Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Loneliest Planet (2012) - Directed by Julia Loktev

Toward the end of the year I had come across a few really nice reviews of Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet. It also just so happens that it was playing On-Demand, which for me, living in Kalamazoo, MI is a really nice opportunity to be able to see hard-to-find films like this. I wish this opportunity would be made for other films as well. Go ahead and charge me admission price for the film…..I just want access to it. Loktev’s film has a freshness of ideas that I find really rewarding, even though I know that for many people, watching this film would be a near interminable experience.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg play Alex and Nica, a couple that is soon to be married, but who are on a 3-day backpacking trip in Georgia (the Georgia in Asia that is). The film literally drops us into the film with no context provided. It appears that at least one of them has connections to the culture there, but no real explanation is given that I recall. They hire a local man to be their guide on their hike. They proceed through a scenic stretch of the Georgian mountains that would take anyone’s breath away. What the film examines is whether our couple really KNOWS each other and how do they handle crisis. Through the journey of the film, they will encounter a few moments that will call their roles, loyalties, and commitments into question: foremost I feel the film examines communication (both of the verbal and non-verbal variety); the traditions of male/female roles, equality and expectations; and also whether in our modern world these expectations are still relevant or should be relevant.

Loktev’s approach here is much in line with minimalist cinema. I draw on comparisons here to Chantal Akerman, Bela Tarr, Gus Van Sant, and more recently to the works of Kelly Reichardt. Barring a few examples, I really like the minimalist movement and generally find these films to be energizing and moving experiences. If one does not take to films like these that I mentioned, then perhaps one may not like The Loneliest Planet either. Loktev’s film takes the framework of this cinema, but certainly examines new elements and adds her own eye and perspective to this type of work. There are topics, shots, and sequences here that I don’t feel like I’ve ever seen in cinema before, from the jarring opening images, to the debate of chivalry, which is inherent to this film, to unique perspectives on certain moments (the sex scene which is almost disguised as not a sex scene at all, to the scene of illness outside a tent, to playing ball with someone invisible behind a fence), to the fantastic cinematography, which incorporates those vast swaths of green and gray of the mountainsides, punctuated by Fursternerg’s wild mane of red hair. Something here feels alive and vital. Even though there is barely any sequences of true dialogue, there is also a great deal of character development. It all requires effort on the part of the viewer to seek it out and examine it as you watch.

I’m not going to try to convince anyone of the virtues of this type of film that is not inclined to it in the first place. It is not easy to convince anyone that watching people walk silently across a landscape is something to be enjoyed. What I really love is the texture of it. It’s the texture and feeling of the present, being with these people on this journey and thinking through the ramifications of what is happening to them and why. I enjoy the thinking while I am watching and not being TOLD what to feel or HOW to feel it. There are literally no signposts here that cue anything. For the most part, key moments that occur are never discussed. In fact I think it’s completely possible to miss certain moments here and thus fail to register the full impact of what the film is about. Maybe this is a fault of the director? Maybe this is a fault of the viewer? I cannot say. What I enjoy is the active viewing and thinking. This is a film that of course will divide viewers by its very nature. But it is that nature in particular that I am so fond of. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) - Directed by Kathryn Bigelow

“The most important thing is for us to find Osama bin Laden….It is our No. 1 priority and we will not rest until we find him.”
-         George W. Bush - 9/13/01

“…We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority.”
-      Barack Obama - 10/8/08 

It was that accursed white whale that razed me; made a poor pegging lubber of me for ever and a day!... I'll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition's flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, men! To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fin out.
 -         Herman Melville - Moby Dick

2012 is littered with the refuse of my own disenchantment with cinema. I was waiting and waiting for a savior that never seemed to come. There were a few films that were great, but nothing that seemed incredibly earth shattering. Then there was Zero Dark Thirty. It might be a perfect movie. I think it was about 80 minutes into the film, when Jessica Chastain as CIA agent Maya is yelling at her superior, expletives flying, that I finally felt I was seeing something with real meat to it. The fact that the film has obtained a good deal of controversy perhaps points to the fact that it feels so realistic, that it is so well-made, that it is being taken as "the truth". Whether Bigelow embellishes certain aspects of the story or not isn't really as important to me as how good the film is and Bigelow has in fact made quite a film.

