April 2017 Quick Capsules

Two Lovers
Gray seems to be caught in the thrall of two paradoxically reconcilable traditions: the modern (cell phones, a clear sense of diversity, liberated and tastefully explicit sexuality) and the classical. But he continually finds ways to make the two work in tandem, in scenes that say so much with just The Shot. The screenplay itself is quietly effective, but what I’ll remember is the awkward, pained, yet cool movements of Phoenix, the smudged mascara of Paltrow, and the conversations conducted first by shouting, then by phone, across an apartment complex, all of which culminate in a wondrous, totally ambiguous ending. I was hoping that Gray would go the entire film without any overt romantic gestures between Phoenix and Paltrow, but what he did is nearly as heartbreaking.

Double Indemnity (rewatch)
Managed to forget nearly everything surrounding Edward G. Robinson’s and Jean Heather’s characters, which, while perhaps understandable, made my conception of the film just before rewatch largely flawed. There is an ocean’s worth of seediness and dirty laundry here, but there is also a great deal of humanity, and Wilder does wonders in making every character (except, perhaps, Tom Powers’) function as more than just a cog in the inexorable machine that signals Fred MacMurray’s doom. It is a world of hurt and pain, and yet there is some small hope of redemption, at least until it is silenced by a gunshot.

The Lost City of Z
The Lost City of Z as if it operates in a necessarily contemplative mood that nevertheless threatens to set the whole film off-kilter. It’s a stretch to say that it struggles to find its footing (Gray’s hand is too assured for that) but there is a relative lack of energy, an obsession with period trappings that detracts from the atmosphere. Gray sees Fawcett and his cohort as singularly driven men of action, and it is no accident that the actual scenes of exploration and the WWI sequence are thrilling and captivating. But there is a strong vitality elsewhere, an intimacy and inherent drama (especially with Miller’s character) that typifys this film, carrying throughout a tone of contemplation that continually seeks transcendence. The Lost City of Z’s joys and desires are in the journey, in the hunt for glory and for love.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 (rewatch)
Every character is driven by some kind of trauma, whether it is done by them, against them, for them, or committed physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. But there is such a vitality, a joie de vivre that animates this propels this single-mindedly obsessive film of revenge yet allows it to luxuriate in the beautifully lurid. Perhaps it’s because my taste has evolved significantly, but I see the emotions in the brutality, in the arcs developed over a single fight. It is a beautifully crafted film, but it is also a shockingly humane one, attuned to the traditions (and films) that create these all-consuming visions of violence.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Remarkable in so many ways, but was especially astonished by how open-ended the conclusion of this feels. True, the main conflict is resolved, but there’s so much left unsaid, so much hanging over the characters like a guillotine waiting to fall. The viewer doesn’t know if any connection is left intact after this hellish day, if the characters can get back to any sense of normalcy. All they can go off of is this exquisite, horrifyingly involving sequence of events, captured with remarkably legible handheld (even more involving when it moves into the shadows) and through the lens of an astonishingly steady yet ready-to-crack actress. There is only the experience, but Mungiu knows it is more than enough to envelop and move the viewer.

Graduation
Perhaps it’s unfair to compare this so stringently to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but Mungiu seems…softer in an odd way. Maybe it’s the brazenly contemporary setting, or the slightly more cerebral and less visceral conflict and premise, or even a slightly less austerely static miss-en-scene, but there is a touch less humanity here. Romeo is almost too sympathetic for me, single-mindedly well-intentioned, and even though this leads him into dark waters, his fundamental goodness was never in doubt for me. But then again, there is such a wonderful attention to the minutiae of conversations as negotiations, something that only rarely lets down Mungiu.

Laura
At the risk of inviting hyperbole, this is one of the strangest Hollywood films I’ve yet had the fortune of watching. Immediately propelling the viewer into the thickets of the plot with odd voiceover on the part of the impeccably snooty Clifton Webb, Laura almost never lets up in its continually barbed, completely unflappable attitude, even when the remarkable mid-film rupture occurs. There is such beauty on display, both in the elegant push-ins and pull-outs (plus a few honest-to-god whip pans) and in the lightly acidic dialogue that lovingly fails to conceal no small amount of emotional attachment. The characters are all exaggerated, the plot relies so much on each interaction even with less important characters, and it all clicks. Certain scenes of this (the centerpiece scene, the party) are exactly what make me giddy about film.

