I’m So Excited is prefaced by the notion that the film is a fictitious account, with no semblance to reality. It’s an odd and unnecessary disclaimer provided that this is the director of such lavish pieces of dramatic camp and horror like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and The Skin I Live In. Yet even the film’s Spanish soap-opera opening involving cameo appearances from Almodóvar regulars Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz bares a jarringly regressive sense of humor from the director. Feeling more akin to his early 80s work while possessing the beautiful rigid formalism of his most recent work, I’m So Excited , Almodóvar’s 20th film, brings the director back to his roots.Read More
Since I’ve shifted my blog to account for my contemporary cinema viewings, I’ve neglected to write about the many films I’ve seen at home. And well, there have been a lot of them. Given that these early months tend to leave a lot to be desired in the cinema, I figured I could introduce a new column that focuses solely on my at-home viewings. I won’t delve too deeply into any particular picture like I do with my Essential Series column, instead I’m just offering a little snip it of the sorts of films I’m checking out nowadays.
With this week’s column, I shifted gears and looked into some newer pictures, stepping out from my 30s cinema project for a moment.
I’ve never read Robert Cormier’s young adult novel, which initially puts me at a disadvantage for accepting the material explored in Keith Gordon’s adaptation. It’s a difficult premise to fully accept, as a young man becomes the subject of bullying and social scrutiny when he refuses to take part in the annual chocolate sale at his private school. There’s an air of implausibility of most of the plot, which involves a corrupted priest exercising capitalist ambitions and a secret tribunal society of privileged students. The surrealist nature of the picture is aided by Gordon’s own directorial presence, which borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. With excellent cinematography from Tom Richmond and sharp editing by Jeff Wishengrad, The Chocolate War is a surprisingly effective display of filmmaking technique. Gordon gives the picture a particularly somber feel. His style and the material operate on very different levels, therein projecting an oddity of a picture in tone. Still, The Chocolate War is a film that subverts expectations and has the formal elegance to make its surrealist material have genuine emotional strength.
My admiration for Pedro Almodóvar’s films started from the moment that I saw Talk to Her a few years ago. And as I watched films like Volver and All About My Mother, I realized that his work speaks to a very specific demographic. I continued to admire his work, but something about it just never wholly clicked for me. That is until I saw 2011’s The Skin I Live In, which utilizes genre tropes to tell an incredibly shocking story. It reignited my passion in the director, as his formal elegance managed to finally coalesce with a narrative that I could really give myself to.
With Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, one of Almodóvar’s earliest works, I see him refining the sort of style that he utilized to great effect in All About My Mother. It’s a colorful film with a compelling cast of character driven by a feminine perspective. Like with Volver and All About My Mother , it doesn’t work for me on a narrative level. But like the aforementioned films, Almodóvar’s ability to structure shots with so much depth is enough to make the film more than its plot lets on. Thematically, the film fits right in with Almodóvar’s oeuvre as a film that sees women trying to overcome masculine restraints. With melodrama to spare, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown can be filed under films that I admire, though don’t embrace.
At two and a half hours, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a perplexing feature. Its opening hour is paced awkwardly. On one level, it bares the sort of visual composition of a Stanley Kubrick film. But with its rapid cuts and moving camera, these images connect under the basic principles of Spielberg’s technique. It’s jarring at first, but as the film progresses, you really do become immersed in the philosophy and ideas that the film provokes. And the density of its material is surprising – there’s a lot to mull over during and after the picture. Among Kubrick’s oeuvre, it’s ranks with 2001: A Space Odyssey in its philosophical musings. But in Spielberg’s hands, he manages to streamline the narrative to make it an incredibly accessible picture. While I’ve often been critical of Spielberg’s work, his ability to tell a simple and compelling story in a straightforward manner is his strongest asset. The problem is that a lot of his stories are straightforward to begin with. It’s only with films where he deals with broader material, particularly Jaws and Close Encounter of the Third Kind, is he able to really impress me.
The film is not without its flaws. The opening and closing sequences, which seem to be the most scrutinized by reviewers, stand as my favorite scenes in the picture. It’s odd how these sequences were initially noted as the Spielbergian influences on the picture, yet they strike me as the sort of decisions that Kubrick would have made. A scene involving Haley Joel Osment laughing at a dinner table felt too abstract for someone like Spielberg to have come up with on his own. It’s the middle sections that I have the most trouble with, as the film’s (well, Spielberg’s) reliance on special effects strike didn’t connect with me. Despite that issue, I found the picture to be a truly refined piece of filmmaking. Labeled as a Kubrick work, it’s about a mid-tier effort. But as a Spielberg effort, this dark, daring, and contemplative picture is his finest film to date.
