Top Ten of 2010

Posted in Uncategorized on January 12, 2011 by anubhavbist

It’s that time of the year again when film enthusiasts reflect on the year that was and compile a list honoring the best of the best. But in the end, its all subjective and one of the best parts of “ten best” lists is to argue about them. So, it goes without saying, that the ten I’ve picked are films that have had a lasting effect on me but ones that I personally feel push the medium further as an art-form. But before I list my selection, I feel obligated to talk about other films that have caught my attention this year. This includes films that just missed the cut and others that were interesting (and sometimes disappointing) misfires. One of these films is Abbas Kiarostami’s first non-Iranian film, Certified Copy (Copie conforme). Described as Kiarostami’s most convention film to date, but the film is still fascinating and experimental. At first it would appear as if the legendary director was channeling Richard Linklater (think Before Sunset and Sunrise), but as the film progresses characters begin to change, making it’s viewer question whether they are revealing their true selves or hiding behind a persona. It was one of the best films I’ve seen this year and its probably my choice for the 11th spot (though I almost want to tie it with my number ten). Another favorite of the year was Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew (Hai shang chuan qi), a film that underwhelmed many of the critics who saw it at the Cannes Film Festival but impressed me. Beautifully shot and heart warming interviews made it one of the most unforgettable documentaries in recent years. Hopefully it will get a wide enough US release in 2011 so other film enthusiasts could weigh in. Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men (Des hommes et des dieux), however, won a lot of acclaim at the festival (winning the Grand Prix) and deservingly so. Its a magnificent and subtle film that just missed my list.

This year also saw the release of very highly anticipated films which I hoped would end up on my list. One film that shouldn’t surprise many reading is Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan; I know I’m not alone when I say that this was sort of a disappointment. While I enjoyed aspects of the film (the background ballet scenes, the wonderful hand-held camera movements, the many good performances) but the film is ultimately undone by Aronofsky. Black Swan begins to lose all subtlety after we see Natalie Portman hallucinate and turn into a swan. Had Aronofsky resisted his urges to allude to is his favorite horror films (Ex: Suspiria, Repulsion, The Fly) and to revert back to his old overtly surrealist visual tricks. I could have actually seen Black Swan reach the level of a brilliant psychological horror film like David Cronenberg’s 1988 masterpiece Dead Ringers, but instead it will remain a very fascinating misfire. I think the film is good enough to maybe grow on me in the future but when compared to his last two films (the brilliant and underrated The Fountain and his magnum opus The Wrestler) it’s a huge disappointment. I could also include Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere on that list. While I admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Coppola’s films (I like Lost in Translation but I don’t put it on the pedestal that others do), I can at least tell that she is talented and capable of creating a masterpiece. Somewhere, while it won the Venice Film Festival’s prestigious Golden Lion, is not that masterpiece. While it features solid performances, it fails because you get the feeling that Coppola is trying too hard to be like the filmmakers she admires (something one could say the same about Black Swan). I’ve heard on many occasions (including her Academy Award acceptance speech) where Coppola mention her love of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Wong Kar Wai, and I guess it’s evident in Somewhere (and some of her other films). The problem is that her films don’t even come close to showing the emotional depth and sadness of those who she admires. Another film that sort of falls in this category is the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. Its a film that I really did enjoy and one that has grown on me since the last time I watched it. Its filled with wonderful performances (especially newcommer Hailee Steinfeld who steals the film) and offers everything one expects from a fun film. Maybe the only thing that disappoints me about this is that it falls short to their other great films, including their masterful A Serious Man which I thought was the best film of last year and the best the Coen Brothers have ever directed.

With all that out of the way, I think it’s best I just reveal the list…

1o. Shutter Island – dir. Martin Scorsese; US

Scorsese’s Hitchcock homage Shutter Island is a film that was made for people who love movies. Its a film that divided most critics and film fans, but I thought it deserves to be recognized as one of the strongest of the year. Personally its my favorite from the great director in the last ten years (far more interesting the Oscar friendly Gangs of New York, Aviator, and The Departed). Adapting from Dennis Lehane’s pulp detective novel, Scorsese fuses elements of  both classic suspense thrillers and modern crime films (with a dash of psychological thriller) to create one of the best films of the year.

9. Poetry (Shi) – dir. Lee Chang-dong; South Korea

Lee Chang-dong has been getting a lot praise for his film Secret Sunshine this year, which had come out in 2007 but released in the States in 2010 (which is why it wasn’t on this list), but Poetry is no slouch. This is a wonderful film that proves that South Korea is producing some of the greatest filmmakers and films in the world. Last year, Park Chan-wook  and Bong Joon-ho made two incredible films (Thirst and Mother were both in my top 5 in 2009) and now it’s Lee Chan-dong time to shine. Poetry in a way is very much like Joon-ho’s Mother; Both are moral tales which showcase the talent of their veteran lead actresses (Jeong-hie Yun delivers a great performance). While  is not the stylist that Joon-ho is, but Chang-dong masterfully handles material with subtly. This is a great film.

