Saturday, December 28, 2013

End of the Year Roundup

Spring Breakers, the most artful, sublime, and culturally savvy film I saw this year.

I prefer to call this end of the year reflection a "roundup" because I am somewhat opposed to the idea of "best of" lists or even the idea of "best" when applied to works of entertainment or art in the first place. These things are so damn subjective that, although I am surely subject to my own outbursts of praising or condemning hyperbole when discussing cinema, I do not wish to convey that I place much faith in rankings of "best films" whether such lists are composed by me or by others.

All that said, I understand the compulsion to collect one's thoughts at the end of a year and to make some kind of temporarily definitive statement about the highlights of one's moviegoing experiences in the 365 days just passed. So with that in mind, and in no particular order, here are some of the most memorable films and filmgoing experiences I've had in 2013.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in Steve McQueen's powerful anti-slavery film 
12 Years a Slave.

The most impactful films of 2013 for me include 12 Years a Slave, Only God Forgives, Enough Said, Spring Breakers, Blackfish, and The HeatPlease factor into this that I have not yet seen other promising 2013 releases such as Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Frances Ha, Before Midnight, or practically any of the films on this list (let alone this one).

I have discussed Only God Forgives and Enough Said elsewhere, and am still working on a stand-alone review of the Steve McQueen masterpiece 12 Years a Slave, but I will say a few words about those other three films now.

While 12 Years is probably the most historically "important" film listed above, and the most emotionally wrenching for sure, I have to choose Harmony Korine's satirical, postmodern masterpiece Spring Breakers as my personal favorite this year.  As Tom Carson so eloquently puts it in his assessment of the film,
People have debated whether Spring Breakers sends up the prurient appeal of exploitation movies or is just prurient, but that's missing the point: both are true.  [. . .] What's most startling about the movie is how breezily but bluntly it lays bare white America's "I wanna be black" race fantasies. [. . .] In this movie Korine is as sharp as any director ever has been about the sexual and racial pathologies that underlie so many forms of American craziness.
Indeed. It is a postmodern masterwork that accurately depicts where we are right now. It is also, at the same time, a remarkable and very sensitively crafted teenaged coming-of-age story that is, if not explicitly feminist, at least female-positive.* That is quite an achievement. Add to this Korine's remarkable talent for capturing indelibly beautiful (if sometimes disturbing) visual images, a talent which, if anything, has matured since his earlier works Gummo (1997), Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), and Mister Lonely (2007), and you have in Spring Breakers a stunning art film cum-social critique that every thinking American should see.

Blackfish, by contrast, is a well-produced but relatively straightforward documentary, more noteworthy for its heartbreaking subject matter than its formal innovation. Taking as its focus a series of (mostly covered up) lethal attacks upon various SeaWorld trainers over the decades, Blackfish documents the irreparable psychological damage done to orca ("killer whales") who are captured and held in captivity as marine zoos and theme parks. As this article suggests, watching the film may sour you on taking a trip to SeaWorld but it will touch your conscience and your emotions and will raise your awareness about the human species' ethical obligation to our oceangoing mammalian brethren. A chilling, emotionally compelling must-see.

One of the final shots of Blackfish, depicting a pod of orca 
where they belong: in the wild.

The Heat is the laugh-out-loud funniest film I've seen since at least Bridesmaids (2011) and possibly even Superbad (2007). Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock, the well-paired stars of this straight-ahead buddy comedy, have excellent onscreen chemistry; The Heat is hilariously funny throughout yet integrates a few touching moments between the two leads that do not come off as too schmaltzy or sentimental. The writing and direction are top-notch. I wish they'd given Jane Curtin a more substantive role and more screen time as McCarthy's hard-edged mother. But ultimately I highly recommend The Heat if you want to laugh. I hope that the runaway success of the film leads to more consistent production of female-led comedies in Hollywood going forward.

Pre-2013 films I finally saw and am so happy I did include Take This Waltz (2011), Marie Antoinette (2006), Adam's Apples (2005), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Chasing Ice (2012), Shallow Grave (1994), and Berberian Sound Studio (2012).

I have reviewed Sarah Polley's superb relationship drama Take This Waltz elsewhere, and plan to discuss Marie Antoinette in a separate post on Sofia Coppola and Adam's Apples in a post on Mads Mikkelsen.

Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin is probably the single most disturbing film I saw this year, about a mother coming to terms with the fact that her son may be a sociopath. As a thriller/family melodrama, the film is both a real nail-biter and a poignantly beautiful paean to the struggles of motherhood -- Tilda Swinton, always an actress to watch out for, gives a harrowingly raw and ultimately quite tender performance as Kevin's seemingly emotionally distant mother. I just cannot recommend this film highly enough; it is a must-see.

Ezra Miller as Kevin in Lynne Ramsay's harrowing family drama 
We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Chasing Ice is a beautifully shot documentary about environmental photographer James Balog's decade-long quest to document the retreat of the world's glaciers as a result of global climate change. His time-lapse photography, shown in the last twenty minutes of the documentary, is so sublimely horrifying that I think every citizen of Earth should see it. However, equally compelling and worth seeing is the whole lead-up to that jaw-dropping footage, in which we see what a painstaking process it was for Balog to capture it in the first place.

Of Shallow Grave and Berberian Sound Studio I have little to say other than they are both excellent, even exceptional genre films: Grave a darkly comic suspense thriller / neo-noir about three roommates who plot and execute a murder together, and Berberian a horror film / art film that is also a loving homage to the Italian giallo horror film tradition -- with a twist. I recommend Danny Boyle's witty and accessible Shallow Grave to anyone; Berberian Sound Studio is probably best appreciated by folks with at least a passing knowledge of Italian horror (see at least Suspiria first) and an openness to films that end ambiguously.

Toby Jones as a hapless sound recordist in Berberian Sound Studio.

Noteworthy 1960s and 1970s films I saw for the first time this year include The Yakuza (1974), Blue Collar (1978), When Eight Bells Toll (1971), Juggernaut (1974), The Wild Geese (1978), and L'Avventura (1960).

I saw The Yakuza (1974) and Blue Collar (1978) when I was on a brief Paul Schrader jag this summer -- he scripted both films and directed the second. Both are superb if you enjoy 1970s Hollywood cinema. For me, The Yakuza was the real standout, bringing an aging Robert Mitchum back for a revisionist noir set in Japan. While a bit Orientalist, the film is extremely well made and yields many delights for fans of noir-ish thrillers. Blue Collar is actually more hard-hitting thematically, dealing as it does with the (corrupt, racist) politics of the automobile labor unions, and it features killer performances by Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto.

Anthony Hopkins in the delightful, James Bond-esque 
espionage thriller When Eight Bells Toll

When Eight Bells Toll is one of my most unexpected discoveries this year -- I found it when perusing Netflix streaming offerings looking for British thrillers. Bells is essentially a James Bond film without James Bond in it. Anthony Hopkins plays an experienced secret agent on a dangerous mission in northern England; many plot points remind me of From Russia With Love and Dr. No. If you are a fan of the early Bonds and/or Hopkins, When Eight Bells Toll is not to be missed!

Juggernaut and The Wild Geese were films I found during my summer quest for British thrillers (I also found Ffolkes on the same roundup, but probably cannot recommend that one as strongly, except to diehard Roger Moore fans). The former film is flat-out excellent; anyone who likes thriller / action films like Die Hard will surely enjoy Juggernaut, which is about a bomb squad defusing two bombs aboard a passenger liner at sea. Juggernaut's greatest strength, besides its extremely tight and tension-filled script, is its all-star British cast, including Richard Harris, Omar Sharif, Anthony Hopkins, Ian Holm, and Julian Glover.

