Gideon's Army (2014) - Dawn Porter
Named after the landmark Supreme Court ruling Gideon vs. Wainwright that established the right to counsel for all citizens, Dawn Porter's touching and intricate documentary, Gideon's Army, follows Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick, three young public defenders dedicated to defending those which society offers little protection. Working extremely long hours on very low pay, Gideon's Army reveals how these three idealistic lawyers fight in a system that is reaching its breaking point. With case-loads in the hundreds at any given time, public defenders simply don't have the time, money or resources to give their clients the time necessary to form a proper case, with Gideon's Army revealing the inherent biases of a broken criminal justice system. These lawyers struggle to even be effective given their workloads, and one of the film's greatest attributes is its ability to capture the optimism, dedication, and pain that each of these three public defenders experience. I particularly found Travis Williams to be an endlessly compelling character, a self-made man who came from very little to become what he is today. Travis is endlessly dedicated to speaking for the voiceless, being a very inspirational character and a strong reminder of 'good guys' which do exist in this massive bureaucratic system. We see how another one of the public defenders, Brandy Alexander, fears she is becoming completely desensitized as a human-being, with one of her confidants even explaining to her that "to rescue someone for hell you often have to go there". Featuring a quiet loneliness, Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army argues that the sanctity of human liberty itself is at stake, juxtaposing the divergent paths that exist in a system that views the defendants as inconsequential, even though each case couldn't be of more paramount importance to those individuals whose lives hang in the balance of a court's decision.
I hadn't seen Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon in years and I was happy to see that it's just as good as I remember, maybe even better. A truly great horror film, Night of the Demon is centered around an an American professor, John Holden, who goes to England to disapprove all things supernatural. Torneur's use of lighting to create a creepy atmosphere are in full effect here, creating a sense of danger throughout the entire film. I have come to realize how much I really love the relationship which unfolds between John Holden and Dr. Karswell, the conjurer of these demons. It's so great because given the situation, these two men are very calm and calculated in dealing with one and other, like some type of chess-match. They are both civil and relatively polite but obviously are not fond of each other given the circumstances. Holden's disbelief in any type of hocus pocus, is very amusing and if I had one criticism of this film I think it's that he holds this belief a little too long, given what he has seen, though I'm sure that is a subjective debate. The whole sequence where Holden sneaks into Karswell's house is just masterful in it's use of lighting, compositions, etc. The creature effects that are used for the Night Demon are a little cheesy when it comes to the closeup's but everything besides that, the gradual appearance of smoke and the fire effects, are still effective, even by today's standards. Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon is another film showcasing the filmmaker's ability to deliver strong genre films.
Wojceich Has' beautiful, surrealisitic nightmare, 'The Hourglass Sanatorium" is full of some of the most impressive imagery ever committed to celluloid, but it's the dense, endlessly fascinating narrative, if you can call it that, which makes this film such a truly memorable experience. The film begins on a dilapidated passenger train with our main protagonist, Jozef, on his way to visit his ailing father in a worn-down sanatorium. Dilapidated is an understatment, with the train being occupied by passengers who are closer to representing corpes, than lively human-beings. Arriving at the Sanatorium, Jozef is told by the doctor that his father is dying but strangely suggests that he may recover at some point, as time works on a different level in the sanatorium. From that point on, The Hourglass Sanatorium gets downright mesmerizing, with sequence after sequence of dreamlike narrative threads that feel more like vignettes than one cohesive narrative. Seemingly jumping through time, we relive many aspects of Jozef's youth, many centering around his family, with his father being portrayed both as a sick man and lively man in different sequences throughout. As this surrealist dream barrels towards its conclusion, it becomes somewhat apparent that Jozef is in fact the man who has died, with The Hourglass Sanatorium being an incredibly intricate portrait of a character's psyche. Of course the nature of this film makes it up to many interpretations, but the blind train conducter reappearing throughout the film sure seems to symbolize death. Joseph and Jacob, our two main protagonists, and much of the film also deals with jewism symbolism, with Hourglass Santorium being an allegoy of the death and destruction caused on the Jewish community in Eastern Europe during WWII. Endlessly fancinating, complex, and full of heart-stopping surrealistic imagery, Wojcich Has' The Hourglass Sanatorium is a great example of what filmmaking can be.
