Saturday, September 10, 2016

Lucy

(Luc Besson, France/USA, 2014)

Surprisingly loopy, but the loopiness doesn't translate into much fun.   Besson's pulpy head-trip resembles nothing so much as a high-budget cell phone commercial - the sort of thing that tries, with risible earnestness, to imbue Information Technology with cosmic significance.  If advertising works by tacking cheap sentiment and banal ideas to completely unrelated consumable products, Besson's film operates in a similar fashion.  He gives us a terse, functional actioner that's tethered willy-nilly to some dizzily half-baked ideas about human potential and metaphysics. 

There's a playfulness to the film that crops up intermittently, and some of Besson's visual ideas are arresting and even beautiful, but for most of the time it's a slog.  Like so many contemporary action-adventure movies, it doesn't really trust its audience, and so must favor speed and sensation over inspiration and insight.  It's hard to tell the proportions of cynicism and ingenuousness at work here: much of the time, the fortune-cookie philosophy and pulp sci-fi seems extraneous, nearly an afterthought.  But as the film gathers momentum and the concepts spiral ever higher - as Lucy's brain capacity approaches 100%, giving her Godlike omniscience - it seems more likely that it's the pop-sci stuff that really gets Besson going, and he's using guns and sex appeal to appease the attention-deficient ticket-buyers. 

That may be Besson's method, but what's his object?  The whole "we only use 10% of our brain" notion is widely reported to be utter bunk, and even if it were true, the idea that unlocking more of our "cerebral capacity" would make us into sexy wizards seems, well, silly.   Besson can't quite decide how seriously to take his material; how far to push the kitsch, how much destruction to orchestrate, and how much gravitas to conjure, even if it's simplistic and hollow.  He's having a good time, but he's also going through the motions, offering up a tacky gloss on serious questions with a explosions to spare.  Johansson is game and works hard for the money, but her natural presence and talent can't quite rescue the film from being a trifle.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Van Gogh

(Maurice Pialat, France, 1991)

Pialat's interest in Van Gogh is neither academic nor practical; despite Pialat's own history as a painter, and his reverence for the medium, which he favored above all, even cinema, his considerations of painting itself are mostly absent from Van Gogh.  The work is not the point; Van Gogh could be a musician and the movie wouldn't be terribly different.  Van Gogh the dreamer, whose notion of beauty as a worldly miracle, and of the kind of society that might better appreciate its creation, doesn't make an appearance.  Neither does Van Gogh the lonely, spiritual pilgrim, who would with childlike naivete seek Gaugin's partnership in an arcadian painter's colony.  Pialat at times seems almost perversely self-restrained, denying his own affections in order to purge the film of sentimentality or grandiosity.  What is left is a steely, hardened look at a long-suffering man as he stumbles bitterly towards a bleak, self-inflicted end.

And yet, for all of that, the film is undeniably, irrepressibly gorgeous, and contains moments of pure joy.  Pialat shoots with a painter's eye - it has to be admitted, however cliched it might sound - and his natural feeling for emotions is breathtaking.  Still, there is a risk in the way Pialat presents his hero.  In the film, Van Gogh has the aura of a Christ about him - an enormous amount of the film's gravity is generated by Lutronc, whose weary, ironic mein speaks volumes with a single glance - and that's part of the trouble.  Lutronc and Pialat's Van Gogh is perhaps too inscrutable, too tempestuous, and yet too assured in his march to oblivion.   His suffering most often takes the form of anger, and by the end we are made to understand that while his faith in his own greatness is complete (he bitterly rebukes his brother for selling paintings by everyone but "the greatest of our time," meaning himself), it's the world's and his brother's indifference that drives him to suicide.  His fits, he also reveals, were dissimulations; he isn't truly mad but rather driven to desperate measures by neglect. (It's possible that this is a lie designed to upset Théo; in any case, its ambiguity suggests at least a canny, manipulative person, driven as much by jealousy as by mental instability.  The point here isn't to demand a more virtuous Van Gogh, but that the vision offered in the film has a strangely narrow attitude towards suffering, which can at times seem to mirror Pialat's own legendary irascibility.) His slightly stooped posture isn't due to an external burden but to an intense, dark, inwardly-focused energy, as if some essential part of him thrives off of the idiocy of the world, and revels in denying it the full glory of his genius.

