Monday, December 31, 2012

Wrapping Up 2012

This is the end, my friends. Oh wait that was two weeks ago. (HAHAHAHAHAHA wasn't that a knee slapper?).

Anyways, head on over to The Cinephiliacs to hear my choices for my Top 10 films of the year. I was joined by the ever so lovely Keith Uhlich and had too much fun that we went for over two hours, but got into some intense and honest debates about some of our favorite films. Listen now!

Also, for In Review Online, I was asked to blurb about two favorites, Cosmopolis and Lincoln, so check that out over there.

And finally, my list of honorable mentions that didn't make my Top 10, with links when appropriate. Presented in order from 11 to 25: This Is Not A Film (Panahi, Iran), It's Such A Beautiful Day (Hertzfeldt, US), Goodbye, First Love (Hansen-Love, France), The Loneliest Planet (Loktev, US/Russia), Red Hook Summer (Lee, US), The Imposter (Layton, US), Killer Joe (Friedkin, US), Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, US), Bernie (Linklater, US), Damsels in Distress (Stillman, US), Almayer's Folly (Akerman, France), Alps (Lanthimos, Greece), A Man Vanishes (Imamura, Japan), Neighboring Sounds (Filho, Brazil), Tabu (Gomes, Portugal).

To more movies in 2013!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Filmic Discoveries of 2012 (Part II)

This is the second part of my list of films I watched for the first time in 2012. Read an explanation and the first 25 choices here.

25. Duck, You Sucker!, Directed by Sergio Leone (Seen on 35mm at Film Forum; June 19th) 

An explosive film that lives up to the amount of dynamite it delivers, Duck, You Sucker! seen completely cold. But since you’re hear reading this capsule, just know that it’s both Leone’s most fun film (the closest to a screwball comedy he ever made) and his most political. The fact the film “accidentally” switches genres and stakes forty-five minutes into the film is a complete Coup d'état of Leone, leading to the brilliant sequence where Rod Stieger leads a daring heist but instead becomes a revolutionary leader. It’s a bitter film to swallow, suggesting the lack of agency of any individual in a political battle, but it’s also pure visual pleasure, and now my favorite Leone. 

24. Show People, Directed by King Vidor (Seen on 35mm at Film Forum; January 23rd) 

The good people at Film Forum could not have chosen a better time to show this great silent comedy than the height of last year’s Oscar season, as Show People is essentially The Artist made by the people The Artist was portraying. It’s also 1000 times better (fact). Instead of the divide between sound and silents, Vidor’s film shows the movements of a young Marion Davies from slapstick comedian to serious drama actor, while her love interest William Haines remains at the bottom. Vidor captures with authenticity the difference between stars and actors with a jibing sensibility, and peppers his film with plenty of cameos that make for a number of gags that rival the best of the screwballs. Vidor’s work with actors makes this a timeless classic about the importance of termite art.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Filmic Discoveries of 2012 (Part I)

            I saw over 300 films in the span of 2012, starting with a rewatch of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge and as of last night, my second viewing of Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed. Of those, less than a third were from the year of 2012. While there were certainly plenty of great works of cinematic art that are worth your time, I retreated from the multiplex and even the art house to the hollowed grounds of repertory cinema instead.

No one has a perfect knowledge of the history of cinema, and any film critic has his or her own “blind spots.” I don’t see that as a bad thing though. Why would anyone want to have seen every movie? I’d rather have new discoveries to be made every year that open up new terrain to be explored. The 100 (yes—100!) films I’ve highlighted in this list fascinated me in so many different ways. And even better, most I saw on 35mm, a practice I have argued for again and again (though really something you can do in a handful of cities).

While some of my choices for films I saw the first time in 2012 are damningly obvious, there’s a reason they are obvious, canonical works. If my 2013 year of cinematic viewing (get ready for the Kiarostami Koker trilogy on February 10th at Film Society everyone!) can come even half as good as the year of film 2012 ended up for me, I’ll be a very happy camper indeed. Thus, I present the bottom 25 below, with the top 25 to come later this week. UPDATE: Follow here for the Top 25.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Purple Noon: A Not-So-Talented Monsieur Ripley

This piece is in collaboration with The Playlist, where I wrote a listicle on the background of the making of Purple Noon, based on the extras provided by the stunning Criterion Blu-Ray. Below, I reviewed the film and the disc. Read that piece by clicking through here.

             The very abstract title Purple Noon might suggest a film much more abstract, perhaps something Godard or Renais would make. Yet René Clément’s film, now out on a gorgeous Criterion Blu-Ray, is anything but that. Sexy, thrilling, and sensuous, Purple Noon is an audaciously smart French film worth any cinephile’s time. It’s the type of crime film that makes you think “they don’t make ‘em like they used to!” and has a central, star-making performance by Alain Delon that makes this a must-buy on any holiday list.

