Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: To Catch a Thief (1955)

        Good afternoon to Nathaniel and everyone at The Film Experience. Welcome to this minimally-decorated, low-concept film blog that a longtime lurker and lover of film blogs has just begun. If you were wondering, my name is Will. Thanks for stopping by.

I've chosen what must be the longest take in To Catch a Thief for my best shot.

There's the first frame of it. It's a setup for Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) to explain how she has figured out that Cary Grant's character is the famous jewel thief John Robie and not the American tourist he has claimed to be. She will do this while serving up a picnic. To the accompaniment of a lovely projection of the Cannes shoreline, Grace Kelly and Cary Grant banter while eating. Grant seems to be a lot hungrier that Kelly. He's really going at that chicken!

 Hitchcock soberly stages a rather dull piece of exposition with a rather simple portrait of his character's lavish lifestyles  - a picnic in the hills of the Rivera. The blocking and the acting, however, emphasize the slightest amount of discomfort. Kelly, in the driver's seat, towers over Grant as the latter scurries about his seat at the bottom of the car. For all its simplicity, the arrangement is a joy to watch; the film, having fun with the tools it has been given, is expressing its character relationships and fulfilling the quota for its glamour shots. Finally, To Catch a Thief comes out at a time Hitchcock's career where Freudian sexuality over-determines just about every inch of the frame, We know exactly what they are chewing when they are chewing those pieces of dark meat.

There also seemed to be some mixed signals in the direction that result in hilarious moments where Grant, denied first place in the salt shaker line, seems genuinely upset. That's him, holding up his chicken thigh while Kelly ignores him.

And he's just kind of amused.

Something about the way that big piece of chicken flesh is at the very front of the frame is infinitely amusing to me. Kelly, a more discreet diner (and lover!), does chomp down a few times. I'll close this post with a still of her ruminating.

And that, dear readers, is To Catch a Thief. See you next week!

Friday, June 24, 2016

Can't Help Falling in Love with 2

For every statement written about the unoriginality of The Conjuring 2’s beats, there is one singular, creaky step to be signposted that has led us to the best American  horror movie of the year thus far. One is 70s horror in all its thematic richness: not simply the dimly-lit rooms, but the Catholicism and the enormous melancholia for a lost family. Another is the zeitgeist of the jump scare. Another series of steps are all the plot contrivances obliged to the Saw series that Wan birthed over a decade ago, those contrivances that have made contemporary horror movies some of the most asinine whodunits in cinematic history. And a final step should be given to the digital camera and all the impossible movements and edits it can deliver. The so-called unoriginality of The Conjuring 2 does not depreciate the singularity of our viewing experience, as no other time period could have given the same sensations.
It’s the odd combination of the first and third steps that is the most shaky. The Conjuring took a case of the Amityville ghost hunters before their most famous one, and our second film takes place after it. We find this out with a recreation of the events of The Amityville Horror. The beginning also serves as the sequel’s “Annabelle” sequence insomuch as it spookily re-introduces our ghost hunters before we pay (almost) exclusive attention to the poltergeist of Enfield, England. Given the atrociousness of the Annabelle spinoff, and general concerns about over-serialization, there is much to worry about in this act of worldbuilding. The Conjuring 2 haplessly invents a demonological ur-structure it can only support by distracting us from the film at hand. Miraculously, it doesn’t fall into the same pitfalls as the sequels (and third act) of Insidious because it quite pins this worldbuilding on the tail of its characters. It shares a desire with The Exorcist to show the spiritual exhaustion of its characters at the face of unnamed evil. Vera Farmiga looks exasperated from the first frame onward and she’s supposed to be the one saving the day. Patrick Wilson exudes the false confidence of someone who can’t bear to see his stronger-willed wife go through another breakdown. These two strong performances, accompanied by the precocious turns of Madison Wolfe, give the entire narrative unsuspected emotional depth. Repetition isn’t even an issue here; even as the film achieves its goal of laboring us with relentless dread, a number of character beats act through many stages of grief. We see hope, suspicion, and fear in their eyes.   

The great news is that the excretable parts of the film’s outrageous 133 minute runtime all fall on the top half. The final, laughably bad piece of exposition is a montage that delivers us straight into late 70s London to the tune of “London, Calling” for about 30 seconds, as if it knew we all had better things to do that go for a bunch of low-budget period stereotypes. The introduction of the house instead opts for a Fincheresque digital tracking tour-de-force. We spend most of the film in this working class house - a rare treat for a genre mostly stuck in rural middle-class demi-mansions. Wan clearly knows how to make the space work with a variety of lighting options, camera movements, and blocking acrobatics that can surprise. That we’ve seen some of these tricks in his other films doesn’t distract from the unsettlingly mobile camera in some of these early scenes. I’m still drawn to the first night of scares for the Hodgson family, which works so well because seems like it will never end. By alternating between the boys and the girls’ experiences, Wan lets the scares brood for a good 20 minutes. His preferred method in this movie consists of a long take in a  dark room or hallway, filmed with an indeterminate depth of field.  We remember the agonizing stillness of these frames moreso than the ghost who makes himself partially known at the end of a sequence.

