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.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Screening Log: CinemaScope Edition

            Welcome back to the screening log, everyone! (Are there screening log fans? Sound off in the comments). My life is about to get a bit crazy—I’m starting my Masters Program at Columbia, and while I plan to try and write as much as I can, but that can be sometimes pretty tough when you have 200 pages of high-level film theory to read. So apologies of this whole endeavor falls apart, but The Cinephiliacs will stay on schedule, and this will as much as possible. On with the show!

-Max et Les Ferraillues, 1971. Directed by Claude Sautet. 35mm projection at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Toni, 1934. Directed by Jean Renoir. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-A Day in the Country, 1946. Directed by Jean Renoir. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Boudu Saved from Drowning, 1932. Directed by Jean Renoir. Digital 2K projection at Film Forum.
-Lola Montès, 1955. Directed by Max Ophüls. Cinemascope 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Maidstone, 1970. Directed by Norman Mailer. DVD.
-Wild 90, 1967. Directed by Norman Mailer. DVD.
-Beyond the Law, 1967. Directed by Norman Mailer. DVD.
-The Buried Secret of M. Night Shaymalan, 2004. Directed by Nathaniel Kehr. DVD. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Cinephiliac Moment: Stalker

           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.

 The Leap to Faith - Stalker (1979)

          As someone who grew up with nine years of Catholic school, but no faith whatsoever at the moment, Tarkovsky is the single filmmaker who makes me want to believe in God. His films are about faith and often the test of faith. Can Kelvin believe that something he knows is not his wife is actually his wife? Do we believe the bell maker’s son will actually succeed in creating the tower? Kierkegard wrote about the “leap to faith” that was required of Christianity, and Tarkovsky's Stalker, the filmmaker's greatest, most profound work, not only asks that of us his three wandering travelers, but us viewers. As the three travel by trolley to the Zone, Tarkovsky allows us as spectators to experience the ride into this foreign, truly alien land. The shots focus on the sides of the faces of these men, who simply take in what they see, as we listen to the constant rhythm of the trolley, crossing the tracks. And then, the sounds begin to change. We hear the foreign, alien sounds battle and clash against the Earthly, consistent sounds. There’s no way to describe the sounds – they aren’t mechanical, they just feel not of this world. There’s no rhythm to what we will hear, as the sounds slowly drown out the trolley. The trolley sounds never disappear – these men haven’t given into the Zone yet – but they dissipate, and we give into the sound of space. The Zone may be a land of absurdity, full of rules and logic that are never explained, but must be obeyed. And Stalker asks us to believe. It’s a film about giving into the impossible, even if we can’t see it. But we can hear it as the Zone pulls us in. We can feel its transcendent power; one we cannot see, but one we wish to. We begin to make the leap to faith. 

Watch the clip here.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Screening Log: I'm in Love! Edition

No notes for this week. Please note that /brackets/ represent films I’ve already seen.

-A Perfect World, 1993. Directed by Clint Eastwood. 35mm projection at Museum of Modern Art.
-The Truth About Charlie, 2002. Directed by Jonathan Demme. DVD.
-Million Dollar Legs, 1932. Directed by Edward F. Cline. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-The Bank Dick, 1940. Directed by Edward F. Cline. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Casque D’Or, 1952. Directed by Jacques Becker. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Charade, 1963. Directed by Stanley Donen. DVD.
-/North By Northwest/, 1959. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Screened on Turner Classic Movies.

Cosmopolis: Day of the Rat

Directed By: David Cronenberg
Written By: David Cronenberg, based on the novel by Don DeLillo
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Mathieu Amalric, Jay Baruschel, Samantha Morton, and Paul Giamatti.
Director of Photography: Peter Suschitzky, Editor: Roland Sanders, Production Designer: Arvinder Grewal, Original Music: Howard Shore and Metric

Correction: The article has been updated to reflect a correction in the protagonist's name. It is Eric Packer, not Parker.

