The Thin Blue Line (1988)

The Thin Blue Line

“Any prosecutor can convict a guilty man. It takes a great prosecutor to convict an innocent man.”

Wrongful conviction has always been a fascinating topic for me. If you’ve got injustice in the system, even if it’s just reasonable doubt, I’m there. There seems to be a lot of public interest behind the topic as well, with series like Making a Murderer, The People vs. OJ Simpson, or the Serial podcast, it’s nice to see a widespread interest in the flaws of the criminal justice system, and it hopefully shapes the judicial system into a fairer institution moving into the future. If you want to trace this phenomenon back somewhere, The Thin Blue Line might be a good place to start.

Typically classified a documentary (though director Errol Morris resisted the label), the movie tells the story of Randall Adams, a man convicted and sentenced to death in 1976 for a Texas cop killing. The film is primarily composed of interviews with Adams and other key figures surrounding the murder, with the film strongly implying Adam’s innocence due to unreliability of witnesses and other circumstantial evidence that never found its way into trial. The success of the film actually resulted in an overturning of Adam’s case and his release by Dallas County in 1989.

Structurally, The Thin Blue Line plays a lot like the shows I mentioned above. Revisiting the past can be tricky, and all you have in retrospect is interviews and documents. Fortunately, Morris demonstrates strong technical skill and keeps his audience interested with what he has. He uses these interviews to stage and film recreations of the actual murder according to different witness accounts, a technique that true life crime shows have adopted over the last few decades as well. While there is a clear bias on the part of the filmmaker, it’s also noteworthy that Morris allows the clearly unreliable witnesses to speak for themselves, letting the audience witness their shady testimonies in a “show don’t tell” approach to conveying their personalities.

Being a younger person, it’s sometimes hard to parse out where the innovation actually comes in from some of these movies. I’m only familiar with standards that have been around during my lifetime, and I think The Thin Blue Line was one of those realizations that a style I took for granted had to be invented. Watching 48 Hour Mystery and similar shows throughout my life, I never knew how really interesting some of these techniques are, and these programs owe a ton to this movie. If you’re like me and this is your first viewing of the film, The Thin Blue Line may seem familiar and even corny at times, but I feel like it demands some perspective to fully appreciate. Making a bunch of interviews into great cinema isn’t easy, but Morris delivers through careful technique and the movie just zips through its runtime with one engaging scene after another.

I’m not sure that I’ll ever return to The Thin Blue Line, but I feel indebted to it. Its legacy lives on in lots of the media I enjoy today, and as a standalone work, it holds up to Serial and the rest as a compelling case of miscarried justice in America. It feels like one of the most timeless films I’ve ever seen, and I really admire what it accomplished.


Films Left to Watch: 881

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Fatal Attraction (1987)

Fatal Attraction

“You play fair with me, I’ll play fair with you.”

In a sensational milestone of the 80s thriller genre, Adrian Lyne solidified his reputation by combining two of cinema’s most eye-popping topics: sex and crazy. Fatal Attraction is not only an entertaining film but a brilliant marketing ploy. It’s got the perfect title, the big-name leads, and you can sum it up in just a sentence. There’s not a lot under the surface here, and you’re not missing out if you never watch this movie, but I still had a really great time with it. It takes a fun premise and runs with it, building steadily to a cathartic conclusion.

Michael Douglas stars as Dan Gallagher, a successful New York lawyer with a wife and child. His life takes an interesting turn when he allows himself a one night stand with Alex (Glenn Close), an attractive woman who proves to be dangerously obsessive following their encounter. As Dan first attempts to keep things quiet and let her down easy, he soon finds that his very life may be in jeopardy if he can’t rid himself of the past. As mentioned above, there’s not a lot to the story, but it never claims to be more than it is: a two-hour thrill ride with terrific conflict and some unsettling scares.

