Tag Archives: debuts

Debuts Blogathon Wrap Up

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Well there we go, it’s all done and dusted. This blogathon, which I co-hosted with Mark from Three Rows Back, has been a great experience. I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with some great bloggers, some familiar, some not-so familiar and I think it’s been a great success. There have been some fantastic posts, covering a wide range of directors and films, which is exactly what Mark and I were hoping for. There are some classics in there and also some directors I hadn’t even heard of, which has helped me broaden my knowledge that little bit more.

Thanks

First of all I would like to say thanks to Mark for proposing the idea of doing the blogathon in the first place. I’d toyed with the idea of a blogathon for a while but didn’t really know what to do and how to go about organising it, but Mark gave me the impetus to do that. It’s been an absolute pleasure working with him and if you don’t follow his great blog already, I urge you to do so.

And of course an enormous thank you to everyone who has taken the time to get involved. I know you all have busy lives and are busy tending to your own blogs, but we’ve both been overwhelmed with the response, enthusiasm and quality of the work produced. Every piece was a belter.

Here is a list of all the posts in the blogathon…

Again, thank you so much to everyone who has taken the time to contribute. This has been a lot of fun, and we may well run another blogathon in the future. If we do, we hope to see you there.

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Debuts Blogathon: Stanley Kubrick – Fear and Desire (1953)

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This is the final post on my site in the Debuts Blogathon, which has been co-hosted by myself and Mark from Three Rows Back. Here I’m taking a look at my favourite filmmaker Stanley Kubrick and his debut feature, Fear and Desire.

STANLEY KUBRICK

Fear and Desire (1953)

To me, Stanley Kubrick is one of, if not the, greatest directors of all time. Obviously I’ve not sampled every director but of all the directors whose films I have seen, it’s Kubrick who stands head and shoulders atop the pile. I don’t think he’s made a bad film, despite what others may argue, and it was really interesting going back to see his first feature and looking at how he subsequently evolved and grew as a filmmaker.

The story of Fear and Desire is pretty simple and goes a little something like this: Four soldiers in the midst of an unknown war are stranded behind enemy lines. They must battle their own fears and desires in a bid to survive.

Fear and Desire was shot in 1951 and exhibited two years later in 1953. It was originally entitled The Trap and then The Shape of Fear and was sold in some places as a ‘sexploitation’ picture, largely due to a scene in which a woman is strapped to a tree. It was shot in five weeks without sound, which was post-synched, and cost somewhere in the region of $40,000, much of which was donated by friends and family (kubrick’s father cashed in on his life insurance policy to help finance the film).

It’s considered separate from the rest of Kubrick’s filmography, but is still an fascinating snapshot of Kubrick’s early work. Kubrick himself was not a fan of his debut feature, calling it “a bumbling, amateur film exercise… a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.” Unfortunately, Kubrick has a point.

The whole production is very amateurish, which is unsurprising. Much of the editing, particularly towards the start of the film is very jarring and not fluid. It’s difficult to tell where people are standing and to whom they’re talking. This makes whole scene very distracting and disorientating. Kubrick also breaks the 180 degree rule, jumping the line on a number of occasions, although it’s unclear whether this is intentional or not. Knowing Kubrick, it probably was, but it just ends up getting tarred with the same brush as the rest of the editing.

We also don’t get any of the interesting camera movements Kubrick became known for, purely because he had no tracks or equipment. This isn’t really his fault, but it does make the film feel very static. Kubrick’s decision to post-synch the sound was also a mistake. Unfamiliar with sound production, he did this thinking it would be economical and allow the production to move more swiftly. The result was quite the opposite, greatly affecting the film’s quality and increasing production costs. The acting is also not of the highest quality, most of it being stilted and wooden.

However, Fear and Desire isn’t a total mess and does have its moments. There’s some interesting cinematography and lighting choices which do show some clear promise in Kubrick’s skills. The film is clearly Kubrick expreimenting with the medium, seeing what he can do, which may be of detriment to the overall quality but is a fascinating examination of the young director. Wipes and dissolves link scenes together whilst one memorable scene which sees the murder of several enemy soldiers is clearly influenced by Eisenstein and Soviet cinema.

There’s much to criticise in Fear and Desire but as a study of the conception of Kubrick’s oeuvre, it’s a fascinating insight.

How does Fear and Desire compare to Kubrick’s other films?

It almost goes without saying that the rest of Kubrick’s filmography is of a much higher standard than Fear and Desire. It probably goes down as the weakest film in his catalogue for pretty much every aspect. However, you can definitely see a few things here and there that have filtered through into some of his subsequent films.

Of course, the most obvious comparison to make is with his other war films, Paths of Glory, Dr Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket. What’s interesting is that none of these films are really about the war itself, rather those caught up in it. The actual fighting is incidental to its effects on those involved. In Fear and Desire this is cleverly shown by not naming the conflict, meaning the war could be from almost any point in past, present or future. Again with all these films, the enemy is largely unseen, of little interest, or almost indistinguishable from the protagonists; what’s more pertinent is the fragile state that war has inflicted upon those entangled in it.

This could be seen as Kubrick’s commentary on the futility of war. One of the soldiers in Fear and Desire comments: “I’m thirty four years old and I’ve never done anything important. When this is over I’ll fix radios and washing machines“. In Kubrick’s world, fixing radios and washing machines is more important than war. In Dr Strangelove we see the idiots behind the war and how dangerous these men can be rather than what’s going on on the front lines, whilst in both Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket we see little actual conflict, more the preparations and consequences.

