Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick; based on The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Cinematographer: John Toll
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1....
After the battle ends, Quintard takes Staros for a walk, asking if he is willing to sacrifice any of his men, which is a fair question. Malick avoids creating an overly righteous individual, holier than all others, but instead provides us with a flawed individual, who might be allowing his relationships to the men jeopardize the overall mission, however slight. Later, the two share another scene where Quintard relieves Staros, stating that so long as Staros avoids formal objections to Quintard’s irresponsible orders, Staros will go back to the states, with no consequences to face and with a much safer and more manageable role, away from the action.
Throughout the film, Staros is seen praying with all his might, hoping to make it out alive. It’s clear what the deal means, and what’s more nuanced is that he takes it with minimal resistance. We never know if he cherished the opportunity to escape, or knew that prolonging the situation would only make things worse. The best part of this scene is its similarity to an earlier moment, when a pudgy soldier feigns a stomach ache right before the initial battle charge, begging to go back. Sgt. Keck (Woody Harrelson) scolds him for cowardice and orders him to prepare to charge. The man starts drooling and shaking, a look of fear strewn across his face. 1st St. Edward Welsh (Sean Penn) intervenes, and excuses the man, much to Keck’s disagreement. Earlier in the film, we see Welsh castigate Bell (Ben Chaplin) for going AWOL, demoting him back down to private, where he’ll now help the medics with the wounded. In the scene, Welsh declares that any man like Bell is a weakness to the unit and unfit for combat.
So why would Welsh allow the pudgy man to head back down the hill? It was only this round that I think I finally understood - as the last thing any of the men needed to see at that moment was someone scared out of his mind, pretending to be sick, possibly forcing Keck to take drastic action - either continuing to yell at the soldier, making him grow increasingly frantic, or killing the man, exasperating the fear all the other men are trying to contain.
This is the same deal as Quintard provided Storos - an easy way out for Storos, that would have the littlest effect upon the man and most positive result for Quintard. There seems a genuine respect for Storos and what he did, as is evident by the tears and bargaining. But again the performance comes on. He can’t empathize too much. You get the sense that Quintard would like to open up and explain that he understands. Perhaps Quintard was not offering the deal as a way to save himself, so much as reward Storos for having saved so many men. Quintard wasn’t strong enough to question his superior. Storos was and Quintard respected that. In the end, we don’t know what Quintard exactly believed. You could argue either way. The character embodies emptiness; where the further you go the more it leads to uncertainty.
It was during the charge through the weeds that I remembered an essay I read about the opening shot with the alligator head dipping into and out of the swamp; a perfect image for unpredictable death. I’ve written on the idea in other films - I can’t understand overcoming the fear to charge into battle. There are books like Red Badge of Courage, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and All is Quiet on the Western Front, movies like Saving Private Ryan, Platoon, and When Trumpets Fade, even a few songs that I’d be embarrassed to mention specifically for fear of misinterpreting their meaning - all which can make you come as close as possible to understanding the fear a soldier faces. To know that you are, whether agreeable or not, in a situation where you must charge into battle, where people will die all around you, and the only difference between living and dying is pure luck, chance, or randomness. The alligator doesn’t care which human it wants to eat, but it is going to eat. The battle commences and between Hans Zimmer’s score and Malick’s direction and Toll’s photography we are completely immersed within the minds of these men. There is nuance and depth, and each of us is able to interpret the vast array of characters in such unique and subjective ways, it’s as though we’re there with them, following the movie forward.
Allegedly Hans Zimmer recorded over four hours of music for the film, meaning the original film ran over that amount, eventually trimmed down by an hour and change to its 170 minute running time; Billy Bob Thornton had recorded an hour of voice over, none of it used, with Malick opting to use other characters; in a Hollywood Reporter interview with Christopher Plummer and George Clooney, Plummer vowed never to work with Malick again after how he cut the film, with Clooney stating that Adrien Brody actually had the lead in the film, only to be almost completely edited it out. While the trivia is fascinating, I can’t help imagining what else this film could have been - not better or worse, just different. Rarely has one film’s history illustrated that this story could have been assembled in a myriad of ways. Now that I’ve accomplished seeing this film in the theater, I can only hope that eventually that four hour cut is discovered. It has to be somewhere and what an experience that could be. I consider this one of the finest films ever made; where Malick accomplished the rare feat of introducing an entirely new cinematic style, that was only recently adopted by the more mainstream and accessible The Revenant (and done marvelously, at that).