The appeal of The Wild Geese may be more selective, as it is a war film about an aging group of retired commandoes going on one last mission. What redeems the film is its cast -- Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore, and Hardy Kruger -- and its focus on the relationships between the key team members. It is also quite funny at times, exploiting its principals' advancing age to show how difficult it is for them to get back into military shape etc. Ultimately a poignant male-centered buddy film, The Wild Geese is highly recommended IF you like that genre or are a particular fan of any or all of the film's stars.

L'Avventura (1960, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni) was another film I saw at the Dryden this fall, and it was simply terrific. I am relatively behind on my Italian cinema, having only just gotten serious about Fellini this past summer (more on that development in a moment), but I must say Antonioni has surely caught my attention with his gently nuanced, at times darkly comic portrayal of young Italian socialites. Like a more grittily realistic yet emotionally tender version of Fellini's La Dolce Vita, Antonioni's 1960 art-cinema classic is surely one of the finest and most memorable movies I saw this year. On to his Red Desert next!

Italian film director Federico Fellini.

On the list of Directors I knew a little about but got to know better this year are Julie Taymor, Federico Fellini, Sam Peckinpah, John Ford, and Anthony Mann. I have discussed Ford before and plan to write separate appreciations for Mann and Taymor, but I will say a few words about my great Fellini adventure and my delve deeper into Peckinpah's cinema.

I began this summer woefully lacking in direct experience of the work of Federico Fellini, having only seen 8 1/2 (1963) and brief excerpts from La Dolce Vita (1960) and Fellini Satyricon (1969). However, over the summer I increased my exposure to this wonderful and influential filmmaker via viewings of two of his masterpieces: La Dolce Vita and Amarcord (1973). Both of these are simply fantastic films. Amarcord is probably the more "accessible" of the two, being in (vibrant) color and being a bit more sentimental in tone than other Fellini films I've seen. However, for me, Vita is now my favorite Fellini film of all. More downbeat and less overtly carnivalesque than 8 1/2, Vita is a true masterpiece of 1960's European cinema that accurately captures upper-middle-class ennui even more poignantly and bitingly than the American film The Graduate would seven years later. Suffice to say, Fellini has totally won me over; next on my Fellini viewing list are La Strada (1954) and Nights of Cabiria (1957).

As far as Peckinpah goes, I was already a huge fan of his epic revisionist Western The Wild Bunch (1969); it is one of my all-time favorite films. But over the summer I caught four more of his films, winners all: the noir-ish Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), the comedy/western The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), the controversial thriller Straw Dogs (1971), and his late-career downbeat Western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). I confess to enjoying the former two over the latter two, mainly because Alfredo Garcia is so tightly scripted, delightfully violent, and grotesquely weird;** and because Cable Hogue is so unexpectedly tender, funny, and sentimental, especially for the usually violent and action-oriented Peckinpah. Are these still sexist, male-centered films? Yes, of course; that is what you get with Peckinpah. Yet Hogue and Garcia contain two of the best-developed women characters we're likely to get out of the misogynistic director, especially Hogue's Hildy (Stella Stevens). Also, Hogue contains one of Jason Robards' all-time best performances, rendered delightfully comic by his interactions with David Warner as a lothario/priest. Both Dogs and Pat Garrett are definitely worth seeing, though the former suffers from a contrived-feeling plot, and the latter is just so relentlessly bleak and downbeat (and this from a viewer who typically enjoys such things) that it was hard to "enjoy" in the usual sense of the word. Also, Bob Dylan's onscreen appearance in a minor yet pervasive role in Garrett is distracting.

Finally, in terms of memorable at-home viewing, I saw two really dynamite 1930s horror films this year: James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) and Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932). I don't have much to say about these except: see them! House may well be Whale's greatest film, and Vampyr is one of the most creepily disturbing, and by far the most artfully and beautifully shot, vampire films I have ever seen. Only Murnau's Nosferatu is in this same league, and that just barely.

My Best Moviegoing Experiences this year were the discovery of "silent Tuesdays" at the Dryden Theater in Rochester and attending my first-ever screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Lightbox Theater. I have posted about the former before; I would only like to add here that since writing that I have been to see film historian and pianist extraordinaire Phil Carli introduce and accompany the excellent, expressionistic silent film The Scarlet Letter (1926, dir. Victor Sjostrom), and the experience was EVEN BETTER than seeing and hearing him accompany The Lodger. Carli admitted that Letter is one of his personal favorite movies, and I think his enthusiasm for it came through in his piano accompaniment that night; it was even more nuanced and emotive than his Hitchcock score had been.

Bette Davis -- one of my favorite golden-age screen actresses -- in the superb 
The Little Foxes.

My trip to the TIFF Lightbox -- a beautiful, multi-screen facility in downtown Toronto -- was quite thrilling as well. I was there to see Little Foxes (1941, dir. William Wyler), part of a series of Bette Davis films being screened there this fall. The movie was simply great, as were the book offerings in the TIFF Gift Shop. Not many "standard" bookstores, no matter how well-stocked, carry many of the types of books I most enjoy, i.e., works of film criticism and film history beyond the most obvious biographical works. TIFF's shop had several such books, including a fairly complete array of BFI essays on individual films. What a treat!

Also deserving of mention in the "Best Moviegoing Experiences" category this year was my trip to the Original Princess Theater in Waterloo, Ontario to see the brilliant satire Austenland (2013). The Princess is a longstanding neighborhood art-house theater in downtown Waterloo, and Austenland, starring Keri Russell and Jennifer Coolidge, is a sharp, perfectly constructed satire of Jane Austen fandom and the traditional conventions of the cinematic romantic comedy. I think many reviewers missed the point of this film, taking it for a "failed" romantic comedy. However, like Spring Breakers, Austenland requires the viewer to acknowledge its ironical stance toward its own content; like Breakers, Austenland is clearly intended as satire. Seen in that light, it is completely delightful, extraordinarily witty, and very canny about its subject matter. In short, it is one of the smartest and funniest films I saw all year.

Concluding thoughts: If I were going to recommend only three of the films discussed above to my readers (whether or not they were this year's releases), they would be 12 Years a Slave, Blackfish, and We Need to Talk About Kevin. These three movies suggest themselves mostly due to their content, not so much their formal or visual boldness. While all three are very well-made, only 12 Years contains any formal devices -- mainly a couple extraordinarily (and excruciatingly) long takes and some interesting use of sound -- that could be described as "experimental" in any way. No, I recommend these films to everyone because I think the themes and subject matter they tackle -- American slavery, our ethical responsibility to whales, and a family confronting the reality of a sociopath in its midst -- are unique and urgent. We don't often see films willing to look at subjects like these so sensitively and unflinchingly. And while there is surely a place for movies as "escapist" entertainment, as A.O. Scott has written,
what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism? For most of the past decade, magical thinking has been elevated from a diversion to an ideological principle. The benign faith that dreams will come true can be hard to distinguish from the more sinister seduction of believing in lies. To counter the tyranny of fantasy entrenched on Wall Street and in Washington as well as in Hollywood, it seems possible that engagement with the world as it is might reassert itself as an aesthetic strategy. Perhaps it would be worth considering that what we need from movies, in the face of a dismaying and confusing real world, is realism.
Scott's comments were published in 2009, but resonate very strongly four years later. I hope your own movie-going year was stimulating and diverse, and here's to an equally exciting 2014!

