Category Archives: film

Traitors & Blasphemers

I finally realized who Kylo Ren reminded me of: Omar Sharif as Sharif Ali Ibn el Kharish in Lawrence of Arabia. Then I noticed some other similarities as well…and not just sand, but that too. There’s an unique dynamic between Ali and Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) that seems echoed between Kylo Ren and Rey in The Force Awakens. And, yes, I’d say part of that echo involves romance.

The roles of dark and light are reversed in Lawrence. Yes, O’Toole as Lawrence is the fair, naive and unwilling hero who is initiated into a new world by Sharif Ali. However, Ali, in that fantastic black robe and headdress that had to be inspiration for Kylo’s dress and mask , remains the moral center and light in Lawrence’s increasingly darkened and conflicted mind.  While Lawrence descends into a nightmare of blood and egoism, Ali sends him back to the “light.” He screams at him to “go back to England. English blasphemer!” He literally just sends him back to the white folks, who are the bad guys. The imperialist users and abusers of the Arabs. Because ultimately that’s what Lawrence is.

In Force Awakens, we may not get that nifty switch-up. But Ren’s character does initiate Rey’s character — forcibly — to a new world as well. He basically dumps her into the deep end of the pool of The Force. And she just has to learn to swim or die.

The characters’ backgrounds and attitudes echo each other as well. Lawrence and Rey are  bastards and orphans. Ali and Ren are princes of important families they esteem (at least to Granddads). Their beliefs inform their lives, so you get the cries of “Blasphemer!” and “Traitor!” Different words for ideological apostates. And while Lawrence’s claim that “nothing is written” turns out to be a lie. Rey, the “nobody’s,” lack of initiation in the crazy world of Light and Dark allows her to intuit her way to the right path.

Yeah, OK, now romance. Now, there are no women in Lawrence of Arabia, just a few wide shots of shrouded figures. But there is romance between Ali and Lawrence, as there is between Ren and Rey. And while I adore the gender flip of Rey the Conquering Hero, I kinda have to give the prize to Lawrence of Arabia again because the romance and gender roles are played out by males at a time when this subtext had to be extremely subtle. Ultimately, Ali and Lawrence cannot inhabit the same world. And The Force Awakens leaves Ren and Rey with a giant chasm opening between them, but obviously that relationship isn’t over. But, their dynamic can’t play out like Vader and Luke’s (Father and Son). It’s going to play out through male and female through the darkened lens of the violence used against Rey and then turned back onto Kylo.  Because that’s how Star Wars works.

Hey, who knows? Perhaps we’ll get the Dark and Light reversal like Ali and Lawrence in Ren and Rey. We shall see. I’m just super tickled to find new ways of seeing Lawrence of Arabia — one of my favorite films of all time — and The Force Awakens — quickly becoming a new favorite through the lenses of one another.

I have to give credit for the many wonderful cinematic references in The Force Awakens, not simply within the Star Wars saga, but to the rest of the cinematic galaxy. As M. Grand’s imaginary publisher proclaimed after reading his grand ouvre “Gentlemen, hats off!”


Faking it with Fellini

“Could you leave everything behind and start life all over again? Choose one thing and be faithful to it? Make it the reason for your existence?” The character of Guido Anselmi asks of Claudia Cardinale. The glowingly young and beautiful Claudia answers by asking him if he could. He has no answer.

8 1/2 AKA Otto e Mezzo, dir. Federico Fellini, 1963 is a film about a filmmaker without a film and without answers. Guido spends most of the film at a spa under the pretense of working on a new film, as he attempts to make sense of his life, while besieged by the questions and demands his producer, crew, actresses, critics, his mistress and his wife. Haunted by memories and dreams of his childhood, blending his fantasy and escapism with reality,  Guido must confront the fact that he has, in fact, no answers at all, while discovering that he still has something to give.

I recently watched the wonderful Criterion Collection Blu-ray of this old, personal favorite. Certainly I had never seen such a beautiful copy in my life, which was a revelation in itself. But more importantly, somehow, this man’s tale resonated with me more now than it ever has.

