Shadows in the Cave Digest #01 – January 2010

I decided to end each month with a sort of “digest” or table of contents for the reviews and essays written over the previous weeks. Hope you like it and you find some things you might have missed the first time through.

My Top 10 Favorite Films of 2009/The Long List
– Sundance Film Festival: The History, 2010 Line Up
– A Decade in Love With Movies: Part One, Part Two, Part Three
– The James Dean Trilogy: East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, Giant
– Director in Focus – John Sayles: Lone Star

A Serious Man (Movie of the Month)
Up in the Air
Sherlock Holmes
The Road
The Lovely Bones
Youth in Revolt

Broken Embraces

Hypothetical Film Festivals

No Capes Film Festival
Deconstructing Darko

Next Month
– Spotlight on Robert Altman
– The Alien Quadrilogy: The Evolution of Ellen Ripley
– The Spider-Man Reboot

The James Dean Trilogy – Giant

Giant (dir. George Stevens)
Starring James Dean, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo

James Dean’s final, and in my opinion, greatest performance casts him as the antagonist Jett Rink to Rock Hudson’s Jordan Benedict. Giant sought to redefine the Texas landscape and in terms of subject matter was a very forward thinking film. Not only does it address the wealth and power associated with the oil industry, it also deals with interracial relationships and interracial children in an extremely positive way.
Told over the course of over two decades, Giant follows Jordan Benedict as he marries Leslie (Taylor) and slowly loses his oil empire to family ranch hand Jett Rink. When the patriarch of the Benedict family dies, Rink only asks for one small patch of land as repayment for his years of loyal service. For years he works to drill it, with Jordan and his family finding his efforts humorous but ultimately pathetic. Finally, Jordan finds what he’s been looking for and puts all his effort into usurping the Benedict’s place in the upper crust in Texas.
Dean’s role role is very much a supporting one in this film, his first real secondary role. Hudson and Taylor’s relationship and the growth of their family is the primary plot concern. Once Jett discovers the oil he comes into much greater focus in the overall story. Dean’s portrayal of Jett is masterful; he’s an inarticulate man who understands working the ranch and being an oil rig worker best. This earthier character type plays foil to Jordan Benedict’s refined Texas aristocrat. Both men fit the Western archetype, with Jett being the rougher around the edges type.
James Dean’s finest moments occur in the scene where he zooms up the Benedict house to gloat about his discovery of oil and his grand finale, a drunken fifty-something man who wealth has done nothing to heal his anger and hatred. The first sequence showcases the bombastic skills of Dean; while his motivations are extremely petty you can’t help but feel ebullient with him. The latter scene is my favorite piece of acting by Dean and Daniel Day-Lewis’ final moments in There Will Be Blood owe everything to this performance. Having struck up a relationship with Benedict’s barely legal daughter, Jett has revealed himself a lecherous old man trying to numb the hollowness inside him by consuming disgusting amounts of whiskey. In the conference room at an oilmen’s convention, he stumbles about mumbling things under his breath, knocking over tables and has a final, violent confrontation with Jordan Benedict.
James Dean was never to act again. Before his final two films were released, Dean was taking a drive in his Porsche Spyder with a friend, received a speeding ticket, and two hours later collided with another car while speeding again. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. I remember being angry after I saw Giant that there were no more films with this actor. That couldn’t be right, he was so good and there were so many things he could have done.
I like this commercial produced by a life insurance company that theorizes what it would have been like if he had lived, and think its a good way to cap this essay series:

Sundance Film Festival – 2010 Highlights

Cyrus (dir. Duplass Brothers) – Indie film directors switch to more mainstream fare with John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill in a nice looking comedy-drama.

Buried (dir.Rodrigo Cortés) – Ryan Reynolds stars as a contractor in Iraq who wakes up buried in a wooden coffin with only a candle, knife, and cell phone. Very interesting circumstances could make for a real test of Reynolds’ talents.

Jack Goes Boating (dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman) – Hoffman’s directorial debut of a stage play he starred in. A romantic comedy set in NYC, starring Hoffman and Amy Smart.

The Killer Inside Me (dir. Michael Winterbottom) – Winterbottom is one of the most dynamic British directors working today and this film looks to be just as mind-blowing as previous work. Casey Affleck stars as a small town sheriff who is secretly a serial killer, finding it harder and harder to hide his crimes.

Holy Rollers (dir. Kevin Asch) -Jesse Eisenberg takes on his first purely dramatic starring role as a Hasidic Jew lured into the drug trafficking business.

High School (dir. John Stalberg) – In what is being billed as a stoner EPIC, the valedictorian of his high school realizes he has to get drug tested and this will reveal he’s a pothead. His plan to remedy this is to fix the drug tests of the entire graduating class to test positive for marijuana. Stars Adrien Brody as Psycho Ed, check out the pic above 😀

Hesher (dir. Spencer Susser) – Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the total opposite of his character in last year’s 500 Days of Summer. He’s a burnout, locked up in his trailer with nothing but hate for the world around him, and eventually becomes the mentor of a 13 year old boy. Natalie Portman co-stars.

Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (dir. Eli Craig) – I love the premise: Two rednecks, who are actually kind men, are believed to be psycho killers by a group of teenagers from the city who try to kill the pair. This could either be a big letdown or a genius film. Stars Alan Tudyk.

Weekend Trailer Roundup

The Eclipse (dir. Conor McPherson) – a very non-exploitative looking ghost story from Ireland

Mother (dir. Joon Ho-Bong) – South Korean psychological thriller from the brilliant mind behind The Host.
Mystery Team (dir. Dan Eckman) – From the brilliant comedic minds behind Derrick Comedy, one of whom is Donald Glover, former writer of 30 Rock and current star of NBC’s Community. This one look damn good.
Afterschool (dir. Antonio Campos) – A disturbing murder mystery at a prep school. Something about the cinematography and ambient noise is incredibly eerie.
Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps (dir. Oliver Stone) – Stone’s stock has fallen in the last decade, W. was a huge disappointment. Here’s hoping he recaptures some of what made him great in the late 80s.

Film 2010 #18 – Broken Embraces

Broken Embraces (2009, dir. Pedro Almodovar)

Starring Penelope Cruz, Lluis Homar, Blanca Portillo, Jose Luis Gomez, Ruben Ochandiano, Tamar Novas
Director Pedro Almodovar has never disappointed me and continues that successful streak with his latest picture. There is something captivating about how he calmly lays out the strands of a plot. He does it so masterfully that before you know it, you’re completely absorbed in the story he is telling. With Broken Embraces, Almodovar weaves together his dramatic tones as seen in films like All About My Mother and Talk To Her with noir elements he began using in Bad Education. The result is a masterpiece.
The story begins with blind screenwriter Mateo Blanco, who signs his scripts under the pseudonym Harry Caine. His day to day affairs are looked over by his long time production assistant Judit Garcia and her son, Diego. Into their life comes Ray X, a mysterious director who appears to know something of Mateo’s past. Diego wants to know more and Mateo begins to tell the tale of he and an actress named Lena’s relationship.
Everything about the structure and pace of the film is spot on. Almodovar takes his time before getting to the core story, which is told mostly in an extended flashback, framed by the present day story. I’ve begun to look at the director’s films as having a lot of similarities with Shakespeare’s work from a structural standpoint. The plots are fairly straightforward with a cluster of key characters and flashbacks and framing devices are used frequently. I think by refraining from attempting to over complicate his scripts with too many characters or sub-plots and twists, Almodovar creates very classic films that are going to last for decades to come.

Hypothetical Film Festival #4 – Deconstructing Darko

One of my favorite indie flicks of the early 00s is Donnie Darko. Though it has been inflated beyond any acclaim in deserves in the years that followed I still believe its an interesting puzzle of a film, made by a director who truly does love movies. That said, Richard Kelly hasn’t directed anything worth a flip since (Southland Tales, The Box). Kelly infuses lots of film references into the flick, and they are worthy of a film festival:

It’s a Wonderful Life (1939, dir. Frank Capra)
This one is probably throwing you for a loop, right? Well Darko owes a lot to this film. Its concept of a man being allowed to experience a world without his presence is flipped as Donnie is allowed to be pulled from the moment of his death and experience how life would have continued if he had lived. In the same way things go downhill for the people in George Bailey’s life without him, Donnie’s survival seems to be a keystone in the downfall of many of the people around him. Yes, a depressing sentiment, but it makes the film that much more poignant.

E.T. (1982, dir. Steven Spielberg)

Kelly confesses that the bicycle chase scene in the finale of E.T. inspired the bicycle ride on Halloween night in his film. And the director is an admitted fan of directors like Spielberg and Zemeckis, who defined 1980s sci-fi and fantasy on the big screen. An understanding of Donnie Darko would be incomplete without an understanding of the kid-targeted fantasy cinema of the 80s.

Rebel Without A Cause (1955, dir. Nicholas Ray)

This was the picture that created a solidly defined picture of teen angst in a post-War America. In effect, all films to follow that focused on troubled adolescent protagonists owe a debt to this James Dean flick. Both Darko and Rebel use a decrepit old house as a key set piece for tragedy. I’d even say Donnie is an updated variation on Plato, the moody disturbed kid who is headed down a hopeless track.

Watership Down (1978, dir. Martin Rosen)
Donnie’s English teacher is reading this novel to him and there are some important themes in it that tie to what is going on in the indie film. An animated adaptation was made of Richard Adam’s novel in the late 70s and is definitely not kiddie fare. The story follows a group of rabbits in the English countryside whose land is being torn up for new developments. They escape and go on a harrowing journey that leads them to a land that appears to be unpopulated. However, a group of rabbits are already there and they don’t flinch at killing their new neighbors to keep their home.

