Blood Simple (1984)
June 11, 2015, 8:58 am
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Blood Simple (1984)
Directed By: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Blood Simple is the first film in The Coen Brothers dynasty. And boy, did they hit the ground running. It’s hard to think of any other directors that put out such well regarded films with the same kind of consistency. Not to put Blood Simple down, but it only gets better from here.

It’s a film about deceitful people who all think they are on top of the game. Until they find out they are clueless. Until events beyond their control and their own mistakes come together. A circle of manipulation that ends with you either dead, or wondering what the fuck just happened. It’s a conceit that you might think you’ve heard before. And that’s because this isn’t the last time The Coen’s made this film.

The Coen Brothers have developed a reputation as weavers of the complex. Simple people get caught up in events far above them, with only a piece of the plot to hold onto. A labyrinth of connections tied together. It could be contrived if it didn’t all make perfect sense.

Maybe the film lacks the high-budget polish of later Coen films. But it still looks great. It’s dark and brooding. Lit by streetlights and headlights. Or whatever neon buzz is illuminating Marty’s bar.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
June 8, 2015, 9:35 am
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Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Directed by: Wes Anderson

Moonrise Kingdom is a coming of age story that defies traditional approach. It is an honest film that distills the essence of a story down to its core ingredients.

The characters are all driven by linear goals. They have one driving motivation that defines them and no other emotions. Except a slight melancholy that permeates the bones of any Anderson character. Being a scout leader is what defines the scout leader. Being a cop is what defines the cop. The representative of Social Services has no other name than ‘Social Services’. The two ‘troubled’ children just want to be together.

Mr. Bishop (Bill Murray) is the only character that displays any sort of volatility. Every other character moves through the world like a blank mannequin. Character traits pinned to them like scout badges. This seems to be a trait of many Anderson characters. Goals are what drives them. From Dignan in Bottle Rocket, to Francis in the Darjeeling Limited. To Sam in Moonrise Kingdom. Plans are what drives them. Itineraries and Inventories.

Moonrise Kingdom plays like a children’s adventure story. Dripping with nostalgia and child-like drive to adventure. But it is also infected with a sadness. In the two main characters, Suzy and Sam, this is a chance for them to break free of the world. If only for ten days. To forge a kingdom of their own to live in. Away from parents and scout masters and arbitrary life. But it’s a fleeting escape as they know it is coming to an end. As they grow into adolescence, the real world hunts them down. The whole turbulent ordeal culminating in a storm.

But for that fleeting moment in Moonrise Kingdom, there was hope for the future.

Watch this Kogonada short on Anderson’s obsessive symmetry. See how much of the footage pulls from Moonrise Kingdom. It’s testament to the intricacy with which he builds and frames every shot of the film. The obsessiveness that defines great directors.

The Seventh Seal (1957)
May 29, 2015, 9:55 am
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The Seventh Seal (1957)
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman

The hardest films to review are the ones considered masterpieces. There are a lot of words on the internet; a lot of fevered opinions. Average-Joe-Film-Buff spouting off with authority on a film like The Seventh Seal? There’s no real authority there. It’s just hollow words wearing a mask of authority. And those words hide behind ‘personal opinion’. Because you can’t argue against that. (“You can’t say that my review is wrong, because it’s just my opinion.”) But your opinion can be wrong. Your opinion can also carry no weight.

Keep that in consideration going forward.

The Seventh Seal has some of the most striking imagery on film. It tells the story of Antonius Block, a knight returning from the Crusades. He finds his country pervaded by plague. Death appears to take him, but in a plea for respite he convinces Death to play for his soul. The two begin a game of chess that will determine the knight’s fate.

The respite affords Block and his companions time to navigate the plague-lands. They encounter people dying of disease, of starvation and of man’s fear.

The central theme is direct in questioning the absence of God. It is angry in knowing that every man must face the inevitability of death, with no knowledge of what, if anything, comes after. In the scene of his confession, Block remarks “I want knowledge! Not faith, not assumptions, but knowledge. I want God to stretch out His hand, uncover His face and speak to me.” And Death responds “But He remains silent.”

