Sunday, December 11, 2016

'OUT OF TIME' MOMENTS for 2016


Once again I try to continue the tradition that comes down from critic Jim Emerson, who used to do this on his blog Scanners (you can also google to find moments out of time in years past).  This is meant to showcase moments in movies that really stuck out as being special, whether it's because of the acting or the directing, the music or the mood, what it does to juxtapose things (that'll be the first one right out of the gate) or to give us all something to remember the movie by.  It doesn't even need to be a GREAT film overall, and indeed not all of these are.  But it's simply films that stood out for one reason or another as the most memorable of this 2016 movie year

(also for this blog, unlike in the past, if I can find the video of the scene, it'll be here):

1) 13TH (dir: Ava Duvernay)

Easily the scene to most make me uncomfortable of the year, but rightfully so since, at the time I watched it, Donald Trump was not the 45th president elect of the country.. but deep down I knew that he could be, possibly, even within a small piece of a percentage of a chance, and that these people at these rallies were not going away.  Now that he is, it carries a greater, heavier, WTF ARE WE DOING IN OUR COUNTRY weight (and especially I keep flashing to those cuts between the black and white footage of the man being pushed with the woman at the rally). 

I won't even try to describe what Ava DuVernay does here except that she presents past and present into such a moment that is tragic because of how it repeats itself.  No one sees the patterns that occur from one time to the next, and that racial hatred is something that is passed down and grows like a fungus when engendered by the wrong people.





2) MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (dir: Kenneth Lonergan) (SPOILERS)

A man flashes back while sitting in a lawyer's office being told that he has been entrusted (unless he fully refuses) to become the guardian to his nephew.  Up until this point in the film we've had some flashbacks already with Affleck's character when he had a home, kids, and a wife played by Michelle Williams.  But we don't see why he's not with them now, that he's living instead in some lowly one-room pad in some outskirt of Boston.  But in a series of flashes leading up to this 'Moment out of Time', he comes home after a late night walk to get some wood and groceries at the store, only to find his... house is burning down, and that his wife is outside but his kids are in it.  Dead. Gone. 

But the real Out of Time Moment for me (which isn't available online - guess it's kind of spoilery) is when his wife, who has inhaled a lot of smoke and has to be taken to the hospital (also in, you know, complete fucking hysterics over losing her children all at once, one of them a baby), is put on a stretcher.  The stretcher can't seem to get on to the ambulance van despite repeated attempts.  Finally it happens, but it feels like it's still a struggle to push her inside and close the doors.  Everything takes longer and is more arduous and is a complete nightmare that seems to never end when endless grief is in front of you (and according to Lonergan at a Q&A this was an actual mistake during filming, not scripted, but he kept it in). 


3) GREEN ROOM (dir: Jeremy Saulnier)

This is a kick-you-in-the-solar-plexus kind of movie, the likes of which I loved to watch with my friends back in high school (and even middle school), and it's rough, raw, fuck-you-in-the-face violent exploitation flicks that don't kid around (I'm talking about, oh, Suburbia and Kids and Romper Stomper to name a few).  Saulnier has a great cast assembled here, and the way we're fully introduced into this world that this rag-tag punk rock band (they don't even have a facebook page!) is when they go on stage at a neo-Nazi/Skin-head/white supremacist bar and perform as their first number a cover of the Dead Kennedy's NAZI PUNKS: FUCK OFF. 

Considering this year as well, this is catharsis and a half, and truly a punk rock moment.





4) KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS (dir: Travis Knight)

There's a scene early on in this film where Kubo comes home after a day of performing his magic tricks in the city - he can make little origami Samurai figures come to life and tell quick stories to capture people's imaginations - and has to take care of his mother.  She is staring off into space.  She isn't a total vegetable, but she's been through a LOT in life (the prologue shows her protecting her son from being blinded by her God of a father, no really he's a God, and almost died in the process, breaking off ties with them all).  She has major PTSD still by this moment.  It's a quiet thing to see between son and mother as he takes care of her, gets her ready for bed, and she has the expression of someone in an Ingmar Bergman existential is-God-even-fucking-THERE wintry drama and... I mean that as a compliment.


5) RULES DON'T APPLY (dir: Warren Beatty)

This movie is a mess, but it's the kind of mess that only a director like Warren Beatty gets to make these days, or at least those who get final cut (whether he was told though to keep it under 2 1/2 hours by the studio may be arguable).  It's a choppy thing to watch at times - scenes just END without any explanation - but it's also a highly entertaining experience because Beatty has been wanting to make this for years and it shows: he knows the cadences and weird rhythms of Howard Hughes, but more than that he's a master at the awkward-reaction kind of comedy (you can see this awkwardness in many of his performances, even in dramas like Bonnie and Clyde and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and especially in Reds) where, even though he's the lead, he can give a look or a stare and it says so much about this person *thinking* about what another actor is saying or doing. 

The scene from this that sticks out as a 'Moment Out of Time' is when Alden Ehrenreich's character, who has been driving around the girls and women under contract to Howard Hughes but has not actually met the man, gets to meet him very late one night on a pier.  The two men walk slowly together and Hughes asks about this young man, and right back at him the young man asks Hughes about some things - he has some ideas for businesses and an investment in particular - and this is the first time we're getting a good look at Beatty as Hughes (we see him only once before, and this is about 40 minutes into the movie, when he meets Lily Collins' character in a dark room to have a bite to eat and a chat).  But this is all in one long shot, easily the best moment for Caleb Deschanel as a director of photography for the film, and it goes on and on and where is it leading to?

Oh, Hughes has, uh, set up at the end of this walk (wherever this is on this pier) a table where burgers and fries and sodas are waiting for them since, well, Hughes is in the mood for a good burger and damn the time it is he'll get it!    While sadly this video isn't online yet for this moment, there is another that I'll share where Beatty does the repeating-a-statement bit which one might remember as being a big part of THE AVIATOR.


6) DOCTOR STRANGE (d: Scott Derrickson)

Steven Strange wants - needs - help.  He can't get his hands to work like they used to (or how he would *demand* them to get done through his stubborn sense of self), and it leads him to a I-Have-No-Choice moment where he takes the advice of a man who somehow was able to walk again despite being seemingly totally crippled - and it's in the city after that infamous Bob Seger song!

He meets 'The Ancient One' and is told that if he commits to the Mystic Arts, he can not simply cure himself - he can see what is beyond this world, into MANY worlds.  He calls hogwash on it as a devout atheist and then...




Walt Disney Studios invites you to the HOLY SHIT IT'S THE VISUAL EQUIVALENT OF PINK FLOYD'S ANY COLOUR YOU LIKE!

Oh, and it's right after this Strange decides he needs to be taught for sure, and is kicked out the door.

But this one look into the 'Multiverse' is so astonishing that it deserves an Oscar on its own.  I mean .... fuuuuuuuck!   And the rest of the movie's very good as well.


7) LOVING (d: Jeff Nichols)

One of the family friends (or it may be a brother or relative, I forget) that Richard Perry Loving has married into - he's white, his wife is black - is having drinks at a bar (Loving's not alone and there's other black guys there), and this comes at a time when there is immense pressure; the Lovings have been put into the spotlight because of their case being of main focus by ACLU lawyers going forward re: being married and an illegal crime in the state of Virginia.  One of these guys is pissed at Richard for getting Mildred into this.

Doesn't he know that he's not really black, he says over drinks (one of the guys tells him to be quiet, but right now he wont, he's got to speak his mind), and asks why he doesn't just divorce her so he can get on with his life and Mildred hers.  He sits there stewing... or is it?  He doesn't look like he's about to lash out, which seems like it would be the apt response.  No, in this moment out of time he... sits there, pondering.

He almost has a curious face.  Would it be easier to do this?  Of course it would be.  But life isn't easy, not for Richard Perry Loving or his wife Mildred who he loves more than anything in the world (well, his kids too, but especially her), so he can't agree with the guy.  But does he dismiss it out of hand, either?  It's a scene that might hint at ambiguity for Richard, and while the immediate next scene - Richard coming home still tipsy and telling his wife with tears in his eyes, "I can protect you... I can protect you!" - squashes what he thinks and feels, I'd want to ask Nichols why he put this scene in the film at the bar, where this black man asks a direct question that, frankly, could make a lot of sense... but, of course, love never makes sense, does it?