Glenn Close’s character is clearly what makes this movie special. You know she’s the villain from the premise of the movie and that she’s “crazy,” but the real question is how crazy. It’s often hard to tell how much of this movie is a progression, a descent into madness for her as a character, or whether she just does this kind of thing all the time. The film is also written to give her a compelling (though still unconvincing) moral argument: She doesn’t want to be cast aside; she doesn’t view herself as “one of those girls,” and the movie does a good job of painting Michael Douglas as a morally gray character as well. Fatal Attraction is a simple cautionary tale: Treasure what you have and don’t turn your back on the people who care for you. And watch out for crazy.

The thrills are a bit mild by today’s standard, but if you can immerse yourself in the 80s movie atmosphere, it’s still an effective work of horror. I was reminded of The Gift from 2015, a similar cautionary tale in which the ghosts of the protagonist’s past won’t be easily forgotten. It’s almost the same story, though The Gift feels more modern, and the scares are more shocking and creative as a result of recent trends in horror. In any case, these sort of films owe a lot to Fatal Attraction. The crazy stalker is always a fun concept, but the execution is more nuanced than you’d expect, and this film is a fine example of that.

Here we have a box office sensation with a lot of cinematic merit, and it still holds up as a fun two-hour thriller with some big names attached. It won’t change your life, but I guarantee you’ll be entertained. I certainly was.


Films Left to Watch: 882

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Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight

“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”

With its Best Picture win and heaps of praise over the last few months, I feel like Moonlight is a fairly obvious inclusion to the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, so I figured I’d write about it now after seeing it fresh for the second time yesterday.

My first viewing of Moonlight was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had in a movie theater. Having worked for Cinemark a few years ago and after analyzing all these movies over the last year, I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel the magic of going to the movies like I did when I was younger. Well, I heard a few words from a professor that Moonlight was well worth seeing back in December, so I drove 40 minutes to a small alternative theater, and I caught it before it had much of a following, before I had any ideas of what this film was about. I sat alone with my popcorn and was captivated for two hours. It’s the first time in a long time that I haven’t thought about cinematography or sound mixing, and I just watched the movie. It was magical.

Moonlight tells a three-act story of Chiron, a young black man growing up in Liberty City, Miami. He comes to learn valuable lessons about identity as he faces hardship in all aspects of his life. As Chiron ages and takes on new identities, so do the people around him, and it culminates in a beautiful coming-of-age story unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film. It’s not a plot-heavy story.

Where anything is beloved, of course, there are bound to be detractors. Moonlight is an important movie for its treatment of both race and sexuality, but that’s not the only reason it deserved Best Picture, though some people have made this claim. Its presentation is so beautiful, so unique, that you can really allow yourself full immersion in the film. Every moment holds meaning. Writer and director (though it was adapted from a work of theatre) Barry Jenkins allows us to toss aside conventions of storytelling and instead focuses on conveying a human life. Identity is at the core of Moonlight, and though in different forms for different people, the film is universally relatable for this reason.

There’s something so confident about Jenkins’ direction that allows you to comfortably settle into the movie. As we’re conditioned to do, I often keep my guard up at the start of a film, challenging it to lull me in. Moonlight is so honest, so genuine in its treatment of events, that this cynicism is dispelled almost from the opening logos. We’re allowed to take our time in each scene. The final act has so few scenes, and one very long one (my favorite in the film), that we’re able to get truly personal without any “movie tricks” that a lesser film might sneak by us. This is a movie that reaches out a hand, allows us to marinate in its ideas, and leaves us wholly satisfied.

I can’t speak enough praise about Moonlight. My second viewing wasn’t nearly as magical, and in some ways it was nice to go back to the cold technical critiques, but the beauty was still there, and I hope to see this movie again in the future to get all the magic that I can out of it. It’s power resides in the personal. Every beat kept me mesmerized, and I am beyond relieved that Moonlight came out of nowhere to be my favorite film of 2016. No matter who you are, you owe yourself a viewing of this movie.


 If you’re interested, I wrote a longer critique of Moonlight here.

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Pink Flamingos (1972)

pink-flamingos

“Filth is my politics! Filth is my life!”

