Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

The alternate title for this entry was going to be 'Taxi Driver Or: How I Learned to Stop Postponing and Watch This Film' (a thinly veiled reworking of the film title 'Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb'--coincidentally another film I have to get around to).

There were a few reasons why I took my time in watching Taxi Driver. They are as follows.
1) It was really only recently that I got the urge to want to watch it.
2) I didn't have access to it--today I was lucky enough to find it on the cheap at a dvd store
3) Its R rating was a deterrence (I was expecting lots of violence--yes there's violence, but it wasn't over the t)

Even though I say I was avoiding it, I nonetheless had high expectations about it (It's considered one of Martin Scorsese's best, it's one of the landmarks of the American New Wave, it has much hype over at imdb and elsewere). When I have high expectations I tend to look more closely at every tendril of a film and anticipate the 'wow' moment. Of course, it never comes. But with Taxi Driver what did rush over me at the roll of the closing credits was still positive. The film has much going for it.

I could go on about a few different things. The music was probably the first thing that striked me. It was scored by Bernard Hermann (most known for scoring Hitchcock films--in fact some of the music in Taxi Driver could easily be substituted into a Hitchcock film, that's what I think anyway). There's two recurring music themes in this film. I don't know their titles, but one has this low, humming dangerous feel, and the other one has a more saxophone seedy/sensual sound to it (sort of reminds me of the music they sometimes put on soapies--except Taxi Driver is by no means a soapie). As it usually goes with motion picture music, Hermann's score helps in the creation of the film's atmosphere. The music anticipates the bleakness and loneliness to come.

Of the performances, Robert De Niro as the main character, Travis Bickle, is of course the standout. The intriguing thing about Travis is that if he were a guy in your suburb you'd cast him off as a loony and would want nothing to do with him. Yet since the film gives us a look into Travis' private world and as we're with him for most of the film, you can't help but feel sympathy for him.

Bickle is a Vietnam veteran who has now taken the path of a cab driver. His mundane existence consists of cab driving, taking pills and porn theatres. He's also a pretty observant person and we see that as he witnesses all the seediness and corruption of New York's nightlife. He feels growing despair towards these things and vows to 'clean up' the city. But cleaning up turns into a gun and violence fetish. De Niro portrays Travis' bundle of contradictions--as Bickle's one time love interest Betsy put it--really well (quite characteristically to his dedication to acting, he apparently spent many months refining his taxi driving skills and brushed up on his knowledge on insanity).

Yet the piece of acting that made my jaw figuratively drop was that from a young (12 years old in fact) Jodie Foster, portraying an underage prostitute. It was pretty astonishing to see her talk--and convincingly--about prostitution and the like. Foster's acting is really natural, there's nothing self-conscious about it. Her performance adds to the grittiness of the film.

And what to say about the director that is Martin Scorsese? (On a quick side-note, he actually plays a minor but significant character--a mentally unstable man plotting to kill his wife; he's pretty good).

I have seen six films of Scorsese (do I count The Aviator though? It's been quite a long time since I've seen it) and so far he has a flawless track record. His films flow well and all have smooth editing, it's such that it's hard for me to actually speak of Scorsese's directing and what it achieves. Except that it achieves what filmmaking should--he let's the story be told and to be told well. He also happens to be a daring director in my opinion, anyone would be to make something like 'Taxi Driver'. I think (as the cliche goes), if it were in lesser hands the film wouldn't have been quite as good. I think it was also a risky film because Scorsese seems to me the director who makes each project personal, he seems to put a lot into his films, and it's not unlike the risk that actors put when they're out on stage or in front of a stagecrew. You're exposed to scrutiny.

What can be said in short of Taxi Driver? Only that I think it's a film that's rightfully praised, except that I don't want to blow it out of proportion. It didn't have that loud spark, but alas sometimes the impact of that kind of film can quickly fizzle out anyway. No, I think Taxi Driver more quietly and deeply weaves into the consciousness and promises to stay there for longer.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Films That Are Surprisingly Good

Every so often comes a film that prompts me to think about similar film experiences, and so here we are. The film this time is 17 Again. The reaction was pleasant surprise. You see I was expecting the teeny bopper routine that always gets old in five minutes. Anything 'Zac Efron' generally screams 'steer clear' for me. But generally, this latest Efron epic (no, it's not an epic by any means, but I made an alliteration so the word stays) was not bad. It had enough to keep me interested. And by enough I mean plenty of Efron charm (and his comic timing is ok), several other interesting characters (my favourite being Mike's best friend--have forgotten his name--the weird sci fi fan), good enough dialogue and some sweet moments (my favourite being--spoiler--when young Mike enters the courtroom, which older Mike was supposed to attend to finalise his divorce, and he starts 'reading out' Mike's message. After he leaves, Scarlett goes over to the letter and realises those spoken words weren't written down. Surprisingly effective).

