Saturday, January 25, 2020

Depression

After realizing that my taste in movies has always gravitated toward the dark, the next step is to narrow down what that means. Dark is too broad a term. I love depressing movies. This isn’t to say necessarily movies about depression, or movies dealing with depression. Returning to my fundamental categorization of films broken down into plot, character, dialogue, genre, and setting leaves out tone.
     Dark is an easy label to throw at a movie—even lazy. Depression is a tone. I argue here that my use of this term is based on my connotation of a film…

  1.     with a protagonist played by an actor whose performance is detached: almost no emotion shown (with the exception of emotions like sorrow, sadness, despair, regret, etc…), often with very little dialogue.
  2.       with a protagonist who lacks traditional narrative goals, or if present, goals that are destined to go unattained; typically set at a time when the character has what he or she wants, but is unfulfilled; no happy endings, no life affirming discoveries; although often loss or death as conclusion.
  3.        a slow pace, little action or plot development.
     I’m not talking about depression really so much as I’m talking about the cinematic effect of a feeling of depression.

     So when did the depressing film start? The most obvious answer has to be film noir of the 1940s, but no. Maybe I’m out of touch with the canon, but none of the movies of the genre that I can think of fit the template. The one that comes closest is Night and the City (1950, Jules Dassin). It makes sense that it’s been one of my favorite film noirs because of how depressing its ending is. Night and the City’s fatal tone is crushing in its bleak depiction of how  HARRY FABIAN (a career-best Richard Widmark just kidding I hate this term “career best” it seems like all of the sudden there’s this new trend and it keeps popping up in writings about film it’s so stupid but seriously Widmark is amazing in it) loses all, yet he’s too outgoing, smooth-talking, and passionate to fit my definition.
     It seems the depressing film starts with Jeanne Moreau’s character in La notte (1961, Michelangelo Antonioni). Gorgeously photographed in black and white with a sexy cast of young bougee partygoers and a career best Monica Vitti—sorry, kidding again, but seriously Monica Vitti is intoxicatingly mesmerizing—the film is a classic of decaying decadence. It’s revolutionary in cinema. It feels like nothing that’s come before it, in the sense of how isolated the Moreau character is from everything, and how this in turn isolates us from any conventional identification of narrative development. Yet somehow Antonioni found an even colder tone with Monica Vitti, spectacular as woman-puzzle in the sublime L'eclisse (1962, Antonioni). And dealing with the same subject as La notte there’s also maybe the most colorful, romantic tone of depression in Le mépris (1963, Jean-Luc Godard).
     Anyway, next there’s my favorite movie of all time! No wonder I’ve always loved Au hasard Balthazar (1966, Robert Bresson). Again shot in black and white, the waif beauty Anne Wiazemsky’s career best turn as blank object of suffering anchors the narrative. Her character loves someone who only lives to hurt others. Also there’s the follow up: Mouchette (1966, Bresson), what could be more depressing than the premise of an 11 year old girl killing herself? Jumping ahead, I'll say that melodrama and brutal tragedy aren’t depressing, they’re disturbing. So stuff like Requiem for a Dream (2000, Darren Aronofsky) or Precious (2009, Lee Daniels).
    
     The next phase, our contemporary era of the depressing film, consists of Last Days (2005, Gus Van Sant), L’humanité (1999, Bruno Dumont), Synechdoche, New York (2008, Charlie Kaufman), Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier), and Knight of Cups (2015, Terrence Malick). L’humanité I’d like to give special attention to as being remarkable due to its exceptional portrayal of a police officer who appears unable to experience emotion, yet not in the sense commonly associated with a sociopath. PHARAON is something different, with his childlike curiosity in emotions. Also L’humanité is proof of the tone from the beginning giving the film a constant feeling of something unlike normal movies. So that’s it. There’s the end of my list for now.
     Oh and Che: Part Two (2008, Steven Soderbergh) has to be included because it exemplifies a cohesively depressing tone in contrast to the joyful excitement of Che: Part One. Part Two is about Guevara’s failed Bolivia campaign. And from the beginning it’s as if it’s already apparent that the despair of imminent failure is upon us. I heard somewhere that Malick planned a movie about the Bolivian phase of Che’s life and I’m not sure if this had anything to do with Soderbergh’s film, but it sure is cool to imagine it was.
                   
