Saturday, January 24, 2015

2010 film diary part II

Now that the semester has started back up my film viewing has meandered down other paths. So for the sake of frequency I might start posting for every three or four films I watch, rather than waiting to accumulate five. But who knows!

Like the last posting, these are roughly in order of preference. Intro here, part one here, and the ever-shifting 2010 ranking list on Letterboxd is here.

Hai shang chuan qi aka I Wish I Knew (Zhangke Jia)

Every Zhangke I see is its own revelation and this is no exception. But more than any other Zhangke film it reminded me of Hou's The Puppetmaster in its blending of documentary and fiction, but this could turn out to be a superficial comparison as it's been almost 10 years since I last viewed Hou's masterpiece. The shots of everyday people, most of whom look directly into the camera, exist in a strange in-between space that looks both overly composed and entirely natural. This is true particularly on the ferries, which almost appear to have rear-screen projections. The real masterstroke here is in the way Zhangke chronicles over one-hundred years of the history of Shanghai through interviews that tell intimate stories of the human consequences of social and cultural revolution. As a viewer you get an incredibly fleshed out, though always incomplete narrative of the city. Beginning with the now elderly son of a politician who was assassinated in the 1930s and winding its way slowly, deliberately to a young man born in the 80s building his fortune on the royalties of his novel and a racing career. The seismic cultural shifts are only ever inferred and only in individual experiences. And I always love a filmmaker who can elucidate the relationships between cinema and history; political upheaval and cinephilia.

Somewhere (Sofia Coppola)

Coppola's most accomplished film, although Marie Antoinette remains my favorite. There is a total synthesis on display here of Coppola's thematic interests in the everyday psychology of the rich; of how they physically occupy and move through their spaces. But what makes her work so incredible is how (particularly in Somewhere) she films these psychological and emotional landscapes in an entirely physical manner. Her camera glides over and lingers on bodies, investigating the physicality of surfaces while hinting at an interior that may or may not exist. My only gripe is the final shot. While it works in context of the narrative, it came across (at least to me) as hokey in its narrative convention. Maybe I'm a cynic, maybe I need to see it again. Either way, it didn't really spoil anything.

Mistérios de Lisboa aka Mysteries of Lisbon (Raoul Ruiz)

Ruiz's opus is a masterpiece of representing time and memory. It's a delicate tapestry of stories within stories and flashbacks within flashbacks. But where 90% of flashbacks function as a quick and easy way to infuse a film with exposition or stakes, Ruiz makes it the very focus of his massive treatise on the passage of time. While changing shadows of the time of day signal different periods of time, every historical moment is shot through the same sobering, formal lens, making the intricately complex plot feel like one continuous moment. Human lives here amount to stories, narratives, rumors, and legends as character after character implores someone to listen to their story. As brilliant as I found this work to be, I must admit that I don't consider it Ruiz's best work. In fact I still find his 2012 film Night Across the Street to be more engaging. It's not that Lisbon is lacking in any respect, but rather that after the first part of this four and half hour film I began to lose interest, or at least, feel ambivalent towards the narrative even as the images continued to captivate me. My feelings may shift over time as my viewing experience fades into memory, but as for now it remains a beautiful, but cold aesthetic object.

Tangled (Nathan Greno, Byron Howard)

I'll admit to not being all that interested in contemporary Disney animated features, but Tangled is a solid effort that echoes the playfulness and tight execution of the Disney renaissance films of the late 80s and early 90s. More than anything it recalls Aladdin in both tone and structure, not to mention a couple musical numbers here and there.  It's strengths lie in how well Greno and Howard work with the Disney formula (there's nothing new here), but Tangled goes a long way to exemplify that with great studio films it is more important (or at least, interesting) in how a story is told, not necessarily what that story is. While the film stands on its own, I like to compare it to the inferior-yet-more-successful Frozen (sorry to go Armond White on you here), which fails in every conceivable way to do what Tangled makes appear effortless. I can't recall the last time I was this enthralled by a Disney musical...maybe it was Aladdin when I was six.

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau)

The only thing of interest here is the staging of the final fight inside the World's Fair dome, which has a visually appealing simulacra thing going on. Otherwise Iron Man 2 is offensive in almost every conceivable way. To be fair, it appears to be designed for small boys who are socialized into a world of generic 'bad ass' iconography: AC/DC music, muscle cars, babes, and good guys defeating bad guys. I could possibly forgive the reprehensible nature of its plot if anything on display here had a little more weight to it. Favreau is too gutless to go full Michael Bay, which is really where this film points towards, but without the visual invention of the corporate auteur. What is left is a visually lazy and barely competent action movie that treats action like a series of sexy and/or cool poses with little concern for the connective tissue that could hold it all together.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

2010 film diary part I

The first crop of 2010 films with my brief first impressions. As stated in a previous post, all films saw their debut (anywhere) in 2010. These are roughly in order of preference, although there's a significant gulf between the Kluge and Malice. I'm going with my gut over some numerical system, sorry I'm not very scientific.