The closing scene, as the men are charging through the gate, as Zimmer’s “Journey to the Line” kicks in - what I consider to be one of the finest pieces of film score ever created - and we follow the men as they head into one last dash, so close to coming out alive, and filled with such rage that you wonder what rumors the Japanese passed on afterward. I wasn’t able to finish these thoughts before that post cinematic feeling wore off. It stuck with me for a long, long time. There was so much else I wanted to explore and simply did not have the time to write it down. Even with just a few weeks and a half dozen films taken in since then the details are muddied. There is a power that this film contains. When I hear actors complain and that the film is too abstract, it all adds up to the epitome of talent. Malick had the rare privilege to create and explore a film that would completely stray from what anyone expected. Somehow the stars don’t feel like stars; the don’t pop out at you; they assemble, and like the marines they play, they each have a role. It is not about them. It is about the grander story, in which you can truly feel the craft behind each shot and scene. It’s rare that even after five viewings there’s more discover. I won’t return too soon. A film like deserves time between viewings; so that you forget where it goes, allowing it to pierce deep into your soul and transport you to a place that film and only film could ever accomplish.
BELOW: The opening scene and an alligator
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Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick; based on The Thin Red Line by James Jones
Cinematographer: John Toll
by Jon Cvack
When I first saw The Thin Red Line it must have been on a VHS tape on my family's old 31” CRT television. My parents had taken me to see Saving Private Ryan a few months before and that opening scene was burned into my mind forever since. I remember a friend’s mom saying she refused to take her kids due to the violence, never considering that maybe that’s why they should see the film; to understand the horrors of war, so often missed. It was a film that achieved the amazing feat of remaining apolitical. It’s equally a celebration and caution, exploring sacrifice and bravery, and it’s one of my favorite films of all time. Similar to 2008 with There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, Saving Private Ryan had a brother. Although many sources say 1999, The Thin Red Line premiered on Christmas Day, 1998. I recall being a twelve or thirteen year old as the nonlinear narrative began, with scores playing throughout scenes that were cutting back to flashbacks and giving us random exchanges between soldiers, who often never returned to the story. I didn’t get it and I didn’t like it.
I’m not sure when I returned to the movie, but like all my favorite films (ex-Jaws), what began as a misunderstanding evolved into a deep love affair. Bit by bit I began to understand what Malick was doing. The older I became and the more I read and learned the more I was beginning to understand what the film was trying to explore. As in any Malick film, there’s no one idea or theme. Rather it’s a symphony of meditations, allowing the viewer to take and reflect upon whichever moment strikes them hardest.
I believe it was the third or fourth viewing that I realized that I was watching one of the finest pieces of cinema ever created. As the men work their way through the weeds, which expand like water across the steep hills, with the wind and sun swooping across the grass. Similar to the alligator in the film’s opening scene, which drops beneath the water, waiting to strike, the men sink below the grass, hardly seen, inching forward. It’s after the first shots break out that some of the most intense action of any war film takes place. I recall watching it during this third or fourth time and feeling fear, imagining being in the soldier’s situation, not sure where the enemy is, forever nervous that they’ll be called to lead the way, knowing they’re essentially bait for the men in the rear. By the fourth or fifth time I watched it this effect wore down a bit. It was though I was recalling the feeling rather getting the feeling; the sad sign that a movie’s power to transport you was fading as you realize there’s nothing more you can do. I believe I was in college when I first noticed the movie’s brilliance. Since then I’ve wanted nothing more than to see the film in theaters and have Zimmer’s score, Toll’s camera, and Malick’s direction transport me as I was meant to be transported. It’s films like these that make you understand the need for movie theaters, as it’s not so much that you can’t experience the same effect at home, so much as you wouldn’t be able to - there’d be a wife or kid, or you’re in an apartment, or you can’t get the room dark enough. The Thin Red Line demands a black room with amazing sound. After ten years of waiting, I finally got to experience this and it was one of the finest moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had.
