For Reel

Place de la République (1974)
December 29, 2016, 3:40 pm
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Director: Louis Malle
3.5 Stars
place-de-la-republiqueDirector Louis Malle rejected the popularly used phrase “cinema verite” in favor of “cinema direct”, which argues for a fully improvised shooting process that relies on impulse and curiosity as the guiding factors in narrative development (an ethos exemplified most spectacularly by the Maysles brothers). Place de la Republique, which Malle shot over a few weeks in 1972, uses the simple premise of a small film crew interviewing whoever they can on the busy Parisian square. If the film is about anything, it is about the Parisian’s fascination with the act of filmmaking—nearly every scene is full of background extras eager to see and hear what Malle and his team are filming. The excitement of the people on the street is well-matched by Malle’s enthusiasm for the everyday lives of the people he encounters. As eccentric as his subjects can be, Malle treats them all without judgment, allowing them instead to dictate the pace of the conversation. The film’s biggest pleasure is not the conversations themselves (only a few of the characters are particularly memorable), but the shooting style, which is obsessively guided by the sense of setting. In a telling late scene, Malle and his team are interviewing a subject that has a small audience rapt. Suddenly, Malle’s cameraman jerks the camera away from the scene in order to observe a passerby wearing rollerskates. It’s a jarring interruption of the interview, but the purest evocation of what Malle means by “cinema direct.” The curiosity inherent to the film’s process is not limited merely to the interview, but to the image—the simple act of looking away from the subject (Malle himself doesn’t even seem privy to the motion) shows that cinema itself is only an extension of uninhibited human curiosity.

Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)
November 21, 2016, 3:13 pm
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Director: Toshiya Fujita
2.5 Stars
lady-snowblood-2Having completing her life’s goal in Lady Snowblood, Yuki Kashima’s (Meiko Kaji) only remaining purpose is to fend off those who wish to punish her for the carnage she caused. In a bravura opening setpiece, Kashima hacks and slashes her way down a long, winding path as the camera follows in front of her in an unbroken tracking shot—she shows no signs of being winded or even frightened by the situation, rather she disposes the men who approach her with ease. Kashima’s great appeal as a tragic protagonist is that she is a character whose will was thrust upon her—she was birthed to be nothing more than a vessel to carry out vengeance—and the sequel seems to have its head in the right place by suggesting that she, again, is nothing but a pawn in a larger scheme involving Japanese imperialism. But this question of free will plays as a minor point within the political drama that makes the core of the film. It is a ludicrously misguided sequel—not only abandoning what made the first film special, but casting aside the protagonist in a fairly small role—but director Toshiya Fujita does maintain a tightly-constructed, dynamic aesthetic that visually demonstrates the series’ narrative of entrapment (in one scene, Kashima lunges through a broken two-way mirror and looks as if she is contained within a picture frame).

Young Frankenstein (1974)
October 10, 2016, 10:40 pm
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Director: Mel Brooks
4 Stars
young-frankensteinIf Mel Brooks’ unabashed love for lowbrow comedy can often lend itself to an aggressive, confrontational voice, Young Frankenstein is an oddly sweet film—both in its telling of a man (Gene Wilder) and a monster (Peter Boyle) who are similarly driven by a need to be accepted, and in its loving homage to the history of the genre. When Wilder and Boyle don the suit and tails for their performance of “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” the film enjoys the dual pleasures of both a well-orchestrated gag and in witnessing two characters allowing themselves to be open and vulnerable for a skeptical crowd. It’s a coming out party.  Similarly, that the viewer can anticipate the joke (Boyle’s howling) matches the film’s own dealings with the joy of the expected—audiences anticipate every story beat due to the familiarity of the narrative, but Brooks and Wilder use this “predictability” to subvert the story in humorous ways (the monster’s interaction with a young girl pays off in an entirely different way than expected). In many ways, Young Frankenstein is a nearly perfect rendition of today’s “soft reboots,” reveling in nostalgia while inventing unforgettable new characters and pushing the themes of the original material forward.

