Saturday, September 28, 2013

Songs to Aging Children: Something in the Air (2012) ✭✭✭✭

Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air gives viewers a radical-chic slice of life. Set in 1971, the film focuses on an extended network of fuzzy cheeked radicals who desperately try to keep alive the spirit of revolt that roiled the streets of Paris three years earlier. At the center of the storm is young Gilles (Clément Métayer), an art student who appears to have adopted counter culture ideology mainly to impress Laure (Carole Combes), a willowy trust-fund anarchist. Gilles and his band of insurrectionists conduct a series of shadowy operations, from posting graffiti on university walls to distributing inflammatory posters and leaflets. Then one night they up the ante by dropping a bag of concrete on a security guard’s head, nearly killing the man, and the true cost of their radical rage becomes clear.

For all their talk of power to the people, Gilles and his fringy friends don’t actually dig workers’ lifestyles, and decide to take their exotic summer vacations and “lay low.” With stops in England and Italy, Assayas uses this respite to introduce Gilles to an ever widening international network of militant party animals. Over the course of the summer, Gilles will encounter avant-garde musicians and filmmakers with a passion for social change. He also rediscovers Christine (Lola Créton) a classmate and fellow bomb thrower whose brooding eyes help him forget the globe-totting Laure.

After the sprawling Carlos (2010), Assayas is obviously comfortable telling complex stories with lots of characters. He keeps Something in the Air on track masterfully, despite its frequent shifts in locale and revolving door of youthful fanatics. While this is likely Assayas’ personal coming of age story, at least in its basic elements, he also keeps a fairly neutral eye toward his script’s provocative politics. He pulls no punches in establishing the Paris riot squad as a group of jack-booted thugs. After the devastation of 1968, these brutal gendarmes had no patience for even minor demonstrations of political dissent.

However, his starry eyed idealists are not innocent pacifists either. Their increasingly violent and destructive behavior often seems more designed to boost the participants’ egos than public consciousness. Assayas doesn't shy away from presenting the irony of a class war led by pampered children of the elite and the amusing situational ethics that threaten their subversive purity. Surprisingly, the director also administers some stern moral judgements to his young heroes, especially Laure and Leslie, the radical daughter of a wealthy American industrialist, who pay steep prices for their lifestyles of free-love and nonstop partying.

As with Summer Hours (2008), Something in the Air excels in capturing key moments through subtle but highly revealing character interactions. The timelines of Assayas’ films are manifested through moments of slowly evolving outlooks and ideas, allowing his characters' gestures and attitudes to supplant pages of dialogue. Assayas has become a highly efficient storyteller, weaving rich cinematic tapestries that cover a lot of narrative ground. Yet his pacing is leisurely and deliberate, allowing viewers to develop fundamental, organic connections to his films. As a chronicle of a generation, Something in the Air is not entirely successful, but it does capture the waning of youthful idealism in a way that can be universally appreciated, even if it’s not talkin’ ‘bout your generation.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Some Enchanted Evening: Beauty and the Beast (1946) ✭✭✭✭

Jean Cocteau’s retelling of the classic, familiar fable Beauty and the Beast is a perfect match of material and réalisateur. Possessed of enormous creative energy, Cocteau was a painter, poet, novelist, composer, designer and actor who also somehow found the time to make made ambitious, visionary films. Cocteau’s filmic antecedents trace back to the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès. In fact, Cocteau was well into his teens and on the verge of becoming a published poet when Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon had its auspicious debut in Paris in 1902. Exposed to the fantastical possibilities of cinema at an impressionable age, the imaginative Cocteau would take those elements a step further. Influenced by the avant garde artists of the early 20th Century, Cocteau developed an eerie surrealistic visual style; rich with symbolism, magical settings and photographic effects. But, thanks to his background as a writer, Cocteau would employ his signature stylistics in the telling of generally coherent narratives – regardless of their underpinnings in fantasy – and his films achieved worldwide recognition and critical success. It’s not a stretch to describe Jean Cocteau as the Julie Taymor of his era.

