Wednesday, December 30, 2015

David Zucker

"Zucker's best instincts are those that seek to throw a wrench into every single received convention we expect from genre movies, to call attention to their workings not in a way that provokes thought, but in a manner that hijacks the audience's attention. And these interruptions to conventional narrative flow come so frequently, tumbling atop one another in gleeful excess, that the individual jokes don't have to be funny, per se. The unmitigated commitment to joke overload is a joke in itself." There are some new Naked Gun blu-rays on the market, which is a good enough excuse for me to write about the comedic-idiotic mind of David Zucker. The piece continues at The House Next Door.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1990) A Film by Peter Greenaway

"Peter Greenaway, something of an aesthetic chameleon over his long, varied career, goes to further moment-to-moment extremes of planimetric staging and obsessive symmetry than Kubrick ever did, exaggerating the decorative artifice as a material presence in the film. In rigorously choreographed horizontal dolly movements, and with an anamorphic lens splaying the edges of the frame, Greenaway’s camera probes the layers of Albert’s hedonistic den — something of a defective Matryoshka doll that gets increasingly unflattering (a boisterous kitchen, rancid walk-in freezers, and a noirish parking lot) the more it expands from its innermost form (the luxurious dining hall). It’s unmistakably apparent that this is an artificial space even before the source of an angelic opera voice on the soundtrack is revealed as a toddler dishwasher with a freaked-out head of white hair." Continued at In Review Online. This is a piece I wrote months ago but forgot to publish to the site.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Boy and the World (2015) A Film by Alê Abreu

"In Alê Abreu's Boy and the World, the eponymous boy, a stick figure that otherwise appears to conform to the dictionary definition of a boy, is often seen moving laterally through a two-dimensional simulation of the modern world, the framing loose enough and the “camera” movement methodical enough to suggest a retro side-scroller. Like Jacques Tati's bumbling on-screen persona in films like Playtime and Mon Oncle, the boy, who materializes at the beginning of the movie in a blank white canvas that gradually gets crowded with obstacles, appears in combat with the mechanized workings of his environment throughout, dodging cargo bins dropped from cranes and leaping across architectural gaps like Super Mario in a less fanciful Mushroom Kingdom." Continued at Slant Magazine.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Revenant (2015) A Film by Alejandro González Iñárritu

I can say with certainty that two scenes in The Revenant’s two-and-a-half hours benefit from the sensorial immersion approach—basically an aesthetic philosophy built around the use of real locations, natural light, and a wide angle lens that’s invited to be smothered with dirt, blood and other substances dredged up by the Earth—practiced by Alejandro González Iñárritu & Co. for the purposes of this film: both involve a rapidly encroaching attack on the protagonist. The first finds the hero, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), blindsided by a hungry mother bear; later, the incoming force is a small Native American troop on horseback. In both cases, the extreme expansion of space dramatizes the sudden jolt of danger in visual terms. Objects in the distance are much closer than they appear, so everything seems to move at breakneck speed. When the camera stays with Glass during retaliation—rolling with him in the mud in the first altercation, escaping with him on horseback in the second—the visual confinement (coupled with impeccable surround-sound that approximates his immediate perceptual sphere) augments the fear of ambient threat.

One could probably use that particular articulation of the style’s substance to justify the entirety of The Revenant, which follows Glass as he stumbles alone in an arctic wilderness with enemies on every horizon. But when even narrative lulls are graced with the constant reminder of immersive verisimilitude, so that an image of Glass sleeping functions more as a self-congratulatory spectacle of capturing DiCaprio’s exhales on the surface of the lens, the effects of the technique start to veer away from the purely psychology and story-driven.

What emerges most prominently in The Revenant, then, is not any particular vision of the world but rather a compulsive urge to impress. Stepping away from the one-take pomp of Birdman, Iñárritu still can’t resist making a display of his cojones a proximate justification for the emotions and ideas embedded in his stories. Here, the umbrella concepts are brutality and chaos, which permit the occasional marathon sequence shot choreographing all kinds of carnage and multi-directional madness. One of these spectacles is the film’s opening shot (the most likely to draw eye-rolling hyperbole all across the web this awards season), which stuffs the frame with an arrow in the neck here, a howling frontiersman there, all while Lubezki’s whipping-and-gliding steadicam takes on the frazzled perspective of an unarmed soldier trying to stay alive. We’re right in the middle of combat, I guess, but I just kept thinking about those dorm rooms in film school where zealous technicians-in-training marveled repeatedly at the ins and outs of Children of Men’s famous car ambush scene—which is to say, we’re more squarely within the fantasies of such people.

"When you see the film, you will see the scale of it. And you will say, 'Wow.'" – Iñárritu, The Hollywood Reporter

Even when the film settles into more conventional shot lengths and setups, it seeks other ways to ingratiate viewers to the audacity of its filmmaking. For one, an entire separate landscape film could probably be carved out of all the pillow shots here, each one cramping the narrative rhythm with images that could double as demonstrations for 4K clarity at your nearest Best Buy. Then there’s the near-comical dirtying of pretty-boy DiCaprio, which borders on the perverse: mud, snow, ice, human blood and animal guts cling to his wounds and body hair, the emblematic example of this particular thread being a scene when Tom Hardy’s self-preserving asshole literally shovels piles of dirt onto his body. In an awards landscape where great acting is synonymous with physical commitment and digestible gimmicks like the idea of a performer spending half the film with a busted voice box and a destroyed body, it all comes across nakedly as a play for DiCaprio’s eventual crowning.

Strip away the intensity and self-importance of its expression and The Revenant is just a smattering of clichés: the good guy avenging the death of his child; a live burial intended to set up a metaphorical “rebirth”; flashbacks to defining tragedies and vague pre-traumatic bliss (shot, of course, in slow-motion and with a differing color treatment); the Native American as a beacon of nobility, honor, and magical healing powers; the bad guy after a wad of cash and greener pastures. Indeed, the story is constructed only of such banalities. And for all the amorality and perceptual hysteria in its action, this is worlds away from the true boldness of Hard to Be a God; the film’s worldview, insofar as it has one, is fundamentally built on a sentimental belief in karma, summed up by Glass’s final revelation that “revenge must be enacted by God.” (I wasn't taking notes, so that's not the exact quote. Sorry.) Such platitudinous nonsense is why Iñárritu’s visual quotations of Andrei Tarkovsky’s bird-flying-from-bosom shot and levitation trope are so exasperatingly unearned. Here’s a guy simply flexing his technological and financial muscle and pretending his egotistical display exists in a continuum of Great Art.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) A Film by Kent Jones

"Someone of Jones's erudition wouldn't be one to elect interview subjects merely on the basis of their clout or their immediately recognizable artistic kinships to Hitchcock (note the absence of such conspicuously 'Hitchcockian' stylists as Pedro Almodóvar or Brian De Palma). Nor is he concerned with rehashing established critical narratives or biographical information about the director, explaining the welcome absence of historians brought on to redundantly address, say, the randy Brit's fixation with buxom blondes. The mission of Hitchcock/Truffaut, then, isn't to elucidate all the nooks and crannies of Hitchcock's artistry (though it often does this with great gusto), but rather to locate in his films the tendencies that resonate on elemental levels and stir disparate filmmakers to their own artistic soul-searching." Full review at Slant.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Don't Look Back (1967) A Film by D.A. Pennebaker

