Thursday, October 11, 2012

Weekly Viewing 10/8 - 10/10

The Eyes of the Mummy (Ernst Lubitsch, 1918) – 4/5

A film that helped to establish cinematic iconography and narrative. Cross-cutting finds innovative use and Lubitsch moves his fleet-of-foot narrative at a nice clip. When the eyes on a tomb open for the first time, there is a palpable sense of imagination and sincerity, if primarily for its material existence within the frame.

The Day of the Locust (John Schlesinger, 1975) – 1/5

Nathaniel West’s fiercely prescient, satirical 1939 novel gets butchered by Schlesinger, who takes the inherently “termite art” material and transforms it into smug, “white elephant” perversity. Schlesinger’s film is, ironically, as vacuous and empty-headed as the mid-30’s Hollywood it depicts (of course, the film is also meant to draw parallels with contemporary social mores, as well). Waldo Salt’s screenplay mimics West’s novel, rather than giving it an overhaul. Characterization hinges upon risible psychological torment (Schlesinger is a sucker for the meaningless zoom-in on eye-line). Moreover, William Atherton is atrocious in the lead role – it’s no surprise he was relegated to supporting, hysterical baddies shortly after. Worst of all, Schlesinger is again humorless, substituting empty ridicule and incoherent idiosyncrasies for actual discourse.  

Marathon Man (John Schlesinger, 1976) – 3/5

Another risible, bordering on incoherent outing from Schlesinger – but this time, the lurid material (Nazi targets psychologically damaged Grad student? – sounds like absurdist melodrama to me) finds resonance in its intimations of deeper, unrecoverable fractures in National identity, post-event horror, post-catastrophic trauma. Still, these themes are found in a narrative that’s sheer Hollywood exploitation (a scene where Roy Scheider fights an Asian man in his hotel room or two old men dueling with their cars reveal Schlesinger’s odd, but consistently empty sense of humor), and yet again, Schlesinger encourages acting styles that place personality above setting, filmmaking. Schlesinger will get you that Oscar nom – but he seldom makes an intelligible film in the process.

The Falcon and the Snowman (John Schlesinger, 1985) – 2/5

Schlesinger’s aesthetics have morphed into some sort of TV Movie of the Week/tense political procedural hybrid. Moreover, he has retained the smug indifference that sullies several of his other films. Steven Zallian’s script is predictably shoddy. Finally, the lead performances from Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn are suitable, if forced (especially Penn – his manic style often only works with a manic director, see BDP’s Casualties of War and Carlito’s Way). Schlesinger is a rather boring filmmaker, at this point.

The Believers (John Schlesinger, 1987) – 1/5

Aping (poorly) William Friedkin’s entire tone and visual schemata for The Exorcist, Schlesinger descends into absolute futility with this voodoo horror/drama, with Martin Sheen thanklessly playing a father trying to protect his son from being sacrificed. Nothing works here – the opening scene has Sheen’s wife shocked-to-death while standing in a puddle of milk. He screams. Later, a voodoo woman tries to help his son. He screams. His son runs out in front of some cabs – you get the picture. Moreover, the films takes little consideration in its depiction of cult/religious conviction. For a “socially” conscious filmmaker, Schlesinger treats voodoo as simply a driving force of evil – there’s nothing remotely human about any element of The Believers.

Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002) [rewatch] – 5/5

The metaphysics of Aleksandr Sokurov’s unbroken museum trek through 300 years of Russian history consistently layers itself on at least two levels – the marvel of self-identity as related to cultural, national identity and the unblinking cinematic eye that records and documents such inner-subjectivity. Sokurov constructs his film as a waking dream, suggesting historical identity as essential to avoiding existential crisis, though the film, done in one steadicam take, begs to be taken as the ultimate culmination of cinematic crisis and artistic existence, that crisis which cinema has been trying to resolve since the Lumiere brothers invented the cinematograph: the paradoxical stoppage and persistence (of vision) of time and space. AndrĂ© Bazin would be proud.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Weekly Viewing 10/4 – 10/7

The Blue Bird (Maurice Tourneur, 1918) – 5/5

Tourneur’s expressionist masterpiece finds delight and terror, simultaneously, in the tinted moving-image. More fun than The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, less theoretical than Lang’s Destiny.