Officer Mullins and Agent Ashburn say: 
"We hope you had a fun moviegoing year!"

* UPDATE: Since posting this retrospective I discovered this feminist appreciation of Spring Breakers by Britt Hayes of Screencrush, in which she writes: "'Spring Breakers' is a surprisingly smart film that explores the fantasy of female agency amidst the garish dayglo excess of Spring Break [. . .] The film asks us why we want to see these girls in increasingly dangerous situations, how they could be so empowered and take agency over themselves and the men who surround them, and ultimately why we don't believe they ever could have that agency." Well said!
** Now that I have seen Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia -- probably my second favorite Peckinpah film after The Wild Bunch -- I am convinced that it has exerted a particularly strong influence upon Quentin Tarantino's early work, especially Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and his 1996 collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, From Dusk Till Dawn. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

EW #4: Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty star in the exhilarating Bonnie and Clyde.

Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde is one of three films -- the other two being The Graduate and Easy Rider -- that announced the arrival of the "Hollywood Renaissance," a unique period in Hollywood filmmaking that lasted from about 1967, the year of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate's releases, until roughly 1980, at which time the "Blockbuster" mode of production took over the U.S. movie-making business.

The "Hollywood Renaissance" (sometimes called the "New Hollywood") was driven largely by up-and-coming Baby Boomer directors like Penn, Peter Bogdanovich, Roman Polanski, Francis Ford Coppola, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese, and William Friedkin. These young filmmakers, influenced by the American social upheavals of the 1960s and the cinematic innovations of the French New Wave, brought explicit sex, drugs, rock and roll, and a countercultural ethos to the American cinema throughout the decade of the 1970s. According to film historian and journalist Peter Biskind, the New Hollywood period was “the last time Hollywood produced a body of risky, high-quality work [. . .] that defied traditional narrative conventions, that challenged the tyranny of technical correctness, that broke the taboos of language and behavior, that dared to end unhappily.”*

Of course, the Hollywood Renaissance wasn't the last time any U.S. filmmakers produced risky or artistically challenging work; it's just that, after the 1970s, those risk-takers had to seek support and distribution through independent channels (hence the major boom in American independent cinema during the 1980s). What makes the Hollywood Renaissance period so unique and so interesting is that, for a brief decade, young, (mostly) counter-cultural "outsiders" took over the reins of the most powerful studio production apparatus on earth, using Hollywood's stars, technical resources, and money to collectively produce a body of work unlike anything ever made in Hollywood before or since.**

Bonnie and Clyde is a perfect representation of what made the Hollywood films of the late 1960s and 1970s so special. Witty, action-packed, and (for its time) quite violent and bloody, the picture celebrates youth on the run, a counter-cultural blast of energy in line with the youth political activism and "sex, drugs,and rock-and-roll" culture it addressed. Perhaps less subtly witty than its counterpart, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde nevertheless makes youthful rage and rebellion look damn sexy and damn fun. Ostensibly about two real-life 1930s gangsters, Bonnie and Clyde is really about the youth culture of the late 1960s. Its anti-authoritarian posturing, perhaps best symbolized by the sequences in which Clyde and a displaced sharecropper shoot out the windows of the latter's repossessed home, or when the Barrow gang humiliate the Texas Ranger sent to capture them, is a more accurate harbinger of the tone of the Hollywood Renaissance films to come than is the more quirky Graduate. Bonnie and Clyde's notoriously bloody finale also foreshadows the grim endings of other key films of the period, like Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Sam Peckinpah's elegiac anti-Western The Wild Bunch (all 1969), and Alan J. Pakula's conspiracy thriller The Parallax View (1974).

 The Barrow Gang humiliates Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, evincing the film's 
glamorous and self-aware anti-authoritarianism.

As Mark Harris writes, Bonnie and Clyde was almost directed by French New Wave director Francois Truffaut; screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman approached the Frenchman several times but he ultimately turned the project down in order to direct his (pretty damn good) English-language adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 (1966).*** So Benton and Newman sent the script to Warren Beatty, who fell in love with the project and told them, "You've written a French film -- you need an American director."† It was Beatty who brought Arthur Penn in to direct Bonnie and Clyde, having worked with him before on Mickey One (1965), a film Barry Langford calls "the American film most thoroughly imbued with the stylistic lexicon of the early French New Wave."†† Throughout production on Bonnie and Clyde, Beatty and Penn had what can be best described as a fruitfully combative relationship -- they loved to argue and haggle with each other over every little creative decision, and while their on-set fighting made certain other cast and crew members uneasy, both men described their process in interviews as being a happy and productive one.

The film's most lasting contribution to film history is its startlingly effective mixture of ironic humor and graphic violence; like Sam Peckinpah's and Sergio Leone's work during this same period, Bonnie and Clyde has exerted a potent influence over future Generation X filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher. The film's most obviously violent sequence is its lengthy, slow-motion finale, which "includes sixty shots in less than a minute" and during which "Penn used four cameras for every setup, each one filming from the same angle but running at a different speed."††† However, the movie's most controversial single shot is the one depicted below, in which a banker is bloodily gunned down while the gun that shot him is still in the frame. We take such shots (ha, ha) for granted nowadays, but this was a risky and trendsetting choice on the part of Bonnie and Clyde's creators.

One of Bonnie and Clyde's most confrontationally violent images: Clyde shoots
 the banker in the face -- with the gun in the same frame as the victim.

So, despite Entertainment Weekly's excessive propensity to lionize American films of the 1970s, I cannot disagree with their placement of Bonnie and Clyde so high on their Top 100 list. It is quite simply a must-see film that, in addition to its enormous historical significance and ongoing influence, is every bit as humorous, glamorous, and exciting now as it was when it was made.

Bonus afterthought: Once you have seen Bonnie and Clyde I strongly recommend Arthur Penn's 1975 Gene Hackman vehicle, the wonderful neo-noir Night Moves. It features Hackman at his frumpy, haggard best, attempting to solve a twisted case involving a very young Melanie Griffith in her debut screen role.

* Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (Simon & Schuster, 1999) p. 17.
** Sure, there have been a few exceptions to the usual rule of Hollywood's playing things incredibly safe: for example, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane is a formally experimental and politically contentious film produced by a Hollywood studio, and von Stroheim's work also leaps to mind. But not before or since the 1970s has such carte blanche been given to a whole group of young filmmakers to basically flip the bird to the old Hollywood formulas and ideologies, which have, since the release of Jaws and Star Wars, reasserted themselves with a vengeance.
*** Harris, Pictures at a Revolution (Penguin, 2008) pp. 34-41 and 93-96. 
† Harris, Pictures p. 96.
†† Langford, Post-Classical Hollywood (Edinburgh UP, 2010) pp. 92-3. 
††† Harris, Pictures pp. 254-57.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Review: Take This Waltz (2011)

I recently saw Sarah Polley's wonderful Take This Waltz and felt the need to elaborate a few reasons why this is a film not to be missed.

First off, do not be fooled by outward appearances or the frequent generic classification of this Michelle Williams vehicle as a "romantic drama": while romance and relationships are two of the film's central themes, Take This Waltz is far from romantic. Rather, it is an unflinching deconstruction of the illusion of romance, a sobering, warts-and-all look at how people often fail to find happiness, or at least the kind of happiness they imagine or expect.

