Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I'm Aware I'm a Wolf Soon As the Moon Hit


I'm working on another post right now that gives some thoughts on a couple other 2013 releases I haven't written about yet, but for now, I just want to get some of my WOLF OF WALL STREET impressions down.

It probably goes without saying (especially if you've seen my letterboxd) that I completely loved WOLF.  It's my number one film of the year by a landslide, and barring an enormous upset from either the Coens or Spike Jonze (killer cameo in this, by the way), it'll sit imperious and unflappable atop the 2013 heap like THE MASTER a year ago.  As Brandon said, it really is that good.

Scorsese's WOLF is one of the most scathing and darkly hilarious depictions of free-market Capitalism, commodity fetishism, and rampant addiction ever put on screen.  It isn't about the American Dream deferred, but the American nightmare realized (to borrow a phrase from Brandon).  The quintessential American narrative of prosperity and freedom through the acquisition of wealth is taken to the extreme edge and then thrown right off of it.  It's a headfirst dive right into the iniquitous wet dream of Reganomics, wholesale deregulation, and white collar invincibility.  If it pisses you off or disgusts you, it really should.  This is cutting satire, but also a pretty frank depiction of the American financial system we've created, one that depressingly is only getting worse.

Though the film is almost unrelentingly sharp and pulsating, I can completely understand someone not liking it for the simple admission that it was just too much for them.  As entertaining and downright incendiary as it can be, it really isn't easy to watch or digest with any level of comfort or gratification.  It's uncompromising and intentionally abrasive, almost daring you to laugh at some of the most atrocious and depraved behavior imaginable.  But anyone who thinks this cretinous lifestyle displayed by these thug stockbrokers is glorified is either dead inside or frankly not paying a modicum of attention.  As I saw Keith Uhlich mention on Letterboxd, this is satire, which of course means that if it's done well enough, it will separate the lazy from the astute. Black comedy is rarely understood initially by the masses, just look at the reception to THE KING OF COMEDY.  WOLF won't win any awards and the majority of audiences will hate it, but history will be kind to this gem. At least I hope so.

I'm pretty befuddled as to how anyone with any intelligence could think WOLF glorifies its characters' behavior.  Perhaps I just missed all the glory in being so monumentally fucked up on quaaludes that you are forced to crawl around in a more helpless state then your infant daughter?  Or maybe I missed all the shimmering splendor in being so vindictive and paranoid that you beat your wife and try to kidnap your own child while you're completely high on blow?  The film's dark humor and stylistic flourishes should not be confused for hedonistic approval (just listen to the dialogue for chrissake–it always undermines the revelry with real biting commentary).  Scorsese isn't celebrating these guys; he's making them look as absurd and degenerate as possible.  Not for one second are they made remotely likable or heroic–they are the biggest sleazebags you could imagine. It's insane how many people see this movie's only purpose and function as entertainment and have a hard time processing how it could possibly be both entertainment and a work of art, challenging and intellectually probing us.  You know what's also an incredibly scathing indictment of capitalism and greed while being entertaining as hell?  Mamet's play GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS.  That thing won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.  It's got a lot of similarities to WOLF.  Both are essentially about the long con, the shifty peddling of bogus investments, and the false signifiers of promise and prosperity (the name Straton Oakmont is basically synonymous with Glengarry Highlands or Glen Ross Farms–all three are empty titles masking a lie, feigning respectability).  Both also absolutely refuse to pander to their audiences.  GLENGARRY never walks you through its complex maze of greed and betrayal; it struts its deadpan machismo without moralization or overt instruction.  Only the careful observer notes the dark irony and satire undercutting everything the characters say and do.  And yet GLENGARRY is largely understood in the theatrical world as not being a glorification of the real estate industry but as an acerbic commentary on its capitalistic weaponization.  Something tells me that if WOLF were written as a play, it would have no trouble being understood as satire...

