Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Manufactured Landscapes (2006) A Film by Jennifer Baichwal

Manufactured Landscapes, another, yet far more interesting, essay on the threatening state of ecology in the world, kicks off with a superior eight minute tracking shot. The subject? A Chinese factory as long as several football fields. The scene is boldly transfixing partly because it finds the sublime in an activity so alien to Western culture yet so pertinent, but also because it is a shocker to see a documentary open with the kind of visual bravura one would expect from either a cinema giant like Kubrick or Greenaway, or a modern minimalist. A narration arises after about six minutes; the voice is of Edward Burtynsky, the photographer whose work is the crux of the documentary.

His photographs are aesthetically striking to begin with but are also telling of humanity's inevitable "manufacturing" of natural landscapes: strip mining operations, oil drilling, and the building of the largest dam in history, the Three Gorges Dam. China is the featured setting of the film, which finds director Jennifer Baichwal following Burtynsky as he works, but as Burtynsky mentions, these environmental changes are actually universal. They are merely exemplified best by the thriving urbanization in modern China. Burtynsky, whose mission is to merely reveal without bludgeoning his audience (he is neither applauding the situation nor "damning" it), creates fine works that rely heavily on the fact that they are persuasive and open-ended. This is largely what Baichwal attempts to do with her film. She succeeds in avoiding a didactic approach, aiming for a more ambiguous, visceral documentary (which uses moody mid-frequency noise as a soundtrack, courtesy of Dan Driscoll).

Suffice to say, the film loses a bit of its visual intrigue after the opening, when it begins to weigh the slideshow presentation of Burtynsky's photographs more heavily than the moving images. The film offers no more handsomely filmed tracking shots; instead it simply contextualizes the world of Burtynsky's photographs by charting the meticulous, often times dangerous work of the Chinese laborers who utilize Earth's resources to create products that fuel nearly every commonplace deed in the world. Fortunately Baichwal accomplishes this, however, she falls slightly short of the frightening power of the original photographs (in order to magnify the force of a scene where Burtynsky reveals a panoramic image he just shot involving some Three Gorges workers, Baichwal zooms in on the photograph and hangs on it to revel in its grandiosity rather than capture it with her moving camera).

It's interesting to see how both the film and the photographs that are documented reflect the cinéma vérité theory, sanctioned by documentarist Jean Rouch which stated that the camera does indeed affect its subjects, and therefore its presence should me made known. In the opening tracking shot, several workers pause to stare at the camera as it glides by, and later on a frozen photograph shows a whole room of workers gazing into the lens. A fascinating aspect of a film dealing with photography. There is a fine moment in the film when a withered old woman knits steadfastly in her stripped home, refusing to leave her familiar lifestyle as the world around her falls apart. Although she is a fitting metaphor for nature and the old world, an entity that has shifted towards the new, man-made forces, this may have been the moment that Baichwal became persuasive rather than evocative, a conflict Burtynsky has sought out to avoid.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Index of Reviews, Sorted by Director's Last Name

(Disclaimer: This index includes almost every review published on this site since its inception in 2008, also the point at which I began writing film criticism. Ever since, I've thought of writing as a natural extension of viewing, and therefore this blog has been a convenient catalogue of my responses to films. My earliest entries – which, in hindsight, look slapdash and ignorant – nonetheless constitute a part of my collective memory of cinema and trace my developing cinephilia over the years. Please proceed accordingly. Only truly abominable pieces are removed from the site.)



Super 8

ADLON, Percy

Bagdad Cafe

AKERMAN, Chantal

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles

Jeanne Dielman: Analysis

AKIN, Fatih

The Edge of Heaven


Let the Right One In

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

ALLEN, Woody

Love and Death

Midnight in Paris


Stardust Memories

ALONSO, Lisandro


Los Muertos

ALTMAN, Robert

The Player



ANDERSON, Paul Thomas

Punch-Drunk Love

The Master

There Will Be Blood


(see Peter Bradley Show)

Bottle Rocket

Fantastic Mr. Fox

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou



World of Glory

You, The Living


Landscape in the Mist

Ulysses' Gaze

ANGER, Kenneth

SHORTS: Scorpio Rising, Kustom Kar Kommandos, Invocation of My Demon Brother, and Lucifer Rising

ANTONIONI, Michelangelo


Red Desert


Black Swan

The Wrestler

ARRIAGA, Guillermo

The Burning Plain

ARNOLD, Andrea

Wuthering Heights

ASSAYAS, Olivier

Summer Hours


BAICHWAL, Jennifer

Manufactured Landscapes


Frances Ha


BAVA, Mario

Black Sunday (or the Mask of Satan)


Cries and Whispers

Fanny and Alexander

Sawdust and Tinsel

Scenes from a Marriage (TV, Episodes 1, 2, and 3, and Episodes 4, 5, and 6)

The Seventh Seal

The Silence

Through a Glass Darkly

Winter Light


The Sheltering Sky

BIGELOW, Kathryn

The Hurt Locker

Zero Dark Thirty


The Last Picture Show

What's Up, Doc?

