Thursday, October 30, 2008

When Kym Came Home

Film Review: Rachel Getting Married

ImageDaunting may be the most appropriate word to describe Jonathan Demme’s most recent film, Rachel Getting Married. The film is a painfully honest look at the modern marriage, the struggles with addiction–in regards to substance abuse and the addiction to resentment–the pitfalls of life in suburbia, and above all the binds of family. It is also one of the finest films of the year.


The film’s title pretty much sums up the surface of Rachel Getting Married since, yes, the picture is set around the matrimonial union of two seamlessly happy, cultured people. At its core though this is a film that shows the weight and pressures that this supposed joyous occasion has on a family with an emotionally draining past.

Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a deeply troubled but extremely courageous and gregarious middle child who is released from a stint in rehab to attend her older sister’s wedding. As the movie progresses we catch glimpses into her past life before sobriety, one comprised of eating disorders, substance abuse, and an unfortunate event (left unspoiled for sake of the film’s story progression) that would ultimately shape her life forever.

Kym is the film’s lead and Hathaway devours the role furthering her standing as one of the finer young actors working today, one who balances her big roles (Princess Diaries, Devil Wears Prada) with daring character study pieces (Havoc, and her bit role inBrokeback Mountain come to mind). She is the black sheep of a family that appears to be both successful and happy with life but deep down are tackling past demons, mainly revolving her wrong steps in life. What’s most frightening about Kym’s character is that she comes across as somehow relatable, almost as an extreme example of someone each and every one of us has crossed paths with at some time. She’s privileged, possibly spoiled, irresponsible, but at the same time trying to pull herself up in the face of those who look down at her.

Demme opens with Kym’s introduction as we see her nervously smoking outside the rehab center that has been her home for an undisclosed amount of time, waiting to be swept away to visually surreal wedding. Her father and stepmother joyfully embrace her, in many ways welcoming her back into the “real world.” As Kym mixes her witty sarcasm with casual family banter she exudes a subtle level of anxiousness as she’s about to face her older sister (soon to be whisked away by a fiancé she has yet to meet), her mother and the many other people who once inhabited her life.

Kym’s character is painted as troubled and scarred but also as courageous. It’s obvious that every day she’s well aware of her past and she realizes her return will undoubtedly prompt many judgmental eyes. Still she marches on. It is this courage that ultimately sets Kym apart from her family who each struggle to suppress their own hidden feelings and remorse, particularly Kym’s mother, played wonderfully by Debra Winger who if anything was underused in this film.

There is an interesting dueling dynamic in the suburban Connecticut mansion where the film is set. Rachel’s wedding is not your average “going to the Chapel, and we’re gonna get married” ceremony, but rather a new age gathering for countless artist friends of both the family and the couple. The wedding band is comprised of gypsy like classical guitar players and an avant-garde electric guitar/drums duo that perform a noise heavy rendition of “Here Comes the Bride.” The bridesmaids all sport non-traditional Indian saris while the musician groom Sidney (played by Tunde Adebimpe, the front man for the trendsetting art rock band TV on the Radio, most certainly not an actor but nevertheless a perfect fit for a fairly atmospheric bit part) favors an a cappella love song in lieu of the traditional exchanging of the vows. Even the wedding cake, which as we learn has hints of turmeric in its frosting, shows how small but believable the world these characters inhabit is. The film is clever introducing this larger than life gathering and then quickly bringing the characters back down to earth as we learn more about the crises brewing beneath the glamour. While unconventional in its presentation this is still the typical modern suburban family.

Both parents are remarried with the mother clearly removed from the family and not interested in being a part of a “traditional” family. Her few scenes in the film show the emotional toll an uncommitted mother can have on a family. The house is tucked away in the wealthy Connecticut woods creating what appears to be a safe little utopia for its characters. In fact the scenes away from the wedding and the home serve as reminders to the harsh reality of life as Kym attends AA meetings and, in the case of a crucial hair salon scene, confronts her dark and dishonest past.

Kym’s father (played wonderfully by character actor Bill Irwin, who according to IMDB.com is a regular on Sesame Street) juggles the kind of exuberance of a happily married father and lover of life with an obviously scarred soul. Second to Hathaway, Irwin’s performance as the grief stricken father trying desperately to give his daughter the wedding of her dreams, is the best of the film and in a perfect world would be enough to garner an award for most underrated performance of the year, if one such existed. A moment involving a plate late in the film involving a dish washer loading competition between father and soon to be son-in-law is the kind of scene that speaks volumes about who this father figure is without actually spelling it out for the audience through dialogue.