Victory (Maurice Tourneur, 1919) – 4/5

Tourneur's beautifully realized adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel lacks the author’s psychological depth (is this necessarily a bad thing?), substituting a more Romantic view of humanity (“love” is the film’s final title card). What Tourneur lacks in subtle irony, he makes up for in conviction.

Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) – 4/5

A certain influence on Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Schlesinger’s droll ironies, complimented with a terrific performance by Tom Courtenay, precisely address a burgeoning trend in solipsism and individuality run amok. For some reason, Schlesinger would flip-flop on these tendencies later in his career.

Darling (John Schlesinger, 1965) [rewatch] – 3/5

Christie won the Oscar for her performance in what is, essentially, an update of the great Baby Face, with Barbara Stanwyck. Self-critical enough, if slightly undercooked in terms of social commentary (plus, Christie is no Stanwyck).

Far From the Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger, 1967) – 2/5

Schlesinger has two aims with his Thomas Hardy adaptation – a quest for scale/vision and to further flesh out his sexual politics. Both are muddled in a sporadically handsome, but dramatically inert ego-trip.  

Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969) [rewatch] – 2/5

Schlesinger’s Best Picture winner is a heavily aestheticized, sentimental account of late 60’s bleeding-heart liberalism. Rather than reckoning with the implications of sexual liberation, Schlesinger humorlessly panders to contemporary immorality, guised under the pretense of visual experimentation. Moreover, the method acting of Voight and Hoffman predicts contemporary preference for deranged, psychoanalyzed protagonists. Paul Morrissey would correct these errors with his Flesh trilogy.

Perfect Sense (David Mackenzie, 2012) – 2/5

For a film about sensory necessity, David Mackenzie displays little interest in varied formal technique. Rather, his crypto-apocalyptic downer would rather revel in banal melodrama and feign its way through addressing the theoretical precepts implied by the film’s title and premise.

Miss Bala (Geraldo Naranjo, 2012) – 2/5

Naranjo bucks the hand-held trends in telling his contemporary story of human degradation and exploitation. However, much like fellow filmmakers Cary Fukunaga and Matteo Garrone, the overriding, borderline offensive neglect to intricately deal with the ethical considerations of not just the historical moment, but their own detached, observational approach negates any tangential resonance.

Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2012) – 2/5

Genre-blending hokum from director Ben Wheatley borrows liberally from Mike Leigh, buddy comedy, and The Wicker Man, but fails to adequately preface and convincingly transition into its hardcore violence. Replete with lead-pipe ironies and serio-pretentious aspirations.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Killer Joe (William Friedkin, 2012) -- A

William Friedkin hasn't softened with old age; if anything, he's become harder, more sour, and even less reserved (which is impressive given his Cruising (1980) and To Live and Die in LA (1985), two of the most uncompromising American films of the 1980's). At least, such conclusions could easily be reached by the 77 year-old director's Killer Joe - perhaps the most perverse, audacious American comedy since Paul Bartel's Eating Raoul (1982). If Bartel targets the hypocrisy of "liberated" swingers (and, by extension, the potential insincerity of social revolution), Friedkin uses a screenplay by Tracy Letts, adapted from his own 1993 play, to target pulpy, lascivious Americana - that is, he offers a critique of spectatorial desire to revel in lower-class struggle, hardcore violence, and sexual humiliation. Killer Joe contains all of these, en masse. However, Friedkin's brazen disregard for "good taste" (a pun that will become all the more apparent after seeing the film) and consistent attention to gaze, line of sight, and stunted "vision" (in terms of spectatorship) offer nuanced, carefully composed sequences of squalor that are considerably more sophisticated and thoughtful than your average "red dirt" noir.

