Tuesday, November 15, 2022

The Current Cinema 22.4

 Triangle of Sadness

 

All of Ruben Ostlund's films are provocative and hermetic social anxiety dramas that feel more like sociological experiments than films. Up until now, none of them have really vibed with me. The closest that made me pay attention to his distinctive ethos of class and approximation was "Play"... a film that pushes the clash of cultures between young teenagers to the brink of intellectual exhaustion. Now, with his latest subtly sadistic "Triangle of Sadness", I sort of see what Ostlund is up to. Whether it's the exuberant comeuppance through extreme scatological humor or the precise shifts in power and subordination, this is a scathing eat-the-rich comedy that sees a beautiful but tenuous couple (Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean) get caught up in more than their scabrous arguments about who's paying for dinner. Divided into three sections and running at two and a half hours, "Triangle of Sadness" doesn't ask one to care about anyone, from a communist yacht captain (Woody Harrelson) to the survivors who find themselves stranded after a disastrous event. Filmed with formal elegance (just admire that quiet, slow pan back from the point of view of a boat drifting towards a multi million dollar yacht that elicited gasps in my screening) and populated by needle drops that serve as ironic counterpoints to the empty vessels of wealth and pomp, "Triangle of Sadness" does skewer the upper class, but then proceeds to take a fine slicing of all the classes in between before this masterpiece of a film cuts out.


Bardo, a False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths

Admiration for Inarritu's head trip epic comes far more easily than enjoyment. Immensely uneven and (at times) borderline didactic and dull, "Bardo, False Chronicles of  a Handful of Truths" ventures down an enigmatic path. Just like its main character, a respected journalist-turned-filmmaker Silverio (Daniel Cacho) who seems to be slipping in and out of reality at will, the film itself alternates between soulful family drama and pretentious fever dream in whiplash fashion. I was immensely more moved by the family interaction between Silverio and his wife (a wonderful Griselda Siciliano) and children (Ximena Lamadrid and Iker Solano). If Inarritu had wanted to completely follow their path, I think "Bardo" would have been a masterpiece of familial heartbreak and common healing. One sequence with the family in Baja, California is without a doubt one of the most moving and insightful sequences in any film this year. Likewise a husband-wife playful chase around their apartment and a banquet dance sequence that radiates careless ebullience. Unfortunately, "Bardo" has heavier things on its mind (or outside its mind) and every time the film switches back to the netherworld wanderings of Silverio and a passion to metatextualize everything from the scrupulous practices of the media to Mexican history, the film is diluted of its intrinsic power built up by the drama of its nuclear family. There's a magnificent film in here somewhere, and sometimes less is certainly more.

Monday, October 31, 2022

Hacktober '22 Continued

 

Apparently part of a trilogy (which Mubi is slowly dropping each week until Halloween), Michio Yamamota's "The Vampire Doll" is pure early 70's Hammer knock off horror, complete with surreal images tinged with an air of genuflective Japanese culture. It's thrills are few and far between, but when they happen, they suggest a nightmarish rapture of the living dead.Taking place mostly in a lavish old mansion where a family holds a dark secret about the death of a young bride and the family that goes searching for her. I look forward to "Lake of Dracula" that streams this week.

 

I'm not sure what I expected from Val Lewton's factory produced "The Leopard Man". After the aforementioned leopard wildly escapes towards the beginning and claws the hand of a waiter on its torrid exit, I thought maybe we'd get an infected man terror tale. Then the wild animal corners and hunts a young girl in a scene that ranks as one of the most heartbreaking demises in cinema. Then more and more people turn up dead and it appears there's a serial killer on the loose. What's so good about Jacques Tourneur's film is the simple exploration of fear. Much like war-torn Berlin and serial killer Paul Ogorzow, history often reveals that evil is born and enabled by a shroud of terror. The town experiencing the fear of a loose beast soon turns on itself and gives in to its primal urges, turning even the most lucid figures into Jekyll and Hyde like depositors of destruction. "The Leopard Man" is pure trauma horror decades before the onslaught of lazy, hackneyed approaches to the same treatment scatter the current horror film landscape. 

 

Despite it's clumsy title, Yamamoto's "Lake of Dracula" is just as atmospheric as "The Vampire Doll", equally as in love with fairly simple creature design, and certainly vibes with its 70's era chills. Just one more in his trilogy to go.


Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Hacktober '22


It's been a couple of years since I've dove headfirst into an array of horror movies, and it feels good. Welcome back Halloween and some sense of normalcy around its wicked traditions and theatrical experiences.


 
Corsets. Heaving breasts. Bare asses. Poison tipped arrows. Exquisitely framed, gauzy images. Walerian Borowczyk's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne" has all of this and more as it takes Robert Louis Stevenson's perennial classic for a perverse spin. As the dual doctor/murderer, Udo Kier is perfect as a man raging terror on his household of guests. As the film progresses and the bloodshed (and sexual humiliation) escalates, Borowczyk's images become terribley beautiful, from the darkness that surrounds a body hanging upside down to the immaculate light and shadow that frames Marina Pierro lying in the doorway of a bedroom. Such images shouldn't be so wonderful in a Euro slasher, but then again, Borowczyk's film is ideally situated in the midst of an artist traveling from animation to porno sleaze in the 80's. "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne" is a juicy entry.
 
 
 
From the Val Lewton produced factory of 40's horror films, the only thing more terrifying then a group of people being trapped on a crypt island while the plague sweeps through their ranks is the tyrannical fervor shown by military man Bela Lugosi and housekeeper Helene Thiming as the sickness hits the fan. So goes Mark Robson's eerie "Isle of the Dead" which mangles together melodrama, zombie horror and nationalist trauma into a tidy, entertaining package. And the final ten minutes is a brilliant collection of light, shadow and atmosphere that surely inspired the muted starkness of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's mid career thrillers.
 
 
Made right before entering the halls of horror infamy with his "Nightmare on Elm Street" series, Wes Craven's "Invitation to Hell" is definitely neutered by its television movie status. Still, what remains is a quasi bonkers tale of corporate inhumanity (literally) and suburban terror as new hire Robert Ulrich realizes he's moved to the desert to work for the devil (Susan Lucci). Far less scary than slightly nerve fraying, "Invitation to Hell" features some paper mache like sets of hell and a tone that's all over the place. I hoped for better, but it is what it is.


Friday, October 14, 2022

The Current Cinema 22.3

 Moonage Daydream

 

Brett Morgen's portrait of the iconclastic David Bowie refuses to play by the standard documentary rules. Using pieces of Bowie's actual voice from archival recordings as if the singer had been preparing for this type of life reverie since inception, "Moonage Daydream" is all the more potent because of its idiosyncratic nature. I doubt it would've been quite as satisfying if it simply dotted back and forth on a perfect through line of Bowie's ascension to the top of the rock and roll mountain. And even though it doesn't immediately serve as a linear experience, Morgen does some incredibly dexterous editing to subtly evoke a timeline in Bowie's life from his glam rock explosion to heart rendering late life ballads. Like an abstract painting, "Moonage Daydream" bowled me over in sound, image, and juxtaposition, cycling through his hits (and even some lesser known efforts) to create a film that's more attuned to Bowie's outlook on the vibrancy of life than any straightforward exposition crafted about him ever could. 


Amsterdam

 

Neither deserving of the unmitigated marketing disaster of its opening weekend grosses, nor an esoteric auteurist diamond in the rough, David O. Russell's very busy and overlong thriller-comedy ensemble is simply..... okay. And while I've adored some of the more problematic Russell films of the past few years (namely "Joy"), "Amsterdam" tries way too hard to fit into his formula of quirk and more intelligent comedy. Built around a trio of performances that range from the interesting (Robbie and especially Bale) to the mundane (Washington and pretty much every other star who pops up), "Amsterdam's" rat-a-tat narrative about embedded fascism and corporate skulduggery in early 30's America features an energy that oscillates between high energy and low exposition. It's fits and starts probably equate something to the nervous, unfocused determination of its Nancy Drew like trio, but as the film runs through its tangled web of subterfuge, it slowly runs of out steam. Ideally, this 30's set noir-lite would be right up my alley, and "Amsterdam" does have its enthralling moments.....I kind of wish we could have just luxuriated with the trio in Amsterdam and their Hemingway-esque lifestyle of artistic liberation and pajama wearing bohemie. After that, a real plot kicks in and I cared less and less about what was going on rather than the vibes of its hazy first half. The power of Amsterdam, indeed.


