02
Feb
15

Buried Alive With The Bride

I remember the first time I saw Kill Bill Vol. 2 in the theater in 2004. I remember it vividly because it contained one of the scariest scenes I had ever seen. I physically reacted to the scene in which Budd (Michael Madsen) buries The Bride (Uma Thurman) alive. But that scene was scary for me not just because of what was happening but also because of how director Quentin Tarantino shot the scene:

From The Bride’s point-of-view, as she lays tied up in Budd’s truck bed, we see Budd and his hired hand digging up a grave, obscured in darkness. An open coffin, with a rotted corpse tumbling out of it, lies next to them. This point-of-view shot is an extended take (it lasts maybe a minute), and it’s a long shot (the perspective is from several yards away). The camera never cuts or provides close-up’s as it might do in a standard horror movie that usually shows every last horrible thing that’s happening in minute detail from all angles. This POV shot provides a deepening of identification with The Bride character as well as a sense of dread, helplessness, and uncertainty; we think we know what’s coming. But do we really know for certain and can we control it?

Kill Bill long shot

This shot reminds me of another repeated shot, which also creeped me out. In Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, Trelkovsky, played by Polanski, sees strange human figures, including one that resembles himself, staring back at him from the bathroom window across the apartment courtyard.

Tenant

The next Kill Bill Vol. 2 scene then shows The Bride in a wooden box (it’s a close-up profile shot of her that will not cut away for awhile). Budd is hammering the box’s lid shut. He has given her a flashlight, which she accidentally drops, and then the screen goes dark for a pretty long time. At this point, we only hear what’s going on: Budd and his helper lower the box containing The Bride into the ground. They shovel dirt one clump at a time onto the box, and drive off. The Bride is now alone except for the flashlight, which she eventually finds and turns on. In addition to the lack of visuals for an extended period, the other remarkable aspect of this scene is that, like the wedding chapel massacre scene (from Kill Bill Vols. 1 and 2) and the Japanese massacre scene (from Kill Bill Vol. 1), it’s black and white. Why? Does the use of black and white tie these scenes together? What do these scenes have in common?  They are all “iconic” scenes narratively and stylistically, as well as character-defining moments for The Bride in both films. They also play up the stylization of Tarantino’s homage to genre films and showcase the beauty of black and white. However, while emphasizing the stylization of Tarantino’s use of violence, the use of black and white also paradoxically dilutes the gratuitous amounts of blood and violence.

Kill Bill box shot

06
Jan
15

Into the Woods’s Biggest Surprise

Chris Pine singing “Agony” in Into the Woods.

Chris Pine singing “Agony” in Into the Woods.

When I walked out of the new film version of Into the Woods on Christmas Day, I couldn’t believe what I was thinking: “Chris Pine, of all people, just outshone Johnny Depp.” While I was most looking forward to seeing Depp skulk around the woods in his Big Bad Wolf zoot suit and lasciviously sing “Hello Little Girl” to Little Red Riding Hood, he came and went so quickly (and sounded so much like a serpent-breathed Rex Harrison) that I thought he was… just…OK.

On the other hand, the audience seemed to want to break out into applause after Chris Pine’s big musical number, “Agony,” as he preened, strutted, and basked in his own glory as Prince Charming. Pine seems to be in on the joke that transcends this specific character and bleeds into his overall onscreen persona: at best, he’s handsome and likable (the Star Trek movies, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and at worse, he’s vapid and all-surface (as apparently are some of his choices of movie roles). However, maybe like with Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Channing Tatum in Magic Mike, I’ve come to the party late.

Pine has the acting pedigree, experience, and recognition that belies my initial oversimplified view of him. His parents and maternal grandmother were actors, and he studied English at Berkeley and acting at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. In addition to his extensive film and television work, his stage credentials includes Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig and Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, for which he won a Los Angeles acting award in 2009.

So, I’m not sure I would qualify as a “Pine Nut” (what his fans call themselves) yet, but I stand somewhat corrected.

23
Dec
14

The End of The Affair?

Allison (Ruth Wilson) and Noah (Dominic West) on Showtime's The Affair

Allison (Ruth Wilson) and Noah (Dominic West) on Showtime’s The Affair

With half-interest, I watched my DVR’ed season finale of Showtime’s The Affair, which initially aired on Sunday night after a quiet but gripping Homeland season finale. The Affair explores the extramarital relationship between Noah (Dominic West), a schoolteacher and struggling writer, and Allison (Ruth Wilson), a working-class married waitress who is grieving the death of a child. Noah lives with his wife Helen (the always-great Maura Tierney) and their four children in gentrified Brooklyn. The family spends the summer with Helen’s wealthy family in Montauk, a vacation town on Long Island, where Allison has lived all her life. Half of each episode (usually the first half) shows the narrative from Noah’s point of view, while the episode’s other half explores Allison’s subjective experience.

