Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Punch-Drunk Love (2002) A Film by Paul Thomas Anderson

Many of the films of Paul Thomas Anderson are like the characters in Shakespeare plays; they have one fatal flaw. In Punch-Drunk Love, his first and only full blown romantic comedy to date, real human emotion is too often subverted in the interest of all things quirky. With what was called a shockingly serious performance, Adam Sandler plays a nervous and impulsive small businessman who gets himself into trouble when he hands his credit card over to an erotic phone chat company. To me, Sandler plays his normal fidgety self, the one strength being that there is a pinch of him not thinking he's most the most hilarious human on the planet. His character Barry Egan can actually be analyzed as a socially awkward twitch rather than a self-inflated maniac. On an average day, a peculiarly named girl Lena Leonard stumbles upon Barry's workplace and he is struck with affection. Beforehand, he acquires a harmonium off the side of the street, which Anderson strains to connect to the plot, but ends up only portraying a pathetic guy's attachment to the random beeping of notes. By the end, as if by some stroke of miracle, he plays a chord.

This is all meant to be funny I suppose, but Anderson builds each joke up too anxiously with the help of Jon Brion's obtrusive score. The ticking percussion serves its purpose literally; when the tick stops, an awkward characterization springs up and then it starts back up again. The music is absent however for the most baffling line of the film when Lena whispers to Barry, "I wanna chew off the skin on your face." Punch-Drunk Love is overflowing with quirks. Anderson's directorial style in the film is at times admirable but his hope of impressing art film fans feels too self-conscious. There are useless tidbits of tye-dye animations that interrupt the viewing experience once in a while; they seem like a way of affirming that "yes, this is indeed a romantic comedy and is intended to be very flowery despite the frequent spurts of anger." I couldn't make much sense of their true purpose.

The visual style is beautiful and quite Kubrickian, like Anderson has displayed in much of his work, but he fetishizes it to the point of self-indulgence. In the scene where Barry first notices the harmonium on the road, a shot that relishes the grandeur of the long street is on screen. Then Anderson reverses this shot to look the opposite way. As if that wasn't overkill, he then proceeds to show two more wonderful depth of field shots. One of these images for a prolonged amount of time would have worked better for the action that follows the pensive silence. Although Punch-Drunk Love charms frequently and is pretty engaging (something I've left out), Anderson's gimmicks shine through far too much. The film is a declaration to the fact that Anderson matured in a shortage of time to create his masterpiece There Will be Blood.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Brand Upon the Brain! (2006) A Film by Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin is the type of artist whose overwhelming originality leaves audiences feeling powerless and in a state of stunned admiration. With Brand Upon the Brain!, the specific result is a disorienting trip through Maddin's auteurist mind, which has channeled the primitive days of cinema and modernized them to astounding proportions. He has always been an immensely personal filmmaker, leading some to peg him as a self-indulgent, overly arty experimenter. However, someone who takes such an innate fondness to the mythologizing of their youth and rummages the art of film in the process is someone who should never be labeled so negatively.

2006's Brand Upon the Brain! is a pyschosexual expedition through Maddin's zany childhood. Utilizing the techniques of silent film, grand-guignol, and experimental film, he devises a constant mood of menace surrounding the Black Notch Island he inhabited in his youth. His reinvention of these methods is evident in the technically sophisticated breed of editing he presents. Superimpositions, marauded speed-up and slow-down effects, and jump cuts are relentless. One minute, you may feel like you're viewing a student's flashy experimental piece, and the next you'll be in absolute awe by the amount of work that must have been put into it. In a Poe-esque tell-tale way, Isabella Rossellini narrates the fantasy of the fictionalized Guy. His mother is a forever watchful spy, perched at the top of the family's lighthouse, which is also home to a laboratory rat father and a legion of orphans. Guy's heart is melted by the coming of a woman named Wendy who plays a sweet harp, but soon enough she transforms into her brother Chance Hale to pursue Guy's sister. (Wendy's a lesbian.)

