Brattle Theatre Film Notes Posts

December 12, 2018 / / Main Slate

Allen Baron’s lonely, murky, Christmas-set noir Blast of Silence is notable for a number of things – its barely existent budget, stark city photography done without permits, and a rare second person narration track (read by veteran character actor Lionel Stander). The latter suitably sets the mood of the film and includes passages like, “When the Better Business Bureau rings the Christmas bell, the suckers forget there’s such a business as murder, and businessmen who make it their exclusive line,” which blur the usual holiday spirit with something a lot colder, and a lot more sinister.

December 12, 2018 / / Main Slate

Like its protagonist, It’s a Wonderful Life has its own redemption story. Released in 1946, the film received tepid reviews from critics and was famously a box office flop, failing to earn enough revenue to break even with the budget, contributing to the bankruptcy of the production company Liberty Films and its eventual sale to Paramount. Twenty-eight years later, a clerical error allowed the movie to enter the public domain, at which point television stations started airing it solely because they could do so without paying royalties. Just as Uncle Billy’s clerical error was the catalyst that pushed George Bailey to find new appreciation for his life in Bedford Falls, that mistake at Paramount allowed a new American audience to find and embrace Bailey’s story, turning the forgotten film into the perennial classic it is today.

December 5, 2018 / / Main Slate

Cinematic language – the grammar of perspective shifts, cuts, and editing that underpins movie storytelling – is immediately understood by audiences. This instantaneous comprehension is most likely because our film language has developed around the stories and plot devices that filmmakers like to use and moviegoers engage in. This explains how the use of the flashback is universally understood, and why it is taken for granted. In Spider-Man 3 when Peter looks at a photograph of his uncle’s killer, followed by a cross dissolve transition into a new scene featuring his uncle, the audience already assumes and comprehends that this new scene is set in the past. Because this convention is so established, it also means that filmmakers can play with audience expectations, as the 2016 science fiction film Arrival does. The film the subverts audience expectations of how a flashback works, and how a story is generally told, expressing an unusual use of film language in both its form and its themes.

November 27, 2018 / / Scene Analysis

Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film The Lower Depths is set in Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868), and is about the poor tenants of a rundown residence. In this featured scene we see three, and then four, men circle dance using traditional hand movements. From their simple “stage” to the faux flautist, these peasants are performing their own rustic version of Noh Mai, which is a form of Japanese dance theatre typically enacted to music made by hand held drums and flutes.

November 20, 2018 / / Main Slate

Akira Kurosawa’s storied career is exemplified not just by his cinematic masterpieces, but also how he subverted genre film. From detective noir like Stray Dog to thrillers like High and Low, he never shied away from challenging how audiences experience familiar genres. Never is this more on display than in his 1961 film Yojimbo.

The film is part of the jidaigeki genre, which encompasses period pieces set during the Edo period (1603-1868). More specifically, it is part of the chanbara (samurai) subgenre. Typically, films in this subgenre follow valiant warriors, whose moral code shines through from the very beginning and never wavers. The violence on screen is meant solely to entertain. Rarely do we see critiques of this, but in Yojimbo, Kurosawa steps up and calls this into question.

November 16, 2018 / / Main Slate

Hal Ashby was one of the leading filmmakers of the 1970s. The march of time relegated him to near-anonymity until lately. His work is being re-examined, thanks in large part to Amy Scott’s new documentary, Hal which explores Ashby’s success with a decade-long chain of splendid films beginning with the little-known gem, The Landlord, which addresses inner-city conflicts in 1970s Brooklyn. It was followed by Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Coming Home (1978) which won Ashby a Best Director Oscar, and Being There (1979). Harold and Maude, like many of Ashby’s other films, features a rebel who refuses to mindlessly go along with the system at its heart.

November 14, 2018 / / Scene Analysis

Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 film Near Dark tells the story of Caleb, a naïve young man who falls for the winsome blonde vampire Mae and finds himself struggling to adjust to her nighttime world of murder and mayhem. Transformed by a bite from Mae, Caleb nevertheless struggles with the morality of feeding on humans. Bigelow’s vision of star-crossed love among bloodsuckers is at once wildly romantic and frankly gruesome. It offers a rare mix of beauty and ugliness – grace and brutality.

Editor’s note: On August 28, 2018 Daniel Gaucher, Professor in the Department of Visual & Media Arts at Emerson College, introduced Robert Altman’s The Player, part of the Brattle’s Elements of Cinema program. These are his introductory remarks. –Jessie Schanzle, Film Notes editor

I wanted to watch The Player tonight not only to see all the nice designer suits everybody wears in it from the 90s, but also to get a sense of what was called the developing shot. Now you might, if you’ve seen The Player, think to yourself, “well crap, they do a lot of long takes in that, don’t they? Where’s all the editing?”

October 29, 2018 / / Scene Analysis

According to Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), the protagonist of Darren Aronofsky’s directorial debut Pi, math is a language – a series of distinct characters, each with values that, when strung together in an equation, express a new value. It is like Spanish, or music, or code. Yet Max’s assumption, though, is that math is not just any language but the language of nature. And it is this assumption that drives Max to search for a pattern within the mathematical constant pi so as to explain the operations of the universe, a pattern he believes he can find in the stock market.

October 26, 2018 / / Main Slate

Hollywood never goes too long without holding up a mirror to itself. Biopics like Ed Wood or Hollywoodland explore (somewhat) true stories of Hollywood. Other films explore Hollywood through a more fictional lens and include King Kong , Sunset Boulevard, Singin’ In the Rain, The Day of the Locust, Sunset, Get Shorty, and Adaptation. God’s and Monsters, a film adapted from the novel, The Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram, does both, offering a fictional take on the final days of James Whale, who directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. But in choosing a fictional account of James Whale’s life for the silver screen, Hollywood perpetuated its troubled relationship with queer identities that it has grappled with since the birth of film.