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Recommended New Books on Filmmaking: ‘Dunkirk,’ Stan Brakhage, ‘Valerian,’ and More

Written by Christopher Schobert, October 18, 2017 at 8:43 am 

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It’s time to catch up with some of the most interesting cinema-centric books of the last few months, and it’s a diverse list. There’s some Lego, some Nolan, some Star Wars (of course), and even some vintage Stan Brakhage. That’s range.

Off the Cliff: Making of Thelma & Louise by Becky Aikman (Penguin Press)

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The career of Ridley Scott is full of peaks and valleys. One of the peaks was the release of Thelma & Louise in 1991. The cultural impact of this story of two female outlaws cannot be overstated, and Becky Aikman’s account of the making of the film helps explain why. Thelma & Louise involved a unique cast of characters, including stars Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis, as well as a young hunk named Brad Pitt. But the most memorable figures here are Scott, who knew his career needed a change but could not originally see himself making a movie “about women talking about guys and what assholes guys can be,” and screenwriter Callie Khouri, who “liked going to the movies but hated most of what she saw.” Off the Cliff is wonderfully readable, and a reminder of how much society craves great films centered around women.

Star Wars On the Front Lines by Daniel Wallace (Titan Books) and Battlefront II: Inferno Squad by Christie Golden (Del Rey Books)

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The latest Star Wars books include On the Front Lines, which is, essentially, a history book centered around Wars’ battles. It tackles these fights — from the Battle of Naboo to the Battle of Starkiller Base — with utter seriousness. But that’s what makes the book so fun. Beautifully illustrated, it’s a handsome, clever trek through all eight films. And Battlefront II: Inferno Squad is a fun, quick read set between Rogue One and A New Hope. Fans of EA’s Battlefront game series should find it a nice addition to the Star Wars canon.

The Art of the Film: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets by Mark Salisbury (Titan Books)

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Ah, Valerian. It’s hard not to feel some affection for Luc Besson’s disastrous would-be franchise-starter. Consider the design of the film, which is nearly as accomplished as the look of The Fifth Element. Whatever one thinks of the Dane DeHaan-Cara Delevingne relationship, its visuals must be acknowledged. Hence, The Art of the Film from Titan Books. The concept art is a delight; even the main duo’s spacesuits, which don’t stand out much onscreen, inspire appreciation. However, let’s keep the look of Ethan Hawke’s pimp out of this.

The Making of Dunkirk by James Mottram (Insight Editions)

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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk deserved a handsome behind-the-scenes book, and here it is — The Making of Dunkirk, from Insight Editions. The stills are plentiful, and yes, plenty feature Harry Styles. But the on-set photography and accompanying text is what makes this so fascinating. Much of the film, of course, was shot on water, and that carries with it a number of issues. One of The Making of’s finest sections deals with this element of the production, and includes this great tidbit from first assistant director Nilo Otero: “One of the first things I said was, ‘Where are we going to do the water stuff?’ Chris said, ‘I really want to do it on the Channel.’” Otero told Nolan the experience would be “horrible,” but they battled the Channel anyway. If you’ve seen Dunkirk, you know the production difficulties were worth it.

The Lego Ninjago Movie: The Essential Guide by Julia March (DK)

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If you know a kid who has Lego Ninjago toys, he or she probably saw and loved The Lego Ninjago Movie. (My 7-year-old immediately declared it  the “best movie ever made.”) But the story of young Lloyd Garmadon, his evil father, and his ninja pals did not cross over into the mainstream like The Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie. Still, the it was as fast and funny as the earlier brick flicks, and it even had a Locke joke. (Seriously!) The Essential Guide is another handsome, photo-heavy, info-packed treat from DK. It certainly makes one appreciate the stunning attention to detail in the film, as well as some of the gags. (My favorites involve Lord Garmadon’s rightfully nervous Shark Army.)

Metaphors on Vision by Stan Brakhage (Anthology Film Archives/Light Industry)

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Avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s Metaphors on Vision has long been out of print. But the book, originally a special issue of Film Culture, has been reissued by Anthology Film Archives, and has never looked better. Filled with interviews and stunningly designed, this is one of 2017’s most essential texts. It is a “beautiful and strange object,” as the book’s French introduction called it, that is now easier to read thanks to the corrected text. It is also carefully annotated. Most impressively, this fitting textual tribute to one of the artist’s greatest works is highlighted by his own words.

Lights, Camera, Game Over by Luke Owen (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.)

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Failure is infinitely more fascinating than success. That’s good news for Lights, Camera, Game Over, since the majority of films based on video games have been colossal failures. Author Luke Owen breaks down the creation and unmaking of films like Super Mario Bros. and Wing Commander. While it might not be necessary to discuss, say, Pixels, it is still fun to ponder what made such a film once seem promising.

BONUS: Criterion’s Sid & Nancy Blu-ray features two killer commentary tracks

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The Criterion Collection DVD of Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy has been out of print for some time. The news that Criterion was releasing a new Blu-ray of the doomed romance between Sex Pistol Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen was cause for celebration. Indeed, the film has never looked or sounded better; from Roger Deakins’ cinematography to the soundtrack highlighted by Joe Strummer’s “Love Kills,” this is the version of Sid & Nancy fans have been waiting for. What also stands out are the supplements. England’s Dreaming author Jon Savage contributes a fine essay, and commentary tracks feature Gary Oldman, Chloe Webb, and Cox (among others). The two tracks were recorded in 1994 and 2001, but they are entertaining and insightful. It’a especially fun to hear Cox point out a young Deakins filming the infamous “My Way” sequence, and hearing Cox and actor Andre Schofield argue over whether London is “shite.”

See more recommended books on filmmaking.

What are you reading? Have you enjoyed any of the above picks?

Jean-Luc Godard’s Bewitchingly Self-Reflexive Midlife Crisis

Written by Kyle Pletcher, October 18, 2017 at 8:42 am 

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Emerging from his politically radical period of low-budget, didactic political commentaries with revolutionary overtones, produced primarily on 16mm or tape for television broadcast, prolific French avant-garde iconoclast Jean-Luc Godard unexpectedly returned to commercial filmmaking with Every Man for Himself, finding reinvention in the age of video — a new formal frontier for the now-middle-aged provocateur. Godard’s star-studded return to more conventional cinemas, featuring Isabelle Huppert, Nathalie Baye, and Jacques Dutronc as Paul Godard (of course), a loathsome filmmaker humiliated by having been reduced to working for a TV studio, though shy of being considered a phenomenon in France or elsewhere, was well-publicized worldwide. Uncharacteristically, the aging filmmaker promoted the film extensively, pensively referring to it as his “second first film,” a somewhat deadpan admission that, to begin again, he had to shed the baggage of his underground period. Through this mainstream amelioration began a self-reflective period of filmmaking, reverse-engineering his formal fascinations — disruptive non-linear editing, elliptical storytelling with provocative camera angles, and a cast of characters made up of deterministic, allusion-spouting ciphers — and probing them with the properties afforded by advances in video technology, an extension of Godard’s predominantly on-the-fly approach to filmmaking, in the past having utilized handheld cameras in their infancy.

Shooting and editing on video allowed for unprecedented manipulation and replay access to the filmic space from outside the space in question, a dissonance that Godard gravitates toward in Every Man by emulating the effects on 35mm and with deliberate direction. Scenarios are infused with an uneasy self-awareness, akin to the improvisational elements present in his earlier films but subsequently protracted and rewound and sped-up and slowed down with layered dissolves or perhaps voiceover — all to maximize an internalized awareness of the artifice of the frame. While Every Man was shot in 1.66:1, it found new life on TV in 1.33:1, the native aspect ratio for broadcast, which Godard would continue to work with throughout the decade. For subsequent films, analog techniques from the past are resurrected via video and techniques inspired by it, and multiple-exposures and altered frame rates are now experimental editing artifacts layered on-top of recyclable, highly malleable tape, in contrast to the tangible fragility of film stock.

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The paradox of starting over again with years of knowledge and experience is likely not lost on Godard: all of his ‘80s films deal with the filmmaker’s personal struggle to reconcile the differences of working in the demanding world of commercial television in contrast to his native arthouse cinema. Approached by television executives to contribute to a curated series of films, Série noire, alongside other notable directors, Godard seized the opportunity to make a film about his own incongruous and troubled relationship with the two mediums. Commissioned by French TV channel TF1 in 1986, Grandeur and Decadence: Rise and Fall of a Small Film Company is another irreverent installment in Godard’s bewitchingly self-reflexive midlife crisis, excavating the proclivities of a narcissistic but brilliant artist who’s past his prime and seeking to return to the past.

