Friday, June 17, 2011

INCENDIES (Denis Villeneuve, 2010)

Essentially a grand tragedy of a nearly extinct, hysterical kind - so hysterical, in fact, that an entire country has to be invented, along with a decade-spanning cycle of warfare and unspeakable faith-fueled brutality, purely to accommodate the stomach-churning plot. Squalid middle-Eastern milieus, socio-political jabs, relentless brain-spattering, massacres, abstractly angsty twentysomething audience surrogates - all sorts of grim things and atrocities are stitched into the astoundingly far-fetched plot in order to render it plausible. And scarily, this works. A sadistic soap opera that should be banal and offensive comes out absurdly compelling.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

THE NEW WORLD (Terrence Malick, 2005)

Terrence Malick has always had his serene, impressionistic way of going about things, but in his take on that often-mythologised first encounter of European and Native American cultures, he takes his style to a kind of extreme.

During the opening reel, you may be wondering whether you’re watching the movie or just its trailer. He ignores every rule and technique that prizes spatial continuity. Every new image seems to bear only an arbitrary link to the preceding one – it seems to exist in and of itself. As a result, even time appears to take on its own entity.

All of these things have been done before, both in American cinema and particularly in European avant-garde cinema, but never in this way. No other picture – at least none where the narrative plays a key role - has followed this pattern for its entire feature length. It feels jarring at first – the way you’re thrown into a busy situation, on the face of it without anything tangible to hold onto. But in time the rhythm grows entrancing. You begin to experience every sound, every colour and every texture on an unusually direct, intimate level. An element of revelation may very well come over you as the movie reaches its closing, achingly gorgeous London sequences.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


A slightly perky, slightly flat, offensively inoffensive biopic. Gretchen Mol rarely shifts from an expression of blind, sunny optimism, and when she does, it isn't to add any kind of shade or dimension (she can only muster a babyish pout). You won't come across much more insight here than you would in Page's bondage folio.

STATE OF THE UNION (Frank Capra, 1948)


Frank Capra's last great film is a familiar and irresistible mix of vicious political satire and all-American fairy tale. This time he has Mr. Tracy go to Washington, with a huggable, hyper-adroit Katharine Hepburn out to prove that behind every great man is a great woman. A very young, very Angela Lansbury plays the bitch from hell - and by hell, Capra means Washington (which, incidentally, doesn't appear to have evolved much in the intervening six decades).

Aside from a couple of plane chases, it's a talky affair, but the talk is fabulous.

Monday, June 13, 2011

SUMMERTIME (David Lean, 1955)

In the mid-50s, this is what passed for hardcore porno to lonely spinsters and housewives across America. Husbandless in her autumn years, Katharine Hepburn carouses through Venice, traipsing and moping from one postcard composition to the next, eventually edging into the arms of a smitten, worldly Continental gentleman dripping with pomade.

He romances her one night on a moonlit balcony - they retire to her quarters, she leaves behind a shoe, tens of thousands of dollars worth of fireworks burst across the Adriatic sky, then burst some more.

In 1955 this was enough to send the evangelicals into control mode. Initially the Production Code Administration refused to classify the film because of its depiction of - gasp - Adultery! (You see, the pomaded Italian is still technically married - though long separated from his wife.) Eighteen feet of footage of implied hanky panky had to be deleted and a line of 'objectionable dialogue' trimmed before the National Catholic Legion of Decency acquiesced and gave the film a B rating, branding it merely "morally objectionable in part".

In the meantime, this gaudy beast has aged as one of David Lean's minor works - if you could call any work by David Lean minor. It's clear he had himself a ball though. In just about every frame you can sense him orgasming on the scenery (long before anybody in front of the camera gets the chance).

This is also arguably one of Katharine Hepburn's minor works. She does what she can to give her droopy spinster some detail. In individual scenes she works wonders, but most of the time she is purely called upon to gaze at decorative roofs and gargoyles with mouth-breathing admiration.

