Monday, January 21, 2019

A Best Of The Year List In Which I Write Nothing Bad About Any Movie At All


Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Nothing released in 2018 was as good as “mother!” So I'm not sure we can really say it's been a great! year in cinema. But I still saw some good movies.

MY TOP FILMS OF 2018

Hale County This Morning, This Evening (Ross)
Shirkers (Tan)
First Reformed (Schrader)
24 Frames (Kiarostami)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Coen)
The Other Side of the Wind (Welles)
Zama (Martel)
You Were Never Really Here (Ramsey)
Black Panther (Coogler)/Avengers: Infinity War (Russo Brothers)
If Beale Street Could Talk (Jenkins)


Hale County This Morning, This Evening: Director/producer/writer/cinematographer/sound designer/editor RaMell Ross chronicles the lives of two young African-American men and their families in rural Alabama over the course of several years. That description doesn't even begin to do justice to Ross's remarkable debut feature. Combining impressionistic imagery with on-screen text and a dense, evocative soundtrack, Ross crafts a unique audiovisual language that allows viewers to adapt to its rhythms. Ross juxtaposes the personal with the celestial, sometimes playfully like when he cuts from a Chick-Fil-A waffle fry to the ghostly image of a partially eclipsed sun. In a stream-lined 78 minutes, the film expresses both unbridled joy and inconceivable tragedy. Ross has made a cinematic poem of radical empathy, and the most beautiful documentary I've seen in years. Move heaven and earth to find a way to watch this movie.

Shirkers: I guess we can't quite call Shirkers Sandi Tan's debut feature. Tan's documentary is actually about her own first film (also called Shirkers) which she made as a teenager with friends in her home country of Singapore. If you've never heard of it, well, there's a reason for that. The stranger-than-fiction story of how Tan's film was lost (stolen) is a jaw-dropping mystery in its own right, but I was even more moved by her ability to evoke the excitement of budding cinephilia. Tan and her friends built their own punk aesthetic around the films they loved and often struggled to find in Singapore (Jim Jarmusch and other American indie darlings among them) which eventually led to the DIY making of the lost (stolen) Shirkers and then to this documentary. Tan's writing and narration also strike a series of perfect chords. I love everything about this documentary, which is currently available on Netflix.

First Reformed: I'm delighted that Paul Schrader finally got to make his Diary of a Country Priest movie. It feels like he's been talking about it for nearly half a century. Schrader's film isn't quite on the level of Bresson's masterpiece (by which I mean one of the 100 greatest films ever made, though probably not a top five Bresson) but Ethan Hawke delivers the performance of the year as a priest tortured by the specter – no, make that the verifiable reality – of global environmental catastrophe, and the stupid, immoral species that could stop it but won't. His solution to the problem is... unique. But his ethical and spiritual struggle is a universal one, at least for that dwindling portion of the populace still tethered to reality. Everyone, please stop trying to interpret the ending, and just revel in the mystery.

The Other Side Of The Wind and 24 Frames : Two of the year's best new films are by deceased filmmakers which isn't really that surprising; dead people have numbers on their side. One of the most baffling recurring criticisms I've ever read about a movie regards Alexander Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002). Said criticism goes: “If it wasn't shot in a single take, it wouldn't be so great.” Which is true, but, now stick with me here, it was, in fact, shot in a single take. So shut up. Likewise, some critics of The Other Side Of The Wind (shot in the 1970s, only recently completed and now released on Netflix) have suggested it wouldn't be received so rapturously if it wasn't a once-lost film by Orson Welles. But it is. And much of the film's pleasure derives from watching Welles (via on-screen-proxy John Huston as an embattled film director working on his final project) dunk on “these damn kids” of the '70s and their precious Antonioni-oni-o movies. The film is the finest and most inspired of messes, both hilarious and heartfelt, and every bit as radical as anything by the younger celebrated art-house darlings of the era. Plus Peter Bogdanovich (“What did I do wrong, daddy?”) and Norman Foster deliver great supporting performances. And Oja Kodar...

The late Abbas Kiarostami's 24 Frames is also great, and I already reviewed it here. I also previously wrote about the not-at-all-dead Coen brothers The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Zama: I admit that I was lost during the first half hour of Lucrecia Martel's newest film. After reading a brief plot summary online, I was able to stop worrying about what was happening, and let the rich images and sounds just wash over me. The title character is a sadsack Spanish officer stationed in an 18th century South American country ostensibly to administer the colony. Instead, Zama waits and waits and waits some more, eventually realizing he is in charge of precisely nothing, not even his own fate. Martel's indictment of colonial hubris is as wryly funny as it is formally accomplished.

