Saturday, September 29, 2012

Review in Brief: Femme fatale

Tonight I will be watching the latest Brian De Palma film, Passion, at the New York Film Festival. In preparation, I watched Femme fatale. Here's a brief review:

Femme fatale begins with a close-up of a screen playing Double Indemnity. As the camera zooms out we realize that Laure Ash (Rebecca Romijn) is not only watching the screen, but perhaps also studying actress Barbara Stanwyck. This sets out a couple of the themes of the film: how we watch screens and how screens affect us. Throughout the film, people watch each other as if everyone was the star of their own movie and act as if they were a character in a movie. This is particularly true of a paparazzi photographer and artist played by Antonio Banderas who uses his acting skills to manipulate others and yet falls for one of Laure Ashe’s false, cinematic personas. De Palma’s beautifully fluid camerawork and editing communicate a lot of the story through visual cues most notably in the astounding heist sequence that takes place early in the film. De Palma’s great sense of rhythm and Ryûichi Sakamoto’s playful music make it, arguably, one of the most engrossing heist sequences in the cinema. (Brian De Palma, 2002)


Friday, September 28, 2012

The Master

One of the first images we see in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” is a close-up  profile of Joaquin Phoenix. He is wearing a white helmet. We study his face – something we’ll get plenty of opportunities to do throughout the movie. We then see him on a beach with other Navy sailors. They celebrate. World War II is over.

The first hour of “The Master” is wonderfully dynamic. Anderson elegantly communicates both the exuberance of the American soldiers at the end of the war and the debilitating effects the war has had on them. We are introduced to Freddie Quell’s (Joaquin Phoenix) neurosis when he attempts to have sex with a sand sculpture of a woman.

After the war, Quell finds a job taking photos at a department store. One of Anderson’s most dazzling and beautiful camera movements occurs here when we are introduced to Quell’s current love interest, played by Amy Ferguson. In a single shot, the camera follows Ferguson as she sensuously glides through the store attempting to sell a fur coat. As New Yorker critic Richard Brody noted, the dance aptly captures post-war capitalist lust in addition to conveying Quell’s desire to have sex with every woman he meets.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this film is Joaquin Phoenix’s wiry and contorted body. His cheeks are sunken and his eyes hidden within his cavernous skull. When he speaks, he tilts his head up and we are made all the more aware of his scarred lips. The most memorable images in this movie may be of Phoenix resting his thin arms above his comically high-waisted pants.

After assaulting a customer, Phoenix loses his job. He stows away on a cruise ship and encounters Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the leader of a Scientology-esque cult. Hoffman, with his face often sweaty and flush, plays up the vaudevillian skills and charisma a cult leader such as Dodd must posses in order to be successful. At this point, the film moves from open expanses, such as the beach and the department store, to cramped spaces – mostly rooms either on the ship or in a home – that are composed largely of static close-ups.

Though this second half has its strengths (Hoffman and Phoenix’s great performances, Anderson’s non-judgmental treatment of Quell and Dodd, and even more 1950s pants depicted in grand 70mm detail) it fails to live up to the promise of the terrific first hour. The dynamic, visual storytelling of the first half becomes a languishing, close-up and repetition-driven second half. However as Mubi critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote, “there’s at least an hour of a masterpiece in there.”

This article will be published in the October 1st issue of The Commentator.


50th Annual New York Film Festival

The 50th Annual New York Film Festival begins for me tomorrow evening with Brian De Palma's Passion. I plan to write some brief reviews of each of the films I see during the festival. Here's what I'll be watching during the festival:

Passion (Brian De Palma)
The Satin Slipper (Manoel de Oliveira)
You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet! (Alain Resnais)
Jean Renoir, The Boss: The Rule and the Exception (Jacques Rivette)
Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Differently, Molussia (Nicholas Rey)
The Blind Owl (Raul Ruiz)
Jean-Pierre Melville: A Portrait in 9 Poses (Andre S. Labarthe)
Catherine Breillat: The First Time (Luc Moullet)
Night Across the Street (Raul Ruiz)
Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas)
Lines of Wellington (Raul Ruiz & Valeria Sarmiento)
Chantal Akerman by Chantal Akerman (Chantal Akerman)
Philippe Garrel, Artist (Etchegaray)
Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (Pedro Costa)
Tabu (Miguel Gomes)
Shohei Imamura: The Free Thinker (Rocha)
One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch (Chris Marker)
HHH, A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-Hsien (Olivier Assayas)
Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman (Claire Denis)
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Capsule Review: "A Corner in Wheat"

One of the most densely packed short films of the silent movie era, "A Corner in Wheat" (DW. Griffith, 1909) is a cogent and evocative critique of an entire economic system in just fifteen minutes. The film's clashing montage depicts the differing lifestyles and interactions of two economic groups: the rich and the poor. The actions of a wheat speculator who goes on to become a wheat monopolist deprive the poor of food. However, he too meets an unfortunate end when he falls into a wheat silo. Griffith conveys the plot and ideas of the film entirely through images. Of note are the images that bracket the film. The former of these shows two laborers working a wheat field. The latter, capturing the consequences of the wheat monopolist's actions, shows only one, even more downtrodden laborer working the field.  "A Corner in Wheat" is available for free on YouTube, here.