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.

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