Saturday, November 28, 2015

It's hard to do justice to the exquisite longing that courses through the veins of Todd Haynes' Carol. Haynes makes films that must be felt on a gut level, the kinds of films that causes chills that start in your very core and radiate out to the tips of your fingers. As he did in Far From Heaven, Haynes takes the staid structures of the 1950s "women's pictures" and explores the unspoken emotional truths coursing beneath the surface. While Haynes isn't recreating the work of Douglas Sirk here, that same DNA runs deep in Carol, as he explores the forbidden Eisenhower-era romance between an upper middle class housewife and a younger shop clerk.

Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) is in the process of going through a divorce from her husband, Harge (Kyle Chandler). Carol, it seems has always preferred the company of women to men, most notably her daughter's godmother, Abby (Sarah Paulson); and despite her husband's instance on making things work, she can't change who she is or what she wants. What once seemed to be the picture-perfect 1950s family has been torn apart, leaving their young daughter, Rindy, in the middle.

That is when Carol meets Therese (Rooney Mara), a shy young shop clerk who dreams of being a photographer. After Carol accidentally leaves her gloves behind at the store, Therese returns them, and Carol asks her to dinner to thank her. It is the beginning of a friendship that soon turns into something more. There is never an "aha" moment of realization for Therese. Clearly Carol is a woman more confident in her sexuality, but Therese is young and still trying to understand herself. She's had relationships with men, but couldn't quite understand why they were never fulfilling. Yet there is something about her relationship with Carol that just feels natural, and Haynes creates an mesmerizing drama out of watching it evolve. He doesn't hit us over the head with one dramatic moment or spend any time with Therese struggling with her sexuality, he allows their friendship to become a romance before either of them really know it. When the tension finally breaks, its feels inevitable, natural, almost like fate.

Like the "women's pictures" that were so popular in the 1950s, domestic love stories with female-centric stories, Haynes' films are often filled with surface pleasures - immaculate period design, a haunting, Philip Glass-like score by Carter Burwell; but like Sirk before him, Haynes always takes it one step further, examining the deeper emotions emotions beneath the seemingly flawless veneer. There is always something more going on in each scene than meets the eye. Like its two characters, living out a hidden romance in plain sight of a repressive society, Carol keeps its emotions boiling beneath the surface. More is said in what the characters don't say than what they are able to articulate themselves. That is the kind of directorial restraint that defines Carol. It walks a delicate tightrope of emotions, using its sumptuous design as a thematic facade covering up the inner turmoil beneath.

Carol and Therese come from two different worlds, yet find each other in a society that denies their right to exist. Yet in 2015, a year that gave same-sex couples in America the right to get married nationwide, Carol doesn't feel in any way radical or envelope-pushing. It just feels human. We may be in a time when "morality clauses" were still grounds for taking a mother's children away from her, but Haynes has moved queer cinema out of the closet and into the mainstream in such a way that one has become almost indistinguishable from the other. That's whats so fascinating about his chosen aesthetic here. "Women's pictures" were often the most squeaky clean of genres, little more than glorified soap operas (subverted at times by directors like Sirk), yet Haynes uses them as a vehicle to tell a story that could have never been told then, and it feels almost as if it stepped out of the mists of time, a lost lesbian romance from the 50s finally able to see the light of day.

At the film's center are two luminous performances by two consummate actresses. Blanchett and Mara are both absolute perfection, channeling the deep, repressed emotion of two women whose true feelings can't be adequately expressed in the language of the time. They make us feel every moment in a way that feels strangely personal. The same could be said of the entire film. It's a beautiful work, but more than that, it's a deeply powerful one. Haynes so expertly subverts the formulas in which he dabbles, using them to his advantage to tell a story that runs beneath the surfaces he creates. You don't just watch his films, you feel them on a completely different level. He says so much in the longing glances, the subtle gestures, each contained within an impeccably composed frame. Carol is a sublime love story, one that brims with the fiery passion of first love bulging at the seams of its societal prison. It is a major work by a major filmmaker, working at a level of narrative grace and elegance that is almost unmatched in contemporary cinema. In short - Carol is a masterpiece.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

CAROL | Directed by Todd Haynes | Stars Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy, Sarah Paulson | Rated R for a scene of sexuality/nudity and brief language | Now playing in select cities.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

