Sunday, 6 May 2012

Bicycle Thieves As An Example of Italian Neo-Realism

Introduction to Italian Neo-Realism
Italian Neo-Realist films are among the most influential films of all time, simply for the fact that they used a realistic stylistic approach that was alternative to that of the glossy Hollywood films (Corrigan & White, 2009), and that they realistically discussed themes and subjects that were present throughout Italy at the time, breaking away from the “vacuous entertainment” that Italian cinema was previously regarded as (Monticelli, 2000). While Italian Neo-Realism was made distinctive as a result of elements of cinematography such as shooting on location and using natural and available light on “set”, there is so much more to Neo-Realism than what we see on the screen. In no other film is this more evident than in Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves, a film that is a fantastic example of neo-realism.

Story Instead of Plot
Of all the 90 or so Neo-realist films (Monticelli, 2000) made during 1942-1952 (Corrigan & White, 2009), none of them had as much impact as that of Bicycle Thieves. The story of a man,  Antonio Ricci, played by Lamberto Maggiorani, and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) searching for his bicycle which was stolen by a young thief. Just by looking at the story, you can see how the film is a great example of neo-realism, for the film has more of a story than a plot. What happens in the film doesn’t follow a cause and effect pattern, rather events just occur, much like life itself.  There is much more to the film than a man just searching for his bike. We see themes presented such as “human suffering in a hostile environment” (Sorlin, 2005).  This theme is easily summarised through the opening and closing shots of the film, where we see Antonio caught up amongst hundreds of people, who all appear to be in the same boat as him. The fact that we see more story than plot comes down to the fact that Neo-Realist films have little editing, providing real continuity. For example, there is a shot in the film of Bruno using the toilet, a shot that was perhaps unnecessary to the story but necessary in conveying the realism of the film, showing how Bicycle Thieves is an ideal presentation of Neo-Realism.

Real Characters and Situations
Film theorist Andre Bazin in his essay Neorealism and Pure Cinema: The Bicycle Thieves (Bazin, 2007) defined Bicycle Thieves as “pure cinema…it tells a simple story composed of real events involving real people in real places.” This is another way that the film can be seen as an ideal example of neo-realism. The film includes characters that the Italian people of the time could relate to, and placed these characters into situations that people could also relate to. The importance of a bike to Antonio could mean nothing to us living in the developed world of the 21st century. However, we need to place ourselves in the context of the period. The film is set in a period when mechanical transportation was rare and expensive (Bazin, 2007). What we see in the film isn’t fiction; it’s the type of living conditions that people were living in. This wouldn’t be as accurately conveyed across if it weren’t for real characters that we are also presented with. There isn’t anything theatrical about these characters. All of the characters actions and reactions mirror that of regular people. Pierre Sorlin in his book Italian National Cinema: 1896-1996 (Sorlin, 2005) states that “when [Antonio’s] bike is stolen, there are no hints to the man’s state of mind. We only see his immediate, erratic reactions.” This also comes down to the fact that neo-realist films use unprofessional actors instead of major stars. Therefore, Bicycle Thieves is an ideal example of neo-realism.

Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is a fine example of how to convey neo-realism by using more than just cinematography. Through having more of a story than a plot, as well as placing real characters in real situations and having them deal with themes such as human suffering, we can see that Bicycle Thieves is an ideal presentation of neo-realism.

The Auteur Theory

Introduction to the Auteur Theory
What makes cinema so exciting and interesting is the fact that we have not just directors, but auteurs as well. As with many things, there isn’t one clear definition of what an auteur is. Film critic Andrew Sarris, in his essay Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962 (Sarris, 1962), breaks the auteur theory up into 3 different circles. The outer circle refers to the techniques used by the director. According to Sarris, if a director has little technical skill, then he cannot be considered an auteur, as he believes in the idea that a great director needs to at least be a good one. The middle circle of the auteur theory refers to the personal style of the director’s filmmaking. Sarris states that the auteur must display a set of recurring characteristics that become the auteur’s signature. He also says that the look and movement of the film should have some connection to the way the auteur thinks and feels. Finally, the inner circle is the interior meaning that the auteur places within the film. A director who follows this auteur theory is Danish director Lars Von Trier.

