TRAVEL HIPSTERS IN PERIL/ ‘THE LONELIEST PLANET’

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Hard to write about a film I like so much as The Loneliest Planet, which finds Julia Loktev hiking the Georgian Caucuses with two of the best actors alive. Gael Garcia Bernal is certainly in love, or some modern equivalent, and his lover is experiencing some of the existential tremors associated with that condition. The trailer to this film left a lot of people leaning forward and still more begging quietly: wtf?

The Loneliest Planet absolutely refuses to disappoint.

What is becoming my most common complaint applies here: why the music? Loktev’s transcendent-ascetic-meditation on love and life and cold is so damn, well, meditative, that you hate to hear it ruined by self-important bursts of scoring. That they cut out in a way designed to draw attention to themselves works hard against every other strategy The Loneliest Planet is interested in (or capable of) deploying.

Some have criticized the film’s opening shot, which frames Hani Furstenberg (Yossi & Jagger anyone?) in agony or something-like-it, nude under a curtain of frigid water. How we know the water is frigid is either the great mystery of the magicofthecinema, artful color-timing, performance, or a cocktail (some would say a Lok-tail.) Whatever it is: it’s brilliant. The shot is actually typical of the Contemporary Cinema of Contemplation in that it tunes (hijacks) the viewer’s mind (and gut) to the frequency of the film. The quickest way to the viewer’s attention is the visceral. Once we (they) are looking very closely, quite unwillingly chained to the teeth-chattering cold-ness of a young girl’s morning ritual (actually, I hope not) then the narrative hits us behind like a train—a very slow train. Maybe it’s more like a glacier.

But no less forceful.

This film is extremely re-watchable. This film is the plaintive nightmare of the travel hipster. The reason people choose to backpack through remote wild (presumably) and not to ride tour buses around Trafalgar Square all day is that the real world still carries some allure. But they don’t call it that for nothing. The real world can occasionally puncture, subvert, destroy the conventions of the first world. Privilege, a few generations removed from the source of earned-wealth, can be a point of enormous weakness. And you don’t want to be reminded. You really– you just don’t. So toughen up you hipster pansies!

But really, the film is compassionate, and what’s better: far too smart to preach. Like the best of the CCC, The Loneliest Planet seems incapable of violating that deceptively old-fashioned platitude: show-don’t-tell. Rather than shout at you from a mountaintop, it whispers till you’re close, and then sticks its hands in your pockets. (I never said it was for the faint of heart.)

-Max Berwald

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‘ST. PATRICK’S DAY’/ VIDEO DIALOGUE WITH ‘SPRING BREAKERS’

St. Patrick’s Day is a video by local artist Dolan Chorng, completed on St. Patrick’s Day, 2013 in San Francisco. 

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BETWEEN THINGS/ ‘BEYOND THE HILLS’ REVIEW

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Beyond the Hills has to be commended for talking up to its audience in such a way as to cause completely unwarranted optimism in the young cinephile. Christian Mungiu might be called a contemporary master of the close-up. He’s also so unassuming as to be disarming. So little posturing. So little talk, so much walk.

And like many great directors, he makes it look easy. The opening shot is kind of a stunner. Although, again, the word is unassuming. All Mungiu has to do is commit, and commit he does. The camera follows the back of a head, heading the wrong way up a crowded train platform. By wrong way, I mean that everyone else in the known universe is going the opposite direction of this small figure (which, as the first person on screen, we have already subconsciously assumed to be our hero.) The salmon upstream.

The conflict is so obvious as to seem narratively cheap, or visually worse—a type of shorthand or cliché. But Mungiu sticks with it. He lets the battle continue maybe ten seconds longer than you might expect. He believes in the psychological effectiveness of the tried and the true, and he comes out on top. From the beginning, we’re straining forward. We’re trying to pick out the face of our hero, and once we’ve picked it out, we’re trying to draw from it some sort of truth. Some sort of certainty, or a verification of a wholly knowable psychological/ emotional/ spiritual state. What we get is a bottomless well, and down it you shall surely fall.

Beyond the Hills is an apt title for a film all about peering beyond the physical, about trying to get a peak beyond the geography of our world and our bodies. What’s out there begins as anyone’s guess, but becomes a sort of key question. What’s in there represents an echo of that question, or else its natural and lonely answer. The battle between good and evil on earth is rendered by Mungiu as a love story, and if the viewer clings to that love story even as the story hurtles forward, they won’t be disappointed.

