Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s dueling morality play about the nature of human worry, is a film of two halves coexisting with pitch-back energy and wracking each others’ brains with literate, indignant abandon. Allen’s film provides an A and a B story, and deliberately defines them as “the Bergman Allen film”, or the thoughtful and intellectual work concerned with human frailty, and the “non-Bergman Allen film”, or the zippy and nervy work about humans in need of frailty and faking it to themselves to hide the fact that they are actually doing A-okay. One story observes a doctor (Martin Landau) who plots to kill his lover and soon comes to care so little about it he can’t be bothered to let it put a limp in his step. The other follows a talented filmmaker (Allen) slumming in more commercial fair, doing okay for himself but looking for woe wherever he can find to get his nightly fix of dark thoughts. One character has no soul, and the other desperately wants to give his away. All the while, Allen’s camera sits back with a mordant smirk on its face and lets the hurt seep in. Continue reading
Edited June 2016
With Fellini long lost down the surrealist tube and intentionally distancing himself from his earlier realist days, someone in the early ’60s had to fill the neo-realist hole left by the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. Of course, it wasn’t going to be Michelangelo Antonioni, the chilly director of physical space and undersexed human boredom, but he would do in a pinch. Yet, if Antonioni studied the neo-realists well, he was his own beast altogether. Neo-realist classics like Bicycle Thieves attained a certain warmth in their intentional focus on human activity elevated to the realms of mythic quest, but Antonioni was very much fascinated by human inactivity.
Furthermore, he didn’t follow the neo-realist mantra of letting his people do the talking while his camera shakes and rattles about. Instead, Antonioni took a hands-on approach, positioning his characters delicately, defining them in wide compositions that sequester those characters into personal hells. He calculated every frame with a spatial dogmatism akin to Bresson or Hitchcock, but his mantra was more geographic, more geometric than those individual-centric directors. Antonioni, more than any director before, acclimatized his audience to the physical space around his characters. While the typically open-oyster cinematic world usually carves space out for individuals to thrive as the focus, Antonioni curdles space into a malevolent force that fights back. Antonioni’s genius is in how he exposes his characters’ world through methods his characters might approve of; his filmmaking is detached and rigid because his film is about the detached and the rigid. He was making a film for his characters, but a film that deeply laments those characters as they eschew a world of connection and turn the human-world relationship into a war of attrition.
Joe is a return to maturity for director David Gordon Green, although this is not necessarily the same as a return to full form. Recently, he set his sights on a duo of pot-addled comedies centering a drug most appropriate for viewing Gordon Green’s earlier art films (the first of the two also aped the visual style of Green’s poetic examinations of humanity to fascinating effect), followed by an even more insipid comedy that had nothing to do with weed. He had lost his way. Now, the once-beloved indie director has seen it fit to grasp for his old critical darling status by returning to low-and-slow character drama and natural earthen beauty.
In the transition, he’s lost a certain peculiar magic, and the finished product seems more like a Green impostor that only understands Green on the surface. But then, surface-level Green is a hell of a lot better than most films, and certainly a gargantuan, lurching leap above his recent 2010s comedy ventures. Joe doesn’t have the Midas touch, but it doesn’t need it. It’s a damn fine social realist drama, and I for one am never too curmudgeonly to bask in the glories of a nice social realist stew. Continue reading
Following 2007’s brilliant Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, and faced with the decision of what to do with your fancy new McCarthy adaptation, the best, most exciting decision you could possibly make would be hiring John Hillcoat, the man who made The Proposition, just about the best ever film adaptation of a book McCarthy forgot to write. Hiring Viggo Mortensen, a mad mastermind of an actor when he wants to be, is the second-best decision you could make. It seemed, thus, that everything was in place for The Road to just tear up the film world, and indeed, to whisper something confrontational to No Country for Old Men and ready its fists for a prime licking. The rhythms of this paragraph likely signal a huge, heaping “but”, and that they do. They also likely signal a bad film. That they do not, thankfully. But they signal a decent film where a masterful one might have been, and that is almost as bad. Continue reading
A note: Technically, Wings of Desire is the only one of these two films in the German language and the only which takes place in Germany, but both are thematically very similar and so interconnected it seemed inappropriate to reflect on one without the other. Plus, Paris, Texas is a West German/ English co-production. So, despite taking place in the US (and, pointedly, in the most god-damn US state of all, Texas) and being filmed completely in English, it still technically qualifies. Allow me my questionable logic. Things will go easier from here if you do.
