Thursday, June 27, 2019

On "Transit"

As stated on this blog before, almost all of filmmaker Christian Petzold's films are about people and places in literal flux. I don't think he's ever broached the subject quite as literally (in title or theme) as he so assuredly does in his latest feature, "Transit". Not only is his lead character Georg (Franz Rogowski) stuck in an amalgam of time that fuses the pervasive fear of German Nationalism encroaching across Europe in the 1940's with today's climate of fear mongering intolerance about immigration, but the people embodying this terrifying space of inquietude are locked in limbo as well, unable to advance one way or the other. Even with the papers of a dead man emboldening his trek across Europe in the hopes of gaining passage to somewhere safer, Georg is a haunting figure in a long hall of mirrors where everyone is seen over and over with the same hopes of salvation. It's a daring and formal enterprise, made all the more searing by Petzold's usual clean aesthetic that refuses to advance the narrative into anything resembling a happy ending.


In it's brisk but packed 100 minute running time, "Transit" gets right to the punch early, unspooling so much information in its first third that it feels like Petzold's most complicated film yet. The aforementioned Georg meets a friend in a bar who asks him to deliver a message to a quasi famous writer stashed away in a local hotel. Dropping us into a Europe where forces of police-attired military units are sweeping across the landscape and rounding up anyone without the proper ID papers, George accepts for the little money offered. Realizing the writer is dead upon arrival, Georg swipes his manuscript and ID and submerges himself to Marseille in hopes of contacting the writer's wife Marie (Paula Beer) and securing transport papers in a town where the oppressive government haven't quite reached yet. Through an unidentified narrator (at least until the final few minutes) and Georg's own improvised persona, "Transit" becomes both a mystery and a political thriller in how it dispenses (and withholds) crucial information until its ready to burst.

Finding the elusive Marie, however, soon becomes a secondary concern to simple survival for Georg. Actually, Marie finds him, running into him on the street several times as she mistakes him from behind thinking he's someone else. This motif of confused identity and amnesiac scope becomes one of the many telling hints of bureaucratic malaise and mask-wearing Petzold chooses to wash across the film.

Adapted from a novel by Anna Seghers, "Transit" is a masterwork adapted (and updated) by Petzold from its original intentions of Seghers World War II experiences into the sleek and metropolitan anti-thriller in which the vehicles, dress and locale are today juxtaposed with the occupational fears of yesteryear- although some would argue the occupying forces are stronger and more insidious than ever. And, like Petzold's previous film "Phoenix", he gets to play with the notions of a society simultaneously crumbling and rebuilding at the same time, leaving the inhabitants to pick up the personal pieces in its wake. And like "Phoenix", Petzold fashions a final scene so ripe with meaning and so crushing in emotional complexity, it only further solidifies the fact that he's one of the two or three best filmmakers in the world today.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.4

Booksmart

About two-thirds of the way through- and once the film's teenage friends played wonderfully by Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever finally make it to the graduation party they so desperately want to attend- "Booksmart" finds its footing and attains something quite terrific. The film's patchwork assortment of outrageous characters and high school crudeness coalesces into an achingly honest and masterful examination about the crushing facade of teenage life and its very thin margins of identity/acceptance. First time actor-turned-director Olivia Wilde balances the pieces together brilliantly, manifesting all the strengths of her film in one long shot that turns a shattering underwater discovery into an equally shattering composition of two young women trying to compose themselves in the uncertainties of adulthood. Just a great film all around.


Brightburn


While the idea of an alternate history story of a young Superman-type kid falling to Earth and being raised by Midwestern farming parents (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) sounds novel, David Yarovesky's "Brightburn" falters in execution. Relying on one too many horror tropes and scare beats, this is a film that telescopes pretty much every plot twist and drains the life out of (already) cardboard characters. 


Rocketman

Although I wasn't quite prepared for the straight musical narrative Dexter Fletcher unspools in telling the meteoric rise and drug-addled plateau of rock 'n' roll icon Elton John, the fluid camera work and choreography are the best things about the effort. It's when people begin having conversations that the film's weakness becomes glaring. Taron Egerton portrays John with swagger and verve, but its a performance that still comes off as pantomime rather than true character excavation. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

An Appreciation: Federico Fellini

Variety Lights (1950) *** - A perfect distillation of the type of film Fellini would strive to make for the duration of his career- a wandering sense of the journey being more important that the destination.... a focus on common creative types (this time a traveling, scrappy troupe of performers).... and the ever present tug of respectability and higher class threatening to soil the salt-of-the-earth facade of his men and women. Co-directed with Alberto Lattuada, "Variety Lights" is a neat encapsulation of Fellini's unique vision.