The Last Temptation of Christ (1988, dir. Martin Scorsese)

This adaptation of the classic novel of Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, is referenced twice overtly in Kelly’s film and once in a sub-textual manner. Donnie waking up in the woods is paralleled by Christ waking up in the wilderness, hearing the voice of God. The second reference is when Donnie and Gretchen go to see the Evil Dead and this film is also playing. The more subtle reference is Donnie living out a life where he does not, which is the temptation in the title of Scorsese’s film. Christ is tempted by Satan while he hangs on the cross with a vision of living to old age, having a wife and children, but he also sees a world devoid of his message. In the end both Donnie and Christ chose to sacrifice themselves to save the world around them.

A Decade in Love With Movies – 2007-2009 – Opinions

I got into quite a strong flow of watching film during this time. My roommate Eddy would watch many of them with me, and because of his background an English major, we could discuss them like the nerd we truly were. I watched many documentaries during the first half of 2007, while I was still in Bellingham. Simultaneously, I was finishing up my year with AmeriCorps and starting to realize that working in schools at the elementary level was the job I was meant to do. Many of the documentaries I watched corresponded to this as they focused on the social welfare of children internationally (Born into Brothels, The Children Underground).

I found myself missing Tennessee, despite the beauty of the land around me. I made arrangements to return home in July and once my term with AmeriCorps finished in June, I had about a month of nothing to do. I discovered Spanish director Pedro Almodovar during this time and fell in love with his films. I started with Bad Education and quickly found All About My Mother, Talk To Her, and Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. What I loved about Almodovar was how visually alive his films looked. They’re full of color and bombastic characters, but on the flip side they have very deeply emotional moments that never feel dishonest.
I also picked up my own copy of the Scarecrow Movie Guide, a book put out by Scarecrow Video in Seattle, that catalogues a massive amount of films, some well known but most very obscure to the casual filmgoer. This book was crucial in helping me develop into a true appreciator of cinema and I feel that I have reached the point where I can put it aside and guide myself independently through film history. The Scarecrow Movie Guide encouraged me to pick a director and fully devour their work completely, helping me finish up viewing Kubrick’s work.
Back in Tennessee, I discovered the beauty of BitTorrent and it ability to open the door to an almost infinite number of film experiences. So many films, not available at the library or even in the country on DVD, were waiting there and I found my consumption increase a hundredfold. It was also in this time that I solidified my decision to go into teaching and began a relationship with the most amazing person I have ever met in my life, Ariana. There are few experiences greater that being curled up with her and watching movies. I find myself impressed with how much she is growing in her film knowledge now. She even admits I’ve helped her appreciate the role a director plays in shaping a film.
I know that for the rest of my life, I will be in love with film. I look forward to sharing cinematic experiences with Ariana, with friends, with future children. I can’t wait to sit down with my own kids and show them The Wizard of Oz or Star Wars for the first time, and get to see their amazement as they discover these worlds.

Film 2010 #17 – Legion

Legion (2010, dir. Scott Stewart)
Starring Paul Bettany, Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson, Adrienne Palicki, Charles Dutton, Lucas Black

Interesting concepts, poor execution. Par for the course with a lot of sci-fi and fantasy on film these days, and Legion is no exception. The film has a few little twists but at the end of the day fails on pretty much all fronts.
Michael the Archangel (Bettany) learns of God’s plan to finally wipe out humanity and cannot go along with this plan. He rejects his angelic nature, falls to Earth, and gets a bunch of machine guns to fight with. Michael makes his way to a diner in the middle of New Mexico where a young woman lives who is pregnant with a child that is somehow the last hope for mankind, though what exactly this kid can do is never explained in the film. Michael even goes so far as to say if the child lives or dies it doesn’t matter near the end of the film. Okay…then why all the hubbub?
There is a lot in this film that is never explained and that is incredibly frustrating. In an arthouse film like Eternal Sunshine, the tone of the film never takes itself too seriously, hence we never wonder how the memory removal process works. In a film like Legion, which can’t laugh at itself once, the tone dictates that when action is taken there is a concise rhyme and reason. The biggest example is of how exactly does a machine gun hurt a being like an angel. Not a single effort to justify that one.
The biggest concept I like from the film was the idea of angelic possession. The movie is basically a zombie film with angel-possessed human hordes attacking the diner and trying to kill the pregnant woman. While the execution of the idea is downright yawn-inducing, the concept itself is incredibly originally. I’ve read a hell of a lot of comics and seen a lot of films but have never encountered the idea of angelic possession. Pretty cool idea, would like to see it implemented in a different film.

