Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Auteurist Roundup Spring '13

I've slipped back into my worst habits in writing about film - that is, not writing about film. Been ages since I have managed as simple a thing as writing up notes on what I've seen lately. This despite seeing some pretty good films this spring. No answer for that put to write a post, so here goes. These are the films by important directors that have come out this spring. Most of them deserve more, but you have to take what you can get...

To the Wonder - 10/15 - good old Terrence Malick. He managed to get this one made in a year or so instead of the usual 8, but the results are basically the same - gorgeous looking, brilliantly edited, but still fluff. He has somehow acquired a reputation for depth and seriousness, though I can never see why. He makes films that look like advertisements - full of gorgeous photography, beautiful people twirling (my god, do they twirl) with their hair and clothes billowing around them, edited to music, the whole thing flowing along as a kind of image of Beauty and Wonder - all that's lacking is a clear product being sold. Though this time, the product seems a bit more obvious than usual - it seems to be the Catholic Church. Okay - for all the snark, the truth is, I rather liked this film - more than anything of his since Days of Heaven. There is a story of sorts - Ben Affleck in Paris meets a Ukrainian woman with a kid, takes them to Oklahoma (I guess it is), where they don't quite settle, she leaves and they scuffle while apart, then she comes back and marries him for the green card, followed by a marriage with its good and bad moments, etc. Javier Bardem, meanwhile, shuffles around visiting the poor and downtrodden, while afflicted by Malick's voiceovers. And somewhere in here, among the fluff, there are some very fine moments, not just the usual nature photography (which is as ravishing as ever), but some almost documentary looking footage of the town, houses and people, of parades and schools, trees and streets and walls. It is at its best in those moments of documentary detail. It is also, like Tree of Life, a bravura editing performance (as is Upstream Color) - how he puts this stuff together is always breathtaking.

Upstream Color - 11/15 - Shane Carruth comes back with another experimental science fiction film. This one has a clear enough plot: a thief raises worms that he feeds with some kind of hallucinagin that lets him form a psychic bond to people; he uses one on a girl, and steals all her money, and somewhat inadvertently ruins her life along the way. When he is done, she wanders off to a man who makes sound recordings, who extracts the worm from her and puts it into a pig - which allows him to have a psychic bond with both the pig and the girl. She gets on with some kind of life and meets another man who seems to share her memory - he's obviously been in the same situation she's in. They fall in love, somewhat uneasily - and in the end find the sampler.... Like To the Wonder, this is largely an exercise in editing - told in a similar elliptical style, with very little dialogue or conventional narrative - but the underlying story is much stronger, and more convincing, and the style fits the story and its themes, its hallucinatory qualities, its blurring of identities. And, I suppose, I just prefer the tone of this to the mysticism Malick deals in. This does not look like an ad.

Beyond the Hills - 13/15 - latest film from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu; in this one, a girl, Alina, comes back to Romania from Germany to join her friend, Viochita; the latter lives in a monastary. Alina's plan is to convince Voichita to go to Germany with her - Voichita does not want to go; she has turned religious. Alina stays, trying to convince her to leave, but she is a bit crazy, and madly in love with Voichita. She has an episode, they put her in the hospital, but she comes back, as everyone thinks she would be better off with friends - but things go from bad to worse. She tries to go to her foster parents, but like Alex' parents in a Clockwork Orange, they have taken in a boarder... so no matter what everyone wants, she keeps landing back at the monastery, where she cracks again, and they have no answers but to try to exorcize her, which goes very very badly.... It is a fairly magnificent film, really - the best by some margin that I have seen this year. It is very complex. I think you could say there are three stories running parallel: the first is the friendship, which is itself rather complicated - Alina loves Voichita, Voichita has changed, moved on - that creates tension, between love, change, loyalty, obsession, and the fact that both of them seem to need help - Alina seems to know this - they are both in trouble, one going crazy, one torturing herself with crackpot religion... Second is a fairly obvious and straightforward religious allegory: Alina comes to the church like Christ in the guise of one who is naked and hungry - she is a test; how will they react? The answer is clear enough - they treat her like Christ himself was treated, literally - rejected, scorned and finally crucified... And finally - there is a diffuse commentary on the world - the film is set in the modern day, but this is hidden at times, and at other, is clearly important in its ambiguity - the fact that things aren't noticeably different than in communist days is probably to the point. We see the poverty and trouble of society; we see hints of the abusive system the girls grew up in. The politics are subtle, and I can't pretend to know what is going on, but it's there....

