Advancement of technology in film is a constant, and thus, the horizons of its boundaries as an art are also ever expanding. For the first time in my life, I really had to contend with whether a single screen theater was limiting for a motion picture. Julian Rosefeltd’s film, or more appropriately, cinematic art piece, Manifesto is a movie which was exhibited in two different forms, both vastly changing the structure and therefore the perception of the piece as “cinema”. It was first released in the Australian Center for the Moving Image in a gallery setting which showcases Cate Blanchette, playing 13 different roles, on different screens throughout the room and reciting 13 different manifestos on the idea of “art” itself. As you walk deeper, the voices of her different characters start to create a conversation or argument, or as Jane Howard put it in The Daily Review, “an unspoken stand-off”. This is an experience, a three-dimensional space which takes the 2-D cinematic image and echoes it to and from us in multiple directions. It’s a cinematic piece you literally walk through, experience as you are in motion in real time, in the real world.
Suffice to say, this is not how I personally experienced this film, and it brought about limitations and complications which again, made it clear that a single-screen theater was inadequate in showcasing the new horizons of what artists can do with the film medium. Manifesto, the 90-minute popcorn motion picture, is not much more than a long-string cut-and-paste rant. Out of the 13 different sermons you sit through, the only one which made any sense in the traditional theater setting was the news broadcast because, well, by its definition it is to be watched motionless in a single sitting. Rosefeltd’s writing is clearly passionate and clearly demonstrates a deep understanding of art history and it’s underlying philosophies, all of which are masterfully recited by Blanchette who, in many cases hams it up (perhaps the nature of the piece is to be satirical of art), but also manages to embody the writing in her movements and her biggest asset as an actress, her eyes.
It was clear, however, that I was watching something that begged to be limitless, not constrained in a traditional movie theater and demanded its viewers to not be sitting on their asses munching on popcorn for 90 minutes. It perplexes me why Rosefeldt would want his film to be shown in this setting after two highly-touted exhibits in Australia and Berlin which captured the essence of the project’s ambition: to create a cinema which architecturally invades us through all its forms, visual, audial, and as interaction with the viewer. If the gallery exhibit was like riding a rollercoaster in an amusement park, the theater screening which I sat through was more like someone reading me the entire pamphlet or brochure for Six Flags. Maybe this was the point. By showing the project in both areas, Rosefeldt can illuminate the limitations of the theater complex itself. If film is to enter a new horizon as and artistic medium, then Rosefeldt is claiming its current home of the movie theater is not sufficient.
When you feel as if an artist you always admired has lost something, what do you do? Do you hold out hope for future projects? Continue to selectively relive their past glory? Review their work chronologically to determine when and where it exactly all went to hell? It’s a troubling thing, realizing that a brilliant filmmaker, painter, sculptor, writer, or whoever cannot create the beautiful works which helped change your life, which helped inspire countless moments of your own burst of creativity.
Terrence Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers ever, and to me one of the greatest artists in American history. His repertoire, much like Kubrick’s, is sparse, spread out, untamed, and utterly brilliant. In the 30 years between 1970 to 2000, Malick made only 3 films: his debut feature Badlands, his most “critically acclaimed” work, a tragic romance calledDays of Heaven and after a long hiatus, a film I consider to be possibly the single best movie I’ve ever witnessed, the war epic The Thin Red Line. In the 21st Century, however, his production increased in both volume and frequency, churning out The New Worldin the last decade, and a whopping 4 features and 1 documentary since 2011, a ratio of output to time-span that shocked pretty much everyone in the cinema world. Something about Malick had changed.