Pitched as an adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s pulp novel The Soft Centre, it ostensibly chronicles the “rise and fall of a small film company,” a subtitle that only becomes apparent nearly 20 minutes in, as frequent cutaways to black slides with white text separately bearing the film’s title and the subtitle’s subject and predicate before they’re combined into a cohesive whole. These textual impositions reappear throughout as chapter headers-of-sorts emphatically underline a particular concept: “The Omnipotence of Television,” “An Old Story,” and even a lengthy musical interlude about “The Mercedes” set to Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz.”

A filmmaker with a dogged temper, Gaspard Bazin (Jean-Pierre Léaud, so absurdly erratic that at one point he changes sweaters mid-conversation) directs for a French TV studio, producing increasingly bizarre adaptations of banal crime novels and spectacularly losing his mind in the process, holding maddeningly tedious casting calls where those who audition individually recite subjects and predicates from Grandeur and Decadence’s own source material; each variation likened to that of a “wave” in a story’s “ocean.” Bazin used to make “cinema,” a term so offhandedly invoked in the work of Godard’s heyday, here treated as a taboo or sore reminder of times past, only spoken of by its castoffs in private — in dimly lit night cafes and second-class apartments. Among these exiles are Jean Almereyda (played by director Jean-Pierre Mocky), something of a confidant and an intellectual rival to Bazin, nevertheless bonded through their mutual atrophy, and his wife, Eurydice (Marie Valera), a failed screen actress trying to break into TV, seeing working with Bazin as her best chance before things start to fall apart.

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As is par for the course with Godard, the main narrative thread is often lost, dropped, and then recovered as the film flits through ideas ranging from the influence of the televisual medium on the future of cinema to the effects of cultural reproduction brought on by mass production of videos, CDs, and reprinted art and literature in the form of countless reissues. Gaspard Bazin — whose namesake, Andre Bazin, wrote extensively on the conceptual groundwork of the reproductive nature of cinema — at one point is in one of his irritable moods and tries to write but can only seem to do so in peace as long as the Bob Dylan song he’s playing on cassette loops through a particular section, prompting him to have to repeatedly run to the back of the room and manually reset the tape. Another time, he finally lets down his guard with his stalwart partner and passionately embraces her before launching into an egomaniacal test, asking her to count the characters present in paintings such as Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, loudly disagreeing with her answers as the film shows only portions of the pieces and positions them out of order. Adding to the temporal disconnect, Godard himself even shows up at one point, only to discuss Roman Polanski’s inflated budget for a TV movie with Almereyda and impart cryptic, portentous koans such as “Everything goes backwards: fashion, politics, and therefore cinema.” Drenched with deadpan humor, these are welcome diversions in a work that, though utilizing non-linear editing structures, follows a generally linear plot progression.

Bazin and Almereyda are mixed up in a real-world crime so absurdly opaque that it resembles fiction, so silly it might as well have been written on a napkin — a group of rogues involved in pseudo-espionage, nabbing important “documents,” finding missing “German marks,” and having clandestine meetings at train stations. Eventually, Almereyda, clad in drag, is revealed to have been in on the robbery all along, or so it seems, and is trying to double-cross his mainly unseen compatriots. They catch on and ominously declare that the proverbial “train station” is waiting for Almereyda as they close in on him. Cut to the police finding all of their bodies in a Mercedes Benz parked outside of Almereyda’s office. Bazin is questioned, but the authorities conclude that he doesn’t fit the type. Bazin is relieved and offended. He visits an electronics store and is able to see and listen to recordings of Almereyda over the equipment, a disconnect that hits hard as Léaud anchors the edgy character in another moment of vulnerability and wistful remorse. Bazin is reduced to participating in the same inane casting calls he used to run, except some of his crew are working for the office’s new occupants, humiliating him even further when his answer to the free-form audition is from Almereyda. Nonetheless, Bazin is able to return home to his partner and child. As he embraces his son and puts him on his shoulders, the frame freezes, becoming a moment eternally paused in time, and then the film ends.

From a glance, Grandeur and Decadence is interested in ideas similar to those in Godard’s other work from the ‘80s — such as Passion, which explored the reproduction of art through striking replications of famous tableaux vivant — but its quality should not be undermined by its relative obscurity. Take Bazin’s casting calls as an example: treating them like an assembly line, amateur actors delivering lines from deliberately assigned cue cards, effectively measuring the separation between reality and fiction indirectly, through sheer repetition. The film is not one of tedium save for when it’s done humorously so, such as with the flagrant references to Bazin and even Rocky IV. What results is a fascinating satire of the toxic masculinity and egos of the TV industry, and a self-deprecating reflection on Godard’s own sense of personal fracture. Grandeur and Decadence is a key entry in Godard’s transition back to commercial filmmaking, helping establish a new period of existential, autobiographical filmmaking influenced by the ontological questions brought on by advancements in filmmaking technology.

Grandeur and Decadence screened at the 2017 New York Film Festival.

Posterized October 2017: ‘The Florida Project,’ ‘Wonderstruck,’ ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer,’ and More

Written by Jared Mobarak, October 7, 2017 at 8:35 am 

“Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” is a proverb whose simple existence proves the fact impressionable souls will do so without fail. This monthly column focuses on the film industry’s willingness to capitalize on this truth, releasing one-sheets to serve as not representations of what audiences are to expect, but as propaganda to fill seats. Oftentimes they fail miserably.


Despite only having four Fridays, October 2017 is jam-packed with films. And so many of their studios apparently like boxes. Tiny boxes, big boxes, boxes forming shapes, and boxes in frames. Whether it’s the uninspired Marshall (open October 13) grid (link) overshadowing its predecessor’s starkly bold frame (link) or The Meyerowitz Stories (limited October 13) cribbing off the lo-fi aesthetic of old album covers with film still boxes (link), the boredom is mind-numbingly intense. Add Suburbicon‘s (open October 27) not so cute irregular grid (link) and these things start to make Blade Runner 2049‘s (open October 6) blue and orange palette over totem portraiture look interesting by comparison (link).

Sadly so few selections actually intrigue. At least eight of the ones below deserve mention, so not all hope is lost. But when Professor Marston & the Wonder Women (open October 13) rejects its comic birthright for JC Penney studio backdrops (link), it’s tough to remain wholly optimistic.


The Allspark strikes again

Hasbro is reinvigorating another of its toy lines into a potential film franchise this month with My Little Pony: The Movie (open October 6)—not to be confused with the 1986 edition that utilized the same title. Did you know it was coming out? I sure didn’t. Not one trailer passed my eyes via TV or internet despite the traffic of like-minded fare such as Trolls blanketing media everywhere last year. By the looks of the posters, maybe the studio put all their eggs in the print media basket instead.

I’ve collected four character sheets from seven different styles here. Seven. Another popped up after I began writing and there’s surely more besides that. LA did most if not all of the disparate aesthetics spanning kaleidoscope, neon lights, watery drip graffiti, anime, geometric cutouts, and comic book. There’s something for everyone.

The question: why? You would assume this property is targeting young children and yet they have no use for infinite styles that may or may not look like the actual movie animation or the dolls they own. I have to therefore believe the studio is targeting the nostalgia factor of its first generation of fans from the 80s as well as the contemporary subculture known as “bronies.” These series obviously appeal to an older crowd who may want to see what the film is all about more than their kids. Bravo if it works.

Personally I would have just stuck to the main sheets with their sparkling Lucky Charms marshmallow of a title icon and their literal representations of the characters. I’m not sure why one has the ponies looking like mermaids, but what do I know? They may be busy as far as sheer content, but each is much simpler in context than the psychedelic onslaught of hypnotic color above.


A nostalgic filter

Who doesn’t love an ugly sweater come Christmas time? The Refinery certainly doesn’t as evidenced by their creating one especially for Better Watch Out‘s (limited October 6) teaser. It’s a fun trope to utilize (see Sightseers) with room to add relevant motifs (Where’s the paint can?) and a whole lot of charm. A few blood spots here and there show we’re in for a horror-tinged and comedic experience—so do what the title says.

