Monday, October 31, 2011

Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

Long seen as the French answer to Alfred Hitchcock, Henri-Georges Clouzot managed to surpass his British yin with Les diaboliques. Predating Psycho by five years, the film clearly got under Hitch's skin, for he plundered it to make his own twisty horror-thriller. Les diaboliques (released as Diabolique in the United States) introduces the upheaving twist that Psycho would move up from the climax to the end of the first act, features a bathroom scene the Master of Suspense had to work to top, and it works on a high plane of grim irony that even Hitchcock, with his dark sense of humor, must have admired.

But to define Clouzot by Hitch's standards is not only unfair but misleading. Where Hitchcock's technique-driven direction typically bypasses both narrative and character to grab the audience, Clouzot puts so much effort into retaining the plot of Boileau-Narcejac's novel that the film feels more like a proper mystery book, with its meticulous, follow-the-breadcrumbs pace daring to languish with extraneous scenes while still carefully building a mood. More so than the glissandi-spiked frights and deliberately jarring anti-narrative strokes of Psycho, Les diaboliques seizes the audience through a series of events so smoothly ordered that it's impossible to feel cheated even when the director rips out the carpet from underneath the audience.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Shotgun Stories (Jeff Nichols, 2008)

Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) bears more scars than the shotgun marks on his back. His monosyllabic name, a description more than an identity, speaks to a childhood of neglect as much as his terse self-sufficiency. We meet him as he discovers his wife has left him, silently reacting to this awareness as if having long expected it. She wouldn't be the first person to walk out on him, whether or not he deserved it. With her gone, Son invites his similarly monikered brothers, Boy and Kid, to come live with him. The reluctance on Shannon's face communicates a primal sense of filial obligation more than any real kindness for his homeless siblings.

When word comes that the father who abandoned them as children died, they show up at the funeral in dirty work clothes to find the man's second family, the one he made after getting sober and finding Jesus, sitting apprehensively. Son says some harsh things about the father his half-brothers remember as a kind and loving man, standing before them as the skeleton from Pa's closet. At last, he spits on the coffin, catalyzing an inevitable feud that will have horrific consequences.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Other F Word (Andrea Blaugrund, 2011)

Andrea Blaugrund combines the two safest, dullest documentary subjects—bands and children—into one tedious ride with The Other F Word. A survey of pop-anarchist punks now domesticated by fatherhood, The Other F Word doesn't seem to realize that a lot of people think they're hot shit and unique when they're young and get eaten by the system later. Many of the stories are touching, but running through a gauntlet of abuse memories starts to feel exploitative after a while. Furthermore, they limit the film from exploring its implications. Somewhere in this movie is a vicious critique of that same punk egotism  and solipsism, but instead it settles for a mild look into the well-covered hardships of raising a family while being away most of the year.

My full review of The Other F Word is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki, 2011)

Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre is so intelligent and well-composed that at no point did I see its unflinching optimism as the usual Hollywood approach of burying one's head in the sand when confronting delicate (and especially racial) topics. His comedy on illegal immigration is the most old-fashioned, dry movie out there right now, with his Hawks-in-a-vacuum approach on proud display. It's hilarious, sweet, and so tight you could bounce a nickel off it even as it takes its time with scenes. (And in Kaurismäki's world, no matter how short the film, there is always time for rock 'n roll.) I loved nearly every second.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Record Club 6: Miles Davis, Agharta

Miles Davis’ Agharta—and, to a lesser extent, its sister record Pangaea—embodies the various dichotomies and outright contradictions of the artist's growth to that point. It is an album largely defined by the absence and weakness of Miles himself even as it firmly establishes his invaluable role as a conductor. Its long-form acid-funk jams sound as far removed from the cool and modal jazzes Miles pioneered as possible but also incorporates themes stretching back to Kind of Blue. Most importantly, it demonstrates his most ambitious attempt to remain current to hip, black audiences, yet Davis’ formal training at Juilliard has never been more evident.

