Monday, December 18, 2017

Notes on... The Piano (1993)

Jane Campion's 1993 film 'The Piano' is, for the most part, just what it appears to be: a big, rigid, slavishly realized period drama of the sort that were popular in the 90's. Women wear bonnets and gaze wistfully out of windows, men intercept love letters from their wives to other men, and quarreling parties topple into the mud, ruining their finery. Still, it contains some interesting wrinkles. Holly Hunter's mute, disempowered Ada starts out as the victim of voyeuristic coercion at the hands of a man, played by Harvey Keitel, but surprisingly ends up as the sexual aggressor when they begin a physical relationship. It's a rare instance of female sexual reclamation, even rarer when you consider her double-outsider status (as a single-mother and disabled person). There are also the figures of the Maori people, natives of New Zealand, who shadow the white protagonists; they serve as cheap comic relief early on, but end up providing an endearing cultural counterpoint, as uninhibited and grounded as the European characters are repressed and puritanical. In terms of more traditional criteria, the acting is uniformly strong. Hunter is otherworldly in the central role, Sam Neil is at his hangdog best as the cuckolded husband, as relatable as he is contemptible, and Keitel, as usual for this period, is magnetically intense and totally naked. Anna Paquin, as a young girl biding her time while her mother has her assignations, may be the best of them all. She dances, she sings poorly, she reinvents her life story, she inadvertently betrays her mother. In other words, she is just like a real child.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Review - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

Note: This review was undertaken for a class I audited in Fall of 2017, with the specific directive of writing something positive and complimentary. As such, it focuses squarely on the film's strengths, and glosses over several of its shortcomings. Still, I think the writing and structuring is somewhat redeemable.

Roughly two decades after her career-making turn in Fargo as Marge Gunderson, a salt-of-the-earth Minnesota police chief on the trail of two killers, Frances McDormand returns as a Midwestern avenger of a markedly different stripe. Mildred Hayes, her latest masterful creation and the unshakeable presence at the center of Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri, is, in many ways, antithetical to Marge. She's a civilian, foul-mouthed whereas Marge was a stickler for manners. She is divorced rather than married, and while Marge was glowingly pregnant and brimming with hope for mankind, Mildred nurses the unbearable grief of a lost child, an ever-present pain that embitters and isolates her. Some months prior, her daughter was raped and brutally murdered, a crime still unsolved at the film's opening. Mildred, like Marge, refuses to rest until the perpetrator is caught.

The trio of billboards referred to in the title are Mildred’s idea, a ploy to galvanize the Ebbing police department, which she feels has given up on her daughter’s case. In bold black-on-red print, they directly accuse the amiable Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) of negligence, a charge that rankles many of her scandal-averse neighbors. In a scene as funny as it is casually shocking, Willoughby asks Mildred nicely to take the incendiary signage down, and in an effort to gain sympathy points, reveals that he’s dying from pancreatic cancer. She coolly responds that she already knew, and the whole point of putting them up when she did was to shame him into action before he dies. Small town nice, she cannot afford to be.

Mildred carries on in this manner, barrelling through law enforcement officials and other disparagers like a tank in search of the truth about her daughter’s death. She earns their scorn, but also gains allies; the weaselly yet thoroughly decent advertising agent who rents her the billboards (Caleb Landry Jones), a romantically-interested car salesman turned conspirator (Peter Dinklage), and in a twist of fate (and brilliantly realized character arc), a violent, racist, dim-witted police deputy (Sam Rockwell) whose moral evolution from the start to the end of the film is a joy to witness. The sizable supporting cast, loaded with fine actors, forms a convincing communal body, the stubborn heart of which is McDormand’s grieving mother.

Defiant, immutable, impressive in her single-mindedness, she acts as the ballast in writer/director Martin McDonagh first foray into such dramatic territory. Thanks to Mildred’s bristling, literally ball-busting tenacity, the film stays on track, even as it veers into broadly comedic territory (the previously hinted-at crotch kicking scene) and melodrama (her tearful monologue to an obviously computer-generated deer that happens upon the site of her daughter’s murder just as she is freshening the flowers). Mildred does not demur, nor does she stay put developmentally. As she progresses in her quest, she furtively reveals a great warmth buried under her bandana and coveralls, a maternal love undiminished by sorrow. Similarly, beneath McDonagh’s sometimes flamboyant dialogue and jet-black comedy lies an earnest portrait of imperfect small town residents who find their much-needed redemption in one another.

