Thursday, July 31, 2014

I'm Way Behind Forever: The Big Cleanup Pt. 1

I'm seven months behind on this blog, pushing eight, and the movies keep stacking up. I haven't felt like writing for several months now, and only my horror film blog (Decapitated Zombie Vampire Bloodbath) and my Twitter feed have been updated with any regularity. I'm a melancholy bastard on my best days, a depressed guy on my worst, with most days swinging in the middle. In recent months, my depression has been very mild and intermittent, but it often makes me feel like an emotionless alien who can't relate to or understand other human beings. When I get like that, I don't write as much, and that's what happened here. Now, I've got eight months of movies to write about, so I'm going to try to be more concise and knock out at least a handful in each future post. Once I finish this albatross of my own making, maybe I can get back to writing more regularly on all three blogs and work on other personal stuff. Here we go.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
Though I find moments to admire in each of his films, Martin Scorsese's 2000s work has seemed less vital, less strange, less energetic, too big, and too polished, with a wax-museum respectability, a taxidermied Hollywood royalty feel that keeps me at a distance, an odd sensation considering how much I love the thirty years of work preceding it. I'm also not much of a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio's acting, and he's been in every Scorsese film of the 2000s except Hugo, probably not coincidentally my favorite Scorsese film since the unfairly maligned Bringing out the Dead. DiCaprio seems like a guy with tremendous dedication to the craft, someone who lives and breathes acting. He means it. He means it so much. Unfortunately, he's been a professional actor since he was a small child and a huge celebrity since he was 12 or 13, so he has no fucking idea how people from any non-celebrity walk of life actually live. This was especially apparent in that gargantuan piece of shit Revolutionary Road. He always looks like he's acting instead of being, and that blows it for me in any film where realism, or at least movie realism, is required. Until now, the only DiCaprio performance I enjoyed was his cartoonish Mephistophelean Southern dandy slave master in Django Unchained.
The Wolf of Wall Street is different. For the first time, I'm convinced DiCaprio is the guy he's playing, as much as anyone can be convinced by a bona fide movie star. For once, that oily big shot charm and trying-too-hard intensity perfectly fit the guy he's playing. Scorsese attacks the material with a ferocity, energy, and humor I haven't seen in him since the 1990s, and though he's consciously echoing Goodfellas and Casino here (with some After Hours black comedy and screwball drug paranoia) in narrative structure, formal technique, use of voice over, epic length, and main character who is both an unreliable narrator and a criminal, this is not a derivative retread of past glories. There's an unsettling, foreboding strangeness that suits the current era (I'm not really sure how to explain what I mean here), a pinprick sharp leanness (odd for a three-hour movie, his longest), and one of the great virtuosic, desperate, darkly comic Scorsese scenes (the Quaalude overdose scene). He's got the juice back.
A quick word here about the supporting cast. If a DiCaprio lead in a recent Scorsese film is all too expected, the supporting characters are typically atypical. Scorsese's always had a nice eye for offbeat, colorful supporting cast choices, and there's a lot of great, unusual work here from Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley, Spike Jonze, Rob Reiner (who answers the phone in an English accent and becomes enraged if anyone interrupts him while he's watching The Equalizer), Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin, and even Jonah Hill. I was surprised how much I liked this movie.

Her (Spike Jonze)
Speaking of Jonze, his science fiction romance about a lonely man's relationship with his operating system in a near-but-not-that-near-future Los Angeles (a composite of filming locations Shanghai and L.A.) is gorgeous, disturbing, sad, funny, a little annoying, and possibly a fuck-you letter and/or public working out of emotions from a divorced man to his ex-wife, if the parodic nods to, critiques of, and quoted shots from Jonze's ex Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation are anything to go by. I like the muted haze of colors and the way cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema caught the light, and Jonze's script is smart about loneliness and the way the everyday nuts and bolts of human communication is headed. Not a big fan of Arcade Fire's score, but I like most everything else, save for some minor nitpicky objections. Real good stuff here from Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, and the voice of Scarlett Johansson.

