Tuesday, April 30, 2013

To the Pines and Beyond


Towards the end of THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, I wasn't sure whether it was boldly sincere familial drama or just a complete disaster.  It certainly seemed like it was trying to make a comprehensive albeit slightly muddled statement on the nature of legacy and inheritance, the seeds of corruption we sow and the bitter fruit our progeny reap.  By the time the credits began to roll and Bon Iver chimed over the soundtrack, however, I knew that for all the films specious earnestness, it couldn't help but deflate itself entirely through willful narrative excess.  As I was walking out of the theater, it honestly felt like a disaster, like Cianfrance had taken a promising and wholly compelling first third of an exciting crime film and turned into one of the most overwrought pieces of filmmaking since Apatow's FUNNY PEOPLE.  I kept mulling over in my head - how could Cianfrance, a talented and seemingly shrewd filmmaker, start the film so terrifically and then overplot it to the point of pure exhaustion and frustration?  What was he thinking?  How did no one, at any point during the production of this film, take a look at the script and realize that it suffered from a hazardous case of narrative overkill?  As a story, it runs around so much to the point that it loses direction, and it even refuses to acknowledge its own advice:  it so desperately wants to ride like lightning but boy does it crash like thunder.

If I sound like I'm being harsh on this film, it's only because I respected Cianfrance's muted, naturalistic work on BLUE VALENTINE and found the first hour or so of PINES to be exquisite.  The first act of the film, following Gosling's troubled motorcycle bandit-come-newfound dad, is captivating in the way that made BLUE VALENTINE also seem raw and vital.  It's emotionally and forcefully told, while also seeming generous and sincere.  I sympathized so strongly with Luke Glanton's plight to the point that when he was torn off screen, I almost didn't care where they would take the film from thereon.  It's certainly an audacious move to kill off your film's star and central protagonist less than halfway through your run time.  I give Cianfrance mild credit for choosing to be so bold, but I can't give him much more credit than that because I don't think it's a choice that ultimately pays off.  Perhaps because I enjoy Gosling's charisma as an actor and find Bradley Cooper duller than a box factory (a little SIMPSONS, anyone?) I am slightly biased in thinking that the film looses a giant heft of steam once Cooper takes over the leading man role.  It certainly doesn't help.  But, I truly believe that the compelling arc of this narrative does not belong in Cooper's characters hands nor especially in the hands of their children's characters.  Once the children appear on screen together, the overwhelming sense of gimmicky, utterly contrived plotting sets in, and it only gets worse from there.  I've heard Paul Haggis' CRASH thrown around in describing the last third of PINES, and I can't say that it is a far-off-the-mark insult.  By the end of it all, PINES frustratingly feels like a contrived piece of generational melodrama, forcing its own sense of importance on us and itself through a brazenly, exasperatingly predetermined outcome.

PINES is overwritten, overlong, and overstuffed to the point that it feels bloated and saggy like sallow flesh.  The fact that it is nearly the same length as both THE TURIN HORSE and BEYOND THE HILLS and fits more plot into 15 minutes than either of those films throughout their entire run times, yet feels as if it is ten times longer than either one, is a pretty vicious sign of overreach.  As you all know, I have no problem with excessive run times or long, ponderous films as long as I know there is a purpose to it (BEYOND THE HILLS is long and deliberate but it builds tension, character, and tone beautifully through its careful use of time and space). What I do have a problem with is films that are long because they've been stuffed with too many climaxes, arcs, and plot shifts without enough sense of character motivation to justify our emotional investment in their constant fluctuations.  For instance, in PINES we are given no real sense of who Luke Glanton's son is or what he wants the way we knew what drove Luke so vehemently.  Towards the end of the film, there is a gorgeous overhead shot of the son riding his bike like his father through the tall trees and it feels like an ideal time to fade to black, leaving us with the idea that the son is searching for a connection to his past but still riding free because of the family he has around to support him.  Instead, we get a half hour more of obvious or insanely contrived character parallels that seem undercooked and forced without any insightful ideas or thematic purpose.  Someone should have warned Cianfrance early on in the process of making this film that sometimes less can certainly be more.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Quiz Kid Donnie Smith

Brandon, we all know you are the Dan Kois of Film Club, so just stop with the "I like long art movies" bit already ;)

Being serious though, I do know you can get down with plenty of lengthy films, so you don't really need to defend yourself in this regard (hell, you've sat through a plethora of long, deliberately paced 60s films that I don't have the remotest of attention spans for - so credit where credit is due).  I just like to pick on you for our TURIN HORSE discussion.  The fair warning I gave about BEYOND THE HILLS wasn't really intended for you, just anyone in this club or outside it who stumbles on the review and thinks they might like to watch it based on how much I loved it.  I'd hate to give them a glowing recommendation and then have them mad at me because they just sat through a two and half hour movie where everything seems to move as piecemeal as grass growing.