Killer Joe and Eating Raoul align nicely (these two on a double bill might light a theater on fire), since each uses caricature and stereotype as a means for prodding and further dissembling the line between high and low art. Though these lines have been consistently blurred for at least the last sixty years, Killer Joe makes use of explicit content in new ways. The narrative will sound trite because it is - that's the point: Chris Smith (Emile Hirsch) owes big-time money to Dallas drug dealers. His father Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) offers little help - he's an unemployed "fuck-up" that has trouble staying in conversations about what to eat for dinner. None the wiser is Sharla (Gina Gershon), a hot trailer-trash mess if there ever was. Finally, there's virginal Dottie (Juno Temple), perhaps the film's key character, if only for how she makes the men around her behave/react. Chris concocts a plan to kill his real mom (never seen in the film) and solicits the help of Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a Dallas police detective who moonlights as a contract killer. Chris hopes the indemnity money will cover his debts - naturally, things don't quite work out.

Friedkin chooses not to shy away from more lurid sequences and lines of dialogue; the film's final third, in particular, will draw ire from viewers who condemn both its violence against women and seeming disregard for the images shown. Rather than jumping to knee-jerk assumptions, however, consider the implications of Friedkin's film, in its entirety. A scene early in the film has Chris and Ansel go to a strip club, to discuss their plans. Friedkin shoots with deep focus, but uses color to flatten the space, rather than expand it. Spaces are consistently defined by their visual contradictions. When the two look up to see a woman dancing above them, it's but a passing glance, devoid of affect. In Killer Joe, even aggressive behavior is rather passive, and lacking in absolute intention. Ansel becomes a running gag, simply for his irresoluteness. Sharla has agency, but only insofar as her sexuality - just like Dottie, whose "purity" becomes a point of fascination - then absurdity - then insanity - for Joe, as his sullied line of work is satirically revived by Temple's blond "angel." Essentially, Friedkin is calling for a reckoning of exploitation - as a filmmaker, his career has often hinged on genre thrills and archetype as a means for unearthing his distinctly paranoid fears of bodily deformation. When Joe says, "you insult me again, and I'll cut your face off and wear it over my own," it summarizes Friedkin's plight - he isn't hiding behind a genre, its ethos - he's peeling off the skin, its corporeal presence sutured over his grimy, outlandish - hilarious - determinism.

Lawless (John Hillcoat, 2012) -- C+

Receding from the gritty existentialism of The Proposition and the ambitious, if undercooked fatalism in The Road, John Hillcoat opts for thorough conventionality with Lawless, which is easily the director's least satisfying film to date. Routinely scripted by Nick Cave, the depression-era setting serves as backdrop to the bootlegging Bondurant gang, a Franklin County, Virginia trio of brothers that "don't lay down for nobody." Most convincing in this regard is Forrest (Tom Hardy, still packing his Bane weight), whose mumbled, gruff dialogue provides direct contrast to the dandy diction of Chicago-based Special Agent Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce). Otherwise, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the runt (at twenty-six, LaBeouf needs to abandon these types of roles), trying to earn the respect of his Forrest and Howard (Jason Clarke) while chasing town naif Bertha (Mia Wasikowska) and doing fun things, like peeking through his rear-view mirror while she tries on a purty dress he just done bought for her. Perhaps what Lawless does best is suggest the disconnect between sex and violence with the Bondurant boys - when dancer-turned-waitress/bookeeper Maggie (Jessica Chastain) disrobes to seduce a bed-bound Forrest, he shrinks at the thought, reserved rather than forward. The primal drive towards sustenance and survival lacks the intimacy needed for sex - brute force alone cannot sustain pleasure - and inevitably brings pain and death, rather than perpetual life. These intimations resonate only so far, however, since Hillcoat has difficulty balancing character and circumstance; moreover, Lawless lacks a compositional panache necessary for transcending the material's tried-and-true roots. The climactic showdown, especially, cannot establish a convincing sense of place, space, and import (not to mention putting characters in "sure death" situations, then letting them survive). Lawless might not be gutless, but it's certainly toothless.

Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012) -- B

Pastiche is back in fashion with Rian Johnson's Looper, the most aggressively "cinephilic" mainstream endeavor since 2009's Inglourious Basterds. Critics praising Johnson's "originality" clearly haven't read their Fredric Jameson, their Jean Baudrillard. Johnson is a curator with creative license - he takes bits, pieces (sometimes entire sections) of other films, rearranges them, subtracts one functional equivalent for another, and carefully stitches them together into something that has the appearance of being new. What we actually have are jumbled, empty signifiers, especially when Johnson attempts to get explicit in his intentions (in Looper, see Abe (Jeff Daniels) as the director's conduit).

