Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New Film: Miss Bala & Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Premiering in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and released on a very limited basis in one of the leanest month on the U.S. theatrical schedule, Gerard Naranjo's Miss Bala bears witness both to the formal experimentation characteristic of the former and to the semi-exploitation orientation of the latter. Naranjo and cinematographer Mátyás Erdély bring an exceedingly fluid long-take aesthetic to Miss Bala's border world of Narco wars and beauty pageants, staging the film's on-going flow of action and the frequently disrobed body of the film's ex-model lead, Stephanie Sigman, in a graceful choreography of contiguous on and off-camera spaces.

Among the most memorable of Naranjo and Erdély's one-take tours de force is an early, off-balance composition in a nightclub powder-room that commences with Miss Baja hopeful Laura Guerrero (Sigman) standing alone in the right half of a static, divided frame. Suddenly, a para-military hit crew repels down the wall that splits the image, filling the empty middle distance in the left half; as the assassins check the toilet stalls on the same side of the composition, Laura crouches down into a nearby corner with the camera accordingly following, reframing the female lead in a far more constricted full. As Laura cowers, exposed to the gang against the wall, the spectator is made to focus (along with the protagonist) on the off-camera field, cued in not only to Laura's frightened reactions directed toward the previously visible space, but also to the sounds that inscribe the continuous, out-of-the-frame action.

Within this exemplary passage, Miss Bala's navigation of objective and subjective states emerges, with Laura's point-of-view ultimately articulated in the tight re-framing that occurs along with her attempt to escape view. Earlier, when she first arrives at that same Millennium night spot, the filmmakers' camera moves independent of character motivation, only joining Laura consequently as the apparatus propels forward in the same direction as the striding lead. In so doing, Naranjo provides an approximation but not a literalization of Laura's phenomenological experience. Though the camera is outside Laura, it effectively doubles here perception.

Elsewhere, to return to the economy of revelation and concealment that defines Miss Bala's registration of spaces, Laura's later escape from the bathroom occurs at the moment of her sudden reappearance in the upper recesses of the re-framed interior, climbing through a distant window. In so doing, Naranjo retroactively calls attention to the fact that Laura's dramatic act has been occurring off-screen all along, with the particularities of this mobile framing a matter of authorial imposition. The camera's point-of-view in this passage is that of an author who willfully leaves his heroine and her subjective experience only to treat her dramatic exit as an unexpected visual punctum moments later.

While Miss Bala's achievement might just be most conspicuously formal ultimately, it does still effectively inscribe the personal toll of the War on Drugs on the film's unwitting protagonist, providing a harrowing narrative of the variety of abuses she experiences - both on and off-camera, with the latter no less moving than the former - as well as a plausible account of how the under-class Tijuana native becomes a getaway driver and mule for the narcotics syndicate. Miss Bala is indeed her fundamentally tragic and contemporary story, even when Naranjo's exceptional visual set-pieces momentarily obscure this fact.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011), master animator Brad Bird's live-action debut, from a screenplay by Josh Applebaum and André Nemec, dispels any questions of its director's facility for or fitness to the composited photographic medium with a work that not only plays to the form's visceral strengths - this is the so-called action thrill ride at its, well, most thrilling; Ghost Protocol is one of the few comparatively deserving films at the top of the domestic box office charts - but also one that manages to reflexively incorporate the new-to-the-director technology back into the tension-filled set-pieces themselves. With respect to the latter, Ethan (Tom Cruise) and Benji's (Simon Pegg) manipulation of a screen inside the Kremlin in an effort to provide the photo-real illusion of a space, rather than the space itself, crisply encapsulates the film's composited CGI form in a manner that partially recalls Ratatouille's (2007) allegorization of computer animation in its non-human creator. Ever the auteur, Bird again showcases his self-consciousness in producing an analogy to the specific medium of his production.

Bird's authorship is even more prominent in Ethan's superhuman feats, running up and down the world's tallest building - obsessed with numbing heights, Ghost Protocol gets the most out of the composite digital form's ability to make these moments photo-real - or simply punching his way out of a Russian prison without a moment to spare. The more obvious and fruitful point-of-reference for Ghost Protocol accordingly is Bird's Pixar masterpiece The Incredibles (2004), with which it likewise shares its relatively corny and occasionally topical sense of humor - Cruise's failed marriage and Jeremy Renner's homosexuality both receive narrative cameos - a sidekick in Benji who seems to suggest a partial re-imagining of pre-Syndrome Buddy Pine or perhaps Dash, and most notably, an acknowledgement of global terrorism, which thanks to Ethan's persistent unwillingness to give in, is ultimately curtailed - though not at the precise moment that Ethan declares the "Mission Accomplished!" In Bird's world, as in our own, the threat will only later be neutralized.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Special to Tativille: "Sunset cul-de-sac? (The Artist)," by Jeremi Szaniawski