Beauty and the Beast is not a film that can be fully appreciated through today’s eyes. A number of special effects are attempted - all of them physical, through-the-camera gimmicks - and the results feature varying degrees of persuasiveness. Obviously, special effects in 1946 consisted mainly of what ever could be accomplished with make-up, fishing line and deviant frame rates, but despite these limitations the film abounds with visual cleverness. The beast’s lair is presented as an ancient castle complete with the dark, smoky atmospherics of witchcraft, surrounded by an overgrown forest shrouded in a black mist. The crumbling palace is furnished with statuary of the undead; their shining eyes following every move of the inhabitants. Muscular, disembodied arms reach out from every wall, holding candelabras that magically light the creepy, silent corridors. All this is either fantastically foreboding or worthy of a skewering from Mystery Science Theater, depending on the viewer’s mindset. Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast offers contemporary audiences a glimpse into a magnificent cinematic artifact from 65 years ago, and expectations will need to be adjusted accordingly.

In Cocteau’s version of the legend, Beauty and the Beast is the story of young woman named Beauty, or Belle in this case (Josette Day) who lives the drudgerous life of a scullery maid while her flighty –and yes, somewhat evil – older sisters (Mila Parely, Nane Germon) pursue giggly lives of leisure and social climbing. Her brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair) isn’t any prize either, as his talents are limited to sarcasm and running up huge gambling debts. When his deficits threaten the family with penury, their widowed, merchant father (Marcel Andre) makes an arduous horseback trip to meet an arriving ship packed with valuable goods he intends to sell at a handsome profit. Along the way he gets lost in a thick fog and ends up in a bizarre, alien wilderness. When he picks a wild rose to take back to Belle, The Beast suddenly confronts him in a glowing, thunderous apparition. A monstrous animal-human hybrid, the angry Beast makes a bargain with the terrified man: if Belle will agree to take her father’s place as prisoner, then the Beast will spare his life.

As the dutiful Belle arrives to fulfill the bargain, the balance of the film becomes a showcase for Cocteau’s imaginative stagings; imagination that often outstripped the era’s technology. But open minded viewers will find interesting and admirable moments. The Beast’s complex make-up, by Hagop Arakelian, is the film’s star special effect, and it compares favorably to today’s state of the art prosthetics. The Beast, played by Cocteau’s muse, protégé and long time lover Jean Marais, is still allowed a reasonable range of expressions despite Arakelian’s thick appliances. Belle’s entrance to the castle features a sequence where she appears to glide down a hallway illuminated by flowing drapes, a classic effect repeated in countless 1980s music videos. When Belle acquires the ability to teleport in the final reels, her sudden appearance through a wall provides one of the film’s most haunting images. And, as the story reaches its famous climactic role reversal and the fierce master becomes a hapless slave of love, Cocteau reaches even further into his bag of tricks for a dénouement as enchanted as the Beast’s ethereal domain.

Criterion has done a superb job of crafting a deluxe blu-ray edition worthy of Cocteau’s visionary masterpiece. While many of the film’s visual effects will appear awkward to viewers accustomed to modern CGI extravaganzas, Beauty and the Beast can still be appreciated as a film of rare and exquisite visual lyricism. Like its title characters, the film itself seems to be under the influence of a magical spell, relentlessly weaving a tapestry of haunting images. Still, one can’t help but wonder what Cocteau could have created had he gotten his hands on Adobe After Effects.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

You Incomplete Me: Autumn Sonata (1978) on Blu-ray ✭✭✭✭✭

Two of the 20th Century’s best actresses team up – or square off, to be more precise – in Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata from 1978. This simple, austere production peels away every layer of a tortured mother/daughter relationship, revealing decades of toxic damage deep within. The film presents an uncomfortably frank appraisal of one family’s stark dysfunction, and the bonds of codependency that ensure a continuing spiral of guilt. And after the wreckage is thoroughly surveyed and assessed, most viewers will recognize scattered bits of their own lives amid the emotional debris.

