Gomorrah

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From the Godfather to Scarface to the Sopranos, organized crime is painted as a glamorous thing. Crime gets the protagonists wealth, pretty girls, drugs and power. While they usually live with the fact that they could be killed at anytime, it never seems to be as much as a threat to them as it is to their underlings. However you never see these protagonists doing anything more than sling a few drugs or run a strip club. How does everyone in their crime syndicate get wealthy if there is no depiction of the other menial and illegal activities you know they have their hands in? Gomorrah explains how and why most Napoleons get wrapped up in a gang and it is not as glamorous as most films make it out to be.

There is no single figure that you follow through the course of the film. This is mainly because so many of the people who get a starting point in the film also get a finishing point very quickly. Two punks who steal from the local representative of the crime syndicate, get their due. A young boy finds out that he has to kill his best friend’s mother. A tailor for a fake haute couture factory moonlights at another factory and becomes implicated in a car accident. A representative of an illegal trash company screws various people out of the money owed to them for dumping poison in on their land. All of these people are stuck in a world where the only way to survive is to be a part of the crime world. There is no beauty to their jobs. Nobody is getting rich or rolling around in drugs. Everyone is just barely surviving and knows that at any moment they could be the ones staring down the barrel of a gun.

I’m sure that you are aware that this film is based on real events. The Camorra are one of the biggest crime syndicates in the world. They control everything in Naples both illegal and legal. The Camorra have taken root here because of the lack of wealth in this area of Italy. They sweep in and take advantage of poor people by giving them a little bit of money. Five hundred euros is a lot to someone who makes that in a year but is nothing for someone who makes five million euros a year. These people become the foot soldiers, the grunt men of a highly organized network. At one point in the film, a group of truckers refuse to get on their dump trucks and dump the waste they have on the back of their trucks. The business man recruits young kids to do the jobs of older men by promising them money. These kids are so young they have to climb on the rims of the tires in order to get into the cab. Although it is not discussed, you know that this business man will be paying these young kids far less than he would the older men. This kind of thing seems to be the norm for this business man and for the rest of the syndicate. No matter what happens there will always be this kind of criminal activity. Just because you stamp out one mob boss, doesn’t mean there won’t be another one take its place.

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Upstream Color

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When I first heard about this film, I heard all of the normal things that you have probably heard. This film was directed by the guy who directed Primer, the film was shot on a very low-budget, it was a science fiction film that had little science fiction to it and most of all it was difficult to understand. Oh, and Maria you will probably like it. That was a quote from my old roommate. He was very well versed in my affinity of watching difficult and strange films. He hated walking in the living room and seeing me there, because he knew that I was watching something he wouldn’t like. He went to go see this film when it was still in theaters. He told me it was strange but he couldn’t articulate just why it was so strange. It was frustrating at the time to have someone dismiss a film like this with a short sentence, but now I understand.

I don’t think I will tell you much of the plot. This is because of two reasons: knowing the full plot will ruin the film for you and the film is readily available so if you have read this far into my entry you should just go see it. But I will say that this is a very touching if very sparse love story. At first I didn’t quite get why these two people are together, but as the film went on you can tell that they have real affection for each other. Both of them had their lives ripped from them while under the influence of some drug and are just now getting their lives back together. And it seems that the only way it can happen is if they fight through the after effects together.

This film feels like a fever dream. Each image is beautifully shot and assembled in a hazy and kinetic way. This is something that definitely carries over from Primer, but he seems to be injected with Malick’s fascination with nature. It fits the film way to just sort of wash over you. You feel the film more than you watch the film (I know that is kind of hokey, but that is how I truly felt.) It took me more than one viewing to understand what I was watching, but I was happy to live in that universe for an extended period of time. In fact I think that I might watch it again. Excuse me.