If that description makes the film sound unappealing, it isn't meant to. The performances in Take This Waltz are uniformly excellent and the direction is bold and sure-footed. Visually, Take This Waltz is an utter treat; Polley's mise-en-scene choices, with respect to both costume and set design, are impeccable, and the camera work, while mostly unobtrusive, is extremely effective at showing off the aforementioned features of the decor as well as highlighting the actors' very effective and nuanced performances.

This swooping amusement park ride serves as a visual metaphor for Take This Waltz's theme of circularity and cyclical, repeated behavior.  

The film's central motif is circularity, visually represented by repeat visits to a carnival ride* and one other key scene (to which I will return), both meant to suggest the cyclical nature of its protagonist's mood swings and her oscillating relationship choices. That protagonist, Margot (Williams), begins the film trapped in a Platonically loving but sexually dead five-year-old marriage to the affable but passionless Lou (Seth Rogen). I half expected the film to end by vilifying Lou, or at least valorizing Margot's mysterious new neighbor/love interest, Daniel (Luke Kirby), at Lou's expense. But the film instead dares to show both male characters as being human, that is, in equal measure desirable AND flawed -- they just (seem to) represent different relationship paths for the vulnerable, indecisive Margot. And while (SPOILER ALERT) she ultimately chooses Daniel, the film systematically deconstructs that choice in one of its most breathtaking and unexpected visual sequences.


After Margot leaves Lou to be with Daniel, Polley's camera shows us a mostly empty, sunlight-saturated loft apartment into which Margot and Daniel are moving. In the equivalent to a montage sequence, except with no (evident) cuts and set to Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz," the camera circles the couple several times, repeatedly tracing a 360-degree arc around the whole loft, suggesting the passage of time via reveals of new furniture and new situations between the lovers on each lap. The first few laps depict the couple coming together for a kiss, for a dance, for sex in a few varied positions, etc. But finally, on the last lap, Margot and Daniel are seated on the couch, watching television news, with a fan blowing on them, in an echo of similar shots we see of the passionless Margot and Lou earlier in the film. I don't know if the 360-degree camera here is meant as a deliberate homage to the similar single 360-degree shot that climaxes Hitchcock's Vertigo, but it surely evokes that strange moment, the culmination of Scottie Ferguson's twisted romantic fantasy of possessing his lost love Madeleine one more time. Both shots are used to expose the illusory and fleeting nature of romance, and to expose a darker truth: that love may in part be a function of neurosis, obsession, and exploitative need for the fulfillment we seek in others' arms.

In Vertigo, the camera encircles Scottie as he imagines himself with Judy/"Madeleine" before she "died." Sarah Polley uses a similar technique to deconstruct a budding romance in Take This Waltz.

In any case, the circling camera creates a virtuoso "long take" (with hidden edits) which perfectly expresses Take This Waltz's central idea. The thematic and the visual meet seamlessly here, creating an immensely satisfying, even breathtaking unity of form and meaning that hits home whether or not the viewer has any knowledge of the 1958 Hitchcock film.

As writer/director Polley says in this informative interview,
Different people seem to have fundamentally different experiences of [Take This Waltz]. People feel very passionately that the film validates whatever their own point of view is – on long-term relationships, monogamy, what happens to romance, whether Margot and Lou should have stayed together. I’m happy about that. I feel the film’s point of view is ephemeral. I feel no judgment of Margot for doing what she does, but I’m not sure it’s the right thing.
I agree that the film's point of view is to some extent "ephemeral" and that that is a positive thing. The film is nonjudgmental about its humanly flawed characters, and in this sense Take This Waltz reminds me of the best of Nicole Holofcener's work: a revealing slice-of-life that resists tidy romanticization in order to show us something more sublime and true about human relationships and human nature.** It is also subtly feminist -- see the delightful scene in the public showers at the swimming pool for an example of how to display female nudity without being exploitative or objectifying.

Take This Waltz's tone is not romantic. Rather, it is subtly unnerving, maybe even dark-comic at times. But in refusing, even deliberately exposing and dismantling, the illusory nature of Romance with a capital "R," Take This Waltz offers us something far more valuable: an unflinching look at the "gaps" (as Sarah Silverman's Geraldine puts it near the film's end) that exist in real-life relationships and lives.

"Life has a gap in it. It just does." Sarah Silverman, in a bravura performance, delivers 
Take This Waltz's most poignant line in the penultimate scene of the movie.

* A whole separate essay could be written on Polley's use of The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" as the soundtrack to the amusement park ride sequences. I think the lyrical theme of that song -- the transition between one dying media form and another emerging one -- is extremely relevant to the ideas in Take This Waltz, and that song (much more so than the Leonard Cohen tune which gives the film its title) has been consistently haunting me ever since I saw the movie earlier this week.
** In fact, the themes of this film, and specifically its swimming pool shower scene, remind me a great deal of of Holofcener's Lovely and Amazing (2001), especially the scene in the latter film in which Dermot Mulroney critiques Emily Mortimer's nude body.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Review: The Lords of Salem (2012)

Let me begin by saying that I am a Rob Zombie fan -- that is, a fan of his film directing, if not his musical career (of which I am mostly ignorant). I am also a horror fan, particularly devoted to the same 1960s and '70s horror films (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Halloween, etc.) that seem to most inspire Zombie.

I see Zombie's work as being in some ways quite similar to Quentin Tarantino's: both directors rework certain film genres -- for QT, it's gangster films, Hong Kong action pictures, and Spaghetti Westerns; for Zombie it's various horror subgenres mixed with a little bit of Hollywood Renaissance* -- in a way that allows them to pay homage to past works while stamping their films indelibly with their own contemporary authorial signatures.

Rob Zombie's 2005 masterwork The Devil's Rejects combines elements of slasher films 
with tropes borrowed from 1970's outlaw road movies like Bonnie and Clyde 

I went into watching Zombie's The Lords of Salem with some excitement, since in general I really vibe with Zombie's style, but also with some deliberately lowered expectations, since I knew from sources like this review that The Lords of Salem may not be his greatest film to date. And indeed it isn't. In fact, at the level of plot and character development, it might be his weakest effort since his remake of Halloween (2007). However, in terms of visual style, Lords is head and shoulders above all of Zombie's previous films, a real aesthetic leap forward that makes me incredibly eager to see what he will direct next.

Did Zombie borrow much of Lords' visual style from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), as the Red Letter Media guys so keenly observe? Yes, of course. But that does not lessen his achievement any more than Tarantino's relentless borrowing from Sergio Leone and others** can be said to lessen the impact of his films. These guys are postmodern directors, liberally employing the technique of bricolage, in which a work is created using whatever materials happen to be available; in this context, that would be materials borrowed from previously released films and film genres. Like Tarantino, Zombie knows exactly what he is doing here, and the visual style -- austere, with many long takes, slow tracking shots, and unusually high or low camera angles -- suits the material perfectly and is executed with great panache. This is surely Zombie's artiest film yet, and if it doesn't quite hit the mark in all areas, at least it represents an attempt to break free from his previous, music-video-meets-1970's-Hollywood visual style. In short, at the very least The Lords of Salem represents an imperfect yet still very absorbing aesthetic exploration.

This unusual high-angle shot is one example of Rob Zombie's 
visual innovation on The Lords of Salem.