Nick Nolte plays one of my new favorite characters of all time, Lt. Col. Gordon Tall, who has found the politics of military promotion frustrating. His immediate superior is Brigadier General Quintard (John Travolta), who for a moment is a friend and then backhandedly compliments Tall for refusing to enter into the politics toward becoming a general. Without having to dive into the details, we get a taste of the military where, similar to civilian life, there is no escaping the ruthless tenacity in being so close to that first star. We want to think of Generals as beyond politics, and yet some are ruthless in the pursuit. It’s easy to miss the scene’s details as you’re so enamored with the beauty and voice over. Malick provides us with a man who is putting on an act as a deferential second to Quintard, proactive in lighting the man’s cigarette, even after having his leadership questioned. When the movie ends you recall Tall’s shouting commands, with every iota of energy, his neck veins popping, sweat pouring out of his head. Contrary to his introduction, we see a man that is willing to expend any man to achieve his mission. Later, we discover that he felt overlooked; that victory on this mission could finally get him the star he coveted. We see that contrary to the other soldiers he’s a man that seems to have no empathy or concern for his men. Fortunately, his Platoon Leader Captain James Staros (Elias Koteas) eventually refuses to follow his orders, knowing that to keep on pushing will come at great expense to the men he has trained and cared for, each realizing the vast unlikelihood that they’ll make it out alive. Quintard is speechless, and yet Nick Nolte is such a master, able to communicate supreme frustration and empathy, while also knowing that he can’t show too much of the latter, returning again to the act as leader. More simply, we get to watch Nolte create a character that acts as a leader, all while overwhelmed by the terrors around him. In one of the most revealing moments, after the film’s most powerful scene, we see Quintard break down, with the reality finally catching up to him, though only for a moment.
BELOW: The greatest piece of film score ever created
Director: Kevin Reynolds
Writer: Pen Densham and John Watson
Cinematographer: Douglas Milsome
by Tory Maddox
The 90s deliver another film that serves as a throwback, in this case to the swashbuckler tales of Errol Flynn, relying on large practical sets complete with all the legendary characters from the original story. I haven’t seen this movie since it first came out, having long associated it with New Found Glory’s cover of “Everything I Do, I Do It For You”.
Strange to think that Robin Hood has become politicized in recent times, and that those who disagree with the philosophy are therefore taking the side of the Sheriff of Nottingham's, played in this film by the great Alan Rickman, who only accepted the role if he could have carte blanche over how he interpreted the character. As a result, we see a pretty awesome villain that’s a fairly decent follow up to Hans-boobie.
Interesting also is that Jack Shaheen, an activist who was petitioning Hollywood for more favorable representations of Arabs, approved of Morgan Freeman’s character Nadir, who portrayed him as a devout and intelligent Muslim who behaved admirably, rather than falling into the usual stereotypes.
Roger Ebert derided the film for its ceaseless violence, including the opening scene where men’s heads are getting cut off, all the way to the end in which a young boy is about to be hanged. To think that this seems completely mild by today’s standards is an understatement. I saw it as extremely cookie cutter, taking a classical Hollywood style and injecting it with a bit more rawness. I didn’t really see it as stygian so much as attempting to modernize the silver era, and providing yet another example of why the 90s should be regarded as the post-modern era, in which traditional genres were revisited and revised. I have not yet scene Ridley Scott’s version, but I’m confident that it’s probably overwrought with CGI and aims toward presenting a very ‘realistic’ rendition of Robin Hood. Perhaps if Scott chose instead to take what worked from the traditional approach and added to it, we could have gotten something worth talking about.
BELOW: Gotta miss those 80s/90s music videos accompanying tent pole films
Director: John Irvin
Writer: W.W. Vought
Cinematographer: Thomas Burstyn
by Jon Cvack
Continued from Part 1
The next day, Earning takes the team on the patrol. They’re in a fog heavy forest, warned that they are now only a few hundred meters from the enemy. Sandy gets lost in the fog, separated from the other soldiers. Soon he sees figures emerging from the woods; the enemy. He hides and they stop near him, thinking they heard something, before wandering off. He breathes a sigh of relief. We have all had moments in our lives where we didn’t want to get caught, out of absolute fear of the consequences. Irving comes as close as anyone to capturing the fear of knowing you’re either going to jail, or more likely, getting killed.
