Thursday, December 31, 2009

favorite films of the decade

this was the decade of my cinematic awakening. the decade where i learned just how much i enjoyed film, and just how great film can be. i saw all of my favorite films for the first time this decade. many of those films were old classics that i was simply discovering for the first time. some of those, however, were released during this decade. of those released in the last ten years, these are my favorite:

31) ocean's eleven
(USA, 2001, Steven Soderbergh)
ok, hollywood, LISTEN UP: THIS is what a remake should be. take a crappy film, give it a sexy new spin and a cleverly crafted script, and hand it off to soderbergh. STOP REMAKING CLASSICS.

30) madagascar (USA, 2005, Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath)
what is a simple bite on the butt between friends? come on, give me a nibble.

29) 28 days later (U.K., 2002, Danny Boyle)
for god's sake, when will those damn scientists stop experimenting on monkeys!

28) let the right one in (Sweden, 2008, Tomas Alfredson)
ah, inappropriately young love. and bloodsucking murder. <gush>

27) star trek (USA, 2009, J.J. Abrams)
ok, so it's the death of roddenberry's philosophical vision. but who cares? the other entertaining blockbusters of the decade wish they had a tenth of the wit of this perfectly blended spectacle.

26) the royal tenenbaums (USA, 2001, Wes Anderson)
a true friend is the one willing to knife you in the side when you're being an ass.

25) lost in translation (USA, 2003, Sofia Coppala)
one of two movies in my line-up where you can't hear the secrets whispered at the end.

24) there will be blood (USA, 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson)
just watch your milkshake. or there will be blood.

23) up! (USA, 2009, Pete Doctor and Bob Peterson)
how is it that the opening sequence of a kid's film is the most poetic, succint, and devastating expression of the realities of growing up in all of cinema?

22) intermission (Ireland, 2003, John Crowley)
look, don't piss on collin farrel's leg. just don't.

21) the darjeeling limited (USA, 2007, Wes Anderson)
if you were one of those that complained about this film because it showed india as if it hadn't
changed in the last 50 years, then you missed the point. big time. get over your political correctness.

20) the lives of others (Germany, 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
the brutal, sincere portrait of the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. without the the right to say and think anything we desire, we will wither and crumble.

19) summer hours (France, 2009, Olivier Assayes)
art, life, and the promise of the next generation.

18) the life aquatic with steve zissou (USA, 2004, Wes Anderson)
deadpan berserker, hydrogen psychosis, and the crazy-eye!

17) encounters at the end of the world (USA, 2008, Werner Herzog)
fuzzy itty-bitty wittle penguins? i don't think so. there are those who would have us believe that nature is fuzzy, warm, and harmonious. and there are those who remind us that nature is actually a form of collective murder. thank god someone as eloquent and brilliant as herzog is in the latter camp.

16) science of sleep (France, 2006, Michel Gondry)
cardboard, cellophane, and stop-motion animation do a better job of translating - and inspiring - our imagination than cgi ever could.

15) spirited away (Japan, 2001, Hayao Miyazaki)
we grow up in our imagination.

14) howl's moving castle (Japan, 2004, Hayao Miyazaki)
The mixture of boundless optimism and uncanny eerieness.

13) grizzly man (USA, 2005, Werner Herzog)
only someone who pulled a boat over a mountain could have the patience to scour tredwell's hundreds of hours of unedited footage to plow the deeper mysteries of human existance.

12) eternal sunshine of the spotless mind (USA, 2004, Michel Gondry)
apparently the best relationships are mixture of heaven and hell, and there's nothing you can do to get out of it. so don't even bother having your mind erased.

11) still life (China, 2007, Jia Zhang-Ke)
you can destroy thousands of years of culture in the blink of an eye, but you'll never stop corruption, greed, and individual tragedy.

10) in bruges (U.K., 2008, Martin McDonagh)
who knew a movie about hitmen in fucking bruges could be so wonderfully poetic?

9) in the mood for love (Hong Kong, 2000, Wong Kar-Wai)
love is tragic. but don't let that stop you from whispering the secrets of the universe into a hole in the wall before sealing them up with mud.

8) little miss sunshine (USA, 2006, Jonathan Dayton)
god bless our fucked up families. my wife and i nearly died laughing in the theaters.

7) audition (Japan, 2000, Takeshi Miike)

6) platform (China, 2002, Jia Zhang-Ke)
china, 1980's - a pivotal moment for art wasted by a lingering ideological tyranny and a brainwashed generation of artistic parodies.

5) ponyo (Japan, 2009, Hayao Miyazaki)
soske loves ponyo! great films aren't works of art; they're magic.

4) broken flowers (USA, 2005, Jim Jarmusch)
bill murray's doleful expression is the waggish epitome of human loneliness.

3) inglorious basterds (USA, 2009, Quentin Tarantino)
a cinematic grab-bag of dramatic brilliance. christoph waltz and brad pitt are pitch-perfect polar opposites.

2) my son, my son, what have ye done (USA, 2009, Werner Herzog)
only in his documentaries has herzog has ever acheived such inspired, poetic brilliance. and all it took was a midget, a tree stump, and a minute long stare into the camera!

1) mulholland drive
(USA, 2001, David Lynch)
this movie, more than any other, opened my eyes to the possibilities of cinema. thank you, david lynch. ¡no hay banda!

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Lorna's Silence

"Lorna's Silence," the latest award-winning film from the Dardenne brothers, begs discussion. Like John Sayles's "Limbo " and the Coen Brother's "No Country for Old Men," its unresolved ending has polarized audiences and critics alike, leaving us guessing at both the protagonist's fate and the filmmaker's intent. Though there are a myriad of elements available for analysis and debate (including the Dardenne brother's increasingly nuanced examinations of those marginalized in the European economic integration following the collapse of the Soviet system), the film's inconsonant form and incongruous ending deserve special attention.

Like most capricious escapades, 'Lorna' falls together like a jigsaw puzzle. The confoundingly elliptical narrative structure that slowly doles out disparate elements of an obviously doomed criminal scheme has very solid roots in the classic film noir of half a century prior. What's interesting is that, of course, this isn't a noir. The hand-held cinematography, the steady pacing, the absence of a soundtrack (a Dardenne signature), all form the antithesis of the moody black-and-white photography and taut suspense we expect from the genre.

Arta Dobroshi's portrayal of Lorna, a conscience-stricken Albanian immigrant whose modest dreams and meager means lead her to a life of crime, is simultaneously heartfelt and reserved – and all the more impressive given her unfamiliarity with the French language (when she was cast for the film the only words of French she knew were the days of the week). With veiled restrain, Arta communicates the contradictory falterings of her character, simultaneously eliciting an unsettling mix of sympathy and revulsion in us. Jérémie Renier's performance as Claudy, a junkie, is both the physical and visceral 180 from his recent turn as the responsible family man in Olivier Assayas's "Summer Hours." His timid yet tenacious pleas for help will invoke empathy in even the most hard-hearted. Yet neither of these characters neatly fit the mold of the noir fall guy, which begs the question: why did the Dardenne brothers spend the first half of the film developing an elliptical form more akin to films made 60 years ago? In the noir, the developmental omissions are in the service of suspense, but in 'Lorna,' the directors have ventured a cinematic metaphor: the narrative structure mirrors the confused state of our protagonist; just as we slowly peel back the layers of the criminal cabal, Lorna slowly comes to grips with her own conscience. It's a daring marriage of form and content, and though it's certainly not the first to attempt such a feat, it's easily one of the most successful.

Even more audacious than this, though, is the ending (or lack thereof, depending on who you ask). In a film like this, the criminal plans of the characters always fail; what makes each of these films unique is how the characters react to that failure. Without giving anything away, I can say that Arta's performance is largely responsible for transforming this film from an exercise in human cruelty into an altogether spiritually surreal experience. The Dardenne brothers have continued their examinations into the possibilities for hope and redemption, offering up new evidence for the tragedy of the human experience while leaving any conclusions entirely to us.

Last Word: Featuring superb performances and narrative originality, 'Lorna' continues the Dardenne brother's unsparing look at the inhumanity lurking in all of us.


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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Trial of Joan of Arc (dir. Robert Bresson, 1961)

Nowhere is Bresson's belief that all "art lies in suggestion" more apparent than in his 1961 film, "Trial of Joan of Arc." Blindingly economical, weighing in at only 65 minutes, Bresson stripped the film down to its absolute essentials, exposing Joan's interior struggle and delivering an intense, rapid sequence of events. He also managed to give us one of the most accurate – and sincere – portraits of Joan by laboriously excerpting the film's dialogue verbatim from the transcripts of her original hearings and her posthumous rehabilitation trial.

