director Roger Vadim (her then husband) cast her in two of his most famous films, Serge Gainsbourg made music with her. Bridgette Bardot defined much of the landscape of 1960s pop culture, just as films and music were going “international”. As an actress, she was not as accomplished as many of her peers, but she had a presence, a quality that eluded pure sexuality; like another Godard actress—Anna Karina—she was indefinable. Roger Vadim’s controversial And God Created Woman (1956) launched her career, sending her into the world’s spotlight. For better or worse, she became the example of the modern, liberated woman.

Bardot was also an icon of 60’s pop music and fashion, setting trends that would remain in the public’s mind for decades to come. When she starred in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt (1963) she cemented another of her famous “looks”: The French striped boating shirt and blue headband that she wore when she and Jack Palance take a spin in the country side in that bright red convertible. The outfit, like many of the clothes worn by the women and men in Godard’s films, help declared the movie’s visual intentions: bold, striking washes of primary color that virtually pop from the screen.

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Dick Powell is a glutton for punishment. More specifically, Powell’s Philip Marlowe is a glutton for punishment. In the 1944 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farwell, My Lovely, renamed Murder, My Sweet, Dick Powell played the part of the famous private detective as if it might be the last acting gig he ever got. He is funny, strangely charming, clumsy and a joy to watch even as he’s repeatedly beaten over the head, drugged, tossed in an insane asylum, and temporarily blinded by gunshot fire. Powell doesn’t simply play Marlowe as the typical tough-guy detective—there was always more to Chandler’s character than that—his version is fully formed; vulnerable, really vulnerable, which makes him more likeable, certainly more sympathetic. Much of the unintended glee in watching this film are Marlowe’s dealings with the somewhat sociopathic nitwit, Moose Malloy played deftly by Mike Mazurki. Moose is all blunt, dumb menace and is constantly annoyed by the wise-cracking Marlowe; his first instinct always violence.  As twisted as the plot can sometimes become, the interplay between these two actors helps to ground the film.

Many consider Humphrey Bogart’s take on the seminal literary figure in Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep to be the best rendition of Marlowe (Elliott Gould’s turn as Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is certainly odd, not bad, just odd), but Dick Powell is my personal favorite; his reverence for the hardboiled dialogue comes through in every scene and really, truly, he looks and acts the part. In my mind, this is Marlowe, sinking into the seedy shadows of old Los Angeles, waiting for the next case to walk through the door.

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Purveyors of the sinister. Raconteurs of the strange. Crawling, twisting music that threatens to make its way into my nightmares, lying in wait for me each time I return. The Italian prog-rock band, Goblin made a name for themselves scoring many Italian movies, but it was Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and George Romero’s international version of Dawn of the Dead, Zombi  (1978) that accounted for some of their most inspired work.

The soundtrack to Suspiria was as much a part of that film’s utter feeling of dread as Argento’s colorfully decadent visuals. It  is delirious and bizarre and wonderful and baffling and endlessly listenable. From the opening track, Suspiria—which sets the mood brilliantly—using music box chimes that underpin creepy vocals, a staccato rhythm section and period keyboard flourishes (John Carpenter had to be influenced musically by Goblin), Goblin lays the foundation for a score that is so linked to the film, that one cannot exist without the other. It’s King Crimson gone the way of Ennio Morricone, the wide variety of experimination within this one soundtrack is staggering. The track Blind Concert sounds as if it would fit in nicely with some Grindhouse gem, while Black Forest is haunted by early 70s Bowie. Sighs, in comparison is so brazen in its dissimilarity to the other material on the soundtrack, that I’m not sure what to make if of it; it’s lurid and infectious all at once.

The soundtrack to Zombi develops some of the same musical cues, but reaches even further into other genres than the latter album. The FilmWorks series by composer John Zorn comes to mind, with its sheer variety of genres and its willingness to take chances. The track Zombi is great 70’s chase music, almost clichéd decades later, the undercurrent of stinging keyboards and disturbed layered vocals elevates it beyond the standard. In comparison, Torte in Faccia with it’s Ragtime musical tropes, is so silly so deceptively out-of-place, one can only think of Zombies in fast motion, Keystone Cops style, bashing one another on the heads with brooms, while Zombi (Sexy) is smoky and seductive, music that lingers in the air as you drain a watered-down martini in some crummy 80s lounge. There is less of the creep and more of the camp with Zombi, but the experience is fascinating nonetheless.

Goblin creates ominous mood music to be sure, the stuff of dreams and nightmares.

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The Untouchables (1987)

Director: Brian De Palma

 

Barrels of Technicolor blood. Limitless rounds of ammunition. The melodramatic and the absurd. Innocence and clear-eyed reality. All these things run together in the universe that is Brian De Palma’s version of the late 50s TV show, The Untouchables. The violence is graphic, sometimes cartoonishly so, as it always is in a Brian De Palma film—his obvious affection for Italian cinema, especially that of the Giallo genre, bleeds through, gloriously staining his entire visual approach—but it is also operatic and lavish and weirdly seductive, an over-the-top rendition of Prohibition-era America that lives in the other-reality that is the Hollywood Movie. De Palma is clearly swinging for the fences here; he wants to create a film that is larger than life. He is aiming at mythos rather than any sort of historical accuracy (there are plenty of inaccuracies in this film), the myth of not just the gangster in America, but good and evil writ large. It is beautiful and repulsive all at once.

