REVIEWS OF NEW RELEASES SEEN, MAY 2013
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)
Not that anyone was exactly chomping at the bit for it, but here is my extended take on Zürcher's marvelous debut film, courtesy of the good folks at Cinema Scope. As I hope I at least made somewhat clear in the piece, Cat is a phenomenally rich (and strange!) little film, and there are numerous points of entry, many more besides the ones I chose. Yes, the film is chiefly about family dynamics and how they are cinematically articulated in / through space (hence my comparison to Ozu, something I'm surprised that others didn't tune into immediately). But there is also a deep formal undercurrent involving differential senses and articulations of time -- not just human vs. animal, but present vs. past (the flashbacks having their own unique montage rhythms) -- that I couldn't really explore in the CS essay. No matter; that can be someone else's job, provided more folks get the chance to see The Strange Little Cat. I sincerely hope it's not too small and unobtrusive a film to attract an adventurous distributor. Anyway, here's the piece.
At the end of this year, a cited Journey to the West in a special Top Ten I wrote for Fandor, of films I thought had been "slept on" or generally ignored in the U.S. As luck would have it, Magnolia Pictures announced their acquisition of the film only a few days after my article went live, rendering my complaint (and the article) moot. ("Yay"?) I had worried that a Stephen Chow film without Stephen Chow onscreen would be a tough sell, especially after the lackluster CJ7. We shall see if North Americans respond as enthusiastically as Asian audiences have. Nevertheless, on its own merits, Journey to the West is an action-comic marvel, never quite achieving the heights of Kung Fu Hustle (Chow's masterpiece) but certainly equaling fine earlier work such as God of Cookery or Shaolin Soccer. Formed around the picaresque journey of deceptively hapless demon hunter Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen) and his rivalry / budding romance with more professionally accomplished demon-buster Miss Duan (Shu Qi), the film is essentially three gigantic setpieces. This is because the three major demons each receives an elaborate battle-capture sequence. The encounter with the fish demon involves high-wire balancing, collapsing pier sections turning into catapults, and large sections of wharf being swallowed by the massive aquabeast. It is expertly choreographed peril staged as black comedy, and its visual language recalls both Bong's The Host and Altman's Popeye. Next, the pig demon segment moves indoors, to a grotesque slapstick dystopia of blood and entrails, again calling to mind outside sources (Gilliam's Brazil, Jeunet and Caro's Delicatessen) but always constructed, framed, and fought through in Chow's own unique kinetic style. Then, well, the Monkey King shows up. He's not very impressive. But his anticlimactic presence is clearly by design. Not only is this a gag at the expense of audience expectation -- some publications of "Journey to the West" are even called "The Monkey King," so totemic is this figure in Chinese lore -- but this may well be a meta-joke on Stephen Chow's own absence from the film. But never you mind; Xuan Zang and Miss Duan do have to fight the Monkey King, but the other demon hunters who show up on the scene (like "Almighty Foot" and "Prince Important") are far more compelling.
Even though Journey to the West "goes big" in terms of its staging and cinematography, this is not some kind of postmodern goof on an old story for the benefit of some presumably ADHD-afflicted contemporary viewer. Stephen Chow is not China's answer to Baz Luhrmann. Instead, he has remained faithful in spirit to this pillar of Chinese classical literature, even while he has reimagined each confrontation in broadly spatial and architectural terms. Of course, Chow is a comic auteur, and there are some viewers and critics who will never be able to see past this. Although I have cited visual references above for particular scenes, overall Chow's work can best be compared with the Shaw Brothers comedies on the one hand, and Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin on the other. In both of these cases, respect was long in coming. But I think it is a felicitous coincidence that the North American release of Chow's film will coincide with the international premiere of an abstract featurette, also based on "Journey to the West," by Tsai Ming-liang, starring Lee Kang-sheng and Denis Lavant. Comparisons will be inevitable, and I think this time around Chow's artistry will be just as evident as Tsai's. Or, to put it in another framework: Stephen Chow is a master of world cinema who has turned to classical literature in order to give new shape to his formal concerns as an auteur. Like Manoel de Oliveira. Like Alain Resnais. Like Jean-Marie Straub. Like Jacques Rivette.
When I finally got the chance to see Campos' sophomore feature, following over a year's worth of grumbling in the wake of its world premiere at Sundance, I was rather surprised. No, of course this film is not as formally or intellectually audacious as Afterschool. But it seems to me that Campos must be commended for pushing himself in a notably different direction, not only by leaving behind the relative safety net of Indiewood for European filmmaking, but for resisting what I'd suppose to be an obvious temptation to hedge his bets by making Simon (Brady Corbet) a definite psychopath. As we know, audiences have been trained to be more forgiving of departures from natualism if there is a lunatic at the center of the diegetic universe, whose "warped perception" serves as a narrative vouchsafe for otherwise verboten experimentation. Personally, I think Campos' cinema has a reptilian ruthlessness to it, a sense of detachment that actually turns out to be a steady closing-in. I like this guy. Here's my review for the Nashville Scene.
