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Thursday, Aug 2, 2007

The Summer of 2007 has been tough on the tre-quel: that seemingly final chapter in a studio mandated trilogy or continuing franchise. So far, we’ve had the excellent Pirates pic, the so-so Spider-man saga, and the dreadful stench of the latest Shrek mess. Yet if one is looking for a clear winner in the three-peat paradigm, it would be that latest attempt to reclaim his part by the amnesiac government assassin, Jason Bourne. As portrayed with Cold War cruelness by a breathtaking Matt Damon, the latest installment in the Robert Ludlum inspired series picks up six weeks after the event in the preceding chapter. Also back are the team behind Supremacy’s success—screenwriter Tony Gilroy and acclaimed director Paul Greengrass. But the maintenance of creative continuity is only one of the newly named Bourne Ultimatum’s saving graces. As with any last acts, the inevitable clash between mystery solved and said truth’s significance offers a sizeable challenge. Here, it creates a compelling and clever espionage thriller.


With his girlfriend dead and his memory intermittent, our aggressive anti-hero is still trying to figure out who he is, and why the government trained him to kill. While following up leads in Moscow, Bourne learns of a reporter who is threatening to blow the lid off some special ops project code named “Blackbriar”. Desperate to discover what he’s found—and more importantly—the source that gave him all this classified information, Bourne heads to London and contacts the journalist. Unfortunately, the CIA, lead by devious department head Noah Vosen, wants the same data. While agent Pamela Landy continues to help the troubled operative, higher ups in the bureau want both Bourne and the journalist silenced—forever. Bourne eventually finds himself in Spain, seeking a man who once supervised the entire Blackbriar project. There, he runs into another old friend, agent Nicky Parsons, who helps him track his target to Tangiers. Of course, there are hired killers everywhere, and Bourne narrowly escapes with his life. All paths lead right back to the US, and as his memory returns, so does his resolve to expose the agency’s wrongdoing once and for all.


It seems like a complicated cat and mouse exercise, but the great thing about The Bourne Ultimatum is that all the spy vs. spy intrigue is carefully controlled and eagerly explained. Greengrass knows that modern audiences, not used to thinking during their action packed stunt setpieces, need this kind of material spoon fed to them. So every once in a while, he lets his wildly erratic handheld camera settle down for a few seconds, so that important pieces of the puzzle can be fitted together. Since some have complained that the director’s ‘from the gut’ approach to cinematography can lead to a nauseating case of shaken camera syndrome, not only do these sequences aid the exposition, but they also help the queasiness pass. There is a wildly evocative ‘you are there’ approach to Greengrass’s style, and some will find it disorienting. But when you have sequences as strong as these, the artistic quirks can be forgiven.


Indeed, The Bourne Ultimatum lives and dies by its car chases and fisticuffs, and it has to be said that some of the best examples in the genre exist in this electrifying film. It is especially true of a second act situation in which Bourne follows an assassin targeting gal pal Nicky Parsons. As he leaps from rooftop to rooftop and through many a Moroccan citizen’s window, we anticipate an amazing standoff once the significant players meet. But Greengrass does away with all the glorified machismo grandstanding and simply lets two professional killers do what they do best. Like the mano-y-mano magnificence of the extended brawl between Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live, Bourne beats the ever-lovin’ snot out of a dark, mysterious murderer, skin smacking and flesh pounding with such unmitigated ferocity the audience can practically feel each blow.


Even better is the last act car chase between Bourne, the CIA and his ally Landy. As he makes the Feds look foolish, our ‘hero’ wheels a selection of vehicles through Manhattan. Careening past—and sometimes off—buildings while squealing around corners with hairpin histrionics, it’s the kind of vehicular mayhem that’s more or less missing from your typical popcorn romp. The reason is simple—Greengrass doesn’t cheat. Instead of using CGI autos to achieve his ends, he smashes real ones up, Blues Brothers style, errant parts and unpredictable chaos creating that much more of an adrenalin rush. Yet even when not trying to take on the entire collection of black ops agents (as in the opening slink through Waterloo Station), The Bourne Ultimatum understands suspense. It’s not just that we care for these characters—it’s that Greengrass follows of golden oldie formula of metering out just enough information to keep us guessing. And once our brain is engaged, the rest of our knotted nervous system is sure to follow.


Of course, none of this would work without characters and performers who can make you believe that the random images generated by a computer monitor actually mean something in the grand scheme of national security. Behind the boards, David Strathairn is undeniably nasty as the patsy pushing buttons for the big boys in the Cabinet, while Joan Allen delivers a dynamic turn as the whistleblower waiting for the goods to give her resolve. While she’s suffered from some miscasting in the past (The Omen remake) Julie Stiles is actually very good here, playing the kind of Barbie bargaining chip one would easily see the CIA recruiting for her espionage eye candy value. As Simon Ross, the reporter holding the key to Bourne’s ultimate identity, Paddy Considine has a hound dog face that just screams extended tour of duty. Though he’s not on screen for very long, his nervous need to confirm the facts make him an instant audience guide.