Unfortunately you can’t really do much with it beyond calling card. There’s enough here to put the title in your mind (it’s original name was Safe Neighborhood), but nothing to truly grab you. I’m not certain its successors do either, though.

The first is cookie-cutter with any old headless model wearing the sweater with a festive “Lucille” in his hands. While a slight lilt remains, the tone is definitely shifting to more serious territory. The proof comes in the final poster putting fear front and center. All humor is excised in order to showcase the two leads poised to fight back against whomever seeks to scare. Considering I found the film a bit unsure of itself as far as handling the tonal shifts with precision, I’m not surprised the marketing follows suit. It’s a shame that choosing one or the other can never do the film justice.

While Better Watch Out used a generic motif with its sweater, you can’t call it a copycat. No, that label is reserved for Iconisus L&Y – Visual Communication Systems’ Thank You For Your Service (open October 27). Not only is the film still with solid color at top and bottom for text a tired choice, the flag overlay can’t help but conjure Born on the Fourth of July. They are quite literally the same poster.

Does that mean it’s a flat out failure? No. If anything it improves upon the Oliver Stone advert by scaling back the gaudy text patterns and minimizing the words. You have your celebrity star spotlight, your stark white title, and your flourish of red to catch the eye while also soaking into the background’s black. And who knows? Maybe the comparison will actually sell a few extra tickets.

For P+A’s Breathe (limited October 13), the similarities to other sheets is less overt but no less prevalent. You can come up with tons of examples utilizing a sweet embrace washed out by a blaring sun, but you don’t have to go too far to find one that shares a color palette and a tree. Look no further than MIDNIGHT OIL’s A United Kingdom from earlier this year to see a sunset wash of exotic desert, the romance working overtime.

With that said, however, I do think this iteration is better than its others. It could be that I’m just done with the whole translucent text over faces trope, but this next one is extra annoying due to the alternating of line length. I felt seasick reading through it, like my body was swaying out to read the big words and in to read the small. It’ll make you dizzy.

Luckily the final rendition on this image does away with the vertigo. Sadly it throws the kitchen sink in with long critic blurbs, accolade-ready cast highlights, and a collage of stills with no purpose beyond unnecessary distraction. At least that first one had style in its composition and focus on its subject. This one is all over the place.

And that brings us to The Secret Scripture (limited October 13) and its washed out antique of a sepia-toned memory trapped as photo. I like this one because of its unique visual texture that actually muffles what we see instead of making it “pop.” And I really love the austere title block with its expansively kerned all-caps serif forming a pyramid to house a squeezed tight point of stylish lowercase script. It’s a perfect complement of sharp lines and vintage feel to accompany the aged beauty of love.

My affinity may be a result of its mirroring the atmospheric choices of another Rooney Mara picture in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and that’s okay. If you’re going to crib off of something, make it good. But my fondness could also stem from nothing more than the fact that its sibling is so disappointing. Its collage of faces is out of proportion, the shadows are made darker by its use of deeply saturated greens, and the title is all business without a shred of nuance. Love is destroyed for the potential of espionage-based thrills. Its utter lack of character makes me weep.

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‘Blade Runner’ and the Fluid Canvas of Ridley Scott’s Sci-Fi Masterpiece

Written by Eli F., October 5, 2017 at 3:58 pm 

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As Ridley Scott lives and breathes — and lord knows he will, so long as there are more Alien prequels to be made — there is always the chance that Blade Runner: The Final Cut‘s title may yet become anachronistic. But for going on ten years now, the seventh distinct full-length cut of Scott’s magnum opus has fulfilled its promise of being the last word on Blade Runner. Released in 2007, this version of the iconic 1982 sci-fi film mixes and matches various scenes and edits from multiple previous editions, while digitally tweaking the visual effects, colors, and audio mixing in preparation for Blade Runner‘s inaugural release in high-definition formats. Out of the many previous incarnations, The Final Cut most closely resembles Scott’s 1992 Director’s Cut, with some subtle but noteworthy modifications.

Though the film is based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and adapted by screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples (the former of whom co-wrote the Denis Villeneuve-directed Blade Runner 2049, out this weekend), Ridley Scott has been very particular in claiming and exercising ownership over the film in the 35 years since its release. It is interesting to note that Scott, in his many revisits of Blade Runner, appears to share much of George Lucas’s philosophical approach to editing and digital technologies — that a film is less solid object than fluid canvas, an ongoing work subject to the auteur’s evolving whims and the advancing technological means by which he may choose to implement them. Yet Scott has not faced nearly the same level of popular backlash in the face of such a revisionist approach to his own work. He seems to realize, perhaps only too keenly, that Blade Runner is unquestionably his masterpiece — the greatest piece of cinema he has ever or will ever make. And, like Lucas, perhaps his role is best described not as “director,” but “architect.”

Blade Runner‘s great accomplishment is the creation of a world. Before a single line of dialogue is spoken, before any image is seen, and even before an individual name is assigned to any character, the film dramatically announces its subject and its heart at the conclusion of the opening titles: LOS ANGELES, 2019. Every subsequent frame is an exotic tapestry of light, shadow, metal, and stone so inconceivably dense in composition as to defy comprehension at a glance from the eyes of ordinary, organically grown humans. It exists outside of time and space: people and places, hairstyles, music, and towering, brand-name holograms are unmistakable products of the 1980s yet simultaneously alien and distant, a few steps removed from recognizable history — Replicants of our world. Human figures (and tragically humanoid imitations) may wander the overcast streets of “LOS ANGELES, 2019,” but it is the city itself –wrathful, melancholy, violent and weeping — that consumes the experience. Likewise, the classically terse noir plot that creates structure is ultimately a mere skeleton for something more mystical, eerie, and transcendental.

Perhaps Scott’s “Final Cut,” then, was made with a sensitivity to aesthetic pleasures and emotional highlights brought about by decades of hindsight. For one thing, the very medium of high-definition home video does considerable good for the film. This is a work that simply is not experienced in a single viewing, but in multiple returns to its ambiguous world; to not be able to watch it over and over again on home media is just not enough. To not experience its overwhelming compositions in high definition is also insufficient — indeed, one can almost see why Blade Runner was not as appreciated by audiences and critics in its time as it is now.

But it is Scott’s obsessive personal touches that provoke, frustrate, and delight. With every subsequent edition under his purview he has accentuated the heart of his own vision for the material, sometimes to the exclusion of other interpretations. The original 1982 cut, which Scott emphatically denounced as quickly as he was able, contains a pulpy first-person voiceover from Harrison Ford’s Deckard. Many argue that the voiceover, in theory if not in practice, has been unfairly maligned by Scott and Ford: it lends the film a remarkably different cadence and provides a much clearer, more relatable, and more defined emotional center. By granting us access to his inner thoughts and deadpan observations, the outwardly inexpressive Deckard changes from cryptic cipher to likable hero, bringing the script’s abstract emotional stakes down to earth and morphing the entire film around him in turn, as well as cementing Blade Runner‘s lineage in the tradition of classic LA detective fiction. For better or worse, Scott’s subsequent editing (beginning with his wholesale elimination of the narration itself) has studiously called the audience’s attention away from Deckard and onto the eerie silences and dirty, empty spaces that populate his world. The film’s original score by Vangelis, a techno-operatic phantasmagoria from an artist inextricably tied to the sound of the ’80s, was always a heavy driving narrative force in the film. But more and more frequently it carries entire scenes almost singlehandedly, punctuated by only the barest minimum of ambient noise, let alone dialogue. Scott wants the marvelous places and their dark, wondrous ambiance to dictate the audience’s dreamlike engagement with LA, 2019 — the humanoid avatars of plot mere receptacles for an overflowing abundance of mood.