            Perhaps if Clément’s film went by the title of its source material, people would be rushing out to buy it: Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. Most people remember the classic crime novel from its over-melodramatic adaptation by Anthony Minghella with Matt Damon and Jude Law. Minghella’s film is certainly a fun and lucious, but it has nothing on Clément's existential and reserved approach. Foregoing the homoerotic subtext (though still hinted through the most intimate of close-ups), Purple Noon instead focuses on identity and class.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Some Notes on Reading Political Discourse in Killing Them Softly

They tried to get her last night.”
They? A wonderful word. And who are they
They're the nameless ones who kill people.”
-Kiss Me Deadly

“Everything is politics”
-Thomas Mann

            The easy reading of Killing Them Softly—the one it seems that every critic I’ve read seems to want to make—is that the film boldly and stupidly compares capitalism and crime in the most invasive and obvious way possible. Certainly, with a scene where Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins silently sit for a minute while driving to listen to now former President Bush explain the importance of the bailout, it might seems at times that writer-director Andrew Dominik is making simply a series 1-to-1 political comparisons: Brad is the economic stimulus package! The gamblers are the too cautious senate! America is a business built on violence!

            Excuse me for not buying the text. Dominik is, after all, the director who gave us The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a grand opus about the closing of the American West, its mythic symbols as portents of death. To assume that Dominik thought it would be a smart choice to reduce politics into blatant metaphors is to assume a lack of intelligence on the director, an easy job it seems for a number of critics all too excited to place themselves above Dominik. I mean if it’s so obviously a stupid idea, why do it? 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Mandatory Update

An accurate description of my life right now. Just kidding.

December is a very bad time to be in both school and a film critic. For one, I've written about 75 pages of historical, theoretical, and critical analysis. I'll actually be sharing some of that with you, dear readers, soon enough. I also have been trying to finish off the year of 2012 in film, which has been a truly exciting year of both contemporary and classic discoveries. That means, as you can see, I haven't blogged anything in over a month. But here's some link throughs to stuff I've done:

1) I was a very sad camper with Django Unchained. A quite frustrating experience in a lot of ways.

2) I've been quite addicted to Letterboxd as a new place to diary films. For the most part, I'm just doing my "tweet review" (Sounds dumb, but I make 140 characters count damn it). But I've also posted some longer thoughts on Death By Hanging, Gimme Shelter, as well as 2012 releases It's Such A Beautiful Day and The Imposter.

3) For the first time, I was invited to participate in quite a few end year polls. You can now see my Indiewire ballot here by clicking through the various boxes at the bottom (not a particularly easy-to-use system that they plan on improving). I'll have much more to say on my favorite films of 2012 as the year continues to count down.

4) Every week I have been answering Matt Singer's Criticwire survey, and would just point to this one from earlier this week, in which I named my favorite pieces of film criticism of the year.

5) Speaking of Matt, he was on The Cinephiliacs in November for a fun episode, and the truly wonderful Godfrey Cheshire joined me to talk about the heydays of the New York Press and Iranian Cinema. And Katey Rich from CinemaBlend just appeared this week to talk about Take This Waltz. I also reviewed Kathryn Bigelow's tremendous new film Zero Dark Thirty at the beginning of the episode.

Look for more content coming up over the holidays!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

What Do YOU Think, Max Von Sydow?

If you are in New York the next few weeks, the wonderful people down at BAMcinematek have put together a retrospective of the Swedish superstar Max von Sydow. So over at The Playlist, I have a patented listicle of my favorite performances he gave. Not as many obscure choices as I'd like (a lot simply remains unseen in my book), but the ones I do have are all excellent. Also, BAM is showing them all in 35mm, so unless you hate movies, you better go support their endeavor. And read my article here!

Also returning is another installment of The Disc-Less. With Hitchcock ruining the legacy of the cinematic giant, and The White Shadow streaming, I listed five great British films you won't find on DVD, including films by Terrence Davies, Mike Leigh, Ken Russell, and the Boulting Brothers. So check that piece out over here.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Talking Lincoln

I'm quite late to the party, but Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is easily one of the most fascinating texts I've encountered this year. It's an extremely layered political drama that has three auteurs - Speilberg, Tony Kushner, and Daniel-Day Lewis - transforming what could have been an odd history lesson into a vividly gorgeous work of cinema. 

