Thursday, December 31, 2015

Ten Favorite Movies 2015

1.   The Assassin (2015, Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
2.   The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino)
3.   Sicario (2015, Denis Villeneuve)
4.   Carol (2015, Todd Haynes)  
5.   Love (2015, Gaspar Noé)
6.   Yakuza Apocalypse (2015, Takashi Miike)
7.   Irrational Man (2015, Woody Allen)
8.   Manglehorn (2014, David Gordon Green)
9.   The Martian (2015, Ridley Scott)
10. Black Mass (2015, Scott Cooper)


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Force Awakens

Are movies that explore the darker side of human sexuality inherently exploitative? Does watching movies that feature characters with kinky, depraved sexual fetishes mean that the viewer has kinky, depraved sexual fetishes?

There's no way around it, Toys Are Not for Children (1972, Stanley H. Brasloff) is an exploitation movie. And if this argument were based on the poster alone, I'd say no contest. But, whereas typical sexploitation movies of the Seventies frequently utilized non-explicit sex scenes and some nudity gratuitously, Toys Are Not for Children has a Freudian, highly dysfunctional family backstory that its lead character JAMIE GODARD (Marcia Forbes) is in constant torment from through psychotic flashback episodes that lead her toward a deeply troubled pursuit of a singular goal that unravels gradually through this twisted gem of low-budget filmmaking. I recently attended a screening of a 35mm print projected of Toys Are Not for Children.

I'm not at all ashamed to say I admire Toys Are Not for Children for its craft and bizarre imaginative attempts at melodrama. And for a low-budget, who the hell could this movie's audience possible be? venture, it is an inspiration that someone went through all the way with this. Also, on a technical and formal level, the tons of flashbacks, sometimes quickly intercut, running parallel concurrently alongside the present day narrative, sometimes jumbling adult and child Jamie interchangeably, electronic stinger cues (my favorite), great score, and deliriously taboo weirdness executed with a straight face are compelling. And every moment of Toys Are Not for Children ties into its overarching themes.

Toys Are Not for Children opens cold in an underlit bedroom with an undressed teenager writhing in her bed fondling a nutcracker-style toy soldier repeatedly moaning, "daddy." Her mother bursts in and goes into a hostile tirade that is and will be the only things the mother ever talks about: "It's unnatural!" So, we learn from this first crescendo rant that Jamie's mom is violently inconsolably distraught because Jamie's dad sends his daughter toys, but no longer lives at home, and is off "with his whores," as Jamie's mother will reiterate countless times to come.

Jamie it turns out, is actually in her mid-twenties and works in a toy store where she is loved by her boss, customers, and CHARLIE, whom she marries early on in the movie. They move into a new home together but the honeymoon is no sex for Charlie and Jamie stubbornly argues with him against giving up her toys, until he caves then she unpacks her toy soldier so she can sleep in peace.

Charlie patiently remains the understanding husband, and the toy store owner MAX is funny as Charlie's confidant, I mean these dudes are so bro'd out. When Max happily asks how married life is Charlie tries asking for help, "Maybe you can love toys too much, Max." But Max is sure there's no such thing.

Okay, this plot is way interconnected too. In the first toy store scene Jamie helps customer PEARL who happens to offer her a place to stay in the city, if she would ever so need. Turns out Pearl is one of the whores Jamie's dad slept with, and Jamie's mom knows it. So that's why Jamie's mom keeps telling her why men are no good and she doesn't want her daughter to end up like Pearl, "a painted pig."

Jamie actually thinks Pearl's occupation is really cool and wants in (unbeknownst to Pearl for quite some time). Pearl lives with her bf/pimp EDDIE who keeps trying to have sex with the innocent Jamie, Pearl's friend. One day when the ladies are out having a carefree lunchdate together, Jamie genuinely wants to hear more about Pearl's work and after some resistance on Pearl's part Jamie finally exclaims "But you are a whore aren't you?" The innocence and teenybopper pluck of Jamie gets me. The whole time all I kept thinking was what the hell am I watching and wow this is so good.

