Saturday, January 30, 2010



Blind Side, The
Hurt Locker, The
Education, An
Hangover, The
Inglourious Basterds
Serious Man, A
Star Trek
Up in the Air


Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Lee Daniels, Precious
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds


Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker


Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Zoe Saldana, Avatar
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious
Meryl Streep, Julie & Julia


Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christian McKay, Me and Orson Welles
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanley Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds


Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds
Mo'Nique, Precious
Julianne Moore, A Single Man


Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
James Cameron, Avatar
Jane Campion, Bright Star
Joel and Ethan Coen, A Serious Man
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds


Neil Blompkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9
Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious
Nick Hornby, An Education
Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, Star Trek
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air


Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Princess and the Frog, The


Milk of Sorrow, The
Samson & Delilah
Prophete, Un
White Ribbon, The


Beaches of Agnes, The
Burma VJ
Cove, The
Every Little Step
Food Inc.


Inglourious Basterds
Serious Man, A
White Ribbon, The


Hurt Locker, The
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek
Up in the Air


Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek
Young Victoria, The


Coco Before Chanel
Education, An
Inglourious Basterds
Young Victoria, The


Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen


District 9
Hurt Locker, The
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Star Trek


District 9
Star Trek


Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, The
Road, The
Young Victoria, The


Informant, The
Sherlock Holmes
Single Man, A


"I See You," Avatar
"The Weary Kind," Crazy Heart
"I Want to Come Home," Everybody's Fine
"Almost There," Princess and the Frog, The
"All is Love," Where the Wild Things Are


NINE - 3
UP - 3
2012 - 2

Monday, January 18, 2010

Criterion # 13: Spine # 486: HOMICIDE (David Mamet, 1991)

The beginning of David Mamet’s Homicide appears as if it’s going to follow in the same turgid footsteps of House of Games. Following a SWAT team raid on an apartment in the ghetto, Bob Gold (Joe Mantegna) and Tim Sullivan (William H. Macy) gab about an escaped murderer (Ving Rhames). Amidst their grimace inducing back-and-forths, racial epithets get hurled. Gold, a Jew who feels he’s lost touch with his heritage, soon gets pulled from the initial case, to investigate the slaying of elderly Jewish woman who owned a convenience store. Through this pursuit, Gold seeks answers, both personal and professional.

The first 20 minutes do not match the rest of Mamet’s exploration of cultural uncertainty. Playing like a mix between a poorly written episode of Law and Order, meshed with the creaky racial polemics of Paul Haggis, it’s unpleasant and risible to no end. Mamet’s inability to help himself, and indulge in peppy, but languid dialogue leaves the proceedings slack-jawed in poor taste. However, once the crux Gold’s confliction becomes present, the bitter taste lessens and approaches revelation. Nevertheless, one must first suffer through a barrage of portentous assertions. The best example ends the sequence following the Jewish woman’s murder. Her granddaughter and son appear on the scene. Entering the grocery, and seeing the dead body, he states “It never ends.” “What never ends,” inquires Gold. She replies solemnly, “The Jews, I guess.” Then, Mamet slowly fades to black, as if the line, in all of its ill-mannered intent, should provide a riveting jolt.

Luckily, the last 2/3rds of the film settles in, abandoning the nonsense and delving into Gold’s personal demons. Gold, torn between his ethical duties to the police force and heritage as a Jew serves for an unsettling mix of inner-city turmoil and cultural displacement, the loss of a concrete identity. Where House of Games merely and inconsequentially used noir archetypes to utterly empty results, Homicide manages both genre competence and moral confliction. Meeting with a Rabbi in search of answers in his case, Gold admits to not being able to read Hebrew. He replies, coldly: “You say you’re a Jew, but you can’t read Hebrew. What are you then?” Though fraught with tactical existentialism, it becomes the central thematic concern. Mamet refrains from overindulging in Gold’s sense of self-loathing. His decision, whether to honor societal or cultural duty over the other is universal and the conclusion achieves an impressive level of restraint for a filmmaker who had previously demonstrated little.

Criterion # 12: Spine # 399: HOUSE OF GAMES (David Mamet, 1987)

Too often, sub-par genre films get mistaken as profound works of art. Usually, especially as related to thrillers or heist films, words like "taut," "merciless" or "psychologically acute" are tossed around as superlatives, when they actually reveal the hollowed void such films inhabit. Chalk up David Mamet's House of Games under this category. Displacing genuine noir ethos for an indulgent con job, every aspect of his calculated effort lacks resonance.