At the time of its making, the popular image of Joan was that of an "earthy" peasant shepherdess and captain, a sexist stereotype furthered by Hollywood's numerous dramatizations of Joan's life. Bresson wisely avoids cliché, instead presenting to us a beautiful, intelligent women, a defiant philosopher of the soul simultaneously afflicted with self-doubt and fearful of her impending death. Rejecting historical reconstruction and concealing the layouts of the hearing room, jail cell, and outdoor arena where her public execution takes place, Bresson dislodged Joan from her historical setting and brought her into the present. He repeated this technique throughout his career, from his early film "The Ladies of the Bois de Boulougne" (an adaptation of Diderot's Jacques le fataliste) to his final masterpiece "L'Argent" (taken from Tolstoy's short novel The False Coupon).

In his attempt to present a paired-down, near-documentary version of reality, Bresson further pruned his already spare cinematic arsenal. "Trial" was the first of his mature works to avoid narration, a technique he had become associated with in his previous three films ("Pickpocket," "A Man Escaped," and "Diary of a Country Priest"). He also eliminated a score for the film, leaving only the drum and bugle core to accompany Joan on her death march to the stake. His reasons were two-fold. On the one hand, he felt that given the brevity of the film, a score could only get in the way of the essence of Joan's struggle; but more importantly, he heard in the text of the trial and in the rhythms of the exchanges between Joan and the priests a musical symphony all its own. His success with eliminating a score from "Trial" likely encouraged him to later reject the use of music in his films entirely, stating, "Music takes up all the room and gives no increased value to the image to which it is added. The noises must become the music."

Perhaps the most striking element of the film is the way in which Bresson elevates Joan from those around her. From the very outset, Joan is photographically isolated from her earthly surroundings, a
separation that continues all the way to the end when she's finally
expelled from this world by fire. Though she is often present in the same room with her interrogators, they never inhabit the same image, severing their inter-relationships and precluding the possibility of reconciliation. The effect focuses us on Joan's silent struggle with herself, her soul, amplifying our own senses and making us hyper-aware of even the tiniest lilt in her voice or crease in her brow.

When Bresson accepted the Jury Prize for "Trial" at Cannes 1962, Otto Preminger stated, "We all have our Joan, but yours is the best." Yet over the years, this film somehow hasn't managed to gain the recognition and following it deserves, possibly overshadowed by the much more well-known "The Passion of Joan of Arc" by Carl Theodore Dreyer and crowded out of an innumerable field of popular dramatizations. It's a tremendous loss, since "Trial" is both unique among its peers and easily one of Bresson's finest achievements.

Last Word: "Trial" is a stunning tour-de-force of minimalist economizing that transcends the historical constraints of the events and delivers a Joan timeless and eternal.


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Diary of a Country Priest (dir. Robert Bresson, 1951)

‘Diary’ is both a clear break from the conventions of mainstream French cinema and the work of a director in transition. Made in 1951, Bresson’s third film displays many of the characteristics that we’ve come to associate with the auteur, including a preference for “models” instead of actors, a plot without any conventional dramatic rhythms, and revealing the effect before the cause. It’s also a paradoxically touching film that ascetically avoids most of the emotionally manipulative techniques cinema typically employs.

The film, based on the celebrated George Bernanos novel of the same name, follows the trials of a young, sickly Catholic priest attempting to take charge of his first parish. Two attempts at adaptation had already been rejected by the author before Bresson: the first, by the popular screenwriters Jean Auraenche and Pierre Bost, had grossly dramatized several key scenes in the film, even altering the novel’s ending; the second attempt, penned by Pere Bruckberger, had transposed the historical setting to that of occupied France, shifting the focus from the tediously spiritual to the politically sensational. By the time Bresson was asked to make it, Bernanos had died.

Both the novel and the film focus on the spiritual life of the priest through his diary. Bresson had stated, “In my eyes, what was striking was the notebook of the diary, in which, through the curé’s pen, an external world becomes an interior world and takes on a spiritual coloration.” Throughout the film, we watch the priest’s hand write in his diary while his voiceover speaks what he has just written, anticipating and often spilling over into the scenes that follow. Most filmmakers would have rejected this approach as boringly redundant, but in Bresson’s hands, the doubling of image and sound intensifies and reinforces the action while illuminating the hidden dimensions of the medium. This deliberately constructed approach stems from Bresson’s own dictum, “Your film – let people feel the soul and heart there, but let it be made like a work of hands.”

Though many critics have lauded ‘Diary’ as one of the most successful adaptations of a novel ever made, Bresson’s real feat was creating a film faithful to the book while simultaneously pressing his own stamp onto every single scene. And while his first two films feel more like the works of a genius frustrated by an industry hostile to artistic originality, ‘Diary’ exudes an aura of discovery. Bresson had abandoned the studios and stages to film in the countryside, and had chosen Claude Laydu, an aspiring Swiss actor just starting out in acting school, to play the lead in his film. And though he filled out much of the remaining cast with professional actors, he tightly controlled their performances, speech, and movements, leading several to bitterly complain that he wouldn’t allow them to exhibit the “expressiveness” they had learned on the stage. Unlike his later films, however, Bresson gave great freedom to his cinematographer, yielding a more conventional mix of medium and long-range shots, closeups, and even tracking shots. We're left with a greater sense of spatial and inter-character relationships than in his later films, and this, coupled with a lamentably generic score, may serve as a stepping stone into Bresson's world for any newcomers to the auteur.

Last Word:
‘Diary’ was a seminal moment for film; fresh and unexpected, it expanded the medium’s horizons and
irrevocably hurtled Bresson down his brilliant, tortured career.

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Bresson and the Anti-Film

"No actors. (No directing of actors).
No Parts. (No learning of parts).
No staging. But the use of working models, taken from life.
BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors)."
- Notes on the Cinematographer, Robert Bresson

Notoriously taciturn, we know so little about Robert Bresson's life, his upbringing, his relationships. But we have something more telling than any biography: a half-century career that spanned 13 films, and his book "Notes on the Cinematographer" – a small collection of fragmentary ideas, each at most a few sentences long, that he wrote to himself between 1950 and 1974. Together these form the portrait of an artistic contrarian: a man dedicated to the creation of a new art form, who conceived of film in a way that radically precluded all that came before him (and all that has followed since).

CINEMA (Photographed Theater)
Bresson and the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky tied for the "Best Director" prize at the 1983 Cannes film festival; Bresson for his last film "L'Argent," Tarkovsky for his second-to-last film, "Nostalghia." Orson Welles, presenting the award, announced Bresson first; as the 76 year old filmmaker hobbled across the stage, many in the audience booed. Bresson was passé. Tarkovsky was the new. The moment was especially awkward for Tarkovsky. He revered Bresson's films, but in return, Bresson held Tarkovsky's works in contempt.

This lopsided appreciation was no anomaly. Many beloved filmmakers have praised him: Godard, Scorsese, Truffaut, Malle, Melville. Yet Bresson's conception of cinema eliminated the possibility of reciprocity. Cinema, or as he put it, "photographed theater," was sham, a reproduction. It held as much value as a photo of a painting or sculpture. "But a photographic reproduction of Donatello's Saint John the Baptist or of Vermeer's Young Woman with Necklace has not the power, the value or the price of that sculpture or that painting. It does not create it. Does not create anything."

Bresson audaciously and perhaps naively envisioned a wholly new art form independent of the theater. The lie of acting worked in theater only because of its homogeneity; everything in the play is false – the gestures, the intonations, the sets, the lighting – and he believed that this consistency could yield truth. But film naturally encompasses the real, and the dynamic feedback between audience and actor that gives life to the theater dies on the celluloid. "No marriage of theater and cinematography, without both being exterminated. The mixture of true and false yields falsity."

Model / Automatism
Bresson's first two films, "Angels of Sin" and "Les Dames du Bois de Boulougne," were made within the studio system, with star actors and union crews. And though we can certainly find plenty to praise in each, we're also witnessing a director struggling against an industry's expectations. In them, and especially with 'Les Dames,' he attempts to give cinematographic life to a system thoroughly embedded in the art of the theater. He pushed accepted standards and methodology to their breaking point, at both the expense of his actors and his own critical reception. Maria Casarés, the world-renowned stage actress who played the role of Hélene in 'Les Dames,' publicly upbraided Bresson, calling him "a genuine tyrant... we abandoned everything that could resemble a life of our own, a personal will, in order to drag before our sweet tyrant – for he was extremely sweet – a body, hands, and a voice that he had chosen."

