Archive | October, 2015

Salo or 120 Days of Sodom

23 Oct

A scene from Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom." (Zebra Photofest)

“120 Days of Sodom,” the rapacious weave of sexual excess and debauchery penned by Marquis de Sade in the late 1700s, didn’t receive a commercial publishing until the 20th century, mostly in part because of its perceived depraved pornographic content.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinematic rendering of de Sade’s carnal excursion gone gonzo some 200 years later has often been called the most reviled film of all time, not just because of its stark, graphic nature, but more so for its aloof dehumanized detachment. Still, much like de Sade, with such infamy credited to his name, Pasolini looms a major cultural icon bridging zeitgeists, ideologies and art forms.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” his final work, remains a hot topic of discussion, most recently rekindled after Criterion Collection’s reissue on DVD and Blu-ray in 2011, and is also part of the Harvard Film Archive‘s ongoing “Furious and Furiouser” series about maverick filmmaking outside the studio system in the ’70s. The program, inspired by the anti-Hollywood ire of Sam Peckinpah, includes such eclectic and wide ranging works as Larisa Shepitko’s “The Ascent,” Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation,” Robert Bresson’s “The Devil, Probably” and even “Saturday Night Fever.”

In a historical context, it’s ironic that “Salò” was Pasolini’s film. The film (and de Sade’s underlying work) pulls heavily from Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” most notably the “Circle of S—” and “Circle of Blood” chapters that conclude the work. Leading up to those two fine portrayals of fecal feasting and slow homicidal executions (genital burning, sodomy to expiration, scalping and dismemberment) there’s a succession of bacchanal orgies where those subjugated to the whim of the ruling few, must entertain or provide services of sensual pleasuring, and should they balk or fail, the discipline is swift, cruel and even lethal.

Pasolini, a known homosexual and something of a libertine, didn’t live to see his film’s controversial ripple throughout the world (it was banned in many countries upon its initial release in 1975). He was murdered outside Rome, run over (repeatedly) by his own Alfa Romeo driven by a 17-year-old hustler who claimed Pasolini picked him up and made unwanted sexual advances (even with a confession there remains much conjecture as to the nature of events).

Given grim dithyrambs of debasement in “Salò,” the film’s being is ultimately more eerily prophetic than sadistically ironic. The great director Michelangelo Antonioni (“The Passenger” and “L’Avventura”), a contemporary countryman of Pasolini, remarked that the poet-turned-filmmaker, “was the victim of his own characters.”  Continue reading

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Bridge of Spies

16 Oct

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) must go to great lengths to rescue U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet Russia

Courtesy of Dreamworks Pictures

James Donovan (Tom Hanks) must go to great lengths to rescue U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet Russia

When people think about the body of work Steven Spielberg has put out over his illustriously long and celebrated career, most gravitate towards the fantastical fantasies imbued with childlike wonderment (ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) or the satiating swashbuckling adventures (Raiders of the Lost Ark andJurassic Park). Before all that however, Spielberg minted the blockbuster with Jaws and later, with stark, visceral effect, crafted the preeminent cinematic portrait of the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), a film which still resonates as an exposed nerve. Recently, the solemn lessons of history, more so than adolescent curiosity or high adventure, have become the inspiration for Spielberg’s creative vision.

Spielberg’s last history lesson, Lincoln, was a plumbing of a stout character standing tall and resolute in the face of grave opposition and the tenuous society hanging underneath. The director’s latest,Bridge of Spies, follows the same blueprint, but unlike Abraham Lincoln, few have ever heard of James Donovan, an insurance attorney from Brooklyn, N.Y. More relevant from the history-book perspective perhaps is Francis Gary Powers, the U2 pilot shot down over Soviet airspace and taken prisoner in 1960. Continue reading

Steve Jobs

16 Oct

Michael Fassbender stars as Steve Jobs in a scene from the film, "Steve Jobs." (Universal Pictures/AP)

Steve Jobs,” the new bio-pic about the iconic Apple entrepreneur, is a film in love with men (a man) who possess prescient clarity.

To underscore that notion, the film opens with a clip of Arthur C. Clarke back in the ‘70s, extolling the virtues of the computer and how it will change the lives of humans one day. H.G. Wells scored some great future picks too, but both those men were primarily writers, neither of them produced or pushed product, something, that the film, helmed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, asserts Jobs did with unbridled ardor and rabid commitment.

Clearly Boyle and Sorkin have swallowed the “visionary” pill and are all in. It’s easy to get that too as they’re working with Walter Isaacson’s biography, which Jobs had a hand in before his death. As the film suggests, the digital maestro, currently in everyone’s pocket, was also a master strategist laying the roots of his stratagem and giving them years to germinate before reaping the rewards. As a result, one can’t walk away from “Steve Jobs” without a sense that maybe Jobs saw this coming, his own hagiography, and planted the seeds to brand his legacy and ensure the enduring future of Apple and all things preceded with a lowercase “i”.