Mamet is damned from the get-go, once the writer-director's predilections for a goofy narrative about psychological duress becomes clear. Psychiatrist Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse)can't help her patients. She's the author of a book called "Driven: Obsession and Compulsion in Everyday Life." People ask her to autograph it when she's walking across the park. Well twice actually, each one bookending her encounter with a sharp-witted hustler named Mike Mancuso (Joe Mantegna). Trying to help a patient who owes Mike a gambling debt, she's lured into, and fascinated by, the life of a crook. Walking down the street after nearly hustling an earnest soldier (William H. Macy), Mike imparts the expected cynicism:


What we've just seen is the operation of a slightly different
philosophical principle.


Which is?


Don't trust nobody.

For filmmakers like Mamet, lines like that are all that noir is about. Dropping cultural paranoia and resonant hierarchical uncertainty, he retains the dialogue cadence, chiaroscuro and criss-crossing. In doing so, he’s paved the way for more than two decades of duplication. Guys like Steven Soderbergh, John Dahl, David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson have followed suit.

Even more insulting for Mamet, is that his narrative doesn’t function on the basic level it desires. Presumably, plot twists are implemented to keep a viewer on their toes. Such practices are lowbrow to begin with, but this is the game Mamet likes. Stunningly, the true intentions of characters can be gleaned and are telegraphed 30-45 minutes before such revelations take place. Don’t try to explain their transparency as planned by Mamet, either; trying to assert the character’s true intentions as a function of Mamet’s commentary on heist films would not only give Mamet far too much credit, but neglect the fundamental problem with his film. It doesn’t amount to anything more than fashionable ambivalence (the easiest of dénouement choices) and an exercise in genre ego stroking. Take my advice: don’t trust nobody, especially David Mamet.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Daybreakers (The Spierig Brothers, 2010) -- D

After the ungodly mess that was 2003's Undead, Michael and Peter Spierig have returned with Daybreakers, yet another unwatchable piece of horror dreck, serving as the bane of the genre's now teetering status. This putrid effort concerns an altered reality (yawn), where vampires are the dominant race (weak) and feed on the remaining humans for a dwindling blood supply (killer). Laughable attempts at reverence and homage occur throughout. Apparently, the Spierig brothers believe simply placing a fedora on the head, and plopping a cigarette in the mouth, of a detective serves as an adequate short-hand for signaling noir intentions. Or that CGI created mise-en-scene, even when evoking silent German expressionism, should inspire shock and awe. Hang-ups on visual archetypes epitomize what's wrong with genre thinking. It loses focus on meaningful elements - you know, story, characters, themes, emotional resonance. The best genre film ever made - John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) resonates so forcefully because, beneath the lone, forgotten jail house, lies a much richer story about racial equality and brotherhood. I've heard some say the Spierig brothers film looks like "early John Carpenter" - anyone who would say that doesn't understand what makes several of Carpenter's early works so enduring.

Here, the duo is content to fake cinematic intelligence, but eventually get their rocks off with loads of CGI gore, silly and unbearable backstory and trashy one-liners. At one point, Elvis (Willem Dafoe) says: "Being a human in this place is about as safe as bare-backing a $5 whore." You can literally see the bitter taste of the words as they come out of Defoe's mouth. It's all played on that ridiculous, kitschy level. Truly one for the nerds.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Criterion # 11: Spine # 191: JUBILEE (Derek Jarman, 1978)

The hammered-down subversion of Derek Jarman’s Jubilee announces itself during the opening credits, as the soft, gentle sounds of a seaside afternoon leads into a film that’s anything but. In doing so, Jarman lays down his j-u-x-t-a-p-o-s-i-t-i-o-n and delves headway into a post-apocalyptic world of punk rejects, akin to that of Alex and his drooges from A Clockwork Orange (1971). The youth run the show – among them a chubby, orange haired, machine-gun toting freak named Mad (Toyah Wilcox), the roving gang’s heroine, Amyl Nitrate (Jordan) and a slew of punk originals, including Adam Ant.

It's a tired vogue of young filmmakers who want to make films about the end of the world. It's easy cynicism and Jarman does little to refute the trend. The great, forgotten American filmmaker Paul Morrissey used outlandish subjects, drug addiction and kinky sexual interludes to satirize and criticize the dark, ugly side of sexual liberation. For Morrissey, free love degraded human compassion and wreaked havoc on traditional values, which held both society and the family together (his masterpiece Blood for Dracula (1974) is the best example). With Jubilee, Jarman attempts something similar, taking the angry, radical punk movement and transporting its ideology to a place devoid of humanity, where anarchists roam and the remaining police force beat and shoot without warning. Problem is, Jarman fails to locate the humanity in his subjects. They are pieces of ass, degraded sickies, sexual deviants. A typical cringe inducing line goes like this: having sex on and under bright red, plastic sheets, the satisfied female retorts at two watching gang members: “Leave him alone! He’s better than a vibrator and bigger!”

