Saturday, January 24, 2015

2010 film diary part II

Now that the semester has started back up my film viewing has meandered down other paths. So for the sake of frequency I might start posting for every three or four films I watch, rather than waiting to accumulate five. But who knows!

Like the last posting, these are roughly in order of preference. Intro here, part one here, and the ever-shifting 2010 ranking list on Letterboxd is here.

Hai shang chuan qi aka I Wish I Knew (Zhangke Jia)

Every Zhangke I see is its own revelation and this is no exception. But more than any other Zhangke film it reminded me of Hou's The Puppetmaster in its blending of documentary and fiction, but this could turn out to be a superficial comparison as it's been almost 10 years since I last viewed Hou's masterpiece. The shots of everyday people, most of whom look directly into the camera, exist in a strange in-between space that looks both overly composed and entirely natural. This is true particularly on the ferries, which almost appear to have rear-screen projections. The real masterstroke here is in the way Zhangke chronicles over one-hundred years of the history of Shanghai through interviews that tell intimate stories of the human consequences of social and cultural revolution. As a viewer you get an incredibly fleshed out, though always incomplete narrative of the city. Beginning with the now elderly son of a politician who was assassinated in the 1930s and winding its way slowly, deliberately to a young man born in the 80s building his fortune on the royalties of his novel and a racing career. The seismic cultural shifts are only ever inferred and only in individual experiences. And I always love a filmmaker who can elucidate the relationships between cinema and history; political upheaval and cinephilia.

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)

Coppola's most accomplished film, although Marie Antoinette remains my favorite. There is a total synthesis on display here of Coppola's thematic interests in the everyday psychology of the rich; of how they physically occupy and move through their spaces. But what makes her work so incredible is how (particularly in Somewhere) she films these psychological and emotional landscapes in an entirely physical manner. Her camera glides over and lingers on bodies, investigating the physicality of surfaces while hinting at an interior that may or may not exist. My only gripe is the final shot. While it works in context of the narrative, it came across (at least to me) as hokey in its narrative convention. Maybe I'm a cynic, maybe I need to see it again. Either way, it didn't really spoil anything.

Mistérios de Lisboa aka Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)

Ruiz's opus is a masterpiece of representing time and memory. It's a delicate tapestry of stories within stories and flashbacks within flashbacks. But where 90% of flashbacks function as a quick and easy way to infuse a film with exposition or stakes, Ruiz makes it the very focus of his massive treatise on the passage of time. While changing shadows of the time of day signal different periods of time, every historical moment is shot through the same sobering, formal lens, making the intricately complex plot feel like one continuous moment. Human lives here amount to stories, narratives, rumors, and legends as character after character implores someone to listen to their story. As brilliant as I found this work to be, I must admit that I don't consider it Ruiz's best work. In fact I still find his 2012 film Night Across the Street to be more engaging. It's not that Lisbon is lacking in any respect, but rather that after the first part of this four and half hour film I began to lose interest, or at least, feel ambivalent towards the narrative even as the images continued to captivate me. My feelings may shift over time as my viewing experience fades into memory, but as for now it remains a beautiful, but cold aesthetic object.

Tangled (Nathan Greno, Byron Howard)

I'll admit to not being all that interested in contemporary Disney animated features, but Tangled is a solid effort that echoes the playfulness and tight execution of the Disney renaissance films of the late 80s and early 90s. More than anything it recalls Aladdin in both tone and structure, not to mention a couple musical numbers here and there.  It's strengths lie in how well Greno and Howard work with the Disney formula (there's nothing new here), but Tangled goes a long way to exemplify that with great studio films it is more important (or at least, interesting) in how a story is told, not necessarily what that story is. While the film stands on its own, I like to compare it to the inferior-yet-more-successful Frozen (sorry to go Armond White on you here), which fails in every conceivable way to do what Tangled makes appear effortless. I can't recall the last time I was this enthralled by a Disney musical...maybe it was Aladdin when I was six.

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau)

The only thing of interest here is the staging of the final fight inside the World's Fair dome, which has a visually appealing simulacra thing going on. Otherwise Iron Man 2 is offensive in almost every conceivable way. To be fair, it appears to be designed for small boys who are socialized into a world of generic 'bad ass' iconography: AC/DC music, muscle cars, babes, and good guys defeating bad guys. I could possibly forgive the reprehensible nature of its plot if anything on display here had a little more weight to it. Favreau is too gutless to go full Michael Bay, which is really where this film points towards, but without the visual invention of the corporate auteur. What is left is a visually lazy and barely competent action movie that treats action like a series of sexy and/or cool poses with little concern for the connective tissue that could hold it all together.

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