Saturday, December 18, 2021

Favorite (four), seventy-seven

Just like in my other seventy-six 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.

Charles Burnett's to Sleep with Anger
It only makes sense that because African-Americans have their own history and culture their story should be told using a style that is different and unique.  Burnett might be the first African-American filmmaker to bring that style to cinema.  I do not claim to have seen work by all of the African-American directors, but I can say that neither Melvin Van Peebles, Gordon Parks Jr., Spike Lee, John Singleton, Carl Franklin, Antoine Fuqua, Barry Jenkins nor any of the other films directed by African-American filmmakers that I have seen to date bear a style as tailored and seemingly conceived to fit African-American stories as the work of Burnett.  

A broad statement but it can be seen in the way the sets look and the way that the characters move, sweat and speak.  Burnett's style is naturalistic but mannered and accented in ways that make it feel even more capable of capturing the plight of the black experience in America.

Leos Carax's Annette
There is real exuberance and a supercharge in Carax's last two films.  Partly I attribute it to the fact that I cannot think of anyone else in film right now where the work feels as much in an ongoing discourse with the history of cinema.  In his latest, David Lynch looms large.  You feel his influence on the way the young girl Annette looks, who can't help but make you think about the baby in Eraserhead.  You also see it in the way Carax stutters the lights in the beginning and the stylistic device he uses several times that is pure Lynch - the visual separation of body shots that I know you find in Twin Peaks but that I also seem to recall in Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.

Carax's cinema could always be looked at as a love letter to the medium and its endless beauty and possibilities.  So it only makes sense that Carax is channeling Lynch, one of the most liberated of filmmakers who continues to defy any claims of cinema's boundaries or imminent death.

I settled on the phrase above "an ongoing discourse with the history of cinema" because Carax's rear view has always gone farther back than most of his peers who have a hard time citing anything film-wise released before Kubrick's 2001.  Carax in his latest is in a dialogue with the musical, the early Disney films, and as much with the first 50 years of cinema as the last 76.

Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts
One of the strongest qualities of Lee's work is the way he repeatedly uses the medium to talk about his anger with the treatment of African-American people in this country.  He sometimes finds dramatic ways to do it and he also often does it by having a strong comedic voice.  And regardless of the type of story Lee is telling, he gives it a flashy cinematic style that makes it all go down a little more easily.  

They say the flip side of anger is sadness.  This doc made for HBO might be the first Lee film I have seen (there are many and I can't claim to have seen them all) that embraces the sadness rather than the anger.  It is also the first Lee film that seems to background style and let the people and events stand for themselves.  As a result, it packs a weighty punch and stands with the greatest achievements of his career so far.  
 
Jean Gremillon's Le ciel est a vous
More than any film I can recall, it explores the settled and normal every day person's desire to chase fame, even at the risk of losing everything in the process.  Gremillion has a keen eye and feel for French provincial which gives the arc of the story real feeling and depth.  


Friday, December 10, 2021

Favorite (four), seventy-six

Just like in my other seventy-five 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.

Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night
The first of what I believe were three films that Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray made together, all of which are excellent.  Preston Sturges wrote the script for this one.  Leisen impresses with the amount of emotional depth he is able to create, producing greater feeling by repeatedly choosing complex character moments over entertaining turns of plot.  He shows such restraint, and willingness to defy typical Hollywood narratives, that by the end he is able to deliver a final moment of Bressonian gravity and weight. 

Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue
I should have seen this way before now.  It is a key film in the American New Wave and makes a case for being the final film of the cycle as much as any.  I never thought of Easy Rider, Hopper's first feature as director, as being much from an aesthetic point of view.  But this film possesses an incredible style - specifically its location work,  its graceful movements of the camera, its complex editing rhythms, and its sensitive use of sound.  Dark and disturbing like a David Lynch film but also with echoes of some of the seventies' stronger character work like Five Easy Pieces.     

Claire Denis' US Go Home
A medium-length film by Denis that ranks with the best of our work.  It shows her ability with mood, young actors, cinematic music, romance from the female perspective and the richness that comes when people from different languages and cultures interact and spend time together.  

Buster Keaton and Edward F Cline's Cops
One of the strongest Keaton shorts I have seen.  As usual when he is at his very best, the gags are inventive, free-wheeling, incredibly well-timed and bordering on dangerous.  Clocking in around twenty minutes, it does not have much variation of pace but is pretty much a sprint from the time the opening credits conclude.



