Friday, April 29, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

It may come as a surprise that Terry Gilliam, surrealist animator and maker of various self-contained fantasies, has never touched drugs in his life. It therefore comes as an even bigger surprise that he would put one of the great drug odysseys ever written on the big screen. As a fellow teetotaler, even this writer can plainly see Gilliam's vision owes nothing to drug-induced hallucination.

However, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas succeeds in a far more important task: it successfully presents the sentimental cynicism of a cult hero's last-ditch effort to find the dwindling glimmer of hope of the American Dream. That this effort came so early in Hunter S. Thompson's career says something about the bleakness of the majority of his output. Gilliam succeeds by filming the story in emotional retrospect: his broad interpretations of Thompson's prose and Ralph Steadman's sketches contain less the hints of addled paranoia than the creeping horror of seeing the naked, reptilian face of America.

Fast Five (Justin Lin, 2011)

Having seen neither the third nor fourth entries in the Fast and Furious franchise, I cannot say whether Fast Five is, as so many now say, the finest film in the series. I certainly preferred it to the first two, inasmuch as one can prefer one case of chlamydia over another. Ludicrous the point that even the strongest critics are powerless to stand in its way, Fast Five offers enough entertainment, at least of the unintentional variety, to make for a decently fun, if unnecessary, 130 minutes . Yet the filmmakers' awareness of Fast Five's inanity leads to such a disregard for character, coherence and, frankly, morality, that it proves the first film of this series I've found genuinely troubling.

Fast Five once again locates its core band of crooks and expert drivers as they continue to inexplicably walk away from all sorts of consequences of their actions -- only Michelle Rodriguez has truly suffered among the main recurring cast, suggesting that even the physics-suspending Fast and Furious franchise cannot surmount the immutable curse of the Michelle Rodriguez character. Ex-federal agent Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) and his girlfriend Mia (Jordana Brewster) bust antihero crook (and brother to Mia) Dom (Vin Diesel) out of a bus bound for prison. They leave all other convicts to be picked up by cops. The three escape to Rio de Janeiro, where soon they find themselves targeted by a dictatorial businessman (Joaquim de Almeida) over some ridiculous matter concerning a computer chip containing information about his business transactions and where he keeps his money.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Nine: Scylla and Charybdis

The Scylla and Charybdis episode marks a turning point in Ulysses: though it once again only teases the reader with the near-miss of Stephen and Bloom, it at last expounds upon Stephen's much-touted theory on Shakespeare, a convoluted, witty explication de texte that would stand as the magnum opus of any critic. However, insecure, self-conscious thoughts nag at him throughout his attempts to convince librarians and intellectuals of his talent, and the chapter ultimately reveals as much about Stephen as anything in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Naturally, Joyce drops us in the thick of it, as Stephen lays on the complexities of his theory on Hamlet and Shakespeare's corpus at large. Sitting in the director's office in the National Public Library, Stephen gives an example of his theory -- the full idea of which we have not heard, by saying that Shakespeare "plays" the ghost father in Hamlet, thus making the titular character the Bard's dead son Hamnet and Gertrude Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway.

The Fisher King (Terry Gilliam, 1991)

Made in 1991, The Fisher King is both somewhat dated and remarkably ahead of its time, a rarity among the classical mythological/folk-tale fantasies of its maker, Terry Gilliam. That aspect of Gilliam's filmmaking is certainly on display, of course: the film gets its title from the Arthurian legend of the keeper of the Holy Grail. But its view of healing wounds and redemptive human arcs is far more deeply felt than anything else in the director's corpus, and it set the stage for a number of reductive movies that used some facet of its subtly sociopolitical construction without understanding the true humanity that powered it.

