Tuesday, January 29, 2013

#627: The Game

(David Fincher, 1997)

The Game is a room full of funhouse mirrors that lead to secret corners and playful surprises. Though it has a psychological edge to it (and lends itself, perhaps unintentionally, to a satiric critique of the one percent), it doesn't amount to any more or less than this description would imply. Though the film has grown in stature since its release a decade and a half ago, I don't think it compares to the best Fincher's catalog has to offer, the masterpieces Zodiac and Seven. Then again, even if the film is slight, it's miles ahead of Panic Room.

The biggest problem with The Game is undeniably the difficult task of suspension of disbelief. It is simply impossible to believe that what happens in the film is possible, and there is a lot of expository sweat spent trying to distract you from this truth.

What saves the movie is a combination of a couple of performances from two of the most consistent stars in Hollywood - Michael Douglas and Sean Penn - and the increasing confidence of David Fincher as a director. Although his palette here is one-note very nearly to a fault (and it seems like every light in the film comes from some storefront lit from behind), his pacing and framing are both top-notch, and he has control over the suspense that hints at his downright Hitchcockian touches in Zodiac. This quality of craft elevates what would otherwise be a typical modern thriller - but it can't transcend the concept's inherent flaws.

Quite frankly, I find it confusing that many of the same people who complained endlessly about Benjamin Button being included rejoiced when The Game was announced. This is certainly the better movie, but both are easily dismissed as Hollywood throwaways - if impeccably made Hollywood throwaways. Just because Button takes itself a little more seriously is no reason to dismiss it faster. All that being said, as someone who happens to think Zodiac was the best movie of the 00s, it's always welcome to see a Fincher film in the Collection. As long as it's not Panic Room.

#234: The Tin Drum

(Volker Schlondorff, 1979)

I had the opportunity to see The Tin Drum on the big screen this month as part of the screenings of the new director's cut that Criterion just put out. Although I am very happy I went, I didn't love the film as much as I hoped it would. Though I haven't read the book, my suspicions are that The Tin Drum is a good example of the difficulties that come with adapting books for the big screen. The  story is obviously meant as satire and allegory, but what reads as lyrical on the page must be rendered literal on screen. The film then has been drained of much of the humor that would make it more appealing and believable, and the end result is a very strange film indeed.

I haven't been especially taken with the other Schlondorff films in the Collection. Young Torless was disturbing and worthwhile - and I liked it much more than Coup de Grace - but I wasn't especially moved by it and it didn't stay with me especially long. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum is a masterpiece, but it was co-directed by another significant voice in German cinema, Margarethe von Trotta. The Tin Drum, then, is Schlondorff's true stand-out, the film for which he will be remembered. And it's certainly big in scope, stretching over a number of years and even generations, told from the perspective of a boy who chooses not to age and lives through World War II as an eternal toddler. The film is strongly sexual, especially with the scenes that have been added into this edition which involve Rasputin and an orgy. But this sexuality's ties to its historical and political commentary seems muted without the novel's prose to ostensibly guide the way.

The film has fleeting moments of real impressive cinema - and despite its long running time, I was never bored - but I just ultimately don't think it comes together as a clear and compelling fable. I had a lot of high hopes for this one, but it was a bit of a letdown.

Monday, January 28, 2013

#468: Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé

(Jean Painlevé, 1925-82)

Science Is Fiction might not contain a masterpiece of world cinema and it might not be from one of film's greats, but it also might be a perfect representation of everything great about Criterion. The set consists of (shocker) 23 films made by the French scientist and filmmaker Jean Painlevé, plus a series of his shorts scored by indie band Yo La Tengo and a huge compilation of interviews with the director that takes up a full disc. The films themselves range from less than ten minutes to a half hour, and cover a wide ranges of topics and formats, including silent scientific films, jazz-laden pop nature films, and even one stop-motion short the director made. Overall, it's the kind of box that any director with a similar career would undoubtedly be satisfied with - a perfect distillation of the director's work, put into a format that is easily accessible and has the potential to appeal to a wide variety of film nerds.

My two favorite sections of this set after one complete viewing are the popular films and the films for Le Palais de la Découverte. The former collection consists of films that are funny, disturbing, oddly beautiful, and often all three at the same time. Painlevé's influence on later nature films is evident throughout, but it's especially endearing when you see his sense of humor and childlike enthusiasm for introducing these discoveries to a broader audience. When compared to the films he made for a scientific audience, it is even clearer how deliberate and smart these choices are. The silent popular films he made, the menu explains, were shown in avant-garde cinemas in the 1920s in Paris. As Woody Allen so wisely exploited in Midnight in Paris, this era must have been an indescribably exciting time, as modern science and art took over, war had supposedly ended, there was yet no depression, and the world seemed limitless. Seeing these films when they were produced must have been an experience unlike any other.

