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.