The film's first shot places a mouth in extreme close-up as it sleazily talks into a microphone in a smoky radio studio. Jack (Jeff Bridges), a shock jock who combines Rush Limbaugh's combativeness with Howard Stern's puerile humor. For the entire first scene, Gilliam never places Bridges' face in full view, alternating between overhead long shots of the jock mocking disembodied voices and more close-ups of an almost toad-like mouth smacking and oozing literal and metaphorical spittle at those poor saps foolish enough to call in and argue with the man. Even in person, Jack is a voice, a lecturing superego as vile as the most uninhibited id, spewing bile upon the populace he so completely loathes.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Numéro Deux (Jean-Luc Godard, 1975)

Numéro deux represents Godard's first fully successful attempt to include the elements of his previous films into a cohesive whole. Ironically, it may also be his most abstract and jumbled film yet. Shown entirely on video monitors (even the two establishing shots showing Godard in his studio contain running images on screens), Numéro deux takes his Brechtian distance to a new extreme, creating such an aesthetic distance that the cold abstraction of his characters can be attributed as much to the blatant falsity of it all as it can to Godard's philosophical and political musings.

And yet, the film represents the best-yet examination of Godard's obsession with the line between discussing politics and embodying them. Despite its formal minimalism -- employing nothing but static shots of video monitors themselves displaying solely static shots -- Numéro deux at last emerges as the true heir to the poetic 2 or Things I Know About Her, a film that partially informed every Godard film that came after it, as well as a further exploration of not only the ideas behind the Dziga Vertov Group but of the reasons that collective failed. It represents a better meditation and autocritique than Here and Elsewhere, and somewhere in its brutal asceticism is a poetry I'd begun to think Godard lost.

Announcement: Inexhaustible Documents

Next month, Ed Howard of Only the Cinema will launch a new series at his blog called Inexhaustible Documents. Modeled after The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club, Inexhaustible Documents will instead focus on music, with one blogger selecting a title each month and posting about it on his or her blog as the others discuss it in the comments.

The first edition will cover The Congos' Heart of the Congos, which is almost perfect, as reggae represents the biggest gap in my music listening. Starting May 23, you can read Ed's post on the album and join in the discussion.

Some bloggers, including yours truly, have already signed on to participate, but this is by no means a limited series. I hope this series gets a good turnout and leads to some great discussion, and that some bloggers I know and love join in the chat. So mark your calendars, and do please participate.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Taxi Driver

To commemorate the release of Taxi Driver on a downright essential Blu-Ray, I've reviewed the film at Cinelogue. Almost assuredly my favorite movie of the 1970s, Taxi Driver hasn't aged a day regardless of the vastly different condition of modern New York City. This is a film for the lonely, the hurt and the angry, which makes it as good a fit for millennials as it did the post-hippie burnouts.

I only briefly touched upon the extras included in the Blu-Ray, but everything you need to know about the movie can be found in its commentary track or the bevy of retrospective material. The A/V restoration makes the film come alive more than it already does, yet this gorgeous transfer does not take away from the dingy feel of the movie. It is already my to-beat disc for 2011.

You can read my review now at Cinelogue.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Saw the Devil (Kim Ji-woon, 2011)

What is it about South Korea and revenge films? My overriding distaste for all but the most thoughtful and daring revenge movie largely confines my genre excursions on this subject to the national cinema of the country (as well as the work of Quentin Tarantino and the odd film like the Coens' True Grit). Perhaps South Korea's long history of exploitation at the hands of other nations -- ending only in the last half of the previous century and gaining that independence at least partially through the intervention of Western nations -- is the impetus for the desire for payback. Now that South Korea is a major economic presence, maybe they want to show others what they're made of.

I Saw the Devil, the latest by Kim Ji-woon, does not stand with the best, most insightful genre film Korean cinema has to offer, but it successfully blurs the line between hero and villain with a masterfully gory portrait of all-consuming vengeance that, to its credit, will probably revolt audiences looking for a visceral kick even more than the deliberately repulsive films of Park Chan-wook. The story of a stoic cop seeking revenge against his fiancée's killer, I Saw the Devil plays like what Christopher Nolan wishes he could have done with The Dark Knight: it takes the conflict between a psychopath and a preternaturally skilled crime fighter and grinds the pieces together so violently that the ostensible hero truly is brought down to the evildoer's level.