In 1927, Hollywood silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) unwittingly helps launch the career of smitten—and ambitious—dancer and starlet Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo). Little does Valentin know that the advent of sound film will soon render him obsolete, while Miller will become the new darling of his former studio. Valentin refuses to embrace the talkies, is driven to bankruptcy by the 1929 crash, and fails to conquer the box office with his final, self-financed silent film. Even so, his fall is halted by Miller’s financial support and care. But can the actor, given his resistance to new technology, ever make a comeback?

Grounded both in the tradition of melodramatic narratives and actual cinema history (the fall of its hero inspired by the similar fates of silent stars John Gilbert or Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.), set in an era of economic depression and technological shift in the film industry, The Artist (2011) could scarcely have been made at a more sadly appropriate moment. Therein however lies the suspicious aspect of an apparently sincere celebration of the first golden age of cinema, arriving at a time when most theaters around the world are trading 35mm for digital projection—and those who can’t afford the new technology can go quietly out of business. In this context, there is something almost sacrilegious, yet also painfully logical, about the inconsequential levity of the film, just as there is great irony about watching it in any format other than 35mm. To be sure, the deliberate softness and graininess of its cinematography are only done full justice on this soon-to-be-defunct format.

The film’s script itself clearly allegorizes the shift to digital and the loss it implies. Following a fire at Valentin’s home in which all his films are burned, Miller takes the only can of film that he salvaged from the fire, only to realize that it is a discarded scene of their one appearance on the screen together: his silent love declaration to the young woman. Such a diegetic moment, it is clear, would not have been possible in the digital age. In another scene, Valentin finds all his belongings carefully collected from pawnshops and at auctions by Miller, stored in a room of her Beverly Hills mansion, evoking the preservation and potential subsequent oblivion implied by digital storage.

There is nothing far-fetched about these observations. Director Michel Hazanavicius has a knack for using pastiche to comment on the present day situation, as attested to by his marginally amusing OSS 117 series—a parody of the 1960s James Bond franchise which criticizes French racism and bigotry (and like The Artist, also stars Dujardin). With this latest effort he has surpassed himself in terms of high concept: opting to make a silent film about the early years of talkies, instead of a sound film about the twilight of the silent cinema. Yet this explicit, inverted nod to Singin' in the Rain (1952) somewhat condemns the film to being an ironic, postmodern palimpsest, or, worse, falling into the derivative category of the spoof.

In earnest, one would love to love The Artist, which, at its best, is extremely endearing melodrama pastiche. But in spite of its seductively reconstructed universe, its script is glib and many scenes overly indulgent. In a way, the film as a whole replicates the self-congratulatory, hammy nature of its lead protagonists—but also, beyond their narcissism, their unlikely boneheaded likeability. With the added exoticism brought about by the revisiting of Hollywood by French eyes, and with French actors (this Gallic input providing the final joke of the film—and the founding argument behind Valentin’s resistance to sound technology: his thick French accent), one would gladly embrace the cheerful silliness of it all, had the film not been so incoherent in its referencing of film history.

The Artist is rife—of course—with quirky references to silent cinema techniques, and amusingly plays with the inversion of silence for sound (and these instances are by far preferable to Ludovic Bource’s often arch score). But for a film investigating the moment in time when the cinematic medium reached its apex in terms of visual plasticity and poetry, it displays a painful lack of coherence and purity: the film haphazardly blends visual quotes from King Vidor, Fritz Lang, FW Murnau, Fred Niblo, Sergei Eisenstein and Frank Borzage silent classics with shots straight out of 1940s cinema, most notably the dinner-table montage scene from Citizen Kane (1941). Elsewhere, the film references even the late 1950s: Valentin watches scenes from his own films on his home projector, inescapably evoking Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950); a nightmare scene evokes Wild Strawberries (itself an homage to silent cinema; 1957); and the soundtrack rather counter-productively quotes Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Scène d’amour’ from Vertigo (1958) in one protracted key sequence.

