Friday, April 17, 2015

End of week roundup, April 17

The big news this week was the Star Wars trailer, but it was hardly the only thing worth mentioning. (We haven't clicked the trailer yet, holding out to see it for the first time theatrically, but we're certainly seeing Episode VII come Christmas.)

--The Peabody Awards went to some profoundly deserving folks, not the least of which was Steven Soderbergh and the creative team of The Knick, maybe last year's finest novel for television. At first we thought we'd simply never seen anything like it on television (a period drama, set in a New York City hospital in 1900 - all camerawork is handheld, and the thing is propelled by an electronic score by Soderbergh mainstay Cliff Martinez). Though it occurs to us that this may simply be the next step in period television after Mad Men it's still cracking viewing, leavened with intelligence and heart, and we're delighted to see it take home a Peabody (and eager to catch season 2).

--We're delighted that Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria is finally getting wider release in the States. Assayas has long been a favorite of ours, and we lucked into an advance screening of the movie late last year. Juliette Binoche is in fine form as an actress steeling herself to return to perform in a play that made her famous, opposite a brash Hollywood newcomer (Chloe Grace Moretz) in the role Binoche initially created. Kristen Stewart is a revelation as Binoche's assistant, running lines and helping Binoche keep hold of herself; much of the movie is the two holding an extended, engrossing conversation about life/death, art/commerce, high art/low art, film/theatre, and indeed time/space. But the film is never pedantic, maintaining a strong sense of suspense in even its airiest moments. Its feminine grace and contemplativeness are a nice rebuff to the masculinist stridency of Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which explored very similar themes last year.

--Some folks in the US may have heard of Clouds of Sils Maria previously, since Kristen Stewart picked up a  César Award for her performance in it earlier this year. Stewart's the first American actress to win a César, which is noteworthy. Though we were never serious fans of either her movies or her work within them we'll be among the first to say that this award was well-deserved; Stewart's role is arguably the most difficult of the three leads, and she handles all of its twists and turns remarkably, without ever looking like she's capital-A Acting. We're hoping that other naysayers will approach her work in Clouds of Sils Maria with an open mind, and that fans of her more mainstream work will also give the movie a chance.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Rohan Goes Deep, Deep Down Lost River

(Our friend Rohan Morbey, based in the UK, got to see Lost River, Ryan Gosling's, uh, controversial directing debut, before most of us in the States, and says it's well worth checking out. His review, which he's generously let us cross-post here, appeared in its original form as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on Twitter!

If Lost River were a cocktail it’d be one part David Lynch, two parts Nicolas Winding Refn and a hint of Terrence Malick, shaken vigorously. Ryan Gosling has taken (some may argue stolen) from the best to create a stunning mood piece for his first time behind the camera and whilst the mixture may be too strong for some audiences, his debut is nothing less than a visual treat, and scary as hell at times, too.  

There’s no advantage in me pointing out the obvious similarities between Gosling’s visual, emotional, and musical flair to that of Refn and how he was clearly influenced by their collaborations on Drive and Only God Forgives. One could see this film as merely Refn-lite and a poor attempt to capture the brilliance of those two modern noir masterworks – but that would be doing Lost River a disservice and a commentary not on the film but perhaps more suited to Gosling’s lifespan as an auteur if he continues to make films like Lost River and not branch out and find his own voice. Only then could the actor/director come under scrutiny.

Like the films of the three aforementioned directors, Lost River is far less concerned about the plot or character exploration than it is with using mood, surrealist hyper-reality and atmosphere to weave together the images and sounds. And what images they are; a town underwater where lampposts are still visible, a nightclub where ‘needs’ are filled with staged acts of sadistic violence against women, a gangland boss who drives around like someone out Mad Max and cuts off the lips of those who cross him, and of course Ben Mendelsohn dancing in front of Christina Hendricks locked in a plastic tomb. It’s a fairy tale wrapped up in a nightmare, but it’s a film lover’s dream.

Gosling’s film takes twenty minutes or so to find its tone. The opening is Malick-esque with low shots of grass and nature – this filled me with dread because no one can do this like the master himself. Thankfully, the film soon moves into territory the director is more seemingly more familiar with; neon colors, increasingly fragmented narrative, techno score, and style, style, and more style. Just how well Gosling managed to evoke the mood of his work with Refn and simply make it work is to be applauded. Is it as polished as Refn? No. But to tell the truth, I don’t think it’s too far away.

