Week 4: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)

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Before Viewing 

Being a film AND history buff, in college I picked up a book called Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. It basically examined a bunch of films based on historical events and individuals, and discussed how accurate they were. Not only was it an enjoyable read, but it also introduced me to a lot of films with which I was unfamiliar. One film that caught my eye was the story of a conquistador who went mad in the jungle during one of the many unsuccessful searches for El Dorado, the mythical city of gold. I’d never heard of Lope de Aguirre or this film, but I made a mental note of it. A few years ago, I came across this film in one of Ebert’s Great Movies books. I know he holds Werner Herzog in high regards, and I’ve made it a goal of mine to see more of his films. I wanted to see this one first because of my prior knowledge of it as well as some of the lore surrounding the film. Also, I’ve never seen Klaus Kinski in a film, and I’ve read a lot about him, so I figured this would be a good one to start with.

Thoughts After Viewing

Ebert says that Herzog likes to shoot on location to gather in some of the ‘voodoo’ that exists in these authentic locations, and I can certainly see why in this picture. My goodness, the jungle in this film is one of the lonliest places I’ve seen. I love Apocalypse Now, and I can see how this film probably influenced the way Coppola put together his ‘going down the river’ sequences. I loved how the arrows just came out of the jungle, assailants unseen. It certainly adds to the foreboding and danger of the jungle. The establishing shots of the muddy water really reveals how everything there is dirty, filthy, unclean, and uncomfortable.

Kinski was definitely the madman I was lead to believe that we was. He has these great crazy eyes, and I commend Herzog for allowing Aguirre to look directly into the camera at certain points, especially during the ‘those who follow me with have untold’ riches speech after his henchman beheads a would-be deserter (side note: having the dead man’s head finish counting was brilliant). Aguirre comes across as ruthless, scheming, and cold-hearted, yet the scenes with his daughter are surprisingly tender (note that the stupid movie poster above IS a spoiler). One character who stood out for me was Lady Inez, the mistress of the original party leader who is betrayed by Aguirre. I just loved the way she stood up to Aguirre AND stood by her love. The way she chose to ‘commit suicide’ reminds me of the way the younger sister killed herself at the end of The Last of the Mohicans. Ines looked so beautiful and strong going into the jungle, and you couldn’t help but sympathize with her. Really, just solid acting all around.

I will say this for Warner Herzog- the man has an eye for composition. I loved the shots- in fact, what I thought was remarkable was how the film played like a documentary more than anything else! I’m sure it’s because of the fact that they were using smaller cameras and a small crew. That’s why Kinski’s looking into the camera (without breaking the fourth wall, by the way) was so effective. Because Herzog’s insistance of authenticity down to the actual location, the film plays like a true historical document and not just a film.

The Final Say

See it. Enjoy it. It’s definitely one of those films you’d call hauntingly beautiful, and for all the right reasons.

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Week 3: The Age of Innocence (1993)

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Before Viewing

I read Edith Wharton’s novel The Age Of Innocence back in college. The thing I most liked about it was not the prose (which was very good) but the fact that in a lot of ways, I could totally relate to Newland Archer. At the time, I too was in a relationship like his and May’s, but there was also someone else I was interested in. I could commiserate with him because I saw myself trapped by the same circumstances- doing what is perceived as the right thing to do and staying with the girlfriend vs. what your heart wanted you to do. Corny, I know, but I could totally relate. Interesting enough, I mentioned to the girl I was interested in that I had read the novel, and she went out and saw the movie (she may have even bought the soundtrack). While that relationship ultimately went nowhere, it DID give me the presence of mind to realize that there was more to life and love out there, and, unlike Newland Archer, I eventally got out of that bad relationship. A shout goes out to you, Rebecca C. Garcia, wherever you are.

Having read the book and lived the adventure, I’ve always wanted to see the film. It also helps that I think Martin Scorsese is the greatest American director of my lifetime. Add to that Roger Ebert’s praise for the film, and my admiration for Daniel Day-Lewis (seriously, if you haven’t seen The Last of the Mohicans, add it to YOUR list), and I decided to pick this one up.

My Thoughts After Viewing

I’m so mad at myself for waiting fifteen years to see this one. I should have gone to see it when it came out! Needless to say, I loved it. It’s been that long since I read the book, so I didn’t remember the storyline that vividly before I popped in the DVD, but the film must have been very faithful to the novel because it all came back to me.

