CineMathematics or CinemaThematics. Your choice

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


The Testament of Dr. Mabuse is the sort of film that deserves, if not a critical reappraisal (does anyone actually dislike it?), then at least a rediscovery. Fritz Lang's follow-up to M follows similar themes using similar techniques on a much grander scale. Though this is accurate, I'm afraid it will make Mabuse look like the Casino to M's Goodfellas. Mabuse is a masterpiece, every bit the equal of M. Lang refines his use of sound to make far greater statements than simply suggesting the presence of evil.

M was unique for presenting a number of undeveloped characters surrounding Peter Lorre's Hans Beckert. The only character we knew there was Becker, making him, a child murderer, the audience surrogate by the film's end. Mabuse works in a completely opposite manner, giving us numerous protagonists surrounding a barely developed central villain. We primarily follow Tom Kent (Gustav Diessl) and Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke, reprising his role from M) as the former works within Mabuse's criminal organization and the latter works to investigate why an informant (Karl Meixner) has gone insane. Tom eventually refuses to commit murder for the organization, leading to a direct conversation with Mabuse, literally the man behind the curtain. Here is where Lang's film goes from being a well-crafted thriller to flat out masterpiece.

This is the second film Lang made in the sound era, and it continues his fascination with the new technology. In M, Lang used sound, specifically a whistle of "In the Hall of the Mountain King", to signify the presence of a murderer we didn't even need to see to fear. In Mabuse, Lang uses sound to hide criminal activity we can see. The opening scene, which features the above mentioned police informant in a counterfeiting factory, is covered with the sound of machines running. As such, the action on screen is acted silently, both adding suspense and commenting on how simultaneously useful and useless this new technology really was. Similarly, a key moment in the film, the murder of a doctor who is about to reveal the true identity of the criminal mastermind, the henchmen sent to kill him use the sound of car horns to cover the sound of a gun. Sound here masks the evil in a reversal of Lang's tactics in M. But Lang saves his most potent commentary for the revelation of Mabuse. In fact, he plays with the techniques he developed in M to play tricks on the audience. In M, we know there is a murderer there without seeing him because of his whistle. There is no killer in Mabuse, only the whistle. The revelation is still shocking today, and it sets up an "anything goes" dynamic for the rest of the film.

Being an international film from the 30s does wonders for helping the tension of the ending. It is an international film, so the good doctor may yet get away, but it was made during a time we associate with moral uprightness, so the good guys might prevail. Were this made in Hollywood, we would have no doubt that the doctor would be vanquished and order restored to the world. If it were made today, the doctor would lord over the ending like Noah Cross. Its setting is perfect for its unpredictability, though the film hardly needs you to know its setting to be thrilling. Mabuse is the perfect sort of genre film: technically perfect, ambitious, and willing to play off of the viewers' expectations to make things more thrilling.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Sundae Monday Laughed So Hard It Cried

I did. Jon Stewart's opening monologue made me laugh so hard I cried. And hey. I was right about Elizabeth. The Lesson? If a movie exists solely as a fashion show, and it gets nominated for Best Costume Design, it will win.

Atonement: the movie that showed off the raw sensuality of Yom Kippur (I'm still chuckling)...


Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sick of the Oscars

Yeah, I said it. I'm not sick of the Oscars, merely the buzz that has consumed online media. I was going to post my predictions (the only really original idea I have is Elizabeth: The Golden Age for Best Costumes the same way Marie Antoinette won last year), but I simply got overwhelmed by this post at The House Next Door. So much to parse, so little new to be said. This past week has been nothing but build-up. With primary season hinging on March 4 and Oscar season ending tonight, nothing significant has happened recently (scratch that. Nader's in to screw over the Democrats once again!); speculation reigns with an iron fist. Of course I'll be watching the Oscars tonight (I don't live blog. There are enough of those already), but if you need me, you can find my attentions shifted to The Testament of Dr. Mabuse or Jia Zhang-Ke.


Monday, February 18, 2008

The Backlash to the Backlash to the Backlash

Juno is a difficult creature to approach, if only because so much has been written about it that it is impossible to go into it without some sort of predisposition. I make no pretenses about this: I went in with the attitude that I would find something to grapple with on an intellectual level. I decided beforehand that, no matter how it worked on an emotional level, I would find something positive to say about it on a more technical level. I came out with comparisons to Ken Loach and Alfred Hitchcock. Allow me to explain.