ImageWhile highly cultured and exuberant about all aspects of life–food, music, dancing, and even being the master of the dishwasher–Kym’s family is far from perfect and as the film unfolds we see just how unhappy, or better yet, tucked away in their own worlds many of the characters truly are. The mother is devoted to her career and new hubby, her father seems lost and full of regrets about his past decisions, both sisters, while different in many ways, feel abandoned, with Kym only starting to realize how hard her life is going to be as she matures and is haunted by her past.

Rachel Getting Married brings to mind past films dealing with family turmoil in the modern age: Ang Lee’s horribly underrated The Ice Storm, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (a great film often scoffed at for being the film that robbed Raging Bull its deserved Best Picture Oscar in 1980), and most recently Alan Ball's work for American Beauty and the brilliant television drama Six Feet Under. This small subgenre that these masterpieces inhabit is about uncovering the truth behind the tainted portrait of the perfect family.

An equally important aspect of Rachel Getting Married is in Demme’s unconventional cinematography choices for the film, primarily the film’s hand-held camera work, which at first creates a bit of a nauseating effect on the viewing (much like The Blair Witch Project only without the equally unsettling paranoia attributed to that film) but ultimately sucks the viewer into the world on screen. In one powerful scene at the rehearsal dinner in which Kym courageously but also selfishly stands up to toast her sister, the viewer is transported to the dinner table as the camera pans from guest to guest, each showing hints of embarrassment and awkwardness. The photography of this film is in the vein of the camcorder-wielding guest at all weddings. At times we, the viewer, are merely filmgoers watching from a distance while at other moments we become part of the wedding festivities.

It should be noted that Rachel Getting Married was written for the screen by Jenny Lumet who is the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Sidney Lumet. The dialogue heavy original script is another awe-inspiring element to this film’s success and one would hope that this is the first of many more screenplays from newcomer Lumet, worthy of at least a Best Original Screenplay nod at this year’s Academy Awards.

Jonathan Demme has been a curious filmmaker to follow as he’s juggled various genres over the years. His many documentary credits helped lead up to Rachel Getting Married which at times feels very much like a home-video documentary about a family wedding. The guerilla filmmaking tactics employed in this film also makes it one of his most intimate cinematic experiences of his career.

Rachel Getting Married is not a happy film with many of the erupting tensions and crises that develop throughout the film do not get resolved. It is, however, an extremely honest look at the complications revolving a modern day family. While most viewers might not relate to the film’s more extreme elements–mainly Kym’s substance abuse and irresponsible nature–the majority of people can relate to that idea that family gatherings, even in the most idyllic settings, can be draining experiences that bring to life many dormant feelings and emotions. Whether or not this is the film’s central message–that being, the family dynamic is often complex and requires work and openness to prosper–is to be debated. One thing is for sure, this is not the light-hearted wedding film fare that the majority of America is use to but it is arguably the most startling and honest.

Rachel Getting Married is currently playing in select theaters for a limited time.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Returning to the Lost Highway


ImageThe late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, "The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch's films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don't." "Lost Highway," Lynch’s seventh feature film, does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing.


This is the grand trick of David Lynch. While disguised as motion pictures, Lynch’s films are more an exercise of the inner psyche than anything else–a film going experience rather than merely just an entertaining piece of cinema.

Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is undoubtedly part of the reason his works are so polarizing for filmgoers. Neo-noir is a term that has been thrown around when discussing Lynch–an appropriate tag for a handful of his films, mainly Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, but still just the icing on the cake when looking at his canon more closely. Many have applauded Lynch as a master of suspense–a modern day Hitchcock who can make the most unassuming scenes or situations frightening through the masterfully crafted use of sound, lighting, and camera trickery.

To say however that Lynch makes horror films, in the traditional sense of the medium, is like pinning Tarantino down to one sole genre. Lynch has always drawn from a number of influences molding them into a truly one of a kind final product. Lost Highwaymay be Lynch’s closest attempt at true horror but in end is yet another genre bending, mind-blowing experience that tugs at your emotions and senses long after the first viewing.

