Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Revenant

THE REVENANT (Inarritu, 2015)
In Theaters
Review by Christopher S. Long

I did not like “The Revenant” much at all, but I find myself agreeing with some of the film's boosters. The film's alleged “thin plot” is a virtue, not a vice, and the same is true of its alleged lack of characterization. Its shortcomings lie elsewhere.

As supporters note, director/writer Alejandro G. Inarritu and co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith strive for a brand of “pure cinema,” a film that immerses the viewer fully in a palpable experience, all cold winds swirling and treacherous mud grabbing at your tattered boots, and the stripped-down treatment of narrative and character are essential to that pursuit. Nineteenth century frontier scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is almost killed by a bear, abandoned to die in the snowy woods by the duplicitous fur trader Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and rises from his makeshift grave to seek revenge. Intricate subplots and so-called character development would only provide a distraction from this simplest of goal-oriented premises. Indeed, the script's most questionable aspect is the addition (from the novel by Michael Punke on which the film is “based in part”) of Glass's half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), intended to flesh out Glass and provide audiences a hook to sympathize with the protagonist. Because apparently they wouldn't care about him almost being killed by a bear and then buried alive by a lowdown dirty coward.

The content is just fine, it's the style that undermines the quest for pure experience. An early battle sequence in which Native Americans attack a group of mud-crusted, ragtag fur traders is quite an attention-grabber. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and his crew send the camera pirouetting through the muck in a lengthy unbroken shot in which dozens of flawlessly choreographed bodies stumble into frame just in time to be stabbed, shot down by arrows, or to grapple futilely with the next foe who rotates into the shot at just the right time. It's the first of several impressive stunts, including a harrowing escape on horseback that ends with a cliff dive into the abyss, so intricately staged it's... Did I mention flawless? How about perfect? Immaculate? And therein lies part of the problem.

In interviews, Inarritu has spoken at length about the arduous shooting on remote locations in Alberta, Canada and in southern Argentina, playing up the logistical difficulties in an effort to situate his film alongside famously gonzo productions like Werner Herzog's “Fitzcarraldo” (1982) and Francis Ford Coppola's “Apocalypse Now” (1979). Inarritu's cast and crew have every reason to be proud of their battle with the elements; the problem is that they won the battle so decisively. Where “Fitzcarraldo” functions as a documentary of its own daredevil making, constantly threatening to collapse under the weight of its reckless lunacy, “The Revenant” bears witness to a production team that tamed the wilderness, that bent nature's fury to the needs of a carefully controlled shoot that prizes polish and precision over chaos. Can a scene that takes months to block out and rehearse really engender the sense of feral immediacy Inarritu is after? I guess the answer is that it could, but here it just feels blocked out and rehearsed. The film is often muddy, but never messy.

The cartoon bear doesn't help. One of the many drawbacks to increasingly photorealistic CGI is that filmmakers feel the need (or perhaps the market-driven obligation) to fully showcase their digital critters. No need to oblique or suggestive (i.e. creative) when you've got such awesome FX; you just go full ursine, baby. In the film's pivotal attack, the bear lumbers through the snow with her cubs, stomps poor Hugh Glass into the muck, thrashes him about repeatedly, then wanders off and returns for seconds, its very realistic fur rippling and saliva dripping from its big ol' cartoon bear tongue as it mashes its big ol' cartoon bear claws right on top of Leo's crunchable skull. It is yet another impeccably choreographed sequence which might make the viewer ask “Wow, how'd they do that?” but does precisely nothing to pull the viewer into the world, to immerse one in the experience of the moment. In a recent “Film Comment” interview, Inarittu notes how important it is for this scene to look like a documentary, to make you feel that “You are there. You are being attacked.” This groovy video game cutscene misses that mark by a mile.

