Sunday, May 29, 2011

Weekly Viewing May 23rd - 29th

SOMETHING WILD (Jonathan Demme, 1986) -- 3.5/4

Jonathan Demme navigates difficult territory in Something Wild, wickedly combining broader comedic elements with deeper understandings of compulsive relationship drives and behavior, before convincingly shifting gears into the realm of horror and obsession. Much like, say, Elaine May's The Heartbreak Kid, Demme's characters are imperfect creatures, letting emotions lead them astray, with their inadequacies and errors fully progressing the narrative, rather than plot devices. Give E. Max Frye's script credit too for immediately commencing the proceedings, forgoing the usual 20 minutes of exposition. Like the free-spirited Lulu played by the always ravishing Melanie Griffith (name a better, funnier, sexier 1980's actress), Demme unchains genre filmmaking, concocting something ungainly, but compassionate, and wholly recognizable in its anxieties.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (Sergio Leone, 1984) -- 3.5/4

Three temporal arcs define Sergio Leone's epic, nearly four-hour fever dream dedicated to a few kids growing up in the Brooklyn, aging into animalistic gangsters as adults, then being filled with regret and lament as aging men. However - Leone's genius is two-fold, in that he relays the film out of chronological order, skipping back and forth from bits and pieces of each period, eventually assembling a remarkably structured, complex explanation for what makes certain men turn to violence for sustenance. Moreover, Leone integrates deep levels of misogyny, operating almost as if he were oblivious to them - of course, he isn't, and offers several brutal beatings and rapes as a confrontation of the temptation to psychoanalyze its characters, both men and women. One scene troublingly suggests a female bank teller enjoys being raped, while a few others revel in the horror - again, not a complicit fulfillment of perverse male desire for Leone, but an intentional problematizing of reductive readings; the drive towards such monstrosity goes deeper, as does Leone's entire film, compellingly acted by several greats (De Niro, Woods, Pesci) and recounted (both forward and backward) during an opium trip, where time and space - and the totality of life - collapse into one stream-of-consciousness memory. Leone's visual prowess and compelling metaphor more than sustain the lengthy runtime.

SANTA SANGRE (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989) -- 3/4

Could Alejandro Jodorowsky top The Holy Mountain in terms of unbridled insanity? Apparently so, as Santa Sangre raises the stakes even for the notorious rabble-rouser. If there was the least bit of caution remaining, it has all been cast to the wind, challenging anything and everything, particularly good taste - but Jodorowsky has always been rooted in the satirical, accompanied by his own warped moral sensibilities, and they resonate strongly throughout, particularly in how he assembles his images and mise-en-scene. It's his most thoroughly horrific film (see producer Claudio Argento), even paying homage to James Whale's The Invisible Man - as perverse an homage that comes to mind, given its context within the film. Conjoining surrealism with genre produces an unwieldy, maddening phantasmagoric nightmare, its allegorical dimensions apparent but difficult to fully unearth. Either a madman or a genius (I'll say both), Jodorowsky produces cinema on the brink, spilling over in anarchy, a challenge to passivity and complacency - abjection as art.

OUT OF SIGHT (Steven Soderbergh, 1998) -- 2.5/4

The parlor tricks don't add up to much in Out of Sight, one of director Steven Soderbergh's least obnoxious, smarmy films. Wholly consider that damning with faint praise. Soderbergh is one of the most curiously heralded filmmakers of the past 25 years, to my knowledge having failed at this point to make a successful film (this includes Sex, Lies, and Videotape, The Underneath, and The Limey). He's the epitome of indie-chic, using his films as either pseudo-genre revision (The Underneath, The Limey, The Good German) or fashion statements (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, Che). Out of Sight rides the coat tails of Get Shorty and Jackie Brown (both are better Leonard adaptations), but Soderbergh drains excitement and passion where he should embellish - even in a genre film, he manages to seep the fun out of it, both by his detached direction and incoherent visual style, ugly and stagnant. The cast is better (especially Don Cheadle and Jennifer Lopez) than their director, who energize the film far more than anything Soderbergh's cold hand can muster.

