Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wilder Things

I liked DVD just fine, but boy do I loooooove Blu-ray. And the just-released Masters of Cinema editions of two bona fide Billy Wilder classics, Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, are great examples of why. Indemnity in particular is afforded a transfer that can only be described as "revelatory," finding immense detail in the shadows, and in its own small way, redefining film noir. Yeah, it might be terribly naval-gaze-y (or the result of a few too many brain cells burned off by my HDTV), but the manner in which a transfer is handled does legitimately contribute to film history. In this case, MoC's Double Indemnity edition reminds us that film noir is not about the deep, pitch-black shadows and high-contrast we sometimes associate with it, but rather the mission to plumb the darkest corners of the human soul. So there.

The Lost Weekend isn't quite as strong, pitching the contrast noticeably higher, but there's something about the wild, uncontrollable, pitch-black shadows that's pretty damn compelling itself. Needless to say (or perhaps not), both films are truly great pieces of drama, diligently scripted and emotionally taught, and are worth putting on your shelf if you're able to play Region B Blu-rays. MoC got ahold of some great supplements, and The Lost Weekend is almost worth purchasing just for the three-hour 1992 documentary that goes film-by-film through Wilder's entire career with the man himself. Of particular note, besides his considerable insight into his own career and the industry, is that Wilder speaks mostly German, peppered with English when it better suits his point. Pretty freaking cool if you ask me.

Beyond the fact that they were Wilder's third (Indemnity) and fourth (Weekend) American films, they're great companion pieces in a sort of exo-cinematic way as well - t'was Wilder's collaboration with the alcoholic writer Raymond Chandler on the former that inspired him to tackle the story of alcoholic writer Don Birnam in the latter. They also, IMHO as the kids say, represent the best of Wilder's intentions in his darker, more cynical period as a young filmmaker. Which is not to say they're the best of those films, and certainly not the best of Wilder. What I mean is that these two focused his total lack of faith in the human condition on humans rather than institutions (as in Ace in the Hole's journalism industry or Sunset Boulevard's Hollywood, and the overall dismissal of the mass entertainment that he just happened to master along the way). There's a humanist integrity sometimes missing from his middle-period works that make Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend at once much smaller, yet quietly deeper.

Anyway, I reviewed both discs at CriterionCast, a wonderful website you should be visiting every single day. Twice on Sundays. Or, hell, twice today, why not.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Raise Your Bass - Titles, Cartoons, Short Films, and the Original Ending of Phase IV

I take every possible opportunity to extol the virtues of Cinefamily here in Los Angeles. Operating from the Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax, they remain the one place in town where you can regularly (that is to say, monthly) see a silent movie on the big screen, but they also go way beyond not only the description given by their venue, but also any description you could find for a contemporary cinematheque. This past month alone, one could wander in and see everything from Bela Tarr's magnum opus Satantango to The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai to Celine and Julie Go Boating to Beyond the Black Rainbow to whatever Hamburger: The Motion Picture is. Never mind their live shows, potlucks, barbecues, and other add-ons designed to draw the community together. But they really outdid themselves this past weekend with a program titled Saul Bass on Film, a two-night retrospective of the famous title designer's work across film (short and feature-length), industrial films, commercials, logos, and cartoons.

Prior to this weekend, I only knew Bass from his famous work on title sequences. It was fitting, then, to start out with the short lecture documentary Bass on Titles, which goes through some of the more notable ones and the inspiration therefor. This was playing as we entered the theater, so my attention wasn't exactly firmly engaged, but it provided a great recap of his range of influence, experience, and expression. Highlights included West Side Story, Grand Prix, Psycho, VertigoThe Man with the Golden Arm, and more.

From there, we were off to the races, drinking in a breadth of cinema that was quite striking, unexpected, and, most of all, inventive. His commercials of the era, mostly for beer, seem like they'd be right at home in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Price, with one detailing the sort of existential despair of office life in a city, making the daily routine of one worker into something as once noble and tragic (though he can always rely on a bottle of National!).