A theme of transitioning and great loss seems to arise from most of my favorite films of 2011. Whether it be a mother transitioning to normalcy after the loss of a family or a loner sex addict transitioning to a brother role, the year’s best films have seen characters contend with moments of great duress. Sometimes that character overcomes, sometimes they don’t. Other times, it’s left to the audience to decipher an ambiguous ending.
The world has ended on a multitude of occasions, as this time, it was our great directors that questioned our position in the world. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia visualized the coming apocalypse with the greatest intensity, but filmmakers like Jeff Nichols and Terrence Malick astutely tied images of the beginning and end of the world with a personal story of kinship on a literal and spiritual level.
The end of the world came from a widespread pandemic in Contagion. It also operated through the government, as seen in Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss. In both cases, the deceased left a permanent mark on the living.
It was a banner year for documentaries, as Herzog’s aforementioned film and Cave of Forgotten Dreams dealt with our own morality in a literal and figurative sense. Steve James’ The Interrupters questioned the conditions of which we live, wherein Chicago’s south side functions as less a home and more of a warzone. Asif Kapadia’s Senna brought to the forefront how a man’s legacy can be defined by the way he confronts death on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Errol Morris’ Tabloid proves just how silly our preoccupations of celebrity can really be. All five films rejected the sort of narrative gimmickry that became a staple of 2010’s documentaries, such as Exit Through the Gift Shop or Catfish.
This embrace of formal narrative storytelling seeped into the world of fiction, as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen and Michel Hazanavicius told fairly traditional stories that embraced films of old. In Hugo, The Artist, and Midnight in Paris there’s a rich appreciation for pioneer filmmakers, the silent age of film, and a bygone era.
There were plenty of fascinating films that touched upon a contemporary note. George Clooney’s The Ides of March was dismissed as having nothing new to say. It’s unfortunate, as the film evoked more a spirit of a time rather than attempted to tread new ground – for that, it was remarkably successful. One can accuse Bennett Miller’s Moneyball for being dated in its observations, but like The Ides of March, the narrative is mined out of a personal story within the larger arch.
Smaller films dwelled in a vast emotional terrain, as seen in Sean Durkin’s haunting debut feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, where a wounded young woman confronts her demons while attempting to reconcile lingering issues with her sister. Mike Mills’ Beginners delicately spoke to the echoing affect that our parents relationships can have on our own. Similarly, Azazel Jacobs’ Terri illustrated how the absence of parental guidance can prohibit a boy’s social growth.
Like any year, there are films that I unfortunately was not able to see. Roman Polanski’s Carnage, Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, and Oren Moverman’s Rampart were among some of the many films that I had eagerly wanted to see but were not available to me. Regardless, all those films, along with several other late releases, will be coming my way in the coming months.
And despite missing out on several films, narrowing it all down to ten proved to be a difficult feat. Indeed, it was so difficult that I had to improvise with a rather convenient tie to start off my list. I typically avoid doing such a thing, but it was such a great year for film that I really couldn’t avoid it. So let’s begin.
There’s a fine line that divides The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Shame. Fincher’s film, like most of his other work, dwells in the world of obsession, where violence upon women is commonplace. On the other spectrum, McQueen’s picture studies the fabric of sex addiction, where a man uses women (and other men) to feed into his obsession. Fincher and McQueen both utilize a chilly perspective in looking at their characters, wherein a cold detachment from both directors heightens the lingering trauma that resides in their central characters. Both films scantly bring you in for warmth, but when they do, there’s a grand emotional consequence for letting you in.
3D filmmaking remains a work in progress, but what Martin Scorsese achieved in Hugo offers a certain level of validation for the technology. Scorsese’s swift hand and keen eye uses the technology to broaden your perspective, as the world that he creates is rich in detail. The train station that the title character inhabits breathes in its storybook enchantment. The whole feature feels like a spectacle, though is wisely grounded with an enamoring narrative about the importance of film preservation. Despite being an excellent craftsman, I’ve always been a bit resistant to Scorsese’s more recent pictures. But with Hugo, the filmmaker surprises me by showing me how humane he can be in a world of magical cinematic reverence.
Pedro Almodóvar’s films tend to dwell on the nature of gender and the roles one adopts from birth. Despite usually exhibiting flamboyant melodrama, all his previous pictures tended to be grounded in a sort of reality. With The Skin I Live In, Almodóvar dabbles in genre filmmaking, wherein the reality of the narrative is foggy. The minor tonal tweak is enough to make for his best film to date, as The Skin I Live In demonstrates a surreal quality whilst maintaining Almodóvar’s thematic and visual tendencies. There’s a palpable sense of loss that lingers throughout the picture, even if you haven’t figured out why. Wisely constructed as a jigsaw puzzle, The Skin I Live In is the sort of exhilarating piece of cinema that widens your eyes in stunned awe.
