Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Man From London (A londoni férfi) A Film by Bela Tarr (2007)

When writing about Bela Tarr's cinema, starting with the opening shots of his films is nearly unavoidable. He places so much emphasis on his extraordinarily long, spellbinding first impressions. Seven years after Werckmeister Harmonies, the greatest film of the 21st century thus far in my opinion, he has somehow managed to match the brilliance of its opening shot with The Man From London's, a feat which seemed unimaginable. Beginning on a rope dangling in water as it anchors a boat to shore and concluding with a train leaving its station seen through the wooden supports of a watchtower, the mind-bendingly complex shot tells an entire slow burner of a story that makes up a great chunk of the film's plot: Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), the gloomy watchtower attendant, paces back and forth in his roost and witnesses a classic bit of noirish tomfoolery involving a cloaked man with an ominous suitcase evading the boat guards. The shot is delivered in one swooping motion, first upward and eventually repetitively horizontal, and is far more abstract than the cow trudge of Satantango or the bar dance of Werckmeister Harmonies. A few times, it seems possible that Tarr has actually cut, but what really happens is the frame is variably interrupted by pitch black surfaces, the floor of the watchtower or the thick window frames. We also never get a solid view of the interior of the room from which Maloin is voyeuristically peering, or of Maloin himself in fact; the camera instead crawls in and out of focus directly behind his gaping back, interchanging this with his panoramic view of the pier. After approximately twelve demanding minutes, Tarr has infuriated fans of "getting to the point" and left others, like myself, in mesmerized awe.

The impact of The Man from London can therefore be likened to the striking of a chord on the piano which is subsequently left to sustain. This is not to suggest that it declines considerably, because the final ring of the piano strings can be just as beautiful as that initial contact. However, as much as the film establishes what may seem like a plot-heavy noir, Tarr loses a whole bunch of interest in his initial premise (which ultimately finds Maloin with the suitcase of money), instead meditating on the aftermath. He lets the brooding mood of the film's initial minutes simmer over tangentially into the rest of the film. Mihaly Vig's deep, vibrating score continues to underpin, but does so at briefer interjections. A police investigator (István Lénárt) arrives in the small town Maloin inhabits, determined to solve the murder that followed, but goes about his business in a routine manner, only existing in the film through Maloin's immediate awareness and being nearly immaterial due to the fact that the bulk of his discussions are spoken in English, which the French Maloin does not comprehend. So, yes, to an extent, the film is Tarr's most plot-driven piece (perhaps naturally, given its source material is a 1933 Georges Simenon novel), with classic elements such as murder and suitcases of money, but paradoxically continues to treat atmosphere with the same emphasis.

Tarr has stated that he intends on returning to simplicity for his declared "final film", The Turin House, because he felt he maxed out his capacity for technical bravura and narrative complexity with The Man from London. Of course, this comment is coming from the world's greatest arthouse practitioner, a filmmaker who is blind to current cinematic trends, so there is a bit of a knee-jerk response that accompanies it: "Huh? Complex?". Tarr's work is the holy grail of elusive cinematic excellence in the face of extremely modest material. I wouldn't say The Man from London is nearly pandering enough for Tarr to dive back to roots (even though it does have a surprising appearance from Tilda Swinton, an accomplished Hollywood name), but by the same token, he has pushed himself to the more conventional boundaries of his decidedly unconventional vision. Vig's music comes the closest it ever has to serving the classical function of a film score, showing up more frequently to bring mystery to the dullest of moments (Maloin purchasing his daughter Henriette (Erika Bók, the unforgettable little girl from Satantango) a fine scarf in attempt to detour his mind from the guilt of his silent possession of money). The use of Simenon's novel is also a choice that has raised eyebrows from Tarranites, considering it is quite orthodox indeed.

Nonetheless, Tarr's stylistic virtues remain intact. His work with cinematographer Fred Kelemen (a student of Tarr's) is characteristically marvelous. The film's look is a sterling example of chiaroscuro lighting, giving defined crispness to the world-weary wrinkles in his familiar character's faces (I say familiar because we have seen nearly every character in a Tarr film before and they essentially reprise their roles). At times, it was difficult to recall when a particular shot began, largely due to the fact that his stately camera movements travel anywhere and everywhere, showcasing an amazing ability to shift focal planes. As usual, Tarr does the majority of his sound work in post-production, which has admittedly become most noticeable here. The dubbing, while it does sometimes seem to be a choice meant to give a hypersensual quality to voices that succeeds frequently, can be aggravatingly disjointed. Still, Tarr's crystalline handling of the nuances of a bar room's ambiance proves to be one thing that never ceases to be singular; pool ball's rattle around with unimaginable amplification, accordions sound continuously, and the slurping of beer against the lips has wonderful clarity. That being said, the fact that Tarr returns so casually to an almost exact replica of the kind of pub that we saw in Damnation (1988) smacks of regression rather than artistic evolution.