KISS ME DEADLY (Robert Aldrich, 1955) -- 4/4

Is there a more intricately perverse film than Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly? Certainly not from the 1950's. And, revisiting the film, one's forced to wonder just how what's on-screen came to be. Meaning, Aldrich is decades ahead here, perhaps generating (or at least heavily influencing) the sensibilities of David Lynch, emphasizing the banality of human behavior by way of cultural disconnect, with the entirety of film noir in its rearview mirror, deconstructing genre while reifing sexuality and heavily fetishizing bodily movement, gesture, and proximity. Aldrich suggests the hard-nosed posturings of Mike Hammer as both male chauvinism and identity crisis, the character (and the film) trapped between two realms - the former being tradition (sexist/misogynist), the latter progression (in both social/cinematic terms), and ultimately conculcating both with an apocalypse, in one of the greatest endings in all of film history.

WITNESS TO MURDER (Roy Rowland, 1954) -- 3/4

A surprisingly adept and thoughtful little later period noir, Witness to Murder is primarily sustained by two factors: John Alton's remarkable cinematography and a script that convincingly integrates a running commentary on societal double standards between the sexes, as Barbara Stanwyck's single, professional woman is continually belittled and told she's hysterical (implied menopausal) for claiming to have seen a murder from her apartment window. Though knowing from the opening shot that she isn't crazy makes the expositional scenes fairly monotonous (a few exceptionally drawn out), there's a continual address of theme, most of it perceptive, and visually resplendent.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE (Frederick Wiseman, 2001) -- 3.5/4

The succession of testimonies and interviews comprising Frederick Wiseman's +3 hour documentary prove an unnerving, thoroughly disturbing, and ultimately devastating experience. The mere duration of such pain and torment among physically, verbally, and mentally abused lower class women, coupled with Wiseman's unobtrusive filmmaking style (there is no explicit thesis or polemical argument being made), forces the viewer to sort through it all, assembling his/her own comprehensive analysis, that the film (wisely) omits. Many of the personalities and stories on display are at times absurdly self-destructive, perhaps even bordering on sickeningly humorous, but the crux of it all lies upon an implicit investigation of inescapable imprisonment, deeply rooted societal and economic forces enabling the continuation of a cycle (continued through subsequent generations) without any simplistic "call this number to help" conclusions or solutions. It is ambivalence personified, grossly frustrated by extreme limits of human pain and suffering, yet without any definitive take or answer - the subjects truly speak for themselves, perhaps more so than in any documentary I've seen. Admittedly, this is the first of Wiseman's films I've seen, but his fearlessness and unwillingness to compromise the integrity of his filmmaking by pacifying the destruction felt among its individuals and families is remarkable, and unquestionably the work of someone with a complex compassion for the human condition.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Weekly Viewing May 16th - 22nd

THE HEARTBREAK KID (Elaine May, 1972) -- 3.5/4

Few films are able to elicit such an ambivalence towards its characters as Elaine May's near-masterpiece of generational failings, as scripted by Paul Simon. Patriarchal traditionalism meets a painfully funny (and potentially lamented) end; May's film cuts even deeper than The Graduate (though it is certainly an influence), because May treats social norms with utter irreverence, coldly constructing Lenny (Charles Grodin) to be even more of a dunce than Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock. He's one of the most unlikable protagonists in film comedy history - but wholly human, functioning on predicated notions of decorum and proper behavior, which come hilariously crashing down around him. None of the three leads are vilified (unlike the 2007 remake) and each make strong cases for equal parts admiration and disgust. One of the sharpest comedies of the 1970's.

MULHOLLAND DR. (David Lynch, 2001) -- 4/4

This is the girl, alright. David Lynch’s chilling, ironic paean to Hollywood solipsism astounds with its clarity, a thorough condemnation that transcends trite allegory or didacticism by distilling its humanistic pathos well past the emotional boiling point. Devastating in its implications, Freud and Irigaray would be proud – psychological crisis as “women on the market” morality play. Perhaps the epitome of what we refer to as “Lynchian,” with characters acting as surrogates for one another, domestic banality reaching absurd ends, and dream logic dominating, Mulholland Dr. may be the definitive cinematic work of the 21st century, its comprehensive scope extending well beyond the realm of moviemaking – physiognomy as societal imprisonment, “blonde or brunette” as the ultimate sexist binary, literally reducing life to a “whoever’s best for the part” sensibility. Lynch suggests a destruction of essence, where a lack of self-consciousness and knowledge (the fundamental state of existence) leads to involuntary disavowal. Can a human being’s essence become lost? Of course, when a society enables self-hatred, promotes subterfuge, and facilitates sadistic uniformity. Mulholland Dr. may not have superheroes, natural disasters, or Apocalyptic overtones. Yet it is, in the truest sense of the word, epic, detailed as to encompass the totality of human existence, a film that holds all of life’s answers – and yet none of them, expanding just quickly as it dissipates. A living, breathing paradox.

