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.

Resident Evil: Apocalypse
It’s both easy and difficult to see why

February 2017 Capsules

Ju Dou
I think the key to this film is that, though Gong Li is as usual the nominal lead, it takes place from a mix of the perspectives of Tianqing and Ju Dou. Zhang continually emphasizes the barriers between the two; even when they do finally connect there is more focus on their surroundings, and their embraces seem to be desperate attempts for connection. The film is on the whole rather depressing, but it is earned in the false hopes and the crushing developments that manifest themselves in abject hopelessness.

Chronicle of a Summer
Even more interesting than its reputation suggests; Morin and Rouch manage to wring out a wonderful variety of approaches, and if the comparatively sedate second half, with its myriad conversations, proves less innovative than the first half’s quick interviews and wide range of subjects, it is mostly compensated by the extraordinary sequence of Marceline’s Holocaust recollections and the phenomenal epilogue, which functions as a rather potent self-critique that in and of itself offers another lens with which to view the verité style, a reflection of a reflection. It is most instructive, of course, to view this not as necessarily a statement or a manifesto but rather, as the title suggests, as a chronicle or document of a milieu.

February 7
The Nice Guys (rewatch)
Wish I could say I liked this genuinely pleasurable film more the second time around, and some of the “big gags” landed even harder, but there’s too strong a sense of rootlessness in this. Arguably, it fits well with the pessimism of the film, the changing times so decried by Healy and March, but it doesn’t make for anything close to a consistent viewing. There are flashes of genius here, of course—the hallucination experience in particular is a beautifully sustained escalation—and Gosling and Crowe make a shockingly good team (with Rice as a wonderful connector) so there’s that.

February 23
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
It’s probably telling that Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s best scene by far is its most comparatively lowkey, when Ricky has a nigh idyllic encounter with a girl and her father. The rest of the film is frustratingly obstinate in its refusal to pick a single mood, vacillating awkwardly between slightly mawkish sentimentality and vivacious whimsy without finding any roots to dig into. Sam Neill is, of course, absolutely wonderful in his gruff sincerity, but he’s given far too little to do compared to the wide-eyed, borderline annoying juvenilia of Julian Dennison. And almost everything to do with the actual chase, especially the hunters, is painful.

February 28
Moonlight (rewatch, out of order b)
Everything clicked in some way or another on rewatch (save for, perhaps, Paula, whose character feels much more overtly consequential than the rest of the film). There’s such an intoxicating feeling to Moonlight, a grounding in time and place that intertwines beautifully with the essential minimum of narrative. A set structure is present, yes, but it depicts moments that feel equally important and unimportant to Chiron. And throughout, there is a shimmering beauty, a vitality that doesn’t come just from the “timely” subject matter. It comes from empathy, from irresistible emotion.

Throne of Blood
Throne of Blood‘s atmosphere is nigh impossible to nail down: on one hand Kabuki-inflected and on the other operating in an almost dreamlike and ominously obscure environment. But what feels most surprising (especially to someone who’s read the play) is how much destruction is executed with so much efficiency. Macbeth is inherently a violent, bloody tale, but there is an additional dynamic inextricably tied to the heightened sense of honor, to Mifune’s sharp contrasts between rage and control, that makes Throne of Blood its own great work.

January 2017 Capsules

Dog Day Afternoon
A much stranger film than I expected, but the most concrete criticism I have is that it feels tame. More accurately, its ambitions and wildly clashing tones feel like they require the touch of a far more skilled director and writer, one more attuned to a sense of rhythm and character. Dog Day Afternoon wants to be a black comedy, a city film, a character study, a ticking time bomb of a heist, and much more all in one, but fails to fully achieve any of them. There is no doubt a sense of real feeling in more than a little of the film, and Pacino and Cazale absolutely nail their feverish robbers. But, so much else feels like the overheated flop-sweat that accumulates over the course of this film, which feels like it ages every character 20 years.