8) THE WITCH (d: Robert Eggers)

This is a movie I thought would go for the usual thing in such stories dealing with witchcraft which is at least to some extent ambiguity, like, here is a religious family, they are ostracized, they turn on each other, paranoia and suspicions arise, particularly how women had less than zero rights at the time and were seen as breeders and mothers and that was it and if they weren't in line witches and yet.... Witches in this world are real.  The two notions aren't mutually exclusive either: here is a film where the people are on edge and fearing of Satan and the devil and being absolutely disgusting human beings to each other (especially to the daughter who, by the very end, will turn to Satan), and yet... Witches are very real.



This revelation stuck with me.  While I was in the theater I put a Black Sabbath song to it - it might've not even had to do with witches, just a song with a spooky tone like 'The Writ' - which is sometimes for me a sign of a filmmaker who has really hit it out of the park (another example of this is when we get to the "punch-line" of Godard's WEEK-END and it's the dead body, 'Riders on the Storm' by the Doors popped into my head)


9) O.J. Made in America (d: Ezra Edelstein)

Watched all 7 1/2 hours in one sitting and I'm glad I did.  This packs a wallop as far as putting you into what it means to be part of the National Character of America, which is... frankly, not a nice place to be.  It's tough to actually MAKE IT as someone who is a hero to people, the nation or even the world over, when one is a minority and working as an entertainer (and football is entertainment).  I could pick out a lot of moments here, but one that sticks out to me is in the first episode, or rather it's two moments connected together:

O.J. is sought out by the Hertz rental car company for a commercial in the 1970's - he's known for running like a motherfucker, so he's put in a storyline that he is running across an airport to get to his ride in time - and we see this commercial and it's wildly entertaining in its 70's commercial way (and originally this was meant for a regular businessman, and it was thought, hey, no one will believe that a businessman can do that so fast... but OJ, hmm).  What happens though that's key is that we see what the director of the commercial did to make OJ seem more appealing: everyone around him, the "average Joes and Janes" at the airport who see OJ pass by (one of which a little old white lady who says "Go, OJ, Go!" or something to that effect), is white and respectable.  He's getting the *approval* of white society in a way that is not obvious on a first or even second viewing, it just seems like 'Hey, people like OJ!"

But, like any product put forward to society (not even Hertz, I mean Orenthal James Simpson), image is everything.  It was this commercial in a big way, by the way, that made OJ a much bigger deal than he already was, and he was known for being a Heisman trophy winning minor celebrity football player for the Bills with a 2,000 yard run for the 1973 season.  So.... yeah... And the moral of the story is: what happens when a black man is, as George Carlin might say, not "openly black" but "openly white" and just *happen* to be black(?)  This sequence showing the inner workings of the making of a commercial is astonishing,


10) DEADPOOL (d: Tim Miller)

Just that moment where Wade Wilson's tiny hand makes an appearance next to his friend Bline Al.  It's so charming and creepy at the same time.  I love it.  (It's not quite in this clip but it is made mention)




11) KNIGHT OF CUPS (d: Terrence Malick)

I could pick if I wanted to one of the myriad of poetic-philosophical-spiritual-meditative beats (and myriad is a good work to use for 21st century Malick cinema), but I actually remember the most in Knight of Cups two things: 1) that there is a set piece that actually *shows the character in a moment of drama*, even if it's something as basic as, say, an earthquake.  and 2) there's a bit of... humor to this movie?  The target may be too obvious - Hollywood's self-consciousness, narcissism, and self of 'OMG LIKE WE ARE SO LIKE FAMOUS Y'KNOW!'  But I'd take this over whatever the fuck he was doing with To the Wonder.

Here is a sample of what I mean, featuring Antonio Banderas and Joe Managiello:




12) Moonlight (d: Barry Jenkins)

... when the kid hits the other kid with a chair.  Cinematically, of course, it carries a lot of build up and explosive pay-off, as we're following our protagonist through the hallway in school, into the room, and then as he picks up the chair and hits him like all reason might be off but....... this is a feeling that I know.  Real rage being taken out on a bully in a movie, and it feeling not only earned but tragic in its way, this is something that made me think "yeah, I wasn't gay in middle school, but this was *exactly* what middle school was like, often, at least every other day."  It's a scary thing to think back to them, but Moonlight did that, painfully, exactly, and startlingly.  I hadn't felt so shaken up by seeing such a personal act of violence like that that connected with me since, oh, I don't know, Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (which reflected how I felt at 18 too, full of a lot of bottled up anger). 


13) Captain America: Civil War (d: the Russo brothers)


Uh... how about when Iron Man confronts Cap and Bucky when they first enter that Russian station, and when Tony quips - "hey, Manchurian Candidate!" to Bucky - well.... that's not so funny anymore....


14) Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (d: Gareth Edwards)

Peter Cushing returns to the film that one might call Episode 3.5 or 3.75 or 3.6 7/8ths or whatever... Peter. Fucking. Cushing. Dr. Frankenstein-Sherlock-Holmes-motherfucking-Cushing.  In CGI form, like this is that Super Bowl ad from years back where Christopher Reeve could walk again.  Only now, if you're ready for this folks, it's actually *good*, like it's convincing, like you almost, kinda, sort believe that Cushing, a man who has been dead for 22 years, is acting in the same scene with Ben Mendehlson... and doing it WELL... except this is not Cushing.  Not really.  But it is.  This is 'you don't know it, but your BRAIN does' stuff here. 

This is someone standing in and the equivalent of Golem being painted on his face and it's convincing enough to the point where I now dread this becoming a thing with movies to come.  One day we may not have actors with their faces on screen that we can empathize with - that's the thing about actors, it's empathy machine time (which is why Darth Vader, albeit he makes a pun, is still a truly iconic horror-samurai movie presence in his few moments in this movie too, no eyeballs to look at) - so... what then? 

Leaving Rogue One, which I thought was alright, and even feeling that I wondered if I might get flack for not thinking it was OMG amazing or OMG terrible, just alright, this was what was on my mind the most (Leia is also briefly seen, also in full CGI, which was a mistake, but in a way not as mortifying as Cushing as Tarkin... just... my God.  It's a Moment out of time for all time)...



Thursday, December 8, 2016

THE WITNESS (a documentary)


(SPOILERS AHEAD)



With the exception of the ending (which I'll get to in a moment), this is an excellent film that is really about critical thinking.  There is much that Bill Genovese explores about the circumstances around his sister Kitty's murder by Winston Mosely, but the part that caught my attention the most (looking beyond the lines of the film, so to speak) is to do with the media. 

It's ironic that the very reason that one would be interested in watching a film about this story - about one of those infamous murders that is more about the people who did *not* step in to try and stop it or call the police in faster time - is called into question by the main subject.  The Witness is a wonderful plea for critical thinking in the guise (or not even that, just part of it) of an obsessive detective story.

The film supposes we know already about why this is such a big deal today, but it lets us know anyway; Genovese, 29 years old, was stabbed repeatedly on the street in Kew Gardens, Queens, NY, but that wasn't the big story - it was the "38 eye-witnesses" who saw what happened and did nothing substantive to stop the killer or to get help (supposedly it was half an hour before police arrived, if not longer).  But Bill, her younger brother, has seen over the years details in the case cracking under the weight of scrutiny (there also have been lo lack of books or articles or scholarly writings about it, not to mention the laws passed since then about bystanders doing things to help in response time).  So Bill goes through police documents, interviews authors and media people who reported on the case - all the way up to Mike Wallace (filming for the doc started in 2004) - and, indeed, there were holes in the narrative.

Not always 'eye' witnesses but 'hearing' kind, not necessarily 38 people (where did that number come from exactly is one of the questions posed over and over), and if she died alone, which, we find out, was not the case as a friend went to her when Kitty went inside a building and collapsed on the floor of the hallway.  There are some grisly details, but this is not something that is as salacious in that aspect like, say, The Jinx or something.  The Witness in the title may refer to Bill, who was not there at the time (the family lived elsewhere as he was still a teenager at the time), but he is a witness now, and always will be.  It's closer in a way to something like Jim Garrison (the character, not necessarily real life) in the movie JFK, as one question leads to another and then five more and more from there. 