Kubrick’s films also generally carry a very negative, misogynistic view of his fellow man and Fear and Desire is no exception. For example, the soldiers take a woman prisoner for no reason other than she might or might not be colluding with the enemy. She’s tied to a tree and left at the hands of one particular soldier who struggles to contain his desire for her. Here we get a scene that is borderline rape, with the soldier coming across as both detestable and pitiful, clearly deeply affected by the war he’s a part of, just like Private Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. This negative view of man runs throughout almost all of his films in some part, with Lolita, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket probably the most obvious examples.

If you think about it, the title Fear and Desire could probably apply in some way to every Stanley Kubrick film. From Paths of Glory to 2001 to Eyes Wide Shut, these themes and the way humans deal with them are central to Kubrick’s pictures. Fear and Desire doesn’t perhaps explore these in as much depth his as later films, but thematically it definitely deserves its place amongst his more celebrated works.

Over at Three Rows Back today in his final piece for the blogathon, Mark is taking a look at Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape. Head over there if you haven’t already to give it a read.

A massive thank you to everyone who has taken part in the blogathon. I know I speak for both Mark and I when I say it’s been a blast and we’ve been overwhelmed with the enthusiasm from all involved and from those who have been reading the posts and commenting on them. I’ll do a proper wrap up post tomorrow but until then you can check out the rest of the entries in the Debuts Blogathon here.

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Debuts Blogathon: Danny Boyle – Shallow Grave (1994)

Today is the penultimate day of the Debuts Blogathon, hosted by myself and Mark from Three Rows Back. Due to various complications and whatnot, we’ve ended up with an odd number of entries. As such, we’ve decided to both run the same piece today, a look at Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave by Shah from Blank Page Beatdown. Shah has a great looking site with a variety of reviews and features. Well worth your time! Over to you good sir…

DANNY BOYLE

Shallow Grave (1994)

Danny Boyle’s body of work is pretty varied and diverse. He is one of the few directors whom I cannot label a hack. Quentin Tarantino is a hack. Guy Ritchie is a hack. J. J. Abrahms, hack. I don’t mean this as an insult; those guys are some of my favorite directors. I just mean that most directors’ films will have some clear indications of the fact that it is their brand of cinema. This could be through style of cinematography (Tim Burton),  similar subject matter and content (Quentin Tarantino),  or unique technical execution such as a plethora of lens flares (J. J. Abrams) that will clearly identify the director of the movie. Whereas the complete opposite is true of Danny Boyle.

Probably the only director whose movies reveal nothing of the man behind the camera, as no two movies are alike in theme, tone, style or even genre. From zombie apocalypses to Bollywood extravaganzas to drug induced piles of awesome; there is nothing that Danny Boyle cannot direct, apparently.

The Debuts Blogathon has allowed me a chance to visit Boyle’s debut as a feature film Director in SHALLOW GRAVE, and compare it against his now famous repertoire of film. Even though TRAINSPOTTING launched Boyle (and others) into cult fanatic status, SHALLOW GRAVE is where he started his path of originality, and has stayed true to it ever since.

SHALLOW GRAVE is an easy story that goes places that requires little explanation. 3 friends have to come to grips with the death of a new roommate, while being transformed due to the discovery of a suitcase full of money with the body. It’s never explained who the man was, or why he had the money, but it doesn’t matter.

SHALLOW GRAVE stars Ewan McGregor in his first leading role as the jester with a heart of stone. Along with him is Christopher Eccleston, better known as (one of many) Dr. Who, who is amazing as a soft spoken bookish man, who’s traumatized by his experiences during the story. Eccleston steals the show, in my opinion, in a performance with great range and depth.

I say it’s an easy movie because the usual sequence of events don’t take place. There aren’t long drawn out moral conundrums about what to do with the money, or how to dispose of the dead body; they just do it and move on. What’s more interesting is the slow and steady transformation of mild mannered David played by Eccleston. The brutal actions he takes part in, almost compelled to do so by his so called friends, changes him dramatically. The movie focuses on the bonds of friendship, when tested under unusual circumstances and challenged by greed and selfish-ness.

While being his most mediocre film, it’s not difficult to see how this is Danny Boyle’s first film. The ‘wow factor’ isn’t really present until the 3rd act, in terms of the story. Boyle’s usual aesthetics seem amateurish, with topsy turvy camera work, even though it works for the story being told in this particular movie. Similar to how the raw-ness of the camera work worked for a story like 28 DAYS LATER. The Brit chemistry is on full display between the 3 main characters, just like TRAINSPOTTING, but to a lesser extent.

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Like most Boyle fares, SHALLOW GRAVE does go deeper than what it gives you at face value. It goes to darker places while invoking emotion that bring you to the edge of the seat, at least in the final 10 minutes. The journey of the characters within the story follows the darkness exhibited by the lead in Boyle’s THE BEACH, however nowhere near as extreme. The one thing consistent with Boyle’s other movies is the downward spiral that the characters take throughout the film, and especially near the end, with intense consequences.

Danny Boyle has become one of my favorite directors despite, or in spite of, his completely out of the box style of filmmaking and interests. Every Danny Boyle movie looks nothing like the last Danny Boyle movie, which I think is more challenging than creating a trademark style evident in all of one’s films. SHALLOW GRAVE marked the beginning of an acclaimed career, and it’s not difficult to see in this film, how the talent behind the camera got more creative and stylistic over the years.

Tomorrow marks the last day of this blogathon, which sees me getting in on the act with my look at Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire whilst Mark will be taking a look at Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape. Don’t miss it!

Meanwhile, you can check out the rest of the entries in the Debuts Blogathon here.