What I admired above all else in Gosling’s debut is that an A-list actor would make a film so completely non-commercial as this is. In a time where so many actors are afraid to go against what the box office will eat up, here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn. He’s all about the art, whether Lost River finds its audience or not. Looking at THE FILM and not the name on the credits, Lost River is a success in ways I didn’t assume possible.

Recommended!: The Tall T (1957)

It's practically a Disney movie for its first reel, as tall, stolid but genial cowboy Pat Brennan (Randolph Scott) strolls leisurely into the foreground. He stops at a station on the way to the city, engages in small talk with the station agent, promises to bring some candy back for the agent's son. Upon returning to the station, Brennan finds it overtaken by a trio of thieves, and himself engaged in an increasingly intense battle of wills with their nominal leader Frank (Have Gun Will Travel's Richard Boone).

The Tall T is the second of seven westerns made by Scott and director Budd Boetticher, a group of movies well known both for their solid storytelling and visual elegance. The Tall T is notable for its unusual suspense, trading its widescreen vistas of frontier country for strong closeups and a powerful sense of claustrophobia. The movie is based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, and features many of that writer's tropes, including strong characterizations that add dimension to hero and villain alike, as well as an exploration of a strange duality that emerges between its hero and villain; even as the hostage situation at the station mounts and grows more desperate, a strong respect grows between Brennan and Frank, to the point where Frank becomes suffocated by his inability to embrace the straight, decent life that Brennan increasingly represents. Fans of Leonard's later work, including 3:10 to Yuma (both the original and the remake) and the TV series Justified, will find The Tall T exploring familiar territory, with characters as vivid as anywhere else in Leonard's oeuvre. (Special mention should be made of Henry Silva, who endows his character, the none-too-bright outlaw Chink, with a certain amount of self-awareness, wisdom, and recognition of his own deficiencies.)

Enshrined in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2000, The Tall T is commonly acknowledged as a classic mid-century Western by fans of the genre, and will surprise anyone with preconceptions of the Western as a dated, stale genre. So strongly does it anticipate the revisionist Westerns to come that it feels completely modern, while at the same time working perfectly as a classic Western. If you've never seen a Western it's a great place to start, and is available at a couple of places online.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Rohan Runs Down Furious 7

(Our friend Rohan Morbey was over on the West Coast these last several days, and surely deserved a better experience than he wound up having during the opening weekend of the action blockbuster Furious 7. His review, which he's generously let us cross-post here, appeared in its original form as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on Twitter!

There’s one line in Furious 7 which epitomises this film and this series as a whole. It’s not the endlessly shoehorned-in mentions of ‘family’ and being ‘bros’ but a line from Ludacris, who utters the words “I can’t watch this anymore”.

My sentiments exactly.

This series, with the exception of Fast Five – which is now clearly an anomaly or sheer fluke - is the antithesis of what I look for from blockbuster action films, but my threshold is quite fair. A film like this needs to have at least one of four things: believable characters; an interesting plot in which the characters appear to belong, or, at minimum, have a tangible reason to do what they do; action sequences which build up gradually, teasing the audience that more will come without exasperating them; and lead actors who have charisma, charm, and screen presence. Furious 7 offered me nothing, but threw absolutely everything at me. The more action director James Wan shows, the less important the reasons why it’s happening become and the more the film (like Furious 6 previously) embraces its stupidity.

Looking back on the first film from 2001, it was insanely dull but at least it kept to the basic story of fast cars and heists. The central characters Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O’ Conner (Paul Walker), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and Mia (Jordana Brewster) were believable doing the things they were doing (per above) despite their lack of acting talent because the film showed us a world with rules and conduct and some semblance of relationship building. Now, six films later, there are military drones blowing up half of Los Angeles and cars jumping between skyscrapers.

On the surface it might appear exciting because everything either blows up or gets destroyed, but Wan makes such little use of the locations and surrounding in favor of obvious CGI that the entire film might as well be filmed against a blue screen. At one point the action moves to Abu Dhabi, one of the most iconic cities in the world, and home to the world’s tallest building; think how the city was used by the team behind
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, who showed us a stunt we’d never seen before, plus a car chase in
adverse weather conditions special to that location. In the hands of James Wan CGI cars jump through CGI windows which could be in any tall building in the world, with no logical explanation why.