The cartoon bear isn't a deal-breaker, but merely another symptom of the underlying weakness. The self-conscious, stunt-oriented shooting style and the handful of heavy CGI scenes (a digital bison herd is another groaner) contribute to the weightless feel of “The Revenant.” Even as a very game and committed DiCaprio grunts and drags his broken body through the blood-stained snow, the film lacks anything resembling a visceral quality – you can all but hear “OK, Leo, action!” at the start of some shots. The much-publicized struggles on hostile locations have produced a film that, aside from some gorgeous nature panoramas, feels for all the world like it could have been shot in a studio. Calling it phony might be unfair, but authentic it sure ain't.

I wish to heck “The Revenant” really was “pure cinema” or an immersive experience as its fans claim. I'd have loved that movie. I am desperate for a film that really makes you feel like “you are there.” Instead, it makes you feel like you are in a very comfortable seat watching a very comfortable movie, and I guess that would be kind of OK if only that stupid bear scene was half as convincing as this nonpareil bear attack from an overlooked masterpiece:

Friday, January 22, 2016

Larisa Shepitko: Eclipse Series 11

Eclipse Series from Criterion, DVD, Release Date Aug 12, 2008
Review by Christopher S. Long

(As Snowmageddon approaches the Northeast, I started thinking about the snowiest films of all-time. Hey, sometimes I go for the obvious. When I think of snow in movies, I always think of “The Shining” but then I had a vivid memory of the battle sequence, described below, in Larisa Shepitko's “The Ascent.” Thanks in part to this Eclipse release, Shepitko's films may be a bit better known today than they were back in 2008, but it's safe to say she still remains criminally underseen by many viewers.

On the off-chance you don't have time to watch “The Ascent” while riding out the storm this weekend, make sure to put it on your list to check out soon. And, oh yeah, “Wings” isn't bad either. Isn't the Eclipse Series groovy?)

You may not have heard of Larisa Shepitko. Though she was a contemporary of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov, among others, her films have rarely played outside of the Soviet Union. In part, this is due to the fact that she died in a car accident at the age of 41 with only four feature films to her name as well as a few shorts and a television comedy. Filmmakers like Shepitko exist internationally only in the form of retrospectives at repertory theaters, and it is difficult to make a retrospective out of four films.

“Wings” (1966, 85 min., not to be confused with the silent American film that won the first Best Picture award) is her first post-graduate feature, and it is a marvelously astute character study. Nadezhda Petrukhina (Maya Bulgakova) was an ace jet pilot during the war but as she reaches her forties she struggles to find a sense of purpose in life. She believes strongly in her obligation to serve her country and fellow citizens, but she finds her job as a schoolteacher unsatisfying. It’s not that she isn’t devoted to her charges; she’s so passionate and dedicated that she steps in at the last minute to play a Viatka doll in a stage play. But like an ex-athlete who struggles to adjust to life out of the limelight, Nadezhda can’t make the transition from war to peacetime. What’s the use of being a war hero if you’re a forgotten war hero?

She spends much of the film wandering around town, catching up with old friends or spending time with her daughter Tanya (Zhanna Bolotva) who no longer has time for her. This is yet another challenge for the ex-pilot, adjusting from an identity as a mother to an empty-nester. Her daughter no longer needs her, her military skills are no longer in demand, and she is a single woman approaching middle age. She has slipped through the cracks of Soviet society and tries desperately to gain some purchase on solid ground whether through work or possibly even marriage.

None of the choices are as appealing to her as lingering in the past. In the film’s most lyrical scenes, Nadezhda thinks back to her time in the air. From her pilot’s point of view we see the wide open sky stretching out to the vanishing point, the sort of sublime imagery that Werner Herzog has made a career out of. But as the Stones once sang “Yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone.”

Bulgakova, then only 33, inhabits the role of the restless ex-soldier with an understated ease that generates tremendous empathy without histrionics or even an Oscar-worthy crying jag. Nadezhda is a bundle of insecurity who can hide her anxiety in comfortable settings, but roars like a bull in a china shop when on unfamiliar ground. For a war hero, she’s quite vulnerable and Bulgakova isn’t afraid to risk embarrassment in a few scenes, particularly when Nadezhda finally meets Tonya’s husband.