     Yet another exception however, is the lone character within an ensemble: HELEN (a career best Lara Flynn Boyle) in Happiness (1998, Todd Solondz) or ZOE TRAINER (Lori Singer) in Short Cuts (1993, Robert Altman). Short Cuts is astounding because of how vast it covers the spectrum of human emotions through its ensemble of characters. In a twenty-four hour period, there are the vastly different deaths that bookend the narrative—a woman accidentally responsible for the vehicular manslaughter of a little boy/a man going psycho and responsible for sexual frustration unleashed through the murder of a young girl. But also it’s about how intricately each of these characters are connected to each other. Then there’s the sweet people like say, a career best Madeline Stowe playing a woman naturally beautiful in every aspect, contrasting someone like the career best Chris Penn character who is approaching evil (and gets there).
     But the Zoe character is detached in every sense of my definition. And what’s more enigmatic about the character is in one of the largest ensemble of stars, Lori Singer’s the only one I’ve never heard of before or since. And maybe that’s where this line of investigation has brought me—mystery.



     The Turning (2020, Floria Sigismondi) is way better than I was expecting. And yes, like The Grudge (2020, Nicolas Pesce), I’m excited to love a January release that’s gotten very bad reviews. (I fear the impact of review aggregators.) The Turning possesses a formidable mastery of tone, ultimately that of schizophrenia.
     But to begin with, The Turning is set during the mid-1990s and steeps itself in grunge mythos—namely depression. Then, depression becomes terror. And what’s wonderful is the gradual turning of the screw of it all. For a horror movie, for this horror movie, the unsettling tone is unified by baiting us, the audience, with a mystery that denies us any explanation; with characters whose motives, virtue, or position within the realm of sanity we will never know.

     There’s a plot device in The Turning where the governess (a career best Mackenzie Davis) gets a parcel delivered to her by MRS. GROSE over breakfast, and its contents appear to be a series of 8” x 10” charred negatives. What are they? For me, it’s what makes the film work. (I imagine for others they’re nothing more than a frustrating red herring.) During the film’s climax we find ourselves back in the black plates. Who sent the envelope? The governess says her mother did. But her mother is in an institution. MILES (a career best Finn Wolfhard) says that the reason he was expelled, his explanation for what led him to violence against other students was “they burned the only pictures he had of his dad.” Well, that’s scary. It’s mysterious. And The Turning is a movie that gives me all the answers I need. What ever happened to art?
     Another way the screw is turned is the kids, FLORA and Miles. Flora is alternately adorably precocious or mischievous, stock in trade for Brooklynn Prince—in a career best performance. And the mop-topped grunge-attired Miles is alternately misunderstood or diabolical. Are the children sweet or evil? Are they possessed by QUINT or is this all in the governess’ head?

     Adding to the atmosphere, beyond the gloomy grey overcast wet location, is the film’s score. It would have been really cool to use actual period grunge, or even at least like post grunge Olympia/pdx stuff like Elliot Smith or Sleater-Kinney, but if I’m not mistaken we get modern interpretations of that sound instead. I mean, good enough, I guess.

     So yes, The Turning utilizes a depression element in its schizophrenic tone that I find seldom used successfully within the horror genre. Also, an effect of the tone taking such precedence is how well the film works as a horror movie with so little violence. I mean, what’s there like one violent scene with MS. JESSEL or something? All in all fun, and well put together.

     

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Fat's 2019 at the Movies

Fat's 2019 at the Movies

Kind of a rough year for movies! After 2018's roundup, which was overstuffed with mediocre (at best) thrillers, I thought I had crafted a firm thought for 2019, a thought to seek out Better Movies. The list below does not visibly reflect that. Nearly 150 movie-like objects over the course of 2019, including coherent seasons of TV (The OA [RIP], etc.), but one would have preferred more better.