While I don't have a full review, I was glad that Josh Spiegel invited on his podcast, Mousterpiece Cinema, to discuss the film (which is being co-released by Touchstone, which owns Disney, thus the inclusion). It's a long one, with Josh, his co-host Michael Ryan, and I batting around different ideas and perspectives on the film throughout. You can listen to it here, but since it's a bit long and some people are averse to the podcast form, I also posted the notes I worked from in our conversation below. But do take a listen.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Trainwrecks and Missing Masterpieces

The apparently lovable Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in Silver Linings Playbook, a front runner for the "holy hell this movie is a train wreck of utter proportions" for 2012 award. I seem to be pretty alone in my absolute despise for this movie, but I have a lot of moral issues (as well as acting, script, and camera movement issues) that I think this film completely ignores. Scott Tobias tweeted something that everyone who either absolutely loves or pans this movie is taking it way too seriously, but that's perhaps one of my issues: it treats these huge psychological issues in American society as no less than quirks for a charming unpretentious film, reducing them to really offensive broad strokes. I'm not saying we can't have comedies with mental illness - One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is quite funny - but for Christ's sake we can do better than this. Anyways, I wrote this one for InReviewOnline, the former house of Sam C. Mac (#SMacDown™) and the new home of (former Cinephiliacs guest) Kenji Fujishima.

Over at The Playlist, my second column of "The Disc-less" covers five disreputable American classics in search of DVD releases. Basing this around Heaven's Gate, I chose some awesome films like Ishtar, Greed, and The Last Movie. I ironically chose Elia Kazan's Wild River, which a) technically was available in that expensive Kazan box set Fox put out (bad research on my part), and b) was announced this morning for a Blu-Ray by Fox. But still, a worthy read.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Hey, you can buy me in print! The journal Film Matters asked me to write a couple book reviews when I was just finishing my undergraduate degree. Because of the odd way publishing works, the first one is just getting published. It's a review of Aaron Baker's introduction to Steven Soderbergh. It's a pretty good introduction, basically arguing we need to examine his Hollywood works as more subversive and his experiments as somewhat more commercial than they appear. Not without its flaws, but it's better than other people who think they are experts (should I link? Nah!). Anyways, you can subscribe to the journal or purchase a PDF of just my part here.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Image of the Day and Some Notes on Hitchcock Studies

You might recognize the above shot from Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, as Cary Grant suavely walks through the window in order to escape, and catches the eye of this lovely young woman. What you probably don’t recognize is that such woman is Patricia Cutts, a TV and film actor from the era, who also happened to be the daughter of Graham Cutts.

You might have heard Cutts’s name thrown around over the last year as the director of The White Shadow, the restored “Alfred Hitchcock” movie that was found and will be available thanks to the work of the Film Preservation Bloagathon and Fandor very soon.

I’ve collected some notes based on a small private lecture given by Charles Barr last night about the state of Hitchcock studies, of which he is pretty much the father. The most important point is that there’s a ton of research to be done in early Hitchcock studies, and if you know of any archives relating to the names or films I mention, you should definitely get in contact with me and I'll pass on the information.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Vamps: Sweet Fang

Written and Directed by: Amy Heckerling
Starring: Alicia Silverstone, Krysten Ritter, Richard Lewis, Sigourney Weaver, Wallace Shawn, Justin Kirk, and Malcolm McDowell
Director of Photography: Tim Suhrstedt, Editor: Debra Chiate, Production Designer: Dan Leigh. Original Music: David Kitaygorodsky

            The wondrous Amy Heckerling can be a coy writer and director, as especially seen in her latest film Vamps. A horror comedy about two vampires who are trying to live forever in their twenties (like actually literally), it is so easy to dismiss the broad comedy for its own inconsequentialness. But such a texture is essential to Heckerling’s approach to this and other films like Clueless or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. No need to shove themes or ideas down one’s throat just let them glide by, as vampires are wont to do.

            And thus Vamps is a charming film about growing up and getting in line that (excuse me) nails the coffin in the rest of our current vampire metaphor culture. Its humor is silly, but Heckerling sells it all with an energetic wit, even when it’s the image of Alicia Silverstone drinking the blood from a rat by a straw. Silverstone, who starred in Clueless, joins with the always adorably mesmerizing Krysten Ritter to play the vampires Goody and Stacy in present day New York. Goody isn’t just a bit older than she looks—she was actually changed back in the 1840s, but lies to her bestie Stacy about, who got turned in the 1980s. The two have vowed off human blood and attend AA-style meetings with other vampires in between their nights of clubbing and sex with the texting generation with no end in sight.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Cinephiliacs: Holy Bedroom Motors