This isn't to say this is a conspiracy movie, at least not exactly.  What I found so engrossing about the aspect of media scrutiny in this case is that it is still a problem and concern today; we just came off of a year where fake news was rampant, but in actual journalism there's always the danger of falling into embellishing details, of trying to seize on certain details to make much larger headlines (it's questionable even if people would know who Kitty Genovese was, outside of the neighborhood or her family, if it wasn't for such explosive headlines and details that were, arguably, wildly exaggerated), but it's also on the public, I think the movie and Bill could argue, to question critically and think about what is being presented as the facts.

While it's fair to say such a case has made Kitty Genovese into a figure for positive change - to make sure the truth of something is heard (and also, an interesting detail, at least a few if not more of the people in that Kew Gardens apartment complex were victims of the holocaust, who knows if they would want to get into more trouble being involved) - the truth always makes things extremely complicated.

This documentary does such a good job of showing us Kitty's life before the murder through Bill's investigating - an inspiring subject if nothing else because his disability, being a double amputee from a Vietnam injury, and yet it's never made into a big deal, it simply is what it is, a fact that we see before us and it's fine as he never makes light of it aside from the story of how it happened - that it's a shame the movie has to end, or at least come to a climax, that feels much to take in.  After all of the time that Bill's spent looking through all of the details he can get, all of the police documents, calling up people, flying to talk (in audio, no video, and animated, nice touch) with Kitty's lesbian lover, everyone who has something to say here including Mosely's own preacher son (maybe the best scene of the movie), he concludes to bring some small sense of closure he has to... recreate the scene of the crime. 

Not completely as far as blood and murder of course, but hiring an actress and having her recreate the blood-curdling screams on the street and full physical reenactment, for Bill (as he watches on the street with multiple cameras), and then ending with the two hugging it out.  I understand what this is supposed to be for Bill, a moment where he can fully put himself into Kitty's shoes, or at least the full moment of that situation, but how we see it in *this* movie, feels like it goes too far.  It may make more sense to others, but it has an exploitative side to it, especially after, you know, 50 years and part of the idea being, as his own family expresses, that everything Bill is doing is a 'what good will that do?' sort of situation.

Up until that point, I would disagree with the family, and even to a small extent I get the final point, though it veers a little into reality-TV (and more-so than what happens with Mosely's son, which feels just right and what needs to be said, surprisingly so, on both sides).  And all the same I would still recommend this film to people interested in knowing more, and that critical thinking is an aspect of society that needs to not be put by the wayside, even (or particularly when) it comes to a case such as Kitty Genovese.  The smallest details come out as new revelations here, down to that photograph that was used by the media in showing what she looked like - which was, oddly enough, her own *mugshot* from a bookie arrest.  It's certainly one of the essential documentaries of 2016, flawed as it might be.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #12- TASTE OF CHERRY

(This review was originally meant to be published last June.  As you can see I... didn't get to finish what I'd planned, tin this case a three-part review of three Kiarostami movies.  I only watched Taste of Cherry following the late director's passing.  So... here's the review):

To look at Taste of Cherry properly, in my mind, is to look at precisely the manner that he is going about planning to commit suicide.  The question that has to be asked is: why does he need help?  More than about who he is or why he is doing it - clearly these are questions that Kiarostami isn't interested in (I think that his job in casting Homayoun Ershadi as Mr. Badhii was almost enough, to find someone with intense sadness but also a great intelligence in his eyes, and those who notice it may see at the least that, whether he's rational or not, he's thought this through) - I think the question comes down to human connectivity.  In this story he means to take a lot of sleeping pills and go at night into a hole in the ground he's dug by a tree out in the wastelands near Tehran.  But there's a catch: he has to find someone who, at dawn, will come and say his name.  If Badhii responds, he'll need to pull him out of the hole.  If there's no response, 20 shovels of dirt on his head.

In his way, just by asking for people to help him it's his way of reaching out.  One of the cliches (but a cliche is what it is because it's many times true) with suicidal people is that they will say they will or want to kill themselves because they want attention.  However this isn't some stereotypical teenager or someone with easy to see anxiety issues... but then how many people out there CAN we see having this?  Maybe Mr. Badhii has no other reason except the one that many people who kill themselves get into: severe, crippling depression.  He is told by one of the three passengers he picks up in the film, a Seminarian (aka a priest of a sort) that the Koran forbids suicide since God gives man a body that he must not damage.  But what if the mind is already damaged?

One of the handful of negative reviews on this Golden Palm winner from 1997 was by Roger Ebert.  He was much harsher than I could ever be on the film, since I think it's rather challenging and intelligent in its philosophical aims and its "slowness" works as part of a character unable to really cope with the sense that 'there's no other choice and this HAS to be this way' sense of ending a life (maybe not as strong as Melancholia, but then few films are).  Yet he made a curious point that I agree with, which is that we don't know anything about this man and so there's no port into sympathy for him.  I think I get both sides of how people might approach that argument: too often a movie will overload a movie character with reasons to do this or that or the other.  Kiarostami means to almost make this experimental in approach (about 75% of the film is shot from inside a car - what this means aesthetically in the context of the film I'm still sure I don't know, on a first viewing anyway), but also that maybe too many reasons would make things too easy or too country specific.

In other words, by having it so that Mr. Badhii's conflict is so internalized that it becomes more about his quest to get this ONE thing done that makes his journey interesting - who needs reasons when you simply have a man on screen who can communicate so much through his eyes (I must stress that the performance from Ershadi may be the strongest thing about the film, like I wish he had been recognized at Cannes along with or even instead of Kiarostami)?  What's also impressive about the film, what makes Taste of Cherry impactful, are a) those interactions Badhii has with these three people (the young soldier who is clearly uncomfortable from almost the start of the pick-up and then wants to just get out and have nothing to do with him, the Semanarist, and then the older gentleman who agrees to what Badhii asks but tries to go on and talks the most of anyone about why suicide isn't such a good idea based on, you know, some little thing may make you realize life is worth living).

And B) those little moments where Badhii doesn't have someone in his car, and he stops off at a construction site to just sit there amid all of the "earth" and rubble around him (he almost looks like he's in tears, as this comes after the second passenger rejected his request, though it's almost, cinematically speaking, in a metaphysical sense of visual language, that things are crashing down upon and all around him), or when he simply looks out at people as they go about their day, soldiers marching and chanting along, the children playing, and a young woman who asks him to take a picture of her.  I think a good filmmaker finds those little moments and attempts to build some context around the story, and Kiarostami does that: Badhii may have it set in his mind to do this, but how does one completely disregard... well, LIFE, all around him, the world continuing to live and thrive and people doing things like, at one point, getting his car out from under a ditch that he drives in to by a cliff?

So much of the story is rich - the execution, yes, is a little slow at points, by this I should say shots linger as the characters improvise their lines (it didn't feel that way watching it, but finding out after the fact there was no full script makes it both remarkable and more sense why it sounds the way it all does) - that it's extremely disappointing that the ending putters out.  It may be one of those things I *should* get and just completely flew over my head what meaning it was.  I won't say what happens except to say that it feels like the film is reaching some logical conclusion, or perhaps a revelation, and what we get feels like a non-ending, or, frankly a cop-out.  DID Kiarostami know what ending he wanted and threw it out to do something "fresh", or did he not get what he wanted and decided to just say 'eff it' and forget what was happening in the film?

What's so frustrating is that for 90% of the film Kiarostami tells a story in a specific way, that can't be mistaken for any other style or approach, and then in that last 10% (and also things start to slow down to a crawl, which is fine, but it feels like it's leading up to SOMETHING) it becomes, well, *meta* or taking the experimental to a place that is distancing for the audience.  But more than anything I just didn't get it, and I usually feel I can get most weird and esoteric decisions.  And I'm sure some smarter film goer than I will explain what the end means and make me feel all foolish for not getting it, but that makes me feel WORSE about it, not better.  And at the end of the day so much of Taste of Cherry is a provocative, daring, surprising film that I can't not recommend it to audiences looking for a fiercely intelligent film by someone looking to break out of the box of typical narrative films.


 If only it stuck to its, I don't know, narrative! 

