Friday, September 14, 2018

70's Bonanza: Ryan's Daughter

There's a harsh juxtaposition of technique towards the end of David Lean's maligned 200 minute 1970 drama "Ryan's Daughter" that, for me, aligned all my lingering thoughts of greatness into sharp contrast. After falling in love with a tortured soldier (Christopher Jones), young wife Rosy (Sarah Miles) runs out before daybreak to catch a fleeting embrace with him on the hill overlooking their house. The music swells to a lush ovation before cutting back to silence (suddenly) as older husband Charles (Robert Mitchum) watches them morosely from the window. Add to the fact that Lean (and screenwriter Robert Bolt) refuse to create violent physical tension between the two men that would usually provide the undertone for such a film dealing with turn of the century love triangles, and "Ryan's Daughter" is an immense achievement in understated filmmaking crossed with the overstated aesthetic of Lean's usual compositions. It may be sanctimonious to declare this film my very favorite of Lean's over the more prestigious "The Bridge on the River Kwai" or "Lawrence of Arabia", but there it is.

Released fairly late in Lean's career (in which its chilly critical reception would see the filmmaker not craft another film until 1984, effectively missing out on an entire decide of great revisionist 70's filmmaking), Ryan's Daughter" is about so much more than the damning relationship that flares up between the trio. As Rosy, Sarah Miles virtually throws herself at older schoolteacher Mitchum in the beginning of the film because she feels her youth will be wasted in her cloistered, hermetic coastal Irish village. When the handsome (and dare I say pre-goth) and injured soldier Major Doryan shows up to command the small military derricks on the outskirts of town, its almost as if fate is tempting Rosy and telling her she made the matrimonial leap just a bit early. Transcribe this narrative to the forlorn heartlands of Kansas or the snow swept plains of Montana in a Howard Hawks film, and "Ryan's Daughter" is essentially a universal paean to passionate choices and fluctuating feelings that have bridled humanity since the beginning of time.

But this is certainly not Montana or Kansas. "Ryan's Daughter" situates itself in 1916 smack in the breast of IRA territory, often scurrying into side-plots that will eventually draw Doryan into the fray and divide Rosy against the very loyal townsfolk. While some deride the film for its length- and mostly the asides for the Oscar winning performance of the town fool played by veteran actor John Mills who just happens to be in every important place at once throughout the film- plus the extra subtext with IRA conspirators, a brash town priest (Trevor Howard) and Rosy's own cowardly barkeep father (Leo McKern) who harbors his own impetuous and damning actions, all of this establishes an atmosphere and world that feels like its widening into something sinister. In fact, the IRA and "The Troubles" would blossom a few years later. Ireland's coast would change dramatically over the coming years. England's reach would continue to strangle the countryside. In that regard, "Ryan's Daughter" and its love triangle could be read as metaphorical innocence morphing into a turbulent rupture of family, home and state.

Or maybe I'm translating way too much into it. I fell in love with this film from the outset. Not only does it exude a master's touch- just watch the early scene where Rosy awaits Charles in his schoolhouse and the camera pans across walls and doors from her point of view as Charles enters the other room and his lumbering physique is heard coming closer, which feels like an imprinted visual touch adapted later by everyone from David Fincher to P.T. Anderson- but it's an old fashioned romance that rarely saw the light of day as the 70's rolled in. And that was the general complaint against Lean's film, that he was regurgitating previous themes and motifs from earlier efforts and that, at best, "Ryan's Daughter" was second-tier copy. My reply? If this is second tier, then I wish more filmmakers would attempt it.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.5

The Little Stranger

A diffuse haunted house story, Lenny Abrahamson's "The Little Stranger" works because of the creaky, atmospheric world-building it establishes in the first half before turning towards supernatural eeriness in the second. It won't satisfy everyone, though. Very mannered and stiff-upper-lip-British to an extreme, the film is actually more of a psychological early twentieth century love story than a horror film. As the local doctor (Domhnall Gleeson) is a muted and internal figure slowly obsessed by a large manor he once visited as a child. His profession finally gives him the chance to explore the house properly when he's called upon to treat the afflicted ex-World War I son (Roderick Ayers) of the house years later and falls in love with his older sister (Ruth Wilson, poised to have a breakout fall season). Strange things have been going on in the house, such as bells that ring in every room for the maid service and a strikingly realized dog attack during a party. Abrahamson (based on a novel Sarah Waters) doesn't strain to terrify...... that comes later in the month with "The Nun". "The Little Stranger" instead chooses to portray generational haunting and old-house theatrics with a calm that sinks into one's bones like the constant damp that permeates the exterior of the expansive manor. See this one before its yanked unceremoniously from theaters.