Don't Worry Darling

 

Another film pretty well sunk due to pre-release mishandling (this time firmly within the ranks of its own film staff rather than the studio), Olivia Wilde's "Don't Worry Darling" also strikes me as a very muted effort. Well made but ultimately derivative of a host of other science fiction rug pullers whose central conceit lays fault at the paranoia of a matrix dominated existence, it's neither terrible nor exceptional. As the young, flawless couple at the center of a 1950's suburbia that isnt-exactly-what-it-seems, Florence Pugh and Harry Styles conduct themselves well and filmmaker Wilde equips herself with a stable of craftsman who make everything pop. The ultimate downside to "Don't Worry Darling" is the constant expectation to figure out what's going on. This type of film can be exciting if it sneaks up on the viewer, but in the case of this film, it's all figure-out and no let-it-wash-over-you vibes, which feels frustrating at times.

Sunday, October 02, 2022

Cinema Obscura: Carlos Saura's "Stress Is Three"

In a scene towards the end of Carlos Saura’s psychological chess match “Stress Is Three”, a man Antonio (Juan Luis Galiardo) is grounded, literally and figuratively, when he tries to drive away in his car on the beach and ends up only spinning its wheels in the sand. This comes after the frustration (and imagination?) of him seeing his wife (the luminous and blonde wigged Geraldine Chaplin) making out with their best friend Fernando (Fernado Cebrian) behind a jetee of rocks on the beach...... an act poor Antonio has internalized the entire film. It’s his breaking point, but in typical 1960’s ennui fashion, it's a violation of the human contract between husband and wife that may have only happened in his mind. If nothing else, Saura's film is about the disconsolate attitudes of the privileged and how they tear each other apart when left to their own devices.

Taking place over the course of just a couple of days, the trio embark on a road trip together. There’s no denying the flirtation between Teresa and Fernando from the very beginning. It’s enough that at one point, Antonio sneaks off the road ahead of them and spies on them through his binoculars. And because this paranoid act occurs towards the beginning of the film, it's a nervously implied sequence that sets the ominous tone that something is happening.


Eventually arriving at Antonio's farm home (and in typical ominous fashion, none of the family is there to meet them) the division between reality and fantasy gently rises in Antonio's head. But for all this talk about challenged masculine identity, "Stress Is Three" really belongs to Geraldine Chaplin. Starring in a handful of Saura's early films from 1967 until the mid 70's, her presence is as inseparable as that of Anna Karina was to the initial masterpieces of Jean Luc Godard. Here, it's easy to understand why Antonio would be selfishly jealous of his beautiful wife.


All of this frustration and ennui culminates in a trip to the beach where the stark black and white cinematography mutes all the beauty of the day and Antonio's spying seems to prove his buried suspicions. But then, Saura pulls a fantastic cinematic trick out of his bag, effectively rewiring the entire film and setting the template for a style of incisive satire and black psychological comedies that will dot his oeuvre for the next three decades. It's all there in just his second film, and "Stress Is Three"- gaining wider attention as a selection on the Criterion Channel- hopefully will bring more understanding to a filmmaker largely forgotten in 60's and 70's world cinema.


Sunday, September 04, 2022

On "Three Thousand Years of Longing"

Entering a film by George Miller, one can anticipate quite the fevered and frenzied ride. But he can also hint at the simpler truths in life, such as the magic of a pig to make us understand the power of humanity. His latest film, "Three Thousand Years of Longing" is fevered and frenzied, but it also hints at some beguilingly beautiful sentiments about connection, patience and (blink and you'll miss it) the idea of reincarnation. The dichotomy of his filmmaking career is well versed in this one picture.

Playing like a cosmic meditation about (literal) star crossed lovers finding themselves once again after many years of isolation, the film begins when academic lecturer Alithea (Tilda Swinton) travels to Istanbul for a mythology conference and finds herself smack dab in the middle of her own fantastical adventure. That comes in the form of a genie (Idris Elba) she accidentally releases in her hotel room after buying a bottle in a stack of trinkets from a local shop. Naturally, Alithea's preponderance for storytelling and myth lends the perfect ear for the genie to expertly tell three stories of lost love and ancient history while awaiting for his new steward to make her 3 wishes. But as his stories progress, not only do his tales exemplify the bottomless nature of such a wish, but they reveal the ways in which love can only entrap those pure of heart.