I started watching The Affair because it had received glowing critical notices (West, Wilson, and the overall series have all been nominated for Golden Globes this year). And like Noah and Allison’s uncertain relationship to each other, I’ve had an ambiguous relationship with The Affair ever since. The acting is top-notch, the plot is intriguing, and the shifting-perspectives premise showed promise but has become more problematic with time. As the season progressed, I felt like I was waiting for some big plot twist or revelation to happen that never quite “surfaced” (to use the show’s overt water symbolism). Although I realized that The Affair’s slow-burn momentum was intentional and that the season had been progressively leading up to possible answers to an ongoing murder investigation, maybe I’d gotten so used to series like Homeland, American Horror Story, and 24 that kept you in a constant state of surprise at how clever/shocking/provocative/emotional they could get. So, I kept rationalizing why I should keep watching The Affair: “Something big is going to happen – I just know it.” “I’m already through the second season – might as well finish it.”

A part of me was hoping that The Affair’s season finale would, as with American Horror Story and True Detective, hit the refresh button and be an anthology; next season and each subsequent season could introduce a new couple embarking on a new affair. But with Sunday night’s cliffhanger of a final scene, it looks like we are going to be stuck with Noah and Allison for a while. I just don’t know if I’ll be giving them a second chance or looking for a clean break.

17
Dec
14

How I Met Frank Langella

Frank Langella at the Virginia Film Festival

Frank Langella (right) at the Virginia Film Festival

This November marked my eleventh year serving as a volunteer usher at the Virginia Film Festival. Although I’ve enjoyed my time working for the festival, meeting other volunteers, and seeing some extraordinary films that I wouldn’t had otherwise seen, I had never met one of the festival’s special celebrity guests. This year was different.

My volunteer shift included a screening of Frost/Nixon, which explores the making of the 1977 television interviews between British television host David Frost and President Richard Nixon. In the film, Nixon is played by actor Frank Langella in an Oscar-nominated performance. I had seen Frost/Nixon when it was first released in 2008 and really enjoyed it.

The festival screening of Frost/Nixon would be followed by a question-and-answer session with Frank Langella. My venue manager asked if I would welcome Langella when he arrived and make sure he was comfortable until the Q&A started.

You never know what a famous person will be like when you meet him or her in real life. I had seen many Frank Langella films, for which he’s primarily known for playing villains, and had even read his memoir, Dropped Names, which is fun and kind of catty. So, I didn’t know what to expect from Langella in person.

When he entered the lobby with his friend and a festival driver, he was a tall, imposing figure in very elegant, casual clothes and what I call a “newsy” cap. He immediately approached me and shook my hand. He face took on a concerned look, as he looked me in the eyes, and he began to apologize. He thought he was running late, but that actually wasn’t the case at all.

As he settled in to await the film’s conclusion, he revealed himself to be a kind and gracious person, asking about the audience, the moderator, and the organization sponsoring the film (where I work).

During the Q&A itself, Langella was passionate, funny, and gracious toward the audience’s questions, especially the those of students.

Frank Langella in the 1979 film, Dracula

Frank Langella in the 1979 film, Dracula

About a week later, I caught Dracula, the 1979 film in which Langella plays the title character. Amidst the dated presentation (but cool production design), he brought a certain elegance and humanness to the character and to the movie as a whole.

15
Oct
14

When Weeds Went Tarantino

I’ve been binge-watching the Showtime series Weeds over the past few years. I’m up to season six of this bizarre yet entertaining show about Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker in a Golden Globe-winning performance), a widow who becomes a drug dealer to keep her family afloat. Spoiler alert: The show’s sixth season finds Nancy, her two teenage sons (Silas and Shane), and her brother-in-law (Andy) on the run after Shane has killed the publicist of Nancy’s drug-kingpin husband, Esteban. This season’s criminal plot element and this particular episode (“A Shoe for a Shoe”) have underscored some interesting (possibly intentional?) connections with director Quentin Tarantino.