Bigelow’s film follows the 10-year manhunt of Osama bin Laden by the United States. Mark Boal’s excellent script zooms in on a CIA operative named Maya (whose story is purportedly based on a real individual), who in the first scenes of the movie, we see her viewing the torture and interrogation of a detainee at an undisclosed location. Her early years on the case researching detainees and interrogations allows her to find a lead to a purported courier of bin Laden’s. Maya’s dogged determination throughout the years to support her idea and to find and kill bin Laden are what we follow, and like all great procedural films (All the President’s Men, The Insider), there is a great deal of suspense. Yet there’s also a noted dose of humanism here as well. Maya’s determination, leadership, and near obsessive sense of purpose create intense human drama. 

Jessica Chastain is ruthless AND human in a performance that indicates she is quickly becoming one of the best and most versatile actresses around. She seems to know exactly how much to emphasize in a certain scene….never laying it on too thick, always striving for believability and genuineness. I find Chastain’s Maya is an existential woman on a mission. She IS her job and we see her do but little else. Even when interacting with others, it's usually through work. It's amazing in fact, how often Maya is framed alone on-screen. She's a lone wolf. Her determination to pursue her prey is tested on numerous occasions though: when her friend is blown up in a suicide bombing; when she is nearly blown up at the Marriott Hotel bombing; when she is shot at in her car. Yet she pushes on and we understand her sense of urgency, her pain at the loss of friends and colleagues…’s all there on her face. Her character development is interesting as we watch her disgust early on as she looks on during scenes of torture, but soon enough when she conducts her own interrogations, she is asking a fellow interrogator to smack someone on the face. Her learning curve is a short one in this film, but her story of near maniacal zeal is what gives the film its drive. Mark Boal deserves some fine credit for his script here, allowing for moments of feeling and fiery emotion in the midst of the procedures. But Bigelow’s sense for pacing is just as spectacular and one of the film’s greatest assets. Though the film is 157 minutes long, there is genuine intrigue all throughout, building to the climactic raid on bin Laden’s compound, that is staged about as well as anyone could imagine it to be.   

Although the scenes of torture have been getting attention from nearly everyone, I find there is an element to them that has strangely been getting little attention. The film clearly places the torture scenes early in the narrative within the era of the Bush administration. During the era of the Obama administration, we are not shown any further scenes of torture. In a conflicting portion of the back story of this film, is something called the Military-Entertainment Complex. This term (which I'd never heard of before) refers to the little discussed practice of the exchange of capital and information between branches of our Military and Government factions and filmmakers. For example, Paramount Pictures was able to gain access to all the aircraft they needed at a steep discount to make Top Gun back in 1986…..but they had to submit the script to the military for approval and positioning.  This amounts to near propaganda if you ask me, and it’s no wonder that most ordinary war films amount to nothing. Now the question becomes, did Bigelow in fact receive assistance from the military and the government? According to The Freedom of Information Act, it appears that she and screenwriter Boal DID make contact and received some information from the government, despite the fact that Chastain said last week on The Daily Show with John Stewart that they didn't receive help. In this clip she mentions not only this, but that Bigelow also thus avoided government intrusion by not working with them and that they apparently did not receive equipment from the military for the film.

If by chance Bigelow and Boal did happen to work closely with the government (as seems to be documented), and if we presume the government was then able to review the script, why would they approve of a film that puts the CIA and our country’s practices in a bad light? That gets back to the Republican/Democrat divide and differences in approach between the two administrations and how those means are portrayed in the timeline of the film. Of course if Bigelow did NOT have to submit her script for approval, it would stand to reason that the tone and placement of the torture scenes were her own idea. I feel much better about the intent of the filmmakers, knowing that the film came out after the election, not allowing it to be construed as propaganda for the election. Either way, I find it interesting that the torture scenes have received just about every interpretation imaginable, which would indicate to me that whoever had the most influence over those moments did not allow any particular agenda to come to the fore. They exist here in the film because they happened.

Bigelow’s and Boal’s narrative achieves additional depth and troubling moral implications as it takes us face-to-face with revenge, and this is where the film starts flirting with truly epic importance. It follows in the tradition of both literary and cinematic revenge stories, perhaps foremost... Moby Dick. Maya is the Ahab and bin Laden is the White Whale. In cinematic terms, she's a modern incarnation of John Wayne as Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, or Clint Eastwood as The Outlaw Josey Wales. But the masterstroke of the whole film, is that in portraying Maya as this type of protagonist, complete with her obsessive, single minded-goal, Bigelow is able to reflect and implicate the United States as a whole in the film. Maya is simply the micro level version of our country’s macro concerns in the years following 9/11. For many in our nation, including some of our leaders, killing bin Laden was some kind of holy grail.  Parallels between ZDT’s real-world example and the narrative traditions that it recalls, adds layers to an already complex and far-reaching story, as the sometimes ugly nature of those fictional tales hits home here, but in an all-too-real fashion.