Here and Elsewhere (Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Miéville, 1975)

Partially cobbled together from footage Godard shot in 1970 of a Palestinian insurgency, Here and Elsewhere, his first collaboration with Anne-Marie Miéville, serves as the final nail in the Dziga Vertov Group's coffin, not only because it uses the last of the group's material but because Godard uses the opportunity to investigate why the group failed. Predictably, he cannot go into such details without making a movie as messy as one of the DVG films.

Though five years removed from his time in Palestine, Godard clearly has not forgotten his outrage, and as Miéville translates the revolutionaries' anti-Zionist rhetoric, it becomes clear Godard agrees with them even before he starts visually comparing Hitler to Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. As ever, Godard thinks in terms of the Marxist class struggle, and when he cuts to a petit bourgeois family in France watching these images on their TV the connection -- Palestinians and Westerners held down by the same capitalist powers -- is obvious. Too obvious, in fact; Godard does not account for religious tension, and his equation of Hitler with Meir is but one example of his single-mindedness getting the better of him.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Letter to Jane (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)

Conceived as a postscript film to Tout va bien, the 52-minute Letter to Jane closes the door on Godard and Gorin's partnership and the lingering remnants of the Dziga Vertov Group. Structured around the infamous photograph of Fonda in Hanoi, Letter to Jane seeks to break down the image's symbolic meaning and every implication of Fonda's visit to North Vietnam.

Yet the most readily apparent aspect of these interpretations is the acrid tone of the two men's discussions. Perhaps this can be traced to Fonda's unease with Tout va bien, which confronted her naïve political sensibilities with all-out radical filmmaking and so offended her that Gorin ranted at her for three hours until she broke down and agreed to what ultimately amounted to a slyly minor role.

Thus, Letter to Jane too often smacks of sexist condescension. Godard used several of his '60s films to directly attack the commodification of the image of women. Here, however, the men pore over her looks seeking discrepancies between her actions, their true motivations and the effects of them on the revolution. Gorin says that, as a woman, Fonda will be more sensitive to their criticism and practically tells her to put aside her womanly hormones to engage with them. They then try to absolve themselves by saying, "We are not aiming at Jane but a function of Jane." Gorin and Godard could be dropped into the male roles of Une femme mariée or 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her without skipping a beat.

Then again, it's possible that Godard and Gorin are addressing that obsession over the female image. They break down the image's aesthetics in taking its politics to task, noting that right-wing and left-wing papers ran the photo in equal measure because it was structured by the photographer to be ambiguous. Conservatives can mock it, while leftists can celebrate it. The filmmakers hit upon something when they note how the actual Vietnamese in the photograph are minimized and not even named in the cutline. In an age where some celebrities attempt to funnel their camera magnetism into social activism, this analysis points out the true effect of a celebrity lending her voice to a cause: the cameras follow her there but only shoot her.

Some of their aesthetic analysis deconstructs the subconscious tone of the shot until one cannot look at it the same way again. Its low angle emphasizes Fonda's superiority, a point the filmmakers support by contrasting it with stills of films like Citizen Kane as if the whole film were a class lecture (and it certainly feels like one). They break down her body and facial language as if Fonda gave a performance to the North Vietnamese, comparing the look of sympathy on her face to various condescending glances of pity in paternalistic Hollywood films, suggesting that, in coming to North Vietnam to protest her homeland's imperialism, she brought that Father-Knows-Best social tone with her.

Godard and Gorin do believe in the Vietnamese cause, and they even stress the importance of answering the question, "How can cinema help Vietnamese people win their independence?" Clearly, they come to the conclusion that Fonda's visit is not the solution, and they argue she does more harm than good. As they argue, photos of the Vietnamese are of relevant people with stories, while an "American's face a function that only reflects a function." Fonda is only a symbol, interchangeable and distracting. As maddening as this harangue can be, Godard and Gorin achieve a haunting level of meditation in their close-up isolation of the only person besides Fonda to face the camera, a Vietnamese man. Out of focus to begin with, the Vietnamese looks even blurrier when blown-up, as if Fonda's presence and ostensible assistance actually turns the indigenous people into ghosts in their own home. Then, the two find the joke in the situation: by isolating this member of the proletariat in the background, Fonda makes herself into the embodiment not of the leftist movement but the oppressive bourgeoisie.