Maddin attacks this haunting fantasy with incessantly recurrent imagery such as "The Horn of Chastity", "The Kissing and Undressing Gloves", and "The Harvest of the Nectar", which is perceptibly the juice from the father's orphans. Odd, yes, but also humorous and enchanting. Brand Upon the Brain! feels a bit like childhood story time, except with a dark edge and a discombobulated mood. If you're a fan of David Lynch but also enjoy Charlie Chaplin, you'll find great satisfaction in this visual feast. When it was released, it actually toured live with a full orchestra (the score is a masterpiece on its own) and foley artist - sounds like something that would likely reverse my opinion of theater in general.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

W. (2008) A Film by Oliver Stone

The arrival of a biopic on the current US President George W. Bush immediately sparked my curiosity. I'm not exactly an enthusiastic follower of politics, but I'm no stranger to the President's inadequacy. I couldn't help but wonder how a Hollywood film would portray one of the most trivial politicians in American history. Then I saw that Oliver Stone directed W., which is no surprise when taking into account the slew of politically charged films he has churned out in his career, (JFK, Nixon, World Trade Center, and Born on the Fourth of July among them). There were many people angered by the portrayal of Bush, saying that Stone was "beating him while he's already down". I disagree; I was pleased to see an unbiased film that never felt politically heavy-handed and was in fact quite leisurely in tone. Stone just placed on the screen the personality that is George Bush's and left the audience to decide what to think of him. The film is unlikely to reverse anyone's opinion of Bush however; it will only crystallize firm held love or hate beliefs of him and at best will make one sympathize with a man who is just utterly incompetent.

The film is well researched too, jeopardizing entertainment for a truthful account of George's ascent into adulthood. To an extent, his parents neglect him. His father, the successful politician, believes he's not doing anything in his life besides drinking alcohol. When little Bush realizes this is for the most part true, he clings to superficial religious faith and decides to run for Governor of Texas. With the help of his new nurturing wife Laura, he miraculously is elected. Josh Brolin, who's really making a name for himself after his impressive work in No Country for Old Men, embodies the President with all the intensity, albeit false intensity, that the real Bush exudes during his addresses to the nation. There are several other strong performances in the film, such as Richard Dreyfuss's turn as the far more decisive Dick Cheney. He, along with Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfield, and Condoleezza Rice, act as Bush's brain trust. They realize he is passionate in his political attempts, but it is inevitable that he needs a strong foundation to correct him when he's wrong, (which is a frequent occurrence).

While W. musters up a fascinating portrait of Bush, it seems that the timing of it is a bit wayward. Political season is certainly getting spicy, and that has taken the focus away from Bush. Had this film been produced five years from now for example, the result could have been a film with a bit deeper of a psychological study, and undeniably more historical relevance. At that point, the country will have already seen the fruits of post-Bush reconstruction (hopefully?), and therefore a biopic on him would be more powerful. Imagine if Ray was made in the 1960's; the effect would have been tragically impermanent. Unfortunately, this reasonably well made film may slip into that category, and the tacky baseball dream sequences and sometimes dragged on length won't help.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Killer of Sheep (1977) A Film by Charles Burnett

It's always special to see a film in which every frame breathes the personality and dedication of its maker. Charles Burnett's debut Killer of Sheep is one of those treats. The film looks and feels at times like a cheap 70's documentary, but beneath its hazy layer of grain, it's a heartfelt neorealist work. It revolves around a black family in a downbeat shantytown USA neighborhood ostensibly during the 1970's when the film was made. It is non-narrative cinema and can be applied to the "slice of life" cliche, where the main purpose is to establish a time, place, and feeling rather than come full circle with the characters. What it does is it keeps the characters at a safe distance, the closest being a father who works at a slaughterhouse yet yearns for a happier life and a more pleasurable job. He comes home to his wife day after day with little to say.

Along with the rest of the adults in Killer of Sheep, the father seems to have reached a point in his life where he should no longer fool around. Youth and adulthood is a primary contrast that is established. The kids indulge themselves in the understandable ingredients of naive restlessness: running around, kicking and punching for no reason, and playing rock wars. In the often times industrial ruins of the neighborhood, it is evident that they are making the most of their meager situation. The adults on the other hand have been through the vagaries of youth; they must deal with serious matters but too often seem unprepared for them. Stan, the father, appears to be the only one entirely conscious of this fact amidst the several wacky friends he has.

When the film drifts into poetic fancy at the slaughterhouse, the sheep are an important image to take into account. Cradled in pens awaiting their death, the sheep can't help but be aware of impending doom. At times they huddle together and flee the workers, but to no avail. Are these sheep representations of the adults in the film? Have they nowhere to run but death? If one looks at the latter question, Killer of Sheep has a pessimistic, haunting tone to it. It would place Stan among other memorable film loners who are all too aware of life's fate. Unfortunately, these rare instances of beauty are only touched upon. There's not enough attention paid to the sheep to describe the film as an allegory. Sometimes Burnett in his most sincere attempts shows us stretches of unadulterated life that end up being a bit boring. You can praise him for his compassion and ability to evoke nostalgia, but great lines like "I always told you to have a spare, but yous'a square, so you aint keep no spare!" occur a bit too infrequently. What's most compelling about these sequences is Stan's toddler daughter, whose girly behaviors are extremely endearing. Coupled with a lo-fi blues soundtrack that works magnificently, Killer of Sheep has the ability to touch emotionally, but at times it feels a bit like flimsy poetry.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