Stylish internalization is the best way that I can describe Nicholas Winding Refn’s filmmaking approach. On paper, Drive is a simple picture that has been done before. But under Refn’s precise eye, the film become can be both bombastic and subdued. The Los Angeles backdrop pulsates, even as its main character remains stoic. And as the simmer turns into a boil, Drive escalates its stylistic violence to an incredible degree. Despite not being the sort of film I gravitate toward, Drive excels at merely simply having presence – it’s the sort of picture that gets stuck in your head like a pop song.
Submarine presents an interesting alternative to the sort of British filmmaking that Edgar Wright introduced in his television show Spaced and Shaun of the Dead - that’s to say, Richard Ayoade has modified Wright’s dry wit and jarring (though effective) stylism to emphasize loneliness. Wright’s films have flourished when parodying genre filmmaking (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) or adapting a graphic novel (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), but there’s a distinct absence of emotional gravity to the proceedings. Richard Ayoade’s effort addresses that absence by utilizing Wright’s sensibilities within the context of a coming-of-age story. Despite the familiar material, the whole picture comes together with such style, ushering a fresh and exciting writer-director in the process.
Midnight in Paris was the summer film that evoked the greatest sense of wonder and glee. Following a career low-point in 2010 with You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, Allen leaves the London-scape for Paris, where he mines for his richest material in years. While Midnight in Paris remains true to Allen’s tendencies for repetition, it nevertheless remains a magical experience. Recalling a narrative like The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight in Paris views 1920’s Paris with nostalgic reverence, with subtle jabs through in here and there. With Owen Wilson operating as the best Woody Allen-proxy in years, Midnight in Paris marks Woody Allen’s finest achievement since 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose.
“How’re you gonna live your dash?” It’s a line that’s uttered near the end of Into the Abyss and serves to underscore the sense of hopelessness that prevails throughout the picture. Werner Herzog, who is known for his rather surreal and poetic manner of speech, remains startlingly muted throughout most of the documentary, wherein he interviews death row inmates, executioners, and family of the murdered. Their “dash”, the line between their birth and death date, is filled with sorrow. And throughout Into the Abyss, that sense of sorrow is felt with such profundity and shock. It’s not just shock about why people murder – its shock about the society that exercises it as a ritual, without ever analyzing the social conditions that contribute to such wrongdoing. Not even Werner Herzog seems to know what to say when staring at the eyes of a man facing death. I don’t think I would either.
At one point, The Tree of Life didn’t seem like it would ever be realized. Year after year, the picture would be promised, only for its release date to be pushed back. And then it came. The film obviously rubs people the wrong way – it’s incredibly dense and subscribes to a Christian ideology that alienates viewers. But coming from a secular position, The Tree of Life’s density is a strength, its Christian perspective a personal one. The outlook that Malick adopts may be tied to a divinity, but the overall compassionate tone of the picture transcends religion – it really does serve as an analysis of humanism. From its visualization of the origin of the universe to its delicate handling of a family in crisis, The Tree of Life has ambition to spare. But what Malick achieves with the picture remains nothing short of a spectacle.
What Terrence Malick achieves in The Tree of Life on the macro level, Jeff Nichols achieves in Take Shelter on the micro level. Working with Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, Jeff Nichols carefully constructs a portrait of a family in great duress, wherein a man’s visions of the coming apocalypse is costing him his family. The sort of imagery that Shannon envisions – of storm clouds pouring motor oil, of his child being kidnapped following a car crash – is constructed with such relentless tension and fear. But with visions of a great storm growing in intensity, it’s Shannon’s family that remains strong by his side, affirming a sense of unity between husband and wife.
In a year where films have transported us through time and detailed the creation of the Earth, no film has left me so emotionally drained and viscerally engaged as Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin.
There is indeed a lot to talk about. We could talk about how Lionel Shriver’s novel, which is comprised of verbose correspondence from a wife to her husband, is fragmented into a kaleidoscopic picture of greater intensity. As an adapted screenplay, Lynne Ramsay bravely analyzes the context of the novel, wherein its protagonist recalls her life through memory. Ramsay astutely visualizes the concept of memory by fragmenting her narrative, leaving the audience to piece together the pieces.
We could talk about the rich sound design of the picture, which assaults the viewer with a great sense of fear through the mundanity of suburban life – a curtain blowing in the wind and a sprinkler echo with greater meaning than anyone could imagine. With Ramsay’s eclectic taste in music, she infuses We Need to Talk About Kevin with a edgier tone. Her choice in music serves to give the audience some time to breathe, as the main character’s emotional plight assaults you from all angles.
We could talk about Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller. The two actors give incredibly naked performances, delicately exposing each other’s emotional weaknesses throughout the picture. The fragmented nature of the narrative works against the two, especially since the film is very much a directorial essay. But the two manage to register on such a kinetic that hypnotizes audiences.