The absolutely drop dead gorgeous Nicole Calfan is the object of desire for Monsieur Pierre Etaix in Le Grand Amour, which is a top candidate for favorite films I've watched for the first time this year. I review the film, which is touring via Janus, as part of the latest episode of The Cinephiliacs with Ali Arikan. Ali is an excellent guest, and we talk about the cult comedy Withnail and I. And if you didn't catch my episode with the absolutely lovely Farran Nehme-Smith, make sure to listen to that as well. She's a great insight on classic Hollywood cinema, and we talk about the little seen noir Three Strangers, which has Peter Lorre in an awesome romantic lead role.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Cloud Atlas: A Sextet of Human Life

Cloud Atlas
Written and Directed By: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer
Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Ben Wishaw, Jim Sturges, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, James D'Arcy, Keith David, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon, and Zhou Xun.
Directors of Photography: Frank Griebe and John Toll, Editor: Alexander Berner, Production Designers: Hugh Bateup and Uli Hanisch, Original Music: Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil.

            A symphony begins with a note from a single instrument. Alone, it is meaningless. If that instrument plays through a series of notes, it begins to take shape, and become a progression of sounds through time. They may move us in their simplicity or their complexity. But another instrument joins in, followed by dozens and dozens more, and soon we may begin to truly feel overwhelmed. Remember that great scene in Amadeus as Mozart and Salieri slowly place the pieces of the Requiem Mass in D Minor. We hear the individual instruments, but it is when we finally hear their culmination that we may realize its masterstroke.

            A common mistake in film criticism is an old adage that the portmanteau film lives and dies by its individual episodes. “Would I like to see that story as a whole film?” But if the filmmaker could make a whole story out of that single one, then it wouldn’t be a portmanteau film, would it?

            All of this brings me to Cloud Atlas, a gargantuan philosophical epic from three directors: Andy and Lana Wachowski, as well as Tom Tykwer. The film has already been torn to shreds by plenty of critics, knives out, ready to tear through its individual strands, as well as heralded by others as a savior of big budget filmmaking with heart and soul. So where do I come down in this grandiose debate, one that will surely decide the future of the filmmaking as we know it? (The box office flop may have done that, but they also said movies were dead after Heaven’s Gate). Cloud Atlas is a symphony. Its individual strands when reduced to their elements are stagnant and full of platitudes, impossibly hopeless in their ability to inspire hope. But Cloud Atlas isn’t six stories—it’s one grand narrative, playing notes that form together to something that tore away at me with its vitality, its limitlessness in believing in itself.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

The Disc-Less: Haunted Houses and Leslie Nielsen

I'm really excited to announce a new column I'll be writing at The Playlist, which will be called "The Disc-Less." Each column will highlight films you can't find on DVD in North America, with five films centered around a common theme. This week: scary movies! I write about films as different as The Keep and A Page of Madness. Check it out here

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Loneliest Planet: A Division Larger Than Mountains

The Loneliest Planet
Directed by: Julia Loktev
Written By: Julia Loktev, from a short story by Tom Bissell
Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Hani Furstenberg, and Bidzina Gujabidze
Director of Photography: Intr Briones, Editor: Michael Taylor, Production Designer: Rabiah Troncelliti

         The moment that changes everything for the two characters in The Loneliest Planet is so brief that you better make sure you keep your eyes on the screen and better not sneeze. I almost missed it writing something in my notes. It would be easy to subscribe this film as one of those subtle works that requires copious amounts of attention for a relatively satisfactory payoff.  However, the challenge is more than fulfilling, and the payoff quite devastating. Julia Loktev’s second narrative film is a unique examination of communication between couples and the boundaries that can hold us back.

            Shot in the gorgeous landscapes of the Georgian mountains, Loktev never sets up exactly what type of story we will be watching. We begin by seeing the young Nica (Hani Furstenberg) jumping nude up and down on a wooden plank that crashes against our eardrums. Is she captive? No, she’s just waiting for her boyfriend Alex, played by Gael García Bernal, to bring in the hot water so she can finish her shower. The two are backpacking in the area, strangers in a strange land. In early scenes, we see them interact with local culture through gestures and movements. These two are experienced in the world, not just tourists trying to go the insider route.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Notes on Looper: On Dangerous Time


Because I am about a month late to the party, and because this blog needs some original content instead of just links to other work, here are some notes I wrote up about Rian Johnson’s Looper, a film I liked quite a lot:

-There’s an early moment in the car in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt looks at his sleek red car. He takes his thumb and rubs out a smudge. It’s a classic moment seen in a number of movies, but I couldn’t help but see this as Johnson’s approach to making movies. His films are slick and no detail is left to chance. They are tightly wound in both their narrative structures. His films aren’t puzzles in that they suggest “whodunits,” but that they are built from details into nifty little, closed-world circuits. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Video Essay - What Makes QT Cool?

