Saturday, December 31, 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One

(Gareth Edwards, USA, 2016)

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 12, 2016


(Ryan Coogler, USA, 2015)

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

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016


(Clint Eastwood, USA, 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 5, 2016

The Magnificent Ambersons

(Orson Welles, USA, 1942)

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Every Man for Himself

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2016

Black Mass

(Scott Cooper, USA, 2015)

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

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

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

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Imitation Game

(Morten Tyldum, UK/USA, 2014)
What's to be admired in this film is the craft, the appreciation of watching a fine-tuned machine perform its function without hiccup or fuss.  But that kind of appeal has its limits, and in The Imitation Game they're pretty quickly reached.  Most of the problems comes from the screenplay, as good an example of Blacklist-style schematics as one is likely to find.  What appears to be an intricate nesting of theme, incident, and character is in fact the elaboration of a fairly limp metaphor for Alan Turing's long struggle to fit in - and, while he's at it, become a national hero.  We're once again treated to another imperious but hypersensitive genius, vulnerable enough to be lovable but eccentric enough to remind us of his ineffable difference; the stale cult of the Great Man, humanized through the "enigma" of human drama.

For Turing, human interaction is like an unbreakable code; everybody else seems to have the key but him.  This of course leads at least in part to his self-imposed distance from the other characters - if he can't make them love him, he'll prove that he's the smartest person in the room.  Which of course he is, with the possible exception being Keira Knightley's Joan Clarke, a bright-eyed prodigy of both intelligence and spirit.  Together, and with a modicum of assistance from the MI6 team he leads to crack the German code device, they help to win the war for the Allies.  It's a big story, and mostly true, and that doesn't even include the fact of Turing's homosexuality.  He was viciously persecuted for this by the British government, leading to a sorry end that the film relates but leavens with his triumphs, as well as a late pep talk by Joan, which of course mirrors one that Turing had delivered to her earlier in the film.

Turing's story, with its combination of personal and professional peaks and valleys, must surely have been catnip to the prestige side of Hollywood; it's only surprising that this biopic wasn't made earlier.  But it does disservice to the history of Turing's achievements, which went far beyond code-breaking (he did a great deal of the founding work in the field of what would later be known as computer science, and had major contributions in mathematics and cognitive science - even biology), and it relies to heavily on shorthand methods to reveal his pathos.  There's no real impression of a point of view, either on history, on human knowledge, or on the trials of a wounded, lonesome soul; everything fits easily into the combination of uplift and sober concern which seems to have powered the film from its first iterations as a script.  As such, it's a missed opportunity, and a regrettable one.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

That Obscure Object of Desire

(Luis Buñuel, France/Spain, 1977)

Buñuel's last film, and my first viewing of his work in a long while.  It was an excellent refresher, and that inimitable mixture of Bunuel's - both sprightly and dark, intellectual and playful, fleet and severe -  brought me immediately back into the peculiar world of his films.  This world, among its many wonders, remains one of the best creative renderings of the dream state.  Approaches to the subconscious in cinema are strikingly varied - two vivid and contrasting examples are David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky - but nobody ever did it quite like Buñuel.  By blurring the line between conscious and unconscious, Buñuel creates a waking dream, something closer to how dreams often feel to the dreamer - that is, they feel like life, except subtly, elusively different.  Only upon waking do we realize the strangeness of what just transpired.  All of which is to say that consciousness - and by extension, reality itself - is relative, a truth Buñuel understood better than almost anybody.

Of a piece with this understanding is the awareness of the subconscious in daily, waking life - the extent to which we are powered, and often, tragically, imprisoned by our dreams.  Much of this, on a conceptual level, came right out of mainline surrealism, but Buñuel brought it to new imaginative heights, and crafted a uniquely cinematic approach.  As such, his films fuse the dream world with the world of images, and in doing so weave a glittery web that seems to catch every node of human affairs - sex, politics, psychology, metaphysics, art, etc.

Sex, of course, was paramount among these.  That Obscure Object is a particularly feverish tale, full of concentrated passion, dangerously frustrated.  Fernando Rey, a Bunuel staple, here depicts Mathieu, once again a hapless middle-aged bourgeois, host to simmering and unrealized urges.  But Buñuel is interested in far more than satire.  There's a pathos to Mathieu, for all of his lecherousness, a strain of sympathy for him and his doomed pursuit of sexual fulfillment.  Of course, he readily mixes this up with love, a fatal mistake but a universally human one, or so Buñuel seems to believe.  To some degree, Mathieu knows he's being ridiculous, and yet no amount of disappointment or stoicism will release him from his pursuit.

His object is the willfully obscure Conchita, played in alternate scenes by Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina.  This double-casting is one of the great cinematic ploys of Buñuel's oeuvre, all the more so because it doesn't readily admit explication.  It works however you need it to: highlighting the abstract quality of desire, changeable and elusive, the radical subjectivity of Mathieu, and the irreconcilability of desire with reality: only in a fantasy can Conchita be both the slut and the virgin, the temptress and the angel, the lissome model and the curvaceous dancer.

Behind all of this is the backdrop of political unrest, the frequent bombings, shoot-outs and hijackings.  But for all of this ambient chaos, Mathieu and his set can never be fully distracted from their petty interests and indulgences.  In part, this an acknowledgment is the famous Id, a roiling sub-basement of violent forces, barely contained.  But it's also a familiar world, not terribly different from our own, and we are queasily reminded of our own habits of distraction.  The full dimensions of life's folly - our pursuit of what we cannot have, which we pursue all the more ardently for its impossibility - are glaringly present in Buñuel, and for all of his humor (about which I haven't said enough - in short, it's a wonderfully understated hilarity), it is a harrowing thing to behold.   

Saturday, September 10, 2016


(Luc Besson, France/USA, 2014)

Surprisingly loopy, but the loopiness doesn't translate into much fun.   Besson's pulpy head-trip resembles nothing so much as a high-budget cell phone commercial - the sort of thing that tries, with risible earnestness, to imbue Information Technology with cosmic significance.  If advertising works by tacking cheap sentiment and banal ideas to completely unrelated consumable products, Besson's film operates in a similar fashion.  He gives us a terse, functional actioner that's tethered willy-nilly to some dizzily half-baked ideas about human potential and metaphysics. 

There's a playfulness to the film that crops up intermittently, and some of Besson's visual ideas are arresting and even beautiful, but for most of the time it's a slog.  Like so many contemporary action-adventure movies, it doesn't really trust its audience, and so must favor speed and sensation over inspiration and insight.  It's hard to tell the proportions of cynicism and ingenuousness at work here: much of the time, the fortune-cookie philosophy and pulp sci-fi seems extraneous, nearly an afterthought.  But as the film gathers momentum and the concepts spiral ever higher - as Lucy's brain capacity approaches 100%, giving her Godlike omniscience - it seems more likely that it's the pop-sci stuff that really gets Besson going, and he's using guns and sex appeal to appease the attention-deficient ticket-buyers. 

That may be Besson's method, but what's his object?  The whole "we only use 10% of our brain" notion is widely reported to be utter bunk, and even if it were true, the idea that unlocking more of our "cerebral capacity" would make us into sexy wizards seems, well, silly.   Besson can't quite decide how seriously to take his material; how far to push the kitsch, how much destruction to orchestrate, and how much gravitas to conjure, even if it's simplistic and hollow.  He's having a good time, but he's also going through the motions, offering up a tacky gloss on serious questions with a explosions to spare.  Johansson is game and works hard for the money, but her natural presence and talent can't quite rescue the film from being a trifle.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Van Gogh

(Maurice Pialat, France, 1991)

Pialat's interest in Van Gogh is neither academic nor practical; despite Pialat's own history as a painter, and his reverence for the medium, which he favored above all, even cinema, his considerations of painting itself are mostly absent from Van Gogh.  The work is not the point; Van Gogh could be a musician and the movie wouldn't be terribly different.  Van Gogh the dreamer, whose notion of beauty as a worldly miracle, and of the kind of society that might better appreciate its creation, doesn't make an appearance.  Neither does Van Gogh the lonely, spiritual pilgrim, who would with childlike naivete seek Gaugin's partnership in an arcadian painter's colony.  Pialat at times seems almost perversely self-restrained, denying his own affections in order to purge the film of sentimentality or grandiosity.  What is left is a steely, hardened look at a long-suffering man as he stumbles bitterly towards a bleak, self-inflicted end.