Another criticism I've seen is that the film is only excess with nothing ultimately to say about it.  Again, I call bullshit.  To see the film as pure excess without any ultimate point is to precisely look beyond the point (and, of course, to utterly miss the satire).  This lifestyle IS pure excess taken to the point of absurdity.  This type of greed is a hollow indulgence with no aim other than the objectification and consumption of everything in its path–it should be depicted no other way.  This is where Scorese's satirical humor here is so much more critically on point than Stone's WALL STREET because the guys in WOLF aren't even pretending they offer anything to the world other than cruel manipulation and mass consumption.  Belfort may give rallying cries to his minions (so many office shots recall Vidor's The CROWD or Wilder's THE APARTMENT – glad Pinkerton addressed this in his piece) or shoot phony infomercials about how he's helping to lift people from their destitution and economic anxiety, but he's nothing but transparent about his desire to cheat, steal, and fuck over as many people as possible in order to serve himself and his band of thieves.  McConaughey (who's fantastic, like every other actor here) essentially lays out the entire philosophy of investment banking and the art of being a stockbroker in that exquisite early scene.  These Wall Street guys aren't captains of industry; they don't produce anything; they just scam people out of money.  Their entire enterprise is a fugazi, a false signifier for respectability, built on nothing but fairy dust.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

holiday quiz

1) Favorite unsung holiday film

 METROPOLITAN or HOLIDAY AFFAIR ('49)

2) Name a movie you were surprised to have liked/loved

I think I'm surprised by how much I love MARTYRS now.

3) Ned Sparks or Edward Everett Horton?
Ned Sparks is fun, but E.E. Horton's gotta take the cake here.  Such a good sport in so many flicks.

4) Sam Peckinpah's Convoy-- yes or no?
Haven't seen it sadly...

5) What contemporary actor would best fit into a popular, established genre of the past
 Hmm not entirely sure.  Michael Shannon would probably make a great noir lead/villain (or make a great anything for that matter)

6) Favorite non-disaster movie in which bad weather is a memorable element of the film’s atmosphere

THE TURIN HORSE is a great answer.  GROUNDHOG DAY, as well.  I'll go with KEY LARGO though.

7) Second favorite Luchino Visconti movie
LA TERRA TREMA (first is ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS).

8) What was the last movie you saw theatrically? On DVD/Blu-ray?
Theatrically: BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR and loved it.
Blu-ray: re-watched THE WORLD'S END and loved it even more a second time around.
DVD: re-watched GRAND ILLUSION and still think it's the greatest movie ever made.

9) Explain your reaction when someone eloquently or not-so-eloquently attacks one of your favorite movies (Question courtesy of Patrick Robbins)
 Brandon's response was perfect, so I'll just go with that.

10) Joan Blondell or Glenda Farrell?

Joannie's my girl.  God, I love her.

11) Movie star of any era you’d most like to take camping

I'll also go pervy here and say, emphatically, Claudia Cardinale circa 1960s. Mmhmm.

12) Second favorite George Cukor movie

THE MARRYING KIND or DAVID COPPERFIELD (first has to be HOLIDAY).

13) Your top 10 of 2013 (feel free to elaborate!)

Not yet.

14) Name a movie you loved (or hated) upon first viewing, to which you eventually returned and had more or less the opposite reaction

INCEPTION seems to get worse each time I see it.  I never hated AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, but I was indifferent to it the first time I saw it as a teen.  I just didn't get Bresson's technique.  Now I think it's a masterpiece and worship everything Bresson.

15) Movie most in need of a deluxe Blu-ray makeover

Many, many, many.  THE DECALOGUE on blu through Criterion would be amazing (and extremely expensive, I'm sure).  PHANTOM LADY, the Boetticher/Scott westerns, DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST!

16) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?

Alain Delon.  I wish I could be him.

17) Your favorite opening sequence, credits or no credits (provide link to clip if possible)

Ah, too difficult.  I'm not sure.  The virtually silent opening sequence of THERE WILL BE BLOOD is incredible too.  I'll have to think harder on this one.

18) Director with the strongest run of great movies

Hitchcock, Ozu, Bresson, Ford, Kubrick, Lubitsch, Ophuls, PTA, Scorsese, Kieslowski, etc. You know, the greats.

19) Is elitism a good/bad/necessary/inevitable aspect of being a cineaste?

Again, can't say it better than Brandon already has.  I agree.

20) Second favorite Tony Scott film
Can't say that I'm a fan of any of the dude's movies or have seen enough of them.  TRUE ROMANCE would have to be my first and second favorite.

21) Favorite movie made before you were born that you only discovered this year. Where and how did you discover it?

