Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

Dir. Jennifer Baichwal, 2007

Writing about the modern human condition, the philosopher Hannah Arendt proposed a simple strategy for understanding our place in the world-- that we “think what we are doing.” In
Manufactured Landscapes
Photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal set about not only to think, but to see what kind of world we are building for ourselves by examining the productive forces and the detritus of the global economy. With disquieting beauty, Manufactured Landscapes explores what Burtynsky calls “large scale industrial incursions,” monumental transformations of natural and human environments. Whether documenting Chinese assembly-lines, Bangladeshi shipyards, or superhighway infrastructure, this film offers up a contextualizing panorama of the people and places that go in to creating our ways of living and world of things. Equal parts cool poetic repose and pointed social realism, Manufactured Landscapes is a global vision of earth today.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

New Rating System

I’m back in school and, unfortunately, academic demands are forcing me to neglect the blog. In an effort to at least minimally maintain the blog, I've reluctantly decided to start using the rather arbitrary and artless five-star rating system for most movies, writing real reviews during the few moments when I'm not occupied with work or my studies.

My take on this rating method is pretty conventional but just in case it needs any explaining: A ½* is just godawfull, like Battlefield Earth bad. Obviously then, ***** is as good as it gets. It's not rocket science, just more of my laziness. Sorry.

These ratings can be found at the "Films Rated" link on this page.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek

Dir. Preston Sturges, 1944

First, a quick rundown of the plot. The scene: small-town America, 1944. A pretty young lady gets drunk then, after some anonymous sex (possibly with multiple partners), gets pregnant. What ensues is The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, a flagrant and hilarious thrashing of American mores, military, marriage, family, law, and almost every other realm of civic and social life.

For The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, I was going to write about the genius of Preston Sturges’ comedy. In fact, the playful machinations by which he first circumvents, and then impishly and effortlessly skewers the sappy Hays Code morality of the 40s could be called little else than genius. But it turns out that the commentary on the DVD provides this praise more aptly than I can here.[1]

Therefore, I only wish to make two remaining points:

First, I don't agree with the auteur theory as a whole. But it asserts that there is a necessary tension between the director and the constraints placed upon the means at their disposal, and this seems perfectly illustrated by Sturges' handling of studio censorship. Proof that this tension can lead to artistic strength, discipline, and creativity can be found with one look at The Miracle of Morgan Creek.

Second, see this movie. My admiration for its director grows with each film. Although it is not his best (for that, see either Unfaithfully Yours or Lady EveSullivan’s Travels is good, but overrated), it is a terribly funny film.

[1] It even includes James Agee’s wonderful contemporary review, which includes the following bon mot: “Thanks to Sturges the Hays office has been either hypnotized into a liberality for which it should be thanked, or has been raped in its sleep.”


Dir. Danny Boyle, 2007

Sunshine belongs to that special niche that the science fiction genre has reserved for its more contemplative mode—the space film. With ambitions towards its clear antecedents, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Danny Boyle’s new movie isn’t really about outer space at all. Instead, Sunshine’s cosmic perspective is a vantage point from which it tries, and sometimes succeeds, to consider what it is to be human.

Chronicling a mission to re-ignite our dying star, Sunshine never gets snagged on the heavy-handed exposition or high-tech fetishism that hurts so many sci-fi films. Meanwhile, the casts’ performances are passable but never outstanding, a fact which works for the film because its true star (sorry) is its stellar landscapes and solar ambiance. I typically don’t go in for special effects spectacles, but Boyle, despite some cinematographic gratuity in other areas, is prudent and creative in rendering the Sun in both austere, astronomical beauty and incendiary horror.

Light, in its variegated forms, is the central motif of Sunshine. It is the illumination of knowledge, the progenitor of life, and the searing omni-power embodied in the burning bush. It’s strange that the director has claimed that this is a film about atheism, because Sunshine strikes me as a flawed, but earnest attempt at spiritualism. At its core, Sunshine is about, to use the words of Kierkegaard, “the fear and trembling” of the divine encounter. It considers the sacrifice of allowing one’s self to be subsumed by the light and the sublimity of such a sacrifice's consequences. Sunshine possesses a terrified desire to stare into the Sun and a burning faith that it won’t be blinded.

