Saturday, April 22, 2017

2017

4/22/17 I watched James Gray's The Lost City of Z.  The film of Gray that has impressed the most so far is also the most revealing.  Treading in this territory is dangerous stuff.  How do you not immediately beg comparison to Apocalypse Now and Aguirre?  You don't.  What Gray does though is blend the epic and the chamber and in that way it feels different.  Herzog and Coppola's film were both always operating on a large canvas and their egos and talents had no problem sustaining an epic scope for their duration.  Gray's film fits what is seemingly his personality, something that is more cerebral and more measured than Herzog and Coppola.  What is most striking is that I have long known that Gray reveres the work of Coppola but never have I noticed their differences more than now.  Not only is Gray far more humble but he also struggles to reach the emotional shape of Coppola's best work.  I felt watching The Lost City that everything was of one piece - Ravel's music could not have been more perfect, sophisticated, difficult themes were borne out, Khondji's work seemed right (even if I have never been a huge fan of his) but Gray has trouble reaching the emotional heights of Coppola.  Lost City is an unusually ambitious and well executed American film in this current environment but without the emotional resonance of the films he most admires, it is difficult to call it great.  

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Favorite (four), part forty

Just like in my other thirty-nine 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 see but only very few have stayed with me.  This series is my filter for those and my hope is one or two will be good to you as well.

Jim Jarmusch's Gimme Danger
Jarmusch saves his rawest aesthetic to date for the rough and tough Stooges, and even though it is a major stylistic departure for Jarmusch he seems comfortable in this different skin.  Jarmusch provides new insight into the highly influential band and the deep emotional wounds that have propelled Iggy for the last 50 years.  

Michael Ritchie's The Bad News Bears
Ritchie's slacker sensibility is a perfect match with the material.  I don't think this one gets near enough attention and should be in any conversation around the greatest sports movies of all time.

Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands' Uncertain
How these thoughtful and talented filmmakers came to work right in my backyard I have no idea (tax credits?) but they do an excellent job at capturing life in the Caddo Lake backwoods.  They resist easy storylines and typical trajectories and leave us with an affecting look at a different world.

Michael Schultz's Cooley High
Even though it was an AIP production, it feels more like an American New Wave film or a 1970's Shadows.  I have heard it referenced in rap songs and as an important entry in that decade's pop culture but now finally seeing it, it exceeded expectations in the way it captures the clothes, the music, the feel of the times.  Required viewing for anyone that wants a link from Shadows to Burnett to Spike.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Favorite (four), part thirty-nine

Just like in my other thirty-eight 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 see but only very few have stayed with me.  This series is my filter for those and my hope is one or two will be good to you as well.

Jim Jarmusch's Paterson
Another strong entry from one of my favorite filmmakers currently at work, after what felt like a slight drop in quality between Ghost Dog and Only Lovers Left Alive.  Like his great previous film, Jarmusch seems to be in an internal dialogue with the past and with art.  Whereas the excellent Lovers was with one of his favorite passions, music.  This time around Jarmusch seems to be most concerned with another of his primary artistic passions, poetry.  In fact, there is so much in common, formally and narratively, between the two films that they seem to form a couple relationship within his body of work.  The greatest strength of Jarmusch has always been his ability to distill and condense.  Like the best poems, his work conveys so much with so little.    

Jacques Demy's The Umbrellas of Cherbourg
I was frustrated by the backlash against La La Land.  And I was confused by the critical preference for Moonlight.  Sure, Chazelle's film had the more robust budget.  But I felt like his film also had far more filmmaking rigor than Jenkins' and that Chazelle's formal approach in general was much clearer and achieved at a significantly higher level.  And when I hear someone compare Moonlight's color palate to the incredible work Doyle and Wong Kar-wai achieved together I really don't see it at all.  