It was clear to Bresson that to continue, he would have to abandon the star system. He was aiming at genuine authenticity, a mindless, thoughtless will that could outline a movement from the exterior to the interior. He called the people inhabiting his following films "models," and many, including Bresson himself, have referred to their presence as a sort of automatism. To the uninitiated, this might conjure images of robotic actors delivering lines without emotion, moving with a sort of jerky other worldliness. More often than not, however, we find a deeper layer of feeling and emotion in these performances, a sort of hidden dimension lurking just under the surface, facilitated by repetition and the abandonment of the will. "Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and to thought."

Bresson also rejected the star system because he felt that the model could only inhabit a single role. How could an audience believe in a star if he or she is one character in this film, and another character in that? His models were single serving; for any of them to inhabit more than one role would eliminate the sincerity of being that he sought for each of his films. "[The star system] makes nothing of the immense power of attraction which belongs to the new and unforeseen. Film after film, subject after subject, confronting the same faces that one cannot believe in." And though his models elevate the effect of his works, they also rendered them that much more difficult for Bresson to make. His financiers were asked to invest money into a film filled with people gracing the screen for the first time; add to that his counter-intuitive style and his reputation as a spiritual film-maker, it's no wonder that on more than one occasion he spent decades finding funding for a project.

Bresson called his new art cinematography, but not only did his definition venture well beyond the work of a cameraman, his peculiar visual aesthetic runs contrary to most photographic precepts. For Bresson, a beautiful image had no value in film. If any particular shot has significant power over the audience, then it has lost its mutability. His art lies not in the individual image, but in the montage, the sequence. The particular has value and meaning only in relation to the whole; in isolation, we find only nonsense. "An image must be transformed by contact with other images as is a color by contact with other color. A blue is not the same blue beside a green, a yellow, a red. No art without transformation."

He also believed that all art lies in suggestion, and consequentially, his films doggedly work at our subconscious expectations. Space is clipped, narratives reduced, and the images flattened. Consider the setting for "Trial of Joan of Arc." Though the actual courtroom was enormous, we're never aware of the dimensions, focused instead solely on Joan's face, the upper bodies of her interrogators, and the scribbling of the court reporters. The riotous crowds are never seen, only heard, gnawing at the corners of our awareness. The church's interrogators are nameless save for one, and though they are often present in the same room with Joan, they never inhabit the same image. Their separateness is absolute; their can be no reconciliation. All of this economizing simultaneously focuses us on the interior aspects of the characters while subconsciously filling us with tension, even dread.

Bresson's works are a kind of anti-film. Not because we're only capable of defining them by what they lack (we aren't), and not because he consciously set out to create the opposite of existing cinema (he didn't). Bresson repeatedly rejected any sort of abstract intellectualism as the basis for art; he searched for the new and unexpected, regardless of any preconceptions, even his own, cautioning himself to "be as ignorant of what you are going to catch as is a fisherman of what is at the end of his fishing rod (the fish that arises from nowhere)."

No, they are anti-film because we're incapable of viewing them without bringing along all of the cinematic baggage that we've accumulated in our lifetimes. Where there are models, we see only bad acting. Where there is economy, we see only dull simplicity. Over time, we can grow accustomed to his art, appreciate it, even embrace it (to the point of risking conversion away from the cinema). But had we grown up watching the films of Bresson, we would likely find all other cinema maddeningly unnecessary, bloated horror shows plagued by histrionics and paroxysm.

Yet perhaps there's room in this world for both CINEMA and cinematography. Though CINEMA may omit the transcendent power of "A Man Escaped," Bresson's cinematography precludes the infectious hilarity of Tati or the illusionism of Lynch. And if no bridge is found twixt the two, at least we can thank Bresson for expanding the horizons of the possible, and for inspiring us with his audacious naiveté.


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Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Devil Probably (dir. Robert Bresson)

Bresson's second to last film, "The Devil Probably," is easily the most experimental of all of his works. Its loose narrative (an original screenplay written by Bresson himself) borders on aimlessness, and he leaves out so many essential plot details that we're often left grasping for straws. It's also perhaps his only film that openly lectures to the audience; several scenes clearly and simplistically indict a global economy wreaking environmental havoc on the earth. Opening with conflicting reports of a suicide, it's also one of the more striking examples of Bresson's preference for showing the effect before the cause. We're constantly weaving back and forth in time, desperately searching for clues that might explain the encounters we've witnessed. And in the end, we're left without any answers or enlightenment.

Set in France nearly one decade after the failed student revolutions of May 1968, the film opens with two newspaper accounts of the death of the main character, Charles. One states that it was a suicide, while another paper alleges a murder-suicide pact. The rest of the 90-minute film is filled with flashbacks to the six-months prior to that event, covering seemingly unconnected episodes from Charles's life. He's inexplicably suicidal; some of his companions do their best to save him from his depression, while others simply try to make some money off of his despair. His plight mirrors the general malaise of his generation, disilussioned with the aftermath of their failed uprising. They no longer speak of creation, peace, or a new world; they can only speak cynically of destruction, and of the ease with which they can manipulate the masses.

"The Devil Probably" is unrelentingly bleak. Bresson admitted as much himself, stating, "Of all my films, The Devil Probably is the most ghastly. But none of them are despairing." For me, it's his only film that I've been genuinely disinterested in. The writing, like the plot, feels unfocused at best, and lazily didactic at worst. And though I in general appreciate Bresson's pencience for eliminating outcomes as a source of tension by showing us the effects before the cause, it's only because he typically crafts a story that creates its own tensions, regardless of the outcome. It's the burning "how's" and "why's" that give the best of his films their infectious single-mindedness. But 'Devil's' confounding plot mitigates against that necessary focus, and even serves to conceal that interior beauty that he so often displays through his peculiar montages.

Last Word: A daring experiment in form and narrative that in the end mitigates against Bresson's greatest strengths.


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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mouchette (dir. Robert Bresson)

Will this film make me laugh? Cry? Will I have fun for a couple of hours then forget all about it by the next day? If that's the kind of questions that run through your mind when evaluating a film, then for God's sake, please read no further. Robert Bresson is clearly not what you're looking for, and his film "Mouchette" will quite likely force you to ponder questions about life and death that you probably spend most of your waking hours trying to avoid.

Yes, it's bleak. Mouchette is a prepubescent girl who lives in poverty. When she's not at school or at work at a local diner, she's at home caring for her dying mother, baby sister, and wine-smuggling drunkard of a father. Her teacher slaps her for singing out of key, and her schoolmates despise her and her cheap wooden clogs. Mouchette's few joys in the film include throwing mud at the rich girls, decimating her opponents in a game of bumper cars, and caring for an epileptic murderer. Cheery, no?

The film delights in symbolism. We open with some of Bresson's most stunning and effective cinematography, a cat-and-mouse game between Arsene, the poacher, and Mathieu, the game warden. A figure concealed by dense shrubbery sneaks upon a clearing. Hands, in closeup, set partridge traps. Another pair of eyes watch, wait. The traps snap, and the game begins. Birds struggle helplessly in the nooses, writhing in pain. Mathieu carefully approaches one of the frightened animals, seizing it in a moment of weakness. He unties the noose, releasing the bird. Arsene watches his defeat, then flees the scene. The sequence economically anticipates the film's primary motif. Mouchette is like this bird, caught between two opposing forces: her own independent, noble spirit, and a society that despises her for circumstances beyond her control. She struggles, but in vain. Will someone release her from this trap? In a way, yes, though her "liberation" has left audiences implacably divided, often along religious lines.

"Mouchette" is the second time Bresson adapted a novel by Goerge Bernanos, the first being his internationally renowned success, "Diary of a Country Preist." Bernanos's style seems perfectly suited for Bresson; he deals with the interior aspects of the characters, their thoughts, the movements of their souls. Bresson's peculiar aesthetic seems uniquely capable of rendering these themes on the screen. The flatness of his photography, the automatism of his characters, the interdependence of his images, all point toward the hidden, concealed, yet inexplicably revealed. And though the "plot" defies all attempts at conventional analysis, the film is a wholly compelling exercise in form, layered with meaning, and divisive in it's conclusions. It's also an impressive sifting of characters, themes, and motifs, each of which stand on their own, yet combined form something altogether different.

Last Word: "Mouchette" is a touching film of rebellion and independence that unites audiences in their appreciation and divides them in their conclusions.


