Category Archives: Film Favorites

Film Favorites: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

shoothorses1An astonishingly hopeless anti-myth odorized with the stench of failure and bloodstained with the tattered remains of hope, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? twists the idiom of dance away from its usual home in restless fantasy, treating human gyrations as the small-scale reverberations of a slowly-tilting edifice ready to crumble to the ground. For Sydney Pollock’s film, dance movements are first particles of movement that exist not to fling us into a hopeful future but to topple us from below, subsuming us to the movement of our feet that seem no longer tied to our minds or our personal agencies. Our bodies are no longer uncertain adventurers carving out a bold future but frantic chasers of a dream deferred, hoping to catch up to the scraps of nothingness thrown our way. They Shoot Horses is a parable of America as a collection of lost souls wandering into dancehall marathons – brandishing hopes and dreams of Grace Kelly and Fred Astaire, or the Charleston – and succumbing to the barren, unforgiving economic destitution that undergird and consume the romantic aspirations that nominally lacquer the surface of these activities. As Pollock sees it, bone-dragging, fall-out-of-bed-and-stumble-upwards days are the only ones America had in the ‘30s, and maybe ever again. Continue reading

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Film Favorites: A Touch of Sin

a-touch-of-sin-stills-da-hai-jiang-wu-03-copyright-xstream-pictures-beijingThe wide-ranging berth of writer-director Jia Zhangeke’s multipartite, all-across-China film, A Touch of Sin, cannot deny its impeccable eye for the specificity and complication of even the least of its individual tales. A Touch of Sin is obviously the story of a society; its nature is polyphonic, paralleling four individual tales and hinting at many others, asking us to look at a wider portrait of the world, even one in which many souls feel atomized and alienated. But, despite the length and size of this film, it never feels like a belabored or overly-grandiose obelisk, a sky-high statement that attempts to encompass all of China. Its rhythms are minute and intimate, its portrait of modern-day China finding its genesis not in any declamatory, macro-level statements but in the tight minutiae of four tales playing out on canvases of inward regret, internal dissolution, and people yearning for other selves. Continue reading

Film Favorites: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

220px-posterlazarescuIt would be astonishingly difficult to convince a viewer to watch director Christi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu if they weren’t already predisposed to adore Puiu’s strange, sardonic, drunken but deeply compassionate 150-minute account of exactly what its title suggests. The plain-spoken brutality of the film’s title is not an ironic or even a metaphysical signpost for the symbolic scholar. It is not simply an imaginative foothold for the audience to understand that the film is really using its narrative to plumb some epochal commentary on life in modern-day Romania, to expose a “death” that is abstract or societal in nature, as though the world’s compassion is withering away. The title is not merely an intimation or a whispered poeticism, a literary flick of the pen meant draw us into the film’s thematic caverns. Continue reading

Film Favorites: I’m Not There

i27m_not_thereA whirlygust of synapses fire, intellectually, emotionally, and sensually in director Todd Haynes’ thematic invocation of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, which is a tone poem about Dylan as a concept, as an ache in the belly, as a mind for dissent, and as a troubadour that infects the minds of everyone willing to listen. It is not a picture about Dylan as a human being or a flesh-in-blood person, although it is defiant in its unabashed humanism, calling on a panoply of styles and personhoods to refract Dylan across numerous time spaces and identities to reveal not only his polyphonic self but the many valences of the nation he both represented and challenged. Dylan here is omnidirectional, paradoxically both a symbol for anything you want and a hungrier creature that swallows symbols whole and runs away in his (or her) own direction. Most biopics – a genre I’m Not There is only very tenuously related to – are a kind of pedestrian par excellance, as cinematically dead and intellectually bankrupt as any Michael Bay film, even though biopics wear their intellects less lightly and call on the spirit of the middlebrow rather than the lowbrow. They draw a decisive quotient of their beings from their belief that they can unravel and pin-down their subject-matter, that they are educators imparting true knowledge to the viewer.  In contrast, I’m Not There cannot be pinned down, and it shows that its subject cannot either. Continue reading

Film Favorites: Birth

mv5bnzuznzi4mzu4nv5bml5banbnxkftztcwmjcxmzcymq-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Inhabiting a gradient from electrifyingly un-ironic romanticism to baleful malevolence to existential calamity, Jonathan Glazer’s follow-up to his debut Sexy Beast is subtle in its implication but implosive in touch, feel, sensation, and style. It hangs over you, with premonitions of doubt and stenches of inclement weather overhead, but it avoids many (most) of the easy tricks films use to evoke the shadows of modernity: expressionistic shadows, a thick gauze of lighting, canted angles. Many films today are embalmed in expectations and mental prisons for what horror might mean, and here is the fiercely alive Birth, an otherworldly film not because of the presence of diegetic aliens or space travel but because it confronts our world through an alternate perspective from the one most of us call home. Although its intellectual and sensory channels were undeniably forged from the ghostly modernistic vibes of Resnais and the self-inquiry of Antonioni, it nonetheless inhabits the frontiers of consciousness. Continue reading

Film Favorites: You Can Count on Me

you_can_count_on_me_posterDon’t have a particularly piquant reason for catching up with this film at this moment in time, although I am moving to upstate New York later this month, and perhaps no film I can think of evokes the wintry, wilted spirit of that location, at least as it exists in the mind, so there is a certain poetic coincidence in this review. 

How rare is it that a film genuinely empathizes with its characters without sweeping them up into the torrential currents of white-water narrative or turning them into pawns in a chessboard game of improvement, actualization, and goal-achievement? Without implicit edicts that their lives are only worth filming if they are in the middle of a personal quest for fulfillment or at the bank to establish a new lease on life? Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort Manchester-by-the-Sea is one, and his debut You Can Count on Me is another, even greater achievement.

Every Lonergan character is a gift to their performer and to humanity, and this film’s two central gifts are adult siblings Sammy Prescott (Laura Linney) and Terry Prescott (Mark Ruffalo). In the opening scene, a glimpse of their childhood, their parents are killed in a car accident which Lonergan writes and films as a humanistically, animatedly tedious drive-time conversation rather than relying on clever presentiments of the impending tragedy or noir-infused, gravid imagery. In this film thoroughly free of portent or signposting, a few splintered shards – the police officer knocks on the family door and the kids answer, a pastor speaks at a funeral underneath a child’s choir – are enough for Lonergan to establish a sense of consequence that is born, piquantly, out of the ordinary, rather than through a tendentiously dramatic visual or narrative schema that raises these characters or their tragedy on a pedestal or anoints them as totems to The Truth, ambassadors to middle-America and suburban life. Continue reading

Midnight Screenings: He Never Died and Late Phases

he_never_died_posterHe Never Died

Henry Rollins casts an almighty pall over He Never Died, a cold splash of a horror film that is more fried, irreverent noir than monster mash. In his music and public persona, the consummate and inimitable madman Rollins sours every heckle, hellhound howl, and vulture screech to an aria of menace and punk-certified nihilism. But, in He Never Died, his viciously, aggressively minimalist performance likens even a simple stare to a barely-sublimated volcano of enthralling agony brewing inside him. Wearing scars like an eldritch horror hiding in a grey hairdo and dad-core attire, he feels like the brutal punk troubadour and restless social freedom fighter beaten into ragged, deeply frayed middle-age. Continue reading