Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up #214-224


I’ve got a bit of catch-up to do here. And I’m also 2 films away from being ready to work on my Top Ten of 1983 list (finally!). It took longer than I thought. And I still don’t know what the ten are going to look like. But here is a round-up of some films watched this month.

Drug War

#214. Drug War (2013, To)
I’m happy to say that Drug War lived up to my cautiously set expectations (meaning that expectations are a dangerous and destructive tendency to have with films and so I avoid them as much as I reasonably can, even with a film such as this). 2013 seems to be the year where the film community has taken on To’s intimidating filmography with rigor. It’s an exciting development largely triggered by Drug War’s Western success. Not including Drug War, I’d only seen a couple of To’s films (everyone needs to see The Heroic Trio because it has amazing Hong Kong lady stars becoming superheroes and kicking ass!) and Drug War definitely left me pining for more of his work.

This is rigid, disciplined, alive. Entirely driven, on a content level, by its plot mechanics which make up a serious and twisty crime/action film laced with politics of Mainland China where rigidity is a false pretense because everything feels like it can go bust at any second. And oh boy does it ever.

On its surface it may on first glance look like a really solid action flick, but when you watch it, it doesn’t quite feel like others of its kind. It’s hermetically sealed and about the illusion of order. Everything is slick (what glorious sound!), not supported by the notion of ‘cool’ so much as the notion of pure craftsmanship. There is an immaculate tracking of space and place. You can tell this is special just in the way it goes about introducing all the key players at the beginning. It doesn’t dumb down character intros but it’s a casually intricate map rooted in clarity. Drug War gets more compelling by the minute and is contains a pretty fantastic female detective played by Huang Yi.

I went from really wanting to see Blind Detective to really really really wanting to see Blind Detective.

Only God Forgives

#215. Only God Forgives (2013, Refn)
Short review coming soon

Pauline at the Beach

#216. Pauline at the Beach (1983, Rohmer)
My first Rohmer film! And I found it delightful. It’s a brisk comedy/coming-of-age film about the lack of self-awareness that young (well mostly) idealistic folk carry around with them when it comes to how people talk about love versus how they actually partake in it. The lesson here is that active self-awareness is a virtue but self-awareness in and of itself doesn’t get you far if you don’t know how to apply that knowledge to your actions. These characters talk about love and other characters prospects. But they are unable to listen to their own advice. And so we spend the film watching a small group of people making poor decisions driven by naivete and their own weaknesses. What’s additionally amusing is that the ‘love’ in question purposely lacks any potency.

Pauline is the only one who takes anything away from the film’s events as she observes, grows, and learns from other people’s choices as well as her own. It ends on a grace note which signifies that her learned lessons will be kept to herself. People will behave how they want and believe what they will. Some will learn from their experiences and some won’t. The exclusive-feeling message that I took from it is that it’s better to affirm and to nod your head because people won’t take to a romantic reality even if you try and shed some light. This doesn’t go for everyone, but for a character like Marion? Honey, you are wasting your time. And Pauline knows this. A naturalistic combination of Kristy McNichol/young Scarlett Johansson/Ellen Page, Amanda Langlet is such a presence. She is our access point and without her the film would fail to bring us into the film’s world of fleeting bygone ‘love’.

Blue Caprice

#217. Blue Caprice (2013, Moors)
A case of love-the-approach, not the execution. Blue Caprice admirably goes for an unsensationalistic and determinedly opaque fictional take on the origin of the Beltway sniper attacks. But that opaqueness never coalesces into anything memorable. I also think it should have ended right before the shootings begin. Moors unwillingness or way of tip-toeing around depicting the crimes makes the final act feel sort of pointless. The focus is smartly not on ‘why’ but on how a father-son-like bond of such destructive force comes to be. It’s a deadly bond made up of outward world-is-against-me-blame and the silent pliable mind of someone who seeks a fatherly figure no matter the cost. It defiantly hits its plot points without magnifying them. But their somewhat cliched presence to begin with, the fact that these marks are hit at all if we weren’t going to focus on them much, makes them feel a bit like lead. Both lead performances are quite strong, each bringing a different kind of menacing quality to their roles. But Blue Caprice’s wishy-washy quality makes it forgettable and without much staying power. It has its moments but that resolute ambiguity doesn’t fulfill itself as a work about the unknowable nature behind an atrocity such as this.

