April 9, 2013

to-the-wonder-movie upstream_newSpring Breakers

To the Wonder, Upstream Color and Spring Breakers have been speaking to each other in my head. I would rather they go away so I could do my taxes, but here we are. Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which opens in limited release this week, is a memory movie, swirling around a couple straining to recapture the ecstasy of love’s first blush. The couple in Upstream Color have nothing to recapture, their minds wiped by parasites, forced to forge new identities by pulling from the world and each other. Spring Breakers is also a kind of love story, one in which kids with dwindling Great Recession prospects escape into the sticky embrace of pop culture. All use a structure filled with repetitions and a slippery sense of time, with flash forwards and flash backs bending their linear timelines into circles.

To the Wonder opens with grainy cell phone video of Olga Kurylenko and Ben Affleck in the throes of dizzy silly passion on a European train ride. They are getting high off each other, each pawing advance  eliciting unselfconscious laughter.  In voice-over, Kurylenko whispers (in French): “Newborn”. It is an innocent state for which they will be unable to return, and Malick and his DP Emmanuel Lubezki trace their attraction-repulsion from the romantic heights of Mont St. Michel to their unadorned suburban home in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The image of Mont St. Michel, a small tidal island off the coast of Normandy capped with a Romanesque church, acts as a talisman for their moment of bodily transcendence, when, as Kurylenko intones, “Two become one”.

It presents a natural progression of Malick’s late style, in which impressionistic fragments are edited together in symphonic arrangements, and where actors are broken down into their constituent parts: hands, necks, hair. There are mini-movements that swirl around the central romance,  of doorways and windowpane shadows (which eventually Kurylenko’s daughter hopscotches through), but also of muddy water, rhymed across the continent from the coast of Normandy to a stream of runoff that Affleck tests in Oklahoma. His actors have essentially become silent performers, a tactic that balances them with the world around them – the fluorescent light at a Sonic is as privileged as his actors. Malick was trained as a Heidegger scholar, but allow me to dust off my prized Bachelor of philosophy degree and propose that this approach is more reminiscent of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a phenomenologist who arose in Heidegger’s wake. I’ll cherry pick a quote from his Phenomenology of Perception: “I am, thus, not separate from being, but rather ‘a fold’ in being where being touches itself through me.” Malick’s actors slip into this fold, conduits that the world flows through, instead of its center.

upstream color

Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color has been incessantly compared to Malick, and its editing patterns are similar with its looping repetitions. But while Malick came out of a Continental Philosophy background, Carruth is more concerned with the science of mind, how the brain might react if forced to construct a personality out of nothing but its own perceptions. The story concerns Kris (Amy Seimetz), who is implanted with a parasitical worm that erases her memory. The worm is part of an enigmatic organic cycle, as it emerges from the soil of orchids and finishes its life inside pigs, who maintain a psychic link to the parasite hosts. Kris tears down her old life and begins a new one, joining up with Jeff (Carruth), who has also been through the destructive process and is beginning life anew. They form a co-dependent bond in which memories flow back and forth, threatening their grip on individuality. Carruth is a builder of intricate systems who prefers to leave out the instruction manual, so connective tissue regarding the cycle is elided in favor of Kris and Jeff’s scramble back into humanity. Carruth is stilted and cold, his analytic personality unfit for a guy wiped by a worm. But Seimetz gives the movie its grounding, her transformation from consciousness to blank slate is a true metamorphosis, her bright energy dulled into cow-eyed sloth, her movements slowed as she were still mapping out the world in her head.

In Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, teenybopper darlings Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Vanessa Hudgens are adrift in college, racking up debts for an American Dream that is no longer viable. Their days are spent ignoring lectures and watching Kimbo Slice street fights on YouTube. Desperate for escape and something joyful, they rob a fried chicken joint in order to fund a trip to spring break in St. Petersburg, Florida. Korine, like Malick and Carruth, uses repetition to create a sense of circularity, characters caught in a loop. In Spring Breakers, though, it is a loop the characters have created for themselves, an ecstatic embrace of the vulgar as an escape from the mundane. If the film has a philosophy it would be directed by the Twitter feed @KimKierkegaard, which mashes up the Kardashian and the Danish existentialist. The girls have gone through the looking glass, except they’re not entering Wonderland but a Reddit thread. The film clicks from Girls Gone Wild debauchery to teen queen balladry to glamorized drug violence, an adventure into the unknown, but at least it gives the girls control. They meet the love of their lives in Alien (James Franco) a flamboyantly conspicuous consumer who has also decided to give up the life in the world for one self-made pop glamor. The most moving scene is a robbery montage set to Britney Spears’ heartbreak ballad “Everytime”, the girls done up in Pussy Riot gear – their self-willed self-destruction a private revolutionary act.


