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The 2017 Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Shorts: Process and Politics, by Dayne Linford

9 Feb

The Oscar-nominated live-action shorts being their theatrical tour tomorrow.

Perhaps the most unwatched category of the Academy’s nominated films, the shorts nevertheless often feature some of the most inventive, responsive, and interesting filmmaking of the year. For this year’s live action crop, that promise is variably fulfilled, some shorts tending in a typical, Oscar-friendly direction, while others live up to their potential, utilizing their time well and delivering innovative filmmaking on a small scale. This year is rather interesting in that the nominated films are all mainland European, perhaps reflecting international politics and the activism latent throughout this year’s nominations in other categories. The content of each film can be viewed in that same sense, two of them dealing with immigration and social violence, three concerning stratification and criticizing social predation, three concerning the invasive, or democratizing, or alienating, effects of modern technology. They’re surprisingly deep films considering their short running time, though, with one exception, they’re generally quite straightforward, not in keeping with the iconoclasm of the best of the genre.

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Home Video Hovel: Cinerama’s Russian Adventure, by Dayne Linford

22 Dec

Cinerama, the practice of stitching together three different rolls of footage to be displayed concurrently across a massive screen, was one of the great experiments in film, concocted to try and out-spectacle television and get viewers back into the theaters in the 50s and 60s. Widely utilized but largely relegated to circuit markets and specialty theaters, it never broke through into the mainstream, only employed in a few disparate films, most notably How the West Was Won. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating experiment, and Russian Adventure, a pseudo-documentary travelogue of the American rival, introduced and narrated by Bing Crosby, is a delight to view. Playing as a variety show made up of the efforts of disparate filmmakers throughout the vast USSR, it’s an entertaining, breezy two hours, of interest largely as an historical document and cinematic experiment but still nonetheless fun to watch, particularly with the help of the new “Smilebox” technique, replicating the look of the original piece as directly as possible, though “formatted to fit your screen” as all things must be.

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La Notte: Waking Up the Dead, by Dayne Linford

15 Sep

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Perhaps the most telling visual metaphor in the great Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (1961) – newly restored and embarking on a fresh theatrical tour from Rialto – is the very first. In the credits, a series of long, rolling shots track downwards over the reflective façade of a modern hospital building. Following immediately from a two-shot featuring different sides of Milan, divided by the hospital, Antonioni is content to let us sit with this building, each slice of concrete flooring interrupting the crystal reflection of the city, adding a note of perverse insubstantiality to the image of its vast, solid expanse. It echoes a spool of film, reeling past us with frightening speed, showing virtually the same image, itself only remarkable in the knowledge of it as a film-esque reflection inside the reflection that is itself film, the interruptions of its literal concrete reality creating surrealism in the context of our image, interrupted suddenly by the loud gasp of Tommaso (Berhard Wicki), dying in the hospital. These twisted and ultimately immaterial self-reflections are the subject of Antonioni’s film: characters, and cameras, gazing into their own unknowable depths and coming away with virtually nothing.

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Home Video Hovel: Belladonna of Sadness, by Dayne Linford

2 Sep

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Belladonna of Sadness was the last release of the Mushi Production animated motion picture studio. It was founded by legendary Japanese animator Osamu Tezuka, who is often credited with giving birth to anime with his most successful property, Astro Boy. Belladonna of Sadness is a great deal further from that. Created in a maelstrom of ambition, desperation, debt, and ultimately bankruptcy, the fact that it survived at all is stunning, that it was finished in the first place even more so. Besides being plagued by production problems, it’s also harrowing subject matter. I think myself fairly familiar with animated film, yet can think of no other like Belladonna, and am struggling to find any corollaries in live-action features. One of the most disturbing films ever made; powerful, uncomfortable, completely unhinged, Belladonna is the unique gift to cinema of the death of Tezuka’s company, and is one of the single most daring, provocative films I’ve ever seen.

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Die Hard and the Politics of International Terror, by Dayne Linford

13 Apr

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Now suddenly evoking the San Bernardino shooting, the holiday party setting in John McTiernan’s action film masterpiece Die Hard (1988) took on a much more somber tone in my family’s annual Christmas viewing last year. The film’s subject matter was pertinent enough in 1988, as Americans watched Europe besieged by terrorism on their televisions and the line “Los Angeles has now joined the sad but world-wide fraternity whose only membership requirement is the awesome specter of international terrorism” didn’t carry such a grim irony. Nearly thirty years later, however, Die Hard seems almost prophetic and, as the franchise itself becomes ever more irrelevant, the original film maintains a startling and immediate pertinence.

