Tangerine (Baker, 2015)

What do you get when you put together two transgender sex workers, an iPhone 5s, and an Armenian Taxi driver? Sean Baker’s Tangerine.

Shot exclusively on iPhone 5s, Baker’s film takes a stereotyped and misunderstood group of individuals and presents them not just as “transgender” but as real human beings. He does this while invoking gorgeous cinematography no one ever dreamed the iPhone was capable of capturing. 

Tangerine is the story of a day in the life of two transgender prostitutes, Sin-Dee and Alex. The film follows them through the tattered streets of LA, where they encounter cheating pimps, donut stores, and a married Armenian taxi driver. The actresses who play these transwomen are not famous and don’t act for a living. They were discovered by the filmmakers in an LGBT community center. So not only does this film address real issues, it uses real people to tell the story.

This film redefines “buddy film” and shatters conventional film making techniques. Its low-budget approach results in a kind of quirkiness and realism that is hard to recreate. It’s a dark comedy that makes you want to laugh out loud one minute and sit in silent shock by the end. The aesthetic compliments the narrative—handheld camera movements mixed with improvised dialogue while the actors portray extreme versions of themselves.

Tangerine is vigorous and vivid, as well as provocative.

Lucky for you, it’s currently streaming on Netflix. 

—Britt Poteet, student in Film Studies

Ex Machina (Garland, 2015)

Do you like movies that make you think about the underlying social commentary of gender roles?  If so, Ex Machina is the film for you. If not, you should watch it anyway, because it’s pretty cool.

Alex Garland directed and wrote the 2015 sci-fi drama Ex Machina, which many people view as a thrilling commentary on the tech industry.  Others view it as a commentary on gender roles in our modern society. The movie revolves around the idea of humanity. Throughout the film the robot, Ava, is tested to see if she can pass as human. The issue with this, however, is that she never will be. Throughout the film the two men testing her, Nathan and Caleb, represent the patriarchal view that women are simply things, always objectified. The film also deals with female sexuality and the male gaze in an interesting way. Robots having sex? Really weird, but also really intriguing.

This uncomfortable, thought-inducing film is narratively clever and aesthetically beautiful. The acting is brilliantly believable. You think you know where the film is going, and then it takes a drastic left turn into confusion and discomfort. What unfolds is a fascinating tale of female empowerment as well as masculine control. And for all the sci-fi nerds out there, it has plenty of technology and super cool robots.

If I haven’t given you enough reasons to watch it, there’s also a hilarious dance scene with Oscar Isaac. And who doesn’t love him?

—Britt Poteet, student in Film Studies

P.S. Film Studies has a podcast on this film!  Check it out under Podcasts.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, 1920)

In early 1920, Germany was introduced to what is considered the first horror film,The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (with Nosferatu a close second). A bit disorienting and incredibly creepy, it’s hard for a modern audience to consider Robert Wiene’s expressionist masterpiece “scary”. However, back in when it was released, the film shocked audiences. Featuring a visually intriguing set full of oblique angles and odd shapes, the film embodied early German expressionism, and resembles any Tim Burton movie you have ever seen. 

The film is most remembered for its bizarre look. The set is full of diagonal stairs, jagged angles and shapes, and other crazy distortions. It’s as if the viewer is watching a movie through a mirror at a carnival funhouse. The actors are all decked out in dark, radical makeup, creating a shocking and dramatic look.  The set is just as twisted as the story.

The eerie silent film is about an eccentric man named Dr. Caligari and his zombie-like sleepwalker, Cesare. At a carnival in Germany, Caligari claims his “somnambulist” can see into the future. The predictions are quite ominous and a series of dark events occurs. The plot was extremely intense for 1920 and audiences were shaken and terrified.

If you’re a horror movie fan, or enjoy influential cinema, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a must watch. You may think silent films are boring, but this one just might change your mind. 

—Britt Poteet, Film Studies Student

Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)

this week, we tackle what might be the biggest classic of all: Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, considered by many critics and scholars to be the greatest film ever made.

The way it’s talked about in hushed, reverent tones, a lot of people avoid seeing the movie because it feels like homework; however, you might be surprised to learn it’s a fun watch. True, it’s ultimately a tragic tale about a rich man’s futile search for love and meaning. But it’s also funny, poignant and endlessly intriguing.

I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times, but I’m always surprised how fast it moves – two hours are over in a blink – and how many new things I notice about the narrative, the characters and the innovative filmmaking techniques. It’s practically a new movie every time I watch it.

The basic story of Citizen Kane, including one of the most famous reveals in cinema history, is so embedded in modern culture that even people who haven’t seen it still get the winks and references in other works. A select few may also know it’s a rough jab at publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst.

But even if you somehow know almost nothing about it, the movie’s still a fascinating experience. In fact, I envy you for getting to watch it with no outside influences weighing on your opinion. I’m genuinely curious what that would be like.