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Lancelot du Lac (Robert Bresson)

Audiences have a very clear set of expectations from film adaptations of the Arthurian legend. Chivalry, adventure, romance, shining armor. Dashing knights and deliciously bountiful bosoms. Movies in this cannon elucidate a genre as well-defined as any, but what can we expect from "Lancelot du Lac" by Robert Bresson, the French auteur who's entire conception of the cinema stands completely apart from (and in opposition to) everything we've come to understand of the medium? It took him 25 years to get funding for the project, if that's any clue.

Clearly, you can throw out the shining armor, bountiful bosoms, and adventure. Bresson's domain had always been the hidden interior, and the superficial ostentatiousness of the genre could only serve to conceal this from us. Also, most films about the knights of the round table gloss over the more barbarous aspects of the mythology, but not Bresson's. From its opening montage, we witness gloriously dispassionate decapitations, stabbings, hangings, burnings, and even temple desecration. Rivers of blood improbably squirt from even the smallest of wounds, coating their dull, dirty armor, while faceless knights casually seek out more carnage. A perfunctory introduction tells us that in the quest for the holy grail, the knights have turned on each other, dying by each other's hands as often as not, and after this brief exposition, we find the knights returned to their castle, their ranks decimated, their king disheartened. The knights openly squabble, and even the horses bay in fear, presumably tormented by the horrors they've witnessed.

Bresson's real purpose is the "why"? Why did the quest fail? Why have they turned on each other? Has God forsaken them (as Arthur openly wonders), or were they corrupted by their own greed and lust? These two opposing theories are (inconclusively) played out in the love affair between Queen Guinevere and her knight, Lancelot. Lancelot contends that their sin brought ruin to the enterprise, though Guinevere counters that only his pride and arrogance could lead to such a conclusion. They sought not the grail, she says, but God. They wanted to own Him. How could it have turned out otherwise?

Of all of his mature films (i.e., from 'Diary of a Country Priest' onwards), 'Lancelot' may come the closest, at least superficially, to approaching a more conventional narrative form that we can relate to. The tragic plot is practically Shakespearean, through Bresson does his best to subvert it's dramatic peaks and valleys. Employing entirely non-professional actors (or "models" in Bresson's terminology), they speak and move with a kind of thoughtless, glazed automatism. Their clumsy, impractical armor constantly invades the film's soundtrack, and Bresson ties together scenes with only the most minimal segues. We're often left wondering how much time has passed, our attention forcibly magnified as we strain to fill in the narrative gaps. We take cues from even the smallest of sounds, and find beauty not in any particular image - each of which has a peculiar flatness unique to Bresson - but only in their relationships, their juxtapositions.

Though many see the mystery of grace as a constant thread in Bresson's films, it's hard to fathom God's hand in the mutual annihilation of King Arthur's knights. Bresson can be accused of many things, but he has always intentionally avoided didacticism or ideology. If we learn anything from this film, we can't name it. It's only felt, brought to us through some kind of inner dynamic, an interior touch paradoxically rendered by the elimination of any exterior signs of it. How can we find feeling in a character without emotion? How can we find beauty in a 50mm lens? This is the real mystery weaving it's way through all of his films. The violence in 'Lancelot': crude, yes, even laughable by today's standards. But the mystery is there. A river of blood, bathing them and us.

Last Word: 'Lancelot' is at once Bresson's most violent and most approachable film, yet will likely not sate the uninitiated. Prepare for multiple viewings and endless introspection.


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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Cheri (2009, dir. Stephen Frears)

Deja vu. I know I've seen this movie before. But where? Oh, right. EVERYWHERE. "Cheri" is like one of those tired period pieces that Hollywood seems to toss out every couple of years just to prove that it can still make films without massive explosions or CGI. The kicker here is that "Cheri" isn't a big-budget American movie. It's the latest film from British director Stephen Frears, the wildly uneven culprit of both the critically acclaimed ("Dirty Pretty Things," "The Queen," "Dangerous Liasons") and the cinematically challenged ("Hero," "Mary Reilly").

"Cheri" charts the illicit love affair between the aging Parisian courtesan Lea (Michelle Pfeifer) and the young, dark, and fabulously wealthy Cheri (Rupert Friend), who happens to be the son of another famous courtesan Madame Peloux (Kathy Bates). At the beginning of the film, we find Cheri adrift in a world of loose women, alcohol, and opium, and Lea whisks him off to the country as a favor to his worried mother. However, they find themselves oddly drawn to each other, and what was supposed to have been a short respite from the sins of the big city turns into a 6-year affair. Neither seem really aware of what they have until Peloux abruptly ends it by arranging a marriage for her son to the young daughter of yet another wealthy courtesan.

I think you can see where this is going. The problem is that you won't care. If the tired thematic material doesn't turn you off, the genuinely insincere acting certainly will. Pfeifer's performance is predictable at best, and Kathy Bates plods through her scenes with all the grace of a rhinoceros. Cheri was the only character I was even mildly intrigued by, but Rupert Friend's "performance" rested entirely on how many ways we care to interpret the same doleful expression. The remaining supporting cast consisted mainly of over the hill prostitutes drenched in makeup, and the cinematography was cookie-cutter from start to finish.

The film is based on the book of the same name by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. Collete is perhaps best known for her novel "Gigi" which was also adapted for the screen in an award winning 1958 Lerner and Lowe musical. Maybe back then Hollywood filmmakers were still new enough to the material - and audiences were conservative enough to be mildly shocked by them - to make these sorts of films worthwhile. But today, with a few very notable exceptions, adaptations of this nature seem doomed from the outset.

Last Word: A tired, predictable period piece filled with wooden acting and cookie-cutter filmmaking.


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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (dir. Micheal Bay, 2009)

Lets get one thing straight: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn't a film. It isn't even entertainment. It's a two and half hour commercial for General Motors and the US military. It has all the depth of a trailer, and all the plot of a porno. It's a series of loud, predictable fight scenes strung together with sex-ploitative shots of Meagan Fox, knocks on Obama and diplomacy, and arguably racist characterizations (the two "black" transformers - complete with gold teeth - are little more than illiterate, violent, and buffoonish minstrel stock characters). It is, hands down, some of the laziest, most manipulative film-making I've ever seen. It had so many continuity errors that my wife and I caught at least five in a first viewing. Sitting through this abomination was one of the most serious tests of my patience in quite some time.

Revenge resembles a trailer to such a striking degree that at first I didn't even realize that the film had started. It opens with a prehistoric hunting party approaching a spaceship that has just landed in their territory. A Don LaFontaine-esque voiceover explains the images with cliches like "the dawn of man" and "worlds collide" while Transformers emerge from the ship and proceed to destroy all of the humans. We then skip to the present: 11:24PM, Shanghai, China (where it's still light outside somehow). The US Military and several transformers hunt down one of the few remaining Decepticons, causing all kinds of havoc in the city and forcing a massive media cover-up. Afterwords, during the debriefing, a special presidential envoy, suspicious of the transformers, challenges Optimus Prime (the most powerful of the transformers) and threatens to pull the plug on the whole team. Later on in the film, that same envoy will attempt to appease invading Decepticons while referring to it as "diplomacy." Wow, it's exactly what John McCain said Obama would do!

Shia LeBouf reprises his "role" as Sam Witicky, the great grandson of explorer Archibald Witicky who had unwittingly re-activated the frozen Megatron during an exploratory expedition into the Arctic circle. Conveniently, we again find Sam possessing another map that the Decepticons need (seriously, did this film even have writers, or did they just substitute names and locations from the last script and give it a new title?). A chip from the All Spark, the energy source destroyed in the first film, causes Sam to have visions of symbols, which we eventually learn from an aging rogue Decepticon are clues to the location of the "Matrix of Leadership" (no, I'm not making this up). Sam and his girlfriend Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox, who I've been promised is NOT a porn star) are in race against my patience to find the Matrix before the Decepticons can use it to the destroy the Sun.

A pubescent horn-ball and his unfortunate girlfriend sat at the end of our row. In between slurps of his girlfriend's saliva, he would loudly proclaim his approval for the film with insightful one-liners like "Why he talk like that?", "Shit! He ripped his fuckin' ass out!" or my personal favorite, "Damn, you see those robot's balls? HA HA!!!" Normally I would have been annoyed by interruptions like these, but I eventually came to appreciate these quips. I realized that this is exactly the emotional and intellectual level that Transformers caters to. I was, however, slightly disturbed by the large number of adults in the crowd apparently deriving the same mindless pleasure from the film that our socially-engineered homunculus enjoyed. And since a film like this leaves no room for narrative invention, I had plenty of time to ponder the fate of a society that continually rewards our entertainment industry for vomiting such bilious tripe.

