March 2017 Capsules

20th Century Women
“Santa Barbara, 1979” is a place and time, but it is also a mindset. More accurately, it is a kaleidoscope of mindsets; chief among the great strengths of 20th Century Women is its utter fidelity towards representing the multiple perspectives of its five main characters. But it is so much more than that: its tone is part rebellious, part serene, and even part transcendental. In the struggle between generations that eventually comes to define the film, Mills recognizes there is no wrong answer, accepting each person warts and all. The viewer sees who these broken but valiant people as they were, as they are, and as they will be, both defined and undefined by their time, and for my part I fell in love with them. It is bittersweet, melancholic, and uniformly wonderful in its loose grace, as free as the younger generation and as composed as the older generation.

Tampopo
A curious case. For the most part, Tampopo establishes itself as an intensely lighthearted work, jumping off of the central storyline to engage in food-related vignettes with abandon. Most of these are to some degree outré, but a few stick out in their bad taste (for good and for ill). An undercurrent of violence in the film is ever present (perhaps fittingly, given its status as a “Ramen Western”) but there is a vast divide between two men beating each other for an extended period of time and a gangster getting shot in the middle of the street, or, in the film’s most fascinating and troubling vignette, a wife getting up from her deathbed to cook one last meal. But in the end, the central storyline is the main attraction, and Itami takes almost too much delight in both skewering and glorifying food, to wonderful effect.

March 10
Swiss Army Man
Went in with fairly low expectations (goodness knows how potentially irritating the premise so eagerly trumpeted by advertisements and the opening is), but Swiss Army Man manages to live down those expectations and more in fairly unexpected ways. For one, its juvenilia was even greater than anticipated, using the “miracles” of Radcliffe’s body in the most thuddingly literal manner. But what most raised my hackles was its very particular brand of emotional insincerity that it insisted so heavily upon, a bullshit and facile viewpoint on the futility and ultimate joy of life that is further bogged down by the crass humor and idiocy displayed throughout.

The Bad Sleep Well
Flat-out loved pretty much all of the first half, starting from the thrillingly contextless ten-minute long wedding banquet opening. Kurosawa handles this often confusing web of loyalties and relationships with incredible acumen, staging breathtaking tableau compositions with ease and continually keeping the viewer in the dark about Nishi’s true motivations. Once they are revealed, however, the film practically nose-dives. It’s not to say that it simplifies or regresses in any significant way, but his characterization becomes streamlined and the film loses momentum, especially in the long final third set in the bunker, which keeps the power dynamics but loses the mind-games. As a result, The Bad Sleep Well‘s final play at a certain type of nihilism falls slightly flat, but the film’s confidence remains plain to see throughout.

March 13
The Mermaid
Crazy in a way that still feels a little bit difficult to parse. Perhaps it’s because the central, relatively serious storyline that bubbles up at odd moments especially towards the end feels slightly disconnected from the hilarious and inventive setpieces (the failed assassination, the police sketches), but there is an inescapable sense of weightlessness that doesn’t weaken the film so much as it complicates it, a sentiment that is borne out by the occasionally shocking use of “real” violence. But at the end of the day, it is a wacky love story, one convincingly developed in a way that feels compatible with the morality tale at The Mermaid‘s core.

Black Girl
Almost too in line with my interests and aesthetic tastes: a fleet, intensely elliptical and immensely sympathetic portrayal of a person being psychologically worn down with a clear political message. But that does little to dissipate the power of Black Girl, of its tough but never cheap critique of imperialism and its mesmerizing depiction of the most mundane of forced tasks. Chalk it up to the asceticism of Sembène’s direction and Diop’s attuned, repressed performance, but there still remains an ineffable grace to the film that lies in how it briefly transforms from a chamber piece to a romance, in the way that the act of observing feels like a political act, and how the ending and epilogue represent victory and defeat in two images.