“The Ascent” (1977, 109 min.) was Shepitko’s final film. Made a decade later, it displays the same unhurried pace and lyrical tone of “Wings” but in the service of more visceral subject matter. Adapted from a novel by Vasil Bykov, the film follows two Byelorussian soldiers on a doomed mission to find help for their beleaguered unit as they try to evade the occupying Nazi force. Cursed from the outset, Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyukhin) come to terms with their fate in very different ways.

The first half of “The Ascent” is nothing short of brilliant, both as a war film and as a snow film. The snow is everywhere, not just in the trees and on the ground and on the lakes and falling from the sky, but in the soldier’s clothing, encrusting their faces, infiltrating their lungs as they struggle for raspy painful breaths. The list of films in which snow has been employed to equal or greater effect is a short one: “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Shining” and...? 

In an amazing sequence that proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that Shepitko was a virtuoso filmmaker, the two soldiers stand off against a company of Nazis. The enemy is barely visible through the driving snow. Sotnikov, shot and barely able to move, fires into the whiteness. Has he hit somebody? There’s no way to tell. For a moment it appears to be over, but then a return volley rings out. He fires again at a barely visible silhouette, ready to die rather than be captured by the Huns. Rybak, not nearly as eager to achieve martyrdom, begins to flee through the woods but returns to drag his crippled friend away from the fight.

There are other inspired moments in the film, particularly a scene when the soldiers hideout in a farmhouse, a cliché of “soldier on the run” films that Shepitko stands right on its hand, or perhaps she simply brings a more pragmatic, less gung-ho American perspective to the material. Unfortunately, the second half of the movie doesn’t quite match up to the inspired brilliance of the first. Not that it’s bad, but the film begins to feel rather predictable and overly familiar in its later stages. Tragedy has been inevitable from the start, but it unfolds in a mechanical and self-conscious manner that leeches it of some of its potency. Regardless, “The Ascent” is a success by any standard, and netted Shepitko the Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival.

Both films are splendid examples of a gifted filmmaker whose work has fallen unfairly into obscurity. The same fate has befallen hundreds of directors, of course, but it seems particularly unjust considering Shepitko’s tragic demise, leaving so few films behind and so much promise unfulfilled.

Both films are presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and both were filmed n in black and white. Both transfers are picture-boxed meaning some viewers will see black bars on the left and right of the screen. These aren’t fully restored transfers like the regular Criterion line. The whole point of the Eclipse series is simply to get as many lesser-seen films out on the market as possible, quickly and in an affordable format. “Wings” shows its share of wear and tear, but is still more than presentable. “The Ascent” actually looks quite strong for an unrestored transfer, and I have no substantive complaints about it. Black-and-white contrast on “The Ascent” is particularly sharp which is a good thing considering how washed-out some of the snowy scenes might have looked otherwise.

The films are presented in Dolby Digital Mono. Optional English subtitles support the Russian audio.

Like all Eclipse releases from Criterion, there are no extras although the inside sleeve of each DVD features very informative essay about Shepitko and each film.

Each DVD is stores in its own keep case. The two keep cases are housed in a slim cardboard slip cover.

Final Thoughts:
Both “Wings” and “The Ascent” achieve greatness at times, and even their weak points are stronger than most films. Larisa Shepitko’s films deserve to be seen by a wider audience, and this set from Eclipse provides Region 1 viewers the opportunity to see her best work. I love the Eclipse series. What a great idea and a great service to the cinephile community.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

By Brakhage: An Anthology

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date May 5, 2010
Review by Christopher S. Long

(Stan Brakhage was born on Jan 14, 1933. To celebrate the anniversary of his birth, I'm posting a revised version of my 2010 review of Criterion's sprawling two-volume "By Brakhage" release. I've been wathing Stan Brakhage films for about 15 years now and my feelings about his work change constantly. Which is why I keep watching them.)

