In my review of Nights of Cabiria, I noted that Federico Fellini grew more fantastical and whimsical with age, and he became forever less entombed in the limits of pure realism. True, and it might be assumed that with whimsy and fantasy come happiness and warmth. To some extent, they did; Nights of Cabiria ends on one of the most singularly uplifting notes in all of cinema. But whimsy does not automatically imply joy, nor a new leaf. Fellini was still an angry, tormented, complicated man; he had simply developed a new filmic vocabulary for exploring his emotions, whatever emotions they may be. New storytelling mechanisms dictated how he would explore emotions, and not what emotions he would explore. His application of Hollywood romance and Italian/ French romanticism was not always an uncomplicated acceptance, but more often a dare. Fellini would follow romanticism and melodrama to their limits and see if he could come out the other side a believer. With La Dolce Vita, melodrama is a slaughterhouse, and you unravel from the other side in shreds. Continue reading
Now, for “Film Favorites”, two of the most beautiful experiments in color ever made: Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the champions of feverish color and quintessentially British cinema, probably never found a subject more perfectly attuned to their signature style than The Red Shoes. A tale of upcoming ballet star Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) studying under the dictatorial, monomaniacal Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook), torn between Lermontov’s demands and her true love for his composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), The Red Shoes is the pinnacle of their fixation on obsession and oppression as they intertwine and tangle to the point where flying into the sun is indistinguishable from crashing and burning. Under their vision, art and the pursuit of art become an Icarus act, and it is only fitting that the two men seemed primed and driven to obsessively push the limits of color cinema until they too would burn brightly before falling into the sun. Continue reading
Edited in April 2016
Jacques Tati’s Playtime is the sort of ambidextrous work that grants a reviewer the blessing and curse of confronting opening lines from all angles. One might look to the evolution of Tati’s carnivalesque visionary depiction of modern society over the course of twenty years of filmmaking. Or the fact that this 1967 feature, his magnum opus in more ways than one, almost bankrupt him and went six times over budget as the famously meticulous Tati spent months upon months refilming sequences with psychotic perfectionism. Then we find the brilliantly twitchy physical comedy in the film. And the warped classicisim of the imagery and sound design that distorts and reinvents not only modernity but our place as fleshy individuals in the world. Then there’s the commendable commitment to throwing narrative cinema by the wayside in favor of Tati’s vision of space and place as human savior and human assassin, depending, of course, upon how we interact with the world around us. Continue reading
An attentive, quick-witted potboiler with the physical mechanics of a fine, boisterous thriller matched to the mind of brash, brutal critique of inspirational dramas, Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s full length version of his award-winning short film on the same subject, is a fierce and frenzied treat for the late 2014 movie season long lulled into a drowsy, seemingly endless sleep by milquetoast Oscarbait. That it isn’t quite as good as its now-rampant fanbase suggests is definitely noticeable, but that does little to distract from its pent-up, thoroughly-agitated charm and vicious, viscous frustration. Continue reading
Update late 2018:
Watching again four holiday-seasons later, Some Like it Hot is such a prickly affair, so spirited and yet so suspicious of society, so generous and joyous and yet so acrid and jarring, so innocent and compassionate and yet loaded so deviously with subterfuge. And, in some ways, so much less and more transgressive than some critics make it out to be, with so much less to say about gender in the traditional sense – it doesn’t really dispell any stereotypes or even advocate for fluidity per-se – and yet so much more to say about the intersection between social identity and achievement, and the intersection of desire, gender, and capital, more broadly, insofar as the two protagonists perform alternative genders to fill a role in society when their existing roles are questioned or eliminated.
But Some Like it Hot confounds expectations at every turn. It’s practically baked into the film’s structure, beginning with a gorgeous prologue which rather seditiously feigns full-on gangster drama, and even though the protagonists escape that genre, the film never gets out of dodge: its always nervous, always serious, and never dethrones its characters or their anxieties for the sake of a joke. The famous final line, so hilarious in the moment, intimates a full history of tragedy and dashed expectations. Other scenes presage the vicious ecstasy of Wilder’s later One, Two, Three, but this film stages a truly mordant drama that always makes its empathy legible, frustrating any desire to mock the males’ foolishness for wanting to dress up or believing they can easily pass off as women without any understanding of the social codes of gender which until that point in their lives had been essentially preordained or written-off as “natural”.
Worthy of absurdity though their fumbling attempts to realize the performative nature of gender may be, the film never sabotages or demeans their inexpressible desires which are veiled in rhetoric and miscommunicated encounters. Instead, it frustrates their ability to express them clearly and cleanly. Thriving in the pragmatic space between internal dreams and external manifestations of those dreams, Some Like it Hot explores both the tragic and absurdist dimension of the fact that we must mediate desires through social roles which cannot fully explain or express those desires.