And yet, for all of that, the film is undeniably, irrepressibly gorgeous, and contains moments of pure joy.  Pialat shoots with a painter's eye - it has to be admitted, however cliched it might sound - and his natural feeling for emotions is breathtaking.  Still, there is a risk in the way Pialat presents his hero.  In the film, Van Gogh has the aura of a Christ about him - an enormous amount of the film's gravity is generated by Lutronc, whose weary, ironic mein speaks volumes with a single glance - and that's part of the trouble.  Lutronc and Pialat's Van Gogh is perhaps too inscrutable, too tempestuous, and yet too assured in his march to oblivion.   His suffering most often takes the form of anger, and by the end we are made to understand that while his faith in his own greatness is complete (he bitterly rebukes his brother for selling paintings by everyone but "the greatest of our time," meaning himself), it's the world's and his brother's indifference that drives him to suicide.  His fits, he also reveals, were dissimulations; he isn't truly mad but rather driven to desperate measures by neglect. (It's possible that this is a lie designed to upset Théo; in any case, its ambiguity suggests at least a canny, manipulative person, driven as much by jealousy as by mental instability.  The point here isn't to demand a more virtuous Van Gogh, but that the vision offered in the film has a strangely narrow attitude towards suffering, which can at times seem to mirror Pialat's own legendary irascibility.) His slightly stooped posture isn't due to an external burden but to an intense, dark, inwardly-focused energy, as if some essential part of him thrives off of the idiocy of the world, and revels in denying it the full glory of his genius.

Pialat's Van Gogh seems to carry the secret of his own future success, and his dyspepsia, selfishness, and sorrow at neglect can therefore have the appearance of resentment, and his recurrent hauteur the just desserts of an unheralded hero.  But Pialat is too good a storyteller to leave it at that, and so he gives us glimpses of other versions of Van Gogh: the playful Vincent, the tender Vincent, even the loyal Vincent, who is willing to sacrifice anything, it would seem, for his beloved family.  He is thus an exquisitely conflicted person, hurt and bitter, noble and kind.  Pialat's own bleak view of the human scene would be unbearable if he didn't also show us the bright side, the moments of potential goodness.  He is at his weakest when he insists upon churlish outbursts of familial recrimination; at his strongest, I think, when he looks with sudden, unearned sympathy on the limitations of enormously willful, difficult people.  Pialat adores contrariness and spite as perhaps only a Frenchman could, but his ruefulness at his own shortcomings, personally and aesthetically, lend his films a human vitality that is one of the richest treasures of cinema. 

Norman Mailer famously claimed that the one character a novelist could never successfully imagine is a writer greater than himself.  Pialat isn't a Van Gogh, in either the scope of his imagination or the obscurity of his circumstances.  He is wise enough to leave Van Gogh's genius out of the story, focusing instead on the quotidian aspects of his existence, and hoping to catch a glimpse of the genius in the margins.  At times, he does; the extended sequence in the dance-hall/brothel is a vision of explosive joy, with undercurrents of tragedy.  The borders between art and life are momentarily erased, and the ecstasy of pure, happy experience shines brightly enough to illuminate even the darkest corners of life.  It's a rare enough achievement, captured by an artist of dogged skepticism and rueful self-critique, to find a way to present us with a human being who happened to be one of the greatest painters ever to pick up a brush.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Love Streams

(John Cassavetes, USA, 1984)

Cassavetes' valedictory masterpiece, anguished and freewheeling, intensely imagined and intimately fractured.  My longtime misapprehension, formed by film-school screenings of Shadows and Faces, was to count Cassavetes as a homegrown Neorealist, when he has always been a lavish, formally daring symbolist and emotional impressionist.   The early, raw work gave way over the years to Cassavetes insatiable imagination, which combined with modest budgets produced a wholly new style.  Today, it's everywhere, so ubiquitous that it hides in plain sight, showing up in filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson, from Andrew Bujalski to Noah Baumbach.  More than mere style - although that's there, too - it's the attitude that we should recognize, the discovery of volumes of emotion in forthright deployment of the tools of cinema: a camera, a face, a line of dialogue.  Cassavetes' cinema is the cinema of independence, but as spiritual ideal more than economic reality. 

Love Streams is a culmination, embodying all of Cassavetes' personal and aesthetic concerns.  It's the tale of a triumphant survivor, made by a man who was close to dying.  As the story unfolds, Cassavetes' ruthless self-exposure and sputtering ecstasies nearly rend the film in two; but there is a serenity at the center that is as moving as it is surprising.  Rowlands is typically magnificent as the radiant, fragile Sarah Lawson, who mirrors her brother's hopelessly shambling quest for love.  As Robert Harmon, Cassavetes the man is uncomfortably present, portraying the artist as ludicrously selfish, arriving at the end of his rope and realizing that a lifetime of self-indulgence has left him with very close to nothing.  He's ill, and it shows.  And yet he's a live wire, undaunted in his pursuit of more life and more love.

There are moments along the way where I'll admit to confusion;  the blunt realism of some scenes can refract dizzily in Cassavetes' symbolic prism.  Harmon's shambolic suavity, and the ready indulgence of many of the women in his life (most of whom he pays) seem at times to reveal uncomfortable assumptions about gender relations.  His drunken, aggressive pursuit of a lounge singer ends, incredibly, with his charming the pants (almost) off the singer's mother.  This is after he has all but kidnapped her, and then cracked his head open on the sidewalk.  She takes him in; her mother nurses his wounds.

And yet none of this is portrayed as the least bit admirable or attractive; Harmon is understood from the beginning as a more-than-slightly-ridiculous character.  While his passions, and the seriousness with which he follows them, are never in doubt, he drifts through the world in a boozy, smoky haze, spouting dubious epigrams about love, women, and secrets.  His ubiquitous tuxedo becomes a kind of clown suit, tragic and idiotic at once.  Against all of this is Sarah, his other half, a wreck in her own right but also the only hope Harmon has of finding substantive love, rather than the ersatz stuff he spins to sell his books (which have apparently made him pretty rich.)

The ending sequence, which is justly celebrated as a cinematic high point, coalesces like a cracked, late-Romantic symphony, in which brief flashes of tenderness can be spotted in a sea of mania and sorrow.  Sarah, who understands and appropriately reveres love, doesn't have the emotional resources to weather its storms; Robert, learning too late the difference between pleasure and joy, scrambles to retrofit his life, but can't quite pull it off in time.  It's a bittersweet, eloquent ending to a legendary career, crafted with dedication and not a little love. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016


(William Monahan, USA, 2015)

Even by its own hard-boiled, trashy standards, Mojave has very little to offer.  For all of the scenery-chewing, it doesn't feel particularly indulgent; the movie instead suffers from a thinness, a sketch-like, perfunctory effect.  Mojave is plays like an extended short, drawing a simple set-up into a feature-length thriller that simmers lazily.  Monahan's macho stylings are at least as grating as his clumsy importing of seminar-fresh lit references, all of which is designed to inform his framing of Hollywood as - yes - an intellectually vapid, morally corrupt wasteland.  There's some personal drama here, but it hovers above the action of the film, rather than generating it: Monahan's frustrations and ambivalence as a literary-minded man who has come to Hollywood to make his fortune.  The problem is that he has nothing new to offer this perennial tale; no new insights into the stew of venality, privilege, and ambition; no new consciousness of the ghosts of history that reside in the shadows, no feeling for the place or the people.  It's pure pastiche, all the way down, and the fact that some of the references are worthy enough does nothing to make up for Monahan's lack of imagination.  We've got the lithe French actress, the louche producer, the spoiled, authenticity-starved pretty boy, and a mysterious drifter-cum-serial killer (who knows his Shakespeare and his Melville.)

