Brattle Theatre Film Notes Posts

April 11, 2008 / / Film Notes

Contemptby Kris Tronerud

“The cinema is an invention without a future.”
— Louis Lumière, inventor of motion pictures; written on the wall of the screening room in Contempt

Jean Luc Godard is the original, and still reigning, tortured intellectual of the cinema. Deeply in love with the Classic Hollywood films of the 30s, 40s and 50s, yet disdainful and deeply … contemptuous… of the philistine restrictions and lack of freedom of commercial film-making as only a French intellectual could be, Godard rarely became comfortable with his material in the manner of his Hollywood idols, and many of his best films are more easily enjoyed not as ‘movie movies’ but rather as joyful, sensual and hyperkinetic exercises in the sheer joy of film-making itself. In the way painters who love painting relish the texture of pigment and brushstroke, we can almost see Godard fondling the film as he edits it himself (as he often has), using his Arriflex to make love to his actors, the scenery, the physical texture of the world, and the process itself as an end. Beneath the cool renegade posture, and all the self conscious artistry for its own sake, however, lay the heart of an unabashed romantic, and, though it may seem ‘uncool’ to say so, the films in which Godard gave free (or freer) reign to his love of emotional storytelling, and a more (relatively) conventional structure, became his finest films; including Breathless, Bande Apart (The Outsiders), Passion and, arguably his best, the ravishing, and newly restored Contempt.

March 31, 2008 / / Film Notes

Is there a film more famous than The Wizard of Oz? There are films with loftier reputations, yes: as impressive an achievement as it truly is, The Wizard of Oz is still written off as kids’ stuff on occasion. But what other film has embedded itself so firmly in our culture? It’s a reference that most everyone picks up and the one Old Hollywood classic that nearly everyone has seen (and, until recently, one of the few being broadcast on network television in primetime). It’s been remade and spun-off in all manner of ways, 0from a television version populated by the Muppets to the misbegotten disco epic The Wiz, to surprisingly bleak incarnations like the eighties semi-sequel Return to Oz and the Sci-Fi Channel’s recent Tin Man miniseries. It crops up even in unexpected places: as a key reference point in anxiety-ridden fair like After Hours and Blue Velvet, and a throwaway line in Reservoir Dogs’ infamous torture scene (“How’s about a little fire, Scarecrow?”). Heck, Richard O’ Brien originally wanted The Rocky Horror Picture Show to imitate The Wizard of Oz’s iconic – and still breathtaking – leap from black-and-white to color. The film is also a merchandizing perennial, the inspiration for a booming cottage industry of hand-numbered music boxes and collector’s plates.

March 18, 2008 / / Film Notes

Kris Tronerud

Universal, 1958 Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

The great French director René Clair once remarked that moviegoers, as they sit in the darkness watching a film, enter into a “dreamlike state”; and over the years, many great directors, from Melies to Bunuel to Fellini to Lynch have aided in that process by gleefully plunging their viewers into the human dreamscape. But no film has ever so straightforwardly, simply, and seductively taken on the actual form and structure of dreaming than Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. From its first throbbing arpeggios, Bernard Herrman’s brilliant score carries us, with the impatience of a dream, from ominous threat, to lush, romantic calm, to tense confrontation, to resolution… and back to fear again, as the late great Saul Bass’ credits likewise dissolve from the glorious Black and White of Kim Novak’s absurdly lush lips and tear-welling eyes, to the rich VistaVision color of Bass’ iconic spiraling motifs, culminating in an extreme, Psycho-presaging close-up of one terrified eye. With its disorienting changes in mood, color and visuals, this brief and brilliant credit sequence leaves no doubt: We are entering the ever-shifting, primal world of the dream.

October 1, 2007 / / Film Notes

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In trying to pinpoint the appeal of the 2007 comedy Hot Fuzz, critics and fans are likely to come up with the phrase “British humor” to encapsulate it, but that catch-all term (like “alternative rock” or “ethnic food”) is so broad as to have hardly any meaning at all. When “British humor” can stretch to accommodate everything from feel-good exports like The Full Monty and Saving Grace to subversive comic firecrackers like Monty Python’s Life of Brian and the terrifying, short-lived TV sketch show Jam, something is probably amiss. So if we can’t cite “British humor” as an endorsement of Hot Fuzz, how can we describe its appeal? 