No one did Old Hollywood like Billy Wilder. And by did, I mean toyed with. He made Old Hollywood film stylings his pet. And if Billy Wilder was your owner, you were liable to succumb quite quickly to his oppressive, cynical charm. You’d grow up an ass, but you’d have a lot of fun in the meantime. He perfected perhaps the most Old Hollywood genre of all, film noir, in 1944 with his nihilist fable Double Indemnity, sent Old Hollywood off in fine style with his late period The Apartment, and generally dived deep into Old Hollywood and ripped it into little pieces from the inside out with his masterpiece among masterpieces, Sunset Blvd. But America never loved a Billy Wilder film like Some Like it Hot, and it’s easy to see why. Never before, and probably never since, has a comedy been so carefully assembled to walk a thin line between sauce and sweetness, between bouncy, lascivious swagger and prim-and-proper airs. And perhaps never before was Wilder so gosh-darned fun. 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
A Serious Man
A deceptively sedate but perpetually off-kilter movie, A Serious Man really has a lot going on under its sleeves, even if the characters seem more interested in re-fastening the cuff-links to keep everything from spilling out. It’s one of the two-headed director’s patented caustic satires of the very mundane oppression of everyday suburban America, only this time without as much salt and vinegar. Yes, A Serious Man is a combative, anxious film, and it takes a perturbed delight in unearthing the daily existential crises of a society that seems to run on wheels to the untrained eye, but it’s also a curiously warm film. Perhaps the Coens had a little bit of humanist fun left in them after 2008’s 60’s caper comedy re-reading Burn After Reading, and they decided to infuse just a smidgen of it into a decidedly brainier, more intellectual stew. Or maybe they just had Jewish guilt on the mind, and needed a little Jewish humor to save their tired souls. Either way, they produced some filmic dynamite, a work as rabidly intellectual as it is lightly feeling and genially flighty. It captures humanity looking the other way and takes a true delight in watching and letting the popcorn fly. Continue reading
Annie Hall is many things: a thoughtful, perceptive dissection of romance, a frothy, light romantic comedy, and a devastating depiction of the inevitability of loss in love. It is also, more than anything, not the film Woody Allen was on the path to making in 1977. While he was a noted comedy writer-director by this time, and one who had made several strong features, his films were defined by their frothy-caustic anarchy and generally zany Marx Brothers riffs, movies structured less like narrative than improvisational comedy. This last part continues in Allen’s then most mature feature, Annie Hall, but while it boasts a number of laugh aloud moments, its humor is underscored by a fundamental nervousness that puts it at odds with Allen’s previous works.
Personified in Allen’s Alvy Singer, the kind of figure who would soon become an Allen stereotype but who here feels youthful with worry, this film was Allen’s first to tread the line between the caustic and the deeply warm-hearted, the incorrigible and the unquestionably brittle. This isn’t a depressing picture per-se – it’s far too energetic and lively – but it does deal with ends as much as beginnings, innately creating a sort of finality that breeds some sense of loss absent in any of Allen’s previously more abstract, even obtuse, sketch-like works. Annie Hall is also, in addition to all these things, and perhaps because of Allen’s skill at combining them into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, pure cinematic dynamite, a film so in love with and so angry at the world it cannot help but provide us with new ways of looking at it. Continue reading
After an unusually long gap for the insanely prolific Coen Brothers (three whole years!), they make damn-sure they remind us why we wait with such anxiety and anticipation for each release bearing their sibling stamp. With fantastic attention to detail, a well-realized sense of place that is all too familiar yet curiously distant, and a surprisingly laid-back yet aching, distraught screenplay backing them, Inside Llewyn Davis is their best release since No Country for Old Men and dangerously close to one of their top five films ever. It works as a meandering tribute to the underbelly of the greasy, cut-throat New York folk scene, an homage to the freewheeling works of James Joyce and their ability to uphold the common man as a mythic wanderer, and a picaresque exploration of the the day-to-day doldrums of human existence that combines unaffected social realism and moments of more obviously filmic, signature Coen Brothers flights of subtle fantasy. It’s an altogether plaintive film, but a deeply felt one with cheer tempered by aimless loss that chills to the bone. Continue reading
The day has finally come (or re-emerged after a long dormant absence, but more on that later). One of cinema’s most esoteric, obtuse sounding pairings has finally been realized. Drive, the new film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, combines two very dissimilar cinematic worlds: the art film and the action film. It’s all kinetic action and flair, but particularly in the later half, it adopts a distinctly 70’s angular, stylized European moody crime film vibe more interested in abstract bodies in motion than bloodletting and tension. It’s about as strange a pairing as can be found in the modern cinematic landscape. Yet it’s wholly wonderful for the same reason, a peek into the past where genre fare did not imply smug grandiosity. And it could only have been made by Nicolas Winding Refn.
Driver (Ryan Gosling) drives. By day, when not working as a mechanic, he drives for films. But by night, he drives for anyone, no questions asked, as long as they pay. Naturally, this means he’s involved with criminals, but, just as he does with anything, he distances himself to keep from getting caught. He has no real friends to speak of, and he doesn’t have much of a way with words either. But one day he helps his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan), and a bond develops between the two, matched only by an equally strong bond between Driver and Irene’s son Benicio. And, as is the case with any movie like this, their interaction changes (at least one of) their lives forever. Continue reading