All of which portrays a very familiar place: the Hollywood of the half-insider.  Monahan has had as much success as any screenwriter could hope for, and, naturally, wants to expand his palette and his control beyond the necessarily limited range of his craft.  But as a director he plays things safe, trading on warmed-over tropes and spent motifs; he wants to be above the fray, but is, it would appear, afraid of losing the appeal of his "brand."  What manifests is a feeling of exhaustion and resentment, of a director who has fantasies of walking away, or even of burning bridges, but who is hamstrung by the fear of his own stranger inspirations. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016


(Hong Sangsoo, South Korea, 2010)

This might be the film that finally cinched my esteem for Hong's work, which I had long viewed with a quiet, bemused, and somewhat reluctant admiration.  Hong is one of the most widely celebrated international directors, the kind of filmmaker that a certain kind of cineasté knows he's supposed to like.  But my experience was one of resistance; it took patience to find an entryway into Hong's cinematic world.

Some art house films suggest their sophistication through forbidding starkness, complexity, or emotional severity.  Their difficulty serves, in part, to advertise their seriousness, the urgency of their claim upon our attention.  But Hong's work is a different, rarer case: his films present themselves not as exalted, dense, or thorny; they lack any discernible grit, formal exuberance, or commanding bleakness.  Instead, his movies appear slight, sketch-like, gnomic.  About the most you can say is that they do require careful attention, if you're going to keep track of the characters and the chronology, which are never straightforward.  And they are clearly works of formal innovation, however playful.

It's perhaps for this reason that so much of the appreciation of Hong contains a whiff of apologia, the mark of an artist who fascinates intuitively but resists exegesis.  Critics seem to sort themselves either into frothy encomiums or somewhat reserved, cool-headed appraisal, with the usual caveat that his work's greatness isn't immediately apparent.  Perhaps this polarity is of my own making, as I try to locate my own impressions somewhere in this range.  If so, it would mirror my experience thus far: periods of languor as my mind drifts during another drunken, shambling conversation, interrupted almost violently by bursts of wonder as an unexpected action, a canny re-framing, or a juxtaposition flashes brilliantly onscreen, only to fade moments later, like an afterimage.

The key is to stick with it.  Hong's work appears to be brisk and breezy, even when things get sodden with Soju.  But there is a mercurial and even a febrile imagination behind his apparently reserved camera.  Hong is a fundamentally dialectical filmmaker, perhaps the ne plus ultra of such an approach, at least among living directors.  In his work, opposites are constantly changing places with each other, the tone bounces between wildly different registers, surface becomes depth and then switches back.  The placid, apparently sturdy frame will pan gently or abruptly, and rarely with obvious cause, or will suddenly reconfigure the space with a zoom.

Hong's space isn't psychological, but emotional and existential.  Emotion, for him, precedes thought, and the human comedy is essentially that of irrationality; reason, propriety and good taste exist to be interrupted.  Chance and contingency rule his outlook, which both exults in the staggeringly many possibilities of imagination, and floats with a piercing melancholy over the randomness of life's events.  Hong's brilliance lies in his fusion of art and life, a simple and often unrealized concept.  His art is an organic extension of his feeling for life, rendered in a formal vocabulary that is wholly new. 

The apparent poverty of his means - a few actors, a cafe or a restaurant with (usually drunken) table talk, a camera on a tripod - is in fact an apposite mechanism of both expressing and containing the overwhelming complexity of life, a Proustian attention to detail that reveals great depths in glances, hesitations, and misunderstandings.

In HaHaHa, I picked up on notes of melancholy and sudden joy that had eluded my attention in earlier screenings of his films, as well as surprisingly many compositions that were easily called beautiful.  What Hong is discovering and expressing is the volume of life that goes unnoticed; the strange profusion of overlapping circumstances that nonetheless conceals so much detail.  A casual get-together among friends (this being Hong, the encounter is ruled by an almost ritualistic emphasis on drinking), where a past weekend is recounted, reveals, in its cinematic depiction, unutterable volumes of longing, regret, and frustrated desire.

The depiction is Hong's testimonial to cinematic power.  In his view, life is teeming with significance that can only be captured in retrospect or imagination - crucially, active processes, which in some sense can compensate for the in-the-moment confusion and helplessness with which we're all bitterly familiar. We are always dancing with our own fate; no awkward conversation is insignificant.  This may be the positive image of what so often feels a negative perspective in Hong's work, focusing to an obsessive degree on his male protagonists haplessness.

Because finally, beneath the bitterness and the self-excoriation, Hong is an inveterate romantic.  Desperate, perhaps, and anguished, but never entirely absent of the hope in the possibility of love to offer something beyond the shambolic day-to-day disarray of our lives.  In the last scene, we see evidence of this: one of the couples, who previously had evinced very little indication of being long-term material for love, enjoys a fleeting moment of bliss.  Whether or not this will stick is another matter, but for the moment (and Hong's world is nothing if not moment-by-moment) it would seem to suffice.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Are You Here

(Matthew Weiner, USA, 2013)

While we've seen some accomplished dabbling by feature filmmakers in the world of TV, the opposite doesn't seem to hold.  Weiner's feature debut isn't a disaster, but it teeters on the edge of disaster for much of its running time, and while it has some notable virtues, it's also exemplary of the stark differences that remain between the two mediums.

Weiner the writer, a giant of contemporary prestige television, is on display here, but his work as a director is sorely deficient.  He knows how to sketch characters efficiently, to balance character and incident, and can write zingers - funny and poignant both - with the best of them.  But despite these facilities, the film lumbers along, stiff and flat-footed.

It's an easy shot, and maybe a cheap one, to claim that this is the TV influence bleeding through, but I think it's basically accurate.  Lacking the time that TV affords to create a richly textured world, the production design and cinematography of Are You Here seem hasty and undercooked.  Everything is even and flat, as if to highlight the words and the actors - itself not a wise creative choice - but there, too, things go awry.  Weiner seems unable to hit upon an appropriate comedic tone - how broad, how subtle, does he want to play this? By the middle of the film, as the drama emerges from the frothy comedy of earlier, things have started to coalesce, finally, but not enough to rescue the experience completely.

Best then to think of this film, formally at least, as an exercise.  I would've preferred more audacity from the justly celebrated Weiner, but he does at least have a few things on his mind.  The ideas are the core of the film, even if they don't flower into a living experience: the nature and limits of friendship, the search for authenticity among the many false promises of modern living, and the necessity of awareness in a world rife with distractions.  Very often these ideas are presented blatantly, edging towards the homiletic, but Weiner is canny and skeptical enough to avoid the worst effects.

The cast is strong, but again, Weiner fumbles the potential of his material.  His plodding approach forecloses on Galifianakis's wildness, and he doesn't have the visual panache to match the micro-gradations of Owen Wilson's comic genius.  They're two very different types of performers, but thrown together in these scenes, they have trouble stretching out and letting loose.

Monday, June 6, 2016


(Ricki Stern & Anne Sundberg, USA, 2012)

An enjoyable entry in what might be called the docu-curio subgenre.  Stern and Sundberg play things strictly by the book, delivering two parallel stories involving the remaining practitioners of the titular pitch, which if correctly thrown is nearly impossible to hit.  We get the requisite details and explainers: a knuckleball is thrown with the fingernails, in order to neutralize the spin that is the decisive component of virtually ever other kind of pitch, from a slider to a fastball.  Without any gyroscopic spin to guide the trajectory of the pitch, the ball is subject to whatever eddies or currents of air might exist between the mound and the catcher's glove, thus rendering it completely unpredictable, to pitcher, batter, and catcher alike.