Here we meet Eva (Liv Ullmann), a mousey preacher’s wife in the rural south of Norway. She spends her quiet days performing musical selections for her husband’s church and dusting the tidy parsonage they call home. One morning Eva composes a letter to her mother Charlotte, a globetrotting concert pianist, inviting her for a visit. Eva’s husband Viktor (Halvar Bjork) dutifully posts the letter with palpable trepidation, and it’s our first hint that all is not blissfully calm under the fading glow of Norway’s September sun.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Before the Rains (2007) ✭✭✭

Before The Rains is an entertaining, if fleeting, epic of colonial India and by the time you drop it in the return mail, you will have forgotten all about it. Linus Roche stars as an uptight British plantation owner named Moores. He and his loyal foreman T.J. (Rahul Bose) hatch an ambitious scheme to plant acres of tea and spices, all while building a monsoon-proof mountain road over rugged terrain.

 As if that weren’t enough to keep Moores busy, he also finds time to diddle his beautiful Indian housekeeper Sajani (Nandita Das), a rustic villager who takes Moores’ attentions quite seriously and serves him her heart and soul along with the vindaloo. All is peachy in Moores’ selfish paradise until one day when his wife and child return to the plantation from an extended visit to England, and find not only oppressive humidity, but a series of odd occurrences, as Moores and T.J. attempt to keep Sajani’s expectations and emotions in check. 

We learn much about the depressing existence led by young women in tribal areas of India during that time, and how the Anglo concept of free will was as foreign and unknown as space travel. And it is clear that Moores’ arrogant ignorance of tribal customs has caused his harmless little affair to morph into a tide of anger and destruction that threatens to wash away his business plan like a monsoon flood. 

Director Santosh Sivan has worked primarily as a cinematographer for much of his career, as is evidenced by the film’s sweeping mountain panoramas and beautiful candle-lit interior scenes. But the splendid visuals are not quite enough to elevate this film beyond the ordinary. The script has a shortage of profound moments, not to mention a few holes. In all, the acting is quite good, especially Bose and Jennifer Ehle as Mrs. Moores. While the film features many betrayals, the first, and most damaging, is the script itself.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Quickies for September 2013

Moscow, Belgium (2008) ✭✭✭

Alright…this red-blooded American has had it. First we lose our textile industry to China. Then we lose our automobile industry to Japan. And now the nation of Belgium is trying to steal our monopoly on insipid romantic comedies. Moscow, Belgium so thoroughly wallows in pleasant predictability it seems unfair that one should have to read subtitles to experience such mediocrity. Who knew brooding, caustic Europeans were even capable of such unrelenting blandness? They have learned their lessons well, these industrious Belgians, and if we don’t stay on our toes, they will soon corner the market on America’s last remaining export: Date Movies. Sure, you scoff now…but that day is coming my friends. And think of the devastation. Nothing but Flemish (and French, and a little German) spoken on the Lifetime Channel. “Oh it can’t happen here” you say. I ‘m here to tell you it can my friends!  Join me in my campaign to resist Belgian perfidy. Tell the Belgians to keep their waffles, their sheep dogs, their delicious full-bodied ales, their Congo and their massive horses. In turn, they must keep their endive-pickin’ hands off of our rom-coms. WAKE UP AMERICA!

Recipe for Revenge (1998) ✭✭✭

This helium-weight fluff is about what you would expect, perhaps even a little better than you would expect, considering its bodice-ripper origins. An exceedingly fine young lass (Kim Huffman) witnesses a murder and a burly but soft-hearted detective (Alex Carter) acts as her bodyguard while the sleazy miscreant (Corbin Bernsen, it was the 90s, after all) will stop at nothing to prevent her damaging testimony. You can probably guess what happens. At any rate, we rented this not so much for the story, but to see Huffman and Carter in action again. They were both featured characters in the great Canadian TV series Traders from the 1990s, which, for my money, was one of the best dramas in television history. Why this series has not been released on DVD is a curious mystery, but its an oversight we hope will be corrected soon. And while you're at it, release Carter's other series Black Harbour as well. That too was excellent (well the first two seasons, anyway). I guess this isn't a review so much as a cry for help. I'll shut up now.