For the record I have seen Lost Highway at least five times. It’s not because it is a masterpiece, or that I’m some kind of Lynch fanatic (although admittedly I have always garnered a child like fascination for the director’s work) it’s because like all great filmsLost Highway keeps you guessing and pondering long after each viewing. Trying to make sense of a Lynch film is often as pointless as trying to get to the soul of a Pollack painting–it’s best to just let the work suck you into its world.

Like many of Lynch’s works Highway fails to follow the linear formula of the average movie. The first half plays out like a creepy home invasion thriller. Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette play a married couple confronted with a terrifying scenario after finding videotapes on their doorstep every morning featuring footage of their home’s interior and of them asleep in bed (the mere thought of this premise sends shivers down the spine). Both are typical inhabitants of the Lynchian world. He being a jealous, rage filled soul, she being of the sexy femme fatale type.

After Lynch introduces the menacing Mystery Man, a simple but horrifying pale-faced Robert Blake sans eyebrows, the film takes a sharp turn in terms of storyline (a good Lynch film will always have at least one WTF moment that turns the film’s flow upside down, and Lost Highway does this with flying colors at the film’s halfway point).

ImageThe second half of the film follows a completely new character played by Balthazar Getty, a promising young actor during the mid 90s who has since disappeared. Getty’s Pete character may or may not be the reincarnation or alter ego of Pullman’s Fred character, this tasty tidbit is just part of what one must chew on long after the first viewing. The film’s final act is also familiar Lynch territory showing the dark underbelly of society, in this case modern day Los Angeles, a world inhabited by mob bosses, pornography director’s who may or may not also dabble in snuff, and yet another tempting femme fatale, this time with Arquette re-imagined as a blonde.

The allure of Lost Highway is the difficult task of interpreting everything that Lynch throws at the viewer during the film’s two-hour plus run time. Released after the media frenzy of the OJ Simpson trial, many people believe Highway to be a reflection of lust-fueled murder, and escaping the consequences. Some look at it as a more basic example of marital woes including jealous and how these dark emotions will ultimately swallow your soul (the looming mystery man character seems to be a representation of the dark side of the human psyche). Finally careful viewers of Lynch films might view Lost Highway as the surreal nightmare world imagined (and/or lived) by a sinful man.

Lynch has always been interested in the idea of escapism, dream worlds, and then the idea that all surrealism is rooted to a harsh reality. Mulholland Drive was a surreal allegory for the pitfalls of the Hollywood dream and the seedy underbelly of L.A.’s bourgeois society. Blue Velvet and later the masterful Twin Peaks television series showed the evil of small town America, erasing all cliché misconceptions about suburbia and the blue-collar proletariat. Lost Highway is, at its core, about what Lynch views is the modern marriage–filled with jealousy, lust, a lack of communication and trust between spouses and ultimately the wrath that unfolds. Along the way Lynch takes the viewer on a mind-bending roller coaster.

"Lost Highway" is often overlooked amidst the auteur's more renowned films but it remains one of his most puzzling and definitely his creepiest. While not a horror movie Lost Highway is one of the most suspenseful films out there, creating an uneasy feeling that lasts throughout the film and long after the viewing. Much of this can be attributed to Lynch’s use of light and shadow and the film’s eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Badalamenti's creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock.

Lost Highway was recently given a formal U.S. DVD after years of being restricted solely to international DVDs and older videotape copies. While one could go fork over ten bucks to see Saw V or any other predictable horror film inhabiting theaters and televisions this Halloween, a trip down Lynch’s Lost Highway will tug at your emotions like no film before it and possibly well into the future, until of course we get the next Lynch experience. The film is not for everyone and requires more focus than what the average popcorn moviegoer might expect but the payoff is worth it and like all great pieces of art (and Lynch has always been an art house auteur) the film keeps you guessing long after the closing credits.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Top Ten Underrated Thrillers

(Article written for starpulse.com in time for Halloween)

Horror movies are some of the most consistent pieces of the film industry. Sure there have been highs and lows in the genre, and resurgences have come and gone, but one thing remains true: people will always yearn for those cinematic chills.

The demand, however big it may be, is always constant. The golden age of cinema through the 60s brought on big studio monster movies, sly noir thrillers, and of course, Hitchcockian suspense (a subgenre, respectively). The 1970s, arguably the paramount epoch of cinema, period, saw the expansion of the genre and gave filmgoers some of the best nail biters out there.