So where does Lords fail? Mainly in declining to provide us with the kind of crazy yet relatable characters that inhabit Zombie's prior films, especially the Firefly Family in their film duology (House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects) and the wonderful Dr. Loomis in both Halloween films but especially Halloween II (2009). The sedate tone of Lords seems to permeate its characters too deeply, and while that is somewhat appropriate where Heidi Hawthorne (Sherri Moon Zombie) is concerned -- she becomes sickly and possessed early in the proceedings and is near-catatonic through the second half -- I was disappointed that so few of the supporting characters really came alive or held my interest; the two notable exceptions are Judy Geeson as Heidi's mysterious landlady and Bruce Davison as a buffoonish witchcraft scholar who gets in way over his head. Meg Foster is also excellent as chief witch Margaret Morgan but she isn't given much screen time.

So who should see this film? Surely all Rob Zombie fans should check it out, as should folks who are particularly interested in the "Satanic possession" and/or "Gothic melodrama" subgenres of horror. While this film is not as lively as The Exorcist (1973) nor cumulatively effective as The Shining, it owes a debt (and pays direct visual homage) to both, so would be enjoyable for anybody savvy enough to pick up on those intertextual references. I would also recommend the movie who is generally interested in visually striking art films, for that is surely what The Lords of Salem is: slow, stately, moody, and visually dazzling, with the most intricate, beautiful, and uncanny mise-en-scene yet featured in a Rob Zombie film.

In sum, if you like to look at horrifically sublime images, and don't need a lot of action, humor, or meaty character development to sustain you, this is the movie for you. However, if you prefer sudden scares, zany characters, and rigidly coherent plotlines, you should probably skip this one and wait -- as I will be waiting -- to see how Zombie integrates the newly expanded visual vocabulary displayed in Lords into his next film project.

This weirdo sez: "Come take a walk with me into Rob Zombie's strange, 
Satanic world -- if you dare!"

* That is, 1970's Hollywood. For example, Zombie's 2005 masterpiece The Devil's Rejects contains several homages to Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967); its ending is basically a fusion of the finales of Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
** I appreciate Tarantino but am not a diehard fan; I am in fact somewhat baffled by the extreme praise many filmgoers and critics lavish upon his work. He is surely a superb writer of witty dialogue, and his films are usually great fun to watch, but aesthetically (that is, visually), QT has done almost nothing in his whole filmmaking career that Sergio Leone hadn't already done in the 1960s. (Just watch the Dollars trilogy and you'll see where Tarantino's visual and tonal sensibilities come from.) I state this simply to defend Mr. Zombie from pejorative accusations of being a "derivative" director. Rob Zombie is basically the Quentin Tarantino of horror movies, and I would take his Devil's Rejects or Halloween II (2009) over almost any QT film (except the wonderful, vastly underrated Jackie Brown) any day of the week. But hell, I prefer Robert Rodriguez's films over Tarantino's as well, which I presume is also a minority viewpoint.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Lodger (1927) -- with piano accompaniment! -- at the Dryden

 Ivor Novello as the mysterious titular character in Alfred Hitchcock's 
silent masterpiece The Lodger.

I have sung the praises of Rochester's Dryden Theater before, and will likely continue to do so, as it remains my favorite movie theater in the region. This past weekend I had the extraordinary pleasure of seeing a recently restored print of Alfred Hitchcock's seminal silent film The Lodger, a thriller based loosely upon the unsolved Jack the Ripper case, at the Dryden Theater.  Not only was the print of the film quite beautiful -- I cannot wait until the restored Hitchcock silents referred to as the "Hitchcock 9" are available on home video formats -- but enhancing my experience considerably was the live piano accompaniment of Philip C. Carli.

  The very talented and knowledgeable Dr. Philip C. Carli, who frequently provides musical accompaniment to silent film screenings at the Dryden Theater.

First, Dr. Carli knowledgeably introduced the film, offering a detailed account of The Lodger's production history, its importance to Hitchcock's body of work, and its status as a "problem" film due to many still-unresolved questions about the extent of the artistic contributions made by scenarist Eliot Stannard and editor Ivor Montagu, Hitchcock's then collaborators. Carli has a natural flair for public address and gave a very engaging talk; while I always appreciate the pre-film introductions given by various Dryden staffers, Carli's talk ranks as one of the best introductory presentations I've yet seen there.

Then, no sooner did Carli finish his delightful verbal introduction of The Lodger than he sat down at the baby grand piano and masterfully accompanied the entire movie as it screened! I have attended just two other silent film screenings with live musicians before, once back in Oregon and once at last year's "Night at the Movies" concert on my campus. I enjoyed both of those prior performances a great deal, yet Carli's performance accompanying The Lodger took this kind of experience to a wholly new, more emotionally impactful level. His musical choices throughout were impeccable; he knew the film inside-out and timed his cues perfectly with the onscreen action. I am not sure if he was improvising, or what score he might have been working from, but in any case I was totally blown away by the performance and plan to see another film accompanied by Carli as soon as I can.*

I strongly recommend that if you live in the Rochester area, you do the same as me and take advantage of this golden resource. Even if you do not typically consider yourself a fan of silent cinema -- and if you don't, believe me, you are missing out on some of the most visually arresting and beautiful films ever shot -- I still strongly suggest you see one accompanied by the talented and dynamic Carli. His musical presence adds so much to the experience of seeing a silent film that I really cannot fully account for it in words; you should simply go to the Dryden and find out for yourself.**

Lillian Gish sez: "Come see me suffer -- to the soulful musical accompaniment 
of Philip C. Carli!"

* Fortunately for me, I already know when I will next be seeing and hearing Carli: at the Dryden's screening of The Scarlet Letter (1926) on November 26, 2013 at 8:00pm.
** If you have never been to the Dryden before, or if you have only been prior to Spring 2013, you may want to check out this well-produced short video about the renovation of the theater earlier this year.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Carter's Top 40 Films (November 2013)

"Forget it, Jake -- it's Chinatown."

I was recently asked by a couple of my students to give them a list of my favorite movies. I usually resist composing such lists, for my "favorite" movies change quite a bit from day to day and year to year, according to the whim of the present moment. For example, I have been on quite a "Golden Age of Hollywood" and "Foreign and/or Art Cinema" kick over the past several months, so that is kind of where my tastes are at right now. Check back with me in six more months, and I will likely have drifted into other periods / genres / cinemas.

Furthermore, while I am pretty sure my students had in mind that I might give them a list of about ten "favorite" titles, once I actually decided to compose the list for them, I jotted down almost 100 films pretty damn quickly. However, I knew that giving them a list of 100 movie titles would be both ostentatious and unwieldy, plus I wanted this list to be "from the gut," not too thought-out or self-conscious. So I weeded my longer list down to the 40 titles below with great swiftness and without too much thought. In the end, this is NOT a list of "must-see" classics provided by a film scholar or "expert," but rather a slapdash list of my "favorite" films at the present moment, the main criterion of value being how much pleasure I take from viewing and re-viewing these particular movies.

Ryan O'Neal in the criminally under-appreciated Kubrick masterpiece Barry Lyndon.  

You will see that this "Top 40" list reveals my longstanding love for films noir and certain genres of horror.* Some of these movies -- ThunderballThe Terminator, Blade Runner, and especially Chinatown -- are the ones that made me fall in love with cinema in the first place, and a couple of the others -- Stranger than Paradise and Gummo -- date back to my 1990s love affair with low-budget, independent cinema. I put the entries here in no particular order, but if I had to single out a few as being my very top favorites, they would be The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the two Kubrick films, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon. 