There’s much to mull over in We Need to Talk About Kevin. In the end, one can look at parenthood under a different lens. Or perhaps, it all remains intact. Blood serves as a great bond. We’re all united to something or someone that we are expected to love – even if we might not want to be.
There are two crucial scenes of rape in The Skin I Live In that establish the galvanizing importance of time in Almodóvar’s sexy new film. The Skin I Live In inhabits a cinemascape that borrows heavily from films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, with a sprinkle of physical horror in the vein of David Cronenberg for good measure. But within the film’s many nods, you find yourself immersed in a world that is purely Almodóvar with its lush visual set pieces, intense melodrama, and sexually dubious characters.
The Skin I Live In is difficult to grasp initially; from the onset, we’re introduced to a young woman named Vera (Elena Anaya as she channels a young Irene Jacob). In a posh mansion, she is held captive as she’s delivered meals through a dumbwaiter. She dons a tan full-body suit; she wears the garment as if it were a second skin. Dr. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) gazes at her image via surveillance video with the utmost attention. Why Vera is confined and why Robert looks on is left open initially; we’re placed into their world without a greater sense of the narrative arc that is soon to come. As the pieces are placed together, and as the first of two rapes occur, we are thrust into a back story that is so rich, riveting, and rewarding that Almodóvar rarely relents in escalating the tension.
While one can say Almodóvar is too dependent on a piece of narrative gimmickry to move from his preliminary arc to the next, I’d say the springboard to from the not-too-distant future to the not-too-distant past is so efficiently put into practice that it hardly matters at all. We move from a narrative that is largely based on the relationship between Robert and Vera to one involving Robert, his daughter, and a man named Vicente (Jan Cornet). What follows is the unification of two very distinct narrative threads that have been expertly sewn together with such precision and attention to detail.
I’ve also been a bit resistant to Almodóvar’s work. I’ve cautiously embraced films like All About My Mother and Talk to Her; though it’s odd since I’ve felt that he touches upon a lot of what I like about films. The way Almodóvar neutralizes gender and comments on ascribed notions of sexuality have always been effective, with The Skin I Live In most overtly realizing the issue. But what makes The Skin I Live In my favorite of his films is the implicit horror of it all. The film genuinely thrills while exercising characteristic Almodóvar qualities i.e., the melodrama, the humor, the visual allure. The overall effect of Almodóvar delving into a genre specific terrain is mesmerizing and allows the man to tinker with conventions unlike ever before.
As I think about the Almodóvar films I’ve seen, I have to really think about why I don’t embrace his work more. His sensibilities really do befit mine. He has a very particular stylistic approach that is visually stimulating yet never overbearing. Almodóvar’s writing blends humor with melodrama in an effective manner, maintaining an impressive scale between characters and community – he really is a terrific writer (this being based entirely on All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002) and Volver (2006)). He neutralizes gender to the point where the lines between them are not clearly defined, and often does so as a means to comment on ascribed notions of sexuality. He seems to actively hit at my tendencies to look at films through a sociological lens. So why is it that I can’t fully embrace his work? It’s not that I would say any of his films are bad, but rather, they seem to be geared toward a very specific culture that alienates my understanding – problematic as it may seem, I suppose the simple answer is that there is a cultural barrier that prevents me from fully comprehending the gravity of his melodrama.
All About My Mother begins on a somber note: Manuela (Cecilia Roth) takes her son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín) out to see a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s his seventeenth birthday, and the two decide to wait out in the rain for autographs. During their rather long wait, Manuela confesses to her son that during her acting days, she once played Stella to his father’s Stanley – up to this point in his life, Esteban had not known anything of his father. Manuela promises to tell Esteban more once they get home, but a series of events results in Esteban chasing after a car in the rain – ultimately leading to his death. The loss is devastating and elevates the material beyond melodrama – it’s a very palpable moment when Manuela decides to give up her son’s organs at the very hospital she works in.
In an effort to reconcile (and honor) her son’s death, Manuela leaves her work and goes to search for Esteban’s father to tell him the news. The journey takes Manuela to an old friend named La Agrado (Antonia San Juan) – a transvestite who used to live with Manuela and her ex-husband. From here, Manuela encounters a variety of women, including the actress who was partly responsible for her son’s death.
The relationships that Manuela forms during her period of self-discovery are interesting, though at times, some of the grander comments that I sense Almodóvar is making are lost upon me. In spite of the melodrama and the very active humor, All About My Mother is an incredibly dense and rich film. Not to say a melodrama or comedy can’t be rich, but rather, for films of that type, this is one of the most symbolically charged and difficult to outright assess. So much goes on in individual frames, with Almodóvar actively bridging the gap between imagery and dialogue – All About My Mother is truly a masterful work. Future rewatches will undoubtedly prove to be fruitful, but as for now, I can’t shake off the fact that there is a greater social framework that I’m overlooking in connecting the dots.