8 1/2 is a film that anticipates every criticism you may have of it. Through Guido’s own expressions of self-doubt, the words of the ensemble cast, but most especially through the character of The Critic that Guido has hired to help him with his new film — 8 1/2 knows it is a selfish film, a sentimental, romanticized version of a man’s life. The film, and Guido himself, are well aware that Guido objectifies human beings — especially women — that he expects to be able to hide behind fantastic imagery, a beautiful soundtrack (by Nino Rota, also of The Godfather), and a cool suit and pair of shades. Guido lies, cheats and literally dances his way through the throngs of his troubles and the very real human beings that his selfishness and self-doubt affects. But in the end, as Guido comes to face the truth of his situation and own up to his lies and deceits (his affairs, his lack of a film, his inner-doubts and demons) we as the viewer find pity for him and our own imperfect selves.

The film is full of images of cleanliness, new beginnings and escape, personified by Guido’s fantasies of the young Claudia. While set at a spa (from Latin sanum per aqua – health through water) Guido pursues his dreams of escaping the messy reality of his life. Meanwhile, his crew and producer fret over the cost of the gigantic space-ship they are constructing for the non-existent film, in which Guido imagines the human race will escape a post-atomic Earth in search of a new Eden.

When Guido’s producer forces him to attend a press-conference to announce the film before the hulking and unfinished rocket-ship, he must confront the truth. His panic causes him to seek refuge under a table and fantasize, or not, that he’s put a bullet through his head. But as he gets in his car afterwards, it is clear that he has come clean last. The film is cancelled.  And finally — having accepted his role in the human drama and as director again — the entire film’s cast gathers as he directs them in a dance, holding hands, in a circle.

He confesses to his lovely, yet embittered wife (Anouk Amiee), “Luisa, I feel I’ve been freed…Everything is confused again, as it was before. But this confusion is me.” And he is able to join with her and the rest in the dance again. There may be no answers, but he’s begun again in honesty.

Behind these sunglasses, this confusion is me.

 

 

 


Conquering the Useless

Fitzcarraldo

“If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams, and I don’t want to live like that.” -Werner Herzog

I use the phrase “Conqueror of the Useless” in my bios and descriptions. If you’ve never heard of Werner Herzog, I’m terribly sorry. But please, do yourself a favor and listen to the German filmmaker’s musings on the harmony of nature’s “overwhelming and collective murder.” Then we’ll have a starting point.

Herzog referred to himself, and the protagonist of his film Fitzcarraldo, as a “conquistador of the useless” in the documentary film Burden of Dreams (1982, Les Blank) that records the excruciating making-off process of the film. If you have ever wanted to watch a filmmaker dragging a steamship over mountains in the Amazon to make a film about a ne’er do well Irishman and opera-lover (played with manic genius by Klaus Kinksi) who must drag a steamship over a mountain to harvest the rubber he intends to use to finance an opera house in the jungle, here’s your shot.

Over the course of the shooting of the film, Herzog dealt with some unfriendly indigenous people, and some who offered to murder his infamously insane star Kinski for him. He was forced to recast the film after both DiNero and Mick Jagger had to abandon the project due to delays in production and funding difficulties. And, of course, Herzog faced the very real challenge of actually dragging the steamship over a mountain in the Amazon in a fashion that he could film to look as though it were being done with native labor in the 19th century.

Both the movie and the documentary explore the muddy, dirty, up-hill battle facing the brave human soul who searches for beauty and art in a jungle of murderous intention towards human aspiration.  That is “conquering the useless.”  Beauty and art may not feed the belly or pay the bills, but I wouldn’t call this living without those things.

At the very least, he had Claudia Cardinale co-starring. That’s beauty I’m certain lightened his load. And both films do end happily. Herzog pulled off an “unfilmable” film, and well, I’ll let you see how Fitzcarraldo fares for yourself. But you’ll smile.

What mud will you crawl through to find one thing of beauty to hold to in your life? What burdens do your dreams bring?  How do you face the daily, up-hill slog? Good luck. It’s a jungle out there, and it wants you dead. Vae victus!