The film opens with the death of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Welles), who utters the word “Rosebud” with his final breath. A reporter attempts to uncover the meaning of the mysterious term and interviews those who were closest to the difficult man. He gets multiple perspectives on Kane from his business manager, Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane); his former best friend, Jed Leland (Joseph Cotton); his ex-wife, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore); and the memoirs of his childhood caretaker Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris).

As the information he learns – presented to viewers through multiple flashbacks – merges into a single narrative, we witness Kane’s compelling rise to fame and fortune. However, we also discover how quickly those envious traits can be squandered when they serve as a substitute for what really matters in life.

Many people who watch Citizen Kane for the first time tend to walk away disappointed because of the unrealistic expectations that come with titles like “greatest movie of all time.” I know when I saw it as a teenager, my immediate reaction was “That’s it? What’s the big deal?”

But I didn’t understand how groundbreaking it was because the countless filmmaking techniques that Welles pioneered became routine over the next several decades. Creative elements that we now take for granted, such as flashbacks, montages, and multiple narrators, were downright revolutionary at the time.

It’s hard to process that kind of genius from a present-day perspective. You have to put yourself in the mind of a 1941 moviegoer to understand how many heads must’ve exploded in theaters all over the country.

Scratch that. Citizen Kane was initially perceived as a box office bomb – primarily because of the controversy surrounding the movie and Hearst’s refusal to run ads for it in his papers – so its genius wasn’t widely recognized until the mid-1950s. That’s why multiple viewings of films are so important; they change over time just like people do.

I try to revisit Welles’ masterpiece every couple of years because the sheer number of complex themes and characters make it impossible to fully appreciate the first time around. Honestly, it’s why I’ve been putting off this entry in Catching Up on the Classics for eight years; I knew it would be a struggle, and it has been. Citizen Kane is the kind of movie you write a doctoral thesis about, not a 950-word article.

But I love talking about my favorite parts of the film. Some are obvious, like Welles’ astounding performance; the 25-year-old actor portrays Kane along his journey from young, idealistic dreamer to bitter, soulless old man and makes it seem effortless. Or Cotton’s less obvious, but equally affecting work as the best friend Kane slowly loses as the millionaire grows more cynical and calculated.

Still other brilliant elements reveal themselves only with repeated viewings: the intricate special effects that are often more astonishing than modern CGI, or the powerful breakfast montage that communicates the collapse of Kane’s first marriage. And that’s not even getting into how Welles angles his shots to subtly manipulate the audience’s perception of certain characters – notice how the audience constantly looks up at Kane and Leland, but down on weaker characters like Susan.

Even the last-second answer to the “Rosebud” mystery provokes all kinds of debates. Is it a McGuffin, simply there to move the plot forward? Or is it a metaphor that sums up why Kane led such a miserable existence? There are convincing arguments for both viewpoints.

—Josh Sewell, Instructor in Film Studies (http://flixchat.blogspot.com/)

Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1929)

In 1929, King Vidor, vaunted director of films like The Big Parade (1925), took a huge risk.  He made his first sound film and it was a musical and he made it in the South and he made it with a black cast and it was about sex, murder, and religion.  It was such a risk, in fact, that Irving Thalberg (the producer and chairman of MGM at the time) forced Vidor to put up some of his own cash.  Vidor believed so deeply in the project that he gave up his entire salary.  It paid off: Vidor was nominated for Best Director and the film has been recognized for its significance ever since.  

Vidor thought it through.  He knew that his first sound musical had to have stellar triple-threats and he discovered the charismatic and talented Nina Mae McKinney in a Broadway chorus.  (She was called "the Black Garbo" shortly thereafter.)  He continued to recruit from the Broadway stage.  He also saw that the advent of sound technology was limiting visual style, so, out of sight of Thalberg, he shot many sequences without sync sound (to be added in post), so that he was able to retain the camera mobility he long enjoyed.  Shot on location without these limitations, it stands out as an early sound film.

Don't get me wrong: this isn't perfect.  There are plenty of cringe-worthy moments.  But it needs to be seen.

—Erin Lee Mock, Director of the Program in Film Studies

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, 1953)

Defining a perfect film isn't easy.  Many students argue that a perfect film is one which never loses your attention (an unsurprising definition in the age of the smartphone, I suppose).  Popular critics have been known to say that it's a series of great scenes.  For some, it is to be moved emotionally or made to laugh or gasp in awe.  While I've been known to call a film "perfect," I don't know the criteria beyond on a gut level.  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, however, feels perfect to me while also satisfying the criteria above.  

