Friday, April 24, 2015

End of Week roundup, April 24

--Dismayed to open the internet this morning to find the new of the passing of film critic Richard Corliss. He's a familiar presence to readers of both Time and Film Comment, and in his long career covered a number of beats and topics, in always illuminating fashion. Our favorite pieces of his work show the breadth of his expertise, including his monograph on Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (which apes the structure of Nabokov's Pale fire - a poem, then extensive commentary - to comment both on Nabokov's novel and Kubrick's adaptation) and his in-depth piece on Mystery Science Theater 3000, looking at both the making of that colorful cult program and its unspoken function as film criticism. He was a hell of a writer, and his work remains. Dive in.

--On a happier note, and ever forward, the San Francisco International Film Festival kicked off last night, which is like two weeks of Christmas Day to us. You can expect to read reviews of what we're seeing (looks like around twenty programs)(good lord) both here and on our Twitter feed.

--One movie I can tell you about right now is Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, which has its sole screening at the festival on Sunday. It completely destroys the bio-pic format while giving life to its subject (thanks in no small part to the performance of Gaspard Ulliel in the title role) - feels like we learn more about Yves Saint Laurent just watching Ulliel at work in his studio than we would watching a more standard pic ticking off the well-known career highlights. Bonello's movie follows a deliberately Proustian, non-linear path through Saint Laurent's life, grabbing as much from contemporaneous cinema as from fashion. It feels like a Visconti history filtered through the split-screens of Richard Fleischer, giving the normally staid bio-pic a welcome infusion of pop energy. The climactic fashion show is the most thrilling thing I've seen in a movie this year. It's informative, entertaining, tragic, sexy, and maybe one of the great movies of 2015.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Recommended!: Ishtar (1987)

Readers of a certain age might be shaking their heads over reading the title of this post. Elaine May's Ishtar, a Hope/Crosby style road movie starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, became one of the most reviled movie of the 1980s. The rumors of difficult shooting, bloated budgets, and studio interference (as well as a very real conflict between Beatty and an executive who took over the project during post-production) fed the movie's reputation as an outsized failure, leading to it being extensively reviled by people who never even bothered to see it.

A generation after its release, it's easier to see Ishtar for the low-key, funny, and very charming piece that it is. Beatty and Hoffman are winning as a pair of none-too-bright songwriters, whose gamble on a tour of the Middle East puts them on opposite sides of a brewing revolution, and in the gunsights of a contingent of dingbat CIA operatives (led by a bemused Charles Grodin). May writes and directs the movie with a light touch that contrasts beautifully with the movie's darker elements, including the growing, painful rift between its protagonists and America's clueless interference in Middle Eastern politics. (The movie made the rounds for a revival in the early 2000s, and in those screenings seemed a prescient picture of Bush's Iraq bunglings.)  And the duo's songs, by Paul Williams, are both deliberately dire and tellingly, wickedly hilarious.

The fallout surrounding the movie meant that May would never direct another. It seemed a sad, implosive climax to an incredibly strong run as a comedienne, performer, and filmmaker, though she did return as a writer on a couple of movies by longtime collaborator Mike Nichols. After a career as a brilliantly funny comedienne into the 60s, May took up acting and playwriting before directing her first film, A New Leaf, in the early 70s. Her filmmaking process was a deeply collaborative one, and the resulting long shoots, miles of footage, and blown budgets did not endear her to studio executives (though one suspects that a male filmmaker guilty of the same transgressions would be praised for his integrity). But though her directing oeuvre only includes four movies, they're all worth seeking out for their off-kilter sensibilities and deep, deep humanity. And they only scratch the surface of the total life's work of this fiercely intelligent and insanely funny person. If you're looking to explore the work of a female filmmaker, or just want to be entertained by a movie balancing a unique style with strong characters and a knowing, human sense of humor, the work of Elaine May in general, and Ishtar in particular, is a great place to start.

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.

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