Thursday, January 21, 2010

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

I often hesitate from writing about some of my favorite films. I'm afraid that I won't do them the justice they deserve. My short, ~500 word blog posts simply cannot engage a film (perhaps with the exception of Choke) on the level it was created. Entire books have been written on films such as Sunset Boulevard.

I recently put Darren Aronofsky's film, Requiem for a Dream (2000) on my list of the best films of the decade. And I promised that I would post about each one of those.

Well, Scott Tobias of the AV Club, the Onion's younger, hotter, non parodic sister, wrote a piece about Requiem for a column called The New Cult Canon. There really aren't too many spoilers. Read it here.

Funfact: According to IMDb, "most movies contain 600 to 700 cuts. Requiem for a Dream contains over 2,000."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Escapism, Suicide, and James Cameron

Remember when I blogged about audiences needing forms of entertainment other than escapism? This article from CNN documents responses to an Avatar (2009) forum thread entitled "Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible." According to CNN, the thread has received over 1,000 responses from individuals battling with depression and even suicidal thoughts after watching James Cameron's $500 billion dollar film.

Forum member "[Ivar] Hill, 17, explained that his feelings of despair made him desperately want to escape reality."

He told CNN: "One can say my depression was twofold: I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality."

CNN explains that the reason for such emotional attachment to the film is that Cameron's special effects, in conjunction with that newfangled 3-D contraption, make the film "very lifelike."

This simply does not make sense to me.

Now, I have not seen the film yet, and perhaps the special effects are amazing (with that budget, they fucking better be). But I still don't understand how a fantasy can be "very lifelike." Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the Avatar Forum members are especially susceptible to "very lifelike" renditions of alien planets and races. Maybe James Cameron wants everyone to commit suicide. Maybe CNN has morphed into an alarmist, sensationalist 24 hour news outlet with nothing better to report on than internet forums. Maybe the Avatar fans are all bullshitting us.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Best Films of the Decade (2000-2009)

The Aughts were a decade of turmoil and confusion. 9/11 led the United States into the war on terror and spawned a flurry of both documentaries and Hollywood films about the event. According to New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, Hollywood executives decided that "in the wake of such unimaginable horror, we needed fantasy, comedy, heroism." Big-budgeted blockbusters and fantasy franchises dominated the box office as viewers flocked to the cinema to drown in escapism. In fact, 80% of the top 50 highest-grossing films of all time were released in the 2000s.

However, Michael Moore popularized the documentary and, in the later years of the decade, Neo-Neo Realism arose to combat the escapist films brought about by the recession. While bombastic musicals not unlike those of Depression-era director and choreographer Busby Berkeley are still being produced, audiences and filmmakers (thanks to French and Italian cinema) seem to have grown up, if only by a little.

There's nothing wrong with escapism. I love to turn my brain off and watch Lord of the Rings as much as anyone. But escapist cinema is all too ubiquitous in an era which has many problems. Films such as Chop Shop (2007) and Gomorra (2008) reject Hollywood glitz and glamor in favor of a gritty, realist point of view. The world has problems. They won't be erased by wizardry, vampirism or singing and dancing.

All tangential discussions aside, here is my list of the best films released in 2000-2009. Well, perhaps I should rephrase. These are my favorite films of the decade.

Honorable Mentions
Entre les murs (The Class, dir. Laurent Cantent, 2008) - The final shot of empty desks piled in the middle of an empty classroom was moving and symbolic of the tragic fate of the inner-city students.

United 93 (dir. Paul Greengrass, 2006) - By far one of the best films about the 9/11 attacks, United 93 surprisingly does not feel as whorish as Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) or World Trade Center (2006).

Runners-up (in chronological order):
Requiem for a Dream (dir. Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
Les glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, dir. Agnès Varda, 2000)
The Fellowship of the Ring (dir. Peter Jackson, 2001)
Elephant (dir. Gus Van Sant, 2003)

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (dir. Wes Anderson, 2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry, 2004)
Caché (dir. Michael Haneke, 2005)
Vals Im Bashir (Waltz with Bashir, dir. Ari Folman, 2008)
Wendy and Lucy (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2008)

And the best film of the past decade (in my humble opinion, of course) is

There Will Be Blood (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

Stay tuned for more detailed discussions about the films listed above!