Monday, November 22, 2021

Favorite (four), seventy-five

 Just like in my other seventy-four 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.

Frederick Wiseman's Juvenile Court
Because Wiseman likes to leave his films unadorned - long takes, zero non-diegetic music and mostly a static camera - one of the main factors determining a work's impact is the quality of speeches (or conversations) his subjects deliver.  In his works, these speeches tend to be long and his subjects range from being highly intellectual and articulate to having difficulty putting forward coherent sentences.  The interactions Wiseman captures in his exploration of the juvenile court system are powerful and emotionally affecting, and the "speeches" in this work rate alongside his most effective films.  

Alan Rudolph's Remember My Name
Only the third film of Rudolph's I have seen so far and my favorite.  It meanders and never feels like it needs to make itself more  conventional, comfortable or easy for those watching.  It inverts a story we have seen often and makes us realize how foreign a simple swap for a female lead in this type of story can make us feel.  Often I have read how Altmanesque Rudolph is as a filmmaker but this film seems to have influenced Altman (Short Cuts and The Player) rather than the other way around.   

Frederick Wiseman's Near Death
A film that makes the case that it is Wiseman's fearlessness that could be his greatest asset, even more than his intelligence, his rigor or his patience.  Once again, because of Wiseman's approach, the impact often hinges greatly on the ability of the subjects he selects to speak clearly and articulate in a manner that is compelling and engaging.  These speeches are the music of his films and the doctors and nurses in particular in this work are responsible for some amazing passages.  This work also examines the staff's feelings about their profession in a way I have not seen before in a Wiseman film.  

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.  



Thursday, October 28, 2021

Favorite (four), seventy-four

Just like in my other seventy-three 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.

Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold
The first film by Panahi that fully grabbed me.  I have also seen Offside.  Aside from Panahi's remarkable restraint with respect to sound, or in other words the film's almost complete absence of music and use of only minimal sound, what impressed me the most was the depth and presence of Hossain.  The narrative structure of the film is also quite unique as it flashes back from the opening scene, with it unclear how the beginning relates in a linear manner to the rest of the film's proceedings.    

Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow
It's incredible to see Sirk working in black-and-white the same year he'd make one of the most color-forward films in history (Written on the Wind).  Sirk takes the leads from Double Indemnity and substitutes extramarital romance for murder.   In doing so, he is able to create the same level of suspense found in the best noirs and achieve something even more emotionally damaging since it all feels more rooted in reality.  Kids, family, profession.

William Klein's The French
A fascinating look at The French Open and tennis in the early eighties.  I have certainly never gotten this kind of look into professional tennis, particularly from inside the locker room.  Klein takes a patient, unobtrusive, Wiseman-like approach, producing a gem of a "sports movie".

H0ng Sang-soo's Hill of Freedom
Hong again reminds that he is as good as Hartley and Jarmusch when it comes to instilling his films with syncopated rhythms using only the slightest of tools, this time it's the repetition of a quick shot of a woman reading a letter.  Hong is true to his style of reducing and distilling, always willing to risk removing so much that the film may not hold together.



Friday, July 16, 2021

2021

 7/15/21 I watched Dileesh Pothan's Joji.  I am not expert enough on Macbeth to understand how clever the film is an adaptation.  As a pure viewing experience, I found the music overdone and the style all a bit of a mess.  

8/21/21 I watched Raoul Peck's Exterminate All the Brutes.  Peck's perspective and research make a story that needs to be told.  I just grew weary of the way Peck chose to tell it.  

10/22/21 I watched Todd Haynes' The Velvet Underground.  Interesting if you are like me and know very little about the history of the band.  Not as interesting from an aesthetic standpoint as I would have hoped from one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers.  

11/12/21 I watched Rebecca Hall's Passing.  An incredibly interesting premise with a style that is so mannered it becomes suffocating quickly.

12/5/21 I watched Nanfu Wang's In the Same Breath.  It was interesting to learn more about how and why China handled the start of COVID.  The style of the documentary just did not hold my attention.

