Recently Watched, Vol. III

watched

The barely anticipated third installment of the seemingly neglected Recently Watched feature coming right ‘atcha dome! I promised this would be a weekly thing and yikes, have I failed you. I suppose I should have known better than to jump right into something so haphazardly. But that’s just what I do best. According to the archives, this third installment is the first in about a month and I’m fairly certain I watched well over ten films within that time frame so there’s really no justifiable excuse for the radical absence of this feature. But, if I can be crass for a second: school, work and overall laziness has taken its toll. If you’ve read the disclaimer for the blog, you’d know that I make “no guarantees that this place won’t be vacant for brief stints due to unexpected circumstances.” Now, don’t all at once go clicking the unsubscribe button just yet, my minions, I’ve got some lovely posts coming up soon. Don’t let the abandonment for Recently Watched fool ya.

Skimming through the films below, you can obviously see that my write ups this time around are lacking a bit in the quality department. And not only is that subsequently no fun for you, as a reader, but it’s actually quite disheartening for me, as the writer. I’m not sure what happened to cause this deficiency, but Recently Watched is currently, as we speak, being strapped to life support to ensure maximum caliber next time out. I could’ve simply discarded this entry and moved it to the trash bin, and instead posted something else but that wouldn’t be fair to those that enjoy the feature. But kind of like a Lars von Trier film, this one can be appreciated for its novelty. Hopefully it doesn’t wear off as quickly as The Element of Crime’s cinematography.

21 Jump Street, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, 2012

I saw 21 Jump Street, the reboot of the 80’s television show, back in California with my girlfriend. For the record, before getting into the film, I think it’s important to state that I’ve never dragged anyone, myself included, to see a Channing Tatum film before. I can’t say I’ve even seen a single film Tatum has been in. I don’t know about you, but I’m proud of that. That was until 21 Jump Street. Which is a surprise seeing as I wasn’t particularly excited to see the film. In fact I didn’t even quite find the trailers and promotion for the film all that interesting. It wasn’t until the critics put in their two cents and collectively deemed 21 Jump Street the hottest thing in theaters and swore to Orson Welles that it’s a cinematic achievement. Certainly there’s a lot of over exaggerating on the part of critics, but I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t leave the cinema with both my sides hurting from laughing. Not sore knees from all the knee-slapping, though, because I’m not a “knee-slapper”, but if I was, my knees would definitely hurt.

Unfortunately, as the story develops further the film slowly goes rolling downhill. By the middle of the film, 21 Jump Street begins to loiter in its own mocking pool; it soaks up some pop culture residue, expels it with self-mimicry, and simpers back at the audience for having taken a swim in it. While there’s undeniable chemistry between the aforementioned Channing Tatum and fellow lead Jonah Hill, the film resorts to too much of the same, though out of parody, and its blatant, self-fulfilling, mocking cynicism becomes increasingly intolerant as it progresses. Moreover, the subject inevitably ends with recycled debris left over from, where else? The 80’s. Despite some of those belly laughs I spoke about earlier, the film struggles to fill in the cavities.

The Conformist, Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970

The Conformist is a fascinating blend of tense character study, torn love story, and a background loaded with subtext and history. But through the entire length of the film, even if you’re not totally vested in interest in the main character (who, indeed, is meant by design not to be a ‘likeable’ protagonist), the look of the film, its sweep and style and what most great films do: sucking you in on the side of composition, mood, and music is worth strong recommending. Really quite an extraordinary film, told mainly in flashback, of a secret service agent in fascist Italy assigned to assassinate a dissident, an expatriate, and former university professor of the agent in Paris. The film searches for the whys of fascism and the agent. There is actually a lot of substance, and a lot to mull over in The Conformist. It is beautifully filmed, and beautifully designed as well. While The Conformist works as a riveting political thriller and as a haunting character study, the cinematography is the aspect of the film that I am especially keen on. The whole film is so beautifully shot that every scene seems to be taken directly out of a painting; it could perfectly be photographed now rather than forty years ago and it wouldn’t look any better. That’s for sure.

Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos, 2009

One of my favorite films from 2009, I recently rewatched Dogtooth on Netflix for the third time and it’s just as terrific as the initial viewing. In the interest of not spoiling anything, superficially, what you have in Dogtooth is a Greek film about a… how shall I put it kindly? An unconventional family doing unconventional things. Yeah, that sounds good. The things I speak of are placed there in the film to unsettle and provoke negative emotional response. It’s a stark and nuanced depiction of an abundantly abnormal life. There are moments that are anxious and absurd, that you can’t help but smirk. I giggled when the oldest daughter did her Rocky IV routine, as well as the scenes when the children are taught new words and their meanings (in their household “zombie” is a “small yellow flower” and “pussy” is a “big light”). I mean, you have to laugh at some point. It’s absolutely not “hilarious” like the New York Times film critic Nicolas Rapold said in his review. But I take it that Rapold probably can’t have an orgasm unless he stabs a small creature with a gardening tool whilst engaging in incestuous intercourse.

It’s really a testament to how uncompromising director Yorgos Lanthimos’ vision is; the rules of the situation are set early, and at no time does he violate them. The key is that Lanthimos doesn’t give you answers, and you’re forced to own your feelings, be it repulsion or whatever. Dogtooth can be seen as a metaphor for dictatorship, an indictment of over protecting your children or even homeschooling like some critics have pointed out in their respective reviews. But it’s up to you to decide. Whatever it is, total isolation, ignorance and artificial fear of the outside world, with the obligation of following ridiculous rules and rituals easily make one tremble nervously and touch their canines just to check whether they’re still there.

The Element of Crime, Lars von Trier, 1984

From the director of everyone’s favorite date film, Antichrist, Lars von Trier, who, as a filmmaker, is the most frustrating out there, with films ranging from terrific to spotty. The Element of Crime, Von Trier’s debut, falls more into the “utter shite” category, methinks. The one thing in The Element of Crime that everyone seems to incessantly give praise to is the cinematography, with its distinct style and color palate. Personally, it’s nothing but smoke and mirrors, and the novelty of it wears off fairly quickly. If the recent trend of shaky cam heeds a warning for motion sickness then The Element of Crime is to be approached with caution as it induces sepia sickness. The acting in The Element of Crime is entirely void, meaningless and I believe it was not because of a lack of talent on the part of the actors, but a deliberate decision of Von Trier. And it backfired miserably. I keep reading comparisons to the work of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, who is supposedly a huge influence on the film, but I don’t see it. Of course in a Tarkovsky film you would never get a line like “I’m going to fuck you back to the Stone Age!”

Exit Through the Gift Shop, Banksy, 2010

How do you approach a film that is basically meant to be one gigantic prank? Is this a documentary or a tall tale? Exit Through the Gift Shop has many facets that are very much unlike most and was sort of a joke upon the audience and upon itself. It is very silly but also very informative and touching at times. Whatever your take on street art is, the film romanticizes street art while at the same time making it seem very tangible and even better doable. Whether a real documentary or not, Exit Through the Gift Shop reminds me a little bit of the terrific mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, which pokes fun at figures who represent a certain subculture.

Yet, all the figures presented in the film are taken seriously except the ominous Mr. Brainwash figure, who is quite funny in a very innocent and naïve way. You laugh at him instead of with him, and sort of pity him when Banksy especially continues to make fun of him in a condescending way. But in the end the film shows us that Mr. Brainwash becomes a pretentious jerk who want fame and fortune like any other deprived human. A sellout that the other real street artists don’t respect. The film says a lot about the reason certain art work has social value and why other art has economical value that gets popularized and is meaningless. It contrasts between the ethos of art that is about expression rather than creating a commodity to sell. If Mr. Brainwash is a fictional character, then I suppose Banksy really is a genius as many claim he is.