Love In the City (1953)  **- For his part in the omnibus film about a swath of people living and loving in Italy, Fellini's portion is nowhere near the best. Anyone matched against Antonioni usually loses in that regard. In fact, after seeing it last week, I can barely remember what his was about outside of a few long tracking shots.


I Vitelloni (1953)  **** -  An episodic film about friends living on the edges of crime, poverty, adolescence and developing macho swaggering, "I Vitelloni" feels like the type of film everyone from Martin Scorsese to John Singleton has emulated decades later. Fellini makes it appear pure and effortless. It's the best of his 1950 era output.


La Strada (1954) *** - I"m not as enamored of this film as many, but it's hard to deny the great performance of Giullietta Masina portraying the downtrodden protagonist that Fellini would return to over the decades. Opposite her, Anthony Quinn as the brutish surrogate father/boss/lover is also perfect.


Il Bidone (1955) ** - Fairly one-note exploration of redemption as a trio of con men receive their comeuppance due to family ties.


Nights of Cabiria (1957) ***1/2 - Actress Masina is back for more brutality by Fellini as a woman dealing with a very harsh Rome. Her subtle reactions and facial expressions- as the neon glitz world around her pushes onto her shoulders- are small revelations in a character study that dares to examine the falsehood of the culture around the character rather than the character herself.


La Dolce Vita (1960) **** - One of the formative films of my young movie-watching life (when I was 15) in which I realized foreign films just have the pizazz and life that American films often don't deliver. The careening moods and audacious sentiments that barrel off the screen felt (and still feel) like someone striving for a complete abandonment of realism and simply exploring whatever wistful memory or thought springs before them. One of the seminal films.


8 1/2 (1963) **** - Much like "La Dolce Vita", the first time I saw "8 1/2" I recognized this as something completely "anti" of everything I'd seen up to that point. Remarkably lucid about mining the depths of sinking creativity and a visually dazzling film whose main concern is to disorient as much as enlighten, these two films deserve to be studied as masterpieces for centuries to come.


Juliet of the Spirits (1965) *** - I imagine this is as close to a straight up horror film that Fellini would ever make. One can only drool over the possibilities. His first color film, Fellini held nothing back in contrasting colors and images and the final delirious parade of images (as the habitats of Giullietta Masini's head come pouring onto the screen) feature some absolutely creepy incarnations. If it feels like a feminist version of "81/2", so be it. It does lag in portions, but the overall scope and image-making are wondrous.


Spirits of the Dead (1968) ***1/2 - Fellini's portion of this compilation film (liberally borrowing from an Edgar Allan Poe short story) "Toby Dammitt" is essentially a 40 minute mental breakdown of a British actor (Terence Stamp) visiting Italy and falling into the throes of alcoholism, depression and manic paranoia. It's certainly a Fellini vision, swirling with garish colors, clownish characterizations and evil incarnate in a pale-faced nymph kicking a ball around. Describing it just doesn't do it any justice.


Satyricon (1969) ** - I think this could've only been made in 1969. Based on ancient short stories, it's really a film of Fellini gestating his urges and visual delights onto the screen in what would mark his more ribald period of heightened mood, artificiality and visualized dream-states. The story, to speak of, concerns a young man's search for his child lover through a landscape of highly designed sets with all sorts of grotesquery and embedded mythical figures. It doesn't make much sense, but I get the feeling its meant to be ingested rather than enjoyed.


The Clowns (1970) *** -  It makes sense that Fellini would begin the 70's with a rollicking (faux) documentary about the life of circus clowns, represented both in real life and obscure, unearthed silent films. Since most of his later films resemble the carefully controlled anarchy of the antics inside a circus ring applied to his beloved Italian hagiography real and imagined, it's an apt metaphor for everything that would follow in his career. It's also a diverting, charming effort that ends on gracious melancholy.