From The Dispatch:
“The Assassin” is awash in quietude, filled with lyrical long takes and quiet introspection. It is the opposite of everything audiences have come to expect from the genre. Where so many filmmakers (and, let's face it, audience members, too) take such a gung-ho approach to violence, Hou instead takes a reflective stance, moving the action away from the focus of the frame and toward the natural landscape dwarfing them. 
Click here to read my full review.
Iranian director Jafar Panahi, barred from making films for 10 years by the Iranian government, has still managed to make three films since his imprisonment on house arrest, each more incredible than the last. In Jafar Panahi's Taxi (aka Taxi Tehran), Panahi poses as a taxi driver in the Iranian capitol of Tehran, picking up various clients, each with their own unique stories. With his trusty camera fixed to his dashboard, Panahi creates an indelible portrait of modern Iran, but perhaps even more surprising, he weaves cinematic gold out of filming himself drive a taxi around for a day.

Panahi is a master craftsman who continues to make bricks without straw, turning his punishment into some of the most essential cinema of the decade. Each film he makes is not only a thumb in the eye of tyranny, but a testament to the spirit of human creativity, and the overwhelming desire to create art even when one is barred from doing so. It's joyous, warm, funny, and moving in equal turns, finding humanity in each of his passengers and their own particular missions and world views. As one of Panahi's passengers tells him as she lays a flower by the camera - "This is for the people of cinema, because the people of cinema can always be relied on."  Yes they can, and Panahi is a living testament to the fact that tyrants can muzzle a man, but they can never silence art.

In The Pearl Button, Director Patricio Guzmán uses water as a metaphoric lens through which to tell the story of Chilean natives, whose ancient relationship with the ocean has been all but lost through systematic subjugation by colonial occupation, in a genocide that lasted well into the 20th century. Lyrical and heartbreaking, The Pearl Button is a hauntingly beautiful documentary that is both a celebration of a lost culture (only 20 direct descendants of the Patagonian natives remain), and an elegy for a forgotten genocide that is arguably one of the most ghastly in the history of the world.

Yet through Guzmán's unique lens, the history of the natives becomes a kind of ethereal reflection of the universe, irrevocably changed by colonialism and western invasion, moving through the glistening waters of the Chilean coastline like ghosts. Guzmán's placing of the natives' struggles in cosmic perspective makes the film an interesting companion piece for his previous film, Nostalgia for the Light. While the metaphor gets lost in its grandiosity at times, The Pearl Button is nevertheless a deeply moving experience, that tells a story as timeless as the sea itself.

JAFAR PANAHI'S TAXI - ★★★★ (out of four)
THE PEARL BUTTON - ★★★½ (out of four)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Forbidden Room is proof positive that the scraps from Guy Maddin's cutting room floor are better than the footage that makes it into the films of pretty much everyone else. Comprised of unused footage cobbled together from other projects, The Forbidden Room is like a trip down the rabbit hole of Maddin's singular psyche. Here he introduces us to a lost submarine crew faced with an impossible decision, a logger tasked with rescuing a maiden from a tribe of primitives, a surgeon who falls in love with his beautiful patient, only to be kidnapped by skeletal insurance defrauders, a man whose obsession with women's bottoms leads him to get a lobotomy (arguably the film's most indelible interlude), and a man who gets turned into a banana because of an ancient curse. And that's just scratching the surface of this delirious, mad, altogether beautiful work of art.

Maddin's work has always been deeply rooted in silent avant-garde, and it's great fun watching him play with the medium in so many different ways. The Forbidden Room showcases Maddin at his most experimental and playful (who else would bookends a film with an instructional video on how to take a bath?).

Each frame is a fantasia of oversaturated color, jump cuts, missing frames, and grainy, damaged footage. The film feels deteriorated, like a relic from another time. Yet there is something warm and familiar about it, even at its most alien. Maddin clearly loves film, and The Forbidden Room is a celebration of the artificiality of the medium. Nothing about it feels real, as Maddin embraces the sheer movie-ness of it. Natives dance around a papier-mâché volcano, characters walk in front of obviously painted backdrops, it embraces its fakery and uses it as a deliberate style choice rather than a crutch.