Now, it's not that I'm hailing 17 Again as the best film of all time, but what I mean to say is that it wasn't as bad as I was expecting. It was entertaining, and the flaws weren't distracting enough. With so-so ratings by the Herald Sun I was expecting much less.

And now for some other examples of films that I was expecting to not get along with (mais au contraire...).

Yolanda and the Thief -- in the classic lover's world this film hardly gets a mention (though I'm pleased to say it does have its fans on imdb) and during its release it flopped badly. So I wasn't expecting much when I approached it. But as it turned out, this was a film I could like. It has Fred Astaire (big plus), gorgeous technicolour, nice dancing and it's directed by Vincente Minelli (one of the best musical directors this side of the universe). It's arguably not for everyone, maybe because it's indulgent and not really conscious of marketing appeal.

Dr. Zhivago -- This film didn't have much to recommend itself to me. Its running time is too long and I've read from others that they couldn't sit through it. Somehow I did endure, and it wasn't so bad. Granted, I do have issues with it -- mostly that the illicit romance doesn't seem interesting, but instead its saddening for the wife that gets laid aside (Geraldine Chaplin, who's character is my favourite, so of course my sympathies are entirely with her). Otherwise, the film's grandeur, gorgeous cinematography and great music (Lara's Theme in particular) outweigh the flaws. Quite a surprising treasure.

School of Rock -- I avoided watching this film for God knows how long. One friend kept telling me how wonderful it was, but I didn't believe them. So really the only way I was going to see this film was if it was obligatory to, and that was just the case this year in cinema studies. Needless to say it's a treat from beginning to end, with terrific lines and a great delivery by Jack Black. Oh and the end title song is cool.

C'est tout.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Summaries of film highlights of September

Hmm, I thought instead of writing several individual reviews, I'd condense them all into this one entry.

Doubt (2008) -- one of those great thinking movies. Not a lot of action happens, but there is great moments of acting, namely by Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The film takes place in a 1960s school run by nuns where one of the sisters (Streep) is accusing a priest (Hoffman) of having an inappropriate relationship with a student. There's something shifty about Hoffman's character, but there's also something desperate about Streep's character too, and the truth is never actually revealed. That can be frustrating but it also makes you go over the film and actively think about it, which wouldn't have been the case otherwise.

The Trial (1962) -- Between this film, Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil lies (in my opinion) Orson Welles' best direction, but I can't decide which is the best. Needless to say, I'd say The Trial is Welles' most surreal film and most heavily influenced by European cinema (well it was made in France if that counts). It's based on Franz Kafka's novel of the same name and it's about a world in which people don't have a say in what happens to them. For Joseph K. (Anthony Perkins in a role every bit as good as his Norman Bates), this means not having a fair trial for a crime (which is never named) that he is adamant he didn't commit. As a result you can feel his suffocation and oppression as you go through his rollercoaster ride with him.

Mulholland Drive (2001) -- The dvd inset of the film prepares you somewhat for the weird, incomprehensible atmosphere you're about to enter. There's 10 clues, that David Lynch apparently wrote himself, to unlocking the film. I quite liked the idea of putting in clues because it somewhat made me look closer at the film's little details; it almost feels like you're invited to peek into the construction of the film. Well, Lynch's Mulholland Drive is itself a film about the processes of film and fame themselves, morseo to the darker, possessive side of these things. Naomi Watts is stellar, but that only becomes apparent when you reach two-thirds of the film (enough said there). A great, eerie experience, sort of reminescent for me of my first viewing of Vertigo.

Replusion (1965) -- A film that delves into isolation and mental instability promises to make one uneasy and this film delivers. It's set in the be-bop London of the 60s and centres around a young woman named Carole (Catherine Deneuve) who withdraws around men and lapses into deep thinking quite a lot. So when her sister, whom she lives with, jetsets off to Rome with her boyfriend for a week or so, well you can already tell this isn't such a good idea. And so begins the nightmarish, somewhat muted manifestations of Carole's paranoia. She imagines herself to be assaulted by men in her bedroom and slowly she stops coming into work and barricades herself in her room, as she becomes increasingly unstable. Polanski's direction and Deneuve's performance really drive this film along.

