Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Movie Journal: March

This month was a surprisingly documentary-heavy month for me, largely because several documentaries from last year that I'd been dying to watch hit Netflix or debuted on television. In fact I still have another couple I want to check out - Kim Longinotto's Dreamcatcher (NOT to be confused with the misbegotten Lawrence Kasdan adaptation of the Stephen King shitweasels move of the same name) and Mami Sunada's The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness lined up for the next couple of days, both of which will hopefully make a showing in next month's summary.

Outside of docs, I caught up with a bunch of films I've been wanting to see by directors I've long admired and none of them disappointed, which is always an immensely pleasant thing to write.

The ten best first-time watches of the month are listed below, but the best film I rewatched this month was Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which I watched in anticipation of the increasingly nuts-looking Mad Max: Fury Road. I hadn't seen it for probably ten years, and what little I remembered about it involved incredible car chases. That part of my memory was entirely correct - the final twenty minutes contains some of the most gloriously constructed action set pieces I've ever seen - but I'd forgotten the film's wry sense of humour, best embodied by the decision to have a hulking mass named Humungous as the villain but giving him a very crisp and articulate manner of speaking.

It was also interesting watching it so soon after my first ever viewing of Mad Max, since it gave me a real appreciation for just how much bigger the second film was, and how thoroughly George Miller took advantage of a bigger budget to flesh out his world. In that respect, it eerily mimics the trajectory of the Terminator series, though hopefully not to the extent that Fury Road becomes the next Salvation.

1. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (dir. Isao Takahata, 2013)

I'm a big Studio Ghibli fan and while I'm not as familiar with the work of Isao Takahata as I am with Hayao Miyazaki's, in part because he's hardly made any films in the past two decades, this made me think that I need to get my act together and watching Pom Poko already. Based on an old Japanese fairytale, The Tale of Princess Kayuga is an achingly sad story about a woodcutter who is given a baby seemingly as a gift from heaven, who he then raises as his own child until she becomes a princess. From that fantastical premise, Takahata makes a slow, deliberate exploration of societal mores in feudal Japan which ultimately becomes a meditation on death and parenthood.

The visual style of the film, which is animated to look like a water colour come to life, is gorgeous, creating something that manages to be both simplistic and richly textured, and which allows for flights of expressionism when the animation pretty much breaks down to represent the fractured mood of the princess. It's enough to make you fall in love with hand-drawn animation again, and then feel instantly sad that so few films use it.

2. This Is Not A Film (dirs. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi, 2011)

I missed this when it came out several years ago and I'm immensely glad that I finally caught up. A mix between a documentary and a video diary, This Is Not A Film, in addition to bearing the most misleading title since Naked Lunch, captures a few weeks in the life of Jafar Panahi after he was banned from making films for 20 years by the Iranian government, and as he was waiting to hear if he would have to go to prison as part of his sentence. It's fascinating watching Panahi comes to terms with the restrictions placed upon him, and the ways he tries to subvert them, including staging parts of the script that apparently got him in trouble in the first place, or wondering if he can be filmed legally so long as he isn't the one doing the filming. More importantly, the film captures flashes of the unrest in Tehran around the beginning of the Arab Spring, and serves as a testament to the creative urge, and how a great artist can't help but find something amazing in life, even when that life is confined to his own apartment.

3. Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras, 2014)

Even though it's formally pretty straightforward, it's hard to process what a monumental film Citizenfour is, or at least what it feels like. This may just be my memory failing me, but I can't think of any film that does quite the same thing that Poitras' film does, i.e. it intentionally captures a crucial moment in history as it is happening, with the express purpose of doing that. It wasn't  assembled from footage after the fact. Poitras didn't happen to stumble into an important event. This was a case of a filmmaker being invited to record the moment when Edward Snowden revealed his knowledge of the NSA's spying operations to the world, which Poitras captures with a clear-eyed candour which is also extended to the way that Snowden's revelations rippled throughout the world as they spent eight days holed up in a hotel room. It's a fascinating film about the world we live in, one which also does a lot to humanise a man whose actions have transformed him into a symbol for both sides of the debate about the rightness of what he did.

4. Man of the West (dir. Anthony Mann, 1958)

I'd heard a lot of good things about Man of the West from people on Twitter, and as a fan of Mann's earlier Westerns I felt that I had to check it out. Like a lot of Mann's work, it's a psychologically fraught examination of traditional Western themes - primarily notions of identity and attempts by its characters to escape their pasts - writ large in glorious CinemaScope. What I found most interesting was that Mann used such a wide scope, even though the film spends roughly an hour inside a ramshackle farmhouse. There's something perverse in the way that the film withholds grandeur from the audience, but it just makes the rivalries between the various characters within the walls of that farmhouse more intense.

5. Macbeth (dir. Roman Polanski, 1971)

Macbeth is probably my favourite Shakespeare play (if it's not, then it's only just behind Othello) but I'd never seen any truly satisfactory cinematic version until this one. Polanski succeeds in bringing out the dark atmosphere and mood of the play while also seeming to obliterate the proscenium. It opens with the witches on mud flats, with space for miles in all directions, as if he was saying that it was no damn play, but a visceral and cinematic work. That continues throughout the production, which revels in the muck of old castle grounds and the raw performances of Jon Finch and Francesca Annis as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, respectively. Annis is especially great at imbuing Lady Macbeth with a degree of sympathy that not a lot of actresses are able to draw out of the part.