Caramel (2007) ✭✭✭✭

The unofficial movie subgenre of Romantic Comedy Where All The Protagonists Work Together At A Beauty Salon has no shortage of product, and this Lebanese import is one of the best. The talented Nadine Labaki directs and stars in this charming tale, where women of all ages and persuasions engage in that universal search for love, without a hint of sappiness or melodrama. And while the women experience inevitable disappointments along the way, they face their challenges with strength, grace, and a good-humored outlook. Some even find the love they seek, and in surprising places. It's also surprising that a nation with as tortured a history as Lebanon could produce a film uplifting as Caramel. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

Make Love Not War: People on Sunday (1930) ✭✭✭1/2

Scholars and fans of cinematic ephemera will be keenly interested in People on Sunday, a German silent film from 1930. Produced during a rare period of calm in that nation’s early 20th Century history, People on Sunday was created by a dream team of gifted young filmmakers – Curt and Robert Siodmak (directors), Edgar Ulmer (producer), Billy Wilder (screenplay), Eugene Shufftan (DP) and Fred Zinnemann (Assistant Director) – all of whom would eventually immigrate to America and find varying degrees of success in Hollywood. In many ways a forerunner of today’s independent films, People on Sunday was created on a microscopic budget – mainly with money borrowed from relatives – and features amateur actors essentially portraying themselves and performing their real-life occupations. This undercurrent of realism was something of a revelation in 1930, and the film was rewarded with glowing notices and packed theaters.

And neither will contemporary audiences be immune to People on Sunday’s charms, as the film’s unique blend of dramatic and documentary elements offers an intriguing look into everyday life in Berlin 80 years ago. Even those who typically avoid silent films at all costs – your loyal reviewer among them – will find surprising pleasures within its modern technical and thematic flourishes. The filmmakers maintain a steely vigilance against the two main drawbacks often found in silents – bad makeup and bad acting – and imbue People on Sunday with a degree of naturalism unique for its era. No, it’s not quite the raw understatement of the Dardenne Brothers, but it’s not the laughable hysteria of D.W. Griffith either.

Billy Wilder’s story revolves around a pair of tomcat bachelors in their late twenties: Wolf (Wolfgang von Waltershausen), a wine merchant and Erwin (Erwin Splettstober), a taxi driver. The two men are old friends and have been known to enjoy a few Krombacher Pils together from time-to-time. Erwin has a live-in girlfriend, the extremely torpid Annie (Annie Shreyer), whose prototypical coach potato lifestyle is causing severe friction in the couple’s unwed bliss. With no such entanglements, the aptly named Wolf keeps a sharp eye out for attractive young frauleins, and one day on a street corner he strikes up a flirty conversation with the willowy Christl (Christl Ehlers), and the pair eventually brave the assortment of flivers, horse carts and meat wagons that comprise Berlin’s bustling traffic, and repair to the bar across the street to get better acquainted.

Wolf and Erwin, and apparently everyone else in Berlin, enjoy spending their Sundays at Nikolassee, a popular recreational wilderness on the outskirts of town. Wolf has invited Christl to join them, and she thoughtfully brings along a shapely blond friend (Brigitte Borchert) who soon makes Erwin quite glad his slothful Annie has overslept. Essentially the balance of the film is devoted to the foursome’s antics during their day in the sun, including some brave swimming in an icy lake, a hastily thrown together picnic, and a short trip on an odd looking paddle boat apparatus. There’s also a little heavily implied al fresco schtupping as Wolf develops a preference for Brigitte and the two wander off into the woods while Christl and Erwin peacefully doze. This sequence is a bit a shock for a film from 1930, and is one of the reasons the film was barred to the under eighteen crowd during its initial theatrical run.

Throughout the film, the narrative thread is interspersed, one could say interrupted, by documentary scenes of ordinary Berliners engaged in their daily lives. While these shots often play as non-sequiturs, there is an appealing casualness about them and, in some ways, they construct a richer and more fascinating scenario than the unfolding main story. It’s fair to say that these unstaged sequences accounted for some of People on Sunday’s popularity with cinema goers; no doubt some folks bought tickets in hopes of seeing a brief glimpse of themselves – or perhaps Uncle Hans - in one of the film’s many crowd scenes. This technique is continued once the film’s setting shifts to the lake, and viewers are treated to a cornucopia of cutaways featuring well-fed bathers in a variety of unfortunate swimwear.