When it works, the pitch works spectacularly well, but it can easily go wrong, leading to chronic walks or barrages of easy hits.  Thus the knuckleballer is an odd duck, unreliable and seldom utilized, a case which has only been aggravated by the contemporary game's emphasis on the supposed reliability of statistics as a guiding principle.  The directors parlay this into a tale of individual pluck and stoicism, following the two remaining pro-ball knuckleballers, R.A. Dickey and Tim Wakefield, as they experience professional and personal triumphs and reversals.  It's the kind of human interest story that is impossible not to find at least somewhat captivating, even if it follows along a very familiar path.  It doesn't hurt that Dickey and Wakefield both appear to be exceedingly decent and determined individuals, ambitious and humble in equal measure, conforming with striking fidelity to certain mythic American archetypes.

Besides its mythical role as "the National Sport," baseball has long been a curious attraction for folk philosophers, a relationship fruitfully explored in Chad Harbach's 2011 novel The Art of Fielding.  While I won't run through the nature of these affinities, it can be said that some nexus of cultural and metaphysical poetics exists in the sport, a game as potentially beautiful as soccer, if fundamentally different.  The directors of Knuckleball! don't really stray into these more remote expanses of the philosophical outfield, but they are aware of the heady frisson that seems to surround the sport, force field-like.  What they do explore is the role of tradition in baseball, which despite the modern innovations of a numbers-based approach, with every last attribute of play subject to statistical analysis and comparison, is still living.  Wakefield by the end of the film has retired, leaving Dickey as the sole torch-bearer, casting the future of this somewhat mad pitch into question.  Thus Dickey is possibly at the end of a long tradition of athletes, oddballs all, who have parlayed their relative lack of excellence as traditionally defined into a distinction.  The stories are strikingly similar: in nearly every case, a desire to play professional baseball at any cost led them to experiment with this iconoclastic and fickle technique.

As a celebration of the outsider, and a chronicle of determination in pursuit of an ideal, Knuckleball! is a delight, emotionally satisfying if not formally or philosophically ambitious. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Under the Skin

(Jonathan Glazer, USA/UK/Switzerland, 2013)

Glazer's slow-burn sci-fi creepfest is a worthwhile if underwhelming effort. Skin's sleek, fluid surfaces and grimy black depths produce atmosphere to spare, but the film is visceral to a fault.  It's achievement is primarily technical, designed with impeccable taste and a diabolical sense of the uncanny, but lacking the ideas that would deepen and solidify the experience.

Glazer's principal tool, beyond his thrilling technical imagination and considerable skills at mood-setting, is ellipsis.  As audience members, we're perpetually on the outside, piecing together the story and the questions that must arise; about the nature of the aliens, their mission, their interactions with humans and each other, and the events that take place between certain scenes.  The overall effect that Glazer was trying to create seems to have been what it would be like to experience the world through the eyes of an alien - the making of the familiar into something strange.  This is a great concept, as far as it goes, and it produces some moments of eerie bewilderment, not least because the whole thing is set in Scotland, which through Glazer's cold eye becomes an almost alien land of forbidding mountains and seascapes, sparsely populated with pale, unintelligible humanoids.

And yet all of this effect alone isn't enough; the feints towards ideas about human sexuality, with a special emphasis placed on gender roles, are undercooked.  Such are Glazer's skills as a conjurer of images that it almost skates by as a structuralist avant-garde piece, but there's not enough abstract rigor to qualify for that designation.  This is too bad, considering the enormous (if familiar) ideas that are skirted: the proximity of death and sex, the precarious edifice of gender norms, and the final inscrutability of nature.  Under the Skin doesn't lack for craftsmanship or audacity, but it doesn't cohere into a fully lived experience, either.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Sunset Song

(Terence Davies, UK, 2016)

Somewhat baffling, given the high praise that many have heaped upon this film - there are moments of rapturous beauty, as I expected, but also a great deal that feels stiff, oddly lifeless.  Never completely lifeless, but slack, overly static.  Davies often seems every bit the Classicist, keeping the flame of rigorous, dramatic, minimally-inflected cinema burning.  And yet at other times the lyricist comes to the fore, moving the camera with agonizing severity and sudden, ethereal weightlessness.  But these two sides of Davies, the charming throwback and the canny Modernist, don't fruitfully interact in Sunset Song.  At times, the film feels to be purely an exercise, sturdy and handsome, but without any deeper fire or spark of invention.  It's bathed in reverence, in a kind of careful, kid-gloved treatment of its source material, like the parchment being brought out of its glass case and set before the collector at auction.

The actors are able and willing, and in certain moments they burst into life, as though Davies were seeing them in their spiritual form.  It would be a shame to realize that much of my discomfort had to do with built-in limitations of the production: a slight budget and the compression and ablation that it entailed.  The exteriors are stupendous, yes, and so are some of the digitally-shot interiors.  But too many others are dry, flat, with the dead crispness of digital, lit schematically, causing a hollow theatricality that is only worsened by the extreme stillness and silence that Davies bathes many of the sequences in.  At moments it becomes unnerving, not in the way of High Romance, which is Davies' métier, but in the cold, oddly vacant way of a Becket play. 

Davies is a great artist, and his strange mishandling of the project - even its very conception, with unfortunate overtones of nostalgia and nationalistic preciousness - shouldn't diminish his great achievements elsewhere.  But it does highlight the pitfalls of his sparse, hushed, reverent approach to cinema.  There are painterly interiors and sudden flashes of emotion, but they are small throbs of beauty in an otherwise staid, puzzling film. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Everybody Wants Some!!

(Richard Linklater, USA, 2016)

The "spiritual sequel" thing is partly a marketing ploy, but there is still a strong, authentic affinity between Linklater's latest and his earlier masterpiece, Dazed and Confused.  Like Dazed, Everybody is told from the perspective of a semi-outsider, on the cusp of a new stage in life, and takes place over a short period of time - one day in Dazed and about three days in Everybody.  Both films deal with with the rites and rituals of youth, as enacted via music, drugs, sex, play, and even violence; with the encroachment of adulthood, and with the vagaries of seeking identity.   The differences are important too, particularly thematically, as Linklater himself has noted: Dazed, for all of its celebration of youthful abandon and curiosity, is, true to its title, as much about confusion as it is about the intoxication of new experiences.  High School is a place to be escaped, the antipode to the nighttime adventures and self-discovery that the film makes so vivid.  College, on the other hand, holds a degree of promise: no parents, fellowship among like-minded (and differently-minded) peers, independence, abandon, etc.  Whereas Dazed had the subtle weight of regret over the incipient pull of adulthood's responsibilities and the squandered days of youth, Everybody looks with fonder eyes on a period of relative freedom and joy, although even here, darker shadings can be detected amidst the splendor.

There are at least two formal modes in which Richard Linklater works: the anthropological and the philosophical.  His best films combine both; the passionate curiosity of an outsider seeking to understand a culture from the inside, and the passionate desire to seek coherence, and even truth, through a union of one's inner and outer worlds.  Slacker, the incandescent oddity that launched Linklater's career, seems to echo his later films with a growing volume.  You can find it all there, in various stages of development: the intimate relationship to time, the relative lack of gravity given to incident, the omnivorous curiosity, the delight in everyday absurdity, and the rough-hewn poetry of human interaction.  The emotional range is there, too: Slacker, viewed recently, impressed me as dark in a way that I didn't remember.  For all of its goofiness and lackadaisical fun, it doesn't shy away from death, from mayhem, and from the threat of disaster.  Linklater is as critical of his slackers as he is affectionate.  From the comedic pleasure of School of Rock to the desperate paranoia of A Scanner Darkly - it's all there in his vision of sweaty, ever-weird Austin.

