Wednesday, January 07, 2009

New Film: Summer Hours / L'Heure d'été (Co- written by Michael J. Anderson & Lisa K. Broad)

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Writer-director Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours (L'Heure d'été, 2008), the second in a series of films commissioned by the Musee d'Orsay, opens on a group of children as they scurry through an emerald country estate. The eponymous season is rendered with exacting precision. Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier's exceedingly mobile camera pans between multiple figures as it searches for a narrative subject. On the macro level, the film's principle theme becomes immediately clear: the life of the three generations that have congregated to celebrate matriarch Hélène's (Edith Scob) birthday. Among these are her two sons, Frédéric (Charles Berling) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier), and daughter Adrienne (Juliette Binoche). The latter two no longer live in France, with Jérémie in China and Adrienne in New York. Thus, when the question of the estate's sale comes up subsequently, the younger two siblings side with selling (as the family home no longer possesses a utility).

But back to the film's opening. Here, Assayas presents the first of three passages centering on the country home. Each of these focuses on one of the family's three generations, with Hélène the first emphasis and her grandchildren the last. After opening gifts from her children, she consults with Frédéric on how she wishes he will manage her estate after she passes. Much of the still striking seventy-five year-old's wealth derives from the art collected by her long-deceased artist uncle Paul Berthier, which includes a pair of Corot's that grace one of the residence's hallways. That Hélène shows a greater attachment to his art is not only a matter of her closer familial relation; as we learn subsequently, she was his last great love.

Yet, this skeleton is not entirely consequential to Summer Hours. Rather, Assayas's film is at its core a work of familial disintegration precipitated by Hélène's death. (Summer Hours resonates directly with the director's fine 1998 Late August, Early September, in both its emphasis on death and its seasonal precision.) With Hélène's passing, once again, Jérémie and Adrienne each opt for their financial gain, as reasonable as it is in their circumstances, over preserving the estate as a family retreat. In this way, Assayas traces the transition from a communal (family-centered) mode existence shared by Hélène's contemporaries to the more individualistic drive maintained by her children, whose lives are otherwise absent, contained in the film's many ellipses. The second generation's country home set-piece, following a heated discussion with the family's tax attorney in which Assayas's mise-en-scène divides into a confrontational shot/reverse-shot chain, and a subsequent brotherly reconciliation in which we discover details of their late father's life, depicts their preparation of the estate for sale. Assayas and Gautier maintain the low-key, interior lighting of the opening passage in this instance, though it is now the detritus of the homestead rather than Hélène's embodied presence, bathed in a deep cyan, and her implied recollections - in addition to a remarked upon Taiwanese flavor, Assayas's film showcases the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky and particularly The Mirror (1975) - that has become the camera's content.

The film's final generation moves into view with the revelation that Frédéric's eldest daughter has been arrested for shoplifting (in addition to her possession of a small quantity of pot). Again this dramatic peak comes to very little in the narrative, though it does serve to shift the film's focus. Shortly thereafter, Frédéric's two children hold a party in their soon-to-be-vacated family estate. With Summer Hours's camera once again mobilized and frequently shifting its human subjects, Assayas not only procures another communal life but concisely references his own masterful Cold Water (1994) - which here is updated in Summer Hour's shift into the present, with the incumbent new musical styles to match. Yet, Assayas also recognizes that there is sadness, at least for Frédéric's daughter, underwriting the conviviality. In an intimate conversation with her boyfriend, she notes teary-eyed that her grandmother once remarked that she would bring her children to this place. The liquidation of her family's heritage will indeed have consequences.

These consequences also include Frédéric and his wife's uncanny experience of their family art in the Musee d'Orsay. Though as his wife notes there are positive social values that derive from their bequeathing the art, its experience loses the personal dimension that it held in the family home. (In part, this passage seems to fulfill the film's commission, along with the behind-the-scenes documentation in which we see a miraculous restoration of a shattered Degas.) Much to Assayas's credit, we feel this loss as the pair look on at an art nouveau desk. In the end, Summer Hour's strength is precisely his articulation of such feelings, and of the details of a family life that extend well beyond the limits of the frame, beneath the film's surface representations and well into Hélène's past. Like A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin, 2008), with which Summer Hours forms a diptych of sorts (as each centers on the return of family members to their parental home) Summer Hours brings a family into vivid existence.

