31 August 2009

Irma Vep.

A couple of times on here I've tried to describe scenes with words instead of posting actual videos, but with this one I really think you'd lose the force of the moment without the visual accompaniment.

The film is worth seeing. I'm going to borrow allmovie.com's review to prompt the video. It's what I would have to type out myself otherwise, and in other words there's nothing I wish to add.

"A sinuous dark comedy about cinema, Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep may cast a critical eye on the state of 1990s filmmaking and all that it implies, but the critic-turned-director also creates an artistically thrilling testament to the medium's luminous allure. Though Assayas references French cinema history through the conceit of remaking Les Vampires (1915) and featuring Jean-Pierre LĂ©aud (aka Antoine Doinel) as embattled director Rene Vidal, the English-heavy dialogue and the casting of Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung suggest that the fictional production's maladies are more global in nature. Shot in under a month, Irma Vep's restless style aptly evokes the production's (and Vidal's) implosion under the weight of commercial imperatives, petty power struggles, and misplaced egos, while Cheung's fabulous cat-suited presence renders her a model of elusive star desirability. Punctuated by glimpses of Vidal's dailies, Irma Vep's aborted Les Vampires seems like an artistic lost cause -- until its final, dazzling five minutes reveal how much creative life still potentially percolates through the art form. Though less than adored in France, Irma Vep won ardent fans on the international festival circuit, confirming Assayas' place in French cinema's 1990s renaissance."

This video is those final minutes:

The rest of the movie is nothing at all like that. I should say.

30 August 2009

Milestones (Portland Screening).

My previous reactions after seeing Milestones at the LA Film Festival.

A haunting portrait and exploration of lost dreams, I ascribe Milestones a false lyricism - one that exists in my memory of the film but was missing from the screen Saturday night. Milestones is a revolutionary's counseling session, a musing on a journey out of a certain place. This place is referred to as a 'melted context' and 'changed roots,' and it means that people from a generation of self-discovery are a decade later emerging to find themselves trapped in a lifestyle, and to a greater extent a society, that doesn't fit the image they conjured in their early dreams. It's real stripped-bones filmmaking: the film implements no cohesive device to structure its story, and the narrative is personal, non-traditional, and amateur. This amateurism is what my memory had smoothed over.

The film on a technical level isn't very well made. Boom mics are present regularly, voice-overs are used over scenes of two characters together, some of the more obviously staged scenes lack motivation, and the choices in editing often mirror the hippie mindset. For example, the narrative is stopped for a moment in order to watch clouds pass over the moon. I find it hard to determine which scenes are diary-like or documentary, and which scenes are fiction. A character dies a fake death, and it makes me wonder how authentic his introduction was. Some of the dialogue is wooden, but is it because that's the voice of the person, or is it the staging of the dialogue? You realize at a point that the film isn't always entirely what it needs to be, only what it wants to be.

The title references the transformations taking place in the characters' lives. The film ends with a real-life birth (I admit that, knowing it was coming this time, I watched this scene with my peripheral vision, and am really terrified by ten-foot tall six-centimeter-dilated vaginas), and in some ways everyone in the film is being born or re-born or growing up. Their openness is the film's lasting charm. Ultimately I think the film truly makes transparent, fictional or non-fictional, the lives of its characters, and it shares their honesty on a basic level. Maybe you can't really categorize the film, but you can't really categorize the people in it either.

12 August 2009

Starship Troopers.

There's a genuinely gripping moment about 2/3 of the way through Starship Troopers. An evacuation plane (piloted by the only pilot crazy enough to attempt this rescue mission, Carmen Ibanez, the ex-love interest of Johnny Rico, who will soon become Lieutenant of the group that is the target of this particular rescue) has landed in the midst of a significant strategical offensive initiated by the alien bugs. The bugs have a brain, and the brain has manipulated the Starship fleet by transmitting false orders over their communication systems: the bug brain orchestrated an ambush. The roughnecks caught in this trap are retreating into the plane. Lieutenant Rasczak has already perished (death from a bug), and Dizzy Flores has just won retribution for his death by tossing a grenade into the mouth of his monstrous murderer (kind of - Rico shot Rasczak before the bug could finish him, so technically Rico is Rasckzak's murderer). She is one of the last on their way to the plane. Rico, her new lover, the lover she has dreamed of having for years and years, a lifelong yearning that has only recently flourished, shouts for her to come aboard. As she turns and runs toward the plane a bug appears behind her, and the bug devastatingly inflicts mortal wounds upon her body. Rico's retributory slaying of the bug allows Flores to make it on board the plane with her injuries. As the plane begins to leave the co-pilot, Zander Barcalow, the former competing love interest between Rico and Ibanez, signals for the final two turret roughnecks to board. They run towards the plane but are incinerated by giant bug leaders of the approaching horde.

