Magical Realism: Exploring Reality and Agency in the Coming-of-Age Story
Adapted from an essay written in 2015.

As young inhabitants of the society that they live in, the main subjects of a coming-of-age story are often powerless to affect the world around them at any meaningful scale. They form their own social cliques and standards at a local scale with other adolescents, but must always grow older and face the inevitable coming of change, the structures of adult society, and the responsibilities they take on as members within it. The transition from youth to adulthood often comes with the acceptance of societal expectations and realities, and, as many films have explored, the dilution, repression, or outright abandonment of creativity, imagination, and “childish” optimism in the face of personal or political events and tribulations.

Many films have explored the traditional coming-of-age story, covering everything from high-school and college relations (The Breakfast Club [1985], The Sandlot [1993], Can’t Hardly Wait [1998], An Education [2009]), parental relations (Stand by Me [1986], Short Term 12 [2013]), sexual identity (Get Real [1998], Blue is the Warmest Color [2013]), and political and philosophical ideologies. They span every genre of film, including comedy, horror, musical, fantasy, science fiction, and documentary. The crux of such narratives often rely heavily on the protagonist’s psychological and moral growth, examining how the unrelenting passage of time in the temporal and spatial setting affects and manipulates the personal growth of its inhabitants and their philosophical developments.

Although the ubiquitous experience of growing older enables artists to adhere to safe story structures, relatable themes of personal growth and acceptance, and clear narrative guidelines, there are films that opt to take the experience of transitioning into adulthood and give it an alternative representation. The following seeks to illuminate the inner workings of two films in particular — The Tin Drum (1979) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) — in order to appreciate the visual and audial artistry of magical realist elements as applied within their respective settings, and to examine the roots of subjective agency and its effects on adolescence during pivotal transitional periods from youth to adulthood.

Though explored briefly as an alternative to German expressionist artwork in the 1920’s, magical realism as a novelistic and cinematic genre has its emergent roots in Latin-American and Hispanic fiction, with the critic Angel Flores identifying Jorge Luis Borges as the first magical realist writer in his 1955 essay, “Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction.” The extent to which the variety of magical realist characteristics apply to a given magic realist text or film varies from one work to another, but all works succeed in achieving the overarching desired portrayal of common reality in the context of an existing, magical realist world.

The style is closely related to surrealism, with a focus on the material object and the actual existence of fantastical elements in the real world, as opposed to surrealism’s more psychological and subconscious representation of reality. The essence of magical realism, as observed in this analysis, is that of “fantasy with a straight face,” portraying a world that is, at its core, neither fundamentally different from the reality that we live in, as in true fantasy works, nor internally-expressed and tainted by the point of view of the protagonist, as in surrealist works.

The transition from literature to video media and film introduces a challenge for magical realism. Unlike fantasy or surrealist works, magical realism is adamantly against escapism — the retreat of the viewer into a world wholly different from their own. In film, there is a fundamental realism that is difficult to convey accurately with a touch of fantasy without becoming a full-blown, world-building fantasy. The difficulty of expressing a world that is convincingly familiar and natural, while at the same time introducing believable pockets of magic, is increased dramatically by the addition of sight and sound, and the balance between the commonplace and fantastical relies heavily on the interplay between visuals, audio cues, and the portrayal of subjectivity.

The Poetics of Magical Realism: Visual Duality

The visual landscapes of The Tin Drum and Pan’s Labyrinth are striking in their representations of magical and surreal elements, and are often ripe with symbolic dualities that convey causal effects of the characters’ emotional and subjective mental states on the world around them. The magical and commonplace become intertwined within a single frame, at once isolating the adolescent protagonists from reality as they balance the plane between reality and fantasy.

1. Color and Physicality

Perhaps the most striking visual feature of The Tin Drum is David Bennent, a 12-year-old actor whose physiological disorder limited his growth and gave him the appearance of someone much younger. His young appearance allowed him to deliver a unique, eerie performance as Oskar, a small man possessing the body of a three-year-old child, and the striking visual appearance of Oskar from the moment he’s born gives The Tin Drum an easy visual disconnect between the reality of German life in mid-1900s and the surreal anomaly of a self-made gnome. Though the film is arranged as a sequence of distinct set pieces, the one thing that remains constant throughout all of them, even before the pivotal moment where Oskar throws himself down the stairs and refuses to grow, is the distinct separation of the gnome from his adulterous, perverted, and argumentative surroundings.

Fig 1 — The short and childish stature of Oskar is always on display in The Tin Drum, a constant reminder of his refusal to participate in adult society.

The constant disconnect between what appears to be a three-year-old child and his red-and-white toy drum, and the circumstances that surround him, from the deaths of the adulterous Agnes and the Jewish Markus to the earliest battles of World War II, is always on display in The Tin Drum, and it is understandably difficult to remember that Oskar is much older than he appears when such visually-appalling events occur around him with little notice. Director Schlöndorff does not stray from portraying the disgusting events that occur in the film’s source material, instead utilizing the visual medium to provide distinct images of a child witnessing the loss of life and decency. In this sense, Oskar succeeds in that which he set out to do when he took his pivotal fall — distance himself from the tragedies of the sexually-promiscuous and war-torn landscape of adulthood. Even as the Polish post office undergoes capture by the Nazi army, Oskar appears all-too-focused on repairing his tin drum.

Fig 2 — Oskar stands alone as a child surrounded by horrific scenes of death and disgust. Isolating compositions reflect his lack of responsibility for himself and others.

Though visually distinct from the setting that he inhabits, Oskar has more similarities to the people that surround him than he would like to think. Acting selfishly and greedily based on his own immediate desires, Oskar is willingly blind to the sexual promiscuity and violence that occurs around him, using his tin drum and piercing scream to drown them out in protest. He risks life and limb in order to protect and renew his drums, in the same vein that the adults of The Tin Drum cannot resist their sexual temptations or their desire for coffee, as it may be.

Fig 3 — Many characters in The Tin Drum exhibit a childish lack of self-control and awareness, giving into their most immediate desires in the face of horrific danger.

In Pan’s Labyrinth, the magical element comes into play when visually portraying the distinction between the perverted, war-torn world of the mid-1900s and the fantastical world inhabited by Ofelia. Here, the visual distinction between the magical and commonplace is a result of colors and tones — something that is central to all of del Toro’s films. Muted grays and regimented tones fill many of the scenes involving Vidal and his battle encampment, offset by the bright dresses of the women that co-inhabit the space and the frequently golden, striking set pieces of the magical realm — from the frog’s lair to the Pale Man’s hall.

Fig 4 — Del Toro exhibits striking visual contrasts between the muddied, monotone settings of war-torn Spain and the warm, vibrant, and animated settings of the magical realm.

