Hello! It’s been a while, again. At this point I question myself whether I’ll make anything other than these monthly summaries in the near future, since I was sure I was going to move forward with my Great Directors series, finishing Eisenstein and going all the way to Godard (I even have practically finished reviews of October and Alexander Nesvky!) But for quite a few reasons, I have decided to push the series to January so that I can spend some time working on Werner Herzog’s new Masterclass (yes), among other things. I intend to actually publish some reviews over the next few months but without the seriousness of the series I had in mind. POSSIBLY it will be something about a bunch of Zack Snyder films, or just Batman v Superman, or Man of Steel and Batman v Superman v Marvel. Who knows? But I know myself enough not to promise anything (EDIT: it’s not. Too much Zack Snyder is the thingest of things).
June was a lot of the same, since I felt like sweeping some cool film stuff outdoors and my increasing DVD collection (I have about 70 movies of my own at this point, not including 20 extra movies from the rest of the family and some tapes, including some beautiful Criterion boxes) at the same time.
Woody Allen x5: Stardust Memories (1980), A Midnight Summer’s Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
For a multitude of reasons, it seems that outside of the critical spectrum Woody Allen remains the director of Annie Hall, Manhattan, some recent flops, that one movie that got Cate Blanchett an Oscar and those two movies from the 80s people have heard are pretty good, or at least it was for me. To actually go through his filmography and visit his post-Manhattan titles one by one was certainly a surprise, a pleasure, and most of all a revelation: not only were Stardust Memories and Hannah and Her Sisters (tell funnier jokes!) really good and very much two of the finest examples of American cinema of the 80s (a decade that can needs them more than any other), all of these titles show a degree of consistency that is incredibly rare, especially for a filmmaker as prolific as Allen is. Even the minor Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, which harks back to his small anarchic fun films of the 70s, delivers quite a lot of laughs and is also very smart (considering the times we live in, mainstream films of such kind cleanse the soul). Sure, there are issues I believe run all throughout his filmography that are very evident in these movies (more on that some other time), and a lot of decent movies don’t double as a masterpiece, but few directors have made movies as funny, warm and inviting as Allen.
So as I watched all these films out of the 20 from the Woody Allen box I got last June, I have to include here a sidenote that I find necessary as the conflicted moviegoer I am: the more I watch his works, the more I fear that whatever did happen between Allen and the Farrow family, there was something very wrong. Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a passionate article about this, and several others have too, obviously . And his movies do have a frustrating number of jokes about child molestation (apparently Irrational Man has some pretty ugly autobiographical touches protagonizing the film), and he did have a romantic interest in Manhattan‘s Mariel Hemingway, and the Farrow family did go on with the accusations despite the years past, and knowing this, whether it’s true that it happened or it isn’t, his fillms leave a bitter taste in the same way watching The Cosby Show or The Pianist or Chinatown should (might*? have to*?) does. And where does it end then? Is there a line to cross? Where does Mad Max stand because of Mel Gibson, and Leni Riefenstahl, and all propaganda, and Sean Penn, and so many others? What about the hundreds of people who have worked with these people before and after the accusations and the scandals?
I have begun to think now that Woody Allen is very probably a child abuser, despite the case that was dropped out, the years that have passed since, his artistic status and the Oscars and achievement awards he keeps winning. What to do with this information is especially complicated to me as a film student, and possibly a future filmmaker, but my position won’t be one of total indifference.
Iñarritu x4: Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006), Biutiful (2010)
More on that soon at The Hand Grenade!
Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999)
Stanley Kubrick’s last film has, ever since its release, been something of an underdog when it comes to critical assessments of the director’s career. It doesn’t feel as enigmatic and stylized as his other films (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman add a particular mainstream touch to it), it centers around a theme that has is thought to be outdated by common sense (marriage, the forever after and the fear of infidelity) and it has been met with polarizing reviews from critics ever since its release, with some arguing that the director lost its touch and others claiming this project was probably not the best choice. But underneath the mixed reception of Eyes Wide Shut is a film that is perhaps one of his most seamless, daring and intelligent films in a career defined by these characteristics. Devoid of easy answers, flawlessly acted under Kubrick’s idiosyncratic direction and, as usual, full of impressive sights and sounds (Jocelyn Pook’s soundtrack is one of finest Kubrick has ever used), this is a film that rewards a second look.
Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Crumb is Terry Zwigoff’s most critically acclaimed film, and Bad Santa his most mainstream, but Ghost World is simply the most charming and appealing, and arguably his best. It’s one of those weird, hipster-like Americana movies, like Napoleon Dynamite and Juno, that perfectly combines the strange, nostalgic and essentially bittersweet characteristic of modern urban life with the warmth and affection that comes from deep down in our hearts. Not only a note-perfect coming-of-age drama about unfinished dreams, conflicted ideals of happiness and success, and the wish to change life against one’s own circumstances, it’s also a universe of itself, much like our own but still uncanny to our eyes. Featuring some of the best performances in Steve Buscemi, Thora Birch and Scarlett Johannson’s careers, Ghost World is the kind of movie you want to hug tight and never let go. And it also features this crazy awesome track I’ve been listening to forever (those dance moves!)
Kiarostami x3: Close-Up (1990); The Wind Will Carry Us (1999); Like Someone in Love (2012)
It was some weird sort of coincidence that the Sala Redenção (kind of like Porto Alegre’s Cinémathèque Française) and other art-house exhibitors decided to pay homage to Abbas Kiarostami with a comprehensive exhibition of his films just before he passed away on July 4th. What ended as a restrospective like any other became a very necessary tribute to one of the most important directors of the modern era, a visionary artist that treated cinema as its own artform and pushed the envelop like few other directors. I got to see three of his films (for free!), and each of them was a stunning revelation of how it’s totally true that you’ve never seen everything that cinema can do unless you’ve seen all of it, and even then, you probably haven’t anyway.
The first one was Close-Up, widely considered his masterpiece. It’s the documentary (?) of a man who loves cinema so much he impersonates the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to a family and is later arrested for doing so; it’s also the story of Kiarostami himself going after this man to find out his motives for the impersonation and recreating the events that lead to his trial (which Kiarsotami was allowed to shoot). Needless to say, the film is an essential take on cinephilia, the relationship between an artist and the society he lives in, the extents to which one does things for the sake of art, and cinema as a life-changing, almost religious experience. The ending, which I won’t spoil here, didn’t leave a dry tear in the house, and will certainly get deep in the heart of any film buff who watches this.
The second one was The Wind Will Carry Us, yet another masterpiece. The self-reflexive themes of the role of the artist and their ties to society are also here, but this time it’s a narrative film about the leader of a filmmaking crew who’s staying in a distant village in order to film the allegedly strange rituals that will happen when an old man from the village dies. When she doesn’t, the filmmaker is forced to revisit his actions and intentions. Full of gorgeous shots of the labyrinthine village and the fascinating geometry of its houses, endless desert formations and trees, it’s one of the most beautiful films ever made, and very poetic one at that (the title comes from a Forough Farrokhzad poem).
The third one, which I had the honor to see in 35mm, was Like Someone in Love, Kiarostami’s final film. Set in Japan, it’s the story of an old professor who hires an escort girl and finds himself tangled with her complicated relationship with her abusive boyfriend. Seamless and straightforward as though it seems, it’s a puzzling film, where the intentions of the main trio are never quite clear and their roles in relation to one another even less. It ends with a literal window-breaking stone, a fitting end to an extraordinary career that consisted of refusing to take established conventions for granted.
The Fall (Tarsem Singh, 2006)
Definitely imperfect but an absolute necessity of a film, Tarsem Singh’s The Fall the kind of film that exists simply because it had to. Despite being a curious meta-fictional story about a man who fictionalizes his own history as a story to a little girl who visits him at the hospital, it is quite deficient in the storytelling department, since the man’s story is quite a generic one and thus so is the film, which kind of contradicts the idea of playing with this double layer in the first place. That is not the reason, however, this film is very much worth seeing: shot by Colin Watkinson in more than 20 countries, The Fall feature some of the most beautiful images ever put to film, fragments of nature, wildlife and human architecture of all colors, shapes and hues, like a Steve McCurry album come to life. It’s a near-pornographic display of art direction and cinematography that needs to be seen to be believed.
Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996)
I have not seen the sequel, and with that in mind, it’s probably interesting to say that the original 1996 sci-fi blockbuster holds up better than I expected. Sure, it has that extraordinary destruction of the world sequence that does much better than most movies at showing how apocalypses aren’t exactly plot devices and can actually do a lot of harm (!!!!) that is completely ruined by the fact that no major characters really die and it’s all fun and games when they kill the aliens, but it has above-average performances from Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith, some amazing lines and some fresh comedy moments. Also, That Speech.
Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
After being blown away by how deceptively smart Starship Troopers was, I decided to give Paul Verhoeven a second chance and come to terms with Robocop, his equally powerful satire of Hollywood tropes and American culture. And just as expected, it is just as essential: where the latter is the quintessential Hollywood satire of the 90s for tricking you into thinking you’re watching a brainless action film (it literally replicates shots from the nazi documentary Triumph of the Will and stars the whitest actor on Earth as Juan Rico), Robocop is the ultimate 80s movie and then not quite, from the built-in commercials to the endless blood squibs to the big hair overload and Reagan-era vocabulary. But underneath the surface there are important observations on corporate manipulation, police brutality, shoot first ask later philosophies, media and violence and the masculinity of the action hero: Robocop might have turned into a cyborg, but to think of our heroes as bandit-killing machines and not as flawed human beings in a human system is inherently wrong. Nobody does dumb action like Verhoeven.
Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003)
Haunting is an overused word to describe anything that is minimally spooky, scary, or atmospheric, but if there’s any film that earns the title, it’s Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or-winner Elephant. Based on the Columbine shooting of 1999, it’s a strangely atmospheric, heavily de-dramatized, astonishingly non-linear depiction of the before, during and after of a school shooting, waving an intricate web of students and teachers in their lives soon to be changed forever before all hell breaks loose – but it would be wrong to call this an action film, since the actual shooting couldn’t be further removed from the standard Hollywood depictions of victim killings. Shoot with a claustrophobic yet very poetic 4:3 cinematography that borrows from the films of Béla Tarr, Jeanne Dielman and even videogames, it’s groundbreaking, deeply unique, and very necessary.
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)
After a leaked script, tons of hype and tons of expectation, The Hateful Eight came to theaters this December, and critics and audiences went like, “okay.” It did gross three times as much as its budget and garnered some fans, but one of the most anticipated movies of the year made a much smaller splash than expected. To me, it was probably the worst movie Tarantino has made.
It has great cinematography by Robert Richardson (the opening shot was probably the best all year), an incredible Oscar-winning score by Ennio Morricone (partly butchered by the inclusion of some random best hits by Tarantino) and some fine performances, but these pieces do little next to the other ones in order to make a great Tarantino movie, let alone a satisfying one, and 3 hours long at that. Unnecesarily violent and poorly acted, it boasts the cheesiest and most unconvincing dialogue the director has written so far, with characters reduced to cheap archetypes, tons of exposition, a gruesome and failing attempt at descriptive sexism and racism as criticism (which is strange considering he’s done much better in literally every other movie he’s made) and an ineffective attempt to build up suspense by having the characters stay in the same room throughout the film. Like Kill Bill, it’s the kind of movie you can appreciate for its vision and its intentions, but unfortunately spirals out of control as Tarantino tries really hard to make something different without making it actually fun and well-made.
That was it! But I also saw:
O Abismo Prateado (Karim Aïnouz, 2011), a little film with a big heart based on a Chico Buarque song; The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai, 2013), an effective and compelling martial arts movie with typically breathtaking cinematography; Memento and Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2000/2002), two neo-noir thrillers I cared less than I expected to, despite being pretty original and challenging; Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015), a competent, by-the-numbers Cold War drama that isn’t really Oscar bait but also not top Spielberg; Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman, 2015), probably the most human film of the year; Crash (David Cronenberg, 1996), a weird, weird film that I didn’t really feel satisfied based on what I understood, but is probably a masterpiece; X-Men Apocalypse (Bryan Singer, 2016), half of one of the best and half of one of the worst superhero movies of the decade.
Also also: The Mermaid (Stephen Chow, 2016) the highest grossing film in Chinese history and my least favorite film from Chow (Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle); Straight Outta Compton (F. Gary Gray, 2015), a solid, refreshing biopic; Happy Together (Wong Kar-wai, 1997), a great LGBT film that doesn’t feel all that gay (whatever that means) but is quite interesting with its Argentinian setting and Kerouac-ish vibes; Money Monster (Jodie Foster, 2016), a generic financial thriller that would probably garner better reviews had The Big Short not made it feel so bland and unoriginal in comparison; Ivan the Terrible, Parts 1 and 2 (Sergei Eisenstein 1944/1958), two films I’ll talk about at length in the future; Blood Simple (Joel and Ethan Coen, 1984), a hilarious, surprisingly effective feature debut that proves the Coens have always been this good; and MASH (Robert Altman, 1970), another hilarious dark comedy that has aged weirdly in some of its criticisms of misogyny and racism but is, as awkward as it might feel, a descriptive satire, and one practically effortless in its camerawork and dialog.