Tout va bien (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)

In Paul Tingen's survey of Miles Davis' electric period, Miles Beyond, the author repeatedly returns to the idea of "transcend and include" as a way of charting Davis' substantial musical growth by way of seeing how he maintained a link to the past. No filmmaker embodies this ideal like Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1972 film Tout va bien marked a return to more cinematic storytelling even as it incorporated ideas and stylistic traits he'd picked up with collective filmmaking and tried to move forward. Having ditched the Dziga Vertov Group moniker to share name credit with Jean-Pierre Gorin, Godard took elements of his mid-'60s pop art aesthetic, essay film structure and DVG polemics and autocritique and mixed them to try to find his way in a France he could not recognize from its turbulent days in May '68.

Indeed, Godard's return to his more filmic mise-en-scène may be a visual cue of how thoroughly France had returned to the status quo by 1972: capitalism emerged victorious, and lingering political hostility only displays a fraction of the turmoil present in the streets during the national riots. His titles, which return to the blue/white/red format of his mid-'60s credits sequences, juxtapose May '68 with May '72, and when the film begins one can see the marked difference between the two despite the prevalence of revolt in the film's narrative.

The fully transparent self-reflexivity of the Dziga Vertov Group films returns in the opening sequence, as two voices argue about the best way to make the film. Where the autocritique of the DVG films focused on Godard and co.'s political purity and the contradictory forces of their bourgeois upbringings, Tout va bien incorporates more critical views of Godard and Gorin's aesthetic choices. One voice, largely in the role of producer, tells the other that putting a star in the movie will help them get more money, and a coherent and, more importantly, recognizable narrative subject will ensure a better box office.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)

One of the stranger aspects of animation is how production studios tend to be viewed in auteurist terms. Mention Disney, Studio Ghibli or Pixar and people can get an instant image in their heads despite the disparities of style and content between movies produced by various directors and various animation teams all getting their paycheck at the same place. Brad Bird, however, is one of the few animators who enjoys any singular auterist cred, carrying pet themes across projects and displaying a love for a chic past with styles based off old advertisements.

Following the release of his magnificent retro sci-fi picture The Iron Giant, Bird hooked up with old pal and Pixar head John Lasseter and pitched a superhero movie for the studio. Yet despite the swap from traditional animation (with some digital elements) to 3-D CGI, The Incredibles looks like a logical stylistic continuation of Bird's retro style and love of isolated heroes. When I first saw it as a 15-year-old, The Incredibles instantly became my favorite Pixar movie, only to go years without watching it. Using the new Blu-Ray release as an excuse to rediscover the film, I approached it with nostalgia, but also reminders of some of the criticisms I'd read since I last watched it a few years ago.

Vladimir and Rosa (Dziga Vertov Group, 1971)

Vladimir and Rosa is the most successful of the Dziga Vertov Group films to this point because, among its innovative styling and fresh comic timing, it dares to show the intellectual grappling with his efficacy. Though I've found the DVG films have not been as polemical as many claimed, Godard and co.'s use of Marxist dialectics to this point has chiefly resulted in political films that may be balanced but are still fiery. Vladimir and Rosa is the first to get at what I feel is the greatest concern of great thinkers: am I reaching anyone? It is well and good to be the greatest physicist or philosopher in the world, but what if no one can break through your impenetrable thoughts? Consider books on economics or astrophysics. Which receives more praise: thoroughness or accessibility?