Bubble (2005)
Heat (1995)
The Sting (1973)
The Wild Bunch (1969)
Zodiac (2007)
Videodrome (1984)
Fargo (1996)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Blade Runner (1982)
Chinatown (1974)
Double Indemnity (1945)
Nashville (1975)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Psycho (1960)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Gummo (1997)
Rules of the Game (1939)
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Rio Bravo (1959)
Shame (2011)
The TV Set (2006)
Memories of Murder (2003)
Caché (2005)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
Lovely and Amazing (2001)
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
Melancholia (2011)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Chuck&Buck (2000)
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Planet Terror (2007)
The Devil's Rejects (2005)
Duel (1971)
Alien (1979)
Thunderball (1965)
The Terminator (1984)
The Parallax View (1976)

* I am not generally a fan of zombie films yet I rate Romero's Night of the Living Dead among my all-time favorites. I am a Rob Zombie fan. I love all Cronenberg's stuff but Videodrome is by far my favorite.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

EW #3: Casablanca (1942)

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca (1942).

Michael Curtiz's Casablanca is widely considered the most perfect movie ever made within the Hollywood studio system, telling one of the most compelling romance stories of Golden Age cinema. Casablanca is the film that launched soon-to-be screen icon Humphrey Bogart to stardom, moving him from roles as tough guys and "heavies" in pictures such as The Roaring Twenties (1939) and Three on a Match (1932) to center stage (screen?) as a romantically viable leading man.

Despite its centrality in Hollywood lore and its massive popularity and quotability, I have very little to say about this film. I like and enjoy it but, perhaps ironically, I am not very passionate about it. If I want to see Bogey in a romantic lead, I strongly prefer Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not (1944), which is much steamier than Casablanca mainly due to the fact that Bogart and costar Lauren Bacall were falling in love for real as they made the picture. If I want to see more or less the same stellar supporting cast, including Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, I turn to John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, which gives these first-rate character actors meatier and more interesting roles than does Casablanca. The one thing that stands out most for me in Casablanca is Claude Rains' wonderful turn as Renault, a performance and actor I enjoy very much. But again, I could point to Hitchcock's Notorious as a better overall showcase for the actor.

But clearly I am in the minority in my lukewarm-to-warmish response to Curtiz's undisputed masterpiece. Noting the film's thematic richness and harmoniously multi-layered narrative construction, Sidney Rosenzweig writes that
In Casablanca it is the complex connection between political and personal feelings that shapes nearly every situation and every relationship. Even the most minor characters suggest the problems of the major ones.*

Michael Wood claims that this image of Rick (Humphrey Bogart) represents "what isolation looks like at its best: proud, bitter, mournful and tremendously attractive." **

And indeed, the film is near-perfect in its narrative construction, its beautiful black and white photography, and (of course) its performances. Yet at the end of the day, I guess I prefer films that have a bit more roughness around the edges; or maybe I have simply never had a personal "bonding" moment with this film. I do not dispute its impact upon audiences nor its place in Hollywood history, though, so I commend Entertainment Weekly for placing it so high on their Top 100 list. I'm sorry I don't have anything more thrilling or insightful to say about it.

* Rosenzweig, Casablanca and Other Major Films of Michael Curtiz pp. 84, 85.
** qtd. in Rosenzweig pp. 80-1.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Five Directors to Watch Out For

As my friend and fellow movie reviewer A.J. Snyder recently wrote, tuning into who directs and writes the movies you like most can be an easy way to track down more movies you will enjoy. As A.J. points out, while some movie stars -- George Clooney leaps to mind -- do a pretty effective job at consistently choosing high-quality projects, others -- Michael Caine, for instance -- are more liberal in said choices, and have starred in just as many terrible movies as decent ones. However, following a particular director or screenwriter allows you to engage with the work of someone who "[goes] to work to establish their vision within their medium," as A.J. writes, and if you choose well, the rewards can be great.

Of course, as A.J. also cautions us, auteur theory -- the notion that the quality of a given cinematic work is largely determined by who directs it -- does not account for all great movies; far from it. Filmmaking is a collaborative and industrial art form, and there are a great many creative (directors, screenwriters, cinematographers, costume designers, actors) and non-creative (studio executives, MPAA Ratings Board workers) personnel who contribute significantly to the final product we see onscreen. Many of the best directors (and even some bad ones) tend to collaborate with the same creative team again and again, a move which speaks volumes about the importance of those other staffers' contributions. For example, many visually talented directors like Ridley Scott, J.J. Abrams, and even Zack Snyder often have their movies utterly ruined by shitty-ass screenwriters like Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci, and David S. Goyer.*

However, in many cases the director does have a fairly direct impact upon what makes it into the final cut. This can sometimes lead to excesses which may or may not represent artistic growth (I'm looking at you, Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson), but at the end of the day, I would rather see a "noble failure" by filmmakers with something interesting or unique to show me rather than something formulaic and cliched that simply "plays it safe."

So with that in mind, here are five directors working today who produce consistently good, even great work, whose filmographies are well worth checking out:

Nicole Holofcener
Writer/director Holofcener's latest film, the superb Enough Said (2013), has been getting a great deal of positive press lately (also here and here), perhaps largely due to the passing of one of its stars, James Gandolfini. While I really enjoyed Gandolfini's terrific performance in the film -- what a relief to see him doing something other than a stereotypically thick New Jersey mobster accent -- the real star of the show is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She gives a nuanced, multi-layered portrayal that benefits from her impeccable comedic timing.

Yet the wonderfully engaging Enough Said is no fluke; Holofcener is simply one of the best writer/directors working today. Her grasp of the subtleties of human emotions and her ability to mine comedy from the most unexpected aspects of interpersonal relationships is unparalleled by any other American filmmaker of whom I am aware. My personal favorite of her films (unless Enough Said trumps it upon subsequent viewings) is 2001's Lovely and Amazing, an ensemble piece about how several different women deal with issues of beauty, body image, parenting, and romance. Starring Holofcener mainstay Catherine Keener, Lovely and Amazing is a must-see for anyone who enjoys offbeat slice-of-life type stories; Holofcener is a master of that form. I also strongly recommend Holofcener's recent efforts Friends With Money (in which Jennifer Aniston plays a delightfully likeable slacker) and Please Give (another solid ensemble piece). Walking and Talking (1996), while a bit lower budget and rougher around the edges, is worth a watch for its excellent dialogue sequences and its inclusion of one of Liev Schreiber's finest onscreen performances (after Greg Mottola's The Daytrippers of course -- Schreiber's best role).

 Jennifer Aniston as underemployed slacker Olivia in Friends With Money.

Holofcener finally deserves our attention not just because she is so good at capturing the nuances of human interactions onscreen but also because she consistently treats subject matter almost never tackled by mainstream Hollywood cinema: the stories of women's lives, and (more recently) the lives of middle-aged, post-divorce men and women. And while she typically places more of the narrative focus upon female subjectivity, her male characters always shine as well -- see, for example, Jake Gyllenhaal and Dermot Mulroney in Lovely and Amazing or Oliver Platt in Please Give. That Holofcener renders these characters and their cinematic stories with such delightful humor, emotional sensitivity, and impeccable aesthetic craftsmanship (craftswomanship?) is what vaults her into the first rank of American film directors.

Director Steve McQueen with frequent collaborator Michael Fassbender.

Steve McQueen
McQueen's forthcoming picture, 12 Years a Slave, is already wowing festival crowds and film critics, and promises to be one of the most talked-about films of 2013. However, even if a riveting drama about the realities of American slavery is not your cup of tea, you owe it to yourself to check out one or both of the UK director's previous two features.