There are a handful of movies on my list that I really don’t want to see. Had I known what Pink Flamingos would be like before I watched it, then it would have been lumped right into that category as well. There were times I wanted to give up on Pink Flamingos, even right towards the end when I was nearly free. Thankfully, something always keeps me going in these situations; I can’t allow myself to stop a movie that I’ve already started, and if I’m really serious about completing this list, I wouldn’t want to put myself through retreading half of this movie again sometime in the future. I’m all about what I think this movie represents, but no, I did not enjoy Pink Flamingos.

Subtitled “An Exercise In Poor Taste,” the film follows the antics of Divine, an underground criminal living in a trailer with her eccentric family. When a couple known as the Marbles become envious of Divine’s reputation as “the filthiest person alive,” they attempt to sabotage her life and reclaim the title for themselves through a number of despicable acts. The film is low budget, disgusting, and narrated unapologetically by the film’s director, counterculture icon John Waters.

I think it’s tempting to write this movie off as important but horrible as Roger Ebert and many film buffs have done. You can’t discount the following this thing has generated, however, finding cult success in midnight theaters across the country. As an unflinching stab at transgressive filmmaking, Waters builds the greatest film of its kind. It’s also an admirable landmark in the low budget DIY sector, and I’d wager that Pink Flamingos’ production style has influenced movies and inspired filmmakers that I enjoy very much. But on a moment-to-moment basis, Pink Flamingos offered nothing I wanted to see. I’m not sure that you’re supposed to try and invest in these characters, and I don’t know that John Waters would even disagree to say that the plot serves first and foremost as a framework for the filth at the center of the film, but it’s almost impossible to really get into this movie.

There are some really troubling images from the film that have lingered in my mind in the last week or so since I watched it. (I really needed some time to process this one.) Maybe Pink Flamingos is the carnival show that Roger Ebert makes it out to be, a sort of “can you stomach this” cinematic dare. I think Waters might also be questioning our sense of normality, pushing the envelope until it bursts and then pushing it some more to make us question our rigidness. But I think he, too, would call it a disgusting movie, so maybe I just don’t know how to pin down the goal of this thing. I’d say in situations like this that I’ll have to revisit the film later, but I don’t know that it would help me understand anything more, and it’s also just something I’ll never do.

I do appreciate, though, how Pink Flamingos complicates how we think about film criticism. How do you slap a number onto this movie? There are great movies that unsettled and discomforted me as a viewing experience, but this movie “goes there” like no other film has “gone there” before. While I know that filthier films exist (and are probably somewhere down the road on my watch list), as of right now, this is the grossest movie I’ve ever seen without question. It makes no apologizes, and it marks a high (low?) point of the counterculture movement that cemented its legacy, but I would never say that I like Pink Flamingos. It impacted me, but I would never want it on my Blu-Ray shelf.

Unless you, too, are trying to give yourself a complete film education through a list of 1001 movies, I would pass on seeing Pink Flamingos. It will test both your patience and your stomach, and I would gladly avoid it for the rest of my life, because I’m not sure that I could ever learn its lessons if I haven’t already.


Films Left to Watch: 883

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Elephant (2003)

elephant

“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”

I’m pretty sure I watched the wrong movie because there wasn’t a single elephant in this thing. Either way, I guess I’ll just review what I saw.

Gus Van Sant’s Elephant chronicles the events leading up to a school shooting at the fictional Watt High School in the suburbs of Portland, Oregan. The film is partly based off the Columbine shootings of just a few years prior, which one can only assume directly inspired the film. Van Sant naturally received some criticism for his depiction of such a timely tragedy, especially one that shook the country like Columbine did, so there’s already a question of necessity and responsibility when it comes to the movie. However, I think any subject matter is open to exploration through cinema, and I think Van Sant makes enough key artistic decisions so that Elephant isn’t an exploitative cash grab in any sense, and it’s more of a clear passion project in which Van Sant tries to make sense of school shootings through the events directly leading up to them.

