Wednesday, July 30, 2014 0 comments

Criterion Collection #2: Seven Samurai (1954)

Seven Samurai poster2
Seven Samurai 
Directed By: Akira Kurosawa 
Written By: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni

Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is a film filled with silence. Characters spend extended spans of time either staring at each other or looking off into the distance. You would assume that in a film over three hours in length, such pauses would be boring, sometimes even painful.

Yet despite a majority of Seven Samurai being composed of silence, the film happens to be one of the busiest things I have ever seen. Whether it be issues of class, gender, morality, love, violence, loyalty, friendship, war, or even society itself, Seven Samurai delves into many issues with a skill, intelligence, and flexibility rarely seen in cinema today.

What's more: Seven Samurai happens to be a very commercial action adventure film, the movie following the exploits of a peasant village attempting to fight off a bandit invasion with the help of seven samurai. With a plot that simple, to say that Seven Samurai isn't as commercial as any modern action film would be hilariously ignorant. Seven Samurai actually is even accredited with creating many of the tropes and plot structures that are used by various action adventure films today.

Yet despite being Kurosawa's more commercial film, it fulfills such high ambitions all due to the skilled film making of Akira Kurosawa. All of those aforementioned silent scenes are filled to the brim with meaning, visual storytelling, and metaphor. A standout scene is the introduction of lead samurai Kambei Shimada, played by a subdued Takashi Shimura, through a wordless scene that has him slowly preparing to save a child from a hostage crisis. The scene establishes Kambei as a restrained individual with a calm and calculated mind. It also establishes what Kambei's role will be in the team of samurai: the leader and chief strategist.

Korosawa's silent storytelling also is evident in the first of many meetings between samurai Katsushirō Okamoto, played by Isao Kimura, and village girl Shino, played Keiko Tsushima, which effectively establishes a romance, while also bringing up issues of class and gender with minimal to no dialogue.

Yet even with all the silence, Seven Samurai nails the one thing that usually makes or breaks an adventure film: scope. Kurosawa famously constructed the set for the peasant village instead of using the Toho Studios peasant village. Because of this, Seven Samurai feels as big as many of the summer blockbusters that come out every year. It’s obvious just why this film set a new standard in Japanese cinema.

And that isn't even mentioning the plethora of other positive aspects Kurosawa brings to the table. Whether it be the incredibly odd performance of Toshiro Mifune as samurai Kikushiyo, who brings a simultaneously bitter, hilarious, heartfelt, and immature performance to a role that essentially becomes the heart of the entire film, to Kurosawa's incredible editing and cinematography. Kurosawa is a master of wringing out emotional moments through visual images, whether it be the uninterrupted scene where samurai Kyūzō, played by Seiji Miyaguchi, is jarringly gunned down by a rifle, or the the technically revolutionary sequences where the Samurai and villagers actually do get to battle the aforementioned bandits.

Ultimately though, Seven Samurai is just plain sophisticated. It’s a film that ambitiously wants to deal with a variety of issues within the context of an action adventure movie. Yet unlike many of those current adventure blockbusters, it knows how to efficiently execute those ideas, while simultaneously developing characters and advancing the narrative; sometimes even in the space of a completely wordless scene.

Up Next: Crisis (1946)
Monday, July 28, 2014 0 comments

'Every Frame A Painting' is the best film anaylsis on Youtube!

I find film analysis strangely lacking on Youtube nowadays. Most reviewers seem so focused on the story of a film that they leave little to no discussion of the actual visual composition or craft. Writing is an invaluable element of film, but it's still only one portion of a film. I blame this trend on the proliferation of channels in the vein of the Nostalgia Critic and CinemaSins. While those people can be thematically insightful in some instances, their "analysis" usually revolves around pointing out plot holes and making jokes around those plot holes. This is a shame, as Youtube, a video platform, seems like the perfect place to analyze visual composition and directorial techniques.
Thankfully Tony Zhou seems to have realized the potential of Youtube as a platform for film analysis, as evident by this recent viral video he made regarding Michael Bay's filmmaking technique.

