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La Nuit Americaine [Truffaut, 1973]

July 18, 2012 2 comments

La Nuit Americaine was an inevitability. Like its big brother, Godard’s Le Mépris, it allowed a fixated cinephile to decompress. It reveals some sour opinions. It airs cheeky grievances. Above all, it is an exuberant investigation of the filmmaking process.

In more ways than one, La Nuit Americaine is a cop-out. The film sometimes hides behind thick meta revelations that lead down the road to nowhere. In addition, Truffaut, visibly tired and possibly even jaded, throws himself into a substantial acting role. It is hardly a surprise that he took a two-year sabbatical immediately after its release. Neither is it a surprise to believe that it is some sort of culmination for Truffaut. Spending his entire life ensconced in cinema, he must have been relieved to finally open a parcel full of books on Buñuel, Hawks, Lubitsch, and the rest. He even gives them a healthy close-up, as arbitrary as they are.

To be fair, it’s hard to think of a disingenuous movie in all of Truffaut’s oeuvre. No matter the age, he brings such a youthful exuberance to the screen. Where Godard strikes some viewers as cold and theoretical, Truffaut fills the same space with a wistful longing to remake the films he saw during his childhood. One of the most striking moments of La Nuit Americaine comes when Truffaut’s director is dreaming of his younger self stealing Citizen Kane stills from a local exhibit. Certainly, he is one filmmaker who understands the psychological power of cinema at the most basic level. It’s not merely an element of his existence, it’s a dream that he tried to find. This may be exactly what makes La Nuit Americaine so recklessly spotty at times — made by a man who loves and understands film so deeply that he overestimates its potential. Nevertheless, Truffaut manages to breathe ecstasy into a film even when he is ready for a break.

Portions of the film succeed with silly but ambitious deconstructions of the filmmaking process. One scene deals with a troublesome actress and her trouble with memorization. Not only does the sequence dissect various levels of the cinematic fantasy, it also makes earnest acknowledgments of the hyper-emotional world of acting. The second half of the film is particularly astute in washing away the line between fiction and reality in regards to actors and their relationships and connections with one another. Visually, La Nuit Americaine demonstrates the absurd talent in Truffaut to make pivotal decisions the same way that we decide to wake up in the morning. It’s in his nature to effortlessly block scenes and choreograph camera work that is essential to the storytelling. At the same time, it also shows us how easily he is sucked into an exclusive reality. There is little evidence of a universe outside of Truffaut’s film.

If there is one word to describe La Nuit Americaine, it’s playful. An always-youthful tribute.

74.05

No Country for Old Men (Coen, 2007)

June 5, 2012 2 comments

No Country for Old Men is a faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. It was impossible to foresee such a remarkable fusion of genius between the Coen’s and McCarthy. Both harness a proud idiomatic style, but down to the weird rhythms and pregnant pauses the two form one of the great literary/cinematic matches in recent memory. Perhaps long-term memory. The Coen’s precise ambiguities blend perfectly with McCarthy’s ability to fill one conversation between two strangers with the wisdom of the world. Especially in Tommy Lee Jones’s monologues, we hear a type of earnest realism — somehow simultaneously so contrived and so faithful to our imaginations.

The denizens of No Country are not interested in us. They don’t want to be our friends. Anton Chigurh is at once an animal and a god. He is on a mission seemingly more powerful than even he. And the mission is a spiritual one. There is a scene inside of a gas station that, not unexpectedly, pits old against young. The elderly clerk cannot come close to understanding Chigurh’s deranged existentialism. Like many of the other scenes in the film, this one seems to hold the mysteries of the film — presenting an incomprehensible and unstoppable force with simultaneous belief and disbelief in mysticism. “It will become just another coin… which it is.”

We are trapped into accepting Llewelyn Moss as our hero. We meet him looking through his own scope and endure a regular cycle of point-of-view shots until his death. Indeed, this is what makes his death so unbelievable. So frustrating, even. Some have complained about the offscreen death of our hero but we are never  meant to see him die. We are led through a gripping, near-silent chase for 60 minutes — always aware of the sheriff lagging behind. Just as he is allowed to engage in the chase, we assume his point of view. One step behind the rest. Like the sheriff, Llewelyn is a man who understands the operations and mysteries of the land but cannot comprehend the ghosts. This is what makes them old.

One character calls it “The Dismal Tide” of youth coming in. We are meant to think of Chigurh and his final scene. He is a ghost, capable of enduring all. However, it is right to call it a “Tide.” For the tides come in and go out regardless of our small plans. Youth force out the old regardless of theirs. But it isn’t even that simple. Not only can the old not comprehend the young — they were once the young themselves.

