Monday, February 24, 2014

Two Years at Sea

Two Years At Sea (2011)

What it Jake doing? What does Jake think about? How did he get to this stage in his life? Where is Jake’s family? Is Jake all alone? Does Jake love nature? Is Jake the original mystic wizard ragamuffin? Would Jake be my friend if I went and visited him in his crumble down shanty? Does Jake hate the city because of what it did to him?

Useless questions.

I doubt that we will ever learn the lessons of Robert Flaherty. We want it to be real, and we will have our way. Jake is a flimsy construct, an open-ended catalyst, reverse propulsion towards the self. I like this movie for what it does with our wants. Shot in a bubbly grit storm of 16mm black and white and devoid of anything like dialogue, it is overripe with setup, quirk and hushed whatsit. It provides a fine, fresh tabula rasa for the viewer to wantonly Xerox their own consciousness upon.

This movie is about us and what we bring to the screen. It is not a document of Jake’s life, and that is what’s most important because we can't help but want it to be a document... and what does that say about us and what we want? Jake is not what the film makes him out to be. Rivers never ask him to be “documented’, quite the opposite, he says, “It does seem rather unlike him when you see him in the film, when in reality he is very gregarious, friendly, noisy kind of person. I think he’s a brilliant performer.” Jake is also self-conscious; Rivers says that Jake had seen many of his films. Jake acted intentionally, playing a part. So back away.

If there is a polemical core to this movie it most revolve around what Jake is doing to and with the world around him, the natural world and the role of a man in the landscape. He's sort of like one of those turtles that moves so infrequently that he begins to build up moss and sediment on his shell.

In spite of his ability to engage and facilitate evocative moments, Rivers has a dim and affected idea of the rural as an antithesis to urban spaces. As a result his mythology is lame as are the effects that the respective environments have on the viewers mind. When he moves the narrative overtly in that direction, suggesting or highlighting with clunky magical realism the dreams stutter step. In his own words, Rivers claims that he hoped to portray “People living at a more self-regulated relationship to time rather than time being forced upon them.” But that is not what happens, certainly the film seems slow, but that’s just the pacing. Certainly Jake doesn't seem to be in a hurry, but that's just because he doesn't really have much to do and what he does do is depicted as random and relatively trivial.

The Upshot:
If you want to spiral, unhinged, in disembodied third person as your consciousness is being excised from conventional temporal strictures then watch Tarkovsky’s, Stalker, a movie that truly respects the inexplicable temporal relationship between man and the landscape.

If you want to feel emotionally drawn to a weird little hermit in an imaginary world then watch Two Years at Sea. It's a pretty good movie.

Also of note: Ben Rivers’ Slow Action: a kind of morphine-soaked second cousin to John Boorman’s, Zardoz (if it was coproduced by The History Channel and Chris Marker).


Quotes Taken From: BFI Events, Published on May 28, 2012

Director: Ben Rivers

Actor: Jake Williams

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)

Cellist Ernst Reijseger, swaddles Herzog’s documentary in an ethereal & mesmeric score, allowing the director’s typically evocative commentary to drift up effortlessly, out from the very caves and crevices that he films with such awe and precision.  Reijseger’s score is important, because, as with most of Herzog’s documentaries, the atmosphere that Herzog evokes invariably incubates the impressions that his subject matter generates, and Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc must have been something close to Herzog’s ideal subject matter. 20,000 years in the making and virtually unexposed to mankind, these caves are steeped in the accumulated mystery of millennia, still barely understood and filled to bursting with meaning and anthropological ramification. Herzog loves it to be big, overwhelming, heavy and difficult to pin down. Empiricism is not his forte; rather, he’s more likely to be found extrapolating the meaning of mankind’s existence through the erratic behavior of a penguin on an empty ice shelf in Antarctica [Encounters at the End of the World] or a moonwalker dancing on the edge of a cliff beside a waterfall in Guyana [The White Diamond].

No one makes a documentary quite like Herzog does. The spaces that he cordons off for the purposes of spontaneity and discovery are almost unprecedented in documentary filmmaking, and in the hands of a less adept director such elliptical methods would certainly result in a travesty of imprecision and disinformation. But Herzog invariably pulls it off. Certainly the result can border on the bizarre; but the cave paintings and skulls, the stalagmites reverberating with the tapping splash of distant, dripping water, the obsessive scientists and curious local mystics—both of whom he treats equally and respectfully—these are all the diverse components of exceedingly bizarre matters, and so his methodology seems somehow fitting.


