The Darjeeling Limited

The Darjeeling Limited (2007) directed by the famous Wes Anderson known for his idiosyncratic characters, bright colors and symmetrical shot composition the film delivers on all counts. The film follows three brothers played by Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and Adrian Brody on a train journey across India. The brothers have not spoke to one another in a year since the funeral of their father. Ever since they have all been lost in their own ways. The picture is a beautiful story of coming together and emotional healing.

As with any of Anderson’s work the film is highly stylized, it is like candy for your eyes. Each shot is like a photograph meticulously composed. There are also enumerable dolly and panning shots something else he is renown for. The coverage and variety Anderson achieves in such a claustrophobic and potentially boring setting as a train is remarkable. The cramped, busy, and bright feel of India is captured splendidly. Anderson and his writing partner Roman Coppola actually traveled across India for months while writing the film and it clearly comes through in the entire visual style of the film.

What makes any Wes Anderson film enjoyable is always the eclectic characters he creates. Their bizarre habits and upbringings never fail to create individuals viewers can empathize with. The three brothers in the film are all emotionally lost since the death of their father. They hold onto various items that used to belong to their father as a way of holding on. One significant group of items is the fathers Louis Vuitton luggage. The luggage serves as a symbol for the actual emotional baggage the three men are carrying around. They are damaged goods and cannot let go of the past. In the final scene of the film after the spiritual journey is complete, and the brothers have come together once again, they run to catch a train and must abandon bags in order to run fast enough and climb aboard. It is a symbolic moment a bit on the cheesy side, but it doesn’t come across as such.

There is another moment midway though the film in which Francis the oldest brother Played by Owen Wilson removes his bandages from a car accident for the first time. Underneath he is still cut up and bruised, and he then delivers the line “I guess I still have some healing to do.” The comment has a double meaning, Francis obviously still needs to do some physical healing, but more importantly he needs emotional healing. Anderson treks the fine line between corny and sweet perfectly and never steps over.

Anderson is an anomaly in today’s American film scene, he makes films that look “different” and are charmingly quirky. His films are often criticized for being overly stylized and gimmicky, but that is what makes him unique. He has yet to create a truly great work, but that isn’t to minimize what he has created. His movies make you smile, laugh, and cry in the best possible way.

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Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

Paul Schrader is best known for his work as a screenwriter with credits such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Rolling Thunder however he has made his fair share of forays into directing with great success. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters stands among his greatest achievements. Shot completely in Japan and acted mostly in Japanese it is an incredible accomplishment. The film follows the final hours of Yukio Mishima a prolific Japanese author, playwright, actor, and film director with strong political ideals. Intercut with the main narrative are flashbacks to his past and vignettes from four stories he wrote. The picture speaks multitudes on the nature of beauty, the struggle for self-acceptance, and what it means to take a stand for what you believe is right.

            The film is highly formalist not only being broken down into four chapters, “Beauty”, “Art”, “Action”, and “Harmony of Pen and Sword,” but further being separated into three different narratives within each chapter. One takes place in what is the present according to the diegesis of the film, the second is that of Mishima’s past, and the third is three stories which parallel portions of Mishima’s life. The form is Gordian at first, but it soon becomes clear and the transitions seamless. The segments are further differentiated stylistically. The narrative that takes place in Mishima’s present is steeped in realism as he preps for his great act of Seppuku. Each of the three vignettes based on Mishima’s writings are beautifully stylized, filled with rich colors and exquisite set and lighting design. Finally, there are the flashbacks to Mishima’s past. Shot in perfect black and white and seamlessly integrated, the transitions are never jarring. It is a brilliant piece of writing in which the form is used to further the understanding of the three-dimensional character a miss fit, a romantic, an extremist.

             Thematically Mishima is a bit convoluted. Although politics play a significant role, the film is not necessarily political. Yes, Mishima did plan a failed Coup d’état, and committed ritual suicide known as, Seppuku to make a statement, but that is simply one small facet of the movie. More so, the film is about the nature and preservation of beauty. Mishima was a deeply romantic man, willing to go to the utmost extreme to preserve beauty.  Body image is a struggle each of the characters struggle with. They all wish to be beautiful, and Mishima’s unique philosophy comes out. He views the human body as a work of art in and of itself with no need to be reproduced. However, the only way to preserve a man’s beauty is for him to commit suicide at the peak of his splendor. It is an extreme yet beautiful concept, and may be an inarguable truth.

