Sunday, October 20, 2019

Favorite (four), sixty-two

Just like in my other sixty-one 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 a 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.

James Gray's Ad Astra
The first thing that struck me was that I think Gray actually set out to make a masterpiece.  The level of energy and attention he put into every moment are deeply inspired and remarkable.  The next thing that struck me was that Gray actually pulled it off.  He made what I would consider the most fully accomplished big-budget film to come out of the studio system in many, many years (possibly even since the late seventies and Alien or Close Encounters of the Third Kind).  

I have always admired Gray's intelligence and earnest approach to the craft.  He emerged essentially in a generation of his own immediately on the heels of the 80s and early 90s American independent explosion that introduced us to the Coen brothers, Jarmusch, Van Sant, Spike Lee, Hartley and Tarantino.  In comparison to his predecessors who all preferred their cinema post-modern, flamboyant and ironic, Gray's approach was classic, invisible and sincere.

Although I have long been a fan, there seemed always to be something slightly missing from Gray's films.  If I had to identify it, I would say they were too restrained or his style so invisible that they never rose to the heights of the great films he deeply admired.  Ad Astra almost goes too far in the other direction.  The mastery on display is pitched at such a high level from second one to minute 123 that you almost take it for granted.  But this is no ordinary work.  It is a film that aspires to be great, is great, and gives hope to all filmmakers coming in Gray's wake.

Agnes Varda's Vagabond
Varda is one of my almost completely blind spots within the Nouvelle Vague.  Of course I have seen Cleo and only recently The Beaches of Agnes.  I had heard for a long time about Vagabond but knew it was heavy and wanted to see it when I could take it on (in).  Its structure is incredibly surprising.  I did not really catch on to how it was put together until probably 30-45 minutes in.  In the way it begins and continuously looks back it seemed to have influenced both Twin Peaks and perhaps even some of Dumont (Li'l QuinquinL'Humanite).  Bonnaire's performance is full of power and the whole things gets under your skin.  But Varda has this strong yet feathery touch that keeps it exactly where it needs to be rather than turning it something cloying or overwrought.  

Abel Ferrara's Pasolini
It reminded me of the unique power that Ferrara's cinema can have.  With very short, efficient brush strokes, he is able to craft deeply affecting moments.  Here it is the scene in a park where a man performs acts on a band of young men or even in a political assassination he very quickly passes over us.  Ferrara is an original and masterful at taking on the heavy burden of genre and and deftly and casually re-purposing into something that is so clearly his.  He did it with the crime film (specifically The Funeral or 'R Xmas), the bar/club film (Go Go Tales), the vampire film (The Addiction) and now here with the biopic.  

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
I still am not all that familiar with Fassbinder's work with this only being the third or fourth of his films that I have seen.  But of what I have seen this one impressed me the most.  It is unusually artful in its framing and exquisitely attuned to the evolving feelings between a new couple.  It is restrained, uncompromising and rigorous in all of the best of ways.



Sunday, September 22, 2019

Ad Astra

Ad Astra impressed me more than any American film since The Tree of Life.  It is everything I ever hoped James Gray would make one day, and more.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Favorite (four), part sixty-one

Just like in my other sixty 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 a 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.

Kirill Serebrennikov's Summer
A film that could have just as easily been called Les Inrockuptibles is full of the musical obsessions and spirit at the core of the French magazine.  No surprise therefore that it ended up at the very top of the magazine's 2018 year-end list of best films of the year.  Its rigorous, bold filmmaking is impressive, as is the heart it creates around its three main leads.  The substitution of unrequited, restrained love for 80s Soviet politics is also impressively smart.  I question the choice of using the three animated moments of fantasy - "Psycho Killer", "The Passenger" and "Perfect Day" - as they undermined the effectiveness of the rest of the film for me.  But otherwise it was a surprisingly powerful effort from a filmmaker I look forward to continuing to watch.

Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Of all of Tarantino’s films I have seen to date, this one felt the most personal.  It’s the work where his nearest and dearest obsessions are most at center and where all of his talents can flourish.  What is most impressive is his decision to wrap the story around the Sharon Tate murder.  It allows Tarantino more effectively than ever to merge his B-film aspirations with the art film world he loves and reveres.  


Bruno Dumont's Li'l Quinquin
Although when it came out I was a fan of  L'Humanite, Dumont' 1999 film, this is the first work of his that I have seen since.  There were several moments that surprisingly are laugh out loud funny and Dumont proves himself adept in a number of areas I would not have expected from him, including young love and a Bunuelian approach to the church.  The artsy procedural fits Dumont perfectly, as it also does Lynch, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Carey Fukunaga.

Leo McCarey's Duck Soup
I had forgotten how relentlessly funny much of it is.  It has such a wonderful child's sense of play and humor and made me, for most of the film, feel like I was on the winning side of some great prank call.  I haven't seen all of The Marx Brothers' films but I would be surprised if they ever topped it.  



Wednesday, September 4, 2019

2019


6/14/19 I watched Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese.  Although the period interests me musically a little less than Scorsese’s other Dylan doc, I have to commend Scorsese for bringing a structure and style to the piece that felt fresh, informative and contemporary.  Some of the footage is absolutely remarkable, whether it’s Dylan and Ginsberg communing at Kerouac’s grave or McGuinn and Dylan harmonizing at the end.  I have a new appreciation for this Dylan period and feel once again that late Scorsese may excel more in the form of documentary than in narrative.

8/23/19 I watched Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.  Of all of Tarantino’s films I have seen to date, this one felt the most personal.  It’s the work where his nearest and dearest obsessions are most at center and where all of his talents can flourish.  What is most impressive is his decision to wrap the story around the Sharon Tate murder.  It allows Tarantino more effectively than ever to merge his B-film aspirations with the art film world he loves and reveres. 

9/21/19 I watched Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die.  A bit of a throwaway film for me for one of my favorite working directors.  Yet I can still see what motivated him to make it and the metaphor of the cultural ignorant and consumerists to zombies is impactful.  

9/22/19 I watched James Gray's Ad Astra.  The first thing that struck me was that I think Gray actually set out to make a masterpiece.  The level of energy and attention he put into every moment are deeply inspired and remarkable.  The next thing that struck me was that Gray actually pulled it off.  He made what I would consider the most fully accomplished big-budget film to come out of the studio system in many, may years (possibly even since the late seventies and Alien or Close Encounters of the Third Kind).  

I have always admired Gray's intelligence and earnest approach to the craft.  He emerged essentially in a generation of his own immediately on the heels of the 80s and early 90s American independent explosion that introduced us to the Coen brothers, Jarmusch, Van Sant, Spike Lee, Hartley and Tarantino.  In comparison to his predecessors who all preferred their cinema post-modern, flamboyant and ironic, Gray's approach was classic, invisible and sincere.  

Although I have been a fan, there seemed always to be something slightly missing from Gray's films.  If I had to identify it, I would say they were too restrained or his style so invisible that they never rose to the heights of the great films he deeply admired.  Ad Astra almost goes too far in the other direction.  The mastery on display is pitched at such a high level from second one to minute 123 that you almost take it for granted.  But this is no ordinary work.  It is a film that aspires to be great, is great, and gives hope to all filmmakers coming in Gray's wake.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Favorite (four), part sixty

Just like in my other fifty-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 a 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.

Martin Scorsese's Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story
Although the period interests me musically a little less than Scorsese's other Dylan doc, I have to commend Scorsese for bringing a structure and style to the piece that felt fresh, informative and contemporary.  Some of the footage is absolutely remarkable, whether it's Dylan and Ginsberg communing at Kerouac's grave or McGuinn and Dylan harmonizing at the end.  I have a new appreciation for this Dylan period and feel once again that late Scorsese may excel more in the form of documentary than in narrative.