6. The Overnighters (dir. Jesse Moss, 2014)

In telling the story of people who travel to a North Dakotan town to find work, only to discover that housing is hard to come by and that the locals are less than receptive to new arrivals, the documentary The Overnighters does a great job of capturing the casual cruelties of small town America. By focusing on the efforts of Keegan Edwards, a local pastor who allows some of the homeless arrivals to stay on the grounds of his church, it also explores the difficulty of being decent when faced with pressure from all sides. There are some developments in the last third that really elevate it as a film about no good deed going unpunished, but even in its more subdued early parts it's a deeply felt and beautiful film about ordinary people trying to do their best in a very bad situation.

7. Army of Shadows (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)

This has been on my to-watch list for years and I was finally spurred to watched it when I realised that it was expiring from Hulu at the end of the month. Melville applies his typically elegant and studied cool to a story with slightly more moral seriousness than his usual milieu of gangsters and smalltime hoods: the actions of French Resistance fighters against the Vichy government in World War II. While that seriousness is a slightly odd fit for Melville's style, it does add a great deal of tension to a film which largely consists of characters waiting for things to happen. It is very much a story about people trying to survive and work with the threat of discovery always inches above their head, an idea that is best embodied by an early scene in which members of the resistance have to decide on the best way to kill a traitor quietly. The practicalities of that decision are stretched out to an agonising length, but one which illustrates just what kind of situation they are dealing with.

8. Poison (dir. Todd Haynes, 1991)

Another film that I've been trying to see for years which I finally watched thanks to a streaming service (in this instance MUBI), Hayne's feature debut is a brilliant, playful film built around three stories, all told in a different style: Hero,  a faux TV news report about a young boy who shot his father; Horror, a pastiche of '60s science fiction films in which a scientist accidentally turns himself into a murderous leper; and Homo, an adaptation of a Jean Genet play about a prisoner who becomes attracted to another prisoner with whom he has a shared past.

Considering Haynes' knack for imitating different genres or playing with form in his subsequent work, it's kind of incredible to see how full formed that approach is in such an early work, as well as how well he juggles the three stories without letting the different tones or styles undermine each other. Homo is the strongest of the three segments, if only because there's less of a distancing effect in its relatively straightforward approach to the material, but they're all deeply affecting and interesting.

9. From Beyond (dir. Stuart Gordon, 1986)

As someone who loves Re-Animator, I felt that it was time that I explore some of Stuart Gordon's other H.P. Lovecraft adaptations and his second film, made with some of the same collaborators who worked on Re-Animator, was a fine choice. Like the previous film, it's a very loose take on Lovecraft's material that mainly uses his eldritch trappings as an excuse for some gloopy practical effects as a group  of people find themselves meddling with a machine that weakens the boundaries between dimensions. It's incredibly gory, inventively disgusting and hugely fun.

10. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (dir. Alex Gibney, 2015)

Gibney's prolificness - he's directed 17 feature documentaries in the last five years alone - means that his work can sometimes feel a little unfocused or like it is only skimming the surface of a much bigger subject, be it James Brown, Lance Armstrong, or child abuse in the Catholic Church. There is some evidence of that on display in Going Clear, his faithful adaptation of Lawrence Wright's fascinating exploration of the roots and practices of Scientology, which only really digs into a few aspects in detail while confining some parts of its history to brief mentions in voiceover or onscreen text. However, what he chooses to dig into - namely the, ahem, Church's focus on celebrities, its alleged physical and emotional abuse of its members and clandestine attacks on opponents -  are fascinating, especially since Gibney presents them in a clear, concise manner that makes the film both unnerving and incredibly accessible.

There's not a lot of new information in that film that isn't already in Wright's book, but it's a much more emotionality rich experience thanks to the interviews with former Scientologists that form its backbone. There's a huge difference between reading about people being forced to disconnect from their families (or vice versa) and actually seeing them recount the memories for the camera. That human element takes the film away from the coldness and inhumanity of its subject matter in a way which is very effective.

And the worst film I watched this month was…

The Big Wedding (dir. Justin Zackham, 2013)

Ask any bad movie aficionado and they'll tell you that there's nothing worse than a bad comedy. You can laugh at a bad drama or horror, but a bad comedy is bad because it fails to elicit laughter. The Big Wedding is a bad comedy. The jokes are terrible, with most of the R-rated material being horribly out of step with the sappiness that runs throughout its core, and half the cast look like they're performing at gunpoint while the other half seem to be actively praying for death. Worse still is the knowledge that every single member of the cast could do something if the material was better, but Robert De Niro at his sleepiest can only do so much with a farce that never has any real stakes, and which peddles in humour that's meant to be outré and subversive but mainly comes off as tone-deaf.

I don't know if The Big Wedding is the worst film I've ever seen, but I can't think of any worse right now. It's definitely in the running.