            Mishima is a spectacular film packed with philosophical thought and jaw dropping visuals. When Schrader created the film he had yet another strike of brilliance yet for unknown reasons it has not garnered the same level of success or exposure as some of his other films. It is a much watch for any cinephile, and should be for members of the general public as well.

 

Claire’s Knee

This week as a response to Mulvey’s Film Theory I thought it would be interesting to examine a film steeped in the concept of the male gaze Claire’s Knee written and directed by Eric Rohmer. The film is essentially a study of male desire and borderline pedophilia. It is steeped with sexual tension, and Rohmer clearly places the viewer into the position of a voyeur.

The film begins with a man named Jerome on vacation at a lake in France. While there he is reacquainted with an old friend, a woman named Aurora who is a writer. Also vacationing by the lake is a common aquaintence of Jerome and Aurora, Madame Walter and her daughter Laura. As the story progresses Jerome begins to develop an excessively close relationship with the fifteen-year-old Laura. As Jerome and Laura’s relationship progresses Aurora becomes interested in the dynamic for her next novel. Aurora then asks Jerome to keep her updated on the twos relationship. However, upon the arrival of Madame Walter’s second daughter Claire Jerome’s focus shifts. There is a significant change in the film once Claire arrives, all attention shifts as the camera begins to shy away from Laura and refocus on Claire.

This is really when the narrative begins to take shape, as Jerome’s desire becomes completely fixated upon Claire’s knee. In one scene Claire is on a ladder collecting fruit from a tree when Jerome first takes notice of her beautiful knee, and the camera cuts to a POV of his gaze focused upon it. The simple act of focusing upon the knee without the girl’s knowledge creates a hyper-sexualization of a rather tame portion of the female body. Claire becomes solely an object of Jerome and the viewer’s desire. Jerome turns into a voyeur longing for her knee, but rarely engaging with the girl, instead he often just looks at her from a distance.

The culmination of the film occurs when Jerome offers Claire shelter from the rain just after having told her that he witnessed her boyfriend cheating in a local town. Claire is of course sobbing from the traumatic news, and as the two sit under a shelter across from one another the scene is charged with sexual tension. The fascinating part about the scene is that Claire is oblivious to the air of sexuality present, however it is very plain to Jerome and the audience. We clearly are connected to Jerome’s desire, (the male desire) within the scene. Claire and more importantly her knee are the entire focus of the heightening  level of lust. The precedence set earlier of Jerome’s attraction to the girl’s knee makes your gaze constantly drawn back to it even during wide shots. As Jerome makes his move slowly and assertively placing his hand onto Claire’s knee there is a build up and release of tension. The viewing experience in itself becomes a sexual act, almost a perversion because Rohmer has successfully exploited the male desire to such a high degree.

It must be assumed that Rohmer was familiar with Mulvey’s theories, and possibly created this film as a response to the ideas themselves. Regardless, the film can be viewed from two different perspectives; on one side it may be simply a work of male chauvinism, a voyeuristic story about a man with a knee fetish. On the other hand, it may be a statement about the objectification, by manifesting on the screen how abhorrent, and senseless the male obsession with the female body can be. It shows just how carnal humans are.

Ali

Mohamed Ali is arguably the most notable boxer to have ever entered the ring and when a movie chronicling his life and boxing career comes out the hope is that it will capture at least a glimmer of the grandeur of his career. Ali (2001) took up this impossible challenge by coming at it from an interesting angle. It diverges from the traditional boxing movie framework to some degree focusing much more on Ali’s life outside of the ring. The film has a clear political message and aims to change any negative views of the man, the myth, the legend that is Mohamed Ali.

The film portrays Ali as a civil rights activist as much as a boxer. The man was a fighter both in and out of the ring. The boxing surprisingly comes second to the fight for his peoples’ rights. His relationship with Malcolm X and conversion to the Muslim religion is highlighted, and it sheds great light on who Ali really was and is. For the younger generation such as myself the film makes the issues of the past more real than something from a textbook and shows some of the lesser-known moments in Ali’s life and career. Although he had an interesting life, the picture is just like every other Hollywood biopic, it presents an altered version of the character, and is only moderately interesting.

