Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Short Take: "The Wave" (2016)

As the world becomes more globalized, so does cinema. Big-budget blockbuster films, once seemingly the sole provence of Hollywood, are now regularly produced in China and India, and other film industries around the world are starting to create their own blockbusters. European films are no longer necessarily the personal auteurist projects that Americans associate with Godard, Bergman, and Fellini; those films are now joined by bigger films meant to please crowds more than provoke intense introspection.


Norwegian filmmaker Roar Uthaug's The Wave is billed as "Norway's first disaster movie," and it was a huge hit in its native country, finishing at the top of the 2015 box office (by ticket sales, one in every six Norwegians saw the film in theatres). Based on a true scenario, the film follows geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) on the day is family is due to move away from Geiranger, a coastal tourist town in Geirangerfjord. Seismic activity along one of the mountain, however, triggers a landslide that results in an 80-foot wave thundering toward the town, with only ten minutes to evacuate everyone. Kristian must race against time to save his family before the wave destroys the town.

Uthaug obviously studied the art of the disaster film: his film follows all of the standard beats (occasionally to a fault), including a lengthy prelude establishing Kristian's family life and marking which characters are clearly doomed once the wave comes pummeling through the fjord. Yet the film is more than a boilerplate blockbuster, as the main characters are complex and achieve meaningful development over the course of the film, in addition to Uthaug's canny eye for stunning images. Of course, the film hardly had the budget for Hollywood-caliber effects, but Uthaug and director of photography John Christian Rosenlund create breathtaking images of disaster without the need to digitize everything. Most imporantly, Joner's performance anchors the film, imbuing his hero character with genuine awe at his tragic situation and concern for his family. It's more than just a great genre performance, it's a great performance, period. The same can be said of the film. B+

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Short Take: "45 Years" (2015)

Does a memory ever truly leave us, even after years of dormancy? How do you navigate the influence of the past on a loved one, particularly a past that you were not a part of? Does remembering the past alter the present?

These are questions raised by Andrew Haigh's magnificent, long-awaited second feature, 45 Years. This quiet drama is about a couple, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling), approaching their 45th wedding anniversary when Geoff learns that the body of his missing former flame, Katya, has been discovered frozen in the mountains. The revelation brings back a flood of memories about Geoff, and Kate discovers more about the man she married and his life before her.


The above plot description is intentionally sparse, because the film itself does not sensationalize this premise (other films surely would play up the soapy development that sets the plot in motion). Instead, Haigh focuses his film on the relationship between Geoff and Kate and how this discovery impacts them separately and together. Courtenay and Rampling each give phenomenal, understated performances that highlight their characters' interior lives and their inability to gain access to the other's. Together, they present a marriage that feels lived-in, complete with a sense of history between them.

More than anything, this is a film about memory. The spectre of Katya hangs over the entire film: though she is never seen, her presence is felt in every scene. Haigh doesn't spell this out or underline anything, however. He trusts his actors and himself to convey the intimate, achingly human truths of the film. Like his previous masterpiece, Weekend (2011), 45 Years is heartbreaking and engaging, a truly human document. A+

Short Takes: Catching Up on the 2015 Foreign Language Film Oscar Nominees

The 88th Academy Awards were handed out over half a year ago, but there's no reason we can't keep talking about them! I recently completed viewing the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, so below you'll find capsule reviews of all five films along with how I would have ranked them if I had a ballot. I'll post ballots for the eight major categories (Picture, Director, Acting, and Writing) at a later date.

