Monday, December 31

The Best FIlms of 2012

This new decade continues to offer up dozens of films that directly refute the seemingly endless cottage industry of “thinkpieces” devoted to cinema’s death. Directors who proudly stick with film until it is ripped from their hands are joined by inventive users of digital, be they up-and-comers or adaptive old masters, people forging new possibilities of visual language with a new format. And for the film viewer, access has never been so open, closed as it may still sometimes seem. Like last year, 2012 offered up an embarrassment of riches, so much so that narrowing down selections proved even more arduous than in 2011. Not only were the movies themselves great, many contained parallels with each other. As such, I arranged my picks for the best the year had to offer as a series of double (and one triple) features that link up thematically, stylistically, or both.

Life Without Principle/ Haywire

“The motive is always money.” That is the justification Ewan McGregor’s defense contractor offers for putting out a hit on his ex-lover in Haywire, and the ethos that drives both Steven Soderbergh’s and Johnnie To’s jazzy anti-thrillers. To stays on the ground level of the financial collapse, sitting in with the bank employees driven to sell sell sell no matter the consequences until the monster they wrought but cannot even see for being so low on the ladder consumes everything. Even criminals get caught up in the matters, dispelling the notion that they live in their own world when their assets suffer as much as the average punter’s. Haywire does not feel the pinch so much because its characters exist in one of the few utterly safe zones, the ever-funded military industrial complex. But it too eats its own, and the petty personal issues that put Gina Carano’s Mallory at risk look even more abhorrent when carried out with the support and means of government and commerce.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning/Resident Evil: Retribution 

John Hyams’ and Paul W.S. Anderson’s respective breakthroughs deconstruct the video game aesthetics that have crept into action filmmaking by probing the medium’s moral, metaphysical and existential implications. Anderson, with his love of vast but contained spaces, crafts a series of game levels where the foes get exponentially stronger and players respawn to be fed back into the grinder. Hyams, on the other hand, sets those players free, only to find that a character programmed to be a conduit for death can only plod on with mindless violence. And yet, neither film lets its fount of ideas get in the way of thrilling genre filmmaking. Anderson’s slo-mo and clever 3D usage let every moment linger, stressing the beauty of the composition and the cheeky critiques embedded within them, while the long-take carnage that caps Universal Soldier is the most thrilling (and, ultimately, horrific) of its kind since the famed long take in John Woo’s Hard Boiled that rose to and fell from a jolting moment of friendly fire.

Consuming Spirits/It’s Such a Beautiful Day

Chris Sullivan’s long-gestating labor of love is an outsider art vision of loneliness and proof that ennui and restlessness affect those out in the sticks as much as they do the upper-middle-class of the world’s cities. Sullivan’s mixture of animation styles allows him to cross lines of memory and deceit (of others and self) as the full extent of his characters’ abuse, regrets and longing are revealed. Of course, memory is denied to Bill, the protagonist of Don Hertzfeldt’s final volume of a trilogy of existential short films (also edited together into a feature-length film of the same title), and Hertzfeldt’s animation often plays out in isolated, ragged bubbles set against a black void. Sense-overloading bursts of avant-garde techniques visualize Bill’s mental illness with shocking clarity, and the fourth-wall breaking reversal of fortunes that concludes the film takes The Last Laugh’s fate-altering coda to new heights and beyond, until the happy ending becomes darker than its original, logical conclusion.

Anna Karenina/Magic Mike

A film about a dying aristocracy trapped in constantly changing but still singular sphere and one about the dissolution of the myth of meritocracy, still wrapped in its plastic to up the resell value. One is a freewheeling adaptation of one of the most revered works of literature, and the other is a movie about male strippers. Both films operate musically, Wright’s with the elegant, classical movement of ostentatious balls, Soderbergh’s with the stuttering, unmasked sexuality of club music. And both, in their own ways, point out the double standards of gender in society. Wright formalizes the female objectification Tolstoy exposed, not only using stylistic flourishes to isolate Anna in the frame but treating Keira Knightley herself as part of the mise-en-scène to be ordered. The double-standard is deepened with Magic Mike, which Joe Manganiello, one of the film’s stars, has rightly said proves that men cannot be objectified.

Barbara/The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Davies' humid melodrama might be more obviously paired with Anna Karenina, as in many ways it is the more faithful adaptation of the same narrative and thematic arcs than Joe Wright’s free-for-all. Yet the mood of its tortured love triangle, where furtive glances and an attempt to batten down swirling emotions, vaguely links with the surveillance-heavy paranoia of Christian Petzold’s more austere East German moral thriller, Barbara. Barbara’s own feelings for the mostly off-screen, wealthy West German lover who beckons her through danger to his arms and the warm but ideologically loyal East German doctor for whom she works fit with Hester’s relationship to the passionate but unstable lover and loving but unphysical husband. Neither women finds all the answers in either, and they face, respectively, political and social repercussions for whatever choice they make. It is interesting which of those proves most unbearable for the chooser.