If there’s one foundational brick that Scott the architect has never perfectly been able to balance, it is the film’s ending. The theatrical cut’s, imposed by Warner Bros. studio executives against the director’s will, is famously jarring: having completed his mission, Deckard spirits his fugitive Replicant lover Rachael out of the dark and smog-choked Los Angeles, emerging into a brilliant, verdant countryside where they drive into a seemingly endless expanse of empty, mountainous roads; Vangelis’s grand, ominous end credits theme fades in over sweeping aerial pans recycled from WB’s vault of unused location shots from The Shining. Scott regards this ending as a grotesque added appendage hacked and sewn onto the rest of his picture; yet despite its lack of logical coherency, the stark change of visual tones and scenery does create an oddly powerful, dreamlike catharsis, a redemptive yet eerily surreal final note accentuated by a soundtrack that seems clearly written for this imagery. (The climactic emergence of characters from metropolitan dystopia to unspoiled, uninhabited countryside is a visual motif that has since been recreated in other cyberpunk-influenced media, for instance Hayao Miyazaki’s underappreciated music video On Your Mark, undoubtedly a direct result of viewers who never imagined the film was meant to conclude any other way.) In lieu of this ending, his preferred cuts conclude with something of an anticlimax: preparing to go on the run with Rachael, Deckard flees from his apartment, slamming the doors behind him, as the film cuts to black. It’s an abrupt and strangely claustrophobic final image for a great film whose spiritual bedrock lies in complex and evocative structures of space; perhaps old Mr. Scott will give it one more touch-up the next time around.

The Mythic Power of ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’

Written by Jordan Raup, September 21, 2017 at 7:44 am 

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Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

“I can’t figure it out. Do want to be like me or do you want to be me?”

From the opening frames of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Andrew Dominik stokes the flames of our own fascination with the infamous outlaw. We learn of his seventeen claimed murders, countless robberies, the bullet holes in his chest, the missing nub of his middle finger, and the fact that even his children didn’t know his name. It affixes a mythic power to his persona: it’s also said that time slows, rains fall straighter, sounds are amplified, and rooms become hotter when he’s around. When a sheepish, fawning Robert Ford soon enters the frame, there’s no other convincing necessary for us to empathize with his fixation.

This early-established folkloric weight and timelessness runs throughout Dominik’s neo-western masterpiece. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ mournful, transfixing score seems plucked from the era, and Roger Deakins achieves a career-topping cinematographic feat of hazy vignettes and expansive vistas. Dominik’s adaptation of a novel written by Ron Hansen a quarter-century prior — which depicted real-life events 100 years prior to that — feels ageless not only due to a world that is rendered spectacularly authentic, but because of how acutely it depicts the nature of celebrity and obsession. As these themes are filtered through the anxious, alluring perspective of Ford, Affleck plays him with a boyish inner torment, achieving a bewitching harmony with the enigma of James.

Despite what Terrence Malick may think, Dominik’s tale of betrayal is anything but slow — a critique that might seem warranted if one only looked at the 160-minute runtime and a title relaying where the entire narrative is headed. In contrast, watching it for the first time since our revival screening nearly four years ago, it’s enthralling to see how this film moves. As edited by Dylan Tichenor (also responsible for another 2007 masterpiece, There Will Be Blood) and Curtiss Clayton, every cut has intention, and every candle-lit or snow-kissed frame by Deakins contributes to the simmering, building intensity. As for the title, Battleship Pretension’s David Bax puts it eloquently:

The title hangs over every scene. You know what’s going to happen. You know who is going to do it. The title is giving you a judgement on Casey Affleck’s character. Even before Robert Ford has to fight against his legacy as a coward, he has to fight against it with the audience, because the audience is already primed to view him as a coward.

The chills-inducing train-robbery-by-night just 15 minutes in might be the most cinematically riveting sequence, but it’s the wavering relationship between James and Ford that lends substantial foundation. In an understated gesture, Affleck picks his food without eating a bite in the presence of Jesse James, as if there’s nothing to consume but the admiration of his idol. Pitt — who recently revealed the film to be a personal career peak — portrays James like the snake he doles out (and then kills, in a perhaps-too-obvious bit of foreshadowing): lurking in the shadows, never sure if he’ll slit your throat or manically laugh in your direction.

Their push-and-pull as Ford orbits James’ captivating, dangerous presence reaches a climax pre-assassination when the notorious outlaw sets out their robbery plans. After rubbing his shoulders, finally giving into the homoerotic subtext the previous two hours had built up, James grabs Ford and holds a knife to his throat before spitting out, “My God, what just happened?” This facetious remark leads to a few forced laughs, but it’s an action James has been stewing over since he first met Ford. In just a few scenes, signaling a point of no return, James will accept his death as he removes his guns and permits the Fords to take aim. “Never meet your heroes,” indeed.

In a sublime epilogue, the gravely, unassuming narration by Hugh Ross — an assistant editor who laid a temp track Dominik couldn’t part with — relays, “By his own approximation, Bob assassinated Jesse James over 800 times. He suspected no one in history had ever so often or so publicly recapitulated an act of betrayal.” A meager personal fixation ultimately morphs into the carving-out of a soul, as evidenced in Ford’s deadened eyes and drunken gait: legend offered up for public consumption until there’s none of him left.

During the finale, as shots capture Ford’s murder — not entirely dissimilar to the cut-to-black finale of The Sopranos, which aired just a few months prior to this film’s release — the omnipresent narration tells how no eulogies would be relayed and no photographs of his body would be sold. Long after Jesse James, Robert Ford, and every character portrayed here has died and these locales transform, the myth will live on and the legend will be intensified, as Dominik has done in enduring, elegiac fashion.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘Resident Evil: Extinction’ and Paul W.S. Anderson’s Dawn of Self-Awareness

Written by Molly Faust, September 21, 2017 at 7:39 am 

resident-evil-extinction

Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

What happens when, even ten years on, a masterpiece still has not received its due? Well, you keep pushing for it, even in the face of a macrostructure of art evaluation that will have to collapse entirely for the work in question to even be taken seriously. This is a scrape of that structure in the name of its victim, Resident Evil: Extinction.

The Resident Evil series has, in recent years, found its subculture of defending critics gain notoriety, though those directed by Paul W.S. Anderson receive the bulk of that attention. While great films in their own right, it is a shame that they’ve overshadowed this film, which marks a key development for Anderson (who writes and produces here): the dawn of his self-awareness that the characters share in, and to profound effect. While one may expect a genre-film artist to take the piss out of themselves in understanding their own pettiness, Anderson identifies a great tragedy in the marginalization of his characters. A humanist current runs through a landscape of cheekily obvious genre heritage, the full weight of their emotions placed against a backdrop sucked dry of them by a history of diminishing returns and the cynicism that it could be considered anything else, a sense that undercuts the paralleling glee in the melding of influences.

To look plainly at the narrative, Alice’s (Milla Jovovich) clones provide a basis for this soul-bearing case for the validity of mimicry. One of Anderson’s main obsessions as an artist working almost exclusively in adaptation has been the reflexive notion of facade, or something paraded as legitimate when it is, in fact, borrowed. The film opens with recycled footage from the franchise’s first entry — setting itself up to question its place as a supposedly artistically cheap “clone” of the original, as well as its genre ancestors (e.g. The Road Warrior, The Birds, and Day of the Dead). Soon the opening sequence morphs into a maze consisting of environments from the first two films that Alice (or, as we soon find out, a clone of hers) ends up failing to navigate. This opening not only displays the possibility for invention in recycling — it is genuinely thrilling to watch the very first portion in its fidelity and subtle difference, in no small part due to the focus of the sequence being Alice / Clone Alice waking up with no memory and no known identity. The zombies are similarly stripped of their identity, becoming, as does Alice, nothing more than a device towards an artpiece’s end. They and her clones form parallel hordes, one with uniqueness lost and another never found, though they are redeemed by the generosity of the film, a Frankensteined reproduction in itself, towards all such duplicate beings.

The original Alice gains a status akin to a platonic form — not only in relation to attempts to copy her, but via her status as the franchise’s center. She wanders the desert as a singularity, Jovovich’s voice breaking as she later tells Oded Fehr — whose own voice seems entirely, robotically ADRed so he melds with the flesh of the films itself — that it’s “just safer if [she’s] not around people.” Winning Homer’s Contest brings with it a profound loneliness. Alice’s solace comes in the form of a subtle psychic communion with her clones, the only “people,” nay, people she can in fact be around, even as their deaths are also tragic because their function is heroism, not living and loving.