Agent Provoc-auteur: Lars von Trier
There is perhaps no other director working today that is as polarising as Lars von Trier.  People see him as a genius or a master filmmaker, others as a pretentious misogynist. When you look at the guidelines set by Andrew Sarris, and compare them to von Trier, there is no doubt that he is an auteur. Caroline Bainbridge in her essay The Cinema of Lars von Trier: Authenticity and Author (Goss, 2009), states that he is not only an auteur because of the films he makes, but also because of the influence he has on the film industry. This is clearly evident through the Dogme 95 manifesto he created with Thomas Vinterberg which, like the French New Wave, created rules for a fresher and more simple style of film making (Goss, 2009).

The Outer Circle: Techniques
From the techniques used in his films, you immediately identify it as a von Trier film. In his later films, he uses a hand held camera to shoot the film, adding a sense of realism. This is completely evident in Breaking The Waves. The use of hand held cameras allows us to be more engaged with the story of Bess, as it seems less cinematic and more realistic. From this we see that he is an auteur, as he is breaking the traditional conventions of filmmaking by going for a more realistic approach by using hand held cameras.
The Middle Circle: Personal Style
One of the most important aspects of being an auteur is that you have to be distinguishable from other directors. Lars von Trier conforms to this in that there are many characteristics of his filmmaking that is recurrent throughout his work. The majority of his later films all focus on women who are placed in tragic circumstances. Melancholia focuses on a woman going through depression after her failed wedding day while a planet is on a collision course with Earth, while Dogville centres on a woman hiding from gangsters in a small town. 

The Inner Circle: Interior Meaning
Von Trier’s films are some of the most beautiful looking films in cinema history, easily seen through the opening scenes of both Melancholia and Antichrist. However, to be an auteur, your film needs to go further than just looking nice. They need to have an underlying theme or message. Von Trier deals with many weighty themes in his films, ranging from religion in Breaking The Waves to grief and loss in Antichrist. While many view his constant use of woman portrayed as victims in his films as misogynistic, von Trier says that “those characters aren’t women. They are self-portraits.” (Macnab, 2011) His producer Vibeke Windelov goes on to say, “In society, women are allowed to express more emotionally and verbally.” This is evident through the character of Justine in Melancholia, who’s constant sinking into depression, according to von Trier himself, is “a description of my own state” (Sobolla, 2011).

Lars von Trier is the perfect example of a modern auteur, as stated by Andrew Sarris. In his films, von Trier uses a unique set of techniques, has his own personal style of filmmaking and includes underlying messages, conforming to the guidelines set by Sarris.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

February 2012 In Review

February was basically the last month of my massive 4 month holiday before I start university (which I have since started), so it was a time for me to get a final rush of films watched before the distraction of studying arrived. And what a prosperous month it was. For the first time in years I re-visited one of the grandest and greatest movie trilogies of all time: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and what an experience it is. With February being Oscar month, I decided to get my fix of Best Picture winning films, so I watched all the "Best Pictures" from 2005 to 2009, as well as seeing this year's Best Picture winner, The Artist. I viewed many films this month that had a large impact on me, for better and for worse. In particular, I viewed not only the worst film ever made, but also the most disturbing and mortifying film ever made. So here are my viewings for February 2012.