"In an age when Bob Dylan occasionally comes down to earth to lend gravelly gravitas to a Chrysler commercial or to half-heartedly spoof his own tactful reserve in an IBM spot, it's possible to forget that he was once the most enigmatic iconoclast in the musical world, his slippery identity impervious to both the prying inquiries of the press as well as the more innocuous curiosities of his fan base. But even 48 years after its release, and well into Dylan's current phase of relative transparency, D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back retains something of a forbidden quality, a feeling that we shouldn't be privy to the things it shows us. Granted, it's precisely this intimate access that the behind-the-scenes documentary theoretically sells, but long before this particular kind of film congealed into a recognized genre, not to mention before label operations micromanaged artists to such an extent that anything approaching an “unfiltered” exchange between documentarian and celebrity was a logistical impossibility, Pennebaker was stealing private moments that the entire world was salivating for, but had no reasonable right to witnessing." Continued on at Slant Magazine, where I review the new Criterion Blu-Ray.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Out 1 (1971) A Film by Jacques Rivette

"In a hushed sequence in the penultimate installment where one character begins to explain the 'dangerous things' Colin has gotten himself into, Rivette discreetly reverses the dialogue track when it seems crucial revelations are on the horizon. The result is an unintelligible, uncanny garble (one imagines David Lynch had this effect on his mind when he conceived of the Red Room dialect in Twin Peaks) that singlehandedly puts to rest any and all expectations that this mounting mystery will be 'solved.' In doing so, Out 1 subtly pivots into a more reflective mode for its final hours, one that officially dissolves the concrete details into ciphers and red herrings and redirects attention to the sources of the anxieties driving them." Full review of this 13-hour behemoth, about which I was decidedly ambivalent, over at Slant Magazine.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Kwaidan (1964) A Film by Masaki Kobayashi

"Kobayashi's directorial control of these milieus is total, which is apropos given the fact that Hearn's stories feature characters in thrall to the whims of outside forces. For what ultimately amounts to slim (in incident, if not necessarily in length) and predictable tales of ghostly infringement on quotidian life whereby the arcs and the outcomes are more or less the same, it's the complete harmoniousness of the mise-en-scène that keeps them engrossing on a moment-to-moment level, unfolding less like crescendos to narrative surprises than wades through persistent and inexorable hauntedness." Full review of the heart-stoppingly stunning new Criterion Blu-Ray here.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Blind Chance (1987) A Film by Krzysztof Kieślowski

"In the beguiling but dense opening minutes of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Blind Chance, a series of succinct vignettes, arranged chronologically, but not in way that's immediately apparent as such, introduce us to Witek (Boguslaw Linda), a young Polish man. Strung together by the kind of ethereal theme music that would become a Kieślowski signature throughout the 1990s, various episodes from Witek's life play out as though the disconnected fragments of a pre-death hallucination. Among other vivid snapshots, he takes math lessons from his father, bids farewell to a childhood companion, peeps through a window as a child at an administrative meeting of some kind, kisses a girlfriend while being heckled by the occupants of a departing cargo train, and participates in an autopsy in a crowded medical room." Full review of the new Criterion disc here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Man with the Gun (1955) A Film by Richard Wilson

"A lonely town that's lost its way, a nasty land baron out to gouge it of its remaining assets, a solitary gunmen with a reputation for vigilante justice, and the saloon girl he left long ago—Richard Wilson's Man with the Gun is practically Western 101. On the other hand, it's hardly a course in filmmaking. Where certain directors from the era of the classical western were able to elevate familiar genre elements through the sensitivity of their touch, Wilson works the material with all the gracefulness of a lumberjack chopping away at firewood. His appropriately matched star is Robert Mitchum, who in his stiffer performances (this certainly being one of them) waddles through scenery like a hunk of meat willed partially to life." Continued here.

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Forbidden Room (2015) A Film by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson

"The film's unruly scene recreations play out largely as fictional dramas, with one purely comical exception: a how-to demonstration about taking baths. Significantly, the scenario, which features Louis Negin as a cleansing expert who looks like Hugh Hefner's long-lost cousin, suggests ephemera from the 1960s or '70s. Branching off from this crude instructional-video pastiche are mini-movies evoking a far earlier vintage. In fact, as Maddin, key creative collaborator Evan Johnson, and editor John Gurdebeke tunnel deeper into their film's expanding and contracting shape, they also appear to work backward through the history of filmmaking technology, with mid-century Technicolor riffs flowing into early sound simulations flowing into silent passages." My first 4-star review at Slant Magazine continues here.

Friday, September 25, 2015

99 Homes (2014) A Film by Ramin Bahrani

"Naturally, the politically minded Bahrani has his sights on moralizing, not on probing the seediest depths of the central parasitic relationship, so while 99 Homes could have shaded waywardly into fairy tale (Shannon the Big Bad Wolf to Garfield's Little Pig), instead it stays firmly planted in social realism. In realizing this veiled gangster yarn, Bahrani places emphasis not on the ghastly mastermind, but on the naïve underling gradually comprehending the full extent of his boss's Darwinian extremity, the righteous intention being to awaken the audience, simultaneously with Dennis, to the cruel machinations underlying the taken-for-granted neutrality of residential space. But, and notwithstanding Garfield's impressive work selling his character's profound gullibility, this arc isn't particularly illuminating..." Continued at Slant.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

History is Made at Night (1937) A Film by Frank Borzage

Frank Borzage's History is Made at Night bounces around—no, jolts—between two diametrically opposed tonal/emotional realms treated to differing stylistic registers: first, the familiar Borzagean realm of love and bliss, and second, the world of obsession, wealth and power, here standing in for any number of frictional forces (others include war and poverty) propped up against love’s attainment throughout his body of work. In the former, Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur, through the sheer indomitability of their enchantment with one another, seem to bend reality to meet their desires. They can singlehandedly reopen a restaurant after hours, cross a bustling New York City street without so much as flinching at the braking and honking automobiles, and survive a surefire shipwreck in the Antarctic. In this realm, Borzage indulges romantic orchestral music and sweeping tracking shots (one particularly virtuosic one glides with the newly love-drunk Boyer through the maze-like dining room of his restaurant and into the elaborate kitchen in the back). The lovers are often joined in frame here, the space they mutually occupy made whole.

In Borzage’s contrasting tonal register, the opposite is true. Scenes playing out in single rooms get chopped up into 5, 7, 10 angles, all isolating and/or organizing characters into stiff geometric patterns—a common one being a triangle that shows two suited men bearing down on a nervous Arthur. Borzage uses mirrors to further fragment space; there’s even a recurring motif of the heroine’s back to the camera, whereby we only glimpse her expression through a reflection. In the scenes with Boyer, hands are friendly anthropomorphized puppets, but here they become disembodied strangling instruments, with an unnerving Colin Clive reflexively finding his paws around his wife’s throat. And, throughout all this, there are no lilting strings to soften the mood, only a static room tone.

