The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

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John Wayne and I have a complicated history. Named after a heroine in one of his movies, I grew up in the shadow of John Wayne movies and references. I rebelled against this tyranny of John Wayne and declared early on that I hated westerns, old movies and most of all John Wayne. I got over the old movies part pretty quickly thanks to TCM, but westerns and John Wayne were harder to shake. Only after watching and getting into Deadwood that I realized this genre has its own thrills and chills. I started to respond to the lonely outsider gunslinger who wants to do the right thing. But that John Wayne hatred was the hardest thing to shake. I watched the Searchers when I was in college for a class and hated it thus solidifying my hatred for this man was just. Then I read up on his history and I found him to be a staunch republican who wouldn’t give his friend any due for winning an oscar for a left leaning role in a western (I am talking about Gary Cooper and High Noon. That story is easily found on imdb) and it made me hate him even more. I am a bleeding heart liberal after all. And yet the more I delved into film history, the more often his name came up. He is unavoidable so I might as well watch some of his movies, at least I will have more ammunition to shoot down his legend. That is until I actually started to watch this film.

John Wayne plays the outdated good-hearted gunslinger who can’t avoid the inevitable march to progress. Progress comes in the form of Jimmy Stewart playing a young lawyer (who was like fifty-four at the time) just out of law school. He is there to set up his law practice but ends up getting enthralled by the statehood debate that rocks the small town. John Wayne becomes Jimmy Stewart’s protector from a rough man named Liberty Valance (played by the awesome Lee Marvin. He was incredible in this film.) and they form a tense friendship. As the tensions mount between Jimmy Stewart who is in favor of statehood and Liberty Valance who is hired by the pro territory representatives to rough up any statehood loving freaks, John Wayne steps in from time to time to keep the peace or dole out justice with the gun. The thing about this film is that the screen lights up whenever John Wayne enters a scene. Even an established legendary actor like Jimmy Stewart can’t take away from that pull. For example after a major shoot out, John Wayne goes to the bar to drink heavily. The whole time that he is in the bar, there is commotion and talking behind him, but I am only paying attention to the way John Wayne slams shot after shot into his mouth. I only realize after John Wayne beats up the people who are talking that I was supposed to be paying attention to what they were saying. But the way John Wayne poured those shots, then slammed him slowly getting angrier and angrier about something that happened the scene before was so entrancing that I could not give him all of my attention. This was not the only scene this happened in. I lost whole scenes of important plot progress because I was paying more attention to the way John Wayne ate his food, the way he stood with his hand always resting on his gun or even just the way he smiled when seeing his love.

What is it that draws me or anyone to him? I think it is his over the top humility. I know that sounds like a conundrum but I think I might be right. He always seems to play characters that help the main hero achieve their goals only to then fade into the background of loneliness. He comes off as a badass but he is really just a sad man who can’t find love outside of the love of the bottle.He is mysterious and hard to get to know but he has a heart of gold. Now whether or not the real man had this same heart of gold, I will never know, but he seemed to play these characters so truthfully that it leads me to think he did. I still do not completely understand the mania that surrounds John Wayne, but I can at least now appreciate his presence in a film. Maybe one day on here I will confess to the blogosphere that I love John Wayne….

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Side by Side

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By the time I had entered college, there were no film strip editing bays or film cameras in my program. Everything was shot on digital cameras and edited with Avid. Our program was fairly new with the focus primarily being on news so they had no need to show us exactly how a film camera works or how splicing came about. And yet our professors would wax poetic about the old newsroom days when everything was ran on reel-to-reel and video cassettes were thought to be too fragile. They would talk about how precise their edits had to be, how deliberate their camera had to be positioned. One professor even shot her recent project on film and showed us her rough cut by bringing in an old style projector. At the time I thought that idea was quaint but unnecessary. Why not shoot on digital? It was cheaper and easier to manipulate. It wasn’t until I started watching a butt load of classic films that I realized that these films could never be made digitally. There is a quality to film that is incomparable to anything else.  And yet it is cumbersome, expensive, and hard to manipulate. Which one is better? As a film geek I have my thoughts. And so does so many other people who Keanu Reeves (this such a random celebrity pick and yet he seems really knowledgable about it) and Christopher Kenneally decide to show both sides of the argument in the documentary Side by Side.