Son of Saul (dir. Laśzló Nemes, Hungary)


It's no surprise that this harrowing Holocaust feature won the Oscar. The film is the story of a Hungarian prisoner (Géza Röhrig) assigned to the Sonderkommando (charged with burning bodies) at Auschwitz who believes one of the bodies may belong to his son. Nemes films Saul's efforts to provide a proper Jewish burial in tight close-ups, with the camera rarely leaving its position just over Saul's shoulder. It's a terrific directorial trick: by keeping the literal focus on Saul, the film avoids the easy exploitation of the horrors of the concentration camps that so many other Holocaust films traffic in. Instead, Saul's dangerous plight and his emotional journey is the heart of the film, and it's no less distressing. Though Saul remains something of a cypher throughout, the film itself stands as a powerful and unique entry into the Holocaust film canon. A

The other four nominees after the jump.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Oscar Predictions August 2016: The "Shot in the Dark" Predictions

The Academy Awards page is now officially the predictions page for the 89th Academy Awards, happening February 26, 2017. Of course, that's a long way off, and most of the films that will be contending then haven't been seen yet (and in some cases, may not even be finished filming yet). So a lot can happen, but that's not why we do these predictions. We do them because we are 1) certifiably insane and 2) Oscar nuts through and through. And so, a brief explanation of my thought process; you can see the predictions and commentary at the Academy Awards page (click that link or the tab labeled "Academy Awards" under the banner).

BEST PICTURE

There are several really big question marks in terms of films awaiting release dates. Mike Mills, director of Beginners (2011), supposedly will have 20th Century Women - starring Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning - ready by the end of the year. John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Itch, Rabbit Hole) should have the Neil Gaiman adaptation How to Talk to Girls at Parties ready as well. And Denzel Washington's adaptation of August Wilson's play Fences is also set to be released in December. However, we haven't seen much from any of these films beyond set photos and a few stills, so there's no indication that they'll be ready in time.

Silence

Fences is a big one, but the biggest question mark as far as release dates go is Silence, Martin Scorsese's new film about Christian missionaries in feudal Japan. The film is still pegged for a November release, and it's been in post-production since last year, but there's no sign that it will make its intended release date yet. Now, this isn't the first time Scorsese's dropped a long-awaited (and very long) film quickly: The Wolf of Wall Street was a big question mark until late in 2013, and it went on to multiple Oscar nominations including Picture, Director, and Actor for Leonardo DiCaprio. For now, I'm leaving the film out of my predictions on the assumption that it's moving to 2017, but if it does come out this year, expect it to contend in most of the major categories.

As for what I did predict, I'm probably over-estimating Lion and under-estimating Loving at the moment, assuming that the former tearjerker will draw more attention than the racial drama (I will also admit that I didn't care much for Midnight Special, so I'm a little cool on director Jeff Nichols right now). I may be under-estimating La La Land too; Damien Chazelle is clearly a director they admire, given the reception of Whiplash, and Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are terrific leads (even if they only have two nominations between them). But I find it difficult to believe that the Academy will go for an original, contemporary musical in a major way. We'll wait and see.

Acting categories and more after the jump.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Crisis and Confusion: What "Goldeneye," "The Rock," and "Independence Day" Say about the Blockbuster Then and Now

Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1996, the Hollywood blockbuster was a different beast. Unlike today, the multiplex was not flooded with superheroes, sequels, spinoffs, "reimaginings," or some combination of those. Films were not prepackaged as franchises (or "cinematic universes"). And there was arguably still credence in "star power," where casting the right actor or movie star would result in instant box office success. The mid-1990s were also a time in which serious, made-for-adults films could also be some of the biggest hits of the year: Forrest Gump (1994), Apollo 13 (1995), and Jerry Maguire (1996) all finished in the top 10 at the box office of their years. Perhaps even more telling, during those same three years, only four sequels placed in the their year's top 10 at the box office: Batman Forever, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, Goldeneye, and Die Hard with a Vengeance (all in 1995). By the same measure, 17 sequels finished in the top 10 of their year in the past three years.


This is nothing new, of course. We're all very aware of Hollywood's need for mega-expensive sequels and reboots in their effort to compete at the global box office, especially with China swiftly rising as a world film power (in box office if not necessarily in production, though they are catching up there too). But looking back at three films in particular - Goldeneye, The Rock (1996), and Independence Day (1996) - provides us with a fascinating look at the historical context of the blockbuster in the mid-1990s, as well as a glimpse into just how different the form is today.

