Monday, December 28, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(J. J. Abrams, USA, 2015)

A good point of comparison would be the lumbering, over-produced Jurassic World, this year's other ultra-hyped pop cultural "event."  Abrams is both trusted and experienced enough to shepherd the film without too much interference from the conglomerate people, and he clearly has the credentials as a nerd.  So he pulled it off.  My own nostalgia was awakened by the film, somewhat unexpectedly, as I had anticipated much more eye-rolling than I actually wound up performing.  Yes, it's front-loaded with a slew of impossible and self-contradictory expectations: please the hardcore nerds, win brand new fans who couldn't care less about the originals, make a perfect holiday outing but also a real movie, with a genuine sense of danger; pay fealty to the original, and resurrect some of its characters, but also create new characters, a new mythology, that can sustain the inevitable deluge of sequels and spinoffs and reboots to come.  And in successfully doing so, Abrams all but guaranteed that the film was going to be a kind of fine-tuned simulation, utterly in thrall to the social and monetary forces that gave it rise, but lacking a soul of its own.

These are all givens, but, perhaps surprisingly, and in what we can now recognize as being essential, necessary: Abrams is happy to deliver.  He is not concerned about his movie having soul; the soul is external to the film, a collective essence made up of the excitement and great hope of the legions of fans, old and new, a kind of pervasive, all-encompassing field of energy, a force, if you will, and you see where I'm going with this so I'll just stop there.  Abrams's reverence for the originals is manifest everywhere, in practically every frame of the film.  The acrobatics the action sequences, which are unflaggingly thrilling and exquisitely choreographed (the initial chase of the resurrected Millennium Falcon through and around the ruins of a Star Destroyer is a masterpiece) signify the advances in movie magic since the original Star Wars, and also the increased budget, but otherwise, everything is kept scrupulously lo-tech, in harmony with the scrappiness and ingenuity of the older films.  There are moments when it all feels too faithful, almost sedulous, and the air drains from the film.  But mostly, it is great, indulgent fun, brisk and clean-cut and deliciously plotted.  Abrams doesn't lose sight of his own instincts, and particularly in his casting of the major roles, does a marvelous job.  The newcomers are excellent, and their being almost unknown is a big part of the appeal.

It's handsome, wholesome, all-American entertainment, the kind that might even restore a glimmer of faith to the hard-hearted among us, who have all but written off entertainment on such a scale.  If you think for too long about The Force Awakens, and the insane amount of anticipation and discussion it has prompted in the culture - this unsettlingly eager, almost desperate embrace of nostalgia and bald sentimentality - you might easily find yourself tilting dangerously close to the dark side.  Better to take it as what it is at it's best - a well-crafted adventure movie - and then go back home and have some more leftovers. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Mistress America

(Noah Baumbach, USA, 2015)

Baumbach, continuing his collaboration with Greta Gerwig, is on a roll.  After the stuffed and somewhat disheveled While We're Young, we now have this zesty dish of a film, compact but unexpectedly resonant.  Mistress America contains Baumbach's signature wit, but also the leavening agent of Gerwig, who provides, paradoxically, both a goofy levity and a certain gravity.  The film is concerned with the travails of trying to succeed as a creative person in the contemporary world.  Not long ago, in writing about While We're Young, I chided Baumbach for what I perceived as a certain naivete about the down-and-dirty world of  New York in the age of late-capitalist decadence.  This film comes off as a kind of corrective; looking forward rather than back, Baumbach sees both the possibilities and pitfalls in the world of self-obsessed, neurotic young people in the big bad City.

As expected, Mistress is very funny, and probably the most screwball iteration yet of Baumbach's comedy.  There's a touch of Hawks about the film, in its featuring of witty, fast-talking characters thrown into odd situations.  But unlike Hawks, the subject isn't sex.  Instead, the film focuses on the intersection of friendship and careerist ambition.  Gerwig's character Brooke perfectly captures the paradox of the aspirational millennial; she is seeking authenticity (her quest to open an uber-chic and yet homey restaurant, called, perfectly, Mom's) but must be always performing.  It's impossible to see where Brooke ends and the performance begins, but that's the point.  The most telling scene occurs around the midpoint of the film, where Brooke expresses for the first time the sadness that underlies her striving.  She tells Tracey (expertly portrayed by Lola Kirke) that people don't really know what they want until they turn 30, because it's at that point that they start to feel like they are losing time; adulthood is now a permanent condition, and they must work to achieve more while simultaneously ensuring that they don't lose what they already have.  It's a bracing moment, almost chilling in its starkly existential terms.  Brooke's urgency and effervescent flakiness are also tied, somewhat schematically, to the death of her mother, an event that Brooke treats more as an eccentricity in her personal narrative than as the trauma it undoubtedly was.

Tracy, being younger than Brooke, is both relatively inexperienced and also more straightforward in her desires.  She wants to be a writer, and over the course of the movie, her abilities and her ambition grow.  She isn't interested in the kind of impresario lifestyle that Brooke is chasing; Tracy wants to be admired from afar.  She craves experience but also feels in some distinct sense separate from it, always on some level observing; in other words, she's an artist.  She will never have the magnetism that Brooke has, but she might be able to reconfigure it, to use it for her own ends.

Of course, this all falls apart, and the scene in which the story peaks, set at a suburban mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, is a masterpiece of good, old-fashioned farce.  It's the crux of the film, the bringing together of all the strands of story, and of the disparate personality types that we have carefully been following since the beginning.  The fundamental clash between money and art, a principal theme of the film, is highlighted: Wealth is interested in art as a marker of status and prestige.  Wealthy people can help sustain art, but this puts artists at their mercy.  Brooke gets the money she needs for her restaurant, but with the condition that she abandon it.  She doesn't see that her natural charisma - which includes, for her sudden patron (and former fiancé) a certain sex appeal - is her best asset, but also her chief liability.  In all of her endeavors, she runs the risk of personally eclipsing anything she attempts to illuminate; people want her, not necessarily anything she makes. 

Baumbach doesn't have this problem, and neither does Tracey.  They are both artists whose involvement with their work is partially hidden.  Gerwig is another matter, and makes for an interesting case, which Mistress America stops just short of fully exploring.  Gerwig's naturally fluent energy and intelligence are liberated by the role of Brooke, who has a level of naivete in lieu of Gerwig's self-consciousness.  It'll be interesting to see how Gerwig plays this out; she's already shown interest and skill behind the camera (in addition to her co-writing with Baumbach, she also co-wrote and co-directed Joe Swanberg's Nights and Weekends).  My guess is that she'll do much more in projects to come. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Jurassic World

(Colin Trevorrow, USA, 2015)

I remain something of an agnostic on the subject of Steven Spielberg.  There's a lot to say about his work, for and against, and about the effect of his movies on the culture of cinema at large.  Such is a subject for another day, but while watching Jurassic World I found myself
unexpectedly wistful for his knack with the action/adventure blockbuster, a genre that he helped invent.  Given how far this film falls short, I couldn't help but wonder: is it really that difficult to make an even mildly diverting action/adventure film?  To go by the evidence on display, the answer is yes, and our man Steve is one of the very few who can reliably pull it off.  Given the hoopla - by which I suppose I really mean money - I was expecting something, oh, I don't know, fun.  But Jurassic World is a big, lumbering snooze.  The script is that conspicuous combination of ample zingers and utter banality, the unmistakable mark of having been re-written to death, micromanaged and fretted over by a committee of suits.  Trevorrow's direction fairly screams "competence!"; like the characters, he's just hoping to get out of the park alive.  Given the aforementioned piles of cash money that the film made, I'm sure he'll do fine.  I can only imagine the kind of soul-sucking, nerve-singeing task it must've been to midwife a film like this through its undoubtedly brutal delivery into the world, but the job, going by what ended up on screen, was essentially managerial.   The theme of genetic modification, sedulously faithful to the original,  makes for an apt metaphor: the experience is lab-designed, impressive technically but undoubtedly artificial.

Back to Spielberg: it's clear that the mission here was to bottle and sell the winning combination of childlike wonder, science geek-out, and genuine thrills that made the original such a gas.  Jurassic Park is no masterpiece, but it remains a sterling example of a film that can be both smart and pretty dumb, fun and also scary, technically brilliant but not cold and impersonal.   Trevorrow tries to follow Spielberg's example, foregrounding the story of a family in crisis, adopting a fluid, relatively clear visual style, and trying to imbue the proceedings with a clever sense of humor.  Very little of it works.  You can see the blueprint behind the images, and the film becomes a kind of pastiche of well-intentioned entertainment.  Chris Pratt, a focused and able performer, is wasted in a cartoon role, and Bryce Dallas Howard doesn't fare much better.  I'll admit to wondering what the big deal was.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Top Five

(Chris Rock, USA, 2014)
Chris Rock's film about celebrity and culture (and celebrity culture) feels like a grab-bag, but it makes the most of its looseness. At it's best, the film vibrates with energy and comedic wit, and Rock's observations on a range of subjects, from sexual politics to celebrity to race to commerce, are typically smart and often hilarious.  At its worst, it relies on warmed-over tropes of the Rom-Com, setting up the conditions for a romance with all the subtlety of teenagers at a High School social.  The strongest moments come with the instant authenticity of actions and reactions captured in real time; sudden bursts of verité-style improvisation, as Rock and his talented co-performers riff on all manner of subjects.  The film's title derives from a listing of one's favorite five hip hop artists, an activity that becomes a kind of social ritual, an exchange of ideas that serves as a basis for an ad-hoc bull session, argument as communion.  Rock's view, which is not entirely novel, is that success in the entertainment world - particularly in one as celebrity-worshipping as our own - means a certain failure of authenticity.  The bigger one gets, the harder it is to "keep it real" - a locution originating in the African American community that has come, like so many others, to prominence in the larger cultural lexicon.  Rock's innovation is to tie this broader failure to a more local one; for black celebrities, authenticity is a doubly important.  They don't suffer from only from the erosion of their personal integrity brought on by fame, but also from a sense that they are also being disloyal to their community - their sense of belonging to a group that is, for all of the social progress of the past fifty years, still on the margins in certain crucial ways. 