What Time is it There? (Ni na bian ji dian) A Film by Tsai Ming-Liang (2001)

From the cramped quotidian living spaces of Taipei to chilly Parisian streets, What Time is it There displays the alienation of two souls with graceful sensitivity. Like the rest of Tsai Ming-Liang's cinema, it is contemplative and lingers on the loneliness of its inhabitants, but it also has a humorous poignancy that is rare in his films. Where Goodbye, Dragon Inn shifts into hollowness, What Time is it There delves into Charlie Chaplin on depressants. Most of the comedic sequences are very dry, but there are a few that exhibit methodical physical comedy.

The overarching sentiment is not a humorous one however; just gaze into the powerfully stagnate expression on Lee Kang-Sheng's face and you'll get the idea. He plays the characteristic loner in Ming-Liang's work. Here he is a twentysomething living with his mother after his father died, and working on the streets of Taipei selling watches. When a young woman confronts him one day and shows an interest in one of his watches, the two forge a mystifying connection. She informs him that she's taking a trip to Paris, so he sells her the watch before she leaves and proceeds to set as many clocks as he can find to Paris time. His actions seem trivial, but they also appear to be rooted in a kind of supernatural longing for the girl. Presumably to feel connected with her, he even watches and rewatches the classic French film The 400 Blows. Simultaneously, the mother whom he's distancing himself from prays incessantly in hopes of regaining the spirit of her lost husband, whether in his original form or in that of a cockroach in the living room fish tank. (The explanation for this odd sentence can be found in one of the hilarious scenes of the film).

The lives of these three quite Bressonian characters are observed silently. Deviations from the apparent "plot" are aplenty, but it's the cumulative urban remoteness that is important. Feelings of hopelessness are only eradicated partly by the meaningless erotic behaviors that the three engage in late in the film. Ming-Liang's film is substantially alienating because of the spare camerawork. There is always a feeling of existential detachment in the wide angled shots that reveal several important compositional elements before the faces. Not a single camera movement is existent either; instead the audience is left to imprint the gorgeous visuals that are forever static on the screen. Red, green, and black swirl at different depths in each shot, creating mesmerizing mosaics as beautiful as any shot in Goodbye, Dragon Inn. After the enigmatic ending of the masterful What Time is it There, I was left with a brain stamp of a Ferris wheel and loads of thoughts.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Close-Up (Nema-ye Nazdik) A Film by Abbas Kiarostami (1990)

There is nothing sensational that can be found on the surface of an Abbas Kiarostami film. For the excitable viewer, his films can be frustratingly dry, but for the patient viewer, they are profoundly rewarding. It is in the fact that his films don't beg for attention that one can provide reasoning for deeming his work as "high art". Fittingly, Kiarostami is also an extremely humble individual. In his interviews, he views his films with an open mind, accepting of all outside interpretations and even questioning his own. Close-Up, he said, was the first film that he actually sat down in the cinema for, viewed unabated, and liked. And, well, he should like it, because aside from its considerable technical flaws, it is an ingenious character study. There is absolutely no shortage of imagination.

It tells the story of a struggling lower class Iranian man who, in a desperate attempt to liberate himself from his suffering both financially and personally, acts for a day as the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. His behaviors, which include sharing a bus ride with an Iranian mother and a copy of Makhmalbaf's novel/film The Cyclist and visiting her home to speak to her sons about his work as an artist, are intercut with the court case that follows. Hossain Sabzian is the man's name, and he was arrested for attempted fraud. Sabzian sheds light on his intentions in the claustrophobic court room, which works to localize a wide variety of demographically distinct Iranian people. He admires Makhmalbaf greatly for his willingness to "portray the sufferings of ordinary people".