While the first part of the film is brisk and well paced, the second half tends to indulge more in this gratuitous quoting of silent classics, slowing down the plot’s progression with repetitious moments, so that the film’s own professed love of cinema proves to be its undoing. This does not detract, however, from its cast’s unquestionable charm (and, in Dujardin’s case, innate physicality), with Bejo resurrecting some of the young Joan Crawford’s sex appeal and pizzazz, and the score of Hollywood actors in bit parts (John Goodman, James Cromwell, Penelope Ann Miller, Ed Lauter, Malcolm McDowell) providing a very solid supporting cast to the action, emphasizing the self-referential nature of the film. Here, one should point out Goodman’s excellent performance as a partly debonair, partly tyrannical studio executive, and, even better, the little dog Uggie, quite irresistible as Valentin’s faithful sidekick both on and off screen, running to its master’s rescue in another borrowing from a classic cinema trope.

Silent cinema has already been revived in the post-silent period century (Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha [1999] a fine example), and it is a good thing that this film should receive wide acclaim, but let us not be fooled: if the film reaches its target, it is only by mistake. A telling anecdote dates from the early 2000s, when the mercurial producer Thomas Langmann (son of Claude Berri), furious that Guillaume Canet turned him down on a project, went up to the actor’s apartment and punched a guest of Canet’s who had the misfortune of opening the door, mistaking the unfortunate man for the actor—not knowing even, perhaps, what the actor he wanted for one of his projects actually looked like. Much like Langmann, The Artist lacks genuine refinement and taste, and further discernment, and confuses what it is willing to celebrate (silent cinema) for what it ends up producing, namely a pastiche potpourri of Hollywood classic cinema. In spite of appearances, and the obvious encyclopedic amount of documentation that went into reconstructing the universe of the film, The Artist’s authors know a lot about the look of early and classic cinema, but ultimately very little about the essence of the fine object they quote with such zeal. If the paraphernalia, costumes and visual charm of the silent era are certainly present here, the philosophy that elevates cinema to an art form is all but missing, and the freshness of the times is only recreated with a strong scent of formaldehyde, beautified with naively smiling clichés, tongue rooted firmly in cheek. It seems as though to the authors of The Artist, silent cinema was merely this warm and fuzzy, but ultimately somewhat stupid, panache-filled but immature art form. So that the bittersweet melancholy the film elicits, beyond the kitschy mish-mash of iconic imagery, has more to do with the death of a medium than the revived glory of melodramas of yore. Sunset Boulevard has become Sunset dead-end, or cul-de-sac, as the French call it. But it is a pretty nook all the same, and bric-a-brac has its charm, too. Warned that it is that (and, again, an obituary) that they are looking at, many should still go and enjoy the undeniable qualities of The Artist.

The author wishes to thank Michael Cramer and Marcelline Block for their help copy-editing this piece.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

2011: The Year in Cinema

Slated for international release in December 2009 and slotted again for its Cannes premiere in May 2010, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (pictured) was destined to be the film event of the year from the moment it belatedly screened on the Croissette in 2011. Though it would prove comparably divisive among international critics upon its debut, Malick's fifth feature received enough support to deliver on its advance billing, easily qualifying as the critical hit of 2011, as it topped virtually every critics' poll - including affiliate site Ten Best Films' 2011 Mini-Poll. A work of origins and grace, and an extraordinary piece of subjective film practice, the critical popularity of Malick's Palme d'Or was rivaled at Cannes only by Lars von Trier's Melancholia, which offered something of a negative image in its apocalyptic subject and wish to bring about humanity's destruction (for this writer, far less noble sentiments in a surprisingly pedestrian package; 2009's Antichrist remains the true shocker, compared to Melancholia's warmed-over provocation). Of course, von Trier's act of self-annihilation at Melancholia's press conference was enough to insure that it would not seriously rival The Tree of Life for the top prize, leading its more adamant defenders to wonder what if Lars wasn't Lars.

However, with Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Mini-Poll #5), co-recipient of the runner-up Grand Prix, Malick and von Trier were not only challenged but indeed bested for the best work at the 2011 Cannes film festival. Working in the poetic tradition of European and Middle Eastern masters Andrei Tarkovsky, Michelangelo Antonioni and Abbas Kiarostami, Ceylan succeeded mightily in producing a synthetic portrait of his nation's split identity that likewise featured the year's most memorable set-piece - a magical gas-lit interlude, worthy of late Tarkovsky, following an evening exploring the pitch black Turkish night. Ceylan's only serious rival for 2011's best film debuted at Berlin a few short months earlier: Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky's The Turin Horse (Mini-Poll #4pictured). Tarr's purported final work represented an endpoint for the director's extreme long-take work, and perhaps the final word for a European art-film tradition that has long been chronicling the continent's collapse. Both films, 1a and 1b among 2011 releases for this writer, will be distributed by Cinema Guild in early 2011, along with Hong Sang-soo's career-advancing Un Certain regard offering, The Day He Arrives, a runner-up to 2011's "ten best films".

