Saturday, December 28, 2019

What Did the Lady Forget (1937)

By the time Ozu made his second talkie, he already seems more comfortable with the addition of sound to his cinema.  There is none of the awkwardness that seemed to pervade his previous film.  In fact, Ozu seems far less concerned with form in general and this work although of value is one of the least formally interesting works of his I have seen.

By spending less time on perfecting the form of his work, Ozu is able to invest an unusual amount of time and energy in exploring numerous themes.  He examines the evolving role of the woman in society.  He looks at marriage and the balance necessary to keep both sides of the relationship happy and healthy.  Ozu also questions other societal norms, such as when a woman is too old to have a baby.  In the film, Ozu seems to be comparing and contrasting a number of items - man vs woman, single vs married, adulthood vs youth.  Interestingly, for the first time, Ozu also hints at sex in marriage, a subject he almost seemed too shy to address before now.

It is not a very memorable work but a chronologically valuable film linking the end of his early sound period and what I anticipate will be the start of the formally rich period that will last the remainder of Ozu's career.


Friday, December 27, 2019

My Top Films Seen in 2019

It was an unusually strong year for a few well-known American filmmakers, all working at the height of their skills and talent.   I wasn't prepared.  I had silently accepted that a certain type of artful movie would never arrive again on a larger canvas with a larger budget.

I did not see as much as I would like (but that's always the case) but here are the films, new and old, that I saw and most admired in 2019.

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.
Martin Scorsese's The Irishman 
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 LoboThe Irishman is a late great film and suggests exciting new possibilities for Scorsese and his future work.
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. 

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 (I made this statement before seeing The Irishman).
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.
Bi Gan's Long Day's Journey into Night
In terms of sheer mastery of camerawork, lighting and film style, Gan's latest film ranks with the very greatest works of the last ten or so years. In this group I would include Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin, James Gray's Ad Astra, Raoul Ruiz's The Mysteries of Lisbon, Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent, Miguel Gomes' Tabu, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Color and Bi Gan's previous film Kaili Blues.  Its narrative is more difficult to follow than the other films in this group and it really asks you to surrender to the undertow of its atmosphere and to let it just take you on this labyrinthine journey.  It had me thinking of Tarkovsky and Lynch and at some point I would be interested in revisiting to try to better understand where I have just gone.

Bruno Dumont's Li'l Quiniquin
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.
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.  

Claire Denis' Keep It for Yourself
It is 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.  
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. 

Almodovar's 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.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Films Seen in 2019

It was a very satisfying year of films.  I wish I had seen more but here is what I was able to take in this year.

1/2 A Paris Education
1/5 Heat Lightning
1/6 Active Measures
1/13 Law of Desire
1/19 La Poison
2/18 Shoplifters
2/20 The Day After
3/2 River of Grass
3/9 Burning, The Hate U Give
3/18 Stretch and Bobbito: Radio That Changed Lives, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
3/19 The Naked Dawn
4/17 A Story of Floating Weeds
5/4 Northern Pursuit
5/9 Crazy Horse
5/25 Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men
5/28 Sorry Angel
6/14 Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese
6/15 Keep It for Yourself
6/29 The Dominican Dream, Qualified
7/1 High Life
7/4 Infinite Football
7/8 Model Shop
7/9 Us, The Mule, Free Solo
7/18 Being Evel, Schumann’s Bar Talks
7/19 The Image Book
7/22 La Dolce Vita
8/20 The Great Buster – A Celebration
8/23 Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
9/5 Summer
9/6 Dans le vent
9/7 Li’l Quinquin, Cape Fear
9/8 Sun Don’t Shine
9/12 Horse Feathers
9/14 Uncertain Glory
9/18 Duck Soup
9/21 The Dead Don’t Die, Ad Astra
9/23 Saturday, Tale of Cinema
9/27 The Landlord
9/28 Vagabond
9/30 Seven Chances
10/11 The Criminal Code
10/12 Night of the Living Dead
10/13 There Was a Crooked Man…
10/14 The Merry Widow
10/20 Pasolini, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
11/16 An Elephant Sitting Still
11/18 In the Mood for Love
11/24 Days of Being Wild
11/28 The Irishman
11/30 Long Day’s Journey into Night
12/8 Mr. X, a Vision of Leos Carax
12/14 An Inn in Tokyo
12/17 Coincoin and the Extra-Humans
12/23 The Only Son
12/24 Christmas Inventory, Pain and Glory

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Only Son (1936)

The first of Ozu talkies is full of interesting items to consider.  First, the beginning seems to find Ozu in full experimental mode, not as much testing sound as testing the effectiveness of the long take.  In a series of opening shots, Ozu pushes the length of the static frame in ways he had not done in his filmography to date.   