Like the frightening, piercing gaze that Oskar comes to utilize throughout The Tin Drum, the magical element in Pan’s Labyrinth is presented with a straight face by del Toro and inspires more nightmarish disgust than wonderment. In many ways, the fantastical world that Ofelia discovers parallels the cold, war-torn setting that she trudges through. Though the Faun is a relatively safer alternative to the villainous Vidal — who smokes, drinks, treats his wife like a farm animal, threatens her doctor, and murders others in cold blood — the Faun is just one piece of a fantasy landscape that is ripe with aggressive characters such as the greedy frog, lusting for the consumption of all bugs, and the Pale Man, lusting for the consumption of children. In the striking sequence of the Pale Man awakening from his slumber at the head of the table, a familiarity arises with an earlier shot of Vidal, sitting in a similar and recognizable setting.

Fig 5 — In many ways, the settings and characters present in the magical realm mirror the settings and character qualities of Vidal. With the reality of the magical realm in question throughout Pan’s Labyrinth, it can be argued that Ofelia’s psychological fears and mental states are reflected in the presentation of her magical journey, allowing her to face her fears in a more fantastical, perhaps hallucinatory setting.

To say that the visual dualities presented between the commonplace and the magical serve to distance Oskar and Ofelia from their tragic surroundings is only partially true; though the two settings are visually distinct and form pairs of images that are brutally honest on one hand and strikingly surreal on the other, they are just different mediums through which the pitfalls of sin and desire are expressed — magical abilities notwithstanding.

2. Foreground Wipes

In both films, the visual aesthetics make generous use of foreground wipes to portray the duality of common life and the magical world encapsulated by Oskar and Ofelia. The fluidity between shots of the children and their surrounding adult situations serve to both disassociate the youth from the adults, and indicate that they live in the same reality, the magical realm waiting and watching at the edge of the frame. The use of wipes blurs the line between the two worlds, pulling the curtains on pockets of magic hidden within common life.

Fig 6 — Two distinct factions sit on edges of the same frame: adolescence and adulthood, objective reality and fantasy.

3. Mental Manifestations

The expression of subjective creativity, imagination, and hallucination is vital to visualizing the effects of magical realism on the adolescent mind. As child protagonists run farther from reality, the trauma they witness has an impact in the way they see the world around them, further blurring the lines between objective reality and the magical realm. The freedom to play with physical and mental manifestations of Oskar and Ofelia’s mental states, without the burden of requiring an explanation to the viewer, allows Schlöndorff and Del Toro to present surrealist sequences like the beach killing in The Tin Drum and the invisible Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth, visualizing the mental proceedings of adolescents in a way that is impossible in traditional coming-of-age narratives while furthering the entanglement of childhood magicalism with the world we perceive as reality.

Fig 7 — The medium of magical realism allows surreal projections of the adolescent mind to be manifested within the frame, exploring subjectivity in visual contexts.

4. Implied Causality

Many of the most memorable moments of magical realism are also its most surreal. The pairing of seemingly innocuous and unrelated scenes often has strong causal implications within the narrative universe, even if, logically, objective reality maintains otherwise. The implication of causality between magical subjectivity and objective reality is one that is vital to the classification of The Tin Drum and Pan’s Labyrinth as magical realism over fantasy. Without it, one must either accept the fact that one’s mental state can physically affect the world, placing a narrative work firmly in fantasy, or deny that fact entirely, and accordingly deny the existence and influence of the magical realm.

Fig 8 — The magical realm often has observable effects on the inhabitants of the common realm, reflecting their physical and mental states. In The Tin Drum, Agnes’ adultery comes to a head during the eel-fishing sequence, in which her traumatic experience and subsequent interactions with Jan and Alfred result in a poisonous and deadly obsession with eels, a phallic symbol of masculine sexuality, and fish, a symbol of feminine sexuality. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Carmen’s rejection and burning of the mandrake root immediately results in painful contractions and her fatal birthing.

That is to say that the magical realm can, by its effects, take away agency as readily as it can provide it, punishing those who reject childhood and magicalism as much as rewarding those philosophically confident enough to reject the objective reality that they face.

Agency and Growth in the Magical Realist Narration

None can attest to being more strongly influenced by the power of magic than the young and suppressed. Both The Tin Drum and Pan’s Labyrinth surround their protagonists with the harsh realities of sexuality and politics, filling the world with illness, depression, adultery, parental and spousal abuse, murder, and a whole host of factors that leave children disgusted and repulsed or, in the case of Ofelia, scared, confused, and lonely. The bleak landscapes alone are enough to fill a dozen historical-era tragedies, and neither film shies away from portraying the conditions of Germany and Spain in the onset and duration of WWII.

The stress and disgust that comes with the bleakness of life, along with the natural lack of influence and agency afforded to adolescents in politics and adult proceedings, makes Oskar and Ofelia highly susceptible to long-lasting psychological and behavioral effects, including depression, aggression, and withdrawal from their society and personal relationships. While their rejection of society and escape into the magical realm serve to withdraw and distance themselves from objective reality, using the creativity and imagination of the young and non-systemized mind as a defense mechanism, the addition of an implied true magic serves to imbue Oskar and Ofelia with powers within what can be considered their reality, allowing the magical realm to be used as a tool for protest.

In this way, the magical realist narrative transcends the exploration of imagination and fantasy as a pure escapist mechanism, providing children with concrete weapons that affect the proceedings of objective reality and facilitate the agency of uncorrupted adolescence in a world that they appall. In one scene of The Tin Drum, Bebra encourages Oskar to use his magical powers as an offense against those who would try to quiet and oppress them.

“Our kind must never sit in the audience. Our kind must perform and run the show, or it’s the others that will run us. The others are coming. They will occupy the fairgrounds, they will stage torchlight parades, build rostrums, fill the rostrums, and from those rostrums preach our destruction.”

In The Tin Drum, Oskar discovers an aggressive, high-pitched shriek powerful enough to shatter glass a mile away and precise enough to inscribe it. Combined with the incessant beating of his tin drum, he is able to drown out and intimidate the advances of those who would seek to quiet his protest. In one scene, Oskar protests the educational system, shattering his teacher’s glasses, then proceeds to shatter his doctor’s biological collection after an attempt to take away his tin drum. In another scene, he witnesses his mother’s adultery with her cousin, Jan, and climbs to the top of a tower, beating his drum and shattering every window on the block. In a culminating expression of his influential power, he attends a Nazi rally and confuses the band into transitioning into the Blue Danube, causing the rally attendees to break out into dance in a show of love and companionship before fleeing from a sudden storm.

Though we may never know whether the magical tools used by Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth were truly as concrete and real as those that Oskar employed, the story of Princess Moanna and the Faun gives her the confidence to actively fight for the health and protection of her mother and brother. Her agency, provided by the Mandrake root, chalk, and the guidance of the Faun and the fairy creatures, allows her to supposedly treat her mother’s illness, rescue her baby brother, and further her escape from Vidal through the shifting maze.

