Wednesday, September 30, 2009

318) Ne Change Rien (2009)

318) Ne Change Rien (2009) Dir: Pedro Costa Not Yet Released Date Seen: September 30, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Pedro Costa handily hypnotized me with Ne Change Rien, a tantalizingly surreal look at the monotony and the ecstasy of French chanteuse Jeanne Balibar's overlapping recording sessions and live performances. Costa lulls the viewer into a daze with sparingly and naturally lit long takes that film various her singing, in its various stages of the creative process, like alien rituals. Costa's cryptic, laconic style of filming courts your boredom but also encourages patient viewers, most immediately in certain scenes where he simulates the feeling of having one's eyes adjust to any given room's darkness (almost none of the diegetic lights are stronger than a desk lamp). Eerie and persistently mesmerizing.

ISF: Final Cut Template #2: Hollis Frampton (2009)

ISF: Final Cut Template #2: Hollis Frampton (2009) Dir: Doug Henry Date Seen: September 30, 2009 Rating: 2/5

So this guy wants to push the limits of audience participation in moviegoing and decides to mentally engage us, the passive moviegoing audience, right? How does he do it? A card trick involving basic arithmetic. No, seriously. Cute trick but....what am I supposed to do with this? Yes, yes, another world is possible, another viewing experience, et cetera. But really? Um, ok.

Note: That's not an actual film still. I wish.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

316) Life During Wartime (2009)

316) Life During Wartime (2009) Dir: Todd Solondz Not Yet Released Date Seen: September 29, 2009 Rating: 4/5

The palpable acrimony Todd Solondz invests in his characters' personalities is dialed down significantly in Life During Wartime, a black comedy that is unjustly being dismissed as more of the same from the morose American agitator. Here his fixation with caricaturing the schnooks he sympathizes with most is more palatable than his previous successes as it's more pointed but no less searing in its impact. His characters' affected voices just barely hide the aching humanity in even the most churlishly funny among them. Solondz's confrontational style is a gimmick to be sure but the urgency of Life During Wartime has effectively channeled his usual blustery dual fascination/frustration with the stereotypical behavior of status quo-upholding psychotics. Thanks once again to another excellent eclectic cast of performers, especially Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds and Paul Reubens, the moral center of Solondz's latest is dense enough and certainly macabrely humorous enough to pack a devastating punch. Hurts so good.

ISF: Soccarrat (2009)

ISF: Socarrat (2009) Dir: David Moreno Date Seen: September 29, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

10 minutes is not long enough of a time to make me feel properly nettled, even in the most confrontational short film. David Moreno's Socarrat is mildly insidious and certainly funny but never so direct in its depiction of a dysfunctional family that it really got under my skin. We're deprived of a truly normative setting within which we can contextualize the family's actions as the sets, ordered fresh out of a Sears catalogue, are filmed in a hyper-glossy style that removes them from any identifiable, human setting. To that end, the family is supposed to seem that much more wonky and ambiguous but their actions aren't developed enough to be thoughtful enough to be provocative.

Monday, September 28, 2009

315) Storytelling (2001)

315) Storytelling (2001) Dir: Todd Solondz Date Released: January 2002 Date Seen: September 28, 2009 Rating: 4/5

Todd Solondz's Storytelling is on a par with Alain Resnais's Wild Grass in its abject refusal to grant its protagonists' closure. Solondz goes one step farther than Resnais and scolds his viewers along with his characters for wanting that a neat resolution. That's probably because, unlike Wild Grass, which is situated at the tail-end of Resnais's substantial filmography, Storytelling is a defense of Solondz's modus operandi after only having made two other films. Storytelling will make you squirm because it actively courts the viewer's immediate temptation to hem-and-haw at every grotesque turn. When confronted as aggressively as we are here, with characters as charming as oozing, days-old garbage left out in 90 degree weather, our first kneejerk reaction is, of course, to recoil. But that according to Solondz is the point of his work. And here, perhaps more so than in his searing Happiness, you can best see how that kind of cynicism masks Solondz's sustaining faith in his characters.

Solondz persists in telling us that he not only understands but in fact respects his characters by refusing to pigeonhole their lives into a neat structure of "Beginning, Middle and End," because that would force them to conform to our expectations. "The truth" in fiction according to Solondz is messy, rude and persistently at odds-with-itself. There's inherently no " be found in this" his stand-in, played by Paul Giamatti says in the second of the film's two segments, "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction." The self-indulgent need to sympathize inevitably leads to the exploitation of his characters, showing that everybody, no matter how good-natured, is a little bit culpable.