He is filmed almost completely in close up in these scenes, as there is a film crew recording his unusual case in the interest of cinema. These scenes acquire a harsh documentary feel with dismal 16mm footage. Sabzian's concerns are self-liberation through the arts and the need to care for his family during difficult times. His reasons for acting as Mahkmalbaf are baffling, compelling, and relatable. The story's power lies entirely on the shoulders of Sabzian: his downfalls are tragic and his emancipations are uplifting. A character so powerful contains the ability to pierce through technical blemishes such as poor audio and obtuse lighting. A viewer cannot watch Close-Up with the expectation of seeing stunning cinematic bravado; rather, the virtue of the film is its lyrical humanism.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Last Days (2005) A Film by Gus Van Sant

The third film in Gus Van Sant's trilogy touching on the idea of death is a trivial one. It is a muddled observation of the final days of a Seattle based grunge rocker, a screen representation of the Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. However, the main character is never tagged as Cobain. In fact, his name is Blake. It's a mystery to me why the film wasn't just officially set to the well known disturbed rock star. Perhaps Van Sant could not gain rights to the use of Cobain's name and image, so he created an exact replica under a different name. Nonetheless, the film achieves what was likely the real rhythms of Cobain's final days before his inexplicable death.

The audience is propelled into a forest retreat where Blake wallows in his own crisis. He mutters to himself in an unrecognizable manner through the woods in the opening shots, and finds himself beside a small waterfall where he proceeds to strip down and dive in. In these moments, Blake appears to be at his most carefree. Once back at the cavernous stone house he stays at with his friends, he looks like a mess. Unfortunately, the intent of the film turns into a bit of a mess too. It is at once acutely centered on Blake's thoughts and actions, but then wanders aimlessly with the people surrounding him. The impact of a scene when he changes into a woman's dress and trudges around a sunlit room to the accompaniment of a Boyz II Men music video cannot be properly measured alongside scenes such as the arrival of two religious promoters to the house, or the awkwardly placed homosexual scene that has become a Van Sant tradition.

The film feels like a series of disjointed vignettes in which each tedious shot represents a snippet of Blake's increasingly depressing life. This is not to say that I was bored with the lengthy images (as I am continually enthralled by Van Sant's minimalism); I just thought that the overall juxtaposition of scenes left much to be desired. There are indeed some images that are memorable, such as the snail-paced dolly out from the house window as Blake plays a looped musical piece, or the familiar tracking shots behind him. I also won't hesitate to admit once again that Van Sant is an extremely tasteful filmmaker. His prominent uses of natural sound and his firm grasp of a declining mood perfectly compliment the simplistic style that Gerry and Elephant showcased. Unfortunately, Last Days was off the mark a bit, and was there wasn't much to absorb from it morally.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989) A Film by Peter Greenaway

One can't help but wonder what makes people come back to Le Hollandais gourmet restaurant. The answer can perhaps be lent to the overall fantasy quality of The Cook, Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, and certainly not to the malicious tendencies of its owner. Michael Gambon plays one of the most relentlessly vile antagonists in screen history with his portrayal of Albert, the thief. One of the inherent questions in the film is: can a person who seemingly has no love to give, genuinely love? Director Peter Greenaway explores this question and a few others in his provocative theatrical imagining of the scummy tidings of a gourmet restaurant.

When the thief's wife becomes fed up with the way he treats her, she begins a relationship with one of the regulars of the restaurant, an act which is at first out of lust but transforms into deep passion. Her lover, as described by the film's title, is named Michael. He sits alone at his table with his nose in books while enjoying the splendid tastes of the eatery. Albert simultaneously parses him into the characteristic of a Jewish book freak, ("This is not a library, this is a restaurant!"). He is an intelligent, forward-thinking man, a stark contrast to Albert, who is immature, outrageous, and violent. Albert's wife Georgie, played by Helen Mirren, inevitably partakes in mischievous sex with Michael. The act arouses suspicion from many of the denizens of the kitchen and imminently so; they do it right in the general proximity of others. Such audacity deserves attention on the part of Greenaway. He demonstrates continually the limits of what he can bring to this fable: sexual blasphemy and snide social commentary, and its all the more fun because of it.

The vision of the film is as impressively focused as anything by Wes Anderson, and its staging and photography are as fascinatingly deliberate and spacious as any of the later films of Stanley Kubrick. The settings are established extremely well in the film-the camera stays with its recognizable distances and angles, respecting the audience's positioning. Each room is distinct, a feature that harbors accolades for the art director. The bathroom, with its white walls and sleek design, has Kubrickian symmetry to it. The kitchen (where an angelic dishwasher boy sings piercing opera), with its pistachio tones and spewing steam, looks like the underbelly of some industrial uprising. The rooms even own there own musical pieces! Kudos to the score by the way, which is fantastic. The point is, there is something aesthetically glorious for every movie fan to latch on to. If an interest can be established there, then indeed the plot will offer great excitement too. It's extraordinarily stimulating while also being idiosyncratic. Greenaway's a real talent.