Cool might be the defining word of Quentin Tarantino's career, and certainly his 1994 masterpiece Pulp Fiction, but what makes Tarantino's characters so cool? In a video essay made by Matt Zoller Seitz and myself, we explore how Pulp Fiction creates and deconstructs its own cool. Huge thanks to Kevin B. Lee and Max Winter for all their help on this, Dave Bunting Jr. for the terrific narration, and especially Matt for all his wonderful guidance and help on the project, which went through so many iterations I can't even count. Watch the labor of love here.

Friday, October 19, 2012

NYFF: Assayas's Summer of Marx and Moon Landing Theories

While NYFF is over, I've got a couple pieces left to file, including this one on Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air, which was my favorite of the festival. I look at the film as a spiritual sequel to Carlos, his 5.5 hour epic from 2010. The piece is pretty good, but I actually had a couple more notes I should have included after chatting with Adam Kempenaar from Filmspotting the other night. Here's what I wrote to him: 

"[Assayas] kind of was this remedy for the French New Wave in a lot of ways that decided to foreground emotion in every frame. I think those dolly shots rising up into the air are totally subjective in a lot of ways ("Don't watch me leave" and the camera totally does), and so the fire during that sequence in the middle is like the emotions are so angry and so furious that instead of appearing via people screaming at each other, they conjure themselves visually as physical elements such as fire. And I love that element to this film."

So you can read that piece here.

UPDATE: Here's my final piece from NYFF, a consideration of Room 237, in which I try and parse through some of the criticisms remarked by two legendary critics, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Girish Shambu. Their pieces are better (and are linked in there), so read those, as well as mine here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

NYFF: Like Someone In A Panic Attack

While the above frame might suggest something creepy, there is nothing plot wise unsettling in the latest from Abbas Kiarostami, a Tokyo-set drama entitled Like Someone In Love. Since I've praised Certified Copy to the high heavens, I didn't like this as much, but found my visceral reaction to it (shaking, convulsing) to be one of the most unique reactions I've had in a movie all year.

Anyways, it's one of four movies discussed in this week's Cinephiliacs, along with Michael Haneke's Amour, Leos Carax's Holy Motors, and Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air. And I'm glad to take David Ehrlich from the Criterion Corner along for the ride to discuss them. Listen to that here.

Additionally, I wrote a piece for Criticwire discussing further thoughts on the Kiarostami film as well as Downpour, one of the Masterworks films and an early landmark piece of Iranian cinema from a director named Bahram Beyza’i. Beyza'i is one of those directors who everyone in Tehran knows really well, mainly for his theater work, but now I can't wait to see more of his films. Anyways, read that piece here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

NYFF: The Future of The Film Maudit

Over at the Film Society blog, I wrote about the new director's cut of Heaven's Gate, which will be out on Criterion Blu-Ray this November. I also used the opportunity to discuss how the new landscape of cinephilia has changed how we view the "film maudit," the cursed film so to say. Read it here.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

NYFF: Cinephiliacs Slices A Piece of "Life of Pi"

On the latest episode of The Cinephiliacs, Jaime Christley comes on board to discuss a tigers, alligators, and minotaurs, as we dive into more from the New York Film Festival. This episode includes discussions on Life of Pi, Room 237, Tabu, Night Across the Street, Leviathan, and Caesar Must Die. You can listen to that here

NYFF: KidCritiz Writings

The above pictured Victoria Guerra ("wtifu...") was more than enough to keep my attention during Lines of Wellington, the semi-spiritual sequel to Mysteries of Lisbon that would have been the next film by Raul Ruiz before his passing last year. Over at the Film Society blog, I write about Wellington and Ruiz's final film, Night Across the Street, as well as the filmmaker's legacy. Check that out here.

Over at Criticwire, I explore three films that use digital imagery in unique ways, including Passion, Holy Motors, and You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet! Check that out here.

Both these posts are in conjunction with Indiewire's KidCriticz Academy (more on that here).

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

NYFF: Alain Renais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet!

Over at The Playlist, I review my favorite film of the New York Film Festival so far, Alain Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet! It's quite a delightful film, so I suggest checking it out, as well as reading my case for its extravagance. One correction—I suggest at one point that this was to be his final film, and found some reports back and forth discussing the matter, though now it seems that there will indeed be at least one more feature. I regret the error. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Talking NYFF on The Cinephiliacs

Barbara, from Christian Petzold, is just one of seven films discussed on my NYFF-centric episode of The Cinephiliacs, one of three I'll be doing. Simon Abrams joins me to run through the great films we've seen so far. Check it out here

Sunday, September 23, 2012

NYFF: Leos Carax's Holy Motors

Holy Motors
A Film By Leos Carax

            The first shot in Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, besides the brief images of motion studies by Étienne-Jules Marey that pre-date cinema’s existence, is of an audience. They are mute, silent, perhaps asleep, perhaps dead, as a film unfolds before them. It’s hard not to read such as a provocative image as a comment about the state of cinema, especially as Carax himself awakes behind the theater in a small room, staring out toward the frame of reality, the window, ignoring the digital one, the computer, before peering at the audience below from the balcony. The easy suggestion would follow then that the film that follows is going to be one that wakes the audience, and thus saves cinema. But he doesn’t believe he can awake this audience—this is a film as much more about “Fin de Cinema” than it is about how to save them, less a love letter than a “fuck you” to it.