This inherency of character roles, going back to Anderson’s forgotten 1998 Blade Runner universe film Soldier, is another tragic limitation the characters he traps in his films often suffer through. In 2017’s franchise conclusion, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Alice speaks the words “this is what I do,” though they now bring with them a triumphant ring. Any film character, even with the most human gestures, is a recorded being and can only follow one trajectory in their lives. Even Alice, appearing in multiple films, is only ever really five new clones of the one in the first film — though she doesn’t have the misfortune of also being a clone of a character from the games, a fate the franchise itself cannot avoid. They cannot break free of predestination, but they can embrace it, for such is the path to idealization. (Anderson’s starkest example of this comes in the star-crossed Pompeii.) But even this ascent into godhood can only ever be settling for the best that slavery has to offer them. Freedom becomes an impossibility, and no matter what triumph might accompany succumbing to this oppression, it is what it is.

Beyond the brilliance of Extinction‘s tone, theme, and narrative, the form, of course, must play a role as well. Romero-esque action scenes of static shots and miniature ellipses give each shot an “ideal” quality with the space in time around it and the privilege of serving its own space rather than the sequence’s. The sequence is an object too, however, and these miniature ideals create it just as they comprise their influences, like sand grains in a sandcastle. This layered communism of the convoy, the filmmaking, and the theory all make for a profound composite work on composites, with sorrowful humility and anger for its place as a capitalist object for profit.

There’s a misconception that every dumpster diver expects to find something so dense and so endearing on every try. The truth is that works such as this fuel that eternal hope, and allow plunges for such values even within corrupted works. But this writer has found her engagement diamond in the rough, and now resides there.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ and the Insidious Effects of Explainer Culture

Written by Brian Roan, September 18, 2017 at 10:07 pm 

mother-aronofsky

There are movies that require explanation. I would begrudge no one for Googling around to try and find out who knew what and when in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I myself had to do some research to try and understand what was going on in Atomic Blonde. Whenever a new Marvel movie ends with a single shot that makes the rest of the crowd cheer, I have to turn to the person next to me and ask them what it meant. Without a doubt, there are films that have objective facts or truths that may escape a casual viewers ken, or even the eye of someone desperately trying to get everything straight.

That being said, the cottage industry of “explained” articles and videos has been having a rather insidious effect on film dialogue. Perhaps it started earlier than this, but it may have reached its sinister apotheosis with the release of Inception in 2010. The spinning top, cut away from before it could prove reality to its audience, could serve as a symbolic mile-marker for the moment that audiences lost their ability to accept ambiguity, and the moment that film writers realized there were clicks to be had by exploiting this lack of tolerance for the unknown.

Since that time, and escalating wildly in more recent years, hardly a wide release has come and gone that hasn’t been followed by a slew of articles and videos claiming to explain the ending. Some of these articles are helpful, pitched at people who haven’t read the book or who don’t know the comics, on whom the meaning of that final picture of a golden coffin in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was completely lost.

With the release of mother!, though, I fear that we find ourselves at a crossroads. Here stands a movie that revels in its allegorical power, a film that laughs at single-minded interpretation and objective truth. Why, then, are we scrambling to explain it to people? Why are people scrambling to have it explained? Are we now to a point where we have begun to reject the notion of art being different things to different people? Has the death of the author led not to the embracing of personal points of view but rather the birth of the explainer?

These are reasonable questions given the speed with which these articles hit the web. A person who saw mother! on opening weekend already had options for where to turn for an explanation of the film. They could go to ColliderThe TelegraphVanity FairScreenRant, or IndieWire, among many others. After watching one of the richest, most layered allegorical exercises in modern popular cinema, an audience member is just a few clicks away from finding out everything that they could want to know, never needing to work a single synapse under their own power.

It may be worth pausing here to offer up a few preemptive counterpoints to some obvious and fair criticisms of this point. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that an audience member might have their own ideas, and merely begin reading these pieces in order to see what others though. Likewise, it’s reasonable to say that if one of these articles can kick-start a confused viewer’s mind into thinking about the movie on a different level, enriching the experience in any way, then they cannot all be bad. This is all true, and I am far from trying to argue that every one of these articles is bad.

That being said, their ubiquity and inevitability does signal a shift of a kind, and one that is most likely going to be deleterious to the way people watch and enjoy films and television from here on out. Viewers combed through symbolic and aesthetic details of Mad Men in order to try to “solve” it before its final episode aired. Every now and then someone will still pipe up from the darkness to complain about Lost not solving all of its mysteries. Fan theories attempt to explain ambiguous bits of ephemera or character into a more integrated but often convoluted whole. And because one or two of these theories may hit every now and then upon the actual plan executed by the narrative (I’m looking at you Westworld) their existence becomes justified. The result is the gradual wearing away of any ambiguity, any necessary personal meaning from our understanding of art. If this one crazy fan theory truly does explain everything, then there is no need for individual perception.

Television stands to lose more from this than any other medium, if only because it’s ongoing narrative means that people can become addicted to a presumptive narrative before the actual narrative has played out. But mother! proves that what kills a television show on the vine may actually stand to kill a film before the seed can even take root. An audience review from Rotten Tomatoes quoted by THR read, “If you need to Google search the meaning of movie when you get home, it was a failure.” If that comment were relating to the complexity of a narrative, the quality of the writing, or the choppiness of the editing, they would be right. To apply that same litmus test to the meaning behind a film is to expect meaning to be something objective that can be packaged and dictated. The same people will ask what the golden/yellow powder added to paint and water in the film was, when they ought to be asking what it did, and what it means when it is no longer used, and why. Sadly, given the fatal F CinemaScore that audiences awarded the film, it seems that the curious are outnumbered by the impatient.

You don’t have to Google the ending of mother! to understand it. You don’t need a degree is biblical theology or dialectics in modern myth. All you need is a receptive mind and the ability to empathize. This is the rare movie where the filmmaker seemed to trust the audience to take what they were given and filter it through whatever lens their own lives had given them. Yes, it could be a biblical referendum, an environmental screed, a study of gender dynamics, or a statement on the sacrifices and trials of being in love with a creative. It could be all, some, or none of these things to you. That is its fundamental beauty and brilliance. More than a story, mother! is an experience, and much like any trying, taxing experience, what you take from it will be wholly dependent upon what you brought to it and how it left you at the end.

So no, no one can explain the meaning of mother! to you. No amount of Googling or interview-reading or podcast-listening (not even from yours truly) can gift you the true meaning of the film, or any film. Someone can tell you what the story beats were, can tell you what they thought of the film, can tell you what Darren Aronofsky said while sitting in a dark room or standing on a red carpet. But that’s not meaning. That’s interpretation. To truly know what mother! means, you need to see it, to internalize it. To work through it in your own mind, or through an active, participatory dialogue, until you knock the soot and ash and cinders away and find the unique crystal of personal meaning underneath it all. That meaning is yours, precious and singular, and no one else can touch it.

‘Eastern Promises’: David Cronenberg’s Brutal Drama of Family Ties

Written by Christopher L. Inoa, September 14, 2017 at 12:49 pm 

eastern-promises

Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

In remembering David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, one scene immediately comes to mind: Viggo Mortensen fighting two fully clothed men in a bathhouse while completely nude. Cronenberg, never one to shy away from showing the human body, doesn’t cut when we see Mortensen crawling on the floor, tossed from one side of the room to the other, or fighting one of his would-be assassins one-on-one.

An iconic Cronenberg moment, the bathhouse scene is right up there with the head explosion in Scanners, James Woods inserting his head into a television in Videodrome, and Jeff Goldblum pulling off his fingernails in The Fly. However, now a decade since its release, Eastern Promises often fails to get mentioned when looking at the director’s finest works, so on its 10th anniversary, we’re revisiting this underrated gem. It’s a film where Mortensen gives his best performance, in the second of three collaborations with Cronenberg becoming one of the best actor-director pairings of our generation, and a strong late entry in the career of one of Canada’s most respected auteurs.

Eastern Promises tells two narratives. The first follows Naomi Watt’s Anna Khitrova, a midwife of British and Russian descent living in London with her mother. After retrieving the diary of a pregnant 14-year-old who dies during childbirth, Khitrova asks her uncle if he could translate it, for it is written in Russian. Khitrova seeks information about the young woman’s family through her diary, her ultimate goal to track them down so that they may take in the newborn that Khitrova has named Christine, the name of the child she was supposed to have but ended in miscarriage.