The creation of VHS and movie rental houses triggered a massive wave of low-budget, schlock video nasties from across the globe during the 1980s and helped spawn the current highly exploitative, gross-out horror phase that horror movies are stuck in now. Then there were the 90s, dominated by a fairly lame return to teen slasher films-the Party of Five horror heyday.

Some say the new millennium has been a breath of fresh air for the genre with an overall rise in popularity of no holds barred gore fests (Saw, uh hum, V opens soon) and a surge of film curiosities coming from East Asia, aka. the "fear the black haired ghost chick with eerie feline larynx" genre. It could be said that the horror of today is more focused on shock than on scares. Still, over the years (despite a saturated market of genre films) there have been a fair share of gems that managed to break through to stand the test of time.

The following is a run down of some of the most underrated thrillers out there. Some have a large niche following, others have gone under the radar for too long, but all are worthy of checking out this Halloween season.

Lost Highway - David Lynch, 1997
Lost Highway
Trying to classify the films of David Lynch is one of those futile exercises that is part of the reason his work is so polarizing for filmgoers. Lynch does not make horror films in the traditional sense of the genre but he is a master of crafting horrifying scenes and psychologically disturbing stories. "Lost Highway" is often overlooked amidst the auteur's more renowned films but it remains one of his creepiest. Much of this can be attributed to Robert Blake's bone chilling portrayal of the Mystery Man-a pale-faced spook with shaved eyebrows and a knack for videotaping people while they sleep. Add this to an eerie soundtrack-a blend of Angelo Baldamenti's creepy sonic ballads and 90s industrial rock-and menacing cinematography and you get what is not so much a horror movie but rather a surreal, nightmarish, and mind bending viewing experience. The late author and culture commentator David Foster Wallace once wrote, "The absence of point or recognizable agenda in David Lynch's films lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don't." "Lost Highway" does just this and resonates in your subconscious long after the first viewing."

Suspiria - Dario Argento, 1977
Suspiria
Dario Argento has always been an atmospheric weaver of gruesome films, which are drenched with stylized cinematic technique. From a storytelling point of view his films are full of plot holes, laughable dialogue and the kind of low-brow over dubbing that was the norm of so many 70s genre flicks. "Suspiria" is no exception. It is, however, one of the most frightening films for the senses. Already an established giallo or crime genre filmmaker, "Suspiria" was Argento's first foray into the supernatural, blending classic ghost story themes with eye piercing gore. Thanks to a driving score from Euro prog-rockers Goblin and a visionary color and shadow palette, "Suspiria" manages to make some of the most unassuming moments truly hair-raising. A blind man walks a dog in an empty plaza, the protagonist is awoken to a spine chilling wheezing sound, even the creepy Bavarian dance school where the film is set carries the kind of unsettling gothic feel to arise suspicion during the daylight scenes. A possible remake is in talks with indie filmmaker David Gordon Green at the helm, but nothing will ever come close to capturing the brutal suspense of Suspiria.

Jacob's Ladder - Adrian Lyne, 1990
Jacob's Ladder
Lyne is often painted as an erotic thriller filmmaker thanks to films like Fatal Attraction andUnfaithful but his true masterpiece is this little psychological thriller. Tim Robbins (in one of his best performances) plays a Vietnam Vet who is forced to deal with some inner demons, literally, and uncover some haunting discoveries about his past. The film deals with paranoia, the use of mind altering drugs, the collapse of the human psyche and true-life conspiracy theories regarding government experiments on American GIs in Vietnam. Going more into the plot might spoil the movie, which is best viewed fresh but it should be noted that one of many horrific dream sequences set in a hellish hospital ward remains one of the most frightening sequences on celluloid.

The Fly - David Cronenberg, 1986
The Fly
To be fair Cronenberg's gross-out remake of a mediocre, late-50s Vincent Price sci-fi vehicle is widely considered to be one of the best monster films of time. Those who view it as just that are missing Cronenberg's true raison d'etre. The film is an allegory for themes of madness, romantic jealousy, the pitfalls of modern science, the deterioration of the human anatomy (flesh has long been one of Cronenberg's many twisted fascinations) and even abortion and fear of childbirth (as seen through a truly horrifying larvae labor sequence). Then again it also lives up to its clichéd monster movie tagline of, "be afraid, be very afraid." An operatic stage re-imagining of the film is in the works but there is no replacing Cronenberg's grotesque but strangely poetic vision of modern day horror.