With such a huge cast of characters, everyone needs to have their screentime so we’re forced to see the talent vaccums that are Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson ‘banter’ with dialogue which could have been written on a napkin during a lunch break on the shoot of 2 Fast 2 Furious (which makes this one look like Walter Hill’s The Driver by comparison) and recycled 12 years later. Let’s not forget Michelle Rodriguez, her of the steely expression which could a melt stone if you ever believed it was real. Of course she has a girl-on-girl fight with Ronda Rousey (recognized from, and bringing back unwelcome memories of, The Expendables III), but why? The answer is because she has to have something to do.

I can see why mass audiences might like the film. There isn’t a plot strong enough to connect each scene so there’s no need to apply your brain to anything on the screen; the acting is excruciatingly poor and the film makers leave dialogue to a minimum and throw more explosions at the screen to make up for it, so it makes the money paid for the ticket seem worthwhile; the run time is nearly two hours and twenty minutes so it never seems to end, which can only mean ‘more is better’ and that giant bucket of popcorn now seems like a good investment.

However, for me this film is so stupid it bypasses fun and entertainment and goes straight into category of ‘utter crap.’ Moreover, it cements the fact that the series is to the action genre what Transformers is to sci-fi: crass, crude, dumb, and head-poundingly boring. Throwing everything at the screen does not make for an enjoyable experience, and to give this series a pass but to stomp all over Transformers is beyond me. Both are as bad as each other and both need to stop.

Then I see on Jimmy Kimmel Vin Diesel talking about this film as the first in a new trilogy... Great news for fans of mindless set pieces, uncharismatic leads, and appalling sexism.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira, silent era-yesterday

You may have noticed that your movie-loving friend (not the one who sees every blockbuster on opening night, but the one who reads books on film/prefers 35mm to digital projection but owns a multi-region DVD player) is a little down today. You may have asked your friend what was wrong, and s/he would have told you, "Manoel de Oliveira died."

You likely asked, "Who is Manoel de Oliveira?"

And even this friend may have had a problem articulating who this man was, why he mattered, what legacy he left behind.

Manoel de Oliveira was a Portuguese filmmaker. He was in fact, our oldest living working filmmaker; having acted in movies during Portugal's silent era, he directed a couple of features during the mid 20th century, before hitting his stride in the 1970s, at which point he started turning out features and documentaries at the rate of at least one per year. Without stopping. Our Twitterfriend Justine Smith contextualized it thusly: "Manoel de Oliveira began making movies in the silent era, he had a new film released just last year. Think about that."

de Oliveira often commented that filmmaking itself was the reason for his unusual longevity, and sprightly energy. And though this is reason enough to celebrate his legacy, it doesn't really speak to what that legacy might consist of. His movies are as difficult to summarize as they are to commodify (a Portuguese filmmaker whose finest works rarely screen domestically, never mind being easily available on line).

de Oliveira's movies often adapted books or plays (sometimes, as with Inquietude, within the same movie). de Oliveira's innate sense of experimentation and playfulness made for an unpredictable and lively cinema, yet just as often his willingness to let his source material's ideas speak for themselves made his movies overlong and talky. (Even Jonathan Rosenbaum, in his lengthy and enthusiastic consideration of de Oliveira's work, is quick to point out that not every movie is a masterpiece.)

But when they come together, de Oliveira's movies offer unique and vast pleasures. de Oliveira regular Luís Miguel Cintra going absolutely word-mad in not one, not two, but three straight takes of the Portuguese farce Mon Cas (before being dropkicked deep into Beckett and the Book of Job). Michel Piccoli beginning I'm Going Home as King Lear, and gracefully exiting the movie simply a tired old man. (There's usually a playful challenge implicit in de Oliveira's endings, a playful "so there" as his characters recede into the distance or exit the frame.) Or the lovely revelations through the camera in de Oliveira's late-career opus The Strange Case of Angelica, so gentle that it only dawns on you after that this 100-year-old filmmaker has embraced CGI and put it to better, more artful use than his younger contemporaries.

The cinema of Manoel de Oliveira is elusive in so many ways, its meanings subtle even when you can find his movies. His work is a rich vein of mystery that practically runs through the entire history of cinema. That his work is not so easily commodified (there's no Vertigo or Some Like It Hot that one can watch and consider oneself versed in his work) only adds to its mystery...and its appeal. Such a vast and mysterious body of work appears inexhaustible, and as sad as it is to lose such an esteemed and apparently eternal figure, the vastness and depth of his legacy is well worth celebrating. And there's even a new(-ish) de Oliveira movie to look forward to - his 1982 documentary Memories and Confessions has never been screened, and per his orders will only now be shown. Where and when, of course, is a mystery, for now, an open-ended question mark completely in keeping with the endings of his movies. To be continued.

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