Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Bad Day at Black Rock

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, John Sturges) 

A train stops at Black Rock, startling the town residents. John Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) gets off the train and is quickly approached by Hastings (Russell Collins), the telegraph agent, who is upset why he was not told the train was going to be stopping. Macreedy replies that it must not be important. But Hastings replies the train has not stopped in town for four years. Macreedy mentions he has to go to a place named Adobe Flat and inquires about a car but Hastings says there are no cars. Macreedy then goes towards the hotel. The town residents are fixated on Macreedy as makes his way from the train station to the hotel. He asks for a room but is told there is no vacancy. He ignores the words and pulls the register towards him and writes his name and goes up to a room. Hector (Lee Marvin), who has been keeping a close eye on Macreedy ever since he got off the train, goes upstairs to intimidate Macreedy.

At this point, the movie looks to be a western setup where a fight will break out between the stranger to the town and Hector with his band of tough men aching to take Macreedy out. But no such fight breaks out because Bad Day at Black Rock is not a traditional Western. In fact, no horses are seen anywhere as the town has embraced automobiles, a vehicle which boosts the power of several hundred horses. However, the dozen buildings in Black Rock show signs of a traditional Western town consisting of a hotel, jail, bar and a grocery store. Such buildings are similar to what one would find in a traditional Western film town but Bad Day at Black Rock is set a few months after 1945, after the end of the war. Therefore, the time period in the film is well past the end of the traditional Western film era. However, the town of Black Rock is holding onto the last fragments of the Old West before modernity washes over. With the exception of the car, many old mentalities of the Old West remain, including distrust of the stranger. In trying to justify why the town is wary about Macreedy, the unofficial town leader Smith (Robert Ryan) mentions that it must be an old remanent of the Old West. To which Macreedy relies that he thought the Old West was about hospitality. The Old West was indeed about hospitality but not towards strangers, as illustrated by countless Western films where the stranger was distrusted and looked upon suspiciously. Later on, Smith even likens the presence of Macreedy to a virus:

 “This guy's like a carrier of small pox. Since he's arrived, this town has a fever, an infection, and it's spreading.” 

This statement ignores the fact that everyone in town is on feverish edge because they are guilty of a crime. Their guilt quickly becomes apparent when the residents freeze up or never give a straight answer anytime Macreedy asks about Adobe Flats or Komoko. He wants to go Adobe Flats to look for a man named Komoko but it is clear the town is hiding a secret regarding Komoko.

Bad Day at Black Rock plays out like a thriller with the unraveling of the mystery around Komoko keeping the tension on a knife’s edge. The soundtrack also brilliantly heightens the tension. If there was a femme fatale in the film, the movie would have inched towards noir territory. But there is only female character who is a quiet bystander. However, the film has an essential role in cinema because it builds a bridge between the Western and crime genre. Bad Day at Black Rock is a rare film that depicts how the Western genre landscape slowly transformed to the noir film genre which became common place starting the 1940s. Even though both western and noir genres are united by their love of guns and intense rivalry between opposing camps, very few films have depicted how a straight line can be drawn between the two genres. This is where the essential quality of Bad Day at Black Rock shines through as it is a perfect transitional film that connects two of cinema’s loved genres.

Note: This film was ranked #20 in my Western Countdown ballot.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

CIFF 2013

Every year I look forward to the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) in order to catch-up with some of the best Canadian & foreign films from around the world. However, this year due to unforeseen events I missed almost half the festival. Thankfully, the damage was not that bad as most films had multiple screenings which allowed me to catch an excellent crop of films.

Here are my top 10:

1. Like Father, Like Son (2013, Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda)

A beautiful and quietly devastating film that shows the two-way impact parents and children have in evolving each other’s personalities. It is well known that children absorb what they observe from their parents but very few films show how parents are often forced to change, for the better, because of their children. Hirokazu Kore-eda has continued the cinematic tradition of Yasujirô Ozu but has also managed to carve out his own style. One of the year’s best films!

2. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013, Canada, Denis Côté)

Denis Côté toys with the audience by making a specific genre film under the cover of another genre. I am not going to reveal what the specific genre is because it is worth seeing this film cold without any prior knowledge. Côté clearly alerts the audience what to expect but his alarms are mistaken for humor which is why when the film does eventually reveal its true nature, it jolts the senses.

