Thursday, March 12, 2015

2010 film diary part V

I like to imagine a pulpy editor slapping the selling point "Our Biggest Entry Yet!" onto the cover of this issue (if these were in fact issues). I've finally broken away from five entries! I fell ill and used that time to marathon some of these movies. What you'll find here are one masterpiece (The Nine Muses), which may end up in my top ten; one solid effort (The Fighter); three bad films that each have their own unique merits (The A-Team, Legend of the Fist, Sex and the City 2); a vapid short film (Act Da Fool); and one irredeemable pile of shit (The Erotic Man).

In other news the amount of films I've seen from 2010 now totals 101. What value can you place in a personal top ten if the author has only seen 15 or 20 or 30 movies? But if I've seen 101 films, than you know my top ten is legit.

Links: Ranked Letterboxd List, Intro, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV.

As always, in order of preference.

The Nine Muses (John Akomfrah)

At first glance The Nine Muses is an odd mixture of styles: an essay film of archival footage, sumptuous literary narration of canonical works, poetic title cards, and gorgeous hi-def images of people standing in Alaskan landscapes. It has the effect of drawing attention to almost-cliche shots of people artfully composed within effortlessly beautiful backdrops; of course this reaction could mostly be my strong dislike (read: mistrust) of staged compositions that always seem hokey to me. But Akomfrah's musical sensibility mixes all of these visual and audio components into slow movements that evokes its ideas through montage rather than explanation (which is what great essay films do). It gives the viewer spaces to dwell; to make connections that Akomfrah is making while taking them into more personal directions. The balance of explicit and obscure is truly mesmerizing here, as the film re-contextualizes great Western literary works of travel and migration into an historical tracing of mostly Black migrations to the United Kingdom. Travelers from African, India, and Southeast Asian colonies enter England and become something else: kind of British but still marginalized, still foreign. Yet The Nine Muses is not a film about the past, but also of the present and future, imagining future migrations and journeys that are happening or yet to happen. I'm here reminded of Salman Rushdie's condemnation of Akomfrah and The Black Audio Collective's early masterpiece Handsworth Songs for being obscurantism. It is an interesting condemnation of works that manage a deeply intellectual investigation of racism and material experience with the formulation of powerfully moving poetic responses.

The Fighter (David O. Russell)

David O. Russell is one of the few genuinely classical filmmakers at work in Hollywood today. His work doesn't simply ape older aesthetics to give his films the cosmetic appearance of something vintage, but rather he approaches his material with the sensibility of a golden age studio director. His interests are not in ensuring a kind of organic wholeness (aka homogenization) of a complete piece, but rather in tackling each sequence as a unique moment of screen time that requires its own dynamics and tempos. The Fighter always feels fresh and inventive, but never overwrought like the glut of post-Kubrick stylists that seem to cram in shit without rhyme or reason (see: Oliver Stone, Nicholas Winding Refn, et al.). But what really makes The Fighter work are its incredible performances that balance the stylistic flourishes. Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg are at the top of their game here. However there are a couple things that hold the film back for me. First, Russell struggles with narratives this big or at least I tend to get bored with his handling of them. While I prefer this over American Hustle, I see the same issues of characters quickly getting spread too thin (I also need to revisit Hustle, which has a surprising critical following so perhaps I missed something). But more problematic for me is that The Fighter has too many characters that simply exist to be foils, which makes for some strange emotional responses to the total work. Bale is allowed a surprising amount of depth and complexity while others are denied this characterization, like the gaggle of sisters that are comical in their two-dimensional narrative deployment.

The A-Team (Joe Carnahan)

The A-Team's biggest problem is that it consistently overplays its hand. There are a lot of interesting ideas at work in the filmmaking, but it sinks to stale repetition from the get-go. The thematic emphasis on planning and making a plan and backup plans and I love it when a plan comes together becomes nauseating in its obtrusive frequency. We fucking get it Joe Carnahan, they make plans. Oddly enough, the clever attempts to visualize this theme end up sabotaging much of the films strengths. The constant use of elliptical editing that cuts between the formation of the plan and its execution has the effect of flattening out the action, of deflating any tension or suspense, and rendering its many action sequences as lugubrious plot exercises. This is most apparent in the opening sequence which tries to introduce each character on their own but ends up playing out as four separate openings, as if the film keeps stopping and starting over. What's also strange here is that the film tries (perhaps too hard) to be a melding of traditional action and comedy, but often pits both styles against each other. The action sequences, particularly the fights, are nearly incoherent in a way that does not suggest a deliberate style but a cover up for a lack of ingenuity (the great irony of a film about ingenuity!). The heavy emphasis on plot often strangles what are actually some great comic performances. Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley are on point in almost every second of screen time and the overall chemistry between the four members of the A-Team is surprisingly organic. But the political thriller plot is too undercooked and littered with half-assed performances by Jessica Biel and Brian Bloom, as well as being overwrought to the point of bluster. Plots this heavily emphasized need to either be more developed or more creative to warrant such heavy handedness (and so many planning montages). However, I certainly appreciate the political commentary of including for profit contractors like Black Water as a primary antagonist, the fractured turf wars of U.S. government agencies, and the unaccountability of drone strikes.

