Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best FIlms of 2012

This new decade continues to offer up dozens of films that directly refute the seemingly endless cottage industry of “thinkpieces” devoted to cinema’s death. Directors who proudly stick with film until it is ripped from their hands are joined by inventive users of digital, be they up-and-comers or adaptive old masters, people forging new possibilities of visual language with a new format. And for the film viewer, access has never been so open, closed as it may still sometimes seem. Like last year, 2012 offered up an embarrassment of riches, so much so that narrowing down selections proved even more arduous than in 2011. Not only were the movies themselves great, many contained parallels with each other. As such, I arranged my picks for the best the year had to offer as a series of double (and one triple) features that link up thematically, stylistically, or both.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Top 10 Michael Powell (And Emeric Presburger) Films

I do not know if any director has had as formative an influence on the films I love than Michael Powell and his creative partner, Emeric Pressburger. The film that sits in the number-one slot on the list that follows radically altered what I look for in movies, and it remains my favorite of all time. On his own, Michael Powell was an extraordinarily gifted director, an innate visual genius and a conservative in the Fordian mode, reflected in films that looked fondly on a traditional Britain but also displayed an ambivalence, even borderline acceptance of the nation’s fading importance in the 20th century. (His breakthrough, The Edge of the World, recalls Ford’s How Green Was My Valley in its wistful but clear-headed appraisal of a secluded hamlet eroding to modernity for ill and good.)

With Pressburger, though, Powell crafted not only some of the most sumptuously beautiful films of all time, but some of the most resonant as well. Their propaganda films are anything but, and their postwar work celebrates the preservation of their beloved country even as it offers firm, and sometimes critical, assessments of what needs to be done to maintain Britain’s spirit. Even at their most troubling, however, the filmmakers communicate such vivaciousness of life through some of the greatest Technicolor work in history that an optimism blazes to the surface on their aesthetic mastery. The films below are not merely some of the best ever made, they are also some of the most endlessly, exuberantly entertaining.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Girl Walk//All Day, Sound of Noise, Sound of My Voice

Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick, 2012)

Watching Jacob Krupnick’s Girl Walk//All Day, my focus was initially drawn less to Anne Marsen’s wide-smiling, unashamed dancer than the parade of awkward smiles and uncomfortable glances of the real pedestrians of New York among whom she leaps and twirls and slams. But what would a portrait of New York City be without some crazy person making the average person on the street alternately amused and anxious? Girl Walk//All Day gradually builds as it wears on, Marsen’s infectious energy spreading among other dancers who intermittently pop up and, occasionally, random bystanders who get caught up in her rhythm. Admittedly, the filmmaking isn’t nearly as inventive as the soundtrack that inspired it, but the energy builds and builds throughout until I found myself more entertained than I had been all year. The film’s only exchange of dialogue (delivered in subtitles as the music continues to dominate the soundtrack, almost recalls The Red Shoes’ “Why do you dance?” dialogue. A Hasidic Jew asks Marsen, “Why are you dancing?” with a look of mild discomfort and genuine curiosity. “Because I’m happy,” she cheerfully replies, still bouncing. The man smiles. “You should always be happy.” Grade: B+

Sound of Noise (Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, 2012)

Stomp made into an anarchic hunt for unshackled music, Sound of Noise is, by turns, a caper and a romantic comedy, pulsing with its unorthodox percussion and tittering with its makeshift cymbals and blocks. A metronome becomes the equivalent of a bomb detonator for a group of anarchist drummers who make the world into music, thus rendering it soundless for the tone-deaf policeman who chases them. It is a great conceit and routinely funny in execution, but what the film is not is the city symphony for Malmö it feels as if it will become at nearly every moment before falling short. Its ingenious street compositions are thrown off by routine plot mechanics that not only puts too much dead air between performances but often interrupt the few bits of music we get. The film is still enjoyable, but it feels like so much untapped potential. Grade: C+

Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij, 2012)

The Sound of My Voice recalls other recent films about cults—Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Master—not merely in its subject matter but in its strengths and weaknesses. In all three films, the actor playing the cult leader does an exceptional job of capturing the ambiguous tone between someone projecting freewheeling improvisation and eerie omniscience. But Brit Marling’s excellent performance, all soothing but firm suggestions that crucially stop just short of direct commands, is undercut by everything around her. All cults are thinly sketched (the aforementioned cult movies even make this a key aspect of their observed sects), but rarely are the people they comprise so vague as well. Sound of My Voice offers no sense of how or why anyone ever gravitated toward Marling’s Maggie, much less how they developed the fanatical loyalty necessary to overlook her obvious fakery. Oh, but is it fakery, dear reader, for the film contains a twist! Admittedly, it does go to the trouble of laying track toward the climactic revelation, but the twist still feels like a lazy counter to everything the film had been saying to that point. Grade: C-

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012)

This wonderful German drama feels like a thriller that draws all of its suspense from the moral quandaries that flash across Nina Hoss' focused eyes in an instant, a world of possibilities (most of them dismal) processed in a second. Petzold's camera proves that subjective shots not only do not require handheld shaky-cam but are often foiled by it. His calm, level gazes produce an intense feeling of always being watched, save for when Barbara retreats to areas of howling, microphone-drowning wind. One of the year's best.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, 2012)

It is both immediately apparent and hard to believe that Alex Ross Perry’s second feature, The Color Wheel, is entirely scripted as the director claims. The flesh-peeling barbs that Ross Perry and co-writer Caren Altman lob at each other as warring siblings Colin and J.R., respectively, are so deft and precision-targeted that the broader strokes of improv responses seem inadequate for producing them, yet the speed and rhythm with which they deflect and parry feels so spontaneous, not at all memorized and practiced. The dialogue is as separated from the prevailing status quo of American comedy as it separates the characters from each other, from the sardonically drawled “Nice shirt” that opens the film to a multi-front war the siblings open between themselves and everyone around them.

Likewise, Ross Perry’s direction serves to radically break the film from modern trends of American independent filmmaking. Instead of being shot on affordable, slick, color DV, Ross Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams use black-and-white, gloriously grainy 16mm film stock. The choice of filming material is the film’s first and best-sustained joke, its anachronism an ironic reminder that its format used to be the preferred method of filming “realism” but now looks like artistic license. What was shorthand for real now looks decidedly the opposite when stacked against HD video, and it makes one wonder when that, too, shall be seen as almost classical. And though the film concerns two twentysomethings in the grip of anomie and stagnation, the 16mm removes The Color Wheel from even the most stretched definition of “mumblecore,” a nebulous term carelessly used by all (including this writer). Nothing about this is Sundance fare, but that only further defines it as a true independent work of art.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Capsule Reviews: End of Watch, Flight, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

End of Watch (David Ayer, 2012)

Whether the cops in End of Watch talk like cops matters less than the joy of them talking like actual human beings. Jake Gyllenhaal and partner Michael Peña enjoy a natural chemistry that works with Ayer’s hyperactive, disjunctive direction to give the impression of normal police work on L.A. streets even as the calls to which they respond are not only blatantly cinematic on an individual basis but also link up in a building narrative arc. That frenetic direction is the result of handheld cameras, most of which appear diegetically, toted by cop and criminal alike as their colleagues attempt to dissuade the would be filmmakers from carrying around evidence against them. It figures: the one time these characters are spared the weight of allegorical importance, they strive to be symbolic stars of their own movies. Admittedly, the sheer frantic collision of shots holds the film back, but it also pays off in some nearly surreal setpieces, especially during a rescue effort in a burning house that actually manages to communicate the terror of heat forming physical barriers and exits being lost behind smokescreens at a second’s notice. Besides, the technique cannot be too distancing, as End of Watch creates an immediacy of emotional connection rare to cop films. Grade: B+

Monday, December 17, 2012

Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012)

When set against the experience of seeing a production of Les Misérables,Tom Hooper’s adaptation single-handedly disproves Chaplin’s notion that life is tragedy in close-up and comedy in long shot. Hooper is so fixated on the musical’s reputation as a tear-jerker that he has no sense for its epic sweep, and his camera is rarely more than inches from an actor’s face as he or she sings. At times, performers even lurch suddenly toward the lens in a disorientingly pop effect, a gesture of spontaneity that sometimes comes across as their way of saying, “Would you back the hell off?”