From the outset, there’s a deliberate glacial pacing to Elephant. We open with a long shot of a flagpole for the opening credits with the bright blue sky in the background, a recurring motif throughout the film. Van Sant then begins to play with both time and perspective, showing us a day in the life of various high school students, all of whom are unaware of the fate that will soon befall them. This perspective-hopping takes up most of the film, and it maintains its fascination through some fun cross-connections between the characters. We may see a character rush nervously through the background of a scene and then later, through a different perspective, come to find out what that was all about. It’s a neat way that Van Sant holds your interest as you come to understand the greater chronology of the day (which will be important later in the film).

While I think the obvious meat of the movie is the final sections focusing on the killers and their actions, I found the earlier portions of the film to be equally powerful because of how Van Sant toys with audience expectations. I knew nothing about Elephant except a one-sentence synopsis from Google, and that’s all it took to keep me on the edge of my seat. You spend scene after scene waiting for that next step, the leap towards something out of the ordinary. Perhaps Van Sant is helping us understand human nature in this way, methodically asking us to reflect on how much we really want to see this horrible massacre take place. Especially due to Columbine’s extensive media coverage, the frenzy among the American public surrounding the tiniest of Columbine details, I found Elephant to be a reflection not just on school shootings but an experiment in how we (the audience) think about them.

I really appreciated the adherence to realism throughout the film as well. Van Sant uses some neat tricks with the camera, often for a creepy foreshadowing effect that further play on our expectations, but the movie otherwise feels like a genuine day of high school. Elephant features nonprofessional actors who don’t look like Hollywood actors. Instead, they look like people that I actually went to high school with, and that adds to the chilling realism. The film is also strikingly well-lit, creating an interesting visual aesthetic that complements the movie’s dark subject matter.

I have yet to discuss the second act, which sadly can be viewed as the exciting payoff to the monotony of the first half. I’d rather not discuss it as much, though I’ll say that Van Sant delivers on his promises and pulls no punches. Even in this violent sequence, however, we get insight into these characters that you wouldn’t find in a lesser movie. I don’t think that Elephant ever captures who these killers are completely, perhaps conceding that a 90 minute film couldn’t scratch the surface, but there are some key moments that flesh out the assailants and make for a more interesting narrative at the least.

I have a lot more thoughts on Elephant that I hope to share at a later date, and because it’s so rich and open to evaluation, I found that I really enjoyed the movie. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s careful in its construction and it sticks with you as great art should, so I would really recommend seeing Elephant if you get the chance. Even if it doesn’t have any elephants.


Films Left to Watch: 884

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Eyes Without A Face (1960)

eyes-without-a-face

“My face frightens me. My mask frightens me even more.”

The uncanny valley is a powerful tool, one that I wouldn’t mind seeing explored a bit more in the horror genre. For me, the most unsettling figures have never been the mischievous ghosts or heartless serial killers, but I find that I’m most unsettled by the almost humans. The creepy thing about Eyes Without A Face, a terrific French-Italian thriller from 1960, is that its characters are human. There’s nothing too fantastical about this story; it’s just an eerie, heartbreaking piece of medical horror that leaves you both intrigued and disturbed.

The film tells of Doctor Génessier (Pierre Brasseur), a toned down mad scientist type who is responsible for a car accident that severely damages his daughter Christiane’s (Edith Scob) face. Génessier engages in skin grafting research and becomes driven to restore his daughter’s beautiful features by whatever means necessary. The film explores various fascinating perspectives, mostly focusing on the doctor himself but also incorporating the struggles of the victims, the police, and Christiane herself, along with several other figures tied into the mess.

There’s nothing astonishing about the film’s presentation; it takes clear inspiration from the American horror thrillers and monster movies of the 50s, and it’s also disappointing to see how toned down the film can be at times, really playing it safe amid fears of censorship. Even so, the film sparked considerable outrage and didn’t find peak success until years later when prominent directors began citing it as an influence. The premise is really exciting, and the film hits a lot of high points, but I always felt it was a little constrained. There’s a lot to explore with this concept both morally and visually, and it just never feels complete enough to meet all of its promises.