3. The Fifth Season (2012, Belgium/Holland/France, Peter Brosens/Jessica Woodworth) 

The two directors earlier work Khadak was infused with color but all color is mostly drained out of The Fifth Season in order to depict a bleak winter like feeling. Such a depiction works because this transmits the desperation and misery that hangs over the village. At times, the film hinges on dark comedy mostly associated with the cinema of Roy Andersson while some of the bar/tavern scenes and apocalyptic dread evokes Béla Tarr.

4. The Past (2013, France/Italy, Asghar Farhadi)

Examines the complicated and messy aftermath of a separation. As the film shows, a separation does not guarantee a better future but instead can lead one down a never-ending hole of misery.

5. Thou Gild’st the Even (2013, Turkey, Onur Ünlü)

This gorgeous black and white surrealist love story is unlike any film released in the last few years. It is packed with surrealist images that are seamlessly integrated within the ordinary fabric of town life. As a result, the film's blend of humor and shock results in a darker blend of comedy that most palates have not yet encountered.

6. Borgman (2013, Holland, Alex van Warmerdam)

The initial premise appears to be taking a page out of Haneke’s Funny Games but that is a red herring as Borgman takes multiple unexpected turns resulting in a remarkably unpredictable film.

7. Antarctica: A Year on Ice (2013, New Zealand, Anthony Powell)

A stunning and gorgeous film that covers a year long working assignment in Antarctica, capturing the tasks that are required for the workers, including their living quarters and various experiences. The end result is a perfect travelogue for a region which most people will never get a chance to visit. Essential viewing!

The film won both Best Documentary and Discovery Documentary Awards at CIFF 2013, with the two categories voted by the audience.

8. OXV: The Manual (2013, UK/Australia, Darren Paul Fisher)

A mathematical metaphysical coming of age film that incorporates romantic and apocalyptic notes. The underlying layer of science means this films forms a worthy companion piece to Upstream Color. OXV also shows that with some creativity, it is possible to create an engaging sci-fi world without any special effects or a large budget.

9. The Missing Picture (2013, Cambodia/France, Rithy Panh)

Rithy Panh has used a very creative method of mixing archival footage with clay figures to recount a painful and devastating moment in history, not only of his family, but of Cambodia. Such is the smart usage of Panh’s direction that after a while, the clay figures seem to be alive, inviting us to into their lives. Along with The Act of Killing, The Missing Picture shows the power of cinema to preserve history for generations to come.

10. The Tears (2013, Mexico, Pablo Delgado Sanchez)

Pablo Delgado Sanchez’s graduate film shows all the signs of a director whose work belongs to Contemporary Contemplative Cinema (CCC). The initial setting inside a Mexican apartment recalls Nicolás Pereda's Juntos but once the two brothers leave for camping to the countryside, the film recalls the earlier works of Lisandro Alonso. While Alonso’s film are about a solitary figure, the presence of two brothers creates a different dynamic in The Tears.

Strong & worthy viewings

Even though I missed a handful of films, 2013 proved to be an excellent balanced program for CIFF. All the 26 films I saw were worthy of inclusion and enriched the overall festival.

Here are some brief notes on a few of those other films, in no particular order:

The Grand Seduction (2013, Canada, Don McKellar)

A perfect opening gala film which uses a beautiful Canadian setting with an excellent cast to generate plenty of humor. The incorporation of Cricket & Lamb Dhansak enhances the film greatly.

In the Name of (2013, Poland, Malgorzata Szumowska)

At first, the film feels like an examination of a priest's challenge to balance his faith and inner desires. But there are two sequences which transform the film from a singular perspective to a larger examination of the religious establishment. The film starts off by showing that a rotten apple can spoil the barrel while the ending indicates that perhaps the whole barrel is now rotten.

Goltzius and the Pelican Company (2012, UK/Holland/France/Croatia, Peter Greenaway) 

Peter Greenaway's visual tour de force manages to creatively fuse theatre, literature & art thereby creating a feast for the senses.

Pandi (2012, Canada/India, Maria Saroja Ponnambalam)

The film takes us on an emotional ride with the director and her family as they put together the pieces surrounding her uncle Pandi’s death. Even though this is a personal tale, there are some universal themes the film explores, such as the desire to make movies. However, a significant aspect this film depicts is regarding mental health which is not openly discussed in some ethnic communities. The treatment of such a sensitive manner is handled in a dignified manner by the director.