Best Film of the Month: The Great Dictator
The Gold Rush 4/5
The Great Dictator 5/5
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans 0.5/5
Underworld: Awakening 1.5/5
The 40 Year-Old Virgin 4/5
Masculin Feminin: 15 Precis Faits 4/5
Batman Begins 4.5/5
The Dark Knight 5/5
Inception 5/5
The Holy Mountain 4.5/5

Biggest Surprise: Chronicle
Toy Story 3 5/5
Red Beard 5/5
Manos: The Hands of Fate 0/5
Sin City 4.5/5
Hunger 4/5
Shame 4.5/5
Ali G Indahouse 2/5
(500) Days of Summer 5/5
Picnic At Hanging Rock 4.5/5
Chronicle 4/5

 Worst Film of the Month: Ax'Em (a.k.a The Weekend It Lives)
8 1/2 4.5/5
28 Days Later 4/5
Wedding Crashers 3.5/5
Ax'Em (a.k.a The Weekend It Lives) 0/5
Rabbit Hole 4/5
Paranormal Activity 3 3.5/5
Martha Marcy May Marlene 4.5/5
Blue Velvet 4.5/5

 Best Lord of the Rings film: The Return of the King
The Human Centipede: First Sequence 2.5/5
The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence 0.5/5
Breaking The Waves 4.5/5
Snowtown 4.5/5
The Virgin Spring 4.5/5
Eden Lake 3.5/5
127 Hours 4.5/5
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 5/5
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 4.5/5
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 5/5 

Best film seen in the cinema: The Artist
Crash 2.5/5
The Departed 5/5
No Country For Old Men 5/5
Slumdog Millionaire 4.5/5
The Hurt Locker 4.5/5
The Artist 5/5
The Iron Lady 2.5/5

Biggest Disappointment: Crash
Best Film of the Month: The Great Dictator
Worst Film of the Month: Ax'Em (a.k.a The Weekend It Lives)
Biggest Surprise: Chronicle
Biggest Disappointment: Crash
Best film seen in the cinema: The Artist
Best Lord of the Rings film: The Return of the King

Total films watched this month: 46

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Ax'Em (a.k.a. The Weekend It Lives)

When the first thing you see in a film is this, you know you're in trouble:

Yep, that's right, within the first second of the 'film' Ax"Em (a.k.a The Weekend It Lives), the film's final outcome is pretty much signed and sealed. For this is a film unlike any other. I thought I had seen it all with celluloid dog turds like Curse of the Zodiac, Manos: The Hands of Fate and Ben and Arthur. Oh how wrong I was. You ain't seen nothing if you haven't seen Ax'Em, a film that is below the bottom of the barrel. This is unquestionably, undeniable and unfathomably the worst film I have ever seen. Everything, and I mean absolutely everything about this...well, I wouldn't call it a film, but we'll call it that to make it easier, is so off, so wrong, so inept that I cannot even begin to describe it in words. My god. If you thought it didn't come anymore inept and misguided than The Room, then you are sorely mistaken. Ax'Em is so bad, it makes The Room look like Taxi Driver. And that's an understatement.

I don't know if I should bother telling you about the plot, since I didn't find one. From what I can gather, a group of people go away to some abandoned cottage in the woods (as you do), where there happens to be an axe murderer living there. Yeah, never seen that before. That's about as much as I could gather from the plot, and to be honest, I didn't really care. Hell, I didn't even know what any of the 'characters' names were. Nor did I give a shit.

I couldn't possibly tell you EVERYTHING that's wrong with this film, because I'd be writing a whole 5 page essay, but I'll go through the film start to finish to give you the main things that are wrong with it. Ok, here we go. So as you saw at the beginning of this review, the film starts of with opening titles that seem to be written by a first grader who's just learning English. Not only are they borderline incomprehensible, but we're given all but 2 seconds to read the damn thing, so we have to pause it and rewind to read it. Keep in mind this is all in the first 10 seconds of the film. Anyway, cut to an opening prologue where we are introduced to our characters, and by introduced I mean they all come on to the screen (there's about 7 or 8 of them), and they all decide to go away for the weekend. At least that's what I gathered. I had no idea what occurred in this scene because the audio is so goddamn terrible that I had no idea what the fuck they were saying. Not to mention the fact that the video quality was so blurry that I couldn't make out their faces. Next up is a scene which appears to be a flashback of the murderer going into a house and killing a man, and let me tell you, the sight of a 90 year old man being killed with a machete and crying out "Aw, shit" was an absolute highlight of the film. This is supposedly supposed to be our introduction to our murderer. No worries about motive or anything, we'll just accept that he goes around killing people for no reason. We then cut to an opening credits scene that is some dance battle thing that turns into a "Yo Mamma" joke battle. Oh, and this has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with the plot.