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Debuts Blogathon: Andrew Dominik – Chopper (2000)

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We’re nearing the end of the Debuts Blogathon, but both Mark and I still have a few pieces left for you and today’s comes from Dave over at ccpopculture with his look at Andrew Dominik’s Chopper. Dave’s blog is a reasonably new one to me but I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read; definitely worth checking out. Take it away Dave…

ANDREW DOMINIK

Chopper (2000)

Chopper, the directorial debut of New Zealand-born Australian director Andrew Dominik, is a study in contrasts and contradictions. Mark “Chopper” Read, the real Australian crim from whom the film takes its name, is a complex character, simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. The film’s script is penned by Dominik but based heavily on Read’s own best-selling memoirs, which were omnipresent in Australia bookstores throughout the ‘90s, and it refuses to celebrate or denigrate the man’s violent history. It opens with the disclaimer, “This film is a dramatization in which narrative liberties have been taken. It is not a biography,” but doesn’t use this as an excuse to fit Chopper’s crimes to a cookie-cutter narrative; rather it bends the facts to tell an ambiguous yet rewarding story.

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Chopper seems to be largely unknown outside of Australia, though Dominik has made an international name for himself with his subsequent films, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and last year’s Killing Them Softly. This obscurity isn’t necessarily surprising – at its time of release, Chopper himself was a minor Australian celebrity, using his notoriety in the press to launch an extensive and successful semi-autobiographical book series (nine books had been published by 2000). Most Aussie audiences went into the film expecting a comedic crime romp, thanks to the casting: at the time, Eric Bana was best known for portraying mullet-sporting bogan (a term for Aussie white trash, essentially) “Poida” on late-night comedy sketch shows. Bana was funny at times, certainly (Heath Franklin had a great deal of stand-up success as “Chopper,” essentially impersonating Bana’s take on Read), but he also delivered a nuanced, captivating performance that launched him to prominent Hollywood roles, including lead roles in Hulk (2003), Munich (2005) and Star Trek (2009).

The film is often funny, but it finds it humour in the oddest places. The first act takes place in H Division of Pentridge Prison in the ‘70s,and after Chopper brutally and graphically stabs a rival gang leader, he approaches the man as he perishes in a spreading pool of impossibly dark blood and asks, “You alright, Keith, eh? You want a cigarette, Keith?” Funny, but very dark. The scene is a potent introduction to Chopper’s complex contradictory character, establishing him as a violent, deeply troubled man who’s also peculiar in a childlike way. The pointlessness of the attack has been underlined in the preceding scene, with Chopper unable to come up with a reason for the ongoing feud between himself and Keith’s gang: “I don’t hate him. I don’t hate anybody.”

These early Pentridge scenes are Chopper’s best, shot with a cold blue filter that creates an unnerving, antiseptic atmosphere. As the sombre inmates scuttle around the pale prison, it’s reminiscent of insects crawling along a wall; an intentional evocation, with Dominik cutting to a cockroach and bull ant throughout these scenes. It’s demonstrative of Dominik’s impressive control of tone – he knows what images he wants to convey and executes them masterfully. There’s a wintery, washed-out feel to this entire act, particularly when Chopper’s former allies turn on him and attempt to murder him to save their own skins. Chopper survives the assault, but nonetheless there’s a funereal quality to the scene: colour drains out as it disintegrates into slow motion, smoke wafting and showers of sparks cascading with hypnotic sluggishness.

I said earlier that Chopper was about contrasts and contradictions, and that’s made very clear midway through the film, when it snaps roughly from the confines of Pentridge’s cold walls to the grimy Melbourne streets of the ‘80s. There’s a clear demarcation between “within prison” and “without,” Dominik abandoning the blue-rinsed solemnity for a gritty yet colourful palette, infused with fierce reds and lime-cordial greens and murky blacks. It recalls the look of Scorsese’s Mean Streets (not the only Scorsese vibe – a shot of Chopper contemplating violence within a blood-red nightclub feels like a conscious quotation of the classic slow zoom on DeNiro from Goodfellas). The contradictions at the heart of Chopper’s character are underlined in this section of the film; he’s the sort of man who shoots someone then drives him to hospital, or who lends a suit to the man who just tried to kill him. Chopper craves attention but is hopelessly paranoid, wanting everyone’s devotion but expecting everyone’s derision. These two competing impulses would be explicitly put at odds in Dominik’s next film, with Jesse James’s paranoia set against Robert Ford’s pathetic, whimpering need for notoriety.

The film commendably avoids celebrating Chopper – an unfortunate habit of Australian culture (see: Ned Kelly) – while also resisting the urge to portray him as an unambiguous villain. He may beat his girlfriend savagely for imagined affronts, but there’s also the sense that his perpetual paranoia is not entirely unjustified. The climax sees Chopper commit a murder that sends him back to prison, and the murder is presented in three different forms – once, as an apparently unprovoked cold-blooded killing, then from Read’s perspective as he shares the tale with the cops, and finally, a vaudevillian recreation that suggests that the murder may not have been unjustified. It’s this kind of ambiguity (and a refreshing lack of a clichéd character arc that sees Chopper grow and change as a person) that ensures the film is more than a mere biopic.

The aforementioned vaudevillian scene is one of many stylistic flourishes that Dominik peppers through the film, moments of experimentation amidst otherwise classical cinematography. These same elements are apparent in his later films; the theatrical recreation feels of a piece with the old-fashioned homage to silent film that forms the epilogue of Jesse James. A jittery, fast-motion conversation between a coked-up Chopper and a bartender provides a fleeting insight into Chopper’s headspace, and Dominik repeats this trick in Killing Them Softly, filming a conversation in an elliptical, trancelike fashion to convey the heroin-fuelled perception of the film’s protagonist. While Dominik’s excursions into experimentation may have occasionally overwhelmed Killing Them Softly, they’re perfectly executed within Chopper, improving the film rather than distracting from it.

