Muri shinjû: Nihon no natsu (1967)

23 08 2012

Many have written about this film’s critical connection with Oshima’s Cruel Story of Youth, and it’s easy to draw a connection with this film to Godard’s Pierrot le fou considering that Breathless and Cruel Story of Youth are often linked as well. This is not really the case. If anything, this represents more of what would come from Godard later. It’s not to say that this film is as loudly political, it might be (I can’t really tell) but this film takes a much less “fun” turn. This is a bleak movie, as what one would come to expect from Oshima by this time. It definitely is not him at his most brooding (that would be The Man Who Left His Will on Film) but it definitely doesn’t capture the energy along with the politics and violence as say, Koji Wakamatsu.

The film starts with a nameless woman (revealed to be Nejiko towards the film’s conclusion) wandering around the streets looking for sex. It’s a pretty bizarre premise as it is, with men after men turning down an experience devoid of attachment. She becomes fascinated by one man in particular, Otoko, who may or may not have gone AWOL. The two bond, not so naturally, and they stumble upon what appears to be a gang transporting weapons. The film’s setting shifts to an abandoned compound, where we’re introduced to even more one-note characters. There’s a violence-hungry teenager, contrasted with an older man who speaks highly of his own violent past. All of these individuals are anxious for weapons, because of an ongoing gang war.

There’s plenty of clever tricks up Oshima’s sleeve here. To his credit, the film does look nice and it never really loses it’s momentum despite the promise of a dysfunctional romance on the run transforming into an almost theatrically framed piece of absurdness. On other occassions, he’s too clever for his own good. The film is built around men denying the advances of a woman because they’re more interested in guns. Get it? It’s almost like a introduction into phallic imagery because it is so blatantly obvious. Again, I get it, it’s maybe even a little funny, but when the film tries to pass itself off as nihilistic, it seems weird that the narrative is conceived around something a notch above the late night television writing room.

This leads perfectly into Oshima’s female characterization, which illustrates another set of problems. I get that he’s trying to produce binaries here: Otoko is stoic to a fault, where as Nejiko is constantly suggesting and requesting sex. They’re not meant to be real characters, but even in this absurdist landscape, it seems so one note and mean. Sure, she has a few funny sequences, but she is sole of women in this film and the men are constantly resisting her, in a way that suggests that they’ve conquered her. They’re evolved beyond the point of physical contact. This is countered by the fact that most of the male characters are stupid.

This is ultimately a movie about male frustration and anxiety so I understand what Nejiko is such a limited character but on the other hand, why have her there at all? There are shades of High and Low (the isolated location, the widescreen framing) if that were paired with content in Buñuel’s filmography. It’s a nice movie that looks really fantastic, but even as Oshima’s tricks are entertaining and thought-provoking, they fail to really haunt one past the initial viewing. It’s fun for someone who wants something a little slow and even a little mean, but it’s not really great. Oshima has done plenty worse, but he’s also done better.

The Edge of the World (1937)

21 08 2012

Michael Powell, even at his best moments, has always felt a little off to me. Perhaps just a little too old-fashioned and hokey. He and Emeric Pressburger were immensely talented, but their artistry seems to be plagued just by their understanding of story-telling. A perfect example is the otherwise stellar The Small Back Room which features a sequence in which a giant bottle haunts a character struggling with alcoholism. It’s stuff like that dates their films, even though there is just as much evidence to suggest that both were actually fairly subtle filmmakers. This film really doesn’t support that, at least in the case of Powell here, but it might be the most moving and poetic thing for which he is responsible.

There’s a heavy historical slant here about the dying of small Scottish boating towns. It’s not something I understand historically, but it is fascinating from a purely dramatic level. Even before the film gives all the expository details, there is an undeniable sense of dread contrasting the beautiful landscapes. There’s an almost “sleepwalking” tone to the film’s characters, even after the frame story has been established and the narrative has moved to the past, prior to the “tragic” event that sparks most of the story’s drama.

The aforementioned moment is kind of a big deal in illustrating a personal problem I have with Powell generally. The sequence in question is treated like a straight-forward thriller but it seems almost forced to make up for the rest of the film, which is rather poetic and understated. It doesn’t distract from the film overall, but it seems like such a useless “narrative” event that could have been handled much more delicately. Perhaps it’s not all too different from certain events in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath or How Green Was My Valley but those films seem self-consciously bigger than themselves. They’re filled with poetry, but it’s a louder (so to speak) type of expression, where I think the rest of this film suggests something more subtle. In other words, Powell was reaching for something greater than Ford but came up short.