Like Ceylan's film, The Turin Horse also finished second to another exceptional fest entry, Asghar Farhadi's A Separation (Mini-Poll #3pictured). A masterpiece of life in theocratic society, Farhadi's contemporary Iranian powerhouse represented one half of the year's finest national double bill. Back at the French festival, Jafar Panahi (under the conditions of house arrest and a twenty-year ban from filmmaking at the time of production) and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's This Is Not a Film (Mini-Poll #9) completed this pairing, screening out-of-competition following its reported smuggling out of Iran on a flash-drive hidden inside a birthday cake. Few films have ever shown as much courage on the part of its makers - This Is Not a Film led Iranian officials to uphold the director's sentence - or a comparable need on the part of the artist to make art. Together, A Separation and This Is Not a Film suggest that Iran might again be a serious, if endangered player on the world cinema scene, particularly when also considering Abbas Kiarostami's recent return form with Certified Copy (2010), which ranked very near the top of 2010's finest works.

Elsewhere at Cannes, Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre (pictured) and Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's Cannes co-Grand Prix The Kid with a Bike (Mini-Poll #7) emerged not only as first rate filmmaking in both instances, but like the Iranian works, an apt double bill treating at-risk youth subjects and their adult guardians (depicted in each instance by bold primary hues). The relatively unimpressive performance of the Kaurismäki in year-end wrap-ups, including Ten Best Films' own poll, following its awards ceremony shutout at Cannes, is baffling to say the least. Also in competition, Bertrand Bonello's House of Pleasures impressed more for its atmospherics and its lush cinematography (and it did) than for its treatment of its very familiar fin de siècle subject. Premiering at the Cannes Quinzaine des Réalisateurs and screened again within the New York Film Festival, Swdish filmmaker Ruben Östlund's genuinely provocative Play offered a disquieting if also highly astute look at liberal cultural acquiescence.

In Berlin and on German television, Christian Petzold's Dreileben: Beats Being Dead (pictured) and Dominik Graf's Dreileben: Don't Follow Me Around made for the year's most theoretically compelling consideration of the cinematic diegesis, even if they were let down by the trilogy's less successful third part. Debuting in Locarno and playing again at the New York Film Festival, Mia Hansen-Løve's Goodbye First Love further bolstered the thirty-something director's claim to be numbered among the world's more exciting young auteurs. With respect to the more established, Aleksandr Sokurov's Faust completed the director's 'tetralogy of power' by looking to the venerable twentieth century tradition of the heretical; shockingly, this bizarre work, even by Sokurov's standards, managed to earn the top prize at Venice. Premiering across the world in Hong Kong the previous March, and even further afield with regard to its relative mass appeal, Johnnie To's Don't Go Breaking My Heart represented both the year's most pleasurably frothy romantic comedy and also the closest that anyone came in 2011 to making a Wong film. (To also had a major Venice hit in Life Without Principle, which unfortunately this writer has not yet had the opportunity to see.)

Apart from The Tree of Life, the American film of the year was another Cannes prize winner: Danish-born art-action director Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive (Mini-Poll #2). Refn's film was a faithful extension of aesthetically adventurous mid-level action filmmaking in the image of Walter Hill and Michael Mann - with a surplus of compelling big and especially small screen notables, and more than a dash of early 1980s aesthetics. Beyond Drive, 2011 witnessed a series of successful auteurist offerings from major American directors: Martin Scorsese's Hugo, to date a new peak in 3-D aesthetics, and one of the director's better films; Clint Eastwood's quintessentially self-revisionist J. Edgar, which given its authorial origins, subject matter and scathing early notices might just insure that it was the year's most pleasant surprise; and David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (pictured), a summarizing work from the signature American director of the digital age. Among non-American English-language directors, Canadian auteur David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method continued an unbroken series of successes with his most explicit exploration (and take-down) of Freudianism to date.

Among those films that reached wider global and especially American audiences, Paul Feig's Bridesmaids (pictured) stood out not only for the strength of its comedy, but also for both its gendered revision of the gross-out buddy comedy and for its class sensitivity. Bridesmaids was perhaps 2011's finest blockbuster - not that this writer saw or cared to see any more than a fraction of the pictures in this category. Steven Spielberg's 3-D The Adventures of Tintin did not match Scorsese's stereoscopic work, but it did offer one of the year's most viscerally exciting chase sequences, as well as a retinue of vivid characters drawn from its comic source. (This writer has not yet seen War Horse and is not entirely certain when or if that will happen.) In a world very far removed - fiscally speaking - from Spielberg's, J. C. Chandor's debut feature Margin Call managed to socio-economic relevance - with cast to match Drive's.

