Friday, February 20, 2015

2010 film diary part IV

After taking too long to get the last update posted this one seemed to fall into place in a matter of days. Funny how that works. The speed with which I blasted through these titles coupled with the mixed impressions of each film made for a rather strange installment. The theme for this diary entry are films that are "profoundly OK," to paraphrase a rhetoric professor of mine. That is, nothing here really stands out.

Links: Letterboxd ranked list, Intro, Part I, Part II, Part III.

As always, from favorite to least favorite.

Insidious (James Wan)

Wan is frustrating for the very reason that so many of his films are almost-masterpieces. Insidious is among these efforts (I've yet to see Insidious Chapter 2). To begin with what works, Wan has a keen eye for establishing spaces. How he choreographs the movements of his camera and performers through these locations is absolutely poetic. The house in Insidious (like the one in The Conjuring) feels expansive like an entire universe resides in this one staged location in a way that is not unlike Fulci. Building on this sense of space is a seemingly effortless establishment of atmosphere, one of dread and an air pregnant with ghostly presence (apart from when his over-usage of hammy music spoils this). Wan manages a naturalism from his performers that makes Insidious compelling on a humanist level. But its as if he's working overtime to undermine everything that is great in his work. Insidious is overly invested in cheap jump-out scares that quickly become so predictable you can set your watch by them. But not only are they lazy, they shatter the moods he builds through his style. Likewise, his fondness for cliche horror elements is almost unbearable here. Once the ghosts start appearing more regularly and living characters cross over into 'The Further,' the film trades evocative mystery and dread for third-rate pressings of Jacob's Ladder and Silent Hill effects by way of Steve Beck. Wan stops showing us why something is creepy and assumes a familiarity with old timey dolls and demons will do the heavy lifting. At least The Conjuring has a solid first half before descending into schlock, this one only lasts about 20 minutes with intermittent moments of brilliance.

Im Shatten aka In the Shadows (Thomas Arslan)

My first and only Arslan film to date. Im Shatten is a solid crime film in that it feels flawless in its execution. Imagine if Drive was directed by a sophisticated filmmaker. Absolutely perfect in tone, pace, and composition. There are no wasted frames, even as the (short) film gives itself breathing room and takes its time in places. It occupies a place between dull arthouse deconstructions of crime and more guiltless procedural pleasures, being neither amoral or cynical in its posture. For all its still life formalism and proximity to being one of those films that just shows people staring at things (to quote my partner), it remains a film about faces and tones infused with a palpable human element. Each character is always sizing up the others and relationships are inferred from how comfortable or constrained a character's speech and expressions are. Ultimately, this is pared down character study situated within the neon chic of a daylight neo-noir. When all is said and done Im Shatten raises the question of whether being too sleek and spotless can render a film forgettable. While this is easily the best film of this post I find myself mostly ambivalent to it. I really liked watching it. Maybe I'll watch again.

Salt (Philip Noyce)

Salt suffers from a distracting personality crisis. Its CIA Cold War plot is more Luc Besson then John Le Carré, yet Noyce directs this like an early 2000s Fox Network television thriller; blocky and humorless. There's not enough plot or sophistication to warrant the restrained techniques and the outrageousness of the invincible Jolie demands a more frenetic, visceral approach. Imagine this shot like John Wick or Lucy and you'd have a bonafide action film. But Salt plays it close to the vest, often making its constant chase sequences rather boring and its empty dialogue and exposition unbearable at times due to its utter lack of nuance. Still, there are some inspired casting choices here: Chiwetel Ejiofor does his best and turns out some of the films most captivating scenes (like the finale in the helicopter) and August Diehl provides a much needed naturalism to his role as the normal husband, effectively providing the only human element to the film. And surprisingly, the exposition-y flashbacks with Diehl are often more interesting than the action itself. Jolie often seems out of place here as her histrionics are too award seasony for this material and her slo-mo sexy Kubrick stare (which amounts to a third of the film) is too goofy for most of the action. It feels like a tech rehearsal and not a performance.