Always Shine
Almost too obviously fiendish in its presentation; from the opening shot and frenetic credits Takal makes it clear how confrontational much of the film will be, perhaps to the detriment of the film as a whole. Of course, Always Shine is anchored by two phenomenal performances, and to some extent they anchor the film, overriding the needlessly spiky edits and grounding it in a believably acidic relationship. The final third does feel like a bit of a misjudgment, dragging out the obvious “persona swap” premise for all its worth, but the last scene brings it back home.

January 19
The Other Side
It is naturally dangerous to say that one film or the other is necessarily “important” or “essential”, but I’d have relatively few qualms considering The Other Side as befitting both of these adjectives. The movie performs its act of documentation almost frighteningly well, to the point where the scenes occurring before the viewer bear a stronger resemblance to a drama than the conventional ideal of documentary. It is this quality that makes the film one of the most heartbreaking works of 2016 for me; there is such a strong tenderness in such desolate and obviously destitute places that it feels fully and beautifully human. In many ways, the final quarter seems to be both a misstep and an essential part of the documentary (for this reason I feel like I’m underrating it), a sort of other side to the other side. It is utterly of this moment and thus, timeless.

Café Society (rewatch)
What seems most striking (especially on a rewatch) is Café Society‘s overwhelming sense of nostalgia. From Allen’s vigorous narration opening with an explicit reference to the film being set in the 1930’s to the general, ever-so-slightly starstruck perspectives of Bobby and Vonnie, there is a melancholy and a longing for the times and stars that seem just out of reach (notably, no movie stars are ever shown, apparently just off camera). The second half set in New York, prolonged as it is, still retains a shade of that glamour; there is no doubt that Café Society would benefit from tightening but as is, the restrained opulence of Storaro’s cinematography and the reservedness of the main performances make this film into something truly intimate.

January 24
Valley of Love
It’s almost passé at this point to say that Isabelle Huppert gave a great performance in 2016, but the magnificence of her and Depardieu’s performances can’t be overstated, especially since the film is almost exclusively a two-hander. As a byproduct of this extreme, the supporting characters acting mostly as provocations to the main characters and, intriguingly, a reflection and sort of critique of Americana. But Valley of Love‘s full dedication to the grief of this reunited couple consumes the film in ways both welcome (the pair of long letter readings, shot with so much compassion) and more unnerving (the strange encounters with ghosts that seem to rise out of the landscape). Perhaps the almost non-ending of the movie is fitting for a work of such single-minded obsession.

January 30
Happy Hour
Even more than most long movies, I find it extremely hard to do Happy Hour justice. By design it seems to announce itself as both a small, intimate film and a sweepingly large movie, down to the opening scene, one of three sequences (which probably do take up half the film but don’t necessarily feel that way) that features all four principal characters interacting. Hamaguchi’s skill and the unified magnificence of seemingly every actor in the ensemble, especially the main actresses, ensure that the film feels exactly pitched in the right way, making the most mundane exercises and casual conversations (especially during the absolutely extraordinary workshop and subsequent hangout sequences, probably the greatest stretch of filmmaking I’ve seen released in 2016) seem monumental. Of course, it is ultimately a drama, and all the time spent with the characters makes the final 30 minutes absolutely devastating in the unraveling of so many relationships. And yet, there are so many delightful moments, so many odd things that make this film compulsively, achingly able to be experienced.

January 31
Red Sorghum
Just from my conventional understanding, Zhang Yimou seems to have always straddled the line between the commercial and arthouse, and Red Sorghum certainly feels as if it belongs in that vein. As frequently bawdy as it is “transcendental” (in a Malickian sense), the film seems to move in fits and starts in a way that seems both intended and unintended; the true through-line is Gong Li, and she doesn’t even function quite like that. The only connector is the evocative feeling engendered by Zhang’s images, which are stunning even on an incredibly poor transfer. The shots all come from an earthy beauty, and in a way accentuate the film’s eventual emphasis on tradition and celebration, even in the face of destruction.