Christine
Feel free to ignore me on this one, as my feelings are undoubtedly influenced to an extraordinary degree by my having viewed (and fallen in love with) Kate Plays Christine before this sadly misguided film. But so much of this reads like bullshit, in its alterations of time and place, in its obvious feints at providing easy answers. The performances of the cast are all rather well done admittedly, including Hall’s, which has been feted to an alarming degree, but they all feel in service of a dubious enterprise. This is not necessarily to say that this is not a story that should be made into a film (although those feelings did rise up at certain points) but that it feels manipulative. There is, to be blunt, no human interest in Christine as a person (either in the film or in real life). By the time the climax is moved to the evening for maximum effect (contradicting in many ways why the event is so inexplicable) I felt as if Christine had crossed a moral threshold, and a bitter taste was left in my mouth as the final blandly interesting minutes played.

Resident Evil
There is an unexpected beauty to this first film’s total asceticism, dropping the viewer contextless into a dense maze of loyalties and undefined characterizations. Granted, this is likely a result of the video game origins, but Anderson’s narrative flow is relentlessly moving forward, relying on atmospheric and claustrophobic spaces and po-faced actors to surprisingly strong effect. But even if the characterizations are somewhat lacking, the viscerality of the action more than makes up for them, as Resident Evil moves with as much single-minded determination as the soldiers it virtually fetishizes.

March 20
Resident Evil: Apocalypse
It is both easy and difficult to see why Resident Evil: Apocalypse is by and large reviled. On one hand, it feels unabashedly cheap and somewhat poorly directed for scares in a way that the original rarely did, moving semi-coherently between underdeveloped arcs and one-dimensional characters. But on the other, it retains the original’s marvelous sense of containment and suspense, staging its events around Raccoon City in a single night with brutal simplicity. Plus, Jovovich is as understatedly expressive as ever, growing more and more confident as the film and the series as a whole goes on.

Resident Evil: Extinction
There’s such a beautiful sense of tactility here, a sense of weight preserved from the previous films and carried out on a grand scale. Even more strangely, considering both the vast desert and the multiple viewpoints adopted, there are relatively few concrete scenes, there are relatively few concrete scenes; instead, there are long, well-constructed and superbly paced sequences that develop straight from the immensely playful opening. The superpowers may be developing and the conspiracies deepening, but the heart of humanity beats even stronger than ever (at least, until it is infected for good). And most importantly of all, a sense of community is developed and aimed at emotion, depicting it in counterpoint to both the cold interiors of Umbrella and Dr. Isaacs and Alice’s isolation. It resembles The Road Warrior to a certain point, until it thrillingly becomes and steps into its own.

March 23
Resident Evil: Afterlife
Yes, the Army of Alices is an impossibly high point of giddy action filmmaking for the film to open with. The objective is almost rendered secondary as the camera speeds between levels of a giant skyscraper (brilliantly located where the end of the world began, to boot) and Anderson presents a multitude of mayhem with an exacting level of elegance and grace. But the rest of Resident Evil: Afterlife almost feels like a sober corrective, doubling on the previous film’s asceticism in both structure and narrative. Key, even more than in previous films in the series, is the sense of pleasure and fun in the viewing experience, as Paul WS Anderson returns in openly gratuitous, gorgeous, and ultimately vital slow motion.

Resident Evil: Retribution
There is always an inherent danger in a series engaging in self-referentiality, in the possibility of drowning in a sea of nostalgia and comparisons to better films. Resident Evil: Retribution solves this problem in two ways. First, the references are encoded in the series’ DNA, both as a video game—an indulgence in levels, artifice, and the whole idea of NPCs as clones—and as a conventional franchise, complete with heel turns and returning characters rendered almost unrecognizable (Resident Evil has a surprisingly deep bench of characters and Anderson uses it to the fullest). But the second and probably even more aspect is that it is simply a film every bit the equal or superior of most great action films, let alone its fellow films in the series. The horror is almost totally absent, and in its place is utterly confident, infinitely graceful action. The overture is emotion in (reverse slow) movement incarnate.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
The audacity of Paul WS Anderson, Milla Jovovich, and their Resident Evil series reached a cinematic fever pitch in Retribution, but its thematic and emotional zenith comes with a vengeance in The Final Chapter. It is extraordinarily visceral—the incredibly rapid editing works wonders in conjunction with Anderson’s ever-present eye for tableux-esque action compositions—and terrifying, but even more importantly, it moves with an urgency imposed faster and faster by the contrivance of a time limit (which is brilliantly cut in half almost from the get-go). There are the little pockets of humanity, introduced with a deftness and characterization heretofore unseen in the series, but Alice is essentially the sole driving force; the opening “My name is Alice” montage/recap has never felt more alive or afraid. Eventually, the film turns to the most unexpected and the most beautiful direction it could have gone: a strange, transcendent brand of spirituality. The trinity is evoked, Alice is made into a Messianic figure, and the corporate is rejected in favor of the individual being: every death, every blow matters. That is the underlying ethos of Resident Evil, developed with awe-inspiring care and inestimable force. And life goes on.