Death of a Cyclist

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A couple is traveling down a deserted road. All of a sudden they stop. The man gets out and the woman runs after him. They have just run over a cyclist. The wheels creep up on in the shot still spinning when the man leans down to check on the cyclist. He tells the woman that he is still alive, but the woman wants nothing to do with the accident and calls for the man to get in the car. He obeys and leaves the cyclist there to die. You wonder at this point why anyone would leave another human being alone in the middle of the road to die. What would motivate such an evil and selfish act?

You find out pretty quickly. These two people are having an affair. She is a wealthy and bored aristocrat and he is a stuck in the rut assistant professor. Before the war, these two people were engaged to be married, but she got cold feet and ran off with an older man who had tons of money. At first she seems to regret this decision, but as the film goes on you realize that she wants her cake and eat it too. She wants the devotion of both the insanely rich husband and the naughty ex-fiance. They are both stuck in her charming trap. The man, on the other hand, is the black sheep of his family. He still lives with his mother, he is just an assistant professor, and he seems to be incredibly lazy. It seems that the ex-fiance leaving him devastated his chances of a good life. He will do anything to have her back, even if that means sneaking around and leaving a hurt cyclist on the road to die. However after the act has happened, they seem to be feeling immense pressure on their relationship. She is worried that her affair with him is going to be found out and he is feeling guilty about what he did. The tension builds to a most disturbing end.

Mr. Bardem (not Javier, but rather his uncle) was jailed for this film. He was speaking out against the Franco aristocratic system in order to make sure the world at large was aware of the hypocrisy of the Franco regime. At one point in the film, Mr. Bardem shows a lavish wedding where the woman learns that her “friend” is blackmailing her. This is juxtaposed with the man visiting the slums of the cyclist. People are packed in like sardines, given no running water and forced to house huge families in single room apartments. At the wedding however, the men and women walk a vast villa in order to get from the wedding ceremony to the reception. The space is wide open, and completely uncluttered. While the rich can afford to have massive houses, tons of jewels and even a piano that doesn’t get paid, the workers of the land and the factories have to scrimp and save to just be able to live in a one bedroom apartment. This might seem trivial to you, but to someone who is trying his hardest to jab at Franco at every turn without getting caught, this is monumental. He took a seemingly melodramatic story and injected it with themes of corruption, poverty, rash decisions and excess that Spain was known for at the time.

This film is beautiful and complex. You can marvel in the exaggerated plot line, in the magnificent black and white cinematography and the shots that are influenced by Luis Bunuel. But in order to truly understand the film, you must the circumstances under which it was made. Doing a little bit of research online has led me to a deeper reading of a film I would normally have thrown away as being well done and over the top. There is a reason this film was a Cannes winner.

Encounters at the End of the World

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Werner Herzog is a man I would like to meet one of these days. More than that I would love to interviewed for one of his documentaries. He has this charm that radiates from him so much that everyone can trust him enough to pour out their soul to him. Whether it is a man sitting on death row, a penguin scientist, or a POW, Herzog can extract the best interviews I have ever seen.

Encounters at the End of the World is a documentary depicting his time in Antarctica. He goes down there to see the underwater world of this majestic and unexplored continent. But what he finds is that the people who choose to go down here are some of the most unusual people in the world. Herzog is never interested in just one side of a place. He wants to see it all. So not only does he interview very important scientists who are researching and accomplishing great work on this country, but he also interviews the guy who operates the forklift, the guy who fixes the plumbing, the guy who watches over the plants that feed the population, and the woman who sits in her dorm room. He extracts anecdotes about life from the people and treats it the same as a man talking about discovering new species underwater. How did these people come to this continent? So many of these people, including the scientists, are born travelers. One man who was stuck behind the Iron Curtain, escaped and became a nomad. A man without a country. He keeps a rucksack always packed just in case he needs to leave at a moment’s notice. This man grew up never knowing about locations outside of his own country, forced to swallow the doctrine of a government he did not believe in, and now he is free. Another man is extremely proud of where he comes from. He is descended from Mayan nobility. You can tell by his hands. A man who can’t seem to be able to sustain a living in his native country, is so proud that he comes from there. It was really interesting seeing both of these interviews interspersed between the beautiful images of the country.