It only seems natural, given Maddin's obsession with lost films, that he would one day create a "lost" film of his own. It's surprising just how well these disparate fragments all fit together, yet they seem to create one cohesive whole. At least as cohesive as a Maddin film can be. Maddin thinks in abstracts, he makes films that you feel rather than "understand," and The Forbidden Room evokes a forgotten aesthetic that feels as if we have unearthed a buried treasure. Only Maddin could create something that looks like a relic yet feels so fresh and new. It's a tour through Maddin's favorite predilections, a darkly hilarious, thrilling, and strangely moving amalgam of some of his previously lost ideas, resurrected here with fiery new life.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

THE FORBIDDEN ROOM | Directed by Guy Maddin | Stars Charlotte Rampling, Udo Kier, Mathieu Almaric, Louis Negin | Not Rated | Now playing in select cities.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

From The Dispatch:
It's a bigger, louder, and more indulgent, leading to a somewhat bloated running time and a middle section that lags somewhat. While Mendes is clearly enjoying himself, the film almost becomes too ridiculous for its own good. On the other hand, the action set pieces are uniformly phenomenal (the opening sequence is especially outstanding), and Waltz is really the perfect Bond villain. Mendes may work a little too hard to tie all the previous Craig Bond films together, but the idea that everything we've seen before has been building up to this gives the film a kind of grandeur, even if it can't beat the elegant gut-punch that was “Skyfall.” 
Click here to read my full review.
I was probably 14 or 15 the first time I saw David Lynch's MULHOLLAND DR. It was the first time I had been exposed to cinema that lay outside the typical narrative conventions, and I haven't been the same sense. When I think of the first decade of this century, there are three films that come to mind as the top of the pantheon of great cinema - Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, Lars Von Trier's Dogville, and this. Revisiting the film now, 15 years older and more familiar with the world of surrealist filmmaking (and Lynch's oeuvre in general), I am still floored at the sheer power of Lynch's masterpiece.

When I first saw the film as a teen, I didn't really understand it, but I knew I had seen something special, something brilliant, something that operated on a completely different level that anything I had ever seen before. I was able to follow its mysteries of Lynch's beautiful puzzle box better than I had before.

It's a haunting, disturbing tale of doomed love, jealousy, and faded dreams in the city of light. Naomi Watts is a plucky young starlet looking to realize her dream of becoming an actress (and in the process gives one of the all time great performances). Laura Harring is a troubled amnesiac who is trying to discover her true identity after a car accident robber her of her memory. For the first two hours, we think we're watching two women search for one's identity. Then Lynch unlocks the blue box and plunges us down the rabbit hole, pulling the rug out from under us and upending everything we've already seen.

This is David Lynch's Persona, a pyscho-sexual exploration of memory and identity that is clearly the work of an artist working at the height of his creative powers. Mulholland Dr. represents a singular vision in service of a seemingly straightforward film noir, warped through Lynch's own unique psyche. Sometimes words don't quite suffice. This is a film that needs to be experienced. Lynch's films are something you feel in the pit of you stomach, in the raised hair on your arms, in the depths of your soul. This is one for the ages, and the Criterion Blu-Ray is a godsend for Lynch fans and cinephiles in general. Lynch has long been underrepresented on Blu-Ray, and having his most beautiful film in high definition is a dream. If you're looking for more answers to the film's questions you may be disappointed, as the in-depth interview with Lynch excerpted from Chris Rodley's book, Lynch on Lynch, really only serves to muddy the waters. But that's always been Lynch's intention. His films are many things to many people, and he's never been one to take that experience away from us. What we are left with a beautiful mystery, one that isn't quite as impenetrable as its reputation suggests, perhaps, but one with so many layers and questions that we may never fully answer and explore them all. It's easily one of the year's must-own discs.

GRADE - ★★★★ (out of four)

Director approved edition special features include:

  • New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director David Lynch and director of photography Peter Deming, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray 
  • New interviews with Lynch; Deming; actors Naomi Watts, Justin Theroux, and Laura Harring; composer Angelo Badalamenti; production designer Jack Fisk; and casting director Johanna Ray On-set footage 
  • Deleted scene 
  • Trailer 
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an interview with Lynch from the 2005 edition of filmmaker and writer Chris Rodley’s book Lynch on Lynch
Malala Yousefzai is perhaps one of the most inspirational figures of the decade. The girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for daring to pursue an education, and went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work on behalf of girls and women everywhere, remains a compelling and magnetic figure. She is a true hero, a symbol of peaceful resistance against tyranny who has been an inspiration to millions of people around the world.

It's a shame, then, that Davis Guggenheim's bland documentary celebrating her feels like such a lifeless and obligatory affair. Guggenheim, who is best known for directing Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (for which he won an Oscar), works best when allows his subjects just to be themselves. Gore showed a passion and a charisma in An Inconvenient Truth that somehow eluded him during the presidential election in 2000. In He Named Me Malala, the girl who has become a modern day saint gets to be just a normal girl, giggling over girlhood crushes on the internet, complaining about homework, teasing her brothers.