The Return and Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev)
I caught a pair of features from writer/director Zvyagintsev at a recent Austin Film Society Russian film series. Zvyagintsev often gets compared to Tarkovsky in the American press, but this probably has more to do with American film critics not knowing many other Russian directors rather than any aesthetic similarity between the two men. Other than leaving plenty of space for thought and building narrative in a slow, detailed, visually distinctive way, I don't see much commonality. I liked both films a great deal. The Return, about two young boys and their long-absent father who mysteriously returns to take them on a trip of equally mysterious purpose, is a tense, slow-burning thriller, full of dread and regret. Elena is a character drama about a late-middle-aged woman from a working-class background whose second marriage to a wealthy older man (also on his second marriage) hits trouble when her son's family experiences a crisis. Like The Return, Elena proceeds by the slow accumulation of details, facial expressions, and some startlingly visual shots, and is about estranged family members, but both films find their own curious worlds to inhabit. Zvyagintsev is as astute an observer of young men, the natural world, and the working class as he is of middle-aged women, indoor living in large cities, and the wealthy, and that makes me excited about what he has yet to  accomplish.

The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
An unfortunately mediocre waste of a good cast, Clooney's film about the units tasked with saving European artworks from the Germans plays like an anthology of World War II movie cliches. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin have a nice chemistry in their scenes together, but the film is slackly written, directed, and edited, with lots of big speeches, forced sentiment, and a disconnected structure that doesn't move. This is a fascinating subject that deserves a better film.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I'm way behind #21: American Hustle (David O. Russell)

Who the hell is David O. Russell? I'm confused. Does he have an identity crisis as a director or is it my problem? I can't find much stylistic or thematic connective tissue between his various films, and though I tend to be entertained by his work, I'm skeptical of the praise he gets. He's a fairly good mimic, has a nice touch with actors (when he's not screaming obscenities at them, throwing tantrums, and getting punched by them), and is a natural entertainer, but is there a strong point of view and personality there?
Just look at the body of work. His first film, Spanking the Monkey, is a dark comedy/drama about a college kid home for the summer who has an incestuous relationship with his mother. If my hazy memory is correct, the movie fits pretty comfortably in the '90s indie youth movie template with its pop culture dialogue, teen angst, and forced transgressive subject matter. He followed it with Flirting with Disaster, a screwball comedy heavily indebted to Woody Allen; Three Kings, an action-adventure/political satire hybrid that was much more visually stylized than his previous work; I Heart Huckabees, a derivatively ambitious but ill-fated attempt to make a Charlie Kaufman movie without Charlie Kaufman; The Fighter, a gritty '70s-style drama/biopic about boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his large, screwed-up family; Silver Linings Playbook, an overly sentimental but cute clusterfuck of Sidney Lumet street drama and Frank Capra meets Howard Hawks romantic comedy; and American Hustle, his watered-down, easy on the blood version of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Again, my question. Who the hell is this guy?
I was entertained by American Hustle without being moved, and it barely lingered in my memory afterward. Before I get into why that might be, I've got a few other bones to pick. The first is not Russell's fault, so maybe I should let it slide, but this is my blog and I feel like complaining about it. Mainstream critical consensus about this film was pretty favorable, with many newspaper and television critics calling it one of the best of the year. I disagree, but they're entitled to their boring, predictable groupthink. (I love everybody.) What stuck in my craw was the way so many critics used this film as a cudgel to beat Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. More than one critic actually wrote that Russell "out-Scorseses Scorsese." I'm speculating, but I think too many newspaper and TV critics are lazy viewers dazzled by wigs and hit songs, and they like films that pretend to grapple with a serious subject while actually offering easily digestible flash and candy. The flash and candy films make you think you've thought about something or had some kind of intimate experience without all that troubling self-examination and conscience rustling.
Let me get down from that soapbox and step on another one. There's a real arrogance to calling a film "American _____," but that hasn't stopped a boatload of middlebrow filmmakers from doing it. Intentionally or not, if you call your movie "American Blank," you're making a claim that your film has captured something vital about a feeling, attitude, behavior, fantasy, dream, etc., of an entire country, when usually, you've just captured something obvious about upper middle class white suburban families or sexy white teens or attractive crime film cliches (American Beauty, American Psycho, American History X, American Gangster). (Notable exception: American Ninja really captures the U.S. ninja experience, in all its multiplicity.) Or maybe you feel you're approaching your film's subject in a particularly American way when you're just offering more Hollywood provincialism. Sometimes, it's warranted (American Splendor, based on Harvey Pekar's comic of the same name, Chris Smith's double whammy of American Job and American Movie), but most often, it comes across as hubris.
Playing devil's advocate with myself (that sounds dirty), though, I can see American Hustle capturing at least a partial tenor of the times. What with all this Throwback Thursday business and popular music and fashion and advertising constantly repurposing '70s and '80s and '90s culture, the film's overbaked period '70s setting and its exaggerated wigs and clothes and wall-to-wall '70s radio hit jukebox clowncar soundtrack exemplify this country's cultural obsession with nostalgia. And Russell's attempt at a '90s Scorsese/P.T. Anderson gliding-camera, music-packed, stable-of-favored-actors ensemble sprawl is a classic American move, an I-like-that-successful-thing-I-will-make-my-own-cheap-knockoff party.
It's such a thin film compared to the work of Scorsese or Anderson, but it's fun. While those guys use carefully chosen music as point, counterpoint, and commentary about the characters and events in their films, Russell inelegantly throws a nonstop barrage of big hits from the period at the screen as an easy way to churn up emotion, nostalgia, pep, and entertainment. It's fun. The cameo from Robert De Niro is way too on the nose, but it's fun. I'm still not sure what I think of Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, for all the praise she got for this part, is pretty wasted here, but I thoroughly enjoyed Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Louis C.K. in their roles. This movie, it's fun. That's all it is, though, with plenty of self-importance and peacock-feather pomp sitting on top like donut sprinkles. It's candy pretending to be a meal.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

