Friday, January 31, 2014

January 2014: Cinema

 It was admittedly a slower month at Château de Willow because of my new found obsession with wrestling (which is totally an art form itself) and my general burnout after trying to watch every critically acclaimed picture from the last year. I did however finally get to see two very good pictures from Elaine May. She came onto my radar last year after watching the powerhouse dark comedy A New Leaf, and she is one of those rare filmmakers who has a perfect resume. My boyfriend also introduced me to Godard's King Lear which I found to be a brilliant picture that nearly destroys cinema in it's 90 minute run time to rebirth it all over again. In return I introduced him to Godard's Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo, so I think we both kicked the world's ass at how cinephile relationships are supposed to work. It was a fun month, but honestly a little thin on older pictures. I'm hoping that February is a little more diverse.

Best of the Month
The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1971)
Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987)
Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)
King Lear (Jean Luc Godard, 1987)
Come Drink With Me (King Hu, 1966)
This Gun For Hire (Frank Tuttle, 1942)
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, 2013)
3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)
Beyond the Mat (Barry W. Baulstein, 1999)
Four Heads are Better than One (Georges Méliès, 1898)
The Butler (Lee Daniels, 2013)
The Past (Asghar Farhadi, 2013)

Best Rewatches

Je Vous Salue, Sarajevo (Jean Luc Godard, 1993)
Southland Tales (Richard Kelly, 2006)
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2013)
Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
Batman Returns (Tim Burton, 1992)
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991)

Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, 2013)


Admission (Paul Weitz, 2013)
This is 40 (Judd Apatow, 2012) [rewatch]

Thursday, January 30, 2014

2013: Year in Review

I live in a world of dreams. I sit and watch images pass by me as they find their way into my memory and my heart. I vicariously live through their suffering, heartache, triumph and desires. I latch onto the images and stories of people I wish I could be and the people I wish I could know without this boundary of screen, but I find myself there while it lasts and for moments I am with them and they are a part of my world. It’s not just the power of escapism that draws me to cinema, but the power of seeing entire worlds created and finding a connection to those people living within them. I live my life through the scope of everything I experience within the world of cinema. It has been the one constant in my life for as long as I can remember and those experiences I had with this sacred art in 2013 were immense and unforgettable.

Best Films
1. Top of the Lake (Jane Campion): Campion’s mini-series seems to play out like a 21st Century reimagining of the cryptic small town setting and abject weirdness of Twin Peaks, but turns out being much darker than one could have imagined. The difference between something like Peaks and Lake is that Campion never shrouds the evil of humanity in a metaphorical evil spirit. She plays everything much closer to reality and the evil that Top of the Lake confronts is rape culture.  It’s pervasive, creeping and around every corner of the world these characters live in, and I’m not sure if a more poignant film came out this past year.
2. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach): A film about Female friendship as platonic soul mates, economic frustrations, arrested development and dance all wrapped up in a nice French New Wave inspired package. This film lives and dies on the strength of Greta Gerwig and luckily she’s at a career best. It’s telling that so many people relate to Frances. I think in part it’s because she serves as a kind of mascot for the current generation of post-graduates who are trying to find their way in the world. Baumbach and Gerwig capture those feelings of plowing ahead through uncertainty perfectly. Although there should have been more dance. More dance in movies in 2014 please
3. Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine): I’m convinced Spring Breakers is a film of contradictions, and an endlessly fascinating one. Feminism exists within surface level male gaze, Terrence Malick’s ethereal templates are grafted onto Spring Break culture, Korine shows affection for his characters while simultaneously damning them. All these things together create something that is ridiculously compelling from a purely interpretational viewpoint, and when you add onto that the pop art aesthetic being baptized in the waters of Malick and Mann you have something truly unique.
4. Drug War (Johnnie To): Johnnie To’s brand of film making has often been compared to Jazz at times (especially in the case of something like Sparrow, and rightfully so), but in Drug War it’s a little different and I’m more prone to compare his work in action to thrash metal. The way everything is so tightly constructed, the way the action viscerally moves from one scene to the next without losing the rhythm of the movement. It’s anything but rigid, and like thrash metal it moves over you like a machine and pummels everything in it’s way.
5.  Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen): It's not entirely difficult to make the claim that this is the Coen’s Ulysses to their Odysseus (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Filled to the brim with the kind of darkly comic tragedy we’ve come to expect from them and punctuated by an incredible soundtrack. I still have Please Mr. Kennedy stuck in my head. Someone please send help.
6. The Unspeakable Act (Dan Sallitt): A film dedicated to Rohmer that echoes his influence on cinema. The way Sallitt has a control of the rhythm of dialogue calls upon the late director’s work and the transgressive look at incestual desire always feels respected and not presented as taboo. It's just a facet of this young girls blossoming sexuality. Tallie Medel is astounding and the therapy sessions are something of a marvel in the way he makes sitting and talking feel vibrant and alive.
7. White Reindeer (Zach Clark): For a little while White Reindeer held the top spot on my year end list, and I still love it deeply. Zach Clark’s picture absolutely floored me when I watched it earlier this year, and captures spiraling depression in a really human and loving way. Anna Margaret Hollyman also gives the best performance I’ve seen all year. The film is really funny too.
8. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada): Making me cry is a common theme of the films I tend to fall in love with and it was no different this year. Wolf Children left me in a pool of tears. The melodrama is incredible and the single parent-motherhood narrative mixed with it’s identity politics really hit close to home.
9. Bastards (Claire Denis): There is something deliriously evil about this film. Claire Denis and Agnes Godard’s collaborations have never been this bleak and pessimistic. Every ounce of her usual sensual-bodies in motion- style is demonized and repurposed to chill instead of sensualize. Like my #1 of the year Top of the Lake it takes you down the rabbit hole of a pervasive culture and like that film as well it’s horrifying to find out what lies at the center.
10. Lesson of the Evil (Takashi Miike): This may very well be the most nihilistic film of the lot, but I can’t help but fall in love with Miike’s craft, the colours he uses and the black comedy inherent within slasher films to once again show everyone who the best in the world is at making horror films. (This might have been undistributed. It had a NY festival date so I'm counting it)
The other films I loved this year
11. The World's End (Edgar Wright)
12. Fast & Furious Six (Justin Lin)
13. The Punk Singer (Sini Anderson)
14. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan)
15. Viola (Matías Piñeiro) 
16. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)
17. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
18. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)
19. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
20. The Heat (Paul Feig)
21. 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
22. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)
23. Leviathan (Lucien Casting-Taylor, Verena Paravel)
24. Frozen (Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck)
25. The Past (Asghar Farhadi)

