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.


(David O. Russell, USA, 2015)

There is laudable restraint to be found here, as though Russell were attempting to dial down the razzmatazz of American Hustle and thin the more maudlin elements of Silver Linings Playbook.  By elevating the role of fantasy in his formal toolkit, Russell breaks new ground, and as usual, his work with actors is excellent.  But the film doesn't entirely deliver on the emotional and psychological depths it promises.  Lawrence, as game and as focused as ever, seems at times to be outpaced by Russell's still-present propulsiveness, and the piling-on of personal and professional setbacks she faces left me enervated rather than enthralled.  Russell has made an interesting body of work; the cerebral screwball antics of his earlier career have been dampened by a taste for bigger, more emotionally tender stories, with all of the pitfalls that such stories can entail.  The balancing act he's exhibited is a model of calculation, and my hat is off to him, even if I don't always love the end result.  The Fighter is still his most fully-realized latter day film, bristling with the vitality born of both necessity and desire. 

Joy's fusion of Cinderella and Scarface, set against the hardscrabble America that Russell seems to know well, is fascinating as a concept but gets lost in the tonal ambiguities of the telling.  It feels both lighthearted and brutal, severe and whimsical.  And it misses the more trenchant feel for politics that Russell exhibited earlier in his career.  Here, Joy's capture of capitalism's brass ring - financial bonanza, the mansion on Long Island, zillions of units sold - is treated with a curious lack of skepticism, as though to cast any doubt on her dreams of massive entrepreneurial success would be unfair to this strong, loving, determined woman.  But this is a missed opportunity, leaving the film to float in its snow-globe fantasy, blocked from a louder, stranger, more vivid engagement with the world of its characters, and the world of its audience.