Final Thought: If you enjoy explosions, PG-13 sexual situations, and shiny objects, you'll love Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.


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Monday, June 22, 2009

Finding Nemo (2003, dir. Andrew Stanton)

Coming soon to the Pixar Directrospective at InReviewOnline

For my money, Finding Nemo is simply the best in the Disney/Pixar cannon. It's that perfect mix of adventure, laughs, and emotional depth, layered with transcendent moments of discovery. Plus, Ellen Degeneres is hilarious.

Disney films are notoriously preachy, and in a way, Nemo is no exception. Children will learn to believe in themselves, parents will learn how to let go, and we'll all learn the meaning of trust and perseverance. And while most Hollywood films would parlay those trite themes into a predictably stodgy family vehicle, Nemo manages to imbue them with genuine sincerity; writer/director Andrew Stanton ineffably delivers a film greater than the sum of its parts (a feat he'll manage again 5 years later with WALL-E).

Finding Nemo's narrative threads two parallel stories; Nemo, a young clownfish, gets captured by divers on his first day of school. He winds up in a dentist's aquarium in Sydney, Australia, but has only days until he'll be given to the dentist's niece - a notorious fish-killer. Meanwhile, his father Marlin (Albert Brooks) journeys from the reef to Sydney, enlisting the help of Dori (Ellen Degenerous), a regal tang suffering from short-term memory loss. We jump back and forth between these two stories throughout the film, building tension as both Nemo and Marlin race against time. We also meet several memorable supporting characters along the way, most notably Willem Defoe's performance as Gil, the escape-obsessed leader of the aquarium.

On its own, this multi-layered narrative would already make for an exciting family adventure, but Stanton isn't content with mere storytelling. On Nemo's first day of school, he rides through the reef with his classmates on the back of Mr. Ray, their manta-ray teacher. Ray sings one of his many impromptu science lessons, and his friends catch up on their gossip. Nemo ignores them all; he's seeing the reef for the first time. The camera gracefully pans away from the class, sweeping across the reef. The song and chatter fade, and Thomas Newman's Oscar-nominated score subtly swells. And for a time, we forget about the story and experience Nemo's discovery, the awe and the majesty of the reef. The simplicity and transcendent beauty of moments like this transform Finding Nemo from a delightful family adventure into something much less common in the Hollywood arena: cinema.

As much as I love this movie, I have to admit that without Ellen Degeneres's performance, the entertainment aspect of this film would have seriously suffered. She steals at least half of the film's quotable dialogue, and her delivery is impeccable, playing comic foil to Albert Brook's straight man. Looking over her filmography, I'm shocked by how much her talents have been underutilized. She hasn't made any films since Nemo, and it seems that her largest film role before Nemo was playing the reality-TV producer in the mostly unwatchable EdTV. What gives, Hollywood? Throw this woman some roles!

Final Thought: Nemo miraculously juggles a multi-threaded narrative, a large supporting cast, and dangerously trite themes into an oft-hilarious and surprisingly sincere film.


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Moon (2009, dir. Duncan Jones)

"Wait, what movie did you see," my wife asked me. "Moon," I answered. "Oh right. That looked like the bastard child of Solaris and 2001," she replied. If that had been the case, I might have enjoyed myself. A metaphysical love story sprinkled with cognitive dissonance could have been fairly interesting, if derivative. Unfortunately, in a conscious attempt to avoid any direct comparisons with either of those masterpieces, Moon falls flat. Like a magician who shows us the card up his sleeve, writer/director Duncan Jones reveals Moon's twist early in the second act, trading mystery and suspense for relatively prosaic illumination and little narrative development.

It's the near future, and Sam Rockwell plays Sam Bell, the sole astronaut manning a helium-3 mining station on the far side of the moon. Lunar Industries Inc. is the only provider of helium-3, and a commercial by the company at the beginning of the film informs us that the non-radioactive element has saved the Earth from its energy crisis, providing clean energy to people all over the world. Sam is nearing the end of a three year contract, and his time alone there has visibly taken its toll on his mental and physical well being. A malfunctioning com-sat has kept him from having real-time communications with his wife and child for his entire duration, forcing them to send taped messages back and forth to each other. His only companion has been GERTY, the station's artificially intelligent computer (voiced by Kevin Spacey), manifested not as an omnipresent red eye, but as a series of emoticons, recognizable by anyone who has ever instant messaged. Gee, I wonder why Sam is going a little crazy?

At this point the film is still promising. You'll be asking yourself several questions, like why the company would place one single human in charge of a mining station providing the Earth's sole energy resource, or why the company couldn't repair a single com-sat in the entire three years of Sam's contract. Unfortunately, Sam soon discovers that he's not alone, and it's not long before the helpful computer tells him the truth about the station. Which will leave you about an hour and half to wonder exactly what else this movie has to offer.

In a film with essentially only one actor, it's no surprise that the success of the film depends largely on that actor's performance. And although Sam Rockwell is perfectly up to the task of playing a crazed but likable astronaut, Moon also calls on him to portray an intensity and animosity that he just isn't capable of. Though even had he been able to pull off that bipolar emotionality, I'm not convinced that it would have saved the film from its serious narrative failings.

Final Thought: A good magician never reveals his secrets, but a good film knows when to trade the mystery for forward development. Moon is in desperate need of some magic.


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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cars (2006)

Published in the Pixar Directrospective at InReviewOnline

What if the whole world were devoid of humans, and only talking cars existed? Um, okay. That's weird. Where did the cars come from? Who makes them? Why do they have seats and steering wheels if there are no humans? And so on.

Cars simply doesn't work. And yes, I understand the concept of "suspension of disbelief." If you haven't already seen it (in which case you're lucky), the film is about a champion race car, Lightening McQueen (Owen Wilson), getting lost in some hillbilly town a few miles off the main highway. The town's cop car imprisons him for speeding, then forces him to work off his crime by repaving the town's main street. Along the way, he learns important life lessons about slowing down, friendship, sportsmanship, etc. etc.

The official story is that director / Pixar CCO John Lasseter got the inspiration for the film after taking a cross-country road-trip with his wife and five sons. And there may be some truth to that. But the important part about that story is the fact that he has five sons. If he had five daughters, would we have gotten a car film? Unlikely.

Once upon a time, Disney had the corner on young boy entertainment. Way back in the "Davy Crocket" days. But somewhere along the way they latched onto the tween girl demographic and had such disturbing success ("Hannah Montana," "Jonas Brothers") that they lost touch with boys. Until Cars, that is. Commercially, the film did great. $461 million worldwide. Not bad at all. But that's pennies compared the merchandise they sold. $5 billion dollars! It turns out boys like cars. Now Disney has an entire team of anthropologists and psychologists researching the male 6-14 age bracket, finding what makes them tick and (more importantly) what they like to buy. And not surprisingly, Cars 2 is already in preproduction.

So where is this all heading? There are two futures for Disney/Pixar. One is creative. It starts with a great idea that has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with a story that we can connect with. The other path starts with a material goal (liking selling $5 billion in merchandise and cornering the male 6-14 bracket), then carefully crafts stories to facilitate that goal. The former promises wholesome entertainment and even art. The latter: money. In the past, they've accomplished both goals with the former category. Call me a cynic, but I'm not entirely hopeful for the future. At least we've got Dreamworks.

Final Thought: Cars isn't just a bad film. It's bad for film.


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Saturday, June 13, 2009

24 City (2008, dir. Jia Zhang Ke)

Published at InReviewOnline

Welcome to 24 City. Three generations of Chinese men and women want to tell you their story. Hold your judgments; hear them out. The oldest generation, mostly retired, wants to know that it all meant something. Their factory is being destroyed, relocated, modernized - the factory they poured their souls into. Factory #420. The one that built the airplanes during the Chinese battle against "US imperialism" in Korea, that helped the Chinese Army beat back the Vietnamese troops attempting to stop Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia. In its place, a real estate company is building a luxury apartment complex called "24 City" that they could never afford to live in.

