Category: Art on Film

Somerville Theatre Terrorthon, Part I

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Seen: At the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, all on 35mm.

This year the Somerville Theatre has revived its horror marathon (some might recall I attended its last incarnation in 2009), and of course we took the day off to attend because of priorities. It was a lovely time, complete with cartoon shorts and lots of horror trailers, and I even won a raffle prize that included From Dusk Til Dawn on blu-ray! Wow! Also lots of fantastic posters were hanging all around, courtesy of long-time Thon-er Francisco Urbano. I loved that they programmed it in chronological order (and one offering per decade), too, since I haven’t been to a marathon that’s done that before and you could sort of see the progression of style and writing in genre films. They called it a “Terrorthon” but honestly there was not much terror to be had, and the majority of the films were straight sci-fi with maybe some horror elements. Not that I’m complaining, since I love sci-fi and there were some very cool selections, but “Terrorthon” is misleading! They plan to do it again next year and if they do I hope it’s actually scary movies. Then again I’m sure my horror lust will be sated at the Coolidge Corner Horrorthon this Saturday night. Anyway. Here are the movies, several of which I’ve already blogged about but that’s ok.

1 The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
I saw this years ago streamed on my laptop from netflix, which isn’t really the best way to experience it. Seeing it on a huge screen and with live musical accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis really heightened its effects, because this is such a goddamn beautiful film. I still think the protagonists are dull, and the pacing is totally off, but the artful visuals make it completely worth those drawbacks. I just can’t get over the contorted, painterly sets, fantastic use of color filters, and absolutely stunning make-up. I’ve also come to appreciate Conrad Veidt’s early use of leggings-as-pants, and his amazing face that I want to draw sometime. The title links to my original review.
4/5

2 The Invisible Man (1933)
I watched this for the first time three years ago, and remember not really loving it because I felt the horror elements didn’t work and didn’t like most of the characters. On second viewing I found myself really responding to the more comedic elements, because this movie is funny! All the scenes with the hysteric townspeople (especially birthday girl Una O’Connor) and bumbling police force are hilarious and I realized the film is more of a satire than anything else. Plus I still love the effects and Claude Rains’ performance. He sure does love yelling. And fancy smoking jackets. The title links to my original review, but I’m upping its score.
4/5

3 Dr Cyclops (1940)
This is one of the few films that was new to me, and I was excited for it when I saw it was on an icheckmovies horror list, but it was mostly a let down. The story concerns a mad scientist (Albert Dekker) experimenting with uranium in the Amazon Jungle, and some scientists he invites to help him out. He is very secretive about his work and after he gets what he needs from the group he kicks them out, but they are determined to learn what he’s developing. Turns out he’s shrinking living organisms, which feels really anti-climactic. Of course he soon shrinks the gang and they run around as rodent-size people for a while and Dr Cyclops (named for his glasses) chases them around the jungle. Eh. It’s mostly boring, definitely racist (hellooooo Latino stereotype!), and underwhelming in its premise. Dekker is good as the nefarious title character and I was happy to see a lady scientist who was mostly useful, and sometimes its silliness won me over, but that’s really minor praise. I felt like I might as well just be watching The Incredible Shrinking Man which is totally amazing and way way way better.
2/5

4 Forbidden Planet (1956)
I watched this movie the year before I started this blog, I can recall watching it in my depressing dorm room sophomore year on my tiny tv. I don’t remember it very well, something about Leslie Nielsen in outer space macking on Anne Francis and her dad’s a dick and Robby the Robot is there. Right? Yeah. Well my companions and I were getting hungry and didn’t want to miss any of the later films so we decided to take a break for dinner (at the meat-tastic M3, mmmm) during this one, sorry. We even braved walking into Honk! which just so you know was a very courageous thing to do. Oh, and there was a really fantastic Tex Avery short shown just before Forbidden Planet about televisions of the future, and it was literally laugh-out-loud and also fairly prescient.

Continued with Part II!

Movie Review: Museum Hours (2013)

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Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, accompanied by Katie!

When Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) finds herself stranded in snowy Vienna for an unknowable amount of time while visiting a comatose cousin, she drifts toward one of the city’s art museums, the Kunsthistorisches Museum. She befriends an aging guard, Johann (Bobby Sommer), who helps translate the hospital’s calls for her, and they quickly become friends out of mutual loneliness. He shows her around Vienna, and they share intimate stories about their experiences and relationships. They spend a lot of time at the museum, and Johann narrates his observations as a guard.

