All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.

([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)




A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness (Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, France / Germany / Estonia / Finland / Norway)
For this one, I interviewed the directors and wrote an extended review for Fandor. This is a complicated film, not necessarily within each of its segments (which are fairly straightforward in and of themselves), but in terms of the relationships among the components of the triptych. Rivers and Russell have simultaneously expanded their mien, and made a work that forms newly oblique angles within their own themes, and against one another. Here's the Fandor review. And the interview.




Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, France / Thailand / U.S. / Sweden)

With people turning against Winding Refn en masse on this one, I hate to join the dogpile. However, watching Only God Forgives, I wasn't surprised by the specific ways in which I found it wanting. I was a dissenting voice one Bronson, which many folks considered highly innovative filmmaking, and not just because of Tom Hardy's star turn. There was a sense of awe at the unconventional choices NWR made, like setting a slow motion fight scene to the Walker Brothers' "The Electrician," or employing lots of bare-stage tableaux and direct-address. But I found Bronson agonizingly inert, a series of well-appointed but disconnected pictures that had no cinematic motility. Jump ahead a few years, and Drive (which I stand behind) looks like the anomaly. Only God Forgives seems dead-set on emphasizing Ryan Gosling's new-found meme status as a structural principle, setting him up in scene after scene as though he's there to glower and stare. True, Winding Refn provides quite a few shocking red neon interiors for Gosling's poses. It resembles Gaspar Noé's eyeball searing faux-Asiania in Into the Void, which was certainly problematic in itself. But at least Noé understands the value of keeping the camera moving, plunging into impossible visual situations, so as to provide some semblance of psychological frisson (Is this a dream?) and avant-garde showmanship (The banal event resolves into Pure Light). But Only God Forgives breaks up the monotony with Kristen Scott Thomas's evil-mommy Cruella deVil, practically leading her son by the balls with a truly revolting Oedipal ooze. And, as a sort of B-roll refrain, the pilgrim's progress of Det. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), slicing and dicing his way through the men who sell their daughters into sexual servitude. Chang, it seems, is our "native" interlocutor, and he has the unenviable task of trying to stave off sexual violence and pedophilia in a country whose poor have been dominated by Western sex tourists and a local aristocracy who don't much care. But the film broaches this topic with zero compassion; it's just the pretext for a lot of the old ultraviolence. Chang's machete swings, blood spatters and spreads, and then it's back to the grim Gosling stare. It's almost artistic just how extraordinarily Only God Forgives thwarts every meaningful canon of cinematic expression. It's a highwire blunder, just a few kilowatt-hours shy of a total brown-out.


Prince Avalanche (David Gordon Green)

There seems to be a widespread impression that David Gordon Green is a director who has lost his way. I am not prepared to debate this question, but I will say that Green showed undeniable promise early in his career, not just in terms of his control of tone and his keen interest in regional matters, but above all in his apparent taste and predilections. I don't think there was ever any question that George Washington and All The Real Girls were highly derivative films. They seemed to broadcast, through a storebought bullhorn, that Green was a deep admirer of Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett. But if we remember Kubrick's dictum that a film director is really just "an idea and taste machine," then it's utterly forgivable for a talented newcomer to cut his teeth by channeling his cinematic heroes. Lots of filmmakers never move beyond this primary mimicry. The trouble with Green is, when he found his true voice it turned out to be surprisingly corny, lacking the depth that his early champions (of which I was one, in a measured way) just assumed would go along with his formal chops and his highbrow-70s fanboy jones. In their own fashion, films like the domestic-horror retread Undertow or the morose, fickle-finger-of-fate roundelay Snow Angels are every bit as rote and genre-worn as the stoner comedies that threw Green's arthouse following for such a loop. It's just that Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter are engaged with discourses wherein originality (and the sterling mark of authorship) is not so steadfastly cherished. That is, saying that Pineapple Express is like a hundred films before it is not, in and of itself, a qualitative statement. Saying the same about Snow Angels (which is true) is indeed a qualitative statement, because "art films" are expected to break new ground, even though they almost certainly never do.


This brings us to Prince Avalanche, held by some to be DGG's "comeback" film. (It should be noted, though, that his newest film Joe, starring Nicolas Cage, is now being held up as the real comeback. This guy gets more Mulligans than the Irish Tax Office.) The key here, supposedly, is that Green successfully combined his early lyrical phase with his slacker-stoner middle period, to create a kind of high-lonesome male bonding dramedy about loneliness and loss. What we have here, in point of fact, is an "odd couple" character doodle about Alvin (Paul Rudd), a guy whose fiancee has just dumped him because his fastidious mode of outdoorsy manliness is -- surprise -- largely a technique of relationship avoidance. He and Lance (Emile Hirsch), his would-have-been brother-in-law, a twenty-something ne'er-do-well (this is a film that prizes his compound hyphenates) are working road crew in a wooded corner of Texas, painting highway stripes and erecting mile markers as Rudd the mansplainer presumes to instruct Hirsch the stoner on what it takes to be a man. Confidence shaken, breakdown, bro-bonding, running half-naked through the woods, game over. Trouble is, Green constructs both characters as a series of tics and gestures, pseudo-Hartley dialogue repetition, and an attentiveness to mundane labor that in no way trusts an audience to attend to its subtleties. (An overbearing score makes sure we know the film knows that, like, painting likes on asphalt is stupid.)


There is one scene in Prince Avalanche that not only towers over every other, but displays just what a fine film Green might have made, had his attentions lighted elsewhere. The area where the men are working has recently been ravaged by wildfires. At one point, Alvin happens upon the former site of a home that has burned to the ground. All that remains are the foundation, a few half-walls and a massive pile of wet black rubbish. He finds the former owner of the house (Joyce Payne) scanning through the piles of remains, looking for her missing pilot's license. This encounter is real -- Joyce was an actual resident of the Bastrop, TX, area, which was the most devastating wildfire in Texas history. She really did lose everything, and is sincerely searching in vain for a particularly precious scrap of paper. All artifice ceases in this moment, and considering the nerve-jangling amalgam of admiration and pity that Payne elicits, it's easy to see why Green wanted to make a film in the still-desolute remains of Bastrop. But this moment of unmediated human connection is fleeting. Prince Avalanche soon bops back into its primary groove: middle-level actors bonding in the forest and letting go of male repression (to an extent). In short, another male melodrama, with everyone else in strictly supporting roles. Including the earth.