The dual-cultural dilemma is Rock's most compelling idea, but it doesn't fully animate the movie.  Much of the narrative is devoted to the obviously-fated romance of his character, a successful comedian who has become a movie star, and Rosario Dawson's character, a hustling journalist who also happens to be in recovery, like Rock's Andre Allen.  While Rock deserves credit for navigating these familiar tropes with verve and wit, they are the weakest aspects of the film.  It's clear that Rock gets the most energy for his comedy (and his pathos, which is real and which isn't fully explored by the film) from the high-wire energy of stand-up.  And there are some delightful scenes, including one of an actual stand-up routine, that fix and transmit this energy, charged with creative risk and self-revealing pain.  But they are outweighed by the more conventional super-structure of the film, which seeks to smooth over the rough edges that Rock's comedic imagination reveals in everyday life.  I'm curious to see what Rock does next, and I hope he follows his instincts further, and more daringly, into his development as a filmmaker. 

Monday, November 30, 2015


(Lee Tamahori, USA, 2007)

Chosen on a whim, I came to this movie with low expectations that weren't nearly low enough.  True, it's pleasurable enough to indulge in ridicule, and Next has nearly endless occasions for ridicule, from Cage's infamous hair to the fantastically bad CGI, to the hilariously hacky script, to the palpable boredom of the actors (even Cage, usually game for any extremity of stupid, can hardly be bothered), but even that appeal has its limits.  The amazement at the consistent shittiness of every last element of the production eventually curdles into weariness.  The film's sole value is as a kind of platonic ideal of Hollywood cynicism; everything about the film screams a lazy, pandering grab for money.  One could, if one were so inclined, get worked up over this; mercantile crassness, utter contempt for the audience, the vanity of a few rich people who are trying to ride the gravy train until the wheels come off, but what would be the point?  The film was a box office flop; perhaps proving that even the shameless peddling of trash has its limits. 

Ain't Them Bodies Saints

(David Lowery, USA, 2014)

Lowery's somber tale is an unapologetic tone piece, emphasizing characters and emotional temperature over story.  But Saints doesn't quite deliver the goods, despite an impressive attention to detail.  It's an unfortunate case of the whole being just a bit less than the sum of the parts; built upon a smart, sensitive script, with a capable cast and an uncommonly subtle visual scheme, the movie nonetheless falters in its attempt to summon deep feelings.  I'm still not entirely sure what Lowery was going for: there are moments where the story feels unintentionally sketchy, half-remembered, and overly vague, as if we were viewing the events through a haze of bourbon.   Lowery's touch proves to be too soft, and the film hovers uneasily between darker exploration of morality and a brighter, more vivid tale of frustrated love.  It's a careful film, a studied film, but its firm, gentle insistence on its own seriousness isn't enough to bring it to life. The fairy tale insularity, which was exploited brilliantly by Malick in Badlands (a clear influence on Saints that Lowery handles rather well) is stripped of any emotional or philosophical heft.  It's a film about lost love and sin and redemption and crime and bloodshed and fate that feels strangely, quietly soothing.

Monday, November 23, 2015


(Abderrahmane Sissako, France/Mauritania - 2014)

Viewed in the wake of the recent terror in Mali and Paris and Beirut, Sissako's gentle but searing film grows in its tragic dimensions.  In the West, Timbuktu has long been a touchstone of Eastern exotica; as far back as the 12th century, gold, textiles, salt, horses, and slaves all passed through or were traded in the city, and travelers brought back tales to Europe of great wealth and wonder.  For a time, it was a center of scholarship, representing some of the cultural heights of the early Islamic world.  Today Timbuktu is largely immiserated and in decline, the land becoming more arid, the weather less reliable, and the people more prone to incursions of vicious Islamic fundamentalists.  Sissako dramatizes the effects of one such recent occupation, in which Timbuktu was briefly overtaken by Ansar Dine, an ISIS-like organization.  The persistence of life under these conditions is the basis of the film's drama and its subtle humor, as the residents react to the absurd dictates of their new rulers with bemusement, outrage, irritation, and guile.

The dominant key is one of stoic, graceful survival.  Timbuktu has seen worse times, and it will likely survive its recent tumult, although climatic changes, hinted at in the film, cast a pallor of doubt over even this prospect.  Sissako's eye is attuned to the quotidian, and it ranges from the lovely to the horrific, with a quiet bafflement over the horrors of fundamentalist rule and a deep reverence for the humanity that endures it.  The film is often radiantly beautiful, even when harshness and terror are imminent.  Sissako isn't concerned with delivering the obvious condemnations, instead placing the mundane realities of waging authoritarian jihad alongside their most egregious abuses.  The invaders argue over soccer, they offer desultory reminders of the new rules, many of which are absurd besides being repressive - fishmongers must wear gloves if they are female, music and smoking are forbidden but clandestinely enjoyed - they putter about on aimless patrols, hand down swift injustice when the occasion calls for it.

Sissako has a glinting, brilliant eye but a very soft touch, and there are moments when one can't help but wonder if the subject matter calls for a different approach.  His contrast of the idyllic herders, who live on the outskirts of town, with the brutal harshness of the jihadist rule in the city feels occasionally to be pat or forced.  But this might be the limits of our own perspective.  When we in the West hear of this kind of violence and repression, and it's been a lot lately, it has little more reality to us than the tales of Marco Polo had for the burghers of quattrocento Venice.  Sissako's choice, by not indulging in our desire to sensationalize the depicted injustice, and thus absolving us of our own moral imagination, is bold and canny. 

But even in its foreignness, the world of Timbuktu is disarmingly and alarmingly familiar.  Cell phones are nearly ubiquitous.  Several languages are spoken, including French and English, and translation can pose a challenge.  Amid the Eastern unfamiliarity come jolts of recognition, even more so because of how ordinary they are: singing, playing music, arguing about sports trivia, simple familial love.  The crossed strands of culture and commerce that first launched Timbuktu into the popular imagination remain, but there's a dark cloud that looms over the limpid desert beauty.  There are no real oases.  Timbuktu isn't that far from Paris, or from New York, for all the good and evil in the world. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Monkey Business

(Howard Hawks, USA, 1952)

The occasion of my first viewing of this film, long considered one of Hawks's greatest, prompts some  ruminations on Hawks himself, and his body of work, which seem for me to be perennial.  To wit: is he really as good as they say?  The "they" in this case are, broadly, the critics of Cahiers du Cinema and their fellow travelers, past and present, for whom Hawks was an is a crucial icon.  For my part, despite my great admiration for many of his films, I remain unconvinced that they are fully deserving of the lavish encomiums they received from Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, et. al.  Partly, it's a problem of perspective.  To illustrate, then, a pet theory: for the autuerist project, Hawks was the linchpin even more than Hitchcock, whose formal audacity and inventiveness are undeniable, once you know where to look.  Many critics, distracted by the titillation and pulp that made up so much of Hitchcock's content, missed his genius on the first go-around.  But a careful re-appraisal yielded fast results: even setting aside his rich store of obsessions, the technical innovations and visual brilliance of Hitch can't be obscured for long, and his influence was palpable, even during his own day.  Hawks was another matter.  You can rave all you want to about the philosophical depth of Red River or Rio Bravo or Bringing Up Baby, and the attentive, careful viewer may still resist.  Yes,  they're all enjoyable movies.  They are smart, handsome, well-constructed.  But great art?  This takes more work to establish, and the Cahiers critics were more than happy to comply.  What better way to establish the essential value of your work than in creating an idol whose deepest significance you alone can divine and transmit to the uninitiated?

This isn't entirely fair.  It's to the critics' credit, and to Hawks, that both can (mostly) withstand the scrutiny and skepticism to which they are subjected, much of which was motivated by their effusive praise.  It's unlikely we'd be talking about Hawks very much if they hadn't placed him directly under their piercing gazes.  Again: Hitch probably would've be discovered sooner or later.  But Hawks? The winners write the history books, and both Hawks and Cahiers are secure in their legacy.  Yet I still see the traces of a polemic: in Hawks, the critics found a perfect receptacle for their grand ambition to establish once and for all the significance of the director as an artist every bit as great as those in painting, music, literature, etc.  It was precisely because of Hawks' unadorned, raw power, his eager embrace of the commercial side of cinema, his willingness to bend the formal qualities and even the stories to his own indestructible vision, that he was great.  In short, it was Hawks's American-ness.  He was a culture hero that could only be identified from afar, and the Caheirs critics were his self-elected acolytes, interpreters, and rhapsodizers.  In the eyes of his French admirers, he became the American ne plus ultra: fearless, self-disciplined, stoic, efficient, cool-headed but inwardly passionate, utterly independent.  Hawks was the American man who got into fistfights, seduced the most coveted women, drove the fastest cars, wore expensive clothes, lived by his own rules.  He was more Hemingwayesque than Hemingway, because he was both more modern and more classical (the essential Cahiers dialectic.)

He was thus an antidote to the aesthetic refinement of the European tradition.  However much the critics loved and appreciated the self-conscious artistry of Bresson, Dreyer, Rosselini, et. al., what they saw in the cinema of Hawks (and to a lesser degree in Hitchcock, and Ford, and Ray, et. al.) was style that transcended style.  There was an ontological power to the films of the American mainstream - the ones that were directed by an auteur, naturally - a monumentality that was burned into every frame, a transcendent energy that was irreducible even to mise-en-scene.  It was simply there, and you either felt it or you didn't.   Hence the famous panegyric to his work, written by Jacques Rivette after Monkey Business's release.