BOYLE, Danny

Slumdog Millionaire

BREILLAT, Catherine


The Last Mistress

The Sleeping Beauty


Diary of a Country Priest




State of Dogs (w/ Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh)


Age of Gold

The Great Madcap

BURNETT, Charles

Killer of Sheep


CAPRA, Frank

It Happened One Night


Boy Meets Girl


The Grey


The Thing

CEYLAN, Nuri Bilge


Three Monkeys


A Girl Cut in Two




Blue Valentine

CIMINO, Michael

The Deer Hunter

COEN, Joel and Ethan

No Country For Old Men

True Grit

COOK, Brian

Color Me Kubrick

COPPOLA, Francis Ford

The Conversation


The American


A Bucket of Blood

COSTA, Pedro

In Vanda's Room

Ne Change Rien



The Brood


Eastern Promises



The Naked City

DE SICA, Vittorio

Umberto D.


Zlateh the Goat (Short Film)

DENIS, Claire

35 Shots of Rum

Beau Travail

The Intruder

White Material



DOLAN, Xavier



The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

DöRRIE, Doris

Cherry Blossoms





Outside Satan

DUPLASS, Mark and Jay


The Puffy Chair


Martha Marcy May Marlene





Mystery Team


The Ugly American


Times and Winds



Silent Souls

FELLINI, Federico


And the Ship Sails On

La Strada


The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Social Network


FRAMMARTINO, Michelangelo

Le Quattro Volte


Zorn's Lemma



FULLER, Samuel

China Gate



Secret History of the Dividing Line (First Four Films)


Belleville Tokyo


Whores' Glory

GLAZER, Jonathon


GODARD, Jean-Luc


Film Socialisme

Made in U.S.A

Pierrot Le Fou

Two or Three Things I Know About Her

GOEI, Glen

That's The Way I Like It

GONDRY, Michel

Be Kind Rewind

La Lettre (Short Film)

The Science of Sleep


Winter's Bone

GREEN, David Gordon

Snow Angels


The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover

GUERIN, Jose Luis

In the City of Sylvia




HANEKE, Michael

The White Ribbon

HAWKS, Howard

Bringing Up Baby


I'm Not There



Two-Lane Blacktop

HERZOG, Werner


Heart of Glass

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?


The Road


Still Walking



HOU, Hsiao-Hsien

Flight of the Red Balloon

ESSAY: Millennium Mambo, Café Lumiere, Three Times, Flight of the Red Balloon


Reflections in a Golden Eye

Under the Volcano


Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning



In the Loop


JIA, Zhang-ke

Still Life


Fando Y Lis

The Holy Mountain

Santa Sangre

JONES, Duncan


JONES, Tommy Lee

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

JONZE, Spike

Where the Wild Things Are

KATZ, Aaron

Dance Party, USA

Quiet City

KARI, Dagur

Nói albínói

KAUFMAN, Charlie

Synecdoche, New York


On the Waterfront

KECHICHE, Abdellatif

Blue is the Warmest Color


Certified Copy


Like Someone in Love


The Double Life of Véronique

Three Colors: Blue

KIM, Ki-Duk

Samaritan Girl

KORINE, Harmony

Spring Breakers


Tron Legacy

KUBRICK, Stanley

2001: A Space Odyssey

Barry Lyndon

Eyes Wide Shut





White Mane




LECONTE, Patrice

My Best Friend

LEE, Ang

The Ice Storm




Before Sunrise

Before Sunset


Dazed and Confused

It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books

LYNCH, David

Blue Velvet

The Cowboy and the Frenchman (Short Film)


Early David Lynch Shorts: Six Men Getting Sick, The Alphabet, and The Grandmother

The Elephant Man



Lady Blue Shanghai (Short Film)

Lost Highway

Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Drive: Informal Discussion

Premonition Following an Evil Deed (Short Film)

The Straight Story

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

Twin Peaks (TV)

Wild at Heart



Brand Upon the Brain!

