Saturday, May 28, 2016

100-Something Movies – More Films about Buildings and Food

Between this honorables section and the last, I made the error of watching still more genre films despite my stated plan, thereby setting back the next 100-something Movies update even more.  In keeping with the established order, I’ll get the science-fiction mentions out of the way before moving onto the stuff my average reader may actually find intriguing.

I found Upstream Color an utterly absorbing and completely baffling puzzle that most viewers, myself included, will need at least two tries to assemble in their heads.  This I could have anticipated, knowing just how dense the filmmaker’s previous work Primer was, but my resolve still died a bit around the 20-minute mark when I realized nothing was going to start making sense anytime soon.  Shane Carruth wrote, produced, directed, D.P.ed, edited, scored, and co-starred in the film, which makes Upstream Color the definitive independent motion picture and means that it exemplifies a very unified artistic vision the like of which you really don’t get to appreciate in, say, X-men 6: Apocalypse Now.

Accusations of piggybacking off of David Lynch tarred the reception of Richard Aoyade’s The Double upon release, but who better to imitate for this sort of story than Lynch?  The inside world of The Double is oppressively dark, industrial, and stifling, the outside world nondescript and cold and eternally smoggy.  As far as the characters seem concerned, the office is the whole extent of their worlds, the compulsion to be recognized within it their highest purpose, which is fitting as The Double is all about Simon James’ self-isolation and severe passivity.  It’s also unexpectedly humorous and at times depressing, since it also dramatizes the tendency of the unknowing and incompetent to rise upon the backs of the truly knowledgeable and competent.  Mia Wasikowska is underserved and Wallace Shawn’s voice gives you a big, fat grin until you realize he’s basically reprising the pernicious boss he played in The Incredibles.

The moment after I watched Rubber I was certain it would make the final cut for Update 1.  Today I’m certain it won’t, perhaps because it ends too soon, perhaps because it’s kind of repetitive, but mainly because it didn’t stick with me for more than 24 hours.  At any rate, you can probably judge for yourself whether you will like a movie such as Rubber, and its numerous hilarious quirks and subtexts are best kept under wraps.  I will say this: the decision to revamp the ancient Greek chorus as a diverse “moviegoing” audience camping out in Joshua Tree park is one of the best cinematic innovations of the decade.  Also, “I just saw a live tire,” has to be the movie quote of the year.

White God may well be the best dog-centered movie ever made: violent, visceral, sobering, and even epic at its best.  It’s the only movie in existence where you can see a throng of malcontented mutts charging through the abandoned streets of a city under curfew.  And yet it still falls so short of perfection, from the generic Zimmer-like music to its abundant head-scratching moments that leave you going, “Waaaaa?  Did they really just do that for the sake of moving the plot along?”  Watch the trailer, then if you don’t mind seeing realistic depictions of animal cruelty, pull up the movie on that one streaming service to observe all the scenes conveniently omitted from the trailer.

If any movie cried out to be played on loop on all the giant Costco televisions, it would have to be Baraka, which would be the greatest nature documentary ever shot (and not written) if it wasn’t so heavy-handed with its environmental posturing against metropolitan society.  I get it.  The guy standing in the street is tolling the bell for mankind’s impending doom, brought on by their own spiritual apathy and enslavement to commerce.  Ah, who am I kidding?  This probably is the greatest nature documentary of all time, because any guy other than Ron Fricke would try enlisting Morgan Freeman or Leonardo Dicaprio to tell us outright that we’re doomed.  Fricke just lets his music and slow-motion IMAX film do the telling.

Knowing Spike Lee’s penchant for racemongering, inciting violence, and “wanting to pick up a gun and shoot whites”, I wasn’t much expecting to like Do the Right Thing, and I’m still not sure I do, but I can respect it for being surprisingly even-handed.  Lee presents an Italian pizzeria owner as one of his most admirable and tolerant characters while making Buggin’ Out and Radio Raheem the most cantankerous and hateful residents of the neighborhood.  Nonetheless, one of my main takeaways from Do the Right Thing was that in situations of extreme stress, even the most decent, level-headed men can snap and do very not-right things to the hoodlums who antagonize them.