            Cosmopolis, the latest and perhaps best film in over twenty years from Canadian director David Cronenberg, begins with an epigraph from a Zbigniew Herbert poem: “a rat became the unit of currency." Herbert’s poem “Report from a Besieged City,” is a strange report from an apocalyptic nightmare. His lines are short and curt in presentation but extremely visual. Are we reaching these apocalyptic times? Perhaps, but not in ways we might be able to see, which is why Cosmopolis, adapted from the Don DeLillo novel, may be the most essential film of the year: an absurdist parable about the influence of technology on capitalism and its effect of the human psyche and body, all which ascribes meaning to the meaninglessness.

            Cosmopolis is a pure intellectual work with perhaps intense philosophical tenants at its core, but its also intensely funny, thrilling, and hypnotizing that it’s a film that can truly be enjoyed as a thrill ride. I was somewhat wary of the film going in—my only experience with DeLillo was his highly acclaimed novel White Noise, where I found his prose more grating and self-satisfactory than anything else. But perhaps removed from my own voice and into the highly controlled voices of Cronenberg’s actors, DeLillo’s words leap from the screen, his complete control of language aware at every moment, making for many laugh out loud moments. Cronenberg’s keen sensibility creates a world full of artifice, one that themes and ideas of his film (his first screenplay in over a decade) and truly expands and builds them on ways that create his own space. To an average viewer, Cosmopolis might look shlocky and almost lazy, but to me, I found every step to be a fascinating commentary on what is surely a film that will shock a select group to their core.

Image of the Day (8/20/12)

Déjà vu (Tony Scott, USA, 2006)

Tony Scott died yesterday. He was 68. Read the obituary here.

Read an essential piece of criticism by Michael J. Anderson on Deja Vu's exploration of memory and trauma.

I will have more to say on the director on next week's Cinephiliacs.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Compliance: Gullible Garbage

Written and Directed By: Craig Zobel
Starring: Ann Dowd, Dreama Walker, Pat Healy, Bill Camp, Philip Ettinger, and Ashlie Atkinson.
Director of Photography: Adam Stone, Editor: Jane Rizzo, Production Designer: Matthew Munn, Original Music: Heather McIntosh.

            When the words “Based on a True Story” flash right at the start of the independent horror film Compliance, it’s not just informing us we’re into something ripped from the headlines. The text fills the screen in jarring type font and larger-than-life letters. This isn’t just a note; it’s a shield against criticism. One which allows the filmmakers to exploit and milk their story for all it's worth.

            Compliance isn’t the worst movie of the year by any standards—it’s too competently made and well-performed by its cast—but it’s easily the most enragingly misguided in its portrayal of working class society. It’s a film that plays out a horror scenario to its fullest, based on the premise that those who live in small town America are simply too stupid, too scared, and too lacking in self-worth to question authority. And further than that, it’s narrative structure is so poorly conceived that for writer/director Craig Zobel to make this film from what clearly seems like a perspective of privilege speaks to his moral turpitude.

Almayer's Folly: Clash By Night

Almayer’s Folly
Directed By: Chantal Akerman
Written By: Akerman, based on the novel by Joseph Conrad
Starring: Stanislas Merhar, Aurora Marion, Mar Barbe, Zac Andrianasolo, Sakhna Oum, and Solida Chan.
Director of Photography: Raymond Fromont, Editor: Claire Atheron

            The key moment in Almayer’s Folly is one of luminescent beauty, though oddly without any emotion. Set in the Cambodian jungle, our protagonist Almayer watches as a boat, lavished in bright colors floats across a black river toward his dock. Writer and director Chantal Akerman immediately distances this moment from any tension by revealing in a third person voice over the reason for their visit, as well as the outcome, none of which we see. Akerman thus allows the camera to view the moment in its tranquility.