Based, of course, on Victor Hugo’s epic, social romance novel, Les Misérables is one of the few musicals ripe for the current fetish for “realism” (emphasis on the quotation marks). Hooper always makes sure each face is covered in grime just so, that the stars’ teeth are not sparkling but also not blackened like the extras or significant characters of disrepute. These details make the film seem more fake than a stage show, not less, though the camera does such a fine job of its own on that front that the relatively minor sin of aesthetically arranged grit. One might not even notice this if, again, Hooper could bear to mix up his agonizingly long close-ups with a medium or long shot that lasted more than a second.

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

Don Hertzfeldt brings a trilogy of short films about a psychologically impaired everyman named Bill to a close with It’s Such a Beautiful Day, his longest and most ambitious work to date. The 23-minute film is a tour de force for the filmmaker from its opening images, which flicker onto the screen and back into darkness with a literal gasp. Hertzfeldt’s prior two films, Everything Will Be O.K. and I Am So Proud of You, delved into Bill’s life with aesthetic subjectivity. The director’s mash-ups of forms, avant-garde collages of images, objects and lights, were never more prominent as he used them to visualize the poor protagonist’s slipping grasp on reality as his mind slowly rebelled against him.

Taken with those films, as a feature-length fusion of the three shorts now allows, It’s Such a Beautiful Day begins as a (relatively) logical continuation of the mounting visual instability. On its own, however, the Brakhagean intensity that ushers in this final chapter is radical in its immediate impact and only more powerful when the intellectual play of the construction is bent toward emotional communication. The foundation of Hertzfeldt’s wild compositions are deceptively simple pencil drawings, the sort where a single figure is always visibly shifting even when not moving as each frame shows contains an outline with subtly different shading.

Consuming Spirits (Chris Sullivan, 2012)

A whopping 15 years in the making, Chris Sullivan's work of cross-format animation is not only a beautiful ode to outsider art but a deeply felt human drama on its own terms. Filled with uncomfortable humor and wrenching insights into its disturbed, lonely characters, Consuming Spirits is as powerful a reminder as any that ennui affects the poor and rural, not just the wealthy and urban. It is one of the great surprises of the year, and one of my favorites in a year that has given me nearly 30 contenders for placement in a top 10.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012)

For the last decade, David Cronenberg has retreated from his body horror nightmares of modernity and moved into the traumas that inherently exist in life, well outside contemporary anxieties. The postwar kitchen sink drama cum shattered mental breakdown of Spider. The instinctual savagery of man displayed even in the title of A History of Violence. The histories made visible on bodies via gang tattoos in Eastern Promises. The formation, and potential inadequacies, of theories to explore the psychology of all of this in A Dangerous Method. The old monsters still remain, if they are not as visible. Where the mind tends to ooze out of suppurating wounds in prior Cronenberg films, the dynamic reverses in Spider to make the body horror internal as the body collapses into the mind. In A Dangerous Method, it is Keira Knightley herself, her jutting jaw and angular frame thrown into disarray as her illness complicates the work and professional relationship of its two psychiatrists.

Cosmopolis bridges the earlier, topical body horror with the abstract, unseen terrors of Cronenberg’s late period. Indeed, in this film, the monster may be the camera itself, an Arri Aflexa that renders a picture of undeniable ugliness. Black levels pool like ink, unreal colors bleed into each other, and attempts at old-school in-camera effects make some of Hitchcock’s laughable rear-projections look like location shoots in comparison. That this is all clearly deliberate does not, on the face of it, serve as a full defense of the garish unpleasantness of the frame, and those alienated from this alienating movie cannot be blamed much for pushing outside of it. Speaking for myself, though, Cosmopolis is just about the most enthralling film of the year, capable of sucking in a viewer into the same black hole that consumes the image and the strange (and even more strangely delivered) dialogue. Not explicitly an apocalypse movie nor a Death of Cinema picture, Cronenberg’s latest feels like both, as the sudden meaningless of money threatens to take the world (and film) with it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Ladykillers (1955) vs. The Ladykillers (2004)

For my latest Re-Make/Re-Model piece for Spectrum Culture, I compare the blisteringly funny, darkly funny Ealing Studios classic The Ladykillers with the Coens' 2004 remake. The latter is my least favorite of the brothers' work, so I had hoped to see something of value on a second watch. Sadly, watching the two films back to back only made its failings that much more apparent, and all the (very Coenesque) charm of the original is lost on weak irony, puerile scatology and offensive caricatures. It is everything Coen haters accuse the brothers of being but otherwise never are, and I shall continue to put it out of sight and mind when evaluating their incredible body of work.

My full piece is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Capsule Reviews: The Deep Blue Sea, Cloud Atlas, Rust and Bone

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, 2012)

Lit in a stuffy haze by Florian Hoffmeister, Terence Davies’ adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea continues the director’s penchant for visualizing the confining boundaries of conservative British upbringing. Ambiguities poke through, though, as they did for his masterpiece Distant Voices, Still Lives. Here, the cukolding love triangle of Rachel Weisz, lover Tim Hiddleston and elder husband Simon Russell Beale certainly exhibit melodramatic flourishes—“To the Impressionists!” is a boisterously funny outburst begging to join the ranks of a cinephile’s referential quotes. Yet the material also resembles a British take on Anna Karenina, where the cheated husband responds not with blustering, annihilating anger but a measured, conflicted tone of hurt and resignation. Weisz and Hiddleston face the negative consequences of passion, but it is Beale who grounds the film and threatens to steal the film as the person truly suffering in all this. His flicker of a smile and the pant of excitement in his voice when he notes Weisz still wears her wedding ring is so delicate the film threatens to blow away with the extra breath in his exhale, and his subsequent offer to help her transition away from him in any way he can is more poignant and heartbreaking than the subsequent travails Weisz faces with her impetuous new beau. Grade: B+

Friday, December 7, 2012

This Is 40 (Judd Apatow, 2012)

In Knocked Up, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) played a side role to Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl’s unstably formed relationship. Mann played Heigl’s sister, and the rough patch of Pete and Debbie’s established bond ran parallel to the shaky formation of ties between the leads. Yet their arguments quickly crossed the line from the disruptions that test a relationship’s mettle to obvious, serious problems between two people clearly wrong for each other. Their eventual reconciliation is meant to show that Rogen and Heigl can and should make it too, but the desperate, artificial consolation left lingering fears of a futurish, even more nightmarish breakdown.