Killer Joe/Twixt

Two masters at work on genre fare. The difference, of course, is that William Friedkin is well-versed in the exploitation cinema he hones to its sharpest point in his Coen-esque Killer Joe, while the bombastic prestige of Francis Ford Coppola seems so oddly matched for his low-key, oddball Gothic romance. Yet both men make some of their finest films in years, paying homage to old-school grindhouse and horror filmmaking while updating it by either taking the genre to new levels of frankness or by propelling it forward with new technology. Friedkin’s chicken-fried chamber horror is so well-acted it almost achieves a veneer of class, while Coppola effaces himself (and the frame’s image, which he slyly links to his own fall) to get at his own demons. And in their final, deftest strokes, both films reveal themselves to be superb comedies.

Bernie/Girl Walk//All Day

One of the forefathers of modern American independent film joined with a movie that crystallizes the possibilities of new revenue streams for the next wave of independent filmmaking.The latter is the latest city symphony for America’s greatest metropolis (and one that at times recalls the freewheeling, anything goes energy of one of its first, Paul Fejos’ recently revived Lonesome. This New York must slowly warm to the individualistic outburst of Anne Marsen’s spastic, ecstatic dancing, and so much of the film’s joy comes from its disruption of how millions of people simply get on in the same space. The opposite is true of Bernie’s view of small-town Texas, where the real community thrives so vitally on the scruples of individuals they well know that they intrude upon a dramatized recreation to tell their gossip. There is also an inverse of expectations, where the big, cynical city produces a genuinely guileless burst of energy like Marsen and Carthage conjures up a false shade of that same innocence revealed to be a sinister huckster. Inexplicably, Linklater nevertheless shows as much affection for his milieu as Krupnick does for his.

Moonrise Kingdom/Tabu

The new creative peaks for established American aesthete Wes Anderson and upstart Portuguese young master Miguel Gomes both employ, in part or whole, 16mm film stock in their journeys through the wild. The grainy stock helps Anderson dismantle and critique his solipsist dollhouse worlds by following its dissatisfied characters outside the normal bounds of bourgeois comfort as they find ways to bend the wild to that comfort. Gomes goes one step further, using the 16mm, silent second half of Tabu to trace modern Western ennui to its wistful nostalgia for imperial superiority and colonial exoticism. The white privilege of Tabu’s first half and Moonrise’s whole is both perpetuated by characters and undone by the promised chaos of labor unrest in the former and the turbulence and restlessness of youth in the latter.

The Color Wheel/The Comedy

The year’s two funniest films are also two of the most wrenching. Rick Alverson’s The Comedy depicts a man hollowed out by irony, working menial jobs just because he need not worry about money and deliberately provoking others just to see what a genuine reaction to something looks like. But underneath Tim Heidecker’s dead, shark eyes (and the cheap-chic sunglasses that frequently obscure them) is a person screaming for release, making connections the only way he knows how, which is by driving people away. Then there’s Alex Ross Perry’s feature, in which the vicious bickering of two siblings is gradually revealed to be nothing more than sparring matches that prepare both to face even harsher verbal treatment from the outside world. A loneliness links the two films, though The Color Wheel proves both more optimistic and more perverse for staging its emotional breakthrough as its most twisted punchline and, wildly, its most touching moment.

Holy Motors/This Is Not a Film

I’ve seen both of these films twice, and good thing too. The surreal vignettes of Leos Carax’s return to feature-length filmmaking and the political dissidence of Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s un-film could very well have been one-off pleasures, an intense and singular experience that waned once the surprise vanished. Yet both stand proudly as complex, probing films on the nature of art and, more importantly, how art can inform life. Denis Lavant’s tour of personae each has has something to say about the way we get along in the world, from the faces we wear in public to the way life can shift so abruptly. Panahi, under house arrest and filmming a sketch of what he will never be allowed to film properly, winds up with something that strongly resembles the thematic content, even the narrative arcs, of his fictive work that he occasionally shows on his TV. Both filmmakers lament the death of artistic freedom, be it for capitalistic or political reasons, yet both films revitalize cinema for its own sake and in relation to the world outside theater doors.

Romancing in Thin Air/The Day He Arrives

Johnnie To’s undistributed melodrama (one of the best films of this young decade, and handily available as a Region-A import Blu-Ray from Hong Kong) links with Hong Sang-soo’s film in a myriad of ways. Both concern filmmakers who flee their craft, only to find that the more they attempt to retreat from their work, the more life around them begins to resemble a movie. The director within Hong’s film rails against film's promotion of falsity, yet his pining for a waitress who looks like an ex and the temporal confusion of his repetitious arc (which could take place over several days, just one, or a dream) are purely cinematic. The repeated movements and crucial variations that calmly propel Hong’s film are reflected in To’s, in which a jilted, alcoholic actor is revived by a woman harboring a secret obsession with him now compounded by the indirect but overwhelming connection the man has to her and her late husband. The world turns to cinema and cinema takes on the world and reworks it for a better outcome.