Godard, along with Jean-Pierre Gorin, play the titular Vladimir and Rosa, respectively, and they open the film by contemplating the nature of revolution. Godard, playing the spirit of Lenin, looks at pictures of the revolutionary and thinks of the dialectic between theory and practice, of translating abstract thought into concrete action. That is the central issue with any revolt, and Godard and Gorin know it is the crux of revolutionary film as well. Godard's intentions of forming the DVG, to go beyond making political films and making the construction of the films themselves political, make all the group's films inherently self-reflexive, and this video is the culmination of the incremental revelations contained in previous works.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2011)

The grass almost literally looks greener in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's movies: of all the modern poets of the cinema, "Joe" is by far the most tactile. Though his glacially paced films may create a distance that makes even Terrence Malick or Abbas Kiarostami seem visceral, Weerasethakul is the best at crafting worlds one can nearly reach out and touch. Unlike the masterful contemporary filmmakers whose company Joe enjoys, the Thai director does not intellectualize his reveries. Shots follow characters speaking until suddenly the focus shifts onto another group, an animal or even plant life. It's as if Weerasethakul sets up his shots based on what's the most interesting element in the frame, even if that means moving away from a previous setup altogether. This gives his films a universality he shares with other seemingly esoteric and geocentric filmmakers like Kiarostami or Jia Zhangke, and his ability to mine more abstract metaphysical subjects than the others occasionally makes him stand out even against his hero Abbas.

As I still need to see a few of his films, and because I value the films I have seen so highly, I cannot say whether Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is truly Joe's finest film to date. It is, however, his most ambitious, taking the cross-dimensional split narrative of his erstwhile magnum opus, Syndromes and a Century, to further extremes. That film bifurcated its romance between pairs of country and urban doctors, but Uncle Boonmee moves across the threshold from life to death and back again.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Eight: Lestrygonians

Having already established Leopold Bloom as a sympathetic character, even something of a role model, Joyce frees the poor man from the dismissive gaze of his self-absorbed colleagues in the "Lestrygonians" episode. With the exception of the previous chapter's bombastic, self-reflexive structure, all of Bloom's episodes thus far have placed the perspective in Bloom's head, but that's always a bustling place. Only when Bloom went out to the outhouse for a moment to himself in the "Calypso" chapter was the audience allowed to focus fully on the man's ruminations and not the clutter of conversation and keen but broken observation.

The organs and symbols of the chapter relate to digestion and food, and the schema for the chapter lists the technique as peristaltic, again digestive. I found two broad interpretations of Linati's vague use of the term "peristaltic prose": either it has something to do with recurring lines with minor variations and modifications, or, truer to its digestive nature, it shows words and ideas being broken down. Whether either (or both) these readings are accurate, this chapter certainly contains passages that support both interpretations.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

When It Rains (Charles Burnett, 1995)

At first glance, Charles Burnett's 13-minute short When It Rains may seem a bit low-key to be worthy of Jonathan Rosenbaum's high praise (his being damn-near the only mention you can find of the once-obscure short). But if the best short films capture something of life in narrow time-frames, Burnett's jazz-blues riff on community life surely stands as a masterful condensation of his unique blend of Ozu's stark but deliberate framing and Rossellini's neorealism.

Set on a bustling New Year's Day, When It Rains depicts a man (Ayuko Babu) attempting to help a friend pay her rent to an impatient landlord threatening to throw her and her child out if she doesn't cough up the money by that evening. The man, a musician and griot (a sort of oral historian/poet), tries to help by calling on favors from people around the community. It's a simple setup, but then Burnett never needed much to make a masterpiece.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Ulysses, Chapter Seven: Aeolus

"Talk, talk, it's all talk
Too much talk, small talk
Talk that trash"
-- King Crimson, "Elephant Talk

Steeped in obscure Irish history that not even the copious endnotes try to fully explain, the Aeolus chapter of Ulysses makes for the toughest reading yet. However, the ideas it communicates are some of the most clearly stated in the book so far, and as I have learned to just let go at this point and stop trying to "figure this novel out," I enjoyed the chapter immensely.

After Hours

In the late-'70s, Martin Scorsese buried the stress of his work and a series of critical disappointments in a mountain of cocaine. When he experienced setbacks in the early '80s, he made After Hours. I'm still trying to figure out which response is more wild. After Hours exists to prove that Taxi Driver actually displayed some restraint. Its vision of New York crosses that Rubicon into madness and never looks back.

