Friday, March 7, 2014

Short Takes: Holy Motors, Cosmopolis, and more

Holy Motors (dir. Leos Carax, 2012)

Holy Motors belongs to a long tradition of movies about movies, but coming from French auteur Leos Carax, it's a sprawling, surreal entry. The film follows 24 hours in the life of Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant, a frequent Carax collaborator), who carries out "appointments" that require him to play different characters in different situations. These include a sewer-dwelling goblin who kidnaps a model (Eva Mendes), a man in a motion-capture suit interacting with another actor, a dying man being visited by his niece (Elise L'Homeau), and himself meeting another "actor" named Eva (Kylie Minogue). The film plays wildly with concepts of fantasy and reality, and Lavant's performance is one of the most impressive in years, bouncing back and forth between all of this characters with ease and skill. None of the various sequences outstay their welcome, and Carax proves his considerable talent and playfully subverts expectations at every turn. There's even an accordion-based musical interlude that's nothing short of an absolute blast. Ultimately, Holy Motors is cinema at its purest: joyful, emotional, exciting, magical, and ultimately rewarding. A+

More from Cronenberg, Lanthimos, and others after the page break.

Cosmopolis (dir. David Cronenberg, 2012)

When David Cronenberg is at his best, his films are psychosexual thrillers that poke and prod at the concepts we use to define ourselves, finding that underneath the facades lurk much more complicated and twisted tendencies. Films like Dead Ringers and A History of Violence are great examples of this. Cosmopolis, however, is something that Cronenberg's films rarely are: boring. Based on a novel by Don DeLillo, the film follows young billionaire Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) as he rides in his limo across town to get a haircut, all while society seems to be crumbling around him. The film is essentially a collection of vague philosophical conversations with various people who enter the limo, with Eric slinking down a path of self-destruction. All of this probably plays better on the page than on film, and despite the efforts of the very game Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton, and Paul Giamatti, none of this ever coalesces into anything interesting. The score, by Howard Shore and rock band Metric, is about the only thing that really works in this film. It's a shame to see a film so half-hearted and half-baked come from a filmmaker who's spent his career titillating our darker urges. C-

The Last Emperor (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987)

Imagine being the emperor of a mighty and enduring empire, only to watch it crumble before your very eyes. For Pu-yi, the subject of famed Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci's film, Qing Dynasty China collapsed four years into his reign, when he was only six years old. The life of Pu-yi, played by John Lone as an adult, is a fascinating one, as he struggles to come to terms with the fact that the power he was taught was his birthright means nothing in the changing political and social landscape. Lone gives a terrific performance in the film, too, ably finding the flawed, tragic humanity in a man who was promised the world only to have it taken from him. But ultimately, as Bertolucci frames it, this film isn't so much the story of Pu-yi as it is the story of 20th Century China, as it transitions from millennia of imperial rule to republic, only to have Mao Zedong's Communist revolution throw everything into disarray. This film is an epic of a nation struggling to establish a working identity for itself, with Pu-yi symbolically standing in China's past. It's also interesting that this was the first Western film to be shot in China after the 1949 Revolution, and the first ever to film within the Forbidden City in Beijing. Bertolucci is famed for his films about individuals at moments of existential crisis; in The Last Emperor, he tackled an entire nation. It's a fascinating, moving, and gorgeous glimpse at China's recent history, told through the eyes of a man who fell victim to it. A-

Room 237 (dir. Rodney Ascher, 2013)

When I was taking film classes in college, I had to watch The Shining for a film analysis class. At the time, I was still a fledging cinephile, so the fact that of all of Stanley Kubrick's films we were given that on seemed interesting to me. Of course, after watching it - really watching it - for that class, it suddenly made sense: this is a film loaded with visual clues, and given Kubrick's reputation as a perfectionist, each of them seemed extremely deliberate. Room 237 is a documentary that explores the numerous theories that have erupted since the films release, with scholars and ordinary fans alike sharing their interpretations of what Kubrick's horror film is really about. These theories range from an allegory of the genocide of Native Americans to Kubrick's confession that he "shot" the "fake" footage of the moon landing, and each interviewee provides significant evidence from the film to support their claims. At times, the documentary leans a little too far into showing unbiased support for its subject, and it could have afforded to trim some of the more outlandish theories and included an argument or two to the contrary that Kubrick's film meant anything, especially since some of the former fall apart as the evidence is presented. But at it's best, the film is a celebration of a previously-maligned work by a master filmmaker, and a tribute to many ways that we interpret art and why it's important that we do. B+

Alps (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos, 2012)

Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos established himself as an exciting, cerebral, and experimental filmmaker with his international breakthrough, Dogtooth (2010), an enigmatic allegory about authoritarian control (I think?). His follow-up film, Alps, is not as violently provocative, but it's no less opaque in its intentions. The film centers around a quartet of people who offer a strange service: for a fee, they will pretend to be a deceased loved one, providing closure for the grieving or allowing them to go on as if the loss never happened. One woman (Aggeliki Papoulia) becomes too involved with clients, in turn loosing her sense of self and reality, spelling trouble for the other group members. However, Lanthimos isn't overly concerned with linear plotting, instead creating an impressionistic film that's open to a number of interpretations. Is it a critique of how people communicate in the modern world? A parable about grief and letting go? A Brechtian deconstruction of cinematic representation of life and humanity? None of the above? That's the beauty of the film: there's no telling which reading you'll find when you watch it, and it could change on repeat viewings. It's a puzzle worth taking in. A-

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