My Winnipeg

The Saddest Music in the World


The Mill and the Cross


WR: Mysteries of the Organism

MALICK, Terrence


Days of Heaven

The New World

The Thin Red Line

To the Wonder

The Tree of Life

MALLE, Louis

My Dinner With Andre

MANN, Michael


The Insider

The Last of the Mohicans

Public Enemies


The Case of the Grinning Cat

La Jetee


The Descent


Memoirs of a Geisha

MARTEL, Lucrecia

The Headless Woman

The Holy Girl


The Awful Truth


12 Years a Slave







MOSTOW, Jonathan




Late Chysanthemums

NELSON, Gunvor

My Name is Oona

NGAI, Kai Lam

Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky

NOE, Gaspar

Enter the Void


NOLAN, Christopher

The Dark Knight


The Prestige


OLIVEIRA, Manoel de

The Strange Case of Angelica

OPLEV, Niels Arden

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

OSHIMA, Nagisa

Empire of Passion

OZU, Yasujiro

An Autumn Afternoon

Late Spring

Tokyo Story


PASOLINI, Pier Paolo

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom


The Wild Bunch

PELI, Oren

Paranormal Activity

PENN, Sean

Into the Wild

PIALAT, Maurice

L'Enfance Nue

We Won't Grow Old Together




Police, Adjective


I Used to be Darker

Putty Hill




Morvern Callar

RAY, Nicholas

Bigger Than Life

Rebel Without a Cause

REED, Carol

The Third Man

REFN, Nicholas Winding

Valhalla Rising



Meek's Cutoff

Wendy and Lucy


Hiroshima Mon Amour

Last Year at Marienbad

REY, Nicolas

Schuss! and Differently, Molussia


Post Tenebras Lux

Silent Light


Two Years at Sea


Claire's Knee

La Collectionneuse

Love in the Afternoon

My Night at Maud's


Never Let Me Go


SAFDIE, Josh and Benny

Daddy Longlegs (Go Get Some Rosemary)

SATRAPI, Marjane and PARRONAUD, Vincent


SAURA, Carlos

Cria Cuervos


An Education


The Diving Bell and the Butterfly


After Hours


Shutter Island

Taxi Driver

SCOTT, Ridley



SIRK, Douglas

All That Heaven Allows


The Shout


The Vanishing (1988 version)

SNOW, Michael




The Girlfriend Experience

The Informant!

The Limey

Magic Mike

Out of Sight

Sex, Lies, and Videotape

SOKUROV, Aleksandr


Father and Son


A.I. Artificial Intelligence


Minority Report





STONE, Oliver




Inglourious Basterds

Pulp Fiction


Andrei Rublev

Ivan's Childhood


The Sacrifice

TARR, Bela

Almanac of Fall

The Man From London

Prologue (Short Film)


Satantango: Take 2

The Turin Horse

Werckmeister Harmonies

Werckmeister Harmonies (Analysis)

TATI, Jacques

Play Time


Antonio Gaudí


Woman in the Dunes

TODD, Robert

Selection of 2012 Shorts


I Walked with a Zombie

Stranger on Horseback

TRAN, Anh Hung


TSAI, Ming-Liang

I Don't Want to Sleep Alone

The River

What Time is it There?


Essay on Motion Picture, L'Arrivée, Outer Space, Dream Work, and Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine

TURMUNKH, Dorjkhandyn

State of Dogs (w/ Peter Brosens)




