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


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)