Not every aspect of Ebbing is as nuanced as its crusader-matriarch. The town itself feels oddly flat as a backdrop, perhaps owing to the director’s background as a playwright, one who primarily writes about the English and Irish milieus he’s familiar with. While the denizens of the fictional Missouri burg come off as authentic for the most part, they do the occasional odd thing, like quote Oscar Wilde to jarring effect. There’re also some conspicuously stagey set pieces, like Mildred’s front yard, which dramatically overlooks the billboards, and the police precinct and advertising agency, both crucial to the plot, which happen to be located right across the street from each other. These are minor gripes, however, trifles that do not mar this accomplished film, or the commanding performance it hinges on. In the end, Mildred Hayes may not quite match the iconic Marge Gunderson, but she comes awfully close. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review - The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)

Infamously uncompromising, Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos pushes back against critics who dared call his 2015 breakthrough 'The Lobster' clever, accessible, reasonably optimistic, or any other such anodyne terms. 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer,' his brutal cinematic rebuttal, ups the ante on violence, casual sadism and alienating over-stylization, while stripping away the surrealist humor and sympathetic characters that made his previous film so incongruously enjoyable.

Colin Farrell (Lanthimos’ new favorite punching bag) stars as Dr. Steven Murphy, an evidently successful heart surgeon who periodically sneaks away from his picture-perfect home life (wife, two kids, a massive house) to carry on a secret friendship with an emotionally unstable teenager, Martin (Barry Keoghan). The boy's father, it's revealed, was a patient of Steven's who died on the operating table due to a fatal lapse of judgment, a blunder the older man attempts to redress with expensive gifts, junk food and awkward chit-chat.

Things become even more uncomfortable when Martin cozies up to the doctor's family, particularly his 14-year old daughter, and demands even more of his time. When Steven tries to break off their arrangement, his son is inflicted with a mysterious terminal ailment, then his daughter. His wife will succumb too, and the only alternative to losing the lot of them, Martin informs him matter-of-factly, is for the doctor to repay his blood debt and proactively select and kill one of the three. Disbelief yields to increasingly desperate action, as Steven wrestles with the impossible choice, and the fate of his family.

Lanthimos presents his latest twisted parable in a style that is somehow even more stark and bloodless than that of his previous films. Every composition is painstakingly arranged and achingly symmetrical, and the stilted dialogue, whether threat or sexual overture, is delivered in zombified, near Bressonian deadpan. The sumptuously photographed set pieces, from the ultra-modern hospital where Steven works to his palatial suburban home, serve as little more than wallpaper, a glossy backdrop for the glazed over performances. It’s hard to imagine that the director expects, or wants viewers to feel anything for the characters onscreen.

Still, the film’s central predicament is compelling, even suspenseful for a while; one wonders what will become of the family, and by what godlike dominion a teenager can manipulate their lives and well-being. It becomes clear around the one-hour mark, however, that there will be no answers provided, no reasoning and no real point to redeem the violent disintegration that ensues. Instead, we have protracted scenes of suffering as the children’s bodies fail them, bewilderment as their father tries to keep his composure, and an ugly, chaotic final act that provides little closure, and nothing in the way of an explanation.

Lanthimos’ prior works are undeniably dark and disconcerting, but they offered viewers some reward for their toil. ‘Dogtooth’ was set in a distinctive, if creepy world, and featured a tastefully subtle political subtext, while ‘The Lobster’ advocated for true love while comically distorting its immense personal cost. ‘Sacred Deer,’ on the other hand, feels like a bald provocation, a challenge to a generation of filmgoers reared on Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke to see how much mannerist misery they can withstand. That subset will happily eat it up. The rest of us will be happy when it ends.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review - Personal Shopper (2016)

Writer-director Olivier Assayas conflates the discarnate realms of the spirit world and social media in ‘Personal Shopper,’ his slick, curiously amorphous fifteenth feature. Equal parts ghost story, psychological drama and elliptical mystery, it centers on Maureen (Kristen Stewart), a morose young American lingering in Paris after the sudden death of her twin brother, Lewis, a medium who regularly communicated with the dead before his own passing. She begrudgingly takes a job as a personal assistant for a model (Nora von Waldstätten), an arrangement that allows her to stay in town and attempt to contact her brother, but also complicates and prolongs her mourning, and delays her re-entry into the real world. Maureen’s day-to-day existence is a sort of limbo, largely spent drifting through the city on scooter or mass transport, running errands and waiting for someone, anyone really, to reach out and grab her.