Roma (1972) **** - It's difficult to call "Roma" episodic. It's a film that doesn't follow a true narrative arch and although its mostly rudderless, it does feature two anchors that continually pop up throughout the film to provide some semblance of characterization. One of them is a young man who gets to observe the chaotic assembly of people eating dinner in the town square or the unusually deconstructive nature of how brothels in Rome work... the first for the lower class and the second for more 'monied' men. The second (sometimes) constant piece of "Roma" follows a camera crew as they film around the city, providing two of the film's most stunning technical achievements including a hectic film shoot along a rain-soaked Rome highway and the other a mystical, transfixing venture beneath the city where a construction crew accidentally discovers centuries old artwork. Of course, their presence and the exposure to air subsequently destroys the work and casts a rapt commentary on so many things at once. Everything else in the film plays as if the city itself belched up its own memories, feelings and ideas mixed with the circus-like atmosphere of a filmmaker of Fellini's attention. It's at once wondrous and frustrating and maniacal. It's also one of Fellini's best.


Amarcord (1974) ** - Attempting some of the same distillation of nostalgia and memory that glittered so vibrantly in "Roma", Fellini's follow-up "Amarcord" falls short due to its less-than-memorable set pieces and chaotic nature that feels, well chaotic and encumbered by an overall sense of trying too hard.


Casanova (1976) *1/2 - Orgiastic pageantry aside, Fellini's interpretation of the legendary Casanova is quite the bore. As the leading man, Donald Sutherland feels miscast and the film's feeble attempts to solicit any character arch are just as cartoonish as the overall tone and tempo. Points do go for the genius set design, though, in which gently ruffled tarps serve as swooning oceans and one scene involving candle-lit chandeliers being rotated and expunged.


Orchestra Rehearsal (1978) *** - Hinged somewhere between his usual manic exploration of society and the acidic explosion of absurdity borrowed by current filmmakers such as Yorgos Lanthimos, "Orchestra Rehearsel" begins as a faux documentary about a day in the life of various musicians at practice and then turns chaotic. The orchestra revolts. The conductor begins speaking German. People lash out. All in the name of magic realism/fascism, "Orchestra Rehearsal" may not completely gel as a whole, but its fascinating to see Fellini try.


City of Women (1980) ** - A bit embarrassing at times for the way it attempts to reconcile the gender divide and ends up purporting the worst cliches of both sides, "City of Women" is ambitious and self-reflexive, which gives it some chutzpah. But not much else.


And the Ship Sails On (1983) ***- Fellini characters cloistered together on a cruise ship... meaningful siphons of the country itself.... a ragged and busy aesthetic. "And the Ship Sails On" seems to inhabit the best and worst of Fellini's career.


Ginger and Fred (1986) ** - A way to look back on two of the stars Fellini spent his youthful days with (Mastroianni and Giulietta Masina), "Ginger and Fred" concerns itself with a once popular dancing duo making a comeback 40 years later on a variety TV show. Lots of backstage conversations and blustery emotions are on hand again, but this time, the film feels flat and tepid. The chemistry (or lack thereof) between the ace duo is also disconcerting.


Intervista (1987) **1/2- Partly generated to celebrate the anniversary of Cinecitta, Fellini's faux documentary glides across the back lots of the famed studio where lots of pandemonium ensues. It's a film that sounds more interesting than it really is- juggling a Japanese documentary crew's wide-eyed enthusiasm, a naive reporter experiencing all the chaos and Fellini dipping into past glories (Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg) to create a sweet but at times overbearing reverie.


The Voice of the Moon (1990) *1/2 - Not quite the magnanimous way we hoped Fellini would go out, his final film (starring Roberto Beningi as yet another male protagonist slipping through the currents of Italian memory and time) is a confused, fairly oafishness take on many of his previous (and better) films. Beholden to a variety of characters- often following them for long stretches of time with lots of talk going on- "The Voice of the Moon" staggers and replays so much of Fellini's oeuvre that it becomes a cliched mess.



