Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)

It is far too early in the year to tell, but I would not be surprised if, for the second year in a row, two Soderbergh films make my best-of list. I don't buy the retirement from film talk for a second, but if this at least closes a chapter on the director's work, it does so with aplomb. The most conventional of Soderbergh's late work is also a dazzling display of what makes him unique, his off-kilter focus on the intricacies of relationships and process that breaks even a turbulent romance down into analytical deconstruction, complete with ever-inventive framings and a great rapport with his actors. Indeed, Douglas and Damon get out early with the male performances to beat this year, Douglas so un-self-conscious in embracing Liberace's pathological vanity and Damon gradually turning infatuation and gee-whiz wonder at his lover's opulence into a coke-addled, paranoid form of Stockholm Syndrome. Despite my love for Soderbergh (and for Douglas, who continues to be one of our finest and most daring leading men), I was on the fence for a TV biopic, but even that is transformed into something original and exciting by this alchemical filmmaker.

Check out my full review at Movie Mezzanine.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Netflix Instant Picks (5/24/13-5/30/13)

Netflix's changed API now make tracking expiring soon titles much more difficult, so this week's titles are reduced to new picks and an old delight. Very happy to see David Ayer's unexpectedly gripping cop drama End of Watch make Netflix, as well as Neighboring Sounds, which I've been meaning to see for months now. And the final pick is but another entry in my Nicolas Cage advocacy.

Check out this week's post at Movie Mezzanine.

Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)

The following is my May entry for Blindspots.

Elephant’s Steadicam tracks last so long and move so languidly that they frequently curve backward in time, each shift of character focus drifting back a few minutes or a few hours to show the parallel movement of different students as they cross each other’s paths. This structure, modeled on Béla Tarr’s Satantango, repeats shots from changing perspectives, adding new information to established scenes to reconfigure their context.

Each of these connective curves adds a third dimension to configurations, not merely illuminating the interlocking nature of seemingly disparate clusters of students within a confined space but the emotional states of those previously seen in glimpses or even longer takes that nevertheless failed to reveal something as simple as the tears in the eyes of a boy who just endured a tongue-lashing because he could not bring himself to put the deserved blame for his tardiness on his alcoholic father. Incessant close-ups and frantic editing are regularly singled out for their obscuring qualities, but distance and shot length cannot by itself bring clarity.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Redacted (Brian De Palma, 2007)

Spectrum Culture closes out its De Palma retrospective with my piece on Redacted, a film I continue to find fascinating in theory but sloppy and self-aggrandizing in practice. Even so, seeing this in the wake of Zero Dark Thirty has reminded me of ways De Palma beat Bigelow to the punch, both in a climactic sequence shot through night vision lenses and an ending of an ostensibly good person's emotional breakdown. In communicating anti-war sentiments, De Palma's versions of these sequences top Bigelow's, willing to indict those on the ground where Bigelow and Boal demur in favor of a broader, more ambiguous critique. Elsewhere, though, this is half-baked agitprop that fails to capitalize on the freeform approach to digital that De Palma takes, and it results in one of the director's worst films.

My full piece is up over at Spectrum Culture.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Augustine (Alice Winocour, 2013)

Alice Winocour's feature debut, Augustine, displays a skill with direction beyond its makers experience. If anything, there is too much going on in the frame, over-stressing the modern vantage point from which Winocour views the reductive medical treatment of women barely more than a century ago. This works for and against the film, its central focus on the patient, not doctor, recontextualizing a revered man's ethical behavior but also taking subtle commentary and exaggerating it. What remains is a fine film, but I could not help but be disappointed that the Jane Campion-esque direction and structure at the start slowly deflated into a more obvious, less confident picture. Nevertheless, it would be wise to make a note of Winocour's name for future reference.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Pietà (Kim Ki-duk, 2013)

I have yet to see another Kim Ki-duk film, but judging by his 18th feature, Pietà, I have no desire to catch up with any of the other 17. An artless, offensive bore that has the audacity to think itself a (no, the) truth-teller in a dishonest world, Pietà is the worst film I have seen since Transformers 2. It is so petulant and emptily provocative that I almost feel the urge to write an apology to Lars von Trier, who at least has the decency to make his own snotty torture sessions artistically inventive. By the end, I felt myself rooting for the worst aspects of capitalism; the enemy of my enemy, after all...

My full thoughts are up now at Spectrum Culture.

