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Best Films of 2017: The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water is an outright masterpiece. Guillermo del Toro delivers his best film to date. Yes he outdid himself and topped Pan’s Labyrinth.

It’s the culmination of his career to this point. Those of us who were taken by The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth have been waiting to see him return to his period piece melodramas with monster/supernatural metaphor.

Sally Hawkins deserves Best Actress. It’s as moving a performance as Charlie Chaplin in City Lights and Giulietta Masina in La Strada.

Richard Jenkins gives a performance unexpected. One of life, warmth and humor.

Michael Shannon continues to be one of the best weirdo villains in film. Colonel Richard Strickland is the American Captain Vidal.

Doug Jones gives life to The Creature is his best work. He does so much with just a gesture and a stance.

This also is del Toro’s best-written film. The screenplay has great structure and dialogue.

Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Actress, Best Cinematography

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Best Films of 2017: Logan

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No film stuck with me for days after this year than Logan.

Logan is the only film of its kind that is a true successor to The Dark Knight in terms of maturity. It actually improves on what was missing from Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece of pop cinema with heart and also a maturity of it being a film by men close to or in middle age.

If The Academy wants to truly make up for The Dark Knight shut-out in 2008 this is the film.

This is in the tradition of great westerns like Unforgiven. James Mangold truly shows why he is a great director in the mold of Alan J. Pakula, Martin Ritt and Elia Kazan.

Hugh Jackman ends his legendary run as James Howlett/Logan/Weapon X/Wolverine with a swan song on the same level as Eastwood ended his tenure as Western-icon with Unforgiven or when The Duke ended his career and iconography with The Shootist. We finally get to see The Wolverine we’ve wanted we get berserker rage.

A meditation on death, the long-term effects of violence and legacy. A key scene to the theme is a scene between Logan and Laura in which they both have been victims and perpetrators of violence. Laura tries to justify her violence in that the people she inflicted brutal violence and death on were “bad guys” Logan tells her that it’s all the same, the taking of a life no matter what the reason stays with a person and stains them.

 

“The Bride of Frankenstein”

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An American masterpiece this is the only sequel in the horror genre that is superior to the original. James Whale is an overlooked genius he was truly the first auteur. I would go far to say he laid the foundation for Coppola and Nolan in the case of taking a commercial genre piece and creating something personal and intelligent that goes beyond the confines of the genre. Whales wicked sense of humor that had begun in his previous films like The Invisible Man and The Old Dark House is at its most overt. In many ways it’s the earliest example of the hybrid of horror comedy and also the best example of being a truly affecting horror film and a very bawdy campy comedy. This is a representation of Whales himself who as an infantryman in World War I dealt with the horrors of war with dark humor.

Horror films around this time were perhaps at their most effective in relating to the audience. In a time in which for the first time men came home from war looking like monsters because of the use of chemical weapons and with prosthetics to replace their missing body parts. Whales experience in World War I is seen in his design of the Monster whose scars and stitches are reminiscent to those of WWI vets.

Whales also continued his empathy towards the outsider. In the Monster it could be said it’s the most base level child like interpretation of being an outsider that Whales brings across. At the same time the character of the mad Dr Pretorius could be seen as an example of outsiders who don’t wish for acceptance by a society they do not respect.

The film’s use of Christian imagery is one in which the symbols are inverted. The Monster is the antithesis to Christ; he is raised from the dead and then crucified. The Monster is a mockery of the Divine and if it was meant to or not it gets to the bottom of what the Frankenstein stories are about which is defying nature (i.e. God for Christians).

One thing that should not be forgotten are the performances. Karloff is the only of the original monster movie actors who showed a genuine respect for the role he played. The Monster is not a prop but a fully realized character who has an arc. Ernst Thesiger gives a performance of absolute brilliance as the Mephistopheles-like Doctor Pretorius.

Bride should be lauded for the absolute audaciousness of its director in his ability to take a genre film and create a personal statement that is as personal a statement as Welle’s Citizen Kane and Renoir’s Grand Illusion.