And man what a beautiful country Antarctica is. I wish that one day I will be able to see such majesty for myself. But I don’t think I will be able to see the country quite like Herzog’s cinematographer does. His images are full of wonder and curiosity. He follows a sea cucumber like creature for minutes at a time as it oscillates in the water. I was just as fascinated by this image as he seemed to be. This isn’t the only instance that he follows a native creature. After Herzog interviews a taciturn penguin scientist, the cinematographer captures a penguin experiencing madness. He breaks off from the path and just wanders away. Away from his wife, away from  his source of food and away from his community. He wanders away into the vast emptiness that will bring him only death. It was beautiful to watch as well as sweetly tragic.

I want to speak for a moment about the seals singing. They emit a noise that is unlike any other animal noise out there. Instead it sounds like a computer generated sound, a sound that seems mechanic. A scientist compared it to Pink Floyd, but I compare it to Radiohead and other electronica music. If I was a musician (which you should thank your lucky stars I am not) this is where I would draw influence from. I wish I could hear it for myself. (maybe I missed my calling. I am really just a seal scientist at heart… Off to the college!)

Herzog’s documentary is full of little moments of genius. From his commentary to the music to the interview subjects, Herzog proclaims that he is a masterful filmmaker from shot one. He will never make enough films to satiate my need to hear more of his wonderful voice.

Outrage

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Kirby Dick is known for his political documentaries. His debut documentary took on Hollywood’s inability to cope with human sexuality and nudity. Most recently he assembled a documentary about rape in the military and its long history of silence. But in between these two very effective documentaries is a documentary that has brought him a little backlash.

Outrage is about reporters outing conservative Republicans who continually vote and lobby against a section of their demographic that they are a part of. These men sit in Congress or on White House advisory boards and push through legislation that undercuts homosexuality. They make it harder for a gay couple to seek benefits, get married or adopt children. They have undercut AIDs funding and even existence for many years. And they persecute homosexuals by their horrible rhetoric. But they are living a secret life where they happen to be homosexual. It is disrespectful and wrong for them to do this, but is it equally wrong for someone to out them without their support or knowledge of the full picture? Outrage clearly stands on one side of the issue. There is no doubt throughout the course of this film what Kirby Dick’s motives are. These reporters are held up in high esteem. Of course I know you want to know just where I stand on this.

The short answer is I don’t know. What these politicians are doing with their strong voice is an inherent betrayal to themselves. They only say these things and vote this way in order to not lose their conservative backing. It has nothing to do with the voters they actually represent. But is it right to invade these people’s private lives in order to out them? I take for instance Bill Clinton. He is famous for having an affair with a woman during his presidential term. This was wrong because he cheated on his wife, but it was not America’s business to impeach him for something that he did in his private life. This affair may have only hampered a few days of his term, not his complete time in office. So these men who have been closeted for several years do they not have the privacy rights that we granted to Bill Clinton? I think they do. These people should be known as bad people and not reelected or reappointed because of their voting records, not because they frequent gay bars. But we should also celebrate people who do decide to come out of the closet of their own free will. Politics should welcome each kind of person including homosexual people with open arms.

And yet I think the men and women who talk about outing people have ground to stand on. One talking head said that they could care less what position they were into, if they were a top or a bottom, but they were more interested in why they chose to hide their orientation by persecuting the population they are a part of. These men should be held more responsible for their actions because they make it harder for other men and women to come out of the closet. These people are not interested in outing closeted men and women who still vote for gay rights. They leave these people alone because they understand that coming out is a process, especially for older members. Instead they gear their targets to the politicians who have already outed themselves by being so anti gay. To be so fervently anti gay is to shout to the world that I have feelings for people of my gender. This is shown to be validated throughout history. Isn’t that guy who would accuse other guys in your class during high school of being a “fag” always seem to be the most blatantly gay person in the whole class? If you shout long enough and loud enough that you are not something, than pretty soon people are going to assume that you are that something you claim not to be.