Both Fitzcarraldo and Burden of Dreams are available streaming on Amazon (well of course!). For a $2.99 rental, you could do a lot worse. 

 

 


Big and Loud

GoneWithTheWind-580x250

Just how I like ’em!

Instead of only binge-watching TV series this winter, I have been watching a ton of movies. Which is great. That’s one of the things winter is for right? I got a whole new living room simply in preparation for this winter. I wanted to get snowed in and watch some movies. Score!

Actually, I wondered when BF and I went shopping for TVs if his choice weren’t a bit in the gauche, over-sized way. I’m glad I decided to trust him on that. If you love movies, get a big frickin TV! Duh me.

Anyhow, every time I get a bigger TV, I have to rewatch everything ever again. Well the big ones: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lawrence of Arabia, The Lord of the Rings Extended Editions, Star Wars, Citizen Kane, you get the, uh, picture. And WOW! It’s like seeing the film again for the first time, but better.

You can see all of these wonderful things going on that you maybe never noticed or forgot. I spent a lot of The Shining finding continuity errors in Shelley Duvall’s cigarette, while simultaneously registering the full shock of that vision of horror unfold in all its steadi-cam glory. Watching Kane, I really felt how large and looming a presence the character of Charles Kane truly is. Orson Welles is always shot from below. Or in giant extreme close-ups of his face. The end when he’s looming over Joseph Cotton felt so intimidating in the newspaper room. Xanadu felt vast and empty. And I could just cry over being able to really appreciate the depth of field thing…

Movies are just meant to be on a big screen. That sounds like a tautology, but when I was a kid I was watching pan and scan VHS copies of Star Wars! So this is a big deal. Yes, I did have the opportunity of seeing several re-releases and smaller venue showings of some amazing movies, and of course I remember the agony of the wait between Lord of the Rings movies. But, for most of my life, I’ve experienced some of the best films ever all wrong. Finally I can appreciate the films they were meant to be.

The sound helped too. I finally got to feel that shock-wave of Sauron’s destruction in the prologue of Fellowship of the Ring again. Yeeesss. I was giggling at how cool the Star Wars sound effects truly are. And 2001 has awesome sound design! I never knew this! Blew my mind to hear it properly . . . for the first time! It’s sad that I didn’t know this. But now I got to experience it. I’m just grateful. It’s like touching god for a film geek.

Personally, I think TV ruined film for a long time. Visually and technically marvelous films gave way to smaller, less imaginative films due to the technological limitations of home entertainment. But now that just about anyone can appreciate the true intention of films with stunning audio/visual at home, that has effected new movies. Since Interstellar, The Martian, Inside Out, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Mad Max: Fury Road can be appreciated just as well, if not in some manner better, on a TV screen, I’d imagine that has an effect on what movies are getting made. Can’t hurt Star Wars. Heck, they could just re-release the Original Trilogy WITHOUT the later “special” effects added over the years. I’d buy that along with just about everyone.

But it’s not only spectacle films that benefit, necessarily. Although, that’s definitely happening. Movies with careful cinematography and craft will benefit as well. I’d rather see Woody Allen’s Manhattan in all that glorious black and white on a large screen. Not to mention that score! Birdman, Ex Machina give me this vibe.

Hey, movies are what they are because of the format in which they’re meant to be viewed: BIG and LOUD. That’s why MGM made so much money off of Gone with the Wind. It’s huge and colorful with swelling music and dramatic dialogue delivery. There’s a ton to look at and take it. It’s gorgeous and thrilling, big and loud. You know if you don’t dig that sort of thing, you probably don’t like movies.

Heading into February, I still have a long list of films to watch and re-watch. I gotta through my guys Fellini and Kurosawa. I’m actually really looking forward to one of my personal (and I’m not sure why!) films, Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Ok, I love it because it’s perfect. Everything is perfect. The casting, the tone, the cadence, the production design, the music… the lighting. And I like what it has to say. It also makes me really root for the French Revolution to hurry up and happen.