            Since her debut feature Jeanne Dielman became the most widely cited and critically acclaimed film by a female director ever made, Akerman has often dipped into very different works, often changing and revising style over the years. But she has always been a formalist filmmaker with an assured vision, which comes across in the intellectually demanding Almayer’s Folly, a new work loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novel exploring post-colonial tensions in Southeast Asia. It’s an allegorical story between a father and a daughter and between whiteness and blackness, one that slowly and rigorously examines a world in which the physical borders between both spaces and individuals are still quite intact.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Cinephiliac Moment: Zodiac

            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, 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 more about the original inspiration to the project here.

Blank Check - Zodiac (2007)

            Like all of David Fincher’s work since entering the digital era, Zodiac uses compositions within his frames that are tightly wound and filled with layers. Details are never just casually thrown together, though unlike his 90s-auteur counterpart, Wes Anderson, Fincher never emphasizes them. They are often the background, but they mean everything. There’s not a wasted moment or image in Fincher’s tale of three men driven to obsession by an elusive serial killer – even the film’s breathtaking avant-garde three minutes of darkness illustrates the passage of time for these men. So as Robert Graysmith and Inspector Toschi meet for the last time, we’re in so deep to every detail that our eyes are glued to the screen as the final clues are set into place, literally, as Graysmith uses various diner objects to lay out the groundwork for why he has identified the killer. As he lays down his final clue, a waitress comes over and drops off the check. Why? Why would Fincher throw in this random detail – especially one that may distract from our obsession in the case – to have of note that a check has been thrown down? Because it’s the film’s joke on these characters. The total has been added up. And what does it mean? Nothing. It’s just a total. We’ve watched this film for 160 minutes and Fincher has made us as intent as his characters searching for the truth. And what do we get? A small check that shows the total of their efforts. Unlike The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, in which Fincher de-emphasizes the clues of his case by dislocating the dialogue from the visuals, Zodiac does everything in its power to make us look as much as listen (consider the film’s breathtaking interview with Arthur Leigh Allen). So we notice something as mundane as the waitress dropping this check, and immediately question it in its validity in the case. And then we realize it has no meaning - as the final clues come together, why look at the total? It’s a meaningless total.

Much thanks to Jim Gabriel for the screencap above.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Screening Log: Emotional Overload Edition

            Another week, and not much new to report except there’s another new episode of The Cinephiliacs with my friend Kenji Fujishima. We had a great chat and I really loved talking about Fallen Angels, a Wong Kar-Wai film I’ve never really loved, but definitely appreciate more after deconstructing it with him.

-Railroaded!, 1947. Directed by Anthony Mann. Streamed via Netflix Instant.
-Fallen Angels, 1995. Directed by Wong Kar-Wai. Streamed via Netflix Instant.
-Lonesome, 1928. Directed by Paul Fejos. 35mm projection at Film Forum.
-Don’t Look Now, 1973. Directed by Nicholas Roeg. 35mm projection at 92Y Tribeca.
-Mikey and Nicky, 1975. Directed by Elaine May. 35mm projection at the Museum of Modern Art.
-Three Strangers, 1946. Directed by Jean Negulesco. DVD.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Red Hook Summer: Back to Brooklyn

Red Hook Summer
Directed By: Spike Lee
Written By: Spike Lee and James McBride
Starring: Jules Brown, Clarke Peters, Toni Lysaith, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Heather Alicia Simms, and Spike Lee.
Director of Photography: Kerwin DeVonish, Editor: Hye Mee Na, Production Designer: Sarah Frank, Original Music: Bruce Hornsby

            “Spike Lee is a white elephant artist whose best work is termitic,” said my cinephile friend Trevor Link recently on Twitter. And what better way to capture an artist who takes on grand ideas (blackness, poverty, drugs, Huricane Katrina, 9/11, and beyond), but often fills his films with humor, delight, and a true slice of life sensibility. However, Lee hasn’t made a theatrical feature since 2008’s Miracle at St. Anna, a big budget WWII film about black soldiers that lacked any of Lee’s flair that made him such an impressionistic filmmaker early in his career. Thus it’s hard not to see the character of Flik (Jules Brown), the young protagonist of his latest film Red Hook Summer, coming back to Brooklyn as a metaphor for Lee himself, searching for his own roots that defined him as America’s great black filmmaker (at one point, a character trying to fix Flik's hair notes his deep roots, perhaps the film's most meta-commentary moment).