Enter This Is 40. Approaching their nearly simultaneous 40th birthdays, Pete and Debbie have regressed further in the last five years, their prickly resignation at spending the rest of their lives with each other now wholly removed of any evidence of true love save a few, futile lines of dialogue. In the Knocked Up DVD commentary, Apatow noted that Mann, his wife in real life, would never be able to stand Rudd’s lackadaisical, unserious approach to problems. This tension between the actual actors was visible in their supporting appearances in that film, and it seeps into every frame of this (over-)full-length examination of Pete and Debbie at a crossroads. The result is a terrifyingly toxic film in which the usual Apatow humor falls flat in the face of its nightmarish depiction of an entire family in freefall.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Capsule Reviews: The Day He Arrives, Bad 25, The Sessions

The Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo, 2012)

Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives begins with a man walking down a street and taking a left. It ends with him returning to that street and going right. This mirroring movement captures the film, so reflective that even the lead actor’s name, Yoo Jun-sang, is spat back out as the character Yoo Seong-jun, an ex-filmmaker who returns to Seoul to catch up with friends, pitifully attempt to rekindle an old flame, and idly philosophize. Hong’s subtle but pristine compositions and varied repetitions tease out character beliefs, hypocrisies and longings as Seong-jun’s rants against the lies of fate that cinema propounds even as he chases a waitress solely for resembling his ex. The repetitions also cinematize the life he feels is so separate from the artifice of movies, the distorted sense of time starting over until Seong-jun “gets it right” recalling a more poetic Groundhog Day. But it’s that poetry that makes all the differences, making even Hong’s cheeky (sometimes outright funny) reflexive details so human that they work not only as critical observations but affecting conduits for the character’s own feelings. Grade: A

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Tabu (Miguel Gomes, 2012)

Miguel Gomes’ cinephilic tendencies are embedded into the very title of Tabu, taken from F.W. Murnau’s final film and modeled after its bifurcated structure. Black-and-white photography, visibly shot on film instead of digital, only exacerbate the cinematic artifice. Yet the Portuguese director’s aims go well beyond referential touches, and the one on-screen character linked to filmmaking in any way is described in narration as finding movies trivial. Tabu dabbles in trivial matters of its own, but they are played against themselves as Gomes traces the ennui and isolation of the first half back to surprisingly poltiical roots in the second.

A hint lies in an enigmatic prologue that precedes the two stories. A melancholic colonialist stands about idly with sad eyes as African servants labor around him. A Murnau-esque smooth track over hilly terrain speaks to the man’s detached boredom as a narrator (Gomes himself) talks of a lost love that tugs at his heart. The segment ends with the colonialist transformed into an equally sad crocodile, a strange image that will return in the film’s second half.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

There's Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

[The following is my belated October entry for Blind Spots. I hope to catch up on last months and watch my final pick for the year on time.]

Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) has made a life of modest prosperity for himself. He has built a reasonably sized toy manufacturer from the ground up, offering him enough affluence to afford a nice house and a servant to help around it. Unlike Douglas Sirk’s “women’s pictures,” There’s Always Tomorrow remains with Cliff, who, in darkly amusing irony, is everything the husbands in those other melodramas is not. A decent, hard worker and a loving family man, Cliff is not the tyrant of his household but the ideal vision of the postwar American man. And yet, he exists in a prison as much the housewives who dot typical domestic dramas from the period, caged not by abuse but neglect, objectified not as a provider of care but of material sustenance.

Sirk inverts the usual dynamics of melodrama to tell Cliff’s story. The director wanted to shoot the movie in color but could not secure the money to do so. Nevertheless, Russell Metty’s black-and-white cinematography visualizes the different social pressures and archetypes at work on men. The emotive, visceral use of color is thus swapped for a kind of remove, denying Cliff an aesthetic outlet for his feelings to ensure he does not have any unmanly outbursts. Deep focus shots capture the vastness of the home’s interiors, and the cold space they create emphasizes how stark and dead the middle-class comfort around the man has become.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Viewing Log: November 2012

Theatrical/Screener Viewings

Anna Karenina: Joe Wright finally over-directed his way into my heart.
Bad 25: Solid doc on the album and cross-format world takeover planned with it.
Beasts of the Southern Wild: Vomit.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: As dreary as its title.
The Comedy: One of the year's best. Irony as a life vest that has taken on too much water.
Generation P: Satiric reach exceeds grasp.
Holy Motors: A work of cynicism so filled with life that the cynicism crumbles.
Life Without Principle: Beats to hell and back all American financial collapse drama-thrillers.
Lincoln: Hampered by Spielberg's worst impulses but also powered by new levels of maturity.
On the Road: Man, and you thought the book was self-absorbed and unbearable!
Romancing in Thin Air: This Is Not a Film finally got topped for my year-end list.
Skyfall: Might have been a bit harsh on this but even my initial thoughts were mostly positive.

First Time Viewings

49th Parallel: No one made humanist propaganda like Powell/Pressburger.
The Bridges of Madison County: An Eastwood high point. Never once ironically distances himself from the melodrama.
The Day He Arrives: Hilarious, beautiful, and perfectly directed.
Detention: The best parts of Donnie Darko and Southland Tales mashed together without all the crap.
Election: No democracy among gangsters. To is, of course, a master.
Fixed Bayonets!: Fuller's second Korean War film of 1951, and somehow the superior of the masterful Steel Helmet.
Hatari!: Both Hawks' most laid-back and one of his most foreboding. Here, even the safe microcosm can fight back.
The House of Steinbrenner: Too slavishly loyal for my tastes. Slaps more clay on the feet of Steinbrenner's statue.
I Know Where I'm Going!: Even light romance is pure poetry in the Archers' hands.
Ishtar: The weakest of the three Elaine May films I've seen, and still incredible.
The Ladykillers (1955): Perfectly directed and extremely funny.
The Last Wave: Effectively makes concrete and workmanlike the abstractions of Roeg.
Lockout: New rainy-day film alert.
Perfect Blue: Finally watched a Kon movie. More than lived up to expectations.
Streets of Fire: It's like everything I want in a film, including big dumb Jim Steinman sing-alongs.
There's Always Tomorrow: A women's picture for men. Appropriately hollowed out as a result.
Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie: Insane enough to work.
The Turin Horse: Tarr goes out and takes the world with him.
White Hunter, Black Heart: One of Eastwood's best, and maybe his purest self-deconstruction.
Woman is the Future of Man: I really need to explore Hong's work after the end-of-year rush dies down.

Repeat Viewings

The French Connection: About as visceral as cop thrillers come. An entire way of filmmaking came out of this, and almost nothing can match it.
The Game: Oh to be a filmmaker so good that this would be considered a "minor" work.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011): The feeling that this is a summary work of Fincher persists, but the notion that this may be a masterpiece of new digital cinema is a fresh one.
Johnny Guitar: What can I even say? A masterpiece.
Little Shop of Horrors: First time with the newly restored director's cut. A big improvement over an already watchable film.
Moonrise Kingdom: I think Darjeeling Limited has officially been replaced as my favorite Wes.
The Rescuers: Not as good as I remember from my childhood.
The Rescuers Down Under: Even less good.
Week End: This year is all about either apocalypse movies or Death of Cinema movies. Jean-Luc beat allll y'all to the punch.

