Sunday, December 28, 2014

To Be Or Not To Be

(Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1942)

Criminally late to the party on this masterpiece of cinema; what more can I say?  Stylish, sexy, deliriously funny, suspenseful, and yet it somehow never loses sight of the darkness that shrouds its subject matter.  How Lubitsch managed to balance all of these elements, to be both irreverently funny and politically (not to mention psychologically) acute is a wonder that I'm perfectly content just to marvel at.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Inherent Vice

(Paul Thomas Anderson, USA, 2014)

It's true:  Anderson doing Pynchon doing oddball late-sixties stoner gumshoe picaresque has a sort of groovy ring to it.  But after all of the smoked numbers and frolics and gags, one can't help but wake up, hungover and funky-smelling, and ask of their inner square:  Does it work?  In parts, yes, absolutely.  Inherent Vice has stretches of bravura cinema, captured in grainy glory on bonafide celluloid.  The extemporaneous, the whimsical, the gorgeously far-out are all there to be dug.  And yet there were moments when it lags; it has that same creeping sense of latency, of unused space, that has afflicted his work since TWBB.  But it casts a spell, it has a presence, indeed a very strange one; it is almost-just-about-there.  At the theater (a lucky last-minute coup of free tickets to a press screening) I was forced to sit in front row, enveloped in the screen, my neck craned back the whole time.  The frequent close-ups of faces took on an Easter Island aspect.  Not an inappropriate way to view this movie, all in all, but the distortion eventually became wearisome, and prevented a better appreciation.  I'm eager to see it again.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Story of My Death

(Albert Serra, Spain, 2014)

My first Serra, and it was a pleasure and an inspiration.  I like his sly, playful, yet grounded and poetic use of ideas and the permutations of those ideas, principally: the transition from the bright, rational Enlightenment into the crepuscular Romantic sensibility, the immemorial binaries (dialectics, if you're of that persuasion) of freedom and power, sex and violence, knowledge and innocence.  A major theme - perhaps THE major organizing theme, if the film actually has one at all - is that of transformation: scientific, aesthetic, mystical, metaphysical.  Grapes become wine.  Food becomes shit.  Shit becomes gold.  Life turns to literature, and to death, which is then renewed as new life, perhaps a supernatural one at that.  Even vanquished, Casanova lives!

Less commented upon, among the notices I've read, is how beautiful Serra manages to make his digitally captured images; he adroitly adheres to the wisdom of digital-as-digital, rather than the awful fallacy of digital-as-film, and in doing so joins (for me) the ranks of filmmakers doing exciting things with this (relatively) new and quirky medium - David Lynch, Jia Zhangke, Alain Resnais, JLG, etc.  In Story, Serra truly paints with the flat, slightly murky images, and produces something that reaches heights that are transcendently beautiful, diaphanous, oneiric.  His film is far more poetic, intuitive, and sensual than the occasional flirtations with formalism have led some critics to believe and allege.  And the soundtrack is another tour-de-force, with the basso profundo horns and drums that accompany the views of Dracula's castle prompting the most authentic shivers of fright and delight I've had in a theater since as long as I can recall.

All in all, a masterwork, with new dimensions to be divined, and new possibilities portended for the medium.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


(Bennet Miller, USA, 2014)

I was left with the phrase "senseless tragedy" buzzing in my head.  There is no faulting Bennet Miller's craft, and his actors are spectacular - Tatum is all repressed fury and sorrow, Ruffalo exudes his usual decency and intelligence, and Carrel ought to enter the annals of great portrayals of monsters in cinema, but the story offers little besides residual sadness.  In reflection, its biggest flaw seems to be in the character of du Pont.  This is no fault of Carrel's, who commits himself totally to a full-on impersonation of the sad, eventually deranged man.  Although it's clear that the filmmakers want du Pont to be a classically drawn character - with three dimensions, a history, and thus worthy of empathy - they cannot find a perspective on him other than a kind of bewildered pity.  He is doomed from the outset by his privilege and his remote, domineering mother, and so has become an overgrown adolescent: socially inept, entitled, desperately lonely.  His eventual schizophrenia is only hinted at, and the story, bowing to the crushing demands of its classical structure, becomes one of thwarted love.  We're meant to see that du Pont had something of a crush on Mark - perhaps romantic, perhaps sexual, perhaps merely the desperate seeking of companionship and validation; but it offers us no way in to this doomed attraction, since it's clear from the start that du Pont is terminally clueless in the world of human affairs.  We feel sorry for him, and we feel even more sorry for Dave Schultz when he's pointlessly murdered by du Pont, but the effect is the same as if Shultz had been hit by a bus; it comes out of nowhere, despite the story's endeavoring to make it otherwise.  We're left where we started, in Miller's oppressively somber winter of discontent: an America of fatherless boys and mad misfits, hopelessly grasping for some semblance of identity. 

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Stranger by the Lake

(Alain Guiraudie, France, 2013)

A compressed, elegant thriller that upon close inspection discloses subtle layers, like a polished sedimentary rock.  The uppermost layer is that of a sexual thriller, and at this it works marvelously.  Tense as hell, edited with Hitchcockian precision.  Beneath this is an incisive commentary on sociopolitical themes: queer life, the legacy of bigotry and persecution, the pressure-cooker that makes for a subculture that is both dangerous and honest, a haven and a prison, a paradise and a wasteland.  The are moments of erotic straightforwardness and erotic bliss that are, I think, designed with gorgeous sincerity, purely celebratory in nature.  The lake and it's environs as a kind of Arcadian wonderland of male homosexual desire, playful, open, free of shame or fear.  This is the film at its most happily meditative, smitten with the natural beauty of lakes, rocks, trees, and naked male bodies. 

But boundaries are doomed to be porous.  The outer world cannot be kept at bay forever, and the inner world, with its snarls of conflicting impulses, will out.  Love becomes possessive.  Desire clouds judgement.  Solidarity only goes so far; here, by this lake, it is repeatedly trumped by lust, and also by fear - fear of too much visibility, fear of rejection, but strangely, very little fear of death.  Not many critics seem to have noted that the action of the film (pun intended) is darkened by the long shadow of the AIDS crisis, itself a byproduct of social neglect, fear, and hatred.  Michel, then, besides being a statuesque god of sex, is also an avatar of the danger inherent to gay sex of a certain era; the threat that any unknown partner could carry a death sentence.  We see hints of this - a squabbling over the lack of protection (Franck is blithely unconcerned with wearing a rubber, but one of his partners is more circumspect), the indeterminate time period (although likely contemporary, there are no specific markers of when or where this is taking place), and the preference for giddy barebacking shared by Michel and Franck.  We're at least partly removed from the height of the crisis, but the acts of forgetting and remembering are subject to human capacities and priorities, which are shown here to be slippery at best. 

Finally, this symbolic dimension connects us to the old imponderables - the proximity of sex and danger, the power plays that cannot be fully purged from intercourse, the existential quandaries posed by our basic needs and our better judgement.  Sex as holy rapture, sex as one-way ticket to hell, sex as haunted always by death.  Nature giggles at our binaries and our boundaries - straight or gay, naughty or nice.  Desire is as undeniable and inarticulate as a tree (or, as Giraudie is eager to remind us, as an erect penis.) We can play at being naturists, but in the wild, we are never far from peril.  Nobody knows what monsters lurk in the lake, or what secrets a stranger holds, which may be exactly what turns us on.  On a strange lake, or in a strange forest, among strangers, we're all cruising. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Neon Bible

(Terrence Davies, UK, 1995)

Streamed via Amazon Instant Video, and the quality was abominable: Lo-res and chopped on either side of the frame.  Still, Davies' images astound.  He works very much at his own tempo, and the film sometimes gets tripped up, but when he's in the groove, it's a masterpiece of poetic cinema.  Painterly, yesofcourse.  The film abounds with perfectly apposite frames for the world he depicts: a hothouse of desire and yearning under the sway of repressive, dogmatic powers.  Davies channels the American South beautifully, hauntingly, proving himself an apt student of Williams, O'Neill, Faulkner, O'Connor, and (of course) Toole: a place of overabundant fertility, almost seethingly erotic, strange, gloriously weird, but which, perhaps by virtue of these same qualities, attracts such vicious hatred and fear that it seems always to be under the shadow of tragedy. 