Just like the other Kirby documentaries I have seen, this documentary is effective because it inspires debate. While it is obvious that Kirby believes in one side of the story, he does provide ample evidence to back up that belief. I think this film will lose much of its impact in the next couple of years as more and more people become pro homosexuality. No one will feel the need to hide who they truly are in order to receive backing by political party or reelection. We will look back on this film and wonder why the collective population was so dumb to deny the indelible rights to homosexual citizens for so long. At least this is what I hope.

The Burden of Life

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I know that I have sung the praises of both Criterion Collection and Hulu in the past, but today I am going to do it again. Through Criterion, I have spent many years cultivating my aura of obscure references that you see here today. I have known the cinema of so many great directors, actors, and screenwriters purely because Criterion decided that they were important enough to become a part of its collection. The partnership in the last couple of years with Hulu, Criterion has further cemented the painful fact that I won’t have anything in common with strangers that I am going to meet tonight. They post even more obscure cinema on this streaming site and due to its recent 101 days of summer marathon, they make certain films free for everyone to see for 48 hours. This enables me to watch a film that I have never heard of before by a director that isn’t even on my radar. I don’t know if you have ever experienced the feeling that I get every time I discover a new film. My feeling centers… They tingle with joy!

The Burden of Life is directed by Heinosuke Gosho. Gosho is a Japanese director from the silents and early sound era. The time of Ozu, Naruse and other great Japanese directors. He is famous because he made the first sound picture in Japan. But he didn’t get the job because he was well liked or famous at the time. He got the job because he hadn’t had a hit in some time and the studio that backed him gave him a now or never ultimatum. You see most Japanese directors that were more famous and respected than him, scoffed at the idea of sound, much like Charlie Chaplin did in the late 20s. But Gosho took the challenge and gave his country a comedy about a playwright who couldn’t write due to all the interfering sounds around him. This gave him an excuse to exploit the new medium and delight Japanese audiences. This film entitled The Neighbor’s Wife and Mine is very hard to find in the States, but Criterion released another one of his comedies from around the same time period and that is the film I will be reviewing today.

Gosho was known for depicting the small insular lives of the middle class in Japan. He took inspiration from Ernst Lubitsch by employing comedy for most of the stories he decided to tell. In the Burden of Life, we see a family that has three sisters and one much younger brother. The parents are on the eve of marrying their last daughter off. This process of marrying their daughters has proven a costly venture for them, and they are not looking forward to putting their nine-year old son through even more costly education. This worry manifests in two different ways for the parents. The mother is insistent that her son continue his education outside of school, despite his young age and his want to just go out and play. But the father is worse. He is constantly complaining how much of a burden this young boy is and how he might send him off to be an apprentice somewhere (seemingly a bad choice for a young boy) instead of putting him through college. This creates tension between the two parents. Of course this only complicated by their daughters’ respective marriages and their small problems in them. One is insistent on spending tons of money despite her husband being a painter that has yet to see income for an exhibition of his. So she borrows money from the already strapped parents. Another sister leaves her husband at the slightest provocation and runs to her parents house to vent. All of these events lay on the parents until they crack. And crack they do…

In a time period where Japan was slowly moving away from comparisons to the West leading up to World War II, Japanese middle class citizens were the same as middle class American citizens. We worry about the same things, have the same disparities between genders and laugh at the same awkward family moments. Despite the kimonos and the matchmaking, this story could have easily been set in the States. I think that is why I found it so pleasant. It’s ideas are universal. By the time I put this up, The Burden of Life will be put back behind the pay wall that is Hulu Plus, but I hope I have inspired you to at least keep an eye out for this director and his other works. Here’s hoping that Criterion Collection will release more of Gosho’s films on the streaming site or through their Eclipse Series.