I was fortunate enough to be alerted to Guillaume Brac by two very perceptive cinephiles, Roxane Mesquida and Dan Sallitt. This medium-length feature is the sort of work that can get lost in the shuffle of world cinema, although it seems to have made some significant waves in France and Brac released his first full-length film, Tonnaire, late in 2013. (It premiered at Locarno, where it was in competition.) And clearly we'll all be hearing from the guy. I have yet to catch up with his earlier shorts, which feature his signature actor Vincent Macaigne in the same role as Sylvain, a lonely shlub who seems to have a knack for entering (or generating) awkward scenarios through his inability to read social cues. The setting, the northern region of Picardy, creates a somewhat insular but distinctively French locale for the goings-on Brac stages with such seeming effortlessness. Sylvain the local plays host, superintendent, and new best friend to a set of vacationers: cyclist / ladies' man Luc (Julian Lucas), and an attractive mother / daughter couple, Patricia (Laure Calamy) and Juliette (Constance Rousseau), who are staying in Sylvain's cabin. Describing Brac's style is a bit difficult, because he adopts a self-effacing realism that foregrounds the dark comic tension of the awkward relationships among the four principals, particularly emphasizing Sylvain's class difference and how he assumes an air of lonely cluelessness but can manipulate situations to his advantage through passive-aggression. Brac's formal style would not be worth remarking upon at all, except that it is crisp, almost bracingly assured, drawing unpretentiously lovely classical images from two-shots and conversationally-driven exterior tracking shots. Some in the French media have cited Rohmer, and that is not wrong, although Brac is certainly a Rohmer for the age of Larry David and Ricky Gervais. The bottom line: within seconds of the start of A World Without Women, it's obvious that Brac is in complete control of his medium, and has developed his own unique stylistic voice. And my own Cinephile Law #1 ("Trust Dan Sallitt") now has a Corollary #1A ("Trust Roxane Mesquida").
Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days represented the closing decades of Romania's Communist regime as a non-stop pressure cooker by relying on somewhat artificial cinematic gimmicks. While there was no question that the Ceaucescu regime was no place to be a human being, much less a young woman in trouble, Mungiu seemed to mistrust his own material and his viewers' impulses, falling into horror-movie stylistic tropes to tighten the screws until nothing -- not even a money shot of a half-term aborted fetus -- seemed altogether shocking. His latest film is equally masterful, and to its credit, Beyond the Hills takes the time to develop that 4-3-2 insisted on compressing. Instead of the state, orthodox religion is the Big Bad this time, which is not to say that the state is altogether absent. Given Mungiu's odd, simultaneous tendency for allegory and rank literalism, the cloistered convent life depicted in Beyond the Hills could be a representation of state ideology by other means. But more logically, we can take the title at face value. This is a community apart, one that exists away from modernity while the larger world turns its head. The fact that Voichita (Cosima Statan) has become a nun while having an ambiguous lesbian past with Alina (Cristinia Flutur) is a bit of a red herring, one that Mungiu introduces only to further solidify the patriarchal image of the church. What's more, this permits him to turn his film into a kind of psychodrama, with Alina attempting to infiltrate the monastery in order to retrieve / "rescue" Voichita, only to be consumed by the mystic, psychological insidiousness of Christian ideology. This slippage has unintended consequences. Mungiu seems to think he is restaging Persona, as conditioned by the unfriendly confines of the church. In fact, Beyond the Hills places lesbian desire under the sign of emotional instability and borderline personality disorder. As with 4-3-2, Mungiu begins a feminist journey but gets lost along the way.
Is the road to hell paved with good intentions? Well, good intentions, or at least earnest attempts at making positive interventions in the social world, are quite frequently accompanied by silly, cringeworthy art. And since this stuff is usually embarrassing in its own time and thankfully forgotten after that, one might well ask, is there something else we could do with it? Maybe the roads -- if not to hell, then say, the seriously crapped-out Eisenhower-era interstate highway system -- could stand to be repaved with all the 90s slam poetry, coffee house folk CDs, pseudo-"controversial" mixed media artwork from the 1980s, and oh yes, miles and miles of personal memoirs. (Since we owe all this dreck to the social abuses of the Reagan Administration, let's find Ed Meese and Peggy Noonan and plow them under too.) But perhaps I digress. By all available accounts, James Franco is a bright young man. And he is currently riding an apocalypse of success (along with several Young Hollywood compadres) playing a douchier version of himself in This Is The End. But his reach sometimes exceeds his conceptual grasp. There is no reason, for example, that a counter-factual docudrama speculating about the 40 minutes of "missing footage" cut from the raunchy leather bar scene in William Friedkin's infamous Cruising is an inherently bad idea. Cruising is a film with a fraught history for gay male representation. At the time of its 1980 release, gay rights groups protested the film for what were perceived as negative depictions of homosexuality; over time its scenes of leather daddies and S/M have been at least partly recuperated by segments of the gay community less concerned with heteronormative values. The very idea of exploring what might have been cut from Cruising is an interesting one, because of all the competing forces bearing down on the project: the MPAA, of course, but also possible extrinsic pressures as well. How can the distance of history, with both Cruising's evolving meaning for gay viewers and the shifting (but hardly "evolved") standards for explicit gay sexuality onscreen, allow for a new imagination of what that "talking gap" in the middle of the film might have been? Sadly, Franco's contribution is a glib, faux-reflexive effort in which he performs his own enthusiasm for the project for his" manager" (who begs him not to do it) and his collaborator Travis Mathews (a "straight actor" who performs a kind of Pacinoesque fall down the rabbit hole of gay sexuality). There is the promise of an intellectual endeavor (Franco cites Roland Barthes early on, a propos of nothing), but it soon collapses into empty preening and self-satisfaction. Mathews plays a man in over his head, and Franco plays "James Franco," a bad-ass who enjoys getting away with something mildly naughty and acting like the anarchist-insider Teh Gayz have been waiting for. It ought to be offensive, but mostly it's just tedious.