Monday, July 17, 2017

Aaron's Ten Summer Netflix Picks!

Summer is in full swing! Record breaking heatwaves here in Las Vegas, and I still have not switched to iced coffee. How do I beat the heat then? I go from air-conditioner to air-conditioner and I watch movies. So here is a top ten list of cinematic gems to celebrate this sweltering hellfire summer and although the films are numbered, they are not arranged by priority or preference. Enjoy friends!


1.) CHEF - (2014)
Jon Favreau (also the writer and director) is Carl Casper, a head chef in a trendy L.A. restaurant. Through a series of horribly hilarious events, Casper finds himself starting over and driving a food truck. One of Favreau's many talents as a writer/director is setting the stage for other talented actors to shine. Sophia Vergara, Robert Downy Jr., Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, and John Leguizamo are among the all star cast.

2.) Nightcrawler - (2014) 
Jake Gyllenhaal lost thirty pounds to play the bug-eyed sociopath Lou Bloom, who films tragedies at night and sells them to a news channel in the morning. Gyllenhaal succeeds in making Bloom both terrifying and genuinely charismatic. Writer/director Dan Gilroy fills the movie with lush night shots of L.A., complementing the dreamy music and dark comedy undertones of the story. The supporting cast is spot-on also. Look for Riz Ahmed in his breakthrough role as Bloom's naive assistant.

3.) Mulholland Drive - (2001)
David Lynch received a Best Director Oscar nomination for this surreal film noir masterpiece. Like a twisted dream that ventures into nightmare territory, Mulholland Drive is everything at once: a love story, a mystery, and a slowly unfolding drama of confusion, that all only makes sense in dream-logic. Mulholland Drive put Naomi Watts on the map and she creates a character here unlike any other I have seen in Hollywood films.

4.) Sunset Boulevard - (1950)
 Continuing my Los Angeles theme, I would be amiss to not mention Sunset Boulevard. Gloria Swanson is a washed-up silent film starlet who traps a screenwriter (William Holden) in her Hollywood mansion, hoping that he will write her next big film. Director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot ,Double Indemnity, Stalag 17) combines brilliant humor, solid melodrama, and masterful suspense in this sordid tail of loss and obsession. 

5.) Man Up - (2015)
 There just simply aren't many intelligent romantic comedies anymore; leave it to the British to provide us with one. Man Up stars Simon Pegg as Jack. Jack is supposed to meet a girl on a blind date, but meets the wrong girl. Lake Bell plays Nancy (the wrong girl), who goes through with the date pretending she is someone else.  I like this film because it made me laugh without hitting me over the head with obnoxious one-liners or comedy that is trying too hard to be clever.

6.) Million Dollar Baby - (2004)
Clint Eastwood's film about a retired boxing coach and the young white-trash girl who pesters him into training her, is so much more than a boxing movie. The characters in Million Dollar Baby are fatally flawed, heartbreakingly vulnerable, and amazingly tough. Eastwood nabbed a Best Director Oscar for Million Dollar Baby and Hillary Swank won Best Actress.

7.) Heathers - (1988)
Heathers is two things: a quintessential 80's film and the best dark comedy on my list next to Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. Director Michael Lehmann and writer Daniel Waters take on high school cliques and social elitism, using a hot outcast couple (Wynona Ryder and Christian Slater make the best on screen "Bonnie and Clyde" duo since...well, Bonnie and Clyde) who kill the popular kids and disguise it as suicide. High school social pressure, young love, murder, and suicide. Now that's comedy!

8.) It Follows - ( 2014)
There is a deadly curse that follows teens around and is passed from one to the other through sexual intercourse – yes this plot sounds ridiculous and I'm not sure how the writer/director David Robert Mitchell pulled it off but he knocked it out of the park. Truly Creeeeeeeepy and scary in the best possible way. An independent film that uses unknown actors and good writing instead of stars and special effects. Watch it with the lights on and phone a friend...