The Other Guys (Adam McKay)

For the record I think McKay is a shit director, but some of his films (like this one) come highly recommended by cinephiles whose tastes I respect. I never understood the love for Anchorman (admitting that I need to rewatch it) for the same reasons I never understood the affection for most of his work. His films are sloppy, focusing too much on worthless plots that need to be either jettisoned or meticulously restructured to be more engaging. He favors shoehorning in choppy gags, cheap references, and overzealous performers who need to be reined in. This style of letting accomplished comedians ad-lib and improv everything is one that really grates me when there is no vision or structure to tie it together. It can work well, and often does for things like the work of Jody Hill or the myriad Trailer Park Boys titles. If at least the individual moments where more captivating, I wouldn't mind a disjointed film, but McKay traffics in constantly over-the-top forcefulness that always feels like everyone is trying way too hard with nothing to fall back on. Like McKay's other films, The Other Guys is loaded with brilliant talents, but only occasional (seemingly accidental) moments of brilliance. While this style is admirable and cinematically daring, it simply falls flat too much for me to be able to give it any credence. I will say that I love Talladega Nights, which is for me the best embodiment of Will Ferrell's trademark character, and Step Brothers works because of the well structured chemistry between Ferrell and Riley. But The Other Guys along with Anchorman 2 are simply the worst things I've seen on this level.

Han jia aka Winter Vacation (Li Hongqi)

Another crushing disappointment from a film that's been on my radar since its buzzing festival circuit. But now that I think about it, nowhere have I read someone articulate what about Hongqi's third film is especially great. I've read a lot of descriptors: Brechtian, deadpan, surrealist, meticulously composed, highly stylized (not to mention copious descriptions of Hongqi's importance as a poet and writer). And while all of these are accurate they merely describe the style and don't in and of themselves point toward any kind of quality. Han jia was for me a stylistically and intellectually dull film. It's brand of philosophical pessimism, no matter how Kafkaesque one thinks of it, is grating in a way that makes one ask the most philistine of questions: what's the point? It takes its time to make relatively banal observations; another film predicated upon the belief that pretentiously illustrating hypocrisy is some how enlightening or daring. Perhaps it is due to my inability to speak the language (and this really does matter), but the humor was more flat and needlessly prolonged, not deadpan. Moments were funny in ways akin to Roy Andersson's work, but it was mostly fleeting glimpses of Hongqi's satirical wit. I usually dig this kind of compositional pretension (being a great admirer of both Andersson and Peter Greenaway), but this feels like installation video art masquerading as a film, with none of the sense of space and temporality that makes great installation work so captivating (Tsai Ming-liang this is not). And this reaction of mine speaks more to my tastes: I don't care how meticulously crafted a shot is, a film predicated entirely upon sophisticated compositions are worthless to me.

Monday, February 16, 2015

2010 film diary part III

I've been dragging my feet on this installment. Blame it on grad school. I've also gotten sidetracked by catching up on Oscar noms. As much as I loathe the Oscars, I still feel the need to see as many as possible. Chalk it up to morbid curiosity (is it just me, or are the majority of noms especially shitty this year?). I've also taken a detour through the films of Tsui Hark, of which I'm not sorry.

For those following along, here is the work-in-progress ranked list on Letterboxd, the intro to this project here, part I here, and part II here.

Again, these are ranked favorite to least favorite.

Hereafter (Clint Eastwood)

I want to gush about this masterpiece. It might be my favorite of the year, but I need to revisit my other top favorites to be sure (namely Film socialisme, Attenberg, and The Strange Case of Angelica). There are two elements that stand out to me. First, Eastwood constructs a very physical experience. The film has weight and is grounded in the immediacy of each moment. This is most apparent in the tsunami sequence, which alone is a masterclass in directing. This creates an interesting balance for the film's weightless subject of an afterlife. Even the idea that lived existence is transient, the curiosity of what happens after death remains a question asked from a corporeal standpoint. Second, the film is about chance, fate, serendipity, and perhaps even the notion that everything happens for reason (all shit I don't believe but love seeing on screen). Yet this isn't a film about events in the sense that two or three characters crossing paths is somehow more important than the process or experience of getting to those meetings. Every moment is open, takes its time, and gives one space to wander. A key example is Matt Damon's relationship with his cooking class partner. (Spoiler) They don't wind up together, but her presence is crucial to the film's exploration of ideas. Eastwood doesn't just tell us about his characters he takes the careful time to show us.

