Saturday, May 27, 2017

DAVID LYNCH: THE ART LIFE

Though not yet released on disc, Criterion is offering David Lynch: The Art Life on digital platforms like Amazon and iTunes.



One wouldn’t expect any portrait of David Lynch to be all that straightforward, but the straight story is exactly what you’ll get when watching David Lynch: The Art Life. Building a narrative from an extended monologue by the auteur, directors Rick Barnes, John Nguyen, and Olivia Neegaard-Holm put together a pretty clear path from Lynch’s early life to his first film, Eraserhead, backing the anecdotes with home movies, personal photographs, and images of Lynch’s art, as well as contemporary footage of the man at work in his home studio. David Lynch: The Art Life is both insightful and surprisingly unassuming. Those expecting Lynchian digressions into uncharted weirdness will be surprised to find there are none here. Rather, the artist looks back with clear eyes at the building blocks and stepping stones that led to his cinematic career.


Those also expecting behind-the-scenes gossip or explanations about Lynch’s challenging filmography are going to be more disappointed than surprised, however; The Art Life is not about that. Nor is it about taking Lynch’s formative memories and looking for their reoccurrence in his fictions. There are some things you might infer for yourself--the tale of the naked woman emerging on his suburban street when he was a child brings to mind Isabella Rossellini’s nude escape in Blue Velvet; his time growing up in Spokane may have been the origin of Twin Peaks [review]; etc.--but the documentarians instead work with Lynch’s fine art, finding images that match his words and juxtaposing the two in provocative ways. David Lynch: The Art Life is a lesson in the other side of the director’s creative life, the one not seen as regularly.

The greatest revelation here is just how average Lynch’s experience seems. But then, isn’t that also thematically in tune with the cinematic stories he would eventually tell? Beneath the most innocuous surface lurks darker thoughts. It just takes a willingness to look behind the veneer to find them--and that’s exactly what David Lynch: The Art Life does.



Sunday, May 21, 2017

DHEEPAN - #871


There is no frying pan, only fire.

Three refugees make their way from war-torn Sri Lanka to France, banding together as a family even though they have never met. The father, Dheepan (Antonythasan Jesuthasan), is a soldier from the losing army going into hiding following the slaughter of his men and his family; the mother, Yalini (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), is hoping to escape to London and join her only remaining relative; and the daughter, Illayaal (Claudine Vinasithamby), is an orphan in the right place at the right time. Families have a better chance of getting through the immigration red tape, so these strangers will have to pretend they are tied together by marriage and blood. It’s a nightmare for many in Trump’s America, the huddled masses gaming the system, but then again, maybe a story like Dheepan will inspire some empathy. What would you do if your country went to war and you ended up on the wrong side, or worse, had no real stake in the fight and just got caught in the crossfire?


Released in 2015, Dheepan is the latest from French director and Cannes-darling Jacques Audiard, who previously made a splash with A Prophet [review] and Rust and Bone [review]. Dheepan has more in common with the earlier movie--a prison picture about gangsters coping with life inside and outside their cells--in that the filmmaker manages to take very specific group sand relate their individual experience in a way that is true to their story but also relatable. The particular becomes universal.


Once this lost trio lands on French shores, they are put into the system, which eventually sends them to a remote ghetto where Dheepan will work as caretaker, Yalini will care for an infirm old man, and Illayaal will go to school. As they learn to make their way in their new home, they also start to become a real unit, with the lure of traditional roles proving too strong to resist. They also start to learn that the world is terrible everywhere. The complex where they’ve been placed is run by drug dealers, and Yalini is unwittingly caring for the father of the local boss, Brahim (Vincent Rottiers), who himself is freshly out of prison, only to be trapped in the tenement by an ankle monitor. It seems for some people, circumstances never change: you’re always imprisoned, you’re always at war.


The movie is called Dheepan, but I feel that’s misleading, it’s not entirely his picture. Sure, he gets an interesting arc, and becomes an active plot agent in the film’s powerful climax, as his past comes back to haunt him and he wrestles with his PTSD, but the true center of Audiard’s film, co-written with the director’s regular collaborator Thomas Bidegain and Noé Debré, is Yalini. She drives their scheme, searching out Illayaal in the refugee camp, and she has the most connection with the varying lines of action. When Dheepan decides to fight back against the thugs, like some kind of 1980s vigilante, it’s Yalini who must shuttle messages back and forth between her husband and the bad guys. Likewise, as Dheepan loses his way, she is the one who takes responsibility of their adopted daughter, a task she has otherwise tried to avoid. (If anyone gets short shrift, it’s Illayaal, who kind of gets set aside after some initial hiccups at her new school; there’s more to be explored here regarding the young girl’s search for acceptance.) That said, both lead performers have a quiet strength that gives them equal footing. One can sense there is much going on beneath the surface of their words and deeds.

