Steve Cooper’s first film Crazy Heart was more notable for its central performance than the film surrounding it, and with his follow-up, Out of the Furnace, he manages to coax a number of equally taut, truthful performances out of his better-than-fine cast. But the focus on performance belies the real quiet intensity and knowing humanism of Cooper’s sure hand; it drowns out, as it is wont to do for the public’s acting-above-directing central interests, the work keeping those stars sturdy and focused in the first place. To some extent, this is perhaps appropriate; Cooper is not a director that “insists” upon himself. He’s not showy, asking and begging from his material. Instead, he lets his material surround him; he merely coaxes what is already there out onto the screen. He’s a quiet, naturalist director, not the kind of man seeking to wow, but merely to impress. He’s at his best when he’s at his simplest – direct and thoughtful studies of small people struggling to get by in the locations that breed them – and for the first half of Out of the Furnace, he sticks to his guns as an observer more than a pusher and creates something quietly great, if not essential. Continue reading
Andrew Dominik took a good long time (five years) to release his feature-length follow-up to his magisterial The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That he is re-teaming with his boy Brad Pitt for this film too, and maintaining the quiet despair and slow-going existentialism of his previous work, begs a mighty something indeed, a something the film can’t quite comfortably coalesce into a wholly successful finished product when all is said and done. Certainly, Dominik’s work is solid here, composed and well-formed and structured with intellect and care, but things only truly alight in a few select sequences where he decides he doesn’t need to be burdened with the weight of narrative filmmaking. It’s a good film, but a disappointingly slight one for a director of Dominik’s skill and gasping ambition. With his last film, he only re-wrote the book – or at least brought back out the re-written book after decades of being lost to dust in the attic – on impressionist, opulent Westerns and American identity… no big deal. Here, he tells a fine crime story, but one is left wanting a little by the transition. Continue reading
Upon seeing the trailers for The Grey, coupled with the dreary two-some of writer-director Joe Carnahan and, as much as it pains me to say it, dad-action hero Liam Neeson, the absolute last words I expected to use in reviewing it were “tone poem”. But experience has a way of changing someone, and there’s nothing I enjoy more than being proven wrong by a film I expected to hate. So, I’ll go ahead and start with the show-stopper: The Grey is one of the modern era’s great cinematic tone poems to human despair and existential dread.
With Italian cinema, one tends to think of Antonioni as the extension of neo-realism’s elusive, analytical, and slippery, intangible qualities, its modernism and post-modernism, and Pontecorvo as expanding the style’s more incendiary, ground-level spontaneity, its immediate “realism”. But although The Battle of Algiers is a punchy, vicious shiv of a movie, it isn’t merely surface-bound. Or rather, it sometimes uses its surfaces as cryptically and mysteriously as Antonioni, not simply exposing a conflict to us with an incendiary call for action but teasing out the various intangibles and uncertainties in its ability to call for this action, to participate in this conflict, to even see it without mediation. As swift and instant as the film confronts us, it also confounds any so direct a reading by intimating the limits of its ability to “experience” the reality that its verite aesthetic purports to glimpse first-hand.
Which is to say, Pontecorvo’s work reveals mysteries of its own as well, and it exhibits a vision of existence as brutally existential as L’Avventura and as protective of its secrets as Blow-up. And although it’s certainly a white-hot cinematic firebrand, open-hearted and unafraid of its convictions, it also exposes more subterranean depths the more I see it. For instance, the distinctly modernist (even post-modern) composition of the infamous scene where the veiled women expose the bombs hidden within their outfits. The three veiled women are viewed through a mediating, veiling mirror in the film’s most famous shot, the mirror projecting a cinematic self-consciousness about the mediating cinematic process. It suggests that what we experience in cinema is a mirror of ourselves, not a reflection but a warped and thus incomplete refraction, or a reflection which hovers between a direct reality and a displaced representation of that reality. Or, as Homi Bhabha says in the intro to Frantz Fanon’s famous Black Skin, White Masks on images more generally: the “image—as point of identification—marks the site of an ambivalence. Its representation is always spatially split—it makes present something that is absent—and temporally deferred—it is the representation of a time that is always elsewhere, a repetition. The image is only ever an appurtenance to authority and identity; it must never be read mimetically as the “appearance” of a “reality.” (XXX). The women veil themselves, cinema veils them, and post-modern cinema thrives on its skillful manipulation of its own self-awareness about the way it veils reality.