Several years ago I decided to devote my studies, my passions, and a good portion of my time to the subject of art history. I may babble on about movies here and elsewhere online, but I hope to make art my life’s work. It is always exciting when a film somehow incorporates so-called “fine” art, when I can see my two loves collide and combine, but it is a rare thing for a film to focus entirely on the love of art. Not a famous artist. Not a contemporary art world satire. Not female leads in romantic comedies who work in museums or art galleries because it’s sophisticated but also vague enough (it’s a thing, trust me). Just… art. Looking at art. Responding to art. And in that one moment, either for an instant or for your entire life, being somehow affected, even transformed. That is what Museum Hours really is about. And it is goddamn transcendent. I think all art historians should see this film, but probably so should everyone else.

Visually the film is half art history porn, half dingy urban spaces, and often comparisons are made between the two. Art history as a study actually began in Vienna, so it is an incredibly appropriate setting for this story. Much time is dedicated to slowly, carefully looking at the works in the museum, especially Brueghel and other Northern masters like Rembrandt. Attention is also give to the visitors, to their acts of looking, which is something I find fascinating about public spaces like museums- we can look at people as they themselves are looking. Johann shares stories about different visitors and their reactions, joking about the “pornographic” nature of some artworks and their effect on students, and at one point there is even a clever surprise involving nudes in real life versus in painting. So much of the film’s conversations and observations relate to my own reading and class discussions that I found myself nodding my head like a dope at the dialogue. Of course, they talk about other subjects too, and I enjoyed the low-key interactions between Johann and Anne, who are wonderfully forthright with each other in both humorous and serious ways.

Art can mean so many different things to different people. Those who consider themselves art lovers may be interested in history, in beauty, in technical skill, in spiritual connection, in emotional resonance, or perhaps simply in a nice experience. There is no fixed definition of what art can be, which is one of the things I love about it. In a film like Museum Hours, centuries-old painting serves as both a link between new friends, and a therapeutic release for a woman who is struggling. For the film’s audience, it can be much more or much less, but it is a constant and revered presence here, and that alone provoked a strong response from me. Writer/director Jem Cohen wants to tell a human story, unstructured as it is, but he also wants to teach, and perhaps inspire. I believe that despite the field’s pretentious connotations, viewers don’t have to “know about art” in order to appreciate it, but often their experience can be enhanced by contextual or aesthetic information. At times, Cohen’s camera lovingly reveals masterpieces of painting without commentary, allowing his audience to simply absorb their qualities of technique, color, and form. At others, he includes historical or personal dialogue to add to our understanding of the works.

I can’t quite articulate how special this film is, or how truly strong my reaction to it was. I’m not even particularly interested in the period of art history that is given focus, but I am wholly dedicated to promoting the universal transformative power of all artistic practice and the importance of artistic centers. Museum Hours communicates similar views while also providing an understated and compelling character study, and I absolutely loved every minute of it.

5/5

Pair This Movie With: The quiet atmosphere and frequent museum trips reminded me of The Limits of Control, which is one of my favorite Jarmusch films.

Movie Review: Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003)

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Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express.

Last semester I took a seminar dedicated to Johannes Vermeer. For months I read hundreds of pages every week about Vermeer’s work, his scanty biography, his hypothetical intentions and methods, his hometown of Delft, and his artistic contemporaries. So now I’m kind of a Vermeer expert. Naturally my newfound expertise coupled with my long-held love of movies had me itching to revisit Girl with a Pearl Earring, a film I’d only seen in my nascent stages as an art historian. I did read the book last year, though, so that was still sort of fresh. Anyway. The film reveals a completely theoretical snippet of the artist’s life, through the eyes of an imagined servant named Griet (Scarlett Johannson). Quietly and anxiously navigating the tempestuous household of the Delft master (Colin Firth), who is struggling financially and must contend with an ever-growing brood of children and a jealous wife, Griet finds herself the lustful desire of Vermeer’s main patron, Pieter van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson). The young woman switches from secretly working as her master’s assistant to secretly posing for him in a special portrait meant for van Ruijven’s private cabinet.

The thing about Vermeer is that we really know so very, very little about him. His mystery is his legacy, and it will remain a major factor in the continued fascination so many have for the man. His work is stunning, and progressive, and engrossing, and there isn’t much of it. Scholars who study him often become obsessed with him, as do plenty of more casual art lovers and artists themselves (Salvador Dali is especially known for his Vermeer fanaticism). And I get it! I do. His paintings have this enigmatic stillness that holds you so close you have to fight to look away. Girl with a Pearl Earring especially is known for her steady, mysterious gaze- is her look flirtatious? Questioning? Seductive? Anxious? Judgmental? I’m told it’s even more captivating in real life, though I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing it. Using the knowledge and evidence that has been gathered about Vermeer’s life and surroundings, Tracy Chevalier wrote a thoughtful, well-researched, but necessarily fictitious story about the titular girl, and the painter behind her unblinking stare.

