For Reel

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
July 7, 2016, 3:41 pm
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Director: Sergio Leone
5 Stars
The Good, the Bad, and the UglyThat Clint Eastwood’s character in the Sergio Leone films is widely known as “the man with no name” is a perfect distillation of the mythmaking that happens in the series—it’s a moniker that is absent from the screenplays themselves, and yet it serves as the perfect articulation of the larger than life mythos of the gunslinger. From the title alone, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly associates men with ideas of what men can be—heroes and villains alike are reduced to a word which they then reinforce. If westerns from Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman, and even late-period John Ford had been challenging the moral simplicity of the classic western, Leone’s vision is notably regressive in that regard. This is the stuff of the earliest silent movies, where character motivation can be discussed purely in terms of greed. Leone’s narrative simplicity is heightened by his radical sense of scale, which has little time for medium shots—this is a picture of extremes, where long shots and extreme close-ups are alternated back and forth. If the deserts often consume men in other westerns, in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the men are just as ferocious and big as any force of nature—they are Gods, undeniably challenged by the surroundings but never losing themselves to anything but their own flaws.

The Reptile (1966)
June 12, 2016, 11:26 am
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Director: John Gilling
3.5 Stars
The ReptileAlthough it is often overshadowed by Plague of the Zombies, which shares the same director and much of the cast (that film was shot back-to-back with this one), The Reptile is an affecting chiller that hearkens back to the atmospheric Val Lewton horror films of the 1940s. As with Cat People, it concerns a horrific human/animal hybrid, and its horror is very much tied to the femininity of one of the protagonists—killing plays as if it were the result of a woman’s sexual awakening. Aside from just the plot similarities, like the Lewton film it is similarly interested in developing a psychosexual mystery, with tensions creeping into the picture not just by the visceral scares, but by the intriguing interpersonal relationships that populate the picture. The real teases of the horrors to come happen in the dialogue and suggestion, not in the gruesome images. As far as the latter goes, The Reptile is less gory than one would anticipate from a Hammer picture, and indeed the effects are more dated than typical. Much of the climax falls flat due to how routine and unspectacular it is compared to the nicely paced build up. And yet, if the monster that gives The Reptile its name is a disappointment, what the film does right is the way it makes the scenes with the human-form of the monster (played by Jacqueline Pearce) feel genuinely unsettling through the use of editing and lighting. A bizarre sequence in which Pearce plays the sitar is rendered suspenseful through the cutting, suggesting a invasiveness of Eastern culture on Great Britain—as is typical of the genre, it mines a real-world anxiety (the fear of the “other”) for its own spectacular thrills.

Blow-Up (1966)
April 10, 2016, 2:46 pm
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Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
4.5 Stars
Blow-UpThe frenzy that Blow-Up caused upon its release in 1966 was tied to its confrontational and sometimes lurid depiction of Swinging London—rife with orgies, antiwar protesters, and the disaffected crowd of a rock concert. Although time has confirmed Blow-Up‘s status as a masterpiece, ironically it has lost some of its value as a shocking cultural document, particularly because so many films in its wake did an equally (or better) job of recording that period. What has continued to persist, however, is the film’s engagement with the photography, particularly how it regards truth and the depiction of what it means to have a passion for images. The most celebrated sequence in Blow-Up occurs when a jaded photographer (David Hemmings) closely inspects the pictures he’s taken and searches for a mystery hidden within them. His engagement with the photographs is inarguably the most interested he is in anything throughout the picture—there is an ironic contrast in his fascination with the images and the meaningless orgy he has partway through his investigation. Blow-Up questions the truth of images, both in the sense of how truth becomes adjusted with interpretation, and whether that truth persists once the images are no more. Lofty as these themes might seem, there are few images as primal and viscerally thrilling as Hemmings’ simple interaction with the photographs—shot in long silences (which asks Hemmings to communicate an impressive amount with only body language), these sequences have an almost humorous perspective on the futility of trying to communicate with a photograph and how the desperation to probe for the secrets hidden within only amplifies their elusiveness.

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966)
October 26, 2015, 8:18 pm
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Director: Monte Hellman
4.5 Stars
Ride in the WhirlwindIf The Shooting is a brutal, objectivist western, Ride in the Whirlwind furthers that sensibility with touches of dramatic irony that only serve to underscore the nonpartisan, severe world all the more. In the second half of the film, cowhands Vern and Wes (Cameron Mitchell and Jack Nicholson) are holed up at a farm while desperately trying to evade the unrelenting vigilantes on their trail. With the farmer’s wife and daughter as hostages at their side, they listen for the patriarch’s axe to stop swinging as an “alarm” to let them know when the farmer will expect the women to complete their daily tasks. The metronome-like axe strikes contribute to the sense of foreboding–it points to the inevitability, in the same way that the silence before the gunshots in 1939’s Of Mice and Men only serves to accentuate the doom. Ride in the Whirlwind isn’t quite as affecting as The Shooting, but it is nonetheless a masterpiece in its own right, with its pitiable characters recalling the knight who can only temporarily postpones his death in The Seventh Seal.

The Shooting (1966)
October 26, 2015, 8:15 pm
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Director: Monte Hellman
5 Stars
The ShootingShot along with Ride in the Whirlwind over a period of six weeks, The Shooting is an existentialist western, using familiar archetypes and scenarios of the genre with a very contemporary, experimental aesthetic. The film’s use of jump cuts aids a certain off-the-cuff, sometimes mythical quality–that is, when two scenes involving different characters are cut together so as to make it seem as though the characters are completing each other’s thoughts, there’s a sense of the metaphysical, the dreamlike. If Hawks and Ford are largely earthbound but spiritual, Monte Hellman is the opposite–the narrative and sense of place seem celestial, but the philosophical implications are much harsher. Ideas of heroism are muted, or at least the ideals are. If Coley (Will Hutchins) is in a prime position to be the hero of a traditional western, The Shooting places him up against an unshakable objectivity, a betrayal of the genre’s most lasting tropes. In one shot, the sky is seen from a low angle as some indiscernible movement appears on the bottom of the frame. As Coley climbs the object and comes into frame, we recognize now that it is his horse. That the shot is not focused around him, but rather he enters it, suggests the very objectivity of the world that these characters inhabit.