Papa Mike's Video #16- I KNEW IT WAS YOU: REDISCOVERING JOHN CAZALE







Like the man's life, this doc is too short (I thought for some reason it was going to be a feature).  The material is the basic stuff of a retrospective and tribute with interviews by collaborators and fans (and certainly some names you probably heard of: Pacino, De Niro, Streep, Sam Rockwell, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sidney Lumet, uh, Brett Ratner, sure why not) that go into what this man was like as they knew him from being in person (Streep was married to him for a brief time, she's actually his widow) and from simply watching the Godfather parts 1 and 2 five hundred times. 

But, man, what an actor and what a career!  Sometimes in those luckiest windows of time and in opportunity (don't forget the luck part of it), quality trumps quantity, and in this case Cazale had one of the major careers in 70's American cinema.  It must be akin to one of those early rock and rollers from the 50's (Buddy Holly or the Big Bopper or whoever) who you know when listening to their music it's so pure and raw and emotional and that so many others have borrowed from them, and it's a true tragedy from the abyss of nothingness that they're taken so young. 

Good stuff though, again, I wish it was a little longer, like even a short feature instead of this long-short film stuff. But some wonderful breakdowns of these scenes he had as Fredo and the long-haired WTF in Dog Day Afternoon and even the sadness he brought to his small role in The Conversation.  A lot of time actors try to go big or go home, or take on roles that will show off what they can DO on CAMERA.  Cazale never did that, and one wonders this man in dramas in the 80's and 90's and beyond.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

MOONLIGHT (dir: Barry Jenkins)



Barry Jenkins is a fascinating storyteller, and in large part because of how he goes about being fascinated by his subject, how his camera roams at times, and at others when he knows to cut between his subjects. But most of all, he is a truly magnificent filmmaker because of how he so deftly finds universal themes from a place and people that is somewhat specific. This is a story about a boy who grows into a man - I'm tempted to call it the 'better, bigger, blacker-er Boyhood', though that's not totally the case - but he is also a boy growing up in a largely black, Southern, lower (middle?) class neighborhood, where it seems drugs are everywhere (including his own mother who is an addict) and no one can be "soft". And if you're gay, a "f***ot?" Watch out.


I grew up in a town and in the public school system where it was predominantly black and brown and Hispanic, and it seemed like even having the slightest effeminate tendencies would make that one a subject for immediate ridicule (I was even picked on and I was pretty sure from a young age I wasn't gay, but was picked on so much for a moment almost though I was, it was that persistent). It may not be so different for white small towns or big cities or who knows what, but it's especially difficult for African-American men to come out. And yet if Moonlight was only about the gay issue then it would be interesting but not overly compelling. I think what Jenkins and his actors are communicating so strongly is being *so* isolated and without any options that it's about one's overall identity. Sex and attraction is a large component, but simply knowing who one is is a major struggle.


Jenkins has some very big, emotional scenes in this film, which is told in three parts, in large part coming from the dynamic between the boy, called "Little" but actual named Chiron, and his mother (Naomie Harries, I mean, god damn she is amazing in this). However, the predominant mood here is one of subtlety, of a vision that is fairly ambitious but is more about the interior life of his protagonist, this boy having to navigate how he should be in a society that leaves little options to get out and be something more than a drug dealer or the like (eventually, both he and another friend character, Kevin, wind up in jail in-between parts 2 and 3. This can be a difficult way to make someone interesting, but there's so much truth from these young actors, especially the boy playing Chrion in middle-school age, that your heart pours out even more because of the restraint, because of the shyness that is hiding back an entire interior life that's more than what we can see: one of pain and want.


The way Jenkins shoots everything gives characters and places an extra texture, how he'll show two people by a beach at night becoming closer together naturally over minutes that feel pregnant with meaning. To use the word 'sensitively drawn and performed' may be a cliche, but sensitive is the only way I can think to describe it. This isn't to say it's melodramatic, far from it; when we get the bullies that come at Chiron, it feels raw and immediate, like something could pop and violence could erupt at any moment. Sometimes, it seems, it does. A small piece of advice is given to the boy by the drug dealing father-figure (no one else in his life fills that role, and he doesn't realize at first he is a dealer): no one can tell you who you are, you have to figure that out for yourself.


When I first got out of the theater at the end, I was wondering if the ending was slightly abrupt, that things come to a conclusion somewhat not so much fast but there's something else. I think writing this review now, I was more touched and moved by the thought of 'I now want to see where this story goes, what happens now that Chrion has had this emotional breakthrough.' It's as subtle as many moments in this film, but there's a poetic side to it that is potent and you can almost touch it that it's so powerful. Moonlight is profound because it doesn't force anything, it lets those moments where things aren't said speak out loud, when characters share looks or someone looks away while another looks straight on at another person, or the movement of boys with one another, and you can fill in the gaps for yourself. It's also a look at the black experience that is both specific to that world but goes beyond that: if you've ever not known who you are in your life, if you've felt lost or abused or abandoned, this is a film for you.


I can't wait to see what Jenkins does with his career, it could last a long time.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Ava DuVernay's 13TH



It's not enough to look at one thing to analyze what is wrong with it, is a key point that may get overlooked (or simply not exactly the focus, but between the lines) in Ava DuVernay's powerful indictment of an entire society.  When you look at the systemic issues of racism in this country, slavery is the key thing, and the title refers to the 13th amendment to the constitution (need a cinematic reference point, see Spielberg's Lincoln for more), and how one small line in the amendment referring to how slavery is outlawed except, kinda, sorta, for criminals, is paramount in how black people and bodies have been treated in the 150 years since the end of the Civil War. 

Because at extremely crucial times in history, like right after the signing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, black people were not in positions of power or government or, of course, in business (as this doc goes very in depth on), figures who spouted 'Law and Order' and "War on Drugs" made life not a matter of inconvenience or difficult for blacks, it was more like a refitting or metamorphosis of the sort of principle that went into slavery - keep everyone repressed and afraid, and if they get out of line they have to work and work for no wages and have little rights - into the modern age.  Anyone can look up the statistics about how high the prison incarceration rates have gone up over the past 45 years (this despite the fact that, at least since the 1990's, crime rates have gone down generally speaking nationwide), and particularly for African Americans the struggle is that, well, 1 out of 3 black men will go to prison in their lifetimes (vs how much smaller that ratio is for whites).

DuVernay's film is a mix of a variety of talking heads, muckraking information that might be out of a Michael Moore film about things like the ALEC company and the like who formulate actual legislation that is pro-for-profit prisons, and footage from the likes of Nixon and Reagan's most damning points looking "Presidential" while distorting the truth (and the even more damning points from their advisers caught on tape how they actually were going about specifically going after minorities as "threats" to the system).  Constantly here, the thing is, nothing is in a vacuum.  What we see from The Birth of a Nation by Griffith (incidentally I saw this doc mere hours after seeing Parker's new film, so this almost picks up where he left off), was that there actually was a film that one can say really did inspire people to commit acts of violence: hyping up the KKK to become a dominant force after years of being dormant and unpopular, by painting blacks as the "savages" that will come and rape and pillage your precious whites. 

So much in that film may seem awful and hateful now, but also these sorts of images continue to be perpetuated, is what DuVernay is saying, and things are interconnected all the time; what happened with the Central Park Five in 1989; Willie Horton; Bill Clinton's crime bill; Mandatory Mininums; Trayvon Martin and Ferguson; all of these companies making bills for politicians that they can literally *fill in the blank* with their state name, which calls to question what a country is if corporations are writing bills.  There's so much to unpack in the film, but as a director DuVernay keeps things moving at a pace that is electrifying but also never hard to take in.  I'd want to watch this again more-so to admire the touches of filmmaking, all of the text pieces she puts up to accompany song transitions (Public Enemy for one), than even to take in pieces of information she puts out.

Also fascinating is how she puts the variety of talking heads here: we get people like Charlie Rangel (who was once very tough on crime and regrets it today) and mayor David Dinkins and Cory Booker and Angela Davis, but we also get to see Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist and a sort of spokesman for one of these ALEC type of companies (I forget his name).  Having them juxtaposed with figures who have seen how awful this country has treated people of color in the justice system with drug laws that are meant to make criminal (that's a word that comes back again and again) makes for a viewing experience that can be startling but it keeps you on your toes.  Will they possibly say something reasonable or reprehensible?  Some watching it may not even know who Norquist is - I should think DuVernay made this film to last, not just for the 2016 year, albeit clips from Clinton and Trump, the latter some of the explosive racist moments at his campaign stops in the crowds, make it timely - but it shouldn't matter too much.