With that being said, I have pretty solid faith that you'll love BEYOND THE HILLS.  It's long and deliberate without question, but also driven with its narrative and loaded with tension.  I'm also aware that you might still tell me that it's 40 minutes too long, even if you do love it :)

Thanks for making the quiz, my dude!  Now onto some answers:

1. What are your top five Spielberg films (ranked)?

5. E.T.

A.I. just misses the cut, but deserves to be mentioned because I love that film.  I agree with John, Spielberg’s a great director and a formidable executive producer (for the most part).

2. Have you ever been convinced by a member of Film Club to change your mind about a movie (tell us about it)?

I think it’s happened a few times.  Like John mentioned, whenever one of you registers a particularly passionate defense of a film, I feel compelled, even if its only slight, to rethink what I may not have liked or was disappointed by with it.  THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO and Brandon’s responses to it come to mind.  They didn’t exactly change my opinion, but I liked what he wrote.  He advocated well for it.  I also think Ben, Brandon, and John did a great job defending MELANCHOLIA.  Those posts made me rethink my initial disappointment and helped me see a lot of the maturity and beauty in the work itself.  Well done gang!

3. What is your favorite sub-genre and why?

Two subgenres spring first to mind:  haunted house movies and noir westerns.  I’m not sure why I like haunted house movies so much.  I’m not even sure why I like the idea of a haunted house so much.  I guess I just feel drawn to or fascinated by the supernatural and extraordinary that still seem within the realm of possibility.  I also tend to love the feeling of creeping dread that haunted house movies are inclined to produce.  That’s my kind of horror.  And noir westerns just combine two of my favorite genres into one complex and thrilling beast (e.g. PURSUED).

4. Do you enjoy violence in film and if so do you feel bad and if so why?

I do enjoy it, for the most part, and no, I don’t feel bad about it.  I fortunate enough to be able to have a clear distinction between the virtual and the actual when it comes to violence on film.  I ahbor actual violence, but enjoy and sometimes even laugh at virtual violence on screen - perhaps because I know someone put a lot of time into making the violent effect seem real and because it usually looks excessive and packs a visceral punch.  I tend to draw the line of my enjoyment at extreme gore or torture porn, but there are plenty of bloody, violent scenes that I’ve laughed at because of how outrageous they looked.

5. Tell us about a few of your strangest theater going experiences.

Seeing I AM LEGEND in IMAX in New York City was strange.  The first half of that movie is great, and the effect of making NYC look so desolate and deserted is downright staggering (the rest of the movie, not so much). Walking out of the Union Square AMC to see many of those same empty sites from the film teem with life was a bit disorienting.  Very cool though too.

Seeing SPRING BREAKERS with a bunch of vapid cretins was strange - and not in a good way at all.

The strangest has to be seeing THE DARK KNIGHT RISES the day after the Colorado shooting, though.  I just felt paranoid and depressed.

6. Name 5 films that you have been eager to re-watch, perhaps even despite your tepid response some of them.

L’AVVENTURA (didn’t get it the first time, would like to see it again)
DJANGO UNCHAINED (like it even less the more I think about it, but should give it another chance)
THE DECALOGUE (just would love to watch it again - amazing collection of films)
NASHVILLE (never gave it a fair watch)
ANDREI RUBLEV (loved it when I saw it, but can hardly remember it now)

7. Name 5 films that you absolutely love or respect that you have no desire to see ever again (going against John’s Letterbox’d rating system).

I can give you four:


Do you sense a common theme with them? haha.

8. What are five films that you really want to see for the first time?

NAZARIN (Bunuel)
DESIRE (Borzage)

9. Name 5 surprising “classic” popular films that you have not seen.


The list goes on and on sadly.

10. Who are your top five directors of all time (hahahaha)?

I’ll give you a top six of all time and currently:

top six (all time)


top six (currently working)

P.T. Anderson
Coen Bros.
Dardenne Bros.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Pale View of Hills

Sorry I haven't been blogging much my friends.  It's been a slower film watching month than usual for me.  It's also been a pretty languid month, with work generally sapping the little energy I have for anything outside of it.  I'm sure the rest of you can relate.

