House of Flying Daggers
I suppose that, at some level, Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers is a marital-arts action picture, and a pretty terrific one at that. The thing is, and this is no surprise for someone who knows a thing or two about Zhang Yimou’s history as a dramatist who uses color, framing, and motion to define mood and texture, it just doesn’t feel like an action film, and it functionally has almost no interest in being one. Yimou is a great director of action, but not necessarily an action director, if that makes sense; he takes what would be action in another film and transforms the excitement into a far different beast, much less about what is happening and who is defeating/ battling who than the motion of the filled-in spaces on screen and their battle with the empty spaces dancing around them. House of Flying Daggers is an exciting film, but its excitement is far too abstracted, too cognitive and distanced and reflective, to fit comfortably into the bounds of “action” as it is conventionally defined.
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The first thing to note about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the most important: it is very proud of what it is, and makes no attempt to hide it. Lee’s film is a melodrama, unambiguously and unashamedly, and Lee directs with painterly flourish to match. He showcases the splendor and dignity of the work with magnificence and a sense of illustrious eminence, positioning it as part classical Hollywood epic (Lee is after all a highly Americanized director) and part Chinese mythmaking fable. Nothing about Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is played at the level of naturalism, and all of it enhances the opulence of a production which wears its honest drama on its sleeves. Continue reading →
This post in honor of Richard Linklater’s impending Oscar win for Boyhood, much deserved for his commitment to cinema over the past twenty years.
Dazed and Confused is a vigorously imperfect film, by which I mean it dives head first into its imperfections and renders them successes. On many levels, its imperfections are precisely its point. It essentially lacks a narrative, and above all, it has no real three dimensional characters – normally, these two things, especially the latter, are a killer for any ensemble film, but young writer-director Richard Linklater, in what was something of his big league coming out party as a shining star in the early ’90s American independent film explosion, knows his characters too well to miss the point. His film doesn’t bring us into the minds of his teenage characters by commenting on what they do, but by becoming them, expressing who they are as a film in itself. It’s a slacker of a film for slacker characters, and in doing so it reveals more about the mid-’90s slacker film craze than any more formal “commentary” ever could have.
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If one looks back on the halls of early ’90s cinema, a few trends emerge, but none stands more idiosyncratically than the sudden 50-years-late splurge of Universal horror films unleashed upon the unsuspecting populace, most of which are not, in all honesty, worth discussing in any serious capacity today. Mike Nichol’s Wolf is uncommonly interesting as a reflection of its time period and a commentary on gender and power in the modern world, even if it less of a film than it is a discussion piece. Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein is somewhat stodgily uncomfortable and beset by Branagh’s stilted reductionist theatricality.
There is one exception however: Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (a much better title than the ungainly Bram Stoker’s Dracula, despite the undeniable similarities between this film and the source material upon which it is based), now this is a film worth discussing, whatever you think of it. Gaudy and oppressive, garish and lurid, feverishly sexual and unwieldy and broad and blunt and devilish and all manner of other unholy, batty adjectives, it is undeniably the work of its auteur. It is, if nothing else, the most Coppola of Coppola’s films released in the past thirty years, and considering that this man was at one point one of the great filmmakers of the modern era, this is worth discussing. After a decade of artistic sycophancy on his part, and a decade of artistically aimless American genre cinema mostly playing ball with conventional Hollywood style, Dracula is Coppola’s phallus-waiving gambit to cinema-goers: watch my film, enjoy or don’t, I don’t care because I’ve bested you and you will be felled by its gigantism one way or another. All patchwork nonsense and scenes dripping sweat and blood from every unstitched seam unfurling and falling apart by the minute, this film is ironically not his Dracula but his Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s not a work of a filmmaker but a mad scientist, a film so committed to its own vision of life at any cost that it is willing to fall apart in front of you just to make its point. In oppressive lunacy and effervescent, exultant, unmitigated cinema, Coppola’s Dracula sacrifices everything at the alter of pursuing cinematic zest.
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In honor of all the bitter winter blankets having their way with the Northeast US these past few weeks and raging about as I write this, here is a review a Southern-fried noir that uses its frigid late year mystery to chill to the bone.
Debra Granik is not yet a filmmaker of breadth, having made less than a handful of films in her decade of slow-going work behind the camera, but she is a filmmaker of uncommon craft and peculiarity. Her works are less art and more skill, tactically and restlessly un-spooling a fable of purity and soothsaying innocence onto the screen like a storyteller for the ages. She grounds the film in enough of an air of hidebound realist respectability to avoid some of the trappings of her somewhat exploitative premise but also knows how to elevate beyond the doldrums of blind adherence to naturalism and into something more timeless and, for lack of a better term, classically adventurous. Her film may put on airs of honest down-South character-and-place construction, and it is all of this, but there’s a coming-of-age tale at the center of her work, enhanced by a tone that more closely approximates folkloric allegory and tall tale than character study.
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Update late 2018: After a Halloween rewatch, I stand all the more in awe of Fulci’s truly irrational editing scheme and his almost unholy skill not simply dropping us into an unraveling narrative but demolishing the presumption of rational sense-ordering in horror to begin with. The Beyond remains a truly scrambled, egg-beaten (or brain-beaten) perceptual experience, even in the already demonically playful realm of giallo-inflected fear, let alone the wider horror genre.
