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 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

Ad Astra (James Gray)

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.

11/28/19 I watched Martin Scorsese's The Irishman.  It has been a shockingly strong year for three of the most established American filmmakers.  I would never have expected 2019 to produce quite possibly my favorite Quentin Tarantino film, my favorite James Gray film and one of my favorite Martin Scorsese films.  It gives hope for the future of cinema, American cinema, and is a powerful reminder that great works of art find a way to get made in spite of trends, economies and expectations.  

Scorsese's latest work is different than anything else he has done.  It pulls back on style and showmanship and in so doing produces two of his richest and most emotionally affecting characters to date (Frank and Russell).  The final thirty minutes or so, in particular, allow the film to enter into heavy, deep territory that I would normally equate with Dreyer or Ozu but not Scorsese.  

The Irishman is of great interest as a dialogue with Scorsese's entire body of work.  Seeing Robbie Robertson's name in the end credits can't help but recall The Last Waltz and Robertson's numerous other collaborations with Scorsese through the years.  While Frank's efforts to get through to a stubborn Jimmy Hoffa powerfully evoke Keitel's efforts to do the same for De Niro in Mean Streets.  And there are many other reverberations of Scorsese's earlier work flowing underneath and alongside the unfolding of his latest work, with of course memories and similarities to Goodfellas perhaps the strongest. 

The Irishman also feels like it is in conversation with Coppola's first two Godfather films.  The final shot forces a comparison to the final shot of Coppola's 1972 work.  And I can't help but see The Irishman as Scorsese's quest to achieve the same reverence and consideration consistently granted to Coppola's early achievements.  Many people revere Goodfellas but almost no one considers it to have the same emotional weight or impact as Coppola's early outings.       

Surprising also is the amount of real life that seeps in.  It is perhaps the Scorsese narrative film with the most factual events interlaced into the story as we see clips of John and Robert Kennedy and Castro and Cuba.  Although given the amount of Scorsese's recent documentary output, perhaps it is a logical new development in his work.  And I could not help but see the oldest daughter-father relationship in The Irishman as a possible echo of Scorsese's own life and strained personal relationships.

In the spirit of Gertrud or Rio Lobo, The Irishman is a late great film and suggests exciting new possibilities for Scorsese and his future work.

12/24/19 I watched Pedro Almodovar's Pain and Glory.  Almodovar has always been a filmmaker I have admired more than I have loved, even though a few of his films have moved me with Talk to Her being at the top of the list.  His obsessions are not necessarily my own but I respect the autobiographical nature of his work and the themes he consistently grapples with from film to film.  

He has a loyal group of actors and he repays their trust by giving them some of the best performances of their careers.  For instance, I can't remember Banderas ever giving a more satisfying performance than what he delivers here.    

His latest is one of the better films of his career.  Its production design immaculate, its structure masterfully intricate, its direction confident, graceful and elegant.  It is a work by a recognized artist that hasn't stopped searching and a film that benefits from Almodovar's restraint, maturity and contemplation. 

2/12/20 I watched Nadav Lapid's Synonyms.  Tough to get through.  Had some things of interest to say.  I just wasn't terribly moved by the way that it said them.  

7/2/20 I watched Justine Triet's Sibyl.  The casting and acting are both exquisite and Triet evokes numerous great films from Stromboli to Le Mepris to Persona.  I just wish she incorporated more longer brush strokes into her canvas (longer takes) as everything felt too quick, too choppy to achieve its greatest effect.

8/30/20 I watched Tag Gallagher's I did what he told me to do.  A short doc on Von Sternberg and Dietrich that's not really worth the watch.  

9/5/20 I watched Kelly Reichardt's First Cow.  I was nervous to see it.  I was a huge fan of her previous film, Certain Women, but I had not cared for any of her other work.  Her latest however does not disappoint.  It finds Reichardt back in the western genre and it is haunted in the best of ways by undercurrents of McCabe & Mrs. Miller as well as a number of films that I would characterize more as noir (Mikey and Nicky and Mean Streets) or gangtser (Bonnie and Clyde).  Reichardt has found a rich story and slowly lets it unfold in her very rigorous, restrained style.  To me she has become one of our great filmmakers.  She has a understanding of where cinema has been and updates it with a very modern and humanistic approach.