So our troupe of people go off to this abandoned house in the woods, which turns out to be the house the old man was killed in! Shock, horror! Once they get there, we have to sit through not one, but two extended eating scenes that are not involving in the slightest. These scenes aren't made any better through the fact that director Michael Mfume insists on just walking around in circles around the table. We're about halfway in now, and so far, nothing has happened. I thought to myself at this point that maybe it was going for the Paranormal Activity approach. You know, how nothing happens until the second half where everything is let loose. But then I thought that this couldn't be the case, because those three films built up suspense in their first halves, and we're actually good. Ax'Em doesn't build up any suspense, and just quietly...(it isn't very good). Surprisingly, Ax'Em goes absolutely mental in its second half, and will either have you in fits of hysterical laughter or will have you absolutely shell shocked at what you're witnessing. I won't tell you what happens, although you could probably figure it out, but boy, it is INSANE.

But what's wrong with it specifically, you might be asking. Well, the audio and video quality is just non-existent. In many scenes, you can't tell what is going on or what the actors are saying, a lot of the time this is in the same scene. There is virtually no production value, but what did you expect from a film that was shot with a budget of...$650 (I'm serious). In fact, in some scenes, in particular the opening prologue, you can hear the director call cut. Speaking of the director, Michael Mfune has some of the most misguided and clueless direction I've ever seen. There are scenes that are just so poorly staged, not to mention pointless. Just look at the scene where the chick is running through the forest and falls down 4 TIMES in the space of about 25 metres. Then you have dialogue like "You phatter than a swamp possum with tha mumps - boy you so fine I could kiss yo daddy's ass." Sigh. Dialogue like this makes you swear the whole script was improvised. Which might explain the fact that there is absolutely NO characterisation whatsoever. The non-acting by the cast doesn't help the cardboard cutouts (that's a compliment) that we're presented with either. The murderer itself gets no back story (unless the opening titles were meant to be the backstory) and no motive. He sounds like a constipated cow and is a complete ripoff of Michael Myers. And the preceding 68 minutes before the ending didn't set yourself on a mass murder hunt, then ending might just make you, for it sets up room for a sequel. That's right. I'm as baffled as you are. And the title. I understand why it's called Ax'Em, but The Weekend It Lives? How the fuck does that makes sense? The Weekend what lives? First off, that's not even grammatically correct, and if you're going to use that title, then at least explain what It is.

I could go on and on, but all you really need to know is that Ax'Em is possibly the worst film ever made. It is in my opinion the worst film I've ever seen. If you're desperate to watch it, it's bloody hard to find on the internet, but just for you, I'll post a link to the website I got it from down below. If you were smart (unlike this movie), you'd avoid it at all costs. But I know you. You'll hear BAD FILM! and get sucked in. Don't give in to temptation like I did. You'll regret it. If you do decide to watch it, make sure to take some cyanide pills beforehand. It'll be so much less painful than watching this film. In summary: FUCK THIS MOVIE!!


Watch if you dare:

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Manos: The Hands of Fate

Manos: The Hands of Fate - A film so bad, it's an insult to cinema.
There are films that are so bad that they're good. Classic example: The Room. There are films that are so bad that they're just bad. Classic example: Ben and Arthur. Then there are films that are so bad, that they make you say to yourself: "What the actual fuck did I just watch?" Enter the cult classic Manos: The Hands of Fate, a film so bad that it takes you a while to actually comprehend the overall awfulness of it. I watched it more than 24 hours ago and I still haven't processed how bad it is. This film is so bad, it's a damn right insult to cinema.

