Concise Review: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

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The Magnificent Seven in many ways is the most charming Western to come out of the Hollywood Studio system. Its 125-minute running length is filled to the brim with amusing gestures, comradery, mythical awe and a simultaneous child like excitement and rawness to its action sequences. Despite possessing these qualities, the film does not descend into becoming a mere lark and spectacle. Instead, the picture truly comes alive in its quiet and contemplative moments where members of the titular seven bandit group reflect on their moral plight.

Many of these sequences feature Chris Adams who is played with captivating subtly by Yul Brynner. Brynner single handily provides the film with its moral centre, emphasising sensitivity and duty bound nature with his precise facial expressions. At the same time, Brynner effortlessly portrays the sense of loss that has befallen his brothers in his arms. The most striking single moment that articulates this comes at the end of the picture when he states in a matter of fact manner that “The farmers won, we lost, we always lose.” The line is an acknowledgement of the futility of his line of work and can be interpreted as the start of the Western genre becoming self-reflexive about its characters and inherent nature.

Finally, director John Sturges matches the intimacy of the film with a commendable grandeur. Part of this comes from the movie being shot in Panavision, which allows for these sweeping scenic shots that are breathtaking to behold. Moreover, the downtrodden central village that requires assistance from the titular group was built on location. The result is a creation that feels authentic and intrinsically possesses character. From its central bell tower to its straw and robust stone archways, the village in the Magnificent Seven is a wonder onto itself that demands survival for its beauty and depiction of the simpler life.

Concise Review: Chinatown (1974)

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At a recent 35mm screening of the film, Chinatown, the titular city’s sense of seediness, shattered hope and corruption became ever more evocative as an eternal place in the movies. What starts out as cursory mentions that serve as details of the main character J.J. “Jake” Gittes’s (Jack Nicolson) past takes on a mythological and eventually tragic heft, which is punctuated with the last line, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

In my rewatching of Chinatown, what struck me most was how the film functions as a neo-noir. With its sepia-toned opening credits and Jerry Goldsmith’s romantic classical score, one would immediately think they are watching a traditional Noir picture. This aspect even extends to the first scene, where the first few shots are of black and white images of a sordid affair, confirmed by a character’s audible reaction to seeing them.

Throughout the remainder of its running time, Chinatown impressively does not wear its noir influences on its sleeve. German Expressionist imagery and black and white photography are replaced by dirty, murky and occasional luscious uses of brown and blue. Moreover, shadowy silhouettes and twisted architectural creations are done away with in favour of radiant mountain shots and eye-widening infrastructure.

Even the characters transcend their archetypical trappings. The most prominent example of this comes from Evelyn Cross Mulwray, (Faye Dunaway) who initially seems as though she is going to be the seductive siren who works in the mould of the Femme Fatale. However, this expectation is subverted by two things. The first is Faye Dunaway’s performance. She imbues Evelyn with a sense of hard determinism, careful thinking and a wistful demeanour. Secondly, the writing contributes to this genre subversion as Robert Towne’s screenplay paints Evelyn as the most considerate character in the story.

Nevertheless, Chinatown wholeheartedly embraces Film Noir by adhering to the meaning of the word, which translated from its native French origin means “dark film.” At the heart of the picture resides a savage secret that is masked in a universal desire and the movie’s final reel is the realisation that it will flourish, and our protagonist will be left scarred by the experience.

Review: Knight of Cups (2016)

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Terrence Malick’s recent film, Knight of Cups, is a wondrously reflective film that at once is about the soul’s attempt to ascend from its earthly bounds and at the same time, a meditation on the frustration of the creative process. In the picture, Malick conceives of the soul as an essence that is broken into many pieces as a result of the pleasures of the body. Consequently, the main character Rick (Christian Bale) experiences life as though he is walking through a vale of mist, ever apathetic, disengaged and asleep as moments of life pass him by in seemingly rapid succession.

The conception called to mind Socrates’s idea of the soul. He posited that the soul should be nourished and nursed because it represents a divine essence. With this in mind, the Ancient Philosopher goes on to say that when someone dies, their soul is less likely to pass through the Hades (The Greek underworld) because it is still attached to earthly pleasures.

In tandem with this is the structure of the film, which is fundamentally dual edged. On the one hand, the picture is impressionist and reflexive, as though we are seeing Rick seamlessly probing his memories to find answers. One can compare these instances of interconnected moments and remembrance tapestries to Sergio Leone’s use of memory in Once Upon a Time in America. Leone made these sequences equally organic in their use, as the main character in his twilight years walks around certain parts of a familiar city, immediately struck by a place or object that causes him to reflect on moments from his past which in turn inherently illustrated the degrading nature of time.