And then there’s Damon. As an actor, this iron-jawed good guy has always seemed one role away from finally coming into his own. Even as part of the stellar cast in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning The Departed, he tends to have a frat boy weightlessness that’s hard to overcome. But here, turning down the volume and amplifying his noted physicality, he comes across as commanding, dominating, and most importantly, deadly. You believe his Bourne is a ticking timebomb of brainwashed brutality and remorseless destruction. While he tells Stiles’ Parker that he’s haunted by the face of everyone he’s ever killed, this is a machine managing to continue on its highly lethal path with relative ease. Without an individual who can sell us on such terrifying tenacity, these movies would fall apart (imagine his buddy Ben Affleck here—hmm…). But thanks to Damon, it steamrolls over the shakier bits to deliver boffo blood and guts.


While by no means the end of the Bourne narrative (fans of the novels know this all too well), what The Bourne Ultimatum actually represents is the final phase in both Paul Greengrass and his maturing stars’ ascension into the box office big time. By consistently delivering the goods in a genre that hasn’t been relevant since Reagan regaled the Russians to “tear down this wall”, they’ve outdone a certain Mr. Bond while proving that, with the right material and the right talent behind and in front of the camera, even the hoariest old cinematic clichés can be revived and enlivened. While he may not have had the insurmountable mandate of making pirates culturally relevant again (somewhere in cinema heaven, Gore Verbinski’s table is on infinite reserve), Greengrass got this right. After all, in 2007 spies seem better suited for spoofing. Yet The Bourne Ultimatum simply does what it does best—defy convention while embracing its best bits. The result is one of the summer’s surest efforts. 



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Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007


It’s been heartbreaking to read the tributes to fallen idols Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni this week. These true titans of cinematic excellence have earned every celebratory word, every gushing career-spanning elegy. But even more depressing than their deaths is the growing sense of irrelevancy expressed by a number of online critics, bloggers, and the usual self-appointed jacked-in know-it-alls. While most acknowledge the contribution made by these important artists, the post-millennial conclusion is that both men remain footnotes, not founding figures, in the overall develop of the medium. In essence, their dispute goes a little something like this: “Yeah, their passing is important – but just wait until George Lucas goes! Now there’s a blow to cinema!” Groan.


It’s clear that time outside the limelight, either in self-imposed exile (Bergman) or advancing illness (Antonioni) have left both filmmakers clinging to their classical status. After all, in this short attention span society where information is processed and poured over the populace in streams of syrupy insignificance, two decades without a noteworthy motion picture product becomes a couple of lost lifetimes. And in the case of the Swedish cynic and the Italian idealist, they are so ingrained in the time of their triumphs (the ‘50s through the ‘70s) that many of their most ardent fans are well past middle age – meaning outside the zone of nu-media (read: Internet) meaningfulness. Thus the amicable accolades, the kind word or two before moving on to obsess over the latest design for the Iron Man suit.


In the world of web journalism, it is clear that the audience dictates the direction. Write something salient about the Polish New Wave movement and its influence on Eastern Bloc cinema (and policy) and you can practically hear the readership shutting off their browsers. Call Sacha Baron Cohen a talentless hack and watch the comments fly! Unlike the print medium, propagated on the notion of providing news of universal import, the Internet flourishes on the niche. In fact, the main drawing point during the technology’s earliest days was the discovery of like minded people who enjoyed – and in some cases, were consumed – by the same things as you. Usually limited to incredibly minor or cult entities, the water cooler wonders of such an international coffee klatch remains one of the main reasons we’ve become slaves to the router.


But over the 15 years since dial-ups went digital, fanaticism has replaced free thinking, the “I’m right/you’re wrong” dichotomy substituting for serious analytical consideration. Call it the “because I say so” benchmark, but the reason that Bergman and Antonioni are suffering in their posthumous significance is that the proposed pundits who set the cultural agenda have determined that they no longer matter. While their contributions to moviemaking can be recognized, there are others – at least in their limited experience minds – who are more noteworthy. It’s all part of a paradigm shift that suggests that old school scholarship be abandoned for the will of a more populist opinion. Indeed, if every country’s considered auteur needs to be recognized upon passing, there’d be no room on your favorite review site for a discussion of the Watchmen casting.


Now, there is a somewhat valid point buried deep within such a poisoned position. For a long time, Hollywood and the West set the motion picture schema. They determined what was relevant, and tried as hard as possible to ignore fascinating foreign trends until the box office warned of certain business suicide by doing so. Bergman was making movies for almost a decade before he became a bleak street master. Antonioni was trying to mesh the neo-realist with his bourgeois roots before Blow-Up created his cool cause celeb. Without the ivory tower trendsetters who plucked these skilled symbols of artistic globalism out of the morass of meaningless world cinema, they may have been nothing more than names on a film snob’s roster of consequence.


So it was up to critics to raise the cry, to seek out these elusive efforts in their cosmopolitan concealment (read: the out of the way art house), and convince the unwashed that these moviemakers mattered. They had to create the yardstick so that everyone else would recognize the true measure of their specialness. In a funny way, it’s the same thing that happened – in the negative - to Ed Wood. It was the Medveds – Harry and Michael – who used some anecdotal evidence about the horridness of Plan 9 from Outer Space (remember, this was before the ready availability of VHS proof) to declare the director the celluloid equivalent of a mortal sin. In the case of Bergman and Antonioni, the high minded analyzers of entertainment deemed them important and/or trendy and/or significant, so it must have been, and so far continues to be, true.