Turn-of-the-century, Dr. Paul Eswai is summoned to a small Carpathian town to aid in investigating a rash of mysterious murders. The town is convinced that a supernatural force is in play, creating a sense of fear and paranoia that pulsates through all who live there. Joining forces with Inspector Kruger and Monica Schuftan, Dr. Paul Eswai sets out to discover the true culprit of these mysterious deaths, unwilling to even consider the idea of these murders being the culprit of a supernatural force. Playing with the science vs. supernatural tropes, Mario Bava's Kill Baby Kill transcends the mysterious murder narrative, offering a much more complex and interesting metaphysical complication that revolves around the town witch and Baroness Graps, whose own deceased daughter may be responsible for the ghostly murders. The story may be a little convoluted for its own good, but these complexities keep the film more mysterious and interesting than simply relying on the typical "scientific-based man has to come to terms with something supernatural' narrative yarn. Mario Bava's Kill, Baby..Kill! is a masterclass in effectively constructing a horror film through atmosphere, being a film that inspired a host of films that followed it, ranging from contemporary ghosts stories to murderous child tales. Pulsating with atmosphere, Kill, Baby..Kill! features an unrelenting sense of unease and tension, with Bava using a kaleidoscope of colors and well-designed camera movements to create an ominous atmosphere that evokes a sense of uncertainty and voyeurism - the idea that some supernatural force is watching these characters. I've always loved how observant Bava's direction is in space, routinely having his camera move throughout the the environment, detailing this harsh reality his characters find themselves in. Wildly regarded as one of Mario Bava's best, Kill Baby Kill is a highly enjoyable, intoxicating decent into horror, that is a constant reminder of the importance of atmosphere over on-screen violence.
Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped is a simple yet meticulous prison film that tells the story of a French freedom fighter's escape from a German prison during WWII. The entire film focuses on this one character, Lt. Fontaine, a man that knows death approaches, via firing squad, if he does not escape. Robert Bresson's films have such a calm effectiveness to them and A Man Escaped is maybe the best example of this, with the film is being so detailed in it's approach, as we watch this man slowly figure out a way to escape using his own ingenuity. With this focus solely on Lt. Fontaine, A Man Escaped carries a severe amount of weight and the stakes of the story feel as high as they should. The camera work really captures the stillness of this man's life in this dark prison cell, utilizing off-camera spacing to really create an tense atmosphere. I also really liked how the film never seems to show the faces of the guards, rather making them simply a presence, standing in the way of Fontaine and his freedom. It's really an impressive feat that a film as minimalistic as Bresson's A Man Escaped can create such potent emotion and lingering moments of resonance, being another showcase of why Robert Bresson is considered one of the best.
Wildly considered the best of Corman's Poe adaptations, The Masque of The Red Death tells the story of Prince Prosperois, a diabolical man who has sworn his elegance to the devil, ruthlessly terrorizing the plague-ridden peasants from behind his Castle walls. The story begins in a small peasant village, where Prince Prosperois first learns of the Red Death plague. Instead of attempting to help the villagers, Prosperois decides to burn the village to the ground. When two villagers, Gino and his father-in-law Ludovico stand up to the diabolical prince, they are ordered to their death. Right before Prospero has them slain, Gino's beautiful wife, Francesca, intervenes, begging for their lives. Enchanted by her beauty, Prosperois decides to take Gino and Ludovico as prisoners for the time being, also bringing Francesca along, hoping to corrupt her. Roger Corman's The Masque of the Red Death is a lavish gothic horror tale that is most memorable for Vincent Price's devious performance as Prince Prospero. This is Vincent Price as his worst, a devil-worshiping, one-percent-er, who shows no mercy in routinely having peasants slain or tortured for his own personal gain. In making a pact with the devil, the prince believes he has risen above mortality, finding himself in for a rude awakening when coming face-to-face with the masque of red death. Certainly one of Corman's more "high-quality" efforts, The Masque of the Red Death features lavish production design that is pulsating with color. While the film is worth your time for the Price performance alone, The Masque of The Red Death has some interesting things to say about humankind's need and desire to quantify the afterlife, with both the Prince and the peasants having their own form of god or higher power that they aspire too. The film, and short story, is an interesting commentary on this, arguing that death itself does not respond to a higher-power, being something that simply exists as a part of nature.
Nadja (1994) - Michael Almereyda
Nadja is a dreamy, poetic, odd, yet always interesting vampire tale by Michael Almereyda. Stylistically as always, Almereyda does a lot with a little, from the portrayal of the vampires' physical attributes like speed and super strength, to using old close-up footage of Bela Lugosi to portray Dracula, his creative ability with limited budget is particularly impressive here. One of my favorite bits of ingenuity being his use of the insanely crappy, pixelated points of view to capture the intoxicating effect of being under the influence of a vampire. While I hate criticizing a film for being too self-indulgent, as I think it tends to be criticism that is overused without merit, Almereyda's Nadja is just a little too self-indulgent... Also, I found the characters and subsequent performances to be too subdued for my taste, though I guess some of that could be credited to the alienation and disconnect that many of the characters in film experience with the world around them. Honestly, I am not entirely sure what type of mythological commentary Almereyda was trying to make, maybe just the typical forces of love vs forces of destruction commentary. This all being said, Michael Almereyda's Nadja has some pretty great comedic moments, taking advantage of an old school story that is set in modern times. Nadja introducing her slave so nonchalantly to the caretaker is a great example of the film's strange but entrancing sense of humor. Peter Fonda as Van Helsing, while also rather one-note, is fun to watch. While definitely my least favorite Almereyda of the films I've seen, Nadja still manages to be a fascinating.