GPB's costume design ranks among the best and most memorable (though, not being period, it doesn't get a lot of attention).  Marilyn Monroe's Lorelei Lee in that hot pink dress in front of a red scrim . . . the boldness of that clash is something one comes to expect from the Oscar-winning (William Jack) Travilla, a costume designer known for works as various as Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! (1952) and the 1980s television show Dallas

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Travilla was known for dressing Monroe: they worked together to create some of her most iconic looks, including for River of No Return, Monkey Business, How to Marry a Millionaire, Don't Bother to Knock and that famous white dress from The Seven Year Itch.  For GPB, Travilla worked with Charles Le Maire, his frequent collaborator, who actually worked with Monroe first in All About Eve.  

Monroe's costumes—and that rebellious pink/red clash!—are not the only costuming triumphs in the film.  Jane Russell's Dorothy Shaw is perfectly styled as Lorelei's equally-fashion-conscious but radically different BFF rocking slacks, sleeveless, strappy heels at the pool.

Which brings me to the characters themselves.  After 91 minutes watching Lorelei and Dorothy, I defy you not to call your best friend.  I don't think there's a better portrayal of friendship on film and it's refreshing to see two beautiful young women love and support each other without rivalry in 1953.  Believe it or not, it passes the Bechdel test.

And finally, there's this scene:

—Erin Lee Mock, Director of the Program in Film Studies

The Big Short (McKay, 2015)

A lot of good and great films have been made about the 2008 financial crisis—its lead-up, its aftermath, and the tense moments in between.  Check out Chandor’s Margin Call, Ferguson’s Inside Job (we happened to have a couple of those filmmakers at UWG awhile back), Reitman’s Up in the Air.  But it took the director of Anchorman and Talladega Nights to fully capture the revolting absurdity, the flippant and craven self-interest, the moral vacancy of the people who gleefully put the global financial system at risk.  He did it by adapting a book that seems nearly un-adaptable—Michael Lewis’s The Big Short.  Lewis’s work has been adapted many times—Bennett Miller directed Moneyball in 2011 and John Lee Hancock made a version of The Blind Side in 2009.  Neither of these involved thorough explanations of credit default swaps.  The Big Short is an emotional sucker punch (and it also makes you want to throw a few punches), but it is also Cinema with a capital “C.”  McKay and his brilliant editor—Hank Corwin cut Malick’s Tree of Life and The New World—show a knockout freedom and facility with the medium.  And the cast . . . Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Brad Pitt are just the first ones to rattle off . . . I mean, come on . . . 

Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944)

Is “film noir” a genre or a style?  Film scholars have yet to answer this question satisfactorily.  Fortunately, the group of films that we call “classic film noir”—crime films made in black-and-white, released in the general period of 1941-1958—have not suffered for lack of definition.  I dare you to find a scholar who does not include Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity on any such list. 

It’s both overwhelming and exciting to see who got together to make this picture.  Double Indemnity has the incomparable Wilder at the helm, yes, but John F. Seitz (who shots other “noirs” including The Big Clock and Appointment with Danger) was nominated for Best Cinematography (Black & White)—they used to split it up—developing some of the hallmarks of the style.  Check out those living room blinds! 

 The brilliant hardboiled writer Raymond Chandler adapts the equally brilliant James M. Cain’s novel to the screen.  The hot snap of Cain’s dialogue remains.  With those words in their mouths, Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff, Edward G. Robinson’s Barton Keyes and especially Barbara Stanwyck’s Phyllis Dietrichson, set the standard for the double-crossers, mercenaries, and saps we love in the style/genre. 

If you like to watch sexy people try to get away with murder—styled perfectly by Hollywood’s greatest costume designer, Edith Head—you’ll love this one straight down the line.

—Erin Lee Mock, Director of the Program in Film Studies

The Five Obstructions (Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth, 2003)

How many great artists made their best work "obstructed" by form?  For example, in her masterpiece "One Art," Elizabeth Bishop uses the structure imposed by the villanelle—a notoriously difficult poetic form—to drill down into the form itself, finding a particular poetic voice there. It is both profoundly moving and a thrill to read.  

Filmmakers have long worked in form, though it is often viewed derisively as "genre" or "formula."  This derision is, frankly, often warranted, though the auteur theory essentially argued that what Bishop did with the villanelle Howard Hawks did with the musical and the Western.  

What makes The Five Obstructions so original is that it builds an experiment in form into a filmic structure of its own.  And the artistic process here is dialogic as well as formal.  

The premise of the film: director Lars von Trier makes a documentary about the process of challenging his mentor, filmmaker Jørgen Leth, to a filmmaking quintathalon.  Leth must remake his most celebrated film, The Perfect Human, five different times under constraints imposed by von Trier.  The film is structured dialogically as well, alternating Leth's films with their making. Like Bishop's poem, The Five Obstructions is both moving and exhilarating, virtuoustic and surprising.  It is about filmmaking, but also about complex power dynamics between artists and friends.  You've never seen anything like it.

—Erin Lee Mock, Director of Film Studies