Initially, I thought he had simply had an explosion of great ideas he felt were necessary to put to film. When The Tree of Lifereleased in theaters, I made it a point to revisit and experience Malick’s filmography in chronological order to prepare myself for what many hailed as a decades-long passion project. My roommate Joe and I spent the week watching 1 Malick film each day, starting with Badlands and working our way to The New World. I learned a lot from that experience, especially the historical and technical origins of Malick’s signature voice-over narration that haunts his characters and landscapes like whispers of ghosts reaching out into our world. I saw glimpses of dazzling visuals, lingering tracking shots, and an aching small-town nostalgia within Badlands that would culminate in a tidal wave of personal memory in The Tree of Life. The definition of auteur given by film critic Andrew Sarris boiled down to the idea that there existed a thematic string, a world-view, within a filmmaker, which was prevalent throughout their entire oeuvre, and that made the “auteur”. This string was clear in Malick’s career.
Has it been cut? If his last three narrative features are any indication, at the very least it’s been weakened and frayed. A few weekends ago I saw his latest offering, a romantic music-centered film called Song to Song. A compilation of all the typical Malickian ingredients, from the dream-like visual work to the understated characters to the themes of love, loss, death and memory, the film felt like it was directed by Malick on autopilot. It was a movie filled with the filmmaker’s most natural instincts and so many of them packed together with no theme that it becomes a self-parody. The style that I used to love, that used to evoke such a deeper questioning to the themes he explored, that added immense depth to a painterly celluloid canvas, now evoked only an eye-roll, a sigh, and a glance at my cell phone to see how much time I had left before I could go home.
Is Malick bored? Or did he just run out of ideas? It seems counterintuitive for a bored and imagination-dry filmmaker to start making movies at a faster pace than he used to.
Even more perplexing is the other movie I saw from him, a short documentary in IMAX at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum called Voyage of Timewas so moving and beautifully composed. It’s is a visual “companion” of sorts to his narrative masterpiece The Tree of Life, and is a representation of human existence told through the creation of the universe. The film has no dialogue and almost no humans aside from a girl standing in a field and two kids playing in the front yard of a colonial suburban home. This film was purely the essentials of Malick’s visual technique. Aside from a beautiful opening scroll that in itself eclipses any inane forced voice-over dialogue from his last 3 disappointing films, the film is just CGI and natural shots depicting the birth of the universe and the world and ultimately, its expansive relation to us and our place within it. What is the string between this film and Song to Song? Is there any thematic connection? They were made by the same man, a director I have incredible admiration for, but one is comprised of all his greatest tendencies and the other all his worst. One felt personal and profound while the other felt like pseudo-intellectual blabber and faux-artistic posturing.
The clearest distinction I can make between the old and new Malick, is that before, his visuals and his words were dictated by an inner voice that was so clear, making his style a necessary vehicle to project that voice to us. Malickian style now seems like nothing more than a pandering technique for his fans. The weight of his voice-overs is absent, the meaning behind his mesmerizing images isn’t there. Song to Song‘s entire aesthetic could be recreated by anyone with a high definition camera and it wouldn’t lose any of its already flimsy effect. That is sad to say about a filmmaker who didn’t miss a step for almost 4 decades of sparse but masterful filmmaking.
The theater was full of heavy sighs, groans, headshakes, and a clear frustration bouncing off the walls from every corner. Everyone left tsk-tsking. I’ve never seen such a vocally frustrated response from an audience for a character and a story. It made it that much harder to shake off Ken Loach’s remarkable and painfully relevant film I, Daniel Blake.
Any one of us sitting in those theater seats could have been in the same situation as the movie’s titular character. Many of us have probably experienced more or less the same sort of disgruntled and rejected responses from government personnel when trying to be nice. Loach is clear in his message. People are tired of bureaucratic regulations on the middle and lower classes ability to earn. They’re tired of being underpaid for jobs. They’re tired of red tape barring them from basic human necessities like healthcare and education and food. They’re tired of feeling like everyone in a power position doesn’t give a rat’s ass about whether they live or die. The companionship between the Daniel Blake and Katie, a single mother of two young children, signals a response of the populace in the face of neglect. Take care of each other because who else is going to? At the same time, however, even pooling together resources from several people isn’t enough to create more than the sum of its parts when they live under a system which is built to undermine those who are least fortunate. The film is filled with many sentimental and heartaching moments, typical of Loach’s regular plea to his populist/socialist audience, but they are built as moments of desperation rather than as some sort of narrative ploy. Before we see Katie sneaking a handful of crushed tomatoes at the food bank only to sob, embarrassed at how low she has fallen, we see her giving up her portion of dinner to give her children extra while she goes hungry… night after night.