The function of the film’s increasingly ludicrous plot—which involves speedy transcontinental relocation, nightlife entrepreneurship, a murder case, and a long-distance cruise—is to have the fragmentary unease encroach upon the fairy-tale simplicity until the worlds collide, the point being to illustrate love’s ability to conquer even the most farfetched and wicked of impositions. It sounds like I’m describing any Borzage movie, and on the surface I am, but it’s the elegance with which the director stages this friction and eventual collision that makes History is Made at Night such a lucid and transformative expression of his unwavering worldview.

In what I’d hold to be the most ingenious display of Borzage’s subtlety in UCLA’s retrospective (of the films I witnessed, at least), the two realms that vie for supremacy within the film’s structure become translated as sound. The movie’s operatic final act finds Boyer and Arthur, unbeknownst to them in their attempt to escape, boarding an ocean liner actually owned by Clive, who has covertly ordered his captains to steer the ship through a treacherous pass—a suicide mission, essentially. This new route triggers a bellowing foghorn, which then becomes the rhythmic backdrop for the couple’s romantic evening in the cabin. When Boyer throws on a vinyl of classical music to class up his dinner date, the music doesn’t drown out the menacing moan; rather, the two accompaniments get overlaid awkwardly, the scene suddenly playing like an archetypal melodramatic vignette that’s being perversely tinkered with by some disapproving third party. It’s the perfect distillation of the film, enacted on the most of cunning of levels.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Tired Moonlight and the 16mm Vogue

"In general, shooting on 16mm in a world where digital is far more readily available means accepting—or, in these filmmakers’ case, embracing—roughness. This is all well and good; like many cinephiles who’ve grown into a landscape where the opportunities for such pleasures were already diminishing, I enjoy admiring the textures of cheaper celluloid stock, particularly if a perfunctory use of slick HD is the alternative. But what I’m starting to suspect is that the materiality of this medium (which, tellingly, is on the brink of extinction) is taking precedent in this wave of narrative films over how it’s being put to use through visual language. To say that these filmmakers are choosing 16mm and calling it a day aesthetically is definitely overstating it, but I do wonder if there’s not a certain degree of slackness seeping into the process—a disregard for the craft of artificial lighting or a wily-nily approach to framing, for instance—in lieu of simply admiring the way the medium is capturing reality." For MUBI's The Notebook, I wrote about the recent surge, spawned by Sean Price Williams, of 16mm production in independent filmmaking, a trend that informs Britni West's new Montana community portrait, Tired Moonlight.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Cut (2014) A Film by Fatih Akin

"Transnational displacement is common subject matter at this point for Fatih Akin, so it's odd that despite repeatedly dwelling on the emotional ramifications of such separations, he still hasn't managed to convey a sense of the sheer size, scope, and diversity of the planet. That becomes something of a crutch in The Cut, his decade-spanning, continent-hopping look at the aftermath of the Armenian genocide, because the film's narrative requires that its embattled protagonist, a refugee named Nazaret (Tahar Rahim), navigate a whole slew of unknown territories and political ideologies over the course of a few decades in the early 20th century." Full review at Slant.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Swept Away (1974) A Film by Lina Wertmüller

After a prelude aboard a ship full of Italian literati quarreling about politics somewhere in the gleaming Mediterranean, Swept Away takes the path not travelled by L’Avventura, imagining Antonioni’s narrative absence—the vanished beauty—as the focal point. Whatever ambiguities the earlier film left dangling with regard to the relative value of the privileged classes are swiftly bulldozed over by director Lina Wertmüller’s gambit of teaming up the materialistic heroine (Mariangela Melato’s Raffaella) with the working-class ruffian (Giancarlo Giannini’s Gennarino) tasked with manning her personal motorized rowboat—a trip intended as an easygoing afternoon sojourn that goes awry when they lose track of their home base. It’s a facile setup—capitalism and communism forced to collaborate!—that Wertmüller takes glee in probing from all sides, then picking apart until the central dichotomy evaporates and reveals sedimentary layers of power relationships. Right off the bat, Raffaella’s shrillness as a bourgeois caricature makes it easy to side with Gennarino’s barked indictments of her cultural ignorance, as well as to applaud his reflexive ability to enter survival mode against her preference for hysterics and constant cosmetic self-interest. But when the duo stations on an island, the rocky geography of which offers Wertmüller ample opportunity to encode power shifts as high-low spatial dynamics, Gennarino’s rhetoric and behavior abruptly veer toward the sadistically authoritarian—his perceived righteous vengeance for the accumulated sins of the upper-middle-class enacted on the Good People of Italy.

Swept Away’s action gets progressively thornier (Gennarino’s revenge fantasy goes unchecked, basically), and with it the angle of the film’s attack deepens. What begins as a takedown of materialism evolves into an expose on the horrific means and ends of masculine power, then a broader critique of the perils of having authority in general, then ultimately the deduction that the implicit codes of society itself are the greatest evil. As Gennarino wills Raffaella under a spell of carnal lust and the two arrive at a perverted but strangely effective co-dependence, Wertmüller’s implication is that the pair has devolved back to a nascent, animalistic state, composed in part of Adam and Eve’s spiritual purity and Neanderthalian barbarity. (A lengthy close-up of the impassioned lovers framed against the roaring glow of a fire in the background christens the mythical mood accordingly.) But even in this newfound harmony, Gennarino’s glaring misogyny persists, while Raffaella never gets a comparable chance to own any persona other than subservience. If Wertmüller’s recurrent staging of Gennarino looking down on Raffaella either mid-coitus or from atop a rocky perch are meant to taken ironically, there’s no leavening impression of Raffaella ever gaining agency as an individual (the closest the film gets to elevating her out of servility is the suggestion, wrung out in a series of high-angle shots of the characters wrestling in sand, that both characters have become equally debased).

In the uncivilized utopia that Swept Away posits as an alternative to the corrupted societal infrastructure, women still play second fiddle to men, a strange proposition coming from a female filmmaker but one that seems aligned to the more regressive extremes of the era’s radical politics. It’s possible that the final sequence—which finds Gennarino, now rescued and reunited with his wife, attempting to escape again with Raffaella only to be thwarted by her last-minute departure by helicopter—is meant as an indication of the victory of the female over the oppressiveness of the male (as well as an amusing comment on the luxuries of the capitalist, always able to just phone in expensive transportation to ascend above a situation literally and figuratively). But that reading is dissolved by Wertmüller’s decision to spend the last few minutes of the movie with the mopey and reproachful Gennarino, a misplacement of empathy that lands the final blow to this adroitly cynical but ultimately wrongheaded experiment in allegorical melodrama.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Navajo Joe (1966) A Film by Sergio Corbucci

"In no small part because of Reynolds's centrality, Navajo Joe feels like the first installment of a no-nonsense action franchise that never materialized. It's got a big-name star whose presence supersedes his fictional character, a theme song that renders its title and central character a jingle, and a barebones plot with broadly sketched good guys and bad guys. It's easy to imagine the central conceit—bandits slaughter members of Joe's tribe, and Joe seeks revenge on them—accommodating theoretically endless and interchangeable iterations. Perhaps Joe, after ridding the southwest of the unruly Mexicans in Mervyn 'Vee' Duncan's (Aldo Sambrell) gang (there's more than a hint of conservative border-policing implicit in the scenario), would attempt to seek peace with his people up north, only to encounter more amoral outgrowths of manifest destiny. The thematic root of Navajo Joe—righteous Native American indignation at the seizure of their land and the killing of their people—is a simple enough narrative engine to generate countless grindhouse plots of merciless pursuit and vengeance." Reviewed a new Blu-Ray of Navajo Joe from Kino Lorber for Slant Magazine.

