DVD diary: an un-virginal Mary (Pasolini 2: Mamma Roma)

30 Dec
December 30, 2012

In North America, only the final four Pasolini features are available on Blu-ray, three of these in Criterion’s Trilogy of Life package that was released just last month. A further four (Accatone, The Gospel According to Matthew, Oedipus Rex, Medea) are now available on Blu-ray discs zoned for Europe. Of the four that are available only on DVD, two have seen spiffy new European releases in the last year. That leaves Teorema (issued on DVD by the BFI in 2007) and, sadly Mamma Roma (Criterion 2004) as the Pasolini films that have gone the longest without a fresh video release.

Mamma RomaI decided to wait no longer for a Blu-ray edition of Mamma Roma, and picked up Criterion’s double DVD box during the most recent Barnes & Noble Criterion 50% off sale. I’m glad I did. No doubt the eventual HD treatment will improve contrast significantly in a handful of night scenes, but the transfer looks pretty good for DVD.

The story is simple but powerful. A prostitute tries to leave her life of many years for the sake of her son. Her efforts result indirectly in tragedy for her and him.

Watching this film for the first time, two things really stand out for me.

The first is what a fast learner Pasolini was. This film shows very much the same aesthetic preferences as his debut Accatone, but with more finesse, less confusion. The repeating/leitmotif scenes technique is still present, the close framing, and the construction of a world through dialogue rather than a documenting of a natural world. But here it all comes together in organic fashion. As Anna Magnani’s Mamma Roma strides through the night-time cityscape of Rome, her meetings with the city’s night creatures are choreographed rather than naturalistic, and this works to efficiently convey her emotional state at certain key junctures in the narrative. These scenes are like a musical without actual songs.

Accatone asks you to sympathize with a pimp, whereas Mamma Roma is about a prostitute—a much more sympathetic central character.

The second point is that Pasolini’s Jesus obsession is not something that suddenly appears in his third feature, The Gospel According to Matthew, but some that is hinted at in Accatone and is on full display here. The film is famously bookended with scenes that reference da Vinci’s Last Supper at the beginning and Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ at the climax.

I have always been impressed with Denys Arcand’s Jesus de Montréal, which I consider to be the most powerful cinematic portrayal of a contemporary Christ figure, but I now realize the extent to which he was standing on Pasolini’s shoulders. For example, Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau), Arcand’s protagonist, develops a fevered sweat as he heads toward his fate, and I’m now inclided to see this as having been picked up from Pasolini’s Ettore (Ettore Garofolo).

More to come on this point in the next couple of Pasolini posts.

One further note on the Criterion edition: the second disc contains a number of solid supplements including La ricotta (1963), “a 35-minute film by Pasolini starring Orson Welles as a director who sets out to make a film about the Passion of Jesus.” This short film was originally part of the feature-length anthology film Ro.Go.Pa.G., also featuring segments from Jean-Luc Godard, Ugo Gregoretti, and Roberto Rossellini. Ro.Go.Pa.G has recently been released by Masters of Cinema as a Blu-ray so I will be viewing that version of La ricotta and covering it my next post.

Blu-ray diary: stumbling through Accatone (Pasolini 1: Accatone)

29 Dec
December 29, 2012

So I have a little cinephile project on the go. I intend to watch all 12 of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s feature films, over the next four months or so.

(There is an ambitious version of this project, which is probably not going to happen this year, where I also invest many hours to read all seven of his major source texts: the Gospel of Matthew, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Euripides’ Medea, Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights, and de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom.)

AccattoneNaturally enough I decided to start at the beginning with Pasolini’s 1961 directorial debut, Accatone, which made its Blu-ray debut on the Masters of Cinema label in March of this year (which edition, like most from MoC, is locked to Region B).

(There is a 2003 Region 1 DVD in existence but I can’t vouch for its quality.)

I will be perfectly honest here and tell you that things got off to a bumpy start. Perhaps I was a little too cocky, diving in at the deep end. Even watching the first scene I was having trouble figuring out who was who and why people were saying the things they were. By the last half hour of the film I was really starting to check out.