Still, if you ever have to watch someone stare at Renaissance facades for the better part of two hours, you better hope that someone is Katharine Hepburn.


Sunday, June 12, 2011


Disclaimer 1: This is not a list of the greatest ever directors – as you can tell from the absence of Welles, Bergman, Kurosawa, Truffaut, Hawks, Wilder, Eisenstein, Dreyer, Hitchcock etc etc.

Disclaimer 2: This is not a list of the greatest living directors – as you can tell from the absence of Allen, Godard, Resnais, Polanski, Coppola (Sr.) and Scorsese. This list is a direct reflection of how uncontrollably, sweatily excited I get at the news of a particular director bringing out a new title. So, it’s mostly based on the kind of work these people have been doing since roughly – let’s say, 1996. Hence, I am only discussing titles released since 1996. (Coincidentally – the year of Kieslowski’s passing – so it does kind of feel like the end of one era and beginning of the next.)

Along these lines, while I remain loyal to Woody Allen (who still ranks among my Top 5 all time directors) and buy a ticket to his annual offering with great joy and optimism, I couldn’t honestly argue that, sight unseen, I get as excited about the likes of You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger as I do about something like Tree of Life. (That said, I am uncontrollably excited about Midnight in Paris – but this film feels like the exception rather than the rule for the past 15 years.)

Disclaimer 3: It is humanity’s fault that there are no women on this list, not mine.

Disclaimer 4: Sincere apologies and honourable mentions are in order. All of the following are geniuses who have made vibrant, indelible and mind-expanding contributions to cinema over the past couple of decades. I will forever be impatient to see what they do next:

Mike Leigh, Jafar Panahi, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Ang Lee, David O. Russell, Todd Haynes, André Téchiné, Alexander Sokurov, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Claire Denis, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, David Cronenberg, The Dardenne Brothers, Darren Aronofsky and Bong Joon-ho.

Disclaimer 5: A super-honourable mention to Charlie Kaufman. It feels like cheating to take into consideration scriptwriting achievements on top of directing ones. But if I were to do that, Kaufman would rank among the Top 5.

So, on to business. Starting from 10.

“He’s just so amazing, and I can’t really explain why but his stuff is like so mindblowing and I don’t really get what the story’s about but it doesn’t really matter cause like it’s so surreal”... After years of getting trapped into conversation with arts grad stoners, whose favourite filmmaker Lynch inevitably is, I was starting to bear an irrational grudge against the man. But then I revisited Mulholland Drive and re-evaluated my notion of what cinema is and could be. Unquestionably one of the highpoints of this past movie decade, it won Lynch so much goodwill that a lot of people went so far as to swallow Inland Empire – ugly DV, existentially trapped bunnies, Locomotion and all. Of late, Lost Highway seems to have become a rite of passage for emerging cineastes, and fair enough (though in retrospect it feels a bit like a dry run for Mulholland Dr). Not many people however, bring up The Straight Story anymore, which is a shame. I’ve promised myself to look it up again one of these days.
Even when I aggressively react against a film of his (The Piano Teacher), I can’t bring myself to turn away. Not even the second time around. (Though this is equal parts thanks to Haneke as it is to Isabelle Huppert.) Otherwise, much as I enjoy his barbed, grizzly provocations (Funny Games, Caché), it’s his sprawling, tangential crystallisations of a particular moment in time that I cherish foremost. Engrossing and irresistibly sharp in its own right, Code Unknown is also a time-capsule-worthy snapshot of a certain very prominent stratum of Western European society at the turn of the millennium. (By the way, remember how much of an event and then very quickly non-event that particular turn was? Heh.) It also feels to me like the first time Haneke sincerely tried to push himself and the form. As such, it stands as a direct pointer towards the self-conscious sublimeness of The White Ribbon (which, incidentally, was the third in a continuing string of uncommonly fabulous Palme d’or winners).

8 to 1 will follow.