Solondz's characters are consistently insipid even in trying to ingratiate themselves to each other but they're also trying to accomplish something from pure motives, for themselves, for others. That crucial belief in even the ugliest caricature sinks the viewer into a haze where they aren't allowed to escape until the film's cataclysmic and hilariously mean ending. It's Solondz's way of slapping the viewer for even thinking they could experience a brief moment of moral clarity in this awesome humanist black comedy.

314) Paris (2008)

314) Paris (2008) Dir: Cedric Klapisch Date Released: September 2009 Date Seen: September 26, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

The egoism inherent in any meta-reflexive, quasi-autobiographical narratives can often make them feel like exercises in masochistic self-deprecation. Cedric Klapisch's Paris begins by announcing such an impulse, using Pierre (Romain Duris), an affluent Parisian with a fatal heart condition* to tell us that the film is a story about storytelling as homeopathy. Nestled safely in his plush condo above the Parisian streets, Pierre looks down on the world and imagines what peoples lives are like so that he can exorcise his own demons. To deal with his own latent racism, he creates the character of the bigoted bourgeois boulangier. She thinks she's praising her North African cashier by complementing her race for being hard-working and giving but she's just being a selfless bitch. The more time we spend with these characters, who allow Pierre and us to live vicariously through stories that pointedly never have a resolution, the more we see that they're doing the same thing, turning other people into their victims, their knights in shining armor, etc. So what real-life problem is Cedric Klapisch trying to avoid/work out here?

If you're frustrated that I'm applying Klapisch's simplistic post-modern logic, good; that makes two of us. Since L'Auberge Espagnole, Klapisch's snappy pop romances have quickly become more anguished and self-involved; perhaps the immediate pleasures of creating heart-felt but shallow meat puppets has lost its appeal. Here he's gazing so deeply into his navel that he doesn't even have the guts to drive his points home, using the caprice of his dying avatar to excuse his own disinterest. If he had really wanted to leave his characters' unfinished stories enough room to make them worth contemplating, he would have actually developed them into full-fledged stories. As it is, it looks like he's too spineless to really take Elise (Juliette Binoche), Pierre's sister, to task for her liberal guilt or even blame Pierre for wanting the aforementioned North African girl partly out of lust and partly out of pity.**

But he doesn't have to because that's not the film's aim. Klapisch aims low enough that all he needs to do to succeed is show us how and why people use each other--Sexual frustration! Daddy issues! More sexual frustration!--to defend their wounded psyches. Then he can shrug, I mean have Pierre shrug, his shoulders and sigh contentedly "Ah, Paris" at the end, as if the existence of a limitless series of possibilities had an inherently palliative effect.

*This is one the first of many disingenuous feints Klapisch makes in the film. Though Duris was, in his heyday, an effete dancer, the disease he's dying of is not in fact "Le Sida" but rather a heart condition, which seems like a dishonest way of making him a straight gay man.

**Can you tell that I've just finished watching Todd Solondz's Storytelling? I think you can.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

313) Pandorum (2009)

313) Pandorum (2009) Dir: Christian Alvart Date Released: September 2009 Date Seen: September 25, 2009 Rating: 2.25/5

Starts off fine but winds up trying to stuff in every scifi cliche imaginable. See my review for The New York Press.

312) Bright Star (2009)

312) Bright Star (2009) Dir: Jane Campion Date Released: September 2009 Date Seen: September 25, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

I feel it necessary to note that prior to Dark, er, Bright Star, I had not exposed myself--oh my--to Jane Campion's works or extensively read about her preoccupations or aesthetic. Alls I knew was that I liked me some Keats and I adore me that there Abbie Cornish. I ignored my general disdain for chilly period romances where formality and ceremony tend to overwhelm emotional resonance and it paid off, to some extent. Campion's portrait of doomed romance is so guarded that her attention to detail and refusal to turn the film into a soul-less bit of pandering biopic romance trash like Becoming Jane made even a skeptic like myself interested. 

Which isn't to say that I didn't check out emotionally after a while. My pet peeve of being able to admire formal qualities while not being attached to anyone in the film kicked in hard, especially considering the story was about the connection between tragic lovers. It took me 40 minutes to recognize Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne not because she'd gained weight for the role--she still looks gorgeous so who cares--but because I didn't recognize that Somersault girl in a role where her idea of bucking the system was to flaunt gossip by being with the man she loves. 

