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.