We see this in his portraits and still-lives.  But there are no truly static scenes; everything in the film seems to breathe, rising and falling almost imperceptibly, as we're borne back into the past through a string of vignettes.  There is plenty of camera movement, too; the frame moves up, down, over, sideways - never ostentatiously - to depict not just physical but emotional movement, and movement through time.  It's a montage of his own, abounding with possibilities.  And all the while there is sound - crickets at night, the creaking a screen door, branches tapping at the window in a storm, and music, music, music.  Davies works in the dream-mode most prominently; he has mastered his own cinema as a vehicle of memory, dream, and interior experience, both musical and literary, both historical and intimate.  Despite the occasionally clashing notes (certain performances don't fit into his staging, which requires a kind of theatrical brilliance and stillness that is exceedingly difficult to capture on film, and the final, desultory burst of violence) it is a film, and a style, to be reckoned with and rejoiced for.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Recently Viewed

La Bête Humaine - (Jean Renoir, France, 1938)

More catching up with Papa Renoir.  A striking, powerful variation on several noir themes (the femme fatale, the twinning of adultery and murder, and more broadly, sex and violence, skepticism if not dread of modernity and industrialization, etc.) Elegant, yet simmering with appropriately animalistic menace.  The scene in which Jean Gabin's Jacques encounters Blanchette Brunoy's Flore, after she has just shoved an ogling farmboy into the river, is mastery exemplified.   The scene starts out bucolic, with a healthy dash of pastoral eroticism, and then moves into surprisingly dark, violent territory, as Jacques, seized with a mysterious "fit" that seems to fuse lust and murderous aggression, nearly strangles the young woman, only stopping when he's brought to his senses by the rush of the oncoming train, which passes by only feet away from where he is attacking Flore.  Jacques as the tragedy of modern man: alienated from humanity, he retreats to the impersonal din and granduer of industry.  His love for trains as a way to bind his murderous energies to something that can resist or subsume them.   Also contains some of Renoir's incisive commentary on social mores, and some fantastic views of the Gare St. Lazare, including one that could be Manet's view from his studio at the time of his painting Le Chemin de Fer. 

Bob le Flambeur - (Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1956)

Delicious stuff.  Perfectly atmospheric, combining postwar anxieties and nostalgia with crackerjack plotting and swift, sharp characterizations.  Breezy fun that still has serious heft.  Glad I finally caught this classic.  The introduction, from the gritty streets of Montmarte at dawn, to the introduction to Bob, as panache personified, even sleep-deprived in his seedy, checkered lair of iniquity, is simply sublime. 

Monsieur Verdoux - (Charlie Chaplin, USA, 1947)

Chaplin can do no wrong.  Hilarious, deft, his performance as dextrous as his handling of the story, which manages to remain piquant despite its sordid subject matter, until Chaplin reveals his political hand, at which point, the mood gets surprisingly grave, and we find ourselves in an odd parable about human depravity.  While the concluding portion of the film could be critiqued for being heavy-handed, it's elevated by the brilliant nuance Chaplin brings to his portrayal of Verdoux, who, despite being a wholly self-righteous serial killer, seems also to be one of the few civilized men left in Europe.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gone Girl

(David Fincher, USA, 2014)

A marvelously nasty piece of work.  It flirts shamelessly with pulpy nihilism but is ultimately much too fun to be bleak.  As for its treatment of male-female relationships, it's neither insightful nor shocking, mostly because its analytical interests lie elsewhere.  First and foremost, Fincher's latest is a thriller.  And it delivers thrills and chills aplenty; I can't remember the last time I was so deeply engrossed in the plot of a film, practically squirming in anticipation of the next beat, no matter how silly or bizarre it might be.  In the grand tradition of Hitchcock, Fincher not only dispenses with plausibility but actively ridicules those who would seek it.  Gone Girl is, at its most sociological, a dark mirror reflecting a culture that is so awash in superficiality that it no longer cares if the lies its being fed are persuasive.

We shouldn't make too much of this, though.  Although Gone Girl has some acute observations about life and love in 2014 Amerika, they exist mostly in the background of the action, which is both insane and compulsively watchable.   The most trenchant stuff lies on the margins, like the haunting scene where the cops descend into the Stygian remains of what appears to be a shopping center. Occasional glimpses of this blight intrude on the green-lawned development of McMansions where Nick and Amy live.  This is one of the best jokes of the film; for Nick and Amy, the worst crisis in their life is losing their brownstone and gaining a massive, airy house in a quiet suburb.  What used to be a prototype for the American dream has become, for these two self-involved drips, slumming it.  Far more extreme suffering exists all around them, but it barely intrudes on their consciousness.  Nick is vaguely aware that there is a "homeless problem," apparently because some of the untouchables have been appearing in their manicured neighborhood.  Maybe one of these specters made off with Amy.  That's the best explanation he has for her disappearance, until he realizes that it was an inside job.

All of Fincher's films are essentially whodunits; they are powered by the insatiable urge to know what happened.  This desire is fixedly rearward-facing; although there are some striking affinities between Finch and Hitch, the latter's great subject was knowing what was going on in the present tense, expressed with the doubt and paranoia of encroaching madness, whereas the former is concerned with the limning of the past.  Benjamin Button, his most emotionally naked and personal film, attempts to answer this by reversing the flow of time.  It is a fairy-tale for grownups, a touchingly straightforward bromide about how life isn't erased by death, not completely; that it slides often and easily into stuttering sentimentality is why it's affecting.

Time, the greatest and most diligent of serial killers, was Zodiac's principal subject.  Even the most heinous crimes are eventually forgotten.  What could be more terrifying?  

Gone Girl is Fincher's take on the revenge plot.  Never has his sympathy for deviance and deviousness been more eager and obvious.  Fincher is a cynic, but he is blissfully ignorant of tragedy.  For him, shit happens, occasionally horrible shit, but there is nothing cosmic about it.  What he admires most is mastery.  For Hitchcock, the human tale was essentially a tragedy - humans, mostly men, being undone by the intensity and the persistence of their obsessions.  His heroes are bunglers, fools, fatuous imposters, who move forward (which they learn eventually is actually an inbent spiral) only through flailing doggedness.  Fincher, himself possessing a razor-sharp wit and a fine sense of humor, sees a silver lining: through mastery, one can resist, if not avoid, the depredations of the world.  There is little doubt that Amy is the hero of Gone Girl.  She might be psychotic, but she gets things done, and for Fincher, there is no greater virtue. Like Nick, we can't help but feel a certain grudging admiration for her resourcefulness, her doggedness, even if she is thoroughly immoral.

Like Hitchcock, Fincher delights in goosing his audience, playing to their fears and desires.  He loves nasty fun, but he isn't a scold.  There's a dozen instances in Gone Girl that seem designed deliberately to dare the prigs in the audience to reject the film.  If you can't take a joke, Fincher seems to believe, that's your problem.  He isn't interested in lecturing, or in being responsible.  He does what the various demagogues in his film do not; he leaves the moral judgements to us, the audience.  To make moral judgements, we first have to decide how seriously we're meant to take any of the action.  This is also, thankfully, our problem.  I don't know how seriously to take it, but if anything, I am amazed that he is able to tweak the ambiguity so exquisitely.  From scene to scene, tone to tone, there is no solid ground to stand on.  It's a virtuosic performance of directorial craft. 

Despite that, Gone Girl has some gaps in its excellence.  The performances vary in quality; Affleck is very solid in some scenes, but elsewhere seems unfocused.  Especially in the beginning, he is so sapped of vitality that it seems like the actor or the character is stoned on muscle relaxants. Rosamund Pike fairs better; there are flashes of otherworldly brilliance in some of her scenes, but also some odd flatness, perhaps the fault of the script, which, while structurally excellent, falters on character and dialogue, betraying the pop-thriller fare that is the source material.  Tyler Perry is consistently excellent, as is the great Kim Dickens, and Carrie Coon, as Nick's twin sister, is a revelation in a difficult and somewhat thankless role.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


(Jeff Nichols, USA, 2013)

While not without it's flaws, and acknowledging that some of its flaws are significant, Nichols' third and most ambitious feature is a remarkably, even astonishingly accomplished.   My sense is that a lot of critics missed a big chunk of what Nichols was going for (although Denby, for once, was right on the money), mistakenly believing that Mud was meant to be a straightforward coming-of-age story, a polished but convention-bound work of classical naturalism.  But, like his two previous features, Nichols has much more than formal mastery on his mind.  As far as that mastery goes, however, it's worth mentioning that Nichols deserves to be recognized as among the very best directors working today.  He's a savant with actors, and his visual sensibility, his razor-sharp instincts for tone, pace, suspense, are nearly unparalleled; there aren't many American peers that come to mind (David Fincher and Alexander Payne pop up, which is mighty good company).  Nichols is also a screenwriter par excellence, evincing a flawless ear for dialogue (particularly that of his chosen milieu of the hardscrabble, deteriorating South) and a supple, intuitive way with characters.

First, to note what doesn't work: the film tries to do too much.  It attempts to be both humble and grandiose; both a gritty, "authentic" work of regional indie cinema, and a nearly mythic rendering of certain American tropes, crafted with the seamless proficiency of the Classical Hollywood but displaying the naturalism and self-conscious lyricism of 70s Independent cinema.  All of these ingredients make for a heady brew, and at times, several of them clash.  There are moments of quiet, visual beauty that approach Malick-level grace, but they make the more familiar deployment of story information feel rote.  The disconnect between relative unknowns and the high-wattage movie stars is present, although Nichols manages to harness this as an expression of the story's mythic undertones.  McCaughnnehy (who is excellent, here, with the right mixture of bronzed charisma and boyish naivete) and Witherspoon belong to a different world, but this makes sense within the world of Mud.  After all, these people are fantasy characters, idealized projections of Ellis's adolescent psyche.  The world of this movie, like a fairy tale, is an in-between world, a river world; boundaries are fluid, and there are appearances and disappearances that can't be explained.  When the bad guys come to town, with their shiny cars and their odd, sinister prayer circle, Nichols doesn't worry himself with trying to convince us that any of this would, or could, really happen, even in the funky deep South. 