It's telling that Charles Burns (Paul Schneider in another exceptional supporting role), who plays John Keats' (Ben Whishaw) contentious rival and best friend, is, as a foil to Keats, only a manifestation of his wounded pride, a strait-jacketed way of handling the libido if ever there was one. I was probably moved  the most when Topper the cat steals Fanny's thunder by swatting at a butterfly while she chokes back tears and tries to explain her depression to her mummy.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

311) Police, Adjective (2009)

311) Police, Adjective (2009) Dir: Corneliu Porumboiu Date Released: December 2009 Date Seen: September 25, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

 Retrospectively appreciate it more but the above rating (a B+) reflects my feelings immediately after watching the film. I may like it more second time around. Or not. See my review for The House Next Door.

ISF: The Funk (2008)

ISF: The Funk (2008) Dir: Cris Jones Date Seen: September 25, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

I'm very much enamored with the kind of stop-motion animation Cris Jones uses in The Funk but I'm not sure why considering how tepid the film itself is. Jones' cartoon is only valuable as a formal experiment to show off the technological limits of his brand of animation, which animates still photographs to create the illusion of motion, both realistic and otherwise. He knows this as well as the viewer does and relishes the opportunity to makes a story about a mysterious "funk" that leads a worker drone to commit suicide a playful trip to a slap in the face. I was impressed when our possessed/depressed protag's trippy nausea propelled him through a hall of mirrors or a zoetrope but then the punchline kicked in. Look forward to seeing more from Jones and hope the mean streak this short exhibits is short-lived.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

310) Hadewijch (2009)

310) Hadewijch (2009) Dir: Bruno Dumont Not Yet Released Date Seen: September 24, 2009 Rating: 4/5

The best of the 8 (of 29 main slate) films I've seen at the New York Film Festival thus far. See my review for The L Magazine.

ISF: Lili's Head (2009)

ISF: Lili's Paradise (2009) Dir: Melina Leon Date Seen: September 24, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

Lili's Paradise is in many ways an idiosyncratic and intriguing look at what growing up in Peru in the '80s was like for the spoiled children of lower-upper class intellectuals. It's also too direct to resonate beyond a point--a good indicator of its patronizing view of its eponymous adolescent is that her fantasy world is filmed in color while everything else in black-and-white. Looks great though and its fun to see a character give the finger to teachers at school by calling them "Fascists!" But....meh.

309) Everyone Else (2009)

309) Everyone Else (2009) Dir: Maren Ade Not Yet Released Date Seen: September 24, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

The only thing I could possibly complain about German filmmaker Maren Ade's Everyone Else, an involving and rich portrait of a couple as their relationship disintegrates, is its apparent bias. Ade's scenario focuses almost entirely on Gitti's (Birgit Minichmayr) perspective though that's partly out of necessity because Chris (Lars Eidinger) is usually too distant to be read. My complaint is minor considering how the nervous tension never slackens and none of its inter-related episodes ever feel extraneous. 

Ade achieves a level of intimacy with her characters that neither feels forced nor like its based on overt judgments of their behavior. She allows them to be brutally honest, even when they don't feel like explicitly sharing their emotions with each other and thanks to a terrific cast all around, including Hans-Jochen Wagner and Nicole Marischka as the couple's foil, it seems all too real. I need to rewatch this one.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

308) The Window (2008)

308) The Window (2008) Dir: Carlos Sorin Date Released: May 2008 Date Seen: September 23, 2009 Rating: 4/5

Save for a last gasp of strictly unnecessary Gilliam-esque whimzy, where an old man's mind regresses to an imaginary period of romance, Argentinean filmmaker Carlos Sorin's The Window maintains an air of serenity throughout its delicate and nuanced character study. Sorin's subject is Don Antonio (Antonio Larreta), a bed-ridden, elderly writer whose son, a famous pianist who thankfully is not a stereotypical boor but, y'know, a real human being, is visiting him for the first time in years. Sorin's depiction of Antonio is placatingly mild but is never so light as to dismiss his very real health conditions and wandering mind altogether. Though frail, Antonio is not helpless or senile, though he does pester his maids about missing money and insists on breaking out champagne in spite of his heart condition. He can read between the lines when people are fibbing to him and is more than capable of making his own decisions, though he often listens to his domestic aids' orders. That modestly warmhearted characterization is the cornerstone of Sorin's gorgeous film, a visually stunning work with thoughtful dialogue that suggests a combination of Terrence Malick's palette with Akira Kurosawa's knack for humanist drama. Go, rent, now.