Historical Implications: Wither the Red Scare?

Notably, all three of these films are action films beefed up with big-budget spectacle. All three of them also represent the biggest challenge this particular genre faced in the 1990s: who are the villains?

More after the jump.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "International Masterworks"

Finally, we'll wrap up the spring semester (three months later) with what was hands-down the most challenging class I have taken so far: International Masterworks. The films themselves come from filmmakers who, in some way, changed the language of cinema and pushed our understanding of what a film could be. That makes the class challenging enough, but it was taught by a professor who pushed us to think deeper about the films. This meant setting aside the typical filmic grammar - character psychology, narrative, symbolism - and thinking about the films in their own terms. Needless to say, this is not an easy thing to do. But, regardless of any other disagreements I might have had with some of his statements, the class proved to enrich my understanding of cinema and how to approach a work of art.

So below is the list of films we watched for the class. I heartily recommend every single one of them, something that I haven't been able to say for my other lists.

Grand Illusion (dir. Jean Renoir, 1937)


These days, Renoir is probably best known for his 1939 farce The Rules of the Game, and rightfully so. But two years earlier, he made Grand Illusion, a remarkable blend of slapstick, satire, and drama, and the first foreign-language film to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Set in WWI, the film concerns a group of French prisoners of war and their German captors, particularly the bond between officers de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim, who also had a celebrated career as a director). Considering the political climate of the time, Renoir shows incredible empathy towards all of his characters regardless of nationality, focusing instead on their shared humanity than their arbitrary differences. Very few war films are this devoid of political ideology or "us versus them" mentality.

A Man Escaped (dir. Robert Bresson, 1956)


Bresson, on the other hand, may have shared Renoir's disinterest in the politics of warfare, but if A Man Escaped is any indication, he didn't see a need for empathy either. French Resistance member Fontaine (François Leterrier) is captured by the Germans and imprisoned, but he bides his time by plotting his escape. Bresson (who himself was a prisoner of war during WWII) adopts Fontaine's perspective, presenting every potential ally and threat with wary distrust. Instead, the film focuses on the process of escape, as Fontaine's narration provides access to his clinical planning and understanding of his environment. As such, it can be frustrating at times, since Bresson does not grant the audience access to understanding the other characters. But as a study of understated survival, the film is a triumph.

More after the jump.

Short Take: "Austin to Boston" (2015)

Any musician will tell you that the most grueling part of the job is touring. Sure, Taylor Swift may make a 50+ city world tour seem like one giant party with her friends, but for many artists - especially the bands trying to get noticed - touring can be a slog from one small venue to the next, sometimes reaping a decent paycheck and sometimes being paid in beer. Touring is an itinerant life too: bands spend most of their time away from home and loved ones to constantly move from one town to the next, living out of hotel rooms or tour vans. As cheesy as the song is, there's a reason why Journey's "Faithfully" resonates with many artists.


Austin to Boston, James Marcus Haney's short documentary about four artists embarking on a tour from (you guessed it) Austin, Texas to Boston, aims to provide a brief glimpse into touring life while promoting the artists featured. Ben Howard, Nathaniel Rateliff, Bear's Den, and The Staves travel together in five old Volkswagen vans through a number of stops, including Oklahoma City, Nashville, and Woodstock, New York, sharing their experiences from the road. Haney mixes performance footage with scenes from the road made to look like it was shot on 16mm stock, fitting the rustic folk sounds of the four artists.