Thematics and the Refusal of Adulthood

The magical realism of The Tin Drum and Pan’s Labyrinth allows the films to explore the blindly-optimistic, perhaps misguided, ideologies of a protagonist with the power to reject and manipulate the society that they inhabit. Unlike other coming-of-age narratives, the protagonist is not obligated to work within the constructs of their society. For protagonists of traditional narratives, those that are successful in breaking free from the rigidity of their society and becoming their own individual personality have learned to grow from their experiences after being crushed and systemized by the forces of society. They may even work to reform their society. In contrast, the narratives set forth by TDD and PL serve as a way for Oskar and Ofelia to reject their personal growth entirely and to escape the realities that they face, holding tight to their ideologies at the beginning of the film and avoiding any responsibility for making society better. Their ability to reject reality results in the stunting of their growth — the dehumanization of Oskar and Ofelia as they willingly blind themselves to the ugly side of human nature.

In such a way, their agency is a misdirection that gives them the illusion of power. The refusal to participate in the world is also a refusal to understand adult behaviors and to deal with their personal issues in a way that is conducive to building their relationships with the people around them. Instead of compromising, Oskar screams; instead of discussing the variety of problems surrounding her, Ofelia confides in Mercedes to talk about the fantastical and hopes that completing the Faun’s tasks will bring her “home,” away from the reality she lives in. The artificial agency facilitated by magical realism is a poor substitute for natural growth, and a shortcut that empowers children to reject their coming of age.

The final sequences of The Tin Drum and Pan’s Labyrinth bring the rebellious stories of Oskar and Ofelia to a fold, depicting the consequences of refusing to grow. As the deaths mount and Oskar battles growing sexual desires throughout the film, he is unequipped with the tools needed to manipulate or interact with this world. Instead, we see events unfold around him, increasingly out of his control, until in the final act of The Tin Drum, having lost all of his family, he gives up on the tin drum and accepts growth. In Pan’s Labyrinth, instead, Ofelia resolves to defy the final order of the Faun in order to protect the life of her brother, leaving her defenseless without the help of the magical realm. From an objective reality point of view, this is the end of her narrative, and her descent into fantasy ends in tragedy.

Narrative in The Tin Drum and Pan’s Labyrinth

The Tin Drum and Pan’s Labyrinth are coming-of-age narratives, depicting the lives of two young protagonists at pivotal moments of adolescent vulnerability. The traditional narrative starts at the onset of this period in life, when an inexperienced and immature child faces a call to adventure that takes them away from the safety of their home and begins a long journey of self-discovery and personal growth. This journey involves difficult decisions, painful lessons, and, often, tragic losses and deaths for loved ones, but the result is a protagonist who learns and understands the ways of life and the consequences of greed and desire. The personal growth of the protagonist allows them to reflect on their past and recent experiences, looking back with an understanding sense of loss and regret, before resolving to face the future with the confidence of lessons learned.

In The Tin Drum and Pan’s Labyrinth, this narrative structure quickly breaks down once Oskar and Ofelia embark on their personal journeys. Loss and death is not met with a sense of understanding and closure. Their sense of agency, initially full of hope and optimism as Oskar pounds his drums and Ofelia traipses through the magical realm, wanes as they witness acts of adultery, murder, and war. Their powerlessness to stop these events pushes them further away from their surroundings, and their losses serve not as stepping stones for them to grow and take on adult responsibilities, but for them to isolate themselves further and reject those responsibilities. The result is a protagonist that is unequipped to face the future; a protagonist who grows up using magic as a crutch, and finds that it is not enough to fix or reform their bleak reality.

As opposed to typical adolescent figures in Hollywood film, we do not see the growth of Oskar and Ofelia as a natural and steady progression throughout their cinematic journey. They spend a majority of their film in a state of confusion or ignorance, running from tragedy into the arms of the surreal (Oskar’s troupe of performing dwarves) and magical (the Faun’s magical realm). It is only at the films’ conclusions when, faced with the overwhelming direness of their situations, they make the ultimate decision to stop running and accept their objective reality. It is here, in the films’ closing minutes, that they finally come of age.

The Implications of Magical Realism in Adolescent Development

The core function of the coming-of-age narrative is to present the transition of children from adolescence into adulthood, exploring their emotional and philosophical growth as they grow into an individual capable of acting independently and making choices of their own free will. The qualities that color a character and blossom as they mature often come most strongly under duress and pressure that is seemingly out of their control, forcing them to take matters into their own hands, and the process of coming to terms with and facing inner conflicts allows the protagonist to uncover their true motivations and ideologies. The introduction of magic in The Tin Drum and Pan’s Labyrinth, far from allowing their adolescent characters to face their problems, allows Oskar and Ofelia to deny, reject, and run away from the reality that they live in.

The traditional narrative, rife with situations set up for the protagonist to prevail and steadily build their sense of agency, is lost in a film about escapism and rejection. The promise of agency in magic, optimistically strong at the beginning of Oskar and Ofelia’s journeys, is progressively chipped away at every death, and their protest of the adulterous and war-torn society around them falls on deaf ears. In a world where the magic of childhood gives them real, tangible agency and an optimism to affect and reform society, the process of loss and acceptance is all the more difficult to accept.

Note: spoilers inside.

I remember watching the first teaser for Episode VII. I remember watching it jump through the viral circuits, exciting a rabid fanbase with the hurtling body of a Millennium Falcon, the blaring brass of a John Williams soundtrack, and the pure, childish energy that only a Star Wars film could provide. I remember when J.J. Abrams brought Star Wars back to theaters, a full decade after the last feature film, and I remember how strongly it succeeded in introducing fans and newcomers alike to a cast of new, lovable characters and an assortment of old favorites, setting up the new trilogy to come.

One year later, I can’t say I remember much about Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One.

Rogue One seems to find itself entirely consumed by endings and farewells. It almost doesn’t feel like a spoiler to say that, yes, every protagonist in this movie dies, and the film is wholly built to move the storyline towards that finale instead of serving what has always been at the heart of Star Wars: those charming, ragtag faces with a playful and infectious chemistry. We don’t spend much time learning about Jyn, the orphaned and distant loner, or Cassian, the Alliance fighter with a long history of regrets performed in the line of duty. Nor do we spend much time at whatever planet we happen to visit in the first third of the film, hopping from one planetary establishing shot to another in a quest to hit all the required plot points on our way to Character Development Landing Pad and Climactic Final Battle Location.

Make no mistake: the first two-thirds of Rogue One serve as exposition and setup for the glorious, glorious battle of Scarif, and those first two acts are, for the most part, boring and entirely forgettable. Meaningful introductions and expository development are eschewed in favor of recognizable Hollywood features that quickly establish where we are, who we’re following, and why they’re doing what they’re doing. The pacing is jarring and doesn’t give the viewer time to take in the characters and their surroundings; planets feel more like isolated set pieces, and characters feel like shells for the plot, acting out their established roles in the historical event of Rogue One. Their lack of hope in a world dominated by the Empire’s looming presence comes off in a way that doesn’t allow us to know the characters at a personal level and doesn’t allow us to feel a strong empathy for.

In some regard, the forgettable, everyday fighter is exactly what this darker spinoff strives to portray. Yet, this is the main reason much of the film doesn’t work: nothing in the first two acts of Rogue One really matter or build up towards what becomes the formation of the titular unit. Instead, the film meanders — it knows where it needs to end up and how to send itself off, but it doesn’t really know where the journey should start or where it should take us along the way. Without a proper introduction, the film’s long, beautiful goodbye ends up missing a couple marks.