307) Lebanon (2009)

307) Lebanon (2009) Dir: Samuel Maoz Not Yet Released Date Seen: September 23, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

The ponderous mechanical whirring that accompanies the camera's (as gunner's sight) every movement in Lebanon is inescapable. As we see much of the film's events through this peephole-sized lens, the persistent noise it generates is one of a handful of ways writer/director Samuel Maoz ineffectually strives to remind us that his film is grounded in the muck and the blood and the grease of real-life events. He doesn't go much farther than that in dirtying up his film though, instead preferring the clarity of emotionally distant images whose deceptive coherence is only gained through retro-active contemplation. 

Which is funny because Sony Pictures Classics is distributing the film in the US because of the success of Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, which is also takes place during the First Lebanon War. The key difference between the two films however is that Waltz with Bashir is a playful interrogation of the deceptive and surreal nature of veterans' memories while Lebanon supplies a series of horrifying episodes without pausing to interrogate their meaning. 

The most immediate sign of Maoz's conflicting tendency towards prettying up his unclean war story is the way that he films the interior of the tank his small cadre of Israeli soldiers are stuck in. The tank's interior has no clear dimensions, filmed as if it were a stretch limo with room in the back for a fridge, TV, Syrian POW, what have you. The only convincing signs that the group is cramped, tired and dehydrated comes from their increasingly greasy make-up, worthy of Clouzot's Wages of Fear and the constant reverse shots of the gunner's dilated eyeball we get every third minute after he's looked outside of the tank to the decimated world outside. Their grounding effect is dismally brief however. Maoz's glass just isn't dark enough to be convincingly menacing as even the cobweb-like cracks on the gunner's periscope lens do nothing to diminish its uncannily crisp, nigh-HD-quality view. 

These little touches are omnipresent reminders that the events they/we're watching have been collected and reforged into a singular, coherent narrative. Though the terror that infects the Israelis comes from their inability to know what comes next or whose orders to follow, the film, both aesthetically and narratively, is just too composed to affect us with any kind of immediate tension.

The only time Lebanon is convincingly grungy is when the tank is stranded and the men, who by now have already spent hours within the film's subjective time feeling completely rudderless, are being led into what looks like an ambush in spite of themselves. Here Maoz batters the viewer with a battery of shaky cam close-ups but too little, too late. There's plenty of tension in the scene leading up to that manic, last-ditch lo-fi assault but everything else is too cool to be worth much consideration.

306) I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (2009)

306) I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell (2009) Dir: Bob Gosse Date Released: September 2009 Date Seen: September 22, 2009 Rating: 0.75/5

I didn't really care until the end when I'm supposed to take Max seriously. See my review for The New York Press.

ISF: The Slow Game (2009)

ISF: The Slow Game (2009) Dir: Paolo Sorrentino Date Seen: September 23, 2009 Rating: 3/5

Sorrentino continues his distressing trend towards mediocrity in The Slow Game, a worldless but no less bombastic short about his pet concern, being alone together. The short follows a group of men as they prepare for some mysterious ritual together with all the solemnity and menace of criminals on their way to a heist. But no, instead, they're on their way to a rugby game, an event Sorrentino is only really interested in for its team dynamic and its clearly defined goals. Like some kind of hipster alien, he sees the game as the perfect setting for a mute story of betrayal between two team-mates and the woman they both love. Ironic! Tragic! Completely derivative of everything he's done, especially in One Man Up! Looks great and the sense of mystery and menace is palpable. But Sorrentino could've done this in his sleep.

Monday, September 21, 2009

305) Family Viewing (1987)

305) Family Viewing (1987) Dir: Atom Egoyan Date Released: July 1988 Date Seen: September 21, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

The submerged undertones of menace that made Atom Egoyan's Next of Kin so unsettling are thawed out in his third feature, Family Viewing and boy, do they reek. Egoyan's sentimental, self-righteous portrayal of Van (Aidan Tierney), a pampered recent college graduate's Oedipal struggle to wrest control of his ailing, bed-ridden grandmother Armen (Selma Keklikian) from his uncaring monster of a father, Stan (character actor David Hemblen*), is frankly dumb. Though Egoyan's fixation with fictitious video memories and fantasies is sometimes still effectively creepy, Family Viewing is a loaded scenario full of obnoxious and ill-conceived arguments in its protagonist's favor. 

