Friday, May 31, 2013

Cannes 2013: Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive

Considering the genre's proliferation across various mediums over the last few years, it's perhaps appropriate that Jim Jarmusch would now indulge the impulse to direct a vampire movie. After all, vampires have traditionally been regarded as the most suave, most elegantly withdrawn of all horror myths, and for over 30 years now, Jarmusch has been the most naturally cool, unconsciously influential of American filmmakers. Many of his characters proceed stoically, silently, and aloofly; this is their lot, however natural. Only Lovers Left Alive, then, seems like an inevitability for the independent iconoclast as much as it does an odd genre diversion.

Cannes 2013: James Gray's The Immigrant

The Immigrant is the film James Gray has been working toward his entire career. He's established a unique reputation over 20 years and four features. His first three films (Little Odessa, The Yards, We Own the Night) dealt largely with a world of criminal activity and frayed family bonds, often times between brothers. Two Lovers followed soon after, betraying the first signs of Gray's thematic maturation. A simple love triangle rendered equal parts beautiful and devastating, the film was both vital and transitional for the filmmaker. His latest, the intimately focused, epically scaled period piece The Immigrant, is, finally, Gray's masterpiece, a classical melodrama of high ambition and fulfilled promise.

Cannes 2013: Alexander Payne's Nebraska

The men in Alexander Payne's movies are on a constant journey. In About Schmidt, Jack Nicholson's Warren experiences late-life enlightenment when he travels cross-country to his daughter's wedding. In Sideways, Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church's characters experience an entire midlife crisis as they explore central California's wine country. Most recently, George Clooney's Matt King traveled the Hawaiian islands in an attempt to reconnect with his daughters and reconcile with his seriously injured wife in The Descendants. (You have to go back to Payne's first two features, Citizen Ruth and Election, to find female protagonists who were also seen at difficult crossroads.) In the process, Payne has become one of American cinema's most respected chroniclers of male discontent and awakening. If his latest, Nebraska, doesn't alter the formula, it also does so on a more refreshingly modest scale than that of The Descendants.

Cannes 2013: Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive arrived at an opportune moment. Coming off a decade where the American genre film devolved into lowest-common-denominator investments and blockbusters ballooned skyward on the backs of sequels and franchises, Refn's modest exercise in crime pastiche and car-chase nostalgia parlayed both the exhaustion of Hollywood's narrative resources and—perhaps more importantly—the gathering mainstream curiosity in independent music's preoccupation with the sound and feel of the 1980s (the film's soundtrack has become one of the most popular word-of-mouth successes of the decade).

Cannes 2013: Takashi Miike's Shield of Straw and Johnnie To's Blind Detective

Both Takashi Miike's muscular chase flick Shield of Straw and Johnnie To's wildly compounded romantic policier Blind Detective make an asset out of their respective pillaging of genre signifiers. That these individual films succeed to varying degrees—in some instances in spite of themselves—matters little in the grand scheme of their creators' narratives: Each have made more original films, more consistently compelling films, and flat-out better films. But there's something oddly compelling about their unique existences as notable entries in what now could be considered prestigious filmographies.

Cannes 2013: Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis

The Coen brothers switch gears so often and with such gleeful finesse that their restlessness can no longer qualify as genre-hopping pastiche, if it ever did. At this point they're simply a style unto themselves, a self-sufficient duo with a built in audience, art-house cred, and, when they want to indulge, box-office potential. Inside Llewyn Davis, then, isn't a curveball so much as another stopover on a now-two-decade-plus journey that's taken on noir, slapstick, thriller, western, and everything in between. It's also one of their strongest recent efforts, an alternately world-weary and hilarious ode to a period of relatively recent vintage that's nonetheless cherished as an era of new ideas, free-thinking, and artistic progression.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cannes 2013: Hirokazu Koreeda's Like Father, Like Son

It's become more and more rare in contemporary cinema for a filmmaker to not only revisit thematic territory, but to essentially re-examine the same basic narrative dynamic from different angles. It's a tack few filmmakers continue to utilize, perhaps to avoid accusations of redundancy, but Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda has made the most of his purposefully modest cinematic constructs. Like Father, Like Son, his latest in a long line of unassuming family dramas, is one of his most heartbreaking works yet.