4:44 The Last Day on Earth/The Turin Horse /Cosmopolis

The apocalypse has been in for a few years now, but this trio of films each finds new paths to explore how the world falls apart. Abel Ferrara, auteur of a canon of autocritical exploitation, turns in a surprisingly sweet chamber drama, one that suggests that people may rediscover their humanity when money loses all value. David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s book, on the other hand, sees the loss of monetary value as precisely the catalyst for the end of days. The technology that brings people together in the former reminds humans of their obsolescence in the latter, and one is left wondering whether mankind can evolve with its creations to survive a cataclysm of our own making. Béla Tarr’s purported film is, apropos of its Nietzschean inspiration, beyond such trivialities altogether. Space and time slowly reverse over its arduously long shots, morality having been sucked away well before the first of them. All that is left is to have a few last, measly meals and take one last swig of bad brandy before the void swallows the last dregs of existence.

Honorable Mentions: Lincoln (Steven Spielberg), Detention (Joseph Kahn), End of Watch (David Ayer), Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos), Sleepless Night (Frédéric Jardin)

Films I've yet to see: The Grey, Amour, Neighboring Sounds, Life of Pi

Ordered top 25:
  1. Romancing in Thin Air
  2. This Is Not a Film
  3. The Color Wheel
  4. Cosmopolis
  5. It’s Such a Beautiful Day
  6. Moonrise Kingdom
  7. Holy Motors
  8. The Turin Horse
  9. Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning
  10. Bernie
  11. The Day He Arrives
  12. The Comedy
  13. Tabu
  14. Magic Mike
  15. Resident Evil: Retribution
  16. Twixt
  17. Killer Joe
  18. Anna Karenina
  19. Haywire
  20. Girl Walk // All Day
  21. 4:44: The Last Day on Earth
  22. The Deep Blue Sea
  23. Barbara
  24. Consuming Spirits
  25. Life Without Principle

Sunday, December 30

The Top 10 Michael Powell (And Emeric Presburger) Films

I do not know if any director has had as formative an influence on the films I love than Michael Powell and his creative partner, Emeric Pressburger. The film that sits in the number-one slot on the list that follows radically altered what I look for in movies, and it remains my favorite of all time. On his own, Michael Powell was an extraordinarily gifted director, an innate visual genius and a conservative in the Fordian mode, reflected in films that looked fondly on a traditional Britain but also displayed an ambivalence, even borderline acceptance of the nation’s fading importance in the 20th century. (His breakthrough, The Edge of the World, recalls Ford’s How Green Was My Valley in its wistful but clear-headed appraisal of a secluded hamlet eroding to modernity for ill and good.)

With Pressburger, though, Powell crafted not only some of the most sumptuously beautiful films of all time, but some of the most resonant as well. Their propaganda films are anything but, and their postwar work celebrates the preservation of their beloved country even as it offers firm, and sometimes critical, assessments of what needs to be done to maintain Britain’s spirit. Even at their most troubling, however, the filmmakers communicate such vivaciousness of life through some of the greatest Technicolor work in history that an optimism blazes to the surface on their aesthetic mastery. The films below are not merely some of the best ever made, they are also some of the most endlessly, exuberantly entertaining.

Honorable Mention: The Thief of Bagdad

Left off the list proper only because its laundry list of credited and uncredited directorial credits makes attribution to any one filmmaker unwise. But the auteurial quagmire makes no difference on the film itself, one of the most rousing adventures ever put to the screen. Mounted on a vast scale and an extravaganza for pioneered special effects, The Thief of Bagdad also makes great use of its leads, especially Sabu as a plucky, whip-smart thief and Conrad Veidt as the manipulative grand vizier. This film announces to the audience that it intends to go wild from its first shots of a ship painted in surreal, vivid colors, and it only gets more vibrant and astonishing from there. Show this to children, not Disney’s racist, attention-deficit ripoff Aladdin.

10. The Tales of Hoffmann

It may feel like something of a rehash of the Archers’ superior dance movie, but The Tales of Hoffmann may stand as the Archers’ most brazenly stylish work. Bouncing between the vignettes of its adapted opera, Powell and Pressburger wildly vary sets, mood and movement (of dancers and camera) in a fit of orgiastic style. The whole may not equal the sum of its parts, but the film’s pleasures are so overwhelming in its isolated moments that it still manages to awe almost as much as their more cohesive displays of perfectly ordered excess.

9. A Canterbury Tale

It seems so fitting that the first major work of literature in the English vernacular is a foundational text in British humor, and somehow it makes sense that Powell and Pressburger would take look to it for their own view of England. In updating and reworking the material, the Archers offer an amusing look at the ways people are divided by a common language, and how they come together and remain apart in certain areas. The local man who goes about gluing ladies’ hairs to remind them of their fealty to their British boyfriends, the frequently alienated Oregonian sergeant suddenly finding a common tongue with fellow woodworkers as other Brits look on cluelessly. All of these glimpses of country life, and more, shade in a subtle celebration of British spirit, self-effacing, even a bit resigned at times, but proud and noble. Powell and Pressburger always approached propaganda from an odd angle, but never one so delightful as this.

8. The Small Back Room

Mixing the harrowing portrait of alcoholism of The Lost Weekend with a thriller narrative, The Small Back Room trades the Archers’ visual bombast for a confined view of a self-medicating alcoholic who must help defuse a new, booby-trapped German bomb being dropped on the island. But no bottle can stay corked around a sot for too long, and the expressionistic camerawork common to the filmmakers’ other movies soon rears its head in the form of withdrawal hallucinations and the mounting stress of its climax. One of the pair’s most straightforward works, The Small Back Room is nevertheless a good a showcase for their effortless perfectionism as any.

