Category: 1993


Blue1

Life is as much defined by loss as it is by growth and experience. We lose relationships, our youth, our hair, and, if we get old enough, our memories which are the very nature of our existence begin to fade. Learning to deal with these losses is a defining element of the life experience, and the most successful lives are charted by facing these troubles and persevering. But there are the losses that we can move past: losing a girlfriend, the death of an elderly parent, getting fired from a job; and then there are the losses that create black holes at the center of our very being. The emptiness consumes our entirety and we are broken possibly for the rest of our lives. No film has explored that type of loss with such raw precision as 1993’s Blue from Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski as part of his French “Three Colors” trilogy.

There are few fears more intense than the death of a child. Even for the childless, the safety and well-being of children is paramount, and when children die of cancer or in school shootings or at the hands of a serial predator, it sparks our deepest existential fears. If children, particularly those too young to yet be corrupted by the world, can suffer the pains and cruelties of this world, then the idea of a benign and caring creator seems laughably unlikely. And if you lose both your child and your husband at once, what reason could you have for continuing in a world intent on taking those things which matter above all else? By the end of Blue, it’s impossible to avoid that question ever again.

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Wittgenstein1

To appropriate the right visual aid for reading this review, some quick stage directions are in order. Imagine me on a darkened stage. I vacillate between older and younger versions of myself seemingly at random and my outfit changes from period appropriate dress to garish, brightly colored costumes. Occasionally, I shall be joined by a martian with a xylophone. The stage props shall be bare yet ever-changing. And you shall see me slowly shaking my head back and forth as I try to make sense of the highly experimental film, Wittgenstein, from queer cinema icon Derek Jarman which explores the life of the titular Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. If you are able to keep these images in mind as you read this review, you may perhaps have a sense of where I’m coming from although methinks that I write in vain.

Every once in a great blue moon, a truly experimental and/or art-house film comes along and reminds me how much I take most cinematic conventions for granted. Whether it’s the works of Luis Buñuel or Todd Haynes (ooh boy. Poison was a weird ass movie) or David Lynch (Eraserhead, I’m looking at you), certain directors love to give a giant middle finger to the established norms by which films are made. I was not familiar with the ouevre of Derek Jarman before this film (just his standing in queer cinema circles), but if Wittgenstein is any indication, Jarman springs from the same mold of these innovative and visually minded filmmakers. Wittgenstein is lacking in anything resembling a plot and it’s inherent assumptions that viewers are intimately aware of all aspects of Wittgenstein’s philosophy and life can make it hard to follow, but the film establishes Jarman as an aesthetically blessed artiste if not the greatest storyteller.

Wittgenstein2

For those not familiar with Ludwig Wittgenstein (and let’s face it, unless you’re a philosophically minded intellectual, you probably aren’t), Wittgenstein is arguably the most important philosopher of the twentieth century. His work on the philosophy of science and linguistics is probably the most important thing to happen to philosophy since Immanuel Kant and Hegel (although apparently Wittgenstein hated Hegel [so do I]). And Wittgenstein is Jarman’s wryly comic look at Wittgenstein’s life. This ranges from his childhood in one of the richest families in all of Europe as a child prodigy to his adult years where he gave away his entire inheritance and became one of the most celebrated philosophers of his day. A homosexual, Wittgenstein was plagued with personal turmoil his whole life and a crippling sense of self-doubt which Jarman also explores.

I went on that whole opening rant about how to envision the review for this film because that is more or less how Jarman structures the movie. And Jarman’s visual style is without question the most interesting aspect of the film. Wittgenstein is set up like a stage play. The actors perform against stark black backgrounds in tight confines. The sets are often no more than one or two probs and the actors (except for adult Wittgenstein) tread around in bright, anachronistic costumes. In one scene, Wittgenstein (Karl Johnson) and John Maynard Keynes walk back and forth in the rain to simulate a far longer walk to maintain the theatrical illusions. The only difference between the film and a stage play is that a stage play could not handle the rapid cuts and set changes that Wittgenstein so seamlessly integrates. And although I still have absolutely no idea what the fuck the martian was about, Wittgenstein never failed to impress aesthetically.

Wittgenstein3

Do not take my enjoyment of this film as an endorsement that the rest of my readers will like this movie. Although I appreciated the film’s visual style, I was still often at a loss for what was actually happening, and except for the moments that dealt with Wittgenstein’s and Keynes’ homosexuality, the film rarely made an emotional impact. It felt as cold and detached as Wittgenstein himself often was (the man likely had an undiagnosed form of Aspergers). Still, for fans of queer cinema as well as the most outre realms of art-house cinema, Wittgenstein is deserving of a watch. You may find yourself at a loss for the film’s goals or even its central tenets, but it’s fervent visual inspiration and those moments where Wittgenstein actually discusses philosophy make it an intellectually rewarding trip through art, madness, and brilliance.