I found that other Italian master of oblique cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni, rough going at first, too, until I figured out what was throwing me off—his habit of cutting from one scene to another with no transitional cues.

Antonioni followed this practice rigidly, find it to be the most natural or honest way to construct a film, but the end result for me as viewer is that sometimes a scene will progress for some time before I realize that the location has changed and time has elapsed. For me this is 90% of the reason why his films can be considered difficult.

I conquered this by simply giving myself permission to stop and rewind at will in the middle of watching, until I’m absolutely clear where all of the scenes start and end. It’s a little more demanding than just sitting and watching, but the end result is that I’m able to “get” his films on first viewing.

Pasolini’s Accatone, I discovered, has more difficult aspects to its construction than even Antonioni’s films. I had real difficulty keeping track of some of the character relationships and even who we are seeing at given moments.

What saved me this time was the extremely helpful critical commentary by Tony Rayns. He is very good at sorting out which difficulties are a result of deliberate aesthetic choices by Pasolini, and which are just the result of inexperience by the director.

Perhaps the most valuable thing that he points out is that Pasolini simply avoids wide shots and, crucially, establishing shots, as part of his reaction against neo-realism. He would rather his film construct its own reality, rather than to create the “effect” of “naturalism,” which he had come to see as false.

The net result of this in technique is a lot of tight shots, the camera always on the speaker.

During late sequences of the film, some time after a scene that only briefly establishes that the police are investigating the titular protagonist, we get occasional cuts to a pair of eyes. The view is meant to infer from this that Accatone is under police surveillance, but without the commentary’s help I didn’t make that connection. It’s important to undestand this because it makes the film’s ending seem much less arbitrary.

Rayns also helped me understand that while Pasolini does throw the viewer into various scenes without the help of any establishing shot, he tends to present matching scenes later on, illuminating by sheer repetition the significance of the locations and people, and expressing the development of the narrative by the differences between the scene “versions.” Once you understand this the film is a lot less confusing.

But for all that, the film is still a bit of a mess, if an inspired one. I can’t really recommend Accatone on its own as a starting point for Pasolini—although watching this new Blu-ray with the commentary on is actually a great introduction. If you just want to watch his films, sticking to the more significant ones, I’d say you’re better off jumping in with Mamma Roma, which I will consider next.

Year-end review (2/3): best 2012 films of 2012

28 Dec
December 28, 2012

A list of 2012 theatrical releases that I caught on the big screen this year. In a future “films to watch for” post I will round up favourites from the festival circuit, some of which will get wider releases in 2013.

Footnote

It’s easy for me to pick a favourite on this list. Lior Ashkenazi and Shlomo Bar Aba are note-perfect as father-and-son Israeli Talmudic scholars whose natural conflict is exacerbated by academic differences and a thoroughly believable, deviously ironic mix-up. A case study in how a brilliant script can find the very great in the seemingly trivial.

Moonrise Kingdom

A Wes Anderson film so overloaded with Wes-Anderson-ness that it not only goes over the top but comes all the way back around to genuine brilliance. The stunt-casting of the supporting roles is inspired, and each of the stars takes the artistic license granted by the script and runs with it. But what really makes the movie is its riskiest moment, a moment of impulsive on-screen wounding that lets you know that the movie, with all its archness, is all in and invested in its protagonists.

Take This Waltz

Yes, there are unsteady moments, plot holes, a couple of cliched characters, but none of that seems consequential beside Michelle Williams’ searing performance. Bravely written, bravely acted, her character won me over single-handedly, although the unapologetically Canadian settings didn’t hurt either.

Django Unchained

I think I understand why Spike Lee doesn’t want to see this film, and I have to say I found it quite unsettling and, in moments, repellent. And yet the brilliance. Inglorious Basterds did not convince me but here is a very similarly conceived film that very much does. Tarantino seems to delight in indulging whims and tone/content swings that would ruin a film in less expert hands—it’s as if he has turned himself into the world’s leading expert in how to successfully make up one’s own rules of cinema.