What is admirable about The Conjuring 2 lasts in the memory much longer that what could have been better. It is difficult to argue that, zeitgeist and all, this isn’t the perfect version of itself. All the aforementioned elements that make up this film are relatively balanced, from beginning to end - a character beat never feels egregious, nor does a long-take scare sequence. If we can keep replicating the giddy joy that this film, in being so confident and creative, produces, then maybe we do have a horror renaissance in (surprise!) mainstream cinema.

Grade: B+

Friday, June 17, 2016

I Only Have Eyes For You

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2015?)

The most intriguing, if not the only, experiment in The Lobster is the one carried out by the film’s dedicated and celebrity-heavy team of actors. The film’s tweaks to reality have already given ample room for critical commentary on the subject of monogamy, marriage, and post-modern narcissism. Atop this narrative is the conceit that no character should act as if this reality were an alteration of any basic human condition. The rules are just given, no behavior suggests otherwise, and ground from which any judgement could be made is, consequently, shaky. A generous amount of beats have fun with this experiment: Olivia Coleman’s character claims Derick’s choice of animal metamorphosis is “excellent,” like it’s a dish on a menu; a person who is said to have “no feelings at all” conforms to the description with violent perfection. All the actors behave with a bizarre, unspoken unity of knowledge.
It is a commendable feat to act in a world that has been knocked  just slightly off-kilter. The Lobster doesn’t necessarily take place in the future, but it does borrow a little from sci-fi for the sake of one central piece of technology. One is pretty much obliged, despite the lack of traditional bureaucratic accoutrements, to call this environment “Kafkaesque.” Derick (Colin Farrell) has recently divorced his wife and comes to a country resort hotel so that he can be paired up within the required 45 day limit, after which he will be transformed “into an animal of his choice.” Lanthimos draws out a lot of straightforward humor from the entire scenario of life-and-death being played out through leisure activities that are very familiar  to nursing home patients, excepting the nightly excursion outside the hotel where all the residents, armed with tranquilizer guns, hunt for the escaped “loners” (one captured loner adds a day to your stay). Midway through, the film dips into a more morbid corner and stops allowing purely “fun” black humor seep through the cracks. And, even though you might expect it to peter out in contemplation, the film ends on a tense note.
If Lanthimos sends us out of this film with visions of Oedipus, he does so in order to reconcile the glaring contradictions that the central love story presents to the viewer.It turns out that Loners have their own strict rules about the single life that are broken at great, great cost. So the film is set up to engage two pillars of a familiar dialectic: on the one hand, oppressive coupling, on the other, an uncoupling so conscious that it becomes its own headphone-wearing prison. Unfortunately, the story speeds right into the introduction of Rachel Weisz’s love interest character (she really isn’t anything else). It isn’t as if Lanthimos doesn’t know how to make his characters tick with each other; we are afraid for these lovers in peril, but scenes of tension are interspersed with those that go straight for the sentiment of “indie romance.” The latter feel wildly out of place. I’m not convinced the world can present a  solution to its problems in the form of its first target institution. The final scene, which I’ve been trying to discuss without spoilers for a while now, sort of gives a quick fix to this problem by twisting the love plot into the revelation of one final, subtly articulated psychological norm. The difficult path The Lobster takes is trying to double-team us with a conceptual fact and a character moment at once. It’s something that many “masters” of the form have done (I’m thinking of Kubrick moreso than Lynch, Hitchcock moreso than Kaufman, though Kaufman’s weaker stuff works this way), it’s hard to pull off, and I don’t know if I like that strategy anyway. It smacks of pretentious commitment to doing too much in one movie. All the same, the idea that attachments in this world are rigidly ingrained through the sharing of a single “flaw” is a very interesting take on the whole Oedipus complex and the dark side of narcissism.
It’s the events leading up to this - the haplessly inevitable love story, the cruel lonerism of the jungle - that reward even as they expose the holes in Lanthimos’ plot.  When we’re in the hotel, the images and editing feel unsure about how disoriented they want to make us. I understand that the late capitalist banality of the hotel was the point, but I feel as if more interesting images could have been drawn from it. Or perhaps I was distracted by the abundance of celebrities: seeing Colin Farrell, John C. Reilly, and Ben Whishaw in one frame, all while on constant lookout for a face to match Rachel Weisz’s narration, makes the film feel a bit overstuffed. Farrell, whose character has the most to do, is the best thing happening in this movie. He has the most to do, granted, but he goes above and beyond the call of duty.  And I want to give Lea Seydoux credit for playing the reverse, sadistic side of Olivia Colman’s excellent bureaucrat; she knows how to wear an evil turtleneck like the best bond villain.
I’m not fully convinced that The Lobster has as significant a target as it thinks it does. All these things that happen must be significant, but the film analyzes to the point that it can’t put any pieces together, despite some desperate attempts at its conclusion, in this messy comedy of remarriage. Some critics of this movie more or less sentence it detention for having a bad attitude. I don’t think the coldness is the problem here,  as the actors really throw life into the comedy, but the eagerness to take something apart without explaining what it was in the first place. Is that my job? Because that’s tiring.