The images Jarman creates are undeniably powerful, memorable. His bleak vision of London oozes miasma, but what’s the source of the destruction? An absurd frame narrative begins with Queen Elizabeth I, going into the future to witness first hand the turmoil. Nothing much comes of this thread, so its inclusion presumably is meant as a denunciation of the English monarchy. Thus, it has the expected radical underpinnings. However, Jarman also seems to disapprove of outright hostility towards such establishment, by making his characters such loons. Nevertheless, he ultimately seems to side with them, following some beatings at the hands of a police force. So here again, what is the moral stance of the film? It lacks one, which makes the entire proceedings both hard to endure and relatively indulgent. There are some sharp bits, like when a woman asks a young punk sitting in a coffee shop, “What do you do?” He replies unsuspectingly, “Nothing. I’m a musician.” There are other comparably intelligent lines and sequences throughout, but the end product is much like the world it depicts – ugly, brutal, unpalatable and without much sense or purpose.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Criterion # 10: Spine # 347: CLAIRE'S KNEE (Eric Rohmer, 1970)

Today’s news regarding the death of Eric Rohmer signaled the passing of one of cinema’s greatest philosophers. Especially concerning the practice and mores of modern romance, his properly numbered sextology of films, deemed by himself the Six Moral Tales, is not only one of France’s great masterpieces, but in all of filmmaking. No singular work or thematic combination of works by a single director are as astute and pointed on the issue of sex. It seems the least a cinephile can do on the day a great director dies is pull a DVD from their library and watch a master at work.

Claire’s Knee was the only title from his sextology I had not yet seen. After viewing it, and recalling his others, one of many things is certain – Rohmer made some of the most visually stunning films of the 60’s and 70’s. His color films especially, evoke the greatest Technicolor works of Powell & Pressburger and Douglas Sirk, only with real color stock, making the choice and vibrancy of color all the more impressive. Here is an excellent example, one of the film’s opening shots:

As you can see, he also has an excellent eye for landscapes and photographs them in proper proportion to his characters. Here’s another staggering shot:

The vitality of the color in the surroundings offsets Rohmer’s understated narrative aesthetic and characters. His images are utterly beautiful and mesmerizing, yet his characters are inflicted with indecision, unable to definitively decide on the correct path for both their own pleasure and moral adherence.

Jerôme (Jean-Claude Brialy) is away for the summer while his fiancé works in Africa. Charming his way around a nearby lake house, he learns a young girl named Laura (Béatrice Romand) has a crush on him. He finds her harmless, playful and enjoys the time spent discussing love with her. She, however, is more versed in love than he realized and doesn’t quite buy his notion that “basically, love and friendship are the same.” The arrival of Laura’s stepsister Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), however, intimidates him. And challenges the claim to his platonic fried Aurora (Aurora Cornu) midway through the film that, “I’m through running after girls. All of them…young and old.” He first sees her sunbathing in a striking, teal bikini:

Her presence disturbs Jerôme’s in a way he cannot quite comprehend: “She arouses a desire in me that’s real yet has no purpose and is all the stronger because of it.” Like in La Collectionneuse (1967), My Night at Maud’s (1969) and Love in the Afternoon (1972), Rohmer creates a male psyche riddled with complex dilemmas about sexual desire and obligation. Jerôme does not embody chauvinist debauchery, but even-headed masculinity, ready to calmly approach his quandary. The sophistication of Rohmer’s narrative and central character relinquishes any capability for moral transparency – that remains the sole question for his protagonists, simply, but profoundly: what is moral?

Jerôme’s obsession with Claire concerns her knee. In all of his curious, voyeuristic glory, he’s marveled by it while she picks fruit from a tree:

He summarizes it as such: “Every woman has her most vulnerable point. For some, it’s the nape of the neck, the waist, the hands. For Claire…it [is] her knee.” Freudians would call her knee his cathexis and “a caress must be accepted” for Jerôme to conquer his “pure desire, a desire for nothing.” The moral interests in Rohmer’s film are dealt with maturely. Rohmer was a mature filmmaker. Never indulgent, always modest, his ability to capture an everlasting image is rivaled only by his comprehensive and conscientious subject matter. One of cinema’s great poets is lost, but his art lives on and, thus, so does he.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Criterion # 9: Spine # 472: PIGS AND BATTLESHIPS (Shohei Imamura, 1962)

Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke could learn a thing or two from Shohei Imamura. A misanthrope with a sense of humor and irony, the moral destitute embodied by Pigs and Battleships comes with a genuine sense of tragedy and loss. Not so much for the specific characters whose lives are ultimately wasted, but for mankind itself, that despite the potential for good and self-enrichment, it consistently opts for filth, grime and hollow circumstances. Imamura’s film is as scathing as they come.