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (Pain & Gain)
Anna Margaret Hollyman (White Reindeer)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Suzanne Clement (Laurence Anyways)
Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)
James Franco (Spring Breakers)
Zhang Zyi (The Grandmaster)
Simon Pegg (The World's End)
Amy Acker (Much Ado About Nothing)
Nick Frost (The World's End)
Julie Delpy (Before Midnight)
Sun Honglei (Drug War)
Emma Watson (The Bling Ring)
Adam Driver (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Adepero Oduye (12 Years a Slave)
Mattew McConaughey (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Melissa McCarthy (The Heat)

*I would have liked to have written something about their performances, but I quickly realized that is not my forte and it would have quickly devolved into cliche acting buzzwords so I'll spare you all from that.

Best Direction: Johnnie To: Drug War
Runner Up: Claire Denis: Bastards

Best Cinematography: Benoit Debie: Spring Breakers
Runner Up: Emmanuel Lubezki: To the Wonder

Best Screenplay: Dan Sallitt: The Unspeakable Act
Runner Up: Joel and Ethan Coen: Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Usage of Music (this means ALL music): Laurence Anyways
Runner Up: Inside Llewyn Davis/Bastards/Spring Breakers

Best Undistributed Film: Blind Detective (Johnnie To) *Sammi Cheng gives maybe my favourite performance of the year as well. Here is hoping it gets a 2014 release

Most Quotable Movie: Frances Ha (Ahoy, Sexy! Frances Undateable)
Runner Up: The World's End (Oh, Fuck Off! You Big Lamp! Smashy Smashy Eggman)

In closing I just want to say I had a great year, and each year in cinema always opens itself up to more viewings and reworking your favourites over the years. Life through cinema is a never ending journey and this post is only a checkpoint, a timestamp of my opinion at this moment, because I still have so much more to see and to discover and I can't wait to find out. I know 2014 will bring just as many riches.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

My Apocalypse: Metallica Through the Never

Originally posted on Letterboxd

I find it a little bit odd that my two favourite bands (Metallica, Bikini Kill) from my teenage years ended up getting films made about them in 2013 (the other being The Punk Singer). My relationship with Metallica is a lot less complicated than the one I have with Bikini Kill. It basically comes down to the fact that I always thought their music kicked ass, and as juvenile as it sounds that's still pretty much the crux of my relationship with Metallica. There was a time when I was so heavily into the band that I listened to Master of Puppets daily. My relationship has since cooled, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the sheer absurdity of Metallica's Apocalypse Concert film Through The Never.