I do believe that The Man From London was given an unfair glance by many critics at Cannes two years ago. The resounding verdict was that it was "good but not great Tarr". The film doesn't resonate with as much cosmic multivalence as Werckmeister Harmonies, but there is also an entirely different goal at hand. Tarr's more occupied by Maloin's passivity, a trait that eats away at him, and his desperate need to make something of his humdrum life, made known by the metronome-like rhythms that sometimes reverberate in his head. If the film were treated with the same kind of epic scope of its predecessor, it would have been off base. The Man From London is dealt with exactly as it should be, a reserved examination of the human condition with quiet intensity. It is different than any other Tarr film, and given his apparently impending retirement, it should be savored.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Ice Storm (1997) A Film by Ang Lee

Fate is the engine that drives The Ice Storm and its cast of characters - the members of two Connecticut upper middle-class suburban families - into a flurry of entanglement that proves devastating. The touch of magic realism that brews beneath the spot-on period piece naturalism should come as no surprise in an Ang Lee film (the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and is all the more respectable for its subtle deployment, the opposite of which contributed to the bloat of a film like American Beauty, another examination of the effects of suburban blues.

The Ice Storm, an adaption of Rick Moody's acclaimed novel, is set in 1973, a few years after the massive cultural and sexual revolution that occurred in the late 1960's. The Hood's and the Carver's are still living within this jostled cultural landscape, either fostering adulterous or criminal habits or experimenting with sex, alcohol, and drugs. Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) is frequenting the Carver house for afternoon delights with the bored wife Janey (Sigourney Weaver), thus triggering simmering suspicion in Elena Hood (Joan Allen). All of their children have uncertain romantic or scandalous pursuits: the rebellious Wendy Hood (Christina Ricci) speaks casually about sexual encounters with her friends at school and is secretly admired by Sandy Carver (Adam Hann-Byrd), to whom she makes the offer, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours.", Sandy's spacey brother Mikey (Elijah Wood) uses Wendy for strictly experimental purposes, and Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) has "that feeling" for a fellow student with knowledge of Dostoevsky and existentialism but with a serious aptitude for heavy drug usage. They are all considerably unsure of their actions, a sentiment that is mirrored by their parents. Ben knows what he's doing is wrong but is too shallow and immersed in himself to properly inform his wife who stubbornly remains silent until the situation intensifies.

The film is structured modularly; to an extent, the scenes that make up the middle portion of the film (all occurring during a Thanksgiving weekend) could be rearranged without risking a loss of clarity. Lee opens the film on the night of the ice storm, revealing small fragments, shifts backwards, and returns to the storm for the final act. Therefore, the motif of ice is omnipresent, with there being nicely detailed shots of freezer trays scattered throughout. Water can frequently stand in as a symbol for sex, in its inexorable renewals and flow, so what exists for the characters is a kind of sexual freeze, a reduction of the sexual act to something that is rigid, cold, devoid of feeling, and ultimately physical. Because sex and sexual anxiety is the source of immaturity and much of the unspoken distress that the characters (both young and old) feel, the ice storm is somewhat of a karma device. It inevitably causes a death that is part of one of nature's domino effects.

To visually convey this metaphorical depth, Lee wisely chooses to not do a tremendous amount with his camera; instead he only occasionally provides gentle shots of the ice frozen solid to tree branches, and more tellingly will shoot through windows at his characters, the precipitation on the windows shrouding a mosaic of the outdoors reflected against the glass and the scene inside to evoke the double lives of his confused souls. The rich cast, made up of established Hollywood actors (Joan Allen being the highlight) and promising newcomers who have only currently become stars (i.e. Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood), does a stellar job of bringing this ennui to life. Christina Ricci's performance is especially fantastic. With its simultaneous period relevance and timelessness (ancient Native American flute reverberates on the soundtrack), The Ice Storm is the most important film of Ang Lee's career.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sleeper (1973) A Film by Woody Allen

Sleeper may very well have been the first time Woody Allen was able to pull it all together: a story with coherence and flow (the terrain on which Bananas, Take the Money and Run, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask struggled), a pleasing balance of slapstick and verbal wit, and an intellectual undercurrent (which, to be sure, is very much an undercurrent, for it's so disguised underneath Allen's playful whimsy and absurdist logic). Woody was still a young, instinctive director at this point, but with three uproariously original films under his belt, he was beginning to erect the confidence and studio backing he needed to create a sprawling science fiction farce like Sleeper.

The film satirizes America of the 70's by projecting society's foolishness into that of a totalitarian police state of 2173. It's an intriguing concept, because when Woody's character discusses American history to awestruck future humans, they laugh at the seeming idiocy. In turn, the audience laughs, likely for the same reasons they do, so the film is able to induce the same kind of hypnotized state in its audience that it reveals with its characters, reflecting how easily people can be blinded by the delusions of their situation. Allen stars as Miles Monroe, a jazz clarinetist and health-foods store owner in Greenwich Village who is cryogenically frozen following an operation only to wake up 200 years later in the presence of some dissidents hoping to use him as a method of obtaining secrets from the government in light of his complete anonymity (in this society, punctilious records are kept on everyone). Being the neurotic pipsqueak he is, Miles flees just at the suggestion of possible capture, eventually finding his way out of desperation into the suit of one of the many household robots.