Director: Werner Herzog
Cast: Werner Herzog, Dominique Baffier, Jean Clottes, Jean-Michel Geneste, Carole Fritz, Gilles Tosello, Michel Philippe, Julien Monney, Nicholas Conard, Charles Fathy

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2011)

Most of the time a movie review is essentially a personal opinion positioned in a distinct context. A person declares that a film was good because _______. Or they hate a film because of_______. And most of the time, for most people that's more than enough - it works and folks are satisfied because to some extent film represents a universal language (with the assistance of subtitles of course) and nearly everyone is fluent to some degree and will decide for themselves regardless.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, reminded me that the "universal language" of cinema is more of an unspoken agreement than a hard and fast rule. Film can, if it chooses to do so, express itself in a cultural and artistic dialect that is so thick and idiosyncratic that you may as well watch it with the subtitles off. It's possible that had I chosen to watch this movie without the subtitles I still might have come away with the nearly the same impression. What impression is that, you might ask: I have no idea.

I didn't hate this movie, but it would be the height of pretension for me to claim that I understood it well enough to have liked it, and to me, that seems to be an extremely UNsatisfying conclusion to arrive at. I wanted to like this film, not only because it was a success on the festival circuit, but because it is beautifully shot and obviously has a lot of heart. The performances are emotionally convicting and the tragic cultural history that it attempts to integrate into the narrative should definitely engender my sympathy. But I was far too busy feeling confused to truly appreciate these moments. For instance, if a woman (in a scene depicting one of Boonmee's past lives?) is going to make vigorous love to a magical catfish in the middle of the film, then I feel that- even if I didn't see it coming - when that scene ends I should be able to say to myself, "Of course that just happened - it makes sense that a thing like that should happen". In this case I just thought, WTF just happened! I've seen plenty of art films where nothing made sense, and when the credits rolled I was fine with that. But this is a personal narrative located within a real historical context and based on somebody's actual life. You should not find yourself viewing it with that level of empathetic detachment.

The popular critics who lauded this film seem to imply that viewers need to let the abstraction run its course, let the film be what it is and embrace the disjunctive moments as part of a greater, elliptical whole... perhaps. I believe that I attempted to do just that and may have failed.

I don't blame Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He certainly is not beholden to the likes of me when he sets out to make a film, and to his credit, most of the broader emotional energy accompanying the sickness and death of Boonmee translated very well. The scene in the cave was beautiful. But I felt like an outsider (culturally and artistically) to such an extent that by the time the film ended, I was almost entirely outside of any sense of empathy towards it. I don't think that is what he or Uncle Boonmee would have wanted. But like I said... I have no idea.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a very good storyteller and I feel like his most compelling work, the work that crosses boundaries the most readily are his short art films. They're quiet and simple, but I feel like there is so much power in them - they're a joy to watch.

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Cast: Thanapat Saisaymar, Jenjira Pongpas, Sakda Kaewbuadee, Natthakarn Aphaiwonk, Geerasak Kulhong, Kanokporn Thongaram, Samud Kugasang, Wallapa Mongkolprasert

> Cactus River (Khong Lang Nam) - 
> Ashes -

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

In spite of the fact that George Cukor was a consummate professional by 1939—he had close to thirty films under his belt by the time he signed on to do this one—there still must have been at least a few moments during the production of this film where he came close to buckling under the pressure. The egos involved in the making of The Philadelphia Story: Grant’s, Stewart’s, Hepburn’s… not to mention Cukor himself, who had no small opinion of his own talents; these were colossal careers, colossal investments and the studios knew it. It was enough pressure to overwhelm anyone. But the end result is overwhelmingly successful and rightfully deserves all the hallowed reverence that's lavished on it. It’s a little bit loose and hokey, but I think that it had to be in order to give all these stars room enough to stretch.

In my opinion, Katherine Hepburn’s iron will fired this picture. She went into this film determined to build it into a success because she needed a success; she pulled it together, and her performance sets the tone and keeps up the momentum. Her career was in a slump, and rumors were circulating, critics claimed that she was washed up—she was not.

 The Philadelphia Story is two parts romantic comedy, one part screwball and one part mild, political statement. That’s already a great mixture, add three spectacular performances, and the rest is history.