“The Departed” 10 years later

Just realized this year is the 10th anniversary of The Departed being released. Martin Scorsese was already by that time my favorite filmmaker who inspired me to become a writer/filmmaker, but The Departed touched me in such a way. It was my generation’s Scorsese film. The 70’s had Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. The 80’s had Raging Bull. The 90’s had Goodfellas.
The Departed is the film when I meet other filmmaker/writers we all sort of had a similar reaction that this is the type of film that we all view as the benchmark for what makes a great film, the type of films and screenplays we strive to make.
What stood out to me as it still does is William Monahan’s brilliant screenplay (well deserving of it’s Oscar). Monahan’s ear for dialogue and the attitude of the way he wrote those characters it was impossible not to be inspired and influenced by.
Scorsese’s direction of the film is his most assured and at the same time his most restrained. It’s a craftsman at the peak of his level. This is Scorsese showing he can be a genre director like Sam Fuller, Don Siegel and Robert Aldrich.
The soundtrack is perhaps Scorsese’s best (I wore out 4 copies of it).
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in it I still rank as his best performance. When you are able to upstage Jack Nicholson the last of the true great actors with star power and charisma you are the best actor of your generation. The fact that he did not get nominated for the film is a travesty.
Mark Wahlberg’s performance is the best of his career. Dignam is mean, infuriating, racist, misanthropic and yet completely dedicated to the case and to Costigan (even though they would love to choke the other to death).
Matt Damon’s Collin Sullivan ranks as one of the most infuriating characters in all of cinema. He’s an insurgent of the lowest order. Groomed from an early age to be his rat bitch for his father figure Frank Costello. His attempts at appearing a decent and honorable police officer makes you wanna puke.
The ending is one of the most nihilistic and yet at the same time most moral endings of all of Scorsese’s films. It’s also a perfect contemptuous middle finger to the simplistic morality of the old Hollywood in which the villain gets his just desserts as the final reel ends (out of nowhere) yet when the hospital shoe coverings on Dignam’s feet enter the frame with the pan up onto his face with a “you know you have this coming” look and Sullivan’s immediate “Alright” followed by his brains blowing out of the back of his head I always cheer.
The Departed is a generational defining film and proof of the power that popular cinema can have.

“Sing Street”: The Birth of an Artist & a Young Man

12654593_217427181938122_6475468339028820690_nWriter/Director John Carney’s musical dramedy “Sing Street” is his fifth feature after the Oscar-winning /nominated musicals “Once” and “Begin Again”is not only his best film but one of the best films of 2016. It is also a film that I have connected to the most more than any other film I have seen. I have seen great films but I have rarely seen films that touch me in a place that was so personal.

The film’s central story takes place in Ireland in the 1980’s at the height of the New Wave movement when bands like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode were the heroes of many young musicians and artists. It also was during the cultural boom of the music video.

The protagonist the teenage Conor Lalor finds himself going to free state-school, Synge Street where he endures bullying by the school bully and the principal. In order to impress Raphina, a wannabe teen model Connor starts a band in order to put her in their music videos.

What makes the film standout then other films about artists is we see Conor and his bandmates grow through this film. They start out as derivative with their influences on their sleeve and over the film they change their style of music and dress as they discover music to by the end of the film the band and most of all Conor have become original in their art. Carney in this reveals the truth about all artists is we all start out be it musician, writer, filmmaker or painter we start out pastiching and ripping off our influences and working through those influences to be artists with an “original voice”. It also reveals something true of being a teenager, in that experimenting with music and dress is as much a part of growing up as heartbreak and angst.

The relationship of Conor to Raphina as presented by Carney is one that is equally very realistic in the relationship of artist and muse and the ultimate fantasy that your muse reciprocates romantic feelings for you.

Carney’s original songs played in the film along with his choice of source music are brilliant. The upbeat “Drive It Like You Stole It” and the ballad “Up” are Oscar worthy and deserve to be hit singles on the radio now.

I have never felt such a connection towards a film ever in my life. Forget the time period or the Irish setting I knew Conor Lalor walking around with a notebook writing songs and in my own case stories.

Taxi Driver critique

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Taxi Driver” brings a dread and discomfort to the screen that few films have. It is perhaps the most deranged noir film ever made. The film puts us in the head of a reprehensible character and we are forced to understand his pathology.  It is one of the few films that can rank among the novels of the existentialist movement. The film is also one of the few American films that is on par with the works of Bergman in its explorations of human nature. The film is a landmark in visual style, acting and screenwriting. It also introduces one of the most fascinating characters in fiction. Travis Bickle is a walking contradiction as Cybil Sheppard’s Betsy tells him in the film, which is an understatement. Travis is violent and tormented by his existence as a human being.  What is fascinating is that we don’t really know why Travis is the way he is, we are never given any insight to what made him this way.

The little insight we have of his past is he was a Vietnam veteran and that he has insomnia. Kolker compares Bickel to two icons of cinema Ethan Edwards of John Ford’s “The Searchers” and Norman Bates of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in regards to Travis’s lineage, “Travis Bickle is the legitimate child of John Wayne and Norman Bates: pure, self-righteous, violent ego and grinning, homicidal lunatic, each the obverse of the other, each equally dangerous.” (Kolker 239) Travis is the missing link between Norman Bates and Ethan Edwards. Travis awkwardness and Midwestern behavior comes out of Bates and his deep self righteousness, racism and mission to save a young woman who does not want to be saved comes from Edwards.

