Sunday, January 15, 2017

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely

(Josephine Decker, USA, 2015)

A brilliant, audacious, truly wild piece of work.  Decker is the real deal: fervidly imaginative, keenly perceptive, creatively restless and courageous.  Lovely is a work which frustrates the usual tendency to speak of coherence.  A lot is going on, as they say, but it's perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to say that the voltage of her energy, the originality of vision, outshines any temptation to question her choices.  This kind of thing can be mistaken for being easy, or worse, haphazard.  But it's so much more than a kitchen-sink capriciousness.  Instead, it's a carefully considered, deeply felt plumbing of primal energies and desires.  The evocation of a torrid, rural summer, her probing, revelatory, haptic camera, her quicksilver pursuit of light, skin, and color: it's all of a piece.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One

(Gareth Edwards, USA, 2016)

After finally seeing it, I was surprised at how harshly some critics have responded; it's a bit wan and mechanical, sure, but otherwise unobjectionable.  It appeared to me to be pretty much exactly as advertised: a brisk, sensational adventure story, told in the vernacular of the OG Star Wars world (effectively, an exact simulacrum of Lucas's original combination of throwback kitsch and '70s grit), but with a suitably "darker" tone.   At this point, there should be no kvetching about the rampant nostalgia-mongering that is the franchise's stock-in-trade.  That's at least half of what viewers are showing up for, myself included, although I will say that my own case is one of mild curiosity rather than devotional zeal; different strokes, etc.  The other half is a passably diverting, engrossing - pick your adjective of lukewarm enthusiasm - tale of derring-do.

And on both counts, Rogue One delivers.  It's all a bit processed, yes, and the near-constant winking at the fans, from the casual to the ultra-hardcore (I can only imagine the volume of tics and references that I didn't pick up on, and I'm someone who put some serious wear on my A New Hope VHS as a youngster) can get a bit wearying, but it moves - it has the giddy momentum that its rather thin story requires, with just enough human drama to save it from inconsequence.  There's nothing particularly notable about the film's visuals, but they are effective enough - moody when they need to be, and even exhilarating at other moments (particularly in space, during the final battle, which conjures fantastic scale and motion with aplomb, and the arrival of Darth Vader on the Rebel ship, a brief but thrilling sequence of furious destruction.  It's better than anything Lucas choreographed in his goofy prequels, and even better than the light-saber battles in The Force Awakens.)

As for the stories of extensive re-writes and re-shoots, calling at least some of Edwards' authorship into question - we're talking, again, about a highly processed, rigorously committee'd, enormously expensive work of corporate entertainment.  I'm willing, in cases such as these, to enjoy the sausage, which would seem to require a certain indifference to how it's made, and of what.  What's strange is the cavils that this film has prompted, when so many other Kraft-cheese extravaganzas of recent vintage are done with far less wit and verve.  For all of its shortcomings, Rogue One manages to be effective without the mind-numbing overkill that tends to mar so many contemporary megabucks spectacles.  And the cast is uniformly great - confined, but excellent, with special mention going to Forest Whittaker and Ben Mendelsson, two giants who radiate intensity that can match, and even surpass, the CGI explosions.

PS - there are, I think, ethical questions that ought to be addressed about the digital reanimation of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher.  I found it creepy and distracting, a point at which the pull of nostalgia and the embrace of kitsch went alarmingly full-blown.  But that's a matter for another day.

Monday, December 12, 2016


(Ryan Coogler, USA, 2015)

A gloriously inventive re-interpretation of the Rocky story, both a loving tribute and a daring break in new directions.  Coogler makes no attempt to hide his exaltation of the original film, but does justice to his own imaginative impulses.  It's a tender work and an exhilarating one, with an astonishing breadth of experience and maturity.  We feel Rocky's broken down and faded glory, his exhaustion and regret, and his increasing proximity to mortality.  Stallone, an excellent actor who has often been underserved by the industry and his own choices, has rarely been better.  We also feel the exuberance and the anger of young Adonis Creed, played with incandescent energy and wit by Michael B. Jordan, as he struggles against the burden of legacy and the precariousness of ambition.