Pialat's Van Gogh seems to carry the secret of his own future success, and his dyspepsia, selfishness, and sorrow at neglect can therefore have the appearance of resentment, and his recurrent hauteur the just desserts of an unheralded hero.  But Pialat is too good a storyteller to leave it at that, and so he gives us glimpses of other versions of Van Gogh: the playful Vincent, the tender Vincent, even the loyal Vincent, who is willing to sacrifice anything, it would seem, for his beloved family.  He is thus an exquisitely conflicted person, hurt and bitter, noble and kind.  Pialat's own bleak view of the human scene would be unbearable if he didn't also show us the bright side, the moments of potential goodness.  He is at his weakest when he insists upon churlish outbursts of familial recrimination; at his strongest, I think, when he looks with sudden, unearned sympathy on the limitations of enormously willful, difficult people.  Pialat adores contrariness and spite as perhaps only a Frenchman could, but his ruefulness at his own shortcomings, personally and aesthetically, lend his films a human vitality that is one of the richest treasures of cinema. 

Norman Mailer famously claimed that the one character a novelist could never successfully imagine is a writer greater than himself.  Pialat isn't a Van Gogh, in either the scope of his imagination or the obscurity of his circumstances.  He is wise enough to leave Van Gogh's genius out of the story, focusing instead on the quotidian aspects of his existence, and hoping to catch a glimpse of the genius in the margins.  At times, he does; the extended sequence in the dance-hall/brothel is a vision of explosive joy, with undercurrents of tragedy.  The borders between art and life are momentarily erased, and the ecstasy of pure, happy experience shines brightly enough to illuminate even the darkest corners of life.  It's a rare enough achievement, captured by an artist of dogged skepticism and rueful self-critique, to find a way to present us with a human being who happened to be one of the greatest painters ever to pick up a brush.



Monday, August 1, 2016

Love Streams

(John Cassavetes, USA, 1984)

Cassavetes' valedictory masterpiece, anguished and freewheeling, intensely imagined and intimately fractured.  My longtime misapprehension, formed by film-school screenings of Shadows and Faces, was to count Cassavetes as a homegrown Neorealist, when he has always been a lavish, formally daring symbolist and emotional impressionist.   The early, raw work gave way over the years to Cassavetes insatiable imagination, which combined with modest budgets produced a wholly new style.  Today, it's everywhere, so ubiquitous that it hides in plain sight, showing up in filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson, from Andrew Bujalski to Noah Baumbach.  More than mere style - although that's there, too - it's the attitude that we should recognize, the discovery of volumes of emotion in forthright deployment of the tools of cinema: a camera, a face, a line of dialogue.  Cassavetes' cinema is the cinema of independence, but as spiritual ideal more than economic reality. 

Love Streams is a culmination, embodying all of Cassavetes' personal and aesthetic concerns.  It's the tale of a triumphant survivor, made by a man who was close to dying.  As the story unfolds, Cassavetes' ruthless self-exposure and sputtering ecstasies nearly rend the film in two; but there is a serenity at the center that is as moving as it is surprising.  Rowlands is typically magnificent as the radiant, fragile Sarah Lawson, who mirrors her brother's hopelessly shambling quest for love.  As Robert Harmon, Cassavetes the man is uncomfortably present, portraying the artist as ludicrously selfish, arriving at the end of his rope and realizing that a lifetime of self-indulgence has left him with very close to nothing.  He's ill, and it shows.  And yet he's a live wire, undaunted in his pursuit of more life and more love.

There are moments along the way where I'll admit to confusion;  the blunt realism of some scenes can refract dizzily in Cassavetes' symbolic prism.  Harmon's shambolic suavity, and the ready indulgence of many of the women in his life (most of whom he pays) seem at times to reveal uncomfortable assumptions about gender relations.  His drunken, aggressive pursuit of a lounge singer ends, incredibly, with his charming the pants (almost) off the singer's mother.  This is after he has all but kidnapped her, and then cracked his head open on the sidewalk.  She takes him in; her mother nurses his wounds.