Critical of Japanese culture (but especially the imperialist American influence) the opening credit sequence juxtaposes a patriotic American march with a Japanese pig trade, run by hoodlums who raise the pigs and sell them for major profit. The sequence captures the narrative’s absurdity – American battleships emerge as trucks run pigs through unpaved roads. A man sits in back of one of the trucks, hugging and kissing a pig. Nothing even close to this irreverent appears in Japanese cinema prior to Imamura, so his decision, and ability, to go completely over the line, yet retain both a devastated sensibility about the proceedings, rather than exploitive glee, is remarkable.

Kinta (Hiroyuki Nagato) embodies the degradation of human aspirations. A 20-something hustler, he makes money pimping women to GI’s, but has a girl of his own named Haruko (Jitsuko Yoshimura). Naturally, his hypocritical nature becomes enraged when he learns she, too, works the GI’s for money. The depraved shanty town, where there are no laws or sense of moral code, can quite easily be classified as a pigpen, a metaphor literalized late in the film. Usually, filmmakers indulge cynicism, propping themselves above their subjects and act as vicious puppeteers, cruelly pulling the strings on characters left to merely suffer on-screen. In doing so, these filmmakers abandon the characters they control, rather than utilizing their misery to state something meaningful and tragic about the human condition. Imamura strongly accomplishes the latter by respecting the plights of those involved in his narrative. There’s no condescension or pity, but a thorough implementation of a cultural zeitgeist currently gone awry.

A great example occurs in the middle of the film; the gang’s leader, thinking he has stomach cancer, wanders through the rain, thinking he has but a few days to live. It turns out his sickness is only an ulcer, treatable with “proper diet.” Like the pigpen metaphor, Imamura utilizes the illness of the boss to serve as a microcosm for the entire environment. The culture engaged with by these people is but a curable illness. Problem is, the illness can only be cured if those taken sick are responsible enough to cure it. If not, it eats away at the remaining moral fabric, until nothing remains. In the same sequence, the boss nearly escapes being hit by a train. Once the train passes, a billboard displays the message, “Nissan Life Insurance: Live Life with a Smile.” Heavy-handed, but still effective, the choice for an absurd life leads to absurd circumstances. Thus, when Kinta is pinned down in the city streets with a machine-gun and hundreds of roaming pigs, he may have just gotten what he asked for. Haruko's cathartic cry for despair following the climax is horribly bitter and riveting, capping off a truly classic denoument.

Criterion # 8: Spine # 291: HEAVEN CAN WAIT (Ernst Lubitsch, 1943)

If Orson Welles had decided to give Citizen Kane a screwball element, it may have looked something like Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait. Lubitsch isn’t a cinematic gunslinger like Welles, and his film (his first in color) is much more conventional in terms of shots and edits. Nevertheless, what it lacks in formal play, Lubitsch compensates by providing a multifaceted emotional spectrum – sardonic, funny, cynical, heartfelt, ethereal, the comedic element doesn’t prevent the material from reaching utter bliss, through both poignancy about life’s simultaneous cruelty and wonder. Such a mixing of emotions is Lubitsch’s calling card and where his concern in previous films was strictly about the single man’s life (Trouble in Paradise, The Smiling Lieutenant, The Shop Around the Corner) he now turns to the family.

The film opens with Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) appearing at the gates of hell. Of course, in Lubitsch’s hell, there’s no fire and brimstone scare tactics. His Excellency (Laird Cregar) sits at a desk, the décor of his office naturally blood red and quite specious. The scant opening scene, where Henry claims “my entire life has been one big misdemeanor” serves as a frame story for Van Cleve’s life, from birth to death. Lubitsch tackles cultural ethos with ferocity. An early episode in Henry’s life has him swindled out of his favorite pair of beetles by the fast talking, but refined girl of his affection. His summarization of the incident: “From that moment on, one thing was clear to me: if you want to win a girl, you have to have lots of beetles.” Such a line connotes the “Lubitsch touch.” No matter the scene, he always ends on a witticism, or a laugh. And make no mistake, Lubitsch is the master of this tactic and it’s all the more impressive that his films attain the pathos (and more) of works that would classify themselves as “serious.”