Night Train To Munich

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A Nazi can be an easy villain. Countless films have depicted Nazis as angry, unthinking bullies for decades now. It has gotten to the point that actors are not looking to actual Nazis for inspiration but to several different iconic Nazi performances. So where did this fascination with Nazis as villains start? Why when Britain entered the war of course.

Night Train to Munich was put into production in 1939, right after Britain declared war on Germany getting the ball started for the United States to join in and have it blow up into the war it has become. The film feels a lot like a Hitchcock film although it was actually directed by Carol Reed. This is because the film shares screenwriters with an iconic Hitchcock feature: The Lady Vanishes. In fact the stories are similar at least on the surface. Both are thrillers, both take place on moving trains, both star Margaret Lockwood, and both have the characters Charters and Caldicott. Charters and Caldicott provide comic relief to a film that seems pretty light already. The dialogue of these characters is what makes the film for me. Here they are stuck in Germany the day Britain declares war and they are worried about getting their golf clubs back from a friend in Berlin. Never mind that they might not make it out of Germany safely before there is a full on war. Instead it is all about British comic rags, golf clubs and Cricket. They play an integral part in the film’s plot, but that doesn’t matter as much as their chemistry with each other. It is quite cute.

For having one of the first instances of Nazis and even going as far as to depict the concentration camps (although they look more like gentleman prisons. Margaret’s hair never once gets messed up the entire time she is in the camp), this film is pretty airy stuff. It does not mean that it is enjoyable. In fact I felt the performances of Rex Harrison and Paul Henreid were very good. They both play the upright British gentlemen disguised as Nazis quite well. It just turns out that one is actually a Nazi. The depiction of Nazis in this film is actually quite polite. You see their adherence to any kind of authority quite clearly and the British do depict them as not quite as smart as they are, but overall I feel like the Nazis were quite tame in this film. At least compared to later depictions of them. I wonder if this depiction is more closer to the truth than later versions…

Safety Last!

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Harold Lloyd is known as one of the three greatest silent comedians. While Buster Keaton had his pork pie hat and Charlie Chaplin had his wobbly cane, Harold Lloyd had his circular glasses. He wasn’t a lovable tramp or a hopeless romantic, his comedy came from the lies his character told. How would he get out of the lie he told his fiancé that he was rich? Well he would ape around pretending to be in charge and show her the general manager’s office when he had actually stepped out. His comedy was more screwball than slapstick. For instance when the landlady comes by to collect her overdue rent instead of getting into a hilarious confrontation like Chaplin or Keaton would do, he and his roommate hang themselves up underneath their coats and pretend to not be there. His comedy is probably the most modern out of these three comedians. So why is he signficantly less famous than the rest?

I think it is because he didn’t make films that would be great for all ages. He made adult films not because there was nudity in them but because he was put into very adult situations. Being late to work, lying about having money, and watching food disappear when you buy something expensive are all very adult concerns. No child is going to truly understand why he lied about having money. But as an adult, I understand completely. You never want to admit that you might be failing at something, especially not to the person you love. Of course I am only making these assertions based on one of his silent features. So you might take what I say here with a grain of salt. I might be completely wrong about why he is less famous than Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

Safety Last! is his best known feature and has his most famous stunt that he ever pulled off. This is of course the dangling from the clock bit on top of a very high building. While that stunt is well done, his genius lies in the smaller moments. When he goes to a jewelry shop to get a chain for his fiance and sees the meal he had been imagining slowly fade away, the trick is a great mastery of early visual tricks. And then at the beginning when you think that he is going to be hung and it ends up he is just leaving for the big bright city, the sequence makes you laugh right from the beginning.

Harold Lloyd should be more well-known than he is. Hopefully Criterion Collection will treat him like they did Charlie Chaplin and release more of his films in extended editions in the coming years.