In any case, it’s curious to me how the same man who made Do the Right Thing, a movie that seems to ridicule blacks’ desire for inclusion in every club (“Why aren’t there any brothers on this wall?”), would get so upset about the lack of non-white actors at the liberal American circle jerk that is the Academy Awards. Do the Right Thing, it appears, is too smart for even its own creator to understand.

La Femme Nikita is yet another showcase of Luc Besson’s adeptness at writing interesting parts for women.  Idiots who take their cues from The Hunger Games or from current superhero comics erroneously assume that “strong female character” means a girl who maims and executes and copulates just as ruthlessly as the boys, but Luc Besson knows better.  Nikita commands our attention to this day not because she adheres to an archetype of action-man masculinity but because she counters it in so many ways; trained to be a pitiless assassin, she doesn’t enjoy taking life, she has emotional breakdowns, and she purposely avoids pursuing actions that would endanger those she loves.  Anyways, Eric Serra’s soundtrack sounds like a blueprint for the work he would ultimately do on The Fifth Element, but the way it’s synced up with the other sound effects makes the movie’s scattered action sequences quite exciting. In fact, this is one of the most Hollywood-ish subtitled films I’ve seen, so if you’re looking for an easy and entertaining entry point to foreign cinema, look no further than Nikita.  Then check out the CW spinoff and remind yourself why network television sucks.

Spring Breakers is a curious specimen of a movie, on one hand being an entrancing foray into filth and debauchery and lawlessness excused as harmless fun, on another being an excessive and occasionally shlocky piece of borderline pornography that left me feeling thoroughly disgusted by the end, which I suppose it was trying to do.  The acting is trashy, the dialogue banal and obscene, but neither detracts from the intended atmosphere, surprisingly complementing the themes of superficiality and hedonism that fuel Harmony Korine’s picture.  Random things I didn’t like include the gunshot transition SFX repeated over and over, the flashback elaboration on the one-shot cafe robbery scene that was really well done the first time, and all the boobs.  Random things I really liked include the clever incorporation of inane pop music into the plot (the whole soundtrack is surprisingly brilliant), the casting of Disney stars gone wild as a commentary on the cultural rot of youth-targeted sitcoms, the gorgeous, super-saturated color scheme, and just how strange the whole thing is.

I would recommend Spring Breakers to aspiring filmmakers who want to see how editing and cinematography and music can reinforce tone and communicate emotion in place of dialogue – in short, to anyone who wants to know how an effective movie is put together.  This wordless montage in particular is one of the most emotive scenes I’ve yet encountered.  I would not recommend Spring Breakers to my parents.

About halfway through a random mystery thriller I knew next to nothing about, I had an epiphany that The Falling must have been directed by a woman, not because of any message it was trying to convey, but because of what the director focused on and how.  Some female directors have succeeded at obscuring or neutering their sex on film, e.g. Kathryn Bigelow with the surf classic Point Break, a film that could only be construed as feminine because it revels so cheesily in its own hyper-masculinity.  The Falling, in contrast, has femininity coming out of its eyes, coming out of wherever, and that alone makes it an interesting watch even with its many bothersome excesses, like the scene of  spoiler  that was technically legal to shoot in the U.K. but would probably require a body double in the U.S.  Many of the key plot points in Carol Morley’s film go unexplained or suggested by subliminal imagery that is itself open to interpretation, so it’s also worth checking out for screenwriters to see how showing is better than telling, and all that cal.  Unless your audience is stupid, which seems to be the case with most of The Falling’s IMDb user base.  In short, the soundtrack by Tracey Thorn is superb, one of 2015’s best, and the storytelling nothing if not unique.  I just wish it was more likeable.