Bass had an extensive career in logo design, creating some so iconic they're still instantly recognizable. In a nearly half-hour piece, Bass detailed the creation of the new face of AT&T (then still known as Bell System), going through every possible permutation of the concept for their new logo until they arrived at something sleek, simple, and instantly recognizable. It's a rather impressive process, one which loses a bit of steam in retrospect when they extol the virtues of stripes (noting that they denote something modern and efficient!), which were ubiquitous on their company vehicles and other surrounding property.

Cinefamily Executive Director Hadrian Belove, our host for the evening, introduced the short The Searching Eye by noting it was made for the 1964-65 World's Fair, and financed by Kodak with the intention of showing off their camera technology. It features a young boy moving about the world, discovering some basic facts of the world. The film was shot in a combination of 35mm and 70mm, and whenever the camera turned to what the boy was seeing - usually some form of wildlife - the film would blow up to 70mm. Even on 16mm, it was a pretty cool little movie, but I can't imagine how astounding it must have been to see it as it was intended. It points to an important current running throughout the films we saw this weekend, which is the belief that humanity is essentially positive, and progress essentially a noble movement in human evolution.

The headliners for the night, if we knew what we were in for, were easily Notes on the Popular Arts and Why Man Creates. I'll attempt to account for the totality of the latter in a second, but the former did a fine job of dispatching with the current obsession with meta/deconstructive narratives that so proliferate modern culture. It illustrated how various mediums provide and encourage escapism, or the habit of removing oneself from the tedium of everyday life and traveling into the adventures of your favorite protagonists. So the kid who can't master his violin lessons becomes a superhero whose dissonant music foils a bank robbery. A woman unable to assert herself over an uncooperative receptionist imagines a version of herself who saves a political leader's life in surgery, thus preventing revolution, and moving right into a dramatic courtroom speech that exonerates her client and targets the real criminal. And so forth. Bass' sense of humor really came out here, finding a way to both mock and endear us to his characters, while still capturing the magic of art, the way it lifts us out of our lives, even if it's just cheap fantasy.

Now...Why Man Creates is certainly an ambitious title. Doubly so for a half-hour film. And yet, mixing live action with animation (sometimes in the same frame), it's as close to a satisfying exploration of the topic as I can imagine. It's divided into eight sections, the first of which, "The Edifice," provides a very cursory, animated summation of man's creative - both industrial, artistic, societal, and political - accomplishments since pretty much our beginnings, culminating with what Bass depicts as an overwhelming, crushing confluence of creativity and industry. And this was only 1968! What would he have thought today?

From there, he ruminates on the very conception of creativity and how it is received by the public. He asserts that no creator has total control over the end product. Outside influences, be they tangible (materials, funding, etc.) or ethereal (every artist knows the piece itself has a say on its final form), will always determine the piece as much as the artist. He doesn't express a great deal of faith in the public, as they look on at an unknown accomplishment with skepticism, disbelief, hatred, and mockery, except for one or two people who dare to say "I don't know, there might be something there." Through ping pong balls, of all things, he illustrates how those who stand out and are willing to take the greatest chances are cast out, then approached curiously, and finally revered.

He takes a momentary digression to two snails, one of whom asks, "Have you ever thought that radical ideas threaten institutions, then become institutions, and in turn reject radical ideas which threaten institutions?" The other snail replies, "no," and the first one shrugs (insofar as snails can shrug) and say, "Huh, for a minute there I thought I was onto something."

The penultimate section visits the offices of three researchers, one looking into a solution to the world hunger problem, another into a cure for cancer, and the third into the origins of the universe. The first thing a modern audience realizes is that these are still well beyond our grasp, which is especially heartbreaking given each man's assertion that they're a few years away from a solution. But Bass really cuts to the core of these sort of fields, which involve years of intense exploration into a particular hypothesis that can come up totally empty, epitomized as he follows one man whose seven years on one area came to a total dead end. It's a quietly heartbreaking note to (nearly) end on.