In general, I watched too much TV (like everybody) (although Legends of Tomorrow is a really good show), did too much rewatching (not entirely sure I needed to rewatch the entire Resident Evil series), too much rewatching TV (Simpsons and Letterkenny ate too much of my time this year), and so on. We did okay finding decent older movies, though we've had Nashville on the list for like two years now.

Order within categories is mostly chronological in order of seeing it. Best theater experiences: The Favourite, Us, Midsommar, Last Black Man in San Francisco, Parasite and The Lighthouse. Best first watchings of older stuff: Stick It, Fatal Attraction, Short Cuts (maybe: this one really left me cold), Cabaret, Metropolitan, King of Comedy, Candyman and Rosemary's Baby. Also some good home watches of more or less new stuff: Blindspotting, Clouds of Sils Maria, Destroyer, Her Smell (first two-thirds, anyway), and Rolling Thunder Revue were probably the best of these. Special mention in the category of You Will Like This If You Like This Sort of Thing goes to Escape Room, which was better than it had any right to be, and Ready or Not, which stole the thunder from Knives Out for me. Hale County was also great, but probably everybody has seen that already. High Life I need to see again.

I. Good Theater Experiences

The Favourite
Climax
The Nightengale
High Life
Midsommar
The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Parasite
The Lighthouse

Also somewhere in there I saw Us, but forgot to write it down? Weird year.

II. Decent Theater Experiences

Things to Come
Cold Pursuit
Captain Marvel (San Rafael Century)
47 Meters Down: Uncaged
Ready or Not
Hustlers
Knives Out

Those are all pretty solid! I should go to the movies more. Because only rarely do you see something like ...

III. Kinda Wanted My Money Back Ad Astra

IV. Good New / Newish Home Watches

Night Manager
The Invitation (rewatch)
Blindspotting
A Simple Favor
Support the Girls
The Ritual
Blaze
In Order of Disappearance
Clouds of Sils Maria
The OA (Season 2)
Shoplifters
Roma
Russian Doll
Private Lives
Destroyer
Fleabag (Season 2)
The Thick of It (Season 1)
The Thick of It (Season 2)
Escape Room
Her Smell
Rolling Thunder Revue
Hale County This Morning This Evening

V. Good New-to-Me Older Watches

Stick It
Fatal Attraction
All the President's Men
Short Cuts
Cabaret
Metropolitan
A Man for All Seasons
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (BBC Series)
The Big Easy
Match Point
King of Comedy
Desperately Seeking Susan
Candyman
Singin' in the Rain
Coming to America
The Pelican Brief
Rosemary's Baby

VI. Some Ways I Passed Some Time

Lizzie
The Old Man and the Gun
Frozen in Love
Woman Walks Ahead
Aquaman
Blackkklansman
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Super Dark Times
Backcountry
The Kindergarten Teacher
Bad Times at the El Royale
Cellular
Zodiac (rewatch)
Pretty Woman (rewatch)
Searching
The Fundamentals of Caring
The Wife
Mandy
Empire Records
The Dirty Dozen (rewatch)
W.
Hush
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Beach
Avengers: Endgame
Columbus
Mary Queen of Scots
Final Score
Game of Thrones (Season 8)
The Imitation Game
Chappaquiddick
Song to Song
Resident Evil: Apocalpyse
Fighting with My Family
Resident Evil: Extinction
Beavis & Butt-Head Do America
Resident Evil: Afterlife
Resident Evil: Retribution
J.T. Leroy
Transformers: The Movie
Spring Breakers (rewatch)
Battle of the Sexes (solo plane)
The Lego Movie 2 (solo plane)
Bathtubs over Broadway
Stranger Things (Season 3)
Serenity
The Tattooed Stranger
Jessica Jones (Season 3)
Triple Frontier
Salute of the Jugger
Mindhunter (Season 1)
Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
Toybox
MST3K: Day the Earth Froze
MST3K: Hobgoblins
Popstar (rewatch)
Stockholm
Get Carter
Coco
Batman: Hush
Rocky
Charlie Says
Point Blank (2018)
X-Men: Dark Phoenix
Spider-Man: Far from Home
The Last Jedi (rewatch)
Longshot (plane)
Shazam (plane)
X-Men: Apocalypse (plane)
Juliet Naked
La French
Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie
The Tattooed Stranger (rewatch)
Booksmart
As Above So Below
A Simple Favor (rewatch)
Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Super Troopers 2
Hotel Artemis
The Vault
White Christmas
They Live (rewatch)
Letterkenny (Season 7)
Them That Follow
The Kitchen
The Irishman
Bachelorette (rewatch)
Spring
Good Boys
Obsession
Eddie Murphy Delirious
White Reindeer
Double Team

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Pen 15 Club: On the Bic Clic

When a good pen comes around
You must clic it!