The latter set of films is not made up of nature documentaries, but are instead semi-lectures on some of the most fascinating and thought-provoking areas of contemporary science, including the fourth dimension, the universe, and the comparison between speed and distance. Even though I have learned about all three of these subjects extensively in the past, these were still fascinating and immediately accessible presentations of each. The short on the universe in particular reminded me just how much we take for granted everyday, how seemingly content we are to remain ignorant of how our world is constructed - or even how we exist in the first place. Of course, this is not willful ignorance - we all wish we could understand what we have yet to understand. But it's a reminder that none of us are really doing anything except those who have dedicated their lives to discovering the answers to the questions of existence. Everything else is small by comparison.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

#296: Le notti bianche

(Luchino Visconti, 1957)

Although it is dependent upon grounded, intense emotion, Le Notti Bianche is most impressive in its moments that seem least grounded in reality. In the scene in which Maria Schell tells a story in the same location where it occurred, Visconti pulls back from Schell in the past, only to reveal it is the present and Mastroianni is there. The sequence in which the couple dances in a rock club seems far too perfectly choreographed for it to be an accurate depiction of a small city in Italy in the 1950s. Meanwhile, the couple wanders through obvious sets that make the whole film dreamlike and grandiose in ways the real, beautiful Italian streets couldn't manage. I was frequently reminded of Japanese films like Kwaidan and The Ballad of Narayama in the use of purposely artificial sets for the purpose of creating a mythological tone that is otherworldly yet strangely familiar.

Le Notti Bianche is based on a Dostoevsky story, and Visconti presents it as part-melodrama, part-humanist. Mastroianni is excellent as always and Schell, who I've only seen in a few other films without really noticing her, is the emotional backbone. But the film is really elevated from memorable to great by Visconti's direction, in much the same way All That Heaven Allows or Brief Encounter is. Like Sirk and Lean, Visconti takes his "women's" films absolutely seriously, well-aware that the themes and simple plots allow for enormous space for artistic license. This film might not be quite as good as those all-timers I mention, but it puts Visconti in the same neighborhood as a director of melodramas.

Le Notti Bianche is certainly one of the most forgotten Criterions. Released in the pre-"C" days but well after the initial rush of classics that began the DVD portion of the Criterion journey, it's since been overshadowed by Senso, which is not as good, and Visconti's masterpiece, The Leopard. His two best-known films, Rocco and His Brothers and his debut, Ossessione, based on "The Postman Always Rings Twice," are notably missing from the Collection, but I think Le Notti Bianche is as good if not better than those classics. It certainly deserves a reevaluation from the Criterion masses.

Friday, January 18, 2013

#528: 3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg

(Josef von Sternberg, 1927-28)

This was one of my biggest Criterion surprises in recent memory. I guess I should have been more interested in the set based on how much I loved The Scarlet Empress, but the serious looking fellow on the cover made me think the set was going to be rather dreary. I was totally wrong - this is one of my favorite boxsets in the Collection.

Of the three films, I have to say I loved The Last Command the most. While it's story and emotional arc are a bit dated, the effectiveness of the storytelling and Jannings's performance made it feel relevant and still impressive in a contemporary context. Meanwhile, Underworld transcended its historical importance as an early gangster picture and, like The Docks of New York, which is far superior to similar working class melodramas of its era, became a stellar example of the craft of cinema - not to mention a fun and surprise-filled ride!

One note about the packaging here, though: while the set they put together is really beautiful. I think the cover designs - all portraits - do a disservice to the motion and vitality of von Sternberg's vision. As someone who has seen the films, I think incorporating more of this energy would more accurately reflect the experience of viewing, in much the same way the Qatsi set was able to present those films. It's a very well-designed set, for sure, I just happen to think it's not 100% representative of the work it contains.

Still, overall I really can't recommend this boxset enough, and it's a shame that more people haven't been exposed to it (it's in just 450 or so collections on the site - for whatever that's worth). Obviously most silent film is an acquired taste - in many ways it's a completely separate artform from talkies - but I would be surprised if anyone who has liked at least one silent film in the past wouldn't be blown away by these. Please seek these out if you are at all intrigued.