Of course, Summer Hours's differences with A Christmas Tale are far more instructive than its similarities: Assayas's film is all subtlety, refinement, economy and silence; it refuses temporal disjunction and stylistic disunity. To contrast, A Christmas Tale possesses the impulse to tell everything; the narrative is constantly moving beyond itself in its many acts of digression. Yet in both cases, this is contemporary French cinema at its very best. One film recommends itself above the other primarily on the basis of one's aesthetic inclinations, on their feelings toward stylistic unity/disunity, freedom/control, and so on. Consequently, this piece's two writers split on their preferences with Anderson inclining slightly toward the Assayas and Broad in favor of the Desplechin. Yet we agree wholeheartedly that Summer Hours is Assayas at his absolute peak.

IFC Films will distribute Summer Hours theatrically in 2009. In the meantime, the film is available on an Artificial Eye, region 2 [UK] DVD.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

2008: The Year in Film

As most readers of this site are well aware, two studio releases dominated film conversation in the U.S. this year: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (WB) and Andrew Stanton's WALL·E (Disney-Pixar). With each manifesting a clearly identifiable - and divergent - politics, Hollywood did its best to provide choice in its multiplexes. Yet the alternatives were not those so much of 2008, but retroactively 2000, with the Bush-era, go-it-alone-unpopularly allegory The Dark Knight pitted against the ecological-alarmism of Al Gore. And as with that election, the same result, in box office terms, resulted: The Dark Knight moved to two second all-time in unadjusted numbers, while its opponent surpassed the very respectable $200 million mark, without winning the crown. Aesthetically, for this writer at least, The Dark Knight was much better than expected, as it improved on Martin Scorsese's The Departed (2006) by infusing its profoundly-visceral technique with a moral seriousness - and a real sense of living in the midst of terror - absent in Scorsese's nihilistic crime opus. (It also manages an equal somatic effect with far less gore.) WALL·E, on the other hand, suffered in comparison to Brad Bird's superior efforts of the past few years (namely, 2004's The Incredibles and 2007's Ratatouille), from a narratively-leaden final hour and the hypocracy of its anti-consummerism - as well as from its cheap jabs at the obese. None of this of course mattered for the film's appointment as the year's most critically-beloved work.

Not that WALL·E is entirely lacking in virtues: the film's famed first forty minutes are as good as everyone says. Where critical laurels truly seem misplaced (for this writer) is in the praise lavished on Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York and Tarsem's The Fall (2006), my joint selections for the year's worst. With regard to the Kaufman, Synecdoche provided 2008's most unrelentingly bleak vision of the world, effectively extrapolating from the filmmaker's proxy's own unhappiness a world in which all suffer from this same despair. Clear point-of-view? Yes. Unbelievably myopic and staggeringly unpleasant self-portrait of extreme self-concern? Certainly. The Tarsem, on the other hand, manages a balance of cloying sentimentally and sadism, supported by, as Lisa K. Broad puts it, a film grammar that is the functional equivalent of a novel penned by an illiterate.

Now on to the not awful... heck, on to the very good. For Tativille's two authors, Anderson and Broad, the distinction of the best American narrative film of the year belongs to Michel Gondry's evidently-undervalued Be Kind Rewind (pictured). Improving on his strong The Science of Sleep (2006), Gondry once again pulls together the often antithetical spheres of the cinema and the visual arts in his relational aesthetic-inspired latest foray into videotape nostalgia. This wasn't the funniest of a handful of strong American comedies in 2008 (Pineapple Express, Tropic Thunder, Role Models and Forgetting Sarah Marshall were all funnier individually; Adam McKay's Step Brothers had its moments, most of which made their way into the film's many trailers, though McKay's mise-en-scène was mind-numbingly lazy) but it was certainly the finest in many other respects.