Pontecorvo’s film plays with this gap, this veil between past and present, this sense in which we can witness a mediated past through film, where film is a ghost which touches the past but is not the past. Particularly set against the historical containment of black and African bodies within film scenes, their objectification and imprisonment within frames which tend to view them head-on as curated objects lacking any curiosity or internality or resistance to being viewed, the veiling gestures in Algiers – the characters registering an opacity of their own, not fully acquiescing to our desire to “understand” them – are provocative. In other words, the film comments on its own veiled language, questioning its and our ability to truly know them via its and our gaze, to look at them head-on as the Westerner in Fanon’s frame might want. As gritty and “realistic” as the film appears on the surface, it also veils and unveils itself in various ways, debating truth and fiction in its faux-verite aesthetic rather than merely reminding us of a reality we didn’t know beforehand.
A stark, harrowing portrayal of the Algerian war, The Battle of Algiers is a message movie, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s brutal, unflinchingly human, and confrontational to the core. It depicts people engaging in horrible acts and forces us to try to make sense of it as best we can, for it knows it cannot. This film never lets up, using a gritty, clear eye-on-the-wall camera to depict the harsh day-to-day realities of colonial and revolutionary violence to force us to confront that which we’re afraid to. Rather than emphasizing philosophy or discussion, it focuses on action and reaction, conveying how this environment, in its perpetual dehumanization, allowed no room for anything else. Colonialism, as depicted here, was a violent regime that dehumanized its victims and gave them no recourse for action excepting the very violence perpetuated onto them. And the film doesn’t suggest it – it burrows it into our soul. It emphasizes gritty, hard-earned hyper-realism and puts us in the trenches of an urban jungle marred by guerrilla warfare. It allows us no comfort. Unlike many Italian masterworks of the 1960s, it is not rooted in impressionist professionalism, carefully modulated for impact and respectability; instead it unleashes itself upon the audience as a primal, implacable fact that doesn’t end when the frames cut it off. It cries out, refusing to be left unheard.
I apologize for the temporary absence of the weekly Midnight Screening from this blog for the better part of the month of November. I was too busy elsewhere and found myself too distracted with other reviews. I justified it to myself by reminding myself I had published three full length reviews instead of the usual one for the final week of October, but, seeing as I didn’t tell you all playing at home about this, that’s not an excuse. I’ll try to be better about staying consistent and giving a heads-up when things are to change. On the positive side, I can’t think of a better film to re-start the series with than this week’s entry. Consider it an apology. Enjoy.
There’s no point in sugar-coating it, for neither does The Babadook: Jennifer Kent’s debut as a writer-director is the scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time. It does a lot more mind you, giving audiences a surprisingly nuanced characterization of familial abuse and that particularly human will to self-destruct, but that’s merely the icing on the cake meant to send critics into over-drive with claims of textual nuance and subversive social commentary. One can write or talk forever about what makes The Babadook scary or what it says about the human condition, but the core, expressed with a terse worry, boils down to one thing: it is cavernously frightening, and frightening and horror are two bosom buddies that have been in some sort of spout in recent years. They’ve lost their way, and Jennifer Kent is here to reconnect them.
Following 2007’s brilliant Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, and faced with the decision of what to do with your fancy new McCarthy adaptation, the best, most exciting decision you could possibly make would be hiring John Hillcoat, the man who made The Proposition, just about the best ever film adaptation of a book McCarthy forgot to write. Hiring Viggo Mortensen, a mad mastermind of an actor when he wants to be, is the second best decision you could make. It seemed, thus, that everything was in place for The Road to just tear up the film world, and indeed, to whisper something confrontational to No Country for Old Men and ready its fists for a prime licking. The rhythms of this paragraph likely signal a huge, heaping “but”, and that they do. They also likely signal a bad film. That they do not, thankfully. But they signal a decent film where a masterful one might have been, and that is almost as bad. Continue reading
Birdman’s story is awards season catnip, a foolproof middle-brow example of Oscarbait if ever there was one. It’s all right out of the playbook. Let’s check the boxes, shall we? An aging, past-his-prime central performer in a showy role? Check. Said performer playing a loose-version of himself in real life? Check. A talented cast of supporting players doing some of their best work in smaller roles? Check. Commentary on aging and performance? Check. The theater? Check. Monologues? Double Check. Add in some long takes and you’ve got Birdman, right?
Well, kind of, except director and co-writer Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu decided to wholly and absolutely decimate the film’s middle-brow core with a blast of pure lightning in a bottle. His chief delivery mechanism: Emmanuel Lubezki long takes. Or, long take might be more appropriate, for the film unfolds as if through one movie-length single-take . Of course, there’s trickery afoot, but the seems are noticeable only because those who pay attention to showy long takes know a quick, hectic camera movement usually means a cut lies hidden within. Continue reading