His final answer to the titular question isn't one I'll give away here, not because I feel particularly precious for having seen it, but rather because you have to kind of go through the whole thing for it to have the appropriate impact, and also because it's blindingly obvious. Its clarity, however, makes it no less true or profound. Even at thirty minutes, it made a pretty deep impact on me in its investigation at this inherent driving force within humanity, and how, even when it tears us down, it gradually lifts us up. If only by the sheer fact of its existence.

Prior to Why Man Creates, we were also treated a short cartoon that Bass designed for Stan Freberg. You can see it in its entirety below:

And prior to that, Belove sat down with with title designer Pablo Ferro (probably best known for working with Stanley Kubrick on the titles for Dr. Strangelove and the trailer for A Clockwork Orange, and for accomplishing the split-screens in The Thomas Crown Affair) and Bass's assistant editor for his titling work in the 1960s, Michael Lonzo for an extensive chat about all things graphic design. Lonzo was especially eager to discuss his working relationship with Bass, going into everything from his first interview for an office assistant position (which Bass conducted personally) to his unusual hours (Bass once scheduled him for a fifteen-minute meeting at the office at 3:30 AM) to his small contributions to the overall form. He recalled that Bass was incredibly tidy, and his desk was arranged "as if he himself had designed it," with pencilled pre-sharpened and placed in order of length. He insisted on talking about the title sequence for Seconds, and not without reason, as it's an elaborate sequence, especially laborious at the time it was made, involving shooting, printing, projecting, reflecting, and editing in various combinations.

(from left to right: Hadrian Belove, Pablo Ferro, Michael Lonzo)
And that was the first night!

The second night began with The Solar Film, an industrial short designed to highlight the importance of solar energy without being becoming a series of facts and figures. Bass nicely illustrates the impermanence of oil through an animated sequence, then moves into a really fine exploration of the positive feelings associated with the sun, and how those go hand-in-hand with renewable energy. Once again, Bass would have fit right in at SCDP.

But the big attraction for the evening was certainly Phase IV, Bass's only feature, which hasn't enjoyed the best reputation since its release in 1974. While there's plenty to mock - the performances are pretty phony - Bass's cinema is exquisite. The film is essentially about a potentially deadly event which, instead of causing the end of the world, instead causes super-intelligence in ants. That sounds terribly lame, but in practice - through a long, nearly dialogue-free prologue showing nothing but ants - it becomes incredibly unnerving. Bass takes the human/ant dynamic and transforms it into something almost poetically haunting. It tackles such diverse and converging ideas as war, communism, the thin line between humanity and animals, and loss.

The ant photography, which was headed up by Ken Middleham (who provided similar services on Days of Heaven), goes beyond simply being an astounding piece of documentary to legitimately telling a story. His practices certainly wouldn't fly on an American Humane Association-supervised shoot - beyond gluing insects into place (a common practice), he arranged for them to be destroyed in numerous ways (eaten, squished, pierced, etc.), and they even bred special ants for the purposes of the film - but the results are breathtaking, far more moving and stirring than the human drama.

At the end of the film, we discover that the ants are terrorizing the humans not to destroy them, but rather to assimilate them as members of the ant family. A short psychedelic sequence shows the mental collapse and rebuilding at the hands (legs?) of the all-powerful ants, but that sequence was originally intended to be much longer. Rumors have circulated since the film's release, most saying that it was cut by the studio who already didn't understand how their killer ant movie got transformed into a weird, slow, psychological trip, but some insisted it was never even shot.