The Grey, Joe Carnahan, 2012

The Grey, in case you already forgot, is the film where Liam Neeson makes sad faces, cites a poem and is kickboxing wolves like a boss. The bulk of The Grey is a survival tale, at least on its surface, the aftermath of a plane crash way the fuck out in the middle of nowhere Alaska. There are hints scattered about that what’s ‘really going on’ is not what we see on the surface, though. Rather, this might be one of those “rubber reality” films where we’re seeing a long fantasy as someone is dying however, that idea has been so pounded into the ground, and it’s left so ambiguous here, that it deserves a groan if that’s the case. The ending of The Grey is extremely ambiguous and just cuts off anyway, whatever our interpretation of the film. This is not a case where I agree that an ambiguous ending serves the film; it’s more a case where when I realized that was the ending, I said “Fucking come on, man.” I guess as, like, a B-survival/monster-horror film, The Grey is worth a watch, although it can be a bit heavy-handed at times, and it’s fairly clichéd and predictable on a fine-grained scale. You can usually guess what’s going to happen to particular characters at least a couple minutes before it even happens. I didn’t see the latter as a huge problem, but it did sap some of the suspense.

The Interrupters, Steve James, 2011

The most powerful image in The Interrupters isn’t a gang shootout or random acts of violence in the hood. No, the most powerful image in The Interrupters is of a yellow brick wall with black marker scribbled all over it. In the corner of one brick, in a hasty scrawl are the words, “I am next.” That was a jaw dropping moment, the kind that’s so powerful that you find yourself whispering about how powerful it really is. It is hard to hate a film that tackles a subject like this, a subject that I have thankfully never experienced firsthand. However, through, Steve James’ direction, I feel as though I’ve lived similar events. James does not hold back, putting the viewer right into the action. While there aren’t any scenes of brutal violence, there are some conflicts and there are some moments that are definitely powerful. For example, I was in particular really affected by the montage of memorials.

James does a nice job establishing a group of personalities to follow. Almost everyone, from Ceasefire members like Ameena Matthews to the entertaining gang member Flamo, makes for a good watch. The contents of the film are divided between the efforts of three Interrupters: the aforementioned Ameena, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra. I have to say, I found Eddie’s sections of the film very underwhelming compared to the other two Interrupters. I don’t know why, but those sections never hit the same heights as when Ameena spoke at funerals or Cobe brought Lil Mikey to the barbershop he had robbed. This essentially makes one third of the film pale in comparison to the rest, so the film is uneven in that regard, but for images like the brick that reads, “I am next,” The Interrupters must be commended. Essential viewing.

Knife in the Water, Roman Polanski, 1962

Knife in the Water is the kind of film I love; it works beautifully at making so much out of seemingly so little. A little tale of a couple who ask a young hitchhiker they pick up to come along with them for a sail on the lakes is all the story there is. But within that story are little bits that keep the story pumping, alive. Made of the very simple material, Knife in the Water is a brilliant psychological thriller that shows Roman Polanski’s extraordinary ability to create menace on the screen throughout the profound study of the characters’ deep hidden emotions. There’s no subtlety here; one knife, one woman, two men. Not as widely known as his later work like Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby, Knife in the Water is the perfect introduction to the work of the director whose craft in creating disturbing studies of anger, humiliation, fear, and sexuality is truly remarkable.

Orpheus, Jean Cocteau, 1950

Poet turned filmmaker, literally. Jean Cocteau turned his attention from literary art to the visual. It’s safe to say that he succeeded tremendously. Orpheus, Cocteau’s second film in the Orpheus trilogy, is a truly magical film full of wonderful imagery. Absolutely haunting and poetic, it is a surreal masterpiece. Cocteau retells the Greek myth of Orpheus in a very inventive and original manner, and sets it in post-War France. The film is chock-full of one memorable image after another. This film works even though Cocteau had a low budget and had to make the best of the primitive state of special effects of his day. Watching Orpheus makes me wonder what he could have achieved with the digital effects that are available today.

The Social Network, David Fincher, 2011

At first, The Social Network is quite good, unfolding like a long testosterone-fueled episode of an ABC Family TV show. But at a certain point one can’t help but think “Why is this film about Facebook still going on?” The guy (Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg) who creates a webpage (Facebook) meant to connect people actually has no friends and struggles to get on with people in real life. What an irony! The film is undeniably well produced, and a lot like director David Fincher’s best known film before it, Fight Club, it is laced with highly effective moments of dark, comic irony. In short The Social Network is a film about obnoxious pricks being awful shits. A grand generation. The Social Network is as about interesting as the webpage. Also, Fincher will never make the best film of any year. He doesn’t have the guts. Get over it.

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