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Life and Films of Federico Fellini

Many of the films of Federico Fellini were influenced by events that happened in his childhood. His mother, Ida Fellini, made sure that he and his siblings were brought up Catholic (Alpert, 17). Fellini was often intimidated by religion and on one occasion he was made to keep a candle lit at a vigil, or risk disappointing Jesus, or so he was told (Alpert, 18). Alpert observes that “[s]uch early religious memories would have their later effects” (18). Another influential item in Fellini’s early life was the circus. He loved the circus, and visited it often (Alpert, 19). The circus had a strong influence on La Strada (1954), which focuses on traveling performance artists. One of the episodes in (1963) shows a young Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) and his schoolmates going to see a “prostitute” dubbed La Saraghina dance. Fellini recalls a nearly identical episode in his own life and identifies it as “his first image of sexuality” (Alpert, 21).

Fellini broke into the film industry through screenwriting. He had previous experience with writing scripts for radio broadcasts, but did not write for film until adding to the script for Roberto Rosselini’s Open City (Dixon and Foster, 212). He continued writing films, many for Rossellini, and worked as assistant director as well (Dixon and Foster, 212). One of his earlier films, I Vitelloni (1953), was partly influenced by his younger years (Alpert, 81). However, his first major exposure came from La Strada, for which he won his first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. He reached the height of his fame (and infamy) with La Dolce Vita (1960), and won his third Academy Award for best Foreign Language Film with (Alpert, 3).

Federico Fellini’s La Strada begins and ends at the ocean. It opens on a shot of Gelsomina (played by Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina) and her siblings gathering reeds on the beach. Donald P. Costello notes that the sea is associated with “security and naturalness of youth” and is “a natural symbol for the beginning of life” (6). After Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) is released from jail, he and Gelsomina drive to the sea. In the scene, Gelsomina is framed with the sea in the background, just as she was at the beginning of the film. The contrasting reverse shot shows Zampanò with land behind him. Zampanò then wades into the water and as he is framed with the sea in the background for the first time; he experiences a rebirth of sorts. However, he rejects this rebirth by urinating in the sea (Costello, 24). The Fool (Richard Basehart) has already suggested that Zampanò may be attracted to Gelsomina, and he shows that he was hurt when she tried to leave him. But being the brute that he is, and not willing to openly show emotion, he insults her family. Nonetheless, his character has changed, if only slightly. Fellini’s symbolic composition and Nino Rota’s romantic, lyrical score cause the viewer to begin to feel compassion for him.

The only other scene with the sea is the final one. Zampanò has drunk himself into a stupor after finding that Gelsomina, has died. Again, Zampanò wades into the sea, and when he comes out receives an intimate close up. As the camera pulls back, and the scene is accompanied by a stirring full orchestra version of The Fool’s “very sad song” the viewer can see how desperate and pitiful Zampanò is without Gelsomina. She was his only chance of escaping the literal and figurative shackles of his one-trick act.

Zampanò uses Gelsomina in an attempt to branch out from his “iron lungs” act. With her he is able to try new routines, and perhaps change his reputation so he will not be made a laughingstock by people like The Fool. However, it becomes apparent to him that while his domain is the road, Gelsomina lives for the sea. It is then, an act of selfless compassion, that he leaves her; Zampanò sets Gelsomina free while dooming himself to the captivity of his act. Gelsomina’s freedom acts as a beacon of hope for Zampanò. As long as she is free, Zampanò has hope for freedom though her. Once he finds out that she has died, however, all such hope is gone and all he can do is walk into the sea in the hopes of rebirth or, perhaps as Costello stated, “the security [. . .] of youth” (6).

Fellini’s La Dolce Vita is an aesthetically gorgeous film with the most repugnant of characters. A Vatican publication called the film “obscene,” “lewd” and “depraved” (Murray, 113). However, the film condemns rather than advocates the debauched lifestyle—“the sweet life”—of the Roman upper class. Near the beginning of the film, Marcello (Marcello Mastroianni) tells Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), “You know what your problem is? You have too much money.” This foreshadows the unhappiness and depravity of the ultra-rich that Fellini demonstrates throughout the film. Such immorality is represented by a clash of cultures: the old Rome, a religious city, and the modern Rome, a frivolous and debauched “jungle.” This is most obviously demonstrated in the opening scene as a helicopter carries a statue of Christ above the city of Rome. Not only is the modern (helicopter) juxtaposed with the old (Christ), but, as Edward Murray observes, Roman citizens pay little or no attention to the statue; those that do notice it are apathetic (116). Modern Rome has no use for the church or its traditions.

