Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Hell or High Water

(David Mackenzie, USA, 2016)

At its best, Mackenzie's potboiler is a competent crime movie, awkwardly accessorized with some social commentary.  Sure, Jeff Bridges is a gas, as he always is.  But the script, by Taylor Sheridan, remains mostly paint-by-numbers.  It has just the right amount of local flavor, but plot-and-character-wise, it hardly rises above the schematic.  And there's simply too much would-be open range poetry, all of it taken straight from the book of hardscrabble Western cliché.  Hard lives, desolate wide-open spaces, tough men with big hearts, family loyalty - the whole thing is strictly ersatz.  The action scenes have a certain pop to them, and it is undeniably handsome (although rarely beautiful) but it only begins to develop real narrative interest towards the very end.   Even by its conventional standards, the first two thirds of the film - maybe even the first three quarters, lack decisive momentum.  By the time of the finale, we have a better sense of the depth of the characters, what they might desire and pursue.  But then the film abruptly stops.  Thus, the political aspect of the film takes a backseat to the procedural elements of plot.  This wouldn't be such a big deal, except that a large portion of the praise this film has garnered has to do with its sociological relevance, its story of noble-but-flawed men trying to resist the predations of the banksters.  Unfortunately, the makers of this film don't provide a compelling portrait of the psychological costs of such predation.  The faux-seriousness of Hell or High Water is its undoing, marring a passable heist film with unearned gravitas.  


(Christopher Nolan, USA, 2014)

Nolan can't resist his penchant for bombast and dramatic overkill, but there's an undeniably vital sensibility at work here.  It manifests itself mostly in the space stuff, which combines genuine wonder with a science-nerd scrupulousness (I got a geeky thrill from the fact that, as pedants have always insisted at the movies, there's no sound in space), although it departs from credibility on a more than a few occasions.  Thematically, it's a lot of unfortunate treacle, combined with a distasteful technocratic slant.  An odd combo, to be sure, but just odd enough to keep one interested.  Nolan is an strange bird, never more so than here - he combines his extravagant melodramatic reflex with a steely, tasteful eye (the deep, dense 35mm and 70mm cinematography is luscious). Interstellar's debt to Kubrick is enormous, but it does better than mere imitation or pastiche, and it deserves credit for that.  The story, however, is B-grade sci-fi pablum, and no better for being intricately plotted.   Had Nolan allowed himself to go fully abstract, and fashioned something closer to a 2001 update, it would be a better film.  

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Death of Empedocles

(Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, France/Germany, 1987)

I'm tempted to describe this film, my first Straub-Huillet, as hyper-austere.  But that doesn't quite do it justice.  Poised, incisive, and unexpectedly sensual, with a special eye (and ear) for the ever-shifting features of the natural world.  I'm still unfamiliar with their overall project, their aesthetic ideas, and their politics, but a brief gloss led to the impression that their approach was somewhat Brechtian - the renunciation of any dramatic affect, with the end goal being the awakening of revolutionary consciousness among their imagined audience. I'm not sure they got very far with this, but the work, which tried my patience and my ability to focus (parts of the text were un-subtitled) has an undeniable power.  At times, it was almost trancelike, the way I was attempting to catch and follow the line of thought, usually expressed with as little inflection as possible by the actor, and which was, after all, rendered in 18th-century German dramatic verse.  Where it worked best for me, it seemed it could've used a good deal more actual drama, but there was something oddly captivating about the blankness.  A prelude to more investigation.  Preceded by Black Sin, an even more stripped-down version of a different version of the source play. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Thou Wast Mild and Lovely

(Josephine Decker, USA, 2015)

A brilliant, audacious, truly wild piece of work.  Decker is the real deal: fervidly imaginative, keenly perceptive, creatively restless and courageous.  Lovely is a work which frustrates the usual tendency to speak of coherence.  A lot is going on, as they say, but it's perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to say that the voltage of her energy, the originality of vision, outshines any temptation to question her choices.  This kind of thing can be mistaken for being easy, or worse, haphazard.  But it's so much more than a kitchen-sink capriciousness.  Instead, it's a carefully considered, deeply felt plumbing of primal energies and desires.  The evocation of a torrid, rural summer, her probing, revelatory, haptic camera, her quicksilver pursuit of light, skin, and color: it's all of a piece.