With On the Corner, Miles overshot his attempts to appeal to young black audiences by jumping ahead of the curve by nearly 20 years, laying the foundation for hip-hop, dub, and drum and bass techniques. Its disastrous reception kept Miles out of the studios for years, but he never stopped developing his sound. When Agharta and Pangaea came out after three years of nothing but vault-clearing compilations that only hinted at the strides the ever-changing live bands were making, even Miles’ dwindling numbers of faithful must have been stunned.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cold Fish (Sion Sono, 2010)

[The following is being considered for 2011 evaluations.]

Sion Sono openly states the narrative conflict of his thriller Cold Fish during the first on-screen murder, the revealed serial killer delineating his worldview from that of the man he's forced to witness this crime even as the victim continues to sputter and vomit from poisoning. As the killer says, the protagonist, Shamoto (Mitsuru Fukikoshi), sees the Earth in its idealized, far-away form, a perfect glass sphere of swirling blue and white. But the murderer sees the planet up close, noticing only its craggy, ugly rocks. But then, Cold Fish is not exactly a war between idealistic romanticism and pragmatic viciousness, as the dreamer gets slapped into his place almost instantly.

Instead, Shamoto finds himself at the center of an intended class satire that uses the guise of a "based on a true story" crime thriller about a Japanese serial killer to set up social archetypes for grisly deconstruction. Shamoto, a mild-mannered, middle-aged fish shop owner, is the submissive employee who supplicates to his boss, the spineless reality beneath the idealized view of the loyal, obedient Japanese worker. He's but the first type that Sono relentlessly mocks, but where his epic but intimate Love Exposure rebuilt the world after shattering it, Cold Fish revels too joyously in its devastation, ultimately flying off the rails entirely until it's anyone's guess what Sono is trying to say.

The Man Without a Past (Aki Kaurismäki, 2002)

The Man Without a Past occupies the nebulous realms between emotions and moods. It's deadpan-comic and entropic-tragic, ironic and optimistic, detached and intimate. Its characters speak with such icy remove that they make Coens brothers side players look as animated as Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. And don't let the title fool you: though we have no background information on the unnamed protagonist or the Finnish seaside around him, the past is everywhere, from the postindustrial rust where he rebuilds his life to the rough lines and vaguely haunted look that hangs around the edges of Markku Peltola's face.

Precisely composed with shots that seldom move, Aki Kaurismäki directs with simplicity yet artistry. This is the kind of movie that can wholly lack a plot yet still unfold with a sense of internal logic that makes every diversion inexplicably inevitable. That's no mean feat for a film where even the dialogue routinely floats out of comprehension, with the lead character suddenly going off on a tangent about visiting the moon as another humors him. When asked whether he met someone, the man replies, "Not really, it was a Sunday."

The Woman (Lucky McKee, 2011)

Hey, so I have a new writing gig at Spectrum Culture. I'll be getting screeners every now and then for films that I otherwise wouldn't get to see until well into next year. Naturally, I'm excited. My first review is for Lucky McKee's fantastic, deeply troubling exercise in extreme feminism, The Woman. Dealing with the depravity of patriarchal systems and putting unleashed femininity on display in such a brilliant fashion that I had a complete flight of ego after watching it and assumed McKee made it for people like me who liked Lars von Trier's Antichrist but wanted it stripped of distracting affectations. Barring an awful soundtrack, this is a magnificently crafted film that foregrounds McKee's gift for gradually building overwhelming bewilderment and terror without cheap scares. One of my favorites of an excellent year.

So please take a look at my review of The Woman and leave a comment.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

May (Lucky McKee, 2002)

Lucky McKee's May belongs to the small group of horror films as likely to make you cry as scream. Its protagonist rates with the children of Let the Right One In and The Devil's Backbone and any Lon Chaney performance as one of the most unsettling but affecting characters put on the screen. In Catch-22, Joseph Heller adds a splash of sadness to his biting satire when he describes the childhood of unwitting officer Major Major with a grimly funny but painfully real summary: "Because he needed a friend so desperately he never found one." The same sentiment hangs over May, its titular character secluded all her life for her lazy eye, the social alienation carrying into her adulthood where she cannot find pals even after taking steps to correct her condition. By this point, the physical deformation is secondary to her malformed social skills.