This could be any number of great older films I've seen this year.  I guess Pierre Etaix's YOYO wasn't on my radar at all, until I randomly watched it for my 1965 top ten list.  It's a masterpiece.  Discovered this summer on Hulu's Criterion channel (God bless that thing).

22) Actor/actress you would most want to see in a Santa suit, traditional or skimpy

Veronica Lake in the skimpy and Orson Welles in the traditional.

23) Video store or streaming?

Streaming because of the convenience, but I do miss spending hours in a video store and taking home a bunch of gems.  A lot of my movie education was fostered that way.

24) Best/favorite final film by a noted director or screenwriter

L'ARGENT, THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE, AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON, L'ATALANTE, LOLA MONTES, EYES WIDE SHUT

25) Monica Vitti or Anna Karina?

As an actress, Karina.  As eye candy, I have a bigger crush on Vitti.

26) Name a worthy movie indulgence you’ve had to most strenuously talk friends into experiencing with you. What was the result?

I think I was trying to get college friends to watch IRREVERSIBLE with me, and they rightly declined.

27) The movie made by your favorite filmmaker (writer, director, et al) that you either have yet to see or are least familiar with among all the rest

Haven't seen Hitchcock's THE PARADINE CASE yet.  I've seen all of Bresson's now and a good chunk of Ozu's.  I'm dying to see Bunuel's NAZARIN.

28) Favorite horror movie that is either Christmas-oriented or has some element relating to the winter holiday season in it

No idea.

29) Name a prop or other piece of movie memorabilia you’d most like to find with your name on it under the Christmas tree

Rosebud?

30) Best holiday gift the movies could give to you to carry into 2014

Being able to see INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, and HER before 2014 is all I can really ask for.

Monday, September 30, 2013

It's All Over Now, Baby Blue


I must confess that I haven't had the time to listen to all of John and Chris' Breaking Boos.  I started them and then just got intimidated by the sheer number of them and gave up.  I will still have to listen to them all and maybe chime in (boo in?) on their discussion in the future.  For now, I just wanted to wrestle with my thoughts over the finale and get some much needed blog writing down.  It may not be about a film technically, but BREAKING BAD is surely the most cinematic creation in television history, so it feels a worthy topic to break my silence.  Before I get into it, I just want to say that this final season of BREAKING BAD has been a marvel, and that Gilligan and crew have more than lived up to the brilliant foundation they established six years ago.  They hit it way out of the park.  BREAKING BAD, as a totality, represents the tightest and greatest narrative in television history.  Looking back upon the show as a whole, my eyes are completely open to this now.  Bravo Gilligan and crew.  Bravo.

I don't really have the time or patience to get into a full, detailed analysis of the entire episode, so I’m just going to cut right into the last few moments of the series because I think they are executed perfectly:

(SPOILERS, SPOILERS, SPOILERS.  Seriously don't read if you haven't seen the finale and ever intend to).

Here at the end of all things, we have Walt as teacher/father to his two students/sons in Todd and Jesse.  He watches one die and lets the other go free.  Or in even more symbolic terms, he watches the worst side of himself die and lets the humanity he has neglected go free.  It’s a meaningful moment for Walt, but unquestionably an even more meaningful one for Jesse.  The poor guy as been through so much, and all at the hands of the ruthless, implacable force that is Heisenberg.  When Walt tosses Jesse the gun and gives him one last command, it may be the most expected though wholly essential moment of the entire episode.  Jesse, in his ultimate moment of spiritual unboundedness, refuses Walt’s final directive, and rides away a free man.  Perhaps some were wishing he would shoot Walt when given the chance, but there was no need to - literally or figuratively, as Walt’s wound will claim what’s left of his life momentarily regardless.  Besides, Jesse has already killed Heisenberg.  When he strangles Todd and breaks free of his chains, he has freed himself from the physical embodiment of Heisenberg’s cold, clinical ambition.  I’m sure others have noted Todd’s position in this latter half of season 5 as being essentially a surrogate for the retired Heisenberg.  He’s the meth kingpin, feigning public normalcy as he courts Lydia, keeping Jesse a prisoner for the sake of his product, callously destroying his rivals – replace Jesse’s physical chains with Walt’s psychological ones and you have the classic Heisenberg set-up down to a tee.