Back at home Charlie and Jamie are fighting now. And triggered from another flashback of her parents' ongoing fights Jamie relives her mom's defense of "Is that what you married me for? To get a housekeeper. Then stop complaining." Charlie starts drinking and going to the bar, having sex with random women, which he has no problem finding.

Well, by the midpoint Toys Are Not for Children gets even more awkward to watch as Jamie has succeeded in getting Eddie to pimp her out behind Pearl's back. New haircut and some really slutty work attire don't change Jamie's attitude though, she still projects herself as a nice girl working in a toy store. Oh and Jamie plays childish games with her Johns and calls them daddy. It's tough to watch. But okay, this is going somewhere. Jamie's really doing all this obviously just so she can find her real Daddy. And as the third act climax, it's definitely unnervingly suspenseful when their date becomes imminent. The foreshadowing up to this point has described her Daddy as Pearl warns "a lousy drunk and a John who gets his kicks by putting down women."

Jamie's so happy to be reunited with her Daddy. And the John is loving his date. And it takes him a long time to realize that the reason she keeps calling him Daddy isn't part of the act. He flips out and starts yelling at her, a struggle ensues and Jamie pushes him out of the window to his death.

Poor Jamie. The final low angle shot of her naked, slumped in a corner, staring off into space catatonically as the camera zooms into her eyes while the closing song plays, with the lyric "How Lonely Am I?"


Monday, December 28, 2015

The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino

There are two types of Mystery plots. First, there's the Agatha Christie kind where a small group of people are confined somewhere and they have to figure out which one of them is the killer. Then, there's the Columbo type, where you see who is guilty of the murder, then you watch the lead character try to figure it out while the criminals try to elude his or her investigations.

Shot on 65mm in Ultra Panavision 70 on location in Telluride, CO filling in for Wyoming, in falling snow storms in the mountains, The Hateful Eight (2015, Quentin Tarantino) is a momentous cinematic achievement. With big performances from a cast led by Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, and Bruce Dern and a grandiose wild game ensnaring score by Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight is a hell of a western.

But The Hateful Eight is also a confined Agatha Christie type Mystery that all takes place in one cabin among eight principal cast members.

Tarantino proved with Reservoir Dogs (1992, Tarantino) that he can deliver some of his best work with a few guys stuck in one room talking about which one of them may not be whom he says. And while I've often faulted a movie for not distancing itself from a stage play, that's not the case with The Hateful Eight. While Tarantino's greatest strength is dialogue, the events that occur outside of the cabin give a greater sense of setting and enhance the tone of this Western.

But the dialogue is front and center the star of The Hateful Eight. Jackson and Russell among others perform in familiar styles from their other collaborations with Tarantino. But Jennifer Jason Leigh as DAISY DOMERGUE finds a nasty, conniving, Southern-accented authenticity in her performance. Domergue the prisoner is what draws these men together and gives fresh life to the narrative. Domergue's first scene in the stage when we see her CU, with her taught weathered skin around her dark evil eyes, shiner, she projects a range of nuances. In particular the contrast of her cagey duplicitous danger against her winking, smiling, lip licking seductress. All of the characters' dialogue continuously establishes them as mean, calculated, colorful, braggarts who often fall flat on their faces while still maintaining their dignity. Tarantino has fun with his dialogue and he obviously works hard at his craft. But  their western costumes and rotting teeth make-up help too.

Bruce Dern had me rolling uncontrollably with belly laughter as Confederate GEN. SANDY SMITHERS and I just loved every second he had a scene. From the moment when JOHN RUTH (Russell) introduces himself, Dern's character pointing at his embroidered sleeve insignia, "You will address me as General. You sir are a hyena and I have no wish to speak with you." He's just great casting.