As a writer I am astonished at the screenplay. The screenplay by Paul Schrader is one of the most literary screenplays ever produced in America.  Schrader’s script takes a film noir plot and instills in it the psychological underpinnings and questions of Dostoyevsky. It makes sense the script has an influence of Dostoyevsky since in Biskind it is declared, “He rewrote the Taxi Driver script, wanted it to be an American Notes from the Underground, an American Pickpocket.” (Biskind 295)  Schrader in creating Travis Bickel gives an insight on loneliness but self-imposed loneliness.  Schrader went into great depth in the documentary “God’s Lonely Man” on the “Taxi Driver” DVD Schrader states when talking about the script being about loneliness; “We are not lonely by nature we make ourselves lonely. Travis makes himself lonely” (Schrader).  Schrader is right Travis causes his loneliness by pushing people away through his actions and behavior.

Scorsese as director of the film creates a visual style that brings the audience into Travis’s warped psyche. Scorsese and his director of photography Michael Chapman’s decision in regards to the cinematography was all of Travis’s scenes are from his point of view. This allows for the viewer to relate to Travis. This is clear in the use of close ups on Travis’s eyes and the point of view shots of Travis looking at what he despises about the world. One particular shot that shows this is in a shot of pimps who are African American in a cafeteria, the way it is shot causes the viewer to be repelled by these characters not because they are pimps but because they are black the same reason Bickel does because of his casual and not quite understood racism. In certain points of the film scenes that do not even include Travis in the scene it is from his point of view. In a scene between Iris and Sport that shows the revolting pimp being romantic with the child prostitute, through a shot of Travis Bickle outside as the scene ends it stays with the film’s subjective visual style. Yet one shot in the film that shows Travis Bickel’s personality and pain is in a scene when he is talking to Betsy on the phone after the date where he is asking her when will they see each other again, as it becomes more obvious that Betsy wants nothing to do with him the camera tracks away from Travis and focuses on a vacant hallway because it is too painful to watch.

The visual choices in the film also are to create a film that almost is not part of reality. The use of gels, slow motion, flat on establishing shots creates a nightmarish folktale aesthetic.

Scorsese’s depiction of Time Square is through the eye of a director deeply influenced by his Catholic upbringing. Time Square through Scorsese’s eye as hell on earth is not that far off from what New York in 1976 was like. Scorsese shows in the film a New York not seen in post cards or even in the less flattering Naked City tv series; it’s the New York of garbage strikes, a prominent sex industry, an ineffective John Lindsay, escalating violence and drug use.

“Taxi Driver” is considered one of the most violent films ever made going further than “The Wild Bunch” and “A Clockwork Orange” in its depiction of ultra violence. What people forget is that “Taxi Driver” is not a constantly violent film compared to other films. The film does not show ultra violence until the final 15 minutes of the film with the shoot out in the whorehouse. The climax is a build up of nearly two hours of tension from De Niro’s performance and threats of violence through dialogue and confrontations. In fact Travis does not truly commit true violence until this, before the shootout he had shot a man in self-defense to prevent a robbery that Scorsese shows close to bloodless. In fact in that scene the most violent part is at the end of it when Victor Argo’s character beats the near dead man to death to protect Travis who does not have a permit for his gun.   The shootouts violence is justified in its surreal yet stark tone in presenting violence as it is. Scorsese does not take lightly the pain and aftermath of violence as a James Cameron or even Sergio Leone would have. Throughout the sequence a guard who is shot and whose hand has been shot off is in horrific pain and does not simply die. I see a lot of influence of Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain in the sequence in that it takes forever for Bickel to kill this guy until he finally puts a bullet in his head.

The ending also asks the question where is the line between a villain and a hero, in many ways the film shows that it comes down to who the victims of the violence are. Had Travis killed the candidate he would have ended up a villain but because he kills a pimp and johns of a child prostitute he is a populist hero. The final moment of the film makes it clear that Travis will commit violence again but that next time he might not be so lucky in being portrayed as a hero.

“Taxi Driver” remains a film that over thirty years after its debut at the Cannes Film Festival is one that leaves its viewer debating the character of Travis Bickel and its ending. In a film that is anything but hopeful it is a cautionary to show people that have those times of loneliness that they are not alone and that they cannot allow it to over take their life.

