Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Movie Journal: April

This month was another documentary-heavy one, though that was mainly because I wanted to rewatch a bunch of Nick Broomfield documentaries in advance of the HBO premiere of his latest, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which I will write more about in a moment. I've something of a love-hate relationship with Broomfield's work, in that I think that he tends to find really interesting subjects and shoots them with an empathy that can make them very powerful, while at the same time finding him to be something of a disingenuous scumbag who plays the naif in order to inveigle his way into peoples' lives, then exploits them mercilessly. Other documentary filmmakers, particularly ones who place themselves in front of the camera, do a similar thing because it gets good results, but there's something about Broomfield's shamelessness that has always made me very uncomfortable.

The worst film I watched for the first time in April was Danny Boyle's Trance, which manages to be a pretty slick and exciting thriller for the first hour, then devolves into twist upon twist, dream upon reality upon fantasy nonsense that I found pretty much impossible to care about. It does boast a pretty great performance from Rosario Dawson, though, who makes the most out of what could be a pretty thankless role.

The best film I rewatched was Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, an old favourite  which I decided to revisit having just finished reading James Ellroy's novel. I came away from it respecting Hanson and his co-writer Brian Helgeland even more since I could see how they had condensed a book overbrimming with plot points - there are something like eight or nine ongoing plot threads in the novel, including one involving a serial killer and another revolving around Ed Exley's father and a Walt Disney analogue - into a fairly lean thriller without losing the sense of place, or the book's central dichotomy between dark, awful things happening in such a bright, sunny locale. However, I did come away disappointed that the character of Inez Soto, who has maybe two or three scenes in the film but is a major part of the book, was so shortchanged, even if I can understand why they had to collapse her role in the story with that of Kim Basinger's character.

Anyway, here are the best films that I watched for the first time in April.

1. Dogtooth (dir. Yorgos Lathimos, 2009)

This film has long fallen into the category of Films I Should Have Seen By Now, not merely because it got a lot of critical acclaim when it came out, but also because I worked in an art house cinema that showed it a lot back in 2010. So not only did I have ample opportunity to see it, I could have seen it for free. Basically, 23 year old me was an idiot, because Dogtooth is fantastic, and one of the most unusual films I've ever seen.

The basic setup, in which a couple raise their three children without allowing them any contact with the outside world, is beguiling enough, but nothing quite prepared me for how strange and unnerving it is. By placing these characters in a hermetic environment, Lathimos creates a cold and alienating atmosphere that heightens the film's funhouse mirror view of human relations. It feels like a film created by an alien intelligence trying to understand humanity, and as such is revelatory.

2. Tales of the Grim Sleeper (dir. Nick Broomfield, 2014)

As I said up top, in what could be considered my Frank Costanza-esque Airing of Grievances, I have a lot of problems with Nick Broomfield, though many of them stem from his onscreen personality, rather than the work itself. Considering how little Broomfield is in Tales of the Grim Sleeper, it should come as no surprise that it may be my favourite of his films. In recounting the story of a prolific serial killer who was able to murder potentially hundreds of women in South L.A from the mid-'80s until 2010 when a suspect, Lonnie Franklin, was arrested, Broomfield steps back and lets his subjects, including friends of Franklin, women who knew him, and even some survivors, talk with little in the way of editorialising. This allows the film to cover a huge array of subjects, not least of which being systemic racism in the LAPD and the tendency of Franklin's community to look the other way despite many warning signs, without losing sight of the personal impact of this man's actions on individual women, their families, and their community.

3. Bird People (dir. Pascale Ferran, 2014)

This was a film which I saw recommended a lot around the end of last year - not least of all by Scott Nye of The CriterionCast - as one of the best films of the year, which nevertheless slipped through the cracks. That assessment is entirely correct, since this odd, beautiful film about an American businessman (Josh Charles) who decides to basically walk out of his life and ends up staying at a hotel at a Parisian airport, as well as one of the maids (Anias Demoustier) at that hotel, is a film that makes some bold narrative choices that won't work for everyone, and as such isn't really built for consensus list making. However, it's a gorgeous story about loneliness and the desire for escape, both of which it explores in ways naturalistic and expressionistic.

4. The Lower Depths (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

One of the few Kurosawa films I hadn't seen, this adaptation of the Maxim Gorky play about power struggles that emerge between members of a community of vagrants may not be one of the master's best, but he did set a pretty high bar to clear. What sets the film apart from a lot of his other work is its dark sense of humour, best exemplified by a brilliant final scene which underlines the bleakness of its worldview while also being really funny, which puts it in a similar strand as films like The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. The central plot line, which deals with a love triangle within the group, is not all that compelling, but there's lots of energy in the supporting cast that makes it incredibly lively even when it the A-plt drags. It ends up being a fascinating example of a fun hangout film where you wouldn't really want to hang out with any of the characters.