Monday, August 17, 2015

She's Funny That Way (2014) A Film by Peter Bogdanovich

"Peter Bogdanovich's She's Funny That Way, like They All Laughed before it, is set in a hermetic Manhattan where charming extroverts are always just steps away from hailing a taxi, their budgets for doing so seemingly without ceilings, and no more than a few minutes away from any given destination among a small cluster of self-curated urban hangouts. In one comic set piece that plays like an insider callback to an almost identical scene in the prior film, the entire ensemble ends up, serendipitously, in the same upscale bistro for dinner, having all decided on their own to attend after parting from the same Broadway audition. While it's tempting to fixate on the facets of modern Big Apple life that are missing from this decidedly concentrated portrait (racial diversity, cost-of-living stress, the hassles of urban time management, the subway system), it's more fulfilling to look at what is there: a vision of the privileged class as a comically insular world, and its recognition of the idea that the paths taken by the privileged to reach their seemingly perfectly upheld lives haven't necessarily been any less fraught with self-denied compromise and regret than those of less fortunate city dwellers." Full review at Slant.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Front Page (1931) A Film by Lewis Milestone

"Key to the 1930s newspaper comedy is the disjuncture between the hermetic bubble of the press room, where typists fire away at their machines and local stories get barked back and forth, and the vast, abstracted, presumably filthy world that lies outside it. The Front Page, the film that many credit as the subgenre's catalyst, puts this internal/external split front and center. Lewis Milestone's direction emphasizes the closed-off quarters of the Chicago news office to such a stifling degree that the camera almost never leaves. On the rare occasion that it does, a preponderance of frames within frames—shots through car windows, compositions that place concrete walls all around the subjects—underline the idea that the newspapermen who work in this 'round-the-clock industry can never really escape it. In a telling shot that gets repeated throughout, the team of fast-talking reporters reacts to something on the street below their elevated office and Milestone tracks from inside to outside, at which point the men are seen boxed in by the window frames." Full review of a new Kino Classics Blu-Ray of The Front Page available at Slant.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Meru (2015) A Film by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

"What drives a man to embark on the dangerous quest of climbing the most complicatedly vertiginous Himalayan peak in the world, all the while filling their loved ones with unimaginable emotional anxiety? It's a fundamental question that Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's Meru, a chronicle of three climbers' enduring mission to conquer the titular mountain, is oddly disinterested in. Instead, Chin and Vasarhelyi prefer to focus on concretes: the discipline that such a mission requires, the angular shape and varied terrain of the mountain itself, the tragedies that befell the climbers in between their two expeditions, and the various forms of calculated and uncalculated risk involved in big wall climbing." Full review at Slant.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet (2014) A Film by Roger Allers

"As a screen star, especially in his recent action renaissance, Liam Neeson has proven to be as much a voice as a body or a face. His low, slightly gravelly intonation and terse dialogue delivery is as unmistakable a component of his persona as the pistol whips and lumbering physicality. So, as the voice for the title character in Roger Allers's animated adaptation of Kahlil Gibran's slim but iconic collection of prose poems, The Prophet, he instantly stands out. The titular prophet, an endlessly generating fount of wisdom for his unenlightened peers, is an incarcerated poet named Mustafa, who launches into humbling oratories on the interconnected nature of the human race and the natural world whenever given the slightest of opportunities, digressions that take form as non-narrative animated segments set to Neeson's voiceover. Because of this frequent separation of the actor's voice and his character drawing, it's hard to escape the impression of a metatext: The Prophet basically amounts to a series of instances of Neeson—the Bronson-esque badass repackaged as a smooth-talking life coach—schooling the audience in pop-transcendentalist philosophy, indulged as excuses for Allers and his distinguished team of artists to unleash torrents of abstract animation."

Friday, July 24, 2015

Phoenix (2014) A Film by Christian Petzold

In Christian Petzold’s Holocaust drama Phoenix, dignity is a question of positioning within the expansive 2:35:1 cinema frame. Nelly (Nina Hoss), the film’s heroine, a concentration camp survivor requiring facial reconstruction surgery to reintegrate into the bombed-out wasteland of postwar Europe, is more or less kept in the center of Petzold’s compositions throughout, even when she’s on the move. When we meet her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have rat her out to the Nazis and who jumps at the opportunity for an inheritance when he finds this seeming doppelganger of his presumed-dead wife at a Berlin nightclub where he’s working, he’s charging left and right, the camera unable to neatly contain the movements of his brawny frame. This being a movie by Christian Petzold, who directs as if trying to curry all attention away from what the camera’s doing, such pictorial schemas don’t come right out and announce their presence. They’re ingrained in the thematics of the story to such a degree that there’s nothing to show off.

Nelly’s centrality in Petzold’s compositions is vital. Phoenix is set in a historical context in which consciousness of the death-shrouded past is paradoxically the key to progressing into the future. In her suicide letter, Nelly’s friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf) puts this dynamic in existential terms, stating that her heart is with the dead and that she can’t go on with the living. Her point is that she’d rather die than live in a compromised world where her fellow Germans can’t acknowledge recent traumas, preferring instead to “live” in denial. Nelly lacks this firm stance, but her character arc is one of gradual realization, of a shifting of priorities from a longing to reclaim her pre-war comforts to an understanding that such recuperations can only be illusory after being subject to dehumanizing treatment.

Thus, Phoenix’s script is fundamentally didactic; at its core is a lecture on the dangers of historical repression. What’s remarkable about the film, though, is the ways in which it subsumes its point-making into visual drama, a subtly evolving interplay between appearances and motivations. After receiving her facial surgery, Nelly finds herself in a series of situations in which keeping up a stoic front is imperative—first as a matter of survival, then of submission, and finally of deception. It’s only in the bulldozer of a closing scene that she is able to emerge from beneath an artificial shell and outwardly express a personal objective.

And yet, because of Hoss’ totally psychologically invested performance, the ripples of internal transformation become apparent, if only through barely discernible fluctuations in her facial muscles. When Johnny, trying to mold this woman into the seamless image of his wife (which, of course, means Nelly herself), asks her to mimic her own penmanship, he’s taken aback by the exactitude. Nelly, sensing he might arrive at an acknowledgment of her identity, lets out a hint of smile, though it lasts less than a second before her face reverts back to its default blankness. The patient cutting of Petzold and his editor Bettina Böhler—everything’s boiled down to the Nelly’s reactive energy, not necessarily the patterns in the dialogue—is sensitive to these modest eruptions of feeling across largely fixed surfaces, and the sparseness of the compositions, with Hoss’ face looming large amongst nondescript negative space, encourages us to see them too.