The world Assayas creates for his heroine to meander through is a thoroughly modern one, visually crisp yet blurry around the edges, rife with glowing screens (computers, phones, mirrors, even ultrasounds) but conspicuously lacking in human warmth. It's never quite clear if his intent is to comment directly on digital alienation, or the pain of loss, or to subvert the deeply clichéd supernatural thriller genre (or to do all three), but frankly, it's not important. Style and atmosphere carry this film, as do a pair of imaginative sequences that may be firsts in all of cinema: a tense, extended text conversation between Maureen and a mystery interlocutor that may or may not be dead, and a recreation of a YouTube/Google binge that is illuminating, and quite fun to watch. In a lead role that requires her to be on screen for 95% of the runtime, Stewart shines. Her glowering, detached presence is perfectly suited for Maureen, easily one of the better turns of her young career.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Review - Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017)

In 'Ex Libris - The New York Public Library’, the latest documentary epic from Frederick Wiseman, the 87-year old filmmaker surveys the hallowed halls and musty stacks of the titular institution. Shot over a 12-week period in late-2015, it focuses on the flagship Fifth Avenue building, but also a number of smaller branches throughout the city. Wiseman's distinctive approach to his subject, honed over more than 50 years and 40 plus features, is as effective as ever, and remains reassuringly unchanged. His camera is still keenly observant and all but invisible, his montage still among the most rigorous and subtly associative in documentary film, and as usual, his topic is two-fold: an institution, and the people who constitute, operate and collectively define that institution.

Like the floating narrative eye of a modernist writer, Wiseman and his crew seem to be everywhere at all times, and move seamlessly between various locations and social contexts. They drop in on top library executives deliberating on multi-million dollar budget decisions and local branch personnel dutifully serving their clients, grade schoolers crunching numbers in after-school programs and elderly members of a reading club bringing their wisdom to bear on literary classics. During lavishly staged events, preeminent intellectuals like Richard Dawkins and Ta-Nehisi Coates weigh in on history and the state of American affairs, while elsewhere, card-holding members congregate to discuss similarly pressing issues in more immediate terms. In one particularly memorable scene, black residents at a small West Harlem outpost hold an impromptu town hall meeting where they call attention to discriminatory practices, blatantly systematic and implicit, that harm and hinder their community. The result of these varied moments and perspectives, pieced together with adroit, artful editing, is a staggeringly intricate mosaic of the great establishment, a pointillist panorama that justifies every setup, and every last minute of its lengthy, three hour plus runtime.

If you’ve not yet picked up on it, the true subject of ‘Ex Libris’ is not books or even the buildings that serve as their repositories, but the supremely democratic, almost utopian idea of the library as a public portal to education, and thus, shared social standing. Following through on the premise of his underrated 1990 feature ‘Central Park,’ Wiseman posits a broad-minded, all-inclusive, public-private partnership as a microcosm of society as it could be, imperfect but ultimately worth aspiring to. In his benign vision, each individual who engages in the pursuit of knowledge at the library is doing his or her part to realize that ideal, from the curious schoolgirl seeking computer access to the hard-pressed man and woman sitting in an adult education class or standing in line at a job fair. Taken in the larger context of the director’s body of work, it would seem that the warm, hopeful portraitist of present has finally and definitively eclipsed the documentarian as a young man, the fierce cinematic muckraker responsible for groundbreaking exposes like ‘Titicut Follies’ and ‘Law and Order’. If that is the case, the arrival of late-career Frederick Wiseman could not have come at a better time.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Review - Get Out (2017)