Still, that’s not to say that the third act wasn’t a tremendous relief for the gut-sinking feeling I had as the minutes passed and my hope waned further and further into the dark corners of my seat. Once the battle of Scarif gets going, it’s hard to take your eyes off, and the film doesn’t take its foot off the pedal until the final credits roll. Dark and muddy sequences give way to fresh and lively guerilla-style antics, with a youthfully skittish and mobile camera hopping from one spot to another as rebel fighters jump through tropical shrubs and leg-sweep troopers into unconsciousness.

This sequence flows seamlessly into the arrival of the rebel alliance fleet, bringing in the giddy flights of fancy that only a Star Wars film can provide: X-Wing formations screaming over foot soldiers, AT-AT Walkers stomping through palm trees and getting ripped apart by air forces, TIE fighters meandering through graveyards of floating ship wrecks. This is one of the longest, most beautiful, most entrancing and invigorating battles the Star Wars franchise has blessed upon my eyes, and it’s a wonderful mix of traditional space battles, WWII-esque beach invasions, and bright and sunny Vietcong-style guerilla warfare.

In some ways, it feels at home in the Star Wars universe we’ve come to know and love, yet there is so much more visible destruction and loss of life on display here. The camera doesn’t turn away when someone gets swung by an explosion, but moves in closer to emphasize the hell of war and the sacrifices that everyday soldiers make. And though Rogue One certainly plays its part in propping up the protagonists as war heroes, it also pays tribute to those who have always lived at the edges of the frame, bleeding into the landscape of battle.

The protagonists’ deaths are a mixed bag. The martyrdom theme is heavily at play here as each member of Rogue One faces their demise in battle: from Baze charging straight into the heat of fire Butch & Cassidy-style, to Cassian and Jyn holding hands on a tropical beach as the Death Star engulfs them. Although some contrast is needed to distance them from the many, many alliance fighters ripped to shreds in the blink of an eye, it does go overboard at times. Still, it’s quite refreshing to see so many bodies thrown through the air by on-screen explosions, and the less glorious deaths of Chirrut, Bodhi, and multiple X-Wing squadron leaders are unexpectedly horrific for a Star Wars film.

All of this mixes into a chaotic, 45-minute long battle on Scarif, but the interplay between the many moving pieces is expertly weaved. Yes, they repeat over and over again exactly what needs to be done for group X to give group Y the ability to relay the message to group Z, but it never feels anywhere near as artificial as all of the exposition that comes before it in acts I and II, and it never takes you out of the moment or gets confusing. Even when it’s all over, when the transmission is out and Rogue One is left to history, the film propels itself onward into an amazing handoff sequence with a terrifying Darth Vader, a newly hopeful Princess Leia, and a perfect feed into Episode IV.

And so I’ll end with this: the first two acts are entirely forgettable and plot driven. The character backstories and motivations are contrived, most of their personalities are non-existent, and the transformational arcs required for them to join up as Rogue One are half-baked. We don’t get to appreciate the planets they visit or the galactic world they live in, but view things in a very isolated plot-motivated set-piece sort of way. It all feels like a slightly enhanced and fantastical version of your standard Hollywood action sci-fi. And yet, when the final act gets going, it truly is something to behold. It’s one of the most perfect battle sequences that’s been played out in the Star Wars universe, despite some cheesy bits of martyrdom, and it gives so much more weight to the film that started it all. Once it lands, It never seems to lose its footing; it goes on and on and on like a beautiful lucid dream, evaporating into 5 seconds of breathless wonder when you finally wake up in reality.

For those 5, ecstatic seconds, I can forgive everything that came before it.

Apr 30, 2016

Raging Bull (1980)

From Foil to Family: Redefining Jake La Motta Through Secondary Roles
Script Excerpts from the Robert De Niro Collection, Harry Ransom Center
Adapted from notes written in 2012

In 1980, Martin Scorsese released Raging Bull, a film depicting the life of middleweight boxer Jake La Motta. The screenplay took nearly 10 years to culminate, with Emmett Clary’s first draft undergoing many drastic changes before being finalized into the shooting script used on set. One of the more interesting changes involved combining the roles of two characters, Pete Savage and Joey La Motta, into one — Jake’s brother, best friend, and manager, Joey. With this new character came a new dynamic between the lead and supporting male protagonists, creating natural scenes of tempered emotions and destruction and resulting in the illumination and expansion of Jake La Motta into a multifaceted character.

Although Robert De Niro had always been driven with a desire to bring Raging Bull to the big screen, Scorsese had to undergo a life-threatening experience before realizing the true value of La Motta’s story: its “primal emotions,” as De Niro puts it. “No one could understand what the actor saw in the life story of Jake La Motta,” 1 says Vanity Fair writer Richard Schickel, and it’s easy to see why when reading through La Motta’s autobiography, Raging Bull: My Story. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style with unlabeled chapters, long-winding paragraphs, and innumerable asides, it is understandably difficult to follow the narrative in any chronological order. The reader is bombarded with explanations and excuses for every action that Jake takes, such as the moment his brother Joey complains of being kept in the dark about Jake’s $15,000 bet: “Well probably I should have told him. It’s just that I was so used to doing things for myself that I didn’t think of it” (153). 2

In Emmett Clary’s first draft of Raging Bull’s screenplay, the dialogue and story stay loyal to that of the book and of the general dramatic structure for studio films during the time. Pete plays the role of the soft-spoken, conventional foil to Jake’s volatile personality, often talking with a hesitation indicated by multiple ellipses in his dialogue.

Harry was a nice guy .... How
do you really feel about it, Jake?
Inside, I mean ... knowing you
killed a guy ... ?

&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp&nbsp(exploding in a guttural
F*** it! That's how I feel!
Like I said last night, it was
either him or me ... so it was him!

Pete is also there to play the reluctant friend dragged into bad situations, as evidenced on page 71 of the screenplay.

No, Jake, please! You don't know!
They don't fight your way ... !