What strikes me about this analysis is just how proffesional it is. While most Youtube reviewers would immediately go on some profanity laden tirade about how shitty Michael Bay is, Zhou does something way more devastating: he cooly pieces apart Bay's style. Utilizing interviews with Bay, his entire filmography since Bad Boys, and an advanced knowledge of film theory and visual composition, Zhou shows why audiences gravitate towards Bay's films, while also effectively what's so wrong about it. It's an effective video essay that definitely led me to check out more of his videos. This one that analyzes the comdies of Edgar Wright is probably my favorite!

So check out Tony Zhou's channel Every Frame A Painting right now! It's the place to go for the most intelligent form of film analysis currently on Youtube! Hopefully, more people decide to follow in his footsteps!

Friday, July 25, 2014 2 comments

Eclipse Series 1: Early Bergman- Torment (1944)

Directed By: Alf Sjöberg
Written By: Ingmar Bergman

Torment is clearly the work of a man with vision still trying to master his own creative voice. It's the type of film that deals with big, ambitious ideas, but falters when it comes to the execution. This is not to suggest that Ingmar Bergman's screenwriting debut is a complete disaster per-se, but it's obvious that Bergman still has yet to master his craft.

Torment seems to be two entirely different films squished together. The first follows Jan-Erik Widgren, played by Alf Kjellin, as he deals with sadistic Latin teacher Caligula, played by Stig Järrel, who seems to have it out for him. This plot effectively shows the disdain Bergman has for Sweden’s school system and sympathy towards youth culture. Whether it be the tearful little boy being punished for missing morning mass or the students quivering in fear of Caligula as he screams at Widgren, the plot is powered by a righteous anger that makes the proceedings rousing and exciting to watch.

It makes you wonder why Bergman had to shoehorn a romance, murder plot that completely derails the proceedings. Here Widgren falls for store clerk Bertha Olsson, played by Mai Zetterling, who coincidentally is also being tormented by Caligula, but in a much creepier and horrifying way.

Caligula’s transformation from an overly controlling school teacher, to a predatory psychopath ultimately derails the entire narrative of the film, turning what was ultimately a drama about the Swedish school system into an unsuccessful psychological thriller. 

Surprisingly, this is by no fault of director Alf Sjöberg, whose moody direction definitely is successful at creating an eerie atmosphere at parts. Instead, the fault lies in Bergman’s confused screenplay, which fails to provide the major element that all psychological thrillers need to survive: fully realized characters. 

Kjellin is unfortunately not able to give Widgren more dimensions beyond stressed teen, as evident by a hilarious crying scene in the third act of the film. And despite a crazed performance by Järrel, Caligula is simply too psychotic, his motivations and psychological problems being completely muddled in the process. One moment he seems to not mind what his students think; the next he’s recoiling in horror when a student insults him during graduation. It’s these inconsistencies that ultimately hurt the film.

Despite the uneven quality of the film, Torment marks the beginning of one man’s journey into filmmaking. Whether it be its ambition, incisive commentary, or thoughtful pacing, Bergman’s debut is a reminder of the things to come. It may not be good, but it certainly gives an idea of where he started.

Up Next: Seven Samurai (1954)

Thursday, July 24, 2014 0 comments

American Party Candidate Jill Bossi Pushes Term Limits in S.C. SenateRace

Here is an article I wrote about Jill Bossi's push for term limits in the South Carolina Senate Race. Click here to read it!
Wednesday, July 23, 2014 0 comments

Criterion Collection #1: Grand Illusion (1937)

Grand Illusion
Directed By: Jean Renoir
Written By: Jean Renoir and Charles Spaak

When I started watching Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion, a nice warm feeling had permeated my viewing experience. Here was definitely one of the most humanistic war films I had ever seen; whether it be evident through the good-hearted discussions between French aristocrat Boldieu, played by Pierre Fresnay, and German aristocrat Rauffenstein, played by Erich von Stroheim, or a touching scene where the isolated and disturbed Maréchal, played by Jean Gabin, is given a harmonica by an elderly German guard in a small act of kindness.

By film’s end, those tender feelings had mostly dissipated.