In fact, that’s one of Audiard’s greatest strengths, hinting at and then ultimately revealing what is hidden. There is much going on behind all these stories, a history to each character, a politic to their situation. Audiard plays with light and dark throughout Dheepan, using visual metaphor to suggest truth emerging. In early scenes, it is literally lit objects appearing in blackness, the people carrying them or around them only becoming evident as the light sources--mouse ears, a lamp--gain power. Later in the movie, when too much has been revealed, we see Dheepan sitting in an orange light, fully exposed, but his own darkness still lurking within. For him, it’s secrets that are brought out; for Yalini, a strength and resourcefulness otherwise untapped. And a goodness.


It’s a credit to the script that, despite a very exciting, violent finale, the climactic scenes don’t overtake what comes before. The grit and flow of this action reminds me of Cuarón’s Children of Men [review], for as much as Audiard is a master choreographer as for his assured hand. The confidence we see in these scenes is what keeps them from calling too much attention to themselves, even if they are the biggest and loudest moments in the entire film--at least on the face of things. Audiard’s real skill is that every quiet moment is still big and loud to him, and thus given as much emphasis. The silence speaks volumes, or even the lines he chooses not to translate, as his main characters jump between languages--Tamil, French, and a little English--it’s the tone of the words, the force with which they are said, the expression on the actor’s face, that tells the real story. And their emotional conflagrations are as powerful as any gunshot, their unexpressed rage as hot as any emotion.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

THREE SILENT FILMS BY JEAN RENOIR ON FILMSTRUCK

The below reviews were originally written for the Jean Renoir's Collector's Edition released in 2007. Read the full review of that collection here.


Whirlpool of Fate (La Fille de L'Eau) (silent; 72 minutes - 1925):

This overwrought melodrama is Renoir's second film, and his first as a solo director. Working from a script by Pierre Lestringuez, a frequent collaborator in this silent period, Renoir tells the story of Virginia (Catherine Hessling, Renoir's wife from 1920 to 1930), a hard-luck case who can't catch a break. First her father dies and her uncle (Lestringuez) tries to rape her, then she hooks up with poachers and gypsies, only to be persecuted by the local bully and driven mad in the woods. Through it all, the local rich boy (Harold Levingston) keeps his eye on Virginia, and it's quite clear to Renoir's camera that he is developing a thing for the urchin. Naturally, he waits in the wings to pull her out of the whirlpool that threatens to drag her down.


There are far more complex plots than this one. In some ways, The Whirlpool of Fate comes off as if it were written for a cliffhanger serial. Every couple of scenes, Virginia's life takes another turn, and her very existence is put in peril over and over. As a mild diversion, there is a kind of goofy charm to the movie, but it shows the great director only taking tentative steps into the cinematic arena. He doesn't yet know how to draw great performances out of his actors, and pacing is a definite issue for the young filmmaker. There are several scenes that go on too long, which we particularly notice when we see it takes an inordinate amount of time for people just out of frame to react. Even so, early hints of what was to come are here. Renoir's often slapstick sense of humor pops up from time to time, and he's already showing a flair for it. There are also some fairly ambitious dream sequences that prefigure the surrealist movement's experiments in cinema years later (including some sideways imagery that reminded me of Cocteau's Blood of a Poet), as well as an incredibly ambitious use of quick cutting in the scene where Virginia is attacked by her uncle. Jumping swiftly from the brutal fight to a barking dog and then to a ringing alarm clock not only amps up the frenzied feeling, but it even evokes sense memories of sound.


Nana (silent; 130 min. - 1926):

Once again working with Lestringuez, Renoir adapts the Emile Zola novel, casting his Whirlpool starlet, Catherine Hessling, in the title role--and oh, what a difference a year makes! Renoir took to this grand costume epic much easier than he did any of the pre-sound shorts in this collection. Nana is a terrible stage actress whose sexual allure draws in several society men. Wrapping them around her finger, she convinces one to bribe her into a starring role in the theatre and another to ruin his good name betting against his own racehorse in favor of one named after the starlet. Eventually, though, the acting thing is going to meet its inevitable doom, and Nana ends up becoming a courtesan, seeing gentlemen callers in her opulent mansion. With so many men obsessed with her and competing for her affections, it's only going to lead to trouble, and eventually, Nana's wicked ways catch up with her.