7. 49th Parallel

49th Parallel points to the remarkably subversive and un-propagandic propaganda films the Archers would make during the war. Much as the film depicts the Nazis stranded by the destruction of their U-boat a degenerate killers, it also bothers to dig into the beliefs of the Germans as they struggle toward the border into then-neutral United States. Nearly all in the group openly express dissent with the ideals they are forced to accept or are visibly hollowed out in order to make space for that horrid code. Here is a propaganda movie that remains with the enemy, that stays with them long enough to erode their ideology until only the unbending, grotesque rock is left. Like any truly British propaganda film, its chief weapon is dark, subtle irony: when one of the remaining Germans hesitates over selling an executed comrade’s field glasses for food, another replies, “They belong to the Fatherland. It wouldn’t let us starve, would it?” Even the ending, a hilariously rousing fade-out from a certain ass-whooping, only counts for so much nationalistic cheer in the face of its human contention with the other side.

6. I Know Where I’m Going!

Not many idyllic, romantic traipses around the Scottish countryside begin with a social climber’s dream of eroticized industrial imagery to show her equation of sex and capital. But then, not much about this film fits the mold: its technical exercises prevent the film from lapsing into pre-neorealism, while it makes an early pushback against the coming postwar influx of capitalism by favoring the quiet, emotional aspects of British life over the promise of a powerful and strategic union (hint hint). The Archers may have done their share to make sure Americans were welcomed by British soldiers, but this romance marks a subtle but firm push to keep Great Britain’s spirit.

5. Peeping Tom

Released just before Psycho, Powell’s solo effort Peeping Tom is in some ways the more disturbing film. Its conceit of a serial killer driven to murder through his recorded voyeurism is one of the first explicit critiques of the exploitative properties of filmmaking, and the shots of the camera inching toward the victim make the audience shockingly complicit for a film released in 1959. It still gets under the skin, too, and it only ever becomes more disturbing the more one delves into Powell’s other work, so rich in the humanism that has been conditioned out of this film.

4. Black Narcissus

If Powell/Pressburger’s postwar films communicated their fervent wish for Britain to live up to its incredible sacrifice, Black Narcissus is their darkest and most unsettling instruction, turning outward from emotional repair and strengthening bonds with allies to the question of the nation’s now-openly hypocritical imperialism. The conceit is brilliant—nuns sent to civilize the wilds of India find themselves driven to despair and madness by a land they do not understand—but the execution more so. One of the handful of films that could lay credible claim to the greatest use of color, Black Narcissus brims with such expressive force that something as small as the application of lipstick nearly resembles a Grand Guignol flourish.

3. A Matter of Life and Death

Who has watched The Wizard of Oz and not wondered why Dorothy would ever want to return to the dreary monochrome of real life after living in lush Technicolor? A Matter of Life and Death inverts its color schemes, portraying the real world in joyous color while heaven, for all its splendor and glory comes across in stiff compositions and black-and-white. With the world still wallowing in death, the film does not glorify the afterlife but this plane of existence, where wrenching but euphoric things like love mean even more now that so many could not enjoy them ever again. Set during the dying days of the war, A Matter of Life and Death sets its sights on new causes worth fighting for, not national conflicts worth dying for but human achievements that give us a reason to live.

2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The blustering, reactionary face of an aged Colonel Blimp that opens this film reflects the satire of the comic strip it adapts. Then, the Archers move deeper, probing the life of extraordinary social, political and national upheavals that made that pompous old man who he is. The result is the greatest tribute to, and gentlest critique of, the British Empire, embodied by a man who lives equally by brashness and honor, who epitomizes nationalistic fervor but forms his closest friendship with an “enemy” who seems so unlike the faceless Other conjured by propaganda and xenophobia when met as a person. So many of Powell’s films, with and without Pressburger, display a capacity for multitudes, but never was the Archers’ ability to be shamelessly sentimental and brutally, unflatteringly honest more pronounced.

1. The Red Shoes

The best of the Archers’ work is pure cinema, and they don’t come any purer than The Red Shoes. It is a cinema of elegant but ebullient subjectivity, carefully ordered and formal but dizzying in its impact. An impresario fears life may interfere with art, and the artist under his thumb sacrifices her own for her art. Dance, a communication beyond words and sound, perfectly fits Powell’s visual gifts. Indeed, though there have been many more superior dance sequences in other films, no other film has filmed dance so cinematically, with key edits, daring effects work, and subjective superimpositions. It is the ultimate celebration of artistry, and the ultimate testament to the despair it can create.