Mungiu, a student of English literature, has since drawn upon the Cinema of Contemplation’s progress—whose films in particular is a question I leave for the comments—and come away with a generous supply of techniques for filming his questions or theses or stories.

Besides the obvious durational influence (the aesthetics of the slow are here) there is also the tendency to show the corner of something, so as to make us look closer. To show a fragment of the whole, not to imply helpfully (about the nature of the whole) as a documentarian might, but to productively torment, to bring us to the question of what is that? This is the ledge beneath which the uncanny is always creeping, ready to remind us how small we are.

This particular tendency has led filmmakers to photograph the backs of lovely young girls’ heads for a long time, and it’s a game that Mungiu is up for. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, but I suspect that back-of-the-head game is a bit different in its end, but hardly in its means.

The other great locus of the Mungiu-uncanny (although some jaded viewers may find it so boneheaded as to embarrass me) is the way he mines his environment (while many directors would find it one-note) for expressionism. Expressionism as a tendency is criminally rare and clumsy these days, and the clumsiness and rarity made mentionable by one another. That is, because solid environmental expressionism has all but vanished from the Western cinematographic vocabulary, it’s become a psychological heavy-hitter again.

The back of our hero’s head, at one point, only partially eclipses an out-of-focus window, perhaps occupying a sixteenth of the frame. Beyond this window, snow is falling. The falling snow is the only mentionable movement in the frame. The space between it and the (in-focus) back of our hero’s head, is the only space we wish (subconsciously or quite consciously depending on the viewer) to occupy, because it contains the face, and if we only could see that face, we feel, we would be able to guess the ending of this parable. We would be able to see whether all of this were occurring in heaven, or in hell.

But the world is never that simple, and graciously, generously, torturously, vitally, neither is Mungiu’s cinema.

-Max Berwald

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SLEEPING WITH/THROUGH KIAROSTAMI/ ‘LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE’

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Hitchcock said something like: drama is life with the boring bits cut out.

If we’re to take him at his word, maybe we have less use for drama now than ever. Kiarostami is doing something different. I don’t think it’s radical to suppose there’s drama to what he does, but it’s surely life with the “boring bits” restored.

Kiarostami has talked openly about a cinema of naps (my own phrase,) suggesting that falling asleep during one of his films might add a level of experience. Tuning out becomes a radical type of “reading.” The work becomes a context to be lived and breathed inside, rather than a text to be read.

Such a philosophy is useful (at the very, very least) insofar as it gives us a context for understanding what’s so fun about a Kiarostami. Like Someone In Love may not be the director’s best, but it’s probably better than Certified Copy, a certifiably great movie that it seems decidedly in dialogue with. (They were both made in countries other than Iran, and address cultural differences only in the sense that they are there. The rest is about characters, some of their relationships colored somewhat mysteriously. Such relationships are distinct but comparable to those that David Denby described as “perversely ambiguous” in Certified Copy, if that helps you.)

Like Someone In Love is not so unfathomably opaque as some critics would have you believe. It only looks opaque when you try to read it out in Bazinian, Freudian, Kantian or Ebertian terms. Watching the film is not so much like staring at an opaque text as like putting on a prickly, woolen sweater. Maybe a family heirloom, but more likely an artifact from an old relationship.

The greatest gift the movie has to offer is its willingness to wander (unless someone really has broken down the mechanics of why everything-follows-everything in this odyssey.) We get really intimately acquainted with our small cast of characters, and we have plenty of time to see them being themselves.

That’s the medicinal quality of Like Someone In Love: there’s plenty of time. That restoration of time, the concession or discovery that the passage of time need not be feared—but that it can be savored—is something that is whispered to you, in the audience, until you resort to frantic texting or else leave the theater for Dead Man Drop. In a culture where “time is money” can, occasionally, be uttered without irony, there is perhaps nothing so unnerving as a film that suggests just being alive may be enough. That looking carefully at the things that surround us everyday might be worthwhile.

I think some have been reluctant to talk about Kiarostami in terms of a contemporary contemplative cinema because of his metaphysical/ surreal bent. But you find that in Weerasethakul-World as well. There is a way of being surreal, of leaving the world outside the theater outside the theater, and all the while keeping a firm grasp on the reflexive consciousness of the viewer. Kiarostami’s new film is uncanny in much the same way that Certified Copy was; you hold your breath at first, wondering what secrets are about to be explained to you, and all the while they explain themselves to your untrained ears. Whether you start feeling the film a fourth of the way through, halfway through, or in its final moments is not entirely up to you– but I believe it is partially up to you. Think of this like listening to narrative music.