The Watermelon Man


Last Days

Paranoid Park

VARDA, Agnes

La Pointe Courte


The Celebration


The Wedding March








Edvard Munch

The Freethinker


A Letter to Uncle Boonmee

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives


Citizen Kane

The Lady from Shanghai


Paris, Texas

Wings of Desire


Sunset Boulevard

WINTER, C.W. and EDSTROM, Anders

The Anchorage

WONG, Kar-Wai

Happy Together

In the Mood for Love


Anna Karenina







Saturday, December 20, 2008

Love and Death (1975) A Film by Woody Allen

Love and Death marks the moment in Woody Allen's early career when he had perfected his craft of strictly comedic filmmaking and was prepared to move on first to comedy/dramas and then eventually to the thematically parallel human dramas that epitomize his later work. As such a description should suggest, it is indeed his most hilarious film. Structurally the film is no different than much of his work in which he plays the protagonist; as a youngster he is curious and ahead of his time and as an adult he is ridiculously witty, neurotic, and feverishly attracted to women (however incompetent he seems wooing them). The film begins a la Allen's characteristic voice-over, slyly introducing his character's early life in montage. He is Boris Grushenko, a fearful Russian ignored by his parents and in love with his beautiful friend Sonja (Diane Keaton). When he comes of age and fails to marry Sonja, he is forced into becoming a soldier, a "militant coward" as he remarks, in the Napoleonic Wars. Allen reworks his uncommonly heroic role in the Latin-American army in Bananas by playing a fearful contributor who sees no harm in losing to the French, given the better food that will result. As usual though, Boris somehow finds his way off the battlefield and back with Sonja, ready to propose. What results is Sonja desiring strongly to assassinate Napoleon and Boris getting caught up in the plot.

Allen draws influence from a wide variety of Russian literature, music, and film, as well as using several visual parodies from the work of his idol Ingmar Bergman (visions of "Death" and a two-shot of women in crisis). He finds the perfect balance between physical and verbal comedy, succeeding most in the latter due to his modesty; much of his one-liners are quick offhand comments. A continuous joke throughout the movie is the entertaining philosophical quarrels between Allen and Keaton's characters: they playfully discuss ethics and morals, saying crazy things like "subjectivity is objectivity", and when Sonja attempts to accuse Boris of being jejune, he replies by pronouncing that he is the most "june" of the both of them. There's little more to say without beginning to list off the gags, so I will just strongly recommend Love and Death because it is non-stop laughter.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best Albums of 2008

I am aware that I write primarily about cinema, but I feel ill-suited to make any sort of "best of 2008" lists for films because I haven't seen a great deal of 2008 films this year. I tend to simply watch whatever comes my way; perhaps next year I will attempt to follow the new releases a bit more and finish with an end of the year list. However, I do indeed listen to a multitude of music, so I am ready as ever to deliver a list of the Best Albums of 2008 and a couple of major disappointments (within my opinion and range of tastes of course).

1. The Walkmen: "You and Me"

A more subdued, melancholy album than most of their work, this set of tunes from The Walkmen is more evocative than ever. I could do no better this year than to swoon in the reverb-soaked guitar lines set to Hamilton Leithauser's ethereal screech that continuously alternates between shockingly high pitches and drunken romantic longing.

2. Fleet Foxes: "Fleet Foxes"

I saw Fleet Foxes a few months back and was absolutely floored. There is no better emerging band out there, and this LP, their debut, is persistently heavenly.

3. Department of Eagles: "In Ear Park"

With great help from a soaringly dreamy opening track, I found myself unable to stop listening to Department of Eagles for two weeks upon my discovery of them. This album is even more impressive than Grizzly Bear's "Yellow House", and Department is their side project. I sure can't wait for Grizzly Bear's new disk, because this group of creative musicians seems incapable of failure.

4. Conor Oberst: "Conor Oberst"

Oberst enjoyed a relaxed recording session for this effort and because of his ability to avoid the pressures of the music industry, he produced an album that is ripe with freedom and festivity. This collection is a fine response to the style of alt-country that he emerged with on his recent album, "Cassadaga". Hearing Oberst's brilliant lyrics is always a pleasure, and fortunately I can stick to my belief that he is the greatest living lyricist.

5. Sigur Ros “Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust”

Upon my first listen to Sigur Ros' latest album, I was disheartened by their shift away from the colossal lugubriousness of their previous work and towards a new, spontaneously joyous, almost Animal Collective-style sound. However, eventually I realized that Sigur Ros can never go wrong, and in fact as well as being the most emotionally and spiritually draining band, they can also be the most uplifting. "Gobbledigook" makes me yearn to be another member of the music video.

6. Why?: "Alopecia"

His satirically imbued spoken word poetry is indicative of a true artist with a knack for not only writing sentences that will flabbergast you with their in-your-face rhetoric, but also for creating tantalizingly gloomy beats.

7. Frightened Rabbit: "The Midnight Organ Flight"

I have to thank Shawn over at A Blog Ain't Too Much to Love for bringing this stellar album to my attention through his end of the year list. Never before have I enjoyed a Scottish accent in a vocalist.

8. The Acorn: "Glory Hope Mountain"

A thumping and clicking percussion section is what sticks in the mind with "Glory Hope Mountain", The Acorn's debut. The band's oneness with the natural world peppers this set of chanting, acoustic-based ditties.