And yet none of this is portrayed as the least bit admirable or attractive; Harmon is understood from the beginning as a more-than-slightly-ridiculous character.  While his passions, and the seriousness with which he follows them, are never in doubt, he drifts through the world in a boozy, smoky haze, spouting dubious epigrams about love, women, and secrets.  His ubiquitous tuxedo becomes a kind of clown suit, tragic and idiotic at once.  Against all of this is Sarah, his other half, a wreck in her own right but also the only hope Harmon has of finding substantive love, rather than the ersatz stuff he spins to sell his books (which have apparently made him pretty rich.)

The ending sequence, which is justly celebrated as a cinematic high point, coalesces like a cracked, late-Romantic symphony, in which brief flashes of tenderness can be spotted in a sea of mania and sorrow.  Sarah, who understands and appropriately reveres love, doesn't have the emotional resources to weather its storms; Robert, learning too late the difference between pleasure and joy, scrambles to retrofit his life, but can't quite pull it off in time.  It's a bittersweet, eloquent ending to a legendary career, crafted with dedication and not a little love. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Mojave

(William Monahan, USA, 2015)

Even by its own hard-boiled, trashy standards, Mojave has very little to offer.  For all of the scenery-chewing, it doesn't feel particularly indulgent; the movie instead suffers from a thinness, a sketch-like, perfunctory effect.  Mojave is plays like an extended short, drawing a simple set-up into a feature-length thriller that simmers lazily.  Monahan's macho stylings are at least as grating as his clumsy importing of seminar-fresh lit references, all of which is designed to inform his framing of Hollywood as - yes - an intellectually vapid, morally corrupt wasteland.  There's some personal drama here, but it hovers above the action of the film, rather than generating it: Monahan's frustrations and ambivalence as a literary-minded man who has come to Hollywood to make his fortune.  The problem is that he has nothing new to offer this perennial tale; no new insights into the stew of venality, privilege, and ambition; no new consciousness of the ghosts of history that reside in the shadows, no feeling for the place or the people.  It's pure pastiche, all the way down, and the fact that some of the references are worthy enough does nothing to make up for Monahan's lack of imagination.  We've got the lithe French actress, the louche producer, the spoiled, authenticity-starved pretty boy, and a mysterious drifter-cum-serial killer (who knows his Shakespeare and his Melville.)

All of which portrays a very familiar place: the Hollywood of the half-insider.  Monahan has had as much success as any screenwriter could hope for, and, naturally, wants to expand his palette and his control beyond the necessarily limited range of his craft.  But as a director he plays things safe, trading on warmed-over tropes and spent motifs; he wants to be above the fray, but is, it would appear, afraid of losing the appeal of his "brand."  What manifests is a feeling of exhaustion and resentment, of a director who has fantasies of walking away, or even of burning bridges, but who is hamstrung by the fear of his own stranger inspirations. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

HaHaHa

(Hong Sangsoo, South Korea, 2010)

This might be the film that finally cinched my esteem for Hong's work, which I had long viewed with a quiet, bemused, and somewhat reluctant admiration.  Hong is one of the most widely celebrated international directors, the kind of filmmaker that a certain kind of cineasté knows he's supposed to like.  But my experience was one of resistance; it took patience to find an entryway into Hong's cinematic world.

Some art house films suggest their sophistication through forbidding starkness, complexity, or emotional severity.  Their difficulty serves, in part, to advertise their seriousness, the urgency of their claim upon our attention.  But Hong's work is a different, rarer case: his films present themselves not as exalted, dense, or thorny; they lack any discernible grit, formal exuberance, or commanding bleakness.  Instead, his movies appear slight, sketch-like, gnomic.  About the most you can say is that they do require careful attention, if you're going to keep track of the characters and the chronology, which are never straightforward.  And they are clearly works of formal innovation, however playful.