Unable to view:  The White Sheik, Boccaccio '70

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.3

Bolden

The life of Buddy Bolden is the stuff of mythic folklore. Regarded as the inventor of jazz music, whose only supposed recording has been lost to the ravages of time, and confined to a Louisianan state mental hospital where he died in anonymity at the age of 54 are the facts that most published history know about him. Trying to elasticize his life and music, filmmaker Dan Pritzker's "Bolden" takes an especially fragmented approach to things. Recalling major events in the musicians life (played by Gary Carr), the film opens with Bolden hearing a Louis Armstrong event wafting through the vents of his asylum home, which cause him to frustratingly recollect the events in his life, from his childhood to the exploitative brushes with (white) New Orleans society and his depression into alcohol and drug use. Assembled with minimal care for a cohesive narrative, "Bolden" shoe-horns so much manic energy into its 90 minutes, it's one of the few times I've yearned for a more conventional biopic. There are moments of tenderness, though, such as the idea that as a young boy his malleable mind would turn the thuds and swishes of his mother's line factory into a crescendo beat or the way he coaxes a unique rhythm out of one of his band's early rehearsals. But these asides are few and far between the bursts of darkness that begin to creep into Bolden's personality or his many dalliances with women outside his marriage. It's a shame the film is far more intent on the destructive rather than the creative.


Red Joan

In Trevor Nunn's somewhat diffuse spy thriller "Red Joan", it's no surprise the venerable Judi Dench comes away mostly unscathed from the ordinary plot machinations that sinks a good portion of the rest of the film. As the aged woman arrested in the film's opening scene for treasonous acts committed 50 years earlier, her weathered face wrings out the emotions that stirs the film's flashback approach and just how it all went down. As young Joan, Sophie Cookson (aka the actress I kept mistaking for Keira Knightley) carries the brunt of the film and just how such a brilliant young mind was manipulated by a dashing communist (Tom Hughes). It's in the past where "Red Joan" often falters, turning the true story of British war time subterfuge into a series of love interests and staid conventional storytelling. This should have been the most compelling portion. Instead, the few moments of Dench reacting to the accusations of the past become standouts in a film too wrapped up to excise generic war-torn lust rather than honest regret.


At Dallas Film Now check out new reviews for other currents such as "Long Day's Journey Into Night", and Zhang Yimou's wonderful "Shadow"

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.2

Climax

Gaspar Noe's latest is a delirious concoction of New Wave musical and Euro-freak out horror film, fire-branded by his swerving aesthetic and provocative sound design that feels more like an assault than a viewing experience. Broken into three parts- including an opening of each character talking from a television set that serves more as a nerdy namedrop for the influences of Noe via the spines of books and VHS tapes cluttered around the image rather than a proper introduction- "Climax" then morphs into a punishing segment of carefully choreographed dance numbers interrupted by the young dancers' vulgar and misogynistic conversations about their carnal desires.... which serves as an apt reminder that Noe once made a film titled "Carne". From there, the film really goes off the rails as someone spikes the communal punch with LSD and the cloistered dance performers each burrow down their individual holes of tormented hell. Some screw the night away. Others fight. Others wander the neon-lit lodge their locked in like specters haunting the corridors of uninhibited youth, all captured by Noe's now trademark long takes that plunge us in, out, and around the confusion and bad trips. It's an unsettling portrait of modern youth, and one of Noe's best films that continues to pursue his aggressive vision of wasted society.


Captain Marvel

Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden's "Captain Marvel" looked like the right amount of brazen levity and lighthearted action compared to the brooding populism of other Marvel properties. And it is. Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson inhabit their roles with gusto and as an origin story (for not just Larson's Captain character), the film takes some refreshing asides, especially in the cascading/shifting allegiances and plot twists. 


Reviewed at Dallas Film Now:

Dragged Across Concrete- It doesn't quite earn its expanse run time, but the pulp machinations are brutal.

Ash Is Purest White- Even though Jia Zhangke is repeating himself in theme and form somewhat, it's still a great film about the clash of the personal against the cultural. 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Pomp and Circumstance: Josef von Sternberg's "Dishonored"

Of the half dozen Josef von Sternberg/Marlene Dietrich vehicles I've seen, "Dishonored" is perhaps the least mentioned of their collaborations but the one that feels most honed into the exuberant, twisted path they would travel over the next few years together. Filmed in 1932 (immediately after their breakthrough "The Blue Angel" and the quite mellow "Morocco" both in 1930), it's a film that exists just to see how many lurid poses and buoyant backdrops Dietrich can be placed within. And did I mention it's also a spy thriller? A film of many themes, insinuations, and fait accompli acceptance, "Dishonored" makes the buried sadomasochism of "The Devil Is a Woman" look like child's play for the way Dietrich bends men to her will, even at times of outright war.