8. Toy Story 3 – Lee Unkich; US

Toy Story 3 was probably the most popular film of the year and it’s not surprising. Its final installment to one of, if not, the most loved and successful animated film franchises ever. The first Toy Story was a monumental achievement for animated features and one of the best films of the 90s and the sequel was just as widely lauded (though not by this reviewer). Combine that with the fact that Pixar had already hit critical and financial gold with their last three pictures (Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up each won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, with the latter being nominated for Best Picture) and the thought of a third Toy Story was enough to garner anyone’s (die-hard film lover or not) attention. And with such lofty expectations, its so reassuring to see that the film deliver. This might be the best film Pixar has produced since the original Toy Story started it all back in 95.

7. Film Socialsme – dir. Jean-Luc Godard; France/Switzerland

I could make a very strong argument that Jean-Luc Godard’s status as a great filmmaker wasn’t solidified by the work he produced in the 60s, during the height of the New Wave, but his experimentation from the decades since. Godard has produced so many polarizing films, each helping to push the art-form. The last decade alone has shown some of the filmmaker’s most daring works, the height being his 2001 masterpiece In Praise of Love (Éloge de l’amour). Film Socialisme continues the Godard’s experimentation with the medium being the first of his films to be shot on HD Video (though he has experimented with digital format since his 1975 film Numéro deux). While I won’t say this is the best of Godard’s films from this century nor is it a perfect one. But the film’s first segment, taking place on a cruise ship, is as good as anything the Godard has ever filmed. Its good enough to overlook a rather slow second segment. The film’s final segment is a brilliant video montage that is nothing less than brilliant. While that might sound like I’m praising  2/3 of great film (and in a way it might be), the best parts of Godard’s Film Socialisme are worth it. This is a film that I can’t wait to view again.

6. Carlos – dir. Olivier Assayas; France/Germany

No art house film this year has been more critically acclaimed than Assayas’ Carlos. It was number one on Film Comment’s end of the year poll and finished number two (behind the Social Network) on the Village Voice Film Poll. A 5 1/2 hour film that makes you forget it’s time length and a center piece performance (from Édgar Ramirez) that is easily the best male performance of the year. On the surface Carlos might look like a toss up to Lean’s grandiose epics from the 60s (in the way Che was) but really the film shares more with the intelligent crime thrillers of the New Hollywood movement (think something like the Godfather or even Dog Day Afternoon). This is a film that is destined to be an instant classic.

5. Honey – dir. Semih Kaplanglu; Turkey/Germany

Honey, the third of Kaplanglu’s Yusef trilogy (after Milk and Egg), is nothing if not a masterpiece. A beautiful coming of age story that made me think of Ray’s masterpiece Pather Panchali and Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive. Winner of the Berlin Film Festival (awarded by a jury headed by the great Werner Herzog), the film doesn’t disappoint. Its filled with so many beautiful moments and takes it’s time to show us (not tell us) Yusef’s life. Its a small film but a memorable one and filmmaking at its best.

4. My Joy (Schastye moe) – dir. Sergei Loznitsa; Ukraine/Germany/Netherlands

When I saw Hunger a couple years ago, I remember telling everyone I knew that Steve McQueen has established himself as the most talented new filmmaker of the decade. In hindsight it might be a little premature to make such a statement, at least until McQueen’s follow-up, Shame, is released. But how could you blame me? Hunger was debut for the ages and was one of the best films of the decade. After watching My Joy, I feel myself wanting to say the same about Sergei Loznitsa. His debut is just as deserving of attention, but most American critics won’t see it (like most of the films on this list) until later this year. This is a dark allegory that examines the history of violence rooted in the soil of Russia. The best way to describe it is as an endless nightmare. Its a film that is bleak, and at times almost absurd, but its a film that will surely stir up some discussions.

3. Tuesday, After Christmas (Marti, dupa craciun) – dir. Radu Muntean; Romania/France

The Romanian New Wave is still producing masterpieces, this time from Radu Muntean. Tuesday, After Christmas is not only one of the most heartbreaking portraits of a marriage falling apart, but one of the greatest Christmas films ever. But this film shows the holiday for what it really is; nothing more than a holiday celebrating consumerism. But that is secondary. The centerpiece is an intense domestic drama that is handled so perfectly. Its also a showcase for great acting as the director lets scenes play out, without any cuts. This ranks among the greatest films the Romanian New Wave has produced.

2. The Ghost Writer – dir. Roman Polanski; UK/France/Germany

The Ghost Writer is no less of an achievement than Polanski’s own Chinatown from 1974. This is a film that works on so many levels: a fun pulp conspiracy theory thriller, a send up to the great suspense classics (much like Shutter Island), a political satire, or even a personal parable to the director’s recent troubles. But above all else, its an incredibly entertaining film; the rare kind of gem that can appeal to both the art house lover and the causal film goer. With incredible performances from a talented case (especially Pierce Brosnan and Olivia Williams) and Polanski creating an eerie paranoid atmosphere (a Polanski trademark), it hard not view this as one of the best films of the year.

1. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee raleuk chat) – dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul;Thailand/Germany/Spain/France/UK

While Polanski’s The Ghost Writer made an excellent case for best film of the year, I just couldn’t recognize it as such. Apichatpong Weerasethkul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives just had too much going for it. A great piece of filmmaking that best personifies why I love film. Combining aspects of avant-garde filmmaking, Thai folk lore, absurdist humor, strange creatures, and political defiance, Weerasethkul presents his viewer with what could be the most euphoric 113 minutes any film could possibly wish to offer. We follow the final days of Uncle Boonmee, as he spends them with his sister-in-law and family friend while mysterious spirits come to communicate with him. I feel like telling more but I just want the world to go out and watch it for themselves (that is when it gets its official release in the States). I don’t expect to see a better film in a while.