Then again, Japan provided a number of challenges to Gondry on the comedy front: Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007), Dainipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, 2007) and Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita), the purely funniest of the group, represent three rare instances of comic filmmaking that all touch on human transience and the institutions of its country of origin - which is to say, these were three remarkable works of art. Yet, none of the above could touch a fourth Japanese film of the past twelve months, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's masterpiece Tokyo Sonata, which like the former grouping dissects its nation's mythology and its present-day economic situation. Tokyo Sonata was Broad's choice for the film of the year and a very close second for Anderson.

My own choice for the film of the year - and Broad's #2 - was Lucrecia Martel's career-peak The Headless Woman (Argentina). For me, The Headless Woman proved the year's fullest inter-mixture of form and discourse, providing a genuine attempt to remake film language in the image of its material. It was the un-Diving Bell and Butterfly (2007, Julian Schnabel) in its achievement in providing a plausible platform for its protagonist's perceptual irregularity. In fact, from global reports, 2008 may well be a year defined ultimately by the Latin American cinema generally and Argentine film specifically.

But back to the local. Posted below are Lisa and my choices for the year's top ten, selected from our favorite New York and New Haven theatrical and festival screenings (with an additional unreleased picture from Northern Europe making the cut). Through the New Year, I will also link to our favorite colleagues' selections on various sister sites. Please check back in the coming days for these updates.

-Michael J. Anderson, 12/23/2008

Updated: A 'mini' year-end poll, comprised of tabulations of the above lists, is also available on Tativille affiliate Ten Best Films.

2008: Michael J. Anderson

The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, 2007)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2007)
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing, 2007)
RR (James Benning, 2007)
Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry)
Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007)
Chouga (Darezhan Omirbaev, 2007)

Runners-up: Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita), Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood), Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky), Sparrow (Johnnie To), You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007).

Updated (3/15/09): My 2008 only list is now available here, with an English-language version here.

2008: Lisa K. Broad

Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)
The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel)
A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin)
Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry)
Fine, Totally Fine (Yosuke Fujita)
The Duchess of Langeais (Jacques Rivette, 2007)
Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky)
Sparrow (Johnnie To)
Redbelt (David Mamet)
You, the Living (Roy Andersson, 2007)

Retrospective Favorites of 2008
The Daughter of the Samurai (Arnold Fanck and Mansaku Itami, 1937), Doomed Love (Manoel de Oliveira, 1978), L'Immortelle (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1963), Three Resurrected Drunkards (Nagisa Oshima, 1968), Tokyo Twilight (Yasujiro Ozu, 1957).

Saturday, December 20, 2008

New Film: Gran Torino

That Gran Torino represents actor-director Clint Eastwood's best work in four years should come as no surprise: after all, this is the septuagenarian hyphenate's first on-camera turn since his 2004 masterpiece Million Dollar Baby. Though Gran Torino perhaps does not deserve that film's well-earned 'best picture' and 'best director' statues, Eastwood's latest embodiment minimally merits a third 'lead actor' citation. Indeed, Gran Torino showcases Eastwood's latest 'Dirty Harry' incarnation in his scene-chewing best, very much in the supremely-entertaining Heartbreak Ridge (1986) mold. Perhaps the Academy will seek to reward Eastwood in the same lifetime-achievement fashion that it did Paul Newman in 1986? If so, Eastwood's award would coincide appropriately with what might stand as his final career summation.

Gran Torino locates Eastwood's Walt Kowalski in modern-day Highland Park/Detroit, amid a decaying urban-scape populated by gang members and first- and second-generation Hmong immigrants. And Kowalski: a Korean-war vet, widower and retired auto worker, whose semi-estranged sons have long moved on to the suburbs and foreign-model SUVs. Kowalski spends his days alone with his golden lab, drinking copious amounts of PBR, coughing up blood and grunting at the indignity of living among brown lawns and unkempt homesteads - and given less than the slightest justification, initiating an unending (and admirably varied) string of racist profanities.

Following the attempted theft of Walt's eponymous car and an encounter with Hmong gang-bangers on the neighbor's front lawn, Eastwood's character grudgingly integrates himself into the lives of his neighbors, laterally stopping African-American youths with a firearm from harassing daughter Sue (Ahney Her), while her "pussy" white boyfriend cowers on the side, and supervising brother Thao (Bee Vang) as he works of his debt. Walt is befriended by the plucky Sue and mentors the introverted Thao, even managing to find the latter employment on a construction sit, following an exceedingly funny set-up in which Polish-American Walt and his Italian-American barber teach Thao how to talk like a man; Gran Torino is one of the year's funniest films.