Juno is told squarely from the perspective of the titular protagonist. As such, the film matures as our heroine comes of age. The early scenes with Rainn Wilson's drug store clerk and Olivia Thirlby's Leah give way to scenes with more mature and less quippy characters like Jennifer Garner's Vanessa and JK Simmons' Mac. The beginning is deliberately off-putting as we become accustomed to this world. The quippy nature of the dialogue early in the film reminded me in a way of the beginning of Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley. At the beginning of Barley, the characters speak with very thick Irish accents. In fact, the accents were so thick that I had trouble understanding what the characters were saying. As the film progressed, however, the accents faded towards more generic British accents, as the contested area of Northern Ireland became more British and less Irish. In both cases, the dialogue is deliberately off-putting as we enter a world that we are initially unfamiliar with. As the films progress, we become more accustomed to this world, but the situations also move closer to what we consider normal. In this way, Diablo Cody's annoyingly quirky dialogue fades to serious discussion of the pregnancy as Juno slowly grows out of her hipster persona.

Juno doesn't completely grow out of the persona, probably because she is surrounded by people who are or were hipsters. In Hitchcock's Rear Window, L.B. Jeffries and Lisa Fremont look out their window and see various images of themselves in the present and future. There are the newlyweds who barely leave the house, the social bachelor and his flirtatious female counterpart, the old maid, and the unhappily married Thorwalds. Each of these images play as potential situations for Jeff and Lisa to follow in their relationship. Similarly, Juno is faced with a number of options as a maturing hipster. Rainn Wilson's character of the drug store clerk is the defiant hipster. He won't sell out to The Man, and he quips just as much, if not more, than Juno. If Juno wants to stay just as she is, she will become the clerk, immature but more clever than everyone else. But nobody wants that.

Juno's dad, as played by JK Simmons, is a more ideal possibility. You can just tell by listening to him that Juno inherited her smart mouth from him. The nicknames he gives to his daughters (June Bug and Liberty Bell) show a spark that has, for the most part, faded into civil domestic life. He has given up parts of his hipsterdom, and in return he has a happy marriage of over a decade and a nice suburban family. He chooses his own road, but he knows how the game must be played.

Mark, as played by Jason Bateman, is a hipster posing as a normal guy. He's unhappily married to a yuppie, though he maintains his independence through his Herschel Gordon Lewis VHS tapes and his guitars. Though he originally finds himself happy in his marriage, Juno awakes his inner hipster, and he suddenly wants out. The film views the character turn negatively, as we find ourselves aligned with Juno is asking "Why are you doing this, you douche?" He is ultimately just another selfish hipster who is afraid of responsibility. He remains a possibility for Juno's future, even as Juno decides she doesn't want anything to do with him.

The most interesting possibility comes from Vanessa. The only reason I consider her in this is because of the first scene where we see her without Juno. As Vanessa and Mark decide on the color of the baby's room, we see Vanessa wearing a vintage Alice in Chains tee shirt. Though this could suggest any number of things, such as that she has raided Mark's closet for useless clothes while she paints, I would like to believe that this hints at a more lively past than we would otherwise envision for Vanessa. She, like the drug store clerk, is a negative possibility in the other direction. She is a former hipster who moved to the opposite side of the field when she decided that the hipster life wasn't for her. Though she eventually warms to Juno (or do we just warm to her?), she maintains that yuppie sensibility that plays as the exact opposite of Mark's hipsterism.

Juno is surrounded by these possibilities. By connecting with Paulie Bleeker, she seems to grow up and choose the same path as her father before her. But she's not completely grown up, and neither is the film. The romantic duet of "Anyone Else But You" is a more mature gesture than Juno would have made at the beginning of the film, but she is still singing a hipster indie song with Paulie. And just to remind us, in a very Hitchcock way, Jason Reitman gives us the track team running through the final scene. Continually used as a punchline, the track team is one of the most distinctively hipster elements of the film, as we are meant to scoff at their ridiculous uniforms. By inserting them into the final shot, Reitman reminds the viewer that though our heroine has matured, the rest of the world isn't quite as mature.