There is a lot of wonderful things in this movie. I don’t particularly like the way Powell fades images on top of each other, but he’s at least going all the way with it. The fades never completely transition, they just serve as almost mental triggers of the past. It’s a little bit hokey, but there’s an earnestness in this attempt at poetry. It helps a huge deal that the images are incomparable to anything at the time. Sure, Renoir and Ford (who I guess are the closest companions to Powell in their respective countries) shot on location, but no one would attempt anything like this until Antonioni did in 1960.

The connection with L’Avventura seems inescapable to me. The visual similarity is too strong, but Powell’s images are more immediately confronting, if only because we have been shown the literal danger they can impose on the characters. It’s not nearly as haunting as Antonioni’s work for any number of reasons, but it is fascinating none the less. At times it feels more experimental and poetic if only because of it’s short running length and the way it avoids the characters  for stretches like an extended version of Ozu’s pillow shots. It might be because it is still fresh in my mind but the beauty of harsh weather so brilliantly captured in Arnold’s Wuthering Heights seems to be anticipated here. There’s sequences built almost entirely around the wind blowing against blades of grass and maybe it’s passé but that always gets to me. The Edge of the World isn’t perfect, but it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing this movie and not having it linger in their brain for a long time.

Wuthering Heights (2011)

19 08 2012

It’s important to mention that I have no emotional attachment to the source text at all. I read Wuthering Heights once in high school and I’ve forgotten everything about save the general story. That’s really all Andrea Arnold uses in her latest movie, which has to be one of the most genuinely fucked up adaptations of classic literature, if only for the fact that it bears no resemblance to any other adaptations. Instead of some flowery, dialogue-driven “prestige” picture that fully fleshes out the novel’s content, we’re given a claustrophobic, quiet, and all around uncomfortable bit of realism. Oddly enough, Arnold captures more beauty in the harsh landscapes with her probing camera than something that planned to be “picture-esque.”

Arnold isn’t really doing anything new here, this is largely the same type of movie as Fish Tank but there’s something inherently bizarre about comparing a movie about a contemporary angsty teenager with one of the most beloved pieces of British literature. However, I think the similarities are important and kind of get to the essence of the story quicker than the alternate route. After all, this is also a story about teenagers and they’re just as angry as Mia is in Fish Tank. Of course, the counterargument would be that Arnold’s aesthetic kind of glosses over much of what makes the novel a classic. I wouldn’t be surprise if someone who adores the novel, loathes this adaptation since it really only takes the skeleton of the story.

So I’ve mostly just talked a lot of hot air so far without really describing anything about the movie. I hate comparing something as transcendent (serious) as this film to other things, but I guess there’s shades of The New World, especially that film’s latter half, but there’s a more direct, “realist” approach. This means there’s a lot of steadicam sequences following people as they walk around, but I love that. It’s especially impressive when they’re walking through a torrential downpour, which seems to happen a lot. It’s a problem comparing everything to Gummo but imagine that finally sequence in the rain, but it’s all shot like an Alan Clarke movie, also it looks even better.

Like the films mentioned in the previous paragraph, this is a film built upon intensely intimate moments. In one sequence, Heathcliff is whipped for ignoring his duties to hang out with Catherine. The next time he and Catherine are together she licks his (still fresh) wounds. This sounds weird and maybe a little stupid, but under Arnold’s eye, it’s one of the most devastatingly beautiful things imaginable. I mentioned it in the review for I Want You but there is something extremely impressive about a filmmaker who knows how and when to shoot something extremely close. Most of this film is built with tight compositions but Arnold manages to go into an almost mode in which the senses are heightened.

The movie does lose some of it’s momentum when everyone has grown up. The dialogue is still sparse, but there’s a noticeable increase. The setting changes from the muddy fields of a farm in Yorkshire to the comforts of an prestigious home. There are still inspired moments of beauty but the tonal shift and the presence of a professional performer, Kaya Scodelario, slows down the visceral impact of the film’s frantic opening hour. It’s still absolutely world class filmmaking but it’s a tiny letdown. You can almost feel Arnold being confused at what to do for certain stretches. She manages to cleverly link long conversations with poetic flashbacks that still provide some sting.