12/17/21 I watched Leos Carax's Annette.  There is real exuberance and a supercharge in Carax's last two films.  Partly I attribute it to the fact that I cannot think of anyone else in film right now where the work feels as much in an ongoing discourse with the history of cinema.  In his latest, David Lynch looms large.  You feel his influence on the way the young girl Annette looks, who can't help but make you think about the baby in Eraserhead.  You also see it in the way Carax stutters the lights in the beginning and the stylistic device he uses several times that is pure Lynch - the visual separation of body shots that I know you find in Twin Peaks but that I also seem to recall in Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr.  

Carax's cinema could always be looked at as a love letter to the medium and its endless beauty and possibilities.  So it only makes sense that Carax is channeling Lynch, one of the most liberated of filmmakers who continues to defy any claims of cinema's boundaries or imminent death.

I settled on the phrase above "an ongoing discourse with the history of cinema" because Carax's rear view has always gone farther back than most of his peers who have a hard time citing anything film-wise released before Kubrick's 2001.  Carax in his latest is in a dialogue with the musical, the early Disney films, and as much with the first 50 years of cinema as the last 76.  

12/18/12 I watched Bruno Dumont's France.  A film that felt like a departure for Dumont, not as style heavy as some of his earlier work nor set in the provinces where he excels at capturing the land and people.  It never fully got me in the way films like L'humanite and P'tit Quinquin did.

12/18/21 I watched Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's Summer of Soul.  One of these documentaries where the story is so great that it's astounding the footage has sat on the shelf for 50 years.  That in and of itself speaks volumes about the situation of race in this country.  Some of the performances are simply grand from Sly to Mavis Staples to The 5th Dimension. 

12/18/21 I watched Edgar Wright's The Sparks Brothers.  Although Wright's storytelling quickly feels a little repetitive, the story of the band is fascinating and almost entirely new to me.

12/21/21 I watched Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy.  My first experience with the cinema of Hamaguchi and I am as excited about what he might do as I have been with any new filmmaker in a while.  Hamaguchi uses music like Hong Sang-soo and at first glance his filmmaking might simply seem like alt Sang-soo.  But Hamaguchi's world is not as distilled as the Korean filmmaker's.  Hamaguchi utilizes more locations, pushes deeper into more taboo places (sexuality, even homosexuality) and ultimately creates moments and cinema that because they feel less controlled feel more dangerous than the work of Hong Sang-soo.  Many people may call Hamaguchi the Japanese Rohmer but in his playfulness, even daring, he seems as close to Rivette as he does Rohmer. ''

12/27/21 I watched Clint Eastwood's Cry Macho.   As much as I wanted to feel this late Eastwood, it never rose above metaphors and tributes to the Eastwood character that have affected me far more.

12/29/21 I watched Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Memoria.  It is the third or fourth film I've seen by the Thai director and I continue to struggle with his work even though many people I admire view him as one of the most important directors working today.  I admire his patience, his use of sound, his framing and his work with actors but I never fully follow what he is trying to say.  And I never feel like the arduous journey he is asking of the spectator is worth the long haul.  

12/31/21 I watched Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car.  While I found this more formally impressive than Hamaguchi's other 2021 film, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, emotionally it was not near as powerful for me.  It still signals Hamaguchi as one of the most interesting young filmmakers at work. 

2/1/22 I watched Hong Sang-soo's Introduction.  What particularly struck me in this, one of Hong's latest films, was the amount of long takes and what seemed like the first dream sequence I can recall in one of his works.   

3/19/21 I watched Reinaldo Marcus Green's King Richard.  It has a Hollywood style, particularly plenty of moments where the music helps to engineer the way you feel.  Yet, I was impressed by the way in which the story was told and how Green earned some emotions I did not see coming.  

3/19/21 I watched Morgan Neville's Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.  Fairly interesting look at how Bourdain arrived at celebrity and why he might have decided to leave it all behind.

3/22/22 I watched Cary Joji Fukunaga's No Time to Die.  Overlong and bloated with very little of the directorial magic Fukunaga exhibited in the first season of True Detective.  

4/29/22 I watched Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan's Our Towns.  I absolutely loved the book.  The documentary though fell completely flat for me.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Favorite (four), seventy-three

Just like in my other seventy-two 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.