It’s only natural then that the outsider looking for a convenient way to publish their thoughts on an unheralded Japanese auteur, or disregarded British craftsman, would grab onto the Internet and use it for all its worth. And for the most part, their resilience has been a godsend. Most mainstream critics have scoffed at genres like horror and action, yet the web monkeys have uncovered and supported the status of incredible talents like Takashi Miike, John Woo, Guillermo Del Toro, and Tom Tykwer. They latched onto unknown offerings like District B13, Man Bites Dog, and Brotherhood of the Wolf, giving them a prominence that no American marketing machine could (or wanted to) create. And let’s not forget anime. While it initially made strides in this country during the ‘80s, the Internet has so solidified the demographic (and opened up the otherwise limited product possibilities) that there are now entire cable networks devoted to the cartoon category. 


Of course, such a scattered sensibility does lead to a lack of consensus – perhaps the most important component in the overall deliberation regarding timelessness. In essence, if you can divide the opinion on a particular filmmaker – say, Steven Spielberg – in enough ways, reducing him or her to a series of stereotypes and past production artifacts, you can start the process of mass marginalization. And once you’ve started down that path, the slippery slope to unimportance isn’t far behind. It is even easier with someone like Bergman or Antonioni, filmmakers who haven’t made a movie in many years and are, therefore, stuck in a telling time warp of era-appropriate appreciation. Let’s label this The Jazz Singer syndrome – no one can argue the 1927 movie’s importance as a technological hallmark (the coming of sound). But as a movie? Bah!


That’s what’s happening all over the culture nowadays. In some cases, its just jealousy mixed with the foul stench of shoddy self-realization (or in other words, just a bunch of losers bitching). But as the old guard folds, as newspapers drop their long-tenured critics and go with a wire-based set of analytical standards, the Web more or less wins. After all, while all the print people were patting themselves on the back and basking in the buffet at the latest studio junket, the ‘Net heads were back at home, watching movies, scouring rental and retail shelves, and putting in the footwork that a Kael took decades in a theater to acquire. They may lack the mental acumen to put their collection of cinematic tidbits into a proper theoretical or cohesive perspective, but they’ve been on the court playing day in and day out while the supposed Fourth Estate all-stars were sipping the studio’s Kool-Aid.


This merely makes them different, not definitive, however. A website devoted to the greatness that is Gymkata is not the same thing as another celebrating the work of Melville or Chabrol. Determining that the works of someone like Nakata Hideo deserve as much recognition as the oeuvre of Wes Craven does not put both filmmakers on the same level playing field. While the Internet may seem infinite, and your thoughts expressed on same set in temporal concrete, just remember this – six years ago, Richard Kelly and his Donnie Darko were the definitive darlings of the IPS crowd. His slacker sci-fi became such a circuit board cult that it received all manner of media exposure. Now, a little less than a decade into his career, he can’t get arrested. His most recent effort – the one year in the waiting waste Southland Tales – will finally get a release date this coming November. But the buzz has been so toxic that its failure is not only assured, it’s more or less predestined.


So dismiss names like Bergman and Antonioni at your own peril, messageboard surfing film geeks. Continue to glean through the lists of underappreciated names and write your rants about unfairly disregarded movies. Nominate your new masters and foam like fools over their inability to fulfill their projected promise. There’s a reason cinema mourns men like the ones grieved for this week – their imprint may not be modern, but it sure as Hell is meaningful. Not every Italian filmmaker deserved Antonioni’s stature, and Sweden could count the number of name motion picture icons on a single one of their national gloved hand. These men were important because, in the seven decades since they started in movies, their names correspond to unequivocally superior work. They didn’t need DSL cheerleaders to root for them. Their efforts spoke for themselves – and in truth, that’s all the relevancy they require. 


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Wednesday, Aug 1, 2007


It’s fascinating how quickly he ascended to superstar filmmaker status. It’s also intriguing how, by coming to Hollywood, his cinematic fortunes faded. At one time, he was the “it” director, a full blown visionary turning the dull as dishwater crime/action film into a luminous illustration of amazing motion picture pyro-techniques. Now, John Woo has returned to China to make his latest movie, an adventure centered on the Battle of Red Cliffs during the Three Kingdoms period of Ancient China. Such period piecing may seem odd to those who only know him as a meticulous choreographer of onscreen gunplay, but the truth is that the 61 year old had a varied career in many movie genres before taking up the heroic bloodshed cause. From Hong Kong martial arts to oddly romantic comedies, he was never really defined by the subjects he considered – until he amplified the artistry in ammunition. Now, he’s been branded a manufacturer of machismo, when he’s actually far more diverse than that.


