Monday, February 01, 2016

Movie Journal: January

Much like Black Box, I am ride[sic] on time this month with my first monthly movie journal of 2016, and what a month it was. I watched a grand total of 44 films in January, with 37 of them being first time viewings. Those viewings can be broken up into a handful of strands: 2015 catch up, filling in blind spots, and getting heavily into true crime documentaries on the back of Making a Murderer. All three are pretty well represented in the top ten.

The worst film I watched in January of 2016 was Denis Villeneuve's Sicario. It's tempting to say that it was the worst because I watched a lot of good films last month,which is true, but make no mistake: Sicario is a pretty terrible movie. Admittedly, it's flawlessly made; it looks great, has a fantastic soundtrack, and is anchored by a couple of great performances by Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro. However, what sunk it for me - as was the case with The Revenant, to a lesser extent - was its undeserved air of self-importance. Like Villeneuve's previous tarted-up genre exercise, Prisoners, Sicario is essentially a B-movie with a great setting which purports to have something of value to say about a broader issue. Prisoners was posited as a rumination on America's quest for vengeance and its use of torture in the War on Terror, while Sicario offers a look at the horrors of the War on Drugs. But its treatment of the subject matter is hollow at best, and it's hard to enjoy the often well-staged and exhilarating action scenes when they are being suffocated by a sense that it is An Important Film About Important Things. Instead of offering any comment or insight, it shrugs and offers up easy nihilism, which is so often the refuge of filmmakers who lack the fortitude (or the intellect) to actually say something.

On the bright side, it's not quite as unremittingly awful as Prisoners, so credit where credit is due.

The film I had the most mixed feelings about, to the extent that I felt like I just had to write about it even though that has never been a category, was Asif Kapadia's Amy. I loved Kapadia's previous film Senna, which used archive footage and audio of interviews to create a thrilling hybrid of dramatic and documentary filmmaking in detailing the life and career of Ayrton Senna. Amy uses the same technique, but because so much of the footage is taken from news coverage of Amy Winehouse's life, B-roll from paparazzi, and personal video from friends and family, it felt much more invasive than the footage used in Senna. Considering that the thesis statement of the film circles the ways in which the media fed off of, and almost certainly worsened, Winehouse's addiction and mental health issues, Kapadia's film sometimes felt as exploitative of her as the photographers who goaded her, or the people who made jokes about her on television. At the same time, for all my misgivings, it was incredibly effective, and left me emotionally devastated for days afterwards. Yet I still don't know if that was a triumph of technique, or because it was somehow complicit in a tragedy that could have been avoided if people had put down their fucking cameras.

Now that we've got that moment of catharsis out of the way, here's the top ten new to me films for January.

1. Closely Watched Trains (dir. Jirí Menzel, 1966)

I must confess to being largely ignorant about the Czech New Wave as an artistic movement. I knew that it was a thing that happened and that it gave rise to great talents, but I was only aware of it in the broader terms of Soviet repression of their satellite states on account of my degree. As such, I didn't know what to expect when delving into it for the first time. I certainly didn't expect a raucous comedy about sexual repression and how it relates to life in a state dominated by bureaucracy, but that's what I got and I loved it. It's a by turns hilarious and sad film which speaks to the relative freedom of the period before the government really cracked down in the late-60s, while also needling those same oppressors by depicting them as sexually frustrated, petty idiots. It's a lively farce which uses the seriousness of the broader situation in the country to heighten the comedy, which the comedy makes the eventual tragedies all the more keenly felt.

2. Song of the Sea (dir. Tomm Moore, 2014)

This is a film that I've been dying to see since it was nominated for an Oscar for best animated feature last year, but really I'd been looking forward to it since I watched Tomm Moore's previous feature, The Secret of Kells. That film was such a beautiful and distinctive work that I couldn't wait to see what he would do next. Song of the Sea continues in the same vein as The Secret of Kells, in that it's a visually stunning film steeped in Irish folklore which features Brendan Gleeson as a father figure, but I found it altogether more moving, in part because of its 20th century setting, as opposed to the far distant past, but also because I found the relationship between the brother and sister at its centre, the latter of whom becomes sick as a result of magical goings on, to be beautifully realised and incredibly poignant.

3. News From Home (dir. Chantal Akerman, 1977)

Prior to her death late last year, I had heard Chantal Akerman's name but had not seen any of her work. I tried to rectify that this month by watching some of her films from the '70s, and this deeply personal documentary/essay was the one that stuck with me the most. Akerman overlays footage of street scenes in New York, where she had lived between 1971 and 1973, with narration of her reading letters that her mother sent her during that same period. The two combine in a way which is both funny and haunting, as Akerman contrasts the plaintive concern of her mother, who also relates bits and pieces of information about family and friends back in Belgium, against the bustling life and chaos of the city she (briefly) called home. It's one of the best films I've seen about homesickness and love, with the mother's writing containing all of the parental concerns - Are you doing okay? Did you get the money I sent? Have you made any friends? - that will be achingly familiar to anyone who has ever moved away from everything they know in order to try something new, and the pull between the familiar and the new that inevitably ensues.

4. Bone Tomahawk (dir. S. Craig Zahler, 2015)

One of my favourite film discoveries of recent years was Antonia Bird's Ravenous, a curious blend of horror, comedy and Western which isn't for everyone (as testified to by its middling Rotten Tomatoes score of 43%) but absolutely was for me. Though it's not quite as bold or crazy, Bone Tomahawk is the closest thing I've seen to a spiritual successor to Ravenous. What initially starts out as a seemingly standard Western about men heading out into the unforgiving wilderness in order to find people who have been kidnapped quickly turns into a brutally violent and slyly funny story of those same men struggling to comprehend the mess that they have stumbled in to. The cast - which includes Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Richard Jenkins and Matthew Fox - are uniformly good, and the film is pitched at just the right level that the jokes and character interactions remain fun while the gore remains shocking and visceral. It's a tough balance to manage, but novelist-turned-director Zahler does so with gooey aplomb.

