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.

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