But back to Walt (probably the way an outrageous egomaniac such as himself would want me to proceed).  In killing the skinhead brotherhood, Lydia, and allowing Jesse to kill Todd and then flee, there is, of course, a sense of The Fall of the House of Usher here - a madman burning down the hell he hath wrought and letting whatever specks of heaven he ever had fly away to search for a new space to call home.  Is this redemption?  Probably not.  Walt’s still an inimical bastard merely finishing off what he started, leaving no loose ends, drawing everything full circle.  It’s less about notions of revenge or redemption per se and more about destroying the hideous simulacrum of his own rotten model.  He is asserting dominance over his own grotesque progeny, and doing it in his typically monstrous fashion.

And yet I can’t help but have a shred of pity for this wretch of monster, even as I know that he deserved much worse than he got.  Perhaps it is because in this final episode the monster has been slightly made human again, if only for a few fleeting moments.  As we sift through the wreckage that Walt has left in his destructive wake, it can be easy to forget the abject man from the first episode, struck down by the cruelty of aleatory time and handed a ticking time-bomb for a death sentence.  Earlier in the episode, when he tells Skylar he built the empire and piled up the bodies all for himself and that doing it made him feel “alive,” we utterly believe him.  Here is a man who more than he ever wanted to provide for his family or build an empire, at his most fragile moment of desire, wanted to viciously master life in defiance of the way it had so suddenly and viciously mastered him.  In a lot of ways, as others have mentioned, Walt embodies the nightmarish vision of the deferred American dream.  But maybe even more so, he tragically embodies the image of the rebellious ant, determined to fight against the indifferent, overwhelming forces of nature that seem hellbent on destroying his hill.  In the final moments of Walt’s death, when we see him standing at the heart of his creation (notice how in that last panning shot the pipes above him form the outline of an RV), it’s easy to see Ozymandias crumpling beneath his own path of cruelty, but also that little ant – shuffling pieces of sand as the rain comes down.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

2002

Lovely, eloquent write-ups for your 2002 lists, Brandon.  And to think you often disparage your writing ability...how wrong you are my friend.  Exemplary job.

I'll do my best to respond, but I'm sorry if I don't have a lot to say.  We are in almost total agreement here:

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, I haven't seen in a dog's age, but I appreciate your towering estimation of it.  I remember it being entertaining, but I'd have to see it again to dig deeper than that.

25th HOUR is a great, furious piece of work.  I also haven't seen it in a while, but I can still vividly recall its sense of cosmic frustration and overwhelming regret.  It's a movie about undesired consequences, the immobility of anger, and the impotence to erase this ubiquitous "fuck you" attitude of the world.  I'd love to see this again, but I already know that it's a major film in Spike Lee's oeuvre.

I want to see FAR FROM HEAVEN.

Speaking of major films, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE may be the greatest romantic comedy since ANNIE HALL.  It's certainly a momentous film amongst similarly momentous films in Paul Thomas Anderson's brilliant, diverse career.  I love how much of a transitional piece it is for him.  It finds him treading into newer, more bizarre, more avant-garde territory but also retaining his wonderful sense of humor, energy, and classical filmmaking.  I also love how strongly this film recreates that sense of invigoration and apprehension when we think we might be in love.  The more I think about it the more I can't imagine a movie being more singularly perfect at what it is.  Give me PTA over anyone else making movies in the last 15 years and now.

SPIRITED AWAY is such a marvelous feast for the eyes and heart that it's difficult to translate what makes it so special into words.  It just transfigures beyond expression.

I remain an enormous fan of MINORITY REPORT and think it's one of Spielberg's best, most entertaining yarns.  It's a terrifying concept realized in one of the most inventive, visually precise, and terribly antiseptic visions of the future that I can recall on film.

GANGS OF NEW YORK is still a bit of a mess, but to borrow a turn of phrase from John, it's a glorious mess at that.  Daniel Day-Lewis is at his most imperious here.

Despite owning it, I haven't seen TALK TO HER since it came out.  It was my initiation into Almodovar, as well, and I fell completely in love with it and him when I saw it.  I should give it a re-look...

I haven't seen TROUBLE EVERY DAY, but I've heard it contains a particularly gnarly scene that takes George Costanza's "having it all" dream of combining sex and eating to a whole new level.  Is that the scene you skipped, Brandon? I'm morbidly curious to see this one, though maybe count me out for that scene.

