Saturday, July 31, 2010

#527: The Secret of the Grain

(Adellatif Kechiche, 2007)

Yet another of the Criterion films released in conjunction with IFC Films, The Secret of the Grain isn't the film that Summer Hours or Everlasting Moments is. That's not to say it doesn't have its strong points. The film is impeccably acted, which is to say that you would have a hard time remembering that there is acting being done, and the story becomes extremely suspenseful and exciting by the end; you really do get wrapped up in these characters' lives. But too many scenes drag on too long, and the film could have been forty minutes shorter.

The ending is where the movie is most likely to divide viewers (at least the ones that make it through the first hour, where nothing particularly happens), but I had mixed feelings about it. Abrupt endings can be extremely moving, but they can also seem like more of a cop out than anything else, and I thought this ending was a little of both.

The Secret of the Grain is a good movie, but it's certainly not a great one, and I wonder how I will feel about it five years now, or if anyone will be talking about it then. Without its place in Criterion, I think this is a movie that would be largely forgotten.

#455: White Dog

(Samuel Fuller, 1982)

Fuller's work is always deliriously sensational, straddling the line between deep social commentary and pulpy absurdity, and White Dog, his last film made in Hollywood, is no different. Shelved for nearly ten years, and never released on VHS, the film was virtually unavailable from the point of its completion until the Criterion release in 2008. Having heard about the film in high school, I was immediately intrigued at the idea of a film that dealt with issues of race so forcefully that the studios couldn't bear to release it. However, the finished product is much less incendiary than you might think considering its checkered past.

The best thing about White Dog isn't the plot or any political statement it makes. The story is basically an allegory about people raising the next generation on hate and intolerance, and basically concludes that a. it's the parents who are responsible for the sins of the child and b. hatred doesn't just pass on hatred, but destroys the carrier just as much as the carrier forces their hatred outwards. These are admirable points, and they are made rather well in a movie that is, like all Fuller films, B-level gold. But they aren't particularly earth-shattering, either, and the plotting of the film is both difficult to believe and hard to become totally engaged with.

So what really makes White Dog worth seeing is the stellar Ennio Morricone score. Arguably the greatest composer in film history, Morricone's work in the 80s got progressively stranger and more intense, and White Dog's eerie music is a perfect representation of the style. It makes the suspenseful and emotional moments in the film much more impressive and effective than they have any business being.

The film makes for interesting viewing, certainly, and on paper the film is exactly the kind of thing you hope Criterion puts out. It just that the film isn't that good, little more than a well-executed curiosity. I enjoyed it, and perhaps would even recommend it to a certain kind of person, but it hardly compares to the stronger works by Fuller made earlier in his career, let alone the best of the collection.

Friday, July 30, 2010

#70: The Last Temptation of Christ

(Martin Scorsese, 1988)

On my way to San Francisco this past weekend, I watched a few DVDs I own, and the first was The Last Temptation of Christ. I've owned it for a number of years, but I've only actually watched my copy once (I had also seen it twice before), not just because I am rarely in the mood for such serious fare, but because it is nearly three hours of deeply serious fare. Still, it's certainly my favorite Scorsese film (though I still have a soft spot for Goodfellas), and quite possibly one of my ten favorite movies ever made.

Not belonging to any organized religion, I feel I can safely bypass any debate about whether or not the film is offensive to Catholics or Christians in general. Personally, I feel that the film is such an intelligent and thoughtful exploration of the nature of faith that it makes no sense at all to me that someone would be offended by the film, but then again I don't believe Jesus Christ is my personal lord and savior, so I'm not really in any place to tell someone who does what to think. I certainly think there is a huge difference between a film like this and a film like Birth of a Nation, to which one (otherwise thoughtful) Christian reviewer compared it, because Scorsese's film seeks to explore intellectual concepts behind the struggles of men that are entirely truthful (avoiding, for a moment, that they are being explored through the personage of Jesus Christ), while Birth of a Nation paints a portrait of humans (avoiding, with the same benefit of the doubt, that it's ostensibly an historical epic) that is entirely opposed to truth and honest human nature. The idea of a Jesus and Judas as presented in The Last Temptation of Christ  may be antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and/or the Church, but they are far from unrecognizable to thoughtful, open-minded people.