Hessling is way over the top in her performance, even by silent-era standards. Yet, there is such a consistency to her demonstrative acting that she actually pulls it off. Nana is a larger-than-life character, and so Hessling's exaggerated gestures and wide-eyed expressions seem like the right notes to hit (even if Hessling is ironically being a bad actress in her portrayal of a bad actress). In comparison to the overly staid performances from the actors filling the roles of the upper classes, these choices make sense. Nana's sexual appeal is her wildness. It's what makes her different than the uptight bourgeoisie.


For Renoir's part, the future director of The Rules of the Game is already interested in the hypocrisy and hidden secrets of the rich. He uses massive set pieces to show the ridiculous opulence enjoyed by the well-to-do in French society. They have more space than they can ever possibly fill, and their tiny lives look even smaller within it. He also takes a certain impish glee in exposing their bedroom activities, paying particular attention to a Count (Werner Kraus) who goes in for a little domination. Decked out in his full military regalia, he gets down on all fours and barks like a dog, all for Nana's pleasure. For all the public shame these characters will experience in the final act, it compares little to their private shame.


The Little Match Girl (La Petite Marchande D'Allumettes) (silent; 33 min. - 1928):

This slight adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen story stars Hessling as the titular heroine and is really only interesting for the early special effects efforts. Renoir uses models, rear projection, double-exposure, and fake backdrops to portray the fantasy journey of the Little Match Girl during her night out in the cold. Though some of the effects may look quaint to our modern eye, it's still impressive when you put it in its historical context and has a cool, expressionistic quality. The movie overall is a bit of a snooze, however, with the performances and the editing being a bit too laconic.




Sunday, May 14, 2017

GOOD MORNING - #84

Please note: the images here are taken from the 2000 standard definition DVD and not the newly released 2017 Blu-ray under review.



Yasujiro Ozu’s light 1959 comedy GoodMorning was one of my first Criterion blind buys. Spotted in a now-closed used record store in Portland, I snatched it up on sight, knowing if I didn’t, it would be gone before I could ever go back to grab it. Such was the rarity of seeing Criterion discs in second-hand bins back in the day--all too unusual, you had to act.

Luckily I had rolled the dice on a pretty safe bet. Good Morning is brimming with joy, even as it maintains Ozu’s usual unassuming attitude. Set in a Tokyo suburb, this genial film tells the stories of several neighboring families. Linked mostly by their young sons, these individual units are subject to gossip, misunderstanding, and judgment--negative foibles hidden just below a very positive surface. You know, the way clans and communities do. When you boil it down, Good Morning is about family, just like most of Ozu’s oeuvre. In this case, not just family by blood, but the community you build.

Oh, and it has fart jokes. To be more exact, one running fart joke that carries through the whole movie. And I don’t care what you think, I love fart jokes. And poop jokes. Especially when a fart joke becomes a poop joke. Which it does here, to hilarious effect.


Though the four boys connect all the houses--including the misunderstood hipster couple with the television and the single English tutor who provide the kids refuge--the central duo of older brother Minoru (Koji Shidara) and younger brother Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu, Late Autumn [review]) end up driving most of the movie. They get the most screen time with their private protest against their supposedly stingy mother (Kuniko Miyake, star of many Ozu films, including Early Summer and Tokyo Story [review]) and her refusal to buy them a TV of their own. Mother Hiyashi is more frugal than stingy, it’s up to her to keep the house on budget, but this is also not the only time in Good Morning that she is accused of financial malfeasance. Another driving storyline is the issue of the missing dues from the local women’s organization. The ladies have varying theories of who made off with the cash, and even though it gets an amicable resolution, the way the situation is concluded splinters off into its own conspiracy theories and gossipy tributaries. There’s not much to do throughout the day, it seems, but get in each other’s business. It’s all innocent and meaningless until it isn’t. Such little things, they make a big difference.