Despite all of this, and the way the film skirts mawkishness in its portrayal of Ellis as an idealistic romantic, there is a surfeit of wonders to be found.  Like many a great artist, Nichols understands that the big picture comes alive only when it's made up of a miniature universe of precise details, and his attention to those details can only be called loving.  This is bighearted, sincere cinema, and whatever missteps Nichols makes in realizing his grand canvas are more than redeemed by his successes.  While it doesn't have all the trimmings of radical cinema, it it's own quiet way, Mud is indeed testing the boundaries of cinema.  How much myth can an ostensibly realistic piece of storytelling contain, especially in these bleak, rationalist days?  In literature, the fabulist strains magical realism gave way to postmodernism, and mercurial inventiveness was replaced with paranoid fantasy and ironic posing.  Nichols' cinema has an element of the enduring structures of fables and myths, which cinema never really gave up, although it's lately been under-utilized.  This strength, which is as contemporary as anything, and perhaps more deeply needed than we might be comfortable admitting, combined with his considerable instinct for naturalism, portends very exciting things for the future.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Summer's Tale

(Eric Rohmer, France, 1996)

I feel a personal affinity to the work of Rohmer's that I've seen.  Not that I'm entirely comfortable with this affinity; there's a lot in these movies, and particularly about his male characters, that's quite clearly unlikable.  But like this film's protagonist, the taciturn, boyish Gaspard, I find myself often running aground on the shoals of indecision, alternately idealistic and cynical, and befuddled by love, or lack thereof.  Perhaps that's an unfair assessment, both of myself and of Gaspard, who can't seem appreciate the fact that his biggest problem is choosing between three vivacious and beautiful young women, all of whom are into him in one way or another.

The stark, rhythmic nature of Rohmer's style always strikes me as a master class in precision and restraint.  His frames are as elegant as they are canny, and become strikingly expressive with the smallest movements and juxtapositions - they both highlight the work of his excellent actors and underline his personal perspective.  It's possible to see Rohmer as a kind of buttoned-down, classical New Wave master, in that his treatment of sex is predominantly inferred and often symbolic.  And he is classical, easily the most classical of the New Wave, by interest and by temperament.  But the work is never prudish or convention-bound, even if it's never explicit.  Rather, sex is the engine of Rohmer's imagination, and his careful way with cinema can be surprisingly, torridly erotic, even if it does so through omission and implication.

A Summer's Tale works well as the story of a frustrated romance; it's clear from the outset that Margot is the right girl for Gaspard, but he doesn't realize this until its too late.  Indeed, by the time he realizes his affections, he has already decided to sacrifice it in the name of artistic purity, although there's the suggestion that this is merely an excuse to avoid asserting himself.   The film plays with the notions of fate and coincidence; while Gaspard has the kind of listlessness and empty-vessel curiosity that is often the hallmark of an artistic type, it finally seems to see his indolence as a flaw.  Does he high-mindedly choose his artistic ambitions over the possibility of romance, of sexual release and immediate bliss?  Or does he merely flee, unable to live in the moment, unable to pursue his desires, and offer up aesthetic purity as cover for his cowardice?

Besides the delicate, evocative mood, and the confidently understated philosophical musings, what I appreciated most in A Summer's Tale was the facility with behavior.  I'm not familiar with people praising Rohmer's movies for their psychological insight, but this seems particularly exemplary of that quality.  In these films, and it seems as well that the same is generally true of French culture, interactions - particularly between men and women - have a kind of theatrical air.  The tone can shift quickly, even bewilderingly, from affected nonchalance to high drama, but one gets the sense that it's never without a certain quotient of self-consciousness.  Much is discussed, very little is resolved.  Plenty of the conversations in this film were perfectly familiar, and not at all diminished by feeling a bit written.  But what can seem artificial might indeed point to a larger, cultural level of artifice that we rough-hewn and pragmatic American's simply lack.  Underneath it are emotions - raw, unpredictable, dangerous, decisive.

Rohmer's solution to this is cinematic; while we hear much straight talk about romantic "types," about love,  fate, and principles, what do we see?  Lots of lots of nubile flesh, filmed with frank ardor by a man in his mid-seventies.  It's no coincidence that Rohmer made so many of his films at the beach.  The young, mostly-revealed bodies suggest deep, oceanic currents of desire that cannot be addressed directly, either by the director or by the characters.  The camera tells the truth that the words only hint at.  This, it seems to me, is the source of Rohmer's obsession: the physical fact of strange, wild biology that troubled his exquisitely refined mind.  Sex is everywhere, but it cannot be addressed.  For some unspeakable reason, it cannot even be accessed. (It's worth noting that for all of the fetching females he finds in his orbit - barely clothed, although never fully naked - Gaspard  never actually gets laid on his summer vacation.)   It's tantalizing, even a little unsettling, to imagine what lurked within, and what movies we'd see if he'd had more direct access to it.

(It should be noted that while with Rohmer, I do think that sex is what makes spot run, you can't reduce his movies to that subject alone.  He seems equally to understand the longing for like-minded companionship, for the love that can flourish from intellectual affinity, for the soulfulness of romantic synchronicity.  It's just that he seems to see the contingency of the universe, with all of those spinning bodies, as being a kind of infernal impediment to such synchronicity.  I understand that Rohmer was married for all of his adult life to one woman.  I can't help but wonder what that relationship was like.)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

La Ceremonie

(Claude Chabrol, France, 1995)

Two movies in, and it's hard to know what to take away from Chabrol.  People are shit?  He's not entirely that pessimistic, no, but his worldview seems depressingly closed; he delivers his world-weariness with a cold insight that could be mistaken for wisdom, but there's no sense of possibility outside of the frames, and only the slightest hints of mystery.  Chabrol comes off as something of a connoisseur of human duplicity and frailty.  His familiarity with a range of human behavior is striking, but he appears not to know what to do with it.  In this film, there are moments of tenderness that only add to the bitterness of the conclusion - and Chabrol is a filmmaker of strict, even severe conclusions - that amorality walks among us, that fate is utterly indifferent, and that a good life is merely lucky and indulgent.

Being formidably French, he manages almost to convince us that such an outlook, bereft of ideals and utterly insensible to any hint of redemption, might be correct, or at least bearable.  He's a smoothie - he manages to make cynicism go down easy.  But what's beneath all of it?  It seems to me that this begs a serious question of La Politique des Auteurs, of which Chabrol was a lifelong exponent and example.  Does the personality of the author, no matter how limited, so long as it is present, constitute enough to obtain quality?  His formal control is unmistakable, just like his cynicism, however gleeful it occasionally seems.  But why should that be enough?  A doctrinaire reading would have us quiver with exaltation from a mind so powerfully channeled.  But why should we care so much for his company?  His imagination seems fatally limited to wry distillations of bad behavior: the shallowness and self-absorption of his bourgeois victims, and the shame, resentment, and murderous amorality of the perps.  All in all, it's a handsome film that marks the presence of a chilly, stubborn mind. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Soigne Ta Droite

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1987)

A typically Godardian mix of the beautiful and the ponderous.  I'm still learning how to watch his films; to keep up with them, to seek out whatever pattern might exist, to let them flow like water down a cataract, sitting patiently with my bewilderment. 

The film is consistently, magnificently beautiful.  I don't think I've ever been so aware of the quality of JLG's eye; his knack for color and composition, his subtle and exceptionally sensitive way with light, is tremendous.  And his cuts are as decisive as heartbeats.  There's also plenty of Godard's typical combination of the wry with the silly, made all the more prominent by the deadly (literally) serious subject matter.  It's all about Art and Death; and while certain sequences and moments do contain surprising volumes of emotion, there's much else that appears wildly, unproductively incoherent.  There is, for instance, Godard's famous penchant for philosophical voiceover.  But not merely philosophical; this is reading from a term-paper philosophical.  Godard is undoubtedly a visual poet of the first order, but his facility with words, at least as they appear in his movies, leaves much to be desired, and the discrepancy between the two induces friction.  Not good friction, either. 