'Get Out,' the self-assured first feature from comedian-writer-actor turned director Jordan Peele, attempts to carry on the well established, oft overlooked tradition of black filmmakers couching social commentary in the conventions of straight-ahead genre. Peele's loaded take on the horror-thriller follows Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a young black photographer who spends a hellish weekend at the suburban family home of his white girlfriend (Allison Williams). At first, her affluent, liberal-leaning parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) seem harmless, if a little prone to racially insensitive faux pas, but the more time Chris spends among their eccentric friends and strangely aloof African American housekeepers, the more evident it becomes that he is in great danger. While it works perfectly well on the surface level - in terms of the carefully constructed atmosphere, constant scares, and sheer gratification elicited by the violent denouement - 'Get Out' fails to make any particularly meaningful statement about race relations in America, or provide much insight into the psychology of its protagonist. Its white villains are too villainous to read into, their evil plot too far-fetched to possess any real metaphorical resonance, and most crucially, the character at the film's center has too little to say about it all. Chris gawks in disbelief, weeps in terror and fights doggedly, but from first scene to last, we learn almost nothing about how he feels, beyond the apprehension and fear suggested in the title of the movie. There is a disappointing thinness to the characterization, and while much of the imagery associated with slavery and black oppression is striking and novel in the realm of horror, it amounts to window dressing, cobwebs in Dracula's castle.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review - Privilege (1990)

Yvonne Rainer's wonderfully discursive docu-fiction from 1990 begins with a narrow focus, then opens outward, accruing one weighty subject after another until it constitutes nothing less than a panorama of Western male oppression. It starts simply enough, with Rainer conducting real interviews with middle-aged female friends about their experiences during and after menopause. Soon, however, a fictional character also named Yvonne (Novella Nelson) replaces Rainer as interrogator, and sits down with Jenny (Alice Spivak), a former dancer who recalls her earliest days in 1960's New York City and her colorful neighbors (among them, a quarrelsome Puerto Rican couple and an irreverent lesbian). These characters, their back stories, inner thoughts and interactions are then depicted as a film within the film (within the overall film) which incorporates a number of Godardian flourishes to flesh out their world views. They include monologues, onscreen text that function as a running commentary, miniature psychodramas acted out on partially dressed film sets, and in the finale, footage of the cast interacting out of character at a wrap party. Despite the fanciful staging and the breadth and gravity of the topics broached - from aging, patriarchy, and sexual violence to the historical and psychoanalytical origins of racism - Rainer's cinematic collage retains a personal warmth and intimacy. Like a sprawling, all-night conversation between friends, the point does not seem to necessarily be solving the problems at hand, but simply expressing sentiments that are not often expressed because of taboos, systematic indifference, or worse, outright suppression. The women who participate appear to unburden themselves even as they recite scripted dialogue, and when they laugh and roll around with one another (as Yvonne and Jenny do in a memorable scene), it feels very real, and well overdue.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Review - The Damned (1963)

Never mind reefer madness; young people are literally radioactive in Joseph Losey's clever, campy sci-fi drama, originally released in 1963. In a coastal English town, a vacationing American (Macdonald Carey), his young love interest (Shirley Anne Field) and her overbearing Teddy Boy brother (Oliver Reed) stumble upon a secret underground facility where a shady goverment official (Alexander Knox) is raising a group of children who are immune to nuclear radiation - and who radiate deadly gamma rays themselves. Unbeknownst to them, they're being bred to survive the all-but-inevitable nuclear holocaust and repopulate the Earth, that is, until the interlopers agree to help break them out. Shooting under the unrestrictive auspices of British film-mill Hammer, Losey brings his artful kitsch to life with all of the cinephilic relish of François Truffaut channelling Alfred Hitchock. He splashes the screen with joyful allusions to 'The Wild One'-esque biker flicks (motorcycle-bound delinquents), science fiction (men in Hazmat suits, black helicopters), and naturally, Hammer horror (a chilling point-of-view shot that tracks through the subterranean facility at night, ending up at a terrified little boy's bedside). Having had his own first-hand experience with overzealous government types, like those at the House Un-American Activities Committee who blacklisted him in the 1950's, Losey also infuses his genre romp with a decidedly personal angst. Cold-War paranoia looms large; it's antidotes, he posits, are the fearless vitality of youth (the captive children) and the introspective pursuits of the artist (Viveca Lindfors' philosophical sculptor).

