Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Winter of Our Discontent

Chris Evans in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo) is the best of the Marvel Studios Avengers movies, one that manages the not inconsiderable feat of linking its eye-drugging fantasy with real world real politik in a way that engages the mind as well as the adrenal glands. It's also a film that cements the Avengers movies as an inheritor of the James Bond films, which they resemble more than they do the superhero movies from other studios. The Winter Soldier also argues forcefully against the grimdark superhero genre even as it indulges in some of its tropes. A deconstruction of the deconstruction? Maybe.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Ralph Fiennes and Tony Revolori in The Grand Budapest Hotel

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine after seeing Wes Anderson's new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), when he mentioned that he found the film's structure to be ungainly. He called it a matryoshka doll, one of those Russian dolls that nest progressively smaller dolls inside themselves. As a literal description of the film's structure, he's right. It's a narrative constructed of flashbacks within flashbacks--needlessly, my friend thought, because only one of the framing narratives has any real connection with the main thrust of the film. I think this is only a marginally useful description of the film. I prefer to think of it as a dollhouse, a comparison that has occurred to me before while watching Anderson's films: In the sequence in Moonlight Kingdom, for instance, when the house becomes a series of panels and the film turns into a kind of comics page, for instance, is a lot like a dollhouse that's been opened so that you can get to the rooms inside. Like that film, a lot of the humor in The Grand Budapest Hotel is predicated on dressing up its actors in elaborate costumes (no Harvey Keitel in short pants this time, unfortunately--Keitel plays a role more in keeping with his screen persona). I don't really know what it says about Anderson that he sees in film a huge dollhouse where Orson Welles saw a train set. Both directors see a vast toybox in any event.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ashes in the Wind

The Wind Rizes (Kaze tachinu) directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli

It's a given that Hayao Miyazaki's new film, The Wind Rises (2013) is beautifully made. Studio Ghibli is synonymous with beautiful animation, and this film is not different. Technical virtuosity can only take you so far, though, and putting a human dimension in to his films has long been a hallmark of Miyazaki's films. He does that here, too. Miyazaki has flirted with politics in the past, as well. The environmentalism in Nausicaa and that same environmentalism mated with a critique of capitalism in Princess Mononoke are examples of this. The Wind Rises is mostly set between the World Wars as Taisho-era Japan gives way to Imperial Japan and fascism, and yet, this film about a modest aeronautic engineer seems to willfully ignore the politics its story suggests. Oh, it touches on them--it can't help it--but there's no strong statement, no critique. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is the film's central horror, not the calamity of World War II. This seems odd to me, given that its hero designs the famed Japanese Zero. He's complicit in the disaster, but the film not only doesn't deal with this fact, it seems completely indifferent to it. This seems, I dunno, misguided and naive at the very least. If I view it in a less benign mood, it seems revisionist, sanitizing, and profoundly dangerous.

Friday, March 21, 2014

True/False 2014: Brought to Light


One of the instructions given to screeners for True/False is to treat documentaries as "cinema." Does a given film play well as a movie? There are documentaries by the scores that fail at this very specific function, whether from a misguided view of documentary as journalism or from a simple inability to string together a coherent narrative that will hold an audience's attention for seventy five minutes. The ones that succeed at this, though, sometimes succeed big. Some footage is inherently cinematic, for want of a better word.

My own corollary to this is: "trust your b-roll." Film after film fails to make the leap to "cinema" from a simple desire to explain too much, whether with intrusive textual elements or an over-reliance on talking heads. It's a cliche to say that a storyteller should show rather than tell, but it's true. I mean, you can get away with a movie that's interviews and archive footage, but that is often dependent on who you're interviewing and what they're talking about. Last year, True/False showed The Gatekeepers, which is a stark example of what I mean by this: it's a film that's cinematically dull. It's almost all talking heads. It's who those talking heads are that makes it compelling (in that film, it was the last six heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security service). That film became an Oscar nominee, though it lost the award to Searching for Sugar Man, a film that fails as a document but succeeds as feel-good entertainment. It's a double edged sword.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

True/False 2014: But Is It Art?

