Tuesday, May 26, 2015

2010 film diary part VI

I'm back true believers. This post has been an unfinished draft since late March; a difficult semester forced me to shelve it for a month or so. I won't be that guy who drones on about how hard grad school is, but I will say its nice to have time to watch movies. Did you see Mad Max yet? If not, what are you doing reading this shit?

This installment includes some excellent experimental features, one I'd call a bonafide masterpiece (Refrains) and the other a fascinating misfire (Swimming in Nebraska); an incredibly paced action film that's become one of my favorites (From Paris with Love); a decent but disappointing Landis feature (Burke & Hare); and perhaps one of the most hilariously pretentious films I've ever seen (Beyond the Black Rainbow).

Here are the links: Intro, Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, and the ranked Letterboxd list.

As always in order of preference

 Ang ninanais aka  Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song (John Torres)

The first and only Torres film I've seen or even been able to track down. Ang ninanais is intimate in a way that is sometimes unbearable. It's the epitome of voyeuristic cinema as the camera almost always has the immediacy and intrusiveness of a cell phone recording private moments in public places. Whether staged or candid it feels like we are witnessing something that we haven't earned the right to witness. It has the alien anthropological quality that renders the familiar unfamiliar, akin to Castaing-Taylor's Leviathan only without the attempts to hide the human involvement. Torres' film has the ephemeral quality of a dream, but it's grounded in a materiality of textures that are vibrantly captured by the soft photography and lush sounds that evoke intimate proximity. It's a film of whispers and inside voices, of the distant sounds of motorbikes driving and wind rustling through the trees. The calm delicacy contrasts the bloody violence that permeates its narrative. Its never boorish, even when Torres pulls stunts that could be seen as cute attempts at meta-filmmaking, like when a key conversation slowly transitions into a sequence about the filming of that very scene. Typically these moves feel like art-house gags, but Torres imbues everything with same genuine interest. The reveal is slow; patient. The world he is filming and the process of that production are one and the same. And it is this sense of mysterious connectivity that makes this film of disconnected and half-revealed moments feel visionary.

From Paris with Love (Pierre Morel)

Morel's handling of the quick and unsettling shifts in pace and mood give this generic action thriller a Hitchokian flavor that turns its goofiness and levity into an asset. At first its a film about a quotidian assistant with a semi-interesting double life, but whose espionage is decidedly mundane in the manner of a le Carré or Greene stooge. Reese's (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) desire for something sexier swiftly escalates from planting bugs with gum and staples into a gory murderfest of outrageous action. Morel's careful on-the-go plotting allows for this sudden transition into 80s John Woo territory to play like the natural opening up of a hidden world. There is an interesting choice to go from bureaucracy to all out gun ballet only to immediately reign it back in. Morel throttles the action, following a guns-blazing sequence with a scene that keeps the camera tight on Reese as he hesitantly climbs the stairs, dead bodies raining down with a finite thud from the floors above. Here the film moves from anonymous killings to an emphasis on the bodily remains of death. And it only gets more intimate, winding it's way to an up close and personal killing that leaves Reese soaked in blood and pausing to (literally) reflect on his desire to become a secret agent. While From Paris with Love remains a nearly guiltless Team America extravaganza playing off French xenophobia, it has it's share of reflective moments. But it's not the politics that make this one, its how carefully each scene establishes a foil for the next and how these continual contrasts make for an incredibly paced action experience. This is hardly among the greatest films of the year, but its easily one of my favorites from this project. If not top 10 then certainly top 20.

Swimming in Nebraska (Jon Jost)

Very little has been written about Swimming in Nebraska and what has tends to reiterate Jost's own explanation of the project: an 'electronic film' attempting to challenge the designation of the heartland as fly-over country. As a transplant from Chicago to Kansas I find this premise intriguing and Jost's essay video offers plenty of strange and provoking passages. Moments of didactic information (literally teachers recorded while teaching) transform into moments of pure abstraction. Most of the work seems to focus on making such dull moments beautiful and strange and it sometimes achieves this quality. Impromptu chemistry lectures are coated with digital filters and geometric shapes and a painter at work is depicted through intersecting camera angels that layer over each other in parts. As an essay, it's vaguely interested in perspective and ways of seeing, but much of the film is footage of classroom teachers speaking about their subjects. Swimming in Nebraska is a folk art tapestry; it's home grown and has a unique personal presence in its bizarre construction. Yet with so many sequences being little more than community college lectures with strange digital manipulation layered on top, it feels sluggish, unfinished, and directionless. A misfire at best.

Burke & Hare (John Landis)

One of the bigger disappointments of this project, the first theatrical feature from John Landis since Susan's Plan (1998) finds him making a competent "dark" comedy that only hints at his genius for making stock genre films fresh and weird. But I wouldn't call the film a failure either. It's opening and closing moments are pleasantly inspired and hint at a greater talent than what is on display here, and the ensemble cast gives more than a few solid performances, even when stand out talents like Tim Curry and Jessica Hynes seem utterly wasted. The issue at hand is simply that this is a competent production with a few clever moments that overall feels like a made for TV movie slated for a mid-day premier. For every stand out moment there is at least one groaning gag that feels belabored at worst, cliche at best. The Scottish Militia plays like unneeded slapstick comic relief...in a comedy. And given the 'darkness' of its 'dark' humor, it feels restrained; relying heavily on the subject matter of cadavers and grave robbing alone to make it seem, well, dark. I longed for the trademark strangeness of Landis' many masterpieces and though Burke & Hare does not lack a recognizable style, it simply isn't a very interesting one. For a movie this gross and bizarre, it's shocking clean and neat.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (Panos Cosmatos)

Beyond the Black Rainbow is exclusively interested in tone at the expense of everything else. While this is an admirable gamble it is ultimately a fatal one as the film's shoddiness reveals again and again Cosmatos' inability to execute his ideas on screen; a point that may seem odd given the careful attention paid to composition and groovy production design. But this a film about image, not images. In his attempt to make a throwback to late 70s science fiction films and LSD mind-benders he manages only to recreate isolated glimpses of his predecessors and fails to perceive what made such cinema interesting in the first place. Even as a sequence of dreamlike imagery this fails because of the nagging insistence to shoe horn in narrative scenes that are of sub-student film quality. The result is one of the most pretentious and boring films I've seen. Instead of crafting his foreboding and trippy atmosphere, Cosmatos leans heavily on a fantastic synth score to do all the work while mistaking protracted slowness and vacant stares for ponderous and deep. In a manner similar to Only God Forgives this is a film about lugubrious strolls down neon hallways and interesting faces gazing through screens. It's the kind of filmmaking that suggests its director had a handful of set pieces he was itching to film and gave fuck all about how we arrive at them or get to the next one. And it's those sloppy moments in between that take this from amusing to unbearable.

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