From today’s perspective, it’s impossible to watch a film depicting the relaxed, cheerful Berlin of 1930 without thinking of the terrors that awaited these unsuspecting innocents. Ironically, those terrors were a great boon to the American film industry, as the bright young talents behind this film were forced to escape to Hollywood for their very survival. When viewed within its historical context, People on Sunday reveals itself to be a work of innovation, great technical skill and both a pleasure and a challenge to the audiences of 1930. In ways great and small, it’s a modern film trapped inside an ancient and obsolete cinematic body.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

700th Anniversary

To celebrate my 700th post, here are some GIFs of Léa Seydoux. Just because.

From Rag and Bone fashion shoot

From Blue is the Warmest Color

From TV5 Interview

From Mission:Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Monday, September 2, 2013

A Constantly Moving Feast: To The Wonder (2012) ✭✭✭✭

To The Wonder is Terrence Malick’s next step in his ongoing crusade to reinvent the way stories are told in movies. His process involves applying the aesthetics of impressionist painters and beat poets to cinematic narrative, replacing conventional notions of story and character development with a kaleidoscope of subjective memories and moments. Malick’s films are no longer built brick-by-brick towards a climax or catharsis, rather they are structured like ornate sandcastles, complex and beautiful but quickly swept away by the rushing tide of the next stunning shot. The overall effect is hypnotic, but instead of a swinging amulet, Malick uses edit points and his characters’ inner monologues to mesmerize and mystify.

In essence, To The Wonder is about the fleeting nexus of three lives: Neil (Ben Affleck), an American environmental engineer, Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a single mom from Paris and Father Ouintana (Javier Bardem), a discouraged priest who wanders the underprivileged streets of Bartlesville, Oklahoma searching for a reason to believe. While on a trip to France, Neil meets the ethereal Marina and, after a few whirlwind romantic days, the couple fall in love and return to Neil’s Oklahoma McMansion to live happily ever after. While Marina slowly adjusts to life on the Southern Plains, Neil encounters an old flame (Rachel McAdams, who appears to have stepped out of a Sooner version of Heathers) signaling Neil’s decision to settle down was premature. Over the coming months, Neil and Marina will find their love and Father Ouintana’s platitudes as empty as Bartleville’s treeless hills, leading to a bitter upheaval.

To The Wonder’s swirling pool of images and ideas is a new approach for an American director but in truth European and Asian filmmakers have traveled similar - if less vigorous - stylistic routes for decades, sometimes to the point of trite overuse. The film’s opening sequence, filmed in Paris and Mont St. Michel, is reminiscent of Godard’s In Praise of Love (2001) and not just for its geography, while To The Wonder’s whispered reveries evoke Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad (1961) at its pretentious worst. Despite the film’s sense of wide-open possibilities, one can’t help but feel that Malick misses a few opportunities along the way. His visual transition from Paris to Oklahoma features steel-trussed electrical transmission towers receding to infinity. However, without a shot of the graphically similar Eiffel Tower to precede it, the effect is robbed of its full potential.

To The Wonder is Malick’s third film of the new century; all of them photographed by Emmanuel Lubezky and all of them more or less existentialist delights. However, when the trio is considered en masse it’s reasonable to ask if Malick’s lyrical shorthand isn’t ultimately more limiting than liberating. The New World, The Tree of Life and To The Wonder all feature pivotal female characters who Malick bestows with the depth and gravitas of runway models. Whether it’s Q'orianka Kilcher, Jessica Chastain or the perpetually spinning Olga Kurylenko, Malick’s leading ladies eventually morph into spacey hippie-chicks, howling at the moon while their unruly tresses blow in the wind.

As a stand alone film, there is much about To The Wonder to admire. Not least of which is Malick’s courage in creating a film that purposely stresses beauty over coherence and believing that American moviegoers deserve - and are capable of appreciating - cinema that strives for something beyond spoon-fed pablum. Still, Malick has little to prove by continuing his impressionistic impulses. He has clearly shown he is America’s greatest artistic filmmaker. There are two more Malick/Lubezki collaborations on the docket. I hope the talented twosome will forget about twirling temptresses and muttered musings and explore other cinematic avenues for awhile. It would be a shame if the great Terrence Malick became a parody of himself.