Don’t Think Twice
Simply put, this movie annoyed the hell out of me. It feels toxic in so many ways, especially towards the main characters themselves. Even though Birbiglia is essentially one of the lead characters, there is an undeniable self-hatred that is played off as “just another thing to be solved.” So much faux-compassion is present in the face of so little sincerity, and Don’t Think Twice frequently devolves into watching as a great deal of talented actors move around in circles, making fools out of themselves without ever creating a sense of a collective that they so obviously want to make. By the time Amy Schumer is brought in for no purpose than to drive home the shallowness of the whole enterprise, Don’t Think Twice is intolerable.

A Monster Calls
A Monster Calls succumbs to that all-too-common problem of attempting to tackle far too much with inferior material, but even more mystifying is how it comes to that point. Bayona almost single-handedly rescues the film, with “conventional” scenes that manage to be unnerving by the little touches added by his off-kilter visualizations and, of course, the truly spectacular dream/story sequences. The animations are beautiful enough (as a side note, the opening credits are entirely welcome) but even more wonderful is the way it weaves Conor and the Monster into the stories, combining a hand-drawn style with live-action and CGI. Nevertheless, merely stunning direction can’t entirely compensate for a subpar script. Attempting to stuff bullying, grief, disease, and mythology does little to give any of them weight, doubly so when the characters feel as shallow as they are and the actors feel this limp.

Indignation
The long debate between Lerman and Letts is as great as advertised, but it oddly feels like it has been airlifted in from a very different film. Most of Indignation focuses on the relatively less interesting romance between Lerman and Gadon, but even there there is a wonderful sense of purposeful sterility that stems from the climate of the 1950s that Schamus is trying to evoke. It feels old-fashioned in an appealing way, and if it occasionally feels less purposeful than it ought to be, it is continually interesting in the way it displays secrecy and transgression.

Split
Utterly bizarre in nearly every conceivable way, starting from the very first shot, a slow dolly zoom on Anya Taylor-Joy. Putatively a horror film, it plays far more often as a drama of sorts, relegating the locked-room struggle of the three girls to the backburner. Yes, there ultimately is a climax that the film is clearly building up to, but much (almost too much) time is spent negotiating the strange condition that James McAvoy’s character has. Nevertheless, Shyamalan’s direction is continually stunning, a flurry of off-kilter and perfectly menacing frames that never let up, and the final shot is a provocation that feels successful to me.

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season One

I hope you’ll forgive the momentary lapse in my #brand, but here are a few thoughts on the first season of the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

It’s difficult for me to tell just how much of my love for the show is tied to my admittedly up and down appreciation for the books (which in turn is due in no small part to their more outré elements; currently I love them). In some ways, the show acts like a perfect distillation of why I love the books with few of the parts that I dislike. The format of having every book in two parts allows the stories to breathe while cutting most of the fat, every actor does a marvelous job (Harris is of course essential and acquits himself well), and there are two elements that are absolutely key: Warburton as Snicket and the consistent foregrounding of VFD.

These two constitute the greatest break with the books and exemplify the strange dance the show has with the books, playing with them and freely mixing different aspects with gleeful abandon. It feels almost braver in a way, and if it missteps occasionally it always makes up for any downsides in spades.

Capsules Catch-Up 2016

In an effort to feel less guilty about all the blank spaces I have next to a good half-year’s worth of diary entries on Letterboxd, I am endeavoring to write a capsule (and probably more) for all of those spaces. In chronological order of writing (and of last watch).

The World’s End
The cut from Gary’s description of his wild youthful days to him sitting with a slightly bemused, slightly discomfited look on his face in a support group says it all. The World’s End, certainly the most mature of the Cornetto Trilogy, is as self-critical of its hero as it is celebratory. Wright continually walks a tight-rope, using a trip intended to recapture the “good old days” as a journey into both the past and the future. In the almost deliberately unbalanced, unambiguous finale, it is made clear just how much and how little he has changed, in a way that feels both immensely heartbreaking and shockingly heartening.