This is not a perfect movie. Its latter half suffers particularly from the introduction of a villain who seems to be Mr. Kurtz by way of Nightmare on Elmstreet and Hellraiser. However, when at its best, Sunshine tries to deliver on the best voyeuristic and transcendent impulses of cinema—to look into the heart of what can’t be seen and to revel in the experience.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Claire's Knee

Dir. Eric Rohmer, 1970

Claire’s Knee is the fifth film in Eric Rohmer’s series of “Six Moral Tales,” and it is the first of his films I’ve seen. I watched it two nights ago and for reasons that, at present, I can’t fully understand or articulate, I find myself developing a deep affinity for this movie. Hopefully, I’ll find time in the future (perhaps after seeing more of Rohmer’s work) to revisit Claire’s Knee. Here’s what I am prepared to say:

The first thing to surprise me about Claire’s Knee is that, unlike so many of the films by other nouvelle vague directors, Rohmer’s movie is content not to jump through stylistic hoops and mostly eschews formal experimentation. Other than some startling ellipses, the film’s style feels self-assured and fairly conventional.

In the best possible way, Claire’s Knee is a bookish movie. It is literary in the sense that its plot, while essential, is subordinated to an examination of its characters’ desires and self-discoveries. And like the best novelists, Rohmer treats the internal lives of his characters with an insight that reveals a vivid and universal understanding of human thought and emotion; it is the kind of insight that is constantly surprising us by reflecting the nuances and idiosyncrasies of our own private mental experiences.

Inviting further literary comparisons, Rohmer relies heavily on dialog to develop and reveal his characters; however, his emphasis on conversation complements, rather than substitutes, the striking visual élan of Claire’s Knee. Writing in Cahiers du Cinema, Rohmer talks about the way his words and his pictures work together, saying “…people talk a great deal in my stories. But what do they talk about? Of things that must be shown with all the luxury and precision of images: of thinness, for example, of fragility, of the smoothness of a knee which must be made perceptible in order to understand the attraction it exerts on the narrator.” Under Rohmer’s direction, the slightest gesture of flirtation or momentary flash of eyes unfolds into a catalog of cruelty, kindness, wisdom, and doubt.

I’ll have more to say in coming weeks…

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Millennium Mambo

Dir. Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2001

Taiwanese Director Hsiao-hsien Hou’s film, Millennium Mambo, takes its time telling the story of young Vicky, who, like the film itself, suffers from pampered, fin-de-siècle ennui—that is to say, stylized boredom. Narrated by an unidentified woman (presumably an older and wiser Vicky), the movie drowses though episodes treating her various relationships; there is a dimwitted hoodlum, a sensitive Japanese guy, and a paternal gangster. Forgive me if these descriptions are a bit two dimensional, but it is hard to say much else for a movie that seems to deal almost exclusively in surfaces. This sounds worse than it is, because if Millennium Mambo is superficial and directionless, it is self-consciously and artfully so.

Millennium Mambo works through tones and impressions. In the opening scene, the narrator explains that Vicky lived her life as if “under a spell, hypnotized…” The film’s visual style reinforces this notion, offering a vision of a life lived in a kind of muffled, self-willed anesthesia. The formal acumen used to achieve this effect should not be dismissed. Hsiao-hsien shoots his scenes in long, uninterrupted takes. His camera is stationary and never enters the action of a scene; instead, it slowly and constantly pans the scenes, restlessly searching its characters for meaning that never materializes. Millennium Mambo gives us life the way Vicky experiences it; it passively observes the world but never really engages it. This is the cinema of isolation.