9. Talkdemonic: "Eyes at Half Mast"

Routine stuff from this talented two-piece; smooth melodic refrains with super tasteful drumming. "Eyes at Half Mast" doesn't one-up "Beat Romantic" or "Mutiny Sunshine", but it does sustain their wonderful streak.

10. Wolf Parade: "At Mount Zoomer"

If anything, this is the album that I was skeptical of placing here. Although their music satisfies me very much, I have a difficult time attributing their from-the-gut style to seriousness; instead they sound like a band that would always greatly prefer rocking out wildly in a cramped room to crafting interesting songs. Nonetheless, "At Mount Zoomer" does make me happy, and if anything, "Kissing the Beehive" brushes with musical genius when it climaxes.


Kings of Leon: "Only by the Night"
Kings of Leon completely abandoned their dirty Southern roots and set their sights on the corporate world. Honestly, there are probably a solid three good songs on this whole album; most of them are grossly sentimental and recall the status quo work of rock and roll superstars like Snow Patrol. Despite the flawless production and the fact that Caleb Followill's voice is still substantially unique, "Only by the Night" is the biggest disappointment of 2008.

My Morning Jacket: "Evil Urges"
The epic, rootsy "Z" could never have prepared listeners for this amateur AC-DC/Prince collision. Unlike Kings of Leon, they took not a commercial direction but an extremely odd, trivial one.

Of Montreal: "Skeletal Lampings"
What I heard of this album did not please me and when I saw them this year for the fourth time, I was bored out of my mind. "The Sunlandic Twins" and "Hissing Fauna" were sophisticated pop albums; this is just an irresponsibly silly trifle.

Cold War Kids: "Loyalty to Loyalty"
Cold War Kids' second effort is by no means bad. About half of the album lives up to the interesting clumsy sound they introduced with their great "Robbers and Cowards". However, songs like "Avalanche in B" and "Cryptomnesia" showcase lazy songwriting too bent on being rambling and lo-fi. Also, the catchy tracks tend to die right when they're beginning to get going.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Winter Light (1962) A Film by Ingmar Bergman

Last night after viewing Ingmar Bergman's second entry in a loss of faith trilogy, Winter Light, I pondered with my good friend about the wealth of Bergman's cinematic output. Our speculation was that no other prolific director in film history has delivered as many masterpieces as the rigorous Swedish artist. We also agreed that Winter Light was yet another to add to the extended list of greatness. Although I still find The Silence to be the most exquisite work of the trilogy, Winter Light stands as the one of the richest chamber dramas ever devised for the screen. Rivaling Dreyer's Ordet, which was released seven years earlier, Bergman's film is less interested in the ways in which God can interact with the living than the ways that His absence can cause abysmal psychological distress.

Tomas Ericsson, a sickened, droll pastor with an increasingly evident spiritual crisis, acts as the cowardly religious figure of a bleak, wintry Swedish town outlined by rapids. His communions are poorly attended and executed in a lackluster manner (the organist checks his watch periodically while playing, introducing an element of pitch-black comedy to an otherwise serious drama), and the ritualistic murmurs that Tomas recites are telegraphed with a noticeable decline in passion. After the conclusion of the mass that opens Winter Light (which is shot with a tenseness that could easily be absent from such a mundane scene), Tomas retreats indifferently to his vestry where he is confronted by the Persson's, the fisherman husband of whom is experiencing his own spiritual dilemma: a fear of a potential nuclear holocaust as a result of China's dawning of atom bombs. His pregnant wife Karin urges Tomas to speak privately with him to offer consolation. However, Tomas can only muster up a fearful soliloquy of his own accounts of God's silence. His attempt at easement fails miserably and results in Jonas' ensuing suicide, a catalyst for the hushed quandary between Tomas and his past schoolteacher mistress, Marta. Their relationship is not hushed in the sense that they do not speak to each other, but rather in that Tomas continuously swats away Marta's honest attempts at embrace. She, embodied perfectly by Bergman regular Ingrid Thulin, is a non-believer who suffers from masochism and Tomas' coldness. Gunnar Björnstrand, who plays the pastor, was actually very sick during his performance, adding a stark realism to his character.