Total Films Seen in 2012: 390
Total New to Me Films: 274

Top Five First Time Films Viewed in November (excluding new releases)

1. There's Always Tomorrow
2. White Hunter, Black Heart
3. Hatari!
4. Fixed Bayonets!
5. Streets of Fire

Friday, November 30, 2012

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Like so many modern movie titles, Lincoln is only one word, and as with so many other titles, this offers an oversimplified, even misleading idea of what the actual film contains. Though Steven Spielberg roped in perhaps the most noteworthy white elephant actor of our time, Daniel Day-Lewis, to portray the 16th president, Lincoln concerns the man only elliptically. He appears chiefly as a do-gooder who relies on Machiavellian practices, one of which is the use of others to do his dirty work. And though the film concentrates on the passage of the 13th Amendment, Lincoln’s most celebrated achievement and undoubtedly an act of great good, Lincoln reveals that the path to that moment was rough and dirty, indeed.

That filth can be seen in the film’s first shots, the only ones of the movie to take place on a battlefield, or at least the only one to do so during a battle rather than the still aftermath. In a few gruesomely intimate but stably mounted shots, Spielberg manages to top the false realism of Saving Private Ryan for sheer visceral repulsion. Unionists and Rebs have moved too close for musket fire, resorting to bayonet stabs, fistfights, even drowning foes in the rising rainwaters in trenches. It is brute savagery at its most chaotic and meaningless, and it hangs over the rest of the film as Lincoln alternately uses and is hindered by war developments in his quest to get slavery abolished. And as the footage is revealed to be the memories of black soldiers relating the battle to Lincoln, the pride they express in getting back at Confederates massacring all captured black soldiers hints at the tangle of racial strife that will only be compounded by the amendment, not solved by it.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987)

With Heaven's Gate currently in the grips of revisionist appraisal (to which I may soon add my own voice once my disc ships with some pre-orders next month), I thought I might use my latest Criminally Underrated piece for Spectrum Culture to address the Heaven's Gate of comedy, Elaine May's Ishtar. I have seen three of May's four features, and all of them show off such an immense comic talent that her marginalization and retirement from directing trigger a retrospective outrage. Ishtar is not as focused as either The Heartbreak Kid or Mikey and Nicky, yet its propulsion outward of all the lacerating, insular insights of those films turns the personal and social into the geopolitical, and her broad parody of Hope/Crosby pictures emerges one of the great satires of the Reagan era. Idiotically self-absorbed man-children looking to hit big in another land do not look or behavior too differently from the CIA agents who mold those other lands to US interests, and the description I saw somewhere comparing this movie to the symphony of political inanity Burn After Reading feels especially apt.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Romancing in Thin Air (Johnnie To, 2012)

By virtue of their outlandish style, Johnnie To’s films often broach the postmodern and Brechtian even at their most straightforward; think the opening gunfight of Exiled, in which the sight of a door being suspended and even pushed back and forth in midair is both a source of hilarious cognitive dissonance and the oddly logical climax of the sequence. Romancing in Thin Air, though, features the director at his most nuanced and subtle, stylistically grounding the film so that the many flourishes become not par for the course but formal means of breaking down distinctions between art and life.

If the film ultimately erodes such barriers, however, it opens with a clear delineation of reality from artifice. With HDTVs now offering a home cinema experience even for news shows, To pointedly uses analog, full-frame TVs to show actor Michael Lau (Louis Koo) winning Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards and proposing to his actress girlfriend, Yuan Yuan (Yuanyuan Gao), then being stood up on his wedding day when her first love (a coal miner) turns up out of the blue and wins her back. The farcical turn of events plays out in a constricted frame on old, standard-definition video quality, marking it as something false. But then, what To shows is gossip, the world of celebrity, which belongs neither to the real world outside privileged circles nor to the art that is corrupted by it. But even this aesthetically separated realm is complicated when Michael, driven to alcoholism and ruin, is expelled from the television into the world, the final indignity of the fallen star.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Beasts of the Southern Wild, Life Without Principle, On the Road

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012)

Benh Zeitlin’s debut feature, Beasts of the Southern Wild, uses memories of Katrina as fodder for a sub-magical-realist burst of half-stylized poverty porn. Zeitlin aims for inoffensiveness by casting the severe limitations the poor face—no access to healthcare, poor education, the laughably weak safety net—as fantastical positives. This is a film where witch doctors brew medicine in jars, where everyone looks freshly rubbed down in dirt to achieve just the right look of want, and where only the truly worthy both refuse to evacuate from a coming storm and violently reject any attempts by outside bodies to help them. Young Quevenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry give performances entirely too good and revelatory for such heinous rot, but even their raw and honest work is undone by the falsity of what they are meant to invoke. Like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the film approaches a serious, national trauma and filters it through the eyes of a child. And like that other disaster, it does not use this perspective to grapple with the scope of tragedy but to infantilize it. Grade: D-

Monday, November 26, 2012

Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, 2012)

Joe Wright's previous literary adaptations have been awkward affairs, defined by a perennially miscast Kiera Knightley and an ostentatious visual style that overpowered whatever sense of respect with which he attempted to treat Austen and McEwan. The same is true of The Soloist, which tries to take mental illness seriously but aestheticizes it to such an extreme degree that the whole movie beatifies paranoid schizophrenia. Last year's Hanna worked better than his first three features precisely because the stakes of the material were lower, allowing the director to indulge himself even more and revealing that his prior films actually exhibited some form of restraint.

Anna Karenina reunites the director with his leading lady and, more broadly speaking, canonical adaptations. But it resembles the director of Hanna more than the maker of Atonement, at last jettisoning Wright's lip-service reverence for his source novels to fully bend a great work of literature to his own ends. If over-direction marred his earlier works, Wright here gives in fully to his id, making over-direction its raison d’être. If that means the director gives less precedence to the book being adapted, it marks no change from his earlier films save that Wright is finally being honest with people. By dropping the pretense, the most over-directed work by the most notorious over-director currently working stands clearly as his best work to date.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie, Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, 2012)

Anticipating the ire of their many detractors, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim build their feature-length Billion Dollar Movie on a joke that plays on them inexplicably receiving money from major corporate interests to do their thing in the mainstream. The creative duo's audacity has often eclipsed the actual content of their 11-minute episodes on Adult Swim, making the prospect of a 95-minute feature daunting. Surprise, surprise, this is amazingly focused, with something approaching a plot and everything. Because a relatively stable foundation grounds the film, Tim and Eric's usual diversions manage to pack more punch for letting the nuances of their weirdness shine through. Every technical hiccup, awkward insert shot and flat line of dialogue delivered just a second too late creates a sense of discomfort like a low-frequency sound. I cannot explain why I find that effect hilarious, but then, the sight of John C. Reilly hacking up a lung as a Dickensian, wolf-raised orphan or Ray Wise presiding over a grotesque sort of body cleanse need no justification. Grade: B-

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Generation P (Victor Ginzburg, 2012)

Generation P starts strong as an amusing take on Russia's post-perestroika marketing boon, where communism is made capitalist to sell Western goods to a civilization weaned on propaganda. When it tries to become an ad-centric Brazil, though, it falls apart, filled with half-baked ideas that are never expounded upon and ambitious but hollow images that do not even work for their own sake, much less a broader satiric point. Its first half is great fun, but the rest feels like a letdown.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Leos Carax's Holy Motors, one of the standout releases of the year, reminds me another great recent picture, Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film. Panahi's (not a) film concerns a reaction to literal censorship, imposed by a theocratic dictatorship afraid of anything that might challenge their complete mental hold on the people. The barriers placed in front of Panahi's creativity are tangible: a prison sentence, an effective lifetime ban from filmmaking. Carax's work, on the other hand, comes after a 13-year dry spell between features, broken only by the occasional short. It is a reaction censorship figurative, not literal, with abstract obstacles of budget concerns and esoterica placed between the director and his drive.

