Sunday, June 29, 2014

Film Review: Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Winter Sleep (2014)

This piece appears in the Summer 2014 issue of Cinema Scope.   

Seemingly preordained, director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s overdue Palme d’Or win provided a nonetheless satisfying conclusion to a rather undramatic Cannes film festival—and, further, to a closing awards ceremony of otherwise empty gestures and mostly uninspired selections. A two-time recipient of the Grand Prix for Distant (2002) and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011), as well as Best Director for Three Monkeys (2008), the 55-year-old Turkish master had not only history on his side, but an anticipant passion amongst cinephiles that portended something major. What we got was something certainly grand in scope: a 196-minute domestic drama which methodically indexes the internal trials and tribulations of three individuals confined, both physically and psychologically, to a remote, snow-capped enclave in the mountainous Anatolian hinterland region of Cappadocia. In both emotional range and pictorial scale, Winter Sleep easily supersedes anything in Ceylan’s already ambitious filmography.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Dominique Benicheti's Cousin Jules (1973)

Dominique Benicheti's Cousin Jules, shot between April 1968 and March 1973 near the Pierre-de-Bresse commune in Torpes, Burgundy, exists as a kind of cinematic ode to a historically rich region of eastern France. A politically precarious province for the majority of its existence (ruled over in turn by the Celts, Romans, Burgundians, and finally, Franks), Burgundy would, in the Middle Ages, establish a strong religious foothold, ultimately becoming one of the country's foremost stations for monastic worship. It's this spiritual identity which most saturates Benicheti's utopian vision of contemporary Torpes; while there's little suggestion of the tumult on which the country was built, there is in every frame a sense of past glory and misfortune weighing on the present day.

Film Capsule: Alain Resnais's Mélo (1986)

Mélo (1986)
Directed by Alain Resnais

The late Left Bank filmmaker’s first adaptation of a stage play and initial foray into arch theatricality, this devastating infidelity (melo)drama would effectively collapse the divide between authenticity and artificiality, enabling an aesthetic model which would nonetheless expand narrative possibilities. Set in Paris ca. 1920 and starring Sabine Azéma as a woman caught between the affection of two men, her husband Pierre Arditi and his best friend André Dussollier, the film stacks familiar elements of lust, deceit, and confusion at odd angles within a carefully drawn and demarcated dramaturgy which literally unfolds and recedes in real time. At once austere and involving, the film’s handcrafted alternate reality indulges artifice in an effort to condition empathy—and does so with both flair and nuance, allowing Resnais ample opportunity to reengage its properties, which he would capitalize on all the way through to his final film, this year’s Life of Riley. (Jun 11 at MoMA, part of its MK2 series) [The L]

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Howard Hawks's Red River (1948)

Released in 1948, Red River was director Howard Hawks's first western, a genre which would come to define the next 20 years of his career. It was his previous two decades working in the Hollywood studio system, however, that had prepared him for such a logistically unique venture. Already a proven master at everything from gangster films (Scarface) to screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby) to wartime dramas (Sergeant York), Hawks wasn't only predisposed to experimenting with different narrative models, but preternaturally equipped to do so; his efficient approach to production, stylistic economy, and empathetic sense of psychology would render even the grandest concept or unpleasant characterization approachable in both scale and sympathy. Red River is perhaps the foremost example of this duality, forging an intimate moral study from the extreme impositions fostered by such an unforgiving environment as the Old West.

Cannes Film Festival 2014: Dispatch Two

David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is in many ways a quintessential Cannes film. At a glance an outrageous send-up of Hollywood artificiality and indulgent celebrity lifestyles, it is, from another vantage, an indictment of our age of technology-enhanced entitlement and the commodification of identity. It’s star-studded event movie and subversive art-house film all at once. It simultaneously fulfills and deflates the inherent contradictions of glamorous film festivals such as Cannes, and does so with a gloriously macabre sense of humor. The irony is surely not lost on Cronenberg, who has of late been directly engaging with the infrastructure of mainstream cinema in the postmillennial era.

Cannes Film Festival 2014: Dispatch One

The 2014 Cannes Film Festival main competition slate thus far has been gratifying in its topical and stylistic breadth— and pleasing in its attendant refusal to cohere around any clear motifs that might be further reduced by critics in search of subjective shorthand. For example, two titles that confirm such notions, for better or worse, are Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner and Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent. Both are biopics, but despite the fact that they’re dedicated to the strictures of this particular mode of storytelling, in many ways they couldn’t be more different.

Cannes, Considered: Un Certain Regard 2014

Over the course of the Gilles Jacob regime, the Cannes Film Festival's two most prominent programs have experienced a shift in power. Over this fifteen year period, the Main Competition, ostensibly a selection of work by the most prestigious directors in international cinema, has slowly been usurped by the Un Certain Regard strand, a slate of more adventurous fare that for one reason or another Jacob and his committee feel unworthy of competing for the festival’s top prizes. Even a cursory glance at some of the recent Un Certain Regard premieres (everything from Hong Sangsoo's The Day He Arrives to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake to Lav Diaz's towering Norte, the End of the History have premiered here) confirms a compromised, potentially dubiously motivated, selection process. This imbalance is now understood by most cinephiles, and nowadays you’ll likely find enough to coverage of all sub-strands of the festival to render such designations essentially useless. Nevertheless the phenomenon continues and will likely continue to do so, as the highlights in this year’s Un Certain Regard films have, on the whole, handily trumped the work of the established Competition guard.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Film Review: Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent (2014)

In their thrillingly open-ended and anachronistic detail, the impressionistic flourishes of House of Tolerance (2011) suggested that director Bertrand Bonello could take his cinema in any number of surprising directions. And while the French filmmaker’s follow-up, Saint Laurent—one of the more high-profile international selections at this year’s Cannes Film Festival—does indeed push his talents down unexpected paths, it does so in a slightly counterintuitive manner that, perhaps inevitably, it cannot fully reconcile with his typically ornate formal gestures.

Film Capsule: Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman Is a Woman (1961)

A Woman is a Woman (1961)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard

Despite a notoriously oblique approach to cinematic appropriation and dissemination, the New Wave iconoclast would, with this 60s day-glo romp, approach a rare nexus of accessibility and entertainment—territory only sporadically traversed in the decades since. Influenced at once by Gene Kelly and Jacques Demy, and simultaneously in thrall and indifferent to the Hollywood studio model it so playfully evokes, Godard's technicolor homage to the pleasures and perils of marriage, monogamy, and the movie musical is, even at its most infectiously freewheeling, a disarmingly pessimistic meditation on the tenuous bonds of commitment and companionship. It marked the second collaboration between Godard and star Anna Karina, and their first as a couple. They'd divorce less than four years and as many features later. (May 22 at MoMa, part of its Auteurist History of Film series) [The L]