On the surface, Grand Illusion is an oddly optimistic film about one of history's deadliest conflicts. Enemy combatants exchange petty insults or even pleasantries while World War I rages on somewhere in the distance. As if to make the war seem more distant, only two deaths occur in the entire film: one of them occurring off screen, while the other occurs by a mere accident.

Upon further analysis, Grand Illusion is about the pure futility of the war and how it destroys absolutely everything in its wake. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in a scene where a lonesome German widow reminisces on the “greatest victories” of the German army by recalling each of her relatives that died in those battles.

The film starts when two French pilots, Boldieu and Maréchal, are shot down and captured by German aviator Rauffenstein. Upon capturing them, Rauffenstein invites the duo to lunch, in a pleasant scene that reveals that Boldieu and Rauffenstein are related by the aristocracy. The scene presents the emotional core of the entire film, the tragic and poignant relationship between Boldieu and Rauffenstein.

After being transferred from prison to prison, the pilots are sent to a high-security fortress led by Rauffenstein. Now wearing a neck brace and gloves to cover the scarring and burns from a nasty aviation crash, Rauffenstein finds himself yearning for a position that would allow him to be more useful in the war. Boldieu and Rauffenstein maintain a warm friendship all until Rauffenstein is forced to shoot Boldieu after he stages a distraction that allows Maréchal to slip past the guards and escape from the prison. What follows is the saddest scene in the entire film, a deathbed conversation between Boldieu and Rauffenstein. "For a commoner, dying in a war is a tragedy. But for you and me, it's a good way out, ” says Boldieu to Rauffenstein. The relationship represents another casualty from World War I: the aristocracy and class system of Europe. Stroheim gives a flawless performance as Rauffenstein, a man stubbornly struggling to hold on to a collapsing social order in the face of never-ending destruction.

Some may argue that the scenes that comprise the latter part of the film with Maréchal and German widow Elsa, played by Dita Parlo, are unnecessary and simply a way of shoehorning a romance into the mix. To do so would be to dismiss a storyline that also dispels of any notion that war is at all useful through the minor, if noticeably gentle conversation between a random German soldier seeking directions and Elsa, to the major implication that love knows no political loyalties or geographical boundaries.

The final scene is of Maréchal and his fellow escapee, Rosenthal, crossing the Swiss border. They are subsequently fired upon by German soldiers, who immediately stop upon realizing that the pair have crossed into Switzerland. It’s a moment of mercy that plays well as a summary of how Renoir views human beings. It doesn’t, however, contradict the extremely cynical view that Renoir has of war itself and the complete destruction it lays upon the world, whether it be the life of a German widow, or the entire social order of Europe.

Up Next: Torment (1944)
Tuesday, July 22, 2014 0 comments

The Criterion Project

I have come to a decision. A decision that I believe will be both daunting and fulfilling (mostly daunting though). Daunting in the sense that it will probably consume many years of my life, and fulfilling in that I believe it can only help me improve both my writing and film knowledge.

I am going to simultaneously write about films from both the Criterion Collection and Eclipse Series.

Now here is a clarification. Due to budgetary restrains brought upon by being a college student, I will be forced to forego DVDs in favor of streaming. This means that I will not be writing about the amazing special features that usually accompany a DVD from the Criterion Collection. I might purchase the odd DVD if the film in question is interesting or special enough, but for the most part, I will be focused specifically on the films themselves.

Kicking off this task, which I shall call 'The Criterion Project' (because someone has already taken the name 'The Criterion Contraption'), will be Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937) and Alf Sjöberg's Torment (1944). Wednesday will be the release of a Criterion Collection film while Fridays will be the release of an Eclipse Series film.

Let's hope I don't go mad going through all these films!
Monday, July 7, 2014 0 comments

Flashback: Will Millennials be the Generation to End Partisanship?

Definitely one of the more difficult articles I ever had to write for IVN. Thankfully, helpful interviews really help to put the story in focus. Click here for the article!
Friday, July 4, 2014 0 comments

Flashback: Independent Larry Pressler Wants to End ‘Poisonous’ Disputes in DC

This was an article about Larry Pressler`s attempt to reclaim his former South Dakota seat. It was very interesting, as I was able to interview my very first former U.S. Congressman. Experiences like this make me happy to write about politics. Click here to read more.