Make no mistake, though, this is not the kind of confessional tell-all that some music docs are, nor is this a "behind the music" history of these artists. The documentary is arguably a promotional video above all; it won't come as a surprise that all four artists are signed to Communion, producer Ben Lovett's (of Mumford & Sons fame) label. As a result, there's not a lot revealed about the artists that feels genuine: a scene of Rateliff visiting the intersection where his father died in a car accident, for example, would be more moving if he hadn't been described as "emotionally honest" a few minutes prior, giving the moment a tinge of contrivance. Luckily, the music performances are pleasant, and if the artists pick up some new fans as a result of the film, then Haney and Lovett did their job. C+

Monday, August 8, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "The Profane"

Yes, you're reading that right: I took a class entitled "The Profane" last semester. The class focused mostly on sex, specifically on the presentation of women and female sexuality. It was a really fascinating class, anchored by a collection of films that pushed the boundaries of taste and "decency" in a variety of ways.

So here's the list of the films that we watched. Well, some of them: in the interest of brevity, I excluded the documentaries and short films that we watched, and instead I'm including only the narrative features.

A Short Film about Love (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)


An expanded version of the sixth chapter of his epic television series The Decalogue, A Short Film about Love finds Polish master filmmaker Kieslowski doing his best Rear Window interpretation. Postal worker Tomek (Olaf Lubaszenko) spies on a promiscuous older woman, Magda (Grazyna Szapolowska), and falls in love with her. When she does not reciprocate his feelings, however, events spiral out of control. The dynamics of Tomek's and Magda's relationship are more than a little questionable (it's essentially stalker-stalked), which makes the film's final act discomforting. Kieslowski's direction, however, surprisingly makes it work, and hints at the greater films he would make toward the end of his career. On it's own, however, this film is more of a curio than anything else.

In the Realm of the Senses (dir. Nagisa Ôshima, 1976)


Ôshima quickly established himself as Japan's leading provocateur with Death By Hanging and Three Resurrected Drunkards in the 1960s, and his frequently scandalous material found him working in France as often as his native Japan. In the Realm of the Senses remains his most notorious film, a retelling of the story of Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda), who in pre-WWII Tokyo became a sensation for murdering her lover Kichizo Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) and keeping his severed genitals in her kimono. Ôshima presents the story as a tableaux of explicit, reportedly unstimulated sex scenes, often accompanied by BDSM and allusions to the rise of fascism in Japan in the 1930s. It's a bold film that is provocative and thoughtful without being titillating.

More after the jump.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Dispatches from Film School: "French New Wave"

Taking a class on a specific cinematic movement was an interesting experience. On the one hand, it closed a lot of gaps in my viewing knowledge and provided me with a better understanding of how this particular movement - the French New Wave of the 1960s - was important to the history of cinema. These were films that rejected the traditional Hollywood-style filmmaking traditions that dominated French cinema and sought to expand the possibilities of what film can achieve, though there was no coherence as to how to do so. The success of French New Wave films abroad influenced dozens of other new waves, including the emergence of American Independent Cinema and the "New Hollywood" in the United States.

On the other hand, studying a single movement - even one without a single unifying vision and a diverse group of filmmakers - means seeing a lot of films that start to blur together after a while. Even if there was not a coherent vision to the French New Wave, each of the films we watched did share common themes, aesthetics, or actors, with some even more or less telling the same kind of story. It was interesting and exhausting in equal measure.

The links correspond to articles I previously wrote about the film.

The Lovers (dir. Louis Malle, 1958)


Malle's film predates the generally accepted period of the French New Wave, and he is generally not considered a New Wave filmmaker. The Lovers, however, is an interesting precursor film. Jeanne Moreau stars as Jeanne, a bored housewife who develops passionate affairs with polo player Raoul (José Luis de Vilallonga) and archeologist Bernard (Jean-Marc Bory). The film is perhaps best known to American audiences as being the center of the Jacobellis vs. U.S. obscenity case that prompted Justice Potter Stewart to define obscenity as "I know it when I see it." But the film itself is a bit of a standard-issue "finding yourself through adultery" story, aided mostly by Malle's serene direction and Moreau's measured performance. It's also a reminder that Malle was only 25 when he made this, his second film, suggesting that he was the Xavier Dolan of his day.