Skyfall

If ever there was a character built to resist humanization, it’s James Bond, and yet Sam Mendes succeeded impressively at this unlikely transformation. Far and away the best popcorn flick of 2012, it manages one delightful surprise after another in defiance of the apparent creative exhaustion of the series. I have to wonder how it can ever be matched, let alone exceeded. Can I ask—how is it possible that the AFI has The Dark Knight Rises on their top 10 list, but not Skyfall?

also…

Favourite restored re-release of 2012: Raiders of the Lost Ark, immaculate and un-fucked-with

Mild pleasures, guilty or otherwise: Wreck-It Ralph, The Expendables 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dictator, Friends with Kids, The Dark Knight Rises

Disappointments: This is 40, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Savages, Prometheus, The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy

Next post: the festival roundup a.k.a. 10 films to seek out in 2013.

Year-end review (1/3): best 2011 films of 2012

27 Dec
December 27, 2012

Because end-of-year film lists stacked with movies that haven’t even opened in your town are elitist in an annoying kind of way, and because, hey one year-end list just isn’t enough, I present the first of three “best film” lists for 2012.

Today’s post is really just a reminder of two fantastic films that seemed to slip unjustly into obscurity this year, and another one that didn’t. Without further ado, here are my three favourite films of 2011 that I saw in theatres in 2012.

Coriolanus

In a way it’s not surprising that this intense, vastly entertaining film was so widely slept on. Dumped into theatres in the dead season, it suffered a double whammy as a film of a Shakespeare play—a truly obscure one, and in the original English. It is, simply put, the best Bardic adaptation in at least 15 years. Reframing a Shakespeare narrative in a contemporary setting has been tried several times but this represents something like the perfection of that particular artistic challenge. The modern-day alternate version of Rome, shot in Belgrade, rings strangely true; John Logan shaves down the original dialogue and reframes it brilliantly; director-star Ralph Fiennes surrounds himself with a perfect cast, with notable performances by Gerard Butler and Brian Cox.

A Dangerous Method

Pairing Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud with Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung seemed on paper like it ought to have been a home run, but if it wasn’t quite that it is no reflection on these two strong performances, to say nothing of Keira Knightley’s Sabina Spielrein. Somehow this talky movie does not quite have the bite that you might expect, but that is pretty much the only criticism I can make. This is a movie about ideas, and I wish there were more like it. Note to self: get around to reading John Kerr’s non-fiction source text.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The best production and set design in any movie since Children of Men. I found the visuals and setting of each scene so distracting that I missed a couple of significant plot points and went back to the theatre to watch the film a second time. If I wasn’t such a sucker for great design I probably would have followed the film just fine, but it really does offer much in a second viewing, and such films seem fewer and further between these days. And, um, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones. Come on.

Next post will be my best releases of 2012, a roundup of films that had wide(-ish) release this year.

first thoughts: Django Unchained

21 Dec
December 21, 2012

Three years ago in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg called Inglorious Basterds “a story of emotionally uncomplicated, physically threatening, non-morally-anguished Jews dealing out spaghetti-Western justice to Nazis.” From the trailers for Django Unchained I was tempted to think that Quentin Tarantino had simply swapped in a black man for Jews and white slavers for Nazis and more or less made the same film again.

But it’s not so. Maybe it’s just that the spaghetti-Western justice flows much more convincingly in a spaghetti-Western setting, but this film seems less strained, more organic despite the usual Taratino tonal swerves. In fact I was genuinely surprised, at the end, to discover that two hours and forty-five minutes had rolled by. It seemed like two hours to me.

The director may not be doing much for the preservation of good taste, but when it comes to the preservation of classical storytelling in an age of jump cuts and CGI, he seems like the last old master standing.

You should know going in that there are a whole lot of n-words dropped, there is much racist awfulness to set off the vengeance that ensues, and, yes, there is a black man man being torn apart by dogs, among other atrocities. If sublime excess is Tarantino’s brand, Django delivers on the brand promise in spades.

And indeed, the movie seems to be coming to a conclusion only to launch into a fully-fledged Act Four, including another risible cameo performance by the director himself. It says something for the film that even Tarantino’s lousy Australian accent is not enough to derail it.