He is delivered to the house of Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton), a complacent ignoramus with acclaim as a poet, who hasn't the slightest of suspicion regarding her new assistant. Once his identity is threatened, however, he reveals himself to Luna and takes her under his wing in his mission to avoid capture, in the process inadvertently transforming her into a pseudo-intellectual that spits out factoids about Karl Marx. Ultimately, she ends up serving the role that Keaton always does for Allen: the optimistic free-spirit who gives him upbeat fodder against which he can unleash his quick-witted, nervous chattering. In Sleeper, this ability to interact on some human level is especially valued by Allen's character given the sexual frigidity and displaced moral stance of the futuristic society (a device called an Orgazmatron is used to eschew the act of sex entirely).

The film has some of the most accomplished visuals of Allen's early work. With slick, sterile set design that is often meant to emulate that of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sleeper exhibits a canned futuristic look brought to life by dynamic camerawork and Allen's uninhibited physical liveliness. Against the strictness of the society and its architecture, Allen slapstick gestures are especially potent. As in a Buster Keaton film, the camera trains itself on Allen's spontaneously silly behavior, such as when he sneaks into police-run territory to steal food for him and Luna in their forest hideaway (he is trying to acquire oversized bananas and strawberries, which are popularly regarded as unhealthy while cigarettes are considered nutritious). The film's roaring jazz soundtrack (on which Allen himself played clarinet) dominates during these outlandish romps, presenting yet another exuberant contrast to the cold features of the milieu. Miles and Luna pass themselves off in one last ditch effort as doctors familiar with cloning, sparking the arrival of the film's hilarious finale, which speaks to the hilarity of Allen's vision: they fudge a cloning of the dictator, who has been reduced to a lone nose.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Ulysses' Gaze (To vlemma tou Odyssea) A Film by Theodoros Angelopoulos (1995)

Becoming enraptured by the elegiac beauty that permeates Theodoros Angelopoulos' Ulysses' Gaze is not a difficult task. Unraveling its dense symbology and digesting the barrage of thematic material that Angelopoulos fires at the audience however, is. Of course, there is a wealth of conceptual ideas that do hit home with ease, most notably the congruence of Harvey Keitel's search for primitive film footage shot by the Manakis brothers (the first ever reels of Balkan film) to the odyssey of Homer. Keitel, playing a Greek filmmaker coming back to his homeland after 35 years in America, wanders from Greece to Sarajevo while being consistently haunted by memories or ghostly relics of the past: his loves (or perhaps, singular), all played by Maia Morgenstern, his family, the colleagues of the Mannakis brothers themselves, and the primordial, undeveloped footage of observational cinema that the Mannakis brothers recorded - their first "gaze" at the world.

Angelopoulos sanctions the idea of time as a continuum, of the past always being relevant to social and cultural identity in the present and frequently being the source of irreparable damage. That damage is evident in Angelopoulos' subjective view of Greece and of the surrounding nations: cold, wintry, foggy, dilapidated, and ugly. Scattered refugees limp through the barren terrain, the "snow and silence", Keitel calls it, in one of the film's most mournful travel sequences. He frequently converses in the film with people who speak of the problematic, irresolvable nature of the Balkans, that although the country converted to nationalism, it cannot escape the communism of the Eastern bloc. A gargantuan statue of Lenin is carried downriver with Keitel seated beside it (reminiscent of the hand in Landscape in the Mist), standing in as figurative proof. This is the most ceaselessly nagging metaphor in Ulysses' Gaze. Angelopoulos hangs on it for so long that he undermines the inherent hands-off approach of his meditative style to begin with; in such instances, the technique becomes as manipulative as a frenetically edited action picture. There are several times when Angelopoulos' long-take mastery feels portentous and exhaustive, such as when Keitel's character surveys the passing years of his family's New Year's party; in one static shot, the family waltzes from 1945 to 1950, an interesting idea at its root but which comes off as tedious.

Despite these occasional bouts of self-indulgence though, the film, as an elegy on the dissolution of geographical identity (Keitel stomps over borders with little perceivable distinction), has a magnificently sorrowful, dreamlike beauty. Ruins hold mysteries undiscovered, such as the rundown cinema that holds the Mannakis reels which is located in the midst of the Yugoslavian war that the filmmaker travels through. In one transfixing shot, the camera moves from Keitel's somber glance past the dirty screen to reveal snow falling outside a hole in the wall above it. Two other memorable scenes stand out: early in the film, Keitel follows a woman he believes he once knew through the shadowy streets of Greece only to be sandwiched by a crowd of torch bearers and another of policeman and civilians holding umbrellas. Towards the end, following Keitel's direct exposure to wartime horror, which felt disjointed and lacked the emotional punch it intended for, a small orchestra and children's choir plays in a frost-bitten park to a frozen audience. Although it is never as emotionally devastating as his masterpiece, Landscape in the Mist, Ulysses' Gaze is worth experiencing for these kinds of transcendent pleasures.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Best Friend (Mon meilleur ami) A Film by Patrice Leconte (2006)

My Best Friend is the kind of film that is bound to elicit unabashed waves of light compliments, most specifically describing it as "cute". In truth however, the flimsy charm that the film dishes out disguises what is by all means a pedestrian, predictable, aggravatingly unrealistic film. Certainly it is enjoyable to an extent, but French director Patrice Leconte is dressing up something that is really closer to a schematic (in the worst way) scriptwriting exercise as a sophisticated parable.