13th gives you a massive amount of facts and statistics, but it's never a lecture, and if it's a plea it's that people should realize real reforms don't or really can't happen overnight.  Minds and attitudes need to change on a more fundamental level, where *centuries* of oppression have kept metastasizing like a cancer.  And at the center of it is DuVernay creating a conversation and narrative that inspires a great many emotions, mostly sadness and anger, but is just as palpable as in her film Selma.  A must-see.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Paul Feig's GHOSTBUSTERS






"Now I know how Batman feels."

People are already going to want to know: Jack (and I'll reply, 'yes, reader?'), what is *wrong* with the new Ghostbusters, as if there immediately has to be something wrong with something just because it carries the namesake of a beloved product from the 1980's (perhaps the mere fact that there's been an outcry over a remake is a sign that there is still some fire in the belly of people not beaten down by remakes, though more on that near the end of this review). But if I had a general response it's that, simply, generally speaking, the "Ghostbuster Paradigm" is off here. It's not the only issue with the movie - and there are good things I can say about it (and will) - and what I come away with most is that four main characters (you can also call it the "Ninja Turtles" paradigm or the "Avengers paradigm from the 2012 Marvel movie") are not too distinctive from one another.

Actually, that's not fully the case. Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy are... well, Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, but that's the problem. Their characters do what the script tells them to, as do the actors (hey, it's their job, right), but personality wise you don't get those clear distinctions that were there in that original Ghostbusters; the wisecracking guy we can relate to with Venkman; the straight-arrow guy who's kind of the leader in Stantz; Egon being the scientist so he's super-sciency; and Winston as the, well, guy off the street who we maybe identify with the most as the outsider. There is an exception in Paul Feig and Kate Dippold's creation here which is with Kate McKinnon's Holtzmann. She's an actress who totally embraces this character as a full-blown sciency-quirk-nerdy piece of magnificence, someone who can be whip smart and have a quick retort, but who also *looks* distinctive (I suspect at conventions cosplayers will most go after her look), and she gets to be really silly in down-time moments, singing to herself like no one is looking (even if someone is) or doing a little dance as she fixes something. She's a cool, awesome update of the Egon, and McKinnon is consistent and funny in the role.

But Wiig and McCarthy? More hit or miss, and while the filmmakers try to make the two distinctive early on - Wiig as the college professor fired over a book she wrote with McCarthy's character years back (why it's only discovered now, who knows, whatever, movie), and the former trying to at first distance herself while the latter's more like "no, no, ghosts, ghosts, c'mon' - but once they face off against their first paranormal entity early in the film, the two characters are not really distinctive, both can have some wisecracks (maybe Wiig's *slightly* more dry, but more-so it's that awkward-stilted approach to line delivery that she's perfected over time) and yet there's no distinction between types... which leads me to Leslie Jones, who, I say, IS trying here, but is given a character that has the one dimension of "AAH! GHOSTS! Can I work with y'all", and that's about it.



Even Slimer's like, "I'm getting told for this shit"


Her performance goes from at best tolerable, goofy sidekick to being obnoxious (and most of those scenes, to be fair, are in the trailer, some are left for the movie to give us new scenes to see as tired screaming-black-lady types), and Jones is better than that. Ironically given the four ladies, Chris Hemsworth gets a good role as the "token male" (ho-ho) who also happens to be playing the dumb-blonde type. This diverts from the original movie, which is fine (actually the attraction part now shows the reversal, where before Jeanine hit on Egon to little result, now one or more of the ladies try to when they interview him, and he's so dumb it goes one ear out the other), and Hemsworth owns what is basically also a one-note joke. But he plays that note for all it's worth, and is definitely the highlight of a climax that is... messy.

I think that I can say that this remake (let's call it that, f*** a 'reboot') of Ghostbusters is not terrible. It's also not very good on the whole. It certainly can shine in little pockets. It can also be irksome when a scene goes on for far too long - like a scene with Andy Garcia as the mayor where the Ghostbusters are called frauds, sort of - and it becomes like a game of one-up(wo)man-ship, and it's painful to see the jokes die. A lot of lines and jokes died for me, which is a shame since the actors clearly have good comic timing and chemistry, and can deliver exposition with some aplomb. But along with the weak 'four-character paradigm' aspect, there's also the familiarity that gets crammed in like a fowl in foie gras: slimer shows up, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow man shows up (kinda, sorta, it happens) and even the *logo* becomes that "form of destruction" from the original.

For me it's not that it can't be be helped to associate this with the 1984 movie. I love that piece of work, but I can watch one thing and keep it at that. A major problem is that the movie won't let me, for the most part. At times it does try to make its own mark, like a 'villain' who is just some freak living in a hotel who wants to bring the "Ley Lines" to fruition (yeah, it's the plot, whatever), but it still calls back to the original over and over and over again. Just when it starts to cut its own path it goes back and says "remember the Ghost House? Remember the Ray Parker theme? Remember this and that and the other? Well, here it is again, anew!" And all in all it leaves one with an impression that this is all.... okay. Certainly Feig and the actors are trying. But it's burdened by the weight of its own franchise and not being able to just left go and cut a rug. Oh, and the improv, that's hit or miss too.

Lastly, there's the not-really-but-hey-internet elephant in the room of "Well, it's women now, so it's gonna suck" argument. What one comes away with is the people making these claims likely also were the same who said that Ben Affleck would be AWFUL as Batman. Get over it you small-penised losers. That's the absolute least of this movie's problems!

In other news, Chris Christie sucks because he's FAT!
 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

NW Refn's THE NEON DEMON



I imagine Nicolas Winding Refn (seriously, at this point he should shorten it to N.W. Refn and go full old-school auteur on us, Murnau style) has a lot of deep thoughts to put forward to his audiences. Sometimes they manifest out through stories and characters and images that coalesce in a succinct way (Drive), and other times not so much (Only God Forgives). But it's safe to say he's now in another universe than as the director who once did gritty hand-held street crime movies like the Pusher series, as he has a film that feels like a final thesis project in a Stanley Kubrick Masters class. And if I were a professor given the unlikely and dubious task of assigning students 'grades', Refn would get a B+. Or a B, I'm still not sure.

At any rate, I can call the man an artist because he listens to no one but his own intuition for a film such as The Neon Demon, which is mostly a drama (and in its way somewhat or maybe mostly too a horror film) about a seemingly ingenue-like 16 year old who comes to LA to gain traction as a model (Elle Fanning) and the perils she comes up against as she rises to stardom. Or... is it stardom? She says at one point to a male friend (not quite a boyfriend, I think) that she can't write or sing or do things creatively like that, but she's pretty and "I can get money for that." So she's out for the ego part, no question - how far she'll go is of course always the trouble in these stories.




If this kind of rise-and-fall scenario sounds familiar, well, it is. It's not uncommon to get the story of a young woman trying to find her way into fame and fortune only to have back-biting b***hes on a back because, well, they don't have "It". I think if Refn is out to use his gaze at anything, and it's a powerful one for much of the film, it's to look at the ugliness and despair and kind of scathing depravity just under the surface. Again, not necessarily the most original point either (I was reminded of the one bit from the movie Holy Motors, where the photographer is shouting one moment "Beauty! Beauty! Beauty" then turns his gaze at the freak and goes "Weird! Werid! Weird!")

There's many sequences in the film that are striking, if nothing else for how they're shot - ironically Refn, from what I've read and heard, is color-blind, so a magnanimous kudos to Natasha Braier and her team for the cinematography, tops for the year (like the kind that features lens flare that works, well, take note JJ Abrams) - like when Jessie, Fanning's supposed ingenue, is in front of the photog Jack (Desmond Harrington, remember him from Dexter, much better-creepier here, stone solid). It's her first time with him and he has her strip, to which he closes off the set and gets her slathered in gold. It's not done in some way like he's being a pervert or deviant, except in the way that maybe artists can get or are called out on (maybe Refn's own meta-commentary, in his way, a little, I think so), but it's really about how to make ART and be in control of a moment. When Jessie's asked how it went by Jena Malone's Ruby Jessie goes, "It was great."


