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.