Monday, August 27, 2012

The Best of Times

If you have a Blu-ray player, and especially if you can play discs from all over the world, this is a big week for you cinephiles out there. First, the wonderful people at Masters of Cinema have released Rumble Fish, one of Francis Ford Coppola's best films (yeah, I'd even put it a notch above The Godfather), in a splendid Region-B Blu-ray package, available today. My full review for that can be found at CriterionCast, but it is an essential addition to your library.

Then tomorrow, Criterion will be putting out what is hands down the best new-to-me film I've seen all year, Pál Fejös' Lonesome. I wrote about the film back in April after seeing it at TCM Fest, and I am absolutely ecstatic to get the chance to see it again, and on Blu-ray at that. I did not receive a copy for review or consideration, and will likely be paying for it like everyone else; I'm simply trying to spread the word as much as possible because I love the film so very much. The disc also comes with two of Fejös' other films (which I've not seen, but am, needless to say, very eager to), making it very much like a box set for the price of a single disc ($28 on Amazon, which is nothing for what you get from it). The image at the top comes from the film (which was designed for select uses of color), and should be more that sufficient to convince you.

I'm really hope these releases encourage more people to check out these largely-underseen, and certainly under-appreciated, gems. The canon of cinema is ever-expanding, both towards the future and deeper into the past.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I Forgot...How BIG...

I never knew Joe Versus the Volcano (playing tomorrow at midnight at Los Angeles' New Beverly Cinema) as a flop, though that is the unfortunate reputation with which it has long been saddled. It was introduced to me by the man who co-ran my high school's drama department (and whose class on playwriting was more valuable and formative than any writing class I took in college), simply as a movie everyone should see, and more pressingly due to the fact that our relationship largely revolved around talking about movies, as a litmus test. If someone he knew didn't like Joe Versus the Volcano, he simply didn't discuss movies with them. And knowing him, and knowing Joe Versus the Volcano, I could kind of see his point.

I've introduced the film to various people over the years, mostly met with some polite "it was cute" or "that was fun" responses. The occasional person totally got it. But it has remained near and dear to my own heart, and when I compiled my personal Top 100 list recently, I put it at #8 with little hesitation. At this point, it looms almost too large to discuss with any serious objectivity, so I won't bother. I simply treasure every second of this still-totally-unique piece of cinema. Elaborately designed and simply plotted, it celebrates life even as it respectfully acknowledges death. It bemoans the circumstances we so casually embrace, choosing instead abject bravery in an action as simple as asking a girl out to dinner, as monumental as making a one-time leap into a volcano.

Writer/director John Patrick Shanley came from the theatre, having seen eight of his plays produced by the time Joe Versus the Volcano was released. His film is unapologetically a marriage of the stage and screen, with some scenes feeling as though they'd be right at home in an off-Broadway production (Joe's office, and boss, are ready-made with their repeated, rhythmic dialogue and exaggerated set design), and others being impossible in any other medium. It'd be easy to point to anything on the boat for this (particularly its eventual fate), but I recall best a much simpler scene. From the outside of the building, we see Joe descend the interior stairs of his doctor's office, walk out the door, and hug a passing dog, all while the camera slowly pans back to incrementally reveal the scene. It's quietly operatic, underscoring the news with which Joe has just been saddled, and giving him an instant outlet to openly express it, all the while pointing out that there's a whole life surrounding Joe to which he is not yet attuned. It does what so many great shots do - encapsulates the entire film.

I could go on and on about the joys abundant in this film (it is still a comedy, after all, and a very funny one), but I'll leave those for you to discover. For those in the Los Angeles area, there is a can't-miss screening of the film tomorrow night (August 25th) at midnight at the New Beverly Cinema. Warner Brothers is leading the charge towards digital projection, so I had long since assumed I'd never get the opportunity to see Joe on honest-to-God 35mm, but here we are. I'll be in the front row, gazing towards the heavens.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Comply with Me, Comply, Comply Away

Compliance - about a group of people who subject themselves to increasingly humiliating treatment at the behest of a man on the phone claiming to be a police officer conducting an investigation - is a small miracle of tone and execution. Balance is everything. Tip everything too far against the protagonists, writer/director Craig Zobel could be accused of mocking his characters, who are having enough trouble already. Sympathize with them too much, you run the risk of looking a little stupid yourself. It doesn't take long for Compliance to get to the point at which I found myself saying, "well, now, I wouldn't do that," and I can only imagine that impulse has led to the many walkouts reported since the film's premiere at Sundance. But I don't go to the movies to see people do what I would do, or even what I would want or hope to do. I want to know what they would do, and what we as a people are capable of doing.