High-Rise
Especially in the first half, there’s a sort of single-minded blandness to much of High-Rise. Call it my aversion to vicious satire that brands itself specifically as vicious satire, but there’s very little to Wheatley’s sensibility that doesn’t register as on the surface, however fundamental to the text it may be. The slow slide into anarchy, seemingly precipitated in part by the disconcerting dancing of Luke Evans, is rather appreciated, and the flatness of the ending teased in the beginning flash-forward is greatly mitigated by the extraordinary montage set to a Portishead cover of ABBA’s “SOS” and the climactic murders seen through a dazzling kaleidoscope.

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O.J.: Made in America

****1/2 (Tour-de-force)

O.J.: Made in America is not a call to revolution. It is not a smear campaign or an overt attack on the LAPD or any other group; instead it is a deeply analytical, deeply felt portrait of one man in the United States, but that is all that Ezra Edelman needs to create this Rorschach test of a film. It is a tragedy, an elegy, and a document of the most exacting and inclusive scope. Perhaps it is unwise to define a film in such lofty terms, but O.J.: Made in America demands it by virtue of its vital length and its monumental subject matter.

The documentary’s success is all the more surprising because it arises from the ESPN 30 for 30 unit, which exclusively deals in sports documentaries. This is not to denigrate the series as a whole (I’ve seen few, if any of the other documentaries) but to illustrate the improbability of the film’s scope. O.J. Simpson, crucially, isn’t treated as a simple entry point for the movie’s larger observations on L.A. or even the entire nation; he is given equal weight as a larger-than-life figure, and Edelman presents the sometimes unbelievable events of his improbable life with the same soberness as the boiling racial tensions of the “real world”.

This dichotomy between Simpson’s life, as his football stardom propelled him to nationwide fame and his private life spiraled, and the continual struggle of the black community in Los Angeles is perhaps the true subject of the documentary. Edelman balances the two narratives with a keen sense of balance in both runtime and content. Moving back and forth just before the viewer registers just how much time has been spent on each part, the documentary fits an almost equivalent amount of information—and, even more importantly, context—in each corresponding section. In the first three parts, where the divide is much clearer, the intersection of O.J. and L.A. is rare (most notably in the bravura 1968 section, which juxtaposes the glory of O.J.’s Heisman year and corresponding media appearances with the anger and numerous assassinations outside the USC bubble), but by the time of his trial in the closing minutes of the third part, the line is erased.

The trial is undoubtedly the most publicized and exciting part of the documentary, and the documentary delves deeply into the multiple corrosive influences and mistakes that led to the infamous verdict. But O.J.: Made in America‘s status as a look into the two subjects is made even more clear in the surrounding timespans. From the impossibly important events, such as the Watts or Rodney King riots, to the almost irrelevant, like O.J.’s movie career or his wildly successful (and illuminating) representation of Hertz car rentals, Edelman incorporates them all, teasing out the inherent racial tensions and compromises that seemed to engulf practically everything that O.J. and L.A. did over nearly half a century. The documentary never feels static or removed from the present day for many reasons, but one less evident one is the use of new non-interview footage. Often taking the form of gliding helicopter shots over the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or of L.A. in general, they are used to link the stories of Simpson and Los Angeles together with no small amount of fluidity.

Without a narrator, the meat of O.J.: Made in America is the archival footage and interview that give the documentary life, and an overwhelming amount has assembled in service of a very clear thesis: to show how O.J., in some ways, is Los Angeles, embodying all of its contradictions and tensions between while covering it with a smiling facade. No aspect of O.J.’s life, and probably few of the most important events in Los Angeles, are left out, and it seems as if almost every key player (and many people on the periphery) have been convinced into appearing on camera. Footage from O.J.’s football career all the way to his current incarceration in Nevada—audaciously placed at the very beginning to throw away any illusions about his ultimate fate—is included, and not dissimilar to other narrative films it lends an added sense of poignancy to see Simpson age over the years as he walked further and further away from the light. Edelman follows him everywhere, even going down the rabbit hole of his wild living in Miami after the trial, and creates a truly human portrait of this at times mythical man, capturing his genuinely good qualities and laying them beside his irredeemable flaws, especially the extensive abuse that would lead up to the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown. The lively talking heads aid this sense of humanity, giving multiple perspectives on both O.J. and Los Angeles, and Edelman purposefully chooses not to censor any of them, leading to often conflicting and even outright racist remarks (on occasion, the editing almost creates a verbal sparring match between two interviewees).