October 1, 2007 / / Film Notes

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2004’s Shaun of the Dead, the superior British horror-comedy that broke stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in America, is clearly proud to take its cues from George Romero’s hugely influential zombie films. (Its title is an obvious pun on Romero’s 1978 horror touchstone Dawn of the Dead.) Zombies are fast-moving and ferocious in several recent movies, but Wright and Pegg (who also co-wrote Shaun‘s screenplay) choose to mine Romero’s traditionally slow-moving, moaning flesh-eaters for scares and laughs. More importantly, they know that what makes Romero’s zombies timeless is that they are never just zombies; Romero uses his monsters as vehicles for social critique, whether covertly satirizing mindless consumerism (in the original Dawn of the Dead) or class injustice (in the recent Land of the Dead). The same may be said of the shambling undead who populate Shaun, though the concerns of its filmmakers are more intimate than they are sweeping. Pegg has described Shaun as a film about turning thirty; it offers a particularly apocalyptic vision of the end of a prolonged adolescence. 

October 1, 2007 / / Film Notes

The basic premise behind Grindhouse, the B-movie double feature from directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, isn’t really all that novel. Director Stanley Donen’s 1978 effort Movie Movie is a strikingly similar package to Grindhouse, albeit Donen flew solo. That package is this: a pair of separate movies sharing some of the same cast members and glued together by nostalgia and fake trailers (Grindhouse‘s fake trailers are a major drawing card, featuring cameo directorial appearances by Rob Zombie, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth). But while Movie Movie affectionately spoofed the candy-sweetness of Old Hollywood in the midst of the grittier 1970s, Grindhouse longingly harks back to exploitative ’70s cheapies in an era when Hollywood product has grown dishearteningly slick and safe. By marking up their movies with scratches, pops, and intentionally missing reels, Tarantino and Rodriguez’s modus operandi is to transform sanitary suburban multiplexes into grindhouse cinemas that, while undeniably rattier, at least had a kind of dingy individualism intact. The entire enterprise is more about the act of going to see a film than anything else. See it on DVD and you’ve already skipped half the joke.

September 14, 2007 / / Film Notes

By Jessica Singer

The Great Dictator is Charlie Chaplin’s overtly anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi opus. Written, acted, directed, and produced by Chaplin, the film tells the story of a Jewish barber who gets mistaken for a dictator. The dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, is of course a very thinly veiled version of the similarly named Adolph Hitler. The film–and its famous pantomine scene where the dictator dances around the room with a balloon globe of the world–has made an indelible mark in film history and popular culture, and is fondly remembered today for its rich political satire as well as its delicate blend of pathos and comedy. What is not always remembered, however, is just how daring it was for Chaplin to produce this film in the context of his times.

September 14, 2007 / / Film Notes

By Andy Dimond

Says Marianne to Ferdinand: “We’ve played Jules Verne long enough; let’s go back to our gangster movie.”

For his 10th feature film, Jean-Luc Godard chose to follow the sci-fi noir Alphaville with a return to the genre of his 1st: the crime romance. Jean-Paul Belmondo, the lovable pug whom Breathless had made an unlikely star, and Anna Karina, the most compelling of Godard’s many screen muses, are paired in Pierrot le fou.

July 3, 2007 / / Film Notes

By Chelsea Spear

Equal parts expressionist horror film, childhood reminiscence, crime procedural, and Grand Guignol reverie, Brand Upon the Brain! is the story of a teenaged girl detective investigating eerie abuses at an orphanage wracked by unseemly youthful desire. The juvenile sleuth befriends an adolescent brother and sister, and, lusting after the latter, goes into drag to seduce her. The young brother, meanwhile, falls under the spell of both the female and the male versions of the detective, forming a love triangle from just two people – dangerous geometry for children!

June 11, 2007 / / Film Notes

Director Gus Van Sant’s 1989 feature Drugstore Cowboy is surprising in that it manages to tackle heavy subject matter while remaining remarkably light on its feet. It moves at a steady but unhurried pace and gives humor and heartbreak equal time. The story concerns a crew of junkies in the Pacific Northwest who rob drugstores to maintain their high, and Van Sant achieves the nigh-impossible by treating the issue with an understanding of both the allure of addiction and the horrors that it can lead to. Charges that it glamorizes drug use carry a shard of truth: early scenes of the gang shooting up are rendered as dreamily blissful, and Matt Dillon is casually seductive as Bob Hughes, the slim, clever, and undeniably cool leader of the crew. But one doesn’t easily shake the image of the bluing corpse that causes Bob to try to kick his habit later on, nor forget the lingering, melancholy uncertainty of Drugstore Cowboy’s final frames.