As such, Compliance is a grueling experience, a film I'd easily classify as a horror film even though it's free from any specifically identifiable monster. Sure, there's the guy on the phone, warping the perception of reality, but it still comes down to these people - a fast food manager, three of her employees, and her fiancee - and the decisions they make (and, as tellingly, the ones they don't) when given specific instructions. It goes beyond the question of knowledge of police procedure (and this film is, if nothing else, an object lesson on the importance of teaching civics) to basic questions of human dignity. When we think back on those times in which human beings were regularly, and quite legally, subjected to the kind of treatment (and worse) that Compliance deals in, it's easy to imagine those who stood up, said "no," and gladly sacrificed societal freedom for moral. But the truth is that most people went along with this treatment, and some aspect of our interior retains that impulse to comply with authority, even a perceived one.

Zobel recognizes this, and rather than mock his characters for their weakness, he chooses instead to sympathize with (though not excuse) them, underscoring once again that this is an innate aspect of humanity wrought large. As the manager, Ann Dowd gives what must be regarded as among the finest performances of the year, a ball of "yes sir" defaults, assumed authority, and a general mode of operation that demands she push through any unpleasantness without dwelling too thoroughly on the consequences. Early on, that means going around her regional manager's back to hide an oversight. Later, it will mean leaving her fiancee in a room, alone, with a naked girl. Later still, well...Dowd navigates her character's tricky sense of morality and duty with an assumed righteousness that is neither off-putting nor dishonest; it's the position we all take, in the moment if not in the aftermath.

She has a rapport with Becky (Dreama Walker), the subject of all the various misdeeds, that is very familiar to anyone who's worked these sort of low-wage, no-commitment jobs - friendly, yet assertive, eager to fit in with the mostly younger crowd she oversees, as long as she remains the one in control of the conversation. Becky, conversely, protests even innocent questions out of habit without ever putting up honest resistance; she's vocal, but not commanding. Walker is put in an almost impossible position as an actress, but she handles all the fear, uncertainty, and humiliation very well, giving into the discomfort in a way that almost implicates the audience for watching.

Along with cinematographer Adam Stone (the man behind the camera for Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter) and first-time composer Heather McIntosh, Zobel creates a terrible atmosphere of dread in which the question of things taking a turn for the worse is never asked, for the quicksand-like atmosphere demands it. At a certain point, it becomes clear nobody here is going to stand up and say, "no, that's going too far," for, once it's established that these people will come wade in the shallow end, there's no question that they'll eventually be dunking one another. It's a fascinating, tightly-controlled experience with some very messy people. Enormously complex in its abject simplicity.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Moving Pictures

I was deeply saddened last night to learn of the tragic passing of Tony Scott, a filmmaker whose work (Domino, shown above, in particular) I have long admired and championed at every opportunity. He was a termite artist in an era that seemed to have no use for such masters, so quickly are those with a true vision pushed through the machine towards more "respectable" fare. Scott seemed to actively avoid respectability, or at least traditional avenues thereto. In his 60s, he was doing the most radical work of his career, and outpacing those half his age. His ever-shifting, never-cemented aesthetic was a constant search towards expanding what we perceive the limits of narrative cinema to be, but his content was really something else altogether. Domino is aggressively alienating, rising to near-heroic status the types of characters cinema rarely even goes near, while Deja Vu is, in its own demented sort of way, a rosier version of Vertigo's foundation - falling in love with the image of a woman. It also has the wildest car chase you'll ever seen.

His final film, Unstoppable, was a much more mainstream work, but one which he lent no less of his considerable craftsmanship. By insisting on using real trains rather than CGI, you never forgot the stakes of the scenario, and knew every second that this thing could completely wipe people out. Domino was an equally hand-crafted film, a process I explained and praised in several blog posts (here, here, and here) if that's the kind of thing in which you might be interested. As I said on Twitter, Tony Scott was an innovator, adventurer, a superb craftsman, and a fearless experimental artist. I'll miss whatever he would've come up with next.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

I Talked with a Zombie

If life were fair (and it's not), stop-motion animation factory Laika would be putting out a film every year, and would be considered alongside Pixar as an animation house that consistently delivers the goods. And I know, two films in might be a little early to place Laika on what, for some, is rather rarified air, but when a company's first film is as audacious, thrilling, and moving as Coraline (2009), one tends to reflexively speak in hyperbole.