You Were Never Really Here: A burned-out Joaquin Phoenix strives to rescue a girl from a powerful sexual predator. It might sound weird to say that such heavy subject matter winds up just barely mattering to the film, but director Lynne Ramsey appears to be more interested in color, sound, and texture than in narrative. Fine by me! She's continuing her formal experiments from We Need To Talk About Kevin with, to my taste, far greater success this time. Ramsey has created a sometimes overwhelming audiovisual experience, at once immersive and jarring and difficult to process on a single viewing.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever! DC Never!

Avengers: Infinity War: Grossly overstuffed, planet-hopping at breakneck speed, explaining the story in needless detail but still not making much sense, shortchanging all but a few characters, replete with gods and robots, and trying to wring sympathy from deaths that no sentient viewer believes will last through the next installment, Infinity War is a near-flawless page-to-screen adaptation of the maxi-series crossover events that have driven the comic book industry (sometimes into the ground) for the past thirty years. I loved every overwrought second, and I hope the next “Avengers” runs at least four hours. Starlord's still a tool, though.

If Beale Street Could Talk: James Baldwin infused with a touch of Jacques Demy romanticism. Tish and Fonny are the great movie love story of the year (2nd place: Orson Welles and Oja Kodar's ass). KiKi Layne is also the breakout star of the year. I'm baffled as to why James Laxton isn't getting more attention for the most lustrous cinematography in any American film this year. Is director Barry Jenkins really not even forty yet? That's just ridiculous.

A few quick honorable mentions:

Alice Rohrwacher's Happy as Lazzaro is an Italian neo-realist fable until it becomes totally something else and I wouldn't dare spoil it for you, but it's great. On Netflix. Julian Schnabel's At Eternity's Gate isn't a great film, but Willem Dafoe is a fantastic Vincent Van Gogh, despite or because of being 25 years older than Van Gogh ever lived to be. In the, like, totally psychedelic Mandy (dir. Panos Cosmatos), Nicolas Cage wields a series of oversized mystical blades in order to chop up demon bikers and Satanic cultists, and I don't want really want to know the kind of person who wouldn't want to watch that.

2018 was such an awful year (not talking movies here), I won't add to the misery by discussing any of the critically acclaimed films I thought were rotten. God, there so damn many... but no.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days


4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, AND 2 DAYS (Mungiu, 2007)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date January 22, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

In just his second feature film, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu wasn't shy about tackling a challenge.

Set in 1987 at the tail end of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” (2007) concerns a young woman seeking an abortion in an authoritarian state that has all but outlawed the procedure. As if the basic subject wasn't thorny enough, writer/director Mungiu also chose to make the young woman rather difficult to like, or at least difficult to fully sympathize with. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is passive, forgetful, flighty, and relies almost entirely on her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to negotiate all of the details of a complex (and illegal) deal. Safe in the security of being the “unreliable one” in the relationship, Gabi exploits Otilia's courage and conscientiousness, with harrowing repercussions for both of them.

It's understandable then that Mungiu tells the story from Otilia's perspective. It's an inspired decision, as is the casting of Marinca who, making her film debut, delivers one of the best performances of recent years. Bristling with steely pragmatism, Otilia solves each new problem that comes up (even finding a hotel room is absurdly complicated), and plunges ahead when she feels vulnerable, intimidated, and even betrayed by Gabita. Though clearly under great stress, she holds herself together even when threatened by Dr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the monstrous abortionist who demands a steep price for his services.

Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu certainly understand the power of framing. Once “Doctor” Bebe, having terrorized the women before performing the procedure on Gabi, finally leaves the seedy hotel room, the camera remains fixed solely on Otilia as she sits and tries to recover. In one of the film's several long takes, she speaks to the off-screen Gabi, trying to figure out why her friend made so many terrible decisions in this whole process and put them both in peril. Leaving Gabi's feeble responses off-screen vividly underscores the dynamic between the two women and makes Otilia seem all the more heroic when she responds not by lashing out, but by continuing to support her vulnerable friend. Otilia is the stronger one, and Gabi needs that strength. So Otilia gives it.