Later, he returns and a hot meal is getting served. Experience has demonstrated that this means they’re going on the offensive the next day. The fresh recruits, including Sandy, all look around, smoking, and share a couple of laughs. It’s not a forced scene to give you a superficial taste of camaraderie. It’s a very real moment of shared fear, excitement, and humor. Statistically, one of the four is going to die. Given their lack of experience, they all seem to grasp that it’ll probably be more.
In a great shot, starting in wide, we see the troops entering the woods, the camera tilts down and we start following a foot, walking on the dead leaves. And then we see the first land mine trigger, hidden in the ground. Addd are the .88’s in the distance. Within moments, they both open up. The blood effects aren’t as terrifying as Saving Private Ryan, but they do the job. The soldiers are slaughtered and within minutes retreat back, only to be told they have to go forward. There’s no arguing. The Captains know what it means.
It’s another brilliant moment where we see how difficult the job of Captain, or any leader really is. He’s just taking orders from those who received them, to pass them down to his Sergeants, who’re equally reserved about having to pass them on. Everyone knows what it means. Except we also grasp the fear in Sgt. Earning, along with his Captain Roy Pritchett (Martin Donovan). They too will face death, except showing as much courage as they can muster. I suppose the promise Pritchett makes to Earning about getting a Section 8 Discharge was a little heavy, but it does far more good than bad. He’s told if he takes his fresh recruits behind the line to destroy the guns, he can receive the Section 8.
The next offensive is launched and they flank the .88s. Sandy and his fellow soldier (don’t know the name) both have flame flowers. When the covering fire is provided, Earning tells them to rush. Sandy does the job with terrifying energy, screaming his lungs out as he sets fire to the German soldiers. His friends attempt to run away and Earning, without hesitation, shoots the flame pack and blows him up. We’re appalled and don’t completely understand. It’s only when Sandy says if he didn’t do it they would have all died that we completely understand. Some might not have seen it this way. Some might have grasped it from the moment he killed the deserter. But there was something with Sandy describing the action; a transformation in his character that really drove the point home. Like the 25% who would die, it was another necessary casualty.
And then the tanks arrive. And just when they thought it was over, the carnage continues. In another sequence reminiscent of Paths of Glory (and in the best way possible) they wait for night to fall, cut their way through barbed wire, and attack the ,88’s from the rear. With patience and painstaking intensity, Irving shows Earning cut each of the strands of barb wire, trying to keep as quiet as possible. Eventually he succeeds and they attack a supply truck, and subsequently the tanks. They win the offensive. For now. And only Sandy survives.
When you read the history it’s even more tragic. Over 60,000 lives lost in a battle that is hardly remembered. And the one film that attempted to memorialize it has met the same fate. I’m confident that it will soon join the ranks of the films mentioned. It’s that good. It’s a treasure that was a thrill to find.
BELOW: Posting again, mostly because there isn't much else to find
Director: John Irvin
Writer: W.W. Vought
Cinematographer: Thomas Burstyn
by Jon Cvack
Tis the year of seeing movies I’ve never heard, let alone would consider tragically underrated. Very close to top of this list is When Trumpets Fade, mostly on account of I’ve never heard of this movie, nor have I ever come across it on a list of “Films You’ve Never Heard of, But Should See’ and all variations or genre-specific lists.
I actually misread the year and thought it was produced in 1988, which blew my mind given how advanced it was. It was actually produced in 1998, and thus it makes sense that with Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line’s tremendous success, along with the onslaught of additional WWII/various War films following that success, that a few gems would get lost.
Coincidentally, this film is about the Battle of Hurtgen Forest, which immediately preceded the Battle of the Bulge and thus has been often forgotten where 33,000 American troops and 28,000 German troops died. The movie actually limits its description on how tragic this war was, as after the Allied losses and minimal gains (as scene in the film), the Germans launched the Ardennes offensive, which then led to the Battle of the Bulge.