9.) Midnight In Paris - (2011)
Owen Wilson plays Gil, a writer who is visiting Paris with his fiancee Inez (the always wonderful Rachel McAdams). Gil begins taking a series of midnight strolls through the city and each time, he inexplicably finds himself transported through time to the 1920's where he meets Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, and many other icons from the Gatsby/jazz era. The funniest bits of comedy occur when a confused Gil must return to his regular life during the day and attempt to go about his normal routine.

10.) Inglorious Basterds - (2009)
All Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill 1 and 2) films are an event and Inglorious Basterds is no exception. This movie is seemingly about Nazis and WW II but the three intersecting plots that emerge only use this as a back drop. What we get is an entertaining film with fresh dialogue, surprisingly infectious humor, unforgettable characters and bizarre violence that all culminate in an extraordinary final act.  Christoph Waltz won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal as Nazi "detective" Col. Hans Landa.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Alfred Hitchcock – The Unrecognized Genius

The word unrecognized certainly sounds odd when used in a sentence with one of world's most well known directors. The name Alfred Hitchcock brings to mind so many films: Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Rear Window (and many of your own favorites), as well as his successful TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents . Still, for the longest time, and even today, Hitchcock is associated with entertainment rather than serious film making. He was much more: Hitchcock was a brilliant visual director who planned each shot and camera lens; he sketched designed the wardrobes for his leading ladies, which are still featured in fashion magazines; he fussed meticulously over his set designs; he hashed out the screenplays with his writers until they were perfect. What interests me the most are the themes his films explored, themes that were so ahead of their time a new name had to be invented: a term many film enthusiasts refer to as Hitchcockian.


In Rear Window (1954) Hitchcock brings us into the world of voyeurism. James Stewart stars as L.B. Jefferies, a photographer who gets laid up with an injury and is confined to his apartment in a wheel chair. Out of boredom he begins spying on his neighbors.  Jefferies is soon joined by his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter);innocent voyeurism gets complicated when the three of them believe they have witnessed  a murder in one of the other apartments.

James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window

With Rear Window Hitchcock creates four dimensions of action in one location. The camera often starts in Jefferies' apartment, then pans counter-clockwise over the apartment complex (three buildings surrounding a center courtyard, and the biggest set Hitchcock ever created), stopping on a chosen window to pop in on the action going on there, then captures people either walking in from the street or walking out into it, which we can see from an alley between the apartment buildings. There is a cafe across the street which is constantly functioning throughout the film and serves as the fourth dimension we see.  So, even though all of the action is witnessed from Stewart's window, there are many characters and several atmospheres. The economy of this is amazing.

Vertigo(1958) centers around the themes of obsession, deception, and mistaken identity (a Hitchcock favorite). James Stewart is private investigator Scottie Ferguson hired by his old friend Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) to follow his wife Madeleine Elster (Kim Novac). Gavin Elster claims that his wife is becoming so obsessed with the painting of a dead woman named Carlotta, that Carlotta's ghost might be inhabiting Madeleine. Ferguson reluctantly follows the wife and he himself becomes obsessed with the dead woman, in the process falling in love with Madeleine because she has transformed herself into a mirror image of Carlotta. 

James Stewart and Kim Novac in Vertigo.

Hitchcock not only deals with obsession here but necrophilia; Ferguson is essentially in love with a dead woman. Hitch uses colors in Vertigo to create the landscape of a surreal dream. Red surrounds Madeleine the first time Scottie Ferguson sees her, symbolizing both the instant passion ignited and a warning of the danger that lay ahead. There is also a famous shot when Kim Novak, dressed as Carlotta, emerges from a hotel bathroom. She appears from a light green haze that then fades into the green glow behind her, which is being cast from a green neon sign outside; the colors here suggest a spell that she has cast on Stewart, the crazy obsession that has now taken him over completely.  Martin Scorsese said of Vertigo (I am paraphrasing): "The plot doesn't always work, it doesn't make sense completely, but that doesn't matter. What we are experiencing is something like a surreal dream." Hitchcock, as a young man was very influenced by German expressionism and considered himself and expressionist director: he was much more concerned with the visceral than the plausible.

Psycho(1960) explores the duality of human nature; the camera shows us this by constantly framing the actors in mirrors and reflective surfaces.  Hitch also explores voyeurism again but with a darker approach than Rear Window; we the audience are the "peeping toms" this time, Hitchcock's camera the avatar for our salacious appetites. The first shot of the film establishes this, as it pans from a city-scape, through an open window, and into a seedy motel room.  Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her lover (John Gavin) are in an embrace of sexual afterglow, she wears a bra and a slip and he is bare chested.  Its as if we are James Stewart in Rear Window, watching from across the way with our telephoto lens.

Alfred Hitchcock directs Janet Leigh in an iconic scene.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates.

 We follow Marion Crane, who's one bad decision in the film's first few minutes leads her down a dark path that then leads to Norman Bates(Anthony Perkins) and the motel he runs with his mother.  Norman is quickly established as unstable and sinister but Hitch does something bold: he makes us empathize with Norman by establishing a connection between he and Marion. This is a wonderful trick Hitchcock uses throughout the film: shifting point of view. This was Hitchcock's 47th film and his last film in black and white, which he exploits for deep contrast with bright whites and shadows of deep black. Shot on a modest budget (that he put up himself) with the crew he used for his television show, Hitch wanted to make a non glamorous film that had not been made before. His vision was realized. Psycho traumatized audiences and became his most successful film. To this day it still his most famous work.


Hitchcock's films have influenced both classic and modern filmmakers widely diverse in style and approach: David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club), Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, This Boys Life), Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore), Ridley Scott (Alien, American Gangster), Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street). The more I study Hitchcock the more I find the origin of the scenes from many of my favorite films. But to get into the examples would be another blog. Perhaps next time. Until then I encourage you to explore the master and find these hidden gems for yourself. Happy movie watching! 




In 1962 French New Wave Filmmaker Francois Truffaut conducted a series of interviews with Hitchcock that became a legendary book Hitchcock/Truffaut (published in 1966). The 2015 documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut combines excerpts from these interviews with new interviews from directors influenced by his work. It is a must see for film buffs and anyone interested in Hitchcock's work.

 All three of the films I discussed are available on Blu Ray in beautiful restored form. There are commentaries available on each disc as well as excerpts from the Hitchcock/Truffaut interviews. 
 I found the commentaries invaluable and encourage you to check them out as well!
Psycho commentary by  Stephen Rebello, author of  Alfred Hitchcock: The Making Of Psycho 
Rear Window commentary by  John Fawell aouthor of Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made film
Vertigo commentary by director William Friedkin

Also check out the following:

 Film critic Roger Ebert 

Internet Movie Data Base (IMDB)


Thursday, December 8, 2016

Jules and Jim - A Beautiful Love Triangle!

Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim is everything that a film should be: dynamic characters portrayed by enigmatic actors, cinematography that disarms the audience, lighting that places us immediately within the nexus of each scene, music that elevates, and dialogue that is both brave and funny.  Jules and Jim is all of these things but also wealthier and mightier than the sum of it's parts. There is an intangible something that I was trying to catch upon first viewing. Upon repeated viewings I realized there was no way to catch it; I had to let it wash over me - I had to simply experience it.

Catherine doing her best male impersonation in a race with Jules and Jim.
Released in 1962, this illusive cinematic journey begins in Paris before WWI and spans twenty-five years, telling the story of two very different friends. Jules (Oskar Werner) is a passive Austrian who has no luck with women. Jim (Henri Serre) is an outgoing French man who has luck with all women. The two are content in their roles until they meet Catherine (Jeanne Moreau). She is beautiful, capricious, malcontent, vindictive, and above all - absolutely charming. Both men fall under her spell, but instead of competing, the three of them form a truly unique bond. Director Truffaut called it "a triangle of pure love."

The captivating Jeanne Moreau as Catherine

Director Francois Truffaut (to the left) with Raoul Coutard (cinematographer) and Claude Beausoleil (camera operator)

A word or two about the cinematic language of Truffaut:

 A narrator  continually informs us in quick spars sentences of the inner workings at play in Jules and Jim. Truffaut accompanies the narration with quick cut montages and a camera that is always in motion. Locations change as fast as the dynamic between the three characters, who are in a constant state of flux and upheaval.

 Below is an example of Truffaut's ability to make a small scene monumental. Catherine dresses as a boy and calls herself Thomas while challenging Jules and Jim to a race on a bridge. 

In the tradition of The French New Wave, spontaneity was chosen instead of choreographed shots or rehearsed acting. While a script was adhered to, the actions of the actors were not blocked out. Truffaut instead allowed the actors to choose their choreography in the moment and then followed their lead with the camera. Adding to this, Truffaut used only real locations and natural lighting.  All of which created an immediacy and sense of natural ease, complimenting the fast paced story.
Henri Serre (Jim), Oskar Werener (Jules), Jeanne Moreau (Catherine)

Jules and Jim began as a debut novel by Henri-Pierre Roche written when he was seventy-four. Truffaut was a twenty-three year old film critic when he fell in love with it. The beauty of youth and experience co-mingle so flawlessly, there has not been another film like it since. This is a box of magic that once opened, cannot be put down. 


Roger Ebert's Review

 New York Sun review by Steve Dollar


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Feminine Cool! Vivre Sa Vie

Vivre Sa Vie ( released in 1962) was French Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard's third film and a deceptively simple one.  The title (translated as My Life To Live) is both an affirmation of life and a question. Is it possible to be a true individual? The story is of a female, Nana (played by Godard's wife Anna Karina), and follows her in twelve short chapters.  As were all of Godard's females, Nana is blase and somewhat detached from society, the men in her life are not important because they show her nothing worth paying attention to. 

Godard observes Nana's daily routines using a documentary feel that beautifully captures the subtle nuances that make up Nana as a person.  She doesn't always make good choices and her life is not a conventional one, but no one can seem to give her any useful help or advice. 

 Worth noting and paying attention to are Vivre Sa Vie's  unique and fresh dialogue scenes.The five minute opening scene between Nana and her estranged lover Paul is shot from the back of their heads as they sit at a counter having coffee. The activity of the cafe reflects in a mirror. So what we have are three different visuals; the backs of the heads, the action behind the counter, and the action in the mirror. During another conversation the camera simply strolls over to the right and displays the busy world of Paris through a cafe window. Roger Ebert had this to say about Godard's camera style: "His camera rotates 360 degrees, twice, and then stops and moves back in the other direction - just a little to show it knows what it's doing!"

Adding to the clever dialogue scenes, music drops in from nowhere at odd times, as if it were a Greek Chorus making Nana's journey to self both mythic and tragic . One of Vivre Sa Vie's iconic sequences is an extended dance scene capturing Nana with a handheld camera as she struts around a pool room defying three irritated men in her outburst of life. And it isn't just these three men she is defying, she is daring the audience to judge her.

Anna Karina and Godard's camera operator Raoul Coutard capture pure beauty in the following clip of Nana's dance scene:


Vivre Sa Vie opens with a quote: “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.” - from the essays of Montaigne, Book 3, Chapter 10. This quote works in the same fashion as the title. In reference to the film, Godard is both making a statement and posing a question; is this possible?
There is a childish joy inside Nana but Godard and his camera always remind us of the world outside waiting to steal it.

Anna Karina and Jean-Luc Godard at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival

This is my fourth installment of The French New Wave movement. To read more about this check out my blogs on Elevator To The Gallows, Breathless, and The 400 Blows.

Inspired further reading:

Roger Ebert's review from his list of Great Movies 

Vivre Sa Vie: The Lost Girl by Michael Atkinson 

An Audacious Experiment: The Vivre Sa Vie Soundtrack by Jean Collet 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Fritz Lang and The Three M's


Germany in the 1920's . The Weimar Republic was a hub of artistic expression and the population eager for change in the aftermath of WWI. Filmmakers were creating a new cinematic language referred to as the German Expressionist Movement. Films applied askew camera angles, outlandish set pieces, eccentric characters, and stories that dealt with the landscape of the mind. Control, murder, paranoia, fear, madness, and betrayal were all reoccurring themes and no one expressed these ideas better than director Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang on the set of M.

I have chosen three films that demonstrate Lang's themes and talent as a visual filmmaker. The Three M's, as I call them, are; Metropolis, M, and Ministry Of Fear. Lang is thought of by many film scholars as a prophet with spiritual and political insight. It is easy to see his vision of a world on the verge of collapse in these three films.

Sketch for the set design of M.

Lang's groundbreaking Metropolis (1927) showed audiences a society where the rich live carefree and gluttonous above ground while underneath, slaves toil endlessly to keep the machines of the great metropolis operable. Metropolis creates a stark contrast between the beautiful architecture of the elite society and the dark machine world of the slaves.

The underground slaves arriving for work in their smoke stack machine.

A robot made in the form of a human and surrounded by "circles" of power in Metropolis

  Geometry was central to Lang's style ; angles and shapes express feelings. Most prevalent are the repetition of circles that work against the sharp pointed lines of the buildings and interior set pieces. The characters are often surrounded by extreme inanimate objects or crowds of people, buildings or smoke filled machines, creating claustrophobia and the feeling that both the rich and the poor are trapped in these shapes and doomed to repeat their history. 

Cityscape for Metropolis which no doubt influenced the cityscape in Riddley Scott's Blade Runner (pictured below)

1931 brought the electrifying and horrific M, the story of a child murderer (Peter Lorre) and the hysteria created in a small town while authorities and criminals try to apprehend him. This was Lang's first film with sound and one in which sound becomes a character. Noises such as continuous whistling, screams, car horns and motors, off-putting crowd chatter jar our ears and disrupt the action. To shake our footing even further some of the main sequences are shown in complete silence.

The first shot of the killer in M, a shadow on his Wanted poster.

Camera angles are high and ominous or low and subjective, showing reactions of the peasant crowds and criminals when they encounter the police, who continuously try to reestablish their authority in a town gone mad with panic.

Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, serial child murderer in M.
In 1933 Hitler seized control of the Weimar Republic. Lang and other German filmmakers then emigrated to Hollywood where they formed partnerships with studios and changed the face of 1930's and 40's Hollywood. 1944's Ministry of Fear was indeed Fritz Lang's anti-Nazi statement and also a warning not to trust anyone in a position of power.   

Ray Milland as the helplessly trapped Stephen Neale in Ministry Of Fear.

The film follows Stephen Neale (Ray Milland) as he is released from a mental asylum in London and unwittingly wanders into a world of spies and Nazis. Clocks and other circles are used to alliterate the concept of time, as time becomes increasingly important throughout the story while Stephen Neale scrambles to clear himself of the mess he is in. 

A clairvoyant (Hillary Brooke) seems to seal Stephen Neale's fate at a seance.
Ministry Of Fear is unique as a mystery in that it is not a complex puzzle where all of the pieces fit together but rather a surreal nightmare where almost nothing makes sense. The hero is a victim and his contacts are duplicitous. Shadows creep onto white walls and characters emerge from dark backgrounds. No one and nowhere is safe.

Fritz Lang's influence on modern film:

M is used today in film schools as a blueprint for thrillers and a how-to for the pacing of suspense and tension. Metropolis can be seen in numerous works; Ridley Scott's Blade Runner(1982), The Wachowski's The Matrix (1999), Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985), and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey(1968). Fritz Lang's Hollywood career, along with fellow German exiles Otto Preminger and Billy Wilder, contributed to the core elements of what would become known as Film Noir.  Metropolis is now streaming on Netflix. M and Ministry of Fear can be purchased in stunning reissues by The Criterion Collection. 

Fritz Lang
For Further Reading:

These articles appear on The Criterion Website.

Paranoid Style 

The Mark of M 

On Fritz Lang in the 1940s 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Fellini's 8 1/2 (the reality in unreality)

 Federico Fellini's 1963 surrealist cinema masterpiece 8 1/2 lets us know within four minutes that we are in for a profoundly unique viewing experience. The first shot of the film's main character, Guido Anselmi, is from behind as he sits at the wheel of his car in an endless traffic jam.  The camera then moves with serene fluidity across the top of the car to show a bus. Passengers of the bus hang their arms from the windows lifelessly - we do not see their heads.  Inside of Guido's car a gas of some sort emits from the glove box. Guido struggles to get out of the car. Passengers of the other cars watch him with silent indifference. There are no car horns, no chatter, just silence.

 Guido kicks in the passenger window of his car and then floats above the traffic jam, spreading his arms like a messiah as he drifts through the clouds and above a beach, only to find a rope tied around his foot and at the end of the rope, on the beach, someone is flying him like a kite.
CUT TO: A dark room where a hand suddenly reaches up and a man YELLS! A doctor enters the room and we see Guido awaking from a nightmare. He looks haggard and exhausted. We learn that Guido is a famous Italian director retreating to a Spa for a sabbatical while he gets his frazzled mind together and attempts to prepare for his next film project. The length of his stay in unknown and his condition is obvious. He is a man in the verge of a nervous breakdown

Marcello Mastroianni as Guido

Fellini applied make-up and streaks of white hair to transform the handsome Marcello Mastroianni into the frail Guido. But make-up aside, the performance is all Mastroianni. As the frantic and overwhelmed Guido, greeted daily by hordes of people who have come to interrupt his sabbatical, Mastroianni is a joy to watch. Guido juggles his agent, his screenwriter, actors, and his producer - all of whom want to know what his next movie is going to be about and when it is to commence. The dilemma Guido faces is that he doesn't know.
Director Federico Fellini
 Fellini brings Guido's crumbling world of chaos to us in stunning black and white with a revolving camera in a constant state of motion. Actors parade into frame and out of view as the camera becomes a character; an objective and subjective viewer that doesn't show us reality but the reality of Guido's mind. The Characters from Guido's past interact freely with the characters in his present. Guido averts his attention from one to the other while the camera moves in whirling circles. When the women of Guido's life come to visit, they too are treated as equal and expendable characters in his life's film. His wife, mistress, and lead actress (also a mistress) enter and exit with the same importance. Guido cannot choose between them anymore than he can decide what his next project must be.
Claudia Cardinale as Guido's actress Claudia

Only Claudia, his leading actress, can see past the confusion and circus that Guido purposely concocts to divert his onlookers. Her eyes look at us the audience with a knowing, mischievous grin. Actress Claudia Cardinale, like Mastroianni, provides a wealth of information through her expressions. She is the only one who can see the real Guido, the Guido behind the director.  And as we the audience sense this, we can't help but wonder which Guido we are perceiving. Or, is there a "real" Guido at all? Maybe his unreality is actually him. A man trapped inside his own vision of what the world is. Such questions are only part of the fun. The real fun is the ride of 8 1/2 and it is a ride that doesn't slow down.
Guido the director
 Last year when I watched the Oscar Winning Birdman starring Michael Keaton, it was impossible not to think of 8 1/2. Keaton's character goes through a similar mid-life crisis/breakdown that is filmed with no distinct line between the real world and hallucination. Birdman captures the world of theater rather than the world of film, but the influence of 8 1/2 is undeniable. Director Alejandro G. Inarritu even uses Fellini's concept of a camera in motion to sever connections between illusion and reality.  8 1/2's influence can also be seen in the following recommended films:  Bob Fosse's All That Jazz, Woody Allen's Stardust Memories and Midnight in Paris, David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, Terry Gilliam's Brazil and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, David Lynch's Erasherhead, and Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. 

Michael Keaton and his "imaginary" Birdman self 
(8 1/2 is now streaming on Hulu!)