Monday, March 14, 2016

MUBI Capsules, Forecast

Starting a blog is a difficult task that demands the writer make up his own rhythm. I haven't found that yet, so I'm going to dole out some very very brief assessments of films I've seen recently. The great thing about Mubi is the completely unjustifiable character limit. The bad thing is that it results in some very disingenuous, clipped sentences (below, I write: "Good acting"). For that reason and many others,  I don't want to use this blog as a clipboard for my Mubi profile (I'm easy to find, guys!). Superego is rap rap rapping at the door, though, and demanding content. 

Also, in celebration of the re-release of Kelly Reichardt's River of Grass, I've re-watched all of her movies. Expect a long piece that tries to cover that ground. Slowly. Moving from right-to-left. 

Finally, I'm seducing my boyfriend through a casual Charlotte Rampling retrospective. It's working. Two posts below, you can find a longer-form take on 45 Years, which I think holds up against many of her best movies. Hell, it might even be her best. 

New Movies:

Hail, Caeser! (J. and E. Coen, 2016): In which the messianism of Hollywood is capable of relieving both the protestant work ethic and cultural marxism. More sound than fury, but committed to the incoherent perspective of the movie executive, which I never thought needed more treatment until now. Performances are all top notch, perhaps Swinton's character was very useless. This is a weird, rare treat wherein the "lite" Coens coincides with the heavy. B+

Something "Old"

Possession (Zulawski, 1981): No movie is deranged in quite the same way that Possession is deranged. Pulls out the rug from under you so many times, there's no pointing out a "key conflict." A dance with the more sinister powers of life. Wide-angled derangement, tugging at the corners of gazes, emotions, transference. There's a limit to this kind of hermetic horror, but goddamn this reaches it and flaunts. A-

Sweetgrass (Barbash and Taylor, 2009):  I'm the target demo for this. Humans become characters about 30-50 minutes into the movie - our introduction is concerned with the noble sheep, the noises they make. Then it turns toward an anthropology, and ethnography, concerning the symbiotic relation between sheep, dog, horse, and man. Then, a final rite, a brief justification for why we may record this, or record things at all. B

Casual Charlotte Rampling Retrospective:

Lemming (Moll, 2005): The first act is light on its feet enough, with Rampling just storming in an making the whole drama look like her plaything. But then it turns into a game of "What if David Lynch was boring?" We have better things to do than watch the white walls of bougie people receive timid stains. Even the class politics would be forgivable if this were in any way a coherent thriller. It assumes its stakes, never earns them. C

Under the Sand (Ozon, 2000): In which Rampling shows that she only needs 30% of her face visible in order to out-act the world. But let's be honest - this is mostly an acting experiment. I would have loved to see it as a one-woman show. We have one fabulously-played character venturing out into the world with diminishing returns. What it can't say about the psyche could fill, and does fill, much better trauma dramas. B

The Night Porter (Cavani, 1974) Ya'll need to stop pretending that Criterion only releases masterpieces. A form of critique, probably caused and certainly bolstered by the Frankfurt school and French psychoanalysis, erupted in this period of art cinema. So, you get these very interesting takes on WWII that may not explain much beyond the aesthetic pleasures of totalitarianism. Still, that's point to make? Or this is rotten to the core. Good acting. B/B+