If you’re looking for a thematic statement, you might look elsewhere. But for introspection, sally forth.

Kiarostami reminds us that in a culture sluggish with the weight of anti-realism, of pop-fantasy and dependably body/mind/soul-alienating commercialism, a film that grounds itself in the rhythm of real-life and real-unknowability, is radical.

-Max Berwald

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‘SLEEP WALK WITH ME': A ‘SIDE EFFECTS’ REVIEW

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Side Effects
can’t be accused of cleverness because, depending on who you’re talking to, its craftsmanship is hopelessly clumsy or uncannily on-point or cunning to the point of manipulation. Put another way: vintage Soderbergh. Is his aim gamesmanship, pleasure, homage? What? Your guess, Dear Viewer: good as mine.

It’s not a film that upsets me. You take its punches because they feel good. There are real miss-steps and red-herring miss-steps, if you know what I mean. I’m possibly delivering a spoiler (ahem) when I observe that Catherine Zeta Jones’ sad-bad performance (was she high?) could be directorial meta-cunning. Directing a great-actress badly for the greater good of your movie? Damn, Steve: that’s kinda cold.

Some will call Soderbergh’s game Hitchcockian. Kind to Hitchcock, I say. Side Effects is a good one. At a point, the film has a choice between being a moral, topical, critical work, or a sorta sophisticated fun one, and chooses fun without hesitation or remorse. It’s a choice many films (directors) never have to make! How can we judge? (Except, sigh, I do.) On my first viewing, I’m comfortable accusing Soderbergh of victim-blaming.

Because a moral (preachy) chore (failure) might be more noble than an intriguingly informal (if not warm) popcorn twister. Might. You can tell me if I’m wrong. There’s the obvious problem that no one will watch your moral-chore film…

While we’re on the subject of temperature though, the film is so damn cold you can’t not mention it. I recalled Match Point. Part of what makes calling Side Effects Hitchcockian is that it hands ole Alfred the monopoly on making ingenious little suspense/narrative candies out of a few extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. He doesn’t deserve it! I’m not a h8r but—he doesn’t deserve it.

Hitchcock’s got lots besides the mentioned, but that’s what Side Effects has got. You want details? Ohhh.

 Jude Law is good. Rooney Mara is great. Catherine Zeta Jones is not. The scenes are good, tight, built, lean, fit, mobile. Channing Tatum is also good, but could never be called lean. The frames are often embarrassingly frank (maybe Stephen does need his own DP after all?) and the music is jarring enough to warrant its immediate removal. It’s that darn story that’s so good… Yes, the art of the screenplay is still alive, taking jabs at the mainstream when you least expect it.

But then, we have come to expect good things from Soderbergh. As for this being his last film, it wouldn’t be what you’d call a finale. He’ll be back. And we’ll welcome him with open arms. What a thinker. You admire, I think, in Soderbergh, a certain intersection between thinking and feeling, thinking and action, thinking and crying-out, thinking and scrambling.

The sin is picking up a contemporary moral issue, chewing on it, and then throwing it under the bus as soon as a good narrative moment reveals itself. God help all writers.

-Max Berwald

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BARBARARTHOUSE? THE PETZOLD APPROACH

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Christian Petzold must aspire to make all sorts of strange movies. He has assembled an arsenal of techniques, and a not-quite-formalist grammar, both original enough to be impressive.

You can go off the fantastic Notebook interview (here), but the proof is in the pudding. Barbara looks and frequently behaves like a great movie, but admits frankly that it is not. Especially in its ending, which forces us to accept what we could scarcely believe through the rest of the ride: this is, more or less, a standard mystery/thriller told in a more sophisticated, deliberately articulate way than you might expect. It’s no The Conformist, but it’s a hell of a lot more to chew on than The American. Anyway, the film does stick with you.

What Petzold calls “spatial suspense” is no joke. He’s playing a very tight game. I’m just not convinced that the ends have here justified the means. The means in this case being not merely visual, but apparently a more-than-a-little eccentric production process, and the ends being narrative.

When Petzold says in the interview (neither bragging, nor confessing) that he deals primarily in first takes, anyone who has seen Barbara will scarcely be surprised. It’s a great explanation for the constant discomfort, and the constant, organic tension we perceive burning out of the center and the soul of our heroine. She is walking a tightrope. The anxiety performed, and the anxiety in regards to the performed, have theoretically coalesced into something altogether more potent.

And all right, I’ll drop the “theoretical” qualifier. It is something altogether more potent, in terms of character and performance.