The film, of course, cuts down the source material and changes some things around, but does maintain most of the core concepts and most of all its quiet, pensive storytelling approach. Director Peter Webber approaches his tale like a Vermeer painting, choosing to show instead of tell, creating a lush but still atmosphere with rich colors and close, intimate camerawork. Johansson carries the narrative with her expressive face, moving about this creepily Catholic house (a religion practiced illicitly in the Netherlands but condoned by the state) with a downturned eye and barely-contained wonder. I love how her rise as his apprentice allows us to see some of his hypothetical methods, with detail given to the process of mixing paints and one of my favorite Vermeers, Woman with a Water Pitcher, shown in various stages of development. I’m of the camp that thinks his use of the camera obscura was highly unlikely though, so it’s too bad this movie continues that myth.

Vermeer’s biography is given some unnecessary or unfounded elements, but there’s enough room for any writer to fabricate his day-to-day life since so little is known about him. While I look at the film now with a more critical eye, I still really enjoy the central story of Griet, who is the actual protagonist. There’s an undercurrent of sexual and spiritual awakening in her experiences that binds the slow, understated narrative together. Her uncertain relationship with her master and her grudging romance with persistent butcher Pieter (Cillian Murphy with a horrific hairstyle) balance out the plot structure as she struggles morally and emotionally. But it’s not centrally a romance, it’s more about Griet’s journey as a young woman coming into herself, opening herself up to new experiences and discovering a natural artistic eye. She gains self-confidence and sexual boldness, allowing her to leave a life of servitude under abusive employers to strike out on her own. This is a story about Vermeer, sure, but as the title suggests, it’s primarily a story about that alluring girl with a pearl earring and her mysterious, confrontational gaze.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: I’m not sure, I suppose another dainty period piece with pretty dresses and meaningful stares and lots of white people? Yeah that could work! Or another artsy film, I have a few on my Art on Film page over yonder even though I’m kind of hilariously bad at watching movies about famous artists, like I haven’t seen seen Pollock.

Movie Review: Le Tableau (The Painting) (2013)

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Seen: At the Kendall Square Landmark Cinema in Cambridge.

In The Painting, groups of paintings come to life and their figures search for their painter so he can finish working on them. The whole story is animated in colorful, playful styles with references to great Modernist painters. The protagonist is a plucky young woman looking for adventure. So. Someone finally made a movie exactly for me, I thought. The story throws together three distinctive figures living within a single painting: a privileged “Alldun”, a completed figure; a “Halfie”, incomplete and relegated to living outside of the central castle; and a “Sketchie”, a line doodle who isn’t accepted anywhere. They set out somewhat accidentally to find their painter so he can finish them, eventually escaping their own canvas and landing in his abandoned studio where other works have also been left. Venturing through a few lively painted worlds but finding no clues as to their creator’s whereabouts, they endeavor to solve their painting’s oppressive class issues another way.

With an overly simplistic, repetitive script, uneven pacing, and a plot that stretches thin even over the film’s scant 76 minute runtime, The Painting is unfortunately not the compelling, dream-fulfilling movie I hoped it might be. It’s for kids, and I get that, but it’s kind of just for kids despite its highbrow source materials. I liked the central character if Lola, who’s a self-confident Halfie who’d rather ask the painter life’s big questions than ask him to finish painting her. The parallels to a God-figure and his creations/acolytes aren’t fully explored, though it’s clear the filmmakers are trying to make some statement about divisive religion and class systems and God’s Plan or whatever. I was content to view it all literally, since I don’t care about God but I do care about art.

The more time passes, the more important art becomes to me. I do it, I study it, I plan to make it my life’s work, and this all-encompassing obsession is why films like The Painting will always capture my imagination. The immersive animated world created by Jean-Fran├žois Laguionie is absolutely enticing for an art history nerd, especially a Modernist. Sly nods to Modern heavyweights like Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pablo Picasso abound, and the variety of color schemes and design styles makes for an exciting and eclectic visual experience. I loved the painterly, at-times amorphous scenery, and the wild abandon with which color is employed. The concept of artistic creations interacting with their maker is fascinating to me, so I liked the little coda of Lola finally finding her painter (even if visually it looked terrible) and setting out to explore the world beyond what was created to contain her. But I do wish that idea had been explore further, or maybe handled differently. I have this feeling that with a different script and tone this film could be all the art historian in me could want in a movie, but I guess I’ll have to keep looking.

