Rysopis (1964)

20 07 2011

There really isn’t anything earth-shattering going on here, but I wasn’t really anticipating that much. What this is is a nice introduction into Skolimowski’s world, which I plan on exploring for the next several weeks. It’s elliptical, it looks very nice, and the character involved all seem likable enough. Effective might be a good word to describe the movie, though that kind of implies that it has no emotional impact at all, and that’s not really true. The movie manages to capture a fleeting sense of hopelessness, that is ultimately dashed once the film abruptly ends. To Skolimowski’s credit, his next film is something of a follow-up to this one. Perhaps making a cohesive, singular statement within the running time of 70 minutes was never his intention.

The film’s English title, Identification Marks: None comes from a dialogue that occurs fairly early in the movies. The film’s protagonist, Andrzej Leszczyc (played by the filmmaker himself) is under going a physical examination via the conscription board. He now longer goes to school and he longer provides financial support for his wife. In other words, he is useless and perfect material to become a marine. His inability to make sort of contribution to society is encapsulated by the way he wanders around town without any intentions of ever picking himself, and/or turning things around. He has accepted his destiny as becoming a property of the government.

Andrzej seems less concerned with alleviating the situation and more interested in making the most of what little time he has left. He has a seemingly endless amount of poetic chance encounters with former classmates, all of whom resemble potential romances. It’s kind of heartbreaking since it’s as though he is saying goodbye to individuals to which he only really knew in passing. Should he not spend more time taking care of his now even more doomed canine friend? Maybe with his wife and/or mistress? The past is hinted at, but in a very progressive turn on the character’s part, he manages to live in the present.

Rysopis is a beautifully staged film, with an opening in which the tracking camera seems to be equal parts Bela Tarr and Touch of Evil. The editing is sketchy, but the intentions are good. Trying to be elliptical is often more than enough, as it’s difficult to attempt at making a “disjointed” movie and somehow fail. That’s not meant to marginalize the accomplishment of this movie. It’s an excellent first feature, but on its own, it is mostly a curiosity for those (like myself) interested in Skolimowski’s entire career. Still, I like what I saw here a lot. Hopefully, the film stock is clearer from here on out.

Cold Weather (2010)

2 07 2011

Aaron Katz once again proves he’s at the very top of the pyramid when it comes to young American filmmakers. This gentle and beautiful pseudo-thriller should be enough proof that he’s far more mature than his mumblecore peers. His slight crossover into genre works perfectly as the film never seemed to be particularly jarring as a relationships movie that quickly becomes a mystery. In a way, this is what that terrible movie Brick should have been, a reflection on genre that doesn’t have to sacrifice any sense of realism. Katz has done something that very few have accomplished since the heyday of genre filmmaking in the 1940s and 50s – he has put his story in a world that we can recognize as our own and it is lovely to watch.

I don’t want this review to ultimately dissolve into a comparison of Brick because one, I quite frankly don’t care about that movie and two, it seems like it would be a disservice to Katz. Still, look at the way Cold Weather opens. A very subdued family dinner, nothing really “dramatic” or “intense.” In fact, the film never really gets into that territory. Brick immediately thrusts the viewer into a world that is modern but filled with people talking like characters in a Howard Hawks movie. In truth, I’d think Katz’s vision is probably closer to the mold of someone like Hawks or Ford even though he’s not studying and replicating their footprints like Rian Johnson. The fact of the matter is, Katz is able to ground his film by having a (seemingly) close-knit cast and the photogenic gloominess of Portland, Oregon as his backdrop.

One of the many strengths in Katz’s previous film, Quiet City was the way it obviously alluded towards Katz’s artier influences but still kept something that was distinctively apart of the “young adult” experience in modern day America. This might just be an elaborate workaround for using “hipster” on my part, but the point still remains, Katz draws from an influences as well as he manages to create some completely organic and new. The “pillow shots” of his previous film were a nod to Ozu, but here they seem to have progressed into something that belongs to Katz himself, not just a tribute. Again, it helps that what is being photographed is something that is just so intrinsically American. The images feel fresh and new, even while being guided through Katz’s already well established aesthetic.

It probably says something of Katz’s intentions that the mystery is essentially “solved” with still somewhere around 20 to 30 minutes left in the film. This seems weird, especially since we’re never given any closure in that time. Instead, the film’s final stretch makes it seem more like being a movie about a brother-sister relationship, which seems to be one of the relationships that has been given the least amount of serious attention in cinema. It’s easy for me to gravitate towards this because one, my sister and I are extremely close and two, Trieste Kelly Dunn is insanely beautiful in this movie. It’s actually sort of disconcerting since it is suppose to be a brother-sister complex and I couldn’t accept that she (nor any other character in the film) was going to be the object of romantic longings.

This is all a good thing, though. It’s a movie by a young American about young people and there’s no point in which stock feelings come into play. In other words, it feels authentic and that is more important than one would think in a genre film. While Katz hasn’t  done quite enough to put him up with say, Nicholas Ray, but he has made one of the most artistic and enjoyable genre films in a long time. Considering his monetary restrictions, it would be an understatement to call this an accomplishment.

Kes (1969)

2 07 2011

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Ken Loach’s Family Life but from what I remember, it had the same qualities as this. I respect Loach for being a socially conscious filmmaker, but he seriously seems better when he tries to shield himself from getting too preachy. Considering how early this film came in his career, it’s pretty startling. Although the main character is whipped around and mistreated in a way that paints the scene as pretty much hopeless (Casper’s mother says as much herself) the film manages to redeem itself by being a really tender depiction of teenage angst and lower class unrest. I guess this was the balance Loach has always intended to achieve, but from what I’ve seen, this is the greatest representation of that.