            Holy Motors was the runaway success of the Cannes Film Festival, receiving no awards but certainly one of the most praised, most talked about films. The first feature film by Carax since 1999’s Pola X, it’s a film about many things, mostly Carax’s own contradictory relationship to cinema. It’s filled with wild, bizarre imagery meant to shock into laughter, sometimes delight. But its depressive attitude toward cinema, even among its “wild and crazy” sequences, seems juvenile at best, and its schematic structure never makes the imaginative leap. Every time Carax might reach for something transcendent, he feels content, no, compelled to undercut himself and hold us back. Some of that is certainly by design, but it makes the film feel false. The more I knew what Holy Motors was, the less I found myself enjoying it.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

NYFF KidCriticz

Some self-promotion of my own accomplishments I guess is in order, but really more of an explanation of my lack of New York Film Festival coverage so far (I've seen six films but simply haven't had time to write about them, and I've started a piece on Carax's Holy Motors about five times now). In continuing the program they launched in Locarno, Indiewire and Film Society of Lincoln Center teamed up to host their first ever NYFF "Critics Academy" to highlight new talent in film criticism, and yours truly was chosen among the bunch. I'm looking forward to working with the wonderful Eric Kohn and Eugene Hernandez, who have a lot of great panels and discussions planned for us, as well as writing stuff for Criticwire, Film Society's website, and The Playlist. I'll also be doing episodes of The Cinephiliacs every Friday with a different guest, so look forward to those as well. And I may post a few things here regarding other various films if I have the chance. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

NYFF: Brian De Palma's Passion

A Film By Brian De Palma

This is the first in a series of posts about the 50th New York Film Festival. Look for coverage also in upcoming episodes of The Cinephiliacs, as well as other outlets as they are announced.

            Seeing is believing in Passion, the latest hypnotic work from the legendary Brian De Palma. Throughout the film we are exposed to digital cameras that record our inner desires, truths, and fantasies. Perhaps that’s why the director took the narrative from the French film Love Crime, a melodrama that includes some naughty sex and even naughtier violence, because his interest in the text is only secondary for his visual text. He’s beyond any convention of classical narrative filmmaking (though one might have to ask when he ever was) and engrosses you with his ecstatic vision.

            This is De Palma doing what he does best, which means those who aren’t converted will most likely throw their hands up at the film’s ghastly direct dialogue, constant twists, and in-your-face crassness. De Palma doesn’t seem interested in bringing anyone up to speed who hasn’t drunk his Kool-Aid. But within his world, he indulges as he has wont to do with his emblematic color palette that exposes a world of truth and lies as told by cameras and hidden by performance.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Master: Notes on an Ideological Reading of a Pop-Freudian America

The Master
Written and Directed By: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Ambyr Childers, Christopher Evan Welch, Amy Ferguson, and Laura Dern
Director of Photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr., Editors: Leslie Jones and Peter McNulty, Production Designer: David Crank and Jack Fish, Original Music: Jonny Greenwood

Some mild spoilers follow, but I left it pretty opaque.

            The key to unlocking The Master, an intensely psychological portraiture of one of the darker sides of Americana, may be in Joaquin Phoenix’s right eye. As the misguided and confused Freddy Quell, Phoenix’s eye remains barely open, an opaque darkness coming through, but no sense of light. And then, compelled by the film’s titular character, it quivers and moves. Perhaps there is something in there. Until it regresses back onto itself, as beast, like the rest of Quell, which cannot be controlled.

            If Paul Thomas Anderson could have any dead soul watch his latest film, it should certainly be the Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs. No one knew the power of the close-up in the way Balázs describes on his writings on film and specifically microphysiognomy as he called it. So much has been made in cinephile circles about the use of 65mm cameras to shoot The Master, a format usually reserved for large epics across oceans and deserts. Anderson’s film features the occasional shot of those, but what becomes clear very soon is that he wants to use the format for the close-up, to capture every detail on the faces of his characters. The most mild gesture, one surely missed by 35mm and certainly digital, is often the essential stroke in unlocking the movements of this grand film that refuses any sort of simplistic categorization.

