Criterion Month Day 7: Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory (1957)

Is there another director who has made as many powerfully antiwar movies as Stanley Kubrick? Paths of Glory joins Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket (and to some extent Spartacus and Barry Lyndon) in the Kubrickian canon of films that fight back against the idea that war can be noble, justified, or heroic. Even the picture’s title is a bitterly ironic reference to Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” And for all that, Paths of Glory was brushed aside in 1957, failing to garner even a single Academy Award nomination, in part due to the popularity of The Bridge on the River Kwai.
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Criterion Month Day 6: Rififi

Rififi (1955)

I can’t imagine writing a heist movie. Really, any sort of movie that is more plot-driven than character-based sounds hard to do, but the heist might be the hardest in this style. Because with a heist, you know the stakes: Clive Owen is going to rob that bank, George Clooney and Brad Pitt are going to rob that casino, Vin Diesl and Paul Walker are going to rob that Brazilian crime lord. Therefore it’s entirely how they do it that keeps you invested in the picture. That requires genuine cleverness, because if our characters are too good or their solutions too far-fetched, it drains all suspense away and you end up with… I don’t know, Armored?
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Criterion Month Day 4: Tokyo Story

Tokyo Story (1953)

Happy 4th of July everyone! Now in the spirit of my feelings toward America these days, I will proceed to not talk about America, but instead talk about a film that is incredibly Japanese.

It’s an odd coincidence that I saw the upcoming A Ghost Story at the Seattle International Film Festival the same week I watched Tokyo Story for the first time. Not so much because the films are super similar to each other (though the looming specter of death does play a big part in both of them), but more because they both furthered my appreciation of the 4:3 aspect ratio. Now, I feel like for cinephiles like myself that came of age during the wonky transitional period from VHS to DVD (and also the ubiquity of widescreen across all mediums), 4:3 has a bit of a stigma attached to it. Continue reading

Criterion Month Day 2: The Passion Of Joan Of Arc

The Passion Of Joan Of Arc (1928)

Film is a visual medium. This is an idea that I’ve heard repeated time and time again (certainly when I was in film school), and it’s also one I’ve taken with a grain of salt, since you could make the case that film as a medium evokes all the senses. Well, except touch, and taste, and smell… and… ok now I’m realizing film is mainly an audio-visual experience. But I suppose I’m just contemplating this idea, because my viewing of Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion Of Joan Of Arc relied on visuals and visuals alone, to evoke the feeling of immense dread and guilt that the film embodies. Continue reading

A Death In The Family

Manchester By The Sea

I’ve been sitting on writing this review of Manchester By The Sea for about a week now, probably because it’s the kind of film that captures and conjures up the kinds of feelings that are a little hard to talk about, let alone write about.  There’s a scene late in the film that pretty brilliantly illustrates this, as the two characters played by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams stand there in the harsh New England cold, trying to put into words the inner emotional pain they’ve inflicted on each other, but also the deep understanding of what they’ve both gone through.  And they can’t.  They’re just standing there, blubbering in the snow, trying to make cohesive sentences, while realizing that some painful subjects are beyond something as simple as mere words.

If you hadn’t guessed already, the painful subject I’m talking about here is grief.  Grief that comes out of a brother’s death, as Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) gets the news that his more upstanding brother Joe (Kyle Chandler in another case of an actor playing a character with the same last name) has died.  A lot of the movie from there on out deals with a lot of the minutia that comes in the wake of a family member’s death – the visits to the morgue, the dolling out of wills, etc.  But most importantly it deals with Lee’s relationship with Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and Lee’s internal struggle over the fact that Joe unexpectedly put it in his will for Lee to become Patrick’s legal guardian.

I don’t want to get into spoilers too much, but another big component of this story’s devastating nature is its use of flashbacks, in which we get to see more of Joe and Lee’s relationship as well as Lee’s own personal struggles.  And I think a huge part of this movie’s unblinking humanity is the way it slowly doles out exactly what has made Lee the man he is.  Because at first it’s hard not to see him has anything more than a schmuck – he picks random barfights, he doesn’t have much ambition outside of his janitorial job, while he seems extremely reluctant to get involved in any of the family drama that has been placed on his doorstep in the wake of his brother’s death.

But I think if there’s anything this movie proves, it’s that you can never really know a person just based on your own surface-level impressions of them.  Everyone has a past, filled with all kinds of messy emotions that have shaped them in ways that you have no way of gleaning just from a conversation with them.  And as we get to see Lee’s story and the emotional ramifications of his own personal consequences, we not only learn to understand why he’s such a schmuck, but also learn to feel a deep amount of empathy and forgiveness for his schmuck-iness.  Needless to say, it’s the kind of material that easily could’ve been sappy or manipulative in lesser hands, but writer/director Kenneth Lonergan handles this story with the kind of tone and craft that, to use the adjective that a lot of people have been using in regard to Manchester By The Sea, is pretty masterful.