I'm way behind #20: Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen)

Ever since I was a small child, I've had a penchant for melancholy. Melancholy is where the compass points when I'm at ease, it's the homeroom of the junior high in my brain, the homepage of my emotional Internet. In addition to my terminal case of melancholia, I'm self-involved, I'm creative but I lack ambition, and I'm generally unsuccessful in most personal and professional endeavors. I eat a lot of shit in this life. Some of it's my own fault, some of it's not. And that's who I am, boiled down to a thin generalized colorless broth. Maybe this explains my strong connection and attraction to the point of view and tone of the most recent Coen Brothers film, and maybe that's why I was so taken aback by friends and acquaintances who called Inside Llewyn Davis depressing and by critics who characterized the title character as an unlikable jerk.
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. This is a first-impression culture, and the film is hardly sunshine and lollipops, but I just can't relate to these reactions. Yes, the film is melancholy, with a mournful, autumnal quality to the cinematography, and many of the characters carry sadness, bitterness, and anger with them like a security blanket. And, yes, Llewyn Davis eats a lot of shit, which is sometimes his fault and sometimes not, and he can be selfish, self-absorbed, and cranky, but he's got plenty of good qualities, not least of which is his stoic acceptance of all that shit-eating while he carries on doing what he does. In this determination to continue, Llewyn Davis is an unconventionally optimistic figure, and the Coens are unconventionally optimistic filmmakers. They know the odds are not generally in our favor, they know the world is an uncaring place, they know that bad stuff is going to happen and happen often, and they know that even the best of us are fools, but surrounding that pessimistic landscape is an optimistic frame of great humor, determination, and a what-the-hell-else-are-we-going-to-do acceptance. Their films remind me of my grandfather's dog Jake (he should have acted in one of their movies), a grouchy, ill-tempered, heart-of-gold mutt with an overbite and fur that looked and felt exactly like steel wool. Jake refused to die on multiple occasions out of stubborn determination. Every glance at Jake was accompanied by a complicated swirl of emotions and opinions, a casserole of fear, affection, admiration, trepidation, pity, and humor. He was ridiculous and funny to look at and to think about, but he was often in on the joke. (The films are quite a bit more visually elegant than that dog, but you get the idea.)
The Coens are often accused by detractors of looking down on their characters and whipping up a smug superiority in their audiences by encouraging them to laugh at the buffoons up on the screen. In a few of their weaker films, this is uncomfortably close to being true, but I generally tend to disagree with this criticism. They've populated their films with a complex variety of characters and encouraged a diverse range of responses, reserving their largest stores of warmth and affection for the most buffoonish. When we laugh at a Coen character, we're laughing at parts of ourselves, and though there is a distance between their characters and the audience, it's not a distance that separates them from their humanness. The Coens aren't particularly emotional filmmakers, and there's a control-freak aspect to their formal style (especially in the early films), but they're not cold, either. They clearly love their actors, and there's always an element of real human emotion and experience in every character, even the most exaggerated and cartoonish. (Anton Chigurh is a big exception in No Country for Old Men, though his narrative function is to draw all-too-human reactions from everyone else). Inside Llewyn Davis feels like one of their most human, direct films, without the cartoon exaggerations or genre-exercise layers of protection they often put between themselves and their audience.
Set in the early-'60s Greenwich Village folk scene that nurtured (and sometimes hindered) Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, the Kingston Trio, et al., Inside Llewyn Davis takes its overcast autumn cinematography from Dylan's Freewheelin' cover and several of Llewyn's experiences from Van Ronk's autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Music is integral to the film, but it's not an inside-baseball, record-collector's movie. I think it's a film about how to manage the day-to-day minutiae of living while dealing with grief and about how much indignity and shit-eating you have to endure if you want to pursue a career in music (or any of the arts) and you're not a huge success. This may sound like a drag to watch, but it isn't. The film is very funny, full of good music, tightly constructed, and sensitively and entertainingly performed.