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Review - Profit motive and the whispering wind (2007)

An antidote to the mindlessly patriotic summer blockbuster de l'année (of the current year and all others), John Gianvito's meditative documentary considers the dark side of America's short but tumultuous history. Deceptively simple in form, it's a series of still shots of grave markers, memorials and commemorative signs scattered across the U.S., each devoted to an individual or individuals who pledged their lives to a resistance movement. Sites dedicated to the diverse likes of Crazy Horse, Thomas Paine, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony are surveyed, along with various other activists, organizers and artists that range from the totally obscure to household names. Interspersed in between are curiously unexplained images of green landscapes, brought to life by an ever-present breeze. The effect of Gianvito's elliptical, almost Straubian montage is three-fold: first, true to his pedagogical background (as a professor and scholar), he encourages the viewer to learn more about the lesser-known figures that are invoked. Secondly, by organizing his subjects by chronology and not by specific cause, he conflates their missions. Unionism, the abolition of slavery, woman's suffrage and civil rights are all posed as part of a greater struggle against exploitation, one that he makes clear is part and parcel of the American experiment. Lastly, the steady, rhythmic editing - coupled with the incessant rustle of wind alluded to in the film's title - lulls the viewer into a mild hypnosis, an ideal state in which to process the alternative history that is presented, and the jolting finale that links it to the present day in stirring fashion.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Review - A Gentle Woman (1969)

As chromatically vibrant as it is hopelessly bleak, Robert Bresson's first color film from 1969 features much of the human misery one expects from the French auteur, but little in the way of spiritual recompense. Adapted from a short story by Dostoyevsky, it is an account of the toxic marriage between a parsimonious pawnbroker (Guy Frangin) and his young wife (Dominique Sanda), given by him in the moments following her sudden and unexpected suicide. He details initial encounters, their union for purely pragmatic reasons (she is poor and idealistic, he desires a sex object-cum-pupil) and the grinding daily existence that impels her to break free in most extreme fashion. Bresson's ravishing new color palette, seemingly tailored to suit Sanda's radiant, green-eyed visage, offers little respite from his oppressively grim take on modern matrimony. Like the inept production of Hamlet that features in one extended scene, he equates it to a poorly acted farce, one that masks brutal cycles of emotional blackmail, economic dependance and objectification. The correlation between financial and metaphysical bondage is not a new subject for the director, nor is suicide, a theme he first broached with 1967's 'Mouchette.' What's new, or rather what's conspicuously missing, is the transformative grace that accompanies the self-destructive act. The existentialist notion of suicide without salvation - closer to Camus than Dostoyevsky - animates this brooding, visually beautiful work, and would permeate another of Bresson's late-period masterpieces, 'The Devil Probably.'

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Review - Bay of Angels (1963)

In much the same way that his debut 'Lola' was influenced by an earlier film - Max Ophüls' 'Lola Montes' - Jacques Demy's second feature draws inspiration from another, far more unlikely source: Robert Bresson's 'Pickpocket.' For roughly the first quarter of its runtime, everything from the grey Parisian backdrop to the stolid protagonist (Claude Mann, in Bressonian dark suit) who descends into a disreputable demimonde (the world of high stakes gambling) recalls the redemptive thrust of the austere 1959 masterwork. (There's even an intricate roulette tutorial akin to 'Pickpocket's thieving lessons, and several shots of currency being counted and exchanged that hint at the pervasive, corrupting influence of money.) When the action shifts to Nice, however, Bresson's severe spell is broken. Just as Mann cannot stifle a smile when he meets and falls for Jeanne Moreau's blonde beauty, a "professional" roulette player who doesn't know when to quit, Demy can't help but yield his camera more poetically when faced with the romantic vistas of the French Riviera. Subjected to his dreamy gaze, beachfront hotels ooze elegance, palm trees sway invitingly, and the lamps lining the beach glow effervescently, as does Moreau, clad in all white. Demy's stylistic opulence and characteristically bittersweet themes beat out Bresson's profound preoccupations; hence, the parallel between the euphoric highs and ignominious lows of a gambling spree, and the vertiginous emotional trajectory of an unexpected love affair.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Review - Los Olvidados (1950)

Luis Buñuel exposes the desperate, dog-eat-dog existence of impoverished street children in this indelible 1950 drama, an early gem from his fruitful Mexican period. Set in the slums of the capitol city, it concerns a gang of delinquents, the titular "forgotten ones." Their pastimes range from rough-housing and staying out late to relieving cripples and blind beggars of their cash. Pedro (Alfonso Mejía) wants to do right by his aggrieved mother (Stella Inda), but is lead astray by El Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), a diabolical older boy whose larger physical build, snake-like cunning and total lack of scruples make him a natural leader, in the Darwinian sense. Try as Pedro does to straighten out and overcome his dismal lot, he cannot dodge the fiendish, indefatigable Jaibo, or evade his own tragic fate.

