Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Top 10 Roman Polanski Films

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

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

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Revisionaries (Scott Thurman, 2012)

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

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, October 29, 2012

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

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

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

Saturday, October 27, 2012

We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007)

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

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

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Nobody Walks (Ry Russo-Young, 2012)

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

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Argo (Ben Affleck, 2012)

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

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

Friday, October 19, 2012

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

Macbeth (Roman Polanski, 1971)

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

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cactus River (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2012)

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

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

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

I'm Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007)

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

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

Monday, October 15, 2012

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2012)

Matthew McConaughey enters as the titular hitman in Killer Joe literally coated in leather, clad in hide gloves, jacket and boots. It is one of the film's countless, indelible grindhouse moments, the man so defined by killing that even his wardrobe comprises death. On McConaughey, this dark outfit announces the arrival of a wolf in sheep's clothing (or cow's, as it were). The law never fares well in William Friedkin's films, where police detectives always morph into the very forces they hunt so obsessively. Killer Joe picks up where those other films end: Joe Cooper enters the film a monster, and the only thing close to a mitigating factor in his behavior is that the people who enlist his services may be even more repulsive.

Taking place in cramped trailers, run-down streets on the side of the railroad tracks that time forgot, and strip clubs lit in the electric zapper blues of Friedkin's last film, Bug, Killer Joe erects a world so white-trash that it could contain any redneck. Well, almost any redneck, for the film populates itself with such extreme Southern-fried types that they clash as violently with this setting as they would in Beverly Hills. Friedkin wastes no time establishing the lunacy of his dramatis personae, with debt-ridden drug dealer Chris (Emile Hirsch) beating on a trailer door in the dead of night as the film opens, only to be greeted by a close-up of Gina Gershon's bottomless, be-merkined unmentionables. Vulgarity and casual domestic violence ensues. But Gershon plays Chris' stepmom, Sharla, and she gets off light compared to how Chris views his biological mother. To him, the latter is just a hefty life insurance policy waiting to be collected and the answer his problems with his drug supplier. When he offers to cut the rest of the family in on the loot, no one raises any objection to the idea of having the woman killed, not even the seeming bundle of innocence, Chris' teen sister Dottie (Juno Temple).

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Detective (Jean-Luc Godard, 1985)

The trio of films that followed Jean-Luc Godard's return to cinema mirrored, in some cases, his early work. Sauve qui peut (la vie), Passion and First Name: Carmen matched up in thematic and (vague) stylistic terms with Breathless, Contempt and Pierrot le fou. But it is Detective, Godard's lightest since Made in U.S.A., that truly recaptures the spirit of his New Wave material. Filled with cinematic and literary references, populated by existential refinements of various generic types (detectives, mob bosses, black-clad hoods playing billiards with a cigarette dangling from their mouths, disintegrating couples, paid-off boxers), Detective returns the director to his reflexive roots for a lovely throwback tempered only by the slight melancholy of the New Wave performers who now look older.

Confining the action to the Hotel Concorde Saint-Lazare, Detective moves between three groups of people whose paths overlaps as they move about the hotel. Godard films static takes that emphasize the boundaries of his setting, rarely able to move his camera far back enough inside a room to go further than a medium long shot. On the occasions that Godard does manage to put some distance between the camera and his actors, it comes in the form of dazzlingly placed high- and low-angle shots of hallways and the expansive ground floor, taking an uncharacteristic pleasure in the shining commercial retreat that lacks the director's typical, ironic assessment of the gold-plated chandeliers and plush carpet. Yet even these big, beautiful shots segment the hotel's layout into a series of locations unto themselves, suites and bars in a void that suggest proximity to each other only because all the characters keep running into each other.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

David Lynch's features, ranked

For October's favorite director ranking, I thought I would choose one of my two favorite directors of horror films that are not exactly horror films. (The other is Roman Polanski, whom I bumped last month to cover Tony Scott and who will receive his spotlight later this month.) Lynch's work digs under the image of postwar American society—parenthood, bourgeois suburbia, the glamor of Old Hollywood—to find the terror beneath, which is itself usually rooted in grotesque exaggerations of classic pulp. Lynch exists always in the past and on the forefront, sublimating noir and melodrama of the '40s and '50s into an ambitious, massively influential television program and an exploratory use of the capabilities of DV. Nearly all of his 10 features are great, and despite the occasional characterization of his work as weird for its own sake, they reward multiple viewings rather than suffer from them. A year ago, it would not have occurred to me to rank Lynch among my favorite filmmakers, but after viewing and revisiting the gems below, he now sits near the top of my list.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Butter (JimField Smith, 2012)

Butter is an unfunny, arrogant satire that tries to skewer the Midwest but exists so far outside the realm of reality that it says more about the ignorance of its makers than its targets. This is a film written with such hyperbole that the actors conflict with the roles they play by virtue of being human beings, bringing a basic sense of human decency to such wafer-thin stereotypes. Occasionally, it gets a laugh in spite of itself, but Butter is so condescending and superior that it mainly just made me feel angry at those who thought it was clever enough to fund.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Musketeer Mania

I've got not one but two (sadly not three) pieces on Musketeer movies freshly up on the Internet. One is a discussion between myself and the lovely Allison from NerdVampire on Peter Hyams' simultaneously underrated and very appropriately rated 2001 feature, The Musketeer. Wire fu meets swashbuckling in this gratingly scripted but finely lensed POS. Check out our discussion here.