I'm not gonna waste time telling you a lot about the context so I'll get straight into the 'plot'. One day, a couple and their young daughter are on a road trip. While attempting to find their accommodation, they get lost down a deserted road and end up at a shack-like place. They are welcomed in by a supposedly disabled man named Torgo, who is looking after the place while his 'master' is away. They soon learn (these people have obviously never seen a horror movie before) that they aren't allowed to leave the shack. It turns out that the 'master' is actually a Satanist (or some shit like that) who worships some being named Manos, while also collecting wives from the people who are trapped in the inn. And so you could probably guess where it goes from there.

The infamous scene where a clapper board is seen on screen.
Manos: The Hands of Fate put simply has all the hallmarks that makes a bad cult classic movie...a bad cult classic movie. The acting in this is beyond abysmally awful, ranging from the completely over-the-top shown through the Master, to the completely dull and effortless, seen through the husband Michael. This in particularly is to be expected, considering the actor playing the director and the writer of the fucking movie, which is equally as dull and effortless. The standout performance (in a hilarious way) is John Reynolds as Torgo. This is a character and a performance that has to be seen and heard to be believed. God knows what the fuck he was doing. It is an absolute continuity nightmare, as well as having next to no production value whatsoever. In fact, in one of the scenes, you actually see the clapper board being pulled away. It's that bad and low. As you'd probably expect, there is zip characterization, as well as a lack of scares and atmosphere. A bad sign when you're trying to make a horror film.

The thing that sets Manos: The Hands of Fate apart from all those other bad cult classics, is the fact that that it is so crushingly, mind-numbingly, brain-cell reducingly dumb. I could literally feel brain-cells rotting away while watching it. I mean, this is perhaps the dumbest film I've ever seen, and I've seen Transformers 2. As an indication of how dumb this film is, take a look at the title. The English translation from the Spanish word Manos is hands. Meaning that the title of this film is Hands: The Hands of Fate. Meaning that the being the Master is worshiping is named Hands. Then you realise that the Harold P. Warren, the writer/director has a weird obsession with hands. The subtitle "The Hands of Fate" is not a metaphor. It appears to be literal. I mean the Master's costume is a massive Batman cape that when opened reveals two giant orange hands. And his staff has a hand on the end of it. Hands. Hands. Hands Hands, FUCKING HANDS! EVERYWHERE! The other dumb thing about this film are the characters, who are so dumb that they are oblivious to EVERYTHING that happens around them. It gets to the point where you literally want to take a gun to the head.

The other unforgivable thing about this 'film' is that it is sooooooooo boring and slow, despite it thankfully being only 68 minutes long. For example, the first 10 minutes of the film is unnecessarily comprised of the same shot of them driving around trying to find this place, only occasionally cutting back to a downright stupid and, you guessed it, dumb subplot about a young couple kissing in their car and being followed around by police. Yuh huh. This all makes the film so much more tortuous.

If I had to praise anything about this film, I would say that the soundtrack is somewhat halfway decent, even though the audio in the film rarely synchronizes with what it should do. But when watching this film, you just get the feeling that they aren't even trying to make a film. It feels like a something a bunch of people just vomited up over the weekend. After watching this film, I made a comparison to Tommy Wiseau's The Room, and found that I was convinced that The Room was a decent film. Manos: The Hands of Fate is that bad. Although it may sound like it has entertainment value, don't be fooled. It doesn't. This would be a good, more humane weapon for torture. Avoid this like your life depended on it.


Monday, 6 February 2012

Batman Begins

 Batman Begins: A tense, dark, brooding and exciting piece of entertainment.

