Month: February 2013 (Page 1 of 2)

Dario Argento (An Introduction)

argento

As his one-time collaborator Sergio Leone had already done with the western, giallo icon Dario Argento rehabilitated a depressed genre (horror) using new and improved tools available to European filmmakers in what was, at the time, a fairly new set of industry conditions created by international co-production fever. With continuing advances in production technology (camera, grip, electrical, film stock, lighting, lenses), and their particular specialty, post-production sound, a handful of Italians grew to prominence by taking the long way around the Bergman and Antonioni-dominated arthouse.

Both heir to, and progenitor of, the horror-slasher-splatter mode, Argento’s work is chock-a-block with extravagant set pieces of graphic violence committed against defenseless (usually female) characters, by a perpetrator who remains unknown to the audience, as well as the journalist/detective/busybody protagonist, until the final moments. He would feed inspiration into major American genre films like Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for which he served as a kind of uncle and midwife, and (indirectly) De Palma’s Dressed to Kill. It was the peculiar qualities of Argento’s style that set him apart: with 2nd-rate scripts that were made even stranger through the disharmony of wall-to-wall dubbing (however meticulous), his movies integrated baroque color filters and production design with soundtracks that relied on rock and creepy synth arrangements in equal measure.

Instead of trying to improve on or mitigate the absurdities of a given premise, Argento would double down: in Phenomena, after Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly) witnesses a gruesome (and typically ornate, glass-involved) murder, she falls through a crumbling stone balcony, dangling by her torn nightgown from an exposed nail. She’s then hit by a car; rescued and/or possibly manhandled by the car’s German occupants; thrown from it into the woods; rescued by a monkey. This early sequence only hints at the strangeness still to come. Hand Argento a conventional movie, he would be lost at sea. Somehow, the perfect storm of his predilections (nubile maidens put to the tricked-up sword, or the straight razor; an irrelevant limpness of narrative; shock colors and gothic design schemes) gives him sustenance. 

What to see?

Top Tier:

Also Essential:

  • Phenomena (1985) [Blu-ray]
  • Inferno (1980) [Blu-ray]
  • Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) [DVD]
  • The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971) [Blu-ray]
  • The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) [Blu-ray]

Of Interest / Possibly of Interest:

  • Two Evil Eyes: “The Black Cat” (1990) [Blu-ray]
  • Opera (1987) [DVD]

Hal Ashby (An Introduction)

ashbyWhen you talk about Hal Ashby “the auteur,” the elephant in the room is always going to be his decline and unemployability through the 1980s, brought on by heavy drug use; he passed away in 1988, at the age of 59. During the 1970s, however, following a transition from editor to director that was likely accelerated by his Academy Award for In the Heat of the Night, Ashby helmed many of the decade’s most notable films. His elusive style (or, perhaps, a highly deceptive non-style), characterized by restraint, allows scenes to develop naturally at a respectful distance. He doesn’t push with the camera, often composing and blocking inside telephoto-constrained spaces. It’s no surprise that the editing of his best movies is equally intelligent and sensitive.

What to see?

Essential Viewing:

Of Interest / Possibly of Interest:

George Armitage (An Introduction)

armitageA more inscrutable major figure in  contemporary American cinema is hard to imagine. One of the less-heralded, but more vital, beneficiaries of Roger Corman’s tutelage at New World Pictures, George Armitage has only directed seven pictures to date, from Private Duty Nurses (1971) to The Big Bounce (2004), and only three since 1980. In broad strokes, Armitage’s direction sometimes resembles the madcap, freewheeling style of the early work of another Corman disciple, Jonathan Demme, except that the controls are tweaked to produce a giddy, anarchy-loving state in the viewer, of a manner that makes Demme’s Citizen’s Band and Crazy Mama seem comparatively sedate. A closer spiritual relative might be John Landis – at least, the John Landis who made Into the Night; we’ve tumbled into some warped part of the moral superstructure, everything is slightly corrupted, beginning with the geometry. That Armitage’s heroes are often misfits and outlaws seems only appropriate – it’s all they can do to keep up with the dissolution and entropy around them.