Oscar Isaac, an actor I'm not very familiar with, is particularly sensitive and entertaining as Llewyn. He's an atypical main character for the Coens upon first impression, lacking the gregariousness, loquaciousness, goofiness, menace, ulterior motives, charismatic likability, and/or delusional charm of most of their leads, but, in subtle ways, he fits comfortably into the brothers' gallery of creations. He shares some of the put-upon stoicism and quiet exasperation of Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn't There, Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing, Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, and Jeff Bridges in True Grit. He also shares character traits, circumstances, and challenges with the title characters of the Coens' two other most pronouncedly culturally Jewish films (of which Inside Llewyn Davis is the third), Barton Fink and A Serious Man.
In those films, Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik contend with setbacks in their careers, bad luck and misfortune thrown at them by a dark and uncaring world, and struggles and clashes with fellow members of their cultural and Jewish communities. Like Barton, Llewyn is a struggling artist trying to succeed creatively who butts heads with the commerce- and entertainment-minded people who run the business side of things, and his prickly disposition makes him few friends. Like Larry, Llewyn is a sharp guy who's in over his head when life pummels him with random acts of misfortune and indignity. There are some sharp differences, though. Barton is a bit of a fraud, a pompous, pretentious pseudo-intellectual who condescends to and barely understands the working classes he considers it his leftist duty to write about while Llewyn is a genuine talent with a deep love of the music he plays. Barton compromises his ethics by writing a wrestling movie for Wallace Beery while Llewyn suffers many indignities by choosing to go his own way. Larry Gopnik, meanwhile, is a far more frenetic and neurotic character than Llewyn, desperately wanting to know why he's being tested while Llewyn sighs, groans, and accepts it.  It's also important to note that Llewyn is a solo artist because his former singing partner has recently committed suicide. Llewyn's grief is never overt, but it informs and haunts the entire film. He's carrying a burden that Barton and Larry don't have yet.
Tonally, as well, Inside Llewyn Davis is a far different film than Barton Fink and A Serious Man. While all three films play as fables, the earlier two are comedies so black they approach horror. They come across as nightmares, and they share a kinship with the early films of Roman Polanski. Inside Llewyn Davis is more naturalistic, more pragmatic, with characters that have stopped asking "why me?" and just continued on, but it's also dreamier, floatier, emotion and atmosphere turned into narrative structure. The film's cyclical narrative can be read as a pessimistic loop Llewyn is forever trapped in, as a flashback explaining what happened in the opening scene, or as a message finally making itself known to Llewyn, a message that could propel him out of the rut he's stuck in, an agent of change masquerading as avenging husband kicking Llewyn's ass for mocking his folk singer wife in a misdirected moment of drunken anger while Bob Dylan takes the stage for his debut. Your own disposition will make that choice for you.
The Coens have been on an incredible roll lately, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of my favorites of both this phase of their careers and the whole filmography. I talked about Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, but the whole supporting cast delivers here, with special kudos to Carey Mulligan, Max Casella, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as Llewyn's patrons, and the welcome return of John Goodman to a Coen Brothers film, as a sour-tempered heroin-addicted jazz musician who shares a fraught road trip to Chicago with Llewyn. As a cat lover, I also need to mention the enjoyable presence of a very expressive cat (maybe two cats). Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography captures a look, mood, and feel that nails the tricky tone of period accuracy, drama and comedy, pragmatic reality and dreamlike reverie. I love this movie. It's not depressing and Llewyn Davis is not a jerk. Well, not entirely a jerk. He has his moments.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Bob Hoskins 1942-2014