Inside the diary is a card for a Trans-Siberian restaurant run by an older man named Semyon. With baby-blue eyes and a warm smile, he looks like a grandpa who always hands you a dollar so you can buy your favorite candy without your parents knowing. But he’s the head, or vory v zakone (Thief in Law), of the Russian mob’s London branch. When Khitrova mentions Tatiana to Semyon, he lets her know, gently, that he doesn’t know anyone by that name; when she mentions the diary, Semyon’s warm, soft face stiffens, his eyes drop, and then (still trying to retain that grandpa-like vibe) offers to translate the diary for her. What Khitrova doesn’t realize is that she, a so-called “normal” person, is about get involved with a group of people who have no sympathy when it comes to harming men, women, even children. Right before she meets Semyon, Khitrova walks by two men, Semyon’s hotheaded son, Kirill (Vincent Cassell), and Mortensen’s Nikolai Luzhin, who works as Kirill’s chauffeur.

The second narrative is Luzhin’s rise to the top of the vory v zakone. With his dark hair, sunglasses, and clothes, his voice always calm and his face effortlessly stoic, Luzhin resmbles a Russian version of The Matrix‘s Agent Smith. And while he likes to tell Khitrova that he is “just driver,” he’s anything but. In one of the most gruesome moments, Luzhin is brought in to take care of and dispose of a dead body belonging to a man killed in the film’s opening scene. Luzhin clips off his frozen fingers one-by-one, instructing the people in the room before he does so that it’s best if they leave; we go to the next scene, but not before Cronenberg gives us a close up of a finger getting snapped off. (Even in one of his less-gruesome films, he still gives us a moment or two to make us cringe in our chairs.) Besides being “just driver” and a clean-up man, toward the end of the movie, he is revealed to be a member of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), working with Scotland Yard to infiltrate the vorys from within.

Eastern Promises, based on an original screenplay by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke), can be viewed as a companion to Cronenberg’s previous picture, 2005’s A History of Violence (Cronenberg would disagree with that), and a connection can also be made to the film he directed before that, 2002’s Spider. Released in the early-to-mid aughts, all were seen as departures from the body horror and science fiction films that he is well known for — excepting for the two scenes involving throats getting slit, inspired by videos of Muslim extremists beheading prisoners of war. This trio of films, while different in tone, all have one thing in common with their focus on family.

Spider concerns a man (Ralph Fiennes) as he tries to reconstruct the memory involving the murder of his mother; A History of Violence finds another (Mortensen) confronting his past as well as his old family while trying to protect his new one. Family comes up at numerous points in Eastern Promises. The latter takes place during the holidays, a time where families are meant to come together. When Kirill and Luzhin see the now-frozen body of the man who was killed in the beginning of the film, Kirill mentions that he was “like a brother to me.” There is obvious tension between Kirill and his father, stemming from the fact that Kirill is a closeted homosexual, which is frowned upon not only by his father but from the crime family with which they are both involved. Khritova is living with her mother after her husband left her, which may have been due to her losing their child. The bathhouse scene happens because Seymon, trying to save his own son’s life, sets up Luzhin. The two men who believe Luzhin is Kirill are brothers of the man who gets his fingers snapped off and are out for revenge. Most notably, Luzhin, standing across from the heads of the vorys, has his family insulted to his face as part of the initiation; when the initiation is done, he is given star tattoos on his chest and knees, thereby bringing him into the family.

The tattoos are a kind of resume that’s kept on their skin at all times. A detective tells his partner, upon discovering the body of the man Luzhin has taken care of and dumped into the river, that “in Russian prisons, your life story is written on your body.” It was Mortensen who made Cronenberg aware of the tattoo culture surrounding the Russian mob after seeing the documentary The Mark of Cain and reading a number of books on Russian prison culture. “They’d be checking out the tattoos to see if you actually earned what you’re wearing,” Mortensen told the New York Post when discussing the extensive research he did for the role. “If they find out you didn’t, they’ll say, ‘That tattoo on your arm, you didn’t earn that — we’ll give you an hour to get rid of it.’ So you’re either going to have to cut it out or burn it off. And if you don’t, they’ll come back and beat you nearly to death, and then do it for you.”

When Cronenberg told Mortensen about the role over the phone, the actor immediately said yes, and traveled to Russia and met with Russian mobsters both in prison and out. The accent he delivers in Eastern Promises is so convincing you’d think it was his actual voice, never coming off as an impression or, worse, a mockery of the way Russians speak English.

In one interview, Cronenberg compared the relationship between him and Mortensen to “a marriage,” as the two brought out the best out of one another. However, it should be noted that while the new relationship between director and actor helped propel Eastern Promises to be more than just your run-of-the-mill European crime drama, it’s the existing relationships, those shared with cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and editor Ronald Sanders — two men who have worked with Cronenberg since the late 80s — that show the fluidity of their collaboration, creating a film that feels effortlessly slick and cutting in its brutality.

While some may view Eastern Promises as another departure from the genre filmmaking that made Cronenberg such a compelling figure to watch in his first decades as a filmmaker, the director doesn’t stray far from the elements that he’s known for. Luzhin, whether it is part of his act as a mobster or the one part of him he has allowed to be free even in front of the vorys, is a religious man. While he is getting the stars on his chest and knees and, in the final shot, where it’s alluded to that he has taken Seymon’s place, he is holding a wristband and hitting himself with it over and over again, penance for what he has done and what he will continue to do. It doesn’t seem to cause any pain, perhaps a slap on the wrist; however, if he is truly a religious man, one who has committed multiple sins and will have to commit more, in Luzhin’s mind, each slap is equivalent to a harsh one across his back. A head explosion is over in an instant, but knowing you are betraying yourself, your religion, and your God is a feeling that lasts much, much longer — one of the most brutal punishments anybody’s endured in a Cronenberg film.

Earlier this year, reports of a sequel to Eastern Promises, titled Body Cross, made headlines, with production starting in the spring. Mortensen was rumored to return, along with Cassell and Knight.  There’s no word on whether Cronenberg would also, but to see him once again bring to life the lush, dark, dangerous, and attractive world of Eastern Promises would be a welcome opportunity.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

‘Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone’ and the Indisputable Mastery of Hideaki Anno

Written by Eli F., September 7, 2017 at 4:40 pm 

evangelion

Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

In the world of Japanese pop auteurs, there are few rising stars as unpredictably eclectic, temperamental, and consistently fascinating as Hideaki Anno. Anno began his professional life in the early 1980s as a young animator working literally out of his friend’s garage, sketching meticulous tributes to the beloved sci-fi films, TV shows, comics and novels of his 70s childhood. His fanatical dedication to his craft and genius instinct for visual storytelling was recognized early on – both by his peers at the up-and-coming collective of ambitious “otaku” at Studio Gainax, and by the discriminating eye of his future friend and mentor, one Hayao Miyazaki. Through the ensuing decades Anno has long been a revered figure within the world of Japanese animation, but recent years have seen him break out increasingly into the mainstream, most recently enjoying popular success with his masterfully dense action spectacle Shin Godzilla and the public endorsement of Miyazaki as eventual heir to the world-renowned Studio Ghibli following Miyazaki’s perpetually-delayed retirement. The past decade has seen Anno emerge from enigmatic cult figure to recognizable pop icon in his native country and abroad, yet the breadth of his roughly 35-year career is impossible to neatly categorize, spanning dizzying professional highs and grim personal lows; animation and live action; grandiose sci-fi spectacle and intimate human psychodrama; geek fetish objects and arthouse curios – and all the while imbued with a rich, multilayered interplay between such seemingly contradictory extremes. And no work better exemplifies the conflicting forces of Anno’s artistic psyche than his ever-expanding opus, Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Evangelion, first conceived as a 26-episode television series in the mid-90s following the success of two previous serials under Anno’s direction (the jubilant erotic sci-fi video series Gunbuster, and televised adventure story Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water inspired by Jules Verne novels and Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky), was to be an affectionate, sophisticated homage to the animated giant robot sagas of Anno’s youth (think Gundam and Voltron) in much the same way as George Lucas paid tribute to 1950s space opera serials with Star Wars. Somewhere in production, however, personal and professional struggles converged in a way that would leave lasting marks on both the series and Anno himself: sponsors began bickering and pulling out, animation budgets ran tight, and Anno became increasingly consumed by an ongoing battle with major depression that had come to a head with his newfound professional recognition. The result was a spectacular artistic derailment the likes of which are without comparison in the realm of popular culture. What began as a story about teenagers in robots fighting a monstrous alien menace became an increasingly intimate, violent and unnerving drama, a postmodern meditation on alienation and despair, and a metatextual commentary on the creation and consumption of anime itself. Familiar character archetypes were figuratively (and sometimes literally) torn apart to reveal disarmingly complex inner workings of all-too-recognizable human wants and desires; alien monsters became increasingly psychedelic and disturbing, attacking the characters by plunging into their psyches and exposing the hidden contradictions of their everyday personas while intoning mystical Judeo-Christian portents of doom; formal techniques borrowed from avant-garde cinema and theater assaulted the very boundaries between genre and literary fiction, between artist, artwork and audience. In a stunning move, Anno responded to escalating controversy and funding troubles by completely abandoning conventional notions of plot for the final two episodes, dedicating the remaining screentime instead to resolving the characters’ complex inner struggles through a series of theatrical-style inner monologues set to montages of semi-abstract imagery.