In a way, Batman Begins, the first of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, is a game-changer. Aside from the obvious rebooting of the Batman series out of the dreaded doldrums of Batman and Robin, Begins also marked the death of the campy Bond films of the past (no more invisible cars!), and you could even say that it marked the death of your cartoonish superhero films of the past. Why? Well, Batman Begins to this day remains the prime example of how to reboot a franchise. As much as an impact as its amazing predecessor The Dark Knight has on cinema, it's most probably this film that will forever have a bigger and long lasting impact on cinema. Don't agree with me? Well, if it wasn't for the dark, brooding but fantastic Batman Begins, there would be none of the serious-minded reboots (i.e. Casino Royale) that seem to be churned out every year in Hollywood. Instead, not only all the reboots, but probably all the blockbusters too, would be mostly reduced to campy, over-the-top nonsense. Of course, leave it to the man behind one of the most ambitious, original and challenging films of recent years (Memento) to change the game.

All of this begs the question: Is Batman Begins: The Event as good as Batman Begins: The Film? The answer, thankfully, is a resounding yes. Batman Begins is tense, dark and violent, and perhaps as realistic a Batman film as you'll ever see, but it also works as a sublime and exciting piece of entertainment, not to mention it has a great amount of emotional depth and plot to boot. Like many of Nolan's films, it takes a while to get a full grasp of what is happening, but once you get a hold on what is going on, you are rewarding by one of the most satisfying and well-crafted blockbusters in recent times.

Overwrought with guilt and anger from his parents death as a child by a thug, billionaire Playboy Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) decides to do something in order to vent his feelings by getting back at the scums who lurk throughout society. After training in the Far East, assisted by Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson), Wayne returns to Gotham to help rid of the injustices and crimes that are present throughout his city of Gotham. To do this, he develops his alter ego, Batman, who fights crime in the darkness to bring safety back to Gotham. But there lies a threat in the form of Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy), who joins forces with the underground criminals to instill fear and panic into Gotham.

Batman Begins boasts a fantastic cast who collectively come together to create a Gotham and a world that feels realistic, but also still feels like a comic book film. Bale, quite a versatile actor, is on top form here with quite a subdued performance. Here he gets to show what he's really made of before being overshadowed by the clown prince later on, and he is more than up to the task. Whilst Dr. Crane/Scarecrow as a character isn't exactly a memorable villain, Cillian Murphy's chilling stare more than makes up for the underwritten character. Tom Wilkinson is excellent but under utilized as Carmine Falcone. Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson all round out an excellent supporting cast, who all suit their roles well. Letting the team though is Katie Holmes, who seems to really be struggling here for some reason.

This is certainly a fantastic looking film. Long-time Nolan collaborator Wally Pfister's cinematography presents a dark and looming Gotham that really feels and looks like it was ripped from the comics. Instead of going down the CG-fest route, Nolan smartly opts to use more practical effects, as he has in his other films, and the film and the action sequences work all the more better for it, creating a great sense of excitement within the film. Wisely, Nolan chooses to put the story before the action, so the film isn't as action heavy as you might think. What there is though, is a constant sense of fear, and towards the end panic. And so there should be, considering that's one of the villains motives. The fact that there isn't truckloads of action doesn't by any means signify that the film is lackluster as an action. Batman's Tumbler chase is jaw-dropping, and the final train standoff, though reminiscent of Spider-Man 2, is edge of your seat stuff. All backed to Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's ominously epic score. Awesome.

As with any film, there are shortcomings. As I mentioned before, the film doesn't have an entirely memorable villain, and considering there is more than one, that's sort of saying something. Sure, you're obviously not expecting the Joker, but you do wish for a bit more. I also felt that some of the relationships, particularly the relationship between Rachel and Bruce, were underwritten, so much so that you can't really care for them. The characters individually are well characterized, but as a couple, it doesn't exactly connect. As far as blockbuster entertainment, you couldn't really ask for anything more. This is a fantastically made, exciting and entertaining film, and would be the comic book film to beat...if it weren't for it's sequel. After this, you won't even know what Batman and Robin is.