The culture clash theme is developed in the first nightclub scene as “Fellini replaces the image [. . .] of Christ with a shot of two muscular [. . .] Siamese dancers” (Murray, 116). After their performance, the dancers bow and politely relinquish the stage to a rock band. Again, the ancient has given way to the modern. This is also demonstrated in the scene at Trevi Fountain. Sylvia is “surrounded by her friends—Neptune and several tritons” (Costello, 45) which act as symbols of paganism and of the past. Just as Marcello and Sylvia are about to kiss, the fountain ceases to flow representing the changes Roman society has experienced. Attending church is replaced with ritualistic nightclubbing, miracles are replaced with greedy hoaxes, and love is replaced with meaningless sex.

La Dolce Vita dispels all notions of glamor in the lives of the upper class. While the nightclubs appear to be fancy and luxurious at the beginning to both Marcello and the viewer, this façade soon dissolves as Marcello and Maddalena have sex in a prostitute’s dilapidated, flooded apartment. At the beginning of the film, Marcello simply observes “the sweet life.” This is accentuated by the fact that he is a journalist, always watching, never participating. By the final party, however, Marcello has been completely drawn into the depraved lifestyle; he is “no longer objective and no longer an observer” (Costello, 69). He is the first to break into the house and he takes control of the party, even though it is not at his house. Fellini’s camerawork seems unattached and spectatorial; the point of view is often that of a person passively sitting in the circle. A few shots place the camera outside of the circle, further detaching the viewer from the scene. Although Marcello is lost to “the sweet life” (consummated by his rejection of the innocent Paola (Valeria Ciangottini) on the beach in the next scene) the viewer still has hope to reject the empty lifestyle.

One of the many important themes in Fellini’s is the nature of dreams. Not only are nocturnal dreams discussed, but daydreams and fantasies appear in the film as well. Fellini has stated that is not a direct autobiography, but does contain some of his life’s experiences (Ketcham, 66). Therefore, the dreams of Guido are not necessarily those of Fellini, but they may share some similarities. The link between Fellini’s life and work is demonstrated in his cataloging of dreams. As Peter Bondanella notes, “the period when Fellini was most involved with the exploration of his dream life” coincided with when he “was in the process of preparing ” (94). The specific dream Bondanella writes about directly correlates to Guido’s “blockage of artistic creativity” (Bondanella, 94). Such a lull in creativity is not only something that Fellini may have experienced, as most artists do, but is something that he often dreamed about (Bondanella, 95). While the episodes in are not dramatizations of specific events in Fellini’s life, he most certainly can relate to them.
“Guido seems to have divided women into sexual creatures and ethereal Madonna figures” (Murray 145). This is best exemplified in how he treats his wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée), and his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo). As Charles B. Ketcham observes, Luisa and Carla are polar opposites—at least in the eyes of Guido (72). However, women do not always conform to his dichotomy: Carla plays the role of a prostitute for Guido, but states that she would like to be a “homebody” instead (Murray, 145). This references a theme seen in La Strada and La Dolce Vita as well: modern man’s inability to love. In La Strada, Zampanò has sex with a prostitute and refuses to marry Gelsomina. In La Dolce Vita, Marcello rejects Emma for Maddalena, who subsequently rejects him. In , Guido’s Oedipus complex and categorization of women prohibit him from love. This is directly stated in the film by Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), Guido’s ideal woman; she states that, “he doesn’t love anyone,” and that, “he doesn’t know how to love.” This theme that has been hinted at in two of his previous films is explicitly realized in .

From the beginning of the film, Guido is portrayed as an everyman character. In the first scene, Fellini does not show his face. He could be anyone (including the viewer or Fellini), and the viewer is encouraged to identify with him though point of view shots (Murray, 138). Throughout the film, Guido’s actions are not necessarily those of Fellini, nor those of the viewer. However, both parties will, in most cases, be able to relate to Guido. takes elements from different parts of Fellini’s life including his dreams and his previous films to create a semi-autobiography that can apply to more than just himself.

