For Reel

Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007)
November 1, 2015, 11:02 pm
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Director: Kent Jones
3.5 Stars
Val Lewton The Man in the ShadowsThis Turner Classic Movies production is the better of the two documentaries included in the Val Lewton DVD box set, with director/writer Kent Jones accomplishing a more poetic, mysterious approach to the life of the famed horror producer. As the title suggests, Lewton was not one who thrived in the spotlight–he was an intensely private man whose second home was the ocean, the vast emptiness where he would spend his weekends on a yacht with family or close friends. In reflecting on the inherent unknowability of a long-dead man of whom there is little personal record, Jones wisely cuts to a haunting clip of the mute sailor from The Ghost Ship. Much of the documentary has similarly psychoanalytical interests. Lewton’s relationship with women in his early childhood (he was raised by his mother and sister) is discussed as informing his female characters, as well as his own depression and lack of self esteem contributing to his journeys into the dark, where death remains a simultaneously horrifying and somehow intoxicating unknown. These tangential observations are interesting, but the film’s real value is the historical contextualization–there is a remark early on, for example, that Lewton could make B-movies look so professional because he had the benefit of having access to sets like those of The Magnificent Ambersons (as used in Cat People).

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)
July 24, 2012, 1:12 am
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Director: Seth Gordon

When Steve Wiebe, an average family man from Washington state, tells his daughter that he intends to earn his spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the high score in Donkey Kong, she dryly responds, “Some people sort of ruin their lives to be in there.” Many who watch The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters will have a similar reaction – that the obsession that these men have with gaming is a severe personality disorder. What the picture does so remarkably well, however, is introduce audiences to an undiscovered niche world with great affection. Gordon seems to take a genuine interest not only in the people, but in what the people are interested in – the amount of dedication and skill that it takes to perform on this level is admirable, even if the ultimate goal seems trivial. Several people who appear in the film, most notably Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies (the foundation which documents high scores from gamers within the United States), have suggested that director Seth Gordon took severe liberties with the story, which any engaged viewer should immediately suppose. It’s all remarkably convenient – a tidy story involving the lovable underdog and the dastardly villain who refuses to even look him in the eye. Yet, even if one is aware that they’re being manipulated, it proves to be utterly irresistible entertainment, as thrilling as any of the genre pictures released by major Hollywood studios today.

American Gangster (2007)
May 27, 2011, 9:10 pm
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Director: Ridley Scott

The character of Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, is suggested to be a blue-collar family man. Shortly after first hitting it big in the world of drug trafficking, his response is to purchase a mansion to house his extended family, perhaps in an effort to exert his dominance as a patriarch. Though not without it’s faults, this particular interpretation of the gangster myth seems inspiringly conceived – whereas the classic gangsters, as well as later incarnations such as Tony Montana of Scarface, pride themselves on personal, individualistic power, Lucas is a gangster who seems to pervert the idea of what it is to be a man and, more specifically, a father. His juxtaposition with Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe as an absent father whose obsession with work has led him to temporarily abandon his family, creates an interesting dichotomy that questions their comparative morality.

Eastern Promises (2007)
May 25, 2011, 4:50 am
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Director: David Cronenberg

In his two latest pictures – A History of Violence and Eastern Promises – many have suggested that Cronenberg has completely reinvented himself. What is particularly fascinating about both of the films upon further study, however, is in examining just how fitting they are within his oeuvre when considering several of his defining interests. For example, Cronenberg’s history with sexual imagery manifests itself in the sex sequences of A History of Violence, and similarly one can see his fondness for bodily horror in the famous sauna sequence of Eastern Promises. Sexuality, too, plays a big role in the latter film, but not necessarily between Watts and Mortensen. A basic reading of the film might suggest that Vincent Cassell’s character is a closeted homosexual, and homoeroticism is also present in the ritual tattooing sequence. Though homosexuality is addressed in the film as being unacceptable within the Russian gang, ironically it appears as though that the gang’s bonds directly involve their celebration and uniting of naked flesh.