The film is very much like a feature length bonus episode of Band of Brothers meets Paths of Glory. Instead of an ant hill, they are fighting a heavily fortified line, in which the Germans have countless land mines and a load of .88’s that reigns down a thunderstorm of bombs. Allied command knew they needed to capture this to maintain the momentum of D-Day and thus sent in troops, no matter the bloodshed and severe loss of life. It’s clear that it was simply a game of odds. Someone received the command that they would lose 25% of the men in order to capture the hill. As Paths of Glory captured so perfectly, you can’t help wondering who's making the call, and whether it’s because upper command actually believe it’s the right plan, or that they are simply pushing orders to succeed at any cost, and those below them are willing to do whatever it takes. To give you context for how tragic this is, the battle lasted for five months from mid-September to mid-February and cost 33,000 American lives. The Iraq War lasted eight years and had 4,500 American casualties. What’s worse is you’ve probably never heard of the Battle of Hurtgen.
As stated in Tigerland, it’s hard to find a good realistic war film anymore. You pull up a list and you get Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, Full Metal Jacket, Jarhead, Black Hawk Down, Battle for Haditha, Come and See, and Restrepo (I know I’m leaving out others; especially foreign). There really aren’t that many that demonstrate the realities of war, not just the horrors, but also - as Tigerland failed to accomplish - the moments between the battles; the relationships, loneliness, and worthlessness. Up there with The Thin Red Line, director John Irvin captures the terror of oncoming death.
We follow a band of new recruits, who are in one way or another, told that they could very well die and that it's far more likely as compared to other deployments. None of the new recruits have ever faced battled. One in particular, Private Warren “Sandy” Sanderson (Zak Orth), has never even smoked. They’re taken out on a patrol, guided by a fresh Sergeant, hours previously a private, David Earning (Ron Eldard), who doesn’t want the job.
In one of the best sequences, Sandy is led up to the front line, looking up at the trees, warned that he is now at the very front of the line. Anyone who comes near him that doesn’t know the code word (not Flash to Thunder, but I forget what specifically) is to be shot dead. Within moments he sparks up a cigarette. Later, in the the middle of the night, a flare goes up. He hears gunfire, having no idea whether troops will be headed his way. The closest reinforcements he has are 30 meters to his right and left. He’s all alone. It’s brilliant and terrifying.
Stay tuned for Part 2 - coming next week!
BELOW: A brilliant sequence, focusing on the men right before they enter battle, knowing the odds
Director: Steven Zaillian
Writer: Steve Zaillian
Cinematographer: Conrad Hall
by Tory Maddox
"It's like this. A dead plaintiff is rarely worth as much as a living, severely-maimed plaintiff. However, if it's a long slow agonizing death, as opposed to a quick drowning or car wreck, the value can rise considerably. A dead adult in his 20s is generally worth less than one who is middle aged. A dead woman less than a dead man. A single adult less than one who's married. Black less than white. Poor less than rich. The perfect victim is a white male professional, 40 years old, at the height of his earning power, struck down in his prime. And the most imperfect? Well, in the calculus of personal injury law, a dead child is worth the least of all."
With such an effective intro, I came across the book at a Thrift Store recently, expecting the same exact monologue in the opening chapter. It wasn’t. I don’t recall what it was, other than boring and far less effective; a testament to Zaillian's supreme abilities. I remember a friend near guaranteeing that I'd be hooked from the first few minutes.
The story follows Jan Schlitchman (John Travolta, at the height of his resurgence) who's a personal injury attorney that’s made a killing in Boston, approached by Anne Anerson (Kathleen Quinlan) who’s recently lost her son to a mysterious illness, suspecting that the local tap water had something to do with it. It’s the second time I’ve seen the film, and given all of the news about tap water containing record high amounts of prescription medication, flammable spouts, and devastating droughts the whole story took on a new feel.
This 90s film has a powerhouse cast - William H. Macy (playing financial adviser James Gordon), Tony Shalhoub (as attorney Kevin Conway), Sydney Pollack in a brief role, playing a pompous and arrogant executive/former Harvard grad, and, of course, Robert Duvall who puts on one of his greatest performances as Defense Attorney Jerry Facher.
