The first impressions are of something a little less contemplative and perhaps even less lyrical than Murmur. The mystery that Stipe and the gang cultivated early in REM's career never again seemed so evident. Even the sequencing, the first three songs could all be singles, suggests an attempt at warding off any journalistic attempt to grace the album with masterpiece status. Reckoning is the shy one, sitting in the corner full of things to say, yet doing its darndest to divert attention at every opportunity.
5/19/13 I watched Dave Grohl's Sound City. In this his directorial debut, Grohl reveals himself as adept storyteller and comfortable behind the controls of a vast amount of cinema's stylistic toolkit. The story possesses that raison d'etre at the heart of most great docs. Some of the music at the film's heart does not fully do it for me, but I think Grohl's film falters most as he works to weave subtext and a larger frame around the story. It's a very entertaining doc that would have hit harder with a little more suggestion and a little less exposition. 8/5/13 I watched Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station. There are many things to admire here. Jordan's performance is pretty fantastic and Coogler does certain things surprisingly well, for instance, the way he puts together the climatic moment on the platform or the way he opens the film. He has an unobtrusive way of using the camera and a natural feel for propelling story forward. Yet when I compare this to the 25th Hour or Do the Right Thing, two films of which it reminds me a great deal, I cannot help but feel it lacking in parts. Granted, it was made for probably less than 1/10th of either of them, but I also think it has some pacing issues and cannot seem to figure out how to end itself. I also wonder if the whole thing would have been much stronger if the initial flashback had not been there. This technique works wonderfully in certain noirs, especially in a film like Carlito's Way, but here it lets too much of the important air out.
9/27/13 I watched Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips. Hanks brings it and proves once again he can inject humanity into these big budget action films like no other. And Greengrass keeps the lines taut at all times in a way that merits admiration. I just wish he was not afraid to add some space to his work to ask us to think as much as he asks us not to breathe.
9/28/13 I watched Frederick Wiseman's At Berkeley. My first theatrical experience with a Wiseman film is also my best theatrical experience of the year so far. Wiseman combines Renoir's humanism with Ozu's patience to offer up an exhaustive and meticulously observed look at a contemporary public university. We take away a great deal from participating in some of the student discussion as well as from our access to a number of administrative cabinet meetings. Nothing feels put on, this is demanding, unadorned, naked filmmaking of the highest order that places demands with its style and four hour length but offers reaffirming sentiments on cinema and life for all willing to go along.
9/28/13 I watched Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis. If Renoir is correct that every filmmaker is simply trying to improve upon the same film each time out then the Coen brothers finally get an aspect of their work right that I feel they have fallen short on the last few times out - the film ending. Whereas I felt they missed the mark in No Country and A Serious Man with their abrupt, oft kilter final moments, ILD's final moments bring everything together in a masterful, fresh way that keeps the Coen's work feeling very modern and daring. One of their very funniest films and also one of their most accomplished.
9/29/13 I watched Hong Sang-soo's Nobody's Daughter Haewon. My third or fourth film by the South Korean and the first I have seen in a theater. I like him as one of the closest practitioners of Rohmerian cinema. But in this one his technical specs (ie video rather than film) and the presence of more Rivette than usual left me a little more lukewarm on this work. 11/23/13 I watched JC Chandor's All Is Lost. For what it is, it is fairly absorbing but I found Redford's lack of greatness evident and the ending flat on both an emotional and aesthetic level.
11/30/13 I watched Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue is the Warmest Color. Kechiche works in Dardennes territory favoring close-ups, handheld camerawork, and a naturalism of image, look, and performance. The performances, specifically those of Adele and Emma, rank alongside the greatest the medium has ever given us, that is if great acting is an actor's ability to walk someone else through his or her emotional experience in a given moment. Kechiche uses sex like Noe or Dumont uses violence. The sex is unsettling but the most direct and purest means for Kechiche to achieve what he is after - the most honest cinematic look yet at the harrowing emotional experience of coming out. What we are left with is a masterful film, a masterpiece, the cinema of the Dardennes taken to the next level - an emotional highwire accomplished with only the most rigorous difficult technique.
12/29/13 I watched David O. Russell's American Hustle. Bale shines and proves again he is one of the very most talented of all his peers. But O. Russell's tone grates. There is entirely too much irony lurking around to make us care much about the characters or any of the situations in which they find themselves.
1/18/14 I watched Spike Jonze's Her. As a criticism on technology, it leaves much to be desired. Neither deep enough to be piercing or entertaining enough to be significantly subversive, I continue to struggle with Jonze's work. There's a sweetness here that is appealing but the underlying irony or jokester in Jonze always seems nearby. I loved the wardrobe and art direction but the rest left me pretty indifferent. 1/19/14 I watched Stephen Frears' Philomena. Frears is a director I almost always like. He is versatile, invisible stylistically behind the camera yet uncommonly consistent and felt as an emotional filmmaker. This is mainstream art cinema that is all too rare - harmonious, moving, and craft of the highest order.
1/27/14 I watched Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. I guess it is entertaning if you find someone who never stops talking worthy of your time and attention. But it seems to offer no analysis, no contemplation and by the end you may feel like I do, used like one of Jordan's many women. 5/25/14 I watched Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive. Certainly Jarmusch's most interesting film since at least Ghost Dog. It echoes and adds to so many other strands in his work, doing for Detroit what Mystery Train did for Memphis, doing for the vampire genre what Dead Man did for the western, and channeling Young, Mueller and other shades of Jarmusch in intimate ways that deepen the auteur's unique legacy and footprint in world cinema. There is not much humor making it the director's darkest and most disturbing work but it also rewards in what struck me as the deepest work to come from Jim since Depp was chasing William Blake.