A Decade in Love With Movies – 2003 -2006 – An Education

Throughout this period of time, I became a frequent theater hopper at the Green Hills 16. About one or two Saturdays a month, I would walk over to the mall and take advantage of the basement like setup of the 16, where a person could easily move from screen to screen and never be seen. I was able to devour so much cinema during this period, helped in part because the 16 is a Regal Arts Cinema, meaning it focused on artsy fare mixed in with the blockbuster junk. I saw such films as Secretary, Late Marriage, Spirited Away, Adaptation, and more.

It was also in this time, that I switched from being a communications major to English, and never regretted the decision once. I was immediately with peers with whom I clicked, who saw the world in a similar way to me. I was in classes that motivated me with great discussions and analyses. I also became part of the English Major Movie Night, suggesting titles such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and I (Heart) Huckabees.I became more and more interested in reading about the ideas behind and interpretations of cinema at this point.
I began to think about tracing footsteps back in film. I was very aware of contemporary cinema but wanted to know more about the films of the past that influenced today’s pictures. During summers on campus I got my library card for the Metro library and was able to consume massive amounts of cinema, going back every other day at some points to pick up new holds. It was in 2004, that I became enthralled by a filmmaker who would influence me in my writing and thinking even today, Robert Altman. In the matter of a few weeks I saw MASH, The Long Goodbye, Brewster McCloud, The Player, and Short Cuts. The fractured and cacophonous nature of Altman’s filmmaking appealed to the same part of me that ate up the more post-modern literature I was consuming at the time.
I also graduated from college in this time and suffered an intense post-collegiate depression.
One of the things I began doing at the time was cataloging the films I saw over 2005, a practice I still maintain today. I began to fight my way through the depression and film played a major part. The apartment I lived in had cable with every premium channel plus a DVR unit. I began checking the schedule a week in advance and planning out what to record and was able to see volumes and volumes of excellent film that continued my education. In 2006, I worked for a brief time at the Edmonson Pike branch library and was able to have daily access to great works of film, having 20 or more DVDs out at a time. I was able to continue keeping up with contemporary works as well as back tracking and seeing more historical films.
I came to a conclusion in early 2006, that I wanted to live somewhere else and made plans to move to Washington state. The last film I saw, the night before my flight to WA, was the opening night of Superman Returns. While the film hasn’t aged well, the experience remains as one of the most significant in my life. I saw it with my father and brother, both of whom since my relationships with have become very damaged and we haven’t spoken for over a year. We got to the theater only to see a long line coming out. I remembered my former roommate Seth Hatfield was a manager there so we stepped inside. I found him and he let us in for free and into the theater before every one else. Seats were found in the very middle of the theater and I remember being taking back to my childhood by things as simple as that iconic theme by John Williams.
The second day I was in Bellingham, WA I got a library card and began using their system for its film potential. Ups and downs were had those first six months in Washington and I found film to be a way of helping me get through the tougher times.

Sundance Film Festival – The History

Right now the 2010 Sundance Film Festival is in full swing in Park City, Utah. American films of all sorts are being rolled out every day till January 31st. For the blog, I’ll be looking at the general history of Sundance here in part one, and then in part two I’ll look at some of this year’s films that I’m most excited to see.

The Sundance Film Festival began in 1978 as the Utah Film Festival. At the time there was no prominent American filmmaker-only festival in the existence and the hope was that this small gathering in Utah would provide a focal point for the iconoclastic film being made at the time. The festival was originally held in Salt Lake City and its biggest event was the awarding of the Frank Capra Award, given to filmmakers who worked outside the mainstream Hollywood system. The first year it was awarded appropriately to Jimmy Stewart, who worked with Capra on It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
In conjunction with the festival, the Sundance Institute was formed, named for Robert Redford’s iconic character and chaired by the actor. The Institute provided young filmmakers with funding for their projects. It was Redford’s involvement in the program that raised the prominence of the film festival. In 1981, the festival moved to its current location of Park City, suggested by director Sydney Pollack due to the resort and tourist nature of the area.
Originally, the festival only dealt in incredibly obscure films but in the late 80s and early 90s, a few young directors gained a large amount of attention. Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotapes hit the festival in 1989, followed by a huge year in 1992 with the debut films of Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), Kevin Smith (Clerks), and Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi). Even Wes Anderson’s short film, Bottle Rocket (the basis of the later feature) debuted in the 90s at Sundance.
As Sundance grew in prominence, many argue that its dedication to burgeoning filmmakers waned. Big money is to be made from distribution sales at the festival now, especially in 2001 when Mariah Carey’s Glitter debuted. Many independent filmmakers saw Sundance as becoming more interested in the business and paparazzi side of things. In response, the rival Slamdance festival started in 1995. Slamdance has discovered its own fair share of talent, including Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), and Christopher Nolan (Memento).
Up Next: A Look at 2010’s Sundance line up