Proof of this definable dichotomy arrives in the form of the latest releases (numbers 15 and 16) in the ongoing Dragon Dynasty series. Spanning two decades in his career, and covering both his days delivering definite kung fu fighting (1979’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry) and the last word in balls out bullet time (the 1992 masterwork Hard Boiled), these new DVDs suggest the start of a reconciliation of Woo’s overall oeuvre. Indeed, the last 15 years have so defined the man (thanks in large part to his trials in Tinsel Town), that many will be amazed that he even made movies prior to 1986’s A Better Tomorrow. And yet the signature approach that would come to be copied and mocked is there – in every swashbuckling swordfight, in every vow of undying friendship, in every muzzle to muzzle standoff. While the category may have changed, Woo stayed stalwart. It’s the reason he’s still so well regarded today.


Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)

On the day of his wedding, Kao’s entire family is wiped out in an act of revenge by former associate Pai. The killer’s goal – to reclaim the estate he believes he was swindled out of. Desperate to reclaim his honor and get his own retribution, the dispossessed dandy looks to hire the best swords in China to act as his seconds. Initially, he has his eye on Chang, a former fighter with the enigmatic name ‘The Magic Sword’. Unfortunately, no matter the offer, our former champion will not come out of retirement. Kao next targets paid assassin Tsing, an executioner easily swayed by alcohol and money. Through a series of setbacks and subplots, Chang must fight another maniacal mercenary named Pray. Realizing his skills are important, and after Kao’s martial arts teacher is killed by Pai’s men, the one time legend agrees to take on the vile villain. Tsing comes along for the sport of the slaughter – or does he? In this ruthless world where men can be bought and bartered for like slaves, and women are only considered when they accept cash for their favors, it will take a Last Hurrah for Chivalry to determine the fate of all involved – antagonist, protagonist and opportunist.


Loaded with mind blowing swordplay and lots of signature John Woo touches, Last Hurrah for Chivalry is either the best feudal Chinese soap opera ever concocted, or a chance for a then journeyman director to make a name for himself inside the martial arts genre. At first, we’re not sure if the dynamic auteur we’ve come to know and worship is working behind the lens. The opening moments of this movie play out like dozens of derivative ancient Asia melodramas – characters clash, honor is destroyed, restoration of same becomes the primary concern. As would-be heroes are defined and soon-to-be villains unveiled, we wait for the trademark tweaks, the filmic flourishes (slow motion, non-erotic male bonding, balletic violence) that have come to compartmentalize the Hong Kong action king. It does take a while to arrive, and before we reach it, we are treated to other elements that one doesn’t expect from the man behind the hyper-stylized crime caper. Before the flashy fisticuffs arrives, Woo gives us slices of slapstick comedy, creative character development (including an assassin defined by his blatant abuse of alcohol) and some minor bodice ripping romance. Such facets really fill out Last Hurrah for Chivalry, deepening the potential dynamic between the players and making their eventual interaction – and fatalistic saber dances – that much more meaningful.


Indeed, once our hero Chang takes on the self-assured Pray in a one on one battle for weapon wielding bragging rights, the filmmaker famous for his many cinematic stunts comes shining through. We get the brilliant back and forth between opponents, swords swinging in drama-intensifying languid lunges. Then, when our unintentional duo takes on Pai, having to first circumvent his entire staff of hired guns, idiosyncratic killers (the sleeping Wizard is a particular hoot) and fireball blazing finale, it’s like we’re watching The Killer transported back to ancient times. In fact, there’s a great deal of splatterific bloodshed here, with bodies being pierced and torsos being sliced in tasty torrents of arterial spray. The two on one take down of Pai is particularly violent, as is the finale where a certain supposed nobleman shows his true colors and becomes a limb lopping ‘demon’. Some may feel the story too stereotypical, repeating themes and specific character types from other Wu Xia Pian entries, but thanks to Woo’s desire to bend the rules and bring on the grue, we’ve got an artful action adventure that’s as suspenseful as it is spectacular. Indeed, you will care about the fate of our two fast friends as the storyline winds down. Their final feat of virtue satisfies as it saddens.


Hard Boiled (1992)

Hong Kong is suffering through an unbelievable string of bloody mass killings, most associated with Triad activity and the selling of illegal arms. On the side of the criminals is Uncle Hoi, an old school mobster who treats his henchmen and hitmen like family. On the fringes fighting his way in is Johnny Wong, a flashy amoral shark who wants the lucrative gun running racket all to himself. He hopes to accomplish this task by having noted Hoi goon Tony turn on his father-like employer. Little do they know, but this smooth assassin is actually an undercover cop, trying to infiltrate and dismantle the operation from the inside. In addition to this down low lawman is the jazz-loving, unlucky in love time bomb named Tequila. A far too dedicated policeman, this obsessed officer won’t stop until he discovers Wong’s whereabouts, including his cache of arms, and puts a stop to his entire operation once and for all. Naturally, he winds up needing Tony’s help, and the two form an unlikely alliance to destroy the demented criminal once and for all. While one of our heroes may be in too deep to remember what side he’s on, the other is clearly bucking for payback. After all, he’s Hard Boiled, all the way.