Metanoia needs help

Posted in Uncategorized on November 29, 2010 by anubhavbist

 

Metanoia Poster Art

It’s not often that I put up a post that isn’t a film review but this is going to be one of those posts. Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working as an assistant director for an independent film project. Its called Metanoia and we’ve are still in pre-production. We have set up an Indiegogo account to hopefully raise funds and are in need for donations. Below you’ll find the link to the Indiegogo page (where you can also watch our promotional video with the film crew) and the film’s website (runs by yours truly). Than you and we’d be very appreciative for your help.

IndieGoGo:

http://www.indiegogo.com/metanoiaRVA?a=57251&i=addr

Metanoia website:

http://metanoiafilm.wordpress.com/

F for Fake

Posted in Uncategorized on November 16, 2010 by anubhavbist

Orson Welles in F for Fake

Whenever discussing Orson Welles’ final masterpiece, F for Fake, I’m reminded of the great Dutch painter Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, his great painting the Polish Rider, and one of his contemporaries, the lesser-known Willem Drost. The Polish Rider is fascinating late work from Rembrandt and has been a topic of discussion among many art historians. It depicts a man dressed in what appears to be a Polish garment riding on a horse that is even suggested by some to be a Polish breed. But aside from that, little else is really known of this wonderful piece: the identity of the rider, the intentions of the piece itself, or even the historical context. Many have debated over the years but the questions remain unanswered and may most likely remain that way forever. But of all the mysteries that surround this work, the one that sticks out the most; Whether or not the work should be attributed to the great Dutch painter. Around the 80s, many art historians have found inconsistencies with the painting and have even theorized that another artist might have had a hand in the work also. The other artist that is always mentioned to have been the “other hand” in the painting is Willem Drost, one of Rembrandt’s contemporaries and most talented pupils. The interesting part about this is that this wasn’t the first time Drost’s works have been mistaken for a Rembrandt or any other artist. While his name and place in history may be far more obscure, Drost’s work have made their way into a number of important collection during the 18th and 19th centuries; Sadly, most of the times they were under different names. His painting “The Prophetss Anna Instructing a Child” was part of the great french art collector, Pierre Crozat’s, collection, under the name of, who else, Rembrandt van Rijn. This would happen again and again in for Drost’s works, his “Portrait of a Young Woman with her Hands Folded on a Book” was also to Rembrandt; his “Bust of a Man wearing a Large-Brimmed Beret” would be mistaken for Rembrandt-pupil, Gerbrandt ver den Eeckhout; his “Man with a Plumed Red Beret” was attributed to the High Renaissance painter Giorgione and then to Rembrandt. Butt even with the speculation of Drost’s involvement in the Polish Rider being more of an accepted theory, the painting won’t be attributed to him. Only Rembrandt. Drost will never be as appreciated as some of the great artist and his place in history might never even be highlighted. Yet behind the names of other artists, his work not only survived but also had been renowned and lauded by art historians and enthusiasts for almost over 300 years before he was actually credited. This brings up the question of whether or not Drost’s paintings could have survived with his own name?

While the answer to that remains hypothetical, one can’t say the same for Elmyr de Hory, one of the subjects of Welles’ film. The famous art forger who gained notoriety for his work from the mid-40s to 60s found his way to museums and art collections also under the names of artists far more famous than him. The irony of it all is that Elmyr became a big art phenomenon because of this. His forgeries of Matisse, Modigliani and Renoir were pitch perfect and soon enough he would reach a celebrity status. Elmyr attracted the attention of French filmmaker François Reichenbach. Elmyr’s story was fascinating to say the least and combined with the art forger’s off beat and grandiose personality, Reichenbach saw enough to make a documentary. Sadly it never came to fruition and all that was leftover footage of an unfinished portrait. Soon after Welles salvaged what was left of Reichenbach’s film, but rather than actually finishing the work, he set out to make another type of film all together; one that doesn’t exactly fit any real genre specification.

In Welles’ film, however, Elmyr ceases to become the center of attention, taking a backseat to his biographer, his documentor, the mysterious beauty Oja Kodar, Howard Hughes, and Welles himself. Right from the film’s opening, the first person the audience sees is Orson Welles, proudly proclaiming himself a charlatan through narration, performing a magic trick to a child in a train station, and all the while telling us that there is no symbolic gesture to it. In the background, we see François Reichenbach and his film crew capturing the whole event, demonstrating Welles’ love for self-conscious filmmaking. A filmmaker taking on the persona of “the magician” was hardly a new connection, dating back to as long as George Méliès’ editing experiments from the turn of the century (ex. Illusions Fantasmagoriques or Le Magicien). Yet it still perfectly demonstrates, in the most literal sense, what Welles’ film is about: fakery. The beginning sequence is very much a visual thesis statement, perfectly stating his argument through the art of an illusion. But by acknowledging this, I’m also categorizing Welles’ film as a film essay, which may the most widely accepted opinion of the film as far as genres go. Welles’ film, while in a way a documentary, shares little with what one expects from the genre. Welles’ refusal to follow convention has always lifted his films to another level and F for Fake is no exception.