The premise feels off-kilter to begin with: an uptight, unsociable antique dealer named Francois (Daniel Auteuil) strikes up a silly bet with a co-worker stating that if he can prove to her that he has a best friend, he will be able to keep the company vase he received in an auction. Unfortunately for Francois, he does not have a best friend, or any real friends for that matter, so his pursuit of friendship becomes an increasingly absurd expedition whose solution is, of course, "right under his nose". He milks the sociable gifts off of a kind, chatty taxi driver only to realize in the end that doing so was insincere in the face of a simple bet he had placed. And quite conveniently, Francois learns lessons that tip him off towards the meaning of true friendship.

Leconte may have forgotten at some point that he's dealing with adults here. In his hands, Francois is a dimwitted fool - it is a surprise that he has a job in the first place - and those around him are no less juvenile. It has somehow escaped him that the people he knew and considered "friends" in high school are leading entirely separate lives and would inevitably be unhinged by the less than ideal meetings he has with them, all in an attempt to be coincidental. Auteuil does his best to deal with his character's clueless nature, but even his mature acting, which is the high point of the film, cannot overturn the fact that he is set astray from the realities of upper class adults. Of course, adults can at times be as immature as children, but My Best Friend's treatment is undeniably hyperbolic.

Where Leconte falters most heavily is in his unsubtle storytelling. Everything that occurs in the film is in direct relation to Francois, either augmenting his feelings of isolation (the consecutive sights of friendly people on the streets, the fact that everywhere he goes someone or a billboard is telegraphing the importance of friendship) or balancing his smug side and his newly sociable side. In Leconte's Paris, it seems no ordinary life is in motion; everyone walks the streets in order to make a connection with Francois for better or worse, teaching him how he should act in life or denying his kindly offers at the bar. After Francois' shallow pursuit of companionship and his bet fall apart right before his eyes and those of his co-workers and the taxi driver friend whose graciousness he is blind to, his life becomes worse off than it was to begin with.

So, detrimentally, Leconte concludes the film with an arbitrary plot turn. The taxi driver, whose vat of trivial knowledge is well known, makes his way onto the French version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and eventually is desperate and must phone a friend. Francois is, of course, not his true friend, but knows the answer. This sequitur, which felt like Slumdog Millionaire all over again with its implausibly coincidental questions, was too ham-fisted a way of revealing the true emotions of the two men. My Best Friend is as flat and contrived as the expression of the host on the show.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Black Sunday: The Mask of Satan (La maschera del demonio) A Film by Mario Bava (1960)

The iconic symbols of Italian Gothic horror films have somewhat made their way, not always knowingly, into the film world's collective consciousness, and perhaps the most stylish purveyor of these types of images is Mario Bava. Despite never before seeing his debut Black Sunday (or The Mask of Satan), I found myself recognizing his certain phantasmagorical ways of seeing things, of giving them a durable horror that is tried-and-true. Imagine the best haunted front lawn you've seen on Halloween, magnify that bravura tenfold, and extend it to feature length and you'll get Bava's seminal work of Italian horror. It's the kind of familiar storyworld where characters are always decoding inscriptions, making haste, rushing to complete tasks "before the sun goes down", and being enveloped in sinister curses.

The film has lost some of its terror as years have past, with camp taking its place, but what remains can be attributed more to the indelible face of Barbara Steele in the the unsettling double role, to the otherworldliness that her mere corporeity sheds off, than the actual plot of the film. Steele, who would later appear in a different light in Fellini's 8 1/2, plays both Katia Vajda, the alluring daughter of a 19th century patriarch, and Princess Asa Vajda, a seductress who has long been dead and entombed for her wrongdoings in the 17th century. Befitting the title, Asa was walloped with a spiked mask said to carry the spirit of Satan and subsequently charged with death by fire to rid of the evil spirits entirely. However, when rain from above - as if sent be some supernal force - washed out the fire, Asa was simply buried in a decrepit vault. Of course, material things such as vaults can not contain the elusive power of evil, so when Asa is awoken by a doctor and his colleague who were sent to Katia's village with healing duties, she wreaks all kinds of sadistic havoc on the townspeople, also spawning the revival of the brute warrior she was killed with. The vampiric look of Steele, with her extensive forehead, defined cheekbones, and pointed eyes, is pivotal to the success of her performance.