(500) Days of Summer (2009) -- Though I haven't seen that many films of this year, this one for me is so far the highlight. It's a rom com that isn't routine and doesn't just rehash all the elements of the rule book. It shows that relationships and love are not simple; it doesn't necessarily happen that both parties feel the same for each other, or that being in love equals enjoying one's company. It explores this complexity quite well through the out of order scenes that both show the high and the low of Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who's great in this) and Summer's relationship. And through it all it remains entertaining and inventive.

Love Letters (1945) -- This film is somewhat implausible. To elaborate, the plot goes as follows: A world war two soldier, Allen, (Joseph Cotten) has been writing his friend's love letters to his girlfriend Victoria for him. It just so happens that he's has fallen more in love with Victoria than his actual friend. Then after the war Allen finds out that his friend has been killed, and by Victoria herself. He goes searching for the clues to what happens, and through circumstances, comes across a curious girl who goes by the name Singleton (Jennifer Jones). Before long it becomes clear that Singleton is Victoria, except that she has gotten amnesia from the murdering of her husband. The plot sounds a little tangled, but it actually works pretty well. Cotten and Jones have an easy chemistry and their first kiss in this film is a swoon-worthy moment. Overall it's an interesting film with interesting themes, but perhaps the happily-ever-after ending feels a little abrupt after all the drama before it.

Portrait of Jennie (1948) -- This was the final screen pairing of Jennifer Jones and Joseph Cotten and it's a pretty good swan-song. It's similar to Love Letters in that it has an extraordinary premise. This time Cotten plays Eben, a struggling painter who just can't seem to find inspiration for a good painting. Then it comes at Central Park in the form of a young girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones) , who seems like she's from another time. He meets her several times more and each time she grows up a little. As he begins to find out, she is from another time, and yet she is real to him as she exists now. It's a story of impossible love and has a dreamy-like atmosphere that is helped by the somewhat foggy cinematography. Like with Love Letters, the themes of this film are pretty thought-provoking and the easy-going chemistry between Jennifer and Joseph makes for a compelling story.

A Review: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

I'm currently on a two week break which means...more movies for me (even with essay deadlines hovering in the air). So I had the urge today to do some reviews since I haven't done any of those this month.

So I guess while on the topic of films (and my self-declared incessant love for them), there's no better place to start than with Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo. To me this film is about films and how being in a cinema and watching lovely people have lovely idle fun, can somehow restore and rejuvenate you after reality has let you down (phew, long sentence). And also it's a heck of a creative and somewhat surreal film.

The film stars Woody Allen's main muse of the 80s, Mia Farrow, as Cecilia. She's somewhat in her late 20s in a period that is probably the mid 30s (so the depression is very much in the backdrop here). She struggles to commit to her job as a diner girl and at the same time she's enduring abuse and neglect from her husband. So it's no wonder Cecilia likes to go the movies so much. Cut to the latest film that's out, The Purple Rose of Cairo. It's characteristic of those 30s escapist films with their lush art deco and hot night spots and an explorer guy (played by Jeff Daniels) who ditches his search for 'the purple rose of cairo' to enjoy the company of wealth and an attractive night club singer.

Well Cecilia takes such a fancy for this film (as she finds herself increasingly dissatisfied with her real life) that she goes to see it about five or six times. It's on this last time that something really unreal happens: the explorer guy notices her in her seat, and then he speaks to her. Moments later he leaps off the screen (and we're to believe this is actually happening since both the cinema-goers and the characters on screen notice this). And so begins Cecila's too good to be true love story off the screen.

This is quite an intriguing film. I really like its blend of comedy and drama. I like how it's captured the 30s in its reality and made sure to separate this from the films of the same era. And I really like Mia's Cecilia, a very sympathetic character, who somewhat reminds me of Giuletta Masina in Nights of Cabiria. Both films are explorations of fantasy and idealistic dreams and both women find themselves used by men. And I think most significantly, the final shot of both is an affirmation of the human spirit.

So I guess in the end Cecilia learns that those lush 30s films are too good to ever be true, but that doesn't mean they have no purpose. They can still give her one and a half hours of bliss. I guess it's a bittersweet ending, but it shows me that film can be a source of strength and restoration (which they kind of were in 30s Depression).

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

What to do?

In the midst of freaking out about a 500 word anecdote that I have to write today in French and an impending Literature essay due next Thursday (not to mention the frenzy that is uni this week--it's the week of the Student Union elections, where political parties I've never known about before have started to get last-minute support from indifferent people like myself), in the midst of all this...I've found a timeslot (7 in the morning, how ideal) to write a random blog entry. I don't quite know how this entry will turn out, I'll just have to go with the flow.