            What separates The Master from Anderson’s previous film, There Will Be Blood, is his decision to move into the cerebral. There Will Be Blood is a film essentially about the structures of institutions—business, both capital and religion—that opens itself to expressive images that made this connection clear. But film as a medium, based in its spatial existence, can only peer so far into human consciousness. This is perhaps why Anderson has created two such enigmatic characters that seem to be both signifier and signified—they act as emblems, sometimes too obvious, for their greater movements in the post-war American landscape, but they also become characters fighting toward own volition, attempting to redefine themselves as greater movements.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Cinephiliac Moment: M

           The Cinephiliac Moment is a weekly series in which I choose a moment in a film where cinema reaches transcendence. This moment may be inspired by anything – the composition of the frame, the score, the edit, the narrative – but it is a moment in which cinema becomes something more than entertainment and possibly more than art. Read about the original inspiration for the project here.
Who is the protagonist of Fritz Lang’s M? Certainly not Beckert, the child murderer so wondrously encapsulated by Peter Lorre. He’s on screen for less than a third of the film. One could argue it’s Lohmann, the detective responsible for solving the case, or it could be Safecracker, the de  facto leader of the gangs that organize to hunt down Beckert. But neither alone can be said to be the protagonist. Instead M is the story of a city, a city that is responsible for allowing the anonymity of Beckert to lead to the children’s deaths. So how does one stop them?  M doesn’t propose that the cops and authority are completely inefficient– As Tom Gunning explains on his book of Lang, they nail the identity of Beckert and sit waiting at his home. But man remain anonymous in this city, and only the anonymous can capture him.
There is a wondrous edit, perhaps one of the greats, that beautifully encapsulates why perhaps the criminals are the one for this job. The five gang leaders meet with Safecracker, who proposes that they must be the ones to hunt down this child murderer. During one of his impassioned speeches, he begins a question, which is then finished instead by Lohmann. Not only is the sentence finished by the detective, but the gesture of the arm Safrecracker uses is finished by Lohmann. When I recently rewatched M, it took me a second to realize we were in a completely different space, with different characters. The structural similarities between the cops and the gangs at this moment—the circular tables, the stern faces, the cigarette smoke—is brutally striking. But that is what Lang suggests, and it’s something he will continue to suggest, is the inefficiency of authority to create real change (We’ll talk about that final line in The Big Heat in this column at some point). We may look down at criminals as brutish and awful, but that is not why we must fear them. We must fear them because they are just as efficient, organized, and intelligent as those we lay our trust in. 

Watch the clip here.

Screening Log: Inorganic Transcendence Edition

            Hey look, the content on this site has already dramatically dropped! Hooray #GradSkool! But seriously folks, I am already knee deep in research, but it is my solemn duty to bring you something every week, even if it is short and incoherent and written after midnight (as tonight’s quite incomprehensible entry surely is). Again, as every two weeks, there is a new Cinephiliacs out there. This one has Bilge Ebiri talking quite intelligently about Bertolucci, Malick, Nolan, and especially Kubrick as we dive into Barry Lyndon. So check that out. Also, look for stuff related to the New York Film Festival soon! Press screenings begin Monday, and I’m going to have some exciting announcements soon related to it.

-The World, 2004. Directed by Jia Zhangkie. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Silent Light, 2007. Directed by Carlos Reygadas. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-/M/, 1931. Directed by Fritz Lang. Blu-Ray.
-Cooley High, 1975. Directed by Michael Schultz. 35mm projection at 92Y Tribeca.
-After Life, 1998. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda. DVD.
-The PianoTuner of EarthQuakes, 2005. Directed by Stephen and Timothy Quay. 35mm projection at Museum of Modern Art. 

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Michael Slovis on Shooting "Breaking Bad" - Television's Most Cinematic Show

Over at Indiewire's Television Section, I had the true pleasure of talking with Michael Slovis, who has been the director of photography for AMC's Breaking Bad since Season 2. Within the interview, I try and make my case for Slovis as the show's true auteur. I'd be lying if I didn't say this is one of the best interviews I've ever had the pleasures of doing. Check it out here.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Screening Log: France Was Right Edition

            Small note of fun this week. As part of my Masters program, I’ll be digging through a lot of archival materials, and one of the best parts of Columbia is their Oral History archives, which are not available online. Here’s a quote I pulled from Fritz Lang, that I think explains a lot of the nihilism in his noir films: “Today, I’m convinced that mythical fate doesn’t exist. That you never make fate for yourself.” I wish I had more time with it, because Lang also talks a lot of who slept with who stuff.