After delving into the psyches of his characters for a decade, Scorsese created a screwball version of his work, expelling his anger over Paramount's shutdown of The Last Temptation of Christ mere weeks before shooting was scheduled to begin. Sometimes, it's all you can do to laugh. That is not to say, however, that the film is without meaning. At times, it dips into unexpected poignancy, and even when it's being madcap and disjointed, the subjects it broaches are too severe to be considered mere farce.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


In the wake of the dismal, thoroughly chauvinistic takes on female empowerment seen in Kick-Ass and Sucker Punch, along comes Joe Wright to save us. He does not try to pass off the idea of a young woman given a homeschooling from hell as some sort of joke (except perhaps on a cosmic level), nor does he present the violence as something cool. After a certain point, it's difficult even to chuckle uncomfortably at Hanna's bloodbaths, and Wright manages to keep his PG-13 rating by hiding most of the red stuff through cutaways to the horrified faces of spectators to this teenager's rampage.

I've not been the world's biggest Wright fan in the past, always feeling that he chose serious topics or literature to adapt and then made it all about him and his (admittedly considerable) camerawork. Here, divested of the need to honor a book or a person's life, he lets his style float freely, and the ride is wild indeed. Hanna strikes me at once as both continuation and antidote to last year's The American: like that film, Wright's movie messes with staid genre conventions of the trained killer. Unlike The American, this movie is balls-to-the-wall frenzy. And yet, a hand guides this ship through the maelstrom, and even when Wright's style dips into shaky cam and music video editing, he puts enough spin on these tropes to break them free from cliché's gravity.

Monday, April 11, 2011

My Cinematic Alphabet

I've seen this même going around the blogs lately, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Unsurprisingly, picking a favorite for some letters was impossible because of the limited options (X2 was pretty much alone) or because I had so many choices (I actually wasted time stressing over whether to sub Playtime for Phantom of the Paradise, Repulsion or Rio Bravo for The Red Shoes, McCabe & Mrs. Miller for Miami Vice and The Straits of Love and Hate or Sansho the Bailiff for Sweetie). But I went with my gut and I've think I've got a decent range here. I've not repeated any directors, which was surprisingly difficult.

A is for A.I. Artificial Intelligence

Source Code

My review for Duncan Jones' flawed but entertaining anti-sophomore slump Source Code is up now at Cinelogue. I'm still waiting for Jones to find his own voice or at least keep stewing his influences until they all turn into a homogeneous mix, but I cannot deny that he's rapidly becoming a force to be reckoned with as a sci-fi director. Source Code may not show off its cast the way Moon proved a vehicle for superb character and personal man-crush Sam Rockwell, but Jake Gyllenhaal hasn't been this interesting since Brokeback Mountain and Michelle Monaghan makes an irresistible person out of a completely flat character (though not even she can make the romantic plot all that believable, I'm afraid). Undercooked as it may be, Source Code played with some interesting ideas within a captivating narrative, and I would not hesitate to recommend it. On a numerical scale, I'd rate it about a 3.5 or maybe even a light 4 out of 5.

Please check out my review at Cinelogue and let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Bitter Moon

My review for Roman Polanski's seldom-discussed but masterful shaggy dog story, Bitter Moon, is now live at Cinelogue. A foray deep into Polanski's sexual proclivities, Bitter Moon is equal parts Audition and Certified Copy, a film that explores the games couples play with each other but also the extremes of sexual lust and submission. Featuring a hilariously typecast Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas as a quintessentially British couple looking to spice up their sagging relationship, Bitter Moon gives them more than they wished for in the form of Oscar and Mimi (inspired performances by Peter Coyote and Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner), and soon we plunge deep into twisted reminiscences of bondage, S&M and cruelty. Like the best Polanski films, it is both playful and uncompromising, slapstick and nihilistic.

So, please read my review of this challenging, vexing yet transfixing film over at Cinelogue.

Note: This was originally intended to be a contribution to Tom Hyland's Roman Polanski blogathon. Sadly, school got in the way and I did not even begin to write this piece until after it had concluded. Contributions to this blogathon can be viewed here.