The case against Stan is appallingly simple. Van disdains his father because Stan's never visited Armen in the hospital because he not only put her there but also, as Egoyan overtly suggests early on, ruined her health by never visiting. Stan's also a pervert with a domination fetish, showing how his sexual perversion dominates his life--"He likes to be in control," Van sneers. Which is funny, because I'm pretty sure what Van's doing isn't any less possessive, just necessarily more unimpeachable in its conviction. 

Van stays with Armen without fail, putting his personal and professional life after her needs and constantly searching for any opportunity to make her more comfortable. Then again, he also, in order to keep her away from Stan, fakes Armen's death, takes her out of the hospital and then concocts an elaborate scheme that eventually wrests on her surviving the trauma of being re-institutionalized as an unidentified hobo at a facility whose location would be determined by, y'know, medical professionals. Even if I hadn't seen Next of Kin, I'm positive that that kind of rigged fight for custody of the living past just wouldn't cut it with me.

*Hemblen was the voice of Magneto in the X-Men cartoon from the 90s. Never forget that voice!

304) Next of Kin (1984)

304) Next of Kin (1984) Dir: Atom Egoyan Date Released (DVD): June 2001 Date Seen: September 21, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

As my entree into the filmography of widely praised Egyptian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Next of Kin has made me very eager to check out the rest of Egoyan's filmography. According to IMDB, Next of Kin is only his second feature but in it, he's already created a vivid and unsettling story out of remarkably compact and commendably complex visual metaphors. All of this on an aglet-less shoestring budget and at the age of 24. Forgive my Valley Girl-like amazement but: seriously? Wow.

Next of Kin is the enigmatic portrait of Peter (Patrick Tierney), a 23 year-old blueblood that seeks to use his dissociative personality disorder, something he dismisses as a tendency to want to "make believe," to find happiness with another family. The film's narrative completely absorbs us into his POV, allowing us to see Peter through his own kaleidoscope of ever-congealing fragments. It's his way of showing us that he can assume whatever role is required of him in his quest to feel wanted, nay, needed by his family. 

Peter begins by showing us a piece of luggage on a conveyor belt from its perspective. Peter is that valise but he's also sitting on a bench watching the bag go round the airport's carousel. In this scene, interwoven with a brief summation of his philosophy of schizoid ego mortification, Peter shows us his ideal self-image, a container of things meticulously squared away to suit a specific purpose, giving him just the bare essential for his "vacation" away from his biological parents. He can pick himself up or let himself take another turn around the room, which he of course does to make his point. Later, he will remind us that he's in control in varied and sundry ways, by inserting staticky video footage of himself in family therapy during an unrelated conversation later, marginalizing his family's reaction to the film's events by leaving them mute in the film's coda and, of course, breaking the fourth wall with a knowing smile worthy of a teething crocodile.

To put this notion into practice, Peter worms his way into the hearts of the Deryans, an older Middle-Eastern family that lost their first-born son, Bedros, to Child Protective Services and were never able to reclaim him. Peter pretends to be Bedros first as an experiment, wheedling his way into the Deryans' hearts by literally offering them whatever emotional deficit that the real Bedros' absence has caused. By the end however, just when he's about to move on, he capriciously decides to stay on living with them. What began as a means of proving to himself, and us, his imaginary audience, his improvisatory skills, suddenly turns into a lifestyle. 

That abrupt denouement clinches the disturbing detachment of Peter's performance. The sudden realization that he now plans on permanently shacking up with the Deryans belies but never resolves the unsettling hint that this was his intention the whole time. Almost all of Egoyan's awkward steps towards establishing that disarmingly curt finale, including his insistence on using photography to provide a meta-reflexive confirmation of the Deryans' selective memories, can be forgiven because of that miasma of lingering uncertainty it leaves in its wake. I want more, more, gimme gimme.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

303) Black Sabbath (1963)

303) Black Sabbath (1963) Dir: Mario Bava and Salvatore Billitteri Date Released: May 1964 Date Seen: September 20, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Black Sabbath strikes me as Mario Bava's fittingly lurid homage to the seminal short-lived horror comics, Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror. Both of Educational/Entertaining Comics' most memorable titles were omnibus collections of screwy O. Henry stories with a pervasive macabre sense of humor which many primarily remember for their ghoulish narrators. Alas, because the framing structure in Black Sabbath is marginalized to the point where its just a vestigial bookend before and after the film's segments, Bava and his two co-writers skimp on what made the original comics so iconic. 