The film delivers another tour-de-force shot when Otilia reluctantly visits her boyfriend's family for a birthday party. In a single shot running over seven minutes, an understandably frazzled Otilia looks entirely alone at thecrowded dinner table, the tension ratcheting up with each passing second and soaring to near unbearable levels when we hear a phone ringing off-screen. It might be the still-recuperating Gabi calling for help, but Otilia cannot move to answer it and, perhaps at that particular moment, doesn't really want to.

Mungiu paints a convincing portrait of a corrupt surveillance state where the black market is not only an open secret, but operates more efficiently than the official bureaucracy. You can buy prohibited American cigarettes from virtually anyone, but you can't check into or leave even a no-star hotel without having your ID scrutinized. Trust is in short supply in Ceausescu's Romania, which makes Gabi all the luckier to have a true-blue friend like Otilia.

“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” hit the festival circuit just after fellow Romanian director Cristi Puiu's bleak-comedy “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005) wowed global audiences, and it won the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Festival. Its success prompted a full-blown critical frenzy over the emergence of the so-called Romanian New Wave. The very existence of a “new wave” was debated from the instant it was first dubbed – do a handful of directors constitute a wave and should they be lumped together simply because they're all from the same country and of roughly the same age? 

A little more than a decade later, all we can say for sure it that Romania has produced more than its share of great films, and that Mungiu was no flash-in-the-pan, having directed several well-regarded movies since, most recently “Graduation”, also part of the Criterion Collection. None of them have been quite as nerve-racking as "4 Months..." but it's difficult to think of any film released since then that could clear such a high bar.



Video:
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image detail is sharp, and the rather drab color palette is faithfully rendered. This isn't a film that's meant to look beautiful, but this 1080p transfer is strong.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track isn't called on to do much. There's almost no music, and the sound design is spartan, but the audio is crisp and distortion-free. Optional English subtitles support the Romanian audio.

Extras:
Criterion has included an array of extras with this Blu-ray release.

First up is a 2016 interview with Mungiu (37 min.) in which he provides more historical context about late-'80s Romania and talks about the challenges and advantages of using many long takes, especially knowing there will be minimal post-production editing.

In another 2016 interview (24 min.), film critic Jay Weissberg talks both about the film and the broader Romanian New Wave movement.

Criterion has also included the entire press conference (44 min.) for the film from the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The panel includes Mungiu and most of the cast.

We also get a 2007 documentary titled “The Romanian Tour.” The feature explains that there are few film theaters in Romania, so a tour was arranged for the film to be shown in various non-traditional venues. This documentary showcases both the people who conducted the tour (most of whom are German) as well as feedback from Romanian audience members, many of whom were seeing their first film in a theater in many years.

The disc also includes three Alternate/Deleted Scenes, running 13 minutes total, as well as a Theatrical Trailer (2 min.)

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an excellent essay by critic Ella Taylor.

Final Thoughts:
I can't believe it's been more than ten years since “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” was the talk of the festival circuit. I actually have a flashbulb memory of the first time I watched this remarkable movie. Criterion has provided a strong transfer and a solid collection of extra to supplement their release of one of the landmark films of the 21st century.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

24 Frames



24 FRAMES (Kiarostami, 2017)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Jan 8, 2019
Review by Christopher S. Long

As the late, way-beyond-great Abbas Kiarostami's final film, “24 Frames” (2017) can't help but stir up conflicting feelings. The posthumous release of the Iranian master's last feature partially fills the void left by his 2016 death from cancer, but however beautiful the movie is, it is also, as a title card shown in the film's final segment reminds us, the end.

“24 Frames” was a multi-year labor of love for Kiarostami, who was still editing the project on a laptop from his hospital bed. The film's structuring conceit is a deceptively simple one. A still image shows only a frozen split-second of time, but this only invites the viewer to speculate about the image. Where did it come from, and what happened next? Working with visual-effects artist Ali Kamali, Kiarostami begins with 24 still pictures and constructs a four-and-half minute film around each, imagining the events immediately preceding and/or following the still scene.

The film counts out the frames from 1 to 24. In Frame 1, Peter Breughel's famous 1565 painting, “Hunters in the Snow,” is augmented by animated smoke puffing from tiny village chimneys and a curious dog circling the party. The remaining 23 frames are all photographs taken by Kiarostami, including many largely-unpopulated landscapes with snowy woods and beach scenes particular favorites. In each short film, the still scene slowly comes to life, often due to the presence of digitally-added wildlife, crows streaking across the sky or cows tramping through the snow. Aside from Breughel's eponymous hunters, we see little sign of people until the halfway mark.

