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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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Monday, Jul 30, 2007


If you didn’t already know it by now, Short Ends and Leader is one year old this week. So in celebration of such a monumental achievement, we’ll be forgoing some of the standard blog entries – at least for today – in order to offer up some perspective on the aesthetic behind this daily film discussion. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing but worthless digital dung being released at the local brick and mortar. In fact, two of 2007’s best movies are making their debut on DVD, and they’re well worth your cash consideration. While SE&L will not be reviewing them separately, here are links to our previous theatrical reviews. They more than make our feelings known. Yes, we really loved these films, and with the prospect of commentaries, interviews and other added content, you know our copies will be in the cart come 31 July:



Short Ends and Leader’s 300 Review



Short Ends and Leader’s Hot Fuzz Review


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Monday, Jul 30, 2007


He hadn’t made a theatrical motion picture since 1982’s Fanny and Alexander, vowing to retire after completing the highly autobiographical project. He spent his later years dabbling in theater, and working in television in his native Sweden. He even penned a few screenplays, some directed by his son Daniel, others directed by friends and former lovers. Yet it’s clear that, even in his absence, the influence and importance of Ernst Ingmar Bergman to the language and art of cinema remains as solid today as it did when he first splashed onto the international stage some six decades ago. With a creative canon that spans considered masterworks like Wild Strawberries (1957), The Seventh Seal (1957), and Scenes from a Marriage (1973), he almost singlehandedly defined the whole foreign film/arthouse genre. While many others can also claim part of this title, Bergman remains the consummate example of personal and professional philosophies folded into one other and presented—open handed and open hearted—for the world to witness.


Like a select few famous names—Kurosawa, Fellini, Hitchcock—that actually helped to evolve and develop the technical and aesthetic merits of film, Bergman was a true motion picture visionary. Some might argue with that determination, viewing his stark, darkness driven efforts as generic and plain, or worse, gloomy and dull. But with his reliance on extreme close-up, static tableaus, and monochromatic contrasts, he captured both the bitter cold of his numb Nordic home, as well as the often hidden yet simmering emotions of its people perfectly. Some considered him the consummate actor’s director. Others viewed his work in far more metaphysical, even ephemeral, terms. In true contrast to the pictures coming out of other countries—Hollywood’s sensationalized pulp fictions, Italy’s earthy Neo-Realism, France’s deconstructing New Wave—Bergman boiled down his awful early childhood (his Lutheran Minister father was a haughty and strict task master) into melancholy expressions of man’s place within God and nature’s overall design. In doing so, he elevated ennui into something close to epic.


The battle between religion and reality was essential to his creative concerns. He mused on faith, the power of personal belief, the notion of mortality vs. the promise of an afterlife, and the distinct tug of war between living, dying, and dealing with both. He could be arcane and obtuse, making his points with symbols and noticeably non- sequitored imagery, yet he considered himself a rather forthright presenter of existence’s larger mysteries. Whatever the case, few directors can claim influence over modern day moviemakers as diverse as Wes Craven (who based his 1972 breakthrough The Last House on the Left on Bergman’s 1960 The Virgin Spring) and Woody Allen, and yet such was this director’s strength that even the most divergent of artists could experience his work and take away something very personal, and very purposeful, from his oeuvre. Names as significant as Robert Altman and Andrei Tarkovsky more or less based their careers on his influence.


For some, his seminal effort remains 1957’s existential masterwork The Seventh Seal. An unusual narrative focusing on a medieval knight, fresh from the Crusades, traveling back to his home only to discover a country ravaged by plague, it offered the allegorical imagery of the hero—a golden Max Von Sydow—playing chess with a white faced, ghoulish Death. The stakes? The champion’s life. The motive? The meaning of life. In between, Bergman used clever iconography and fresh perspectives (a traveling caravan of circus performers, the ceremonial burning of a witch) to express the ongoing struggle between existence and the end, the significance of survival and the promised bliss in shrugging off this mortal coil. Very theatrical, almost Shakespearean in his approach, Bergman often stated that it was his belief in the intuitive relationship between actor and director, one where both worked together to achieve a greater, grander end, that marked the success of his films, not the ideas or issues they raised. Seal certainly celebrates both.


Through a Glass Darkly

Through a Glass Darkly


Yet the ‘60s/‘70s remain Bergman’s main decades of artist triumph and acclaim. He won two Oscars (out of a total of three) for Best Foreign Film—for The Virgin Spring and 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly—and would go on to receive nine more nominations over the course of his time behind the camera. His name became synonymous with the growing movement toward the incorporation of world cinema in the discussion, and along with other noted names mentioned before, formed the basis for much of the film scholarship of the era. Indeed, it’s clear that Bergman remains one of the several noteworthy components that ended up transforming into the post-modern aesthetic that’s driven cinema over the last 30 years. Thanks in part to his scattered output over his so-called ‘retirement’, the current cinephile tends to relegate this formative founding ‘father’ among the artifacts of an important, if no longer resonant time.


Persona

Persona


By doing so, they are missing out on some of the most profound and provocative films of the 20th Century. Bergman remains a true lyricist within the medium, translating unspoken thoughts and unexpressed feelings into novel-like narratives filled with inference and depth. But he’s not merely an intellectual—he’s a devotee of all the artform’s facets. There’s the dreamlike imagery of Persona (1966) and the brilliant cinematography and oversaturated colors of 1972’s Cries and Whispers (contrasting the film’s dark obsession with death). There’s the cruelty and comeuppance of The Virgin Spring, the charming choice of rather risqué subject matter (sex) for Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), and the hidden evils of a post-World War I Germany in The Serpent’s Egg (1977). To his credit, Bergman managed to stay true to his austere and sometimes tragic designs while avoiding repetition. Some viewed his work as the perfect reflection of the environment in which it was created while others noted that, while subtle, the filmmaker appeared to be dismissing the detached, distant stereotype associated with Sweden. There was no denying the personal nature of his canon. In fact, the parallels between his life and his livelihood are almost too similar to compare.


Fanny and Alexander

Fanny and Alexander


For all the considered and/or perceived perfectionism on screen, Bergman remained a decidedly incomplete and flawed figure in his personal life. Married five times—four ended in divorce, the last with the death of his wife from stomach cancer—he fathered nine children. A man of complicated political views, he waged a rather public battle with the Swedish government over charges of tax evasion (he eventually left the country for Munich until 1982, when he returned to make Fanny and Alexander).  While some considered him warm and kind, others noted a tendency toward highly strung behavior and a very quick temper. Often, his interpersonal problems were blamed on an early life overloaded with discussions of sin and confession, allegiance and conformity. As much as he fictionalized his life through his films, Bergman truly remained forever linked to the emotional complexity and metal malaise found in his characters.


And now, with his passing on 30 July, 2007 at age 89, the last legitimate old school cinematic giant has fallen. He follows other luminaries into the realm of legend, and eventually through time, into the epiphany of myth. There will be retrospectives and reissues, fans will muse on what could have been while novices will note waiting too long to discover his undeniable talents. Yet all one has to do to see Bergman’s lasting impact is recall the numerous noteworthy films they’ve seen by students of this amazing auteur. Had he continued contributing directly to film post-Fanny and Alexander, had he not decided to divide his time between personal projects, stage work, and the occasional documentary foray, it’s possible that he’d once again remake movies in his own aging image. For what it’s worth—and it’s a great deal indeed—Ingmar Bergman will be forever associated with the maturation of the motion picture paradigm. Its influence will shroud cinema in the shadows of the man who made such a visual dichotomy possible—and poetic. 


Trailer for The Seventh Seal


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