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
Mike Leigh has always been a perfectly sound visualist, a sterling and occasionally stoic bard who let his characters do the talking, but whose films breathed the life of simple human activity more harmoniously than arguably any living director. But never before has his style been so in tune with the substance of his work. His films by and large are social realist works of character and social milieu, and Mr. Turner retains this noble essence, but it remains his most non-naturalist film. Which couldn’t be more fitting for what is obviously a work about the shuddering shadows and brimming light rays of early 19th century painting as much as it is a grounded study of a man who felt so much for that art he sacrificed everything else in his life. It isn’t a given yet – Mr. Turner is still young in the world and will need time to mill about and settle still – but if it isn’t Leigh’s best film, it is his most fascinating, and of all his films, it has the most to whisper to us about cinema. Continue reading
This week’s pair of Midnight Screenings will return us to the far-flung past of 2006 and 2007, a more innocent time in film history …
It was only natural that Danny Boyle would direct a science fiction film, and probably no less a given that he would render hard science fiction through his peculiar and particular brand of frothy-icy, sensory style-as-substance. By 2007, he had taken on horror and family cinema, as well as the venerable mid-’90s drug-trip cottage genre, and arguably no genre breeds more fertile ground for a natural visualist than science fiction. Recasting the writer of his own 28 Days Later for a similarly mercurial screenplay, Boyle’s film follows a collection of American and Japanese astronauts in the near future on a quest to drop a payload of nuclear devices into the Sun, which is dying and presumably taking Earth along with it. The narrative twists to a point, but Sunshine is more an experiment in color and space as an avenue for human psychology than a narrative proper. Which is exactly the sort of science fiction that has been sent out into the wild and left waywardly wandering for the past several decades of cinema, and exactly why Boyle’s triumphant take on that mood of the genre is so refreshing. Continue reading
Update 2018: Such an old, out-of-date review from my youth, and so little time to re-review. But after watching Stalker again, I’m still floored by its meditations on apocalyptic time, and the way it seems to persist with the weight of eternity and the pressure of stillness yet still evoke a diaphanous, ever-fluctuating quality. The film visualizes experiences that temporarily illuminate before us and yet constantly seem to be shuddering apart before our eyes.
It’s Tarkovsky, so Stalker is tinged with a dose of the Burkean sublime, but never before or since did his quest for transcendence seem so embattled, so threatened, so clearly aware that achieving sublimity isn’t a linear motion toward another realm of physical being but to another way of thinking, another form of consciousness aimed not at stringing together life narratively – looking for the accruals, the goals, the definitives – but toward noticing the fluctuating states of being around you. The sublime, in Tarkovsky’s framing then, is a poetically doomed project, where one reaches new temporary truths only to confront how partial, provisional, and ephemeral they are. Obviously rebuking Soviet modernity’s mechanical modernities and reconnecting Russia to a long-lost mysticism, Tarkovsky’s film has much in common with earlier Russian radicals, reanimating their spirit much as his closest American contemporary, Malick, rekindled the currents of Emerson and Whitman. Both filmmakers resist definitives in their search for cosmic connection, observing nature with a spectral fluidity that moves from the majestic to the terrifying but always remembers the friction in the moment, treating each image not as a statement but a constantly-perusing question, a verb, an unresolved mosaic. His films are about finding a world elsewhere and living with the knowledge that this elsewhere is forever unfinished.
So many sci-fi films from the late ’70s play with eldritch horrors and far-flung futures but never truly explore their capacity for touching the unknown. In this morass, Tarkovsky’s Stalker is uniquely in touch, not only with the cosmic implications of its claims to visualize new truths but the fallibility of those implications, the sense in which the sort of unmediated truth another film might seek is hopelessly static and abstract. Comparatively, while Stalker may seem abstract on the surface, it attunes, rather singularly, not only to the desire for transcendence but the ground-level rhythms of searching, stumbling, falling, and getting back up necessary not only to get there, but to realize that these rhythms of failure are the cadences of humanity, that transcendence is not a fixed state or a destination but a path forward. Continue reading
It takes a big movie to thrive with so many obvious flaws as Life of Pi, and it takes an even bigger director to get it to that point of success. For Life of Pi, that director is Ang Lee, the spiritually lush aesthetic artist who is as frequently benefited as he is hurt by his incomparably luminous romantic streak, and he does what is simultaneously his best and his worst job yet directing a film. His best, in that his spiritual streak is at its most alternately transcendent and restful in the large swaths of Life of Pi where it is putting all of its energy in being a purely presentation-focused work of feeling, breathing beauty and magisterially cinematic color-and-shape as mood-and-space. His worst, in that his spiritual streak leads him into some painfully cumbersome thematizing and immature and pandering feel-zones where characters drone on and on in alternately dulcet and exclamatory tones about petulant soul-searching and adolescent identity quests. Life of Pi, despite its restfulness, is a deeply temperamental film, moving between truly awe-inspiring nadirs of incompetence (such as a spellbindingly awful frame narrative) and acmes of blinding, truly side-winding transcendence that wash over you and put you in one of the finest pure mental spaces in 2010s cinema this side of The Tree of Life. Continue reading
George Miller really wanted Mad Max: Fury Road. The back-story, the thirty year gap between Fury Road and its predecessor Mad Mad: Beyond Thunderdome, and the troubled, stop-start production for Fury Road itself all conspire to tell us this much. The beauty of the resulting film is that this back-story is both instantly extraneous and essential to unlocking its mysteries. All the hurt, all the torment, all the passion to release that which had been denied to Miller; all are instantly identifiable on the screen, but the film speaks for itself. Right before it blows your head off, but that is the Miller way. After releasing two extraordinary vehicles for tactile, sand-encrusted action under the Mad Max name, he went Hollywood and lost his edge with the third feature, the one whose biggest addition was Tina Turner. He spent the ensuing thirty years intermittently pursuing his craft in often stellar family films to recuperate, but his heart was elsewhere. Continue reading
The Tree of Life isn’t easily explained through conventional filmic analysis. I don’t have the resources within me, for instance, to explain why Sean Penn is in this movie, or why director Terrence Malick felt the need to spend thousands of dollars on a CGI-heavy recreation of the forming of the world. But, for every fault to be found in the film, none can replace the eternal face that I fell – positively, undeniably fell – under the director’s spell for just about every minute of the 135 minutes I spent watching this film, in a way I never have in a movie theater before. The human story found here doesn’t recall my own childhood in the slightest, and yet watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel connected to not merely the characters but the world they inhabit in a way I didn’t quite understand at first. I felt something that, if I may, might be the foremost (and perhaps only, but that says more about me than the film) spiritual experience in my life. I wasn’t so much watching a film as accepting it and letting it wash over me. I wasn’t “analyzing” shots or dialogue, as I tend to do in order to stake my claim as a film critic worth his salt. I was just there, and also not there – in some sort of weird limbo where I existed less as a physical body and more as conception of myself. It was an experience, but perhaps, a passive one. I let the film take me and it accepted – part of me is still swimming around in there. Continue reading