Unlike many other films depicting one individual’s violent frustration with fascist corruption, Loach resists the urge to throw his character over a cliff, a la Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Instead, Blake’s frustration comes in waves, and his affable yet stern demeanor is all the more frustrating for us. We want to be good, decent, happy, and compassionate people, but even the most joyful must draw a line somewhere. Like a carrot dangling from a stick, there are several false moments of hope which alleviate Daniel Blake’s urge to succumb to vigilante status. That is, until one seminal moment where he spray paints his name of a federal building. But even here, we see him with a grin, shrugging, and chuckling. The heartache of neglect is that when government turn Kafkaesque there are a few who, sure, take it to the limit and look for blood. But most of us are Daniel Blake, most of us can’t do anything but laugh at the ridiculousness of how our countries operate. We can’t do anything except seek attention to our plight. As in the letter reads at the end of the film, “I, Daniel Blake, am a citizen, no more, no less.” If only we were all seen that way.
Two films released this year showcase first and foremost a unique architecture in their set designs and an equally unique use of space between the characters and their surroundings. However, one film manages to make a note of its structural choices in the ultimate lesson it attempts to convey. The other film’s choices are as thoughtless as flipping the thin pages of a high-end fashion magazine.
The structural alignment of beams, floors, decks, and their vicinity from the parking lot in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is a physical manifestation of social hierarchy and the seperation of economic class. Many British stories, from E.M. Forsters’ Howard’s End and beyond have focused on the disparity and malevolence between the bourgeoisie and those subjected to a lower pedestal and even the sewers of the social strata. In J.G. Ballard’s novel, which Wheatley has, with his signature explosive cinematic style, translated into film, these socio-economic tales of the yesteryears are thrust forward into a quasi-post-apocalyptic world (it seems normal, but something is ominous about the air) where a series of high-rises dominate the landscape and stare down (literally the top of the buildings are tilted slightly so as to seem the building is “looking” downward) to the Earth with a shivering coldness.
The main protagonist Robert Laing, has an apartment somewhere in the middle of the building. He is perpetually dressed in shirt and tie, to the point where it almost seems that that is his skin (even during sex, he never takes his outfit off). Throughout the film, the architecture of the building gives an aesthetic dimension to its residence’s statuses in society. The top floors (which also host the Architect, the creator of the building) are huge, barren except for the luxurious minimalist furniture that sets itself more like a modern art piece than something to sit on. The clothing is similarly porcelain… clean whites, straight blacks. The lower floors are decorated the way we may decorate our own houses. Pots of plants, pictures kids drew magneted to the refrigerator, some simple paintings and family photos hanging from the walls. The residents clothes have more color and are knitted with designs. Every part of the look of the film is meant to portray the status of a member or group within the “society”. As the war between the lower and upper floors begins to bubble, we start to see foundations shake quite literally… the lobby of the hotel becomes a mess and the cement beams start to chip away. There’s fires in the hallways. One of the bourgeoisie individuals jumps off his balcony to crash and die in the parking lot. A kind of cheeky metaphor of the phrase “the higher you rise the harder you fall”, and quite deliberate in this case, for the parking lot is the only part of the complex where all residents of all floors are on the same level. There’s no turning up one’s nose there because there’s nowhere to go vertically.