The argument isn’t just what you shoot on. It is what you edit on, how you act, how you light, how effects are handled, and the control you have over your product. In the old days things that involved human contact and intuition now are able to be fixed by using a computer. Keanu interviews many different professionals in order to get the true debate going. What do film editors think? What do visual effects people think? What do cinematographers think? These are all arguments and stories that are usually not told in this huge debate that has been going on for years now. You usually only get an actor’s perspective (which is usually very surface) and a director’s perspective (which is usually detailed), but not the perspective of the people whose jobs are being affected by the transition. These people need to have a say and I am glad they chose to interview these people as well as the other big names like James Cameron, Steven Soderberg, and Martin Scorsese. I almost care more about what these day-to-day people have to say more than what the director has to say. Christopher Nolan will never be run out of the room because he still wants to shoot on film, but a color correctionist whose job is now being done by the computer will be. They should have as much say in their fate as anyone else does.

The history of film is well-known, but the history of digital is not. Side by Side aims to correct that lack of history by showing us how digital technology came about. This is the portion of the documentary that could be seen as boring to people who only have a passing interest in this argument, but I thought it was essential in order to truly understand the debate. The problem with the digital history of filmmaking is technology constantly evolving. A couple of filmmakers that came early to the digital revolution remark on having to put a reader next to the archival print because in a couple of years nothing will be made that can still read it. You never had that problem with film. Although the editing bays had gotten better, the film stock itself has gotten stronger, and the methods of preserving them has improved over the years, it could never be not read. Stick one of those reels on a projector and you are good to go. Now whether or not it is a good print is a different matter but the fact that it could be read at anytime by anyone passingly familiar with projectors is something that digital technology right now doesn’t have. How many people do you know still own a VHS player? How about laser disc? How about Beta player? These are just consumer driven examples, but you understand where I am coming from. James Cameron believes that in a decade the Avatar original negative will still be able to be read and I would have to disagree with him. And it is his fault. He is putting all of his man power, expertise and money into improving digital technology to the point that the camera that Avatar was shot on will non existent in a couple of years.

Side by Side is effective for me purely because it gets me thinking about this debate and challenges my conclusions that I had coming in. We are in the midst of a change that is completely taking a hold on the way we see films, the way films are shot and the way films will be archived. Do I want to be an ardent supporter of the change or do I want to resist? Only time will tell.

Days of Being Wild

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I have written on here previously of my love of In the Mood for Love. It is by far my favorite film of all time and a film that I annoy my boyfriend  by watching it on repeat. Every time I watch it, I am blown away by the pure mastery of the film. The acting, the sound, the cinematography and the story always stirs something inside me. In fact I watch this film most often after I have given up on finding any more interesting films. It makes me believe that cinema is capable of being great, touching on something universal and human and real.

But everyone has a starting point and In the Mood for Love was not Wong Kar Wai’s first film. In fact neither is the film I am reviewing. But it is the first film that reveals the mastery he will later develop completely not only in In the Mood for Love, but also Chungking Express and Happy Together. The exotic music cues, the graphic cinematography, the understated performances and the perpetual longing that permeates each film afterward starts in this film. The film is about a man who cares nothing for the women he insnares. He is a shallow man but a troubled man. Who he thought was his mother reveals that he is adopted but will not tell him where the mother is and who she is. She holds things over him and has trouble letting him go. This translates into his need to manipulate and abuse the women who come to love him. One woman (The amazing Maggie Cheung) is a quiet young woman who works a concession stand. He seduces her by coming at the exact same minute everyday and telling her that she will be in his dreams. She falls hard for him but he abruptly ends the relationship by asking her why she would want to tell her father about their non-existent relationship. He treats the second woman the exact opposite. Instead of quietly coming every day, he gives her a pair of earrings and asks what she would do for them then he leaves her outside in the pouring rain while he stays dry. He orders her around and abruptly leaves her one day without ever saying goodbye. He is for lack of a better word an a hole, but that does not matter to Wong Kar Wai. What matters is his inner thoughts and emotions revealed in long takes and many cigarettes. He doesn’t care who he hurts, but it is only because he was hurt the day he was born by his mother. A sad fate encounters him as he makes his way to find out what his real mother looks like.

