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