Thursday, December 27

Capsule Reviews: Girl Walk//All Day, Sound of Noise, Sound of My Voice

Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick, 2012)

Watching Jacob Krupnick’s Girl Walk//All Day, my focus was initially drawn less to Anne Marsen’s wide-smiling, unashamed dancer than the parade of awkward smiles and uncomfortable glances of the real pedestrians of New York among whom she leaps and twirls and slams. But what would a portrait of New York City be without some crazy person making the average person on the street alternately amused and anxious? Girl Walk//All Day gradually builds as it wears on, Marsen’s infectious energy spreading among other dancers who intermittently pop up and, occasionally, random bystanders who get caught up in her rhythm. Admittedly, the filmmaking isn’t nearly as inventive as the soundtrack that inspired it, but the energy builds and builds throughout until I found myself more entertained than I had been all year. The film’s only exchange of dialogue (delivered in subtitles as the music continues to dominate the soundtrack, almost recalls The Red Shoes’ “Why do you dance?” dialogue. A Hasidic Jew asks Marsen, “Why are you dancing?” with a look of mild discomfort and genuine curiosity. “Because I’m happy,” she cheerfully replies, still bouncing. The man smiles. “You should always be happy.” Grade: B+

Sound of Noise (Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, 2012)

Stomp made into an anarchic hunt for unshackled music, Sound of Noise is, by turns, a caper and a romantic comedy, pulsing with its unorthodox percussion and tittering with its makeshift cymbals and blocks. A metronome becomes the equivalent of a bomb detonator for a group of anarchist drummers who make the world into music, thus rendering it soundless for the tone-deaf policeman who chases them. It is a great conceit and routinely funny in execution, but what the film is not is the city symphony for Malmö it feels as if it will become at nearly every moment before falling short. Its ingenious street compositions are thrown off by routine plot mechanics that not only puts too much dead air between performances but often interrupt the few bits of music we get. The film is still enjoyable, but it feels like so much untapped potential. Grade: C+

Sound of My Voice (Zal Batmanglij, 2012)

The Sound of My Voice recalls other recent films about cults—Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Master—not merely in its subject matter but in its strengths and weaknesses. In all three films, the actor playing the cult leader does an exceptional job of capturing the ambiguous tone between someone projecting freewheeling improvisation and eerie omniscience. But Brit Marling’s excellent performance, all soothing but firm suggestions that crucially stop just short of direct commands, is undercut by everything around her. All cults are thinly sketched (the aforementioned cult movies even make this a key aspect of their observed sects), but rarely are the people they comprise so vague as well. Sound of My Voice offers no sense of how or why anyone ever gravitated toward Marling’s Maggie, much less how they developed the fanatical loyalty necessary to overlook her obvious fakery. Oh, but is it fakery, dear reader, for the film contains a twist! Admittedly, it does go to the trouble of laying track toward the climactic revelation, but the twist still feels like a lazy counter to everything the film had been saying to that point. Grade: C-

Wednesday, December 26

Barbara (Christian Petzold, 2012)

This wonderful German drama feels like a thriller that draws all of its suspense from the moral quandaries that flash across Nina Hoss' focused eyes in an instant, a world of possibilities (most of them dismal) processed in a second. Petzold's camera proves that subjective shots not only do not require handheld shaky-cam but are often foiled by it. His calm, level gazes produce an intense feeling of always being watched, save for when Barbara retreats to areas of howling, microphone-drowning wind. One of the year's best.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, December 24

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, 2012)

It is both immediately apparent and hard to believe that Alex Ross Perry’s second feature, The Color Wheel, is entirely scripted as the director claims. The flesh-peeling barbs that Ross Perry and co-writer Caren Altman lob at each other as warring siblings Colin and J.R., respectively, are so deft and precision-targeted that the broader strokes of improv responses seem inadequate for producing them, yet the speed and rhythm with which they deflect and parry feels so spontaneous, not at all memorized and practiced. The dialogue is as separated from the prevailing status quo of American comedy as it separates the characters from each other, from the sardonically drawled “Nice shirt” that opens the film to a multi-front war the siblings open between themselves and everyone around them.

Likewise, Ross Perry’s direction serves to radically break the film from modern trends of American independent filmmaking. Instead of being shot on affordable, slick, color DV, Ross Perry and cinematographer Sean Price Williams use black-and-white, gloriously grainy 16mm film stock. The choice of filming material is the film’s first and best-sustained joke, its anachronism an ironic reminder that its format used to be the preferred method of filming “realism” but now looks like artistic license. What was shorthand for real now looks decidedly the opposite when stacked against HD video, and it makes one wonder when that, too, shall be seen as almost classical. And though the film concerns two twentysomethings in the grip of anomie and stagnation, the 16mm removes The Color Wheel from even the most stretched definition of “mumblecore,” a nebulous term carelessly used by all (including this writer). Nothing about this is Sundance fare, but that only further defines it as a true independent work of art.

Compared to the shallow focus blurs that have announced protagonists’ insularity for the last few years, Ross Perry and Williams favor deep focus shots of alternating distances. The characters of this film are certainly solipsistic, but Ross Perry ably communicates that through starker, more distanced shots, using the sense of space rather than suffocating proximity to capture his characters’ loneliness. The camera also adds a visual element to some punchlines, such as when J.R. makes dark jokes about her brother being molested and Ross Perry cuts to a brief insert shot (possibly in J.R.’s POV) of a close-up on Colin’s crotch. In another instance, Ross Perry revitalizes the tired smash-cut punchline of someone insisting he or she will not do something and then suddenly there they are, doing that very thing. Ross Perry himself starts the complaint when J.R. insists Colin buy some new clothes, but the director had himself cut off in the editing bay, placing the abrupt cut not at the end of his refusal but before it even finishes. Shot patterns tend to move from farther away to close as a scene wears on, the squabbles between J.R. and Colin and the pair of them against others segmenting people from each other via the confines of the frame.