THE DRIVER (Walter Hill, 1978) -- 3/4

One of the most explicitly existential films in Walter Hill's canon, The Driver radiates a collected coolness, both through its minimalist style and nameless characters, each seeking fulfillment in a world that cannot provide it. Noirish and heavily indebted to Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street, the films zips by at 91 minutes (edited down from the much longer, 131 minute-cut shown at its Los Angeles premiere) and deftly reveals Hill's crack-shot narrative efficiency, theme and thrills in equal doses.

PATRIOTISM (Yukio Mishima, 1966) -- 3/4

A death poem if there ever was one, here is one of the most controversial, censored, and banned films in history - mainly because its maker, Yukio Mishima, would eventually really kill himself via ritual suicide, as is depicted in the film. Simple conceptually and even sparser in its stage setting, Patriotism nevertheless profoundly enunciates political and ethnic influence, inextricably embedded - duty superseding self-preservation, made all the more impactful because of its prescience.

THE WEB (Michael Gordon, 1947) -- 2.5/4

The better of the two noirs, if only for great acting turns from Edmond O'Brien and Vincent Price. The script is nice too, especially its first act, which brings a genuine sense of vitality, sadism, and excitement to its core group of slimy characters, embracing its pulpy roots. However, after the "twist" is revealed, everything settles into place, raising few thematic questions worthy of consideration, and remaining on the same visual plane. Sufficient, but hardly superior.

711 OCEAN DRIVE (Joseph M. Newman, 1950) -- 2.5/4

Decent little noir starring Edmond O'Brien as an upstanding guy turned crook, with the standard moral ambivalence. Some snappy dialogue and suitable acting turns keep things mostly digestible, but director Joseph Newman fails the film visually, banally presenting the rather adept script.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Weekly Viewing May 9th - May 15th

CASUALTIES OF WAR (Brian De Palma, 1989) -- 3.5/4

Casualties of War
is Brian De Palma's most morally complex film, situating itself within a melodramatic ethos, utilizing soliloquies, Ennio Morricone's elegaic score, and problematizing character identification, genuinely revealing the scenario's (and the war's) immense absurdity - not through anti-war polemics, but harrowing dramatics, the image as devastating as the narrative. Moreover, De Palma reiterates his fascination with dreams (nightmares), having Michael J. Fox's haunted soldier recollect the events while half asleep on a train, stable, forward movement juxtaposing the fractured, conflicted psyche of a man who "did the right thing," but still can't sleep at night. However, the film transcends any simplistic renderings of meaning because of De Palma's rigorous compositions, canted angles, steadicam shots, and blurred split-screen as paradoxically enabling and restricting vision - one's perspective is limited to his/her own subjectivity. In a most provocative sequence, the attempted blowing up of a latrine is (initially) completely seen from the culprit's perspective, not just a "gimmick," but a reflection of how fragile and easily identification can be shifted. Cynics may find De Palma's moral questions "obvious" or "corny," but to claim so is to miss the film's greater suggestion - the mutability of morality based on context and scenario. Yet in a blistering finale, De Palma refracts that notion back onto itself, a feverish, devastated lament for wasted humanity that challenges as much as it horrifies.

(Brian De Palma, 1993) -- 3.5/4

Brian De Palma's gangland melodrama transcends its macho trappings via a virtuoso blend of visual prowess (which can only be called passionate) and utterly cinematic posturing, gun-waving, cigarette smoking, and method acting as poetry, an even more elegant variant on John Woo's preference for bullets and pathos. Noirish to the core (but not limited by those tendencies), it's potentially De Palma's most fully formed pastiche, drawing upon numerous cinematic influences, but recognizable as wholly his own, a mature, auteur film that seems almost embarrassingly effortless - it's the work of a master, alluding to the likes of Jean Pierre-Melville and Jules Dassin, but only in essence, sensibility (De Palma's too advanced for explicit homage). No one "sees" quite like De Palma, his camera consistently challenging convention, deliriously fluent at its most radical. Tales of the aging gangster are always preferable to those of the youngin', and coupled with Pacino's wild-eyed intensity and David Koepp's preposterous script, Carlito's Way finds De Palma turning product into art, a thoroughly absorbing firecracker, giddy with sophistication.