Hard Boiled is about as close to genius as an action film can get. When John Woo bid farewell to the entire Hong Kong crime epic (otherwise known as the “Blood Opera”), he did so in a manner that both solidified the genre’s status as cinematic gold, and challenged any and all future filmmakers to do better. Obviously, they have yet to meet such a test, since this undeniable masterpiece of mayhem and machismo stands as, perhaps, the greatest gonzo gun battle bonanza ever made. Anyone who doubted Woo’s unbridled artistry, who thought he was nothing more than a shattered glass and squib loving savant repeating the same well choreographed stunts over and over again must have failed to see his growing acumen behind the lens. From its terrific opening in a typical Chinese teahouse, to a last act blazing ammo spectacle that takes place in a fully functioning hospital (complete with a nursery stocked with infants), this is the work of a man who completely comprehends the needs of his narrative. Whether it’s a random ‘70s freeze frame, the use of some outdated ‘80s synth pop, a sequence of slinky cool jazz, or moments of heart to heart histrionics between masters (mob boss/superintendent) and subordinates (hitmen/cops), Hard Boiled percolates with enough pulp potency to make dozens of derivative crime capers blush in abject embarrassment.

This is definitely cinema as a culmination, since Woo is rehashing themes he explored in the Better Tomorrow films as well as in The Killer. But since he had glorified the underworld in his previous efforts, he wanted to make one for “the good guys”, and thus we have this twisted buddy picture in which two valiant officers working different sides of the street conspire to take down a Don who has apparently seen one too many episodes of Miami Vice, considering his wardrobe. There’s a lot of talk about honor and face, vengeance denied and restrictive rules busted wide open. Though Chow-Yun Fat is the rogue element here, playing a policeman who won’t rest until a gun running ring is stopped, its Tony Leung who constantly captures our eye. We know Fat is a badass, but Leung is all over the map, from conscientious hitman to misguided psycho, and many layers in between. As a hero, Chow chews gum and kicks butt. As an almost anti-hero, Tony is terrific, keeping us guessing over his loyalties until almost the very end. Like Sam Raimi before him, Woo gets the decided (dis)honor of being so imitated and copied that his original vision can appear practically clichéd. But when you experience the real deal, the kinetic kick is overpowering. Hard Boiled is not only a great genre effort, it’s a great movie, period. Anyone who wants to argue that better be loaded for bear and ready to rumble.


In the case of both films, Dragon Dynasty does such an amazing job with the digital presentation and image transfer. Both movies show some signs of age, but that’s obviously a source situation, not the fault of some remastering engineer. Indeed, fans wondering if Hard Boiled’s print is preferable to the long OOP Criterion version, the answer is a secure “Yes”. It has never looked this clean and clear, (even though some sites have argued over aspect ratio issues). And since Last Hurrah is a real unknown quantity, its offering is an optical revelation. Both DVDs deliver stellar added content, including commentaries, interviews and production documentaries. They illustrate how hard it was to achieve Woo’s uber-violent designs, and how tirelessly he worked with his actors to achieve both realism and a sense of resplendence. As more of his older movies are released, it is possible this master of the Hong Kong crime film will develop a more well-rounded reputation. But if all he had to rely on were these two films, Woo would have nothing to worry about. Both Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Hard Boiled represent to the best of the best.


 


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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007


He was a true cinematic artist – even his name suggested the sort of motion picture masterpieces he would eventually create. Yet outside a significant period in the ‘60s, the history of film has more or less abandoned Michelangelo Antonioni. Not his movies, mind you. It’s impossible to dismiss such major contributions to the craft as Blow-Up, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse. From an early penchant for supporting the political underdog to a later life in service of his own self-designed ideals, the man born in Ferrara, Emilia Romagna Italy on 29 September, 1912 continuously walked the fine line between brilliant and baffling, intellectual and irritating. It would make up the majority of scholarly consideration of his canon, his lasting legacy, and generally define his cinematic substance.


It was always hard to categorize Antonioni. Growing up, he was a bourgeois young man from a comfortable middle class family. He didn’t start out as a filmmaker – instead, he pursued a career in economics. It was a pair of outside interests – painting, and writing criticism for his local newspaper that swayed him toward the world of film. Indeed, his 1939 hiring by the Fascist government for the journal Cinema did more to steer him toward directing than any inherent love of the medium. Though he followed the peasant perspective shifts in Italian movie making that would come to be known as neo-realism, he could never escape his upper class roots. As a matter of fact, his first film, 1950’s Story of a Love Affair used the genre’s implied authenticity to discuss adultery and love among a wealthy entrepreneur and his beautiful newlywed wife – not exactly the earthy arena explored by his fellow filmmakers.


Il Grido

Il Grido


Still, Antonioni flourished, even if it was in relative obscurity. Taking what he learned during his earliest days as a maker of documentary shorts, he used the next ten years behind the lens to hone his skills. During this time, he made eight films, including the scandalous juvenile murder anthology I Vinti (featuring three tales of murderous youth), a female-ccentric look at the Italian class structure (1955’s The Girlfriends), and the film that would signal the next phase in his career, the ambiguous and calculated Il Grido (The Cry). Each step along the way, Antonioni distinguished himself from the rest of the Mediterranean movement. He could care less about the common man and his woes. He was looking for light at the end of a dirt and dire movie manifesto, and he found it in the oddest of places – the human heart.