This grittiness is apparent everywhere in the film, from Sven Nykvist's ascetic camerawork to the brisk weather that shields the communication between Tomas and the policemen after Jonas' (Max Von Sydow) suicide. Bergman's views are extremely pessimistic in comparison to Dreyer's; Tomas persistently questions God's presence and in the end, when it is suggested by the organist that God exists in love, Thulin's character stoops her melancholic head down to declare that she and Tomas cannot ever express true tenderness to one another. Bergman's lamenting of people's incapacity to communicate on a soul-to-soul level runs amok here, just as it does in all of his films. The denouement, however, is perhaps one of optimism: it is a necessity to continue communion no matter what state we are in, for it is always possible to reach out to a lone soul.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Still Life (Sanxia Haoren) A Film by Jia Zhang-Ke (2008)

In many ways, Jia Zhang-Ke's 2008 feature Still Life is modern China's answer to Antonioni's L'Avventura. The backdrop is a flooded Fengjie, whose weathered remnants of buildings are being demolished by workers for low pay, a project deemed the Three Gorges Dam (Yung Chang's recent documentary Up the Yangtze covered the same topic). Jia creates an interesting snapshot; workers are being rewarded to destroy the city of their past lives - thus contributing to China's rapid industrialization - to allow for a new neighborhood to be built. Like L'Avventura, the environment is one that is jostled and undergoing inevitable modernization.

Jia introduces a coalminer from Shanxi who is in search of his past wife and eventually his daughter. His pursuit begins with motivation, but is diverted by the demands of the scrambled climate and the rich social fabric that Jia presents. About one quarter through the film, a nurse, also from Shanxi, arrives with her own set of goals: finding her more immediate husband. Amidst these catastrophic times, there is a noticeable decline in human values and an unfortunate inability to establish an identity and mold past relationships. Antonioni's film dealt with similar thematic ground: the failure of personal identity and by extension, the advent of isolation in a changing world. When the coalminer and nurse do finally meet, there are no fireworks. Each of them realize what has been lost and cannot be salvaged; the result is an uncomfortable vow for remarriage between the coalminer and his ex-wife, and a sad agreement to divorce between the nurse and her husband.

Jia typically refrains from deep characterization however to revel in the awesomely beautiful setting with HD video. In fact, scenes involving an influx of characters are often shot in deep focus to dissolve the protagonists into the anonymity of their surroundings, making them just one in the crowd. Such interiors, which often involve a crowded grouping of people in anguish, are shot quite spaciously, allowing for the viewer to almost feel the breeze coming through the broken walls. One calmer shot fantastically composes five shiny bare-chested workers seated closely eating bowls of noodles. Still Life succeeds the most however when the camera quietly observes the deconstructed landscape with a splendid use of natural light. Immense pan shots reveal ravishing juxtapositions of foreboding mountains adorned by fog, decrepit buildings inhabited by ghostlike silhouettes of men hammering away at the bedrock, and a glistening Yangtze river. Jia's perceptive attention to detail is exhibited in these fine pieces of photography and in the rhythmic sound design of the workers' clanking.

Unfortunately, the dazzling fiction/documentary fusion is interrupted occasionally by the surreal: a UFO speeding by the vista or a building's infrastructure lifting off like a space shuttle. Jia discusses how the setting seemed to him like it had fallen prey to an alien attack, but if these images are some puzzling result of mass dementia, I feel they are not aptly suited (not to mention they are distractingly digitized). This minor flaw unfortunately feels like vital punctuation and not simply visual flair. Without a doubt though, Still Life, like L'Avventura, displays with eloquence the personal effects of a wavering environment.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Citizen Kane (1941) A Film by Orson Welles

The opening sequence of Orson Welles' Citizen Kane introduces a myriad of striking detail shots around a cryptic mansion. A fence standing before fog, a cat seated slyly by a creek, a man's mouth whispering the word's "Rosebud"; each lends itself to a rather bold noir atmosphere, especially given the fact that they were indeed the first frames being committed to film under a studio agenda by a writer/director who came to be one of the most exemplary cinematic practitioners of sound film. Welles transitions from this cryptic style frenzy to a news montage covering the life and death of Charles Foster Kane, the heavyweight of New York City press. The two scenes are remarkably dissonant, and such a decision is certainly an audacious one for Welles. Once the film finally snaps into reality (that is, in relation to the remaining conventions of the film) in a small screening room, the sheer tenacity of the image's willingness to play with a Godly slice of light officially signals the coming of a truly grand film.