What they do retain from the original comics' in spades however, unlike the two Amicus adaptations of the 70s, either of the two Creepshow films or the HBO TV series and its spin-offs, is a fixation with the emotional torment and disintegration of its protagonists. Though the comics are remembered for being notoriously gory--the much publicized final nail in "Horror Comics" coffin was delivered during the 1954 Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Deliquency when a prosecutor brandished an issue of Crime Suspenstories featuring a cover of a man with a hatchet in one hand and his wife's severed head in the other--they were more interested in beads of sweat and dilated pupils than in gallons of blood and heaps of guts. Often the road to the protagonist's complete, and completely just, demise is belabored to the point of campiness but that's because the build-up is always more important than the final moral kiss-off it sets up.

This suits Bava's funhouse style of horror, replete with colored lighting tricks and gothic set pieces that make Dario Argento look like a piker, perfectly. The endings to both "The Telephone" and "Drops of Water" are totally eclipsed by their meticulously focused and expertly surreal atmosphere. Though neither of them is as good as "The Wurdalak," which has a climax worthy of its rising action, all three shorts are more than creepy enough to merit their canonical status.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

302) Vincere (2009)

302) Vincere (2009) Dir: Marco Bellocchio Not Yet Released Date Seen: September 19, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Improperly translated as it is,* the title of Marco Bellocchio's film about Ida Daiser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the real-life unrecognized mistress of Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi) and their bastard son, Benito Albino (also Timi), looks like "Win" when in fact it means "To win." The latter interpretation recognizes the possibility of an alternative result. That hint of doubt is integral to Bellocchio's film. Though she didn't deliver a victorious blow against Mussolini's Fascist ideology or get something more substantial from the tyrant in her lifetime, Daiser's existence today can be reimagined as a symbolic gesture of defiance. Vincere's a real-life "David vs. Goliath" story except here, while Goliath wins, David's presence is worth more than an actual victory.

That kind of short-sighted progressivism fits here better than most other biopics because of Mussolini's insistence on a rigid, hierarchy-bound society where ultimately everybody is subordinate to "Il Duce" but that doesn't make Vincere a more compelling film. Because Daiser opposes a monumental foe, her story is painted in broad, operatic strokes. To wit, the narrative and aesthetic details Bellocchio invests in each scene are never intimate enough to establish a lasting connection. There's just not enough depth of detail in any given encounter, reducing them to handsome blips on an alternate reality's timeline.

I keep stressing that Vincere's like the historical melodrama equivalent of a "What If" story not because its events are untrue but because they exist out of the contemporary political climate's reality. Mussolini's greatest political weapon was his ability to exploit the Italians' nationalist by projecting it back through a prism of jingoism. The best scene in Vincere comes early on when he and Daiser are watching newsreel footage of Italian soldiers in action and he exclaims to his fellow moviegoers what he sees--in this case, the need to go to war--as if he were divining the shapes of clouds on the horizon. Cries of "Pace" are in turned drowned out by taunts of "Guerra," showing how dissent was just steamrolled over in Mussolini's Italy. The film's major coup then is the scene where, after Daiser escape from one of the handful of asylums she's committed to, she is greeted by a mob of incensed supporters. Daiser cannot be shut up now but why that matters today is anyone's guess (if this is a dig at Berlusconi, I don't see it; the film's only really effective as vague political allegory, to my mind).

*This applies to the UK version of the film; not sure how the US version translates "Vincere."

Friday, September 18, 2009

301) Kanikosen (2009)

301) Kanikosen (2009) Dir: Hiroyuki Tanaka (aka: Sabu) Not Yet Released Date Seen: September 18, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

Based on a novel from the '30s by the same name, Hiroyuki Tanaka's adaptation of Takiji Kobayashi's Kanikosen feels like an adaptation that adapts its sources material too literally. Everything, from its fleeting traces of absurdist black humor to its grandstanding speeches about how we're all just cogs in the machine, appears much too obvious to be original. The only significant additions that Tanaka looks to have made in his dismally straight-forward and earnest adaptation is his attempt to connect with a younger audience. The film's "manga-flavored" aesthetic is best evinced by the film's costumes, especially for the film's big baddie (above, on the left), a scarred foreman that struts around in a beige pormanteau brandishing a pimp cane like a cudgel. 