But a big part of this film’s masterful tone is that it has the common sense to not just dwell on the more tragic elements of this story.  The film uses lots of little touches of humor while often dwelling on these relatably mundane moments that pop up in between these characters trying to make sense of their circumstances.  And for that reason, even despite the story’s heavy subject matter, it’s the kind of film I could see myself watching again at some point.  I know many would probably consider this a “one timer”, but I feel like Manchester By The Sea gives plenty to chew on, and maybe even something to learn about finding the light in a big old sea of darkness.

The War of Bucky Aggression

Captain America: Civil War

You’ve heard enough of TV’s golden age, the period starting probably with The Sopranos in which suddenly there were too many great shows to watch. It’s gotten to the point where some people say TV has surpassed movies, especially when it comes to comedies and dramas, while cinema has become obsessed with franchises and blockbusters. I don’t really think it’s as simple as that narrative, but it is definitely something to be aware of as Marvel Cinematic Universe begins Phase 3 with Captain America: Civil War, the best episode of the MCU Show yet.

This year has given us several takes on the superhero in-fighting genre; Marvel did it itself a few months ago with the second season of Daredevil, which pitted The Man Without Fear against The Punisher. That was an ideological battle, with Punisher believing that Daredevil’s belief in redemption really just gives criminals more opportunity to hurt people, and Daredevil arguing Punisher killing villains makes him no different from them. It was good. Also there was Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was more obsessed with how the fight between those two titans would play out than why such a fight would ever happen. It was bad. Civil War is closer to Daredevil, thankfully.

It’s been a recurring criticism of Marvel movies that they do a great job fleshing out the main characters and a terrible job making villains interesting, so it figures one of their best villains would be the original MCU hero, Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.). After another Avengers-caused disaster, the governments of the world demand that superheroes register with a UN-run agency or retire. Tony Stark becomes the face of the pro-registration movement, and many of the Avengers join him, but Captain America’s (Chris Evans) justifiable skepticism stops him from signing, and the ill-timed reappearance of the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) quickly leads to Cap and those that side with him ending up on the wrong side of the law.

Seeing heroes fight each other is dumb. So the movie has to earn it, and the ideological battle here is a good one. Ever since Man of Steel, if not earlier, audiences have been concerned about the collateral damage of super heroics. One of the best aspects of Age of Ultron was that it showed the Avengers work just as hard trying to save people as they did fighting the bad guy. The debate of accountability also fits the character arcs of both Cap and Iron Man. Over four movies, we watched Steve Rogers become disenfranchised – we know he doesn’t feel like he quite fits in the 21st Century, and even though he started out as literally a soldier, he doesn’t trust organizations anymore after seeing how corrupt SHIELD was. On the other hand, over his five movies, we saw Tony Stark go from the rebel who gave the finger to the board at his company and congress, to a man constantly beaten down by his hubris. He was already dealing with intense PTSD before Ultron, now the guilt of that is destroying him. The soldier becomes the rebel, the rebel becomes the soldier, and it all absolutely fits these characters.

It’s also great that the movie shows the Avengers really don’t want to fight each other. They strongly disagree, but in the big six-on-six battle, it’s made obvious nobody really wants to hurt each other. The most heated parts of that battle are based on misunderstandings and mistakes. And the final battle, which is real, is justified by heightened, compromised emotions. It’s the part of the movie that worked least well for me, especially since the epilogue has one character tell the other that there are no hard feelings.

What I’m trying to tell you is that Civil War does everything Batman v. Superman failed to do, and it does it effortlessly. A believable, meaningful fight between the rich, technology boy and the blue boy scout? Pretty much nailed it. A meddling human who’s masterminding the whole thing? They give us Zemo (Daniel Brühl) an ultimately unnecessary but still interesting villain. An expansion of the cinematic universe by adding new heroes? We get Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) a badass warrior king who learns a lesson about the price of vengeance and MF’n Spider-Man (Tom Holland), a briefly shown, delightful guest in the fray.

Most importantly, the movie is still fun. Juggling this many characters is hard, what’s even harder is making sure each character seems cool, tough, and funny. The Russos pulled that off somehow, as every damn character in this movie felt like they belonged. Yes, even Don Cheadle’s War Machine. It’s an amazing feat, at it only came at the cost of the movie not really feeling like a movie. This is just part of the story of these characters, a film akin to (but more satisfying than) something like The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 in its absence of a beginning and lack of a true ending. Welcome to the new age, movies aren’t movies anymore. You either going to love that or hate that. Time to pick a side.

Retrospecticus: Kanye West

Have you heard Kanye West’s new album yet?  Well, since no one but millionaires and people who love millionaires (which probably isn’t the demographic of this site) are the only people who use Tidal — the only platform the album is available on right now — I’m guessing the answer is probably “no”.  So before you figure out some other way of downloading The Life Of Pablo that doesn’t involve Tidal, let’s take a look back at the impressive collection of albums Kanye has put out thus far, and perhaps remind ourselves why we fell in love with this brash knucklehead in the first place.

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