What's most fascinating about the film however is Bava's careful control of the mise-en-scene, the blatantly manufactured milieu of doom that he creates. Restless fog rolls over the swampy forests that outline the village and, even in night scenes, there is a mystical light that diffuses through the lively tree limbs that hang like tentacles over the environment. Although it is always obvious that studio lighting or fog machines are situated somewhere not too far from the confines of the frame, Bava's intricate settings never come across cheaply. Known for an equally prolific career in cinematography, Bava takes the director of photography role as well. In keeping with a classic horror staple, Black Sunday thrives on its chiaroscuro look, its deft shadow and compositional play. The production is as sparkling accomplished as Hollywood studio dramas (complicated dolly shots that compliment action, slow zooms to elevate fear), only there is an added grit when the high contrast images are coupled with their ominous, cobweb-laden settings. The film is a prime look at how Mario Bava's technical mastery was omnipresent, even at such an early stage in his career.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Wendy and Lucy (2008) A Film by Kelly Reichardt

Often times there are stories that may crop up invariably for years, played out with minor differences in the films they inhabit. This works to recontextualize these snapshots to suit the times. Kelly Reichardt's third feature, Wendy and Lucy, is shimmering proof of this fact. Most specifically, cinema fans will be able to recognize the film's firm parallelism with Vittorio De Sica's Italian neorealist classic, Umberto D.. Wendy, standing in for De Sica's titular character, is an early twentysomething on a cross-country trip to Alaska in search of employment. Along with her is her affable dog Lucy, the only companion she seems truly connected to in her travels, similar to the way Umberto clung tightly to his delightful dog Flike. Wendy's car breaks down in Oregon, sending her through a succession of unfortunate occurrences that are propounded by her meager savings, namely the loss of Lucy who was tied up outside a supermarket when she was caught shoplifting. She spends the film searching for Lucy while trying to get her car fixed by the local mechanic.

The film is built around a largely introspective, first-person structure; Wendy's experiences are the camera's limelight, with the background almost always appearing out of focus unless resting on the Oregon residents she meets. She is an audience surrogate seeing her remote surroundings for the first time as we are. The only sincere help she receives comes from a down-and-out Walgreen's security guard who is first seen ushering her car out of the parking lot after Wendy illegally slept there for the night. Even then, what financial help he can offer is especially limited.

Wendy and Lucy continues Kelly Reichardt's restrained, un-preachy brand of unmistakably American filmmaking. 2006's Old Joy was a lyrical look at two old world liberals living under the Bush administration who had lost their ability to express emotions, and were also rather needy. Reichardt heads further into the troubling issue of poverty in recession-era America with Wendy, a desperate character whom Michelle Williams confidently plays with no-bullshit despondency. This time around the style is pointedly harsher and more matter-of-fact, with Reichardt eschewing music entirely (albeit in Old Joy she remained a minimalist in terms of the addition of music, setting only scenery-driven moments to Yo La Tengo's gorgeous guitar washes).

Reichardt sticks admirably to the most traditional methods of storytelling; there is not a single wasted moment as she places us durably at Williams' side throughout the film. Wendy's motivations are entirely comprehensible, whether she's frighteningly shuffling down the smalltown streets at night via the cloaked cuts of a succession of fluid tracking shots or walking out of the grocery store with unpurchased dog food, an act that was very much the instigator for her predicament. Reichardt's film is deliberately paced but always engaging, troubling but never heavy-handedly tragic, hopeless but always uplifted by Williams' staggering performance. Wendy and Lucy makes another sturdy case for Reichardt as one of America's most modest up-and-coming poets, an uncommon director who always manages to avoid didacticism in communicating a vividly pressing point. Very much like De Sica.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Silent Light (Stellet Licht) A Film by Carlos Reygades (2008)

Silent Light starts and ends with a sunrise and sunset, a monumentally simple concept that surprisingly has never once, to my knowledge, been exercised in a film. The two shots are undeniably sublime, protracted glances at the beauty of our world, and create something akin to the curtains opening and closing in the theater, a mere blink of the world's eye that exposes an age-old tale underneath it in the Mennonite community the film is set in. Director Carlos Reygades is unafraid to allow something so ordinary to grace the screen for an extended period of time, and in this refusal, demands the hushed attention such a cosmic act of nature deserves. His camera begins pirouetting through the starry night sky, eventually spiraling towards the ground and finishing with a languorous dolly in between two silhouetted trees, revealing the expansive sky as a slowly evolving amalgam of vibrant red and yellow paint. Accompanying it is the amplified buzzing of cicada bugs and the soft purr of the dawn wind. The shot's coda is essentially a reversal of the first one, and it is one of the most satisfying, visually orgasmic finales a film can offer, an aurora-borealis-like sight that accounts for one of the finest moments in contemporary cinema. These two shots contain enough wonder for an entire film, and I would have called it a masterpiece had they been the only components of Silent Light. The bleak moral play that exists within the remainder is, in this line of sight, somewhat of an addendum, enough to make a strong piece of pure cinema to be sure, even improved by the confounding impression that the opening leaves over, but it can be tedious.

