The Films of 2016: Short takes (I)

Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve) – I can’t say I’m as over the moon about this one as a lot of other people are.  But it has its moments, namely an effective twist ending and a solid, unflashy performance from Amy Adams.  And I appreciated its willingness to imagine extra-terrestrial life as wholly non-anthropomorphic: Villeneuve’s aliens are like huge octopi with tentacles that unfurl like those of an anemone.  As far as movies in which the sci-fi elements are made to bounce off the main character’s psychological baggage go, it’s hardly Solaris (but then what is?)

The Love Witch (dir. Anna Biller) – The retro costumes and art direction in this are so impeccable (it’s lovingly fashioned in the style of a late 60s/early 70s sexploitation horror movie) that I wanted to love the movie itself more than I did; it feels like a movie in which Biller is really trying to make points about gender, sex, and the fantasies that structure heterosexual love, and yet the layers of camp and irony are often so thick that it’s nearly impossible to know what those points are supposed to be.  Her hand is both too heavy and too light for the movie to really work as anything other than a feast for the eyes.  

Right Now, Wrong Then (dir. Hong Sang Soo) – Watching this I kept thinking of David Ives’ short play Sure Thing, in which a pair of would-be lovers keep replaying (and revising) the scene of their meeting, correcting their mistakes until they get it right.  Hong’s film is quieter but no less clever in its figuration of a relationship as a kind of obstacle course, set over the course of twenty-four hours in the lives of a Korean filmmaker and a shy young painter with whom he crosses paths.   

Love and Friendship (dir. Whit Stillman) – In the past I’ve responded somewhat coolly to Stillman’s films, and his Regency-era comedy of manners Love and Friendship—brisk, sharp, and handsome as it is—left me similarly cold…though I very much appreciated the broadness of Tom Bennett’s performance as the most doltish of the film’s many bachelors on the make.         

Things To Come (dir. Mia Hanson-Løve) – It’s impossible not to see this film as the other side of the coin to Paul Verhoeven’s Elle: both films feature superb performance by Isabelle Huppert as middle-aged women navigating relationships with errant men, meddlesome mothers…and bloodthirsty cats.  But Things To Come is the yang to Elle’s yin, a film that regards its heroine’s plight with the gentleness and placidity of a summer breeze (as opposed to the bluntness of a weapon).  Huppert’s Nathalie is a woman in free fall, finding liberation and possibility in the wake of instability and crisis.  It’s difficult to say which of Huppert’s two performances this year is the better one; they, too, are two sides of a coin, both brilliant.


From the archives: A "nightmare that we hate to wake up from"

My senior year of high school (2001-2002) I committed to writing long-form reviews of every film I saw that year.  I was only seventeen at the time but my film diet was already fairly complex, thanks in part to a weekly film series at Utica’s Munson-Williams-Proctor Art Institute, which I attended regularly.  It was in the spring of 2002 that I saw David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive there with a packed house that included two of my high school teachers.  I was mesmerized by the film, which I found to be as funny as it was scary (a response I would later have upon re-watching Lynch’s Eraserhead in 2011):

“In comparison to Mulholland Drive, all of [Lynch’s] previous films look like sketches and riffs, as though he were dutifully practicing, getting us ready so that he could launch this one at us.  It’s two and a half hours, and it feels even longer; he stretches the length magnificently.  He’s pulling out all the stops as never before, and the effect is intoxicating.  You don’t know where you are but you love every minute that you’re there.

Laura Elena Harring and Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive (2001).


The Films of 2016: La La Land

The Los Angeles of Damien Chazelle’s new musical La La Land is the Los Angeles of fantasy and myth, an accretion of nearly a hundred years’ worth of cautionary tales and Cinderella stories about “the ones who dream” (to quote a line from one of the film’s best songs), most of them spun by Hollywood, especially in the movies it makes about itself.  The story told by La La Land—the one about the wannabe actress squatting on the fringes of the studios, looking for her breakhas been around since the beginning of Hollywood cinema and will likely never go away.  It’s been reified by movies like Singin’ in the Rain and all three iterations of A Star Is Born (a fourth is on the way), and was reheated most recently in The Artist.  It’s now been updated for 2016 with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, both powerfully charismatic as star-crossed dreamers Mia and Sebastian, whose turbulent love affair unfolds on the Warner Brothers backlot and is set to an infectiously hummable Michel-Legrand-inflected song score.  Even if Chazelle isn’t saying anything particularly new in La La Land, he does it with as much style, panache and heart as can be found in any of the classic musicals of the 1950s and ’60s. 