It is also one of the most harrowing. A subsequent, lawless defense of the hard-working Thao collaterally leads to the young man's wounding in a drive-by shooting and to Sue's brutal rape at the hands of her cousin's gang. Having thus prompted the violence, Walt settles on a course of action that ultimately leads to his character's Christic sacrifice, replete with a crucifix pose after performing a sacrificial gesture. (Eastwood belies his hostility toward the Christian faith with his supreme act of brotherly love.) At this moment, as likewise in the film's commencing expository dialogue, Eastwood's direction demonstrates a noticeably heavy hand nonetheless that does Gran Torino few favors. As with his weaker offerings of the past three years - namely, Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Changeling (2008) - Eastwood's cinema does drift toward the tendency of producers Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard to overtly-literalize character psychology. Gran Torino is not entirely beyond their negative influence.

Nonetheless, this is an Eastwood film to its core, calling his famed character-construction to account for the vigilantism that manifests itself both locally and across a forty-year corpus. Here, the solution of sacrifice becomes the fated consequence of a life's work, unavoidable as it is imperative within the film's narrative logic. Speaking of, revenge is shown less to be immoral in Gran Torino (as it is represented in the similarly-revisionist Mystic River, 2003) than tactically-ineffective. Either way, the vigilantism of Dirty Harry (1971) et al. continues to reveal unintended consequences. Eastwood extends his auto-critique.

He also demonstrates a continued engagement with the present, which in the case of Gran Torino finds a form in his lament over white-flight and in a symbolic passing-of-the-torch to an immigrant next generation. With respect to the latter, Eastwood seems to favor assimilation in contrast to another 2008 flash point, Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married, which assumes a more politically-expedient multi-culturalist perspective. Of course, none of the above makes Gran Torino particularly timely, which is unusual for the director of The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Heartbreak Ridge, A Perfect World (1993), Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). In these films, Eastwood successively summons the spirit of post-Watergate distrust in institutions, Reagan-era patriotism, late Bush/early Clinton-era anxieties over single-motherhood, post-9/11 discourses of violent response, Terry Schiavo and Bush II-period wartime equivocations. However important in reality, gangland violence's current under-reporting in the media makes Gran Torino feel behind its time. Yet, in uncharacteristically extricating himself from topicality, Eastwood has again renewed his cinema.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Feliz aniversário, Manoel!

Manoel de Oliveira, one of the true giants of world cinema and a strong contender for the greatest of all Portuguese artists (in any medium), turns one-hundred today. It has been reported that Oliveira will spend the centennial of his birth on the set of his latest production, Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loira. Nothing could be more appropriate certainly, nor anything quite so gratifying for those admirers of Oliveira, who, much like myself, have long entertained this scenario. After all, does not a filmmaker who has succeeded in making more than one film per year throughout his nineties deserve to make history as the first active 100 year-old auteur?* That his primary subject has long been an ironized assessment of Europe's waning civilization - from the standpoint of an inheritor of its aristocratic high culture - makes his unparalleled time as a working artist all the more poetic. For those of us in the cinema, today belongs to one of our greatest masters.

For those who are less familiar with the director, let me direct you to a series of posts (linked to below) that I have dedicated to Oliveira during my three-and-a-half years writing for this site. The fact that I have written on the Portuguese filmmaker more than any other individual is I suppose the greatest testament I could offer to the artist's continued vitality; his films have inspired me to make my thoughts public like none other. Feliz aniversário, Manoel!

Full-length reviews and essays available at Tativille: Doomed Love (1978), Francisca (1981), No, or the Vainglory of Command (1990), Magic Mirror (2005), Belle Toujours (2006).

Capsule pieces (for my annual 'top ten' lists) available at Ten Best Films: I'm Going Home (2001), The Uncertainty Principle (2003), A Talking Picture (2003).

* Leni Riefenstahl's Impressions Underwater (2002) was released to commemorate the then-living German filmmaker's 100th birthday. Riefenstahl, however, shot the documentary film while still in her nineties.