The film chronicles an austerely, but not explicitly, religious man named Johan who is juggling two women in his life, a rather surprising fact considering the rigidity of the community. The Mennonites are settled in the Northern tip of Mexico, speak a German dialect called Plautdietsch, and adhere to liturgical activities in their withdrawn village, a place where the sounds of spoons upon bowls seem to reverberate for miles. Following the opening sequence, we see a silent family in prayer before a table of food and only hear the loud ticking of a clock in the background, which is trailed by a shot of a shiny disc on the clock that reflects the whole family. Immediately, Reygades also presents the village as a place where the slog of time is far more relevant to life, a characteristic that it shared with its festival companion, Times and Winds; each second that clicks by, it seems that emotions are magnified. Representing Johan's past lover but established partner is his wife Esther, a somber woman who cares for the pair's children and is well aware of Johan's admitted adultery with Marianne, another woman in the community with some physical similarities who genuinely feels bad for Esther. Johan feels some grief over his crisis, evidenced by the number of times Reygades patiently observes his weeping, but also believes that God has chosen a path for him to be with Marianne. He clearly still harbors much love for Esther, but his physical and emotional desire for Marianne is overwhelming, a notion he makes perfectly clear to his preacher father. Johan's struggle is universal - the difficulty to resolve one's polarized romantic feelings - but his method of dealing with it is certainly unusual. Esther makes her despair known in the climactic scene (staged traditionally in accordance with climate), first accusing Marianne of being a "damn whore" and then lamenting the past when her relationship with Johan was functional. The love triangle is an extremely unconventional one, with Marianne in complete understanding of Esther's turmoil, Johan unfazed by his dishonorable acts, and Esther repressive with her disapproval.

Carlos Reygades is a director whose first two features, Japón and Battle in Heaven, were both stylistic originals but nonetheless did little to foreshadow the ascetic, contemplative tone of Silent Light. The film's visual palette is representative of both Tarkovsky and, more presently, Lisandro Alonso. Each time Reygades establishes a scene with a wide shot, that wide shot lasts much longer than one might expect, and eventually, after tracking into the scene creepily, it becomes the shot for the entire scene. This is most mysteriously displayed when Johan visits a friend at his garage and the interior is pitch black until the camera enters completely. Also, the camera will perform the equivalent of Ozu's "pillow shots", only for Reygades, they frequently come during the middle of a scene. For example, when Johan and Esther are driving through inundant rain, the camera cuts away from their conversation inside the car - which always includes only one of them in the frame at once to suggest their spiritual disconnection - to follow on the dirt road at a distance before returning. There are also observational pauses in the story when we just view the family bathing outdoors or Esther driving a tractor through the wheat fields. For the first thirty minutes or so, this rhythm is tiring, but once Johan's crisis is learned, the film accumulates herculean force. In many ways, Silent Light is a riff on Dreyer's Ordet, except without such a blatant fixation on the religious strain. This is most evident in an exactly congruent denouement that acts as somewhat of a resolution to Johan's crisis and a justification of Marianne's earlier, and likely true, statement: "Peace is stronger than love." Whether this is an "homage" to Dreyer or a ripoff is in question, because there is a sense that Reygades uses the scene in the same affirming manner. Despite this though, the scene's power within the film is unquestionable, as are the other 145 minutes of elemental, authentic filmmaking. Silent Light is an assured film that uses the beautiful perplexity of nature to compliment and bookend the fragile frameworks of love and faith.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Badlands (1973) A Film by Terrence Malick

Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is one of the most enigmatic Western rebels in the history of American cinema. The same can be said about his naive partner Holly (Sissy Spacek). Terrence Malick's debut is a strange, impressive film that, despite focusing all of its screen time on a young couple on a killing spree in the Midwest, is something of an anti-character study. Malick does not plumb the psychology of his characters by providing back stories, details of their experiences, or their relation to others and their society. Kit and Holly are opaque characters in the strictest sense of the word; their physical existence is all we are treated to, leaving us to make attempts at applying their physical surroundings (the extensive South Dakota and Montana frontier) as hints towards their erratic behaviors. Simultaneously though, Kit and Holly are likable, down-to-earth figures. Malick seems to have been on a mission to assert that there are pressures and justifications, possibly bigger than the world and our perception of it, that lead people to acts that are seen as evil to the majority.

Badlands sets itself up against understandable ideals; Spacek's pragmatic, drawly narration (which sounds on and off throughout the entire film) introduces Holly as a simple person bearing a vaguely troublesome road to where she's at (a 15 year old, mature-for-her-age redhead). Her father is a domineering, brutal cowboy who of course disapproves of his daughter's evolving companionship with Kit, a 25 year-old, denim-flaunting garbage boy with a poker faced cordiality, and her mother is out of the picture. Holly is understandably attracted to Kit; he commands her attention with his seeming ambivalence and she gushes (or at least I suspect she does, for nothing in her flat inflection suggests it) about his uncanny resemblance to James Dean. When Kit murders her father shortly after he denies a grant for sharing company with his daughter, Holly responds only with a hollow slap in the face and a suggestion of calling the police, to which Kit replies modestly something to the tune of, "You could, but it wouldn't be so hot for me". The two, about as unconventional a couple as any (most would say Holly is too young for Kit), subsequently flee the scene and drive headlong into the empty American West, with Kit shooting anyone who threatens their anonymity.