This movie is a little piece of poesy that has picked its tone and executed it to perfection, perhaps too perfectly, because, despite its moments of beauty, this meditation on alienation leaves us both exhausted and unsatisfied.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Simpsons Movie

Dir. David Silverman, 2007

Green Day performs a rendition of the cartoon’s theme song for opening scene of the much anticipated The Simpsons Movie. The band is an apropos choice for the film; in the early to mid 90’s, both Green Day and The Simpsons series had a lot in common—irreverence without pretence, youthfulness without juvenility, and energy without a lack of focus—they were proof of the vigor and relevance of America’s pop culture. But as much as I am loath to admit it (especially of The Simpsons), both have become dinosaurs, suffering as much from creative fatigue as from the impossibily high expectations set by their early excellence.

For years now, the quality of The Simpsons’ humor has been spotty and their movie proves no departure from this trend. The biggest problem with The Simpsons Movie is that it’s just not that funny. The feature film format only highlights and exacerbates the weakness of the later-era Simpsons, namely, a preponderance of contrived plot over jokes (which the show used to provide rapid fire, but now doles out a few scant chuckles at a time). At its best, The Simpsons’ humor was truly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Combined, the jokes had a shining multivalence, by turns satirical, slapstick, erudite or numskull. The Simpsons Movie sacrifices this trade mark brilliance for an overblown plot in which Homer finds a pig, does something stupid, nearly destroys Springfield, does a few more stupid things, and then saves the day. Also, the movie gets a little too preachy for my tastes when handling its tacked on environmental theme. When it comes to The Simpsons, who cares about the story-- just keep the jokes coming, Mr. Groening.

Monday, August 6, 2007

My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski

Dir. Werner Herzog, 1999

There is something strange about the documentary work of Werner Herzog—something that strains credulity. But, I should make it clear that these vague misgivings don’t come from a disbelief in the real world’s ability to supply stories of immensely weird and fantastic struggles, the likes of which Herzog chooses for movies such as Little Dieter Needs to Fly, or Grizzly Man. Instead, this skepticism comes from the imposing presence of a director that never allows himself a modicum of distance from his subject. In these films, one gets the sense that, at any moment, Herzog’s so called “ecstatic truths” risk withering away to reveal naught but a visionary string-puller.

I have to admit, however, that this tension between the revelatory virtuoso and the consummate liar that Herzog embodies is one of, if not the, thing that draws me to his work. It defines the obsessive madness and uncompromising quest for the sublime that characterizes both the Herzogian hero and the director’s own approach to filmmaking. But Herzog’s films are also about failure, they show us the fever dreams of illusions that his characters turn to rather than confronting the brutal horror of the truth. One gets the feeling that My Best Fiend is less about these kinds of failures and more an object lesson in Herzog’s own failure to confront the truth of his chosen subject—the death of his creative collaborator and (despite the film’s unfortunate pun) friend, Klaus Kinski.

To call the director of Fitzcaraldo controlling would be an understatement. Herzog maintains a maniacal insistence on authenticity in his fictional films and he demands that the events in these films be verifiably, visually real. Therefore, if his script calls for a hulking river ship to be manually hauled over a remote jungle mountain, then by god, Herzog will really drag a ship over some mountain deep in the Amazonian rainforest. The effect, we are told, is unvarnished truth. But what happens, in a case such as My Best Fiend, when the maestro of actuality isn’t there (at least in his godlike capacity as director) to capture and control the raw “reality” of his subject? Based on his assertion that “the only thing that matters is what you see on the screen” and his lauded visual truthfulness, we might expect a cinema vérité style documentary that comes to terms with the impossibility of direct depiction of its subject, but painstakingly and unaffectedly examines the people and places that influenced or were influenced by the subject. But this is not what we see. In fact, contrary as it might seem to the aesthetics that seem to inform his fictional films, what we see in My Best Fiend is of relatively little importance. This is because when Herzog makes a documentary, Herzog starts talking.

