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Update 2018: Such an old, out-of-date review from my youth, and so little time to re-review.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
Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies opens with an ebullient, maddening, playful, oblique, and altogether disconcerting cinematic treatise on chaos and order in the modern age: a group of men in a bar tentatively organized into a disassembled, flat-footed ballet that approximates with gusto and drunken flair the orbiting of the planets around the sun. It is a fully alive, alert gesture of cinematic visualization, and a humble one; for the maddening questions Tarr is known to cryptically tackle, he lays his meditation bare in this opening scene. The universe, he wants us to know, may be fundamentally chaotic, may be fundamentally ordered, he doesn’t know, and he wants to find out. Continue reading
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is little more than a New Hollywood pastiche, a loving and careful waxworks recreation of a style and type of cinema that was at one time, a great many years and Hollywood eras ago, the most lively and startling thing to ever happen to American cinema. As a film, David Lowery’s recreation of that style has not one new idea to bring to the table the New Hollywood built out of rustic, unpolished wood and then abandoned long ago. All Lowery is doing is digging through scrap heap, separating out the noble rust from the ignoble variety, and refashioning it into a garage sculpture where the very nature of the metal – falling apart, worn to the point of triteness – is a badge of honor, a reminder of how old this sort of tale really is, and how lively it can still feel when it is carted out after it hasn’t seen the light of day in too long. It doesn’t offer a new idea, but it offers a more humble reminder: in the New Hollywood of the 1970s, we now see not only a scorching fresh breath into the room of Hollywood’s musty old classicism, but a peculiar, well-worn form of old-timey comfort. Those New Hollywood films are now part of the classic American cinematic tradition, and Lowery is merely playing a requiem for them. Continue reading
In Victoria, Australia, on Valentine’s Day, in 1900, three female boarding school students and their teacher disappeared. Or so Peter Weir’s 1975 anti-genre classic Picnic at Hanging Rock, adapted from Joan Lindsay’s novel of the same title, shows us. It didn’t actually happen, but that doesn’t matter. It could have happened, and the literal truth of the tale is a red herring contrasted with the emotional truth of the tale. Plus, on the subject of “Western society making play with the world”, few films have spoken more emotional truth than Picnic at Hanging Rock. You might imagine the story on your own: a hard-hitting, grisly dissection of a mystery. A dissection that is very much not what Weir himself had in mind. But then, that’s why we are mere mortals, and Peter Weir is one of the great, underappreciated directors of the modern age. Continue reading
Eyes Wide Shut was Stanley Kubrick’s final completed feature film, and fittingly for a director who did more to redefine and test narrative cinema than arguably any other director of the 20th century, it feels like the summation of his decades-long quest to test how Machiavellian cinema could be. It feels like the completion of his life quest, but it also feels pointedly incomplete, like a work that remains alive and growing to this day. A work that refuses to be batted down or defined. A work that always has something to say to us, that invites discontent and disagreement, and a work that shows a talent still learning new tricks right up until his final moments. Kubrick was a director who always seemed both wise beyond his years and too young, too reckless, and too much of a social provocateur to fit in with the supposedly mature, normative adult world of cinema. Eyes Wide Shut, inviting both the age of wither of a great old-school fable and the heedless, impulsive, devil-may-care gravitas of an unformed New Hollywood bad-boy, is the culmination of all the contrasts that made Kubrick himself. 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
With the culmination of the month-long Worst or “Worst” feature on some of the alleged worst films ever made, what a better way to return to the weekly Midnight Screening series than a great film about the guy who made some of the alleged worst movies ever made…
As a rule, Tim Burton’s interpretation of “film” works best when it has a guiding light and a vision. In the early 1990s, Burton was about the most visionary mainstream American director you could find, doing nothing less than sneaking away with oodles of money from the Hollywood producers he played uneasy servant to and using that money to paint his personal fixations all over the screen. In recent years, he has become a passe parody of his former self, creating gluttonous products that feel more like someone’s idea of a “Tim Burton film” than the real deal. But the passion, the lusty Americana, and the campy, Christmas tree fuel-for-the-fire went away long ago. Money, as it so often does with directors, has made Burton a blase Hollywood director-for-hire. But for this enfant terrible, boredom was not always the rule of thumb… Continue reading
Edited January 2016
A word on Terrence Malick, and not a terribly original word at that: the crux of the Malick state of mind, for at least its pre-Tree of Life existence, is fundamentally cinematic poetry, with any presumption of an artistically unmediated reality shot-through with an oneiric potency that nonetheless conjures Malick’s unique fascination with the vibrations of human being better than any more obviously “realistic” film could convey. Malick was introduced to the world through a high-minded treatise on the idea of an American New Wave film, releasing his debut, 1973’s Badlands, in a thick-on-the-ground decade of American grit and what many directors would call “realism”. The late ’60s and early ’70s had their Bonnies and their Clydes, their Bunches that were Wild, and even their Streets of indefatigable Meannness, and the consensus around those films was that they gallantly and brutally brought some fighting words for the Old Hollywood ways of geniality and safety. The general consensus is, in other words, that America got nasty in the ’70s, and specifically, that their films brought the “hard-won realism” in a way America never had before.