—Fat, after Devo

Two things. One: In New Orleans last year, a hotel we stayed in gave me a branded Bic Clic pen. I naturally yoinked it, and over a couple of days used it, and actually loved it. I thought it would make a good promotional item for the podcast, so I ordered a bunch, and if you would like a couple, drop me a line (cfcollision @ google's mail service, dontcha know) and I'll mail you some. They really are good pens.

(Impossible to look at one of these and not pop a bit of a smile. Ah, lil' Bic Clic, you're the inspiration! )

Two: Using both the freebie and one from my big batch, I have come to realize how spectacularly and unequivocally superior Bic's ballpoint pen ink is to Zebra's ink, which I have previously given at least some praise to. There really is no comparison. I sill like my Zebra okay, but the skipping and blobbing is intensely noticeable versus the Bic ink. Accept, I guess, no substitute!

(Check out the new hotness! Logo, slogan, blood-red barrel, shiny-butt clip, need I say more. Need I say more.)

(Ink fight! These are scribblings on your average el cheapo index card, but, I assure you, the results are quite typical and repeatable.)

—Fat, who will never need to buy another pen.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

More Great Urinals (of the Pacific Northwest) (And Toilets, Too!)

For some years now, our own redoubtable Tinzeroes has devoted himself to the documentation of our great land's more notable stand-up pissoirs, as one can review, thus.

Thus it was my foundations were rocked by a care package from a Vancouver-based podcast listener who sent along not only a Canadian-flag pin (which rode my bike bag all through Paris last year) but also some cool records and a couple old free weeklies, which ... contained ... the following: Vanpooper: rating the best (and worst) of Vancouver's public toilets by Michelle Hanley.

(Am I saying that Michelle Hanley has been reading this blog since its inception in 2006? Yes, clearly I am saying that Michelle Hanley has been reading this blog since its inception in 2006.)

Beneath this paragraph are more zoomed-in pictures, in case you want to do deeper into these great toilets. (And beneath the waves, an ocean!)

(Honestly for an airplane bathroom this one doesn't look that bad.)

(Non-flushing chairs in bathrooms always exude a powerful and frightening energy. But I'm heartened to see a place of business with an actual open-to-the-public facility. Living in the East Bay and occasionally visiting San Francisco, I'm more familiar with the brutal and inhumane practice of not allowing customers or others have a clean private place to excrete.)

(False Creek? That's a name that makes me want to know a story! Obligatory link to Expo '86.)

Friday, January 03, 2020

Reflections in a Golden Eye

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003, Quentin Tarantino) generated a treasure hunt for finding the sources of its many references upon its theatrical release; Battle Royale (2000, Kinji Fukasaku) being the one most applicable to the point I’m about to make. But around this same period I became aware of Takashi Miike, and subsequently sought out as many of his movies as I could find—from boutique dvd boxset releases to illegal bootlegs. Yet adding to both of these occurrences this same period also happened to coincide with a new trend in cinema, the subgenre that gained popularity known as “J-Horror.” I’m saying 2003 was the year I watched more Japanese movies than American.
     It wasn’t long after that it seemed other than Ring (1998, Hideo Nakata), Audition (1999, Takashi Miike) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2002, Takashi Shimizu), there wasn’t really enough quality to support all the hype around J-Horror (or, at least nowhere near as much as 70s Italian horror). But Cure (1997, Kiyoshi Kurosawa), Pulse (2001, Kurosawa), and Dark Water (2002, Nakata) are really good.