January 10, 2012

Screen Shot 2020-02-03 at 11.16.10 AM

I always work better with a deadline. Since the world is ending on December 21st, 2012, I expect to have the most productive movie-going year of my young, super-handsome life. In preparation for these blessed final hours in darkened theaters, I’ve drawn up a list of new releases I wish to see before my anticipated demise, those which I expect would give me the most pleasure in my twilight year. I hope it is also some help for you, dear reader, usefully arranged in descending order of preference.

Gebo et L’Ombre (Gebo and the Shadow), directed by Manoel de Oliveira

What better way to shuffle off this mortal coil than with the latest film from that ageless wonder, Manoel de Oliveira, the only man likely to survive doomsday. Gebo is an adaptation of the eponymous play by modernist Portuguese writer Raul Brandão (1867 – 1930), who was born in the same city as Oliveira, Oporto. The play is from 1923, and portrays an accounting clerk who is divided between wealth and honor, and who has to sacrifice himself to protect his own son. The production company, O Som E A Furia, rather blandly says the film, “portrays the poverty and the tragedies of life of ordinary people who can easily be related to contemporary life.” The sterling cast is made up of Oliveira regulars Ricardo Trepa and Leonor Silveira, plus the august triumverate of Jeanne Moreau, Claudia Cardinale and Michael Lonsdale. Likely to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, it should hopefully reach these shores by the end of the year, in one fashion or another. Oliveira has already started production on another film, A Igreja do Diabo (The Devil’s Church), starring Fernanda Montenegro and based on the short story by Machado de Assis.


A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existencedirected by Roy Andersson

This is more hope than reality, as there’s only a slim chance this gets completed in time to screen this year. But since I wanted to type out that amazing title, here it is. It is the third and final section of Andersson’s “Living” trilogy, following the extraordinary duo of Songs From the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007). In October the film was awarded 650,000 Euros from The Council of Europe’s Eurimages fund, and CineEuropa reported it is “shooting for a 2013-2014 delivery”. We might be waiting awhile. For a taste, here is Roy Andersson talking to Ethan Spigland in 2010, when he was calling it A Dove Sat On a Branch…:

Can you say something about your next project?

RA: It’s a sum-up of my life; of the way I see existence. I have a preliminary title: A DOVE SITTING ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE.

ES: I like it.

RA: With a title like that you can be totally free—it’s not predictable. A painting by Breughel inspires it. It depicts a bird sitting on a branch overlooking a city. You can see the city from above and all the human activities below. Stylistically it will be similar to SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR and YOU THE LIVING, but this time I want to reach two things: more brutality as well as more poetry. . .and also more jokes, more humor.

ES: You want to push everything a bit further?

RA: Yes, I want to be more expressive. Anyway, I will try.


Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 3D, directed by Tsui Hark

Tsui Hark, whose Detective Dee and The Phantom Flame was one of the inimitable  delights of 2011, makes his first foray into 3D with this martial arts extravaganza. It opened on December 22nd in Hong Kong, and while it should be easy to find DVDs of this at online Asian retailers, I dearly hope I can see it in 3D. An irrepressible showman with an innate command of action cinematography (if not narrative), this could be one of the visual treats of the year.


Casa De Mi Padredirected by Matt Piedmont (March 16th)

Three Mississippi, directed by Adam McKay (Thanksgiving weekend, according to Vulture)

After a down year for American comedy in 2011 (Bridesmaids excepted), I am relieved that Will Ferrell will be appearing in no less than three movies in 2012 (I left off Dog Fight, in which Ferrell and Zack Galifianakis play dueling South Carolina politicians, because of wet rag director Jay Roach). I have been anticipating Casa since a trailer appeared almost a year ago. A parody of Mexican telenovelas, it has Ferrell playing frequently shirtless rancher Armando Alvarez, who is trying to save his father’s farm. The gimmick is that the film is almost entirely in Spanish, with Ferrell speaking the language phonetically throughout. With co-stars Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal, this looks just ridiculous enough for me to love. Three Mississippi is the latest collaboration between Ferrell and McKay, after The Other Guys in 2010. The duo has perfected an improvisatory approach to comedy, in which they push scenarios – and language itself – into realms of absurdity previously breached only by the Marx Brothers. I prefer John C. Reilly to Mark Wahlberg as Ferrell’s co-star, but I’ll take them however I can get them.