The youngest generation wants a new life. Growing up, Su Na (Tao Zhao) never saw her mother working in the factory. She left home as soon as she turned 18, floating between boyfriends, jobs, apartments. One day she decides to visit her parents, but discovers she's lost the key to their home. She heads to the factory to find her mother; when she enters, she's shocked by the noise. It overwhelms her. Frantically she searches for her mother. All the employees look alike in their uniforms. In a corner she spots an old worker, doubled over, alone, sorting scraps of iron. It's her mother, but at first Su can't even tell if it's a man or a woman. She flees the factory, crying.

Somewhere in between lives a middle generation. They've raised (and lost) families at the factory. They're too old to start over, but still young enough to dream of another life.

Jia Zhang Ke's film 24 City organically blends interviews of actual factory workers with scripted interviews with actors. Neither sentimental nor political, it's simultaneously his most emotional and most mature work to date. More than the chronicle of a factory's destruction, it's about a people experiencing the end of Chinese socialism and the birth of Chinese capitalism. With several subjects, it takes some time for their story's real meaning to come out. But it's well worth the wait. Their memories and pains tell us so much about a country that seems to defy definition.

Shot in high-def digital video, the gray factory, mammoth machines, and perpetual smog threaten to engulf us with their detail. Whereas his last HD film Still Life embraced the beautiful wash of colors that the medium seems uniquely capable of producing, 24 City's cinematography vividly articulates the alienation and loss that connects the interviews. Director of Photography and Zhang Ke regular Yu Lik-wai (Still Life, The World, Platform) seems more comfortable with piercing close-ups than in Jia's other films. He hides little from us; we see their tears, scars, wrinkles. Even the run-down, pock-marked factory takes on a life of its own, telling its own story.

Final Thought: "The earth shall rise on new foundations; we have been naught, we shall be all." A group of old women crow L' Internationale while a demolition crew destroys their factory. Welcome to 24 City.


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Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Brothers Bloom (2009, dir. Rian Johnson)

Published at InReviewOnline

I'm confused. Did I just watch a long con, an existential meltdown, or a roarin' twenties period piece? Rian Johnson, the director of The Brothers Bloom, probably hopes I saw all of the above, but all that remains for me are a few poignant moments scattered among an overlong caper flick with a dramatic identity crisis.

The film opens with the young orphaned brothers Stephen and Bloom (played by Max Records and Zachary Gordon) bouncing between foster parents unable to deal with their peculiar mischief making. It's not long before Stephen, the oldest, discovers that he has a gift for the con, and that his younger brother has a knack for lying. Their first scheme - swindling their well-to-do peers out of their cash with an elaborate story involving a cave and fairy - causes the younger Bloom to wonder what he was giving up by assuming his role as a trickster. Fast forwarding 25-years, Bloom (Adrien Brody) finally decides that he desperately wants an unwritten life, and tells Stephen (Mark Ruffallo) as much. Of course, Stephen can't give up the game, and in short order he's roped his brother back into gaining the confidence of the rich recluse Penelope (Rachel Weiss).

Although the idyllic small towns, cars, and families at the beginning of the film all fit neatly into 1970's USA, the brothers dress, talk, and act as if they're straight out of the roarin' 20's - right down to their small black bowler hats. Adding to this general aesthetic confusion is Nathan Johnson's soundtrack, consisting of through-composed gypsy jazz jarringly punctuated by classic rock.

The Brothers Bloom is not without its charms. Rachel Weiss's performance as the quirky, multi-talented recluse solicits both hearty laughs and genuine pathos, though her hijinks are too often offset by Brody's dour demeanor. Robbie Coltrane, probably best known for his role in the Harry Potter films as Hagrid, the half-human, half-giant groundskeeper, briefly injects some mood-appropriate levity into the story when he fills an essential role in the con.

Caper flicks work because we get wrapped up in the fun and excitement of them. We escape into their world, living vicariously through the daring of the characters and the suspense of the job. They don't bog us down in the emotional murk that so closely mark our own lives. And here's where The Brothers Bloom fails. For it's neither a doomed heist nor a map-cap caper. It's an existential crisis straight-jacketed by cutesy narration and hopelessly buried beneath a convoluted con. And even through the underlying narrative weaves it's way throughout, the film seems afraid to pause long enough to give it life, breath, as if the film would lose a magic spell that it never really had in the first place.

Final thought: An aesthetically confused caper flick that's too concerned with form to let it's dramatic narrative shine though.


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Monday, May 25, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Published on InReviewOnline

Terminator Salvation is not not half bad. For those of you confused by a double negative, that means that it's half bad. Which is a shame, since in order accomplish that, director Joseph McGinty Nichol had to not not ruin what was one of the most promising new characters the summer blockbuster season has produced yet.

Franchise resurrection is no simple endeavor. In fact, over time, you might have expected Hollywood to have learned something about it, given the number of half-resurrected abominations they've unleashed on us. Yet you have to give it to them. Like a Terminator, they simply don't know when to quit.

Terminator Salvation takes place in the year 2018, and for anyone familiar with both the original Terminator films and the paradoxes of time travel, you'll know that we might find John Connor (played by Christian Bale) in one of three realities: #1 a future in which John Conner had no foreknowledge of Skynet yet had somehow managed to lead a resistance movement against them; #2 a future in which he had grown up listening to tapes of his mother telling him about the Terminator that had traveled back in time and had nearly destroyed her before he was even conceived; and #3, the future in which not only did he have tapes of his mother, but in which he himself had been both hunted and protected by dueling Terminators from the future. Terminator Salvation resides firmly in #2.

If the first Terminator (made in 1984) showed us anything about our society, it showed how scared shitless we were of computers. By that same logic, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, made only seven years later, reflected an America a bit more comfortable with the machines. Maybe they're not out to replace us! Computers are our friends! Or as Sarah Connor so poetically stated in the film's last voice-over, "The unknown future rolls toward us. I face it, for the first time, with a sense of hope. Because if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too."

Now that we're living in a time when computer implants are giving the deaf hearing and performance artists are turning their bodies into Internet portals, it's only fitting that Terminator Salvation toy with both our fascination and revulsion of all that modern technology seems to portend. As the film begins in the year 2003, we're introduced to Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington), a death-row inmate preparing for his final meal, seeking no reprieve and asking only to pay for the crimes he committed. Skipping forward to a post-nuclear-holocaust Los Angeles in the year 2018, we find that same Marcus miraculously crawling out of a hole that had just been atomized and which John Conner narrowly escaped. It's not long until we discover that (unbeknownst to him) Marcus's body has been replaced (save the heart and brain) by a cybernetic construct not unlike the original Terminators.

Christian Bale's dreadful, non-dimensional performance of future resistance leader John Conner surprised me almost as much as Australian Sam Worthington's magnetic role as the human terminator. In fact, given that John and Marcus's stories run parallel throughout the entire film, we could view the film not as a battle not between humanity and Skynet, but as a battle between compelling character development (Marcus) and a groan-inducing action-hero cliche (John). Can Marcus save the film from the overbearingly simplistic machinations of a John Conner reduced to gruff platitudes and slack-jawed stares? Or will the entire experience collapse beneath the weight of Hollywood's over-reliance on CG? At one point during the film, John Conner melodramatically asks, "If in the process of fighting this war we become as cold and calculating as the machines, then what's the point?" I might melodramatically add, "If in the process of unleashing the power of computer imagery in our films, we lose all that made film worthwhile, then what's the point?"

Final Thought: "I'll be back." Sigh.


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Sunday, May 17, 2009

Summer Hours (2009, dir. Olivier Assayas)

Published on InReviewOnline

It's the middle of the afternoon and I'm waiting in a theater sparsely populated with a dozen other strangers. Suddenly the lights dim, the curtains pull back, and the image of an old house partially concealed by a lush forest tentatively dances on the screen. As the opening credits roll, the house fades and flickers -- beautiful, ephemeral. Collectively, we try to will the shimmering mirage into existence, but it eludes us. Eventually the house fades into oblivion, replaced by a scene of children playing in the country. Did the image die of its own accord, or did we fail to sustain it, torn between our fascination with it and our expectations for narrative development?

Summer Hours, French writer/director Olivier Assayas' newest film, is a deceptively simple tale about the death of a matriarch that unexpectedly sends us into contemplative flights of fancy like the one I've described above. The matriarch Hélène, portrayed by veteran French actress Edith Scob, has spent the last third of her life devoting herself to the preservation of her uncle's art. Her small mansion in the country is a veritable shrine to his memory, filled with his own creations as well as the art he had loved and collected in his lifetime (much of it furniture). Yet unlike a museum, it's a living, breathing, organic space; when Hélène's children and grandchildren visit her in the beginning of the film, we discover the memories etched into the fabric of each piece. Priceless vases filled with flowers picked from the fields; rare art noveau furniture cluttered with knick-knacks and stuffed with toys.