All of this is to say that O.J.: Made in America is not a revolution in terms of its craft, a quality almost undeniably for the better. By adopting this sober, straightforward approach, Edelman focuses on the most important aspect, the information, and uses it to highlight the flaws of American society as a whole. Only O.J., who was able to effectively move between black and white culture and won his trial in large part because of his exclusive status, could work as such a galvanizing conduit. And in this method of exposé, O.J.: Made in America is its own sort of revolution, incisive but never dogmatic.

Moonlight

***1/2 (Excellent)

The only true constant in Moonlight is its look. It is an odd sort of luminescence, bringing out the vibrancy of the subject while turning everything not in the immediate foreground into a impressionistic haze of blurred colors. The effect is definitely one of immediacy, but crucially, it is immediacy that belongs to all time periods: apart from some signposts in the form of cars, cell phones, and music, the setting of the film, Miami, doesn’t seem to change all that much. The background of run-down homes, barred windows, and an moonlit beach stay the same, while the people and their changes are highlighted in stunning detail.

The movie’s visual style mirrors Barry Jenkins’ approach towards his main character, Chiron. The story of Chiron’s growth during three decades in Miami, Moonlight functions less like a biography and more like a series of snapshots. Each section, denoted by the name Chiron goes by in each section (Little, Chiron, and Black, respectively), is set over a few consecutive days, and the events are at once the most consequential and yet seem like transitions to different stages of Chiron’s life. They are formative moments, in a sense, and they come together over the course of the film to gather a quiet, cumulative force that dazes the viewer, making them feel as lost yet as at home as Chiron does.

For the most part, Moonlight follows the two influences that come to define Chiron: his parent figures, particularly his junkie mother Paula (a by turns manipulative and broken Naomie Harris) and drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, overwhelmingly compassionate), and his burgeoning identity as a gay black man. More than often, these are inextricably entwined. In the first scene, young Chiron, called Little in this segment (an almost mute yet expressive Alex Hibbert), runs past Juan while being chased by bullies. After this initial coincidence, the film’s moments arise out of unexpected developments in relationships already well established, as Chiron grows and learns more about the people around him.

But through other people, he learns about himself too. Though the moments that ultimately have the most impact on Chiron’s existence come invariably at the end of each chapter, the ones that affect him more on an emotional level come more towards the middle. For Little, there are many but none more inexplicably serene as when Juan teaches him to swim, holding him in an almost baptismal pose in the ocean. For Chiron as a teenager (a belligerent and remarkably self-contained Ashton Sanders) it is an encounter on the beach with Kevin, his lifelong friend, the sexual nature of which plays out entirely through hands moving through the sand. For Black (Trevante Rhodes, hulking but astonishingly sensitive), it is an extended conversation at the diner where Kevin (André Holland, immensely caring) now cooks, the two not having seen each other since the previous chapter. These moments are never announced, never spotlighted. But it is precisely because of this that they have such power; in contrast to other scenes (mostly involving Paula and a gang of bullies) that seem at times a bit overdetermined, harrowing as they are in the moment, these moments of serenity are as unadorned as they would be in life.

And it is this sense of life that makes Moonlight so dazzling. Though it has as much to say about masculinity as it does gay identity—Black, a drug dealer in Atlanta (before he goes back to visit Kevin in Miami) is almost a mirror image of his father figure Juan, complete with a grill—it is at heart the story of a boy who learns to become a man. But Jenkins never lets it fall into clichés, with his sketch-like approach, his luminous depiction of Miami, and most importantly of all, his grounding in Chiron. Despite, or perhaps because of, his representation of Chiron in three actors and three time periods, Moonlight is truly emotional and universal while remaining profoundly coded in the black experience. The final two shots both provide a conclusion and a continuation; at heart, we are all children in the waves of time.