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Ways in VVitch

If our collective memory of the New England Witch Scare seems too swept up in moralizing against, well, groupthink moralizing, then here is a sort of anti-Crucible. Our family leaves the primordial American community at the start of The Witch. Not that the 6-person family fails to provide each character with multiple shadows, doubles, f(r)iends, enemies, and lovers. The decision to focus on the family is one among many that nestles our film in the comfortable couch of 70s art horror. Complaints about that cushioned hub follow below. But to begin, I would like to commend the conviction that Eggers and Co. solicit from their viewers. There is no doubting that our movie monster is real. And well-researched!  Thou know’st it, thou is nudg’d slightly toward that position in the bizarre piece of press kit material that slivers in just before the ending credits roll.
Did that help you? I’m sure Robert Eggers, our first time director, had the approval of his Grad School adviser. I don’t know if I should read the performance of assiduous research as a sign of the indisputable singularity of the project when such a reading might prevent it from saying anything about our times (unless we’re part of the Church of Satan). Many excellent horror films do occur in a sort of vacuum. As previously stated, our heroes have left a New England township for unspecified reasons to forge their own life. The immediate work of survival is made all the more difficult by a sudden disappearance, which leads our heroes into the woods. Parallel problems follow, and the material desperation is not sublimated by, but is always an additional problem to, the terrifying figures at the edge of their puritanical mission.
You can tell that much of the film’s budget was directed toward a very handsome, which is to say pathetic and hideous, array of costumes, props, and wooden shacks. I’m happy about this. I’m happy that the last year of film making has been a year in which I could talk about the production design of a film for a good hour before even approaching its other merits. The frames are rife with beautiful, if unshowy, details. The titular character is designed with a great amount of subtlety (or, a small amount of money), all Shadow and Flesh. We’re in a post-Baroque age of costume design, here, where the realism of the costume matters more than anything, where people are no longer showing off modern flourishes to archaic clothing but purposefully wearing down their garments. One of my favorite moments of costume design comes at the end of the movie, when a certain character’s costume is all the more chilling in not being fully revealed. To not only invest in detail, but to resist the temptation to turn one’s film into a showroom for the admirable, difficult work of production design - that takes a level of restraint many directors don’t have by their third film, much less the first.
The Witch matches this perfectly simulated production design by lifting its dialogue directly from accounts of early colonial New England. I’m surprised by how effective this trick is. Surely, this is the sign of good direction. The actors delightfully chew about 60 percent of  their “thous” and “thees’ salads, partially because the film is so interested in moving their bodies about. It seems like the film wants to go all-out in its ambitious blocking, to throw around its characters in a delirium. What ends up happening is a lot of effort pushed to the periphery of just a few engaging set pieces. My favorite of these celebrates the early, close bond between the black-eyed young twins of the family and their male goat, Black Philip. How often do you see human-goat interaction in a film?
The more boring stuff almost entirely revolves around the echo chamber of tone that is The Witch’s portrait of its lead patriarch and matriarch. Here is where I finally leave a discussion of conceptual and technical details in order to describe how it actually feels to watch this movie. Since the film knows it isn’t a mainstream horror film, it opts for communicating its creepiness through the score’s set of ominous drones, of slow tracking shots that are all based upon the faith that we will equate barely illuminated wide shots of nature with dread. And such Kubrick fan service reaches its peak with a scene that so directly apes the Room 237 sequence of The Shining, I don’t see it as anything but an escape route so common American art house film making these days: if you can’t think of anything, just quote Kubrick. There’s a lot of anxiety hiding underneath the drones, a weird desire to make the aforementioned Shining and Barry Lyndon at the exact same time. And you start to notice how lacking this desire is in the non-development of the patriarch and matriarch characters, their complete inability to actually contribute to the film. Kubrick conjured what we all know now was genuine, end-of-your-life, horror in the faces of his actors. That sort of makes the whole austere shtick more excusable, in my eyes. The two oldest actors have a harder time believing themselves to be where they are. Anyway, I found the Kubrick allusions in Insidious: Chapter 3 much more entertaining.
In lieu of centralizing the father-mother duo, then, Eggers lays down most of the dramatic weight upon the just-pubescent brother-sister duo. This puts the central psychic conflict in a very singular (and, for what it’s worth, Hegelian) place; on the one hand, you have the formative ambiguity of the incest taboo, and, on the other, the tension of two members faced with the double-bind of familial loyalty and the need to move themselves beyond this family. It’s a long chain of substitutions; first, the family leaving the community for more puritanical goals, then, the adolescent’s (most explicitly the daughter’s) need to continue the puritanical legacy by selling themselves off to a new familial formation. The post-Crucible lever is effective; the whole historicist fabulation of witchery becomes intrinsic to the family’s submission of the woman. It’s hard to blame Anya Taylor Joy, who plays the impossibly virginal daughter, for being upstaged by Caleb Scrimshaw (what a fitting name!), who plays the brother and whose self-exorcism is easily the most ably acted scene in the entire film.
For all its confusion about actually getting to where it wants to be, The Witch is quickly memorable, meme-able, effective, and another refreshing sign of this horror revival. I hope we can get to a point where the genre doesn’t need to legitimize itself through allusions to the Great Masters, or through a forced sense of self-worth. If the former is Egger’s biggest weakness, the latter is, to my great chagrin, on display in the anti-horror film Goodnight Mommy. In times of  scarcity, the promise of something as simple as butter is enough. I’m willing to write off the problems of The Witch as “essential fatty oils.”