The Only Son also reminds once again that Ozu was a cinephile.  Not only does a shot of Joan Crawford hang prominently in Ryosuke's Tokyo home but there is an entire scene of a movie-within-a-movie as Ryosuke introduces his mom to the advent of sound in cinema. 

Politics also creep in, as we are three years out from the Second World War.  A poster that is unclear in the beginning is finally revealed front and center in Ryosuke's Tokyo home as an advertisement for Germany. 

It will be interesting to watch Ozu as he uses sound more and more.  As to be expected, in his first talkie he does not seem entirely comfortable with it, employing very little ambient sound and using it in more functional than expressive ways. 

Sunday, December 15, 2019

An Inn in Tokyo (1935)

I picked up yesterday on the series I first began on May 14, 2015 and last wrote about on April 19, 2019. 

Not much has changed, as far as I can tell, with Ozu's style and cinema since his previous work, A Story of Floating Weeds.  What struck me the most in this film was the discipline behind the movement of Ozu's camera.  Every scene contained a static camera with the exception of several scenes that tracked along with the movement of the characters walking.  Ozu never moved the camera to adjust the framing of a scene or to accent the emotions of the actors on screen.

At the head of the film, it mentioned that some effort had gone into restoring the film as Ozu had envisioned.  Perhaps there were some lost shots, and so my next observation might simply be born of necessity.  But there were a couple of moments that contained some relatively quick cutting.  For instance the shot that goes from the kids saying, "let's eat dinner" to the family inside of the restaurant feasting on their food.

Thematically the film contains an interesting echo to a moment in Ozu's earlier film, A Mother Should be Loved.  Again Ozu has a character, who out of financial necessity must take work inside of a brothel.   

As Ozu's final silent film (in 1935!), I must also point out his masterful use of shots that absent of sound become all of the more effective.  The two that affected me the most are when Takeshi pours himself an overflowing glass of sake and the scene when he walks the streets and a couple of shots of fireworks burst onscreen.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Favorite Films of the Decade

When I look back on the last decade I am reminded by the number of films that left me astounded by their rigor, their boldness and their treatment of film language in a way that was as masterful and  inventive as any moment so far in the history of cinema.  Here are the ten films that continue to haunt me the most:

Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret (2011)
I have long been a fan of Paquin and here Lonergan gives her the space to show off her deep layers of 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.
Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love (2012)
Here Kiarostami, one of the cinema's warmest practitioners, the lovely wise soul of Iranian cinema, is working in the middle of the Japanese metropolis.  Far removed are we (and he) from the wide open expanses of his classic earlier work.
Miguel Gomes' Tabu (2012)
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.
Olivier Assayas' Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
Assayas impresses so much that I am forced to reconsider his other work and perhaps consider him as a much greater filmmaker than I once thought.  Binoche and Stewart are perfectly cast and turn in as great of performances as at any point in their careers.  
Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language (2014)
It washes over you, drowns you until you feel overwhelmed by its intelligence, superior knowledge, its grappling with something you might not even be advanced enough yet to recognize.  But it is the small ideas that jut out (Plato's "Beauty is the splendor of truth") and the arresting images of the human body, dogs, water, and cinema spooling in back of a scene that penetrate deeply.
Hong Sang-soo's Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)
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.
 Kleber Mendonca Filho's Aquarius (2016)
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.
Jim Jarmusch's Paterson (2016)
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.
Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women (2017)
I often felt her work was admirably minimal without the heft or depth of a Bresson or Ozu.  But her latest feels different to me, saying a tremendous amount without saying much at all.  Reichardt uses one of cinema's greatest weapons, silence, to get underneath her themes and wonderfully rich characters and stories.
James Gray's Ad Astra (2019)
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.
Manoel de Oliveira's The Strange Case of Angelika (2010)
Raul Ruiz's Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)
Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)
Celine Sciamma's Tomboy (2011)
Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is The Warmest Color (2013)
Bruno Dumont's Li'l Quinquin (2014)
Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights (2015)
Bi Gan's Kaili Blues (2015)
Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin (2015)
Todd Haynes' Carol (2015)