Thus, the apparent variety of Linklater's career - working with micro-to-sizeable budgets, experimentalism and breezy conventionality, is more united than meets the eye.  And Everybody Wants Some!! is very nearly the exemplary Linklater film, a career high, not least in its deceptive sophistication and richness.  It's a film about pleasure, about joy, and it's also a forceful philosophical statement, delivered in the drawling, even self-effacing manner we should by now recognize as Linklater's signature.

The casual confidence of his main characters - ostensibly jocks, although, as Linklater quickly establishes, this cliché is as false as any other - is mirrored in Linklater's own style: forthright, libidinous, but with a crucial detachment that allows for perspective and analysis.  Linklater is one of our most adroit chroniclers of the artistic dilemma: a desire to experience things directly, to come into touch with an almost transcendent, instinctual feeling for reality, but unable to ever completely step outside oneself, bound to comment, to analyze, to pick apart.  Linklater's surrogate - the strong-jawed and broad-shouldered Jake (a skillful Blake Jenner), is a jock who thinks, who hasn't sacrificed his aesthetic sensibilities and cool-headed detachment to the cult of competition and extreme focus that is college baseball.   When he meets Beverly, played with wit and sensitivity by Zoey Deutch, it's clear that their connection is a deep one.   Her passion and her drive are traits they have in common, but more importantly they are curious, open souls who take the question of identity seriously.

Although it crystallizes the film's theme of the philosophical search for one's self, the romance between Jake and Beverly isn't treated with the narrative centrality that any number of lesser filmmakers would have opted for.  It can be easy to miss the audacity of Linklater's approach to structure, considering how much fun the experience of the film is.   There's no three-act narrative, rising and falling action, or discernible "stakes."  The film is propelled by time, with the crowded, giddy mentality of the characters serving as fuel.  The point is to get in as much revelry as possible before the more onerous structures of college life take effect, and we're along for the ride.

By the end, we can see this as part and parcel of Linklater's philosophical stance: gather ye rosebuds while ye may, with a dash of hard-headed commitment to individual autonomy and inquiry.  Linklater has drawn criticism, in this film and in others, for being too easy on the world, and on his characters.  This misses the point, and much that actually occurs in the movies.  There is a strain of the utopian in Linklater's films, a desire - easily mistaken for nostalgia - for a world in which carnality, aesthetic pleasure, intellectual excellence, and amity can all stand on equal footing.  We can count Whitman as among his artistic ancestors, noting the love of the demotic, the pleasure of bodies in motion, the unabashed joy of existence and in the eternally-returning hope for new experiences and ways of being.  This isn't the mark of a Pollyanna, but of a far rarer type of artist: optimistic and analytical in equal measure.

And the optimism is not without restraint, or awareness of the darker elements of human nature.  Everybody has glimpses we can recognize: the potential fanaticism of a rigid emphasis on winning, the mind-narrowing ways of a singular pursuit, even if it results in the beauty of athletic excellence, and the latent violence that lurks in even the most harmless-seeming displays of male bonding.  Linklater's view of Texas college life, circa 1980, is strikingly free of the tensions we now recognize with depressing regularity: racial, sexual, class-based.  This seems to skirt omission, but only if you don't see that he depicts violence and chauvinism as being in alarming proximity to affinity, hospitality, and play.

And this doesn't yet bring us to the political dimension, which Linklater never ignores.  Just beyond the Arcadian life as an admired college athlete reside the merciless dictates of the marketplace: the very slim chance, vied for by every team member, of playing in the Big Leagues.  This means that for all of the familiar, there's-no-I-in-team homilies of organized athletics, the cold truth of professionalism is undeniable.  It's a zero-sum game for recognition and fortune - as the ruthless and potentially Pro-bound McReynolds notes "you're on your own."  Jake and the intellectually preening Finnegan notice this, and plan accordingly: given their slim chances of graduating into the big time, the best course of action is to enjoy the ride while it lasts, and not define themselves in the narrow straits of their status as college athletes.

Jake, for all of his callowness, shows himself to be wise beyond his years.  In his confidence - intellectually and physically - he approaches the idealized, but Linklater's incisive writing and directing keeps him fully human.  Crucially, he is unformed, and not at all troubled by this.  As a celebration of incompleteness, and the latent possibility of such a state, Linklater has crafted a movie of hilarity and humanity, of great depth and pleasure.  Even the Aristotlian unity of time and place has a deeper thematic resonance: the vital importance of grasping the moment, even as it is always slipping away from us.  Everybody Wants Some!! is about bodies in (mostly joyful) motion, and the hard work and pleasure of a life lived in the present. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Princess Mononoke

(Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1997)

Seeing this film - well, completing it - last night, I quickly realized I would have trouble describing the experience.  Faced with such a work, the brain, reeling from sensory overload, grasps desperately and wildly, landing on clichés.  Eye-popping, mind-boggling, that kind of thing.  But what can you do?  Rarely do we find a storyteller, and a creator of images, as resistant to description and as impervious to hyperbole as Miyazaki. 

Seeing Miyazaki's films out of order has made charting his career a particular challenge, but it is clear right away that Mononoke is a deepening of his previous efforts, and a departure from the whimsical spirit of works like Kiki's Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro.  This film is an epic, full stop.  It springs not just from Miyazaki's imagination but from history, from Japanese mythology, and from an awareness of human nature, compassionate and troubled, that has been annealed by experience.

Bazin and his band of merry Frenchmen agitated for the director as author, and more or less, the idea stuck.  Film is a collaborative effort, yes, but we generally accept the fact that the director's is the biggest imagination on the set and in the editing room, the foreman on the floor, the architect at his drafting table, and the person (still usually a man, alas) with whom the buck stops.  But how many directors can claim the level of authorship that Miyazaki has shown, in film after film?  We Romantic Westerners imagine filmmaking as a defensive battle, waged on the director by time, money, recalcitrant crew members, temperamental actors, and her own stamina, concentration, and patience.  Miyzaki works the other way, with the gale force of his imagination barely contained by the images that he personally draws or oversees.  His world, inspired by ours - and nature, the Mother of Mothers - seems to strain at the attempts to make it solid, so bountiful and exuberant is his vision.

To catalogue the richness of Mononoke would take too long, and would only be a meager description of the whole movie, scene by scene.  Ten minutes into the film, he has mastered the action genre.  Before the credits roll, he will have also shown formidable chops in the historical drama, fantasy, war, melodrama, picaresque, and romance.  Even horror, I would say (Japanese children must be made of stern stuff.  If I'd seen this too young I'd still be haunted by it). By the end, we may be forgiven for not knowing what it was we just saw.

Monoke's first appearance in the movie, her face blood-soaked and fierce, has to be one of the great cinematic images, on par with Chaplin or Welles.  Miyazaki, an admirer of Kurosawa, has in some ways surpassed him.  Kurosawa spent his entire career trying to orchestrate the grandeur (and emotional intensity) that Miyazaki seems to accomplish effortlessly.  Billions of American dollars and untold gigabits of processing have been spent trying to generate visions half as beautiful and wondrous as Miyazaki's Nightwalker, striding above the nocturnal forest like a shining, translucent man-raindeer-coral-reef.   To what can we compare the Kodama, both adorable and cryptic?  For sheer variety and inventiveness, Miyazaki is up there with Blake and Tolkein.

Astute minds have observed that Mononoke's treatment of good and evil is strikingly nuanced.  Lady Eboshi, the ostensible antagonist - in a Disney film, she would have a sinister laugh and sharpened fingernails - is what we might call a pragmatist.  She is destroying nature out a sense of necessity, viewing it as both inevitable and just; it's either the spirit of the forest, or human progress.  In short, she is an avatar of Modernity, in all of its tragedy and paradox.  She is also a savior to the dispossessed, putting whores and lepers to work.   But Miyazaki doesn't stop there; the theme he develops is metaphysical, braided through every image, inseparable from the substance of the film's world.  Morality, he sees, is a human dimension, but it arises from natural facts, and our frequent confusion is reflected in the duality of life and death in the world..  When we first encounter the Spirit of the Forest, otherworldly and yet welcoming, on its way to a (incomplete) act of healing, it also wilts a nearby sapling. 