Of course, the two are not equal, but then, Carax's response to the studio mothballing trades Panahi's open rage and sorrow for more muted, sarcastic cynicism. Of course, Carax also enjoys a place of privilege and thus channels his own frustrations into an elegy for all of cinema. Panahi declared his own work was not a film because of its format (and also, in fairness, a jab at authorities), but Holy Motors quivers with fears that, with the advent of digital and other new technology, no one will ever truly make a film again. This has the effect of inverting the usual dynamic of one of the director's films, in which escapist, pure cinema is grounded by a consideration of the consequences of breaking from society or form. Here, the invigorating reveries intrude upon the somber reflection, and if Panahi's un-film emerged as one of the great defenses of the artform's worth, so too does this latest in the calls for the Death of Cinema contradictorily energize the medium even as it pulls ever closer to its supposed death.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Top 10 Martin Scorsese Films

With Martin Scorsese celebrating his 70th birthday today, what better time than to count down 10 of the greatest achievements of one of America's greatest directors? Unlike his contemporaries, Scorsese has enjoyed a typically stable level of quality over the course of his entire career, not flaming out like a Cimino or Coppola nor exploding beyond his initial, intimate scale the way Spielberg and Lucas did. A consummate craftsman, Scorsese continues to employ technical mastery on a level that up-and-comers can only imitate, and often through contradictorily old-fashioned means. Think the tangible recreations of Gangs of New York, or the lush Technicolor throwbacks of The Aviator or Shutter Island. And when presented with new technology, as with digital and 3D, the director looks not merely to replicate the feel of film but to explore how these technical aspects can influence new directions in storytelling.

Not content merely to provide the world with his own string of great and memorable films, Scorsese has devoted much of his life to the preservation of the movies that inspired him, keeping them alive to motivate the next generation of movie brats. It can be difficult to whittle down his impressive filmography, filled not only with features but documentaries, concert films, shorts, even music videos and advertisements. These 10, however, distill the best of my all-time favorite director.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Dionysus in '69 (Brian De Palma, 1970)

I never got around to this in my De Palma retrospective, so when Spectrum Culture decided to do one of its own, I knew I had to cover it. The results are...middling, like so many early De Palma efforts, though as a concentrated experiment in sustained split-screen usage it remains an intriguing work. De Palma's highly cinematic techniques ironically enhance the theatricality of the filmed performance, though soon he would be employing the methods for even more lavishly stylized effect. Nothing more than a curio, perhaps, but De Palma has made far worse.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, 2012)

The contemporary prevalence of apocalyptic films reaches its apex with The Turin Horse. It contains the various dualities that have marked this recent spate of subject matter: ascetic and deeply aesthetic, primally raw and analogously mannered, ending the world with a bang (or at least a howl) and a whimper. If it is to be Béla Tarr's final film, it is a disturbingly appropriate one for an artist whose stately, enigmatic corpus comprises some of the most quietly yet profoundly horrific films in all of cinema. It is a film so bleak that musical collaborator Mihaly Vig's ominous cues almost offer relief despite their sinister tones, for at least they suggest that music of some sort still exists within this whiting-out world.

The title refers to the infamous, apocryphal story of Friedrich Nietzsche going mad at the sight of a horse being flogged, a tale related to the audience by a narrator. The speaker goes into some more detail of Nietzsche, though the specificity slips on other things, say, the name of the abusive cabman, now lost to time as only his occupation was needed to make the legend. "Of the horse," the narrator admits at the end of his introduction, "we know nothing." Tarr then opens on a horse, though it is not meant to be the one from Turin. Nor even is it a stand-in for the suffering beast; instead, one could argue that the film that follows could possibly be what Nietzsche saw in his collapsed mind after his final rush of incomprehensible letters and his final words, spoken 10 years before his actual death. But the closest Tarr's film (which credits editor Ágnes Hranitzky as co-director in keeping with his last few works) comes to Nietzsche is in its depiction of a world beyond, well, everything, not just good and evil.

The Comedy (Rick Alverson, 2012)

I've been more fascinated than consistently entertained by the likes of Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim and Gregg Turkington (a.k.a. Neil Hamburger), yet their performances in The Comedy seem almost a scathing rebuke of their own style even as they push it to new, rewarding limits. Heidecker in particular is incredible as a man who pours a bit of Rupert Pupkin into mumblecore heroes, amplifying that sociopath's incapacity for humor into a disgusting reliance on irony just to interact (and avoid interaction) with others. It is a harrowing film, though it also lives up to its title, wringing pained laughs out of its most nightmarish scenarios. One of my favorites of the year.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012)

To pinpoint the moment Arbitrage ceases to be plausible is to assume it ever established any kind of suspension of disbelief at all. And when Richard Gere fails from the start to make his billionaire hedge fund manager, Robert Miller, look remotely in his element with business talk, the commentary Nicholas Jarecki wishes to tie to his evil money-handler does not work. Hell, Gere's utter ineptness is but one of several early giveaways of the lack of care paid to the film. Unconvincing as a hedge fund guru, Gere is equally out of place with his family, with whom he has an unironically loving relationship yet looks like a total stranger around them. Perhaps that can be explained by his affair with an Italian artist, who enjoys the financial support of her lover yet lives in a flat that looks like an IKEA showroom.

Like the privileged child of a 1990s movie, the mistress throws a fit when Miller gets caught in a meeting and misses her important exhibition. After she gesticulates for a bit, the two head out and Miller passes out briefly at the wheel, leading to an absurdly oversized single-vehicle accident that leaves the woman dead and Miller terrified. Or maybe just extremely annoyed. Hard to say. Jarecki uses this involuntary manslaughter as a fatuous analogy. The man covers up his company's books to keep up appearances as the great hedge fund scheme implodes with exponentially increasing speed, and now he has to cover up his physical crime. This is an obvious, and common, method of tying more abstract, technically legal financial chicanery to that which people universally consider a violation of the law, and ostensibly it should make Miller seem doubly a villain.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Lockout, Fixed Bayonets!

Lockout (James Mather, Stephen St. Leger, 2012)

Filmed in oxidized green-grays, Lockout has an agreeably dingy look to it, something both exacerbated and subverted by the directorial style built on top of it. Wearing its "Like Escape from New York, but in space!" pitch on its sleeve, Lockout wrings a great deal of immaculately sloppy fun out of its well-worn material. Guy Pearce shines as Snow, a framed CIA agent whose trip to prison turns into a recruitment to save the president's daughter, taken hostage during a humanitarian trip to this cryogenic space jail gone horribly awry. Speaking solely in Plissken-esque, macabre quips, Pearce has a ball on his own. But that's nothing compared to his double act with Maggie Grace as the naïve but sharp daughter; Andreas brought up It Happened One Night and now I can't not think of that. I was hooked from its literally punchy opening.

Fixed Bayonets! (Samuel Fuller, 1951)

Released hot on the heels of Fuller's other 1951 Korean War film, the geographically compressed The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets! expands the field of battle but retains its compatriot's focused character study. Its surveyed platoon, abandoned to cover the rear in the dead of bitter winter, lose themselves to psychological contemplation as the cold threatens them as much as the encroaching Chinese. Lest you think that the voiceovers turn the film into some kind of reverie, however, Fuller here nails down the pulp-prose-poetry visual style that would make him such a distinct filmmaker. Indeed, Fixed Bayonets! offers a host of striking, idiosyncratic shots and tics that say more than even the bluntest dialogue.

