Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Short Cuts: February '05

Angels in America
d. Mike Nichols, 2003

I'll admit that I haven't read Tony Kushner's play upon which this film (film/mini-series = tomayto/tomahto - quit your kavetching) is based. I'll also admit that I'm going to the library first thing on monday in order to pick up a copy and read this beast. It falters a little bit in the bathos of the second half (Perestroika being the lovely title of part deux), but that still doesn't bedraggle this fantastic monstrosity of spectacle and proportion. Six hours in toto, it is probably best to split Angels in America up over two days. Al Pacino's scream-at-people schtick fits in nicely, and Meryl Streep is as good as ever. The real jewel of the thing is Jeffrey Wright, who steals pretty much every scene he is in. Nichols, although making some iffy decisions re: set design (although I've heard the "cheese" factor is something written into the play? Anyone? Bueller?), he is in mostly strong form. A nice even hand with the weighty plot and thematic material, i.e. homosexuality, AIDS, the blind eye of the Reagan era, Justice, Love, and Forgiveness. Ultimately, Angels in America is a moving portrait of a small group of people indicative of a society at large. Yes, it is somewhat marred by the schlock at the end, but, juxtaposed against the bile-filled cesspool of the rest of the film, you cannot blame Kushner or Nichols for supplying a little levity. Kinda' like Harper's little blue pills, doncha' think?

La Commare Secca
d. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1962

One part Rashomon (without the pathos), one part L'Avventura (but with a sense of humor), one part Mamma Roma (without the abstractions.) Bertolucci's first film? Cripes, the kid had talent - pretty fantastic cinematography, an oddly whimsical score, and a good mind for theme. Essentially the film centers on one day in the life of six different people with something in common - they all happened to be in the same park on the night a woman was murdered there. Rather than a thrilling whodunit, the result is a series of vignettes. Some meander pointlessly (I'm thinking of the first, in the forest.) While some amble brilliantly, building up to a fine crescendo - a marvelous reverse dolly shot of a weary man in a prostitute alley (here I'm thinking of the bit with the soldier.) La Commare Secca, of course, translates into The Grim Reaper. Being an Italian film from the early 60's, The Grim Reaper is - again - of course, the poverty that plagues a large number of the Italians, turning people against each other and generally wrecking shop. A lot of fun, rarely boring, and worth the time.

d. Alan Clarke, 1989

I'm very, very torn on this. How far can one intellectualize 18 vignettes related only in their depiction of senseless and emotionless violence? Very far, it seems. A run through the interviews re: Elephant on the recent Alan Clarke Region 1 DVD retrospective shows that no small number of famous people are willing to call this short film brilliant and a work of true genius. I don't know about that, but there is something to it. Learning a bit about the context (the tumultuous N. Ireland of the late 1980's) helps, but a film should be able to stand on legs outside of context, right? So: 18 vignettes, beginning with a man (sometimes two) walking and ending with a man (again, sometimes two) killing. I imagine the reason I am torn is because Elephant does have something to say about the arbitrary and indefatigable nature of violence. Without context, without knowledge of prior events, death is still a powerful image. Clarke separates the audience from the action, leaving only the power of the action behind. Remarkably, it works - his images are enough. And if you want to place it in context, it becomes an even more powerful portrait of the mounting violence in Northern Ireland.

The Firm
d. Alan Clarke, 1988

Three English soccer "firms" compete with each other (via arms rather than, you know, the soccer field) for the chance to play in the World Cup. Bexie (Gary Oldman) pleads for unity - a national firm rather than a pissy district firm. His returns come in the form of violence. I now understand why Oldman is often described as animalistic - it is a vicious, brutal turn for him, and the most fascinating character I've seen him play. From the two Clarke films I've seen (the other being Elephant) his M.O. is examining societal problems (mainly civil violence) through metaphor. In Elephant it was senseless, contextless murder. In The Firm he uses soccer and district, rather than national, pride. His use of the wide-angle lens is worth noting - a scene with Bexie in his former room is the paradigm. Essentially the thesis of the film, Bexie, amidst his infinitesimal room wallpapered with soccer paraphernalia, assaults his pillow while shouting out the names of the other firms' leaders. Bexie's goal is not the World Cup, his goal is the eradication of the other firms. The wide-angle lens distorts the proportions of the room, giving space where there is none and implying that Bexie's ambitions have outgrown his soccer dreams.