Tim's Vermeer

Every year, several of the films at True/False are designated as "secret screenings." These are often films that are contracted to premiere at other film festivals or which are only conditionally finished. Regardless, one of the codicils of watching these screenings is that you don't talk about them in public afterward. In other words, they're embargoed. I tried to avoid the Secret Screenings this year because one of my motivations for attending True/False is to blog about it. Still, I did see at least one of them, and it's vexing. This film forms a natural double feature with Penn and Teller's film, Tim's Vermeer. The writer in me wants desperately to link the two films, because both of them take a look at what constitutes art. You can't always get what you want, as a couple of wise men once said, and I don't want to rock the boat.

Friday, March 07, 2014

True/False 2014: Merchants of Some Death

The Notorious Mr. Bout

I saw a confluence of films surrounding the problem of violence and culpability for violence this year. There are always a steady stream of these kinds of movies at True/False. The world is always going to hell in a handbasket somewhere on the planet; that's manna for documentary filmmakers. Filmmakers aren't the only opportunists out there, though, and sometimes filmmakers cross paths with those other opportunists.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

True/False 2014: Hindsight is 20/20

Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue in 20,000 Days on Earth

Long careers in the arts--particularly in arts that are thought of as "entertainment"--are hard to string together, so when someone manages to become an elder statesman in such a profession, there usually comes a time to look back and wonder at it all. Career retrospectives are popular entertainments unto themselves. Greatest hits compilations are sometimes a musician's best-selling album. Stadium shows are sometimes singalongs in which music that was once growling and transgressive has become comforting and safe. So few filmmakers make vital cinema into their later years that it's hardly worth it to count the ones who do. Some of them just hang up their hat and take up real estate or some more mundane business. Several films at this year's True/False look back at the lives of aging artists. There's a bitterness in these films, but also some measure of celebration. It can be a heady mix.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

True/False 2014: The Higgs Boson Blues

The Large Hadron Collider Atlas Detector in Particle Fever

I don't know if it was by design--it probably wasn't--but one of the first line-ups of films at this year's True/False put Particle Fever right before 20,000 Days on Earth. Particle Fever documents the starting of the Large Hadron Collider, one of the largest science experiments ever mounted by human beings. One of the primary aims of the Large Hadron Collider was to verify the existence of the Higgs Boson, the keystone of the current Standard Theory of how the universe works. 20,000 Days on Earth follows musician Nick Cave as he composes his last album, Push the Sky Away, including a song called "The Higgs Boson Blues." If it wasn't planned, it's a classic case of synchronicity. Really, there's no guarantee that the audiences for these film would be substantially made up of the same people, so why plan something like that?

Be that as it may...

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

True/False 2014: Lizzy Borden Had An Ax

Happy Valley

There's an old Harlan Ellison story called "Hitler Painted Roses" that postulates a woman who burns in hell for a murder she didn't commit. In his notes on the story, Ellison suggests that the idea was inspired by Lizzy Borden, who everyone knows "gave her mother forty whacks," and all that. The only problem with this is that Lizzy Borden didn't do it. She was knocked out on laudanum at the time. She was acquitted after the jury deliberated for a mere forty minutes. Facts don't really matter here, though, because what everybody knows about Lizzy Borden comes from a children's rhyme that went viral. Surely, Ellison surmised, Lizzy Borden burns in hell to this very day and never mind that she was innocent.

Several of the films at True/False this year address public perception of real-life criminals, taking what "everybody knows," and turning it inside out. Human beings are messy creatures, after all, neither angel or devil but some mixture of the two. Unfortunately, we are all profound mysteries to each other, a fact that these movies confront head on.

