Recently Watched, Vol. I


First, allow me to apologize for the heedless hiatus, as it was unforeseeable on my part. I was living in California for past five months and spontaneously moved back home recently, so I’ve been getting settled in at home and haven’t had much time to focus on writing or anything else for that matter. But alas, I’ve appeared out of my shell like some frightened turtle and have been writing regularly again so expect some regular updates from me.

For this entry, I was inspired by California, believe it or not. I was quite elated when I found out California theater ticket prices are an astonishingly low $7.50 for adult matinee, or at least they were in Ventura, where I was residing. Now, I’m not sure how much tickets are where you are, but for a New Yorker, where theater ticket prices can run you anywhere from $14 (depending on the theater/location) that’s cheap and certainly worth taking advantage of. But how does this correlate to the entry, you’re asking? Well, my girlfriend and I abused this totally obvious systematic flaw in Ventura and found ourselves dawdling at the local cinema whenever indifference reached a complete standstill. In the five months I was in California, I must have seen a dozen or more films. Most of what we saw wasn’t of our greater interest, seeing as it was in the beginning of the year, a time when the film industry mostly deploys an arsenal of junk to cash in quick while saving their ‘best stuff’ for later.

The point being is, I thought I’d keep tabs on what I’ve been watching recently, with or without the company of my girlfriend. Each week I’ll attempt to document at least ten films I’ve recently watched, be it at the theater or in the comfort of my own home. Enjoy!

Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky, 2010

Much like the past few Darren Aronofsky films, I ignored Black Swan when it was released two years ago. One might consider this move to be callous and even downright baffling given the films immediate critical acclaim, fanfare, being heavily campaigned during Oscar season in all forms of advertising, which inevitably landed the film unnecessary discussion to virtually no end during the season. The truth is, despite Black Swan’s A-list star power and seemingly unusual premise for today’s Hollywood audience, what we really have is just another poor, B-grade psychological thriller. But hey, perhaps it’s not surprising that director Aronofsky finds himself drawn in this direction seeing as his back catalog is filled with such films (notably the malaise Requiem for a Dream.)

As the film reaches its climax the rhetoric of ‘did she, didn’t she?’ and ‘is this all actually happening?’ that shaped the preceding hundred or so minutes of Black Swan reveals itself to be entirely paper thin. After all, differentiating what dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) did and what she merely imagined wouldn’t make the experience any more interesting or informative. That’s pretty damning when you consider that part of the narrative involves a lesbian confrontation between aforementioned Portman and co-star Mila Kunis. Truth be told, there’s nothing worth indulging in here. At all. Neither sight nor sound nor spectacle is to be had in the tedious exercise that is Black Swan. In the end all I can think is what might have a talent the likes of Tchaikovsky thought to have his name attached to something like Black Swan?

The Cabin in the Woods, Drew Goddard, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods is one of those films where the less you know about it, the more satisfying the end result is. The Cabin in the Woods is both a horror and a comedy, although I would say more comedy than horror. The funny parts are hilarious, and the horror parts are well executed. The film effectively mixes the two without feeling awkward, and there’s also a great sense of inventiveness going on here. Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon managed to make an ingenious film that is highly entertaining yet clever at the same time. The film is Evil Dead dressed in The Truman Show’s clothes. It is imperative that a film like The Cabin in the Woods be released in 2012, where creativity in horror films has taken a backseat for cheap shock tactics. Together director Goddard and screenwriter Whedon have carefully crafted a unique horror film that not only challenges the conventional methods of operation but slyly addresses everyone involved; from the creators, to the audience, to the creation itself and how it affects the past, the present and future.

Come and See, Elma Klimov, 1985

Come and See is the ultimate horrors of war film, trumping American favorites Apocalypse Now, Platoon and even Terrence Malick’s excellent The Thin Red Line. A film so shocking for audiences that ambulances were called to take away viewers. My own grandfather, who served in the Soviet Union military, is unable to finish the film. Without being overly bloody or explicit in general about its content, it paints an absolutely devastating and harrowing picture of the Nazi invasion of the Belorussian part of the Soviet Union during World War II. It stars a young man, barely out of his preteen years, who joins an army unit after finding a rifle buried in the ground near his home. He is left behind after they march out, and after losing his hearing in a bombing, he returns home with a strange girl only to find his village has been wiped out. They find some survivors of various raids, and he goes off with some men for supplies before eventually coming face to face with the soldiers that have been ravaging his country.