Lots of new reviews at Dallas Film Now including:

Support the Girls
We the Animals
Madeline's Madeline

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

The Female Gaze: Christian Petzold's "Pilotinnen" aka Drifters

Filmmaker Christian Petzold's cinema has always been a female-centric one. Portraying strong women in various modes of genre, his muse, actress Nina Hoss, has embodied women in various stages of distress with fierce resolution- revenge in "Something To Remind Me" or corporate 'chameleonism' in "Yella" or especially meal-ticket survival of the fittest-cum-emotional-smackdown in "Phoenix". Whatever the parameters, Petzold's films may not fit perfectly into the MeToo movement of total acceptance (precisely because, after all, he is still a male director parlaying these feminine narratives), but at least he tries to assuage something other than the usual point of view in a cinematic world where most male characters weigh heavily.

This predilection is obvious from the opening scene of his debut TV movie, "Pilotinnen", also known in English as "Drifters". Two sets of hands embrace each other in close-up against the wood-grain top of a restaurant table as voices (obviously lovers) make their plans to meet in a hotel in the very near future outside of Germany. Petzold then cuts to Karin (Eleonore Weisgerber) and then follows her outside, never even showing the male character whom she's established a rendezvous with. We soon learn, obliquely as Petzold loves to drip information about his characters slowly, that Karin is a traveling saleslady for a cosmetic company, virtually homeless except for the bonuses she earns on hotel rooms through her company's weekly overnight stays. She's not presented as a desperate person. On the contrary, Karin is drawn as a succinct and no-nonsense woman who understands the frivolity of her ways and has accepted things.

Her life isn't made any easier, however, when her boss (Udo Schenk) finds her sleeping in her car and decides to make her career difficult by assigning her a partner, who happens to be a much younger and attractive blonde (Nadeshda Brennicke). And she's having an affair with said boss. From there,"Drifters" establishes a very "Thelma and Louise" vibe as Karin and Sophie bond over their repressive state in both the corporate and emotional world, deciding to take matters into their own hands.

Being a TV movie, the sex and violence is especially pared down, but Petzold's flair for the subversive remains intact. Karin, endlessly smoking and prone to penetrating glances that would weaken the knees of both men and women, is the classic archetype for all of Petzold's later incarnations. She seems to be a woman who understands and knows what she wants, even if young and seemingly flighty Sophie gets the big, sweeping gesture of personal sacrifice that navigates the final act of "Drifters" into something surprising and fatalistic.

From this effort, Petzold was given the opportunity to make other TV movies- "The Sex Thief", "Cuba Libra" and the best being "Something To Remind Me". As a first feature, it's rough in certain parts and maintains the restrictive boxy format, but in ideas and larger themes taking shape in a rising auteur, it's a wonderful glimpse into the formative process of a burgeoning talent.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.4

The King

Eugene Jarecki's "The King" is a progressive and invigorating rolling roadshow of the halls and faces of America. Oh, and its about Elvis, too. Driving his now infamous Rolls Royce car from his birth place in Mississippi to his final days in Las Vegas, Jarecki has much more on his mind than celebrity-icon-mythmaking-enshrinment, opening the film up to become a leftist meditation on the decline of America. Utilizing interviews from musicians, actors and normal everyday folk just striving to survive, "The King" mixes these verbal cues with found footage and movie clips of Elvis to fashion a perfect film for our truly screwed up times. Hearing Ethan Hawke tell stories about Colonel Tom Parker's iron-fisted control of Elvis or seeing John Hiatt become emotional in the backseat because he can feel how "trapped" Elvis was are powerful moments, but Jarecki makes sure to overshadow these louder tales by focusing on the anonymous and common faces of the people he picks up hitchhiking or who wonder aloud why our country has left them so far behind. It's an amazing feat. I'd venture to call Jarecki the closest thing we have to 'outlaw documentarians' like Travis Wilkerson, Adam Curtis and Bill Morrison.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot

Gus Van Sant's adaptation of John Callahan's memoir about his struggle with alcoholism and subsequent disability is just as morose as it sounds. Tough subject matter, of course, but it's also a film full of inspired performances, especially Joaquin Phoenix as Callahan and Jonah Hill as the AA mentor who helps lift the cartoonist from his self pity and depression. Also giving a stellar performance is Jack Black. Beginning as someone just as over-the-top and loud as Black's usual on-screen persona, the later meeting between him and Phoenix is an emotional stunner, emphasizing what's unsaid rather than said. Van Sant films the entire affair in a no frills fashion, understanding and accepting that the performances are what raise the film above standard Lifetime Channel mediocrity. If there's one fault, its that the female performance of Rooney Mara as Callahan's girlfriend feels clipped and undercooked, as if its a boys club matter and nothing else.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

There are no grandstanding moments. There are very few revelatory plot twists. Even a suicide attempt is kept off-screen, choosing to show a blindingly pristine white bathroom sink and tile stained with pools of blood as the post-visual proof to an extreme act of apathy. All of this is why "The Miseducation of Cameron Post" is an important film and a staggering continuation for a filmmaker like Akhavan who chooses to reveal things via subtle moments and strong character development rather than loud, sweeping arches. Full review at Dallas Film Now

Mission Impossible: Fallout  

I'm surprised by everyone's coronation of Christopher McQuarrie staging some pretty phenomenal action set pieces. Has no one seen "The Way of the Gun" which is pretty much one of the best action films of the last 30 years? Anyway, this latest installment is pretty good, especially in Dolby IMAX.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Current Cinema 18.3

Sicario: Day of the Soldado

The most disappointing aspect of Stefano Sollimo's sequel to Denis Villeneuve's critically acclaimed 2016 political thriller is its feeble attempt to carbon copy what made that film so great. The swagger.... the machismo... the actions of people drawing invisible lines of political aggression are all intact but what lacks in "Sicario: Day of the Soldado" is a firm center to hold onto. In the original, Emily Blunt's character served as a naive audience surrogate. Out of that naivety was borne a strong woman with an equally strong moral center, desperately trying to cement herself against the corroding fissures of nationalism that develop around her. It also helped that filmmaker Villeneuve painted a morose, inky masterpiece of half shadowy images and tightly framed bodies in perfect motion. In this latest version (also written by Taylor Sheridan), the emotional core is supposed to fall onto the surrogate father-daughter relationship that develops between kidnap victim Isabela Moner and assassin chess piece Benecio Del Toro. Barely flaked together and instead choosing to focus on the maneuvers of smooth talking soldier-types (Josh Brolin and Jeffrey Donovan again), "Sicario: Day of the Soldado" establishes little empathy for the two and swings for a populist ending that feels half baked and served up just to make the audience feel good after the previous two hours of lazy border phobia and calculated violence.

Leave No Trace 

Observational and just as transient as its title, Debra Granik's latest film succeeds in the quiet moments between rudderless PTSD veteran dad Ben Foster and newcomer Thomasin Mckenzie as his daughter living a bohemian/exterior lifestyle. Also largely moving is the parade of weathered, seemingly naturalistic faces that dot the rugged landscape as they travel from camping spot to the next, moving further and further away from the concrete pillars of civilization. If there's anything to fault "Leave No Trace", its the fairly routine narrative that winds its way into some expected beats. Still, a good portion of the film is acute at narrowing its focus on the father/daughter duo who give weighty performances.

Three Identical Strangers 

Relying on a fairly pedantic documentary style with straight ahead personal testimonies and lackluster visual recreations, Three Identical Strangers survives not on visual grandiosity but the inherently fascinating story at the center.  Full review at Dallas Film Now

Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda 

Like so many artists, we generally understand their art is often synonymous with life. In the case of Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda, not only does the artist make it clear he’s still breathing because of his art, but he also wants to show us the possibilities art can reveal to the world. See this film. It’s a masterpiece. Full thoughts at Dallas Film Now

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The Last Ten Films I've Seen, Summer Edition

1) Black Water (2018)- New Dolph Lundgren/Van Damme 'actioner' that opens in most places next week. Hugely entertaining. A film that not only embraces its yesteryear B-movie theatrics, but exploits them to great effect. Lundgren is so good here in his small role. Review at Dallas Film Now.

