For the second installment of Recently Watched, we have an all new round up of films to investigate; one that is sexy, one that is hideous, another that failed the polygraph test across the board and the one that can’t seem to stop inexplicably touching itself inappropriately. These ten films have been lined up in alphabetical order and one-by-one put through a rigorous examination. It was a rewarding, albeit laborious task, for the most part, and a chunk of the films in the line-up even warrant repeated viewings. And while each film was put through the same test, a certain film was acting out and did not deserve to be treated as equal, so it was not spared an ounce of vehement vitriol. I would rather have my eyes pried open A Clockwork Orange-style (see the article header image above) and be forced into submission to read every single page of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch screenplay than revisit that film again. But life’s too short to have to sit through an agonizing film like The Dictator in the attempt at finding Happiness, so let me do all the suffering and provide you a handy little guide.
The Celebration, Thomas Vinterberg, 1998
Filmed like footage from personal family video tapes, Dogme 95 director Thomas Vinterberg effectively crafts a film about one son’s unforgettable suffering and the pains he goes through to finally open up to his family. The Celebration turns a simple family gathering into a crisis of catastrophic proportions. One of Dogme 95’s purposes is to bring the audience closer to the story and the characters, if this is the case I believe that that The Celebration has achieved just that. Ironically, though, Dogme 95 also intends to undermine the role of the director as auteur it has achieved just the opposite. But I believe that this is a good and refreshing thing when most other upcoming filmmakers do not seem as concerned as their predecessors had been/still are with film as art form.
However, I will confess that ten minutes in, I had elicited several groans. A middle class Danish family all set for a reunion in some large country manor, a brother who acts like an idiot, camera shaking like the film was shot during an earthquake. I could see a long hundred minutes sprawling before me. My advice is to hang in there! Fairly soon, a revelation is made during a toast which will make sparks fly and alters the relationships between family members irrevocably. And from thereon, The Celebration is an entirely gripping tour de force. The plot is pure soap opera, albeit with a darker undercurrent, but the grainy digital hand held camerawork almost makes the audience feel like a fly on the wall; an uninvited guest intruding upon some very personal affairs. Plus you’ve got a Danish racist singalong thrown in for good measure. What’s not to like here?
Chronicle, Josh Trank, 2012
Chronicle is an unoriginal concept done in a surprisingly refreshing way. In an an entirely too worn-out and disposable genre of superheroes and comics, Chronicle brings all the major superhero questions into play: Where did our powers come from? How should we use our powers? In the end, however, those questions are irrelevant. The film is not about three superheroes, it is actually about three teenage boys who just happen to have incredible superpowers. Occasionally the film stumbles over its own feet, like when it makes a valiant effort to pose itself as a morality tale. But eventually first time director Josh Trank shakes off that idea and smartly continues on with the misuse and abuse of superpowers without having to rely on formulaic filmmaking or genre expectations. Suffice to say, Chronicle was an overall pleasant surprise.
The Dictator, Larry Charles, 2012
Oof… where to begin? The Dictator is the sort of film that makes lobbying in favor of filmmakers to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for human rights violations a realistic scenario.While marketed as a comedy film, there are absolutely no jokes in The Dictator. In fact, the only genuine joke, and the singular moment worthy of a smirk in the film, is the one perpetually promoted in every trailer; Aladeen (Sacha Baron Cohen) and and a friend taking a helicopter ride with two American tourists and, while gesturing innocently, appear that they are about to commit a terrorist attack. Thinking about it now, the scene wasn’t all that humorous. However, it is the only joke because it follows the basic criteria of a joke. Unlike, of course, the other hundred or so moments in the film that try to pass themselves off as ‘comedy’ but merely poke fun of stereotypes or insecurities like a cruel fifth grade bully.
In addition to its comedy guise, The Dictator is labeled a political satire. Political satire? I must have missed that part of the film. Political satire takes an equal amount of balls and tact, neither of which The Dictator or Baron Cohen has. Knowing that it has made zero statements regarding issues it hardly addresses, tries to cram a sociopolitical, America-is-the-root-of-all-evil rant right at the end. I know that I’m mercilessly beating The Dictator into the ground but it truly is an atrocious film altogether and deserves no sympathy. I want to say that an actor the caliber of Ben Kingsley should be ashamed to be part of this catastrophe, but it probably payed for his summer home so good for you Sir Ben, get that money. I’m never in favor of censorship and yet the multiple countries that banned The Dictator got it right.