If you put Days of Being Wild next to In the Mood for Love, you will notice so many similarities. This is mainly because the two films share the same director of photography. Christopher Doyle is a genius when it comes to expressing emotions using only vivid, rich colors. He creates an atmosphere that pulls you in and wraps you up in the actions and feelings of these very sensitive characters. In fact each element of the film serves to enhance each emotion, action and feeling that the characters have. The cha-cha music enhances one character’s want to be as much of a lady-killer as his friend is. The rain enhances another character’s loneliness. In Wong Kar Wai’s films every element has its part to play. He thinks about every factor involved and only makes decisions based on what is best for his characters. This is what makes Wong Kar Wai a great director. This is what makes Days of Being Wild a great film.

Code 46

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Science fiction is a versatile genre. There can be adventure, romance, comedy and scientific exploration all present in one film. This is what makes science fiction such an interesting and rewarding genre to explore. But it also makes the genre hard to pull off correctly. Code 46 is a science fiction film that reaches for that versatility and falls a little bit short.

Code 46 is not a bad film. In fact I rather enjoyed getting wrapped up in the simple plot line that was fluffed out with great performances and a unique vision of the future. But it did not blow me away. I think the reason why was because so much of the future seemed incomplete. It felt like it was still a sketch on paper rather than a living universe on the screen. I know it is hard to completely realize a future world where for only one simple plot line, but that is what separates the mind-blowing movies from the only okay films. Movies like Gattaca or Primer hint at greatness and reveal complete visions while following something as simple as men traveling through time or space. Code 46 had the potential to be a Primer or a Gattaca if only there was enough time to fully understand it. If only there was one more pass to the script. If only… If only…

Like I said before, the plot line is simple. An investigator infected with an empathy virus goes Shanghai to investigate forged papers. He knows who did it right away, but covers up for her without really knowing why. She invites him out and they begin a love affair. But they cannot stay together because they are too genetically similar. They are violating a law called Code 46. Through twists and turns the couple reunites and runs away to a vague Middle Eastern town where there seems to be more freedom. They resume their love affair only to have it abruptly end. But is this real love or is this just a side effect of the empathy virus?

What makes this world unique is all of the genetic inbreeding. Although the main characters speak mostly English, they pepper their language with Spanish, French and other languages. Also despite the woman looking like an Irish wonder, her name is Maria Gonzalez and she lives in Shanghai. There are no more borders, no more artificial lines of race, creed or color. Everyone interacts together and lives together. But this comes with several consequences, mainly breeding factors. Before you have sex or marry you must test each other’s DNA so that you do not accidentally marry your sister or brother. There is so much in vitro fertilization going on that this is a distinct possibility. This is where Maria and her lover, William, get into trouble. They were pulled from the same egg.

There are individual scenes in the film that are fantastic. The director, Michael Winterbottom, really knows how to film a love scene. He takes care to keep the action on the woman’s face, not to focus on the man’s pleasure but rather hers even when her body rejects his love. He can also use music very effectively. I now want to revisit Coldplay’s first album purely for the ending scene of this film. But unfortunately the connecting scenes are boring, lackluster, or just come out of nowhere with no explanation. I wanted very much to love this film, but ended up only liking it. I guess like is still better than hate, right?

The Invisible War

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My sister is in the Navy. Ever since she started talking about it when she was seventeen, I was scared that she might get molested in some way. I joked about getting her a chastity belt when she finally did sign on that dotted line. I joked but the fear for me was very real. I feared for her because I knew that women entering the military are twice as likely to get assaulted than a woman in the civilian world. As far as I know, she has not had to experience any of the pain that someone goes through after getting assaulted, but it is still an ever-present danger that she has to face every time she goes to work. This danger is very real and just not made up in a concerned older sister’s mind. This documentary explores the culture that makes molestation a normal thing. And it couldn’t be any more heart breaking.