Yet the film leaves us troublingly little to talk about when it’s over. The aesthetics of ambiguity are nearly all show. And the character of Barbara herself as a cypher, as a mystery in her own right, I don’t really buy. The most interesting bits of that are in the first series of shots, when she is only being looked at, and is not yet performing those weighty duties we impose on every protagonist. In the end, the film represents a straightforwardness that I don’t resent, but also don’t much enjoy.

What Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has identified as “suspense by induction rather than coercion” may or may not be the most compelling way to handle suspense. I welcome the absence of didacticism, the favor given to texture and objects-in-the-world over blunt, violent plotting, but I think the narrative has got to match. What’s the point of telling the same story with higher, subtler language, unless that language can manage to reveal what we never saw before?

But maybe that’s an old question.

-Max Berwald

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A NARRATIVE ‘HOUSE OF CARDS’

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I’ve been waiting for a House of Cards remake since I saw the first of the three British miniseries back around 2000. It’s simply some of the most fun you can have watching evil work. It’s a grainy low-budget affair, but those are constraints the BBC has learned to thrive under since its birth, producing a body of work that shames that of the British film industry. While I was watching House of Cards on DVD people with better cable packages were watching The Sopranos and witnessing American subscriber TV begin its own amazing ascent in quality. It’s one that shows no sign of dropping off and which is trouncing Hollywood at everything from originality and artistry to social relevance and talent discovery. It’s doing it all with substantially lower budgets than Hollywood, and in the case of basic cable shows often with less money than the networks, which have yet to truly step up.

As Netflix attempts to leap fully formed into this new tradition of quality their first effort is a fascinating and often frustrating thing. It’s caught structurally, between the old weekly distribution model of the networks, and a new model more akin to modern video games, and also caught between its source material and its own strengths and desires. It’s fun, brilliantly acted and visually accomplished. But boy oh boy, that story…

(Your spoiler forecast is light, with a few scattered references to events throughout the whole of the season, and some implicit clues about the British series and its sequels. All in all it should be a pleasant trip for everyone regardless of what they’ve seen.)

The keystone of modern quality television is serialized storytelling and NetFlix’s Whole-Season-At-Once distribution model has the potential to be a uniquely elegant expression of the trust in serialization that’s been slowly and often excruciatingly developed between producers and viewers since the beginning of TV. With it we’re trusted not only to follow stories from episode to episode, but to pace our own premiere schedule and arrange our own re-reruns.

The best immediately obvious benefit of this is that we’re never asked to sit though a “Previously On” or squint suspiciously at a potentially spoiler laden preview of what’s coming next week. But aside from a couple of winks at the audience’s newfound power of instant gratification and the deliberately light touch it uses to develop its B-plots in the early hours, nothing in House of Cards gives a strong indication of having been tailored for this model. This is disappointing but probably inevitable since the show was originally pitched to the cable networks and not conceived as a season-length Netflix marathon. And so when the show’s writing fails it does so not through audacious attempts at a new sort of storytelling but from traditional weaknesses in the quality of its ideas and the skill with which it’s been adapted from its source.

I’m happy to give a pass to the one or two absolutely painful lines of dialog which seem to come with each episode, as well as the already old-fashioned “Blogs vs. Newspapers” sub-plot in the early going, and the fact that, when compared to the rest of the cast, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is speaking in not merely his own dialect or idiom, but in his own southern gothic novel. I’m not sure that the last is even a flaw. No; what’s immediately and persistently disappointing about the story is that it doesn’t pace itself well. It wastes time when it has it, short changes ideas it shouldn’t, and starts sprinting too late in the game to make up for its occasional losses of momentum.

The writers, lead by Beau Willimon, have taken as their basis a book adapted with acclaim into four hours of British TV and seemingly decided to expand its plot across this 13 hour season, and a second season already in production (although given that the plot of the second series of the British trilogy has no analogue in American politics they have to do their own plotting to set-up a third season).

For the most part, this expansion results in obvious seams and stretch marks. Some of it works beautifully however. In the British series the character of Francis Urquhart’s wife is largely a confidant, but here Claire Underwood is an individual who passionately assists her husband’s vicious style of politics while having the personal ambition and pride to occasionally be a dangerous competitor. It’s a bright move, and Robin Wright’s performance floats high above the writing’s occasional faults. (One of the show’s few unforgivable mistakes is to set up the impression that Claire and Frank are habitually plotting the details of his coup together off camera, then hinge a crucial plot turn on her feeling left out of his plans.)