I would argue that Chopper remains both Dominik’s best film and the best demonstration of Bana’s immense talent. Jesse James and Killing Them Softly may be more prestigious films (particularly the former, whose stately Roger Deakins-helmed cinematography is undeniably impressive), but they lack the lean hunger of Chopper. Emphasis on “lean” – one of Chopper’s strengths is how it tells a rich story in under two hours, while Dominik’s later films are somewhat bloated. Bana, meanwhile, has done excellent work in the years that followed, but has yet to have a film that really capitalises on his wounded masculinity as Chopper does (Munich comes close). It’s a debut that seems to be eclipsed by its main players’ more recent works, yet it deserves respect as an excellent film in its own right.

Over at Three Rows Back today, you can check out a brilliant piece on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs by housewives’ favourite Tyson Carter from Head in a Vice. Head over there right now to check it out!

Tomorrow is the penultimate post in the blogathon and comes courtesy of Shah from Blank Page Beatdown with his piece on Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave. Don’t miss it!

Meanwhile, you can check out the rest of the entries in the Debuts Blogathon here.

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Debuts Blogathon: Sam Mendes – American Beauty (1999)

Today’s post on the Debuts Blogathon, hosted by myself and Three Rows Back, comes from Nika at The Running Reel with a superb look At Sam Mendes’s excellent American Beauty. I urge everyone to head over and give Nika’s blog a read; there’s some great reviews and features well worth checking out. Take it away Nika…

SAM MENDES

American Beauty (1999)

I cannot imagine any talk about directing debuts without even mentioning Sam Mendes’s 5 Oscar winner picture American Beauty. Considering everything I am going to discuss in my post, none of the directors have ever had such a high standard debut as Mendes had.

American Beauty looks at average life of average American family, their aspiration to happiness, their failure to actually be happy and the way how it ends.

Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is a father to a troubled teenage daughter Jane (Thora Birch) and a husband to a successful wife Carolyn (Annette Bening). They smile every day, collect flowers, drive Jane to school, work hard and have a family dinner in the evenings. Everything just seems perfect, as it supposed to be. But Lester, who himself tells the whole story, does not feel so. He jerks in the shower in the mornings, hates his job, thinks that daughter hates her father (damn right) and can’t stand his own wife. Burnhams’ life is just a show, a commercial for how normal they are when they are anything but. However, inside each of family memeber feels messy and lost.

American Beauty is comedy and drama at the same time, because we laugh at how absurd characters’ problems are and get sad, because we can find something familiar in our lives. In this mix of laughter and tears you see a lot part of reality – how families come apart, how ideals get ruined and how people change their life directions after finding out their true desires. Mendes gives a brilliant chance to think what happiness means for each of us, is it a good job just like Carolyn? Or lust just like Lester or maybe total freedom like Jane? You have to make your own decision, exactly as Mr. Burnham did.

Alan Ball who also won his debut writing Oscar created an extraordinary story with very smart, interesting, tense and touching dialogues. He came up with a great idea of delivering a story that was told many times before. Sarcasm and dark humor accompanies whole satiric story of this family making the film a lot more memorable.

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I cannot imagine any better Lester than Kevin’s. He gave the most sincere, inspiring and enjoyable performance of his career and one of the bests of nineties. Mr. Burnham transforms from total loser to determined man during the movie and Spacey makes these changes very natural. He does an outstanding job by being emotional, careless, sexually inactive man. And then suddenly he changes into a daughter-friend-loving, determined and motivated man, who finally found “beauty” in his life.

Annette Bening is not any worse as career drive wife. Carolyn is control freak. As Lester say, that’s the reason why she got boring. She is the best to show up as a happy person by trying to see positive in everything.  But Carolyn always cries behind the curtains, in dark rooms where no one can see her tears. Bening just nails to be Mrs. Burnham.

The same time, supporting cast is as amazing as the rest of the movie. Thora Birch and Wes Bentley are brilliant as Jane Burnham and Ricky Fitts, respectively.  They both have trouble with parents. Jane hates her mom and dad because of this façade happiness and Ricky can’t stand father – violate, latent homosexual ex-soldier who communicates with son only when beats him.  And all these is part of whole average American family drama those young characters so desperately want to escape.

Excellent cinematography and Thomas Newman’s beautiful score make this interesting story a lot more spectacular.

Despite being a Hollywood film about America, American Beauty does not suggest either Happy Ending or clear finale. Mendes comes up with a great idea of confusing viewers in the very last minutes of the film. During almost two hours he has been trying to detach Lester from his family, which actually happens but Sam bring him back to family in the end. He as a director perfectly managed to hide some hints in every scene of movie to make us really think about the issue of happiness and not to be very late deciding for ourselves. We don’t want to be Lesters, do we?!

For being one of the most enjoyable, dramatic, interesting, brilliantly played, directed and written movie of Hollywood filmmaking, I consider American Beauty to be of the most successful directing debuts of all time.

Over at Three Rows Back today you can check out a brilliant write-up of Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone by Ruth over at the always wonderful FlixChatter. Head over there right now to check it out!

Tomorrow you’ll be treated to Dave from ccpopculture‘s piece on Andrew Dominik’s Chopper. Don’t miss it!

Meanwhile, you can check out the rest of the entries in the Debuts Blogathon here.

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Debuts Blogathon: David Gordon Green – George Washington (2000)

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The thing that’s been so great about this Debuts Blogathon so far, as I’m sure Mark will attest, is that it’s been a great mix of well-known films and more obscure ones, and, to me, this films firmly in the latter category. This look at David Gordon Green’s George Washington comes from Alex at And So It Begins…, a really fantastic blog that covers a huge variety of film topics. Alex is one of the most knowledgeable bloggers I’ve seen, which really comes across in his piece below…

DAVID GORDON GREEN

George Washington (2000)

If you’ve ever read a brief synopsis for David Gordon Green’s masterful debut film, George Washington, then you’re likely to expect a cheap thriller. The plot description on the film’s Wikipedia page, for example, makes George Washington sound like a mix between I Know What You Did Last Summer and Kick-Ass.