Drive, Nicolas Winding Refn, 2011
Fourth viewing of Drive andit’s just as good as the first, second and third time. “I used to produce movies in the 80’s. Kinda like action films, sexy stuff. One critic called them ‘European’. I thought they were shit,” says mobster Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) in Drive. It seems oddly meta. The universe in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is a direct homage to the 80’s. It’s kind of like an action flick for the art house crowd, the opposite of a Jason Statham film filled with one-liners. It’s also sexy and feels very European, because Refn is European. Far removed from Hollywood’s usual output. But it’s definitely not shit.
Akin to Refn’s previous film, Bronson, it is heavily stylized. But where Bronson lacked in execution and charisma, Drive makes up for it tenfold. Similar to the films Drive borrows from, the Driver, played by Ryan Gosling, is filled with ambiguity. He doesn’t have a name, a past, or a future and chooses to live in the present. That said, Gosling’s low key portrayal and under acting gives him a real sense of cool but he still has characteristics that make him quite relatable and likeable. The best word to describe Drive might have to be “specific”. It is very specific in its style and the tone it tries to create, and you have to have a very specific mindset to enjoy it appropriately. I would call it moody and intense before I’d call it exciting, and I would say it’s much more plainly violent than action-packed. But more than anything else, I would call it terrific.
Happiness, Todd Solondz, 1998
Watching Happiness for the tenth time I couldn’t help but conjure up feelings of the late great Robert Altman. Before you commence the barrage of hate mail, Todd Solondz doesn’t hold a candle to Mr. Altman. He never will. Although Happiness has a sort of Altman-esqe pastiche of characters stemming from a seemingly normal family, plus others who come into their lives. Much like Altman, Solondz sets his characters up nicely and examines their lives, their dreams, their interactions and their facades. What’s important is that he doesn’t judge these people. And even more importantly, he doesn’t condescend to his audience. Like it or not, the people in Happiness do exist and I think viewers should instantly realize that no matter how much they wish these people didn’t exist. Happiness stirs up such strange emotions; it goes without saying but it’s tough to admit that we may have something in common with a Suburban pedophile, a pathetic dreamer, a pretentious literary snob or an obscene telephone sex stalker. And one of the most frightening ideas ever put on to film is that Solondz makes plausible the people we view as being “sick” or generally look down upon aren’t that much different than us.
House, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977
Whoa, daddy! What in the hell is director Nobuhiko Obayashi on and where may I obtain some this very instance? The heavily bootlegged Japanese horror comedy, House, finally got a proper video release by the always dependable Criterion Collection in 2010 and I can see why the film was recommended by everyone from my buddy John (thanks for the DVD!) to acclaimed filmmakers Guy Maddin and André Bonzel to the likes of Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader. Noted for its extravagant use of visuals, Obayashi’s House is certainly a five star film visually, even the effects that seem dated have a sort of kitsch appeal. There’s a lot to take in at any given time, but it’s ultimately very rewarding for the eyes. The film just feels so lively, vibrant and downright fun. But, visuals are only one aspect of film. The overall story of House plays itself out like an old Scooby-Doo cartoon and you’ve definitely already seen it countless times before. Maybe that’s because the idea for House was conceived by Obayashi’s daughter? It was, after all, Obayashi who said that adults “only think about things they understand… everything stays on that boring human level” while “children can come up with things that can’t be explained”. Precisely, House can’t be explained and any effort to try is futile. Your best bet is to just sit back and enjoy House for what it is: a visual fiesta.
Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Chantal Akerman, 1975
Clocking in about three hours, Jeanne Dielman is about a widow who cooks, cleans, and washes, while paying her rent by prostituting herself once a day in her own house as her son is away at school. The way director Chantal Akerman films Jeanne Dielman is almost Bressonian in the way she concentrates on ritual and method of characters actions to communicate something about their life. It even brings David Lynch’s seminal Eraserhead to mind. Jeanne Dielman is so deadpan and emotionlessly methodical about her mundane work, you could tell something had died in her a long time ago and she’s nothing but a vessel of quiet hostility. Jeanne Dielman is a brutal film and Jeanne Dielman is a woman whose life is regimented to the point of absurdity; she is reduced entirely to her actions. When her regiments break down, so does she. Jeanne Dielman is often said to be rooted in feminism, but it’s a film that transcends that with stunning conviction and natural grace.
Rififi, Jules Dassin, 1955
After being blacklisted by Hollywood in 1950, American born director Jules Dassin left for France to film what would undoubtedly be his opus, Rififi. The film was shockingly tough and unsentimental when it first appeared in 1955 and it is just as tough and unsentimental today. There isn’t a flabby moment or dull performance in the entire film and Dassin captures the milieu of seedy clubs and Parisian back streets like no one else. Of course, this wouldn’t be a review of Rififi without mentioning the instantly classic robbery scene. The robbery itself is shown in a remarkably tense twenty eight minute sequence during which there is no dialogue and every action seems vital to the success of the operation. The suspense then increases further when it becomes clear that the time available to the gang is very close to running out.
But perhaps the most striking feature to Rififi is just how successfully it imparts so much information about its characters, the robbery and all that happens afterward, in the limited time available. This is done with great skill and without ever appearing to be rushed. Time is taken to introduce the various characters and to show their relationships to each other before the meticulous planning process is carried out. Every stage of the robbery is then shown in great detail and every aspect of the numerous events that follow is depicted briskly and commendably, without any loss of clarity. While the Hollywood blacklist was a travesty of epic proportions, one can’t help but feel a level of gratitude towards the industry because without the blacklisting, Jules Dassin would’ve never taken his creativity to France and Rififi would cease to exist.
The Seventh Continent, Michael Haneke, 1989
If I can review with just emoticons then this review would be littered with hundreds of thousands of frowny faces. Michael Haneke’s debut film from 1989, The Seventh Continent isone of the most distressing films I’ve ever watched, leaving me beyond tears, instead into a state of emotional numbness shared by the depraved, nihilistic main characters we are meant to both be appalled by and emphasize with, despite them stripping themselves of all humanity. The entire final forty five minutes is just plain rough, though. Knowing Haneke’s later, more prestigious works (The Piano Teacher, Caché, The White Ribbon) it’s not at all hard to see where he came from; his razor sharp skill in exposing the violence and desperation of the mundane is something that has always been there. In The Seventh Continent Haneke’s directing and pacing matched with the minimalist cinematography establishes a unique, claustrophobic mood masterfully, and he tells a difficult, deceptively simple story as well as it could have been done. I found the shots of the metaphorical seventh continent itself interspersed throughout to be very haunting and a positive touch to an otherwise bleak picture.
Wanderlust, David Wain, 2012
Paul Rudd to the rescue. Again. And again. And… again. Seriously, it’s gotten to the point where I just assume Paul Rudd moonlights as a real life superhero for Hollywood. With a story that’s as limp as David Wain’s dick, the ensemble cast does all the heavy lifting. You’d almost wish Wain had just gone with a straight up comedy surrounding his colorful characters, because I strangely enjoyed my time at the hippie commune, Elysium (a word that all too conveniently resembles the word “asylum”). Let’s face it: there’s no significant social commentary here even though Wanderlust attempts to convey some sort of underlying anti-consumerism/big city culture critique early on. Each end of the spectrum is too radical and constricting to be viewed as a legitimate lifestyle. Wain has no intention of exploring either the commune or big city lifestyle to justify his ending, but instead present the radical versions of each. It’s safe play, and it’s fine if you’re willing to go over the top (which he does). But still, with the terribly inconsistent and conventional screenplay set aside, Wanderlust has a handful of chuckles courtesy of Paul Rudd and company. On top of that, there’s an audacious performance from Justin Theroux and fortunately for us the stiff-as-a-board Jennifer Aniston is mostly lurking in the background.