The settings and locations were beautiful. I’ve never been to New England, but I’d love to visit the locations in the film, especially in the springtime. Obviously there was much care put into creating the sets and costumes, and it shows.

The one thing I loved about the film was that, even though it was a period piece, it still was a ‘Scorsese’ picture. The camera movement was there. The overwhelming sense of guilt was there. I particularly enjoyed how the camera focused on the artwork in the background, making those images a part of the narrative.  Technically, the film is solid, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from Scorsese and his crew.

As far as the acting goes, Daniel Day-Lewis and Michelle Pfiffer were solid, but honestly, for me, Winona Ryder stole the show. Her ‘May’ came across as a product of high society, in some ways snooty and cold, but still youthful and innocent. We know Newland loves Madam Olenska, but there really isn’t anything wrong with May, per se, other than the fact that she’s like every other woman in those society circles. I thought Ryder looked great and came across as genuine. I’ve seen her in a few other things, but she really caught my eye in this one. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Newland low-key and doesn’t turn him into an angsy, mopey sap. He’s torn, you can tell, but he also knows he has to keep up appearences. I loved how the film ended. It’s only right that he treasures the memories he has rather than ruin them with harsh reality. How many of us have been a situation where we wish we could have done the same?

I also have to mention that I think that using a narrator to inject Wharton’s prose into the film was a great idea (it worked, just like it did in Goodfellas and Casino). My hat’s off to Joanne Woodward (whom I loved in the version of The Glass Menagerie that her husband, the late Paul Newman, directed). Her narration felt like a natural commentary on the action on the screen, and not simply like a voiceover pasted onto the screen. One of the main complaints you hear when a popular book is made into a movie is that the book is better just because of the extra detail. In this case, the extra detail is provided, and it works.

I really didn’t have any issues with the film. It flowed well for a period piece, it was fresh, funny, and interesting, and that has to do with the director’s touch. Rather than play it straight, Scorsese made Wharton’s story his own.

The Final Say

If you like Scorsese, you need to see this one, especially if you think he only does gangster films. If you are an Edith Wharton fan, you won’t be disappointed. It’s a solid film.

Week 2: La Dolce Vita (1960)

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Before Viewing

Ah, Fellini. What a discovery!

Growing up, I had obviously heard of Fellini and the term ‘Fellini-esque’, but it wasn’t until last year when I finally saw ‘8 1/2’ that I got what exactly that meant. What it DOESN’T mean is ‘wacky’, ‘disjointed’, ‘bizarre’, or any of the other connotations that Fellini-esque has become associated with. It means, quite simply, ‘dreamlike’. Fellini’s movies, especially the later ones, are the stuff of dreams. Things happen in his films that might seem implausible in real life, but doesn’t that happen in our dreams? I know that in MY dreams, I can do things I could never in the real world. Fellini simply took those dream images and put them in front of a camera, which, if you think about it, is the perfect medium for that. I’ve read a few books on him since then, and I’ve grown fond of his work, and well as gained a better understanding about the way he felt about men, women, love, sex, and food. With this in mind, it makes the meaning behind his films so much more accessible.

Since then, I’ve seen Nights of Cabiria, La Strada, I Vitilloni, and Juliet of the Spirits. I’ve had La Dolce Vita for a while, but haven’t had the time to commit to it. Until now!

My Thoughts After Viewing

I’ve always been fascinated with the look of Italy, particularly Rome. To me, it’s fascinating to see modern buildings standing next to old world ruins. After seeing a number of post-World War II Italian films, though, I also picture crumbling, war-ruined structures, crowds of children, lots of pedestrians and lots of scaffolding (Bicycle Thieves was a great example of this).  The opening of La Dolce Vita did not disappoint. The opening scene was great, establishing the setting as effectively as Blade Runner did with Los Angeles of the future. The helicopter flying the large statue of Christ over Rome almost made it seem as if Christ himself were blessing the city, which becomes ironic when we see all the debauchery going on in the city, especially at night. Each locale presented in the film, although a part of Rome, was very distinctive. I’ve never seen the Trevi Fountain (more on that later), but I sure want to now. The apartments had a very contemporary look (for the year 1960) which added to the realism. I was amused by the fact that the paparazzi in this film are as ruthless as the ones we see blocking SUVs and chasing celebrities today. No wonder that term comes from a character in this film.