Problem is, George Washington doesn’t have a plot. It transcends plot. It doesn’t equate to conflict and resolution. Instead, it speaks of a time and place. Of innocence and doubt. It speaks of an age when life is still winnable. When youth is fresh, and worry and responsibility have yet to be discovered. George Washington is about a time in life when all that’s ahead is living. Until it’s not.

At its core, the film is about a group of young friends who roam around their poor North Carolina town – talking, fighting, loving, hating. Although they have yet to experience the pain of “real life,” Green does a very wise thing by writing these characters as refreshingly mature. For instance, early in the film, one of our main protagonists, a young boy named Buddy, tells his friend how much he misses his recent ex girlfriend. “I love her,” Buddy says, “I think about her all the time.” That line is spoken from the mouth of a 12-year-old, and in any other film, it would play as silly. But here, and in every other verbal exchange in the film, it’s utterly authentic.

I’m not going to discuss where George Washington goes. The first time I saw this film, I was very surprised at the direction in which Green took it. But know that, Buddy and his friends do the things 12-year-olds often do. Maybe you did something bad when you were a kid. Something you regret and wish you could take away. Maybe you did something bad and never got caught. George Washington explores those adolescent tribulations flawlessly, and with sheer grace.

I use that word, “grace,” deliberately because this is one of the most gorgeous looking independent films ever made. Lensed by Tim Orr (who has shot all of Green’s subsequent films), George Washington has a magic hour, floating mystique that is often, appropriately, likened to Terrence Malick. The film had a reported budget of $42,000 but looks and feels like it’s worth millions.

After George Washington (which, to be clear, remains Green’s best film), the director helmed All the Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels. (He also produced Jeff Nichols’ first and best film, Shotgun Stories.) All of those films are similar in tone and were shot for about the same amount of money, and remain perfect testaments to the strength of American independent cinema.

And then, as most of us know, things went downhill quickly. Green manufactured the big budget pot comedy/action romp, Pineapple Express, which made 16 times more money in its opening weekend than the full run of his first four films combined. From there, he made two dismal movies, Your Highness and The Sitter, which all but removed the clout Green had developed from his first films. (For the record, Green directed several episodes of the hilarious HBO show Eastbound & Down, which, despite being great, don’t feel like works by David Gordon Green.

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You know what Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter have in common, beyond being mediocre-to-awful comedies? They weren’t written by Green. I can’t fault a filmmaker for taking a break from screenwriting. Nor can I fault him for wanting to make some serious money. I’ve never judged Green for his career decisions, but I’ve always longed for him to make something reminiscent of George Washington.

The opening sentence of my review for Green’s recent film, the micro-budget Prince Avalanche, asked if David Gordon Green was back. That film was the return to form I’d been waiting for, and his new crime thriller, Joe, is earning serious buzz out of the Venice Film Festival. Is David Gordon Green back? Possibly. But even if he never again reaches the great heights of his debut film, I will never shy away from returning to the source.

Over at Three Rows Back today you can read a great piece by Mark from Marked Movies on The Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple. Head over there right now to check it out!

Tomorrow you’ll be treated to a piece by Nika from The Running Reel on Sam Mendes’s superb American Beauty. Don’t miss it!

Meanwhile, you can check out the rest of the entries in the Debuts Blogathon here.

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Debuts Blogathon: Hayao Miyazaki – Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

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Today’s post in the Debuts Blogathon, hosted by myself and Three Rows Back, comes from Kim at Tranquil Dreams. Kim’s blog covers a wide variety of stuff, not just films, which makes it a really excellent, eclectic read. Here she’s tackling the legendary Hayao Miyazaki and his debut feature, Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro…

HAYAO MIYAZAKI

Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro (1979)

Hayao Miyazaki`s debut Lupin the Third:The Castle of Cagliostro was the only movie that was not affiliated with Studio Ghibli however, it was good enough to get him involved with bigger project. The Castle of Cagliostro is about Lupin, a 3rd generation thief that encounters with his partner a pursuit of a girl that they end up saving and losing again.  However, she leaves behind a ring with a goal symbol on it that Lupin recognizes associated with the Castle of Cagliostro and also the place is where it is rumored is the origin of the legendary goat bills which look as authentic (and even more) counterfeit as the real deal.  They learn that the girl is actually Lady Clarisse who is to wed the evil count who wants to join the Cagliostro rings in order to reveal a secret. Lupin gathers his gang and decides to steal Clarisse from the evil count and free her.

The Castle of Caglistro is a very fun adventure movie.  However, at times, it even jumps into the unrealistic territory.  For an animation that really have nothing to do with magic, that becomes one that may hinder it in the beginning but as you grow used to it, the action and adventures that occur does successfully make it a purely entertaining experience.

The characters themselves with the dialogue are pretty good.  Lupin is a hero, even though a thief, and also a good balance between comedic and being serious and at times, he even reminds me of the accidental stunt filled Jackie Chan style.  While he has his partner that is the clueless but yet amazingly useful character and in the background we have some interesting additions to the gang as the movie progresses such as Fujiko, a female spy.  She was definitely one of my favorite characters as a femme fatale role.  Looking at the character of Lady Clarisse, she plays the damsel in distress that needs her hero to save her from being forced into a marriage to the very evil and selfish count.  On terms of the count, he sounded a lot like a pedophile and for the most part, he had that really unappealing look that made up for his lacking evil character.