That misstep seems inconsquential beside two amazing performances from Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz. Leo DiCaprio is pretty much note-perfect as well. I would watch this again, something I haven’t done with any of Taratino’s films since Jackie Brown.

Watching Sátántangó (on DVD)

29 Sep
September 29, 2012

I’m playing catchup with Bela Tarr, now, because just over a year ago I saw The Turin Horse and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.  That’s a film that is pardigmatic difficult viewing, gruelling by any measure, minimal, oblique, demanding—so by comparison Tarr’s seven-and-a-half-hour magnum opus Sátántangó is a pleasant surprise.  Yes it is demanding, but simply because it asks something like a full day of your time, and patience with its pace to boot.

However I still feel that watching The Turin Horse before Sátántangó had a kind of spoiler effect on my first viewing of the latter film, which I undertook this week on a single day (into the early evening).  Both films are concerned with presenting a kind of secular and modernist apocalypse.  There is so much thematic and aesthetic overlap that Sátántangó felt very familiar even on first viewing, and if a plot stretched over seven hours won’t make you impatient for a film to get to the point, watching almost the same point being made a second time by the same filmmaker definitely will.

The apocalypse of Sátántangó is minimal but not subtle—just in case we miss the point, some two and a half hours in, one character advises another to read the Bible’s book of Revelation. She specifically uses the alternate title of the book, “Apokalipszis” (“Apocalypse”) and not “Jelenések” (Revelation).

I completely understand how Sátántangó would come as a cinematic, um, revelation to someone watching a Tarr film for the first time, but for me it couldn’t quite deliver the same jolt.  However one thing that Sátántangó has on offer that The Turin Horse lacks is the compelling figure of Irimiás, played by Mihály Vig. He is a combined anti-Christ and false Muhammad who provides the film with a focal point and an admittedly slender thread of political theory.

The way that people follow leaders who promise a better life in the face of all common-sense evidence to the contrary forms the tragic framework for the story, and it is safe to say that Tarr sees the reasons for this as springing from within human nature, rather than imposed from without. Over the six years that (so I have read) this film was being made, Hungary began its first round of economic privatization, which would culminate with unpopular austerity measures a year or so after the release of the film.  In this context it is more than possible to see the film as meet-the-new-boss, same-as-the-old-boss prophetic howl.

Apart from the occasional, inevitable moments of boredom (even a cinematic masterpiece can’t stay utterly gripping for all of seven hours), two moments knocked me outside of the film.

One was the memorable shot of the men walking down the road as a powerful wind swept piles of debris along behind them. Jonathan Rosenbaum says that Bela Tarr is better than Hollywood at creating illusion with things like a wind machine and a rain machine, but in each of the sequences with the men walking in the wind, it is clear that the trees ahead of them and beyond them are not swaying at all. This actually occurs in a later sequence as well.  I found the obviously faked aspect jarring.  I don’t remember having this reaction to the storm scenes in The Turin Horse.  I can only conclude that Tarr has improved, with age, at simulating storms on screen.

The other was an exchange of funds that happens near the beginning of the film.  Futaki has found out that Schmidt and Kraner plan to keep the money that was (pooled? earned? stolen? received from the government?) by six others in addition to them, including Futaki. Schmidt buys off Futaki by offering to cut him in for a third, along with Schmidt and Kraner.  Schmidt has half of this money on him. Futaki asks for immediate payment. Fine so far. So why does Schmidt divide this half into further halves? Futaki now has 25% of the money.  Does Schmidt expect Kraner to do the same thing? Futaki would then have half the money.  Or does he expect Kraner to make up the additional 8%? In that case how are Kraner and Schmidt going to even things out? I possibly missed some key lines in the minutes that followed as I wrestled with the mental math.

With Sátántangó now such a touchstone of arthouse cinema that it has apparently become a dating/mating criterion, you would think that it would have seen the light of day on Blu-ray by now, but sadly this is not the case.  There isn’t even, in fact, an anamorphic DVD release.  Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver has done a good job of detailing the disaster that is the North American DVD release.

