Thursday, July 18, 2013

2013 Films (The Third 10)

No (Pablo Larrain) 4/4
Instead of constructing a docudrama that paradoxically pays reverence to the rebellious spirit of its key figure by rendering the circumstances in the most banal, middlebrow narrative/form conceivable (they almost all do), Pablo Larrain renders the Chilean National Plebiscite of 1988 with much the same tonal inclinations as Rene Saavedra's (Gael Garcia Bernal) "no" campaign ads within the film, creating a perceptive film-within-a-film structure that nevertheless refuses to offer itself as "only" that. In choosing a fuzzy, videotape aesthetic, one can't help but think of Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990), and while No doesn't manage that level of ingenuity and immediacy, the ambivalent assessment of tele-visual narratizing often thunderously (though silently) suggests that propogandizing, whether "good" or "bad," "si" or "no," will continually yield consequences of commodification, even as democracy seemingly reigns. Thus, the "no" vote attains an ironic incantation, suggestive of an unfinished phrase. I have in mind the title of Lee Edelman's book No Future. Larrain questions negation as a means of subsistence in an era where Late Capitalism would be championed as a revolutionary solution, given the inevitable outcome of drastic income inequalities. By boiling capital to a yes/no binary, Larrain, much like the vote depicted, suggests one form of subjugation always follows another.

A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III (Roman Coppola) (2/4)
A Glimpse Inside the Mind of Charles Swan III cheerfully embraces its on-and-off screen sense of Hollywood privilege, essentially casting Charlie Sheen to play himself (CS and CS - "Hey! Same initials!"), while director Roman Coppola takes the given (yes, given) opportunity to make a feature film and produces a snarky shrug, disinterested in coherence or, for that matter, significance. The film's wandering, non-sequitur approach initially appears to be a riff on It's a Wonderful Life meets Unfaithfully Yours meets 8 1/2  meets The Big Lebowski meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I'm sure that concoction sounded fun to Coppola, but like a child who just got everything he wanted for Christmas, there's little mystery to ponder and it's simply time to just bang everything together.

Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez) 2/4
The tagline on Evil Dead's poster should read: "The most terrifying film you will ever experience...if you haven't experienced much else." Film Critic Armond White has a great line of thought that claims no one under 30 should be allowed to review films, since such a person has not had enough life experience to know much about art or life - if you haven't seen or done much, then everything is amazing/a masterpiece. While I express White's words rather facetiously here, the continued trends in horror films towards a desired intensity and extremity (cloaked in hyper-realism) have yet to articulate their numbing effects rather than simply embrace them. Alvarez provides a high level of gore, but so does every other slack-jawed director who continues to use horror merely as an "experience," rather than articulating contemporary fears through proficient, allegorical means. The drug addiction elements added here to stoicize Sam Raimi's 1982 gonzo-laugher original are funny, but only because of how astonishingly stone-faced the material is meant to be taken.

Renoir (Gilles Bourdos) 1/4
Renoir exemplifies a particular type of intended art house venture that's ultimately as intolerable as run-of-the-mill studio fare. Jean Renoir (Vincent Rottiers) returns after being wounded in WWI to his pastoral, summer home on the French Riveria to find Andree Heuschling (Christa Theret) posing for nudes with his father, world-renowned painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Michel Bouquet), whose health is in a deteriorating state. It is both amusing and disheartening to read critics who say that Renoir is "sure to be one of the most visually stunning films of the year," since the only way one could think that is if one's ideal of cinematic beauty has more to do with setting than composition. Let's put it like this: everyone knows the French Riviera is "beautiful." Thus, even if a toddler pulls out an iPhone and starts shooting, the images will still look rather agreeable. I don't intend to compare Gilles Bourdos with a toddler - I simply mean to say that beauty within the frame is not the same as the beauty of the frame - the latter of which Renoir lacks in almost every scene. Rather, this bourgeois pablum, meant to be consumed by half-rick folks who want to feel "cultured" for an evening, merely wallows in its setting and voluptuous leading lady (you know, art), while dealing with decay and death as if Amour didn't happen (or Make Way for Tomorrow, for that matter). Are the images pretty? In an artificial, postcard sort of way, yes - but who considers postcards art?