Swerving from his love for the Queen of Sheba to the more modern doomsday account of a kept woman who believed knowledge would be her salvation, Alithea grows to connect with the genie, and it's here that the film abandons its story-within-a-story structure and follows the couple as they try to carve out their own relationship in modern day Europe.

Magically alive and heartfelt, "Three Thousand Years of Longing" had me from the very start. As a fan of films like those of Julio Medem where the natural world is never very far removed from the fantastic when it comes to his varied couples, Miller's film (adapted from a short story by A.S. Byatt) swoons with overstuffed emotions matched brilliantly by his haunted-house visuals and CGI flourishes. Basically, there are enough ideas here for a dozen films, and at times "Three Thousand Years of Longing" feels like its about to boomerang into space before being yanked back into focus by the central relationship of Swinton and Elba. Their conversations in hotel room bathrobes and a demure English flat are the stuff of real human connection. And it matters because these two people have been running towards and away from each other for centuries, kept apart by wars, jealousies, madness, and sheer bad luck. At its core, "Three Thousand Years of Longing" is a commentary on enduring love. Just why does that one figure from Sheebe'a court appear out of thin air to traumatize Alithea? What does a restless leg have to do with the story? Miller has imprinted the film with a deep appreciation of star-crossed lovers who finally find each other again. In his sly way, he's made the most romantic film in years.

  

Saturday, July 16, 2022

The Current Cinema 22.2

 Elvis


In Michael Mann's splendid portrait of Muhammad Ali, the first twenty or so minutes are some of the boldest, most invigorating images of his long career. They bolt back and forth in time, jumbling a lifetime of training, moods, faces, hands, and sound into a swell. While I hesitate to compare Mann to filmmaker Baz Luhrman, the latter does something similar with his impressionistic look at another iconic 20th century figure in "Elvis", dropping the usual A to B schematic in favor of a music video aesthetic. From the musical cues that inspired him as a young boy to his nervy first stage appearance, Luhrman compresses time into a barrage of images that aren't overbearing, but pace the rest of the film with his glossy style. To my surprise, it works well because the last thing we needed was a serious deep dive into the artist, and instead Luhrman infuses his tale (approved by the family of course) with all the hip swinging, eye batting ludicrousness that launched Elvis into the cultural stratosphere in the first place. Austin Butler, as Elvis, ably embodies the superstar with not much beyond his looks and affectation but "Elvis" maintains a good time and succeeds in wrapping the singer's life and untimely death in a polished bit of wild glitz and glamour that's just as fitting as his gaudy lifestyle towards the end.


Saturday Fiction

My appreciation for intricately plotted World War II spy thrillers from Euro masters isn't a secret. Last year's criminally neglected "Wife of a Spy" by master Kiyoshi Kuroswa deserved better. And this year, the criminally underrated masterpiece is Lou Ye's "Saturday Fiction". Shown at a scattering of film festivals in 2019 and then unceremoniously released in a few theaters earlier this year, Le is a filmmaker I've long admired- check out "Purple Butterfly" (2003) or "Summer Palace" (2006)- and "Saturday Fiction" is yet another bold stroke in the career of this Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker. Filmed in Le's typical nervous, handheld style (but this time in beautiful black and white), the film tells the bifurcated tale of a movie star Jean (Gong Li) returning to occupied Shanghai in December of 1941 to act in a stage play by Mark Chao. Is the play a memory of their past together? Le constantly shifts perspective from the play to real life, causing a meta-curious comment on the film's events. But outside of her acting duties, Jean also seems to be acting as a spy. Opposing forces are all around. Who is exactly spying on who? "Saturday Fiction" resides in this cloistered atmosphere where political paranoia and personal attractions are never too far removed. In one brilliant scene that illuminates how invisible this line is, a member of the acting troupe gets drunk and accidentally falls against the door of their hotel suite, which opens slowly into the room of a group of Japanese soldiers. The tensions that rise are spectacular and Le charges "Saturday Fiction" with a beautiful blend of action thriller aesthetic and moody art-house plot mechanics. Part Jean Pierre Melville and part Wong Kar Wai, Le has crafted a terrific effort that (knowing the importance of its December 1941 setting) ticks down and reveals the ominous wreckage of secrets told and kept.