Edited and Updated June 2016
Equivocation, whatever it can do to abet the mind, can stultify the stuttering soul. Hyperbole, once or twice, may be the essence of wit. Permit me to speak to the winds without bourgeois constraint or prudence; it is what Charlie Chaplin, one of the most untrammeled purveyors of unrestricted emotion as a principle of good folk, would have wanted. City Lights may just be cinema’s greatest gift to the world: a truly, unabashedly sentimental masterpiece. By 1931, the time of the film’s release, Chaplin – a decade into his celebrity and his most prodigiously productive period – was confronting the flux of the world around him: in cinema, the shift from silent film to talking pictures, and in the world, a post-WWI decay threshing national boundaries into nothingness and instigating a worldwide depression. The only salve for Chaplin was the often sour sting of excessive sweetness, an emotional delicacy or an after dinner mint for some films that Chaplin preferred to envision as a main course. .
It is the unfortunate burden of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place that it is almost never treated separately from two other films released in the same year with similar subject matters: Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve. Both films, of course, are Hollywood royalty. This is perhaps ironic considering they both deal with Hollywood royalty, although one is nominally about Broadway to create, perhaps, thinly-guised distance from the hand that feeds. Like those films, In a Lonely Place deals almost entirely in brittle cynicisms and barely contained self-deprecating snark, aimed squarely at mommy dearest: Hollywood. It’s astounding that three of Hollywood’s most disturbing and grandly disparaging self-mutilations came out within 12 months of each other. Perhaps something was in the water (more on this later). Strangely, while those two films now bump shoulders with the likes of Citizen Kane of Casablanca, In a Lonely Place has been somewhat demoted to “lesser classic” status. That’s a shame, as it’s a true dark horse masterpiece of self-hating, jaundiced malaise that expends its dying breath clinging to any tatters of hope it can find illuminated amidst the dense chiaroscuro of Ray’s irrepressible visuals .
Edited and Updated 2016
Robert Altman, among his many talents, was first and foremost the American master of nervous, human comedy. His films all have that special wink-and-a-nod approach to drama, that bittersweet, knowing approach to humor. MASH is usually considered his foremost and best comedy, but he expanded his horizons and explored the limits of gallows humor in his other more somber films as well. Even his quietest, most somber affair, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, reveals dry humor as early as its opening scene. Presenting a vision of a decrepit Pacific Northwest town all but destroyed by big business, the film’s hero, who we expect to save the day, rides in to town slowly, hunched over, and equally weathered with age. It’s an image shot through with bitter irony and acidic wit, one which gives us a Western town with no desert and a Western hero riding in but here looking mundane and even sickly.
Nashville, however, is perhaps his grand comic opus, and it too wastes no time revealing its caustic humor. Early on, we’re introduced to Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), a longtime hero of America’s country-western music scene, performing a song written for the bicentennial with lyrics so hokey it’s impossible to take seriously. But he, and America, does. The lyrics belie a crushing self-seriousness to the grandiose performance that explicitly remind of the performative nature of this jingoistic conception of the American spirit. Continue reading
One would suspect that all a romance needs to do to succeed is give you two characters who are likable, giving the audience a reason to care about them so that, in the end, the audience’s interest lies in seeing them come together and decide they were meant for each other, or something as gushy as all that. Most romances can’t even accomplish this, and, unfortunately, many of the ones that can aren’t capable of taking those characters and moving us from sympathy for them into empathy. This is what truly moves romance beyond good and into the realm of greatness, and this is what Blue Valentine has in anguished, blood-and-dirt-covered spades. Because of this, the two central characters and the problems they face ache with life-blood, and the movie is a powerful, effective and affecting, if profoundly intense to watch, experience. Continue reading
As a history major in college, I’ve taken numerous classes specializing on slavery in the US. I thought I could understand something of the history, the pain, the suffering, the anguish. I thought, to whatever extent it was possible for a white kid in the early 21st century to know, I knew. I was wrong. Sitting in the theater watching 12 Years a Slave, I felt the inescapable grasp of history around my neck, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Never before have I felt so clearly and achingly the tragedies upon which America is built. I felt helpless. My reaction was visceral; I gritted my teeth, I began to shake uncontrollably, all the more so when I realized how, even with 12 Years a Slave, I still couldn’t “know” fully. 12 Years a Slave is the best “Oscar” film in the better part of a decade. But it isn’t just a great film, it’s a necessary one, and it is all the more so because it is painfully aware of what it leaves out of the story and what we may never know. As a story, it plays out in insinuating gazes and implicating glances, all fissures into history that demand that we confront the film not as an objective portal into the past but as a subjective interpretation of it. Continue reading