Raise the Red Lantern
From the opening moments, Raise the Red Lantern proclaims its theatricality, and throughout Zhang Yimou seems obsessed with the way Songlian moves through these symmetrical compositions, created by towering, monolithic walls. But there is a great interest in emotion and constantly shifting character/power dynamics, something that arises even more than usual out of these patiently attentive static shots, languishing in this false paradise. Perhaps there is a touch of inhumanity to some of the plot machinations, but it matters little, whether in either the little moments of connection and release fostered through song and dance, or in the moments of utter despair, as in the last, heartbreaking dissolves.

March 25
Julieta
Hitchcock is conspiciously invoked at one point, a mood borne out in large part by the lushly sinister strings, but the inherent melodrama never feels anything less than vital, despite and because of Almodóvar’s repressed presentation. The hand-off between the two incarnations of Julieta is elegantly done, but it almost doesn’t seem to matter, such is the consistency of Julieta‘s sense of growing mystery, one that remains stubbornly, gloriously unsolved. What is left is never less than delightful, sliding from one moment of visual pleasure while leaving space for inexplicable digression (that CGI deer!). It solidifies, as it should, into a canvas of wonderful melancholy.

Xala
It is perhaps too presumptive to claim that Sembéne is extraordinarily astute in his dissection and satire of Senegalese power, but he gets fairly close in his continual feints and sense of motion. Unfortunately, he sacrifices almost any sense of psychological intrigue, something that would not ordinarily be an imperative in a satire such as this. But Xala seems obsessed with its central character, and the fact that he is utterly base and dull for much of the film rankles, even as it builds to a shockingly transgressive but odd note.

Groundhog Day (rewatch)
If it doesn’t seem too obvious to invoke another classic of the American cinema, Groundhog Day reminded me on this viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life to no small extent, rendering the nightmarish illusion of Pottersville as something simultaneously real and fake. While that film, with its altogether more incisive examination of acceptance and learning to live with one’s condition, remains inestimably greater, I found myself considerably more charmed than before. There are many aspects to this, but perhaps the key is profoundly well-preformed weariness—rendered as a wondrously slow accumulation—of Bill Murray. Additionally, it acknowledges its undercurrent of darkness under a robust facade of comedy far more astutely than I had realized.

Kaili Blues
Kaili Blues cannot be pigeonholed or even classified as “mystical.” Its content is irrevocably tied to the present, in the rundown homes of the city, in motorcycles, trains, and faces rather than more abstract renderings of nature (which is contextualized, not set apart from the cities it surrounds). Nevertheless, there is more than a touch of the uncanny in the way this content is presented. But where more “conventional” (rarely have I used scare quotes more judiciously) slow cinema directors have employed stasis, Bi Gan emphasizes the motion of his players and camera, weaving through spaces in extended tracks and pans with awesome force. His placement of the title card not just halfway through the film, but in the middle of a pan, is a testament to this, as does a dreamed conversation represented solely from the point of view of a car driving down a winding road. And of course, the pièce de résistance is the deservingly feted forty-minute Steadicam shot, harmonizing with the sequence’s—and the film’s—sense of an achronological fever dream (relationships and focuses are communicated with a single line of dialogue or a pivot) to an astonishing degree.