The Man with a Movie Camera
d. Dziga Vertov, 1929

A fantastic study in kineticism, parallelism, and the mechanization of daily life. Outside of that, there isn't a whole lot I can say about this landmark of the avant-garde. Clearly, there is a lot going on. I can see, thematically, Vertov saying something about the quotidian life of the Soviet people. That is, the meaning of the images seems focused on that. In form, he's tackling all kinds of territory - the blurry line between fact and fiction, the artifice of film, the inherent voyeurism of film, as well as formally experimenting with the power of editing. No narrative, no star, no spectacle - yet never veering into tedium. Remarkable.

Mysterious Object at Noon
d. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2000

Mysterious Object at Noon is, if nothing else, a very intriguing experiment. Weerasethakul (who comes off as extremely humble and intelligent when interviewed) was inspired to make this by a Surrealist idea called Exquisite Corpse. The idea is that a group of people contribute to a piece of art in a linear fashion, without knowing exactly what it is that was created prior. Weerasethakul attempts to adapt this idea to cinema, with varying degrees of success. The inhabitants of Thailand are coaxed by Weerasethakul into weaving a narrative about a mysterious object that turns into a boy. The film succeeds in its attempt at creating a portrait of Thailand's lower class. The Exquisite Corpse idea devolves pretty quickly, though; the story meanders about with no real structure in narrative or plot. (Not that this isn't expected or anything.) But that success - the portraiture - is laudable. As the narrative of the story floats in and out, precious snippets of Thai life are captured by Weerasethakul's lens - boys playing soccer, a man and woman selling fish sauce, the Thai markets. The film drags at times (particularly in the third act when all idea of Exquisite Corpse is tossed aside), but it definitely makes me eager to see more of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's work. If his other films are anything like this, we're face to face with a truly innovative voice in cinema.

The Son
d. Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, 2002

What would you do if you unwittingly encountered the person who murdered your child? Of course the question isn't a fair one - how could one possibly formulate an answer? Yet this is the question asked by the Dardenne Brothers in The son. Olivier Gourmet brilliantly portrays the father in the aforementioned scenario, Isabella Soupart his ex-wife, and Morgan Marinne the now 16 year old murderer. Olivier (actor and character share the same name) takes on Francis (Marinne) as an apprentice carpenter, fully aware that this child killed his own. The little dialogue present is efficient, utilitarian, and to the point, and it need not be any more than that. The cinematography - confined - does wonders in expressing Olivier's inner turmoil. Films such as Twentynine Palms and even the fairly laudable Son Frere could learn a thing or two from The Son - it is a slow, methodical French film with an actual depth of meaning. No cheap tricks. No tricks at all, for that matter.

Spirited Away
d. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001

Miyazaki's film (and I mean that ownership in the truest sense - the man wrote, directed, and helped animate the film) is flawed, but undeniably visionary. It plays like a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive whole, but the amount of invention and intelligence at the plate is remarkable. The schmaltz is thick at times - love conquers all sickness, pollution is bad, you can do anything if you just try - but this is to be expected in a film aimed at children. In the end, Miyazaki's creativy and dazzling visual invention overcomes any gripes I could come up with.

The Wild Bunch
d. Sam Peckinpah, 1969

I realize that this doesn't exactly gel with my positioning of The Wild Bunch on my 1969 list (#2, if you're too lazy to look yourself), but - damn - this film is overrated, buddy. Not that it isn't good - it is. Very good, actually. The way in which it deconstructs a genre (The Western) and demythologizes a time and place (The West during the late 1800's) is remarkable. You ever think that, due to the lack of running water and the omnipresence of dust, John Wayne, et al looked a little bit too clean? You ever think it was a bit strange how, when folks wanted to kill each other in the old Westerns, they thoughtfully measured out their paces and waited for the other guy to pull? The Wild Bunch snaps all of these artificial constructs back to reality, so Peckinpah succeeds on that level. There isn't a much more than that, though. The story is interesting enough, but, the aforementioned aside, it doesn't have much to say. Peckinpah could have done a lot more with the idea of progress and encroaching civilization. Instead he introduces modern mechanisms (cars, machine guns) only to use them as implements in his overwhelming desire to kill stuff. (Of course he is saying something about civilization by that, but he could have said so much more.) Like I said, very good, but no masterpiece. You want his masterpiece? Check out Straw Dogs.