After Tiller (2013, USA, Martha Shane/Lana Wilson)

A gut-wrenching film about people who seek abortion at a late stage (third-trimester) in their pregnancy and the doctors that help carry out such a procedure. The reasons some people go down this path are shown and their opinion is placed against those who call such an act murder. It is not an easy film to watch given the material. However, it is a well made documentary that tries to give multiple points of view, including the moral and ethical issues involved.

The Rocket (2013, Australia, Kim Mordaunt)

Set entirely in the beautiful locales of Laos, The Rocket is a heartwarming film that bursts with life. For people who rarely see foreign films, The Rocket is a perfect way to win them over and show the vibrant cinema that exists in other parts of the world.

The film won the audience narrative award at CIFF 2013 and should be a strong candidate to win the foreign film Academy Award in 2014.

Lily (2013, USA, Matt Creed) 

Takes a page out of the French New Wave as the mostly singular focus on Lily as she wanders the streets of New York evokes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7. Matt Creed has done a very good job of drawing audience into Lily’s world and the film always maintains a positive hopeful tone throughout.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Best TV Shows

This is an update to an earlier post on the Best TV Shows because two seasons of Game of Thrones & the conclusion of Breaking Bad resulted in a rankings change.

The updated shows are in red with the following 9 eligible for judging.

24, Season 1 and 8
Boardwalk Empire, Season 1
Breaking Bad, Seasons 1-5 
Game of Thrones, S1-2
Homeland, S1
House of Cards (USA), S1
Justified, S1-S3
Mad Men, S1-S6
The Walking Dead, S1-S2, S3 Episodes 1-3

Previously, Game of Thrones was not eligible as an entire season was not watched. But it can now compete after completion of Seasons 1-2.

Judging Criteria for best show 

As established in the previous post, two categories will be used to rate the shows:
Excellence Per Minute (+EPM) & Soap Opera Moment (-SOM).

1. EPM measures the dramatic high points of the show.

Every minute of a show is not excellent, no matter what some TV critics say, but one can often pick out those great jaw dropping moments which involve a great piece of acting, repeatable dialogue or a memorable event. A rough tally of all these EPMs is used to determine which show has the best content per minute.

2. SOM is a negative indicator which will to be used to subtract from a show’s EPM.

Best show: Season 1 comparison 

Top shows in order of EPM/SOM:

1. Mad Men
2. Justified
3. House of Cards
4. Game of Thrones
5. Homeland
6. Breaking Bad
7. The Walking Dead
8. 24
9. Boardwalk Empire  

Game of Thrones manages to edge out Homeland for the 4th spot.

The opening minutes of Game of Thrones S1 are visually stunning, evoke a sense of dread and certainly capture one’s attention, something which appears to be a driving force in the first few episodes of S1 where characters are killed frequently and sex/nudity are on ample display. The sex adds nothing to the overall story but appears to be a method to grow viewers. However, once the sex is tuned down around Episode 5, the fascinating political aspects of the show start to shine through and mesh nicely with the fantasy elements. The show eventually does catch fire and ends on a high when the character of Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) has to undergo a trial by fire (“Agni Pariksha”) similar to what Sita does in the Ramayana to prove her virtue.

Best Show: Seasons 1-2

1. Mad Men
2. Justified
3. Breaking Bad
4. House of Cards
5. Game of Thrones

Breaking Bad starts its climb upwards while Season 2 of Game of Thrones is firing on all cylinders and does not have many throw away aspects found in S1. Games of Thrones S2 ends on an impressive chilling note and makes for a jaw-dropping cliff hanger.

Best Show: All Seasons

1. Breaking Bad, Seasons 1-5

2. Justified, Seasons 1-3

3. Mad Men, Seasons 1-6

The excellence of Breaking Bad’s S5 part II ensures that the show rightfully takes over the #1 spot as the overall best tv show. Episode 9 of S5 does start off disappointedly but the final 10 minutes set the stage for a showdown which will lead to the show’s incredible finale. Episodes 10-12 take their time to set up events and allow one to catch their breath before the relentless pace and tension of Episodes 13-16 leaves one breathless and in awe of the best show in TV.

Friday, October 04, 2013

High Plains Drifter

The incredible Western Countdown at Wonders In The Dark started on Sept 30, 2013. Essays for the top 50 films will be posted on the website from Monday - Friday. So far, the first week has been completed with five essays posted on the site, with my essay at #47.

50. Destry Rides Again.

49. True Grit (2010).

48. Track of the Cat.

47. High Plains Drifter.

46. No Country for Old Men.