The closest Phoenix gets to expository instructions on how to read its narrative is a scene when Nelly’s friend verbally chides her for attempting to reunite with her husband, who she knows betrayed her. A series of photographs she shows to Nelly corroborates this certainty, and from this point Nelly, who’s already advanced beyond the bandaged blank slate of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, undergoes a shift from the Madeleine of Vertigo to Fassbinder’s Maria Braun, or from a woman complicit in her own distortion at the will of a man to a woman cleverly exploiting those masculine perversions to meet her own ends. Just before a key scene when Nelly interrogates Johnny on the disintegration of his relationship with his “wife”—a metaphysical moment staged on a fast-moving bicycle, with both characters facing forward as the world blurs behind them—Nelly is seen wearing a black sunhat and a netted veil, the iconic get-up of Fassbinder’s classic postwar heroine. Without calling obvious attention to the references (the emergence of the “new” Nelly out of darkness in Johnny’s apartment, suggesting Hitchcock’s sensational reveal, being the nearest to a direct quotation), Petzold has shuttled Hoss’ malleable figure through a series of feminine representations from the history of postwar art cinema, each one more human, more whole, and with more agency than the last.

Barbara and Beats Being Dead, Petzold’s last two films, withheld expression—performative as well as aesthetic—to the point of flatlining-sine-wave blankness. For me at least (though I do intend to rewatch them), they felt locked within their character’s environmentally motivated restraint, unwilling to open a door for the viewer while willingly cultivating a stuffy room. Phoenix is more seductive than either film, beginning with a ludicrous pulp plot and only then tunneling into behavioral nuance. Stefan Will’s uncluttered upright bass and piano score establishes the ambiance of a detective film, while Hans Fromm’s voluptuous cinematography—juxtaposing the shadowy alleyways of dilapidated Berlin against the garish neon of the night clubs in the American sector, then introducing the olive greens and morning dew of the German countryside—extends this aura. To watch Phoenix is to be put in the position of an investigator analyzing the psychological import of the most microscopic of gestures. Historical insight and cinematic sophistication, coexisting in a tight bind that puts neither on a platform, rarely synchronize with such tremendous grace.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Cemetery Without Crosses (1969) A Film by Robert Hossein

"If Cemetery Without Crosses feels subtly but unmistakably different than other westerns, that's because it is: It's the lone French western to emerge from the genre's European (though mostly Italian) overhaul in the mid '60s. This geographical and cultural novelty adds another layer of pretext to the film—importing and performing a popular filmmaking mode from another country, and indeed even offering its own spin on the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone (who, in a telling gesture of artistic cross-pollination, guest-directed one scene). Hossein, who stars in his own movie as a mysterious lone rider lured back into violence by an old flame, was a popular actor in France at the time (Jules Dassin's Rififi being one of his celebrated roles), and with Cemetery Without Crosses he uses his star persona to both point toward the icon-driven nature of the classical American western and ultimately undercut the narrative implications of that tradition." Full review of the new Arrow Films Blu-Ray courtesy of Slant Magazine.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Big Significant Things (2014) A Film by Bryan Reisberg

"In case anyone needed a refresher, Bryan Reisberg's Big Significant Things is here to make the rounds through yet another coming-of-age trajectory for an awkward white kid perched between adolescence and adulthood. This time the young man put through the trials of aging is the generically named New Jerseyite Craig Harrison (Harry Lloyd), about whom it's hard to remember much after the credits roll. He's a lanky brunette with a loose comb-over whose casually fitting, solid-colored wardrobe suggests he's perhaps funding the unexciting vacation that constitutes the narrative through a series of J.C. Penney modeling gigs."

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Black Stallion (1979) A Film by Carroll Ballard

"With the exception of the hushed pitter-patter of feet pressing into earth, the occasional low murmur of rather inconsequential dialogue, and a varied score that often pares down to just the soft plucking of a harp, Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion might as well be a silent film. A curious artifact from the unstable transitional period as the New Hollywood Cinema ceded to the early blockbuster era, the film owes the storybook simplicity of its visuals to the crystalline children's films of Albert Lamorisse—most specifically 1952's White Mane, with which it shares the subject of a boy-horse friendship. The breakout effort from now-ubiquitous cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, The Black Stallion is a relentless procession of lavishly framed images, each one a marvel of compact visual storytelling. Only in its latter half, when Ballard accommodates a plot progression involving a Kentucky horse trainer, does the film exercise conventional mise-en-scène with shot-reverse-shot patterns unifying a dramatic space. Before that, and especially in its lengthy sequence of courtship between the boy, Alec (Kelly Reno), and the stallion, referred to simply as "Black," Ballard affords each deep-focus shot a concise descriptive power unto itself. The sound could be muted without any loss of comprehension." Full review of Criterion's new Blu-Ray continued at Slant.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Ardor (2014) A Film by Pablo Fendrik

"Ardor's silliness is best crystallized by a scene midway through, when the taciturn rainforest dweller who's been helping a family of poor Argentine farmers ward off a band of pitiless gunmen manages miraculously to emerge alive from a dead-meat situation. Kaí (Gael García Bernal) is canoeing feverishly away from the bad guys, all of whom are heavily armed and seemingly hell-bent on terminating anyone brave enough to get in the way of their land seizure. Because of the indifferent lensing (the focal lengths are short enough that distance doesn't register) and preponderance of close-ups, it's not clear how far Kaí is from the shooters, but one suspects the space is condensed enough that landing a bullet in Kaí's head wouldn't be too much of a stretch of their professional abilities. Nonetheless, the men bafflingly elect to punch bullet holes in his oars instead, presumably for the sole reason of elongating the movie's build-up to its Leone-lite final duel." Full review at Slant.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Strangerland (2015) A Film by Kim Farrant

"In the portentous outback thriller Strangerland, a giant dust storm engulfs the film's small-town setting just as the central mystery is introduced. Everything gets caked in reddish desert filth and stays that way for the duration of the film. Art-house cinema has a long tradition of signifying the ambiguities of human nature with climatic abnormalities: Torrential rains, fog clouds, and snow storms blow through the history of modernist narrative filmmaking, upsetting cosmic balances in the worlds of Fellini, Antonioni, Angelopoulos, Tarr, and many others. By the same token, there's also a precedent for art-house frauds orchestrating atmospheric turbulence in the interest of distracting from the fogginess of their themes or hinting at a larger significance that's missing from the text. Strangerland falls into the latter category, as the inciting haze that rolls into town ultimately just serves to underline how covered in dust the film's commentaries on gender, sexuality, and parenting are." Full review at Slant Magazine.