The problem is not so much individual instances of reference - Johnson does a commendable job of grafting the surgical wounds. In fact, Looper is, on an aesthetic level, remarkable. Rather, the film's problem lies in its overall vision of cinematic emulation. Much like Tarantino, Johnson's film suggests him as something of a savant, exceedingly well-versed in cinema history, cinematic ethos - but less convincingly so in terms of representational awareness. Looper's quick, sharply-directed opening scenes seemingly foreshadow an impending immersion in 21st century affect and, one would hope, a critical look at the incessant search for corporeal jolts and sensory shocks which dominate contemporary "youth" culture. Johnson abandons this, however, for a less interesting meta-text about cinematic circuity - how time, space, language, and intent are all contingent upon one another, wrapped and warped within the same spatio-temporal matrix. Thus, when Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) blows his assignment to kill Old Joe (Bruce Willis), the film becomes a humorous, sometimes dazzling cinematic trifle, rather than the thematic juggernaut about culture and aesthetics suggested by its early scenes.

Less interesting still, are the obvious referents for Johnson's film. To list them all would take ample space - an ultimately yield little information. Herein lies Johnson's (like Tarantino) problem - no matter how convincing his stitch-job becomes (and it is, quite so), there remains our underlying issue of ontology. Johnson sees the world of representation through the world of representation; that is, he sees cinema through cinema. He makes films to express the influence of other films. Thus, it's unsurprising that a mute, passive Asian woman is used as the central narrative impetus for Old Joe. Johnson can't stop to be concerned with the cultural implications of his representation - he simply knows the male-driven archetypes. Similarly, Looper tries to use the subterfugal slaying of children as executioner guilt, which is absolutely risible. These oversights indicate mimesis over character-based conviction. In fact, Johnson's film (and script) is likely going to get too much credit because of the nuanced work done by leads Gordon-Levitt, Willis, and Emily Blunt - perhaps the most proficient work of each actor's career. There are especially giddy pleasures to be had in Willis's sage - credit Johnson here for finding an ingenious way to allow Old Joe's plight the narrative resonance needed to reveal Willis's performative intricacies. For that jaw-dropping sequence, Johnson makes a thirty-year duration play like chronological progression - remarkable. However, unlike last year's Drive, Johnson is more fanboy than cultural critic - a critique of screen violence does not implicitly manifest. In fact, the recent Dredd has much more to say about cinematic violence as ritual. If we look beyond the screen, Looper is rather straight.

Savages (Oliver Stone, 2012) -- C-

Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers often divides viewers and critics alike, primarily for its aggressive variance of styles; whether the faux-Rodney Dangerfield sitcom that brazenly satirizes consumer passivity, the extremely canted angles that switch from grainy black & white to heavily saturated color, or the forceful political commentary rooted in an ambivalent critique of media ethics (hypocritical condemnation of violence while reveling in the aesthetic joys - much like the film, itself) nothing about Stone's nihilistic, kaleidoscopic masterpiece (to this viewer) settles for stable representation. His cinematic world is always in flux - morality cannot exist (just as aesthetics are susceptible to paradigm shifts) with such a jarring misplacement of ethos and capital. Savages, on the contrary, is the ugly, nonsense film many Natural Born Killers detractors claim. It is pornohistoriography. Stone is less interested in producing a stringent critique of screen violence than using late 20th century drug wars as an "epic" milieu for his deranged semiotics. Whereas Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Julliette Lewis) were caricature-cum-metonymic figures for Stone's necessary sensorial overload, Ben (Aaron Johnson) and Chon (Taylor Kitsch) are indulgent, explicit mouthpieces for Stone and writer Don Winslow's existential leftist concerns. Savages views sex, violence, and drug use the way one might expect from a fifteen-year old weaned on Red Bull and Grand Theft Auto. Everything is a money shot.