The tremble of the camera when a mortar round explodes, both prefiguring the rise of shaky cam visceral "realism" and transcending its inherent thrill ride with more static, observational framing. The almost religious procession of the rest of the regiment (complete with Gregorian-esque chant) as they leave their comrades behind. The cacophony of Chinese bugles calling troops to arms but also containing the mournful last notes of "Taps" to further rattle the Americans. The amusing, fraternal scene of the men in a circle rubbing their frostbitten feet together until one of the sergeant's good-natured ribbing turns to horror when he realizes the cold, numbed foot he grabbed is his own.* Most gripping is the scene of Corporal Denno going to save the other sergeant stranded in a minefield, his own cowardly desire not to have to lead in the man's stead ironically compelling him to bravery. Fuller wrings tension out of a series of close-ups of Denno's boots, twinkling with melted snow as if the shoes themselves are sweating in nervousness as he takes each ginger step forward. It's all gorgeous and harrowing, as aesthetically thrilling as it is morally grounded in the complexities of respect and regret for its characters.

*As Gene Evans' sergeant tells the others, "Only three things you gotta worry about the infantry: your rifle and your two feet." As the grandson of a vet whose feet never fully recovered from winters in Korea, this tossed-off line carried a lot of weight and understanding.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Vamps (Amy Heckerling, 2012)

A lightweight vampire parody that mercifully pokes at the deeper lore rather than just taking potshots at Twilight, Vamps starts rough and ends an unexpected delight. Using the true age of Alicia Silverstone's vampire to make fun of her being behind the times, Amy Heckerling also mocks the faded relevance of their previous, iconic collaboration, Clueless. That gives the goofy jokes more (forgive me) bite, and it eventually leads to an emotional breakthrough for its characters that hints at some of the same care that marked Heckerling's best film.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969)

In time for Skyfall's release Friday, I looked back at possibly the best entry of the franchise, the unfairly maligned and forgotten On Her Majesty's Secret Service. When I watched these films as a kid, I did not respond much to this entry, by that point so used to Connery and Moore that I did not pay attention to this usurper. Yet no film in the franchise has grown so much in my estimation, and returning to it now after several years, I was struck by the beauty of its cinematography, the visceral impact of its editing and how both of these enhance the story to the point that its infamous ending, for all its cruel abruptness, naturally flows from the rest. One of a precious few installments in the franchise that can stand proudly on its own.

My full piece is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Detention (Joseph Kahn, 2012)

Joseph Kahn's Detention is a film so scatterbrained that it cannot even begin before getting distracted, introducing a secondary character before moving onto the protagonist. Kahn links the two with mirroring shot setups and mise-en-scene. The first is Taylor Fisher, the most popular girl at Grizzly Lake High School. Her room is lit as if reflected off her perfect, bleached smile, and she rises out of bed fresh-faced and with perfect hair. Turning the word "bitch" into an inspirational acronym, Taylor Fisher rattles off a set of offensively vacuous rules by which to live life as she sporadically swears at her family and rejects all the boys who call her after she hooked up with them for homework help or just on a whim.

The other girl, Riley Jones (Shanley Caswell), exists at the opposite end of the spectrum, socially and, as Kahn twists the same basic shot setups, aesthetically. Where the sun seems to rise with Taylor, Riley groggily rolls out of bed, having passed out with a plate of ketchup-soaked French fries that now soil her clothes. Her posters promote vegetarianism  a cause she takes to less out of belief than to have something that keeps her separate from most others. Her dialogue matches The only thing that truly links them is the casual prescription drug abuse of both. Well, that and the ax-wielding, costumed killer that comes for them both. The killer gets Taylor easily, abruptly cutting short her "arc" before it begins. As for Riley, the killer is just one of many horrors she must face over the course of the feature, none so daunting as regular high school life.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Viewing Log: October 2012

Theatrical Screenings

Argo: Solid, if uneven, thriller. Affleck both growing and stagnating as a director.
The Birds: Second, big-screen viewing made all the difference. One of Hitch's purest works.
Killer Joe: Friedkin, working with Tracy Letts' words, is operating at the top of his game.
Lawrence of Arabia: Fathom Events never pulled off a live event this good. A masterpiece that can only be fully appreciated on a big screen.
Looper: Above-average sci-fi movie with fine performances and showy, but never wowing, direction. Already fading from the mind; perhaps my younger self is changing our fate as we speak.
The Phantom of the Opera (1925): The scale of the sets is jaw-dropping, and the mixture of longing and animalism in Lon Chaney's eyes adds levels of danger and savagery foreign to those (like me) raised on the the musical version. Seen live with an organ accompaniment. Heaven.


Butter: Lame, condescending satire confirms every notion of Hollywood's elitism held by those it seeks to lampoon.
Nobody Walks: Ugh. Just, no thanks.
The Revisionaries: Compelling, occasionally sidetracked documentary about the creep of politics into every aspect of life, and whether that's inevitable.
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning: Just about a masterpiece of the action genre. Simultaneously purifies the genre down to its essence and shatters it.
Vamps: Delightful, touching film grows out of too-cute anachronistic jokes. Full review forthcoming.

New Viewings

Cactus River: One of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's several new shorts. Enigmatic even by his standards. Still mulling over its evocative, fluid imagery.
Death and the Maiden: Polanski said this was his hardest movie to film, and even though he later made a film more directly about his WWII experiences, it's not hard to see why he said that of this movie.
Detective: Godard goes New Wave for old times' sake, has a ball.
The Devil's Rejects: A great movie, and that is not a statement I expected to make during its first 20 minutes.
Dionysus in '69: Full review coming later this month. Spotty but fascinating early experiment for De Palma.
Frantic: It's never not enjoyable to watch Roman Polanski put a character through the ringer, especially when it makes a deadpan, unresponsive actor like Harrison Ford LOSE it.
Hard Target: Oh, John, and Jean. Let's just move on, shall we?
The Heartbreak Kid (2007): Almost as good as the original. No, really, I talk about both here.
King Lear (1987): New favorite Godard. I need a rewatch and some research before I can write my review.
Knife in the Water: Roman Polanski lived and breathed cinema even from the start.
Macbeth (1971): Brilliantly, brutally pared down take on Shakespeare's play. Makes you wonder why anyone would go to all that grotesque trouble to be king.
Marnie: Like The Birds, this is Hitch at his most "come at me, bro."
A Perfect Getaway: One of the best Hollywood thrillers of the last few years. Just grand.
Pola X: Carax stripped down and dolled up. Successfully subsumes his stylistic flourishes into a more static no less less overwhelming upheaval. This is a master, people.
Red Line 7000: The brutal machinery spinning underneath Hawks' oeuvre. The usual Hawksian group is made sluggish and ultimately asphyxiated by the car fumes. A raw variant of Only Angels Have Wings' abstract on the precariousness of the director's usual characters.
The Tenant: Polanski's self-martyring, and self-lacerating, Apartment Trilogy capper. One of his finest.
They All Laughed: One of the best films of the '80s.
Unfaithfully Yours: Does for screwball what Monsieur Verdoux did for slapstick. As black as black comedy gets. I'm really coming to adore Preston Sturges, even if I still don't lose my stuff for The Lady Eve or Sullivan's Travels.
We Own the Night: James Gray is a modern treasure and he should be treated better.
What's Up, Doc?: "I'm a doctor." "Of what?" "Music." "Can you fix a hi-fi?" "No." "Then shut up."
Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?: Frank Tashlin, where have you been all my life?