The film gets off to a tentative start, with some slightly clunky gestures, but it quickly finds its footing and momentum.  By the time we've reached the end, we've seen the delights of Coogler's mercurial imagination, both as a storyteller and as a creator of images.  Rarely have the pitfalls of franchise-making and the familiar territory of personal triumph been so brilliantly and refreshingly navigated. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016


(Clint Eastwood, USA, 2016)

While I remain unconvinced that Eastwood's body of work as a filmmaker constitutes a truly exceptional artistic vision, I find myself increasingly inclined to give him more credit, particularly after seeing Sully.  It's a nearly perfect film, transcending Eastwood's expected proficiency and presenting a striking moral vision, a depiction of heroism as humanism, and vice-versa.  The film is compact, streamlined, and yet it never feels rushed or reduced.  The details feel uniformly correct; the performances are nuanced and un-showy.  Sully succeeds as a work of organic unity, a finely tuned orchestration of emotions, moving the insistent beat of an idea.  From Eastwood on down - including Hanks, at the absolute top of his game, exuding decency and harrowing strain - everyone is doing their part to honor the miraculous events, without undue fuss or embellishment.  The wholeness of the work, its focus and its awed calm, creates an almost ecstatic effect; for me the experience was unaccountably moving.

But not entirely unaccountably so.  To account, then: Eastwood deliberately depicts Sully as the real man apparently wishes to be perceived; as a consummate professional, heroic only by circumstances, and if so, only one hero of many.  His flight crew becomes, in a moment of potentially terrible fate, a crack team of life-savers.  Ditto the passengers, who help each other through the ordeal in relative calm and orderliness.  Ditto also all of those who rushed to assist, from the ferry captains to the first responders.  The film at its finest is a tale of people at their finest; not as paragons but as human beings, moral agents in a chaotic and unfathomable universe, where the mundane can very quickly transform into the horrific, or the miraculous.  It also pays tribute to the universal need for narratives, to the very human requirement for a valuation of the human, particularly in an age of fantastically complex and powerful machines.  Sully is a hero because he needed to be one - first to land the plane, and then to serve as the receptacle of people's highest aspirations.  And to weather both the real events and the subsequent lionization with something like grace.

The one flaw, and a sign of Eastwood's own political baggage, has to do with the depiction of the federal committee that is convened to determine whether the "miraculous" landing was in fact caused by a pilot error, and that he would've been better off taking the plane back to La Guardia or Teterboro airport in New Jersey.  The committee is shown from the outset as being hostile, arrogant bureaucrats, only slightly restrained in their condescension to Sully and in their preference for computer simulation over actual events.  In the climatic final scene, it's even suggested that they were guilty of a kind of deck-stacking, concealing vital details from Sully and the proceedings, in order to bolster their version of events.  In a film that goes out of its way to respect everyone involved, this is an unfortunate lapse into caricature. What would it have cost the narrative to show the committee members as similarly professional, rather than craven and scheming?  In fact, it would have strengthened an already formidable film, further harmonizing with the overall theme.

But the film is predominantly magnanimous, and it's to Eastwood's credit that he consistently favors subtlety over simplification.  On a metafilmic note, it was also immensely satisfying to experience the delicious thrill of suspense without a resort to the kind of ludicrous bombast that has come to pass for "action."  Even knowing, as we all do, of the safe delivery of every soul on board, it was a heartening reaffirmation of the power of visual storytelling in building dramatic tension - and with such deceptively simple means.  Here again, my hat is off to Eastwood.  That the film was so popular only belies the usual nonsense about the death of cinema, or the general dullness of the audience.  People do want to see, and to experience, and they'll consume quality if it's delivered.

How can we compare this, then, to 2014's American Sniper?  What can account for Sully's steely excellence and Sniper's gauzy imprecision?  A director's main job is the creation of a world, and Eastwood's career has been marked, especially lately, with a preference for real-world stories.  He's a filmmaker of immense moral seriousness, and for someone so inclined, moralism becomes an occupational hazard.  Sniper's flaw was in its inability to grapple with the actual cirtumstances of Chris Kyle's life and death, which included the criminality of the Iraq War.  His depiction of Kyle was nuanced, but it was hemmed in by the tale of heroism that Eastwood's own sensibility seemed to require.  There's a limit to the heroic ideal that Eastwood so admires; a certain flattening of vision, a willingness to see the world in binaries of strength and weakness, virtue and vice.  At his best, as in Sully, the ideal is given contour and depth through the diffusion of heroism into a collective enterprise, and a moment of serendipity that becomes re-interpreted as brilliance.  At his worst, it becomes a prerogative for narrowness.  In American Sniper, the victims are absent, and the cost of war is internalized as a test of manhood.  In Sully, we are moved by the fact that we are all potential victims, by the human frailty is that is ever-present, even in Sully at his finest. 