As human beings, we can learn from nature, and we can live in some sense of balance with it - but this is a hard-won truth, and the condition of balance is profoundly fragile.  Princess Mononoke ends without an easy resolution, and with an acknowledgement that things can never revert back to a state of purity.  There are irreconcilable facts of our own natures, and of history.  But there is cause for hope, and Miyazaki shows that imagination is a necessary component of this hope - learning to see beyond the binaries, and looking towards some as-yet undiscovered sense of equilibrium.  His wisdom, no less than the beauty of his vision, is a gift.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

My Neighbor Totoro

(Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1988)

A delightful, mind-boggling adventure.  Miyazaki's genius for childlike fabulism - his gorgeously free imagination - is married to an acute, even anguished psychological sensitivity.  He reminds us that childhood and adulthood are coextensive, that children know much more than they appear to (and intuit even more) and that adults are mostly play-acting at maturity.  That's the wellspring of his movies: a preternatural wisdom and a preserved capacity for childlike awe.

From the reverence of nature and the imagination to the movingly tender portrait of a family under strain, Miyazaki has crafted a movie that encompasses an entire world.  It's about childhood and sisterhood, about growing up and parenthood, about dreams and fears.  Unlike recent Western culture's rather rigid and formal approach to fantasy - see the grandiose and Gothic Harry Potter franchise - Miyazaki's dream-weaving is playful, intricate, and epistemologically unbound.  Questions of fantasy v. reality emerge only teasingly, with an unforced ambiguity.  The everyday rhythms of life, the beauty of rural dusks and springtime blooms, peacefully coexist with the wild inventiveness of the Catbus and Totoro.  Not only nature, but the vibrancy of reality itself, is treated with a reverence that feels invigorating, partly due to its strangeness to us as Westerners. 

The easy joys and overall gentleness of the story don't distract us from the sense of genuine crisis that emerges later in the film: the possibility, present from the beginning, that Mei and Satsuki's mother might not recover from her protracted illness.  Rather, this anguish - a child's panic at the possibility of the unthinkable occurring - is made vivid by its occurring in such a placid world.  Miyazaki's Totoro - quite possibly his masterwork -  exemplifies the sophistication of Japanese art, and is thus an introspective and passionate contribution to world culture.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Knight of Cups

(Terrence Malick, USA, 2016)

The apportioning of an artist's career into "periods" is a delicate and hazardous business, particularly if that artist is still living.  On a purely biological basis, it would seem that Terrence Malick is now in his late period, given that he's recently crossed the threshold of 70.  But then, he's only made seven features, and the recent few have come at a positive torrent, at least when compared to his earlier output.  If he keeps it up at this pace - we're told that he has two more films that are complete or nearing completion - it might be more accurate, when the final tallies are made, to designate Knight of Cups as a middle-period piece.  His recent work has been so brilliantly inventive, so emotionally searching and courageous, that its hard to imagine him ever slowing down, and even harder to imagine what new heights of achievement he might reach in a later stage.

The point being, it isn't always easy to appreciate how special something is while it's happening.  Lives, like stories, take shape in retrospect, when the armature of narrative is applied.  The same is true of artistic careers, those funny things we create to make sense of a cluster of works from an artist who has made his or her mark on the world.  We can see the mark, but the meaning takes time to arise.  In fifty years, if the human race is still around to talk about cinema, we'll still be trying to make sense of Malick's movies, and time will likely have provided us with more clues. For now, however, we can only appraise what exists to the best of our abilities, knowing that our understanding is limited, but our impressions are as fresh and as vivid as they will ever be.  And for that, we should be grateful.

The passing of time, and the meaning that arises or doesn't arise from time and one's attention to it, is the force that gives Malick's latest opus its form.  It is, as his films have increasingly been, framed in a way that denotes a specifically Christian approach to the world (and whatever lies beyond the world.)  This has been a source of distraction to many viewers and critics.  Some have recoiled at the Christian stuff, finding it archaic, retrograde, stale, clichéd, etc.  Others have celebrated it, casting Malick as less an artist than a proselytizer, although the wisest among them haven't claimed that he can't be both.  It must be said that this is an issue Malick seems to be aware of, and even struggles with, as he excavates his own feelings, be they religious, sensual, or otherwise.

But Malick isn't trying to convince anyone of anything.  His faith in the world, in the manifest beauty and miraculousness of existence, unfolding before us minute by minute, is enough.  It's a take-it-or-leave it proposition, as all art is.  Christian Wiman said that "in the finding of a form for one's experience one's whole soul can be at stake," and that's how it must be for Malick.  He's put himself into his work to a degree that few artists of any medium dare, and his faith seems to be that the work will hold him and still be worthy of the world.  There's a tremendous joy in that, but also a kind of terrible risk.  There is no guarantee that you'll find your form, or that if you do, that the world will notice.   

Another common mistake has been to cast this film as a kind of rebuke or condemnation of Hollywood.  The depictions of the Hollywood types certainly aren't flattering, but they are never less than alive.  Malick doesn't portray Hollywood as a cesspool or as a vacuous waste of humanity, although he's aware that those are not inaccurate descriptions.  He is as bemused and appalled and attracted as we are, and why shouldn't we be?  To deny that decadence can be beautiful, or that the allure of worldly power and freedom will tempt even the best among us, indeed especially the very best among us, who assume that their intelligence and virtue will immunize them from temptation, is to take a child's view of the world.  Malick isn't letting himself off the hook, but he is also not about to moralize his way out of that conundrum.  Crucially, there is no alternative home for Christian Bale's character, the lost and restless Rick.  To the extent that grace may be found, it will be found exactly where he is.  It's a matter of perspective, a question of vision.

The film is divided into chapters, the titles of which are taken from the Tarot.  This complicates the Christian element no less than the appearance of Peter Matthiessen, who raps with Rick about Zen Buddhism   Although the metaphor of the spiritual journey is the film's major structural conceit, the journey's progression is anything but linear.  Malick moves the story to and fro in time, doubling back and then vaulting forward, tracing the movements of a troubled, searching mind.  This mind belongs to Rick, of course, but the perspective is not his exclusively.  In one of Malick's many profound aesthetic tropes, the consciousness of the film is permeable, and other characters - Rick's father and brother, the women from his past, the disembodied voices of John Gielgud, Charles Laughton, and Ben Kingsley, reading from spiritual and philosophical texts - often intrude.

Again, much of the critical discussion seems to miss this central fact.  Bale's character, while deeply lonely, is not alone, and the consciousness of the film extends far beyond his straitened view.  Trying to draw a philosophical conclusion from this is hard work, and probably unnecessary: there need not be a strict formula for where Rick's impressions, imaginations, and the exterior world all diverge.  But still, the character himself, and his role in the world of movies, is puzzling, at least initially.  What is this guy, who is clearly uncomfortable in the thicket of opulence and raw ambition that is show business, doing there?  And he's supposed to a comedy writer - is that a deadpan joke by Malick?

Probably, in part, it is meant to be funny.  But it also makes perfect sense, given the themes of the film: the pain underlying excessive displays of joy, the masks that must be donned to navigate a world of willful illusion (masks, and other ways of obscuring one's face, come up with some frequency in the film), the perennial absurdity of the movie colony's pretensions and garishness.  When we first encounter Rick, he is surely a different man than the one who came out to Los Angeles, lured by the palm trees that "make you believe anything is possible..." and the promise of easy, high living.  But even then, in his salad days as a hotshot, he seems to have held himself in reserve, indulging fulsomely in the sensual delights available to him but protecting his tender side behind a wall of aloofness.  There are clues littered throughout the film: a walk-and-talk with Rick's "people" (as they say in the 'biz), during which one of his suits recounts Rick's grand ambition (something about being the biggest screenwriter in Hollywood), and how he (the suit) just got a studio boss (somebody named Ted) to double Rick's quote.  Also revealed in the swatches of dialogue: Rick has failed to turn in one of his writing assignments, although, due to the hard work of his rep, that fact, and the trouble associated with it, "goes away" now that he's bagged this even bigger and better assignment.  