The Descent - Neil Marshall, 2005
The Descent
Amidst a slew of procedural teen slasher flicks, remakes of Asian ghost stories, and countless torture porn gore fests there are a handful of modern day horror films that have joined the ranks of some of the staple horror classics. "The Descent" is one of these recent examples. Tagged as the ultimate spelunking nightmare film, "The Descent" is a one of a kind terrifying experience that taps into that exhilarating emotion of fear-fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of tight spaces, fear of heights, etc. Sure the film features subterranean Gollum like monsters brutally terrorizing a group of fearless cave explorers, but the real horror comes in the films claustrophobic moments (an homage to Alien) as the characters descend deeper into the crevices of the unknown. By the time the monster element to the story arrives halfway into the film the viewer is already exhausted from the nail biting climbing sequences and that mounting sense of unavoidable doom that the protagonists are soon to face. See also Marshall's premiere outing, Dog Soldiers, a smart little werewolf flick shot in Scottish forests.

Wait Until Dark - Terrence Young, 1966
Wait Until DarkOne might not consider the oh-so-dainty Audrey Hepburn as being a horror movie icon but witnessing her shear brilliance in Wait Until Dark changes on all common misconceptions. Adapted to film (the original text was a play) during the grand old days of simply told tales of suspense, Dark is horrifying account of trust, loneliness and overcoming a physical disadvantage during harsh times. Hepburn stars as the blind tenant of a dimly lit basement apartment who is drawn into a home invasion scheme perpetrated by a gang of drug smugglers trying to track down some lost goods. The storyline is not without its flaws but the film is all about moments of intense shock, often shot in the dark. When the film was released theater patrons around the country killed the house lights during crucial moments of terror on screen as a neat little gimmick to enhance the experience. While not as grisly as the horror of today, this is film is an essential viewing for Hitchcock enthusiasts and those who like jumping out of their seats.

Repulsion - Roman Polanski, 1965
RepulsionPolanski is generally credited for Rosemary's Baby, an essential in the genre, respectively but two of his lesser known works, 1976s The Tenant and "Repulsion," remain his unspoken masterpieces. Repulsion is, above all, a disturbing look at psychological trauma induced by sexual angst. The film was the first in what has now been coined Polanski's "apartment trilogy" ("Baby" and The Tenant completed the run) due to its characters trip to madness in a confined space. "Repulsion's" Carol (played by a very young Catherine Deneuve) is trapped inside a surreal world of paranoia, ill thoughts of her sister's sexual habits and some external threats from male visitors. A scene involving a dark hallway with hands suddenly reaching out through the walls, boxing our protagonist in, is one of the film's many unexpected scares.

Session 9 - Brad Anderson, 2001
Session 9Director Brad Anderson may be one of the most underappreciated thriller filmmakers working today. His most recent film, Transsiberian, is a sly "fear of travel" picture set largely on a confined Soviet train en route from China to Moscow and 2004s The Machinist (featuring one ofChristian Bale's finest performances to date) was the type of twisty psychological thriller that someone like M. Night Shyamalan wishes he was still making. Session 9 remains one of the best modern ghost stories that actually avoids the supernatural. Set inside an extremely creepy and perfectly chosen mental hospital this film is dripping with atmospheric frights. The camera follows a group of asbestos removers as they roam the abandoned wards and discover secrets from the hospital's twisted past, while also uncovering their own personal mysteries. Anderson is all about building a feasible story (in this case one part Poltergeist one part Blair Witch) and then destroying all preconceptions towards the climax. The scenes filmed at night (in that nauseating handheld camerawork style) are certain to draw unease no matter how well seasoned you are at scary movies.

The Begotten - E. Elias Merhige, 1991
The BegottenArguably the most obscure films on this list, "The Begotten" is a visually horrifying but fascinating piece of the avant-garde that is, dare I say, biblical horror. God, Mother Earth, mortal man, and evil humanoids make up the dialogue-free story, which plays out as a twisted end of days scenario with the self-induced death of God opening the film. If you thought the deadly videotape featured in The Ring was creepy, "The Begotten" may or may not be for you. From a filmmaking standpoint E. Elias Merhige's film is one of those cinematic achievements that is both dazzling and disturbing. To this day there is nothing that even remotely matches the film's lasting effects. Shot in grainy black and white and then painstakingly altered and deconstructed during editing (Merhige has said that each minute of the film took ten hours of alteration to create the signature, almost primitive look), "The Begotten" is a mystery of a film with unforgettable nightmarish imagery. Merhige would eventually follow his masterpiece up with the interesting but overly preachy Shadow of a Vampire and the disappointing psychological serial killer vehicle Suspect Zero.Marilyn Manson enthusiasts will see much of "The Begotten" in the equally creepy music video for the song "Cryptorchid," which Merhige helmed.