Sound design plays a major role as well. In Frame 21,probably my favorite of the shorts, we look through a thick window-shade at the silhouette of a tree listing in the wind. Loud off-screen footsteps indicate activity in the room, and then the shade is pulled up to reveal the nature landscape in its full glory. Classical music swells to create a surprisingly cathartic moment.

It's one of several shorts which initially requires viewers to guess what they're watching, details only gradually being fully revealed. Some of the shorts provide just the sketch of a narrative – a seagull may be standing vigil over a dead comrade or just taking a break while foraging. But most invite audiences simply to look and listen, sometimes at broad vistas (a roiling ocean of breaking waves) and sometimes through restricted viewpoints, such as Frame 14, an Edward Hopper-like image (I'm thinking “Rooms By The Sea” here) in which we peer out of a dingy room through a window at a partially-viewed event transpiring on the street.

Each short induces the quiet contemplation that fans have come to cherish in Kiarostami's work, and perhaps bring to mind Kiarostami's frequent claim that he doesn't mind one bit if viewers fall asleep during his movies. The shorts also amplify the continuing focus on the act of looking itself that became ever more prominent in the director's later work, such as “Shirin” (2008) in which the camera fixes on a series of women's faces as they watch a movie off-screen.

While I found watching “Shirin” an act of unbridled joy, “24 Frames,” while every bit as riveting, leaves me more uneasy. In “Shirin” the pleasure is in looking at real faces, and speculating about the thoughts and feelings playing out in their expressions in real time. “24 Frames” is, by contrast, largely an animated film, an act of manipulation rather than a record of reality. The final result is beautiful, hypnotic, and sometimes deeply moving, yet I can't help but feel a sense of loss, not just for Kiarostami, but for the power of the photographic image itself, the source of much of cinema's allure for over a century. I can't fully articulate the discomfort about this save to say, “But I don't wanna watch cartoons! I want real!” In the hands of a visionary like Kiarostami, these animation tools can produce something glorious, but there aren't any more Abbas Kiarostamis.

Instead of looking at “24 Frames” as a record of the transition of a medium, perhaps it's best to view the film as an ebullient showcase fora multifaceted artist. Kiarostami is best known by global audiences as a feature-film director, but he was also a graphic artist, a photographer, an illustrator of children's books, and a poet. “24 Frames” synthesizes these media and influences into a hybrid project like few others, and a final film that shows an accomplished artist who reached his peak several decades ago and never took so much as a single step down from the heights.

Is it too simplistic to say that while watching “24 Frames” I laughed and I cried? Well, I did. For a whole host of reasons. A week later, I haven't stopped thinking about it which is pretty much the effect most Kiarostami films have had on me. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Considering that the movie consists largely of video animation, it's a little difficult to assess the video quality. It's sharp and has a smooth, glossy look which is probably true to the source.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track consists mostly of music and sound effects like footsteps, the flapping of bird wings, cows mooing, etc. It all sounds clear and provides a sense of dimension and atmosphere.

Extras:
Criterion has only included a few extras with this Blu-ray release, but they're all of interest.

In a short interview (8 min.), Ahmad Kiarostami, son of the late director, speaks about his role in shaping the final cut of the film. Abbas Kiarostami worked on many different “frames” (short films) for the project, but always planned to include just 24 in the film. When the director passed away, there were still 30 shorts being considered for inclusion. Ahmad wound up cutting out all the paintings except for the Breughel that starts the film.

In a short discussion (10 min.) film scholar Jamsheed Akrami and film critic Godfrey Cheshire discuss the film and the various influences from Kiarostami's career that helped to shape it.

We also get a short documentary (14 min.) by Kiarostami collaborator Salma Monshizadeh which shows Kiarostami at work on the project. Of particular interest are the scenes where we see the director working on shorts not included in the film, including his take on paintings like Millet's “The Gleaners” and Wyeth's “Christina's World.” I don't know if edited versions of these segments still exist, but it sure would be nice to see them as extras one day.

The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an exceptional essay by film critic Bilge Ebiri. Mr. Ebiri also recently took to Twitter to share the thoughts of another devoted fan of the film.