Rivette's essay is illuminating.  He opens with a brazen gauntlet-throwing, casting himself as a Hawksian hero, making it known at the outset that he will neither quibble nor qualify.  If you don't see Hawk's genius, then there's no helping you.  You might as well pack it in, pardner, at get the hell outta Dodge while the gettin's good.  But he's too good a critic, and too enthused about Hawks's cinema, to let it rest there.  He launches into an extended exegesis, singing Hawks's praises in the highest possible terms.  By the end, one can't help but wonder if one has seen the inauguration of an immortal that has beaten out Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare for top honors in the Olympian realm of aesthetic achievement.   I won't go through the piece in detail.  For all of its bluster and heat, it is undeniably brilliant, and surprisingly persuasive.   There's no doubt that Rivette has a sharp mind and a capacious imagination.  But what about the films?  Do they hold what Rivette claims they do?

Sticking to the matter at hand, and keeping to the spirit of those discussed, I'll say that they both do and don't.  In Monkey Business, the elements Rivette mentions are indeed present - wildness that verges on savagery, the entropic energy of both youth and sexuality, humor that is both antic and slightly unsettling, and an admiration for quick wits and moral clarity.  But do they coalesce into the grand edifice that Rivette celebrates?  If you want them to, sure.  But this is the crucial point of departure. As a viewer, you have to be on board, and you have to lend a certain credulity to the force-field theory of greatness that gathered around Hawks, via his acolytes.  On a scene-by-scene level, the elements of Hawks that feel dated, that are connected to the trappings of genre and to the culture of the era in which they were released, have the effect of distancing one from what lies beneath them.  The brilliance of Hawks lies in his ideas, which can only be discerned by first taking his plots and characters exactly as they appear.  Once you can appreciate the literalness of Hawks, the suggestive side, his slyness, becomes more clear.

In Monkey Business, Hawks charts the intersection of two trajectories - the improvement of modern life via science and the regressive aspects of human behavior.  The youth serum permits a thrilling release in libidinal energy, and chaos ensues.  Hawks's perspective on this is essentially stoic.  He doesn't tip his hand all that much, playing the scenario for maximum fun.  But an undercurrent can be discerned.  The regression is total; not only does the potion make Grant and Rogers feel more energetic, it makes them prone to the emotional condition of children; they are helpless, overwhelmed with jealousy, rage, terror, sexual attraction. Hawks sees the appeal of this as being universal and nearly irresistible; most people, if given the chance, will take the potion and damn the consequences. Therefore the only thing keeping us from ruin is the steely self-restraint of a few heroic types.  But you have to pass through the crucible of experience: Grant can only realize the dangers of his potion by first undergoing its effects.  The Hawksian hero is the one who is capable of self-control, who can channel his energies into the service of order.  On the whole, this is all treated with a frothy insouciance, which to Rivette is the crucial ingredient.  It's the very lightness of Hawks's films that bear the mark of the artist's seriousness.  Confronting the same issues head-on would risk sententiousness; even in the Westerns, with their ostensibly grave stories, are deceptively light in tone.

The experience is hard to reckon with.  To modern eyes, the cinema of Hawks can easily appear to be a romp.  The value of recognizing the bigger issues at stake, and the aesthetic sophistication required to frame them in such a way, is rare in our current culture, where a host of generic styles have come to inhabit the realm of the middlebrow, standing in for actual depth.  But it is crucial to recognize that Hawks exemplified an era, a moment when the cinema had a cultural centrality and a relative anonymity, when it was possible to hide one's obsessions in plain sight, on a gigantic glowing screen.  We have become, on the whole, savvier viewers, but we have also become strangely literal in our search for meaning in art.  The critics at Cahiers seized a moment of historical import, and while that moment has passed, we can still learn from their example.  Hawks, whatever one thinks of his relative merit, offers us an opportunity to see with new eyes. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

The Assassin

(Hou Hsiao Hsien, Taiwan/China/Hong Kong/France, 2015)

Hou's first film in 8 years is a foray into the wuxia genre, but it also remains very much within the range of aesthetic and thematic concerns he has been developing throughout his career, now 35 years running.  For an artist of his caliber, and particularly one I personally admire as much as I do, it's impossible to come to his new film without heightened expectations.  Therefore it's with a certain sense of relief that I can report that it's every bit as great as I'd hoped, and in several ways, a good deal better.  To speak first of the images:  we already knew that Hou has a singular eye for beauty.  What's delightful to discover is how he has expanded his range.  We see the familiar glowing, sensuous interiors, the impeccable blend of texture, light, and selective depth-of-field, his instinct for composition, all of which are aided in unfathomable ways by his longtime collaborator and fellow genius, Mark Lee Bin-ping.  But here Hou fixes as brilliant and searching a gaze on the exteriors, capturing the ethereal, uncanny beauty of rural Northern China, with its mist-shrouded mountains, its groves of ghostly white birches, its forests, rivers, and lakes.  A late scene that takes place on a mountain overlook, unfolding at Hou's stately pace as a cloud envelopes the surroundings, first as wispy fingers of mist and then as a field of pure white, is astonishing, soul-stirring, prompting fits of sputtering praise and leaving one to wonder if Hou has mastered dark, unspeakable forces, summoning the weather itself to do his bidding.

A slight interpolation regarding the medium of presentation:  I saw The Assassin, which was shot on 35mm in approximately the Academy ratio, on an appropriately large screen, but projected digitally.  I remain something of a traditionalist and a sorehead on the subject of film v. digital; while I have been duly impressed by the artistry that some directors - Jia Zhangke, Michael Mann, Godard, Resnais, et. al. - have brought to the medium, it remains, by my lights, something of a minefield.  I won't delve into a full-blown rant on the subject, but will simply say that we remain stuck in a kind of aesthetic limbo, with no easy way to navigate the inevitable shifting between formats and sizes that occurs between the shooting and the exhibition.  (Even digitally-captured movies can change aspects of their images when screened, and are subject to errors in framing, illumination, and resolution.)  Bin-ping and Hou's images withstand their digitization admirably, but not without certain scars.  The images seem to strain against their digitized fixity, which smooths out their texture, flattening and compressing them, turning the beautiful imprecision of film grain into a kind of chilly blur.   There are movies that are shot on film and should stay on film, and this is one of them.  I'm sure the Blu Ray will look wonderful.  But for a sixty-foot screen, digital cannot make up the difference, no matter how many Ks you lob at the problem.

There is notably more story to this film than is usual for Hou, which makes sense, given that he fully embraces certain aspects of the genre.  There is intrigue, sword fighting, even an appearance of the supernatural.  But these elements are deployed in moderation, interspersed between the limpid scenes of daily life and repressed longing.  For Hou, the rule remains: less is more (excepting beauty, in which realm Hou is an avowed maximalist.)  As a result, the sudden eruptions of choreographed violence have a potency that is enough to make you flinch in your seat.  While Hou still presents these scenes as being ritualistic and elegant, as per the genre, his sense of realism is never wholly absent, and they have a jarring edge of chaos to them, all the more so because of the relative stillness that surrounds them.

And Hou is ever elliptical.   I won't claim to have followed the details of the story perfectly, even though, as imperial intrigue goes, the basic elements are pretty straightforward.  But this is part of Hou's overall aesthetic and moral vision.  He's never been all that interested in the logic of narrative.  History is always present for Hou, but not in the linear sense we are used to, especially in our usual biopics and period movies, where the standard method is one of compression and linearity: the tangled strands of the past are sorted and simplified for the sake of clarity, and then condensed for emotional potency.  For Hou, history comes alive in stillness, in the micro-dimension of real time, which is then suddenly interrupted by the cut.  Hou is probably most celebrated as a composer of images and as a director of long, flowing scenes.  But this obscures the other side of his art, which is that of the hard cut.  It's easy in this case to invoke the metaphor of swordplay, so we'll yield to that temptation: Hou cuts as though with a blade, carving an experience that testifies to the discontinuity of time.  A battle is given no more weight than an attendant preparing a bath.  The deliberations of politicians stand on equal footing with a child playing with a butterfly, or a woman playing the zither.

It's tempting, writing from a western perspective, to make comparisons to Chinese painting, poetry, and narrative when discussing this kind of a work.  I'll simply say, out of my relative ignorance in these matters, that there is in the film an exemplary commingling of simplicity and lushness, of elegance and fracture, of emotional magnitude and steely detachment.  As spectators, we enter the film as if falling into a dream, where logic stalls and wanders, emotions become heightened and bewildering, and time and space lose their polarity.  At times, the film felt positively like a waking dream, an experience of sensory intensity and abstraction.  The world of the story - roughly, the last days of the Tang Dynasty, in the Eighth Century, is one that is hard for us to imagine, in which the smallest gesture - the way a Lord sits on his throne, or the way one fixes one's hair, or lights a candle, or drinks tea - is pregnant with meaning, suspended in ritual.  Life taken to such extremes can seem ridiculous, even in its beauty.  And yet it is more familiar than we imagine, given all of the signals and codes that still govern our behavior.  Hou is impressed, even awed, by the rituals and the foreignness of the past, but he also sees, in his deeply modernist way, a sense of continuity with the past that can only be discerned by looking very carefully.  Besides the impeccably composed frames and gestures there is also the earthy grit of peasant life, the play of children, the spontaneous joy that emerges from the most rigidly composed of dances, and the massive, overwhelming and ineluctable presence of the natural world. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

While We're Young

(Noah Baumbach, USA, 2014)

Baumbach, mellowing into middle age, has become more willing to mix things up.  While We're Young is notably less astringent than his previous outings (with the exception of the similarly breezy Frances Ha), and he samples from a long menu of styles and techniques.   This approach winds up being unstable and occasionally discordant, but it remains enjoyable throughout.  The film contains: at least one cheesy montage, a few stabs at broad, silly humor, a side-plot involving deception and amateur forensics, some strikingly earnest deliberations on ethics and politics, Baumbach's usual sharp wit and deft satire, bland lay-sociology, compassionate ruminations on aging and love, to name most, but not all of the ingredients.  So yes, it gets a little messy.  To keep the tonal inconsistencies from swamping the experience, Baumbach wisely keeps things going at a brisk trot, occasionally bursting into a gallop.