Mmmm strawberry dna!
Does she mean it? Another scene, as if out of something like Under the Skin, is when Jessie first goes out onto a runway with the other models. She's by herself surrounded by darkness, and she no longer seems naive (whether that's a put on or not may be up for the audience to decide), but she has a real... moment, something that will be abstract as she sees a blinking triangle light in front of her and as the color red surrounds her face and the occasional flash bulb finds its way through the ether, and then other colors come through as well. It doesn't make logical sense, but it doesn't have to, and it's the most successful moment of some kind of transformation (or simply a self-fulfillment happening) in an emotional way. It's a slow-burn knockout of a sequence.

And yet I left the movie in an odd way not totally satisfied. The Neon Demon is shot and presented in a manner that says "see me on as big a screen with good sound for our kickin' 80's Cliff Martinez score, please", so if you do go see it in a theater. And one performance more than others, Jena Malone, feels complete and I wish in a way the movie was about her most of all (her character is a crucial component, as the real 'friend' as the non-model of the bunch of women). Despite all the movie has going for it, including a few amazing/terrifying/funny scenes with Keanu Reeves of all people, it's a very cold movie at its core, ugly, brutal, unrelenting in its outlook of, in brief, that women HATE women. Especially in a world where they're defined by how men (and, to be fair, other women as well to an extent) see them in clothes and their underwear or sometimes nothing at all.


so... existential, y'know?


I get that that's the point, but Refn stretches the ugliness to such a point near the end that it becomes silly, and not in a way that worked. Earlier on, the Kubrick comparison holds by being very icy and methodical in its camera-work - every pan, every push-in, every two-shot is slow-building and people talk in pauses and so on - but there's a satirical point to it as well, like we KNOW this isn't real, but that's the game to point that out. And then it... gets into real madness and its horror movie sense goes wild, to where I'm sure Refn knows he's f***ing with us, and yet Fanning's character gets the short shrift as a result. I hoped for more with Jessie here from how he's set up, and then after she changes (or does she, that's the interesting thing if she does or not) it soon devolves in the last 20 minutes into being straight-up provocation.

In other words, Neon Demon is a movie I loved and hated, and there's no easy response to recommend it. Refn and his collaborators once again bring out a Los Angeles that's got both the pretty (that wide vista overlooking the city from the cliff-top is there), the empty (those wide rooms showing the spaces that people have left open in their minds) and dirty (the motel area). It's someone putting up images and faces and moments that will shock us, or most of us, or some of us, but at least he's trying, and it's not a bore or misfire (cough, Only God Forgives, cough.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #11- BORDER RADIO (1987)

Man... I feel like a dick with the review I'm about to give this. 


I think if I objectively look at this (maybe even subjectively, I don't know), I can point out how it's not very cohesive or hold up too well over time.  But I've been where Alison Anders, Kurt Voss and Dean Lint were at in the mid 80's: people in a particular place and time and milieu (in this case it was the west coast alternative-cum-punk scene, or maybe it's the other way around, just before hair metal fucked everything up), and wanting to get it down on film.  There's a rawness and a sense that 'hey, let's make a goddamn movie that WE want to see!)  At least that's what I suspect was the idea - and to give some kind of gritty noirish feeling amid the aimlessness of the events.  So set in the world that Repo Man was swimming in or even the kids from Suburbia might wander through, but a touch of Jarmusch or Wenders.  And... I wish it worked better!

So on a personal level I find it difficult to be harsh on it, knowing that its heart is pure and that it's a warped little calling card at best at a time when such films could get a few people to see it in an art-house and that'd be just fine. But... well, it is what it is, right?  A basic enough premise but with some promise - a few dumbass punk rockers (or rockabilly, a crossbreed you could say) steal some money and the main guy behind the group runs off to Mexico - Chris D as Jeff Bailey, who I believe was a figure in the west coast punk scene, or he looks that way, like Henry Rollins balding cousin.  The rest of the film finds his wife Luana (played by I think Anders' sister or relative Luana) tries to find out where he's at and more importantly why.

Here's the key problem I have with this: if it were a short, even 30 minutes, it would be pretty fantastic.  I actually am smitten with this time and setting; Suburbia and Repo Man are set in a similarly scuzzy world where people don't give a fuck and yet there's the air of responsibility and the outside world that hangs over heads (in Repo Man it was just 'fuck normal' and Suburbia it was more 'hey, it's a Roger Corman production, don't forget the violence and sex every 15 minutes or so).  But those films also had stronger performances and a better core to work with despite how aimless they seemed. 

But here the whole search is stupid; Luana could go down it seems to Mexico any time she wants to get her dead-beat husband (also a father to their kid, played by real life Anders daughter), and the resolution to the whole situation happens too gradually and without much logic.  Oh, and there's a "documentary" being done on these people - interviewed I think by the directors - as if their story is supposed to be like fodder for a documentary that is just... why



This isn't to say Border Radio is a complete waste of time.  Actually for certain stretches it's entertaining.  The two band mates of Jeff's, Chris and Dave (also named after themselves), are characters unto themselves, with Chris like a proto Randall from Clerks and Dave probably the most realistic kind of character in the movie as far as real life goes: mostly drunk, a total scumbag, but likely talented though still blackballed by the local clubs for being a, well, jerk like he seems to be.  In fact a lot of the acting here isn't too bad, and Anders as the sort of anchor to much of the absurdity in the episodes pulls off what she's asked to do.

In some ways Border Radio portends the "mumblecore" movies more than any other 1980's indie.  As episodic as Stranger Than Paradise was, it had a formal ambition to its making and execution that made it stand out from the pack.  With 'Radio', I doubted there was a firm script, certain people show up briefly who seem like they were plucked off the street (i.e. a Mexican at the trailer park, a punk rock girl who is "babysitting" Jeff/Lu's daughter at a key point), which may explain the fucked up logic at times of the characters or events as they go on in the story.  Or at the least, the characters, except maybe for Luana, are not sympathetic much at all (actually Luana seems to be questionable at one point near the end too, and yet it's at a point where logically I'd given up on the story), and this takes away from being engaged with things.  In little moments, like when Chris goes down to Mexico finally to confront Jeff in a series of scenes, it's successful and genuinely interesting.  In the bigger picture it falls flat and is too scattershot to ever revisit.

For all of the criticisms I can levy on it, I have not a shred of ill will towards it.  I'm really happy this exists and that people can watch it, on the Criterion collection and Hulu no less (though it's strange that the copy that's available, that I saw anyway, was not restored like other titles, scratchy print like it was taken off of a dusty negative).  I didn't mention my favorite part of the movie which is the soundtrack, also original music by David Allen of the Blasters: it's a joy to listen to music that is rock and roll to a pure point: punk, rockabilly, Mexican mariachi work, slower stuff, it all works and I was glad to hear it.  If only it was put to a story that was actually compelling or made more sense.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #10- Rohmer's LA COLLECTIONNEUSE

(Would you believe me if I told you it took me five minutes to realize that the title has two 'n''s in the name?  Well... it did)


My first, instinctual, gut reaction to La Collectionneuse (or 'The Collector", though I probably prefer to call it the French title so as not to confuse it with the John Fowles adaptation or the 2009 horror movie), is 'well, a lot of this is surely written with a keen ear for the dialog of those with money, or at least those who think they have enough for vacation (and it IS France so why not), but what's all the fuss about?'  This is one of Eric Rohmer's six "Moral Tales", films dealing with men and women in relationships, mostly (if not all) from the male point of view, and how men ascribe expectations to women.  Though I've not seen all of the films (My Night at Maud's and Love in the Afternoon are fantastic, The Baker one is alright), this one seemed... well, dry, about characters who were not likeable engaging in a not-hot love triangle.  But then IS it love?