I'm also sorry to Brandon for not responding to his revenge list post.  I think after writing that last revenge post I felt drained of anything more substantive to say on the subject.  I did really enjoy your list and write-ups though, Brando.  If I had to make a top five list of the revenge films that challenged me the most, it would probably include these:  FURY, UNFAITHFULLY YOURS, THE BIG HEAT, IN THE BEDROOM, and OLD BOY.  Honorable mentions would be: THE OX-BOW INCIDENT, STRAW DOGS, IRREVERSIBLE, and DOGVILLE.  I wouldn't include ONCE UPON THE TIME IN THE WEST either for the same reasons as you, despite how much I love that movie and its revenge subplot.  There's too many disparate narratives going on there to limit it to a simple revenge arc.  UNFAITHFULLY YOURS probably seems like the oddball of the bunch here, but it really is a great film about wanting revenge so mercilessly that it blinds and disorients you.  It's also incredibly hilarious.  I still need to see DESPERADO and THE MASK OF ZORRO.  I'm due for a solid Antonio Banderas revenge flick night one of these days it would seem.


Cristian Mungiu's BEYOND THE HILLS is instantly one of my very favorite films of 2012.  It recalls the best of Dreyer and Bresson - a stark and wholly riveting look at the complex and potentially devastating split between the spiritual and the corporeal, the desire for transcendence and the pull of the immanent life.  It's a serpentine tragedy of existence in the grandest of terms.  The world of this film is buried in muck and nothing will wipe it clear.  All that was previously hidden is revealed; all that was once distant seems infinitely near.

Shot in the easily the most beautiful and austere long takes since THE TURIN HORSE, BEYOND THE HILLS follows two orphaned girls, Voichita and Alina (lifelong friends and possibly former lovers), as they each head down unfathomably divergent paths.  Voichita has joined an orthodox monastery that stresses atavistic living and a complete disavowal of the carnal and material world.  Alina has been living in Germany, but has come to stay with Voichita at the monastery, hoping to eventually persuade her to join her for a new job prospect aboard a cruise ship.  Alina arrives at the monastery hoping that her relationship with Voichita will be unchanged, that the two can still share a bed together and feel as much need for one another as they did during their time in the orphanage.  But Voichita is a different person now; she has given herself entirely to God and stresses to Alina that no earthly person or thing can hold a higher place in her heart than the Lord.  Alina is wounded to the core by this; she needs Voichita and cannot understand how her friend could now be so aloof to her when she was once so tender and palpable for her.  For anyone who's ever experienced a change of heart from a loved one or an inflamed passion grown cold, this is truly devastating stuff.  Your heart aches for both of these young women.

(The opening shot of the film is a paragon of using visual imagery to delineate themes that will lay the groundwork for the story that will unfold.  Voichita walks in the opposite direction of a large crowd, following her own obdurate path, until she reaches Alina, who pulls her into an effusive hug that embarrasses Voichita.  Right from the first shot, we have Voichita at odds with the modern society around her and Alina's desires - themes that will unfold, bound, and constrict around everything throughout the film.)

Mungiu explores the heartbreaking relationship between these two women as it is being torn asunder, but also the uneasy relation this orthodox community has with the modern world that surrounds it.  These two antithetical spheres inevitably and irrevocably clash making an incredibly profound and moving portrait of miscommunication and dissociation that extends beyond the emotionally raw story of the two women.  The amazing feat is that Mungiu manages to charge both the modern society and orthodox community without utterly condemning either.  He just presents two structures that cannot coexist and lets us reflect on the tragedy of their philosophical and spiritual partitions.  They might as well exist in separate universes they are so disjointed.

Fair warning: this is a long, very rigid and deliberately paced film.  I can already hear Brandon bemoaning its excessive length and needless repetitions ;) (though hopefully he'll still love it).  It may require some patience, but I promise you that if you focus intently on the simmering conflict unfolding and the individual tensions of each scene, you will be enthralled.  This is austere but purposeful filmmaking with a profound sense of dread and an overarching sadness.  It's certainly not to be missed.  It's also a masterpiece.

With that all being said, here is my updated 2012 list (and my 2011 list).  I shuffled some things around to make them adhere to the John Owen-IMDB release date system:


1. The Master (Anderson)
2. Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami)
3. Beyond the Hills (Mungiu)
4. Cosmopolis (Cronenberg)
5. Tabu (Gomes)
6. Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow)
7. Holy Motors (Carax)
8. Lincoln (Spielberg)
9. Moonrise Kingdom (Anderson)
10. Amour (Haneke)


1. The Turin Horse (Tarr)
2. The Tree of Life (Malick)
3. The Kid with a Bike (Dardenne Brothers)
4. A Separation (Farhadi)
5. Drive (Refn)
6. This is Not a Film (Panahi, Mirtahmasb)
7. Le Havre (Kaurismäki)
8. Take Shelter (Nichols)
9. Oslo, August 31st (Trier)
10. The Skin I Live In (Almodóvar)

Monday, April 1, 2013

On Revenge and the Breakers of Spring

Sorry it has taken me so long to respond to your revenge posts, Brandon and Jason.  I've hardly had a an entirely uncluttered moment this past week up until now.  Thankfully, it is now spring breaaak for all the schools around here, so I have a least a whole week off to catch up on posting and all things Film Club.  Let me kick things off with some more revenge thoughts and then some thoughts on Korine's SPRING BREAKERS.