5/31/14 I watched James Gray's The Immigrant. I like Gray and probably feel as close to his sensibility and approach as any filmmaker currently at work. But at times I find his work overly reverent of its influence and admiration and cerebral to the point of stifled emotionality. I respect the intellectual thrust behind his latest work but found it only mildly affecting. And interestingly enough with Savides' death, I find the visual power of his work significantly dwarfed compared to the desired effect and previous visual power of some of his earlier films. In short, I was sure Jarmush's latest was shot on film but it turns out it was filmed on HD whearas with Gray's latest I was convinced it was HD when it was actually shot on film.
1/31/15 I watched Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida.Pawlikowski channels Bresson and achieves a film of remarkable quiet, restraint, and austerity. Everything seems flawlessly executed even if the heart sometimes seems so far from the proceedings as to leave it all feeling incredibly frigid and distant.
2/23/15 I watched Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess. Parts Godardian, parts Jarmusch, certainly the most elusive and dense of Bujalski's films so far. I am a huge fan of Bujalski and I can find merit in this one even if the ugly aesthetic (I know that is part of everything Buajalski is expressing) kept me at a greater distance than I wanted to be.
3/31/15 I watched Destin Daniel Cretton's Short Term 12. I went in perhaps with unfairly high hopes as most of what bothers me about contemporary American cinema was in evidence. These elements include a somewhat hip and twee score, surface humanism mixed with surface edge and characters lacking the dirt and grime necessary for convincing they inhabit the worlds presented.
4/1/15 I watched Jem Cohen's Museum Hours. A very foreign American film equal parts Godard and Jarmusch that I appreciated even if I was never fully inside it.
4/8/15 I watched Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son. Much feels overly familiar and in not the best of ways but to that Koreeda imparts his playfulness, warmth and what I think is a humanistic outlook and feeling even if it is a humanism that is perhaps too simple at times.
4/15/15 I watched Alain Giraudie's Stranger by the Lake. An example of what I would call "pure cinema" - zero music, almost no close ups, long takes, wide shots, fluid edits and camera movements. The ending again proves that the French might understand the power of the final five minutes better than anyone. And the way Giraudie uses sound further supports France's claim to that title as well. 9/28/15 I watched Yann Gonzalez's Les Rencontres d'apres minuit. Something darker and more irritated seems to be present in French cinema right now. Between this film, the Giraudie above and the Kechiche from the same year, it seems clear that there is an interest in pushing the audience and their comfort level around sex in a very focused manner. This film feels like a mash up of Fassbinder, Lynch and porno cinema. Though I found it far less impressive than the two other works, I admire its confidence in charting a pretty fresh and unique world and staying within it for the duration of its run time. 11/8/15 I watched Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin. I will give Glazer uncompromising and sustained but this cinema of extreme, red-lined at icy, is cold to the point of closing me off from it. 1/4/16 I watched Marina Zenovich's Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic. Some new information for me on Pryor but overall a bit of a formally uninspired work. 6/4/16 I watched Richard Linklater's Before Midnight. I have never been a huge fan of Linklater's Before films nor really of Linklater's work in general. But this time I was impressed by his formal rigor, the emotionality of the performances and Linklater's ability to tread on Rossellini's turf without seeming painfully out of place. 7/23/16 I watched Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin. Hints at Shotgun Stories and suggests that Saulnier might be one of our cinema's great new genre moodmakers. What impresses most is how much Saulnier accomplishes visually, rather than through verbal exposition, and his command of atmosphere and tone are unusually strong. 3/10/17 I watched Douglas Tirola's Hey Bartender. A nice fairly harmless look at the revival of the craft cocktail movement.
Just like my other eighteen posts in this series, I want to take a second to single out the highlights of my recent film viewing. Most of the films I have been glad to finally see, but only very few have stayed with me. This series is my filter for those (and hopefully one or two will be good to someone else, too).
Jerry Schatzberg's Scarecrow
Zsigmond gives it great space and brings a real strength to much of the framing. Its assets - its looseness, authenticity, and the freewheeling nature Schatzberg is able to capture quite often - leave its engine running a little cold at times. But there's a Pialat depth and a heaviness of feeling that more than make for any lack of narrative drive. When people start talking about the great character studies the American cinema produced in the seventies, I would comfortably and certainly throw this one into the mix.
Alexander Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit
A great little film I never knew much about. Alec Guinness is wonderful as the vulnerable scientist. And Mackendrick keeps things suspenseful, fun, and heartfelt. One of those films that will be great fun to watch for years to come.
Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm
Sure it may be an extremely well-made film that makes you think more than it makes you feel. But it is also frightening and communicates the horrors of fascism as well as anything I have ever seen. Borzage's film seems like it might have been one of the main things Tarantino saw as he put Inglourious Basterds together. Featuring some terrific set pieces (like IB), Borzage builds suspense by working through the characters rather than through music or any other cinematic manipulation. Borzage who was known for his melodrama impresses here with an extraordinary sense of restraint.
Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty
I was quite impressed by the filmmaking which I found incredibly complex yet elegant and modern. Bigelow maintains some increasingly rare sensibilities - a noticeable respect for framing, film as negative, and camera movement more as dance than prizefight. I feel it only falters from greatness in its final act, becoming questionably plausible on certain major plot points and pretty lazy with certain emotional ambitions. And although I am in the minority, I like Chastain's look but continue to question the depth of her abilities.