Wednesday, September 24, 2014

#710: Judex

(Georges Franju, 1963)

Judex is basically a French version of The Shadow, an early prototype of the superhero genre that would define comic books for the modern era and is currently holding the summer box office in a choke hold. This remake of the original film adaptation of the character is a movie in love with movies, the illusion and freedom that define the artform.

I had never heard of Judex (or even the character) before the title was announced, though it wasn't a totally left-field choice considering Franju had directed Eyes Without a Face, an early addition to the Collection. I enjoy that movie a lot, and what little I read about it before watching had me thinking this was going to be one I really loved. It sounded like a stylish and playful mind game that didn't bother to follow the rules of logic or realism.

Ultimately, though, I just sort of really liked it. The core story of the film is interesting but doesn't lead to much, as a lot of the explanation of backstory that was supposedly included in the original film has been nixed. This makes the movie a bit more like a fever dream, which is cool enough but doesn't allow the experience to add up to much. There's also a woman at the center of the film who is pretty much everything you could ask for in a stereotype of woman as a ruthless bitch, which is either a coincidence or a symptom of the time. But the movie is so pulpy and silly that it's hard to criticize it for anything other than not being pulpy and silly enough to elevate it to something really special.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

#706: Master of the House

(Carl Th. Dreyer, 1925)

It's not that I didn't like Master of the House, an engaging and gentle little movie that shows off Dreyer's early skill with the camera. It's just that all of the talk about its revolutionary and progressive stance on gender roles is largely unfounded. Within the context of 1925's political discourse, a movie that highlights a woman's work and the need to value them in their role is certainly admirable. But a better attitude from men is not the goal of feminism - it's simply the barest necessity of entry into the human race. Master of the House does nothing to strike against the larger injustices of the patriarchal society, it simply uses them to tell a light and harmless but ultimately traditional story about a man taking his wife for granted.

There's a certain condescension directed at the past, where racism and sexism are graded on a curve. Anything that appears remotely empathetic toward people who aren't white men is declared revolutionary, while the notion that social justice or progressive thinking could have existed before the 1960s is supposed to be a revelation on par with the discovery of complex tools in the caveman era. The truth is that Master of the House is mainstream entertainment designed to play with the already widely held beliefs of the general public, and only the stodgiest traditionalist would have complained about it.

Moving beyond this complaint - which is generated through no fault of the film itself - Master of the House is an enjoyable film. Though it is certainly minor when compared to Dreyer's later work, his technical skill is clear, and I like seeing more silent films in the Collection, regardless of how "revolutionary" they are.

Monday, August 18, 2014

#708: Like Someone in Love

(Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)

Certified Copy is possibly my favorite movie of the last ten years, so Like Someone in Love was a highly anticipated viewing despite the conventional wisdom that seemed to place it a step down from Kiarostami's last film. Even though I would agree that the movie doesn't quite live up to its predecessor, Like Someone in Love is a perfect companion piece to that film, and a rewarding and engaging cinematic mystery.

Like Certified Copy, the movie deals in vague plot details matched with vivid characters. The three main players here, like the two in Certified Copy, feel just as real and relatable as the protagonists of any movie, and yet we know so little about their backgrounds as to feel we are getting only an abstract portrait of their inner lives. Unlike Certified Copy, however, the film revolves around one character that holds the key to understanding - Takashi, the older man, who knows the truth about his relationship with Akiko but declines to reveal it. This makes the film much less of an intellectual exercise than Certified Copy, where both main characters seem to be toying with the viewer in a surrealist and removed way, but it also makes it a tad more infuriating, since it seems like the whole matter could be easily cleared up in a confessional scene.

Kiarostami is, of course, totally unconcerned with such matters, and remains much more engaged with the ways in which people relate to both each other and the outside world. As in his previous films, the post-modern flair, obtuse thematic structure, and car driving/riding sequences define the director's aesthetic. But Someone in Love firmly resides in Kiarostami's second career, that of an exiled artist obsessed with his national crisis. It's no surprise that Kiarostami's two films outside of Iran, Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love, immediately imply removal from a subject - for Kiarostami, every film he makes outside of Iran is removed from its true intentions, a simulacrum of the film he really wanted to make. The final moments of both films are revelation interrupted, a moment of foreplay or violence that speaks to the greater truth of the respective film, and the ultimate metaphor for Kiarostami's identity unrealized by his exile.