Looking at the animations that came afterwards directed by Hayao Miyazaki, there is definitely an improvement.  For one, the animation itself lacked the beautiful details for Castle of Cagliostro in comparison of just his following work, Nausicaa: Valley of the Wind. In Nausicaa, we start feeling the life in the images more and as we get into My Neighbor Totoro, Miyazaki masters the art of animating nature.  Once we get to his newer directing effort of Ponyo, he successfully brings the sea to life and animates the effects of a tsunami so well and so beautifully.

Second, his character design and development has also improved immensely.  The characters in Castle of Caglistro were not very deep.  In later works, especially coming of age stories (ex. Kiki’s Delivery Service), the characters started having more depth and developed into charming characters.  Plus, he started adding in magical creatures, nature gods and goddesses, witches, wizards and evil spirits all add up to the magical feeling that each of this movies have, which also leads me to the next point.

Third, Castle of Cagliostro was possibly the only one where there was really no magic involved. As his career progressed, we see him use the unrealistic aspects in this first one but apply it to magical situations, which not only makes it believable but also turns it into a compelling experience. That contributes directly to how he changed his storytelling techniques (as he actually is the screenwriter for most of his films, if not all). If we just look at a few years later when he makes Castle in the Sky, we can see that it’s possibly one of the best stories he has done. More recently, he gives us the magical and very successful award-winning Spirited Away that pretty much made Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki known around the world. He almost always make this stories emotional, heart-wrenching, and with some message that he wants to show.  That definitely is something his debut lacked.

I grew up with Hayao Miyazaki’s animation and even though I don’t own every single animation he’s done nor have I seen all of them, but spending the last few days rewatching his work (in order of release that I have) has fully convinced me that he has improved from the debut.  Now he is a master at storytelling, produces some of the most beautiful animation and even uses some CGI as well to complement his work (ex. Princess Mononoke).  He develops memorable characters. Every story he makes reveals a hidden message that touches the audience’s heart.  As much as nostalgia plays a big part for me for his earlier works, he no doubt has really grown throughout the years as a screenwriter and a director.

As much as it sounds like I’m saying Castle of Cagliostro is lacking in comparison to his later works, it is in fact a fun and entertaining movie to watch.  After all, it was good enough to get him his first movie with Studio Ghibli.  That has to count for something, right?

Over at Three Rows Back today you can check out a superb write up on Christopher Nolan’s Following by Elroy at The Silver Screener. Head over there right now to have a read!

Tomorrow you can read a piece by Alex at the excellent And So It Begins… on David Gordon Green’s George Washington. Don’t miss it!

Meanwhile, you can check out the rest of the entries in the Debuts Blogathon here.

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Debuts Blogathon: Duncan Jones – Moon (2009)

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Today’s post in the Debuts Blogathon, hosted by myself and Three Rows Back, sees Nick from The Cinematic Katzenjammer take on Duncan Jones’s superb debut, Moon. Nick has a brilliant site which is, without a doubt, the most prolific I know. Definitely worth a read if you don’t already. Here we go…

DUNCAN JONES

Moon (2009)

While many others that are participating are doing much more “accomplished” directors, I decided to discuss Duncan Jone’s first film, Moon, from 2009. And to keep up with my latest “style” of reviews, I break down the Five Reasons Why Moon is One of the Best Sci-Fi Films of the Past 10 Years.

The Simplicity

Believe it or not, when it comes to the sci-fi genre, less is usually more. The best films aren’t the ones with lens flares and explosions, but those that are driven by the details and the characters. Unfortunately, the genre is not cheap, and most sci-fi films suffer from bloated budgets or a desire to be a blockbuster. While the ambition is admirable, it’s very rare that the quality of the film matches the dollars thrown at it, which leaves the smallest of holes for the tinier movies to sneak through. Moon is one of these films. With only a budget of five million dollars, Moon does what plenty of other films try to do. It’s a character driven masterpiece that just happens to have sci-fi elements, and turns the genre on its side, focusing more on the drama than on the action. It’s really that simple.

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The Story

If you think of the biggest films of the past few years, there’s one characteristic that can be applied to almost all of their plots- complicated. There are almost always unnecessary subplots or convoluted ideas forced into the plot just to increase the run time or give screen time to fan favorites, even if it doesn’t make any sense. In Moon, we get a straightforward story about a man’s survival and revelations about the ominous happenings on his lunar station. There are twists and turns, but they’re never as shocking as you’d think. Instead, the focus is on how Sam (Sam Rockwell) deals with these situations. Again the focus is returned to the drama and the simplicity, yet genius, of the plot really crawls underneath your skin.

The Practical Effects

Due to the budget, Duncan Jones had to be creative with creating a space station on the moon. He couldn’t just create a set or use a green screen to set the mood, but had to find the right combination of what’s real and what’s not to give us the feeling that we’re up in space, completely alone with Sam. Jones utilizes a wonderful, tiny set, that is the home away from home for our hero, Sam. Lacking entirely of color, the sterile environment is similar to something you’d find in an insane asylum or hospital, which actually plays into the plot. It’s very unwelcoming and our only existence in such a place is to see what’s happening to Sam. In contrast to the white, we have Sam’s belongings- plants he tends, carvings he’s made, and pictures he has hung on the wall. It may be clean, but it’s obvious someone’s living there and has been there for awhile.

To remind us that we’re on the moon and in a space station, Jones’ has longer hallways with wires and pipes exposed, reminding us it’s not just a box on another world. We never forget that Sam is thousands of miles away from home. Jones also gives us glimpses of the surface of the moon, as Sam goes out on his routine expeditions to check the equipment and machines. We’re never out of the station too long, but there is a continued sense of dread and isolation. The beauty of this fear, however, is that we clearly see there is no where to hide. Just as Sam cannot hide from what’s happening to him, we cannot find solace in Moon.