Repeat Viewings

Death Proof: A deconstructive masterpiece. Until Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino's best.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial: The same suffocating darkness that makes it such a daring kid's movie also lures me more than its saccharine qualities. Felt better about this viewing (on the new, excellent Blu-Ray) than I did for any other, including when I watched this as a child.
I'm Not There: One of two major opinion reversals I had with a rewatch this month. Helps, may even be essential, that I know now enough about Dylan to follow along.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Its racism still offends, but the audacity of its technical craft rates it among the director's finest aesthetic achievements. So torn, though I'm much more positive and appreciative of what it does well than in this old review.

Magic Mike: Stand by this rave from earlier in the year.
Prince of Darkness: See this review? Ignore every last word of it. I was wrong: this is one of Carpenter's best directed, most focused works of pure, unnerving dread. Honestly don't know how I missed the mark so badly on it the first time, but it's never to late to set things right. Possible new review may be forthcoming.
Young Frankenstein: Honestly, if you don't like this, there's the door.

Total Films Seen in 2012: 346
New to Me Films: 239
Theatrical Viewings: 34

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Capsule Reviews: A Perfect Getaway, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Marnie

A Perfect Getaway (David Twohy, 2009)

David Twohy's A Perfect Getaway is a lean, juicy thriller with a twist so good that not even an hour's worth of teasing it saps its effect. "Nothing bad ever happens in Hawaii, right?" says one character during the film's placid opening, though even then his voice betrays doubt, and Twohy's sweeping panoramas of lush forests and beaches communicate remoteness and isolation as much as postcard-ready beauty. Steady long takes let the murmurs of a double murder on a neighboring island sink into the frame visually, casting shadows on its small but dynamic cast of newlyweds and lovers who come to fear for their safety. The actors do their part too, with Steve Zahn's nervously darting eyes suggesting first humorous discomfort, then mounting dread, and Milla Jovovich getting the best opportunity outside one of her husband's films to show off her enigmatic poker face reactions. Perhaps best of all is Timothy Olyphant, almost endearingly arrogant as a "man in full" (as his girlfriend calls him) When the other shoe drops, Twohy's stately, patient direction obviously shifts into a higher gear, but this only shows off other facets of his skill. A chase through the forest is subtly propelled further by comic-panel-like screenwipes that elide over a few steps to give the sequence even more momentum. The final showdown manages to consolidate even the characters' relationships into its tense payoff. (A sidenote: stick with the streamlined theatrical version over the director's cut, which adds most of its extra time to a key flashback, nice and nasty in the original version but overlong in extended form).

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Top 10 Roman Polanski Films

Paranoia runs deep under Roman Polanski's work, an obvious feature of a man who has lived under the pressure of social scrutiny since childhood. The main reason he attracts that scrutiny today serves as the elephant in the room for any discussion of Polanski's work, not least because of how often the paranoia of his films manifests itself through rape and sexual violation. His grotesque ties to that subject matter make his considerable empathy almost disturbing: what does is say about the general state of commercial filmmaking that a convicted rapist is one of the great directors of women?

As a stylist, Polanski is almost without peer, with lighting, blocking and camera placement always timed for maximum impact. Perhaps the most famous example of this can be found in Rosemary's Baby, in which he had cinematographer William Fraker frame Ruth Gordon partially behind a door frame, causing audiences at the time to crane their necks as if it might help them look around the block and see all of her. This exacting formal perfectionism turns skewed genre fare into enduring works of pure cinema, which gives even his slightest work an aesthetic and thematic rigor. It also makes ranking his films a hell of a task, and by limiting this list to 10 films I leave out several unjustly underrated features like the excellent Ninth Gate, the muscular Frantic, the neorealist and brutal take on Macbeth, even the deeply personal The Pianist. But the 10 that remain showcase the immense skills of one of the great filmmakers of the modern era, and one who can still shock longer after he broke nearly every taboo you can name.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Revisionaries (Scott Thurman, 2012)

A bit unfocused, The Revisionaries nevertheless offers an insightful look into the issue of textbook revisionism in Texas (and beyond, as Texas is, with California, the nation's leading distributor of schoolbooks). Its villains are comical in their commitment to ignorance, yet Thurman spends enough time with them to show their normalcy outside boardrooms, or at least the banality of their evil. He even spares some sympathy for the leader of this creationist movement, former State Board of Education chair Don McLeroy, showing how cordial and friendly he and one of his most passionate critics, Professor Ron Wetherington, can be around each other when not locked in battle. It's a strangely instructive model for political discourse in a broader film about the ills of politics in matters of objective study, and the climax makes for an effective "get out the vote" message regardless of how one feels about the outcome.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (John Hyams, 2012)

Having only become aware of John Hyams' work recently, I nevertheless quickly fell for his elegantly composed long takes and Carpenterian Steadicam tracks. The straight-to-DVD/VOD fare of Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Dragon Eyes was so accomplished that I could not help but wonder what Hyams could do with an actual theatrical release. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning released on VOD a month ahead of a 3D theatrical release, exceeds even the loftiest expectations of the director's potential. Filled with gorgeous shots, blunt choreography and a trove of cinematic references, Day of Reckoning takes a smaller focus (and budget) than Regeneration and delivers a vastly bigger film.

Hyams opens Day of Reckoning on a nightmare (perhaps literally), using full POV shots—complete with handheld walking and "blinks" à la the opening segment of Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void—to depict a father being woken in the dead of night by his young daughter complaining of "monsters" in the kitchen. The camera bobs through the house as the unseen man playfully searches empty rooms for beasts until he flips the kitchen light on and gets a crowbar to the head. The beating is swift and brutal, topped off by an execution of the man's wife and child by...franchise hero Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme, looking like Brando's Kurtz). It is a bewildering, horrific beginning, and one that gives an indication of just how far the director is willing to take the movie away from a pandering sop to JCVD's shrunken but vaguely resurgent fanbase.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007)

James Gray opens We Own the Night with a brief montage of gritty black-and-white still photographs of policemen in the late 1980s. These photos could be a time-capsule for a pre-Giuliani New York, still dangerous, still filthy. Still human, too: a photo of a cop jokingly playing with a finger puppet policeman with a gun breaks up the severe tone of the other stills and seems as foreign to the city as it exists now as the grime that got swept away to make way for hiked rents. But this montage also makes the introduction of Joaquin Phoenix's club owner, Bobby Green, that much more striking. Gray cuts suddenly to the actor in a florid red silk shirt, walking in slow-motion toward the moll (Eva Mendes) lazing on his gold-colored couch in a gold-colored frame. It is the flip-side of the stark photographs' depiction of New York sleaze, the color-drenched euphoria of those who rule as banal warlords over their turf, however small it is.