There remains a big pile of Hoskins performances I still need to watch (including his work in British television, Atom Egoyan's Felicia's Journey, and Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales, the latter seemingly permanently trapped in distribution limbo in this country), but I can recommend his work in the following movies (he's pretty good in Nixon, too, but I have an intense dislike of Oliver Stone, so I can't recommend it):

The Long Good Friday (1980)
Pink Floyd The Wall (1983)
The Cotton Club (1984)
Brazil (1985)
Mona Lisa (1986)
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Paris, je t'aime (2006)


Thursday, April 17, 2014

I'm way behind #19: Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara)

I stopped mentioning my admiration of Abel Ferrara's films in the company of friends and acquaintances years ago. Too often, the simple mention of his name elicited groans, while my favorite Ferrara film, Bad Lieutenant, was dismissed with a single phrase ("Ugh! Harvey Keitel's penis!"), and I took it personally. (I always take it personally. My shit list is longer than twelve Bibles.) I can understand some of the resistance. Ferrara is not afraid to be uneven, messy, embarrassing, indulgent, pretentious, filthy, naive, silly, and, on rare occasions, boring. Even my favorite Ferrara films have awkward scenes, cringe-inducing moments. But just as often, Ferrara's films are full of memorable images, wildness, freedom, beauty, committed performance, intensity, transcendent strangeness, faith, humor, energy, thoughtfulness, and a fragile stillness. Ferrara's strengths and weaknesses share internal organs and blood. You can't separate them from each other, and the embarrassment you'll sometimes feel is just the fee required to take the ride. These are honest films, made by a guy who doesn't lie about himself. He may exaggerate, he may digress, he may go down some dead ends sometimes, but he doesn't lie, and he doesn't condescend. He's right there with his characters and locations, not above them, not below them, not laughing at them, not talking down to them, not using them to make arguments about how we should or shouldn't live our lives. He gets his hands dirty.
Ms. 45 is Ferrara's second feature film (he directed several shorts and a porn film before making features), released in 1981 and out of print for years on video. Drafthouse Films restored and rereleased the film, first in theaters, then on Blu-ray and DVD. I'm glad more people have the chance to see it, because I think it's one of Ferrara's strongest, most consistent, most fascinating films and maybe his most successful marriage of exploitation and art, with a pretty amazing central performance from the late Zoe Tamerlis, or Zoe Lund, as she was also often billed.
Like another volatile New York cocktail of art and exploitation, Taxi Driver, Ms. 45 is a marriage of sensibilities between four strong personalities: a director, a screenwriter, an actor, and a composer. In Taxi Driver's case, it's Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Robert De Niro, and Bernard Herrmann (who died the day he finished the score). In Ms. 45, Ferrara's compadres are Nicholas St. John, screenwriter on almost every Ferrara film between the years 1971 and 1996 (the year he left movies behind to purposefully disappear into anonymity -- Internet rumors find him as either a Catholic monk or an eighth grade teacher in the New York City public school system), Zoe Tamerlis/Lund in the leading role (her first), and Joe Delia, supplying the tense, punky, saxophone-heavy score.
A feminist response to the cycle of rape-revenge and vigilante films then in vogue, Ms. 45 maintains a consistency of purpose, tone, mood, and atmosphere while doing such varied things as parodying and critiquing the Death Wish and I Spit on Your Grave-style series of films, attacking the way men treat women as commodities, sexual objects, and fragile figurines, creating a visually expressive study of a sympathetic but disturbing character, capturing an impression of the alluring seductiveness, exotic strangeness, and sleazy, menacing hellscape of early '80s Manhattan, and satisfying its entertainment requirements as a grindhouse thriller. Ferrara's second film, it looks and feels more personal and accomplished than the more conventional handful of features and TV projects he completed in the nine years immediately following it, until 1990's King of New York saw him back at peak dreamy strangeness.
(SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to be talking about some important scenes in the movie, so if you don't want any story details spoiled, you may want to step off the train here.)
Tamerlis/Lund is Thana, a mute seamstress in a wannabe high-fashion firm in Manhattan. People make mistaken assumptions about her, condescend to her, and feel the need to protect her because she can't speak for herself and because she's shy, but she's a far more complicated, interesting person than her peers and boss notice. The movie does a great job in the first ten minutes of connecting the audience to Thana, creating a convincing, complex work atmosphere, and fixing the routine of her average day, its various locations (work, grocery store, apartment) and their spatial relationships. On her way home from work one day, Thana is grabbed from behind and pulled into an alley by a masked rapist (played by Ferrara). The rape scene is far from exploitative. While other rape-revenge films dwell on the act, relishing it and getting off on the sexual violence while pretending to be horrified, Ms. 45 keeps the scene short and focuses almost entirely on Thana's face, never letting the camera take the rapist's or leering observer's point of view. Instead, the audience shares her fear, pain, and trauma.
After her attacker flees, Thana slowly regains her composure and walks home. She surprises a thief who has broken into her apartment while she was at work. The thief, unaware of what just happened to her, takes advantage of the situation and attempts to rape Thana. Facing her second sexual assault in a matter of minutes, Thana gains control of the situation, murdering her assailant when he lets his guard down. Thana cuts up her attacker's body in the bathtub, placing the parts in garbage bags she stores in her refrigerator, and keeping his .45. Though suffering from nightmares and hallucinations about her first attacker, Thana takes the gun and hits the streets, murdering lechers, catcallers, sexist creeps, and potential rapists. These scenes have a darkly comic edge, with Ferrara and St. John populating New York with only terrible men, no good ones, and Tamerlis/Lund gender-reversing the Charles Bronson role in meting out justice to as many of them as she can. Tamerlis/Lund's expressive face, gestures, and movements fill the screen, her charismatic, dialogue-free performance creating a fuller, more complex character than most movies where the leads never shut up.
As the film progresses, Thana's actions become more troubling, creating a rift between viewer and character and a critique of our desires as an audience for violent revenge. Thana begins targeting all men indiscriminately, no longer giving them the chance to prove themselves misogynists, and she slowly changes from avenger to predator. In a spectacularly cinematic finale that skillfully marries performance, image, sound, and formal technique, Thana opens fire on every man at a Halloween costume party while dressed as a nun. The surviving men jump for cover, run, and hide, and it's a woman who ends Thana's descent into murderous revenge.
Ferrara's film is carefully composed and grandly expressive, raw and strange, an articulation of anger against the dehumanizing effects of violence, misogyny, and revenge that nevertheless understands the visceral thrills inherent in screen violence and the anticipation of violence, a film that is equal parts funny, horrifying, exciting, and painful. It still looks brand new.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I'm way behind #18: Bastards (Claire Denis)