If anything, this might be the defining masterpiece of Andrea Arnold’s short but stunning career. It’s a project that was originally intended to be another cookie-cutter “prestige” adaptation with names like Natalie Portman and Michael Fassbender signed on, but it became something entirely different. A film that captures the beauty in the literal ugliness of the world (the weather) and in the figurative. It’s all the more heartbreaking because Arnold doesn’t flesh out her characters to the level of the source text. They could be reasonable with words, but people seldom manage to be that way in real life.  Instead, they’re opaque and fractured depictions, but it makes them all the more fascinating and all the more true. This is absolutely one of the best movies of the 21st century and easily, the best adaptation of Wuthering Heights.

Hors Satan (2011)

13 08 2012

I have yet to read anything about this film without a mention of it being mind-numblingly depressing, too cold, too slow, and so on. In other words, it’s a Bruno Dumont movie. It’s that special kind of slow miserableness that definitely shares elements with other filmmakers, but Dumont has continued to make it his own. At this point, it’s kind of becoming a self-parody. Throw in some religious stuff, some jarring violence, a disturbing sex scenes, and put it all against the backdrop of rural France. That’s what this movie is and yeah, it’s absolutely beautiful at times but it is frustratingly dry at others.

To Dumont’s credit, this could be his best-looking film. He returns to the countryside again and sure it’s dire (intentionally) but his strange fascination with these small towns is interesting, but in this particular case, it loses some of its momentum after the eighteenth lingering shot on top of a hill. It might have worked better if the content wasn’t so frustratingly mundane. I’m not talking about the “mundane of everyday life” thing. That’s fine, but the film’s narrative thrust lies in the nameless protagonist being both a Christ figure and a Satanic one. It’s the same type of half-baked philosophy that feels like the work of an undergrad who has just finished his first philosophy class. Sure, Dumont comes off as sincere, but this is where the film begins to feel a little silly.

The film manages to be watchable because I guess Dumont hints at a story about a horny teenager, which might be the exact opposite of a Biblical parable. The girl (that’s what she’s credited as) is deeply in love with the man (what he’s credited as) but the latter resists the aggressive advances of the former. This is interesting to me, even as it serves as another balancing point between the “good” vs “evil” struggle within the leading male. His actions aren’t provided with motivations, which is good, but there’s a certain line where they devolve from a mysterious and interesting characterization to something so bizarre it just seems like an arthouse parody.

The best example of this is a scene where the man gives a stranger directions. She seems charmed by his helpfulness and almost immediately offers sex. A bizarrely picturesque sequence turns to a graphic and disturbing one. I’m not one to discredit a filmmaker for being daring with something, well, gross but it seems utterly forced here. The sex becomes cartoonishly disturbing. Just in case you forgot for a minute this was a Big Serious Art film. It feels even more evident since these are all the same moves from Dumont. In a weird twist, it makes the film kind of forgetable. How ironic, considering these jarring moments are, to paraphrase Dumont himself, “a wake up call to the audience” but they seem like old hat at this point.

It’s difficult to write about this film without seeming negative. It’s a competent movie, and it looks absolutely stunning, but there is a very strong sense of Dumont himself just sleepwalking through the process. One could predict the direction of his films at this point. At least his previous film, Hadewijch showed us something new. Sure, it wasn’t out of character but it didn’t feel like a “best of” which is the perfect description of this film. It sounds harsh, but then again,Dumont is very talented so it’s still an experience I would recommend. 

Some Days Are Better Than Others (2010)

13 08 2012

I saw a preview for this a long time ago and was impressed by the fact that it seemed that, in spite of its obviously cutesy and twee intentions, it had some aesthetic appeal. The dreamy soundtrack helped too, but really the film just serves as an extended trailer. It’s too precious to be truly as humanist as it wants to be. Plus, can a film that’s misanthropic really be humanist. There’s a annoying snide, Alexander Payne-esque mocking of all peripheral characters. It seems that everyone outside of a small circle are just caricatures of people you’d meet at a terrible college party. It’s impressive but a completely forgettable experience.