Hunger (2008) is a beautifully shot, unflinchingly written account of the last days of Bobby Sands, the Provisional Irish Republican Army volunteer who went on a hunger strike in 1981 in order to protest the conditions in the British prison where he was being held as a political prisoner. Michael Fassbender -- surely one of the top four or five actors working in the world today -- delivers a riveting performance as Sands, and McQueen's camera and editing techniques raise this film from the realm of the simply harrowing to the artistically sublime. In particular, watch for the insanely long take during Sands' dialogue with the priest midway through the movie -- GoodFellas and Children of Men, eat my shorts!

Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame.

However, for its subject matter alone, McQueen's second feature, Shame (2011), is a true must-see film: depicting several days in the life of a present-day sex addict, again played by Fassbender, Shame deals quite frankly and artfully with the issue of how contemporary internet sex culture impacts our ability to experience true intimacy. Essentially a drama about a dysfunctional family that omits most of the family melodrama, Shame drives its potent and timely message home via an intense focus on Brandon, its male lead, and his sister Sissy, played with convincing pathos by Carey Mulligan. Shame is tightly written, inventively shot and edited, and brilliantly acted, and, while not for the sexually faint-hearted -- it surely earns its NC-17 rating -- it is on my short list of all-time best films.

Lars von Trier
Probably the world's most talented living filmmaker, the iconoclastic von Trier's work is admittedly not for everybody. His films, while visually breathtaking, tend to be somewhat grueling emotionally -- von Trier excels at rendering poetic the suffering and pain of his (usually female) protagonists. However, I think his most recent film, Melancholia (2011), is accessible to almost anyone, and while a bit "slow" by Hollywood blockbuster standards, it at least features well-known stars (Kirsten Dunst, Keifer Sutherland) and a dramatic, apocalyptic science fiction plot that, art-film moments aside, should resonate with anyone who appreciates a well-made movie. I would also strongly recommend his earlier revisionist musical, Dancer in the Dark (2000), in which Bjork delivers a surprisingly compelling performance and the song sequences alone, stunningly shot and choreographed, should take your breath away if you have any appreciation for the visual dimension of cinema. Once you have checked out a couple of these more palatable films and decided if von Trier's challenging but rewarding work is for you, you can make your way toward seeing his more relentlessly harrowing masterpieces like Breaking the Waves (1996), Dogville (2003), and his recent horror film, Antichrist (2009).

Steven Soderbergh, probably the greatest living American film director.

Steven Soderbergh
I hereby predict that in fifty years, when future film critics and scholars look back at this period in U.S. film history, Soderbergh will stand out as the representative figure of late 20th century and early 21st century filmmaking. His substantial body of work is impressive for its volume (37 directorial credits since 1985), for its consistent quality, and for the wide-ranging breadth of its subject matter and aesthetic experimentation. Soderbergh is the undisputed master of the "one for them, one for me" style of independent filmmaking, in which he alternates between, on the one hand, big-budget studio-produced films like Ocean's Eleven (2001), Erin Brockovich (2000), and Contagion (2011) and, on the other, low-budget, experimental passion projects like The Limey (1999), Bubble (2005), Schizopolis (1996), and The Girlfriend Experience (2009).

While John Cassavetes is surely the godfather of (the recent wave of) American independent cinema, and Jim Jarmusch's (somewhat Cassavetes-derivative) Stranger than Paradise (1984) constitutes the opening salvo of the 1980s-'90s independent cinema boom, it was Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape (1989) that made the American general public aware that independent cinema existed, arguably paving the way for the arrival of Quentin Tarantino a few years later. Shot on location in Louisiana on a budget of $1,200,000, sex, lies was the first independently produced film to screen in wide release in the multiplex theaters, and its release and success showed indie distributor Miramax how to market independent fare "wide" to mainstream audiences.**

It is difficult to narrow down Soderbergh's vast body of high-quality films to just a few succinct recommendations, but here goes:

sex, lies, and videotape (1989) is an absolute must-see, a compellingly shot and acted ensemble piece about exactly what its title indicates. The fact that this film relaunched '80s icon James Spader's career should be incentive enough to check it out; but its intimate, character-driven narrative and intelligent editing style (including inventive use of sound bridges) would also set the tone for so many great Soderbergh films to come.

The Limey (1999) is an intense revenge thriller whose main stylistic innovation is an unusual use of editing and sound bridges that creates a very strange -- possibly physically impossible -- chronology. It is as if Soderbergh set out to out-Tarantino Tarantino here (in the non-chronological editing sense, not the wacky, offbeat dialogue sense), pushing the whole "let's fuck with the chronology of this story" trick that QT uses in Pulp Fiction onto a wholly different (and much more subtle) level. The beauty of what Soderbergh achieves in The Limey is that his editing tricks could easily go unnoticed by the average viewer unless s/he tunes in carefully and/or has been forewarned that they exist. No showoff, Soderbergh prefers to execute this particular cinematic experiment in a way that does not call undue attention to itself or interfere with the viewer's ability to simply sit back and enjoy The Limey as a badass revenge thriller starring Terence Stamp. In other words, this is a great film for cinephiles and casual filmgoers alike.

Bubble (2005) is probably my personal favorite Soderbergh film, but it isn't for everyone; it is essentially Soderbergh "doing the Jarmusch thing," i.e., shooting most of the film in long takes in an extremely low-budget style with a cast of non-professional actors. If you like offbeat, low-budget indie fare that is understated yet packs a serious dramatic wallop, don't miss Bubble. 

Contagion (2011) is simply one of the best disaster movies I have ever seen, and I have seen a great many, being a big fan of the genre. The film is a smartly intertwined multi-strand tale of a global disease outbreak, shot in Soderbergh's preferred "personal" style, i.e., more focused upon individuals and their varied responses to the catastrophe rather than grandiose set pieces and a cast of thousands. In this case, the intimacy of the cinematography and screenwriting contribute to the film's overall intensity, and the whole thing ties together quite brilliantly by the closing shot. I recommend Contagion to anyone, it's simply a great film by any scale of evaluation.

UPDATE 1/17/2016: This nice IndieWire piece affirms my claim that Soderbergh is the most important and artistically daring filmmaker of his generation.

Nicolas Winding Refn
This is a tough one because I put Refn on this list knowing his work will not be for everyone. Sure, three-fifths of this list, with the exception of Soderbergh and Holofcener, consists of "art film" directors, so few of these filmmakers are likely to appeal to you if you require your movies to stick to cause-and-effect-driven plots, adhere to "action beats," and conclude with comfortingly pat resolutions.*** However, even more so than von Trier, Refn is out to challenge the mainstream filmgoer, because his sustained cinematic project seems to be to artfully revise and reinterpret certain Hollywood film genres. Sure, this is broadly true of von Trier (Antichrist is a horror film, Dancer in the Dark a musical, and most of his early films are female-centered melodramas) and even Soderbergh (who revises the revenge film in The Limey and the disaster film in Contagion), yet Refn revises the genres in which he works even more radically than these other two.

The great Mads Mikkelsen as One-Eye in Refn's Valhalla Rising.

Refn is an emphatically visual director, and many of his films -- Valhalla Rising (2009), Drive (2011), and Only God Forgives (2013) -- unfold with very little dialogue. He also favors stunning mise-en-scene, liberal use of slow-motion, and long takes. Therefore, folks approaching Refn's work expecting standard genre fare will likely be thrown off by his bold, "artsy" aesthetic strategies. But that is the whole fun of appreciating Refn, to see how he takes a basic generic structure like the heroic fantasy film (Valhalla) or the martial-arts revenge film (Forgives) and turns it inside-out with his long takes, verbally reticent characters, and insanely artistic production designs. In short: you have to see these films to believe them. And for me, that is the hallmark of a truly great filmmaker.