Well, shot it was, saw it we did, and it takes the film's inherent odd nature at catapults it beyond the infinite. Comparisons were immediately drawn to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this is something else entirely, at once more focused and far stranger. Some of the imagery is fairly easy to read; humans are compartmentalized into mazes and containers, as we do to ants, then a man's foreheard is bored out from the inside, and finally humans take on the actions of hawks and frogs, becoming one with nature. Others are a little more eclectic - mirror imagery of a woman's swirling naked body, a(nother?) woman giving birth to the sun are a little more eclectic, and a man running across the water makes for some pure, visceral cinema. It's an absolutely stunning sequence, which would have taken an effective bio-thriller with hints of psycho-terror and body horror and really cemented its place in cinematic history. Phase IV could never have been a great film, but it has greatness in it.

The evening concluded with 1984's Quest, a short film Bass co-directed with his wife Elaine (who Belove specifically noted had a huge hand in all of Saul's work, and anytime one talks about his accomplishments, it was important to remember Elaine was right there with him). The film doubled as a tribute to Ray Bradbury as well, as he wrote the story for the film, about a civilization whose people live only eight days. They still age as we do, but, you know, much faster. They send out a newborn to reach a gate that will open a new land where people live longer, and somehow through opening the gate their civilization will find hope, or something. That was a little unclear. What was clear is that this was an incredibly 1980s production, from the score to the titular adventure to the hair to the special effects (so many lasers), but Bass accomplished a tremendous amount on a tiny budget (George Lucas sent people from ILM to see how he rendered so much with so little), and came away with some incredible imagery in the process. Including a man playing a chess-like game involving lasers with an ape creature.

It was an astonishing, eye-opening weekend, to say the least. Phase IV will show again on July 1st (no mention of the alternate ending showing with it), and it's certainly worth experiencing on the big screen. As I mentioned at the top, this was a whole world of Bass's work, and thus of cinema, that I hadn't even glimpsed before, and I am certainly richer for it. Bass's intense interest in human progress, the belief that we can create a better world, permeated even the least of his work. More than just leaving his mark on contemporary design, he made grand statements about the contemporary human condition.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Making a Playlist for the End of the World

When I was a young, introverted high schooler (as opposed to the somewhat older, introverted working stiff I am today), I had a recurring end-of-the-world daydream. There would be some cataclysmic event mere hours, perhaps even minutes away, and the immediacy of death would finally spur me to confess my feelings for any number of girls, a gesture they would surely reciprocate, because it’s my daydream, dammit. At the very least, I wouldn’t have to live long with what I saw to be the more true fact of their dismissal, and it’d still be a little cathartic, right?

Looking back, I still find it kind of sweet in a in a demented sort of way (ahhhh, adolescence). But it's also kind of bullshit, right? It’s narcissistic and cowardly, a invented excuse to really start living life without having to live with the consequences. And it's very much the tune to which Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is scored. But writer/director Lorene Scafaria has no capacity for the dramatics of positivity, and her determination to brush aside her more genuine comedic instincts for Instagram optimism is this film’s deadly blow.

Let's start at the beginning. Dodge (yes, his name is Dodge), being played by Steve Carell and all, is totally helpless when his wife literally walks out on him upon hearing that the world will end (she simply opens the car door and walks away). Instead of spending his time doing anything worthwhile, he goes right back to work at his insurance company. Women express interest in spending romantic time with him, but that's not Dodge's scene. Moping in bathtubs? Absolutely. Enjoying the company of others, even platonically? Boo on that.

Until, that is, his kooky/free-spirit/British/vinyl-loving/sexually-adventurous-but-not-too-adventurous neighbor, Penny (Keira Knightley), hands him a huge stack of mail that has accidentally gone to her over the last three years, in which lies a letter from his high school sweetheart on whom he's totally had a crush lo these many years. And what do you know, in the letter, she too confesses her love for him! Except she provides no contact information (not even a return address), because, naturally, when you're confessing your love for someone, the last thing you'd want them to do is be able to contact you. Nothing weird about that at all.