Spring Breakers - 7/15 - Harmony Korine is back - I don;t know. 4 college girls decide to go on spring break. Having no money they rob a chicken shack. In Florida they are arrested at a party and bailed out by a skeezy rapper played by James Franco who pulls them into crimes - his war against Gucci Mane, a gangster. A couple of the girls go home, starting with Selena Gomez, who's only willing to go so far in sullying her image after all... Two of them stay and go over completely to the rapper's life of crime. After reenacting Wild Things in the pool, they go to kill his rival - Franco goes down, but the girls wipe out Mane's gang and drive away in his convertable. The American Dream! Despite the exploitation story, it's just Korine - fake outrageousness, moralizing, pop culture references, colors, and artsty talkiness, repetitive voiceovers and forced partying. Dumb, pointless, amusing - Franco is fantastic, the girls are indistinguishable (they're all playing Britney Spears one of the actresses says - sounds right - this is Mr. Lonely Part II). It's got a couple scenes - "look at my shit!" - that almost justify its existence, but that's not really enough.

Like Someone In Love - 12/15 - Kiarostami in Japan. Starts with a girl at a bar arguing with someone on the phone, a man who doesn't believe her. Meanwhile she has to go on a date - she is a prostitute - she argues with her boss, saying her grandmother is in town, but it doesn't help. She goes, though she drives by the station looking at the poor old woman standing by a statue waiting to see her.... So she goes to her date, which is with an old man, a translator, who tries to entertain her, but she falls asleep. The next day he gives her a ride to school and there she runs into her boyfriend - who starts talking to the old man... he assumes the old man is her grandfather, and the old man does not deny it. The boy talks about the girl - when she comes back, he offers to fix the man's car (he's a mechanic) - but they run into an old student of the professor. Later -t he girl calls the old man, panicky - he takes her home, and the boyfriend shows up, ranting and raving - it ends with a brick through a window. That's a lot of plot, I suppose, for Kiarostami - though he moves through it in his customary way. It's the details - he's kind of the opposite of Malick and Carruth and their elliptical rush from image to image - he stays put, letting long scenes play out - some dialogue, but some not; some dialogue with two people on screen, sometimes just one side of the conversation - or one side of a confrontation at the end. These are never static - the scenes evolve, characters evolve, relationships are changed and recreated, worlds are filled in behind the scenes. Something like the boyfriend's conversation with the old man - the boy seems threatening at first, but as he talks, seems increasingly harmless. He loves her - he wants to marry her - but he also says, he wants to marry her to control her, so she can't ignore him. This kind of endlessly shifting understanding of the situation is Kiarostami's bread and butter - this might not be as exhilarating as Certified Copy or some fo the Iranian films, but it's still first rank work.

Night Across the Street - 11/15 - the last film by Raul Ruiz, set in Chile. An old man about to retire seems to be living in his head - taking classes with Jean Giono; remembering childhood adventures; politics (Ibanez, a dictator in the 1920s); walking around with Beethoven - or images of talks with Long John Silver... Along with this, there is a kind of radio show, about his memories, and scenes in a boarding house, where a man turns up to kill him, or to be killed by someone else. Everyone ends up shot, I guess, though - the central images - marbles of time - keeps coming back, and certainly animates the events. Lovely little film in any case.

Stoker - 10/15 - Here is Park Chan-wook working in English, with somewhat underwhelming results. It's somewhere between Shadow of a Doubt and a ghost story - a man dies - his brother turns up at his funeral, and soon moves in. The women of the house are Nocole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska, both more than a little mad. In any case, people start dying - Park plays with the idea of the supernatural without committing to it - then, at the end, switching away to a simple serial killer plot, at which point the eyes roll.... Indeed - the script is crap, but Park gets about as much out of it as is humanly possible - and the actors are very entertaining.

Side Effects - 10/15 - A Steven Soderbergh thriller, slickly made, a bit soulless. A woman's husband gets out of jail (for insider trading) - she is depressed and drives her car into a wall. The psychiatrist evaluates her, sends her home, puts her on drugs - she reacts badly, and continues to be erratic and depressed at home - she finally gets to a drug she likes (recommended by her former doctor, Catherine Zeta Jones channeling a bit of Barbara Bel Geddes) - it makes her alert and healthy, but also makes her sleepwalk - but she wants to stay on it... then - she stabs her husband... while sleepwalking. Much trouble for the shrink, fears of malpractice, he loses everything - then he starts to suspect - something is wrong: the old shrink wrote a story about the drug - things happen - names don't match up, the crazy woman quotes Styron, everyone quotes Styron - everyone tries to stop him, but he finally gets her with a placebo truth serum, and slowly traps her, by convincing her that the shrink/lover sold her out. And so - she turns state's witness - then gets arrested herself, and all is well. It is all very slick, but that's about all. I kept trying to remember if this was the plot of that Raul Ruiz film a few years ago - Isn't this the plot of that Raul Ruiz film a few years ago? (Shattered Image) Is it? I don't know. Either way, it's a Hitchcock pastiche that works well enough, is very nicely made, but is a bit flat...

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

Superlative wrap WS! Well I did like TO THE WONDER more than you, though you certainly pointed out the great aspects. I do think it will be seen as greater as the time moves forward. I agree with you too on BEYOND THE HILLS, which is one of the best films of the year so far, and look forward to playing catch-up with some of the others, now that Tribeca is over. I did like the Kiarostami quite a bit too. Fab capsules!