Final Thoughts:
Abbas Kiarostami was still innovating fifty years into his career. “24 Frames” is a remarkable final film from one of the world's greatest modern artists.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

A Story From Chikamatsu


A STORY FROM CHIKAMATSU (Mizoguchi, 1954)
Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 13, 2018
Review by Christopher S. Long

Released just two years before Kenji Mizoguchi's death from leukemia at age 58, “A Story From Chikamatsu” (1954) shows the Japanese master continuing to experiment with form more than thirty years after his career began during the silent era.

The film adapts an 18th century play, but actually takes its name from the author, the celebrated playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu who specialized in “double-suicide” stories, tragedies about doomed lovers. The doomed lovers here are Osan (Kyoko Kagawa), the much younger wife of a wealthy and cruel scroll merchant (Eitaro Shindo), and one of the merchant's apprentices, Mohei (Kazuo Hasegawa). An act of kindness by Mohei to help his master's wife out of a financial bind results in the two of them being forced to flee as fugitives. The penalty for adultery (a mere accusation will suffice) is a brutal one in this rigid law-and-order society, as one might glean from the film's alternate title in some countries, “The Crucified Lovers.”

In adapting Chikamatsu's play, Mizoguchi also incorporated some of the traditions of the bunraku theater (a form of puppet theater) in which the playwright often worked. Though there is a scene where Mohei cradles Osan at his side to lift her over a stretch of muddy water, it would be an exaggeration to say Mizoguchi directs his actors just like puppets. However, in many scenes, the actors' movements are tightly controlled, with a relatively distant camera situating them against the backdrop of the stage.

The shooting style doesn't really mark a major departure for Mizoguchi, always known for his long takes and lack of close-ups, but the film's sound design, borrowing heavily from theater, is more radical. Wooden clappers pound out an intense rhythm, sometimes banging loudly enough to jar the listener. Metallic clangs and insistent drums fill out the heavy percussion, accompanied by the more familiar plucked strings of the shamisen. The score (credited to Fumio Hayasaka, Tamezo Mochizuki, and Enjiro Toyosawa) draws enough attention to itself to be as prominent a feature as the narrative or the actors themselves. I'll leave it to real experts to determine exactly to what degree the music replicates the traditions of bunraku theater.

Mizoguchi combines these creative elements to depict a merciless society ruled by a disciplinarian ethos, where “justice” is determined exclusively by power and class. The slightest infraction is deemed punishable by death, and the lower-caste victims have internalized their oppression so much that they deem it a matter of honor to sacrifice themselves for the good of the rulers. In one of the most poignant scenes, Mohei's father expresses his deep contempt for his son's violation of the societal code, though he is not without compassion. The story revolves around a series of abuses and betrayals, but empathy and love transform the inevitable tragedy into a personal triumph of sorts, the only kind of victory the players can earn in a rigged game. At least, in the end, they will achieve the very thing every force in society conspired against: they will be together. 


Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. This “new 4K digital restoration” looks very sharp throughout with strong contrast in the black-and-white image. I feel like I wind up saying more or less the same thing with every Criterion high-def presentation of black-and-white films, but there's not much else to say. It looks great, with very little visible damage in this 60-year-old film.

Audio:
The LPCM mono audio mix is sharp and seems to do a fine job of presenting the distinct sound mix of this film, capturing all of those percussive beats at their sharpest. Optional English subtitles support the Japanese audio.

Extras:
The extras here are fairly slim for a Criterion release.

First up is a new interview (11 min.) with actress Kyoko Kasawa. Kasawa had already played the noble, sacrificing sister Anju in Mizoguchi's magnificent “Sansho TheBailiff” (and also appeared in Ozu's equally magnificent “Tokyo Story”) but she describes “Chikamatsu” as the first film in which she really learned the craft of acting.

We also get a lengthy video essay (2018, 41 min.) by film scholar Dudley Andrew, who focuses on the ways in which “Chikamatsu” is influenced by bunraku theater, though he also touches on a variety of other subjects.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Haden Guest.

Final Thoughts:
“A Story From Chikamatsu” is the ninth Mizoguchi film in the Criterion/Eclipse collection. It may not have as high a profile as titles like “Sansho the Bailiff” or “Ugestu” but it's a late-career gem from one of the greatest directors. The extras are on the slim side, but still engaging, and the restored high-def transfer is excellent.