This is a film that features a trio of characters - the two main guys on their vacation, Adrian (Bachau) and Daniel (Pommereulle) - and how they're seeming idyllic time (or that spent just, well, not doing much except lounging about, maybe reading, a little swimming, trying to do as little as possible like they're in Chinatown or some shit) is broken apart by the appearance of Haydee (though there are two others, Adrian's girlfriend who leaves in one of the 'prologues' to the film, and an older man who appears later in the story as a collector of items that Adrian is trying to sell as an art dealer of some kind).  This is all from Adrian's point of view, by the way, as he goes on and on... and on in narration about how he sees the unfolding situation.  And he talks a great deal as well - sometimes, often, as is suggested by one character later, to hear himself talk.

The idea here is that the "Collector" of the title isn't Adrian with his antiques (though that could very well be him and I wouldn't put someone with the intellectual heft of Rohmer to have double or triple or countless meanings here), but with Haydee.  She goes out with men night after night, and Adrian and Daniel have a kind of deal to see who will/won't sleep with her first.  Adrian says he has no interest, and perhaps who can blame him?  Haydee is the sort of pretty girl who appears to have not much personality aside from being pretty: she looks great in a bathing suit, which we see in the first shots of the film in her 'prologue' of her on the beach, and she talks often in a way that is subdued, not really questioning or being too curious intellectually, except that she does rebuke Adrian's suggestion that she is a "collector" - she says she is "searching" for... someone, or something. 

IS she only a pretty girl?  I think the sort of challenge, if I can call it that, of watching this film is to find a port into it emotionally.  These are characters, at least for Adrian and Daniel, I'm not so sure about Haydee (though it could be argued), who are making conflicts for themselves under the bright, sunny French countryside skies and grasses (lensed by Nestor Almendros, so of course you can't complain there, it's just not possible).


 It's by Rohmer's design that people don't get too angry or too responsive to things where people, I don't know, raise their voices or laugh too much (though there are signs of amusement), with a couple of exceptions.  There is a moment where Daniel, getting tired of Haydee - who he ultimately has bedded first - is tapping his foot over and over again.  It's the sort of moment that can wake up even those handful who may fall asleep watching the film (and I'm sure there are a few of you out there on your couches or in the revival theaters).  That makes its mark for sure.

In other words, these characters can talk, and certainly Adrian can talk in such a way that people call him out on it as monologue (and in such a way that may be improvised - I see this actor along with the lady playing Haydee, with her own character's name as her own, and Daniel, have writing credits for dialog as if it were a mumblecore movie, which this most resembles if I had to break it down), and I think the whole approach is that the talk is all to obfuscate the emotions, that all of the intellectual processing and thought that Adrian puts in to what's going on puts aside anything that can ACTUALLY make people feel like love and compassion and care.  For him, it's all down to logic and how to plan this or that.  It's not a love triangle if there isn't a sense of any possibility for love, whether it's for Adrian (who slowly sees his "moral" compass going to the side, or Haydee who says she isn't interested, and we can believe her because, well, she's believable!)

But I knew I had seen a film that had something to say about how men look at women and use them for their own feelings and projections, and intellectually that is greatly intriguing to me.  So I went as soon as the film ended to Roger Ebert's page, where he puts this among his "Great Movies" list (a bold banner for sure).  This seemed like an astute observation:

"(The characters) live at a languorous pace. The men decide she is a "slut," because they assume she sleeps with the revolving roster of guys who take her into town. When a rich art collector visits the villa to look at a vase Adrien is selling, Adrien essentially offers her to the older man. The way she handles that speaks well for her insight into the situation."

This may be so.   There's more detail Ebert goes into, and I think that thematically La Collectionneuse is thematically rich - how men have their own point of view and projection of how they want to see women in a certain way.  Adrian's already seen off his girlfriend, who wants him to join her in London and says he can't because, well, "work" as he puts it, but is it really?  He spends the rest of the film on this "vacation" (which, as we know from Forrest Gump, is actually when you go somewhere and you don't ever come back, so in a state of mind sense you don't ever really *want* to go back to where you are while away, if that makes sense), and justifies how he sees Haydee because... well, (gasp) she sleeps with a lot of men(!)

Context may be something here, as it's 1966 and morality in this time was changing, and Rohmer's film is a reflection of that, how men are trying to open themselves up to new experiences, but social mores and what life and institutions have taught about how to be with another person, how to connect, changed in this decade for France and others across the world.  And there's Daniel as well, who is more like a go-with-the-flow kind of guy, but can put up a hissy fit... which to Adrian seems like a put on.

So there is a LOT here to consider and think about, though this is mostly after the fact (apt considering Rohmer was a film critic and may have still been in that critical mind-frame by this point).  I'd be lying if I said I didn't find some of this dry, in part due to a lack of any music in the film; the narration, one might say, is the kind of music that Rohmer's peppering, but I'm not convinced.  It's that prejorative word "talky" and lacks the sort of visual fluorishes that his Cashiers du cinema contemporaries had.  One might say he's more of the "adult" than the kidding around/revolutionaries of Godard-Truffaut-Rivette.  In the case of this film it takes, or did for me, for a few minutes, some adjusting to get used to.  But once I got into its rhythm I found much to admire substanatively, even as things are so subdued and played for realism it edges into that terrible word I don't want to use: boredom.

But then it's *about* characters who can possibly get bored, so...

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #9- Teshigahara's WOMAN IN THE DUNES

I'm a day behind, I know.  That may happen from time to time.  Life and all.

But meanwhile, I got to watch a truly fucked up work of art.  Yes, it's expressed in ways that cinema can only do - through a sensual, tactile, almost 3D-in-2D sense of how to capture skin and light and that thing that Anakin Skywalker seems to not like too much SAND - but fucked up.  Thank God for Japan.


First off, usually a character's profession should have some component of meaning for the film that he or she is a part of, no?  Maybe we as the audience can get an indication of how what the task the protagonist performs may/can/does have a bearing on the story. 

In Woman in the Dunes, Niki Jumpei (Eiji Okada) is an Entomologist.  What is that?  The study of bugs, insects, the like, and Niki is in a desert looking for some to bring back home for his studies (who we rarely hear if at all called this name, he's really just 'he' far as the audience is concerned).  But he misses his bus back home - or at least that's what he's told by some locals - and they suggest to him, when asked by Niki, to spend the night at a woman's house.  The house just happens to be at the bottom of a pit surrounded by sand.  The night with this Woman being sometimes odd and eerie notwithstanding, Niki expects to leave come morning.  That doesn't happen.  He's trapped - it's a set-up, and it's just the beginning of his troubles.

Gregor Samsa awoke one morning to discover that he's been transformed into an ART FILM!
So what does this mean?  Well, at the least, he is smart, and at times can be clever and his mind is always trying to think of things that can possibly get him out of the hole he's stuck in.  But could it be something deeper, more existential?  A bug or an insect, like the ones that Niki collects and studies, have no real scope in life, no goals, except survival, getting by day to day.  And in Niki's possession these insects are trapped forever (some die, some are meant to be kept alive for a short while).  Has he been turned into one of these insects?  May he become one with the limited capacity for no thought except the tasks given him?  Perhaps Niki will awake one morning to discover he's been transformed into a literal giant cockroach.  But at least Gregor Samsa was turned into a literal creature - this man's humanity is stripped day by day, in a prison that the woman by his side (Ky├┤ko Kishida in a performance for the ages), and has come to accept with a combination of insane glee and reticence.  A nickname for this could be Slow-Burn Metamorphosis in the Castles Made of Sand.

There are many ways to read into what this man does and how it relates to this story, but what makes the film so impactful and powerful is that it's not content to rest on the page, so to speak.  The story itself can't help but be compelling - it's a tale of wrongful imprisonment as the man and woman, as many others we are told are in this situation among these dunes, have to work digging in the sand around these "houses" (more like ramshackle shacks that could break any moment) in order to sift through diamonds for these "villagers".  On paper this could be a horror movie, a bunch of backwoods fucks kidnapping people for their own sadistic purposes.  But the direction from Hiroshi Teshigahara is what makes it count - the way that he and DP use the camera to create a distinctive, suffocating world full of so many things that make it a CINEMATIC experience is nothing short of miraculous.