While skimming a few recent interviews with Claire Denis on the Internet, I was probably more shocked than I should have been to read that the writer/director was 67 years old. I knew her career trajectory. I knew that Denis didn't direct her first film until she was in her early forties, in the late 1980s, and I knew she'd been an assistant director and occasional casting director for 15 years before making her own films. (She was the casting director on Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice and worked as an assistant director for Dusan Makavejev, Eduardo de Gregorio, Costa-Gavras, Clive Donner, Jim Jarmusch, and Wim Wenders, among others.) Her age shouldn't have jumped up and bit me so fiercely, but there are a few reasons why it did. Generally, her films have so much energy, creativity, curiosity, and openness to experience they feel like the work of someone much younger (minus the naivete). More personally and selfishly, her age made me realize there will be a finite number of Claire Denis films, and a finite Claire Denis. She is at or near the top of my list of favorite living filmmakers, and I want her to keep making films forever, or at least as long as I'm still breathing.
Denis has astonishing range, but her body of work is cohesive, connected, and recognizably hers. Though the films are quite different from each other in subject matter, genre, tone, mood, and intensity, they share common structural and narrative traits, particularly their elliptical narratives and an emphasis on character over plot. Denis often begins her films in the middle of the action, thrusting the audience into the characters' lives before we know who they are, how they are related to each other, and why those relationships are important. Denis often ends scenes before giving her audience a firm grasp on them, and she plays with chronology without the typical markers viewers rely on for navigation when a director plays with the timeline. This can be initially disorienting, with a narrative that can be fragmentary and slippery, but an open-minded, active viewer will be rewarded in ways beyond conventional filmmaking's limited pleasures. I find myself more engaged and invested in Denis' films and characters than in the work of most other contemporary filmmakers, and I'm endlessly fascinated by their enduring mysteries. I leave the theater energized, alive with the possibilities of cinema and never drained, even when her films are emotionally distressing or disturbing (and Bastards is most definitely both of these things).
I'm afraid my description of Denis' films in the previous paragraph may make them sound like work, like a chore, or like that horrible phrase writer Dan Kois coined to describe his own limited imagination, "cultural vegetables," (i.e., art that is good for you but not pleasurable). Denis' films are full of pleasures, the pleasures of faces, bodies, landscapes, music, movement, light, shadow, vivid color, human behavior, storytelling, acting, and the ways these elements interact with each other. She knows how to look, really look, at almost everything, and her films value sensuousness and detached, careful, nonjudgmental observation over the sentimentality, bombast, easily defined characterizations, and manufactured emotions of mainstream filmmaking. Denis' characters are white, black, old, middle-aged, young, straight, gay, male, female, wealthy, middle class, poor, immigrants, colonizers, natives, rural, urban, leaders, subordinates, abusers, abused, open, withdrawn, violent, and kind, and Denis watches them all with the same detached, detailed understanding. I can't think of another director so capable of creating and observing so many different lives without a false note or a blind spot.
Setting aside the Denis films I haven't yet seen (No Fear, No Die; U.S. Go Home; The Intruder), I'm left with an amazing body of work: Chocolat (not the Johnny Depp movie), a semi-autobiographical, leisurely paced, sun-baked drama about a French girl's childhood in colonial Cameroon, with an emphasis on her interactions with the family's houseboy and its parallels and dissonances with France's colonial relationship to Africa; I Can't Sleep, a strange, exciting blend of eccentric ensemble drama and thriller about several different lives in Paris converging due to their mutual connections to a serial killer (or killers) of elderly women; Nenette et Boni, a love letter to Paris and young people with elements of drama, comedy, and suspense about a young man's reconnection with his estranged teenage half-sister after the death of their mother; Beau Travail, an avant-garde adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd with a complex visual structure that combines Denis' female-gaze aesthetic appreciation of the male figure's physicality and movement, the homoeroticism underpinning masculine ritual and macho conflict, the ghostly process of decolonization, and the complexities of male friendship and respect with one of the most incredible, unexpected, and ecstatic final scenes I've had the fortune to witness; Trouble Every Day, a violent, bloody, confrontational, and very physical take on the vampire myth and the horror movie, full of memorable, beautiful images; Friday Night, a deceptively light comedic romance about Paris, music, traffic jams, first dates, new attractions, and lust; 35 Shots of Rum, a finely detailed character study of the friendship between a widow and his adult daughter and the fellow apartment building residents, on-again/off-again romantic partners, and coworkers that dip in and out of their daily lives, inspired by the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu; and White Material, another look at the messy end of French colonialism in Africa, this time in the guise of a violent, neo-noir thriller. I love every one of these films.