Stan Brakhage’s hermetic lifelong cinematic mission has always been tinged with a mystical aura, sometimes to its detriment. Brakhage encouraged this impression at times by speaking of a Muse in literal terms, claiming to serve as a conduit to a force that “gave” him his films. For those of us grounded in an empirical worldview, this talk of revelation inspires skepticism, to say the least.

I don’t know whether or not Brakhage (who died in 2003 at age 70) really believed he was inhabited by a spirit or was simply aligning himself with the transcendentalists, but the Gnostic proclamations that surround Brakhage threaten to obscure the intensely physical nature of his work. Few directors were so intimately connected to the process and material of cinema. While even the smallest-budgeted feature films required something known as a “crew” who divvied the filmmaking process into different departments, Brakhage simply picked up his camera (16 mm at first, later 8 mm and super-8) and shot where and when he wanted to, not always alone (he took pains to thank his collaborators) but always on his own terms. He would frequently press his camera so close to his subject, nearly plunging the lens into the water while filming its surface for example, that he called to mind Groucho Marx’s famous line: “If I hold you any closer, I’ll be in back of you.”

And when even the interpolation of the camera lens prevented him from getting close enough, he set it aside and began painting directly onto celluloid, scraping away obsessively at the film strip itself. In the case of “Mothlight” (1963), he pasted blades of grass and moth wings directly onto strips of perforated tape. At times eschewing the use of actors and even the camera, Brakhage’s work proved that there was nothing essential to the definition of cinema except for the act of seeing and if there is any unifying factor in his prodigious and diverse body of work (the 689 minutes of work included in this 2-volume set from Criterion barely scratches the surface, pun intended) it’s the emphasis on vision.

Brakhage’s films share the same sense of purpose as the earliest actualities which celebrated the power of film to enable viewers to see moving images which were an attraction (to use Tom Gunning’s term) unto themselves rather than tools to convey a narrative. As with these actualities, most of Brakhage’s films were made without sound because he found it a distraction from the purity of the image and the viewer’s ability to perceive it. But unlike the early cinema of attractions, many of Brakhage’s films (at least those that were actually photographed) are heavily edited with some shots lasting no more than a few frames, his handheld camera moves freely intended, in some cases, to imitate the physical act of vision, the way that our eyes scan an object in a manner not much like the smooth pans and tilts of classical cinema.

In this respect, Brakhage’s movies, worshipped by his cult followers, feature some of the elements often derided as “MTV style” or, more recently, “ADHD style” filmmaking. I admit to finding some of his work frustrating for this very reason. The instant a beautiful image sparks into vision, it is gone, or at least distorted, which, to my sensibility, doesn’t always facilitate the “act of seeing” or the kind of contemplative mood that his work induces for many viewers.

But what his films do accomplish for me, and what I believe was one of his primary goals, is to encourage, no make that “require,” a whole new way of seeing, a naïve one like that of the imprisoned man-child in Werner Herzog’s “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” (1974) who literally sees the world for the first time and can only process it in bits and pieces, unsure which aspects to emphasize over others or what the “proper” perspective should be. It’s a pre-linguistic form of seeing, one not filtered by labels and acculturated filters; in other words, pure. This is most aptly manifested in one of Brakhage's central works, “Scenes from Under Childhood” (a four-part film, only the first section of which is presented in this collection) in which he imagines first what a fetus might see or hear, and later tries to see the world through a baby’s eyes. What do colors look like when you don’t know what a color is? Does the infant see everything from a flat, objective perspective where all elements in the field of vision are given equal emphasis? 

As you can imagine, Brakhage’s film are difficult to digest in a single viewing which means that home audiences are afforded an opportunity that prior audiences, watching his films projected in campus auditoriums or at repertory theaters, seldom had. The short length of much of his work (some only a few seconds long, many in the 3-10 minute range) also facilitates multiple viewings of these richly textured films. At 689 minutes and spanning approximately fifty years, the set is not intended to be taken in at a single viewing or even over just a few days but to be gradually processed over time, and then revisited years later.