Stiller does his usual tetchy thing, and Naomi Watts is great as the confused by ultimately more stable member of the marriage.  But let's spare a word for the usually excellent Adam Driver.  I've thought highly of him since first seeing his work (it might've been in Girls) and I still think he's an actor of remarkable originality and undeniable charisma.  But he's always balanced on the knife-edge of mannerism, and here, he teeters over into it.  Knowing that Driver is capable of better, I'll blame this on Baumbach.  The intention is clear enough: Driver's Jamie is something of a con man, and we catch on far more quickly than Stiller's Josh, who's taken in by Driver's exuberance and flattery.  But the performance goes too far, and Driver seems isolated and self-conscious, mugging and flailing like a far lesser actor.  Still, he's entertaining to watch, and very funny in some scenes, which ought to be a tribute to his talent.  There's a host of other supporting players, all fine, particularly Charles Grodin as Josh's disapproving father-in-law and occasional bête noire.

There's a temptation I'll admit to resisting, because it wouldn't be fair, to dismiss much of the While We're Young's action (and by extension, the film) as another compendium of First World Problems.  While the subject of money comes up from time to time, there's never any real economic uncertainty in the characters' lives (at least none that can't be easily mollified), and they coast through the New York that exists for the rich and the almost-rich like tourists through Times Square.  But it still seems to require a mention.  The problem is that the New York of (most) movies is becoming increasingly illusory, increasingly at odds with the reality of plutocracy and segregation (both of class and of race, in some cases).  And New York is emblematic of the country at large, a perennial mythological land that exemplifies the American Dream, however one interprets that trope.  Buambach, for all of his intelligence, seems unaware of just how bogus this mythology has become.   He does include some glances towards the deeper socio-economic issues that distantly surround the lives of the characters: war, poverty, mental illness, political dysfunction (Josh's long-gestating documentary project is purportedly about these very issues.)  The director clearly knows that his characters live in a bubble, but its a bubble he knows from the inside as well as the outside.  Thus, his satire is blunted by his sympathy with certain aspects of upper-middle class complacency.  This is frustrating precisely because we all know how dyspeptic he can be.  Is this mellowing, then, a weakness?  I'm not entirely sure.  The last shot lends a certain touch of ambivalence, a welcome gravity, even if it's presented as humor.  Baumbach is nothing if not nimble, and it might take another film or two to see if he still knows how to aim his ire at a worthy target.  In the meantime, his gentle ribbing has its charms. 

The Duke of Burgundy

(Peter Strickland, UK/Hungary, 2015)

Strickland's pastiche-cum-melodrama-cum-metaphysical fable goes wrong from the beginning.  It imagines itself as being everything but what it most effectively is: a reasonably compelling study of a faltering romance.  There are moments when the interplay between the two lovers breaks into sharp, psychologically revealing material, but this rare virtue is made prominent by the moody filler that surrounds it.  The two actresses do an admirable job with their roles, which are minimal but at least potentially strong; after all, the subject of the film is performance itself.  But Strickland overshoots in his attempt to artify the story, which he treats with an obscurantism and a severity that becomes reactionary, if unintentionally so.

We can easily generalize from the film's subject: all love affairs, and even casual relationships, contain inner dynamics of power, which remain mostly submerged, iceberg-style.  In The Duke of Burgundy, these dynamics are made explicit, and are then tested.  Desire is intensified through ritual and overt power, compressing its energies like a spring. Strickland understands the appeal of this kind of role-playing, which plays openly with violence and coercion.  It's dangerous, and danger is sexy, but it's also never without a certain amount of absurdity.  Strickland touches upon this absurdity, and it results in some of the film's best scenes.  But he's more interested in the dark side, in the proximity to death, and the film tilts into airless, dreary portentousness.  It's not that the death angle is wrong - it's just that it isn't explored with genuine artfulness or daring.  Strickland isn't comfortable, or else he's unable, to go beyond poses and into actual confrontation.  As a result, the film, like the relationship, is hobbled at the outset, locked into a cold, stifling rigidity.  When the breakdown comes - when one of the characters can't keep up the act - it's not surprising.  It's hard enough to watch a stuffy, meandering arthouse movie, let alone live in one.  

Strickland is so concerned with not appearing salacious that he never allows his imagination free reign.  So he sticks to a series of formulae, and even those don't comfortable mesh.  Certain stylistic touches are self-conscious pastiche, like the title sequence; even the subject itself - sado-masochistic lesbian lovers! - is a boldfaced throwback to 70s Euro porn/art fare.  Why choose this approach?  It's novel, I suppose.  I don't think Strickland has any better reason.  But it jars with the rest of the film, from its occasional glimpses of psychological realism (again, the best stuff in the movie) to its decorative interludes of nocturnal insects, which comes off as a stab at high-minded metaphor, just vague enough to appear profound. 

One of the axes of power in the lover's relationship stretches between refined cleanliness and excremental filth.  Kudos to Strickland for "going there," which he does (sort of), but the style of the film betrays his essentially conservative vision.  Too often, the scenes are lit and staged with the chilly glow of a fashion spread.  There's barely a speck of dirt in the whole film - at least none that we can really see.  This tidiness amounts to a kind of self-censorship on the part of the director.  The immense forces at work behind the lovers' games are left un-invoked, and the messiness of that desire's birth into form, the extremity of such a pursuit, are only hinted at.  It's a fascinating subject, and Strickland cast a couple of fascinating leads: Chiara D'Anna and Sidse Babbet Knudsen both radiate intelligence and emotion.  But he doesn't pursue the more compelling and strange aspects of the story, settling instead for a tease. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Salt of the Earth

(Herbert J. Biberman, USA, 1954)

A kind of miraculous achievement.  Salt of the Earth is so unusual, so sui generis, that it prompts me to examine my fundamental ideas about cinema, and art in general.  It's not a film that excels on the merits of style, which makes it difficult to fit within the framework of autuerism.  Biberman is a capable director - he has a feel for pacing, mood, and manages to conjure some bracing images.  And he isn't without style: the film has clear antecedents in Italian neorealism, Biberman having learned much from Rosselini in his skill with nonprofessional actors, his brisk, straightforward framing, and his focus on the rough textures and flashes of beauty that one can find in squalor.  He also exhibits a knack for staging melodrama, a theatrical skill that isn't often spoken of in relation to neorealism, but which is as essential to it as handheld camerawork and deeply lined faces.  

But all of that is transcended in the story, which takes on a kind of documentary immediacy, and even more strangely, develops a glow of prophecy.  Not that it portends some future revelation, but that it is itself a kind of revelation, a vision of something that is true, and thus timeless.  Because this isn't a story that can be told, or that has been told.  It's a kind of revelation of a personal nature, so intrinsic to human history and yet so commonly suppressed, that it contains the urgency of a suddenly remembered trauma.  My guess is that one needs to be attuned to this history to recognize how exceptional it is.  The notices upon its release ranged from hysterical to dismissive.  Plenty of people who considered themselves apolitical were scandalized by the film, which despite their apolitical nature still managed to stir a strong aversion in them.  I won't impinge on Zizek's turf, but this is ideology in action. 

Several scenes are clunky, and the nonprofessional actors are, with a few notable exceptions, easy to spot.  But it's in this neorealist gambit - casting everyday people, some of whom were actual participants in the strike that served as the basis for the story - that Biberman reveals his genius.  A more polished production, with more money and the artifice to spend it on, would easily tumble into treacly sermonizing.  It's the documentary quality that brings the story to life, that fuses with the subject matter of everyday people taking control of their lives, living out there convictions, and struggling against their limitations, internal and external.  It's Biberman's focus on the actual living conditions, the real hovels in which the minors were housed, the clothes they wore, the way they stood in the cold, that elevates this story to the level of great art.  

As a culture, we are made uniquely uncomfortable by political art, and have been for over a century.  But that's not entirely true, since all art is political on at least one level.  Better to say that we are uncomfortable with art that is honest about its political content, that treats the moral underpinnings of its political attitudes as worthy of acknowledgement.  We have become used to the idea of our art as anguished, obscure, even nihilistic (as if that weren't a question of morality), art that is cagey about its conception of human value.  Audiences still don't know what to do with a movie like Salt of the Earth.  In the fifties, it was easier just to ban it, and the critics were happy to comply.  It might have given the Feds hives, but its greater and more dangerous effect was to make bourgeois critics and audiences squirm.  Taking the film seriously means suspending, even temporarily, the lies we live by: that wage labor is an acceptable price for comfort and the illusion of freedom, that women still (still!) aren't quite on the level of men, that the Latino migrant workers might have it worse off, but what can you do?  Better them than us. 

Salt of the Earth is a film that dares to speak plainly about unspeakable things.  In 2015, it feels absolutely contemporary.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Spectacular Now

(James Ponsoldt, USA, 2013)

Although it doesn't transcend the strictures of the coming-of-age romance, there's a lot to admire in this one.  Principally, the acting is excellent.  Kudos all around, including Ponsoldt, who elicits performances of subtlety and naturalistic flair.  Miles Teller establishes himself as fine actor - a natural, but one of capable of great focus and precision - he's got that Brandoish emotional access, but without the cerebral quality that made Brando at once immediate and remote.   Shailene Woodley elevates her role as the "nice girl," hinting at a complexity that the story doesn't quite allow her to pursue.  Ponsoldt ably orchestrates the mood of the film, with long takes that emphasize the pent-up energies of adolescence and the soft, rich greens of rural springtime.  Ponsoldt's perspective is humane and adult; he views the teenagers and their troubles with earnest sympathy, but remains essentially detached from the action.  This is fine, but it winds up underlining the inner conflict of the project, which is essentially a high school romance with sprinkling of real-world danger and adult tragedy.  That sounds harsh, but the fact remains that the movie, which begins with what appears to be an ironic nose-thumbing at the college entrance essay ("Describe a challenge from your life, and what you learned from it"), winds up buying that idea of overcome adversity whole-hog.  Yes, Teller's Sutter takes some hard knocks - his dad is a selfish drunk, he's well on his way to a similar fate - but these harsh realities are dimmed in favor of an optimistic glow that is never fully earned.