More importantly, Birth of a Nation inspired the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan, causing a renewal of domestic terrorism throughout the South for the next forty or fifty years. The Last Temptation of Christ, on the other hand, paints an extremely favorable picture of the Christian faith to outsiders, a faith that is powerful enough to overcome the most sinister of temptations and doubts. Far too often - especially among fundamentalists - faith is obfuscated behind certainty, making the choices to lead one's life in a moral and pious way seem to be borne out of fear and delusion more than conscious decision to walk the path of the enlightened. Faith as it is portrayed in the film is constantly challenged, desperately denied, but ultimately responsible for salvation. To the outside viewer (and to this I can speak with much more certainty and self-reflection), the Jesus of this film is the empathetic, passionate Jesus, the one who truly loves his father but understands the sacrifice he is about to make. It makes his ultimate choice to do so seem that much more significant, and makes the viewer relate that much more to the pull Jesus's life has over people.

But you see what this film does to people? I just said I wanted to sidestep questions of theology and then proceeded to entirely avoid a discussion of the actual film. This is because there are few films that have been made that so merge both narrative and technique with theme. Unlike something like The Passion of the Christ, which so ignores competent filmmaking and entertaining story at the expense of the theme that it becomes a true slog of a film, Last Temptation is entirely concerned with telling a story in order to illuminate the concepts it wants to explore. This is partially because the later Mel Gibson film takes everything about Jesus that surrounds his crucifixion as a given, while the earlier film must map out this radical portrayal of the son of God.

The best scenes in The Last Temptation of Christ are scenes that merge theme and character. Although many of the most memorable scenes are action-oriented (especially Jesus back on the cross after the final temptation), the most challenging - and exciting - scenes are quiet moments of discussion. The moment in which Jesus tells Judas that God gave Judas the harder job, the moment when Jesus doubts his place as the messiah, and the scene of Jesus confronting Paul in his dream(?) could all spawn full pieces exploring the nature of faith.

But The Last Temptation of Christ is most appealing because of the way in which it unflinchingly - and continuously - challenges the viewers perception not just of Jesus, but of their own relationship with God. With the exception of people who simply cannot get past the subject matter which they find objectionable, I can't imagine anyone - atheist or devout Catholic - watching this movie and not coming away with a deeper understanding of their own viewpoint on religion. In this way, the film isn't really about Jesus at all, but instead about the search for truth for which all religions are ostensibly created, and, not coincidentally, all art is ostensibly made.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

#478: Last Year at Marienbad

(Alan Renais, 1961)

There are so many things about this movie, I'm not even sure where to begin.

First of all, how has this movie flown so far under the radar? Night and Fog and Hiroshima, Mon Amour have always been discussed as Resnais's most high-profile and successful works. I saw the latter when I was in middle school, far too young to comprehend the film's strange narrative structure and poetic tone, but I never heard about Last Year at Marienbad until about a year ago when I saw it had been released on Criterion. In fact, until I sat down to watch it, I was under the impression that it was a Hollywood melodrama (doesn't it sound like one?).

Thank God I didn't know more earlier, because I can't even imagine what I would have made of this film in my teens. Last Year at Marienbad is not just a French film, but the French-iest film ever. This is the movie that people parody when they make fun of French films, of student films, of arthouse films, of any movies that would be considered pretentious. There are many movies that have been made that have the same feeling as movies that are parodies of this style. L'Avventura and Pierrot Le Fou come to mind immediately. But unlike those films, Last Year at Marienbad doesn't just project this feeling, it is almost literally the same as the parodies it inspired.