In a Japanese pop zeitgeist so recently shaken by the 1995 Sarin gas attacks in Tokyo and the bizarre Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult that perpetrated them, something about Evangelion struck a nerve. Against all odds it became a massive popular success, saving its producers at Studio Gainax from bankruptcy and birthing a multimillion-dollar empire of unlikely merchandise (from action figures to video games to fast food tie-ins to lingerie) that still persists to this day. Fanatical viewers got online to analyze, praise and bitterly attack the finale, some even going so far as to assault Anno and Gainax with graffiti and death threats. Within a year of the series’ conclusion, enough interest had been generated for Gainax to begin work on a theatrical feature to complement (or replace, depending on who you ask) the series’ divisive final episodes – this time with the assistance of major animation studio Production I.G. (of Ghost in the Shell fame) and all the production money they could ask for.

But Hideaki Anno still wasn’t happy. The final feature, The End of Evangelion, was a stunningly bleak affair, filled with brutal violence and grotesque imagery, cruel and tragic character deaths, confounding narrative assaults on the fourth wall, and a surreal climax in which one character’s decision to commit suicide corresponds with the literal end of the world. By the end it less resembles any prior anime film than the narrative meltdown of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. or the devastating final page of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. It is also one of the greatest animated films ever made.

Following its conclusion, Anno began to distance himself from anime for the next decade. He became disinterested in the romanticism and spectacle which had so preoccupied his younger mind, focusing his energy instead on live-action arthouse dramas. He became reclusive and disdainful of the “otaku” geek subculture from which he had emerged, viewing it as a dead end of escapist consumerism which was producing a generation of emotionally stunted adults. In 2004 he wed successful manga artist Moyoco Anno, his first and only marriage. In public he was most often seen merely as company for his more outgoing old cohorts from Gainax, and his similarly misanthropic “sensei” Miyazaki. So in 2006, when he announced his intention to create a brand new animation studio by the name of Khara (Greek for “Joy”) and christen it with the release of a new series of Evangelion feature films, fans across the globe reacted largely in astonishment.

Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone was released 10 years ago on the first of this month, and was intended to be the first in a proposed four-film series “rebuilding” the Evangelion mythos from the ground up. A decade later the series is still awaiting its fourth and (allegedly) final film, yet 1.0 endures as an odd, stand-alone beast. While the subsequent films have consisted primarily of all-new material, 1.0 sets out to reset the groundwork for the story with a faithful (often down to shot-for-shot fidelity) recreation of the television series’ inaugural story arc. In a world devastated by climate and nuclear catastrophe, depressive teenager Shinji Ikari (Megumi Ogata in Japanese, Spike Spencer in English) is summoned by his absentee father Gendo (Fumihiko Tachiki/John Swasey) to travel to the city of New Tokyo-3 on behalf of a shadowy paramilitary organization, NERV. There he is taken in by voluptuous NERV agent Misato Katsuragi (Kotono Mitsuishi/Allison Keith) and given the mission of piloting Evangelion Unit 01, a vaguely demonic biomechanical titan, in the defense of humanity against hostile otherworldly entities known only as Angels. Another young pilot, the beautiful and taciturn Rei Ayanami (Megumi Hayashibara/Brina Palencia) and new schoolmates eager to single him out for his fateful duties further complicate Shinji’s already tangled emotional world as a succession of bizarre, Lovecraft-cum-H.R. Giger Angels assault the futuristic metropolis.

As in Shin Godzilla, Anno and his colleagues have no misgivings about embracing schlocky storytelling precedents set by the vintage pulp from which they draw inspiration: tumultuous melodrama, burlesque cheesecake sexuality, and colorful orgies of mass destruction densely populate the film’s 100-minute running time (give or take some slight differences in length between various cuts). And as in Shin Godzilla, an odd percussive poetry reveals itself in the elegance with which Anno recreates the genre ingredients that so enraptured his early imagination: his favored visual motifs of baroque metal machinery and pulsating organic goliaths, both sculpted into mesmerizing, even mystical forms, populate endless awe-inspiring frames. Anno delights in imagining these fantastical creations in spatial terms, obsessively illustrating each construct’s myriad moving parts with the specificity of an architect while placing towering lattices of metal and flesh in strikingly expressive, painterly shots. Human figures are consistently dwarfed in frame by the dense structures, entities and interfaces in furious motion around them. The plot is littered with oddball references to Judeo-Christian mysticism and apocalyptic beliefs, often well-researched but rendered strange and alien by their distant cultural context (Anno himself, needless to say, is not a member of any Abrahamic religion); whatever the particulars of Anno’s spiritual concerns, the notion of isolated human figures in the grasp of awe-inspiring structures and entities beyond their ken is made starkly apparent in visual terms.

With the new theatrical presentation, Anno sets out to further streamline and compress the TV story into a form more immediately accessible to general audiences. At times the pacing is confoundingly fast, as narrative arcs which once constituted self-contained buildups, climaxes and payoffs over the course of one or two half-hour episodes become merely a series of plot beats in the film’s restructured story: the two-episode plotline introducing Shinji and the primary cast, for instance, is cut down by a sizable fraction of its original running time to serve as the opening act of the film, with exposition, character development and mood-building scenes shaved down or excised entirely for better cinematic pacing. Banking on his formidable skill as editor of his own work, Anno often relies on small gestures and illustrative cuts to pick up the storytelling slack, a method he would take even further with Godzilla.

Few could accuse Anno and his production staff of laziness, however. While shots and dialogue are often recycled verbatim from the TV series, each and every image is recreated from scratch and every line re-recorded with the original cast. (Even some of the English dub voice actors, originally vetted by Gainax for the charming low-budget American adaptation in the 90s, return to the lead roles wizened by years of voiceover experience in and out of Hollywood.) Images originally hand-drawn by animators are painstakingly recreated on a digital canvas, with new levels of visual detail not possible with the production budgets and schedules available to Gainax the first time around. Examined side-by-side, the upgrade in production and artistic resources is immediately visible in backgrounds, character modeling, and – in one case – a meticulously drawn rack of underwear.

Unlike his friend Miyazaki who notoriously liquidated Studio Ghibli’s digital animation department and even trash-talked digital animation at the Oscars, Anno appears eager – perhaps overeager – to experiment with the continuous forward march of technology. Fully 3D CGI animation is used frequently in 1.0 – not always with clean results, but most effectively in the rendering of the uncanny Angels. The climactic battle with Ramiel – a floating, luminescent cube – is upgraded considerably from the source material, with 3D modeling allowing the once-static creature to assume a succession of mind-boggling forms as it assaults New Tokyo.