The most remarkable narrative choice is the treatment of Sutter's alcoholism.  He's a full-time drinker, we learn pretty quickly, who takes frequent nips from a flask and fortifies his Big Gulp with hard liquor, thus keeping a constant buzz.  Other characters have varying levels of awareness; his ex-girlfriend, whose dumping him is in part a response to his drinking, makes passing mention of it, his mother seems to be in the dark, and Woodley's Aimee - who is, like Sutter, the child of an addict parent (in her case, the dad has been killed by his disease) - falls easily into his habit, joining in his immoderate imbibing.  It's only directly addressed once, at the end, when his boss (the stalwart boob Bob Odenkirk) confronts him over it.  The boss, paraphrased: "If I was your father, I'd say something about what you're doing to yourself."  Sutter:  "If you were my father, you wouldn't have to."  It's a nice dramatic couplet, but it has the unfortunate effect of being pat, of papering over Sutter's destructiveness with a sudden burst of self-reflective clarity and eloquence, as if all at once, the key to Sutter's drinking has been revealed and exorcised.  Next thing we know, he's decided to get his life in order. The kind of ledgerdemain that a well-liked addict can create to protect their addiction is a fascinating phenomenon, a worthy subject for a film.  But in the end, this isn't what The Spectacular Now is about, and the risk is that Sutter's compulsion is just one of many problems to be overcome by a combination of gumption and forgiveness, something to be outgrown, almost, by the end of summer.

...On the other hand, I'm not sure my charge sticks.  To clarify: I'm not sure that Ponsoldt is intending the film to be anything other than an unusually polished Young Adult entertainment.  Drinking and divorce are real and ugly enough, but they aren't exactly unknown in the genre.  The overall sheen of the film, with its filmic softness and subtle performances, suggests currents of discord and energy that aren't pursued, and belies the low aim of the story that serves as its basis.  One feels tempted to take the tack of a guidance counselor:  there's untapped potential here.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Man on Wire

(James Marsh, USA, 2014)

Delightful.  Although burdened by various trappings of the contemporary documentary - an overweening musical score, copious re-enactments, ginned-up narrative tension - it remains a compelling, moving portrait of an artist.  That's the primary virtue of the Marsh's film: its willingness to take Petit at his impassioned, wildly unreasonably word, and frame his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers as a major work of art; furthermore, as one that reaches for sublimity.  Petit's search for transcendence, with all of the willfulness, self-regard, and obsession that such a search entails, comes to appear almost anachronistic.  In this era of performance art, which caroms between obscure and blandly provocative, is there someone else who can match Petit's courage, his instinct for drama, and his fierce emphasis on joy?  Marsh's direction is straightforward and procedural; Petit's irrepressible personality centers the film and drives it forward.  Woven throughout is a thin thread of critical reflection, not fully pursued, but not absent either: what are the costs of this kind of passion?  Petit seems none the worse for all of it; his magnificent stunt made him an instant celebrity, and he never looked back.  But his collaborators all bear, to one degree or another, a sense of having been burned by his incandescent quest.  They are uniformly grateful for having been present, but are also aware of the gulf that separates them from Petit, a gulf that seems as inevitable as it is vast.  In the end, there was only one man on the wire; the rest of us were merely spectators.  As close as we can get, we'll never be able to know what it was like, out there between the towers.    

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Canyons

(Paul Schrader, USA, 2014)

As a fan of Schrader, I'm inclined to grade this bleak, moody, shoestring-cheap foray on a pretty steep curve.  In a way, it's fascinating to see what amounts to a kind of experimental film: what do you do when you take Schrader, a veteran director, and a visionary to boot, and pair him with a so-so script by a writer (Ellis) of a distantly related sensibility, and almost nothing in the way of a budget?  The one thing to add, it appears, and which saves the film from catastrophe, is cast Lindsay Lohan.  She is undeniably terrific, showing a heroic range of talent: vulnerable, haunted, feisty, sexy, terrified.  Most of the best stuff in the film is simply Schrader knowing how to frame her face; with her reactivity, her skittishness, her summoning courage (almost all of which has meta-textual resonance, adding to its potency) she turns the film from a tawdry exercise in well-trod territory (especially for Ellis, who seems to have written the script in a single afternoon, possibly while napping) into something that actually contains flashes of greatness.

Lots of other crap intrudes.  Too often, Schrader is forced to settle for second (or third, or fifth) best.  His cast (excepting Lohan) are game but woefully ill-equipped, the script is sloppy, the camerawork middling.  But the first scene is a kind of master-class in effective direction, and there are, again, moments that are simply charged with a dark, gloomy brilliance.  As always, Schrader's eye is one of a great moral seriousness, unable to turn away from the inescapable fact of sin.  His writing was the anguished Protestant that gave rise to some of Scorsese's most ornately Catholic creations, and true to his tradition, he remains the more raw and unstable of the two filmmakers.  He has very little of Scorsese's visual genius, but he has a psychological grasp that is perhaps unrivaled in contemporary American cinema.  Schrader is a working man's director.  Without the kind of afflatus of a Scorsese, he builds each film from scrap, with whatever is at hand.  His taste is inconsistent, his temperament is reckless.  He's still scrapping to get his films made, God bless him. 


(Lisandro Alonso, Argentina, 2013)

Beautiful, but somewhat limited its detached formalism.  It's Alonso's least structuralist work, and what he discards from his rigidly observational method he makes up for with an increasingly poetic approach.  Rather than an immersive, "you are here in this world, in real time," he orchestrates a kind of expanse-in-minature: the arid wastes of southern Argentina are painterly and limpid.  The action, which includes both sex and violence, is likewise held at a distance, balanced in the frame, as if it were happening on stage.  Artifice is heightened, and the symbolic weight of the story is foregrounded, while the mood is kept tightly in check.  As far as durational cinema goes, Lisandro is carving out a secure niche for himself.  He isn't a maestro of dreamlike atmosphere, like Apatchitpong, or a poet of urban alienation, like Tsai; he has none of the political-diaristic fury of the great (dearly departed) Ackermann.  He somehow manages to be both reserved and restless.  The ending sequence, which launches the film into a new realm, literally and metaphorically, is a brilliant and thrilling gambit; I'm not sure it worked.  But I'm happy he went there.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Angels With Dirty Faces

(Michael Curtiz, USA, 1938)

An oddly mixed bag.  Curtiz's achievement is the orchestration of interplay between Cagney's character and the streetwise orphans who revere him.  There's a raw vitality to these scenes, and beyond that, Cagney's character itself - overflowing with volcanic intensity and charm, which balances, threateningly and thrillingly, always on the edge of evil - is enough to recommend the film.  It's suggested that quite by chance, Cagney's swagger acts as a civilizing function for the boys, channeling their anarchic power towards order, while forcing himself to behave as the mature adult.  These strangely amusing scenes, bursting with colorful slang and punctuated with slaps, kicks, and punches that serve as a secondary language, point towards a complex and humane vision that Curtiz never realizes.  The film eventually morphs into a hollowly pious moral tale, spoiling its promise.  The final scenes are meant to be a dramatic reversal, but it comes off as feeble moralizing, an ostentatious pitch for Christian street cred.  Today, the film would depict Cagney's rehabilitation as a good citizen; in 1938, he had to get sent to the chair, with his electrocution as an occasion for moral uplift. 


(Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1946)

A contender for Hitch's greatest work, it is easily his most elegant and precise.  This is the Master of Suspense in top form, the tension tightening like a vice until the breathless final scene. For all that, it is a surprisingly breezy film, but that's what made Hitchcock a master.  He is cinema's greatest seducer, always pairing danger with pleasure, transgression with giddy fun.  Hitchcock was allergic to moralizing (which got him into trouble with everybody, even the occasional audience) but to the extent that you could draw a lesson from his films, it might be "watch out." In his cinematic world, there is trouble around every corner; it's a dream life that's forever on the verge of becoming a nightmare.  This stolid, meticulous Brit understood with astonishing clarity the appeal of simulated catastrophe.  The escapist thrills he was selling seem perverse as soon as you consider them: wouldn't it be a gas to have your whole life turned upside down?

All of Hitchcock's movies contain the basic ingredients of fables, more familiar to modern audiences as kids' stories: secrets, keys, bottles, mirrors, disappearances, disguises, guns, knives, big houses (castles), codes, chases, transformations.  But he didn't make movies for kids, he made them for adults, so he added the element that makes the difference: sex.  To watch a Hitchcock film is to regress, joyfully, while not also abandoning our libido.  The chase becomes a kind of game, even if the stakes are the highest imaginable: life and death, love, world peace.  And what is sex, anyway, but a game for grown-ups? 

The key to Hitchcock's genius, and his singular visionary gift, lies in his appreciation of the totemic power of images.  Looking, he intuited, is a kind of possession. (Notice the hold in beholding.) We look at what we want to possess, and, conversely, we take a kind of ownership of what we see.  Ownership changes the outside world, and begins to shape it.  Sight is the greediest of our senses, the most restless, the least free.  This theme reached its apotheosis in Vertigo, that fever dream of possession as passion (and vice versa).  Scotty is initially bewitched by the sight of Madeline, than haunted by her sudden absence, and then begins to reconstruct his vision of her - not her, of course, but the apparition that he held with his eyes, until she resumes her place in his dream.  We do this all the time, in small ways, shaping the world to suit our own needs; in Vertigo, it's taken to the point of madness.