Sidestepping the clichés of the "juvenile delinquent film" - cloying sentimentality and a neat resolution via altruistic intervention - and the melodramatic excess typical of Mexican productions of the period, Buñuel's account strikes a distinctive balance between psychologically-charged realism and the surrealism he helped popularize twenty years earlier. In the fashion of the so-called neorealist films that dominated European cinemas at the time, the staging is completely authentic, shot on location in the most wretched districts of Mexico City with locals serving as extras, but here there's little of the neorealists' moralistic messaging. Cruelties, from child abuse to murder, occur regularly, and are treated by the camera as they are by the characters, as perfectly natural acts that will be repeated again and again endlessly, marked only by a cut or fade to black.

Buñuel does occasionally tread into the realm of the metaphysical, and revert to his usual phantasmagoric tricks; there's a haunting dream sequence that inverts 'Zéro de conduite's ecstatic slow-motion revolt, and a primal symbolism that runs throughout, every chicken, pigeon and mongrel dog acquiring a latent significance. Still, the focus remains on the very real lives of the hapless youngsters. Thanks to the director's utterly truthful approach, we may not pity or pass judgement on the boys, but we're not likely to forget them either.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Review - Entranced Earth (1967)

This surreal, sweltering vision of subtropical political purgatory from Glauber Rocha is the most direct work in the Brazilian filmmaker's ecstatic oeuvre. He trades the blasted historical hinterlands of his 1963 breakthrough 'Black God, White Devil' for the fictional coastal republic of Eldorado (a thinly disguised Rio de Janeiro), where idealistic poet Paulo (Jardel Filho) is gripped by dual crises. He can't decide whether he'd better serve the revolutionary cause as an artist or a journalist, and is torn between loyalty to two antithetical candidates seeking power: the vainglorious right-wing Diaz (Paulo Autran), a former mentor backed by foreign interests, and populist upstart Vieira (José Lewgoy), sympathetic to the will of the people but equally susceptible to corruption, or worse, impotence. Entangled in intrigue and finding no simple route to change, he opts for armed resistance, the only recourse left to the artist, or so the director appears to suggest. Spun through Rocha's delirious, dissonant prism, his homeland is more a morally bankrupt Sodom than a golden utopia. As if symptomatic of a pathological hypocrisy that he wishes to expose, practically every image and sound presented seems at odds with its complement; introspective shots of solitary figures in nature are juxtaposed with hysterical crowd scenes, realistic locations give way to gothic set pieces, classical music cues are intercut with machine-gun fire, elegant poetry is laid over frenzied montage. Rocha's indictment of the political morass at home is so relentless and wide-ranging, it's no wonder it was banned by the Brazilian government upon release, and that just a few short years later he'd be directing his incendiary films in exile.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Review - Seven Men From Now (1956)

Notable for drawing the unlikely praise of cinema theoreticians like André Bazin and Paul Schrader, Budd Boetticher's lean, low-budget western packs a loftier punch than the average cowboy revenge picture. Randolph Scott stars as the steely Ben Stride, a former sheriff tracking seven bandits who murdered his wife during a gold heist, a turn of events for which the lawman blames himself. Accompanied by a couple seeking passage to California (Gail Russell and Walter Reed) and a criminal-turned-tenuous ally (Lee Marvin, slick as oil and in top form), Stride crosses a treacherous outback en route to his inevitable showdown with the killers, and presumably, his absolution. The film's rarefied appeal can be attributed to its protagonist's atypically internalized conflict - a moral tug-of-war played out beneath the surface, revealed by minute gestures and terse dialogue - as well as the stark staging, which underscores the archetypal struggle of morally fickle men against an unforgiving elemental backdrop. Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy don't reinvent western tropes as much as sublimate them; dualistic heroes and villains are portrayed as facets of the same character, plot twists evince a cruelly absurd universe at play, the quest for vengeance becomes a pilgrimage to grace. Of course, no amount of transcendental cachet and auteurist angling can replace old-fashioned thrills, but fortunately for the casual filmgoer, there are a few of those too.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Review - The All-Around Reduced Personality aka Redupers (1978)