The Hateful Eight is also full of comedy. The door gag, established early on, gets a lot of mileage. The cabin most of the film takes place in's front door is broken, and each time a character enters from outside, they must kick the door open, board it shut from the inside upon entering, with more than one board and using nails--and from the first time on, the characters inside yell the instructions. Among the first three yelling, JOE GAGE (Michael Madsen) off-screen, in an instance of what Michel Ciment would call a disembodied voice, gets laughs because of Madsen's distinct deep gravel voice.

Demián Bichir plays a character very close to Tuco called BOB THE MEXICAN, and the way he plays with the Mexican accent and slang is clever. OSWALDO MOBRAY is Tim Roth as a hangman who speaks not very far off from Group Captain Lionel Mandrake.

Also fresh in this movie is the linear narrative--something Tarantino has never featured, aside from Death Proof (2007, Tarantino). But, in a very satisfying way, Tarantino delivers his own self-aware brand throughout the crafted style of The Hateful Eight. In addition to the aforementioned dialogue, the graphic violence shocks are delivered in exceedingly gory fashion. And not to give anything away, but holy shit this thing is a bloodbath and doesn't spend anytime leaving its violence off screen.

And the great Robert Richardson ASC does justice to the scope and magnitude of the natural exterior locations, along with adding his customary shafts of hard overhead sources bouncing of of table tops inside of Minnie's Haberdashery. With the snow covered stagecoach, hats and jackets, establishing giant landscape canvasses amid snow storms to visible condensation vapors from the characters' mouths both exterior and interior, The Hateful Eight contains many textured frames and sequences that only serve to enhance the setting and Western genre aim of the film. Oh yeah and split-field diopters a lot too.

I was able to attend the roadshow version, which according to the press materials in the lobby, is longer with scenes shown in 70mm that will not be the same ones in subsequent versions, an overture, intermission and other additional music, and a souvenir program. The aspect ratio (2.76:1) is noticeably thin and longer horizontally than anything I've ever been able to see in a theater, and earlier this year I saw Lawrence of Arabia (1962, David Lean) in 70mm. I suppose it's because Lawrence of Arabia was shot on Super Panavision 70, which has a spherical 2.20:1 ratio; but The Hateful Eight was shot on Ultra Panavision 70, which had an anamorphic 2.76:1.

The Hateful Eight finds so many instances of tapping into the characteristics necessary to be called a western and for the most part it's the stories and Tarantino's strength in believably, humorously and entertainingly creating them. So many of the characters are full of horseshit and I imagine back then at this particular time in history you had to be. But also the little things like when Domergue alludes to the ability of a character to drive a two horse stage but not a four horse stage, becomes part of getting the reality of the genre down.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Christmas Carol

Movies shot on film are an endangered species, though thankfully not extinct. As a historical artifact, the medium of film fits with Todd Haynes latest movie, a filmmaker whose work is comprised entirely of period pieces. Haynes has also yet to shoot a movie on video.

Carol (2015, Todd Haynes) is a film about, by, and for outsiders. It's also about love. And, everything about it is beautiful.

Rooney Mara's THERESE BELIVET drives Carol. Mara's performance gets its strength from her fickle, twitchy, self conscious, strange composure. Therese's ugly pageboy haircut and general lack of fashion sense or aptitude with makeup application doesn't stop CAROL (Cate Blanchett) from recognizing her attractive qualities, however. And Carol will come to love "fallen from out of space" Therese. And as a romance Carol finds Therese lonely, confused, young, unsure of what she wants to do with her life, a virgin, and never having been in love.

But what about Carol? Carol is unhappily married, also lonely--her one friend ABBY (Sarah Paulson) vehemently despised by Carol's husband. All Carol has is her daughter, until meeting Therese. And Blanchett's performance, depicting the anguish and running out of time and options she gives to Carol is, along with Mara's turn, some of the best of what makes Carol work so well. The two leads compliment each other by contrast: Carol is older, cynical, worldly, refined, affluent and in a family, whereas Therese is young, naïve, uncultured, dowdy, middle class and on her own.