Lubitsch distinguishes and canonicates himself through his incontrovertible view of morality. The essence of his films always boils down to such issues and his lack of confliction becomes absolutely persuasive through his applications. For instance, a cheeky sequence where young Henry has had a glass of wine playfully deconstructs bourgeois decorum (“keep a stiff upper lip”) and the purposed European decadence which Lubitsch, himself, has been accused of infusing into American film culture. Certainly, Lubitsch’s view on sex lacks the repression of his early-1930’s contemporaries (one need only to see his masterpiece The Smiling Lieutenant to know this). However, the implementation of the production code in the mid 1930’s makes his post-code films more restricted, yet subtler in their liberties.

Eventually, Henry marries Martha (Gene Tierney) and their marriage, like most, suffers many ups and downs. However, Henry’s ultimate love for Martha, most pointed in old age, relies not on sex but mutual respect. A scene late in the film, where they dance together for the last time, features a wonderful crane shot, slowly pulling away and up from the dancing couple. Their mortality is maximized by their rapidly decreasing stature in comparison to the enormous ballroom, a riveting scene tinged with lament for an ephemeral lifespan, yet filled with appreciation for the chance to live it and the hope that one day, they may meet again.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Criterion # 7: Spine # 485: THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (Whit Stillman, 1998)

The Last Days of Disco – Whit Stillman’s third feature film – is, at its core, much the same as his first. It aims to offer a vantage point from inside a culture meant for a select few. Instead of bourgeois, debutante society, now it’s an early 80’s disco scene, and its ambiance and decorum are dissected by college graduates Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale). Much like Metropolitan, the rigid mores and established laws of the scene serve for much of the satire and witticisms. In no way is Stillman sentimentalizing the era gone by, but neither is he contemptible. Wielding compassion, irony and a fluent comprehension of his material, Stillman demonstrates the ultimate instance of cultural transience, and how evolving social structure remains relatively unsophisticated, no matter how much glam, glitter or makeup one applies.

From a purely narrative standpoint, Stillman’s third feature is both more ambitious and successful. The elitist nightclub becomes a social sanctuary, meant only for a select few. From the opening scene, Alice and Charlotte explain its confidentiality: “I heard you have a better chance of getting in if you come by a cab.” It continues Stillman’s fixation on unwritten rules or how ways of behavior become solidified, though unspoken, within a given culture. Likewise, young lawyer Josh (Matt Keeslar) explains the problem with disco’s ascension: “What I found terribly encouraging was the idea that when the time in life came to have a social life, there’d be all these great places for people to go to because, as you’ll remember, for many years, there were none. What I didn’t realize, was that they’d get so impossible to get into.” Great lines like this abound in Stillman’s script – he has an astute ear for both perceptive dialogue and ways of speaking.

The film benefits immensely from a layered opening scene, weaving all of the key players in and out of the club. At the crux of it all is the magnificent Sevigny, who turns Alice into one of the most richly drawn female characters in the past fifteen years of American cinema. Alice’s perception about the culture and ability to detach herself from it, is made poignant by her vulnerable sexuality. In one of the film’s most intimate dialogue exchanges, Alice wonders whether or not she’s still a virgin – that is, whether or not her previous sexual encounters could be deemed intercourse. Her line of thought demonstrates how the cultural zeitgeist becomes extrapolated onto all related, and even exterior thought processes. The habitual need to label oneself (a preppie, yuppie, disco fan, etc.) degrades humanity and creates stereotypes. Stillman’s greater point is that ethics, mores and morality remain contingent within the given society – at least, in the eyes of the society itself.

Criterion # 6: Spine # 326: METROPOLITAN (Whit Stillman, 1990)

Unlike his dry-humored indie contemporaries (Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach, particularly), Whit Stillman has never received anywhere close to what could be called widespread recognition. The majority of this may be due to the fact that Stillman has only made three films, the last being The Last Days of Disco (1998), but the remaining lack thereof can be attributed to what his films are about. Metropolitan, Stillman’s first film, would seem to be of the most esoteric sort. During Christmas break in Manhattan, seven college bourgeoisies (and a newly accepted proletarian) congregate at after parties, jawing over topics including Fourierism, Jane Austen, Bunuel, Surrealism and the literary criticism of Lionel Trilling. Thankfully, Stillman writes and views his characters with simultaneous affection and tongue-in-cheek disdain.

Take Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), from the west side of Manhattan and the outsider being welcomed into the Sally Fowler Rat Pack (the self-bestowed name of the debutantes). Discussing Mansfield Park with Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), Townsend admits that he hasn’t read the novel, and generally refrains from doing so, because “I can never forget than none of it really happened and it’s all just made up by the author.” Notice Stillman’s immediate cut to black after this admission. It’s one of many instances where a curious, bordering on absurd admission is delivered with utmost certainty by his assured and confident characters. The cut is what demonstrates Whitman's stance on the material. It's not condescending, nor is it puerile self-loathing. It's affectionate teasing. Certainly, the film is something of an autobiographical piece and Stillman manages to strike a nice balance between the two inclinations. The smarmy intellectualism of the characters reveals itself as hollow and meaningless, since their inability to understand emotion and love has not yet developed. Conformity to the class, to the decorum of high society, renders these young adults still children.

