Friday, September 21, 2012

Blu-Ray Review: Marcel Carné's Les visiteurs du soir [Criterion]

While its parent country ceded to German occupation in the early 1940s, the French film industry was counterintuitively spurred on by a mounting sense of nationalism and a newfound industriousness. Forced to engage in alternate modes of creation, and thus taking the French away from the poetic-realist strain of cinema they helped pioneer, many of the era's best and most popular filmmakers trafficked in the historical or the fantastical in unassuming yet pointed fashion. As a result, the films made under the watchful eye of the Nazi regime are uniquely subversive artifacts, at once monuments to their country's resolve and the inherent power of the cinematic image. To that end, Marcel Carné's 1942 medieval fable de l'amour, Les Visiteurs du Soir, may well represent the most subconsciously potent iteration of this coerced methodology.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Sion Sono's The Land of Hope and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Penance

One hates to begrudge an artist the freedom to explore the possibilities of their medium, but a pair of films by two of Japan's most aesthetically radical cult directors have given me pause. Known respectively as conjurers of kaleidoscopically risqué fantasias and severe J-horror parables, spiritual brothers-in-arms Sion Sono and Kiyoshi Kurosawa have recently begun experimenting with more conventional genres and modes of narrative presentation. Kurosawa was the first to make the move in 2008 with Tokyo Sonata, a quietly devastating film about economic hardship and familial strife. Besides succeeding marvelously on its own terms, it also proved that the transition from genre constructs to dramatic classicism could unfold rather seamlessly. Sono, meanwhile, has reached a dizzying level of creative drive over the last few years. Beginning in 2007 with his underground classic Love Exposure, Sono has pushed furiously against the tides of convention and good taste with such alternately invigorating and infuriating works as Cold Fish, Himizu, and Guilty of Romance.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Manoel de Oliveira's Gebo and the Shadow

Work is often credited with keeping man alive. It's a cliché of sorts, but in the case of 103-year-old Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira, his allusions to the theory over the years have been quite telling indeed. Since turning 80 at the end of 1989, he's averaged at least one film per year, and aside from a brief stay in the hospital earlier this year, he shows no signs of slowing down. Oliveira is his work, and vice versa; one can hardly imagine one without the other. And it's with great comfort that Gebo and the Shadow arrives just in time for the end of the festival season. An autumnal work from an ageless wonder, the film is a lovely, intimate riff on familiar themes and Oliveirian aesthetics.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan

Leviathan opens with a passage from the Book of Job, an Old Testament chronicle of the suffering endured by the titular everyman, who's tumultuous relationship with his faith is documented in roughly 39 chapters of poetic inquiry. Concerning Job's allegorical inquisition into the relationship between human nature and that of our earthly environs, Chapter 41 of the Book of Job provides a metaphysical foundation for the latest documentary from Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Harvard University's Sensory Ethnography Lab, who's cinema division has given us some of the most impressive recent work in the field of nonfiction cinema, including Castaing-Taylor's own Sweetgrass and Véréna Paravel's Foreign Parts. These two luminaries collaborated on Leviathan, a staggering anthropological account of an industrial fishing vessel off the New Bedford coast of Massachusetts, where an untold number of ships have gone missing over the years as crews tend to a seemingly mundane vocation. Yet their workaday grind is anything but routine, and the results of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel's fearless documentation of the enterprise is the heart-stopping cinematic analogue to the crew's real-world peril.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Rodney Ascher's Room 237

The cinema of Stanley Kubrick is one of mystery, intrigue, narrative and thematic ellipses, and the overwhelming sense that meaning is encoded into every frame. In that regard, Kubrick's 1980 horror classic The Shining may be his most cryptic, enigmatic work, the sort of film that inspires many readings and rewards repeat viewings with subtle hints toward a possibly more sinister subtext. Room 237, Rodney Ascher's new oddball documentary on many of the theories and speculations built up around The Shining over the years, is likely to perpetuate such readings and perhaps convince those who continue to think the film is one of Kubrick's most self-conscious larks, that there is, indeed, something beyond the empty ballrooms, winding corridors, and ominous landscapes of the Overlook Hotel.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Terrence Malick's To the Wonder and Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air