The Films of 2016: Aquarius

In Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Aquarius, the political is personal: it’s a movie about resistance to corporate takeover that’s intimately grounded in the cumulative weight of memory and history, seen through the eyes of its intrepid heroine.  Clara (Sonia Braga) is a woman of a certain age, a widow and a retired music journalist living in the same sunny oceanfront apartment in Rio where she and her late husband spent decades raising their children, hosting family gatherings, singing and dancing and making love.  When the building is bought by condominium developers, Clara—stubborn and imperious—refuses to budge; she attempts to go about her normal routine even as her neighbors vacate and the nearly empty building is vandalized by squatters.  Eventually, she orchestrates an act of revenge against the developers that’s satisfying in its dramatic impact…though one is left wondering whether it will be enough to guarantee Clara’s security. 


Notes on "All About Eve"

Anne Baxter, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, George Sanders.

I rewatched Joseph Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) this weekend.  Four observations:

1. It remains one of the smartest of all Hollywood films, and one of the most deserving winners of the Best Picture Oscar in history.  And sports Bette Davis’ finest performance.  All About Eve has always been touted as a backstage drama (which it is), but it’s even better as a movie about the intricate social dynamics within a group of friends.  Watching the film this time I found myself fascinated by the moral ambiguity of Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), whose allegiance keeps shifting back and forth between her longtime friend, the actress Margo Channing (Davis), and Margo’s sycophantic young admirer/acolyte/rival Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter).  At times canny, at other times dangerously naïve, Karen keeps wanting to trust Eve and keeps getting burned by her (and watching others get burned too).  She’s neither good girl nor bad girl; she’s the girl caught in the middle, the one who very nearly destroys everything because she’s trying to be fair to everybody.  We all know someone like Karen.  Maybe we are like her ourselves.      

Celeste Holm as Karen.

2. All About Eve may be the best written film ever to come out of Hollywood.  It’s certainly one of the most verbally dextrous.  Mankiewicz’s characters don’t ever stop talking for a moment of the movie’s two-hour-plus running time, but the talk is so good you don’t even care.  “Read my column while you’re waiting—the minutes will pass like hours.”  “Everybody has a heart…except some people.”  “Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.”  These are epigrams worthy of Oscar Wilde by way of Yogi Berra—two parts witty, one part batty (what does that last one mean?).  Mankiewicz’s zingers have a pretzel logic; you want to pause to untangle them but you can’t because more keep flying at you every second.           

3. Is Bette Davis beautiful?  An unfair question, perhaps—but it’s one that audiences and critics have been asking ever since Davis began making a name for herself in the 1930s, and one to which All About Eve responds fearlessly.  Davis was perhaps never so attractive or dynamic onscreen as she is here, playing Margo, and yet the film never for a second shies away from showing the haggardness in her face, the sag of her cheeks, the desperation and fear behind her eyes.  (Davis was forty-two when she made the film.)  The film is blunt and unsparing in its acknowledgement of the travails faced by women over forty working in industries that trade on their beauty.  And yet by the end of the film, as Margo stands poised to retire from the stage in order to marry her longtime beau, Davis appears radiantly happy.  She has surrendered the limelight to the next generation of actresses, and she appears, finally, at peace.  The desperation and the fear have melted away and she’s glowing.          