-Hollywood or Bust, 1956. Directed by Frank Tashlain. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Artists and Models, 1955. Directed by Frank Tashalin. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-/Barry Lyndon/, 1975. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. DVD.
-New Guy, 2003. Directed by Bilge Ebiri, Streaming via Fandor. 

Lawless: Southern-Bred Crime

Directed By: John Hillcoat
Written By: Nick Cave, based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant
Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy, Jason Clarke, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Mia Wasikowska, and Gary Oldman
Director of Photography: Benoît Delhomme, Editor: Dylan Tichenor, Production Designer: Chris Kennedy, Original Music: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

            For a period so rich in American history, there are surprisingly few movies that cover the history of bootlegging in the United States. Sure, you’ve got your 30s gangster films, but those films are about the gangsters themselves—their goals, values, what have you—and not really about the down and dirty business of making moonshine and distributing it. And especially considering its rich history in the South, I’m surprised that director John Hillcoat and writer Nick Cave are the first to really tackle this odd moment in our nation’s history, as they do in Lawless.

            Unfortunately, Lawless, for all its violence and occasional moments of inspiration, doesn’t seem much interested in the history, or anything really. Based on the novel The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant (writing about his grandfather’s history, so there’s some truth mixed in there as they like to say), Lawless throws us into the moonshine days of Virginia and the battles between the producers (the lawless) and the law. It’s a film filled with testosterone, but it also doesn’t feel particularly inspired by much of anything, and lacks a real punch.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Neighboring Sounds: Too Close for Comfort

Neighboring Sounds
Written and Directed By: Kleber Mendonça Filho
Starring: Gustavo Jahn, W. J. Sohla, Irandhir Santos, Irma Brown, Yuri Holanda
Directors of Photography: Pedro Sotero and Fabricio Tadeu, Editor: Kleber Mendonça Mendonça and João Maria, Art Direction: Juliano Dornelles, Original Music: DJ Dolores

            True but minor story. The other week, a woman knocked on the door to my apartment. I hesitantly answered it. She asked me if I knew when my neighbors would be back, the individuals who lived in the apartment right across from me. Not only did I have no idea when they would back, I had no idea who they even were. I had seen them maybe once or twice before—an elderly couple—but had no idea who they were or what they did. Nor have I known any of my neighbors in New York for that matter.

            So part of the shock of Neighboring Sounds, a fantastic and audacious new film from Brazil, is its exposure to a world where everyone knows everyone’s secrets, even if they don’t know who they are. Written and directed by a new filmmaker named Kleber Mendonça Filho (tough to pronounce, but will surely be hard to forget), the film is set on a single block in Recife, a fairly calm city in Brazil. We are miles from the slums that have popularized most Brazilian cinema that reaches our shores. The block is mostly middle class, with one large landowner living at the top of the block’s high-rises. And within the block is a cacophony of windows and doors, all letting people spy on each other.

Norm the Mail...Norman Mailer!

Hey a new freelance gig! You can now check me out over the wonderful film blog The Playlist. This week, I wrote about Criterion's new Eclipse set featuring three films by Norman Mailer. Spoiler: they are all insane and he almost dies. And I'm not making that second part of up. Check it out here.

The Cinephiliac Moment: The Band Wagon

          The Cinephiliac Moment is a weekly series in which I choose a moment in a film where cinema reaches transcendence. This moment may be inspired by anything – the composition of the frame, the score, the edit, the narrative – but it is a moment in which cinema becomes something more than entertainment and possibly more than art. Read about the original inspiration for the project here.
 Musical Gagsters - The Band Wagon (1953)

            Why accept reality in cinema? When the so called “Classical Cinema” emerged in the 1930s, the rules were simple: don’t confuse the audience, don’t go beyond the ordinary world. But then came the musical, which dared to break all tradition. Why are they singing? They are singing because they can’t help it, damn it! Why are they dancing? Same reason. But cinematically, a number of the great musicals still attempt to preserve continuity and a tradition of order. But not Vincente Minnelli, and certainly not in The Band Wagon. The Band Wagon is the ultimate musical to come out of the Arthur Freed unit, in many ways because its self-awareness about the limits of the frame. So take the moment I cannot stop watching over and over: during the film’s most recognized song, “That’s Entertainment!” there’s a moment where we see Oscar Levant carrying a long ladder across the screen, holding the front. And then we’re distracted by Nanette Fabray, before we return our eyes to that ladder, still going, and carrying from the other side is none other than Levant again. This isn’t exactly a ground breaking joke, and if pressed, I’m sure one could find a similar gag in earlier slapstick films. But Minnelli treats the gag with such irreverence, and it always works for me. That smile on Levant’s face as returns to the screen says it all: we’re having just as much fun as you, and we don’t care.