The role of Pete in Emmett Clary’s draft is to paint Jake in the conventional light of a hotheaded boxer whose unwavering passion inside the ring leads to his own downfall outside of it — to give reasoning for his uncontrollable outbursts of anger in his personal life. “Everyone recalls it as quite conventionally chronological: boyhood, adolescence, triumphant and then defeated young manhood, and finally some sort of almost inarticulate redemption.” Scorsese observes, “[they] explained that this guy did this because of that…but you can‘t explain any human being with one Freudian term.” 1

Scorsese saw these explanations as extraneous and made it a priority to “boil the story down to raw emotions — to strip this story down to its primal elements, to reveal states of being, not states of mind.” To that end, the role and actions of Pete are merged into the brotherhood character of Joey, though he retains the hardened personality and “Italian-American machismo” shared by his brother, Jake. After all, Scorsese says, “the controlling idea was never to step back and explain anyone‘s behavior; it was to plunge the audience into it, to make us feel, viscerally, every blow Jake La Motta delivered or absorbed in the ring and outside of it.” 1

The addition of the new Joey La Motta, combined with the real life character of Pete Savage, allows the audience to have that same visceral experience with another character closely related to Jake. There are several scenes in the final script of Raging Bull where Joey exhibits an aggressive attitude reminiscent of what has been established as one of Jake‘s crucial characteristics, notably the scene in which he beats Salvy furiously in a paranoid rage. Another scene near the end of the script depicts Joey threatening to stab his child if he doesn’t finish his plate, showing an aggressiveness that is present even in the comfort of his own household. However, Joey has none of the physique of his brother, and while Jake is the wild beast inside the ring, Joey deals with the politics outside of it, acting as manager to his brother. By giving the audience two characters that pack the same primal violent tendencies but have two differing duties, Scorsese manages to “emphasize that [Jake’s] behavior is a product of a widespread ethos, not simply the malaise of a crazy boxer…The violence that constantly spills out of the boxing ring and into daily life gains credibility from Joey, who stands apart from the exceptional physicality embodied by the boxer.” 4

The prevalence of this re-imagined Joey in the final script of Raging Bull takes the film in a new direction that focuses more on Jake’s faults and failures than on his widely publicized triumphs. Joey participates in only one scene of Emmett Clary’s screenplay — a scene that survives in the final script, but with shifted perspectives and a vastly different purpose. Originally, the argument over Jake’s bet for the Janiro fight followed the dialogue from the autobiography very closely. “Joey was close to going out of his skull and screamed, ‘Are you nuts? A hundred and fifty-five? What are you gonna do, cut off a leg? You must be outta your cotton-pickin’ mind!’ “ Immediately following the scene, a newspaper excerpt is shown, exclaiming “JAKE DOES THE IMPOSSIBLE, MAKES 155, WHIPS JANIRO EASILY.” Joey’s subsequent reaction is nearly word for word with what is presented in the book: “I spent all morning on Jacob’s Beach…you’re the talk of the town! People can’t get over what you did to Janiro!” Jake is presented as a hero figure who beat the odds with indomitable will and determination, but a quick glance at the final screenplay reveals a different story.

In the final screenplay, the two brothers’ opinions on the bet are swapped, but more importantly, the argument is there only as a bridge for Vickie to awaken Jake’s paranoia. Her complement to Jake’s opponent, Janiro, prompts him to confide in Joey and ask him to look out for any suspicious behavior from Vickie, which eventually leads to Joey’s pummeling of Salvy in the club. Jake’s trust in his brother, coupled with their shared masculinity and propensity towards angry outbursts, leads to visceral scenes of destruction that could not have occurred as potently with Pete at the helm of main supporting character.

The scene’s shift in intention is representative of the changes that took place in the script’s ten years of construction, as the aspect of victory over Jake’s opponents is almost completely overshadowed by his failures in his personal life to keep the people who love him from distancing themselves. Kasia Boddy touches on this exact subject in his book Boxing: A Cultural History: “…the championship fight [with Marcel Cerdan] is over in minutes and the next scene jumps ahead a year to present an overweight La Motta at home, eating a hero sandwich as he tries to get the tv to work.” 3 This tv scene is absent in the original script, but it is the catalyst that propels the rest of the final script forward. With Jake interrogating Joey about his true intentions for beating Salvy, Joey does his best to defend himself and dares his brother to “kill everybody…kill Salvy, kill Vickie, kill Tommy Como, kill me where you’re at it. What do I care?” His aggressive stance leads Jake to paranoia, as Jake accuses him of sleeping with Vickie and immediately confronts his wife in the next scene. Joey’s aggressiveness in trying to talk sense into his brother fails, and it leads to an adrenaline-filled sequence of scenes that ends in the fallout of the two brothers.

Without Pete, there is one less character to worry about, and the character that remains to fill the void of best friend gone astray is none other than Jake’s brother himself — the only family that Jake is shown to have, making potent the second to last scene of Raging Bull’s final script. In it, Jake tries to apologize to his brother and hug him, only to be met with the cold shoulder. It leaves the reader feeling like Jake has been disowned, as if he is no longer welcome as family and must now fend for himself. “The agony of the boxer…is a fundamental element,” notes writer Leger Grindon 5, and with Jake’s best friend now also his brother, the agony of each argument and broken thread is magnified twofold as he alienates not only his friends, but his family as well.

On the subject of male submission and homosexuality in Raging Bull, there are many modern debates. In Leighton Grist’s Masculinty, Violence, Resistance paper 6, Grist suggests that Jake needs Joey to punch him repeatedly in the face during the beginning kitchen scene as a means of punishment for the boxer’s actions towards his wife, Irma. I disagree with this notion; although Jake finds comfort and ease when he is with his brother, he does not need Joey to discipline him — Joey is equally as violent and abrasive as Jake, and this is shown when he exclaims to “kill the b**!” as the brothers leave Irma to go clubbing. Grist also suggests there may be homosexual undertones between Jake and Joey, but it is much more apparent in the original draft with regards to Jake and Pete. There are many more intimate conversations between the two leading males in Clary‘s first draft, including this excerpt where Jake is doubting his abilities:

Jake sits beside Pete, glances at him and stares at the floor.
Pete studies him curiously and Jake finally blurts out --

I keep getting the feeling I'm running
out of time ... like all of a sudden something
bad was gonna happen to me. I keep feeling
like I'll never be champ ... like ... like I don't
deserve it.

Pete studies him curiously -

You said something like this once before ...

Yeah ... and it got worse! You're the only
one I'd say this to. It was the second time
it happened to me, but this time, it was nutty!
Remember the Reeves fight? My first important
ten-rounder ... I ...

Clearly, there is a tendency for Pete to submit to his best friend, Jake, and this leads to quiet, personal reflections on their worries and feelings that seem homosexual in tone. Although scenes of doubt still exist in the final draft, Joey does not serve to complacently agree with Jake; rather, he is there to push Jake harder and be satisfied with who he is and what he can do. In one of the first scenes of the final draft, Joey tells his brother to stop worrying about his inability to fight the heavyweight champion, who is in a different weight class; Joey is also there to make the bet on Jake’s weight for the Janiro fight, and is able to convince Jake that it is a win-win situation whether he succeeds or not. The movement from Pete to Joey shifts the film‘s focus from potentially submissive homosexual undertones to aggressive brotherly motivation.

The emergence of Joey as the primary supporting character over Jake’s best friend, Pete, was an ultimately beneficial move by Scorsese and De Niro that helped make Raging Bull one of Scorsese’s biggest masterpieces. The transformation from a thinking man’s tale of redemption to a raw, primal showing of visceral machismo and emotion from both leading males gives the audience a different view of what makes Jake act as violently as he does. Joey’s aggression when talking to his brother allows the script to turn naturally to scenes of destruction, such as the beating of Joey and Vickie, which in turn emphasizes Jake’s faults and failures over his triumphs in the ring. The boxer’s agony is now on center stage, and with his best friend and only family amalgamated into the character of Joey, the unresolved disconnection between the two gives Jake intense pain and a hanging thread where once the heroic redemption story stood.