It's clear that by 1987 Godard was well into his grab-bag montage phase, constructing his films with the barest semblance of a structure.  It's not a matter of story; post-Breathless, it was clear that he had no interest in story, character, at least in the classical sense.  But even a structure based on theme is too rigid for JLG.  His later films are sometimes called essayistic, but essays have every bit as much predetermined structure as fiction.  Better to call Godard diaristic.  He thinks of an image, an idea, a swatch of text, and he's off to the races.  It's as if he were building a model train set while the train cars were already running.  He just keeps adding track.  It's not purely linear - plenty of motifs are repeated, and the film does have a shape - but it's a shaggy dog story, a virtuosic improvisation, and one that still falters tonally.  This may be his great flaw as an artist; even more than his involuted philosophical tract-mongering, his constant stream of intertextual references that he fires off with compulsive, Tourettish abandon, is his desultory way with mood.  The film swings in and out of seriousness; of course, even when he's being funny, he's being serious, but there's a distance to his stance, a giddiness borne of reticence.  Overflowing with ideas and images, a film like Soigne Ta Droite nonetheless feels like it's holding something back.  It might be that Godard's just flying at an altitude beyond my mortal powers of sensation and comprehension, but there's enough that's recognizably human about his work that I wonder: how much more do I need to learn?  And how much is just, finally, private and unknowable?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Immigrant

(James Gray, France/US, 2014)

A deeply felt and gorgeously rendered film, but one that nonetheless, sadly, disappoints.  Gray is most easily categorized as a classicist, but his emphasis on raw emotion - chaotic, sincere, naked emotion - and acute psychological depth makes him much more than a craftsman in thrall to any single tradition.  But he is still a craftsman, and the fascination and frustration I derive from his work seems to obtain from the strange friction he generates by simultaneously revering classical conventions and working in his own, idiosyncratic world.

I was in and out of the story of The Immigrant.  It might be that Gray is too enamored of the elegance he sees in Golden Age masterworks; the story plods along at times, and threatens to veer into stilted sentimentality.  It's all so damn sincere.  There is a discomfiting innocence about the movie, and it grows out of the characters, and I can't tell if Gray actually shares it or he's committing the grave artistic and moral sin of regarding the past with a kind of precious naivete - the "simpler times" fallacy.  I don't mean that the characters are simple - far from it - but the world is painted in such stark terms, the stakes so immediately obvious and familiar, that it almost isn't enough that the characters are depicted with such deftness, their tortured psyches revealed painstakingly and with unmistakable love.

Perhaps it's the lack of any true villains.  Perhaps it's the fact the Eva - while utterly captivating in her quiet, almost statuesque dignity - isn't a terribly active character, and her transparent goodness, despite the occasional flashes of anger and guilt, is never really challenged.  For all of his somberness, it might just be that Gray is too optimistic about his characters.

It has to be said; there's a corniness to Gray.  Part of his appeal is in his owning of that corniness; his courageous willingness to lay open his heart and the way that it bleeds for his characters.  But for all of his commitment to emotional authenticity, he is a filmmaker who is perhaps just a bit too enamored of convention.  The world he depicts is so distant, and so loaded with potential cliche, that he appears to falter.

But the emotional commitment is unstinting, and the world he creates, one of shadows and stage-lights and worn surfaces, with the strange admixture of hope and despair, is a genuinely powerful accomplishment.  It's a film I'll be revisiting, and which I suspect will contain new insights and layers of experience. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014


(Gareth Edwards, USA, 2014)

It seems as though as I age (which fact has lately been especially present in my mind, given my recent BDay) I become less tolerant of the mayhem so avidly delivered by massive-scale action movies.  All of the destruction and suffering: more and more, these films seem to me - with their countless glimpses of anonymous victims being dispatched en masse - to be an adroit expression of some troubling cultural pathology.  "Disaster porn" is feeling more pornographic, lately, for whatever reason; rather than assisting me in suspending my disbelief, I can't help but be reminded of the potential real catastrophes we all face in this troubled, warming world.  I imagine those risks, what all of this chaos reflects psychologically, even spiritually, and the experience quickly becomes a real bummer. 

Godzilla delivers Godzilla.  The beast is rendered with love and high VFX craft, and his appearances are reliably, satisfyingly awesome.  But much of the rest of the film is a wash; the story begins in the key of the hysterical and winds down in the listless.  People have been slagging Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and it's true that he doesn't have much of a character to play, but Bryan Cranston is more poorly served by the director/screenwriters, charged with emoting enough for this film and several sequels.  He acts his heart out, but can only chew scenery.  It's a lot of jagged raging to no end, other than to indicate to the audience that this movie is "serious" because it employs serious Actors doing some serious Acting for approximately 1/35th of the run-time. 

That said, there are some truly majestic moments to be found.  It's too bad they couldn't have appeared in a better film.  Like so much studio mega-fare, it falters by aiming for, and hitting, the middle; it's neither rambunctiously silly and over-the-top, nor is it half as serious as it wants to be.  The audience I saw it with, in a nearly sold-out screening, clapped and cheered at several key moments, all of them involving the titular monster, and it was clear that what was relished most was the huge, lumbering, fun of Godzilla being Godzilla.  The rest is superfluous, mostly.  

Making G the hero/savior -or at least the lesser evil of the evil monsters - is an understandable move, and not intrinsically wrong, but it felt unsatisfying in this case. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

American Hustle

(David O. Russell, USA, 2013)

All in all, it's a strictly lightweight affair, but it packs in more freewheeling fun per square-inch of screen than most features in recent memory; in his aggressively witty way, Russell has crafted a near-masterpiece of cinema.

It's true that it's missing a vital component of depth; the film's flaw, which keeps it from reaching the heights of greatness is the stubborn insistence on aiming just shy of high.  What makes this particularly noticeable is the apparent perspicuity of Russell, whose best stuff, even when very funny, can be positively lacerating.  Watching him scrap his way into the mainstream has been fascinating, and his very careful calibration of his anarchic sensibility to certain formal conventions is a feat of dazzling deftness, even if it eventually results in an underwhelming experience.  Therefore, it's easy to see Hustle as very personal for the director, even if it eventually takes the form of self-flattery: like his grifter heroes, he's someone who's worked tenaciously to make a space for himself in a harsh, competitive world. 

As the con artists say, you have to be in it "from the feet up;" only a total commitment to the role you're playing will suffice.  Russell commits himself utterly in this unabashedly sentimental story, but his conviction is so complete that he winds up winning over the audience, even through the various excesses of the narrative.   At the same time, the whole film hums with a giddy self-consciousness; it might be the most meta movie of the last decade.  The theme of performance is underlined so many times that it would be absurd if it weren't the raison d'etre for the whole enterprise.   The action is basically a succession of acting showcases, and everybody brings their A game.  It's rare to see such an orgy of thespian excess, and it would be a complete disaster if it weren't cast with such top-notch and eager players.   In scene after scene, the actors find themselves to be kids in a candy store, with dialogue that crackles in its manic loopiness, and they all jump gamely in, and the results are very satisfying indeed. 

Lots of the cinema-making is noticeably derivative of 70s Scorsese, but Russell does have a way with the camera, and once again, his willingness to throw himself into the material redeems even the most shamelessly secondhand of creative choices.  And there are some sublimely poetic moments; as much as the phrase "pure cinema" sets my teeth on edge, Russell achieves lovely synergies of music and moving image that recall just that shopworn phrase. 

Only Lovers Left Alive

(Jim Jarmusch, UK/Germany, 2014)

A night-bound ramble in the Jarmuschian style, in which the dominant, elegiac mood - you could easily call it a funk -  is colored by bone-dry humor and some trenchant observations about the thorny criss-crossings of love, life, and Art.  It's also Jarmusch at his most classical, hewing to a straightforward story with contrasting characters.

The movie has several moments of loveliness, but there are moments in which the allergy to sunlight - to any adequate amount of illumination, really - felt oppressive.  It's possible that the projection, which was, of course, digital, was too dim.  I've encountered this problem before, and it's a major bug, giving obvious lie to the idea that DCP will usher in an era of easy, push-button standarization, free of the vagaries of individual theaters and projectionists.  If the damp, faded imagery was entirely intentional, than I have only Jarmusch to blame, but I suspect this isn't the case. 

Besides these external nuisances, there's a lot to dig into with Only Lovers.  Again, it's Jarmusch at his most formally classical, and his handling of the storytelling is masterful in its laconic, down-tempo precision.  Adam and Eve's romantic woes resonate, as does the sense of timeless familiarity that they embody, allowing Jarmusch to riff poignantly on the mysterious nature of all great romances.  Swinton and Hiddleston - what a name for a duo, by the way - play beautifully off each other, conveying the unfathomable depths of their centuries-long affair with simple glances and gestures.  It's a wonderfully understated co-performance. 

The film is haunted by history, and what's striking is that despite it's characters spiraling regard, even obsession, with the past (which, wisely, Jarmusch identifies as being a first-cousin of narcissism), what weighs most oppressively is the burden of the present historical moment.  The coming catastrophes (there are a few barely-oblique references to climate change, such as when Eve asks Adam if the "wars over water" have begun), the sense of human culture as having finally exhausted itself and hunkering down for the end, is present in almost every frame.  Adam is the chief voice for this largely defeatist (but entirely understandable) view, and Eve does a good job of pinpointing the ways that this is a selfish capitulation unworthy of him, but the overall tenor of the picture seems to side more with his male pessimism. 