Links to individual reviews:

The Last Command
The Docks of New York

#531: The Docks of New York

(Josef von Sternberg, 1928)

Although it was my least favorite film in the von Sternberg slient boxset, The Docks of New York is a really enjoyable film and a fine addition to the set. It's also a fun look at the depiction of drinking during prohibition and a great case for George Bancroft as a movie star. The film begins on a boat but quickly sets up the central setting for the story in a pre-prohibition bar for sailors and other rowdy proletariat. Bancroft rescues a woman from an attempted suicide by drowning and they slowly become entangled in each other's lives. The plot couldn't be more basic, but as with von Sternberg's other Bancroft-starring film in this boxset, Underworld, it's all about execution.

In this regard, von Sternberg never seems to disappoint. This is a perfectly executed movie, and even though I enjoyed the other two films more, this was the one that made me realize just how underrated von Sternberg was as a director. I suppose most of that comes from the fact that his talkies are overshadowed by his muse, Marlene Dietrich, and he had a tragically short career filled with burned bridges and an unsustainably negative reputation. But I can't think of many more effortlessly talented film directors from the silent era - here was an artist who simply understood film language from the start, a natural talent. It makes The Docks of New York so much more exciting and fresh than it ought to be.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

#530: The Last Command

(Josef von Sternberg, 1928)

The Last Command is not just better than the already-stunning Underworld, but is certainly one of the best silent films I've ever seen, a swirling epic that stretches from the cruel factory-line chaos of the film studio to the historical sweep of the Russian revolution. I don't typically use the word since it's so overused (I just use other overused words instead) but I was totally mesmerized from the moment the flashback started.

Depending on whether or not you believe Sternberg, The Last Command came from a story told to him by the great Ernst Lubitsch, who wasn't convinced it would make a good film - though obviously the sensibility he would have brought to this story would have been completely different. Either way, the film is based on a true story about a Russian general who ended up as an extra in Hollywood. Like any good movie about movies, the fun house mirrors are everywhere, most notable with regards to Jannings, his own career in Hollywood as German immigrant, and the various relationships between his character and both the film within the film and the film itself. But beyond these early explorations of what would later loosely be defined as postmodernism (something which had long been explored on stage), the film is also an intense story about one man's emotional journey and what it says about nationalism, human nature, and the mind. Jannings's character has such a strong sense of reality and self in the Russia flashbacks that his downfall is shocking even as we know it was coming (and deserved, regardless of your opinion of the philosophy behind the revolution). This same confidence makes the climax that much more believable and stunning.

There have only been a handful of directors whose movies I have watched over the course of covering the entire Collection that I have been so impressed with that I am compelled to seek out all of their other films that are available outside of Criterion. Melville, Ophuls, and Truffaut come to mind immediately. Von Sternberg is now on that list.

Friday, January 11, 2013

#529: Underworld

(Josef von Sternberg, 1927)

This was a huge surprise for me. Although I've definitely enjoyed the von Sternberg talkies I've seen, I chalked most of that up to his muse, Marlene Dietrich, despite the fact that so much of what I loved about The Scarlet Empress in particular was the direction and cinematography. I had assumed that von Sternberg's early work would be less impressive and more subdued. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Underworld is largely considered the first modern gangster picture, the kind of movie with swell dames who turn sentimental and fast crooks that thumb their nose at mom and the law. It's where "the world is yours" originated - here it's "the city is yours" on a billboard. It's also fairly fast-paced for a silent film, or really any film before the 80s. It begins with an explosion and doesn't really let up for its 90 minutes.

The story of the film is certainly simplistic by today's standards. The characters are pretty one-note - really, only one of them changes at all, and it's a pretty quick and clumsy switch. But the movie is made on its cinematic language, which is lightyears ahead of what most of Hollywood was doing at the time. Von Sternberg uses some great dollys, POV shots, and quick cuts that make the visuals pop like you rarely see in the studio system from the era (no wonder the film was underreleased and von Sternberg continued to have an antagonistic relationship with his bosses). There are great small touches, too, like the use of the feathers and flowers.

This is really fun cinema, and I'd be surprised if even the least likely silent-film enthusiast wasn't taken in by this film. It's an unexpectedly great start for a boxset I'd been putting off a little.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

#645: The Ballad of Narayama

(Keisuke Kinoshita, 1958)

Note to Congress, I've got the perfect idea for keeping Social Security and Medicare spending down. You see, in The Ballad of Narayama, when people turn 70 they go up a mountain and die. And when I say "up a mountain," I literally mean they walk up a mountain. This would solve all of our problems! (I should probably point out here, I will not be going up a mountain. Just other non-me old people.)

I don't think this is the point of this story, but it makes for an interesting enough concept behind a 90-minute kabuki-style movie. Kinoshita's sets are unquestionably the star of the film; he uses bright colors, huge painted backdrops, obvious sets that get rolled out and sequestered, and so many diferent fields of view that it can difficult to tell what is 2D and what is 3D in the background. This obvious artifice takes nothing away from the human story being presented, and even though none of these characters are especially memorable, the old woman is kind enough that her journey means something by the end of the film.