Kirby Dick is an amazing documentarian that lets his subjects speak for themselves. You barely ever hear him and it is usually just to ask more questions. You don’t see him holding their hands, personally battling against the system for them or anything else that more annoying issue documentarians do. Instead he lets the subjects stand up for themselves, tell their own stories, and just document the events. It is a breath of fresh air after watching South of the Border. There are still real issue documentarians that can keep their egos out of the frame.

I am going to tell you this right away: this film is very hard to watch. The raw emotion and injustice for these women and men can be overwhelming. When Kori Cioca (one of the main subjects of the documentary) details how her story, the sadness and inability to stop it from happening to her was overwhelming for me. In another particularly moving account a father whose daughter had gotten raped burst into tears because he was the one that encouraged her to go into the military. After hearing these stories, I want to yell and scream at the military for not doing more for these victims. Denying them rank, being investigated for adultery when it was the rapist who was married not the victim, denying them health insurance and a due process through the courts of law is just plain inhumane. It makes me mad just thinking about it. There needs to be fundamental changes in the system that makes the fact being a woman be an asset instead of a hinderance. More and more women are joining the ranks everyday. We need the power, the ingenuity and the smarts that only a woman can give to our military in order to make it better than it is. And yet no one seems to care to make the system more hospitable to women. I want to be able to recommend going into the military to women who are struggling with school or a purpose in life. I want to be able to tell them that you are going to be taken care of, if anything were ever to happen to you. But I can’t. Not until something is done.

Switchblade Sisters

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From now on if I meet a girl who thinks she is tough, I will not be impressed until she pulls out a switch blade. In order to truly be a bad ass woman you must have long hair, sport some sort of leather jacket and talk through a locked jaw. You must make love in an aggressive rapey way and you have to scoff at anyone that tries to put you down whether it be the police chief, a fellow gang member, or the female warden. You have to have a good heart guarded by a very tough exterior. I found all of these attributes are necessary while watching this sweet exploitation film from the mid seventies. Full to the brim with shitty acting, bad wardrobe choices, and a mediocre plot lines, it doesn’t seem to taint the film at all. I went along with it all purely because the girls were so awesome.

Exploitation films are interesting and much studied for one reason: they are so bad and yet so insightful of the times they were made. Switchblade Sisters was made in the mid seventies during the height of the second wave of feminism. This film showed that women can be just as insane and badass as women can be. They can be gang leaders and revolutionaries if they choose to. The strongest women in the film were not beholden by any man. In fact it seemed like they were more beholden to their fellow sisters. (The hint of lesbianism is pretty high) And yet despite feminism getting a hold on every day life and empowering more and more women to be as punk as possible, the man could still her down and rape her. And she should expect to enjoy it because she was asking for it. This scene echoes exactly what happened to the feminist movement. They were held down by the popular male run media and raped until they were seen as nothing more than bra burners. (which never happened by the way) Despite this awful event and the constant negative characterization of the word feminism, the movement still massive amount of impact. Even though she got raped, it did not stop her from fighting and rebelling against the system. A tough girl can not be dragged down.

This film is definitely essential if you like hot girl gangs, if you like to see women kick some major ass and kill almost every man in the film or if you like to see over the top knife fights. Is putting your jacket on the hand not using the knife essential to a knife fight? Because you look ridiculous doing so…

South of the Border

RIP Hugo Chavez

RIP Hugo Chavez

Before I begin this review, I just want to say that I am sorry I haven’t produced content for this blog in some time. I have been going through some struggles that are both personal and financial that restricted my free time and my abilities to write. I feel like I have ironed out these inconsistances and am now going to produce content on a more regular basis. I am also going to try to beef up the site in general and make more of an effort to be apart of the film review community. Hopefully I will no longer flounder in obscurity. (Can you tell that I am studying for the GRE?)