Monday, June 29, 2015

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

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

Monday, June 8, 2015

Chagall-Malevich (2014) A Film by Aleksandr Mitta

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

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

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

Monday, March 30, 2015

Vincent and Theo (1990) A Film by Robert Altman

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

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Marfa Girl (2012) A Film by Larry Clark

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

Friday, March 20, 2015

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

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

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Run All Night (2015) A Film by Jaume Collet-Serra

"Sadly, this time around, in spotlighting his star's fatigued charisma, Collet-Serra's formidable filmmaking chops have plateaued. Run All Night deals in slick professionalism (DP Martin Ruhe brought similarly peerless craft to Anton Corbjin's first two features), but it's short on the formalist surprises that have animated Collet-Serra's B-movie career thus far. Alongside the shifty subjective camerawork and mirror-play of Unknown or the three-dimensional text message windows of Non-Stop, Run All Night's visual gimmick—hyper-detailed Fincherian aerial glides that connect the film's disparate Big Apple locations—is comparatively banal and inconsistently deployed." Full review at Slant.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971) A Film by Melvin Van Peebles

Of Melvin Van Peebles’ furious but short-circuited cinematic sojourn I’d only seen The Watermelon Man until now, which looks practically clinical and anonymous compared to the impassioned energy of the much more down-and-dirty Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. That so many have objected to the film on the grounds of its prioritization of technique over all else is a frustrating confirmation of the exact same dominant white man's aesthetic bias that Peebles is aggressively rejecting with this movie (walking out of the screening, friend and fellow critic Jake Mulligan astutely pointed to the discussion in Something in the Air about the extent to which revolutionary ideas must be expressed with revolutionary aesthetics, rightly implying that Peebles’ film lands on the side of the mad young radicals). Progressive intentions aside, though, it's clear that Song is expressing its ideas through discursive stylization rather than classical notions of narrative, character and theme, and it’s absurd to hoist upon it conditions which it doesn’t even set for itself.

Peebles’ gamble is more about destroying any sense of pleasantness, coherence (temporal or spatial), or fluidity from his film’s surface in an attempt to harass the cultural hegemony that habitually subjugates black expression. The movie’s violent layering of beats—a mash-up of various 20th century African-American musical heritages such as funk, jazz, spirituals, street folk—is the gutsiest move and achieves the most tremendous effects, as a cacophony of clashing sound escalates into a sonic mess that wages war with the buffoonish hollering of the white pursuers. Peebles complements this aural disarray with a splatter of visual excess: snap zooms covering the entire spectrum of some of the longest zoom lenses available to 16mm guerrilla filmmakers, in-camera superimpositions, prismatic filters, disorderly handheld work and an onslaught of staccato cuts to traveling shots, all filtered through a quintessentially 70s palette in which the sky’s more burnt orange than blue. This overabundance works best when Peebles’ own character (a fugitive escaping from the largely white police for typically dubious reasons) is on the go, less so when making pit stops at his whorehouse for inert vignettes of awkward missionary sex. Fortunately, Song’s final movement into the desert is relentlessly peripatetic, and it’s where the style crescendos to a primal scream of outrage. Who, during a sequence of such phenomenally grating sensory bombardment, would be foolish enough to go looking for “dramatic content”? Vincent Canby, that’s who.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken (2015) A Film by Daniel Alfredson

"Before long, Heineken and an anonymous piece of human bait have been holed away in windowless, soundproof rooms, at which point the movie stops dead in its tracks—though, to put it more accurately, the undisciplined chop job that is the central kidnapping sequence does little to build momentum in the first place. Without committing to any particular narrative focus, Kidnapping Mr. Heineken devolves into something like an interminable newscast of the actual events, intercutting perfunctorily between the clumsily scheming captors, their confused loved ones back home, and the increasingly delirious prisoners." Reviewed here.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Sabbatical (2015) A Film by Brandon Colvin

"As middle-aged philosophy professor Ben Hardin (Robert Longstreet) endures an existential nosedive, Sabbatical responds by redirecting that void on the audience through stylistic deprivation. Director Brandon Colvin shoots in a restrictive 4:3 aspect ratio and never moves his camera. Generally, his shots run parallel to a wall or some other flat surface, and his characters, rarely moving drastically, exist in geometric relationship to that surface..." Full review here.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Young Bodies Heal Quickly (2014) A Film by Andrew T. Betzer

"Suiting its self-consciously strange, decidedly non-commercial bent, Young Bodies Heal Quickly aims to function more as provocation than big statement, but its lack of dramatic specificity places it in a precarious middle ground between exacting character study and ethereal parable. Like so many road movies before it, the plot jerks into motion with a murder, the accidental result of just another day horsing around in rural Maryland. The older brother picks a fight with a pair of young female four-wheelers, and the younger brother, attempting to stop the violence, lands a wooden bat on the backside of one girl's skull. It's an arresting scene in its sense of ferocious randomness, captured with more deliberate handheld sloppiness from seasoned low-budget DP Sean Price Williams, but what follows quickly reorients the movie's approach, shifting it from vérité to Bressonian remove." Full review at Slant Magazine.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) A Film by Billy Wilder

"In the credit sequence of Billy Wilder's scathing sex comedy Kiss Me, Stupid, the chauvinist performance of tipsy swing vocalist Dino (Dean Martin) is intercut repeatedly with a group shot of male bartenders laughing hyena-like at his sexist jokes. The message—men are a predatory and cowardly bunch—is clear and the tone-setting mode of address even clearer: caricatured, repetitive, and pitched right at the threshold of burlesque humor and discomfort. (It takes a small cognitive leap to consider how David Lynch, an admitted Wilder fan, took this approach and ran with it in his own discomfiting suburban nightmares.) Things get pointedly faker from there." Full review of Wilder's misunderstood flop and Olive Films' new Blu-Ray release of it is over at Slant.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Old Fashioned (2014) A Film by Rik Swartzwelder

"As polemic, the film is obnoxiously diagrammatic, but it's no more tolerable as a love story—the mode it settles into once recent divorcée and spunky free spirit Amber (Elizabeth Roberts) rolls into town and leases an apartment above the antique shop. It's hard to imagine a less desirable prince charming in recent memory than Clay, a stiff prude with an undisciplined mop of dirty-blond hair and a rotating gallery of baggy sweatshirts that would have made him quite the heartthrob in seventh grade circa 2003. (His defining past indiscretion is heading up a bootleg Girls Gone Wild-esque enterprise, which squarely figures him—and Swartzwelder's feel for the zeitgeist—as unfortunate relics from the turn of the millennium.)" Contemporary cinema may need a team huddle after this to figure out how to collectively recover. My report from the front lines can be found here.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Timbuktu (2015) A Film by Abderrahmane Sissako

"In Timbuktu’s sand-swept expanses, you’re either willfully complicit in the butchered standards of the Muslim authorities or you’re a dangerous dissident. Via a loose, ensemble-based, anecdotal narrative style, the film’s undertaking is to pinpoint scenarios in which this binary proves incompatible with living a pleasant (no sports or partying) or even functional (mandatory gloves for females, even those selling fish) life." Continued here.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Screening Notes #28

Black Book (2006): A defiant alternative to the neutered respectability of Hollywood period dramas about historical tragedies, Verhoeven’s exhilarating epic fully understands and elevates the emotional and psychological extremes that constitute a human fiasco as messy as WWII and the Holocaust, accounting for these disparate poles (massacre, debauchery, grief, triumph) on a scene-by-scene basis, other times a shot-by-shot basis, and sometimes even within the space of a single image. In hindsight, history can never be looked at as having clean binaries; tragedies make ideologically convoluted puddles of the masses, dividing sympathies and splintering accountability until the next war comes along, confusing everything yet again. On an individual level, one must exploit everything available to them—their body, their brain, their intuition—to preserve dignity. Everything I really want to say about this masterpiece (and I reserve this word for very special occasions) right now is in these two pieces by Ed Howard at Only the Cinema. I can’t wait to watch it again.