Looking beyond the rolling cacophony of visual and plot information and repurposed pieces from the television series, however, a larger story structure becomes apparent that ties together the full running time of the film. Between the frenzied rush of plot and action in each of the film’s acts, it stops to breathe only as characters muse about the nature of loneliness, forming connections and conflicts with one another to the dreamlike, jazzy strains of composer Shiro Sagisu’s retro-flavored score. While the original series took ample time to explore different characters and the nuances of their relationships, 1.0 is ultimately structured around Shinji’s arc, simultaneously familiar and new within the context of the series. Shinji begins the story as a reserved, sultry doormat of an adolescent, stubbornly resisting the inherent chaos of both interpersonal connection and the heroic conventions of the plot – someone onto whom Anno has made no secret of projecting both aspects of his younger self and a large audience of alienated young people, adrift in a postmodern consumer culture and drawn to a subculture of escapist fantasy in place of social involvement and self-actualization. When confronted with turmoil and hardship and wounded adults who seek to exploit him, Shinji desperately resists the encroachment of the outside world by hiding behind an old-fashioned Walkman and a pair of earbuds – at one point, in a sequence greatly reimagined in visual scope from the show, he even embarks on a Holden Caulfield-esque odyssey through the seedy streets and suburbs of the metropolis to escape an emotionally perilous situation. But his well-practiced distancing mechanisms cannot ultimately resist the simultaneous intrusions of his silently terrifying father, his intimidating role of personal responsibility, and his fascination with a series of powerful, sexually exciting yet emotionally complicated women.

The character arc of 1.0, echoing without precisely reiterating the early portions of the TV show, is one of Shinji’s confrontation and acceptance of these facets of manhood. In the end he finds a reason for living beyond seeking the ephemeral approval of his father; he understands and accepts the magnitude (social, existential, personal) of the responsibility thrust upon him and faces it with dignity; and he chooses to explore frightening new emotions and make personal sacrifices in service to women who have made sacrifices for others. Familiar story beats of heroic coming-of-age genre fantasy, perhaps, but Anno – drawing from his own history of mental illness – knows all too well that such personal triumphs can be bitterly hard-earned and altogether too transient. The emotional fragility with which Shinji faces momentous choices is emphasized every step of the way as he suffers both the physical punishment of combat and internal trials of uncertainty, and it’s this struggle which 1.0 chooses to magnify with special intensity as the defining conflict of the film. The eerie pall of loneliness and gloom hangs as uncannily as it ever did over Evangelion‘s exterior of genre fantasy; yet compared to the original series, this reimagining feels subtly less fatalistic.

It’s telling that Anno’s only previous animated feature, The End of Evangelion, depicted the climax of this story in a tidal wave of dashed hopes and catastrophic failures, while this one begins that same story again. (And from the precise point where the ending left off – attentive viewers may spot the visual callbacks to EoE in 1.0’s opening shots, as Anno is never at a loss for purely symbolic storytelling.) Like life, and particularly life with depression, Anno has described Evangelion as “a story that repeats.” Characters and catastrophes come and go, life-affirming joy and life-destroying pain drift in and out with the tide. Beyond all that it borrows from the original work, the most thematically striking scenes and images in 1.0 are those which address the motif of repetition and those which break away with what has previously been established. Iconic images and subtle visual motifs from the original series pop up in new and unexpected places; character make cryptic allusions to events that happened “last time” while musing on the inevitability of fate, repetition, and change. Rainbows, an age-old symbol of renewal and rebirth, are a recurring motif new to this film. New scenes give added emotional dimensions to the existing story, whether staging new conversations between familiar characters or inserting new shots of average Japanese citizens living their lives on the periphery of the plot, depicting a world that keeps on turning even as the protagonists face down imminent disaster from without and within.

The most striking new scene is a quiet one, and saved for the film’s climax. Faced with overwhelming odds against a new Angel, Shinji’s guardian Misato devises Operation Yashima, a last-ditch gambit to drive back the alien menace. Desperate to inspire a wounded Shinji, Misato leads him by the hand to witness one of NERV’s darkest (and most visually arresting) secrets, and impress upon him the dire circumstances facing the human race – the same ones that robbed her of her own family. With fragile determination, Shinji affirms his understanding of what his duty means to the both of them; and in a carefully animated, silent close-up shot, two hands grasp one another, one of the first and only instances of direct human contact in the entire film.

Like the greatest anime directors, Anno understands that an enforced economy of time and movement produces its own language of stylized and potentially potent expression. When movement occurs on the animator’s canvas, it can only be the product of considerable forethought and exhausting follow-through; and between the constraints of time and resources, there is only so much temporal real estate available to the animator in which to construct a story. Thus every movement, and every image, is critically important; furthermore, nothing “natural” or “involuntary” can exist in the frame, and so every image is only as good as the greatest extent of stylized expression the animator is capable of creating. A gesture so minor as the twitch of a character’s hand, barely noticeable on film, can act as a crucial storytelling juncture for the animator bold and confident enough to attempt it. Anno, an indisputable master of his craft, understands this unique dialect of cinematic expression with an intimacy matched by few others. This is how, in a blockbuster film populated by hulking titans and thunderous fantasy violence, he finds his most powerful symbolic image in the twitching and joining of two human hands.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.

Don Hertzfeldt Returns to the ‘World of Tomorrow’ with Wondrous Sequel

Written by Murphy Kenefick, September 4, 2017 at 10:14 pm 

world-of-tomorrow

“Some of these images may frighten you. My subconscious is not a happy place.”

With a single image on August 18, Don Hertzfeldt ignited a surge of excitement across Twitter and beyond, revealing he’s at work on a surprise sequel to his brilliant Oscar-nominated short World of Tomorrow. Now, only a few weeks later, not only is the sequel to his wildly imaginative, deeply funny, and existentially tragic short completed, it was already available to view, albeit in a very specific timeframe and location.

Screening at only one theater, once a day, Hertzfeldt’s follow-up to World of Tomorrow, bearing the sub-heading The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts, snuck into the Downtown Independent Theater in Los Angeles this past week. As explained by the director, this awards-qualifying run will be followed by a to-be-announced official premiere this month, then a wide theatrical release, perhaps tied to an upcoming feature if we had to wager a guess. As soon as we heard the news, we made our way to the next showing where there didn’t appear to be any casual moviegoers in attendance: only a dedicated, buzzing fan base, eager to experience whatever bizarre, lovable work was sure to come.

The second chapter of Don Hertzfeldt’s beguiling short opens almost exactly the same way as the first. Our beloved Emily Prime is busy drawing on the floor, enraptured by the world’s simple pleasures, when suddenly she is visited by a defective clone of herself. The sixth generation clone of Emily appears, riddled with glitches, incoherently describing her mission of returning to Emily Prime’s subconscious to restore order to the clones. None of this phases Emily Prime, of course. She’s just along for the ride. While the original film jumped right into explaining the convoluted setup of the world, this installment is given more room to breathe and have fun. Monologues about falling in love with rocks are replaced with time-traveling adventure, manifestations of subconscious, and endless observations from little Emily Prime. This is where Hertzfeldt most excels: seamlessly intertwining innocent jokes and imagination with eternal melancholy. Somehow, he’s able to magically make these complement each other while still telling such a complex story.

The wonder of this slightly-longer second chapter (clocking in at around 20 minutes) is found not only in the script or the voice work, but also in the overwhelming visual environments. Once again using digital animation, Hertzfeldt crafts jaw-dropping backgrounds and landscapes that surround his otherwise standard stick-figure characters. The most stunning examples can be found when our Emilys travel to the sea of realism, the core of subconscious, and, in a slight callback to the original film, Triangle Land. Everything is alive with colorful motion, until it’s suddenly not, and the Emilys are left searching in darkness for tangible glimmers of hope. There, in the marshland of the sea of realism, one can literally get stuck in the past, and as Emily 6 repeats verbatim: “It is easy to get lost in memories.”

Accompanying the mesmerizing visuals, complex themes, and endlessly insightful humor, the moral remains the same. There is much value in seeing the world through Emily Prime’s eyes, free from the contamination of real life, open to all the potential goodness that has yet to be discovered. While it treads similar ground, littered with some of the same musical cues and jokes, The Burden of Other People’s Thoughts is an entirely new entity, reminding us to steer clear of stale cynicism, and to instead embrace life in all its many forms, however difficult that may prove to be. The future will always be impossible to completely understand, but even despite the frightening version that’s depicted, we shouldn’t fear it. Being present, holding onto our hope is the best option.

By its conclusion, I was completely ready for it to start over. With so much wit and wonder packed into this follow-up, it’s difficult to process in one sitting. As promised by Hertzfeldt, I eagerly await its availability to a wider audience soon, so that I can go back and absorb it completely. For now, I’ll be working on my own memory extractor so that I can have this film forever.

As we await release details, if you have yet to experience Hertzfeldt’s wondrous World of Tomorrow, it’s now streaming on Netflix (for a limited time) or, better yet, pick up his essential Anthology Collection.