Helke Sander's first and best film, made in West Germany in 1977, is a harrowing yet heartening portrait of a woman colliding with the glass ceiling in slow-motion. The woman (played by Sander) is Edda Chiemnyjewski, a photographer and single mother juggling artistic ambitions with work and parental duties, and the ceiling is an actual physical barrier. The Berlin Wall, a looming presence established in a long tracking shot that opens the film, effectively embodies the impediments and partitions that Edda and her all-female photography collective must navigate. Their planned project, a series involving the wall and the citizens on either side, is repeatedly rejected for being too political, and not reflective of traditional "women's issues." The runaround continues, culminating at a particularly exasperating gallery reception, a gauntlet of condescension that leaves Edda sickened, figuratively and literally. Rather than give in to frustration, Sander seeks solace in the ritualistic pleasures of the photographer's craft, specifically the repetitive, strangely hypnotic processes of developing and printing. She also interjects alleviating humor, via a steady stream of wry, intelligent dialogue, and episodes that highlight the subtle absurdity of the workaday balancing act. Sander's films, as ingenious as they are, still have yet to receive the consideration they deserve. In her first go-around, she exhibits the saint-like equanimity required to continue creating in lieu of that consideration.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review - Radio On (1979)

A laconic loner traverses a bleak, post-industrial England via automobile in Chris Petit's moody, monochrome road movie, the first feature from the critic turned director. After learning that his brother has died under mysterious, possibly sordid circumstances, late-night radio DJ Robert (David Beams) drives from London to Bristol in search of answers, unaccompanied but for a tastefully selected stack of cassettes from Bowie, Kraftwerk and Devo. While he finds little in the way of an explanation, he does encounter a series of forlorn characters - including a disturbed army deserter fleeing service in Ireland (Andrew Byatt) and a German woman searching for her estranged daughter (Lisa Kreuzer) - that personify the despondency and doubt gripping late-70's Britain, soon to be exacerbated by impending Thatcherism. An overt cinephile, Petit packs his debut with visual and thematic allusions to decidedly un-British arts films like 'Two-Lane Blacktop,' 60's Antonioni, and most prominently, the road movies of Wim Wenders, who, not coincidentally, serves as a producer here. The music-obsessed, highway-bound protagonist could easily have drifted out of one of Wenders' psychic landscapes, but Petit still deserves a great deal of credit. No English film before or since has skated the line between dreary realism and arthouse aesthetics with such easy elegance, or punk insouciance.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Review - God Speed You! Black Emperor (1976)

Before crystallizing the existential themes that would define his narrative films - spare, neo-Bressonian studies of outsiders, punctuated by bursts of cathartic violence - Mitsuo Yanagimachi made this gritty 1976 documentary about Tokyo's Black Emperors motorcycle gang. Shot in inky 16mm, it trails the group's teenage members as they swarm through the city on their bikes, stumble through school and familial obligations, and clash with traffic police, as well as each other. Far from Hells Angels or modish delinquents, the film's subjects are a ragtag assortment of dropouts, latchkey kids and Shinjuku bums, united behind a dubious, but frankly understandable enterprise. After all, they have nowhere to go, nothing to occupy their time and energy, and no one but their gang elders to look after them. Yanagimachi's prying camera reveals an inner-hierarchy not dissimilar to the larger society that the bikers reject; young pledges soon discover that even Emperors have to put up with pushy superiors, sternly lecturing about "shared hardships." At first, the droll observation evokes Frederick Wiseman-esque vérité, but as in each of the director's subsequent works, the tone gradually and subtly shifts, from frivolity to silent desperation. As jokes and silliness give way to psychological intimidation and intra-gang violence, the editing becomes more oblique, and tension mounts. The boys' joyride is transformed into a two-wheeled tour of urban alienation.