The movie is also split into eight chapters that explore a particular aspect of the title that is on screen. Both of these structural facets services the second theme in an equally compelling manner as the first one. The fourth chapter, which is entitled ‘Judgement’ depicts the loving and souring relationship that he had with his first wife Nancy, (Cate Blanchett) which is contrasted with the reunion between the former couple in the present. The segment strongly shows the effect of Rick supposedly scattered soul as it gives rise to random angry moods and an apparent disengagement from his relationship with Nancy. As she expresses half way through the segment, “You never wanted to be totally inside our marriage or outside it either.”

Blanchett’s performance is a compelling portrait in bitterness and vulnerability. At the same time, Blanchett contrasts this with an endearing and enduring love for Rick. The Australian actress brings these two aspects to the fore in a small moment, where Rick looks at Nancy then proceeds to touch her on the shoulder before promptly walks away. Blanchett’s facial expressions during this time convey the contradictory feelings of comfort, sadness and a simmering cruel judgement, which is accentuated with a small gesture of her putting her hand on her left cheek as if she is questioning whether or not she was just touched by the man she loves.

At the same time, some of Malick’s directorial choices efficiently show the developing distance between the two characters, whether it is small contrasts in physicality between Rick and Nancy when walking down the street together. Or the physical distance between the characters in the closing moments of the chapter. There is also a suggestion of fear that is within Rick’s soul that is expressed as an apprehension of life. Malick punctuates this shadow over the spirited part of Rick’s soul with some of the imagery. One particular shot shows a thick patch of fog engulfing the sky, which has the usually radiating sun covered in a grey, which results in it losing its warmth and light as it is shown in the far distance.

In his previous directorial efforts, Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Malick commendably presented relationships as though they were stirring and passionate flames that would eventually flicker out of existence without explanation. In this film, Malick shows relationships that are somewhat ineffable in nature, but their erosions are much clearer, and they still retain his distinctive intuitive realism.

Finally, Knight of Cups is at its best when Malick is employing juxtaposition through the narration and images. The most prominent example of this is featured in the opening of the film when a story is being told. The tale tells of a King of the East who sends his son to Egypt to find a Pearl from the depths of the sea. Upon reaching the country, the people give him drink that makes him forget that he ever was a Prince. Eventually, he has no memory of his original purpose as he drifts into a long stupor.

While this story is being audibly outlined, Malick shows us images of Rick engaging in debaucherous and silly behaviour. They remind us of the primary idea at the heart of the picture, which is the effect of Rick’s soulless existence in LA. Some of the shots also marry up with various facets of the story. These include an amusing momentary close-up of Rick wearing a horse’s head when the narrator speaks of the King sending messengers to his son and a shot of Rick getting up slowly as the part of the Prince waking up from a deep sleep.

One can read the pearl in the tale as the creative spark, which is reinforced with Rick’s occupation of being a screenwriter. Moreover, the Prince forgetting his purpose of finding the pearl could be inferred as Rick forgetting the original reason of why he wanted to go to LA and become a screenwriter. With this in mind, Malick ultimately synthesises these two themes by having a Priest suggest that God sends suffering to show that he loves us. I read this as Malick’s acknowledgement that though the soul struggles in staying whole and the artist grapples with the lack of creativity. These moments of utter pain and frustration define us as human beings because they test our resolve and strength of the will.

Review: The Fly (1958)

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The original 1958 version of The Fly proved to be a fascinating experience, even from the perspective of having seen David Cronenberg’s 1986 remake. Firstly, the film has a mystery that resides in nearly every frame. In some ways, it evokes Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” which formulated a mystery around its central character and concept before being unveiled in the closing chapters. This aspect coupled with an acute sense of the idyllic makes the film interesting in how it compares with the Cronenberg picture. That movie had the savage intimacy of a play and conceptualised the transformation into the titular creature as though one is going through a terminal illness. The original feels like a cautionary tale of science as well as evoking the fear of human beings devolving. Two scenes mainly convey the latter theme with commendable precision.

The first is in the third act of the picture, which depicts the last moments of scientist Andre Delambre (David Hedison) as he struggles to write his last request on a chalkboard. Delambre has his face covered, and one of his arms has already transformed. Hedison’s silent performance is powerful as he thrashes about and fights for the final moments of his humanity, which is accentuated by two things. The first is his written declaration being purposefully shown in the background of the frame. The second is Hedison’s consistent violent gesture of beating his Fly arm as though it is an entity that is about to attack and consume him.