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) 4/4
The density of Frances Ha is likely to be missed by those quick to view it as merely a trifle - though Noah Baumbach pitches his latest at the tone of an ode to a city, a woman, and a film stock, the implications resound to the (mumble)core and, even, the feel and breadth of Woody Allen inspired by Francois Truffaut inspired by Jean Renoir. These perceived influences, however, which could undoubtedly be batted around and debated by cinephiles for hours, would too easily overlook what Baumbach is onto here - that being something of a cinematic crossroads, where the oppositional refusal to adhere to meaning, progress, and significance (DIY cinema) has reached a faux-apotheosis - the myth that everyone is a filmmaker. Frances Ha obliterates that notion not with outright self-reflexivity, but an implicit, underlying sense of how audio-visual idiosyncrasy and, as a by-product, societal malaise as filtered through self-identification have taken ironic detachment to its logical, "we blew it" ends. Frances Ha is to mumblecore what Scream was to slasher - Baumbach lays the belly of the beast bare, but in a multi-faceted, tumultuous manner that cannot be boiled down to a singular essence.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder) 3/4
Christopher Nolan's fingerprints would be all over Man of Steel were it not for Zack Snyder's unmistakable eye for objects in-motion. Snyder has taken a bum rap for his previous, uber-spectacle work and, I must say, I've never particularly found much to his films beyond their kinetic experimentations. In Man of Steel, those interests are rooted in a Goyer/Nolan narrative of lost time, traumatic memories, and albatrossal duty, yet find a levity in combination with Snyder's CGIgasms and Hanz Zimmer's soft-when-it-wants-to, mean-when-it-needs-to score. Frankly, I could do without ever seeing another superhero film muddle its way through aggrandizing its titular hero as a Christ figure (especially after Neveldine/Taylor's Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance already proficiently deconstructed that tendency), but Snyder's knack for keeping the image and sound at a pulse-quickening clip, not just in terms of pacing, but actually paying attention to gravity within the different axes of the frame, remains impressive and, at times, exhilarating.

I'm So Excited! (Pedro Almodovar) 3/4
Like Frances Ha, Almodovar's latest is destined to be seen as a whimsical fluff piece for the director to occupy himself with before undertaking something weightier - wrong. One of the most Bunuelian films in years, I'm So Excited! takes Almodovar's acid-soap opera visual/narrative tendencies, then places them within a situation of near Exterminating Angel absurdity - a group of first-class passengers, unable to exit an airplane, which keeps circling its landing pad. The conceit also allows for aside jabs at American disaster films like Airport and Airplane, but the film's success rests in Almodovar's peppy tone and refusal to make matters simple. Plots remain necessary convoluted, but delightfully so, since these characters - all with a hang-up of some sort - co-exist through open sexual dialogue, innumerous shots of tequila, and tales of those walking below, which the film seldom visits in corporeal form. I'm So Excited is not the significant film Frances Ha is, but its altogether lively and sardonic sense of cinematic expression cannot be chalked up as a mere dalliance.

Maniac (Franck Khalfoun) 4/4
Those familiar with William Lustig's 1980 original should understand that film's significance - the articulation of urban space as concurrent with psychopathic insanity gained purchase through its use of empty streets, fragmented glimpses of the cityscape, and a de-centering of city space offered a proto post-modernist articulation for the alienation of the individual subject. Of course, these issues had previously been located at the heart of film noir, though it took Lustig's horror-noir to recognize the severity of the shift from paranoia to outright insanity. Keeping such a genesis in mind, one should not be surprised by Franck Khalfoun's decision to film the new Maniac almost entirely as a POV shot from Frank's (Elijah Wood) perspective. Savvy viewers will immediately make the link to Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1947) - not a very well made film, but fascination for its very same ploy. By recalling both Lustig and Montgomery, this Alexandre Aja/Gregory Levasseur scripted terror potentially bestows Khanfoun's film the same immediacy as Lustig's over thirty years ago. Rather than insist on fragmenting the city even further through a digital networking logic, Khalfoun's ingenious ploy to restore classical noir as the regime of vision, yet still concurrent with the beats, shades, and breathlessness of hyper-urbanity invigorates the bounds horror can push for socio-psychological expression.