But McKee's mise-en-scène reflects May's eye, casting askew glances at synecdochical body parts upon which May fixates. In so doing, the director at once deconstructs the male gaze and creates a new female gaze that is no less disturbing for its fetishistic intensity. For May, the phrase "nobody's perfect" functions not as a comforting call to acceptance of her physical abnormality but a maddening reminder that she can never find the perfect person to offset all her years of loneliness. She knows she'll probably only ever have one friend, so she needs that companion to be perfect.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Terri (Azazel Jacobs, 2011)

Terri feels like the film the Duplass brothers' intended crossover Cyrus wanted to be, even if its subject matter is different and the overall quality of the two movies is not radically different. Azazel Jacobs' smooth, crisp, measured direction lingers on the odd but believable high-school world crafted by screenwriter Patrick DeWitt, drawing out its beats until "comedy" and "drama" become meaningless distinctions. This is not discomfort humor, or at least not in the sense of squirm comedy. Rather, Terri ekes comedy out of the discomfort of life itself, not the embarrassing shenanigans of warped loonies who may well exist but are not as common as the quiet embarrassments and indignities on display here.

The titular protagonist (Jacob Wysocki) is an overweight 15-year-old  who lives with his uncle, James (The Office's Creed Bratton), a loving but often removed man in the early stages of dementia. Picked on at school and made increasingly lonely by the mental slippage of the only person who speaks to him, Terri starts showing up late for class and constantly wears pajamas, only further distancing himself from the other kids. Taller and wider than everyone else, mocked for his poverty and weight, and decked out in clothes that isolate him in the frame, Terri looks absurd, but the look of muted loneliness on his face evokes a great deal of pain.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Brian De Palma: Mission to Mars

Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars is the film you'd least expect from the maker of gory, cynical deconstruction who delighted in adhering to genre tropes as much as he did tearing them apart. A PG-rated space adventure released by Disney, Mission to Mars looks on its face like the ultimate sellout move, an embrace of everything De Palma hated now that he could be trusted to make a profit off his work. Certainly critics and audiences found it easy to go with their gut; the film eked out a box office so thinly above the budget it likely falls within the margin of error, and it received scathing reviews from professionals and amateurs alike.

But I see a remarkable film, one that puts all of De Palma's generic immersion and aesthetic strength to use at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. Here is a film so unabashedly optimistic that De Palma can open on a barbecue with red, white, and blue colors used without a drop of irony, no mean feat for man who loves his American flags huge and imperialistic. And even if one wants to play the usual simplistic game of "Who is De Palma ripping off today?" the closest you'll get is Star Wars by way of 2001. Considering that those two films stand at polar ends to each other, suggesting De Palma is just playing the plagiarist holds even less water than it always has.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Jane Eyre (Cary Fukunaga, 2011)

Cary Fukunaga displays such an immediate grasp of the Gothic tones of Charlotte Brontë's eerie, macabre romance that the speed with which he loses his grip upon them is all the more frustrating. Whenever his camera follows the protagonist outdoors, or into the dimmest, grimiest recesses of Rochester's home, Jane Eyre overflows with atmosphere. Its cold, flora-less English countrysides and purulent candlelit interiors capture the darker moods of Brontë's novel better than any of the few adaptations I've seen.