Hélène's death early on in the film brings her three children and their families back together again, forcing the adults to decide on the fate of the house-as-shrine. While we might expect a Bergman-esque torrent of spiritual introspection, familial fighting, and personal revelation, we instead find an all too familiar acquiescence to life's incessant realities. A fractured narrative ensues, reinforcing the power of the banalities of existence over the larger questions of our lives.

Assayes tells his story without any obvious didacticism, and cinematographer Eric Gautier's camera captures the dynamic relationships in the family with a balletic grace. Weaving and spinning around larger gatherings, we sense the motion and movement of a family thrust forward, while he treats smaller confrontations with intimate closeups, revealing the depth and nuance of the relationships.

Summer Hours is the second film commissioned by Paris's Musée d'Orsay, the famous museum built inside of the former railway station Gare d'Orsay. The first was last year's art-house sensation Flight of the Red Balloon, and while the latter only nominally included the museum in the story, Summer Hours features it much more prominently, though not necessarily flatteringly. As much of the family's art ends up in the museum, we see it stripped bare for display. Crowds of onlookers pass it by with barely a glance; the art's significance fades, just like film's opening mirage.

Final Thought: A meditative tome on the relationship between life and art that offers abundant rewards, if few answers.


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Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek (2009, dir. J.J. Abrams)

Published at InReviewOnline

If the classic science fiction films of the 1950's largely mirrored the paranoia and fear of an America in the grips of a cold war, Star Trek's debut in 1966 signaled a new era of hope for the future, a vision of racial equality and multiculturalism that avoided the cultural relativism that so often goes hand in hand. Gene Roddenberry, the shows original creator, saw a future in which Americans, Russians, Asians, blacks, and whites work together without prejudice, a future in which humankind has conquered the scourges of hunger, poverty, war, and religion. His utopia unleashed humanity's collective curiosity on the universe, creating an endless chain of adventures that we enjoy as much for their thoughtful dilemmas as for their suspenseful action. Star Trek embodied progressive notions of justice, civility, and liberty, while embracing the best of its sci-fi predecessors: the contrast between man's limitless potential and his utter insignificance.

Director J.J. Abrams' second feature film, Star Trek, almost universally hailed as the "Star Trek reboot", is better thought of as Star Trek's assimilation. It's not the end of a franchise, and it's certainly not the end of Star-Trek-as-commercial-endeavor. It's the end of Roddenberry's narrative ideal, an attempt to challenge our accepted mores as much as to satisfy our entertainment needs. Star Trek had reached a dead end; it was an anachronism in an entertainment world ruled by form, not content. It's no secret that Hollywood's ability to create intellectually stimulating entertainment has fallen in inverse proportion to it's ability to create stunningly realized worlds with CGI.

You'd be wrong to assume in reading all of this that I'm a die-hard "trekkie," or that I'm a cinematic snob, or even that I didn't enjoy Abrams' Star Trek. I did enjoy it. After twenty or thirty minutes of dangerously clumsy exposition (including a car chase scene whose only apparent purpose was to find a way to plug "Nokia" phones in a story set 380 years from the present), we're treated to one of Hollywood's better action blockbusters. Writers (and admitted "trekkies") Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have developed an alternate Star Trek universe. A black-hole enables a 130 year old Spock and some very angry Romulans to travel back in time to a point in space conveniently inhabited by James T. Kirk's father and mother (the latter of which is in the process of giving birth to James). The Romulans lay waste to the relatively tiny and ill equipped star ship, killing James' father and narrowly missing his mother.

The black-hole is essentially Hollywood's deus ex machina, freeing Abrams from the philosophical baggage that simultaneously bolstered Star Trek's narrative strength and sealed its commercial weakness. On top of this new canvas they've grafted a number of perfectly respectable formulas, including:
  1. Rebel without a cause (James T. Kirk, played by newest celebrity heartthrob Chris Pine)
  2. Freudian mother surrogate (Uhura, played by Guess Who co-star Zoe Saldana, who throws some surprising pity-sex at the young Spock)
  3. Man of two three worlds (Spock, played by Heroes star Zachary Quinto)
  4. Unrecognized genius (Montgomery "Scotty" Scott, hilariously played by British actor/comedian Simon Pegg)
If Abrams' Star Trek is anything, it's the deft combination of several tried and true narrative arcs. And if Star Trek is the death of Star Trek, it's also the birth of Hollywood's newest cash cow. $75 million dollars in the opening weekend... Roddenberry who?

Final Thought: Resistance is futile. Just enjoy the damn thing.


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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Originally published at InReviewOnline

X-Men Origins: Wolverine,
the opening salvo in 2009's battle for our expendable income, is both straightforward and efficient. Gone are the cunning stratagems and clever ambushes of yesterday's wars. Modern entertainment warfare, relying on technological superiority, is an all-out assault on our senses, hypnotizing us with an orgasmic array of carnage, sex, and spectacle. Our minds vainly struggle to process the avalanche of sensory data, leaving us few reserves for our intellectual and emotional counter-assaults.

The film begins with a short, confusing, overly melodramatic prelude, in which the young child Logan (that's Wolverine's real name for the uninitiated) impales his friend's father (who's actually his real father) in a fit of animal rage after realizing his real father (who's actually his fake father) died at his friend's father's hands. Confused? Don't worry, all that really matters is that we learn that his friend, Victor Creed (better known in the X-Men Universe as Sabretooth, Wolverine's arch-nemesis) is actually Logan's brother, thus paving the way for the familiar dialectic between sibling bonds and moral imperatives.

Immediately after the prelude, we witness the film's greatest cinematic achievement: the opening credits. No, I'm not joking. In the space of these credits, we watch the two brothers transform physically, emotionally, and psychologically as they fight their way through every major American war from the Civil War all the way to Vietnam. As each war grows more destructive, so do Victor's actions, culminating in an attempted rape scene in a Vietnamese village, with Logan torn between saving Victor from himself and protecting Victor from the criminal consequences of his actions. Few films have so efficiently charted a character's moral degradation, or so effectively set up the primary narrative dynamic.

Unfortunately, the film that follows fails to capitalize on this achievement; it proceeds more like a desperate race to the finish, and one that (perhaps intentionally) leaves us few chances for reflection. Characters rapidly grace the screen, slicing their way through the film, and exiting stage right just in time for the next characters to make their raucous entrance. We bounce back and forth between sets, locations. At the end, we're sweaty, out of breath, and a little light-headed (ironically, not unlike the film's protagonist). Even if we enjoyed the experience, we may not entirely remember it.

Though X-Men Origins: Wolverine can't measure up to some of the more admirable recent comic book adaptations like Spiderman, Iron Man, and Batman Begins, it also mercifully avoids any of the arrogant pretensions of one of it's more recent co-conspirators, Watchmen. And if its tragic, gritty tone may occasionally wobble, we can at least be thankful that the film never for a second pretends to be anything more than it is. Had it foolishly attempted to elevate itself from the ranks of frivolous diversion, we would have undoubtedly grown painfully aware of the lack of depth, narrative coherence, or witty repartee that a higher-caliber comic book film demands. We can endlessly debate the merits of escapist cinema, but there's no debating the inherent flaws of mindless entertainment that masquerades as real cinema.


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Monday, March 16, 2009

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (Robert Bresson)

Robert Bresson's second feature film, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, was for me at once both greater and lesser than his more celebrated (and less conventional) films. Made in 1945, it was the last of his films to feature a cast of all-professional actors, and though the emotions exhibited were noticeably muted compared to the overwrought Hollywood fare of the times, the overall effect is like that of a slow simmer, an undercurrent of tension, instead of the automaton approach he elicited from the "models" in his later works.

'Les Dames,' taken from Diderot's Jacques le fataliste, weaves a cautionary tale about a woman's scorn. Rich, decadent, and beautiful Hélène learns that her cynical boyfriend Jean no longer loves her. Early on in the film, she opens up to him, pretending to have lost her feelings for him and pleading for deliverance from her guilt, thereby coaxing his own admission. Agreeing to remain friends, Hélène winds an elaborate trap, enticing him to first fall in love with and then to try to marry a women who, unbeknownst to him, has a notorious past.

Bresson's adaptation (co-written with Jean Cocteau) feels perfectly at home in his spiritual universe, a universe filled with pain and suffering - and redemption. When it was released, many critics received it poorly, unable to believe in a story set in the present yet predicated on century-old mores. Within a matter of years, however, the film obtained cult-status, and is still shown to this day in art-house theaters around the world.