Final Score: B

Directors that are clearly associated with one genre of film run risks when they stray too far from their wheelhouse. Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers are second to none but his non-genre pictures are less-beloved. If you want to see a lavishly constructed period drama, the Merchant-Ivory films are among the most beloved of that field, but you’d never want them to make a science fiction film (although as I think about it, that would be very interesting). How many times have you heard people complain that Woody Allen should go back to making funny movies instead of the more serious films of his later period? Martin Scorsese ranks as one of Hollywood’s greatest crime drama directors, and his decision to gamble on the lush, romantic period drama The Age of Innocence may seem odd, but Scorsese finds yet another success with this highly erotic and visually stunning tragic love story.

Scorsese has called The Age of Innocence his most violent film. And he doesn’t mean that in a physical sense of the term. So many of Scorsese’s protagonists are men struggling against their place in society whether it’s an overt religious/sexual conflict (Raging Bull), a struggle against both ethnic identity as well as criminal law (Goodfellas), or a total rebellion against society’s mores and conventions due to mental illness (Taxi Driver). With The Age of Innocence, Scorsese tackles the total destruction of one man’s soul through the machinations of turn of the century American class politics and the tragic denial of one’s true love. Where Scorsese’s crime films featured a visceral, physical display of violence, The Age of Innocence takes a journey into the mind for a cerebral and spiritual examination of one man’s continual degradation of spirit.

In the upper crust of New York society in the 1870s, Archer Newland (Daniel Day-Lewis) is forced to choose between the woman society has chosen for him and the women he truly loves. The film begins with Archer’s engagement to the well-bred but ultimately vapid May Welland (Winona Ryder) whose well-to-do family is among Manhattan’s most respected. Archer loves her in his own way — or at least he thinks he does —  but their long engagement is thrown for a loop with the arrival of May’s exotic and scandalous cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer). Contemplating a divorce from her European (and likely abusive) husband, Countess Olenska’s willfulness and directness send shockwaves through the stiff, reserved society of Newland and his peers. It isn’t long before Newland develops a friendship and ultimately a type of romance with the Countess that threatens to shatter his place among the elites of society.

That shallow description of the plot only begins to hint at the larger social and political commentaries inherent in Edith Wharton’s novel which the film is based on. Ostensibly the film is about Archer Newland’s psychic conflict as he is forced to choose what is socially acceptable and what he really wants. Does he want passion or stability, love or a place in society? Yet, the film is as concerned with the class snobbery and hypocrisy from the Manhattan upper crust as it is Archer’s tragic love story. In fact, this may be one of the most ironic period dramas I’ve ever seen in so far as Martin Scorsese’s eye for period detail and almost absurdly lavish costumes and sets is a visual feast for the senses while he constantly subverts those images by reminding the audience of the hollowness beneath all of the glitz and glamour.

What ultimately elevates the film even above its source material (or perhaps I should say its story as I’ve never actually read Wharton’s novel) is Scorsese’s unerring directorial eye. Similarly to his unconventional children’s film Hugo, The Age of Innocence is as much a visual ode to its cinematic predecessors as it is a story-driven film in its own right. Through clever use of older fashioned film stock, lens filters, and a vibrant color palette that reminds you why color films were invented in the first place, Scorsese’s cinematography is a immaculate recreation of the Merchant-Ivory period films and the David Lean epics with a healthy dose of the more modern shooting styles that Scorsese himself helped to innovate in the 70s. I spent more time in this film taking in the constantly shifting but always gorgeous cinematography as I did paying attention the characters and performances.

That isn’t to dismiss the performances. As always, Daniel Day-Lewis shows why he is arguably the greatest actor of his generation even though this isn’t one of his most challenging roles. It’s simply the wide range of roles that Day-Lewis can inhabit with such seeming ease. Compare his quiet and sensitive Archer Newland in this film to the rough and barbaric Bill “The Butcher” in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York — my second favorite Scorsese film — or his cold and scheming oil baron in There Will Be Blood or his other Oscar winning role as the disabled Christy Brown in My Left Foot. He falls in so easily as the wounded and trapped Archer Newland that he’s one of those rare actors who completely morphs into all of his performances. Daniel Day-Lewis is one of the world’s most famous and talented actors, but in his films, you think of him as his roles not Daniel Day-Lewis. The Age of Innocence is no exceptions.