That's the film's real charm, I think, is that takes an internationally lionized figure and humanizes, hammering home the idea of a normal girl being made great by being thrust into extraordinary circumstances. William Shakespeare once said "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them." Malala is clearly the latter, a girl who just wanted to go to school in a place where it is forbidden for girls to do so, and she was shot for her efforts. Yet like a phoenix from the ashes, Malala arose to fight back against oppression.

Guggenheim tries desperately to paint her as the former - one who was born great. And that may very well be true, Malala is clearly an extraordinary human being. But the film spends so much time trying to connect the modern day Malala to the Malala of Afghan legend, that it almost misses the point of what makes her so extraordinary to begin with. It is her very ordinariness that makes her so incredible. When Guggenheim gets out of the way and lets Malala be Malala, the film soars. Yet when he steps in her way, trying to hammer home points she has already so eloquently made, the film becomes maudlin, and routine, going through the sentimental, hagiographic motions instead of creating an interesting portrait of one of the most fascinating and inspirational figures of the 21st century. Unfortunately, animated flourishes can't really cover up the fact that the film feels more like an extended advertisement for Malala the Brand rather than Malala the Person.  Personally, I could sit and listen to Malala talk for hours. I think she's an incredible, beautiful spirit. Her capacity to forgive, to fight for what is right, and above all, to learn, is truly inspirational. That's why it's so disappointing to see her saddled with such a perfunctory, trite, and gushing tribute that barely scratches the surface of this remarkable woman.

GRADE - ★★ (out of four)

HE NAMED ME MALALA | Directed by Davis Guggenheim | Rated PG-13 for thematic elements involving disturbing images and threats | Now playing in select theaters.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Has there ever been a movie star with the same luminosity as Louise Brooks? Her darkly seductive features make up the expressive core of G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent masterpiece, Diary of a Lost Girl, a tragic tale of a young woman who is sent off to boarding school after becoming pregnant out of wedlock. After escaping boarding school to find her child, she ends up working as a high class prostitute before returning to upend the society that shunned her.

Brooks is perhaps best known for her role in Pabst's previous film, Pandora's Box, but her work here is somehow more subtle and more heartbreaking. Brooks plays the vamp well, but here she nails the innocence of young Thymian, making her fall from grace all the more tragic. Even after she becomes a fallen woman, Brooks never really plays the sexpot, instead, she plays the heartbreak at her core. Pabst isn't exploiting Brooks for her looks (although promotional materials from the time reveal Brooks with her nipples peeking out from her dress), he's exploring the pain and heartbreak beneath the surface of an exploited woman.

One could even make an argument that Pabst was an early feminist filmmaker, critiquing the patriarchal world that forced Thymian into this life - done wrong by the men in her life and forced into a life of sexual slavery. Eventually, she returns to upend the very society that nearly destroyed her, and she does so under her own power. Thymian's agency is remarkable, especially for 1959, and it's a curious thing that this film is 86 years old and still feels lightyears ahead of many modern films in terms of its portrayal of women.

One of the things that makes the film so striking today is just how startlingly contemporary it feels. Pabst's fluid camera movements, the lingering close-ups, the masterful compositions, it's a gorgeous film. Based on the novel by Margarete Böhme, the DNA of Diary of a Lost Girl is very much rooted in the theatrical melodramas of the 19th century, where tragedy and misfortune happen so frequently that it threatens to become laughable. However, Pabst handles the material with such a gentle hand that it transcends its pulpy source material with a kind of delicate lyricism. He isn't content in allowing Thymian to be a mere damsel in distress, waiting on a man to come rescue her. No, she rescues herself, and takes on the establishment all by herself.

That's what sets it apart from many other films of its day (and today, for that matter). This is a film about a strong woman learning, at long last, that she doesn't need anyone to take care of her, all she needed was the confidence to do it herself.  It's incredible, really, that it came out in 1929, but here it is. Pabst knew how to use Brooks better than anyone, and she was never more breathtaking than she was here. There's so much going on in her performance, there's a vulnerability, a vivaciousness, a sexiness to her that seems to reach through the ages. Even amid the scratches and grain of old film stock (lovingly cleaned up by Kino Lorber for this Blu-Ray release), Brooks' performances shines. Heavily censored upon its original release, Diary of a Lost Girl has been restored to its original glory as intended by Pabst. It is a masterpiece of the silent era, and a showcase for one of the silver screen's greatest stars. Yet it is also a reminder that great roles for women do exist. And it makes one wonder, if they could do this in 1929, why can't they do it now?

GRADE -★★★★

Now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.