Only Lovers's droll coda, however, also manages to bring these moony fancies down to Earth, as our vampiric heroes, guardians of culture and, to some extent, martyrs for all that is humanly beautiful, yield to their more basic appetites.  In their weakness, they also reflect our strength, and the possibility of rising to meet the needs of the moment.  Their fate and ours - the undead and the living - are, after all, inextricably intertwined.  

Jarmusch slyly punctures his own pretensions of preternatural hipness (which he amusingly casts as supernatural, even) by illustrating the hidden pitfalls of living such a fastidiously curated life.  Adam and Eve know all the best that culture has managed to create - in some cases, they knew the creators personally - which means they feel it the most painfully when all the rest of human activity bulldozes over the treasures.  To develop a taste for the best means daily countenancing all that doesn't measure up, and all the wonder that will never get its due.  On the other hand, such an attitude - the Smeagol-like preciousness about valuing beauty and "keeping" it - has a dark side as well: the hollowness of connoissuership.  To be present in the bounty of the moment, to truly be attuned to the beautiful in a constant, active sense - is to be committed to a kind of lightness, a willingness to let go and thus free up time and space for discovery.  Eve personifies this ideal, and it's easy to see how many times she must have saved Adam, and herself, from despair.  In the end, she's the true hero of the story, and she embodies the heroism that permits survival in the face of overwhelming circumstances.  In the world today, it's positively brazen to think this way, and it's an inspiration that Jarmusch is willing to. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

(Wes Angerson, USA, 2014)

Wes Anderson's latest is the most developed example yet of his diorama-style, meticulously curated mode of filmmaking.  In Budapest, he leaves out nothing; the film has wistful nostalgia, wrenching melancholy, antic humor, history, politics, romance, suspense, and even a few jolting moments of horror.  It's a feast of a movie experience, and it's immensely enjoyable.  As with all Anderson films, a ticket buys admission to a fully developed world, intensely interior and yet utterly recognizable in its relation to our own.  It's a bit like getting a private, midnight tour at a great museum; it allows one to personally savor a place, and an experience, of surpassing splendor.

The film spins its web of associations wider and more intricately than any previous Anderson picture, and it's in this characteristic that it is most interesting to contemplate.  Previously, all of Anderson's films, thematically and story-wise, dealt with families. They were, to one degree or another, about the relationships that exist and change between people who are bound together, either by blood or experience or custom, into something resembling a family.  There's family in this one, as well - both Zero Moustava and Gustave H. are orphans, and they become, over the course of the story, elective brothers.  But the relationships here are more complicated, and they are tested, changed, and eventually sundered by forces that are larger then they can comprehend: the toothed gears of history.

It does seem, to some extent, that this film is an American's idealized, imagined version of the refinement and sophistication of a bygone Europe.  Anderson's trademark humor, which frequently tilts into bawdiness, suggests a coarser side to the world and the characters; even Gustave H. is shown as being capable of posturing.  Is this a sign of a deeper awareness, even a subtle critique of the decadence and exploitation that lurked beneath the candied exteriors, or just a coloring of humor?  After all, Moustava, in his elder years, remarks as much; Gustave H.'s world is largely his own creation, imagined as part of an almost-forgotten past.  Perhaps this is the mechanism that underlies all coniousseurship, even all style; one creates an ideal out of whole cloth, and imagines, since there is no readily available model, that it is a reference to a former time, when things were better, kinder, brighter, more vital, whatever.

In this, there is an affinity between this film and Allen's Midnight in Paris.  Both films acknowledge the temptation of nostalgia, the yearning for bygone days that never really existed.  Nostalgia is a powerful, even overwhelming force; at its worst, it can function as a kind of vortex of narcissism, positing the past as an individually created place in time, a repository for desires, dreams, ideals that simply cannot cohere in the tumultuous, rapidly-changing, and perennially disappointing present. 

But so is Anderson complicit in this, even as he offers a critque of it?  It may be that there isn't enough acknowledgement of the rot of post (and even pre) WWI, which was rife with the holdovers of a world of royals, blood oaths, the remains of an "honor" culture hiding behind a veneer of bourgeois respectability.  After all, the wealth that built such grand artifices as the Budapest was the spoils of some exploitation or another, be it Africa, the West Indies, or the virtual slave labor of generations or peasants.

Zero as a character goes a long way in relieving some of this pressure; in the great scene between him and Gustave, after the prison break, he asserts a moral truth and a political awareness that's too easily glossed over, even today, in questions of nationality and migration.  He moved because he had to.  Because of a war (that was likely, in some way, related to the predations of European colonial power), an event, with all of the horror and sorrow that the word entails, of which Gustave, in his cushy, insular, "civilized" enclave, knows precisely nothing. Moustava speaks most eloquently as the voice of history, exposing in Gustave the ugly cultural chauvanism that has been a scourge across Europe for hundreds of years.  Ignorance, combined with fear, combined with the harsh exigencies of the world outside the aristocratic palaces, creates hate.  It's a grave sin that Gustave recognizes immediately, and apologizes effusively for.

There is, finally, a briskness to this film that has the feeling of breeziness.  It's a minor, but significant, irritant, in that it points to a graver pitfall that Anderson mostly avoids - the approach of the tourist.  Elements of the story - certain characters, like Adrien Brody's Dmitri, are virtual cartoons, played for punchlines and not much else.  This is an odd deficiency for the movie to have, since there are other moments, like the train being stopped and the passengers hassled by Naziesque thugs, that adequately portray the deep menace of the times.  It may be that Anderson felt he needed more gags, and a more obvious villain, or it may just be that he got so hooked on the details of his adventure in Zubrowka that he didn't bother with more coloring in the characters; certainly, Gustave and Zero have depth.  It's a minor bug.  The movie is excellent, finely tuned fun. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014


(Sofia Coppola, USA, 2011)

I had some issues with it, but it's a hypnotic, beguiling film, and demands repeated viewing.  My sense, just from reviewing certain scenes, is that it is Somewhere will yield insight into its depth gradually, and only with attentive viewing.  Despite an aversion to some aspects of Coppola's method, I have to admit that it has lodged itself in my consciousness, and there is no more reliable sign of lasting quality.

My chief beef with Coppola is this: there are times at which it seems that her formal preferences are front-loaded rather than arising organically from the material.  Her preferences are clear, with familiar precedents in world cinema: long takes, a detached, observational perspective, a preference for dry humor, and effusive atmospheric affect.  And yet she is a writer of great precision, and a committed scenarist; despite feeling deliberately directionless, her movies are based upon carefully constructed narratives.  The arc of the characters may be muted, but it is still there, and it's vital to the other side of Coppola, the side that isn't enthralled with beautiful moodiness and supple textures.  I refer to the side of her that comments, critiques, and subtly but insistently moralizes.  I don't have a problem with moralizing, and neither should Coppola, but one gets the sense, watching her films, that she does bear some unresolved ambivalence about what she's depicting, and perhaps even about what the audience might and/or should think about what they're seeing.

None of which is a cardinal sin, and all of which can (and often is) the basis for excellent filmmaking.  But still, while watching Somewhere, I was repeatedly reminded of a certain unwillingness to go all the way.  Either to present Johnny Marco's life as much more of a shambles, rather than just somewhat boring (with an occasional paroxysm of existential despair), or to alternatively indulge in the perks of such a lifestyle, with all the easy sex and temptation to chaos.  Show us black despair or show us ecstatic wildness; but left somewhere in between (as, admittedly, is surely the more "realistic" way to go) it feels somehow disappointing, like a missed opportunity.

There is also the part of me that craves more realism.  While plenty of the world film is reliably realistic, there are also moments in which the formal commitments trump what would be realistic, believable, or interesting behavior.  Coppola tends to envelope her characters in the same moody, detached zone from which she films them.  As a result, Marco comes off as kind of vitally constipated, a perpetually hungover cipher who's somehow misplaced his charisma.   To much of the time, he's reduced to awkward mugging, and when he does fill up with emotion - watching his daughter ice skate, making a jagged, weeping call to his former wife in which he proclaims that he is "nothing, not even a person" - it feels jarring, like scenes from another film.  Somewhere spends much of its time cruising dangerously close to the contrived and the maudlin.

At her best, she achieves scenes of transcendent, limpid beauty and wit; at her worst, she delivers platitudes wrapped in gauzy, beautiful gestures.