Departures

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This film has been waiting patiently to be watched by me for some time. It won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2009 and has garnered several rave reviews from important film critics. The story has always intrigued me, but I just couldn’t be bothered to sit and watch a slow meditative movie on death until today. I am angry at myself that I have waited this long to watch such a beautiful film.

Departures’ main draw is the story. A young man who thought he was destined to be a famous cello player, hits a brick wall professionally. Deciding to give up playing for a while, he moves with his wife to his hometown to start a new life. This life includes becoming a man who prepares dead bodies for burial. This profession is not looked upon in Japanese society as being a very good one, so his wife gets upset and calls him unclean. And yet he knows this is what he is destined to do and he loves doing it. Giving a dead person their last final dignified moment for their family is one of the most fulfilling things someone can do…

Wrapped up in this story is also the protagonist’s relationship (or lack of) with his absent father. His father leaves him and his mother when he was only six years old and the protagonist hates him for that. He wants nothing more than to hear that his father is dead. Of course when he does hear, the reaction that is produced deep inside him is quite different from he expected. At one point in the film there is this really well done flashback sequence where father, son and mother are picking up stones by a body of water. The son picks up a stone and gives it to his father. The father picks up an even bigger stone and gives it to his son. Later on the significance of the stones is explained and the sequence takes on even more meaning. (I won’t give the explanation away because I won’t do it justice.)

The layers of this story are shed like an onion. As you journey further into the film, aspects of each character come to light that enlightens not only that character’s arc but also the protagonist’s arc. It is beautiful to watch him evolve into a more complete and less selfish human being. What is also breathtakingly beautiful is the ceremony that gets repeated several times throughout the film. Like a lot of things in Japan there is a ritual to how a body is prepared. And each movement no matter how frivolous it looks is for a purpose. They do basically what we do here in the states just in a more artistic fashion. You get entranced by the process. It brings you in deeper and deeper into the larger story at hand. This way of storytelling is hard to accomplish well. And yet this director pulls it off like he is Kurosawa resurrected from the dead. Maybe he is…

John Dies at the End

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Reddit is a website where I get stuck a lot. I pursue the depths of the site on an almost daily basis. It does nothing for my time management skills but it does give me a sense of what the nerdy world is watching. Lately (because it has popped up on Netflix Instant and that is how everyone consumes media now) a lot of posts have been about this film and just how awesome it was. Reddit does serve as an echo chamber of sorts so once someone posts something in one subreddit, the same sentiment and opinion will probably show up in another. In other words I was sick of hearing how awesome this film was, so I decided to give it a try. I will no longer take recommendations from reddit…

John Dies at the End is supposed to be this twisted tale of alternate universes, drug taking, and the end of the world. What it really is just some wacked out imagery that doesn’t hold together as any sort of coherent plot. It is actually a lot like a series of short films strung together. The first segment before the titles was a monologue on the evolution of an ax the main character has. It was clever and fast paced injected with a bit of humor. I thought we were going to a good place. The next one is the main character sitting at a Chinese restaurant talking to a journalist (who is played by Paul Giamatti) and tweaking out on a drug called soy sauce. He tells the story of how he came to be on soy sauce, but this is where the story starts to get bogged down. He spends too much time on the beginning of the story and not enough time explaining the ending of the story. We see how the soy sauce was taken by John, then accidentally taken by the protagonist, we see an investigation go sour, people aren’t who they say they are and then we get thrown into an alternate universe. This is where the plot line becomes incomprehensible. What are we doing in this alternate universe? Why do we care about them defeating this one-eyed monster squid thing? Is any of this really happening or is this just a figment of the protagonist’s drug addled brain? This is the problem with the film. You cannot answer any of these questions with a good enough answer to satisfy me.

I say that this film is like a series of short films, and I think that it would have been better if it was a mini series or a television show. After all, it is based on a series of books. I just think that they tried to cram too much stuff into its running time. You are left with so many questions at the end about the basic structure of the film that your head is spinning. Not the least of them is John really dead by the end of the story?