The plane takes off. Barcalow tells Ibanez that Rico is aboard the plane. Ibanez has no knowledge of Rico's love affair with Flores: it is in that moment that she learns Rico is still alive, as she was falsely informed of his death on the battlefield at an earlier point. In the back Rico holds the dying Flores in his arms, but it is not a sad moment, because Flores, with her dying breath, assures Rico that all this was worth it, because she was finally able to be with him, the one she always loved. Flores dies in Rico's arms.

The truly powerful moment comes then: Rico, assuming leadership of the squadron, rushes to the cockpit of the plane. He orders an all-out nuclear assault on the bug planet. He doesn't acknowledge Barcalow or Ibanez, he simply issues the command for planetary annihilation. Though his request will be denied, and through all that has happened before and will after, the true drama in this scene, for me, is the red-eyed Rico, who has been transformed by war in ways he never imagined, in ways the audience never imagined. His story we enter at its beginning, back in his high-school days, when he was still in love with Ibanez, and Flores was annoying and meddling along the peripheral.

It's those red eyes that are genuinely gripping. I can accept this moment because I can accept what surrounds and houses it. I'm not fucking around when I say that amid all the sci-fi lunacy and ancillary drama of the film, all the other badass shit going on, it's a truly powerful and meaningful message on warfare, and a sadly fatal moment for the human spirit.

08 August 2009

Il Posto.

When I watched Il Posto recently I kind of felt a Planet of the Apes sense of revelation. You know how the Statue of Liberty was there the whole time? Well Il Posto has been here the whole time, through my ruminations on Bujalski and Bahrani, beyond the Italian Neorealism years which I often find so melodramatic, and existing even as a precursor to Kieslowski. Like Kieslowski, Olmi is a documentary filmmaker turned narrative filmmaker, and likewise Olmi brought into his narratives the sensibilities of his documentaries.

It's become obvious to me that if you focus your narrative intensely upon your subject with complete honesty and a passion for accuracy, and disregard purposefully whatever modern conventions of filmmaking are prevailing, you can create a film that's wholly engaging and dramatically convincing. When you strip the mechanics of storytelling from a film, your film can become truly alive. The protagonist of Il Posto walks among the living indeed: he walks in a real Milan, he applies to the actual Edison Company of Milan, takes real aptitude tests, converses with his bosses, and, most important to me, his emotions by way of Olmi's direction are depicted authentically and without exaggeration.

It's a mellow film, and I think the pace matches the personality of the mellow protagonist. I think it's edited so the story evolves in the speed of his thoughts. A really great unique quality of Olmi, compared to most other filmmakers in the same vein, including contemporary filmmakers, is that he allows poetry to escape into his frames. Take for example the first scene with the boss:

The camera is of course looking down on Domenico from the elevated perspective of the boss, which conveys his insecurity in this moment and also the boss' dominance, but the framing doesn't suffer from what I think could be an unnatural embellishment. Instead it heightens the sense of Domenico's anxiety, also achingly present in the actor's face, and compliments rather than overpowers the scene. What the camera does is act as a psychological additive, like was common from cinematography back in the day and is very uncommon today, but it does to an equal degree as the film's scene is operating, so that it blends into the narrative, suggests greater ideas existing beneath the scene, and builds on Olmi's true Milan. The camera is uncovering more truth without suggesting a falsely dramatic realm. That's a thine line I think, and it's really difficult to navigate.

What it is also means is that Olmi is interested in every aspect of his film's reality. The total experience of the Edison Company and not the singular experience of Domenico. His intentions and their execution allow me to understand what Domenico is entering into. I can understand 1960's Milan from 00's Portland. I can understand an entire room of 1960's Milan people.

