Monday, June 29, 2015

Hard to Be a God (2013) A Film by Aleksei German

"'God, if you exist, stop me.' This is one of the half-conscious utterances made by Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) in the latter half of Aleksei German's Hard to Be a God as he contemplates a killing spree on the morally bankrupt planet of Arkanar. As a scientist originally sent from Earth to neutrally investigate the planet's Dark Ages because its crazed inhabitants have been snuffing out their few remaining intellectuals, he's been strictly advised against any kind of physical intervention, but that matters little at this point; nothing short of a divine occurrence could halt or delay his inexorable descent into madness. What's most haunting about the phrase—delivered, like all of the film's democratized dialogue, in a tremulous grumble that barely competes with the surrounding clamor of swaying chains and leaking orifices—is its sense of reflexive submission, the underlying implication being that when exposed long enough to a civilization cast off from common decency and deep in a moral void, the loss of reason and even sanity is a definite eventuality." Full review of Kino Lorber's new Blu-Ray here.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Vikings (1958) A Film by Richard Fleischer

Christians and Heathens. Two shorelines and a black, foggy sea between. Organized hierarchies behind stone barricades and drunken hysteria in the ocean mist. The cleanly sliced simplicity of The Vikings is entertainment gold. The narrative resembles a Western: a virginal beauty held hostage ignites the rivalry of two bastard brothers, which in turn stokes an entire war between two clans on their respective home lands. Richard Fleischer’s filmmaking—majestic master shots juxtaposing natural beauty and manmade fragility, monumentalizing upward angles, hymn-like musical themes originating from the diegesis and carrying over into the soundtrack—could be mistaken for John Ford’s, but there’s no Fordian wholesomeness to the extremity of the subject matter.

Truisms of Norse mythology are ratcheted up to a level of gleeful overstatement; in the most queasily multi-sensory set piece of all, a woman’s marital fidelity is tested in a cruel axe-throwing challenge while snarling sots heckle deafeningly from the sidelines. Character conflicts are vivid despite their no-nonsense development—the spiritual divide between Tony Curtis’ under-clad slave and Janet Leigh’s royal bride-to-be is more than enough to juice a pithy exchange of longing and a star-crossed romance—and Fleischer gets huge mileage out of carefully timed, conservatively used close-ups. One scene, played out on the precipice of a rabid dog pit, communicates an entire complex history of neglect, anger and mutual respect across two simple close-ups intercut with a patient scrutiny over shifting facial muscles.

The Vikings swings its emphasis from such microscopic detail to large-scale action sequences with a proto-Spielbergian grace. Shortly before studying these aforementioned faces of slowly dawning realization, we’re mapping out the encroachment of two viking ships on a modest getaway canoe in the half-light of the North Sea at dusk (the artificial fog work, which makes it so that lanterns glow menacingly, is top-notch). In the middle of this scene, Curtis responds to Leigh complaining that her dress restricts rowing ability by indiscreetly ripping it right down the back—a shocking bit of political incorrectness that probably wouldn’t even fly today. That I howled with laughter despite my better judgment speaks to the spirit of debauchery this movie inspired in me.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Chagall-Malevich (2014) A Film by Aleksandr Mitta

"When treated conventionally, the artist biopic can be the domain for pedantic historical shading and subservient mise-en-scène. Veteran Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Mitta's answer to that challenge is to translate his subject's style so vehemently that the compulsion to inform and historicize becomes almost a distraction from the aesthetic acrobatics. Franco-Russian painter Marc Chagall, Chagall-Malevich's principal protagonist, was a Jewish modernist who responded to the doom and gloom of his epoch with brilliantly colored, whimsically composed canvases that blended expressionist, cubist, and abstract sensibilities. In attempting to simulate Chagall's work, Mitta whips up his own quirky jumble of techniques: conspicuously crude digital compositing, perpetual Dutch angles, sporadic animated flourishes, drastic chromatic swings, and a liberally applied cerulean vignette that surrounds the center of interest and lends those on the margins of the frame a ghastly aquarium-tank pallor." More at Slant Magazine.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Walk Cheerfully, That Night's Wife, and Dragnet Girl (1930-33) Films by Yasujiro Ozu

"In 1930's That Night's Wife, Walk Cheerfully and 1933's Dragnet Girl, Hollywood genre films in general stick out like product placement, albeit with an appreciative rather than mercenary function. It's a significant running detail, as Ozu's filmmaking in these early capers is unmistakably, spiritually indebted to American genre cinema without necessarily incorporating any specific references. Beyond their pulpy plots, which all more or less take the form of crime-doesn't-pay parables, there are visual flourishes that Ozu would largely dispose of as his career progressed." Reviewed a new Criterion Eclipse package of three silent Ozu films for Slant Magazine.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Vincent and Theo (1990) A Film by Robert Altman

"Known for scene-scanning telephoto shots that seek to dissolve the traditional limitations of the frame, Robert Altman might have seemed a counterintuitive filmmaker to take on a film about painting, which must always work within a static canvas. But Van Gogh, of course, is no ordinary painter. As portrayed by Tim Roth in the placid historical snapshot Vincent & Theo, Van Gogh's fatal frustration was his inability, despite a career-long knack for pictorially implying movement and spatial vibration, to get beyond the tyranny of the frame. If there's a generous streak within Altman's mournful, fatalistic period piece, it's in granting Van Gogh the pictorial totality that he never discovered as an artist." Continued over at Slant Magazine is a full review of a new Olive Films' Blu-Ray of Altman's 1990 film.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Marfa Girl (2012) A Film by Larry Clark

"Ethnic conflict, generational clashes, and sexual carnality are nothing new in Clark's universe of tanned flesh, dirty 'staches, and distant adults. What's happened with Marfa Girl is that these thematic threads have been hitched to a plot that makes their inclusion feel first and foremost like points to stress on a diagram rather than natural extensions of the milieu. Clark's inclination toward explicit depictions of teen sexuality has always flirted with the pornographic, but the addition of an outsider character like the Marfa Girl whose chief role is to be promiscuous and to share her thoughts on her promiscuity with everyone she meets serves mostly to underline these directorial instincts as a perverse intrusion on the fictional environment." Full review at Slant.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Creation of Meaning (2014) A Film by Simone Rapisarda Casanova

"At first glance, The Creation of Meaning's title seems unapologetically, unambiguously direct with regard to the film's spectatorial challenge. The film starts by offering a series of disparate stimuli: talk of Italian-German conflict during World War II, a group of young students, a mountainous Tuscan landscape clouded in fog, a solitary farmer trudging through thick brush, a shot of a beetle toppling itself over. These discrete components of image and sound exist somewhat autonomously in the context of a languorous visual style where takes can run as long as 15 minutes, which frustrates an impulse to make dialectical associations within the montage." Continued over at Slant as part of coverage for the New Directors/New Films Festival.