Dear White People (2014): Undeniably snappy and smart, with a knack for fiery dialogue that Jake Mulligan is right to point out as screwball in nature, it’s nonetheless hard not to feel like Dear White People is a strewn-together collection of wittily discussed talking points attractively framed and filtered through the mouths of baldly representative types (the angry black rebel, the racism-denying white institution leader, the winking white student who masks actual racism with self-conscious jokes, the black “white” kid, etc.). That Simien renders his film a kind of open forum to get all these concerns out on the table is valuable, especially when they’re concerns this significant, but his script too often has only the fueling of racial discourse on its mind, like some overzealous stand-up comedian who resorts to race jokes to get everyone’s attention. (The seams really show when the hitherto timid wannabe journalist suddenly becomes the shit-starter at an intimidatingly well-attended blackface frathouse shindig, which, in a scene that’s intended as the ultimate mirror to real world events, buries plausibility for the sake of making a progressive point.) I’m also on board with Richard Brody’s assessment of the film’s repression of true radicalism; in the end, Winchester University has consciously acknowledged from an institutional standpoint its latent intolerance (and by extension, America’s) and has dealt with it accordingly for the media. Those are small potatoes that the film seems satisfied with (and smart about too—see final slam dunk on the face of the money-hungry college president), but have any paradigms actually shifted for the better?

John Wick (2014): The following happens in the first 30 minutes: 1) A shot fades to black, an alarm clock starts beeping, a close-up of said alarm clock fades up, John Wick slams off the alarm clock, and then we get a montage of him getting ready in the morning. This is beyond film school hackery; it’s utter triteness. 2) John Wick looks at a handheld smartphone video of his now-dead wife on a beach, which then becomes impressionistic flashback material. Do I need to explain how lame this lonely-badass-defined-by-loss trope has become? 3) Willem Dafoe sifts through his gun stash while scored to Marilyn Manson singing, “We got guns.” (The next lyric is “We’re killing strangers so we don’t kill the ones we love.” No explanation necessary.) These imbecilic gestures took me out of John Wick well before the action stuff really starts churning. As a result, most of the ensuing movie was just “cool” visual noise spinning around without a solid base—a slideshow presentation of Keanu Reeves looking dope while killing people against backdrops recruited from a list of discarded locations for Avenged Sevenfold photo shoots, many of which are awash with swirling lighting effects to pump up the awesomeness. The film’s not simply violent abstraction, though, because it does gesture vaguely in the direction of a narrative that’s both predictable (Eastern Europeans continue to be the most terrible people in the world according to Hollywood action movies) and juvenile (of course it’s the only female character, a saucy brunette, who breaks the assassin code and gets a death punishment for it). Presumably, all this inanity is supposed to be negated by the fact that directors Stahelski and Leitch are self-conscious about coasting on the genre’s basic ingredients and adhering to heedless first-person shooter amorality. Questionable. I don’t care about spatial integrity, action choreography, visual geometry, bullet consciousness or whatever other critical catnip might exist here when the movie flaunting these qualities is this cluelessly dumb.

Ride in the Whirlwind (1966): Ride in the Whirlwind’s plot features a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings, and random occurrences that accrue and lead inextricably to violence. It’s a tragic relay of blame and punishment: a band of outlaws face death for their crimes, a trio of innocent travelers get mistaken by vigilantes as participants in the unlawful crew, they go on the run and bring a shell-shocked family into the mess, and a guiltless old man dies. The film becomes a working metaphor for our lives, which play out under a death sentence whose date is never clear. As such, it pares away narrative until all that’s left is a pair of men sitting quietly in a room in the middle of nowhere, the better to put the emphasis on our onerous stall before the creep of twilight. The long back half at the ranch eliminates suspenseful intercutting to focus on the present-tense: two remaining cowboys enjoying their final hours in relative silence and comfort, an apologetic last supper, a reluctant game of checkers, the company of two quiet women. A stump is beaten repetitively in the background, the metronome of the family’s existence. When a bowl of water isn’t where it should be at a precise moment, it unleashes a wave of anxiety. Is routine a reprieve or a prison? On the one hand, there’s the patriarch’s corpse as evidence for the former. On the other hand, there are Millie Perkins’ haunted eyes, which suggest a soul stirred to curiosity by an unexpected encounter. Hellman’s gloriously textured, compact western plants such ambiguities right on the surface, which pays enormous dividends as the film funnels inexorably from plot to stasis.

They Came Together (2014): Comedy taste is such a peculiar and specific thing that it’s questionable if anyone can ever arrive at a firm critical truth. Many found They Came Together uninspired; it left me at multiple points in uncontrollable, snorting laughter. In my case, a natural rebuttal might be to claim that dissenters just aren’t looking in the right places for the laughs, but by the same token that’s a presumptuous argument—perhaps they are and the jokes just don’t land. (To further confuse matters of taste, I’ve found Wain’s pet projects (namely Stella and Wainy Days) to be gloriously aligned with my funny bone, while his supposed crowning moment (Wet Hot American Summer) does nothing for me.) Anyway, the key to They Came Together, for me, is not to see it as lobbing any kind of coherent takedown of hackneyed romantic comedy tropes, but rather as a gag exercise that merely uses the romantic comedy as a rough template. In this context, the film is all about the strange grace notes that line the edges of the ostensible romantic narrative, the way a shot will be held a beat too long (most hilariously when Wain rack focuses to the background to reveal two coffee shop dwellers staring ominously at the camera) or a familiar gesture will be tweaked into gestural nonsense (get a load of how Paul Rudd rockets back into frame like Jim Carrey in The Mask when Amy Poehler implicitly prods him for a goodbye kiss). Even better are the throwaway sight gags that are there for no good reason, like the half-buried graying corpse lingered on at the tail of a transitional shot. This sublimely formless riffing suggests that dream project I always imagined when my friends and I used to fashion shoddy Zucker bros. knockoffs on DV tape.