Cannes 2013: Asghar Farhadi's The Past


Just like many of his fellow countrymen, including compatriot Abbas Kiarostami, Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi has been forced to ply his trade outside his homeland's borders under threat of government intervention. Whatever the logistics, however, Farhadi's latest domestic drama, The Past, while produced in France, is a seamless translation of both his stylistic and thematic sensibilities. Farhadi arrived on an international level with 2011's A Separation, a typically knotty character study which netted awards all the way from festivals to the Academy. He'd done similar, equally compelling work prior to his breakthrough (2009's About Elly stands as arguably his strongest film), but with an increased eye on Middle Eastern cinema in the wake of Kiarostami's Certified Copy and the jailing of the more radical, uncompromising Jafar Panahi, coupled with the film's heart-tugging narrative, A Separation arrived at an opportune time for his country's rise to international cinematic prominence. The Past parlays this goodwill with even more wide-reaching potential, extending Farhadi's streak of strong work while cementing him as one of world cinema's most universal storytellers.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cannes 2013: Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin

From the opening moments of Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin, something strange is afoot—and not just the unexpected flourish of violence which punctuates the first scene. The opening titles announce the film as a co-production between Jia's Xstream Pictures and the Shanghai Film Group, marking this as the Chinese iconoclast's first studio film in a career of independent productions. Prior to his great 2004 film The World, his work wasn't sanctioned by the Chinese government, so pointed was the critique of his homeland. Since that time, Jia has spent time working in both the documentary form (Dong; I Wish I Knew) and through something approaching both documentary and narrative cinema (Still Life; 24 City), effectively—almost imperceptibly—combining devices from each in an effort at constructing an altogether new hybrid. In some ways, then, A Touch of Sin feels like the film many may have expected to follow something like The World. In every other conceivable way, however, Jia's latest represents new, uncharted stylistic frontier, one littered gunplay, knife fights—even an explosion.

Cannes 2013: Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola's fascination with the young and over-privileged reaches a logical plateau with The Bling Ring, a hyperaware consideration of celebrity intrigue and idolization. Based on the semi-recent wave of burglaries perpetrated by a group of high school kids on the unsuspecting gossip-rag regulars residing in the Hollywood Hills, the film depicts, with an alternately implicating and critical eye, the rise and fall of adolescent naïveté and entitlement. It's a subject that Coppola has spent much of her career dramatizing across various milieus, from the suburban daydreams of The Virgin Suicides to the ornate, 18th-century re-imaginings of Marie Antoinette to the Los Angeles summertime sprawl of Somewhere. She's remained in the City of Angels for her latest, but this is anything but a tale of wayward cherubs. Fueled by the very lifestyle they're nonchalantly pillaging, this band of small-time crooks have learned that actions rarely have consequences, and spend the entire film putting this theory, propagated and sustained by the media, to the fullest possible test.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Film Review: Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy (1954)

This review is featured in the May/June 2013 issue of Little White Lies. Journey to Italy is currently playing in a restored print throughout the US and UK.

Often credited as the first work of the modern cinematic age, Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film Journey to Italy pivoted on a spirit of emotional and artistic restlessness. It’s a spirit that its director — and soon, his medium — would work toward reconciling with that of a society on the brink of technological and ideological revolution.

Like the characters it depicts, however, Rossellini’s masterpiece — playing in a restored print at London’s BFI Southbank — arrives at transcendence only by threatening a rupture in unity. Presented as a natural by-product of the neo-realist methodology Rossellini helped to coin, Journey to Italy is a film which treads this radical new path via a convergence of traditional melodrama, documentary-based intimacy and a streak of raw vulnerability prompted by the clandestine affair and eventual marriage of the film’s director and leading lady.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Sean Baker's Starlet [Music Box Films]

Sean Baker's Starlet hinges on a plot concession so tantalizing to the viewer yet so detached from its main character's primary concerns that it almost plays like an afterthought. It wouldn't quite be accurate to label this bit of narrative disclosure a revelation (and certainly not a "spoiler," as no one in the film would ever consider such details worthy of much extraneous thought), but more simply an acknowledgment of a lingering but nonetheless vital piece of character contextualization. In a lesser script, or in the hands of a less intrepid filmmaker (Baker co-wrote, directed, and edited the film himself), Jane's (Dree Hemingway) actions would revolve around this most unique aspect of her everyday life. But Jane isn't defined by her lifestyle, and indeed Baker offers personal information only as these characters likely would themselves.