The juxtaposition of this sweltering, stylish melodrama with the earlier, ascetic realism likewise offers a clue into Gray's approach for the film: always intimately focused with fly-on-the-wall shots that capture the smallest expressions on an actor's face, but framed epically in the style of Michael Cimino or Francis Ford Coppola. Family, whether biologically programmed for manually collected, is as key to Gray's film as it is to The Deer Hunter The Godfather, films whose opening weddings lend to the start of We Own the Night its languid observation and outsized scope. This director moves faster than the other two, quickly laying out who links up to whom, but he displays the same patience for the minute revelations of character communicated by interaction and shot placement. Gray establishes Bobby as stiffly cordial with his father and brother, Burt (Robert Duvall) and Joe (Mark Wahlberg) Grusinsky, police officers both, but familial with the Russian mobster, Marat, who owns Bobby's club. Gray's next film would be Two Lovers, and this just as easily might have been called Two Families. The care Gray takes in setting up Bobby's complicated relationships with both parties makes the later narrative developments natural outgrowths of a fully realized situation rather than the simple genre mechanics they may initially seem.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nobody Walks (Ry Russo-Young, 2012)

A listless, meaningless diversion into a cloistered L.A. home where the disaffected engage in casual affairs, Nobody Walks seems to aim for Antonioni and instead feels like a Max Fischer play of one of the Italian's films. Russo-Young and co-writer Lena Dunham sidestep many of the usual pitfalls, not portraying Olivia Thirlby's waif as a slut nor Rosemarie DeWitt as avenging cuckquean, but they replace these worn depictions with all new reductive types and a laissez-faire approach to the narrative that leaves this 83-minute feature feeling twice as long. The actors acquit themselves nicely, but to no end.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

As a claustrophobic, I got tremendous discomfort from Argo's crushed shots against throngs of hostile crowds packed so tightly that navigation looks impossible even for those not under the hostile suspicions of an entire nation. Spatial relationships mean nothing in these moments, as there is no real path to escape for the Americans stranded in Iran after the fall of the shah and the installation of Ayatollah Khomeini. After an animated prologue, Argo begins with a mob beating at the gates of the US embassy in Tehran until they storm the compound, and the fear of reprisal against Americans for their country's role in propping up the former regime pervades the film.

Those animated credits, however, hint at the other major element of Argo's construction. When the Iranians take the embassy's workers hostage, six Americans escape and hide out in the home of the Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). Everyone knows they cannot stay there forever, but if Iranians find these Americans on the street, they will be executed as spies as fast as a kangaroo court will allow. The United States government cannot risk open involvement without provoking a war, so CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) concocts an extraction plan so absurd that, as they say, it just might work. Mendez will travel to Iran as a Canadian filmmaker and pull the staffers out under the ruse of being his crew on a location shoot. As Lester Spiegel, the fading film legend who helps prop up this farce says, he went on suicide missions in the Army less dangerous than this idea.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Capsule Reviews: Macbeth (1971), The Book of Mary, They All Laughed

Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)

Polanski's Macbeth, made in the wake of his wife and unborn child's brutal murder, manages to extrapolate its settings from the limits of the stage into something even more ascetic and and stripped-down. It takes place in hollow, filthy castles and frigid, craggy hills, and Polanski fills this howling void with blood. The director, grimly exorcising the demons of his own trauma, translates the violence of Shakespeare's drama in viciously straightforward terms. One of the first images is of a dead foe's shirt splotching with more and more blood as a soldier whacks his corpse with a flail, and the murder of Macduff's wife and son is so hellaciously rendered that no one could fail to see shades of Sharon Tate's death. Amending the source text only to make it, inexplicably, yet darker, Macbeth leaves one wondering why anyone would fight so savagely to rule such a realm. In a final stroke of nihilistic despair, Polanski frames the climax not as duel among nobles but little more than a street fight filled with cheap shots and the wild swings of insensible men, one driven mad by paranoia, the other by grief. Grade: B+

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cactus River (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2012)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's shorts are the only thing more confounding than his full-length works, and Cactus River is his most obscure in some time. A black-and-white "tribute" to the Mekong River, Cactus River documents one of Joe's actors, Jenjira Pongpas, as she lives out her daily routine with her husband, an American ex-pat she met online and recently married. Sounds innocuous, until Joe plays the film at a lower frame rate, making it jerk around like a silent as the audio track plays only the roar of wind on a poorly covered mic and pops that somehow manage to be louder than the white noise.

Joe tends to attach a brief explanation to his shorts, perhaps anticipating the viewer's bafflement. Not that his statements are entirely helpful: they tend to be as cryptic as the films themselves, though they do sometimes offer a clue to be interpreted. The director's synopsis for this short relates how Jenjira changed her name to Nach, which means "water." Nach lives on the bank of the Mekong, which she worries will dry up soon thanks to Chinese dams. Does that explain the title, then? That this surging body of water may soon become an arid bed of desert plants? And if Jenjira now calls herself water, is she the river's heir? Perhaps this 10-minute abstract posits a Thai Anna Livia Plurabelle.

As ever with Joe's work, Cactus River overflows with indelible, evocative images. The choppy rhythms of the frame rate slow when the camera settles upon the Mekong in the frantic opening montage, put at ease by the river's flow (or, alternately, drying up with a blocked-off source. Nach's husband watches Thai TV on mute, the flicker of Joe's high-contrast film obscuring the image on the TV into what almost looks like a nuclear cataclysm until a cactus can eventually be made out, looming over its surroundings in a low-angle shot. The final, still image cuts to color as Nach beckons out over the river. Rebirth is a key feature of Joe's films, from the bifurcated structure of Tropical Malady to the reincarnation-cum-genre-tour that was Uncle Boonmee. As such, the last shot could be the "In Memoriam" photo for the Mekong, but also the first documented photo of its new avatar.

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)

Upon its release, I'm Not There struck me as a hollow experiment, a nifty "what-if" but nothing more. Not helping matters, certainly, was my own lack of familiarity with Bob Dylan, a sacred cow whose enigmatic profile (as evidenced by this fragmentary "biopic") split into so many personalities that I never knew how to approach him. For all its dazzling formal techniques, I'm Not There frustrated me for doing nothing, it seemed, to explore Dylan's real personality. Its much-ballyhooed division of Dylan's various artistic reinventions into separate roles for different actors was its greatest weakness.

Of course, Bob Dylan's refusal to be defined as any one thing but Bob Dylan (and sometimes not even that), is what has made him endure as much as a mystery as a legend. Haynes does not attempt to "solve" Dylan, and if I'm Not There ultimately concludes that there may be no real Dylan under all those smokescreens, it nevertheless paints a compelling portrait—well, collage—of a man who exists wholly within pop culture. The trait that links the six characters representing Dylan's personae is a hint of persecution by those who love him, of devotion and mistrust displayed in equal measure. Even the earliest incarnation of Dylan, a mere child faces hardship, even if he has to invent some of it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Heartbreak Kid (1972) vs. The HeartbreakKid (2007)

Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid is such an overwhelmingly black comedy that I cannot think of another movie to even approach its level of discomfort until Scorsese made The King of Comedy a full decade later. Charles Grodin has never been better nor more excruciating, and May's improv-based style allows the situation to grow even more unsettling as characters morph into human beings that break away from the limiting perspective of Grodin's obliviously manipulative protagonist. It is one of the best comedies of all time.

But so, to my surprise, is the Farrelly brothers' remake of the film, which trades the complex character interactions of the original for their trademark gross-out humor. There's Something About Mary contained an unexpected critique of misogyny, and The Heartbreak Kid takes it even further. Ben Stiller turns his usual bumbling but "lovable" character on its head, making him out to be a monster who uses women without remorse in pursuit of his own stunted ideas of self-fulfillment. Grodin's Lenny got married just to get laid, but Eddie gets married to prevent his lover from going off to pursue her own dreams. If the comedy of the film is lighter, the tone is no less savage.

My full comparison of the two films is up now at Spectrum Culture.