So Dodge and Penny, united by their desire to be someplace else (Dodge with his long-lost love, Penny with her family in England), and spurred by the increasing riots in their nameless East Coast city, take to the road, and for awhile, the movie just might work. While escaping the riots, Penny is simultaneously breaking up with her boyfriend, neither of whom are nearly as concerned with the imminent danger as they are with dissecting their differences. Penny and Dodge end up hitching a ride with a simple man with hidden motives, visit one of Penny’s old boyfriends, go to jail, and happen upon a Chili's-style family restaurant turned 24-hour party that doesn't sound good on paper (or in the trailer!), but which I found surprisingly charming, due in no small part to the earnestness of the cast. Scafaria shows a real flair for finding just the right rhythm in these comedic elements, and it’s pretty entertaining, which makes it all the rougher when she decides that's not enough.

Because, of course, what would be the point of having a man and woman team up for an adventure without them getting together? It doesn’t matter how totally ill-fitting the romance is! It’s sweet! It’s not. The levels on which this doesn’t work are innumerable and increasingly troubling. It's not only that you can so clearly see this coming. It's not only that Carell and Knightley are totally mismatched romantically, which isn't only because of the age difference, but rather because their decent comedic chemistry translates not at all into anything lovey-dovey. Centrally, it’s because, like so many of these movies, Dodge brings absolutely nothing to the table.

Sure, who wouldn't love a hot young free spirit like Penny? Considerably less obvious is why she's so hung up on an insurance salesman who's terrible company, never takes her feelings into consideration, and, let’s be honest, looks like Steve Carell. At best you can say it's because she's admitted that she's incapable of not being with someone (handy, then, that she's totally hot), but that doesn't really jive with the way the film posits their romance as the real deal. So this makes two Steve Carell films in as many years (don’t see: Crazy, Stupid, Love.) stuck on the idea of the soul mate while tackling it on only the most superficial level.

And, yes, the whole end-of-the-world thing is a running undercurrent, albeit in a very Urban Outfitters kind of way. It's another fashion for the film, as artificial and fabricated and ill-considered as my high school daydream. People get to act outlandish (fun game - try and figure out how quickly you forget Melanie Lynskey and Patton Oswalt are even in this movie), so long as we don’t have to take them too seriously when the seriously starts getting taken. Because then, watch out you guys, stop fooling around, because this is the mopey part of the dramedy, as we all know the absurd cannot possibly exist alongside the melancholy (#Lubitsch). Now’s time for relationships to be mended and redemption to be found. But it's a deeply dishonest affair. Things happen simply because wouldn't it be nice if they did, confirming, without convincing us of, our greatest hopes in humanity, and assuring the audience that every one of them is a pure force of positivity and selflessness, congratulating them merely for existing.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Whose What Now?

There is so much greatness in Your Sister's Sister, which I discuss further at Battleship Pretension, that I really, really hesitate in saying it's not worth your time. The performances are marvelous, and writer/director Lynn Shelton's ability to manage dramatic conflict, farce, character development, and improvisational comedy throughout the film's second act is really one of the most beautiful things I've seen all year. But when the film falls flat, boy does it ever. So if you're willing to roll around on some very uneven terrain, proceed to select cities this Friday. But tread lightly.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

How Far Would You Go to Get Your Answers?

This post contain spoilers for Prometheus.

Nobody could be less surprised than I that the early word on the latest Ridley Scott film wasn't terribly good. Conversely, nobody could be more surprised that the film in question ended up being really, really good. Working from an unbelievably flawed screenplay by Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts (and I cannot recommend highly enough reading Drew McWeeny's piece that totally dismantles its character and structure deficiencies), Ridley Scott has miraculously crafted in Prometheus a remarkable artistic expression I no longer thought him capable of, an aesthetic examination of space that also doubles as rip-roaring entertainment.

After he brushes past two useless opening scenes, the real heart of the film begins with David (Michael Fassbender), a robot wandering the halls of Prometheus, a massive spaceship carrying a crew towards an alien planet. While the crew is put into hibernation for the two-year journey, David is onboard to ensure everything continues to run smoothly, leaving him, like the night watchman of a department story, with the run of the place for most of his time.