I haven't seen Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN since it came out.  I lent my copy of it to Craver and haven't seen it since.  I have no idea if it still holds up.

I love, love, love ADAPTATION.  It's as clever and funny as modern filmmaking gets, in my opinion.  I can understand people finding it annoying or self-indulgent to a fault, but I have to completely disagree.  I think it's just such an honest expression of desire, anxiety, and failure - almost painfully so.  It's self-involved (consciously), but it's never self-serious.  It's a purposeful laying the ego bare for the sake of consummate amusement.  Kaufman, along with Woody Allen, remains the ultimate chronicler of modern neuroses.

I like that Chris Nolan's INSOMNIA is just a well-made, no-nonsense thriller.  It's easily his least convoluted film, and it's reminder of the type of tight filmmaking he's capable of when not being bogged down by bigness and budgetary excess.  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't excited, or at the very least curious, to see what he does with INTERSTELLAR, but part of me would like to see him return to smaller, more modest filmmaking like INSOMNIA.

I like PANIC ROOM quite a bit, and think it's still underrated.  Fincher paints textured gloss and decay like no other.

In terms of generating anxiety and wonder, most of SIGNS is actually remarkable.  I can remember some scares in it being impeccably delivered and its brooding sense of terror and mystery being almost unbearably potent.  It is a shame that the ending is such an incorrigible letdown and so obliviously idiotic that it undoes so much of what came before it.  But it is still a worthy honorable mention.

I think that's all I gots for now.  Stellar list, dude.
----------------

In other news - ONLY GOD FORGIVES is unconscionably awful.  It makes me not want to see another Nicolas Winding Refn movie for as long as I live.  It's the epitome of meretricious, soulless, hopelessly inane filmmaking.  Not even the most merciful of movie gods would forgive this horrendous piece of shit.  Refn has unfortunately descended into self-parody.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

It is August Already? Shit...

I owe Brandon some response to his 2005 list, as well as some extra horror talk.  I would have written '05 thoughts sooner, but looking over your list, Brandon, I realized that I either hadn't seen a lot of those movies or just hadn't seen them since they came out.  If y'all have learned anything about my movie habits since you've known me, it should be that I have a terrible memory for things I've seen.  I can hardly remember how most movies I've seen six months ago ended let alone 8 years ago.  I'm awful.

Anyway, let me start by finishing off some of our horror talk:

Again, I think we're in a similar spot on THE CONJURING.  We both recognize its myriad problems and particularly clumsy denouement.  Obviously, where we differ is that I'm mostly willing to forgive its mistakes in favor of applauding just how effectively frightening it is as a whole.  It's a bit similar to how I felt about THIS IS THE END, another flawed genre film with highs so sublime that they glossed over the considerable lows therein (strange that I'm the one defending flicks like these when usually it's the other way around).  I agree with you that the scene in the bedroom where we see the witch for the first time is exemplary.  It's one of the scariest and most well constructed horror scenes I can remember.  There are a several other scenes like this (e.g. Vera Farmiga alone in the basement - contrived but damn effective) that paid off beautifully for me.  I don't want to let Wan completely off the hook for his missteps here, but if the restraint and accumulating tension he builds throughout most of the movie start to catch on again in mainstream horror, I'd be pleased.  If he lets his unfortunate taste for pointless escalation consume him eventually here, it's too bad - before this he shows an uncommonly deft and patient hand.  Any hope the THE CONJURING 2 will correct these mistakes?  I doubt it, but well see haha.

I like how much the addiction metaphor in EVIL DEAD worked for you.  I think you make a strong case for it too.  It certainly gives the film more weight, or at least a fascinating undercurrent to chew on.  I definitely don't want to give Alvarez too much credit for being brutal either; the EVIL DEAD remake doesn't work purely because its vicious but because it remains appropriately amused despite its copious amount of bloodshed and brutality.  I guess what I'm trying to say here is that it never feels miserable even as truly gross and horrendous things are happening.  I appreciate that its unrelentingly intense (like THE DESCENT) while also keeping you somewhat removed by being off-kilter.

I think giving the ending of KILL LIST that interpretation is one of the only ways of saving it from being practically a gimmick.  If you consider it as more of a condemnation of Jay's choices throughout the movie than a gag for shock value, it becomes downright profound.  I'm starting to like that interpretation of it a lot, as well.