Wings (1966)
August 8, 2012, 11:15 pm
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Director: Larisa Shepitko

Ukrainian born Larisa Shepitko was tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1979, cutting short an all-too-brief career that crescendoed in 1977 with her most well-known film, The Ascent. It was Wings, however, the first feature that she made after graduating the famed All-Union State Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, that perhaps best illustrated her full potential as a storyteller. Maya Bulgakova, rendered androgynously with pulled back hair and a finely-tailored suit, plays an ex-pilot who now serves as the headmistress of a provincial school. In the early-goings, Shepitko is intentionally evasive in describing the woman – she is tightly-wound, never breaking her stern, weary expression as she engages in a series of fairly mundane conversations. Through a series of flashbacks, however, Shepitko begins to explore what has made this woman who she is, and just as the audience begins to understand her, so to does she begin to become honest with herself. The reoccurring images of flight are both an image of liberation and suffocation – cramped as she seems in sterile buildings, her history holds tragedy along with the sense of freedom, and as such a full regression poses a threat to her continued well-being. Shepitko was a student of Alexander Dovzhenko, and it shows in an enchanting sun shower sequence – as Bulgakova holds grapes in the rain, one can’t help but consider the agricultural harmony so poetically evoked in the opening sequence of Earth.

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
February 15, 2012, 12:43 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s masterpiece of the sixties, tracks the life of a donkey who is born, passed from one vile master to the other, and dies. Though it is in many ways a twin of Mouchette, Bresson’s followup film, it eclipses its successor through the specificity with which it deals with violence. Many of those who exploit Balthazar do so for selfish means, or, in the case of the suspected murderer, motivations that are linked to substance abuse more than personal depravity. The young Gerard, who is perhaps the film’s purest form of evil, is the only character whose intentions are somewhat abstract. His is a senseless violence, a suggestion of the masochism of the new generation. Gerard is certainly linked with modernity – riding his motorbike and listening to contemporary rock music – and, perhaps unexpectedly, Bresson equates these new-fashioned trends with an enhanced display of primal brutishness. In creating a conflict between the young and the old (and specifically in contrasting the type of cruelty that is committed by each group), Bresson suggests that the world has been transformed by man’s gradual fall from grace. Balthazar, the Christ-figure, is given all the more significance with the suggestion that he is absolving a world that has become newly corrupt. Furthermore, as bleak of a portrait as the picture provides, it also suggests the inherent goodness that surfaces within man. The love between Marie and Balthazar, for example, is an affection not afforded Mouchette, and it offers moments of compassionate reprieve amongst the onslaught of suffering. The delicate balance that Bresson achieves is perhaps his most complete vision of his preferred type of social realism – it’s a world that is undoubtedly brutal, but one that is still tangibly human. Godard’s famous quote about the picture, that it is, “the world in an hour and a half”, is not mere hyperbole.

Le deuxième souffle (1966)
May 20, 2011, 9:53 pm
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Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Perhaps no film is better suited for examining the influence of the American gangster genre on Jean-Pierre Melville than Le deuxième souffle. Like Bob of Bob le flambeur or Maurice of Le doulos, Gu is an aged gangster exiting prison and forced to interact with a “new” society in which criminal etiquette is a thing of the past.

Using Gu’s subjectivity to draw us into the world – from the very beginning of the film, we see the detailed account of his prison break and the death of his two accomplices – Melville’s vision of gangsterdom is one of paranoia and uncertainty. Watch, for example, the way that Gu quickly wakes from his sleep and, without hesitation, arms himself with a pistol. While little is revealed about Gu (it is suggested that he was committed for a “gold train” heist ten years prior to the beginning of the film), it is in these actions that the audience gets a sense of not only Gu’s professionalism, but the way in which he never allows his guard to drop.

The centerpiece of the film – the heist – is thoroughly planned and shot in real time. Melville as the observer shoots such sequences with a detached objectivity – just as Jef of Le samouraï is a meticulous craftsman, Melville seems to similarly admire the precision of these characters. In fact, at the beginning of the heist, a long stretch of film is given to the gangsters simply waiting for the arrival of the truck. This matter-of-fact, unromanticized account of crime reminded me of last year’s Police, Adjective, wherein the life of a cop is presented as being monotonous and uneventful. The violence in this film is also ugly, stressing the consequences of each bullet fired.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
April 3, 2011, 2:44 pm
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Director: Mike Nichols

An astonishing debut from successful theater director Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was one of the pivotal films that brought an end to the already crippled Production Code. While films released since 1934 had discussed the sanctity of marriage and repeated images of the traditional nuclear family, Edward Albee’s play (adapted by Ernest Lehman) disembowels the fallacies that figures like Joseph I. Breen had championed decades previous. The film is a relentless, grueling watch – each scene is so viscerally thrilling, so emotionally assaultive that one feels the urge to pause halfway through to take a shower. Despite George and Martha’s apparent disdain for one another in the film, one must think that there has to be a love that still exists between them despite the persistence of their sabotage. Their quarrels aren’t mere self-flagellation, but a mutual sadism birthed by the inevitable frustrations of aging and marriage.