2) Sole Survivor (1983)- Remember that great, nasty post-nuke film "Night of the Comet"? This is from the same director the year before which got him that gig. Atmospheric at times and it creates some terrific tension from its urban sprawl. Hard to deny that films like "Final Destination" and "It Follows" blatantly ripped this one off.

3) Adore (2013)- Should be waaaay more interesting than it is, especially because it deals with Naomi Watts and Robin Wright screwing each other's 18 year old sons.

4) Who Took Johnny (2014)- On Netflix. Pretty terrifying for the malicious, half-baked conspiracy theories it proposes. I spent about 4 hours after this film exploring the internet wormhole for some facts behind the events this film highlights.

5) Mortal Thoughts (1991)- Been on a bit of an Alan Rudolph kick lately. This one is pretty simplistic.... early 90's HBO style film noir with Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Glenn Headley doing their worst hawkish New York accents.

6) Vazante (2018)- If you like Bela Tarr or Cria Guervos films, this one's for you. Slow but ultimately very sad black and white film about life on a plantation in South America and the consequences of boredom and colonial rule.

7) Roads to the South (1978)- The last Joseph Losey film I'd never seen (which finally popped up on KG and CG, thank you!). Wish I could say it was worth the wait. It is a companion piece to "Mr. Klein" however, in that Yves Montand plays an exiled ex Communist brought back into the struggle after his wife dies in an accident. Flat at times, laborious at others, it does close a chapter in Losey's non American financed 70's period.

8) Hereditary (2018)- Effective horror film, but jeez people are doing cartwheels over this. I felt it a bit derivative. The best seance film? A nifty little George C. Scott number called "The Changeling". Or maybe Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Seance" which does just as much with light and shadow as "Hereditary".

9) Variety Lights (1950)- Fellini's debut film that encapsulates all the themes of his later work- a wandering sense of the journey being more important than the destination.... his fascination with creative/performance artists.... and a clinging love for the distraught and poor.

10) The Misandrists (2018)- Queer pioneer filmmaker Bruce Labruce's most mainstream work is still not for the faint of heart. It plays like a cross between a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film and a student porno. Enter at your own risk.  Full review at Dallas Film Now

Sunday, June 10, 2018

On "Kate Plays Christine"

Robert Greene's "Kate Plays Christine" is a jangled web of theories and diversions that not only brilliantly upends the very definition of "documentary", but causes one to marvel at how the boundaries of the genre can be obliterated and re appropriated so easily. That the film also works into its mechanized study touches of tried and true onerism such as an actress burrowing into a role with little abandon for her well being and "Kate Plays Christine" very likely will melt your brain.

The actress in question, Kate Lyn Sheil (who I first noticed in a supporting role on Netflix's "House of Cards") plays herself accepting the role of portraying Christine Chubbuck, a now infamous 70's era Florida reporter who committed suicide on air, and then traveling to her hometown researching her life and mannerisms. Greene, ever present by Sheil's side (which is the first hint that maybe his intended idea was the intense preparation all along) observes the moral and professional hurdles Sheil comes in contact with as she gets to know Chubbuck through co-workers and friends. Watching Sheil struggle with crawling into the dark mind space of a woman who found both her life and professional ambitions as unworthy of anything more than eventual public shock appeal is tremendous. Even more cringe inducing is the footage of Greene filming the fictionalized moment when Sheil as Chubbuck commits suicide on air. Draw out over an agonizing 15 minutes as Sheil continually starts, stops, fidgets and internalizes the scene, it's one of the more harrowing and perfectly realized recreations of acting I've seen in quite some time. Robert DeNiro gaining forty pounds to play Jake LaMotta has nothing on Sheil here.

As I said at the beginning, what makes "Kate Plays Christine" so energizing is just where Greene's intentions lie. If the film was slyly conceived to be what it is, then he's a master provocateur of the hybrid documentary. If all of this was happenstance and the focus of the film slowly morphed out of Sheil's true struggle with capturing the inner demons of Chubbuck after realizing she was nothing more than an undiagnosed woman with manic depression, then that makes the final product all the more shattering. Either way, "Kate Plays Christine" stands as a probing and masterful exploration of the boundaries between real and fictionalized emotion.