Blow Out (1981)

A silent killer stalks a house of female coeds. He leers at them from the windows, breaks in, corners a young woman in the shower. As he raises his knife, she lets out a half-assed, laughable scream.

The opening scene of Brian de Palma’s Blow Out, which we later learn to be a sound effect dub session for a second-rate horror flick, plays as a perfect prologue to this crime thriller: exploring the connection (or disconnection) between what we see and what we hear, weighted by the underlying theme of exploitation of women by men.

A sound man (a young John Travolta in his prime) is out on a recording session in the outskirts of Philadelphia, as a car flies off a bridge, with a man and woman trapped inside. He is too late for the man (an up-and-coming politician) but successfully rescues the woman – a living, firsthand witness to the accident.

Fearing the woman may be next, the two pair up and dive deeper to solve the mystery –listening extensively to the sound man’s initial recording, plunging into alternate personae, even charging headfirst into the face of danger. Their major breakthrough comes by procuring video of the incident, and meticulous editing to map the two media together.

Certain plot elements, as well as atmosphere set by the gritty crime underworld, were reminiscent of de Palma’s excellent Dressed to Kill, though it was through these similarities that I came to further appreciate Blow Out’s own strengths:

First, though the captivating performance by Nancy Allen. In Dressed to Kill, she too wears many hats, as a high-end call girl / seductress / detective, paired surprisingly by the personality and charm of a typical girl next door. In Blow Out, however, she is a hopefully naïve, tragic heroine, as vulnerable to the men around her as the coeds from the slasher flick in the movie’s prologue. Her effective performance really illustrates her strong acting chops.

Second, Blow Out has a terrifically innovative use of the split-screen. In addition to capturing multiple images of action and dialogue (as does Dressed to Kill), the split-screen choices further map the subconscious journey from sound to image. As Travolta’s character is outside at night, recording audio, he hears sounds from afar, as the camera reveals blurred images of them – only to come into focus, as he (and we) identify their source.

Not only is Blow Out a nail-biting, and surprisingly moving, crime drama, but the overall discourse in which it operates – this relationship between sound and image – permeates the entire film, supporting not only the narrative but provoking interesting questions about the media of film. As an audience, we may be just as naïve as Nancy Allen’s character, taking what we recognize for granted, and too often lack the conspiracy theorist’s perspective, embodied by John Travolta’s character. This fascinating notion solidifies Blow Out as an important film not only from its exciting plot, but also from its broader implications toward the media of film.

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

My experience watching the Coen Brothers’ musical Inside Llewyn Davis ranged from sheer magic to frustrating bleakness and back again. Its circular nature makes me curious to revisit, though my initial viewing left me less floored than I had been about halfway through.

The first half, the film’s strongest act, is a masterful recreation of the folk scene of 1960s New York. Beautifully shot imagery, of muted colors and deep shadows, paired with very strong music, evoke a time and place many of us will only dream of. Of course the reality of the situation, particularly that of struggling guitarist Llewyn Davis, is anything but a dream, as he crashes couch to couch, heckles other folk performers, and gets girls into jams.

Not that Inside Llewyn Davis is some romanticized take on this era; the East Side was undoubtedly full of Llewyn Davises, doing their rounds in artistic circles for a shot at a hit and finally striking it big. But seeing Llewyn in his element, facing the struggles that surely rings true for others in that time, is where this film really hits its stride.

Where it falls off is through a very long detour to Chicago and back; while plot elements are revealed, Llewyn doesn’t seem to evolve much from this experience, making the 20-30 minute stretch of the movie seem less than necessary. Particularly as he returns to New York, finding himself back in the same situations as where he started, his character arc isn’t quite as satisfying as perhaps intended.

I could be completely off – the point may be that Llewyn is so numb to the rejection and failure, he’s past the point of epiphany and growth, and the narrative succeeds in this plateau of maturity. From my perspective however, the film did not seem to go much of anywhere.

Not that it really needed to, either; the setting and exposition were constructed beautifully. I liked the vision of 1960s New York and wanted to see that better established. From the initial glimpses into the folk subculture, I began to expect an alternate version of Robert Altman’s Nashville but about another time and place in American music (which would be terrific – I’d want to see that movie).

It also must be said that Oscar Isaac’s performance as the titular Llewyn Davis is remarkable. I hadn’t seen him in anything playing more than a small supporting role, so to set him center stage, and have him sing, showcases his abilities wonderfully. From this movie alone, he is absolutely a talent to keep an eye out for.

There’s a lot to like about Inside Llewyn Davis; despite its murky middle, the story is bookended by a strong, fully believable view of 1960s New York, supported by a solid, starmaking performance by Mr. Isaac.

The Best Films of 2015 (So Far)

We’ve just reached the halfway point of 2015 – six months in, six months to go. I admittedly haven’t seen a ton of movies from this year (and am notably the only person on the planet who still needs to see Jurassic World), but I will definitely catch up as these films enter the home video market.

Another concession is that many of the year’s best films tend to be released over the holiday season, to optimize their chances of awards-season glory. The rankings here could vary as studios often save the best for last.

So, without further ado, here are my picks for the three best films of 2015 (so far):

  1. Inside Out. This Disney-Pixar masterpiece gets inside your head (literally) and stays in your heart. It is a dazzling visual and storytelling experience, allowing us to behold the origin of emotions, growing in complexity with the major milestones of humanity. In its parallel storylines, between the human girl Riley adjusting to life in a new town & school and the Emotions struggling to keep her afloat, we are given a spectacularly compelling and wonderfully moving perspective on what makes all of us tick. Read my full review here.
  2. Entourage. Just like the TV series before it, Entourage plays on the ultimate young Hollywood fantasy of fame, excess, and success. And just like the series, it is very “love-it-or-hate-it;” the film has received mixed to negative reviews, despite very positive word-of-mouth among audiences. Entourage not only exceeds expectations (and cleans up some messes from the series finale years earlier), but pushes the characters forward into thrilling situations further blurring the lines between fantasy and reality (you’ll get it when you see it). If you have not watched the TV series, I would not recommend this movie, but if you have – you will not be disappointed.
  3. Cinderella. In an era of revisionist/alternative fairy tales, from Once Upon a Time to Maleficent and even the film adaptation of Into the Woods, comes Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella – a faithful, earnest, straight retelling of the classic story. And it is absolutely wonderful. Even as the story is told, and we know every step of the way, we are treated to gorgeous visuals (the dress transformation scene is jaw-dropping), terrific performances from Cate Blanchett as the Stepmother and Lily James as Ella, and a soaring musical score by Patrick Doyle.

What are your favorites from this year? What are you looking forward to in the second half of 2015?