In many ways Fellini was a part of the neorealist movement in Italy. André Bazin notes that in La Strada, “there is no mise-en-scène” and that the events in the film are merely shown to the viewer (200). In this way, Bazin states that Fellini has not “departed from Italian neo-realism” (201). Much of the camerawork in La Strada and the other films discussed above further exemplifies the seamless techniques of neorealism; the viewer can nearly forget he or she is watching a film. However, Fellini still creates stylish and aesthetically pleasing compositions. Fellini, especially in later films, strays from certain neorealist conventions. For example, he cast professional actors instead of amateurs. Rather than shooting on location, he had grandiose sets created at Cinecittà (Bondanella, 65). While his films appear visually real, his narratives are sometimes fantastical and symbolic. Fellini did not reject Italian neorealism, but rather expanded from strictly documentary style filmmaking to a more poetic type of cinema.

A theme that is often seen in Fellini’s films is that of religion, or, more specifically, the impotence of the Catholic church. In La Strada, Zampanò steals, or attempts to steal, from a convent whose Sisters had given him food and a place to sleep. In La Dolce Vita, modern society has no use for religion; miracles only exist as pitiful grabs at fame and money. In , Guido searches “in vain for spiritual nourishment from the church” (Murray, 142). Fellini’s religious upbringing and confrontations with the church has clearly influenced his filmmaking. He does not present the struggle for “spiritual nourishment” as unique to Guido or himself. Instead, he encourages the viewer to relate to the struggles of the characters in his films. He does this through subtle editing and realistic composition. There are no disorienting close ups or alienating wide shots. Fellini visually places the viewer in his films, whether it be on the road, in the sweet life, or in his dreamworld.

Works Cited

Alpert, Hollis. Fellini, a life. New York: Atheneum, 1986.

Bazin, André. "La Strada." Cross Currents 6.3 (1956): 200-03.

Bondanella, Peter. The Films of Federico Fellini (Cambridge Film Classics). New York: Cambridge UP, 2002.

Costello, Donald P. Fellini's road. Notre Dame [Ind.]: University of Notre Dame P, 1983.

Dixon, Wheeler Winston, and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster. A Short History of Film. New York: Rutgers UP, 2008.

Ketcham, Charles B. Federico Fellini the search for a new mythology. New York: Paulist P, 1976.

Murray, Edward. Fellini, the artist. New York: F. Ungar Pub. Co., 1976.

An Education (2009)

Jenny (Carey Mulligan), the Russian cigarette-smoking, French music-listening, Latin textbook-studying, British-born schoolgirl must make the hardest decision of her young life. She must choose between what her father (Alfred Molina) wants: a boring education at Oxford (that he would pay for) followed by a boring career and what she wants: moving to France, wearing black, drinking and smoking.

Jenny is not the most sympathetic of characters, especially when viewed from the context of the recession. Not very many people get private education paid for, nor do they get the chance to marry spontaneous, rich and attractive men with a penchant for traveling and the arts. Jenny has the option of either, yet she seems to take it all for granted.


She abandons her banal life of British schoolboys, Oxford and Camus and cafés for David (Peter Sarsgaard), her older, richer, more exciting lover. And when her plans are ruined, it is hard to feel compassion for the naïve girl. But, in a standard coming-of-age twist, Jenny admits her stupidity and mistakes and is allowed to attend the prestigious Oxford, schoolboys and all.

The story is a simple, typical bildungsroman, and the director, Lone Scherfig, supports this; there are few shots that suggest individuality. Barney Pilling’s editing is predictable, and Paul Englishby’s score could have been taken from any other drama film that tries just a little too hard. These aren’t necessarily bad things. Rather, they enforce an important theme in the film: Jenny’s struggle with the uniformed, prescribed life that has been placed on her by her father. When she is studying, imprisoned by the unoriginal subjects, she is visually imprisoned by the latticework of her bedroom windows. However, when David whisks her off to France, the frame rate is cut, the mise-en-scène becomes more spacious and varied and the camera pans, tracks, and zooms quickly, much like Jenny’s favorite films of the Nouvelle Vague. Back at home, in the suburbs of London, film becomes less creative and the editing returns to a more conventional style.

Carey Mulligan’s superb performance is perhaps one of the only things that keeps An Education from becoming a trite, out-of-touch tale. Her acting is sincere; Jenny’s tears and occasionally clichéd dialog (thank you, Nick Hornby) do not seem forced. In the film’s final scenes, it is Mulligan’s genuinely humbled demeanor, not any cinematic technique or musical cue, that shows the viewer that Jenny is not looking for pity.