It might be a crude comparison, but this era of Kiarostami's work reminds me of Caetano Veloso's exile from his home country of Brazil. Both artists fuse modern global aesthetics with personal and national styles which are distinct to their respective countries, and Veloso's 1971 self-titled album feels unsettling and mysterious. Like Kiarostami, Veloso chose to work in a language that was not his own, but that of the country in which he was creating art. If the metaphor is to hold, the Iranian filmmaker has much more experimental and arguably difficult land to traverse. But the journey will never be anything less than invigorating and impressive. Kiarostami is certainly one of the great living filmmakers - that he hails from one of the world's most notorious and complex countries only makes his emergence that much more powerful.

On a personal note, this is my 500th post on a Criterion movie on this blog. I honestly never thought I'd get this far, but it's been a thoroughly rewarding journey, one I wouldn't trade for any other artistic endeavor I've made. I've obviously slowed down a great deal since I "caught up" with the collection - which has made me slip a bit in terms of keeping up. But as long as Criterion continues to put out movies, I'll continue to watch them and post here. Even as they encounter more financial issues and turn to ever bigger releases to maintain their place  in the market, I believe in what Criterion is doing and continue to have faith that they will be around for spine number 1000 and beyond. Here's hoping we are all there to see it happen.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

#720: The Big Chill

(Lawrence Kasdan, 1983)

I watched The Big Chill for the first time when I was a teenager, and there are few more depressing movies to watch at that stage of life. For people with limitless options ahead of them, this is a film about people who are dead inside, horrified with the decisions they have made, and desperate to regain their freedom. They are unlikable and self-absorbed. Like Kevin Kline's later film, The Ice Storm, it's an unpleasant and uncomfortable viewing because it's hard to wrap your head around the choices you watch.

Once you've grown up, started a family, waded deep enough into a career or whatever they call it these days, the film is oddly less depressing, more comforting. It's a reminder that no matter how bad things get, you can always go home. It's a reassurance of the interpersonal connections that don't go away when philosophies and priorities change.

Of course, while the fundamental conflict of The Big Chill, the struggle with getting older and wrestling with dreams and responsibilities, is timeless, the resolution is specific to the boomer generation the film claims to represent. If The Big Chill was made today - and seeing how difficult it is to have adult dramas get made in the Hollywood system, it wouldn't be - the moral of the story would be distinctly anti-nostalgia, a lesson about appreciating what you have in life instead of longing for the past. If the children are our future in The Big Chill, the future is a disembodied voice we police from a distance while we dance and screw away the blues to the safe pop rhythms of our youth. The Big Chill is drenched in a nostalgia that would be tossed aside immediately by my generation, even as we struggle to uphold our own truths from a bygone era.

At one point, a character complains that "even fortune cookies are getting cynical" - a cynical comment about too much cynicism. The group of friends in The Big Chill finds comfort in the idealism of their youth because they know how foolish and carefree they were; they've tasted the apple and wish they hadn't. This was a bitterness that was passed on to their children, a generation intent on avoiding the disappointment their parents endured, but destined to fight some other kind of disappointment that doesn't come from anything more specific than the realization that no one is exempted from losing their cool.

The Big Chill is far from a great movie, but it's lasted as long as it has not because of its impressive cast and almost unbelievably stacked soundtrack but because it speaks to a simple and quiet truth about a milestone in life that often goes unmentioned. These are the kind of moments the Hollywood of the 80s was best equipped to handle, and it's a reminder of what our current cinematic landscape is missing: movies that aren't for everyone, but might mean everything to you.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

#702: The Great Beauty

(Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

It would be easy to describe The Great Beauty as Fellini with Facebook, a contemporary retelling of the grotesque modernism of Fellini's core work, most notably and obviously La Dolce Vita (finally announced as a Criterion title earlier this month). To do so, however, would marginalize the film's own merits as a commentary on modern life just as much as it would reduce modern life itself to the tools we use to navigate through it.