It is a truth undeniable that Lucio Fulci’s 1981 Grand Guignol The Beyond lacks a capable narrative or characters, but this is true only in the way that L’Avventura and Breathless lack much in the way of conventionally sufficient narratives or sensible characters. They are all anti-narrative, anti-character films, and the deficiency is fully intentional in each case. They are films precisely about the deconstruction of narrative, the characters intentionally maneuvering themselves through their worlds in contrived, abstract ways to illustrate a point about the artifice of narrative, the performative nature of human activity, and the absurdity of film and its relationship to the human condition.
Fulci’s vision is no different, although it is filtered through a different texture. Just as Breathless is about the artifice of ordered narrative and the triviality it instills in filmic storytelling, The Beyond is too about the way films define order and conventional narrative. Except while Godard’s works cheekily and cunningly ask us to read between the lines with finesse to explore the master manipulator ironizing the characters’ search for order, Fulci’s film takes the broadest brush it can find and cuts through the order with a giant blood-red stroke. While Godard’s work undermines order, Fulci’s denounces it entirely. Continue reading →
Here, in its final month, is where the National Cinemas project functionally comes undone and reaching for something a little broader becomes preferable, if not essential. You see, it is notoriously difficult, for reasons that exist far outside the world of film, to determine the nationality of many films with partial funding from mainland China. The greatest difficulty comes into play when Hong Kong is involved, and at the risk of avoiding the issue, the debate over Hong Kong’s nationality is very much a topic I am not sufficiently informed in to make my own decision on what shall qualify here. For this reason, this month will include films where the primary language is within the broadly defined group of Chinese languages, including Cantonese, Mandarin etc, and where the funding comes from any combination of the nations of China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Not necessarily the best solution, I know, but for the time being It’ll have to do.
Edited for Clarity
If one is to search for designated auteurs in the modern era (and we have precious few in an increasingly arid well), there are a few names that routinely pop up, but chances are that Wong Kar-wai is right up there. Kar-wai’s films are classicist dramas, worldly and weary and aware of their universal status in their almost mythic exploration of sighing human loneliness and the passing moments of connection that counterpoint but only further contour that loneliness. His films reflect an old-school filmmaking mentality seldom seen today, but they are uniquely primed for modern-day China, works equally comfortable with their intimate world in a specific locale and the wide-reaching humanity they dance with and caress in their very specificity. He’s a maker of masterpieces, he is, and if you want to discuss Kar-wai’s intricate perfectionism and impressionist color-as-emotion collages that are at once judiciously composed and free-flowing, you really must begin with the man’s all-time masterpiece among masterpieces, and the best work of cinematic art produced in the still-young century to this day: 2000’s In the Mood for Love. Continue reading →
The Wages ofFear, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s famed French-Italian white-knuckle thriller was and is almost incomparable as an exercise in hair-raising. It is so well edited, choreographed, acted, and composed that one almost wishes to reduce it to the level of thriller alone (not that, with this skill, it would be “reducing” per-se). Yet Clouzot was not, nor was he ever, simply content to thrill. His scabrous films simply used the conventions of thriller cinema to chill to the bone, to indict and valuate, to scare, to hope, and to leave nothing in their wake. His 1953 work is absolutely one of the most thrilling films ever released, yet this does the texture of the piece a disservice. If it is Hitchcockian, and Hitch is the director Clouzot is almost always compared to, then it evokes Hitch on all his levels, not simply thrilling but tacitly provoking and confronting society’s very base construction and the nastier aspects of the human condition under a thin membrane of sharply composed set pieces. Continue reading →
There are precious few films about childhood. Many aim for an audience of children, but most look down upon them in their assumption that they will eat up any and all immature entertainment simply because it is handed to them. It is the rare film that tries to peel back the layers behind childhood and to give us a look at what growing up entails. Because it is difficult to focus on children in film without rendering them types, either immature simpletons who do not understand the world or wise-beyond-their-years precocious types who “know” better than the adults around them, it is rarer that a film succeeds at presenting childhood with a quiet sigh, knowing a certain maturity without ever losing itself in the adult desire to judge and moralize to children. There have been a number of great films about childhood, but none stand taller than Francois Truffaut’s debut film, the work that kicked off perhaps the most important movement in film history, the French New Wave: The 400 Blows. Continue reading →
Andrew Dosunmu’s Sundance hit presents a tale as old as time, yet lively, immediate, downright kinetic visual craftsmanship ensures it remains as trenchant and pointed today as at any time in history. Adenika (Danai Gurira), a Nigerian immigrant to America, marries Ayodele (Isaach de Bankole) and spends a good many months struggling with him to produce a baby. They are not sure what precisely is wrong, yet whatever initiatives they try fail. Ayodele’s mother Ma Ayo (Bukky Ajayi) desperately wants the baby, perhaps more than either of its hypothetical parents, and she has an alternative, somewhat unsavory suggestion about how to resolve it. It’s a tale of simple, distraught, confident, torn emotions, but as with most movies, it is the story-telling, and not the story, that comes through in the end. Continue reading →