The film in itself feels controlled chaos, with Welles’ focus constantly changing on subject but all the time connecting all of them in a coherent manner. But it all begins where Reichenbach leaves off and that’s with Elmyr. We see footage of him at his most extravagant, throwing lavish parties, hanging among socialites (one whom is Welles) while we see Reichenbach interviewing the great forger and others, the most prevalent being his biographer Clifford Irvin. Irvin’s anaylsis and ultimately negative views on art critics, or “experts” is rather convincing when he shows a catalog to an art museum consisting of a Modigliani done by Elmyr. Elymr’s own knowledge of the meticulous details of each artist he replicates is rather impressive and its hard not to be watching him boast in front of the camera. But it’s Irvin’s reactions to the painter as well as his fascination with his achievements that capture Welles’ attention. Welles then, in his narration, goes through Irvin’s biography of Elmyr ‘FAKE’: “A story about faker, written by faker.” This was of course in reference to Irvin’s infamous Howard Hughes fake autobiography scandal, which Welles’ also dives into. Its from there where the next character of the film, the billionaire tycoon, Hollywood producer, avid aviator, and national enigma, Howard Hughes. It’s when describing Hughes that Welles’ explores a strange connection; not to him particularly, though both were rebellious icons of the old Hollywood era, but to his most popular character, Charles Foster Kane. Welles, along with his friend and fellow actor Joseph Cotton and producer Richard Wilson, recount how it was originally going to be Howard Hughes’ life that would be the model for Kane before they eventually went with William Randolph Hearst. Cotton discusses how he would have played the lead had they had chosen Hughes, who resemblances the man more than DiCaprio did in the Aviator. Wilson also interestingly makes a point by saying: “who could possibly believe that someone like Howard Hughes could have ever existed?” Yet as far as characters goes for Orson Welles films, Hughes fits right in among the complex, larger than life enigmas like Gregory Arkadin, Hank Quinlan, the Advocate, and of course, Charles Foster Kane. Welles, also, can’t help making parallels between Hughes and Kane as evident by him creating a fake newsreel about Hughes and starting it with title “News on the March” (the same fictitious newsreel opening he gave to Kane in the beginning of Citizen Kane).

From Hughes, Welles then focuses on a section for another charlatan; himself. Welles takes time to go through his past as a poor American artist traveling through Europe as well as his infamous war of the worlds broadcast. It all leads up to the films most memorable scene and easily one of the great moments in film history: Welles reciting his ode to Cathedral of Chartres, a monumental piece of art and architecture that has stood for centuries without any signature. Welles deconstructs the whole idea of authorship and to only view the art. As he says in the end of his monologue:

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’ Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

Welles’ passionate speech is saying so much more than just of Elmyr’s work or Irving’s book or fraud and art in general. “I am a charlatan,” Welles tells us in the beginning and we as an audience could assume many things of what he really means. Maybe it was his background as a magician or even his War of the Worlds hoax. But as we see the image of the Cathedral of Chartres, framed in the same way as Xanadu, its hard not to think back to Citizen Kane again. Oddly no other film from Welles’ canon is as self-referential. So often in the film, Welles reminds us of Citizen Kane. In a film as meticulously constructed as F fr Fake, we know that this can’t be just coincidental. The film came out a few years after Pauline Kael’s infamous article, Raising Kane. In it, Kael argues about the authorship of the screenplay of Citizen Kane by saying that the sole writer of the film was actually Herman Mankiewicz rather than Welles. The actual script writer for Kane has always been in question, with more and more siding with Mankiewicz over the years. Mankiewicz had even gone to the Screen Writers Guild to try to have him be the sole writer for the film. Interestingly when the film was released and nominated for the Oscars, many voters in the Academy, supposedly, weren’t very taken by the young Welles. It is often believed that this was the reason that the film only won one Academy Award for writing; the one area, Frank Mankiewicz (the son of the screen writer) says, where Welles didn’t actually didn’t have a hand in. But of course, the “Best Original Screenplay” was the only Academy Award, aside from the Lifetime Achievement Award (which Welles never accepted), the great director ever won.

But was Mankiewicz’s fate similar to that of Willem Drost? His name in history will forever be mentioned second to Welles when discussing Citizen Kane, as Drost will always take a backseat to Rembrandt when discussing the Polish Rider. In many ways, some could make the same assessment for Reichenbach, who one could easily argue is deserving of a co-director spot on the film. In the end Welles questions the worth of an artist’s name; as time passes on, it will be lost in the dirt while the work forever lives on. This was the case for Willem Drost’s works, but who would have known how he would have reacted knowing what had happened to his works three centuries after his death. Would he have been grateful for that fact that his painting have survived the obstacles of time, or would he have been disappointed about how little he is remembered in contrast to some of his contemporaries? One could assume a little of both but the real answer will, obviously, forever be left blank. In the last act of Welles’ film, he acts out a story, with the help of his muse Oja Kodar, of an encounter between the great painter Pablo Picasso and a mysterious art forger. Welles, behind the persona of the art forger, tells us that he must believe that art itself must be real. In the end, Welles suggests art must become its own life form, separating itself from its maker. Even if Rembrandt didn’t sign the Polish Rider or if Citizen Kane didn’t have a credit sequence, they would still be considered the highest example of their art forms.