Davis with (soon-to-be real-life husband) Gary Merrill.
4.  The premise of All About Eve is straight out of a horror movie: a beautiful and deadly woman worms her way into the life of the heroine by pretending to be sweet and unassuming.  Red flags go up but everyone ignores them or laughs them away until it’s too late.  The ending of the film is as delicious and terrifying—and funny—as the ending of Rosemary’s Baby: Eve, having successfully usurped Margo, stands to be usurped by an “Eve” of her own, a fawning acolyte named Phoebe (or at least she “calls herself” Phoebe, whatever that means!).  This film resembles nothing so much as a female-centric variation on Macbeth in which cycles of women come to power by stabbing each other in the back ad fininitum.  (“The general atmosphere is very Macbethish,” Lloyd Richards comments at the beginning of the film’s cocktail party sequence; later, during the awards ceremony, an aged actor references Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.)  Shakespeare fans would do well to remember that, late in the play, Macbeth’s rule is threatened by a vision of Banquo’s son holding up a mirror in which are reflected an endless line of successors.  In the brilliant final shot of All About Eve, we see an endless number of Phoebes reflected in Eve’s dressing mirror.


The Films of 2016: Jackie

Those seeking something more adventurous than the typical Hollywood biopic would do well to check out Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, which has the outward trappings of an Oscar-bait vehicle for Natalie Portman but which is actually a sensuous and disorienting exercise in atmosphere.  This is Larrain’s first English-language film; up to this point his reputation has rested on films made in his native Chile about life under Pinochet.  Jackie, a character study of Jackie Kennedy in the days following her husband’s assassination, is itself a political film.  But its political contours are less interesting than how it’s been mounted and framed by Larrain’s camerawork, Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography, Mica Levi’s score, and Sebastian Sepulveda’s editing.  And by Portman, whose performance, while mannered, conveys the raw desperation of a woman reeling from grief and shock. 


Stan Brakhage: The woodsman

Back in the spring I wrote about the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas as a poet of the city, a Whitman of the 1960s counterculture, energized by the rush of people in urban spaces.  (Mekas’ films, tellingly, always move at a sped-up frame rate.)  Mekas’ longtime friend and colleague Stan Brakhage, meanwhile, was a poet of the country—the filmmaker as hermit.  From his house in the mountains of Colorado, enclosed within the private world of his wife, their children and their pets, Brakhage made a career breaking down and reassembling in visual terms the most elemental of human experiences: birth and childhood, family, sex, home, nature.  

Brakhage’s Dog Star Man (1962) has been compared to an epic poem, in which the quest of a man for firewood takes on mythic dimensions.  Through Brakhage’s fractured visual style—footage of sun flares, crying babies, and commingling bodies are continually intruding upon the footage of dog and man in the woods—the proportions of that simple task assume an allegorical resonance.  But Brakhage’s tongue is also slightly in cheek here, as he casts himself in the role of the questing figure, stumbling awkwardly through the snow.  (Apparently Brakhage was unemployed at the time and living with his in-laws, who suggested he make himself useful by chopping wood.)  The “man” of Dog Star Man is motivated by a timeless urge to prove his masculine utility to himself and others, something that Brakhage both mythologizes and ironizes. 

But the narrative of Dog Star Man is hardly its driving force; it’s a film bursting with individual images—some recognizable, many abstract—that fly at the viewer faster than he has time to process them.  Here, Brakhage and Mekas’ styles coincide: both filmmakers throw everything into their films, to dazzling effect.  Dog Star Man is just as much about the orange fur of a cat, the face of a newborn baby, the tangle of lovers’ bodies, splatters of paint and scratches in the emulsion as it is about the epic journey of its hero.


The Films of 2016: Manchester by the Sea

Five years ago Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret—a passion project long tied up in post-production hell—finally saw the light of day, became one of the best films of the year, and worked to establish Lonergan as one of our most talented screenwriters.  Having suffered at the mercy of uncompromising distributors (who insisted on cutting Margaret by some thirty-five minutes) and a largely indifferent public (many of whom, in their defense, never even had a chance to see the movie), Lonergan became a figure for the serious artist as martyr, a cause to be championed by a small but vocal contingent of supportive cineastes.  Now the glowing reception for his new film Manchester by the Sea promises to win him widespread acclaim.  He has already begun racking up critics’ awards; Oscars will likely follow.  And yet one can’t help but wonder what the mainstreaming of Lonergan will mean for his work.  Manchester is a film so solidly made and highly polished that it makes me long for the messiness and the riskiness of Margaret.  I worry that Lonergan’s rough edges are already being leveled off—to the potential detriment of the films. 