In fact, I was wrong to doubt Coppola and her method.  Upon viewing Somewhere a second time,  I found myself falling deliciously under its spell.  I think what happened was: concentrating too much on what I wrongly perceived as a knowing commentary by the director, I missed what is so delightfully evocative and steadfastedly non declarative about her style.  Is there any other contemporary director who has a more precise, yet gentle way with images and sound?  That might be too much, but still; Somewhere drew me in, and made me watch and listen, like no other film in some time.  It's true that the stuff about Johnny Marco being hollowed-out, soul-starved by Hollywood, is laid on rather thickly.  You have to look past that, to keep watching. The scene where they apply the modeling paste to his face, rendering him every bit the featureless cipher, is directly followed with the results; Johnny is made up to appear elderly, and his reaction - a deft combination of concern and amusement - adds a layer of complexity to what could have been a distracting, didactic point about the character.  He's not faceless; he is, on some basic level, detached from his own visage.  This connects to his strikingly passive personality, which on first viewing seemed merely to be an error.  Marco is easygoing to a fault; the source of his charm is that it's effortless, and everything from his mussed hair to his off-white tee shirts to his faintly goofy smile broadcasts this.  But Marco has gotten so used to radiating charm effortlessly that he no longer knows how to apply himself to the role that matters most, his own life.  His interactions with his daughter force him to try, and he does, in ways that are made all the more momentous for their being so obviously mundane. 

The other on-the-nose scene - Johnny's late night crying jag on the phone - is also complicated by the scene that directly follows it, where Johnny appears to have once again resumed his mode of unexamined comfort.  He's in the pool, floating on an inflatable raft, shades on, the picture of cushy indolence.  Slowly, inexorably, he drifts out of the frame, his legs disappearing last.  It manages to be both droll and subtly poignant; his recent crisis is no less urgent, but the decisiveness of what might have been a breakthrough is subsumed by the overwhelming inertia of The Good Life.  Even after a rough night, he still gets to spend the next day drifting in the pool, warmly ensconced at the Chateau Marmont.  Turning away from leisure, wealth, and instant gratification ain't easy.

The ending remains problematic, still:  while thematically apt and atmospherically rich, it has the top-heavy quality of blatant symbolism, and of self-conscious ambiguity. After all, where the hell is he supposed to be going?  But even here, I've revised my thinking: what initially seemed to be mere laziness on Coppola's part, as though she was opting for a neat little bookend for the narrative, now seems like a move of exemplary boldness, even if it isn't 100% successful.   This kind of tension - between the symbolic and the literal - is really, really hard to do, and Coppola deserves huge props for how much she was able to accomplish with such a (deceptively) simple list of ingredients.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Magic Mike

(Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2012)

Soderbergh remains, for me, the American director with the greatest discrepancy between likeability and actual quality.  Let me clarify: while I admire Soderbergh greatly for his stylishness, his willingness to experiment, his prolific working habits, and his political awareness (he's no fan of The Man), I enjoy his films only intermittently.   Often, for me, they are objects to be admired but not cherished; they are stimulating to think about, but they always, to varying degrees, seem lacking. 

That's imprecise criticism, so I'll try to be more specific.  What it comes down to, I believe, is a matter of taste.  I can't quite get behind his visual choices, his musical cues, and his preference for flat, haphazard acting.  Sometimes they come together quite nicely, but more often than not, they feel undercooked.  Magic Mike is a case in point.  Although it has lots to recommend it - a genuine sense of place, the illumination of an unusual world, stylistic verve and dexterity - it never quite gathers enough steam to be more than a solid piece of light entertainment. 

Visually, Soderbergh favors edgy, unsymmetrical framing and bold color schemes.  In Magic Mike, this tendency is pushed particularly far, so that most daylight scenes seem drenched in a dense yellow haze.  His preference for heavy saturation works better in the nightclub scenes, which are appropriately lurid.  He frames his characters obliquely, and this combines with the strangely poor sound recording to give the action - when it's not exotic dancing - a muted, distant feeling. 

The story is a good one, and the implicit commentary on American class, circa 2013, is sharp and clear-eyed.  It might be that the film is all too successful in expressing the subtext; the braggadocio of the characters, which renders their prefab, Reality TV ambitions almost quaint, serves to underline the lightness of the film overall.   While Tatum has undeniable charisma as Mike, the rest of the actors feel like they're stuck in neutral.  Soderbergh doesn't seem to know what to do with them; although he directs the dance segments with wit and energy, the nuts-and-bolts aspects of the story feel tossed-off, as if the director were being deliberately casual in his approach.

Taste aside, there is a more concrete reason for the awkwardness that crops up in Soderbergh's films.  His films are, to varying degrees, formalist exercises.  Although he has unmistakable stylistic tics, he tends to shoehorn them into preexisting structures:  Out of Sight was his 70s crime picture, Traffic was his ensemble social-issue drama, Contagion was his ensemble disaster nailbiter, and so forth.  While the results can be satisfying, as the above examples illustrate - all of them are solid, enjoyable, smart films - they rarely inspire, because they are caught between the director's sharp conceptual intelligence and his duty-bound fealty to various narrative conventions.  When forced to choose between the third-act emotional peak and his more abstract inclinations, he tends to fall back on the rulebook.  His great theme is people within systems, but there is only so much depth that can be wrung from that kind of story.  They work better as macro investigations; when things become too intimate, Soderbergh has a tendency to falter. 

Contrast him with a filmmaker like Scorsese, and it's easy to see the difference.  Even The Departed, while clearly a paycheck movie for him and not a passion project, was infused nonetheless with his feisty, exuberant sensibility.  He bent the conventional rules just enough to fit his own set of preoccupations with power and morality.  While the film was a self-evident studio package, every frame buzzed with Scorsese's personal brand of barely-contained chaos.  He was making another gangster picture, in one sense, but this didn't stop him from finding new ways of expressing themes that go all the way back in his oeuvre.

Soderbergh, who doesn't have that level of preoccupation, or at least hasn't since very early in his career (Sex, Lies, and Videotape remains unsettlingly good precisely because it seems so close to Soderbergh's heart) is content to offer up mild, witty, satisfying fare, but it's precisely in the brightness of his evident talent that you can see all that he isn't saying about his subjects. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014


(Ridley Scott, 2012, USA)

Damnably stupid.  The chasm of quality that separates Alien, Scott's space-bound monster movie masterpiece, and this bloated, slipshod, desultory pot of sci-fi gumbo, must be measured in light years.  Scott is perhaps the laziest filmmaker working in Hollywood.  While his considerable talents as a visual craftsman haven't deserted him, any sense of exertion, any flash of intelligence or perspective, is utterly lacking from his recent work.  He coasts like no other. 

The biggest problem with Prometheus isn't the script, which is depressingly inept, but in the fact that Scott - again, a truly talented craftsman, which is not meant as faint praise - allowed it to be filmed as such.  You can't blame Lindelof, who apparently doesn't know any better, for writing trash.  But Scott should at least be able to spot trash when he sees it, and either reject or try to fix it.  It's clear that he had some interest in the idea of expanding on the Alien universe mythology; even if it represents a rather opportunistic return to the well, he at least was willing to approach it from an angle other than the formulaic wasteland of sequeldom.

Prometheus, then, serves as a quasi-prequel, in which the mystery of the alien planet from the original Alien is, well, not really solved, but riffed upon.  It doesn't matter.  Things start off in the register of the silly, as we see a white-skinned, hairless, utterly ripped humanoid thingy imbibe some oily goo, after which he undergoes a CGI disintegration and winds up spilling his DNA all down a waterfall.   It's awkward and wholly unengaging, and things don't improve much from there.  For about the first forty minutes, the film at least manages to make sense, story-wise, even if the characters quickly reveal themselves to be B-television stereotypes.  And it's worth noting that Scott and Lindelof aim to leave certain aspects of the mythology (as it were) unresolved.  This would be admirable, even in its ineptitude, if it didn't reek so obviously of being groundwork for more sequels.  But after those forty minutes, even basic coherence goes out the window, as Scott apparently submits to Lindelof's kitchen-sink conceit, in which everything from zombies to face-huggers to Clash of the Titans is thrown in for good measure, while the story and characters, which aren't much to being with, are discarded completely to make room for the dippy, wholly unsuspenseful "action."

I can't think of another contemporary film that was so impressed with itself while simultaneously being so embarrassingly short on ideas.  Prometheus doesn't play as mere pandering entertainment, so it doesn't have any of the transparent, mercenary money-chasing of a Transformers sequel.  It's a pretentious film in the worst kind of way, presuming to impress an audience who it clearly has little respect for, doing so by making a series of halfassed feints at depth and vigor, but possessing neither quality. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Counselor

(Ridley Scott, USA, 2013)

A trainwreck, but not without some curious elements.  It's possible to see what some of the film's few champions appreciated about the picture, but they're still giving it far too much credit.  Scott, per usual, directs with impersonal professionalism, sleekly but without insight or genuine verve.  I'm intrigued by the thought of better director's handing of the same script, but most of the best would surely have steered clear.  The only way to have made McCarthy's flabby, portentous screenplay into something manageable would have been radical revisions, including lopping off several of the spiraling monologues.  It isn't as though there's nothing worthwhile beneath all of the portentous heft; McCarthy knows from menacing atmosphere, and a serious condensation by a genuinely inventive director (it's useless to name names) could have been a thing to behold.