As a document of revenge and manhunt and the search for justice, Bigelow’s film is infinitely fascinating, and she rightfully avoids any sense of rah-rah enthusiasm. There’s also a melancholy fatalism to the whole thing. Punctuated throughout the plot are reminders of various terrorist attacks from the London bus-bombing, to the Marriott Hotel bombing in Pakistan. We’re reminded of WHY Maya is doing what she’s doing and why she feels it’s important, even if when the movie's over, there is a feeling of “now what?”. Zero Dark Thirty is also a fascinating document of craft, of the existential distillation of one woman’s determination for an end-goal and the process to reach it. The film is not without potential ideological pitfalls and moral implications, the likes of which may not fully be known yet. But the manhunt, and watching the woman get her man, makes for absolutely riveting and epic cinema.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

2 Days in New York (2012) - Directed by Julie Delpy

If I measured my favorite films of 2012 by how much fun I had watching them, this film would be very near the top. Julie Delpy’s somewhat-sequel to her 2 Days in Paris, is a frenetic and hilarious screwball romp. It also contains a great deal of truth hidden amongst the screwy exterior. I’ve been a fan of Julie Delpy going back about 15 years now and I must admit I find her on-screen persona to be utterly charming and really funny. I’m glad to see her succeeding in her new ventures. Here she not only acts, but writes and directs this wonderfully funny comedy, which is one of my favorite films of 2012.

Delpy plays Marion, a divorced mother with a young son, who has recently begun living with her new boyfriend Mingus (Chris Rock), who is also divorced with a young daughter. She is a struggling artist and he is a writer and radio show host. Their relationship is still in the early stages of development, yet her family is coming to visit from France to stay with them: her fat and jolly father, her nympho sister, her sister’s boyfriend (who also happens to be Marion’s ex). Delpy’s film examines French-American culture clash, the transience of the modern family unit, and of course that thing we can nearly all relate to…..dysfunction. This film operates like screwball comedies from decades past, which were situational and character driven. I think of Bringing Up Baby (1938), or perhaps even more so, My Man Godfrey (1936). There is a frenetic pacing and absurd silliness to the shenanigans here. Yet it’s tempered by a bittersweet, self-deprecating style of humor. It’s not gross out, a la recent comedies like The Hangover (2009), or Bridesmaids (2011). It also doesn’t rely on those film’s penchant for gags with a long build-up. Delpy’s script is loaded with lots of witty, awkward exchanges that feel very personal and real.

One of the most interesting and funny segments of the film occurs when Marion, as part of an art exhibit, sells her soul for a price to the highest bidder. This sequence is a terrific, mocking send-up of artist pretension, and is an example of Delpy’s sometimes morbid sense of humor. Marion’s father (played by Delpy’s real-life father) has many funny moments with Chris Rock, as neither of them can understand each other, and these scenes are played so underhandedly awkward. Rock plays his part effectively, understanding he doesn’t need to be the funny one in every scene. There is a really funny sequence though between he and Delpy in bed where they discuss a toothbrush that may or may not have been used inappropriately. Delpy is nearly effortless here, breezily portraying the prototypical screwball queen with panache. She has this way of raising her voice and becoming very agitated that I find REALLY funny.

Delpy also does some nice things with the design of the film and the camera, incorporating fast motion, collage photographs, and a couple scenes involving puppets that does not come off pretentious at all. On the contrary it adds a lightness and whimsy to a film that was one big surprise for me. I was not nearly expecting to laugh as much as I did (I laughed the whole time), nor was I thinking it would be as effectively paced as it was, or filled with as much energy as it has. As I said, this film comes from a very long tradition of screwball type comedies. It can at times be really hard to quantify films like this. How do you value laughs or heart? This film has both in large quantities and was the funniest film of 2012 for me, and that's worth a lot.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Thoughts on the 2013 Academy Award Nominations

I am not the biggest proponent of the Academy Awards, but it is without a doubt, the biggest celebration of the cinematic medium, so it deserves some of my attention I suppose. With today’s announcement of the nominations I was immediately struck by several thoughts and have surprisingly seen many of the films and performances nominated. I will refrain from going on about films here that would probably be considered the “usual suspects”. To see Lincoln nominated for so many awards is fitting for a film of its stature and will probably be a lead contender. I enjoyed its understatement as much as anything and think it’s one of Spielberg’s very best films. But I want to direct my attention at the surprises…both of the pleasant and not so pleasant variety.