5. Daisies (dir. Věra Chytilová, 1966)

For my second delve into the Czech New Wave I chose one of the more famous films from that movement and one of the nuttiest films I've ever seen. The plot of Daisies is more or less irrelevant because the film is so irreverent. It's nominally about a day in the life of two young women, but that day just happens to be a surrealistic phantasmagoria which, like the best surrealism, has some deeper social and political subtext concerning class, feminism and repression, but can also be enjoyed as a string of crazy, disconnected images and sounds.
Chytilová throws everything at the screen when it comes to style, tone, colour and technique, creating one of the most exhaustively inventive films I've ever seen.

6. The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years (dir. Penelope Spheeris, 1988)

After the scuzzy fun of Part I, which focused on the L.A. punk scene in the early '80s, Spheeris' exploration of the hair metal scene is a little slicker but no less enthusiastic. Equal parts celebration of the excesses of the scene and bittersweet warning about them, it manages to both depict the sex, drugs and rock and roll of it all as hugely fun and deeply damaging, as illustrated by testimonials from the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Steven Tyler and Alice Cooper, all of whom are good value for money when it comes to delivering funny anecdotes before pivoting into discussions about their life-saving sobriety. The highlight, at least in retrospect, may be the interviews with opponents of hair metal who try to portray it as embodying the very heights of Satanism, which can't help but look quaint and dumb from the vantage point of 2015. Not that it was any less ridiculous in 1988, of course.

7. The Paradise Lost Trilogy (dirs. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 1996, 2000, and 2011)

The clamour surrounding Making a Murderer finally drove me to sit down and, over the course of a particularly depressing Saturday, watch all three parts of Berlinger and Sinofsky's account of the case of The West Memphis Three, a trio of young boys who were falsely and accused of murdering three other boys in 1993, and who consequently spent 18 years in prison. I joked at the time that the trilogy is like the most depressing version of the Up series, in that the filmmakers catch up with the Three every few years and discover that, yes, they are all still in jail, but that comparison was more apt than I originally thought. Like Apted's films, the trilogy becomes more about itself as it progresses, as Berlinger and Sinofsky have to reckon with the impact that their films have on the case they are reporting on. That reflexive quality is what makes the trilogy as a whole so interesting, particularly when the directors have to backpedal from accusations made in Part II when making Part III, since it blurs the lines between documentary, journalism, editorialising and activism in a way which is tricky to pick apart.

8. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amselem (dirs. Ronit Elkabetz and Shlomi Elkabetz, 2014)

This is the third film in a trilogy made by the Elkabetzs about the life of Viviane Amsalem (played by Ronit Elkabetz), an Israeli woman who, by the start of Gett..., is trying to get a divorce (i.e. a Gett) from her husband. Since a Gett is a specific kind of religious dissolution of a marriage, one which requires the husband to relinquish all claims to his wife, this involves having to testify in front of three Rabbis who seem pretty reluctant to end a marriage easily. What then follows is a painstaking examination of the years-long series of arguments, counterarguments, agreements and broken promises that go along with trying to acquire a Gett when all of the power resides with the husband, and men in general. Taking place almost entirely within the confines of one small, grey room, the Elkabetzs craft a deceptively tense, at times funny, courtroom drama which explores all the contours of this particular meeting point between religious and secular life with wit and a knack for crafting indelible characters, all of whom feel fully realised (possibly because they have been in the other films) and add real life to what could be a dry procedural. It may be a third film, but it's so wonderfully realised that it functions as an engrossing and maddening standalone.

9. Eating Raoul (dir. Paul Bartel, 1982)

I really didn't know what to expect going into this dark comedy about a sexless married couple (Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov) who decide to start murdering people they designate as perverts in order to pay for their dream of opening a restaurant, but I was very happy with what I found. A gleefully amoral look at the decadence of Los Angeles, it's very funny, has a spiky unpredictable energy that never lets up, and a dry wit which at times makes it seem like the kind of film Whit Stillman would make if he loosened up a bit and made a film for Troma. As someone who watched far too much Star Trek: Voyager as a kid, it was also strange and exciting to see Robert Beltran (a.k.a. Chakotay) as a fiery young thing who gets entangled in the plan (and marriage) of the central duo. If he had unleashed some of that craziness on Voyager's bridge then maybe that show wouldn't have been quite so drab.

10. Ant-Man (dir. Peyton Reed, 2015)

As a long-time fan of both Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, I was aghast when it was announced that they were being removed from Ant-Man and that the film they had laboured for years to make would be directed by and re-written by others. So it was with some trepidation that I watched the resulting film, but I was pleasantly surprised by how good it is. Admittedly it suffers from the Marvel house style of having to hit a number of standard superhero plot points, but Reed delivers them with panache, Paul Rudd is a solid focal point, and Michael Peña is fantastic in a small role that he imbues with a dash of soul and a lot of silliness. The reduced scope compared to the other MCU films also helps, since it feels like a self-contained heist movie that just happens to have ties to this broader universe, while the shrinking aspect is employed to great effect. Also, if I may veer into #hottake territory for a moment, I think that the film handles its father-transcends-the-rules-of-physics-to-save-his-daughter plot point with more wit and heart than Interstellar did.