Rick has been faltering for some time, it would appear. Indeed, as we encounter him in what could tenuously be called the "present" of the film's timeline, he is living in a small, sparsely furnished loft in downtown L.A., not the sprawling, modernist house in the Hills, where he lived with his former wife, played by Cate Blanchette.  As for the money, and the need to acquire so much of it: this likely comes from Rick's troubled family dynamic.  We hear some of the scarcity ethic preached by his father, who talks of the sacrifices he made to provide for his family, and by the predicament of his brother, who appears unable to care for himself, financially or otherwise.

Rick, then, despite having almost no spoken lines, and whose anhedonic mien changes little over the course of the running time, is a complex and vivid character, and played expertly by Bale.  It's been some time since Bale showed his boyish side, his vulnerability, and it feels like bracing desert air after the severity and dourness of his stint as a superhero.  Malick's method of crafting performances is crucial to this, of course: while the overriding impression of Nick is of a listless and sorrowful soul, the depth of his character is revealed in quick, bright flashes of emotion: lust, joy, fear, and rage all make appearances, all the more striking for their brevity.  While the peripheral characters - the women around whose Rick's recollections tend to center, and his volatile male relatives - are not as deeply sketched, they are carefully individuated.  Rick's memory of his affairs - serious and frivolous alike - is rendered in a deeply human way.  He is searching for meaning with an almost desperate intensity, but he is easily sidetracked by the flood of emotions that complicates any act of memory, voluntary or not.

Knight of Cups, while close kin to Malick's previous two films (some have gone as far as to suggest a trilogy, although it will take another film to see if this is correct), is a noted departure.  In the first place, his restless experimentation with editing, shooting mediums, performance, and time, has only deepened.  Knight may be his most musical film to date, with its carefully harmonic and rhythmic  succession of images - a theme is stated, developed, repeated - going beyond even the cosmic span of Tree of Life and the intimacy of To the Wonder.  Malick is freer than he's ever been, and taking greater risks.  The element of the surreal - which has always been present in Malick's movies, but usually far less so - is also, in his latest, far more prominent.  Two examples spring to mind: Rick's half-dreamed, half-observed study of his father, who is shown pacing in an abandoned office building, and who performs an ablution in blood.  The other comes late in the film, after the revelation that Natalie Portman's character (she's billed as Elizabeth) has had an abortion, likely because of her doubts about Rick's love, with whom she has been having an affair.  Elizabeth and Rick are in a room, shrouded in smoke, decorated in white, where a child gambols about.  These scenes are jarring, both in their sudden departure from the quasi-documentary style of other sequences, and in their use of imagery that can feel familiar, even clichéd.  But Malick's originality purges these symbols - some of which are rather obvious, which need not be a knock - of their familiarity.  As always, it is through context that meaning arrives, and, perhaps more importantly, emotion.

Beyond that, there is a shift in emotional tenor - and even, possibly, in metaphysical orientation - that is rather stark when compared to the previous two movies.  Whereas Tree and Wonder both tilted towards redemption, even in the face of terrible loss, Knight is a decidedly more uncertain and troubled film.  While Malick's eye is never far from the manifest beauty of the world, and the grace that seems to underlie it, Rick's deliverance from his ennui, his recovery of himself, is cast in great doubt.  The whole movie, it would seem, pivots on the edge of a decision by Rick to "begin."  Time is bearing him forward, even as he beats against it.  As the film winds down, his moorings become more vague, his vision more abstracted.  Is he finally on the path to find solid ground, a sense of himself, a moral and emotional center?  A final woman appears, blond and diaphanous, the only true wisp in the story; we don't, as I recall, actually see her face.  Rick is back in the desert, and seems to be climbing, seeking the light, looking upward. (My pet theory is that the upcoming Weightless will be a companion piece to this film, even a second part,  and may offer more finality to the tale.)  Knight of Cups is Malick's most sensuously excessive film, his most conflicted, and his most confounding.  I've still only seen it once, and I'm eager to see it again; to savor it, to try to make better sense of it, to see how it matches my memories.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

(Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 2016)

The Coens, in a lighter and more exuberant mood than they've been in some time, have crafted a minor masterpiece about faith and art.  But before diving in to this new film, it might be instructive to trace the broad outlines of their artistic careers.  Beneath the hijinks of the Coens is a longstanding riddle: who are they, and what do they really think?  For all of their boisterous antics and their willful, meticulous oddity, the Coens have always kept their cards close to the vest.  A common take is that they are paragons of ironic distance, inveterate hipsters whose chief thrill is condescension.  I've suspected this myself, from time to time, movie to movie.

Hail, Caesar! doesn't entirely resolve this question, but it did help clarify, for me, what might be called their aesthetic attitude.   The Coens have always been filmmakers of prodigious and preternatural talent; from Blood Simple onward they have shown a facility with the tools of cinema that is nothing short of astonishing.  This has permitted them to invent entire worlds, populate them with strange and indelible characters, and still withhold a great deal from the audience.  What you get out of a movie by the Coens is largely a function of your own perspective; there is much to be found for the hopeful and the despairing alike, sometimes within the same movie.

Their combination of talent, scintillating intelligence, and a goofy sense of humor situates the Coens in a wholly unique place among their peers, and presents a challenge to any serious attempt to unpack their art.  We know they can't be nihilists ("That must be exhausting" was the Dude's wry take on the philosophy of nothing), and yet at their most irreverent, the Coens seem to mock the very idea of meaning in art.  A Serious Man was the latest example of this tendency, wherein they crafted a world that was perfectly meaningless, characters whose thin veneer of naturalism couldn't conceal their fundamental blankness, and a plot that spiraled slowly into nothing.  It was a goof on late-60s suburbia and the drab, provincial Jewish community of Minnesota, but it was also a goof on Jewish religion and religion in general, not to mention physics, television, adolescence, and infidelity.  A Serious Man is larded with symbols and motifs - the teeth, the rabbis, Jefferson Airplane, the Mentaculus - whose patterning, while amusing and intriguing, like wallpaper to a stoned person, is finally devoid of significance.

I'd trace this tendency back most explicitly to Barton Fink, where the titular character suffered a string of misfortunes that seemed designed explicitly to lampoon his artistic pretensions, and possibly even the notion of artistic ambition itself.  This paradox - two brilliantly idiosyncratic auteurs who seem to disdain the very idea of creative ambition - has only deepened throughout their career.  Their last film, the wryly bleak Inside Llewyn Davis, while not without humor and even a sliver or two of tenderness, was familiar enough in the detached circularity of its conception.

In Hail, Caesar!, the Coens (likely unintentionally) shed some light on these questions, belonging as it does to their sunnier, gentler work.  It occurred to me after ruminating for a while on the film that there is a character type that they seem to admire, or at least show mercy towards, in film after film.  He (or, more rarely, she) could be called the holy fool.  Abby in Blood Simple, H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona, Norville Barnes in Hudsucker, the immortal Dude.  Even Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik are variations on this theme; the difference is temperament.  Those who don't take themselves, or the world, too seriously, have some hope of satisfaction.  But the vain, the self-serious, and the ambitious - think Barton Fink, but also think Jerry Lundegaard - are almost certain to suffer.  Hail, Caesar!'s variant on this type is Josh Brolin's Eddie Mannix.  While not a fool, necessarily - he's smart and capable - he is besotted with the idea of morality, and conscientiously religious.  He's thus a bit silly, especially when considering the rampant venality of the world in which he operates.  He suffers genuine remorse over sneaking cigarettes and lying to his wife, but doesn't seem to scruple at lying to the tabloids or covering up all kinds of impious misbehavior.  But rather than a McCarthyite, driven by personal demons to paranoia and repression, he is a kind of benevolent zealot, fundamentally caring and decent.