We don't see a world, we see things.  History hasn't recorded whether Hitchcock read any Wittgenstein, but his movies can sometimes play like an impish gloss on the philosopher's work.  On its own, what importance does a bottle of wine have?  But it's not just any bottle; Hitchcock has framed it in such a way, lit it in such a way, even tracked suddenly in, gliding forward until the shot has become a close-up; now we know that something is up with this bottle.  And what else has just happened?  That character, the nervous, sweaty-looking guy with the glasses, he was pointing at the bottle, clearly agitated.  What can it mean?  We are, suddenly, dying to know.  Meaning has become incipient; the world is taking a new shape.  All of this is to say that an object placed in a certain context begins to create meaning; we want to know more, which is another way of saying we want to see more

Notorious is also the clearest template for what would become his signature formula: an intimate drama dressed up as a thriller.  After 1946, his films became increasingly elaborate (with some notable exceptions) and hallucinatory, his symbols more vivid and strange.  But they remained, at their core, stories about troubled love.  The love triangle at the center of Notorious is exemplary in its unity: Grant is both lover and pimp, betrayer and savoir.  Raines is gallant and dastardly, detestable and ultimately pitiable. Bergman, caught in the middle, shows herself to be both more courageous than her lovers and also more self-destructive; her need for love, and her need to conceal that need, is not just a matter of pride but a matter of survival.  Around this core of opposing passions Hitchcock wrapped his most perfect plot, and studded it with some of his most elegant images: the stolen key, the mysterious bottle, the pained, frightened, infatuated faces of his stars.  The party sequence, beginning with Bergman's theft of the key and climaxing in Grant's reckless decision to kiss her in plain view of her husband, is pure virtuosity, rarely matched before or since. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

(Christopher McQuarrie, USA, 2015)

Fun, and self-consciously so, but still disappointingly bland.  There's a strange inconsistency in the film, which ping-pongs between witty, energetic action, and clunky, rote deployment of story (character is jettisoned with a sigh of relief.)  McQuarrie is an intelligent, visually acute director, and he's a screenwriter with an unusually strong knack for dramatic structure, and in several scenes, his skills are clearly on display.  But for every good, fun sequence, there is another that's marked by its clumsiness.  I've long thought that McQuarrie had enormous potential, and The Way of the Gun remains a mostly unsung masterpiece.  It was his first film as director, and it showed a bravado, a willingness to mix genres with wit and humor, and a remarkably solid command of tone.  He was more or less exiled as a director when it failed to do well enough at the box office, and he's been climbing his way back ever since.

Jack Reacher was his audition to make this latest installment of the MI franchise, and although it didn't do particularly good business, it was successful enough to get him the job.  McQuarrie proved that he could do action, and do it well (although he had already more than proved that with his first film), or at least well enough to please Cruise Inc.  And like Reacher, McQuarrie here trades on the inherently silly and overused aspects of the genre, playing the story for maximum fun, a kind of giddy throwback to an earlier, less self-serious era of action filmmaking.  It's a welcome response, if nothing else, to the absurdly dour direction that the Bond franchise has taken.  But fun and wit only go so far, and they clearly don't go far enough for McQuarrie, who you can feel growing bored with the conventions of this movie, even as he goes through the motions with commendable good humor.  There are some good jokes, but several others aren't more than half-hearted feints at levity.  And sometimes the arch, winking nature of the direction, which is always quick to remind the audience that everybody is having fun - Cruise, McQuarrie, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson (who has the most depth out of anyone, acting and character-wise, although that's not saying much as far as it goes - nonetheless, she's terrific) Jeremy Renner, etc - trips over itself, and becomes merely awkward.  It's as if McQuarrie was unsure about how silly he was allowed to make the derivative stuff, and winds up delivering the necessary exposition and plot mechanics with a half-apologetic tone:  "I know you've seen this fucking scene twenty times before, but just bear with us - Cruise is going to be running again in like a minute."

So despite all the energetic antics, it still feels somewhat exhausted.  Only in the set-pieces - the Opera-house melee, the motorcycle chase, the underwater infiltration - does the movie really come alive.  This is no great complaint, after all; it's a silly action movie.  But the big lesson of the summer is that it needn't be thus.  Mad Max taught us that.  Cruise may be running as fast as ever, and doing stunt after breathtaking stunt, but the rest of the time, he's matching McQuarrie in idleness.  His whole performance, or at least the non-stunt parts, is a basically mugging.  It's funny the first time, and then the second time it feels like, ha-ha, this again, and then by the seventh or eighth time he does that little half-grin with the head tilted 30 degrees, it just becomes kind of bizarre.  This is a movie full of talented, hardworking people who could be doing much, much better.  And even so, it's not bad for an air-conditioned two hours.

*The most remarkable thematic element of the film is in the suggestion that the United States spy culture is hopelessly ruthless and corrupt, and one ought to show no loyalty to contemporary institutions of state power.  Nationalism is a sham, basically.  Not an entirely new idea, as far as spy movies go, but it was still a bit jarring and actually a little refreshing to see in this context.  The real loyalty, the movie makes explicit, is owed to those you care about and love.  This is not exactly radical, but its nonetheless bracing in a movie of this kind, where there is usually at least a perfunctory nod towards the essential rectitude of Big Government.  Not here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Transformers: Age of Extinction

(Michael Bay, USA, 2014)

Didn't finish it.  Does that make it ineligible for review?  Partly, I suppose; I'll offer, then, a part-review.  My reasons for essaying Bay's latest megabuster were: I was tired and wanted something non-demanding to watch, and (more scrupulously) I wanted to see if my initial impression of him as a hack was correct.   There is, of course, a small but not insignificant of, shall we say, Bay apologists, who would have you believe that the man's work is misunderstood, dismissed out of hand by a lazy critical culture that glosses over his skill at orchestrating rococo destruction.  What the hell, I thought.  Might as well give this one a try.

Watching the first third-or-so of the film confirmed my earlier judgement, and, hopefully, cured me of any future impulse to revisit this kind of work.  Age of Extinction is trash, but there's a kernel of truth to the apologist stance: it is auteurist trash.  Tempting as it may be to dismiss the whole thing as so much corporate cheese product, there's no missing Bay's greasy fingerprints: the saturated colors, "patriotic" overtones, painful attempts at humor,  pyrotechnical excess.  Does this in any way mitigate the overall shoddiness of the film?  I can't see how.  It's possible that Bay's sense of taste and style mesh perfectly with the Budweiser/Mountain Dew aesthetic his films so perfectly capture.  If they do, all the more reason to blame the film's shittiness on the director.  I can imagine Brad Bird doing something far superior, and about 100 times more intelligent, that would still make piles of money.  Or, to name just another recent example, George Miller. There's room in the system, even one as shallow and cruddy as contemporary Hollywood, for big-scale, widely appealing entertainment.  I don't blame the corporate overlords for this theme park tie-in of a movie.  At the end of the day, it was Bay who signed off under the all the stupidity. 

Friday, June 26, 2015

Cafe Lumiere

(Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan/Japan, 2003)

More from the great, essential series Also Like Life: The Films of Hou Hsaio Hsien, which arrived in LA, after other stops in the States, in April.  I'd seen Café Lumière on DVD years ago, already a certifiable Hou head, and I enjoyed the film but wasn't deeply impressed by it.  It was good to see that Hou clearly felt no anxiety about the influence of Ozu (the film was commissioned as a tribute for Ozu's centenary), but the apparent sketchiness, even by Hou's standards of non-event, made it feel like an exercise, or an extended short. The linkage between Hou's meteoric stylistic innovations and Ozu's own radical cinema seemed clear enough to the well-versed viewer, but what was Hou's take?  To me, the whole project felt too modest, too politely respectful.  I went into this recent screening with the expectation to see more.

And I did find that it clarified things.  I'm still catching up with Hou's impish side, which has been probably the single attribute that's been most revealed during this series.  In Cafe Lumiere, the long, limpid  stretches of everyday activity are punctuated often with sly grace notes of dry humor.  Yoko, reserved and initially somewhat mysterious, is revealed by tiny gradations to be a surprisingly rich and strange character.  She's independent, following her own obsessions and interests with a quiet and rock-steady confidence, but she's also a kind of bohemian flake.  Naturally, these two sides are shown to be related.  She's also, we soon find, pregnant, and isn't very interested in making plans for the future, although she appears to have no doubt that she'll raise the child on her own. The father of her child, whom she refers to as her boyfriend, is literally out of the picture; he's back in Taiwan, where Yoko had been working and living, and she repeatedly states that she has no intention of marrying him.

The concern of her parents is genuine, and their worry (in their reserved way) resonates all the more poignantly through its subtlety - neither one of them wants to confront Yoko over her blithe attitude towards impending motherhood.  And yet Hou is quick with a wink and a smile - there is also a kind of comedy in their bafflement over her life choices, and their inability to communicate any of this to her.  An exemplary sequence, in compositional, tonal, and thematic complexity, comes late in the film.  The family is eating dinner, and Yoko is describing, with apparent disdain, even hints of scorn, the way her paramour is tethered to his mother.  The mother listens but has little to say, while the father steadily downs sake, getting stoned to avoid what this family dinner seems to be revealing about all involved.  He's almost center-frame, sagging visibly from the booze.  Yoko, meanwhile, is way off to the right side of the frame, talking more to herself than to anyone else at the table, as she enumerates the boyfriend's shortcomings.  Her mother's back is to us, interjecting the occasional comment but unable to penetrate her daughter's quietly defiant and inward mood.  The three characters, separated by time, biology (Yoko's biological mother, we learn earlier, left the family when Yoko was still a young child) and physical space.  The end of the scene has a punch-line: the umbrellas we keep hearing people thank Yoko for (which we only see hints of; at first mention of this, it feels like a non-sequitur) are in fact from the business that her boyfriend's family runs. 