One thing I could start talking about is how uni is starting to trip me out. I don't quite know why I'm there or what direction I'm heading in. It's just been the case that for the last several years (ever since I knew about higher education) I've wanted to end up at a university. I thought that's where all the job opportunities were. Now I'm not so sure uni can offer me what I want (I'm even less certain about what it is that I want). I know I like cinema and I know with my degree I can major in cinema studies, and yet I wonder if everyone who pursues a career in the film industry goes through uni to do so. I mean, those who want to be a doctor need to do medicine, and those who want to be a lawyer need to do law. But I don't feel like an arts degree gives such direction, unless I want to do postgraduate studies. So yeah I'm at a cross-road there.

If there's one thing I semi-know, I think it's that I want to help people (and that's a broad thing to say), but I don't want to be a political activist or attempt to represent everybody, I just want to work with small groups/individuals (it almost sounds like I want to be a psychologist but I don't think I do...). I think if I can help people--say, with education, employment, family problems etc--then that would make me feel like I'm achieving something, even moreso than being a university graduate. But again, I don't know. I'm afraid of choosing the wrong career path, it's a fear that's been instilled in me by my parents. The underlying belief is that, if you change career paths then you'll always have a tendency to change your mind and you'll never settle to one thing or be grounded. But maybe it's not such a bad thing to constantly circulate and change your mind. Maybe that means that you're open to change and you're open to the idea that nothing needs to be the way it is. It's something I'm going to have a difficult time to come to terms with.

Tis all a matter of taking risks. I think it was Katharine Hepburn (or another like-minded person-maybe Ingrid Bergman?) who said that the only thing she regretted was the things she didn't do. But don't get me wrong, I admit that being a bit grounded is good and that there are some things that are never good to do (like inflicting deliberate pain on others, for one), but there is the flip-side of risks: they're the ones that help you to move forward.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

That's a human ear all right

So it's been a week or more since my entry on that top 100 films list, and looking back at it I realised that I recently saw another film from it. That film is Blue Velvet.

The first time I heard about this film was probably year 11 in media, at a time when we were studying The Elephant Man, which is directed by David Lynch. My teacher mentioned some of the films Lynch had made, and off the list there was Blue Velvet (in fact, I had probably heard about this film even before that because it somehow resonated a lot with me). It sounded intriguing, but its R rating sort of turned me off (I automatically imagined the film would be explicitly violent and very adult, and well I wasn't ready for that).

And so it wasn't until this year, through cinema studies, that my curiosity of the film re-surfaced. This time it was because we were talking about avante-garde filmmaking and how more mainstream films borrowed from it. And so as an example we saw a film clip from Blue Velvet, of a man (played by Kyle McLachlan, these days he is probably most famous for his role on Desperate Housewives, where he places Bree Van DeCamp's second husband) finds a severed ear that has ants crawling out of it. Again I thought I wouldn't like to see the rest of the film because it felt as if it would get worse from there, and even potentially horrific.

Well I watched it on the weekend that's just passed (--I was only coaxed into doing it because I was in a kind of emo mood and I thought that this film would surely distract me from my crankiness--) and I can say that for all the expectations I got from its R rating, well, it was pretty watchable. That's not to say its impact was any less, just that I could handle it more than I originally estimated.

But anyway, maybe more about the film. I would definitely want to see it again, I felt that there was probably a lot more I could get from a second viewing. It just felt pretty rich and the whole atmosphere of it was--dare I start saying it?--very much all in a vein of Lynch's own. The film was great at unsettlingly juxtaposing the pleasant side and the unpleasant side of suburban life. It slightly made me think of Edward Scissorhands--with the contrast of the picture-perfect suburban life and the dark tower at the end of it. Except Lynch's film seems more real (and it wasn't what you'd call a fairytale). Actually, and now I'm going to contradict myself, I find Lynch's film, in an affectionate way, strange and unreal. Which doesn't mean that its depictions of sadism and crime (otherwise known as the unpleasant side of humanity) are unreal, but the way that it presents these things--through its editing, cinematography and use of music among other things--makes them seem somewhat surreal. And I think that's the most truest way of getting to reality, because reality is actually usually stranger than fiction.

So anyway, I must say I'm very fond of this film. It's almost a cult film in a way, because it has all those quotable lines and scenes that make their way into pop culture, but at the same time I'll be already toting it as a veritable classic. At any rate, it's unique and it's the kind of film that one would wish they had made. I might be starting to understand what it is about Lynch that my year 11 media teacher and countless others admire.

Now I gotta get myself a copy of Mulholland Drive...and while I'm there I'd like to start watching Twin Peaks...