With that out of the way, I was looking forward to rewatching Demy's film, cited as a key influence on La La Land.  I remembered Demy's work with color as among the most impressive in film's history and it was as brash and beautiful as I remembered.  The pinks, purples, and splashes of bold colors of Demy's cinema certainly find their way into some of the clothes and onto some of the sets of La La Land (most noticeably in Emma Stone's apartment and her roommates' outfits).  What I did not remember though is just how bittersweet and powerful the final minutes of Cherbourg are.  Rewatching it now, if you felt it like I did, it seems that the secret behind the emotional power of some of La La Land's final exchanges is Chazelle tapping into the same cinema magic Demy was onto for Cherbourg's last moments.  Both films explore unrequited and both get deep rewards for staying on the other side of happily ever after.

Sadao Yamanaka's Humanity and Paper Balloons
I know nothing at all about the filmmaker and it was the first of his films I have seen.  What impressed most was the film's study of class and the way it examines the idea that there are other things in life of far greater value than money.  Yamanaka also infuses the film with a similar strain of poetry that seems to exist in the other great works of Japanese cinema. 

Yasujiro Ozu's I Was Born, But...
For the first time since February of 2016, I am back to working my way through the work of Ozu in chronological order.  This one I had seen before and I had very fond memories of and re-watching did not disappoint.  And, it was instructive to watch it in relation to what immediately came before it.

Ozu seems to be using "tatami" shots now in almost every shot but I wouldn't say all aspects of his signature style are present.  There seem to be far more quick cuts than we find in the later Ozu, when he begins to move to very long takes.  There also seems to be far more movements of the camera, primarily tracking shots to follow characters walking, but there is also a backwards tracking movement to introduce the dad at work that seems very reminiscent of Vidor's The Crowd.

Ozu's under-recognized sense of playfulness is really at the fore as is his unusually strong ability with his child actors.  Without a doubt, this is also his most complex film emotionally to date, as he delves into some very rich but tricky terrain as the two boys try to reconcile what they come to learn about their father.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

I Was Born, But... (1932)

For the first time since February of 2016, I am back to working my way through the work of Ozu in chronological order.  This one I had seen before and I had very fond memories of and re-watching did not disappoint.  And, it was instructive to watch it in relation to what immediately came before it.

Ozu seems to be using "tatami" shots now in almost every shot but I wouldn't say all aspects of his signature style are present.  There seem to be far more quick cuts than we find in the later Ozu, when he begins to move to very long takes.  There also seems to be far more movements of the camera, primarily tracking shots to follow characters walking, but there is also a backwards tracking movement to introduce the dad at work that seems very reminiscent of Vidor's The Crowd.  

Ozu's under-recognized sense of playfulness is really at the fore as is his unusually strong ability with his child actors.  Without a doubt, this is also his most complex film emotionally to date, as he delves into some very rich but tricky terrain as the two boys try to reconcile what they come to learn about their father.

 

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Favorite (four), part thirty-eight

Just like in my other thirty-seven 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 see but only very few have stayed with me.  This series is my filter for those and my hope is one or two will be good to you as well.

Kleber Mendonca Filho's Aquarius
I know nothing of Filho's work, not even if the filmmaker is male or female (although the unusually sensitive treatment of the central female character leads me to think it is the latter).  Filho is a graceful filmmaker, reminding me of Moretti in the artful, light way he glides through scenes.  Most remarkable aside from the fully felt Clara is the way the filmmaker so effortlessly moves through time and the way quick cuts are used to show sexual actions and waves of Clara's thoughts and memories. 

Ivan Passer's Cutter's Way
It's been 20 or so years since I first saw this in a bad print at the New Beverly.  It's much stronger than I remember, Bridges and Heard quite impressive and the whole thing in much the same vein as Night Moves.  It is one of the more important final bookends to the American New Wave, artistic with an A list crew and disheartened that the utopic future for America envisioned by the youth at the time had clearly failed.  
Mikio Naruse's Floating Clouds
I have very little experience with Naruse's work, this being either only the first or second film I have ever seen from him.  I'm not a fan of his almost wall-to-wall music and I wish he were more similar to Mizoguchi and Ozu in his sense of restraint.  But I admire his ability to go the distance with the material, never becoming sentimental even when it would have been more palatable and more commercial to do so.  He is gifted with time, effortlessly gliding back and forth between the past and the present, and emotionally he is more engaged with reality than the cerebral Mizouchi and the distant Ozu.  