Frog

#218-219. Frog, Frogs (1987, 1991, Grossman)
On the one hand most critics/reviewers would write this off immediately. And yet…Shelley Duvall’s brand of unrelenting well-meaning cornball and DIY charm that her exec prod. credit and general presence infuses is oddly endearing at times. Especially when you take into account the sequel which is surprising in the ways in manages to bring a lot of continuity to the table. Real thought was put into portraying the false posturing of adolescence and that it’s a time where identity can be lost as easily as it can be found. If you can look past Paul Williams career nadir as a lounge singing frog with a broad Italian accent, you’ll actually find yourself rooting for Robin Tunney (in her first role as an adorable scientist geek) and Scott Grimes to hook up and you’ll be wanting more Elliot Gould baseball analogies and Duvall life lessons complete with lizard slippers. I watched this with a crowd and against your better judgment you’ll be left wanting to incorporate rhubus as an insult into your vocab.

Three Crowns of the Sailor

#220. Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983, Ruiz)
Alternately engaging headspace of wandering mythos which would then go into bouts that had trouble taking me along the contemplative ride. It’s on a wavelength that constantly threatens to leave you behind if you’re not in the right frame of mind to latch onto its mysterious episodes. Gets into a lot about the act of storytelling and its contexts and cultural influences which felt like they went a bit over my head. Not in a sense of content but in its air of historical heritage and folklore that I’m not privy to. But there were a few sequences I loved and it left me wanting to see more Raul Ruiz as well as revisit this again several years down the road.

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#221. Bastards (2013, Denis)
Denis gets a bit restricted by tethering herself to the bare bones outline of this very dark noir story. On the one hand she still, as ever, places conventional narrative at the bottom of the totem pole, but in this case those noir bare bones can be a limiting cage of convention and trope without nuance due to Denis’ other priorities. So we end up with plot points you can see coming from basically the first minute as well as certain characters having confusing motivations on the most basic of levels in ways they shouldn’t be (I’m thinking mainly of Lindon). Denis is known for her opaque poeticisms but it clashes with the presence of tropes here and there is a bit of stumbling to be had.

So I got all of that out of the way because even though this is my least favorite Denis film I’ve seen, I liked it a hell of a lot and anything by her is far more interesting than most films that get released. She still doles out images that will stick with you for life. A bleeding and naked, still impossibly young, and yellow street-lit Lola Creton in heels click-clacking like a zombie down the backstreets of Paris will be with me forever. As will that last scene; My God. Even though the way Denis uses narrative can be a detract from Bastards, the way she uses that same ambiguity as an unwillingness to directly deal with the horrors of what’s going on, focusing on thematic and intuitive image, makes everything all the more unsettling and skin-crawling. Once again, Tindersticks provide ample support.

One Deadly Summer

#222. One Deadly Summer (1983, Becker)
Maybe ultimately a bit too faithful to the book? It certainly doesn’t help that I had just finished reading the novel before watching this, making me hyper-aware of the beat-for-beat story points and perspective changes. This makes it an overlong slog at times. But I still say this is a largely underseen film thanks in large part to Isabelle Adjani’s performance (and *lots* of nudity which manages to be somewhat empowering and also nice to look at). She somehow manages to capture Elle, a supremely contradictory, complex, and difficult character to grasp.  It’s a fresh take on the fall of man by a calculating woman which favors female perspective in ways that eventually undercut the typical male perspective. But ultimately it’s not one that makes its mark. It’s the definition of a solid piece of work said as a slightly backhanded compliment.

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223. Something in the Air (Après mai) (2013, Assayas)
We all have directors that we think of as ‘one of ours’. I’d have to say Olivier Assayas is one of those for me with his post-punk sensibilities and occasional all-time home-runs. This is easily my least favorite from him since demonlover (2 of the 3 Assayas films I haven’t seen are Clean and Boarding Gate), despite crackles of brilliance and the accomplished way it takes a blanket snapshot of the confusing aftermath of revolution from French youth of the 60’s when nobody knows what or who they want in life. This is when the film worked for me. It struggles when it reveals that Assayas wants to have it both ways. He wants that autobiographical coming-of-age romance too. The cliches of the personal story fall flat and can’t gain much interest because the film is torn by two sets of ambition, much like the protagonist. But there are still heights to be reached such as a sequence when we stay back at a party with Laure (Carole Combes) and a personal moment of loss is interrupted by a blazing fire. The time period also allows Assayas to show off his music taste and I always take any opportunity to say he has bar none the best music taste of any filmmaker working today. He puts most everyone else to absolute shame.

L'Argent
224. L’Argent (1983, Bresson)
A mite too didactic and unsparing (at times you think ‘we get it; money is evil, Good God man!), but certainly a masterwork of sorts. Engaging but partly in that kind of dry way in which you’d find a great thesis or textbook engaging. It follows the money trail to its natural sociopathic endpoint. It takes some time to lead us to our main character but once it settles into his lack of luck, this remains gripping to the end. Bresson’s language of spare absolutes makes for a brutally cold descent where sets and sound feel on edge and discomfiting in their pure purposefulness. His trademark use of non-actors make the sealed-off exchanges feel effectively robotic, as if real people barely even exist anymore. A treatise about money as corrupter, destroyer, weapon, power, and an agent for the erasure of humanity. While that didactic absolute can, as I said, be a bit much, it makes for an uncompromising last film that will haunt you in the days afterward.c

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3 thoughts on “Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up #214-224

  1. “It doesn’t dumb down character intros but it’s a casually intricate map rooted in clarity.”