Come and See was the last film director Elem Klimov made, and you can see how it would be someone’s final statement as an artist. It at times seems sensationalistic, with many scenes of the young main actor just gaping or cringing in absolute horror as the worst stuff he’s ever seen constantly happens around him. Klimov extensively uses long takes to increase the sense of reality, and some of the images are unforgettable despite the seeming lack of budget for extravagant set ups. The spectacular climactic sequence is made up almost entirely of well-edited found footage, and it’s effective as anything that could have been done with original work. It’s hard to say I loved a film that’s so difficult at times to look at, but as I said before, it’s the best example I’ve seen of portraying the truth about war’s worst elements. Essential viewing.

Inception, Christopher Nolan, 2010

Oh, Inception, how very nice to meet you! Too bad our time together was so short lived, seeing as you’re a ginormous pompous prick. Inception is easily one of the most talked about films of the last few years; an enormous box office smash hit, bristling with special effects that probably cost half an African country to create, that absolutely everyone seems to love, and you “must see, bro”. Sadly, though, I wanted to like it, I really just couldn’t. In a twisted, complex, bloated, contrived storyline, we follow Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who are professional corporate thieves, entering victims subconscious minds and stealing valuable information from them, or in this case, attempting to plant ideas in their minds. It, of course, had to pack in some overly sentimental garbage, with the various layers of story with Cobb’s wife and children, the constant explanations of dream physics “totems”, subconscious projections attacking dreammakers, “kicks” and so on, and the masturbatory layering of the dreams themselves. Inception is an alienating experience; near zero pathos, action scenes copy and pasted from mediocre video games and characters so flat and uninspired I find it difficult to believe they were not computer generated. DiCaprio in particular seems to have shaken off all of the credibility he gained with The Basketball Diaries. An utterly nauseating product of Christopher Nolan’s infatuation with his own supposed talent.

Mamma Roma, Pier Palo Pasolini, 1962

Every time I watch Mamma Roma, I seem to find something new to appreciate it by, which is surprising given I’ve seen the film more times than I can possibly count. Catapulted by a strong performance from the legendary Anna Magnani as the title character, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma is naturalism at its best and purest form. Pasolini is noted for ignoring most of the conventions of cinema; used non-professional actors, made professionals like Magnani act without their usual behavior, relied on artistic conventions from the Middle Ages and/or the Renaissance more than those from Hollywood. His painstaking attention to details most directors ignore or idealize, his reliance on poetry, classical and folk music (Vivaldi), classical paintings (da Vinci’s Last Supper, Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ) made him unique. Mamma Roma can be called a melodrama, sure,but a dry one, without all the glamor and ravishment of one. Instead with sordid and sad details; its characters are doomed by their own resignation, laziness and even self-depreciation, but they are not so bad, only foolish. It looks like Neo-Realism, but it is not. It’s something more, it’s a Pasolini film. Unlike anything else out there.

Prometheus, Ridley Scott, 2012

Without going into the plot holes, inconsistencies, scientific inaccuracies, or implausibilities that everyone with a keyboard seems to be harping on, Prometheus succeeds in being a thoroughly entertaining voyage. I’m not the biggest supporter or enthusiast of CGI, but I must say that Prometheus’ use of CGI is the most convincing I’ve seen; with real gravity and solidity given to the special effects unlike the hordes of comic book adaptations where everything bounces around weightless and inconsequentially like flubber. The planet and its atmosphere in which Ridley Scott and Giger create actually looks and feels authentic. Just focus on that, and the solid performances of Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace, and you will have a most enjoyable cinema experience. Going in with expectations of an Alien prequel/sequel and sensible plot will just distract you. Just turn your brain off, watch and absorb in awe. Although, there’s no ifs, ands or buts that ‘screenwriter’ (a dubious title for such a lousy effort) Damon Lindelof must be taken out back and put down with no remorse.