Will Smith was definitely a miss cast for the role of Ali. Smith never once conveyed the arrogance with which Ali was so famous for. Smith delivered those lines in a half serious manner, which completely alters the character. Ali was a loose cannon and although the film attempted to capture that it failed miserably. Whether it was poor directing or just the simple fact that Smith could not meet the demands of the role is uncertain but he was outshined by several of the leading characters. Visually the film was uninventive. The fight scenes were dull, lacking tension or surprise. Throughout the duration of the film there wasn’t a single moment that felt inspired, it merely delivered the story in an economical and traditional manner.

Ali had an incredible career, but the filmic depiction of it left much to be desired. It would be refreshing to see a Hollywood biopic that varies from the monotonous constraints that have been established. As a boxing film Ali wasn’t much better, it lacked the sense of excitement we have come to expect from the genre. Ultimately it was a civil rights film with a bit of boxing sprinkled in, and sadly was not a very interesting one at that.

Upstream Color

Pigs, parasitic worms, paper chains, and orchids, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color has many people saying simply “What the Fuck?” And it is not hard to see why. The main narrative is outlandish to say the least, but it is the style in which the film is presented that baffles the mind. From start to finish it challenges the viewer’s mental capacities, and is a picture you truly must see to understand. It is a story of love, loss and self-discovery.

The film is broken into three different chapters each characterized by a distinct cut to black. In the first chapter, we are introduced to a young woman named Kris who is put into some kind of hypnotic state by a man who feeds her a mysterious white grub. The man uses his control over Kris to steal all of her possessions, and essentially her life. In an interesting turn of events, the grub Kris has ingested turns out to be some form of parasite that a pig farmer removes from her and transfers into a small pig. This first portion of the film is about the loss of one’s self. The idea is that we are all broken people, and when you strip away our jobs, homes and belongings we are left searching for something. It is not clear exactly what, but that is where part two of the film comes in.

In the second portion of the film Kris meets a man named Jeff, who through subtle clues, it is revealed has experienced the same infection and theft Kris has. He is as equally broken and lost, and the two fall in love. As Jeff and Kris’s relationship progresses their lives are closely paralleled with two pigs on a farm. These are the two pigs that contain the parasitic worms transferred from their bodies. This second portion of the film is about a search for inner self. The two use one another to probe within themselves and discover what they have lost. Jeff and Kris slowly uncover traces of what has happened to them until they are finally able to locate the pig farmer known as the Sampler. Kris shoots the Sampler, and discovers a box filled with images of the people he has sampled, each one is attached to a photo of a pig. The couple gathers all of the previous victims together at the pig farm, which leads us into part three.

The third segment is brief but powerful. It is about the finding of oneself. Kris takes over the pig farm and is reunited with the part of her she has lost, which is now embodied in a small piglet. In the final shot Kris holds the pig close and the two are at peace, truly happy for the first time in the entire picture. If this all seems more than a bit confusing that is ok because it is. However, if the narrative is viewed symbolically rather than literally some understanding can be found. The pigs aren’t really pigs, they are embodiments of our inner selves. The grub is something purely human which links us all together, sin, or brokenness perhaps. At no point should a physical representation be taken solely for what it is otherwise you will be left perpetually scratching your head.

On top of this bizarre and highly metaphoric narrative, the film is structured in a very unique way. Time is never given any firm grounding, as it is unimportant to the story. Further, there is little to no exposition; Carruth has faith in his viewers that they do not need to be babied. He allows for, and expects, assumptions from the audience. To watch the film is an interactive experience because you constantly must be looking for subtle clues that guide the way. The editing is also disjointed, there are enumerable jump cuts and the occasional match cut giving it a muddled almost stream of consciousness feel. At several points we will see the same character at two or even three different places and times in a single sequence.

Upstream Color is something far from the norm of traditional American cinema, and the themes I have identified only begin to scratch the surface of this highly complex film. Carruth claims that he was attempting to create a cinematic experience that explores the idea of subjective realities, and it seems he has succeeded. The film can only be explained in a subjective manner. What is the worm? Why is each victim linked to a pig? I have my own interpretations, but so will everyone else, and it is likely they will vary greatly. No one is right or wrong, everything is relative.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) Directed by Luis Bunuel is a peculiar amalgamation of vignettes in the lives of three bourgeois couples, a priest, and a colonel. In almost every brief encounter the characters are attempting to sit down and have a meal together, but time and time again they are interrupted for one reason or another. There are also several dream sequences cut intermittently throughout the piece. Bunuel does what he wants in a film, and that is what makes his movies so unique, he does not hold anything back. The film has enumerable layers that are impossible to decipher, and I am not so sure they are even meant to be.

