Wednesday, December 30, 2015

David Zucker

"Zucker's best instincts are those that seek to throw a wrench into every single received convention we expect from genre movies, to call attention to their workings not in a way that provokes thought, but in a manner that hijacks the audience's attention. And these interruptions to conventional narrative flow come so frequently, tumbling atop one another in gleeful excess, that the individual jokes don't have to be funny, per se. The unmitigated commitment to joke overload is a joke in itself." There are some new Naked Gun blu-rays on the market, which is a good enough excuse for me to write about the comedic-idiotic mind of David Zucker. The piece continues at The House Next Door.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1990) A Film by Peter Greenaway

"Peter Greenaway, something of an aesthetic chameleon over his long, varied career, goes to further moment-to-moment extremes of planimetric staging and obsessive symmetry than Kubrick ever did, exaggerating the decorative artifice as a material presence in the film. In rigorously choreographed horizontal dolly movements, and with an anamorphic lens splaying the edges of the frame, Greenaway’s camera probes the layers of Albert’s hedonistic den — something of a defective Matryoshka doll that gets increasingly unflattering (a boisterous kitchen, rancid walk-in freezers, and a noirish parking lot) the more it expands from its innermost form (the luxurious dining hall). It’s unmistakably apparent that this is an artificial space even before the source of an angelic opera voice on the soundtrack is revealed as a toddler dishwasher with a freaked-out head of white hair." Continued at In Review Online. This is a piece I wrote months ago but forgot to publish to the site.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Boy and the World (2015) A Film by Alê Abreu

"In Alê Abreu's Boy and the World, the eponymous boy, a stick figure that otherwise appears to conform to the dictionary definition of a boy, is often seen moving laterally through a two-dimensional simulation of the modern world, the framing loose enough and the “camera” movement methodical enough to suggest a retro side-scroller. Like Jacques Tati's bumbling on-screen persona in films like Playtime and Mon Oncle, the boy, who materializes at the beginning of the movie in a blank white canvas that gradually gets crowded with obstacles, appears in combat with the mechanized workings of his environment throughout, dodging cargo bins dropped from cranes and leaping across architectural gaps like Super Mario in a less fanciful Mushroom Kingdom." Continued at Slant Magazine.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Revenant (2015) A Film by Alejandro González Iñárritu

I can say with certainty that two scenes in The Revenant’s two-and-a-half hours benefit from the sensorial immersion approach—basically an aesthetic philosophy built around the use of real locations, natural light, and a wide angle lens that’s invited to be smothered with dirt, blood and other substances dredged up by the Earth—practiced by Alejandro González Iñárritu & Co. for the purposes of this film: both involve a rapidly encroaching attack on the protagonist. The first finds the hero, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), blindsided by a hungry mother bear; later, the incoming force is a small Native American troop on horseback. In both cases, the extreme expansion of space dramatizes the sudden jolt of danger in visual terms. Objects in the distance are much closer than they appear, so everything seems to move at breakneck speed. When the camera stays with Glass during retaliation—rolling with him in the mud in the first altercation, escaping with him on horseback in the second—the visual confinement (coupled with impeccable surround-sound that approximates his immediate perceptual sphere) augments the fear of ambient threat.

One could probably use that particular articulation of the style’s substance to justify the entirety of The Revenant, which follows Glass as he stumbles alone in an arctic wilderness with enemies on every horizon. But when even narrative lulls are graced with the constant reminder of immersive verisimilitude, so that an image of Glass sleeping functions more as a self-congratulatory spectacle of capturing DiCaprio’s exhales on the surface of the lens, the effects of the technique start to veer away from the purely psychology and story-driven.

What emerges most prominently in The Revenant, then, is not any particular vision of the world but rather a compulsive urge to impress. Stepping away from the one-take pomp of Birdman, Iñárritu still can’t resist making a display of his cojones a proximate justification for the emotions and ideas embedded in his stories. Here, the umbrella concepts are brutality and chaos, which permit the occasional marathon sequence shot choreographing all kinds of carnage and multi-directional madness. One of these spectacles is the film’s opening shot (the most likely to draw eye-rolling hyperbole all across the web this awards season), which stuffs the frame with an arrow in the neck here, a howling frontiersman there, all while Lubezki’s whipping-and-gliding steadicam takes on the frazzled perspective of an unarmed soldier trying to stay alive. We’re right in the middle of combat, I guess, but I just kept thinking about those dorm rooms in film school where zealous technicians-in-training marveled repeatedly at the ins and outs of Children of Men’s famous car ambush scene—which is to say, we’re more squarely within the fantasies of such people.

"When you see the film, you will see the scale of it. And you will say, 'Wow.'" – Iñárritu, The Hollywood Reporter

Even when the film settles into more conventional shot lengths and setups, it seeks other ways to ingratiate viewers to the audacity of its filmmaking. For one, an entire separate landscape film could probably be carved out of all the pillow shots here, each one cramping the narrative rhythm with images that could double as demonstrations for 4K clarity at your nearest Best Buy. Then there’s the near-comical dirtying of pretty-boy DiCaprio, which borders on the perverse: mud, snow, ice, human blood and animal guts cling to his wounds and body hair, the emblematic example of this particular thread being a scene when Tom Hardy’s self-preserving asshole literally shovels piles of dirt onto his body. In an awards landscape where great acting is synonymous with physical commitment and digestible gimmicks like the idea of a performer spending half the film with a busted voice box and a destroyed body, it all comes across nakedly as a play for DiCaprio’s eventual crowning.

Strip away the intensity and self-importance of its expression and The Revenant is just a smattering of clichés: the good guy avenging the death of his child; a live burial intended to set up a metaphorical “rebirth”; flashbacks to defining tragedies and vague pre-traumatic bliss (shot, of course, in slow-motion and with a differing color treatment); the Native American as a beacon of nobility, honor, and magical healing powers; the bad guy after a wad of cash and greener pastures. Indeed, the story is constructed only of such banalities. And for all the amorality and perceptual hysteria in its action, this is worlds away from the true boldness of Hard to Be a God; the film’s worldview, insofar as it has one, is fundamentally built on a sentimental belief in karma, summed up by Glass’s final revelation that “revenge must be enacted by God.” (I wasn't taking notes, so that's not the exact quote. Sorry.) Such platitudinous nonsense is why Iñárritu’s visual quotations of Andrei Tarkovsky’s bird-flying-from-bosom shot and levitation trope are so exasperatingly unearned. Here’s a guy simply flexing his technological and financial muscle and pretending his egotistical display exists in a continuum of Great Art.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) A Film by Kent Jones

"Someone of Jones's erudition wouldn't be one to elect interview subjects merely on the basis of their clout or their immediately recognizable artistic kinships to Hitchcock (note the absence of such conspicuously 'Hitchcockian' stylists as Pedro Almodóvar or Brian De Palma). Nor is he concerned with rehashing established critical narratives or biographical information about the director, explaining the welcome absence of historians brought on to redundantly address, say, the randy Brit's fixation with buxom blondes. The mission of Hitchcock/Truffaut, then, isn't to elucidate all the nooks and crannies of Hitchcock's artistry (though it often does this with great gusto), but rather to locate in his films the tendencies that resonate on elemental levels and stir disparate filmmakers to their own artistic soul-searching." Full review at Slant.