What to see?

Top Tier:

  • Miami Blues (1990) [DVD]

Also Essential:

  • The Big Bounce (2004) [DVD]
  • Grosse Point Blank (1997) [Blu-ray]
  • Hot Rod (1979)
  • Vigilante Force (1976) [DVD]
  • Hit Man (1972) [DVD]

Of Interest / Possibly of Interest:

  • Private Duty Nurses (1971) [DVD]

Michelangelo Antonioni (An Introduction)

antonioniLike Bergman, the commentary that surrounds the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, itself substantial enough to fill a library, often threatens to smother the fact that there’s a subject even to be discussed in the first place. Coming to grips with Antonioni’s art is often an exercise in dialing down a lot of white noise, as opposed to (in the case of a less frequently attended artist) discerning shapes from obscurity.

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Kenneth Anger (An Introduction)

angerA mile-high stack of acetate slides, superimposing, swapping out, and combining images of death, sex, Hollywood, the occult, material fetish, shiny baubles, and ribald pranksterism: in its eighth decade, Kenneth Anger’s work remains resolutely home-brewed, even when collaborating with the Rolling Stones or making ads for Missoni. Like many avant-garde masters, Anger thrills viewers with collisions and explosions – what sets him apart is his apparent pursuit of ecstasy through indulgence and amplification; transcendence by way of live-wire vulgarity.

A little like Orson Welles, Anger’s life apart from filmmaking is extraordinary and full, busy with innumerable other interests, laden with revelations and lies, made mysterious by his own self-mythologizing. He is partly responsible for the mirror Los Angeles/Hollywood holds up to admire itself.

His claim to having played the Changeling Prince in MGM’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) has been contradicted but remains a part of his biographical narrative, even as a (likely?) falsehood. Fireworks, his first movie, remains one of the cinema’s greatest debuts; in consensus terms, Scorpio Rising (1964) is his magnum opus. A 2004 video, Mouse Heaven, saw Anger locating his favorite themes (death + pop culture + materialism + nostalgia + Hollywood) in the unlikeliest place: an inventory of Disneyana, with a soundtrack featuring The Proclaimers and James & Bobby Purify.

What to see?

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Theo Angelopoulos (An Introduction)

angelopoulos

Until his tragic and untimely death in 2012, Theo Angelopoulos had been, for over 40 years, the avatar of Greek (and Balkan) cinema, earning dozens of prizes for his films. For some, he personified the unkind image of Michelangelo Antonioni as ridiculed by Orson Welles, who wrinkled his nose at the Italian master’s penchant for what he saw as mannered, indulgent, artistically negligible long takes; for others, he occupied the upper echelon of transcendent visionaries such as Bresson, Dreyer – and Antonioni. A trademark Angelopoulos master-shot will begin with a close-up or medium; the camera will proceed on tracks, along a course that is sideways, receding, or a combination thereof; the small business of the first few frames slowly gives way to grand, elaborate spectacle, as if the world is a metropolitan opera, both ancient and contemporary, and Angelopoulos is its all-powerful director, holding the eternity of theater and the spiritual condition of Southeast Europe in his hands. His films are often fraught with nostalgia and anxiety, simultaneously mourning a lost (or betrayed, or amnesiac) Europe and identifying the smallest glimmers of hope.

What to see?

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Wes Anderson (An Introduction)

wesandersonInstantly recognizable characteristics of Wes Anderson movies: dollhouse compositions, 90-degree camera angles, intricate camerawork and editing. The spectacle of detailed graphic design, and the awareness of the spectacle. To take a line from Vertigo, the gentleman seems to know what he wants – and judging from the enduring popularity of his work (some films more than others), plenty of us seem to want what he has to offer. Under and around the stylistic flourishes resides a keen observer of the human comedy, and for all the accusations of perfectionist, toy-store distance, Anderson is never less than frank and direct about a wide spectrum of adult issues and emotions. Like another American filmmaker who shares his surname, who also emerged during the mid-1990s, Wes Anderson has survived the crushing weight of his extraordinary, early promise, and evolved into something even more fascinating.

