The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

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“What is that fishy smell?”

Agnieszka Smoczynska’s debut feature film functions as a pastiche of “The Little Mermaid,” but it comes to us by way of smoky cabaret clubs of a Warsaw in the 80’s, New Wave synthpop music videos, and the queasy glamour of capitalistic excess. It’s a gritty fairy tale of slyly telepathic sister-mermaids whose siren calls satisfy carnivorous tastes – until one sister falls in love with her prey, and their world and their sisterly bond begins to disintegrate.

It’s more grim Grimm than gentle Hans Christian Andersen: no swift and bloodless magic here, just buzzing grinding surgeon’s tools, human legs and mermaid tails on beds of ice. But the surgeon drunkenly dances and the mermaid sings until her voice wheezes dry, and I remember I always did prefer the intoxicating horror of Grimm to Andersen anyway.

Does it all add up to a fairy tale moral or even a thematically cohesive whole? I’m not sure it does, but it does fully commit to its individual scenes: carnal, sordid, crunchy, or sexy, and like the immersive quality of a vivid dream, its overall sensations linger, far into the waking hours.

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The Lure plays at Grand Cinema on February 24 and 25. 

(Note: This review is adapted from my notes on 5/25/16 on Letterboxd.) 

The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, 2016)

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The Great Wall, an experiment in co-production between Hollywood and China, opens with the spinning globe of the Universal Studios logo, its computer-generated image rotating slowly as it zooms in on the eponymous defensive fortification, helpfully orienting the hoped-for American audience by showing them where exactly the nation of China is located. Matt Damon is our audience surrogate, a white man on the road to China to trade for (that is, steal) gunpowder, heretofore undiscovered in Christendom. He encounters The Wall and learns that it is designed not to defend against the horse archers of the Mongolian steppes, but rather vicious alien lizards that hatch every 60 years and attempt to eat everything in sight: half giant iguana, half locust, half cicada. The well-organized and color-coordinated Chinese soldiers manning The Wall are initially suspicious of Damon and his friend, played by Pedro Pascal, but eventually they join the fight in a series of entertaining spectacles leavened by a few moments of such beauty that you remember that this is a Zhang Yimou film after all.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (Chad Stahelski, 2017)

When John Wick burst into theaters in 2014, it was immediately hailed as one of the best, most tightly made action films of the decade, and for good reason. Its combination of standard genre elements with an unusually sleek and confident stylization made it an irresistible gem, especially when factoring in a surprisingly strong element of world-building in its construction of a world filled with assassins and a perfectly attuned Keanu Reeves as the eponymous master assassin. John Wick: Chapter 2 adopts at once a similar and entirely different approach, expanding the first film’s relatively narrow scope and dialing the violence up to an even more absurd degree, without sacrificing much the original’s sense of weight and yes, bliss.

John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up almost immediately after the first, complete with a directly connected prologue, featuring an amusingly louche gangster played by Peter Stormare and full of escalating car crashes and fistfights (the trademark gun fu of the series is purposely delayed for maximal effect until the end of the scene). After this vehicular mayhem, the film mostly settles down for its first act, as John Wick attempts to retire again, only to be thrust back into the world by a blood oath he had previously made. Said oath requires him to go to Rome to carry out a contract on a high-ranking crime lord, which leads John down a rabbit hole full of conspiracy and betrayal.

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Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, 2016)

Few foreign films from the international festival circuit have generated nearly as much buzz in the past few years as Toni Erdmann has. Debuting to raucous applause at the Cannes Film Festival and garnering the widest critical consensus at said festival in a long while, only to be completely ignored by the jury at awards time, Maren Ade’s film seemed destined to become legendary eight whole months before it was released in the United States. Of course, the nature of film discourse today inflates the reputations, for good or ill, of movies immediately after they show to any audience, but Toni Erdmann presents a particularly strange and more than valid case.

There are understandably equal amounts of truth and falsehood in what Toni Erdmann has essentially been distilled down to: a three-hour German comedy. This simple description goes some way in describing what the film is like and a long way in describing its appeal to critics and arthouse audiences. As many have noted, the premise—a father trying to cheer up and reconnect with his workaholic daughter—has a sort of broad appeal that belies the movie’s length and subtly rigorous construction. Indeed, the film is frequently bawdy and ribald, unafraid to go for the obvious or crass joke. But, at least for this reviewer, the film is much more on the dramatic side, teasing out the complexities of the central relationship in the modern world in ways both heartbreaking and hilarious.

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Neruda (Pablo Larraín, 2016)

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The adjective “artificial” might seem like a strange one to apply to a film based on actual historical events. But Neruda is a wholly artificial film for the better, fabricating not only its settings and scenes, but whole characters and plotlines. What emerges is something like a meditation on the artistic process and not, as might be expected, on the life and legacy of the famed and controversial Chilean figure Pablo Neruda.

It should be noted that Neruda is one of two Pablo Larraín films that premiered in 2016. The other is Jackie, the widely touted and fiercely debated biopic focusing on the week-long period following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy through the lens of the First Lady. Starring Natalie Portman, that film is almost the polar opposite of Neruda, even though both are recognizably the work of the Chilean director. In contrast to the performance-driven ferocity of Jackie, Neruda opts for a much stranger and contemplative approach that utilizes all aspects in close cooperation to produce an equally strange (and arguably much more convincing) effect.