The film is basically about a man meeting a woman at a hotel and trying to convince her that they shared the beginnings of an affair a year ago and they had made plans to return to the same hotel one year later to consummate that affair. But that is like saying Ulysses is about a dude hanging out one day in Dublin. What really happens in Last Year at Marienbad in narrative terms is entirely up for debate and personal interpretation. The film is so oblique as to be deliriously frustrating, the acting is so stilted, the blocking so posed, and the scene connections so disjointed - and yet brilliantly fluid - as to consistently take the viewer out of the moment. It's as if the director is constantly trying to persuade the viewer that they are watching a film.

It would be fiendish enough to present the viewer with a puzzle that is ultimately solvable, as in, say, Diabolique. But Last Year at Marienbad not only refuses to provide answers, but strongly hints at the idea that major pieces are missing, and some of the pieces that are there might not actually belong to the same puzzle. By the end of the film, it's not entirely clear who is lying to whom, or even if any of this is actually taking place.

This non-linear challenge wasn't even finished by the filmmakers themselves, because perhaps the most difficult thing about Last Year at Marienbad is one that was not an issue when the film was released: getting over the parodies of its tone and style which followed. The first half hour of this movie is going to be unbearable for 99% of viewers, simply because it is that difficult to overcome years of conditioning to either laugh at the self-seriousness of the film or dismiss it as intellectually vapid, a pretentious cinematic exercise disguised as a deep and meaningful exploration of the human condition. By the time the shock of the film's tone wears off, the viewer must endure the further shock that Resnais plans to sustain the tone and winding narrative structure through to the end of its ninety minutes. This is all to say that watching Last Year at Marienbad is perhaps as much of a challenge as experiencing or understanding Last Year at Marienbad.

I've probably made anyone who has gotten this far think that the movie is a crushing bore wrapped in a torturous labyrinth of bullshit. But in reality, Last Year at Marienbad is one of the most invigorating films I've ever seen. Resnais's camerawork is inspired and beautiful - on blu-ray, this movie almost literally glows. Every shot is breathtaking, and the style is so hypnotic that in those very deliberate moments when some pattern is broken - a woman trips, a shot rings out, a flat background becomes three dimensional, a fluid dance scene is cut with flashes of an austere hotel room quickly and even quicker - you can almost feel the tension released. It truly is form replacing narrative in every sense.

It might be considered funny, btw, that a man who established himself as a documentary filmmaker would be so insistent upon rejecting conventional narrative in his fictional movies, but I kind of think it's appropriate. Our lives don't unfold as stories, really. There are always the untold connections, the brief moments, and the unopened doors that go unmentioned. While narrative cinema is undoubtedly the most effective way to mimic the way in which we process information, why shouldn't non-narrative cinema be just as representative of reality itself?

Beyond this technical and structural discussion, of course, is the story of the film itself. Having only seen the movie once (I plan on seeing it again three or four hundred times before I can really come to a strong conclusion), my initial impression was that the man is dead and that he was trying to convince the woman that she is also dead, and she must join them on the other side. Now, I don't at all think this is accurate, and I think I assumed this largely because the film owes a great deal to Hitchcock (especially Vertigo) and so clearly influenced Kubrick when he was making The Shining. But part of the fun of the film is that your theories don't have to be right to be compelling. The film is so open-ended that interpretations are meant to be part of the experience (another thing which ties the movie in so closely to the art of filmmaking itself).  

Last Year at Marienbad is a challenging film, and it would be very easy to dismiss it as a failed experiment. In fact, I think much of the reason it doesn't have the higher profile of even a mid-level (on a level of fame) New Wave classic like Hiroshima, Mon Amour is that the film's quality and value remain controversial to this day (it was received poorly by a large number of critics, including the sycophantic and annoying Pauline Kael). Most people will hate this movie, not just because we aren't used to seeing films unfold in this way, but because they simply aren't interested in trying to adjust their perspective. But I could also see a small percentage of people not just falling in love with the movie, but considering it to be the greatest film they had ever seen. It has many of the necessary elements for this status, not the least of which is an astonishing technical confidence that oozes a love for cinema at its most appealingly manipulative. While I wouldn't go to such extremes, I lean towards this latter group, not because I am generally partial to films of this nature, but because I was deeply affected by the experience of watching it for the first time, and a week after seeing it I can't get it out of my head.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

