At the halfway point in the year, the year’s cinema has yielded a rich bounty. Expectantly, it’s the previous year’s festival holdovers that have etched a strong spot my top ten films of the year so far – with films like Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers and François Ozon’s In the House amongst the best so far. Future releases, particularly James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, have only grown in stature since my initial viewing, where I eagerly anticipate a second go.
Like any year, you take the bad with the good. And it’s been a surprisingly balanced year in terms of quality. For an excellent film like Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price, I’ve had to suffer through something like Ariel Vromen’s The Iceman. Even amongst microbudget films, the curious though overwhelmingly oblique Upstream Color pales in comparison to Dan Sallitt’s ruminative The Unspeakable Act.
To put it plainly: it’s been a good year. If the offering at Cannes is any indication, the second-half of the year will continue the trend. Or maybe I’ll have to wait another year to get to see films like Blue is the Warmest Color or The Past – hopefully that won’t be the case.
From a Portuguese film that dissects the effects of globalization through apartment buildings to the hyper-violent escapades of gangsters and vigilantes in 1950s Tinseltown this Home Movies column focuses on some of the interesting recent DVD releases of the year.
Squad (Ruben Fleisher, 2013)
There an immediate sense that something is wrong with Gangster Squad from the start. Not to say this is the thematic intent of the picture, but rather the whole general aura and way the film is designed suggests that it’s a hacked pieced of work. A victim of circumstance, the film saw numerous edits and reshoots following the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting. While a well-publicized edit saw the removal of a movie theater shoot-out from the final cut of Gangster Squad, what else could have been edited out is an unknown. And what’s left is a skeleton of a film, something so grossly out of sorts narratively that it barely makes any sense at all. The sensation that Fleisher generates is something of a video game where interest rests in the movement of caricatures and inconsequential bloodshed. Fleisher’s other films (Zombieland and 30 Minutes or Less) all fit into this style of video-game cinema, but Gangster Squad’s unrelenting sense of seriousness resists the benefits of such a hyperactive modus operandi.
Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012)
Neighboring Sounds is a film about nothing and everything. Flippantly following characters through the confines of a middle-class Brazilian neighborhood, the lingering effect of Neighboring Sounds’ narrative design offers a dichotomy of confusion and calm, anxiety and tranquility. Episodic with the only clear narrative structure based on the acquisition of a surveillance crew to monitor the neighborhood, Filho often stages his characters facing the imposing metropolitan area. It’s here where the film begins to take shape thematically. As two child characters learn both English and Mandarin, Filho’s intent appears to be something of a critical analysis on the imposing fears of globalization in middle-class Brazil. While I may not be too familiar with Brazil’s history, Filho acknowledges universal touchstones on the strains of acquiring land, the bind of familial ancestry, and the fears of a displaced cultural language. Neighboring Sounds is thoroughly engrossing though ultimately lacks clarity on its intent – for a film that progresses so organically, it fails to yield a convincing conclusion, ending on something of an arbitrary note rather than a natural one – perhaps a statement on globalization itself?
Day He Arrives (Hong Sang-soo, 2011)
Possessing an airy dreamlike aura, The Day He Arrives serves as my introduction to the work of Hong Sang-soo. The picture’s premise is simple: a film director comes back to visit friends after a prolonged absence. And the film, for the five days that it covers, sees the character involve himself with his small group of friends. But the method in which Sang-soo constructs him images possesses a surreal quality. Undoubtedly aided by the sharpness of his black-and-white photography, Sang-soo replicates scenes, tinkers with positioning, and completely does away with exposition. At times jarring, the material has an ethereal resonance as Sang-soo marries formal excellence with an enlightening dissection on how people relate to one another. Everything is of consequence, from the way people sit next to or against each other to the slightest glance. The film captures the essence of déjà-vu, along with the larger theme of past versus present, with such virtuosity. Yet it’s all conscious, with Sang-soo clearly fucking with the audience and their expectations. In a scene that initially registers as odd but becomes clear upon the film’s end, a woman essentially falls for a joke despite being told the punch line. Sang-soo overtly addresses the ensuing coincidence and narrative devices of The Day He Arrives, yet it all registers as so impactful – in a way, the joke is on me.