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I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)

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Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s documentary about the great American author and essayist James Baldwin is neither a biographical film nor a typical talking head documentary, with various experts and narrators explaining to us, the regular people, the importance of the people and events depicted on screen. It’s an essay film, built around notes Baldwin compiled for a project he ultimately abandoned, a personal history of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, African-American activists who were murdered in the few years between 1963 and 1968. Samuel L. Jackson, in a hushed, yet determined voice, narrates Baldwin’s notes, and Peck freely cuts between them, recited over archival footage both past and present, and images of Baldwin himself lecturing, participating in panel discussions, chatting with Dick Cavett and generally just being himself (the fear in his eyes as he drives around Mississippi street with Evers is palpable, as is his anger at being condescended to by an aged white professor on Cavett’s show). The result is a rambling, discursive film that captures the essential genius of Baldwin’s work, the uniqueness of his mind and the eloquence and power of its expression.

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Resident Evil: The Final Chapter (Paul WS Anderson, 2016)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
                               —William Butler Yeats “The Second Coming”

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The long-awaited sixth film in Paul WS Anderson’s survival horror saga has finally arrived, and it’s everything his believers could have hoped for. When the last film in the series came out, Anderson attracted a lot of attention in certain quarters as a symbol of so-called “Vulgar Auteurism” sparked by comparison of Resident Evil: Retribution with The Other Paul Anderson’s The Master, released the same week in September of 2012. The White Elephant/Termite art comparisons were irresistible to the wags of film twitter, and thus a movement was born, or at least a trend piece. The next six months or so were abuzz with discussions pro- and contra- Auteurism such as the film world hasn’t seen since the heady days of the Paulettes and the Sarrisites, a veritable Algonquin Roundtable of blog posts and tweet threads. Not above drifting with the winds myself, and binging on contemporary action cinema in a desperate attempt to keep conscious while caring for a newborn, I wrote a multipart essay on the Resident Evil films, Anderson and Auteurism in general, using the director and his films as raw material for an application of the critical method as Andrew Sarris initially described it back in the 1960s. I concluded that Anderson hadn’t quite reached the highest echelons of Sarris’s scheme, because he hadn’t yet established the kind of tension between himself and his material that marks the nebulous “interior meaning” that is the hallmark of personal filmmaking. I therefore placed him in the “Lightly Likable” category and wrote:

Anderson’s films can more rightly be described as competent treading of well-worn terrain. His last few movies, however, show potential, and so I’m unwilling to write Anderson off as an impersonal filmmaker. Perhaps he has it in him to perform the auteurial jujitsu necessary to turn the generic qualities of his movies into virtues, into a truly compelling and original statement about the world and/or the cinema itself, merging the blankness and fungibility of his characters with the schematic structures of their worlds and the interchangeability of their dialogue to say something truly meaningful. But I don’t think he’s made that complete a filmic statement yet.

Well, it’s four years later, and Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is that statement.

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Split (M. Night Shyamalan, 2016)

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Preposterous in all of the best ways, and some of the worst, the latest film from once-overhyped, now underrated auteur M. Night Shyamalan is as confounding as any film Hollywood is likely to produce this year. Ostensibly a horror film of the ‘girls trapped in a basement by a madman’ subgenre, like last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, it somehow ends up being a rape-revenge superhero movie, like a DC Comics version of Elle. With a barely taped together plot, a streak of goofy black comedy and a cheap, exploitative perspective on real-life trauma, the movie is clearly the work of some kind of a lunatic. But what a lunatic!

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Elle (Paul Verhoeven, 2016)

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There is no tiptoeing around the subject matter of Elle, a study into the ramifications of sexual violence seen through a particularly perverse lens. This lens is of essentially three people: the central character Michèle, Isabelle Huppert as the actress that plays her, and the director Paul Verhoeven. Together, the two collaborators create an indelible and often frightening world filled with constant paranoia and even more black comedy, all while the mystery—surrounding both the identity of the attacker and Michèle’s motivations—moves further and further along, culminating in a place both completely logical and totally unexpected.

In the first of many salvos, Elle quite literally opens with the sounds of Michèle being raped in her home by a masked assailant, who leaves behind a scene filled with broken objects. Michèle, however, demonstrates she is no mere object, quickly cleaning up the mess and ordering sushi in a manner that both feels like a subversion and a natural extension of the personality that Huppert has already crafted, almost entirely nonverbally. Interestingly enough, Elle remains consistently nervy, even utilizing a scene like one where Michèle bathes for maximum effect, as blood appears under the suds and she stares before quickly wiping it away.

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Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016)

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There is a famous quote by Alfred Hitchcock that posits, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” In a way, Paterson acts as both a reinforcement and a challenge to this idea. It is a film that demands to be considered in its totality, a strange but endearing feeling that combines an ever-so-slightly abstract approach with the mood of a hangout movie. But it is neither of these, nor is it a simple valorization of the artist. Rather, Paterson is a film about both the constant and the ever-changing natures of life, that emphasizes the similarities and differences in equal nature.

Taking place over the course of a week in the life of Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and burgeoning poet working in Paterson, New Jersey, Paterson very quickly establishes a sense of routine to its central character’s life. He wakes up, walks to work and drives while thinking of new poems, then goes home and walks his dog Marvin to the bar. Rinse and repeat. But Jarmusch uses this loose but reliable structure in fascinating ways, not to evoke monotony but to allow for significant jumping off points, not just in the mood (which mixes the hypnotic with the comic) but in fairly interesting subplots, some of which take place over the course of the whole film and some of which are only present in one scene.

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