Journey by Frame

A film log in cinematic snapshots
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The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)

My review of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. An excerpt:

Filmgoers of my generation fell in love with Wes Anderson’s movies during our formative years, in high school or college. We welcomed his humor with ease, appreciating the dry, precisely ironic tone and the precocious self-awareness as if they were coded messages telegraphed covertly in the language of our own sensibilities. His younger characters were imbued with these very qualities, and we perceived this as a friendly gesture, a winking nod to our own youthful pretensions, which we could regard with nostalgic fondness because we, now cognizant of them, were working our way beyond them. The young contrasted appealingly with the old in Anderson’s films: the same meticulous design and visual architecture that made his younger characters seem impossibly advanced—fitting into the intricate structure like energizing and indispensable components—also served to box in and deflate his adults, unceremoniously denuding their presumed authority. This seemed like a polite and ultimately benevolent act of generational warfare, staged like ritualistic battles that sided clearly with us.

Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2011)

My review of Richard Linklater’s Bernie. An excerpt:

There’s an interesting moment towards the end of Richard Linklater’s new film Bernie where the title character, a mortician played endearingly by Jack Black, makes a joke during his own murder trial, causing the courtroom to erupt in laughter. The way Bernie’s humor and the ensuing laughter cut through the tension in the courtroom makes us feel a kind of relief, the acknowledgement that it’s “okay” for us to like Bernie despite his crime. In fact, we want to like him, and this “we” does not just consist of the film’s audience but also many of the townspeople of Carthage, Texas, where the events took place. Bernie is based on a true series of events—the screenplay was written by Linklater in collaboration with journalist Skip Hollandsworth, on whose article the film was based—and throughout, Linklater presents information to us in a documentary-like fashion, using pseudo-interviews with presumably very real townspeople. Many of these townspeople are played by actors, many of whom are themselves from Texas, and this blurs the line between fiction and reality. In a further twist, the real-life district attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson (played in the film by Matthew McConaughey) has been quoted as saying about the trial, “You can’t make a dark comedy out of a murder.” But it appears that Linklater has done just that, confronting our well-established moral sensibility with an endearing murderer named Bernie who we cannot help but like.

Goodbye First Love (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011)

My review of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love. An excerpt:

Like her 2009 feature The Father of My Children, Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love restricts its gaze to the level of observation, never tipping over into expressionism to reveal inner realities. This approach unites two films with very different subjects. The Father of My Children is a relatively weightless, though deeply profound, film about suicide, where moments of raw experience pull away from the narrative, rise up and evaporate into the air. Goodbye First Love deals with a nominally happier theme, that “first love” of its title, but treats it solemnly, acknowledging the gravity that youthful experiences exert on the rest of our lives. In both cases, everything is bound up in its characters’ internal lives, which can only be glimpsed indirectly because Hansen-Løve respectfully opts instead to maintain the boundary between the two worlds, the visible and the invisible. This choice makes her films feel lived-in and allows them to retain their connection to the world outside of cinema. As a result, Goodbye First Love reveals new depths in its well-worn subject and gives us the ability to occupy a vantage point where we can see truths not even the characters can see about themselves or each other, all the result of mere observation.

Oki’s Movie (Hong Sang-soo, 2010)

With each new Hong Sang-soo film I watch, he moves that much closer towards becoming one of my very favorite contemporary directors. Oki’s Movie is no exception. Read my review of it (for Spectrum Culture) over here. This is my second time writing about Hong so far, and you might be interested in checking out an earlier piece on Woman Is the Future of Man (2004).

By now, critics have noted Hong Sang-soo’s tendency to repeat himself, in plots, themes, character types, style and tone. His harshest critics might say he’s making the same film over and over again, an exercise in redundancy, but two factors mitigate Hong’s repetitiveness. First, the film that he’s been making and remaking is a good one. Second, Hong transmutes this repetitiveness into an aesthetic virtue, an acknowledgement that many of contemporary life’s dilemmas are not easily resolvable, requiring that we return to them again and again. If there’s an image that aptly summarizes this, it’s that of a car stuck in sand, its wheels spinning but unable to pull itself out of its rut. In fact, this very image occurs at the end of Hong’s Woman on the Beach, which in turn recalls the similar, inertia-evoking final image of a car stuck in a field in Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye. But unlike Hou, also a master of poeticizing the mundane, Hong treats his characters unsparingly, showing them only tough love. This makes Hong one of the most perceptive critics of human misbehavior in contemporary cinema, and he displays this quietly but uncompromisingly with Oki’s Movie, a work that offers a subtly bittersweet variation in flavor. For a director like Hong, the minute calibrations of tone and texture are everything.

Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011)

I had a chance to revisit Whit Stillman’s first three films the same week I saw Damsels in Distress, which was a wonderful reminder of what makes him such an indispensable filmmaker in my mind. My review of the very great Damsels (for Spectrum Culture) can be found here.

A great amount of expectation has built up in the years leading up to Whit Stillman’s latest film Damsels in Distress, following an absence that lasted more than a decade. In the 1990s, Stillman wrote, directed, and produced a sterling trio of witty comedies and earned himself a significant cult following. Naturally, fans will want to know if Damsels follows suit. Damsels is unmistakably a Stillman film through and through, but one that departs from those earlier efforts in stunning, charming and ultimately endearing ways. Stillman characters have always tended to speak with a signature vocabulary, tone and rhythm that tended to heighten the artificiality of their dialogue while at the same time giving the illusion of verisimilitude, because as stilted and awkward as their manner of speaking sometimes was, it nonetheless seemed true to life within their milieu. This distinctive blend of artifice and vérité realism (nowhere more apparent than in the near-ethnographic exercise that was Stillman’s debut feature, Metropolitan) works to cleverly mask Stillman’s sleight of hand in Damsels, which is easily his least naturalistic film. Longtime Stillman fans and newcomers alike will find themselves adapting to the unique and peculiar world created in Damsels, a challenging but refreshingly unique film that signals the grand return of a major American filmmaker.