For those who can view European-region DVDs the Artificial Eye release, is definitely preferred, even with (or perhaps because of) the 4% PAL speedup, which shaves at least 15 minutes from the film running time.  Reel-change cue marks are visible as well as frequent visible artifacts. The image is completely uncropped such that rounded corners are often visible along with edge fading especially at the left and bottom.  The downside of this “purist” approach to presentation becomes awkwardly clear in a long tracking shot in chapter 8, following the migrants from behind, up the road to their new commune. The camera lens appears to be obscured by something at the right hand edge, and the fact that this is left in makes it pretty clear that Tarr expected this defective edge of the image to be matted out when projected. On the positive side the image is completely position-stable, indicating a digital frame by frame transfer. However the world still awaits a true-running-time, polished, high-def home presentation for this essential film.

 

 

review: Barbara (Christian Petzold)

17 Sep
September 17, 2012

Calling this film “quiet” or “restrained” would be factual enough, but somehow it doesn’t do justice to how truly engaging the story is. Nina Hoss is perfectly cast as the eponymous character, managing the tricky task of seeming both put-upon and above it all. Punished for requesting an exit visa from early-1980s East Germany, Barbara is removed from her advanced medical post in East Berlin and sent to a run-down rural hospital. Here she finds herself attracted to a colleague (Ronald Zehrfeld, relentlessly appealing) whom she suspects may be reporting on her to the police, while deciding whether she should try to escape with her West German lover (Mark Waschke).

This was one of the two screenings I took in at TIFF that was projected in 35mm film format, but it felt like a happy throwback for more reasons than that.  If you need convincing that there is still some life in the classical, jump-cut-free style of filmmaking, moving from medium shot to medium shot, out and in again, keeping the medium itself in the background of the story experience, this is the film for you.  Watching this film I felt a real nostalgia for my early art house experiences with international cinema—films that told me stories that had both the verisimilitude to lived experience that Hollywood films lack, and the exotic power of an open window into another country’s culture and history. What a treat to watch a layered, subtly directed story play out, and not to be sure precisely where it will go. Barbara reminds me why I love the movies.

review: The Attack (Ziad Doueiri)

14 Sep
September 14, 2012

A successful Palestinian surgeon (Ali Suliman, in a compellingly restrained performance), respected and honoured by the Jewish Israeli medical establishment, and working in a Tel Aviv hospital, sees his life’s foundation drop out from under him when his wife perpetrates a suicide bombing that kills 17 people, 11 children among them.  Ziad Doueiri’s absolutely remarkable film The Attack surprised me with its nuanced handling of this loaded storyline, adapted from the novel by the pseudonymous author Yasmina Khadra.

Doueiri first came to attention working first assistant camera on several Quentin Tarantino films including Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. He made a minor splash of his own with his engaging, semi-autobiographical West Beirut, about growing up in Lebanon in the 1970s. He has made only one film since, and West Beirut remains today as his best-known work.  That is about to change.

The filmic style here feels contemporary without overtly calling attention to itself, in a way reminiscent of the best work of Steven Soderbergh and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Jump-cut edits are very few but skillfully placed; the palette tends to blue without too-dramatic tint.  From the sharply crafted layout of the main titles to the alternately moody and propulsive score by Eric Neveux, the film feels intricately crafted. It further benefits from a script with equally thorough attention to detail.

The central question to which the the film and the protagonist are seeking answers is how a vivacious, attractive woman with such a comfortable life could turn into a suicidal/homicidal fanatic.  The way in which the possible answers are considered in turn opens up a space of unknowability that is remarkable for such an apparently straightforward plot.  To put it another way, the film is so polished in a conventional way that I was unprepared for the degree of doubt and paradox that it embraces.  This is a film that deals with the thorniest issues in a way that is faithful to their inherent complexity and contradictions.

Word is that The Attack has obtained American distribution; it will be interesting to see what degree of controversy and indeed protest that it might attract.

Side note: watch for a quick appearance by Abdallah El Akal, Stephen Dorff’s photogenic young co-star in Zaytoun.

review: Far From Afghanistan (John Gianvito with Travis Wilkerson, Jon Jost, Minda Martin, Soon-Mi Yoo)

13 Sep
September 13, 2012

This is a very quick-hit review of a complex film project that is explicated far more thoroughly by Cinema Scope, so I will just focus on a few key points.