            Shot on digital, Super 8, and an iPad 2 in only 18 days, Red Hook Summer is a major triumph by Lee, an improvisational and meandering film that turns intensely on the themes of religion in the black community. Red Hook Summer is messy—perhaps one of Lee’s most winding and oblique features that seems to lack any true narrative until its jaw-dropping, final third act—but Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever were similarly twisting, and Red Hook Summer sees Lee attempting to regain some of that magic.

The Bourne Legacy: Meet The New Bourne, Same as the Old Bourne

The Bourne Legacy
Directed By: Tony Gilroy
Written By: Tony and Dan Gilroy, inspired by the character created by Robert Ludlum.
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Edward Norton, Rachael Weisz, Scott Glenn, and Louis Ozawa Changchien.
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit, Editor: John Gilroy, Production Designer: Kevin Thompson, Original Music: James Newton Howard

            Hope and change were promised under the Obama administration when they took charge of the presidency from George W. Bush in 2008. And some things have changed—healthcare, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell—but others have stayed the same, especially on the foreign policy side. While President Obama has promoted democracy throughout the world, it is no secret that in terms of his military strategies he has made even bolder and unprincipled choices as commander-in-chief, as especially outlined in a New York Times article earlier this year.

            Whether or not the filmmakers in Hollywood are aware of this, there is a certain reflection of that spirit in Tony Gilroy’s big Hollywood sequel/spin-off The Bounre Legacy. The original Bounre trilogy with Matt Damon was one of the hallmarks of Post 9/11 action cinema, which took a patriotic CIA-operative and turned him into an enemy of the state without reason, and Gilory, who co-wrote all three films, seeded damning critiques of torture and black ops militarism of the Bush administration. The end of 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum seemed like the conclusion to this mess both politically and in terms of storytelling, especially with Damon and director Paul Greengrass deciding to leave the series.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Cinephiliac Moment: Jaws

            Inspired by my post last week, I’ve decided to make The Cinephiliac Moment 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, 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 more about the original inspiration to the project here.

The Magic of the Monster – Jaws
Jaws is considered one of the great horror movies of cinema, as it features an unstoppable horrifying monster that seems unstoppable, even if it is not on screen until the final act of the film. But Steven Spielberg does not treat this creature as a monster necessarily. He seems both in shock and awe of the titular animal. No moment represents this more than just after the shark has been blown to smithereens. As the carcass sinks to the bottom of the ocean, blood pouring out, there’s a sense of wonder to the majesty of this creature. John Williams’s score, full of light notes trickling down a harp (and perhaps my spine) suggests not relief, but magic. Where did this creature come from? Should we fear the unknown, or should we confront it? As Kevin B. Lee described in his video essay on the “Spielberg Face,” the director is fascinated by the spectator’s ability to comprehend awe. And for a film that has made us to terrified of the water, Jaws also suggests the magic of monsters. We may want to scream, but we also stand powerless to comprehend their magnificence.

Watch the clip below:

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Interlude: Judith Crist on "The Long Goodbye"

            It is into the 1973 world that Altman has thrust his Philip Marlowe and seen him, half in sorrow and half in laughter, as a man out of his time, clinging not only to the clothes, the unfiltered cigarettes, and even the car (a 1948 Continental convertible) but also more importantly to the ethic and morality of a time gone by. And, unfashionably at the moment but with remarkable success, he has embodied him in Elliott Gould, that capable actor over-exploited and misused after his initial success, who makes of Marlowe a loose mam, a too rational and too caring a man for now, a sotto voice commentary his bulwark, that foolish grin a façade for the devastating perception of where people are at. And when he puts his values on the line because he alone still cares about right and wrong and gets “You’ll never learn—you’re a born loser” in exchange, he does what the last righteous man has to do—in 1973. And down the road he goes, a shattered myth behind him and a surging swell of “Hurray for Hollywood” flooding the soundtrack.

