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Few films use animals to comment on its characters to the extent that Sátántangó does. This thematic conceit is laid out in the film’s notorious opening shot, an 8+ minute tracking shot of cows grazing a barren Hungarian wasteland, moving from one muddy patch to the next with little sense of purpose (and occasionally trying to screw each other). Aside from its purpose as a stylistic rejoinder to the much more audience-friendly pacing and aesthetics of typical films, it functions as an amusing, low-key overture for the rest of the film. Because dumb animals living purposeless lives in flux, and occasionally screwing each other, isn’t far from the mark in describing Sátántangó‘s characters. The people in this film are thoughtless and crude, content to mire around in the muck; only financial opportunity (more to the point, greed, a base instinct) acts as sufficient motivation for them to get off their asses and do something. Even then, they’re led around by the nose as a rabbit might be with a carrot, instead of taking their own initiative.

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Two nights ago, I watched Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man; last night, I watched the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There. So maybe the connection I’m making between the two is completely arbitrary, but the similarities – and differences – between them struck me. On the surface, both are weird-ass black-and-white movies that tackle old, mostly dead genres (the western and the classic film noir), but beyond that, they’re hardly mirrors of each other. Dead Man deliberately avoids western clichés to present something off-kilter, while The Man Who Wasn’t There faithfully reflects noir elements before pulling the rug out from underneath, but in their own way, they both put a unique spin on old genres.

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Let it be said: Ralph Fiennes is an extremely capable, even great, actor, but as Francis Dolarhyde, the twisted, enigmatic serial killer of Red Dragon, he’s nothing special. In broad strokes, his performance is effective and believable, but what results is a rather one-note portrayal of a demented, schizoprenic victim of child abuse. What’s lacking is any sense of pathos, so the film is reduced to surface pleasures: a perfunctory thriller without an emotional center.

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In the interest of encouraging myself to be more active on my blog, I figured I’d add some other features beyond the boilerplate film review. Of course, my interest in film is still heavily slanted towards analysis over anything else, so this is more of an extension than anything radically different. I intend to single out great scenes (whether from great films or otherwise) and fit them within the context of the entire work, as a summation of style, themes, et al. Oh, and I figured I’d touch on TV as well, because why not? It is, in fact, a scene from The Sopranos that inspired this. And it goes without saying that these features will be pretty spoilerific by nature.

Okay, on to the analysis.

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Having recently viewed both George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake, one of the most striking differences between the two (and there are many) was the divergent visual strategies employed by both Romero and Snyder. While Snyder’s film, which leans more heavily towards the thriller side of things than its predecessor, features hyperkinectic camerawork, busy environments, and sleek effects, Romero’s film is much more low-key. (Each is appropriate to the film’s tone, so don’t take this as criticism of Snyder’s work.) In fact, what’s most notable about the cinematography of the original film is how still everything is. Though there are a handful of sequences in Romero’s film that would qualify as action (and feature a quickened pace in the editing, as well as some handheld camerawork), the majority of the sequences within the mall’s interior are notable for their utter placidity.

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One of the most annoying things that crops up in any discussion of film is the concept of “directorial intent.” The notion is that, if a director had a specific intent in mind when shooting his film – be it a political message, a tone, or whatever else – then this is a valid argument in favor of the presence of that message or tone. Or, put more simply, that the director’s interpretation of his own work is the only valid one.

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Rio Bravo was the favorite film of late film critic Robin Wood, and given Wood’s own beliefs (he was, later in his career – after his coming out as a gay man – strongly political in his criticism, and often looked at films through the prism of gay rights), it’s not hard to understand why. Subtext is an important part of film analysis, but is virtually a misnomer with regards to Rio Bravo, which takes little care to conceal the sexuality of the principals. Instead, the sexuality of each leaps off the screen, and the interplay between Chance (John Wayne), Dude (Dean Martin), Colorado (Ricky Nelson) and Feathers (Angie Dickinson) is one of the most fascinating aspects of the film.

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Everybody is familiar with the concept of a guilty pleasure. We all have our stranger opinions; I just copped to one the other day when I admitted to enjoying, on some level (and not an ironic one), both You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle despite their flaws and warped outlooks on what constitutes a healthy romance. That’s not because I enjoy looking down my nose at either film, but because I enjoy the presence of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and can be kind of a sap for romantic comedies sometimes. Either way, I don’t feel “guilty” about it, and the entire concept of a guilty pleasure is in and of itself flawed.

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When I was a kid, I had a pretty big crush on Meg Ryan. Not mega-huge – I didn’t sleep with a picture of her under my pillow or anything like that – but big enough to enjoy the hell out of Sleepless in Seattle when most boys my age were too busy watching Terminator 2 over and over. (Which I did too, don’t get me wrong.) In retrospect, the bigger problem wasn’t that I was a weird kid for liking a Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy. The problem is that Sleepless in Seattle is pretty creepy.

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One of the most draining experiences any moviegoer can have is to watch Béla Tarr’s epic Sátántangó. The film runs for seven-and-a-half hours, and Tarr has stated his intentions that the film be viewed, if at all possible, in a single sitting – a nigh unreasonable demand for most of the moviegoing public. The longest movies you’ll typically find as box office smashes run no longer than three hours – think Titanic or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill – four hours when combining volumes 1 and 2 –  was split down the middle by MGM for fear that a movie of that length wouldn’t be tolerable for most audiences. And that was Quentin Tarantino, mainstream virtuoso wonderkind, making the most anticipated film of the year. So imagine the reactions the moviegoing public would have to something like Sátántangó which is daunting not just for its length but for its utterly glacial pace and seemingly unreasonable shot lengths. It’s an endurance trial in more ways than one, not just taken as a whole but seen as a series of episodes, many of which run well beyond a length that can be justified by the film’s sparse narrative.

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