Rosetta, Dardenne brothers, 1999

The Dardenne brothers (Luc and Jean-Pierre) are two filmmakers I wholeheartedly admire. My first exposure to the brothers was, like most people I’m sure, their 2002 film, The Son; an incredibly simple yet effective and utterly satisfying tour de force that it’s hard to believe you don’t see films like it more often. Rosetta, however, is their breakthrough work, having won the Palm d’Or at Cannes that year. Brutal and breathtaking, Rosetta captures a young girl’s life in hard focus. I couldn’t help but feel the Dardenne brothers channel their inner Robert Bresson, ala Mouchette. We first see title character Rosetta bitterly resenting her getting fired from a job. Entirely shot in the Dardenne brothers signature shaky, digital camera, the brothers zero in on the harsh details of the everyday life of a young girl stuck between a rock and a hard place. Rosetta presents a heroine who is almost unlikable. Almost but still easy to root for, even when she throttles her way to pretty much nothing particularly special. And still, without a trace of sentimentality, no typically sympathetic characters Rosetta somehow ends up being one of the most subtly moving films I’ve ever seen to this day.

The Spirit of the Beehive, Victor Erice, 1973

Having been meaning to see The Spirit of the Beehive for years now, I got around to it only recently. A great shame given that Victor Erice’s film is not only beautiful but downright one of the finest films about youth. The Spirit of the Beehive also might just be the best use of a film-within-a-film; never have I thought about or appreciated the 1930’s Frankstein the way these children do in the post-civil war Spanish town. Erice tells the story of two small sisters who watch Frankenstein and the little one, Ana (noteworthy performance by first time actress Anna Torrent) is so impressed by the film that she is literally under stress! So generally speaking The Spirit of the Beehive is about the consequences of this occasion. It’s a slow and profound psychological drama full of undertows in which some analogies between the human society and beehive are drawn. In concluding my first time viewing of The Spirit of the Beehive, I think the thing I liked most were the environments, you can almost feel like you’re there. There is only a handful of other films that had a more palpable environment than that of The Spirit of the Beehive and they’re in a whole league of their own.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, William Greaves, 1968

With the excepting of F for Fake, 8 1/2, Adaption, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and maybe even Barton Fink there is absolutely no other film on the art/medium of filmmaking quite like William Greaves Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is both a social experiment and an experiment to determine the role of the director, actors and film crew in film. Let me break it down for you nice and easy: Greaves collected a film crew and a slew of actors and went to Central Park and made them record everything whilst they were supposedly shooting a film for the duration for a week. He recorded the actors playing, his actions, actions of the film crew, the film crew filming. You following me? The alleged film that they are shown filming consists of nothing but different actors reciting lines over and over about a couple breaking up because of the wife’s numerous abortions and the husbands supposedly numerous homosexual extramarital affairs. The whole thing was meant to provoke everyone involved.

For me, the highlight of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is the film crew philosophizing about potential motives for making a film this obviously bad and filming everything. The discussion was tapped by them and given to the director as a critique or protest of sorts. As someone speculates, the whole point of the film was to provoke them to make them the video, in a way they are the actors, albeit completely unaware of the fact. The whole thing is ingenious really and it is amazing to what extent Greaves project was successful. Seeing the participants reacting, violently even, to the situation and becoming self-aware of their bizarre ordeal is truly fascinating stuff. The homeless guy rambling and the music of Miles Davis are just added bonuses, too. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a fascinating look into human psychology and the process of filmmaking and should be viewed by everyone even remotely interested in either one of these subjects.

True Grit, Coen brothers, 2010

More of a fun time than a truly great film, True Grit is a film that stands on it’s great ensemble cast, beautiful cinematography and the Coen brothers script which injects their unique brand of humor into what is an overall good story. First timer Hailee Steinfeld can’t get enough credit for her role as Mattie Ross. She gives the character an emotional range and nuance. Jeff Bridges continues the template he laid down on The Big Lebowski and 2009’s Crazy Heart. He is so much fun to watch embodying Rooster Cogburn, who was played by western icon John Wayne in the original. There are also two great blink-and-you’ll-miss-them performances from Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper, who aren’t given enough screen time to really develop their characters. Consequently, the climax and shootout with that gang is a bit of a letdown.

With the care given to the journey there, the final act of True Grit could have benefited with a little more time. It all seems a bit too rushed, especially for the Coen brothers. Most great westerns anymore are pretty experimental. Thankfully, the brothers saw the potential in this simple story for their own writing style, which is handled with enough restraint to avoid seeming overbearing all the while still being just as fun to watch as their great comedies. True Grit seems refreshing, albeit flawed for its traditionalism and the professionalism brought to entertaining cinema.