The Ballad of Narayama is a pretty film and an interesting one from this aesthetic perspective. But it's not at all comparable to Kinoshita's other Criterion entry, Twenty-Four Eyes, and I'd probably have more interest in Shohei Imamura's version of this story, made nearly three decades later.The melodrama shines through often, and I don't know how thought-provoking the film is. I still enjoyed it, I just don't think its reputation will keep it in the minds of Criterion watchers for very long after its release.

#644: Pina

(Wim Wenders, 2011)

One of my friends, who has a moderate appreciation for modern dance, said to me after watching Pina, "I feel like if you don't like the stuff in it, you can never like dance," by which he meant that these dancers are so impressive and remarkably skilled that they represent the pinnacle of the artform. With that gauntlet thrown down, I... kind of like dance. On the one hand, the dancers here are unquestionably accomplished and impressive, and there are moments that I became completely enraptured. On the other hand, unlike the Martha Graham collection, these are mostly clips from bigger pieces, interspliced with footage of Pina (she recently passed away unexpectedly) and interviews about her with the dancers in her company. This format can be extremely frustrating, as there are frequently moments where a performance is just getting good only to be interrupted by footage of the dancer talking or a cutaway to another performance.

Pina as a whole mirrors this uneven rhythm, which seems ironic for a work made about perfect rhythm. At one moment the film is extremely beautiful and speaks to the freedom and artistic sensibility of its subject. But just as quickly the moment ends and jerks toward another disjointed but similarly impressive moment. This means the film is mostly a pleasure to watch but only with a goldfish's sensibility - any reflection on what has come more than a few minutes before is going to be a reminder that the movie has yet to establish an overall trajectory.

Wenders often makes big messy movies. His two narrative films in the collection, Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, are both masterpieces first of form and then of content, but they are packed with ideas about that form and their themes are too huge to be fully explored within one movie. On the other hand, Wenders's most well-known documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, veers towards PBS in structure (though it's been over a decade since I saw it). Pina is a lot closer to this latter movie, but it doesn't go deep enough into the film's subject to get at the essence of these artists the way Wenders did with the earlier film. Even accounting for the fact that I have an immeasurably larger interest in Cuban music than I do in modern dance, Pina lacks the human spark seen with BVSC, and instead remains simply a beautiful document of a group of insanely talented artists who nevertheless might have benefited from a more straightforward presentation of their skills.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

#572: Léon Morin, Priest

(Jean-Pierre Melville, 1961)

Jean-Paul Belmondo as a priest is enough to serve as the premise for countless movies. I might even go so far as to say Jean-Paul Belmondo being a priest is what every unrequited love story is ultimately about. Look at this fucking guy over here. I'm happily married (and straight) and even I couldn't resist him. Has anyone ever looked better in a frock? This whole thing just seems crazy right from the beginning.

Okay, now that I got the homoerotic portion of the post out of the way, let's talk about Léon Morin, Priest. Beyond Les Enfants Terribles , which was as much Cocteau's film as it was Melville's debut, this is the least "Melville" of all of his films in the collection; there are no gangsters, the moral does not rely upon justice or any code (beyond God's), and perhaps most importantly it is told from a woman's perspective. This is only disappointing because Melville's gangster films are so good - beyond that, the film holds up on its own.

Léon Morin, Priest is as much a star-centric film as Le Samourai: like Alain Delon, Belmondo towers over everyone else. Without his natural magnetism, the movie would be dead in the water. This presents an interesting quandary because his character is so unlikable. Belmondo is manipulative and teasing in the film, he uses the women in his town to claim his own moral superiority - there's more than a little bit of misogyny in his behavior. So as the viewer we are stuck between hating him for what he is doing and loving him because, well, he's Jean-Paul Belmondo. Emmanuelle Riva, for her part, does her best to give her character some spine, but she's not offered very much other than yearning.

As I'm working through my feelings on the film, I'm beginning to feel more negative toward it than I had initially. But the movie shouldn't necessarily be condemned for the dynamic it depicts, and what is actually up on screen feels very real. Occasionally, Belmondo seems to really love Riva, but it's really hard to tell how much of a game it all is to him. The fact that the film is set during the Nazi occupation (with Belmondo a clear sympathizer with the resistance) makes the portrayal of the characters much more complex. This is especially true when factoring in minor characters like the would-be rapist American soldier and the kind German one. The film becomes much more about the good and bad in humanity than a condemnation of any one character or group - which makes the film much more Christian than any theological discussion could warrant.