Recognizing this, the producers of Volume Two of “by Brakhage” (Brakhage’s second wife Marilyn being one of the primary shapers of the collection) have organized the films into six separate programs, loosely organized by chronology though there is plenty of overlap: Program Two, for instance, covers 1967-1976 while Program 3 doubles back to cover 1972-1982. The flexibility of the Blu-ray enables viewers to choose their own path through Brakhage’s maze, and the films can be watched simply by timeline (everything on each disc packed into one “program”) or individually. Volume One, previously released by Criterion in 2003, is not organized by program and was also roughly organized in chronological order.
The Blu-Ray collection consists of three discs, one for Volume One, two for Volume Two. The films included are:


1954 • 6 minutes, 48 seconds • 16 mm • Monaural
1959 • 10 minutes, 47 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1961–64 • 74 minutes, 34 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1971 • 31 minutes, 50 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1959 • 6 minutes, 16 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1959 • 12 minutes, 11 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1963 • 3 minutes, 13 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1967 • 9 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1972 • 2 minutes, 24 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1981 • 1 minute, 43 seconds • 35 mm • Silent
1974 • 18 minutes, 27 seconds • 16 mm • Monaural
1987 • 2 minutes, 51 seconds • 16 mm • Monaural
1988 • 6 minutes, 35 seconds • 16 mm • Monaural
1987 • 6 minutes, 3 seconds • 35 mm • Silent
1986 • 30 seconds • 35 mm • Silent
1988 • 35 seconds • 35 mm • Silent
1990 • 35 seconds • 35 mm • Silent
1990 • 8 minutes, 16 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1992 • 10 minutes, 27 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1994 • 1 minute, 49 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1993 • 1 minute, 35 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1993 • 2 minutes, 19 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1991 • 6 minutes, 6 seconds • 16 mm • Monaural
1999 • 2 minutes, 19 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1996 • 2 minutes, 42 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
2001 • 10 minutes, 48 seconds • 16 mm • Silent



Program 1: 1955–67
1955 • 5 minutes, 34 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1960 • 10 minutes, 21 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1965 • 3 minutes, 11 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1967 • 63 minutes, 47 seconds • 8 mm • Silent

Program 2: 1967–76
1967 • 23 minutes, 46 seconds • 16 mm • Silent/Monaural
1970 • 10 minutes, 45 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1974 • 20 minutes, 58 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1976 • 10 minutes, 7 seconds • Super 8 mm • Silent

Program 3: 1972–82
1972 • 8 minutes, 1 second • 16 mm • Silent
1978 • 8 minutes, 2 seconds • Super 8 mm • Silent
1980 • 22 minutes, 18 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1977 • 14 minutes, 33 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1980 • 16 minutes, 24 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1982 • 17 minutes, 1 second • Super 8 mm • Silent


Program 4: 1989–90
1989 • 16 minutes, 19 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1989 • 16 minutes, 9 seconds •16 mm • Silent
1990 • 16 minutes, 36 seconds • 16 mm • Monaural
1990 • 17 minutes, 41 seconds • 16 mm • Silent

Program 5: 1982, 1992, 1994
1982 • 22 minutes, 15 seconds • Super 8 mm • Silent
1992 • 22 minutes, 24 seconds • 16 mm • Monaural
1994 • 34 minutes, 9 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1994 • 2 minutes, 52 seconds • 16 mm • Silent

Program 6: 1995-2003
1995 • 17 minutes, 44 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1997 • 14 minutes, 10 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
1997 • 16 minutes, 58 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
“. . .” REEL FIVE
1998 • 14 minutes, 6 seconds • 16 mm • Stereo
1999 • Total run time: 5 minutes, 54 seconds • 16 mm • Silent
2003 • 2 minutes, 18 seconds • 35 mm • Silent

When Criterion released “By Brakhage, Vol. 1” in 2003, there was a question as to the wisdom of transferring Brakhage’s medium-specific work into a digital format. It was a move that he initially resisted but embraced for the first DVD release which came just a few months after his death. Transferring this 8 mm and 16 mm work (as well as the “direct” films that were made without a camera) into high-def may raise another set of questions, but the process was approved by Marilyn Brakhage and Criterion has certainly taken any ethical and aesthetic concerns under consideration in producing this package.