It’s Duvall in particular who I remember the most from the film. Rarely is such a charismatic and likable character cast into such a nasty role. Throughout the film, with the wonderfully subtle, yet thick bite of his, we’re not really sure whether Facher actually knows that his client is wrong; if he’s so confident he’s right that it doesn’t matter; or that it’s all just a game to him, where he knows all of the tricks. For instance, he says he tells his law students to never ask the question ‘why?’ unless they 100% know the answer. It’s a minor moment that speaks volumes to his character. It’s both strategic and something he’s selflessly passed onto the country’s future Ivy League lawyers that will soon command the country.
The editing of this film is equally formidable. Particularly, in one sequence where, after losing in court and having no settlement at all, Jan is hunting down the last chance he has of getting any compensation for the victims by approaching the CEO of the campaign in question - Harvard alum, A.L.. Eustis, who can’t shut up about his alma mater credentials and numerous multi-million dollar yachts. The scene is intercut with Jan’s team back at the office, in which sentences are finished by cutting between the two sequences. Not until twelve years later, when Zallian’s competitor Aaron Sorkin and The Social Network went on to win the Oscar was such a style so well executed.
What’s most interesting is that aside from the $8 million he gets from the CEO - who, while an asshole the entire time, does break down that offering anymore would essentially open the floodgates for similar litigation, whether against his company or others - there’s not really much provided of the $350 million they were attempting to provide the victims. While we're hoping and expecting it to all work out in the end, the case ends. Jan is fired from his firm and forced to start completely from scratch, until the case was revived by the EPA (allegedly playing a much larger role in the book). This is the anti-ending, shifting our expectations, and begging as to whether the studio stepped in and begged for a few title cards to help mitigate the bleakness. It’s a solid film, with great writing, a phenomenal cast, incredible story, awesome direction, and fun editing. We need more from Steve Zaillian.
BELOW: The famous intro
Director: John Harrison
Writer: Michael McDowell (Lot 249 & Lover's Vow), George A. Romero (Cat from Hell)
Cinematographer: Robert Draper
by Jon Cvack
Turns out Tales from the Darkside is unofficially Creepshow 3, though allegedly there isn’t any good evidence for that (it was only George Romero’s involvement that lent credence to this rumor). But I’ll agree, since this offers all of the fun of the original, and makes up for what was one of the worst sequels of all time that is Creepshow 2. It contains three stories with one string that runs throughout the series, involving the guy from 'Boy Meets World' being stuck in a jail cell while a woman prepares to cook him.
One of the great elements of film is discovering movies that contain big stars in some of their earliest roles. In the first story, ‘Lot 249’, based off Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story of the same name, it stars Steve Buscemi, Christian Slater, and Julian Moore, involving a archeology graduate student Bellingham (Buscemi) who purchases an old sarcophagus, containing a mummy that comes alive and starts to kill of those involved.
In the second story, ‘Cat from Hell’, there’s the guy who plays the taxi driver in Scrooged (David Johansen) who plays a hitman hired by an old wealthy recluse (WillIam Hickey). Based on a Stephen King short story, which was likely inspired by the Edgar Allen Poe’s short story 'The Black Cat', this chapter does a lovely job of taking the 40s gangster archetypes and placing them within an incredibly creative and well blocked setting where the hitman battles a murderous cat. Director John Harrison fuses old blue-toned flashbacks and then integrates them within the same shot into the present moment. I don’t really find cats even remotely scary, but the performances by Hickey and Johansen more than make up for it.
The last story is by far the best, involving a struggling artist, Preston, played by the guy from the remake of Miracle on 34th Street (James Remar), who recently lost his agent. After a long, drunken night at a bar, Preston's attacked by a gargoyle. Sparing Preston’s life, the gargoyle makes him swear he won’t mention the event to anyone. Days later, he meets a beautiful woman, Carola (Rae Dawn Chong), who helps to completely transform his life, helping make his wildest dreams come true. Eventually he has a show that catapults him to the top echelons of the New York art scene. His life looks set. Ten years later, after Carola and Preston have a few kids, Preston finally reveals the story to Carola, who turns out to have been the gargoyle. In an effects transformation that’s worthy of the whole 90 minute film, Preston is then killed.