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Magnificent Ambersons

(Orson Welles, USA, 1942)

Welles' second filmed masterpiece, of the several he would make throughout his life, is as absorbing as it is expressionistically lush.  Ambersons is surprisingly affecting, especially considering its focus is the downfall of a not-especially sympathetic American family.  It was Welles' precocious genius that recognized The Ambersons as avatars of a peculiarly American brand of folly, based around aristocratic pretensions that were swallowed by the great American cult of Progress.  As a culture with a profound and dangerous allergy to historical perspective, we seem immune from tragedy.  The tragic requires an adequate reckoning with what is lost over time, and we tend not to count our losses or notice time passing.  But our best artists have always told us (not that we listen) that there are tragedies everywhere, and the greatest of all, as chronicled in Ambersons, is our blindness to them.

Welles was a radically omnivorous artist.  Every film was a fork in his creative path, promising new heights that remained unrealized until years or decades later.  He was ahead of his time (and still is, in many ways), but he was also often ahead of himself.  What was gleefully heterogeneous - the famous toy train set - in Kane is compressed and refined in Ambersons.  The film plays like an expressionistic dream of a chamber drama, full of cavernous spaces and stark shadow.  Like all of Welles' work, it also bubbles with life; boisterous humor, cutting satire, intimations of mortal terror. 

What was he after, when all is said and done?  His famously eclectic appetite, which ran the gamut from high to low, won't give us much of a hint.  There was something haunted about Welles, something fractured.  He seemed to have seen the world as a trap, and to have spent his life devising escape mechanisms, the most powerful of which required the apparatus of cinema.  His appraisal of worldly beauty and possibility - and he was notoriously indulgent of these properties - is everywhere tinged with a skepticism, almost a repulsion.  Even as an old man, creaky and overblown, he seemed to be the scared, clever boy, running from nightmares.

Ambersons is affecting because we can recognize our own sentimentality in that of the Amberson family, and in that of Welles.  We too have precious hopes and memories, and imagine that there exists some way of protecting them from time.  Welles knows better, but he also knows that time is its own kind of illusion.  He was quite a bit like Houdini, the magician who knows that his tricks are all fake, but who yearns for some real magic, some undiscovered reality behind the illusion.  In The Magnificent Ambersons, we're liable to yearn along with him, and perhaps believe.


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Every Man for Himself

(Jean-Luc Godard, France/Austria/West Germany/Switzerland, 1980)

Godard's "second first film," and it lives up to the title.  Godard's method has shifted over the course of his career, straying further away from - or tunneling through -  diagetic "story," an internal reality that is transmitted (or, more romantically, "expressed") through the medium, and drifting towards an increasingly rigorous investigation of the medium itself.  Of course, he's had these impulses from the start; Breathless is not as different, when it comes down to the instincts and preoccupations of its director, from the later works as critics often suggest.  Godard is a process man.  His work has remained incandescently vital because it's always engaged, always moving forward, always finding new ways to grapple with creative problems that very few other cinematic artists even bothered to notice.  And he is the least theoretical of artists, whatever his statements and reputation might suggest - everything is a matter of practice, of trial and error, of an approach being worked out on the wing. The radical reflexivity of this approach - every cut, every juxtaposition a node of inquiry - counts for a great deal of what makes him so unique.  In the essay reproduced for the Criterion collection's booklet, by Amy Taubin, she claims that "he is basically a classicist with powerful adversarial instincts." This might be true; Godard's project has long seemed to me, at least in part, to transcend the apparent juncture that separates Classical and Modern.  His view of aesthetic history - history writ large, really - is capacious and eclectic, and despite the dense allusiveness and occasional bitterness, his resolutely refined treatment of images and sound - always with an indefatigable eye for beauty, beauty! - is never deserving of the "post" appellation that's been roughly applied to -modern.

No Godard film can be viewed with even a moment's passivity; his challenge to viewers to pay close attention, think for themselves, embark on a project of criticism even as one watches the film is one of the traits that makes him, to my mind, resolutely Modern.  This is also what makes much of the work, particularly the later work, so bewildering on a first viewing.  The Criterion package, with an ample helping of supplemental interviews and commentaries, goes a long way in helping the viewer wrap their mind around the work.  Godard's long sojourn in the wilderness of 16mm and video, almost all of it produced for TV, had seen a sea-change in his approach.  It was further abetted by his partnership, creative and personal, with Anne-Marie MiĆ©ville, with whom he's continued to work and live ever since.   His excitement at returning to feature films, and 35mm, is palpable from the first shot - one of Godard's glorious skyscapes, a slow pan across the cloud-dappled blue of, one imagines, his homeland of Switzerland.   This sense of exuberance never diminishes entirely, but it quickly complicated by a ruefulness and an asperity that borders on cynicism. 