What to see?

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Paul Thomas Anderson (An Introduction)

ptandersonHe seemed to court the laureate inheritance of Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman, among others, packaging “it” into something salable to young film school aspirants everywhere. Not a small part of his seductive, autodidact aura is the story of how he ditched NYU film school after two days. Perhaps more surprisingly, he survived insuperable expectations – earned by the one-two punch of Boogie Nights and Magnolia – and spent the goodwill, faith, and high visibility on licking one of the knottiest problems facing artists in all media: what to do after you’re a wunderkind. His subsequent output tended to wear lightly (if at all) the body armor of nimble, overachieving virtuosity, yet movies like The Master and There Will Be Blood share with the first films a forceful, productive impatience with traditional means of telling stories, eliciting audience identification, and conveying information. Above all, he takes care that even his most laudable technical flourishes are grounded by purpose and meaning.

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Paul W.S. Anderson (An Introduction)

pwsanderson

An exemplary test case for the modern auteurist: he makes Trash (to include producing two neatly profitable movie franchises: Death Race and Resident Evil) but his reputation is vindicated by a small cadre of faithful followers. While Anderson often works with second-rate scripts (some of which are his own), sewn into the fabric of outlandish, violent spectacle are compositions of mesmerizing intricacy and expressiveness. The atmosphere in his work is often antiseptic, yet pungently dystopian. He is one of a handful of directors for whom “pure style” is a legitimate enterprise.

What to see?

Essential Viewing:

  • Resident Evil: Retribution (2012) [Blu-ray]
  • The Three Musketeers (2011) [Blu-ray]
  • Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) [Blu-ray]
  • Death Race (2008) [Blu-ray]
  • Resident Evil (2002) [Blu-ray]
  • Event Horizon (1997) [Blu-ray]

Of Interest / Possibly of Interest:

Robert Altman (An Introduction)

altmanPauline Kael shimmied past saying anything nasty about Robert Altman’s Images by declaring him a one-hit-one-miss director. That may be one of the ultimate truths about his career, in that very few filmmakers of his caliber led such a charmed life, but who also, somehow, could never catch a break. To put things in perspective, inflation shows us that MASH, the first and last meal ticket he would ever again need, would outgross contemporary boffo hits like The Hunger Games, and rank at the top of the 2010 and 2011 box office charts. In terms of money, he never approached that kind of hit, ever again. His subsequent career was rife with artistic indulgence, but while one too many expensive straws on the camel’s back were, finally, one too many, he seemed to be onto something, as critics like Kael would remain by his side – most of the time, anyway. The bloom of the ’70s crop included Thieves Like UsThe Long Goodbye, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, and California Split. He came to personify the sustainable rebel, the very dream life of American cinema in the time of Nixon and Watergate.

After Popeye (which made money, but was shunned by critics – and would look like a wart on anyone’s career), the ’80s were a bleak time, but the award-winning Tanner ’88 lit the fuse for a comeback that Altman would enjoy for the remainder of his life, beginning with The Player and Short Cuts, which netted him back-to-back Academy Award nominations. The final films of his life were defined by irascible, unbreakable dignity: Gosford ParkThe Company, and A Prairie Home Companion.

His trademarks: overlapping dialogue (which required the sound technology to pick up the actors’ words, rather than the actors to speak in amplified tones to make sure the technology got every last note); slow, leisurely zooms out from busy milieus to establish context and to diminish the centrality of the activity we saw first; a corresponding attitude toward even the most powerful actors in Hollywood – practically anyone who was someone appeared in an Altman film at some point, but everyone had to be happy without being babied with close-ups and inflated screen time.

He was an acknowledged influence on Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, and Alan Rudolph. Several films by Hou Hsiao-hsien also seem to bear his stamp, as well.

What to see?

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