The other more obvious sign that the film is targeted for 20-30 year olds is its choice to cast pretty boy pop star Ryuhei Matsuda (on the right) as the rabble-rouser that leads a group of workers on a crab-canning ship to revolt. This is cruelly ironic considering how charmless and easily forgettable Matsuda is. He's perfectly adequate in whatever role he's in but don't expect him, or this star vehicle, to make much of an impression.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

300) Wild Grass (2009)

300) Wild Grass (2009) Dir: Alain Resnais Not Yet Released Date Seen: September 17, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Based on "The Accident," a novel by Christian Gailly, Alain Resnais' Wild Grass is a head-scratcher's delight, a berserk black comedy whose plot is buffeted every which-way at any given moment. Resnais seizes every opportunity to frustrate his protagonists desperate quest for closure after the eponymous event leaves them all out of sorts, to put it mildly. Despite the characters' best efforts to regain some semblance of emotional equilibrium--sometimes with spa treatments, sometimes with a favorite film from childhood--everyone ends up flailing their arms and instantly regretting their hilariously knee-jerk actions. You know the characters are being fucked with when the story ends with a line about cat munchies from a character we've never seen in the film until that point. It's a very mean film but also a very strange and exciting one.

Trying to describe Wild Grass's plot, which constantly meanders wherever Resnais' perverse heart desires, is pretty futile and almost certainly an inconsequential task. All you need to know is that Bobo fuddy-duddy Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azema) has her purse stolen and, purely by coincidence, unhinged middle-aged patriarch Georges Palet (Andre Dussolier) finds it. They each want to thank each other and form a bond that may or may not be amorous in nature. Then again, they unfortunately also share a tendency to ram their foots up their mouths and to Resnais' warped mind, that's just exactly why they'll spend as much time rebuffing each other's advances as they do trying to get closer.

If he needs an excuse, Resnais torments his characters because they don't seek so much as they demand balance from their lives. As funhouse caricatures of the kind of "headless" bourgies, they act like they have Trauma-induced Tourettes and can't stop themselves from spazzing out at a moment's notice and almost always in public. Their fear of being transplanted into new and uncomfortable settings dominates their post-"accident" lives and leads them to burble incoherently, leave strange notes for each other and then slash each others tires. Altercations are rehearsed a thousand times before they actually occur for fear that they'll come to the messy conclusion that they always do anyway. In thwarting his characters' desires at every turn, Resnais has made the film that Private Fears in Public Places should have been.

299) Sweetgrass (2009)

299) Sweetgrass (2009) Dir: Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castying-Taylor Date Released: January 2010 Date Seen: September 17, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

I'm not surprised that I liked Sweetgrass because I going into it, I knew I admired its filmmakers' approach. The impressionistic method of documentary filmmaking that co-directors Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Casting-Taylor employ relies more heavily on sensory impressions of its subjects. These primarily dialogueless images of sheep, people and the majestic landscape of Big Timber, Montana, speak for themselves and provide so much more enriching detail than most "talking head" docs could. So I'm not at all shocked to find that the film's beginning and ending lured me in, though I am a bit disappointed that the middle was not nearly as engaging. 

Still, it makes sense that that happened in film like Sweetgrass, which relies so much on the speed that its images collide into one another. When the kinetic energy supplied by the juxtaposition of adjacent scenes wanes like it does in the middle, the film just doesn't hold together like it should. That's probably because the middle segment of the film is mainly concerned with the moving from place to place of a herd of sheep. It's not exactly full of rising action, y'know?

That having been said, the footage that Casting-Taylor caught, whittled down from 200 hours of footage with audio recorded on eight separate clip-on mics, is definitely affecting. You reall get a sense that you're looking at events from an insider's POV rather than someone that is condescending to the farmers and herders that corral the sheep, something that could have easily happened but never quite does (even in the scene where one rancher bawls out to his mommy on the phone or another where he unleashes a hilariously unholy string of cusswords at a 3000-strong herd of mutton). 

That's probably because Casting-Taylor and Barbash had the luxury and the extreme patience to film over the course of three years--2001-03--and to have edited up until February of this year. That kind of focus, which wisely allowed them to see that they shouldn't follow Barbash's impulse and make the film about a dispute over the grazing land the sheep, reaps a lot of great scenes. 