Michael Fassbender appears in a scene from, "Steve Jobs." (Francois Duhamel for Universal Pictures/AP)

The film’s told uniquely in three chapters, each taking place in the moments leading up to a product launch (staged demos in velvet adorned opera houses) that Jobs, a fan of simple design and closed systems so hackers and hobbyists can’t muck with his perfection, proclaims will change the computing industry.

We launch back in 1984 with the unveiling of the Mac, but Jobs (played by Michael Fassbender) is in a mad arrogant snit because the machine crashes when it tries to say “Hello” and the fire department won’t allow him to shut off the exit signs to gain total darkness for the overall wowing effect. In the first five minutes, as Jobs runs through a gambit of nail-in-the-coffin problems, much akin to Michael Keaton’s stressed thespian in “Birdman,” but a far different bird, one drinks in an effortless multitasker, a brilliant human able to pull from both the left and right lobes, and an intolerable a—hole with small glimmers of compassion within. In all three product launches, he’s tended to by his loyal head of marketing, Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet bringing great nuance to a woman clearly in a thankless role and radiating with a deep care for her beloved tormentor) who’s the only one who able to push back and still have a job. Continue reading

Pawn Sacrifice

3 Oct

MOVIES  |  REVIEWS

<i>Pawn Sacrifice</i>

The name Bobby Fischer might trigger a Google search for some of the internet age who haven’t at least dabbled in chess. For those who recollect the epic clashes of the ’70s—Ali vs. Frazier, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. ensconced in the heat of the Cold War—Fischer was likewise a prominent player on the international stage of conflict. His arena, while smaller and with less prospect of bloodshed, was no less tumultuous. In the bigger scheme, it plastered the chess prodigy across as many magazine covers as the two well-matched pugilists, and more so, had a profound impact on the cultural and ideological sparring between Uncle Sam and the Kremlin.

For those hoping for more than a Wikipedia regurgitation of the facts, even-keeled director Ed Zwick (Glory, The Last Samurai) goes beyond a dull history refresher, putting the volatile genius’ contribution to the game and global politics, as well as his struggle with mental illness, in context. It’s by the latter facet that Pawn Sacrifice gains our hearts. Fischer grew up a poor Jewish kid from Brooklyn, but he was on the national stage by the time he was a preteen. Even at that young age, when his talent was glaringly obvious, he was an arrogant prick already displaying the clinical signs of delusions. As the movie has it in one early scene, he demands his mother banish her boyfriend because the soft coos from their infrequent sex disrupts his practice in their small apartment.  Continue reading

The Martian

1 Oct

Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara and Aksel Hennie portray the crew members of the fateful mission to Mars in

The much anticipated big screen adaptation of Andy Weir’s hot-read “The Martian” finally lands in theaters this week.

For local boy Matt Damon and director Ridley Scott, it’s a respectable go, but for science and NASA, it’s an unequivocal win. Following the film’s release those chem and bio books on high schoolers’ nightstands will get a little sexier.

For those not familiar with Weir’s self-published e-book that became a New York Times bestseller, it takes place in the short near future, when manned flights to Mars are doable and entails the ordeal of an astronaut left for dead on the Red Planet, who then must survive for four years until the next mission from Earth arrives. The major must haves, air and water (no, it’s not prescient of the findings) are relatively “easy” to ascertain.

The big gotcha is food, as the pup-tent bivouac is only stocked with enough rations to feed a crew of six for 60 days. If you’re doing the math and forecasting, that’s the joyful brain bait Weir imbued throughout his novel. The book has been hailed as one of the best pure science, science fiction books in a long while (Weir, a former programmer who worked on the Warcraft video games was reared on a steady diet of Arthur C. Clarke).

Scott and screenwriter Drew Goddard (“World War Z” and “Cloverfield”) however don’t have reams of paper or time to stop and explain the not-so-basic math, chemistry and biology solutions that propel “The Martian,” but what they do have are digi-logs, so that Damon, playing left-behind spaceman Mark Watney, a biologist by trade, can speak directly into GoPro cams or any of the myriad of the recording devices sprinkled throughout the space tent known as a “hab” and the rover, an all-terrain SUV on steroids.

To explain how Watney gets marooned and rises from the dead would be doing the uninformed a disservice. It’s smart and sharply done in both mediums, as is how Watney is discovered alive on the far off planet by satellite wonks at NASA (there’s no comms that can reach that far to squawk real time). But all these golden plot nuggets come directly from from Weir’s blueprint. What’s missing is the looming sense of dread that so effectively filled other recent deep space conundrums like “Gravity” and “Interstellar,” let alone the imposing power of loneliness like Tom Hanks so convincingly evoked on a similarly remote and desolate body (an island on Earth occupied by a volleyball) in “Cast Away.”

Continue reading