Also during this segment, Oja Kodar says of the mysterious art forgers, “A man who never signed his own name to a picture. What could be more modest than that?” The word “modest” would probably never have been used to describe either about Irving or Elmyr. Elmyr committed suicide two years after the film released and Irving served 17 months in prison for his Howard Hughes autobiography. Interesting since then, both figures have actually benefited through notoriety; Elmyr’s forgeries have become popular enough to be expensive collectibles while Irving would not only see his fake Howard Hughes autobiography actually issued for publication in the 90s but a Hollywood film made about him. I’m sure Welles would have been amused, if not proud, to see these forgeries reach the level of high art.

Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie

Posted in Uncategorized on August 12, 2010 by anubhavbist

(After a couple months of inactivity and technological difficulties, The Confidential Report is back with a new review. I apologize for the long absence.)

The final helicopter shot of the burning remains of Wyatt’s motorcycle, after having just taken a shot from a shotgun shell, presents the tragic end to the two rebellious biker’s bizarre odyssey. Its an abrupt conclusion that is a kind of paradox; it’s both out of place yet fitting. When first experiencing Dennis Hopper’s greatly influential and important debut, a viewer (as I was) might be a little perplexed by such a violent and unexpected finale. How could Wyatt and Billy’s, the two film’s two protagonists, journey to find America end like that? On such a somber and sad note, making all that we’ve sit through just about irrelevant. But of course, it’s this abrupt end that best sums up the counter-culture movement that the characters represent; a generation that never truly found what they were looking for. Much like how Hunter S. Thomason recalled his days during the height of counter culture movement of the 60s in his nostalgic”wave speech” in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hopper tries to make sense of what it is these people were exactly trying to find during this era and why it was important. But in hindsight, the tragic and sudden end could also be looked at as a sort foreshadowing of Hopper’s own end as a New Hollywood filmmaker.

After the great actor/auteur/artist’s tragic death earlier this month, many obituaries given about the man often labeled him as a “great actor” and “maverick director.” Both are deserving titles for him, but it’s the latter that has often been the harder one of the two to defend. Anytime Hopper as been called a “maverick director,” more times than not, Easy Rider is the only film mentioned and to many critics, film historians, and film enthusiasts,  the only one worth mentioning. In may ways, Easy Rider alone would be enough to solidify Hopper as a maverick director. The film’s importance cant be understated; it (along with Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde) help bring about the New Hollywood era of the 70s and early 80s in the same way Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless did for the French New Wave or Alexander Kluge’s Yesterday Girl did for the German New Cinema. But it’s often forgotten that Hopper’s directorial career did live past his debut, and while it was one that never matched the height of Easy Rider and had it’s share of forgettable genre films, Hopper was still able to create fascinating features.  The Last Movie, his sophomoric effort, is one of these films.

After the surprise success Easy Rider, Universal Pictures gave Dennis Hopper a budget of one million and final cut for his next production; a film based on a script by Hopper and Devil Without a Cause scribe, Stewart Stern. The project was viewed as one of the most anticipated of the 70s and looked to meet those lofty expectation when winning the Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival. But when the film reached New York, the film failed both critically and financially. As a result The Last Movie has had a reputation of being a notorious sophomoric misstep, one drastic enough to halt Hopper’s young directorial career throughout the 70s (the height of New Hollywood).

But after almost 40 years, the film plays less like a obscure piece of American film history but more like an ignored masterpiece that still being overlooked. But this isn’t a surprise since The Last Movie is anything but a conventional Hollywood film, a fact that the audience knows right from the film’s bizarre opening sequence. Beginning first with, what we the audience can only assume to be a parade, watched by a beaten down, confused Hopper (whose face is almost unrecognizable due to unexplained bruises), taking place somewhere south of the border. A hoard of people (all of whom look of of Spanish decent) look to be carrying large items someplace; but one item in particular draws our eyes: a statue of Christ (with a somber facial expression) on his knees , looking very expressive and unreal (almost like a baroque sculpture). In one shot we see the battered Hopper looking at the statue and wonder whether there supposed be a correlation between the two. But as these questions enter the viewers head, Hopper decides to transport us to a whole new scene, one taking place in the old west. What happens next is a violent take-no-prisoners gunfight reminiscent of the opening to Peckinpah’s masterpiece Wild Bunch. Once this the bloodshed ends we are transported again to Denis Hopper, posing heroically on a horse with a white cowboy hat and a denim attire resembling the Marlboro Man (or maybe even Jacques-Louis David’s famous portrait of Napoleon at the Saint-Bernard Pass). This all takes place in a span of maybe 10 minutes, and it goes without saying that it is an unnerving, confusing, frustrating, but none the less fascinating ten minutes.

This may be the key to Hopper’s great film. All these moments are all from the same story but are deliberately place out of order; even by the film’s end, the viewer might not be able to piece the scenes together in their chronological order. This style of presenting the narrative in non-linear fragments isn’t exactly used as a plot device as in films like Memento or Irreversible, but to create a sort of cinematic stream of consciousness (not unlike the way Stan Brakhage experimented with editing in his films). It’s also reminiscent to William S. Burroughs’ avant garde cut-up technique, used for his post-Naked Lunch books, most notably his Nova Trilogy (interestingly enough, Burroughs, with the help of Antony Balch, did experiment with the technique in film and the results d0 come surprisingly close to moments in The Last Movie).