Tsumetai nettaigyo aka Cold Fish (Shion Sono)

My introduction to the cinema of Sono came highly recommended and I certainly wasn't disappointed. While I can't speak to Sono's body of work, the strengths of Cold Fish stem from his ability to craft a unique universe that follows its own sense of space, timing, and momentum. The slow burn of Syamoto's realization of his situation as well as his transformation (or realization depending on your reading) is expressed almost entirely in side-long glances, most of which are backgrounded by the ostentatious personalities that dominate the film. It is in this balance of subtly articulated expression and over-the-top charisma, sex, and violence that creates the visceral complexities of Cold Fish. My only complaint, which may change with a second viewing, is something about the final moments felt cheap. Perhaps cheap is not the best word, but it felt as though it was supposed to be more shocking or unnerving than it actually was. I found the transformation of Syamoto to be less interesting than the events and relationships that brought him there. It could simply be a matter of a brilliant momentum suddenly deflating, but the film is still incredible.

Mark of the Whip 2 (Roman Nowicki)

A huge improvement on the first installment, which was little more than badly shot porn with a few fumbled ideas. Mark of the Whip 2 is a work of a more assured and deliberate vision, transforming the themes and imagery of the S/M video into a coherent universe. The second installment is a fascinating exploration of affect in how Nowicki utilizes the limitations of no-budget sleaze to a great effect. The women/subs all speak in a flat affectless droll and are Eastern European models of a specific build while the men/doms wear fleshy masks (akin to Trash Humpers) and speak through voice synthesizers. The result enhances how the film narrativizes the playfulness of S/M sex. The film is a sequence of clearly staged 'scenes' with sexual performers taking on roles. The noir elements, quotations of other movies, and the conviction of its artificiality make it quite entertaining as a combo-sleaze video art piece (I also really dig the digital textures). The opening scene of the woman in the studio fabricated park is perhaps its strongest singular moment. However, procedural whipping scenes can be a bit boring, even if your into actual S/M play.

The Last Airbender (M.Night Shyamalan)

Shyamalan is great filmmaker, but this is easily his worst and not really that great of a film. Although it has its moments. The central problem stems from Shyamalan playing against his strengths: his films are small, intimate, revolving around two or three characters who are already very familiar with each other. The Last Airbender is epic in scope, filled with many disconnected characters, and feels like two or three movies' worth of plot got crammed into a short (less than 2 hours) running time. I'm unfamiliar with the Avatar series, so I'm just going off my experience of the film. There are some beautiful sequences, and Shyamalan's attempt to visualize a live action aesthetic of the clean lines and clear blocking of a cartoon is both visually interesting and the source of much of the clunkyness. Still, a bad film by a great auteur is frequently more interesting to me than a decent film by a mediocre filmmaker.

Autobiografia lui Nicolae Ceausescu aka The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (Andrei Ujica)

Perhaps the most disappointing viewing I've undertaken for this project, namely because of my intense interest in the film since its debut and being a case of reading too many raves that it simply didn't live up. The film isn't bad by any means, it's quite fascinating and full of inspired sequences and captivating moments. But I don't find it to be nearly as radical as its proponents make it out to be. There is a fine line between radical and lazy, and this film stumbles along that line. The approach is certainly noteworthy as Ujica pieces together a narrative using only archival footage. Some sequences are simply preexisting footage played in its entirety or with minimal cuts (much like The Kids Are Alright), but many are masterfully reworked to give a sense of the passage of time within a specific moment. However, by attempting to let the footage 'speak for itself' Ujica makes a number of assumptions that become increasingly problematic as the film goes on (and on and on). While Ujica never directly erases the processes of the film's construction, his lack of any traditional authorial intervention (text, narration, etc) make his aesthetic choices seem unmotivated or at least give no indication as to why he's making them. For example, why are some scenes silent and others have (corny) added sound effects and why still do others have discordant music or sounds? Why do some sequences provide a glimpse into moments of resistance to Ceausescu (mostly innocuous) while the majority of the film clings exclusively to Ceausescu himself? And at over three hours this film is asking me to do a lot of work that, frankly, I'm not interested in doing. Especially when the film seems to have one idea: Ceausescu crafted a public persona but there was trouble brewing beneath the facade of propaganda.....imagine that.