The Throwbacks

Sam’s only friend on the station is GERTY, an artificial intelligence that inhabits an almost surgical-like robot. Voiced by Kevin Spacey, GERTY is a beautiful throwback to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s HAL. Instead of a red eye, however, GERTY’s emotions are depicted with smiley faces on a tiny monitor. From his first appearance, you think that something is wrong, but when you see that he’s all Sam has, you dismiss the idea. In fact, Moon has several comparisons to 2001. The sets are very similar and many of the shots look like something you’d see in the 1968 classic. Even the video equipment, which Sam uses to send messages back to earth, is reminiscent of the video calls we see early on in 2001. It’s no doubt that Duncan Jones found inspiration from Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, and the references in the film only solidify itself in the sci-fi genre. Cinematography aside, the film also shares other similarities with 2001, including the use of classical music for most of the film, as opposed to an original score.  Take a look below to see the visual parallels:

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The Sam Rockwell

In a film that has really only two speaking parts, one of which is a robot and the other an actor, there’s a lot of pressure on the star. Sam Rockwell, whose had a solid career of playing smaller parts, absolutely shines. Delivering his tour de force, Rockwell carries the film with his emotion, charisma, and even his unusual humor in the face of danger. It’s heart-breaking to see what the guy has to deal with and the situation he’s in, but Rockwell shows us what acting is all about and how to be the best at it. It’s a shame the film went completely unnoticed by the 2009 award season, but Rockwell deserves our absolute attention and recognition for the job he’s done.

Since this is all about directors, it’s worth noting that Duncan Jones wanted to work with Sam Rockwell so bad, he made Moon as a vehicle for the actor. Yes, Jones wrote and directed the entire film just because he wanted Rockwell around. As for getting Kevin Spacey to voice GERTY, Spacey only agreed to voice the robot if he liked the film after it was finished. Spacey was so impressed by Jones’ work, he immediately signed on and recorded all of his lines in on afternoon. That has to be the ultimate testament to Jones’ ability.

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Duncan Jones is one of the greatest directors working today, it’s that simple. He’s a brilliant mind in a world so desperate for originality and manages to start off his career with a masterpiece, something very few filmmakers can do. His follow-up, Source Code, is a wonderful and suspenseful ride through time and space. With a much bigger budget than Moon, Jones still knows that characters and stories are the focus, and shows us you can spin a time travel tale without getting distracted with fancy effects (even though there are plenty of explosions).

Next up for Jones’ is Warcraft, a film based off the popular Blizzard video games. Jones is a massive video game fan and promises to deliver “the greatest video game adaptation of all time”, and I’m confident he has the ability to do so. If there’s anyone to break the curse of video game adaptations, it’s Jones.

Over at Three Rows Back today you can check out a great write up on Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case by Richard of From The Depths of DVD Hell. Head over there now and check it out!

Check back here tomorrow to read Kim from Tranquil Dreams‘ wonderful piece on Hayao Miyazaki’s directorial debut, The Castle of Cagliostro.

Meanwhile, you can check out the rest of the entries in the Debuts Blogathon here.

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Debuts Blogathon: Darren Aronofsky – Pi (1998)

Today’s entries in the Debuts blogathon comes courtesy of KaramelKinema with a look at Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. KaramelKinema is a great looking blog with plenty of great content to back it up. Head over and have a look if you haven’t already checked it out. After reading this, obviously…

DARREN ARONOFSKY

Pi (1998)

(1) Mathematics is the language of nature,
(2)  Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers, and
(3) There are patterns everywhere in nature.

These are the three believes that our protagonist, of Darren Aronofsky’s first debut feature, believed in. Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) is a number theorist and mathematical genius, he is looking for a formula that can be the answer of anything in the world, from key to predict the stock market to unravel the secrets of the universe through the means of numbers. Max isolated himself from normalcy in order to decode these mathematical pattern he believed in, to understand the universe. Through conversations over Go, Fibonacci Sequences and Golden Ratio, and divine numerical breakthrough from Torah and the 216 letter name of God, Max suffers from extreme apophenia. Pi is a study in one genius descend into madness as he was driven by his obsession to find enlightenment and order within the chaotic universe.

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Aronofsky made a script that made all these weird element works and giving a lot of intensity to the characters and the world they lived in. There were repetitive lines narrated by Max, as he recount his childhood experiences and announce his activities for the day or his scientific findings. It allows us to understand his habits and routines, a contrast to his more erratic behaviour later in the film as he was haunted by his own paranoia. The thing about Aronofsky films are how open it is to be interpreted by its viewers, and Pi is no different. As Max grew closer to understanding the secret of numerology patterns he believed in, we can see how greatly it affects him, and lead him to his ultimate decision to lobotomize himself as he learn the secrets that are too great for him and something he’s not supposed to be privy about.

Dark and intensely fascinating, Pi (like most of Aronofsky films) might not be everyone’s cup of tea. His films are really more character-driven than plot driven. These characters always seemed so self-destructive psychological journey and made the entire film become somewhat depressingly dark, but they serve a fascinating studies of character that are exhilarating and successfully piqued my interest. Aronofsky film are always surreal and, more often than not, disturbing, these characteristics always featured prominently in all five of his feature films. There’s a connecting theme between his films, I think it’s the study of obsession. Different kind of obsessions of course, nevertheless it all allow us to see all his character succumbs to oblivion as they tried to reach the object of their desire. Weirdly enough, I always found that behind what seems to be a depressing conclusion to his story, each characters always found the bliss that they are looking for, even if the form of the bliss itself might be significantly altered.