However, here lies the larger point and insight of Stillman’s film. One gets the suspicion that these characters (and all people) never truly grow up. This also draws out its universal element. The comedy of manners approach, like the best of its literary forbearers, demonstrates the humanity beneath the facade. Under the tuxedos, white gloves and gowns, lie novices trying to find their way through the world. By not indulging both himself and the characters, Whitman’s farce becomes more and more tinged with comedic genius. He finds humanity where cynicism runs rampant.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Criterion # 5: Spine # 419: LA POINTE COURTE (Agnes Varda, 1954)

Agnes Varda’s La Pointe Courte, like most first films, values the shot over the narrative. One can ascertain this from the very first scene, as Varda’s opening credits continue into the opening shot. Tracking down the desolate alley of a windy Parisian village, she cuts to focus on a well-dressed man, leaning against a tree. The shot continues, coming parallel to show an approaching man, a fisherman. They exchange a quick hello – then Varda tracks back from where she came, now following the fisherman. Boldly, the next cut begins tracking through a doorway, viewing a lower class woman feeding more than half a dozen children; the next room, a small child lying awake in her crib. A wipe, then out the back door, tracking over piles of wood and debris. Following this fascinating use of movement, Varda settles into a more traditional continuity editing style, yet her images remain as profoundly dynamic.

Her brief film (running only 80 minutes) primarily chronicles the strained relationship of a wandering married couple, yet also concerns the members of the small town, their daily routines and the elegance of their rustic lifestyles. The film is, above all, an exercise in formalism. Naturally, the setting remains integral to that style, but her film suffers from too much rigid symbolism in her compositions. Varda admits herself, “I wrote a very detailed shooting script, for good or bad, and that’s exactly what I shot.” Such rigidity makes for a cold viewing experience. It pales compared to the warmth of her masterpiece Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962). In that film, the material interests and idiosyncrasies of a beautiful singer were examined and made significant by showing only a 90 minute period in her life. Like its New Wave contemporaries, the combination of realism and artifice spawned a new hybrid which simultaneously rejects traditional Hollywood filmmaking style, but embraces its pathos, its visceral form.

In La Pointe Courte, Varda loses those pathos by making her characters specters, meant only to reveal her novice predilection for visual beauty. Luckily for her, she’s as gifted as any at doing such. But the dialogue is detached, rote. Sitting on a stack of wood, the woman says “If we separate, nothing else will interest me.” Naturally, the detachment comes through her blank stare, not embracing her lover. He replies: “You had ambitions for ‘our love.’ It’s your pride talking, not your grief.” The rhetorical method here, in personifying abstract emotions, parallels the cluttered frame’s obtuseness. It’s film for film’s sake – and thus, rings pretentious. Varda never finds anything honest or human on which she can apply her astounding cinematic gifts, though it’s not as disappointing knowing the leaps she would make in films to come.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Criterion # 4: Spine # 195: I FIDANZATI (Ermanno Olmi, 1962)

It’s a film like Ermanno Olmi’s I Fidanzati that makes the endeavors of The Criterion Collection so invaluable to cinephiles. Based off of this film and Il Posto (Olmi’s other film in the collection), he is one of the majors, fit to stand by the likes of Alain Resnais, Marcel Carne and Yasujiro Ozu as a master of juxtaposing image and theme, for an utterly poetic effect. Not quite neo-realist, not quite poetic realism, Olmi's film becomes nearly impossible to categorize.

The premise is simple: a couple (the film’s title literally translates as “the fiancés”) experiences both doubt and sadness at being separated from one another, when Giovanni (Carlo Cabrini) accepts a new job in Sicily, leaving Liliana (Anna Canzi) in Milan. Essentially, this remains the entirety of the narrative. What becomes so memorable, however, is the way Olmi tells it. The opening scene – about 13 minutes long – can be seen as a direct homage to Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), in which two lovers recall both history and love to explain the origin of their relationship. Here, the practically dialogue free sequence throws time in a blender, jumping frontwards, backwards and sideways, piecing together mesmerizing cinematic compositions to simultaneously explain the bare-bones scenario and dazzle the eye.