As a gangster film, more specifically a modern gangster film, The Untouchables is certainly different. The film does not focus on the mob life, the trappings of family obligations, of traditions. It does not track the history of any one clan. More to the point, it does not feel like any of the Godfather films, or Goodfellas (1990), or Casino (1995) or even Once Upon A Time in America (1984), which tackles the same era. The Untouchables is cut from the same cloth of the gangster films of the 30s and 40s, and it that respect, it falls more readily in line with the TV show upon which it is partially based. It is a crime film, mixed with adventure elements. And possibly because of this, it is hardly mentioned as a film of merit in this genre when compared to the Godfathers and Goodfellas, which is too bad. Quite possibly, this is one of my favorite films of this particular sub-genre because it feels like such an interesting departure. There are scenes that I never grow tired of, dialogue that still crackles as much as it as it did when I first saw this movie in the theaters.

The Untouchables opens with a roar: Al Capone (Robert De Niro) flippantly declaring to the press that “there is violence in Chicago, but not by me and not by anyone I employee”, juxtaposed with a scene of a little girl and other patrons of a drugstore killed by a bomb meant to send a message to other businesses. We are then introduced to government agent, Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) sent to Chicago to lead the clean-up illegal alcohol activity and its subsequent turf warfare. Ness is clean-cut and wide-eyed; his notions of right and wrong are steadfast, unwavering. He wants to “do some good”, but learns quickly that things are not what they seem, and that even those in the police force may not be trustworthy. Chicago is corrupt from the bottom up, and his mission may be simply be a fool’s errand.

We soon meet the “poor beat-cop” Jimmy Malone, wonderfully played by Sean Connery. Connery’s Malone has seen it all, and had may have once been as clear-eyed and optimistic as Ness, but after years as a cop in Chicago knows the real score, and this is when Ness’ real training in the “Chicago Way” begins.

The rookie cop, George Stone, played by Andy Garcia and the bumbling accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), round out the “Untouchables” and their war against Capone and Chicago corruption is soon underway. No scene is wasted, nothing feels frivolous or belabored, and every frame furthers the steamrolling plot. De Palma deftly cuts together scene after scene, trying to one-up himself as he races toward the finale of the film. The war becomes bloodier and tragedy unfolds at every corner. Even with hyperbolae of some of the situations, De Palma is able to deliver much weight to the deaths of blank and Malone, partly because Mamet has written such likeable characters, but also because their deaths are so horrible particularly that of Malone, which De Palma juxtaposes with the Capone’s attendance of the opera, Pagliacci.

Then there is the infamous train station sequence, the centerpiece and first climax of the film, a stark, blatant homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps Sequence from his groundbreaking film Battleship Potemkin (1925). Quentin Tarantino may receive plenty of flak for exceeding simple homage, but certainly Brian De Palma is guilty of the same thing with this particular sequence (as well as his take on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) which became Blow Out (1981) and Dressed to Kill (1980) which is seedy mix of the Giallo genre and Hitchcock films). It’s difficult to say how far is too far when it comes to artistic lifting such as this, but the scene is utterly breathtaking. De Palma is a master of pacing and the train sequence shows this quality in spades.

By the end of the film, Ness is forced to do the one thing that he has railed against. It seems the De Palma is tellling us Ness’ brutal killing of Frank Nitti (Billy Drago), is not only necessary, it is also cathartic. Nitti gets his in the end because he is evil and that is the way a just universe should work, but at what price? By this point, Ness doesn’t seem bothered by killing his enemy as he did previously; violence begets violence, the “Chicago Way” plays itself out.

True, much of the The Untouchables is surface and no substance. De Palma is clearly in love with the clothes and the architecture of the period; there are extreme worm’s-eye-views of the interiors of court buildings, of churches, he relishes shots of mobsters decked out in period-inspired Armani suits. And De Palma does not delve too far into the true motivation of any of the characters. De Niro’s Capone is cartoonish and all flash compared to his nuanced, sometimes tender turn as the young Vito Corleone. De Palma is almost fetishistic about the violence of the film, lingering on shots of blood spreading slowly outwards in all directions, the spray of bullets choreographed in slow motion. Clearly, subtly is not what De Palma is striving for in The Untouchables. It is all blood and thunder. That’s what makes it so thrilling. That’s what makes it endlessly watchable.

And if it is De Palma’s measured vision that makes the film endlessly watchable, then it is David Mamet’s screenplay that makes it endlessly quotable. “You can get further with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word”, “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the “Chicago” way! And that’s how you get Capone”. Although the script lacks much of Mamet’s signature cadence, his character development and deep psychological interspection, you can still you can hear the odd juxtaposition of language that he his is know for (especially in the latter “That’s the Chicago way” speech). There has been much made about De Palma ‘s and producer Art Linson pulling apart of Mamet’s original script, so it is hard to say what exactly remained in tact, and how much of Mamet’s story was altered (much of the train sequence was De Palma’s idea), but it is hard to dispute the sheer excitement of the hearing dialogue delivered; it staggers and pitches, deploying period slang as readily as a gangster unloads his weapon.

Of course, the third part of the holy trinity that came together to make The Untouchables, was without a doubt composer Ennio Morricone. Morricone produces one of his most memorable scores, and, in large part, is one of the driving forces of the film. From the opening theme, Morricone is setting the relentless pace of the rest of the film, mixing elements of pop, classical and period influences, he creates a score that doesn’t exactly represent the period in which it was set, but presents something that is boldly out of time, and arguably iconoclastic. You know a Morricone score when you hear one, and you know that you are watching The Untouchables with this particular score: the two are so inexorably intertwined with one another.

The Untouchables ends on a sober note to be sure: half of the squad dead, a trail of slain mobsters left behind, Ness thinking back upon the past events and remarking, “so much violence”. Of course this is more of a comment on the film itself rather than any real summary of the era; De Palma is utterly complicit in the filmic carnage, and in some ways might relish it. With The Untouchables he is out to create larger than life characters whose only recourse begins and ends with violence. De Palma wants to add a chapter to the myth, not record an historical document; even the truth in this case is almost too banal for a Hollywood movie.

 

 



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