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) - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H5vT0T_ionU 
> Ashes - http://mubi.com/films/ashes/watch

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

Friday, October 19, 2012


The Arbor (2010)

Art that springs out of suffering as an historical document is often perceived as having emerged from a crucible, that it’s somehow been purified and refined, and is capable of generating, from out of the misery, a new energy for good and a new structure for comprehension. Anne Frank wrote about the minutia of adolescence in the teeth of the holocaust, and the tender record from her attic cell is tragic and beautiful. Che Guevara’s Bolivia journal is a meticulous timeline of a desperate span in the life of a soldier whose indefatigable will remains an inspiration to many. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s faith in his God and his utter rejection of the Nazi authority that carried out his execution fills his writings with a subtle poignancy and elicits a complex empathy from many. People like these left us documents which have in turn survived to be documented and now serve as testaments to the depth of the human spirit under extreme duress largely because they provide as such a sharp contrast between hope and colossal struggle. But how when the art or document is very nearly the abject clone of the misery that spawned it, when it is so dark that it is barely allusive to any particular hope or any faint ideal?

Andrea Dunbar suffered quite a lot during her short life, and like many other artists she left documents behind that captured and conveyed the ways that she knew the world around her. These documents are respected by many, but they are heavy and not easily managed. The Arbor succeeds in appropriating her stenography but not her broken heart; in doing so it tends to treat Dunbar’s art as the raging spawn of her circumstance and not as a creative expression to come out of it. The director’s spotlight does shine boldly, but it mostly illuminates her own meticulous structures, the lip synched interviews and carefully managed actors emoting over the actual family’s voices, reciting autobiography that’s dizzy with the fictional bias of verbatim theater. The Arbor tries to marry Dunbar’s sincere volatility to its own convoluted form. But Dunbar’s story is not so easily managed. The director, Clio Barnard weaves a multifaceted and heavily indulgent film, which, if taken by itself - as if it were purely fictional and not documentary - would in no way compromises the film’s energy or its creative force. But it is intended as a document of sorts and as such her methods may ultimately compromise Dunbar’s art, and that would seem to defeat the original purpose of the film.

The problem, as it appears to me, is that Dunbar’s life and the art that sprang from it have only the faintest glimmers of anything like hope to begin with, but those glimmers are key to engendering the empathy that can bring the audience down to meet her in the wreck of her particular hell. But Barnard’s self-reflexive layers of mechanisms smother Dunbar’s subtler emotional nuance, leaving room only for the loudness, the mania, the swearing and the rage. The result is that there is no definite empathetic focal point, and the slim potential for even the mildest of edificatory designs is effaced.

Dunbar was born into hell, and she wrote about it with a manic fervor, then hell rose and washed over her and she died. That is all. In Barnard’s hands, Dunbar’s life is a cautionary tale at best. The nihilism that overwhelms her meta narrative catches up all the complementing pieces and seems to infect the veracity of the entire document. But so be it; the language of documentary film is chimeric, and for me to expect or hunt for a hint of hopefulness is indicative of my own romantic naiveté. So the credits roll, and we understand a little bit more what it means to be hopeless in a world where people all around you clamor about love and hope. If there is more to Dunbar’s life and art than that, then perhaps it may be found in the future, couched in a less ambitious feature that focuses more directly on the document and not the upon documentarian.

Director: Clio Barnard

Cast: Manjinder Virk, Christine Bottomley, Natalie Gavin, Parvani Lingiah, Danny Webb, Kate Rutter, Liam Price, Neil Dudgeon, Monica Dolan, Kathryn Pogson, Jimi Mistry, George Costigan