Untitled Terrence Malick Project

It’s a Terrence Malick movie, which at this point is enough. It stars Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Rachel Weisz, Javier Bardem and other famous people. Here is what IMDB says about the story:

A romantic drama centered on a man who reconnects with a woman from his hometown after his marriage to a European woman falls apart.



Holy Motors, directed by Leos Carax

Leos Carax’s first film since Pola X in 1999. I know very little about this, other than its delightfully eclectic cast of Eva Mendes (a wonderful comedienne: see The Other Guys and Stuck On You for proof), Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minlogue and Denis Lavant. Here is the summary from CineEuropa:

Holy Motors traces 24 hours in the life of a person who travels between different lives, including that of a murderer, beggar, CEO, monstrous creature and father of a family.

Like a lone killer acting in cold blood and going from one hit to the next, he has a completely different identity in each of his intertwining lives. Like in a film-within-a film, he plays different roles. But where are the cameras, the film crew and the director? And where is his house, his resting place?”

Some production photos show Eva Mendes crawling out of a sewer, which would lead one to believe there are some elements borrowed from his segment of Tokyo! , in which Denis Lavant played a gibbering idiot named Merde who lived in the sewers, and who also wreaked havoc on the streets of Japan.


Tabudirected by Miguel Gomes

After being enchanted by Our Beloved Month of August a few years back, I hotly anticipate Miguel Gomes’ new feature, Tabu, which was just announced to be part of the Competition slate at the Berlin Film Festival. Apparently unrelated to F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty’s  film of the South Seas, its production company describes it thusly:

A temperamental old woman, her Cape Verdean maid and a neighbour devoted to social causes live on the same floor of a Lisbon apartment building. When the old lady dies, the other two learn of an episode from her past: a tale of love and crime set in an Africa straight from the world of adventure films.

Otherwise all we know are that the stills are in B&W, and they look gorgeous.


Resident Evil: Retribution 3D, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (September 14th)

The Masterdirected Paul Thomas Anderson

A battle of Andersons! W.S. is one of the few contemporary directors to fully investigate the possibilities of 3D, with both Resident Evil: Afterlife and The Three Musketeers templates for how to shoot fight scenes in depth, with multiple planes of action roiling at once. P.T. is one for grand statements and grander tracking shots, an ambitious auteur with capital A’s adept at sketching particularly charismatic strains of grandiose American self-deception. His next entry is about the rise a religious sect, reportedly based on Scientology, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman. I look forward to both, but admit, if I had to choose, that I’m a W.S. man (and a Jovovich one, too).


The Grandmaster, directed by Wong Kar-Wai

Whether or not this actually comes out this year is anybody’s guess, as Wong likes to camp out in his editing room, but this is his return to Hong Kong filmmaking after the awkward, intermittently affecting My Blueberry Nights, and it stars dreamboat Tony Leung. Its subject is Ip Man, the Chinese martial artist who trained Bruce Lee, and who was also the subject to two fine fight films starring Donnie Yen.


Others, in brief:

Bullet to the Head, directed by Walter Hill (April 13th)

Did you see it’s directed by Walter Hill? Well it is! And starring the intriguingly decomposing Sylvester Stallone. It’s Hill’s first theatrical feature since the underrated Undisputed in 2002.

Barbaradirected by Christian Petzold

Will premiere at the Berlinale. Have a pressing urge to gorge on the psychologically astute, visually controlled films of the Berlin School. Petzold (Jerichow, Beats Being Dead), is the exemplar of this style.

Haywire, directed by Steven Soderbergh (January 20th)

Curious to see how MMA fighter Gina Carano’s imposing physicality translates to the screen. Also, it’s Soderbergh’s first collaboration with writer Lem Dobbs since The Limey, which was great fun.

The Three Stooges, directed by The Farrelly Brothers (April 13th)

This is the project the Farrelly’s have been trying to make their entire career. Hopefully it unleashes the spastic, slapstick body-comedy-horror of their earlier work.

Lock-Outdirected by James Mather and Stephen St. Leger (April 20th)

The latest from the Luc Besson meathead factory, this Escape From New York knockoff drops wisecracking Guy Pearce into a max security space prison in order to rescue the president’s daughter (!). The trailer shows Pearce to be adept at falling and quipping.