Them - David Moreau, 2006
While the international horror scene is currently favoring all films coming out of the "Extreme Asian" movement of Japan, Hong Kong and S. Korea (a subgenre which has grown rather tired thanks to recycled themes and Americanized remakes), some of the truly best thrillers are being made by the French. Them (or Ils in its native tongue) is the ultimate home invasion thriller. Set deep in the woods of Romania (always an effective setting for horror) the film involves a French couple being plagued by a group of hooded evildoers who raid the large farm house and make lots of goose bump inducing noises along the way. The focus on silence interrupted by man made sounds (party noisemakers never sounded freakier) is part of this film's charm not to mention the director's knack for crafting quick, jump out of the shadow scares. Clocking in at a surprisingly appropriate 77-minutes, this film benefits from edge of your seat tension that erupts in the film's opening and carries through to the end.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

An Offer You Can't Refuse


ImageFew would refute that Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Saga is essential viewing for anyone even remotely interested in film–from cinéastes to the most casual of filmgoers. Epic storytelling, stellar acting from legends of the industry, a riveting and oh so subtle musical score, and countless memorable scenes and dialogue gems–“Leave the gun, take the cannoli,”–are just a handful of reasons why these remain some of the finest motion pictures ever made.

Writing about the trilogy’s (and, yes, the often ridiculed third installment is included as possibly an unnecessary follow-up but an interesting chapter to the story nonetheless) importance in the pantheon of motion pictures seems pointless since, after all, what else can be said. Luckily a new gorgeously restored edition of the three films was recently completed and the end result,The Godfather-The Coppola Restoration, is the best reason to relive the Corleone family experience.
 
Films are always being released and re-released on DVD in various incarnations–Special Edition, Ultimate Edition, Anniversary Edition, etc, etc. The Godfather films are no exception having been already released on DVD twice prior to this, once as a bare-boned first time on DVD trilogy release, and then later as individual Widescreen versions featuring coveted commentary tracks from Coppola. The Coppola Restoration is a horse of a completely different color. 

Film restoration (and ultimately preservation) is one of the main advantages of modern technology and the advent of DVD and now Blu-Ray high-definition discs. Companies like the Criterion Collection or Janus Films have been cleaning up and re-mastering films for years now providing viewers with a new and fresh way of reliving the classics. Sometimes a restoration is as simple as digitally re-mastering the sound, cleaning up the original film stock of scratches and other imperfections, other times (as is the case with tackling The Godfather) a painstaking rejuvenation of the original horribly weathered film negatives is required to recreate and enhance the initial viewing experience. 

ImageThe first two Godfather’s original film negatives had been processed and re-processed countless times over the years mainly due to a high-demand for the film and countless shoddy VHS releases. Unlike modern film stock, which has a life of up to 500 years if store properly, the first two Godfather installments were shot with negatives highly prone to deterioration, mainly seen in the film’s use of color and shade. Add this to the fact that entire sections of the film had been missing or too dire to repair without extensive care and expert precision.

The six-year undertaking for the new releases was overseen by Robert A. Harris, a veteran film historian and preservationist whose focus is in large-scale restoration projects of the epic classics of the 1950s–most notably seen in the beautifully restored version of Lawrence of Arabia and Vertigo. He meticulously went over each of the film’s stills the way a photographer touches up every shot. With an epic motion picture such as The Godfather Harris had to go through roughly 250,000 individual stills, removing even the tiniest of imperfections and digitally restoring the film’s look.

The most noticeable improvement made to first two films (Godfather Part III was shot using more modern film stocks and thus required minimal work for the restoration) is in the film’s one-of-kind use of color, a distinction often lost on home video. Much of both films are shot inside dark interiors–most notably seen in the dark den where Marlon Brando’s Don Vito takes meetings during the first film’s opening wedding scene, and a similar dark office where Al Pacino’s Don Michael holds meetings during his son’s christening in Part II. The characters of The Godfather Saga are almost always looming in the shadows. In Part I the vibrant and joyous opening wedding scene is juxtaposed with the gloomy, dirty “business” meets being held in secret. The Godfather films have always been about two worlds–family in the traditional sense and family in the Cosa Nostra, business sense (this is also the core of David Chase’s “The Sopranos”)–and the use of dark colors is as crucial to telling the story as the characters themselves. Light and dark, good and evil, family and FAMILY, all are important themes throughout the saga, with color and lighting serving as a tool to help convey these messages.