Not until Trick ‘r Treat did the anthology film really see a successful return. What makes films like TrT, Creepshow 1 and 2, and the Tales from the Crypt movies so great is their refusal to take the material too seriously. It’s meant to be fun and silly, and if they toss some scares in there as well, then mission accomplished. It’s been a long time since we’ve received storylines like this. Nowadays, horror films take themselves all too seriously, and I don’t just mean the narrative. The lighting and camera work all operate so realistically. I long for the days when the storytellers had fun with color, set design, and camera work. Trick r’ Treat returned us to these days, allowing us to laugh and squirm; the Town that Dreaded Sundown (2014) remake did the same. A few tried to follow their lead and what happened? Of course, they went straight back to the serious camp. I hope it turns around, one of these Halloweens.
BELOW: A phenomenal practical transformation from man to gargoyle, up there with - if not better than - American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director: Zhang Yimou
Writer: Ni Zhen
Cinematographer: Zhao Fei
by Jon Cvack
There was a local band in my town called Tom Sawyer, who eventually broke up and formed another group called Raise the Red Lantern. That’s about twelve years ago and I’ve been meaning to check out the film ever since.
The story is a form of chamber drama, taking place at a Chinese Palace. It opens on a shot of Songlian (Li Gong) who has decided to abandon college and become a concubine. At the palace, she learns she’s one of four mistresses, one which is the head mistress, a much older woman no longer visited by the “Master”, a middle aged woman Meishan (Saifei He) who receives the Master’s visit on occasion and is battling with her aging body and rejection, and the second mistress, Zhuoyan (Cuifen Cao), who is the same age as Songlian and thus in chronic competition. Each one that is chosen has the Red Lanterns raised in their rooms and receives some type of amazing foot massages with a device with bells on it.
The entire film highlights the power dynamics that women can have while operating within the epitome of patriarchal culture. They are all confined to the palace, and while ripe with fete, they nevertheless find the most meaning in receiving the Master’s attention than in their gorgeous living quarters. Thus, rather than fighting for their own happiness and entering into meaningful relationships, they compete with each other, exposing and developing strong resentments.
Songlian’s primary competitor at the palace is Zhuoyao, who has an beautiful, operatic singing voice that often seduces the Master. Songlian also shares a Housekeeper (Qi Zhao) that can only wish she’d receive the same benefits of a mistress. She decorates her bedroom in red lanterns, and makes voodoo dolls to try and curse the rude and demanding Songlian.
I recently watched a documentary on the Crips and Bloods, which illustrated how their rise came about after prominent Civil Rights leaders in the area were arrested or killed, creating a void in which, having no leadership, they began to create criminal organizations that sought to capitalize on the drug trade, subsequently abandoning positive progress for negative regression. Rather than continuing the fight against an oppressive system they were ostensibly forced to fight against one another by the very nature of the business.
Raise the Red Lantern portrays a similar relationship. Some might say the women chose to enter into the life, never looking into the factors that might have left few other options on the table. They fight and dispute with one another, rather than trying to combat the system that creates such high premiums for foot massages or sexual satisfaction. As Ebert points out, the palace seems to extend infinitely in all directions, creating a feel that there is no world beyond this one.
The film is shot by Zhao Fei who’s able to mute the colors in everything beyond the lanterns and the rooms the lady’s live in. As a result, we feel how superficial and significant the meaning is. Between all the stone and mortar is the little these women possess - their rooms, each other, and the lanterns, each typically expressed with vibrant blues and reds. Each woman contains a depth that is captured in color against an oppressive neutral backdrop. Each will eventually grow old, to be replaced by another, desperate for any contact whatsoever as they live out the second half of their lives. Such inevitability creates a sadness that extends throughout the film, leaving you feeling empty, appreciative of the few things that might provide life with some meaning.
BELOW: A brilliant sequence showing the labyrinthian palace, as Songlian tries to find her competition. Contrasted with the top image provides a decent taste of Zhao Fei's phenomenal photography
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Cinematographer: James Glennon
by Jon Cvack
It took me longer than it should have to get around to Citizen Ruth and I loved every single minute of it. For a directorial debut, lower budget feature this has everything you’d want from Alexander Payne. All his trademarks - great characters, subtle camera work, hilarious dialogues, and a grand commentary beneath it all.