    Yes! One of my favorite aspects about To’s films is that even though they are such great populist entertainment, he is so judicious with details, and in some cases I missed crucial information on a first and even second watch because nothing is ever repeated; you are given a key bit of character or plot info A) usually through direction alone and B) only once. The first time I watched Drug War I even got momentarily thrown by the cop acting as Haha because it happens so dizzingly fast I was a good 30-45 seconds into the scene before I realized how both he and the real Haha had been staged. (It’s funny, it’s basically the same as a similar sequence in the most recent Mission Impossible, but where that film made such a big deal about the orchestration, here it just occurs in an instant and you almost feel like you’re in on the scene despite not having planned it out.) Aesthetically, Drug War isn’t that indicative of To’s work, because it’s much more harshly lit and edited to reflect its subject matter, but the fundamentals of his form are there and I remain astonished by them. Oh, and I hope that Blind Detective gets a US release. It’s the best screwball comedy since, oh hell, Intolerable Cruelty, if not They All Laughed.

    I’m thrilled you’ve been exposed to Ruiz and Rohmer now, two of the absolute best filmmakers of all times (and polar opposites, aesthetically). Ruiz’s baroque Welles/Borges mash-ups are always v. heady but also incredibly witty. I’ve not seen too many but loved all but his first, THE SUSPENDED VOCATION. Rohmer threatens to get on my top 10 directors list. His films are so exquisitely crafted, not only in their clever plotting and rich dialogue but in an understated but nonetheless total visual control. Whenever I write about him I try to play up his direction because I feel it’s undervalued; MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S is a great extended study in POV cinema that never really takes the literal POV of its subject. Basically, every time it looks at the protagonist, we see him as he sees himself. PAULINE is one of his best, a particularly insightful treatise on his long-running theme of people overthinking their romance even as they underexamine them. I recommend THE GREEN RAY (his best, though you’ll have to trawl the Internet for it), MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S, CLAIRE’S KNEE and his last, the surprisingly erotic ROMANCE OF ASTREA AND CELADON as next steps.

    A bit bummed to hear you were disappointed by BASTARDS and SOMETHING IN THE AIR, though admittedly I’ve thought about the latter less and less as the year’s worn on and I’ve seen more things that have excited me. But I think it’s less about indulging in nostalgia than gently critiquing it, even as his sympathies are obvious. I think he ends up depicting a revolution that no one noticed rather than one that never quite happened, something I tried to get at in my review: http://moviemezzanine.com/something-in-the-air/

    As for BASTARDS, well, I think it’s a masterpiece. I agree its plotting isn’t really all that mysterious, but I don’t know if it’s intended to be. I think Denis can be quite explicit about her plots—BEAU TRAVAIL foregrounds its source text’s sexual politics in such a way that Melville’s dense work is ironed out, and WHITE MATERIAL all but broadcasts how it will end from the start—and her elliptical style doesn’t so much generate narrative mystery as emotional mystery. For me the film works so brilliantly for its ability to utterly strip the viewer of power; only TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME does as good a job of reflecting its characters’ sense of helplessness in the face of abuse, and Denis complicates matters further by mixing economic insecurity with sexual assault, compounding how little agency her victims have. I saw it my second day at TIFF and couldn’t shake it the entire week.

    Kinda think the same about L’ARGENT, that its mastery is less a function of its message (which I agree with but agree is forcefully, bluntly put) than how it completely marries its aesthetic vision to its thematic one, how the sparse mise-en-scène, taut editing and immersive sound design all work in tandem to reflect a spiritual void. It makes a cold logic of everything in it, no matter how wild and terrifying things get, which is what sticks with me the most.

    I haven’t seen BLUE CAPRICE or the Grossman or Becker, so you are spared me droning on even longer.

    1. You manage to make my measly thoughts look like piffle every damn time! Haha. Thanks for the other recs! I’m definitely interested in seeing more from Ruiz, To, and Rohmer for sure. I liked Bastards more than is indicated in that capsule. I still feel it hinges a lot on how the story unfolds (and its mechanics) to its detriment but it’s a film that I liked a hell of a lot and it’s stuck with me in a pretty big way. I still haven’t quite shaken it. I liked it much much more than Something in the Air (a solid ‘like’ for me) which has unfortunately sort of faded from memory already.

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