It's perhaps for this reason that so much of the appreciation of Hong contains a whiff of apologia, the mark of an artist who fascinates intuitively but resists exegesis.  Critics seem to sort themselves either into frothy encomiums or somewhat reserved, cool-headed appraisal, with the usual caveat that his work's greatness isn't immediately apparent.  Perhaps this polarity is of my own making, as I try to locate my own impressions somewhere in this range.  If so, it would mirror my experience thus far: periods of languor as my mind drifts during another drunken, shambling conversation, interrupted almost violently by bursts of wonder as an unexpected action, a canny re-framing, or a juxtaposition flashes brilliantly onscreen, only to fade moments later, like an afterimage.

The key is to stick with it.  Hong's work appears to be brisk and breezy, even when things get sodden with Soju.  But there is a mercurial and even a febrile imagination behind his apparently reserved camera.  Hong is a fundamentally dialectical filmmaker, perhaps the ne plus ultra of such an approach, at least among living directors.  In his work, opposites are constantly changing places with each other, the tone bounces between wildly different registers, surface becomes depth and then switches back.  The placid, apparently sturdy frame will pan gently or abruptly, and rarely with obvious cause, or will suddenly reconfigure the space with a zoom.

Hong's space isn't psychological, but emotional and existential.  Emotion, for him, precedes thought, and the human comedy is essentially that of irrationality; reason, propriety and good taste exist to be interrupted.  Chance and contingency rule his outlook, which both exults in the staggeringly many possibilities of imagination, and floats with a piercing melancholy over the randomness of life's events.  Hong's brilliance lies in his fusion of art and life, a simple and often unrealized concept.  His art is an organic extension of his feeling for life, rendered in a formal vocabulary that is wholly new. 

The apparent poverty of his means - a few actors, a cafe or a restaurant with (usually drunken) table talk, a camera on a tripod - is in fact an apposite mechanism of both expressing and containing the overwhelming complexity of life, a Proustian attention to detail that reveals great depths in glances, hesitations, and misunderstandings.

In HaHaHa, I picked up on notes of melancholy and sudden joy that had eluded my attention in earlier screenings of his films, as well as surprisingly many compositions that were easily called beautiful.  What Hong is discovering and expressing is the volume of life that goes unnoticed; the strange profusion of overlapping circumstances that nonetheless conceals so much detail.  A casual get-together among friends (this being Hong, the encounter is ruled by an almost ritualistic emphasis on drinking), where a past weekend is recounted, reveals, in its cinematic depiction, unutterable volumes of longing, regret, and frustrated desire.

The depiction is Hong's testimonial to cinematic power.  In his view, life is teeming with significance that can only be captured in retrospect or imagination - crucially, active processes, which in some sense can compensate for the in-the-moment confusion and helplessness with which we're all bitterly familiar. We are always dancing with our own fate; no awkward conversation is insignificant.  This may be the positive image of what so often feels a negative perspective in Hong's work, focusing to an obsessive degree on his male protagonists haplessness.

Because finally, beneath the bitterness and the self-excoriation, Hong is an inveterate romantic.  Desperate, perhaps, and anguished, but never entirely absent of the hope in the possibility of love to offer something beyond the shambolic day-to-day disarray of our lives.  In the last scene, we see evidence of this: one of the couples, who previously had evinced very little indication of being long-term material for love, enjoys a fleeting moment of bliss.  Whether or not this will stick is another matter, but for the moment (and Hong's world is nothing if not moment-by-moment) it would seem to suffice.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Are You Here

(Matthew Weiner, USA, 2013)

While we've seen some accomplished dabbling by feature filmmakers in the world of TV, the opposite doesn't seem to hold.  Weiner's feature debut isn't a disaster, but it teeters on the edge of disaster for much of its running time, and while it has some notable virtues, it's also exemplary of the stark differences that remain between the two mediums.

Weiner the writer, a giant of contemporary prestige television, is on display here, but his work as a director is sorely deficient.  He knows how to sketch characters efficiently, to balance character and incident, and can write zingers - funny and poignant both - with the best of them.  But despite these facilities, the film lumbers along, stiff and flat-footed.