The Heart of the World

****1/2 (Tour-de-force)

“The Heart of the World” is at once quite simple and inordinately complex, stymieing most sensible attempts to dissect it. A story laid out in broad terms but filled with the grand tradition that proceeds it, it is a behemoth of small stature. Guy Maddin dares to use just six minutes to not only lay out the cinematic condition, but to wrap it in a tale of love, revenge, and sacrifice that becomes universal.

At its core, “The Heart of the World” is fashioned after propaganda films, and thus its most important goal is to induce feeling. In the traditional propaganda films it is most inspired by, these are patriotic feelings, but Maddin manages to enlarge and deepen them, retaining the pride while adding a clear emotional core in the three individuals that never distracts from the world-altering consequences. The narrative is both simple and ludicrous enough to work—a love triangle that reaches its fever pitch just as the end of the world (via a literal heart attack) arrives, only to be interrupted by a capitalist—and Maddin recognizes and adapts to how narratively restricting six minutes is. But he also finds time to insert the beautifully bizarre: a phallic embalming machine, strange laboratories, an actor who tries to become Christ.

Of course, “The Heart of the World”‘s most stellar aspect is Maddin’s crazed visual sense, unleashing a barrage of close-ups that collapses cross-cutting in on itself. It is never incoherent, which only adds to the disorientation of the already strange images. And yet, this effect causes the viewer to have the most curious emotion: pride. Whether it be caused primarily by the formal mastery, the soaring and hyperkinetic score, or just the Soviet-inspired images, this sense of pride is among the most awe-inspiring feelings I’ve had watching a film; it appeals to the cinephile with its final exultation of “Kino”, but it also appeals to a primal thrill, an elemental fascination with the kind of purity of expression that Maddin uses here. “The Heart of the World” is a short for all humanity, beautiful, crazed, and breathless.

The Shallows

**** (Great)

Jaume Collet-Serra operates in an entirely different style in his latest triumph, The Shallows. While his past movies largely worked either in horror or action, and situated themselves to either confined locations or maze-like cities, this film is in a sort of middle-ground, a thriller taking place entirely on a secret beach in Mexico. The setting does a significant amount to illustrate the underlying qualities that distinguish the movie so much: just big enough to allow for the Macgyver-esque tricks that Nancy must pull to survive the ordeal she faces, but secluded enough to ensure she is almost solely on her own, all mixed in with the at turns gorgeous and menacing ocean waves that her foe swims through.

More than a little bit of the genius that propels The Shallows must be accredited to Anthony Jaswinski’s screenplay, which is thoroughly and fully no-frills and constructs the simple premise with care. After an partially extraneous in medias res prologue, the first act is almost fully idyllic, slowly putting the pieces into place while indulging in genuine pleasure. Some time is spent on the journey to the beach, and Collet-Serra expends equal focus on backstory—with some wonderful digital projections of iPhone pictures—and simple banter between Nancy and her driver Carlos, while the forest glides by the windows. And even more time is spent on Nancy after she arrives and surfs, including a scenic three-screen video-chat that furnishes the rest of the backstory in an economical, if not necessarily vital, manner. It is inaccurate to say that Collet-Serra is trying to lull the viewer into a false sense of security, as there are more than a few fake-outs; moreso that he establishes an almost dreamlike mood that extends to much of the movie after the attack. Even the surfing montage set to an electronic song is cut-up and eventually abandoned, favoring the moments when Nancy goes beneath the water, treating them as near ethereal.

Of course, it is in the water, where Nancy feels at home, that she is attacked, though only after she approaches a rotting whale carcass. The scene’s progression is presented in the terms that define the rest of the film. The whale is a roiling mass of blood and blubber that sends Nancy into a panic as she tries to get away, only to be pulled beneath the waves. No part of the actual attack is shown onscreen, instead presented in one prolonged shot of Nancy underwater as blood slowly tinges the water.

