With Alfonso Cuaron playing in the big leagues of sci-fi superstardom these days, it’s easy to forget where he came from. His earlier Mexican films didn’t gift him with the toybox he would later accumulate for big-budget affairs such as Gravity, but his rambunctious, sensory-heavy craft was on display from the beginning, and from the beginning he was producing more subtly radical works that didn’t insist so heavily on their filmic adventurousness. All these years later, with three good to stunning English-language blockbusters under his belt, his greatest achievement may still be a little film about two boys, a woman, and the Mexican countryside. Continue reading
It turns out I’ve produced another list for Taste of Cinema recently, on Japanese Horror this time no less. Included are short commentaries on a variety of films new and old, from Gojira to Kwaidan to Onibaba to Audition to Tetsuo to A Page of Madness. Hop on over and take a look: http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2015/the-15-best-japanese-horror-movies-of-all-time/
The most shocking thing about The Act of Killing is that it is not a documentary about the governmentally sanctioned mass murder of suspected Communists between 1965-66, at least not in the strict sense. In fact, the entirety of Joshua Oppenheimer’s searing documentary is about these killings, but it is about them as they exist today, and in the mind. Oppenheimer’s modern-day film tasks men who took part in the killings with recreating fictional variations on their most heinous acts, and in doing so it ever so slightly shifts its focus away from the killings as they happened and onto the killings as an experiential concept, how the men who took part in them relate them to the world of fictional film, and how we as an audience interpret the act of cinema viewing in relation to the violence done by cinema goers in the real world. It is about the violence of the mind, and the violence of cinema. The Act of Killing is a nasty, harrowing work about the past, but it tells a far more timeless, more undying tale about the relationship between humanity and fiction. In doing so, it not only explores the past and the present with a brutal eye for wicked human depravity, but it manages some of the most forward thinking cinema of its decade. Continue reading
With Michael Mann’s Blackhat underwhelming critics all around the land, I’ve decided to take a look back at the neon nightscape urban painter’s greatest film, a shockingly underrated work of crime fiction with an impressionist tint. From 1981, Michael Mann’s Thief.
Michael Mann tore down the ’90s with three films of varying qualities that all are nonetheless championed as, at the least, lesser classics of the modern filmic world. The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, and The Insider vary on the surface, but their strengths are uniform and typically Mann: a poetic variation on hard-edge grit (or a gritty take of impressionism, if you prefer), a focus on problem solving and realist process rather than sentimental characterization, and a deconstruction of masculine identity equal parts grimy American New Wave and the more clinical, cryptic European New Wave. The films vary in quality (I for one have never had much use for the flubby, indulgent Heat), but they capture Mann trading subjects without ever sacrificing his identity. Yet that identity came to fruition much earlier, on a much less famous film, and a work that matches and exceeds any of the three in quality: 1981’s Thief. Released at the very end of the American New Wave where dramas were going out the door in favor of genre exercises, Thief finds the best of both worlds in perfect, jagged harmony. It is a true pity that most of Michael Mann’s adherents haven’t seen it, for it is one of the few American crime films that seems truly interested in coming up with a new filmic language to explore its pet themes.
Inherent Vice has been making the critical rounds recently, and word on the street is that it’s a disappointment of sorts. We’ll get to that in a bit, for that is a matter of debate. But first a word on another question: is it an Anderson film to begin with? Not only is the critical consensus muted on this freak-out comedy from one of America’s finest modern dramatists, but many are out and about voicing their opinion that it sees the director rejecting his trademark clinical style for something a bit too pudgy. The thing that I think remains under-discussed about the film, regardless of its quality, is how Anderssonian it is at the level of core functionality, if not necessarily content. The norms of any of Anderson’s iconographic films are all at their fullest here: phenomenal sense of artificial place, landscape-of-the-mind filmmaking coaxing out sublime work from cinematographer Robert Elswit, intricate shot placement that doesn’t so much favor intellect over emotion as cram the idea of emotion into intellect head first, twitchy realism with a hypnotic, impressionist streak of age and wither, and camerawork that can’t decide whether it wants to glide or quaver. In fact, if anything, and this may be where a hefty portion of the hesitance to connect with Vice is found, these realities are pushed well beyond their normal limits into the realms of obtuseness here.
That Alain Guiraudie’s 2013 film Stranger by the Lake (French: L’Inconnu du lac) has been taken up by some as an erotic thriller in many circles is a most curious designation. Sure, there’s a surfeit of nudity in the film and the entirety of its emotional arc hinges on the relationship between sex and death (the defining characteristic of erotic thrills), but it is not the least bit erotic. Furthermore, it does not for a second pretend to be erotic (in contrast to many erotic thrillers are not erotic out of failure of execution even when they intend to be so).
In fact, every shot of the film, from the first angular image until the very conclusion, works as a study in detachment, so much so that the film borders on suffocation. It finds a certain unison between clinical examination of human distance and Hitchcock at his most malevolent and monomaniacal, but its dark heart is heavily filtered through a highly unmoving sense of frigid inhumanity. Now, I and many of my critical compatriots happen to think very highly of detached studies of inhumanity filtered through the eyes of a pitch-black thriller, but if you are looking for anything the least bit lively and humane, you will not find it here.
Vantage points for comparison to Blue Ruin abound. The Coen Brothers and their more dark-hearted works like Blood Simple are obvious progenitors, as are the modern space-and-place indies most popularly epitomized by the works of David Gordon Green (and on some level Terrence Malick before him). Older, more expressively masculine works from the likes of Walter Hill also grandfather Blue Ruin’s more visceral critique of modern masculinity. But if Ruin isn’t anything original or particularly adventurous, it is still entirely game for the ride, and director Jeremy Saulnier is so adept at stitching together these disparate parts in uneasy ways (and leaving just enough space between the stitches for the wounds to threaten opening up) that the film never loses its fleshy fascination. Continue reading