It's an easy shot, and maybe a cheap one, to claim that this is the TV influence bleeding through, but I think it's basically accurate.  Lacking the time that TV affords to create a richly textured world, the production design and cinematography of Are You Here seem hasty and undercooked.  Everything is even and flat, as if to highlight the words and the actors - itself not a wise creative choice - but there, too, things go awry.  Weiner seems unable to hit upon an appropriate comedic tone - how broad, how subtle, does he want to play this? By the middle of the film, as the drama emerges from the frothy comedy of earlier, things have started to coalesce, finally, but not enough to rescue the experience completely.

Best then to think of this film, formally at least, as an exercise.  I would've preferred more audacity from the justly celebrated Weiner, but he does at least have a few things on his mind.  The ideas are the core of the film, even if they don't flower into a living experience: the nature and limits of friendship, the search for authenticity among the many false promises of modern living, and the necessity of awareness in a world rife with distractions.  Very often these ideas are presented blatantly, edging towards the homiletic, but Weiner is canny and skeptical enough to avoid the worst effects.

The cast is strong, but again, Weiner fumbles the potential of his material.  His plodding approach forecloses on Galifianakis's wildness, and he doesn't have the visual panache to match the micro-gradations of Owen Wilson's comic genius.  They're two very different types of performers, but thrown together in these scenes, they have trouble stretching out and letting loose.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Knuckleball!

(Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg, USA, 2012)

An enjoyable entry in what might be called the docu-curio subgenre.  Stern and Sundberg play things strictly by the book, delivering two parallel stories involving the remaining practitioners of the titular pitch, which if correctly thrown is nearly impossible to hit.  We get the requisite details and explainers: a knuckleball is thrown with the fingernails, in order to neutralize the spin that is the decisive component of virtually ever other kind of pitch, from a slider to a fastball.  Without any gyroscopic spin to guide the trajectory of the pitch, the ball is subject to whatever eddies or currents of air might exist between the mound and the catcher's glove, thus rendering it completely unpredictable, to pitcher, batter, and catcher alike.

When it works, the pitch works spectacularly well, but it can easily go wrong, leading to chronic walks or barrages of easy hits.  Thus the knuckleballer is an odd duck, unreliable and seldom utilized, a case which has only been aggravated by the contemporary game's emphasis on the supposed reliability of statistics as a guiding principle.  The directors parlay this into a tale of individual pluck and stoicism, following the two remaining pro-ball knuckleballers, R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield, as they experience professional and personal triumphs and reversals.  It's the kind of human interest story that is impossible not to find at least somewhat captivating, even if it follows along a very familiar path.  It doesn't hurt that Dickey and Wakefield both appear to be exceedingly decent and determined individuals, ambitious and humble in equal measure, conforming with striking fidelity to certain mythic American archetypes.

Besides its mythical role as "the National Sport," baseball has long been a curious attraction for folk philosophers, a relationship fruitfully explored in Chad Harbach's 2011 novel The Art of Fielding.  While I won't run through the nature of these affinities, it can be said that some nexus of cultural and metaphysical poetics exists in the sport, a game as potentially beautiful as soccer, if fundamentally different.  The directors of Knuckleball! don't really stray into these more remote expanses of the philosophical outfield, but they are aware of the heady frisson that seems to surround the sport, force field-like.  What they do explore is the role of tradition in baseball, which despite the modern innovations of a numbers-based approach, with every last attribute of play subject to statistical analysis and comparison, is still living.  Wakefield by the end of the film has retired, leaving Dickey as the sole torch-bearer, casting the future of this somewhat mad pitch into question.  Thus Dickey is possibly at the end of a long tradition of athletes, oddballs all, who have parlayed their relative lack of excellence as traditionally defined into a distinction.  The stories are strikingly similar: in nearly every case, a desire to play professional baseball at any cost led them to experiment with this iconoclastic and fickle technique.

As a celebration of the outsider, and a chronicle of determination in pursuit of an ideal, Knuckleball! is a delight, emotionally satisfying if not formally or philosophically ambitious.