The Films of 2016: Elle

The first shot of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, in which a cat watches impassively as her owner, the middle-aged Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), is violently raped by a masked intruder, immediately establishes the tone of this cruel and wonderfully perverse film.  It’s a jet-black comedy studded with moments of shocking violence, and its feminism is in the vein of Catherine Breillat, Ms.45, and Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat—which is to say that it’s not for the faint of heart.  The rape scene at the beginning of the film is only the beginning of the nightmare for Michèle.  In addition to her juggling an affair with a friend’s husband and a dysfunctional family whose antics would not be out of place in a TV sitcom, the trauma of her assault keeps repeating—first in her head (she replays the incident over and over again, with slight variations), and then in real life, as her attacker continues to stalk her.  The nature of the relationship that develops between Michèle and her rapist is almost more disturbing than the initial attack itself.  That’s when Elle gets really dark, and really interesting.


An epiphany: "Don't Look Now" (III)

Don’t Look Now was composer Pino Donaggio’s first film, and it remains one of his most deeply felt scores, characterized by a repeated piano theme that underscores all of the film’s key moments (including the three major montage sequences).  This theme is used obliquely and ambiguously, in a fashion appropriate to this film so much about misidentification, transference and skewed perspective.  In the film’s opening sequence, it is deceptively linked with the doomed child Christine: it begins as we see a shot of her playing in the yard, and it’s played fumblingly, as if by a child her own age practicing for a lesson.  But in hindsight the tentative nature of the piano technique seems to reflect not the innocent play of a child but the baby steps of John’s awakening precognition.  This scene, after all, is not just about Christine’s death; it also marks the first instance (though he does not recognize it as such) in which John experiences a flash of second sight.  Inside the house, he looks up from his work, having intuitively sensed that Christine has fallen into the pond.  It’s a motif that comes full circle at the end of the film, as, in the moment of his death, John presumably realizes that he had earlier experienced a vision of his own funeral.  The same piano theme returns in this sequence, again played for piano, but now urgently and confidently, as if to convey the blunt force of a too-late epiphany.  It’s as if the seeds planted at the opening of the film have come to flower—deadly nightshade, perhaps.   

A figurehead: "Don't Look Now" (II)

Julie Christie with Donald Sutherland: gazing with warmth, love, and sadness.

I wrote about Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) earlier this week without so much as mentioning Julie Christie or how beautiful she is in it, even though—or perhaps especially because—her character spends the majority of the film in mourning.  Throughout the Venice scenes her face is haunted by the most delicate hints of sadness (the psychic Heather tells her: “you’re sad!  You’re so sad and there’s no need to be!”) even as she smiles at Sutherland with the warmth and intimacy of a lover (above). 

Christie has always been an extraordinarily sensuous actress, and in Don’t Look Now her sensuality is colored by melancholy that somehow makes her even more lovely than usual.  Melancholy, joy, and affection keep sliding into each other and playing across her wonderfully expressive face.  It’s a remarkably physical performance, and one that’s quite subtle in its physicality: witness, for example, the naturalness with which she pulls her skirt over her hips as she dresses for dinner.  Or how, standing in front of the bathroom mirror, she lightly licks her lips as she buttons her blouse, Sutherland watching her from the doorway (above).  Or how she absent-mindedly touches a tube of lipstick to her front teeth.  (All of these moments are cut into the love scene that acts as the film’s centerpiece.)  Framed sitting desultorily in the hotel bath, her tangle of silver-brown curls pinned up to reveal the delicate curve of her nape, she could be a figure out of an Impressionist painting (below).   

Christie is in many ways the emotional core of the film, just as her character is driven by an openness and a need to connect—with her husband and with their late daughter.  Even at the end of the film, having suffered the loss of the former along with the latter, her face is serene, placid, and regal (below).  Gliding in on the gondola that bears her husband’s body, she resembles the figurehead of a ship.  Roeg has said that he wanted Christie to appear undefeated by grief, perhaps even comforted by the thought of her husband and daughter reunited beyond the grave.  Christie is the lifeblood of this film so much about death and its mysteries.