Done in black and white film with only $60,000 budget, funded from $100 donations from friends and families, Pi is undeniably a great, albeit audacious, debut. There’s something very in-your-face harshness about Pi, a vision of young director that shows the promise and vision of a modern Auteur, that Aronofsky still has so much to offer. His narrative seems to be so heavy handed at times, but he eventually learned the art of subtlety and refinement in his much later films, especially the last two (The Wrestler and Black Swan).

The film was shot by Matthew Libatique, a cinematographer that later become his frequent collaborators (for all his films, except The Wrestlers). Due to the constricting budget, the film was shot in using montages and intense short shots, a technique which was also used later in his sophomore feature Requiem of a Dream, but somehow contributes to the suspense factor of the film.  The black and white shots have a very high contrast and grainy, combined with the quick shots and editing, it made me feel unease and huge discomfort, perfect when combined with the intended mood that Aronofsky going for, allowing us to empathize with Max as he was victimized by his paranoia and given surrealistic nature of the story. The suspenseful nuance of Pi is enriched by the bold film score courtesy of Clint Mansell, who collaborated with Aronofsky on all of his films and whose career was launched from scoring this film.

Pi, a psychological thriller at heart, is an auspicious debut from Aronofsky, since then the director has been delivering remarkable subsequent films over the years. Aronofsky films always has a deep intricacy weaved into it through combination of visual semantics and narratives that sparks discussion and can be further explored by its viewers. How can I not be in love with his films?

Over at Three Rows Back today you can read an excellent piece on The Pleasure Garden, the debut feature from the master himself, Alfred Hitchcock written by Melissa from The Soul of the Plot. Head over there right now to give it a read.

Tomorrow on this very site you can read a superb piece by Nick from The Cinematic Katzenjammer on Duncan Jones’s excellent sci-fi debut, Moon. Don’t miss it!

Meanwhile, you can check out the rest of the entries in the Debuts Blogathon here.

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Debuts Blogathon: Alejandro González Iñárritu – Amores Perros (2000)

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Next up on the Debuts Blogathon is Fernando from Committed To Celluloid and his take on Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros. I think Fernando’s is one of the first blogs I followed and it’s still a fantastic read; there’s some really great stuff on there. If you’re not familiar with his blog, then do yourself a favour and go check it out. Here we go…

ALEJANDRO GONZÁLEZ IÑÁRRITU

Amores Perros (2000)

Amores Perros is not only one of the best dramas that came in with the new millennium, but it’s also a motion picture of great relevance in its land of origin, Mexico.

Besides being the feature debut of the country’s most critically respected filmmaker, Alejandro González Iñárritu, it put writer Guillermo Arriaga on the map and signified the breakthrough of one of the world’s most successful Hispanic actors, Gael García Bernal.

Additionally, Amores Perros gave a breath of life to a national film industry on its deathbed, and kickstarted a new era of Mexican cinema: hard-hitting issues and relevant stories that made every nation look Mexico’s way. No small feat.

The Oscar-nominated debut of González Iñárritu is, like Magnolia before it and Crash after it (not to mention all of the director’s movies since) a web of interconnected stories.

Octavio’s (García Bernal) beloved dog Cofi has been shot. He’s racing towards some medical attention, all the while evading the crazy thugs who want Cofi, the unexpected champion in the dogfighting circuit, dead. In the heated pursuit, Octavio crashes against model Valeria’s (Goya Toledo) car, paralyzing her, thus ending her career. “El Chivo” (Emilio Echevarría) is a disgraced former family man and current hitman who witnesses the accident and rescues Cofi, who, in a strange way, ends up rescuing him.

While this opera prima is expertly written and acted, it also exhibits some issues that could be attributed to both González and Arriaga’s rookie status. As it gave us a look into some of the talent they’d both display in the years to come, it also reminds us these people were newbies at one point.

Octavio’s story takes up most of the runtime, and rightfully so. Chapter 1 of Amores Perros is mainly why the film is so respected, I think. It’s a thrilling, gritty mini-movie in itself.

Then two cars crash and we head into Valeria’s life. An abruptly finished modeling career and a possibly cheating boy friend can be tragic situations, but instead of rooting for her, you’ll find yourself annoyed by her obsessive, aggressive attitudes and waiting for her to just shut up already! (and maybe check your watch a little).

El Chivo’s tale of redemption and new beginnings is a step up from a weak midsection, but neither his or Valeria’s stories are as gripping as that powerful first chapter, which is the film’s biggest achievement.

Later collaborating on 21 Grams and Babel, Alejandro González and Guillermo Arriaga entered a bitter battle of egos. Arriaga (who went on to pen The Three Burials of Melquíades Estrada and direct The Burning Plain) claimed González Iñárritu took all the credit and received all recognition for everything they did together.

He’s got a point. But comparing Arriaga’s solid but unspectacular ‘Plain’ (oh, the irony) and González Iñárritu’s Biutiful, a harrowing modern masterpiece, makes you think maybe Alejandro’s the one with the real talent after all.

Amores Perros is not perfect: it looks like it was shot with a cell phone camera and has pace issues. Starts off with a bang, then loses its footing only to pick itself back up (not quite all the way, though). But it’s a film of undeniable power and grit and a fantastic way to get acquainted with one of the best cineastes in the biz, foreign or otherwise.

Over at Three Rows Back today, you can read an excellent look at Bong Joon Ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite by Naomi from She Speaks Movies. Head over there right now and give it a read if you haven’t already.

Tomorrow you can check out KaramelKinema’s piece on Darren Aronofsky’s directorial debut Pi.

You can check out the rest of the entries in the blogathon here.

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