In this scene Domenico has entered a room already mostly full of people waiting to take the Edison admissions tests. This view captures both the tension of the moment and the weight of the pressure, the sense of Domenico's isolation, and the feelings of everyone in the frame with him. The camera will move and more people are yet to arrive, but even in this one shot you can wonder what the two seated are thinking about, why the standing man is staring that way; you wonder about Domenico's fate, share his nervousness, and enter the politics of a waiting room, Edison Company, Milan, 1961. Olmi has Domenico acting, the rest of the room acting, and the camera acting: this is why his film presents a whole reality with a complete truthfulness.

07 August 2009

Day of Wrath.

There's one truly vindictive character in Day of Wrath, the mother, whose suspicions are valid. There's only one truly innocent character, the son, and he betrays his father and contributes to the conditions which lead to his death. There's one victim, the wife, and she's the witch. There's one great tragedy, the death of the husband/preacher, and his punishment is retribution.

There's one God in Day of Wrath, and it is in the name of that God that the priests torture the old woman. There's only one Evil One, and it's the Evil One's power that allows the wife to free herself from oppression and grants her her only meaningful relationship.

The torture and killing of the old woman is outright barbarianism and an absolute injustice. I suppose this depiction is what made Dreyer have to flee Denmark from the Nazis. Though even in her scenes I could not, despite her suffering, and despite the great sadness and grief Dreyer injects into her scenes (her clothes torn off her, her body tied to the stake, her screams as she falls into the fire), consider her character wholesome or morally pure. The old woman attempts to leverage the life of the priest's wife, whose mother was a witch, against her own life in order to grant herself freedom. This is a self-serving action which would be justifiable if you believed one life is worth more than another life, based on the virtues of the person. It also becomes misdirected: while the woman initially wants the priest to recognize the fairness in freeing her (the priest freed the mother in order to marry the daughter) as the moment of death approaches the old woman seems more vengeful, as if she could lastly accept her death if the wife died as well. She's out for the wife's blood as they're out for her blood, though there isn't any indication that the wife is even passively playing a hand in the old woman's death. The wife first hides the old woman, then denies ever seeing her, and then stays inside, visibly upset, during her killing.

The wife is a witch, though, and the old woman is not. I would expect a film in which there is an actual witch to be a film about morality, but I always think of morality as being polar, you're morally right or morally wrong, and Dreyer is definitely saying here, in Day of Wrath, that the actions of all are intertwined in the tragic and doomed destinies of each. The film then is not amoral or immoral, but about sin, the imperfections of humanity, and the corruptibility of perspective. The imperfections of the religious and the wicked. His characters seem to be expressing that one is not worse than the other and that, regardless of morality or intention, their fate is shared.

03 August 2009

Funny People.

Seeing Funny People is exactly, for me, like visiting Georgia. Specifically a place in Georgia about an hour outside any major city, about fifteen minutes from a freeway entrance, and the kind of place in the south where Confederate flags still emblazon pick-up trucks. I don't mean Funny People shares themes with a place like this Georgia place, I just mean that I didn't so much enjoy visiting this Georgia place. It was kind of boring. There wasn't a lot going on. At night I'd sit on the front porch and drink margaritas and literally listen to the sound of mosquitoes flying into their electric light deaths. Zzp.

I wouldn't go back. If you said, listen Shawn, I have tickets to either some backwoods place in Georgia, that you've been to, or I have tickets to Fiji, and we can live in one of those Fiji huts and all that shit, I would choose Fiji. Especially if you were buying.

Then again, some details from my Georgia trip stand out vividly in my mind. There are certainly things that happened to me there which haven't happened to me anywhere else. And I saw things there I haven't seen since. What if I'd never been to this Georgia place? It wasn't a homogeneous entry into my memory bank. Although not life changing, it was something oddly special. I remember too being asleep and awoken by the twelve-year old who was the son of the man I was staying with. He was clutching a beer and dancing to The Doors. He told me The Doors were his favorite band and that he always drank beer and danced while listening to them loudly.

I've read those interviews with Apatow where he talks about early screenings and showing the film to P.T. Anderson and all that. I wish someone had stood up, locked the door to the room, and been like, "Listen. Listen to me. Apatow you're a great filmmaker. You're the average man's genius. You're like a brilliant p.e. coach who reads poetry and teaches kids about life and weight training and encourages them to apply themselves. But nobody is leaving the room until you admit this movie is uneven and clunky."