In My Best Fiend, Herzog’s voice, whether it is the sometimes-ersatz intellectualism of his off-screen narration, or the matter of fact exposition of his on-camera commentary, is the dominant feature. It tells about Kinski the wild man or Kinski the coward; we hear about Kinski as a sensitive romantic or the hypnotic powers of his insanity—but we only hear about these things. Sure, to illustrate the tempestuous rages and wild egocentrism of Klaus Kinski, Herzog includes a few archival tidbits of his bug-eyed star indulging in the kind of prima donna fits that I think we imagine most major film actors throwing simply for the sake of being handed the wrong brand of bottled water. But Herzog’s images are never on par with his assertions of Kinski as a nearly satanic wild man or as his antithesis in an almost primordial creative struggle. Most of the original visual material for the film has the feel of the negligible details that a liar uses to embellish his fabrication in the belief they will make it more convincing.

In this film, it is a though Herzog loses faith in the ability of reality and the ability of film to render his mythic understanding of his relationship with his muse. That is the shame of My Best Fiend. Rather than eulogize a man he clearly loves and morn the loss of a creative partner with whom he most fully realized his gifts as a film maker, Herzog exploits Kinski as a prop in the making of his own legendary persona. I suppose it is still a testament to Kinski’s bearing and skills as an actor that his personality is able to function as a symbol for a kind of elemental strife, one that Herzog wants us to believe he confronts in the process of artistic creation, but it all seems somehow unfair to Kinski, the man.

Despite, my ethical qualms, My Best Fiend, is fascinating as a retrospective of the work of Herzog and Kinski, as an interrogation of the moral obligation of the documentary, and as a testament to the power of the filmmaker. It is worth seeing, but will be more rewarding if you watch it from a distance that Herzog doesn’t allow himself.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007


Dir. John Carney, 2006

There are approximately two varieties of guys who seem perennially attached to scrappy acoustic guitars, writing and singing their songs to whomever will listen. The first kind of guy is a schmaltzy faker. He breaths calculated whines and pompous odes while taking sly glances out from under effortlessly mussed bangs, checking to make sure he’s impressing mush-headed teenagers and other simpletons. The second kind of guy, though, combines humility, enthusiasm, and faith in the spare means of his craft and ability to move us in unexpected ways. If the second kind of guy were a movie-musical, he would be Once.

Once avoids becoming a pretentious clunker (read: most modern musicals) thanks to the narrowness of its scope. Once is the story of a guy, a girl, and a guitar, and it does well to never stray from their small, simple drama. Meanwhile, its music is not the flash and glitz of Hollywood productions, but the graceful soundtrack of its characters’ lives.

The film’s leads (who are never named, but listed in the credits as simply “Guy” and “Girl”) are played by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. The two meet on the Dublin streets. Here, Hansard, an amateur musician-cum-vacuum repairman, performs his brand of folky and earnest pop songs, and Czech immigrant Irglova sells flowers to support her daughter and mother. The two unite around a love of music and a shared sense of loneliness. They form a relationship, which Carney is careful to keep from devolving into simple romance, but which is full of tender empathy tempered by bitter-sweet impermanence.

The ability of modern musicals to either fly or fall flat often hinges on the question of how they incorporate their songs into the non-musical life of the film. Once’s modest and efficient style of realism is never compromised by concessions to artificial spontaneity of song or dance. Instead, the music develops naturally out of the movie’s narrative and through the effort and love of its characters, growing from a sweet, escapist balm for melancholy to the harmony of the chance concurrence of two souls.

I have to believe that, in part, the tone of intimacy Once achieves comes from the deep level of trust and collaboration that must have gone into its production. Carney chose to cast musicians, and not professional actors for his leads. By yielding a degree of directorial control, and allowing Hansard and Irglova to perform their own compositions, Carney adds immensely to the authenticity of the film. These are real people whose partnership and sincerity are palpable in their performances. My one and only problem with the pair is that Hansard’s fierce Celtic features threaten to efface Irglova’s spry but slight screen presence; however, Carney works with this effect to imbue her character with a sense of poignant transience.
All too many films exploit music as a cheap tool to add texture or garner an easy emotional response.Quite the opposite, Once richens its songs with its subtle reserve of images and moods. This is a movie to be seen, heard, and felt, probably much more than once.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni

*Together with Bergman's death, Antonioni's passing marks the loss of two pillars of modern European cinema. If these things do come in threes, someone please call an ambulance to the home of Jean-Luc Godard.