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski) 4/4
In his 2012 memorial of Andrew Sarris, Armond White rightly lambasted pundits who remembered Sarris by claiming he "loved movies," and that his work was "greater than any fanboy obsession," which speaks to what is happening within The Lone Ranger that ultimately separates it from the textually shallow Django Unchained. Interested in mining films for significance (visceral and narrative), rather than wallowing in their capacity for affectual bliss, Verbinski achieves a gamut-running effort to truly revise not just the Western, but the Action film as well (and within that, the Superhero film) - the Western's inevitable Urban spawn. Yet, like the Action film, The Lone Ranger views the progress towards Metropolis both an endlessly alluring and detrimental prospect. The greed of the villains (William Fichtner and Tom Wilkinson) corrupts a devoted officer (Barry Peppar) - the particulars of which intimate Wall Street lasciviousness for capital gains at the expense of values both material and symbolic. In that sense, the tidy moralist/lawman John Reid (Armie Hammer) is the Batman to Fichtner's Joker and Wilkinson's Two-Face - though, he is ultimately more Robin or, if you prefer, Jack Burton to Tonto's Batman (or Wang Chi). A Bruce Wayne-type that must ultimately embrace violence if he wishes to rid his community of corruption (and wear a mask, natch), Reid is a rather pathetic figure, given how naive his character plays within Verbinski's context. An idealist unable to understand underlying concepts of progress and evolution (in many senses), Reid aligns nicely with 2012's Dredd, another Urban-Western that infused such questions of law-abiding violence with noirish fatalism, particularly that of Fritz Lang's The Big Heat (1953). These men all believe they act out of a law-driven, secular righteousness. Reid proudly holds a copy of John Locke's "Two Treatisies of Government" and claims "this is my bible." Thus, the actions of rational men are aligned (and as anti-humanist) as religious dogma - though Verbinski implies that each are a necessary component of nation building. Yet, it speaks to an underlying idea of the revisionist Western - that the very sensibilities one uses to build a community (ambition, community, individual freedoms) will inevitably tear them apart. By locating such a logic across multiple genres, not just through visual signifiers, but through an ethos, The Lone Ranger is certain to remain one of the most textually (and visually) rich films of 2013.

Pacific Rim (Guillermo Del Toro) 2/4
Since Guillermo Del Toro's filmmaking has been almost neatly divided into two halves (three Spanish-language horror features and four horror-oriented Hollywood films), the arrival of Pacific Rim - easily the director's "largest" undertaking, at least in terms of budget - signifies something of a symbiosis of those two disparate career tracks, and asks an essential question: can one fuse small horror interests into a massive-budgeted sci-fi actioner? Moreover, an even more essential question: what is at stake in making these two lines join? The answer, it seems, is both muddled and troubling - at least, that's the central conclusion one must reach from viewing Pacific Rim, a film that is perhaps too smart for its own good, helmed by a man too knowledgeable (but in a geek's way) of films past, and altogether unpleasantly dedicated to winking replication of ethos past, rather than establishing one of its own for the 21st century. The film, which involves giant monsters (called Kaiju - they are bad) fighting giant robots (called Jaeger - they are man-made, thus good), the latter of which are created, manned (or wo-manned as it were) and funded with the explicit purpose of combating these mysterious creatures, is less an art film than an artfully-made commercial venture for Del Toro, meant to celebrate and embrace fanboy/girl proclivities rather than satirize them.

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