The Coen’s have presented a complicated perspective on their interpretation of the film’s style. Thus, a flurry of nonsense has been written about No Country. However, it is impossible to deny the influences of silent Westerns, Sam Peckinpah, and Hitch. Hitch would have been proud of the Coen’s and their astonishing mastery of editing to serve suspense. There are long chase sequences. Twenty to thirty minutes of minimal dialogue. But you never look away. The cuts are so specific. They are more than motivated. They’re somehow essential. The impressive thing here is not the silence, it’s the fact that you’ll never notice if you’re not listening. When characters do talk, their dialogue seems to drop away just when we least expect and least desire but always at the perfect time. Visually, it is impossible to deny Peckinpah’s eye on the West. Horizon’s are mostly in the middle of the frame, unlike Ford and Mann. Things are arid and empty. No Country harnesses the old idea of the West that has been lost on my generation — the existence of a place populated by another side of the human spirit; castaways, ghosts, gods, and prostitutes. The landscape isn’t one that crushes or waits. It’s merely the place where the coin is flipped and fate is decided.

What ultimately lends No Country with enduring greatness is its overarching simplicity. The Coen’s are always looking back and revisiting formal structures. Consider how the plot breaks down — Good Guy finds Money. Bad Guy hunts Good Guy. The states are clear and so are the roles. These characters might be archetypes, but they inhabit a separate realm. Only something so simple can harvest the contradictions of humanity. Only in creating these timeless, ghostly creatures can we see so deep into ourselves. The film is a triumph of the highest order.

93.8

Burn After Reading (Coen, 2008)

April 28, 2012 1 comment

Burn After Reading is funny. After a brooding bout with some dense material in No Country for Old Men, the Coen’s choose to engage in some rambunctious mimicry of the political spy thriller. Featuring a blessing of a cast, Burn After Reading tells the story of an idiotic ensemble, too lost in themselves to find anything worthwhile. The scariest part is — the story is about us. And it’s convincing.

Word has it that Joel and Ethan were particularly inspired by Advise and Consent and Seven Days in May. [The poster design is clearly modeled after the Saul Bass work on The Man With the Golden Arm. The same man did the title design for Advise and Consent.] The brothers’ rich history of deft genre study is not absent here. In deconstructing the political thriller, we are shown a universe not far from our own — one where everyone is too involved with their own desires to be bothered by anything happening around them. The score is full of dramatic percussion. Indeed, the story beats a hollow body. There’s nothing to respond to these characters. Burn After Reading has the intelligence to exclude Washington bureaucracy out of this debate. The government employees are the most intelligent and reliable populace in the film. Still, they are clueless about the incomprehensible ambitions of their constituency. Burn After Reading manages to elaborate on a valuable insight regarding human folly without becoming bogged down by didactic crap.

In addition to the peripheral characters whom the Coen’s occasionally allow to steal a scene, Burn is populated by a cast that is marvelous in name and in performance. It’s full of exciting discoveries. Pitt, Malkovich, Swinton, and Jenkins deliver sensational work. The tradition of strategic director/actor pairing is as old as our technologyBurn is a testament to the virtues of adventurous casting. Pitt’s stupidity isn’t unlike his Tyler Durden, but it is more honest and, frankly, more revealing. Malkovich’s vulgarity takes full advantage of his terrifying snarl. McDormand and Clooney are equally energizing and give their finest work with the brothers. McDormand’s hesitancy and self-consciousness are a maturation of her sticky grin in Fargo. Clooney plays a character not far from Everett, but does so with more paranoia and swagger. A-list casts are cause for suspicion these days, but this is a marvelous example of how good an audacious Hollywood can be.

The Coen brothers have always relied heavily on quirky resonance to their detriment. Their comedy is strongest when played with extended takes and mannered photography. We see much of that in Burn After Reading. They allow us to witness a more natural interaction with some marvelous actors and their expressive faces. However, these filmmakers seem to lean on wide shots as a punctuation, not a narrative fact. Their compositions have such a rich sense of space, but the shots stay in the can. It’s a shame, really. The humor is built on interaction and interplay, not crafty visual manipulation. I only pick nits, though. They can stack up as many close-ups as they want as long as they retain the appreciation for long takes. It’s a lost art in dire need of preservation. Drama is born of the long take.