To conclude, I bestow Honorable Mention upon directors Michael Haneke, David Fincher, Bong Joon-ho, Jake Kasdan, Harmony Korine, and, lest ye think I overlook action film directors, Michael Mann and Kathryn Bigelow. I will save discussion of these other meritorious filmmakers for a future post.

* I also think Peter Jackson was somewhat ill-served by his Lord of the Rings trilogy screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, but that is a more complicated case that I shall return to in a later post.
** This knowledge would pay off even more dramatically when Miramax mounted their extremely expensive, innovatively aggressive, and highly successful Oscar campaigns for Shakespeare in Love (Best Picture) in 1998 and for Hilary Swank (Best Actress) in 1999 -- see Peter Biskind's Down and Dirty Pictures for more on this interesting subject.
*** The definitive essay that outlines the parameters of art cinema is David Bordwell's "The Art Cinema as a Mode of Film Practice."

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review: Carrie (2013)

Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie White in Carrie (2013).

I saw the Kimberly Peirce-directed Carrie remake last night and I was less disappointed than I expected to be. In fact, I genuinely liked some of the choices that were made, though I think in the end there were more losses than gains.

I am of course unable to discuss this film without comparing it to the Brian de Palma original from 1976. I cannot know what it would be like to see this remake without any knowledge of the classic original, so my review will reflect my familiarity with the 1976 version. For context's sake I will mention that I am not a super-fan of the 1976 Carrie but I am a fan of 1970's de Palma in general, especially Sisters (1973) and Obsession (1976), the latter probably my favorite de Palma film.

First, the good stuff: the new version is blessed with excellent casting, particularly Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie, Julianne Moore as Mrs. White, and the great comedienne Judy Greer as gym teacher Ms. Desjardin. I was particularly taken in by Moretz's performance as Carrie; she and Greer were the main things keeping me on the hook throughout most of the film.

Also effective was the choice to give Carrie a bit more awareness of and control over her developing telekinetic powers. Those powers are much more pronounced in this version than in the original, more super-heroic one might say, and that change from the original -- in which Carrie's telekinesis seems a direct, if somewhat unconscious, outgrowth of her puberty and her rage -- is, in theory, a nice way to grant the 2013 Carrie a bit more conscious badassery and narrative agency.

Yet I say in theory there because in practice, the 2013 Carrie's enhanced control over her powers only diminishes the film's climactic prom scene. That sequence now plays out more like a rote superhero battle rather than a terrifying apocalypse of feminine angst. In the 1976 version, Carrie's naivete about what is happening (both in terms of the plot against her and her own telekinesis) makes her sudden rageful assault a horrifying thing to behold; she just fucking snaps at the end, ruthlessly killing every last motherfucker in that gymnasium. In the 2013 version, most of the prom-goers escape the gym -- Carrie's death-toll clocks in at maybe a half-dozen people -- and it feels more like an event she has been practicing for the whole movie, rather than a shocking, unexpected outburst of pure fury.

Furthermore, two additional factors compromise that crucial climactic scene at the prom. One has to do with camera work and pacing. Now I love Kimberly Peirce as a director, but she is mainly known for helming intense character dramas (Boys Don't Cry, Stop-Loss) rather than suspense thrillers or horror films. She is also a lot less daring with her visuals and camera work (at least in this film) than young de Palma was in the '70's. So where de Palma absolutely excels at drawing out suspense and delivering shocking thrill moments, Peirce doesn't quite hack it in this area. Her build-up to the dumping of the pig's blood in Carrie 2013 is not much of a build-up -- I personally didn't feel much tension. Instead, the pacing of the prom sequence is botched twice -- once by a hackneyed moment in which the villainous Chris improbably texts Sue Snell to gloat over the deed she has not yet committed, bringing Sue rushing to the rescue in a very dull and predictable way, and a second time after the blood has doused Carrie -- a moment I will return to.

By contrast, the 1976 prom sequence is chock full of artful and highly effective camera work that builds almost unbearable suspense even as it simultaneously wows the viewer with its technical finesse. Just to name the two highest points, there is the incredibly long take in which the camera circles Carrie and Tommy in a 360 degree arc as they dance, a take that is literally dizzying, conveying Carrie's own dizziness at being in a place she never expected to be.* Then there is the amazing crane shot that follows the rope from the bottom of the stage (where Chris and Billy are hiding) to the rafter with the bucket of pig's blood and then back to the table where Tommy and Carrie are seated, another long take that makes perfectly clear what is at stake spatially and physically, thereby brilliantly setting up the blood-dumping moment in a manner that the remake does not even attempt.

Dance anyone? The breathtaking camera work of the 1976 original 
is missing from the 2013 remake. 

Once that bucket of pig's blood falls, the 1976 version just GOES like gangbusters, frenetically conveying Carrie's wrath and the general mayhem in the gym via de Palma's signature split screen technique.

By contrast, the 2013 version instead takes pause, taking an undue amount of time showing the now-empty bucket falling and knocking out Tommy, then having Carrie inexplicably kneel down next to Tommy's fallen body, seemingly quite sentimental over him. This moment ruins the film's forward momentum and quashes the immediacy of Carrie's shocked reaction to the blood-dousing. The new version makes it seem as though Carrie attacks the crowd with her telekinetic powers as a kind of vengeance for Tommy, thereby shifting the meaning of her murderous actions away from that of a feminist rage on her own behalf (as it reads in the 1976 version) toward a kind of I'll-defend-my-man sellout.**

Yet the biggest failing of the new Carrie isn't its lack of bravura camera work nor its uneven pacing in the crucial prom sequence: it is its utter mishandling of the Mrs. White character. Julianne Moore does a fine job (as always) performing the role that was written for her, but the role is written in such a way as to make Mrs. White utterly inhuman and totally unsympathetic. This in turn makes it impossible for us to care about Carrie's relationship with her.

She's crazy yet somewhat sympathetic . . . 

. . . whereas she's just plain terrifying.

Piper Laurie's Mrs. White in the 1976 version is crazy and unhinged, yes, but still human; her craziness is a result of her barely-successful self-repression and her excessive religious fervor, a fervor that shows in her eyes, tipping over into hysterical mania at so many crucial moments. Yet she is also warm and vital and one can see why Carrie loves her and hates her. The 2013 Mrs. White is just a monster, impossible to feel much of anything for except revulsion. She is a cutter, which is an interesting innovation that could have been used to elicit sympathy for her, but is instead presented horrifically (as in the scene in her tailoring shop). And when she takes a huge kitchen knife upstairs with her to check on Carrie twenty minutes into the movie, the viewer knows something is terribly off. That moment makes Mrs. White into a would-be murderer long before things start going seriously awry with her daughter; it is the moment when she becomes irrevocably unrelatable, and the film loses a great deal of its emotional grip on the viewer.

Is the new version worth seeing? Possibly, at least for Moretz's and Greer's performances. But I would still have to recommend the original 1976 Carrie over the remake.

     "See my version, where the rage is REAL!"

* This 360-degree low-angle shot is also an homage to a similar (and very famous) shot near the end of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).
** Readers interested in the feminist implications of the original Carrie should check out Shelley Stamp Lindsey's article "Horror, Femininity, and Carrie's Monstrous Puberty."