Certainly, there is a strange anachronistic feeling to the modern components characters wield in The Great Beauty - the music they dance to, the cars they drive, the nude photos they offer up. The film feels so much like La Dolce Vita that these details serve as an odd reminder that we are not watching something that was, but something that is. Sorrentino has made a film about a man surrounded by history: his own, his city's, his film's. It's a quintessentially Italian endeavor - perhaps even uniquely Roman - but the lessons he dwells on are universal and eternal, an idea easily reinforced by everything that has changed in the last fifty years in Rome and everything that has stayed the same.

As in La Dolce Vita (and fellow modernist masterpieces L'Avventura and Through a Glass Darkly), the best moments in The Great Beauty are in the morning after, the sleepy but clear realizations that the cycle goes on. The film is also stunningly beautiful, almost to a default, and Sorrentino says as much with his camera as he does with his script. His protagonist is an empty shell stuck at the long party, but it's a beautiful party, and the way Sorrentino seduces the viewer allows Jep's momentum to seem less pitiable, more understandable. We wait for the next rush of adrenaline, desiring our own power to ruin the party - not to use it, but to know that we have it.

The Great Beauty's success is so frequently technical and theoretical that it can be hard to interact with the text's intentions. Jep is searching for the titular prize, but isn't everyone? We believe his desires but we don't recognize anything new - in a way, this is the point of the movie, that we're all living a cycle, that modernity and society's progress is a lie to cover up the fact that we are all in tatters. They say caged animals are the only ones who have time to be depressed, and we have yet to devise a better cage for humans than that of eternal comfort. The Great Beauty might be trudging over worn territory, but there's no more terrifying prospect in modern life than getting everything you want and still feeling empty.

Friday, February 7, 2014

#694: The Long Day Closes

(Terence Davies, 1992)

Distant Voices, Still Lives is one of my favorite movies made during my lifetime, and a top request for Criterion treatment. So when The Long Day Closes was announced, I had somewhat mixed emotions: it's nice to see Davies in the collection, but I wish it was a different title above his name.

After watching The Long Day Closes, I don't feel that different. In fact, I hope people who have come to Davies because of Criterion's seal of approval would seek out Distant Voices first before seeing this movie - it's not just a better movie, but a better introduction to the artist's style and singular execution, which involves gentle camera movements, dimly lit but meticulously composed visuals, and a loose narrative held together with stark dialogue and nearly constant, mostly diagetic traditional music.

That said, this is still a beautiful movie and a worthy addition to Criterion's ranks. Rather than deal in memory and the passage of time, as much of his work does, The Long Day Closes relishes the moment, depicting a crucial point in childhood as a peaceful but stirring moment in life. It's certainly still from the point of view of the present, but Davies seems more engaged with his setting than in Distant Voices, which floats along through brutal fog and unshakable trauma. It makes the movie feel less experimental even as it expands upon the narrative theory put forth by his earlier features. This is a complex and skilled narrative that is intricately and masterfully composed.

Perhaps this is what makes it feel less alive than Distant Voices. Davies's style is at its best unhinged and dangerous, like a bloody revolution set to cleanse the country of its sins but succumbing to the ever ready truth that past is present. The Long Day Closes is at peace with itself, but it's impossible to shake the feeling that it's all a charade.

Monday, December 16, 2013

#688: Dry Summer

(Metin Erksan, 1964)

Dry Summer is my favorite film in the World Cinema boxset so far. The film features one of the great villains in Criterion - Osman is a true piece of shit, the kind of character that makes your skin crawl and wish you could climb into the movie so you could smack the shit out of him. At times I hated him so much (and he seemed so over-the-top despicable) that I felt uncomfortable watching the film. But the incredible direction and suspense of the final sequence won me over.

One of the most interesting things about the film is how Erksan is able to take a socialist premise not dissimilar to that of Redes and create a timeless morality tale laced with Hitchcockian suspense. The movie's themes are reminiscent of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, though Bogart and friends are arguably more admirable than Osman prior to the discovery of the gold, and the way in which greed and hubris overtake the respective protagonists seems guided by an invisible hand - just not the one such craven capitalists pray to. Dry Summer might not be the towering parable Huston's film is, but it is a grand statement from an under-explored corner of the cinematic globe.