Olmi is getting at something much larger about the human experience, explained through sequences of Giovanni conversing with a depressed waiter, playing gags on his co-workers during the wee hours of the morning, wandering the streets of Sicily and cramming into his small hotel room. The small “bits of business”, if you will, are what makes the film so profound. The opening sequence – a dance – continually interweaves with present goings-on. The physicality of the dance represents both sexual promiscuity and symbolizes the economic turn Giovanni has so long desired. He says at one point: “If I don’t take this job, there are ten other men waiting to accept.” Thus, all of these elements thrust into motion his desire to fulfill what his society deems logical for the ambitious worker. Nevertheless, the relationship becomes more emotionally complex when Liliana divulges her true feelings. In an astounding climax, time seems to erase and the couple’s reverie, their idealization of how they will turn out, seems to transcend rationality. It’s but a dream of what their relationship may become, if only they can strengthen it and endure such separation. By overlapping time and supplying such beautiful imagery, Olmi’s written a love letter to both cinema and sweethearts.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Criterion # 3: Spine # 447 LE DOULOS (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos is, by all accounts, one of his lesser films. Not necessarily in quality – the film’s opening and closing sequences are both marvels of expressionist and fatalistic filmmaking. Yet, his foray into Franco-American gangster film remains much more notable for his 1967 masterpiece Le Samourai. That film stands alone, rivaled only, perhaps, by John Woo’s 1989 homage The Killer. Watching Le Doulos, one gets the feeling it’s merely a warm up for his later masterpiece. However, to write-off Le Doulos as just a transitory thriller in Melville’s oeuvre would be downright inane. Certainly, given both its playful and serious nature, it is without question a work of art. Problem is, the human element gets muddled along the way. After the film’s virtuoso opening, involving a man, returning to kill a man he believes was responsible for sending him to jail, only the noir coda seems to be in motion. That is, Melville is so obsessed with American film noir that its style overrules the human element. By the film’s conclusion, when the tragedy should be in full swing, it all rings somewhat deflated.

What Melville does well, he does exceedingly so. The title card which opens the film, explains the derivation of the title. Doulos, in street lingo, means “hat.” However, in secret gangs and in the police force, it also means “one who wears the hat” or “a police informer.” Equally circular is the existential maxim following: “A person must choose whether they want to die or to lie.” An extensive tracking shot follows: Faugel (Serge Reggiani) walks under a bridge, his hat and trench coat emblematic of the prototypical noir figure. However, given the title, one must consistently ask: Is this man the informer? The film has fun, visually and thematically, playing with that question. Faugel has returned for revenge – to payback those who sent him to jail six years ago. Naturally, two-facing and double-crossing abound.

With the exception of the film’s opening and closing sequences, there’s not too much in Le Doulos to distinguish it from numerous other noirs. Sure, Melville’s sensibilities for visual style are much more prolific than the run-of-the-mill productions, but the text of his film never comes alive or seems more than just an excuse to do some cool noir shit, like have Faugel, not just look into a mirror, but a broken mirror, even further expressing his conflicted, duplicitous state. Or his play with mise-en-scene, beautifully shrouding characters in both light and darkness. It comes off often as a stellar imitation, but an imitation nonetheless, of a classic noir like Out of the Past (1947). Nor does it have the visceral punch of a film like Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955). And again, Melville himself makes the definitive Franco gangster noir five years later. Certainly, Melville’s film isn’t without its lively moments and fascinating formal play, but there’s not a narrative here that’s quite worthy of his visual talents.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Criterion # 2: Spine # 309: UGETSU (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

A film like Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu works so well, because it aims so small. Utilizing the well known stories of Japanese writer Akinari Ueda, the foundation of Mizoguchi’s thematic concern remains relatively basic – the human price for war and greed. These are not exclusively small topics by any means, yet the simplicity of the storytelling allows for such subtle, powerful allegory. As Tony Rayns points out on the commentary track, Mizoguchi uses 16th century Japan, and the moral turmoil of that time, to reflect and parallel mid-1950’s Japan. Mizoguchi’s popularity among critics and other filmmakers alike (Godard called him “the greatest of Japanese filmmakers, or quite simply one of the greatest of filmmakers”) makes embarking on Ugetsu, often thought to be his masterpiece, a daunting task. Nevertheless, it’s a wholly accessible film, given its parable-like narrative. Its beauty – and it’s quite beautiful – comes largely from the heartbreak suffered by its four lead characters. It’s also a kaidan and the supernatural element literally makes for a transcendental story about the facade of material wealth.