Now on the complete opposite end of the platform, is Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, one which uses space and structure for nothing other than a “cool look”. While there is a clear metaphorical density to the design of Wheatley’s film, The Neon Demon’s use of architecture is more akin to million-dollar wrapping paper on an empty box. The resulting film is eerily similar to the smug, rotten, and morally defunct interiors of the top floors of the Wheatley’s High-Rise. The characters themselves function more like glass mannequins with no interior working parts. They are quite literally the subject of objectification and the male gaze, and even if the intent of this was to reveal the hollowness of Hollywood’s show-business, there was no attempt by Refn to examine it. Instead, the camera’s central job in this film is to move in lateral motions as the actresses, scantily clad, dolled up to the hilt, stare coldly at one another or into space. Sometimes there’s flickering neon lights. Much of the minimalist scene setting in Refn’s films has existed since Valhalla Rising, but this is the first time it seems like just time-filler. The actresses just take up space.
In the interest of not crowding this place up with separate posts, yet still giving everyone a chance to read a few things about movies that released late in the summer and in September this year, I decided to do a post of 7 small capsule reviews of Late Summer & September Releases. Presenting…..
Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015)
As with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella earlier this year, I found myself simply enjoying the refreshingly old-school charm that Vinterberg instills in this movie. It’s a time-pass attempt if anything, but aiming significantly higher than Branagh’s mess. There’s something to say about a film which embodies a wholly visual splendor that compliments its fable-like romantic aim. The movie can be slyly looked upon as a play on the different types of the modern day male, and their different approaches to women. One is a sleek young ladies-man who encapsulates our heroine (Carrie Mulligan) with sexual desire, one is your shy beta-male who is desperately looking for a wife and promises her comfort and respect, and the third is a hard-to-get country fellow who just drags with the wind and plays it cool. The way Vinterberg’s film unfolds is undoubtedly melodramatic, and reminds one of those Oscar-bait and easy to forget 90’s romances, but it cleverly takes an age-old tale and winks at modern society’s male-female relationships with it and makes for a breezy lazy Sunday watch.
True Story (Rupert Goold, 2015)
True Story is just as pedestrian as its title. There’s nothing out of the ordinary which takes place in this film, aside maybe from the against-type casting of Jonah Hill as a serious New York Times journalist who battles his inner-demons and James Franco as a man accused of murdering his family. Similar in theme to Bennet Miller’s biographical narrative on Truman Capote and his interview of death-row inmate Perry Smith, True Story encounters familiar problems that arise amongst publication writers and those who decide to do their own controversial “exclusive” pieces. Jonah Hill’s Michael Finkle, a disgraced NYT writer who lied about his facts in a covers story he did on the African slave trade believes his career and his inner self-worth will be restored if he writes a book on the story of Christian Longo, a convicted murderer accused of smothering his three children and his wife and dumping their bodies in the river.
Goold’s narrative tries to tight-rope walk a line between Capote and Primal Fear where Finkle’s personal magnum opus piece, a potential best-selling novel to restore his character is at odds with Longo’s inability to display his true identity. The battle within the film thus, is not between two people but rather between the truth and lies, something that Finkle has already messed up before and now must confront head-on. Goold doesn’t really handle the film in a very astute manner however, simplifying the story into nothing more than a guessing game on Longo and a character study which goes no deeper than legal debate. We don’t learn anything about Longo or Finkle as characters other than their surface level frustration. What is revealed in the end never penetrates our surface because its never unexpected. True Story could have benefitted from character study of two people who lie, but its trumped by Goold’s fascination with telling a suspenseful yarn and a thrilling mystery, and in that, True Story’s real story gets lost.
This might be the first Mission Impossible movie in which I didn’t leave the theater excited for the next one. Each filmmaker who has helmed the MI series, and they are prolific from Brian DePalma to John Woo (my favorite) to J.J. Abrams to Brad Bird have all instilled a personal vision of what makes Ethan Hunt, or more importantly, Tom Cruise, so damn likeable on screen. McQuarrie just kind of rolls with the punches here, and reduced the mighty franchise, one which I like more than James Bond and the Bourne films personally, to a simpelton’s action film. Rogue Nation didn’t introduce anything new for us, it didn’t challenge our perceptions of Ethan Hunt, all it really did was just give Tom Cruise a string of situations to get out of and thus, turned Mission Impossible from a canvas that an innovative filmmaker could fill with his signature style, into a ready-made template of action tropes… it became what Jason Statham’s action films have become… it became what the Die Hard series has become…. and frankly, that’s no fun.