3.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Some of the concepts and visual ingenuity reminded me of MirrorMask, which would be a nice atmospheric pairing, but animation-wise I think The Secret of Kells would make for a nice double feature. Or if you want another example of creators interacting with their creations, there’s always Cool World. Or Monkeybone!

The 2013 Boston Science-Fiction Marathon, Part II

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BUT FIRST! Read Part I. There’s 24 hours of sci-fi overall!

Alright, back from dinner, everybody’s feeling ok, I’m still on a bit of a musical high from The Ghastly Love of Johnny X but I am definitely (always) ready to settle in for more science fiction goodness. One of the coolest things about this year’s Thon is that we were treated to an episode of The Twilight Zone, wholly appropriate since one of the films being shown was written by TZ stalwart Richard Matheson. It was the episode “Time Enough At Last”, which I have often seen referenced and parodied but had never actually watched, so it was great to see the original version. Poor Henry Bemis! He just wants to READ! An interesting short, “Death of a Shadow“, was also shown, which I really liked. It’s beautifully shot and has a fascinating premise concerning a dead soldier caught in limbo, trying to win back his life by collecting other people’s deaths. And I just found out it was nominated for an Oscar this year, so that’s rad! Anyway here are the next four features I watched, from about 8PM to 4AM, to ensure you’re consistently impressed with how much I totally stayed awake.

5 Battle Royale (2000)
It’s no secret I am in love with this movie, and I don’t think there’d ever be a bad time to watch it. The premise may only be lightly sci-fi because of the supposed future setting and a few technological bits, but who cares? THIS MOVIE RULES. While packed with awesome gore and intense action, it also has such a knack for succinctly and lovingly describing its characters, so that you can’t help but feel deeply for everyone. It manages to balance over-the-top situations and a bit of cheese with a believable emotional core, and I think that’s part of the reason I love it. The title links to my original review. And here’s a poster I made for it ages ago.
5/5

6 Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)
I saw this when it was in theaters last summer but it was nice to revisit it, especially since as far as I could tell a lot of the audience hadn’t seen it (it got a big round of applause at the end). I love Aubrey Plaza here and I think the central story is so sweet and interesting, and I initially came out really enjoying the film overall. I had sort of blocked out how the b-plot of Jake Johnson trying to sleep with an old girlfriend was pretty stupid and sleazy. The title links to my original review.
3.5/5

7 The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
Ok so as far as I can tell the theme of this year’s Thon was HUNKS because here is yet another example of a total babe in the lead. And not only is he shirtless a few times, he also shows off those GAMS, and I’m now fanning myself. Anyway. This movie is actually completely great, it’s not at all what you’d expect from the title. Matheson’s script is gradually paced and introspective, ultimately setting itself up for a metaphorical view of man’s entire existence as the protagonist Scott Carey experiences a mysterious shrinking disease that gives him a shockingly new perspective on life. The performances are great, there’s a bit of action thrown in what with giant spiders and cats, and I was really impressed with the effects. The only thing that bothered me was how at one point a regular-sized actress was used to portray a little person, and it was distracting and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t have just cast an actual little person. It was pointed out to me later that maybe the optical trickery wouldn’t have worked otherwise, since she and Scott are shown side by side as the same size. So I guess that makes sense. Otherwise I was just generally taken in by this film, it’s thought-provoking without being preachy, and it’s exciting without being sensationalist.
4.5/5

8 Phase IV (1974)
This is one of the films I was most excited for, since I knew it was the only feature from legendary graphic designer Saul Bass as a director. I’d read about it on Nuts4r2’s blog ages ago and had been meaning to see it ever since. When large groups of different varieties of ants in the Arizona desert begin forming a collective hive mind, two scientists set up an observation station to observe their developments and determine if they’re a threat. The ants manage to wipe out most of the animals (and some of the humans) in the area and prove smart enough to consistently outwit the scientists, so it soon becomes a standoff between man and ant. And honestly I had no idea who was going to win. What’s great is the movie feels utterly realistic, there isn’t much that’s out there, the main anomaly is that these ants are all working together with a common cause. They don’t have super powers or anything, they’re just really smart and quick to adapt to new situations. I liked the more intellectual, low-key approach to storytelling, but I must say I kind of expected (and wanted) more trippy visuals. I mean, it’s Saul Bass! But still a smart, compelling film, with excellent ant photography from Ken Middleham (who also did The Hellstrom Chronicle) and a kickass finale.
4/5

Ok I had to brush my teeth and catch up on my tea-drinking, but otherwise I am doing good! The audience definitely starts to thin out a little, but there’s only 4 more movies left to go, I can do this!