In an act of retaliation, Shane has been kidnapped by Esteban’s henchmen. In an effort to find Shane, Nancy shoots one of the henchmen, Cesar, with a crossbow in a skee-ball hall of fame museum. In its size and emptiness, the museum resembles the abandoned warehouse in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. In Dogs, criminal Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) ties up and tortures a police officer in the warehouse. Elsewhere in the film, criminals Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) hold guns on each other. Keitel is standing up, while Buscemi is lying down; this is the same formation as Nancy (standing with a weapon) and Cesar (lying down but without a weapon).

Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs

Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel in Reservoir Dogs

The Weeds director, Michael Trim, also seems to mirror Reservoir Dog’s famous truck shot, in which we see three of the criminals open a car trunk from the point of view of the cop inside the trunk. Tarantino, who proudly and frequently borrows from other films, also uses trunk shots in his work, including in Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds. In the Weeds episode, we see Nancy open her trunk from the point of view of the crossbow she has stored in there. These trunk shot also seem to pay homage to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and has become pretty standard in other films and television shows, including Breaking Bad’s final season.

The trunk shot from Reservoir Dogs

The trunk shot from Reservoir Dogs

Much of the episode takes place in a diner, another consistent setting throughout many of Tarantino’s films.

The Weeds episode even has a reference to its fellow Showtime series, Dexter, when Silas talks about becoming “a serial killer who kills serial killers.”

29
Sep
14

Why I’m Excited About The Judge Even If It Ends Up Being a Mediocre Movie

The-Judge-2014-Movie-Poster-WallpaperSlate staff writer Aisha Harris has written a very perceptive article about Denzel Washington’s career trajectory, which for the last few years, has mostly consisted of bad action flicks. His latest is The Equalizer; not only did Entertainment Weekly give it a “D” grade in its review, but it was the number-one movie at the box office this weekend. In her Slate article, Harris wonders where is the Denzel of Malcolm X, Glory, Training Day, and Flight, all for which he either won or was nominated for an Oscar.

Lately, I’ve been asking the same sorts of questions about one of my favorite actors, Robert Downey Jr. His latest film, The Judge, opens next month. In it, Downey plays a variation of his real-life, Tony Stark persona: cocky but through circumstances, gets knocked down a few notches and needs to build himself up again. In The Judge, Downey might be playing another version of Tony Stark yet again, but at least he’s not actually playing Iron Man this time. Granted, he does a wonderful job as Iron Man, breaking the mold of how a superhero should be and who should play him. That role and Sherlock Holmes has led him to a surprising career resurgence, culminating in being named the world’s highest-paying actor. Who could have guessed 10 or 15 years ago that was what his future would be? Who could have guessed that, even when he was at his critical career peak in the 80s and 90s (think Less Than Zero and Chaplin)? Although the early buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival about The Judge is less than great, the film will hopefully resurrect a Downey that isn’t afraid to try different roles. After all, coloring outside the lines is what he does best.

Here’s a recent profile about Robert Downey Jr. in the October 2014 issue of Vanity Fair.

20
Aug
13

Brief Encounter Part 5

Stanley Holloway as Albert and Joyce Carey as Myrtle in Brief Encounter

Stanley Holloway as Albert and Joyce Carey as Myrtle in Brief Encounter

Brief Encounter is an exploration of the repression of the British middle class. Words that keep coming up in dialogue between Laura and other characters as well as in Laura’s voiceover include “ordinary,” “uncomplicated,” and “sensible,” which emphasizes the normalcy and boredom of Laura’s everyday routine. Director David Lean’s use of actual locations and actress Celia Johnson’s natural appearance and acting style add to the cinematic realism of some of the scenes; scenes, such as in the rowboat, look as if they could be taken straight from a home movie, which also adds a level of nostalgic romanticism. And Laura’s life seems to be mundane until Alec enters the picture and disrupts her routine and repressed emotions.

Albert and Myrtle are the comic, working class foils to Alec and Laura. Albert and Myrtle’s earthier, more overt expressions of affection directly contrast Alec and Laura’s more subtle, repressed romance. In addition to adding humor to an otherwise serious movie, it seems that Lean and Coward are also advocating Albert and Myrtle’s outlook.

Before its official release, Brief Encounter had a bad preview in front of a working class audience; the audience members just couldn’t understand Laura and Alec’s repression, and some shouted at the screen for them to go ahead and kiss. (For more discussion about working class reaction to the film, see Neel14’s astute comment of my previous blog post, “Brief Encounter Part 2”.) Lean took this rejection personally and subsequently considered the film a failure. History has shown us otherwise.




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