Tuesday, December 2, 2014

All Fall Down (1962) A Film by John Frankenheimer

All Fall Down doesn’t have a plot so much as a cluster of relationships that collide with one another over the course of two hours, messily coexisting largely in the space of a suburban home. These relationships belong to a family, though we wouldn’t know it from their interactions. Irregularly developed brothers Clinton (Brandon de Wilde) and Berry-Berry (Warren Beatty) both call their mother Annabell (Angela Lansbury) by her first name. Alcoholic, borderline nutso patriarch Ralph (evoking the father in Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace) calls his eldest “Rhinoceros” for no apparent reason, and eventually claims that he truly is a Rhinoceros. Berry-Berry’s a moody drifter with a rotating pile of intense but disposable romantic relationships—the latest being his impromptu marriage with his brother’s love interest, Echo (Eva Marie Saint), who also happens to be his mother’s good friend (there are no women of significance under 40 in this movie). At one point, in a moment of revealing mystery, Berry-Berry kisses Annabell upon returning home after years away and the camera catches only an obstructed view from behind Beatty’s shoulder, leaving up in the air the question of whether it’s a tender mother-son cheek-peck or an incestuous spit-swap.

All of this suggests a nuclear family unit fractured by suspended Freudian anxieties, ingrained timidity around one another, and a lingering sense of postwar malaise, none of which director John Frankenheimer attempts to analyze for the audience. His filmmaking is both totally direct in its full disclosure of each narrative incident from unbiased, detached points of view and deeply quizzical in its refusal to investigate the root causes or immediate repercussions of peculiar household behavior. Why, for instance, does Annabell seem to coax her youngest boy into various romantic situations with her peer, and then shrink in apparent jealousy when her eldest swoops in on the situation? Why, when this initial flirtation does strike with obvious sexual implications, does Ralph shrug the whole thing off as if it’s just teenage tomfoolery? When Berry-Berry finally obliges to share a coffee with his parents for the first time in years, the awkwardly contrived nature of the arrangement is palpable: this is a family who has lost all ability to behave like a family, leaving only demented miscalculations of intimacy instead.

For a microcosm of the film’s approach, look no further than the brisk climactic scene, in which Berry-Berry undergoes a midnight meltdown that ends with him berating his wife for her pregnancy before charging out of the house in exhaustion. The scene starts with Beatty brooding in the living room, his dead stare and the abnormal silence of the household acting as omens of something terrible on the horizon. Hobbling portentously up the stairs in front of a queasy handheld camera, Berry-Berry then invades his brother’s room upstairs for a moment of sulking, during which the camera temporarily settles back into sturdy repose. After inspecting the other two bedrooms for signs of life, Beatty barrels back downstairs and all the way down to the basement, where he finds Echo reading at Ralph’s desk. With the exception of one cutaway to the brother’s perspective as he gleans the ensuing argument from a crack in the soaking ground-level window outside, the whole exchange plays out in a few up-close-and-personal deep-focus shots that put characteristic emphasis on Beatty’s dripping perspiration. Soon after, the final disintegration is captured in a sweeping front-yard crane shot, the claustrophobic chamber drama tone suddenly blossoming into full-blown melodrama.

Nervous motion, jumbled trajectories (in this case, up, down, and back again), and a mixing of visual styles on a scene-by-scene and sometimes shot-by-shot basis—the movie sustains this temperament throughout. One minute it’s tossing off a Bigger Than Life-esque sequence of stairwell histrionics and the next it’s passing time with mopey small-town atmospherics reminiscent of late John Huston. All Fall Down feels like a broken film about a broken family living in a broken time and place; nothing moves fluidly, and nothing should.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Pioneer (2014) A Film by Erik Skjoldbjærg

"Pioneer's greatest asset, and another trait it shares with Mann and Fincher's work, is a careful attention toward the particulars of its milieu in a way that doesn't call attention to those period touches. The film matches the quotient of moustaches, thick-rimmed glasses, and earth-toned blazers from Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy without ever getting Argo-level ostentatious about it. Its cinematography, from Jallo Faber, recalls both Alfredson's film in its impressively detailed widescreen master shots and lived-in ambiance of cigarette haze and any number of Fincher films in the manner in which it describes locations (specifically, the labyrinthine sea vessel) in stylishly omniscient camera movements." The rest is at Slant.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Story of My Death (2014) A Film by Albert Serra

"Most damningly for a film so clearly in pursuit of dreamlike illogic, Serra fails wholly as an image-maker. That cinematographer Jimmy Gimferrer's work in Story of My Death (principal photography apparently yielded over 400 hours of semi-improvised footage) has been speciously compared to Caravaggio's canvases is an insult to Caravaggio. Allegedly framed in 4:3 but re-sized for widescreen in post-production and bearing all the compositional inelegance that such an approach would imply, the film looks to have only incorporated the bare minimum of artificial lighting, in many cases using none at all—an admirable gamble when you have a genuine wizard like Emmanuel Lubezki on your team, but a foolhardy and arbitrary aesthetic handicap in this case." Full review here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bad Hair (2014) A Film by Mariana Rondón

"Encompassing secretive behaviors, boyish rebellion, early stirrings of sexual desire, extreme love/hate swings between mother and child, and macho posturing, Rondón's narrative works through the many contradictions brewing inside Junior in the wake of his personal actualization without ever feeling like a dramatic checklist. It also handles this while maintaining attentiveness to the nuances of Marta's own struggle; after all, her domineering parental tactics are as much a maternal instinct to protect Junior from the cutthroat community as they are a product of her own underlying homophobia. And yet, in spite of its generous division of focus, Bad Hair, like so many valuable social-problem films, concludes with its various personal tensions unresolved and its thorniest characters unredeemed." Full review at Slant.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Homesman (2014) A Film by Tommy Lee Jones

"In its judicious use of long dissolves and its dwarfing of figures across the landscape, The Homesman starts to suggest the 2:35:1, snow-swept version of Meek’s Cutoff’s hallucinogenic cross-country sweep, treating the landscape as a directionless abyss littered with peculiar encounters...In a deadpan master shot that summarizes the tone of the journey, three mad women crouch over the earth defiling what Jones so admiringly photographed in the prologue. (Really, that’s the essence of this spurtive director’s style: a classically durable composition thrown off balance by some unnerving grotesquery.)" Full review here.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

21 Years: Richard Linklater (2014) A Film by Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood

"Of course, there's nothing terribly toxic about the addition of this sort of movie to the cultural surplus; after all, Linklater's a director who arguably deserves all the good press he can get. But 21 Years fails to apply any critical thought to its subject or the documentary form—the latter being perhaps the cardinal sin." Full review at Slant.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Force Majeure (2014) A Film by Ruben Östlund

"The largely frosty Force Majeure is repeatedly thawed by a sense of humor that suggests Fellini on downers—reined-in burlesque, in other words—and a philosophical interest in the role of chance, so powerful a force in life as to upset even the film’s own controlled surface (as it does in a sublimely amusing moment that fleetingly assumes the point of view of a remote-controlled flying toy at the most inopportune time). Despite the film’s overarching Scandinavian austerity—Östlund’s shots rarely move for fear of displacing the careful merging of compositional lines with the corners of the 2:35:1 frame—it’s also cinematographically in tune with its characters at pivotal moments in ways that suggest a sharp directorial sensitivity." Full piece on this Scandinavian stroke of brilliance at In Review Online.