Juno didn't really connect with me. I found the strings trying to pull on my heartstrings too visible. Is it one of the best of the year? Not in a year when the sublime The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford gets little recognition. However, as teen romantic comedies go, this one has a lot more to it than the quips. It's a film easier to appreciate than really like, if only more people could appreciate its depth.

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Monday, February 11, 2008

Butterknife Monday: Key Witness

This week featured a very different episode of Butterknife than we're used to. This is the first we hear of Ronald's job as a profession for which he is paid, this is the first we see of any contact outside of his wife and his job, and this is the first time we have a scene featuring Mary without Ronald. Each of these makes for interesting viewing, yet it's Mary getting stuck under the bed that resonates. In fact, both segments which revolve around Ronald's non-professional life are more directly relatable than those of previous episodes. Who hasn't felt silently judged when reading in public? Maybe only the neurotics. Mary getting stuck under the bed is the funniest scene yet produced for the series, and the image of Ronald and Mary's feet hanging over the bed is a wonderful image to close the episode.

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Saturday, February 09, 2008

I've Abandoned My Boy

I was surprised to find that the following clip is online. It contains easily the best acting of 2007, and it is the reason that Daniel Day-Lewis should win the Oscar. This scene, which also perfectly sets up the finale of There Will Be Blood, reveals a great deal about Daniel Plainview and his personality. We watch as he at first resists his conversion, then accepts it in the hopes that it will be over soon. He reacts with anger to Eli as he shouts "I've abandoned my son," and he seems like he might cry as he wails "I've abandoned my boy." These emotions are able to present themselves simultaneously in Day-Lewis' performance. Even in the moments before, when Bandy holds out Plainview's flask, his look shows hatred for the bottle that has put him in this situation and yearning to escape via that same bottle. This isn't the showy acting that so many complain about at the end of There Will Be Blood. This is solid lived-in acting, the sort that deserves awards but usually doesn't win them. Of course, Plainview gets the last word in this scene with his hilarious "Yes I do." This is a marvel of acting.

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Monday, February 04, 2008

Butterknife Monday: Sicilian Style

This week's episode of Butterknife, "Sicilian Style" is a great improvement over last week's "Plastic Hassle". The episode begins with Ronald getting someone's address, and his cleverness proves a nice counterbalance to the inanity of last week's set-up. I can only hope that as the series progresses, an overarching plot can develop. Though the time we spend with Ronald and Mary is certainly captivating, it would be nice to tie Ronald's professional life with a purpose. It's interesting to see how Joe Swanberg and company show the minutiae of his job without any real purpose, but it feels aimless at this point. If we maybe saw someone who hires Ronald or if we get a real sense that his job has a point, then the series would become must see material. As it is, the show's improving, but it still has some way to go.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

Color Me Beautiful

This is a contribution to the Deeply Superficial Blog-A-Thon over at South Dakota Dark. If you have little to no interest in anything deep concerning your media, head over there. It's so much fun to be shallow!

It's one of the eternal questions for any good movie watcher. Color or black and white? Orson Welles once said that black and white is an actor's best friend, and after thinking about it for a while, I agreed. An actor in a black and white movie just looks better than an actor in a color movie. Look at Ingrid Bergman:

Can you even make a comparison there? Faces are what Hollywood was built on. In Norma Desmond's day, they didn't need dialogue. They had faces! Can you name me one actor who looks better in color than black and white? (Well, besides Paul Newman. Those blue eyes are dreamy...) Where are the indelible faces of the color era? No, color has the landscapes. Just think of John Wayne in Stagecoach and The Searchers. Take a look at these examples:

Both of these scenes show the introduction of John Wayne's character, and he dominates both scenes. However, you can't help but wonder at the Ringo Kid's face in Stagecoach. And The Searchers? His face isn't nearly as striking. But that doesn't mean color has no advantages.

Color allows for the beauty of the world around us. It can be used to surreal effect as in this scene from Vertigo:

It's hauntingly beautiful. Color can also lend atmosphere to a period piece, such as in Once Upon a Time in America:

It's as if we're watching an old photograph tell its story. And then of course there's this:

That you just can't get from a black and white film.

So what say you? Color or Black and White? Faces or everything around them? What's your preference?

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