It's easy to compliment the film. I'm glad he made it. I'm glad it compels people into discussion. Of all the Hollywood types I think he creates the strongest characters. I like the mutually denigrating experiences Rogen and Sandler experience from opposite sides, and how there's this middle ground they can meet in it for short moments like birds on rock islands. I think Schwartzman has awesome deliveries, if not the funniest lines. But. . .(start at beginning again, repeat endlessly).

The Tenant.

Some films have moments that are like passcodes or answer keys, scenes that are giveaways for intent and design, scenes that reveal in one clear moment the artist's interior like an open robe can show you a flash of a naked body. In The Tenant this happens when Polanski himself, the star of Polanski's The Tenant, arrives in the middle of the night at his semi-girlfriend's apartment. He's a mess of distress and paranoia. He's seeking shelter from the immensely bizarre and claustrophobic psychological drama that's everyday escalating in his home space, and the semi-girlfriend says yes you can stay here with me, and Polanski is so grateful that he kisses the girl. They fall back on the bed together. The girl returns the kiss. Polanski begins to cry. Cut to Polanski asleep in her bed, curled in a defensive sleeping position, and the girl moments from leaving for work, and she's explaining to Polanski that he can stay as long as he needs to.

From then to the end The Tenant is devastating. It's harrowing, it's operatic, it's comic, macabre, absurd, riveting, intense, inevitable, just and unjust, crazy and comprehensible, cinematic and powerful.

It begins with a man entering an apartment building. The first moment is a tour of a vacant room. Polanski wants to rent the room. The manager is obliging: he can have the room on the condition that the former tenant dies. She'd thrown herself out of a window - this window right here, look you can see the broken glass - and she's in the hospital now. What if she recovers? Don't worry she won't. Polanski visits the disturbingly broken body of this suicide attempt at the hospital, and this is the scene in which he meets the woman who will be his semi-girlfriend, a demented roar of pain from a hospital bed leading to a Enter the Dragon handjob and boobgrab.

I've heard The Tenant described as predictable. I'd say sometimes predictable means formulaic, but in this instance predictable means well developed and hard earned. I've heard the beginning described as slow. I'd say sometimes slow means aimless and difficult, but in this instance slow means assured and patient. So patient, and that patience, under Polanski's control, is what draws me into this film. It's what makes The Tenant stand above the thriller type that only cares about shocking the audience. I mean sometimes a quickie is nice, but sometimes a tease is incredible. And I think in The Tenant Polanski gives you a real two hour fuck, and the end of the film is one dilated, glorious orgasm of frantic and compelling horror histrionics. And the truth is that if a movie was called Man Buys Bread: The Story of a Man Who Does Nothing but Buy Bread, and the story of a man purchasing bread was explained to me in every grand and minor detail, so that I could feel and understand the passion of this bread-purchaser, and I could see the bread the way he sees the bread, and I could want the bread the ways he wants the bread, then I would love that film too. So don't tell me that The Tenant's structure is a flaw, because my white-knuckles at the end of this film are real.

The film was d.p.'d by Sven Nykvist. Polanski and Nykvist fit so well together I wish they'd formed a parallel partnership to Nykvist/Bergman. I would use the adjective 'liquid' to describe the visual aesthetics. The Tenant has the same stylistic imprints of other Polanski films from the period, but I kind of think Repulsion is like Plato, Rosemary's Baby is Socrates, and The Tenant is Aristotle. The Tenant is a learned, cumulative work that builds on Polanski's previous ruminations, and while some might prefer the rawness of Repulsion, or the courage of Rosemary's Baby, I prefer the maturity and confidence of The Tenant. I think Polanski was making The Tenant for himself, based on his tastes and likes/dislikes, he was at a point in his career where he could do that, and that this is when talented filmmakers with strong voices are able to do their best work. It makes sense. Hithcock in the 50s-60s (what if I had written to the end w/o mentioning Hitchcock? You wouldn't have taken me seriously! And while I'm being parenthetical, let's name another name that needs named: Mario Bava. Bava!), Hawks' Rio Bravo, Ford's The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance, Huston's Fat City, and I submit this one too, Polanski's The Tenant.