After picking her up on the street as a prostitute, Dietrich becomes X27, a secret agent for the Viennese government trying to ensnare a high ranking officer (Warner Oland) from passing secrets to the Russians. After (somewhat) accomplishing this mission, she's given the task of finding this officer's other informant, played by the staunch-jawed Victor McLaglen. Their relationship becomes a coy, shifting perception of allegiance that finds X27 disguising herself even further and tracking McLaglen to a country estate as the war limps to its finale.

Though the plot machinations are firmly intact, von Sternberg and Dietrich lace "Dishonored" with a positively loopy sense of humor and visual flair. The New Year's Eve party attended by X27 and McLaglen is so cramped with graffiti and streamers (coupled with each of their diabolical costumes that feel like something out of a Kenneth Anger picture of the radical 60's), that the scene threatens to be overrun by the background of pomp and circumstance. It's downright delirious and remains my favorite scene of the von Sternberg canon. And when the film does kick into gear towards the end with sleight-of-hand spy skulduggery and flared-up sexual tension, "Dishonored" becomes just as fascinating for the tempestuous betrayals that lead to a crushing finale.

It's tempting to not judge "Dishonored" on its own, but instead as a cog in the majestic wheel of an actress-and-director spinning a maelstrom of ideas, images and perfected glances outward from a burgeoning Hollywood studio system that wasn't quite sure what it had. They just knew Dietrich sold pictures and von Sternberg was adept at making them. "Dishonored" proves both of these points and then goes beyond to reveal the duo were probably having more fun skewering the genre into their own perverse plaything. Yes, this was 1931, but it feels like 2031.

Friday, February 22, 2019

The Current Cinema 19.1

Destroyer

There's a trend in modern crime films I like to call "New American Miserablism". I suppose the grandfathers were David Fincher and Michael Mann, now carried forward by any young filmmaker treading into the noir tinged waters. Even the small screen isn't immune, specifically behind the grandiose darkness inherent in Nic Pizzaloto's "True Detective" series. Granted, even I'm worn down by the heaviness permeating these efforts. So why is Karyn Kusama's "Destroyer"- a crime film especially miserable, right down to the grizzled makeup coated across Nicole Kidman's face to exemplify the haggard weight of her world bending upon her- different? Well, it is and isn't. The film trades in so many themes and situations that have dotted the noir landscape in the past, however Kusama and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi resuscitate their effort into something special because of the layered storytelling whose timelines slowly reveal a painful tendency to protect only the best things from a very bad time. In addition, Kusama's crisp style renders a ubiquitous Los Angeles with new eyes, portraying viaducts and side street banks with just as much underlying ferocity as many other films have treated the beaches and Pacific Palisades mansions. "Destroyer" is a tough, meandering and ultimately a fragile personification of 'miserablism' done with grace and, well, heart.

Cold Pursuit

Mildly watchable, Hans Petter Molland's remake of his own 2014 film simply substitutes Native Americans for Serbs and Colorado mob bosses for Norwegian thugs. He does keep the same name, Nils, for Liam Neeson as the affronted father seeking cold-blooded retribution for the death of his son however. Gussied up with some stylish visuals, "Cold Pursuit" still manages to sabotage itself at every turn. Intermittently enjoyable for spurts, it then proceeds with some offhanded bigotry or scene-chewing just for the sake of chewing scenery and immediately re-asserts itself as the worst type of pop culture tinged thriller that loves itself for switching from a groovy 70's tune to Aqua's Barbie Girl song.


Alita: Battle Angel

I like my science fiction a little goofy and innocent, unlike the usual dark, brooding affairs we generally get (Denis Villeneuve's "Bladreunner 2049" being the exception). Which is why Robert Rodriguez's "Alita: Battle Angel" is a pure delight. Not only does his cowboy aesthetic fit perfectly within a startling neo-punk framework, but the story of a robot (Rosa Salazar) loving brought back to half-life by a surgeon (Christoph Waltz) is chock full of imagination and heart. And for once, I don't mind a franchise-establishing cliffhanger ending. I can't wait for more.