No relationship to The Falling, The Fall is very clearly a passion project by director Tarsem, brought to life with little studio input or outside pressures.  In a way this is a good thing, especially if you believe that films, like novels or paintings, can have a dominant voice and don’t need to be “collaborative art”, a la almost every Marvel product.  The narrative of The Fall doesn’t resemble any other movie save for maybe The Princess Bride, and it achieves an epic look without extensive CGI or props.  In another way, the independence is a bad thing, because I was bored out of my mind and struggled to find a sense of weight in what’s presented as a totally made-up story-within-a-story.  Granted it was 4AM when I started giving up, but it was still pretty damn exhausting.

On a side note, the R-rating of this is ridiculous and possibly even more interesting than the film itself.  The Fall has a prevailing tone of the unreal and whimsical, and is told with a childlike sense of wonder.  The primary audience may be adults, as the main character is an adult speaking to a child, but there’s nothing so scary or improper in The Fall to preclude most 12-year-olds (arbitrary number, +/- a couple years) from watching it with their parents.  Because of a couple brief scenes of fake bloodshed, cinemas would prohibit unaccompanied teenagers from going to see a very artistic, original fantasy drama, but would accept their money for braindead trash like Pitch Perfect 2 or Transformers 4 without a second thought.  The Lord of the Rings films are all more intense and grisly than The Fall, featuring lopped-off heads, human sacrifices, and a surplus of stabbings, but because they keep the on-screen blood to a minimum, they get away with a PG-13.  And why can you only say two F-bombs in a PG-13 movie?  F-bombs are ____ing great!  If I’m shooting a documentary about babies and motherhood and the momma curses three times during childbirth, do I get stuck with an R-rating just for showing how strenuous it is to deliver a baby?  Misogyny!

Brooklyn was last year’s most pleasant and generally delightful love story: well-written without resorting to voiceover, attractive without drawing attention to itself, and endearing without descending into melodrama.  I would definitely rank it among my 15 Intelligent Romances Guaranteed To Get Her Holding Your Hand And Weeping Into Your Shoulder.  It was also the most unprogressive story of the year, for reasons I may discuss later in a more comprehensive 2015 recap.

Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter had one of the more oddball premises of 2014, concerning a Japanese girl who obsesses over the movie Fargo and progressively ruins her life in search of the money bag buried by Steve Buscemi.  It has visual humor, it has beautiful coloring, and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly if the main character wasn’t a conniving, two-timing thief.  Unlike every other movie in this post, it’s also safe for the whole family, though kids under a certain age will probably find it boring as Fargo.

I should also mention this song.

No Country For Old Men was virtually faultless in every way.  I’m sure if I wanted to find logic holes in the story then I could do so, but the Coens’ filmmaking was so gripping I would be depriving myself to look for them.  I gave it a perfect score on IDMb and immediately thought it had a guaranteed spot in the 100-something movies.  It certainly stands among the best and most enthralling of the Coen Brothers’ work.  It just isn’t one of my favorites, and I’d be besmirching my own list if I put anything on it I didn’t engage with on some personal level.  Still, check it out.

Cross-apply most of the points made about Jarhead in the previous post to The Master, which obviously thinks itself much more intelligent and important than it is.  I watched this in a last-minute scavenger hunt for a movie that “had an impact on me that might be considered spiritual”, and came away with unscathed spirit.  Paul Thomas Anderson’s resounding message is that cults are bad, we should pity anybody gullible enough to fall into one, and that everybody has to serve a master.  The 65mm cinematography is incredible, as are Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but what else would you expect?  Hearing Hoffman cuss out a skeptical reporter is worth the price of entry alone, but don’t go in expecting a revelatory film that will open your eyes on, like, religion or human nature or something.

Three Colors: Blue by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski has a booming classical score, great acting, and some periodically interesting use of color.  I wouldn’t exactly call it required viewing for wannabe directors, which is the whole reason I watched it.  Maybe its narrative themes are a strictly French thing that doesn’t translate well to American audiences.  White is skippable and I’m hoping Red is better when I get to it.