     This brings me back to my ongoing introspection about why exactly I love certain “bad” movies. It’s not just to be provocative or offend sensibilities or for gratuitous shock value, as my friends have sometimes accused me of—which is fun I’ll admit—going back to when I wrote my first top ten list and included The Canyons (2013, Paul Schrader). All taste is is expressing your likes and dislikes and being able to support your opinions right? Anyway, I remember a time when I never would have believed that an American remake of a foreign masterpiece could improve upon it or be better. That is, until I found M (1951, Joseph Losey).
     The Ring (2002, Gore Verbinski) is my favorite horror movie. And if I were to watch Suspiria right now I’d go for the Guadagnino over the Argento. And Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert’s newest installment in The Grudge franchise just may be one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen.



WHEN SOMEONE DIES IN THE GRIP OF A POWERFUL RAGE… A CURSE IS BORN.

THE CURSE GATHERS IN THAT PLACE OF DEATH.

THOSE WHO ENCOUNTER IT WILL BE CONSUMED BY ITS FURY.

     The Grudge (2020, Nicolas Pesce) is a reboot of the American remake franchise with a story that begins with the same traumatic death in the same house in Japan as The Grudge (2004, Takashi Shimizu), yet avoids nearly any mention of any of the secondary characters or events from the previous installments.
     For the rest of this post when I describe The Grudge, I’m referring to the 2020 release. The Grudge succeeds as a reboot for, among other reasons, setting itself apart from its predecessors by being darker. Its tone is sorrowful and established at the outset. Its characters suffer loss. They smoke. They drink. They’re desperate. In an unnamed town, despair engulfs the dramaturgy.

     The atmosphere of The Grudge becomes most apparent at night. This isn’t to say bad things don’t happen during the day, but at night the color is light through a straw filter; and this golden netherworld of nocturnal terror starts with sodium-vapor streetlights, then follows its characters indoors. Furthermore, these scenes invariably isolate the various characters. Alone, they find themselves apart from their loved ones, trapped in darkness and silence.
     And what enhances the proceedings most of all is the film’s cast. Anchored by a lead performance from Andrea Riseborough, who’s legitimately earned her clout in the horror genre after Mandy (2018, Panos Cosmatos), her physical appearance immediately distances the tone of The Grudge from its earlier incarnation. Whereas Sarah Michelle Gellar is probably the perfect balance of cute and sexy, Riseborough’s no make-up/no frills counter is the perfect balance of tough and emotionally-tortured. The ensemble of The Grudge includes: Demián Bechir (always glad to see a Mexican in a horror movie), Jacki Weaver, John Cho, Frankie Faison, William Sadler, and a memorably unnerving Lin Shaye. When’s the last time a really scary horror movie had a cast this good?

     I really love the narrative structuring of The Grudge. Its scares are more subtly placed, and there’s way less exposition. From the start, we move forward while simultaneously going back and tracing the steps that got us to where we are; so, parallel timelines running concurrently. And maybe what I dig most is that The Grudge never bothers with the why any of these murders occurred. That’s what truly made it scary for me. Now in comparison the whole oh that’s why the husband murdered Kayako and Toshio, we can solve the curse from the all the other movies is completely absent. That’s what most impressed me about the modifications in The Grudge, the attention and understanding of the horror genre—specifically, the lack of explanation, of closure, of hope.

     In closing I’ll add that this is the first film in The Grudge franchise to be rated R. And it is way gorier than I’d expected, disturbingly so. Like 80s Fulci gory. This isn’t the kind of stuff normally found in J-Horror. Oh how well executed the scene is with Jacki Weaver’s character wandering aimlessly into the meat section in the supermarket, as flies are heard, seen, the condition of the meat, the bizarre looking man at the counter.