I apologize in advance for not having really anything to say about 2005, Brandon.  As stated above, I either haven't seen or haven't re-seen a vast majority of the films from your list since '05.  And interestingly enough, apart from THE NEW WORLD, our respective lists from that year have zero parallels.  I think that makes it harder to respond to anything since I'm not as familiar with most of the flicks from your list.  Maybe if you were a fan of L'ENFANT things would have been easier ;)

I haven't seen KINGS AND QUEEN, BEST OF YOUTH, MEMORIES OF A MURDER, NOBODY KNOWS, JUNEBUG, 2046, WOLF CREEK, or THE ICE HARVEST, but would like to see most of them.

Other than that, I have a minute recollection of MYSTERIOUS SKIN, MUNICH, GRIZZLY MAN, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK.  By that I mean that I remember liking them and that's about it.  I don't have enough of a foundation to make arguments for or against them.  Sorry man.  I should have re-watched some of these to better interact with you.  2005 just happens to be a particularly nebulous year for me.  I promise to have 2002 thoughts up today or tomorrow though.  I have a better memory for some of those on there.

Stray thoughts/updates:

 - I've updated my top 10 lists to include 1960-65.  That's as far as I'm going for now.  Someday I hope to add in the rest of the 60s and see a bunch of the films for '60-'65 that I still need to see.  What I've got is a decent start for now though.  General impressions?  I like the early 60s and think there some true gems there that are invaluable to cinema.  I still vastly prefer the mid '30s through 50's, however.

- I leave for Philly in little over a week.  Let's def do ONLY GOD FORGIVES sometime.  I've heard it's awful, but I'd be stoked to get together and see it with y'all.

- Great thoughts on BREAKING BAD, John. (SPOILERS AHEAD)  I also was slow to recognize the now abandoned and graffitied White household. Some terrific moments in this episode too - with the tense, painfully raw showdown between Walt and Hank being obviously prominent.  In a very solid review of the episode for the AV Club, Donna Bowman wrote about how this confrontation tragically plays right into Walt's hands: "Making meth was never what Heisenberg was all about. Having an enemy to crush, whether it be in business or in the struggle to survive—that’s the essence of Walt’s alter ego. And he seems to grow a foot taller when he’s able to set that side of himself free."  Well said.  I think this essential character flaw of unbridled ambition and the desire for dominance is one of the things that makes Walt's decline so gutwrenching.  The awful things he does become mere gratuitous exercises for his wounded ego.  Cannot wait for more episodes.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Horror Roundup


As I mentioned in one of my recent posts, I've been watching some horror films lately.  A friend who I worked with at school is a big horror fan, and we've been getting together every now and then to watch new and classic horror films for the hell of it.  Despite watching several films of debatable quality, it's actually been great getting to see so much newer horror stuff that I likely would have never gone out of my way to watch.  I'll start with MAMA:

To be as fair as possible, MAMA isn't a bad film; it's just not a particularly good one.  It unfortunately suffocates itself through some egregious adherence to the same old tired formula that has so much of mainstream horror profoundly stagnating.  There are a few decent scares in MAMA, some moments of terror that are well-staged and executed, and some incredibly eerie sound effects (I agree with Brandon about how frightening the noises Mama makes are. Yeesh).  I also agree with Brandon that the very ending is quite beautiful in its implications.  The trouble here is that in the buildup to this finale, MAMA again cannot resist some ridiculously contrived scenes of violence involving Mama in a poor effort to fit whatever overused mold studios seem to insist upon for every horror property they shell out (can anyone explain to me why characters in MAMA only visit the creepy deserted cabin in the middle of the night?).  It's just a shame that MAMA is shot, lit, and dialed-in in such a similar way to a film like THE POSSESSION (a horrible film that I'll get to in a second), and I don't think it's a coincidence.  This is the essence of formula without making it seem new again.

THE POSSESSION, I guess, I don't have a lot to say about now that I think of it.  It's complete amateur horror filmmaking.  Just terribly orchestrated in every conceivable way.  It's not even remotely scary (no tension is ever built before cutting to quick, disorienting violence), it's dull and stupid, and even has the temerity to tack on a pointless, undercooked divorce storyline in an effort to make the film "about" something.  There's probably no point in wasting more time on this one.  Just skip it entirely.