The second scene comes near the end, and it has the faint voice of Delambre as he begs for help when he is in human fly form as a spider closes in to eat him. The scene ends with Inspector Charas (Herbert Marshall) putting the title creature out of his misery, which is punctuated with a blood-curdling scream that haunts the seasoned man. Aside from putting the moral framework into perspective as in the aftermath, Charas and Andre’s brother Francois (Vincent Price) discuss the death of the malformed human being versus the death of the human fly.

Despite all this, one does feel that the film does not entirely escape its idyllic tone. Part of this comes from the picture’s visual scheme which gives rise to some picturesque and stunning shots, which were achieved by the film being shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor. Scenes like Andre and his wife, Helene (Patricia Owens) talking in the garden and their evening at the ballet make the picture transcends its B-movie nature, particularly with the vivid use of green and red in both scenes. The other part of persistent tone comes from the ending, which shakes off its moral murkiness in favour of an optimistic and saccharine ending.

Review: Café Society (2016)

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At the spectacularly prestigious and lavish parties that Café Society derives its name from; conversations drip with pomposity and weary wisdom, drinks flow with an unwavering freedom and the omnipresent narrator goes on amusing tangents about the star-studded guests. Despite the overt showiness of these occasions, the new film from writer/director Woody Allen is an intimate and tragic portrait of a young romance that has an inherent fatalism, which stems from the fact that the couple fundamentally can’t change their nature because of their respective environments.

Early in the film, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) goes to work for his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell) who is a much admired and hardworking Hollywood talent agent. In between dealing with menial daily tasks, he is shown around the town by Veronica. (Kristen Stewart) The central romance between these two characters is sincere, idealistic and full of initial promise, which Allen accentuates in the filmmaking. One scene that is emblematic of these qualities is when an emotional Veronica goes to Bobby’s house after her boyfriend has broken up with her. The decorated and darkened room that the two characters are in is lit with two candles on a table, which gives the scene a dusty yellow and black visual scheme that at once represents the promise of romance with the former colours and a hint of the unknown with the use of the latter colours.

At the same time, both the actors make the central romance engaging and emotionally resonating. Initially, Jesse Eisenberg is an excellent stand-in for Woody Allen, with his neurotic and pesky manner. However, Eisenberg’s transcends this early impression and imbues Bobby with a sense of captivating innocence that manifests itself in a steadfast surety and sincerity. One the one hand, these qualities make for amusing ironies as the young man is a listening ear and advisor of his uncle’s love life. More crucially, these traits represent his earnest commitment to Veronica, which makes him endearing to the audience.

Like with his framing of Marion Cotillard in Midnight in Paris, Allen makes Kristen Stewart captivating and a real starlet of the silver screen. While in Paris, it seemed like an accidental transcendent quality that primarily came from the appealing nature of Cotillard. In Society, it seems like a purposeful construction as some scenes celebrate Hollywood actresses of yesteryear. In the tail end of the picture, there is a scene where Veronica confesses her lingering feelings for Bobby. One of the things she expresses is that she still dreams of him. After this confession, Stewart then closes her eyes and continues talking as though she is experiencing his presence in a lucid dream.

The scene conjured to mind, many candid and melodramatic scenes from cinema’s great past. It was almost as though Allen had convinced me that if I were watching this scene in fifty years time, then I would be looking at it with the same fondness and reverence that I would if I saw Kim Novak from Vertigo or Julie Christie in Dr Zhivago. Stewart impresses with her counter-intuitive choices and her subtle facial expressions that reveal insight and perceptual curiosity.

Eventually, the starry-eyed couple cannot stay together because of the influence of their environment on their natures. Veronica succumbs to the seduction of the Hollywood lifestyle, which includes living in big houses, going to extravagant parties and the reassurance of security, which contrasts with her contrary and unfavourable opinions on the subject in the midst of courting Bobby. On the other hand, Bobby goes to work at his brother’s corrupt and infamous club, in which he gains notoriety, partly due to the reputation of the place and the friends who he met and bonded with while living in Hollywood.

The last shot of the picture which is a dissolve of the two lovers melancholically reflecting upon their lives in the midst of New Year celebrations illustrates the primary theme extremely well. It reminds the viewer of how much their respective environments have externally shaped the characters. However,  internally they strive for something greater, simple and much more fulfilling, which is ultimately each other.