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2016 Oscar-Nominated Documentary Shorts, by Dayne Linford

1 Feb

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Last Day of Freedom

At only thirty minutes, “Last Day of Freedom” wastes no time in getting straight to its subject matter, opening on Bill Babbitt, the only interview in the film, discussing his support of the death penalty until he felt its impact wreaked upon his own family. Using Babbitt’s experiences as a lens to view this controversial issue, particularly surrounded by issues of race and mental health, directors Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman open up the last half-century of American history in a stinging critique of the total failure of American society and government in the case of Bill’s brother, Manny, finally executed by the culture that so thoroughly destroyed his life in 1999. “Freedom”, through Bill’s soulful eyes, details Manny’s life, from a childhood brain injury to a fraudulent (on the government’s part) two tours in Vietnam, followed by a lifetime of PTSD and schizophrenia, to his panic- and trauma-induced murder of an elderly white woman (the Babbitts are African-American), and finally through his trial and execution with a beautiful simplicity and sympathy. Bill, who not only played a key role in Manny’s life up until the end, serves as both the storyteller of and advocate for Manny’s life, his recollections animated throughout to powerful effect.

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New to Home Video 10/20/15

20 Oct

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5. There Will Be Blood

18 Sep

score by Johnny Greenwood

From the first frame, it sets your teeth on edge, the mountains, still, flooded with the atonal drone of Johnny Greenwood’s score. Something is deeply wrong, and it’s down to the rocks, suffused in the earth itself. Eventually, it must out, bursting from the Earth in a destructive flood. This is the greatest synchronicity of tone and intent between composer and filmmaker I can think of – in one shot, accompanied by one melodic line, the central thematic of the film is introduced and impressed indelibly. From there, both film and score build into an ever larger and more sophisticated structure, a referendum on the American, or perhaps human, endeavor in its most essential facets, ranging from deep below the crust of the Earth to its most lofty mansions. The rot of ambition and avarice is like a cancer throughout, unnoticed beneath the surface except for the omnipresent, unnerving evocation of Greenwood’s work, forging an unbreakable tension in its unerring portrayal of the vicissitudes of existence and survival.

Essential tracks – Oil, Prospectors Quartet

6. The Third Man

18 Sep

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score by Anton Karas

Anton Karas’s alternately jaunty, distant, jarring, and haunting zither score is one of the singular breakthroughs of The Third Man, already a landmark film in and of itself. Discovered in a Vienna restaurant during production, Karas didn’t speak English but was nonetheless flown to London, where he mimed his way to creating perhaps the most remarkable score ever written, played on his zither, an unknown Mediterranean street instrument. More than the wry introduction, the layered and sharply ironic dialogue, even the unnerving, gorgeous cinematography of a decimated Vienna, Karas’s score creates an immediate sense of place even as, the breezy main theme set against a narrative of war crimes, murder, and paranoia, it alienates the audience and imbues the film with a deep, deep sense of fatal irony. The Third Man is the first truly postmodern film, hyper aware of cinema conventions and expectations, and Karas’s zither is its key technique, allowing the audience to comment on and invest in the narrative, even as it conceals the darkness lingering just under the demolished streets. Its devil-may-care, disaffected tones, evoking perfectly the carelessness of Allied victors, serves as the seminal score for the ultimate filmic tract on the moral fault-lines of Western civilization, split open by all-encompassing war.

9. Lawrence of Arabia

17 Sep

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score by Maurice Jarre

With Lawrence of Arabia, both the film and its score are so iconic as to have transcended themselves and become synonymous with the Middle East in the Western cultural imagination. When we imagine the Arabian Peninsula, we see Omar Sharif emerging from mirage and we hear the main theme of Jarre’s score, as sweeping as history itself, as subtle as the unknowable depths of Lawrence’s own psyche. And why not? The work, in both cases, perfectly evokes our archetypal image of the vast desert, and therefore our most essential thinking about ourselves – boundless, mysterious, beautiful, brutal, noble, deadly, and incomprehensible.

Essential tracks – Overture, Miracle