During the first few minutes of Through the Never I thought for sure this was going to be nearly cringe worthy. I mean Lead vocalist/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield drives by in a car that shoots flames out the back, a rabid Metallica fan arrives at the show first and starts screaming the band's name at the top of his lungs, and Bassist Robert Trujillo literally is playing bass in a room with vibrations coming off the walls that it distorts the image. Then something came to me. I'm watching a concert film about Metallica and they have NEVER been a subtle band, and once I actually started to go along with some of the more bizarre narrative moments I settled into the groove of what the film was trying to do and that's represent the spirit/attitude and imagery of a live Metallica show. Much like the way 200 Motels would represent the filmic version of what Frank Zappa's music sounded like Through The Never does the same for Metallica. It's in your face, brash, and very straightforward.

However, the concert itself is where I think most of the strength of the picture lies. They recreate some of their albums covers on stage and even go back through some of their greatest hits of stage antics (the flaming man who ruins the stage is taken from 1996's Cunning Stunts and Lady Justice falling apart was a staple of their ...And Justice For All tour in the late 80s). It's always fascinating to watch and never feels like four guys just playing on stage. They definitely perform with the intentions of the stage show being as great as the music they perform and that was an admirable decision. Nimrod Antal also keeps the show interesting in the way he shoots the band. His framing is way above par for the home video releases of the previous concert films the band has released and also injects some nice visual moments into the picture. One moment of hazy red lighting from above casting a warmness over Hetfield as he stands between each cymbal on the left and right side of the drum set was an especially strong image, and probably the finest visual moment at hand.

I think this is best suited for fans of the band, but there is probably enough here to keep non fans interested for 90 minutes. The concert always looks dazzling and the band has been performing long enough that they know how to work an audience. They have a level of professionalism that only comes with performing live for 30 years, and it shows in just how appreciative they seem of their audience while still being as aggressive as they can be in their middle age. This is a band still at the zenith of their popularity making a movie that they probably all wished they could have made when they were 16 years old, and I find that youthful charm to be refreshing after the self seriousness of Some Kind of Monster. These are still basically the same guys who recorded Kill 'Em All, and it's only fitting that when all the dust settles and all the story ends it's just four guys sitting in a room playing, because they've always been a band that prides themselves on the music they create whether people love it or hate it, and I'm sure they feel that same pride about this film.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Dreams and Dissolves: 3 Women


I think we involuntarily create what can be described as cinema when we sleep, and in that way I think dreams and cinema are inherently linked. It’s incredible the way that dreams are often cryptic, can conjur up any image imaginable and tell any story inside of your own head without your consent. In a way we all create movies when we are in our unaware sleeping states. Robert Altman's 3 Women is essentially a film where the director finds himself trying to recreate a dream. Altman is a director who has always used techniques like slow zooms and dissolves, but never have they been more radical than in this film. The techniques that Altman uses throughout function to create a film that visually is reaching for a dream like state, and he succeeds. There is one scene specifically near the end of the picture that I'd even go as far to say is Altman's greatest sequence. In this sequence Altman uses dissolves in a way that perfectly encapsulate the way dreams feel. His images fade on top of one other, shift, double, are cut in half, and morph, and it's punctuated by Gerald Busby's ominous score. It evokes everything Altman was trying to do in creating this dream/nightmare world and a moment of pure stylistic power.

However, the masterful dissolve dream wouldn’t be what it is without everything the picture does prior to that moment. Millie (Shelly Duvall) and Pinky (Sissy Spacek) are our guides through this underpopulated, seemingly sinister California town. They meet each other by chance after Pinky applies to work at the same health spa as Millie. The shy Pinky instantly attaches herself to Millie’s buyout personality and cheery disposition. After getting to know each other a little better Pinky and Millie agree to live together. Pinky is really blown away by Millie’s perfect apartment and her beautiful clothes. It almost feels like she tries to become her. Millie grows increasingly bothered by her roommate’s personality to the point where Pinky actually tries to kill herself. There is a feeling of impending doom in all of these scenes and that is all released in her suicide attempt.  When she recovers her personality has shifted with Millie and the two have reversed roles. There is no explanation why and the clues we’re given in regards to her identity are minimal (the social security card, her parents). I’m unsure at this point if she even exists. In many earlier scenes Millie needed a friend. She was alone and chatting away to herself while people around ignored her. She may even be a manifestation of Millie’s own personality and her need for someone when she was alone. The idea that 3 Women is a dream picture lends itself to vastly different interpretations, and what I really love about it is that there is never a clear cut answer to anyone’s hypothesis. It gives the film a kind of looseness and unpredictability that I think is entirely necessary for it to succeed.