 

Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

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Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an outstanding reimagining of the original 1956 movie. The Don Siegel picture felt like a dizzying portrait of McCarthyism and the subsequent Second Red Scare, which occurred from 1950-1956. Moreover, it did not wear its surrealism on its sleeve. In turn, this allowed the sheer bleakness of the concept to be gradually revealed to the audience. 

At the heart of 1978 film is a genuine fear that nature and trusted figures of authority, as well as expertise, seek to supplant the crucial aspects of the human experience.The former is expressed in a vivid opening sequence that shows some space spores landing on Planet Earth. Once down here, there is a small moment that illustrates how the pod species blend in amongst our plant life. In a series of shots that feels like a strange mix of documented realism and stop motion, the tiny translucent organisms that are on multiple rain-soaked leaves form into spidery creatures then sickly green pods and finally a budding pink flower springs forth from the shoot. The scene ends with the main character Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) picking up and admiring the fully formed pink flower from one of the pods.

The latter is articulated in many scenes throughout the picture. The most pertinent one comes in the first act of the film. After some instances where Elizabeth has expressed a change in her husband’s behaviour, her friend, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) decides to take her to see his friend and famous psychiatrist Dr David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) at a book launch. At best, she is sceptical about the prospect of meeting Kibner because of the implications of his profession. Once there, she witnesses another woman who expresses similar concerns over her spouse’s sudden shift in character and conduct.

In the midst of this conversation with this hysterical woman, Kibner pauses and ask her, “Will you trust me, will you please trust me.” The moment feels like a stunt and Nimoy’s weak and sickly reassuring performance makes the psychiatrist seem like a carefully precise televangelist. Moreover, Nimoy’s performance also had echoes of Richard Nixon’s 1973 presidential address in which he infamously declared that “I am not a crook”, which comes from Nimoy’s confident and emphasised cadence during the scene when he is actually addressing the room.

Kibner appears throughout the film as the central representative of authority who lambastes the stories of people who claim that their loved ones have fundamentally changed. At one point in the picture, he contends that what is going on is merely a mass illusion which is essentially responsible for the breakdown of the family unit as people are not accepting responsibilities for wanting to leave their partners. However, it is revealed that he is part of the pod people as he had been transformed at some point in the picture. In a scene where two of the main characters have been captured, Kibner reveals the origin of the alien species and the implications of their new life, which gives the inherent fear of authority throughout the film a great potency. Moreover, this fear is punctuated with many little moments where Matthew attempts to call the authorities, and the audience sees that they have done subtle things to make the group of survivors look irrational in their firmly held belief that they have seen evidence of the pod people’s activities.

Aside from its primary strength of wonderfully conveying its two thematic points, the 1978 remake also succeeds because of its excellent filmmaking and the small organic moments of humanity that strengthen the underlying premise of the picture. Director Kaufman injects the film with a frantic surrealism, which manifests itself with seemingly strange cross-cutting, ordinary shots having a sense of abstract absurdity and an uneasy sounding ambient score.

A superb example of the first few mentioned qualities comes in the previously stated scene when Matthew and Elizabeth visit Kibner at a full book launch. Before conversing with the famous psychiatrist, Matthew attempts to call the police to report an incident. While this is occurring, a friend of his named Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) is having an impassioned rant about how people do not understand his poetry or artistic voice. Many of the shots of these moments feature a huge mirror in the background, which morphs the character’s faces into ludicrous forms. These few scenes and shots feel bewildering and claustrophobic, however with the use of the tall mirrors, Kaufman transformers our seemingly banal fixations and delusions into an absurdist illustration of human problems.

Finally, every so often the picture surprises in its quiet and contemplative moments, which is particularly evident in the central relationship between Matthew and Elizabeth. The health inspector cares for Elizabeth however it does not play like a one-sided sense of longing Instead, they have a deeply embedded friendship, which manifests itself in amusing scenes that show their long-standing relationship. One such scene that springs to mind is when Matthew is telling Elizabeth a story and stops half way through asking if she has heard this one been told before? In the third act, their relationship becomes romantic, and they share a hesitant first kiss, which impresses because it does not feel like a sweeping moment but instead a subdued acknowledgement and culmination between the two people.

The other little moments that stand out in the picture are ones such as when Matthew says to Jack’s wife Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) that she can stay the night at his house. In addition to when Kibner says that he sincerely believes Matthew because he has known him a long time, which gives him reason to believe his stories about the pod people. In the third act, when Matthew says ‘You’re killing us’ to his former friend, the line has much more meaning and power because of these little moments showcasing the importance of the human emotions and the connections that can arise out of them.