Welles, who assembled a band of Hollywood experts to work with on Citizen Kane, including scriptwriter Herman Mankiewicz, cinematographer Gregg Toland, and quintessential Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann, must still unavoidably be deemed the one man wrecking ball for the film. His portrayal of Charles Kane, the massively successful press tycoon based loosely on the real-life William Randolph Hearst (who attempted to block the film's release because he found it offensive), is charismatic, hilarious, and believably varied. The film covers his whole life in flashback, however the chunk of material surrounds his entrepreneurial adulthood, rising to power in the news industry and carrying his power spontaneously to new heights, such as the creation of a prestigious theater to showcase his not-exactly-prima-donna-material mistress. A reporting crew in the present (after Kane's death) is on a mission to decipher the seemingly immortal last line of Kane: "Rosebud".

The film cycles in between the story of Kane's life and the quest of the reporters with faint urgency. Nearly every stretch of fine tuned pacing holds its parallels with the ensuing 67 years of Hollywood movies. Each newspaper montage created since most certainly has a tiny place in its heart for Citizen Kane. This doesn't necessarily excite me, for I find that the newspaper montage has become an insanely banal technique, but rather cements my belief in Citizen Kane's influential nature. The culmination of the film is shattering; Kane retreats to an almost cumbersome palace (these interiors are the high points in the film visually) with his singer wife Susan Alexander only to discover what his success and money have really brought him. Pluck out the simple but universal message and witness how so many films since have reworked it, but never to such a virtuous degree.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Wavelength (1967) A Film by Michael Snow

Michael Snow's cardinal avant-garde short Wavelength is a 45 minute zoom in on a photograph on a wall in a dank domestic space, interspersed with an occasional foray into a crime scene (or is it just a death?) that occurs immaterially inside of the room. This is no zoom in the conventional sense however; it's as if Snow hunted down the worst possible zoom lens, assembled it onto a grainy Super-8 film camera, and anchored it down precariously on a rickety tripod. His film begins on a wide shot of four tall windows in the back of a poorly lit interior and proceeds to hug and chug along sluggishly towards the middle panel of the wall, which after about 35 minutes, appears to hold a photograph. It is not until the final 5 minutes that it is evident what exists inside the photograph, yet there is still a grainy, indiscernible look to the image; there is no certainty as to whether it's an overhead view of calm waves, rigid rock formations, or the surface of the moon.

Perhaps this was Snow's intention, an ode to the zoom technique as a distorter of perspective. His films, often times meant more as statements than as fully realized pieces, are constant structuralist exercises. He works habitually with the long take, investigating one setting for an obnoxiously lengthy amount of time, frequently exhausting different means of camera movement: zooming, panning, tilting, or dollying like a kid who just received a film camera for Christmas. His heavily stylized work should not be written off as a haughty amateurism though. Wavelength is truly a transcendent, spooky experience. Throughout the camera's trip towards the wall, Snow trifles with the image psychedelically by adding mesmeric filtered flashes and subtle superimpositions. When a woman enters the room, first by shadow and then in physical form, and calls the police, she is flickered on the screen like a ghost, speaking nearly inaudibly to disorient the viewer from the bare story that unfolds. After about 15 minutes, the soundtrack settles into an intoxicating high-pitched whirring and never hints at stopping, until it finally terminates in the final minute, just in time to leave a nauseated viewer's ears ringing.

It seems that one of Snow's goals is to yank as many negative emotional responses from the audience as possible, such as fear, boredom, annoyance, comatose, and discomfort. It's likely that you'll want to punch someone by the end. Nonetheless, the experimental film is worth viewing because of it's critically groundbreaking nature and for its genuinely mysterious examination of a room. The image does not change, so its inevitable that you'll find yourself thinking "is that the same white bus that runs by the windows continuously?", "what exactly is that yellow blinking ball down on the street?", or finally "what exactly makes up this photograph I am staring at?". If you're interested, check out this radical 1960's avant-garde film here.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Prestige (2006) A Film by Christopher Nolan

I've awoken myself from my week and a half long post-Satantango trance in a rather contradictory manner: the former film relishes the concrete with masterful minimalism and Christopher Nolan's The Prestige relies heavily on narrative devices and artifice. Nonetheless, Nolan's tale of rivaling magicians in turn-of-the-century London devises an entirely distinct spell that has helped to cease my relentless trips to the blogosphere candy that revolves around Bela Tarr (if only for a month or less). However, I am not attempting to analyze The Prestige's lopsided tricks, but instead to find someone who shares my opinion on the film's confusing blemishes. For a film that is meant to be an odyssey towards the punchline, as much of Nolan's work is (his transfixing Memento is a telling example), the punchline is largely unsatisfying and fishy.