HARD TIMES (Walter Hill, 1975) -- 3/4

Walter Hill's directorial debut is remarkable for the simple fact that he's already so vividly keyed into his chosen discursive form: tough men grappling with social hardship, morality, and expressing it via primal bursts of violence. Bronson, Coburn, and memorable fight scenes would be enough entertainment wise - but Hill consistently grounds it with legitimate real world/character issues, not some inane piece of pop nonsense like Bloodsport (Van Damme's masterpiece). Lament the days when genre fare had grit, bite, and set out to do more than comment on other genre films. Hill is one of the most underrated directors of the last 30+ years, turning out one thought-provoking film after another.

THE LONG RIDERS (Walter Hill, 1980) -- 3/4

Arriving 11 years after The Wild Bunch, Walter Hill's re-telling of the James Gang myth reinvigorates a dwindling sense of masculinity within American culture, harkening back to Fordian decorum and chivalry, yet equipping it with Peckinpah's flare for the violent fantastique, myth and legend in place of actual fantasy. Moreover, Hill's deft hand makes these anti-heros neither idols or villains, rather questioning the capabilities of any historical representation - historicizing necessarily glorifies. Nothing about this concept is new (even 30 years ago), but as with all of Hill's work, he layers a compelling narrative of trust, brotherhood, and societal unrest with a grander sense of meaning, using the genre template to reveal human truth - not wallow in redundant tropes (superhero pap, here's looking at you) or sillily cannibalize itself (every pseudo-self aware piece of shit from the last ten years).

(Basil Dearden, 1959) -- 2/4

Basil Dearden's racially conscious murder mystery inhabits many qualities indicative of "liberal condescension," positing racism, bigotry, and prejudice as capable of being reduced to a mere few lines of dialogue, then solved by a simple act of rational connect-the-dots. Such scenes "work" in the cinematic sense, but play wholly and totally false in terms of honestly addressing race relations. Think of Brokeback Mountain as the modern form of this narrative, where racial (or homophobic) prejudice is carefully inserted into the narrative, rather than springing from it organically. Moreover, it's been calculated to produce a result, rather than reveal anything about human nature. Furthermore, the thrust of the mystery is performed with no more nuance and expertise than any run-of-the-mill television hour. For an example par excellence, the closing line of the film: "We didn't solve anything: we just picked up the pieces." Yet again, heavy-handed double meaning and arrogant liberalism passing as modesty do not a palatable film make.

THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN (Basil Dearden, 1960) -- 3/4

After viewing the highly sophisticated and influential The League of Gentlemen, modern incarnations of the heist film (specifically Heat and The Town) seem downright silly and obnoxious by comparison. This is not to say they aren't (and I specifically mean Heat) indicative of an alternate, gritty-realist aesthetic, preferring nihilism and decay over camaraderie - and, to be honest, Michael Mann's faux-epic via an LA wasteland is much more ludicrously compelling than Basil Dearden's one-last-mission yarn. Nevertheless, Dearden has something sincere and honest to say about post-war assimilation, and he does so by teasing out dignity, honor, and humanity, rather than relying on hyper-violent set pieces and Al Pacino's histrionics. If Dearden's film ultimately feels slight (and it does), his efforts shouldn't be penalized or viewed as unsuccessful, since his inclination towards understatement often rewards viewer patience.

ALL NIGHT LONG (Basil Dearden, 1962) -- 3/4

One of the most interesting of all modern Shakespeare adaptations. Basil Dearden takes Othello - the general narrative, at least, and places it over the course of a single evening, celebrating the anniversary of a Jazz musician and his singer wife. What's impressive is that Dearden never lets the well-trodden territory dull, genuinely asking if (and how) classic texts have relevance in contemporary art, especially when in times of political and societal upheaval. The film plays surreal, especially in its one-act play conceit, transcending the condescension of Sapphire by making race implicit, rather than explicit. In fact, Dearden's restraint here is remarkable in terms of not over-emphasizing the racial elements, using camera movements and several well-placed jazz numbers to suggest something grander than polemics. Bravo.

(Paul Feig, 2011) -- 2.5/4

As with usually anything touched by the hand of producer Judd Apatow, Bridesmaids is at least half an hour too long, has no cohesion whatsoever in its comedic tone, and carries little insight into relationships outside of some peculiar idiosyncrasies. Having said that - the movie is pretty damn funny, though it relies on "randomness" and bizarre behavior over organic progression. Sloppily directed and seemingly 80% improvisation, there's never anything remotely compelling or particularly interesting about the narrative, since it settles for the typical high's and low's - fights and bickering giving way to hugs and friendship. Kristen Wiig is excellent (as always) and Melissa McCarthy certainly gets the biggest laughs - but again, nothing is ever built upon emotionally or comedically, and that lack of momentum makes the third act particularly tiresome.