Grade: B

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Starting with 45 Years...

Which is quite the time to start! I wouldn't imagine disclosing my age, but I'm sure you wouldn't imagine me quite as old as Kate and Geoff Mercer (played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay), the couple who are at the center of most of the frames in Andrew Haigh's third feature. I would say that they merit more frames if the film didn't epitomize a stick landing. 45 Years is a thesis on the the absolutely aleatory nature of emotions. The course it charts toward its final, inevitable setpiece is offset by a series of looping, spastic, psychic attachments refusing to conform to this simple trajectory. And when they all find themselves in this one place called "the end," without coming together, the sense of confusion it leaves you with is, at the least, profound. 

Kate, with Geoff on the sidelines, is planning the timidly grand celebration of their 45th year of marriage, which is to take place on the Saturday of the week that the film begins. On Monday, Geoff receives a letter, written in German, and exclaims, "they found her." "Her" is who he introduces to us as "my Katja," a former lover lost to an accident in 1962, while the two were hiking across the Alps. It is not a metaphor that she has been preserved in a pool of ice and is now visible, thanks in part to Global Warming. We soon find out that the couple has never really talked about the depth of his former relationship, except maybe to note in passing that Kate and Katja are all-too-close to pure homophony.

Haigh's attachment to this project most likely stems from his devotion to quiet, talking, simulations of real conversations in real time. But where the (amazing) Weekend stages a dialogue between one unrooted gay man and the threat of his homosexuality, we're presented here with two very distinct characters whose intimacy takes the shape of repeated activities, variations on a over-determined schedule. There's a bit of Ackerman peeking through the exposed brick of their Norfolk home. There's also a tasteful helping Hitchcock and horror, which arrives especially after Kate finds out about her husband's new devotion to the memorabilia in their attic. As I wrote above, the surfacing of these emotions, even in terms of genre, is rigorously aleatory. 

There's a promise that we're to plumb into the depths of these characters, with or without their knowing. Such signs of disrespect  are spared to the viewers of 45 Years. And one comes out wondering why films with similar subjects would take the threat of mortality to be the obvious thread of life for a couple this age. Geoff's heart bypass surgery is mentioned, and his senility is, in a rare case of devotion to the material at hand, put on full display, but these issues linger as existential questions only insomuch as they are ways of living together. Our trajectory, then, is seeing this life together through a history that could not ever summarize or epitomize it. The history is a moment of reflection that, even in the conclusion, each person clearly knows is only coming to the forefront through the most indefinite of circumstances, yet it feels like it must happen.  

Still even with this factor of heavy-handed material, you may expect some riled up, psychically dense visual symbolism (looking at you, Paolo Sorrentino). But this film is, alongside a psychoanalysis of Geoff, a take on life played through surfaces. We see the cracks in their dishware and the lines on their faces. We engage in their memories as they display themselves in daily life, and this is where a structure that usually risks devolving into overt pedantry absolutely works. The narrative is focalized around Kate, who is dealing with her feminized labor of planning the party, her husbands sudden withdrawal into his past, and - well, there's enough packed into Rampling's performance for a lifetime of discussions about this character. It does not go without saying that she practically directs the film, knowing how to construct her character through a series of small gestures and trusting that they will all pay off. I know she is the biggest draw of the film - be assured that she does not disappoint. Blanchett's work in Carol was even better on second viewing, but Rampling still has my vote for best performance of the year. This is my first blog post. It does not go without saying that a good performance, an auteurish performance, can make or break a film for me. What could have been "wife sits back while husband works through some of his stupid nostalgia for his more virile times" becomes something that foregrounds the respect this film has for Rampling's character, and the ways she surprises herself in the course of a week.

It also does not go without saying that the film is beautifully photographed. There wasn't a single edit that upset me. If I've displayed it as a rich psychological portrait, don't think that's at the expense of lauding its formal dexterity. This is why I'm happy to start my blog with this ridiculous grade. And I really don't believe in grade inflation. 

Grade: A