Set in 16th century Japan during civil war, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) and his brother Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) make fine, hand-made pottery to sell in the city. Tobei is a bit of an idiot, always having dreamed of becoming a Samurai. As the film opens, he leaves with Genjuro – Tobei to pursue his dream and Genjuro to make the little money he can. Masterful cross-cutting eventually puts them both together, back home with their wives and child. The money goes to Genjuro’s head; he wants more and fast, because soldiers are expected to invade shortly. Mizoguchi establishes all of this in a mere 15 minutes. Economical, but not truncated, he breaks the story down to its essentials and his compositions do the rest. Eventually, Genjuro and Tobei are confronted with choices, all of them concerning both their status as men and desires for decadence.

Mizoguchi, like many of his Japanese brethren, had one of the sharpest eyes for composition. Nothing in his frame is ever a mistake. He utilizes cuts selectively, often only for emphasis or on movement. The unbroken shot (a lost art in contemporary cinema) lends the material both fluidity and, ironically, a mystical sensibility. Mystical, because the movement of the camera transports the viewer when the viewer is not actually moving. It feels adventurous, elegant and dangerous all at once. Mizoguchi, however, doesn’t overdue it; never are his stylistic choices meant to distract from the tragedy at hand. Ugetsu could hardly be described as neo-realist, yet the minimalist, heartbreaking narrative shares much in common with Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948). In that film, the central character was thrust into circumstances beyond his control. In Ugetsu, Genjuro holds his fate, and that of his loved ones, in his own hands. He has the opportunity to evaluate his choice. That he fumbles it makes his story, perhaps, even more devastating.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Criterion # 1: Spine # 265: SHORT CUTS (Robert Altman, 1993)

Every film Robert Altman ever made, in some way, represents a particular facet of American culture, done only the way Altman was capable of doing. Valuing humanism over cynicism, the very essence of an Altman film is utter liberation. He manages to enunciate his worldview with feral precision; it may seem like an oxymoron at first, but upon inspection, his grandest film (Nashville) remains unparalleled in that regard. He interweaves some three dozen characters into a single film, yet never wastes a sequence, a scene or even a moment. Everything has a purpose in expressing his masterfully conceived view of American culture. Thus, the release of Short Cuts in 1993 – even longer, a more complex narrative structure, perhaps bleaker – signals the utmost ambition of a man who’d already set the bar. It may not be quite as powerful as the unified whole that is Nashville, but it’s incredible to behold and never relinquishes its anti-melodramatic grasp.

Short Cuts is indeed an anti-melodrama. Altman never indulges or exploits the emotional pain of his characters, nor does his script, adapted from the short stories of Raymond Carver, attempt to sum up the film’s intent. Perhaps this is why his films are often described as “ponderous,” “messy” or “lacking cohesion.” Obviously, lesser taste opts for the phony histrionics of Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” where characters converse with the subtlety of a bowling ball. Altman’s film is simply “there;” he is the king of non-judgmental filmmaking. His cast of characters here include: an adulterous police officer, his flabbergasted wife, a jealous doctor, his artist wife, a stay-at-home mom who moonlights as a phone sex operator, a troubled, mid-20’s cellist and a pissed-off baker. The tone, however, never wavers or falters. The characters, no matter the circumstances, seem to make their own decisions. Yet, Altman isn’t aiming for any sort of hokey “real-life” drama. He’s reaching something much more profound and not concerned with such meaningless aesthetic formalism. His film ever so strongly hits a nerve concerning what it means to be an adult, thrust into modern American society. Sexual jealousy, ethical quandaries, human desires – every vignette thoroughly examines such troubling questions. Whether it is a car accident, a drunken front-seat fuck or discovering a corpse in a river, every action and reaction is peppered with such moral employment. Characters live or die based on their choices. Most live and it’s the day to day human experience Altman captures so masterfully. No false twists, no neat tie-ups, the film is a symphony of messiness. It’s true to life, but more than that, it’s dazzling cinema.

CRITERION QUEST -- 259 movies in 365 days

To ring in the new year, I've decided to try and end a quest that has, and will progress so long as The Criterion Collection continues to put out movies. That is, to see every film in The Criterion Collection and do a write up for it. So far, I've seen 316 of the current 511 spine numbers. That leaves 195 Criterion's to be seen. However, I also want to account for the spine numbers to be released throughout the year. Figuring on 4 to 6 spine numbers a month, that would leave approximately 64 spine numbers to come throughout the year. Add that to my unseen total of 195 and you get the target number, 259. I will number each review as I go. They will be in no particular order. I may do spine # 48 today (Black Orpheus) and # 487 tomorrow (That Hamilton Woman). Nevertheless, each will be numbered in accordance with my quest to hit 259. To anyone interested in reading, I hope my endeavor through these amazing films can enlighten, introduce and broaden both my own, and your, journey through cinema.