Beasts of the Southern Wild: Seriously? Well if this isn’t the most overrated film nominated, I’m not sure what is. I really disliked this film. I found that it never became comfortable with itself. There is a desire to combine the gritty with the fanciful here that just doesn’t work. Not to mention the shaky-cam all over the place which is so over-used these days. This is the dog of the bunch.

Amour: I haven’t seen it. What I’m really glad about is the fact that we have a foreign film nominated for best picture. If it allows the film to be seen and publicized across middle America, the nomination will be well worth it. I am hoping it comes to my town sometime soon and this nomination would probably have something to do with it (not that I'm holding my breath).

Silver Linings Playbook: Yes the film is a bit messy at times, but there is a lovable loser quality to it that is irresistible. The fact that the ensemble cast here is nominated nearly in totality is telling. It is an actor’s kind of film, despite the fact that David O. Russell is nominated for Director. I applaud the inclusion here of a film that is well written and well-acted and one of my favorites from 2012, even though it wasn’t perfect.

The Master: Why wasn't this one nominated? I know the film is somewhat maddening and frustrating. But was there a more memorable film this year? I still think this film contained the finest stretches of cinema in 2012, even if it couldn’t sustain it for the entire run-time.

 Joaquin Phoenix: Wow I’m really glad they included this nomination because if they didn’t, it would have been a crime. Simply put, Phoenix nearly reinvents the term “acting”, right before our eyes. As spectacular as Day-Lewis was as Lincoln, it is Phoenix that gives the epic performance to go down with other legendary turns from Jannings, Brando, De Niro etc. It is the best performance by an actor of the millennium so far.

De Niro: Speaking of…..has he given a better performance in the last few decades? There was something about his character in Silver Linings that was so human and so right. He continually struck the right tone. I’m not sure there is a more deserving performance in this category this year, perhaps only Jones in Lincoln, but his was a scene stealing part to begin with.

Quvenzhane Wallis: I’m sorry. Nominating this 9 year-old girl is a nice story, but she has no business whatsoever being nominated here. She cries on cue. She hides behind trees and garbage. She recites some lines as narrator. It’s not a performance. It is what you would expect from any decent child actor. Nothing more.

Rachel Weisz: The fact that Wallis’s nomination is perhaps the reason for Weisz NOT getting nominated for The Deep Blue Sea makes Wallis’s nomination even MORE of a crime. 

Emmanuelle Riva: Again, I haven’t seen Amour, but from the wonderful performances she gave so long ago in films like Kapo, and Hiroshima, Mon Amour, it makes me so happy for her. I will enjoy seeing her on the show.

I will inevitably tune into the Awards show even though I’m sure I will end up disappointed like usual. I guess part of the fun is arguing over who belongs and who doesn’t…..and that’s what I like best.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

My Recap of 2012 (old releases)

I will just go ahead and make this an annual occurrence. For the second year in a row, I have decided to compile my year in review and look back on the films I saw in 2012 (a total of over 325) and handpick several films, performances, directors that made the biggest impact on me. Like last year, I will highlight films or performances that I saw for the first time, and these films are ones that were released prior to 2012. I am not able to keep up with all the new releases to do a best of 2012 films in a timely fashion, living in Kalamazoo, MI. Therefore no films from 2012 will be represented here. I will try to revisit new releases from 2012 in an upcoming post, perhaps around Academy Award timing to list my favorites from the recent year.

10 Best films prior to 2012 that I saw for the first time:

10. Seduced and Abandoned (1964) - Pietro Germi: This hilarious farce was probably the funniest film I saw all year.

9. Terminal Station (1953) - Vittorio De Sica: Achingly romantic and painful, this unique blending of Neorealism and Hollywood Melodrama was a wonderful surprise.

8. Thieves' Highway (1949) - Jules Dassin: A brilliant film noir, this gritty and gutsy film, made on location in San Francisco was passionate and had a script that kept me on my toes.