#514: Ride with the Devil

(Ang Lee, 1999)

At once a difficult slog and an admirable, challenging look at the Civil War, Ang Lee's wholly ignored and largely forgotten Ride with the Devil is both certainly deserving of a second chance and, well, sometimes a little too much to bear. Roger Ebert gave the film two stars when it was released, but had little to say against the film except the fact that, um, it's boring. And yeah, this isn't the most eventful movie I've ever seen. There are moments of pure inspiration, just as there are moments that challenge the perceived notion of the war in a modern day America that was inarguably shaped by its unfolding. But there is a lot of work to get through to reach these moments. Most people won't make it.

My favorite moment comes halfway-ish through the movie. Sitting in a Confederate house, Maguire and Ulrich listen to the man of the house explain why he knows the south is going to lose the war. In Lawrence, Kansas, he explains, the first thing they built - before they built anything else - was the schoolhouse, and every child in the town could come learn there. His point wasn't that Unionists were more educated, but that they believe everyone should think and live like they do. In the south, they don't care what other people do. They just look out for themselves. This is an eternal truth, not just about North and South, but about white and black, Christian and Jew, American and (modern) European. It's a powerful statement.

Intellectually, I think Ride with the Devil is a modern masterpiece. The direction, score, editing, and especially the cinematography are all artful and memorable. The acting is top-rate, though (as always) I could have used a little less Tobey Maguire. The film gives us a different look at a well-worn subject, and does so in a challenging and intelligent way. And yet, it's so emotionless as to almost be a history book instead of a story. The ideas and execution behind the events are much more effective than the events themselves, which lack visceral impact (the obvious exception to this is the harrowing Lawrence Massacre, though again this is more about execution than emotion -  no pun intended). Ride with the Devil is a worthwhile film, one that deserves to be reevaluated. But this is not a case where it is shocking, or even really surprising, that a film was overlooked in its initial run. Unlike Lee's best films - Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - Ride with the Devil is more about its contextual and technical accomplishments in relation to its genre than an emotional connection to its genre's touchstones (though I haven't seen The Hulk, the general consensus on the film seems to be the same). It makes for a challenging viewing for most, if a worthy one for some.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

#520: Everlasting Moments

(Jan Troell, 2008)

One of a number of movies released under the Criterion banner thanks to a deal with IFC Films, Everlasting Moments is a movie that swept well under the radar when it was first released in the US, though it was the official selection of Sweden at the Oscars that year (it made the shortlist, but failed to be nominated). It's also a beautiful film, a shade away from truly Great, but the kind of movie that will have an intense emotional impact on a select few.

The film centers around matriarch Maria, her abusive husband, and her fascination with photography in the early 20th century. The movie's title refers to photographs, but it also fits the film  perfectly. There are big plot developments here, like the confrontations between the couple, the first time she picks up the camera, the last moment in the film. But the movie isn't about plot or story, it's about those small moments where Maria's love for her art, the fascination with the merging of technology and life's messy moments, and the beauty of the planet amidst poverty and abuse shine through. Like Le Cercle Rouge (and the two movies don't share much), Everlasting Moments is the kind of film that only an experienced filmmaker seems to be able to pull off. The confidence of the film is as impressive as the effortless way in which it is displayed.

This movie is not the kind of film that's going to make anyone scream "Classic," or make anyone forget the true classics of the collection. But it's the kind of movie, like Summer Hours or Revanche, that can get passed over easily as we push on to the next big, loud film. It's worthwhile to sit Everlasting Moments next to Stagecoach and Red Desert, as Criterion does in their catalog. It's a reminder of the big little things cinema does in peoples' lives, not just because the film is literally about the impact of images reflecting reality, but because our own relationships, our own suffering, our own sense of time and family can be so intertwined with the quiet experiences of characters in the film. Everlasting Moments isn't a great film, maybe, but it is an essential one.