I re-watched THE CABIN IN THE WOODS and THE STRANGERS – two terrific modern horror films, in my opinion.  Seeing THE CABIN IN THE WOODS again reminded how fresh and exuberant it truly is amongst a very tired crop of carbon-copy horror films.  It's humor, intelligence, and sense of mischief stand out quite distinctly this time through.  I undervalued just how fun it was when I first wrote about it.  THE STRANGERS I'm not sure if I've mentioned on here before, but I remain a big fan.  It's a terrifying premise that is executed to maximum effect.  It also boasts one hell of an ending with a coldblooded creepiness that is only matched by the sorrow of its inevitability.

I think Brandon and I agree on more in THE CONJURING than we disagree.  But I think our one major point of disagreement is enough to polarize our responses to it.  I truly believe that despite some bumbling missteps in the final third of the film, it still remains one of the scariest films I've seen as an adult, and it is for this fact that I would give it a glowing response.  As a lesson in old-fashioned tension and dread, it really is that effectively wrought.  In a theater full of people, I felt sufficiently creeped out enough during certain moments to want to cover my eyes, and that almost never happens to me anymore.  The audience I watched it with was completely terrified too, which made the experience that much stronger.  Wan certainly makes the film unnecessarily loud and visceral towards the end (I could have done without the possession of the mother and the hair dragging, but I understand why they are there – things need to get amplified for our attention deprived viewers).  However, there are some truly exemplary scenes of terror in this thing that smooth out much of these rough patches (for me, at least).  Wan shows an intuitive sense of what's scary and what is not for much of the running time, and it all becomes increasingly taut and effective as the camera careens and cuts around every crevice of its environment.  I don't really have much else to say about it other than that it basically soars on the intensity of its scares alone.

Fede Alvarez's EVIL DEAD remake (surprisingly) stands prominently alongside THE INNKEEPERS and THE CONJURING as one of the best American horror films release in the last couple of years.  It sort of pummels you into submission through the sheer forcefulness of its unabashed depravity.  Its excessively, hilariously violent and it seems to get off on intensifying its grossness.  It flits with trite formula and makes lame attempts at characterizations in the beginning, but eventually it just abandons all sense of conventionality in favor of unrelenting shocks.  It's essentially the complete opposite of something like THE CONJURING, but I think they are both effective in their way.  EVIL DEAD, instead of being a shot-for-shot remake or sycophantic homage, actually goes for broke in terms of upping the gore ante and damn if that isn't an admirable thing by the time the bloody credits start pouring on the screen.  I agree with Brandon that Alvarez might just have a solid career ahead of him.  He knows how to shoot moments of dread and visceral horror – and he seems to know how to have fun doing it too.  EVIL DEAD is a bloodbath of gargantuan proportions, but it's a rollicking one too.

KILL LIST is the most recent of these that I watched, and I'm still trying to process how I feel about it.  John called it a "mess" but a potentially "glorious mess." I would certainly side with it being sloppy, but would also readily admit that it has got some intriguing grandeur too it, so maybe it is a glorious mess after all.  To its great credit, KILL LIST is never boring even as it builds in piecemeal increments towards its bizarre, grotesque finale.  It's violent and cold, but also an absorbing mystery.  It lays a pretty solid character foundation before it starts to rock the boat, and eventually it just gets so weird and creepy that you are glued to the screen.  I still have to wonder what the purpose of the ending is other than the pure shock value of the reveal, and whether the reveal makes any sense other than the immediate effect of its disquietude.  It may all be a prolonged metaphor for slowly destroying the ones you love through the dangerous, immoral choices you make, but I'm not exactly sure.  For what is worth, this is a pretty damn riveting thriller even if it might not be certain of its motives.

I guess that's all I've got for now.  I was hoping I'd make this longer and more in depth, but I'm having trouble composing original thoughts right now.  Perhaps more later?

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Caché Rules Everything Around Me

I wish I had more to debate with you about CACHÉ, Brandon.  But your post is just so eminently reasonable that I'm struggling to pick it apart.  I think you still resort too readily to ad hominem attacks against Haneke whenever discussing his work, but I understand where this is coming from.  I know you hate his smug guts, and I can't necessarily say that I blame you.  As a man, he really is one of the most sanctimonious, self-important pricks in world cinema.  He holds everyone and everything to an impossible standard that he somehow displaces from himself.  He's also guilty of one of my least favorite traits in an artist (apart from the lack of empathy for animals) by explicitly stating what his films are supposed to be about instead of letting the artwork speak for itself.  So, believe me, I more than understand where your inveterate hatred for this guy comes from.