Ruth Snoops (Laura Dern) gets in trouble for sniffing glue and is put up by a pro-life Christian activist family. However, when the Judge who sentences Laura admonishes her to get an abortion for the sake of the child and the family rushes into the rescue, Laura is then taken in by a pro-choice family. Indifferent to either persuasion, determined to keep sniffing glue and do whatever she wants, things culminate in a stand off between the pro lifers vs. pro choicers in a brilliant third act.
I know few directors who can create such well balanced satire, adding just enough substance to remain believable and sincere without offending. While the characters are larger than life collectively, individually they are incredibly unique and human. It’s Payne’s phenomenal ability to find the truth in something that seems so small and anodyne when introduced, taking a seemingly minute character or element and showing us its great depth and insight. Laura Dern puts on an amazing performance, if not one of her greatest, as someone who can snap in a flash, unleashing a barrage of obscenities. She is completely apolitical, having little patience or concern for all the bickering and politics. So long as no one tells her what to do she’s fine and will treat others with the same deference. There’s a desperation to figure things out, knowing that she’s far from perfect. I’m not sure what Ruth Snoop's future holds, and honestly, given the character's trajectory, I feel like she’ll end up dead in a few years, but at least it’d be her choice.
The casting is absolutely flawless, featuring many of Payne’s later collaborators. The Christian Right family is able to capture the suburban religious folk, with its uniform neighborhood, uninspired furnishings, and the aluminum chain linked fences separating everyone from everyone else in the blandest way possible. Their selfless concern for others and the gross hypocrisy over failing to see their own children’s problems is a fascinating subplot. They don’t notice the daughter fucking the boyfriend, or that following the words of Jesus means fighting through other’s addictions and shortcomings. They give just enough effort to feel good about themselves, and if it fails no big deal. Except their pro-life beliefs, those are unwavering. If only they gave the rest of their lives a quarter of the passion they did for pro-life activism they would be far beyond those confining suburbs.
BELOW: Even this brief 2:30 clip shows the story's multiple layers upon layers
Director: Joe Dante
Writer: Charles S. Haas
Cinematography: John Hora
by Jon Cvack
There is something about 90s children’s movies that fills me with a nostalgic joy. And while this same sentiment seems to apply to any movie fan's respective decade when their love of film came of age - the time when we’re most impressionable, before we start digging into the classics, keeping up to date on the awards fair, and having Opinions - I don’t think that’s the case for 90s family films. They were objectively the greatest. Off the top of my head we have the timeless classics - Camp Nowhere, Mrs. Doubtfire, Heavyweights, Little Giants, Sandlot, Angels in the Outfield, Rookie of the Year, Hocus Pocus, The Big Green, Dunston Checks In, Richie Rich, Blank Check, with each movie I name making me think of so many others, most possessing some rendition of that classic 90s uplifting, feel good score (see composer John Debney, with his Hocus Pocus score providing a perfect example).
Still, just when I think I had seen most of the good ones, I come across Matinee, which takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis, about a kid obsessed with horror films, who teams up with a slimy B-horror producer Hitchcock-ripoff (John Goodman) who’s in town to promote his latest monster picture. It’s the type of summer movie that makes you wish you grew up in the era, when cheap monsters and practical effects were still effective. Similar to other 90s kids films, there’s highly suggestive content and realistic characters - the boys actually talk like boys; the female love interest wants to move things along quickly; and there’s a great climactic ending that’s entirely fitting for a 90s kids films.
It made me want to return to that time when having obsessions and hobbies had no bearing on what I ultimately wanted to do. I loved Star Wars because of the story and toys, not because I wanted to make movies. I loved playing with toy guns and creating stories about rogue, pulpy cops/former & future Navy Seals, not because I knew I wanted to tell stories, but because it was fun. I had no need to constantly document adventures and vacations as material to use later and instead could remain present , appreciating the girl that looked at me in ninth grade science, having difficulty making the phone call, never realizing how silly the whole situation actually was.
BELOW: The Matinee VSH trailer
Thoughts on films, old and new
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