March 27
Lumumba

20th Century Women
“Santa Barbara, 1979” is a place and time, but it is also a mindset. More accurately, it is a kaleidoscope of mindsets; chief among the great strengths of 20th Century Women is its utter fidelity towards representing the multiple perspectives of its five main characters. But it is so much more than that: its tone is part rebellious, part serene, and even part transcendental. In the struggle between generations that eventually comes to define the film, Mills recognizes there is no wrong answer, accepting each person warts and all. The viewer sees who these broken but valiant people as they were, as they are, and as they will be, both defined and undefined by their time, and for my part I fell in love with them. It is bittersweet, melancholic, and uniformly wonderful in its loose grace, as free as the younger generation and as composed as the older generation.

Tampopo
A curious case. For the most part, Tampopo establishes itself as an intensely lighthearted work, jumping off of the central storyline to engage in food-related vignettes with abandon. Most of these are to some degree outré, but a few stick out in their bad taste (for good and for ill). An undercurrent of violence in the film is ever present (perhaps fittingly, given its status as a “Ramen Western”) but there is a vast divide between two men beating each other for an extended period of time and a gangster getting shot in the middle of the street, or, in the film’s most fascinating and troubling vignette, a wife getting up from her deathbed to cook one last meal. But in the end, the central storyline is the main attraction, and Itami takes almost too much delight in both skewering and glorifying food, to wonderful effect.

March 10
Swiss Army Man
Went in with fairly low expectations (goodness knows how potentially irritating the premise so eagerly trumpeted by advertisements and the opening is), but Swiss Army Man manages to live down those expectations and more in fairly unexpected ways. For one, its juvenilia was even greater than anticipated, using the “miracles” of Radcliffe’s body in the most thuddingly literal manner. But what most raised my hackles was its very particular brand of emotional insincerity that it insisted so heavily upon, a bullshit and facile viewpoint on the futility and ultimate joy of life that is further bogged down by the crass humor and idiocy displayed throughout.

The Bad Sleep Well
Flat-out loved pretty much all of the first half, starting from the thrillingly contextless ten-minute long wedding banquet opening. Kurosawa handles this often confusing web of loyalties and relationships with incredible acumen, staging breathtaking tableau compositions with ease and continually keeping the viewer in the dark about Nishi’s true motivations. Once they are revealed, however, the film practically nose-dives. It’s not to say that it simplifies or regresses in any significant way, but his characterization becomes streamlined and the film loses momentum, especially in the long final third set in the bunker, which keeps the power dynamics but loses the mind-games. As a result, The Bad Sleep Well‘s final play at a certain type of nihilism falls slightly flat, but the film’s confidence remains plain to see throughout.

March 13
The Mermaid
Crazy in a way that still feels a little bit difficult to parse. Perhaps it’s because the central, relatively serious storyline that bubbles up at odd moments especially towards the end feels slightly disconnected from the hilarious and inventive setpieces (the failed assassination, the police sketches), but there is an inescapable sense of weightlessness that doesn’t weaken the film so much as it complicates it, a sentiment that is borne out by the occasionally shocking use of “real” violence. But at the end of the day, it is a wacky love story, one convincingly developed in a way that feels compatible with the morality tale at The Mermaid‘s core.

Black Girl
Almost too in line with my interests and aesthetic tastes: a fleet, intensely elliptical and immensely sympathetic portrayal of a person being psychologically worn down with a clear political message. But that does little to dissipate the power of Black Girl, of its tough but never cheap critique of imperialism and its mesmerizing depiction of the most mundane of forced tasks. Chalk it up to the asceticism of Sembène’s direction and Diop’s attuned, repressed performance, but there still remains an ineffable grace to the film that lies in how it briefly transforms from a chamber piece to a romance, in the way that the act of observing feels like a political act, and how the ending and epilogue represent victory and defeat in two images.