Jenny questions her teachers (and the audience) about the importance of education. She inquires as to why it is so important that she finish her exams and attend Oxford where they “don’t want you to think for yourself.” At the end of the film, once she has obtained her education, she does not ask the audience to learn from her mistakes. She asks that they learn from their own mistakes.

Grade: B-

Monday, October 12, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Paranormal Activity (2007) is almost interesting. Unfortunately, the only thing that is interesting about it is its style of release. Paranormal Activity was premiered at the 2007 Screamfest Horror Film Festival, but has not yet been given a wide release. (Paranormal Activity hits theaters nationwide on October 16). On the weekend of September 25, The film was released in thirteen cities in the United States, generating a massive amount of word-of-mouth buzz. The cities in which the film was released was determined by voting on, something that has never been done before with a movie. Many of these screenings have sold out; the film has grossed an estimated $8.2 million.

If you have heard anything about the film, you probably think it will be the scariest thing you have ever seen. Stories of people running out of the theater crying come by the dozen. The most hardcore people you know admit to not being able to sleep after attending one of the midnight screenings. Even Steven Spielberg is convinced the film is haunted. Immediately after he watched a DVD screener of the movie, Spielberg found the door to his bedroom mysteriously locked from the inside. He allegedly returned the film to the studio in a garbage bag claiming the DVD was cursed.


The film itself, however, is not as frightening as Spielberg and everyone else will have you believe. Sure, it has a few genuinely creepy moments. And sure, it isn’t exactly a formulaic horror film. However, it does not transcend the limits of the now-stale genre as is often said. Paranormal Activity is an impressive debut effort from Oren Peli considering the extremely low budget (estimated at $11,000) and seven day shooting schedule. It would seem as if he knows a little bit about what he is doing. He establishes the meticulously designed staircase as a constant source of fear throughout the film. Not only is the ominous sound of some unknown being plodding up the stairs frightening, but the way Peli shoots through the three banisters adds a subtle sense of dread. Most of the film is shot from a tripod pointed at the main couple’s bed. The stationary, security-camera style footage is brilliantly creepy. There is not a central focal point for the viewer to look at. Should you watch the actors lying in bed or concentrate on the open doorway? What was that shadow in the corner? Although these scenes are mostly static, the viewer is kept in suffocating suspense.

The film is suspenseful, but scary, it is not. As A. O. Scott says,
“There is no lingering dread. You are not likely to be troubled by the significance of this ghost story or tantalized by its mysteries. It’s more like a trip to the local haunted house, where even the fake blood and the tape-loop of howling wind you have encountered 100 times before can momentarily freak you out.”
It seems as though Paranormal Activity’s near-notorious degree of scariness is due to audiences so badly desiring to be frightened out of their minds. Unfortunately, after the hype of Paranormal Activity dies down, it will become clear that the film is not “the scariest movie of the decade” as so many hope and exclaim. It is doubtful that you will have any real trouble going to sleep after watching it. That is, of course, unless your house is haunted.

Grade: C+

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Nine to Five (1980)

Once again, I am going to stray from more academic writing in favor of a quick movie review of a fun 80s treasure. Nine to Five revolves around the work lives of three women: Judy (Jane Fonda), Violet (Lily Tomlin), and Doralee (Dolly Parton). They work at Consolidated, just your generic (evil) corporation.Their boss (Dabney Coleman) is a total douchebaggy perv with a thing (of course) for his assistant, Doralee. Without giving too much away, madness ensues and their boss finds himself being held hostage by our three stars in his own house.

I know the movie seems ridiculous, and it most definitely is. Still, it is worth watching. I wouldn’t say it is campy, but there is some slapstick humor that was lost on me. Lily Tomlin, however, is the source of some fantastically dry humor. It is entertaining to watch Jane Fonda act as an innocent, oblivious secretary and (I never thought I would say this) Dolly Parton was adorable as well.

Cinematically, there were a couple of aesthetically pleasing shots, the most notable of which occurs during the Xerox scene, but the real impact of the movie is made on the narrative level. The film blatantly exposes the glass ceiling and the presence of misogyny in the workplace. As these issues still exist today, the film remains relevant on two fronts: comedic entertainment and social commentary.

Grade: B