Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Aesthetics vs. Politics in Koyaanisqatsi

As a technical exercise, I can't praise Koyaanisqatsi highly enough. The question of what to even call it is enough to give reviewers pause—is it a documentary? a motion-picture essay? a visual poem? At its most basic level, it's essentially a 90-minute montage, and the way it plays with the Kuleshov effect (how an image changes in relation to what precedes & follows it) is equally brilliant and fascinating. It opens with a 2001-level cut across time from cave paintings to space travel where the exhaust from a shuttle launch seems to burn through the primitive artwork. You might think that an hour and a half without dialogue would be a hard journey, but the film is actually quite enthralling, thanks in part to its incredible pacing: after an admittedly slow start, the tempo progressively builds with tricks like timelapse photography (some of the most impressive I've ever seen) to speed up the images and the "story" (there's no traditional narrative, but the images tell a story of their own).

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Stanley Kubrick's Failed Beginnings: Fear and Desire

Fear and Desire is the feature debut of cinematic super genius Stanley Kubrick, and the real mark of his intelligence is that he tried to have every copy of it destroyed. There are some evocative visual compositions (foreshadowing his penchant for creative cinematography) and the screenplay tries to be an allegory for the psychological trauma of war (themes he would return to later in his filmography), but even though it hints at the masterpieces yet to come, for the most part the movie is simply awful.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Style As Substance: Lighting in All that Heaven Allows

Lately I've been fascinated with melodrama, in particular the way its priorities differ from the expectations of what we might loosely refer to as a "good film". In general, we seem to want relatable characters in realistic situations which in turn evoke an emotional response; but in melodrama, everything is backwards. As Sidney Lumet once said, "In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story." Perhaps this is why the term has come to take on pejorative connotations in recent years: in melodrama, emotion comes first, even if it's at the expense of character or narrative. In melodrama, sentimentality is king.

If characters in a generic melodrama emerge from the story, characters in a Douglas Sirk melodrama seem to emerge from the lighting. In All That Heaven Allows, Sirk uses color saturation and light/dark contrast to communicate the emotions of his characters: oversaturated color for emotional overload (feelings almost spill out of the characters into the color palette) and dark shadow for emotional repression (feelings are pulled so far inward that they suck the color and light out of the image).

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Style As Substance: Framing & Faith in Ida

Ida is one of this year's Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, and the only one of the five to be nominated in a second category (Best Cinematography). It is about a young Nun in post-WWII Poland who leaves her monastery in order to learn about her family from her only living relative, her aunt Wanda. Wanda was a prosecutor during the Russian puppet government, and together the two women investigate their dark pasts in an artistic commentary on the restrictive confines of Catholicism and the residual trauma of the Holocaust. Most importantly for the following analysis, the film is structured around a central visual conceit, and as such it will likely split audiences into those that find it enhances the experience of the film and those that find it distracting.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Style As Substance: Melodrama Meets Action in The Island

"Just because people want to eat the burger doesn't mean they want to meet the cow."

Take Logan's Run, graft on some Fahrenheit 451, lift in a few visuals from The Matrix, sprinkle on some ideas from Blade Runner, place it in a world stolen in equal parts from Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Giver, and you've got The Island, a vague approximation of every science fiction trope to ever enter the popular imagination. The story is so derivative that it lost DreamWorks millions of dollars in out-of-court copyright infringement settlements. At its heart there's the remnants of a message about how the hierarchy of capitalism turns the lower class into a product to be consumed by the aristocracy, but any teeth this critique might have had are filed off when the second half of the film turns into a series of mindless chase sequences.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Style As Substance: Step-Printing in As Tears Go By

As Tears Go By, the first feature film from Hong Kong director/cinematic mastermind Wong Kar-Wai, offers up all the stylistic flourishes which would eventually become his trademark. Even if it's not quite on par with some of his later work, it's still beautiful and fun and immensely impressive, especially for a feature debut. Imagine if Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets were directed by the late great Tony Scott and you actually have a fairly accurate approximation of what it's like. Wong blends violent crime with romantic melodrama in a way that will make you think the two were born to be together. But as much as the film is deeply steeped in American genre traditions of the 1980's, it works just as hard to violate those traditions and become its own unique creation—as well as part of what helped shape Hong Kong Second Wave cinema.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Staging Corporate Evil in The Bad Sleep Well

"It's not easy hating evil. You have to stoke your own fury until you become evil yourself."

The Bad Sleep Well is so carefully and intricately plotted that it's hard to say much about it without heading into spoiler territory. It's a tale of corporate corruption which takes inspiration from Shakespeare's Hamlet, transforming the Kingdom of Denmark into 1960's Japan. Structurally it plays out like a backwards version of High and Low, beginning with a police procedural grounded in strict realism and slowly becoming smaller and more intimate as we learn who's working for whom. The film is a bit hard to follow (much like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), but this is where Kurosawa's expertise comes in: he makes it more comprehensible and constantly entertaining through his love of intricate staging.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Gone Girl: What's Lost from Page to Screen?

Gone Girl is a film which works perfectly well on its own (it's arguably one of the best of the year), but which changes if you've read the book before watching it, and that's a more rare occurrence than some people may assume. Films ought to be weighed on their own terms to avoid the common complaint that "it was worse than the book," but often filmmakers don't take enough risks to justify distancing ourselves from these comparisons. In this case, however, cries for a return to the source material are slightly more justified here because of the complex and controversial nature of Gone Girl's subject matter.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Metacinema & Self-Awareness in Transformers 4

"A new era has begun. The age of the Transformers is over."

"Sequels and remakes, bunch of crap."

Michael Bay may be an immature, misogynist, homophobic idiot, but he knows exactly what his role is in the modern cinematic landscape. Transformers: Age of Extinction opens with American inventor Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg), Bay's surrogate within the film, discovering a derelict Transformer (Optimus Prime) inside a derelict movie house. He is saying (whether he realizes it or not) that if the Transformers die, the theaters die.