Godard claimed to have identified more with the two female protagonists - a journalist/artist played by Nathalie Baye, and a prostitute played by Isabelle Huppert - than with Jacques Dutronc's Paul Godard, whose name is only one of many similarities to the actual director.  Godard the character is that particularly French kind of nihilistic crank, incapable of having an interaction that doesn't involve obscenity or actual violence, whereas the women, although both of them suffer, have purpose and direction in their lives.  The title can be seen as a commentary on both the challenge and the opportunity of late-capitalist individualism, to which Paul Godard has responded with bitterness, and the female characters with determination, even pluck. 

Throughout, Godard employs techniques - some familiar, some novel - that disrupt and refocus our attention.  His use of stop-motion is particularly effective, if initially mysterious.  It always seems to return to seeing. Godard wants desperately to see, his faith in the reproduced image, while not without anguish, is enduring.  The question is how far we're meant to look - at these "characters," or at their images, at the ideas they represent, at ourselves?  The answer is probably something like all at once.  But to keep in mind Godard's classicism is a helpful guide.  He's a humanist, finally, a child of the Enlightenment.  He wants us to see the human, and his techniques, however jarring they might appear, are not to obscure or confuse, but to clarify.  In a world of cinema, the image must be considered; to make images without reflection, without a sense of deep responsibility, is for Godard a cardinal sin. 

The tenor of the film tilts towards stoicism.  In a world depraved by capitalism, the charge to persist is all the more urgent.  Paul Godard, imprisoned by his own despair, falls back on impulses, fleeting gratifications.  Huppert's Isabelle has no such luxury, and has hardened into an unperturbed shell of remoteness.  Baye's Denise, free and in motion, is moving forward, even if the direction is unclear.  Even in the absurdist sex games Isabelle is forced to play - a mechanical and thoroughly un-erotic orchestration by a piggish businessman, she retains an inner calm, and is framed by a still-life worthy vase of flowers.  The mechanical and the organic, so often opposed, can perhaps be resolved with cinema.  That, at least, seemed to be Godard's hope, undiminished as he entered a new phase in his career. 

Monday, November 7, 2016

Black Mass

(Scott Cooper, USA, 2015)

A strange agglomeration of gangster movie tropes, with a few novel ingredients but little else to recommend it.  Depp is excellent, reminding us of his range and his potential for disciplined, uncanny performances.  Here, he simmers, projecting creepy depths of evil and ambition.  His makeover - hair, skin, eyes, nose, teeth - approaches the excessive, but his skill, his sheer presence, makes it work for him, instead of the other way around.  Unfortunately, he's mostly acting in a vacuum.  The other performers can't match his magnetism or his intensity, and neither can the film itself.  Cooper seems unable to make up his mind - are we meant to empathize with Bulger, or at least to understand that some of his ruthlessness came from life reversals, like the deaths of his son and mother?  These brief interludes into what might be called the "human" side of Bulger don't do much to diminish the impact of his killings, his thuggery, his naked opportunism and apparent lack of scruple. 

It's in these scenes of violence and scheming that the movie really comes alive, so it's all the more disappointing that they often feel secondhand.  We are treated to generous helpings of warmed-over Scorsese, a dash or two of Coppola, a smidgen of Friedken.  We see people dispatched with chilly efficiency, stacks of money piling up, swaggering (if lumpish) gangsters, while a driving, period-accurate song plays on the soundtrack.  These little jolts of adrenaline easily overpower the more brooding moments, when Cooper halfheartedly examines the nexus of tribalism, criminality, and politics that make South Boston an enduring source of American mythology.

Of course, it's all based on a true story, as they say, and it's in this dimension that Black Mass reaches its most interesting state.  The fact that the Bulger brothers could have attained such prominence in their respective fields - crime and government - and that Bulger operated with virtual impunity for so long, create a kind of astonishment that is only sustained by virtue of its being true.  Tonally, the astonishment works better, jibing with the familiar thrills of the gangster picture.  But when it changes, abruptly and unevenly, into ruefulness, it quickly loses interest.  John Connolly, played with gusto by Joel Edgarton, is portrayed as a tragic figure, undone by a mixture of loyalty, ambition, and moral blindness.  But even if his story were better told, he'd still be a shortsighted schmuck.  Transfixed by the sheer unlikliness of the story's events, the filmmakers forget to tell a story.  Beyond the headlines, paradoxically, there isn't anything there.  Bulger was a clever thug, who, with some good luck, became a kingpin.  But he's a sociopath, through and through, a blank void.  Scary, but shallow.  The characters who become ensnared in his web of manipulation seem to be hapless unfortunates.  There is a tremendous amount of material that could've been explored, but Cooper didn't know where to look.  Instead, he goes through the motions of the gangster biopic with a professional but hollow studiousness.