1952 Manhattan has and continues to be a glamorously picturesque subject for classic Hollywood style filmmaking. Especially the elegant costumes and hairstyles for both men and women, and the interiors. Carol was shot on 16mm by Ed Lachman, whom Haynes also collaborated with on Far From Heaven (2002, Haynes), I'm Not There (2007, Haynes), and the made for TV, also shot on 16mm Mildred Pierce (2011, Haynes). Lachman is also one who has chosen outsider, or maverick filmmakers to work with. And 16mm is in a sense an outsider medium to shoot on, usually connotating art or experimental films.

Though Carol may look like a Fifties Hollywood movie, with its expertly framed compositions utilizing reflective surfaces finding characters seen through glass or separated by various constructions, the 16mm has a darker look, more natural, and there are frequent Steadicam, over-cranked subjective shots to put us in Therese's shoes.

Most of Carol is about unattainable objects of desire, brooding, and suffering. And that's why, like much of Haynes' other work, can be traced back to the feel of late Hollywood Sirk and also Fassbinder. But here Carol's characters aren't victim to as much external violence or even emotional conflicts; here, they are attacked from within, and battling for a chance to figure out a cure.

Carter Burwell's score is memorable, delicate, and one of his most memorable. The romantic theme ties Carol and Therese and gives the movie another of its contemporary highlights. Highsmith's original source gives Carol its Fifties authenticity. And another praise for Haynes is his ability to refrain from kitsch or hokey gags based on the difference of our American culture back then. Not to put down Far From Heaven, or Mildred Pierce, but Carol feels more somber, even realistic in comparison to those.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Red Is the Warmest Color

Wuxia as a film genre typically involves martial arts heroes in China hundreds of years ago, coming out in the end on top through a conflict of some opposing political forces, or revenge plot, and feature some romance or saving a family. The genre is also peaceful, at one with nature, and exhibits a zen balance of human spirituality. The heroes can also fly, acrobatically hop around, and are highly skilled at swordplay and hand to hand combat. The scores feature serene ancient Chinese instruments. I'm still new at viewing wuxia films, but I really like A Touch of Zen (1971, King Hu) and Hero (2002, Zhang Yimou). Speaking of Hero, the way it is shot, by Christopher Doyle, is one of the most interesting strategies of color cinematography--very beautiful and artful. And I also still really like House of Flying Daggers (2004, Yimou), which I saw back in '04 at the Fox Tower in PDX.

The Assassin (2015, Hou Hsiao-Hsien) is an understated, refined, minimalist feat of a masterful crafting of classical film language. When I think classical filmmaking I'm basically thinking the opposite of Michael Bay's Transformers (not that there's anything particularly wrong with those movies). For example, The Assassin is composed of very slow camera moves that are restricted to the x and y axes, whereas the Transformers films have fast camera moves, frequently along the z axis.

The prologue opens cold. It's in gorgeous high contrast black and white 35mm 1.33:1 Academy ratio, and hence several instances of an acknowledgedly classical filmmaking style. It's also as silent as if the world it takes place in is in its own vacuum.

The Assassin opens in eighth century China during the Tang dynasty with a prologue that introduces heroine YINNIANG (Shu Qi), the expert natural born killer, and her handler JIAXIN. After breezing through an assigned hit, Jiaxin follows up immediately with a subsequent target that places Yinniang spying from high in the rafters (a common wuxia motif) and gracefully anti-gravity floating down to the Governor and his infant son, which causes Yinniang to abandon this mission. Frustrated, Jiaxin assigns Yinniang to return to her home she was taken from to murder a man with strong ties to her past, TIAN JI'AN (Chang Chen).

This prologue is immediately followed by a 1.85:1 widescreen shot, in color, of PRINCESS JIACHENG in a flower garden playing an ancient zither and narrating a tale that is the foundation the film will return to throughout to establish its structure from in subtle ways (and is the only shot in The Assassin that is framed in widescreen). The King of Kophen has a bird that would not sing for three years. The Queen tells him that the bird will not sing because it is not around any of its own kind. Then the King places a small mirror in front of the bluebird, the bird sees its reflection and sings sadly for the rest of the night and dies.