7. Fires on the Plain (1959) - Kon Ichikawa: Absolutely horrific. A war film that felt like the end of the world. 

6. Faces (1968) - John Cassavetes: My most difficult film watching experience of the year also yielded my most rewarding. Contains the best hour of American independent cinema ever made.

5. Dodsworth (1936) - William Wyler: Mature, knowing film is extremely well written and well acted and feels remarkably modern for a film from the 1930's.

4. Lonesome (1928) - Paul Fejos: This piece of exuberance and romantic longing was pure joy from the get-go. One of the great American silent films.

3. Orphans of the Storm (1921) - D.W. Griffith: Griffith's epic film was magnificently staged and plotted. And the teaming of Lillian and Dorothy Gish was electric.

2. Ivan's Childhood (1962) - Andrei Tarkovsky: My favorite Tarkovsky film. The most beautiful and haunting cinematography I saw this year.

1. The Last Laugh (1924) - F.W. Murnau: Maybe the greatest silent film ever made and it doesn't even need intertitles. Remarkable visual storytelling and Emil Jannings in his legendary performance.

Here are some acclaimed films that I did not connect with:

Dead Ringers (1988)
The Lives of Others (2006)
Eating Raoul (1982)
2046 (2004)

Here are the top 5 performances by an Actress (no particular order):

Jennifer Jones - Terminal Station (1953)

Lynn Carlin- Faces (1968)

Lillian Gish- The Scarlet Letter (1926)

Olivia de Havilland- The Heiress (1949)

Gena Rowlands- A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

Here are the top 5 performances by an actor (no particular order):

Walter Huston - Dodsworth (1936)

Christopher Plummer- Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)

Saro Urzi- Seduced and Abandoned (1964)

Montgomery Clift- The Heiress (1949)

Emil Jannings- The Last Laugh (1924)

Director I spent the most time with in 2012:

John Ford- 7 films

The Iron Horse (1924) *** (out of 4)
The Informer (1935) - ** 1/2
How Green Was My Valley (1941) - *** 1/2
Fort Apache (1948) ** 1/2
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) *** 1/2
Wagon Master (1950) *** 1/2
Cheyenne Autumn (1964) ***

I decided to revisit John Ford this year and catch up on several films that I've never seen before for whatever reason. Some of these were some of his lesser discussed films, but some are highly acclaimed films that I have neglected. I was continually reminded of John Ford's ability to frame up the collective experience. Be it friends, lovers, or enemies, he is able to create a chemistry and camaraderie. There's also of course the melting pot experience... and the way he utilizes people from different cultural backgrounds together onscreen. Ford's way of framing up conflict is of course influential to everyone from Kurosawa to Spielberg. I think the most amazing film of his I saw was Wagon Master, which I believe I underrated at the time I saw it. It is unconventional even for Ford, as he adopts a semi-improvised feel, a lighter touch, and the complete absence of major stars like Wayne or Fonda, which gives the film an intimacy which is sometimes lacking in his BIG films. I think it's actually one of his greatest masterpieces, and if I watched it again, I would write an essay on it and rate it even higher than I did on my first viewing.

Further Exploration

Lillian Gish-

If I stated that for me this was the year of Lillian Gish I would not be exaggerating. I watched all of these films this year, 4 of them for the first time, and even watched Broken Blossoms twice.

Broken Blossoms (1919) - Griffith *** 1/2 (out of 4)
True Heart Susie (1919) - Griffith ***
Way Down East (1920) - Griffith ****
Orphans of the Storm (1921) - Griffith ****
La Boheme (1926) - Vidor ** 1/2
The Scarlet Letter (1926) - Sjostrom ****
The Wind (1928) - Sjostrom ****

I determined that not only was Lillian Gish the greatest silent film actress.....she might be the greatest film actress....period. I felt throughout the year that I was continuing to see her for the first time. I don't know if it was my slight apprehension and aversion to Griffith's histrionics in the past, but for some reason I had a hard time getting into his films in years prior. I finally found my liking for both Griffith and most importantly, really loved getting to know Gish. Her techniques of using slight facial expressions and emotions were balanced by an openness of spirit. Her graceful presence also belies a strong willed attitude in the face of obstacles. She is endlessly watchable.

So that was 2012! Thanks to all of you who read my blog and commented here this year. Here's wishing everyone a fabulous 2013.