Director:  George Cukor

Cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young, John Halliday, Mary Nash, Virginia Weidler, Henry Daniell

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Tiny Furniture (2010)

For the genre that has been known heretofore as mumblecore, Lena Dunham’s 2010 effort may mark the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. At the very least it should mark the conclusion of one epoch and the start of another. That is not to say that the genre has been proven somehow invalid, or even that it’s been entirely superseded. But, simply put, Dunham’s, Tiny Furniture has coopted so much of mumblecore’s indie stylings and made them palatable that mumblecore may have to fall back and regroup if it wants to retain its avant-garde draw. Tiny Furniture is an itsy($50,000), indie, art film with mainstream sensibilities and grand aspirations—a combination that typically puts garage band cinephiles on the defensive—and it knows what it is and treads the line very carefully.

True, her film is replete with mumbleisms: digital video with a quasi-direct feel, non-actors playing average people who spew staggeringly inane but stupendously genuine dialogue and the self-centered ennui of white, post-collegiate twenty-somethings, characters with little or no dramatic arc. But some key components are omitted. That imperfect DIY feel is nowhere to be found; this is a very clean film with very smooth lines (it isn’t beautifully shot but it is clean), a severe aesthetic departure from films like, The pleasure of being robbed and Funny Ha Ha, both pretty films in their own right but, technically speaking, very imperfect. Part of that is certainly due to the setting (Tribeca is not the grittiest place on earth) but, by-and-large, there isn’t much of anything that could be considered lo-fi. Additionally, there is the matter of the dialogue. This film is scripted; there is no doubt about it. All that you have to do is listen to Laurie Simmons’ deadpan delivery of each line to discern that. Yet, to some extent, Mumblecore draws its parameters around imperfect auditory technique and is dependent on its improvisational feel, the loose freedom that captures the natural interactions of awkward people who mostly fail at communicating. But this film feels articulate and well-rehearsed; that’s because Dunham wrote a tight script and she stuck to it.

So what is mumblecore without awkward and indistinct conversations, without jerky, handheld, unfocused voyeurism? More importantly, how many defining characteristics can you eschew before you drift gracefully out of the genre altogether and right into the Sundance Film Festival? Maybe Tiny Furniture isn’t mumblecore; Dunham claims that it isn’t (though you never ask the director). But even as mumblecore’s bastard stepchild—Dunham born of an illicit affair between Wes Anderson and Aaron Katz?—her film is honest and clever enough to merit most of the attention that it has received.

Director: Lena Dunham

Cast:  Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Alex Karpovsky, David Call, Merritt Wever, Amy Seimetz

Tokyo Twilight (1957)

Passenger trains rumble through a meticulously framed shot—deep focused—revealing narrow streets, intimate, communal living quarters and the most restrained and subtle moments of family pathos. A patient camera squats on dry tatami, waiting for the story to unfold and it does, in its own time.

Yasujirō Ozu is the master’s undisputed master. In Tokyo Twilight, elements of film noir are suspended in the aspic of mono no aware, revealing a sentimental, distinctly Japanese, postwar realism. This is his darkest film and his last film in black & white. It's subject matter is sensational and the bold treatment ultimately tests the limitations of Ozu's style. But the familiar intergenerational conflicts dominate the plot and are highlighted through narrative parallelism and graceful, elliptical story arcs which culminate in a sadness that is as tangible as it is inevitable.

Director:  Yasujirō Ozu

Cast: Ineko Arima, Kamatari Fujiwara, Setsuko Hara, Nobuo Nakamura, Chishu Ryu, Kinzo Shin, Haruko Sugimura, Teiji Takahashi, Masami Taura, Isuzu Yamada, So Yamamura

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Quiet City (2007)

At any one point in my life there are only 10 to 15 films that I consider to be infinitely rewatchable. There are many films that I'll watch perhaps once a year, but there are comparatively few that I'll watch more than that. Of course my list fluctuates and morphs as my tastes and interests evolve. But some films are branded on my brain, and they continuously call me back; Quiet City is one of those films.

A mumblecore anthem for a profoundly disaffected generation of insatiable seekers. Sentimental and romantic, but also deeply honest, beautifully captured and elegantly scored. The ethos is ex Cassavetes with a flair for modish and gritty impressionism. He carefully arranges the city of  Brooklyn before the camera, layer upon layer until you can't imagine a more beautiful or a more hopeless place to live than in Quiet City's plaintive and reflective brick and asphalt soliloquy.

Not ironic enough to be tragically hip and not direct enough to be raw cinema vérité - Katz manages to navigate the fertile cusp of the mundane with compassion and aplomb, telling his own story while telling everyone's.

Director: Aaron Katz

Cast: Erin Fisher, Cris Lankenau, Sarah Hellman, Joe Swanberg, Tucker Stone, Liz Bender, Karrie Crouse, Keegan DeWitt, Daryl Nuhn, Michael Tully, C. Mason Wells