But the script was snapped up and sent directly into production by a very credulous and prestige-starved Hollywood.  Apparently, the weight of McCarthy's name, combined with the recent critical and box-office success of No Country was enough to blind pretty much everybody - including several people who should have known better, such as Sir Ridley and most of the cast - to the fact that this hot commodity was a turgid mess. 

Remarkably, the film aspires to tragedy.  There's very little action, and almost none that involves the main characters.  As is usual with McCarthy, the world is one of bleak determinism, spiced up with gaudy acts of evil.  While certainly a flawed man, we're meant to see that the titular Counselor is undeserving of his abject destiny, like pretty much everyone else who meets an ugly demise.  The only people who make it to the credits unscathed are the true villains, who are somehow exempt from the miserable fates of the less ruthless.  But we are meant to pity the poor Counselor, watching helplessly along with him as his best-laid plans go bust and everything he ever loved is mercilessly destroyed.

Again, this is primarily the fault of McCarthy.  There is something sadistic about his worst fictions, which seem to revel in the despair of their characters, constantly upping the ante to prove there is nothing so dark or depraved in the world that his imagination cannot best.  I've no idea if the Mexican drug cartels have diversified into snuff film production, and I don't really care to find out.  But McCarthy delights in rubbing my face in my own aversion; there's always the nagging suggestion that if I look away, I'm just another coward who can't face the Hard Facts of the World.  I know, because I've been lectured by McCarthy in his prose, and now, he's even roped Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt into delivering his spiel.

For spiel it is, and it's grown awfully tired.  The problem with McCarthy's personal brand of cynicism is finally that its wholly hermetic.  He seeks to overpower our objections with the weight of his rhetoric, and given that he's endowed with enormous rhetorical gifts, its not a bad strategy.  But, even if successful, the final result is only exhaustion.  In The Counselor, his imagination is muddied by his relentless obsession with Fate as a cruel, capricious, and inescapable power.  The consistent implication is that we have no better angels in our nature; even if we did, they would be helpless to save us from reality's Inquisition-like punishments.   McCarthy long ago perfected this brand of Predestination Horror fiction, but it's grown stale, and his constant upping of the ante has increasingly diminishing returns.   There are better, more interesting ideas out there.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

(Alain Resnais, France, 2013)

A magnificently odd film by the 90-year old Resnais.  Clearly, a more thorough investigation of his work is in order (I've seen Marienbad and Hiroshima, but it's been many years, and I my initial verdict was ambivalence.  The guy has undeniable brilliance, but I struggled with the reliance on theatrical artifice.)

Part paean to the actors and their art, part puckish experiment in cinema-theater dialectics, and part  serious treatment of love, mortality, and various other verities, Resnais's most recent work, same as it ever was, defies categorization.  As with Jia Zhangke, his use of digital-as-digital - embracing the medium in all of its flawed novelty - is transcendent.  Much of the action takes place in front of digitally-painted backdrops, which highlights the artifice of the medium, while simultaneously providing a powerful, even unsettling immediacy to the action.

Resnais brazenly invests himself in a highly tenuous concept, and his actors - several of France's best - follow him without hesitation.  It's a remarkably tender work, overflowing with affection for the people who appear onscreen.  Somehow, what resonated most is the notion of acting as generosity; in scene after scene, the actors throw themselves into the performances, and we sense that Renais, also, is delighted in being able to offer them such an opportunity to practice their art. 

For a film so fixated on death, both willed and unwilled, the overall effect is exhilarating, and I couldn't help but picture Resnais as working from a place of almost serene belief in his art, and in art in general.  The notion of art as almost magical in its powers, transcending space and time, is brilliantly related. A 20th century play (two plays, actually) based upon a myth from antiquity, transmuted by cinema into a 21st-century experience,  somehow manages to feel stunningly alive, relevant, and contemporary.  It's an enactment of faith, not just in cinema but in art, to make sense of the senseless, to render time and history in an intimate, human scale.  The play, itself an extension of the ancient world, will continue to be performed, not just through repertory theater but now through the pixellated movement of the digital image.  The life that art gives, for those willing to give themselves to art - whether it is for a single performance, as an audience member, or as a professional, five nights a week (or forever, depending on the archive capabilities of digital) - is revealed as a sacred power.

There's a lot to unpack in this film, and it will certainly benefit from being revisited.  Things get especially weird at the end, with the inclusion of a couple epilogues that feel abrupt, if deliberately so.  What was Resnais after?  He seems perfectly content to let such questions linger.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Touch of Sin

(Jia Zhangke, China, 2013)

I caught this film during a run of "Overlooked and Underseen" films, a series at the excellent CineFamily theater (my first time there, and I was impressed and pleased.)  As a fan of Jia's since viewing his visionary Still Life, I'd been meaning to see A Touch of Sin after hearing that it would receive US distribution, but had missed it the first time around.  Saturday evening, I got lucky.  The film is a trove of wonders, a symphony of strange yet fruitful juxtapositions: ethereal beauty and gory violence, lapidary realism and rich symbolism, anguish and humor.

It was also my first truly satisfying theater experience of a digitally shot and projected movie.  As with any medium, it takes an artist to make what is new seem timeless; never before (in my experience) have the idiosyncrasies of digital image capture been taken to such poetic heights.  Jia uses what usually amount to limitations - the stilted, too-sharp crispness, the stinginess in range and depth of light, and the slight queasiness of digital's motion blur - to produce a panoply of moods and effects.  Jia's visual taste - in terms of color, composition, movement, and space - is, for my money, unparalleled in contemporary cinema, so it's no surprise that he can summon such nuance from the technology. 

The film comprises a series of semi-connected vignettes, all of them variations on a theme: the extent to which conditions in modern-day China have created such rampant dehumanization that violence has become endemic.  Jia's vision is driven by fury; his sympathy for the downtrodden, forgotten, abused, and disenfranchised of China is palpable, as is his rage at the systemic corruption that's led to such an abject state of affairs.  But the film is no revenge fantasy.  Jia keeps his feet planted firmly in a moral stance.  He retains a certain detachment throughout; a fluid awareness that deftly moves between the political, spiritual, aesthetic, sexual, and symbolic realms.

Violence, in A Touch of Sin, is everywhere, and yet remains an aberration, a flaw in the design of the universe.  The body count could rival that of a slasher film - I lost count of how may characters are dispatched over the running time.  But in Jia's view, the violence is symptomatic of a deeper history of abuse.  He shows us with the camera: there is the violence that cuts roads through the mountains, that sets high-speed trains on a collision course with each other, than strains familial bonds to the breaking point, that crowds young men and women into factories and dormitories like cattle in a feedlot.  Animals, here, are used to resonant symbolic ends - from obvious touchstones such as the abused mule (a nod to Au Hazard Balthazar,) to live oxen being driven to market in the back of a pickup truck, to snakes as part of a traveling roadshow.  (Other members of the Chinese Zodiac - a monkey and a tiger - appear in key moments).  What's suggested, most importantly, is the destruction of humanity; tradition, history, community, and even love aren't spared.  The China of today, Jia avers, is a perfect storm of widespread regression.  And yet the animals also reflect what is lacking in this world.  They serve as a rebuke: strikingly alive and aware in comparison to the downward gazes and muted gestures that seem to characterize so many of the people.

In A Touch of Sin, the sin has roots, and they can be traced.  The violence, when it erupts in bloodshed, is an expression of something long repressed.  It harkens back to old conflicts, grievances that have gone unredressed.  Elemental forces of destruction have been awakened, unleashed on the world.  A breaking point has been reached - people have been punished for being people.  The sin of oppression, of the denial of justice, always concentrates at the bottom of a society.   And eventually, after enough has been collected, the dam breaks.  Jia, in his subtle, undeniable way, has fashioned a revolutionary film.  Not a call to action, but a cri de cœur, a chorus of righteous anger, crafted with incendiary artistry.  

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

(Martin Scorsese, USA, 2013)

A comedic saga, full of mania and absurdity and excess, that builds, by way of Scorsese's singular cinematic imagination, into a kind of majesty.  

Accusations that the film endorses or condones the behavior exhibited are nothing more than well-meaning nonsense.  Scorsese does enjoy the revelry, to a great extent, and extends that enjoyment to us; it provides a frame, and a fuel source, for his vision.  All that Marty loves, he is free to indulge in; scads of music cues, whip pans and tilts, tracking shots, zooms, pounding smash-cuts:  it's all there for the taking.

And yet it isn't a movie without restraint.  It has a shape - long, delirious, twisted, but still a shape, a momentum, and an unmistakable rhythm.

It's not quite right to think of this film as topical.  As has been repeatedly pointed out, Belfort, though he stole millions, was a small fry in comparison to the real plutocrats.  The film's resonance with our current troubles is significant, deliberate, and worth noting.  It should make us feel uneasy, and it does.  But this isn't a grand statement about the rot on Wall St, which, if we're paying attention, ought to be painfully obvious.  It's about a much more general - dare I say universal - topic: the seduction of power.  Unlike Oliver Stone's Wall Street, which is basically a kind of glossy fable, telling a simple story with a moral, Scorsese's opus is more elusive, more artful, and more brilliant.