The film is Bunuel’s assault on bourgeois society in his usual farcical manner. One of the most blatant digs at the artificiality of high society is a dream sequence in which the whole group is seated at a table which ends up being part of a play. The sequence ends with the man who is dreaming saying “I can’t remember my lines! I can’t remember my lines!” The one scene briefly sums up the entire film in a way. It is all an act; the man realizes his entire life is a sham. This is true of us all, we are all just playing our various roles.

Something often ignored when looking at Bunuel film is the technical skil with which it is shot. It is easy to get so caught up in the symbolism and metaphors, and not realize how exquisitely filmed and directed the picture is. There are beautiful smooth tracking shots throughout, and the coverage of groups of characters is brilliant. The camera transitions from one character to another seamlessly in a single shot. There are also several match cuts, which takes us through time and space in what is perceived as a single moment making you wonder is this a dream or reality?

Bunuel is unfairly classified as a surrealist, and those unfamiliar with his work do not realize that he is as much a comedian as he is a surrealist. His humor is discreet, and as a viewer you are almost not sure when he is joking. However, when you finally get in tune with Bunuel’s sensibilities Discreet Charm becomes laugh out loud. Whether it is the constantly repeated fact that the characters just cannot seem to sit down and actually eat, or it is the close up of a cellist’s hand moving rhythmically up and down as he plays a note. Subtly is the key to Bunuelian comedy. Further his comedy is not for everyone, often it can and in many cases has been taken as offensive resulting in nationwide bans for several of his films.

Bunuel was a mad man and a mastermind; an anomaly and an enigma, and his films are no different. His world is one of absurdity, his mission liberation from the confines of class structure, religion, and sexual repression. Discreet Charm touches on all of these in a disjointed, as well as comedic fashion.

The Skin I Live In Critique

Revenge is something so uniquely human, yet so animalistic.  Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (2011) is a film of revenge at it’s most raw. Almodóvar never shy’s away from the tough issues, and this picture is no different. The Skin I Live In follows a middle-aged plastic surgeon played by Antonio Banderas, and a beautiful young girl who is being held captive in his home. The narrative presents some interesting ethical questions, but as a whole, the picture is wrought with inadequacy.

During the first thirty minutes of the movie several mysteries are posed. Why is the young girl not aloud to leave? What are the ethical implications of crossing animal and human DNA? What happened to the man’s wife and daughter? Etc. As the narrative progresses light is shed on each issue with the exception of the DNA, which gets almost completely abandoned. It was dropped in as meaningless fluff. The exposition throughout the film is where the majority of the flaws arise. Almodóvar treats the viewer as someone illiterate in film syntax and bereft of life experience. The picture is littered with big reveals each of which comes after any astute viewer has already been able to surmise the information. By the last shot of the film there is not a shred of uncertainty left to the story. Almodóvar appears to have been influenced by the 1966 film The Face of Another. He directly references the surgeon’s workspace using the same glass walls, and similar camera angles. It is an ironic coupling because The Face of Another is a film full of subtly and tact, exactly what Almodóvar lacks.

Almodóvar could have saved his film by removing whole scenes that are unnecessary and distasteful as well as having some trust in the viewers. When we see a young couple disappear into the woods it is easily assumed what has transpired without being explicit. However, for Almodóvar that is not enough, he instead shows the already implied scene of sexual assault. The scene does not enhance the narrative what so ever, it is purely the director in search of shock value. Almodóvar does this not once, but twice showing two rape scenes in the single film neither of which serve any significant emotional effect. He should have focused on the rising tension leading up to the assaults, and left out the actual attack the effect would have been much stronger. Time and time again there is unnecessary exposition; it is a cop out for Almodóvar as he lacks the mastery to use implication well.

Almodóvar needs to learn a thing or two about subtly before he is ever going to make a film that’s worthwhile. Admittedly this is the only one of his pictures I have seen, and maybe it was a fluke, but I highly doubt it. Judging from what he is known for, this seems to be a recurring flaw in his work. Almodóvar is known for being controversial, and in this film he is trying much too hard. The concepts were intriguing, but wildly mishandled by a writer/director lacking the finesse to create something deserving of any merit.