5. Klute (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1971)

I watched The Parallax View, the second film in Pakula's loosely-defined "Paranoia" trilogy, last year as part of the Shot/Reverse Shot Alternate 100 project and my co-host Matt recommended that I check out this, the first part. It was a very good recommendation, since not only is Klute a great, unnerving mystery about a detective (Donald Sutherland) investigating the disappearance of a family friend with the help of a former call girl (Jane Fonda), it also works beautifully as the opening movement to the trilogy. Where The Parallax View and All The President's Men deal in stories of wide-reaching conspiracies that impact and reflect the political landscape of America, Klute is more focused on the small-scale ways in which power and money can allow corrupt individuals to get away with anything they want. Pakula also does a great job of creating tension by mimicking the perspective of a stalker whenever Fonda's character is out on her own, implicating the audience in the creation of fear and terror in the hearts of its characters.

6. Tim's Vermeer (dir. Teller, 2013)

Like Bird People, Tim's Vermeer was a film I heard a lot about last year without really understanding what it was about, since the title comes across as a little obtuse. It's actually an immensely accessible and funny documentary about Tim Jenison, an inventor who uses his skill with optical technology and his personal resources to research and recreate the long-lost techniques of the Dutch painter Johanne Vermeer. That sounds incredibly dry and academic, but Teller (of "Penn &" fame) stages it as a mystery in which Jenison has to painstakingly rediscover a lost technology. It's a lively study of obsession which also raises interesting questions about the point at which art and craft intersect.

7. Kicking and Screaming (dir. Noah Baumbach, 1995)

One of my big disappointments of the month was While We're Young, Noah Baumbach's follow-up to the utterly wonderful Frances Ha. It's not a terrible film, but it does transform rather awkwardly into a bitter treatise against Millennials and Baby Boomers while conveniently leaving Gen Xers largely unscathed. It's a far cry from Baumbach's debut, which was about as biting and piercing an examination of mid-'90s, aimless twenty somethings as you are likely to find. He occasionally runs the risk of coming off like a slightly more energetic Whit Stillman (a comparison that is not helped by the presence of Stillman stalwart Chris Eigeman), but his scabrous wit and pretty nifty pacing make it feel distinct from its contemporaries, and it's also incredibly funny in a gut busting way, rather than being merely well-observed.

8. Night Train to Munich (dir. Carol Reed, 1940)

It's easy to describe Night Train to Munich as Reed working in Hitchcock mode, a connection that is reinforced by the presence of Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), two characters who originated as comic relief in Hitch's 1938 film The Lady Vanishes, but that's hardly a bad thing. A rip-roaring and funny tale of spies, daring escapes, and high romance, with a rare performance from Rex Harrison which didn't make me want to push him in a lake.

9. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets (dir. Florian Habicht, 2014)

This is very much a sentimental pick since I love Pulp and lived in Sheffield for the better part of a decade, so seeing a film which is so much about the character of the city and how it influenced music that means a lot to me was always going to endear it to me. The divided focus between the history of Pulp as a band and the importance of Sheffield to their music (and their importance to Sheffield) prevents it from digging too deeply into any one thing, and Habicht does come across as the sort of cultural tourist decried in "Common People", but the mix of laughter and homesickness this film evoked in me was pretty powerful.

10. Dodes'ka-den (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1970)

I filled in another gap in my Kurosawa knowledge with this, one of his most troubled projects. Made at the end of a five year period which saw him travel to Hollywood and fail to make one project (Runaway Train, which would eventually be made in 1985 by Andrei Konchalovsky) and fired unceremoniously from another (Tora! Tora! Tora!), Dodes'ka-den only got made when several of Kurosawa's contemporaries pooled their resources and formed a production company in order to help get the film funded. It ended up being something of a failure, lead to the dissolution of the production company, and precipitated a period of depression for Kurosawa which culminated in a suicide attempt in December 1971.

There's a lot of baggage associated with the film, is what I'm saying, a degree of heaviness which stands in stark contrast to the lightness and slightness of the film itself. It's basically a small, impressionistic film about a group of characters who live at a dump. What makes it special is the fact that it was Kurosawa's first colour film, and it's almost as if, after years without colour, he decided that he must use every one of them. It's a visually stunning and vibrant film that is not as dynamic as his earlier films or as grand as his later ones, but it's probably the closest he came to creating a film which is basically a living painting.