Vincente Minnelli's Home from the Hill
A film that really would not even be on my radar if it weren't for Richard Brody and his Twitter feed that I follow. Aside from Some Came Running, I have been lukewarm about every other Minnelli film I have ever seen (probably ten or so others). And I can completely see why this one might miss for many, from the heavy presence of its score to George Hamilton's acting to the Sirk-like histrionics. If you can see past those elements, it makes a strong case for Minnelli's greatness. Look at the grace at which the camera moves around the scenes, Minnelli's careful, emotive framing and the space and time he allows himself (150+ minutes) to explore the characters, the story, the setting.

Agnes Varda's The Gleaners and I
Only the fourth Varda film I have ever seen.  What impresses most is Varda's lightness of touch, her openness to life and the experiences she finds along the way.  Her films have some of the analytical weight of the great Nouvelle Vague works but she also infuses them with as much of the characteristic New Wave playfulness as any of her peers.  Along with Demy, Varda stikes me as perhaps the most humanist of all of the Nouvelle Vague filmmakers.

Raoul Peck's I Am Not Your Negro
From an esthetic point of view, I wouldn't call this either the most rigorous or exciting documentary work. But Baldwin is an exceptionally interesting figure that I am just starting to discover.  For fans of his writing or just of Baldwin himself, a highly recommended watch.

Chaitanya Tamhane's The Disciple
While the style of the film is cohesive and fairly rigorous, it is not the aspect of the film that gets to you.  What gets to you is the subject matter.  I can't recall a film that spends as much time or goes as far into the question of what it looks and feels like to be an artist in today's world - an artist that reveres the past and the loneliness of refusing to adapt or change with the times.  It is a tormented film that feels truthful in so many ways. 



Monday, February 8, 2021

Favorite (four), seventy-two

Just like in my other seventy-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.

Ernst Lubitsch's Angel
Lubitsch's sophisticated touch is on full display in almost every second of the final thirty minutes.  It is a sophistication that is sexy, leaving the viewer on edge unsure how the characters will work out the knots that their lives have become.  Although it is the only time Lubitsch worked with Dietrich, he taps into her elusiveness, her allure, her power.  And I can't recall Herbert Marshall ever being in fuller command of the screen.  

Emmanuel Mouret's Love Affair(s)
Mouret proves himself very adept at tackling the romantic comedy genre while finding ways to make it feel updated and modern  His most interesting contributions come by way of his parallel narrators and the way he continually subverts our expectations.  While I wish his use of music a bit more restrained, this is a strong new entry for French cinema, in the footsteps of Desplechin and Assayas, and alongside Civeyrac. 

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.  

John Dahl's Rounders
Every now and then I will see a reconsider film, a movie that forces me to rethink how I feel about an actor, a director or several of its cast or crew.  Although adhering closely to the path set out by The Hustler and countless other films about redemption, and certainly not seeking to be high art, Rounders made me for the first time rate Dahl and Norton, both of whom I have always felt lukewarm about.  It has to be the greatest film yet about poker.  


Friday, January 1, 2021

My Top Films Seen in 2020

Here are the films, new and old, that I saw and most admired in 2020.

Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein
Only the second or third film I have seen from Losey but what a film it is.  Delon's performance ranks with his very best and Losey sustains interest and an uncomfortable mood and atmosphere throughout every single shot.  The camera is elegant, as are the locations, the set design and the wardrobe and Losey ends up making a film about the Resistance that might be every bit as powerful as Meville's Army of Shadows.
Abdellatif Kechiche's Mektoub, My Love: Canto Uno
If I were still making films, Kechiche would be one of the filmmakers I would study the closest.  His films feel as pure and perhaps more modern than anyone else's.  It is clear he is a cinephile and it feels as though he is taking art cinema to its most exciting and logical next phase.  What does that mean?  Kechiche's cinema is as much documentary as it is fiction.  Like the New Wave, he is embracing lighter technology to get inside his characters, get inside his scenes more to ward off elements that can quickly make the medium of cinema feel artificial.  But all the while, he is bringing in aspects of narrative cinema that make it arguably more palatable and more entertaining than cinema verite.  Kechiche has a painter's eye and dresses his realistic or naturalistic settings with strong locations, set design, emotive ambient sound and interesting-looking people acting in very believable ways.
Kelly Reichardt's First Cow
I was nervous to see it.  I was a huge fan of Reichardt's 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 I would characterize more as noir (Mikey and Nicky and Mean Streets) or gangster (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.
Stanley Kwan's Actress
It is a film I have been wanting to see for more than twenty years.  Usually with that type of expectation comes disappointment.  But not this time.  Aside from being absolutely gorgeous - in its cinematography, set design and wardrobe - it is utterly unique as a biopic.  By consistently merging interviews with people that knew Ruan, and actual footage of her, with fictional shots and scenes, Kwan is able to create a character we know in deeper and different ways than cinema generally allows.  A film that is a key precursor to In the Mood for Love and one that warmly invites us to dig deeper into China's cinema past.
Chloe Zhao's The Rider
I was completely surprised by this one, particularly impressed by its sensitivity, confidence in silence, and the acting by its main character.  Zhao finds a way to inject newness into the western genre, showing us towns, lives and feelings we have never quite experienced in the western tradition and structure.
Fritz Lang's The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb
I have long wanted to track down these two films that were made right at the end of Lang's career.  I knew they had a large reputation among some people I admire and were a little different than anything else he had done.  They actually share a lot in common with some of his pre-American work such as Spies or The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.  But what is new is the Indian setting and Lang's attitude and perspective.  As to be expected, Lang shoots precisely and constructs a number of excellent set pieces throughout the two films.  And the film's influence can be felt in films as different as Pierrot Le Fou (Godard's shot directly looking at the hot sun) or all throughout the Indiana Jones trilogy.
Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky
May only made four features and I had seen the other three before seeing this for the first time.  In seeing her other work, it was already very clear that May was unusually good with actors and had this very unique, punchy editing style.  Nothing else May has done creates the sense of dread so palpable here or has this level of realism.  It would easily make my list of key American New Wave films.  It is unrelenting, powerful and a bit different than anything else I have ever seen.
Olivier Assayas' Cold Water
It's hard to place the film stylistically within the history of French cinema.  To come closest, I would say in its thematic interests and mood it reminded me of Pialat.  In its style, I can't think of anyone up to that point in French cinema who used long takes and the handheld camera as much as Assayas does (now of course there are Kechiche and Bonello to name but a couple).  I found both the style and the downbeat tone a bit overly heavy.  But there are a number of things on the other hand that are excellent - Assayas' sense of place, use of music, Ledoyen's beauty, and the film's final three to five minutes.
Yasujiro Ozu's Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family
I would call this the first Ozu sound masterpiece, and arguably his greatest film up to this point in his career. 

Emotionally and thematically, it is deeply complex and satisfying as it takes on the larger family structure that would become one of his favorite themes to explore.  The speech toward the end by Shojiro ranks as one of the most powerful and moving scenes in Ozu's work. 

From a formal standpoint, the poetry and lyricism of Ozu are fully beginning to flourish.  The film is full of his trademark ellipses to show the passage of time and the number of shots of people-less frames are prevalent throughout.  I could be wrong but I credit the latter as coming from the influence of Lang's M

The other formal aspect that jumped out at me was Ozu's periodic use of non-diegetic music.  It is the first time I can remember him punctuating certain moments with non-diegetic classical music.  And the way that he uses it feels very similar to the way that Bresson would later treat music in films such as Pickpocket.
Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois
Stylistically the film is an oddity in Rohmer's body of work.  An artifical period piece with a Greek chorus does not readily recall any of his other films.  But when considered as a morality tale with an ambition toward the transcendence of a Bresson or Ozu work, it becomes clear it is an Eric Rohmer film.  The final five minutes rank with the most raw and disturbing of anything he has ever made.  The desired effect of transcendence, of producing a final feeling or shot that rises above all that has come before, is masterfully achieved.
Allan Dwan's Driftwood
What a great surprise this was.  From seeing Natalie Wood as a child actor to the overall feeling Dwan gives the whole film.  Reminds me of Walsh's Strawberry Blonde in its depiction of the wonderful community aspect that can come out in small towns.  I know Dwan has a big reputation.  If this any indication, I certainly need to seek out more of his work.
Charles Burnett's Horse
This early short that immediately precedes Killer of Sheep is striking.  It is the first time I can remember seeing so many white people onscreen in a Burnett work.  Whereas the other work of his I have seen captures African-American daily life in ways I have never seen rivaled, this work which shows African-Americans alongside white Americans is the first of his films I have seen overtly dealing with race.  While the most striking image might be a pocketknife lodged in a ceiling which somehow recalls the hanging of African-Americans, the entire mood of the short film is powerful.