For a film of grand philosophy, Bergman punctuates it with detrimental comic relief. There are times when it is witty, or when it is in keeping with the irony of death. And there are times when it is inappropriate to the tone of the film. The spindle ticks back and forth in tonal shift between bleak and comedy. This is the only let down in a film that is otherwise a meaningful exploration of faith.

The film ends with one of the most arresting images of the danse macabre. As Death leads the trail of companions into the unknown. “We must make an idol of our fear, and call it God.”

Sexy Beast (2000)
May 28, 2015, 9:52 am
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Sexy Beast (2000)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

Sexy Beast opens with Gal (Winstone) soaking up sun by his villa pool. A boulder rolls down the hill and misses him by an inch, landing in the water. It crushes his heart, laid out in tiles. He was an inch away from death, but it missed him. Death blew past him. An immovable object, buried at the bottom of the pool.

This is the film.

Don Logan (Ben Kingsley) is the boulder. The immovable object. Death. He is spite. He is volatile, ferocious, unflinching hate. He is a trained attack dog. Sits calm, but at any moment he will snap. You see it in his eyes. Any moment. Everyone in the room is overcome by the tension of this monster’s presence. It is in the atmosphere.

Gal is retired. He just wants to soak in the sun and drink and eat with his wife and friends. Logan represents a heist-job. The criminal world that Gal left behind. Logan travels to Spain to recruit Gal for one more job. It’s not an inspiring premise, but the film is not about the criminal world. It’s not even about the heist. It’s about Gal and Logan. Driven by the performances of these powerhouse characters and the struggle between them.

As angry and erratic as Logan is, it is with his words that he becomes true terror. He wheedles his way into the mind. He plants manipulative seeds in the roots of the brain. We get the impression that simple things in life, become conflict for Logan. He is a tornado that sweeps up the world, tosses it around and then. The boulder gives a hint to how his story ends.

Sexy Beast is not a flashy film. For a film about gangsters it is sparse of the usual violence and hangs on tense dialogue. Glazer has filled the screen with subtle absurdities that are true of his style. They either bark forth from Kingsley’s mouth or wisp in on a dream sequence. The film is tight and concise and Winstone and Kingsley pull it off.

Themes of Cinema: Cruelty to Children


Six films.

Magnolia. Grave of the Fireflies. The Night of the Hunter. Lolita. ChinatownEmpire of the Sun.

On the surface they are each different. Family dramas. War films. Hard-boiled detective noir. But they each have a core theme that permeates the bones of the film. Cruelty to children.

For some, this is an extension of The Loss of Innocence story. In Grave of the Fireflies, the war (and loss of their mother) forces the children to grow up. To become parent figures to each other. Empire of the Sun runs a similar theme. A child separated from his parents and forced out into a horrific world. In The Night of the Hunter the two children lose their parents and set out across country. In each of these examples the children all find themselves in an adult world. Alone. All adult figures around them are indifferent to them or look down on them.

Magnolia, Lolita and Chinatown focus on a different manner of cruelty. Active cruelty. Predatory cruelty (The Night of the Hunter fits here too). Their cruelty is action rather than the absence of action. In Magnolia a father forces his child to play game-shows for cash prizes. An impersonal environment to raise a child. We see the fate of a similar character, now grown up and the lasting damage. In Lolita we see the perverse hunt of two predatory men on a young girl; a long downward spiral.

It might not be the core theme of the film, but as a theme or a sub-theme it is there.

But why? Why do we enjoy watching cruel things happen to children? Are we supposed to? Film-makers have tapped into a nerve. Watching cruel things happen to children makes our guts turn. It makes us sad. But it makes us interested. It is a conflict. And conflict makes stories.

It would be a mistake to think that the sole purpose of film is entertainment. That is one purpose. Other purposes are to make us think. To help us reflect. To provide perspective. And more. It’s not that we enjoy watching cruel things happen to children. But it resonates with us as humans because we are protective of them. This is why the scene in Under the Skin where Laura leaves the crying baby abandoned at the beach is so powerful in proving how alien she is. Because no human with conscience could do that.