Coming Attractions (Peter Tscherkassky)

Tscherkassky reworks black and white footage of commercials to create what is essentially a curation of several short films. In the manner of the presentation of multiple early cinema works, Coming Attractions is comprised of eleven segmented works, each with a title card. While much has already been said about Tscherkassky placing early cinema in direct dialogue with the avant garde by way of Tom Gunning and his cinema of attractions, the presentation makes this immediately clear as it felt like hitting play all on an Edison or Méliès DVD. Like Tscherkassky's Outer Space, the films create a universe that exists within the film elements and is constantly breaking down and exploding, sometimes creating moments of mesmerizing beauty and at others feeling like a hellish dimension of pain. Here, Tscherkassky uses mostly images of beautiful models trapped in some world of repetition, but there are also a few normal looking people and plenty of segments of sheer abstract wonderment. I enjoyed Coming Attractions without knowing anything about its production or the dialogues that it is engaging in, which has always been my attraction to Tscherkassky's work: they are just as enthralling seen cold.

Robinson in Ruins (Patrick Keiller)

Watching all three Robinson films at once illustrates how they function as all of a piece. Certainly the latest installment is the most different, being made after the death of narrator Paul Scofield and utilizing a different structuring device that presents the material as found footage. That said, Ruins is on par with the previous two films from the 90s and depending on your taste for this stuff, is just as incredible. While some of the environmental predictions may seem a bit pat in a post-Inconvenient Truth, post-Godfrey Reggio landscape, the intricate ways Keiller connects these dots with the centuries long rise of private property and capitalism in Great Britain is on a level of nuance that most any environmentally conscious filmmaking seems incapable of achieving (baring of course Miyazaki). These works create an interesting dialogue with the other British BBC-funded essayist, Adam Curtis. Both are engaged in a genealogy of English ideologies, but whereas Curtis often goes for the melodramatic, Keiller plays like a chamber piece. My only criticism is that unlike the previous two Robinson films Keiller here experiments with long, lingering takes that break up the flow of the narrative and images. Typically, these are shots of combines harvesting fields and they provide some thinking room to digest the complex narration about farmer's revolts and U.S. military installations, but they tend to run too long in my estimation and seem to really break up the final act. They feel like interlopers from an entirely different film.

How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders)

Perhaps I've been spoiled on too much Zizek and Halberstam, but computer animated children's movies immediately become exercises in ideology for me. The film suggests that barbaric warfare is the result of misunderstanding their 'enemy,' but the solution is not to stop fighting, but to transform said enemy into precision airstrike weapons to sift through what dragons can be utilized and what dragons must be destroyed. It certainly felt a lot like the drone rhetoric that has become ubiquitous in studio action films since this time period. But not that I can't enjoy them as films, and How to Train Your Dragon certainly leads the pack of many in the genre. What makes this a stand out for me is that the filmmakers first and foremost tell a story by thrusting you into the world they've created with minimal exposition on every facet of this fantasy world. My problem with so much of contemporary fantasy is it has no flair for pacing and movement, instead elevating drawn out explanation of mythos to the most privileged level. Dragon certainly avoids that as well as features some of the most visually compelling action sequences of any movie from its release year, particularly the final showdown in the clouds, which is a masterpiece of environmental textures and pacing.

Nachrichten aus der ideologischen Antike: Marx - Eisenstein - Das Capital
News from Ideological Antiquity: Marx - Eisenstein - Capital (Alexander Kluge)

Also known as the "theatrical" or "cinema" version, I'm not entirely sure how to classify this film as it's technically a short-hand cut of Kluge's massive 570 minute 2008 work of the same name and concludes with a plug for the DVD release of the longer film. This breezy 83 minute rendition strings together segments of radically diffuse styles that essay the idea of making a contemporary film on/about/of Marx's Capital, based on the notes written by Sergei Eisenstein of his film version that never materialized. Without much to compare it to, this version felt an awful lot like a more didactic Godard film, blending staged character interviews with low-quality found footage, the filmmaker playing a version of himself onscreen, and a playful approach to text (that sometimes became tedious near the end as it felt like watching a PowerPoint presentation). I'd imagine that the 570 minute version is profoundly insightful, but here many of the segments feel only tangentially related leaping from a consideration of colonial silk production to fake interviews with laid off workers, although Kluge's ability to move quickly through such dense material is quite impressive. Of note is the Tom Tykwer short film embedded in the middle of the feature that explores every material detail of an image through tracing its industrial history, which stands alone as its own complete work, as well as the section on how James Joyce considered only Eisenstein or Walter Ruttmann as capable of adapting Ulysses.