Book Review: A Crack-Up at the Race Riots, by Harmony Korine

On the back of his latest (and greatest) film, Harmony Korine has reissued of his sui generis collection of fragments, A Crack-Up at the Race Riots. The latter, sadly, is far from cause for celebration: its scattershot movement between shaggy-dog shards, cultural appropriation and pretentious but obvious name-dropping displays the worst of the artist. In fact, Korine's subsequently improved film work suggests that this book served as a kind of mental clearing of Korine's most irritating tics. For that reason more than anything else, Crack-Up is worth a read by the curious, but be sure to have a copy of Julien Donkey-Boy on hand to see how this nonsense could somehow result in something beautiful.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Kingpin (The Farrelly Brothers, 1996)

This week, The Vulgar Cinema is focusing on the work of the Farrelly brothers, some of the finest comic filmmakers of the last 20 years. I'm first up with a post on one of my favorite broad (but deceptively smart) comedies, Kingpin. I've seen the film a half dozen times and laugh at every gag every time, but I also gain more and more appreciation for its solid visual craft, which backs up grotesque sight jokes with exceptional timing and blocking that at times has the touch of a well-assembled silent. I also find more and more to love about the subtext hidden in plain sight, which uses the broader joke of bowling being the central sport to dig into how we as a society place a value on sports achievement for the stardom it provides. Bowling is merely a quick path to riches in this film, but the joke is less funny when one swaps the game back to "baseball" or "basketball." Dumb and Dumber was funny but surface-level, but Kingpin points to how deep the Farrellys could go when they pleased, laying the groundwork for There's Something About Mary and The Heartbreak Kid. But Kingpin remains my favorite.

Fuller thoughts can be found at The Vulgar Cinema.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Repo Man (Alex Cox, 1984)

I've come to Repo Man surprisingly late, given how it contains so many elements I cannot help but love: anti-Reagan social commentary, a cultural snapshot soundtrack (coupled with a willingness to critique the bands it comprises), and a free-for-all style that finds touchstones in the bleakest of noirs, the strangest of '50s-'60s sci-fi and even a bit of Grease. I'm not quite sure it congeals in the final stretch, but then even if all these traits fell into place, the resulting mix would be so strange it might not look cohesive anyway. So many movies these days chase cult film status by also unloading what they can on the screen, but Repo Man has an attitude of ingenuity and self-challenge, not narcissistic promotion. I wish there were more films like it, but I suppose if there were, the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of this curio would be lost.

You can read my longer thoughts on the film at Spectrum Culture.

Sightseers (Ben Wheatley, 2013)

I still need to see Kill List, but I found Sightseers to be a dark treat once it gets past its unnecessarily cruel opening. Between this and Spring Breakers, Criterion really picked a good year to re-release Badlands. Wheatley's relentlessly dark sense of humor is best served by the moments in-between the violence, though the murders are all creative enough to get a chuckle of their own. Wasn't completely mad for it, but it has finally given me the curiosity to try his cult breakout once I get the time.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Star Trek Into Darkness (J.J. Abrams, 2013)

I've given J.J. Abrams positive write-ups in the past, but Star Trek Into Darkness is one oversimplification too far. It is not a reimagining of Trek but an un-imagining of it, reducing a naïve, flawed work that nevertheless advanced a unique and idealistic view into a work of cynical fan service by people who clearly could not care less for what Star Trek is. Some might interpret that as irritation that this movie does not simply ape past installments (though in many ways it does, and its cover-up of Khan's identity suggests they realized their laziness), but really I just hate seeing something unique forced into the restrictive blueprint set for blockbusters now. Furthermore, Abrams' direction seems to be getting worse, not better. Then again, I doubt even Orson Welles could have spun gold from a script by Orci-Kurtzman-Lindelof. What a plague those three are.

My full piece is up now at Movie Mezzanine.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Revisited: The Black Dahlia (Brian De Palma, 2006)

I've loved Brian De Palma's maudit The Black Dahlia since I first watched it over a year ago, and each viewing proves more rewarding. It's the ideal blend of the director's uncompromising independent streak and the visual sumptuousness of his glossiest studio work, a fake-out work of genre prestige that is slowly consumed by the inconsistencies and hypocrisies it allows to creep out from around the edges.  With racial tensions filtered through that sun-bleached bone of an actor Josh Hartnett and its critique of misogyny played out in gazes, The Black Dahlia is often guilty of what it attacks, but that also permits De Palma to trace his themes to their fullest extent. Roundly dismissed as a sloppy mess, The Black Dahlia may be one of the great American films of the previous decade, and certainly one of its maker's finest moments.

