Saturday, August 1, 2015

2010 film diary part VIII

This is it. Almost. While there are still dozens of films that I've selected to view, I'm ready to cap off this project and move on to something new. This will be the last installment of capsule reviews for films that I hadn't seen prior to beginning this project. Up next will be a single entry of "strategic re-watches" for favorites that I want to revisit. These re-watches are: The Strange Case of Angelica, Attenberg, Film Socialism, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Uncle Boonmee, Unstoppable, The Sleeping Beauty, The Social Network, Certified Copy, The Owls, The Ward, and The Ghost Writer. We'll see how many I get through.

Then I'll present my top 10 or 20 and some reflections on the year in film as well as my thoughts on this project. It's been fun.

project index (link)

in order of preference.

El sicario: Room 164 (Gianfranco Rosi)

The spoken narrative of the rise and fall of a narco-terrorist hitman hits all of the beats of a Scorsese crime epic, but Rosi's documentary is deceptively simple. A camera set up in a generic hotel room on the U.S.-Mexican border records a former sicario (hitman) dressed all in black with a veil over his face as he details his life as a cartel hitman and his eventual fugitive life and Christian salvation. The story itself is harrowing, but it's Rosi's technique that makes this film a startling masterpiece of documentary cinema. The pared-down intimacy adds a level of intensity to the sicario's reenactments of kidnappings and murder (that took place in the very same hotel room) that typically get lost in the grandiose schemes of an Oppenheimer film (Rosi is more in line with Lanzmann or Panh). The use of sicario's large notebook and sharpie pen pull double duty providing both a series of visuals that complicates the drab hotel room interiors and faceless subject, but also highlight the banality of evil that is being depicted. The sicario lays out diagrams of torture, rape, and the structure of cartels in a way the exposes the organized similarity of narco-terrorism to any other state apparatus of violence. What Rosi captures here is not the sensationalism or moralizing demagoguery of most Mexican drug war films, but emphasizes the mundane, organized, and human elements that comprise the system, which is far more effective and horrifying than Hollywood or Netflix-doc histrionics. In a particular moment of inspired editing the dramatic reenactment of a kidnapping and torture occur after the sicario establishes the corporate structure of the cartel, allowing the film to play with alienating distance and uncomfortable intimacy.

Step Up 3D (Jon M. Chu)

I had grand designs to watch all of the Step Up films so that I might consider this installment in relation to the others, but the summer got the best of me. Step Up 3D struck me as being of a kind with The Fast and the Furious films for a number of reasons. They're both lean genre pictures that revolve around an elite form of competition (dancing or racing) that is used philosophically by the film to represent human character as well as for the visceral, kinetic, and sensual elements of movement. Both feature a 'family of friends' comprised of eclectic groups of trans-national, multi-ethnic, and varied gender types. But back to Step Up 3D specifically: the film really sings during its many frenetic dance sequences. It helps that each one isn't just a dance battle, but a visualization of improvisation and adaption. The straight non-dance moments are non-offensive but pretty worthless due to the total lack of grace or interest put into filming them. There is a charm, however, that reminds me of classic studio dance films that feature milquetoast exposition moments (Strike Up the Band and Holiday Inn come to mind), but Step Up 3D is lacking the flair to pull off the less dynamic bits that tie that dance sequences together.

The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell)

What It Follows is to 1980s slasher films, The Myth of the American Sleepover is to 1980s teen dramas or, this is David Robert Mitchell's version of a John Hughes film. And in this way it suffers from all the same issues that plague It Follows: forced delivery that feels like dime store Robert Bresson, graceless blocking, and almost no sense of cinematic movement or rhythm. Mitchell takes a meditative, almost dreamlike approach to the conventions of teen dramas: it's the final night of summer and a handful of high schoolers confront all sorts of issues (never been kissed, new in town, missed opportunities, you know the drill). Some are successful, some aren't, all is cathartic. There is an aching somnambulance at work here that makes for a fair amount of worthwhile passages, but overall it's too awkwardly forced as though Mitchell thinks by slowing everything down to a crawl and removing all affectation he will inch closer to some form of Truth or authenticity. The narrative conventions are familiar and work better within the melodramatic, cliche, and contrived expressions of popular comedies (mostly because there is a greater chance of invention there) and are here left looking like some film student's desperate attempt at adult seriousness. It feels as though Mitchell's fear of loosing authorial control is smothering any possibility of cinematic discovery. Furthermore, the film is screaming for some kind of lyrical cohesion that it's predecessors have, think Dazed and Confused or The Breakfast Club and how each narrative is intricately interwoven with the rest. This is a choppy series of episodic moments that on their own are occasionally beautiful, but together are quite dull.

L.A. Zombie aka L.A. Zombie Hardcore (Bruce LaBruce)

My first LaBruce film was a bit of a disappointment, really. I'll start with what works. The concept is brilliant: a gay zombie wanders L.A. and fucks dead men back to life. It even has some worthwhile ideas floating around in its filmmaking. 2010 was certainly a great year for a rebirth of digital filmmaking as a unique mode for filmmakers to blend unapologetic artifice with long take actualities and L.A. Zombie certainly fits into that mode. But the film sinks into a bland stupor after about 20 minutes. This is partly due to the mishmash of styles not really coming together: part art-horror, part hardcore porn, part trash cinema, the film seems to emphasize the least interesting attributes of each resulting in a procedural slog that manages to make a hardcore sex dull and tedious. The problem is that most of this movie is comprised of basic shots of people walking around with ominous music playing. Then the sex scenes come in and each one plays out with the exact same pacing and mood: the titular zombies lays out the dead body, pulls down his pants, sticks his zombie cock in their wound, then the typical cycle of oral, anal, money shot (with zero variation). Other than a handful of great shots and a stellar idea, this is pretty forgettable. But it makes me even more interested to see the work of LaBruce, so in that sense it was successful.

Curling (Denis Côté)

Typically I write my thoughts on a film anywhere from a few hours to a few days after viewing it so as to keep it fresh and immediate, but I waited so long to write about Curling that I've mostly forgotten anything insightful I had to say about it. This is partly my fault as I was too distracted by a relaxing summer and partly because the film was mostly forgettable. The main thing I recall is that it was cold and distant and reveled in long takes of people staring. My patience with this particular type of arthouse film is wearing thin. It's ideas were vapid and the filmmaking almost non-apparent (why show us everything in tedious opacity only to have some off screen character fill us in with exposition later?). I will say for a film about an oppressive patriarch and cynical world view it didn't make the cardinal mistake of depicting every one as a disgusting piece of shit. The peripheral characters are enjoying their lives even if the main father isn't. There is hope in this film, too bad there wasn't any for it.

Hanyo aka The Housemaid (Sang-soo Im)

There is an art to being without subtlety; to successfully make films that are on the nose requires some kind of wherewithal that transforms obviousness into a cinematic asset. Verhoeven achieves this through subversive subtext and W.S. Anderson gets away with it by making films about movement, choreography, and montage. The Housemaid is what happens when a filmmaker has nothing to do but visualize the obvious. The film plays in the register of the melodramatic absurd, where comically stereotyped rich people drink expensive wine while listening to opera and plotting the murder of the poor pregnant maid.  It functions like a soap opera, but with nothing going on under the surface and a pedantic visual style that simply serves the narrative. Yet the film opened strong, with an intriguing sequence of a random woman committing suicide amid a bustling urban street populated by food venders and clubbers. The mystery of a tragic individual death amid a somewhat unmoved society of busy voyeurs signifies a far more engaging experience than what Sang-soo delivers on. And the multiple endings are among the dumbest things I've seen onscreen this year.

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