It evokes emotions in us that are stronger.

The Loss of Innocence does not presuppose cruelty. Or even relate to the children. But cruelty to children is a direct relation to it. Watching children endure suffering on a road to destruction. We invest. We hope that these children will grow, become strong and withstand. When they don’t, it hurts us. And we reflect on this. We think about ourselves as a society and how we treat other people. Or, we think about the nature of harming innocence. We see struggle and hardship from a perspective that we might not relate to. And we hope that things might be better. And maybe we become better for thinking this.

Bottle Rocket (1996)
May 27, 2015, 8:26 am
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Bottle Rocket (1996)
Directed by: Wes Anderson

Bottle Rocket is the first film by Wes Anderson. He has come a long way since. Bottle Rocket has none of the signature charm or visual style that came later. The obsessive symmetry is not noticeable here. But the film does serve to show how Anderson has evolved as a writer/director. It does have dysfunctional characters putting themselves into wild situations (or not so wild).

The film opens with Dignan (Wilson) breaking Anthony (Wilson) out of a mental hospital. A volunteer mental hospital where the patients are free to leave. The two then pull off a burglary. A burglary of Anthony’s own house. They are the masterminds of unnecessary crime.

Though it isn’t all for nothing. The two characters are building up to the big-time. It is all for practice, and all to impress a local crime organisation. The middle third of the film becomes a little confused. The character’s go on the run after pulling off a local library heist. The film slacks into a romance. Like most of the film’s internal crimes, it is unnecessary. It meanders, but comes together again for the end.

With such a low budget, everything rides on the script. Everything rides on the performances of the Wilson brothers. It rides on dialogue. Bottle Rocket is a great low-budget first film. But it pales in comparison to everything Anderson did after.

Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
May 26, 2015, 10:03 am
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Grave of the Fireflies (1988)
Directed by: Isao Takahata

It is rare to find a film that hurts the heart in as direct a manner as Grave of the Fireflies. There are films that bait emotion. And then there are films that provoke genuine heartbreak. Grave is the latter. It is heartbreaking. I think it is the saddest film I have ever seen. And it is a true story.

Grave of the Fireflies is an animated film that tells the story of two young children. It takes place in Japan at the end of the second world war. After losing their mother to a bombing raid, the two children move in with their Aunt. They stay for a while, but the Aunt fills them with guilt and makes them feel a burden. She sells off the belongings of the children’s mother for rice, but keeps most of it for herself. She berates the children for not contributing to the war effort and begrudges feeding them. So they leave, becoming homeless and living in a hillside bomb shelter.

But there is no illusion of hope for the children. The film opens with the death of the oldest child, Seita. Before the opening credits roll, we see his spirit reunited with his younger sister. We know how it ends before it even starts. Yet the film takes it’s time to wrap around to this ending. It is lingering on moments of true beauty between these two children. And in these slow lingering shots we watch them succumb to hunger and malnutrition.

There is a beautiful scene where the children collect fireflies and use them to light the cave where they sleep. The next morning Seita finds his sister burying the dead flies. “Why must fireflies die so young?” she asks. We ask the same question.

The most painful of all is the feeling that all the while, this tragedy could be prevented. If the people who surrounded the two children were a little more caring, maybe they would have lived. But it becomes about pride and about self preservation. For Seita, he could never return to his Aunt. An apology to her might have saved them. But pride prevented it. Seita tried to carve out a personal heaven in the hillside cave, but it became a tomb instead.

That being said. You can’t begrudge a child their naiveté. But you can begrudge every adult who showed no care for them. To the world, these children are nuisances, thieves, burdens. Even those who show slight compassion do nothing to help. Their inaction condemns these children to death.

Grave of the Fireflies is a war film. But it is not a film about war. It’s not about politics. It’s not even about soldiers or the military. It is about the impact that war has on innocent people. It is a beautiful, painful, emotional masterpiece.