10/2/20 I watched Puloma Basu and Robert Hatch-Miller's Other Music.  An interesting doc about a store I wish I had known about previously.  Sounds like it was an amazing place.  

10/24/20 I watched Abel Ferrara's Tommaso.  There were some remarkable scenes, and DaFoe was incredible yet again under Ferrara's watch but it did not lead to anything ultimately clear to me.  

12/4/20 I watched Asif Kapadia's Diego Maradona.  If there was a moment in film this year that stirred me more than Maradona walking up to kick a penaly kick in extra time of the World Cup in Naples against Italy I certainly don't recall it.  Like Kapadia successfully did in his previous documentaries, Senna and Amy, he successfully creates empathy with his title subject while making your heart hurt as they end up having extraordinarily difficult lives.    

1/9/21 I watched Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell.  If there was nothing else but the acting - the lead performance and the performances by Rockwell, Wilde and Bates - I would encourage people to run down Eastwood's latest work.  The acting is strong.  And for the umpteenth time, Eastwood once again delivers a compelling story in a style that remains supportive, straightforward, barely visible.  

5/5/21 I watched Taylor Taormina's Ham on Rye.  Parts of some things I like - Altman, The Myth of the American Sleepover, even some early Linklater.  But I never got close to anyone and was frustrated with the director's refusal to hook on anything or anyone for very long.

6/19/21 I watched Bong Joon-ho's Parasite.  Perhaps more amazing than anything is the fact that this dark, cold, genre art film took home Best Picture at the Oscars.  It is original, precisely made and works on both a visceral and cerebral level.  What it lacks is some heart.  It is difficult to care too much for any of the characters, because of their lack of dimension or redeemable qualities. 

6/21/21 I watched Darius Marder's Sound of Metal.  Riz Ahmed gives a great performance and the terrain the film covers feels pretty fresh and unique.  But there are too many aspects of the plot that are hard to accept and it is is unclear ultimately what the film is trying to do.  

11/6/21 I watched Shatara Michelle Ford's Test Pattern.  A highly effective indy.  I know nothing about the filmmaker but the two actors are strong and the direction is patient and efficient.  It is difficult material but the way the filmmaker sets it up in the beginning adds a sense of danger to the first 30 minutes.  Once we are caught up with the narrative Ford is still able to maintain the suspense by focusing on the couple and whether their relationship will survive the horrific events of the night before.  It reminds me of Sciamma's Tomboy in the way it successfully incorporates suspense elements of thrillers or mystery films in material that generally does not contain such characteristics.

12/27/21 I watched Abel Ferrara's The Projectionist.  A somewhat interesting look at the exhibition side of film.  But I did not find it quite as satisfying as some of his other docs like Chelsea on the Rocks.

2/17/22 I watched Tara Wood's QT8: The First Eight.  Nothing earth-shattering for anyone with some knowledge and interest in Tarantino but a few interviews do provide some further insight into the emergence and talent of the cinephile filmmaker.

3/19/22 I watched James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari.  The acting more than anything impresses in a film that gets the Hollywood treatment but has some restraint and passion to recommend it.

9/30/22 I watched Ira Deutchman's Searching for Mr. Rugoff.  Fascinating first and foremost for the fact that I had never heard of Don Rugoff, in spite of how important he was in the history of American art film.  Deutchman tells an interesting enough story even if I would have loved more historical footage from Rugoff's cinemas and the extraordinary events and ploys he created to get his films seen.

2/16/23 I watched Ben and Gabe Turner's Hittsville: The Making of Motown.  Gordy's story is incredible even if this documentary's telling of it is pretty bland.   

2/7/24 I watched Daniel Roher's Once Were Brothers:  Robbie Robertson and the Band.  Extraordinary look into The Band, how they got to Woodstock and the lasting legacy they left.  

3/30/24 I watched Stanley Nelson Jr's Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool.  Worthwhile watch for any fan of Miles interested in learning a little more.