This sometimes eerie, often touching, always haunting sequence, which I'd gladly have watching for the film's duration, sets up Scott's preoccupations in the film, defined by the way we affect the spaces around us. The concept of Ridley Scott shooting in 3D seemed like the most crass of commercial ventures, but the result is revelatory. Every year, we get a new candidate for "best use of live-action 3D," and I can easily say this now holds the crown - it's stunningly beautiful, and it seems like Scott has taken David Fincher's cues for how to handle digital photography. But more than that, it's purposeful in a very striking way. The way David moves about the ship represents what he is - another cog in the machine. He bicycles without faltering, shoots hoops without missing, and Fassbender inhabits his character and these rooms more to blend in than to stand out.

David also makes two key decisions in this early sequence that, upon further reflection, are much more informative of the ensuing events than they first appear. First, he looks in on Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) while she dreams. This seems at first a way to usher in some backstory on Shaw, which it certainly serves as, but there are any number of ways this could have been accomplished without presenting it from David's point of view, which repositions the action as specifically his, and more importantly, positions his growing interest in and obsession with (love for?) Shaw.

Second, he watches Lawrence of Arabia, and dyes his hair and affects the manner of Peter O'Toole in that film. What robot that hasn't achieved some level of self-actualization would take this action? It represents a longing integral to the character and extremely important to thinking about everything he does from there.

Soon, the crew wakes up, and we're introduced to them in some quickly-sketched, but very effective, ways that also go a long way towards informing some questionable behavior later on (Milburn's desire later on to befriend a seemingly threatening creature is established here, for example), though some characters never make sense from the get-go (sure, Fifield, you're what must surely be a world-class geologist, you committed to being asleep for four years of your life, and this mission to go where no man has gone before is "just a job"). It's not nearly on par with a similar scene in Aliens, but it's solid work.

The crew is quickly debriefed on the purpose of the mission, a scene which itself is about how a dead man can still hold a room (physically, through a 3D projection that mirrors the film's medium, and attentively) without actually being there, or anywhere for that matter (or so we think at the time). The mission must have paid handsomely if everyone signed up without knowing what they were getting into, especially considering it all ultimately boils down to Shaw, her boyfriend/partner Holloway (played by Logan Marshall-Green, who my girlfriend and I immediately began referring to as "Tom Hardy-looking guy"), and billionaire industrialist Peter Weyland's (Guy Pearce) collective desire to meet the beings that created humans, which turn out to be aliens.

While that's a hell of a whim to hang a trillion-dollar mission onto, the philosophical questions invited by the premise alone are pretty staggering, matched only by Lindelof and Spaiht's surprising disinterest in exploring any of them. The hazy, 3am-in-a-dorm-room manner in which they handle the film's philosophy has been widely noted, and rightfully so, in no small part because they capture the shortcomings of those conversations without recognizing the rhythm of them. The sense of superiority for even "going there" is evident in every interaction, forgetting that these characters are scientists, not philosophers, and have a natural shortcoming in addressing these topics. They have an "out" they could have written their weaknesses to, but failed even on that front.

But once the crew gets to the cave, and they do so rather quickly, things pick up considerably. Scott re-establishes the purpose of space (not the "outer" kind, but, you know, our immediate surroundings) in pitching the 3D waaaaayyyyyy back to really evoke the depth of the cave, and they send out probes in an attempt to predict their environment. They come across projections of past actions that seem to take over the cave. Then they arrive at "the door" and everything begins to come together (Shaw's line, "We don't know what's on the other side," is filled with meaning) - the crew's presence in the cave literally changes the space around them. There are a couple ways to read this. Adrian Bott, in his widely-disseminated piece linking the film's religious undercurrents, argues that it's the presence of human emotion that changes the space, but a more scientific reading could simply say it was a sealed container, and the outer atmosphere changed it.