Anyhow, what have you guys been watching or planning to watch? Now’s the time!

 


JKHOA Pt. 2.2 Netflix & Plague

image

Care for a dance?

I have the plague. If I post tomorrow, you’ll know I lived. If I don’t please, someone, stab me in the brain. My door is the one with the white cross painted on it. And now back to my chess game.

This message is brought to you by cold medicine and Netflix.


Jess Kicks Her Own Ass Pt. 1.4

Hoth

Me taking out the trash, but Star Wars.

Tales of Snow and Star Wars

Posting a rough draft was helpful. Not only did I appreciate the feedback, I also see more of what I need to change/expand upon. We’ll do that again someday. But it is not this day!  No, today is a day to be lectured by Russians that I am “pussy” for mild anxiety regarding blizzards. Today is a day to only shave one of one’s legs in the shower. Today is a day to still be wearing the same fleecy leggings I’ve had on for more than a couple of days. A day for losing one’s vape saber repeatedly. For apologizing to my dog for jipping her on her walk. (Are we allowed to say “jipp”? Screw it, I typed “pussy” already.)

Yes indeed folks. But you know, I like snow storms once in a while. Like a nice rainy day. Do some major faffing about. Although it’d be better if Force Awakens were on Blu-ray. (*Talk to Russian friend about that.) I’ve done everything I can to replace the deep hole within me without Force Awakens on tap. The Extended Editions of LOTR AND The Hobbit movies (commentary tracks and special features),  Wes Anderson, Kubrick, TNG, new Sherlock, starting re-watching the first part of this season’s Walking Dead, Lawrence of Arabia, started a Civ, colored, started Moby Dick again . . . Yeah, I’m dying over here!

Well, I can still think about Star Wars all the time, mostly. I’ve realized that the magic of movies has tricked me into empathizing with a character that is already a school-shooter in a galaxy that rewards school-shooters with positions of great power by the time we first meet him in Force Awakens. Kylo Ren is the Trenchcoat Mafia love child of a three-way between Dexter, Buffalo Bill and Napoleon Dynamite. Damn it! I still really like that character. But I also was still on Walter White’s side until the very end.  And Buffalo Bill is cool, of course. He’s just misunderstood.

I don’t feel bad that I’ve spent all my movie-going allowance (and some gift cards from the day we don’t mention) on seeing Star Wars, when there are a lot of fantastic movies out right now. It’s honestly Tarantino’s fault for scheduling the release of The Hateful Eight on the same weekend as a new Star Wars film. And maybe I’ll wait until spring to watch The Revenant. And again, that’s just on them. There are other movies with Tom Hardy that I can watch right now if I need to (may need to). Obviously I’m just going to keep seeing Star Wars into the cheap theater until it comes out on Blu-ray.

Frankly, I don’t give a damn whether I’m obsessing. That movie made me happy. And (until five seconds ago) Episode VIII comes out on my birthday, so this is apparently all about me anyway. You know what else made me happy? The Beatles on Spotify. I didn’t listen to any music from the day we don’t mention last year! Not when I can do Abbey Road on my surround sound. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah…and a hair-tossing “woooooh!” Anyway, I don’t think of it as “obsessing”. I think of it as “focus”. I’m extremely focused.

Yeah so anyway, what are you all planning to do during the storm? I think I’m going to play Civ V for three days. I have a lot of those little soups that come in boxes. I’ll just drink them from a straw. Oh yeah, and should I just stop putting quotes around my Morrissey references? I don’t attribute Star Wars quotes. But then people don’t know Morrissey as well as some focused folks. I think I’ll just leave them alone and either A) people will get it or B) people will think I have a wickedly morbid wit. I’ll take that.

May the Force shovel you sidewalk.

I don’t like the digital skips between tracks on Abbey Road though. It’s the same with Dark Side. It’s a tease when radio stations play just one track off Dark Side. You just want to hear the next song on Dark Side then. It doesn’t matter what they play next. It sucks.