Scorsese's great theme has always been power, in all of its guises.  Power as a drug, power as a manifestation of the will, power as a bulwark, however impermanent, against the awareness of mortality.  He is obsessed with characters that take what they want, regardless of the consequences.  Characters who dare to betray and transgress, who feel themselves exempt from the fetters of civilized life. Jordan Belfort, as imagined by Scorsese and his collaborators, might be the purest iteration of this character, boiled down to a crust of rapacious appetite.

Ironies abound.  It is clear that his subjects are by-and-large a lot of contemptible assholes, but they never loose their humanity - not entirely.  There is a strange, fascinating, and ultimately, terrifying innocence about Jordan.  Partly this is due to DiCaprio, who, despite his considerable talents as an actor, is unable to completely extinguish his movie-star charm.  This serves the movie well, in that he never looses the look of the kid in the candy store; wide eyed and consumed with desire, utterly captivated by all that can be had.  For Jordan, it's all in good fun.  He jokes that he feels justified in fleecing his clients because he knows better how to spend it - on drugs, women, and cars.  It's also telling, and psychologically astute, that he exhibits such contempt for those he swindles; in the twisted, darkly hilarious demonstration he gives to his new cadre of budding stockbrokers, while on speakerphone with a dupe, Belfort repeatedly flashes the bird, mimes anal penetration, and generally makes it clear that this person is, to him, less than human.  This is classic emotional distancing, a well-known slipperly slope of dissociation that starts with lies and ends with murder.   To be a predator, which label Jordan proudly self-applies, it's of paramount importance to deny your victim any feelings.  Dehumanize them, and it quickly becomes possible to whatever you please. 

We see, in hints and glances, that Jordan isn't entirely sui generis; his father, for all of his raging disapproval, is ultimately an enabler of his son.  One gets the sense that Jordan's energy, and his insatiable appetite, are partly the product of his upbringing.

And then there's the irony of Belfort's epiphany on the boat: in a flash of insight, he goes from trader to motivational speaker, essentially degenerating into self-parody.  He never stops selling - when they take away his broker's license, he begins to sell the only thing he has left, and the thing that has, ultimately, been selling all along: himself.  His final iteration, ushered on stage by his real-life basis (who seems, despite it all, to have retained something of his unhinged frenzy) is not flattering - this is the paunchy, swollen, blotchy-faced husk of the former Jordan.  Life has finally caught up with him.   

The last shot is indeed among Scorsese's most affecting, eloquent, poetic, and mysterious.  Are these people meant to reflect us?  Are they representative of his victims - earnest, striving, desirous people, somehow hoodwinked into thinking that this broken-down former lunatic swindler has anything of value to offer us?

The chaos and mania of unbridled appetites: there is plenty of revelry, but not much genuine fun.  Belfort is an adept huckster and prolific self-abuser, but he's ultimately an amateur hedonist.  He shows no aptitude for connoisseurship - it's all about quantity over quality.  His indulgences are haphazard, reckless, sloppy, and ultimately desperate; he is a man numbing pain, as all addicts eventually become.  He does the drugs that he thinks he's supposed to do - cocaine and Quaaludes chief among them - because that's what master-of-the-universe types are supposed to do.  He never really comes out from under the shadow of the Mephistophelean character played to sublime comic perfection by the great Matthew McCaughnehey.  Coached in the ways of the world by a self-described depressive (not in so many words) who uses all manner of distractions, from masturbation to binge drinking, to sand off the edges of the central fact of his life: he creates nothing, he merely takes.  He is a purveyor of lies, which gradually eats away at one's soul.

There is also all of the very dark, no punches pulled (literally) final quarter-or-so of the film.

But yes, it is an exhilarating, and very fun ride.  Scorsese has his natural flair for capturing the fascinating variety of human behavior, with a special eye to the antic and the illicit.  Yes, he understands, and makes us understand, the appeal of such indulgences, of living as if one could not die.  Amazing comic chops from a never-better cast.

Some scenes do seem to outlive their welcome, but that's part of the desired effect; the extended 'lude overdose is a prime example of excess in form, tone, and content.  No, we don't need to see all that crawling around, but it does take the piss out of what could otherwise be a mere comic beat.  Same with the scene between Donnie and the drug dealer/money courier.  As the comic value decreases, the patent insanity of the characters grows.

Likewise the chilling asides about the broker who married the office associate and later killed himself, and about the dealer who winds up dying suddenly from a heart attack, which information we hear over visuals of him being treated to money, whores, and booze.

The specter of death haunts the whole film - the sudden deaths of some of the characters (such as the aunt, the dealer, etc.)

More ironies - the naked striving of the Stratton Oakmont boys, too much never being enough, and the constant renunciation of their selves; Donnie's ridiculous presumptions of WASP respectability, down to his loafers and bright sweaters.  The ridiculous sight of his masturbation in such a get-up, nicely mocking both the character and the banal edifice of the rotting moneyed-elite of America. 

Jordan's no better - his house, on the Gold Coast of Long Island, with pretensions of old-world money, sending his kids to get riding lessons, etc.

For Marty, the drug is cinema.  In The Wolf of Wall Street, he is flying high all day.

And yet, there is the creeping quality of the rough-hewn, even unto messiness, that is generic to Scorsese's films.  Granted, there is a fine line between genuine inelegance and the idiosyncratic messiness of Scorsese's imagination.  He is never imprecise; but his tendency towards overlap, towards hurrying, and towards an embrace of artifice in all of its bordering on shoddiness, that have never sat completely well with me.   Don't get me wrong - there is a wonderful thrill to be obtained from this libidinous expressiveness.  It would be correct to say that Marty's stuff is deceptively messy, that he manages to accomplish a great deal in what appears to be dissonant; an analogue would be certain kinds of Jazz and Rock music.   There are wonderful moments in Marty's film that feel like happy accidents, serendipitous occurrences.  The best artists are best at responding to the original as it is revealed to them in the moment.  This is a process that must happen faster than analysis, so a keenly developed instinct is necessary.

And yet, what about the images themselves?  This has long been a bugbear of mine, and may be expressed as a kind of polarity: the cinema of images, and the cinema of montage.  These two need not be mutually exclusive, but very film filmmakers manage to make both of them work at all times.  Scorsese does so fitfully here; the last shot comes to mind as a pristine example of imagistic integrity.  But so many others are slapdash - the exteriors are often graceless, flat, and digital-looking.  Of course, the art of the cinema is the art of the montage; various film artists have strived mightily, in as many ways, to maintain integrity of the image.

The shell game of salesmanship in America, as illustrated by Belfort.  Levels and levels of deception.  Jordan sells his clients shit that they not only don't need, but that will actually harm them.  He sells his friends on the scheme, so they'll come to work for him.  Ultimately, of course, he's selling himself, too - on the idea that all of this excess is fun, that it can offer fulfillment.


Some considerations here, and a re-viewing of the film, prompt additional rumination on Scorsese's latest.

What fascinates me about this film?  Why do I like it?  A second viewing confirmed its pleasures, but also deepened the sense of malaise I associate with the film - a consistent strain of disgust, like a faint queasiness.

There is a plot, but its episodic and often repetitive, in terms of the action depicted.  When we, the audience, ask the classical-structure Q of What Happens Next, it seems that the answer to the corollary Q (why do/should I care?) seems to be: what new frontier of debauchery will Belfort embark upon?  What taboo will he violate next?  How much longer can he keep this binge of a life going?   But is this enough to account for the pleasure I derive from the film?  It seems insufficient, echoing the complaint of the film's detractors, who decry what they see as pointlessly excessive and repetitive. 

Regarding the Q of Character, it also seems as though there isn't enough there for us to claim that any of these characters are well-developed.  Certainly, their behavior, from the loopy to the grotesque, is captivating.  But there is no real development or change; we don't see much of their inner lives at all, unless we count Belfort's aspirations of getting as fucked up (and fucked) as possible.  It could be argued, as some have (most notably Richard Brody), that it is the pure, primal drives on display - the appetites, be they monetary, sexual, pharmacological - is what we can identify with.  Even if we know that such indulgences are dangerous and in some cases morally wrong, and eventually kind of gross, we can (if we permit ourselves) live vicariously through the ambition on display.

I accept that this is partly the case, but I also think something else is going on.  For me, a big pleasure of any Scorsese movie - any movie that I wind up enjoying, for the most part - is aesthetic.  I love the way Scorsese shoots the film - I love his stylistic choices, his use of music, the way he edits together scenes.  I love the serene velocity with which he tells his stories.  But it would be incorrect to say that I'm enjoying the film on a formal level only - clearly, there is a connection between the form and the content, with one deriving energy from another, which then seems to feed back into the other.