That being said, there’s a lot of clear talent behind every scene of this movie. One of my favorite motifs was the twisted melody that foreshadows action. It drones on playfully like a twisted carnival procession, and it really sets the mood for the film. The film also hits a lot of clever thematic images, with Christiane’s mask being an endless source of fascination. You can’t get enough of Edith Scob in this movie, and all of her scenes mark a relative high point in the story’s progression. She look almost perfect with her artificial face, and you can see in her eyes that she knows it’s not quite right. There’s a lot of cliché directions this kind of story could take, but it always focuses on an honest, personal sort of focus that keeps a sense of humanity at the core of the film.

You don’t see a lot of horror movies about skin grafting, but this is just one piece of another element I really admire about Eyes Without A Face: its grounding in reality. I’ve hinted at this already, but this is one of the most honest horror movies you’ll ever find. The mad scientist archetype is brought down to size, driven by human desire instead of screenwriter necessity. The scariest villain isn’t the doctor himself but his assistant Louise (Alida Valli) who gives you chills with her cold, unwavering commitment to Génessier’s evil deeds that adds a quiet sense of danger to all of her scenes. None of these characters feel like horror tropes, and it helps you sympathize with the film’s victims in a way a lot of modern horror can’t quit manage.

It’s not going to top any personal favorites lists, but Eyes Without A Face is an impressive work of horror that was sadly restrained by conventions of its time and place. While I wouldn’t recommend a remake necessarily, I’d like to see some of these themes and situations recycled in something new. While it’s a piece I really enjoyed, there’s definitely potential here for something greater.

As of right now, this film is streaming here on YouTube for those interested.


Films Left to Watch: 885

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Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

meshes-of-the-afternoon

Here’s another case where I happened to watch this movie a few months ago without even realizing it was on my list. Because it’s only 14 minutes long, I decided to give the film another watch this week and chronicle my thoughts. I think Meshes of the Afternoon falls in the tradition of a lot of recent experimental cinema in its mood and its composition, and its legacy really comes down to its release date, just a few years after Citizen Kane. I can’t say I was blown away by what would today be laughed away as a pretentious film school assignment, but Meshes offers some neat tricks that nobody had really done before that have nestled themselves comfortably into the experimental genre, so I’ll try and discuss those innovations.

Perhaps the most modern thing about the film is its dreamlike quality, a label that you could tack onto just about any experimental film today. The music disorients you into a strange sense of consciousness where you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the abstract quality of the narrative. You could make a case that there isn’t a narrative here, but there are enough story details and clues that I would most likely disagree. Meshes is playing with the uncertainty of which of its pieces are part of a dream and which are actually happening. Among these pieces are a woman walking around chasing after a hooded Grim Reaper figure with a mirror for a face, and various important symbols such as a key, a flower, and a knife which repeat throughout the film.

The film is technically impressive for its time not due to its effects but because it dares to be cerebral with its editing. I thought the match cuts between the film’s motifs were clever: knifes turning into flowers turning into keys and so forth. It seems to create some spectral force behind the film that explains its experimental presentation. (Maybe this is the hooded mirror-faced figure?) Regardless, I really appreciate that Meshes isn’t simply experimental for its own sake. Directors Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid are going for a fresh narrative presentation that make the film visually and thematically engaging, though I’m not sure the film would be as tolerable if it were of feature length.

As already stated, I think Meshes of the Afternoon tapped into a mood that filmmakers hadn’t given much thought to before, and I think its effectiveness really gave a lot of credit to the experimental movement, a movement we still enjoy today. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had influenced other major filmmakers down the line (the editing makes me think of Godard at times). It’s not a technically astounding piece, but it’s technically creative enough to keep your attention, even when its derivatives have probably improved on its ideas.

This film is streaming on YouTube here if you’re interested.


Films Left to Watch: 886

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