We Have a Pope (Nanni Moretti, 2011)

Review (for Spectrum Culture) is up here.

Nanni Moretti’s new film We Have a Pope announces itself as a topical report on the state of contemporary public life within the European Union. Possessing a grand manner, it seeks to comment on “life as we live it now,” but Moretti acts convincingly as a spokesman for European life because his film is rooted in two earlier works that were as personal as they were public. In his 1985 film The Mass Is Ended, Moretti played a priest coming to terms with his own obsolescence. Moretti tempered any potential sentimentality—inevitable given the decline of a figure many refer to as “father”—with scenes like the one in which, after arguing with a man who stole his parking spot, Moretti’s priest gets tossed into a fountain. In his 2001 film The Son’s Room, Moretti plays a psychoanalyst, the priest’s symbolic replacement, even more involved in hearing the confessions of his flock. These characters find their way into We Have a Pope recontextualized, the ineffectual priest returning in the form of a newly elected pope (Michel Piccoli), counseled by two psychoanalysts (one played by Moretti). This meeting of characters formally announces that life in 21st century Europe has entered a new phase.

Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975)

Spectrum Culture has a series of features where writers discuss a film that everyone’s seen that has eluded them. I chose to write about Barry Lyndon, as I think Stanley Kubrick is the quintessential “I liked him when I was young and then ignored him” director. You can read my piece here.

I assume it’s not at all unusual that Stanley Kubrick was one of the first filmmakers who gave me a sense of film as serious art. Kubrick hovers equally over all the various camps of serious moviegoers, and as with any omnipresent artist, what matters most is coming to terms with him in one’s own way. For a long time I dismissed him unfairly. In my mid-teens, discovering Godard’s Breathless and Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, the two films that really sparked my cinephilia, took me on a course that led away from Kubrick, not deeper into his work. It took this wayward cinephile some time before I could return to him, but this circuitous path is very much in the spirit of the one Kubrick film that has most eluded me, Barry Lyndon. It would be convenient for me to argue that I needed to wait until this moment to watch it, but in the case of a film like Barry Lyndon, there’s a lot to support this argument.

Like last year’s Mysteries of Lisbon, Barry Lyndon is an epic charting the history of an individual (or in the former case, a number of individuals spiraling out around its principal protagonist). Raúl Ruiz’s film hones in on the question of identity, constantly undermining our sense of who each character is by introducing baroquely elaborate, convoluted storylines and using virtuosic, flowing camera movements to destabilize our identification with any one character. Kubrick’s film shares this same spirit, but instead of examining the question of identity (the prominent stability of which is affirmed in the film’s unadorned title), we are presented with a three-hour meditation on free will, on whether we can give shape to our lives or whether external events will always overwhelm and overthrow any sense of control we think we have.

4:44 Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara, 2011)

One of the best films of the year so far, and the recipient of the highest rating I’ve given a new film this year, Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth is a must-see film, a strange and oddly touching film that visualizes the last day of life on Earth. If you get a chance to see it, don’t pass it up. My review is up here.

One of last year’s major films was Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, which depicted the end of life on Earth. This year, Abel Ferrara’s apocalyptic drama 4:44 Last Day on Earth deserves, but probably won’t get, similar attention. Despite some similarities, including most curiously ending on a fade to white, these are two rather different films. They have perhaps little to say to one another but a lot to say to us. What they do have in common, most importantly, is their consideration of the apocalypse as a metaphysical phenomenon. But if Melancholia is rooted in individual suffering and depression, then 4:44 is fundamentally a film about humankind’s collective relationship with the cosmos, the great silence that drives us to understand the meaning of our own existence. Ferrara makes this apparent by weaving in images from various religious traditions, but you don’t exactly need these to understand Ferrara’s deep affection for humanity. In making us observe the behavior of a group of people during the last day on earth, Ferrara forces us to witness the best and worst of humanity, but he embraces these two sides as necessary aspects of what makes human life, in the face of obliteration, worth cherishing.

The Raid: Redemption (Gareth Evans, 2011)

My review of The Raid: Redemption (for Spectrum Culture) can be found here.

Like a handful of recent action films, The Raid: Redemption uncovers profound insights about its world while remaining snug within genre conventions. What Wales-born, Indonesia-based filmmaker Gareth Evans achieves is not unlike the recent work of Luc Besson protégé Pierre Morel. In Taken, for instance, Morel perfected the cinematic art of the sidelong glance: as Liam Neeson moves from one Parisian location to another, each progressively more sinister, our attention is pulled to the fringes of the camera’s gaze and to the space beyond the frame, as the vast interconnections holding together this world of transnational crime are exposed. Likewise, the incessant pace of Morel’s follow-up From Paris with Love conveyed something of contemporary geopolitics’ moral character. We doubt the possibility of methodically thinking through issues that we normally solve through instinctual decisionmaking. Evans shares Morel’s interest in moral questions and political inquiry, and in The Raid: Redemption, he displays a willingness to pose these thoughtful questions through genre mechanics rather than treating convention as an impediment needing to be transcended.