I will give director Matt McCormick some credit. He does manage to create some very impressive visuals, something the like-minded Payne has never really accomplished outside of his inherently picturesque The Descendants. There are a few truly awe-inspiring photographic moments, which mesh perfectly with the Matthew Cooper soundtrack. This is when the film is at its very best. However, once someone opens their mouth, it begins to fall apart. Carrie Brownstein is solid, but James Mercer is kind of grating. It can’t really help that their left dealing with dialogue that is either a forced attempt at naturalism or uber-pretentious pondering. Does anyone ever really ask questions like, “How long does it take to get over a broken heart?”

Dialogue such as the line mentioned above is floating throughout the film. When the movie wants to be serious, it feels like a Pacific Northwest version of American Beauty. Remember how that film’s poetic attempts are now seen almost entirely as comical? Well, they’re subtle compared to some of the musing suggested here. There’s a completely obnoxious story involving James Mercer’s step grandfather narrating some film about soap. In addition, this character’s presence is only served to remind us that Mercer’s character is really, really a good guy. No seriously, he’s helping an old guy. How life-affirming, how positive, how humanist.

I guess that’s the film’s biggest problem. It tries to create some interesting “character” driven stuff, but it all seems so positively manufactured. It’s even more upsetting considering the film tries so hard to reveal itself in a slow, natural manner but then the actual drama is so blah. One of the few interesting parts is that James Mercer’s Eli might have a really deep crush on a friend he’s living with, but that ultimately becomes a complete snooze when he talks about it in his “meaningful” conversation with his step grandfather. It’s a film about people that it really wants you to like via their alienation, which is really just a situation where they are surrounded by comically stupid people. It had a chance to be something special, but it’s ultimately just a conventional cutesy, twee movie slowed down to be arty. 

I Want You (1998)

9 08 2012

Michael Winterbottom had actually been making movies for almost ten years by the time this project was released. It’s still one of his earlier (and lesser known) full-length efforts. Weirdly, it seems like the culmination of an entire career with Winterbottom touching upon things he would later explore later and with greater depth. Sure, the influence of Wong Kar Wai and Kieslowski is so obvious it is almost obnoxious, but it’s never a terrible idea to draw upon your influences when you have the technical prowess to back it up. There’s no denying the beauty of this movie, even as it takes a rather shaky turn towards being a thriller. It still feels grounded in spite of its dramatic conclusion and if it wasn’t, it would still be a enormous aesthetic accomplishment.

Slawomir Idziak, longtime collaborator with the aforementioned Kieslowski, is the man responsible for the visuals. They seem heavily indebted to Kieslowski even as they anticipate the art house trends of the approaching decade. The heavy blue filter look is produced here about five years before it became something of an cliche. The yellow filter that frames the country landscapes (perhaps anticipating The Trip) feels a little overdone at times, but the results are still undeniable. It’s one of those rare pieces where certain shots are absolutely framed intentionally, but the film manages to evoke a natural energy. It’s not just about juxtaposing a composition with a steadicam take, it’s about a filmmaker maintaining an intimacy with their images.

That sounds like a bunch of garbage, but it does lead to an excellent illustration and it’s where the Wong influence comes in. I hate saying things like intimate images because it treads the line of being pretentious, but the closeness of the images, within the widescreen frame takes a certain talent. In a way, this almost anticipates Wong’s own 2046, which is arguably his best looking film, but it along with In the Mood for Love definitely announced a shift: the kinetic pace of his 90s work was gone, now there was something more mature. I don’t mean to get too off-topic but that split in Wong’s work represents a line that this film is balancing on. It’s deliberate but provides a spontaneous energy, a sensation not unlike the one produced by the work of Winterbottom’s country(wo)man, Andrea Arnold. She accomplishes this in a very different way, ending up more on the “gritty” end of things, where as this is clearly more glossy.

In the review of The Woman on the Beach I mention the potential appeal of having characters with unclear motivations, or “opaque” characterizations. This is applicable here in a film where the most impressive moments are the placement of characters, not a deeper probing of their pysche. They are still interesting, mind you, but they are not a deliberate focus. There are more beautiful, individual moments that slowly connect into a narrative. This creates something of a problem as the film slowly scoots its way to becoming a thriller. It happens so subtly, it’s almost unnoticeable, and it’s not at all jarring when the “plot” stuff has to be carried out in the film’s conclusion.