Before I get to such oddness however, I'll summarize the film. Utilizing a hyperlink method, Nolan reveals bits and pieces of the competitive relationship of Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Richard Angier (Hugh Jackman). The two ostensibly begin as allies and following the tragic death of Angier's wife at the hands of Borden, they slowly descend into a malicious magician rivalry. Borden's magic is of greater talent but less showmanship, whereas Angier is the man following in the artistic footsteps of Borden's fascinating tricks, namely "The Transforming Man", which involves the apparent transformation of Borden from one box at one side of the stage to another at the other side. Early in Borden's career, Angier makes an appearance at one of his smaller bar performances, acts as a volunteer, and shoots three of Borden's fingers off, so there is bad blood fueling from both sides. Angier's lovely assistant (Scarlett Johansson) becomes fed up with his ambitiously combative ways, and when he sends her on a mission to work with Borden in an attempt to steal his secrets, she takes the opportunity to hop on Borden's train officially.

This stirring drama is stamped with Nolan's endless attempt to extract spectacle from every scene, and surely he has the ability to do so, but his decision to tell a fragmented story is detrimental. The experiment was fruitful in Memento because of the fragmentary nature of the protagonist, but here it feels like a tricky cinematic device with no inherent purpose. I believe I would have loved this film much more had it been told in a linear fashion. Nolan's willingness to challenge the audience is respectable, but the film could have been sharper without such a manipulative ransacking of time. The climax makes use of Hitchcockian thrills with great deftness, suspending vital moments with eerie orchestra sizzles. Wally Pfister's moody cinematography is extremely compelling, exploiting the magnificently designed Victorian sets with mysterious lighting. The Prestige of the film, or what's described as the third act of a magic trick where the twists and turns are revealed, is either so obvious it's dumb, or it's so ridiculous that it must be a puzzling mishap. I don't want to ruin Nolan's signature twist, but let's just say that the film is more interesting during its tenure than during its revelation.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Satantango (1994) A Film by Bela Tarr

Have you ever gazed at mud so long that you begin to realize an intricate beauty in it? Do you perhaps come to appreciate its consistent texture or its effervescent gleam? At some point during the 7 hours you'll spend inside the filthy world of Bela Tarr's 1994 epic Satantango, you'll be able to answer "yes" to either one of these questions. I spent a large portion of the day yesterday watching this film after striking gold when it was finally released with English subtitles this year, eliciting one simultaneous roar from cinephiles worldwide. The film, yet another one of Tarr's antitheses of corporate cinema, is one of the most hidden of treasures in the movies. In his distinctive style, he weaves together multiple documentations of the miserable inhabitants of a farm collective. As a pure mood piece on entropy and desolation, few films surpass it. Tarr's mise-en-scene is drab and beautiful; the shots stall most times for up to 10 minutes and the camera is slowly orchestrated yet versatile. The actions of characters are focused on in their entirety, to the point that it is riveting when we see a man pour a glass of brandy. Off-screen dialogue, pensive glances, and elongated trudges are ubiquitous. With Mihaly Vig's unusually hypnotic accordion music, this peculiar atmosphere is heightened to a haunting degree.

However, Satantango should be seen not only for this admirable destruction of filmic norms, but also for its coherent, devastating subject matter. A mesmerizing tone is built once we begin to realize that the stories that are being told are unfolding in real time and during the same time. The four parts - a man named Futaki discusses cashing out and leaving with a friend whose wife he is having an affair with, a crumbling doctor stares from his living room window at the uneventful village and records his thoughts in a journal, a young girl contemplates with a cat her lonely and neglected life, and a group of stubborn adults drink to the coming of a conman - are connected by the fact that they overlap. This method has never been less tiring, as it establishes a plausible rhythm rather than advances some hackneyed plot. The rumor of the arrival of Irimias and Petrina, the two conmen who were thought by the village to be dead and gone, curiously recalls the confounding entrance of the circus in Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies.

It seems Tarr has a fascination with the piling on of confusion during already miserable times. However, in Satantango, Irimias turns out be an unsung hero that woos the stubborn drunkards of the village into a trip to the outskirts of the pancake terrain. This turns only into more dissatisfaction assisted by poor weather. Whereas in Tarkovsky's films, the rain seems to have a spiritual presence, in Tarr's films, the rain simply acts as an internalized motif: the characters are miserable and therefore the rain adds to or reciprocates their misery. Perhaps this description makes Satantango sound extremely undesirable, but to reference the mud analogy again, it's actually beautiful and tragic, containing some incredibly moving sequences. It's also the ultimate summit of serious film viewing.