Jason, I really admire your stance on pacificism and your committment to its practice.  We don't really share common ground on the religious imperative for non-violence, but ethically I'm right there with you.  You make many strong points on why non-violence is a courageous choice.  I'm sure there are many STRAW DOGS-esque points one could make about the unfortunate necessity of resorting to violence, and I don't know if I'd necessarily be able to refute them (I definitely do not consider self-defense to be all that inappropriate and certainly not immoral). However, for now, since I am fortunate enough to not be threatened with violence, I choose to remain peaceful and promote it as much as I can through kindness (the soccer field excluded haha- even if I am getting a lot more gentle in regards to sports as I get older).

Brandon, I'm sure being fairly weak and small in stature has influenced my desire never to get into a fight or really to use violence ever.  There's certainly very few people I could do any damage to using pure brute strength alone. But being weak and small can easily be overcome through the use of weapons.  I think that's pretty evident through what you find from school shootings.  The weak, ineffectual kids using massively overpowered guns to take down their tormentors and any random bystanders.  In addition to not wanting to fight anyone, I  have no desire to use a gun or join the army or partake in any other activity that results in the use of excessive force on someone.  There are horrible ways to overcome being undersized, but I am generally repulsed by all of them.

I wasn't trying to make point that all acts of violence are the same.  Just pointing out that I think it's fascinating how easily we all qualify violence.  Two identical acts of violence can be given entirely different social and emotional meanings based solely on how one rationalizes each.  There's nothing inherently wrong in rationally breaking down acts of violence, unless you are doing so hypocritically.  You should give an ethical evaluation to each action you make, violent or non-violent.  I only brought up these points because I'm interested in the way language manipulates reality.  This is one of many cases where two identical corporeal acts can be given divergent meaning through linguistic construction.

I agree with your points on high school comedies.  I basically have grown tired of any revenge narrative where the dice are completely stacked, forcing you to feel exactly what the film wants you to without room for ambivalence or uncertainty.  I recently watched Tony Scott's MAN ON FIRE with a friend.  To me, that's a great example of a revenge film that deploys archetypes to drive a point home instead of creating real people with nuance.  Dakota Fanning is the perfect, innocent little cherub and when we think she's dead, we are supposed to feel that Denzel Washington's brutal revenge streak is entirely justified.  The people who kidnapped her are all monsters deserving slaughter, and Denzel is just a hardened old soldier whose humanity has only awakened by the love of this perfect child.  Everything fits into a tidy box.  It's a rote revenge narrative.  It's also a film that wants to have its cake and eat it too.  At the end, it argues for self-sacrifice instead of righteous revenge (to borrow your turn of phrase) but only after having indulged in 45 minutes of righteous revenge.  It wants it all to the point that it doesn't know what it wants.  A lot of revenge cinema suffers a similar fate.

Shifting gears a bit, I quite liked SPRING BREAKERS.  Though to be entirely fair, I would never refute any of the well-reasoned objections John and Jason have towards it.  It's a trashy movie with very little to say that isn't readily scraped off the surface.  It's purely disposable pop-art.  However, I found much of it fascinating, even as it made me feel uncomfortable and slightly dirty.  Brandon's point about it depicting the rampant nihilism of this modern youth culture is well taken.  These kids do not stand for anything other than bikinis, beer, big booties, dubstep, and being just another scrap in the trash heap.  Korine is undeniably guilty of enjoying his time digging through the trash (a staple of his it would seem).  He revels in it, meanders through it like he can't get enough of it.  But he's also smart enough to balance this indulgence with some much needed melancholia.  As Chris wisely put it to me, there's always an air of "hangover" in this rapturous party of a film.  Even the film's final inverted shot seems to suggest that not everything is idyllic in this fantasy world, but perhaps nightmarish.  This is excess driven to the point of a hollow extreme; the car has gone off the cliff but somehow its still floating in midair.  It's held in abeyance over its own nothingness.

I also appreciated that the film seemed to comment on a specific cultural reality while also seeming completely hyperreal.  There's rapture and rupture here, but also a spirit of (to burrow this word from John) mirth in its depictions of over-the-top characters and milieux.  The colors are excessively bright and glossy, the parties are excessively raucous, the final girls are excessively amoral and sexualized (and apparently invincible), and Alien is excessively adhering to gangster stereotypes (grillz, cornrows, an aspiring rap career, a house full of guns and money with SCARFACE playing 24/7, etc).  There's moments of realism here, but this is very much a fantastical netherworld where Korine has found himself encamped.  I can't blame those who would have rather stayed home.  I found it all withering with decay yet oddly alluring.