The romance is another story. Brontë's Jane Eyre puts forth a disturbingly insular love affair between two lonely pariahs. It's one of the most passionate books I've ever read, yet almost as off-putting in its unchecked desires as a Twilight novel. Jane and Rochester become obsessed with each other because they have no one else in the world, stewing in their lust and pain and terrifying joy in their private heaven and hell. Fukunaga's film communicates practically none of this dangerous level of attraction, omitting the novel's most perilous demonstrations of twisted, isolated love and softening what remains. Beginning with such perfect solemnity, Jane Eyre soon turns into a listless period drama not even livened by the raving embodiment of uninhibited female sexuality living in the attic.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Ides of March (George Clooney, 2011)

The Ides of March is a political drama under the mistaken belief it's a thriller. It film hinges on a Shocking Revelation telegraphed in the first five minutes, the fallout of which wishes to throw the audience for a loop but instead unfolds in tedious predictability. Its title, which connotes portentous imagery of politics at its nastiest, fails to capture the true mood of the film. There is no sense of doom hanging over George Clooney's film, only a sad resignation. A more accurate, and no less political, title would have been CNN's perennial sign off, "We'll Have to Leave It There." In an attempt to ensure wide box office appeal, Clooney's film waters down its rhetoric and potential depth of savagery behind the scenes to come to the banal, universal truth that politics corrupts people, a maxim accepted at face value and not explored to any extent.

As such, The Ides of March embodies the same neutered centrism we see in our current president. Clooney plays his presidential candidate as the Obama of 2008 but with even more broad appeal. He's got military experience, leadership experience, and all the talking points that made Obama a symbol of change. But in breaking the clay feet of this alloyed idol, Clooney tries so hard to blame the idea of politics in general, of that commonly accepted evil, that he fatally undermines any possible belief the audience could have in the idealistic innocence of its politics-savvy protagonist.

Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

Melancholia is so honest, so bereft of its maker's seeming inability not to burden his films with at least one huge, garish, self-consciously edgy flaw, that Lars von Trier's disastrous press conference for it at Cannes now makes sense. That was just the cosmic balance reasserting itself, spilling out the usual tacky, ill-thought-out, offensive nonsense that weighs down so many of the director's half-baked screeds and cruel character studies. Here at last is a film that displays von Trier's genuine attempts to come to terms with emotions and thoughts, most of them at the darker end of the human spectrum, but without the, to cut to the chase, usual bullshit.

Few artists make openings as striking, gripping, or aesthetically distinct (not just from everyone else but the rest of the films in question) as von Trier, and his super-slow-motion montage here is one of his finest. Melancholia tantalizes with its apocalyptic, despairing imagery even as it clearly plays the film's finale up-front. This will not be a mystery of whether the Earth will die, something its title makes equally obvious. The apocalypse is coming, but neither von Trier nor his on-screen proxy can seem to care. As Justine (Kirsten Dunst) coldly asserts, "Life is only on Earth, and not for very long."

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Strange Case of Angelica (Manoel de Oliveira, 2010)

[Note: I am considering this film for 2011 year-end lists as it got no major U.S. release until this year.]

My review for Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira's latest feature, The Strange Case of Angelica, is up now at Cinelogue. A film about cinema so encompassing as to suggest its position as a swan song (never fear, the 102-year-old has two films slated to come out next year), Angelica is nevertheless too spry, playful and deliberately withholding and contradictory to even hint that the director is spent. Despite de Oliveira's static, half-theatrical/half-painterly composition and detachment and conflict of mood, I found this an absorbing work that made me tackle its unclear message and tone with enthusiasm, not frustration. Few films I've seen this year can top it.

So head over to Cinelogue now and check out my review. Comments appreciated.

Friday, October 7, 2011

50/50 (Jonathan Levine, 2011)

As I walked out of 50/50, I was struck by the realization that it didn't get funny until the protagonist got cancer. If nothing else, that speaks to the unorthodox nature of the film. No matter, young Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets cancer after only a few minutes of awkward establishment. 50/50 is your usual Apatow-style funny/sentimental movie but with cancer, to which some might reply, "Remember Funny People?" This is different. Where Funny People used the threat of an illness to prompt a reevaluation of life and career. But Adam Lerner is not George Simmons. He's too young to have a life to reevaluate. He's still building the career he can look back on later. As Adam says during a breakdown late in the film, he's never even told a girl he loved her.