As far as the acting goes, it’s clear that the constant that makes the film is the magnificent Marcello Mastroianni. It’s his descent into darkness and despair that is the heart of the film (especially since it really don’t have a plot and is more of a series of episodes). Marcello’s portrayal as a journalist who at first wants a tidy, successful life but later falls into despair is what makes this film. I’d seen him before as Guido in Fellini’s 8 1/2,  but the character here is different from his mentally-blocked director in that film. Marcello the journalist is well-known, well-liked (although he does get physically threatened for a piece he wrote), and successful. The film follows him through 7 days and nights in Rome, where a number of things happen to him. In the course of the film, he:

  • Makes love to a celebrity after they pick up a prostitute and take her for a ride
  • Rushes his girlfriend to the hospital after she tries to kill herself
  • Cavorts in the Trevi Fountain with a beautiful buxom American actress
  • Meets up and attends the party of his intellectual hero (and whose selfish act leads to Marcello’s loss of faith and direction)
  • Witnesses firsthand religious fervor in relation to a false miracle
  • Attends a party hosted by the young, aristocratic, and bored
  • Spends some time with his father (with whom he is not close), seeing him in action with the ladies
  • Attends an orgy, during which he becomes the ringleader

I enjoy watching Marcello the actor in these roles because to me, he comes across as an everyman. He’s not too young, or too suave, or too good-looking, or anything that really sets him on a pedestal above the viewer. There’s some other non-Fellini films of his I’d really like to see. As a character, I liked the peek into his personal life, especially the love/hate relationship with his girlfriend. He seemed so much better suited for Maddalena, but sadly that doesn’t seem to go his way.

Although I enjoyed the film, I felt like some of the events could have been streamlined or even left out, and it would still have been successful. Personally, I loved seeing his sexual frustration when it came to the American starlet (and let me say here that Anita Ekberg is one of the most beautiful women ever filmed. Her romp in the Trevi fountain is the most sensual ‘fully-clothed’ scene I’ve ever seen), I was interested in his relationship with Steiner, his hero (and likewise horrified by his selfish actions), and I really found the episode with his father to be both funny and sad because of its meditations on mortality. Knowing what I know about Fellini, I’m sure Marcello’s father is a manifestation of his own father and their relationship. In my opinion, everything else could have been left out as long as the film ended with Steiner’s action and Marcello’s subsequent fall, illustrated by the orgy. Not that the other things were bad, mind you, I just found Marcello’s personal relationships to be more interesting than post-War Roman high-society. His fall at the end is sad and unfortunately, but it comes with the life that he wanted. He looks so weary at the end of the film- what a contrast from the flirty, vivacious Marcello we first see in the helicopter over Rome.

The Final Say

A great film worth seeing for its performances. I purposely tried to be vague on some of the things I wrote about here as not to ruin any surprises. I plan to re-watch it eventually because there were some things I thought about after viewing that I’d like to see again. If you’ve never seen a Fellini film, see 8 1/2 first, then this one.

Week 1: Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982)

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Before ViewingOriginal Movie Poster

When I was I kid, my favorite actor was Harrison Ford. Why? Han Solo. Indiana Jones. Bob Alfa. I even saw ‘Hanover Street’ just because he was in it. Harrison Ford was the best. But because I was only 9 when Blade Runner came out, naturally I didn’t see it.

I was aware of the film, being a young science-fiction fan. However, I just never got around to seeing it as I got older for whatever reasons. As I enjoy reading about films, I became interested in the history of the film, especially about its reception, its poor performance at the box office, the changes that Ridley Scott was forced to make, and that over time it had become a cult classic. I picked up the Final Cut DVD when it came out earlier this year, figuring that now would be the time to finally see the film.

My Thoughts After Viewing

If anything, this film really shows you the beauty and the skill that went into creating futuristic cities for film. I love technology, I love computers, but more often than not today, when you see a futuristic city, the first thing that pops in your head is ‘Wow, that CGI looks great!”. You know it looks good, but mentally, you also know it isn’t real. Contrast that with the opening shots of Blade Runner . Los Angeles of the future LOOKS like a real futuristic city. Of course it’s a model, but there’s a third dimension to the look that you just don’t get from CGI (kind of like the spacecraft and moon bases in 2001: A Space Odyssey). I loved the amount of advertising that proliferated the cityscape (kudos for using real companies- I even saw an Atari sign behind Deckard at one point). The full-wall motion billboards remind me a lot of some of the new digital billboards we’re seeing around Phoenix right now. They don’t have full-motion video, but I bet that will just be a matter of time. On a smaller scale, the mixture of futuristic architecture and old, decrepit building really worked in this film. I can definitely see how it influenced future films and video games (Anachronox, anyone?)