Coming Home (Zhang Yimou, 2015)
When Yimou isn’t dancing with swords and blood, he is eternally fascinated by dynamics of relationships and China’s oppressive role in shaking and breaking them.Yimou shows us the irreparable damage and the utter decay of a husband (Lu) and wife (Yu)’s love and their daughter’s loneliness caused by the imprisonment of Lu during China’s Cultural Revolution. China’s history of deep political turmoil is one that affects many families, and on a level that to many Westerners seems impossible to overcome.
Adequately then, Coming Home is a complete departure of canvas for Zhang Yimou where the bright reds and oranges and shiny robes and flowers are replaced with dingy stairwells, muddy alleyways, and rusty train stations all viewed through a depressing color-filter. The humanism of Coming Home however is pure Yimou, as Yu’s Alzheimer’s makes her forget her husband Lu’s face and thus, even when he does return from his imprisonment, she thinks of him as a bothersome stranger and still longs achingly for the return of her “real” husband. Despite the obstacles, there is a fight within the characters to survive and to love a much more hopeful picture painted for a director like Yimou who’s earlier works displayed a furious anger and devastation towards China’s social ills. In this film we get a lot of melodrama and very aching moments of desperation and hopelessness, but they are countered beautifully by heartfelt compromise.
The Gift (Joel Edgerton, 2015)
Inspired in no small part by Michael Haneke’s taught Austrian-French thriller Cache, Joel Edgerton finds himself directing an equally enticing if typically bloated thriller. This is a simple case of adapting for the audience. One thing noticeably similar is how Edgerton also films his movie in pans and dollys, and the residence of the couple (Simon & Robin) is equally as chic, modern, filled with whites and empty spaces as the residence of Georges and Anne and both couples are harassed by a stranger who leaves them with ambiguous keepsakes (in Cache, photographs, and in The Gift, well…. gifts) . A lot of the thematic elements however are taken up a notch into more deliberate, and more cinematically liberal territory, with the “stalker” delivering elaborate gifts and paying painfully awkward visits to the couples residence rather than anonymously sending mail as in Haneke’s film. While the twists that account for most of the films best and more disturbing moments are similar in the way they reveal more about the darkness hidden within the couple than within the stranger. This idea of outside entities coming in to rip a marriage apart through revealing skeletons in the closet is a brilliant premise for any thriller, and through Edgerton’s tight script and good character development, The Gift imparts us with, as the narrative draws to its conclusion, completely different views on the initial players in the game at the end, than at the beginning.
The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015)
Night Shyamalan is a peculiar cat in the cinema world, at least for me, because he is the only filmmaker, possibly with the exception of Atom Egoyan, who’s career has been a pure smooth and devastating downward slope from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Consider The Visit then, to be a twist in the dénouement.
One thing I really enjoyed about this movie though, and what gives me a light at the end of the tunnel, was that it was completely void of any pretense. It was a pure, campy genre flick and it seemed like the cast and crew had a lot of fun making this movie adding their own little improvisations to it. The mix of comedy and horror was also equally refreshing because it creates a very disorienting, almost Lynchian feel to the whole ordeal. There are definite scares, and the signature Shyamalan twist, while not anything revolutionary or unique to the film, was still effective, probably the best twist he has implemented since The Sixth Sense and its because it wasn’t trying to impress anybody with shock or awe, its merely a cunning narrative ploy, a mischievous finger-pointing.