The connection between Cry’s multifaceted story of a failed romance and the next three movies in Antonioni’s oeuvre is quite obvious. Representing one of the first real onscreen efforts at representing reject and alienation, Cry comments on how a broken spirit – and the routine of romance – can hollow out a person. As our hero, Aldo (an excellent Steve Cochran) wanders aimlessly in and around the Po region, he tries desperately to reconnect with the reality that’s been lost to him, a world now out of reach after a fruitless seven year affair with a married woman named Irma. This notion of love gone astray, of couplings undone, and the then forward thinking theme of ‘finding oneself’ would become the hallmark of Antonioni’s most creative era. It would form the basis of the trilogy that would skyrocket him to international fame.


It all began with 1960’s L’Avventura, an usually effective psychological character study that achieves its internalized investigation through the use of very little dialogue and even less cinematic standardization. Stripping away all the conventions that create tension, insight, and deception, Antonioni decided to let his camera be his guide. The result is an astonishing work that reveals its casual lovers’ motives in ways unthinkable in similarly styled storylines. In essence, the narrative figures on the missing companion of a puzzled pair, a now absent woman who was the hero’s paramour and the heroine’s best friend. With the inherent intrigue of the missing person, and the mystery surrounding her situation, the director redefined the language of film, forcing imagery and ideas to replace conversation and convention. With its acknowledgment at the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, L’Avventura became Antonioni’s calling card. His next two movies would only cement his status.


In 1961’s La Notte, a true sense of doom fills the air. Again, we are dealing with a couple – in this case, a writer and his disconnected spouse. Content to watch the characters basically drift apart as their marriage dissolves, Antonioni was beginning to develop a kind of filmic philosophy about emotion. To quote Annie Hall (Woody Allen was a great admirer of the Italian maverick), “Love fades.” Granted, it’s a fatalistic ideal, but within this brilliantly acted narrative, Antonioni made it appear like a natural condition of the human soul. Since neither entity in the relationship seems ready to work at it, it’s inevitable that ennui would force the sentiment to simply slip away. It’s the same with the final facet of this loose ‘alienation’ trilogy, 1962’s L’Eclisse.


An exploration of indecisiveness and angst, Antonioni stripped even more of the remaining pretense he was working with, and simply let the situations and the performers do the dramatizing. He developed a film idiom that included long takes, a static camera, and a crucial use of black and white’s distinct shadow and light byplay. Plot was no longer important. Instead, Antonioni was fixated on mood, atmosphere, ambience, and tone. He wanted to tell everything about a character through the most impressionistic means possible, and avoided outright expressions in favor of implication and inference. Representing the pinnacle of a new voice in Italian cinema, one that evoked the truth inherent in neo-realism within the shifting contemporary social standards in the country, Antonioni became a mirror for modernity. He would then ask the audience to look inside his movies to see if they saw themselves.


Another trip to Cannes, another Special Jury Prize, and the now celebrated director was literally on top of the world. His continued notoriety brought him to the attention of Italian producer Carlo Ponti, who offered him the opportunity to make movies in other countries. Naturally, Antonioni jumped at the chance to translate his peculiar sense of perception into other languages. His first effort in this category became his last universally legitimized masterpiece. Capturing the cosmopolitan cool of Britain’s swinging mod movement (including scenes with rock act The Yardbirds and a score by Herbie Hancock) merged with the growing sexual revolution, Antonioni delivered the dazzling Blow-Up. Featuring full frontal nudity, a peculiar pantomime finale, and a mystery made up out of the possibility of subjective interpretation, this David Hemmings/Vanessa Redgrave stunner proved that there was more to the director than torment and anxiety. Indeed, Blow-Up would explore similar sentiments, but in way that was freer and in some ways more confounding than ever before.


It stands as one of the ‘60s finest artistic achievements, mimicked by filmmakers as divergent as Brian DePalma (his blatant ‘homage’ Blow Out) and Mel Brooks (a seminal sequence in High Anxiety). Like the drug-fueled declarations of Timothy Leary, Antonioni was artist acting as revolutionary, an antagonist telling the audience to be wary of what you see, since your eyes (and by inference, the information presented to them) could fool you. Hemmings’ character, a carnal photographer who typically beds his models, becomes convinced he’s found a murder hidden inside one of his snapshots. As he continuously enlarges the image to get to the truth, his perception is skewed to the point of contradiction. Never quite sure what he sees, and unable to prove if there ever really was a crime, reality folds onto itself, resulting in a questioning of all that came before. In an era which warned against trusting anyone over 30, Antonioni’s Blow-Up argued that even something as secure as 20/20 vision needed testing as well.


Universally acclaimed, his first foray into English would, sadly be his last major success. The follow-up film, a recall of his early ‘60s scenarios set inside the US counterculture, was dismissed at the time as indulgent and dull. Indeed, Zabriske Point had all the trappings of a filmmaker finally believing his own hype. Hiring two non professional actors and working from a script with input from several divergent scribes, the almost 59 year old auteur was decidedly out of step with the dying youth movement eroding around him. Even a commissioned soundtrack featuring original music from Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead couldn’t countermand the public outcry. Flopping famously, Zabriske kept the director away from film for almost five years. He would return with his final US effort, the underappreciated Jack Nicholson vehicle The Passenger.