I think I have a very clear bias when it comes to films about war, and that is that I like them better the more that they tell me about people’s direct experiences of it.  And there is plenty of footage from Afghanistan here—some moments of it intense and/or gory enough to merit a warning I’d say—but the strange fact here is that this seems to have been gathered by Afghan videographers separately from the five Western films of the omnibus, and then inserted as context.  For me it is far more powerful than anything contributed by the filmmakers themselves.

Gianvito’s own segment is somehow simultaneously too offbase and too heavyhanded, with its images of indulgent, lazy Westerners contrasted pedantically with audio accounts of civilian deaths and injuries in the war.  Jon Jost’s “Empire’s Cross” impressed me with its nerve, putting the faces and names of the 9/11 terrorist attackers on screen, but then devolving into an audio/video mashup of Eisenhower’s “Cross of Iron” speech with war imagery.  Soon-Mi Yoo’s “Afghanistan: The Next Generation” mixing archival documentary footage from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with fresh scenes of contemporary Afghan life, focusing on youth.  Somehow this juxtaposition did little for me, although both sets of footage are interesting on their own terms.  Minda Martin’s “The Long Distance Operator” is a rather weak fiction about the implications of remotely-conducted warfare.  It tries to achieve authenticity by casting actual vets, but this can’t hide weak writing and acting.  Travis Wilkerson’s “Fragments of Dissolution” risks taking the entire film off the rails by telling 4 stories of poverty and suicide among American war vets; a tragic subject that no doubt merits a film of its own, but risks undercutting the main thrust of this project with its super-dramatic black-and-white aesthetic and grief-wracked interview subjects.

I say all this and yet, with the except of the last segment I was constantly engaged by this film.  But it is one thing to protest the fact that in 2011 only 2% of news media coverage focused on the war, even as the American and Afghan casualty counts were at an all-time high.  It is another thing to try successfully to tell the stories that aren’t being told. In that respect this attempt, well-intended as it is, falls a bit short.

Malick-trashing (To The Wonder and the baffled critics at TIFF)

13 Sep
September 13, 2012

On Tuesday I was at the Princess of Wales Theatre for the repeat screening of Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder. I had purposefully tried to keep my expectations low, suspecting that Malick could not have come up anything as substantial as The Tree of Life in what for him was an extremely short period of time between films. I was delighted, then, to experience what seems to me his most focused, narratively clear film ever; still uniquely Malick yet more intimate, purely distilled, and—without precedent in my experience of his films—ultimately heartbreaking.

But the bigger surprise came afterward—the reaction.  Browsing the reviews online, I scrolled through a bizarre litany of complaints.  The film is “almost sickeningly self-indulgent and pretentious,” “ultimately vacant,” with characters robbed of “specificity,” “empty in meaning” with “no wonder”—a “disjointed, empty tale” that “doesn’t add up.”

I’m assuming that the folks who write these things spend a significant portion of their lives watching films and writing about them.  So I find the “vacant” criticism deeply weird.  That’s not to say that all of the people who didn’t like it also didn’t get it. But there is certainly a trend in that direction.

What I want to say is this—To The Wonder is a very straightforward story told mostly visually with minimal dialogue.  It pushes further in that direction, perhaps, than any previous Malick film.  But in almost every scene it is absolutely clear what’s going on, not just narratively but emotionally.  You would think from reading these reviews that the film is nothing but a series of arbitrary images chosen for their visual beauty rather than their narrative logic.  If all you had were these reviews to go on, you could be excused for being so wrong.

I guess it’s only human to try to cut things down to size that aren’t understood, but I find it unexpectedly painful to watch it happening to a film that clearly doesn’t deserve such treatment.

I gather that The Tree of Life itself had a bit of a bumpy landing at Cannes before its reputation was rescued as more people saw it, so hopefully To The Wonder will survive the early shredding and find an appreciative audience.  As a Malick fan I care less whether it can nab middle-brow-approval certification a.k.a. the Oscars—I just want it to find good distribution so that lots of people, including everyone who wants to, can see this brilliant, heartfelt film.