I haven’t mentioned the 3rd woman yet, and I think she is possibly the most cryptic of all these characters. She doesn’t say much in the film and her screen time is much shorter than Pinky and Millie, but I think Willie (Janice Rule) is perhaps the most important character in 3 Women. I think she represents God. She has a few big scenes that I think unravel the meanings of her character. In the beginning she is seen mostly as a silent artist who is painting on everything. She creates these odd murals everywhere she goes, and I’m still not sure what they mean, but they are an example of creation. She often destroys her own work as well when she takes a gun to it, which backs up the idea that she is a God like figure if you assume her art is the life she has given in this world. The other significant scene that backs up the idea of a God figure is Pinky’s second birth. Right before Pinky attempts suicide Altman cuts to the pool she is about to dive in and zooms in slowly on Willie’s mural. It’s a creature that is pregnant with a child. When Pinky jumps and is then pulled out of the water she is reborn with an entirely new personality by way of Willie’s art. Everything in this world, at least the two characters we follow, runs through Willie first. She’s an omnipresent figure and her presence looms over every scene.

After saying all of this though I’m less interested in interpretation than the feeling the picture evokes. These two theories clash and perhaps that is another reason why the film is dream as well as cinema. Nothing has to make sense all the time in this world and I’m not sure anything does, but Altman evokes those feelings of submersion, haze, and mystery that infest all of us when we go to sleep at night.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Revisiting Scorsese: Who's That Knocking at My Door?

Originally posted on Letterboxd

Scorsese's first feature begins with a shot of a Catholic mother making food for her family. The image dissolves at the sight of a virgin Mary statue and cuts to a group of young men standing around talking. Pop music begins playing over the image and the men are compelled to beat up other men. It's almost humorous how perfectly Scorsese would capture nearly every last theme he'd play around with for his entire career in the first two scenes of Who's That Knocking at my Door?. It's a testament to his talents as a filmmaker that he came right out of the gate knowing exactly what he wanted to say, but then Scorsese has always been an almost autobiographical filmmaker. You get the sense that Scorsese knew these people when he was growing up and both admired and feared their actions. Throughout his entire career Scorsese would romanticize violence through the usage of music only to show the horrors and repercussions of these actions later. It was a lifestyle that he never ventured into, but one he understood, because in a way he lived it. The Catholicism present here is also looming over every scene. When R.J. and the girl kiss you can see crosses in the background. When they approach the idea of sex it's shot down when pangs of guilt overcome our protagonist. Then there is the flurry of catholic imagery that closes the film cementing RJ's solace in god despite damning his relationship with the girl due to archaic ideas of purity and virginity.

The other thing that I find extremely interesting here is how Scorsese treats men and women. It's the 1960s and second wave feminism is only just starting to gain any kind of traction so the climate at this time is still very much difficult for women. The idea of women's liberation has only just started so for Scorsese to make a film that is partially about the problems women had to endure during this time when it comes to rape is something admirable. Scorsese certainly places the narrative in the hands of RJ but he gives the girl in this film the space to push back when need be and reject RJ when he blames her for her own rape. The rape scene itself is shot differently than the rest of the picture. It's much more brutal, disorienting and the music is doubled over to create a horrific effect. This is a picture where the girl and the guy don't end up together and it's ultimately the woman's choice to end the relationship, because of RJ's horrible behaviour. She's hurting, but she doesn't end up saddled with RJ and that is progressive. In regards to RJ's presence in the picture he sets up the kind of archetypical character Scorsese would create for years to come in pictures like Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Goodfellas. RJ is a gangster troubled by catholic guilt. He was very set ideas about what's right and wrong, and how men and women should act and it's ultimately his undoing. He still has his boys and his god, but he lost his girl which makes this film a little different from some of Scorsese's other films.
 What might be Scorsese's greatest talent as a director is knowing how to use music to play a scene and it's amazing to see that he's always been perfect at this. In RJ's fantasy scene he perfectly used The End by The Doors and in the already mentioned rape scene he took Don't Ask Me to Be Lonely and doubled it to muffle her screams in a scene that is truly horrific. These two scenes play completely differently and showcase the different ideas these two characters have about sex. For RJ it's a type of ritualistic fantasy and a rite of passage and for the girl it's something to be afraid of and something that has been taken from her that she can't get back. It's something that I never even noticed when watching this film when I was 13 years old, and revisiting it nine years later revealed an almost completely different film than the one I remembered. The one constant between myself at 13 and 22 is that I still find this to be a really interesting debut showing the kinds of things Scorsese would perfect years down the road and the things he's still trying to understand.