Less experimental and much more in tune with its times, this look at an idealist reporter’s investigation into guerrilla warfare in the African Sahara and his assumption of a gun runner’s identity played directly toward Antonioni’s strengths. It featured characters desperate to escape their unfulfilled lives and the metaphysical consequences of such self betrayal. Languid in its pace, disturbing in its ambiguity, and infamous for a final slow motion tracking shot that lasts almost eight minutes, it was pronounced pretentious and preeminent by a deeply divided critical community. Audiences, however, stayed away, having dismissed Antonioni as a filmmaker from a former era, unable to compete with the prevalent post-modern 1975 designs of novel newcomers like Coppola, Friedkin, and Scorsese. It would be another five years before the avant-garde medium test The Mystery of Oberwald (shot on video and translated to film), but after 1982’s Identification of a Woman, he wasn’t heard from again for nearly a decade.


It wasn’t inspiration that hindered Antonioni, it was health. A debilitating stroke in 1985 left him partially paralyzed and unable to speak. As a result, many projects went unrealized, and he had to have the help of German filmmaker Wim Wenders to complete 1995’s Beyond the Clouds. A year later, the Academy decided to bestow a Lifetime Achievement Oscar on Antonioni (he had only been nominated previously for Blow-Up) and, in an emotional elegy, a deeply moved Jack Nicholson gave the ailing auteur his statue. Fate would continue to be cruel to the once jet-setting director. Thieves would later break into his home and steal the award (it was later replaced), and after a segment for 2004’s anthology film Eros, his physical state wouldn’t let him continue working. His death at age 94 on 30 July, 2007 was seen as a blessing by some who knew just how mightily the man suffered.


Unlike his fellow countryman Federico Fellini, who believed in imbuing his movies with as much life as possible, Antonioni was often quoted as believing all existence was meaningless and human interaction a futile joke. For him, the greatest journey was inward, toward a greater understanding of spirit and soul. The extrovert was someone to by shunned or scoffed at, while the introvert was examining the most important element, and should be celebrated for same. Many found his abstractions more demanding than delightful, and in a new millennial dialectic where all expression – good, bad, naïve, ill-conceived – is outwardly championed, it’s easy to see how Antonioni would be ignored. He wasn’t flamboyant or foolish. Instead, he was fastidious and arcane – personality quirks often associated with philosophers and fools. And true to his all-encompassing aesthetic, Michelangelo Antonioni was often both.


Trailer for Blow-Up


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Tuesday, Jul 31, 2007


It is, without a doubt, the hardest bit of analysis a film critic must consider. Lists are always a little loopy, suffering from a lack of personal perspective and decidedly one sided context. As a result, trying to boil a life’s worth of fandom (or professionalism) into a single set of ten titles is next to impossible. You always forget something along the way, regret not having room for favorites you feel fall right outside the glorified Decalogue, and anger some overly aggressive aficionado who can’t believe you left off their obvious film/director/decade obsession. For those preparing to complain once the final tally is presented, simply remember this – all determinations are made by actual human beings. We may play know-it-alls for the sake of our writing, but we fall within the same categories of fun/fascination factors as anyone else.


So what does this Top Ten List of All Time represent for readers of Short Ends and Leader? Clearly, it’s the guiding dynamic of the blog’s editor and chief, a roadmap if you will to the films that made a significant impact either as entertainment, extravaganza, or both. Clearly certain calling card entries – The Godfather films, Casablanca, La Dolce Vita – are missing from the ultimate countdown, and with good reason. In the case of at least two of these movies, constant repetition within the digital cable era has diluted their dimensions, making them ‘feel’ smaller than they actually are. In addition, other offerings – The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Evil Dead 2, Suspiria – didn’t quite make the grade either. It’s not because of their lack of inherent worth (all three are indeed amazing motion pictures). No, the problem is more personal, meaning that their recognized limited appeal prevents a kind of universal appraisal. 


In the end then, how does one find their final ten? A lot of guess work, some faith, and a mind full of celluloid memories. Think of it this way - these symbolize SE&L’s desert island titles, the kind of classic films you can imagine watching over and over again without ever having to worry that they’ll grow dull or derivative. They would stand the test of time, and then please someone who happened upon them long after you were gone. You may not have to agree with all the choices, but you definitely have to respect them. Movies may be a personal preference, but certain examples of the medium mandate a consideration of abject timelessness. In our opinion, these sure do, beginning with:


10 - Fight Club (1999)

If ever a movie clearly defined its era, this David Fincher deconstruction of Chuck Palahnuik’s punch drunk novel sums up the ‘90s quite nicely, thank you. Through the dueling personalities of Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s rough trade icon Tyler Durden, the baffling and bifurcated state of men in America is brilliantly and unabashedly deciphered, resulting in the darkest of black comedies and the coolest of sociological dramatics. At the heart of this fascinating film remains a message about the corrosion of conformity and the instability of individuality. Together, they help define what’s very, very wrong, and very, very right, about the whole of humanity.