That flecks 50/50 with an affecting quality I'm not sure is fair but cannot deny hit me hard, especially in its last 40 minutes. Based on screenwriter Will Reiser's own bout with cancer at 24, the film clearly displays the guidance of someone who actually lived this life rather than looking for some easy quirks. That is not to say that the film doesn't suffer from some questionable touches, but at least it takes its subject seriously, even when it's milking cancer for laughs.

Pearl Jam Twenty (Cameron Crowe, 2011)

Pearl Jam Twenty is fan service done right. Armed with such an avalanche of archival footage that one wonders if someone hadn't been filming every second of each band member since their births, Cameron Crowe tosses in his own interviews and current-day concert video to make a package sure to please anyone with a decent familiarity with the band. Then again, maybe it's not so surprising that Crowe had access to mountains of material considering how quickly Pearl Jam rose out of the tragic ashes of Mother Love Bone to superstardom.

That stardom serves as the film's crux, the issue plaguing a band that wanted to reach all of their fans but knew that doing so meant acquiescing to a system they hated, especially Eddie Vedder. The most revealing yet, in retrospect, most fitting revelation Crowe digs up about the group is how Vedder, initially so shy on-stage, found his confidence when he saw security roughing up some drunk during a show. That brought out the dormant beast in him, and one can see the impetus for the band's shift from the early, insular songs of depression and anomie to the later works of sociopolitical directness. It also brought out his activism for everything from Tibetan freedom to Ticketmaster's price-gouging, and for a band so often derided for selling out grunge (as if that whole movement hadn't been co-opted almost immediately), Pearl Jam shows a disdain for fame so vicious it's a wonder they only briefly flagged in popularity in a 20-year career.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Circle (Jafar Panahi, 2000)

The Circle may be the first prison escape movie to feature people who are all already out of jail. Its shifting narrative, which routinely hands off the baton to a new character and a new situation, revolves around women, most of whom have been to prison for something. What any of them did is never clear, and as we see throughout the movie, they might not know either as so many cops regularly detain someone without explanation. As such, while "The Circle" certainly refers to the circumnavigating arc the overall story takes, it also suggests a vague boundary that its characters cannot cross, a set of rules that constrains half of Iran's population solely on the basis of gender.

Unlike other Panahi films, The Circle does not show the defiance of the Iranian people to the authorities that still exercise total control over them. People stopped by cops in Crimson Gold demanded to know the reason for this harassment, and Offside shows a clear confrontation of insane theocratic law. Here, the director demonstrates the way Iranians are linked yet separated by the difficulties of harsh autocratic life, every character coming into contact with the other but isolated by the direction and the constant splitting up for safety's sake.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

American: The Bill Hicks Story (Matt Harlock & Paul Thomas, 2011)

Bill Hicks existed and continues to live on at the fringes of mainstream acceptance, to the point that the titling of this biographical documentary seems less a insight into the comic's thematic focus than a reminder to the citizens of his home country that he was actually one of them. You wouldn't have known it during his life, and few seem to know it now; it's fitting that this film, title and all, was made by two filmmakers from Britain, where Hicks arrived an instant megastar in 1991, barely three years before his death from pancreatic cancer. But he died a legend in some circles, a mythical entity of uncompromising truth and savage comedy that has only expanded with time. In the aftermath of George W. Bush, so many fans have projected upon what Hicks would have had to say about that period in time that Hicks himself likely could never have lived up to the expectation had he beaten his cancer.

That places a weight on the shoulders of American that the film could never bear. As hagiography, it won't convert anyone unfamiliar with Hicks, and the fans will know almost all of the footage the directors collected by heart. Once the film establishes how Hicks grew into the comic who emerged in the late-'80s like the wrath of God come to pass judgment on Reagan's America, it ceases to offer insights, reveling in the skill of this brutal, hilarious man—"comedian" seems less accurate than the phrase, to steal from Mel Brooks, "stand-up philosopher"—with a sort of greatest-hits package.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Moneyball (Bennett Miller, 2011)

"It's hard not to be romantic about baseball," Oakland As GM Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) sighs near the end of Moneyball. Clearly we've never chatted. Based on the bestseller that revolutionized America's pastime, Moneyball deals with the As' 2002 season and how Beane, along with a handful of statistical whizzes, evened the playing field by taking a team they barely scraped together with a paltry budget and broke the record for most consecutive wins in a season. It is also a film that captures the spirit of baseball as I see it, meaning that it is arduously drawn-out and involves far more math than I ever want to do when eating junk food and becoming, in theory, emotionally invested in the grab-assing of 'roided-up men.