ISF: The History of Aviation (2009)

ISF: The History of Aviation (2009) Dir: Balint Kenyeres Date Seen: September 17, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

The sweeping camerawork, composed mostly of tracking shots and pans, in Balint Kenyere' period piece The History of Aviation creates an entrancing atmosphere of foreboding that makes the film a pleasant surprise. It submerges what looks like a fairly straight forward narrative about a missing child into a weird tonal limbo that prevents the viewer from knowing what they should be looking for in the frame. Instead, by purposefully gliding from point to point, we share the mix of wonder and confusion the missing child has upon seeing an early Victorian plane launch off of a precipice. Rather effective, I thought.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

298) Blind Date (2007)

298) Blind Date (2007) Dir: Stanley Tucci Date Released: September 2009 Date Seen: September 16, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

Easily the weakest film by Tucci, a director, that I've seen and certainly the biggest letdown. Too ham-fisted in its attempt to be taken seriously when it already had such a breezy, melancholic tone to recommend it already. A pity. See my review for Slant Magazine.

296) Red Detachment of Women (1961) and 297) La Rabbia di Pasolini (2008)

296) Red Detachment of Women (1961) Dir: Xie Jin Not Yet Released Date Seen: September 16, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

297) La Rabbia di Pasolini (2008) Dir: Giuseppe Bertolucci Not Yet Released Date Seen: September 16, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

It's fitting that the Film Society at Lincoln Center should screen for the press Red Detachment of Women and La Rabbia di Pasolini one after the other. As a pair, they complement each other perfectly as Pasolini's short, the subject of Bertolucci's documentary, obliquely comments on the necessity of such dramas as Red Detachment of Women to shape the past into a model for the future. There's not much to Red Detachment of Women, a propagandaistic Chinese drama from the '60s that lauds the revolutionary spirit in female Communist soldiers, but the juxtapostion of it with Bertolucci's ho-hum doc is inspired. It allows you to see a concrete example of the theoretical object that Pasolini's short, the centerpiece and easily the highlight of Bertolucci's film, addresses and then Pasolini's devastating treatise on how that an object helps to both reinforce and defy the status quo.

Though it has some intriguing cosmetic flourishes--literally; the film's ghoulish make-up effects and gothic sets of the film are what recommend it the most--Red Detachment of Women is not a film a modern audience watches for its heavy-handed and outmoded politics. Nevertheless, according to Pasolini, by appreciating it purely for its aesthetic, I willfully ignore its primary function. If anything, Red Detachment of Women is painfully earnest as it rarely allows the viewer the opportunity to snicker at its blind idealism. Campy moments are few and far between and the few prominent moments, including a hilarious shot of the newly established "Score-Settling Committee" of Yehlin Village, are quickly quashed by more sweeping patriotic gestures realized by very determined and equally sweaty revolutionaries.

Pasolini's half of La Rabbia, a bifurcated essay film that director Giovanni Guareschi contributed the other half of, argues for the necessity of that kind of pristine appropriation of the past. Furthermore, no aspect of such a blatant piece of political iconography is too small as to be worth considering, a concept that Pasolini's nebulous and maddeningly dense voiceover speaks to. It's fitting then that Red Detachment of Women should be shown even before Bertolucci's reconstructed version of Pasolini's film, which precedes the version Pasolini was dissatisfied with but was nevertheless released theatrically in 1963. It provides a palpable sense of urgency that Bertolucci's short sorely lacks, though they both want the bitter self-doubt that is so vital to Pasolini's film.

The 1963 theatrical version of La Rabbia features some of the most stirring intellectual* musings from Pasolini. In it, he rants about what he considers to be the contemporary progression of "pre-history," a still-gestating period where icons that stand in for the revolution and/or some distant bourgeois concept of future happiness, ranging from space travel to Marilyn Monroe, bewitchingly subsume the mundane and almost always morally reprehensible reality that allowed them to rise to prominence. Behind every innocent starlet we dream of lies a rotting human corpse, a nasty habit of progress that erases the weaknesses of history for better and worse.

Part of the reason why La Rabbia is as unapproachable as it is is because it is bloated with both sides of Pasolini's argument for and against that fatal sanitizing of reality. On the one hand, he points to the Cuban Revolution as an example of a people that have succeeded in achieving perfection because of their willingness to get their hands dirty and compromise their immediate principles. On the other, he laments Marilyn Monroe's death as the final corruption of a selfless innocent. Both sides are indispensable, just like Bertolucci's diligent inclusion of enlightening interview footage of Pasolini, which effectively humanizes Pasolini's mad genius. In seeing him address reporters with clear, nuanced and bracingly thoughtful speech, the hesitations and the grandiosity of Pasolini's prophecies gain yet another means of expression. The endless creative elements that contributed to and followed Pasolini's portion of La Rabbia signals it as one of his most enduring works.

*From the Latin "Intellige," meaning to be able "To make connections"