Reference Notes

Jan 31, 2016

Nine to Five (1980)

Note: Spoilers.

What was initially conceived as a drama of three working women overthrowing their company’s “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss became, against all attempts to keep it from being “too much of a feminist line,” a hectic outgrowth of the second-wave feminist movement. Nine to Five landed in American cinemas in 1980 as a mainstream comedy feature and went down as one of America’s highest-grossing comedies, helped by Jane Fonda’s spark of an idea, Lily Tomlin’s deadpan sarcasm. and Dolly Parton’s emphatic charm, for whom it was the established country musician’s first acting role.

From Tomlin’s opening lines, the screenplay feels sparse and refined, setting the film up as a sharp office satire in a vein similar to the now-ubiquitous Office Space (1999), except with more pronounced sexist undertones lacing the conversations of the predominantly-female workers, whose two-faced, passive-aggressive commentary gives the workplace an undercurrent of stereotypically catty distaste.

As the film goes on, however, the screenplay delves further away from its clean, albeit quietly sexist and stereotypical opening, at one point devolving into an over-the-top stoner flick. The formal boundaries of Nine to Five’s three leading ladies are broken down as their murderous fantasies against their boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman), are enacted on screen, and the script soon unravels into pure, chaotic nonsense, with the body-stealing sequence and subsequent morning-after capture and imprisonment of Hart encapsulating a small, darker thriller in the midst of a ridiculous screwball comedy.

The over-the-top nature of the film culminates in a final, overwhelmingly positive happy ending for the leading ladies, and by this point, the feminist undertones are blaring out in full force, a battle cry calling out in support of the second-wave feminist movement that swept the United States from the early sixties leading up to the late eighties. The ladies’ one lost battle against unequal pay seems insignificantly thrown into the mix, as if this one failure on the part of the victorious female leads is supposed to undercut the overwhelming feminist ideal of the film – to keep it from being “too preachy,” as Fonda puts it in a Lifestyle magazine interview.

This strange, happy-go-lucky ending highlights the dichotomy of farce and social commentary in Nine to Five and, with the screenplay’s many shifting faces from satire to stoner flick to thriller and physical humor, makes it difficult to appreciate the film as anything more than a fun, female-driven screwball comedy. It may, in fact, encapsulate some of the issues regarding the second-wave feminist movement in a time where mainstream portrayals of women in the office still revolved around the ditzy, passive-aggressive stereotypes found in television, film, and novella.

Given a closer reading of what passes off as normal and uninteresting in the world of Nine to Five, the film’s extroverted feminist message runs contrary to its portrayal of the woman in the post-industrial society. The film’s opening montage depicts the modern working lady as dopey and clumsy, struggling with a morning routine that involves such difficulties as catching a bus, using a Xerox machine, and keeping coffee inside of your cup. When introduced to the modern working environment, we find an office filled with assumptive, passive-aggressive women, whose poison-laced conversations, underhanded gossip and judgmental hatred pits them against each other in a way that the patriarchal boss couldn’t hope to achieve through any liberal smattering of sexual behavior and harassment.

In these less pronounced details, without the context and conditioning of the outspoken feminist movement of the sixties and seventies to guide the audience towards the central battle between Hart and the hard-working leading ladies, a differing, accidental feminist message runs parallel to the film’s aggressive affront. Perhaps the lesson to take away from Nine to Five relates to its stereotypical portrayal of the working lady and the social rules of female-to-female interactions, and the trio’s subsequent ability to triumph over the patriarchal workplace by encouraging a more honest, open, and team-oriented environment that welcomes men and women of all races, ethnicities, disabilities, and backgrounds – an ideal much more in line with modern third-wave feminism.

While the ridiculous farce of Nine to Five ultimately undermines Fonda’s attempt at meaningful labour and gender commentary and derails it into brainless feminist propaganda, we may still find insights into modern feminist ideals from its more restrained features.

Dec 26, 2015

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Bone Tomahawk is a quiet film, for the most part. It’s a classic-style Western that evolves into a B-movie horror, but it never feels as cheap or budgeted as it is. It’s a film with a defined cast of rugged protagonists, a refined script with a sharp wit and understated humor, a varied cinematographic repertoire that takes advantage of its landscape, and fantastic sound and production design. It’s a shame that Bone Tomahawk received such a limited release (exclusively in New York and Los Angeles) before going straight to video, as, despite its low budget and mixed B-movie horror elements, the quality production screams for a wide screen viewing to really appreciate the atmosphere of the film.

The main cast of Bone Tomahawk forms a traditional band of Western heroes in search of two abducted townspeople and a deviant. Arthur (Patrick Wilson) acts as the crippled and over-passionate cowboy of the pack, pushing forward at every cost to retrieve his abducted wife; Brooder (Matthew Fox) plays the highly-skilled and morally-ambiguous gentleman; and Chicory (Richard Jenkins) serves as the endearingly and infuriatingly idiotic backup deputy, whose vast well of obliviousness gives the film a squeeze of much-needed humor in an otherwise dark and unapologetically brutal landscape. The three characters are well acted and play off of each other perfectly under the leadership of sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), whose sly wit, quiet bravery, and authoritative demeanor propels the band on their quest and keeps them in line with one another. With Russell also playing a part in this season’s The Hateful Eight, it’s obvious that audiences are still not tired of the Western genre, and are certainly not tired of seeing Russell’s moustache in them.

A word commonly heard throughout the first hour or so of the film is the description of the hunting tribe as “savages.” In most films, this is a word meant to separate civilized society from wilder, more native tribes who, though more unkempt and brutish, are just as human as civilians. Though I won’t reveal much about the tribe that Hunt and his band of townspeople discover, they certainly live up to their description. They are unmistakably human, yet oddly alien in design, and their presence in the final act of the film turns Bone Tomahawk into something more akin to a gruesome B-movie horror, though it retains its quiet, western atmosphere.

The cinematography of the film is beautiful and varied enough to prevent the film from slogging during its slower sequences. There are some beautifully-framed shots using a static camera, mixed with an ample supply of handheld shots that make you feel like a member of the party, looking over the shoulders of those walking in front of you and directing your attention to things called out by others. The cinematographers also play with a mixture of different levels, ranges, and depths, digging the camera into rocks by actors’ feet and positioning characters to fill various lengths and depths within the frame. In one shot, a hobbling Arthur is shot in mid before the rest of the pack hollers from a distance at the top of a mountain. The camera looks over his shoulder as he does and shifts its depth of focus on the three small dots traveling downwards, and Arthur’s voice pierces through the audio track before he looks away and continues walking, with the camera similarly panning and shifting its focus back on him. The scenery and environment are spectacular, of course, but the real beauty of Bone Tomahawk is the camera’s movement, variety, and sense of perspective.