The Assassin features sweeping, magnificent forests, mountain ranges, pristine flower gardens, period costumes and elegantly subdued interior domestic settings often with birds chirping off somewhere, humble content servants and staff, and young children playing ball. Tian Ji'an's family household serves as the film's dramatic core. Most of the action revolves around this home as its epicenter, and it does not take long for news of sightings of Yinniang to reach him.

And for me an ambiguity to the central conflict of The Assassin is does Yinniang hesitate from killing Tian Ji'an at first because she still loves him or because he has a wife and children and rules the people of Weibo? But we don't need this answer spelled out for us.

Sooner than we'd expect Tian Ji'an is in the master bedroom with his wife, in a sequence filmed through the silk curtains that enshroud this space, when Yinniang appears before them. Yinniang glides leaping tall buildings in a single bound to engage in a rooftop skirmish with Tian Ji'an that she clearly holds back with any intentions of mortally wounding him from.

The balance of The Assassin teeters between Yinniang's long backstoried past involving Tian Ji'an (her cousin, and planned to be her husband long ago), and the trajectory her actions will have toward the future of the Weibo province he rules and its political relation to the Imperial Court. And all of this unfolds simultaneously in hushed reverent dialogues radiating from this central intrigue in Tian Ji'an's home. The interiors are always lit warmly in contrast to the cold sometimes bluish or green foliage exteriors.

Back to the bluebird story. The actress Fang-Yi Sheu plays both Princess Jiacheng and her sister, the one time Princess Jiaxin, who became a nun and eventually the guardian of Yinniang and the one who trained her as an assassin. The Assassin balances several contrasting motifs, hence the mirror in the bluebird story. Jiacheng and Jiaxin are opposites, and through the course of the plot, it is up to Yinniang to find which one she identifies with.

Wuxia films as a genre are a lot like Hollywood westerns. Although a big difference is on the one hand westerns are dusty, sweaty, dirty yarns in arid desert settings, wuxia are immaculate, freshly laundered, clean fairytales in lush green forests. Both have horses and mountains. But those looking for intense, choreographed martial arts spectacles will be disappointed with The Assassin because instead the fight sequences are the blink and you'll miss it variety, sublimely finishing so quick you have to think for a minute to realize who won or did anyone--almost like an analog of the fastest gun in the West.

While Ji'an may be Yinniang's primary target, most of The Assassin is populated by female characters. An ongoing thread involves HUJI, a mistress that Ji'an gets pregnant and his wife uses black magic curses on out of jealousy. And as a template of the nature of the way The Assassin presents fight scenes, the gold-masked female bodyguard to the family who tracks Yinniang leading to the confrontation in the silver birch forest. Before you've caught your breath, they both pause, and ever so slightly you notice a slight slash across the gold mask. Cut to a wide of the bodyguard, with her face turned three-quarters away from us, without the mask.

After an epic concluding battle on a giant smokey mountainside, the resolution of the film occurs in a scene that opens with a shot of some goats at a farm house, in a way, balancing the opening shot of the first scene in The Assassin, a shot of two donkeys.

Filmmakers often attempt the less is more aesthetic, and I'm sure it works for many other than myself, but I'm often disappointed. But when it does work, that's when I recognize a master. And that's exactly how I feel about Hou Hsiao-Hsien with The Assassin.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

Irrational Man

I make a big deal about the benefits of the experience of viewing a movie in a theater projected from film. I've always thought computers are stupid and boring. But now computers are used to shoot, record sound, light, edit, and project movies. I don't care how computers work. Although with film I love thinking about the clear base reacting photochemically with silver halide crystals getting exposed to light causing them to expand in varying densities and opacities captured on the dull gray emulsion of negative film stocks, and graphed by sensitometry, the toe and shoulder, latitude, and D-log E curve. All that stuff is interesting and fun.