Friday, July 16, 2010

#231: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

(Fritz Lang, 1933)

This is a pretty dark movie. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, coming from Lang, who made two of the great films of early cinema, Metropolis and M (which was just re-released by Criterion on Blu Ray). But even with this pedigree, the movie was shockingly nihilistic, terrifying, and experimental. Considering the fact that it was made in 1933, the use of sound is strikingly effective, not just for talking but for psychological impact. And the super-imposed images of ghosts and specters are extremely effective.

The film isn't as spectacular as M (few are) but it does have social relevance: it was made during the rise of Hitler in Germany, and has the distinction of being the first film banned by the Nazis. Lang (who, like Hitler, was actually Austrian) saw the writing on the wall and left the country soon after, eventually making his way to America, where his most notable film was probably the noirish The Big Heat. But he never reclaimed the vanguard position he had early in his career with films like this one.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

#115: Rififi

(Jules Dassin, 1955)

There's a great interview with Dassin on the DVD for Rififi in which he tells a story about showing the film to a friend of his right after finishing it, being unsure of how the film would play. The first thing his friend said to him was, "Make this movie for the rest of your life." That's when Dassin knew the movie might be pretty good.

I hadn't seen Rififi for over ten years when I watched it this week. I remembered it being a great movie, but I didn't really remember just how good it was. Rififi is a perfect film, the kind of movie that is made maybe four or five times a decade, the kind of movie that will never, I mean never, did I mention NEVER, be surpassed as the greatest heist film ever made.

But really, that might be underselling the film. The climactic race through the streets of Paris is one of the great moments in cinema history - and that's not even discussing the heist itself. Both scenes, actually, have no dialog, and could have been made (though less efficiently) in the silent era and been just as effective. Yet the movie also thrills at every point in between, and dwells in both low and high art so effortlessly that it's hard to imagine a more perfect representation of the film's synthesis of American and French filmmaking. Quite simply, Rififi is one of the best movies on Criterion, an undeniable masterpiece.

#504: Hunger

(Steve McQueen, 2008)

Should every movie be beautiful? Here's what I'm trying to say: making a movie truly beautiful requires the technical skill and artful eye of an objectively talented filmmaker (and/or an objectively brilliant crew, starting with the DP). Simply said, a movie that is beautiful is better made - from a technical perspective - than a movie that is not. But when dealing with narrative film, is there a possibility that a film might be better thematically and emotionally if the movie isn't a technical masterpiece?

In the case of Hunger, I think this question is especially relevant. Director Steve McQueen is a well-known British artist who makes his debut as a director of a conventional narrative here. His talent and eye shine through perhaps more than anything else; this is a strikingly beautiful movie at every moment, almost to the point of distraction. There is literally a wall of shit halfway through the film that is more lovingly shot and artfully presented than most lead actors in your average romantic comedy.

And yet, does the movie's story, of an Irish political prisoner in the early 1980s that chose to go on a hunger strike and literally starve to death in order to have his status as a political prisoner recognized, really allow for such moments of cinematic reflection? Does the beauty of a scene in which prisoners are violated and assaulted add to the shocking emotional impact of the scene or detract from it? It's certainly a combination that is strange enough that I have a hard time fully committing to the film. But the final sequence is just so, so emotional and moving that the film succeeds despite this awkward merging of thematic and technical elements.

There's also the eternally true point that a beautiful movie, no matter how strangely beautiful, is always fun to watch, and despite the disturbing and occasionally depressing moments in the film, it's certainly exhilarating from that perspective. So I'd certainly recommend this film, it's one of the most striking and memorable films of the past few years.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

#380: The Naked City

(Jules Dassin, 1948)

Dassin's best work oozes surreal rebelliousness, but the real appeal of The Naked City is New York in all its splendid reality. The movie is set all over town, but the best scenes are on the lower east side where the murderer lives. Here are boys jumping through the streets, coffee shops on corners, towers stretching above the East River, all tied together with a plot best saved for an episode of early police procedural shows (which, of course, it would be when the film was turned into a long-running series in the early days of television).