The sound and production design is similarly fantastic. There are only two or three short moments in which music is played in Bone Tomahawk, and the result is a film that rides on the crispness and sensitivity of its ambient sound – the crackling of footsteps, the crunching of bones, the ringing of tripwire, the ticking of a stopwatch, the ghastly howls of a wild tribe. Everything is perfectly mixed with a sense of depth and direction that places you right in the middle of the action.

In the end, Bone Tomahawk overcomes its tiny budget to deliver a fresh Western experience. Its excellent script and fleshed-out characters initially drew A-list actors Russell and Wilson to their roles despite low pay, and their commitments to the parts show in the final result. Writer and director S. Craig Zahler was not afraid to spend an inordinate amount of time building the film’s atmosphere and sense of perspective, and the result is a quiet Western that succeeds spectacularly in the traditional aspects while playing into a more brutal B-movie horror angle.

Note: Possible spoilers below.

A long time ago, I tried to enter the Star Wars series. I started with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. I never found the willpower to watch it to the end credits, and after suffering through a number of disastrous podracing and Jar Jar sequences, it was cemented in my childhood that Star Wars was just a boring, overrated series of overwhelming CGI and horrible pacing.

I say this to emphasize not only how terrible Episode I is, but how fantastic a job J.J. Abrams has done in kicking off the new sequel trilogy with The Force Awakens — a film that succeeds with the characterization of Kylo Ren where prequel Anakin failed, and introduces a lovable new generation of ragtag heroes while bridging the gap between old and new. Though the new film follows the overarching structure of A New Hope closely, its new stars — Finn and Rey — are a breath of fresh air that feel incredibly genuine within the setting that they find themselves in. Played by relative unknowns John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, the chemistry and enthusiasm of these two actors are at the heart of why this film succeeds despite its lackluster plot, in the same vein that A New Hope was propelled by the classic banter and charisma of its cast.

The entire film is built around introductions: the introductions of Poe, a hotshot rebel fighter pilot; Finn, a stormtrooper who renounces his allegiance to the First Order; Rey, an orphaned scavenger who dreams beyond the stars and finds more than she bargained for; BB-8, a sassy successor to R2-D2; and Kylo Ren, a conflicted commander of the First Order whose characterization is colored by the history of the Sith lords, Jedi knights, and Rebel fighters that came before him. The film is also about re-introductions: of Han and Chewie, of Leia and C-3PO, of the Millennium Falcon and the lightsaber passed down from Anakin to Luke. Each of these introductions have their own weight, but the moments are carefully placed throughout the course of the film and allow the narrative to build the new generation of characters up while giving old Star Wars friends their due fanfare. For anyone familiar with the original trilogy (and who isn’t?), the clever re-introductions will have you smiling from ear to ear.

Centered around the passing of the torch is Harrison Ford, who at once is familiar in the role of Han Solo thirty years later while serving as a reminder of how things of changed since the heroics of the original trilogy. With him, of course, is Chewbacca, who has many charming scenes for the Wookie fan in all of us.

Any worries that one may have with the introduction of all of these new characters can be safely disregarded. The writers have done a fantastic job in billing Finn, Rey, and Kylo Ren as complex human beings in their own right — Finn is not a colored stormtrooper, nor is he an action hero or a fool, in the same vein that Rey is not just a strong female protagonist or a damsel in distress. These are characters that are clearly shaped by their own upbringings as well as by the events they experience over the course of the film. Although the “traditional” thing to do is to put the male and female lead together as a romantic interest, their relationship is really of two lonely individuals who slowly find someone they can both trust and care for: a friend. Small details, like when Finn gives Rey his jacket during an escape sequence, add up over time and really sell the growth of their friendship, so much so that it really wouldn’t irk me if they ended up together because of how genuinely close they are. The fact that nobody blinks an eye when Finn reveals that he’s not part of the Resistance is a sign of how maturely the human interactions are handled in this film.

A lot of comparisons are going to be made between Kylo Ren and Anakin Skywalker, but the new film certainly does a better job of portraying the struggle of a Force user lured towards the power of the dark side. Although I’m not entirely a fan of the heavy-handedness of Kylo’s characterization, I do appreciate their decision to make the main villain one that is neither all-powerful nor decisive. Kylo’s insecurities, from who he is to his failures as a Force user and as an apprentice to Supreme Leader Snoke, give him a lot of internal complexities and even serves to make him representative of the millennial struggle. It will be interesting to see where the next two films take his character, as I believe the arc of Kylo will end up being a more nuanced character examination of legacy and the millennial conflict than the prequel trilogy, which was much more politically-based.

There are a lot of nuances to the script that are not immediately obvious, but add a lot to the lore of the world and serve to explain some of the more miraculous events. Through Kylo’s brutish use of the Force, Rey learns how to utilize her own Force powers, turning Kylo into an unwitting mentor for the young hero; the fact that R2-D2 wakes up at the end of the film with the rest of the map can be explained through passing details from earlier in the film, when we learn that R2-D2 is in low-power mode (perhaps listening for signs to wake up), Luke is stationed at the first Jedi temple (explaining where they would have to be looking on old archive maps), and the First Order has the same piece of the map due to downloading the Empire’s old archives, which R2-D2 would have from his many interactions with Empire systems. It’s a great way to hit the required plot points while sneaking in informatory pieces for those looking for a little more explanation.

Beyond the writing of the film, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Despite what anyone may say about Jakku as a planet, there are so many beautiful shots within the first forty minutes or so: shots of fallen star destroyers and AT-ATs blending naturally within their surrounding environment, long perspectives of Rey rappeling into the pits of a star destroyer and sledding down huge dunes, and awe-inspiring shots of Finn overlooking Niima Outpost. The shooting of the Millennium Falcon escape sequence is brilliantly dynamic and gives us a last farewell to the scenery we’ve become so familiar with, and the Falcon has a sense of weight and belonging in the world that is lost in some of the later action sequences involving X-Wing fighters. And let’s not forget the two crimson sun shots: a panning shot of Rey beaming through the desert, and an apocalyptic shot of approaching TIE fighters.</p>

Like I said, some of the later scenes don’t hold up as well, but they are beautiful in their own right. In one later action sequence, a long take involving Finn running on the ground, looking up at the airfight above him, and then panning back down to the action below struck me as illustrating both the wonder of The Force Awakens and the disappointment of its later sequences. The take is incredible in its depiction of two planes of battle and is backed by a beautiful surrounding environment, but it is absolutely impossible to take in everything that the film throws at you in one viewing. Later action loses some of its focus and takes you out of its world, reminding you that, in the end, you’re really just looking at a set piece.