Traffic: Layers & The Next chapter in the career Steven Soderbergh

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As we open up on “Traffic” we are placed in the middle of a war that is failing, the war on drugs. Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film is a masterpiece that shows the culmination of experimentation over the first half of his career. As Andrew Sarris proclaimed in his review of the film, “Traffic marks him definitively as an enormous talent, one who never lets us guess what he’s going to do next. The promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape has been fulfilled” (Sarris). The film also is one of the great commentaries on drug culture and the war on drugs with only Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream” being of equal emotional impact.

“Traffic” is at face value a highly commercial crime thriller, yet it’s experimentation and risks is what makes it independent. The film is the forerunner in hyperlink cinema a movement in cinematic storytelling in which everything and everyone is connected. This is perhaps the best type of story to use this storytelling technique because it goes from the dealers, DEA, Justice system all the way to the addicts. Soderbergh helps keep the many stories together by his use of color temperature, film stock and shutter speed in each storyline to differentiate between. The risk also is having one of the storylines being done principally in the Spanish language. “Traffic” presents the war on drugs as more complex than ‘just say no’. The cops in Mexico can’t do their job because corruption of officials who are making money with the cartels. The absolute ruthlessness of the cartels makes it impossible for DEA and the judicial system to make cases cause of the murders of witnesses.

The story of “Traffic” works on every level. On one level it’s a social commentary. On another it’s a crime drama on level with “The French Connection” and “The Godfather”. It also is a family drama. The levels of the story shows the audience that the drug war and drug culture effect on society is political, legal/ illegal all the way to your own family. It goes for an immediacy that allows for both commentary and an intense cinematic experience.

Though I found the story involving Michael Douglas character going rogue to find his daughter and threatening drug dealers to be very melodramatic, its very much true to fact on an emotional and personal level in what happens to parents of drug users. Douglas finds his daughter stoned and having sexually degraded herself in exchange for drugs.  It is this of all the storylines is that gives the film its soul, every audience member has been a child or could be a parent as compared to a DEA agent or a drug lord so we are able to see at a personal level what the drug wars and drug culture have on society in the micro social group of the family.

In terms of the level of the film as a crime drama it perhaps has one of the most interesting twists on a crime family. Helena is a character who very much rings true of how ruthless these cartels are and what they are willing to do to keep their comfortable lifestyle going.  Another thing that is interesting about that character is her rose-colored sunglass approach she does not see the long lasting implications of her husband being a drug lord she just cares about keeping her nice upper middle class existence going. She is the opposite of Kay Corleone in “The Godfather” or even Carmela Soprano in which both women are either disgusted or have moments of guilt in who their husbands are and what they do to give them such an affluent life, Helena becomes her husband she becomes as ruthless as her husband and in many ways is much more dangerous than her husband. This storyline ends perhaps the best of all the storylines because the fact is these people while they may have gotten away this time they will not next time. In many ways they have made the situation for themselves worse since they have the blood of a DEA agent on their hands.

In terms of where “Traffic” is in Soderbergh’s career it is the beginning towards the next step in his career. “Traffic” shows Soderbergh changing his approach to filmmaking after being a great formalist director for the first ten years of his career. Soderbergh called the film his Dogma film regarding Lars Von Trier’s cinema movement towards a truthful cinema:

“I don’t know Von Trier; I’ve never talked to him. But I certainly felt that I was becoming a formalist and that’s a real dead end. So I felt the need to break radically from that way of working, and clearly he did, too. Because his earlier films were machined to the point of insanity, unbelievable precision. Obviously, he just felt like that goes nowhere.” (Kaufman)

It makes more sense now that Soderbergh went for the quasi-documentary approach to “Traffic” because this is not a film that if done in a formalist way the immediacy that the story calls for would not exist. The fact that he was one of the camera operators on the films helps the immediacy because we are seeing it through the director’s vision literally what he chooses to focus his camera on.  This docudrama technique is different than say “Battle of Algiers” which used stationary camera as opposed to Soderbergh’s choice of kinetic camera movement and editing.  Soderbergh further admitted that he studied the films of Ken Loach who is known for a similar documentary aesthetic to his films:

“I looked at how he would frame, how far away he would be, what the length of the lens was, how tight the eyelines would be, depending on where the characters were. I noticed that there’s a space that’s inviolate, that if you get within something, you cross the edge into a more theatrical aesthetic as opposed to a documentary aesthetic.” (Hope)

Watching the film it does not have really any moment of theatrical composition even in the sequences of action and suspense they feel like they are from a documentary or even footage from news cameras.

Because of experimentation and risk Soderbergh accomplished a film that every filmmaker wishes to have which is a film that fulfills artistic needs along with being an engaging piece of entertainment. “Traffic” is a landmark in American cinema that gave a different side to the issue of the drug wars by not making it a black and white issue or right wing and left wing cause it made it what the problem is a human issue.