This movement of big to small is reversed by the dialogue, which starts with astonishing bluntness and gradually spirals out into more abstract jabs. Conversations between the siblings play as if rewinded, the passive-aggressiveness typically saved for deeper into the chat as the more withering remarks are dispensed with first. It is as if they acknowledge the easiness of a frontal assault and thus make it the first level of their game and save the more complex, oblique snips for the challenge of sustaining a battle. The pair’s interactions with other people, though, are less linear. Around others, they turn their singles game into a kind of doubles, and the rules shift to reward the sibling for getting the closest to directly attacking someone else without getting caught.

This can be seen most playfully near the start of the film, when the brother and sister stop at a motel on their way to J.R.’s ex-boyfriend to collect her belongings. The motel is run by an arch-conservative loon so committed to only allowing married couples to share the same room that he will not even allow siblings to share one. Thus, he prompts a quick battery of sarcasm from Colin and J.R. as they pretend to be husband and wife and see just how obvious they can make their scorn without being noticed. (Even so, the manager gets his revenge in a portent of plot developments to come.) The other third parties with whom they come into contact, however, bring their own ammunition. J.R.’s ex, her former professor, greets J.R. with his new student squeeze hanging on his arm and proceeds to taunt her as viciously as Colin. Likewise, a later party that sees Colin and J.R. tricking each other (and themselves) into attending a party with old high school friends where everyone gets in on the one-upmanship as everyone lies about their status in life and sets about forcing another to tell the truth. Whomever breaks first, loses.

Ross Perry introduces Colin and J.R. as such loathsome creatures that it can be a shock to be confronted by the outside elements, who are even worse. Instead of wallowing in his protagonists’ mutual loathing, he gradually, subtly brings them together, even bringing a certain level of empathy to these hyperbolically alienating people. J.R. needs to be told to grow up, but when such lines come out of the mouth of a professor who blithely sleeps with his students and talks as childishly and venomously as the leads, the lines refract back onto his own personality. Similarly, the party sequence masterfully dismantles the urge to gloat over old classmates, as any attempt to display intellectual and material superiority will only paradoxically revert the contenders back to high school, where they were all equally unimportant. In both cases, J.R. is reduced even further to childishness as her vain attempts to verbally destroy her targets push her closer to desperation.

Perhaps that is why J.R. and Colin slowly grow closer: they snipe at each other as hard as they do for anyone else, but neither has any sliver of superiority that makes their lonely anger useless in toppling a foe. Ross Perry regularly lays tracks toward the film’s climax from the start, undercutting the shock of its twist but better staging it as the final punchline, albeit one as unexpectedly sweet as it is transgressive. The Color Wheel emerges, wildy, brazenly and unorthodoxically, as a perverse fable, a mad visualization of the line that exasperated parents try to tell their bickering tots, “You’ll be there for each other when no one else will.” In a film that shows off such incredible camerawork and such dark but uproarious dialogue, the carefully set up moral plotting is almost icing on a cake, albeit one that confirms this film, and its maker, as one of the most exciting things to hit American indie filmmaking in some time.

Saturday, December 22

Merry Xmas!

Dear Friends,

I'm having a vacation break now. I wish you all a merry Christmas and a Happy 2013. Brand new posts will come out in mid-January. Thanks for your constant support.

Claudio Azevedo

Thursday, December 20

Capsule Reviews: End of Watch, Flight, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

End of Watch (David Ayer, 2012)

Whether the cops in End of Watch talk like cops matters less than the joy of them talking like actual human beings. Jake Gyllenhaal and partner Michael Peña enjoy a natural chemistry that works with Ayer’s hyperactive, disjunctive direction to give the impression of normal police work on L.A. streets even as the calls to which they respond are not only blatantly cinematic on an individual basis but also link up in a building narrative arc. That frenetic direction is the result of handheld cameras, most of which appear diegetically, toted by cop and criminal alike as their colleagues attempt to dissuade the would be filmmakers from carrying around evidence against them. It figures: the one time these characters are spared the weight of allegorical importance, they strive to be symbolic stars of their own movies. Admittedly, the sheer frantic collision of shots holds the film back, but it also pays off in some nearly surreal setpieces, especially during a rescue effort in a burning house that actually manages to communicate the terror of heat forming physical barriers and exits being lost behind smokescreens at a second’s notice. Besides, the technique cannot be too distancing, as End of Watch creates an immediacy of emotional connection rare to cop films. Grade: B+

Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012)