Hong Sang-soo's The Day After
Although I prefer Hong's films in color, he proves yet again with this work that he is unusually comfortable in his skin and knows how to use his repetitive style and approach to great effect.  The more I watch his films the more I feel he is like an Erik Satie of cinema.  It's like he keeps hitting the same key on a piano until suddenly, somehow, through repetition it just begins to sound different.  Also, Hong once again impresses with his use of ellipses and the way he is consistently able to transcend budgetary limitations and lack of action to leave the viewer in an elevated emotional state.  For instance the final scene of this work which I found particularly masterful and affecting. 

Claire Denis' Keep It for Yourself
A wonderful early work by Denis that shows off her incredible eye, ear, and like Jarmusch, incredible feel for the outsider.  It is essential Denis that deserves to be seen and talked about. 

Mervyn LeRoy's Heat Lightning
A noir that stands out the most because it never quite allows you to know what it is or where it is going.  Everything about it just seems a little off, from the gas station location to the actors' faces to the way the camera moves.  I am not sure if it would be considered pre-code but it has a sense of being on the edge and pushing Code boundaries like the other great pre-code cinema I have seen to date.

Friday, April 19, 2019

A Story of Floating Weeds (1934)

It has been nearly six months since my last post on Ozu.  Actually more than anything it took me a little while to track down today's entry.  But when I saw it was part of the library of Criterion Channel's new streaming service I jumped at the chance to see it.

Stylistically it feels very close to Ozu's previous work, A Mother Should be Loved.  It is full of many of the signature aspects of the Ozu style - ellipses, empty frames, long takes and tatami shots.

Among the few stylistically new touches that jumped out at me was Ozu's use of the tatami shot on an approaching train.  The effect was unlike any I have seen to date of a filmed, approaching train.  It almost gave a 3-D sensation to the movement.

Speaking of movement, this might be the first of Ozu's films that I would characterize as containing the Ozu rhythm, the slow, hypnotic drone of scene progression, unconcerned whether audiences follow or boredom takes over.

Ozu sets the rhythm immediately with a slow fade in (which also feels a little new to Ozu's work).  He then immediately jumps into a slow montage of people-less shots that, like A Mother Should be Loved, once again shows shows that Lang's M might have more than impressed Ozu.

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Sunday, January 6, 2019

Favorite (four), part fifty-nine

Just like in my other fifty-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 a 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.

Jean-Paul Civeyrac's A Paris Education
It's unfortunate that it is shot on digital black-and-white because if it had the cinematography of Garrel's Regular Lovers it would find a place in my small pantheon of truly cherished works.  But even as is it's pretty special.  It captures some of the poetry of Paris and what the formative years feel like at the fac.  That is, time as your captive and endless amounts of it for sitting around among peers, taking walks and formulating dreams for undoing the previous generation's misguided efforts and hopes.  The end has a narrative device so brilliantly utilized by Demy in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Kazan in Slendor in the Grass, Rohmer in My Night at Maud's and to perhaps a slightly lesser degree Chazelle in La La Land.  And even though the device is familiar, Civeyrac uses it in a way that feels fresh and new.  By fast forwarding with Etienne, it is not a particular romance that he is forced to reckon with but an entire view of the world and of himself.     

Matt Wolf's Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell
One of those documentaries that immediately convince you to go out and dig into the work of the featured artist.  Prior to watching the film, I had only heard one song by Russell and now I am very curious to spend more time seeing what he was all about.  He strikes me as part Scott Walker, part Mark Hollis and perhaps part Nick Drake.    

Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro
The first film I have seen from the young Italian filmmaker is impressive.  The best way I can describe it is a welcome concoction of Kiarostami's feel for the land, Lynch's ability for rupturing time and early Van Sant's poetic sense for the rough and marginal.  Based on this film, Rohrwacher is full of talent and tough to categorize.  I am very excited to see what she does next.          

Amy Scott's Hal
Another documentary, like the recent one I saw on Arthur Russell, that makes you immediately want to dig further into the subject's body of work.  As a long time fan of Ashby, Shampoo for instance might be in my all time top ten, I have always been curious to learn more about the filmmaker.  Having seen this doc, which I cannot recommend highly enough to any fan of Ashby, I now can't wait to go back and watch all seven of his films from the seventies.