Either way, things start to go bad as soon as humans enter the equation, and the continued ways humans and aliens interact with each other's spaces (both constructed and, once we get to Holloway drinking the black goo and especially Shaw's pregnancy, organic) create more and more threatening scenarios. Part of the reason the Shaw's climactic fight with the Engineer was unsatisfying for me is that it totally disposes with the way the conflict had been pitched up to that point - alien life comes first as an external threat, then as an invasion of Holloway's basic life functions, then to Shaw's reproductive system, and finally to Weyland's soul ("There's...nothing..." he mutters as he dies). The spaces keep getting more and more personal until they attack our very essence, our very reason for being (which is also set up with David's invasion of Shaw's headspace when he watches her dreams).

The bulk of the second act is also where the film's prime entertainment value comes from, and I won't lie that scenes as insane as Shaw's self-cesarean are a big reason for loving the film as well. As much as people are interested in the film's "big idea" themes (though Prometheus feels the product of people more interested in the tropes of "big-idea sci-fi" than they actually are the ideas themselves), I'm far more taken with the film's "big idea" set pieces, and there are few words that could adequately describe how unbelievably threatening that sequence is. As much as one could take issues with the mechanics of the screenplay, a big part of the pleasure of genre cinema (and especially sci-fi cinema) is seeing certain imaginative approaches to conflict, be it people shrinking down and going inside the human body or a robot that just won't die or a computer program reforming the virtual world to defeat the hero. This is, after all, still entertainment.

So while I can recognize some of the issues of Prometheus at a screenplay level, I really regret that the conversation has stopped there for many. Beyond any talk of its "ambition" or "philosophy," it's a grand formal accomplishment top to bottom with a remarkably cohesive aesthetic viewpoint that's a blast to sit through. I'll take that in my summer blockbuster any day.

Further thoughts:

-Although the film's weakest dramatic beat may be its fan-servicing final scene, in which a familiar Alien emerges from the dead engineer, I do like what this adds to the film thematically, and it uses its prequel format in a much more exciting way than the usual "isn't it exciting to see how that got there?" In tracing the genealogy necessary for the first Alien to be born, we go from black goo into human, mixed with human sperm, into a human egg, which is birthed into a wholly distinct life form, which in turn has to...invade? rape?...with an engineer before the deadly creature is born. As much as the film deals with designing life, this reminds us of the randomness of creation, as well as its unpredictable consequences, and our familiarity with the result helps tie it all together, intellectually.

-On that same string, of all the unexplained motivations in the film, I like that David's reasons for bringing the black goo onboard and giving it to Holloway are not addressed. It could be random curiosity, it could be a genuine scientific experiment, it could somehow feed into a part of Weyland's plan to which we are not privy. It could also be David's genuine attempt to create life, which is as touching as it is terrifying.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


At CriterionCast, we went all over Europe, AND Italy to bring you this review of Masters of Cinema's splendid new release of Leo McCarey's beyond delightful 1935 film Ruggles of Red Gap. It's an easy contender for the "and you didn't think a film like this could benefit from high-def" award.

Also, I don't plug it often enough, but give my Hulu column a read over there, whydoncha? Criterion's Hulu channel is stacked with titles that not only aren't available through them on disc, but aren't available through anyone on disc, especially here in the States, and are quite often well worth a gander.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Monika Redux

Over at Battleship Pretension, I get the distinct pleasure of discussing The Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray release of Ingmar Bergman's Summer with Monika. This is the third time I've written about the 1953 film, which is a little baffling insofar as Bergman is perhaps my favorite director and there are probably a dozen of his films I prefer to it, but it's also pretty okay with me because Summer with Monika is freaking awesome.

Elsewhere on the same site, Aaron Pinkston takes a look at Criterion's concurrent release of Summer Interlude, a film I've also written about and is well worth your time.