The plot of the film is however decipherable; it follows Kansas (Hopper), a horse wrangler/stunt coordinator, working on a set of a Billy the Kid western being filmed in an unnamed Peruvian village. Here we see cameos from fellow Easy Rider Peter Fonda, Kris Kristofferson (who would interestingly enough play Billy the Kid for Peckinpah at the end of the decade), and maverick auteur Sam Fuller playing the director of the film within a film. The actually filming of the western looks like a fusion of making-of  featurette and a Bunuel dream sequence; it may be one of the most ingenious sequences ever directed by Hopper. But during the shooting, an actor is killed performing a stunt (which takes a serious toll on Kansas). This results in Kansas staying in the village and starting a new life with his girlfriend (a native from the Peruvian village). From here the plot of the film goes in bizarre, yet fascinating, directions which involving nothing less than gold mining, a rich businessman’s greedy family, to a fake film production, and even a sacrifice.

Hopper’s film tackles numerous themes and subjects, from self destruction through materialism to the shameless exploration of third world countries. Many of these are shown through the array characters that Kansas meets throughout the film. While Kansas’ character is, unsurprisingly, a free spirited hippie who wants to experience the beauty of his new life and environment, everyone around him seems to want something different. Kansas’ girlfriends seems almost uninterested in Kansas’ philosophy and instead would rather live a life of luxury. Often spitting out lines like, “You know what I want you should buy me? A General Electric refrigerator” or  “Just because we don’t have electricity and water doesn’t mean we don’t like to have nice things Gringo,” her consumer obsessed point of view does nothing but make life even worse for Kansas (one key scene in particular shows Kansas being humiliated by the spoiled rich woman just so he can retrieve the woman’s fur coat for his wife). Other characters include Kansas’ oblivious and greedy friend who lures him into a crackpot gold mining scheme and a wealthy vulgar businessman and his disgusting family. In some parts, The Last Movie plays like an absurdist play, with Hoppers’ Kansas as the prototypical protagonist that always seems to find himself in unfortunate situations.

But while this is happening, Hopper presents us with another storyline, one even stranger and far more profound. As Fuller’s Billy the Kid feature finishes, the film crews leaves the Peruvian village and abandons their Western set. The villagers who witnessed the filming however didn’t realize that what was taking place in front of them was actually fake (it also didn’t help that an actor actually died on set). So once the villagers got a hold of the left over sets they decided to make their own version of the film, building their equipment (cameras, mics, etc) out of straws and having each villager play a part. Of course they’re version take no prisoners, literally. This causes the village’s priest, who is shocked by the carnage taking place, to ask the help of Kansas to intervene and stop them from making the “film.” But Kansas’ attempt is unsuccessful. But as the film progresses, the whole village, including the priest and Kansas’ girlfriend, get involved with the film and capture Kansas to make him play the role of a cowboy that is to be killed (basically meaning that he is to be sacrificed against his own will for the better of their make believe film). But once this storyline reaches it’s climax and we expect to see a Wicker Man style killing, Hopper instead shifts his tone to an almost comic, with scenes looking as if they were behind the scenes footage. Its here where we see Kansas acting out his death multiple times, sometimes preforming it with a smile on his face.

This insane subplot plays perfectly as an allegory for the influence of cinema on the viewers, both negative and positive. While the villagers can’t truly deferential the difference of whats real and whats not, causing them to actually cause a lot of chaos, we also see them all truly enjoying themselves in the process of creating art. It works almost like Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive ( a masterpiece that was released around the same time), when we see the protagonist’s life be altered by watching Frankenstein. This idea is so perfectly during the film’s final scene where we see Kansas and his friend while on an expedition to dig for gold. Kansas asks him whether he has ever actually dug gold before and while his friend says no, tries to counter by mentioning the very many films he has seen on the subject (for example, John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre)

Hopper’s film is not a film for everyone and I know for a fact that my review didn’t do half the justice of truly describing how truly bizarre the film really is. But ironically it’s the film’s chaotic structure, confusing directing, and convoluted plot that repulsed most critics over the years which feels so oddly refreshing today. The Last Movie deserves to be in the category with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Vertigo as one of the few avant garde films released by Hollywood. In comparison to many masterpieces from the New Hollywood era, The Last Movie is by far the most audacious. The film’s complete lack conventionality is what makes the film so fascinating and it’s also something that most Hollywood films don’t even try to attempt anymore. This is what differentiates it from Hopper’s debut. While Easy Rider did achieve success by experimenting with a lot different film making techniques and ways to present it’s narrative, it was always structured in a way that made it easy to follow. To most this made Easy Rider the stronger film, but to some, including myself, it prevented it from achieving it’s fullest potential. The Last Movie is everything Easy Rider was afraid to fully be. There are moments in Easy Rider that are truly hypnotizing and awe inspiring like the many great scenes where Captain America and Wyatt are on their motorcycles traveling on the open road or the beautifully done acid sequence during Mardi Gras, but the film is often weakest when following it’s main plot (except when Jack Nicholson with them of course). But Easy Rider is a masterpiece nonetheless and there’s no reason The Last Movie shouldn’t be just acclaimed. But with more and more film enthusiasts re-evaluating New Hollywood box office failures like Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed, I see no reason for Hopper’s masterpiece not to be given a second chance.