Structurally, the film is episodic, with the central kidnapping plot providing only a modicum of momentum.  It's more of a basis for the Coens to take us on a tour of Golden Age Hollywood, with its outward opulence, moderated with a facade of propriety, and its inner turmoil, powered by pleasure, fear, and striving.  Given their taste for naifs, they have a glut of material to work with, including the sub rosa organizations of Communists.  All of this rolls along at a relaxed pace, with every opportunity taken to set up another pleasurably droll set piece. 

And the pleasures are worth noting: the hilarious quibbling of the religious leaders that Mannix consults with; Jonah Hill's uber-loyal fall guy/notary, Alden Ehrenreich's brilliantly funny turn as the sweet and dopey Hobie Doyle, Scarlet Johanssen's fast-talking and cynical star.  Brolin's Mannix is itself a remarkable role; there's a pathos to his character that provides the film with a crucial center of gravity.  Brolin has rarely been this supple and this affecting; he exudes a careful balance of zing and vulnerability.  Ehrenriech, also, excels in a role that's sublimely goofy but also manages to be charming.  His outing with Carlotta Valdez (a lovely Veronica Osorio), a date rigged for the benefit of the press, turns out to be subtly romantic, a breeze of unalloyed joy between two people who are in over their heads but enjoying the ride.

Caesar's gentle touch, which is miles away from the chilly angst of Inside Llewyn Davis, is only rarely punctuated with any darkness, but these rare occasions are worth noting.  As previously mentioned, the dealing with Communism is mostly played for laughs; the screenwriters come off as disgruntled and shallow, rather than ideologically rigorous.  But there is a sense of menace to the way that their circle is summarily dispatched, especially considering the actual history, which involved scores of ruined careers and lives.  The other glaring intrusion of worldly woe is in Mannix being courted by Lockheed Martin; among the military industry-rep's come-ons is a picture of a mushroom cloud, which impresses Mannix enough to utter "Armageddon." When deliberating whether he should take the job, Mannix seems largely unperturbed by the idea of working for war merchants, even though he appears to understand what it is that they do.

His decision to stay the course, re-committing himself to the grand illusions of the movies, comes across as a genuine article of faith for the Coens.  When all is said and done, they are unabashed entertainers, down to the marrow.  Generally, this is the most we can say about their personal feelings and convictions; while certain themes inevitably arise, and certain types of characters resurface, it is all always in aid of putting on a good show.  Their lodestar, after all, is Preston Sturges, that consummate entertainer of Golden Age Hollywood, whose Sullivan's Travels (the source for the title of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?) makes for a kind of manifesto.  In that film, pretensions of social consciousness and artistic purity are derided in favor of pure escapism.  That's far too neat for the Coens (and even for Sturges himself), but it does indicate the general direction of their sympathies.

In light of this, it can be said that Hail, Caesar! is one of their most personal films.  It posits the big-scale entertainments of cinema as a kind of secular faith - uplifting, harmless, and even capable of generating a sense of purpose in one's life, provided one doesn't take it too seriously.  Like all irrational belief, its roots are entwined with silliness and absurdity, but out of them can grow work of genuine wonder.  The Coens would probably never frame things in such an exalted way; even here, ending with Mannix's re-assertion of his faith, and as the last shot pans up to the heavens, we can hear them giggling.  Holy fools to the end, they are never less than sincere when it comes to their audience. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Recently Viewed

The Counselor - (Ridley Scott, USA, 2013)

Slightly less grating and absurd than the first time around; if you want to get down to it, there are some interesting things in the script, although the execution is confirmed as chilly professionalism.  McCarthy's ideas, even when they are facile, are at least worth grappling with, since they are grounded in a long tradition of aesthetic pessimism.  It's a big, expensive wank, but there is a perverse pleasure in glimpsing what appears to be a nadir of sleek, commercially-packaged dread.  It's almost as if, without knowing what they were doing, the honchos at 20th Century Fox bankrolled a merciless assault on the good old American values they spend their lives hawking. 

No Country for Old Men - (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA, 2007)

I remain a skeptic of this one, despite its copious formal pleasures.  The Coens do a truly fantastic job injecting some of their wit and levity into McCarthy's bitter catalog of dread, but paradoxically, this strategy undercuts the mythological heft that makes McCarthy's shtick work.  They quite rightly see that it's a pulpy yarn and not much more, and their investment in the hard physicality of the story, with its emphasis on process and limbic instinct, pays off.  It's a terrific thrill ride, but its a mistake to treat it as an investigation of either mortality or morality.  This might be a case of unfairly critiquing the praise and not the film, but oh well. 

The Ladykillers  - (Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 2004)

To this day, the only true misfire of the Coen's illustrious career (so far.)  Still, a Coen misfire is a cut above the average fare.  A re-viewing revealed that Irma P. Hall is the film's chief virtue (Hanks is good too, but he doesn't transcend caricature, like she does, by the sheer force of her charisma.)  Lots of the jokes are weirdly flat-footed and dumb.  The reason, I suspect, is that part of the project here for the irrepressibly analytic Coens was to make a broad, silly farce, full stop.  They had done farce before, but always within the bounds of their own eccentric universe, whereas here, there is a conspicuous attempt to try their hand at Zucker Bros. slapstick, which belly-flops rather spectacularly.  Still, it's a nervy, if failed, gambit from two of our best filmmakers.

Kiki's Delivery Service - (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 1989)

My second Miyazaki, after the bewilderingly gorgeous and engrossing Spirited Away.  After the go-for-broke splendor and giddy weirdness of that experience, Kiki left me wanting quite a bit more.  What comes through most remarkably is Miyazaki's calm, steely commitment to his own whimsical fancies, a combination that bleeds into the experience of the film, which feels both wispy and grounded.  His knack for subtle renderings of human behavior, captured via animation, is evident, but scene by scene, it didn't knock me out.  

Ponyo - (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2008)

Perhaps starting with Spirited Away wasn't the best idea.  Although more immersive than Kiki, Ponyo still felt strangely unfocused. It has its share of charms, and there are moments of undeniable brilliance - the anthropomorphic churning of the ocean during the storm that swamps most of the land comes quickly to mind - but it didn't provoke the wonderment I anticipated.  I'm still eager to see more of Miyazaki's prodigious output.

Chi-Raq - (Spike Lee, USA, 2015)

I'm with Brody on this one; this is a masterpiece, and woefully underappreciated.  Not for some time has Lee been so energized, so precise, and so deft.  It's zany, sexy, angry, funny, and excessive, but it works, and it stands as a landmark work of art and a blistering political statement.  My differences with Lee often boil down to taste; while I admire his political commitment and his giving-zero-fucks approach to both style and substance, I find that he has sometimes made glaringly poor creative choices in his movies - sudden geysers of sentiment, tin-eared musical cues, a hit-or-miss sense of humor, and the occasionally clunky performance or three.  But here, brilliantly, it all coheres, somehow.  The comedy is funny, the drama is heart-rending, the political broadsides are spot-on, and the moral severity is staunch and undeniable.  It's also a pleasure to listen to and look at.  It's the most relevant-feeling film I've seen all year; no better artistic encapsulation of America in 2015 exists.  Once again, a black person has located, in the ongoing criminality of our dealings with race, a universal tale of  wretchedness and hope, an indictment of America as a brutal sham and a celebration of America as a vibrant, humane, beautiful community that's trying to live and breathe.  It's worth noting that this is a work of radical pacifism, with deep veins of Christian love and redemption (but a Christianity that flows from the ineffable to the carnal.) I can't recall another film by Lee that was so spiritually powered, and here, he rivals Malick as an explicitly spiritual visionary.