As long as the Internet's been around I've enjoyed being able to visit the webpage of the Cannes Film Festival. Seeing what gets chosen for the Cannes Classics section always makes me wish I could be there. That section's details include who and how the films were restored. Many are now restored to dcp. Oh well, way of the future.

So, in defense of computer technology, a very well done meticulous 4K scan restoration of an original film negative can be breathtaking to behold projected in 4K.

Such was the case around Thanksgiving a few weeks ago when I was able to attend a screening of a new restoration that was completed March 2015 of Marco Bellocchio's debut feature from 1965 .

I pugni in tasca (1965, Marco Bellocchio) is not erotic, it's sexy--with the stunning black and white cinematography, the young siblings and all of their effortlessly chic clothing and hairstyles, and the Morricone orchestrations, for starters. SANDRO (Lou Castel) is the center of the movie. Sandro is spoiled, psychotic, mischievous, a sociopath, and along with his three brothers and sister, one of the children of a blind widow whom all but the oldest son leach off of financially. The oldest son AUGOSTO (Marino Masé) has a company man job and manages the allowances of his siblings. I pugni in tasca makes the bourgeoisie look like shit. Specifically Sandro with his lack of ambition or work ethic, of course this aside from a brief dallying with a business venture he considers that involves selling chinchillas.

Sandro is evil. He suffers from jealousy over Augosto's hot girlfriend, greed for more money--to the point where he murders his mother because Augosto mentions that it's expensive to keep her at home and feed her instead of sending her to a nursing home, causing Sandro to calculate that with her dead he could afford the chinchilla enterprise--lust for his sister GIULIA (Paola Pitagora), you know, pretty much every one of the seven deadly sins. He also murders his little brother by watching him go into an epileptic seizure and intentionally withholding his medicine.

But the scene at Augosto's girlfriend's birthday party that Sandro attends made me empathize with him. A girl flirts with him and it becomes clear that he has no social life but desires one. The nuanced portrayal here of youth along with its heightened emotions, hormones, sexual frustration, and desperate need to belong and gain acceptance by your peers is something I strongly identified with. With all of his mean taunting, conniving, fits of alarming manic laughter and general insanity, I still find in him the understandable causes that led to his misery and just how close anyone can be from giving up and just saying fuck it, fuck being rational, and breaking the sound barrier towards their own self-destructive oblivion, which is the motor that drives the types of characters found in my favorite domestic melodramas.

Another powerfully devastating aspect of the narrative occurs after the mother's funeral, when Sandro and Giulia destroy their very recently deceased mom's possessions for kicks. It's terrifying to be confronted with the reality that some of us humans are capable of being that callous and brutally disrespectful to our parents. And on top of this scene Augosto enters and pleads with them to stop trashing mom's bedroom, but as it turns out his motive only concerns the magazines they're tearing up, because he says they might be worth a lot of money someday. I pugni in tasca feels like it's aimed at satirically mocking each and every Catholic law from the ten commandments onward, and that the magazines are a monthly Catholic publication adds on just the right layers to what gives the movie it's own unique verisimilitude.

I feel sorry for Guilia and even LUCIA because they're not so bad and one wonders how different their lives would have turned out without Sandro. There is no beauty like the ghosts of the black and white 60s Italian movie starlet's performances, and Giulia is really something. A sequence that singles itself out is when Sandro provokes a child to go out on the terrace of one of the upstairs bedrooms that Sandro's and Giulia's rooms each both exit out to, where Giulia is sunbathing, Sandro asking the young boy to go out there and "tell me what you see." The gorgeously sensuous Giulia elegantly clad in a simple black robe reclines in a chair with her bare legs propped on the railing, with her eyes closed in the masterfully crafted depiction of imagined and unspoken projection of our own desires amid a majestically sprawling deep focus backdrop of giant snow covered mountains that nestles the family's palatial estate.

I pugni in tasca is very impressive for being the work of a first time director and all of the images and compositions are illuminated by a magic that is timeless. It's dramatic elements are pretty messed up though. But that's what I go for. I like seeing our ugly side.