Moneyball opens with footage of the 2001 American League elimination game between the As and the New York Yankees, the richest team in baseball. Intertitles contrast the teams not by score or stats but budgets, positing baseball as a metaphor for class warfare that seems especially apt in the current economic climate. Still, it's hard to see the As as underdogs when 25 people split $40 million a year to play a game. So as director Bennett Miller is trying to make me shake my head at the unfairness of it all, I was already so uninterested that the one thing that drew my eye was how incredibly old TV footage from exactly one decade ago looks.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Record Club #6 Announcement: Agharta

For the past few months, a group of bloggers organized by the inestimable Ed Howard have discussed albums for a cross-site feature called the Record Club (entries organized by Ed here). Now it's my turn to pick the album of the month, and I've chosen one of my all-time favorites, the criminally underrated Agharta by Miles Davis. I can't wait to write about this album, and I'll hope you'll return October 24 to discuss it with me. If you're not a member of the Record Club, never fear: anyone and everyone is free to comment, and be sure to email either me or Ed if you need the, as they say, "required materials."

Also feel free to post the banner image at your own site. I'd greatly appreciate it.

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Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Blue Angel (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)

What was it about the Germans that made their initial forays into talkies the high-water marks of the new format? If anything, the German film style to that point was the one best suited to silence, all Expressionistic imagery crafting endless depth out of jagged set design, shadowplay and graceful camera work. Josef von Sternberg's The Blue Angel contains many visual cues that tie it to the national cinema of the past—angular backdrops of villages, impossibly cramped apartments filled with minute detail—but his greatest coup is his incorporation of sound into the image in such a way as to enhance the atmosphere, adding another dimension to artistic control.

The director's exacting perfectionism turns the story of Immanuel Rath (Emil Jannings), an uptight teacher at a preparatory high school who gets lured by the seductions of Weimar Germany, into a stylistic smorgasbord of crisp, static imagery (this was early sound cinema after all) that from the first moment suggest a slight separation from reality that grows into a gulf as the film progresses. Jannings, portly and mannered, nevertheless betrays flashes of expressive acting early on that show a restlessness and a madness within him long before the head-spinning perfection of Marlene Dietrich's legs tilts him off his axis.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)

Gold Diggers of 1933 bursts with such energy that it barely gets through its credits before Ginger Rogers enters in close-up singing a show tune. The number, choreographed by Busby Berkeley like the other three routines of the film, is massive, a grandiose paean to money that makes you forget the year in the title until creditors bust in at the song's climax to shut down the indebted production. The disconnect makes the intrusion of reality all the more amusing, more impressive considering how hard it is to top the comic highpoint of the gold-digger song "We're in the Money," complete with looming silver dollar setpieces and costumes of scantily clad showgirls wearing coins over their privates (as if announcing the toll for entry).

The creditors' blunt reminder of the world outside the theater, subsequently seen through the living conditions of the other three leads of the film: ingenue Polly (Ruby Keeler), torch singer Carol (Joan Blondell), and the sarcastic Trixie (Aline MacMahon). Forced to share an apartment, the three stoop to stealing neighbors' milk and have become so despondent over job searches that they've given up looking. And when their old producer, the irascible Hopkins, comes by with plans to make a production about the Depression, the fresh memory of his gaudy, glamorous oblivion suggests that such a show would capture the Great Depression with as much realism as Armageddon does astrophysics. Only the timely intervention of Polly's talented singer-songwriter (and mysteriously wealthy) boyfriend Brad secures Hopkins the money, exciting the girls but also raising suspicions.