Friday, February 28, 2014

True/False 2014, Preliminaries: Acting Out

The True/False has started in earnest, but I've still got a couple of films from the screening process to write about. As I was saying in my last post, there's a dichotomy at True/False between films with large-scale concerns and movies that have a much more narrow scope. Some of the films with a narrower scope are personal stories or accounts of quirks in the way the world works. These are sometimes the festival's most pleasurable films. Sometimes, they are the most unpleasant. Regardless, they're usually the most daring entries at any given festival. The fun part of festivals is the blindness surrounding these films. You pays your ticket and you takes your chances and good luck to you.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

True/False 2014, Preliminaries: Every Cut is a Lie

The night before True/False opened, they launched their companion series, showing with the festival, of "neither/nor" films. This year's series features Iranian meta-cinema from the 1990s. True/False, as their name indicates, has always been fascinated by chimeras, films in which fact and fiction intermix. The documentary as a form has always been untrustworthy. It's a feature and a bug that goes all the way back to Robert Flaherty. Few films are as aware of this fact as Abbas Kairostami's Close-Up (1990), which launched this year's series. It's the ultimate chimera.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

True/False 2014, Preliminaries: Women and Men

Big Men (2013, directed by Rachel Boynton)

The True/False film festival returns to my fair city this week. I've been to every edition of True/False in some capacity. The last two years, I've had the privilege of serving on the screening committee, so I've seen a few of the films playing at the festival already. As was the case last year, this didn't make picking my schedule any easier, but it does let me write about several movies ahead of the opening of festivities. As usual for True/False, there are a host of films that are overtly political mixed in among films with smaller and quirkier concerns. I used to think that True/False was curated with this in mind, but the zeitgeist in documentary filmmaking is self-assembling, even in the slush pile. No assembly required.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Talkin' Roots Music Blues

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

I've been trying to write about the Coen Brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) for weeks without success. The film is receding in my memory now so if I don't put something on (digital) paper now, I probably never will. It's not that the film is impenetrably obscure. It's not. It's as watchable as anything the Coens have made. It's just that it's also hermetically closed, a moebius strip of a movie. It's one that doesn't let you get close to it or hang a thesis on it. Maybe it's just me. In truth, this is a film that hit me at a low point. It wasn't a film that I really needed at the time, which makes my relationship to it so complicated that I don't know where to start.

I think the word that best describes Inside Llewyn Davis is "morose." It's a grey film filled with grey characters doing grey things in a grey world. It has a downer of an ending and a downer of a beginning--a given, since it ends where it begins. It's a portrait of disillusion and failure. Its protagonist, the eponymous Llewyn Davis, is depressed and angry and confused at the outset. It's a state of mind from which he never emerges during the film. It tends to make the experience of watching it less pleasurable than it might be, especially if one is experiencing some of the same existential crises as Davis.

Note, here there be spoylers.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Netflix Roulette: The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Louise Bourgoin in The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

It's been a while since I gave the ol' Netflix Roulette Wheel a go. Spinning the wheel this weekend gave me The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010, directed by Luc Besson). Color me surprised. I'm a fan of the Jacques Tardi comics, but I had no idea that this film even existed. My surprise was tempered a bit by director Luc Besson. I'm not a fan. Be that as it may...

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Play's The Thing

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Emily Mortimer, and Tom Noonan in Synecdoche, New York

I don't have any deep insights into the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman beyond a vague distaste for the moralizing tone of some of its observers. It doesn't matter how he died. His family will grieve and then go on and sooner than you might think, the manner of his death will be outshone by what he did in life. This is the way these things happen. The shotgun does not outshine Nirvana. The needle does not outshine Hendrix. This is right and proper. I'm probably the wrong person to even be writing about Hoffman, because Hoffman has always been an actor who doesn't connect with me. I appreciate what he did, but my own tastes run to watching other people. This has nothing to do with his worth as an actor. He was very, very good at what he did.

According to the folks at my local art house, Hoffman appeared in more films to play their screens than anyone else other than Patricia Clarkson. They decided to send Hoffman off with a screening of his 2008 film, Synecdoche, New York, one of Charlie Kaufman's existential mindfucks. Given the way that the film maneuvers itself into a state of nothingness, it's likely the perfect film to stand as the actor's epitaph. It's a film I've resisted writing about, in part because I'm not sure how to encompass all of the thoughts it evokes. It's a film where its metacinematic structures create a vortex that sucks everything into it. More than that, it's a film that defies easy synopsis and forget about unpacking everything in it in the 1200 words of a blog post. Future film scholars will pore over feelies of this film like cyberpunk Talmudic scholars.