Jing wu feng yun: Chen Zhen aka Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zen (Wai-keung Lau)

Most everything I've read on the film prior to seeing it situates it in some way to either Lau's cinema (such as Infernal Affairs) or the history of its fictional character Chen Zhen, particularly the famous performers who have inhabited the role (like Bruce Lee). But I'm ignorant to both and so Jing wu feng yun was more or less a stand alone viewing experience. The film is mostly unremarkable. It's ambitious, sweeping plot and playful genre moments (including a variation on musical moments from Casablanca) are interesting and some of its action choreography is pretty fluid. But this is a film where all of its playfulness, energy, and ideas are yoked by a rather shitty editing job. Things are cut together with the blunt artlessness of a corporate video that uses everything at its disposal to illustrate multiple angles and perspectives, but the end result is a bland mess. This choppiness flattens out what is already a pretty style-less melodramatic script that oscillates between navel-gazing exposition and people staring intensely to depict their feelings. What's even stranger is that most everything is shot and lit with a standard brightness that makes everything look and feel the same: World War I France, saucy cabarets, Japanese Imperial dojos, and sweeping CGI shots of the city. Yet within this tasteless mush is a shot or two of inspired composition...that is quickly buried by the heavy-handed editing.

Sex and the City 2 (Michael Patrick King)

The great mystery of the failings of the Sex and the City films is that they were both produced, written, and directed by veterans of the HBO show, which should suggest a least a modicum of the show's charm and wit would transfer to the big screen. No such luck. But the unparalleled awfulness of both Sex and the City films has less to do with their distance from their source materials than with their abject failure to be what they set out to be: big budget screwball comedies. The biggest take away is that Michael Patrick King can't handle the feature length format. He doesn't know what to do with a running time of over 30 minutes and just starts throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks. Sex and the City 2 starts out strong: breezy sequences centered on snappy dialogue and irreverent moments over-thought and transformed into life and death relationship crises such as the nanny's giant bouncy breasts or Big's bedroom TV. It also has plenty of one-off moments like Liza Minnelli singing Single Ladies at the epic capitalist gay wedding of the film's opening. But then something happens. Suddenly the four main characters are ushered onto a plane and transported to Abu Dhabi for the sole reason of forcing some fish-out-of-water comedy. The results are disgusting on almost every level. Sex and the City 2 moves from a situational comedy of consumerism and relationships to a cloying bully pulpit for American Exceptionalism through a complete vilification of the Muslim/Arab world. And as if the nascent racism wasn't enough, the second half exhibits some of the sloppiest filmmaking I've ever seen. This is not to suggest that better filmmaking would make such racism palatable, but emphasizes how forced and poorly thought through the whole second half is. Gags are prolonged, unimaginative, and repetitive. At one point I thought the Benny Hill theme was about to play over some sped-up antics. It makes one wonder if the filmmakers where in such a rush to make fun of Muslims that they forgot how to make a film.

Act Da Fool (Harmony Korine)

Similar to David Lynch's 2010 commercial piece Lady Blue Shanghai for Dior, Korine uses his by now trademark strangeness to sell haute couture with a short film/commercial for Proenza Schouler. But where Lynch uses the opportunity to push his visual style further, Korine seems to phone in what is at this point a paint by numbers formula for being different, for manufacturing a 'dream-like' experience of post-industrial American poverty. Granted, I like a lot of Korine's work, but like his metier Werner Herzog, he has the propensity to produce a lot of vacuous nonsense that is taken for brilliance simply because it is not studio work or within a definable genre. Act Da Fool positions itself as late 80s / early 90s personal video art, but without the daring sense of self-investigation that made those works so challenging and risky. This is a bunch of grainy shots of dilapidation and fashionable girls standing around while a litany of remarks plays quietly through the soundtrack. It doesn't amount to much and if you're familiar with the tradition that it's placing itself within it also doesn't evoke much of anything beyond cheap Korine-isms. Perhaps I'm being too harsh, but when there's four minute shorts that can change your life, this seems like a gussied up Levi's commercial for post-industrial malaise.

Det Erotiske Menneske aka The Erotic Man (JΓΈrgen Leth)

Leth's diary/essay/travelogue film is framed as a self-reflective examination of its own production; a film about one man making a film about his erotic memories. Leth records himself asking questions of his subjects (naked women of the post-colonial world), casting and directing his performers, and cataloging the nude bodies of young women of color. Disregarding the film's negative reception in light of the scandal that followed Leth after the publication of his autobiography (which is only alluded to elliptically through a clapboard that shares its title The Imperfect Man along with references to the governmental obstructions to Leth's relationship with a Haitian girl), Det Erotiske Menneske never manages to be anything more than surface level engagement with its subject. I can't say that Leth is self-indulgent, navel-gazing, or pretentious (what do these claims tell us anyway?) but the questions he poses throughout the film are pathetically facile. At one point early on his camera follows a woman walking while his voice over claims, "Her walk is a language," and at other points he ponders, "what is she thinking?" The questions don't build to anything nor are they interesting in and of themselves. Often, he merely records himself staring out of windows pontificating a string of similar questions: what is erotic? what is this? what is that? It's utter lack of panache or grace in handling these ruminations makes for a pedantically blunt series of interrogations that feels like someone reading their rough notes for an idea of a film. And while Menneske deserves all of its critiques for engaging in reprehensible forms of colonial exploitation (an old white European man filming the naked bodies of young women from former colonial nations), of obfuscating the actual role of Leth in the scandal (of having an affair with his cook's underage daughter while acting as an ambassador to Haiti), it also deserves low marks for its total lack of sophistication while situating itself as deep and thoughtful. It's little more than a collection of beautiful tits and asses scored by stupid ass questions. While the film should be considered as its own text outside of the politics that preceded it, Leth's skirting of any genuine examination of himself strikes one as cowardice, which is even more apparent given the allusions peppered through the film. He pretends to investigate his own eroticism, but is unwilling to reveal anything that would humanize him or make him vulnerable. But he has no qualms putting others in this position.

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