Lost Highway
Somehow completely missed everything that compels and propels in this film on first viewing. The mood shifts radically (though this is certainly by design and a result of the film’s rupture in character) but the undercurrent of menace and violence is always there. It is in the disorienting close-ups, often silhouetted against a blackened background. It is in the fearful and canned performances, and the sounds of burning rubber and vaguely industrial clanking. But most of all it is in the characters, in the paranoid doubling that threatens to tear all reality asunder, and in the sinister, cavernous city. There is no escape; you cannot run forever.

Big Trouble in Little China
Many culture clashes, literally and figuratively, as Carpenter hurls the viewer (and Jack) deep into the thickets of Chinatown and the shockingly arcane and dense narrative. There is a sense here (as in something like The Keep) that the modern, Western world epitomized in our hero is helpless in this midway area between the world and the netherworld, but the insane and ancient are mixed freely with the comic and the archetypal. This freewheeling grab bag of Western, martial arts, fantasy, and even gangster somehow coalesces into something oddly wonderful and all-around weird.

Dune (rewatch)
Find it mildly difficult to describe this wondrous work without comparing it to various, non-maligned works: Star Wars meets Lawrence of Arabia is an obvious point of reference, the opening seems to be a conscious quotation of The Night of the Hunter, and the tone of speech often calls to mind Shakespeare, complete with asides via narration. But at the end of the day for me, Dune is quintessential Lynch, utterly sui generis in his evocatively ambiguous imagery and, especially, in the archetypal story of the uprising of a hero and his adopted nation. But his execution is anything but schematic; I’m not sure how much of this is because of the source material, but the plot feels so tied to a sense of power shifts, of loyalties in action formed and broken, and a sense of familial camaraderie. And his execution is as stunningly realized as I’ve seen in any blockbuster (strange to discuss a Lynch as a blockbuster); dissolves, judicious cross fades, zooms, pugs, sound and motion as power. “A filmbook…only 125 meters long.”

The Tree of Life
Absolutely impossible (even more than usual) to really separate this truly monumental achievement from everything and everyone that surrounds it, but that scarcely seems to matter. The Tree of Life is never less than achingly present, whether it be in the abstracted beginning, in the agonies and ecstasies childhood, in a brief and utterly shattering interlude, or in the doldrums of “the real world.” Malick pinballs freely in this timeline before settling on the second, but he never truly rests. The memories of what came before linger, and casting each character as an almost archetypal figure does much to give the film a certain sense of timelessness. But it is a film of the now, as much as it is of the then or even of the future, and everything, even the tiniest emotion, feels writ large. And in that gigantic space, in the vastness of the human consciousness, is joy, gracefulness, sadness, anger, righteousness, desire, and love. It is humanity, reigning over all.

The Immigrant
From the opening shot, James Gray constructs a clear hierarchal power structure that extends through all of society, one that shifts and mutates with the exchange of goods, money, information, and weapons. But The Immigrant suffers from no such sense of constriction. It breathes, it moves with a wondrous lightness, buoyed by the immeasurably wonderful gaze of Cotillard, as she attempts to simply get along in this New World. It is, presumably, far better than the carnage she left behind, but there is darkness in every person’s soul, much as they try to hide it. She lets this accumulation of grief out in only a few moments, but there is such a feeling of melancholy throughout, etched into the lines of Phoenix’s face whether he functions as impresario, tyrant, or would-be lover. The escape promised by Renner’s all-American rabble rousing fades, but liberty still remains a distant dream, if only glimpsed through glass.

Kill Bill Vol. 2 (rewatch)
Unlike the fairly delineated (for me) genre boundaries of its predecessor, Kill Bill Vol. 2 is a much stranger blend, but the prevailing tone is the Western. Tarantino seems to ease much more into the vengeance so portentously foreshadowed by the title and entire premise, leaning away from the glorious ultra-violence and into a somehow more visceral (if less consistent) experience. Trauma is done slowly, with the trademark quip as one lays dying rather than the quick slice of a sword, and yet the same impact is there. Aside from the wonderful sojurn to the land of Pai Mei, this is a strictly North American affair, and the emotions, not the movements, come to the fore. But the same, incredibly cool style is applied, only to revelations instead of bodyblows.

