Friday, March 27, 2015

What I Watched: 2015, Week 6

What I watched last week (film titles link to trailers):

Wild Tales (Damian Szifron, 2014)
Beyond the Lights (Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014)
She's Beautiful When She's Angry (Mary Dore, 2015)
Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Mami Sunada, 2014)
Gerhard Richter - Painting (Corinna Pelz, 2011)
The Devil's Own (Alan J. Pakula, 1997)
The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)
Girls: Season 4 (Lena Dunham, 2015)

5 Thoughts: 

1. Beyond the Lights is the first movie I've seen by Gina Prince-Bythewood, but it ensures I'll see her most famous film, Love & Basketball. There's nothing especially original or artistically notable, but as a story, it adds a nice amount of depth and character development to a genre where it might not be expected (or even welcome). After seeing Belle the previous week, this is now the second film I've seen with British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the starring role, and she's absolutely magnetic. Just like she showed in Belle, she has an ability to play several conflicting emotions at once, without ever coming off as showy. I'm looking forward to where her career will go. 

2. I'm starting to plan a long retrospective piece on the development of Brad Pitt's career, so as a result, I'll be watching all of his films over the next several months. The Devil's Own is one of his few that I hadn't already seen, and it was about what I expected. Harrison Ford plays Harrison Ford (no surprise there!), and Pitt does a decent job with an Irish accent --if you didn't know it was Pitt, and weren't therefor looking for the flaws, you probably wouldn't find them. What really struck me about the film, though, is how much it felt like part of an extinct breed. The Devil's Own is a mid-budget, non-prestige/non-Oscar-bait, star-driven drama. When was the last time one of those came out? Something with that exact same plot--an IRA terrorist on the run in America, boarding in an Irish cop's basement--would be a 10-12 episode television show in 2015. There's simply no market for that sort of thing in theaters anymore. It's not good enough and too pricey for the art house circuit, and the only dramas that go into wide release are the ones that might win Best Picture. The director, Alan J. Pakula, made his entire career off of films like this--high concept dramas with huge stars at the peak of their fame. His best films, All the President's Men, Sophie's Choice, and Klute, are all remembered as among the best their actors ever made. Other films of his like Presumed Innocent, The Pelican Brief, and this one, are more forgettable. But they're all movies that gave audiences something they wanted to see, and it's still hard getting used to that era being dead and gone. TV is better than ever now, but everything has a price. 

3. Speaking of great TV, Season 4 of Girls was the best one yet. It's also the season where the four main characters shared the least amount of screen-time together, and that's not a coincidence. As I find network sitcoms increasingly unwatchable, Girls dares to confront us with the idea that people grow apart, and the idea of plot constraints keeping them in rooms together for years at a time might be an outdated show model. It's not a shock that Hannah's time in Iowa was brief, but even when she came back, the characters all acted fairly independently from one another. Shoshana was the season MVP, and I could probably watch an hour straight of her job interview scenes. She also had the best line of the year (so far), introducing me to the word "budussy." Jessa crawled up out of the abhorrently unlikeable grave she spent last season in to become actually kind of amusing, while Marnie stole her title as least likable character.  Even more, Adam and Ray continued their journey as growing characters, and the relationship assassin Mimi-Rose Howard was a great fifth girl wheel. My only complaint: I strongly disliked the last 30 seconds of the season finale, the "six months later" gimmick. I don't see what the narrative point was. We already saw Hannah's leap in maturity by turning down Adam's offer of getting back together, and the sneak at who she's with down the road seems to only undermine what we knew about that character. It felt like a rare story-telling cliche in a show that almost never has any. 

4. I watched three documentaries this week, and it was fascinating to compare their approaches, which were wildly different. The new documentary about the history of the feminist movement, She's Beautiful When She's Angry, was definitely the most conventional of the three, combining the standard elements--historical footage, present-day interviews, contextual photos--in the usual way, edited to create a clear, encompassing portrait of its subject. It's exactly what I thought it would be, but well-done and nicely informative. 

The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, about Japan's great Studio Ghibli, takes more of a fly on the wall approach. We basically spend a year in the studio, watching master anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki prepare his final film, The Wind Rises. I was actually kind of shocked how un-engaging this movie was, and it took me several spells over three days to finally get through it. Within its two hours, there are a handful of great moments, tidbits, and quotes from its subject, but there's also a whole lot of watching the cat roam around the studio, Miyazaki walking up and down the stairs, and a lot of people discussing things in meetings that feel entirely unimportant. The great documentarian Errol Morris once said that "the measure of a documentary isn't in whether it shows the truth, but in whether it attempts to find the truth." This didn't do that. At all. 

But Gerhard Richter - Painting absolutely does. In some ways, it's also a fly on the wall documentary, only if you could find a fly that never moved. And that's what's great about it--we go into the great German painter Gerhard Richter's studio, and we watch him paint. That might sound boring, but the way the film is edited actually makes it quite riveting. 

It's not like simply watching paint drying, but like watching an artist create with all of the staring and thinking edited out. One step seamlessly flows into the next one, and it never has time to feel pedantic because the next idea is always about to manifest. As I was watching it, I was imagining being able to stand over the shoulder of a favorite writer, watching them write a paragraph, seeing how it looks first, then which words get deleted or changed, which sentences get cut out, and see how the raw material of the initial thought splatter get molded step by step into the final work of art. 

5. A few weeks back a friend sent me one of those random pop-culture lists that you can find on the internet, this one for "The 25 Kinkiest Movies Ever." Most of the list was predictable (though how Basic Instinct missed the cut will be one of the great unsolved mysteries of my life), but one of the higher ranking films which I hadn't seen also happened to be a new release on Criterion Blu-Ray, The Night Porter. It turns out The Night Porter is not just one of the kinkiest films ever, but also one of the most infamous, with a plot about a Nazi guard who enters a sadomasochistic relationship with a teenage girl in a concentration camp who he both tortures and protects, and then ten years after the war, they randomly encounter each other at a Vienna hotel and renew their disturbingly sexual behaviors with one another. Critical opinion was split upon its 1974 release, with Roger Ebert calling it "despicable" and Pauline Kael saying it was "junk," while several European critics hailed it as a masterpiece. 

I think it's neither. Psychologically, it's fascinating, despicable only in equal measure to the scary truths about human sexuality which it dares to explore. But a true masterpiece would have explored those ideas in more profound ways. There are great scenes, but unlike the previous year's Last Tango in Paris, which used a darkly sexual relationship to craft a timeless character piece, The Night Porter undermines its own daringness with a plot that puts the lead characters in danger of reprisal from third parties. The actions the characters undertake become less interesting when they're factoring in extraneous dangers, as opposed to merely the dangers their own carnality can provide. 

But there is this scene, with a strikingly beautiful Charlotte Rampling donning a Oh-man-is-it-disturbing-how-sexy-I-find-that partial SS uniform. (The video is NSFW)

Stay tuned for a full review of the Argentinian masterpiece Wild Tales!