 

 

 

 


Star Wars: The Force Awakens: a Personal Review (No Spoilers)

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Yes!

Somewhere, deep down in a locked and staunchly protected room in my heart, lay my sincerest hopes for how Star Wars: The Force Awakens would make me feel. I grew up on the original films. In many ways they substituted for religion in my household. My Dad and older brother showed me the first two (on Betamax). My sister and I were old enough to go to the theater for Jedi, and we spent many childhood hours playing Luke and Leia with our white lab Obi-wan in the yard.

I never got into the “expanded universe.” In film school I learned about Joseph Campbell, lending the old films of my youth new credibility and significance. But by the time the prequels came out, I was watching Fellini and Bergman and The Sopranos. And The Lord of the Rings outshone the dottering old empire.

That’s not to say I didn’t still love Star Wars. Far from it. I bought all of the successively worse “Special Editions”. And I still watched the original trilogy whenever it was on TV. And, like all fans, I quote the films regularly.

My reinvestment in Star Wars really began with the cathartic Red Letter Media reviews of the prequels. And, soon after, the news of Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilms was announced.

As a grown-up, managing expectations became a priority in all areas of my life. I certainly loved JJ Abrams. I devoured every episode of Lost. His second Star Trek was disappointing. But, given my knowledge of Lost and his 2009 Trek, he felt right at the helm of the new generation of Star Wars.

Yet, still, beneath my growing anticipation for the new film, I buried my secret hope for it. I didn’t much care about an expanded universe, or what new Star Warsy things I’d learn. I just wanted to feel that joy. I wanted to know if it were possible. I wanted to feel like a kid again.

Secretly, I pinned Fox Mulder’s poster up in my heart: “I want to believe.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens delivered and more. It was better than I allowed for even in my most hidden hopes. And laughing and crying and cheering with that audience was the best I’ve felt in a long time. I feel connected to my fellow human beings in a ring of pure, undiluted bliss.

I’m not going to nit-pick the plot. Everything I wanted, and needed, was there: the wonderful characters, the banter, the thrills, the family drama and friendships, the Force…but most importantly…the fun.

Isn’t that why we all loved Star Wars to begin with? It’s not because they’re the best films ever made, or the greatest works of art, or the deepest explorations of the human heart and psyche. Star Wars began as George Lucas’ homage to the serials and movies that made up his childhood. His creations made up my childhood. Star Wars is about wonder, the wonder of seeing the world as a child. Star Wars isn’t about reserved, measured grown-up sensibilities. Star Wars is for children of all ages.

So I have to thank Disney, Abrams, the cast, Kasdan, the gaffer, the caterers, the sanitation troopers (hey Finn!)…you all gave me a gift that was better than this weary soul had allowed itself to hope for. I feel just like a kid again. I can’t wait to see it a bazillion times…and buy the toys!

And, without reservation, it is my pure pleasure to wish:

May the Force be with you…always

I know you were watching too Dad. 🙂


Searching for Songs with Shakespeare in a Troubled Time

NYTimes12.07.2015

Today’s NY Times Front Page

A time of paranoia. A time of threats within and without. An old way of life has been discarded in favor of a new world of new ideas, sacred and profane. Burning convictions, resentment, plots, a controversial leader, terror and Holy War. Being on the wrong side of the state is ruin, and the wrong side of your faith, damnation. A time of darkness and confusion desperate for a light.

Welcome to Elizabethan England. The treacherous world inhabited by William Shakespeare. The man who reinvented a nation on the edge of destruction.

“You can take away cricket, you can lose the last night of the Proms, you can even lose an empire, but if you lose Shakespeare — as far as I’m concerned — there is no England anymore.” Declares historian Simon Schama in the opening of his series Shakespeare and Us.

This two-part BBC series (available on Curiosity Stream) places us in the fraught world of Shakespeare. A time when the Pope had granted a ticket to paradise to whoever would kill the “bastard” and Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Barely a generation after her father Henry VIII had made his separation with Rome, his son had smashed the ancient stained-glass windows of the churches, and his first daughter had attempted to reinstate the old religion through terror; Elizabeth replaced the worship of the Virgin Mary with the cult of the Virgin Queen. Meanwhile, her spies instituted a security state to stave off rebellion from within, as the Catholic monarchs of  Europe eyed her crown from abroad.