(obviously the film has also suffered from it’s lack of availability to those who want to see the film, with the only home video release being an out of print VHS. To make matters worse the film was supposed to be released on DVD but with the tragic passing of Denis Hopper, who owned the rights of the film, it might take a while until we see this masterpiece get the proper home video release it deserves. But for those who haven’t seen this forgotten treasure, the film is on youtube and is separated into 12 parts; below is a link to the first part. I strongly recommend everyone to check it out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_06_lpUQpdA&feature=PlayList&p=8F17CDAF36B5E735&index=0&playnext=1 )

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

Posted in Uncategorized on July 13, 2010 by anubhavbist

One of the greatest comic book writers died today and it seems only right to say something. Above is a clip from the film American Splendor, a film adaptation of his comic book of the same name. Its one of my all time favorite films and one of my favorite all time monologues. Enjoy.

Kagemusha

Posted in Uncategorized on April 10, 2010 by anubhavbist

No director during the eighties needed second life more than Akira Kurosawa; the influential Japanese autuer, who would be 100 this year, revolutionized cinema with masterpieces from the late 40s through mid 60s  with films like Drunken Angel, Stray Dogs, Seven Samurai, and High and Low, but didn’t to seem to fair very well in decade after. With the introduction Japanese New Wave, where young talented Japanese filmmakers like Masahiro Shinoda, Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura emerging and criticizing the Japanese film generation before them (which included Kurosawa and his films), the golden age of Japanese cinema seemed to be over. Yet Kurosawa still had a few masterpieces left in him and at the start of the eighties, he proved it with the release of his great epic, Kagemusha. Too often regarded as a mere dress rehearsal to the Director’s more popular and critically acclaimed masterpiece Ran (a film most point to as the director’s comeback film), Kagemusha remains the director’s most overlooked epic.

Kurosawa tells the story of a petty criminal saved from crucifixion to take on the role of being a body double for the warlord Takeda Shingen. But after Shingen is wounded during an assassination attempt, the petty criminal must impersonate him to create the illusion to his many enemies that he is in fact healthy. Things began to get complicate as the warlord’s health worsens and asks his closest affiliates to keep up the illusion even after his death. Kurosawa doesn’t only create a powerful historical epic but a wonderful character study. The story’s protagonist belongs among some of the most fascinating of Kurosawa’s films; after reluctantly agreeing to play the role of Shingen’s shadow, he slowly becomes a mirror image of the fallen warlord. Kurosawa is able explore the idea of lost identity through the character of the impostor. Not one point in the film do we given an in depth background for the character or even a name; instead we are just shown a man who has no background but being a petty thief given a chance to be  maybe the most important figure of the clan. As we see the film progress, we see the character’s transformation progress to the point where he grows an emotional attachment to Shingen’s grandson and even where he believes he can do things that Shingen could do like taming the warlord’s wild horse. Its a difficult performance, playing both the warlord and the man who’s trying to impersonating him, but Tatsuya Nakadai, given a chance to play the lead in Kurosawa film for the first, is up for the task. Nakadai’s convincing portrayal further proves the actor deserves as much right to be considered not just with the great Japanese actors of the era like Tashiro Mifune, Chishu Ryu, and Takashi Shimura, but in contention when discussing the greatest actors who ever lived.  The way Nakadai plays him is essential because we can see through his performance how lonely the character is and how acting the role of the warlord gives him meaning. The performance of Tsutomu Yamazaki, playing Shingen’s brother and the impostor’s teacher, is also one that shouldn’t be overlooked.

Kurosawa also explores one of his favorite motifs, the duality between wealth and poverty. As he had done so with almost every one of his masterpieces from Rashomon, which not only personified by the confrontation of the poor bandit and wealth couple but through the woodcutter and his actions at the end of the film, to his early 60s crime thriller High and Low, where the relationship between the businessman and kidnapper is not motivated through a personal vendetta but of economic statues. Here we see it through the character of poor thief taking the place of the dead warlord. The obvious class difference is shown evident through the character’s early attempts to leave behind his whole life be more accustomed to the life of wealth and nobility. It’s not as deeply explored as some of Kurosawa’s gritty modern day crime films like Drunken Angel or Stray Dogs, but the motif still plays an important role in understanding the character. The big theme explored here is the idea of power: the obsession of power,  misuse of power, and war for power. Kagemusha is the only one of Kurosawa’s samurai epics to focus more on the politics of war rather than the battles of war, so you can understand how some felt disappointed by film. It lacks the brutal battle sequences we had grown to expect from Kurosawa’s films and takes it’s time telling the story.