Doing press for this film, Robert Zemeckis objecting to an interviewer’s question about what it was like to return to live action, asserting that he had never left. Judging from this film, though, he’s still making cartoons. The opening plane crash sequence is one of the most thrilling sequences of the year, in which the tension of mechanical failure is compounded by the question of just how functioning an alcoholic Denzel Washington’s pilot is. Washington suits the role well, his mix of natural charm and the increasing droop of his hang-dog neutral expression preparing him for the task of facing the world with a dubiously believable smile while always standing on the brink of his self-control. But Zemeckis cannot let Washington’s subtleties sell the picture, instead relying on ridiculous side players (one woman’s brief “Praise Jesus” rivals the totality of John Goodman’s “Sympathy for the Devil”-scored entrances as a Brundlefly version of The Dude and Walter Sobchak) and thudding moral twists to put forward a message far blunter and more one-sided than the real ambiguity Washington suggests. And yet, for all the plodding obviousness of Zemeckis’ choices (not to mention the hilariously on-the-nose soundtrack), Washington’s performance stayed with me after watching it. Initial, mixed-to-negative thought slowly crawl toward a positive appreciation of the honesty that Washington, if not the film around him, brings to a subject that usually fares even worse than some of the eye-rolling clichés found within this uneven picture. Who knows, maybe after a revisit I will like it even more. That I want to revisit it at all places it on a level above Zemeckis’ motion-capture work. Grade: C+

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson, 2012)

Freed from the debate over its much-lambasted 48fps 3D presentation, the first of Peter Jackson’s strung-out Hobbit trilogy is a stupefyingly bad film in its own right. Jackson’s inconsistent direction of the Lord of the Rings films is compounded here by the general lack of tactility stemming from the transition from a mix of CGI and physical effects to all-digital wizardry. The results make for tacky, clearly fake production design, makeup and effects, all in service to a lugubrious story that takes pains to introduce a cast of characters for whom it does not care in any way. Even Martin Freeman’s natural comic timing does not get a chance to shine, and the host of dwarves he accompanies manage to be even more indiscriminate from one another than in Tolkien’s pages. It is disastrous filmmaking, its chaotic, incoherent action setpieces nothing more than the video that will play in the waiting line for whatever amusement park ride is made out of this travesty. Grade: D

Monday, December 17

Les Misérables (Tom Hooper, 2012)

When set against the experience of seeing a production of Les Misérables,Tom Hooper’s adaptation single-handedly disproves Chaplin’s notion that life is tragedy in close-up and comedy in long shot. Hooper is so fixated on the musical’s reputation as a tear-jerker that he has no sense for its epic sweep, and his camera is rarely more than inches from an actor’s face as he or she sings. At times, performers even lurch suddenly toward the lens in a disorientingly pop effect, a gesture of spontaneity that sometimes comes across as their way of saying, “Would you back the hell off?”

Based, of course, on Victor Hugo’s epic, social romance novel, Les Misérables is one of the few musicals ripe for the current fetish for “realism” (emphasis on the quotation marks). Hooper always makes sure each face is covered in grime just so, that the stars’ teeth are not sparkling but also not blackened like the extras or significant characters of disrepute. These details make the film seem more fake than a stage show, not less, though the camera does such a fine job of its own on that front that the relatively minor sin of aesthetically arranged grit. One might not even notice this if, again, Hooper could bear to mix up his agonizingly long close-ups with a medium or long shot that lasted more than a second.

Hooper’s awkward framing should be familiar to viewers of the John Adams miniseries, and I almost gave in to hope that the more freewheeling style afforded by the genre might give his distracting direction a stronger foothold to remotely reflect the content. But that reasoning is, of course, flawed: shoddy filmmaking on a vast scale can only be that much worse than the same lack of talent closer to the Earth. The wide-angle lenses, the haphazard editing, and the inability to ever be more than two shots away from a close-up rob nearly every song of its power by turning every performance into a mediocre music video.

And for someone who makes the camera more noticeable and prominent than any of the actors, Hooper also proves infuriatingly literal when it comes to adaptation. Some numbers feel tethered to the stage with too short a leash. Take, for example, the downturn of already low fortunes for Fantine (Anne Hathaway): on stage, the actress playing the character would necessarily have to move from a sewing job to prostitution in one movement to save time. On screen, though, the fast edits that track her descent ironically feel as if they pass in real time more than the unbroken movement of a live production. One makes allowances in suspension of disbelief for a tacitly agreed-upon pass of time in a theater, yet Fantine’s fall appears to occur within the span of, oh, about 90 minutes as Hooper presents it, turning her sad story into something more akin to self-aware comedy.

Even that cannot hold back Hathaway, however. Having already proved the most electrifying and focused aspect of the overstuffed and underwritten Dark Knight Rises, she gives an even better performance in a much worse film. She walks a balancing act as Fantine, mixing the broad naïveté and innocence necessary to give her woeful existence a shade of instant heartbreak with the believable weariness of someone with a much more realistic and frank knowledge of the world. The film peaks early with her showstopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream,” in which she turns Hooper’s banal style to her advantage with the tiniest shifts in her face as her wistful recollection turns slowly to full anguish. The subtleties she loads into her to-the-rafters expression also makes for the only payoff to the much-ballyhooed talk of the cast’s singing being recorded live. All the theoretical ups of this decision are displayed in her performance, where the ragged, low moan that chokes her voice attains a visceral power that elevates the gimmick from an overhyped brag of doing what stage players have done with the musical for decades now.

Sadly, no one else enjoys these benefits, and the actors’ talents are left to the mercy of the careening movement of the camera. Hugh Jackman, for example, can sing, but none of his performances convey anything of Valjean’s redemptive arc. On the other end of the spectrum, Russell Crowe’s dismal singing becomes oddly endearing as he goes one further than the speak-singing everyone employs and instead SHOUT!-sings every single line he has. In a film so drearily serious, a bit of accidental camp is a welcome relief, and his hilarious miscasting entertains more than any of the songs outside of “I Dreamed a Dream.”