The brothers function on the assumption that Comedy + Tragedy = Reinvention. It’s a hopeless aspiration, but is it possible that they do it better than anyone else? Their best work does float in the land between straight-faced seriousness and banana-peel slapstick. This seems to be a corollary of insistent genre study. In an effort to subvert and deconstruct classic models, the Coen’s manage to create scenarios with a greater complexity and density than is present in most popular contemporary filmmaking. Burn After Reading doesn’t even seem like a spy film. It has such a deep respect for the dignity of classic convention that the subversion reads like an entirely new creation. Perhaps the slight lack of center in the film is a result of their appreciation for these conventions. Regardless, the Coen brothers are one of the most respectable filmmaking parties at work for precisely this reason.

Burn After Reading functions on steadfast but unforgiving fatalism. This is a common trope in Coen films, but only here is it made entirely explicit. To these filmmakers, human choice is independent of a crushing omnipotence. A CIA agent remarks, “Well, we don’t really know what anyone is after” when presented with a summary of the film’s puzzling event sequence. If there is a thesis to Burn After Reading, it’s that we’re all helpless creatures, floundering and philandering, smothered by our own desire. Like most of the Coen ouevre, the film ultimately becomes a thick tragedy. These characters, idiotic as they may seem, stand in for all of us.

Set against the backdrop of shrugging U.S. bureaucracy, we are all deemed incapable of governing ourselves.

79.3

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Fincher, 2011)

April 28, 2012 2 comments

To begin a not-so-warm evaluation of our American interpretation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, it is important to congratulate Rooney Mara, Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgârd, and Daniel Craig on fine work. Mara is imagining a character that is ripe for praise and potentially less difficult to portray than immediately evident but she does so with precocious poise.

Elements of Fincher’s visual style are commendable. His sense of space and focus lend a volatile but complex depth to every scene. Indeed, certain moments can only remind us of Nick Ray’s unequaled perception of bodies and their relationship to the frame. Only Ray didn’t blur out his backgrounds with such energetic whimsy. Nonetheless, Fincher frequently locates the viewer, both spatially and temporally, by giving an unusually profound gravity to properties and objects. Anything from a set of keys to a lipstick stain can be imbued with moral and informational subtext. There is a scene where a villain (unbeknownst to the audience at that point) pours out a bottle of wine. It’s so mild, but it’s a genius hint. Watch the scene. It’s a marvelous addition. These images are fleeting though, and this director has yet to reach the point where visual keystones are given sustained energy. Fincher’s relationship with technology is ripe with opportunity for a more nuanced interaction — we can only hope that he grows into that connection. Moviegoers will be familiar with the color palette in Dragon Tattoo. Digital color grading has made for a host of gray-blue films. Here, shades of gray have become the status quo. The film does take place in the winter and in Sweden, but the absence of color becomes tiresome by the end of the first act. Fincher’s team of editors and designers do give two scenarios vibrant yellows — flashbacks and Lisbeth’s ultimate swindle. While the shift in color does serve to locate the viewer like the objects do, it doesn’t compensate for the general lack of energy within the frame. The yellows seem to pull from Harriet’s hair and Lisbeth’s wig, making a dubious evaluation of fantasy and history.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo qualifies as a thriller/mystery, replicating the events of a wildly popular Swedish novel by Steig Larsson. It involves a middle aged journalist who is hired to solve a private murder case. He enlists the help of a troubled but gifted young woman. They develop a certain type of relationship. The location of the film within Sweden inspires a shrug. Why not move it to America and change the names? This would be much preferable to the strange international accents that populate the film. Does British English substitute for all European nationalities now? I love the Swedish language. It’s haunting and broad. But the interjections of signs and specific words during Dragon Tattoo are nothing short of alarming.

The film lacks a healthy center of gravity. The dual protagonists deprive it of urgency, as there is no pivot for 80 minutes, a long time. Novels can accomplish this narrative with diligence and patience, but there isn’t enough time for that here. The material is simply too ambitious for a film — Swedish or American filmmakers. Something has been lost in literary adaptations of the post-studio blockbuster era. Filmmakers seem determined to include as much of the full scope of detail as possible. Literary adaptations were more thorough many decades ago. And this was done by being more concise — having someone around who doesn’t know anything about literature to say “Cut it.” While the characterization is quick and successful, the mystery falls apart because of this lack of gravity. In Plummer’s first appearance, he dictates the terms of the plot in precise detail. Fincher’s talent is beyond spoonfeeding. It’s no longer necessary. The frenetic energy of the book is lost in the forceful explanation of the material.