     Is The Grudge too excessive? Yes. I felt gross. It crossed a line. But I like it. There’s another great scene where Frankie Faison’s character attempts to reconcile with the curse, understand it, accept it, find hope, the music swells, uplifts us… then Weaver’s therapist zips up a handbag or suitcase, some piece of luggage, and abruptly this zip violently cuts the sentimental music off short from the soundtrack. Exactly.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Souls at Zero

Sometime around the beginning of the decade I had been watching several classic Hollywood movies, foreign art films, and obscure, challenging works of cinema, which led me to revisit George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, through home viewings—and I fell in love with it. It was exactly what I’d hoped: a dazzling, fun, adventure that I don’t have to think about while watching. If Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991, James Cameron) was the last big budget vfx action movie I thoroughly enjoyed as a kid, the prequel trilogy restored my interest in the genre as an adult.
     What followed were The Matrix trilogy, Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott), World War Z (2013, Marc Forster), Valerian and the City of Thousand Planets (2017, Luc Besson), Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi), the first two Transformers (I’m shamelessly devoted to Michael Bay’s movies, particularly the period from Bad Boys II to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) and Alita: Battle Angel (2019, Robert Rodriguez). For me most of the fun in thinking about the movies I’ve watched is narrowing my taste down; or, finding the prize that comes after all the work of looking for what you like most.

     Also I began watching and enjoying Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, which I owe to the Harmy despecialized editions, which I’ve only recently discovered. I’ve learned to appreciate the original trilogy as the first Hollywood movies to go all out with special effects, but also sincerely coming to acknowledge the inspired genius of Lucas for pulling it off. At the risk of broadly generalizing, what Lucas did in the 70s, and Cameron in the 80s, along with Peter Jackson in the 00s, has transformed pictures into what they are now: big budget vfx movies. And I’ve learned to stop worrying and love the big budget vfx movie.



     Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker (2019, J.J. Abrams) is an adventure set in outer space that’s about REY leading the Resistance and fighting to save them from the First Order. I really don’t want to be one of those trolls who bitches about it sucking, because I’m sure those kinds of reviews aren’t hard to find.
     So what is there good to say? I cared about the characters. Also it’s fun. And I laughed often. The big draw for me with this movie is its promise of taking us to other planets. And space craft. And aliens. And droids. Rey's costume is cool too.

     Yeah who am I kidding? I can’t write a Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker review. What was I thinking? It’s too safe. What do my favorite big budget vfx movies: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Prometheus, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets all have in common? Most people said they sucked when they came out. And they kinda do. And that’s kinda why I love them. They have their own character… style… art.
     Maybe that’s what I’ve learned writing this: that my adolescent awakening to basing my lifelong aesthetic sensibilities on a punk anti-mainstream foundation prevents me from really loving J.J. Abrams sequel trilogy. Episode IX is fun, and it’s well made. It looks spectacular. And the best I can say is I liked it. It was okay. It wasn’t challenging, or revelatory. But was it supposed to have been?

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Good Time

The Safdie brothers are only getting better at their style of filmmaking, with bigger stars, budgets and above the line crew, while keeping the sometimes difficult to define spirit of independent film intact—not only in the city where Cassavetes started it all, but where it seems to work best.


     Uncut Gems (2019, Josh & Benny Safdie) fundamentally takes the dramatic approach of focusing on the most significant point of its protagonist’s life, with the highest stakes possible, and creating as much conflict as possible in every conceivable way. And all of this suits the Safdie bros. continuing foray into the crime thriller genre. The pace is relentless. The action occurs here and now, and begins and ends in a compressed timeline. These are expert filmmaking practices on which to construct an indy film upon.
     To begin with, one aspect that makes it indy (aside from A24) is how prominently Jewish its milieu is. And Uncut Gems isn’t just about a Jewish watch and jewelry shop owner. It’s about credit, negotiations, deals, scams, and gambling: or, all the things I’d want out of a movie about a Jew who owns a jewelry store.

     The world of Uncut Gems moreover is America. It’s everyman up there with the material obsessed avarice, desperate attempts to legitimately be somebody; winning as sublimation for the desperate desire to fit in. It’s so sad because it’s so hollow but so real: the Benz, the condo, the young mistress, attending nightclubs to be around pro athletes and music stars, having everyone look at your drip and designer swag.
     Is HOWARD RATNER (Sandler) any better than Gordon Gekko? I don’t know. But I like Howard. And I guess that’s what makes Uncut Gems work so well.