The performances from the female leads are less resounding. Michelle Pfeiffer was surprisingly well-cast as the sultry and seductive Countess Olenska. Her sexual chemistry with Daniel Day-Lewis was electric and you’ve never seen a woman sell her glove being removed as being so astoundingly erotic. You see both the intellectual and personal strength that Archer finds so attractive in her as well as the hurt she feels by the cruelness New York society inflicts on her. Winona Ryder on the other hand is a bit of a travesty. She was nominated for an Oscar and I simply can’t comprehend it. I’m a fan of her other performances, but she makes May seem so dim-witted and emotionless that you can’t generate any sympathy for a woman who is ultimately suffering as much as Archer. It’s an emotionally complex and nuanced role, and Winona Ryder simply lacked the subtlety to bring it home.

For fans of period dramas, you may need no other recommendation than the film’s sublime attention to detail. The costumes are beautiful. The homes are like something from an interior decorators happiest dreams, and there are enough mouth-watering feasts to feed a third world nation. However, what makes a great period drama aren’t the period details. It’s the characters and the story (and in this film’s case, the stunning direction), and The Age of Innocence simply delivers on all fronts. Perhaps the film can feel a little slow by Scorsese standards, and I could make a decent argument that at least 10 or 15 minutes could have been cut from the film, but The Age of Innocence just solidifies Scorsese as one of America’s cinematic treasures by his almost peerless ability to work in seemingly incompatible genres.

Final Score: A-

Just last week, I watched the achingly beautiful and meditative Wings of Desire, a 1987 German film by director Wim Wenders for which he won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival. As the story of an immortal angel who turns down his eternity old mission to silently observe and record the human experience to be a mortal and know what it means to be a man and love, it was an artistically ambitious and visually striking ode to the beauty and transitory nature of life. As soon as I discovered that Wenders released a sequel six years later, I immediately put it on my Netflix queue and moved it to the very top because of how much I loved the original film. That’s why I’m sad to report that while 1993’s Faraway, So Close! is a gorgeous and uplifting film in its own right, it comes nowhere close to capturing the spiritual magic of Wings of Desire. By embracing a more conventional and accessible plot structure, Wenders loses the postmodernist magic of his original film and instead tells a story that is perhaps a little too simplistic and earnest in its idealism.

It’s been six years since Damiel (Bruno Ganz), the protagonist of Wings of Desire, gave up his status as an angel to be a man and to be with the lovely trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin). They have a young daughter and Marion has found professional success with a circus troupe while Damiel has fully integrated into human life running his own pizza shop. His closest “friend” as an angel, Cassiel (Otto Sander),  has spent the intervening years upholding his post as a recorder of human life and to bring people small comfort in their most distressing moments. He’s even found a replacement for his personal counsel in the female angel Raphaela (Tess‘s Nastassja Kinski). Cassiel finds himself longing for the same kind of human existence that Damiel has and bemoans his inability to reach out and make a true impact in the lives of the people he silently observes every day. When one of the girls that he watches nearly falls to hear death, Cassiel sacrifices his angelhood to save her life though his transition into this mortal coil is far less simple and pleasant than Damiel when a mysterious supernatural agent (Willem Dafoe) does his best to shape the course of Cassiel’s new life, and not for the better.

The most remarkable part of the film was Otto Sander’s performance as Cassiel (and later, his human persona of Karl Engel). Well, the best part is still the black-and-white photography but a considerably larger portion of this film was shot in color than in Wings of Desire so it didn’t have the same total effect this time around. Cassiel’s character arc is about as tragic as you can imagine, and Otto Sanders really sells Cassiel’s transformation from an innocent and naive newborn essentially to a more hardened and cynical person in a pretty heartbreaking way. There are plenty of scenes which find Cassiel raging against the forces of fate that landed him in this situation and why he can’t do the same good as other men, and Sander was fare more effective in this film than he was Wings of Desire (even if the latter was a much better film). Bruno Ganz doesn’t have much screen time in this though he certainly makes the most of what he has yet again. Willem Dafoe is as creepy and unsettling as he always is although I’m still not entirely sure what his character was supposed to be. Maybe the Angel of Death. I really just don’t have a certain answer. Mikhail Gorbachev (yes, the former premier of the Soviet Union) had a small cameo. So, Wim Wenders obviously had some serious pull back in the day for casting.

Despite its artistic ambitions, one of the reasons that Wings of Desire succeeded so completely was in its childlike simplicity. It’s not simplicity in structure or philosophical potency, but a simplicity of plot and narrative. By abandoning any honest notion of plot, Wings of Desire was able to focus solely on placing the audience in the emotional and psychological state of these immortal beings who are forced to watch humanity as distant voyeurs rather than true participants. It examined the beauty in the smaller moments of life by showing us the dullness of eternity and passive observation. Faraway, So Close! attempts to tell an actual plot and in the process, it sacrifices the symbolic power of the image and the engagement of meditative contemplation. Others may appreciate the more plot-driven nature of this film, but ultimately, it overreaches itself and fails to reach any of the emotional and spiritual heights of the original film because it becomes slightly too self-righteous and starry-eyed. While I consider Wings of Desire to be one of the more uplifting films I’ve watched for this blog, I also thought it had  a seriously commendable subversive streak. Faraway, So Close! lacks any of the edge of its predecessor, even though this film shows the occasional flash of a disheartened pessimism.