The film still ends open-ended enough, I suppose, but there is something unappealing about framing this as a neo-noir. It has genre elements, obviously, but it such a far cry from being “genre cinema.” There is something very impressive about balancing art and genre, especially if it is unexpected, but I Want You seems to be only formed from a genre template, being filled in with something more distinctly driven by its technical/visual artistry, not a storytelling one. Sometimes the pieces fit, but most of the time it feels weird.

These are really minor complaints. Most of the film’s actual content is effective. The curiosity of Honda is hard to not relate to, and his experiences have a poignancy, reaffirmed by the abstraction in which they are presented. His recording of conversations seems like such a move of the influences I’ve already mentioned, but there is still something distinct about his character, perhaps even distinctly British. The muddy countryside that houses Honda and his sister Smokey is many miles away from the nightclubs and motels of Wong, the studio apartments and cafes of Kieslowski. It’s a new poetry, even as it borrows the rhetoric from the past.

The Woman on the Beach (1947)

7 08 2012

There’s no discussion of Renoir’s final American film, Woman on the Beach, that fails to mention the mutilation of the film. It was test-screened in front of an audience and the film’s inability to follow a straightforward narrative confused many. The film that exists today is only 70 minutes. I mention this not as a history lesson (though it is interesting enough) but more as that a reoccurring criticism is the film’s incompleteness. Many say that the characters aren’t fleshed out enough, their motivations seem as murky as the waters that invade Robert Ryan’s nightmare in the film’s opening. This is unintentionally a strength, though.

This is loosely considered a noir and the story follows a noir template in that a helpless man is unfairly seduced by a evil, evil woman. The inherent misogyny in the characterization of a “femme fatale” is less evident here. Again, this might be a result of the film’s extensive trimming but Joan Bennett’s Peggy never feels tactical or scheming. The attraction developing between her and Scott (Robert Ryan) occurs so quickly. Perhaps develop is the wrong phrase since their affair seems to happen on a whim, while Scott is in the middle of deciding his future with the much more calm Eve. The point being is that the film’s limiting time provides characters that are opaque. There’s a very elliptical nature of the film, even if it was just the by product of poor editing.

The lack of fleshed out characters seems likely from the film’s opening sequence, in which the audience is introduced to Scott’s inner most thoughts before they’re even introduced to him. Renoir himself called the opening rather avant-garde. It feels that way, although it is also kind of hysterically old-fashioned and cheesy. There’s images faded on top of images in a garish fashion, with the not so subtle reminder of the film’s location (hint: it’s in the title) and this is all before the film bothers to tell you anything. This all sounds like a tongue-in-cheek criticism on my parts, but it is fascinating how many Hollywood “mistakes” take this from a standard noir proceeding to something haunting.

Perhaps that’s the greatest encapsulation of the film: it’s a collection of oddities, slight mis-steps from conventional storytelling that make it something truly special. Where as Swamp Water was bizarre and beautiful as a result of the content and photography, Woman on the Beach is compelling in spite of its story, which seems like it would be stuck in the mud if it weren’t for Renoir’s touch. It’s not even a trademark touch on his part, the film is rather unremarkable looking from his high standards. The film is already an oddity as it is, but it feels weird even within the scope of Renoir’s short-lived career in America.

The acting is weirdly the hallmark here. Robert Ryan trading off with Charles Bickford (as Tod)  is utterly fascinating. Twice they have conversations in which both characters seem self-conscious of the subtext. The scene where they talk about going fishing is the best example of this. Both Tod and Scott are conscious of the dangerous storm outside, as well as their mutual hatred, but they carry on the mundane conversation. Peggy is also aware of this but makes no effort to stop what could possibly kill both men until they leave. Again, the actions and motivations of the film’s main three can be called in to question but that’s what makes the film all the more fascinating.

The film ends up Tod’s cathartic burning of his painting, and the implication seems to be that Peggy is ready to stay with him, but again, the film prides itself on avoiding any answers as much as it does on setting up any questions. It’s hard to not sound vague when talking about this film. Who are these people and why did we watch them? In the end, we don’t even know what happens to them, but that’s the best thing about it. It’s a short character study and the audience isn’t given much to learn from. This is a good thing, and it’s a really good movie.