John Ford's The Lost Patrol
What I was most struck by, aside from Ford's signature ability to bring out the haunting poetry in natural landscapes, is a certain modern quality to the work.  McLaglen's physicality towards the end does not feel too much different than Pacino in the latter stages of Scarface and the fact that Ford almost never cuts to the opposition gives the film artful restraint that really helps create the effective, ominous atmosphere he sustains throughout.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

Before Hollywood, The Go-Betweens, 1983

Bouncy, jangly, and very far removed from the baroque and epic songwriting of 16 Lovers Lane.  In fact, if I didn’t know any better I would think they were two entirely different bands.    Certain albums shift into a different gear at some point in their sequencing.  Here that magic stretch happens from “Ask” to “Cattle and Cane”.  Not that the entire album is not top-notch but songs 3-5 are otherworldly, somehow more connected and more memorable than the other sections of the album.  The Go-Betweens never cracked my US mainstream.  They never even cracked my radar until years after they had disbanded and I was reading about them while I was living in France.  But for any fan of early REM, hours of sophisticated songs of beauty await.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

My Top Seventeen "Films" of 2016

Either I have lowered my standards or it was simply a more satisfying year.  Largely I think that's because I was willing to work harder to dig out the things I really wanted to see.  Whether it was at the movies or streaming on Amazon, Fandor, Filmstruck or Netflix, here were my high points.  

Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon
Ruiz's film is a display of filmmaking "class" with every shot meticulously framed and every movement of the camera elegant and graceful.  The previous film (or two) of Ruiz's left me completely unprepared for the force and effect of this extraordinary achievement.  It might have been shot on digital but it leaves no doubt that a certain sort of classicism in filmmaking (beautiful acting, immaculate set design, repetitive, symphonic score) when done in the highest manner can reach the soul every bit (if not more) than any of the more contemporary techniques.
Todd Haynes' Carol
Haynes' latest, very mature and sophisticated, is more European in its textures and shape than American indy or mainstream.  It felt even more mysterious than its closest Haynes' counterpart Far from Heaven and is poetic and delicate in ways I have never experienced in his other work.  A great surprise and another chapter in the brilliant careers of both Blanchett and Burwell. 
Celine Sciamma's Tomboy
A very strong addition to the kid in peril genre that includes 400 Blows, Kes and Germany, Year Zero.  This one is incredibly unsettling, particularly for the way it takes the audience's experience with past movies and uses those memories of what could possibly happen to create an almost relentless tension.  The end credits mention Ferran and Lvovsky, which come of no surprise as influences and to help locate the cinematic world in which Sciamma is so effectively treading.   
Hong Sang-soo's Right Now, Wrong Then
Hong's latest outing once again treads familiar territory - a doppelganger narrative, a filmmaker as main character and plenty of scenes of eating and drinking.  This installment especially benefits from Hong's ability to capture so many of those awkward but charged emotions we have all experienced during the early stages of courting.  And the way the second narrative remixes the events that have come before has Hong working at the absolute height of his skill.
Damien Chazelle's La La Land
I was a big fan of Whiplash and interested in seeing this, Chazelle's next film.  After Whiplash, I sensed and hoped that Chazelle might be the type of filmmaker I have been waiting for, a sophisticated cinephile with enough mainstream appeal to succeed in imposing and protecting his cinema within Hollywood.  I was excited when I first discovered David Gordon Greeen, Andrew Bujalski, even Bennett Miller.  But, in truth, Gordon Green and Bujalski never seemed to have the sensibility to fully crossover.  They might get their chance to work within the system but it would be in the way the system wanted them to work and not the other way around.  Miller, in a similar way to Kenneth Lonergan, will probably succeed in continuing to make smart cinema in Hollywood, but it will almost certainly be a cinema devoid of style and without any internal dialogue or link back to film's history.  Meanwhile La La Land is truly bold cinema, a young auteur's willingness to go all in, cash in on his sophomore effort fully knowing that it really does not matter how daring he is because if he makes a film that connects he will be given additional chances.  If not, he will be back to making small-scale indy work as he grovels for Hollywood to give him another shot.  Chazelle gambles and emerges, in my eyes, as the most gifted new American filmmaker since the exciting new voices of the nineties, like James Gray and Tarantino,  I made a similar, now obviously irresponsible claim in '99 when O'Russell, Payne and The Wachowski Brothers all had breakout years.  But I have more trust this time around.  After all, one of Chazelle's main subjects of La La Land is how to preserve something that is under great threat of fading away.
Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret
Genre.  Novelistic.  Ambition.  Massive.  Pressure.  Huge, after the breakout success of You Can Count On Me.  I have long been a fan of Paquin and here Lonergan gives her the space to show off deep layers of her talent.  The sprawling film is difficult and flawed but also infinitely more rewarding than most of the work currently coming out of the States.  It feels most akin to a French art film, something Desplechin or Assayas would attempt, and full of extraordinary moments bubbling with feelings and ideas.    
Satyajit Ray's The World of Apu
Ray takes a few years away from his trilogy before coming back and completing it with this film, and the style feels a little different than the first two movies.  This film has a slightly more elliptical quality and seems intent on drifting closer to poetry.  The ending of the film is one of the very strongest moments of the entire trilogy with Ray attaining that transcendent experience of the great neorealist works.  
Nanni Moretti's Mia Madre
It has been years since I have seen a new Moretti film, the last being 2001's The Son's Room.  But his work such as Palombella rossa and Caro diario both rate among my favorite films of the eighties and nineties.  Moretti is in top form with his latest outing creating something that is fairly small-scaled and intimate.  It is a work that seems to aspire and succeeds in being something that is appealing to look at and listen to, that will make you both think and feel deeply.
Jean-Pierre Melville's Le deuxieme souffle
Definitely one of these blueprint films that presented (and perhaps even introduced) so much of what would become conventions for the ambitious crime films of the next thirty years.  It takes its time, coming in a little over 150 minutes, and relies heavily on ambient sounds, featuring very little in the way of music.  Where there is music it is that moody minimal jazz that we will find again in Friedkin's French ConnectionKlute and Night Moves, to name but a few.  We see the two-gun shootout that would become trademarks of Woo and Tarantino.  We have the zoom and heavy reliance on location shooting that almost sum up the aesthetic approach of Friedkin in the French Connection.  And we have onscreen time stamping that shows up all over Scorsese's work and in seemingly every copycat crime filmmaker that would follow in its wake.  
Samuel Fuller's Underworld U.S.A.
Fuller's strengths - his constantly roving, expressive camera and his hard-hitting sensibility are at the fore while his weaknesses, such as a heavy hand creating believable romance and intimacy are hardly, if at all, noticeable.  Clearly an influence on later great works such as Carlito's Way and an argument as good as any that the noir cycle did not end with Touch of Evil in 1958 but was still going strong well into the sixties with important and powerful entries such as this.    
Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord
One of the real pleasures of being a cinephile is discovering a new link to a film that you already love.  In this case it's Carax's Boy Meets Girl and really to Carax's cinema in general.  Rivette's influence seems to be all over.  It's in the way that Carax uses the little seen areas of Paris, the way that he fixates on maps of the city, and in the countless quirky mannerisms of Lavant that run throughout Carax's body of work.  Also, of note is this strange relationship with genre that Rivette seems to have (and I guess Godard did as well, think Pierrot le Fou or Vivre sa Vie).  It's like they don't want to make pure art films but instead prefer adding these trivial crime subtexts to the real meat of their stories producing a formula that ends up being something like - - serious characterization + ironic treatment of genre = playful, thoughtful art.  What is interesting is how some of the New Wave filmmakers get at the poetry of the genre by having fun with it in ways that the original practitioners of the genre never achieved.  I am thinking particularly of where Truffaut ends up in Shoot the Piano Player, Belmondo's final moments in Pierrot and the remarkable last few minutes Rivette gives us between Pascale Ogier and Jean-Francois Stevenin.  And I've gotten all the way here and only begun to mention Pascale Ogier, the most interesting and most tragic early loss in all of French cinema, who in but a handful of films offered up everything that James Dean and River Phoenix did only to disappear all too soon. 
Arnaud Desplechin's My Sex Life... or How I Got into an Argument
Desplechin's second feature comes with a certain looseness that could belie a unique cinematic intelligence and a nearly unprecedented capturing of uninhibited femaleness.  It feels more akin to a novel in its shape and courage to let time unfold within its own disheveled set of rules.  "Tenderness is the fear of adulthood", Desplechin quotes Kundera, and this film might be as spot-on as any in the medium's history for capturing that very strange road from freedom to responsibility.   
Jean-Luc Godard's Sauve qui peut (la vie)
Godard returns after a twelve or so year departure from "traditional" narrative cinema with this absolute scorcher of a film.  I was surprised (although I do not know why since Godard remains perhaps my favorite of all) by its beauty, its playfulness, its ability yet again to tap into the zeitgeist of its time.  It is Godard as post-punk and it is up there with his extraordinary work from the sixties.  If anyone thinks Godard's importance ended with Week End, have a look. 