In addition to these kinds of family dynamics, Ozu regularly explored the differences between generations in his movies, and Good Morning is no exception. Here, the aforementioned television is the most prominent example of how times are changing, and the director is certainly seizing upon the cultural shifts occurring at the end of the decade. The kids learning English, the progressive neighbors with posters for French films on their walls (and not just any French film, but Louis Malle’s The Lovers [review]), the nervous patriarchs set adrift in a changing economic landscape--these are all signs of the time. Prescient ones, too. Dad is worried about maintaining employment long enough to have a solid retirement, kids are worried about watching sumo wrestling in the living room. A more judgmental director (like, say, Douglas Sirk in All That HeavenAllows) would be concerned for how this younger generation was going to rot its brain--indeed, one of the older men in Good Morning expresses such a fear--but Ozu seems to take no stance. He is amused by the rebellious youngsters staging their own revolution, but also empathetic to the parents who need to keep things together. If Ozu is siding with anyone, it’s probably the middle generation, like the tutor or the boys’ aunt, both of whom bridge the divide. Is it any surprise, then, that they end up having a little romance?


What may be more interesting here, though, is how Ozu is adopting modern techniques to tell this modern story, particularly since Good Morning is an update of his 1932 silent film I Was Born, But...--which was previously available in the Eclipse set Silent Ozu: Three Family Comedies [review], but is also included in full as an extra on this Good Morning upgrade. Shot in vibrant Technicolor by Yushun Atsuta, Good Morning has a look not dissimilar to television’s nascent genre, the sitcom, a comparison further backed by the episodic nature of Good Morning’s narrative and the jazzy lounge score that keeps the action moving. (Toshiro Mayuzumi was a prolific composer for Japanese movies, working also with Naruse, Imamura, and Kurahara.) Not to mention how all the complicated imbroglios have really simple explanations, the discoveries of which only lead to more complications. It’s almost a shame there wasn’t a spin-off so we could have watched all the kids grow up on a weekly basis.


Fans of Good Morning should be pleased with this new 4K restoration. The colors are gorgeous, and the image quality pristine. Given the gap between this release and the original DVD, Criterion had a lot of new technology to put to use in making Good Morning look good, and the results are stupendous. In addition to  I Was Born, But..., fans of silent film will also appreciate the inclusion of the short A Straightforward Boy, a 1929 effort from Yasujiro Ozu, presented here incomplete, in its only existing form. One of the first efforts of the director to create comedy using children, it’s an amusing trifle about kidnappers being stymied by a child who never quite realizes he’s being kidnapped, and proving too much to handle in the process.


This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

THE TRIP/THE TRIP TO ITALY - FILMSTRUCK/CRITERION CHANNEL


THE TRIP: Original review 6/10/11

The Trip is a free-wheeling new comedy from director Michael Winterbottom and his regular collaborator, performer Steve Coogan. (The pair previously worked together on 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story [review]). In this, the pair send up travel shows, putting Coogan and his acting buddy Rob Brydon (both playing themselves) on a tour through Northern England, where they spend a week sampling buzzed-about restaurants, seeing the sights, and in Steve's case, bedding random women. Amidst this, Brydon goes through being home sick and Steve wrestles with a flailing film career, a failing relationship, and his distant son partying too hard.

Originally made as a BBC television series, The Trip has been edited down to a sharp feature film, tracking the journey and the ups and downs of the two performers' friendship. Shot in a documentary style, as is often Winterbottom's trademark, the largely improvised comedy is given sense of purpose by the vacation's mission, but the real reason you'll end up watching it is the camaraderie and competition between the two leads. From the get-go, the dichotomy between the family man and the playboy is obvious, but the irony is that for as settled down as he otherwise is, Rob is the more fun and Steve has a bit of a stick up his butt. At their first stop, Rob launches into his impressions of Al Pacino, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, and others, setting up an ongoing gag where Coogan feigns irritation but continually jumps in, if only to school his pal on what he thinks is a better imitation. Both are good mimics, and they riff back and forth, trying out 007 lines and in one hysterical scene, the speech of a war captain to his troops the night before the big battle. The pair also occasionally belt out joint renditions of ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All."


While this might sound like a rather slender line to hang an entire movie on, it's a surprisingly effective way to replicate what it's like to be on a real road trip with someone you know very well. The shared jokes become an escape when being trapped inside an auto makes the boys go stir crazy, and the manner in which they bandy back and forth ends up revealing their insecurities in unexpected ways. The team doesn't even take the obvious route, either, in having both men envy one another. Nope, it's just Steve that envies Rob. He wants the security that Rob gets from family and the comfort of modest success. Coogan may be more famous, but he's always chasing something. Even in his dreams, he is haunted by conversations with agents and belligerent fans. (The Trip doesn't maintain a strict documentary style; we not only see these dreams but also the opposite ends of phone conversations, including Coogan's real-life agents (or the actors playing them) and his estranged girlfriend (Margo Stilley) in America.)

