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.