Christine
Feel free to ignore me on this one, as my feelings are undoubtedly influenced to an extraordinary degree by my having viewed (and fallen in love with) Kate Plays Christine before this sadly misguided film. But so much of this reads like bullshit, in its alterations of time and place, in its obvious feints at providing easy answers. The performances of the cast are all rather well done admittedly, including Hall’s, which has been feted to an alarming degree, but they all feel in service of a dubious enterprise. This is not necessarily to say that this is not a story that should be made into a film (although those feelings did rise up at certain points) but that it feels manipulative. There is, to be blunt, no human interest in Christine as a person (either in the film or in real life). By the time the climax is moved to the evening for maximum effect (contradicting in many ways why the event is so inexplicable) I felt as if Christine had crossed a moral threshold, and a bitter taste was left in my mouth as the final blandly interesting minutes played.

Resident Evil
There is an unexpected beauty to this first film’s total asceticism, dropping the viewer contextless into a dense maze of loyalties and undefined characterizations. Granted, this is likely a result of the video game origins, but Anderson’s narrative flow is relentlessly moving forward, relying on atmospheric and claustrophobic spaces and po-faced actors to surprisingly strong effect. But even if the characterizations are somewhat lacking, the viscerality of the action more than makes up for them, as Resident Evil moves with as much single-minded determination as the soldiers it virtually fetishizes.

March 20
Resident Evil: Apocalypse
It is both easy and difficult to see why Resident Evil: Apocalypse is by and large reviled. On one hand, it feels unabashedly cheap and somewhat poorly directed for scares in a way that the original rarely did, moving semi-coherently between underdeveloped arcs and one-dimensional characters. But on the other, it retains the original’s marvelous sense of containment and suspense, staging its events around Raccoon City in a single night with brutal simplicity. Plus, Jovovich is as understatedly expressive as ever, growing more and more confident as the film and the series as a whole goes on.

Resident Evil: Extinction
There’s such a beautiful sense of tactility here, a sense of weight preserved from the previous films and carried out on a grand scale. Even more strangely, considering both the vast desert and the multiple viewpoints adopted, there are relatively few concrete scenes, there are relatively few concrete scenes; instead, there are long, well-constructed and superbly paced sequences that develop straight from the immensely playful opening. The superpowers may be developing and the conspiracies deepening, but the heart of humanity beats even stronger than ever (at least, until it is infected for good). And most importantly of all, a sense of community is developed and aimed at emotion, depicting it in counterpoint to both the cold interiors of Umbrella and Dr. Isaacs and Alice’s isolation. It resembles The Road Warrior to a certain point, until it thrillingly becomes and steps into its own.

March 23
Resident Evil: Afterlife
Yes, the Army of Alices is an impossibly high point of giddy action filmmaking for the film to open with. The objective is almost rendered secondary as the camera speeds between levels of a giant skyscraper (brilliantly located where the end of the world began, to boot) and Anderson presents a multitude of mayhem with an exacting level of elegance and grace. But the rest of Resident Evil: Afterlife almost feels like a sober corrective, doubling on the previous film’s asceticism in both structure and narrative. Key, even more than in previous films in the series, is the sense of pleasure and fun in the viewing experience, as Paul WS Anderson returns in openly gratuitous, gorgeous, and ultimately vital slow motion.

Resident Evil: Retribution
There is always an inherent danger in a series engaging in self-referentiality, in the possibility of drowning in a sea of nostalgia and comparisons to better films. Resident Evil: Retribution solves this problem in two ways. First, the references are encoded in the series’ DNA, both as a video game—an indulgence in levels, artifice, and the whole idea of NPCs as clones—and as a conventional franchise, complete with heel turns and returning characters rendered almost unrecognizable (Resident Evil has a surprisingly deep bench of characters and Anderson uses it to the fullest). But the second and probably even more aspect is that it is simply a film every bit the equal or superior of most great action films, let alone its fellow films in the series. The horror is almost totally absent, and in its place is utterly confident, infinitely graceful action. The overture is emotion in (reverse slow) movement incarnate.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter
The audacity of Paul WS Anderson, Milla Jovovich, and their Resident Evil series reached a cinematic fever pitch in Retribution, but its thematic and emotional zenith comes with a vengeance in The Final Chapter. It is extraordinarily visceral—the incredibly rapid editing works wonders in conjunction with Anderson’s ever-present eye for tableux-esque action compositions—and terrifying, but even more importantly, it moves with an urgency imposed faster and faster by the contrivance of a time limit (which is brilliantly cut in half almost from the get-go). There are the little pockets of humanity, introduced with a deftness and characterization heretofore unseen in the series, but Alice is essentially the sole driving force; the opening “My name is Alice” montage/recap has never felt more alive or afraid. Eventually, the film turns to the most unexpected and the most beautiful direction it could have gone: a strange, transcendent brand of spirituality. The trinity is evoked, Alice is made into a Messianic figure, and the corporate is rejected in favor of the individual being: every death, every blow matters. That is the underlying ethos of Resident Evil, developed with awe-inspiring care and inestimable force. And life goes on.