Corey Stoll puts on an equally admirable show as Pete Russo, a congressmen whose vices quickly land him under Frank’s thumb. The role is analogous to the original series’ Roger O’Neill and here again the writers do a fine job of expanding the character’s scope. Some of what O’Neill is forced to do is much nastier and cruel than anything that falls to Russo, but Russo’s actions have higher stakes and they propel his story arc nicely as it helps to support the second half of the season. But neither of these much improved characters factor significantly in the final act of the original series and it’s there that its American cousin runs into its worst pacing problems while trying to deliver a meaningful climax modeled after the start of the original’s final act while still making time for characters it has expanded or invented.

Early on Frank tells us that ideology is for “armchair generals”. It’s something he says he has no use for it as someone trying to get things done in the halls of Congress. This is all spit out with Underwood’s usual grim verve during a rushing walk-and-talk soliloquy and so it’s easy to miss it for what it is: A statement of purpose that alternately guides and haunts the show. Because the biggest problem with the show’s story is that its politics are too simplistic to get away with being so toothless.

What does Frank want out of all his congressional knife fighting? He says that he wants power, as opposed to the money that comes from being a lobbyist, because power is what endures. The show doggedly references a metaphorical idea of power as a enduring building, without giving us any substantive idea of what Frank would do with the power he craves. One of the show’s best early hours has Frank going back to his home district. It’s an episode that screams PADDING!!! but it manages to be an effective and memorable episode largely because it provides one of the only examples of what Frank does in the world at large with his power. As the show’s favorite metaphor had already suggested: He’s built something.

Having once championed the construction of a water tower in the shape of a peach in his district in South Carolina he returns to stop the latest effort to tear it down (It’s a vividly feminine peach, shall we say, hence the objections). In the context of the episode it makes perfect sense that we don’t even fully understand why the peach was even built in the first place. It’s a marvelous emblem of pork barrel politics and as a part of the foundation of the political power Frank has built for himself it makes sense that he vehemently defends it. (Later we see Frank using this same foundational strategy by attacking the power plants a billionaire tycoon built his fortune with, even though the plants are merely a fraction of his current empire.) It’s a great character building moment but as there’s no strong ideological bent to the local politics of the peach we still don’t learn much about what Frank wants to do with the power he seeks.

This lack of ideology is pervasive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that past the second episode the Republican party functionally doesn’t exist in House of Cards. With a majority in the House and Senate it’s understandable that we see the Democratic leadership as confident and introverted but we should still expect some sense of their across the aisle wrangling in the Senate: Gathering Republican co-sponsors, guiding the education bill through committees, breaking filibuster attempts. As House Whip none of this would be strictly Frank’s concern, but having him ignore this side of the politics of legislation makes Frank’s reach, his challenges, and his ambitions, seem smaller. Worse it makes the show’s universe less real. And this is a show that wants to be seen as real.

It’s rare enough for a political show to explicitly identify its parties by name, and even rarer for a show to portray the Democratic Party not as ardent liberals, but as the center-right party of Clinton and Obama. These are decent stabs at reality. But the writers never challenge themselves to uncover the dramatic potential in their starkly centrist version of Washington. And with David Fincher establishing the visual tone of your series you better be interested in exploring heightened drama.

The original House of Card’s Francis Urquhart is one of the great screen villains. So far it’s hard to fear Frank Underwood. I wouldn’t vote for him, or let him pet my dog, but I wouldn’t start fortifying my house against FEMA Stormtroopers if he were sitting in the White House either. A Machiavellian approach to the political process doesn’t single-handedly make for a memorable villain and it hasn’t for at least 400 years. Perhaps as a liberal it might be impossible for me to loath a villain bent on creating some leftist mandatory utopia in exactly the same way I loathed the Tory authoritarian wet-dream that was Urquhart’s United Kingdom, but I’d have loved to see the writers try.

If the minds behind House of Cards are building something truly great it’s difficult to see its foundation here in this solidly entertaining but somewhat slight season. There are a few potential clues that Frank might be something of a foreign policy hawk, and so I’ll be happy if a future season ever has him dusting off Douglass McArthur’s plans to preemptively nuke the China seaboard, but anything as audaciously villainous as that would stand to work a lot better if it had been properly foreshadowed here. If we aren’t supposed to fear what Frank is going to do with the power he’s seeking then this show isn’t House of Cards, it’s something that’s already wasted a lot of talent trying to be House of Cards, when it’s more interested in being something else.

-Chris Dobbins

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