9 - GoodFellas (1990)

More energetic than Coppola’s monumental Godfather saga (and less overexposed) this remains Martin Scorsese’s definitive take on the mob myth. Set up like a symphony with different “acts” mandating varying directorial styles, each movement here is a masterpiece of crime as an elitist urban calling card – and a one way ticket to self-destruction. With amazing performances from a stellar cast, and a storyline soaked in the kind of racketeering Chianti we’ve come to expect from the genre, the results are electric, dynamic, and fabulously profane. While others will taut the original mafia movies as the place where bad guys became baroque, this is the truest example of its operatic powers. 


8 - The Adventures of Baron Muchausen (1988)

When critics champion Terry Gilliam, they usually pick Brazil or 12 Monkey as his best effort. But if you’re looking for a movie manipulating each and every element of cinema into a pure flight of fancy, this amazing tall tale is your ticket to another wondrous world. Styled by the ex-pat Python as the final phase in his loosely formed “Ageism” trilogy (with Time Bandits and the aforementioned future shocker), this story of a fabled German liar and his exaggerated yarns of superhuman escapades uses every trick in the moviemaker’s handbook – and then Gilliam invents a few more, just to keep us interested. A truly timeless work of celluloid art.


7 - Mulholland Dr. (2001)

How David Lynch managed to salvage a failed television pilot and turn it into his ultimate night terror masterpiece remains a question for film scholars to decipher – especially in light of other startling accomplishments like Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Lost Highway. Yet by taking on the very entity – Hollywood – that’s refused to embrace him for all these years, and perverting the 42nd Street formula (small town gal makes good) into same sex surrealism with a sinister undercurrent, he fashioned his own demented Day of the Locusts. Even mainstream cynics who’ve dismissed the man as difficult and problematic embraced this fascinating parable.


6 - 3 Women (1977)

With its basis in a dream, and its lack of inherent interpretation, Robert Altman proves that storylines don’t need self-imposed arcs to have solid dramatic resonance. As much a feminist manifesto written in reverse as a calculatedly crazy character study, the amazing American maestro uses his title trio to manifest the seminal stages in a gal’s ungainly life. And when you consider that this is the same man who rocked the film world with his work in M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park, to call this his best must mean its something very, very special. Indeed it is.


5 - The Rules of the Game (1939)

As important to the formation of true modern moviemaking as any other movie from its era, Jean Renoir’s tragicomedy of manners remains a stellar work of celluloid sumptuousness. Like Jules et Jim 23 years later, the son of famous painter Pierre Auguste used every possible trick in the reel to reel routine to realize his perceptibly allegorical denouncement of the French upper crust, who Renoir blamed for the onset of World War II. From its narrative complexity and optical richness, to the last act party which places everything – both spoken and unsaid – into perspective, this complete motion picture master really did determine the way post-silent cinema would work.


4 - Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino may today be the punchline to an Indie item’s fad gadget dismissal, but no one can deny the power of this near-perfect film. Like a shot of aesthetic adrenaline placed directly into the motion picture pleasure centers of your brain, the ex-video store clerk turned cultural lynchpin took your standard cops and robbers routine, subtracted the law, and let his amazing way with dialogue drown everything in couplets of quotable splendor. Sure, there’s a geek dweeb dimension to his homages, the kind of insular cleverness that always keeps the audience guessing, but the results are so resplendent we’re happy to wait until later to figure it all out. 


3 - Miller’s Crossing (1990)

The Coen Brothers have always been motion picture archaeologists, mining Tinsel Town’s past for their perfectionist post-modern means. But they managed something even more shocking with this celebration of fast talking, gun totting hoods – they discovered the art buried deep inside the artifice. The plot is nothing special; a series of double crosses leading to a final determination of loyalty and ‘ethics’, but the siblings’ bravura writing, their impeccable way with actors, their knowledge of visual potency, and their overall way with a camera makes for an intensely entertaining experience. Like all legitimate classics, it draws its own conclusions and leaves you breathless in the process.


2 - Citizen Kane (1941)

Just try to ignore or marginalize this benchmark in Hollywood’s formative stage, an experimental epiphany that forged the standards for decades of craftsmen to come. Sure, it’s gimmicky and overloaded with stylistic stunts, but when dealing with a story this sensational, this grandiose in scope and speculation, the size is more than warranted. Wunderkind Orson Welles may have ended up a wine shilling joke, but his feature film debut remains a motion picture monument. If you really want to understand its impact on the artform, just ask yourself the following question – what would today’s cinema be like without his inventive, evocative ‘vanity project’? Case closed.


1 - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

Stanley Kubrick was never afraid to use his films to speak to the big picture issues – and here, he addresses the most massive one of all: man’s place in the entire cosmic order. Originally planned as an attempt at “serious science fiction”, this collaboration with forward thinking author Arthur C. Clarke went through many significant stages, from pure thriller to unmanageable mindf*ck. With his meticulous post-production pliability, and a wealth of intriguing footage to work with, Kubrick confounded expectations and delivered the first interstellar treatise on humanity and its purpose in the universe. From evolution to extraterrestrials, he never deviated from his goal. The results continue to resonate among the stars.


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