At first blush, a 16-month gap between new Terrence Malick films is an incredibly small amount of time. After all, here's a man who's up to now managed to produced, on average, about one film per decade, if that. However, upon actually seeing his latest work, To the Wonder, that gap feels, if anything, just right. Malick's lavishly acclaimed 2011 effort, The Tree of Life, represented the apotheosis of a style that he had spent the better part of three decades refining, ultimately arriving with a work of unparalleled ambition and scope. In many ways, it's the supreme representation of the Malick aesthetic, presented fully formed and without shame. It was his first clearly autobiographical film, and in both look, tone, and thematics, To the Wonder is noticeably similar, an almost seamlessly updated account of marital discord from The Tree of Life's 1950s suburban milieu to an undefined late-century countryside landscape. Appropriate, as To the Wonder, in nearly every respect, plays like an intimate companion piece to its successor's cosmic wonderment.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Brian De Palma's Passion

Brian De Palma has traditionally worked best when indulging the grand gesture, with the overblown confidence of someone drunk on their own talent, but with the proper self-awareness not to take himself too seriously. But coming off two alternately stale and incensed films (2006's The Black Dahlia and 2007's Redacted), it seemed as if the lurid soil that De Palma has most fruitfully tilled over the years wasn't territory he wished to revisit anytime soon. But as Pino Donaggio's dramatically sensual score (his first for De Palma since 1992s Raising Cain) greets the opening titles of Passion, De Palma's first film in five years, it's clear that this master of the erotic thriller is back on home turf, with all the luscious violence, sensationalistic flourishes, and base pleasures that has come to entail.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha

Writers often speak of finding their muse. Judging by his films, it's a conceit that would probably make Noah Baumbach bristle as he dismisses the concept, only to note its comedic potential for future character reference. But there's no denying that his recent collaborations with girlfriend Greta Gerwig have recalibrated his creative drive. Their first project together, 2010's Greenberg, found a much-needed vehicle for Baumbach's long-lost sense of sympathy in the form of Gerwig's Florence, a charmingly neurotic foil to Ben Stiller's bitter, self-entitled antihero. That film succeeded most when Gerwig was given space to inject humanity into Baumbach's darkening worldview. She's seems to have inspired something similar across the entirety of the duo's first full writing partnership, Frances Ha, an unassumingly potent and rich film which represents a long-awaited return to peak form for Baumbach after a number of years wallowing in less hopeful material.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Wang Bing's Three Sisters

Without a passionate sect of socially conscious filmmakers, entire cultures have threatened to be misperceived or, worse yet, completely ignored. Asia in particular seems to be painted in largely ignorant brushstrokes, as countries, provinces, even villages are amassed as one homogenous people. Thankfully, the recent work of a growing contingent of independent, politically minded directors have gone some way toward illuminating various marginalized subcultures. Documentarian Wang Bing stands near the forefront of this movement (a company which includes likeminded experimentalists such as Zhao Liang, Liu Jiayin, and Jia Zhangke), as his commitment to realism and uncompromising methods of presentation (if you're unfamiliar, Wang makes looong films) have slowly endeared him as a fixture of the festival circuit.

Record Review: Silver Jews - Early Times

It’s only appropriate that a sloppy, occasionally incoherent collection of early Silver Jews rarities should be called Early Times. It’s no secret at this point that David Berman is a drinker. In fact, one of the most characteristic lyrics of Berman’s career showed up in the second song on the very first Silver Jews full-length: “In 27 years I’ve drunk fifty thousand beers/ And they just wash against me like the sea into a pier.” And from there we got five more albums of offhand insight and carefully calibrated turns-of-wisdom, quality and coherence never mutually exclusive, with each not coincidentally coinciding with Berman’s concurrent blood alcohol level. Early on, this inspiration manifested not unlike a drunk’s unconscious epiphanies, with clumsy yet vivid detailing and at random, unexpected intervals. They’d settle into a kind of twilit, hungover haze by the time the band’s first album dropped in 1994, but the rambling, often unintelligible jams they would pour out during their first couple of years, including the two EPs collected on Early Times, retain a charm exclusive to the early ‘90s lo-fi scene, where the Jews shared tape decks and ‘zine space with the likes of Pavement, Sebadoh, Wingtip Sloat and the like.