This, at its core, is the definition of a "road movie". Malick has no interest in such formalities though. Badlands is deliberately nondescript and visually dominant, a quite plain display of affinity with the classic mythic landscape of America. Malick uses Kit and Holly's transit as a reason to explore the rhythm of the West, a notion he was so taken by that he continued with his next film, the equally singular Days of Heaven. Malick's aesthetic here is just about the same: a devoted attention to a natural look (most often achieved with the lack of artificial light), grandiose bisections of land and sky, and warm, pleasant tones that contrast the lives of the characters on screen, which are the opposite of homely and appear to be headed towards a bleak fate. He also made it known with Badlands that he was one of the clearest descendants of Bresson, a practitioner of an economic flow and an ultimately cumulative poeticism that can be achieved by the subtraction of elements rather than the addition of them. Kit and Holly's sparse, distanced dialogue is absolutely immaculate; more often than not, it does not have to do with the film on any higher level, instead simply acting as tightly written, inconsequential fractions in an oblong whole. Undeniably, Badlands is a stellar debut, perhaps even lighter and more transfixing than any other Malick film.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

La Lettre (1998) A Short Film by Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry is an artist who has created some of his finest work in short form or in collaboration with other directors. Like his segment for Tokyo! (2008), La Lettre comes from a collaborative program, in this case designed to center around the coming of the new millennium (2000). Gondry gave the new millennium the feel of an encroaching deadline destined to prove one boy either a man, with the approval of his been-there-done-that brother, or a teenage outcast.

The story details a typical childhood love and the difficulty to reconcile one's tacit desires with reality. Stéphane is a pouty-eyed boy on the brink of adolescence with an interest in photography that somewhat acts as a mask for his consuming affection for Aurélie, a girl he goes to school with who is leaving town for a few days. While Stéphane is enlarging a photo of Aurélie in the family's dark hallway at night (to add to his already extensive collection of photos of her), his brother advises that he "french her" before the year 2000 or else he'll regret it.

His brother's rather imposing warning sets off for Stéphane a swirl of uncertainty and self-doubt, visualized in one of Gondry's characteristically evocative dream sequences. At a cramped party high atop the city with the omnipresent clock tower placed nervously outside the window - the scene looking purposely, as usual, like it was constructed directly in a set - Stéphane trudges around the room with a physically impeding camera on his head, eyeballing the barrage of couples nuzzling each other as they dance. Eventually he makes a move on Aurélie only to clunk her in the face with his lens-face, causing the entire room to quake and the clock tower to inevitably come crashing down on them. The symbols are all quite pronounced: the clock tower acting as the outside forces threatening Stéphane, the camera as the hobby that he veils himself behind.

Gondry's tale is a simple one, but it's unlikely that another director could manage to realize it so imaginatively. Stéphane snaps out of his dream and heads to Aurélie's house at her request, for she has a letter for him. Obviously, as any child in his situation would, he believes that it will be her pronouncement of her love for him. Life however, unfortunate as it is, does not come so satisfyingly. Upon reading the letter he is startled, bombarded by the complexity of life, and, through a series of tactful old-fashioned camera techniques, retreats back into the subjective "reality" of his photographs. This procession would stand as another time Gondry has explored the different realms of reality one utilizes to escape the truth, often in a romantic situation.

La Lettre is brilliant short film with the intimate look of Truffaut's 50's work and a straightforward score that matches Stéphane's minor predicament. It is also one of Gondry's most personal films because he has admitted to his childhood unfolding congruently with Stéphane's; he too was a child enthused by the art of photography and withheld the unattainable romantic desires that are inherent in the era.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

After Hours (1985) A Film by Martin Scorsese

After Hours is one of Martin Scorsese's most unnerving studies of urban paranoia, but unfortunately is a film that is frequently forgotten amidst more mammoth works such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Mean Streets. Filmed in the mid-80's, it was a decidedly smaller production than most of his films, and as a result has slipped into near anonymity aside what preceded it (The King of Comedy (1982)) and what followed (The Color of Money (1986)). It does not lack the energy that such a fact would suggest however; by contrast, the film is always on the move, its camera an imaginative manifestation of its main character's shifty thoughts.