There are other imperfections that are disappointing. The characterization of Leia, though perhaps realistic considering her prolonged position as General of the resistance, is missing her old attitude and energy. From sassy rebel to grizzled mom, her scenes serve only to make me wish for the good old days of hard-nosed leadership and snappy retorts. The pacing of the film is also disappointing once we’re finished with the re-introduction of Han and Chewie, and though the entire film is gorgeous and filled with quick-hitting humor, there is less time to appreciate the world that drew us in in the first place; the film knows the plot points it needs to hit and quickly shifts gears in preparation for the film’s equivalent of A New Hope’s final death star sequence, and it almost makes me wish to be back on the dunes of Jakku or listening to clever banter aboard the Millennium Falcon. One needs only to watch the Castle scene to understand how underutilized the whole setting was: from the uselessness and lack of development of Maz, to the fact that they barely indulge in the diversity of creatures lounging out in a giant castle watering-hole. Unlike Jakku, we never get to stop and smell the roses before the First Order blows it all up.

Some may also be disappointed by the new soundtrack associated with the movie. Although it serves as a huge part of the Star Wars experience and succeeds in being a fantastic accompaniment to the action on screen, none of the new score is truly memorable in the same tune of classics like The Imperial March, The Millennium Falcon, or Han Solo and the Princess. The closest piece will certainly be Rey’s Theme / The Scavenger, but to those looking for a new melody to hum, you may be out of luck.

In the end, The Force Awakens follows many of the same footsteps that A New Hope took almost forty years ago. While that may sound disappointing to those who have yet to watch it, rest assured that the film, especially the first forty minutes or so, is an incredible piece of cinema that treats each of its characters with respect, is filled with the same memorable banter and clever interactions that made the original trilogy a classic, and gives you a world filled with beautiful scenery, eclectic creatures, and the heart-thumping thrills that only a John Williams soundtrack can provide. This is the same Star Wars you know and love, paying homage to everything that came before it while imbuing its own personality along the way.

I’ve just gotten home after viewing this film, and I have an immense urge to write and rewatch it.

This film is beautiful. The synopses that you find on IMDB don’t do this film justice – no amount of description can express what it is like to watch this film. The subtitle, ‘A Song of Two Humans,’ is about as close you can get: it’s an intimate, moving story about two human beings, unraveled as one long tone poem. The music is integral in adding a poetic, emotional dimension as the film ebbs and flows from one set piece to another, and it would not be nearly as iconic a piece of cinema if it had not been made in the silent era. Sunrise is poetry in motion.

As was common in German film, long takes and moving shots are frequent, and F.W. Murnau utilizes an assortment of creative angles and shots to give life and motion to the world that he creates. The lighting in some of the darker, more intimate shots are beautiful. Although the acting can sometimes go overboard in the first act, Janet Gaylor has a tremendous emotional range, and her co-star George O’Brien is nothing to scoff at. Without dialogue, the pure humanity of the two stars emanate and shine through their movements, expressions, and the way they conduct themselves at a physical and emotional level.

Sunrise is poetry. It is meant to be felt and understood at a primal level. The strokes of the soundtrack set the tone for the film and guide it through to its proper end, and all you can do is strap yourself in and let yourself be moved.

Jan 12, 2015

Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects (2013) is a quiet psychological film that rolls along in a calming, dreamlike state. It cuts away from scene to scene and jumps from point to point, with dialogue spilling over into the next as we wander aimlessly through a storyline that doesn’t find its feet until the first act is over.

I implore anyone who watches this film to go in without any details and to stick with it until the halfway point, as the first act appears quite bland and lifeless until all of the pieces fall into place. Even then, the characters themselves remain fairly two-dimensional throughout the film. However, the narrative is intoxicating enough to carry the load as it develops into a coherent and surprisingly intriguing plot.

Side Effects revolves around its narrative. There is nothing special about the cinematography, and the soundtrack, while fitting with the calm and dreamlike pace of the film, is nothing to rave about. Neither is the subdued acting, which is sufficient enough as a vehicle for the script, but does little otherwise. The film relies entirely on its storyline to capture the viewer’s attention, and for those going in without any knowledge, it serves its purpose very well despite a number of questionable plot points. As an overall piece, however, it doesn’t quite hit the dramatic nerves that it should; it builds up to an unsatisfying whimper of an ending and leaves a bad taste to an enjoyable movie, whose subdued pieces allow the narrative to shine but prevent the film from ascending.

Jan 11, 2015

Paper Moon (1973)

Despite the sour news of an abusive childhood environment that have surfaced in regards to father-and-daughter pair Ryan and Tatum O’neal, Paper Moon stands as a wonderful and surprisingly heartwarming film about a con man, Mozes, and the little girl who puts herself under his care.

As well as being the youngest recipient of an Academy Award for her role as Addie Loggins, Tatum O’neal won the Golden Globe for New Star of the Year at age 10. Tatum had never acted before, but as the co-lead to her father, Ryan, she’s as adorable as she is tough and savvy, out-witting the con-man at every juncture. Her childlike energy and joy shines through when she plays the sly manipulator, but her quiet and brooding persona plays off well with other members of the cast as they attempt to break her shell and have a meaningful conversation with her.

On the topic of conversation, the script has a ton of clever back-and-forth dialogue, and never gives in to the typically mushy spiel of a lost girl reunited with her father. Both leads are tough and charismatic in their own ways, and there’s a lot of subtle humor to be found. The cinematography is likewise fantastic, with an incredible deep focus that makes entire scenes look sharp, and several beautiful long takes and tracking shots that highlight the dialogue and Kansas environments.

The clever dialogue and scenarios are enchanting enough to prevent the film’s many slower chapters from bogging down the pace, and I barely realized I was reaching the end of the film until I was already there. Although there is certainly character development among the two leads, the film is earnest in its portrayals and allows the natural father-daughter chemistry to do the heavy lifting, resulting in a very sneaky heartwarmer.

It’s an absolute delight to watch the two play off each other and tramp along the Kansas landscape, pleasuring themselves in their con artistry, and although there are a number of different environments and characters, the immense focus on Moze and Addie’s relationship makes the film feel quite bare and raw. Paper Moon is a fantastic film whose premise could have easily fallen into cliche Hollywood territory, and I can’t quite think of a good comparison for the unique treasure it became.

In this extra special, vaguely Christmas-themed installment of The Wrong Mans, two men in witness protection attempt to go back home, only to set off a string of dominoes that entangle them in a web of extravagant and completely unrelated schemes.

Anyone who’s watched the first series may be wary of another installment. The storyline was wrapped up quite neatly, and the entire premise of the show involved two ordinary men unwittingly dragged into the role of loose-cannon, undercover heroes. The producers had massive gall to basically repeat the plot device for another series, but somehow, they managed to pull it off with grace.

LIke the first series, The Wrong Mans part two ramps up in intensity unexpectedly quickly, with antic after antic being thrown into our heroes’ faces as they try to get back home for Christmas. The series plays off as an epic Bourne homage, with a number of great action pieces for our dopey protagonists to fumble their way through. Their signature blend of action and dark humor is back, with wonderful cinematography providing a serious tonality to the otherwise comedic breakneck pacing.

Unfortunately, the series could have done with another one or two episodes to spread out the resolution of its multiple loose ends. The first three episodes are paced brilliantly, but the fourth plays as a laundry list of plot points that needed to be resolved, and their checklisting of villains feels rushed and disjointed.

Return button