This, however, is why the film actually appeals to me and makes me believe that Kagemusha might actually be the director’s greatest masterpiece. The film finds a fine line between being both a sophisticated look at feudal Japan clans and a well balanced character study, joining the ranks with other brilliantly crafted historical dramas like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and Visconti’s The Leopard. While Kurosawa was a filmmaker who explored the nature of violence through out his career, his films were pretty tame when compared to some of his contemporaries,  especially Kihachi Okamoto and Masaki Kobayashi (until Ran). But Kurosawa’s films often featured grandiose battle sequences that were as well choreographed as any ever put on celluloid. Yet Kagemusha never actually gives us those great battles, but instead shows us the horrified reactions and the slaughtered remains of the fallen warriors. The absence of such sequences demonstrates a more mature Kurosawa that doesn’t want to in anyway to romanticize the brutality but rather just show it. In many ways the Kagemusha also has some of the most interesting visually surreal moments of the director’s career. Aside from containing maybe the director’s most iconic dream sequence, the film also features beautiful hallucinatory colors during every scene. This is most evident as the double watches over the battles and a purplish blue flame spreads behind them, creating a powerful silhouette. Kurosawa’s use of colors to abstract reality disproves the idea that black and white is the preferred medium to transport the viewer to another world. As Hitchcock did with the color green to show his protagonist’s envy in Vertigo (as well as in his superb Rope) or Antonioni achieved with the heavy dark gray mist that surrounded the urban landscape creates the feeling of isolation in his fantastic Red Desert, Kurosawa uses color to further visualize his themes and ides; in this case, the double’s psychological state as he witness the true horrors of war in front of him.

A movie like Kagemusha could only made by a master filmmaker. Through it’s epic scope, Kurosawa creates a masterpiece for the ages. But  as the film’s main character tries to escape his own identity  of being a petty thief, the film itself has difficulty itself to escape it’s own unfair label given by many film enthusiasts: Kurosawa’s samurai film before Ran. The director himself referred to the film as a dress rehearsal to Ran as well, further lessening it’s image in history. But Alfred Hitchcock once called Rope a fail experiment, Andrei Tarkovsky believed Solaris to be an artistic failure; I don’t agree with either quote at all, nor do I agree with Kurosawa’s own statement of his film. But looking back at it, Kagemusha, for me, feels superior to the director’s second 80s’ masterpiece. It may always be plagued by being the film that precedes his great Ran and as a result never be given the respect that it truly deserves. Its a shame really because it’s one hell of a film.

Shock Corridor

Posted in Uncategorized on March 25, 2010 by anubhavbist

Few directors in American cinema have ever been as revered and influential as Sam Fuller; a maverick who worked in the low budget B film with very pulpy material to explore taboo and controversial subjects. An outspoken critic on the Korean War, the red scare, and southern racism, Fuller’s films often mirrored his 0wn political views, giving artistic merit and social relevance to material that would otherwise have been labeled as schlock. Few times has a director working in the genre ever been so revered and a common influence on some of the greatest filmmakers ever like Martin Scorsese and Jean-Luc Godard (who even gave Fuller a cameo role in his film Pierrot le fou). It’s the reason a film like Shock Corridor, Fuller’s mental hospital psychodrama, is hard to dismiss as just another product of B exploitative cinema of the era.

The film’s plot which follows a journalist named Johnny Barrett, played by Peter Breck, who commits himself into a mental institution in order to investigate a murder that took place inside, feels secondary to Fuller’s original intentions. The mystery at the heart of Shock Corridor, the murder of a character named Sloan, is not what interests Fuller nor the audience; Its the obsession that consumes the protagonist as he loses his own sanity trying to solve the case. The character Breck plays is also far from sympathetic, as we see his stubbornness ruin almost every facet of his life including his relationship with his girlfriend, played by Constance Towers (who would star in Fuller’s next film, the cult classic,The Naked Kiss). Yet when Fuller externalizes his character’s deteriorating psychological state with sequences, further foreshadowing Barrett’s eventual downfall for his article and chance at the Pulitzer, it’s hard not to feel empathy for the character.

Fuller visualizes Barrett’s sad sacrifice of his sanity in beautifully shot, surreal sequences such as one where Barrett is visited by his stripper girlfriend who appears as a sort of shoulder devil that teases him. Another memorable sequence shows Barrett running through the rain in an empty mental facility. What makes these scenes all the more impressive is how Fuller achieves these sequences with a shoe string budget. It’s not hard to see why Fuller is so revered among many of this generation’s independent auteurs like Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.

But Fuller’s film is not just an excellently filmed psychodrama but a fascinating allegory for America in the early 60s. As we follow Barrett interview the witnesses of the murder, we realize that Fuller isn’t trying to make an in-depth examination at America’s mental institutions along the lines of a film like Titicut Follies. Instead Fuller explores the various taboos that has made Fuller and his films such a subject of controversy.  The first witness we are introduced to is a Korean War veteran who believes himself to be a confederate soldier from the Civil War after being ostracized as a social outcast for being a Communist sympathizer; The second witness is an African American white supremest who believes himself to be the the Grand wizard for the KKK; the third witness is a once genius scientist who was involved in the development of the atom bomb, but now is a man who believes he’s a child. Off the bat, we know this isn’t a normal institution but Fuller’s own critique of America. Visualizing America as an asylum while also representing what Fuller perceived as the “insanity” of America. As we view his work today one can officially say that Fuller was not wrong in his assessment of the times; the red scare, nuclear war, and southern racism are all part of the dark side of 20th century American history.

Fuller’s is able to elevate what could have been a run-of-the-mill genre film into a kind of 60s’ Greek tragedy painting a stark portrait of America.