Malice in Lalaland (Lew Xypher)

Easily the worst film I've encountered since beginning this project. Parts of this Sasha Grey porn vehicle harken back to the 16mm adult films of the 70s, where plot and mutual pleasure where paramount to the film's appeal. But this is hack work even by the lowest of adult film standards. Attempting to create a sexy, dark Alice in Wonderland film, Xypher instead presents choppy sex scenes lacking in any erotic element broken up by long-winded sequences of characters walking through spaces. It's quite baffling how perfunctory and boring the sex in this film is. Essentially a chase film, Malice (Grey) escapes a mental institution only to be pursued through various dilapidated Americana locations by a hapless warden who we must watch fumble through horrific slapstick sequences. What's fascinating is how the chase sequences are so incompetently belabored, like kids making a movie with their parents camcorder in their back yard, yet the sex scenes are choppy montages of various positions punctuated by sterile 80s-style penetration shots. The filmmakers seem to have spent all of their energy and focus on the production design, which is pretty incredible, but merely shuffled their performers through boring plot sequences and even worse sex scenes. In more ways than one it reminded me of The Boondock Saints: a dip-shit fan boy desperately trying to make something "badass."

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Best of the Decade So Far Project: 2010 edition

For 2015 I'll be undertaking a blogging project assessing the films of the decade thus far, as 2015 marks the halfway point of the second decade in the 21st century.

I'm primarily doing this for fun and to shore up my critical opinions on the films made in the era where cinema is supposedly dead.

I've been actively seeing and documenting as many new films as possible since 2010; I've made lists and notes that never amount to much except to clutter my desk top. So this project is a way to put some of these viewing experiences to use in case anyone else is interested in such an endeavor. 2010 seems too recent to be properly historical and not quite remote enough to warrant engaged critical excavation.

This project will be a bit unwieldy. My ultimate goal is to build up to a thorough Best of the Decade So Far list that encompasses 2010 to 2014. However, I am far from systematic and refuse to use any sort of criteria. This is, after all, a personal project. So my gut will be the deciding factor. If this pans out, I will do a series for each year, but for now I'm focusing exclusively on 2010.

Project Guidelines

I'll be adhering strictly to 2010 debuts, which I will determine through a triangulation of imdb, KG, and if the film has a home video release or press kit that determines its debut date. I realize this is arbitrary and many films that debut in one year are not actually seen until the next, but I'm choosing this to clear up confusion and make the process easier for me. So anything that actually debuted in a festival in 2009 will not be considered for 2010. For example Life During Wartime is listed on imdb as having debuted in 2009 at Telluride, but the Criterion Collection release lists it as a 2010 release. Here I defer to imdb.


I'll be using Letterboxd to keep these lists organized and so far I have two to start with:

2010 film's I've already seen (ranked) here

2010 film's I've yet to see (alphabetized) here

My current Top 10:

The Strange Case of Angelica (Oliveira)
Attenberg (Tsangari)
Film socialism (Godard)
Resident Evil: Afterlife (W.S. Anderson)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul)
The Sleeping Beauty (Breillat)
Unstoppable (T. Scott)
You, the World, and I (Rafman)
The Expendables (Stallone)
Jackass 3D (Tremaine)

My Top 10 to see:

The Autobiography of Nicolas Ceausescu (Ujica)
Cold Fish (Sono)
Curling (Côté)
Easy A (Gluck)
Hereafter (Eastwood)
In the Shadows (Arslan)
L.A. Zombie (LaBruce)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Ruiz)
Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song (Torres)
Step Up 3D (Chu)

My plan of action is to rewatch some key films that I believe my positions may have shifted on, such as The Social Network (which I disliked), Tiny Furniture (which I liked), as well as Certified Copy, Meek's Cutoff, and  Poetry (all of which are a bit hazy on the details for me).

To rectify the reality that much of my viewing consists of theatrical narrative features and auteur festival films, I'm planning on watching as much direct-to-video, erotica, pornography, and avant garde film and video shorts as I can.


There is no official format for how I will post stuff here. I'll have more to say on some films than on others. I plan on posting a series of round-ups of brief reflections. Once I've seen enough I'll start making various lists, favorites, worst films, underrated titles, etc.

Also, I'm motivated most strongly by personal recommendations, so any film that you think deserves a rewatch or that I've missed entirely, please let me know in the comments.