Like all of these British social realist films, Kes is downbeat, if not miserable. Andrea Arnold’s recent Fish Tank was an excellent reprisal of this sort of movie, albeit one with a lot more poetic flourishes than Loach or even Mike Leigh. The situations are so dire that they almost force you to connect to the protagonist. In this particular case, it’s pretty hard not to relate with a bullied teenage boy anyway so there’s less of a sense of martyrdom, as would be the case with any of Mizoguchi’s otherwise great tragedies. The film feels pragmatic even when the viewer is forced to sit through sequences that do nothing but further cement Casper’s standing as something of a geek. It would get tiresome if his way of dealing with the situations wasn’t so fascinating. He manages to be both remarkably mature and extremely childish.

I very often discredit movies of this nature for being too downbeat and trying too hard to be real. The remedy to this, at least from a textbook standpoint, is “comic relief” which often carries a negative connotation with it. I don’t think it should especially when the film is as bleak as this one. Thankfully, Loach interjects an extremely amusing bit in which the PE teacher attempts to live out his dream of football glory with his students. Loach even throws in a scoreboard text, further affirming the pathetic nature of the teacher’s delusions. Casper himself has some antics that do call to a mind something like Gummo or George Washington, albeit done under a much more somber tone. This is kind of off-topic, but the amount of running and jumping Casper does is enough to make someone think he’d make a half-decent hurdler.

While Casper himself exhausts himself physically, the film begins to exhaust itself with depictions of his misfortunes. The brightest, perhaps happiest moment in the film occurs toward the end when Casper’s English teacher takes an interest in him and Kes and even  lets the boy explain himself. It’s a touching couple of minutes, because it hints that the character could be finding something of a father figure but that’s too optimistic. In reality, people don’t suddenly become a huge part of your life through some conversations. It would be schmaltzy for such a thing to happen, but the fact that the relationship never comes to fruition is still heartbreaking.

The film’s finale essentially adds insult to the previously mentioned injury, but the way it ends somehow doesn’t make things completely hopeless. Sure, there’s nothing really positive at all, but the simple fade to black suggests that things could be worse. Casper has basically lost his first great passion in life, and he may never be able to revive it. While this is personally frustrating and heartbreaking, he is still young. His conditions are impossibly harsh but his existence continues. On the other hand, it might become an issue of whether or not he wants to exist anymore or not. Kes is the right amount of sadness for my liking, it is brutal but the tragedy is never escalated as anything more, just observed.

The Tree of Life (2011)

1 07 2011

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to adequately discuss Terrence Malick’s latest movie without feeling like one is missing something. To end the mystery immediately, this is a great movie, but it ultimately falls short of its aspirations. For a director with such a natural knack for making “deep and meaningful” movies, I can’t help but find a lot of this forced. Don’t get me wrong, from a strictly cinematic point of view, Tree of Life is even a step up from the revolutionary style of The New World but it seems that Malick has gone a little too far in the direction of opaqueness. There’s too much overt spiritual lingo and surprisingly, too much hokey symbolism.

When tasked of putting Malick’s cinematic style into words, it is extremely challenging since his vision is experienced more like a song, a language with its own rhythm and nuances. If one were to see this film before anything else by him, it might seem a little odd. The negligence of conventional storytelling, yes even by the standards of your usual arthouse-going crowd is, is definitely not going to earn Malick any new fans, but for the individuals who love his work (particularly his post-exile films) this is a brilliant movie. At the very least, it’s a continuation of his aesthetic. One could call it a maturation or mastering of his vision, but he already felt pretty in control with The Thin Red Line.

The selling point for many film geeks here is that it is more of Malick. His third film in over ten years doesn’t exactly sound prolific, but for a director that didn’t make so much as a sound for over twenty years, it can be read as something of a personal accomplishment. It’s difficult to see Malick actually topping himself after this since this particular movie seems like his most personal and deepest statement. Unfortunately, that’s where it gets kind of tough. I was turned off at first by the extended sequence of cell division and other avant-garde visuals, which seem just a little too long, but their not nearly as problematic as the symbolic mess the film becomes in the final twenty minutes.

While Malick’s previous two films were also on the longer side of things, they were also edited perfectly, at least by my standards, where as some editing could have helped out here. Sean Penn doesn’t really do anything wrong here, per se, but his presence is perplexing if not completely useless. It’s fine if Malick needed some more star power to sell the film (he seems to do this from time to time, John Travolta in The Thin Red Line?) but ultimately, Penn’s appearance in the end just seems really off-kilter. There’s something personal and endearing about the sequence, but they really drag on. After a certain point, enough is enough and it seems like the symbolism has been hammered home hard enough. I suppose Malick deserves credit for still making these scenes look remarkable, but the seemingly endless walk through the desert (which is suppose to be the afterlife, I suppose) really puts a damper on the experience and perhaps spoils what could have been a really emotional conclusion.

One can’t blame Malick too much for being ambitious, he always has been. Is it really any surprise that his film in which the entire life experience and the event of creation is explored that it doesn’t feel a little dry and pretentious at times? Even as a defender of the man and his films, I’d say it isn’t really. His films always balance on a very thin line (no pun intended) of being genuinely deep and moving and being overly-spiritual. This is certainly the issue here. It’s not Malick’s best movie, but it is certainly Malick’s most Malick movie. In that sense, it the best and worst place to start with his films.