Miguel Gomes' Tabu
Clearly I am late to the party but there seems to be something very special right now happening in Portuguese cinema.  I already recently got on the bandwagon for Manoel de Oliveira and now I am starting to see what this Gomes guy is all about.  If Tabu is any indication, he might be one of the most gifted and bold filmmakers at work right now in the world.  Visually it is absolutely rapturous cinema, using modern black-and-white like the killer poetic weapon it can be when in the right hands (think Wenders' work with Muller or Dead Man, again Muller).  And Gomes' style, in addition to his visual approach, is as free-wheeling and exciting as Godard can be in his most effective moments.  Gomes jumps all around chronologically, mixes silent cinema with voiceover and uses music and nature as well as the great Swiss one.  I can't wait to see more of Gomes' work.  He's exactly the type of filmmaker, in its current isolationist cinema culture, Americans are losing out on by not having more readily available.
David Simon and William F. Zorzi's Show Me a Hero
My most memorable viewing experience last year was seeing the entirety of The Wire for the first time.  I was astounded by Simon's ability to simultaneously juggle so many rich characters and the way he so gracefully glided around the different corners of the carefully detailed and observed world he had created.  Simon moves the focus from Baltimore to Yonkers but the result is similar, another microscopic study of a section of our community and a work that not only lodges itself deeply into our personal and moral fabric, but shifts us.  

David Lynch's Twin Peaks (TV show)
As a long time fan of Lynch I figured it was about time I sit down and watch the entirety of the two seasons of Twin Peaks.  I also wanted to make sure I was caught up when the new batch premieres in 2017.  Although not every moment is fully captivating, the show rises above any other I have seen in its casting, its fearlessness and the primal power of its greatest scenes.  Nothing topped the final episode for me but other unforgettable moments include Leland Palmer and Madeleine's final scene, Coop's Tibetan Method, and any scene that bears the threat of Leo coming home.
Jeffrey Dupre and Maro Chermayeff''s Soundbreaking
The access that the filmmakers had, most likely because of Sir George Martin's involvement, is extraordinary.  And the fact that they chose to tell the story thematically rather than chronologically gives the film a pulse and an entertainment quotient that Ken Burns' work never seems to achieve.