Then there's Hajime, the mild-mannered fellow bohemian.  There are occasional hints of some romantic connection between him and Yoko, either past or vaguely in the future, but they are mostly just fellow drifters in the city. The final scene of the film underscores the tentative nature of their relationship.  Hajime, who is out on one of his sound-collecting missions, happens to enter the train car where Yoko has fallen asleep.  He approaches her, but we don't see if he wakes her up, or her reaction upon seeing him.  Hou cuts to them leaving the train, where Hajime continues recording and Yoko stands beside him.  They're now together but couldn't be farther apart; despite what they have in common they appear to be, at least in part, on separate tracks.  It's a gloriously understated moment, pregnant with potential meaning and yet stubbornly elusive.  The next thing we see is a familiar shot of trains diverging and converging over the steady, slow, and opaque waters of an urban canal of some kind.  The Ozu-ian notion of trains as the marker of urban modernity, of implacable change and the erosion of traditional society, is alive and well.  But through Hou's eyes, there's a luminous range of possibility, a rediscovery of intimate dimensions, that arises from this strange landscape.

They Came Together

(David Wain, US, 2014)

I've got a weakness for the high-jinks of Wain and Co., and here, they don't disappoint.  What's of interest in a film like this, besides the gloriously goofy gags - the genuinely strange quality that resides in the movie like a fugitive odor - is how difficult this kind of anarchic approach can be to sustain.  The idea of building a structure out of a string of gags - even very good gags - is one of those "great in theory, tough in practice" type of things.  The Stella gang always had a sense of this: their best work shines in the very short format of the great, essential Stella Shorts, which turn less-than-zero production value, punky irreverence, and brevity into sublime virtues.  The minute things get polished and practiced, it begins to feel forced.  Some of the anarchic joy drains out of the frame.  Which isn't to say that their higher-gloss efforts have been for naught; they did pull of some great zaniness on their short-lived Comedy Central show, Showalter's The Baxter has much to recommend it, and, of course, there is the immortal Wet Hot American Summer, which is, well, immortal.  But the raw, dildo-clutching heart of their work has always been too anarchic to fit comfortably into a three-act structure, even if the whole point is to poke fun at that very structure.  They Came Together might be the closest they have come to making it work on a (relatively) larger scale.  There are moments when you're not quite sure at which level the humor functions best on - is this gag a straight up parody of sappy romantic comedies, or a meta-gag about parodies, or a kind of goofy meta-joke about underlined comedic moments, or just absurdity for it's own sake? - and the dissonance this causes can distract from the enjoyment.  My take is that Wain and Showalter and all the rest of their merry band of goofballs are much more sincere than they have sometimes been taken for.  They are in it for the pure funny, and in this case, they are very funny indeed.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

It Felt Like Love

(Eliza Hittman, US, 2013)

Love and angst in Outer Brooklyn.  The film charts the sexual awakening of a young girl over the course of a torrid summer.  Hittman's eye is wise, sympathetic, and discerning, and her actors are rich finds.  She does an admirable job evoking the heady mixture of anger, lust, and bitterness that is so commonly found in adolescent minds and bodies, and ties it to a specific reality: the working class denizens who populate the outskirts of New York City.  The images reflect the hot, claustrophobic intensity of urban summers, and they linger uncomfortably close on the characters, as if Hittman is charting hormonal changes at the surface-level of flesh.  The editing makes agile associate leaps across moods and places.  Towards the end, a certain schematic takes hold, but Hittman is wise not to make too much of it.  This is the kind of filmmaking that is best when it remains oblique.

Mad Max: Fury Road

(George Miller, Australia/US, 2015)

Seeing this in the wake of the souped-up hype machine had me bracing for disappointment, but I was happily thrilled and chilled by Miller's mad creation. The film, for all of its abundant motion and rococo imagery, has the spareness and sturdiness of a fable.  Thematically, it's straightforward: good vs. evil, and the value of trust in the quest for survival.  What's new, and strikingly new at that, are the unabashedly progressive politics that Miller and his collaborators have baked into their story.  A good chunk of the discussion surrounding Fury Road centers on its feminist merits, running the predictable gamut from "subversively feminist masterpiece" to "complacent weak tea."  From my perspective, it's admirably forward-thinking, presenting  a clear-eyed view of both toxic patriarchy and feminine mettle.  Miller's great accomplishment is to make these strains visible without making them ostentatious; the details feel authentic, motivated, and lived-in, rather than straining to be heard over all the mayhem.

In the run-up to Fury Road, I had heard repeatedly that it was, by design, one long chase scene.  This made me nervous, even if it jibed all too well with the economics of filmmaking on this scale. But despite my usual low tolerance for the sensory assault that is your average action movie, I found myself giddy with enjoyment for nearly the whole running time.   Much is made of how great the action is in The Road Warrior, but it's the world-building that sets Miller's vision apart from most other smash-fests.  Every detail, even in the first and weakest film in the series, seems sprung from a startlingly real parallel universe.  Everywhere lie eerily plausible marks of our own world's potential apocalypse: the fetish for gas-powered machines, a mania for speed and excess even in times of want and scarcity, the aforementioned penchant for hierarchy, with white men sitting at the top, and the cult of competition and regressive spectacle.  I suppose I could push this reading into a full-blown treatise on Miller's corrective to the contemporary action film, but that would be digressive and not much fun; the opposite of this movie's virtues.

I was left wanting to know more, much more, about the world we're dropped into.  Every detail intrigues, from the other cities with which the Citadel presumable trades, to the mythical "green place" from which Furiosa hails.  It seems almost perverse, and at least obsessive, to have conjured so many juicy shadings - right down to the invented slang and the wonderfully bizarre names - just to undergird an extravagant, extended chase sequence.  But this is precisely what makes Fury Road an exceptional movie: it doesn't fall for the awful fallacy of most action films, which would have story and character, even in their most basic form, as mere niceties to be observed grudgingly, if at all.  Some contrarians would have Miller's action chops as lesser than such luminaries as Michael Bay, but that assumes a separation of the action from the movie, as if one could exist separate from the other.  What curdles any pleasure in Bay's handling of images is the festering idiocy from which they spring; his love of mechanical pyrotechnics is inextricable from his utter indifference to people.  Same for John Hyams, whose irrepressible glee for bloodshed overshadows his facility with a moving camera.  To such glorified technicians, there is no cinematic world, much less a story.  There are only money shots.

Miller's storytelling is deceptively simple.  It marries the urgency of the moment - the need to survive the next attack - to the psychology of the characters, all of whom are wounded and wary of trusting anybody but themselves.  Maybe I was just dazzled by the action, but the last-act decision to return to the Citadel took me by surprise.  In retrospect, this seems like the most basic kind of narrative sleight-of-hand, but it is wrought with a rare elegance.  Same for the way in which Max is first used as a blood donor against his will - pretty potent, as far as symbols in nine-figure action movies go - and then gives his blood up voluntarily, to save Furiosa, at the end; this kind of narrative symmetry sure looks easy, but it isn't.

Not to say that there aren't flaws, but on such an enjoyable ride, it's easy to overlook them.  A few of the already-scarce lines are twice-underlined, and, despite all the chatter about how little Miller relied upon CGI, it's still very present, and it still looks cheesy, at least to my eyes.  It's curious to imagine, in this era of TV-cinema fluidity, where shows becomes movies and movies becomes shows, and everything is topsy-turvy, what an extended treatment of Miller's post-apocalyptic world might be like.  It's true that the action is part of Mad Max's DNA; but just as integral are the characters and the way they cope with the madness of their environment.  There's rich loam here, even on the baked hellscape of Tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Blue Room

(Mathieu Amalric, France, 2014)

Amalric's delectable slice of doomed eroticism, adapted from Simenon's novel of the same name, clocks in at only 76 minutes, but he makes every second count.   The film is like a hothouse, confined and seething and humid.  It's tempting to declare the work as one of formidable craft, first and foremost, but there's a genuinely excited, and perhaps even anguished, heart that pushes the whole thing into beguiling and unexpected places.  Perhaps I'm guilty of reserving my enthusiasm for an artist who is principally known, at least to me, as an actor, even if he has repeatedly shown himself to be among the best in the business.  But that kind of bias, if indeed it is affecting my appreciation of the film, can't ultimately distract from the filmmakers' accomplishment.  There is a feel for the medium that is palpably instinctual - the treatment of this story seems to spring from someplace deep.  Amalric co-wrote with his wife, Stephanie Cleau, who plays opposite him as the Sphinx-like femme fatale; whether she's truly a murderess is left no more clear than whether he is a murderer.  Adding to their (it belongs to both of them, clearly) accomplishment is their ability to find new dimensions in a well-played genre: the adultery-cum-murder potboiler has serious mileage on it, particularly in France and the US, but Amalric and Cleau scrupulously avoid any cliches. 

Perhaps the biggest win is in the twinning of longing and regret; erotic anticipation and the wintry sadness that comes with the realization of deep loss.  The film, as previously described, has heat aplenty, but its world is softened and chilled with the titular hue, and the predominant tone of the film is cool, even cold.  It's possible that the later scenes of the film, which tantalize with possible answers to the questioned raised by the fractured narrative, are a bit to determined in their ambiguity.  But everything is so damn handsome, so intelligently made, that I felt eager to see more.  I hope Amalric and Cleau keep this partnership running, at least creatively. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mikey and Nicky

(Elaine May, US, 1976)

May's third feature as director (out of only four, sadly) has the emotional and temporal compression of a stage play, and her nearly exclusive focus on the actors, often to the detriment of the niceties of cinematic craft, make it seem as if the script began its life in the theater.  But there is an element of immersion in place (grimy, nocturnal inner-city Philly melts into the sunny, doomed morning of the suburbs) and another of motion (the characters flit about the city like mad, lonely moths), that keep it rooted in the world of cinema.  The writing is so good, and so well delivered by the never-better duo of Falk and Cassavetes, that you are willing to ignore all the gaffes, from visible lighting equipment to continuity errors to whole swaths of extremely poorly dubbed dialogue.  Mikey and Nicky is a study in the dissolution of a friendship, and ultimately a kind of tragedy.  It's a tragedy that could only have existed in the American cinema of the 70s, but it has moments of comic bliss, and it seems unlikely that either actor ever had such a richly prepared meal in front of him; both of them dive in and devour it. 