The rest of The Shallows is pure thriller, as Collet-Serra finally slips into his most comfortable mode. Despite the open water, and in some ways because of it, Nancy is confined to a rock that becomes an island during low tide, adding an additional time constraint to her already despairing situation. Blake Lively also seems to become even stronger in this spare setting; she delivers the exposition in an easy-going manner, which only makes her urgency even more striking. Whether it be improvising stitches with earrings or judging the amount of time she has while the shark is circling, Lively captures even the moments when she is laying on the rock in despair seem of utmost importance.

And it is these moments that Collet-Serra is interested in the most as well. Much of the film is spent in what could be considered a sort of downtime, the inevitable space between the thrilling moments when Lively must venture into the more open water and face the shark, stinging coral, and in one entirely unexpected, luminous scene, a mass of jellyfish. There are no shortage of close-ups, especially on Nancy’s face that registers weariness, fear, and pain in unmistakable detail, but there are also startling overhead shots and wide-spanning vistas that never fail to capture the looming presence just below the surface. The economical nature of the players and things involved is of utmost importance, as the various human presences (including surfers she had met before and a distant ship) all make little difference until the end, and a seagull (hiliariously named Steven Seagull) provides for a consistent companion and a silent source of strength for Nancy.

Everything ultimately serves a purpose in this airtight film, but it never feels preordained, flowing as smoothly as the waves, and Collet-Serra rarely lets the film get out of hand as Nancy moves to the buoy that serves as the venue for the final encounter. It feels earned, not just because of the ideas introduced in the exposition or the astonishing Go-Pro message Nancy recorded before she moves, but because of the physicality of the film, how visceral each attack feels (regardless of whether it lands or not). And the final scene, another surfing scene set to Sia, is earned as well, for both Nancy and the viewer, who have both gone through a truly awe-inspiring thrill ride through life and death.

De Palma

***1/2 (Excellent)

Brian De Palma is perhaps best known for his extravagant visual sensibilities—his split-diopters, his long takes, his split screens—so much so that his remarkable acuity for the emotions vital to his films is usually neglected. So it is perhaps wise that Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow chose to go with a straight-forward, unadorned style for their documentary on the legendary director, De Palma in order to put the spotlight on the subject rather than the director.

Formed from many interviews over a period of several years, De Palma reveals its first two tricks from the beginning. First, Baumbach’s and Paltrow’s voices are never heard, and for most of the documentary De Palma seems not responding to any specific question, simply recounting his experience on every single film over his almost fifty year career. Whether this increases a sense of connection with De Palma is hard to gauge, especially since the three directors are all friends, but it provides a greater sense of directness, in line with De Palma’s often confrontational oeuvre. The second trick is in the actual filming of the interviews. De Palma’s appearance doesn’t seem to change at all, continually wearing the same blue outfit and sitting in the exact framing used for the rest of the shots; the viewer could reasonably conclude that it was all shot in one afternoon and edited later. Through this, the filmmakers seem to be putting the emphasis on the films of De Palma and how he progressed through them rather than on the man himself, reinforced by the one break with this style at the end, where De Palma walks on the streets of New York, almost passing the torch as he nears the end of his career (however long it may continue after this documentary).

The choice of archival footage and photographs that for the most part takes precedence over the new footage is surprisingly eclectic. Beginning with the opening of Vertigo, one of De Palma’s earliest and most lasting influences, the documentary largely uses a mix of footage from the director’s films and various behind-the-scenes photographs, though some more intriguing footage, such as the Hitchcock or the original ending of Snake Eyes, is included. The most memorable images are shown (“Say hello to my little friend”, the prom, the climax of Blow Out) but they’re never shown in isolation, as De Palma frequently talks about the difficulties surrounding them rather than letting them sit as totems.

This, perhaps, is the most important function of De Palma. It is not necessarily a work of demythologizing, but it is a tribute and a view from the other side, a chance for De Palma to speak his thoughts freely on the controversial legacy, in terms of both the ardent defenders and vociferous detractors, that his work has created. He is candid about his failures and pleased with his successes, and the viewer never gets the sense that he is being insincere or trying to hide any dissatisfaction. De Palma is the view of a legendary director, but more importantly, it is a view of his work, all twenty-nine films to date in a neat chronological order, through perhaps the most important lens of all.