Some of the stops on the map are interchangeable, but Winterbottom revels in the particular details of each one. He and cinematographer Ben Smithard take the camera back into the kitchen to see the food prepared. Some of the dishes are ludicrous, constructed to look like mini art installations. They also occasionally pan to capture other diners, and by making Coogan go outside to get cell reception--and further and further away from the hotel the deeper they get into the trip--they get a chance to shoot the countryside. Tristram Shandy fans might also appreciate that once again Winterbottom pairs Coogan with a significant literary legacy--a visit to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's home brings up interesting parallels between the dead poet and the living actor.

The Trip is a film that's appeal is so delicate and ephemeral, it's kind of hard to describe without totally deflating the tires. It's not a conventional comedy, by any means, nor is it as unfocused as, say, a home movie. It's carried more by personality than plot, and as a result, it could seem slight if you aren't willing to get into The Trip's particular groove. I found it to be fascinating and fun, thoughtful in spaces, punctuated by big laughs in others. As with any trip, you will eventually experience an eagerness to get home, and that homecoming is also a little bittersweet; what makes it so good is the feeling that you have gone along with something, that you've been a part of the experiment. It reminds me a lot of the fantastic Ewan McGregor/Charlie Boorman TV show from a couple of years ago, Long Way Round, when the old friends traveled across Europe on motorcycles and grew even closer through the shared time together. Except here, Coogan and Brydon dig under the skin a little more, finding comedy in their own foibles. It's really quite moving, and certainly more entertaining than most of the family summer vacations I took as a child, making The Trip an essential cinematic destination of the season.


THE TRIP TO ITALY: Original review 8/15/14 

There's a joke in The Trip to Italy where Steve Coogan teases his friend Rob Brydon about being an acquired taste. Rob has just had an extramarital dalliance on the Italian coast, the sort of thing Steve is usually the one to engage in, and so Steve zings Rob by telling him it was only a matter of time, someone would develop the craving eventually. Though not intended as a meta joke about the Trip series, it could just as easily nestle next to the Godfather [review] comparisons or the thinly veiled jibes about the reality of true-life fiction. If you liked the original The Trip, then you know what the flavor is and you're going to enjoy the follow-up in equal measure, if not more. If you haven't tried either installment yet, it shouldn't take you long to know if they're the kind of thing you'll want to partake of again and again.

As with the 2011 original, Rob and Steve, playing themselves, go on the road in search of good food and the best Michael Caine impression. Behind the camera is Michael Winterbottom (The Killer Inside Me [review], Trishna [review]), who is also credited as writer, but one would gather that there is as much improvisation between the two friends as there is scripted dialogue. Over the course of a week, the fellows travel from place to place, bickering and taking potshots at one another, sample some food, and get into trouble. Rob does endless impressions, some of them good and some of them ludicrous. Steve looks fatigued. They are joined by friends and relatives. And then the journey is over.


The transplant to Italy has not made this Trip any less amusing, but Witerbottom takes full advantage of the country's cinematic history. There are references to several famous films set in Italy, with an emphasis on those with bittersweet and unhappy endings, including Roman Holiday [review] and Godard's Contempt [review]. There is also mention of Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy [review], a classic of Italian Neorealism, an aesthetic that Winterbottom has borrowed from heavily in his career and a tradition to which The Trip to Italy owes much of its approach. It seems that it's in ode to this--as well as to the romantic poets whose own travels Rob wants to shadow--that a little melancholy creeps in. Both men spend much of their adventure trying to connect with loved ones back home and pondering just what it's all for.

It's been about three years since I saw The Trip so I don't recall for sure, but I don't believe it ended on as down a note as the sequel. My early impression, though, is that the added sadness allows The Trip to Italy to be a far richer experience. I probably laughed less but I felt more. Steve Coogan takes more of a back seat in the early portion of the movie, it's almost as if we are watching him warm up, but it makes sense for the opposing trajectories he and Rob are taking. Both men are feeling their age, but one seems to be figuring something out while the other is struggling with a newfound confusion.

Which isn't to suggest you're going to leave The Trip to Italy bummed out. Quite the contrary. As Brydon insists during one of his riffs, he is an affable presence, and despite being the grumpy gus, Coogan is pretty enjoyable to be around, too. As with the first film, and with any vacation you might actually take, some places are more fun than others, and sometimes you like your companion more than you do at other times, but that's part of the shared experience. You laugh, you hurt, and you see the sights--sometimes all at the same moment.