But I do believe that, as a technical and intellectual filmmaker, he honestly is one of the best we have today.  I agree with you that he almost invariably seems to be a few heavy-handed moralizing scenes away from a truly rich masterpiece.  I too would love for him to make a straight thriller without sermonizing someday (I think he gets the closest to achieving true ambiguity in THE WHITE RIBBON), but I'm not sure that would ever accord with with his deliberate, uber-confrontational style.  He wants to shake his privileged viewers out of their complacency quite possibly to his own detriment.  You're very right - he lambasts so much of what is vile between humans yet is incontrovertibly guilty of subjecting his audience to his own vile whims.  He doesn't understand the height of his own privilege.

With that all being said, Brandon, in your last paragraph you touch upon exactly why I still love CACHÉ despite the overwhelming evidence that Michael Haneke is sadistic creep.  You ask: "should I commend the filmmaking first even if it’s smothered in a message that feels as though it comes from a self loathing contrite place?"  I would never tell you to answer yes to this question because you are obviously free to choose your response to what Haneke has laid before you.  All I can say is that I personally answer yes to this question.  I commend, hell laud, CACHÉ as a technically bravura anti-thriller about what it means to watch and be seen.  I think its one of the most sophisticated looks at voyeurism and its relationship to cinema since REAR WINDOW or BLOW-UP (though obviously not nearly as close to the singular perfection of either of those films).  The static shots that bookend the film are some of the most complex that I can recall.

I love how mobile the idea of watching is in these shots.  In the opening shot there is a trajectory of viewership and ownership that goes from you watching the image on your screen (giving it meaning, controlling it almost since it is your eye that gives it life), to the realization that the image is being watched and controlled by someone else (Georges and Anne watching it on their TV), to the further realization that that image is watched and controlled even more so by someone else (whoever is sending the tapes), and the even further realization that the image is ultimately watched and controlled by the filmmaker himself (Haneke).  It is the same image but every single viewer and owner of that image gives it a different meaning that is hidden from each other (welcome to cinema itself).

The final shot is similarly complex in how nonchalantly it displaces the eye and its own meaning.  We sit, watch, and wonder what we are looking at.  We ask: whose point of view is it?  Are we watching a recording or an actual image? Where is our eye even supposed to focus?  What does it all mean? The fact that Haneke can raise so many questions from what is essential a very aloof, seemingly banal image is a testament to how successfully he lures us in to his mystery and treatise on the act of looking or not.  If he is eliciting these questions from us, then he has done his job with precision.  And by eliciting these questions he has not only involved us in his mystery but also in the art of dissecting cinema.  He makes us question the very meaning and reality of an image, which is the purpose of cinema as an art form and the idea you try to instill in anyone who wants to understand film as an important, singular medium.  It's an image that's downright brilliant the more you unpack it, and I feel that way about much of the film from a visual and intellectual standpoint.  That's why I love it.  I overlook so much of the film's hangups and Haneke's own interloping hand, so that all I can see is the beguiling visual mystery he's delineated for us.

When I watched CACHÉ again I just took everything for what it was or for how it came across to me on the screen.  When the political subtext became apparent to me, I thought it added a provocative layer to what I already found was a great enigma of a film.  I can understand, Brandon, how it can come across as obvious and self-righteous in the context of Haneke as a person.  But for me, when I watch CACHÉ, I try to ask what the film is communicating to me, not what Haneke is.  His overbearing personality is not greater than his art despite how hard he may try.  Even if he is personally sanctimonious and confrontational, the way he shoots the film belies these traits.  The political subtext about France's hidden racism can easily be drawn from Georges hidden relationship to Majid.  But everything that generates this connection is shot at a cool distance.  There's nothing confrontational about the involvement of the camera at all.  For that, despite the knowledge one may have of Haneke's personality, he diffuses his own aggressiveness through a resolutely detached lens.  Again, his images are greater and more complex than he is if only for the fact that a cinematic image is not a fixed position but a multiplicity.