ParaNorman inspires similar ecstasy. Though it lacks the formal rigor and aesthetic looseness of their debut film, this is one of the more purely fun films you're likely to experience this or any other year, certainly in the animation division (a field once rife with invention that has become decidedly stagnant in the era of the computer). As the film begins, we are introduced to Norman, a horror aficionado who we immediately discover is a little out-of-place, in no small part because he believes he's communicating with his dead grandmother. It's not uncommon for kids to seek refuge in imaginary conversations, so we accept this flight of fancy, even if his parents are growing increasingly irritable with it.

And then we come to understand why. Not only does Norman talk to his grandmother, but in fact to all dead people, and this is in no way fueled by his imagination; this is very much happening. This lends his fascination with the horror genre a weird, intriguing duality, as if he came to love horror films to better understand himself (a theme to which many of us can relate, it should be noted). And while that may make his social life inconvenient, it does put him in the perfect position to attempt to prevent, and then later conquer, an ancient curse that will cause the dead to rise.

The film's first two-thirds are relentlessly funny, cleverly written and employing just the right visual references (a Halloween bit killed a certain section of the audience), intermixed with genuine gross-out humor (Norman wrestling a book from a corpse is one of the more unexpected, and unexpectedly hilarious, set pieces I've come across) and smart gags. "Where are the police when you need them?" asks Norman's father, a split-second before an officer rams her bike into his car and flies directly into him with the blink-and-you-miss-it comic timing only possible in animation. This is a film stocked with town looneys, exploding toilets, teenage stereotypes, and ghouls of all shapes and sizes (the monsters in this film are refreshingly grotesque). Never mind a rarified piece of suspense comedy that I will not go so far as to spoil here.

The family film has, like most genres, become more and more self-important as the years wear on, so I was not surprised by the turn it eventually takes, though I slowly sank into my chair as I came to realize the specific no-one's-really-that-bad conclusion towards which it was building. And I'd have come away with a significantly diminished estimation if it didn't deliver its rather banal and noxious message in an absolutely staggering display of animation and drama, one which never lets up on the thrills even as it becomes increasingly surreal and transportive. It's a huge, last-minute save that redeems a rather touch-and-go period.

One arena in this film that's sadly lacking is its third dimension. While Coraline remains the statement for 3-D cinema as a means for both thematic cohesion and visual delight, ParaNorman remains relatively tame, venturing beyond the screen only rarely. A few set pieces, such as Norman being chased through the forrest, really come alive, and it's always great to see stop-motion puppets and sets given that extra dimension, but the film never really takes it all the way, and I found this aspect largely unmemorable, a word I would not attribute to the film as a whole.

ParaNorman may pull its punches towards the end, but it remains a rare beast indeed, a film fueled by communal pop culture experience and familiar structure that somehow emerges from the other side a thing very much unto itself. When it's funny - and it often is - it's exceptional, and when it decides to go big or go broke, it becomes very rich indeed.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Then they change the subject. Now both of them have finished the book they have been reading for some time; their remarks can therefore refer to the book as a whole: that is, both to the outcome and to the earlier episodes (subjects of past conversations) to which this outcome gives a new significance, or to which is add a complementary meaning.
They have never made the slightest judgment as to the novel's value, speaking instead of the scenes, events, and characters as if they were real: a place they might remember (located in Africa, moreover), people they might have known, or adventures someone might have told them. Their discussions have never touched on the verisimilitude, the coherence, or the quality of the narrative. On the other hand, they frequently blame the heroes for certain acts or characteristics, as they would in the case of mutual friends.
They also sometimes deplore the coincidences of the plot, saying that "things don't happen that way," and then they construct a different probable outcome starting from a new supposition, "if it weren't for that." Other possibilities are offered, during the course of the book, which lead to different endings. The variations are extremely numerous; the variations of these, still more so. They seem to enjoy multiplying these choices, exchanging smiles, carried away by their enthusiasm, probably a little intoxicated by this proliferation...
"But that's it, he was just unlucky enough to have come home earlier that day, and no one could have guessed he would."
Thus Franck sweeps away in a single gesture all the suppositions they had just constructed together. It's no use making up contrary possibilities, since things are the way they are: reality stays the same.
From Alain Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy, a short passage musing on life, art, and how one is not so different from the other, experientially.

The critical tack A... (as she is called) and Franck take towards the novel in question is thoroughly discouraged in criticism, which seeks to unpack what is really in a film, not what we want to be there. a sense, it feels as though Robbe-Grillet finds something kind of beautiful in this more pedestrian approach. A... and Franck might not get to the heart of the novel, but in the journey, might find out something about themselves. Not a particularly noble gesture, but potentially more personally valuable.