Sunday, August 28, 2016

Movie Journal: June

The Lovers on the Bridge
I think it's fair to say that I've fallen off a little bit when it comes to these monthly journals, and this blog in general. In my defense, the last month or so has been pretty hectic with work (not to mention that I've spent way too much time delving into the ins and outs of the Presidential election, an occupation which is much too stressful to do without being paid), but that's not really much of an excuse considering I still managed to find time to watch a lot of films during that same time period, and these posts generally don't take that long to knock together. Here's hoping that I can finish the year off strong after this summer stumble.

I watched 33 films in June, and the worst of them was Stanley Kramer's On The Beach. Aside from the fact that the title caused me to constantly think of this sick guitar lick, which was a distraction even if it wasn't the film's fault, it was such a drab, dreary experience. Even for a film about people waiting to die from radiation poisoning, which has never been the perkiest of sub-genres, it proceeds at such a ponderous pace that it bores long before it has a chance to lecture on the absurdity of nuclear war. Kramer more ably balanced social commentary and genre filmmaking with The Defiant Ones and Judgement At Nuremberg. Here, the results are too turgid to contemplate.

Right, on to the good films I watched in June.

1. O.J.: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman, 2016)

A documentary that takes the life of one man and uses it as a prism through which to view and explain decades of institutional racism in the LAPD, and how the backlash against that played a part in helping O.J. Simpson to (allegedly, but almost certainly) get away with a double homicide. The breadth and depth of Edelman's work provides the fullest picture of O.J. imaginable, encompassing his unprecedented celebrity and acceptance by White America, the trial that redefined forever what the name "O.J. Simpson" meant for pop culture, and his strange, discomfiting post-trial years. A towering achievement for ESPN's already great 30 For 30 strand, and a high benchmark against which sports documentaries will be measured for years to come.

2. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (dirs. Jorma Taccone & Akiva Shaffer, 2016)

The most gleefully silly and purely enjoyable movie I've seen all year. The Lonely Island take their signature sound and sensibility, fashion a functional redemption narrative to build a film around, then let loose. The story is at times too straightforward for its own good - though there is a degree of intertextual richness to be found in the ways that Conner4real's (Andy Samberg) story runs parallel to that of his creators - but it's a sturdy framework for a deluge of jokes, the vast majority of which land. It's destined to languish in semi-obscurity like Hot Rod, their earlier attempt at a big screen effort, but if it's going to be a cult film, then it's going to be one of the more fun cults to be a part of.

3. The Lovers on the Bridge (dir. Leos Carax, 1991)

I've often wondered how a film with such a simple premise - two homeless people meet and fall in love while living on the Pont Neuf in Paris - could have once been the most expensive French film ever produced, but having finally watched it, it's easy to see how Leos Carax's uncompromising vision (which involved having to build a full-scale replica of the bridge after filming was delayed by Lavant getting injured) produced something too distinctive to be made cheaply. Few non-musical directors are as skilled at capturing the beauty of uninhibited motion as Carax. Probably his most romantic film, certainly his most affecting, driven by two wonderful performances from Juliette Binoche and Denis Lavant and a setting that is at once achingly sad and strangely beautiful.

4. Evaporating Borders (dir. Iva Radivojevic, 2014)

A haunting and wholly necessary documentary/essay film about immigrants arriving in Cyprus and the ways in which their presence is exploited by those seeking political power. Radivojevic shows tremendous sympathy for ordinary people fleeing extraordinary horror, which contrasts sharply with the reactions of those in Cyprus who greet them with hatred and distrust. It's an at times chilling look at how one of the greatest humanitarian crises in decades has led to the rise of nationalism and violence, and it's only gotten more urgent in the wake of Brexit and the ongoing nightmare circus that is the Trump campaign.

5. The Exquisite Corpus (dir. Peter Tscherkassky, 2015)

I must confess to being something of a novice when it comes to experimental cinema, but what I've seen of Tscherkassky's work makes me think that he may be a gateway to learning more. The Exquisite Corpus is a woozy, beguiling short in which softcore images from dozens of films are overlaid and chopped up, creating a work of sex and discomfort that is hard to shake.

6. The Big Clock (dir. John Farrow, 1948)

Crackerjack noir that benefits from a clever plot, elegant camerawork, and great performances from Ray Milland and Charles Laughton. The latter is especially fun since he plays possibly the calmest murderer in film history.

7. Santa Sangre (dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)

Despite long being fascinated by Jodorowsky as an almost mythical figure in the world of cinema - a fascination which was only strengthened by Jodrowsky's Dune - this was my first time watching one of his films in its entirety and it did not disappoint. In telling the story of a young man who is driven to commit murder by the psychic whims of his religious zealot of a mother (who has both of her arms chopped off in a flashback for good measure) it's hard to say precisely what Santa Sangre is in terms of genre. It's often billed as a horror, but it's sadder and more dreamlike than that label suggests, and it repeatedly confounds any traditional expectations of even the most outré gorefest. A relentlessly imaginative and strange work of cinema that still manages to be moving, in between the scenes of people throwing elephant meat around.

8. Archangel (dir. Guy Maddin, 1991)

A by turns beautiful and creepy feature from Maddin in which a Canadian soldier arrives in an isolated area of Russia in order to battle the Bolsheviks. What follows is a story of intrigue, romance, and comically ludicrous violence, all delivered with an eye to authentically recreating the look of early cinema and making something truly surreal, yet ultimately affecting.

9. Venusia (dir. Louise Carrin, 2016)

Delightfully deadpan doc in a which a pair of Swiss prostitutes talk about their business in funny, unadorned language. The focus on the minutiae of the sex trade is fascinating, but the most revealing moments come when they talk about the nuts and bolts of any business: paying rent, dealing with customers, and wrangling over who has to do what. Does more to demystify the lives of sex workers in 36 minutes than a thousand romanticized takes ever could.

10. The Heroic Trio (dir. Johnnie To, 1993)

Johnnie To has become one of the most consistently great, not to mention fun, genre filmmakers of the last two decades, and while this early effort lacks the polish of Election or Drug War, it's still an immensely enjoyable movie. A martial arts superhero story, it pits Maggie Cheung, Michelle Yeoh and the late Anita Mui against each other, then as allies as they battle against evil forces who are kidnapping children. Its choreography and editing display a lot of the exuberance that has made To such an exciting filmmaker, and he juggles the competing demands of action, comedy and drama with aplomb.