Brakhage’s diverse production methods created a unique set of challenges in repackaging his work and I will let Mark Toscano, who writes a short essay in the insert booklet, sum them up: “Unlike with most digital mastering of films for high-quality home release, the goal of this project was not to ‘beautify’ the works by digitally tidying up their flaws. Brakhage’s films are not about surface perfection or cleanliness, and aesthetically they have very little to do with conventional cinema. In fact, no cleanup or image processing of any kind was performed. The most appropriate elements were chosen, and color correction was done in close consultation with representative film prints.”

Most of Brakhage’s films are silent. The nine films with sound are presented in Dolby Digital Mono that was “mastered at 24-bit from 16 mm optical and original full-coat magnetic tracks.” In the case of “Scenes Under Childhood, Section One” the film is presented with its original soundtrack as an option though Brakhage later preferred to screen the film, like the rest of the “Childhood” series, without sound.

The Volume One Blu-Ray is identical to the Volume One SD released in 2003. The only extras are four “Brakhage on Brakhage” interviews in which the director discusses his work, each clocking in at nine minutes.

Volume Two, Disc One includes three brief excerpts from the director’s salons. Brakhage held regular Sunday salon meetings at the University of Colorado at Boulder in which he would screen his work (sometimes for the first time) and lead a discussion. The three excerpts here run from 2-5 minutes each and were recorded by Phil Solomon.

Disc One also includes a 1990 interview (an excessively fawning one, in my opinion) of Brakhage conducted by critic Marilynne Mason. It runs 37 minutes. Finally, there is an Audio Lecture from that is part of the Beckwith Lecture Series at the Museum School of Fine Arts in Boston, given on Oct 7, 1996. It runs 50 minutes.

Volume Two, Disc Two includes two Salons and an Audio Lecture (66 min.) from an English class lecture given by Brakhage on Gertrude Stein’s poem “Stanzas in Meditation” at UC- Boulder on March 20, 1995. There are three more Brakhage on Brakhage interviews, running 6-7 minutes apiece.

Finally, there is the touching “For Stan” (2009, 16 min.), a film “lightly edited” by Marilyn Brakhage from footage of the director at work on his “Visions in Meditation” series in 1988.

The chunky 92-page square-bound insert booklet features essays by Marilyn Brakhage and Brakhage scholar Fred Camper. Short capsules describing each of the films in both volumes are also included, an invaluable aid for anyone navigating this sprawling set. Mark Toscano also contributes a detailed essay about the challenges presented in transferring Brakhage’s films to a digital format.

Final Thoughts:
“By Brakhage” is one the most ambitious Criterion releases to date, matching in scale their epic versions of “The Human Condition” and “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” It’s a far more complicated release than either of those projects, however, covering nearly fifty years of work and compiling films produced in multiple formats. This massive set was made not only with a tremendous amount of research but also an obvious love and respect for perhaps the most admired avant-garde filmmaker America has ever seen. “By Brakhage” doesn’t exactly have a lot of commercial appeal and is unlikely to set any Criterion sales records, yet the amount of work they poured into it is staggering. This is a scholarly contribution of invaluable dimensions.

The 3-disc Blu-Ray set of “By Brakhage” includes Volume One (previously released on SD in 2003) and Volume Two, a total of 689 minutes running time. For those who already have Volume One, Criterion has also made Volume Two available separately on SD though it is not available singly on Blu-Ray. The Blu-Ray package currently sells at full retail for the same price as the two SD editions would cost separately. It’s a difficult decision for owners of the original SD release, and it’s hard to advise on whether the Blu-Ray is reason enough to pony up double the money to have the entire BR set instead of just adding the Volume Two SD. Then again, if you’re considering it, you’re probably a Brakhage devotee in which case the Blu-Ray will be awfully tough to resist.