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“The Night of the Hunter,” dir. Charles Laughton

November 8, 2010

You have to be careful with the kind of expectations you set up for this film. I’ve seen some people, critics included, who build this up as a scary horror flick, like Halloween, but it’s not like that at all. This isn’t the sort of edge-of-your-seat suspense movie that’s meant to terrify you, but something more twisted and strange. It reminds me of the cheap, flimsy children’s books I used to read in churches, only warped and deranged from a good dose of German expressionism. Imagine if Disney pursued a less commercial direction after his initial triumphs; he would’ve wound up here.

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“Rashomon,” dir. Akira Kurosawa

November 7, 2010


Rashomon‘s influence is so pervasive, the story structure will be familiar to anyone, even if they’ve never heard of the picture. A crime is committed, and the only witnesses give very conflicting accounts. Revolutionary in its time, the gimmick has lost its novelty now that countless films and television shows have lifted it, but few if any of them retained the same philosophical implications. Most writers turn it into a simple lesson in subjectivity – characters lie to make themselves look better. The characters in Rashomon do the opposite. By the film’s end, the most important questions are not raised by the legalities of the case, it’s raised by how the characters perceive themselves – what they believe are their given roles in society and how that defines them, not just the way they live or what they do, but who they are.

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“Raging Bull,” dir. Martin Scorsese

November 6, 2010

Just over a year ago, someone asked me what was the most violent film I had ever seen. The question came up while we were watching David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, right after a bank robber separated his head from his own body with a shotgun blast.

The first film that came to mind was actually Raging Bull, Scorsese’s portrait of middleweight champion Jake LaMotta. Violence runs through the entire picture, even when its central character is far from the ring, and often times it feels real, uncomfortable and almost too close to home.

Widely celebrated today, no one wanted to make the film except Robert DeNiro. LaMotta was a role he wanted to play, but Scorsese couldn’t relate to the material and turned down DeNiro’s offer to direct. Years later, when his personal life unraveled, Scorsese finally connected: he saw himself in LaMotta, and when DeNiro approached him again, he agreed to do the picture to save his own life.

It’s not unusual for Scorsese to claim his next film to be his last, but with Raging Bull, he certainly made it as if it was his last will and testament. Uncompromising and intensely personal, he virtually exhausted everything he had to say with that one film. He later described his approach as “kamikaze” filmmaking.

The film would eventually earn eight Oscar nominations (winning two), but despite this recognition, it wasn’t a commercial success. Reviews were also mixed with Pauline Kael dismissing DeNiro’s portrayal of Jake LaMotta as “a swollen puppet with only bits and pieces of character inside.” Obviously, I don’t agree with Kael, but I think I understand her perceptions – it probably has a lot to do with the character itself: a boxer consumed by his emotions but who can only articulate them through violence instead of words. Scorsese conveys this brilliantly in the fight scenes, which are a visceral tour de force of sound and cinematography.

The ring delivers more than LaMotta’s catharsis: when the violence bleeds into the crowd, it’s one of the few times LaMotta ever connects with those around him. The effect of these scenes is often brutal, but occasionally beautiful (as in that gorgeous opening shot, which nearly made a convert out of one Scorsese detractor I know). It’s even more striking when we see the passion (and later paranoia) driving these scenes taking shape outside of the ring, especially in the brief, fleeting moments that drag in time.

As graphic as the boxing scenes are, the most startling moments actually deal with domestic violence, especially when LaMotta grows more possessive of his second wife. Violence pretty much defines every aspect of his life: immense pain is felt and returned in kind, impulsively and honestly. Towards the end, when he supposedly finds grace, it doesn’t feel like complete redemption, but it’s enough.

(A new 35mm print of Raging Bull is now showing at Film Forum in New York City.)

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Rough week…R.I.P. Tony Curtis

September 30, 2010

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Arthur Penn 1922-2010

September 29, 2010

The director behind Little Big Man, Night Moves and, of course, this…

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R.I.P., Sally Menke

September 28, 2010

Menke on her working relationship with Quentin Tarantino (published last December).

And the classic twist contest…

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“Killer of Sheep,” dir. Charles Burnett

April 22, 2010

A stunning work of naturalism. Make no mistake, this IS a student film, with the rough mechanics and conceptual lapses synonymous with student work, but historically and aesthetically, it’s a remarkable achievement.

It looks and feels very real, but it’s approach also seems very alien compared to other films shot in places like Watts. It’s tempting to compare it to Italian neorealism, but its hazy lyricism, plotless structure and loose interactions place it somewhere between Terrence Malick and John Cassavetes. Some stretches of the film even progress like a dream, and the eclectic choices populating the soundtrack reinforce this sense of surrealism.

Again, the film’s not a seamless experience – parts of it stumble, and several scenes are too clearly acted and (presumably) scripted, betraying the inexperience of its cast. But their best moments are exquisite, like a slow dance to “Bitter Earth,” filmed nearly in silhouette, erupting in unrequited passion and ending in painful alienation.

It’s strange that Burnett can be such a beloved figure of African-American filmmaking, yet few African-American films since “Killer of Sheep” share his sensibility. Burnett himself hasn’t made many films since then, and for a while, most of them were unreleased or wallowing in obscurity. Fortunately, Milestone has brought a good portion of them back into circulation, and thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s generosity (he paid for the music clearances), “Killer of Sheep” is no longer confined to the underground.