     The look of the film is grainy 35mm, mostly nighttime interior colorful handheld photography on long lenses with predominantly upscale urban locales, so yes, intentionally claustrophobic to suit the subject. Darius Khondji serves as the DP on Uncut Gems, and I’ll take this opportunity to digress for absolutely no reasonable explanation to mention Khondji also shot Too Old to Die Young this year for Nicolas Winding Refn. And even though I don’t ever talk about TV here that series is better than most movies I saw this year. And speaking of #NWR, Uncut Gems has a dreampop synthy score that feels like a precious gemstone’s refracting the color spectrum tonally.

     In closing, Uncut Gems gambles in hopes of hitting the jackpot and keeps placing higher bets, until eventually it’s all or nothing. And dramatically as a thriller it works. Oh and one final note, I’d like to cite Eric Bogosian’s role as a great example of a character with almost no dialogue as an instance where it succeeds, in response to anyone who criticized Margot Robbie’s part in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino) as misogynistic.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Radegund


The hills are alive with the silence of Bressonian existentialism. A Hidden Life (2019, Terrence Malick) is art of the highest order. Snippets disseminated by the press hinted that Malick’s new film was his first linear narrative since The New World (2005, Malick), and that he is atoning for his indulgent wandering period that culminated with the aimless hedonism and materialism of Knight of Cups (2015, Malick) and Song to Song (2017, Malick).
     Part of that is true. Although using The New World for comparison is clearly misleading. The contrast between the two films is that the earlier work depicts the genocide of a country by white colonists told through individuals that lived through the events in 1607 Virginia who played active roles on both sides of the conflict. However, A Hidden Life is based on a man and wife all but forgotten, whose actions were of little to no consequence as citizens of Austria during WWII. Or were they? This is what the film asks us to ponder ultimately.
     Also in contrast to The New World, A Hidden Life’s plot is minimal. FRANZ JÄGERSTÄTTER (August Diehl) refuses to vow allegiance to Hitler—that’s the extent of any story development. But all of this serves Malick’s purpose. As an artist, Malick gives his full attention and commitment to portraying this historical footnote and elaborating on all of life’s big questions, investing them with meaning, poetry, and beauty.

     The contrast I responded to most in A Hidden Life is that between the respective doctrines of the Christians and the Nazis. The film opens with old black and white stock footage of Third Reich agitprop crowd rallies, then later swastikas and Luftwaffe—these are images of the actual events, damaged, deteriorating. But the Catholic cathedrals, murals, and holy processions are colorful and take up the whole wide screen, from newly shot footage, fresh, crisp. Also I admire the subtlety in the ways scriptures from the Gospels are dropped into the dialogue: “My burden is light,” “He never lets us have more than we can carry,” and where they're placed. Or it can be thought of as those who are devoted to God the Father and those who are devoted to the Fatherland (and Hitler); the crucifix and the swastika.

     A Hidden Life has many locked off shots, something that never occurs in the last of Malick’s 5 films shot by Lubezki. But there are still a majority of shots shot with wide lenses, I think a 16mm or sometimes a 12 or 14 (credit here to a friend I know from film school, Huay, who was Chivo’s assistant on Knight of Cups and Song to Song). And Malick’s edits are kinetic, poetic in astounding ways. What else did I notice? Every shot in the entire film is daytime.
    
     Is A Hidden Life too long? I thought so, but no. I realized the subject matter requires its length to feel the weight of it. This stuff isn’t just something you rush through. And Malick’s elliptical narrative is every bit as spontaneously nuanced as it’s ever been. The setting and attention to detail is realer than real. The performances are perfection. And there are so many moments we get to just find and be delighted to observe and ponder: the moment when Franz leaves the chair in the judge's chamber and the way Bruno Ganz as the judge sits in the chair left vacant, his expression, his hesitation…

     And finally no other filmmaker since Kubrick has as extensive and exquisite taste in classical music and the talent to place within their films. Does the word sublime get tossed around gratuitously?