--Judith Crist, “Current Shock,” New York Magazine, October 29, 1973.

 Crist was 90. Read the obituary here.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Interlude: The Limits of Control?

            My occasional Twitter pal Richard Brody has a nice post up in regards to the Sight & Sound poll, remarking on the fact that many films are by directors with complete control of the camera as opposed to looser filmmakers. He writes:

The prominence of films by of Stanley Kubrick (“2001” at number six), Francis Ford Coppola and Andrei Tarkovsky (three each), and Akira Kurosawa (two); the relative absence of Italian neo-realism (“Bicycle Thieves” at thirty-three, “Voyage to Italy”—if that counts—at forty-one); and, in general, the lack of movies where the strings seem looser (e.g. John Cassavetes, Elaine May) indicates that directorial control freaks have a higher standing among the voters than those whose movies reflect heads-up curiosity, spontaneity, and responsiveness to unexpected discovery.

            Richard is certainly right – Vertigo is dominated by Hitchcock’s precision in every frame, as is The Searchers and Tokyo Story and 2001 – and I too lament the absent of Rio Bravo, or anything by Howard Hawks for that matter. But I think to call these films lacking in unexpected discoveries might be a little too mischievous. Part of this might be due to the fact that Richard is a better critic than I’ll ever be – nothing misses his eyes or ears, while sometimes I need repeat viewings to fully take in some films. That’s what happened when I re-watched Vertigo two weeks ago, and I noticed, on my tenth viewing of the film, that Scottie is not the real name of Jimmy Stewart’s character, but instead it is Johnny (or “Johnny-O” as Midge calls him, which reminded me of Roger O. Thornhill – The O stands for nothing, he tells us – in North by Northwest). 

Friday, August 03, 2012

My Cinephiliac Moments

            “I think it’s a fun picture,” said Alfred Hitchcock of his film Psycho (#35), which is how I feel about the release of UK-based film journal Sight & Sounds decennial list of the “Greatest Films of All Time.” Some people are furious about it. Some people are dismissing it. I fall slightly in the middle. Oh yes this or that or whichever isn’t on the list, but it’s a list, and like Hitchcock thought of his film, it’s fun, and it’ll be fun to see a new generation of cinephiles discover Vertigo (and of course write think pieces about how it’s overrated).

            Sight & Sound “forgot” to mail me a ballot this year, though I’ve written sketches in the past of how my list may parse, and don’t see why I should just print that out again, because honestly there’s too much I still haven’t seen (six films from the 2012 list – Shoah , Journey to Italy, Panther Panchali, Gertrud, Historie(s) Du Cinema, and Ugestsu Monogatari), and what’s the point of “another” list? That list is great, and everyone should see those films.

            Instead, I’ve been thinking a lot about a blog post written by Girish Shambu about “the cinephiliac moment” (I’ve been reading Shambu’s blog for a while, but I found this one through some accidental Google searching related to a certain podcast). Shambu interprets from Christian Keathley’s Cinephilia and History, Or The Wind in the Trees that the cinephiliac moment being the moment in which cinema takes over, and tantalizes you. Shambu writes:

“The important thing to remember is that these are not moments carefully designed to exert great dramatic effect—not that there’s anything wrong with those—but instead they are fleeting "privileged" moments writ small that we find ourselves strongly attracted to, perhaps even disproportionately so given their scale and possible (lack of) intention.”

            I don’t know if my cinephiliac moments follow exactly Shambu’s reasoning – some of them after all are quite big moments in the films they came from, and certainly they aren’t “accidentals” as he states it. But these moments unlock my deepest moments of cinephilia, the point in which I realize why I keep going to the movies. I started at five, and then it soon became twenty five, and then narrowed it down to eleven. They are presented in no order.

Add your own in the comments, or link me to your piece and I’ll include a link here.