Which brings me to Bastards. This may be the toughest Denis film to love, because what it shows us is so painful and dark, and because it denies us any light. Denis has called this film a response to the parade of films in which characters commit terrible acts of violence, abuse, and atrocity but find redemption in the end. Denis says redemption is an invention of the movies, and she wanted to make a film that challenged that trope. Oh man, is Bastards that film.
But before these ideas even took shape, Denis just wanted to work with actor Vincent Lindon again. Denis is loyal to collaborators, often using Agnes Godard as her cinematographer and the British band Tindersticks as the composer of her films' scores (they return for Bastards), and she's amassed an impressive troupe of returning actors (Alex Descas, Isaach De Bankole, Beatrice Dalle, Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Vincent Gallo, Alice Houri, the late Yekaterina Golubeva), but until last year, Lindon was on the equally impressive list of actors Denis has only worked with once (Isabelle Huppert, Denis Lavant, Ingrid Caven, Francois Cluzet, Christopher Lambert, Jean-Claude Brialy, Aurore Clement). Lindon was the co-star of Denis' lightest film, Friday Night, along with French pop singer Valerie Lemercier, and he's the sympathetic center of Bastards, Denis' darkest. 
Lindon plays Marco, a sailor called back to Paris for a family crisis. His younger sister's family is falling apart. His brother-in-law has committed suicide, and his teenage niece is in the hospital after suffering a sexual assault that saw her drugged and wandering nude in the street. His sister tells him the family business has fallen apart, thanks to unscrupulous behavior by an investor and partner named Edouard Laporte (Michel Subor), a powerful businessman with political connections. Marco has vague plans for revenge and moves into the same apartment complex as Laporte's mistress and illegitimate son. He begins a relationship with the mistress, Raphaelle (Chiara Mastroianni), and does some digging to find out what happened to his niece, his brother-in-law, and the family business. What he discovers is dark, terrible, and close to home.
Bastards is sometimes hard to watch and harder to shake and should be approached with caution if you or a loved one have ever been the victim of sexual abuse, but I have no reservations about calling it a great film. Denis is working at her peak formally and stylistically, and I can't find words that will do her images justice. The film, though difficult and at times emotionally disturbing, is also dreamy and seductive, haunting and menacing. The actors commit to their parts honestly and intensely. Tindersticks come up with one of their most successful scores, finding a sonic correlative to the film's contradictory powers of seduction and menace, unease and allure. Not even a pinhole of light pushes through this time, but Claire Denis has made another vital, living film.

I've embedded my favorite piece of Tindersticks' music from the film, their transformative cover of Hot Chocolate's disco-pop song "Put Your Love in Me," below because I think it does a better job of capturing the feel of the film than my fumbling attempts to describe it.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Alain Resnais 1922-2014

Alain Resnais, one of the youngest 91-year-olds ever, is gone, leaving just Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, and Jacques Rivette standing as the last of the French New Wave filmmakers still making vital art (if I'm forgetting anyone, please correct me). Like a lot of my favorite filmmakers, Resnais' work was difficult for me to enter into upon first contact, and I found his two most famous films, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Last Year at Marienbad, easier to admire than enjoy. Exposure to more of his films turned that admiration to full-blown love, and once again I have to get used to a world where all my heroes are dying and being replaced by superficial, materialist careerists afraid of imagination, ideas, and emotion. (I've renewed my love affair with pessimism in recent weeks. Talk to me several months from now, and I may retract the previous sentence, or at least qualify it.)

Recommended:
Night and Fog (1955)
Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Muriel (1963)
Stavisky... (1974)
Providence (1977)
Mon oncle d'Amerique (1980)
Same Old Song (1997)
Wild Grass (2009)

Any omissions above are absent only because I haven't seen them yet.

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