For the restoration Harris, in collaboration with Coppola and the film’s original Director of Photography, Gordon Willis, brought the luster of the film’s original dark colors to the forefront, duplicating if not improving on the films’ original look and feel upon their initial 1970s release. The tense Italian restaurant hit in the first film and the various scenes set in revolutionary Cuba in Part II jump off the screen. Similarly Michael Corleone’s physical deterioration (most notably with the dark bags under his eyes and his battered facial structure) over the course of Parts I & II is a testament to how crucial color and lighting are to a film’s overall atmosphere. His physical appearance in Part III is now a legendary big studio Hollywood horror story with Coppola pushing to have an older Michael Corleone with the appearance of a beat up baseball glove, while the studios pushed for a more handsome modern day Al Pacino. 

While the technical feats underwent for this release is reason enough to revisit these crowning cinematic achievements (and possibly the best reason to get into the high definition television and DVD arena) the content of these films should not be overlooked. 

The great films are the ones that we watch over and over and with every viewing a more rewarding than the previous. Revisiting a film like The Godfather is a reminder of not only why these films are as renowned as they are but also of the film’s subtle moments of brilliance. There’s the use of fruit, particularly oranges, throughout the saga foreshadowing the demise of individual characters and ultimately the family. The films deal with the American dream, romanticized at first but ultimately show with consequence. The films are ripe with an affectionate level of humor, as seen with aforementioned “take the cannoli,” breaking the ice on what was otherwise a brutal execution scene or the nervous and almost childlike Luca Brasi. Even the morning rise of the unlucky Hollywood producer with the even more unlucky prize horse carries a level of dark humor, not to mention serving as a reminder to who these people truly are.

Then there’s the final flashback sequence in Part II in which the entire family gathers for Don Vito’s surprise birthday party. The playful jokes between brothers, the larger than life character of Sonny, and, yet again, more oranges carefully placed in the background, all serve as a subtle reminders of the stories main theme–family is important to these characters but a life of crime ultimately leaves you alone with one’s regrets and ponderings. Had Part III remained solely a dream among avid fans, this closing dinner scene, in which we see the early (and in Mike’s case the most uncorrupted) nature of the characters is displayed (a great scene at showing the truly questionable side of Tom Hagen, portrayed as fairly benign throughout the films), would have been the perfect closer to this epic piece of cinema. 

While DVD is the primary place to find the new restored Godfather films, a number of select theaters around the country, including Chicago’s legendary Music Box Theater, will be screening newly restored 35mm prints of the first two films for a limited time. While seeing these resurrected editions is worthwhile by any means possible, viewing this film as it was intended, in a large dark theater, amidst other viewers and with a sound system that can really give the film’s memorable score the acoustics it deserves, is the best way to experience Coppola’s masterpiece. 

One would hope that the time and care spent restoring these immortal film classics will be used for other film gems wasting away in the big studio vaults (and there are apparently many) each waiting to be revamped and rediscovered by a modern audience. For those not alive during The Godfather’s original 1972/74 releases, seeing the immaculate version Coppola and crew envisioned for the film is an experience that anyone with a love of film should take part in.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tell Tale Sign of More to Come


It’s safe to say that Columbia Records, and or any other music conglomerate to arise, will be releasing and re-releasing the music of Bob Dylan forever. A musician of this magnitude will always sell records, no matter how they are packaged. New material will always be absorbed, critiqued and ultimately revisited and no matter how many Deluxe or Special Edition versions of Dylan’s back catalogue are reissued, the spruced up discs will undoubtedly be coveted by hardcore fans.

Today marks the release of another piece of Dylan’s growing sub catalogue of “official” bootleg recordings, with Tell Tale Signs: The Bootleg Series Vol. 8. This hearty serving of unreleased live and rarity tracks taken from Dylan’s late 80s to present day recordings is yet another piece of the puzzle in unraveling this musician’s wildly varied, epic career.

