Archive for the ‘Independent Films’ Category

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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.

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“Far From Heaven,” dir. Todd Haynes

October 15, 2009
Dennis Haysbert (Raymond Deagan) and Julianne Moore (Cathy Whitaker)

Dennis Haysbert (Raymond Deagan) and Julianne Moore (Cathy Whitaker)

Going in, the concept felt odd. Unlike Fassbinder (who re-worked Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows into his own masterpiece, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul), Haynes retains the look and feel of Sirk’s films right down to the smallest detail. The result is neither derivative nor an ironic statement – it’s a loving homage that’s every bit as rich as its sources. And yet even as it keeps all the artifice and heightened drama of those pictures, it’s even more affecting.

The story is a classic portrayal of 1950s suburbia: societal rules suffocates true passions, and it covers them in alluring, manufactured surfaces. Everyone knows their place, to the point that they’re accessories to their own clothes. It’s easy to peg this to a bygone era (and understandably so, considering how impeccably it’s been recreated), but as devoted as the film is to the period’s detail, it never betrays a hint of condescension. Everything is relevant today. Laws and societal conventions may have changed, but the feelings of conformity, the importance given to appearances, and the cost of living in self-denial behind such pretenses have not gone away.

And those costs are all the more tragic by how much is self-inflicted. As tormented as Frank is about his homosexuality, he becomes far more furious when Cathy’s seen around town with Raymond. Believing her innocence is not enough, it’s how they’re perceived that really matters.

Given the importance of appearances to this story, the meticulous production is not only appropriate but very impressive. It’s marvelous to look at, and one gets the sense of the director’s hand in every detail, a misguided notion that’s really a testament to the outstanding collaborative work on display.

Cathy meets Raymond's daughter, Sarah

Cathy meets Raymond's daughter, Sarah

Sandy Powell deserves recognition for Moore’s costume designs alone. Notice how they hint at an inner kinship between Cathy and Raymond’s daughter, Sarah; how a purple dress can isolate her in her own world, then beautifully blend her in to a new one; and later how they swallow her up in public anonymity. All of this works in tandem with Haynes and Lachman’s virtuosic use of color, which do more to define these characters than the dialogue itself. In two key moments, the startling use of green breaks up the visual and behavioral status quo. In another, Cathy, too distraught to speak, is frozen in a tiny sheet of blue. And later, when she hangs on to a marriage that can only slip away, bursts of autumnal warmth scurry through a shot cast in deep, cold blue. This is possibly the best use of color since three-strip went out of fashion, and it needs to be seen in a good theater.

"Far From Heaven"

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“Before Sunrise” & “Before Sunset,” dir. Richard Linklater

September 1, 2009
Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunrise"

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunrise"

I’m not a big fan of date movies. Most of them feel like bad Hallmark cards. Shallow, fake…something misguided fans would watch to distract themselves from the gray reality of their own relationships.

I didn’t feel that way about Before Sunrise. It’s utterly romantic, but despite the familiar set-up (two strangers meet in a foreign land), it doesn’t give into the usual artifices associated with romantic films. Instead, it builds a bare-bones plot around an overnight courtship, where both characters reveal how their ideas of romance colors everything else in their lives.

The dialogue is intoxicating in its sense of discovery. There’s no barrage of one-liners – that would’ve been too fanciful. Instead, the conversation unfolds casually, and neither character is afraid of taking a ludicrous turn. Pretty soon, their words overflow with sensuality, and it’s exhilarating how they never tire of each other’s thoughts. Their exchanges may be cerebral, but they’re not the least bit academic. Their intellect fuels their passion, and it relieves them of their rational inhibitions while keeping them within their senses.

When Before Sunrise closes, it leaves their story unresolved and hints at endless possibilities…

Then nine years later, in Before Sunset, everything’s finite. What was once promising feels out-of-reach. The characters have really aged and not just physically: they’re marked by nine years of pain and disappointment. Experience has left them apprehensive over the consequences left by their actions. Everything they do betrays a fear bred by that awareness, and the pacing fits this mood perfectly. The story moves in real-time, and the characters know they’re trying to outrun a schedule that will inevitably catch up to them.

The whole concept of romance lends itself to escapism, but nothing’s more detrimental to romance than self-deception – it could mean unrealistic expectations, bloodless compromise, settling for less or settling for something that isn’t there. Nine years after Before Sunrise, the characters take refuge in rationalization. “Maybe we would’ve hated each other,” they say, but it’s not an idea they fully embrace.

They can’t return to the same romantic ideals of the past, or live with the same reckless abandon, but they can’t let go of their idealism altogether. They hold on just enough to doubt their pragmatism, and maybe enough to ask for more.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunset"

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunset"