Reviews (516)

  • It's weird watching this in the middle of watching Twin Peaks. Both are about out of town lawmen coming to an out of the way small town in the heavily wooded parts of the American northwest to investigate the murder of a high school girl whose body had been dumped, naked, in plastic bags. The lawmen stay at lodges, and there's even a use of the name Leland. Based on the Norwegian movie of the same name, Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, at some level, feels like the more literal version of David Lynch's surrealistic exploration of a murder. But enough about that, how's the movie?

    Al Pacino is Will Dormer, a soon to be disgraced Los Angeles robbery-homicide detective who's been sent to Alaska to help the local police department investigate the murder of Kay Connell. With him is his partner, Hap, who is considering cutting a deal with Internal Affairs that will throw Will under the bus but save his own skin. Will, convinced that if they just maintain a strong front, is disgusted and disappointed in his partner's willingness to give in. With the local police, they find Kay's backpack and let out a message to the community that leads the killer to try and reclaim it at a remote cabin in a rocky and foggy location outside of town. In the confusion, Will accidentally shoots and kills Hap who dies convinced that Will did it on purpose, and the killer witnessed it all.

    The movie gets its title from the fact that the remote Alaskan town of Nightmute is above the Arctic Circle and has no nighttime that season and Will cannot get any sleep in his well-lit hotel room at the local lodge. That he cannot sleep means that he cannot forget the pressure he is under back home, the guilt he feels for shooting Hap, and that he's being squeezed by the Kay's killer, the local author Walter Finch, played by Robin Williams. This feeling is sold cinematically through over-exposed images, cross-cutting to previous moments, and blurring sound design as Pacino's performance because more and more strung out. He often looks, in the latter parts of the film, to be struggling to simply keep his eyes open and focus.

    All of this is solid stuff. Pacino is good. Williams is understated and creepy as Finch. Hillary Swank is eager as the young Detective Ellie who gets tasked with writing the report on Hap's shooting. Everything is cleanly filmed in a professional manner, and the sequence in the fog is just the right combination of clear and murky to give us solid perspective into a hard to discern situation. The appearance of Williams provides an interesting level of menace, and Pacino's increasing desperation as he loses more and more control of the situation is played really well.

    I suppose the only thing holding me back from appreciating this film more is the ending. It's not that I don't like to see flawed protagonists relearn the correct values. It's that I'm not sure I buy Will Dormer following through to the end. You see, Dormer, at a certain point, gives up on getting out clean with any hope of also getting Finch held responsible for Kay's murder. So, he drives to Finch's cabin in the middle of the country to kill him with Ellie having coincidentally gone at the same time to collect a piece of evidence for the Kay murder, Finch having come forward at Dormer's insistence because there was no hiding the fact that Finch and Kay had a previous connection. Finch, the very careful murderer, accidentally leaves out the dress Kay was in when he murdered her, leading Ellie to figure out in a split second that he did it, even though, as far as we know, the police never knew what dress Kay had been wearing and it was well known that Finch had bought the girl clothes. The meat of the final confrontation is built around this realization that feels thin at best. So, Dormer has to save Ellie, who's also figured out that Dormer did in fact shoot Hap in a solid piece of movie detective work, kill Finch, and, as he lays dying due to a shotgun blast from Finch, insists on Ellie letting the truth out about Hap's death.

    Now, I've seen the original film, and it ends very different with the Dormer analogue getting away clean. That's not necessarily what I want from this American version, though. My criticism isn't because this takes a nicer route than it's progenitor, but that it's a combination of too convenient, too thin, and too clean. Ellie being there at the same time feels almost like a distraction. Ellie figuring out that Finch is the killer feels too easy. Dormer wanting to just kill Finch feels like the right move for his character, but using his dying breath to accept responsibility feels like a step too far. There's nothing really wrong with this ending, but I suspect there's a superior, more interesting on in a previous draft of the script.

    Overall Insomnia is a finely crafted thriller with a strong central character at its core. It's the sort of thing one might expect from an up and coming director given a decent budget in order to try and prove himself. The personalities involved in front of the camera were probably too strong for the young Brit to fully control, so he corralled them effectively. He made something safe to prove that he could operate in the system, reminding me a bit of Orson Welles' The Stranger, though Nolan and Welles would go on to have vastly different careers.
  • I saw this movie twice on opening day way back in 2005. I went by myself, and then, about fifteen minutes after I got home, a girl I had some interest in show up at my door and asked if I wanted to go see it. I immediately said yes, in part for the girl, but mostly so that I could see Batman Begins again. I was gob smacked by this movie. For a while I held that it was perfect, and I quietly held onto that bit of insistence for years as a quiet gnawing worked in my mind. Now, having watched it with a mind towards actually writing out what I thought about the film, I think I've come to realize what that gnawing is really about.

    You see, Christopher Nolan has an exposition problem. His idea of laying out a plot, character motivations, and relationships is to have characters explain them to one another. This appears in most of his movies to one degree or another. Even Dunkirk, which is mostly dialogue free, has a scene of an admiral explaining the situation to an army colonel. The thing is that Batman Begins might be the worst of the bunch in this regard. Thomas Wayne explains Wayne Enterprises' efforts at cleaning up Gotham to his son, Bruce. Bruce Wayne explains his feelings towards criminality to Ducard. Dr. Jonathan Crane explains his toxin to Rachel Dawes. Rachel Dawes explains the decaying situation of the city to Bruce. Ra's Al Ghul explains the motives of the League of Shadows to Wayne. Bruce Wayne, as the proto-Batman, explains the next movements of the plot to Lieutenant Gordon. It often feels endless, the phrasing stilted, and the delivery is often kind of flat. If a movie were nothing but its dialogue this would be a far less interesting movie.

    When this movie came out, comic book movies were still kind of inherently silly. The "dark and brooding" ones had been largely limited to Tim Burton's run of Batman films that were as filled with gothic visuals as a brooding tone and Blade that was somewhere between self-serious and self-consciously silly depending on which of the first two movies you were looking at. What Christopher Nolan brought to the genre wasn't seriousness or even dark grittiness, but ambition. He took the job directing the first Batman movie since Batman & Robin because he wanted to use it as a stepping stone to making larger budgeted movies of his own material (boy, did that work our really well). He didn't approach this as just another job, though. He seems to have thrown himself into it, using the film's story to explore the origins of Batman as a character. Not just the literal steps of Bruce falling into the well as a boy, going East as a young man, and fighting local crime, but the ideas that undergird the motivations of a man dressing up like a bat to fight crime in general.

    That base idea was Fear. Bruce Wayne's journey to become Batman is about a man conquering his fear to the degree that he can turn it against those who oppose him. What that fear is ends up a little murky. Is it bats? I think that they're emblematic for Wayne, not the specific source. Bats end up tied much more directly to the death of his parents than in any other previous iteration of the character by Thomas Wayne taking Martha and little Bruce to a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni where the bats spinning around above the stage recall the bats that attacked Bruce in the cave, scaring the child out of the theater. Adult Bruce may share some of that base fear of bats, but by tying the bats to the night that Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered enhances the connection between the symbolic bat with Bruce's actual fear tied to the brutal act of criminality that robbed him of his parents. All tied up together, it makes Wayne's later decision to use the bat as his symbol feel more natural.

    The other major element of Batman's origin that Nolan explores is the use of symbols in general. Bruce doesn't take on the mantle of the bat simply because it will hide his identity and protect those closest to him. He takes it on to make himself, as Ducard says, to become more than just a man. An incorruptible icon and force meant to instill fear will do more of just that than billionaire Bruce Wayne ever could. It's not that people are afraid of bats. It's that people are afraid of something they can't hurt, and Batman as a symbol, with no identity, strong, skilled, and resourceful, is more than just a guy who can throw a punch. He's a force of nature. All of this gets said in the movie in rather stilted dialogue, but it also works dramatically. We can see Bruce become Batman and the understandable effect his theatrics have on his opponents.

    And that leads me to one of my favorite parts of the film. An element of the plot is a rare blue flower that, when burned, produces a sensation of fear in the subject. Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, uses this on the city, and the way Nolan shows the effects of the toxin are fantastic. Like much in Nolan's work there's an element of intellectualization rather than direct emotion involved, but this is one case where I think it works extraordinarily well. There are a few examples to highlight such as when Batman gets hit with Crane's weaponized version of the toxin and he sees bats pouring out of the Scarecrow mask. Is that instilling fear directly into the audience? Maybe. Maybe not. However, it is the sort of image that you would expect out of a nightmare. When Batman turns the tables on Crane and exposes him to the toxin, Crane sees Batman's face morphed into a solid grotesque gargoyle face with some kind of black liquid oozing out of his mouth. Again, maybe the audience is directly scared by the image (I'm not), but I understand how the character in particular, Crane, could be hobbled by the fear of what we're seeing because, again, it feels like it's an image that could come from a nightmare. The last one to highlight would be during the movie's climax when Batman flies over the Narrows that's been infused with the fear toxin and we look up from the ground level, from the perspective of those under the toxin's influence. We see Batman looking down with glowing white hot eyes and some kind of primal scream emanating from his white hot oval of a mouth. I, as the audience, don't feel the fear, but I understand the reactions the characters have to it.

    I don't know what was in Insomnia, Memento, or Following that told Warner Brothers that Christopher Nolan was the right man to bring a large spectacle to life, but he tackled the action of a comic book movie with aplomb. Set pieces are largely designed around a Paul Greengrass style of action filmmaking with close quarters filming, but it's with a purpose. Very early in the film, Ducard tells Wayne that fighting is not a dance, so the action ends up feeling like a reaction to the last of the Batman films under Joel Schumacher more than anything else. It also feeds into the idea of fear since action scenes are often told from the perspective of Batman's opponents rather than Batman himself. This works most particularly during Batman's first real appearance at the docks where the movie gains the aspect of a horror film. Those getting beaten can't see what's beating them, so filming close up actually ends up feeding the scene's overall goals rather than just being an aesthetic choice. Nolan could have pulled back a bit more in other circumstances like the final fist fight between Batman and Ducard, betraying, perhaps, a certain lack of understanding of action filmmaking outside of using it in a horror setting, but it mostly works in context quite well.

    This movie is the kind of rich that comic book movies never were up to this point. The original Superman movie was more of a grand adventure than something with this kind of ambition. Nolan brought a level of cinematic seriousness to the genre in the exact vehicle that could use it: Batman. That doesn't mean that this kind of seriousness or even ambition is appropriate across the whole genre, of course. There's always room for different kinds of superhero movies just like there is always room for different kinds of samurai movies, but Nolan tapped into something that the genre had been missing up to this point. It may not be perfect, but it's still very good.
  • A combination of John McTiernan, Brian DePalma, and Stanley Kubrick with Christopher Nolan's signature brand of non-linear storytelling, The Prestige is a tale of obsession, narrative storytelling, and trickery. Having the advantage of over a decade and several viewings, I feel bad for those tasked with the assignment to write about this film upon its initial release. This is a very clever movie, and it can be hard to discern, on an initial viewing, if there's more than the cleverness so clearly on display. I would say that yes, very firmly there is more than just the trickery.

    It is the story of two magicians, Robert Angier (professionally known as The Great Danton, played by Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden ("The Professor", played by Christian Bale) who grow to hate each other, mostly Angier hating Borden. As young magicians, plants in the audience for a safely successful stage magician (played by the great magician Ricky Jay), Borden attempted a knot around Angier's wife's hands in a trick where she escapes from a water tank. The knot held too tightly, she couldn't escape, and she died. Angier cannot move on after the death of his wife while Borden tries to push his guilt behind him and lead his own life.

    The rivalry that develops between Angier and Borden dallies between the professional and the personal for years as they try to sabotage each other's acts to become the greatest magician in London. Angier shoots off two of Borden's fingers in a bullet catch trick gone wrong. Borden damages one of Angier's apparatus that breaks a lady's fingers during a show. Borden comes out with a new trick, The Transported Man, that is so real that Angier, who watches in disguise, is utterly convinced that Borden's method cannot be a simple explanation, using a double. Following a set of clues, Angier ends up in Colorado trying to get an audience with Nikola Tesla, the famed inventor, and to get him to build the machine that Angier is convinced Tesla built for Borden.

    As I wrote earlier, this movie is exceedingly clever. It sets up a lot of elements that all end up playing their parts in the film's third act. From Tesla's machine, to Borden's mysterious ingénieur Fallon, to even the very specific ways that Bale plays certain scenes, everything acts as a cog to the mysterious machine that Nolan has adapted from the Christopher Priest novel. Being a Christopher Nolan film, it's almost needless to say that these pieces come together really well by the end (one of the sources of trust that I have for the logic of Tenet working), but just being a clever machine is of limited value (one of the sources of my more muted reaction to Tenet).

    Nolan provides that through his two main characters, but they're a surprisingly difficult pair. Obsession is not an endearing quality we like to see in the people we know, and watching these two men cast aside the remnants of their personal connections or frustratingly deal with those still in their lives can be a hard watch. Since this is part of the emotional core of the film, that presents a certain challenge to the audience. Now, I have no problem with that in general, but there's a certain element of seemingly expected emotional connection when both men are supposed to be protagonists, and Borden himself seems so inconsistent. This is one advantage that Nolan has in his intricate, "need to see it again", approach to storytelling. Borden's seemingly erratic behavior comes into greater focus, but repeat viewings end up turning into a bit of a guessing game as you try to figure out which side of Borden is in which scene. There's one side of Borden that deserves the most sympathy who would have probably been the protagonist in a more straight-forward telling of the story.

    I'm not sure it's the difficultness of the characters that really bothers me, but their opaqueness. There's an intentional effort to keep the audience from getting to know them, especially Borden, in favor of the mystery they're surrounded by. I consider a particular side of Borden to be the emotional core of the film (as evidenced by the movie's final images with his daughter), so that Borden's nature is also part of the mystery undermines some of the finale's emotional impact.

    Now, having said that, the movie's far from emotionally dead. The emotional impact of Borden's end could have been stronger, but it still ends up strong enough to work. Nolan's approach to the material focuses elsewhere, and that's on the story's underlying questions on storytelling. The idea that audiences know that what they're seeing is all fake, but if you can fool them, even only for a second, then you've given them what they want. That all this is for the looks on the audience's faces (ironic since most of the faces will be hidden from Nolan as opposed to the live audience for the illusionists). What he's self-consciously doing, and laying out by the end, is that for all the artifice around the story, there's still a core promise between the artist and the audience. For all the trickery in the world, the artist still needs to bring the story back around to a human element, to make that which disappeared inexplicably reappear. This is where Borden's story that works well enough really has its impact and where I wish it had a bit more, but I'm not sure how Nolan might have reorganized this story to clarify Borden while also maintaining the elaborate mystery that drives the central point.

    So, I do kind of love this movie. It's really well made. Hugh Jackman is very good as Angier, and Christian Bale is solid as Borden along with a very good supporting cast, in particular Rebecca Hall as Borden's long-suffering wife Sarah, Michael Caine as Angier's ingénieur, and David Bowie as the enigmatic but composed Tesla. The story is obviously a twisting adventure that uses point of view stringently and jumping timelines with confidence and skill. I just have this wish that the emotional punch of the movie's final moments was stronger.
  • 26 January 2021
    The marriage of the crime epic with Batman was kind of perfect in concept from the beginning. Batman, as a superhero, was always more commonly concerned with more down to earth problems, so taking those down to earth problems in the direction of something like Michael Mann's Heat was such a natural fit that it's a wonder no one really thought of it before in cinematic terms.

    Hinging on the final exchange in Batman Begins, The Dark Knight takes on the idea of escalation, extending it into absolute chaos as manifested by The Joker. Heath Ledger's Joker is fantastic, and I'm far from the first to note it more than a decade after this movie's release, but it can be said again. This Joker is intelligent, methodical, and vicious while also ideologically driven. He's an anarchist who wants to bring Gotham to him, having it abandon its thin veneer of society that hides their true nature. When a gangster says that he's crazy and he responds, very quietly but earnestly that he's definitely not, I totally believe him. I think he's in complete command of his faculties with a vision for the world that he wants to implement. That the vision is awful doesn't mean he's insane, it means that he's evil.

    In order for Batman to face this rising threat, he must test his limits. That happens most obviously when he must go to Hong Kong. The mob, having been beaten back since Batman arrived and in tandem with the rise of the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent, are at risk of losing their cash holdings, so their accountant Lau, a Chinese national, hides all of their money and flees back to Hong Kong. Gotham's law enforcement can't reach him because of their limits within the law, but Batman operates outside the law so he can go to Hong Kong, break into Lau's office, and essentially kidnap him back to Gotham without concern for legalities.

    That testing of Batman's limits is what The Joker becomes concerned with, and that's one of the joys of the movie for me. The Joker starts the movie seeing the Batman as an impediment to his chaotic schemes, being the symbol of order, but Batman's incorruptibility gives The Joker a new purpose. He begins to see Batman as a plaything, pushing him closer to The Joker's own madness and anarchy with every encounter. That central relationship, bred from decades of history in the comics and made exquisitely real by Nolan and his co-writing brother Jonathan, is the marvelous core of this film. It's a fight between two opposing ideologies that will be in perpetual conflict, touching on central themes from reality about the tension between order and chaos.

    One of the central ironies of the film is that while Batman ends up being the incorruptible one, in part because of his status as a symbol rather than just a man like Bruce Wayne, as opposed to Harvey Dent. Dent is the White Knight of Gotham, the new district attorney who is unafraid of the organized crime families and their efforts to outright kill him. He can't be bribed, but he contains a dark side that is evidenced by the nickname the police officers at the major crimes unit had for him: Harvey Two Face. After The Joker assassinates the police commissioner and a judge, he attacks the public funeral and Dent gets one of The Joker's men off alone where he threatens him with a gun. It's dark stuff, not quite so dark since Dent is using a two-headed coin to determine whether he shoots or not, but it's the sort of thing that you would never expect to see from the White Knight.

    The Joker, in his effort to bring down Gotham into anarchy, targets the two most prominent saviors of the city, Batman and Dent. He discovers that Batman and Dent, whether they are the same person or different people for all he knows, have affection for Rachel Dawes, Bruce Wayne's childhood friend and Dent's current girlfriend. In an elaborate scheme that influenced action movie conventions for a decade in stuff like Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness, The Joker gets himself captured in order to free Lau from captivity. He also kidnaps both Dent and Dawes, forcing the choice on Batman about whom to save, the White Knight or Batman's personal connection. Batman chooses Rachel, but The Joker switched the locations of them, so he saves Dent instead who ends up so scarred by the explosion he barely escapes from, along with the news that Rachel is dead, that he rejects everything he held dear before. The Joker guides him to accepting anarchy's lack of meaning as the only source of meaning, turning him fully into the coin flipping Two-Face.

    That underlying conflict of ideologies that colors every major interaction is what gives the film so much of its depth. These aren't just well-written protagonists and antagonists against each other, they are at the same time representative of something greater than themselves as just characters. They can be read as just characters or as vehicles for greater ideals, and that provides a lot of the fun of watching as the two layers of the individuals are so well thought out and executed that they exist on both levels comfortably at the same time.

    This is also Nolan embracing the spectacle of Hollywood filmmaking to its utmost. The capture of the Scarecrow, the kidnapping of Lau in Hong Kong, the transportation of Dent and subsequent attack by the Joker, and the fight up the tower to get to the Joker before he blows up two ferries are cleanly filmed, edited together clearly, and scored excitingly by Hans Zimmer. They're pulse-pounding sequences that are buoyed by the great character and thematic work around them. The sequences can stand on their own as entertainment, but as extensions of the actions of everything else, they gain even greater urgency.

    This is really top flight entertainment. With wonderful, multi-faceted characters, incredibly well-filmed, and a great score, The Dark Knight is probably the pinnacle of the superhero genre. Not every superhero movie needs to be dark and brooding, but The Dark Knight does it better than the rest while functioning as a great thrill ride at the same time.
  • Christopher Nolan's first James Bond movie that's not a James Bond movie is an entertaining and sustained heist film. I feel a little distant from its main character, never really investing in his emotional journey and I feel like the intricately explained rules of the world end up getting a bit broken by the end, but none of that diminishes the movie's fun and spectacle which buoy the whole experience.

    Technology has found a way to allow people to enter the dreams of a particular subject. Less than ethical types have started using this technology to steal secrets from powerful men in elaborate acts of corporate espionage. The movie begins in the middle of such a heist as Leonardo DiCaprio's Cobb leads his team to try and find the hidden vault inside the mind of Ken Watanabe's Saito's. Everything seems to be going to plan until Cobb's wife Mal shows up and messes with things, revealing the true nature of Cobb and his team to Saito directly which ends up waking him up. Cobb got what he needed, and after a switch where Saito discovers that he awoke into another dream, Cobb and his team get away safely.

    Now, Mal, I think, is part of this movie's emotional distance. Marion Cotillard is an attractive woman, but her status as Cobb's dead wife who haunts him because of his guilt around her suicide some time before never feels like much more than an intellectual element of the story, a cog in the machine, even with Cobb revealing the moment of his wife's death to Ariadne, the young woman he brings in as an architect of the dreams. That scene where Cobb relives Mal's jump to the ground several stories up out of a hotel window, even with DiCaprio's committed performance, always feels more like a diorama rather than an emotional moment. In short, Mal feels like a mechanical element of the story, not something driven by the main character's emotions.

    Cobb's overall motive, though, is to be able to return to America from his life on the run around the rest of the world in order to be with his two children again. This, again, is little more than an idea as Cobb doesn't get a single scene with his children, keeping the motive intellectual in nature rather than emotional. So, I feel like the emotional throughline of the film ends up a bit muted as I'm unable to engage with Cobb's journey at that level, but the rest of the movie around that is the kind of high concept spectacle that Nolan has become so expert at.

    Saito had hired Cobb's team as a tryout, and he brings them on again for a new job, to incept a new idea into the son of his largest competitor to break up his father's company after his impending death. Implanting a new idea in someone's head is difficult and dangerous, needing to be simple enough to take root, but it also needs to come from the subject himself, or at least seem to. Cobb understands the dangers of it, having performed the action before, but Saito promises him an end to all of his legal troubles so he agrees.

    Assembling his team is where most of the exposition happens. Nolan has this tendency to have large data dumps of information in huge blocks of his scripts. What his characters ends up describing is usually some high concept thing, so it becomes easier to take as we're learning about something new to our own experiences. Yes, we all dream, but the whole concept of building a dream, populating it with our subconscious, and then having it fall apart into violence is new, and Nolan throws actions out at the same time that can demonstrate what's being explained. As set up to the following action, this is fine. It's not great because I think there's a more elegant way to explain this and some of it doesn't need explication (like the concept of the Penrose stairs which could have been trusted to the audience to figure it out), but it ends up creating a very firm foundation for the second half of the film which is the heist itself.

    Taking Robert Fischer, the son of the now dead energy magnate Maurice Fischer, into a descending series of dreams three levels deep to implant the idea is the movie's bulk and purpose, and it's a fun time. Nolan's cogs work best in this movie at this point as everything begins spinning at once, each influencing everything else in perfect timing. The changing gravity in the van that they sleep in inside the first dream level influences the second and then the third. There are objects at all three levels that need to be met simultaneously, and the editing brings them all together cleanly. The music incorporates their signal across the dreams, Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose", and is propulsively complex at the same time.

    However, some of the logic does seem to break down. The kick, the sudden drop in one level up that wakes up the next level down, becomes inconsistent when Joseph Gordon Levitt's Arthur is awake during a kick one level up and stays awake in order to keep the movie going. I guess it could have been fixed with some line of dialogue about how his specific circumstance is an exception to the rule, but for a movie that spends so much time and effort around its rules, to have one ignored just to keep the movie going feels kind of cheap. However, we also get that awesome sequence of Arthur fighting in the rotating hallway, so worth it.

    The movie's overexplained and emotionally inert, but gosh darn it do I have a fun time with it anyway. That, I think, is a testament to Nolan's filmmaking acumen as he overcomes a problematic script and makes it solidly entertaining from beginning to end. Its individual sequences are often great, but the connective tissue is weak. However since so much of the film is made up of the individual sequences the issues with the connective tissue become less important. It's a solid time at the movies.
  • For a while, I maintained that this was the best of the Dark Knight trilogy. Watching it for the first time in a few years, I can certainly see why. The second half is pure spectacle filmmaking at an epic scale with an extended set piece that feels expansive and alive and huge all at once. However, that first hour or so is much messier, and I think that last half of the film, largely got me to ignore some of the niggling issues that frontend the film.

    The Batman has been absent from Gotham City for eight years. In that time, Gotham has seen a period of peace and prosperity it has not experienced in a very long time. In order to create that sense of calm, though, Police Commissioner Gordon pumped up the idol of Harvey Dent who had become the psychopathic villain Two-Face, murdered several people, and threatened to kill Gordon's son as the White Knight, blaming all of his crimes on Batman. Together with the Mayor and the City Council, they passed the Dent Act which allowed for aggressive anti-crime actions on the part of the police, resulting in a city without any serious organized crime at all. In this time, Bruce Wayne, Batman's alter ego, has become a recluse, having spent several post-Batman years and half of his fortune pursuing a fusion reactor before suddenly shutting it down and closing himself off from the world.

    In enters Bane, a member of the League of Shadows and a former acolyte of Ra's Al Ghul, since excommunicated for his extreme methods. After the death of Ra's Al Ghul, Bane took over the League of Shadows and will continue the man's mission of burning Gotham to the ground, much like the League had done to Rome and London before it. The revolution he ignites is based heavily on the Jacobins of France during the French Revolution, which fits hand in hand with the overall movie's ties to Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. He speaks of equality, but he rules with an iron fist, establishing a Committee for Public Safety, so to speak, that summarily executes enemies of the revolution. In order to get there, though, Bane must take control of Gotham.

    Now, the first half of the film is really setup for the giant spectacle that dominates the second half, and some of it is quite good and other elements end up going a bit too far. From beginning to end, I think Bane is great. He's intimidating physically and he ends up with a great plan to acquire wealth and demean Batman at the same time. Stealing his fingerprints through Catwoman/Selina Kyle to fake reckless options trading that wipes out his position in Wayne Enterprises is wonderful. The chase out of the Stock Exchange, giving Bruce Wayne his first moment as Batman in eight years, is exciting and well filmed. That it leaves Wayne so destitute that he can't pay his own power bill is...curious and a step too far. I get the point. The point is to take Wayne as low as possible both as Batman and as Wayne himself, but having his power shut off because of nonpayment roughly a day after his loses all his money feels weird at best and completely ignorant of how things work in the real world at worst.

    Another very good thing that the first hour does is establish the overall thematic thrust of the film, and that's around pain. Bruce is suffering from a leg injury. That's good. He immediately gets cured well enough to fight as Batman again because of a gadget on his leg. That's...less good. And yet, the idea runs through the rest of it very well. Wayne carries the pain of his loss of Rachel Dawes, from The Dark Knight (to the point that people misinterpret his receding from the world due to that loss, but that's not the case). Gordon carries the pain of having to defend the man who tried to kill his son, while losing that son in a divorce at the same time. The city carries the scars of past trauma brought on by the Joker, but it manages to live on, just as Gordon does. And what do these people do with their pain? Well, more pain must come first.

    Bane's efforts to take the city end up feeling great. He has an inside man at Wayne Enterprises, also knows that Wayne is Batman because of his connection to the League of Shadows, and he uses the greed of Daggett, a wealthy executive who wants to absorb Wayne Enterprises, to prepare his plan of cutting off the city from the rest of the world. But first, he must take out the Batman. That the "every police officer" gets trapped in the sewars is...less good, though. It's another step too far that didn't quite need to be taken. However, this element of the plot is where Selena Kyle is useful.

    Anne Hathaway as Selena Kyle is really good. She can switch between woundedly scared and feminine to coyly vicious and feminine in an instant. She steals into Wayne Manor as a servant at a party and shows both sides to Bruce as she steals his mother's pearls and his fingerprints, setting up the plot of the film. She's a survivor with a chip on her shoulder, so she's happy to watch as Bruce loses everything as the result of her actions. However she does still have a certain sense of justice so when Bane completely takes over and Gotham descends into a hellscape reminiscent of the French Terror, she's bothered by it, but being a survivor she does little to stop or escape it.

    The movie turns when Batman has his confrontation with Bane. Evoking the famous comics scenario of Bane breaking Batman's back in the Knightfall run (pretty much the only time I was reading comics, by the way), Bane breaks Batman and sends him to a prison with hope, the worst punishment he can imagine. The visual image of Bruce needing to rise from the pit in order to overcome his pain and fear is great. That it takes him so much effort and that he has to essentially return to an earlier form of himself in order to do it is even better. There's such rich imagery here.

    The final confrontation between Batman, as a symbol of order, and Bane, as a symbol of chaos and fire, dominates the last half of the movie. The film leaves open some unimportant questions of how Bruce Wayne gets from India to Gotham in about three weeks, but considering the character's history of running in the underworld, including in the Far East, that seems easily filled in by the audience, and once he's there he leads an all out rebellion against the ruling Revolutionary government with an aim towards getting his hands on the nuclear bomb set to go off in twelve hours. Yeah, it's very comic booky, but it's handled with the right balance of seriousness that I think the movie sells the situation well.

    And in terms of the final act, the spectacle of Batman leading an army in a war against Bane for control of Gotham and against a Jacobin Revolution is great. Batman the symbol leads those who had cowered away in fear to take to the streets, fulfilling the promise of Batman as a symbol established in the first movie (and re-explained to Blake, the cop who has figured out that Wayne is Batman in...another individual step that feels too far in the first half). The evocation of A Tale of Two Cities also helps provide the film a literary understructure that I appreciate. It's not just random bad guys butting up against a protagonist we all know from pop culture. It's a literary extension of the mythos.

    I feel like this was a bit of a ramble, but I'm gonna stick with it. The Dark Knight Rises is not a perfect movie. Its first half ends up taking a few ideas too far, which undermines them slightly, but not the overall story. What ends up carrying it all, though, is Nolan's sheer command of everything outside the script. Performances are very good. The spectacle is great. The use of image and sound creates a large story that carries interesting ideas about pain and the efforts to deal with it. It's an intelligent and rousing film that could have been a bit tighter, but, by the end, I don't really care that much.
  • I have a bias for movies that at least seem to take space seriously. I think it explains why I put Contact atop my list of Robert Zemeckis movies, and I think it's why Interstellar is probably going to end up at the top of my list of Christopher Nolan movies. It's the kind of story that I gravitate towards naturally so that when several movies are at about the same level of esteem in my mind, it's the space stuff that just ends up winning out. The movie still needs to be good though, and Interstellar is great.

    Matthew McConaughey's Cooper is the exact opposite of The Protagonist in Tenet, which I find interesting and points to why one movie works on an emotional level and the other is more purely spectacle. Cooper has a specific emotional touchpoint, his daughter Murph, where The Protagonist pointedly had nothing specific to drive him to save the world in Tenet. I think it's a testament to some of the more traditional building blocks of storytelling and utilizing them in intelligent ways can lead to more complete stories.

    So, the world is slowly ending. Blight is killing the world's crops. First was wheat. Soon, okra will be gone. Corn's days are numbered. Blight, thriving on the nitrogen in our atmosphere is killing our food supply and will soon turn to our air supply. Something must be done, so the remnants of NASA have devised a plan to use the mysterious wormhole that has appeared orbiting Saturn to find a new home in another galaxy. They had already sent through a dozen people a decade before, giving them three potential worlds on the other side of the wormhole that they could colonize. Cooper, a former pilot turned farmer, stumbles onto this plot when a gravitational anomaly in his daughter's bedroom gives him a set of coordinates in binary for NASA's hidden base on in old NORAD facility.

    I think this movie ends up working so well in no small part because of how it begins. Nolan takes the time to set up the world, its deteriorating and diminished condition, as well as Cooper's relationship to Murph which carries him through the entire film. It's for her that he decides to go on this mission through space and gravity, which guarantees that he'll miss decades of her life. It's for her that he wants to return home, to a home where not everyone has died. He's contrasted sharply with Doyle, one of the other astronauts. With no personal connections, he looks at the problem with the least humanity, feeling that their priority should be the quickest and easiest solution in order to guarantee that they save what they can.

    Also on the ship out is Amelia Brand, the daughter of the chief scientist at NASA trying to figure out the problem of gravity that will get them off the ground in great enough numbers to survive as a species. She has a hidden motive: to reach specifically one of the three worlds, Miller's planet, because she loved him before he left. Her specific attachment drives her just like Murph drives Cooper.

    Back on Earth, Dr. Brand takes Murph under his wing, getting her into college to pursue an education in physics that is in short supply because the needs of the world are so centered on growing food. She grows into a woman and chief student of Dr. Brand, eventually learning that Dr. Brand had known for decades that there was no solution to the problem of gravity, and that there was never any hope for anyone left on earth. Colonization needed to happen with frozen embryos that the ship carried with it to the other galaxy. In her mind, her father left her to starve and die.

    This movie has a lot of moving parts, and I haven't even gotten to the three planets, but Nolan handles it so deftly that it's easy to avoid feeling overwhelmed. Nolan has such command over the story and its cinematic rollout that one can lose yourself in the story without ever feeling confused. Combined with the embrace of time mechanics as Cooper's adventures with gravity slow time for him, the movie keeps the different threads extremely clear as they progress at different speeds towards a single conclusion.

    In terms of the movie's treatment of space, this is where the realistic approach to filming the special effects, with an emphasis on camera placements that are attached to ship hulls, really helps enhance the film's sense of scale and danger. We can hear the rattle of the different parts of the ship scrape and hit against each other as the ship enters the wormhole. When the Endurance passes Saturn, it feels tiny in comparison. When Cooper takes the Ranger into the black hole at the end, it feels terrifyingly huge and dangerous.

    The first planet they visit is a water planet that stretches time by a couple of decades and shows them a planet void of any life despite the presence of water. The second planet is Mann's planet. Dr. Mann was the best of the twelve, the leader, the one who inspired the original group all to go, and his data on his planet was promising and closer to the first planet than Miller's planet. The time on Mann's planet was shown in trailers, but Mann himself was completely hidden. Played by Matt Damon, he ends up being the manifestation of what Amelia Brand described as nature being violent and overwhelming but not evil. The only evil we can find out among the stars is what we bring ourselves. Mann faked all of his data because he couldn't face dying alone. He was completely selfish, as opposed to Cooper's selflessness centered on his family and even Doyle's selflessness unmoored from any humanity.

    Now, having said all this, I love this movie as it is. The final act in the Tesseract is the kind of heady thing that embraces time mechanics mixed with emotional storytelling that I love, using science fiction to tell a human story. This also represents Nolan's response to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nolan obviously loves Kubrick's film, as evidenced by his efforts to have the movie restored for 4K and his many public comments praising the film, but, watching Interstellar, it feels like he has a certain fundamental disagreement with 2001, especially the ending.

    In Kubrick's film, humanity evolved through Dave Bowman becoming the Starchild after passing through the Stargate. In Interstellar, Cooper remains decidedly human after passing through the black hole and the Tesseract. There's no great evolution. We're still human. When he finds himself on Cooper Station, dozens of years after he had originally left, boys are still playing baseball and cheering when they hit a flyball through someone's window (in a circular design that directly evokes Rama from Arthur C. Clarke, who co-wrote the script for 2001). We can save ourselves as we are, Nolan seems to be saying. We don't need some outside force to take us another step in evolution. We have it in ourselves to take us further. There are other callbacks to 2001 including the use of Saturn (which Kubrick wanted to use late in production instead of Jupiter, but his special effects team rebelled and kept it as Jupiter) and the overall structure of having the Tesseract in place of the Stargate. I love both movies, and Interstellar is great, but it's not quite 2001: A Space Odyssey brilliant.

    I think this is Nolan at his height. Technically, the movie is at the top of the heap of cinema magic. Narratively, Nolan found a way to keep the stakes of the movie small enough to understand but still tied to a larger problem. In terms of performance, Matthew McConaughey is probably the best leading man Nolan's ever worked with, imbuing Cooper with such pathos as to invite real emotional connection. Anne Hathaway gives it her all as Amelia. Jessica Chastain is wounded and proud as the adult Murph. Hans Zimmer produces one of his best soundtracks using a huge organ at its core. This is Christopher Nolan exploring his cinematic loves at the height of his power in Hollywood, able to turn a heady science fiction script into a rousing and even touching adventure through space and time that made gobs of money at the box office. This is really why I love Christopher Nolan as a filmmaker in general.
  • This is the work of a very clever genius, a filmmaker in complete command of every aspect of filmmaking and able to bend it all to his will. Christopher Nolan is able to combine art house construction with broad filmmaking appeal to create one of the most invigorating big screen adventures of the last few years, with one very small exception. Much like 1917 by Sam Mendes, Dunkirk represents a new generation of elite filmmakers tackling the subjects their forebears repeatedly mined for stories in interesting and fresh new ways.

    Nolan's fascination with time and narrative structure is on full display with Dunkirk's three competing narratives. He tells the audience at the beginning what he's doing, but he's a bit cryptic about it. Personally, I didn't get it until halfway through my first screening. At my third or fourth, I know going in that the action on the mole takes place over a week, the action on the sea takes place over a day, and the action in the air takes place over an hour. It's exactly what Nolan says with his few titles, of course. This interesting structure provides Nolan leeway to tell an expansive, but somewhat generalized story of the Dunkirk evacuation, all coalescing around a single, exciting event.

    The closest we get to a main character is Tommy, played by Fionn Whitehead, as a young soldier that, to me, recalls Tom, the main character from Stuart Cooper's Overlord. Detached from what's left of his unit at the beginning of the film when he's the sole survivor of an attack on the streets of Dunkirk, Tommy spends the movie trying to find a way off the beach. His being unattached allows him to move around to different parts of the action at the mole, showing the audience a lot more than if Tommy had been left to wait in the queue along with the majority of those waiting for rescue. He sees the sinking of two boats, one of which he's on, the despair of those on the beach, and is part of a desperate attempt to leave in a small Dutch ship that's been washed ashore at low tide.

    The tale at sea contains the most emotionally affecting moments centered around Mr. Dawson, a dedicated older man who owns and captains the Moonstone, a small motor boat the British government has requisitioned for service to retrieve the stranded British soldiers, and George, a local boy and friend of Mr. Dawson's son, who jumps on for the ride because he wants to be useful and make something of himself. As they sail south to France, they pick up a young officer who's the last survivor of a U-boat attack on a ship, and he's shellshocked for the experience. The officer ends up fighting Mr. Dawson's effort to continue on, accidentally pushing George down the stairs to the lower deck and hitting his head fatally.

    The tale in the air is of two fighter pilots after losing their leader in an initial dogfight, as they fly southward towards Dunkirk in an effort to do what they can with their hour of flying time. These sequences are the movie's most obvious standout moments. Filed on 70mm film stock with IMAX cameras, they capture the details of the seas, clouds, skies, and planes to such an incredible degree while also, when combined with the realistic dogfighting, makes for a wonderful sensational experience.

    If I were to break the three different sections into three different narrative focuses they would be that the mole represents the movie's plot, the sea represents its heart, and the air represents its spectacle. It's a simplified look, but I think it fits.

    One thing I've always maintained about this movie is that it is a triumph of character. You don't normally see that in a more procedural and task-based story, but Nolan populates each thread with such rich characters that I think it fits. I've seen criticism where people can't recall character names and imply this to mean that there's little character in the film, or that we don't know backstories so we don't know characters. Names and backstories are elements of building characters, but they are not the only thing about them. Looking at Mr. Dawson who will not let the navy take the Moonstone because it's his, and the duty to help those trapped at Dunkirk does not solely exist with the government. We get a line of dialogue about how he lost his eldest flying Hurricanes in the third week of the war, which provides him with grounding on which to aggressively and emotionally pursue one of the downed British fighter planes. Combined with his sense of duty to country and the young men fighting an old man's war, he's able to swat away any criticism that this isn't his fight. Mr. Dawson really is a rich character, and he's not the only one. George has the great emotional moment, assisted by Peter, Mr. Dawson's son, when he appears in the paper at the end, getting his moment of bravery told. Farrier, the last flying pilot played by Tom Hardy, gives up his opportunity to fly home safely in order to do his duty and fight the bomber threatening a troop carrier at sea. Really, the movie is a celebration of the traditional British character traits that would eventually help win the war against Germany.

    Now, having said all that, there's one moment in this movie that takes me out of it completely. Tommy, having gotten onto the small Dutch ship with a few other British soldiers, waits patiently for the tide to come in. Being on the extreme Western edge of the British position, they have no support, hoping for subterfuge to be their saving grace. The nearby German troops decide to use the seemingly empty vessel for target practice, filling the hull with bullet holes that end up taking in water when the tide does eventually come in. Now, as the ship is gaining hundreds of pounds of water every few seconds, the most prominent other British soldier decides that the mute soldier who's been along with Tommy the whole way is a German spy and he needs to get off the boat in order to save them some weight so they can float. It's such a weird choice that feels all wrong, like an effort to build more tension out of a moment that's already full of it, to give the characters something to do rather than just wait for the ship to get carried away by the water. It's not that the concerns don't contain merit on their own, but combined with the situation around them and the other concerns, it feels like a mishmash more than anything else, and it stands out despite being over after just a couple of minutes.

    The ending of the movie's plot is really the overall point, I think. All three storylines converge on a single point, the sinking of the Dutch vessel next to a troop carrier that's been hit by a bomb with the Moonstone picking people up and Farrier fighting off the last of the German air support at the same time. This is the kind of clever resolution that I know Nolan was getting the most excited about, and it works really well.

    Overall, the movie has one small hiccup that keeps his from perhaps some kind of weirdly perfect film. Outside of that, it's beautiful to look at, surprisingly emotional with wonderful characters, and thrilling in individual sequences and in total construction.
  • 19 January 2021
    There's high concept, and then there's Christopher Nolan's Tenet. It's really two movies in one. The first is a standard spy thriller full of twists and turns. The other is a high concept science fiction action epic that is designed to provide the audience a new action experience unlike they've seen before. The complexities of the first piled on top of the complexities of the second create a rather delirious overall experience that becomes hard to grasp as the audience struggles to keep up with details that get spewed in quick order (and, yes, in competition with the rest of the sound design). That being said, I feel like, after only a single viewing, that there's actually a good amount of fun to be had with this film, and that's not really what I see talked about a lot. It's such an effort for audiences to keep up that they largely can't let the ridiculous action spectacle play out without understanding every beat.

    So, The Protagonist (might as well just call him Hero Boy) gets caught up in an adventure with world ending implications against and with people who can move forward and then backwards in time. Called inversion, it's based on a technology not designed for generations into the future, but the war over its use is being fought today. He is a CIA operative who took his cyanide pill after being captured following an attack on a Ukrainian opera house where he was tasked with extracting an asset and a package. The cyanide pill didn't kill him, but it did get the CIA to cut him loose on a new mission to find Tenet. With newly acquired knowledge of inversion and the Indian source of the manufactured bullets that had been inverted, he goes from India to the UK to try and get an audience with Sator, a Russian oligarch who seems to be at the center of the mysterious inversion. To get to Sator, our hero must get close to his wife, and in order to do that he has to use knowledge of a fake Goya she appraised as real along with another fake Goya in his possession.

    This is a lot, and it's pretty typical of spy thriller stuff. It's odd that our hero gets the first steps laid out for him from someone he's never met before like M would give to Bond in an information dump about 30 minutes into the movie. I think most audiences would be okay with that, but then the science fiction stuff starts coming in, and it's hard to wrap your brain around. Nolan's offering us a new way of creating action scenes with moving parts that had always remained stationary, and it's all tied in with the larger plot. I do wonder if people would have been more accepting of the film if the actual plot had been more straightforward than twisty, limiting the intertwining elements. I imagine that Nolan plotted this all out on a white board in his home office and it makes perfect sense when you create a flow chart, but that's asking a lot of an audience. And, on top of that, the movie doesn't offer much beyond its plot.

    That being said, the joys of this film are within the complexities of its plot. Revisiting earlier beats from a new point of view with a different sense of understanding of objectives ends up being surprisingly fun. The movie never really treats any of these revisitations like twists of the plot, pretending that there was no way that the audience could figure it out. We're just shown the events as they unfold, and they end up feeling like fulfillments rather than twists. There's no dramatic moment as we learn the identity of the woman who jumped off Sator's yacht. There's no reveling in the information of who the Protagonist was fighting in the Freeport vaults. I think this matter of fact treatment of the movie's second half will make the second half play better on subsequent viewings. Nolan trusts his audience to not need a holding hand, even if we may to a certain extent.

    The fact that the movie's protagonist, played by John David Washington, doesn't feel like a character provides some of the film's thinness. The fullest character is Elizabeth Debicki's Kat, Sator's estranged wife. She has a specific motive, to free herself and her son from Sator's grasp which she cannot do at the beginning of the film but the protagonist ends up helping with. It almost feels like she should have been the main character, lost in this weird new world as much as the audience was and with a concrete thing that she wants that we can relate to. The protagonist ends up going through the plot because he must, and as a vehicle for this plot he's fine. However, it's a thin reed on which to grasp.

    Technically, the movie's as well made as you could imagine a Christopher Nolan production would be this late in his career. It looks fantastic and the trippy action scenes with opposing flows of time are just simply wonderful to look at. There's so much detail and so much going on that when we get to the final battle, the audience can feel confident that the controlled chaos is playing out coherently. The actual objectives may need some explaining, but the action to get to that MacGuffin does not. And there's the source of the movie's fun.

    No, this is not some deep exercise in the concept of time. Nolan uses time to create a new kind of action sequence, and he does that quite well. Everything else around that is thin but entertaining enough spy stuff. You may need a flow chart to figure out the details of the film, but I don't think you need one to enjoy what the movie has to offer.
  • 19 January 2021
    This is a perfect movie. Rian Johnson started his career with the kind of introduction to audiences that directors never really get. This ranks with Citizen Kane and Eraserhead as one of the best debut films of a director ever. Adapting the hard-boiled detective genre to a California high school, Johnson provided new color and energy to a long moribund genre that he grew up loving through Dashiell Hammett stories, writing an exceedingly tight mystery with shocking emotional depth. Using San Clemente High School, where Johnson attended, and surrounding area locations, Johnson's low-budget effort never feels small or claustrophobic, perfectly using his limited financial resources to their maximum effect.

    Brendan is a loner in high school who was a small-time drug dealer but got out of the game clean by giving up his partner. Now he is the member of no gang or clique, eating lunch alone out behind the school. His only connection to the rest of the world was Emily, his girlfriend, but even she left him a couple of months before. He seems content with his isolation until Emily calls him on a payphone one day, scared, and begging for his help. That single call sends Brendan down a path that takes him through the upper crust of San Clemente High School's drug culture. When Emily ends up dead by a tunnel, Brendan makes it his mission to break the teeth of those responsible. Using clues from Emily's call to him, Brendan knows that he needs to find out about "the pin", "tug", and "the brick".

    The twisty path that Brendan takes fits so perfectly with the cliquey world of high school while recalling the organized crime and corruption origins of the genre. The theater geeks, headed by the Vamp Kara, are a source, but it's the jock, Brad Bramish, who seems to be at the top of the high school food chain. When Brendan lays him out in a fight in the parking lot and no one stops him, he knows that Brad was nothing more than a patsy, a front, and that the path will go further. He wasn't the pin, the kingpin. Brad's girlfriend Laura attaches herself to Brendan, or tries because Brendan doesn't trust her at all.

    This all feels like a noir from the 40s, and yet it fits the high school setting so well at the same time. Brendan is there to make those who hurt Emily pay, ending up playing both sides against the middle, and at the core is Brendan's isolation. The movie is a technical marvel, expertly weaving its complex plot with precisely captured cool toned visuals that create a cohesive experience, but Brendan's drive through the plot remains crystal clear. Brendon loved Emily. She was his only connection to the world, and even after she cast him off he never stopped loving her, though he suffered that alone. When she reached out to help, he did it because he loved her. When she ended up dead, he followed the plot because he loved her. He never stops loving her, and yet it's never treated at the forefront. It's implicit except for one moment where Brendan completely breaks down (a moment Laura takes advantage of).

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries this movie in every scene, playing Brendan like a proud but wounded animal. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect as well. Emilie de Ravin is Emily, a broken girl who wants more but is far out of her depth. Lukas Haas plays the Pin as the eldest amongst a group of youngsters with dreams of larger things, barely holding his nascent drug empire together against this new threat he doesn't quite understand. Noah Segan, as Dode, Emily's new drug addled boyfriend, is edgy and unpredictable. Brian White as Brad is the exact kind of theatrical jock who's all talk. My favorite of them all might be Matt O'Leary as Brain, though. According to one theory, Brain, who helps Brendan along the way with information, does not actually exist and is instead a manifestation of Brendan's subconscious, allowing him someone to talk to in order to work things out, but whether he's real or not, he gives this kind of mannered performance of a really smart kid in a world he can see clearly but doesn't quite understand for, as he says, people are hard.

    The music, written by Johnson's cousin Nathan Johnson, evokes the 40s, feeling appropriate for the throw-back nature of the overall piece. I wouldn't normally comment on basic sound design, but since Johnson cut this together on a home computer (while doing the sound mix in an actual studio), I think it needs to be mentioned that the sound is deep, multi-directional, and inventive. The camera work is filled with small things that Johnson's become known for in their earliest stages, like when Brendan is getting beaten by Tug and the camera swings back and forth with every well-timed hit.

    Brick is a joy to watch. It's the work of a man who threw everything he had at the screen in an attempt to make a movie, perhaps the only feature length movie he'd ever get to make. He wanted to make the best thing he could possibly pull together with the $450,000 he pulled from family and friends, and he wanted to pay tribute to the genre that captivated him as a child while utilizing his film school education to maximum effect. It's thrilling, touching, and shockingly well made. Brick is just flat out great.
  • Fellini's last movie. He started his directing career with Variety Lights in 1950 and ends it here, in 1990, with forty years of change to his beloved home country in between. It turns out, though, that Fellini didn't have a whole lot more to say. He'd been repeating certain ideas since the fifties, but he'd been able to provide new twists and variations, the most interesting in his late career being his self-reflective turn in City of Women where he provided a critique of his own view of women. The Voice of the Moon feels like a light bauble to end a great career with, more like a coda than a final statement. That's not to say that there aren't joys in this final film, but it just seems to come to very little while repeating too much.

    The two main characters of The Voice of the Moon both have mental issues. The first, Ivo, played by Roberto Benigni, was released from a mental institution, and the second, Gonnella, was a local magistrate but removed from his post because of rising senility issues manifested by obsessions with conspiracy theories. Ivo is a wistful young man who hears voices from the moon and from wells in the middle of the night. He seems to have trouble interacting with most people such as, early in the film, a group of young men crowd around an isolated house to watch a woman undress and he can't keep quiet, loudly trying to tell the other guys something that made him laugh. He drifts through their small town, mostly idolizing the local beauty Aldina, a blonde who wins the regional beauty contest.

    The two end up meeting about halfway through the film in the town market, bumping into each other for the first time, and Gonnella's conspiracy mindedness immediately hits a chord with Ivo. When Gonnella starts pointing out people around them acting normally but insisting that it's all an elaborate act to lull him into a false sense of security, the innocent Ivo starts to consider it. Gonnella latches onto Ivo and Ivo latches onto Gonnella, and their journey culminates with them discovering a rave in an old, remote, and large building. Set to Michael Jackson's "The Way You Make Me Feel", Ivo casts off his ideal Aldina who scoffed him endlessly, offering up the shoe of hers he had been holding onto almost the entire movie and finding that it fits on every woman's foot he meets. Gonnella critiques the gyration that is modern dancing, recalling the more elegant form he had practiced as a young man before his love, a woman he calls a French Duchess, appears out of nowhere and the crowd gives them space to dance to "The Beautiful Blue Danube".

    The end of the movie is an extended outdoor press conference after two local brothers who owned construction equipment had used their crane to capture the moon and hold it to the earth with rope in a nearby barn. I was enjoying the film as the kind of loosely episodic adventure that Fellini had become well-versed in until this where the final sequence seemed to be taking up questions that the rest of the movie had never concerned itself with. Fellini often returned to the idea of meaning in the modern world, but the familiar satirical targets reappearing here, in particular the Church, felt out of place considering what had come before as opposed to the same target feeling like a natural fit in a movie like Roma. It didn't help that Ivo and Gonnella are barely involved in the events as well.

    Eventually, the movie ends with Ivo hearing the moon speak to him about how his grandmother laughed every time she saw him and Ivo walking up to a well bemoaning how no one listens anymore because the world is too loud.

    I can't say that I disagree with Fellini about the modern world generally being too loud for quiet introspection, but the way he presents the idea in The Voice of the Moon ends up feeling like the rantings of an old man who's found that the world has passed him by. In particular, Gonnella's dance seems to stem from that, and it turns what could have been a beautiful moment of things lost to time into something much more bitter, a tone that doesn't really fit well with Fellini's carnivalesque milieu in general. His satire always had bite, but he dressed it up entertainingly in a way that softened the initial impact with the satirical elements needing to be teased out a bit, but the softer exterior feels almost completely removed here.

    In terms of repetition, this usually isn't something to bring up in a review. Fellini approaching the same idea for the 20th time could have the same impact as the first or the fourth, but here the ideas feel more like going through the motions, like Fellini is just bringing them in because it's habitual rather than he has something else to add to the idea. The ideal woman, for instance, is Aldina, but Ivo just gives her up in a (possible) fantasy sequence where every woman can wear her shoe. It almost feels like a throw away moment rather than the point of Ivo's journey which, when mixed with Ivo at the end, talking to the moon about quiet, almost ends up feeling like it's from a different movie.

    Now, that's not to say that there isn't fun to be had in this movie. Fellini knew what he was doing in individual sequences that hold up in isolation quite well. The story of Nestore and his recently divorced wife's insatiable sexual appetite is amusing, for example. The press conference around the captured moon is controlled chaos executed well, with an idea at its core about searching for meaning. I just don't think that Fellini's loose production style ended up pulling all of his ideas together. It was always a risk with how he worked, and I just don't think that the bet paid off this time.

    The Voice of the Moon is the work of an artist too set in his ways to really break out of them, too enthralled to the same ideas that have dominated his work his whole career to say much new, and too talented to let that drag the whole affair down.
  • I ended up with the opposite reaction I've had over the last few movies with Intervista. I was deliriously in love with everything until the ending when I felt like it just petered out. Each of the disparate pieces was wonderful as I waited for Fellini to bring it all together in the end, but that ending felt like a stop rather than a culmination, undermining the sum total of the individual episodes, making the entire film feel like a cute exercise more than anything else.

    It's essentially four movies in one. The first is a TV documentary by Japanese journalists interviewing Fellini as he starts his production of a new movie. The second is a dreamlike recreation of Fellini's first trip to Cinecitta as a young journalist himself, going for an interview with a beautiful actress. The third is the film that Fellini intends to make, an adaptation of Franz Kafka's Amerika. The fourth is Intervista itself as a whole. The joys of this film are in how Fellini intertwines the four, letting his memories in his interviews bleed into the production of a film which ends up being his memories of Cinecitta, but once the character of Rubini (named after the actor who plays him, Sergio Rubini, and also, coincidentally, the name of the protagonist in La Dolce Vita) gets to Cinecitta and performs his interview, that memory fades away in favor of the production effort on Amerika.

    Watching Fellini talk about his movie never to be made, his memories, and direct his actors and production team, Intervista heavily recalls 8 1/2. He does have a clear idea of what he wants, as opposed to Guido previously, but the roving meetings with his staff, the screen tests of women, and the flurry of activity around the production in general end up feeling like an extended reference to his earlier movie. It was wonderfully rewarding, as someone going through his filmography and familiar with his work, but I began to wonder how it would play to someone not in the club, so to speak.

    And then we get the movie's most wonderful moment. Marcello Mastroianni shows up outside Fellini's production office window (three stories up) on a crane dressed as Mandrake the Magician for a commercial filming just outside. Fellini steals him away and takes him into he country to Anita Ekberg's house. There, the two stars of La Dolce Vita see each other for the first time in decades, and Mastroianni magically makes a movie screen appear on which plays their famous moments at the Trevi Fountain. It's a wonderful and endearing moment as Fellini allows his aging icons to relive their most well-known moment, speaking to the power and timelessness of movies.

    I think that moment, as isolated as it is from the rest of the movie, can point to the overall message of the film. Movies were dying according to Fellini, being replaced by the inferior form of television as seen in Ginger and Fred. The magic was going away, and I can see that in Fellini's nostalgic look at his past that dominates the early parts of the film. However it's once Mastroianni and Ekberg leave the picture where I feel like the movie falters. I've loved the film up to this point, but the ending feels aimless. During some outdoor screentests for Amerika, rain falls and starts bursting some of the hot lamps lighting the area (recalling another moment from La Dolce Vita). The cast and crew huddle under a makeshift cover built of wooden planks and plastic sheets, and they wait out the night until morning when they get attacked by Indians who use antennae as spears. Then Fellini takes his camera into an empty soundstage and provides an Arclight to give the movie a final ray of hope, as, he explains, is related to a complaint from a producer he had decades before, that his movies never ended with any hope.

    So, I think I get the movie, but I don't feel like the ending lives up to the rest of the film. Movies are dying as an artform. Fellini is nearing the end of his life and career (he only had one more movie in him after this). He's saying goodbye to the artform he's known and loved for decades as well as the place he made his movies since Nights of Cabiria, but watching his crew huddle under that cover doesn't feel like a great way to end this collection of stories and memories. I just felt more and more deflated as the ending went on. That very well could have been the point, though. The joyful act of moviemaking is dead. I'm open to reassessing with a second viewing.

    There's a lot of joy and good feeling in this movie including a lot of treats for fans of Fellini. Its ending ends up missing an opportunity to bring everything together, especially the enjoyable tangent with Mastroianni and Ekberg, which drags the entire experience down a good bit for me.
  • Federico Fellini's two most frequent actors, his wife Giulietta Masina and the star Marcello Mastroianni, come together for the first time in a Fellini picture, and the result is a rather wonderful little gem of a film late in Fellini's career. It's about getting old and reflecting back on the past that's gone, told through two characters that made their livelihoods dancing like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers around the start of the Second World War. Touching on the kind of off-kilter forms of entertainment that appeared in Fellini's earliest films, Ginger and Fred also balances the later deeply satirical streak with his earlier humanist touches to create a very charming and touching film.

    Long out of show business altogether, Amelia is invited to Rome to appear on a Christmas variety show with her long-separated partner, Pippo, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers lookalike dancers. Not sure what she's agreed to, the carnival of acts and personalities that end up swarming around her in the hotel the television studio has booked her into begin to make her question her decision. When she finally sees Pippo, she commits yet again.

    Now, one of the fun things about this movie is how it treats Marcello Mastroianni as Pippo. In his first scene, he's disheveled and barely awake, coming out of his hotel room to Amelia's knocking because he was snoring too loudly. He's a far cry from the suave movie star making role in La Dolce Vita, and that playing against type ends up working really well. Masina is the collected professional grandmother, concerned about how things look, but she also gives a wonderful physical performance, especially as the movie goes into its later stages and things get a bit kookier.

    Fellini ends up doing two major things in this film. The first and foremost is the story of Amelia and Pippo reconnecting after decades apart have sent them in inexorably opposite directions, only to cross paths one last time in this one extraordinary circumstance. There was love then, but she broke it off and neither seems to really remember why. It just ended, but in the decades since, both married other people. She had a daughter, became a widow, and started running her own little shop. He got married, his wife left him, and he's been scrounging around Europe doing little bits of entertainment here and there wherever he could get it (a more refined version of the late Zampano in La Strada). What the two end up finding by donning their old costumes and dancing together yet again for a large audience is that there was something special there, and it is something to be cherished. However, that something is still in the past and needs to stay there.

    The other thing Fellini's doing is a satire of contemporary television. There's a television on in almost every scene, often (rather oddly and obviously) rotoscoped and composited into frame to the point that the television looks brighter and more in focus than the other action in the frame. Whether that's intentional or not, I could never say for sure. However, it's always there, grabbing out attention away from the more human elements playing out on screen at the same time. The acts that appear before Amelia and Pippo go out are vacuous and quickly forgotten. There's the woman who records the voice of spirits, a flying monk (who does not fly in public, mind you), a group of little people who dance, and an admiral who did a brave and famous thing decades before. Nothing is meant to stick in the people's minds, and yet it's addictive. The last thing before Amelia and Pippo's dance is the host interviewing a woman the studio had paid to not watch television for a month, and she tearfully confesses that the month was one of the worst in her life and that it was a form of torture while the host smiles to the side and tells the audience that they should listen to the woman and never turn off the television.

    Fellini had obviously held a fascination with television at some point, having had a hand in several television projects including I Clowns and A Director's Notebook, but it seems as though popular television confounded him to a certain extent. He embraces the carnivalesque aspect of it, but there is an obvious implication that television is effervescent and temporary in a way that cinema didn't share. Amelia and Pippo do get their moment to reconnect fully with their dance, but their moment to recover and revel in that is cut short because they're in the way of the next act. They've had the greatest moment of their professional lives, and they already being pushes aside for something else.

    Like many men as they grow old, Fellini seemed to become more circumspect about age as he grew older. Amelia bemoans her wrinkles in a mirror. Pippo has cramps in his foot that end up making him fall on live television. There's an implication that the two will never see each other again when they part ways at Termini Station on different trains, and it's a touching moment brought on by two likeable and flawed characters reconnecting after a lifetime apart. It's a light, touching film, often quite funny, and impeccably made by a master of the craft.
  • It seems odd for Fellini to have picked the Belle Epoque to be the subject of his satirical eye. Ending more than seventy years before And the Ship Sails On's production and ending six years before Fellini's birth, La Belle Epoque was a Franco-centric period marked by peace and cultural and technological advancements. It all came crashing down with the violence and bloodshed of World War I. And it's on this cruise from Italy to a small island, designed to honor the recently departed and greatest of opera singers Edmea Tetua, where the Belle Epoque meets the future.

    The movie opens as a silent film with sepia toned images and a complete lack of soundtrack and bleeds slowly into color and sound. As the group of opera singers, managers, and critics climb aboard the Gloria N they all break into a song. The cast of characters is large, and we're not really supposed to identify with them individually though there are certain standouts. First and foremost is Orlando, a journalist who functions as a narrator, introducing characters and providing critique as we move through the film. The large opera singer Aureliano, a Russian basso who can hypnotize a hen to sleep with his voice, the jealous Ildebranda who wants the secret to Edmea's voice, and the Grand Duke, a young and fat Prussian royal, who make the most impact.

    For several days these characters wander the ship, touring it with the captain, and speak of frivolous things while the recent outbreak of hostilities incited by the assassination of the Arch Duke Ferdinand gets barely a mention. There's a séance which a wealthy fan of the diva tries to ruin by appearing in her clothes as a ghost only to be found out and insulted. There's the trip to the boiler room where, high on a gangway removed from the grit of the work, the opera singers enter into an unofficial singing contest in order to entertain the grimy men below who make the boat go. There's also a rhinoceros being transported below deck that begins to stink up the entire ship and must be raised out and washed. All of this has implications of the people and their status in contemporary culture, with them far removed from the people that they speak of in abstract.

    Much like the wrecking ball crashing into the practice space in Orchestra Rehearsal, everything changes when the boat picks up a large group of Serbian refugees in the middle of the night. The captain saw it as his duty, but the wealthy passengers firstly see it as an affront. They should not have to share their well paid space with nationless freeloaders, but the two groups end up connection through music. The Serbians play and dance, and the opera mavens playfully critique, provide history, and join in before the real world intervenes in the form of an Austro-Hungarian warship demanding the Serbs.

    Like most late Fellini films, the overall point doesn't really materialize until the ending, but when it does it is rather stark. I think the movie is about the inefficacy and powerlessness of artists against real world forces. They are able to delay the delivery of the Serbs with the help of the Grand Duke, Edmea's reputation, and their overall mission, which the Austro-Hungarians honor, but once the ashes have been spread the Austro-Hungarians have not forgotten the Serbians. This is where Orlando, the journalist and critic, becomes the most important. He dreams of an alternate scenario where they stood strong and refused to hand over the refugees, but it's not the case. Instead, we watch as the Serbians line up into the boat to be transported to the warship, and all the opera singers can do is sing in defiance. The singing changes nothing, of course. The Serbians still go, but it all goes even worse when a Serbian terrorist amongst the group throws a primitive bomb into the warship, accidentally causing a cannon to fire, which hits the Italian vessel and sinks her (though, as Orlando explains, there are other interpretations of the events that include the Austro-Hungarians firing on purpose).

    So, why did Fellini chose La Belle Epoque to satirize? Well, I think he saw it as a vessel for his criticism of contemporary artists and their relation to the world around them. Fellini was known for personal works that entertained. He didn't try to push the world one direction or another through his work because he realized no movie of his could directly influence world events, and yet it's a common goal that artists can share. The opera singing above the coal workers showed the artists removed from the real world, and their singing on deck as the Serbians get taken away showed them powerless when faced with tangible might. Their critique and intended instruction of Serbian dance to Serbians dancing showed them unknowledgeable of their limits when it comes to their textbook based intelligence.

    The movie's production design, I think, helps to highlight this barrier. The boat was recreated on a soundstage at Cinecitta, like how Fellini had worked on every film since La Dolce Vita, but there's no effort to sell the space, especially above deck, as realistic. It's heavily theatrical with waves made of plastic, much like the plastic garbage bag waves in Fellini's Casanova, that are meant to highlight to artificiality of the characters' existence. We even get an extended shot towards the end of the movie as Fellini breaks the fourth wall and shows the movie's production that includes a look at the large gimbal that held up the set and allowed for it to tilt.

    Overall, And the Ship Sails On is a good little movie made up of vignettes that drive the action forward. I do wish for a paring down of characters to provide a greater focus, but as it stands, the movie demonstrates Fellini's thematic intelligence and command of the physical elements of production.
  • This movie was awful. I really wasn't a big fan of the original Wonder Woman, but it was competent enough to sustain two hours. This feels like a workprint, the first cut of a movie made from all the footage shot and with any inclination to keep in before any judicious editing has occurred. Now, judicious editing wouldn't have saved the film, but it would have certainly saved me some time. There's no way in God's green Earth that this movie should be two and a half hours long. This is an hour and forty five minute movie stretched to the breaking point at two and a half hours. However, that problem largely goes after an hour when the boring slog of a first hour transforms into the dumbest kind of super hero movie you can imagine. I didn't expect this movie to be competing with Suicide Squad and Birds of Prey as the worst movie of the DCEU, but that's what I got.

    This movie begins wrong, with an extended sequence in Themyscira where the young Diana competes in some kind of Olympic Game for Amazons. The special effects are all wrong here where physics don't work right with these super warriors making impossible moves way too smoothly. Also, it's really long at over ten minutes and does shockingly little considering what comes after. Diana is leading this race thing when she gets knocked off her horse and then takes a short cut. Her trainer prevents her from winning the race, and you'd thing the point would be that short cuts don't get rewarded, but the point ends up being that there is objective truth and that is that she lost. For the time and financial investment in the film, that's a shockingly small way to use this time, especially since Diana ends up introduced twice in this film.

    Yeah, this movie makes a surprisingly classic mistake of loving introductions so much that it introduces its main character twice. The second time is in the eponymous year of 1984 where she comes across a random robbery of a jewelry store in a mall that she thwarts. Again, it's far too long for what eventually gets accomplished (what a later line of dialogue accomplishes which is that the store is being used as a front for illegal purchases of rare items), but it's an action scene, and only one of two (the other being the stupid starting scene in Themyscira) for the entire first hour and a half of the film.

    Now, it seems like a weird complaint coming from me, but this movie is really bogged down in character stuff for the rest of its first half. How could that be possible? How could a bevy of character stuff setting up a film be bad? When it's all boring. When Barbara Minerva is a mousy woman who wants to be popular and that's the extent of her character but that dominates a solid fifteen minutes. When Max Lord is a con man (and very thin Donald Trump caricature) who presides over a pretend oil empire at the end of his rope with a son who looks up to him, and the movie spends about fifteen minutes explaining this to the audience. Where a magic rock that grants wishes (oh, dear lord, I wish I was making this up), makes Diana's long lost love Steve come back and inhabit another man's body (a question that gets shockingly little attention) so that Diana and Steve can finally do it and have a fish out of water bit about a man from the past marveling at the reality of the 80s, and dominates the film for about fifteen minutes.

    After the first two action scenes, the movie spends at least forty-five minutes establishing boring, thin characters and a cute fish out of water bit that gets old fast. It's boring.

    And then the movie gets stupid once it develops an actual plot.

    You see, this magic stone was in the back of the jewelry store, and the FBI picked it up, sent it to the Smithsonian where Minerva works, along with Diana, in order to analyze. Never mind that there's a slip of paper at the bottom of the box linking it directly to Max Lord that the FBI never found, I guess, but people start accidentally wishing for things and getting them granted (having Steve back is an accident, along with Minerva's wish to be like Diana which ends up giving her superpowers). Now, much like in Wonder Woman, there is an interesting idea tucked away under all of this nonsense. That idea is that these wishes will give, but only in exchange for something held dear. It's not a terribly original idea (Rick and Morty played with it brilliantly in the episode "Something Ricked This Way Comes"), but it's still an idea, but the movie bungles it horribly.

    You see, Lord wishes that he becomes the stone itself. Why would he wish that? What led him to believe that that was the best option? You know what the movie should have done with the fifteen minutes establishing him? Answer that question. With the power of the stone to grant wishes, he gains the power over all the oil in the world, but the rules around this wishing are unclear at best and inconsistent at worst. Sometimes, after he grants a wish people do as he bids, like after he gives the least convincing Reagan impersonator ever hundreds of more nuclear missiles, Reagan does as he demands. But other times, like when he builds a wall around Egypt for an oil prince, the Arab royal laughs in his face when Lord demands something. This makes no sense.

    Plot develops stupidly, and we end up where Diana has to willingly give up her long lost boyfriend in order to reclaim her powers (good), and Truth Lassos her way across the world to a secret site where the US government has equipment to override television signals worldwide (ugh). Lord has gone there because Reagan used a turn of phrase ("touch people") to describe talking to people on TV, and since Lord's newfound powers only work through touch, he decides that this television doohickey is the way to go. I mean, I'm sure the god who created the stone in the first place had local colloquial turns of phrase as a means of touch in mind when he crafted the stupid thing, I guess. No, really, this movie is really this stupid.

    There's a CGI heavy fight with Minerva who has turned into a cheetah, I guess, that's sort of okay, and then the movie makes a common mistake. You see, there's a population of writers these days who don't want their superhero stories with superheroes winning traditional ways, with their fists, so they write in ways for words to do the winning. That's fine in concept, but it ends up really hard to execute. Lord has spent the movie gaining power by granting wishes, and along the way he has completely ignored his son. He's the bad guy, I get it. However, Diana's Truth Lasso gets a new power where she can show people the truth through it (I can imagine where this would have been helpful in her previous adventures, but whatever, comics), and she uses this to somehow talk Lord into giving up everything and run tearfully to his son. This...does not work. It ends up feeling like Diana's talking to herself because the visuals and the sound design clash with the sound going quiet but the visuals looking like there's a torrent of noise between the two. On top of that, though, I find it hard to believe that the right words would have made the man who did everything he did in the first couple of hours of this movie turn around do just that. He's the most reasonable antagonist ever in a superhero movie if so. I guess Diana's gonna have a hard time with any bad guy who doesn't even need to throw a punch, just blow some tough wind at her, and won't be talked out of something.

    This movie is awful. It's truly terrible. A tighter cut would have made the first hour much shorter and less boring, but it would have done nothing for the sheer stupidity that dominates the last ninety minutes. I do have to mention one more idiotic thing, though.

    Steve, the WWI era pilot whose consciousness as it was on the day he died now occupies a random dude from Washington DC, gets into a jet fighter that's a museum piece at the Smithsonian with Diana. He not only knows how to pilot this vastly different piece of equipment from what he's used to because of some dumb explanation about how flying is all about wind and air, but this museum piece has enough fuel to go from DC to Egypt...and then back again. This movie is mind numbingly dumb.

    That's it. I've given up any hope for the DCEU. Many people do actively crap all over what Zack Snyder did in Man of Steel and Batman V Superman, but I have a hard time believing that anyone would prefer this two and a half hours of dreck over the flawed but intelligent ambition of Snyder's attempts at the franchise. I didn't have high hopes for Wonder Woman 1984, but it failed to meet even those.
  • This is often talked about as Fellini's deconstruction of contemporary Italian society, and that obviously has merit. However there's something at this little television movie's center that seems so blindingly obvious to me that it feels remarkable that more people don't talk about it. Fellini was one of those directors who made incredibly personal films all the time, and I don't think Orchestral Rehearsal is any different. I think that the presence of unions, artists, and a conductor point to the filmmaking process and the troubles that he's seen arise over the course of his career.

    Continuing his mockumentary streak that he started in I Clowns and continued in Roma, Fellini presents exactly what the title suggests: an orchestra rehearsal. A group of musicians have come together in an auditorium converted from a 13th century church where several bishops and popes are buried in order to practice playing some music. Introduced by the copyist who lays out the music, he speaks of the space with some reverence, but that attitude doesn't get shared by the musicians who file in. They get ready, speak to each other, engage with the film crew, and explain their relationships to each other, their instruments, and how their involvement in the orchestra represents the lynchpin whether it be the violinist, the drummers, or the clarinetist. These are people who obviously love their craft.

    Yet they're not the only ones there. There are union representatives who demand things unrelated to the music itself like double breaks (20 minutes, understandable) and four players where one will do (which does not have the interests of the music at heart). Reigning over them all is the conductor. Speaking Italian with a German accent, he's a tyrant who berates his orchestra in order to get what he wants. Having read a bit about how Fellini treated his actors, this performance by the conductor recalls Fellini himself and tells me that this movie is as much about the changing nature of the film industry as it is about Italian society.

    After the introductions and the first round of practice where the conductor is unpleased by the performance, everyone goes on their double break as the players begin to forcefully question the nature of the overall arrangement and the conductor, alone in his private room, bemoans the lack of control he has over the orchestra. He doesn't so much as pine for the good old days (as the copyist does just outside, describing how the players loved to be wrapped on the knuckles to make beautiful music, a description that may have more to do with nostalgia than fact) as consider how he will exert further control. When he returns to the practice space, though, the artists have erupted in a full on rebellion, painting graffiti all over the walls of the ancient church, playing discordant musical notes, and calling for the conductor to be replaced by a metronome before casting off the metronome itself as oppressive.

    Everything comes to a stop when a wrecking ball (that had been presaged by rumblings that had shaken the action several times previously) crashes through, casting dust everywhere and injuring the nice harp player. Suddenly shaken, the orchestra returns to practice under the guide of the conductor who moves them through part of a piece before returning to his tyrannical ways.

    This seems to be Fellini's most self-consciously and defined use of symbols to drive storytelling so far in his career. No one has a name, they are all people defined by their instruments and, potentially, their place of birth. It's a portrait of a complex system built out of individuals with their own desires and dreams. Constructed out of the remnants of a holy place repurposed, it's a system steeped in history with talk of previous conductors in decades past. The individuals of the system, who had managed to work together so well in the past while keeping to their uniqueness, suddenly skip through questioning of the entire system and jump right into destroying it like one finding a seemingly useless fence in a field. Their tearing down of the past does nothing to invite better music in the future, all it does is pit one group against another, creating disorder. Their differences had been celebrated to a certain degree before, but after the revolution they are all made into suspicions.

    It's a short film (a grand 69 minutes) and packs in a lot. As implied, there are no real characters, but the individuals fill their specific places with strong color. Like many Fellini films, the pieces don't come together fully until the ending, that wrecking ball that seems to come out of nowhere and provides the characters and the audience with the right frame from which to look at the action preceding it. What does the wrecking ball represent? An undefined external threat? The EU? The box office? I don't know, but the interpretation of the specific symbols is never as important as the flow of the action itself, and Orchestra Rehearsal creates a vision, told on a single set, of a system that tears itself apart and manages to reassemble to a limited degree. It's a surprisingly fun movie to watch and dig into, and it carries a savage intelligence about human nature.
  • Fellini followed up one of his easiest films to love with one of his hardest films to love, and that has a lot to do with how the production of his Casanova came together. Dino de Laurentiis, the famed Italian producer who had worked with Fellini on La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, felt that Fellini and Casanova were the perfect marriage of artist and subject, but Fellini disagreed. He found Casanova, the historical figure sketched by himself in his memoirs written in prison, to be a disgusting, empty figure. When Fellini finally agreed to make the film, his script wasn't the happy-go-lucky adventure through European sex that Laurentiis had envisioned, so he pulled out of the project. Soon, though, Fellini had the money together from other sources and he made a movie about a subject he hated.

    The movie that this recalls the most is Fellini's own Fellini Satyricon. Loosely assembled (like every Fellini film since La Dolce Vita) and an absolute triumph of production design, it intentionally has an empty heart at its core. I do think this works better than Fellini's previous opus, though its intentional distance from the main character doesn't do the movie any real favors.

    The movie begins in Venice during a carnival where Casanova is summoned to a remote island where a nun waits to have carnal relations with him. The lover of a powerful man, she uses this man's residence to make love with Casanova while the man watches from behind a picture of a fish. The lovemaking is ridiculous and mechanical, set to the sound of an odd music box that Casanova carries around with him everywhere with a golden owl that pops up and down suggestively. When the performance is over, Casanova tries to present his credentials to the rich voyeur in a bid to find his way into a proper place in the upper crust of Venetian society, but the voyeur leaves without a word. That is the core of the film, and what we most get for the movie's two and a half hours is a variation of that as Casanova grows older, more tired, and less accomplished with the years.

    The movie's core, Fellini's disgusted view of Casanova as a man, is really centered on the contrast of Casanova's view of himself, the world's view of him, and Casanova's inability to actually be the man he wants to be. Through many of Fellini's works is the motif of people, especially men, being completely unable to change. It's why Zampano can't learn to love in La Strada, Marcello can't commit to Emma in La Dolce Vita, or why Guido can't make a choice, any choice, in 8 1/2. That gets revisited in full here with Casanova. He shows up in a place of great wealth, ready to present his credentials and beg for a place as an ambassador or something else, and then he's presented with a sexual challenge and he forgets everything else.

    This ends up turning Casanova into a tragic figure, despite the grotesque nature of himself, because he's presented opportunity after opportunity to actually improve himself, but he ends up rejecting them all to appeal to his basest instincts. He goes to Rome to visit an ambassador, and before he can fully present his idea to the ambassador, people are speaking of Casanova's supposed sexual prowess and a challenge gets proposed, pitting Casanova against the ambassador's carriage driver in how many times they can complete within an hour. Each man is given the choice of a woman, and Casanova chooses the most beautiful woman there, a model. The contrast of technique with both Casanova and the driver in frame is stark as Casanova moves like a primitive automaton. At the end, Casanova's partner slinks away, but the carriage driver's partner demands more despite Casanova having won the actual contest. Casanova wants love and recognition, but he wants sexual exploration more.

    Fellini has shown his idealized woman before, and they are the kinds of women who are the height of beauty like Claudia Cardinale at twenty-five. Very few of the women Casanova pursues are of that caliber of beauty. So, you take how Marcello is willing to forget everything for Sylvia in La Dolce Vita and you apply that to nearly every woman Casanova comes across, and you can begin to see how little Fellini thinks of Casanova. Casanova loses himself over a humpback, the world's tallest woman, and the grotesquely dressed and made-up nun. He does come across women as beautiful as Claudia Cardinale, but Casanova can't keep himself to them. The chief encounter is with a woman named Isabella, played by Silvana Fusacchia. The two agree to meet in a hotel in Dresden, but as Casanova waits for the encounter that never takes place, he finds the hunchback with an insatiable lust. Instead of waiting for this beautiful woman, he decides to lose himself in a carnivalesque orgy with the hunchback.

    The movie's final moments are key. Resigned to his station, Casanova dreams of the women he has had over his life, and he settles into a dance on a frozen lake with Rosalba, a mechanic sex doll he had bedded. In his dreams, she's the only woman he could ever love, a receptacle for his sexual organ and nothing more. She has no thoughts or desires of her own, just a passive acceptance of pleasing his sexual urges.

    I think that Fellini could have made this point in a two-hour movie, though. The extended runtime doesn't really do the movie many favors. Reading about the movie's production in this contemporary account from The New York Times, I see that the production was extremely loose with Fellini completely changing characters and scenes when non-professional actors would show up in order to match the actors and characters more fully. He would spend weeks filming a couple pages of the script. He used his script as a guide rather than strict directions, a practice he was comfortable with, and I think Casanova would have benefited from a more structured production. He wasn't playing with memory like in Amacord or Roma, he was telling the story of a man, and it would have benefited from a clearer view of the man's downfall into a pathetic joke in a small foreign palace.

    What's there for that two-and-a-half hours is never dull, though. Fellini threw himself at this project, creating a living world of plasticity in which Casanova floats. Fellini just hated Casanova, and he wanted to convince the world that Casanova was worthy of contempt, not adoration or admiration. It's interesting that a man considered a lover of women would disdain another so much, but I think the core of that contrast is that Fellini felt like he actually loved the women he bedded but Casanova didn't, that he loved no one but himself.
  • Out of all of Fellini's work, this feels like the one that comes from the purest, most innocent, and most nostalgic part of Fellini's mind. Born from his memories of his childhood in Rimini, Amarcord acts as a companion piece to his previous film, Roma, as well as feeling almost like a prequel to I Vitelloni. Largely about a group of young boys in Fascist Italy, it's a collection of memories and events strung together in almost dreamlike fashion from the end of one winter to the end of the next. It's also warm and inviting and endearing, one of Fellini's easiest to like meanderings through his brain he ever made.

    The end of winter in this town of Borgo San Giuliano is marked by the appearance of little natural puffballs flying through the air. There's to be no more snow, and life is to return to the little seaside town, and the residents of the town celebrate the oncoming spring by building a large bonfire in the town's central piazza capped by the witch of winter. Fellini uses this mass gathering to give the audience an introduction to the town and its characters. We see the group of half a dozen boys that most of the movie's action is centered around, mostly Titta along with his mother and father and his uncle. There's Gradisca, the town's most attractive single woman and hairdresser that the boys lust after. There's the large female owner of the tobacco shop that gets her own share of fantasizing from the boys. There's the young girl Aldina, the schoolgirl that another of the boys, Ciccio, is in love with. There's also Volpina, the local prostitute. These people revolve around each other as they welcome the new year in displays of humanity that involve the lighting of fireworks, teasing around the bonfire, and general rambunctiousness.

    The movie follows Titta through school where we get portraits of his teachers, all distinctive and commanding in different ways. He goes to confession where the priest asks every boy about self-abuse. He gets into trouble when he goes to the movie with his friends and urinates on a local man's hat from the balcony, his father chasing him around and outside of the house with threats of violence. His mother reacts badly and mother and father end up yelling endlessly at each other with mother threatening to murder herself because she can't take it anymore (which he never follows through on).

    One of the most interesting sections of the film is the treatment of Italy's fascism in the 30s. Titta's uncle likes to wear his uniform with pride, and the entire town turns out when an important fascist official visits, waving Italian flags, and singing fascist anthems. The town seems unified under the fascist ideals, but that night someone places a record player in the church's belltower that plays an anti-fascist theme and the fascists go kind of nuts. They run around in the dark until they all pull out their guns and shoot mindlessly and viciously at the record player when a key shot knocks it from its perch. The view of Fascist Italy has been surprisingly bright and colorful and even fun (with Ciccio fantasizing about the large floral arrangement made to look like Mussolini's face presiding over a wedding with Aldina), but the second that the lights go out and the outlawed music plays, the darker side emerges. Titta's father ends up the focus as he, absent from the celebration that evening because of a fight with his wife, gets dragged in and questioned aggressively, including some bits of torture. When he stumbles home we see the love that he and his wife have for each other that gets forgotten in their more heightened moments.

    Throughout the film there's an undercurrent of unrealized goals, especially around sex, and that's one way that it ties into I Vitelloni. Fellini's recollections of Rimini obviously have a special place in his heart, but it also seems obvious that he's glad he left. What he showed he loved of Rome in Roma is very different from what he shows he loved of provincial Italian life in Amarcord. He seems to have seen life in Rimini as a beginning, not an end. The boys are all on the cusp of manhood, but they get thwarted in their pursuits of women like Titta's moment alone with Gradisca in the theater or his small adventure with the tobacconist, both undone by his lack of experience. Gradisca herself can't find any sort of future until she marries a carabiniere at the beginning of spring in the film's final scene and leaves the small town forever. Ciccio's love for Aldina is never anything more than unrequited, culminating in a fantasy of Ciccio driving a sports car and flipping her off as he drives off. The family takes the father's brother, Uncle Teo (Tio Teo in Italian, which amuses me) who lives in a mental hospital out for a lunch in the country. He ends up climbing a tree and shouting, "I want a woman!" at the top of his lungs for hours until they get the doctor and nurses from the hospital to coax him down. There's so much wanting in this small town in this movie, and there seems to be very little actual attaining.

    People are floated along by dreams, stories, and lies. The local street vendor, Biscein, maintains that when a wealthy foreign sultan came to stay at the Grand Hotel he made love to twenty-eight of the thirty women in his harem. The people of the town revel in the might of the Italian state when they all row out into the Mediterranean in the middle of the night to see the state's huge liner, the Rex, sail by. The boys all have fantasies that drive to elevate their small existence in this small town.

    There's so much love in this movie for the characters and setting, and yet Fellini's satirical streak attaches itself to everything at the same time. It's obvious that Fellini has wonderful feelings towards the people he left behind, but he seems firmly committed to the idea that they should remain there for himself. The fact that it's in the past gives the film a melancholic and nostalgic effect that transcends the screen to the audience who can share in it even though the audience has never lived in a small Italian seaside town.

    Amarcord is like a warm blanket. Full of specific and wonderfully drawn characters, all circling around each other with a central theme to tie it all together, the movie paints a specific portrait of a specific time and place that is incredibly inviting. It's probably Fellini's easiest to like film.
  • 4 January 2021
    Watching this, and enjoying it, made me think of my review of Fellini's Satyricon and feeling bad about it because both are episodic series of events that may or may not tie together, but I was simply more entertained by Roma than by the earlier film. Since it had been a while since I had seen Satyricon (and it had been out of the context of the rest of Fellini's work), I did end up revisiting it immediately afterwards. I'll have thoughts on that later, but, in short, my opinion remains the same. Roma holds together much better for a couple of big reasons.

    Roma doesn't really have a story. It's easy to see I Clowns as the embryonic form of Roma because they both share quite a few large elements. Fellini appears as a minor character directing things, again. There's a mix of footage that feels like it was captured impromptu on the streets of modern Rome (though, again, I'd be hard pressed to believe that it wasn't all staged) with work done on soundstages that even go so far as to replicate a Roman street in the 1930s. Through it all Fellini is trying to convey what Rome means to him as evidenced by the film's alternate title: Fellini's Roma.

    Fellini approaches the city from two fronts. The first was his introduction to the city as a young man. He had grown up with tales of Rome's greatness in school (including a march over the Tiber just like Julius Caesar), but it's the living breathing city itself that captures the Fellini-like character who shows up at Termini Station dressed in a white suit. What he sees as he's introduced to life in the city are the large personalities that make up Rome in microcosm in his pension and the outdoor seating of the neighborhood restaurant. The people are loud and lightly antagonistic, but there's a real feeling of community that makes it easy to see the appeal to a young man with no direct ties to the place.

    Contrasting Fellini's theatrically dramatized version of his personal first arrival to Rome is the carnivalesque but still gritty and handheld look at Fellini directing a camera crane on the highway into Rome through the rain. He directs the camera's view while people marvel at the sight or ignore it completely with the camera capturing weird moments like a horse trotting in the middle of the road, keeping pace with the cars around it. (Reading up on this afterwards, most of the sequence was created on an outdoor set showing Fellini blurring the lines between that which looks realistic and that which looks theatrical.)

    Other tales we see are a rowdy vaudeville performance in a theater in the early days of the Second World War, a collection of hippies hanging out on the Spanish Steps in the modern day, a look at the tunneling process to build Rome's metro system that constantly comes across ancient ruins under the ground, a contrasting pair of brothel experiences from the 40s, and a fashion show of costumes for religious people for a cardinal by an old aristocratic family. What these individual stories end up doing is often working in conjunction with those around them to provide either contrasting views of life back then versus life right now (you know, the 1970s). The undercurrent of it all is a sense of sadness at old things passing away.

    And yet, the point of modern Rome is that it is built on layers and layers of history that you can't escape. There's a late scene set in the Piazza di Sainta Maria de Trastevere with the church that has stood in that spot since the 221 AD and in its current form since 1143 (a church I actually attended regularly when I lived in Rome because it was the closest to my apartment), and in front of it are a group of hippies hanging out, eventually chased off by police with intellectuals commenting on the action from their restaurant tables to the side. It's a wonderful microcosm of the movie's overall approach to Rome, that it's a beautiful, old city, and that it's always full of life in every era.

    And yet, it's sense of sadness is actually rather deep. The Roman house found in the excavation for the metro is a wonderful example. They detect the open space, carefully cut until they create an opening, climb inside to see a wonderful series of frescoes full of vibrant color obvious even in the limited light, and then they watch the frescoes all fade at the exposure to the new air with impotent cries for someone to do something to stop it. Rome was vibrant and alive two thousand years before at the height of the Roman Empire, and it is alive today in 1972, but something has gotten lost. The reality of that life is gone forever, and all we have are faded relics.

    Roma contains Fellini's satirical streak as well, and the contrast of the two brothel sequences (one low class and noisy like a stock market, the other high class and more muted though far from silent) with the ecclesiastical fashion show is particularly striking. On its own, the fashion show would be satirical as the prince of the Church, a cardinal, sits in his thrown and watches elaborate costumes including bishop's vestments studded with electric lights, but as contrast to the women who paraded themselves in front of the men in the brothels, it gains an extra level of bite. There's a similarity to the actions of both that makes the fashion show even more unpleasant than a weird display of wealth and bad taste, but there's also Felliniesque joy in the scene as well. The turtledove habits the nuns where bounce in time with the music. There are a pair of roller skating priests that are just delightful to witness. Fellini had his satirical bite, but he never seemed all that mean about it.

    His most experimental film, Fellini's Roma can be a challenge for general audiences because of it's total absence of plot and embrace of non-linear storytelling. It's a heavily thematic and emotional film that rewards a certain type of viewing that most people aren't used to, and that ends up being one of the reasons that I find it so appealing. There's such warmth, sadness, and joy as Fellini shares his love of his adoptive home city that I end up getting swept up in it.
  • I was going to skip this one in my survey of Fellini films, but then I read the littlest bit about it and realized that I needed to watch it. It fit far too well into Fellini's thematic wheelhouse and sounded like it carried some of his later stylistic choices in their earliest phase (notably including himself as a sort of character). So, after some searching, I did find a copy with English subtitles, and I'm actually quite glad that I watched it. It's far from one of his best works, but it's warmly endearing towards its subject and carries the same kind of infectious energy that the best of Fellini's later works were filled with so easily.

    It's called the first mockumentary, but I Clowns (pronounced like the English E, not the English I) exists somewhere in between genres and never really rests comfortably in one or another, much like Fellini's imagination seemed to operate. It is uninterested in being a straight narrative, a documentary, or even a purely surrealistic expression. Instead it exists in all three realms at once with Fellini spinning them like plates in a circus act.

    So, the story that is there is that the character of Fellini (played by himself) is interviewing retired circus clowns to record some kind of oral history of the dying art form, but the movie actually begins with a staged sequence of Fellini as a child watching a circus tent rise from his bedroom window. He sees the show and cries out of fear when the clowns come to the ring and perform their feats. This is the only time that Fellini explicitly relates a personal emotion towards clowns, fear, but here he is as an adult making a movie about them and their history. The movie gets peppered with similar dramatic moments full of Fellini's familiar handling of camera, costuming, and performance as he recounts people from his old town of Remini that he considers to be clowns, or dramatizing stories from clowns about the past.

    What ties them together is Fellini going around Europe with his crew, his script girl summarizing things directly into the camera while taking direction from Fellini himself, as they find the retired clowns of famous European circuses. Now, this is the part of the film that feels the most "real", but I'm never quite willing to believe that any of it is actually real, that the people he's interviewing were ever clowns at all. That blurring of the lines between reality and cinema seems to be the point, which is an interesting development for a director whose previous few movies have embraced theatrical affectation over strict reality. In these interviews, we receive a brief lesson on the tradition of specific clown acts with a lot of name dropping about this performer did it this way and that performer did it that way.

    The movie's final major section shows a clown funeral done in the large center ring with a bevy of clowns performing their stage-managed bouts of sadness in extended detail. This is like the centerpiece of an actual clown act in a real circus, and it ends up feeling like an elegy for a bygone era. There had been talk and heavy implication of the idea that clowning was a dying form from the interviewees, and here we get a funeral for a specific clown done by clowns themselves. The act is an extravagant one that includes men dressed as horses, a large carriage, a sock gag on the corpse's foot, and a lot of chaos including cannons. It's to note that Fellini is in this scene and he just quietly sits behind the camera giving the very occasional direction, but I have to imagine that he was, in every shot he did not appear, giddy with joy as he watched the chaos unfold. The tender affection for the form and those who performed it is tangible and it all unfolds in signature Fellini style.

    I do find the overall picture entertaining, but I do wonder what a more straightforward take on the history of clowning might show. As it stands, I can't believe any of the history told, feeling like the "narrator" is completely unreliable and that the whole show is a form of clowning with the audience as the joke. Still, if I'm to be the butt of this little joke, I'm okay with it. At least I laughed along the way.
  • This was born from a place of pain, but not Federico Fellini's pain. Made as a present to his wife, Giulietta Masina, Juliet of the Spirits is the Technicolor parade of the grotesque dramatization of Giulietta's life dealing with the perennially unfaithful Italian director. You see, she loved Federico, loved him dearly, but his infidelity hurt her. And it's obvious. There are events in this movie based on their relationship, and, according to what I've read, it was all very difficult for Giulietta to get through the filming experience, causing further strain on their relationship.

    The film Giulietta is the doting housewife to a successful businessman who never seems to be at home. As the movie begins, she's eagerly preparing for a quiet evening celebration of their fifteenth wedding anniversary, but he comes home with a cadre of friends, openly admitting that he's forgotten their anniversary, and proceeds to let the people run rampant through the house, eventually turning it into a séance. It's here that we get our first hearing of a spirit, calling itself Iris, who talks to Giulietta intermittently throughout the story.

    The story is that Giulietta's husband says another woman's name in his sleep, and Giulietta can't let it go because it suddenly makes much of his past behavior, like constantly working late, just make sense. Everyone tells her this or that, but everyone has their own agenda and no one seems willing to actually take Giulietta and what she wants into consideration. Her family dismisses her. The weird hermaphroditic guru tells her to become a sex object. The attractive neighbor woman tries to turn Giulietta into a prostitute in all but name. They're all pushing her away from her husband, but Giulietta never wanted to lose her husband, she wanted him to be who she fell in love with.

    She hires a private investigator (something that the real Giulietta did to Federico) to follow her husband around where she discovers that the whispered "Gabriella" is, in fact, a real woman, a model that Giorgio met in his work and now professes he loves in private. The investigators keeps saying that all will be well, that everything can be fixed and made right, but Giulietta barely acknowledges their assurances, knowing the break has occurred.

    In many ways, this feels like a prequel to 8 1/2. It's not, mind you, but the characters of Giulietta and Giorgio are very similar to the characters of Luisa and Guido in the earlier film, but earlier in time. The pain for Giulietta is new while for Luisa it was old and malignant. Giorgio still lies about his affairs where Guido is open about his infidelities. Still, Giorgio is no film director. However, the follow up of Juliet of the Spirits from 8 1/2, both stories of infidelity, the first centered on the guilty male and the second on the innocent female, cannot be by accident. The incredibly prevalent use of fantasy and memory, often intertwined with no indication of where one begins and the other ends, is present in both, and the second feels like an extension of the first. It's not just that Fellini was continuing with a new style of storytelling for his films, it's that the one feels like the flip side of the other.

    In both, the fantasies represent that which either draw or repel the respective characters. Guido was trying to create his harem in his head, but it fell apart. For Giulietta, though, her fantasies are nightmares. The final ten minutes do a similar thing to the harem scene in 8 1/2 where everything that has been consuming her comes to a single place, but it's tied into actual physical actions on her part. Giorgio has gone to vacation with Gabriella in Milan, unapologetically but still with a lie, and Giulietta tries to simply go to bed, but the visions of the decrepit bodies leftover from orgies, dead horses, her grandfather who ran away with a young dancer when he was an old man, the distinctive basket that Giulietta's neighbor set up to go into a pleasure treehouse in her unique getup, and Giulietta's younger self all begin filling the empty spaces of her house around her. As she calmly moves through the images, she gains control of what she wants, her younger self as she was in a school production of a martyr's martyrdom where she was burned alive on a rack. Giulietta frees her younger self from the rack and walks away.

    Now, Masina and Fellini disagreed with the ending of the film. Fellini saw it as a happy and hopeful ending because Giulietta walking away from the house meant that she was free of the chains that had bound her, but Masina saw it from a much sadder point of view where Giulietta had lost everything and had nothing. Her friends were vapid and unhelpful. The grotesqueries of the other life her neighbor had tried to push her into were distasteful to her. Her husband was gone, and all she had was herself. Her whole life had been a waste. She has no children to take from it. She's been cast out with nothing at all. I think the truth of the ending contains both elements. Giulietta is free from the unloving relationship with her husband, but she also no longer has any support. All that she had believed in failed her, so yes, she can go out and start anew, but she's in her 40s and has been a housewife for fifteen years. Her prospects are probably not great, and on top of that, she doesn't even have a moral base on which to operate because everything she thought was right has been thrown into turmoil.

    As Fellini's first foray into feature length color filmmaking, the movie is a joy to look at from beginning to end. He uses colors extensively and specifically all at once. In particular, the color of Giulietta's clothes indicate what he's trying to do in every scene. She often wears white in the beginning, indicating her purity and innocence. When she visits the guru, she wears a green coat that covers a red dress, indicating a safe exterior with a wild interior waiting to come out. When she visits her neighbor's fiancé, a rich Arab, during a party, she wears a bright red dress as though she's ready to partake in the grotesqueries. At the end, she wears a white nightgown indicating that she's rejecting it all and has nothing. However, the colors go beyond that. Her neighbor is often associated with yellow, which is a corrupted form of white and indicates impurity, for instance. The colors are there, they are wonderful to look at, and they all help imbue the proceedings with further meaning.

    The movie is rich and dense, firmly fitting into Fellini's new moves stylistically. Embracing color, fantasy, memory, and affectation, Fellini paints a painful portrait of his wife's pain that he doesn't quite seem to understand but is compelling nonetheless. This may not be one of his greatest films, but it does show that his Felliniesque later films can contain worth anyway.
  • 31 December 2020
    On the surface, this movie is pure navel gazing on the part of Federico Fellini, and I think that's definitely part of the whole package. However, Federico Fellini was able to move beyond that self-reflective part of the story and tell a story about statis in life, something that can appeal to a broader audience, instead of just his own qualms. It also represents the complete and definitive break from his neo-realist roots. La Strada represented a thematic move. Nights of Cabiria continued along the same lines. La Dolce Vita moved production from the real world to movie sets and focused on the upper classes, but with 8 1/2, Fellini embraced subjective narrative, constructed sets, and upper class characters at a level that would never have appeared in his earlier films. At least La Dolce Vita spent time contrasting the rich and poor in Rome. In 8 1/2, there is only the rich.

    In some ways, this reminds me of Ingmar Bergman's Persona as well as his Shame in different ways. Stylistically, 8 1/2 represents the same kind of break for Fellini as Persona meant for Bergman, but it also feels like Fellini demanding to be left alone to make the kinds of movies he wants, which I considered to be one of the subtexts from Bergman for Shame. The main character, Guido, is an obvious manifestation of Fellini himself, and Guido is at the end of pre-production on a new film with the start of production halted a couple of weeks for Guido to spend at an expensive spa to recuperate from an unnamed condition that put him out of order. He seems completely unable and unwilling to make any decision in his life, whether it's about the movie he's supposedly in charge of or in terms of the relationships with his wife and mistress. The movie is described as a science fiction film with construction on a huge spaceship set already started (even though Guido has not approved the final design for the thing), but all the talk with his actors (who have never seen the script and have no idea what characters they will be playing) are based on people Guido has known in his life, in particular the women. The story that we can elicit seems to be either about humans escaping a dying Earth, or about a man dealing with the women in his life, there seems to be no bridge to explain how one fits with the other. So, I see this as Guido as Fellini's filmic counterpart, trying to make a completely different movie from what Fellini had made before and unable to do it. On a certain level, this feels like Fellini's plea to the world to let him make his own movies the way he wants to, though that's probably taking this two-bit analysis a step too far.

    Anyway, Guido spends the final days of his recuperation with his producer and department heads buzzing around him in the comfortably large patio area and in the hotel he's staying at and his production team has set up makeshift offices in. He fends off questions without answers, angering everyone as he goes. His production designer has a small breakdown in the hallway saying that in 30 years in the industry he's never experienced anything like this.

    Things get more complicated for Guido when he invites both his mistress and his wife to visit him, but he can't fully commit to either of them. He acts like the mistress isn't attached to him when anyone else is around, but he can't commit to his wife in any meaningful way anymore. He's stuck between them just like he's stuck between all of the decisions on his movie. That stasis (born of Fellini's own stasis during the lead up to the production of this movie) ends up consuming him completely. He can't choose between his women and he can't choose anything on his movie, so he ends up falling into fantasy.

    Fellini had started his career in the Italian neo-realist tradition, helping to writing the script for Rossellini's Rome Open City before directing Variety Lights and The White Sheik which were both lighter in tone but still firmly entrenched in the neo-realist tradition. The use of subjective photography here in 8 1/2 makes the final break from that tradition. Dreams, in particular, were something one did not try to replicate with cinema in the neo-realist tradition, and yet that's exactly how Fellini starts the film. A figure, Rubini, is trapped in a car in traffic with everyone in every other car looking at him as smoke begins to seep into the vehicle. He tries to escape, but he only gets out through non-specific means and ends up floating above, like he feels trapped in his situation and the only way out is literally impossible (but so is the nature of dreams). He ends up floating above a beach with a rope tied to his ankle, and someone on the ground pulls him back down to earth before he wakes up in a panic. The movie is filled with subjective filming like this, often centered around a beautiful young woman who is not actually there but ends up being Claudia Cardinale, the woman he's cast in his movie but has not arrived yet. She drifts into scenes where she is not literally, like the line for some health water at the spa, and just vanishes when Guido returns to the real world.

    The centerpiece of the film is a large and long dream sequence where Guido gets all of his women into the house where he grew up. There's his mother, his wife, his lover, and a great assortment more, including women he's never met. They are all there to please Guido in one way or another, but these are entirely fictional versions of these women. The most striking example is Guido's wife, Luisa, who goes from a bitter, hurt woman who's seen her husband philander for years and is sick of it into a completely pliant housewife who's happy to stay up after the rest of the harem has gone to bed in order to scrub the floors. However, the fantasy ends up breaking down when one of the older women, a showgirl that Guido knew years before, begs to remain downstairs with the younger women instead of being shunted off upstairs with the older women, and a small protest ends up breaking out amongst the women, showing that even in his own mind Guido can't keep himself happy.

    Everything ends up falling apart for Guido in real life as well. During a look at screen tests to finalize a series of smaller roles, Guido can't decide on anything while his producer yells at him. Luisa realizing that all of the characters are simply versions of herself, Carla, Guido's mistress, and other women in his life, including the large prostitute who had lived in a shack by the sea in Guido's childhood (again, what any of this would have to do with a science fiction epic is beyond me, as well as every character on screen), so she leaves him finally. The writer he had invited to help critique his script (and functions as a self-contained critique of the film itself from a neo-realist point of view) Guido imagines getting hanged in the aisle. Claudia shows up finally, and Guido speeds away with her. She serves a similar purpose as Sylvia in La Dolce Vita where she represented an ideal. Sylvia was the sexual ideal, but Claudia is more of a womanly ideal. And yet, Claudia is nothing but coy and playful with Guido in the most plutonic of ways. His ideal wants nothing to do with him on a personal level. At a press conference for the start of production, Guido finally completely breaks, imagining himself crawling under the table and shooting himself, another way out, and the entire production collapses in real life.

    The movie ends with Guido considering the lack of decision that had consumed him with his writer who concludes that the production's collapse was a good thing, and then Guido's fantasy returns in the form of every character descending the steps of the large scaffolding around the half-built rocket and everyone dancing in a circle. The return of the carnival, and the signal that it was going to dominate the rest of Fellini's career. It's that Fellini's career would settle into the carnivalesque extravagance that would gain the name Felliniesque that recalls Bergman's Shame to me. Fellini tells the world that he can't make another kind of movie, and he's no longer going to try. It's an interesting historical note that he did end up trying in an aborted science fiction film named The Journey of G Mastorna to make the epic that his cinematic counterpart Guido failed to make, but the descriptions I've read of it show it to have been the weird cross section of genres that the ill-defined film in 8 1/2 would have ended up being had it been made.

    This movie is so eminently watchable and feels like it's going to fall apart for long stretches as you wonder how these disparate parts will fit together, and fit together they do. The final stretch of the film brings all of these assorted ideas and techniques together in a rather brilliant endgame that resolves a story about statis in the only way it can, with the character making no decision at all but one to get him out. An interesting thing about Fellini's main characters is that they are often very terrible people. From Fausto in I Vitelloni to Zampano in La Strada and Marcello in La Dolce Vita, Fellini's male characters are unpleasant, selfish men with little interest in anything other than physical pleasures. They have little understanding of women, seeing them as vessels for purity or profanity and little else, and yet they're in these tales that are rather wonderful to watch as they confront the limits of their worldviews and often end up sad and alone.

    The ending of 8 1/2 mirrors that of La Dolce Vita in that they are both circus acts at play in the service of their central characters' unrealistic fantasies. In the earlier film, we see it objectively. In the latter film we see it subjectively. This ends up giving 8 1/2 an ending that feels happier than it actually is, but I see it as sad as the ending to La Dolce Vita. None of what we see is actually happening. It may be the sign of a complete mental breakdown while Guido is being carted off to a mental institution for
  • For a movie that seems to have a reputation as a loose collection of events, La Dolce Vita is surprisingly tightly built. This is my third or fourth viewing of the film, and my appreciation for it just grows with every new visit to this mad look at the circus that was Rome in the late 50s.

    Federico Fellini found the perfect actor to play Marcello Rubini. Marcello Mastroianni was the Italian Cary Grant, the consummate movie star, and he eases into the role of the society journalist Rubini with aplomb. He's slick when he talks to women, deflecting when he talks to men, and he carries himself with suave indifference to most of what he sees. That feeling of floating through life, though, isn't just an affectation to bring along because Mastroianni was a cool guy in real life, that's the core of the contradiction at the heart of Rubini as a character.

    Like many Fellini protagonists, Rubini is caught between worlds. He comes from a small town (not by the seaside) but lives in Rome, adjacent to the rich and famous. He wants to write serious literature, but he actually writes gossip columns about the rich and famous. He's engaged to an attractive woman of no real social importance, but he's constantly trying to (and occasionally succeeding at) bedding women of incredible wealth. He's a man of physical sensations, but he does seem to yearn for more spiritually. As we progress through the series of episodes, we watch Rubini explore the contradictions within himself, and even progress through his life with views of how he will end up.

    So, it's hard to talk about this without just delving into the individual episodes in order, but oh well. The first sees Rubini meeting up with Maddalena, a wealthy heiress he knows, at a swanky club. They drive off after Rubini receives a threat from someone he harmed with a column, and they pick up a prostitute before going to the prostitute's hovel of a home, complete with flooded floors, and make love in her bed while the prostitute waits outside. The next is the most famous sequence in the film where Rubini spends time with Sylvia, an American actress built out of pure sex that Rubini ends up completely falling for. He worships her, ends up getting her away from the crowd, and tries to find a place to bed her, completely stymied until she comes upon the Trevi Fountain and romps around in the movie's most famous scene.

    Rubini moves on to cover the reaction to a miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to two small children on the outskirts of the city. This is a larger, more circus-like version of a similar scene in Nights of Cabiria, as people crowd around a supposedly holy spot, desperate for some touch of the divine. Unlike Cabiria, though, Rubini doesn't get sucked into the crowd. He ends up taking a spot in a light tower and watches from above. His fiancée, Emma, though stays below and does quietly pray for Rubini to become the faithful man she had fallen in love with. Much like Cabiria, there are views of the small pleas that come from genuine needful spaces, like a woman holding onto her child, both draped in black, kneeling by the small tree where the Madonna appeared, and begging for help for her sick girl. The way the soundtrack drops all of the crowd noise as Rubini focuses solely on her seems to indicate at least a desire to have that kind of deep feeling, but Rubini's attention moves yet again to the circus that surrounds them.

    The next sequence sees Rubini and Emma showing up to the luxurious apartment owned by Steiner, a friendly acquaintance of Rubini's. The conversation is urbane and philosophical with a poet telling Rubini to shed any permanence (with Emma right there on the couch) and Rubini having a private conversation with Steiner who talks about the balance between his comfortable existence and his desire for something more to feed his spiritual needs. The next sees Rubini's father making a surprise visit to Rome and spending the evening with his son in a nightclub. This is one of the more interesting episodes when it comes to viewing Rubini and his potential future. There's a lot of his father in Rubini. They're both womanizers with eyes towards getting what they want when they want it as evidenced by the father's successful attempt at picking up a dancing girl that Rubini knows. When his father has some sort of health crisis as the woman's apartment, he becomes circumspect after an evening of rabblerousing. On a certain level, it feels like Rubini is looking at his own future as his father struggles to get up from his chair after suffering what was probably a minor heart attack and struggling to catch the train to return home to his wife.

    Later, Rubini accompanies some old money aristocrats to their remote castle where he watches this decrepit family saunter around their huge estate. There, he meets Maddalena again, and she confesses that she wishes to marry him but she can't change who she is, and she is way too loose of a woman to be tied down to one man. Unable to see her because they're using a sound echo to communicate across different rooms, Rubini confesses his desire to marry her as well (in a similar way that he confessed his love to Sylvia who didn't understand his Italian), but she immediately falls into the arms of another man who walks up to her. She's never seen again, and Rubini wanders through the crowd until he makes love to another woman in the abandoned structure they're walking through.

    Rubini later has a fight with Emma where she needs him to remain faithful to her, but he doesn't want to change. He kicks her out of his car, leaves her on the side of the road for a few hours, and returns to pick her up after which they embrace tenderly in bed. He gets a call that Steiner had killed himself and his two children, and he has to go and try to help the police break the news to Steiner's wife. The movie's final sequence is its most grotesque and saddest. Rubini, long after having abandoned Emma, apparently, leads a group of low end showbiz types into the house of a friend where they tiredly attempt an orgy that never gets off the ground. As night turns to day, Rubini and the gang wander out to the beach where they see a dead leviathon dragged onto shore, and Rubini sees an innocent girl he had met earlier. They can't hear each other over the pounding of the waves.

    So, why recount the movie in such detail? The depth of this movie comes from Rubini's navigation of these different set pieces and how they relate to his desire for change contrasted with his immutability. He wants to become the real writer, but he keeps finding reasons to ignore it in favor of the more frivolous stuff he does write. He wants to settle down with Emma, but he sees how Steiner commits suicide and his father seems so pathetic, so he ends up casting it aside. He wants something to fill the void in his soul like religion, but he can't get past the artificiality of the spectacle around it. In every instance, he ends up choosing the easier way of life, the one detached from other people, challenges, or commitment, and where does he end up? Feebly trying to incite an orgy amongst a bunch of nobodies in someone else's house, unable to even communicate with the innocent young woman not of this new grotesque world just a hundred yards away.

    For a movie that is titled The Good Life and has this reputation of rich people being frivolous in a beautiful city, the movie's really about how completely empty it is. I'm reminded of Terrence Malick when he went to Hollywood with Knight of Cups and came away with a movie about the emptiness of the place (La Dolce Vita is a whole lot better, though). They're both movies that seem to revel in the details of their world, but the takeaway is not that these places and existences are fulfilling in anyway. Rubini could have made something great of himself, or he could have been happy with Anna. However, he ended up choosing pure frivolity, and he has nothing but a drunken stupor for it. Again, for a movie with a reputation of mad insanity and decadence, La Dolce Vita is shockingly focused and penetrative in theme.
  • This might end up being my favorite Fellini. It's use of character is so clear and on point while it's perfectly acted, centered on Giulietta Masina's wonderful performance as the eponymous Cabiria. From the opening to its tragic but still hopeful ending, Nights of Cabiria is a marvelous creation from a director who is in full command of every element on screen.

    The joys of this movie are evident from the beginning. Masina was a well known comic radio performer when she met her future husband Fellini during the war, but her talents extended to the physicality of her performance. As Gelsomina in La Strada, that was obvious and to the forefront, but when Cabiria, who has just been rescued from the Tiber after her boyfriend pushed her in and stole her purse, she arrives at her small stone house in the middle of a desolate stretch of land just outside Rome and needs to get in. The way she holds her body as she peeks through the keyhole and pushes a barrel to her window to sneak through it just so eminently watchable and interesting. She contorts her body in fun ways to do simple things.

    Anyway, the movie is a series of episodes as Cabiria navigates her life and the contradictions that she has built into herself. As a streetwalker, she's always hoping for a man to settle down with. She's surprisingly independent financially, but she wants a savior to take her away. She's been hurt by men, but she's always looking for the one. She's viciously cynical on the outside, but she's still got the tender heart of a young girl on the inside (the heart of gold, so to speak). The episodes themselves range from her getting picked up by a famous actor who ends up leaving her in his bathroom all night when his girlfriend shows up tearfully after a fight and the couple reconcile to Cabiria going with some fellow prostitutes on a pilgrimage to a remote church where a miracle was to have occurred. Though these events are unconnected by a strong plot, they are tightly connected by a strong sense of character exploring a central theme.

    That theme is the idea of the contrast between who we are internally and who we are to the rest of the world, with another idea that feeds into it, the vacuousness of the modern world. Ultimately what Cabiria wants isn't a man, or money, or a way out of her life, but meaning. Her life of walking the streets at night and sleeping during the day is unfulfilling, and she searches for meaning where she can find it. The key to this part of the story is the pilgrimage. It's there, in that out of the way church, surrounded by people, that she reveals herself fully (one of only a few times that she does) as she begins joining the chant for the Madonna to bless her and give her the escape that she so sorely needs and wants. There's commentary about how Fellini uses the spectacle of the Church, but I think a lot of it misses the mark.

    The spectacle we see in this and La Dolce Vita is the spectacle of the people rallying around extraordinary spiritual events that may or may not be true. Both films contain crowds of people trying to take part in a miracle, but in Cabiria, the main character doesn't get anything. However, we do see people with religion at their heart walking at the edge of the scene, asking quietly for help, and they seem far more content than Cabiria, implying, to me, that there is power in religion to Fellini, but it cannot be a mass event. The spiritual touch of God, to Fellini, was a personal and quiet one.

    Everything seems to change for Cabiria when she goes to a magic show and is hypnotized. On stage, she play acts a meeting with a nice man named Oscar in her mind where she reveals her real name (Maria, which she only reveals in her most vulnerable moments) and her dreams of living peacefully. Angered after she comes out of the daze, she storms off only to be met by another Oscar who eagerly wants to get to know her better. They see each other repeatedly with Cabiria wondering what the whole innocent acquaintance means until Oscar proposes. He's fine with her past life as a streetwalker and has paid for everything since they met, so his motives must be pure and she accepts. The joy in her as she tells Wanda, her friend, of the news is infectious, but this being a Fellini movie, this can't end well, and it does not.

    You see, when Cabiria was on stage, she revealed that she owned her own house outright which implies that she has some decent amount of money. Oscar clung to that until he convinced Cabiria to marry him, after which she sold her house and took out all of her money (which came to about 750,000 lira which would probably be about $12,000 today) as her dowry. Oscar, though, was playing a long game and steals her money in her purse in a scene that recalls the opening scene of Cabiria being thrown into the Tiber by her previous boyfriend. And then we get the fulmination of the movie's central ideas and characters as Cabiria, broken and robbed, walks back from her secluded spot in a strange part of the country when she comes across a roving band of young people just playing music as they dance down the road. Cabiria tears up, her tear smearing her mascara like a painted tear on a clown. Slowly, her frown turns into a smile and she glances at the camera. It's a marvelously magical moment that caps the entire film of a woman, beaten down and abandoned by everything she tries to invest herself into, never loses who she is underneath, finding that there still is life worth living mere minutes after she begged her new husband to murder her because she couldn't take the pain of the betrayal.

    Nights of Cabiria is a great film. It fits well in Fellini's earlier period with grounded aesthetics built on real Roman locations including caves and street corners and also has touches of the elements that would later come to define his films, the carnivalesque atmosphere and parades, but they're far more in the background and never really the point. The point is always Cabiria herself, her contradictions, and her spirit. I adore this film.
  • This is a stripped down bare version of the crime thriller. Characters exist purely as archetypes with little to no life outside of the job at hand. The movie is purely about the crime and ensuing investigation. The movie is told in a handheld, cinema verité style that was fresh to the genre at the time, which explains a lot of the love for the film in the 70s. It was a new way to tell a story, but once you get past that you realize that the actual story is pretty standard and the characters are rather thin. It's an entertaining 104 minutes, for sure, but I question its level of greatness.

    So, the story centers around Popeye Doyle, a hard nosed cop in New York who does nothing but his job and drink (and occasionally pick up random women on the street) who just loves shaking down petty criminals in the narcotics division with his partner Buddy Russo. One night after work, Popeye and Buddy catch sight of a table of known criminal elements at a table by accident which pings their radar, and they start to look into it. Combined with the fact that the drug scene they're navigating seems paltry, Doyle is convinced there's something big going on with the people at that table. With a wiretap, they discover that their lead, Sal Boca, is interacting with a Frenchman who could be the source of a new shipment of drugs. It's thin stuff, and Popeye is on a short leash. It all pans out, of course, or else there's no movie.

    The movie has no real mystery to it since we know from the beginning that Frog 1 (Alain, played by Fernando Rey) is bringing in drugs, that he's using a French television star to do it, and that it has something to do with the star's car (the only real mystery is where in the car), but that's why its stylistic choices end up being so important. There's an urgency to the action that the rough production aesthetic lends to the events that help buoy the story along. Sure, we know that Sal is working with Alain well ahead of Popeye figuring it out, but the joy is the process as we watch Alain and Popeye dance around each other.

    The sequence where Popeye chases Alain around on foot through New York, with Alain jumping on and off subway trains, all while everyone in frame knows that Popeye is chasing Alain and that Alain knows it, is really strong material made out of glances and physical movement. And I think this sequence highlights the movie's central joys: despite its thinness, the movie is really well made. The feeling of tangible reality brought on by the extensive location shooting in dirty 1970s New York City provides a wonderful texture to the action and a great setting for Gene Hackman's Popeye to exist. His angry and violent approach to policework fits like a glove in this place. The violence of knife fights breaking out in the streets feels at home.

    Directed by William Friedkin, The French Connection understood how to combine its setting and material in a production appropriately and with real energy. Directing Gene Hackman into a rather memorable performance as Doyle, Friedkin helped craft a vivid archetype of the dedicated and morally suspect cop. The rest of the cast doesn't stand out nearly as much. As supporting players with little character to build off of, they act more as cogs in a machine than living breathing people. Fernando Rey, though, does bring a coy intelligence to Alain. The only actor who seems to be playing a full character is Frederic de Pascquale as Henri Devereaux, the French television star, though he's still rather limited to "in over his head" guy.

    I do quite enjoy the ride that is The French Connection. It's a technically proficient procedural. That aforementioned foot chase and the famed car chase (car vs. elevated train) are really edge of your seat type stuff, built expertly and cut together cleanly at the same time. I just kind of wish there was something more to any of these characters. Popeye, I think, is fine as he is as the rock on which this movie operates, but Buddy or Alain could have used more. Still, it's an entertaining ride while it lasts with that dirty 70s aesthetic and a surprisingly open-ended ending.
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