Dragon Tattoo also lacks the energetic montage sequences that highlight Fincher’s best work (Se7en, The Social Network). His education in the distracted tempi of the music video applies itself only when the imagery is a careful collage, of which he is very capable. Dragon Tattoo plays more like a fractured series, functioning at breakneck speed. Indeed, some transitions of scene and critical information sets are lost in this unnecessary visual haste. Even in the credit sequence, we are greeted with rhythmic editing to an interpretation of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” as arranged by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The song is a fine choice, working in textual and textural contexts. This team of composers have certainly established themselves as bold and stylish inventors. By now, it has come to seem like their hard, information-aesthetic is married to Fincher’s deep grays. But their gnawing pulse could be precisely what a filmmaker like David Lynch or Paul Thomas Anderson could blossom into a revolutionary context.

It seems imprudent to comment on the thematic content of the film, as that would be better suited for literary review. But in a story with so much potential for speaking critically and deeply about the nature of sexual abuse, it is sickening to see triumph created out of a genuine rape, no matter how disturbing or deserving the victim may be. I’m speaking, of course, about the encounter between Lisbeth and her guardian where she get’s more than the upper hand. It speaks volumes about our relationship with film when savage revenge inspires an enthusiastic response from an audience. In fact, Dragon Tattoo seems to miss a bold opportunity to comment on film and voyeurism in the numerous instances of photographed or recorded violence. Were the filmmakers more intentional about this, the project could have revealed much about the very real and very scary human fascination and preoccupation with observing sex and violence. In our lives, theres no mystery to that story. It’s a fact. And we all pay money to see it every day — on our TV’s, computers, and at the movie theater.

68.600

The American President (Reiner, 1995)

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

It should have been apparent when “Written by Aaron Sorkin” appeared on the screen, but government is only a tool in this film. Sorkin uses it with his usual degree of shrewdness, but political concerns are nothing more than an impetus – a joke. The American President focuses on the most powerful man on the planet. To what is his power relegated? Jokes. Examining the film reveals that most references to political topics are implemented as gags. Shepherd’s position of power is a running line, joined by federal disasters, Tel Aviv hostility, assassination, corruption, and dead Japanese leaders, only to name a few. These references are often planted into the script as irony, encouraging the audience to feel that the President deals with Middle Eastern militants like we do the dishes.

The larger point of this is also tied to the remarkable success of the film. Sorkin knows every trick in the book and he is shamelessly employing them. Reiners directing is completely unremarkable, but it would be impossible to fail with this script. Why do the conservatives look bad? Because they care about family values. The American President is the pinnacle of Hollywood Liberalism, or “safe” liberalism. Shepherd is: the same as most people and entirely different from most people. The jokes and the sweetness all bank on Shepherd appearing as one of us. But he’s not. The worst things people can do in this film are prioritize something that conflicts with a man who seems not to conflict with anything.

The American President, while being a terribly successful Rom-Com, teaches us something interesting about how Hollywood operates. This movie could hardly anger anyone. And that is precisely because of the script’s perpetuation of contradiction and fantasy. The less political, the better.

Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen both deliver knockout performances that manage to become something more than Sorkin’s mouth.

62.0000

Le crime de Monsieur Lange (Renoir, 1936)

April 24, 2012 1 comment

Often marked as “one of Renoir’s greatest films,” Le crime de Monsieur Lange is a platform for us to witness how a director can convert propaganda into memorable art. The script is full of wit but Renoir is the hero, here. He allows for multiple perspectives and concise characterization to produce a quick, jaunty, and bright film.

Lange is dense with insightful staging. Renoir had learned by 1936 that everything serves character. In some ways, he recalls the swift attitude in Hawks’s comedies. The camera work is clearly more radical, but they both succeed with abundant charm and aim every device at the service of character. Visually, some usual complexities are reserved for the end where the street allows for at least two excellent tracking shots. Lange presents some of the most precise and concise characterizations in the Renoir repertoire. Batala is given superior attention. If we compare him to the capitalist villain in something like Strike, we find that Renoir believes in the complexity of thought even when working with a simple and economic script. In his frequent manipulation of women, Renoir illuminates the tight bond between money, power, and sex. His metamorphosis into a priest is loaded with dubious criticism, but is still the source of comedy.

The best component of Lange might be the frequent allusions to Americana and westerns. It asserts that the American frontier was imbued with absolute freedom and the characters use it to focus their socialist fantasies. This parallel between socialist idealism and dreams of the West play incredibly well as an object of cinema. Lange even gets its own joke — “It’s only a movie.” The film is dense with the inimitable charm of Renoir, consistently exquisite photography, and forceful characterization. The comedy is presented with ease and subtlety. It is only unfortunate that so much of the commentary is excessively heavy. Capitalism comes back from the dead only to be defeated by Socialism. Socialism gets away with murder and walk happily out into infinity.