If ever Joseph Campbell’s insistence that all ages need their unifying myth were true, then Shakespeare’s was such an age. And he had a powerful new means to communicate his vision: the stage.  The subject he chose was England herself. The time, the Wars of the Roses, the bloody civil wars over the crown of England. And by turning those exhausting slog-fests of names and dates into exciting drama, unforgettable characters and thrilling action, he created a new vision of England. One that the  English have relied upon through the centuries, whether during the Blitz or to this day.

But for the heroic patriotism of the cry “For Harry, England and St. George!” Shakespeare’s vision was not one of blind nationalism nor of cynical criticism. Instead he used his history plays “to hold a mirror up” to his own times. To reveal both the heroes and the villains, the high and the low, the centers of power and the landscape of the sceptred isle in its honest glory.

With infinite compassion, Shakespeare laid before his audiences themselves, their land, their leaders. A vision as wide,  gentle yet crude, loving and base, comic and tragic, as all-encompassing as old Jack Falstaff himself. And, in doing so, he created an idea that could touch all of England’s people, caution its leaders and comment on his times.

We live in times like Shakespeare’s. A similar moment.  The old myths of our nation may be dead, but they haunt us daily in the victim’s of mass shootings by the disaffected and deranged who cling desperately to an older vision of the world. They’re in our desire to protect both our selves, our nation and our liberty. Present in our fear of war, of our neighbors and nations, of immigrants, of pretenders, of tyrants, of our past, of this ever-changing world.

Our national dialogue has devolved into two choirs endlessly preaching to themselves. The only interaction between the two camps of this new civil war exist online in nasty Facebook memes and hateful comments, and in confrontations between the armed and unarmed on our streets.

Everyone deplores the chaos, cries out for it to end. But we don’t know how to even begin.

In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell warned about the chaos of a culture without a unifying myth. Shakespeare responded to the hero’s “call to adventure”, traversed the “dark forest”, faced the dragon and returned with a boon to mankind. Today we must all respond to this call. We must all be heroes.

We must search for the raw materials from which to reconstruct our myth of America, liberty, fraternity and equality, the West, the world.  Learn to transform our hatreds and fears into understanding and empowerment. Discover how to use that great force of communication of our day, the internet, as Shakespeare used the stage.

Whether the subject be in space, or fantasy, modern drama, our own history or a combination, I am unsure. But I am certain we all need to look for that thing that will the hold the mirror up to ourselves, to allow us all to laugh and weep and thrill and, finally, to heal.

That other “Great” man of England, King Alfred said, “In prosperity a man is often puffed up with pride, whereas tribulations chasten and humble him…In the midst of prosperity the mind is elated…in hardship he is forced to reflect on himself, even though he be unwilling.”

In this time of hardship, no matter how unwilling or afraid, we must force ourselves to reflect, to accept the hero’s call like Shakespeare. And we must do it in the manner of Shakespeare: with exacting honesty, unflagging commitment and all-soothing compassion. We must use our new great medium as Shakespeare used his stage, to spread what our reflection teaches us. The time of the “Great Man” who changes history may be past, but today, with the internet, we can all be great. Billions of heroes, billions of great people, singing their portion of a great song of a great people.

What will your verse be?


Thranduil Has it All

It's good to be the King of the Woodland Realm.

It’s good to be the King of the Woodland Realm.


Trouble Loves Robocop: Bullets, Breaking Glass & Falling

 

Because the internet would not be complete without a video containing all of the breaking glass, extended death scenes, explosions and epic falls in the original Paul Verhoeven masterpiece Robocop, starring the inimitable Peter Weller.

There’s some story in there, too.

And I set it to Morrissey. Don’t like Moz? Make your own Robocop tribute.

 

Having trouble with the video? Click here. 


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