Raise the Red Lantern
From the opening moments, Raise the Red Lantern proclaims its theatricality, and throughout Zhang Yimou seems obsessed with the way Songlian moves through these symmetrical compositions, created by towering, monolithic walls. But there is a great interest in emotion and constantly shifting character/power dynamics, something that arises even more than usual out of these patiently attentive static shots, languishing in this false paradise. Perhaps there is a touch of inhumanity to some of the plot machinations, but it matters little, whether in either the little moments of connection and release fostered through song and dance, or in the moments of utter despair, as in the last, heartbreaking dissolves.

March 25
Julieta
Hitchcock is conspiciously invoked at one point, a mood borne out in large part by the lushly sinister strings, but the inherent melodrama never feels anything less than vital, despite and because of Almodóvar’s repressed presentation. The hand-off between the two incarnations of Julieta is elegantly done, but it almost doesn’t seem to matter, such is the consistency of Julieta‘s sense of growing mystery, one that remains stubbornly, gloriously unsolved. What is left is never less than delightful, sliding from one moment of visual pleasure while leaving space for inexplicable digression (that CGI deer!). It solidifies, as it should, into a canvas of wonderful melancholy.

Xala
It is perhaps too presumptive to claim that Sembéne is extraordinarily astute in his dissection and satire of Senegalese power, but he gets fairly close in his continual feints and sense of motion. Unfortunately, he sacrifices almost any sense of psychological intrigue, something that would not ordinarily be an imperative in a satire such as this. But Xala seems obsessed with its central character, and the fact that he is utterly base and dull for much of the film rankles, even as it builds to a shockingly transgressive but odd note.

Groundhog Day (rewatch)
If it doesn’t seem too obvious to invoke another classic of the American cinema, Groundhog Day reminded me on this viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life to no small extent, rendering the nightmarish illusion of Pottersville as something simultaneously real and fake. While that film, with its altogether more incisive examination of acceptance and learning to live with one’s condition, remains inestimably greater, I found myself considerably more charmed than before. There are many aspects to this, but perhaps the key is profoundly well-preformed weariness—rendered as a wondrously slow accumulation—of Bill Murray. Additionally, it acknowledges its undercurrent of darkness under a robust facade of comedy far more astutely than I had realized.

Kaili Blues
Kaili Blues cannot be pigeonholed or even classified as “mystical.” Its content is irrevocably tied to the present, in the rundown homes of the city, in motorcycles, trains, and faces rather than more abstract renderings of nature (which is contextualized, not set apart from the cities it surrounds). Nevertheless, there is more than a touch of the uncanny in the way this content is presented. But where more “conventional” (rarely have I used scare quotes more judiciously) slow cinema directors have employed stasis, Bi Gan emphasizes the motion of his players and camera, weaving through spaces in extended tracks and pans with awesome force. His placement of the title card not just halfway through the film, but in the middle of a pan, is a testament to this, as does a dreamed conversation represented solely from the point of view of a car driving down a winding road. And of course, the pièce de résistance is the deservingly feted forty-minute Steadicam shot, harmonizing with the sequence’s—and the film’s—sense of an achronological fever dream (relationships and focuses are communicated with a single line of dialogue or a pivot) to an astonishing degree.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s