The other is on the deliciously, ludicrously scripted and gorgeously lensed Paul W.S. Anderson feature, The Three Musketeers. I gave this a positive, if somewhat backhanded, review after its theatrical release last year, but the severity with which I now treat Anderson's talents can be directly traced back to my fondness for this sailpunk take on the novel, with its beautiful, vast interiors, coherent action, and even a sly bit of satire or two. My full review can be found at Spectrum Culture.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)

Rian Johnson's Looper takes great pains to head off any in-depth discussion of the paradoxes and metaphysical nightmares associated with time travel narratives. This is true even when the protagonist, the hired killer Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has a conversation with his 30-years-older self (Bruce Willis). "We'll be here all day, making diagrams with straws," Old Joe says to Young Joe by way of warning. After a while, Looper largely lets its genre trappings fall to the wayside, leaving behind its references to over-mined sci-fi classics and newer hits. "The movies you're copying are copying other movies," Young Joe's boss, Abe (Jeff Daniels), says of the young man's wardrobe, but it could also be seen as a chiding the director takes to heart for his film.

Take time travel out of the scenario, though, and even the denser, more classically sci-fi first act of the film could still run under the same circular title. Young Joe's life moves in endless repetitions. As a hired gun employed by future mobsters looking to dispose of their enemies in the past (where bodies are harder to track, especially if they technically do not exist), Joe's life follows a set pattern. Be at the right place on-time, blast the target when it suddenly appears, collect his money and go party. Joe saves most of his money for the early retirement people in his line of work receive, but as Johnson's montage of Joe's routine speeds up under the influence of the cleaner's drug use and dispassion, it becomes evident that retirement may prove more debilitating for him than his profession. Not that he will get to find out, however, when his final target, himself, manages to overpower his younger self and threatens to create a whole new timeline. Imagine how weird this would be if the director didn't try so hard to avoid time talk.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Hail Mary (Jean-Luc Godard, 1985)

Hail Mary follows logically from his previous 1980s work even as it marks one of the biggest departures of his always shifting career. The director's "return to cinema" demonstrated a director not returning to filmmaking (he never left that, even if he did become more of a videographer) but returning to cinema as something he believed could change the world. Though such films as Passion and Every Man for Himself use the fragmentary, analytical techniques Godard picked up with video experimentations, they also displays a return to aesthetic beauty for its own sake, poetic evocation given equal weight to the held-over Marxist theory.

But Hail Mary goes one further. Godard strips the film of the political underpinnings that inform nearly all of his films from the mid-'60s (and a few that date back even earlier) to this point, instead turning to matter of the corporeal and incorporeal. In retelling the story of the virgin birth, Godard breaks down the layers of deification and mythos surrounding the story to examine what such an occurrence would mean to the young virgin, to her relationship with Joseph (Thierry Rode), and to her sudden obligation to sacrifice her corporeal desires and wishes to serve something greater. Godard still employs dialectic, but here it focuses entirely on matters of existence, the split between the body and the soul.

Head Games (Steve James, 2012)

Steve James' weakest feature almost doesn't even feel like a James film at first, presenting a straightforward call to increased safety in sports to reduce the rising number of concussions. But as James and his subjects uncover a sickening level of self-justification and obfuscation on the part of sports organizations looking to maximize the playing time (and, therefore, profit margin) of their players, Head Games emerges as something more classically "Jamesian." In peeling back the layers, the director starts to live up to his usual quality, and if nothing else, Head Games is proof that when James acquiesces to play by convention, he can still make a fine, probing work.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Center Stage (Stanley Kwan, 1992)

[The following is my Blind Spots review for September]

Using period-appropriate filming techniques for movies set in the 20th century is hardly new, especially in the use of melodramatic lighting and color. But Stanley Kwan's Center Stage (a.k.a. Actress) actually incorporates the techniques into the film at hand, the biopic of 1930s star Ruan Ling-yu doubling as a recreation of both period-appropriate Chinese melodrama and the postwar American melodrama as practiced by Sirk, Ray et al. By going outside the stylistic touches of the film's time to broadly canvas melodrama as a fluid, evolving, international artform and expression. As if to to prove to the audience why they should care for the film's subject, Kwan establishes the artistic worth of the medium and genre in which she worked.

Yet this also sets the stage for Kwan to show how the films in which Ruan gained her fame—tales of harassed and martyred women misunderstood and abused by social forces and an ignorant mob—were reflected in the tragedy of her short life. Her penultimate film, New Women, portrayed the press as an insensitive pack of jackals who drove a women to her suicide, an outrage that prompted vindictive newspapers this woman to her suicide. It is a twisted irony, and the director adds a layer of his own by including black-and-white scenes of himself and the actors as themselves, discussing their "characters" and interviewing surviving members of the Chinese film industry who worked with the actress. The film's first scene depicts Kwan explaining Ruan's career arc, which began with minor roles in fluff before she went to a film studio that prided itself on more progressive, artistic work and her career exploded. Maggie Cheung, who plays Ruan, notes with a laugh that her own path recalls Ruan. In another case of life imitating art, Cheung would use this very part to transition from supporting roles to becoming one of the most respected actresses on the international stage. When making a film biography of a film star, one supposes that self-reflexivity is unavoidable.