My full article is up at Spectrum Culture.

Kiss of the Damned (Xan Cassavetes, 2013)

At its best, Xan Cassavetes' narrative debut Kiss of the Damned mines the more frigid waters of Eurohorror for stately atmosphere and erotic longing. At its worst, its longueurs have no real charge underneath them to make that atmosphere last, nor can it reconcile its careful composition with the sloppier handheld movements that attempt to juice up the action but come off as pretentious collage. You can only cut away to an arterial spurt so many times before it starts to get wearisome.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Netflix Instant Picks (5/10/13—5/16/13)

Still trying to piece together some recommendations after the May 1 turnover, so it's another week of new streaming titles for me. I go for a Lars von Trier that still leaves me feeling conflicted, a highly praised work of modern horror, and a mainstream but still confrontational coming-of-age tale from Alfonso Cuarón. Check 'em out over at Movie Mezzanine.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas, 2013)

Something in the Air is the weakest of the last three films Olivier Assayas has made, but underneath its ostensible nostalgia and self-pity is a wry critique of revolutionary youths who quit the struggle because they did not realize what an impact they truly had. May '68 failed in its stated goals, but the youths who come of age in its wake face a radically altered set of possibilities, many of them scarier in their uncertainty than the status quo broken up by their predecessors (albeit not in the way they wanted to break it up). It's yet another fine entry from one of the world's best working filmmakers, and a slyly subversive work that belies its lack of "revolutionary syntax."

My full review is up at Movie Mezzanine.

Netflix Instant Picks 5/3/13—5/9/13

Netflix lost a devastating amount of films at the top of the month, so I devoted all of last Friday's picks to what got added in a pathetically meager offset. It can't make up for the mass expiration, but I found a few titles that managed to catch my eye.

Read my and Corey's picks at Movie Mezzanine.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (Terence Nance, 2013)

Occasionally frustrating in its hard-to-follow density, Terence Nance's An Oversimplification of Her Beauty is nevertheless a strikingly innovative work from an independent artist who not only warrants the kind of celebrity support attached to this project but, more importantly, survives the potentially counterproductive hype such patronage brings. A postmodern deconstruction of the "friend zone" concept, Nance's film indulges his self-pity but ultimately critiques it with a vivid, constantly evolving film that attacks his myopic viewpoint from multiple angles, even from the perspective of the desired woman marginalized in his fantasy into simply the girl who rejected him. It's as exciting a work as I've seen in a while, and I can't wait to see what Nance does next.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Pain & Gain (Michael Bay, 2013)

As an introductory statement of theme, Daniel Lugo’s (Mark Wahlberg) maxim “I believe in fitness” invokes “I believe in America” less than “I was born a poor black child.” An improbably charismatic bodybuilder who has internalized boilerplate self-motivating one-liners as Zen profundity, Daniel’s drive contrasts sharply with the limitations of his milieu, his can-do attitude employed only to surge recruitment for the gym where he works as he continues to collect a meager paycheck for his troubles.

Danny (and most of the other prominent characters given a voiceover) constantly references the pull of the American Dream, but he his ostensible commitment to hard work is merely a smokescreen for a shortcut to wealth in the form of a plan to kidnap and extort a particularly loathsome client, Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub). Victor mirrors Daniel’s physical achievements with financial ones, his boasts of assets triggering something primal in Daniel. One man’s dedication to honing his body as a sign of his discipline pulls in pathetic wages while a lanky, out-of-shape twerp sits back and enjoys the good life. As Daniel later tells Victor, he does not merely want want Victor wants, he wants Victor not to have it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries, April 2013

1. The Age of the Medici (Roberto Rossellini, 1973)

Rossellini makes something miraculous, a work dense with political intrigue and historical upheaval, yet one that works primarily as an evocation of the Renaissance’s greatest achievement: the synthesis of religion, politics, science and art. Yes, money finds new and lasting use as a political weapon, but it also supplies artists with the patronage they need to improve society using techniques traceable to breakthroughs in science. Cheap costumes and plywood sets feel real as Rossellini stages his shots like contemporary paintings, playing into our visual conception of the Renaissance as he celebrates the nuts and bolts that made it possible. Possibly the greatest thing ever made for television.