It’s perhaps unfair to compare this film so much to the original since it’s very clear that Wim Wenders was trying to craft a very different story thematically and visually, but since it’s still a direct sequel, I think the comparison has to be made, and in the end Faraway, So Close! simply doesn’t fit in the same league of daring and adventurous film-making as Wings of Desire. Had Wings of Desire not existed and I was able to look at this film in a context-free vacuum, perhaps its score would be a little higher, but knowing exactly what Wim Wenders is capable of makes me more than a little disappointed in this particular entry in his film library. While I can’t recommend this film with as much enthusiasm as its predecessor, it may still hold plenty of interest for fans of foreign cinema, and if you’re somehow reading this post without having seen Wings of Desire, you should drop whatever you’re doing and watch it. It’s probably the best movie I’ve watched since The Tree of Life a couple months ago.

Final Score: B

Dazed and Confused

The 1970’s hold a special place in my heart (despite the fact that I wouldn’t be born until the tail end of the ’80’s). They replaced the violence and upheaval and craziness of the ’60’s, but at the same time, it was still a time of innovation and discovery before the commercialization and corruption of the Reagan decade. There was still great music. There were great movies. The world was, perhaps a more innocent place. Maybe that is why the classic teen comedy Dazed and Confused is both quintessentially 1970’s in its production, design, soundtrack, and fashion, and yet, it still remains a film that is timeless today as it was when it was released in 1993. Along with the TV show Freaks and Geeks, Dazed and Confused stands as one of the truest and best portrayals of what it is like to be an American teenager growing up in this nation and how little that it has changed over the last thirty years.

The movie is about the last day of high school before summer starts, and it follows the lives of a fairly large and diverse group of teenagers through this day. You’ve got star quarterback Randall “Pink” Floyd, who is being pressured to sign a pledge by his coach saying he won’t smoke weed or do anything else illegal during his summer. There’s Tony and Mike, a pair of nerds who are disaffected and intellectual and have high-brow conversations the whole film, along with their friend Cynthia. They drive around looking down on the activities of the others, like smoking weed or drinking. There’s Mitch Kramer and his posse of 8th graders who are soon to be freshmen who’s only goal for the day is to not get their ass beat by the incoming seniors as part of the annual hazing ritual. There’s Slater who is the archetypal stoner. There’s Bannion, the repeat senior who is a complete dick. And who can forget Wooderson, the man who graduated a long time ago but still hangs out with the high school kids.

If you went to high school and you don’t recognize at least a couple of kids that you knew growing up from the large cast of the film, then you just didn’t go to high school, or you spent all your time at home not interacting with any other human beings. And much like my high school experience, the kids in this film aren’t cliquish or assholes (with some exceptions). They’re pretty chill people who like to have a good time. They smoke some weed. They drink some beer. They party. They have sex. They do the shit that teenagers do. But at the same time, it’s not done in an over-the-top way like certain franchises such as American Pie. It’s understated and grounded in the sort of shenanigans you can remember you and your friends getting into back in the day.

The film’s story telling and sense of time and place is fantastic but what keeps it held together is the fantastic ensemble cast that is brought together here. Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, Matthew McConnaughey, Adam Goldberg, Milla Jovivich, Jason London. They’re all fantastic. Special props have to be given to McConnaughey and London however. McConnaughey steals every single scene that he’s in as Wooderson and gets some of the best one-liners in the whole movie. It’s really a shame that he can’t be this awesome in his other roles instead of such a tool. and Jason London plays Randall “Pink” Floyd great as well. The conflict between his responsibility as a quarterback and his desire to be a kid and have fun and do the shit that he likes to do without being controlled by some distant authority figure is a complicated role and he nails it well.

I could talk about this movie all day. I never even got to talk about how amazing its soundtrack is. Just a fantastic collection of 70’s rock and roll that will not let you down. But this blog is running kind of long at this point, so I should bring this to a close. Needless to say, this is one of my all time favorite movies. I’ve met one person in my entire life who didn’t like this film. There’s really no one that I can’t think of who wouldn’t walk away from this film and not love it. If for some reason, you have not seen this movie, you need to check it out right now. It will take you right back to high school and to the good parts of it, not the terrible parts that you’re trying to repress.

Final Score: A