(Sergio Leone, 1966) -- 4/4

To say that seeing The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in 35mm is close to a religious experience would not be quite accurate - it's way better than that. Leone's sardonic vision of the West reaches its most exhilarating stage here and needs to be seen on such an expansive scale, with Ennio Morricone's iconic score blasting through the speakers. A definitive cinematic landmark, exploitation hybridizes with formal excellence - a visceral masterwork, through and through. Such a viewing also vividly enhances the enormous influence upon Quentin Tarantino, especially the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, which is essentially a duplicate of the initial appearance of Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef). Leone's brilliance is in his playfulness, a virtuoso yarn that thrilling uses character as narrative, the three central characters as fascinating variants on genre archetype - each delightfully and hilariously played by Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, and Clint Eastwood. It would be hard to find a film as rigorously intelligent and entertaining.

AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD (Werner Herzog, 1972) -- 3.5/4

Speaking of religious experiences, Werner Herzog's vision of nation building, obsessive self-destruction, and the possibility for transcendence plays both humorous and horrifying - a certain precursor for Coppola's humorless horror in Apocalypse Now. Herzog imbues his film with lyrical, meditative beauty, yet consistently subverts it with both nature and mankind's brutality. Rather than offering simple juxtapositions, the film ambivalently allows its images to speak for themselves, a haunting score as devastating supplement. Klaus Kinski's eyes sear menace, able to convey inexorable desire - as are his harsh, deranged line readings. In many ways, Herzog strives to unveil the absurdity of desire, especially when cultural transmission and feigned notions of morality dominate. Spiritually absent (though claiming to be Christians), the Spanish expedition embodies absolute futility, each wave moving them forward pardoxically leading further and further into the abyss.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Weekly Viewing May 2nd - May 8th

NOW, VOYAGER (Irving Rapper, 1942) -- 3/4

Now, Voyager
is packed with memorable lines, peculiar bits of business, and more repressed sexual angst than nearly any half dozen other melodramas combined. The result is somewhat staggering, and thoroughly compelling (if maddening) in its simultaneous questioning of psychoanalysis, maternal constraints, free will, and moral fortitude - all of which is left heavily open-ended by the equivocal dialogue and Irving Rapper's sly direction, which consistently indicates more lies beneath the film's seemingly straight-forward veneer. Davis gets to play both the hag and the princess here, but don't mistake this for simply a wink towards her star persona; the mutability of identity and self drives the narrative, playing with themes that Douglas Sirk would later draw upon for his masterpiece, Imitation of Life.

FLUNKY, WORK HARD (Mikio Naruse, 1931) -- 2.5/4

The first surviving film of legendary Japanese director Mikio Naruse covers many themes that are dear to him - childhood, familial shame, and the transcendental possibilities of film in conveying them. Nevertheless, at its scant 28 minute runtime, it offers only a glimpse of what's to come, hinting at formal and thematic aspirations rather than fully presenting them.

NO BLOOD RELATION (Mikio Naruse, 1932) -- 3.5/4

In terms of melodramatic content being matched by form, few films to my knowledge synch up so fluently, as Naruse opts for kinetic, often aggressive camera moves (usually a dolly-in) to convey the maternal delirium of his two central characters, each imprisoned by past mistakes, though of a varying degree. Naruse navigates this dilemma well, especially in suggesting the moving (non-static) camera as a potential answer and compliment for erratic material, not merely heightening drama, but transcending it through a paradoxical fragmentation, movement as indicative of disunity. If the obvious material doesn't mirror Naruse's astute mise-en-scene, that's okay (and preferable), since the director is more interested in abstract expression rather than meditative quietude, which must necessarily confront, rather than placate. Naruse knows how to be messy and still retain control, fascination.

APART FROM YOU (Mikio Naruse, 1933) -- 3/4

Apart From You finds Naruse continuing to explore his chosen theme (the tumultuous lives of women), though his chosen aesthetic does not play quite as convincing here as in No Blood Relation. He too often over-indulges, bordering on self-parody at times, especially in the most explicit reassertion of his obsession with camera movement. Nevertheless, there remain blissful moments and sequences, penetrating with precision his characters for revelation of hidden desire and repressed unrest, personal crisis as vessel for the whole - though Naruse often deals with merely a handful of characters, his ability to posit their troubles as indicative of greater human strife, and in such peculiar, but consistent ways, invigorates rather than enervates.