While the collection of songs all warrant further listening, with many of the cuts actually besting the official album release (see not one but two superior alternate versions of “Mississippi,” officially released on 2001’s Love and Theft, with a third set to be released on a third special edition companion disc) this eighth Bootleg Series outing ultimately begs the question, what’s in store for future volumes in the series.

The previous seven Bootleg releases chronologically jumped around a bit, with the initial three-disc Vol. 1-3 edition spanning from Dylan’s earliest works up until 1989s Oh Mercy (a truly remarkable, often forgotten LP that is covered more extensively on Tell Tale Signs). Still Vol. 4-7 mainly encompassed the artist’s 60s decade (Live 1964 and Live 1966), with the Rolling Thunder Revue extensively covering Dylan’s acclaimed mid 70s gypsy rock, multi-artist tour (a much more accessible time capsule of this legendary tour than the original Hard Rain live LP release). 

While not entirely sequential in their nature (Live at Royal Albert Hall 1966 was released before The Concert at Philharmonic Hall 1964) it does seems like Tell Tale Signs jumps ahead towards the latter end of Dylan’s career, passing over a largely misunderstood chapter in Dylan’s life.

Dylan’s ‘Born Again’ years are often overlooked when perusing the artist’s canon. Encompassing three official album’s–1979s Slow Train Coming, ‘80s Saved and ending with ‘81s Shot of Love–this radical epoch in Dylan’s life is just aching to be reexamined and for many discovered.

To be fair Dylan briefly covered his spiritual years with The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3. A rough outtake of Shot of Love’s haunting “Every Grain of Sand,” featuring a female backup singer is the highlight of three outtakes featured from this era.

Considering the Shot of Love sessions alone produced roughly 50 other unreleased outtakes and instrumental cuts and both Train and Saved had their share of studio experimentation, an official release chronicling this era would be interesting to hear. Even Dylan’s live sets from his non-secular years, which focused solely on the new material at hand, ignoring his classics, have yet to see an official release (the Real Live LP of the time was a return to the classics tackled in less than desirable style.

Dylan’s “Born Again” years never receive the credit they deserve. Train was decently received by critics and was propelled to mass success by the track, “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” which won Dylan his first official Grammy for Best Rock Vocal Performance. The LPs true highlights are heard in “Precious Angel” “I Believe in You” and “Slow Train,” a sequential trio of tracks that showcase Dylan’s lyrical strength with just a hint of Dire Straits’ front-man Mark Knopfler’s unique melodic guitar pickings as an added bonus (Knopfler also served as producer).

Saved was quickly dismissed for being too polarizing for Dylan’s more secular fans (its heavy gospel overtones were not for everyone) and Shot of Love, while returning to the roots rock and roll of earlier Dylan was still heavily Christian in the eyes of most of its listeners. Still, if one overlooks Dylan’s then newfound love of Christ and the lyrics spawned from this conversion, the artist was still making some of the most beautiful music of his career, and once again showing another side of the Dylan most thought they knew. 

With 32-studio albums behind him and countless other live and B-Sides recordings collecting dust in the closet Dylan never seems comfortable staying in one genre or style. His legacy will always be rooted in his folk and traditional Americana upbringing, with later accolades for his rallying lyricism. More importantly though Dylan success comes from his willingness to shed all preconceptions and follow new directions.

His “Born Again” years are undoubtedly rooted in American Gospel music with a focus on the call and response, sermon style songwriting. Flash-forward to his current return to Americana and blues inspired folk and its easy to see a natural progression throughout his career, one that benefited from his “Born Again” recordings.

Tell Tale Signs is a treat for fans of Dylan’s recent works, and unlike other artists’ who simply release outtakes to profit off tracks that were rightfully scrapped, the majority of Dylan’s B-Sides are often radically different giving each song an entirely new feel. The stripped down piano version of “Dignity” accentuates the song’s brilliant storytelling while the previously unreleased track (and first single) “Dreaming of You” is one of those rarities you wish had seen an official release during its incarnation.

With every Bootleg Series release fans and newcomers alike are granted a glimpse into truly ‘Another Side’ of Bob Dylan. Tell Tale Signs is a welcome release but one can only hope that Dylan is willing to revisit some of his forgotten years, perhaps in conjunction with his upcoming follow up to the autobiography Chronicles Vol. 1, an equally rewarding look behind some of Dylan’s most popular and underrated albums (the chapter on New Morning alone was worth the read).  For now we can revisit Dylan’s not too distant past.