Working with professional actors, I felt like I was witnessing the missing half of Bresson's vision, the passionate yin to his austere yang. But slowly I realized that I was also standing on the edge of an unbridged abyss. On this side stood a world with potential for visible connections, for emotional outbursts of love, hate. But Bresson left this world, crossing the abyss and occasionally radioing back bizarre new picture-scapes, lands where dispassionate decapitations, rape, donkey beatings, and other spiritual non-sequiter were the norm. Neither world makes sense without the other - yet neither can these worlds be bridged.

Last Word: Fascinating, engaging, though at times decidedly un-Bresson, 'Les Dames' merits appreciation for all that the auteur was able to accomplish within the studio system.

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Friday, March 6, 2009

People on Sunday

Last night, a friend tipped me off to a one-night screening of People on Sunday at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan's lower east side. It's a rare 1929 German silent film principally written by wunderkind Billy Wilder in the period just prior to the Nazi reign of terror.

People is an example of early avante-garde cinema, featuring a host of non-professional actors whose day jobs mirrored the jobs they portrayed in the film. They all belonged to a budding collective of young artists making films as group-efforts with minuscule budgets; People on Sunday had as many as 4 directors, with at least 3 of those directors doubling in other capacities like writing and cinematography. Their eventual fate leads us to contemplate one of the great what-ifs of history; before the Nazi's, German artists were at the forefront of international cinema, pushing boundaries, experimenting with just the right mix of innocence and naivety that seems to facilitate all the great artistic breakthroughs in history. But of course it didn't last, with many perishing under the Nazi regime and others fleeing Europe in the largest artistic and intellectual diaspora in human history. A few found success in their new environment; Wilder eventually made his way to Hollywood and went on to write and direct some of the world's most cherished films. Others slipped into obscurity, unable to adapt to new languages and customs.

Though I've had to accept that I will always have some hesitations about the artistic value of silent films, I have to admit that People on Sunday has more than any other come the closest to approaching the ecstatic emotions and wonder I've experienced watching some of my favorite films. Yes, there were the overwrought emotional outbursts and pantomiming, and yes, the cinematography at times reminded me of a starving child let loose in a candy store.

But at the same time, People on Sunday transcended these limitations and shortcomings, crafting a story that touches on the ineffability of love and the alienation of modern life with the grace of a poet. We watch as four young Berliners - two men and two woman - make their way out to the countryside on Sunday, their day off. The day is filled with adventure, love, pain, and redemption, and sold without gimmick and with a moral ambiguity we might not necessarily expect from an old film. And though I still can't imagine a silent ever equaling the artistic power of a modern film, I am impressed by a film - as much as it's filmmakers - that's shot on a dime, populated by amateurs, crippled without a soundtrack, yet still capable of surpassing the quality of the majority of films spewed from Hollywood's factories today.


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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Silent Light (dir. Carlos Reygadas, 2007)

From time to time, I'm at a complete loss to understand a film's critical appeal. Silent Light, a 2007 film by Mexican director Carlos Reygadas recently released here in the US, dazzled the international film circuit, culminating with the Jury Prize at Cannes. Martin Scorsese exclaimed "I was amazed by Silent Light – the setting, the language, the delicacy of the interactions between the people on screen, the drama of redemption. And most of all by Carlos Reygadas’s extraordinarily rich sense of cinema, evident in every frame." NY Times film critic Manohla Dargis loved it so much that she saw it three times, and her colleague A.O. Scott listed it as his second favorite film of 2008. The accolades go on and on....

Silent Light examines the effects of an extra-marital affair on a secluded German Mennonite community in the heart of Mexico. Or at least it pretends to. Johan, a blond-haired, blue-eyed farmer, husband, and father of 5, falls in love with the young, spindly, Roman-nosed Marianne, who works as a waitress at a local diner. The mix of religious fundamentalism, sinful immorality, and cultural isolation spells the ingredients for a delicious existential epic, and in the hands of, say, Bergman, we might have feasted on just that. But Reygadas proves to be a less experienced chef, and instead of a meaty tome, we're left with a bland disaster - an immature exercise that places form over content, brushes its potential for spiritual crisis in only the most tangential ways, and ends with what I can only think of as an outright ripoff of Dreyer's Ordet masquerading as homage.

In the entire film, there were only two scenes that actually worked for me: the very first, and the very last. And neither of these scenes contain any human actors, or any narrative whatsoever. These scenes are beautiful, even haunting, time-lapse single-takes of sunrise and sunset, respectively. The slow pan and steady zoom, the enveloping sounds of night, the growing (or diminishing) photographic clarity - for all their transcendent glory, neither of these scenes actually add anything to the film's "story," such as it is. They might as well have been scenes from a high-def Nat Geo nature documentary.

Between these two scenes are two and half-hours of sheer torture. Somewhere along the way, Reygadas must have forgotten that a film like this needs a script, dialogue, tension. Without this, it's an empty exercise in form - and an immature one at that. We're bounced between various photographic techniques, which on their own might make for a short, interesting study in perspective, but which together simply deny a unifying aesthetic to what little story remains.

Perhaps I simply lack the appropriate film education to appreciate Silent Light, which in J. Hoberman's words, is "distinguished by its formal rigor." But then, isn't film (or art in general) supposed to transcend technique - isn't art a creative expression of the soul? Or is it simply a formal exercise?


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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Further Proof that Joaquin's rap career is a joke

If my first post didn't convince you, then check out his recent "appearance" on Letterman:


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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Platform (Jia Zhangke)

"The long and empty platform,
Lonely we can only wait.
All my love is outbound,
Nothing on the inbound train..."

This trite Chinese pop song from the 1980's serves as metaphor for the artistically castrated inhabitants of Platform, Jia Zhangke's second underground film. It's a three-hour tome on the tragedy of art both under Mao's authoritarian communist regime and under the rapid capitalist transformation that followed. Mixing a meditative narrative style with disorienting time cuts, we experience the upheavals and inertia of the times through a band of young actors, musicians, and dancers.

Platform opens with a performance of "The Train to Shaoshan" by the Fenyang Peasant Culture Group. In terms of artistic quality, imagine a children's propaganda musical written by Dick Cheney and performed by Texas A&M's Young Republicans for the West Bumblefuck elementary school. What could only come to fruition here in a deranged SNL skit was an everyday reality under Mao's China. Making the performance even more surreal to these western eyes, the Peasant Culture Group's audience wasn't school children - it was a large gathering of adult male farmers.

After the performance, we get to know the young troupe of artists. Jia paints a picture of perpetual children mentally stunted by the Party's black-and-white demarcation between "mental workers" and "manual workers." Time and time again, they're miraculously, even cruelly, oblivious to the suffering and injustice surrounding them, especially in their own families; aloof and self-obsessed, they're the communist equivalent of an American trust fund brat.

As Deng Xiaoping's market reforms transformed the Chinese economy, the Peasant Culture Groups underwent privatization. But instead of finding artistic liberation, they mutated from celebrated propaganda machines into vapid pop-culture reflections: traveling sideshows of jiggling girls and monstrous cover bands. A pivotal moment for art was wasted by a lingering ideological tyranny and a brainwashed generation of artistic parodies.

Cinematographer Yu Lik-Wai films this jaded epic with commensurate photographic detachment. I'm strained to recall even one principle closeup in the film's entirety. Yu also experiments with a panning approach that matures 6 years later in Jia's Still Life . It's a technique I've come to think of as a sort of cinematic "lazy eye": the unexpected, gradual drift of the camera's frame from action to the inert.

Jia Zhangke was forced to make his first three films - Xiao Wu (1997), Platform (2000), and Unknown Pleasures (2002) - outside of the Chinese state-run film bureaucracy. Underground filmmakers in China play a risky game; there films are by definition illegal. Even if they find distribution abroad, they're still forbidden screening in China's cineplexes. To get their films in front of Chinese eyes, filmmakers pirate their DVDs on the black market. If they publicly screen their films in China, the government bans them from ever working under government approval.

Jia Zhangke is something of an exception; he successfully played the international film festival circuit against the Chinese authorities, making it hard for them to continue to deny state approval to an internationally celebrated auteur. Now that I've seen both his underground films and his "approved" films, I can honestly say that the state-seal has not blunted his commitment to "show Chinese Reality without distortion."

Check out Kevin B. Lee's slightly-out-of-date-but-still-illuminating article on Jia Zhangke's works over at Senses of Cinema.


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