Saturday, December 21, 2019

List of 10 Favorite Movies 2019


1.   The Irishman (2019, Martin Scorsese)
2.   Dragged Across Concrete (2018, S. Craig Zahler)
3.   A Hidden Life (2019, Terrence Malick)
4.   Parasite (2019, Bong Joon-ho)
5.   Alita: Battle Angel (2019, Robert Rodriguez)
6.   The Image Book (2018, Jean-Luc Godard)
7.   Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019, Quentin Tarantino)
8.   High Life (2018, Claire Denis)
9.   First Love (2019, Takashi Miike)
10.  Dark Waters (2019, Todd Haynes)

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Promised Land

Todd Haynes’s body of work as a whole is an impressive contribution to cinema. His films are fun, inventive, intelligent, and project a vast spectrum of emotions through his protags. His art is never achieved at the expense of heart. Even his made for TV miniseries resulted in a work as satisfying as any of his best films. Haynes takes trash genre aesthetics and repurposes them as a means to shape his own style. Is he that rare case (in cinema) of high art legitimately turned pop? Or am I exaggerating how wide his appeal has become?
     Haynes isn’t easy to classify. The second I find myself tempted to describe his indulgence in artifice I’m immediately confronted with Safe (1995, Todd Haynes) and its committed psychological realism. Also what other filmmaker only makes period films? This is a key to enjoying Haynes’s brilliance: the contrary effect of simultaneous verisimilitude along with distancing the audience.



     Dark Waters (2019, Haynes) is yet another instance of Haynes taking his style of filmmaking into a different direction, namely history-based social drama. It’s Haynes relinquishing his role as artist in exchange for chronicler (he can still pull both off though). But being a longtime fan I find the most enjoyable aspect of Dark Waters is the familiarity with Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988, Haynes), Poison (1991, Haynes) and Safe; having the awareness of this string of films from early in Haynes’s career 30 years ago with their explorations of innocent characters succumbing to advanced stages of corporeal decay.

     What makes Dark Waters more than an Erin Brockovich knockoff is Haynes’s aesthetic. And while he’s gained subtlety with maturity, his uncanny ability to terrify hasn’t diminished. What stands out for me are some degraded shaky images of cattle mutilation found on a cache of VHS tapes stored under the floorboards of a quiet rural farmhouse where a quaint family lives. Also a POV shot of a little girl riding her bike with her little sister, smiling and revealing a mouth of black rotting teeth. These are the primary examples of Haynes’s aesthetic—the feminine sphere of the woman’s picture disrupted by sci-fi horror motifs. And Dark Waters does it while maintaining a commitment to realism not seen to this degree before with Haynes. Or maybe it’s just more refined.
     Another benefit of Haynes’s penchant for period pictures is the authenticity found in the production design, art direction, hair, and costumes utilized in recreating middle-class suburban homes and women’s appearances in particular. And when Haynes does period pieces they’re most enjoyable when the period is recent. (I still get a kick of how Safe was made in the early nineties but set in the late eighties.) Dark Waters boasts some faux wood grain and gilt filigree touches that give such a lived in quality to the homes in the world of the film (were there doilies or am I just imagining there were?), and the baggy legged men’s suits along with prevalent shoulder pads regardless of gender is fun.
     Trivia Fact: Ed Lachman (who’s shot Haynes’ last 5 films and Mildred Pierce) was also the DP on Erin Brockovich (2000, Steven Soderbergh), the last movie Soderbergh would use a cinematographer on before serving as his own DP for all of his subsequent movies. Dark Waters has a distinct (shot on film!) palette, with blue popping up a lot, with hints of straw and many artificial-hued practical fixtures, several night shots, and generally dark throughout. Lachman really emphasizes color in the eighties Robby Müller tradition. 
     Even more of a trivia fact: Lachman was Müller’s assistant on The American Friend (1977, Wim Wenders), which is considered to have pioneered the technique of implementing un-corrected fluorescent tube practicals in shots in a way that would go on to be seen in much of Lachman’s work.


     So, in addition to the look of Dark Waters the other big draw is its domestic drama, especially the women. Without Anne Hathaway and Mare Winningham the movie would just be a bunch of suits arguing. And now that I’ve highlighted what works for me in Dark Waters, to conclude I’ll admit that I was skeptical at first as to whether or not its environmentalist agenda would get in the way of its accessibility. But that wasn’t the case because foremost I engaged with the people this story is about. Historically the events depicted in Dark Waters are unsettling to say the least, and Haynes was the perfect person to blend it all into a compelling drama.