74.7

Play Time (Tati, 1967)

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Play Time is a film of astonishing complexity. Tati’s performance of this mammoth piece succeeds as both a satire on the absurdity of modern tourism and an unthinkable demonstration of fulfilled imagination. It is famously unwatchable in one sitting. That’s not true, but it does yield magnificent insights for those who brave this new Paris.

Tati constructs Play Time in unflinching diagonals. Like Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, from which it clearly takes influence, the film revels in the construction of right angles but is always photographed from a diagonal. This is the source of subtle visual tension which Tati is able to sustain throughout the entire process. It is a touch that renders Play Time with that elusive coherence and consistency usually absent in the presence of absurdity. Another component to the consistency is character. Barbara and Hulot share our curiosity and confusion. We are grounded in their solid construction like we would be in any more conventional narrative. Hulot is the perfect character to take us through this labyrinth. Tati, acting as Hulot, plays both our emotional (Hulot — curiosity, confusion, exploration) and physical (director — mise en scene) tour guide. Ultimately, the style is arresting. Angular tension binds with bold consistency to create an entirely watchable film.

In addition, Tati out-Altman’s Altman years before M*A*S*H made him popular. The sound is layered and marvelous, not unlike the visuals, and just as dense with gags. Primary focal points are invariably covered up. English speaking audiences will be rewarded by numerous auditory jokes in both foreground and buried deep into the background. The visual gags are numerous and often simultaneous. Scenes involve incredibly dense, complex, precise comic choreography. Not unlike Keaton, Tati possesses unshakable artistic control and a belief in the subtle comedy of location.

Play Time is an astonishing ballet of cinematic possibilities. One only has to think of someone like Malick to realize that Tati imbues every frame with electricity and spirit while making it look effortless. Is it a perfect film? If not, the accomplishment is nothing short of being, quite literally, an absurd miracle. Play Time is a grand fugue of the cinema with lighthearted subject and angular answer. It is capable of anything — arresting crescendi, subtle sequencing, revealing comedy, and simple beauty. How Tati managed to fulfill this dream will forever remain an object of fascination and a testament to the potential of genius.

98.8 (The highest rating I’ve yet assigned)

Au hasard Balthazar (Bresson, 1966)

April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

The Polish pull it off again. The burden of the world. Great image.

Faith has been made complicated in the 21st Century. It is economic. It is sociological. It is classist. Above all, it is politicized. Christ’s message has been manipulated and warped so that people can justify hate with His words. Mention of the Republican party or the Right will undoubtedly conjure images of frenzied worshipers, people shouting in tongues, and probably Rick Santorum. How many votes in this election will be made with a spiritual basis? Belief has been exorcised from political discourse. It’s like your “personal life,” something you leave behind when going to work. For many, Christianity has been made a joke – a punchline that everyone knows will never land.

It’s mental segregation. A religious conviction has been made into shorthand for particular socioeconomic ideas. And wrongly so. Educated liberals offer factual objections to the most basic assumptions in the Holy Bible. In fact, the simple virtue of education has been politicized as well. Believing in a God is now associated with being stupid or uneducated.

All of this is equally upsetting. It makes Au hasard Balthazar so vital.

The Christ imagery is not hard to see. Balthazar is about the eponymous donkey and his struggles. It is a touching arrangement of image after image, sound and story. Bresson was a French Catholic and, like those of us with a strong faith, couldn’t leave his convictions at home. In art, this fact somehow becomes a virtue again.

Bresson’s tale is full of impeccable photography and a tremendous script. The pictures are so astoundingly crisp and focused that Bresson teaches us where to look with less labor than Hollywood is every able. It’s so subtle, but we have been trained to lie with depth, especially now as we are dancing with three dimensions. He famously said that the only way to photograph was from close and in front. At times, this consistency is redundant, not beautiful, but only when employed in rapidly edited passages. Most of the time, however, his photography is sublime – perhaps more evocative of the Italian school than other contemporary French work. In addition, there is a magnificent script, spending a gorgeous majority in silence, respecting the potential of the image. It owes equally to the formality of mass and the subdued ecstasy in Dostoyevsky.

So many remark on Bresson’s radiant visual style, but he also makes thoughtful use of sound. Some noises, like a cricket or a creaky wheel will gradually migrate from peripheral to dominating. He constructs these tableaux in layers, but unimposing ones. They are simple, but never insulting. His discipline informs the counterpoint rather than eliminating it.

A difficult film, but entirely rewarding. Don’t ignore the religious imagery and symbolism. Instead, appreciate the intimacy between Bresson and his material.

78.55

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