(Tim Sutton, US, 2014)

Sutton's second feature has ambition and atmosphere to spare, but it shuffles along without ever hitting its stride.  Willis Earle Beale plays a version of himself, a talented but mercurial musician who wanders through Memphis and has glancing, shimmery encounters with trees, light, buildings, and people.  Running parallel to Beale are a few other recurring characters, most of whom are unnamed and whose relationships to him are left oblique.  Sutton and Beale snatch some moments of jolting beauty from their mellow excavation of the city and its environs, but as the film progresses, its energy begins to sputter conspicuously.  Sutton leans heavily on the ready-made desuetude of Memphis, and Beale, who radiates charisma from the first scene, begins to coast on his taciturn persona.  His talent is obvious and irrepressible, but it's parceled out in slender bits, and the sense of angst he expresses begins to feel less like genuine frustration and more like a pose.  Even a few bars, sung offhand by Beale, simmer with energy, but the film withholds any genuine release, much less rapture.  The reserve evinced by Beale and Sutton work against the film, finally, leaving a faded image of something that could have been brighter and more explosive.  Still and all, the seeking of poetic images, and on poetic association over narrative logic, is worth praising, even if a good amount of it is recycled from similarly set and themed films, from Gummo to George Washington.  Sutton has good instincts, and I'll be curious to see what he makes of them next. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Stray Dogs

(Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan/France, 2013)

My first Tsai.  Somehow, I never got around to catching his films, a few of which were somewhat available online and on video, although right now they seem pretty scarce.  I don't know exactly why my interest was so slight: I heard terrific things from people I trust, and at one point I was very hot on the kind of cinema that Tsai would seem to exemplify.  After discovering Hou Hsio-hsien, it was as if a new world of cinema had opened up, and I eagerly consumed what I could find of his movies.  But I stopped short of Tsai.  Sometimes, I find that I have a feeling about a filmmaker, some kind of gut-level twinge that draws me in or keeps me out.  For whatever reason, I wasn't drawn to Tsai. 

One film in, I don't quite know what to make of his cinema.  He's very much his own creature; where Hou is stately, elegant, and steeped in a kind of memory-suffused realism, Tsai is decidedly off-kilter, with an obvious penchant for oddity and a seething sense of rage and sorrow.  His images are crisp but skewed, lacking the proscenium-like portals of Hou.  (I can't seem to avoid using Hou as a kind of touchstone, but the comparisons are valid enough, I think.)

There is something stubbornly abstract about Stray Dogs.  Despite his evocative treatment of people on the margins, the images, and their juxtaposition, seem to create a greater sense of distance between the audience and the film.  The whole thing feels at once to be hyper-controlled and casually loose, as if the shots were all culled, quickly and intuitively, from a great database of material.  I'm used to being drawn into so-called "slow" cinema, but I found myself feeling as alienated as the characters appeared to be.  That may be the point - there is definitely an emphasis on surfaces that makes for some brilliantly sharp moments.  But overall, I found myself seeking an inner complexity that the film may not contain.  At the very least, I'm eager to see other films of his, and frustrated that they don't seem to be available.

Saturday, April 4, 2015


(James Ward Bykrit, US, 2013)

Clever, shoestring sci-fi that skates by on the strength of its central idea.  It's major flaw is that it's stuck between the genuinely earned seriousness of Primer (which was another low, low budget film fueled by an ambitious concept) and something much more eagerly campy.  So it winds up feeling a little half-baked, and your admiration is tickled more for the effort and ingenuity of the production than for the ideas themselves.  And yet: it's handsomely crafted, with the major credit going to the company of actors, all of whom make hay with the spooky space-time shenanigans.  The ending feels unintentionally incoherent, but I wasn't tempted to try to put together the pieces.  This isn't the kind of film that's going to generate a cottage industry of explanatory texts and graphs, the way that Primer did.  But it is fun.

Edge of Tomorrow

(Doug Liman, US, 2014)

A big, rowdy mess that never lives up to the (minor) promise of its premise.  I guess one ought to throw Cruise and co. a bone for at least attempting to start a new franchise, rather than slog away at the various old ones floating around out there like garbage islands.  Emily Mortimer is good as a steely, fierce warrior/love interest.  But the movie lives in a murky cloud of CGI gloom.  The script is flabby, silly stuff, and the action is yet another heaping course of palsied camerawork and digitized carnage.  Not much fun.


(Abderrahmane Sissako, Mali/USA/France, 2006)

Beautiful.  The whole film simmers with a mirage-like turbulence of moral passion and suppressed life.  Easily one of the wisest films and most humane films I've seen in a long time.  Sissako carefully, gracefully sketches a picture of life during a kind of wartime: the ravages brought to Mali by the imperious (and imperial) diktats of Western financial institutions (the World Bank and the IMF).

While the central action of the film involves the ceremonial "trial" of these institutions, which have imposed harsh economic conditions on their debtor clients, the atmosphere of the film is woven with strands of ordinary life that surround and flow through the legal proceedings.  Sissako conveys the tragic dimensions of ordinary Malians' predicaments - poverty, frustration, despair - but is always aware of the way that life and love persist despite these hard facts.  And he exhibits a kind of instinctual understanding of the possibilities and limits of politicially organized action.  The trial empowers some, but leaves out others; there are those on both sides who are indifferent and bemused by the affair.  Since the trial is not legally binding, its strength lies in the ceremonial power of testimony, a kind of faith in the veracity of performance.  We hear from intellectuals and peasants, officials and artists.  The film's vision becomes a kind of bright glimpse of a truly participatory, non-exclusive democracy, one that is as everyday as it is exceptional.  But it's only a glimpse, and central though it may be, it's the life in the periphery that casts a bigger shadow.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Rome, Open City

(Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1945)

Covering more ground (another much-belated 1st viewing of a canonical film.)  I didn't expect the severity of the scenes of torture and random violence.   Combinations of Hollywood-inflected melodrama and pure, raw realism.  This is, after all, one of the primordial examples of Italian NeoRealism, but it's fascinating to see the famous and influential style growing fitfully, almost bursting forth, out of the older, more conventional tropes of classical cinema.  I was surprised by the epic breadth of Rossellini's vision.  Right out of the gate, he was tackling the biggest issues he could find, which makes sense, given these issues had basically exploded catastrophically in his world.  Also interesting to see the priest as a heroic figure, considering that Fellini was a co-writer, and the later attitude among much Italian cinema of skepticism and outright mockery of the Catholic Church.  In short order, Italian artists seemed to invent their own brand of modernity, and the speed at which it developed and spread is kind of amazing. 

Hail Mary

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1985)

JLG's spin on one of the world's great origin stories.  Too much time has passed between my viewing and these notes (a month at least) and my impressions of the film are faded and muddled.  Despite that, I can report that the film is an abundant, searing thing to behold, awestruck with natural beauty, and seemingly touched by grace.  It's as if Godard poured every religiously-tinged feeling he ever harbored into this film, and it nearly bursts with yearning.  Even so, there is still plenty of irony, gnomic pronouncements, and flurry-like collage.  At times, it can seem to be another rehash of his dark view of male-female relationships, with devotion taking the place of romance.  This familiarly fraught binary of male and female can get tiresome, and imbuing it with quasi-religious significance doesn't make it any less so.  But overall it feels like one of his most honestly troubled and self-exposing works.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

For Ever Mozart

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1996)

Acerbic but laced with beauty.  In the Godard films I've seen lately, what sticks out the most is how painterly his images are.  Context is especially important with his movies, as they're both deeply personal and intricately political (of course, for Godard, these categories are not exclusive.)  Therefore, they're especially difficult to parse on their own terms.  Here the density of the image-sound texture is intimidating but not overwhelming.  The film feels elegiac, embittered, frustrated, but occasionally bursts into rapturous beauty.  It's striking that for all of Godard copious bile, he can't seem to suppress his love of beauty, and his faith in the power of cinema.  The final passage of the film is a sudden exhalation of serenity, and possibly even hope. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Goodbye to Language 3D

(Jean-Luc Godard, France, 2014)

Not as valedictory as its title may suggest, but then, that's Godard for you.  An artist who courts contrariness and paradox in a manner that can be described as relentless, fetishistic, or simply French, he is, at 83, spritely, playful, stern, and still inventive.  Adieu au Langage 3D is, first and foremost, a feast for the senses.  If, like much of Godard's work, the menu is disconcertingly long, the fare itself is refreshing and the experience compact.  What's most thrilling is the caught-on-the-fly nature of the movie.  Godard has refashioned the bloat and spectacle of 3D cinema and created something lightweight and intimate, like a diary or a sketchbook.  Always adept at playing with scale, both physically and metaphysically, he has found a literal and a figurative new dimension to his work.  An ode to the senses that encompasses history, philosophy, the arts, love, et al, Goodbye is also an exploration of the apparatus of cinema, conducted with the giddiness of a child who has just discovered a new toy.

As ever, the divining of Godard's perspective on the multitude of subjects is no easy feat, particularly on a first viewing.  Here's what stuck, for me:  Godard doesn't exactly set up language in opposition to other faculties, or other modes of representation or expression.  Instead, he posits the conflict as a kind of tragic inevitability, with the possibility that by acknowledging the limitations of language, we have some chance, however small, of transcending them.  There is a good deal of politics in the mix, as well, but Godard has become more philosophical with age.  His anger is well-placed, but, like his frustration with the limits of perception and expression, he views politics, rightly or wrongly, as a younger person's game.  And the emphasis is on game; although the stakes are high, his final criterion, morally and aesthetically, is poetic.  This makes the human scale of the production - often, the crew consisted only of Godard, his DP, and the cast - especially touching.   Godard the firebrand has found that he can be just as radical - if not more so - with his dog, an iphone, and a walk in the woods as with Cinemascope and movie stars.  There's much more to say, but it will have to wait for another viewing.