That, fundamentally, is the film’s failing. For all Hooper’s irritating incompetence, he might be forgiven had he invested the numbers with any life. Instead, he takes bad songs like “Master of the House” to an all-new nadir and saps all of the energy out of rousing pieces like “Can You Hear the People Sing?” and “One Day More.” As the act-ending centerpiece that collects the melodies and lyrics of most of the songs that came before, “One Day More” is the best song of the production. By virtue of collecting pieces of all of Hooper’s treatment of the other numbers, though, this version stands out as the worst disappointment of the film, its clueless cutting between groups serving only to sever the cast from each other instead of uniting them. Les Misérables climaxes with a doomed revolution, but Hooper’s isolating close-ups leave one wondering how a rebellion ever got off the ground at all.

Friday, December 14

Water for Elephants: Possessives ('s), Vocabulary Practice - Circus & Colors

This is one of the best romantic films that I saw last year. I used this scene to talk about circus and possessives ('s)

I. Check the artists/activities you can see in the segment.


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 Trapeze swinger

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 Stilts walker

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Human cannonball

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Fire eater

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 Animal acts

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Tightrope walker

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Lion tamer

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II. Look at the character's clothes and animals. Decide which color they are.

The acrobats:

The clown:

The dog:

The horses:

The Ringmaster:

The trapeze swingers

III. Write sentences saying the colors. Follow the example:

The ringmaster's clothes are red.



It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt, 2012)

Don Hertzfeldt brings a trilogy of short films about a psychologically impaired everyman named Bill to a close with It’s Such a Beautiful Day, his longest and most ambitious work to date. The 23-minute film is a tour de force for the filmmaker from its opening images, which flicker onto the screen and back into darkness with a literal gasp. Hertzfeldt’s prior two films, Everything Will Be O.K. and I Am So Proud of You, delved into Bill’s life with aesthetic subjectivity. The director’s mash-ups of forms, avant-garde collages of images, objects and lights, were never more prominent as he used them to visualize the poor protagonist’s slipping grasp on reality as his mind slowly rebelled against him.

Taken with those films, as a feature-length fusion of the three shorts now allows, It’s Such a Beautiful Day begins as a (relatively) logical continuation of the mounting visual instability. On its own, however, the Brakhagean intensity that ushers in this final chapter is radical in its immediate impact and only more powerful when the intellectual play of the construction is bent toward emotional communication. The foundation of Hertzfeldt’s wild compositions are deceptively simple pencil drawings, the sort where a single figure is always visibly shifting even when not moving as each frame shows contains an outline with subtly different shading.

Yet even this stable grounding can be subverted when Hertzfeldt blacks out the screen and animated in a hand-drawn, amorphous thought bubble. This creates a blank area around most of Bill’s life, broken up only by the myopic splotches of repetitious activity against a void a broken image of memory loss and the anchors of rote that keep him going, even though he does not know why he continues to perform these same actions. But then, can someone without mental and memory impairments answer that question any better?

Hertzfeldt alters this basic style in a myriad of ways, including live-action shots amid various tricks of light and three-dimensional objects. He creates a play of images overwhelming in their individual and even collective placement, objects that pass by so quickly that merely identifying them is a challenge in itself, much less what that object “means.” Of course, film is an object of motion, and what each piece of Hertzfeldt’s puzzle is and symbolizes (if anything) is secondary to its effect when combined with 23 other frames of action each second. The abstract imagery, then, has meaning only in what it conveys from second to second, and what it conveys (to me, at least) is an overwhelming sense of loss, confusion and anxiety. Some of Bill’s unexplained illness can feel vividly concrete and specific, yet Hertzfeldt’s wise decision to leave his protagonist’s issues unnamed permits a universality. Bill’s inability to get a handle on anything past his perfunctory routine, the feelings he cannot place when looking at a face that seems familiar but distant at the same time, these are exaggerated and visualized but still resonant takes on life itself. Life is chaotic, fleeting and overwhelming, and if Bill seems to have more downs than ups, sometimes it is hard to tell which is which until looking back in retrospect.

The greatest moment, however, occurs when the film appears to end, naturally, on a down note. Suddenly, Hertzfeldt’s own psyche shatters and wars with their Ur-self, demanding that Bill not suffer so sad a fate. Hertzfeldt then hits rewind, gradually moving back from the brink and then gaining speed as a mere aversion of fate becomes a total reversal of it. It is the most brazen ending since F.W. Murnau likewise changed the logical end of his character in The Last Laugh, only Hertzfeldt goes further than Murnau’s cheeky break in fortunes. As Bill goes from a mentally collapsing basket case to the smartest man who ever lived, Hertzfeldt fulfills all the greatest dreams we hold for the characters we love. But then, he keeps going, until Bill achieves an immortality that proves, in its own way, to be worse than death. It is a masterful piece of bravura filmmaking, and one that truly announces Hertzfeldt as not merely a gifted, absurdist delight but one of the finest filmmakers working in America today.