Now on to the review…

Hugo Chavez is a controversial figure in the United States. I came across his policies and his rhetoric at the height of the Bush administration in a class on international relations. My professor was an obvious liberal that supported countries whose voices have been silenced or surpressed by more vocal countries. So her  sympathies obviously laid in Mr. Chavez’s favor. She talked about him incessantly. I learned more and more about modern socialism through her lectures on Chavez and a couple other prominent figures in the political field. Since this enlightening class, I lost track of what Chavez was doing. He was no longer making international headlines because of the things he said against President Bush. I forgot about him. That is until I checked my reddit feed (Yes I am have an incurable disease and that disease is produced by a weird white alien with red eyes. It is contagious.) on March 5th. The top hit was Hugo Chavez’s death. It was shocking to say the least. I thought I would have the rest of my life to study him, maybe even see his country for myself. But that was not the case. So now I am catching up on the policies, the rhetoric, and the controversies he incited. I was going to start with a documentary that has been in my queue for ages. I thought it would give me some insight into this mysterious figure. That was not the case.

I am not a fan of Oliver Stone. I will admit that now, before I start to rip on this film. I feel like he makes obvious dribble and is so self important that he must fall over all the time because of the weight of his bloated ego. He ruined the legacy of The Doors, he produced schizo bullshit that inspired a whole wealth of horrible copy cats, and he pushes his self satsified liberal politics to such a point that it ruins it for the rest of liberals that are probably more level headed than he is. This might sound harsh, but I am a harsh person.

I like documentaries that have a strong view point, but can show both sides of the coin. For instance I will take the last film I reviewed on here: The Queen of Versailles. The couple that was featured in the film ruined a lot of low to middle income families when they promised things that these families could not afford. They took their money and ran. But that does not make them horrible people. They are human. They have both faults and endearing things about them. The camera does not shy away from the hotel mogul’s bad moments. In fact they make a point in showing just how focused on money he can be. But he is still a man that loves his wife and his kids. This does not happen with this film. Chavez is shown as a saint come down to rescue Venezuela from the horrible white people. He is not a three dimensional character. He is just the vessel to fuel the propaganda. Mr. Chavez is just like the man in Queen of Versailles. He has made bad choices and he has made great choices. Why can’t we see Mr. Chavez’s stumbles as well as his successes?

I was also offended by the off handed way he presented other figures of state from neighboring countries. They became nothing more than talking heads. These people who fought a hard battle to become leaders of their respective countries were only given a couple minutes each to say how Mr. Chavez paved the way for them to emerge. While this is probably true, each one has an unique story that deserved more development than Oliver Stone guiding them through a garden walk. These figures are all unique figures in their respective countries history, and they are trying to make waves that look similar to Mr. Chavez’s work but vary slightly in the detail. That is because South America is not just one large country. It is instead made up of several small countries that were each dealt their small and unique hand. One country is ruled by drug moguls, another country went into a severe depression that saw their currency be devalued beyond any recognition and yet another country had a brutal history of suppressive dictators. But each figure interviewed here has helped their respective country come out of a depressive state. This is all glossed over for clips of one figure dribbling a soccer ball with Mr. Stone and another figure talking about how slow men are (the political figure was a woman who was particularly interesting and fiery).

Instead of focusing on these potentially fertile grounds for true insight, Mr. Stone decides to focus instead on the United States trying to overthrow Mr. Chavez and all the sneaky ways that they are doing it. I get it. The United States government especially during the Bush administration is a bad and oppressive government, but this ardent focus on clips of Fox News, CNN and other major new sources getting facts about Mr. Chavez completely wrong undercuts Mr. Chavez’s true accomplishments. The media sources, the government and key political figures in the United States are almost always wrong. This is not news to me, nor should it be news to anyone else interested in this subject matter. By choosing to focus on this crap, Mr. Stone is putting his focus back on the States, instead of the intended focus which is Mr. Chavez and South America.

While I seem almost universally negative about this film, Mr. Stone could not bury completely the good deeds these political figures are doing for their countries. The ideas that several of them bring up and the ardent focus they have on bettering their respective countries is obvious. I just wish that the film showed a more complete picture these ideas instead of focusing on irrelevant stuff. If you want to know more about Mr. Chavez and his socialist ideals I would suggest listening to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now and doing your own research across multiple platforms. Don’t trust just one source. Be skeptical. Be idealistic. That is the best way to honor Mr. Hugo Chavez’s memory.