Among Oscar hopefuls, Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, to take Mrs. Tativille's reading, offered a welcome contrast to the informational overload of the contemporary mainstream idiom. Bennett Miller's Moneyball (pictured), like Alfredson's, worked admirably as well-scripted, actor-driven entertainment, while Alexander Payne's The Descendants brought a lived-in sense of place to a picturesque, rarely screened corner of the U.S. The Descendants may not have entirely lived up to the hype - it certainly does not rank among the year's best, not to mention those of Payne's - but it also was not the major let-down others have been charging amid its current moderate backlash. Then there is Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, one of the atrocities of the year - though it did finish as #8 on the Mini-Poll. In the perceptive if cutting words of Mrs. Tativille, Allen's critically successful latest provided a form of "light entertainment for geniuses."

Of course, as always, 2011 saw a spate of belated commercial and festival releases that qualified among the year's more interesting efforts. In New Haven, the beginning of the calendar year saw the premiere of Mike Leigh's fine Another Year (2010), which for this writer would have challenged for a place among 2010's 'ten best.' Premiering at approximately the same time in Connecticut was Frederick Wiseman's excellent Boxing Gym (2010), another very close call retrospectively for 2010's top work. Just a step below both of these, Aaron Katz's Cold Weather (2010; pictured) represented much better than average American independent storytelling. However the true and most truly independent films of the past few years were Liu Jiayin's extraordinary Oxhide (2005) and Oxhide II (2009).  The Oxhide films, which received screenings at New York's "Migrating Forms" event, offered a formally and theoretically rigorous minimalist strategy that showed the way forward for self-financed directors everywhere.

The lip-synced confessional structure of Clio Barnard's The Arbor (2010; pictured) represented another significant belated U.S. debut from Great Britain, as well as one of the more interesting experimental documentaries of the year - in the year that featured a number. Other efforts in this welcome non-fictional trend included fellow U.K. release, Michael Winterbottom's The Trip (2010), which featured the ever engaging Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; Werner Herzog's 3-D return to form, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) Andrei Ujică's major work of the historical archive, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (2010; Mini-Poll #9); Chilean political filmmaker Patricio Guzmán's dialogic exploration of the past, Nostalgia for the Light (2010); and Chinese master Jia Zhang-ke's creditable latest, I Wish I Knew (2010). 

Among belatedly released French titles (in New Haven and New York respectively), Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist (2010) provided an elegant epitaph to Jacques Tati's magical body of work; Xavier Beauvois's Of Gods and Men (2010) was solid work all around, while François Ozon's Potiche (2010) was more lightly likable fare (though no less successful). In Sub-Saharan Africa, Mahamat Saleh-Haroun's A Screaming Man (2010) extended the director's streak of recommendable work. While in Asian popular cinema, Korea led the way with Kim Jee-woon's revenge-cycle apogee, I Saw the Devil (2010; pictured); and Na Hong-jin's The Chaser (2008) and The Yellow Sea (2010), which both screened at the New York Asian Film Festival. Then again, this year's true NYAFF highlight might just have been Yoshihiro Nakamura's A Boy and His Samurai (2010), which further confirmed the Fish Story's director as one to watch among the more narratively inclined.

For many critics, 2011 was a very strong year - certainly far better than this writer experienced - on the basis of a number commercial premieres from 2010's very best: Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Certified CopyRaoul Ruiz's Mysteries of Libson (2010; pictured), Cristi Puiu's Aurora (2010), Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas (2010), Michelangelo Frammartino's Le Quatro Volte (2010). Had this writer seen any of the above this year, rather than last when they made the author's 'best of 2010' list, 2011 might have provided much richer viewing that it ultimately did (particularly through the first eight months).

Of course, there are also those films that have not yet made an appearance locally, but which could easily raise 2011's qualitative mean, with Pablo Giorgelli's new-New Argentine Las AcaciasBruno Dumont's Hors Satan and Gerardo Naranjo's soon-to-debut Miss Bala (pictured) highest on this writer's must see-list. There are also festival premieres, such as Santiago Mitre's The Student and Wim Wenders's Pina (Mini-Poll #5), which site co-author wrote about with elegance in 2011, but which again this writer has not yet had the opportunity to see. For many more titles that this piece missed, some intentionally, more not, please do consult the following lists and wrap-ups. Here's to a cinematically robust 2012, and consequently to a better sense of the year that was!