Hiroshima, Mon Amour (dir. Alain Resnais, 1959)


Similar to Malle, Resnais is not often considered a part of the French New Wave, if only because he was not a part of the collective of filmmakers to emerge from the Cahiers du Cinema critics. But his masterwork, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, certainly fits the bill with its poetic dialogue, easygoing narrative, and elegiac cinematography. The film focuses on the romance between a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) and a Japanese architect (Eiji Okada) while the former shoots a film in Japan. The film is staged as a series of conversations overlapping with flashbacks, as each of these characters process the personal tragedies they faced during World War II. Okada and Riva each give masterful performances that enrich the film's emotional content through what isn't said as much as what their characters reveal to each other. Resnais' film is as haunting as it is beautiful.

Films by Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, and more after the jump.

Take Me Outback: A Cinematic Mini-Return to Australia

I'm back after another long hiatus. More notably, I'm back from my adventure in Australia, which was a phenomenal experience for me academically, professionally, and personally. I'll post more about the Australian film industry in the future; it has a fascinating history, one that is markedly different from Hollywood.

But, in the meantime, as a welcome back, here are five Australian films that I watched recently while I missed the Land Down Under. Three of them are more recent films, while two are classics from the early days of the Australian New Wave. The three more recent films are currently streaming on Netflix, while the latter two are available via Hulu Plus.

Mystery Road (dir. Ivan Sen, 2013)


The predecessor to Goldstone, which opened this year's Sydney Film Festival (and will hopefully receive a US release soon), Mystery Road finds by-the-book detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) investigating the death of a young Aboriginal girl in a rural Queensland town. Johnno (Hugo Weaving), an officer working on a major drug bust, discourages Jay from looking too deep into the murder, which leads Jay to uncover a deep web of deception and crime that inherently takes advantage of the town's Aboriginal community.

Director Sen, himself an Indigenous filmmaker, shows a deft hand at weaving political commentary into the thriller genre without sacrificing tension or stunning visuals (in addition to writing and directing, Sen also served as director of photography, editor, and composer for the film). Instead, the issues of Aboriginal struggle become an inescapable texture to the story, at once forming the basis of the plot without underlining its significance. That's a delicate balancing act, but Sen pulls it off with aplomb. Pedersen, as in the sequel, is magnetic and truly brilliant as Jay, a man torn between his sense of duty to the whole community and his Aboriginal heritage. Weaving, too, is reliably shifty as Johnno, and Ryan Kwantan does fine work as one of the murder suspects. If a few of the film's twists and turns are a bit too predictable, there's still pleasure to be found in how those revelations ripple outwards. B+

(I'm also eager to rewatch Goldstone now, especially since both films share some of the same strengths and weaknesses. I'm curious to see if seeing Mystery Road changes my opinion of Goldstone.)

Tracks (dir. John Curran, 2014)


In 1977, Robyn Davidson (Mia Wasikowska) set out on what was believed to be an impossible journey: to walk from Alice Springs in central Australia to the Indian Ocean, a journey of 2,700 kilometers through the most inhospitable terrain of the Outback. Her journey was documented by her own writings and National Geographic photographer Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), and she was accompanied by four camels and her dog. Robyn's journey was motivated by a desire to get away from city life, and her perilous trek became a sensational story by the time she reached the shores of Western Australia.

Robyn's story is certainly befitting of the film treatment, and director Curran (The Painted Veil), working from Marion Nelson's adaptation of Davidson's memoir of the same name, does the rugged terrain justice in his dusty, sun-drenched photography. Wasikowska, too, delivers one of the finest performances of her career, proving that she is more than capable of carrying her own film without the assistance of CGI landscapes and Mad Hatters (this is a hint, Hollywood). The "find yourself" narrative is presented better than many films of this kind, though the relationship between Robyn and Rick feels a bit undercooked (especially since the film feels the need to emphasize it whenever they share the screen). Overall, though, it's a testament to Robyn's tenacity, the ferocity of the Australian landscape, and Wasikowska's talent. A-

More after the jump.