Chinatown (1974)
July 24, 2016, 1:17 pm
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Director: Roman Polanski
5 Stars
ChinatownThe title sequence of Chinatown does much to remark on its genre—with sepia tones, a blurred iris, and a vintage font, it immediately recalls the noirs of yesteryear (it is jarring to see names like Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway in this context). It also begins an elaborate game of misdirection and sets the stage for the film’s bitter reveals. Just as many noirs have a dependable moral compass to route for, Nicholson’s Jake Gittes is a man with a haunted past facing a world of corruption. History tells us that not only will he come to the bottom of the mystery at hand, but his past will be redeemed. But Robert Towne’s screenplay keeps unveiling elaborate levels of deceit, and the political and murderous scandals make way for twists more personal, the sort that recontextualize each character’s relationship with one another. In the end, it is a devastating, castrating film about powerlessness, where good intentions come up against corruption and ultimately fall short. It is not merely a fatalistic tale, however. These characters are wrought to have lived many lives already (nearly everyone has a past that is regularly alluded to but never explicitly spelled out), and it is clear that their lives will continue into a future that has increasingly become uncertain and dire. Chinatown is not just a film about failure, but about how one copes and pushes forward despite a lifetime of it.

The Conversation (1974)
July 9, 2016, 2:47 pm
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Director: Francis Ford Coppola
5 Stars
The ConversationBetween the first two Godfather pictures, Francis Ford Coppola directed this thriller which fulfilled his arthouse sensibilities—a direct response to Blow-Up, The Conversation continues the problem of the unreality of the real, suggesting that even the apparently concrete and direct can be problematized. If the film cannot exist without Blow-Up, it is the superior achievement. Perhaps the most provocative step forward is that Coppola argues that if we are to doubt the image, what then do we do with language, which is arguably more complex, it being loaded with inflections, ironies, and entendres? Furthermore, as a dramatization it quite brilliantly links the object (the recording of an ambiguous conversation) to the personal and spiritual—the stakes of Harry Caul’s (Gene Hackman) obsession with the tape aren’t just related to simple amateur sleuthing, but they actually justify his social ineptnes. Moreso than a film about an awakening conscious, The Conversation is a film about a loner fully coming to terms with the unknowability of his fellow man. The fatal twist is not merely horrific because of the action that has taken place, but that even in obsessing over a brief conversation, Caul was unable to discern its true meaning.

Lancelot du Lac (1974)
February 28, 2012, 12:22 am
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Director: Robert Bresson

The most aesthetically radical of Robert Bresson’s pictures, Lancelot du Lac alarmingly begins with a series of preposterously violent slaughterings rid of context and defined character. Adapted from a small piece of the Arthurian legend, the narrative starts just after the fall of the Round Table and the failed quest for the Grail, and it concerns the impassioned Lancelot; his Queen, Guinevere; and the noble Gauvain, among others. In the centerpiece of the narrative – a jousting tournament – a bravura use of editing marks the spectacle as one of Bresson’s finest and most exciting sequences. There is never an establishing shot, nor does Bresson use crowd reactions in order to enhance the suspense. Repetition is employed in order to evoke the procession of matches – the cuts include, for instance, a piper’s midsection and his consistent playing of three notes, as well as the lower half of the horses, as if to focus on the extravagance that is the musculature of the beasts rather than the clashing of knights. This type of shot – in which Bresson deliberately obscures a great part of the figure from the audience – is a staple within his oeuvre, although it is never used quite as extremely as in Lancelot. Quite often, the camera will follow the knights only from their knees down, and even when the iconic Round Table is depicted, it is done so in a fragmented manner, as if revealing pieces of a pie. By fracturing the figures in such a way, it suggests that the men are broken after their failed quest, and that their loyalties are sent into disarray. The titular figure, for instance, struggles between pledging his loyalty to God or to his Queen, and it isn’t until his last breath that his ultimate allegiance is revealed – “Guinevere.”

Sirius (1974)
June 25, 2011, 11:01 pm
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Director: Frantisek Vlácil

Due to the political climate of the period, Frantisek Vlácil was restricted from making feature length films throughout much of the 1970s. In response, he completed a number of short films and, in the case of Sirius, a film intended for a younger audience. Frantisek, the young protagonist, has deified his Alsatian by naming him Sirius after the “Dog Star”, the brightest star visible from Earth. The metaphor serves as a means to articulate resurrection, suggesting that, while the star will disappear below the horizon in a few thousand years, it will one day return. Setting the picture during the Holocaust also reveals that this is more than a simple allegory about grief – one might refer to Sirius as a stand-in for the casualties of war, whose memory will not be lost in time. Frantisek’s father is captured by the Germans and, when the occupiers begin to round up the village dogs in order to train them as part of the Nazi patrol teams, Frantisek boards Sirius out of their sight. This material is hardly what one would consider to be child-friendly – despite the charming, almost telepathic connection that Frantisek has with his dog – but what makes the film so successful is Vlácil’s ability to use a childlike subjectivity in dealing with war. Frantisek is awe-struck and confused by his surroundings, only having a vague awareness about what is transpiring around him.