When you say Dassin people think Rififi, and The Naked City wouldn't ever change that. But the film is notable for coining the term "There are 8 million stories in the naked city, this has been one of them." And the movie does have a certain clip to its plotting that never seems dull or even less than engaging. So it's a worthy addition to the catalog, and one of Dassin's more notable films.

(btw, the essay on this film is especially strong.)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

#310: Samurai Rebellion

(Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)

This movie is awesome. Part of Criterion's Rebel Samurai box, a group of movies made during the counter-culture 60s that explored samurais that defied authority for a higher, individual code of honor, Samurai Rebellion is one of Toshiro Mifune's most famous later performances, as well as one of his most notable outside of the direction of Kurosawa.

It's also a riveting story of a man and his family pushed into a violent and inevitably tragic situation. The tension grows so steadily in the film - without any action until the final 20 or so minutes - that by the big climactic fight scenes the suspense is immense. By the final moment, (spoilers after the jump)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

#26: The Long Good Friday

(John Mackenzie, 1979)

I went into this film expecting it to be more dynamic and especially more violent than it actually was. In the end, the film is extremely British, almost using a Masterpiece Theater format to tell an extremely dark story of a gangster trying to reform his old ways. The movie has a ton of religious symbolism and social and political relevance for England in 1979, but the movie is really dominated by the appeal of Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren, who give superb performances. I wasn't in love with the film, but these two sustained me through the running time. Hoskins is seething under the surface, desperate to go legit but not understanding how to do it, while Mirren makes for one of the more interesting gangster dames I've ever seen. She makes it difficult to know where her real personality ends and her sophisticated facade begins.

For me, though, the movie suffers from an odd kind of static that doesn't make the film's story pop. The film it most reminded me of was the brilliant The Friends of Eddie Coyle - also a Criterion film - in that both films throw you into the deep end immediately and expect you to swim, pouring on more and more plot as it naturally unfolds, rather than in any kind of conventionally accessible way. But that film's plot, alternately intriguingly complex and shockingly terrifying, rewarded the work put into the first half, while The Long Good Friday doesn't have nearly as much behind it (unless you are seriously invested in the religious and political implications of the IRA and the British mob). The Long Good Friday isn't a great film, then, but Hoskins in particular makes it worth watching.

Friday, July 2, 2010

#331: Late Spring

(Yasujiro Ozu, 1949)

As I've said before, Ozu films don't really move me the way they are supposed to. Late Spring is a step closer to succeeding by the time its beautiful final scene unfolds, which oddly enough reminded me of the final scene in Big Night. But the rest of the film can be frustratingly slow and subtle, perhaps only saved for me by another great, mesmerizing performance by Setsuko Hara, who really is a true star, one I would compare to American contemporaries Bette Davis and Barabara Stanwyck in terms of command of the screen (though by no means in terms of persona). Without her, I may not have gotten through the film, which like every Ozu film seems almost daringly sparse.

The one thing any film fan knows about Ozu - even if they haven't seen his films - is that he is considered the "most Japanese" of all great Japanese directors. I often considered this a direct (and unfair) dig at Japan's most famous and most successful in the West director Akira Kurosawa, and a kind of pretentious attack on those who might consider his films too dull or contemplative. But I genuinely wonder what today's Japan thinks of Ozu. Certainly the pop culture of the country might be regarded as more Western than the West by that first person to label Ozu the quintessential Japanese director. So what would the country that created WarioWare: Smooth Moves really think of Late Spring? I can't help but think it wouldn't be that different than what I think of it: a beautifully made meditation on the shifting of generations that is only a moderate distraction from finishing Super Mario Galaxy 2.