Nothing need be said about Ennio Morricone’s score to The Mission.  If only the rest of the movie was as compelling for all of its two hours.  The Mission, unfortunately, is kind of an agenda film first and a story second.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t moving in places, or that it doesn’t document a very ugly period in imperial and church history, but I don’t remember much of anything about the characters.  Robert De Niro liked stabbing people with his sword and Jeremy Irons let a bunch of women and children die because he didn’t believe in violence.  What a maroon!

The Rover takes place sometime after some disastrous event turns the world into the same savage desert we’ve seen a hundred times before, and it trudges along at much the same pace one would need to adopt to survive in such a world.  It’s a revenge story that withholds the reason for revenge until the very last scene, and director-writer David Michôd pulls that scene off in the most raw and unaffected way possible. There’s moody cinematography, Guy Pearce is hard to recognize but great, and A24 is putting every other studio in its place.

Blue Velvet is one of the best-directed and -shot generic crime stories ever told.  I’m probably the 5000th person to describe it as dark and atmospheric, but the truth is that it’s really dark and atmospheric.  I may have felt more satisfied if I hadn’t kept waiting for a twist that didn’t come.  Blue Velvet is more modern fairy tale than psychological mystery, and nothing you see is meant to mislead you.  This ain’t no Mulholland Drive, folks.

Speaking of Mulholland Drive, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and your ability to enjoy it will depend in large part on your toleration of plots that don’t make sense.  I find myself admiring the technique of David Lynch’s films but grasping for some deeper meaning that most likely doesn’t exist.  Mulholland Drive is optimized for group viewing and discussion, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a group of more than two who’d willingly sit through it without escaping into their phones.  The sad realities of modern life…

More than two decades later, The Crying Game certainly remains topical, this being the year of the… well, I won’t say in case you haven’t already seen it.  In retrospect it seems like a movie that drew more attention for its subject than for its execution, but it’s still as well written and unpredictable as it was on opening day. Those suffering from Disney story arc fatigue should give this a look.

Pi and Europa are really good-looking B&W films from Darren Aronofsky and Lars Von Trier respectively.   The former sucked me in with its philosophical depth, disturbing images, and prototypically 90s big-beat score (complete with Massive Attack), while the latter literally put me to sleep.  Only cinephiles or fans of Chemical Brothers/Aphex Twin-style music should investigate.

I greatly admired Breaking the Waves the first time I saw it and thought for sure that I would recommend it to anybody.  Then I watched it a second time for a research paper and realized that the first important story beat doesn’t happen until 51 minutes in, and then there’s another 108 minutes of mental torture to go through after that.  I concluded that Breaking the Waves is a more exhausting, grounded, and joyless version of Dancer in the Dark, which I adore but would never subject myself to again without the musical interludes.  Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.

Youth in Revolt is what Me and Earl and the Dying Girl could have been if it was actually funny and not enamored with its own reflection.  Both stories revolve around eccentric nerds who pride themselves on their vinyls or arty film tastes, and both are set in motion by the dork’s run-in with an unattainable, equally weird girl, but one film is just so much more competent than the other.  Youth in Revolt isn’t amazing or original by any means, as teen coming-of-age stories tend not to be, but it is bursting with quirkiness and funny dialogue.  “I’m sorry, sweetie, but not with other people in the room.”

On the subject of arty and vinyl, I watched Pink Floyd: The Wall by myself and immediately afterwards wondered why no one else has tried to imitate it.  A kind of feature-length music video based on one of the band’s arguably more accessible and catchy records, it’s packed with surreal and haunting imagery that loosely relates the story embedded in the album. It’s a genre unto itself and fully deserves the attention of anyone who cares about music or film.

Screw that socialist blowhard Roger Waters.  Trump 2016.
Pink Floyd’s going to pay for it.

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