Joaquim Pinto has been an important figure in Portuguese cinema for over 30 years, working as a director, producer, and sound recordist for a host of renowned filmmakers such as Raul Ruiz and Joao Cesar Monteiro. Pinto has been living with HIV for over a decade, and with What Now? Remind Me, Pinto has created an intimate and deeply personal meditation of his struggle with this disease. Looking back over his life, Pinto's film is full of reflection, with the filmmaker giving a unique look into the mind of someone who has been dancing with death for years. Essentially a reflective video essay, What Now? Remind Me gives the viewer some semblance of what he is going through, visually expressing his condition and the fractured memories that rise to the surface in such a difficult situation. The opening shot of the film, a snail slowly crawling across the frame, perfectly symbolizes Joaquim Pinto's current journey, the slow voyage towards death. Taking experimental drugs, Pinto's film captures a man seeing his life slowly slipping away, the drugs weaking him physically and mentally, making it hard for him to even maintain his relationships, with his mind failing to keep up with his body. The treatment beomes merely an allusion of living, being so highly medicated towards the end of Pinto's film that What Now? Remind Me makes you almost wish dealth on this man, giving him a release from his plight. What Now? Remind Me is both deeply intimate and profoundly epic in scale, with Pinto capturing how insignificant nearly everything is when put up against the time itself. At nearly three hours in length, Joaquim Pinto's What Now? Remind Me can be somewhat an endurance test but its meditative nature delivers countless moments of life-affirming poignancy.
Pasolini (2014) - Abel Ferrara
Abel Ferrara's Pasolini documents the final day in the life of Italian writer, poet, and director Pier Paolo Pasolini. The year was 1975, and Pasolini was on the defensive, with his latest film Salo, 120 Days of Sodom creating quite the stir among censors throughout the world. Returning home to his mother's house in Rome, the film is a reflective study of a complicated man that is bursting with admiration, although it doesn't quite succeed in being the reflective, homage to the important cinematic force that was Pasolini. Abel Ferrara's Pasolini is a unique biopic in that it doesn't try to tell the filmmakers life story, instead attempting to simply capture the essence of the man through a slice of life approach. Using an impending interview as a jumping off point, Ferrara's film is a cluttered but intriguing film that attempts to deconstruct this complicated man, pillaging his memories and admirations, attempting to deconstruct his creative process, and present his unique worldview in a atypical narrative. While this approach unintentionally leaves the biopic feeling convoluted, the Ferrara's admiration for Pasolini is pumping throughout the entire film, with the film feeling almost like a hodepodge of ancedotes about Pasolini instead of one focused feature. The film is essentially a jumbled portrait of Pasolini's philosophically ideas, that borders on incoherence, never fully effective and capturing the man himself. It's almost as if Abel Ferrara had too much to say, making the film unfocused due to its trying to personify such a complicated man's life.. With Pasolini, Ferrara attempts to illuminate the ideas of a filmmaker he greatly admired, not always succeeding, but providing a unique perspective into Pasolini that is to be respected.
Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger's The Tales of Hoffman, an adapttation of Jacques Offenbach's opera, is a cinematic opus of sound, color, and light that would make a kalediscope blush. Written, directed, and produced by Powell & Pressburger I can't imagine this wasn't a passion project for them, taking advantage of the film medium to accentuate an already bombastic opera. I have to be upfront with you right away in saying that I have never been able to appreciate Opera, so going into The Tales of Hoffman I wasn't sure what to expect. The main problem I have with Opera is I have a hard time following the dialogue when it is entirely sung by the actors, and unfortunately this was true to some degree with The Tales of Hoffman. The gist of the story is centered around Hoffman's past loves, Olympia, Giuletta, and Antonia, each having their own chapter. The lovers aren't exactly typical, being made up of a mechanical doll, Venetian courtesan, and the daughter to a celebrated composer who suffers from a rare illness and cannot sing because of it. This is a playful film and Powell & Pressburger pull out all the stops in attempting to capture the power of Opera through a camera lense. Every frame is full of lavish costumes and production desigh, and I found myself completely entranced at times by this hypnotic nature of the film. While The Tales of Hoffman is simply the type of film that I have trouble appreciating, Powell & Pressburger really created a playful riff on Opera, with creativity and ingenuity flowing through every frame, making it impossible not to appreciate.
Love of all things cinema brought me here.