"Sandy Cheesecake" pinup photography was always a tough sell in Japan...
Sand is tricky in movies - it doesn't have much character, unlike waves which ripple and move, or trees which go about and have color and have height and length and varieties.  Sand is just sand, sometimes wet, sometimes drier, sometimes even quicksand (and at one pivotal point we see quicksand in action in WitD).  Teshigahara and Hiroshu Segawa photograph sand unlike any I can think of in movies, not even Lawrence of Arabia.  Some of it has to do with juxtaposition - having an image of dunes and then having an elliptical, oblique image of a woman's face over it early on is such a way - but also getting what sand feels like on a person's skin, when it sticks to sweat and can't be easily rubbed off.  There's even a sensual quality to it in Teshigahara's hands, as at one point when the man is rubbing the sand off of the woman slowly, and it becomes... I mean, Jesus, one of the more sensual scenes in all movie history, and without nudity (in this case, there is some mild nudity though done tastefully).

At times it's not unlike those opening minutes of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which had ash as a similar conduit for skin and sex, as it adds another layer to the image and gives the filmmakers something to play with.  There's also simply how many great images these guys get of these two people, how they find new ways to get close-ups even when it seems like there's no where else to photograph.  And there comes a point where the man asks the villagers if he can have just a few minutes a day, maybe ten, or more, or less, to see the nearby sea (he won't run away, like he did before, which by the way that entire sequence is so goddamn intense, mostly done without words, that it's worthy of No Country for Old Men far as mounting and executing suspense in a chase). 



When the villagers give their 'condition' it involves them all getting a "Show" at night... involving seeing the man and woman fuck as if in some carnal thing, like watching animals screw or trained monkeys in a circus.  She refuses - it's an attempted rape, one might say conservatively - but the way it's all presented, how Teshigahara, his DP and editor, cut between and show these faces watching (some in Kabuki masks!) and then these two desperate, tired, hopeless people, it's ironically magical to watch despite (or because) it's all so terrible.

Woman in the Dunes is at many points, mostly speaking, profoundly disturbing.  It goes deep in and tears apart the human soul in a way like Oldboy - also a movie about someone wrongfully imprisoned - though it's as well showing the 'institutionalized' way a mind can get ala Shawshank after some time (you know, first you hate it, then you get used to it, then it becomes like you have to rely on it).  I thought of these as the only rational examples I could since the film is mostly unlike any other I can think of: it has the framing of a terror or horror movie, but it's shot in a way like the most beautiful art film imaginable.

We see this man lose his grip on reality, though the reality is already being stripped away from him, as we are seeing in a subjective, lovingly photographed way these people like they have no other position to be in but drenched in sweat and misery and the occasional sex and dirt.  It's a precise contradiction, of making the horrific and emptiness of a desert into something gorgeous, and that's the fascination of the film, or at least of the director with this script (which, by the way, Teshigahara somehow got an Oscar nomination for *direction* at the 66 Oscars, and more power to him!)

Oh, and the two performances by Okada and Kishida are down and dirty and full of sometimes madness, often despair, and for Kishida it takes a lot to really make us feel sorry for a woman who has lost it and may be (maybe) a little slow, though her loss (she had a husband and daughter, likely they're dead) shines through in almost every scene, if that makes sense.  She has nothing to do but dig and obey, and the man with her better get his head around that and out of his crazy ideas of getting out!  These two have to be good performers to keep our attention, and they sure as hell do. 

Lastly, there's the score.  This comes in like out of some abstract other realm, or perhaps that the desert itself can make music and is sometimes giving a wild accompaniment to what happens here, whether it's certain ominous sensual moments, or when Niki finally gets his moment of (short-lived) escape and it's suspenseful music from Takemitsu while still maintaining the same eerie spectacle of everything.  The music collaborates with this to be like, again going back to the Metamorphosis and Kafka, like a waking, unhinged nightmare where people are punished for reasons that have no reason. 

Maybe that's how the insects feel anyway, if they have feelings. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

A COOL CRITERION SUMMER #8- Robert Downey's CHAFED ELBOWS

(man approaches another man making a line in a road with white paint)
"What's going on?"
"You gotta draw the line somewhere."
"..."


In one of the selections via the Criterion collection's offshoot, the Eclipse series (I suspect I'll have other Eclipse titles this summer to view), Robert Downey Sr "UP ALL NIGHT", we get a selection of a handful of the iconoclast/provocateur/I-Don't-Know-What-the-Fuck-to-Call-Him's work.  Putney Swope is the kind of major artistic release that has challenged and provoked many (to the point where Matt & Craig of Welcome to the Basement coined the phrase "Putney Swope Panic" when viewing films that perplexed them greatly) and influenced others (Paul Thomas Anderson, who would also have a character named 'Floyd Gondoli' taken from this film, Chafed Elbows, and Louis CK, were two). 

But what about his other films?  What about something like this, which at one point was such an underground-culty-of-the-moment piece of work that it was put on a double bill with SCORPIO RISING for those who ventured to the basements and rooftops of arteets buildings. 

Has there ever been anything more hipster?
This story is... well, it's certainly out of the box, far more than anything I've seen all week (though I haven't seen much Kenneth Anger or Stan Brakhage lately).  It's the story of Walter Dinsmore (George Morgan), who is having his "annual November breakdown" (though it seems like his breakdown could happen also in January or March or who knows when), and is telling about how he started having lust/sex for his mother, goes to his psychiatrist and confesses this (to which the doctor calls the mother, and she finds not much wrong with it), and then wanders the streets randomly for... something, I'm not sure.

Chafed Elbows is all from the mind of Downey as being completely anti... well, what do you got in 1965?  It's full of raunchy material - not much cursing though, and a couple of points nudity is blacked out in boxes) - and it's not unlike what one saw in John Waters' early films: totally anti-establishment, anti-censorship, anti-authority, and above all anti-taste and purity.  And like Swope, this is a movie that thumbs its nose at establishments that, actually, would often come out to movies like 'Elbows' like snooty poet people out of The New School (that's a particularly memorable moment, where Dinsmore is asked if he's a poet and recites the one he's written, which is terrible of course), but also of course women who flock for people who may have the slightest bit of fame, and uh, well, other people.

The movie is all over the place though, to a point where it becomes a collection of moments with the really loose thread of Walter's attraction for his mother, which we hear in voiceover as 85% of the film is voice-over, and he also sleeps with one or two other women.  At one point one such woman he describes sexing is more like he is driving a race-car in metaphorical speak.  I suspect that the appropach visually, which is largely made up of still images strung together one after the other, was an intentional riff (or parody, though I didn't sense that so much) on Markers' La Jetee

POKE!
For me though I didn't get that so much as a slightly more clever version of, of all the fucking things my mind could wander to (and it does this sometimes so please forgive me if you can), the ANGRY VIDEO GAME NERD's review of... Plumbers Don't Wear Ties.  If you're wondering that is, you can watch some/all of the video (it's worth it), but suffice to say it's closer to something an old video game might do that doesn't have the budget to tell its story in full visuals.

Is this necessarily a bad thing?  Not exactly, but kind of.  I think the moments where Downey has actual film to work with in a camera that allows for moving images - and it's about 15/20% of the movie so it's sprinkled enough in there - it works better, and there's one part where Walter joins a band(!) and sings in a rollicking rock group for a song that it flies in an off-the-wall, off-beat comical way (actually any time music is used creatively in the film it really connects and carries some energy and momentum).  But more often than not Downey's intention is to shock, and this is a little over 50 years ago with material that, except for the wild incest parts, it's not as shocking any more.  And what we're left with in stretches of this 58 minute, uh, featur(ette) is a lot of nonsense and madness strung together like an underground sketch comedy reel.

So some of it is dated.  Some of it doesn't connect comedically.  But some of it does, and certain lines and zingers had me rolling on my couch (one point Walter describes himself to one of the women he's about to fool around with as, "I'm just like an art film - I never fade, and I got a lot of special effects"), and Downey is more often than not clever with how he's approaching this: it's zany and silly, obscene and radical, goofy and sacrilegious (watch for a scene set in a church that feels like a drug trip for a couple of minutes), and ultimately I assume for Downey it's a, uh, 'love' story between a son and his mother in the midst of the son's breakdown.  By design it's meant to make almost everyone uncomfortable.  I found myself that way 40% of the time, while also laughing.  Other times it's... tedious, over-the-top in an annoying way, and then Floyd Gondolli shows up to do a newscast. 



So it goes.

PS: One more good line: "I'm listed in the Yellow Pages under Truth."