Gilda
Gilda seems to be fundamentally flawed to me, in a way that is probably because of my general difficulties with acidic tone. But the whole affair seems far too cruel in emotional terms; Gilda and Johnny seem to act in ways that feel both far too simplistic and utterly indiscernible, even considering their past relationship and Johnny’s inexplicable devotion to his employer. (As an aside, I don’t really buy the homoerotic reading of their relationship; there is very little love in any of the characters, save for maybe Uncle Pio.) Hayworth is perhaps too effective in her conveyance of this calculated flippant nature that her character has to convey, and only really sets the screen on fire when she sings. Obregon is the sole character that is and remains noble, and it likely isn’t a coincidence that he’s the only character that interests me in this movie that otherwise baffled me, and left me with a gnawing pit in my stomach. To be fair, it nails the glamor and a surprising amount of emotional beats, and that is enough for most of the film.

The Birth of a Nation
To attempt to tackle perhaps the most influential and hotly debated film ever made is a fool’s task, but it is assisted to no small degree by how rooted, how intimate much of this epic feels. It is the story of the nation as a whole, yes–depictions of Lincoln, Grant, and Lee attest to that–but more importantly it is the story of the “reclamation” of Piedmont and the salvation of two families, one North and one South. There is such inherent drama, especially in the first half, that fosters a connection even on a grand scale, and Griffith’s aptitude for continually focusing on the personal figure amidst the carnage of battle is a wonder to behold. The second half is markedly less suited to this sense of intimacy, but he and his marvelous actors continue to find little pockets of humanity, though the goodness of said humanity is somewhat lacking.

Casting JonBenet
Might as well use this space to discuss more in depth why I think this is comparable to Kate Plays Christine to this film’s vast detriment. The foundation that is Kate Lyn Sheil in that film is a far more intriguing perspective that the admittedly also interesting mosaic of faces. But just as key a difference is Greene vs. Green. Greene has a more vested interest in the actual people behind the masks, and realizes that the neuroses function better in the actual execution of the supposed project. It is probably no accident that the most moving portion of Casting JonBenet is its immensely self-reflexive coda.

La La Land (rewatch)
Everything negative said about this is correct. There is such a preening and shameless sense of mugging, a lapdog eagerness to shake the viewer and say “THIS IS MAGICAL” that irritates me to no end. There is no soul until there is, and what is there is limply, feebly performed. And yet, I still believe that the ending coda is fantastically constructed, in a way that mystifies me.

Sarah Winchester, Phantom Opera
Without mincing words, this is an all-around oddity. It begins as a pas de deux between dancer and electronic musician-cum-director, but expands outward into two loosely connected narratives of a choir rehearsal and a little girl exploring an industrial warehouse. I must confess I was mostly unmoved, appreciating the slow, inexorable moves of Bonello’s camera and the densely interwoven history without ever truly grasping how the two play with each other.

Rebels of the Neon God
So, so much glorious and cool langour in this film, almost so much that it threatens to overwhelm any sense of narrative or structure. But there is one, a multivalent depiction of youth through the lens of two people that seem at once two sides of the same coin and totally different. Tsai knows exactly how much to depict the barely missed connections, the sense of ships passing in the night, and in those spaces puts entropy, longing, and a visceral sort of urban beauty that flows like the continually present water.

Our Sunhi
As might be gathered from the title, Sunhi is as much a structuring absence as she is a fully-fledged protagonist. This is reflected most literally in the hilariously ambiguous finale, but it is also achingly apparent in every scene she does not appear in. Whether or not she is explicitly mentioned, she feels like the invisible subject over which the three men quarrel and banter, something made clear in her interactions with them. Her entire demeanor is an impenetrable mixture of strength and fragility, a sort of restlessness that seems absolutely intoxicating to both the other characters and the viewer. But this is the antithesis of Hong’s typical honesty, his sense of openness about his character’s gaping failings; that these two approaches even remotely work is one thing, that they produce such a wonderful, light-hearted experience is the work of a master.

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