The movie is terrifying in parts, and Shyamalan implements a lot of the unique devices he mastered early in his career. Much like in his other movies, Shyamalan tells you what to be afraid of (in this case, demented grandparents) and builds all the tension off of that. The major drawback of the movie is that it remains sloppy in its presentation, and while Shyamalan tries his best to innovate with the “found footage” medium, there’s really not much new here. It’s a poor medium to use for this kind of movie and it reduces the haunting appearance and nature of the film’s surroundings down to an amateur video-project.
It’s certainly not the rousing “return to form” as claimed (more significant improvement). The movie however, is undeniably an upswing in his career, but at this point, for the cynics and those less eager to jump back on the bus, this film is more just the end of a torturous mess of a career, a self-immolation by Shyamalan that has finally been put out by a bucket of water. The Visit can be considered the fixing of a ship that has already sunk. The challenge now, is to see if Shyamalan can get it back anywhere near the surface of the water.
Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015)
Scott Cooper consistently has a sledgehammer of a topic to go crazy with on screen (see Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace) and yet, he manages not more than a small dent. What Black Mass has to rely on, and it does keep itself afloat enough that we can appreciate the film without necessarily thinking too highly of it, is Johnny Depp’s undeniable talent and dedication to playing Whitey Bulger. In a sense, this film could be considered Depp’s film itself because the way he looks, walks, talks, acts, is an authentic creation from the ground up by Depp himself, almost an ‘adapted’ character rather than a mimic of the real Bulger. Whitey is Depp’s vision from the first mark of pen to paper, and he paints the character to a level where we fear almost any move he makes. The one sequence where Bulger gets Morris to reveal his family secret recipe for steak and Morris blurts it out and then Bulger coldly asks “I thought it was a family secret”, we immediately shiver and tense up. It’s a sequence where we get the real “walking on needles” feeling where even the most light and well-intentioned move could be turned black by Depp’s Whitey. But outside of this, and of course a nice cast surrounding Depp, we have to shake our heads once again at Scott Cooper for a missed opportunity. Black Mass doesn’t bite in the narrative department and its overuse of the f-word, a desperate “wannabe like Scorsese” move can’t add even a hint of “edge” or “guts” to this film. Instead, what Depp brings is the extent of what you’ll get in terms of interest, and you better savor every moment he’s on screen.
Leigh’s ability to join both his major interests, costume dramas and kitchen-sink family affairs, together is on full display here. One of the major elements which makes Mr. Turner such a thoughtfully composed film is the recreation of dramatic events which populated JMW Turner’s life. His reluctance to admit to 2 children which he bore via one of his several mistresses, his tumultuous and often emotionally violent relationship with his servant, his companionship to his father, and the up-and-down reputation he held as a great painter in the royal societies of England at the time are all living and breathing through a time-machine which Mike Leigh has created in this film. The communications between painters, royalty, scientists, photographers, and the advent of new art forms and scientific discoveries are giddy little points of detail for those history nerds. It’s an incredibly thoughtful film, with all of its background rich in historical research.
The film however, is a deliberately paced, very slow and methodical biopic which can be rather dry in its uncovering of the painter JMW Turner. Timothy Spall is fantastic in his role, and it’s the type of acting which doesn’t draw attention to itself from the performance and charisma of the actor, but rather allows the character as he was in real life to lead the way. Spall honestly should be a shoe-in nominee for Best Actor, but many times we’ve seen that the Oscars like performances that pop and chew scenery. Spall is purely natural as JMW Turner with his heavy gargle-y voice and coughs that indicate a chronic case of bronchitis, as well as the hilariously (and tragically) droll, pained humor with which he addresses his peers. Mike Leigh is able to instill both a beautiful and sinister atmosphere in this film, with its sunshine and beautiful marine landscapes juxtaposed with dark rocky mountains and a very creepy string solo in the background score.
Overall, Mr. Turner turns out to be a well composed, wonderfully acted film if a tad too dry in the narrative department. Like most of Leigh’s film, the uninitiated will find his approach to unveiling plot-points as dreadfully slow and have you looking at your watch multiple times throughout.