Chimes at Midnight (1965): Caveats off the bat: 1) I’m only passingly familiar with Shakespeare’s plays and have always been fundamentally perplexed by his language, so big-screen adaptations often play like foreign films without subtitles, and 2) I’ve been only marginally more successful finding the wavelength of late Welles. True to the bureaucratic horror stories plaguing their reputations, the late films I've seen are often shapeless and cluttered with information (visual, sonic, narrative), the surplus of which negates rather than enhances any affect or import. Chimes at Midnight pummels me into a familiar state of bewilderment, wherein I find myself noting striking images without registering their significance while waves of Elizabethan language wash over me. Every review I’ve read giddily cites the Battle of Shrewsbury as the film’s highlight—an alternately thrilling and deadpan sequence that, in its handheld mayhem, recalls Kubrick’s sudden injection of trembling battle footage into his otherwise statically composed Barry Lyndon. But no review I’ve read (and I’m happy to take suggestions on worthy pieces) has convincingly articulated why the rest of this 2-hour-long behemoth earns its designation as a misunderstood Welles masterpiece. The film’s bawdy, sprawling energy is preferable to Othello’s portentousness, but after an hour the four-texts-packed-into-one unwieldiness grows tiresome. Welles’ faithfulness to Shakespeare disqualifies the possibility of any prolonged respite from the prose, so the chosen path is a barrage of dialogue-heavy ensemble scenes elbowing inelegantly into one another, rhythm be damned, while magisterial, over-fogged master shots soak it all in. If this bombardment of virtuosity is precisely the reason to admire this film, I’ll stick with The Lady from Shanghai and call it a day.

The Lady Eve (1941): Watching this again, it struck me that Preston Sturges might be the Buddy Holly of cinema, working in conventional, even rudimentary forms but putting emphasis on the peculiar delivery of the content over the content itself. When Holly sings “My Peggy Sue”—pinching out the “my,” scooping the “Peggy” from deep in the register and stammering through the “Sue” like a brat picking on his crush—the inflection of his voice is what matters, not the lyric that’s repeated over and over. Sturges, meanwhile, gets a kick out of silly gestures, dumb expressions, imprecisely paced dialogue and awkward positioning of body parts—all of which throw off the expected rhythm of courtship. You can see it in the way Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck keep defaulting to a presumably uncomfortable cheek-to-cheek cuddle for minutes at a time, staring off frame but never at each other as they lob tentative flirtations back and forth. In one of these nuzzle marathons, Fonda stretches out his hand during conversation to pull Stanwyck’s skirt back over her knee, a casual convulsion that Farber must have enjoyed. And the famous horse gag, in this context, seems the emblematic Sturges moment in the sense that it most conspicuously illuminates the tension between script and execution, which can drive something as seemingly mundane as a beginning-to-end game of poker. Of course, Sturges wrote his own screenplays, so this is not a case of working against the grain of the text, but rather of searching for ways to shake language and behavior from predictable patterns. If The Lady Eve doesn’t have the velocity of a Hawks or McCarey screwball—at least half of it’s scored calmly to a whimpering string section—it’s because Sturges wants time to let each situation builds its own oddball rhythm, a quality that’s also found in Buddy Holly’s more undisciplined pop songs.

Susan Slept Here (1954): Struggling screenwriter Mark Christopher (Dick Powell) is on the verge of a marriage to stuffy society girl Isabella Alexander (Anne Francis) when he takes in charming juvenile delinquent Susan Landis (Debbie Reynolds) for Christmas supervision—all the makings of a customary screwball romance, right? Right and wrong. To be sure, I sought this out in search of a holiday treat out of left field and maybe some subversive genre deconstruction along the way, but Tashlin mostly plays by the rules even when he doesn’t—how else could he have flung so much May-December (though more like June-November) sexual innuendo by the Hays Office? Still, while no one in search of a good light-hearted romp about the romantic awakening of a man otherwise on a fast track to the status quo should be disappointed by the familiar outline of this plot, the love triangle at the film’s core is hardly the reason to seek out this peculiar beauty, a pop-art exaggeration of comedy of remarriage tropes situated in a Hollywood milieu as artificial as the garish yuletide decorations populating Mark’s sterile high-rise apartment.

By making a show of the 17-year-old Susan’s childish spunkiness and characterizing the uppity Isabella as a trophy blonde seen frequently in glossy framed pictures and in the middle of agitated phone calls, Tashlin heightens the screwball genre’s characteristic female binaries—and then later, in a bright-pink musical dream sequence that features Susan as a fluttering acrobat in a virginal birdcage and Isabella as a lassoing arachnid, elevates the roles into brush-stroked abstractions. This blast of Technicolor dazzle, though, comes well after the film’s major players have already been revealed as ciphers; in multiple instances, a character’s presence is signaled by the photographic image, such as when Susan sleeps with Mark’s portrait beside her, or when she sits down alone to mock his homemade films of day trips with Isabella. A number of Tashlin’s geometrically precise deep-focus compositions place two characters into a triangle formation with a framed photo, arrangements that mirror the dynamics of the drama (Mark sandwiched on either side by his love options, for instance). To add another layer of jokiness, the film is intermittently narrated by an Oscar statuette (yes, an Oscar statuette) with a sardonic baritone, a gag that comes across a bit under-conceived while still establishing how predicated on show business pretense Mark’s bachelor lifestyle has been up to this point. Susan Slept Here never really conveys the realistic likelihood of Mark and Susan’s impending relationship lasting; instead, it illuminates the screwball genre’s mechanics, simultaneously affirming their dramatic efficacy and exaggerating their silliness.

Springtime in a Small Town (2002): Transplanted from the exploratory observation of late Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Mark Lee Ping-bin’s cinematography slips into the classical narrative context of Springtime in a Small Town without a hitch. I haven’t seen any other Tian Zhuangzhuang-directed films prior to this, so it’s hard to say how much of the visual language of this reimagining of a classic Chinese melodrama stems from the head shot-caller and how much is just a convenient carryover from Ping-bin’s sensibility, but the Hou-inflected tics are all there: the predominant use of a long lens to compress space, the languid horizontal dolly movements rendered almost indiscernible through the lensing, and the tendency to crowd the foreground with set elements that make domestic spaces feel like jungles to be bushwhacked. Zhuangzhuang's additions are the soundless psychological intensity (Hou has never made a film that, wall-to-wall, is this literally quiet), the firmly linear chronology, the partitioning of empathy to each member of the ensemble, and the gently symbolic employment of landscape.

The film relates the story of a love triangle between a despondent middle-aged woman in an arranged marriage, her ill husband, and his doctor (who also happens to be his old friend and his wife’s old flame). For the length of the movie, they all occupy the same crumbling estate in a war-torn rural village at the tail end of the Japanese occupation and before the birth of Chinese communism. Inevitable emotional sparks fly, albeit without anything ever detonating. The dramatic fulcrum occurs a little over an hour into a repressive two-hour slow-burn, and it’s quintessential Ping-bin: Five characters (add the husband’s teenage sister and the elderly family caretaker) sit around a table playing drinking games for several minutes, the camera never cutting and its focal shifts—paired with a circular glide around the group, the overall design of which would require fast-forwarding to map out—delicately determining where our attention should be in the scene at any given moment. The shot is a microcosm of the film as a whole and its patient negotiation of unspoken tension through unshowy camerawork. Zhuangzhaung’s receptiveness to seismic shifts in the psychological temperature of a room—or, in many cases, the entire grounds—is staggering. Springtime in a Small Town’s achievement is to chart the many atomic emotional eruptions in this quasi-family unit over the course of several days; that nothing has radically changed by the film’s conclusion is because, in this milieu steeped in conservative customs, nothing can.