Bringing to the screen a quick-witted, savvy screenplay by Joseph Minion, Scorsese turns a night for Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), a pragmatic guy working in a cubicle, into an insanely unlucky fever dream. When the night is young, Paul meets a charismatic blond lady named Marcy in a cafe through a mutual fondness for the book he's reading. They exchange numbers and soon enough he's being driven by a raucous taxi driver to her friend's Soho apartment, during which his only 20 dollar bill blows out the window. The apartment is the habitat of a classic lower Manhattan art-freak, Kiki, who works tiresomely on obscurely contorted body sculptures and exercises a life of sadomasochism and claustrophobic punk clubs. Paul gradually becomes creeped out by Marcy, tells her off, and later that night discovers her dead body. Following this, he bounces randomly from apartment to diner and back again in search of someone who will either lend him some money to ride the subway - whose prices increased at midnight - or offer him a bed to sleep in. To add to his troubles, the neighborhood's fed-up denizens are forming a clan in response to a spontaneous series of robberies, asserting the frantic Paul as the primary suspect.

Scorsese imbues this harrowing outing with a surreal, fable-like quality and a Kafkaesque sense of perpetually accumulating doom. His vivacious shooting style incorporates subtle, subconscious messages that manage to make the audience feel the same aggravated, discombobulated feelings that Paul has. Continuity will break, such as when the sound and image do not exactly match up during a scene when Paul sneaks into Marcy's pocket book and discovers a cream designed to soothe burns only to quickly slip it back in upon her return, and the camera will exaggeratedly glide towards objects that either propound Paul's terror or provide hope of salvation, on display when a phone rings in an apartment and Paul lunges towards it with rhythm-snapping immediacy. Scorsese also tracks along the seedy Soho streets in a voyeuristic manner behind or beside Paul, sliding across the ground like a snake bushwhacking through the immense amounts of incessant rain and manhole fog.

In a way, the camera embodies the very movement of mischievousness, as if it's involved in an endlessly hostile practical joke played on Paul. Each time he leaves Kiki's discomforting apartment to the sound of Howard Shore's haunting, minimalist synthesizer jingle, the camera wheels by the sculptures in a POV shot, looking as if they're pushing him away while warning him of eternal damnation. However, eternal damnation is eventually what he evades by some unlikely stroke of luck in the slick, devilishly clever finale. With this, Scorsese hyperbolizes the ourobouric flow of urban life: one can always make it back to work in the morning only to begin another seemingly menacing day in the city.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Let the Right One In (Låt den rätte komma in) A Film by Tomas Alfredson (2008)

Vampire films of merit come few and far between, which is why Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In - a work that fuses horror and social realism to engrossing extent - comes as such a surprise. Moreover, in an age where horror cinema has dwindled into empty, gratuitous offerings of torture porn and shock-for-shock's sake ghost stories (no less, the lame cult phenomenon of Twilight), its intelligence should rightfully be highly praised. The film is not a vehicle to explore the spectacle of vampirism; instead, the inclusion of vampire elements helps to add a morally complex dimension to the young relationship between the film's two main characters: Oskar, an inferior, fantasizing 12-year old outcast, and Eli, the mysterious vampire Oskar falls for, unknowing - at least at first - of her bizarre background.

Eli is an enigmatic character throughout, both due to the fact that she is constantly verging on uncontrollable violence and because Alfredson implicitly hints towards her androgynous nature. She repeatedly tells Oskar she is not a girl, which at once can be taken in light of her inhumanity, but following the brief insertion of a shot of her castrated genital region, a gender context is implanted in her statement as well. As displayed in the opening scene, Oskar is a boy who channels the anger he feels from being bullied into vicarious acts - a Travis Bickle of sorts. "Squeal like a pig," he proclaims over a black screen in the beginning before we see him thrusting a knife through the air maliciously. In this light, Eli is the mirror of Oskar: violent, brave, and intimidating. She stirs up courage in Oskar, encouraging him to be proactive when dealing with the bullies at school and henceforth brings about his maturation, which is as much of a negative one as it is positive. The film culminates with Oskar traveling to freedom with Eli; in his mind he is a victim of love but is just as much a product of the seduction of a vampire, destined to become the kind of ruthless supplier of blood that Eli's father was in the film.

Let the Right One In's "love story" however, is by turns complex (as illustrated above) and banal. The two forge their first emotional connection through the ultimate outcast staple: the Rubik's cube. Oskar plays with the device in his free time but cannot solve it, but when he offers it to Eli, she has a curious ability to finish it overnight. This exchange felt familiar and somewhat grounded in the romance and coming-of-age genres, detracting from the relationship that otherwise felt like it was evolving supernaturally. Interestingly, Alfredson keeps most of the violence offscreen or at a distance so that when Eli does make an attack or her father collects the blood of a victim, it is genuinely terrifying. He refuses to romanticize the violence, reflecting how it is a necessary burden for Eli rather than a footloose pleasure.

For the most part, CGI is used tastefully, a method of adding a subtly alien quality to Eli's movements. The film is most frustrating when it is not, such as during a scene when a newly cursed survivor victim of Eli's attack is bombarded by digitized cats and subsequently engulfed in flames as a response to daylight. One of the finest achievements of the film is its pacing and visual focus. The art direction is stellar, an exacting milieu of snow and blood, whereas the camerawork reflects the slow pace of life in the Swedish village the film is set in. Rarely does a vampire film extract so much fear out of calculated ambiance instead of viscera, and it is one of the best films of 2008 as a result.