As far as the acting goes, Rutger Hauer was top-notch. He’s just one of those guys who can play ruthless and evil and make it seem natural, meaning if you ran into him in a dark alley, you’d probably just want to run away. Interesting enough, my favorite scene of his was when he told Pris, the other replicant, that Zhora and Leon were dead. To go from a creepy malevolent demeanor to near tears just like that really just jumped out at me. He did a great job of being seemingly insane without going over the top. Darryl Hannah was really creepy as well. I enjoyed seeing William Sanderson (but every time I see that guy in a movie, I always looks for his brother Daryl, and his other brother Daryl). Edward James Olmos has made a career of playing the type of character that he did in this film (He kind of reminded me of his role as El Pachuco in Zoot Suit). Like Hauer, he just seems to have this natural ability to play a character that you would be uncomfortable to meet in real life. It was also nice to see what Sean Young was like before she went crazy. I loved her retro 40s look. It really helped the film acknowledge its noir roots.

Of course, Harrison Ford was top-notch as well. He makes it look so easy some times, like the camera crew is filming a real person as part of a documentary. Part of why I think people like Han Solo and Indiana Jones is because Ford plays those men like an everyman- meaning it’s easy to envision yourself doing the same things. Han Solo says the things in situations that we wish we could say. Indiana Jones isn’t above getting his hands and knees dirty to get a job done. Here, his Rick Deckard really seems like a man reluctant to do is job. It’s clear he spent time hunting down and ‘retiring’ replicants, but that’s not the life for him. However, in this time of need, he has to go back to those days (the Michael Corleone ‘Everytime I get out, they pull me back in’ Syndrome). He too played the character will without going over the top. I liked his demeanor during the final fight with Roy Batty. He genuinely seemed terrified for his life. He didn’t spout out movie clichés or idiotic veiled threats. In fact, if you notice, he doesn’t say a word during the whole confrontation. Yet other memorable performance by Harrison Ford.

As far as the story line goes, I enjoyed it, but there were points where I felt there was too much coincidence. In a city as big as LA, Deckard’s going to run right into another replicant after killing one that he was chasing across town? The very minute he kills Pris, Batty shows up. Minor things, to be sure, but I would have enjoyed seeing more of Deckard doing detective work, and more pursuit of the replicants. It seemed just a bit TOO easy for him to exterminate all four (well, 3 really). I did like how Batty in the end made it so that you actually felt empathy for the replicants. After all, what are they rebelling against but their forced servitude? The ‘tears in the rain’ speech (which apparently Hauer improvised) and the way he just shut down really made you understand just WHY they wanted the freedom to live.

In the end, the fact that Deckard decides to run away with the replicant Rachel and finds one of Gaff’s origami works on his floor shows he’ll probably never have peace in his lifetime. I know there has been some talk about the fact that Deckard himself might be a replicant, but I didn’t see it that way (and no, a slight orange gleam in an out of focus shot of Deckand standing behind Rachel really isn’t enough to convince me otherwise). He doesn’t need to be a replicant. He’s made a decision to harbor a replicant because he loves her, and that’s that. No need to complicate it any further.

The Final Say

Definitely a great film. I certainly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it, and I know I will probably rewatch it myself. I’m actually kind of curious now to see part, if not all, of the original theatre release just to see why they were compelled to use a voice over. That’s an interesting lesson on film in itself.

First post!

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What is this?

It’s really something that I hope will be a lot of fun. A guy I know is doing a “1 Book A Week For A Whole Year” kind of challenge, and he asked if anyone would be interested in doing the same with movies. Since I love movies, and I have a backlog of ones I want to see, I said, “Why not?”

So, what I will be doing is watching at least one movie a week for the next 52 weeks. I’ll post my thoughts on each one. Read if you want, and comment. Remember, it’s just one guy’s opinion. Hopefully, I’ll like them all.